“Transforming Dragons”

July 17th, 2016 by

“We have no reason to distrust our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors. If it has an abyss, it is ours. If dangers are there, we must try to love them. And if we would live with faith in the value of what is challenging, then what now appears to us as most alien will become our truest, most trustworthy friend.

Let us not forget the ancient myths at the outset of humanity’s journey, the myths about dragons that at the last moment transform into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act just once with beauty and courage. Perhaps every terror is, in its deepest essence, something that needs our recognition or help.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (August 12, 1904)

Thanks for everything, Dr. Linda Venis!

June 29th, 2016 by

Today Dr. Linda Venis  is officially retiring from her position as Director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, a role she has handled with great vision, passion, and grace for 30 years. I’ve had the great pleasure to know Linda since 2001. That was the year I responded to an ad in the WGA journal ‘Written By’ and found myself in Linda’s Westwood office to explore the possibility of teaching through the Writers’ Program. Prompted by persistent feedback from people with whom I had interfaced at panels, conferences, and other occasional public appearances — Scott, you really should think about teaching, too — I had a wide-ranging conversation with Linda at our first meeting, and we both agreed I should give it a try.

Little did I know that meeting with Linda would change my life.

While continuing to write and work as an executive producer at Trailblazer Studios, I took up teaching through the Writers’ Program as a part-time gig. I taught multiple online classes there from 2002-2010 before I launched Screenwriting Master Class. Through all that time, Linda was a consistent inspiration. Her commitment to writers of all stripes — screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, playwrights, poets, nonfiction — and her support and appreciation for writing instructors was consistent and strong. Indeed one could say that Linda’s efforts at the helm of the program has touched the lives of tens of thousands of writers, many of whom have gone on to achieve success in their respective fields.

On Monday, Linda posted her farewell column at the Writers’ Program website. Here is an excerpt:

My Final Bow

My lifelong love affair with UCLA enters a new phase on June 29, 2016 when I transition from employee to retiree.   From the moment I stepped foot onto the campus as an undergraduate, I discovered an Aladdin’s cave of glittering knowledge: pearls (and diamonds and emeralds!) of wisdom that taught me how to think and give expression to what I felt.  I had experienced the transformative power of education, and I never looked back.

I was a fulltime lecturer in the UCLA Department of English in 1985 when the position of Head of the Writers’ Program opened up.   In my letter of application I wrote, “I am genuinely eager to make the transition from a teacher who administrates to an administrator who also teaches.”

Reflecting on these words thirty years later, it’s clear to me that I knew a few things back then:  that I loved teaching, writers, literature, high art and popular culture, and running things.

However, I could not have imagined how these interests and whatever skills I possessed would grow and find expression here. Second only to my family, nothing has given my life more shape and meaning than working at UCLA Extension in the Arts and the Writers’ Program.

Dr. Linda Venis

Congratulations, Linda, for a brilliant career. And speaking personally, my sincerest thanks for the support you have given me over the years as I explored my passion for screenwriting and teaching. I, along with thousands of people who have intersected with you over the years, look forward to seeing what opportunities lay ahead for you.

Any of you who may have taken courses in the Writers’ Program and would like to share your thoughts and best wishes to Linda, please head to comments. I will pass along the link to her.

Joseph Campbell word for word on The Hero’s Journey

June 16th, 2016 by

Bouncing around the online writing universe, I invariably run into a lot of chatter about Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey. However there is a surprising amount of content out there which distorts what Campbell himself said about his theory. So I thought it would be a good idea to hear directly from the man – word for word.

The following iteration of The Hero’s Journey is transcribed verbatim from Campbell’s interview with Bill Moyers in the wonderful PBS series, “The Power of Myth.”

The Hero is found in the ordinary world…
In ancient myths it used to be the cottage or village…
In films, it is usually the suburbs or common urban environment.

The Hero is making do, but feels something missing, a sense of discomfort or tension. The Hero needs to change, even if they are unaware of that need.

Something happens…
Maybe the Antagonist enters the Protagonist’s world, disrupting it. Or maybe someone comes, a Herald, who calls the Protagonist to action.

The call to adventure is about transformation and that’s terrifying. The Hero has to confront fear.
Will the Hero survive?
Will they change for the Good or the Bad?

During the first half, the Hero is tested…
The Hero has to determine the rules of the Extraordinary World into which they are moving – Who can the Hero trust?

Along the way, the Hero meets “threshold guardians,” people who guard the entrances… The trick to facing any opponent is to get into their skin, understand their habits, maybe make them friends and allies.

The midpoint from a mythological standpoint is that moment when the Hero confronts that which they fear most, often related to entering the headquarters of the enemy.

Afterwards, the Hero feels the consequences of the Midpoint… Reflects on their task, often a chance to rest…

Then a chase scene often occurs…
The enemy has been struck a mighty blow, but recovers enough to mount one final act.

A black moment where it looks like all is lost, there is no way to defeat the enemy.

The final test…
To demonstrate whether the Hero has learned his lesson or not…
The process has purified him to ensure that he hasn’t become part of the Other World – but will he succeed?

The Hero returns home with some booty, an elixir, the source of power from the Other World, i.e., treasure, Holy Grail, knowledge, gold, love, wisdom, humility.

In the end, the Hero is a transformed individual.

For all the discussion among writers about The Hero’s Journey, this is pretty much all you need to know.

Separation from the Old World.
Initiation in the New World.
Return to the Old World.

The theme of The Hero’s Journey: Follow your bliss. Through their adventure, the Heroine discovers the most essential and authentic part of her psyche, embraces it, and as a result is empowered to win the final test, thus returning home a “transformed individual,” the physical journey servicing the Heroine’s psychological journey.

It’s that simple. However it is profound in its simplicity. Moreover we can apply this narrative archetype to a majority of mainstream movies.

And for us writers? The Hero’s Journey has endless variations if we allow ourselves to enter into the lives of our characters and enable them to lead us into and through the story-crafting process.

So my advice? Don’t get hung up with complicated analyses of The Hero’s Journey, rather better to take a macro view. And the version cited above, a literal transcription I typed up of Campbell’s actual words, should be your guide and touchstone.

Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work: “Don’t Finish That Scene!”

May 28th, 2016 by

Let’s say you’re in the middle of writing a script – and it’s a slog. You’re finding it really tough to drag your ass onto the chair and start writing the next scene.

Well, let’s roll back the clock. What if yesterday, you hadn’t finished the previous scene? What if you got halfway through that scene, knew exactly where it needed to go to reach the end, but instead of completing it, you quit your writing session with the scene unfinished.

Now instead of starting the next day having to break a new scene, you have the easy task of finishing the scene from the day before.

Bada-bing, bada-boom, you knock out the ending to the scene, giving your mind and your fingers a chance to warm up — and now you’re ready to charge ahead.

So the trick is stop each writing session in the middle of a scene. That way you can start the next session with the ‘positive’ experience of finishing a scene.

This has been another installment in the series “Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work.”

How to Decide Which Story to Write

May 27th, 2016 by

Are you trying to figure out which of one or more stories to write next? Perhaps you’ve put your producer hat on and considered each story’s relative merits in terms of concept, genre, marketability, casting, international appeal, and so forth. Or you’re the type of writer who says, “Screw that, I’m just gonna write whatever the hell I want to write,” which is absolutely fine. In either case, however, you have several stories staring you in the face, each crying out, “Write me! Write me!”

And for the life of you, you just can’t figure out which one to write… right now.

If you’re in that boat, here is a method I have proposed to dozens of writers who have used it to steer themselves safely to shore in the sure knowledge they have discovered which story they really want to write.

Warning: This approach may strike you as rather New Age or pseudo-spiritiual. But hey, I have lived 29 years of my life in California, so it comes with the territory!

Let’s say you have three stories and you can’t decide between Story A, Story B, and Story C.

Take three pieces of paper. On one, spend a couple of minutes and jot down anything that comes to your mind about Story A: images, dialogue, character stuff, whatever bubbles up into your consciousness. Do the same thing with Story B on another piece of paper. Also with Story C.

Next go to a room where you can turn off electronics, shut the door, and have some quiet time. Sit down and do whatever you can do to get into a mindfulness state (deep breathing, concentration, relaxation).

Pick up the paper for Story A and just sit with it for 5 minutes. Track what you are feeling. Same thing with Story B. 5 minutes. Story C. 5 more minutes. What are you feeling about each?

What you’re going for is to identify which story you have the most connection to / emotional resonance with at this time.

As I say, dozens of writers have tried this and almost every time, I hear back from them with a response like this: “It just became really clear I need to write this one.” In fact, I gave this advice to a writer just yesterday. She tried it. It worked.

Look, the chances of getting from FADE IN to FADE OUT, let alone creating something which becomes a compelling read depends in large part on your emotional connection to the story in question. It’s your passion for the story which gets infused in the process that can result in words magically lifting off the page and into the imagination of a reader’s mind.

So if you have two, three, or more stories, and you just can’t decide which one you really want to write, embrace your inner mystical self. Get quiet. Sit with your stories. And trust the one you’re supposed to write will reach out to you and let you know via your feelings that, “This is the one.”

How do you decide which story to write? Let’s hear your thoughts on the matter, all suggestions wanted!

Go into yourself. Go into your story.

May 24th, 2016 by

“There is only one thing to do. Go into yourself. Examine your reason for writing. Discover whether it is rooted in the depths of your heart, and find out whether you would rather die than be forbidden to write. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, have I no choice but to write? Dig deep within for the truest answer, and if this answer is a strong and simple yes, then build your life upon this necessity. Your life henceforth, down to its most ordinary and insignificant moment, must prove and reveal this truth.”

– Maria Rainer Rilke, Paris, February 17, 1903, “Letters to a Young Poet’

Of course I would resonate with this. Go into yourself. Go into the story. So much of the writing life is about immersion. Things other, things personal. Things bigger, things smaller. Things calamitous, things mundane. No matter the proximity, scope, or impact, always there, infused with meaning. We just have to be willing to travel there, give ourselves over to it, and trust that what we learn will inspire our creativity.

As always, we can look at advice such as this in two ways: The Writer’s Life and the Protagonist’s Life.

Per the former, if what we discover by going into our Self is we cannot NOT write, something of our deepest and most authentic nature requires it, this reshapes the subject of success. We can never know if we will achieve financial gain from creative efforts. Even once established with a professional writing career, the only guarantee is that it doesn’t owe us a living. However if we commit to writing because we have come to understand it is essential to who we are, on an existential basis – which is ultimately the most important consideration – we succeed. Every time we write a script, novel, memoir, short story, poem, or song, every day we shape words into scenes, pages, paragraphs, and sentences, we succeed in aligning ourselves with the universe because THIS is what we do, THIS is what we must do.

We can also take Rilke’s words and apply them to the Protagonists of our stories. After all, their journey is most often about engaging in a series of events which compel them to explore what is “rooted in the depths of [their] heart” and in so doing revealing that which has been there all along: Their Bliss, their Rapture, their Core Essence, Authentic Nature, True Self. At their foundation, stories are about the central character’s self-identity and as such two questions require an answer in the playing out of the narrative: Who are you? What will you become? Stripping away the trappings of their ordinary life enables the Protagonist to go into him/her/itself and see clearly what is most essential to their nature. If they embrace that sense of identity and act upon it, they succeed. If not, they fail. Regardless of the outcome, these are stories worth exploring.

Rilke Go Into Yourself

So go into yourself… go into the story… these are related journeys for a writer, both in terms of our own identity and that of our story’s characters.

Take a few moments today to reflect on your reasons for writing. If you cannot NOT write, acknowledge that with a “hearty yes”.

Then go into your story… and see what your characters have to reveal to you in today’s writing session.

47th Annual Willamette Writers Conference

May 20th, 2016 by

A guest post from Waka Brown:

Hi, GITS readers! It’s me, Waka Brown from Scott’s 2013 Quest Initiative. I’ve been having a great time keeping up with you, participating in Zero Draft 30 (um, more like Zero Draft 84 for me, give or take a few), and continuing on my writing journey. My most recent labor of love has been our local writing conference, The 47th Annual Willamette Writers Conference (WWC), which will take place Aug. 12-14, 2016 at the Portland Airport Sheraton. Approximately 700 writers of every form and style are expected to participate.

Many years ago, a friend pointed me toward the WWC after I had been writing (bad) screenplays for a few years. At my first conference, I was shocked at how much I didn’t know—How to pitch, how to follow up, what’s The Black List? Agent v. manager?—you name it, I didn’t know it. I attended for several years, learned more about the craft and the business (which actually led me to Scott and GITS), made contacts, obtained reads, and received enough encouragement to fuel the dream. The best aspect of the conference, though, is the community of writers. It’s your dreams and enthusiasm and your love of story. It’s being in an environment where one can say, “I’m a writer” and no one thinks you’re crazy. Or, if they do, it’s because they’re crazy, too (and proud of it!). In many ways, it’s a physical GITS-like community, but in the land of Voodoo Doughnuts. And Blue Star Donuts. And Pip’s Original Doughnuts. (AFF may have the BBQ, but PDX has got the doughnuts).

For some time, I’ve thought, “It would be really cool to have…” and this past year when my writing group friend was appointed Conference Director, he handed a large part of the Film & TV organizing to me. Let me just say, I’m really proud of the lineup we’ve put together. We have another Quester, Sandy Leviton leading sessions on TV and short films AND taking pitches. We have our Austin connection Tom Willett leading workshops on structure and the Rewrite. We have multi-dimensional story-telling, Act II Blues, the Antagonist’s Journey, pitching workshops, the business of Hollywood, and much, much more. We have managers such as Lee Stobby (who represents the writer with the #1 script on the 2015 Black List) and Kailey Marsh (founder of The Bloodlist) hearing pitches, as well as a number of other great reps and executives actively seeking out new voices.

And that’s just the Film & TV side. There’s a whole literary section of the conference covering fiction/non-fiction/sci-fi/fantasy/essays/short stories/magazines/poetry/young readers/graphic novels/self-publishing/agent/editor/publisher offerings.

If any of this interests you, please check out our conference site. Registration and pitch sales are now open and if you’re a GITS reader, we’re offering a $25 discount (code: GITSDiscount).

Finally, many thanks to Scott for letting me hijack his blog to promote the conference. If you have any questions, you can find me at @wakatb on Twitter. Hope to see you there!

For all you writers up in the Pacific Northwest, this is an excellent opportunity to learn more about the craft and do some networking. Be sure to take advantage of the special Go Into The Story discount!

Twitter: @wilwrite.

“So I enter an airport bar…”

May 19th, 2016 by

I was flying home from a business trip yesterday when this happened [actual text message I sent to my family, slightly edited to correct some typos]:

So I am at O’Hare and I figure I will grab a quick drink before my flight. Find a seat at a crowded bar (Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Terminal 3, K2). End up sitting next to Jackie whose iPhone is at 3% power. I offer to let him plug in to my laptop to charge up. We talk. Nice young man. Takes a sip from his glass of beer. Tells me he is going to fly non-stop 18 hours to Bejing, then Mongolia where he is from. I keep checking to make sure his phone is powering up, which it is.

Then as appreciation to my kindness and that of Jeremy, the dude next to me from Portland, who offers to let Jackie use his portable battery power unit to charge his phone, Jackie buys 3 shots of Grey Goose vodka.

Jeremy says no can do, but Jackie insists with me. Not wanting to be impolite, I take a sip. He downs his in one slug.

I get to talking with Jeremy, then a few minutes Jackie taps me on the shoulder and he is suddenly drunk. Don’t know if he took an Ambien or what, but he is a mess. And he is clinking the 3rd shot glass of vodka, the one Jeremy turned down, against my just-sipped glass: Let’s toast.

I say, “No, not a good idea.” But he slams back his shot.

“Jackie, no more for you, okay.”

I catch the eye of the bartender Pedro. He scoops away Jackie’s beer. Replaces with a glass of water.

“Here, drink some water, Jackie.”

I hold the glass for him. He takes a sip. Thumbs his phone. Hands it to me. On the screen, I’m staring at the face of Jackie’s friend. From Mongolia.

“What’s wrong with Jackie?”
“He’s had too much to drink.”
“He must come home. Family needs him. He must get on plane.”
“Okay, okay, I understand.”

Jackie is lolling from side to side.

“Jackie, when is your flight.”
“Yes, I know you’re flying to Bejing. When does the plane take off?”

He fumbles through his pants pockets. Drops the phone. I pick it up. Cash spills onto the floor. I retrieve it.

The bartender Pedro enlists the help of an airline dude: “Where’s his boarding pass?”

I dig through Jackie’s pants pockets because he is unable to function. More cash. Baggage claim check. Passport.

Finally his boarding pass.

Oops. This is for his flight from an earlier flight.

Phone rings. It’s Jackie’s friend. Hands me the phone.

“How’s he doing?”
“We’re working on it.”
“Must get home, must get on flight…”

Now several people including myself and Jeremy from Portland have marshaled forces: We are single-minded to help Jackie, who we have known for all of 20 minutes.

Finally I find his boarding pass. Jackie wobbling. Shit! His flight leaves in 20 minutes!

I jam his cash, passport, phone, charger cable (his phone now at 38% power) into his pocket as Jackie’s friend keeps calling (“We’ll get him there, we’ll get him there,” I keep saying).

By now, there are a half-dozen people at work to get this virtual stranger onto his plane. The airline representative is a freaking hero, steers a wobbling Jackie onto an electric cart to head off to another terminal (Jackie is in the wrong place).

“Thank you, thank you, good friend, good friend,” Jackie slurs, patting people on the back as they pull away.

And he is gone.

Jeremy and I shake our heads: What the hell just happened? Jeremy has to leave for his flight. We shake hands. He gives me his card. If I ever become a big corporation and need IT help, I know who to call.

While I resume sitting at the bar, several people come up to shake my hand. “That was wonderful what you did,” a guy says. He was seated at a table right next to the whole thing. “Nobody does that for people anymore.”

I say, “We’re all human beings. What else could we do?”

He embraces me.

“Yeah, what else.”

Then the whole scene is over, as if it never happened. A guy slides into the seat Jackie occupied.

He lives in Philadelphia. He and his partner want to move to Palm Springs. “It’s a big gay community there,” he tells me.

“You don’t say.”

I have kept thinking about Jackie last night and today. I hope he made it home on time. My interaction with him reminded me of two basic facts of life: First, empathy is one of the most important capabilities we have as human beings. Second, as writers, stories exist everywhere.

In both respects, we do well to keep our eyes and ears open.

Analysis: The Psychological Connection of Rey and Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

May 19th, 2016 by

In my current Write a Worthy Nemesis class, we have been exploring Carl Jung’s theory of the shadow. Here is an extended excerpt from Lecture 2: Shadow vs. Light:

Let me present to you what may be a startling concept, one that suggests a Nemesis – who they are, how they are, what they are – is intimately connected to the Protagonist’s psyche state. Indeed one way of looking at the Nemesis is as a physicalization of the Protagonist’s shadow, a projection come to life.

Parsing that language, the psyche represents the totality of the human persona, conscious and unconscious states, thoughts and feelings. Projection occurs when an individual ascribes aspects of their psyche onto someone else. Finally the shadow is one key facet of the psyche, an idea promulgated by the noted analytical psychologist Carl Jung:

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. — “Psychology and Religion” (1938).

The shadow is all aspects of an individual’s psyche that exist outside the light of consciousness. While there can be positive energy associated with it, more often than not the shadow expresses itself as a negative dynamic, deriving from the least desirable facets of a person’s psyche:

It is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism. The individual seldom knows anything of this; to him, as an individual, it is incredible that he should ever in any circumstances go beyond himself. But let these harmless creatures form a mass, and there emerges a raging monster; and each individual is only one tiny cell in the monster’s body, so that for better or worse he must accompany it on its bloody rampages and even assist it to the utmost. — “On the Psychology of the Unconscious” (1912).

Positively demonic dynamism… emerges a raging monster... bloody rampages. If we project these attributes into the realm of story, doesn’t it sound like a Nemesis at work? Furthermore the presence of a character’s shadow suggests a direction for the narrative:

The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious. The coming of consciousness was probably the most tremendous experience of primeval times, for with it a world came into being whose existence no one had suspected before. “And God said, ‘Let there be light”‘ is the projection of that immemorial experience of the separation of consciousness from the unconscious. — “The Psychology of the Child Archetype” (1940).

In a story’s Internal World, the psychological and emotional realm, the Hero’s Journey is about engaging the shadow, bringing it into the light of consciousness, then subduing it or diffusing its negative power by acknowledging and understanding it.

In a story’s External World, the realm of action and events, this dynamic almost always plays itself out as a confrontation between Protagonist and Nemesis, the latter a physicalization of the Protagonist’s darkest, most repressed desires and feelings.

This means that to the degree the Nemesis reflects key attributes of the Protagonist’s shadow, a story will have a natural sense of unity and an organic synergy between these two critical characters: Shadow vs. Light.

With that as a frame, a question arose in my Nemesis class: In Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, is Kylo Ren related in some way to the Rey’s shadow as the protagonist?

For a deeper exploration of this question — SPOILER ALERT!!! — click on More and read my analysis of the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren… then switch Protagonists and look at the story from Kylo Ren’s perspective and his connection to Rey.

Chuck Wendig: Tweetstorm About Writing Dialogue

May 14th, 2016 by

Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, game designer, and of late has added comic book writer to his burgeoning resume. He is also on Twitter (@ChuckWendig) and his feed is both hugely entertaining and informative. To wit, the other day, he went on what he calls a “tweetstorm” about writing dialogue, then storified it on his blog (also recommended) Terrible Minds. It’s a great read. Here are few tweety excerpts:


Good stuff! For the rest of Chuck’s tweetstorm, go here.