Digital Rights and Publishing

movable_type-etbscreenwritingThis just in from Cynopsis Digital

The Gutenberg revolution continues. Google is now enabling authors and publishers who sign off under various Creative Commons licenses to distribute their works for free using the Google Books platform.

Creative collaboration, mash-ups, remixes and reuses is this a good or bad thing for writers?  You decide. Full article is below.

The Creative Commons organization has been busy this year launching programs like the Attribution-ShareAlike agreement with Wikipedia that enables interoperability between Wikipedia licenses. This new alliance allows independent writers, artists and publishers, both existing Google Partners and non-partners, to distribute, commercialize and protect the reuse of their works.

It’s a flexible license built for the digital age, with settings that authorize creative remixes and mash-ups that give credit where credit is due. Books that have been made available under a CC license have been marked with a matching logo on the book’s left hand navigation bar, allowing users to download the books and share them freely. “If the rightsholder has chosen to allow people to modify their work, readers can even create a mashup – say, translating the book into Esperanto, donning a black beret, and performing the whole thing to music on YouTube,” writes Xian Ke, Associate Product manager, Google Books in a blog post.

Google says representatives of the Book Rights Registry intend to allow rightsholders to distribute CC-licensed works for free, pending court approval of a settlement. In the meantime, Creative Commons proponents such as Lawrence Lessig have make their works available on Google Books using the CC licenses.”

Check out the videos on creative collaboration on Creative Commons and take a look at the Books Rights Registry on Google.

Fear and How to Use It

samuel-butler-etbscreenwriting“Fear is static that prevents me from hearing myself.” Samuel Butler (English novelist, essayist and critic, 1835-1902). Truer words were never spoken. A character’s fear is the greatest burden he or she carries. It is the constant “static” the character cannot escape. It defines the secret shame that character never wants to face or acknowledge. It is the unspoken reason the character truly believes he or she is (or could be) a failure, a disappointment or a disgrace to others (and therefore could be or become unloved or un-lovable).

Force your character to risk everything in facing his or her fear. Unless your character faces the fear or secret shame, your character will never be free. Your character will constantly be forced to cling the mask and seek its “protection.” A character that hides a secret shame will never be able to live a truly authentic life. As long as that fear and shame is lurking in the background the character will always be its slave.

one-hour-screenwriter-etbscreenwritingLove and fear are inextricably bound together. All your character’s worries and anxieties about love will cluster right at the root of his or her fear. Your character’s worries and concerns about love don’t just color his or her romantic relationships. They bled into every single relationship and interaction the character has with another human being in the story. These fears are especially intense in dealing with the antagonist. The smart antagonist deliberately plays on this fear to try to weaken or tempt your character to be his/her own worst enemy. In a story and in life any decision based on fear is the wrong decision.

Your character’s fear is your most important emotional tool as a writer. Anytime you get in trouble in a scene, a sequence or an act— go right to your character’s fear. How does this constant underlying static of anxiety or worry operate in the dramatic or comedic action of the story? Bring the character’s fear to the surface in every scene, every sequence and every act. Take every opportunity to make the character’s physical and emotional situation and entanglements play off the fear and magnify it.

Make fear wreak havoc with the character internally. Find a way to demonstrate this conflict externally through the character’s actions. Make the worst thing that could possibly happen to the character take place on successively deeper and more risky personal levels. Then show us what the character does in response. Remember: It is through action that a person’s true character is revealed.

Fear isn’t just a prime motivator of protagonists. When antagonists do evil deeds they are most often motivated by fear. Giving the audience an glimpse of the antagonist’s fear humanizes him or her and makes this character a more complex and fully realized individual.

The above is an excerpt from The One Hour Screenwriter eBook.

Second Cocktail Question

writing ETBScreenwritingContinuing the cocktail party questions– “When do you find time to write?”  People who meet me know I have limited time and a lot on my plate, travel, teaching, consulting, etc.  The question also assumes, and sometimes people say it outright, that if they just could find the time they would write.   Of if they are working writers, they wish they could find the time to write a passion project.

I am a big believer in increment progress.  That is the key, to me, of accomplishing your heart’s desire– whatever it is.

The incremental progress approach to goal-setting or realizing a dream is the only way I’ve found that remotely succeeds.  It’s not glamorous and it’s not dramatic.  It is chipping away in small bits until the job is whittled down and completed. Otherwise, I find accomplishing a big dream, desire or goal way too daunting.

That is where The One Hour Screenwriter came from.  Pretty much anyone can find one extra hour in a day.  Getting up earlier, going to bed later or using a lunch hour is a possibility.  It’s just 60 minutes.  Applying yourself in a  concentrated and sustained effort for just one hour a day, can finish up a first draft in 22 weeks.  The One Hour Screenwriter takes you through the process hour-by-hour, day-by-day and week-by-week. It show you how to get unblocked, how to write without judgment and how to keep going from beginning to end.

The trick is breaking the job down into bite-sized bits.  It makes the task manageable and gives you a series of very small goals.  If you know anything about 12 step programs that’s how they work– getting through one day at a time and not getting overwhelmed by anything beyond that one small segment of time.

What are you waiting for?  If not now– when?  Start using those sixty minute increments to work toward your dream.  Start writing what makes your heart sing!  It will make the rest of your day go so much better!

Pelham 123 and Duplicity – Unsatisfying Endings

The Taking of Pelham 123 is a fast-paced stylishly-directed thriller with riveting performances by Denzel Washington and John Travolta. It is also deeply unsatisfying. I felt the same way about Duplicity starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen– great performances and a great disappointment. The endings of both movies left me shrugging and saying “Huh?” Both were box office duds. The lesson from both films is “earn your ending.”

travolta-pelham123-etbscreenwritingIn The Taking of Pelham 123 Denzel Washington plays Walter Garber, an ordinary man caught in the extraordinary circumstance of a subway hijacking. The film moves briskly along until the ending. Washington has absolutely no motivation and no compelling personal reason to go after the hijackers once he escapes the train. The car with the hostages exits the tunnel and races toward Coney Island. He can do nothing further there. He immediately alerts the cops to the hijackers’ whereabouts as they escape. The cops are already swarming the area. He no longer has any personal stake in their apprehension. He has a wife and family who depend on him. Earlier in the film, we learn is willing to do anything (even commit a crime) to provide for them. Suddenly, that is of no concern to him? After he hijacks an SUV, he gets to the remaining hijacker just as the cops are closing in. He has no purpose in the scene.

It’s incredibly easy to commit “suicide by cop.” All Travolta has to do is wave his gun around or fire at the on-rushing cops. That in fact, is what the other hijackers do and they are blown to bits. There is no reason for Travolta to fear jail time– the cops will gladly shoot him if threatened. The final discussion between Washington and Travolta is false, contrived and doesn’t ring true on any level.

The original film, released in 1974, starred Walter Mathau in the Walter Garber role. Mathau is a transit cop, also an ordinary man caught in the extraordinary circumstances of a subway hijacking. He uses dogged police work to capture the remaining hijacker (the only one who isn’t killed in the heist). Mathau is motivated, methodical and clever. He gets his man with skilled investigative work and his knowledge of the subway system. The original had a ending that was clever, satisfying and well-earned.

In Duplicity the ending comes out of no-where. In the last few minutes of the film, a larger conspiracy is revealed that was hidden from the mutually double-crossing-duo of Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Neither one saw it coming and neither did the audience. All of the duo’s scheming, plotting, lying and effort is undone at last minute by invisible forces, leaving the audience wondering why we watched the two jump through meaningless hoops (to no apparent effect) during the film. A simple test applied by the insurance company quickly spotlights the ruse. None of the characters thought to ask this question over the course the movie’s 125 minute running time. This makes them look stupid and make the audience feel stupid for watching a plot that goes nowhere and sideswipes the us with a trick ending. It’s the same fury-inducing effect as the infamous shower “it was all a dream” season of the television series Dallas.

To learn how to write endings that feel authentic, earned and true check out The One Hour Screenwriter eBook.  Learn everything you need to bring your story to a deeply satisfying conclusion.

Terminator Salvation vs Star Trek – What Is Fair?

Terminator_Salvation_John_Connor-etbscreenwritingThe Importance of Worldview

I had an interesting question forwarded by a reader on FaceBook. I described John Connor (Christian Bale) in Terminator Salvation as a Power of Conscience character. Power of Conscience characters are most deeply concerned about rightness, fairness and the higher duty involved in anything they do. (See Conscience Blog Posts). The question was: Aren’t all characters to some degree “fair.”

The answer of course is, yes! But the key factor is: How does that particular Character Type define “fair.” That definition varies widely. Each Character Type views the concept of fairness very differently and acts accordingly. Let’s look at Terminator Salvation and Star Trek for examples.

Power of Conscience ETB Screenwriting

Power of Conscience

A Power of Conscience character (John Connor in Terminator Salvation) values doing good, the higher duty and moral correctness most highly. Fairness for this character is doing right by others. Fairness means taking the moral high ground in any decision.

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Power of Idealism ETB ScreenwritingPower of Idealism

A Power of Idealism character (Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation and James T. Kirk in Star Trek) values individuality, personal excellence and authenticity most highly. Fairness for this character is persevering the unique rights of the individual. Fairness means allowing each person to decide his or her personal destiny according to one’s own uniqueness and standards of excellence (even if the individual choice rebels against the rules, norms or morals of society).

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Power_of_Reason ETB ScreenwritingPower of Reason

A Power of Reason character (Spock in Star Trek) values objectivity, expertise and rationality most highly. Fairness for this character is deciding purely according to the facts and not being swayed by emotion. Fairness means looking at a situation objectively and proceeding logically (even if that decision is personally or socially painful).

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Power_of_Will ETB ScreenwritingPower of Will

A Power of Will character (Nero in Star Trek) values strength, power and territory most highly. Fairness for this character is what preserves the strong, culls the weak and decisively leads the pack. Fairness is the law of the jungle and survival of the fittest. Fairness means the biggest most powerful dog wins. (“Win or die there is no compromise”).

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Fairness Depends on Point of View

These are four very different ways of looking at and defining “fairness.” Each of these characters would make a very different determination about what is fair and would take very different actions given exactly the same set of circumstances.

It is very tempting, individually, to believe that everyone views “fairness” exactly as “I” do. In fact, different Character Types view philosophical concepts like fairness, love and social or personal responsibility very differently. They each have very distinct ideas about how the world works and very specific ideas about what is owed to the self and to others. It is this distinctiveness which will clarify, sharpen and set your characters apart from general stereotypes when you are clear about your character’s type.

New In Town – Credibility Problem

renee_zellweger-new-in-town-etbscreenwritingIt is rare that I walk out of a movie. I know the amount of work that goes into making even a mediocre film– so out of respect for the writer I stay put until the end. Not so on Saturday. I went to see New In Town and left after about 20 minutes.

I was looking for a cheerful Romantic Comedy for Valentines Day. It was like getting a heart-shaped box of chocolates filled with empty candy papers. The movie was disappointing, condescending and completely lacking in any emotional credibility.

Big city Miami corporate executive Lucy Hill (Renee Zellweger) comes to small town New Ulm, Minnesota, to cut the workforce and retool a food processing plant. She is set up as high-powered and ambitious but she does no background research on her assignment.

She doesn’t seem to know it is snowy and cold in Minnesota in the winter. She arrives without a coat or boots or even sensible shoes to wear on the plant floor. She is clueless about all the employees and completely ignorant about the union rep, with whom she will have negotiate to terminate the jobs.

All the townsfolk are stereotypically thick, simple and buffoonish. There isn’t an ounce of affection anywhere in the film for small towns or the people in them. Despite an impassioned speech near the end of the movie, it’s impossible to believe the filmmakers aren’t laughing at the local characters instead of allowing us to laugh with them.

The lesson here is make the world real. Keep your character credible or they won’t connect emotionally. Treat everyone in the film as a real live three-dimensional human being. If you want to see how it’s done, rent Local Heroes. In that film, the comedy comes from characters who seem real.

John Updike – Writing Routine

john_updike-etbscreenwritingOn Friday I wrote about the difficulty of adapting John Updike’s books to the screen. I thought I’d do a little research to find out how this prolific author maintained his workflow.

An interviewer asked Updike, about his writing routine: You’ve said that it was fairly easy to write the Rabbit books. Do you write methodically? Do you have a schedule that you stick to?

John Updike answered: “Since I’ve gone to some trouble not to teach, and not to have any other employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So I work three or four hours in the morning, and it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases. You begin by answering a letter or two. There’s a lot of junk in your life. There’s a letter. And most people have junk in their lives.

“But I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it along steadily that you’re going to forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it I figure. So once embarked, yes, I do try to stick to a schedule. I’ve been maintaining this schedule off and on — well, really since I moved up to Ipswich in ’57.”

“It’s a long time to be doing one thing. I don’t know how to retire. I don’t know how to get off the horse, though. I still like to do it. I still love books coming out. I love the smell of glue and the shiny look of the jacket and the type, and to see your own scribbles turned into more or less impeccable type. It’s still a great thrill for me, so I will probably persevere a little longer, but I do think maybe the time has come for me to be a little less compulsive, and maybe (slow down) the book-a-year technique, which has been basically the way I’ve operated.”

The interviewer commented:  “We’ve spoken to a number of writers who said they wrote a certain number of pages every day. There’s a lot to be said for having a routine you can’t run away from.”

Updike answered: “Right. It saves you from giving up.”

This interview is from the excellent website Daily Routines. I think this interview is incredibly instructive. Updike was a full time writer and only wrote three to four hours a day (including doing what he terms administrative junk). Consistently working, even only one hour day, will make you incredibly productive. It doesn’t seem like much, but over time it adds up.

That’s why my book The One Hour Screenwriter is so useful. It shows you exactly how to structure those writing hours to get the most out of them and move your script along. Like Updike, don’t give up! Just keep writing!

Novel to Movie Adaptations – John Updike

witches-of-eastwick-etbscreenwritingThe death of John Updike earlier this week, prompted lots of comment on and analysis of his prolific work. His most famous books are his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit At Rest; and Rabbit Remembered). Both Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest received the Pulitzer Prize, America’s highest literary honor. Updike described his subject matter in the Rabbit series as “the American small town and Protestant middle class.” This kind of setting and characters has always been rich territory for American films but didn’t translate into cinematic success for Updike. Why?

A film of Rabbit, Run was made in 1970. It was not a popular success. There were a few other adaptations of his work for TV, but his biggest cinematic success was The Witches Of Eastwick (starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer).

Why did so few of Updike’s works translate effectively to the screen? Because his books are largely interior– filled with a character’s thoughts, feelings and insights. His characters’ rich inner lives are what make his novels so evocative. In a film adaptation, the screenwriter must make those internal moments external and active.

When looking for a novel to adapt, look for a story that has a strong external narrative. Find a story in which a character’s actions lead to specific external consequences with real impact and which effect important transformation in the character or others. Find stories in which emotion, meaning and insight can be portrayed through action. No matter how brilliant the book, no matter how many awards it’s won no matter how popular it is– if the book doesn’t have dramatic, observable and impactful action it is not a good candidate for a movie adaptation.

The cliche is that second-rate books make first-rate movies and first-rate books make second-rate movies. Deeply-felt interior novels make delicious reading but simply do not translate to the screen.

#ThinkpieceThursday – More Thoughts on Rewriting

Woman-typing-on-laptop-etbscreenwritingIn further discussion of yesterday’s post– How do you tackle a daunting rewrite? My best suggestion is to outline your current script draft. Write what actually happens in each scene. What are characters doing? Briefly summarize what people say. Don’t get lost in tweaking dialogue on a major rewrite. Instead, look at the big-picture. In order to do that– An outline is critical.

Once you’ve outlined your current draft, go over the outline scene-by-scene. Ask yourself a few key questions– Is your story urgent and active enough? Does your story have enough adrenalin moments?

Ed Hooks, in his terrific book, Acting for Animators, defines adrenalin moments as story events your character will remember on his or her deathbed. They are the highest highs and the lowest lows. Make a list of your character’s adrenaline moments in your story. You should have at least eight. They are:

* The event that starts the story off

* The event that propels your character forward into the story (The die is cast. The penny drops. Your character makes a run for it. A door closes and your character can’t go back

* The event that shows how your character has changed significantly through conflict

* The event that shows your character seizing the initiative in the story or taking things into his or her own hands

* The event that shows your character’s biggest struggle between his/her want (ego-driven goal) and the need (deeper human longing)

* The event that demonstrates your character’s choice between the want and the need

* The event at the climax of the story (or the final showdown)

* The event that finally resolves the story

Where are the adrenaline moments in your story? Are all these events vivid and visceral? Do they have a big enough impact? Do they make your protagonist feel really vulnerable? Make these events unforgettable by making your main character feel increasingly exposed and personally at risk during each story event.

Remember to use cause and effect. What does your character do to bring these events about? How do your character’s actions make these highs and lows happen? How does each action cause a chain reaction?

The audience cannot see what a character thinks or feels. They can only see what a character does. How can you make your character’s interior thoughts and feelings observable through action? The audience also can’t see what a character decides. Deciding isn’t an action. Acting on a decision is an action.

Don’t tell us what your character thinks, feels or decides through dialogue. Instead, show us what your character does as a result of thoughts, feelings and decisions. Is your main character an active force throughout the story? Or does he/she just react to others? How does he/she push the story forward? How do we actually see your character growing or changing or pushing, prodding and transforming others?

Ask yourself, could an audience understand your story by only watching your main character’s actions? Could the audience understand the major story beats without any sound (using visuals only)?

Now write a new outline that solves those problems. In your new outline, incorporate more active moments, cut all extraneous material or repetitive dialogue and make any other necessary changes and adjustments.

Rewriting in outline form helps keep the bigger picture in perspective and keeps your focus on the larger issues: filling plot holes, creating action that fulfills the character’s intent (rather than the writer’s intent) and fixing emotional disconnects. It avoids the easy trap of continually fine-tuning dialogue and glossing over the larger problems in the script.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Neil LaBute on Rewriting

labute-neil_etbscreenwritingI am a member of the WGA Writers Education Committee. We put together a number of panels and programs on various topics for the Guild membership. Tonight’s program was the first in several planned discussions on rewriting with a variety of screenwriters. Writer/Director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty, The Wicker Man, Lakeview Terrace) discussed his rewriting process.

Since LaBute’s background is as a playwright, he often rewrites based on his collaboration with actors. His most important point for me was never say in words what you can say with action; with a character’s look, expression or movement. He also discussed trusting the audience to make the necessary intuitive leaps in a story.

In my own work I find that the less experienced a writer is the more often he or she is tempted to say the same thing two or three times in different ways– afraid that the audience won’t “get it.” You never want to be too far ahead of your audience but you also don’t want to lag behind them.

The audience wants to piece things together themselves– if everything is spelled out in too much detail the story doesn’t engage their imagination. The less engaged an audience is the more likely they are to tune out or turn off. Trust your audience to work with you in filling the gaps without step-by-step instruction or too much detail, which just gets tedious.

According to LaBute, the best rewriting involves cutting a story to the bone– reducing it to its most essential elements and then letting the actors and audience fill in the empty spaces with their own imagination.