all set up no action | Todd Regoulinsky | toddregoulinsky.com

All Set-Up, No Action

Ideas are worthless.

Yeah, I said it. Of course, I’m only one in a long line of people who have said it, so please don’t think any credit is due here.

In learning about screenwriting, I found there was two schools of thought: those who guarded their story ideas as if they were a precious hidden treasure and those who didn’t. And I can understand both sides.

There’s something about an idea that is special, but a lot of that comes from our perception of it and where it came from. The idea comes from us and most of us, for whatever psychological reason du jour you happen to subscribe to, would like to think of ourselves as special in some way. Even the idea that we aren’t special kinda makes you think you’re special because it feels like you’ve figured something out other people haven’t. You’re part of an elite. You liked the band before anyone else. You actually understand and appreciate Infinite Jest. Whatever.

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The Routine, Interrupted

One of my goals this year is to have a creative routine that will start my days off, using the “make before you manage” ethos I gleamed from Tim Ferriss and mashing it up with what I remembered from Austin Kleon’s morning routine. The idea is to have a set time each day before starting work that allows me to check the creative box, and is somewhat in line with why making your bed every day is a good thing – no matter what else happens that day, I did something that fed my soul.

One of the factors involved is that I am self-employed and work out of my home. My office is a downstairs room on the opposite end of the house from my bedroom – so there is a degree of separation, but those lines can blur pretty quickly. At some point, I’ll have to do a quick tour of my space that, in spite of not being on par with many writer’s rooms or studios, might be of interest to someone.

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Your Whatever Step System To Having A Something

I have a couple problems with YouTube videos promising a Whatever Step System To Getting The SOMETHING You WANT.

First, it’s never quite that simple. There’s usually a ton of truth in the video, but there’s also something that’s left out or glossed over that represents a somewhat significant piece of the puzzle. Usually, it seems like that bit happened before the person developed The System, so it gets tossed in the corner where they’re hoping no one will notice. What’s that? You had a lucky break because your cousin’s uncle’s cleaning lady knew someone in the industry who also owed them a life debt and helped get your first book published? Definitely leave that out. Or how about you actually didn’t know what the hell you were doing in the first place and happened to be in the right place at the right time? Sure… but this system will totally negate that thing!

The second problem? I usually wind up getting suckered in by them.

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this ones for me - todd regoulinsky - toddregoulinsky.com

This One’s For Me

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.

Cyril Connolly – New Statesman, February 1933

At some point, I stopped submitting poems for publication in magazines and journals. For about a year, I’d spent hours tracking submissions, printing my own custom envelopes trying to catch an editor’s eye, writing cover letters, and all the assorted tasks that come along with trying to get published. At the end of the time, I had exactly one publishing credit.

It wasn’t the lack of acceptance that made me stop, although I suppose it didn’t really help either. I decided to mash on the brake because of all the things that I was doing, writing poetry really wasn’t very high on the list. In a moment of clarity, I thought if getting published means writing less or even writing specifically for an audience, is it really something I want to do?

When I start getting down on myself for falling behind on a project or outright abandoning it, I think back to that moment and I’m reminded to be a little more kind to myself. What and who am I doing this for?

At present, I have a screenplay that is on its fourth draft. It’s pretty good, has commercial potential, and I have all the information I need to finish the current draft. However, there’s a piece of it that has made me put it aside for the past six months or so. The script is set in college with students as the main characters and I’ve been told that they sound much more like a 43 year old than someone in their early twenties. So I’ve taken some time to decide whether I’m really the person to write this thing. Of course, every movie and television show I catch with dodgy writing and characters edges me closer to finishing it, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

I also have a book of poems that has stalled for no particular reason aside from I needed a break. The subject matter, death, is a little heavy to carry around for long periods of time. I’m probably halfway to completion on that.

Do I wish that either or both were finished? Sure, it’d be nice. But it’s not like I have a publisher holding the presses for the book or an agent in Hollywood trying to stall a studio because their eccentric writer who lacks the good sense to live in California hasn’t come through with the pages yet. Even being commercially viable, there’s no guarantee the movie will ever get made – in fact, the odds are against it. The book? Even more so. I’d still like for them to see the light of day, but… for right now, they’re just for me.

To further muddy the waters, I’ve been thinking about the differences between Star Wars movies lately – The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker to be precise. I prefer TLJ because I felt Rian Johnson walked the line between fan service, making the next logical step with the characters, and also doing something that was his. What happened? A bunch of fans hated it. Then comes along TROS where J.J. Abrams went out of his way to course correct, heap fan service on top of fan service, and then drizzle nostalgia over the whole thing in heaping gobs. What happened? A bunch of fans hated it.

Watching The Force Awakens last night, I think it’s more of an Abrams movie than TROS because he went out of his way to apologize for TLJ and lost his way. That can happen with our own creativity – where we spend so much time trying to overcome what we feel are inadequacies or mistakes rather than just doing something. Anything.

Rather than trying to apologize for something that didn’t work out, I’m trying to look at it in a different way. Oh, that sucked and you didn’t like it? Huh. Well, try this new thing then. Didn’t like that either? Huh. Come back next time and we’ll try it again with something new.

By the way, the Cyril Connolly quote comes from the excellent Tim Ferriss weekly 5-Bullet Friday email that is a great subscribe I highly recommend.

It’s Not

“Anything’s hard that you’re forcing.” – Markus Redmond

I think it can be hard to admit when I’m forcing something – especially when it’s something I want really badly. It’s actually funny how easy it is to continue forcing something, which is a contradiction in and of itself, which also happens to make it an incredibly human thing to do.

We are creatures of contradiction. We are species of hypocrisy, but we’re also creatures of fun, whimsy, genius, and bullshit. It’s the biggest reason why human beings are interesting at all – our capacity for contradictions.

So I can agree with Markus in part because the writing itself isn’t the hard part necessarily. Writing poems isn’t a hard thing for me. Writing this blog post isn’t particularly difficult. Typing out a screenplay isn’t a massive undertaking. It’s only when I build it up and begin to force myself to do things where it gets tough.

Now, keep in mind that Markus Redmond is also the guy who wrote his first screenplay in three weeks and then sold the thing, so let’s just say that mileage may vary, shall we? Even bearing in mind the man’s apparently superhuman writing skills (only half kidding here), there’s something to be said for understanding where the difficult parts actually are.

For me, I can get tangled up in what will actually happen with the project after I’m done writing – which is a stupid thing to do while in progress because it’s an entirely meaningless worry until you’ve actually finished the thing. But again, it’s an easy thing to do and also a form of procrastination with a dash of self-sabotage tossed in. What better to distract from the doing of the thing than what I’ll do with the thing after it’s finished? It’s almost perfect.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’m stalled a bit on my two major writing projects. Am I really being stopped by the hard part or am I misplacing my anxiety to avoid the thing altogether? Maybe I’ve wandered off topic a bit here and lost the thread, but hey, that’s human as well, right?

Writing is a Battlefield (Earth)

To err is human, but to really mess things up, try justifying the err and wind up building an entire system of fragile excuses, self-pity, and loathing that lean on each other like a demented house of cards waiting to topple over at the slightest hint of wind.

Or maybe that’s just me.

The point is, we all make mistakes. Thankfully, most of them are not fatal to ourselves, career, or family. In most cases, the worst case scenario bears only a passing resemblance to what actually happens. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we still have to cope with and process those mistakes and figure out how they fit into our lives. At the very least, most of our errors aren’t quite as public as being a credited writer on one of the worst movies ever released, Battlefield Earth.

I’m not writing this post to crack on Corey Mandell, because I actually admire the guy. Not for Battlefield Earth, because that would probably qualify you for a padded room and losing your scissor privileges for life. We’re talking about a flick that the first screenwriter, J.D. Shapiro, tried to avoid being given a writing credit. This is not the beginnings of a beautiful story.

What I took out of Mandell’s story is that it takes a lot of missteps and failures to get where you want to go. In this case, he wound up finding what he believes is his true purpose, writing. Would he have ended up in the same place without writing lines for a hero named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler? Maybe. But unless you’ve got the Eye of Agamotto hanging around and want to nip off to check out all the millions of alternate timelines, I feel pretty safe in saying that we can’t be sure.

(Seriously though, if you have that thing hanging around, drop me a line – I have some questions.)

This is in line with what posted yesterday – something I thought I was pretty good at that I’ve had to re-examine. Looking at all the parts of my life that have happened so far and accepting them all as part of what has gotten me here.

Even that time I rented Battlefield Earth.

Enduring the Edit

“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.”Don Roff

The best thing about having two writing projects going at the same time is there’s always something to work on. Get stuck on this one, move to the other, and then vice versa. The worst part about having two writing projects going at the same time is that if you’re timing is off, you can wind up in the edit phase with both of them at the same time.

That’s where I am now.

The first project, a screenplay, was sent out for feedback awhile ago and came back with plenty of notes (totally expected) and an encouraging pat on the back (bonus!). I rewrote the first 15 pages, sent it back for some more feedback, got more notes, and am now in the process of working a full draft. The other project is a book of poems where I’ve stopped writing new material and have been focusing on revising what’s been written to assess where I’m at in the overall scheme of things.

One of the gifts from this process has been coming face-to-face with things I’ve often said but now have to question if they’re really true. The first thing is that “I know that all my poems aren’t great and I’m willing to write through the bad ones to get to the good ones.” The second is that “Because I only write for myself, it’s okay that I don’t revise things.”

Looking at those on my screen, it’s pretty easy to see the cozy log cabin of lies and deception that I constructed for myself. I mean, inside my head or coming out of my mouth, those things sound great. But sitting there in front of me, it’s tough to not call it for what it is.

Really, it’s an excuse to not do the extra work of editing and rewriting. In fact, now that I’ve exposed my own lies for all the world (or at least the couple dozen people who might stumble on this) to see, I’ll go a step further and say that I’ve been neglecting an entire portion of the writing process itself to my own detriment as well as the work itself.

Much as discouraging people to talk politics and religion leads to people not knowing how to talk about politics and religion, not editing and rewriting means you’re absolute crap at them. Even if I am writing primarily for my own pleasure, that doesn’t mean it has to suck, right?

So here I am, enduring the edit and trying to find the joy in it.

I may need a flashlight.

Sitrep Saturday

I’ve recently started a weekly accountability email with my friend and fellow writer Charles where we share what we’ve managed to do that week. Sometimes it’s uplifting,  others it’s a bit of a downer, and sometimes it’s downright comical. So I figured it was worth a shot also broadcasting these things to the entire world. Because why not?

As you may have noticed from previous posts, I’ve been reading through A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett and will probably finish that up towards the beginning of next week. This was a lender from Charles along with its companion, A Blink of the Screen, which is a collection of his shorter fiction works. I tried the fiction first but couldn’t quite get into it – almost how I love everything Tom Robbins has written but couldn’t get into his collection of shorter works, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards. However, I do believe some of Pratchett’s novels will be making their way into my To-Read pile very soon.

Last week, I got feedback on my screenplay and started the process of re-writing when I realized that there were enough changes to the first fifteen pages that it would fundamentally change the tone of a couple characters and at least one relationship. A bit daunting. So I polished those fifteen pages up and sent it off to the person who gave me the feedback to see what they thought. Heard back from them that there’s still work to be done, but they feel I’m on the right track. I’ll take it. To page sixteen and beyond!

I’ve also been at work revising poems for another project I’ve been at work on this year and which I’d like to see done by the end of December. After an initial burst of deep editing the first session, I’ve come to realize that four to five poems is my limit for one day. I’ll start off hot by digging into the text and making change after change… and then a few poems later, realize there were no marks on the page at all. Perhaps that poems was actually fine as is, but more than likely I was going far too easy on it. Poems need tough love as well.

Plumbing

I’ve just spent the better part of an hour trying to get the drain in our bathroom sink to drain properly. Since a lot of the more wondrous and corrosive chemicals don’t play with with septic systems and ours is roughly 30 some odd years old, I tend to lean into the more gentle and natural solutions whenever possible. So a box of baking soda, a gallon of white vinegar, and new plunger were my weapons of choice for this mission.

It’s pretty interesting the things that can be accomplished with baking soda and white vinegar. Baking soda is a nice scrubbing agent for things you don’t want to go medieval on with steel wool and vinegar helps to take the stink out of laundry. Fun stuff and they also work pretty well on drains (in my experience). Well, this time around, it took a few rounds and a bit of work with the plunger, but we’re draining again.

What struck me afterwards was that a bit of regular maintenance would’ve made this job simpler or perhaps eliminated it altogether. The next thought that came to mind was that creativity is a lot like that too.

By keeping the creative muscles somewhat in shape, it’s a lot easier to get into some heavy lifting when you need it; rather than trying to lift a car off someone when you’ve barely done more than lift cans of beer for the last five years. I’ve found myself seeking out new ways to keep creativity supple, or to borrow one of Tom Brady’s favorite words, pliable.

Finding those little routines and disciplines that are the creative equivalent of stretching has been a challenge but also a lot of fun. It’s the reason why I’ve been journaling more on a daily basis and also part of the reason for my yearly reading goals (which I’ve already surpassed for this year!). Even taking in creative helps keep the thinker ticking along rather than seizing up. Because if there’s one thing that I know, things tend to seize up at the worst, or most inconvenient, times.

Tricks Of The Trade

“More than half the skill of writing lies in tricking the book out of your head.” – Terry Pratchett

I’ve been reading through A Slip of the Keyboard as of late, which is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction writing. It’s interesting to read thoughts on writing from someone whom I’ve never read before. It feels to me like there was a time when I probably would’ve devoured his entire catalog, but I somehow missed the moment and have spent a bunch of time now dancing around his books. HIs work has been very important to several of the authors I’ve been reading the last couple years, but it’s like we’ve played phone tag this whole time or something.

At any rate, A Slip of the Keyboard. It’s quite good and chock full of humor that ranges from cheeky to full-on wiseass, but it’s written by a Brit, so even at its most snarky, Terry’s writing has a certain dignity. I have no idea how the British pull this off, but I feel it borders on a superpower. Maybe it’s just me.

All right, so it’s obvious that I won’t be able to rationally get to the book in any kind of timely manner, so let’s just focus on the quote above, shall we? Fine. He’s right. Thank you for coming to my TedTalk.

More? Okay. I feel Pratchett’s ideas about writing line up neatly with what Stephen King had to say in his book On Writing – that stories are really fossils hidden inside our minds that only need us to uncover them in a careful, deliberate way. Sometimes, that involves being extraordinarily careful with a small brush and a set of fine pick tools. Other times, it involves dynamite and the type of “careful” that sometimes leads to missing fingers or toes. Don’t think that’s careful? Damned lucky, because it could’ve been the whole foot or hand, right?

In mulling this idea over, it seems to me that it’s not exactly the content of the story but the shape of the story itself that’s the fossil. It’s the skeleton that you unearth along the way on which everything else has to hang – the meat and organs and skin of the thing. And I do believe that trickery is involved at times – that not all stories want to jump out into the spotlight. Some stories seem to be extroverts and some want to sit quietly in the corner until someone draws them slowly and gently into a conversation. Neither one is righter than the other, they just are.