A couple years back, I conceived of a series which involved a fair amount of research about clones. I still perk up my ears when I see articles about clone advancements. People have been cloning their pet dogs for several years, but now the the first cat has been cloned.
Of particular interest:
For their pet cloning services, Mi says Sinogene hopes to someday transfer the memories of the original animals to their clones using artificial intelligence or man-machine interface technology, according to the Global Times
The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.
Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:
A character has a goal.
The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
The character attempts to execute the plan.
The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.
Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)
A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
The cat eats the treats.
What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?
OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…
STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)
So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!
What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)
The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.
I got very nice note from the editor of the Chariton Review wanting to print a short story I submitted called “How to Write Your Own Biography.”
I’ve been writing a treatment for new media project and last week I got a letter saying I’d soon be receiving a contract for an actual script.
I’ll update if/when either of these things become a reality. Even at a “contract’s in the mail” stage, I’ve had projects disappear, so that could happen.
But for right now, I’m appreciating the good news…
… and I’m continuing to develop several other projects that I’m excited about…
… and I’m “visioning” that miracle TV staffing job…
… and I’m also browsing LinkedIn and Glassdoor… looking at “real” jobs.
Hope and gratitude and passion can co-exist with anxiety and even grief.
Back when I was diagnosed with cancer and the odds were about 50-50, I exercised and meditated and read medical articles and nutrition books with the intention to nudge these odds as much as possible and survive. And at the same time, because it was a real possibility, I felt I should try to mentally and emotionally prepare for a different future where I did not stay alive. Really considering the thought that I might not survive brought about an odd combination of feelings: grief and loss, but, at times, also the possibility of relief. I figured that if it got to the point where I knew, then I could give myself a break– eat sugar, and drink alcohol and just mentally let go. I saw friends reach that point, and while it wasn’t what they would have chosen, they accepted that a choice had been made for them, and there was a kind of peace in knowing that. Once they acknowledged that their time on this earth was limited, all the “fighting time” became time they could use in whatever way was the most rewarding for them.
It might seem ridiculous to say that contemplating failing to establish a writing career is comparable to contemplating dying of cancer. Except that I have now experienced both, and — without wanting to sound overwrought — in my experience, there are similarities.
I’ve invested very heavily — money, security, and years of my life and just a lot of emotional intent — in the idea that someday I would be able to sustain myself through writing. I’ve hoped that would involve working and collaborating with other people in a writers room to make good work. That has been the dream.
But the closer I get without getting, the more I’m having to face the idea that the odds of this happening are not in my favor. They are much worse than 50/50.
And so I’m doing two things at once: One one hand I’m hoping I can beat the odds, and to that end I’m doing the work that anecdotally helps: I’m doing the networking and writing and producing outside projects to help break through the noise…
But I am also trying to look at things honestly, and that means contemplating what it might be like to admit failure and give up. When I visualize doing that, I feel is the grief. I feel so heartbroken that I start to cry at random moments.
But I’ve also begun to wonder if it might be a relief. I think about the possibility of being financially solvent, of binge watching TV just because I like it, of casually clicking the $25 or $50 dollar donations on people’s GoFundMe pages. I think about looking for a job that isn’t just a crutch to lean on while I give myself to an industry that doesn’t seem to need me, but a job that is also meaningful and where my employer sees value in me.
Those are the two things I’m thinking simultaneously each day when I wake. Carrying them both is work.
I have a new short story that I feel like has got some legs, despite it receiving its third rejection today. It’s a story with a sci-fi twist so I’m trying sci-fi mags first, but have a feeling it’s not really sci-fi enough. The sci-fi doesn’t become apparent ’til near the end, whereas all the sample story excerpts on the magazine websites seem to start out with people floating around in space-pods. I have been gratified by how fast the genre magazines turn around though. I started submitting at the beginning of January, and although none of them accept simultaneous submissions, they have all responded within a week. By comparison, in the same batch of morning emails, I also got a rejection for a different story that I submitted to a literary journal back in August, which for overwhelmed, underpaid lit journals is about standard.
I’ve just decided, after seeing a few articles on the topic of “100 rejections per year” like this one and this one, that I, too, will aim for 100 rejections this year. I generally have in mind that rejections reflect attempts, and thus it’s good to collect a few, but 100 is a nice round number, and I will need to up my game to achieve it. The end of January is almost upon us, and I am only four rejections in. I need an average of nine per month to hit 100. Because of the afore-mentioned long turn-around times, I am disadvantaged by my low submission numbers in the last half of last year, and for the same reason, anything I submit after summer of this year might not get rejected until next year!
I also need to change up the types of things I get rejected for. Last year, I invested a lot of time in submissions for screenwriting fellowships and labs. These often have high entry fees. I wish I could say it is the last vestiges of self-respect, but it’s probably just my extreme lack of funds that require me to take those out of the mix this year. No $100 Humanitas Prize entry for me. No $45-$65 dollar lab submissions or $45-$95 screenwriting contests. (I’m glad that my contributions over the last decade have helped all the worthy programs who sponsor these opportunities, and am sure my deficit will be covered by plenty of new aspirants.) A friend recently offered to show me how to look for article work — so that might be an option for rejection collection!
I also need to set some parameters. Like if I pitch a show and they pass… can that count? I think yes, because of the preparation involved, and the fact that I can write the company names and project names on my tracking chart. But things like requests for fee-waivers do not count–even though I can chart them and they still pack some dream-denying emotional punch, they are not actually rejecting my ideas or work or presentation of self.
I first heard about CINESTORY several years back when I went to a screening of an indie film called Cake. The writer talked about taking the script to the Cinestory Retreat and finding support for it there. I went to their website and thought the experience sounded amazing — spending time in an idyllic setting working with professional writers on ones project, making friends and bonding, etc.
Over the course of a few years I submitted two or three features to the Cinestory Contest (entry fee $55-$75) and never heard back, but last year, just as I’d finished a first draft of an original pilot, I saw they’d added an episodic lab for TV work, and submitted again.
This time, I was excited to get an email notifying me that I’d made the quarter finals, and more so when I got the email saying I’d made the semi-finals!
But some of the warm fuzzies cooled and floated away when I read this:
Let’s go back and read that submission page again. Reading more carefully than I did, you’ll see that the grand prize winner gets “free tuition,” which by implications means the the other invitees… don’t. Also, if you go to their FAQ there is a statement noting that there is a cost for the retreat.
That cost, by the way, does not cover lodging or transportation. So, for me, the question became, do I have in excess of $2000 to spend in three days?
In other years, when I have been working a day job, the answer mighthave been yes. This year I am mostly writing, so the cost is on the high side for me. In truth, the $55 entry fee was already on the high side for me.
For me, the $2000 buys a month of food and rent, and expenses so I guess that’s like my own personal writers’ retreat?… Except… not. Working at my desk at home is not meeting people and making connections. What if, like with Cake, someone took a shine to my project and help shepherd it to fruition? What if someone just liked me, my writing, my work ethic, and it led to the job in or near a writers room? What if this were the opportunity that changed my career?
I won’t ever know, because I didn’t go.
Luck, they say, is when preparation meets opportunity. Once you’ve prepared, how far should you go –and how much should you spend — on the hunt for “opportunity?” For those little moments, those chance meetings, that might change everything …or might change nothing?
Cinestory, by the way, is a non-profit organization. None of the mentors are paid. As noted in the FAQ, “they volunteer their time for free.” The way they say it implies I should feel good about that, though I’m not exactly sure why I should feel good that money is just going to the organizers and not the instructors. Isn’t that just saying that if I ever succeed in my own struggles to achieve a career and reputation in the industry then I can look forward to being asked to work for free, teaching students who are paying generously for the experience? If you want to pick a profession (besides writer) that gets consistently undervalued — it’s teaching!
So my review of Cinestory retreat is that it looks enticing on the website. My review of the Cinestory contest marketing is that it feels disingenuous, despite what I’m sure are genuine good intentions on the part of the organizers.
If you are an aspiring writer with a day job and want to take a feel-good vacation that will maybe give you some inspiration, friendships, connections, you should totes submit. But if it doesn’t work out, consider using the same amount of money to take three 10-week long classes at UCLA extension, also taught by working industry writers who are being paid (albeit too little) to help you with your writing.