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.

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?

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:

Seriously.

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.

Accountability

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?

What’s Bloglovin?

WordPress is wonderful. I love how easy it is to keep up with one another on here. Good job with that, WordPress. Props.

Occasionally though… and I mean just whenever I happen to go online…which of course is very infrequently because I’m such a disciplined writer… I come across a blog that I really like, hosted on some other site. Rendering it impossible to lump into my WordPress reading traffic.

And as much as I love getting email, there are only so many blog updates I can sign up to receive before it gets kind of sad. You know, where you eagerly check your inbox and find a handful of spam nestled amongst newsletters, sales alerts, and other messages generated by robots.

Enter: Bloglovin’ – a simple solution for the busy blog reader who also wants to keep their inbox free for meaningful communication of a non-automatically generated nature.

If you, dear reader, are similarly inclined, you may now follow my intermittent scribblings by starting an account (they won’t email you unless you specifically require them to) and typing ‘Traveling Screenwriter’ into the Search box.

Similarly, you can claim your own blog and I’ll be able to follow you there.

And I hope you like it.

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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.

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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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.

Eventually.

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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Backyard Explorations: Point Dume

For we wanderlust sufferers, it is easy to overlook the fact that getting away from it all doesn’t necessarily require a big splurge on plane tickets and hotels. Next time you need a change of scenery, consider looking in your own backyard.

canyon1

Topanga Canyon

LA has been my neighborhood for almost three months now, and it’s high time I did some exploring. Work pressures and writing commitments have been piling up. I could use some perspective.

And my motto is, when the going gets tough, the tough go driving.

The Pacific Coast Highway (or PCH, for cool) is the famous road that follows the coast of California. It runs all the way up to San Francisco and beyond, but I was not planning to go that far today.

canyonview

My eyes were too busy watching the road to notice where the camera was pointing.

In order to get to the coast, I took the 101 freeway west and followed Topanga Canyon Boulevard up, up, up and down, down down – winding around the mildly frightening mountainous terrain with my game face on. I even managed to hack a few photos with my free hand.

canyon3Coming down the other side, the first thing I noticed (aside from the gorgeous canyon views) was a distinct drop in temperature. After 90 degrees and climbing in the valley, those first whiffs of 69 coming over the hills was dreamy.

Topanga Canyon is a really charming part of the world, with barren hills suddenly boasting civilization. Signs for businesses and houses and even a Post Office. I felt a little nervous for the safety of several cyclists hugging the teeny margin of street next to vehicular traffic, but nothing horrible happened.

pch1

I wish I could do it justice (you’ll have to go see it yourself sometime), but suddenly out of all this up and down comes a stunning ocean view. This being a Saturday, the view was made slightly less stunning by the volume of cars lined up all along the side of the road.

These beaches do offer paid parking, but most visitors would rather take their chances on the side of the road than waste their nine bucks.

I drove the PCH for eight or ten miles, just looking around and soaking in the atmosphere. It reminded me of weekends in Virginia Beach – the smoosh of locals clamoring for some beach time on their day off.

Once I hit Malibu, public beaches gave way to houses built right on the coast (completely blocking the view). I thought these might be fun and eccentric like the ones in Florida, but they were mostly forgettable. Still the main drag feel was fun and funky, with a mix of fast food and kitschy Mexican establishments lined up together.

The first glimpse of something promising...

The first glimpse of something promising…

I set my sights on a quieter, less commercial part of the world. On the map, Point Dume State Beach (I pronounce it ‘Dyoom’ so it doesn’t sound so ominous) forms sort of a horn protruding into the ocean. I imagined a wide swath of sand from which you could enjoy a 180 degree view of the Pacific.

Who knew if that’s what it’s really like, but it’s fun to imagine.

I had a dream when I was planning my Key West road trip that the highway through the keys was just two lanes right on the water. I know that’s probably impossible, but come on, engineering has absolutely nothing to do with the way my mind works.

oceanview

So there I was, beginning to look for my next turn, and the world opened up before me. The traffic, the busy Saturday, the deadlines, the questions about the future, they all fell away.

This is what exploring can do for you, folks. You take a break from your schedule. You simply behold.

This is discovery, in my book.

More on Point Dume tomorrow, but for now: when was the last time you followed a road you’ve never seen the end of? Maybe that should happen soon.

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