Peter J Fox Workshop

by rob on November 7, 2014

So last Saturday I spent the day at a screenwriting workshop with Peter J. Fox  and it made me look at screenplays, and maybe writing overall, in a brand new way.

teamworkThis also falls into the panster or plotter strategy choice with this obviously being plotster. Movies tend to be very structured with most falling into a three act type plot, so you have the set-up, the conflict and the resolution. Because screenplays are a unique animal – they need to be around 120 pages – the setup and the resolution each are 30 pages long with the conflict being 60 pages long.

These scenes are built around what is called a beat sheet. So we have around eighty sentences. Eighty short succinct sentences that describe the plot you are building. This is similar to the outline form which many writers use (plotsters, that is.)

How do you know where a story is going before you write it out? You may have a basic idea in your head, but if you don’t spell is out and give yourself some structure, you may have trouble getting there, or you may have a meandering plot that doesn’t hold a reader’s attention.

The beat sheet helps you to get to the point, while keeping you on track. It can also help you when you go to do your rewrite.

So I am starting to follow this new path. Peter’s steps (my interpretation) is to write out a story – a novella – to get things figured out. How are the characters and the story going to work out? I start with a basic chapter outline – so my steps will be 1) chapter outline 2) write novella 3)write out a beat sheet 4) write a treatment from that beat sheet 5) write the screenplay

I didn’t talk about the ‘treatment’ yet. A treatment is a breakdown of the story. Again, this goes back to the 3 act scenario. First act is the set-up. This gets done in three pages with only two paragraphs per page. Then comes the conflict. This is the meat of the story, and it is six pages, still with only two paragraphs per page, then finally the resolution, and – you guessed it – this is again three pages – two paragraphs per page.

Going through these steps makes you hone the story and really figure out what the basic parts are. I have a feeling I’ll be jumping from beats to the treatment – back and forth – until the story is tight.

The final thing, and I’ve talked about this about in other posts; the rewrite. Working on “It’s about time travel agency” has really helped me a lot with realizing that writing is a team process. In the Peter J. Fox workshop, Peter talked us through a sample script which was on Rev 16. Sixteen revisions and you know that was not all done by one writer.

We as writers get really close to our work sometimes and it’s hard to be objective and let things go. Some of my favorite characters may have to be killed off in a story, or even chopped from the story, and that’s hard. Really hard sometimes because my writing is like having another child.. Seeing someone else with your child and molding it, or ‘killing’ it, can be brutal, but in the end it’s all for the good of the story.

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Writer’s Block? Try these tricks

by rob on October 20, 2014

We all get to it sometimes. The dreaded “writer’s block.” But what can you do about it? Here are a couple ideas.

Move to a new project. One of the biggest causes of writer’s block is that you aren’t sure what path to take. Have you ever gotten up in the morning with a burning idea in your mind? It takes no time to write (you are at your most proficient) when the story and characters are crystal clear and you have an obvious objective. The opposite is true if you don’t. You stare at the keyboard thinking. And thinking. And thinking. And not typing.

The best way to get past that is to start a new project. Maybe it’s just an article, blog post or short story, or maybe it’s a new book. Sometimes roadblockyour best ideas come when you aren’t thinking about them at all. It’s like when you are trying to think of the name of a movie and finally you give up. Then BAM you wake up at 2 AM and there it is. Give your mind a chance to relax then come back to your project once you’ve had a chance to refresh your brain.

Another way, if you don’t like starting new projects, is stream of thought writing. Open a new document and then just type EVERYTHING that is flowing through your mind. It might look like this

This is a stupid waste of time. I wonder what time it is? oh, it’s 6:31. I have to remember to take the dog to the vet she’s been scratching a lot lately actually she needs a bath too. She smells a bit. what is that smell coming from the kitchen. it might be the trash needs to go out or maybe I’m jsut hungry. that lunch yesterday was great and =I saw gas prices dropped again and ebola is in the news. I wonder if that iwll effect my job. people are so worreied. Too worried…

Etc. Etc.

Don’t worry about spelling or punctuation. Just get your fingers going. The stream of consciousness is something I learned at the Second City sketch writing class I took a few years back and occasionally it comes in handy. It just lets you know that your ability to write isn’t facing a roadblock. It’s more the idea or ideas for a particular project are percolating in your head and need time to mature.


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by rob on September 27, 2014

Ah, collaboration.

Writing is a lonely sort of profession, or pastime … or punishment.

But some people don’t work alone. I have recently joined that ‘club’ and have been collaborating with a group of people to write a podcast serial comedy series, It’s about time travel agency.  This is my first foray into collaboration and the lesson learned is, you need to learn to take criticism.

Where do your ideas come from? How do you think of such crazy/wonderful things? Writing is similar to raising a child. When someone critiques your child you take it personally. And perhaps it shouldn’t be, but you look on it as a reflection of you. This is my take-away. I have to learn that my writing isn’t me, and critique isn’t an attack on me, but is a second opinion looking to make the writing better.


the lonely life

Pride. This is something that Marcellus Wallace said to Butch in Pulp Fiction. “Night of the fight, you might feel a slight sting. That’s pride fuckin’ with you. Fuck pride! Pride only hurts, it never helps. You fight through that shit.”

So, don’t let pride hurt you. Don’t let your ego stand in the way. This is a really hard lesson for me. When you’ve been in the game solo, and you don’t get recognition all that often, ego is the thing that keeps you moving. In my head I think Melville died a pauper. William Blake died penniless. Edgar Allan Poe died without ever making a living through his writing.

Recognition and monetary compensation are part of the dream many writers have, but let’s face it; in these times everyone and their brother is ‘publishing’ and there is a shit-ton of stuff to read. How do people sort through the rubbish and find the gold? You know there’s lots of gold out there and amazingly talented people who will, perhaps, never get discovered.

Collaboration might be one of the keys to becoming known and having a chance of rising above the crowd.

pardon the unusual post. sometimes when one writes it leads in unexpected or unusual directions.

strikes me that two activities I enjoy, distance running and writing, are both solo activities. Guess I am an introvert, really.

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Expanding your writing

by rob on September 10, 2014

So, if you are following along, you might remember that the last post was about The Big Lebowski. If you were reading carefully you know that it wasn’t about the Big Lebowski at all, but more about the plot idea the Coen brothers use, which is someone solving a problem in the worst possible way.

catch22“The worst possible solution” is a great starting point, but all novels or scripts really end up revolving around a single sentence and each sentence is made up of (at least) a noun and a verb, so you can think to yourself that really this whole book, script, play…whatever… has a key word or two.

These words may not be repeated ever again, but the fulcrum of the plot – the tipping point, if you will, comes down to something pretty simple. What is your idea? What are you writing about?

Let’s look at an example like “brain cloud.” This is the pivotal phrase in the script and movie “Joe vs the Volcano.” (A great movie which never found an audience while it was in the theater.)

So the movie is not about Joe’s brain cloud, but the brain cloud causes Joe to make a series of bold decisions that change the course of his life forever. The movie is about the way a character changes when his outlook on the world changes. This is also expressed in real life by the phrase “your inner world creates your outer world” which is so true.

If you take a character, a mundane character and force change on them, suddenly their world opens up and things happen. Plot is all about ‘things happening.’ Maybe this is overly simplistic, but there it is.

In my first book, Someone Else’s Tomorrow, Roger is accidentally killed off by the computer network that forms the foundation of that world. He is still alive, but he can’t live his old life anymore. He loses his job, his apartment and his old life. His new life could take him anywhere.

I think most stories that people get engrossed in are about personal growth. Whether it’s Luke Skywalker discovering his destiny,  Stella getting her groove on, Katniss Everdeen becoming a leader, Frodo facing unimaginable fears, Harry Potter becoming a wizard or Yossarian trying to get a discharge, great stories are about people growing and changing.

All that starts with a single sentence.

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The Big Lebowski

by rob on August 17, 2014

I was watching a documentary called “The Achievers” which is about fans of the movie “The Big Lebowski.”

There are events out together that are called Lebowski Fests where fans get together have costume contests, recite lines from the movie and generally just bond with each other, all around a movie which did really poorly at the box office, but then went on to become a ‘cult classic.’

pinsSo why am I talking about The Big Lebowski and Lebowski Fest? Well, number one, the Coen brothers are masters at what they do. They write character based movies that people either love or hate. Either one is okay with me, as eliciting emotions is what writing is all about. Love and hate are strong emotions. No one wants someone to be indifferent about their work. There is enough ennui in the word.

But the real reason (number two, if you are keeping track) is a tidbit; a throw-away line in the documentary. This is paraphrased, but basically someone said that Coen brothers movies are all about “someone having a problem and solving it in a horribly bad wrong way.” And off you go.

So think about that for a second. The character relationships are hugely important. When I do improv, I was taught that the best scenes are about two or more characters who are somewhere (doesn’t matter where) and they have a real connection, a relationship, and the background ends up being just that. The characters aren’t talking about their cutlery if they are in a kitchen (unless the cutlery is just a metaphor for how they feel about each other – maybe one is sharp and one is dull?)

The scene, the background, is just a setting. The relationship is what makes you care, but the plot is about a problem.

A problem can be something simple. Your mother hates me and it impacts our relationship.

How do you solve this problem?

a) You sit with your mother-in-law and have a discussion and try to hash out your differences. Boring (but likely in the real world).

b) You divorce your wife, so you lose the MIL problem.

c) You buy your MIL an around the world vacation and arrange a rendezvous with a foreign lover, so she moves to Paris and becomes a seldom dealt with fly in your marriage ointment. While in Paris she gets kidnapped by the lover’s incensed ex-mistress, and you have to go rescue her and realize she is an interesting person. You fell in love with her and divorce your wife and now you have  a DIL who hates you.

I don’t know that that plot really works, but the point is, you have a problem that is solved in a way that is abnormal and then the solution drives the movie (or the book.)

What drives your writing? What is the plot point or points that sets your book apart? What makes your voice something that people want to revisit?

I don’t know how the Coen brothers do it, but this little piece certainly got me to thinking. Hope it does the same to you.

Happy bowling, my little Lebowski urban achievers!

Behind the scenes look at the Coen brothers and the Big Lebowski here.  (affiliate link. thanks for clicking)

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Write What You Know

August 10, 2014

It may sound like a cliche, but write what you know, or research until you truly know a subject inside and out. Live it, if possible. When I wrote my first novel, Someone Else’s Tomorrow, I set most of the book inside a quirky little restaurant, El Pollo Loco. (Years later a restaurant opened with […]

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Lot 23 Zombie Romantic Comedy

July 16, 2014

What do you do to promote book sales? This is a part of the process that presents challenges. We are creative people; we think, we write, we publish. We wait for sales to start pouring in. But really for unknown authors the sales aren’t going to just pour in. They trickle in, at best, and […]

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The Big Other

June 4, 2014

There is only one thing that makes a read (or a movie) interesting and that is the challenges to the hero. Usually these are in the form of problems he or she needs to solve and there is one problem which stands out as the ‘mother’ of all. That is the “Big Other.” If you […]

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On Set – Bite Nite

May 17, 2014

I wrote this a few years ago when I was on the set of an independent movie. I played the priest. I capture small vignettes of circumstances. You never know when the thoughts of that moment might come back and be useful. Maybe they will come into play down the road or maybe they might […]

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Rewriting and Reviewing

May 3, 2014

I was talking with a friend of mine, name of Isabella, who is in the process of writing her first book. Her mother had asked me to take a look and give her some advice; words of wisdom or something along those lines. Isabella has written about, oh, I don’t know, maybe thirty pages and […]

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