Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself. – Doris Lessing

Go forth into the unknown, explore the caves of your unconscious, fear not your “dark side,” find the gold.

— Robin Hoffman (@AuthorAlchemy)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Driving Miss Daisy on stage


THIS EVENING WE attended the Oakland Center for the Arts (Youngstown, Ohio) for a performance of Driving Miss Daisy directed by Terri Wilkes.

The show started on time, which was much appreciated. The previous play we attended (not at the Oakland) started early and we missed part of the first scene. A bit disorienting when you come in knowing zero about the story line.

I’ve never seen the movie for Driving Miss Daisy so was a newcomer to this story. Glancing at the program before the lights went down, I was interested to learn this was a Pulitzer-winning play (1988) before it became a movie.

The play featured only three characters: Miss Daisy (Molly Galano), her son Boolie (Eric Kibler) and her chauffeur, Hoke (Johnny R. Herbert).

I had to strain a bit to hear the first few lines and feared it would be a strain throughout the play. But my ears quickly adjusted to the acoustics and it was not a problem after that.

This is a lively play, dialogue-wise, and the actors were excellent. I soon forgot I was watching only three performers on a largely unchanging set—I was too busy laughing. I laughed and chuckled almost non-stop and wished the rest of the audience would have been a little more giving in this department.

At the end of Noises Off!—a wonderful play we attended during the winter in Salem, Ohio—one of the actors had explained how supportive it is for the cast of a comedy to have feedback coming from the audience and he expressed thanks for all the laughter.

Perhaps some folks believe it’s rude to create noise from the audience and that’s why the laughter was only scattered. But, come to think of it, I notice the same thing at the movies. Cinema audiences, for the most part, seem so repressed!

Fortunately, most of the Driving Miss Daisy crowd warmed up by about mid-point. My husband was chuckling from the get-go and I’d been worried he only went to please me.

The only time I wasn’t laughing was during various tragic moments when the theme of prejudice was rendered in all its starkness. The actors did a great job with the mood changes. Goose bumps flooded my body as I felt the darkness of these human tendencies.

There was only one set change, when Miss Daisy’s “car” (a simple arrangement of chairs, plus an actual trunk to represent the trunk of the car) was transformed in a simple way that helped show her advancing age.

The sound effects were enjoyable and perfectly timed. The images projected on the back wall of the stage helped tell the story. Black and white stills showed the change in car models over the period of the story, along with a synagogue and other relevant buildings. The face of Martin Luther King was shown briefly to drive home the poignancy that underlies this story.

The cast received a standing ovation and they deserved it. I was more than happy to jump out of my seat and join in.

I also enjoyed filling out the survey provided by the Oakland, but there wasn’t much to suggest in the way of improvements. Not even by me, the gal who loves to give feedback!

All I could think to scrawl in the Comments section was “Everything was excellent!”

And we shall return.

Next up: Reefer Madness The Musical, May 1 – 16.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Rocky Balboa's Speech to Writers


IN THE MOVIE Rocky Balboa, Rocky's son Robert is unhappy about living in his father’s shadow.

In a street scene outside of Rocky’s “famous retired boxer” restaurant, Robert Balboa tries to discourage his aging father from resurrecting his boxing career because of the embarrassing publicity this will invite.

Up to this point, Rocky has been treading gingerly with his son, hoping to rekindle their former closeness. But when his son tries to snuff out his dream of fighting again, the worm turns and Rocky delivers a blistering speech where he says, in part:
“ . . . it ain't about how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done. Now, if you know what you're worth, then go out and get what you're worth.” *
Although the moviegoer part of me was busy congratulating Rocky on delivering the rebuke (especially when you know this speech will turn his son's attitude around), the other part of me was experiencing it on a very personal basis—as if *I* was the target for this lesson.

As a writer subject to (sometimes dramatic) dips in my levels of self belief, I found myself wishing I could keep a clip of this scene on my desktop and replay it at critical moments. The bigness of spirit with which Sylvester Stallone delivers these lines is undeniable. He may be just a dumb boxer who can barely speak, but he has finally recontacted that wild creature deep inside of him—the one that just wants to be who he is.

And he's not going to let anybody, not even his son, tell him to stuff that creature back into mothballs.

This conflict felt intensely close to home for me, albeit internalized. After experiencing several glorious creative breakthroughs the day before, in a familiar, subconscious “payback” (for I don't know what) I had crashed down from my state of bliss and was feeling like a creative scumbag.

This speech was exactly what I needed to hear and I very gratefully let myself be yanked up by the bootstraps. I went to bed marveling at the unquenchable spirit of Rocky Balboa and woke up to a sunny Sunday morning and the mood to write.

It didn't matter what I wrote, I just wanted to have the singular feeling of stretching out that unquenchable part of who I am: a writer.

Warning: Plot Spoiler

In this, the final movie in the Rocky series, Rocky Balboa does not win the big fight. He does not get to unseat the current heavyweight champion. But he's so thrilled to be back doing what he loves, and so happy to give it all he's got and put in a decent fight, he can finally feel at peace with himself and put some old ghosts to bed.

* See the rest of the excerpted dialogue from this scene at Wikipedia

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Your Screenplay Sucks!

First published 11/14/08 on the Fear of Writing Blog


FORTUNATELY, THIS IS NOT something someone said to me. This is the spiffy title of a funny and brilliant book by William M. Akers, and I heartily recommend it to almost anyone writing fiction.

The full title is your screenplay sucks! 100 ways to make it great. Here are some of Akers' 100 ways, from the table of contents:

-- You have not written something you care about!
-- You haven't worked your dialogue hard enough!
-- You don't have enough tension!
-- You have not shouted at each scene, "How can I jack up the conflict?!"
-- You haven't made "place" a character in your story!

Notice a pattern here? These are issues that many fiction writers face. Aspiring screenwriter or not, you're also bound to enjoy Akers' wisecracking and insightful supporting examples based on popular movies.

I've read other screenwriting books where the author bases his arguments around examples from movies and I've always learned something useful (usually enjoying the examples enough to put some of the movies in my Netflix queue), but Akers makes it come to life like Frankenstein busting out of his table straps. His examples are so vivid, funny, educational and entertaining, it makes me want to SCREAM (but only from an excess of creative inspiration . . . and that unparalleled feeling of reading a book so good you could almost eat the pages).

If you're still hesitating to buy this book, let me put the screws in a little deeper. From his list of 100 sins to commit against your own screenplay, there are some things I would never have dreamed of doing (so, therefore, “I didn't need the advice”); for instance,

-- Your story is about miserable people who are miserable the whole time and end miserably! Or worse!!
-- You want to be famous more than you want to write!
-- You call specific songs!*

*(This one refers to those newbie screenwriters who specify which songs they want for particular scenes; a definite no-no.)

I could have gone through the table of contents and skipped the chapters containing the advice I don't need. I love anything that saves me time! But, in this case, that would be dumb. I'm learning something from almost every chapter of this book, even when I fully expect not to.

And for the chapters about the really assinine things I would never do, I may not learn anything new but it sure is "fun on a bun" (as Londa is fond of saying in The Philosopher's Apprentice).

In section 11, “We have no rooting interest in your hero!” (a problem I'm 95% certain I don't have with mine), Akers says:

“Your hero does not have to be sympathetic. He doesn't have to be nice. Just because development people or writing teachers say your main character has to be likable, doesn't mean you have to listen.”

My hero is a deeply nice person—with a hankering for innocence and purity—and that's his flaw. The movie would not work without it.

Despite that being true for my current story, previous to reading this book I already knew the main character of any story could be a Grinch—and I'm not afraid to do that in my own writing (see "The God of Mystery" from Fear of Writing). But reading section 11 (along with #13 “Your Bad Guy isn't great!”—though I believe mine's pretty juicy) gave me an electrifying new idea for a screenplay; a story idea I may never have arrived at by skipping chapters in the hasty belief the advice would not be relevant to me.

There’s another reason why non-screenwriters might find this book not only entertaining but educational. On every page, with every sentence, Akers shows us how to write. If I was only allowed to review this book with one meager paragraph, I would say,

"This book is my precioussss. It burnses me to put it down. Must keep reading! Never, ever get between me and my copy of your screenplay sucksss! or things could get nasssty. (Hint: Ever seen me sssqueeze a fish?)"

It doesn't make sense, really. Akers spends the whole book telling me what I'm doing wrong and why I'm a schmuck. He insults my intelligence with his list of 100 and drops the guillotine on my hopes of ever getting a screenplay deal. And I love it! Every page is like a gigantic bowl of chocolate ice cream. Now that's good writing.

Just reading this book and absorbing his inimitable style, even if you don't (to your detriment) take any of the advice, can teach you good writing.

So, dear blog readers . . . have you bought your copy yet? If you're not already driving to your local bookstore to snatch it up, here's the link again so you can buy it online through Akers' Website (don't forget to look at all the funny pictures and read the wonderful chapters that didn't make it into the book):

your screenplay sucks! Buy now! Get it here! What are you waiting for? . . . editors or agents to call you on your cell phone?!

P.S. This is the kind of book that poses a painful conflict if you’re forced to pick a favorite line, but so far one of my winners is “Hans Gruber, marriage counselor.”

P.P.S. You may already guess what that refers to, but if not you need to buy this book—not only to laugh and marvel at this clever punch line but to find out why this concept might be important to your own writing.

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RELATED POST: Your Screenplay Sucks! Part II

(being news of the breakthrough that happened for me after reading less than 40 pages)

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Your Screenplay Sucks! Part II

First published 11/14/08 on the Fear of Writing Blog


Part I of this entry was my book review for your screenplay sucks! 100 ways to make it great by William M. Akers.

The review includes some of the ways non-screenwriters can benefit from reading Akers' book.

But, wait. There's more.

One of the many reasons I'm bubbling over about this book is due to today's mind-blowing coffeehouse event. Akers' book showed me a problem I didn't realize I had with my screenplay.

Panic? Disappointment? Deep sense of failure as a writer? Not at all. Largely because I already felt creatively liberated by reading this book, the solution came to me shortly after I realized the problem.

To get away from the distractions of laundry and e-mail, around noon I took carefully chosen reading material to Peaberry's Bakery & Café and settled in for some luscious reading. I intended to stay at least three, if not four hours, making considerable headway with some important goals related to my screenplay.

But first I indulged in several more pages from the delightful novel I'm currently reading, The Philosophers Apprentice by James Morrow. My breve tasted divine and I only had to move tables once (due to fellow patrons talking in megaphone voices on their cell phones). Coffeehouse bliss.

Next I read another section from The Way of Story by Catherine Ann Jones (another highly recommended book for writers). Then I turned to the most serious business of the day: allowing myself to be entertained and moved to wicked grins and laughter while learning hugely from your screenplay sucks!

My blissful long stint in the coffeehouse was cut short, however, when a brainstorm overrode all other wishes and desires. The brainstorm was the cumulative result of reading six more sections from Akers' book . . . but the part that made me rocket out of my seat and rush home to my computer was the following sentence from section 16 (“You don’t give your bad guy a Bad Guy Speech!”):

“Then, in Chapter 21—Magua's Pain—Montcalm and the reader hear what's boiling Magua's guts.”

This refers to The Last of the Mohicans, but you don't have to see the movie or read the novel it's based on to get the point. Akers makes it abundantly clear in just a few paragraphs.

What I realized from Akers’ example is that my bad guy, albeit doing well in most other areas, doesn't ever reveal the motivation behind his anti-social and violent behavior. Worse, I'm the bad guy's creator and even I didn't know how his badness got seeded. Plenty about what boils my hero's guts but no revealing history for my BG.

I drifted into daydream mode and started scribbling in my writer's journal. Because Akers already had my mind in such a fertile place, it only took a few minutes to know which scene I'll need to use to show my bad guy's motivation. I know which character’s going to talk about it/show it and what she's going to say—could even result in one of the best lines from the movie—and how the other character will react (classic case of denial).

Some of the details of the Freudian incident from my bad guy’s past are still a bit hazy, but no problemo. That can be fleshed out as I go.

At first, I was a bit ticked off about having to add anything to my script that might pile more pages onto it. My finished screenplay is currently 112 pages; screenplays for feature films should be between 100 and 120 (but a full 120 pages for a newbie might require some justification . . . namely, a killer script!).

Still, the more I daydreamed and brainstormed, the more I could see how much this short but critical addition—it should amount to a page or less—will enrich my story.

I was so gratified with this development, the world was a more thrilling place to be, the music on XM Radio sounded better than ever, and my most pressing problem with my Friday afternoon had become:

“There are not enough hours in the day to do all this fun creative stuff!”
You have to be happy at your desk, at that laptop in the coffee shop or in the front seat of your car, doing your writing, whether you ever get paid or not. Otherwise it is no fun. Getting paid should not affect what you want to do.

Because, if it's not what you want to do, why are you doing it?


—William M. Akers, page 286, your screenplay sucks!

RELATED POST: Your Screenplay Sucks (Part I)