Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Oh, Happy Day!

It is indeed a happy day! A tsunami of Democrats washed away years of corruption, deadwood, and fundamentalist hypocrisy to make way for a new, Democratically-controlled house and Senate!

And Rumsfeld resigned!! Amazingly, had he done so a month ago, the tsunami might have been avoided. By refusing to admit error, the Bush administration sealed its fate.

And here in California, I'm personally celebrating the fact that Debra Bowen will be our new Secretary of State. Finally, someone who understands computers and sees the need to seriously audit the processes and machinery of our elections. Oh, Happy Day indeed!

I feel like I'm on a roll. Just a couple of weeks ago, I won the Creative Screenwriting Open, a writing tournament conducted onsite at Screenwriting Expo, judged by the good people over at Coverage, Ink. I and about 700 other people sat down for an hour and a half to write a scene based on a given setup, or "prompt."

Here's the prompt I faced in Round One:
Your PROTAGONIST is a bored bureaucrat just going through the motions of life who stumbles onto a staggeringly huge conspiracy. Write the scene in which your protagonist wrestles with whether or not he or she should take action even as the clock is ticking towards the end of life as we know it. You may use any other characters of your choosing in this scene.
A world-ending conspiracy? Right up my alley! As a published author on the assassinations of the sixties, I've often imagined all sorts of horrible world-ending conspiracies. I thought for a few minutes, and came up with something I would at least enjoy writing. Suffice it to say that my score of 90 (out of a hundred) put me right at the 10% cutoff. I eeked my way into Round Two.

I almost missed competing in Round Two. I had misread the program, and thought Round Two was Sunday morning. It wasn't. It was Saturday night. I was about to get in my car, but for no ascertainable reason decided instead to wander out and mingle with some fellow Screenwriting Expo conference attendees. One of them mentioned Round Two was starting in a few minutes at the 'other' hotel - a 15 minute walk from where I was. "Oh no," I assured him. "You're wrong. It's tomorrow. Look."

I pulled out the program to show him how right I was, and of course, he was right, and I was completely wrong. God bless him. I ran to the other hotel, huffing and puffing, and retook the same 'winning' seat that had gotten me out of the previous round.

And then the nightmare round began.

When I got the prompt for Round Two, I was upset. What was I going to do with this??
Your PROTAGONIST is a famous but fading star in his field. His YOUNGER SIBLING, whom he has always been overprotective of, has eclipsed him in the same field, and their relationship has become contentious. Enter MOM, who suffers no fools. Write the scene in which the two siblings are forcibly thrown together by mom and are told they must work together to accomplish a goal of Mom's choosing.
I had NO ideas. Zip. Zilch. Zero. I wanted to write something funny. And I couldn't think of anything funny about that prompt. I was certain that everyone in the room had a better idea than me. At least, everyone in the room HAD an idea. I had none. NONE!

The clock was ticking.

10 minutes. Beavers building a dam? Nah. Skunk family? Nah.

20 minutes. Actual human siblings? Serious drama? Blech!!! Nada.

30 minutes, and still no ideas. I only had 60 minutes left to plan, write, and review my little scene. What to do? What to DOOOOOOOOO??????

From some mildewed corner of my mind, I thought of the old Jack and Jill rhyme, and thought, well, Jill could be the older sister - the one who always brought the water back. But now Jack's getting older, and faster, and Jill is both threatened and concerned! Mom orders them to bring the water back TOGETHER. That works, right? Silly idea. Really goofy. But hey, you go with whatever you have. At that point, any idea was better than sitting around blankly for yet ANOTHER ten minutes, watching any hope of making it to the next round slip away.

So I started. And a funny thing happened. I noticed the lines were coming out in rhyme. And then I started rhyming the action between the lines. And the parentheticals. I decided I'd do the whole damn scene in rhyme from start to finish. Suddenly I was having fun again, snickering and thinking, well, either I'll get high points for creativity, at the very least, or I'll be thrown out on my ear, and rightly so, for so bending the rules of screenwriting! Because I hadn't planned to rhyme when I started, I had to rewrite the whole thing at the end to fix the beginning and tighten it up. I still managed to finish a few minutes before the hour and a half was up. We'd been told to use every minute to improve our scripts, and that leaving early was a bad idea. But when have I EVER been one to completely follow the rules? I left early, knowing if I stayed I'd start second-guessing myself and just make it worse.

Since I had a copy of what I'd written, I showed it to a few others after I'd left the room. Total strangers. I knew I had a chance when they were all laughing by the end of the first page (my handwritten scenes in each round were around five pages each. That's with lots of space on the page, mind you.) Maybe! Damn, maybe I really had a chance! Oh, don't get your hopes up, Lisa. Wow, but it would be so cool to move up. But what will the judges think? Will they appreciate the effort? Or give me the lowest score ever????

I went home unconcerned with the outcome. I was happy with what I had done. To have made it from having NO idea to finding something that made others laugh and that I had fun writing was good enough for me.

Surprisingly, it was good enough for the judges too! They gave me a 95!

At 11:30pm that night, as I was about to go to bed, I got "the call."

"You're in the top 10!" I heard. I was so excited I missed the part where I was told what time to show up the following day. I didn't want to take a chance on missing it. So I arrived at 8am, having slept maybe four hours, feeling terribly nervous, terribly tired, and terribly excited. Two hours too early. But better early than late, right?

What would the final prompt be? Softball? Hardball? I love having to create on the spot, but what would they give me? I also knew that the top three scenes would be staged before an audience, so I wanted something that would be funny (it's really hard for drama to be compelling in such a short scene) and something that would visually appeal to an audience. When I saw the prompt, I thought, a gift from God! I had an idea right away, and I knew I was going to have fun with it.

Here was the final Round Three prompt:
Your PROTAGONIST is a washed-up shell of what he used to be. Formerly a star in his field, he's now reduced to working a soul-sucking menial job. But then TWO UNUSUAL COWORKERS confess a startling secret and bring him to a special place. PROTAGONIST is presented with an opportunity to regain what he once had. The only problem is, he will have to part with the one thing he most truly cares about to make it happen. Write the scene in which your protagonist wrestles with his dilemma. You may use any other characters or settings of your choosing.
I wrote about a failed UFOlogist, now tending bar in Roswell NM, who finds out two barmaids are actually multi-tentacled aliens! They offer to show him their colony on one condition: he can never write about it. As I wrote his big 'dilemma' speech, I realized there was an opportunity to play to the Expo audience, and took it.

When I laid down my pen, for the first time in the competion, I actually felt I'd nailed it. I had a funny premise, the scene had a beginning, middle, and an end, wildly visual characters, and ended with a punchline any screenwriter could love. I walked out feeling I had indeed made the top three. I just knew it in one of those there's-no-reason-for-this-but-I-know-it-anyway sort of things.

So I waited.

And waited.

And... waited.

I was told I'd hear by 12:30pm if I was in the top three.

It was 1:00pm.

And 1:30pm.

I wandered by the whiteboard where winners were to be posted. Nothing.

Well, they would have called me by now. So I didn't make the top three. Oh well. I liked it. That's what counts, right?


Wrong! I walked by the board again and there were three names on it:

1) Todd van Der Werff
2) Fran Ervin
3) Lisa Pease

I was there!! My name was there!!! I got on the phone and told people I had come in third! Woohoo! How cool was that? But then someone overheard me and said wait - the audience hasn't voted - that's not your place - that just means you're in the top three.

Really? I could still win? Yeah right. But how cool would it be to see my scene staged, anyway??

So I watched as the actors named our scenes and acted them out. I crossed my fingers and hoped they'd bring my multi-tentacled alien to life, because that was the funniest visual in my scene. I was an actor for over 20 years and knew that multi-armed beings were sure crowd-pleasers. I also hoped the actor would sell the joke at the end. I hoped he would find the other humorous bits I had tried to include.

My scene was up first. The acting troupe had hilariously named it "Roswell that Ends Well" - a title far more clever than any I would have come up with! But as they started, something was off. The main actor was misreading my protagonist. I imagined a hardened, sardonic, bitter guy who has lived a life of ridicule. Instead, some young kid blew the first two jokes and acted like a scaredy cat. Oh gosh, I thought. Well, there goes my chance.

But then the actors put the alien together - eight arms and all, and it got a big laugh. Maybe there's hope! And although the actor blew a few words in his final speech, he was close enough:
To be right and not be able to
tell. To have found the truth
and not be able to share. To
have a million dollar story
that no one will ever read. Why
I'm no better than a screenwriter!
Another big laugh. Cool! The scene got a nice round of applause. And I waited.

The next scene, by Fran, started great. Snow White, now 50 years old, smoking in a bar, bemoaning her job at McDonalds because the prince had dumped her long ago. It was funny and smart, but the audience didn't seem to connect with it - didn't laugh quite as loudly, didn't clap quite as much. Hmmm. Maybe I really have a chance!

The final scene was called "Where there's a Will, there's a Way," and featured - of all characters, Will Shakespeare. My heart sunk. How can you compete with Shakespeare? And the scene was funny. His parents beaming back into his life in some weird sci-fi (if low tech) effect, giving him script notes. The scene ended with his mother saying how she liked his play about the two young lovers, asking, "but do they really have to die in the end?" I thought it would get a bigger laugh, but then I realized, most writers at Expo are still trying to sell their first story. They haven't been through "development hell", the realm in which this scene clearly took place.

I turned to my friend Ken Schretzmann, who had edited "Cars" at Pixar. He came down from Northern California to hear his fellow Pixarians speak at Expo, and stayed when he found out I was going to be in the final three. "Who won?" I asked him. He pointed to me. "No way!" I whispered. "Really?"

Jim Cirile of Coverage Ink took the stage. He called the top three writers up on the stage. And then he played "Miss America" with us.

"And the first runner-up is..."

- and it wasn't me!

"And the second runner-up is..."

And that wasn't me either!!

OMIGOD!!! I had just WON!!!! And the top prize was $5000!!!!! After hugging Jim heartily, I gave a short acceptance speech that went something like this:

"I've been to Expo three times. The first time, I was too chicken to enter this contest. The second time, I didn't make it out of the first round. The third time, I won! So there's hope for ALL of you!"

As I left the stage, the man who had clued me in to the correct time of Round Two caught up with me and said, "Aren't you glad you talked to me?" I grabbed his hand and kissed it. "I so owe you!" I said. "No you don't," he responded. "I believe in Karma." So do I. I hope he wins next year.

I've won things before. I won a couple of harp contests. I won the President's award at a company I worked at. I even won $2500 on the gameshow "Win, Lose or Draw" a bunch of years ago. But $5000 for doing what I love best??? Nothing beats that.

Nothing, of course, except a Democratic House and Senate, and the news that Rumsfeld is out. That's truly the best news I've had in six years.

Oh, Happy Day!


Blogger walkshills said...

Kudos, Lisa. Any writer that wins anything is a joyous story, but winning with a BEM is a classic.

To paraphrase one speaker at a writing conference I attended long ago, "Notice there are no armed guards at the door, no Nazis with machine guns. You're here because you're compelled to write, however abnormal that may be considering the rewards. You love something that seldom makes more money than a fruit picker on a good day."

Well, you beat the fruit pickers by a long shot and got the juiciest prize.

To go with the election celebration, you must be on cloud nine these days.

Now to some business: of all those released records you surveyed coming out after JFK, the movie, was their additonal info about Gates? Talk about resurrecting a dark shadow from the past with fingers in OBL creation, death squads in Central America and the politicization of CIA. Over on dkos (hey, I miss you over there), there's been plenty of background. However, you're the only one I know who might have seen more buried connections.

Anything there?

11:44 AM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

What's a BEM??

As for the money, given how much I've written over my life, or even over the last few years, that's still a lot less than a penny a word! ;-) But I'll take it, with great joy!

Re Gates - I don't think the JFK records will shed much light on him. But there's a good post over at Progressive History by Valtin that gives some background and links on Gates. Yes. I think the whole country is glad Rumsfeld's gone (not counting Cheney, but he's hardly representative of the rest of us). But how much better will Gates be? That's the big question mark in everyone's mind. He comes from the same cabal, but maybe he's learned from watching the mistakes of others. I hope, anyway. Time will tell.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

And thanks! I meant to start with that!!

4:06 PM  
Blogger walkshills said...

BEM = Bug-eyed monster

That's a term from the early days of science fiction. It became synonymous with aliens of all sorts, but clearly the more spectacular creations.

Before the turn of the 19th century, Jules Verne was earning a penny a word writing his novels for Paris newspapers. At some point when I was a sports editor, another writer and I calculated how much we had written for a year (conservatively 200K words) and divided by our salary and came up with about a penny a word. A hundred years had not made two-bits of difference.

Allegedly, it's all the incidentals that make it worthwhile: having an audience, getting a byline and recognition in public, the action of creation and completion. Only as a sportwriter were these real rewards, because sportswriters are generally much-loved figures and tend to be better writers than journalists in general. They also tend to be storytellers and somewhat scalawags, ala the Larry McMurtry mold.

I read Valtin's diary and there was another, too; I just wondered how early Gates popped into the intelligence equation. He's part of the old cabal and that usually implies prior connection somewhere down the line.

Hey, you're certainly welcome. $5K is a hell of a reward and will keep writing no matter how poor you become.

And congrats on the Cal SoS and all the work you did in other races. That is important in the campaign to reclaim the election process in the USA.

4:29 PM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Yes! It's really important not to lose our vigilance. I wouldn't be surprised to learn some time from now that the vote was rigged, but that the Democrats won by a majority large enough to overcome the rigging. We must continue to press not just for paper trails, but vigorous audits of those paper trails. One without the other is of no use in determining the accuracy of an election.

Bug-eyed Monsters! Got it! I can picture it instantly - the old 50s sci fi classics...!

I agree, btw, re sportswriters. One of the best early articles on vote fraud came from sportswriter Jim Lampley.

I waited long into the night for the results from the Secretary of State race, but I couldn't stay up ALL night. The race wasn't called until the next morning. Most of my political friends in the state were hard at work on her campaign. It was wonderful to see not just the right candidate in place, but to see my friends pull in a victory, for a change. Democrats are like Red Sox fans. We're always fighting the good fight, but losing in the end. When we take one, it's a wondrous thing.

9:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations again Lisa! Just saw this blog while I was googling trying to get some contact info for Coverage Ink...
Hope you're doing well!

Fran Ervin

5:52 PM  

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