[ETCETERA] You’re Out of Order!

Travolta Staying Alive

At the very least, he was in really great shape.

When you see movies (and in what particular order) has a lot to do with what year you were born.  Sometimes you’re too young.  Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re missing, until much later.

I saw Staying Alive before I ever saw Saturday Night Fever (full disclosure: I still haven’t seen Saturday Night Fever).

I saw Jaws 2 before 1 (edited for TV, no less).

I saw The Road Warrior before Mad Max.  Though, I’m gonna guess that most people did at the time.

In my defense, we didn’t have HBO in our house.  Or even cable, actually (we did have food and running water, though, so there’s no need to call Child Protection Services).

But even for the cable-laden, there was still no Netflix or Bit-Torrent.  If you had missed it, you couldn’t just navigate through your on-demand menu and catch up with the original movie before you went to the theater to see the sequel (or the second, or third).

Jaws 2 Poster

Just stay clear of the ocean forever, got it.

Maybe you could find a copy at the local video store, but even those were limited by shelf space and popularity.

It wasn’t ideal, sure, but it was all we knew.

As a screenwriter, you might actually end up penning a sequel one day (maybe to your own hit movie).  If you get that opportunity, how will you bring your new audience up to speed without boring or alienating your previous one?

It’s not really an unusual concept.

There’s a series of novels I read as a kid about a young detective, called Encyclopedia Brown.  At the beginning of every book there was a paragraph or two that laid out the backstory.  Virtually verbatim every time.

It was a little annoying, but I understood it was for newcomers.

Until about a decade ago, television shows had the main title sequence to get viewers up to speed on the premise, frequently in song (“Here’s the story, of a man named, Brady…”).  Less so these days, where a “long” main title runs about fifteen seconds.

Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective Book Cover

Like Veronica Mars, but 30 years earlier

In movies, though, the paradigm doesn’t really allow for a theme song or a “Last time on…” recap.

So, is there a standard formula to initiate the late-adopters to a sequel?  If there is, I don’t know it (feel free to enlighten me in the comments if you’ve heard otherwise).

Personally, I feel like the the best strategy is to make the sequel stand on its own.  Almost as if it’s the very first movie with these characters.

Sure you should include some callbacks and references from previous films, but don’t make knowledge of those things essential to enjoying this particular chapter.

Easier said than done, naturally.  Of course, if it was easy, everybody’d be doing it.

Sorry, what?  Everybody is already doing it?  Huh.  Okay, well, back to whatever you were up to before this.

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[THREE CENTS] Responsibility to Your Audience

Muppet Movie Audience

These guys are relying on you to do the right thing.

As writers, most of us work to create scripts with compelling stories, three-dimensional characters, and authentic-sounding dialogue.  But what else should be on our checklist?

After all, screenplays – and the resulting movies, television, and web content – aren’t designed solely for the author to express themselves.  They’re made for an audience.  So what kind of responsibility do we have to them?

Do you owe them a satisfying resolution?*  Do you owe them loose ends tied up?**  Do you owe them a coherent through-line?***

Or should you be able to just follow your muse and let it take you wherever and however the hell it wants?

Obviously there’s no objectively right answer.

In most cases, professional writers are under the supervision of story editors, producers, and network executives.  For them, it’s all about serving the audience (along with sponsors, and the bottom line, of course).

But what if you had the option to do anything that popped into your head?  Maybe you’ve got a rich relative sponsoring your project.  Maybe the rich one sponsoring your project is you.  Do you have to worry about the audience then?  Or – damn the torpedoes – should you just make your art without any restrictions whatsoever?

Last American Virgin Final Shot

Wait, this isn’t the end, right?  You can’t end it like this, right?  Right?!

When I was a lot younger, my friends and I rented the movie, The Last American Virgin.  In the age of Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it was promoted as a sexy comedic romp.

It was not.

Sure it started out as a wacky comedy.  But in the end, the hero was dumped by the girl of his dreams (who he had helped out of a dire situation), who then hooked back up with the hero’s best friend (who was the one that had put her in the dire situation to begin with).  The last image in the movie was was the kid just driving alone, devastated.

Madness.

Sure, that may be the way a Sundance indie drama ends, but not this.  Not with a complete 180 in tone.  This is an abuse of your viewers.

Speaking of madness, perhaps you’ve seen 2017’s Twin Peaks: the Return?

I don’t care how much of a craving you have for Twinkies, keep driving…

I was a big fan of the original series, though I felt that Fire Walk with Me was a big miss. Nevertheless, I was excited for the latest iteration.  At least until I started watching it.

All indications are that David Lynch was allowed to do whatever he wanted with those 18 episodes.  It showed.

While some super-fans might feel it was some brilliant expression of a mad genius, the rest of us were left dumbfounded at the relentless craziness that seemed to have no discernible rhyme or reason.

As a creator, you can get away with some quirky, crazy bits.  That might be your “voice” as a writer that makes you stand out.  But when it’s the majority of the narrative, and there’s no way for anyone else to clearly comprehend what the hell it means in the story (or even what the story is), then you’ve done something wrong.

I think it’s pretty clear that for me, writers need to care about their audience.  Certainly if they want them to ever be their audience again.

No, you don’t need to rigidly create a happy ending.  No, you don’t have to dumb things down, or mimic a classic paradigm.

Your story can make them think.  It can make them work.

But it definitely shouldn’t leave them staring at the screen and thinking: WTF?

 

 

*yes
**yes
***also yes

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[IN THE TRENCHES] The Ensemble: Divide and Conquer

Avengers: Infinity War Poster

They barely fit on the poster.  Now you’ve got to give them all something to do?

Like the rest of the industrialized world, I caught a showing of Avengers: Infinity War over the weekend.  It was pretty great, actually.  More or less lived up to the impossible expectations.

(No pressure, Solo).

In addition to a sizable portion of excellent (funny) dialogue, one of the things writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did best was effectively service its large cast of characters.  So what’s the secret to juggling all that talent?

Divide and conquer.

While an ensemble story frequently starts with most of the crew together, staying that way is a problem.  You can’t really just have a crowd of people standing around for the entire duration, taking turns saying one line after another like the feature film equivalent of We Are the World.

Instead, you have to create subgroups and send them each out on their own subgroup quests that ultimately all lead back to a collective climax.

Okay, that sounded a little dirty.

Could be.

Depends on the rating, I guess.

Kuu Kuu Harajuku

Just like Avengers: Infinity War.  Identical, really.

This concept doesn’t just pertain to blockbuster movies, of course.

When Rhonda and I write stories for Kuu Kuu Harajuku – which are each half of a half hour – we have five girls and a band manager that need to be actively involved throughout.  Keeping them all together creates a metaphorical story mosh pit, and a crowded mess.  Break ’em up!

Writing an ensemble piece yourself?  Always divide and conquer.

In the most simplistic of terms: Together at the beginning.  Together at the end.  Split up in the middle.  Of course, there are variations and exceptions to the rule (there always are). But if you’re struggling to service a large group of characters, this is a great way to start.

Okay, get to the Fade In and make some multi-character magic.

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[THE MAKING OF] Bookish

So I started writing my first novel. It won’t be part of any future school curriculum. Well, probably not, anyway.  It’s not that kind of novel.

Picture it someday, right there in the back, third shelf from the left.

It’s a fun novel.  An adventure novel. You know, for kids.

While I’m on the subject of what it won’t be, though, I’ll add that it won’t be finished soon. But it will be finished someday, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Conceptually. Theoretically. Eventually.

I think most writers – regardless of their chosen medium – dream of someday writing a novel. But that’a a lot of words. And pages. So the dream and the reality rarely find themselves in the same zip code.

In fact, I started writing a different novel many, many, moons ago. A little after college. It was supposed to be something I did in my spare time (as if there’s such a thing as spare time). My friend, Guy, and I challenged each other to complete our books within a year – two hundred and one pages, minimum.

I didn’t get past page three. I wonder if he ever finished?

My failure wasn’t really surprising. In that long-ago scenario, I had only the loosest of ideas, and was kind of winging it as I went. I guess the results speak for themselves.

This time around, it should be a lot different. After all, I have a well-developed storyline and a clear road map to safely get me from “Once upon a time” to “The End.”

Its called a screenplay.

Rhonda Smiley Asper Novel Cover

Seems simple enough (it’s not simple at all)

Yes, my debut novel will be an adaptation of myself. Not a unique (dare I say novel) idea, of course. But an excellent one nevertheless.

It’s kinda poetic, really. When you think about it, a script is essentially a blueprint for the final product of a film. Here, it’ll serve as a blueprint for the final product of a book.

A straight line from my keystrokes to a reader’s imagination.

And ideally, followed up by more. Having been writing for a few decades now, I’ve built up a small library of spec scripts.  And thanks to the new self-publishing world and print-on-demand technology, I can finally give those stories I love a chance to find an audience.

How hard could it be?

Hearing Rhonda Smiley’s war stories for her first novel, Asper, I know it’ll be smooth sailing all the way.

I’m kidding, of course. It sounds like a nightmare.

I should probably get back to work.

 

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[IN THE TRENCHES] A Recipe for Creativity

As writers, we’re all fueled by creativity.  We need it to fill in that foreboding blank page, to wow those executives in that pitch meeting, to finish the outline for that new idea, and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-by.

Without it, we’re just like…  I dunno…  Regular people.

Charm, yes.  Multimedia franchises, not so much.

Unfortunately, that creativity runs dry sometimes.  Even for the best of us.

And refueling takes more than just a spin downtown to fill up the tank and grab a lottery ticket and a Chocodile.  Maybe clean the windshield, check the oil, and…

Perhaps I’ve taken this analogy too far.

The point is, if you don’t already know how to stoke the flames of your imagination, it’s time to workshop your own personal recipe and commit it to memory for the next time you have to get cooking.

And the next time after that.

The desire to tap into an elusive imagination can be borne out of various needs, which might necessitate different, unique ingredients.

In some cases, you’re stuck within a particular scene you’re writing, and need a very specific solution to a very specific problem.

What then?  Specifically?

Julia Child

Julia knows the prefect recipe for a strong second act.

If it’s an action beat, I’ll sometimes doodle the blocking on a piece of paper and literally take a look at my options.  Stick figures are fine. Arrows and diagrams a plus.

You can do the same thing with a salt and pepper shaker. Maybe arrange everything on the dining room table to help inspire your characters’ next moves.  Shift them around, swap their starting places.  Bring in dessert.

Other times I’ll walk the dog, but skip the headphones and music.  Just some fresh air and physical activity to help brainstorm through a jam.  If it’s the end of the day, it can help to start actively thinking about the problem you’re trying to solve as you close your eyes to sleep.

Let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

A classic inspirational location is the bathroom.  So many ideas come from visits to everybody’s favorite mental sanctuary.  Here, your next sentence or piece of dialogue might materialize during the soothing storm of a hot shower, or perhaps while you’re perched on the throne.  Inspiration isn’t snobby like that.

Fresh ideas.  Metaphorically speaking.

But what about when you’re starting from zero? When you’re trying to figure out what your next new project will even be?

Here, the world is your oyster (or, if you’re a vegetarian, the world might be your Brussels sprout).

The seed for your next story might come out of an overheard conversation, a memory from childhood, or even a trip through the local museum.

Early in my post-collegiate career, a fellow writer friend and I would go into book stores for inspiration.  Just the place itself, teeming with stories and imagination would prime the pump.  But, more specifically, scanning shelves and shelves of titles and cover images would inspire entirely original ideas.

A fertile aisle was the biographies, which could spark the notion of a fictional politician/athlete/magician/war hero/etc.  Perhaps a biopic.

Inspiration and more.

Some people get their best ideas at the beach, or a park, or even a crowded coffee shop. Like writers themselves, no two recipes for creativity will be exactly the same.

Regardless of your particular formula, though, you should always be ready for inspiration to strike when you least expect it.  And consequently, you should be ready to get it down.

I still keep a pen and paper on me at all times, but you can also get those ideas onto your phone. Memo, dictate, text…  Whatever it takes to keep the magic from slipping through your fingers.

In short, make sure to give thought as to what works best for you.  Where do you stumble upon your best ideas?  What are you doing, listening to, or watching?  Remember these things. And the next time you find yourself in a creative jam, you can reach out to these firestarters to help fuel the next breakthrough.

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[THREE CENTS] Owning Star Wars

There might be a spoiler or two in here, but seriously – if you haven’t seen The Last Jedi by now, I have to think you don’t really care.  So let’s get on with it…

The O.G. ‘Wars

When I first saw Star Wars as a kid, there was only one.  It didn’t have a number or a subtitle.  It wasn’t part of a trilogy or ninelogy, or infinitelogy.

It was just a movie, its own thing, and an awesome thing at that.

For me, already a science fiction fan, this was really something special. Blasters…  Lightsabers…  Dogfights…

Scifi action.  A “space western.”

It consumed my imagination from that point on, as it consumed many a kid’s.

I dreamed I was Luke Skywalker, the young kid following his destiny to become a laser-sword swinging, womp rat bullseyeing, force-wielding fighter pilot with the skills to take down the invincible Death Star (sans targeting computer) and win the hand of a beautiful Princess.

True, that last part ultimately proved to be a considerably disturbing notion.  But at the time, it made perfect sense.

At least, that’s how I remembered them looking

All in for this slice of interstellar magic, I drew countless pictures, joined the fan club, accumulated toys, and subscribed to the comic.

Obviously, I wasn’t alone. Star Wars quickly became a phenomenon with nine movies and counting, a million hours of animated television (not to mention The Holiday Special), and endless amounts of ancillary products.

Can you imagine writing something that captures so many imaginations?  For so many generations?  It’s more than just the work itself.  The stars have to align perfectly.

Star Wars Action Figures

The retirement fund.  Along with a few interlopers

The downside, of course, is the growing expectations for each subsequent outing.  With such intensely high hopes from so many fanatics, it’s impossible to please everyone.

Occasionally anyone.

Those of us in the Star Wars fan community have very strong opinions on everything.  We know how things should be, and – more emphatically – how they shouldn’t.

Ewoks…  Midi-chlorians…  The Crossguard Lightsaber…  Even shirtless Force conference calls. There’s no end to controversy.

We would do it better.  Why aren’t they doing it better?!

The answer, of course, is that “better” is crazily subjective.  And there’s really no one unified fan opinion on anything (well, maybe Jar Jar).  But the key operative phrase there is opinion.

The sad truth is, the audience doesn’t own Star Wars.  But because we’ve grown up with it and it touches so many aspects of our lives – from our entertainment, to our fashion, even to our food – it just feels that way.

Leia Poppins?  You’re killing me, Rian

Before George cashed in Lucasfilm to the Mouse, he was the final word in the Star Wars universe.  As it should be.  He created it, it was his choice to determine where it would go and how.

Of course, the prequels proved most of us didn’t approve of those directions, but that’s beside the point.

Actually, the point itself.  

Just like George, if we ever get to produce our iconic masterpiece franchises, it’ll be up to us, not our audiences, to decide how those stories evolve.

Which is exactly the way we’d want it.

So keep posting your opinions on what the last Star Wars could have been, and exactly what the next one should be.  Who might be who else’s parents, rivals, or lovers.  Who could beat who in a lightsaber duel.  Maybe in Cards Against Humanity.  The debate belongs to all of us.

But the franchise belongs to Disney.

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[ETCETERA] Final Fantasy (FCL Update)

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the Fantasy Casting League.  You can click on the link to get up-to-speed as to what the hell I’m talking about before going any further.

Or, if you prefer to work out your understanding through contextual clues – or perhaps not understand at all – carry on reading right here.

To start with, my FCL winning streak ended at two.  I got taken down by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, then stayed down with The Mummy (1999) and Die Hard.  Hey, even Michael Jordan had to retire eventually.  And then eventually again.

But on the positive side, the League’s kinks appear to have been worked out, though there’s always room for improvement (like the Constitution, the FCL is a living document. Somehow without being at document at all).

Spinal Tap 11

These go to three…

To begin with, the scoring range has been supplemented from the previous zero through two to zero through three.

Now, a bad pick gets no points, a decent pick one, a good pick two, and a great pick three (as well as continuing with a negative two for no pick at all).  It doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but when you’re making relative comparisons, one more increment helps a lot (I feel like there’s a double entendre happening here, but that’s probably for a different blog).

There was also a strong suggestion (though not a formal rule) that if someone has the same pick as you made for one of the roles, you should automatically score it a three (except maybe – maybe – in the rare case where you actually hate your pick but couldn’t come up with a better alternative).  It’s a grey area.  I’d suggest using your moral compass, but I’m not sure if those even exist anymore.

Additionally, the form created every week to fill out (thanks, Rob) has been changed from a portrait orientation to landscape to better display on a computer screen or in a conference room (this is also why you should never shoot vertical video with your phone (you’re welcome, Josh)).

Die Hard Recasting

On the plus side, I did get props for Tilda and Luis.

And lastly, we’ve added space below each casting suggestion to reference the projects the actors are known for.  The reason we do this now is because of the most significant change of all…

Anonymity.

In order to prevent bias against or for anyone during the voting process (Alex…), each of the completed forms is put into a network folder with just a number as an identifier.  That way, everyone is judging the picks of a number, not a name (in other words, payback will have to come through other means).

My money’s on player number three

To maintain the veil of secrecy during the scoring, you also fill out rankings for your own picks, but total it up as zero.

A drawback to anonymity is that the picks can’t be defended or explained, but the actors’ credits solve the problem of wondering where the hell we’ve seen them before (if we have, in fact, seen them before), so that’s no longer essential.  It’s not a perfect system, but it beats the hell out of the Electoral College.

So if you’re playing along in your own division of the League, make sure you apply these changes, or there will be sanctions.  Possible legal action.  At least a stern talking to.

You’ve been warned.

 

Finally, since this is my last post of 2017, I’ll wish all my readers a very happy New Year.

Happy New Year, mom.

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[ETCETERA] It’s Just a Fantasy (oh-oh-oh-oh)

Like most people, I have a good amount of friends who are all but consumed by Fantasy Football or Baseball.  I’ve even been invited to join them a few times, but I had to pass.

It’s all just too much.

Too much time.  Too much effort.  Too much information.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m unhealthily fanatical about my own teams (Go Mets!  Go Knicks!  To a lesser extent, go Bears), but I certainly don’t know all the players on the rest of the teams, or what their capabilities are.  Not to mention whether they’ve disappeared, been suspended, or lost an arm since their last game.

I never want to be that good with spreadsheets.

Fantasy Casting League - Home Alone 2017

Not Down to Earth or About Last Night.  Better, hopefully.

However, when a few friends from work came up with a different kind of league – tailor made for people like me – I finally realized I could be a part of the mania.  Well, mania adjacent.

During a lunchtime conversation – probably between solving world hunger and creating an engine that runs on seawater –  the collective minds of Rob, Jaena, Alex, Elmer, and Matt conceived of  The Fantasy Casting League™.

In the current entertainment world of wall-to-wall reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings, it just couldn’t be more timely

The concept is simple.  Pick a movie (preferably one that’s at least five years old), and recast it.

More specifically, recast it as if you were gonna start shooting tomorrow.  No dead actors, fictional characters, or “Robert De Niro when he was 20″s.

You don’t recast the whole thing, of course.  No one’s got time to choose the perfect new Cop #4 or Dinner Guest #12.  Basically just 8-10 main or memorable characters.

Sure it might be a struggle to find that many with some movies, and a struggle to trim to down to that number in others, but you get the idea.

For us, the first week’s movie was Home Alone.

Rob put together the forms (complete with synopsis, original actors, character names, and pix), and we had a week to fill them out.  Then the founders, along with me and fellow ‘Leaguers, Josh and Sarah, met up and reviewed (mocked/applauded/got confused by) everyone’s choices together.  There were no drinks, but that should probably change.

In the inaugural run, the winner was chosen by vote (written on pieces of paper and tossed into a hat for a dramatic tallying by Rob in true Survivor style).  And no, you couldn’t vote for yourself.

In the end, I outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed.  Also; won.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t the only one who went with a race-swap remake, but I did spend some extra time curating and cropping photos to match the originals.  That and an adult Kieran Culkin are what probably put me over the top.

Fantasy Casting League - The Breakfast Club 2017

All we need is Imagine Dragons to cover Simple Minds.

It’s the little things that make a difference.

After crowning the victor, we each threw an idea for the next round’s movie into the hat, which was randomly chosen as…  The Breakfast Club (are you sensing a trend here?)

Despite all evidence to the contrary, if you’re trying this at your home, dorm, or place of business, I highly recommend mixing it up.

Avoid one romantic comedy after the other or two action flicks in a row, as a lot of those casts will probably end up being un-enjoyably redundant.

In the second round, we also tried a new scoring system, so that one poor choice didn’t completely derail someone’s chance at victory (although a Louis C.K. selection still felt a little like self-sabotage).

A bad pick got no points, a good pick got one, great pick two, and no pick at all got a negative two (so it’s always best to throw someone in there…  anyone).

A work in progress, perhaps

Naturally, the judging is very subjective.  If you’ve never even heard of someone’s choice, it’s hard to vote for it, even if it’s theoretically perfect.  But you still don’t want your lack of media savvy to knock out a contender.  It’s best to take the temperature of the room during the evaluation to see if everyone agrees on someone you’re not familiar with.  Then maybe they get the benefit of the doubt.

After everyone marked up their score sheets, they were all passed over to Rob (who’s clearly taking on too much responsibility in this racket) to add up the results.

Not to brag (he says just moments before bragging), but…  I was at the top again once the dust settled.

We’ll see if I can keep going strong in week three.  Thankfully, this post will go up while I’m still undefeated.

But who knows?  With a little (a lot of) luck, that might never change!

 

Some final thoughts from League Management

Alex wanted to mention that “Josh sucks at understanding great casting calls” (feels like there’s a history behind that one).

Jaena wanted to stress that the League is still in beta, and that we aren’t trying to exclude people (not sure who feels excluded and why, but in all likelihood, I never liked them anyway).

And Elmer wants to point out that he’s placed second for two weeks straight.  Oh, and that he’s coming for me (bring it).

 

Any casting ideas you’d have chosen over mine?  Any suggestions for future movies to redo?  Be sure to mention in the comments below…

 

Also, check out the follow-up in my next blog post…

[ETCETERA] Final Fantasy (FCL Update)

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[THREE CENTS] But Does It Hold Up?

Hereth Banzai

Wherever I go…

Back in college, I started compiling a list of my favorite movies.  I was in film school, so watching, studying, and (over) analyzing movies was a considerably large part of my life.

I’ve been much less active in filling out that list during recent years, but it’s still there in a file on my computer, clicked periodically to life.

All of this is leading up to ponder the question of “favorites” and their potentially limited lifespan.  If you’re putting together a list of favorite movies as you go through life, how are you going to feel later on about some of those entries you added twenty years earlier?

Will they still be worthy of that list to the present-day you?

I saw E.T. for the first time as a kid.  Loved it, as many others did (I think it made money). When I watched it again during college, I found that I still loved it.  That’s a pretty solid shelf life, if you will.  It definitely “holds up.”

But do they all?

Buckaroo Banzai Poster

A special kind of weird.

During high school, my friends and I discovered The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension and treasured it.  It was cool, quirky, funny, and eminently quotable.

To the point, my senior quote in the high school yearbook was “Wherever you go, there you are” from Buckaroo himself (true, the wording might have been slightly off, but the intention was dead on).

So it was devastating to hear my friend Mike Rovner (fellow Blue Blaze Irregular back in the day) mention that he saw it recently and it wasn’t easy to get through.

What?  No.  How dare you!

Could this be true?

To find out for sure, I’d have to see it again myself.  But, of course, I couldn’t do that.  The notion had now become terrifying.  I mean, I might not agree with Mike, but what if I did?

Would I have to take it off the list then?  Or would it still qualify from the initial viewing?

Conundrum.

If you look at something that you used to love and discover it’s actually bad, then it’s bad, right?  Like those bell bottoms, or acid-washed denim, or that mullet.  They just don’t work anymore (I’m joking about the mullet, of course.  Spectacular then.  Spectacular always).

Maybe that’s true sometimes.  Maybe it’s true a lot.  You have a different perspective at 40 than you did at 20.  Certainly at 10.  Movie-making styles, technology, VFX, all change or improve.  Things can get dated.

I don’t want to live in a world where this isn’t as awesome as I remember.

Stories that were once unique and special are eventually done over and over.  At some point you’ve “seen it all” and surprises are taken out of the equation.

It can’t possibly all hold up.  And when it doesn’t, it has to come off the list, right?

Hell, no.

Ultimately, I say if you loved it when you saw it for the very first time, it stays where it is.  You can add some sort of qualifiers later if you have to.  Maybe.  But that feeling, that initial impression, counts. And doesn’t ever stop counting.

That magic, when you were transported to another place to live though a story that impacted you somehow – even if it was just to laugh for two hours straight – that means more than anything.  That lives on and can never be taken away.

That’s forever.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Rhonda Smiley: Novel Screenwriter

_Rhonda Smiley Asper Novel Cover

You can judge this book by its cover.  Magical.

My frequent collaborator, Rhonda Smiley, has been a working screenwriter for years, both as a solo scribe and in partnerships.

As one of the many little-known, but prolific, creatives in the business, she’s written dozen of hours of television, including shows like High TideNinja Turtles: The Next Mutation, Totally Spies!Kuu Kuu Harajuku, and the independent sci-fi feature, Race.

Earlier this year, she published her first novel, Asper, a dark YA fantasy.

Like a lot of writers, I dream of one day publishing a novel myself, so I thought it would be helpful to get some insight into the process from a fellow screenwriter’s point of view.

She didn’t disappoint…

What’s the first thing you remember writing that wasn’t a school assignment?

It was probably a feature spec but I’m not sure which one. If I had to guess, I’d say it was something I co-wrote called, Executive Rush, and I think the feedback we got was that it was “ambitious.”

And yes, it’s about a young courier who gets embroiled in the corrupt world of high finance.

After years as a professional screenwriter, what was the impetus or inspiration to start writing a novel now? 

Writing specs that don’t get produced is hugely unsatisfying. I wanted people to see what I was writing, so a book was the next logical step. I also thought it’d be nice to do something I didn’t have to rewrite to suit others until it became unrecognizable. Screenwriting is very collaborative and you’d be surprised how much your story can be developed away from its original concept.

Turns out writing books isn’t that much different. Not quite as collaborative, but throw in beta readers, editors, and if you’re lucky, managers, agents or publishers, and your story definitely evolves.

(photo not current)

What have you found to be the most significant difference between writing screenplays and writing novels?

Everything. The only thing I find the same is dialog.

When I write a script, I see it in my head as a movie or an episode. I automatically think in filmic conventions, not literary ones. For instance, I can match-cut to something to make a distinct connection in a script, but that type of link is tricky to do in a novel.

Another obvious difference is that you have to paint a picture with words if you want your reader to truly envision your world because you don’t have a set designer or costumer to come in and add the finer details. In a script, I can slug a location on the east African savanna and be done with it (unless there are particulars to the story that need to be noted), but in a book, I’d better say more about it because I don’t have a director showing you what that looks like.

And then there’s the fashion of narration. Ugh. The bane of my first novel. These days it seems readers are more partial to a single or limited point of view. In a show, more often than not, the audience is a fly on the wall, which is more like an omniscient narrator.

For instance, in a script, you can have Bob dreamily eye Carol at the water cooler when she’s not looking, and when she turns and Bob is no longer looking at her, she can dreamily eye him. I know, exciting. But the point is that Carol doesn’t know she’s being eyed, and Bob doesn’t know he is either. You do that sort of thing all the time in scripts. In a book, however, you’d most-likely choose one or the other’s point of view for that scene. Meaning, if it was Bob’s point of view, you’d show him eyeing Carol without her knowing, but you wouldn’t show her eyeing him without him knowing because that’s no longer his point of view.

Section breaks in novels aren’t only topic or location changes, often they’re switching from one character’s point of view to another’s.

That said, lots of writers break the ‘rules.’

Race Animated Feature

Written AND produced by Rhonda Smiley. No biggie.

Did you ever get intimidated by the typical length of a novel, or have trouble tracking story elements across that many pages?

I was never intimidated by length, but after a few rewrites, tracking definitely became difficult.

With so many things going on in the story, it was a challenge to remember where I was at times so that I didn’t inadvertently write about something as if it happened already when it hadn’t. Or vice versa. You can remember the general story linearly, but specifics, like a pertinent piece of dialog, become hard to track.

Do you work from an outline or do you just let the story take you wherever it goes?

I always work from an outline. I used to freeform when I first started writing, but when I got professional jobs, outlines were required, and I quickly realized how helpful they were. There’s a sense of freedom, ironically, when you know where you’re going. It’s sort of like dancing. If you know the choreography, you’re free to dance and you don’t have to “think” about the steps. That’s how I feel about outlines.

What kind of research – if any – did you do on novel writing before you started?  Did you take a class, read instructional books, or just immerse yourself in others’ novels?

Well, for my first pass on Asper, which was years ago, I didn’t do any research per se. I read novels like anyone else, and I was a working screenwriter, so I thought I could do a decent job. A manager became interested in the manuscript and had some notes, and I did a few more passes. Then she left the industry and my book behind. (No, I don’t take it personally, why do you ask?)

Years later, when I picked it up again, I decided to approach it differently. That’s when I made the mistake of doing research. The problem is that there are a lot of different opinions, and a lot of people who think their opinions are facts. It can get very confusing very fast, and you can lose your storytelling style (your voice) trying to get it right.

I’d strongly recommend reading books in the genre that you’re writing, and pay attention to what works and even what doesn’t for you. It’s really hard to do, by the way, to pay attention to the craft when you get into a good book, but it’s tremendously helpful.

High Tide

Rick Springfield, George Segal and Yannick Bisson keep the surf safe in “High Tide”

As a reader, do you have any favorite authors or genres?

Some favorites are John Irving, Nelson DeMille, Clive Cussler, and James Rollins. Sometimes I like to get really deep into characters and human drama, and sometimes I just want to enjoy an exciting adventure.

Having one completed book under your belt, are you working on another, or are you taking a break from that format?

I am working on another book (well, two if you count the Blowback graphic novel). This new one is for middle grade. My plan was to do a sequel to Asper and I wrote the outline for it, but every time I started working on the book, I got exhausted. In high fantasy, you’re creating lands, creatures, magic, etc., that don’t exist in real life, and they all have to make sense and work cohesively so that the world you create is credible. It takes a lot of energy, for me anyway. So I jumped over to a fun, less dark project first. But it does have a monster in it. Only one, though.

In any of your projects, does the title come to you as you conceive of the story, or does it reveal itself during the actual writing process?

I’m terrible with titles. I worked for a showrunner (maybe it was Mike McGreevey, maybe it wasn’t) who used to tease me about my titles. He wasn’t wrong. So I labor over them. I write lists. I look for reasons why.

Not just partially spies

What advice would you give to other screenwriters who are considering trying their hand at writing a book?

Start early. (Unless you’re an A-lister; I love these sites that say enter our contests and like Jim Carrey, you too, can get great exposure for your book).

It takes years and many books to build an audience. It doesn’t usually happen with your first, so you want to collect readers along the way. It’s a process.

Similar to screenwriting advice I’d gotten, it’s probably best if you stick to a genre. Build your brand since that’s how you build your audience. You keep them coming back for more of what you do.

Full disclosure – I have not followed that advice, but I see the value in it. (Hence, the extensive outline to a sequel to Asper.)

 

SHORT ATTENTION SPAN ROUND

How do you like your eggs?

Cooked. Any which way. Scrambled, over-easy, poached, in a cake. I like eggs.

CGI or Traditional 2d Animation?

CGI (hashtag Hyper Image)

Electric Toothbrush or Manual?

Electric upstairs, manual downstairs. Wait, that sounded dirty. I have both, so it depends what part of the house I’m in.

Astaire or Kelly?

Astaire.

Sock style?

Ankle socks done right, meaning they don’t slip when you walk and end up spooled under your arch.

Taco Bell or Dell Taco?

How is that even a question? Taco Bell.

 

If you’d like to know even more about Rhonda and her work, you can check out her official website – rhondasmiley.com.

She also won’t complain if you buy a copy of her book (or six), which is available in paperback and digital formats at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.  After all, the holidays are just a few months away…

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