The Alaska Philosophaster
A friend asked if I’d written a screenplay to submit to the Anchorage International Film Festival. And did I know the deadline was a week away? “No,” I said, “It’s a month away.” “Uh-uh,” she said, “One week.” After I screamed no-o-o-o-o-o, I thought long and hard. Do I want to wait yet another year to submit? No, a voice in my head thundered back. I’ll never do it. I’ll never write it.
Do it now. Just, DO IT.
Ever since I saw The Wizard of Oz as a five-year-old, I’ve wanted to write a movie, but figured it was too complicated. After worming my way into being an extra in several movies filmed in Alaska, I learned much behind the scenes about the do’s and don’t’s of writing a script. Mostly the don’ts.
With only a week to go before submission, I dusted off a play I’d written for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference. After the staged reading, one of the evaluators made the comment, “This would make a good movie.”
That comment is what kept the fire lit in my belly to write it as a movie.
I dusted off my play and expanded a scene list for a movie. I was amazed at how free and creative I could be, taking my scenes anyplace I wanted, not just limited to certain stage settings. I used aerial birds-eye views, ground level views, I panned rooms, landscapes. I brought in new characters, expanded my theme–the thing grew into a multi-faceted story with a few subplots.
In addition to the usual story construction of beginning, middle, and end and all that goes with basic storytelling, I discovered movies have a specific required format and structure. Certain things must happen by page 10. If the audience doesn’t get the movie by page 30, better start over.
Once I figured out whether a scene is INT., EXT., or inside-and-outside, it smoothed out. Probably because I’ve seen, oh, I don’t know–a gazillion movies in my life. I knew the basic storyline, then wrote by the seat of my pants without a net, like a wild woman. I was ecstatic just to finish the thing!
I studied The Screenwriters Bible, Syd Field’s Foundations for Screenwriting, and my all-time fave, Screenwriting for Dummies. I crammed like it was finals week. I took my 30-minute play and turned it into a full-bodied, multi-faceted, somewhat action-packed, drama feature.
In one week. I don’t recommend this. Mostly because I slept all of 25 hours the entire week, and didn’t leave myself time for revision before submitting.
Live and learn. I learned.
I had to think like a movie. Once I got the hang of it and planted myself in the zone, I couldn’t stop. The first draft, I fought the format in Word. I don’t recommend this either. It wasn’t worth the time and hassle of fixing the spacing each time I revised. I bought Final Draft, and haven’t looked back. The program does all spacing and formatting, converts it to the industry standard of pdf and even has a feature to register for a Writer’s Guild of America number if one chooses. I did, because I’m a neophyte, and have heard horror stories of films being made from pirated scripts.
I finished the script and submitted it to the Anchorage Film Festival. It’s too bad I didn’t start a month or so earlier. I could have submitted a more polished script. I’ve revised the thing 38 times now. It’s starting to look like a movie. After I submitted to AIFF, via the Film Freeway site, up popped the opportunity to submit to the L.A. Independent Film Festival.
What do I have to lose? My itchy trigger finger submitted my 21st or 22nd revision, I lost count. Wow, the Big Kahunas down in L.A.! Imagine my surprise when they emailed me a CONGRATULATIONS, EVACUATION IS IN THE SEMI-FINALS!
After I picked myself off the floor, I panicked. My script still needs revision! I hunkered down to study all things screenwriting for a month–reading everything I can get my hands on, watching podcast after podcast, taking webinars. The beauty of this process is, I can revise this script forever if I want to. First, I’ll get it critiqued by the pros. No, it isn’t free.
But I’ve stumbled upon something new I love to write. I have a passion for it. My family isn’t too happy. Instead of watching movies for entertainment now, I analyze them.
Now I’m trolling for another story to write a screenplay.
Yoda was right. Do or do not. There is no try.
Inspiration comes to us in the weirdest of ways. It’s a matter of timing. How moments line up in front of each other that lead you to an aha moment. For writers, these are precious things.
I happened on an email from an elected official, and reluctantly clicked on his spiel about how he’ll vote in Washington–when up popped videos of people auditioning for The Voice and X Factor. Looking subconsciously for an escape, and attention deficit didn’t help–SQUIRREL! I clicked on the 34-year old nervous man belting out the song of his life and the 62-year old woman singing the wrong song for her voice, so Simon told her sing another one, dissolving everyone to tears, and me along with them.
For months, I’ve been struggling rewriting my first novel. The story and plot seem straightforward, plot points are in the right places, character lineup, the protagonist, her minions, the villains, a romantic, spectacular setting–all seem solid. I passed the software edit reports with flying colors, aside from redundant words and too many pronouns.
I whined about being stuck in pronoun hell on a blog on the Writers Helping Writers site. Angela Ackerman was gracious enough to respond (thank you, Angela!) She advised I most likely needed to deepen my character’s inner dialogue and emotional, sensory points of view. Sounded easy enough.
So why was I procrastinating?
Angela referred me to an article, Deep Point of View, by Melissa James, where she discusses writing from that deep place in your heart for each of your characters. She says it doesn’t matter how innovative the plot may be, the story will not resonate, “without that punch, that kick — the true, rich, strong emotional punch that deep POV can provide. Deep emotion, or point of view, grabs us with hard-hitting emotional punch.”
This prevents boredom in the story. I think of books I bail on, what is it that makes me put them down: I can’t relate or connect with the people in the story. I figure it’s me until I compare notes with other readers who bail on the same books too! So maybe—it’s the writing.
Writing with deep emotion gives stories “fire, guts, and spirit” as Melissa says. As writers, we need to “to live our stories so deeply that emotion flows, like tears from Titanic.” It’s easier to write nonfiction, about stories we’ve experienced. Emotion returns as if it’s happening again. A story grabs readers when emotion is raw, unfiltered, uncensored–and true.
Writing fiction is different. Basing characters on real people and events helps, but it lacks “heart” without deep emotion. So how do I do that?
I listened to a talk about the importance of writing with empathy, and the raw emotion necessary to convey that to readers. I thought of my favorite books and movies, ones that resonate with me. I read them again to study why these stories grip me. It isn’t the plot or story line, it’s the people, how they feel and think, and how it changes them by the end.
After analyzing why I cried when listening to people singing with raw emotion, I had an aha moment: Singers, actors, and writers—good ones—lead us to a deep, authentic emotional place within ourselves. As writers, we have a responsibility to readers, to write with uncensored, uninhibited, raw emotional truth—not to is a waste of a reader’s time. I know how annoyed I am when I put down a book and feel my time was wasted because the writer didn’t transport me, didn’t make me feel anything.
Recently I read my first draft novel chapters aloud to some willing listeners. “Um, it’s boring, it sounds like a newspaper article—it needs—less description? More dialogue? The dialogue is flat, something’s missing—“ were the responses. This was sobering, but valuable feedback.
Something’s missing, all right. So it took asking for help (again, thanks Angela!) reading more about it, and watching the X Factor and The Voice for it to sink into my too-technical brain.
(I blame my technical influence on the government–not the Russians For 35 years I wrote legal and technical docs for the feds. If I would have added deep emotion to a FOIA response or a GAO report, they would have had me committed).
So now I must begin again. Revise and rewrite with deep emotion. Keep rewriting until the characters and story jump off the page and readers can’t stop turning them—so the next time I read chapters aloud, I look up to see expectant faces and not bored ones. Armed with my Emotional Thesaurus, I’m ready to go!
Next time I click on a podcast of a boring elected official, who knows what other problems I can solve?
Like I said, inspiration comes to us in the weirdest of ways.
© Lois Paige Simenson and The Alaska Philosophaster, 2017, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to The Alaska Philosophaster with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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