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.

How to Have a Career: Advice to Young Writers

June 17th, 2014 by

Good advice from author Sarah Manguso:

Work. Be relentless. All over the world, people are working harder than you. Don’t go to events; go to the receptions after the events. If possible, skip the receptions and go to the afterparties, where you can have a real conversation with someone.

Money. Learn to live on air. Buy the best health insurance you can afford. If you have roommates, work in the library. Run and do calisthenics instead of paying for a gym membership. Invest in ear plugs, good sneakers, and a coffee machine. Buy oatmeal in bulk. Learn to cook simple, nutritious meals. Save and eat leftovers. Cafes are a waste of money, calories, and time; leave them to the tourists. Buy books used, perform periodic culls, and resell them. Wasting money on clothes is the stupidest habit of all. You will only ever need two good outfits.

Asking favors. When requesting a favor in writing, ask outright and respectfully for what you want. Don’t write what appears to be a long, friendly letter full of compliments and then ask for help at the end, pretending it’s an afterthought. Such behavior smacks of tit-for-tat, or prepayment for a commodity, and it’s ugly to point out the existence of the favor economy. Just do favors and ask favors in a vacuum. If a favor is given immediately after one is received by the giver, pretend not to notice the coincidence. When given a favor, honor those who helped you. Be gracious and sincere, and don’t overthank them.

Manguso offers 8 more pieces of advice. You can go here to read the rest.

What is the best advice you have received about writing? Head to comments and offer your wisdom on the craft and career of writing.

“Draft No. 4: Reflections on the Writing Life” by John McPhee

May 23rd, 2014 by

I am in the process of working my way through a backlog of New Yorkers, so it was only recently that I happened upon an article in the April 29, 2013 edition penned by one of the great nonfiction writers of our era: John McPhee. [If you have a subscription, you can access the article here).

McPhee, who has written nearly 30 books including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011), is a regular contributor to the New Yorker.

This article, entitled “Draft No. 4, is part of a semi-regular series in the magazine: The Writing Life. Here is how the article starts:

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day. “Dear Joel…” This is just a random sample from letters written to former students in response to their howling cries as they suffer the masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine. “Dear Joel…” This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. “Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.

You could be Joel, even if your name is Jenny. Or Julie, Jillian, Jim, Jane, Joe. You are working on a first draft and small wonder you’re unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists? And unless you can identify what is not succeeding–unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops–how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?


The way you do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something–anything–out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something–anything–as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again–top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version–if it did not exist–you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day–yes, while you sleep–but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

It’s an excellent article that once again speaks to the value of what I preach to my students about a first draft. There’s only one rule: Get the damn thing done!

Again if you have a New Yorker subscription, you may access the McPhee article here.

25 Books Every Writer Should Read

May 22nd, 2014 by

From Flavorwire:

The hard work, the MFA vs. NYC debate, the negativity, the importance of a good Twitter account, the parties you have to go to, the readings you have to do, people you should meet, the agents you need to impress — amid all the different ways writers have found to obsess over what it takes to be successful, we sometimes forget the most important thing of all: great writers need to be great readers.

You can’t read everything, but once you’ve moved past all of the totally obvious titles, considering adding these 25 titles to your TBR pile. They’re excellent examples of so many different ways that novels, short stories, poems, essays, and creative nonfiction can be done. For writers, this list could serve as something of a syllabus; for those who just want something new to read, it offers a chance to step out of your comfort zone and try a few new ideas and formats on for size.

Here’s the list:

The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm

To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin

The Collected Stories, Grace Paley

Portrait Inside My Head, Phillip Lopate

Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

The White Album, Joan Didion

The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Working, Studs Terkel

A Bolt From the Blue and Other Essays, Mary McCarthy

How Fiction Works, James Wood

Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer

The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross

Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright

Varieties of Disturbance, Lydia Davis

The Dead Father, Donald Barthelme

Collected Poems: 1948-1984, Derek Walcott

Blood and Guts in High School, Kathy Acker

Out of the Vinyl Deeps, Ellen Willis

Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald

Kill All Your Darlings, Luc Sante

The Chairs Are Where People Go, Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

Critical Mass, James Wolcott

The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems 1950-2001, Adrienne Rich

Would you add any books to the list? Share your thoughts. Click on Reply and I’ll see you in comments.

For the entire article, go here.

Seven Tips From F. Scott Fitzgerald on How to Write Fiction

May 21st, 2014 by

Open Culture selected seven quotations from F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips, to put together a nice little list of tips from the novelist on how to write fiction. Here are two of them:

Make a detailed outline of your story.

When Fitzgerald was working on a novel, he would surround himself with charts outlining the various movements and histories of his characters. In a 1936 letter to novelist John O’Hara, he advises the younger novelist to start with a big outline:

Invent a system Zolaesque…but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.


Create people, not types.

Fitzgerald was known for creating emblematic characters, but he said it was accidental. “I had no idea of originating an American flapper when I first began to write,” he said in a 1923 interview for Metropolitan magazine. “I simply took girls who I knew very well and, because they interested me as unique human beings, I used them for my heroines.” In the opening sentence of his 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald explains the principle:

Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing.

To Fitzgerald’s first point, beyond the advice to work from an outline, what intrigues me is this idea of drawing up something as “complicated as a continuity”. If you’ve read the series I did analyzing the 1920 book “How to Write Photoplays”, you will remember that continuity was a precursor to what came to be known as a ‘screen play’ and ultimately a ‘screenplay’. Fitzgerald, who worked in Hollywood off and on for years, may have been saying here to come up with something akin to a screenplay to function as an outline.

As to his second point, this sounds strangely like the language I use with regard to the screenwriting principle: Character = Function, especially since that function can often be slotted into one of five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. Once determined, a writer may use that archetype as a lens through which to see the character and a foundation upon which to craft them into a multilayered, complex individual.

For the rest of the article, go here

How to Think Like a Writer

May 20th, 2014 by

How to think like a writer? What better way to answer that query than by reading what writers have to say about it. Here are a couple of excerpts from a recent Huffington Post article:

Study the greats.

Hunter S. Thompson was known to transcribe Ernest Hemingway’s novels in full, just to absorb the words — he typed out The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in the hopes of absorbing as much wisdom as possible from his literary idol.

Find space for solitude.

Zadie Smith wrote in a list of rules for writers, “Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.”

Particularly, Smith noted, the place where you write must be one of solitude. “Protect the time and space in which you write,” Smith writes. “Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”

Take it one day, or sentence, at a time.

In her book of advice on writing and life, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains that writers have to learn to take their projects one baby step at a time. The Traveling Mercies author writes:

My older brother was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

And with your novel-in-progress or next big feature? Take it bird by bird.

For the rest of the article, go here.

What are the most important words of writing advice you’ve ever received?

“For Aspiring Writers: the Worst Advice You’ll Ever Read”

May 19th, 2014 by

A writer named Charles Hugh Smith penned this in 2005, so I have no idea why I stumbled upon it nearly a decade later, but seeing as it serves as an effective counterbalance to the happy chatter that issues forth from the Hope Machine (“Now you can learn how to write a million dollar spec script!”), I thought it was worthy of our consideration. Here is just a taste of Smith’s truth-telling bromide:

I’ve had the good fortune to have had two Hollywood agents, real live people who’ve slogged out a living in Tinseltown. The publisher of my novel I-State Lines (it hits the shelves April 2006) told me they receive 6,000 manuscripts a year and publish six. (They also publish new works by their current stable of authors, but they leave six slots open for new authors.) This is a small but well-regarded publishing house, The Permanent Press, NY. If a small house gets 6,000 manuscripts or pitches a year, what do you reckon the big agencies and publishers get over the transom? My first agent didn’t even hazard a guess–just “hundreds every month.” Multiply this times hundreds of agents and you get an idea of how many stories are being pitched each year.

The odds in Hollywood are even worse. I have to laugh (cynically, of course) when I read ever-so-helpful authors suggest that aspiring writers ask agents for their list of clients, to see if they’re a good match for your brilliant work. Excuse me while I ROTFLMAO. I tried this with the second agent interested in my novel and he wrote back a terse, scribbled note that said it all: “You’re lucky anyone is even looking at your material.” That, friends, is the truth. Agents have their fill of “brilliant” writers, “brilliant” ideas so amazing that someone is sure to steal them (you should be so lucky–large agencies don’t even open your pitch just so they can’t be accused of stealing your $100 million plot), and poor foolish devils naive enough to think their story is going to blow down all the doors in New York or Hollywood.

Like a prophet crying in the virtual wilderness, Smith lays it on the line, point by point, underscoring what I have said on this blog over and over again: The odds against financial success as a screenwriter, TV writer, any type of writer are extremely long. If you are serious about pursuing your creative ambitions, you just have to face — and live with — that fact.

There are no short cuts. No magic formulas. No secret systems.

There’s just the craft. Learning it. Writing. Writing better. Then writing more.

And always there is a fire-breathing beast known as COMPETITION stomping around, looking to crush as many souls it can lay waste to.

These truths are important to remember. And yet whenever I post something like this, I always have to provide a caveat: The fact is people do break into the business. Every year. We’re not talking a tsunami of writers, rather more like a rivulet. But it happens. Hell, by some capricious stroke of dumb luck, it happened to me.

So my bottom line for living with this dialectic: “Feet on the ground… head in the clouds.”

Two other things struck me as I read Smith’s piece.

First, what is success? If the only criterion we use is significant financial gain from our writing, we are setting ourselves up for deep and abiding disappointment. If, on the other hand, we think of success being about the craft itself — generating strong story concepts, digging into our stories and writing them well, completing our stories, setting and hitting writing goals, and so on — then we have in place a mindset in which – at the very least – we can enjoy our creativity. In a harsh, competitive field, this may be the single biggest key to fueling the persistence we need to keep pushing toward a breakthrough.

The second thing is this observation by Smith:

Everyone in Hollywood claims to be “good at story,” which goes a long way toward explaining why most Hollywood movies are mediocre. Great fiction is built on character, not story.

As obsessive as I am about starting and ending the story-crafting process with Character, we have to counterbalance this argument with a well-known quote from arguably the dean of contemporary American screenwriting William Goldman who said, “Screenplays are structure.” And pretty much whenever anyone in Hollywood talks about Story, they are referring to Structure.

There’s a logic to this in that a screenplay does serve as the guide to produce a movie, a blueprint if you will. Thus the architecture of the Story — its Structure — is crucially important.

My thing is this: How do we get to the Structure? I would argue the very best way to do that is through our Characters. So here is where I can circle back to Smith’s point: Great fiction is built on character… and everything emerges from the process of immersing oneself with our characters, including the story’s Structure.

To read the rest of Smith’s post, go here.