Writing From Your Gut

Good evening! I’m still here!

The Traveling Screenwriting has been a little on the nutso side these last few months. I’ve been traveling, I’ve been writing, and I’ve been blogging a TON – just over here at The Chocolate Tourist.

Character wisdom from comedy writer Dan Harmon on characters

Dan Harmon, courtesy of Channel 101 Wiki

My screenplay has gone through many permutations (as screenplays do) in the last few months, and who the heck knows when it will be finished. Meanwhile I’ve had a bunch of other ideas.

Isn’t that the way it goes? You’re down deep in the snaggly weeds of a fourth rewrite of the script you’re committed to, and then a saucy new idea flounces by your imagination.

It’s tough not to get distracted.

In any case, I want to share this unique and insightful take on character development from Big TV Writer honcho Dan Harmon. He co-created Adult Swim and is currently working on Community.

And he’s pretty smart about telling stories.

On his blog, Dan Harmon Poops, he answers a question about writing characters. First, get your phone. Then scroll through your contacts until one of the names creates a visceral, gut reaction in you.

Ask yourself why that person’s name caused that reaction in you. Don’t try to make it an accurate answer, make it your honest, personal answer. Make it a thousand overlapping micro-answers. Don’t find categorical terminology for any of it, just dump the marbles of emotional memory all over the floor, flood the room with them. You were infatuated with Rebecca because she wore Chuck Taylors and played bass and tasted like cigarettes.

Now play with the marbles. Experiment with eliminating them, cross referencing them…didn’t Tracy also taste like cigarettes, and didn’t you hate that about her? What if Rebecca had tasted like Scope, would you have been less in love with her…?

This is a fascinating exercise. Without even consulting my phone, I can think of the names to which I react strongly. Dread, excitement, fascination, embarrassment. Now imagine pouring all those feelings into the characters on the page.

I’ve recently become aware how snobby I tend to be with regard to characters. They’re either good or bad. I’m either rooting for them or rooting against them. But the best characters – even my favorite characters – are not that simple. They’re complex, human-y concoctions of the soul as much as the imagination.

They do great things and terrible things. Motivated by all kinds of reasons.

We don’t have to figure them out.

We just put them in the middle of a story and watch what they do.

Rebelling with Tchaikovsky

The concept of time off: I don’t seem to have it. But I keep looking for it, and maybe one day I’ll succeed.

After having not blogged since before Thanksgiving, I find I’m equal parts short on time and rebellious toward my editorial calendar. In case you’ve yet to hop on the latest fad, editorial calendars are these things writers are supposed to make so we know what to write on which day. Which means we have to figure that out weeks in advance.

Which, if you know me at all, you’ll understand this is simply not the way I operate. But I keep trying anyway, because I’m really good at feeling inadequate when I can’t do the stuff everybody says I’m supposed to do.

Which seems to mirror my screenwriting life at the moment, because after forcing myself to slog through yet another outline in preparation for my second draft, I now find myself passionately opposed to writing the script that goes with it.

They say women are mysterious, and I am proof.

I heard this quote from Tchaikovsky last night (composer of fantastic works such as the Nutcracker Suite), and I think we would have gotten along:


Then he also said:

If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.”
― Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

So this is me, attempting to meet the mood halfway. Against my will, against my better judgement, but with a little bit of hope… I’m sitting down to write and it might get ugly.

And it most certainly bears no resemblance to my editorial calendar.


This is really good advice. 

Each morning we emailed our writing goals and each evening we’d email what we called our accountability. In other words: had we done what we said we’d do that day?


I think I’m going to find myself a writing buddy. Do you have one? Any cautions, horror stories, or big happy reports?

Receiving Critique

Whether they’ve been asked for it or not, most people when confronted with a creative work of obscure origins will give an emphatic opinion about it. I’ve experienced this multiple times, and so have you.

“I thought it would be better.”

“Maybe change the beginning so it takes place in Africa.”

“Make it funny.”

All of which are actual notes that I have received from real people who read my writing.

Thankfully, I’ve also been blessed with readers who give notes that are actually helpful. The thing is, between the helpful stuff and the unhelpful thoughtless stuff and the amazing completed stuff there lies a Great Wasteland of Indecision.

Today I would like to consider some strategies for crossing that wasteland and coming out the other side – as a better writer with a better script. I want to consider these strategies today, because today I am a lonely writer plodding through the parched, pathless sand. And I need to remember what the heck for.

So in no particular order, I give you these…

Possibly Helpful And At The Very Least Completely Innocuous Thoughts:

4 Strategies for Implementing Script Notes | Traveling Screenwriter

1. Be indecisive and okay with it

When I’m fresh off a rough draft high, it’s tough to hear that it’s not good enough. Even though I know this, I’ve been anticipating it even before Fade Out, it’s still a thing to be processed emotionally and intellectually. At first, you will have no idea where to go with these constructively critical responses. You will just have to stare at the wall for awhile and let it sink in.

I don’t know if anyone can relate to this, but when I finish a draft or a revision, I honestly feel like it’s the best I can do. So when the inevitable feedback comes, it’s like: I can’t. I can’t make it any better than it is, because this is my best.

But of course you can. I can. It just doesn’t feel that way at first.

2. Try not to listen to the voices of darkness

As if we don’t have enough inner chatter, between characters and plot shenanigans and the angsty inner story every writer is really trying to tell, our doubts and fears want to point out a few things too. It gets super noisy.

So do what you gotta do to boost confidence, quiet unease, and quit comparing yourself to others, but know that the noise will probably never disappear altogether and that’s okay. It’s normal. We all have it.

Of course if you are successful at ditching the voices altogether, then that is really neat.

3. Make two piles

Keep and reject. Of the comments I received on my script, which ones resonated with me (whether I like it or not) and which ones do I completely disagree with?

Some feedback will hit home. I know it’s true, even if I have no clue where to begin implementing it. Other feedback is just not connecting for me, no matter which angle I view it from, and when that happens I think we are totally fine to disregard it.

Or, if you’re like me and just have to believe that everyone in the world sees something useful that you don’t: try to get to the spirit of the critique. If someone feels my protagonist lacks motivation in Act 1, and I can’t seem to add anything that works for me, then maybe something else in Act 1 needs to go.

See, this is why revisions are exhausting. But worth it. Probably.

But whatever changes I make, I know that I as the writer am responsible for them. So I’m not making any changes I don’t feel in my gut are working for me. And I don’t think that’s arrogance, it’s just being real about the story I’m trying to tell. And no one else really knows what I’m shaping in my head – it’s up to me to bring it out and show them.

4. Don’t give up

As I write and rewrite, I have to keep connecting with the core of the story – whatever fascinated me with it in the very beginning. Whether it’s a character flaw or a curious world, I need to keep enthralling myself with that basic element. Otherwise I get lost.

The fun stuff is what keeps me oriented, keeps me telling the story I set out to tell.

And with any luck, after all the critique and deep dark questioning and sweating blood, we end up with an even better, clearer, more compelling version of that idea nugget than we ever thought we could write.

Onward we trudge, faithful screenwriters! For we shall cross the Wasteland of Indecision and reach the Promised Land of a Finished Screenplay. Keep hope alive.

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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.


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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In Process

No two writers are the same. Perhaps the process of creativity is one facet of the work world which is continually elusive, never really containable or describable. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern or formula that we can follow to replicate another’s success.

And yet we keep trying.

It seems I’m always comparing myself to other writers and spectacularly popular artists, trying to glean fresh inspiration and awareness from their example. It works up to a point, but there are only so many books to buy, videos to watch, and classes to take before I just have to sit down and face the page on my own.

I’m reading a fantastic book: The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner. Betsy is a book editor, writing to writers about the magnificent perpelxitude that is a writer’s life.

In a charming style that is so completely relatable, Betsy describes her perception of writers before she chose a profession that would grant her an intimate acquaintance with them – all the zig zaggy foibles, neuroses, and arrogance of them.

Now that she’s seen behind the curtain, those lofty perceptions are gone. But the fact remains that many of us continue clinging to this false perception that other writers are so different, so much more consistent and disciplined, so much more knowledgeable than we are.

We all – every one of us – is in process.

We all struggle sometimes. We all feel highs of elation when a perfect idea comes to us and the story seems to write itself. We all get stuck in the miry clay of creation, with that mysterious shape that could become literally anything. We all wonder if what we’re making will be any good. Or if it will be so good that no one gets it, and our treasured art is going to grace the walls of somebody’s poo palace.

"I may learn to like her. Hang her in my bathroom!" -- Oliver Warbucks

“I may learn to like her. Hang her in my bathroom!” — Oliver Warbucks

Every masterpiece had to start somewhere. There are no straight lines on the graph charting the progress of a creative work – it’s jaggedy and unpredictable. But it’s always an uphill climb.

I’m cultivating a new appreciation for this remarkable, unrepeatable process.

Participating in a writers’ group is a super way to do this. Reading and critiquing the work of my friends (and being read and critiqued myself) allows me to get in on that process, to participate in the despair of a fledgling new script and the exhilaration of watching it morph into something wonderful.

I’ll never forget the first month of my ScreenwritingU class, we had to build a story structure around the germ of a concept for our script, and then share it. As soon as I began reading, my heart sank – how did I get stuck in a class full of terrible writers? This is going to be awful.

Gamely, I considered several offerings from my fellow students and did my best to offer some encouragement and distill my long list of critiques to just a few of the most basic (and – I hope – helpful) suggestions.

Fast forward six months, and I was amazed at how much better everyone’s scripts were turning out!

But you see, it wasn’t that these were bad writers in the first place. They were just in process. They were allowing me to see what they were making before it was finished, before they even knew what it would become.

It’s a sacred privilege, and one that should be embraced carefully.

So if you’re reading this and feeling overwhelmed by the latest amazing book/artwork/movie/performance you’ve compared yourself to, please be reassured. You will get there. We will all get there.


How To Write An Amazing Movie

Dear people,

Advice from established writers can be… tricky.

On the one hand, these are the wise who have gone before – I should lap up their shining words like so many drops of water from the fountain of youth.

On the other hand, do I really want more voices in my head telling me what I’m doing wrong and offering guidelines for being better?

When confronted this morning with yet another list of verbal gems from established Hollywood, I intended to bypass it and carry on with my writing. Blithely complying with the oft-repeated wisdom of the wise who have gone before, to simply write. “Writers write.” End of story.

I really needed some fresh enthusiasm though, so I clicked.

Just for a quick skim.

Within seconds I realized what I was reading was not simply the same wise words and inspirational quips that never fail to drive traffic and sell ads. These are stories from real people who struggle with real writing the way I am really struggling with it now. Little fizzes of awakening started zapping through my body, like instinct was meeting experience and being validated. In a way that I really need to be validated at this particular point in my career.

In a way that makes me want to write.

Stories like this one from the writer of Please Give and Enough Said.

Nicole Holofcener: I used to do [note cards], and it really just fucked me up. It would sort of kill the fun, and it would make me realize that I didn’t know how to structure a screenplay. Or I didn’t have the answers that you’re supposed to have when you outline a script, and I figured out somehow that I didn’t need to have the answers. And I would just start writing and see what happens, and usually, what happens is a mess, but a fixable one, and that’s kind of how I start.

Yes! Me too! I keep doing note cards because that is what we’re supposed to do, but maybe it is killing my fun. Maybe I need to come up with a way to do this that is fun for me.

It’s a relationship. Of the long-term variety.

Right? I mean honestly, does this not make sense?

I hope you will read and be encouraged by the rest of the article. Good stuff.

Let’s keep going.

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Tips for First-Time Producing Writers

It’s not about what you know, it’s what you are.

Screenwriter? Producer? Actor? Director? Film nerd? Movie addict? Wannabe? It’s a set of hats. We trade them back and forth depending on the situation.

For instance, my Screenwriting Hat is my first love. Such a comfy hat, with so many possibilities attached to it. But there’s always that Producing Hat hanging around for special occasions. And lately, it’s been coming out of mothballs more regularly.

You see, writers are not limited to merely writing. We can also help make the stuff we write. Authors do it all the time, with self-publishing and ebooks and marketing and blogs and all that stuff a writer does to get going in the literary world. WhoWantsToBeAMovieProducer

Admittedly, making a motion picture is much more of a collaborative effort than publishing a book – though one might argue to the contrary. I will assert that video production and filmmaking are crafts specifically designed to function as a collaboration. It’s a team effort to interpret written words for a screen, whether it’s big and silver or small and iPod.

So if this is your first foray into getting it made, where do you begin?

First, consider your resources. Going the traditional route (hiring a crew, locating a set, renting or buying equipment) can get pricey, but if you’ve inherited a small fortune, you should absolutely do it. And while you’re at it, drop me a line and we can talk sequels ;o)

If you’re working with more of the low- to no- budget scenario, this will require cake. As I expressed last week, a decent crew can often be induced to work for food. Because whether we are students, wannabes, or full-time professionals, we movie people are so fond of working. So if you are likeable and have an interesting story, you can accomplish a lot with good organization and decent snackage.

Similarly, you will want to make sure you have the equipment you need in order to do your story justice. No lights? Shoot outside, on a cloudy day preferably. No sound gear? Congratulations, you are making a silent film. Don’t knock it, some very delightful films have been crafted with no sound at all (take the recent Academy Award winner for example, or my friend Peter’s gorgeous short, The Camera).

Second, consider your strengths. Producers must be organized. Producers must persevere. Producers must be good communicators.

If you are lacking any or all of these skills, I suggest you recruit a best friend, spouse, or significant other to help you. Once you start accumulating cast and crew members, setting dates, and making plans, the details will add up quickly – and that’s a lot of cake to keep track of.

I also recommend sitting down with your director-slash-cameraman-slash-neighbor-with-an-iPhone to talk through your script. Estimate how much time it will take to shoot each scene. Generally, you will want to allow for a few run-throughs with your actors, as well as multiple angles.

Make sure and communicate a basic schedule to your entire team, and differentiate who needs to be where at what time. Camera and lights people will need to arrive earlier than cast, since they will need time to set up. Of course a shoot will never go according to schedule, but you should start with one just the same.

Third, stop considering and get to work! You will learn so much more by getting out there and making something than by reading and thinking and planning. Definitely read and think and plan, but don’t let that keep you from getting started.

Wheeeee, it’s fun!

My crew (mostly) at our first shoot - The New York Chocolate Show

My crew (mostly) at our first shoot – The New York Chocolate Show

When I first started shooting my web series, I had been working for a production company for nine years. So I had a lot of the skills to get the show made, but I had also learned from hard experience that it’s nearly impossible to direct and run camera at the same time. There’s just too much to think about, and you’re sure to do one or both jobs poorly.

I learned a lot that first shoot, but the stress of the weekend was made much more bearable with good planning, a cheery camera operator and on-camera talent, and this random guy on the right who wanted to take a picture with us.

What are you working on? Let it come to life.

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