Tag Archives: agony

In Praise of Typewriters

IBM anti writers block gizmoI recently paid one of the few IBM trained typewriter repair people in my lovely hometown $125 to bring my slightly gummy Correcting Selectric II (the Mt. Olympus of typing devices) back into smooth running order. It was worth it.

For one thing, writing thank you notes is a pleasure because I can bang them out on the noisy typewriter and it makes me feel like I’m doing something. I can’t know how it feels to receive such a thank you, but perhaps a bit different from an email that took all of 11 seconds to write and send. Plus, I have fancypants engraved stationery I love using.

Though I have no problem with writer’s block, a lot of people do. It can be crippling. It can wreck your life.

If you read Your Screenplay Sucks!, and you should have… at least three times… you will be familiar with my IBM Correcting Selectric II. The typewriter gets a mention because of the importance of spell check. As I grew up writing on that typewriter, I got really good at proofreading because, once you pulled the paper out of the typewriter, there was no way to correct the mistake and you had to go back and retype the whole damn page.

I can imagine droves of Millennials reading that sentence and committing suicide.

Such is one benefit of a typewriter.

Another benefit a typewriter taught me, which is also wired into my DNA, is that you can’t go back. March forward or die. The typewriter sits there waiting patiently, motor humming like a throaty purring cat… There’s nothing for you to do but ponder the page and think about what you’re going to do next. Because of my typewriter’s inability to go backwards, to allow me to fix anything at the top of the page or the page before or 20 pages before, the typewriter taught me to keep writing.

This simple idea is lost on people who began their writing efforts with the computer. The wonderfulness of a computer makes it possible for you to go back and rewrite something… as soon as you write it! This is hooded Death staring you down, eyes burning red, whispering for you to fail.

If you don’t have Samson’s iron will, going back is a death sentence to your ability to write.

Stopping kills the mindset needed to get into a character or a creative space that allows you to tell a story, relentlessly living in that creative “zone.” If anything dislodges you from the zone, you are lost. At least temporarily. Some people: permanently. “Dislodge” is perhaps the wrong word. That suggests that a granite foundation exists to creative work and you are simply knocked off it.

The word “dislodge” should be replaced with “brushed” or “flicked.” The slightest distraction can flick you out the headspace, that precious zone you endeavor to stay in so you can write. Once you are out of it, it can be extraordinarily difficult to get back in.

When you write on a computer and misspell a word, a wiggly red line appears under it. POW! Out of the creative headspace. Now you correct that word. Then, all of a sudden, you look at the top of the page and see something else that isn’t exactly perfect. So you correct it in an endeavor to make it perfect. But it’s not perfect. So now you’re depressed because you can’t achieve perfection and you try to correct it again. Then you think of something two pages back that might need a little more thought. Due to the nature of the computer, you slide up a page or two and start to work on that piece of junk you wrote. Forget whatever the hell it was you were trying to write when you misspelled the original word. Now, instead of swimming forward in your wonderful writing zone, you are thrashing in an acid filled morass of depressing quicksand that will peel off your skin and leave you reduced to a sobbing carcass.

Very hard to get writing done when you are a sobbing carcass.

The main cause of writer’s block is fear. Generally, this fear is “fear it won’t be perfect.”

No worries as long as you don’t try to make it perfect in the first draft. If you know you’re going to fix it later, it’s all right if it’s not perfect now. Sometime in the future you can make it as close to perfect as possible. Not now. Not while you’re staring at that word with the red line under it telling you you’re stupid and talentless. And maybe ugly.

Enter the old fashioned typewriter.

If you write on a typewriter, you can’t go back and fix what you wrote. You have to keep moving forward and the pages will pile up and the first draft will be all right, but not perfect, but who cares? It will exist. You will get work done. Keep moving. Fix it later.

If you find yourself always going back and rewriting while you are in the process of doing your first draft, seriously consider a typewriter. It may help a lot.

My suggestion: an IBM correcting Selectric II, for around $300. Or the IBM Wheelwriter. They still make ribbons for them. Buy from a typewriter repair person or a store. Take out the correcting tape and you can’t fix anything!

If you want a manual typewriter, get one. Tom Hanks likes ’em. They are more expensive cause they’re cooler. And, wonderfully, since they don’t have any correcting feature at all, with a manual, there’s no way to go back. None.

With a typewriter, you can only go forward. For someone with a crippling need to perfect their first draft, a typewriter seems a Godsend. For one thing, it’s faster than writing with pen and paper. The idea that, for someone with horrible writer’s block, being unable to go backwards seems an exhilarating and liberating experience.

Because few people writing today have written on a typewriter, the idea of constant forward motion and staying in the writing zone has been lost. I hope not forever.

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

You gotta want it. A lotty lot.

Figuring out a way to wrench out time to write, especially after working all the livelong day at your horridly painful job, is excruciatingly difficult. Especially if you’ve never had any real success writing. You have to maneuver forward as best you can, trying to convince yourself that this is a good idea. Brutally difficult at best, writing is physically debilitating, emotionally draining, and a big fat waste of time… at worst.

However, I do not believe in the worst. Especially the “waste of time” part. You’re always learning, always improving. If only by dull banging-your-head-against-the-wall repetition, you get better. It’s never a waste of time.

Writing is so vague and semi-invisible, it’s hard to make yourself do it when all you have is the little voice inside telling you you should do it. Doing battle against naysayers, like a spouse, or friends or false friends, or the evil little voice inside that soothes, “this is never going to work. Why don’t you just go to bed at a normal time?” Defeating the voices around you and defeating the one inside yourself is, in a lot of ways, more difficult than writing. When you have so many other forces tugging at you, just sitting down to write can be the hardest thing.

Well, solving the puzzle that is the incredible mess you made of the project you’re working on is more difficult than sitting down to write. Hell, all of it’s difficult.

However! When it is moving forward, nicely, at a good clip, and you feel like you’re not the biggest idiot in the world, writing feels pretty good. That’s the best you can hope for — to feel pretty good a reasonable percentage of the time.

Get in a writing group. Find like-minded people. Get some encouragement. Try to get far away from people who make you feel bad about yourself for doing what you’re doing.

To rip a “writing hour” a day out of your 24 hour day is critical, and savagely difficult. Two hours a day would be a miracle.

“I still have vivid recollections of putting in day after day of trying a case in front of a jury, which is one of the most exhausting activities I know about, dashing up to the law library after court had adjourned to spend three or four hours looking up law points with which I could trap my adversary the next day, then going home, grabbing a glass of milk with an egg in it, dashing upstairs to my study, ripping the cover off my typewriter, noticing it was 11:30 p.m. and settling down with grim determination to get a plot for a story. Along about 3:00 in the morning I would have completed my daily stint of a 4,000-word minimum and would crawl into bed.”

Erle Stanley Gardner (whose Perry Mason novels have sold 300 million copies)

You’ve got to be like Erle Stanley Gardner. You have to really, really want it.

Wanting it “a lot” is not going to be enough. To make screenwriting or any other artistic medium actually happen, you have to want it like a drowning man clawing for the surface so he can get a lungful of oxygen and not die.

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Is anything about writing easy? The Little Voice in Your Head…

I have a tiny little voice in the back of my head. Sadly, it does not give me football scores before the games. It does warn me when there is something wrong with my writing.

But, it is SO quiet. So distant. So almost not there…

I ignore it a lot.

Can’t do that. Not ever, because it’s always, always, always right.

Generally, what happens is… it says, so softly as to be inaudible, “This isn’t working.” And, generally, I drown it out with, “It’ll be fine.” You think by now, I’d have learned. When the tiny voice tells you something isn’t working, and you think it will be fine anyway, most likely you are wrong. But it may take draft after draft after draft before you realize that the thing is NEVER going to work, and you’re going to have to buckle down and do the work and fix it.

As long as you do the work before you hand in your writing, you’ll be fine.

This thing I’m working on, has two scenes in a bath house. As I write this down, it seems so obvious, but I can tell you, it wasn’t. The little voice would tickle me and say, “One of those scenes is kinda like the other one.” And I would tamp the voice down… which is VERY EASY TO DO, as I weigh a lot and the voice is thin as smoke. Finally, after getting notes from a friend, I saw that the two scenes were basically saying the same thing, so I combined them into one. Saved some pages. Saved some dead weight. Saved some useless repetition. And finally shut the voice up.

The instant I made the change, I knew the scene worked. At last I felt better.

Disregard the Little Voice at your peril. Find a way to listen. Which is a lot more difficult than you may think.

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Filed under Criticism, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

Panic Dialogue Edit

I may have mentioned that the editing room is where hope dies. A line I heard from writer Alec Berg. Yepper, it’s twue, it’s twue, it’s really twue. When you get to that nicely air conditioned room, you’ve shot the material and you’ve either got it or you don’t. All your great dreams for this script are now a reality. Sometimes a cold brutal reality. It’s never as good as you’d hoped… But, take heart… it’s never as bad as you fear.

And, in that editing room, there is nothing more horrible than facing your own mediocrity and the panic over trimming dialogue. When your movie is staring you down with the twin double-barrels of boredom aimed at your face, you will cut every speech, every line, all the way down to every unneeded breath between lines… Flop sweat is a great way to induce you to trim dialogue. When you are terrified blind, the unneeded dialogue leaps off the screen and tries to strangle you, muttering, “Why didn’t you cut me before?”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Cue FLASHBACK MUSIC…

Try to work yourself into the Panic Dialogue Edit mode during the script stage. Cut dialogue NOW! You can save yourself a ton of grief in the editing room if you put on your emerald green panic glasses NOW and cut all that dialogue that you’re going to cut later NOW.

If you are scared, it’s easy to trim dialogue. So, imagine you are awash in fear and panic and hack away — before you shoot, before you edit. If dialogue CAN go, it goes. It’s simple.

Here’s one example. A nebbishy college professor welcomes two burglars into his home. This was Draft B.

***
Ron pours a second drink, smiling the whole time.

RON
I’m Ron, by the way. Welcome to my humble home. Excuse the mess, okay? Relax, relax. How has your day been?

He hands the brandy to Spike.

RON
It’s top drawer brandy. Why skimp, I always say. Can’t have a drink with a fellow I can’t see. Why don’t you get those masks off and we’ll knock the chill right off.

He drinks.

RON
Down the hatch!

***

By Draft H, it got shorter.

***

Ron pours a second drink, smiling the whole time.

RON
I’m Ron, by the way. Relax, relax.

He hands the Scotch to Spike. Spike takes it, but handles it like a live grenade.

RON
20 year old Scotch. Even on a professor’s salary, why skimp?

***

You may sneer at my Draft B, there from the comfort of your own living room. You may say to yourself, “That Akers guy, what does he know, the schmuck? I’ll never write that much crappy dialogue. I don’t have to pay attention to what he’s suggesting.”

AT YOUR PERIL, foolish one. At your peril.

All I have to say is “Panic now.” Because if you get to an editing room with your film (or you send it to an agent who passes!), you’ll wish you had heeded my simple little lesson.

If there is ANY way you can cut it, it’s history.

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Filed under Rewriting, Screenwriting

Just When Everything Seems Hunky Dory, Sandra Bullock…

If you’ve read my book, which you should do on a monthly basis, you know the K.H. Rule of Drama. If you have not read my book, pond scum that you are, here is the Rule: “Just when everything seems hunky dory, everything is so… not.”

What that obscure little law of drama means is that, when something fantastic happens for your character, the NEXT THING that happens, is horrible. Right after little Julie reads Pat The Bunny by herself the first time, she runs outside to tell her grandmother and falls down a well.

Right when, in the horror movie, the couple has hot sex (is there any other kind?), the Hooded Claw kills both of them. Or the one who was a virgin, anyway.

But you say, “That’s a silly thing.” “Stuff like that happens zero in real life.”

I would disagree.

Just ask Sandra Bullock. Win an Oscar… (Everything is hunky dory). Find out that husband has been banging a tattooed horrorshow… (Everything is so… not.)

Whoops. Real life imitates art!

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Kill The Cat! Kill It Fast and Rough!

In Save The Cat, Blake Snyder’s amazing book, he talks about giving the character a scene where he, figuratively, climbs up a tree and saves a cat. We will then like that guy for the rest of the movie. Good call. Clint Eastwood does it in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.

Now, the opposite can also be true. Perhaps a Kill The Cat moment will find its way into what you are writing.

In the superb Robert Altman film THE LONG GOODBYE, Mark Rydell plays the bad guy. Rydell didn’t really like the way the script handled his character and he asked Altman if he could take a crack at a rewrite. Altman, the King of Listening To Any Idea, said sure.

In an interview, Rydell said, “So Larry Tucker and I decided to make him this Jewish gangster who was insanely brutal, completely capable of any kind of brutality, yet at the same time deeply religious, offended that he wasn’t in shul, where he should have been on this night. At the same time, the challenge was to make it funny. Make it not only cruel and horrendous, but charming and funny.”

Well, I don’t see the funny part. But boy, he does kill that cat. The bad guy is firmly established. And you are SCARED TO DEATH of him for the rest of the film.

In the scene, Elliott Gould owes Rydell money. It’s the first scene in the clip. I saw it in a theater twenty years ago and have never, ever forgotten. It’s one of the best-written character moments ever, and my favorite Kill The Cat moment in the movies.

Caveat: As Rydell promises, it’s brutal.

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Filed under character, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

Don’t Write For Anybody But Yourself!!!

If he writes, he does it for himself!

Ever.

It’s a waste of emotion and time and can flip you into a cesspool or worse, a quicksand snakepit, should such a thing exist.

I have a friend who wrote AN ENTIRE BOOK so she could hand it to her father and he’d be proud of her and he’d hug her and tell her how wonderful it was that she’d done this fantastic thing and she’d cry and it’d be amaaaaazing. She got her book published and the great day came and she handed the book to her father and the fucker he didn’t even open it to see what she’d inscribed. He tossed it on the counter and said, “Maybe I’ll get around to reading it.” Shot down and shredded, she collapsed into therapy for half a decade. She’d spent every single day of the entire two years it took to write it, hoping for his approval and didn’t get it. Ewwwww.

Pattie Boyd wrote a book about her life with George Harrison and Eric Clapton (he famously wrote “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight” about her… probably paying her zilch for being his muse…) and Clapton NEVER called her or sent a congratulatory note or anything. Nothing. Zero. When she was interviewed and asked what Clapton said about the book, she covered what had to have been a shattering hurt by saying he must be terribly busy…

As Sgt. Rock would say: “ARGGGGGHHHH!”

Write for yourself. Please yourself. If you write for someone else’s approval, what happens if you don’t get it?

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