New Year’s Dissolutions

I’m always resolving to do things, and I think it’s time to make a change.

The sheer volume of life goals I set, and often expect myself to achieve, is intimidating. Or inspiring, depending on my mood.

So this January let’s try paring down the list. Not the list of what I resolve to do – no way, that would be admitting defeat which I never, almost ever do while all the blood remains in my body. Instead, let’s cut out some of the superfluous stuff I actually do, which I suspect keeps me distracted from the bigger, cooler, more interesting things I really want. You know?

I DISSOLVE: Watching TV shows I don’t care about
With the availability of Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and DVDs from the library, it’s easy to watch an entire five seasons of Breaking Bad without realizing it. You just one-after-another it whether you really want to or not.

My new philosophy is to disoblige myself from finishing a series just because I started it. Drop Dead Diva? I gave you six episodes, and that’s all I’d really like to pursue. Downton Abbey? You lost me. I’m giving myself permission to stop watching you so I can watch something else. I mean, write more.

Writing Everywhere

Writing Everywhere… it is possible

I DISSOLVE: Staying indoors
Being a writer and living in southern California comes with certain advantages. Why do I feel chained to my desk when I can write literally anywhere? All I need is a notebook! And probably a pen. Potentially a laptop. All of which are magnificently portable.

No more will I insist on sitting and staring at a screen to achieve verbal accumulation. To the streets, to the outdoors, to the beach!

I DISSOLVE: Driving everywhere
While LA is not the most pedestrian-friendly city in America, it is reasonably so. I have coffee, a library, several restaurants, public transportation and an ATM within 1 mile of my apartment. I have a grocery store down the street. And a clock repairman around the corner. Why jeopardize a perfectly good parking spot when I can walk to so many of life’s essential places?

I DISSOLVE: Working all day
This week I tried an experiment: knocking out my workday between the hours of 7am and noon. I won’t say it went perfectly, but I was amazed at how much I could accomplish in five hours. Since I tend to focus so intensely, I think short bursts of activity suit me much better than forcing a full day of lackluster performance. I certainly feel much more interested in writing my script!

I bet you have your own secret list of dissolutions for this year. Embrace it! Clear out the clutter! Let’s all let go of the stuff we don’t need, but we have it just because we’ve always had it, and make way for the new exciting stuff.

Want to?

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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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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Producing for Screenwriters

I’m a screenwriter. I love movies and words and popcorn.

But let’s say, just hypothetically, that producers have yet to bang down my door begging for screenplays. Do I just keep on writing and hope that someday those words will get moving?

I think you know the answer to that.

With my team at the screening of our 48 hour film, Dead End Job.

With my team at the screening of our 48 hour film, Dead End Job.

Producing is no easy job, but if we’re eager to spin our ideas into a living, breathing experience, I say go for it. Short films and web series can be done in our spare time with a limited budget, and it gets us in the mode of making stuff.

We are no longer dreamers and wishers. We are filmmakers.

Filmmakers are allowed to say things like, “I have multiple projects in various stages of development,” which works even if you are still trying to corral friends and family members into helping you shoot your first video.

Of course, filmmakers have a lot more responsibility than screenwriters. And chances are, there’s a reason we’ve been so focused on writing all this time… because writing is fun and producing might… not be? Or maybe we don’t know where to begin.

If you happen to be best friends with award-winning actors and a hidden gem of a director, I would suggest you give them a call. If not, it’s still highly possible to put together a team of really good people who can help you tell your story. Asking friends for recommendations, posting in craigslist, contacting the communications department at your local university, can all generate leads for your budding production team.

This approach always works for me, and it’s so much easier to work with a few folks who are pretty good at what they do, then to try and do everything yourself. It can be done, but why?


If you could use a little kick in the pants to get started, go to and sign up for the project in your city. Between now and the start date, make it your goal to recruit as many people as you can for your team. Then you all get to write, shoot, and edit your entire 4-7 minute film in 2 days.

And it will be finished, whether you like it or not.

Take a look at the trailer for the Dark Comedy I just produced and co-wrote. Go get ’em.

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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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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


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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I was sleeping, but I didn’t realize that at the time. Gradually voices lured me out of slumber and even though my brain told me to ignore them, instinctive curiosity overcame it and suddenly I was awake. I was lying in bed and listening to angry male voices fighting somewhere outside.

This happens a lot. I live right next to a bar and the late hours typically result in some sort of brawl. But this one just sounded so violent. Two men were so irate at one another the only way to express it was in a shouting competition. A woman screamed. My imagination took off. I ought to do something. What should I do? Call the police? My phone was far away. So I prayed. But even my prayers seemed to not really be happening.

In a matter of minutes all was quiet, the shouting having come to what seemed like a sudden and inexplicable end. But I was awake. I thought about what had happened and what might have happened an what I would do if it happened again. I heard rain slapping against my building. I fell asleep.

This morning the ocean was white and noisy and turbulent, with wind howling and blowing the rain sideways. Maybe the sun was sleeping behind a blanket of clouds, wondering what to do.

Writer’s Block

Whenever I talk to someone about writing, they inevitably ask me if I get writer’s block. I find that intriguing. Is this a common phenomenon, that would-be writers just can’t think of anything to say?

I confess, I’ve never really believed in writer’s block. Not that I always feel like writing, but when you work for a communications company and deadlines must be met, you just have to produce whether you feel it or not. So I don’t tend to encounter writer’s block in that way – staring at the blank page with dread in my heart and motionless fingers.

I do, however, frequently run into problems with plot. I think this is normal. Some of my favorite films have brilliant plot twists that I would never have seen coming and that I have to believe took months of fervent effort to imagine into being. I mean, surely Christopher Nolan didn’t just whip up a brilliant ending to a complex story in one sitting.

It’s like Emma Thompson’s character in one of my favorite movies, Stranger than Fiction. She’s working on a novel about death and taxes, and just can’t seem to find a fitting way to kill off her main character and tie up all the loose ends of her story.

Eventually she devises the perfect solution, of course, but it takes time. And effort.

It’s work.

In my quest to become a screenwriter, I haven’t wrestled with a block so much as I keep turning over the plot of my baby screenplay in my mind, trying out different solutions and gleaning some insights and tossing out other ideas that just don’t fit. It’s a lonely business, especially since what I end up with is often still full of holes and needing further effort.

I was having breakfast with my mom the other day, and she asked what I was writing about. It’s never comfortable to answer that question, because honestly I am not altogether sure. But I gradually teased out the contents of the story I’m concocting in my screenwriting class.

She wore a look that clearly said, “I don’t get it.”

So I kept going, and sketched out some of the ideas I’d been toying with and the problems I still have and the solutions I’m looking for. And suddenly a light bulb fell out of my mouth. Inspiration struck as I was talking out my story. Not the full solution, maybe not even part of it, but a very intriguing aspect of my main character previously unnoticed by me.

It’s uncomfortable to share any creative work before it’s done. Especially with people you really want to impress, like your mom or your boss or your cute next door neighbor. But I guess the creative process is like that. Discomfort is a good sign – it shows you’re pushing beyond familiar territory and heading for fresh new horizons.

So here’s to being uncomfortable! And the potential light bulb moments that await. Cheers.

Day 5: Put Your Writing on the Internet

In other words: blog. This is today’s assignment in Robert Brewer’s writing challenge, and I have to say, I think I’ve got it licked. I have a few different blogs with a few different focuses, and one Tumblr account that basically collects everything I’ve ever written online.

Now here’s the real question… how often do I blog?

How often do you blog? As writers trying to build a following, we have to blog regularly! It helps the Googlebots and the casual WordPress peruser to find us and all our writerly amazingness. Blogging once a week is my personal goal, and I think it’s a worthy one.

So let’s blog… about blogs.

Day 5: Create a blog

Since I’ve clearly taken this step already, I clicked through to some other of Robert’s posts about optimizing your blogging efforts. A few points that stood out to me:

»  Post relevant content

Maybe that’s a no-brainer, but I find it focusing. It’s tempting to just pop online and type out whatever streams from my consciousness. But taking the extra step to consider your audience and what they might like to read is sometimes a helpful thing.

»  Title your posts in a way that gets you found by search engines

For instance, “Blogging Tips for Writers” versus “Blogging Tips” – the ‘writers’ bit includes SEO vocabulary (in other words, a key word that Joe Blow might be plugging into a Yahoo search… if he actually ever used Yahoo as a search engine, but that’s another point altogether).

So basically, title your posts with words that clearly describe the content. This is something of an art, and I confess it drives me nuts sometimes. But I am prone to over-analyzation.

See prior point regarding ‘relevant content’. How ’bout let’s move on.

»  Find like-minded bloggers

This is a point well taken, and I really want to do this – often I find it’s all I can do just to post to my own blog, let alone go check out what others are writing. But I think there’s a rich community of writers, readers, and thinkers that is available to me through the internet… specifically WordPress does a great job of helping us connect… and I want to take advantage of that.

So look out bloggers, I’m coming to find you.

I think that’s probably enough for today. If you’re curious about Robert’s other blog optimization suggestions, take a look-see at the following:

15 Blogging Tips for Writers, 25 Ways to Increase Blog Traffic