Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mentoring and the Disneyland Dilemma

Let me tell you a story . . .

Once upon a time, in the wilds of suburban America, there was a family -  Mary and Fred and their six year-old daughter Moonbeam  - who had never been to Disneyland.

And Disneyland was all that Moonbeam ever talked about.  She had watched all the commercials, seen all the movies. Everyday, she pleaded with her parents.  She cajoled, hinted, remarked, nagged, cried, whined  and otherwise relentlessly explained to her parents that if she did go to Disneyland RIGHT AWAY, she would curl up in a ball and “just die!”

Now, Mary and Fred had endured examples of Moonbeam’s "determination" before and decided that, rather than suffer another siege with their young, headstrong daughter, they would take her to the Magic Kingdom next month.

That night, Fred and Mary considered this decision.  They knew that the trip would cost a lot of money and would be something that, good or bad, Moonbeam would remember for the rest of her life. They wanted to make sure that they did it right.

They soon realized that they needed some advice.

Now, Fred and Mary had two neighbors: Pete, who lived on the house on the right and Tommy on the left, and it occurred to Fred that he should go and ask his neighbors for guidance. He saw Pete in the yard one morning and asked him.

“Well,” Pete said as he watered the carnations, “the parking can be bad and traffic will be terrible and the crowds – the crowds can be a nightmare!”

“Ok, I get that, but what’s it like inside?” Fred asked.

“Oh, I have no idea” Pete said, “I’ve never been . . . but that’s what I’ve heard.”

Fred sighed, realizing that he was no farther along than he was before.

Just then, Neighbor Tommy came out and headed for his car.  Fred said goodbye to Pete and rushed to catch Tommy before he left.

“Glad I caught you,” Fred said. “We’re planning a trip to Disneyland and needed some advice.”

"No problem,” said Tommy. “Been there a couple of times. I can tell you everything you want to know."

And so, Fred spoke at length with Tommy and got all his questions answered. 

The trip went off without a hitch.  Tired but happy, Moonbeam came home with a personalized set of mouse ears, signed autographs of all the Disney Princesses and a heart full of memories.

So now . . . what’s the point of this story?

Here's the point: advice is easy to find. But valuable advice – advice that you can learn from and that will head off disaster – can only come from someone who has actually been there, actually done the thing that you want to do.

Neighbor Pete was a nice guy.  He really wanted to help Fred but, in the end, Pete had nothing valuable to contribute to the conversation because he had never done what Fred was planning to do.

As a writer, we are often as lost as Fred.  What is the best path for me to take? How do I know what I’m doing is the right thing? How do I make the most out of my career?  How do I know if my writing is good enough to not only be published and sell, but to attract a group of fans who will continue to enjoy my work and keep me in business?

All good questions.  All have the very same, very logical answer:  

Asks someone who actually knows. Someone who has been successful at doing what you're trying to do.

Yet so many writers ask – and depend upon - the wrong people for advice. 

These are examples of the wrong people to rely upon for solid writing advice:

Your Friends: unless they are published writers or experts in the craft of writing, they cannot really help you.  They can, and often will, support you, tell you that your work is great, but they’re not actually in a position to know.

Your Family:  same as above but even more so. They love you and don’t want to see you hurt.  They may tell you that your writing is great but might just as easily not understand what you are trying to do and try to convince you to quit “for your own good”. So you won't get hurt.

Your Critique Group:  I’m sure this surprises you, but your critique group can only help you if one or more of their members have real life experience and have published the kind of writing that you write. They can - and will - certainly give you their opinion, but its value must be questioned. Their opinions are ones of someone who, just like you, is struggling to find their own way.  They can be wonderful to talk shop with, to commiserate about your rejections and to help celebrate your acceptances but - as for valuable, real-life writing advice - it can pretty much be hit-or-miss.

Now you probably went to these folks - your friends, family or critique group - first because they were handy, nearby and eager to help. The emotion risk is limited because you never really expected these people to tell you anything that might hurt your feelings or deflate your interest in writing. 

But what we all need as writers is someone who knows what we're facing.  Someone who has seen the landscape ahead.  Someone who has struggled as you are struggling now, who has seen that place from which all creativity springs, someone who has met the challenges you are facing now - and succeeded.

In short, you need a mentor.

By definition, a writing mentor is someone who has been successful at doing what you want to do, who has knowledge you need but do not yet have, and is willing to share that with you for the purpose of making you a better writer. It is always best when it is a personal relationship where the mentor can show you what you need to know and where you, as the mentee, can get answers to those specific and individual questions that you need answered.

Now, you may have no idea where to find that mentor – but mentors are absolutely available to you regardless of where you live!  You probably have come in contact with a successful writer you could ask for help.   Writer’s conferences, classes, readings and personal appearances might be just the places to look. They might be more than willing to share their experiences with you.  And there are personal coaches and teachers like myself and many others here to review your work, figure out where you are professionally and help you plan the next step in your writing career. We’ve done the work and have been successful. We give classes and talks, offering up our best advice for willing students. We can be there for you, too.

If you read something that clicks with you, something that makes sense and helps you see your writing in a new way, seek out that writer's other published works and try to see them in person at presentations and conferences.  They might be quite approachable and you could ask them for a couple of minutes to discuss their experience.  You will be surprised at the number of us willing to help, if for no other reason than we see this as a way to pay back the people who helped us along the way.  Many offer services that are affordable and can be customized to fit your particular situation.

So reach out.   Find someone who can help you along the way – and get moving!

Here’s the truth of the matter: the only way to get solid, valuable advice about your writing is to find someone who have been down that road, done what you want to do and can guide you through the hazards and pitfalls along the way.

It’s just that simple.

If interested is seeking out my help, feel free to email me at or call me at 951-266-9363.

Until next time, keep writing!
(My personal thanks to one of my mentors, Steven Barnes, for the inspiration for this post)



Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Three Writing Secrets from Jerry Jenkins

Do you ever feel, as I do, that sometimes your scenes fall flat and you’re convinced there’s not enough oomph on the page to move your reader, let alone make an editor want to buy your story?

Here are three things I remind myself when I face that dilemma. Then a quick, but heavy, edit and rewrite usually gets me right back on track.

1. Get off the stage. The toughest challenge for any artistic creator is to resist the urge to show off. Our name will be on the cover, and we’d love to remind the reader with a turn of phrase or a choice word, “I’m the one fashioning this message.”

But the best writers, like the best composers and painters, know it’s not about them. It’s about the art, the content.

Anything that comes between the story and the reader—yes, even you—is intrusive.

A reader aware of your technique, even of your talent, may miss your message. If the pianist dazzles with his technique, the composer’s art may be compromised.

Entice readers by making every word count, using ones they’ll understand rather than ones that will make them wonder.

A true classic transports the reader. Force yourself to get out of the way so the heart of the message can reach the soul of the reader.

2. Don’t compromise. Remain true to your message. Be able to express it in one sentence and post it where you can see it as you write. It will keep you on point throughout the process.

3. Inject conflict. This is the failsafe. When nothing else brings your prose to life, conflict will. You’ve likely seen me write about this before, and you’ll see it again. It’s a sin to bore a reader, so if you have two characters in a scene and they’re merrily agreeing with each other, you’re sinning.

Just have one of them respond in a snarky, sarcastic, mean, disagreeable, angry, or defensive way (or all of the above), and see what happens. Conflict is the engine of fiction, and it will light up the page—and your reader.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Secret to a GREAT First Draft

All screenplays go through many, many . . .  MANY drafts.

Film scripts are more built than written as we refine, mold, shape and construct the best story we can.  Most drafts are designed to winnow down and refine the material that you put down in your first draft.

But so many of us try to form and structure the story from the very beginning.

This is a mistake.

Through my private practice with aspiring novelists and screenwriters and more than thirty years as a writer, I've learned that the first draft – the first time you put concentrated effort into realizing your vision - should be a special and powerful time. It should be fury and abandon. It should be the release of the flood waters. And it should be a time of imaginings and dreams, of staring into the abyss and then suddenly rushing back to the keyboard as the ideas pour out of you.

And you should write until you are empty.  Pages and pages of inspiration and talent and creation, all gathered there in one single place that you will later mold and shape into your best work yet.

And that’s as it should be.

But if you're concentrating in the first draft on Inciting Incidences and Midpoint Turns and Dark Night of the Soul moments, you immediately put restriction of your abilities and you will not do your best work.

The first draft is not a time for choosing -  it's a time for acquiring and gathering the best of you onto the page.

Your only responsibility at this point is to get out of your little brain all the ideas scenes, notions, images and moments that you have for your story. This draft is the straw and clay that you will use to build your screenplay.  Anything – ANYTHING - that takes away from this pure moment of creating  harms your story and severely limits your chances for success.

So . . . 

Put aside the screenwriting books, Guru DVDs, and course notes for a while.  Give Snyder, Fields, McKee and all the rest a break and concentrate on just you, just your visions, just your story.  Be in touch with the reason you are compelled to write this particular story.  Look into the deeper meaning of what you’re trying to say. Allow nothing to distract you and just write. 

Write hard. 

Go off on tangents.

Fill the pages.

Explore the small little corners of your characters and peek into the recesses and shadows of the world that you've created.

Then and only then – when you’re finished with this draft - should you give any thought to structure.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The State of Screenwriting Education Today, Part 1

Let's start with an example . . . 

Tell me what this has to do with traditional screenwriting education:

HOW TO DO IT by Monty Python

Cut to:  

a sign saying 'How to Do It'. Music. Sitting casually on the edge of a dais are three presenters in sweaters - Noel, Jackie and Alan)

Alan: (John Cleese) Hello children.

Noel: (Graham Chapman) Hello.

Jackie: (Eric Idle) Hello.

Alan: Well, last week we showed you how to be a gynaecologist. And this week on 'How to Do It' we're going to learn how to play the flute, how to split the atom, how to construct box girder bridges and how to irrigate the Sahara and make vast new areas cultivatable, but first, here's Jackie to tell you how to rid the world of all known diseases.

Jackie: Hello Alan.

Alan: Hello Jackie.

Jackie: Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvelous cure for something, and then, when the medical world really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there'll never be diseases any more.

Alan: Thanks Jackie, that was great

Noel: Fantastic.

Alan: Now, how to play the flute. (picking up a flute) Well you blow in one end and move your fingers up and down the outside.

Noel: Great Alan. Well, next week we'll be showing you how black and white people can live together in peace and harmony, and Alan will be over in Moscow showing you how to reconcile the Russians and the Chinese. Til then, cheerio.

Alan: Bye.

Jackie: Bye-Bye.

-         -     -

We'll continue the discussion next time when we talk about The Mechanics of Mystery.

Stay tuned!

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Stephen King of Funny Cat Videos

There are two ways into Hollywood –
you are going to have to write what they’re buying
or sell them your dream.      - Scott Meyers, screenwriter

I recently came back from a conference in sunny San Diego where I ran a writer’s workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror writers with author Peter Clines (Ex-Heroes, 14website )
We had an excellent group.  Writers of all ages and experiences.

Lots of enthusiasm.  Lots of talent.

Lots of zombie stories.

Most of the writers who attend these kinds of workshops are new, pre-published and still trying to find their voice. One can hear the resounding echoes of other writers in their works – Rowlings, Collins, King, etc., and I expect this at the beginning of many careers.
Because these writers are each in the process of developing his/her own process.

But there are a couple of dangers here. 

The first is about VOICE: 

Some authentic voices were emerging out amongst these writers, but many tried to write the way they believe writers should sound, instead of sounding like themselves. So what you end up with are very clever people trying to sound clever when they could simply unclench a bit – and just let their very clever, talented, and interesting selves shine through.

The second problem is about PERSPECTIVE:

Now, I don’t mind zombie stories – I believe whatever genre and sub-genre excited these new writer enough to actually write is a good thing . . .

 . . .In the beginning.

But – for example – did you know that, when you enter the phrase “funny cat videos” into the search engine for YouTube, you get something on the order of 3,600,000 hits . . .

3.6 million variations on the same theme. And over 1 billion entries if you so the same search on Google.

All cute, all adorable – and all pale variations on a theme.

Voice and perspective.  Hard to develop, harder still to mainstain, but vital to the soul of the writer.

Without them, you are just another guy with a video camera documenting the hilarity of something that is not quite human. And in that lies the real problem: Nothing in the known universe has ever been more human than Story.

Now . . . you could become the best at this.  The most popular, most universally loved, the absolute Stephen King of Cat Videos if you like.

But why?

The nature of drama and story is breathtaking and powerful, unique and emotional. The real estate of the page is some of the most precious in the world and your time and treasure are severely limited. Why spend it writing about something that looks like any of the 3.6 million other, similar, non-unique cat stories.

When one person’s writing becomes indistinguishable from another and these two people have never met, it is the culture speaking and not a person.

You have to know – you have the power and the spark in each of you. 

There are things that you want to say, need to say and they can come out through theme and subtext – blatant and true at the heart of your story. You have to always say what you believe needs saying.

In short, you have to sell them your dreams.

Your goal should not be to be a great craftsman of something entertaining but ubiquitous.  You’re better than that.  The popular vampire and zombie stories that fill the popular media today are the high-calorie fast food of our time – not because of their genre but because they were written as attractive products and not as works of Craft and Art.  And while some excellent writing has been done in their names, there can be but one Bram Stoker, and one Mary Shelley and one William Seabrook or George Romero.

These types of stories are akin to working with licensed properties. The constraints can be invigorating but they don’t allow the writer to tell your story – because you are telling their story

Because, at some point, what they’re buying is no longer likely to be the same as what they’ve bought

You can’t control or predict what they’re buying. Trends change, sometimes on a dime and one would have to be clairvoyant to know where the industry and the public’s desires are going in advance.

But, in the end, here’s what everyone really wants: A good idea, excitingly told and competently written – that they can’t get anywhere else.

Give me a new perspective. Meet the story with conflict and drama. Take me out of myself. 

All these things are within your control.

In the end, the only person who should be writing a classic Stephen King story is STEPHEN KING . . . and perhaps not even him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The "Box" is just a Punk

Writers learn the same way our characters learn.
Consider for a moment some of the great characters of fiction: Jay Gatsby, Yuri Zhivago, Atticus Finch, Scarlett O’Hara, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Harry Potter . . . and Winnie-the-Pooh.
These heroes spend most of their fictional lives failing at everything they try.  And while they eventually find a path that leads them to success, most of those failures come as they try to solve their problem by doing something that’s comfortable,
Something “in their wheelhouse.”
Something similar to what they have already done.
But leaps of faith, “crazy” risks, and bold moves are the ways that heroes solve their problems.  Marlowe and Bond made incredible leaps of physical and intuitive prowess. Zhivago is unyielding. And both Potter and Pooh never stop, never quit until they get what they want.
These risks and acts of faith are not unlike the ones you took when you got up the courage to announce to the world that you were going to be a writer.
The world probably thought this was risky “out of the box thinking” and they were right.
But, sometime in your life, a bold move was called for and you made it.
Now you may be once again at a crossroad.  In your desire to find an audience, you look at how others have found success and are deconstructing stories and reverse engineering the work, trying to find the secret that made these tales popular.
As a teacher and professional, I can tell you that this is a valuable exercise.
But as a writer, I’m telling you that there is a danger here. 
It is vital that you learn about plot and structure – the tools that make your stories powerful on so many levels – and such exercises can teach you that.  Understanding story engineering will always serve your stories regardless of genre, format or interest. But that has to be matched with STORY ART – the creative aspect and personal perspective that make your stories unique.  The thing that only you can bring to the story. Concentrating on structure makes your story sound, but it cannot make it truly and uniquely yours.
For example, let’s consider the vampire story craze. 
Several years ago, both Hollywood and the publishing world decided to ride this tsunami hard. At present, brick-and-mortar bookstores have dedicated entire alcoves to pouty YA vampire tales.  But if you spend any time with these books at all, you’ll see that many of them are interchangeable in terms of story, characters and dialogue – imperfect clones of the source materials. Written that way because publishers, authors, or news outlet said that this was the way to success.
So now, you decide to sit down to write your vampire story . . .
And suddenly, you’re back “in the box” with all these other writers.
Warm.  Comfortable.  Safe.
Spending up to a year writing a vampire novel for a market that’s already saturated.
So, here’s my thought – something I want you to try:
Once you’re committed to learning and using excellent story engineering . . .
FORGET the BOX.  Just forget it. You’re better than that.
That warm cozy feeling inside the box is just the mean temperature found at the center of the herd.
You don’t want to be in the box. 
 Frankly, you don’t want to be anywhere near the box. 
The box is bad. 
The box lies to you.
The box talks smack about you when your back is turned. It sleeps with your spouse, drinks from the carton.
Face it, the box is just a punk.
Twilight.  Hunger Games.  Harry Potter
Take any of the literary phenomenons of recent years, stories that have spawned countless spin-offs, rip-offs, homages and pretenders.
What they all have in common is that they, while all the time using excellent story engineering principles and structures – all had a very unique spin on the concept.
You can tell a Meyers, Collins or Rowlings story a mile away.
So, remember – the rule is: If you can’t do it better, do something else.
Or better yet, just plain do something original.
Instead, take the skills you've developed – your knowledge, unique perspective and your distinctive storytelling sensibilities -and really use them – in a way that is uniquely and breathtakingly yours. By all means, continue to write your series if it’s successful and meaningful, but take a portion of the precious time you have in order to write something really different. 
Try that new approach.  Build a new literary concoction.
Tackle a new format.
Decide to write your “secret story” - you know, the story you think about just as you nod off at night.  The one that suddenly wakes you up.  The one that frightens you.  The one you’ve put away more than once for fear of what your spouse, girl/boyfriend or parents might say.
The one that is secretly, uniquely and undeniably yours.
Along the way, too, be naturally suspicious of how you judge success.  When you have nothing to lose, you write like you have nothing to lose.  But once you’re successful for the first time, the great “I need that second sale” fear can overtake you.  Once you have a publication and (hopefully) the money from the sale, you can sometimes become desperate for that next sale.  Hungry for it.  Needful of it in a way you may have never known and it will change the way you look at your writing.  You can go from being consumed with “what is good” to “what will sell” in a New York minute.  Changes will be considered, concessions will be made, and you can suddenly find yourself in the unenviable position of being published, but unfulfilled.
Then, once again, you’re in the box.
You always have to do both.  The safe and the insane.
Of course, you have to chase that next sale, just as I do.  But, like your hero, you have to do something new, adapting all the time to your ever-changing circumstances.  The synthesis of what you’re doing now and what you’re not doing now creates your future.
Regardless of their successes, the writers named above all came to view their work in a different way because they sought the truths that can only live in fiction.
The same is there for you.
You must entertain and enlighten.  You must enthrall and amuse.  And as your heroes continue to stumble on their way toward glory, you must keep the box at bay every day.
I think it was the Dalai Lama who said:
“Every day out of the box is a good day.”

Well, maybe not the Dalai Lama, but you get the idea.

(This post was originally published on in 2013)