Friday, July 9, 2010

Making Time for Inspiration

I haven’t written an original spec* script in almost two years. There are a variety of reasons – the first half of this year I’ve been occupied with a writing assignment. Early last year I revised an older spec that my agent had thought might be right for the market at that time. Then the market for specs collapsed for most of last year and since I have plenty of writing samples, there didn’t seem to be much point in starting a new one.

But after I finished my assignment a few weeks ago I talked to my agent about positive signs in the marketplace and we decided it might be time for me to do another spec. So about two weeks ago I had lunch with my agent and another agent at the agency (who works more in TV) to discuss potential projects. I brought half a dozen loglines** with me.

Both agents got really excited by a feature idea I’ve wanted to write for years. I haven’t tackled it before now because it’s in a genre that I’m not known for, and because it would be a big, expensive movie. So I was pretty jazzed that they went for that one.

Then I sat down to try to outline it. As usually happens at this stage I discovered I haven’t figured out nearly as much of the story as I thought. Mainly, I didn’t have a good handle on the main character’s emotional journey. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been working on other stuff hoping that inspiration will come to me.

Guess what? That head-in-the-sand, wait-for-inspiration approach almost never works.

Yesterday I had an epiphany. I thought of a whole new reason the character gets involved in the story and suddenly everything opened up. And the situation in which the epiphany came to me got me thinking.

I had to take my car in for some routine service. While I was waiting I went to a coffee shop with a legal pad and pen. I started jotting down ideas for the main character – all kinds of stuff, some of it contradictory, some of it crazy, just to see where it would take me. About half an hour later I had my “Eureka” moment.

In today’s world with our smart phones and laptops we never waste a minute. But (and I’m certainly not the first to notice this) we are also constantly distracted. We don’t get time to reflect and let our mind wander…unless we make the time. I had my epiphany because I made the time for it.

There were distractions at the coffee shop – music playing, the cute girl sitting across from me – but nothing to really draw my focus. I could make notes on my pad, but I couldn’t check my email or surf the web or play solitaire. And in that vacuum my imagination finally got to work.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not some anti-tech nut. I love my DVR and iPod. And the Internet has been a tremendous boon to screenwriters from a research standpoint. No more maintaining shelves of reference books or running off to the library for several hours to find some obscure piece of information. With a few keystrokes you have what you need and can get right back to writing.

But we work in a creative field and it’s important to let ourselves be creative.

When I’m stuck on a story point or scene the surest way to get the solution is to go for a walk around the block. Also, I’ve noticed many of my biggest breakthroughs seem to come in the shower.

Both locations lack much in the way of intellectual stimulation. And I think some mild physical activity like walking or shampooing helps. It occupies the left brain just enough that the right brain is free to play.

I’ve heard other writers say they go for a drive when they get stuck, but a walk is healthier and better for the environment. So if you’re stuck on a story point, turn the cell phone off, leave the iPod behind, and take a little stroll with your imagination.

*Spec script – A script written speculatively, meaning no buyer in place. You try to sell it after it’s done. This is an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Most specs end up serving as writing samples or calling cards.

**Logline – A one or two sentence description of the concept of a movie.


Anonymous said...

Great advice Doug. I go for a swim when I need to figure out script issues -- the quieter the pool, the better. Like you said I think the key is the mix of "mild physical activity" and lack of distractions. Fingers-crossed that the next version of Final Draft comes with an Isolation Tank.

Sanket said...

So, if spec script doesn't sell, how can one get in the market?

I thought Juno and LittleMissSunshine were spec scripts.

Can anyone make living by just screenwriting?

Doug Eboch said...

Sure, many people (me for example) make a living from screenwriting. But of course many more try and fail.

Juno I know was a spec script. But both Juno and Little Miss Sunshine were made in the indie realm. Nothing wrong with that, but you tend not to get much money up front with indie films. On the other hand, they aren't as likely to be rewritten by other writers and if they're a hit you can get paid quite well. However the indie market is a lot worse right now than when those films were made. The recession has destroyed most of the financing sources.

If you don't sell a spec it becomes a writing sample to get assignments. Most of the work these days is assignment work. There is very little market for original ideas -- unless you're a major established filmmaker (Christopher Nolan, for example). So you have to write specs to show people what you can do, even though the likelihood of those specs getting bought or made is low.

Doug Eboch said...

Although I should add that even though last year was the worst spec market anybody I know can remember, there were still half a dozen that sold. SOMEBODY is doing it.