Pacing at the Starting Gate, Waiting for the Right Amount of Rain…

I am delighted to announce that I’ve got —not one, not two, but —three cool freelance gigs coming up.

JOB A is producing some product sales meetings for a well-known company.

JOB B and JOB C involve story creation for two different technology / game apps.

I am being super vague because I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’ll say that I’m excited about all three: Each one will involve learning new vocabulary (which is one of my favorite things) as well as new software (which I enjoy if it’s not overwhelming). And I get to collaborate as part of a team. I’ve been in a good mood as each of them has become more solid in the last several weeks.

The producing gig, JOB A, scheduled for mid-July to mid-September, is the most definite because it’s built around pre-scheduled events that involve multiple people and businesses, so barring some natural disaster or new pandemic surge, it will happen. I’ve spent the last month virtually “onboarding” with their third-party payroll vendor, and just received my company email address and access to their Microsoft Teams hub, so am feeling very official.

For JOB B and JOB C, the “paperwork” is still being sorted — i.e. various parties and lawyers are defining and agreeing to terms etc.

Here’s where I’m getting a little antsy and “pacing at the gate.” Both of these jobs became possibilities after meetings in early May, and are slated to happen in June. In particular, JOB B was supposed to begin June 1, for a duration of about 30 days. June 1 would have been a perfect start day, as then JOB B would have ended with a couple weeks before the beginning of JOB A, with some wiggle room if we were running late.

But, as I write this, it is June 11, and a weekend, and the paperwork is still “being finalized.” I’d have to start JOB B on Monday in order to have a full 30 days before JOB A starts.

I keep reminding everyone on my end that JOB A is not one of my usual day jobs where I can write in the evenings and go to meetings on my lunch break and pretend like I don’t really have a day job at all. JOB A will be a real, on-location, with (hopefully only) 10-hour days, production-type job that will require my full attention.

But legal departments rush for no one (at least no one at my level, but I think maybe no one ever).

Writers often juggle various jobs without their clients being the wiser or really caring, as long as the job gets done. And people who aren’t actually writing tend to act like miraculous things can happen. Also, I’ve noticed that people in entertainment are used to acting like miracles can happen, but then having them not happen, and deadlines get pushed all the time. What I don’t know is if that also happens in the tech world.

I’ve heard George Saunders say, “A cliche is a truth that has lost its luster.”
It never rains, but it pours is a cliche.
And it is true. I don’t know why.

The year so far has been a work-drought, so all the rain is welcome. But when too much rain hits packed dry earth … (you get it–that’s why it’s a cliche).

The blessing of these gigs is that 1) while they are short term, each should lead to future fun — if I can establish a good relationships, making it over the learning-curve hump and do a good job, and 2) I really want to do them all because I’m genuinely interested.

But the blessing of caring about all three will become a curse if they all — with their unique learning curves, new people, new software, and new story forms— end up landing at once.

So today’s manifestation is that the starting gun goes off on Monday… because I’m raring at the bit—And that for the next few months the rain can fall steady but not torrential.

Let’s get this party started!” says the horse.

Dopamine, Anticipation, Capitalism, Hollywood, and What Happens if Charlie Brown Never Kicks the Football?

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.

It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear, p 106

I’ve been thinking about anticipation in our society. About how dopamine keeps flowing for a person who believes a reward is coming—and how capitalism is great at instilling belief in rewards by showing us other people receiving rewards and selling the idea that with enough work, it will be our turn, or at least our children’s turn. And, if that seems too obviously unrealistic, Christianity offers the back-up belief that rewards will be offered in the life to come, if we are good.

For our economic system (or those who profit by it), it’s good for people to believe in capitalism, religion, or both because it keeps them anticipating a reward. If people stop anticipating— because they stop believing the reward will manifest, or in the value of the reward — their dopamine levels could drop to such an extent that (like the rats mentioned in my previous post) they stop working. Which would be bad, because everyone striving for their individual rewards within the system, is the system.

The pandemic has shown, in a small way, how when people can’t / won’t service the system, it becomes inconvenient for the people who need a new bathroom vanities, cling peaches or car parts, and it also becomes threatening to the people who normally profit from all these transactions. I’m far from the first to theorize that in order to keep things running, the system might ultimately have to provide rewards of actual value — like workplace safety, higher wages and maybe some other things, like respect and appreciation for one’s contributions and skills…etc.

Oops — I think most of that was a tangent. The real topic of this post (of course) is me.

Who am I? I’m a subset of people: i.e. a writer, existing in a subsector of the capitalist system: i.e. the entertainment industry. The rewards I want are the same boring things most people in my industry who aren’t sociopaths want: creative opportunities, a living wage, functional work relationships, etc. For a fair while, I’ve sustained myself with the anticipation of obtaining these, because I had some belief that it was possible. Like its parent system, Hollywood is great at saying “look at all these other people getting treats—if they can do it, you can too!”— and also selling the idea that if you are just good enough, God (or someone) will pick you and lift you up to heaven (or at least higher up the food chain). You can anticipate this happening at any moment…Dopamine!

The thing is, one starts to lose one’s ability to anticipate a bright future if this keeps happening:

If you don’t want to kick the ball anymore, CB, there’s thousands of writers out there who would kill for the chance.

Please know, that, within my field, I am in no way unique and this football-yanking happens to lots and lots of people, all the time. So this is not a plea for sympathy, inasmuch as a preamble for some self interrogation, wherein I ask:

Who’s at fault in the situation pictured above?

Is it Lucy, for being a jerk? For sure. But. Is it also Charlie Brown? Why does CB repeatedly come back to Lucy and her ball? Doesn’t he have any other friends who treat him better? Is Lucy so much more glamorous and interesting than those friends? Or, is Lucy his only acquaintance with a football, and a football is the only kind of ball he wants to kick?

What’s with Charlie Brown’s obsession with that dumb football anyway? That question is facetious — I know the answer. He feels like he’s meant to kick that football. If he could just have that one chance, where the ball didn’t get pulled away, and his foot could connect — he can feel in his bones how that football would go flying! (And once that ball was in the air, the world would know, and soon he’d have his face on a cereal box or at least be kicking footballs everyday for money. It’s just one kick between him and living the dream!)

But who are we kidding? It’s in Lucy’s nature to pull the ball away. Like the proverbial scorpion who has to sting, or like Jessica Rabbit, who’s just drawn that way, Lucy is literally incapable of not fucking with the ball.

So the question becomes, what should Charlie Brown do now? I mean, shouldn’t he try playing some other game that doesn’t include Lucy? Like baseball or soccer, or Yahtzee? Or maybe he could start mowing lawns, and just buy his own football?

Hell, he could start a lawn-mowing franchise and eventually buy a whole football team. By then he’d be past the prime for football-kicking himself, but he’d likely have friends who are more loyal than Lucy, clients who truly appreciate (and pay for) their evenly-cut lawns, and co-workers who invite him to BBQs and their kids’ birthday parties where they share inside jokes and compare lawn mowers.

Possibly, he could have a happy life with plenty of anticipation and dopamine despite never kicking a football!

Ugh, I just passed 1000 words! I didn’t want to do that. How can I wrap this up? Okay, here:

  • Capitalism is deeply flawed but seems poised to persist.
  • Given the fact that I’m not Neo, and can’t unplug from the Matrix, I need to live in it. (Matrix=capitalist system. I didn’t set up that metaphor in this mini-essay, but it’s so commonly used I don’t need to, right?)
  • Within the capitalist system, my stubborn commitment to football kicking (i.e. screenwriting) seems increasingly likely to end with me living underneath an overpass (at least between police sweeps), while Lucy / Hollywood forgets I ever existed and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty.
  • However, Hollywood is just one subsector of the big capitalist machine, and if I can quit sulking about the not-getting-to-kick-the-football thing, I could look for a different sector that doesn’t lead to the whole overpass scenario.
  • And in the process, I could even look for a sector with work-life balance, respect for my skills, and getting compensated happily and fairly instead of grudgingly and as little as possible. (I don’t know if this place actually exists, but what is life without a search for mythical lands?)
  • All of which would help renew my faith in humanity and the capitalist whole reward system, which would reset my ability anticipate good things, triggering the release of dopamine…

The Whole Screencraft Screenwriting Interview

The folks at Screencraft (they run the contest that I won earlier this year) recently sent me some prompts / questions about my screenwriting journey in order to cull testimonials from my answers. They managed to find a few uplifting snippets to use in their Instagram / Twitter posts — and kudos to them for that, because even though I made real efforts to be positive, some of these answers feel a little… dark. However, I seem to have arrived at a point in my life/career where young hopefuls ask me for insights and advice, so for what it’s worth, here are the prompts and my answers in their entirety.

  • What did you find were some of the biggest obstacles to your screenwriting career goals?

Before I went back to school for writing, I was a freelancer who worked on various shows and events, one gig would always lead to other gigs. You work with people, they get to know your personality and work and then either request or refer you for another job. I got used to that. But after I graduated from my writing program, I took a full time day job that was separate from the industry I wanted to be in, and I think I really gave up an advantage by removing myself from the daily view of people who were in the industry. I see the question come up a lot among early career writers — “Is it better to stay close to the industry, even at the expense of writing time, or to get a day job that lets you practice skills and generate material?” It’s a tough call! At the time, I had reasons for making the choice I did, but purely in terms of career-building, I can see how stepping away from the path had some costs.

  • Was there ever a point when you felt most rejected? 

If anyone out there is unaware, it’s probably good to know that the entertainment business is the business of rejection. After your dreams get dashed the first few times, I’ve found that all the rejections kind of become a blur.  But I’m happy to tell you about my most recent example:  I gave a new script to someone who I really needed to like it — a gatekeeper — and they didn’t like it. At all. A big door that I’d hoped would be opened instead slammed in my face. It’s clear in my memory because it was literally a couple days ago and I’m still recovering as I write this.  But at the same time, I’m aware that even having a relationship with a gatekeeper who’s willing to read my work and give their honest opinion is a privilege —one that took me years to achieve, and that many people don’t have — so I never forget to appreciate it.  A rejection of one’s work is still an affirmation of one’s existence!  

  • Are there moments when you think about giving up. What motivates you to keep going? 

In terms of ever making my living by screenwriting, I’d say I think about giving up six days out of seven. My escape strategies are a running joke with friends—I literally have tabs open in my browser right now for “how to be a UX writer.”  But thus far, I’ve kept going, and I think there are a couple reasons why:  The first is that I somehow always have one more iron in the fire. Like right now, I have a pitch being considered at a company for a project I would really-really-really like to do, so I’m waiting to see what happens. And while I’m waiting, I’m working on other things, so by the time this project doesn’t work out (or maybe does—this could be the one —manifestations welcome), I’ll have something else to hope for. The second reason is a little more “woo-woo” which is that I deep-down believe that this is where my gifts lie, and that someday I’m going to be part of making something awesome and meaningful, if I can just find my way to it.

  • Where are you currently in your career? Anything that you are excited about?

I’m at a place in my career now where it’s easy to feel frustrated, because time passes and I’m still side-hustling to support my writing when I want my writing to support itself. But, I’m also in a place where I once aspired to be: I’ve had representation for a while, and recently added a TV agent to the team! And I’m celebrating my first produced TV credit (with writing partner Paul Seetachitt) — an episode of Creepshow that came out last month called “Time Out.” It’s gotten a lot of complimentary reviews, which is validating. These things give me hope that I’m getting closer to where I want to be.

  • What drew you to ScreenCraft and how did the competition help you?

A good friend who knows that I also write short stories sent me the link to the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story competition. At this point I’ve largely forsworn writing competitions, but for some reason I decided to enter… and it worked out! I got to meet with one of the judges which was my first one-on-one meeting with a showrunner and was exciting for me. And while I already had representation, the buzz surrounding winning the Grand Prize inspired my reps to send the story out, and I think was key in their decision to add a TV agent to my team, which is something I’d really been wanting for a long time — so that felt like a victory.  I’ve really appreciated that Screencraft has a team of real people who have checked in on my progress since the contest. They’ve pushed me to evaluate those things that any writer can and should control — like online visibility and professional outreach —  and encouraged me to be accountable and level those up. 

  • What advice would you give to your younger self as a writer?

Now that I sometimes teach writing, I’ve realized how much I appreciate students who make the effort to show me who they are — I don’t mind if it takes a few minutes after class. It’s enjoyable, and it makes it easier for me to write a recommendation or refer them for an internship or whatever. Being on this side of things makes me look back and think about how often in my life I’ve made the choice to  “not bother” someone higher up the ladder than me instead of taking that little risk. If I could advise my younger self (without disturbing the time-space continuum), I would say, “Be braver sooner. You’re a joy, not a burden.” It’s probably good advice for my older self as well.

Writing Update: August/September/October

WRITING

My top three projects for August/September/October (as measured in hours devoted) were:  

A VERY PEARTREE CHRISTMAS – horror rom-com spec feature (with Paul Seetachitt) 
Christmas-resistant journalist is sent to the town of PearTree to cover their annual Twelve Days of Christmas Festival only to discover that a series of  gruesome “accidents” occurring during the festivities are actually ritualistic murders, orchestrated to resurrect the demon, Krampus.
Paul Seetachitt and I pushed to get it ready for pre-holiday reading. Available now!

THE INFLUENCER (suspense-horror spec feature)
When the manager / best friend of a struggling social media influencer cuts a deal for her client to beta-test some new tech in order to get more followers, the results are more than she bargained for. 
Did some rewriting in September and submitted. Readers (i.e. my reps) have come back with an intriguing idea… should it be a TV series instead?! Hmmmm. Stay tuned to hear how this one turns out.

GIRL, WOLF, WOODSMAN (short fiction)
A contemporary re-imagining of “Little Red Riding Hood” that details what happens after the woodsman heroically dispenses with that pesky wolf. 
Found this one in the archives and decided to finish it at long last. Did a round of submissions to literary journals — we’ll see if it finds a home.  There’s also a short screenplay version waiting in the wings.  

WATCHING

MOVIES: The Green Knight, Free Guy, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Card Counter, Americanish, Natalie, The Tomorrow War, Malignant, No Time to Die, Last Night in Soho, Eternals

TV: Dave, Ted Lasso, Mare of Easttown, The Boys, We Are Lady Parts, The Other Two (pilot); The Chair, Foundation, Squid Game, We Are Here, Great British Bake Off

READING

Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguru; Anxious People, Fredrik Backman; Women in White Coats; Olivia Campbell, Gone, Lisa Gardner; An Ordinary Wonder, Buki Papillon; Afterlives, Thomas Pierce; Elevation, Stephen King; The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn; Best of Tor.com 2020; Heroine with 1001 Faces, Maria Tatar  Heroine with 1001 Faces, Maria Tatar 

LISTENING

New category! I’ve discovered and am really getting into scripted podcast series. Like radio plays of old… or TV for your ears…

Wolverine, The Long Night (Marvel), Moonface, Blood Ties, True Love, Bridgewater, Aftershock

APPRECIATING

Boundaries crossed after seeming millennia:

A TV agent (Auri Maruri at Gersh), and my first official TV credit (Creepshow, Season 3, Episode 5: “Time Out.”)

Writing Update Preview

For awhile I’ve been grappling with the fact that I lack awareness of where my time — as in the collection of hours that makes up my life — goes. I know I work and write, and read stuff and watch things on screens (as well as eat, sleep and do dishes) but—perhaps especially when I’m working from home—the hours and days become one amorphous blob. At this moment, I might be able to tell you what I did yesterday, but two days ago is vanished from my memory. Also, as someone who slips in and out of “flow” in which, by definition, one doesn’t feel time, I lack an awareness of how much time things take. For instance, I have no idea what time it was when I started this paragraph.

In an attempt to mitigate this very floaty, unmoored existence, I’ve started trying — quasi-successfully — to clock in and out of my work sessions for various projects (I’m pretty good at clocking in, and pretty terrible at remembering to clock out). I then try to clump the hours together to make a summary I can use to figure out what has happened with all my “missing” time, as well as what to charge people for jobs when they ask for estimates, and how to answer questions like “whatcha been up to?” or “why haven’t you called for five months?”

When I start things, I’m definitely writing for myself, but, then, at some point in the process, I start thinking, wait, this might be interesting to an audience, and that often changes the shape of what I write. At a certain point, with these “productivity summaries” I thought – oh, maybe I could make a little newsletter/ update that I could send to people, like my reps and executives who have told me to keep in touch and to let them know what I’m working on. With an audience in mind, I’ve started thinking, okay, I need to pare this down, so I just named my top three projects instead of listing everything I worked on, and added in some loglines to provide context. But so far, when it comes to actually sending the updates to the execs, I’ve mostly chickened out. In addition to the fact I haven’t seen them for over a year, and they may not remember me at all, asking someone to sift through list of books I’m reading is kind of presumptuous!

Which is all only to say, I’m about to post some updates that are really of interest only to myself, which could be said most of this blog I guess, so maybe no explanations are in order in any case.

If you are one of the few who get these posts to your inbox, apologies for the heavy influx as I catch up by posting everything from this year — I’m sure I’ll be returning to my bi-monthly posting schedule soon!

(Edit: After publishing, I moved the first two updates to more chronologically appropriate locations. i.e. Jan/Feb is now published in March, and Mar/Apr is published in May…