10 January 2009 - 13:34Goal for 2009? Roll My Own Fellowship

I have been in hibernation for a while.  No writing, no reading, no posting, just dealing with a really draining situation at the Day Job, which I believe I have now put behind me.  More or less.  I hope.

One thing I have realized, as I found myself drowning in crap, is that to get a fellowship (you know, that big goal I talked about last year?  Winning a Nicholl Fellowship?) you pretty much have to already have a fellowship. That is, you need the time and mindspace to really concentrate on your writing.  And a week or two ain’t gonna do it.

Due to the fact that I am very good at managing my money, and that I live very frugally in a state that has been depressed for so long that the cost of living is minimal, and because I’ve been lucky, I should be able to swing an unpaid leave over the summer.  (That’s the advantage of working in education. Most colleges are more than willing to forego your services over summer. It’s also a disadvantage of working in education.)

But even before summer comes along, my work life has improved to the point that I can resume my writing-related activities now.  And I intend to do so.

One way to get your productivity up is to post your progress publicly.  This is the theory behind Novel Dares and things like NaNoWriMo.  So expect me to post more often for a while.  Not only goals and updates, but postings about process and about financial matters and about whipping life into shape so you can get on with the story.

No Comments | Tags: Blog Business, productivity

3 August 2008 - 16:49Query Letters, Part 1 - The Basics

Everybody knows that query letters don’t work.  Everybody also knows that nothing else works any better.  Not for an unrepped, unproduced writer who has no connections.

However, knowing how to write a good query letter provides you with the foundation knowledge you will need for all future pitching interactions.

In any circumstance where you are making a cold pitch, the person you are pitching to wants to know four things.

  1. What is it?
  2. How is it?
  3. Who are you?
  4. How to contact you.

“What is it?”

This leading information is minimal, business-like, and fast.  The chapter on loglines in Save The Cat is a good guide here.  We’re looking for title, genre, and any indication of audience, style and tone. (If you’re querying a publisher or agent about a novel, include the length in words, rounded to the nearest 1000.)  It could be just title, genre and logline, or it could be a teaser line.  “What if the president’s plane were taken over by ghosts?”

Here’s the deal: you may think you want them to read beyond this paragraph, but actually, the thing you most want is for this paragraph to be so perfectly clear, that anybody who isn’t interested won’t have to read further.  If it isn’t in the ball park of what they want, then they will be much happier if they know it immediately.  So give them the bare facts they need to know.  (But make sure it’s clear: Our ghostly presidential thing doesn’t sound like a family comedy — so if it is for kids, they need to know up top.)

“How is it?”

Now that they know whether it’s the kind of thing they want, they want a sense of how you developed it.  This is the meat of your pitch: a paragraph about the story that gives them an idea of the plot, and also shows them you know how to develop an idea.  Whether you intend it or not, this will demonstrate how clear your understanding of basic elements like character needs and story structure.  Do you know what drives a story forward?  This is where it will show.

So, if we didn’t learn it above, we might learn here that it’s about the first African American president, and that the ghosts are John Brown, the violently radical abolitionist, and his followers. They believe they are protecting the president from attack, and they are desperate and merciless.  We’d learn something about one or two major characters — how they may have triggered the ghosts, and the attempts they make to pacify the ghosts.  Is there a conflict among the president’s staff?  Are the ghosts themselves major characters  or just a monstrous force?  We don’t need to know the ending, just the direction and the major conflicts.

“Who are you?”

If you don’t have anything to say here, don’t say anything.  The rest of your letter gives them an idea if you are literate, and understand what makes a story good.  But if you do have something to say, keep it short, relevant and casual.  One line about writing credits or screenwriting prizes, and another line or two about any experience you have with the subject matter.  (If, for instance, you wrote our Presidential Ghost Story, and you happened to be the curator of the John Brown museum in Harper’s Ferry, then that would be a great thing to mention.)

How to Contact You

You’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t make this easy.  The decision to read may be spur of the moment, and they can just as quickly decide not to.  Even if you have the phone number and email at the top of the letter, put it again at the bottom. (Even if you are sending by email and they can just hit “reply” — the letter may have gone to the assistant, who may have forwarded to the exec.)

Later I’ll go deeper into some of the techniques you might use in each of these elements.

No Comments | Tags: marketing

20 July 2008 - 8:36Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Banana?

I’m reading a pile of scripts right now.  Funny how a lot of common issues pop right out at you. Today’s script had a curious but common problem: There was no give an take in the scenes.  The beats were in the right place, the pacing was okay. The characters probably do have decent motivations and a character arc, but you couldn’t really tell because the scenes were so flat.

Give and take is the basis of scene structure.  You have two characters who want something. Their desires are in conflict.  In order to get what they want, they have to play a little chess game.  To play chess, you’ve got to move the pieces.  It doesn’t matter how safe your character feels behind a wall of other pieces, one of those pieces has to move with every beat.  Every bit of dialog, every action by a character changes the board.

Most people instinctively know this, but they don’t know how to do it.  So they start out with a character who, say, wants to be left alone.  And then there is somebody who desperately needs her help.  So you establish the situation with “Help me, please!”  “No!” …. and get stuck.  How do you get from there to “Okay I’ll help you”?  It shouldn’t be easy.  It’s got to take up some time.

So the writer puts in a place holder, and it goes like this:

Help me!
Help me, please.
No, I won’t.
Help me!
Please help me! Help me help me!
Oh, all right.

It’s like the Banana Knock Knock Joke.  It just repeats the exact same beat, exact same info, exact same character posture, until it changes, much to the relief of every one.  And while a lot of writers might use this just for a place holder, you NEVER let this kind of thing live to be read by anyone.

Maybe you aren’t sure now to fix this, but it’s really pretty simple.  (It takes practice, but it’s simple.)  Make your characters negotiate.  Maybe one of them can be stupid and stubborn, but the other will have to pick up on the very first beat that she has to change tactics to persuade, force or cajole the other into changing.

Really great scenes are like a dance.  It’s step and counter-step.  There’s movement.  There’s progress.  It can be serious, subtle, playful, wild, but it does move.

(The Banana Knock Knock Joke, for those who managed to somehow miss it in childhood, goes thusly:

Knock knock.  Who’s there? Banana.  Banana who?
Knock knock.  Who’s there? Banana.  Banana who?
(repeat until nauseated)
Knock knock.  Who’s there?  Orange.  Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say Banana?

Here’s a particularly extreme version on YouTube, featuring an animated banana and orange. )

No Comments | Tags: Craft

9 July 2008 - 21:58Boulders, Sand and Jokes

A wise teacher once set a bucket and three boxes before his students.  He opened the first box, and pulled out some very large stones (or “boulders” as they call them in Zen Koan speak, although my idea of a boulder wouldn’t fit in a bucket).  He piled the rocks into the bucket until he couldn’t fit any more in.

“Is this bucket full?” he asked his students.

“You can’t fit any more stones in it, so yes, it’s full,” said the students.

So the teacher opened the second box and scooped out handfuls of pebbles. He dumped them into the bucket and shook the bucket so they would trickle down between the stones.

“Is the bucket full?” he asked again.  And again the students said “ah, yes, NOW it’s full.  You can’t get any more pebbles into it either.”

So the teacher opened the third box and he started scooping sand into the bucket, and the sand trickled down between the pebbles.

“Full now?”

The students hesitated, but seeing that he only had three boxes, they said “yes, it is now full.”

“You’re right,” said the teacher, and he dumped the bucket out.

This time he filled the bucket first with sand, all the way to the top.

“Is it full now?”

“No?” said the students.

“Can you fit any rocks or pebbles into it now that it is full of sand?”

“No,” agreed the students.  “It is too full of sand.”

And here’s where the teacher lectured them about how they should identify the most important things and make sure there is room for them FIRST, then let the unimportant things trickle in later.

I tell you this story because Complications Ensue just posted an excellent tip about comedy writing that really fits some of my philosophy of writing:  Always start with the best, coolest, most intense, most exciting, most important elements of your story.  They are your boulders.  Sand can trickle in later.

No Comments | Tags: Craft, productivity

8 May 2008 - 10:06Making Choices

I got a new script off to the Nicholl, but unfortunately, I didn’t get a rewrite of an older one.  (That script has had two near misses in past years, and I finally figured out how to fix that slow spot in the second act.  But alas, I did not have time.)

Now the goal is to get on to next year’s Nicholl.  I think (and I may be optimistic here) that I can get three more scripts done by next year’s deadline, even with all the kerfuffle that continues in my life.  So….

Of the seven active projects I have lined up, which do I do next?

I weighed them by various factors - how far along they are, how much fun they would be  (and therefore easy to get into), how much Nicholl-esque prestige they could generate….

And then I went to a random choice generator on the web, and typed them all in, and it picked one.

Luckily, it picked the one I thought was best.  Maybe not my best Nicholl prospect, but something I’ve already done a lot of work on, and should be fast to write.  (Plus, though it is not big and commercial, it is very small, contained and cheap to produce.)

A friend of mine always recommends flipping a coin or using a magic eight-ball to make decisions.  She points out that as soon as you see the result, you know the real answer — even if the coin flip is wrong.  You either say “That’s right!” or you say “Uhhh…..Let’s try two out of three.”  By your own reaction, you know the real answer.

Check out the random choice generator here.

No Comments | Tags: productivity

29 March 2008 - 15:53Taking it to the Protagonist

Jane Espenson has a post up about keeping the attention on the protagonist in a spec pilot. (A friend had got some notes telling her to focus on the protag on each ad break.) She has good advice, but it inspired me to riff a little further on the subject of disparate elements of your story.

She points out that, even though it is good to keep the story on your protagonist, if you want to break for commercial on a revealation that your protag doesn’t know about, that’s okay. It works for the story and the drama. (And if the revealation is something that brings the protag to mind, he’s still the subject of the moment.)

My immediate thought was that if your producer really wanted the protagonist’s face as the last sight before every ad break, you could still make it work for you. So the cliffhanger scene is the Hero’s best friend betraying him to the Villain. Cut to the Hero walking his dog in the park, whistling. Maybe telling someone that things are going so great. (Of course, you could also do the opposite. Hero tells someone about how his Best Friend is going to save his bacon, and then we cut to the friend betraying him.)

That sort of thing can become artificial if pushed too far, but pushed even further, it can also be stylish.

I’m working on stylish right now in the work-in-progress. It’s an action thriller, and has multiple threads. I’ve decided to push in extra connections into transitions from one plotline to the other. For instance, at the end of a scene where the heroine and her boyfriend discuss matters while driving along the road, an ambulance passes them. They have no connection yet with what is going on in the ambulance, but it acts as the transition when we cut from them to the scene in the hospital where the other plotline continues.

In another scene I try to do something more elaborate — have one of the kidnappers drive by the heroine’s father , who is a State Trooper, just as as he gets an alert on a vague description of the kidnapper’s car. The description is so vague that every car in the parking lot fits it. He makes a sarcastic comment and exits to chase speeders, while the story shifts from him to the kidnapper. This one pushes the coincidence factor, but if you weave it properly, there is a point when coincidence becomes irony. And irony is a part of style. Especially when you are working in a heightened reality genre, like action or comedy.

One of the reasons I think that scene will work is because it just happened to grow organically from the existing story. The State Trooper hangs out in a speed trap on a freeway. It’s a part of the badguy’s plan to make a call from a rest stop. Both elements were already in the story. It was just natural to cross them.

(It also was a good way to make the father more of a character in the story. At first he was just a background character, but after this scene, I realized I should replace any anonymous cop at the end with him. And then I realized he could play a bigger part, and still keep the budget down by more efficient use of cast….)

The key is not to force connections into the story, but to be alert to what the natural connections are. Sometimes it’s a matter of ideas. If you notice a touch of dialog among the badguys happens to hook up with something the good guys will do at some point. Look at it. Might it be a good place to cut from one scene to the other?

Of course, there is a danger of cliches, and of being too ironic or too subtle, or just throwing off the tone of the rest of the story. But the only way to learn to do it right is to practice it. That’s what I’m doing.

No Comments | Tags: Craft

21 March 2008 - 19:28The Pancake God (or what to write first)

Listening to a podcast the other day. (On The Page — a good talk show style screenwriting show, available on iTunes.) A listener wrote in to ask an important question. He has a passion project that he’d like to write, but he’s a complete beginner and doesn’t want to screw it up. He seemed intimidated by it. He asked if he should maybe write something else to learn his craft first.

I was surprised when the hosts of the show said, “NO! Write the passion project.” Which is not bad advice. What surprised me was their reasons: a beginner shouldn’t waste time trying to write something more commercial because it will be out of date by the time it is done anyway. I realized they were making an “insider leap”. Instead of listening to the question, they imagined their own most common reason to put aside a passion project - that’s when your agent tells you to write something easier to sell.

But this guy didn’t ask about easier to sell. He asked about whether he should do something easier to WRITE. And by golly, there are kinds of stories that are easier to write. Unfortunately, those kinds of stories are are most certainly not easier to sell, which could be why the hosts didn’t think of it. Pretty much everything easy has already been done. (Which is a clue to what it is….)

Write a cliché.

Go ahead. Don’t be scared. Sit down and figure out what formula-type story is your worst guilty pleasure, and write one of those. Just pure trash, but something that’s fun. It can be a cheezy romance, or a bloody horror, or a 1940s tough guy adventure. Go ahead and write something that no one in their right mind would produce today.

My first novel was a swashbuckler. My first screenplay was a western. (And not one of your gritty realistic nouvelle westerns either. Straight old-fashioned Gunsmoke type.) I learned a heck of a lot writing both of them. And here’s the kicker — even though neither of them have been published or produced, they have both got much more attention than a first work ever should have got. (The western got me a “just missed the quarters” note in the Nicholl a couple of years ago.)

Why? Because they were fun. By not bogging myself down in difficult writing chores, I could concentrate on figuring out what was appealing about the genres and the ideas involved, and I could work on THAT.

Nobody’s first script is going to be great. It’s always awkward and misconceived, and really hard to fix. It’s like making pancakes. The first one is misshapen, and the pan was either too cold or two hot. We always called those the “sacrifice to the pancake god” and tossed it to the dog. (The dog, Molly, was high priestess to the pancake god.)

So, while you certainly can work on your passion project while you are learning your craft, it is perfectly reasonable to do a project or two as sacrifices to the pancake god.

No Comments | Tags: Craft, podcasts, productivity

21 January 2008 - 22:28Winning a Nicholl, and Script Frenzy

I work at a college. It’s rewarding, flexible, reasonably-paid part-time work that is ideal for a writer’s day job. (Except when the entire college goes all dysfunctional for several years, and one gets involved in battles with Psycho-Bosses, Sneaky Sidekicks, and Back-stabbing Co-workers. Think “Dilbert” meets “24.”) And, you know, it’s seasonal. With seasons that change radically from month to month. The Beginning of the Semester Rush has completely flooded me.

So I’m a couple of weeks behind on my goal of winning a Nicholl. (140 weeks to go.)

This is also why I haven’t started posting much here.

But I’m still on track to have at least one new script ready well before the deadline. My plan is this: get the script roughed in before Spring Break in early March. During Spring Break I hope to set the current script aside and do a serious planning session on the next one. Then a couple of weeks rewriting, and then, End Of Semester Panic Season willing, I hope to do another script for Script Frenzy in April.

Script Frenzy is a kind of “writer’s dare” where everybody tries to write a complete script during the month of April. (It’s from the same people who run NaNoWriMo - the yearly effort to write most of a novel during the month of November.)

Since the Nicholl deadline is the first of May, this may not be soon enough to actually have a second script ready in time, but you never know. (And the Austin Film Festival deadline is a couple of weeks later.)

In the meantime, I’m shutting down the Synopsis Service until May, so I can concentrate on writing. Also, I’ve got to rethink the movie breakdowns I planned to post here. While I have been learning a lot, they are really BORING when it comes to writing them up and reading them, so I have to rethink how to use them better. I’ll probably start with a “lessons learned” approach.

No Comments | Tags: contests, productivity

13 January 2008 - 9:34Comcast, Apple and 1984

Just reading an article in Forbes Magazine about the CEO of Comcast. Here’s a guy who has made a fortune out of Getting His Way. He insists on controlling everything, from customer choice to prices to congressional regulation.

And that’s being shaken by … the internet. No the alternative streams are not quite there yet, but I know I gave up cable two years ago, and haven’t missed it. (Other than Alton Brown. And Iron Chef, especially the origial Japanese one.) Between DVDs, iTunes and the internet, I get to watch all I want, and at my own convenience.

The thing about Getting Your Way is that if it doesn’t benefit others, it won’t last. Edison tried it in the early days of movies, and failed because a million shopgirls with nickels can’t be denied.

While reading that article, I couldn’t help thinking about Apple’s classic 1984 “Big Brother” ad. Apple ought to trot that one out again in support of the new Apple TV. (Sure, Apple TV is too controlled itself right now — but it just got started.)

No Comments | Tags: Uncategorized

23 December 2007 - 14:13Book Review: The Dip - when to stick and when to quit

“Being best in the world is seriously underrated.” - Seth Godin

Seth Godin isn’t a writing guru, but rather a marketing, business and entrepreneurship guru. He has a lot of interesting things to say about the future, and especially about things that writers should be thinking about. What are distribution channels going to look like in the future, how to wisely market oneself, how to win out in a very competitive world. You can visit his blog by clicking here.

He’s published a lot of books — mostly collections of essays — but his most quietly important book is “The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)” This is a critical book for most writers.

Most of us take a look at the odds and know that there is very little chance of making it in the business. And that leaves us with a temptation to look at this business as a gamble. But it isn’t. It’s just a really hard business to break into, and it has a really big dip you have to get through to get there. And it isn’t just persistance that will get you there. You’ve got to become Best In The World.

And to become best in the world, you have to quit the things that you _won’t_ be best in the world at. (Godin goes back and forth on this — certainly there are things that are “due paying” that get you to best in the world at something else, but you have to be careful to keep your eyes on the prize, and not let it sidetrack you. Here’s an interesting blog post on getting sidetracked in a Hollywood career at Genius Types — “Directors direct and Writers write.” )

Some of us do need to quit. There are certainly a lot of writers out there who won’t make it. This book can be discouraging, at least if your strategy has been to close your eyes and shake the dice. Forget that. The dice are loaded. This business has a huge “dip” — the hard part that makes most people quit. Is getting to the other side worth it for you? This book helps you figure that out, and it is ultimately encouraging.

See the dip is a measure of how worthy the goal is. The dip, he says, is the reason you’re here.

No Comments | Tags: productivity