Back to the basics

Since the instructor asked us not to blog or tweet about his lectures, I will not out of respect for the man.

But a word on our assignments – recollection on our memories. They are more difficult than I orginally imagined. We use words to achieve a lot of things. But the thing that we forget most is to make people feel.

I always try to lay the bricks first, and then I get lost in the layers and block my own feelings. It’s hard to pepper all my emotions out onto the paper. But isn’t that the point for the writers?

Yours truly,
YZ

On screenwriting, so far

I started working on this comedy pilot spec (which means it’s my own story, not an assignment from producer or director) about two months ago. But I started to have ideas about it around a year ago. And yet, I wasn’t in the best headspace to birth it then.

Fortunately, a year later, the storyline and the ‘Why’ of telling this story now became more salient for me. It was time to start working.

From early March to late May, I probably deleted more than 100 pages for this 30-page script. The set pieces were shifted more than a few times on my notebook, in my head, on my whiteboard. Teaching screenwriting is one thing, but writing it is a whole other story:

  • You have to be nimble and lenient with your first draft (aka. vomit draft).
  • You need to write more than it is required on the pages. Don’t think. Just type.
  • You have to feel the heat when your character gets angry.
  • You must fight back tears as your heroine breaks down crying.
  • If you cheat or cut corners or just fucking can’t sit through a difficult scene, it shows. And you know it.
  • Don’t be glamorous with your words if you can be essential.
  • The list goes on… (I will keep blogging about #screenwriting as I learn and teach it on the go.)

What’s fascinating to me about screenwriting is that it’s both left-brain and right-brain. You want to touch your audience with the emotions you’ve created. At the same time, you don’t want them to poke holes and find you ill-logic. In a word, you have to be somewhat a schizophrenic.

When you are done with your first draft, put it away for at two weeks. So when the open-heart surgery begins, you won’t quiver. Just start cutting.

At this stage of my own script, it’s ready for an initial read. I just sent it to a dear friend for a review. With that, I will know whether it’s ready to cast a wider net. Or, if it’s ready for submission.

And lastly, writers write. It’s our job. So treat it like one.
Tomorrow, I will start a new project. It’ll be a TV series in Chinese.

To quote Gertrude Stein, “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.”

Yours truly,
YZ

Start again

While I’m waiting for a few days before getting back to my other project‘s rewrite, I’ve been working on another new story. That’s the idea I’ve been having for over a year now. 

After a handful of dropped projects, I now have more free time on my own hands apart from the teaching and two other collaboration projects (one short, one paper).  I dug out my own unfinished, never-begun projects, because I’m officially running out of excuses… And I can still feel the itch.  That’s crucial for me to start anything.

Immediately I feel how damn hard it is to begin something from scratch. In my case, to parse out what I meant in those notes that I typed out a year ago and make some senses out of it. 

It’s going to be challenging, because I haven’t done any TV Comedy before. But in the end, it’s all just storytelling. If I give it enough time and care, I think I can see to its blossom. 

Just take a deep breath. Word by word. Drip by drip.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Collaboration

Earlier today, I had a Zoom call with my LA-based collaborator on a new story.

A few days ago, I sent her the first draft.  And now, the real work begins.  That is: rewrite. Since my previous positive experience with other artists, I looked forward to this new project with the story I’m passionate about, and with someone reliable.

It was a really effective meeting. She shared the screen. We looked at our story structure via draw.io, the diagram software tool for making flowcharts.  By the end of it, everything about the story felt clearer and cleaner, from plot to characters, from logic to certain scenes. She would read the script again and highlight the dialogues that she thought are keepers. For me, I need a few more days so I can get some distance from my own words.

I used to do the beat board either on Final Draft or via environment-unfriendly yellow stickies. For some reason, it doesn’ t look as effective as my collaborator’s work on draw.io. I’ll start tinkering with it.

We both felt terrific by the end of the meeting even though there are tons of hard work going forward.  As they say, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Though I wish I’d come around earlier, I’m glad that I’ve finally believed in what I’ve been preaching.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Tricks to a flow state

I started this new story at the end of January. I thought I could finish the first draft faster. I was wrong, like always. Today I finally forwarded it to my collaborator. I even finished the two outlines for my classes starting next week.

Fear didn’t get in my way or into my head today, or the last few days. So what have I done differently? How can I make more days as good as today? 

Here is my routine as I recall my last couple of week:

I get up in the morning. I have my first glass of water with honey.  I meditate for ten minutes. I have my breakfast with coffee.  Afterwards, I take a 30-40 minutes walk.  I then change to dry clothes.  I drink my tea and I sit down behind my desk. 

Right before I’m able to check my gmail, I use SelfControl app and set a 1.5 hour for the first offline session. I make sure Do Not Disturb is ON so I can’t see any notifications from anything. 

Then the writing begins. I would only get up from my chair if I need more water or need a quick bathroom break. Otherwise, I’d just sit behind my desk and work. 

This way, I clock in around three, four hours of decent writing time. But my stamina is still on the low end.  To paraphrase what Haruki Murakami said in his What I Talk About When I Talk About Running book, writing is like running. The stamina can be improved through training.  I’m confident that I will get better.  Drip by drip.

Here are my tricks to into a flow state:

  • Place the phone in the other room while you’re working.
  • Check email right before lunch and dinner. Remember to close it.
  • Get offline during writing.

When I’m there, those fuckups can’t haunt me, those liars can’t hurt me, those bureaucrats and hypocrites can’t upset me.

Right here, right now, it’s just me and the characters, the world I’m creating.  

It dawned on me the other day that naysayers look fierce exactly because they’re powerless even though they seem to have the power to reject you.  You see, parasite can’t survive without the living.  Gatekeepers can’t exist without us. The artists.  The pros. 

Because we make things. We change things.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

 

Motion v. Emotion

When I was still at UCLA, I wrote to get ahead of deadlines after deadlines. I punched out words but left my heart at the doorstep. It was all motion and zilch emotion. But mainly because emotion was so much harder.

Today, a director sent me a few audition tapes for my opinion. For the first time in my just-started screenwriting career, I see actors doing actions and dialogues that I wrote and rewrote for countless times.

It was pure magic.

When I told the director that I felt so strongly about one particular actor who auditioned for the lead.  He replied, “Yes! He nailed it.” Just like that, I saw the birth of the character in flesh and blood right out of my words.

To say the least, I’m so grateful for the director keeping me involved in the casting process. Not only did he benefit from my understanding of the characters, I also saw how the actors worked my material.  Some problems are in the acting, and some are definitely confusing writing.

Screenwrting is physical, it’s writing with our whole body and heart.  And I know exactly what I need to revise in this new story that I’m working on.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Last person on earth

Have you ever felt like your own thoughts are choking the life out of you?
Have you ever felt like no one else would ever care about you apart from your parents?
Have you ever felt like chasing a dream is something that you’re so NOT entitled to?
Have you ever felt invisible to most people you’ve encountered in life?

Before, during and since the Chinese New Year, I’ve been doing much the bare minimum of social networking. I called off a coffee with a former colleague and friend whom I haven’t seen in three years just because I wasn’t in the mood. I cancelled another meeting today mostly because I wasn’t ready to get fucked in the eyes of all the Valentine decor.  And I lied in both occasions. 

Have I become a hypocrite, a hermit, a pest? Have I lost the basic faith in most folks… and most importantly, myself? Since my other project fell through the holes, I’ve been fishing around. That’s when I realized how much I hated it when I don’t hear back from people. Those emails don’t write themselves, bitch. Moreover, I hated it even more when I checked mails first thing in the morning and then constantly during the day just so I could land the next thing I can talk about… I desperately needed a win. Big or small. Preferably big. I’m only human. Vanity is my vice. It has taken a toll on my physique and my psyche. My neck is tense. My breath is shallow. My belly is tight. My jaw hurts. 

I couldn’t remember when was the last time I jumped off bed to embrace the day. I was in the sour mood. All. The. Time. All I wanted was to stay in bed. But my other self would drag me out. It’s almost Spring and I feel like it’s deep in the winter. It’s already two months into the new year. I’ve already slumped back into my old comfy self.

What if I’ve become the person I hate and I can’t fight it?

So I picked up my Bible The War of Art again. I desperately need Pressfield’s wisdom and strength.  I need it to clear my heart and cleanse my soul.

I forgot what all THIS — writing and the pursuit of my dream — was all about. And here are some quotes that I’ve highlighted, which comes in timely and dearly. 

  • The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.
  • If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything.  The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s indifference.
  • I’m keenly aware of the Principle of Priority, which states (a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and (b) you must do what’s important first. 
  • Pros: We show up every day.  We show up no matter what.  We stay on the job all day.  We are committed over the long haul.  The stakes for us are high and real.  We accept remuneration for our labor. We do not over identify with our jobs. We master the technique of our jobs.  We have a sense of humor about our jobs.  We receive praise or blame in the real world.
  • So you’re taking a few blows. Thats’ the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines.  Stop complaining and be grateful.
  • I had not yet had a success. But I had had a real failure.
  • The professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much.  He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality.
  • The professional self-validates. She is tough-minded.  In the face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly and objectively… She’ll work harder. She’ll be back tomorrow.
  • You, Inc.: You-the-writer get a swelled head, but you-the-boss remember how to take yourself down a peg.
  • That moment when I first hit the keys to spell out THE END was epochal. I remember rolling the last page out and adding it to the stack that was the finished manuscript.  Nobody knew that I was done.  Nobody cared.  But I knew.  I felt like a dragon I’d been fighting all my life had just dropped dead at my feet and gasped out its last sulfuric breath.  Rest in peace, motherfucker.  Next morning I went over to Paul’s for coffee and told him that I had finished.  “Good for you,” he said without looking up. “Start the next one today.”
  • Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.  Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.  Begin it now. — W. H. Murray
  • The Ego hates artists because they are the pathfinders and bearers of the future, because each one dares, in James Joyce’s phrase, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
  • In the hierarchy, the artist faces outward.  Meeting someone new he asks himself, What can this person do for me? How can this person advance my standing?  In the hierarchy, the artist looks up and looks down.  The one place he can’t look is that place he must: within.
  • If we were the last person on earth, would we still show up at the studio, the rehearsal hall, the laboratory?
  • Do it or don’t do it… If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself.  You hurt your children.  You hurt me.  You hurt the planet.  You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.
  • Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor.  It’s a gift to the world and every being in it.  Don’t cheat us of your contribution.  Give us what you’ve got. 

Artist to artist, I see you. I hear you. I feel you.  You know, at the end of the day, I can honestly say that I don’t do it for others. I do it to have peace of mind.  

And if I were left alone on earth, I would still write.  So write I shall.

Even though it hurts like a motherfucker.

 

Yours truly,
YZ