Giving Critique (Without Losing Friends)

Being a writer, I seem to have befriended a bunch of other writers. We sometimes like to show each other the stuff we’ve written and ask the fabulously flippant yet incredibly dangerous: “What do you think?”

What do I think?

So many things. I think very many things about another writer’s screenplay. But I can’t tell you all the things I’m thinking, because 1: it will be overwhelming, disorganized and completely unproductive and 2: you’ll never speak to me again.

So in the interest of actually helping my fellow writer come up with a better script, I have a few basic strategies that help me craft a useful response. Three, to be precise.

Critique

1. Start with the good news. There’s always something encouraging and good about a person’s writing. I don’t mean a trite introductory nicety to delay the inevitable – but a genuine, “these are the things I admire about your style/concept/characters/dialogue and this is what I enjoyed about it,” kind of thing.

Some folks like to comment on each part of the script as they go through it – chronologically so to speak. So as they come across something they like, they note it in order. Even so, I still recommend starting with an overall happy note of feel-good optimism, because even if a script is bad – like, redefining my standard of bad – it still took discipline and courage to write it. And that’s worth commending, even if it smells worse than feet.

2. Look at the big picture. When you tally up all the problems with a script, what are the common themes? Are there any bad moves that snowball into other bad moves? Is there a chicken and egg situation?

It’s a lot easier to think about improving a few major pillars of a story than to try and get your head around a lot of smaller problems. Fundamentally, this is really the writer’s problem not the reader’s – but since I’m giving feedback I may as well make it good.

3. Inspire improvement. It’s tempting to suggest specific changes to solve problems, but I try to avoid this. I’m not writing the script. I’m not rewriting it. I’m just trying to help give some perspective to my friends so they can do the rewriting.

The last thing I want is to take over another writer’s story and start pushing it in a direction they don’t want to go. So rather than offering specific solutions, I’m just trying to inspire better writing. It’s probably not as difficult as I’m making it sound. You know what I mean, right?

Even after all that, I still reread my notes and take a deep breath before I hit send. And usually I get a reply.

Thanking me for my thoughts and expressing eagerness to work on the next draft.

Just as long as you’re still speaking to me.

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Under Attack!

I did something that I’m kind of intimidated about.

The Screenwriting subReddit (Screddit) threw down a challenge to write a full screenplay every month.

Screddit Attack is a spin off of the now defunct Script Frenzy. Except we’re opening it up to one hour drama’s as well as half hour comedies. To make things fair, writers who wish to write a 30 minute show must write two within the month. It’s a contest against yourself and a way to get all of us to start writing!

“A script in a month?” you say. “Every month?” you say.

Ah, but there are prizes.

courtesy of dailydesigninspiration.com

For every month that the challenge is successfully met, you get a ribbon. Next to your name. On Reddit. In different colors, depending on how many months you accumulate.

So now the truth comes out – I will do anything for colored ribbons.

Even write a screenplay in a month.

Pitching Your Screenplay

Dear Inktip Pitch Summit,

Your distinguished event is coming up in just over a week, and I’m beginning to sweat. What will happen if I stumble over my words and give a poor presentation? Will I be eaten alive and disgraced forever after?

Sincerely,
Sweaty in Palm Beach

Dear Sweaty,

Please don’t fret about your pitch. Some nerves are to be expected, but remember the producers and agents in attendance are regular people just like you, and they just want to hear a good story. 

So simply tell your story and let them react to it. You may find that the simple act of telling it over and over will give you new insights into your characters and make you even more excited to see it brought to the big screen.

Just imagine your star on Hollywood Boulevard… It all begins somewhere!

Love,
Inktip

Dear Inktip,

I’m packing for my trip to Burbank, and am concerned about the dress code. Someone told me people dress up as their characters for the pitch meetings. Should I do that? And where am I ever going to get my hands on a mermaid costume at this late hour?

Finless in Wyoming

Dear Finless,

We don’t know who may have told you to dress like a mermaid, but we highly encourage you to abandon that effort. Simple business casual is preferred.

Of course a pair of seashells is never frowned upon should you wish to save them for the pool.

Love, 
Inktip

Captain Jack pitches his script ideas. If a producer doesn’t like it, he’s marooned.

Dear Inktip,

What if I pitch my script and a producer requests to read it? Will I become an overnight success, famous, and rich beyond my wildest dreams?

Hopefully,
Dreaming in South Poughkeepsie

Dear Dreaming,

Yes.

Love, 
Inktip

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DIY Writer’s Retreat

Once you start inviting writing gurus to send you weekly emails, you will find yourself facing a number of invitations to part with cash. Some of these money-spending opportunities are extremely helpful, depending on what you need at this point in time and where you are in your career.

One invite that never fails to draw my salivating interest is for writer’s retreats. A week away in a beautiful place with yoga classes and creative prompts, and no responsibilities but to write.

Doesn’t that sound like the definition of bliss?

Chances are, if you’re still in the ‘build’ phase of your writing career, you don’t have a couple thousand bucks to dispense on a week of bliss. Or maybe you do and you’re cheap. Which is basically my situation.

So what’s the cheapster to do when her writing piles up and Puerto Rico beckons? What we always do when we want something without paying for it. Do It Yourself.

No money, no problem. Hole up and write.

No money, no problem. Hole up and write.

With three quarters of a screenplay, a serial or novel, a short story languishing for want of research, a couple Ebooks, and an idea for a kids’ travel book weighing on my creative mind, I’m overdue for some serious writing time. So the plan is to devote three days of this week to writing.

No email. No errands. No cleaning. No phone calls. Just me and my computer and my notebook.

I hesitate to put this plan out there in Internet Land, only because my grand plans have an infamous history of falling apart. Undramatically, but tragically and completely. Leaving me with nothing but a list of good intentions and a guilty conscience.

But I am making an exception for scientific purposes. I’ll state my hypothesis, spend the week in experiments, then report next week with my conclusions. I flatter myself that this process will benefit other writers as well. So if a week away from life as you know it is just not in your budget this year, consider joining me on a DIY Writer’s Retreat.

Important considerations when planning one’s own writer’s retreat:

1. What is my goal?
Yes, writing, but more specifically, which writing. I listed four or five projects above, but no way will I touch all of them in three days. Better to choose one and go hard. The more specific the goal, the better.

I intend to finish the rough draft of my screenplay. That’s basically 40 pages. Just rough, no editing or tweaking. Not even spell-check. Just one pass to stretch it out to a full length.

2. Preparations
If all I’m doing is writing, that means I won’t be able to go grocery shopping. So I’d better do that first.

Depending on your personality, it could be helpful to come up with a rough schedule. For me, it’s hit or miss – a schedule could really help me focus, or it could send me into a panic of lethargy. So I’ll keep it low key: exercise in the morning, do some writing. Take a couple hours’ break for lunch and a book or movie, then write some more.

Nooooo pressure.

I do have a store of inspirational quotes and books and videos in the event that I lose motivation and wake up in the middle of a House marathon surrounded by origami rejects. A little Bret Lott or Anna Quindlen will get me back on the straight and narrow.

3. Go Somewhere
Just because I can’t afford Puerto Rico doesn’t mean I can’t day-trip to San Francisco. Or Phoenix. Or Starbucks.

Again, this is a matter of preference. I enjoy spending time in my little baby apartment, but it can get noisy during the day, what with the children and the skaters and the bird. My neighbor has a bird that squawks hellishly for approximately 2 hours every day.

I’m really good at ignoring stuff.

As long as I have music as white noise, staying home will probably work fine for me. But it could be fun to kick off at a coffee shop, so I can savor that feeling of starting something new and exciting.

4. Soften expectations
As much as I want to spend three days only writing, the bald fact is since starting this blog post, I’ve thought of calendar items for every day this week. Why don’t I write stuff in my calendar? This is a separate, but contributing, problem.

So in reality, it will probably be like 2 days and 3 afternoons. But that’s life. It’s DIY. We make exceptions.

But in the end we have this beautiful thing that we made, and it’s all the more satisfying because it didn’t cost a cent.

Off we go, busy writers. To create and to explore. Godspeed.

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Death and Comedy

A popular saying among writers is, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Chicken soup for the would-be comedy writer’s soul.

I know comedy is hard. When I think about things that genuinely, truly make me laugh, they are few. And even fewer are intentional – most of the comedy I experience is the day-to-day variety of non sequiturs and slapstick that is all part of the funny world in which we live.

We’re at the rough draft stage in my screenwriting class (yes, that’s still going on), and so far I’m reading what I have and I’m thinking, Yes. This is funny. Only time will tell if the people who live outside my crinkly little brain will agree.

But in keeping with the Philosophy of Screenwriting tips I learned back in November (ie: Brain Training), I recognize the importance of learning and growing in all aspects of writing. So let’s look at three entertainers that are never not funny. Will we spot a theme?

The “good parts” version, from William Goldman

1. The Princess Bride (the movie and the book)
A family favorite from early childhood. I don’t even remember not loving this movie. Flip to any page in the screenplay, it’s funny.

Check out this conversation between The Man in Black and Fezzik. The Man is in pursuit of his hijacked honey, who has been secreted away by a super smart guy that left his goons to deal with their pursuer – one of whom is Fezzik, played by Andre the Giant.

THE MAN IN BLACK is racing up the mountain trail. 
Ahead is a bend in the trail. He sees it, slows. 
Then he stops, listening.

Satisfied by the silence, he starts forward again and as he
rounds the bend -- a rock flies INTO FRAME, shattering on a
boulder inches in front of him.

                                            CUT TO:

FEZZIK

He moves into the mountain path. He has picked up another
rock and holds it lightly.

                         FEZZIK
             I did that on purpose. I don't
             have to miss.

                         MAN IN BLACK
             I believe you -- So what happens
             now?

                         FEZZIK
             We face each other as God intended.
             Sportsmanlike. No tricks, no
             weapons, skill against skill alone.

                         MAN IN BLACK
             You mean, you'll put down your
             rock and I'll put down my sword,
             and we'll try to kill each other
             like civilized people?

                         FEZZIK
                  (gently)
             I could kill you now.

He gets set to throw, but the Man In Black shakes his head,
takes off his sword and scabbard, begins the approach toward
the Giant.

                         MAN IN BLACK
             Frankly, I think the odds are
             slightly in your favor at hand
             fighting.

                         FEZZIK
             It's not my fault being the
             biggest and the strongest. I
             don't even exercise.

What’s funny?

The situation, the dialogue, and the characters. First, you have this huge fellow with hands as big as the boulders he’s throwing, reasoning with a comparatively tiny hero. I love Fezzik’s character – gentle giant, not too bright, but he gets to say some really funny lines. “I don’t even exercise.” I die.

2. Jim Gaffigan
Always. Always funny. One of the few comedians who is – maybe I’m just picky. What am I saying, I’m horribly picky. I feel an apology to the entire population of humorists is in order. But that just serves to underscore how truly excellent Jim is.

Probably best known for his hot pockets bit, this man could draw belly laughs from Mister Spock. If I could summon a genie to reassure me that some day I’d be half as funny as Jim, I’d be so excited.


What’s funny?

Too much to mention. The voices (“Sincerely, Water Chestnut the Third”), the profound explorations of a topic we universally love… even vegetarians. Yes, vegetarians love bacon. Perhaps that’s part of the irony that makes bacon funny. Thanks to modern health studies, we’re all convinced bacon is so bad for us and yet we love it so completely.

3. Hyperbole and a Half
Leave it to Allie to make anything funny. Literally anything, even extremely unfunny things – like Depression. I didn’t think it was possible, but I was shaking with repressed giggles by the end of this read. I’ll just give an excerpt:

It’s weird for people who still have feelings to be around depressed people. They try to help you have feelings again so things can go back to normal, and it’s frustrating for them when that doesn’t happen. From their perspective, it seems like there has got to be some untapped source of happiness within you that you’ve simply lost track of, and if you could just see how beautiful things are…

But people want to help. So they try harder to make you feel hopeful and positive about the situation. You explain it again, hoping they’ll try a less hope-centric approach, but re-explaining your total inability to experience joy inevitably sounds kind of negative; like maybe you WANT to be depressed. The positivity starts coming out in a spray — a giant, desperate happiness sprinkler pointed directly at your face. And it keeps going like that until you’re having this weird argument where you’re trying to convince the person that you are far too hopeless for hope just so they’ll give up on their optimism crusade and let you go back to feeling bored and lonely by yourself.

And that’s the most frustrating thing about depression. It isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope. It isn’t even something — it’s nothing. And you can’t combat nothing. You can’t fill it up. You can’t cover it. It’s just there, pulling the meaning out of everything. That being the case, all the hopeful, proactive solutions start to sound completely insane in contrast to the scope of the problem.

It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.

The problem might not even have a solution. But you aren’t necessarily looking for solutions. You’re maybe just looking for someone to say “sorry about how dead your fish are” or “wow, those are super dead. I still like you, though.”

What’s funny?

It takes guts to talk about your life and put all the dark parts out there, but also make fun of it at the same time. And it resonates with us, because we all wonder about ourselves and we all need to be given permission to laugh about it.  It’s like a communal, “Wow, life really sucks sometimes but maybe it will get better.”

Plus those cartoons, enchantingly drawn in possibly the crummiest computer art program ever designed are classic.

So now looking at my three funny things, I am noticing a pattern.

1. People (or rather characterizations of people)
The face made, the voice, the accent, the quirky turn of a phrase. So many characteristics that will tap those funny bones. Case in point: I hate puns. Despise them. Find them Unfunny. But when my DAD drops a pun on an otherwise perfect afternoon, I can’t help laughing. Because my dad is funny, even if his jokes aren’t.

2. A fresh take on a common problem
We’re all in this together. It’s fun to explore the crazy situations we find ourselves in and invent new responses we all wish we had the guts to give. You all have friends and family that who make you laugh in spite of your best efforts to resist. Every family has a punster or inappropriate potty humorist. Maybe it’s you.

3. Silly
When it comes right down to it, I can’t help being drawn to the ridiculous. The random and unexpected observations of people in books, movies, and real life are often the funniest. I even like potty humor, mostly because I know I shouldn’t.

So I’ve been working on this post for precisely 70 minutes, which I’m pretty sure is not enough time to explore this topic in depth. Feel free to respond below with funny stuff. It’s good to laugh.


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The Making Of A Scene

A screenplay is just a bunch of scenes strung together. Anyone who says otherwise has clearly not read this blog post.

To completely oversimplify it, you write some scenes to set up your story, then you write a BUNCH of scenes to complicate your story and make everyone think the lead character is screwed, and finally you put a few more scenes to rescue the lead and end your story satisfyingly. That’s whatcha call a 3-act structure.

Needless to say, your scenes need to be incredible. So incredible that the thought of writing them completely cripples you with fear and self-doubt.

But when you’re taking a class, you got these things called deadlines. So you figure a way to skirt around the inevitable mental obstacles. I’d like to share mine with you, if you don’t mind.

Step 1: Take the “What Do I Care About?” Quiz

Question: What do I care about less, the possibility of writing a crummy scene, or the certainty of falling behind in my work and hating my own guts tomorrow morning?

If you chose ‘writing a crummy scene’ then proceed to Step 2. If you chose ‘hating my own guts’ then go ahead and put on sweatpants because it’s gonna be a Ben&Jerry’s-in-bed kind of day.

Step 2: Do a dance

Seriously. It will help you loosen up and make you feel a little more creative. Music is optional. If you must take six minutes to scoot through your playlist for something suitable, then skip it.

Step 3 (and most important): Think

Do you know what this scene is about? If not, think about it a little. Feel free to let your thoughts come out on the page, so you can read what you’re thinking and save any thoughts that might otherwise get away from you.

Say you need to write something about your lead character, John. John is about to do four hundred hours of community service, but something has to come right before that. Once you have some sort of idea of the transition you want to make, move along to Step 4.

Step 4: Outline

Just three lines: Beginning, Middle, End.

John tells Peggy he is really looking forward to community service. Peggy’s boyfriend Butch appears and gets the wrong idea. John gets a black eye and has an epiphany about the relationship between observational conclusions and underlying realities.

I have to say, employing this step in my writing process has been so freeing. It gives me a bony structure on which to drape the eloquent folds of my action and dialogue.

Step 5: Expand

Put in the stuff people say or do, and tada! You have a scene.

Just add like fifty more, and you’re all done.

The end result might be brilliant, it might be terrible, but that is what editing is all about. At least you have something! And really, I believe the motivational power of ‘something’ is really quite synergistic.

I’ll end with this piece from my new favorite artist, Ceslovas Cesnakevicius, because I think it is cool and adventurous. And I love elephants.

http://www.facebook.com/cesnakevicius.art

Art by Ceslovas Cesnakevicius

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4. Kristen & The Wolf meets Progress

Remember the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean that shows The Interceptor in a raging storm and howling winds, and Mr. Gibbs asks Jack why he’s smiling? Remember what Jack says? I do (and not just because I’ve seen Pirates 50 times).

“We’re catching up.”

It’s enough to put a grin on the grimmest outlook. Making progress is fun, no matter what else is going on.

As of two weeks ago, I was beginning the next module in my screenwriting class (covering subtext – fascinating stuff) and bemoaning how far behind I’d gotten. I totaled it up – 22 missed assignments. Yikes.

22 lessons, from 6 different modules.

So I made a plan. In a nutshell, the plan involves food, sleep, and writing. And I’ve been working that plan. And as much as it hurts to say no to outside interests that would drag me away from those core activities, I have to smile when I see all the tracks I’ve made in this whirlygig storm of activity.

As of today: 7 down, 15 to go. Oh yeah.

Kristen-and-the-Wolf-Part-4

4. Kristen to the Rescue (conclusion)

Kristen froze mid-air, filled with a mix of glee and dread. She had never encountered an animal of this scale before – what should be done? No answers presented themselves except to carry on.

So Kristen, vine in hand, climbed and slipped and fell her way back to solid ground. “I’m coming!” she called into the pit. She tried to secure one end of the vine like she’d seen on TV, but the woody fibers did not respond well to the clumsy knots she attempted. They simply fell apart as soon as she let go.

But it was okay, because Kristen had a Plan B. Taking a firm stance on the edge of the pit, she wrapped the vine around her waist and dropped the other end into the pit. “Go ahead,” she called, “take the other-”

Before she could finish, the whatever-it-is had taken hold of the vine and Kristen found herself on the bottom of the ditch. Right next to Ron. We’ll call him Ron because as soon as Kristen looked up at him, he hollered out, “Ron! ROOOOON!”

Aside from a little shock, Kristen was none the worse for her unexpected trip south. She got to her feet and gazed up at the sasquatch who was staring at her with equally frank curiosity, the crushed threads of the vine smooshed between his fingers.

Taking his lead, Kristen shouted her name, “KRI-stennn!” and stuck out a hand. Ron shifted his weight and Kristen jumped away just in time to avoid his enormous foot stamping down in her general vicinity. “Watch it!” Kristen shouted back, “I’m just a small person!”

Ron seemed to register this somehow, and countered with a mighty swat from his less enormous (but still quite large) hand. Kristen’s hair fluttered around her as she ducked what would have been a crippling blow and stationed herself behind a large rock at the edge of the pit.

“GENTLE!” Kristen hollered with all her might. Beside her foot was the pine cone she’d tossed down moments ago. She lobbed it at Ron’s arm and it connected with a soft, hairy pat. “SOFT!”

Ron did nothing in response to this and Kristen, sensing his confusion ventured out from behind the rock. One hand out in a calming ‘stay’ position, she eased toward him and rested it on his knee. Perhaps this was not the most appropriate place to touch a sasquatch on first meeting, but it was all she could reach. And patting someone’s feet is just weird.

Aside from a low growl, Ron gave no indication of what he made of this. Before she could explore it further, Kristen heard voices above.

They were too far away to distinguish words, but they did not sound friendly. Ron heard them too, and shuffled his feet restlessly, filling his lungs to protest but Kristen shushed him and patted his knee reassuringly. Taking hold of some roots protruding from the earth, she again undertook to climb.

She got about halfway – high enough to look Ron in the eye and again hold a finger to her lips reassuringly – when a scruffy white face appeared over the edge of the pit. “Why… what are you doing down there, wee thing?”

Before Kristen should answer, the face had moved away. She could hear him hollering to a companion with words that only made sense sporadically: “girl,” “ditch,” and “gun.” Kristen froze to the spot, her brow furrowed in thought.

“…caught ourselves a Bigfoot alright,” a voice was saying, returning to the ditch. Kristen strengthened her grip and looked back up. Two faces now presented themselves, and the other one with glasses was talking. “Whew boy, what a sight he is! Don’t you be afraid little girl, we’ll make sure he leaves you unharmed.”

“I’ve already made sure of that!” Kristen screamed up at them.

“Just calm down sugar, we’ll have you out in a jiffy.” The white beard was saying as his companion disappeared again.

Kristen was perfectly calm. What were these jokers talking about? She looked at Ron and they shrugged. A strange metallic sound met their ears, which Kristen didn’t understand. It seemed to anger Ron, though, and he immediately became restive.

Kristen knew why when the man with glasses reappeared, leveling a rifle down at Ron. Ron roared his name, stomping his feet in protest. The noise was deafening, but Kristen clung to her hand holds and screamed, “Nooo!” But the man with glasses raised his gun and took aim.

Without thinking, Kristen simply flung herself off the wall and between Ron and the gun. Ron reached up to catch her, but the trigger had already been pulled, the bullet tearing through Kristen’s shoulder and lodging in the opposite wall of the ditch.

“You shot a little girl!” “What made you do such a thing, you deranged child!” “Aw Reuben, we’re in trouble now!”

Kristen lay in Ron’s hands, too much in shock to feel pain, but triumphant never the less. The next hour was a blur as the hunters worked to raise her out of the pit and tend to her wounds. She realized vaguely that night was falling and a fire was being made. Beans were coaxed down her throat and Ron was silent as she mentally willed him to keep quiet while the hunters were preoccupied with nursing her.

The next morning Kristen’s shoulder was bound and throbbing, her arm in a sling.

The ditch was empty.

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2. Kristen & the Wolf meets a Limited Attention Span

We’ve all been there. Talking to a friend or hanging out in a group, and suddenly something happens.

The back-and-forth ceases to go forth. It’s just you talking and the person you’re talking to is now somewhere else – metaphorically speaking.

What happened? Any number of things – a ding, a ring, a super-loud Katy Perry ringtone. Or simply the silent arrival of an email.

It’s become increasingly common for our lives, conversations, and thoughts to be interrupted by the electronic gadgets crying out for our attention. The cumulative effect of these interruptions is making it difficult to see anything through to completion – a thought, a conversation, a project.

But I say it’s not too late. I say we take back our attention span.

Be free! When you’re talking to your friend and the phone rings, ignore it. When you’re writing a screenplay and two emails pop up on your Outlook, save them for later! I believe it’s these little choices that will dictate the strength of our focus.

Let’s stand up to our gadgets and show them who’s boss. Agreed?

Just a minute, I need to get up before my legs fall asleep.

Kristen-and-the-Wolf-Part-2

2. Part One: Kristen To The Rescue

It’s tough being 11 years old sometimes. You have to do a lot of things you don’t want to do, and you can’t do a lot of things you do want to do. You depend on grownups to take care of you and they don’t always do that very well. It’s enough to make you run away.

Which is what Kristen did.

Perhaps run is not the best way to describe it – drifted is more what she did. The school bus was grumbling down the street and Kristen thought once more about how much she did NOT want to get on it. The woods across the street seemed to beckon, and she simply went. The bus stopped and picked up the other kids while Kristen disappeared into the woods.

She drifted around all day, not bothering to mark her trail and really not at all concerned about going back. She inspected wildflowers and dribbled her fingers in puddles. She talked to a garter snake, which led her to a beaver dam. The beavers were all gone, but a few fish played Marco Polo nearby.

Kristen got into the water with the fish and touched their shimmering scales. The sunlight warmed the water, but it was still early spring and much too cold for a little girl to be getting herself soaked. The fish seemed to realize this as they nibbled at her fingers and nudged her knees.

Eventually the fish came to the conclusion that the best way to get rid of her would be to leave her alone (thus the expression). Kristen was sorry to see the fish go, and wondered what she had done to frighten them. But she was beginning to get awfully chilly and hungry.

An imposing evergreen stood on the other side of the creek, with boughs forming a natural teepee from high up the tree trunk to the mossy ground. Nestled inside the green tent, Kristen ate the peanut butter sandwich that Mrs. Bibbs had packed for her lunch. In here, it was not warm, but it was less cold. And it was dark.

Kristen fell asleep.

When she woke, it was difficult to tell anything had happened. She was still curled up next to the base of the tree and it was still vaguely bright outside the closely woven pine needles. But something had happened, Kristen could tell.

Parting the branches, Kristen peered around the still forest. The air was still. The creek was still. Kristen ventured out and nearly fell. She had tripped on something. She looked down, but couldn’t see any impediments. Another two steps and the same thing happened.

Kristen knelt down and felt the ground with her hands. It was a large indentation – about twice the width of her body, and longer than she could reach with one hand in either direction. Kristen crawled along, feeling with her hands, and soon there was another indentation. Slightly to the right this time, but similarly shaped.

She went on like this for some time, feeling for the impressions in the dirt and crawling beside them. She was so engrossed she barely noticed a light rain was beginning to fall, and with it a deep mist clouded the forest. Kristen just kept following the shapes, crawling  and scrambling over roots and rocks and flotsam.

Thankfully she caught herself in time. With her vision impaired and her focus so absorbed, Kristen almost didn’t notice the gaping hole in the ground. But instinctively she put a hand out anyway, reaching out. Because someone else had not caught themselves in time. Someone was in that ditch.

“Hello?” Kristen called. She had been nothing but calm all the day long, and not a thing had ruffled her – not missing school, not seeing a snake, not getting wet and cold in the creek, not even getting lost in the woods with no clue as to how to find her next meal. But now, knowing someone was in danger, Kristen was suddenly on the verge of panic.

“Are you okay?” She called, again reaching blindly toward nothing. In desperation she looked around her and found a pine cone. She hurled it into the ditch and it made contact with a dull thud. “Answer me! Please!”

She was rewarded with a thick roar. It was a groggy roar, not frightening in the least. Well, yes incredibly frightening but this is Kristen’s language we’re speaking here. And to her ears, it was a sleepy, disoriented, docile yawn of a roar.

She reached her hand out again. “Come on! Come out of there!”

The roar sounded again, more alert this time. There is no word-for-word translation, but Kristen understood enough to know there was no way this creature, whatever it is, could get itself out of the ditch alone.

(To be continued)

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1. Kristen & The Wolf meets Writer’s Block

To write when one wishes to do anything but.

It happens. We love to write, we want to write, we dream of writing, and then it’s time to write and we run away. I’ve been running all day: cleaning my oven (my OVEN, for goodness’ sake), baking, checking my email, and staring at the ceiling.

So how do we settle down to write when everything in us cries out for oven cleaning?

I’m sorry, that sentence is just so strange. Who wants to clean the oven? No one. Not even professional oven cleaners who started their business with just a cleaning kit and a dream, now with dozens of franchise cleaning services the world over. It’s a really unpleasant job. I would rather clean a 90-year-old toilet than an oven.

But today, this is what I’m doing rather than writing. No more. It’s time to grab my writer’s block with both hands and show it who’s boss.

Some helpful tools in that task:

1. A hot drink

Coffee, tea or hot chocolate, something warm and soothing does something to my nerves and helps me focus. Tonight it was tea (herbal, of course).

2. A candle

Nothing smelly, just a warm light on a dreary howly night.

3. Comfy pants

Self-explanatory.

4. Music

I love music, as many people do. I find it immensely conducive to focus and relaxation – both of which are important parts of writing. You have to be in the zone, and once I get there, I may not even notice the music anymore. But some well-matched tunes definitely help to usher me through the gate.

You can even take it a step further and follow Ryan Koo’s advice to create a playlist for whatever you’re working on, That way when it’s time to get back to your screenplay (or book, or poetry anthology), you can instantly replicate the vibe you had going last time. For the record, I took this advice, and it’s pretty good.

5. Just start

What’s the worst that can happen? You write something horrible and have to go back and change it all. That’s the best part! Editing something you’ve already said in order to make it better is WAY easier than generating something in the first place! So relax. Write badly!

With that in mind, I now bring you the official first part in our Kristen & The Wolf saga (the other part was really more of a prologue). If you’d care to suggest any additions to my list of writing helps, go for it.

Kristen 2

1. Part One: Kristen and the Monster

Kristen started at the new school three weeks after her 11th birthday. She had never been to a proper school before – she and Grandmom had lived far enough into the country that it was impractical for a bus to pick her up. Officially, she was homeschooled, but in reality Grandmom just brought her along to monthly errands in town.

Kristen learned to count by watching the bank teller deal out Grandmom’s money. Kristen learned to read by staring at the letters on each item in the grocery basket as Grandmom put it into the cart. “Toothpicks,” Grandmom would say, and Kristen would nod solemnly, like she got it. Eventually, she did get it.

Sometimes you gotta fake it til you make it.

So the new school was a real experience, with lots to get used to, and the culture shock on top of losing Grandmom was a big deal for Kristen. She knew it was a big deal, and Mrs. Bibbs, her foster mother, talked like she knew it was a big deal although in practice she seemed surprised Kristen didn’t just line up and work it out.

The Midcounty Elementary fifth grade class wasn’t the worst place to be new to absolutely everything. It wasn’t the worst at all, but it was uncomfortable for Kristen, who had to adjust to sitting indoors all day and nary a critter in sight. So when Miss Dinsmore announced they were having a field trip, it was like a ray of honey dripped into Kristen’s soul. It tasted like hope.

The cherry on top was when a freckly boy to her left whispered across the aisle the location of this trip – not a field, as one might expect, but the mother of all outings. The only place Kristen had ever wanted to go apart from Mount Rushmore, or the moon.

They were going to the zoo.

That night Kristen stared at the white prickly ceiling of her bare bedroom and smiled from the bottom of her heart. She was going on a trip. And there would be animals.

It was a perfect day. The sun was shining, the breeze blowing, and a little girl had offered to let Kristen sit next to her on the bus. As they each hopped off the bus and followed Miss Dinsmore through an enormous gate and to the promised land beyond, Kristen could barely breathe.

She felt as if she were coming home. The sheer variety of animals all around her was breath-taking. Kristen didn’t even know what to call most of them, and none of them had ever crossed her path in real life. The Discovery Channel can only do so much to prepare you for such a sight.

Kristen got lost.

It was almost immediate, and completely unintentional, but when Miss Dinsmore did a head count at lunchtime, it made no difference to her agony of mind.

Kristen, however, didn’t know she was lost and wandered quite cheerfully from the gorillas to the porcupines to the giraffes. She was disappointed that they were kept so far away. She wanted to go up to each one and get to know them. Standing at the gate between her and the lion, she felt frustrated.

It was such a beautiful creature, majestic, lying in the sun flipping flies away with its tail. Kristen longed to go to it and rest its head on her lap. If only she could get through these bars.

She stretched an arm through, up to her shoulder, but could budge no further. The cavern of space between them was only about a foot shorter than it had been a moment ago. And yet – was the lion coming toward her?

It had nonchalantly – almost carelessly – risen to its feet. It shook its mane now and took a few steps forward. Now the distance between them was shortened by two feet. Feeling a spark of hope, Kristen stretched her arm out again, flexing her hand to beckon the beast to her.

The beast obeyed. Step by step, almost cautiously, the lion came nearer. Kristen smiled as her hand finally met the lion’s nose. It nuzzled there for a split moment when a gasp behind her made Kristen turn and look.

“Get that child away from the fence!” It was a woman with a stroller, going ballistic from ten feet away. “She’s touching it! She’s touching the lion!”

Someone wrenched Kristen away, and next the lion let out a bloodcurdling roar. Everyone was screaming. A zoo staff member was assuring them that everything would be fine. The lion caretaker was inside the habitat, trying to lead the lion away with a long pole.

Kristen observed all of this with confusion. She had just enjoyed a beautiful moment with a ferocious animal. What was the big deal?

Thankfully, her meandering next brought Kristen to the sea lions. There Miss Dinsmore finally located her disappearing student when Kristen appeared on stage next to the man flipping fish into the sea lions’ mouths and asked if she could try it.

And she did it.

A perfect day.


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