Sunday, April 26, 2020

Short Stories—“The Souvenir”

Once there was a couple Tom and Jane who wanted so desperately to conceive a child, but no matter how much love they made or how hard they made it morning, noon and night, trying every position imaginable, leveraging the force of gravity through the science of sex, they couldn’t conceive. They turned to the best doctors. They tried modern procedures and medicine. They even sought out the help of sex therapists, but still they just couldn’t seem to conceive a child. 
So, they decided to go on a vacation to the Caribbean to forget about their problem for a while, but once they had gotten to the Caribbean, it turned out to be a vacation they would never forget. 

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Creating Memorable Protagonists—Creating Condo Joe

It wasn’t the moment I received the letter from the publisher that they had accepted my manuscript, nor was it the moment when I held the newly published manuscript in my hand.

“Condo Joe” was the first official novella I had written. It was also the first novella I had written that I had actually felt something for the main character, in this case Condo Joe. It was a major moment in my journey as a writer and a moment I know I will never forget.

The inspiration for “Condo Joe” came from Charleston, SC, more specifically The Morris Island Lighthouse of Folly Beach, James Island, but I had not actually begun the novella until I had returned to my home town New Castle, PA.

We are all familiar with Dicken’s “The Christmas Carol” or “The Grinch that Stole Christmas”. The more I wrote “Condo Joe” the more it reminded me of “The Christmas Carol” and it could easily have been entitled “The Grinch Who Stole Folly Beach”. Titles are everything. Things changed when I had flipped the title from “Joe Condo”, a title with not much of a ring to it, to “Condo Joe”. Much better.

Anyway, I had finished “Condo Joe” and immediately sensed a sequel. It was a sequel that I had not anticipated, but nonetheless, it was a sequel I had felt very strongly about writing. I would call the sequel “Condo Joe: King of Carnival”.

In “King of Carnival” Condo Joe is elected major of Charleston. One of Condo Joe’s major accomplishments is completely restoring The Morris Island Lighthouse. The only thing that had gone wrong with the project involved the lighthouse’s windows—one had to be slightly relocated. The citizens of Charleston were not too thrilled about it at first until engineering had explained that the window had to be relocated to preserve lighthouse’s structural integrity.

At the time Charleston is on the verge of bankruptcy—Condo Joe used his own money to restore the lighthouse. The only hope Condo Joe has of saving Charleston was found its history with pirates, in this case Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate” who had been hung in Charleston in White Point Garden.

Condo Joe had heard a rumor that Bonnet had buried treasure on Folly Beach. The problem was no one knew where he had buried it if it was, in fact, buried there.

Well, Condo Joe knows the City of Charleston does not have the funds to dig up the entire beach for the treasure chest, so he has to explore other options.

Well, I am not going to go into the entire story, only to say that it involves Condo Joe, of course, the Charleston Mermen minor league baseball cheerleaders, and Condo Joe’s angry ex-wife who wants to destroy the lighthouse with a missile.

Well, the missile reaches the shores of Folly Beach and The Morris Island Lighthouse, but, due to its trajectory, the missile actually misses the lighthouse, going right through its windows. The missile does leave a huge creator on Folly Beach, which in turns uncovers an object of what Condo Joe and the people of Charleston think is the treasure chest.

Condo Joe, too excited to think, ventures down into the creator, discovering that the buried object is, indeed, the treasure chest. Unfortunately as he tries to climb up out of it its walls begin caving in.

This is where I had my moment as writer. I could not believe how attached I had become to Condo Joe. There was a strong possibility that Condo Joe would not make it out of the creator, and I did not want him to die! It was a very emotional moment for me. I had not planned it, but I had become attached to Condo Joe, which meant I had done something right as a writer.

Now, I am not going telling you how the sequel to “Condo Joe” ends, but I will say that the moment he is climbing for his life from the creator, I had a choice to make, and I wondered if it would make or break the story.

Advantages of Outlining—Why Outlining Your Script is Essential

In my naïve days as a writer and then as a screenwriter, I use to write screenplays without outlines; now, I won’t attempt screenplays without them.

In that outline, I have to know my premise, or inciting incident, and how my screenplay ends. I’m not sure if you have to know your ending before you begin your screenplay, but I do. It certainly doesn’t hurt.

I also divide my outlines, or screenplays, into three parts, or acts.

Now, I’m not saying that my outlines are strong, secure or even complete because they aren’t, because even after the first outline, it almost always changes.

My outlines don’t change in a big way. They story doesn’t change, not really, but the flaws it has don’t show up until I started writing the screenplay. These flaws aren’t a bad thing; fixing these flaws will make your screenplay better. It’s time to kill your darlings. It’s not always about what you want for your story. It’s about what works for your story.

The outline and actual screenplay play off each other. One corrects the other. One sets the other one straight, or keeps it on course.

Outlines help. Outlines save screenwriters, and novelists, a lot of time.

Outlines help because unlike novelists, screenwriters need to know where their screenplays are going before they begin them, well, in theory, anyway. Novels don’t.

But, I will say this: Screenplays probably make terrific outlines for novels.

I keep my outlines to a single page. I think it may have something to do with writing query letters, which I have written plenty of as a novelists; query letters should be now more than a single page, if all possible.

As I have written earlier, I divide my outlines into three parts, or Acts I, II, and III. And I actually separate them into these acts with Roman numerals.

My outlines, although they are trimmed to a single page, are not well balanced, and I don’t really know where the acts are until I read the outline. I need to read the outline with a bird’s-eye view. After I do, I can see or sense where one act begins and one the other ends. I do it by running lines through the outline as if dividing a sentence into two paragraphs.

I do know my beginnings, Act I; and I do know my endings, Act III; what I don’t always know my Act II’s. It’s like the terrible twos of screenwriting.

I do, however, try to create at least three obstacles for the hero in Act II. Why? I really don’t know. Three just seems like a good number. A lot of things come in threes: three strike and three steps, easy as one, two, three, etc.

Act II almost always gives me the most challenges, the most problems, but the last obstacle must link seamlessly to Act III.

I will say this: Each story is different. Each one seems to present its own set of problems and challenges, so I am always learning. No matter how much I think I’ve mastered the craft of the screenwriting process, there is always something know I have to learn. It’s humbling. There is always a rule that needs to be broken to make them screenplay work. I have to make an executive decision. I almost never give up on a screenplay. That’s where your creativity comes into play. 

Cover Your Act!—The Advantages of Script Coverage

When is your script ready for script coverage? The short answer—not after you have completed your first draft.

For you first-time screenwriters, in case you are not familiar with the protocol of script coverage, I will explain.

Script coverage is a report, a rating all scripts receive by script readers based on the quality of the script. These readers are cold-blooded and either work for the studios or use to work for the studios and now own a script coverage firm. A script either receives a Pass, a Consider or a Recommend, Recommend being the highest rating. Pass, to clear things up real quick, is not good.

No matter what kind of writing you do, re-writing will always be a big part of it, seventy-five percent or better of the battle. Screenwriting is no exception. Actually it is more of an exception than novel writing because screenwriting is an even more competitive field.

Okay, so, you have completed the first draft of your script, but trust me. It is far from finished. It is just the beginning. Now the real work begins—re-writing it. Sometimes it takes several drafts before a script is polished to a glorious shine.

And when, you might ask, is a script polished to a glorious shine? When the re-writing becomes less and less, when all loose ends are tied up, when you are touching up your script rather than going through more major re-writes. It is when you believe you can do nothing more to your script to make it any better, when you cannot take it any further. This is also the point when you can describe your script in 25 words or less or deliver a pitch that will draw double takes.

Now, there are two ways your script receives coverage, which I have mention seven paragraphs earlier. Studios automatically give scripts coverage whether you are ready for it or not or whether you want it or not—that is the chance you take when you submit it directly to them. If your script receives a Pass, this may be the end of your screenwriting career before it ever begins. You may not get a second chance.

However, the safer or smarter way to go is “not” to send your script directly to a studio first but rather to a script coverage firm.

Let us say you feel your script is ready. You have taken it as far as you can go. You send it in with souring confidence to a script coverage firm, but, instead of receiving as expected a Consider, your script receives a Pass, which feels like a shot to the gut.

But, this is the most critical difference between studios and script coverage firms—with a script coverage firm it is not necessarily the end of the world for your script writing career but rather it might just be your initiation into the screenwriting world.

Script coverage firms only give scripts test drives. They are actually on your side, and even though they will not act as your agent they are looking out for you. If your script receives a Pass, it is just plain bad, script coverage firms will save you the embarrassment and heartache served up by studios, and offer you notes how to improve your script. Script coverage firms will save your ass. They will save you second or even third chance to get a script right—or strongly suggest you chose another career path by “freeing up your future”.

In short, script coverage firms will tell you whether or not your script is ready for the merciless eyes of studios. If they advise you not to, do not send it to a studio. Re-write your script until it receives at least a Consider. Yes, Recommend is always best but it very difficult to receive. A Consider is good enough.

You should not be thinking about script coverage until you feel you cannot improve your script anymore. Even if you think you have written the perfect first draft, imagine how much more prefect it will be after several more drafts. After that and your script sings, before you send it off to a major studio that will automatically give it coverage, send it to a private script coverage firm first. Cover your act!

The Practice of Writing—A Creative Process

Like many other writers, my creative screenwriting process begins with an idea, and like other writers, I may be called a procrastinator, but I am also very patient, too, considering patience a virtue.

But, I do not sit around waiting for ideas or inspiration, nor do I seek them out like a detective. Ideas come to me when I’m out living life. And when they do come, they came on their terms, not mine, they can come from anywhere at any time like a message from an angel. Ideas are gifts, and writers, like doctors, are on call for them.

But the important thing to note about ideas is knowing the difference between good ideas—and bad ones, and the difference is a good idea should excite you! And if it does and you execute it correctly chances are it will excite your intended audience.

Another thing to remember about bad ideas is that they may not necessarily be bad ideas, just ideas that someone else has already thought of, but, if you write what you know, stay true to yourself and write in your own unique voice, chances are you will not go wrong.

Once I get a good idea the single-most important thing to do—and my instincts will tell me this—is to write the idea down. Immediately! You must treat the idea as if it is an emergency! You may find yourself scrambling just to find something to write it down on—even if it means writing it down on toilet paper, even if it means asking the person in the bathroom stall next to you if they can “spare a square” as Elaine had to do on an episode of Seinfeld.

For me, the idea can come as an image, a title, or thought; whatever the particular case may be, I write it down! If you don’t, chances are—and I’ve learned this the hard way—you will never get it back.

Once I have gotten a good idea and have written it down, I play around with it in my head. I experiment with it. I ask questions about it until I believe I have an outline I can work with.

I don’t write your typical outline—if fact when I began writing fiction, I didn’t even write outlines, but now that I do they look something like a March Madness bracket. I write the outline out in what I call a paragraphical outline, dividing it, if it is for a script, into Acts I, II, and III, defining—or underling—the inciting incident—and I will never begin a script without knowing its ending first. My outlines look like single-page essays, and they do not exceed one page, which may have something to do with all the query letters I’ve written over the years, knowing that they shouldn’t exceed one page.

Once I have an outline, I go into what I call writer’s hibernation, writing the first draft out with a pen onto a legal pad in single space. My only fear is that because this can be such a dire process, racing to get it all down on paper, the chicken scratch I’m writing it in I won’t be able to read later on, and it does happen, but nothing is worse than having never written anything down at all.

Eleven to fifteen written pages per day is a good day. Five to seven pages is a bad day, but, if I’m having a good day, really rolling, I won’t stop. There are occasions when I had sat down to write around 7 p.m. and didn’t stop writing until 4:30 a.m. the next day. I could barely turn my neck without feeling a pinch in the back of my neck and shoulders, and once I had slowly gotten up, my butt was numb, barely able to feel myself fart, but it was all worth it. Scheherazade was right in A Thousand and One Nights in saying that there’s something about telling stories at night. It seems to set the mood.

Once I have those eleven to fifteen pages written pages, it’s where the actual typing begins,  transferring them from the legal pad into the computer using Final Draft, editing as I go. I simply cannot type and worry about the errors of bad writing later, and I’m not really referring to errors in punctuation as I am in the math of the story.

In just about 2 ½ weeks I have a finished, very rough first draft.

Writing is re-writing. Writers are rewriters. The first draft will never be your best or last draft; rather it’s time to let the nicely typed, neatly stacked pages of your first draft sit overnight or for a minimum of one day or two, and the longer you let it sit the better—well, don’t let it sit too long; otherwise, you never get it done. Writing is like making fine wine—it must age. Even if you think you have gotten your story right the first time, just imagine how much more right it will be after several drafts. The first draft of your script is just the beginning. It’s only your story in theory. It is just a starting point.

Now, it’s time, as cliché goes, to kill your darlings.

Once you begin the re-writing, you’ll be amazed at just how bad your first draft really is. What you didn’t see in bad writing in the first draft jumps right out at you! But, if you are patient, if you listen, if you are open-minded, your story will tell you where it needs to go, not where you want or think it should go, which is a very critical distinction. This means that you might have to sacrifice what you think is some of your best writing, some of your best sentences for the betterment of the story. I guess like your children, you do not own your story. In the prose use I write, I used a lot of alliteration.

Sometimes it’s broken, and if it doesn’t work, I leave it out, since writing prose what I’m aiming for, not verse, but if the alliteration works, I leave it in.

After three to four drafts, after letting your story age three to four times between drafts, the story begins to come together like a puzzle with laser-cut pieces. It goes from a major rewrite to just touching up the story, when putting the last, puzzle piece one thousand in as it falls right into place rather nicely. It might not be the story you started out with, or had intended to write, but, you will admit it is a much better story, and you will be proud of it.

For further reading: Advantages of Outlining—Why Outlining Your Script is Essential

Semicolon Anonymous—Writing without the Semicolon

I had first encountered the semicolon in classic literature in college. It seemed to appear in short stories like Barn Burning by Falkner. It seemed to turn what I thought was prose into technical writing—which I was not a fan of.

But back then I didn’t really understand the semicolon or its function in punctuation, but, once I had understood the semicolon and its purpose in prose, I got very comfortable with it. I thought it made my prose look so intellectual, so sophisticated. I used it whenever and wherever I could, and soon my prose spiraled out of control until the semicolon took over me.

I remember a critical paper I had written for a college literature class. Even though I had gotten a descent grade on the paper, the instructor, after I had asked him, pointed out in the paper where I had gotten a little too happy with the semicolon.

But even after that moment with my instructor, the problem I had with the semicolon still hadn’t quite sunken in yet—that is until it really mattered—just after I had published my first work of fiction Jamaican Moon and Other Stories, a collection of three novellas.

I had taken it for granted that the publisher would take care of all the proofreading—until I had received a telephone call from a good friend who had bought the book.

Although she had read and enjoyed the book, “The book,” she informed me, “was riddled with errors!” but luckily for me, she didn’t hold me responsible—even though I really was.

I went through the book. Typos were everywhere, on every page. They were very distracting. An average of three typos plagued every page. Very unacceptable! What was acceptable—one book with an average of only three typos! Clearly I had not used the semicolon in moderation.

I immediately telephoned my publisher in Texas who had informed me that proofreading manuscripts wasn’t their responsibility. The price you pay for a non-traditional publisher.

But thank God it wasn’t too late to correct all the typos.

Page by page, wherever possible I replaced a semicolon with a period.

I guess that process—going through the manuscript and getting rid of all the unnecessary semicolons—was time I spent in semicolon anonymous.

Having gone through semicolon anonymous, I am, by no means, an expert on the semicolon, and I am by no means cured. I still use it—sometimes more than I probably should—but I do try to use it in moderation.

If there is one author I think uses the semicolon correctly that author is mystery novelist Carl Hiaasen. Not only does he begin each sentence with the preposition on he also uses the semicolon quite sparingly, but I’m sure there are many more authors who do.

I don’t know what rule Hiassen uses with the semicolon, if he even has a rule, if he even needs a rule, but the rule I have now with the semicolon is that if I can eliminate the semicolon all together, I do, splitting the sentence up into two or more sentences.

This may sound a little extreme, but this practice with the semicolon has led me to believe especially as a screenwriter that a perfectly clean sentence with exception to, of course, the period is a sentence with as little punctuation as possible, including the comma, yes, even the comma.

Using short simple sentences, at least for me, is the way to write. Short simple sentences will keep you out of trouble like the trouble I had with the semicolon.

Advantages of Manual Typewriters—Why Every Writer Should Own a Manual Typewriter

I am so grateful that computers hadn’t already found a permanent place as an appliance in our life and household during most of my early childhood—and smart phones certainly weren’t around. If they were, they probably looked and felt like bricks, and computers, well, at one time, probably looked like modern pipe organs. If you did have one in your home, you didn’t need a desk. You needed to build an additional room!

What I am grateful for are manual typewriters, and they were still hanging around throughout my childhood.

My first official introduction to the manual typewriter came in high school, when, thanks to my parents, who had drafted me into College English, I had to write, and type, two term papers, one five to seven pages and the second ten to fifteen pages; the regular English class only required one term paper, a mere five pages long. Needless to say, the manual typewriter “was not” my best friend, nor writing.

The manual typewriter I had to use was a Royal typewriter. It hand been handed down to me by my father, well, it was there to be used. My mother had bought the typewriter as an engagement present for him who really needed it for college.

Of course, I didn’t see the sentimental value of the typewriter. To me, manual typewriters meant work. It was manual labor. Using them was probably the equivalent to making license plates in prison or placing shirts into automatic folding machines like Woody Allen had to do in Take the Money and Run.

In 1992, I discovered writing the traditional way, in college, where writing, surprisingly, had then gone from work to recreation. I began to use the manual typewriter more and more—occasionally in the college library I would use the sadly soon-to-be-extinct IBM Selectric typewriter with its magical silver ball and super sensitive keys if it was available—and it usually was—to type papers that were due that day or minutes before class. Somethings never change.

I don’t remember when exactly it had happened or who had suggested it, but they were surprised that as a writer I still used a manual typewriter and did not use a computer or word processor.

Of course, change is hard, and is probably why we don’t like it, forcing us out of our comfort zones.
I continued writing with a manual typewriter.

Now to be quite honest, computers had made it into our home before they had found a permanent place as an appliance in everyone else’s home. My father, a high school math teacher, had brought us an Apple II computer home from work then later on he had bought us a Commodore 64, complete with a 5 ¼-inch floppy drive and a dot matrix printer, but we, mainly my big brother and I, did not utilize the computer for educational purposes, which my father had hoped for.

For us, the Commodore 64 was an exciting new video games counsel, a major upgrade from the Atari 2600, and with the floppy drive, we pirated as many computer games as we could—even rigging the disks so that we could save games on both sides.

My baby sister was the first one to type a term paper on the Commodore 64, but we, certainly I, hadn’t paid much attention to what she was doing.

Years later, my big brother bought a PC from Sears, but that, too, equipped with dual floppy drives, was mainly used for video games.

Finally, in, I think, 1997, when I realized I enjoyed writing enough to know I’d be in it for the long haul, I borrowed $200 from the Bank of Grandma to buy a PC with a fast 80286 processor, no mouse, no Windows. It ran a program called Professional Writer. It was Heaven, white text against a sky-blue background.

I began using Professional Writer, and from that day forward, it had changed everything for me as a writer. Sadly, as a fiction writer still learning the structure of storytelling, I never returned to the manual typewriter, wondering how I had ever gone without a word processor.

With the word processor there were magical tools like spell check and cut and paste. I could take a sentence—a paragraph—even an entire page—highlight it and drag it up and down and across pages, without yanking out a single page in sheer anger and frustration from a manual typewriter and having to go through the hassle of typing it all over again. It was a process I remembered all too well in high school when, as Last-minute Matt, I had to pull an all-nighter to finished a term paper, missing the school bus and having to chase it down several stops later.

But all that said, with all the technology that the word process had to offer, I realized it still didn’t—and it still couldn’t—write the paper or manuscript for me. Yes, even though things like spell check and cut and paste were nice, it couldn’t write the story for me.

If I had to step into a high school classroom and talk to students about the profession of writing, and a student were to ask me what they thought would be stupid question: Do you need a computer to be a writer? I’d reply in rapid fashion, “Absolutely not!” In fact, I’d have to be careful not to forbid it!

Again, computers are wonderful tools for writers—for advanced, professional or accomplished writers, but for writers just starting out, the most efficient and effective way to learn how to write is to use a manual typewriter. The road to becoming a proficient writer goes through the manual typewriter.

Computers cannot slow you down like manual typewriters can, and what I mean by slow you down is that computers do not allow us to think our thoughts through before we type them out, unlike computers that make it way too easy not to—I’m speaking more to the folks who type their thoughts directly into the computer.

Computers can be bad for the thought process, allowing us to form the bad habit of not thinking our thoughts through. We know that we can instantly delete words, sentences, entire paragraphs, even entire pages with the touch of a single key. It’s way too easy! Writing is rushed on a computer, and you know what they say about folks who rush in.

Manual typewriters have a way of slowing you down. They have a way of allowing you to see the scenery or graffiti of your thoughts before you type them out. They force you to think your thoughts through much more carefully.

No, the manual typewriter, like the computer, will not write your story for you, but manual typewriters will force you to think your thoughts out through. Manual typewriters will teach you to be efficient enough with writing to enable you to check the math of your writing, to understand why your story may or may not be working, and more importantly how to fix it. Computers won’t do the thinking for you—nor will manual typewriters, but manual typewriters will sure slow you down, enough to get you into the habit of thinking your thoughts through.

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of thinking through your thoughts and are able to go back and check the math of your story, it might be bitter sweet, but you are ready to graduate from a manual typewriter to a word processor, which then becomes a wonderful tool for real or true efficiency.

Remember. Whether you’re using a manual typewriter or a word processor, you are still only typing, not writing, and there is a big difference between writing and typing. A computer can’t write for you, only make bad writing look good on a neatly typed page, which you won’t get away with once it’s read.

When you write, slow down, think your thoughts through, and in the end, it won’t matter which tool you choose, a computer or a manual typewriter, you’ll save a whole lot of time and paper. A computer can’t help you a whole lot if you don’t know how to write. Yes, a computer may be able to tell you if the sentence you’ve written is a fragment or not, but do you know why it is a fragment? If you don’t, sadly you are at the mercy of the computer.

I still have the Royal typewriter I began my journey as a writer with. Sadly, it’s stored in its case in the attic, but one day, when my income affords me the time to, I’m going to get it out and type out an entire manuscript on it—all 350 pages of it. No, it’s not an Underwood, the typewriter that screenwriters typed screenplays with in the good old days of black and white films, and I don’t own one, but, typing on my father’s Royal typewriter is just as sentimental, maybe even more.

Short Stories—“The Souvenir”

Once there was a couple Tom and Jane who wanted so desperately to conceive a child, but no matter how much love they made or how hard they...