Monday, May 18, 2015

Those Wasted(?) Writing Efforts in My Life

I was just thinking back....

How many projects have I worked on that I knew would never go anywhere, or that never got to production, and yet I did them anyway and actually learned from them?

Here's just a few that most immediately come to mind.

In 1984 i graduated with a university degree in psychology from Western Washington University, with a minor in creative writing that included a year of a special team class in script and screenwriting.

After I graduated I realized I had just enough of my Vietnam era veteran's benefits from being in the Air Force, to do one last university quarter. I had wanted to leave college with at least one full feature film screenplay, so I signed up for a few classes I didn't need (sociology, human sexuality and logic).

But I bought no books, keeping the money, attended lectures, took the tests without studying for them, maybe had some rum in my coffee during classes and basically, well, I had a blast. I wanted to know what it was like for some genius students who partied all the time, hardly studied and got straight A's. I had some friends like that, while I had to study day and night for my A's and B's.

Full disclosure, that quarter I failed Logic but I learned a lot, I got a B in sociology (figuring it's just a bigger form of psychology which I had just gotten a degree in at the top of my class), and didn't do so well in human sexuality (because I thought the masters student teaching it, which offended me as we're supposed to only have doctorates teach at a university, but the prof. got sick that quarter;

I disagreed with just about everything she was teaching and clearly pointed that out to her on the final, so....). Did I say I had a blast, AND I got a screenplay written and double A's on it? Oh, too soon, hold on a minute....

I wrote up to sixteen hours a day that summer and attended my classes: Sociology, Human Sexuality (which I had already taken in my freshman year in an awesome double instructor class of a sociologist and a psychologist that made the local papers their class was so great and popular on campus) and Logic.

I came out of that summer quarter with my completed screenplay, "Ahriman" which was my only screenplay for some years. It is about an alien prophet prince form another planet who inadvertently gets sucked over to earth by our scientists during an experiment. My "A" from the two profs who had signed off on my taking an independent study class in order to write the screenplay. Through the years I've done maybe twelve or more drafts of that screenplay.

I used it on Mat Damon and Ben Afleck's Project Greenlight web site where you got peer reviewed by other aspiring screenwriters (some who weren't so useful in their advice, others who were) by peer reviewing other screenwriter's screenplays.

I also used it on Keven Spacey's Triggerstreet web site, which was similar. Trigger Street being a street next to where he had grown up (or on), by the way.

Eventually in listening to some of those people on those sites, I did learn a lot but I got off track until finally the screenplay originally 121 pages became 180 pages and lost track of it's original intent. Which was actually to never show the protagonist (yeah, I know, good luck with that, and I dropped that idea about half way through writing it).

I am planning on taking it back out one day and rewriting it yet again with my now better developed writing skills as I've learned so much since 1984. Getting to semi finalist in one production company screenplay competition, getting two screenplays to one production company (Sealed in Lies, a spy romance adaptation of the novel of the same name by another author, and Teenage Bodyguard (AKA, Slipping The Enterprise, a biopic of my own from when I was 18) and one of those (Sealed in Lies) to another production company with their suggestion that another production company should also look at it.

For years Ahriman was my only screenplay.

As my first completed screenplay, it does hold a dear place in my heart. That is, in that special year long class I was chosen for from an intro to playwriting class (sent there by my Fiction 101 professor to learn dialog better), we wrote TV scripts and did team projects and such, so we didn't get a full feature film screenplay out of it during the class. That team learning experience however was amazingly rewarding, and it holds a dear place in my heart.

By the way, after I wrote Ahriman, it was a good ten years before I saw some of the ideas I had written into that screenplay shown up on screen in other features. Which was very frustrating as I had to watch its potential go down the drain, year after year of not finding where to sell it. Something that has gotten far easier with the advent of the internet.

I based Ahriman's tempo by the way, on Brainstorm, Natalie Wood's last film which she died during the production of. On my first day starting to write Ahriman, I first watched Brainstorm seven times on a rented RCA video player (a video disk like a record and not a laser disk) and took notes on the film.

Toward the end of the 90s, that script had gotten pitched to a Middle Eastern group of investors, exactly the people I'd asked the producer, Sean Davis, not to pitch it to, as I had screwed with their mythology in switching the God and the Satan characters. But he assured me the investors loved it, much to my surprise.

However about that time, Sean left the east coast production company for Hollywood. I had been working with that studio over that two year period (unpaid and never got anything on screen, probably more from my inexperience there than anything else) and continued with them for several more years after he left.

So another project I learned a lot from that never went anywhere. Yet.

And hey Sean Davis, if you're out there and you see this and remember me, say Hi sometime and let's kick around some old times. I really liked and got along well with him and regret that we couldn't for whatever the reason, continue to work together. Maybe some day, maybe. In this industry, much as in the IT world as one UNIX scientist I worked with told me when I left US West Technologies, people tend to run into one another over and over again (so burn no bridges).

There was another screenplay while at that production company, one the producers asked for me to write a new screenplay for. One of them told me there was a new actress on the scene whom he had recently met at a party and thought he could get for our screenplay. He said she had recently been in a film with Kiefer Sutherland. A quirky little film called, Freeway. He said we'd have to move fast as she was very talented and wouldn't be available very long as she was on the way up.

As time went on (not that much time either I might add) he found that she was already tied up for another film project and couldn't make it. Timing would have been perfect to have gotten a very good actress before she exploded on the scene and became nearly impossible to acquire.

That actress was, Reese Witherspoon. Sadly, we didn't get her for the project and the project ended up not moving forward.

Another time, another project.

A good friend asked if I could write a TV script for him as the host, his commentary on a holiday showing of the Frank Capra film, "It's A Wonderful Life". This was back in the 1980s on some TV station he was going to host the film at during the commercial breaks. He wanted interesting elements of the film to share with the audience, or whatever I thought would be most engaging. So I wrote a script for him. Then, it fell through and never got used.

Still, I had gone to Tower Books in Seattle to research it and found books on the film, didn't have money to buy the books back then but I took down notes. Then later I wrote the multiple sections where he would talk to the camera and audience. So if you bought a book on that film back in the 80s  in Seattle at Tower Books, it may have been used to write this script.

I learned some interesting facts about that production. Like what the snow in the film was really made out of. RKO created "chemical snow" (and won an Oscar for it), a new compound utilizing water, soap flakes, foamite and sugar for the film in order to avoid the need for dubbed dialogue when actors walked across the earlier type of movie snow, made up of crushed cornflakes painted white. The Bedford Falls set in the film made use of 20 transplanted oak trees, and for the winter scenes 3000 tons of shaved ice, 300 tons of gypsum, 300 tons of plaster and 6000 gallons of chemicals.

According to one source, film makers suspended huge screens over staging and sifted asbestos fibers over the Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life to imitate snow. Asbestos even found a convenient way to hitch a ride into human lungs with other carcinogens; Kent Micronite filter cigarettes were laced with crocidolite asbestos. Though all that being said I was just told there is bad asbestos and not so much bad types.

Also, a light that exploded on a sign outside in the town, which so many over the years had conjectured about what it could have meant, what the director's comment was in doing that, when in reality it was just an odd accident and they simply couldn't afford to go back and reshoot it. But the timing was such that it lent itself to speculation about it's meaning. You learn a lot of weird and interesting things in research.

Another project that went nowhere.

I was once asked to write a music video for a song by a local band. This was also back in the 80s.

I had never done that before. So I accepted the challenge. I wrote it for a relative who was working with the Ron Gardner. A one time member of The Fabulous Wailers, Ron sadly passed away after an accidental fire in December 1992.

I still have the script around here somewhere as well as the audio tape of that song which I just dug out and listened to. Sounds as good as the day I received it. But I don't remember the song now. Still I had sat there listening and relistening to that song seemingly forever back then, writing down the time, minutes and seconds so I could sync up the script shots to it.

I wrote the music video script following the lyrics and the rhythm of the song. I tried to think of a twist to inject into the song and so when he was singing about his love for a woman and how she was not following his desired path, I threw in another woman whom she seemed to be more interested in than him. I thought long and hard on that one. Was this something I just thought was sexy, or was this serving the music video?

Would the MTV crowd find it interesting or not. I hadn't given so much thought to how the artist would think about it though, just my brother in law, who I thought would consider the money and notoriety over questionable content. You know, it's not very questionable now, but back then, it pretty much was.

I tried to talk myself out of it but I decided it was in the end, a good idea and that put on MTV, it would play well if not have a "viral" element to it. A term hat didn't exist at that time. In the end after submitting the script, I was told two things. One, it wasn't conservative enough of a concept for the band (that is, Ron) and two, Ron had decided to go another direction altogether. Which also eliminated my relative. Oh, well...that's show business.

So many missed opportunities that I had worked hard on.

But wasted time? Not really. I learned from all these experiences. Most importantly, I produced finished products. And I moved on from them with more experience under my belt.

Another example.

For several years I worked unpaid as an "in house" writer for Scorpio Pictures back in the late 1990s. The executive producer got an idea, pitched it to their stable of writers (whom I was one of), who would then write a scene or whatever and then the producers would consider their writings. I had more than a few emails and phone calls back then with this east coast production company. It was fun, hopeful, and educational in, if nothing else, learning what it is like to work with a production company and its producers. There is something definitely to be said positive about interning.

There was another screenplay I worked on for that production company I mentioned earlier, but the executive producer didn't care for the direction I was going with it and frankly I was over my head with it at the time. It was a great idea for a film, I just didn't have enough direction or the skills I do now, for it at the time. Ironically, a couple of years ago I came up with a pretty good concept for it. I'm still trying to get around to writing it.

You have to be ready when opportunity knocks.

One of my biggest efforts with them was in two weeks they needed a first draft of a script for the Playboy Cable Channel who put out a call for a vampire screenplay. Problem for me was, I was about to leave on summer vacation for a week or so to Reno, Nevada where my wife at the time was working at an Arabian horse show as a trainer and rider. But I decided to do it. I titled it, "Until Dawn".

But, I was writing it with Lifeforce in mind. That was a Dan O'Bannon film (as was Alien and many others, by the way and he played the lovebale character in Dark Star of Sgt. Pinback) as I was a big O'Bannaon fan since I first saw Dark Star when I was in Tech School in the Air Force at the base theater. Brief aside: we'd been drinking before hand, stuffed our bottles in a bag in the bushes outside the theater, then got them back when we left and almost got arrested for climbing up inside a B-52 bomber, full sized display plane in a field around 11PM at night, mid base.

By the way, I figured this was the case and in looking it up just now it is. The band Pinback's moniker is a reference to a character in the 1974 film Dark Star (played by Dan O'Bannon, who also co-wrote the film), directed by John Carpenter. Audio samples from this film are used frequently in the band's early works.

Speaking of which, John Carpenter has always been one of my favorite directors for things like this film and others like Escape From New York and the now oddly enough "original" remake of this and so many films now, The Thing, Starman (which I wrote about here last week), Big Trouble in Little China, They LiveAssault on Precinct 13, and so many others. Not to mention the original, Halloween film. How can I not like a guy who does it all his own way, does his own music, works repeatedly with a stable of friends and artists and is just all around awesome?

Anyway, I wrote my original screenplay of Until Dawn as a sequel of sorts to Dan O'Bannon's, Lifeforce, so, vampires as aliens (or aliens as vampires,whichever kicks off your interest cycles).

So many ideas, so little time.

It was a working vacation in Reno, Nevada, for my wife and we had our two kids with us who were in grade school at the time. In my spare time on that trip, I would write. When I wasn't just watching or feeding the kids, or we were hanging with my wife when she had free time. Times during which we drove to Silver City and toured Samuel Clemens' place (Mark Twain, when he was a young reporter in that town),

When I would write I would take the kids down to The Sands hotel pool area which had a bar (yippie!). While they splashed around next to me in the pool, I had a loose leaf binder I was writing in with pen in hand, while ordering serial pina coladas and simply enjoying the sun and not being at my day job as a technical writer in IT.

I have to say, one of my best screenwriting experience ever. I swear I put on five pounds from those damn drinks that week (and those casino buffets I'm sure).

My only trouble in writing that week was, and I learned a lot from this, I was writing in public. It's odd what you can unexpectedly learn sometimes. Anyway, stop me if I'd told you this one before....

While I was writing, there was a guy around thirty or so hanging out at the pool who was really drunk. Nice guy, seemed harmless enough. He was a good looking guy who was eventually joined by his girlfriend. But before she arrived he had seen me writing and asked me what I was doing. Lost in thought, I said I was writing a vampire screenplay for the Playboy channel.

He was interested so I told him they had put out a call to various production companies and mine had asked me to write something to submit. They had probably asked their other writers like me, to do the same, but that wasn't mention, although it was probably considered as understood.

The jolly inebriated fellow seemed interested and I was enjoying the attention. Finally I said I had to get back to it. He said that was cool and his girlfriend would be by soon and she'd find it fascinating. I didn't think much of it being, as I said, I was lost in thought.

A little while later a very attractive woman in a bikini showed up around the pool. Well, I'm male, I'm straight and, I can appreciate attractiveness. But I was married, she was very attractive too, and I had my kids and my writing.

She turned out to be his girlfriend. Nonchalantly, she came by my table (judiciously located as the nearest table to the outside bar) and noticed my writing. I'm sure now he told her what I was doing and for her to make her introductions. She sat and talked to me until she ended up telling me she was the guy's girlfriend and, wait for it, an actress. She told me he paid the bills washing windows on tall corporation buildings there in Reno, but he was also a stage magician.

He came by about then and said he'd be happy to do some magic for my kids. He said it so they'd hear it. That ended any kind of my saying "no thanks", as I wasn't quite sure I wanted someone that drunk around my kids. Though, he was gregarious and friendly and I admit quite funny. So through my hesitations, he said he'd pop up to his room to get some stuff and come back to put on a mini show for my kids. And so indeed, he popped off.

His girlfriend in the mean time noticed my reticence, but assured me that although he was very drunk he was quite harmless and was after all, a good magician. She mentioned again that she was an actress and then, I saw it coming.

From that point on she tried to talk me into putting her in the film. Me. I was nobody, a writer. A guilty necessity Hollywood needed but historically seemed to despise.

I tried to explain to her that I was a nobody in my being a writer and we didn't even have the film wrapped up yet as production companies were acquiring writings on spec, just as I was writing one. But she was persistent. So I took her info in the off chance this went anywhere but I assured her I had no pull regarding the talent if and when production should ever begin.

Such is this industry  that you have to take every and all opportunities and I appreciated that. In my book, she was only doing what a professional should be doing. Utilizing every possible opportunity. I hate it, but I do it myself when I can bring myself to do it. Perhaps if I were less conscientious and more aggressive, I'd have gotten further in this profession myself.

Her boyfriend returned, gave the magic show, amazed my kids and myself and a few others kids around the pool, and that was the last I saw of them. But I had wasted some hours when I could have been writing that day.

What I learned about that was, if ever you write in public, NEVER tell anyone what you are doing or for whom you are doing it. Name dropping has its place and it is not during the writing process. Make something up if you have to, downplay it. IF you want to get any work done at all, that is. Fame is for when you have the time, or you when deserve it.

Still it was a fun day and makes for a good memory.

Finally, probably my biggest lesson in selling my writings (or in not selling them)....

In the late 80s I wrote a word processing manual for the WPS+ word processor on the Digital Equipment Coporation (DEC) VAX mainframe. 

TWO count them, TWO major hospitals in the Seattle area used it and loved it for years. These were the University of Washington Medical Center (originally University Hospital) and its sister hospital, Harborview Medical Center (what we used to call, "The Zoo" as it was the county seat of where stabbings and ER trips went when no one could afford medical care; weekend nights typically being crazy there and thus, "The Zoo"). 

So I sent it to Digital Press, a subsidiary of DEC. Years later (after the story I'll share below) I found out, those hospitals were still using that manual long after I'd moved on.

The editor initially loved it. But like a good editor (or even a film \ tv producer) he said, "just one thing, could you write it so it's all one, not each chapter tiered as you have written it?"

I had written it so that the X-Ray techs at the lower levels, the transcriptionists, at the mid tier levels and the radiologists at the upper levels, could all use it. When you opened a chapter there was a block of steps to perform the task in that chapter. Next section of that chapter was more in depth. Then finally the last part of the chapter was an in-depth explanation giving way too much info for most people but satisfying even the most dickering of users, that being any of our world class radiologists. We had at that time on staff at UWMC,the head of the national Radiologists association, the American College of Radiology. Or it may have been the Radiological Society of North America.

Anyway, you get the idea. We had some big shots at the hospital.

The editor asked if I couldn't rewrite it eliminating that format, whch was the brilliant format (I had based on the old Scientific American magazine articles which I grew up loving because you could start an article at a level where just about anyone could understand it, but by time you got to the end of the article they were at the scientist, if not molecular level. I was addicted to that format.

So, wanting to see my manual sold, I relented. Dumb, dumb, dumb, but hey what did I know right? He had told me I would probably make $25,000 PER QUARTER, $200k\yr, and that the book would go out with every PC and Mainframe sold in the entire world!

Digital Equipment proper read the manual and said they would support it IF, I had used more of a three pronged approach (which I HAD DONE and was what was so loved about it). Then they also threw a tiff, threatening me with crushing me should I decide to publish elsewhere. I believed them. 

But I thought that was very odd. 

So I reread my own manual and found that the reason was, their software was buggy and this was the second thing actual users loved about my manual. I pointed out the bugs and the workarounds which I had figured out over a couple of years. 

So rather than being in the middle of your work and now you're suddenly locked up for hours, you could simply go click and back to work! Brilliant. Right? I just shouldn't ever have called them "bugs" in the manual, but something. Anything, else. Like, enhancements, features, or something.

Anyway, it just goes to show, when you KNOW you have a good idea, and someone says I'll buy it IF, really think about compromising yourself or your works. Doing what you're asked to do to sell something, can bring you down. But really think about it, because it can also be a saving grace in accepting their advice. It's up to you. Make the right choice.

And, don't call bugs, apparently.

Summing up, all these things have one thing in common.

I started these projects with one intent in mind and I walked away from them with no monetary or writing credits from the work I had put in. Still, I had learned some very interesting lessons about life and being a professional writer.

Back in 2010 I had decided it was time in my life, with my kids nearly grown and soon to move out, that I should again put all my efforts into my fiction writing. Finally and hopefully once and for all to finally get somewhere.

I'd had fits and false starts and stops all my life.

Small successes but nothing life changing. I'd had it and finally I was going to go for it and I would finally have the chance to. Soon I knew my kids would be gone, my divorce was behind me some years, I'd had a few girlfriends and nothing was in the way stopping me. Well, I , had a girlfriend at the time actually.

We'd been going out for about eighteen months. She was Vietnamese and seemed to have trouble about my being western, because of her family, not her. I finally thought I'd helped her in her own life. She'd been married for 27 years since she was 18 and so I guess I was rebound guy for her. It just felt right to let her go.

I think in the end we had helped one another out for the next stage in our lives and I do hope she ended up well. So I've been single every since with my plan being to remain so, until (as a reward) I got somewhere with my writings. That somewhere being, supporting myself fully on my writings so I could drop my day job in IT. I've made a lot of  progress but sometimes it definitely seems like I'll remain single forever. Such is the life of a writer. Or this writer anyway.

I had wisely decided in 2010 not to turn down anything if I could learn from it, or if it had the possibility of making me money, or acquiring me some gravitas in the writing field, or in anyway to move me forward, increasing my tempo in life.

Now here I am five years later and I've made a good deal of progress but I'm still struggling to "make it".

However I've gone from my small collection of short stories (see Anthology of Evil for those early works or Death of Heaven for later ones, or even other's anthologies hat I'm in for yet later ones) and my one initial screenplay (Ahriman) along with a few smaller ones (Sarah, Colorado Lobsters, and the ever popular, Popsicle Death (from that year long screenwriting class) to now, with several feature film length screenplays, a couple of books in print, several new screenplays, production companies showing interest with a couple of screenplays at a couple of production companies and more to come I'm quite sure.

It will all come together in the end (hopefully to be honest, much sooner than the end).

I have realized through all these years that not all of what you learn in life, not all of your original intentions, will deliver in the ways you had planned.

But if you pay attention, you WILL learn plenty. And, you will learn plenty in areas where you needed to learn things and in which you had either never known about, or never planned to learn about, in thinking it wasn't necessary.

Essentially, learning about everything is necessary but you only have so much time and energy. It's not impossible, or insurmountable, it's all doable as you only truly need to learn enough to get there, wherever there is. Just as in through all the rejections, you still only need one acceptance, for each project.

Have hope. But work hard to deserve what you are shooting for.

About wasted efforts.

In going up against adversity and yet still succeeding, let me suggest a book:

The Wright Brothers by an amazing author, David McCullough. It's an amazing story about changing the world when having so very little with which to do so and still, achieving your goals while learning much along the way.

Remember what Thomas Edison said in only succeeding to perfect the light bulb after 10,000 attempts:

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Now. You too, go out and be brilliant!

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