Category Archives: Writing Process

Walking and Talking and Writing, part deux

Just got off the treadmill.

A sweaty mess. But tolerable since I’m writing. “Writing” keeps my mind off how much I hate exercising.

Walked for 30 minutes. Talked into the audio recorder nearly the whole time.

Extracted about 23 minutes of notes out of that walk. Working on a new filmmaking book, a subject I know well. Easier than a novel, so the word count is higher than if I were doing hard core character and plot.

That hike translated to 3.25 pages or 1,800 words. By the end of the summer, I’ll have a first draft.

In theory.

But, it makes me hate getting on the treadmill just a tiny bit less, knowing I’m actually accomplishing something.

If anyone out there walks and talks and writes, I’m curious to hear how it works for you…

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Discover your theme… later…

Just sent this to a former student… thought I’d share.

I hope you have not had writing teachers (including me!) who told you to discover your theme and then start writing. The more I do this the more I understand that you have to figure it out along the way. “OH, that’s what I’m writing about…” The guy who wrote THE SIXTH SENSE didn’t know the key fact about his hero until the 6th draft. I assume you’ve seen it, but can’t be sure, so no spoiler.

“For a whole year I worked on The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter without understanding it at all. Each character was talking to a central character, but why, I didn’t know. I’d almost decided that the book was no novel, that I should chop it up into short stories. But I could feel the mutilation in my body when I had that idea, and I was in despair. Suddenly it occurred me that Harry Minowitz, the character all the other characters were talking to, was a different man, a deaf mute, and immediately the name was changed to John Singer. The whole focus of the novel was fixed and I was for the first time committed with my whole soul to The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.”
Carson McCullers

*

I did several drafts of my novel before I discovered WHY I was writing it. I taught 13 years before I figured out WHY I was doing it. The deeper reason you do something does not seem, to me, self-evident when you sit down to do it. My father is 90 and I wonder if he’s figured out life yet.

You need to live with the characters and the situation and the story for a while before they begin to gel in your mind and it slowly begins to knit together. I’m sure some people sit down and say, “I’m going to write about XYZ” and then they do, from start to finish. That’s fine. But, what worries me is people who sit down and DON’T know and, for whatever reason, think they are supposed to and that if they don’t know, they’re somehow doing it wrong.

Be not afraid that your method is wrong.
Just jump in.
You’ll figure it out eventually.

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My novel is here!!

Visit a bookstore near you and get your hands on Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way.
Get your hands on several copies!

About the war between a 4th grade boy and the Lucifer of teachers, it is now in bookstores and Amazon. Published by Regan Arts in New York, it’s darkly hilarious and was the most fun I’ve ever had writing.

Hope you like it. Tell all your your friends! Share on social media!

Take a peek at the book trailer: https://vimeo.com/156424500

MrsRavenbachsWay_Cover

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Work on the big stuff first.

Don’t waste time on sentences if you haven’t fixed your paragraphs. Don’t waste time on the paragraph if you haven’t fixed the page. Worry about big picture first, then the details.

If you spend a monumental amount of time tweaking sentences and then cut the whole scene, you will feel like an idiot.

This is true in editing as well as writing. Get the story structure right, then start worrying about what’s happening in the scenes.

What you don’t want to do, ever, ever, ever, ever, is spend one second on something you’re going to throw away later.

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The Handcuffs Of History

Had a conversation with a student today about a script he wants to write. A short film, that he’ll write in the spring and make in the fall. He was writing about an incident that happened with his father, a chore that his father wanted him to do, never mind the fact that in real life, the chore was very dangerous and part of the conflict came out of the fact that he didn’t want to do the dangerous part… Which means that he won’t be able to film it, because it’s too dangerous!

But, forget that.

The point of this thought, and what I told the student, is that “you are handcuffed by history. Your first, second, and third natural motivation is to reproduce what happened in the past. This is not a good idea. It is not the best way to tell a story.”

What I told him, and what I tell you, is that you need to tell the emotional story, the true story of your emotions… Not blindly reproduce what happened in the past, “just because it happened that way.”

Your job as the writer is to tell the best story you can. Your job as the writer is not to reproduce what happened to you in the past, even if you think what happened was amazing. Your job is to tell the absolute finest and best story about the finest and best characters you can come up with… Not necessarily you and someone else who is also real.

The other thing, among the 1,000 other other things, is that you need to write something that you are going to be terrified to show to the person who was involved. If you are basing something on real life, you want to be so real, so deep into the guts of your own feelings, that if you showed it to the other people who were involved in the real life story, they will want to shoot you.

If you’re operating at that level of personal involvement, that means your story is probably going to be pretty emotionally sound. The funny thing is, the people who are really involved, most of the time, don’t recognize themselves in your story. They just say, “wow, how do you think up your stuff?!”

Reproducing history is dangerous. Going into your soul and ripping your guts out and putting them on the page is an excellent way to approach a story.

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You gotta want it. A lotty lot.

Figuring out a way to wrench out time to write, especially after working all the livelong day at your horridly painful job, is excruciatingly difficult. Especially if you’ve never had any real success writing. You have to maneuver forward as best you can, trying to convince yourself that this is a good idea. Brutally difficult at best, writing is physically debilitating, emotionally draining, and a big fat waste of time… at worst.

However, I do not believe in the worst. Especially the “waste of time” part. You’re always learning, always improving. If only by dull banging-your-head-against-the-wall repetition, you get better. It’s never a waste of time.

Writing is so vague and semi-invisible, it’s hard to make yourself do it when all you have is the little voice inside telling you you should do it. Doing battle against naysayers, like a spouse, or friends or false friends, or the evil little voice inside that soothes, “this is never going to work. Why don’t you just go to bed at a normal time?” Defeating the voices around you and defeating the one inside yourself is, in a lot of ways, more difficult than writing. When you have so many other forces tugging at you, just sitting down to write can be the hardest thing.

Well, solving the puzzle that is the incredible mess you made of the project you’re working on is more difficult than sitting down to write. Hell, all of it’s difficult.

However! When it is moving forward, nicely, at a good clip, and you feel like you’re not the biggest idiot in the world, writing feels pretty good. That’s the best you can hope for — to feel pretty good a reasonable percentage of the time.

Get in a writing group. Find like-minded people. Get some encouragement. Try to get far away from people who make you feel bad about yourself for doing what you’re doing.

To rip a “writing hour” a day out of your 24 hour day is critical, and savagely difficult. Two hours a day would be a miracle.

“I still have vivid recollections of putting in day after day of trying a case in front of a jury, which is one of the most exhausting activities I know about, dashing up to the law library after court had adjourned to spend three or four hours looking up law points with which I could trap my adversary the next day, then going home, grabbing a glass of milk with an egg in it, dashing upstairs to my study, ripping the cover off my typewriter, noticing it was 11:30 p.m. and settling down with grim determination to get a plot for a story. Along about 3:00 in the morning I would have completed my daily stint of a 4,000-word minimum and would crawl into bed.”

Erle Stanley Gardner (whose Perry Mason novels have sold 300 million copies)

You’ve got to be like Erle Stanley Gardner. You have to really, really want it.

Wanting it “a lot” is not going to be enough. To make screenwriting or any other artistic medium actually happen, you have to want it like a drowning man clawing for the surface so he can get a lungful of oxygen and not die.

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What’s up?! My talk on Beating Writers Block…

Been out of the country. Took students to London and Paris to make films. They made ’em. We came back. Didn’t lose a one!

On the 20th of June, I’m giving a conference call talk on Beating Writers Block. It’s at 10:25 a.m. Pacific time. And, it’s free. Sign up now…

http://www.networkisa.org/class.php?id=349

Working on a screenplay, which is different, I must say, than working on student homework. I can maybe sell the screenplay. Never found much of a market for used student homework, sad to say.
Working on the sequel to my children’s book. Or my novel for grownups. We’ll find out what it is when the book actually comes out in March. The first book is about the hero’s battle with his 5th grade homeroom teacher. The sequel is about his battle with his baseball coach.
Researching baseball, about which I know next to nothing. A long uphill event, that’s for sure.

Reading Cheryl Klein’s superb book on writing: Second Sight. It’s about children’s books, but boy oh boy does she understand story. You might find it helpful in your writing.

Dying to see MAD MAX. Have you seen it? What did you think?
I adored THE WOMAN IN GOLD. Best film I’ve seen in a long, long time.

And, finally, have discovered wonderful author of witty English books: Barbara Pym. What a delight!

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Dragon Dictate… voice recognition is finally here.

The word a day for today is “amanuensis.” I’ve been pronouncing it wrong for a long time. But anyway.

That’s a person employed to take dictation or copy manuscripts, something mere mortals generally can’t afford.

Now you can have one of your very own, for a one time payment.

My answer to every writer’s problem…

Dragon Dictate voice recognition software.
I dictate in the car and on the treadmill. Makes car journeys go faster and makes the treadmill, which I loathe, fly by. Sometimes, I do it sitting in my office… just talking.
And it cranks out pages as fast as you can talk. Very useful for brainstorming.
It’s REALLY good and barely makes any mistakes.

Cleaning it up doesn’t take a lot of time, and reinforces what you wrote, anyway.

You have to put the punctuation in while you talk. “Comma” “Period” “New Paragraph” and that is fairly easy to get used to. I’ve written two books via dictation and Dragon Dictate makes having an assistant no longer crucial.

My thought for the morning.

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Michael Arndt on Beginnings

This is on the TOY STORY 3 Blu-Ray DVD feature. Thought I’d share. This is amazingly helpful.

introduce the character
introduce the world
the thing they love to do most – their grand passion
Woody loves to play with Andy.
Marlin loves his family and a wife
Mr. Incredible (a.k.a. Bob) loves being a superhero.

and they have a flaw
Woody loves being Andy’s favorite toy
Marlin is insecure about being a parent
Mr. Incredible doesn’t want to share being #1

introduce dark storm clouds
Andy… birthday party … everyone frets…
Nemo… outdoors where they are not safe
Bob… things will change when they marry… resentment from normal people against super heros

something blows the hero’s life apart! (inciting incident!)
Buzz arrives. Woody is displaced.
Nemo… family is killed except one egg
Mr. Incredible, and superheros get banned…

and their grand passion… is taken away from them!
changes their sense of their future will be

add insult to injury
Woody is replaced by a doofus… Buzz thinks he’s not a toy, thinks he can fly, and they think he can fly… everyone is impressed for wrong reasons
Nemo… we know the world he lives in in unfair
Mr. Incredible is trying to do wright thing, ad they are banned…

comes to fork in road
must make choice on how to adjust
if they do the right thing, the story is over
make the unhealthy choice… we are rooting for him to do the unhealthy thing, because we feel his pain

Woody knocks Buzz out the window, and now he can’t stay in Andy’s room without getting Buzz back
Marlin must get Nemo in open ocean… he has to go after his son, who says I hate you… gets caught by diver… Marlin has a goal for rest of story
Bob’s wife tells him to make choice, and it’s boring, but he lies to wife, and we are rooting for that, because we saw how much he loves being a super hero… sneaking around leads to crisis and then you’re into the SECOND ACT…

story comes out of deepest desires
and darkest fears
the thing they love is taken away
and it’s unfair
and they have to take journey and will get back what they lost…
and fix the flaw

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Drawing a Line

I just went up to my office door, which has a Post-It note or two stuck there. My office is a wreck, always has been. But a vertical space is pretty easy to keep tidy. At least it is for me.

One of the Post-Its is a list of the major projects I’m working on. Since I put it up, I’ve drawn three lines through projects. Two are finished. THAT felt good.

One I abandoned.

That felt even better, in some ways.

I had this great idea for a TV series for a long time. Based on true events from our nation’s past, I had the idea to set it in the modern era and repeat history. Great idea. The problem was, I had no business writing it. None. Just because I thought it a lovely idea, didn’t mean I needed to waste my precious time working on it. For years, I’ve thought, “I’m capable of anything. There’s nothing I can’t do well, if I spend enough time and energy on it.”

Moron.

Knowing when to quit is a wonderful thing. I am not suited to write a political thriller. I need to be writing what is more or less easy for me to write, not make some giant (impossible) stretch into, not only, unknown territory, but suicide mission territory. Why be stupid?

Drawing the line through that project suddenly gave me MONTHS of free time, yawning ahead of me, to devote to something I am suited to write.

I am changing my tune about this stuff. I used to tell people, “If you watch bank robbery movies more than anything else, you should really think about writing bank robbery stories.” I don’t think that any more. I think you need to write what you want to write, but to take a long hard look at your skill set before you dive into the deep end. What are you naturally suited to write? What are you better at than the other folks on their laptops at the Starbucks? What are you better at than anybody?

That’s what you need to be doing.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to look at that Post-It note, knowing I won’t waste a year of my life on an idea that I am 100% unqualified to write.

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