The sure thing

Everyone starts somewhere.

Except for the extremely fortunate ones like Theodore Roosevelt, and the extremely unfortunately ones like Abraham Lincoln, most of us begin life simply average.

What it comes down to is what course of life we choose for ourselves.

Most decide without having to decide that they would play the game run by the house. The house’s rules are their bread and butter. That’s how they fit in, to feel safe and secure. What it also implies is that the society demands that they strive to go to the best of the best since kindergarten, so they are ahead at every single step. They even have to have the best burial plot.

Usually this is a particular crop of exceptional test-takers, overachievers, IQ lottery winners. Statistically speaking, they are still the minority. They won because it’s in their factory default mode.

The prospect for the rest of us seems gloomier than ever. We’re unhappy, unsatisfied, uninspired. Because we are never going to be able to reach the shiny object that seems just a tad out of reach. 

That leaves us to the last thing we can control: what we choose for our career. The sure-thing careers are lawyer and doctor. If you happen to love these jobs, then hooray!  If you graduate with a student loan, once you are in practice, your future immediately becomes a sure-thing even if your work ethics is just moderate.

Now, what if you are like me, who dreams to be a writer, not in your next life, but right here right now in your current body?

What I can say from my own experience is that graduating from Francis Coppola’s UCLA Film School doesn’t guarantee you the sure thing. Getting picked by a top-notch Hollywood producer when I was still in film school doesn’t get you to your end goal.

The truth is, if you get into the film industry to feel secure, you should get the hell out before you set your foot in.  The film industry is the last industry that would give you that. You have to earn it for yourself.  Word by word. Script by script. Day after day. Night after night…

But if you do enjoy and admire a good story, maybe you would appreciate working above-the-line in the film industry. 

Don’t tell me, surprise me.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

What makes a good story

I had a call with a director on her short story today for the rewrite.  She wanted to make sure all the elements were there, all the ambiguity was explained at the beginning.

I then said, “Look, I understand where you were coming from. But doesn’t your version sound like a beige flight safety promo video? How do you want me to feel in the end?”

So what is a (good) story? What isn’t?

The bottom line is, we want our hero to go through hell, to hurt, to lose, to experience a near death before he grows, and learns, before he gets his want, or not. No matter what the reward, he has to earn it first otherwise the audience would feel cheated. Besides, we want the surprises to keep our minds engaged. By giving us details like how we deal cards, our hearts are satisfied through working and solving the puzzles by ourselves. And when we feel what the hero feels at the very end, we finally realize that we have been manipulated by the storyteller. But like the hero, we let it happen. Because the journey is the reward. 

By pinpointing her mistake, I also realize it’s the pitfall that I also tend to fall into. 

As a storyteller, my job is to stir emotions. If I can’t feel it when I write it, how can I expect anything else from the audience?

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Two kinds of exhaustion

I finally turned in the second draft of the live-action feature rewrite. Adrenaline’s pumping. If my brain is in the stove, it’s now close to well-done. Tomorrow, I’ll spend the day doing a third draft on the second short script project.

I can’t remember a day that I’m not tired since I go down this creative path.  

In what feels like a parallel universe, I remember the lonely chilly nights I dragged my body back home at two o’clock in the morning when I used to work for the paycheck, the title… In that universe, I was not only exhausted, I was burned out.

We all get tired at the end of a work day. Doesn’t it feel so much better knowing we are doing the work we’re proud of?

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Work ethics

It’s something that has become a rare commodity as the younger generation replaces the old.

So what is work ethics and what makes it so rare these days? Work ethics to me is whether a person delivers what he’s promised. If the stake is low for you to deliver something, maybe you would postpone doing it, or you might never do it after all. 

My dad is one of the few people I know holding an impossible bar for himself. He’s not only punctual, he’s at least thirty mins early. He’s not just experienced, he reads the roads like the back of his hands. He retired two years ago. The company was supposed to have nothing to do with him, but they wanted him back. Today, he went to a dinner his former boss threw on his behalf. Some two dozens of company officials attended. During the fine wine and dine, his former bosses complained to him the newer drivers too often get lost, get fined, get into serious accidents that almost get people killed… They gave him gifts and asked a former colleague dropped him off after the dinner.

Too often we can’t wait to brag about our accomplishment through social media. For my dad’s generation, their action is their brand. It takes years to build the kind of reputation that my dad now has. And it takes only a couple of slips to wreck the name. 

It’s about doing what one’s required, surpassing it and repeating it days after days. Years after years. Until it’s in our bones, our second nature.

It’s easier said than done, and that’s why it’s rare.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Maker v. Faker

Before I decided to become a screenwriter, I had dabbed in and around advertising for some three and a half years.

You see, advertising was my passion until it was not. I used to dream of working in that building where the Big Leagues like Ogilvy and JWT lived. One day, a president from a major advertising firm approached me. It seemed like an exciting opportunity. And guess what, I got to work in that building with other creative people! Three years after I graduated from college, I finally got my foot into the party.

Then came the part where it was left out in the happily-ever-after fairy tale, the level of creativity in my job was minimal at best, even though I got to have my own team.  Everything else – the title, the package, the location – were just not strong enough of reasons to keep me there.  And what should be like the Broadway stage now felt like a prison to me… And the hardest pill to swallow was: I was the one who turned myself in. All I need to do now was to watch Prison Break again and learn to break out of the cell… The rest is history. 

Today I met with the short film director. He once worked in that building too. And that was not the only thing we had in common. Unlike the most ECDs (Executive Creative Director) that I had the fortune and misfortune to meet in Shanghai, he is one of a kind! He won the best awards (from Cannes, One Show to Clio)  in advertising and ten times over. If an idea belonged to his subordinates, he would never call it his own. 

“You are a unicorn, man!” I exclaimed in the quiet restaurant.

“My work ethics is more important to me. I don’t want to cheat or brag about something that I didn’t earn. That’s all.”

He then showed me the spots he did for clients from Buick to Heineken, from Kiehl’s to Sprite. “What ad men here don’t lack is braggadocio. But most don’t have real work to support the statement, or their spines.” 

“And yet, there are more than a few of those live rather comfortably here in the city. With your calibre, you can start your own shop between the blink of an eye.” I added. 

“Yes. You’re right. I disassociate myself from the fakers, who are experts in hosting dinners and parties amongst one another so they can feed their bloated egos to keep feeling important and welcomed… in the cocoon.”

“I know exactly the kind of people that you’re talking about.” I beamed as memory flashing back, uninvited.

“I was one of the judges at an advertising festival. Then I stopped going. Because I saw the money exchanged behind the scene. I had better things to do.”

“You know, I once worked at this local advertising festival.”

“Oh, you did?”

I gave him the look. 

“You know, we call it Cabbage Award because everyone’s a happy winner of something as long as you paid to enter. Quite a spectacle to see how BIG it grew over the years, isn’t it? I always gave away my tickets.”

I didn’t tell him that just a few days ago I tried to reconnect with the founder of this local festival only to get turned down that he didn’t have time to meet after all. [Here in China, if you don’t get a yes, it’s a no.] The founder is a busy guy, because his festival is so in demand right now that everyone uses it as a crucial networking opportunity given how fluid the advertising job market is. Because I had seen how the sausage was made, I was never really impressed except for the founder’s persistence. 

So how do we measure our legacy? 

  • By how much money have we earned?
  • Or, by how many books have we sold?
  • Or, by how many people know our name?
  • Or, by how many souls have we touched?

In the end, who are you fooling if you’ve never given your best shot, never gone through and under your fear, never removed the mask you’ve tattooed on your face, because you convince yourself that the stake is just too high, now is still too early, the truth is way too embarrassing, and the road not taken is too damn hard that it hurts like a motherfucker… Don’t wait until you’ve run out of time and run into your own deathbed. That is a tragedy without a hero. 

Let them have the laugh, the stage, the floor, because if you pan up the camera, you see the puppeteer pulling the strings at them.

But you, you cut loose the strings so you can be the boss of your life. 


Yours truly,
YZ

And more thing, you don’t fake it till you make it. You make till you make it.

 

Haste makes waste

I had a call with my screenwriting sensei on a challenging project that I had been tackling with. Sensei started with chitchat. I saw what’s awaiting me… After some thirty minutes in, sensei stopped by saying, “Okay, now it’s time to draw some blood.” 

For some 2.5 hours. I felt every bit grateful for the notes he gave me. They were ruthless and spot-on, and exactly what I needed for the next over-haul.

For the amount of projects I have been taking on lately, I convinced myself that I would build the structure first and fill in the soul and flesh later. That way it wouldn’t kill the momentum of the dread of having to give birth to a first draft out of thin air. 

“By not feeling his desire, there is no weight to his denial. Always, always get the emotional beats out before you fill in the details. And I can see those fillers knowing that you are just trying too damn hard to avoid the difficult scenes that put your character alive.” 

Ouch. I felt like Po in Kung Fu Panda… So the question is, when will I stop writing with the head and start writing with the heart? I can use this project as a transformation point to my next phase. Or start with my next blog.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

A writer’s life

I’m proud to say that I’m now a working screenwriter. I’m for the moment out of my “between job” phase. 

After getting in bed (Hollywood uses it as a catchy phrase… so bear with me here) with some eight directors and counting for a number of feature and short projects, I’ve found the G-spots that are sure-fire turn-offs. 

Here comes the list:

  1. Comment that begins and ends with “The feel is not right” phrase. Then give no follow-up explanations, leaving the writer in the dark trying desperately – in all kinds of positions – to please the director who’s likely impotent. 
  2. Got the script from a writer who turned in at some strange hours but never ever say, “Thank you.” As a writer, I start hypnotizing myself that, “Now now, remember you got paid for this. It’s a blessing to earn money doing this. Just suck it up.”
    – But is good manners this hard?
    – Did someone just say ‘hard?’
    – My bad.
    – Come here, bad girl.
  3. The no-reply no-payment treatment till you beg for a response. Then the other side would simply say “Oh gee I forgot. I was so busy with XXX.”
    Or, give you the shrug plus the guaranteed eye-rolling in your back. Probably with the O.S. “The fucking nerve!”

I’ve never tried prostitution. But given the abundant resources out there, sex workers and writers share more than a few resemblances. More often than not, they get fucked in the ass for less than what they do to deserve.

But sometimes, you hit the jack pot too. Say, for a recent project even before I turn in the second and final draft, I got the rest of the payment in my bank account.  I stared at the incoming wire and couldn’t believe my good fortune. Alas, the gratitude is fleeting because you have other customers to please

Like Susie’s advice to Mrs. Maisel before baring her soul to the audience: 

Tits up!

 

Yours truly,
YZ