Hey Kids, Do Your Homework!

I started a new idea and have been cranking away on it (intermittently) for a few weeks. I thought the idea was cool, the plot was cooler, and the name was the coolest. Then I thought, wait a second, what if someone else thought of that name? NAAAH! Impossible. But it wouldn’t hurt to take a quick look on Amazon, right?

WHAAAAAAT? Turns out there’s not only one SF book with the same name/concept, but like thirty. I’m still ok because my story is character-based and the world can be changed. But damn, seriously? I thought I was special. Turns out I’m only as special as thirty-something other self-published books. Oh well.

This reminds me of a lesson I learned a few years back. I worked on a movie called Hart’s War. The director’s name was Greg Hoblit (don’t look him up, yet). When the movie was over, he took the whole post sound crew out to dinner and I ended up across from him at the long table. We talked about basketball and he did what he could to convince me he could dunk. I never really bought it. I asked him about Primal Fear because I knew that was his first feature. Like a dummy, I asked how he got that picture. He said, “They brought it to me.” The rest of the conversation went something like this:

Co: That’s cool, how did they line you up with a picture like that?
Greg: From my television work. They thought it was a good fit.
Co: You were in television? Did you work on a series?
Greg: Yes. I created Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue.
Co: Oh. Heh. More wine?

Then the waiter brought his steak covered in mushrooms. The next part of the conversation went like this:

Co: You don’t like mushrooms?
Greg: I f***ing hate mushrooms. I can’t eat them.
Co: What happens when you eat them?
Greg: I die!

Here’s where I took a big risk. I wanted to keep the chit chat going. He had taken the snub from the young guy pretty well, but I could tell there was a little tension as if his face were saying, “who’s this punk who doesn’t know who I am?” I had a few glasses of wine in me so I went for it.

Co: You die?
(he was pretty much shouting at me in the Larkspur Inn, the most expensive restaurant in Marin County, a mecca for expensive restaurants. Yes, people were looking from other tables.)
Greg: Yes! I f***ing die if I eat mushrooms!
Co: Is that what happened last time you ate them?

Dead silence as he stared at me. The rest of the table and half the restaurant was waiting for the response. Swear to God it was right out of a movie. He laughed. Not loud, but it was enough to ease the mood. Then his steak showed up with no mushrooms and we talked about basketball and the actor Marcel Iures who was amazing in this movie that Greg was so disappointed with. The studio had ruined the surprise with the trailer and cut out the best parts of the drama in favor of more courtroom scenes. But Marcel as the evil Nazi was amazing.

Anyway, my original point was that you gotta do your background checks. It’s impossible to know everything and if you move forward with that attitude, you’ll get burned over and over. All reading is research and all research counts.

More stories soon.

New Fire

My new favorite things are the pilot for Terra Nova and the website Brain Pickings. Before you stop reading, hear me out.

First, Brain Pickings. It’s a blog of interesting things this person finds around the internet. Always intellectual. Always interesting. Never pop-culture-y or affected. Love it. It makes me think about all the cool stuff that’s out there that I’ve never heard of and reminds me that I’ll never know everything. Which is a good feeling for someone who likes to learn new stuff. Definitely add it to your Twitter and/or RSS feed. And if you have a few bucks, donate.

Now for Terra Nova. I thought the pilot was pretty cheeseball. Then I thought, “Oh, they’re going for a mid-level, family audience.” So then I thought maybe the cheeseball was purposeful and appropriate. Nothing too challenging, nothing too dark. Like ST:NG or a watered-down Jurassic Park. But ultimately, it didn’t move me like early episodes of Walking Dead, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, or any other kick ass show that surprises you with how kick ass it actually is. So why am I listing it as a favorite thing this week? Because I got a hold of the pilot script. And guess what? It’s not strong. But even better than that, I can see how greatly improved the pilot is over the script. Whomever re-wrote the pilot for production really made some great adjustments. Particularly in the opening “teaser” ten minutes. They took out tons of VO, dialog, and standing around. They made everything into action and not discussion. The same story elements were there, just converted into actor movement and visual context. Watching the show while following along with the script was like a shot in the arm for me.

As I may have mentioned before, I’ve been working on some Earth-based sci fi stuff for a production company with no guarantees of anything, only the request to read my stuff. I have the story broken down into “chapters” which will easily become “episodes” but I was worried that if I blasted out a pilot script, I would need a great cliffhanger to keep the show going. Reading the Terra Nova script pretty much cleared my mind of any concerns. A) Because the producers reading it will change everything around once they’ve read it. And B) because the script feels like it was written pretty quickly. These writers had a great idea and blasted something out that would be readable and have the key plot points in obvious time markers for commercial breaks and the finale. So yeah, it went through a bunch of re-writes. Why wouldn’t it?! I don’t know why I thought I would have to deliver genius in the first draft. Maybe it’s a procrastination/avoidance technique that I’m using subconsciously. Either way, I’m back on pen and paper and moving forward.

UPDATE: A while back, I read a book by Ania Ahlborn called SEED. It’s a self-published novel about a deal with the devil. It was a fun, fast read (worth way more than the .99 I paid for it on Kindle), but I thought, “How is this thing selling so crazy well?” Then I found out from her blog the book got picked up by Amazon’s print publishing division AND she’s talking to Paramount about movie rights. Whoa. Then I saw this post, and I tied it back to my Terra Nova experience. If you check it out, she has very graciously posted an image of the revisions in Word from the Amazon people. There’s a LOT. Just like Terra Nova, people saw the great idea and picked it up even if they wanted to make a bunch of changes or clarifications. The lesson? Forge ahead! Be the bull in the china shop and smash your way through to completion. If the idea is there, people will get it. Maybe it will end up a cheeseball TV show, but I bet you that’s something compared to the nothing you get when you don’t finish anything.

Prone to Teach

In reading through my previous posts, I came to the conclusion that even though my intention with this blog was to chronicle my effort to write my first novel, the reality is that I’ve pretty much just turned into a motivational speaker. I think one problem is that I haven’t made much progress on the book in the past month or so because of the shooting of Robot Sentry and things picking up at the job so I don’t have much to report about that. Excuses, excuses right? Maybe I should read my own thing about finding time to write at work.

On the other hand, it may be my destiny. Here’s a story for you… I still do some sound editing on occasion. My only client is an advertising producer in Chicago named Mitch who I’ve known for twenty years. A while back – mid-90’s – we were trying to get some independent funding for a feature film. He actually got a meeting with the 45th richest man in America. As fate would have it, a few weeks after the meeting the guy got fined a million dollars for dumping toxic waste at his own house. On top of that, snowmobile racing season was starting and he was sponsoring a team so he lost interest in the movie business. Even though this guy was worth hundreds of millions, he didn’t give us any money. I often wonder where I’d be if it had started snowing a week later that season. A year later, Mitch and I had a falling out over professional direction. He wanted to make money (weird, right?), and I was a mid-20’s dumbass. We reunited in 2000 and I started doing sound and music editing on small commercial jobs for him. He IM’d me and said he wanted to give me work, but that I had to accept certain truths. Then he made a list of things about my personality that made it hard to work with me. They were all true, incidentally. One word he used was “didactic.” I had to look it up, to be honest, and it means “prone to teach or lecture.”

Didactic was there among words like arrogant, opinionated, selfish, impatient, sarcastic, dismissive, and unfocused. I had grown up quite a bit by the time I got the list so instead of being offended, I agreed with him. But didactic? I thought correcting people was a good thing! Fast forward another ten years and guess what? I’m a teacher. More than that, I’m a department head. Not only do I lecture students, but I lecture other teachers.

The end result is that even though I’ve shed most of the attitude problems common to the young American male (primarily because I’m no longer young), I’m unable to relay information of any kind without making it sound like a lesson. I could be simply telling you about movie times tonight and it would go like this, “Hey, Michael Clayton is playing at the Laurelhurst at 7 if you want to go. It’d be good for you to get out and see a quality modern noir. It’s pretty much just like Red Harvest/Yojimbo/Brick/Miller’s Crossing, but you haven’t seen Michael Clayton.” Why can’t I just invite someone to a movie? I don’t know.

I feel like I have a lot of knowledge about a lot of stuff. And I like to talk. Maybe those two things make me want to talk about my knowledge. And I like to be right. Which means if I give you advice, and you take it, and it works out, I derive satisfaction from not only helping you, but also from being right about the situation. To bring it back around to my writing (what this blog is supposed to be about), a big part of this book project was to get away from all that preaching and focus on one thing. I wanted to find peace with my own work instead of always correcting or advising others. That’s what the movie FORGE was about. To move inward rather than outward. To simplify.

Today is Mitch’s birthday. Kind of a random coincidence that he shows up in this post. I think a part of my becoming a college instructor was a karmic retribution for all those years Mitch put up with me. I now deal with men in their twenties by the dozens every day. I see my younger self in every single one of them. All the misplaced confidence, know-it-all swagger, impatience, unfocused over-exuberance, frustration, laziness, self-consciousness, flashes of brilliance accompanied by complete ignorance of potential… it’s all there. If I didn’t have Mitch back then, I wouldn’t have amounted to a damn thing. He put a lot of time and energy into a young me who wouldn’t appreciate his efforts for another five years. Now, I’m the Mitch to all these younger guys. I’m mad at all of them for being oblivious because I was oblivious and I wasted a lot of time in the process. So I hound them in hopes they’ll figure it out faster than I did. I wonder if Mitch was oblivious in his 20’s. And who hounded him?

Ironically, this post is about how I tend to lecture people, but it has no moral to the story. Maybe it’s a turning point where I get back to reporting on my progress on the book and turn back inward instead of trying to motivate all of you from where I unproductively sit.

Check back often to find out!