Category Archives: Writing

Write the Dang Thing

Look, writers are gonna write… except when they come up with voluminous excuses not to. So, periodic posts like this one to help motivate people are always handy.

In other words, enjoy this piece about how Laura Vanderkam gets her writing done while having 4 children, blogging, speaking, and presumably breathing and eating.

Increasing Writing Motivation by Increasing Joy

For this Labor Day, a day where many of us are sure not to labor, it somehow seems appropriate to share this piece by Mark Marino about how to have more joyous writing exercises.

Sounds like pretty good motivation to me.

Four Act Structure and the Twist

As something to shake things up with your writing, consider this piece on “still eating oranges” I see pop up from time to time. It’s about Kishōtenketsu, a storytelling structure familiar in many Asian narratives.

The article here focuses a lot on how it’s different from the Western focus on conflict, but I think it’s also worth looking at simply for the notion of the third act twist. Within a given narrative, say a narrative chock full of conflict, having these four beats happen can make for some fun plotting.

Happy writing!

Originality is Overrated. That’s Okay.

I was a screener for a film festival recently. It’s something I’ve done before many times — and just like writers reading a lot of others’ writing, watching a lot of films can give you perspective on both what you want to do and what you don’t want to do as a filmmaker.

As you might imagine, a screener’s job is partly to vet films. You’re trying to score all the submissions to see which ones with the high scores should get a second screening… the most suitable of those eventually going into the program (as I posted the other week, “the best” isn’t always what does nor should make it into a particular festival’s program). Part of the score was based on how original the film was: how did it come across on a spectrum of fresh to re-hashed?

Now, being a conscientious sort, I wanted to do right by the festival and uphold their standards and methodology. I didn’t want to ignore the word choice of “originality.” But as I started in, I was troubled. Pretty much all the overarching plots and scenarios were ones I’d seen before: the father trying to connect with his kid, the assassin having second thoughts, the artist having a creative block, and so on. I’ve seen all these scenarios before.

Ah, but I hadn’t seen any of the films. And here’s where things sorted themselves out. You see, I found I could easily give high marks to films that had scenarios I sussed out within the first few seconds, but had a specificity and truthfulness that came alive in a way I’d never seen before. That’s how one is original: by being specific and truthful (not necessarily factual). By giving authentic, well-realized characters that, even where they’re familiar, are well developed. Characters that could make the right or wrong decision at any moment because of how they honestly arrived at this moment and you have to keep watching/reading/listening!

I thought of this more expansive, more abstract idea of “original” when I read a piece by writer Chuck Wendig, whose blog post –quite eloquently, emphatically, and using not-safe-for-work language — asserts that originality is overrated. And yes, he’s talking about the notion –the Sword of Damocles nightmare, really– that torments creative people: somewhere, someone will look at the creative work and realize it’s not 100% unique. Why, you can see echoes of other stories and characters and situations in it! Now the ever-lurking Imposter Syndrome flares up in the creative person and misery ensues.

My realization that originality (as in uniqueness) was not all that occurred about 10 years ago. I was already going for specificity in my writing after absorbing that and other lessons from Brenda Ueland and others. I directed a short film, a quiet fantasy of the gentle Twilight Zone variety. The magic of the world is quickly understandable the moment it’s revealed because you’ve seen that sort of magic before. I didn’t care about that: I wanted the focus to be on the moment of decision and the relationship between the characters. That, incidentally, is why I love working in science fiction and fantasy, because of the scenarios you can concoct that give these wonderfully heightened moments of decision, sometimes safely removed from the real world and its ready-made dismissals (“oh, well that’s not exactly how [x] works, therefore nothing they have to say must have truth”).

Anyway, an interesting thing happened when the film made it out into the world. I got two sets of feedback. Audiences, by and large, were swept up in the characters and moment of decision as we had hoped. However, several festival judges and other reviewers didn’t like it because they had “figured it out” too easily. It wasn’t “original” enough.

And that’s a key reason why I think many creative people continue to stress about the notion of being “original.” Because among gatekeepers, tastemakers, and even an average audience member, the notion of uniqueness, of that sort of originality is revered. Achieving the label of “original” is a prize to be won.

And let’s face it: who doesn’t want to be an original? Who doesn’t want to be unique? And for those of us who create some form of art, be it writing or paintings or music, who doesn’t want that work to be described as “original” and for “original” to mean “my word, this is a unique, singular piece of work!”

But take another look at Chuck Wendig’s article, especially if you skimmed it the first time. Just like Dorothy, you’ve had the solution the whole time. You are the unique element. You are what makes your work original. It’s what you bring to it. And people will be perfectly happy with your work even if it is “unoriginal” if it is authentic and fresh and they get swept up in it.

And that brings me back to the beginning where I was talking about screening films. The good ones were original in terms of being authentic, in terms of being specific, and in having a vitality that made me want to keep watching. And they did it because of what the filmmakers were bringing to it: their unique perspectives.

I don’t have to fret about my story being unique, but I have to worry about my storytelling being unique… or at least distinctive enough that people want to let me continue telling the story.

Let me unpack that. I don’t think the gatekeepers and reviewers and others who might judge my work as “unoriginal” are wrong, per se. True, I think many of those people are using “original” to mean “something I have never, ever, ever seen before” and I think that’s a useless measure of storytelling on anyone’s terms, not just how one “should” judge my work.

And I have no say in how they judge my work. They just will. I will hear filmmakers and writers sometimes complain about how their work is judged unfairly and I empathize, but we don’t get a say in the fairness of their judging. In fact, if they’re not a fan of a particular genre or style of story, I expect them to be a bit more unfair. And I suspect those people will label my story “unoriginal” and dismiss it more readily if it isn’t the most unique thing ever. Its uniqueness is what will make them pay attention. It’s very possible you’re going to create something that doesn’t click with some people and never will. Understanding this will help you endure some people calling your work “unoriginal.” I mean, they’re not wrong, but as long as you have an audience who enjoys your work, they’re also irrelevant.

But there’s also a time when someone might call your work “unoriginal” and what they’re really touching on is that the work feels inauthentic. It feels hackneyed or clichéd. It doesn’t have that specificity that makes one long to find out what happens next. If I’m in a position where someone is telling me my work is unoriginal and I realize it’s this, I have to roll up my sleeves (and if it’s with a finished film, that’s bad, because I can call it a draft, but it would have been far cheaper to get that critique at the script stage). Of course, it’s easy to say that after the fact. In some cases, you have to make some of those films first.

So nowadays, I don’t worry about if the writing I’m doing is “original.” I worry about the characters seeming truthful. I worry about the situations seeming believable. And I want the audience (readers, viewers, listeners) to have a sense of payoff. The notion of “payoff” is paramount for me and probably worth a blog post on its own. For the discussion here, I’d distill it as an audience member consciously or unconsciously going, “Oh, yes!” at the end of a story arc. And they don’t do that for hackneyed, cliched, inauthentic tripe.

Of course, it might not be “original,” but that’s okay.

Magic Chef No More: RIP, Neil Simon

Neil SimonJust as the fictional Felix Unger asserted his inability to do impossible cooking tasks, so too would Neil Simon probably protest any prowess at writing, but let’s be honest. If writing were cooking, Neil Simon was the magic chef of scriptwriting.

(The idea of Neil Simon being a figment of his fictional creation’s imagination seems like the fun neurotic thought to occupy one of Neil Simon’s characters.)

And if you recall my piece on Sam Shepard, Neil Simon certainly casts as large or larger of a shadow.

(Cue another monologue about someone obsessing about relative shadow size.)

I never had the opportunity to be onstage for a Neil Simon production, but I certainly was involved in many productions in an offstage role. And even if I hadn’t been treated to night after night of Simon’s marvelous gift for marrying angst and banter, I see his words come alive just about every time I attend a mass audition. His monologues are impossible for many actors to resist.

From “The Goodbye Girl”

So, it probably comes as no surprise that the entertainment world is full of remembrances. The New York Times has a good synopsis of his life and career. The Los Angeles Times, not surprisingly, focuses a bit more on his film work, but has some great anecdotes. You can also check out the piece in the Hollywood Reporter. And, of course, Mark Evanier has a story or two about meeting Mr. Simon.

So, rest in peace, magic chef. Or at least be a bit less angsty about it.

Where I’ll Be: Swimming with the Sharks this Saturday

I will leave it to you to determine whether I am one of the sharks or am merely swimming with sharks, but I will be at a “Shark Tank for Filmmakers” event this Saturday out in the wilds of Northern Virginia, where the passenger jets roam.

The event is organized by fellow filmmaker Ron Newcomb, who has been tirelessly working on building the narrative film community in the DC region pretty much since I’ve known him. While I have my own personal goals for the weekend, I’m hoping some projects get launched out of the event that benefit the local film community in general.

If I’m not mistaken, there’s still spots left for people who want to attend (and here are the panelists).

If you’re pitching, here’s some tips Ron provided. He also does an example of comps.

If you see me on Saturday, please say hello.

Making Connections by Making Art and Making Art that Makes Connections

Most of the creatives I know instinctively want an audience. When they think about why, the immediate answers of “someone who likes my work” or “someone who buys my stuff” are natural. I mean, what’s not to like about emotional and financial validation? Bring forth the audience!

But building an audience is hard. In fact, it’s something of a slog — a seemingly Sisyphean slog (which I’m experiencing first-hand as I try and build an audience for my audio theater group). And the more one researches about how to best build an audience (and goes about the efforts to do so day in and day out), going to the gym every day seems easy by comparison (gym rats: ask your non-gym rat friends about what this means).

So, I took some solace in an article in Fast Company by Jeff Goins (whom some of you might know of from “Real Artists Don’t Starve”). The nominal title of the article is about why a creative needs an audience, but what I really got out of it was the importance of building connections, not only with an audience (e.g. readers, viewers, listeners, etc.), but with fellow creatives who might become potential collaborators (or just community support).

For me, this is crucial. Because as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not necessarily one who rushes to don the “marketing hat” — even though this website serves some of that purpose… and I’ll happily share articles about marketing. However, making connections with possible readers or viewers or listeners — that seems doable. Finding one more listener, getting a new enthusiastic reader, talking to another creative… all that sounds doable and manageable. It’s not as overwhelming as building “an audience” or “a peer community.” And yet, that’s what you’re doing, person by person. And, ideally, you can do it by trying to do what you should be doing anyway, making work that connects with people. That makes going to the metaphorical gym easier.

Screenwriting & the Perils of Pitch Fests

If you’re a regular listener of Scriptnotes, you’ll know that the hosts (especially Craig Mazin) have little time for screenwriting “gurus.” So you probably won’t be surprised by the this article by Stephen Galloway that was in The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week all about the high cost and non-return of many a “pitch fest” held in New York and L.A.

@#$% yeah I’m going to post about Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison, a writer with a more than active imagination and an activist for writers, died peacefully in his sleep yesterday. he was 84.

You can see write-ups in Variety and the Los Angeles Times.

A brief, but excellent remembrance is from Mark Evanier, who knew him for almost 50 years. I think he put it best when he said:

Harlan was a writer who made other writers proud to be writers.

He goes on to… not go into how Harlan Ellison turned “cranky” into an art form. Indeed, in the past decade or so, I’ve read numerous anecdotes lauding Ellison’s influence, but noting that he could switch from congenial to cantankerous depending on when you approached him.

But time and again in those anecdotes you will see how Harlan Ellison stood up for himself and other writers. He was not about to let writers be disrespected, dismissed, and above all, be unpaid. And he backed up this attitude in word and deed: do not underestimate the writer.

Seriously, in D&D terms, Harlan Ellison is the person you bring up when someone muses whether bards could ever be dangerous.

Dungeon Master (DM): You see a bard standing in your way. He has pulled out his lute.
Player One: A bard?!?
Player Two: I unsheathe my sword
Player Three: Seriously, DM? We’re ready for a Tiamat-level monster and you–
DM: The bard starts playing his lute. He steps into the light. It’s Harlan Ellison.
Player One: @#$%!
Player Two: I lower my sword and back away slowly
Player Three: I toss him a couple gold coins and say, “Semper reddere scriptor.”

If you’ve only known Ellison for his excellent work in television (Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits), I urge you to seek out some of his other works. The short stories ” “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”

I also have a certain fondness for his 1987 graphic novel anthology with Ken Steacy, Night and the Enemy.

 

I’ll leave with the author in his own, not-safe-for-work words, regarding paying the writer:

R.I.P. Harlan Ellison. I mean, I don’t think it’s your style, but R.I.P.

Friday Night Fights

In case the various posts on Star Trek or my mentions of writing a space opera radio show hadn’t clued you in already, my geek quotient is reasonably high.

So yes, not only am I aware of Dungeons & Dragons, I have played Dungeons & Dragons and, in fact, have served as a Dungeon Master. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a bad thing for writers or storytellers in general (see also these pieces on D&D and storytelling in Fast Company, Lifehacker, and Litreactor.)

Carlos Maza and Gina Barton have created a video for Vox in the Vox tradition of “[Subject], Explained.” It’s delightful, heartfelt, and reminds you of why it’s so much fun to “wander together” as they say.