The Spirit Of The Spec (Part 2): You Act On Your Idea

August 23rd, 2016 by

I had a conversation recently with a former studio executive turned producer in which I found myself talking about the “spirit of the spec,” essentially when a person chooses to pursue a project or goal entirely on speculation with the hopes of some eventual payoff. Not everybody would make that choice. To many, with the odds so long against success, doing something on spec is not only illogical, it’s also seemingly inane.

And yet almost all screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets have as some part of their creative self the spirit of the spec.

After my conversation with the producer, it occurred to me this is a subject we should discuss here at GITS because it speaks to the very core of why we’re here and what we’re about as people driven by creative impulses. So today through Friday, I will post something each day exploring what it means for a writer to have the spirit of the spec.

You act on your idea.

Yes, I know this line looks like it’s straight out of an early morning cable TV infomercial, but there is a fundamental truth conveyed in it that every dream-selling hack knows:

In order to make it happen, you have to…
Make. It. Happen.

If all you have is an idea, you are little more than this fellow:


A man stands talking, people in groups behind him. Two born
like gadgets are attached to his shoulders; he's wearing a
bizarre space costume.

Right now it's only a notion, but I
think I can get money to make it
into a concept... and later turn it
into an idea.

You are the equivalent of 3rd Man in the L.A. party scene from Annie Hall, talking about making it happen instead of making it happen.

Fortunately for a writer, there is nothing mysterious about what we need to do to act on an idea: We need to figure out the story, then write it.

As we all know, this process is not easy. We know this not only from our own personal experience, but also from the very way we talk about it.

This is where we crack the story, we break the story, we nail the story, we wrangle the story.

Every single one of those descriptors suggests the same thing: It’s a struggle, a fight, a battle.

So much easier to just talk about your idea, like 3rd Man, rather than act on it. I know this. You know this. But let me lay two thoughts on you.

First if it was easy to craft a story, just imagine how many more people would be trying their hand at screenwriting. Or novels. Short stories. Plays. You think it’s competitive now? If writing was easy, the entertainment business would be utterly overrun by writers, a horde of chattering lemmings with stacks of three-hole punch paper jammed in their teeth, sputtering loglines along the way.

Worse imagine how shitty those scripts would be!

So yes, writing isn’t easy and that is a pain in the ass for those of us who write. But every time we take up an idea and go about the process of nailing the story, we play our small, but necessary role in proving Darwin’s theory: survival of the fittest.

Those with the spirit of the spec take up the fight. Those lacking the spirit, just talk about it.

Second I suggest you take those verbs I noted above — crack, break, nail, wrangle — and use them as scene description (they’re actually good, visual words). Instead in referring to your own process of taking an idea and crafting it into a story, try using this verb:

Find your story.

This way you re-frame the task. It’s no longer a battle, rather it’s a journey. A journey of discovery. And the essence of what you are doing is simply this: getting curious.

Curious about your characters.
Curious about who they are, why they are, what they want, what they need.
Curious about their interrelationships and their respective destinies.
Curious about their goals, particularly those that come into conflict with each other.
Curious about the story universe, the various dynamics and influences at play.
Curious about how this unique mix of individuals and plot elements will evolve into being.

Prepping a story is ultimately about the act of asking questions, each one another step on the path to finding your story.

Now think on this: If there is a path, that presupposes there is an end to the path. So instead of a battle over your story where some random barbarian can spring up out of nowhere and split open your meager confidence with a pole axe, if you are on a journey of discovery, it’s all a matter of taking the time, asking the questions, and walking the steps necessary to get you to that end point, where you do find your story.

And once there, you are ready to type FADE IN. Lights up. That compelling first sentence of your novel or short story.

If someone is truly infused with the spirit of the spec, they are not the 3rd Man at parties, talking about how they are going to take a notion into a concept into an idea.

Rather if you have the spirit of the spec, you act on your idea.

You get curious about it. You ask questions. You learn your way into and through it as part of your journey of discovery.

And miracle of miracles, once you reach the end of that path, you make the most profound discovery of all. That while you were trying to find the story…

The story was — all along — trying to find you.

Part 1: You Get An Idea.

Tomorrow: You Write Your Story.

Spirit Of The Spec (Part 1): You Get An Idea

August 22nd, 2016 by

I had a conversation recently with a former studio executive turned producer in which I found myself talking about the “spirit of the spec,” essentially when a person chooses to pursue a project or goal entirely on speculation with the hopes of some eventual payoff. Not everybody would make that choice. To many, with the odds so long against success, doing something on spec is not only illogical, it’s also seemingly inane.

And yet almost all screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets have as some part of their creative self the spirit of the spec.

After my conversation with the producer, it occurred to me this is a subject we should discuss here at GITS because it speaks to the very core of why we’re here and what we’re about as people driven by creative impulses. So today through Friday, I will post something each day exploring what it means for a writer to have the spirit of the spec.

You get an idea.

That’s where it all starts.

An image. A feeling. A line of dialogue. A conceit. A character.

Something that catches your fancy. Causes you to stop and think. Triggers your imagination.

Could this be a story? A novel? A movie? A TV series?

You play around with it. Tinker with it. Ask questions.

What genre is it? Who is the main character? What is distinctive about this idea? Is it big enough to sustain a feature-length screenplay? Is it any good?

But the biggest question of all you can ask is the shortest one: What if?

What if I stuck this character in that situation?
What if I made the character a female instead of a male?
What if I started out this character as far away from their goal as possible?
What if I switched genres?
What if I switched Protagonists?
What if I amped up the stakes?
What if…

And before you know it, you are watering this seed of an idea with a cloudburst from your brainstorming. Will the seed take root? Grow? Blossom into a story worth writing?

You likely will not know the answer at this stage.

Here it is just you… and your idea.

The idea may turn out to be a pathway to success. Or a dead end. But if you are a person who lives for creativity, who exists with the oftentimes bewildering ramblings of your instincts, never forget for one second the awe and mystery that is this…

Your ideas.

They are the cornerstone of everything you do as a writer.

For those who live with the spirit of the spec, ideas are our creative lifeblood, ideas are what fuel our stories, ideas are what keep our dreams alive.

How about you? What is your attitude toward your ideas? How do you engender them? How do you develop them? How do you honor them?

Tomorrow: You Act On Your Idea.

Update: Black List Happy Hours

August 17th, 2016 by

From the good folks at the Black List:

Beginning September 7th, I will become Imbiber-In-Chief at the monthly Chicago events. More information on that in coming weeks.

These are great events in convivial environments, so I encourage you to take a brief break from solitary confinement at your desk, poke your head outside, and make your way to a local watering hole to bend an elbow and talk shop with other writers.

Writing Mantra: “Trust the Process”

August 11th, 2016 by

“Trust the process.”

This is probably my favorite writing mantra. It’s both practical and spiritual, which pretty sums up my experience of the act of writing.

There is prep-writing (brainstorming, research, generating plot elements, developing characters, story structure, scene breakdowns, outline), then there is page-writing (type FADE IN and continue writing until you type FADE OUT). Those two aspects represent the practical part of the process, but out of that ‘grunt work,’ a more spiritual aspect emerges: suddenly, you hear a character say something to you, or a character may refuse to act the way you planned, or a scene sequence you worked out in advance implodes once you start writing it, or a whole other way of approaching a subplot may leap to mind.

Whatever happens at every step of the way, a writer must learn to trust the process.

For some writers and some stories, the process can be neat and straightforward. For others, the process can be confounding and meandering.

Every writer is different. Every story is different. Every process is different.

The writer must learn to accept that and trust that they are where they are for some reason.

M. Night Shyamalan supposedly wrote five drafts of The Sixth Sense until he had this startling realization: the Protagonist, Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis), was dead.

J.R.R. Tolkien finished the first chapter of what would become “The Lord of the Rings” in February, 1938, then didn’t turn in the final manuscript until 1950. On two occasions, after writing hundreds of pages, Tolkien went back to page one and started all over. What if Tolkien had not trusted his creative process? We might never have known one of the world’s most remarkable pieces of literature.

I hit upon that phrase when I was teaching one of my online screenwriting courses in response to a student who was seemingly stuck in their story. A year or so later, I stumbled onto this book, “Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go”. It’s an excellent read, one I highly recommend, and it raises an interesting point about trust, that second part “letting go.”

Letting go of what?

Often what happens when we get ‘stuck’ in our writing, it’s not so much about the story, it’s about what we bring to the writing process — expectations, plans, fears, doubts. Any time we step out of the story, our active engagement in the writing process, we run the risk of losing ourselves in the day-to-day world as well as our hopes and dreams. For example, we may get caught up in seeing the story as a bridge from our life today to our imagined life in Hollywood as a working screenwriter. To carry that weight of ‘responsibility’ into a writing session, that attachment, can easily encumber our actual writing — and soon we’re stuck, not because of the story, but what we are bringing to the writing.

Trust the process / let go — all very Zen, yes? I guess. It also suggests that we look at the Writer in relation to Story not as an “I – It” relationship, but an “I – You” dynamic, something we explored here.

Trust the process.

Try tacking that mantra up onto the wall where you write.

And then believe it.


August 1st, 2016 by

So as fate would have it, I’m in the midst of relocating from Chapel Hill to Chicago on the very day I celebrate 3,000 consecutive days in which I have blogged at Go Into The Story. That’s right, I haven’t missed a single day since I launched the site on May 16, 2008. Moreover in that time, I’ve written and uploaded 19,975 posts on average over 6 posts per day. Which raises the obvious question:


I don’t have time to provide a lengthy response, so let me give you my bottom line rationale: I figured if I posted something on a daily basis, that would serve both as an example and motivation for readers to write every day.

If I can do it, you can do it.

Show up. Do the work. That’s where creativity transforms into productivity.

If you don’t write every day, try it. Once you get into a groove, daily writing becomes a habit, it will feel weird on a day in which you do not write. In other words…


“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!