Short Break

Punctuated Equilibria will be on hiatus for a while as I focus effort elsewhere.

In the meantime (and in the spirit of obscure pertinence not unfamiliar to this blog)—please enjoy this handful of favorite short films from recent years. Each is graciously made available online via its respective creator. I hope you’ll find them as inspiring and entertaining as I have.

Until next time—thank you for reading, and best wishes.

Lara


Shadow
Writer/Director: Andrew Pang
Genre: Drama

Shadow is deeply poignant, yet subtle. These beautiful eight minutes—though all too fleeting—invoke a profound sense of melancholy awe.


Odam
Director: Vivek Elangovan
Genre: Thriller

Completed in 2015, Odam is as relevant now as it ever was. Fearful presumptions interweave with the narrative groundwork of this suspenseful, evocative story.


The Leap
Writer/Director: Karel van Bellingen
Genre: Science Fiction

Welcome to my happy place: in a mere thirty minutes, The Leap showcases a litany of personal penchants, including dystopian sci-fi, heartrending plot reveals, and a conflicted anti-hero with a tenuous chance for redemption.

http://www.theleapfilm.com

theleap


Whisper
Director: Julian Terry
Genre: Horror

Simple, creepy brilliance. There’s something to be said for not being on the cutting edge of internet virality: I knew nothing about Whisper before I clicked this accursed YouTube link—and this video scared the &$@# out of me. I now perpetuate it here, for your enjoyment.


The Scared is Scared
Director: Bianca Giaever
Genre: Family

This sweet little short has been around since 2013, but it’s a longtime family favorite in my household. It provided early inspiration for my own kid’s interest in making movies (which, for the record, I fully condone).


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Over the Moon but Earthbound

I’m simply over the moon. A screenplay I wrote Protection made the finals at Cinequest Film & VR Festival, and won third place in the Destiny City Film Festival short script competition. Although it’s just a short, Protection represents months of gradual progress, indispensable advice from other writers, and the sticking-place destination of some serious courage-screwing on my part.

Harsh reality, please do not kill my lunar buzz quite yet.

But oh, man. There’s still such a long way to go.

At some future festival, I hope to take pride in an actual film based on a story I’ve written. After all, the dream is to see words come to life on the screen. But that’s more than I can produce alone, and I can only control my part toward its fulfillment.

What lies beyond writing-related goals—measurable, executable, and in my control—is that dream. And although its hope alone may fuel the often arduous work of writing, its ultimate manifestation is out of my hands.

So following this moonstruck sojourn, I’ll gravitate back to Earth—and back to work.

5th Annual Destiny City Film Festival poster by Carla Bartow

Groundwork

I have no innate sense of direction. When tasked with an important appointment in unfamiliar territory, I like to make a preliminary visit to my destination—and ideally, I like to walk around. Often such a scenario is simply not feasible. Time, distance, and convenience limit such a luxury. But when it is possible and I take the opportunity, much of my new-situation anxiety falls away. Walking provides a means to get a feel for a place at ground level. Walking is slow: it provides the details. Walking is meditative: it allows the mind to make connections to what the senses perceive.

I’ve recently realized an equivalent tendency in the realm of my writing. I began a new story several months ago in the form of feature-length screenplay. As I struggled and struggled—with the outline, the direction, the theme, the beats—as I set it aside repeatedly in exchange for shorter, swiftly-completed writing gratifications—I wondered. Maybe I’m just not up to the task? Maybe the idea is bad? Maybe both.

However, I was loath to give up on it entirely. I sorely miss working on a long storyline. I spent recent years—years—wrestling with a sprawling, epic novel, the end of which I simply could not reach. Although at times immensely frustrating, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I loved working on it despite the complexity.

But ultimately the novel became an exercise in futility: I was so deep in the weeds, so low to the ground, that I couldn’t keep the story moving in any one direction. I wanted to reach a worthwhile destination, but I was lost.

In school last year, I used that novel’s story as the subject of a screenwriting project. I was forced to rise above the details and simplify both my narrative and my thinking. I had to focus on basic plot points, singular character motivations, and essential themes. From the bird’s-eye vantage point of a screenplay beat sheet, the story’s destination came into view at last. The finished product isn’t perfect, but for now, I’m satisfied: that story exists. It has officially been told. I can make clean break and step away.

And I need to step away. The necessary work to finish a major writing project is more laborious sweat than creative spark. Right now, I don’t want sweaty labor to be the bulk of my creative life. I’m yearning for that early-stage spark. I want to regain that sense of story-passion. That sense of fun.

With this new story idea proving troublesome, I considered the wisdom of giving up. It seemed like a dead end. Yet still it lingered in the back of my mind….

And so it lingers today. Scenes appear in my imagination unbidden. Characters show up in insomniac hours to make conversation, and to make their pleas. Exhausted, I acquiesce. Fine, I’m listening.

Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps this new story does hold potential, considering my subconscious is so insistent (or is it my sanity fraying at last?). Maybe it is my next chance to reclaim that endurance-enabling creative passion. But to find out—to get there—I must feel the story, sink into it. I need to set aside the outline for a while, put away the beat sheet, stop overthinking the possible themes.

I need to walk through it at ground level.

I must slow down, go deep and detailed, get lost inside the minds of the characters, immerse myself awhile in the new imagined world. Direction and destination aren’t important during this preliminary amble. The goal is to sense-perceive the story in its incipiency.

Several days ago, I fired up Scrivener for the first time in a long while. I saved a novel template. I started writing prose: a purple, long-winded, overly-detailed account of my opening scene, complete with the character’s thoughts and feelings—what he saw, smelled, heard, tasted.

It was fun.

Each successive morning since then, I’ve awakened early and excited to return to that world, to squeeze in a tiny bit of writing time before morning’s workaday busyness sets in. If this excitement keeps up, and with the help of a parallel script-in-progress, I think I can navigate to the narrative’s end (eventually, anyway—as the crazy-working-mom schedule allows). Thanks to an awesome screenwriting instructor and gracious feedback from my writer’s group, I know much more about storytelling now than I did a few years ago. I hopefully have the skills now to alternate groundwork for a bird’s-eye view of the plot when it’s necessary to gain perspective.

But for me, it’s groundwork that fuels initial passion for a story. In the past, the energy generated by groundwork was what sustained me through the long trip of telling a tale—and it ultimately propelled my writing to its completion.

I hope that will be true of this story too.

groundwork1

Tense Beat

Around this time last year, in the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, my 2016 writing goal seemed simple enough: start an online blog.  I hoped the self-imposed monthly deadline to write something (anything!) for Punctuated Equilibria would provide enough pressure to keep me writing regularly. I presumed the benefits would include both good practice and mental exercise. Furthermore, the public nature of blog writing seemed a means to gain confidence with the concept of “putting it out there.” A means to a thicker skin. Perhaps to a braver self.

Okay, okay. Neither brave nor thick-skinned enough yet to enable comments. But I digress.

Committing to this blog all year forced me into a deeper-thinking mode on a routine basis. Do you sometimes get the sense that “deep thinking” has lost its cultural value lately? Is there a Boromir meme for “One does not simply think things through”? I’m the first to admit, I could stand to develop better habits of mind. I believe Punctuated Equilibria has been helpful to that end. Of course, one could further debate the dubious cultural value of overanalyzing topics like dog bites and goth zines. Still, good mental habits develop from the exercise of analyzing a given topic—appreciating multiple perspectives, considering the devil in the details, and drawing analogous connections to invoke a message. Critical thinking expands awareness and increases understanding.

Ironically, sometimes the awareness is that one doesn’t totally understand. But that’s part of the work of thinking: there’s a reason it’s easier just to not.

Overall, writing here regularly for the past several months has been gratifying. Some entries stole many hours away from sleep and weekends; I dutifully traded the time. I consider writing a vocation. And for what that’s worth, keeping a blog has been an important experiment with a contemporary forum for personal writing.

As 2017 looms, however, my next New Year’s writing goal weighs heavily on my mind. Last year’s screenplay competition deadlines came and went. For all my revising and story-convention-contemplating and believable-character-flaw-development and all-around big talk—I still haven’t deemed my scripts ready to participate.

I need to cut the cord on one of these stories and, well… put it out there.

The artistic balance to strike: between putting-best-foot-forward and perfectionistic-control-freak-ism. Can I muster enough insight to know when to stop revising, say “good enough,” and move on? Sure I can, given all the time in the world. But in lieu of that, even better: give myself a 2017 writing goal.

With only so many available hours each week to devote, and with only so much mental energy to expend, I’m re-committing all my writing time toward the new goal of submitting a script to a competition next year.This blog will go silent for a while—silent as I focus on the writing I consider closest to my heart these days. Silent, certainly until I upload something to Withoutabox and rightfully toast a completed goal.

Maybe it’ll be March? Okay. Maybe October.

Best wishes to you with the New Year,

Lara

Fleeting Dolor and Halcyon Days

Weeks go by smoothly, orchestrated by normal routine. Plans pay off hitchlessly. Murphy’s Law, once respected as harsh reality, takes on the seeming of dark-humored mythology.

Times like these put me on my guard.

In times like these, in disbelief and half amazed, I admire the tenuously-balanced system of my existence—of society’s complex web, of the unlikely miracle of life itself, of universal physics and all its mind-blowing implications and unknowns—and murmur like Bernadette Peters in The Jerk as she peels away Steve Martin’s beauty mask: “This shit really works!”

Do you ever start to worry when you’ve been feeling comfortable, maybe even downright happy, for an extended period of time? Ever get superstitious about your own life? Maybe it’s just me. It’s at times like these when Act II’s hungry, predatory shadow circles the fat-rodent-riddled Act I meadow of my mind.

Something’s gotta give.

In conventional story structure, the catalyst lurks between  Act I and Act II, triggering the protagonist’s next move into conflict-laden times ahead. This catalyst is the inciting incident that breaks the main character’s sense of normalcy, for better or worse. In real life, the notion of this permeable boundary between all-is-well-Act I into the rising-stakes-Act II is prime fodder for anxiety.

Have you ever experienced an ominous sense of impending entropy? Ever felt like forces of chaos and disorder were leaning in just a liiiiittle too close?

Conflict shall arise in some form, as inevitable as death and taxes. And unlike a typical movie, with its singular A-plot and neatly-integrated subplots, real life sometimes bears multiple simultaneous conflicts of A-plot status. Competing calls to action. A potential legion of antagonists.

From Act I’s halcyon standpoint, the suspense is killer.

Where routine had once established itself without blemish, where carefully planned systems once operated smoothly—suddenly, the routine cannot hold. The system does not suffice. Neither is enough to keep chaos at bay. Cannot forego entropy. Cannot block the froth-mouthed Act II wolf from entering Act I’s placid, self-satisfied throne room.

As Steve Martin circa ’79 might advise, stay away from the cans.

When next my tidy little system shows its limits—when my halcyon days are upset by the next inciting incident of life’s complex narrative—I wonder: what sort of protagonist will I prove to be?

 

Inherent Imprecision

I’m in the throes of revising a first-draft screenplay, and my buzz is officially harshed.

The first draft process had me in love with the world for months. I was not only on Cloud 9, but I had my head placed firmly in the clouds  above  Cloud 9.

While writing my first draft, I ate, slept, and drank creative catharsis. Every chunk of passive-voiced, clunky, on-the-nose verbiage was a respectable part of the process. 250 words was a small success, even at its worst output.

Times have changed.

I’m cringing on a regular basis these days, warm-cheeked as I read through dialogue worthy of a child’s puppet show. I’m regularly overwhelmed by the fixes I hope to implement, even as I tick them off my to-do list one by one. I progress through this second-draft rewrite with full rational knowledge that perfection is elusive. But let me tell you something: emotional idiocy often reigns supreme around here. Still I reach and reach for perfection, riding the waves of frustration and imposter-syndrome panic as if I didn’t know better.

It’s a new twist on linguistic philosophy regarding language’s inherent imprecision. I know what I want to say, what effect I want my words to have—and I think I know what I’m seeing on the screen of my imagination. But in execution, my words often fail to communicate precisely what is inside my head.

Well, it’s messy in there anyway. Perhaps it’s for the best.

With this second draft, I descended a cloud or two lower to the ground, and regained some sanity in the process. The more work I complete, the closer I get to the “as perfect as it will be” outcome. While first-draft-me was empowered by the euphoria of creative anarchy, rewrite-me gains power from obsessive persistence, unable to let something go until I’m happy… at least, happy enough to finally get some sleep.

As each fix gets ticked and the to-do list shrinks, I’m now beginning to believe it’s possible: a final polished spec script. As I near my revision’s completion, I anticipate this ultimate end product—as imperfect as it still may be—with growing excitement.

One might dare call it a buzz.

Red Herring in the Hot Tub

I had a long, sleepless night during my kid’s recent bout with a nasty mystery illness. Late-night DIY diagnosis effort: I googled “rash,” “fever,” “children.” Try it yourself some time for an authentic sense of this paranoia-piquing experience. I lay awake for hours next to my itchy son, thinking.

I mentally backtracked through his every known experience over the past week, reverse-engineering recognition of symptom onset and contagion opportunity. Was this a virus passed on from that sick kid at the grocery store? An allergy to the new mattress? An eczema reaction to the kiddie hot tub at our neighborhood public pool? I scrabbled through my memory for signs, symbols, dire foreshadowing. There’s a story here somewhere.

Hindsight apophenia: finding all possible past incidents of should-have-seen-the-signs that one’s memory can produce. When put to its most evil purpose, hindsight apophenia is a boundless source of regret, blame, and self-doubt. This seemed especially true at 1:00 AM, in bed next to a feverish toddler.

But at its most beneficent, hindsight apophenia makes for great stories.

Artistic conventions of storytelling invoke an apopheniac mindset. Foreshadowing, symbolism, poetic language echoing a theme – all these devices play on the reader’s self-induced superstition, the viewer’s sense of foreboding. A writer weaves a story beyond mere linearity by reverse-engineering a path to the big reveal. By crafting parallels with plot clues, symbols, and semiotics. By putting to use the mind’s natural propensity for apophenia.

A storyteller assigns meaning to the seemingly random, and then enforces the semantic weight of this crafted pattern through the story’s outcome.

Readers and viewers appreciate – and expect – a pattern of meaning to lead us to the finale of a novel or film. Random stimulus like that found in real life is called a red herring in a story’s universe. No red herrings, we futilely ask of life. We ask this in vain, and we know it, and yet our best stories unabashedly reinforce the apopheniac mindset. Keep looking for those signs, our minds concede upon finishing a particularly satisfying tale.

There’s a story here somewhere, we think as we venture out into the chaos.