I co-chair the UCLA graduate screenwriting program, and have mentored some of the film industry’s most successful independent screenwriters. My screenwriting book is revered as a guidepost for discovering story and structure, and a cautionary against the pitfalls and mistakes that beginning writers are apt to make.
When I began my first novel, Stein, Stoned, I made every idiotic mistake I have forewarned my students against making. I began with just a first line. No story. No character. I didn’t know the crime, who committed it or against whom it was perpetrated. Oh, but I loved my first line. It took me, let us kindly say, “longer than it should have” to understand that a chapter ought NOT to consist of the character’s ranting for ten pages everything he hated about Los Angeles, followed by a line or two about a sort-of plot.
There was this thing called a story that people would probably be interested in.
I tossed most of what I had written. I set to doing the hard work I hoped my sheer brilliance might avoid having to do.
I was surprised and delighted to discover that what I had learned and taught about screenplays had found its way into my story; that it had a classic three- act structure. Now I could write it with confidence that I would make no more stupid rookie mistakes.
Midway through, I got a film assignment had had to stop work on the book for several months. When I came back and finished it, my writing group pointed out to me that the killer seemed to have changed. And yes…in the interim I had forgotten who I had designated as the murderer. Paraphrasing Stanislavski, “When you think you know everything, prepare to enter the next phase of your education.”
It took 4 years from first line to the draft that was ultimately purchased. The second book was due in a year.
Thankfully I learned a bit through some of the mistakes.
I did not write a word of Stein, Stung (Tyrus March 2012) until I had worked out a story outline in pretty decent detail. In both books there are two interwoven crimes that begin as ridiculously trivial incidents and that open up into multi billion-dollar industries—the first around home grown weed and knock-off designer shampoo, this one starts with a few hives of honeybees being stolen, and opens into the giant Agrobiz industry of central California, the almond industry and the pilferage of the water resources reminiscent of Chinatown.
It touches the real concerns of Colony Collapse. Bees are the canaries in the coalmine for human survival. Einstein said, “Four years after the bees are gone, humanity is gone.” And they are disappearing. Monoculture. Pesticides. Industrialized farming. We are going to hell in a grocery bag.
Having a story worked out makes writing a mystery a lot easier. I learned a lot though, by not following my own good advice. It’s helpful as a teacher to make all the egregious errors possible, because that experience helps track the bad decisions that students make, and facilitates guiding them back with as little injury as possible to the top of the ski slope to start again. As master Shakespeare reminds us: Sweet are the uses of adversity.
Hal Ackerman is the author of STEIN, STUNG and STEIN, STONED. He currently resides in Los Angeles where he co-chairs the screenwriting program at UCLA.