Twitter Rant: Eric Heisserer on Procrastination, Precrastination and Productivity in Writing

September 12th, 2014 by

Twitter can be a gold mine for writers. Case in point, when pro writers decide to go on a rant about the craft, such as Eric Heisserer, who occasionally will sidle up to Twitter with a libation at hand, and lay down some flat-out wisdom, 140 characters at a time.

Last night, Eric went straight at the bane of many a writer’s existence: Time Management. The entire thread of tweets reprinted here with permission from Eric (@HIGHzurrer):

For a while, two brothers made some of my favorite instrumental music around. Franz and Helmut were the powerhouse known as E.S. Posthumus.

They are probably most famous for their NFL theme work and the trailer music for the RDJ Sherlock movies.

In 2010, Franz passed away and Helmut retired the band. I figured that was the end of that for E.S. Posthumus.

But lately Helmut has resurfaced, partly in a new band, but also completing one or two tracks his brother had started.

Here is a new favorite of mine: “Witness to History.”

I’ll use that track as my intro for tonight’s rant.

I’m drunk enough to talk about the big scary monster known as TIME MANAGEMENT.

My friends and I have been talking about it a lot, so it’s on my mind. And a few of you have asked, so here is my brain dump on it.

For a long time I had a notion of people who were experts at managing their time. They had every hour mapped out in a scheduler.

Meetings, dining, work, conference calls, reading, even page counts for the day were all scheduled to within an inch of their lives.

Having fallen on my face trying that standard, I’m aware now how much of it is “precrastination.”

And over-scheduling your time can create an inflexibility that loses sight of what matters most to you.

But we all want to be able to get our writing done, every week. For me, when I’m not productive, I don’t sleep well. I feel I wasted a day.

And that’s the key word I plugged into: Productivity. I didn’t need to hyper-manage my time, I just needed to make progress in my work.

So this led me to front door of the big monster: Resistance. Fear, by many other names. Fear kept me from being productive.

Keep in mind it doesn’t have to be a big fear, like falling off a cliff or swimming near a shark. It’s a more banal fear, which is worse.

The little fears camouflage themselves as other things. “You’re just not ready to write.” “You need to research more.” And so on.

Anything that would keep me from actually writing, even in the guise of “working,” was secretly fear-based.

When I did get the ball rolling, and I fought through the resistance to get pages done, I noticed a steep dropoff after about 10 minutes.

Fear, it seems, is a paper tiger. And when you demonstrate to the rest of your brain that the pages can be filled, the tiger slinks off.

If you had to chart resistance on a graph, it would spike fast and die off fast, like a sonar ping. But that is still a steep hill.

Conversely, after writing for an hour or so, “in the zone,” I’d build up a new energy — momentum. Momentum works slowly, then spikes up.

So I put my focus on a project I called “The first ten minutes.” Figuring out ways to conquer that fear-spike and start momentum.

Very quickly, I learned that if the trick or hack didn’t involve actually writing, it wouldn’t work. I can’t watch TV to conquer fear.

Even when it feels like it’s germane to what I’m writing, if I’m not physically typing on the keys or writing in a notebook, I’m stalled.

This helped put a finer point on the way my fear worked. It was usually specific about the next few pages I had yet to write.

“You don’t have a good idea for this scene,” it would say. Or, “You’ll have to rewrite it all later, this isn’t anywhere near perfect.”

That was the big nuke of my fear: Having to revisit pages because I couldn’t write them “correctly” the first time. It’s an old, old fear.

Rewriting is a completely natural part of the process, and it’s in fact crucial to making a script great. Yet my fear denies it. DENIES.

So, back to “the first ten minutes.” My battleground. And the hacks I’ve made to conquer this goddamn banal fear and get shit done.

My first weapon is “Write the worst version.” Some call it the “vomit pass.” I mean to go farther and free myself to be truly bad.

Have characters shout all their inner motivations. Everything goes on the nose and stays there.

This is helpful in a secret way, because it can unearth a character’s motivation I’d previously forgotten. Or it reveals what’s broken.

If, in the Worst Version Ever, I discover both characters want the same thing and they know it, I got no conflict. So I know what to alter.

But even if the Worst Version Ever doesn’t reveal something new, it activates my muscle memory of writing, and gets me moving.

I can delete five pages of crap once I’ve popped the clutch and started my hands downhill.

Second in my bag of tricks is “Adopt a Style.” This is helpful when I’ve read another author and my fear says “You’ll never be that good.”

So my exercise is to write in the voice of that author, even if it’s a piss poor likeness. It’s me sneaking past my fear in disguise.

And quite often, when I’m doing a dime-store Elmore Leonard version of something, I’ll trip on a line of dialogue that I love.

Soon as you find something you love, you are off to the goddamn races. You have momentum. And you’re writing in your own voice again.

And a third tactic I’ll bust out if I’m really blocked on a script: I write an email to explain WHY I’m blocked.

Some aspects important to this trick: It needs to be an email. I need to be writing about the problem. And it needs to go to my peers.

There is something very powerful about writing a detailed description of your problem to a group of friends whom you respect.

Because here’s the thing — you may never actually hit ‘send’ on that email. At the end of it, you’ll find your answer. You’ll alt-tab out.

And you’ll start typing for real.

But even if you don’t get that light bulb burning during your lengthy email, guess what? YOU STILL get to send it for consultation.

And your friends don’t have to have an answer — oh no. They just have to help you spark that kindling in your brain with new ideas.

And again, this is all just to get through TEN SHORT MINUTES of nothing but actual writing. Prime the pump. Light the pilot light.

Accept that you’re going to rewrite it all anyway so it’s okay to play on the page.

Accept that this is an iterative process, and you find the path once you get to the end, and start back again.

And here’s the real “oh hell, yeah” deal: Once you get past those ten minutes, the rest is pure productivity.

There was a time when, if I got two solid hours of productive work done, I could sleep like a baby. Two hours.

So that means if I can conquer those first ten minutes when I sit down, right away, I’ve got the whole damn day to rock that script.

Hell, even Navy SEALs are trained to focus only on increments of 10-20 minutes ahead, so the overall goal isn’t so daunting.

You wanna be a Navy SEAL, right? Be one for your writing!

This is the dirty truth the resistance makes you forget every time you leave: You can write. You’ve done it plenty. It’s like breathing.

You don’t have to be some goddamn Olympic-level anything to write. You just have to get past the little fears.

This was a long-winded way of saying if you get a rambling email from me one day complaining about the 2nd act of something, be gentle.

For a couple of years I shared all manner of tricks and exercises I’ve devised to crack the fear shell. Some of you veteran pals know ‘em.

If you find use for it, they’re all bundled in this Kindle book:

And that’s my one plug for the month.

I hope tonight’s whiskey-dick rant was helpful to some of you gorgeous monsters out there. I’m gonna get another drink now.

You may follow Eric on Twitter here: @HIGHzurrer.

You may read my April 2013 interview with Eric here.

Chuck Wendig on “How to Write That Goddamn Novel”

August 29th, 2014 by

If you’re not familiar with Chuck Wendig and his amazing blog Terrible Minds…

What’s wrong with you?

Here is a link to Terrible Minds.

Here is a link to Chuck’s Amazon page of novels and books he’s written.

And here is a classic Wendigistic blog post from 2013: How To Push Past The Bullshit And Write That Goddamn Novel: A Very Simple No-Fuckery Writing Plan To Get Shit Done.

Life will never be kind to the writer. Particularly those who stay at home. You go to a full-time job outside the house, everyone gives you a wide berth to let you do what you need to do. Stay at home to write a book and everybody interrupts you like all you’re doing is watching a Teen Mom marathon on MTV while chowing down on pizza-flavored Combos and Haagen-Daaz.

Life intrudes upon you. It kicks down the door and stomps all over a writer’s practical aspirations to write. Kids. Dogs. A full-time job. A part-time job. Cleaning. Cooking. Pubic grooming. Xenomorph invasion. Hallucinations. Masturbation. LIQUOR AND MONKEY WRESTLING.

As your shoulders bear the burden of carrying the multiple shit-sacks of life’s daily ordure output, it gets easier and easier to push writing aside: “I’ll do that tomorrow,” you say, and next thing you know you’re in diapers once more, this time at an old folks’ home gumming chocolate pudding topped with a skin so thick you need scissors to cut it. Procrastination is the affirmation of an unpleasant and unwelcome but all-too-easy status quo. You merely need to do nothing and yet at the same time feel productive because you’ve promised no really I’ll pinky swear to put down some words tomorrow. You know what I want to say to that?

Tomorrow can guzzle a bucket of vulture barf.

Yesterday’s gone the way of the dodo. You have one day, and it is today.

Your promises are as hollow as a cheap-ass dollar-store chocolate Easter Bunny.

I’m going to give you literally no excuse at all to write and finish that novel. You know the one. The one that lives in your head and your heart but not on the page. The one you always say, “I’m going to write that book someday.” The one you talk about. But not the one you write. The one that makes you blah blah blah “aspiring” rather than the “real deal.” I’m going to give you a prescription for a writing plan that is simple, straightforward, and contains zero heinous fuckery. It’s so easy, a determined ten-year-old could do it. You will have no excuse. None. Zip.


Chuck even created this nifty graphic which you can slap onto your forehead, then stare into a mirror, reading it backward for inspiration:

This aligns with my Dumb Little Writing Trick That Works: 1 Page A Day.

Write one page per day. Think about it — at one page per day, in 4 months you’ve generated a 120 pages. So if you take this approach:

* 1 month: Research, brainstorming, character development, plotting

* 4 months: Writing (1 page per day)

* 1 month: Rewrite and final edit

Which means you can crank out 2 full-length screenplays per year — by writing just one page per day.

Novel, screenplay, TV pilot, whatever, it ain’t gonna get done unless you do it. Chuck reminds us: There’s no excuse!

You can follow Chuck on Twitter: @chuckwendig.

For the rest of Chuck’s blog post excerpted above, go here.

“Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion”

August 22nd, 2014 by

The New York Times has a series called “Draft” about the art and craft of writing. It’s a great resource which you can access here. A few days ago writer Rachel Shteir wrote a particularly resonant post: “Failure, Writing’s Constant Companion.” A few excerpts from her first-person essay:

Failure in writing is not like failure in business, where you lose money and have to fire everyone and remortgage your house. When you’re a writer, most of the time, people don’t depend on you to succeed. Although you may starve if your books don’t sell, or your agent might yell at you for producing something that three people will read, failure in writing is more of an intimately crushing day-to-day thing. O.K., minute-to-minute. Measured against your ideal of yourself.

In the last few years, Philip Roth and Alice Munro decided to put down their pens.

Munro told this newspaper that she didn’t know if she had the energy “to do this anymore.” And Roth said, “I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” Roth and Munro have produced many admirable works. They should be allowed to stop failing on a daily basis, if they want to, in their eighth decades.

But the rest of us are stuck.

In writing, failing is not dramatic. There will be no news headline: ANOTHER WRITER FAILED TODAY.

Every night, I tweet a couple of items by writers about the craft. As it happens, the other night I had scheduled this quote from E.B. White: “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”

And that’s precisely because any time we sit down to write, we are confronted with the possibility of failure. Indeed, not just the possibility, but the probability. As Ernest Hemmingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to 99 pages of shit.”

That quote equates to probability… with extreme prejudice.

The thing is, the haunting specter of failure never goes away and it exists at every stage of the process, every level of experience as a writer, from aspiring to professional.

How each of us manages to cope with that reality is one of the great mysteries of life. Every writer is different. Every story is different. And the fear of failure is not a static entity, rather a demonic dynamism that can morph into any shape to haunt our conscious and subconscious states of being.

Here’s one thing I try to remember to combat the probability of failure and it reaches back into my days studying theology. In words ascribed to the Apostle Paul, Romans: 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That sounds awful, right? But when I apply that to writing, it’s actually a freeing thought. For I know I cannot attain perfection, I will always fall short of what I aspire to accomplish with any story. So rather than be defeated by the soul-sucking shadow of failure, this mindset allows me to accept the nature of writing, and move forward.

Rachel Shteir sums it up nicely in her NYT piece:

As you get older, rest assured, you accept failure as part of your writing life. You realize the many forms failure can take: There is sentence-to-sentence failure, in which the words fly from your brain out the window or throw themselves on the page like suicide bombers. There is the failure to get on the page what is in your head. There is a failure of will. There is organizational failure, in which you wind up collapsing.

You develop strategies to deal with it all. You develop a kind of sixth sense, a detective’s intuition about what will fail and what won’t. But above all, no matter how much you fail, you still sit down at your computer every day, and you keep going.

For the rest of the article, go here.

How about you? How do you cope with your constant companion: failure?

Writing Question: What are the best jobs that leave your days free for writing?

August 18th, 2014 by

I generally loathe listicles, but this headline caught my attention: 7 Easy Jobs That Leave Your Days Free for Writing. Since many, if not most of you have some sort of gig to pay the bills while knocking out spec scripts, I figured this might be of some relevance, if not interest. Here are those jobs:

Newspaper delivery. The days when a boy with a bag on his bike delivered the paper are over, in many communities. Many routes call for a car, and a grownup to drive that car. I’ve known more than one freelancer who was an earlybird and could get up, fling papers from 4:30-6:30, come home, and call the rest of their day their own. If your town has more than one paper, sometimes you can get signed up to deliver both and double your income.

Stocking grocery shelves. I personally know writers who’ve taken advantage of this gig to keep the checkbook full. It’s quiet, it’s mindless, and gigs are usually pretty easy to get — after all, how many people are willing to work midnight to 4 a.m.? Go home, catch some sleep, and by midday you could be writing.

Pumping gas. A close family friend who is now an acclaimed sci-fi novelist pumped gas at night for years, while he was waiting for his work to find an audience. In some states, you still can’t pump your own gas, but even in self-serve places there’s always at least one attendant on duty. When things are slow, you could even read or jot down ideas.

Warehouse work. If you’re physically fit, this can be a great place to grab a night shift, as warehouse jobs tend to pay better than the minimum wage. If you live near any industrial area with big distribution centers, know that most are busy all night long, getting boxes ready to ship the next day and shelving goods for future purchase. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll get trained up on how to drive a forklift. Fun times!

Bar back. One entrepreneur I know who opened a shoe boutique took this side job while she waited for her store to catch on, but I think this gig works even better for writers. Unlike becoming a bartender, you don’t have to know how to mix drinks to lug kegs in from the back and empties out to the curb. And of course, bars are a gold mine for seeing characters who might come to inhabit your novel one day.

Drive a cab. You can take a shift during the time you’re not so creative — yet another opportunity to eavesdrop with impunity and get inspired with writing ideas.

Security. Hey, malls need somebody to keep watch all night in case some weirdo breaks in, right? In the right situation, you could read, nap, or even get some writing done while on the clock. As with warehouse work, security gigs pay well because of the danger…which is often mostly the danger of falling asleep.

I was reminded of an interview I did with screenwriter Michael Werwie, winner of the Nicholl Fellowship in 2012.

Michael:  Yeah, once I graduated I took a job bartending, and I bartended for nearly 10 years.

Scott:  That was in L.A.?

Michael:  Yes, West Hollywood. I was at one place for the entire duration of its run, from day one until the last day, called O-Bar. Then that closed and I went to another place not too far away.

Scott:   How has bartending fit into your writing schedule?

Michael:  Bartending couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. I had my days completely free and I used that time to write. I’d wake up, eat breakfast, and write, and that just became a discipline, to the point where if I skipped it or didn’t have time to do it for whatever reason, it felt strange. I would do that every day, and would also take meetings, if and when I had those (which were few and far between for many, many years). Bartending allowed me to make the most money while working the fewest hours. It was a good balance because I could treat writing like a full‑time job and still pay the bills.

As for myself, I traveled up and down California schlepping my comedy act to such grand places as Thousand Oaks, Ventura, and Stockton. I’d work for 2-4 weeks straight, all the while working out stories in my car barreling up and down I-5, then I’d take off a week, transcribe my tape recorder notes and pound out pages in 20 hour writing marathons. It was lather, rinse, repeat for about a year before I sold a spec script. So I guess in a way, that was a pretty ideal gig as it allowed me quite a bit of freedom.

So riffing off the article, what do you think are ideal jobs that allow one the most time and energy to write? Maybe someone will provide a suggestion that others will pick up on, find that kind of gig, and write the next Great Spec Script.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

By the way, it was just announced a few weeks back that Michael Werwie landed this writing gig. All those years as a bartender, paying off!

For the rest of the article, go here.

Found: Online Song Lyric Generators

July 25th, 2014 by

This post may be of interest to a small niche among writers, but if you are writing a script that involves someone who is a songwriter. Or perhaps your story features a singer and you want to use original lyrics. Guess what I found? A bunch of online song lyric generators. Here are links to some of them:

Freestyle Song Lyrics Generator

Random Lyrics Generator

Song Lyrics Generator

The Song Lyrics Generator

WriterBot Song Lyrics Generator

And check this one out:

Alanis Morissette Random Lyric Generator

I’d recommend using these are starting points for inspiration, not simply for copy and pasting. Probably some legal concerns if you did that. Plus you’ll want to inject your own creativity. However I thought these were worth noting for the record so you can bookmark them, just in case you ever have cause to write a script requiring original lyrics.

The Stories of Your Life

July 22nd, 2014 by

I’ll be honest. I have been incredibly busy for the last nine months or so. Good busy, but crazy. So one day recently, I was plugging along through my hectic daily ritual when — BOOM! A blast from the past flat out whacked me upside the head and stopped me dead in my proverbial tracks. It was this:

For whatever reason, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which recently held its 41st annual weekend event, uploaded a bunch of videos from years past. And the selection above? That is the band Crossroads performing at the Festival in June, 1980. Members of the band: Pat Flynn (lead guitar, mandolin, vocals), Jerry Fletcher (drums, vocals), Dan Wilson (bass, mandolin, guitar, vocals), and me (rhythm guitar, bass, vocals).

That’s right. Me. The dude with the moustache and the platform sandals (?!?!?!)

My good friend Pat Flynn sent me the link out of nowhere. I watched us performing “Sarah and the Summer,” a song written by our musical compatriot Jimmy Ibbotson of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and my brain melted into a puddle of fragmented memories.

It got me thinking. Hard. How did I get from there, playing on stage at Telluride in front of several thousand music fans, to here — husband, father, screenwriter, teacher, blogger?

So I traced my life’s journey and it hit me in a powerful way: I have gone down so many paths, each one of them could have become The Story Of My Life.

Here is a list of some of those possibilities:

I could have majored in political science in college, my original intent, and gone on to become a political consultant.

I could have accepted my boss’s offer (my summer job for 4 years) to become a full-time salesman, then eventual owner of a rug and carpet business in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

I could have followed up my Masters degree at Yale with a Ph.D. and become an academic focusing on primitive Christianity (this was my primary goal from the third year of college through grad school).

I could have become a professional musician (which is what led me to take a break from academics). Indeed pretty much supported myself for 7 years playing music, averaging over 200 gigs annually.

I could have become a full-time minister in Aspen, Colorado.

I could have built on my ‘success’ as a salesman at the Guitar Center in San Francisco and become a manager at new store opening in San Jose, California, then worked my way up the corporate ladder under the tutelage of this guy.

I could have become a stand-up comedian, something I did for 2 years after my stint as a musician.

I could have followed any number of friends, girlfriends and opportunities down dozens of paths, but what I did was this.

I got married and became the father of two sons.

I became a screenwriter and worked in Los Angeles for 15 years.

I became a television producer for Trailblazer Studios for 8 years.

On a whim, I started teaching screenwriting as a hobby through UCLA Extension’s Writers Program.

On another whim, I began teaching screenwriting at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in the Writing for the Screen & Stage program.

On yet another whim, I started blogging at Go Into The Story.

Then Franklin Leonard reached out to me and this became the official screenwriting blog of the Black List.

Then Tom Benedek, the very first screenwriter I met in Los Angeles, and I launched Screenwriting Master Class.

And now I am more well-connected in Hollywood than I ever have been, plus I’ve got more work writing and consulting than I can handle.

I look back on all of this and if I consider it logically, virtually none of it makes any sense whatsoever. But in my gut, it all somehow fits together.

Through it all, there is a thread: I have always followed my creative interests.

Those aspirations took me away from several safe, secure life-paths, but they led me into and through my own tiny, but interesting dot of time on this Earth, hopefully with a few more decades left to explore whatever else lies in store.

Which brings me back to the jolt of seeing me on stage at Telluride in 1980 and my recent reflections on the past.

I realized something. As meandering and bizarre as my personal adventure has been, this is not the story of my life… these are the stories of my life.

Each a fork-in-the-road. Just like a Protagonist. Go this way. Go that. Sometimes I made good, authentic decisions. Sometimes I didn’t. But it’s all led me to this place, this time.

A wife of 29 years. Two sons. Two cats (Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

A lifelong love affair with movies.

An endless fascination with screenwriting and storytelling.

And the community of people at Screenwriting Master Class and Go Into The Story.

So, you may ask, what happened to the other members of Crossroads?

Jerry Fletcher is still playing music with a band called Marley’s Ghost. Lives in Montana. Here is his Facebook page.

Dan Wilson is also still playing music with a band called Solimar. Lives in Oak View, California. Here is his Facebook page.

And Pat Flynn? He went on to play with perhaps the most innovative acoustic band ever: The New Grass Revival featuring Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, John Cowan and Pat. Here they are performing a version of “Middle of the Night,” a song Pat wrote, which he and I worked up in 1978 when we first started playing as a duo in Aspen as Myers & O’Flynn:

After Pat moved to Nashville, he became an in-demand studio musician, songwriter, record producer and performer. In my estimation, he is the greatest flat-picking guitarist alive today, a member of the Frets magazine Hall of Fame.

Here is Pat’s Facebook page.

Wikipedia page.



Pat has released 3 CDs, his latest “reNew” just dropped last week. You can buy Pat’s music on iTunes here. If you like Americana acoustic music, you’ll love Pat’s stuff.

As for me? I’ve moved from songwriting to screenwriting. Still have my Martin acoustic. ’62 Fender Strat. Fender P bass. And two sons who are musicians, one classical, the other a rock and roller. In fact to round out this post, tonight Luke and I are going to a rock concert: Paramore and Fall Out Boy.

I guess it’s true: The more things change, the more they stay the same…

So those are the stories of my life.

How about you? What are the stories of your life? If you feel up to it, take a few minutes to reflect on all of the paths you’ve traveled, and how they’ve led you here, this place, this time, following the contours of your creative adventure.

Life really is an amazing journey, isn’t it?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go back and watch Crossroads in performance one more time, at least to try to figure out the whole platform sandals thing.

What the hell was I thinking…

90 Words for “looks”

July 4th, 2014 by

Movies are primarily a visual medium. Therefore as screenwriters, we need to think visually… and write visually. Take the verb “looks”:

He looks at the body.

She looks at the rainbow.

How about these instead: ogles, gapes, stares, gawks, squints, spies, inspects, surveys, peeks, peers. On and on and on, there are so many better, more descriptive and visual verbs than “looks.”

GITS reader Alan Donahue was kind enough to put together this PDF: 90 Words for “looks”. You can download it here.

On your next script, take the advice of screenwriter Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October):

“There was a girl who came to me with her first screenplay. It was a good first shot. I gave her some advice. I told her, ‘I want you to go home and take a yellow Marks-A-Lot and highlight every verb in this 120-page screenplay, and then I want you to read them out loud and ask yourself, Can I find a stronger verb.’ Characters should never enter. They should storm in, they should skulk in, they should tremble in. These are the only chances you have to create visual pictures in people’s brains.”

Thanks, Alan, for reminding us the English language is rich with vivid verbs.

115 Words for “walks”

July 4th, 2014 by

Movies are primarily a visual medium. Therefore as screenwriters, we need to think visually… and write visually. Take the verb “walks”:

He walks into the room.

She walks away from him.

How about these instead: amble, shuffle, staggers, paces, speeds, lurches, leaps, skips, bounds, sprints, stumbles. On and on and on, there are so many better, more active and visual verbs than “walks.”

GITS reader Alan Donahue was kind enough to put together this PDF: 115 Words for “walks”. You can download it here.

On your next script, take the advice of screenwriter Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October):

“There was a girl who came to me with her first screenplay. It was a good first shot. I gave her some advice. I told her, ‘I want you to go home and take a yellow Marks-A-Lot and highlight every verb in this 120-page screenplay, and then I want you to read them out loud and ask yourself, Can I find a stronger verb.’ Characters should never enter. They should storm in, they should skulk in, they should tremble in. These are the only chances you have to create visual pictures in people’s brains.”

Thanks, Alan, for reminding us the English language is rich with vivid verbs.

“Two Forces” by Steve Almond

July 1st, 2014 by

Lisa Mecham, a writer who participated in one of my Quest writing workshops, was kind enough to send me a terrific book: “This Won’t Take But A Minute Honey” by Steve Almond. One half of the book is writing wisdom. The other half short stories.

Here is the first piece Almond wrote on the writing wisdom side:

1. Two Forces

The first is an absolute conviction in the importance of your work, the secret and shivery sense that you have been called to the language in some spiritual capacity, that you (and you alone) have stories the world must hear, that these stories are ready to spill out of you with the hot urgency of scripture and that when they do you will be recognized as a rare talent, a writer of the first order and eventually–why fight it?–the fucking Messiah.

You are not the Messiah.

Nor, in all likelihood, are you fucking.

But this mindset is generative in nature. It tends to produce a lot of work, even if this same work later makes you cringe.

The second is the creeping suspicion that any sustained effort to write is doomed, that you will never transcribe the story so perfectly arranged in your mind, will never convey the brilliance and depth of emotion sloshing around in there, and even if you do the best result you can hope for is that your mother will drive to your apartment with a crock pot full of soup and ask why you’re depressed. Rather than quitting, though, you will persist in this enterprise and thus become an ongoing embarrassment to your friends and family, a person without proper dental care, a person of possibly questionable sanity, inevitably arriving at the point, years from now, in which you are loitering outside a restaurant, just enjoying the smell, getting your bearings as it were, when your former fiance shows up with her new husband The Surgeon and pretends not to notice that you are missing a couple of teeth in the mid-incisor range and instead asks, not unkindly, how the writing’s going. The technical term is writer’s block.

You will never rid yourself of these opposing forces. They are what you get for choosing to shut yourself up in a room alone when the rest of the kids are outside enjoying recess. Welcome, comrade!

This is a much more well-written and entertaining version of what I blogged about here: “Feet on the ground… head in the clouds.” By way of comparison, I never mention mother, sloshing, dental care, mid-incisor range, Messiah or fucking. And yet, Almond and I are pretty much making the same point about the dynamic tension of writing.

We have our aspirations, dreams, fantasies, clouds.

That’s one force.

We also have rejection, competition, writers block, reality.

That’s a second force.

The key? Somehow… some way… we have to keep on keeping on.

Take our talent. Learn the craft. Create kick-ass stories.

You can buy Almond’s book here from the Harvard Book Store.

“The 10 Common Types of Writers Block”

June 20th, 2014 by

This is a pretty good list compiled by Nikki Woods in the respect that I’ve heard each one of these voiced by folks here on the blog, emails to me and writers I work with through Screenwriting Master Class. Here it is:

1. Your idea gauge is on empty.
2. You’ve got commitment issues.
3. You’re married to your outline (it’s just not that into you, though).
4. The middle is a lonely place to be.
5. You have a terrible feeling your story took a wrong turn a hundred pages back, and you only just hit a dead end.
6. You’re bored with all these characters, they won’t do anything.
7. You keep imagining all the reasons people are going to say your story sucks, and it paralyzes you.
8. You can’t think of the right words for what you’re trying to convey in this one paragraph.
9. You had this incredibly cool story in your head, and now you’re turning it into words on a screen and it’s suddenly dumb.
10. You’re revising your work, and you can’t see your way past all those blocks of text you already wrote.

Woods digs into each of these to some depth. Let’s take a look at a couple of them:

4. The middle is a lonely place to be

You don’t have an outline, you’ve breezed through much of your novel and now you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, also known as the middle. If it’s true that you were on a roll, and now you’re stuck, then chances are you just need a break and you’ll be back on track in a day or two.

But if ….

Put it aside for a few days, then sit down and read it (printouts are best I find, but that’s just me) as if you’ve never seen it before. Start at the beginning. Scribble on the manuscript as you go if you see anything you want to change. And often, when you get to the end you’ll be both enthusiastic about it and know what the next few words are. And you do it all one word at a time.” – Neil Gaiman


7. You keep imagining all the reasons people are going to say your story sucks, and it paralyzes you.

Your Inner Critic is keeping your from making progress because of the possibility that someone will tear you apart for it later.

Chances are the ideas you’re putting down aren’t nearly as bad as your darkest fears tell you they might be. But remember, what you’re writing is a first draft that will be re-written and edited any way so relax.

Getting lost in the middle of writing a story is perhaps the single most common concern I hear from writers. They get started, head off into Act Two, get lost, lose steam, and yet one more story bites the dust. Wood indicates the main problem: “You don’t have an outline.” I’m not saying you absolutely need to work up an outline to complete a script. What I am saying is if you do break your story in prep and craft an outline, you are exponentially more likely not to get “lost in the middle.”

As for the issue of what Woods calls your “Inner Critic,” I call that V.O.N.: Voices Of Negativity. And precisely because a writer’s Inner Critic, their Voices Of Negativity can be so powerful, so debilitating, I am working up a series of posts on this very subject. Look for that soon.

This list speaks to a fundamental truth about writing: It’s damn hard. Sometimes we may feel frozen and unable to write. However there are ways to overcome writers block because there is also another fundamental truth about the craft and that is this:

The only way out is through.

To read the rest of Nikki Woods’ post, go here.