Sunday, January 19, 2014

Screenwriting Highballer

Maybe it's pride, but I think I'll always remember the day a mess-tent full of African French-Canadians gave me a standing ovation for planting over a thousand trees more than their next-best guy.

Granted, they weren't really tree-planters. More hobbyists stuck with finishing up a quick planting gig with their company (ROOTS - for whom I was doing a little mercenary planting, myself) so they could get on to mechanical brushing - the real reason they'd left God's Country out in Quebec for the nasty, stinking swampland that (apparently) was our Beautiful British Columbia. Mechanical brushing is an unpleasant way to make a buck, to be sure, but it held no candle to industrial tree-planting. Tree-planting was hell.

Now, I was never a genius planter. 

I started out super-slow, and it took me quite a while to grow into a highballer (a.k.a. top planter) in a fairly middlin' company, so I had to take my jollies where I could get them. And if that meant gloating over a bunch of middle-aged African guys who hated planting with a bloody, purple passion and were just desperate for somebody - anybody - to finish the trees so they could get back to making the big bucks without working half as hard, well, so be it. I was never gonna be that guy who planted six thousand trees a day for an entire summer, but I could at least be the big kahuna amongst my fellow mortals.

I'm downplaying my abilities, of course... I've always had a bit of a self-loathing streak. 

Truth is, I wasn't half-bad at the job. In fact, there are probably still a goodly number of people up there in Canada-land who think of me as something of a demi-god, because the world of industrial tree-planting is nothing if not a warped boiler-room of overwrought machismo and ridiculous, preening competitiveness.

That's all window-dressing for my real point, which is to tell you how becoming a highballer (a.k.a. "the guy who gets a standing ovation from the Africans") is like becoming a good writer.

By now, you've heard the old MalcolmGladwellism that if you want to be a master at anything, you've gotta do ten thousand hours of it, but unless you actually read the book yourself, you might not know that those hours have to be intentional. You can't be mindless about it, you have to actually think about what you're doing whilst doing it, and try to do it better.

Thank the dear sweet baby Jebeebus, I never actually did ten thousand hours of tree-planting.

But the reason I had what success I did (A thousand bucks in two days? Yes, please!) was probably because when some of my planting compatriots were just suffering through the motions, I was thinking hard about what I was doing. I sucked so bad as an early rookie, and had so few other options for paying for University, that I made myself work smart. I set my watch to go off every five minutes, and then applied every last ounce of brain-juice I possessed to figuring out how to put in more trees in those five minutes than in the previous.

I focused intently on every single aspect of how I was wielding my shovel. I thought about how I was opening the hole, how I was holding the tree, and how I was jamming it in. I tried to identify which mosses grew over creamier, easier-to-plant soil, and which type of lumpy groundswell indicated a rock. I experimented with various different techniques for area-planting to eliminate any and all non-planting movements, and believe me you this, I got good at it.

I could go on for pages about the nuances of planting trees quickly, but suffice it to say that tree-planting is hard, hard work. Chances are, it is harder work than you've ever done in you're life, and if you tried to do it you would both hate it and suck at it. Yes, you might rise to the challenge and become a highballer, but statistically speaking, you probably wouldn't.

That's okay. 

In fact, that's fantastic, because A. there is very little room at the top and B. tree-planting is hell. Why would you willingly go to hell? Seriously, it's like Vietnam, without the guns. Only the bugs are worse.

Kind of like writing. Actually, writing for a living (or not-quite-a-living, as the case may be) doesn't really have many biting insects, and I've never once been simultaneously cold and wet whilst doing it (further thanks be unto the sweet baby Jebeebus), but I have learned that to become a highballer-writer (which is to say, one who actually gets to do it for a living), you not only have to work your thousands and thousands of hours, but you have to be smart about them.

Take screenwriting, for example. The best screenwriting advice anyone can give you is this:

Write pages, read scripts, and watch movies. 

That's it. There are no shortcuts for us mortals who want people to spend bajillions of dollars and work-hours to bring our thoughts to life. But there are definitely extra-long-cuts to be taken. For example: mindlessly writing pages, brainlessly reading scripts, and thoughtlessly watching movies.

In the past two years, I have read two hundred and seventy-nine scripts, and I have watched about the same number of movies (not to mention a fair-few television shows). I have written four new feature-length screenplays, and I have re-written those screenplays dozens of times, including two page-one rewrites. In that time I've also written maybe eight short films, and I've helped with every step of production on one of those shorts, with two more shorts on their way down the production pipeline. Oh, and I wrote a novel.

Which is to say, I have done a lot of work to become better at this craft. 

Confession time, though: I'm not sure how much of that work has actually really helped me. Many of those screenplays I've read numbly, by rote. And movie-watching...? Pffft! Slack-jawed idiocy, at best. I've osmosified bits and pieces of knowledge along the way, for sure, but here's a not-so-fun fact:

Growth Frickin' Hurts

To use my creative-time well, I really need to be doing painful things. Things like pulling up a screenplay side-by-side with the original script and trying to determine why they made the changes they did in production. Things like bashing my forehead against Aristotle's Poetics until something finally sticks. Things like actually taking the time to watch movies two, three, and four times over, notebook in hand, to try and suss out why they work so well when they do, and why they suck tank when they don't.

It's just like playing your scales to become a musician, or doing blind contour drawings to become a visual artist. Nobody really likes doing it, but if you wanna roll with the big dogs, well... there it is.

This, I think, is one of my greatest fears: that I do not have the courage to suffer through the pain inherent in the process, in order to get to the mojo-flowing wonderment at the other side. That when it comes right down to it, I am a sluggard and a coward.

Every day, this is the demon I have to wrestle. Every day I wake, turn on my computer, and step once more into the breach.

This, I know, is eye-rollingly normal.

But that doesn't make it hurt any less.

- - -

Note: I put a lot of time into giving you this (ad-free) reading experience. If this post means something to you, you are more than welcome to pay me back by linking the bejeebers out of it on your social medias. And/or better yet, you could go pick up a copy of my book, "IMMORTALITY (and other short stories)." Dankegratzithanks.

1 comment:

  1. "tree-planting is hell. Why would you willingly go to hell? Seriously, it's like Vietnam, without the guns. Only the bugs are worse."... truer words... truer words

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