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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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.

Everyday Creativity

To say I don’t enjoy Halloween would be overstating it. I enjoy the candy, the festive atmosphere, and from time to time, I’ve even enjoyed dressing up in a costume. But overall, I have to admit that the holiday is, for me, and overall meh on the excitement scale.

The trouble is the costume. I’ve never had a good eye for these things and lack the motivation for the truly grandiose ideas that have come across my mind. Sure, I could spend months putting together that Voltron costume, or… I could order pizza and watch the Empire of Dreams documentary for the fifteenth time. Pizza and Star Wars wins every time.

Then I read about mundane costumes from parties in Japan, and think maybe I’m not out of the game after all. Costumes that require minimal props, can slant towards the snarky, and require an explanation? It’s almost like this thing was invented for me.

As Rob Walker points out in that post, it’s the combination of observation and creativity that makes it really interesting. Finding those things or moments that we all see but don’t register with everyone until they’re pointed out.

It’s made me think more about the things I write about. The majority of the poems I’ve written come from a personal place and could be considered confessional in nature. A lot of those poems are also born out of moments or images that wouldn’t be considered all that dramatic all by themselves. Someone sitting on the couch playing a game of solitaire. Walking along a sidewalk. Those moments wouldn’t make great action movies, but they do make for interesting settings for a poem. All it took is the patience (or boredom in some cases) to stare at them for awhile.

The script I’ve been working on is another example. It’s not a huge “save the world” sort of thing and the original idea started out with a very simple moment that kept coming back to me over and over, demanding to be looked at more closely. It was the mundane idea of someone sleeping on a couch and being woken up suddenly. That’s it. But eventually, there was some more to it – I just had to be patient (or bored) enough to wait for it.

I suppose it ties into how Stephen King describes stories as fossils in On Writing – how they’re actually all there and just need to be dug out. A little bump in the ground is pretty mundane – almost like someone’s glasses steaming up as they sip a hot beverage.

It’s when you dig a little bit deeper and realize there’s a whole skeleton down there waiting for you that things get really interesting.

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.

Kicking It Outta The Nest

Normally, I spend some time at the beginning of the year coming up with some new goals for my new spin around the sun (I resolved to give up resolutions years ago and it’s so far been the only one I’ve managed to keep successfully), but this year, I picked up another one along the way. Sort of a goal hitchhiker if you will.

About 18 years ago, I had an idea for what I thought would be a novel. After spending a bunch of time writing out the opening few pages and getting overly frustrated, the thought occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t a book after all. Maybe it was a movie. So I downloaded a free copy of CeltX, learned a (very) little about screenplay formatting, and re-typed my opening scene. Still wound up frustrated and set it aside. This dance continued for a long time.

Two years ago, I decided to actually learn about the craft of screenwriting. I watched interviews with writers, read a couple books, and read dozens of scripts all while taking copious notes. I went back to my original screenplay and added a little here, a little there. Almost like I was building a rock wall, but only after digging the rocks up in my backyard. The script that I finished was based on a friend’s idea, and in spite of being the longest piece of sustained writing I’d done since college, we couldn’t quite agree on where it should go and I set it aside. In the meantime, I still had this other script waiting for me.

A few months ago, I realized it was pretty lame to have this script that had started it all just sitting there, unfinished. So I went back and gave it a read, surprising myself with how far it had gotten. Even more surprising was that I’d sketched out the remaining scenes before setting it aside – something I’d completely forgotten. I had the first two thirds of it written, knew the ending, and had an outline of how to get there. Now it would be tremendously stupid not to finish, so I got to work. Typing “fade out” after a few days was very satisfying.

Then came the hard part: revising. I’m not a fan. Not at all. But, much as I’m not a fan of flying but love travel, it’s something I’m willing to deal with if it gets me where I’m going. In this case, I wasn’t trying to find a warm spot in the sun, but a finished script that I’d be happy with. I was well aware that the first draft was a mess and that the second would be better, but nowhere near good. That’s not fishing for compliments or pick-me-ups, that’s just being realistic about my level of inexperience. I told myself that a finished third draft was the soonest I’d show anyone.

Last week, I got there. Now that I’d been staring at this thing for a couple months, perspective had been somewhat lost and there wasn’t any other good excuses to keep it from anyone else. So I showed it to my first reader and got a pretty solid thumbs up. It’s now in the hands of a person who worked in the industry doing script coverage as well as a fellow writer.

It’s an interesting mixture of curiosity, giddiness, and terror handing over something like that. But hey, what can you do? Then little bugger has to learn to fly at some point, right?