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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Pro: short for professional, shorthand for positive (as opposed to a con), and also the first three letters of a word I have been living for the past week and a half.

Yes, January 1-7, a time when millions are kickstarting their life goals with resolutions and plans – and arguably the time during which they will be the most faithful to those plans out of this whole year of 2013 – I am procrastinating. Like a pro. But in a positive way.

I want to write. I love to write. And not in the way of the classic Dorothy Parker quote (“I hate writing. I love having written.”) I genuinely enjoy the act of writing and I don’t know why I would want to put it off. In this post I hope to explore that phenomenon, in case there are other doers of fun things that put them off sometimes and wonder why.

Today is Day 16 in the Outlining module of my screenwriting class, although technically it has gone on much longer than that. Coinciding with Christmas, New Year’s and one or two other unusual things, this supposedly 10-day module has lingered about 22 days. I suppose it must end sometime, but it just hasn’t yet.

With all the hubbub of this time of year (especially this year, as it’s the first Christmas I’ve had to travel to get home and then spent days seeing all the family and friends I’ve moved away from), my assignments have piled up. And it seems with each deadline I miss, it’s that much harder to motivate myself to catch up.

At this writing, I’m only 3 assignments behind. Attainable. I can even fudge a bit and do today’s assignment, then backtrack and do the last 3 during the break between modules.

That’s what I’m supposed to do right now, is tidy up my outline so I can post it online and solicit opinions from my classmates. That sounds fun. I look forward to it. And so you see I’m writing this blog post instead.

What are brains made of? Why are we so weird in our heads? If you read books and articles on the craft and business of writing of any kind, from scripts to poetry, you will find some words dedicated to overcoming our writerly reticence. I mean, isn’t that bizarre? This is our dream, this is what keeps us up at night, these stories and words and exciting images that we alone can see and so we have to capture them and share them with the world. And that is a super cool thing to do. Why do we suddenly have to do anything but that?

I’m open to suggestions.

Meanwhile, here is a gif I found on Mental Multi-Vitamin’s blogspot:

This is gross, but it speaks to me.

Part of the problem in my situation is that in this phase of creation, I’m still in outline mode. I’m not brainstorming new concepts or writing scenes. Outlines are basically blueprints, so it’s like I’m spending 22 days on the plans for my glorious screenplay skyscraper, but I can’t start building it yet.

I like planning. It’s helpful. I don’t love it as much as writing, but I see the benefit of it and I’m willing to do the work. After all this time though, I’m getting antsy. Oh well. I guess that’s what separates the pros from the amateurs, is the willingness to persevere.

So I will persevere. I will click ‘Publish’ on this post and then turn on some music and then finish my outline. Right after dinner. And maybe check email. Actually, I have a load of laundry that needs changing too.

Never mind, I will procrastinate tomorrow.

Brain Training

A year ago, I was sitting in a workshop with Marilyn Horowitz, a film professor at NYU. She remarked on the challenging journey that is screenwriting life and encouraged us to tip the scales by writing ourselves “a happy little story” every day.

Not a happy story for some character. Not someone else’s happy little story…
A happy story for me!

Bob Ross photo from BuzzFeed

Happy little trees aren’t just for Bob Ross anymore.

Because believe it or not, we writers are not by nature the cheerfullest bunch. At least, not generally. I tend to be quite cheerful in person, perhaps annoyingly so at times, and I have the highest confidence in friends and acquaintances who confess to me their aspirations to greatness.

But when it comes to my own screenwriting goals, all my cheer can go right out the window. And it’s winter, so the window’s not even open. So now I have a bruised ego and a broken window.

See how quickly this can get ugly?

This module in my screenwriting class has been all about training our brains with a philosophy of success. Any creative endeavor is sure to generate criticism and even rejection. As part of the learning process, this is tough to take! Our best defense is to cultivate a healthy mindset and believe that these months of brainstorming concepts and outlining characters and choosing plot devices will not be spent in vain.

A screenplay is a big deal to write! It takes a ton of organization and structural awareness. You change something in the second act, it reverberates through the first and third as well. And woe to you if you make it past page 110 and suddenly realize your concept is all wrong.

What keeps us going is faith. And faith has to be based on something solid. That’s what separates Confidence from Wishful Thinking.

So write yourself a happy little story today. Think about all your wildest dreams and what it would take for them to come true. Look at new things you’ve tried successfully in the past and what it took to achieve those goals. Make a plan and stick to it.

Perseverance, my friends. That is what it’s all about. NOT the hokey pokey.

It’s the Concept that Counts

Hurricane Sandy came and went. It did a lot more damage in other places, but Virginia Beach seems to have come out relatively unscathed.

The view from my balcony. Yes, I’m jealous of me too.

I just submitted my third writing assignment with ScreenwritingU, and I’m enjoying it immensely. The teaching style is so low-key and inspiring, and it motivates me to believe I can really do this. Which, after years of listening to experts explain how impossible and difficult it is, is really quite refreshing.

Not that I’m now throwing caution to the wind to dream the impossible dream. But the dream is a little less impossible these days.

Right now we’re working on high concepts. I became aware of the principle of high concepts a few years ago while reading Michael Hauge’s book, Writing Screenplays that Sell – the original edition, which was published a few decades ago. I learned that high concepts are nice, but not absolutely necessary in order to sell a script.

Well, like high-waisted pants, high concepts are back in fashion and I need to be good at creating them.

The idea is to tell a story that can be boiled down to one sentence that makes you say, “I wanna see that!” Kind of like back in the days when the only way people could find out about what’s playing was to look in the newspaper listing. No room for paragraphs of description, critical acclaim, or the trailers and clips you’ll find on nowadays.

‘Cause you know what movies don’t show up on The ones that haven’t been produced yet. And if we unknown screenwriters want to cut through the slushpile and have our scripts read, purchased, and even produced, a high concept is the best place to start.