by James Preston
Time is your friend . . . and your enemy.
You can never have enough. Yet it can stretch, minutes to seeming hours, in a boring movie that your date loves. It can race by when you’re writing to meet a deadline.
. . . Time.
I looked for fiction writing classes on line and got over 65 million hits in less than a second. Let’s assume one out of a thousand, 0.1%, of them are aimed right at your kind of writing, that’s 65,000. Okay, 0.1% of that is 65 and you decide to attend one or more?
You are talking a lot of hours. Not necessarily a bad thing. Our art and craft are not easily mastered. But how many can you attend and still finish the book?
. . . Time
But are there brief bits to educate and help, to inspire, inform and entertain when you don’t have days for a class? Like a life hack, a shortcut to help get you over those humps? You bet!
It seems to me that all of these classes, books and essays divide into two groups: “how to” and “inspirational.”
The first group is absolutely essential. What we do is both craft and art and you must master the craft before you can begin to grapple with the second. Before you can play in the piano recital you have to learn to run scales.
The inspirational half of this is equally important because we all hit moments when we think of our current WIP, “Arggh! This sucks. I hate it and it hates me.”
Side note: I told my wife about a month ago that my current story was trying to kill me. It was.
Then I took a break and plugged in my DVD of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
And this time I watched the special features, and I listened to Stephen Spielberg talk about the work. And I realized that modern movies on DVD are chock full of great interviews with the people involved, in which they tell stories of how they did it, why they did it (sometimes), and how they kept going when it got tough. And I found a quick way to get a boost, to think, “Yeah, everybody struggles now and then.”
The DVD helped me.
Many DVDs are a rich source of information in four ways: “Making Of” featurettes, liner notes, commentary, and deleted scenes.
Side Note: streaming services also offer movies with extra features, which may vary by service. I’m using DVD examples in this essay, focusing on the “Making Of” featurettes. I’ll throw in a bit of romance, a piece of trivia for your next cocktail party, and I’ll talk about liner notes from one movie that very few, if any, of you have heard of, let alone seen.
Here are a few DVDs that have worthwhile special features. I suggest them because they will convince you that everybody hits rough spots, everybody that succeeds keeps going, and — the best part — they’re relatively short. “Making of” featurettes are usually at most 20 - 30 minutes long. Watching one will expose you to pros grappling with deadlines and story issues.
Temple of Doom
As I’m sure many of you know, Temple of Doom is widely regarded as the weakest of the first Indiana Jones trilogy. It is certainly the darkest. If you watch the special features, Spielberg knew it. But it was a story he wanted to tell, so he did, and don’t think there's no risk involved. Hollywood not only believes you’re only as good as your last work, they’re proud of thinking that way. He has some very interesting things to say.
Star Trek (2009)
Here I’m talking about the reboot, directed by J.J. Abrams. The “Making of..." featurettes are excellent. What comes through to me most is how much the cast and crew enjoyed making the movie. Hard work? You bet. Arguments? I’m sure. But, bottom line, it shows how much they enjoyed the story. It convinced me that if I didn’t love a scene, or a story, something was wrong. It helped to rekindle my enthusiasm for my work.
Romancing the Stone (1984).
Wow, this DVD is a treasure trove of good information and inspiration. My thanks to the folks at WITS for asking me to write because it made me pull out the movie. Look for “Hidden Treasure: the Screenwriter.” If you don’t know her story, be prepared to be surprised.
In the liner notes: this script was “in turnaround” (translation: limbo) for two years. Two years, after the writer, who was working as a waitress when she wrote it, got Michael Douglas interested. Two years! If that doesn’t inspire you I don’t know what will.
Deleted scenes: ask yourself why “At the river” was cut. And for the trivia I promised, look at the very first scene of Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner. A female writer is sitting at her typewriter, hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a Pendleton shirt. Then look at the back cover photo of Grace Metalious on Peyton Place. The Turner scene has got to be an homage.
All of the above are movies that I like a lot. I thought I’d include one that I don’t’ much care for: Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. I was watching some of the bonus material preparing for this essay, and the section of “The Director and the Jedi” where they’re working on storyboards is really useful, and it spoke to me because I was struggling with just that for the last fight screen in my WIP. Thoughts in the middle of the night like, “Wait, she can’t do that in the parking lot; she’s on the roof.” These people are working out issues just like that.
I want to close by talking about a movie I bet very few of you have seen — a little gem called (I’m not making this up) The Hideous Sun Demon. This time I'm focusing on the liner notes on the DVD case.
THSD was made in 1957, released in 1958, by a man named Robert Clarke. He’s also the producer and the star, which tells you something. Today it would be direct-to-video or You Tube. At that time it was aimed at an audience of kids in a drive-in, busy drinking beer and making out.
In the liner notes Clarke talks about how he and some of his friends from USC scraped together the cash and made the movie on a shoestring, and how when he was in the hideous sun demon costume, (made out of an old wetsuit), it was so hot that so much sweat was running down his body that there is one still picture of him where it appears he failed to make it to the Men’s Room in time. But they stuck with it. Clarke stuck with it. And they finished the movie, it made some money and they’re proud of their work. Learn from them. You should be proud of yours, too.
I promised romance... Stephen Spielberg has soft spot for Temple of Doom because he says that’s where he met his wife, Kate Capshaw. Not bad, huh?
So, time. Mine’s about up.
Time is the one resource you can’t get more of. When you’re working on our art and craft, try to use it well. With a free half hour you can learn something from the likes of Spielberg, Abrams — or Clarke.
Now do something for me, for us. Think about quick things from special features that gave you a boost, maybe a deleted scene that made you think one of yours might drag just a bit, maybe a writer’s story from a Making Of featurette. Are there Special Features that moved you? Share them with this writing community that we are all part of. Thanks.
Time. Tick tock, tick tock, tick . . .
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James Preston writes the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His work is collected by the UC Berkeley University library as part of their special collection, “California Detective Fiction.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.