Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tips on Writing Memoirs

Whether you are looking to publish your memoir or not, writing your life story is important as you will provide your family with the priceless gift of knowing something about their heritage.
I have some tips to make the memoir writing process easier.
1) Start by finding a half-hour to an hour a day to write. Don't try to conquer too much at once. Write in small, manageable segments.
2) Don’t worry about style or grammar. Just get the words down on the page! In many cases, writing exactly the way you speak will be an asset to your writing as it will add regional and historical flavor.
3) One of the best ways to begin is to start by writing by hand in a notebook. Begin by jotting down whatever memories come to mind. But leave spaces in between each memory so you can add more memories as they come to you.
4) Do tell the truth, no matter how painful it may be. By doing so, this will not only prove to be cathartic but also function as sage advice to generations to come. Your family can learn from lessons about how you made it through a particularly difficult time your life.
5) Do write about your feelings and opinions. Don’t just write a list of events. By writing HOW you feel about the things that have happened in your life, this will increase the impact of your story by enabling readers to connect with it on a personal, emotional level.
6) It is important to include as much description about the scenes in which the events you are recounting took place. Not only will this function to place the reader inside the event -- with all its visceral detail -- but it will also add historical value to your memoir. Wouldn't your children love to hear about a time before cellphones and computers?
7) Finally, I have heard it recommended to read other autobiographies as you are writing your own. The benefit is that you will be able to see how other people have recounted the details of their life and thus you can use it as a template to recount your own story. However, one thing to remember is that the biography you are reading is the result of many hours of work. Don't try to judge your own writing by comparison. For now, just get your stories down on paper. Polishing your stories will come later.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

More Tips for Dialogue in Screenplays

I met up with Neill D. Hicks, author of Screenwriting 101, again last night, as we are developing a seminar for him to teach through my workshops program at Your Plot Thickens. He gave me some excellent tips about how to write better dialogue for screenplays.

1) Attempt to write a scene (or scenes) without any the use of any questions. When you eliminate questions, and characters instead make statements, it drives them more quickly to conflict. And what is more conflict, after all, but more drama!

2) While you're at it, now write a scene without the use of any dialogue whatsoever. How do your characters interact with one another -- get across what they want to say -- without the use of words? My two cents worth is, to enhance this process, you might want to give your character a problem, or create a turning point in their relationship for them to deal with. How does each character thus get across their viewpoints and emotions through ACTION?

3) Dialogue isn't just about what is being said, it's about how you say it -- and good dialogue has rhythm. Another tip is to write a scene for which you select just a few words -- and then create "dialogue" with the use of just those words. Again, in this exercise, it's not about WHAT is being said, but about the cadence of the words. Do your characters speak in a clipped manner, or are they loquacious? This will definitely help the audience understand what kind of characters they are.

4) Lastly, write a scene in which characters are not allowed to use any conjunctions, the most popular of which are: and - but - or - yet. What I think Hicks means by this is that words such as "but" and "yet" especially work to temper statements by contradicting them, lessening their effect. A good example of this is: "I like you but..." Sure, such a statement voiced in a rom-com would definitely cause drama. But I think the idea is to have your characters making concise and direct statements without adding on too much information or qualifying their sentiments with contradictory information.

Interesting Blog Entry About Writing Hours

The issue that all writers struggle with: how to find time to write -- and how to make a writing schedule that you adhere to. Here's how one writer makes it work:

Libby Heily: Daily Writing Hours: "Every writer works differently. It's a craft and an art and a continuation of habits as much as it is anything else. I wouldn't ..."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Central Question of the Romantic Comedy

A romantic comedy is not only a comedy with romance in it. A romantic comedy follows a specific formula: girl and boy meet, girl and boy lose one another, and then girl and boy reunite.

Typical story structure begins with the hero having a problem. In act 2, the hero can’t solve this problem, and this problem is only resolved in act 3. According to Billy Mernit, author of Writing the Romantic Comedy, the central question of the rom-com is not then “will the hero obtain his goal?” Rather, it is “will these two individuals become a couple?” Will the boy get the girl in the end?

As the audience already knows what the outcome of a romantic comedy is going to be (the boy does indeed get the girl), then, according to Mernit, it is helpful to create drama by making one of the characters have a negative desire.  

This negative desire in romantic comedies usually manifests itself as commitment phobia in one of the characters. One of the characters just doesn’t want to be in a relationship, even if this is exactly what he needs, in a dramatic sense.

The best romantic comedies will thus have more and more obstacles being thrown at these two characters, which will get in the way of them coming together, and thus create the drama (and comedy!). One or both characters might already be in a relationship. They might live far from one another. Or there might be something big that each will lose if they follow their love.

3D Is the Future

I went to a 3D demo event last night through the Alliance of Women Directors at the Clarity Theater in Beverly Hills. I learned that 3D is not as cheesy as I had once thought.

Basically, according to the panelists (there was someone from Panavison there, an Avatar producer and other 3D experts), 3D is the future of filmmaking. It's not just a gimmick. I can't remember the exact numbers, but 3D films gross far more than 2D ones. You might say this is just because it's new. Not what the panelists said. They said that 3D is so popular because it creates a dreamlike state in the viewer. We already see stereo-optically; so viewing the world in 3D is already our normal state. As such, viewing a film in 3D is what a motion picture is *supposed to* look like. 3D creates depth and makes us feel like the screen is a window into which we are looking. 3D brings us into the world of the movie. We actually retain 67% more of the film when we see it in 3D. Crazily enough, they said, to film 3D best, you should actually shoot in 3D (that's what the DP and director are actually seeing) and then cut it in 3D too. Ouch, that sounds like a big headache to me. But this is because you edit differently in 3D. You don't need as many cuts, as the brain is filling in much of the info as our eyes look around at all the images. I even saw a scene that was cut too quickly, with too much movement in 3D, and, yes, it was headache-provoking. So, yes, 3D should be cut differently.

According to the panelists, 3D isn't only for action, animation or IMAX docos anymore. Dramas are going to be filmed in 3D. I even saw a trailer for one, called The Mortician. That, and you know those theaters at amusement parks, where they blow in dry ice and rock the seats while you're watching the flick? Well, that is also the future of the movie-going experience. And all this isn't just some cheesy American gimmick. Europe is actually ahead of us in the 3D revolution. Europeans use 3D to shoot sports games. Britain is especially fond of this practice, and they even have 3D home television like we have HD!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Your Character Is the Sum Total of What He Does -- or Doesn't

Everyone wants to create that wonderful screen character -- that character that people will remember long after the film has ended. But how do you do this?

According to Neill Hicks, author of Screenwriting 101, a writer shouldn't fall back on describing their characters just in terms of hair color, height, occupation, etc. Although these traits are important, far more important is what your characters DO. What your character does is what moves story -- not their hair color, height or occupation.

On the same note, Hicks, also states that if story is what a character does, then it can also be WHAT THEY DON'T DO.

Characters don't instinctively make dramatic decisions. Like everyday humans, characters take the minimum action necessary so as not to risk betrayal of their internal need [Ed. "flaw"].
Just like us regular folks, characters will almost always deny any call to action, even if taking that action is exactly what they need to become more complete, better-functioning human beings. Let's face it: all of us are afraid of change. Change disrupts our lives. This is why we so often prefer what is uncomfortable as long as it's something we're used to (therefore not disruptive). Kind of like staying in a relationship that doesn't work anymore because we don't want to rock the boat... I've heard it described once as sitting in a puddle of pee; it smells bad but at least it's warm and cozy.

It is thus the screenwriter's job to push their characters into action in a way that is credible. Your characters don't want to act, but you must make them do so, as their actions are what creates story.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Backstory for Screenplays

One of the biggest mistakes beginning screenwriters make is to include too much backstory in their screenplays. In an effort to describe EVERYTHING about the main character, beginning screenwriters attempt to create a novel out of their script, overusing flashback sequences. But this only SLOWS the story down. By the time you've finished with the interruption to the main story you've created with the flashback, the audience can't even remember what the main story was. Plus, you may have even diluted some very dramatic sequence, which would keep your audience much more glued to your story than some long-winded backstory description.

Like with acting, screenwriters must know inherently -- back to front -- what their main character's personal history is. But the audience doesn't have to.

A good script is about the most important moment in the main character's life -- not about every moment. A lot of information can also be conveyed through images: a photo in the background of the shot that shows the main character surrounded by their family -- which shows that the main character is a family person, or maybe that their connection to a family, which is otherwise important to them, is lacking at the moment and might be what the main character needs to recover throughout the course of the film.

If you do need to use some exposition to get across some backstory, try doing so in an action sequence. Have the main character actually DOING something that conveys some other kind of relationship or even a super-power that the main character might have. While she is performing this act, she could be discussing some backstory. For example, the main character could be sword-fighting with a love interest while expressing some of her backstory -- who her parents are, etc. This then shows the audience that she is not only good at sword-fighting (which can be a weird talent to have), but it might even convey a deeper theme for the film: we often fight with the people we love the most. All the way you are getting across at least a little exposition about backstory. 

Some screenwriting experts even advise writers to write what you think is your first act, then toss it. You might just find that you can just jump right into the action of the story (e.g. what you thought was the second act now becomes the first). This will prove much more interesting and dynamic to the viewer.

The Main Character's Internal Need

Neill Hicks, author of Screenwriting 101, calls it the "internal need." I call it the "fatal flaw," as it has been known historically. Where I went to screenwriting school, at, they call it the main character's "misbehavior." Whatever you choose to call it, it's all the same thing: an internal flaw the main character must overcome by the end of the film -- some emotional part of him or herself that she has been denying.

Beginning screenwriters often make the mistake (as I often did) of thinking that it is enough to make the main character her own worst enemy without ever creating a worthy opponent. According to Hicks, indeed "the main character is always the antagonist because the character has yet to battle the unknown of the internal need." Nevertheless, Hicks goes on to profess:

Without the pressure of outside dramatic circumstances and the
threat of an external antagonist, the main character will never have to deal
with the internal need. That painful battle has been successfully avoided so far,
and the character will continue to ignore it unless forced into action by the insistence of the dramatic conflict.

In short, make sure you have a human (or at least an intelligent being) antagonist for your main character to grapple with. Sure, some disaster films make a natural disaster into the opponent. But I strongly advise you create an actual person the main character can be fighting against.

Hicks goes on to make some interesting assessments about the most typical main character flaws that tend to be found in particular genres of film.

Oftentimes, in personal dramas, the missing attribute is a quality such as
compassion or forgiveness or even self-reliance which the character believes he or she has but does not.

I would also add that often in romantic comedies, the main character flaw tends to be commitment phobia. The main character is unable to commit -- even when she's found the perfect person -- until she is forced to see the light somehow and overcome that phobia.

On the other hand, in the action genre, Hicks says the internal need may just be a need to become courageous (the main character flaw then is fear) or actually commit "to a value that the character has declared but never tested." For example, the main character is hubristic, but when it really comes down to a situation in which she needs to be heroic, she is scared.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish

The opinion of Kevin McLaughlin ( to a question I asked: "Can you self-publish and still establish yourself as a reputable author? Or do you really need to be backed by a big publisher to achieve success?"
The New York Times is not (yet) listing indie authors on their ebook bestseller list. Other newspapers are, and the scandal will probably force NYT to do so eventually. But it's a clear sign that in some quarters, at least, outselling most of the competition is not "enough success" to be considered "reputable".

Likewise, most of the major professional orgs still exclude indie authors. The Author's Guild, Mystery Writers' Guild, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Novelists Inc, and other major groups exclude indies completely. Other groups, like the Romance Writers of America, allow indies in the door, but exclude them from higher tiers of membership and awards.

Of course, *readers* don't seem to care. Right now almost 40% of the Amazon ebook bestseller list is composed of indie published books. There are individual indie/self published writers selling over 10,000 copies of their books per day, more than most traditionally published books sell...ever. I have a hard time seeing that level of public readership as "disreputable", myself.

What are your goals? Whose opinion do you care about more, the publishers of the New York Times, or the readers of your work? That's up to each writer to answer.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Screenplay Premise

I had the honor of lunching with Neill Hicks this past Saturday, a former UCLA screenwriting prof and author of the book, Screenwriting 101, among others. I am liking what I am reading in his book so much, I have decided that I will blog about it. Here's something interesting from the first chapter about the screenplay premise...

Hicks strips down story to its barest essentials: At the heart of story is only the conflict between the central and the opposing character.

- Who is your main character?

- Who is the antagonist?

- What are they fighting about?

- What is the change that results from the conflict?

- Why must the main character take action to achieve the change?

What I have learned about craft of screenwriting usually involves dynamic characters and secondary dynamic characters, etc. But, according to Hicks, the screenplay premise is much like two gladiators fighting in the ring. You rally for one side or the other because they represent where you come from, and therefore your perceived values and morals. Sounds a lot like war, right? My two cents worth is that it is not that the opposing side is necessarily bad to its core or inherently evil -- he or she is just different (than you) and wants what you want or have -- therefore she conflicts with your needs and objectives. Any of us who are interested in how our country makes enemies out of other peoples depending on how they threaten our "survival" (e.g., hold of resources) will be able to understand this.

This simplification of story has been helpful to me because I can too often get caught up in all the "rules" purported by other screenwriting experts in terms of what elements need to be included in your story and by what page number. However, I will say that if I hadn't learned about all those other elements, such a simplified view of story might be confusing to me. Nevertheless, I think Hicks presents a very interesting argument for the basis for story, which is encapsulated in the statement: "Drama is conflict."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Steampunk and Space Opera

Not only was I informed recently of the sci-fi subgenre Steampunk... Read more about it in this wikipedia article....

But I have also learned just this morning about another sci-fi subgenre: Space Opera.

Okay, I really did think it was a musical that takes place in space. That is much cooler than what Space Opera actually is: a subgenre of speculative fiction that emphasizes romantic, often melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, generally involving conflict between opponents possessing advanced technologies and abilities. Blah, blah, blah...

Oh, and I also think it's very cool that Steampunk is not just a sci-fi subgenre but a clothing style that is something akin to Ren Fair meets Fetish meets Metropolis/City of Lost Children.

God, I'm old.

How Many Words Should Your Novel Be?

Found this on a blog called: The Diary of a Trainee Paranormal Romance Writer... It's a blog post about novel length. Check it out.

The Diary Of A Trainee Paranormal Romance Writer: Follow up to How Big Is A Chapter?: "Just found this great page which concerns word count and novel length"

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Opening Chapter Contest in May!

Passing this along....

In May 2011, the publishers of many of the world's most famous authors - including Dan Brown, Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer - join to support The Next Big Author: a new initiative which encourages budding authors to write the opening to a novel in May.

World-leading Publishers including The Random House Group, Orion, Bloomsbury, Little Brown and Hodder & Stoughton will read and provide critiques for the top-rated opening chapters written that month.  It is free to register and participate.
The initiative aims to encourage and support new talent towards literary success. To participate, register with above, and submit your completed opening chapters by the end of May to Arts Council funded Their community will review and rate the submissions during June, with the five highest rated novel openings receiving a free professional critique from the publishers above. View Competition Rules for full participation rules.

Great Place to Start Act One: The Protagonist's in a Rut

During a writer's group that I was attending through, I came across something in one of the writer's pages she'd turned in that week. This writer, named Barbie, was writing about how her main character was in a rut. All she did was go to work, go home, the same ol' every day. Sound familiar? A lot of have found ourselves in a rut at some point in our lives (maybe at present). But what does this mean in terms of story?

The main character is often in a rut at the beginning of her story. She is stagnant. Maybe she has a lot of bad habits that are holding her back from the life she really should be living.

I heard once that, post-Freud, the modern novel would never be the same -- for now writers held the ability to psychoanalyze their main characters. What will any psychologist tell you if you reveal how your life is going nowhere, that you are in a relationship that no longer works for you, that you have a crap job, that you have a lot of friendships that are pulling you down because they are toxic? The psychologist will challenge you to change!

This is exactly what main characters have to do throughout the course of their journeys. They have to change. The main character's story then is about exactly HOW THEY WILL CHANGE. In essence, the main character's journey is about getting out of this rut and then transforming into a better person, who wins more than loses.

Ever met someone with so many bad habits that you fear they are going to die? This often happens in the case of people with addictions problems. And herein we have the basis for the tragedy. A tragedy, in the dramatic sense of the word, is the story of someone who cannot change. They have the bad habits -- they are stuck in a rut -- but they don't take the steps necessary to change their lives. They don't have courage. One of the most basic flaws a main character can have is fear. As I write, the movie Talledega Nights pops into my mind. Sure, it's a comedy and all, but Will Ferrel's main character suffers from fear. This is why he can no longer win, and thus the writers put him through some funny moments when he is learning to overcome his fear. But, nevertheless, it is his fear that he has to deal with over the course of his journey.

So... What have we learned? When plotting out your stories -- either in novel or screenplay form -- consider creating a rut for your main character to be in at the beginning of the story, before she is either pushed or seduced to change (and thereby enter act two).   

Friday, March 4, 2011

Position Yourself as an Expert

Do you want to break into the world of magazine writing? Or publish a non-fiction book? One of the best ways to do so is by positioning yourself as an expert.
This is very important as, if you want to show why you and you alone are THE person to write some great article or to publish some non-fiction book, you need to show why you have the credentials. Why you, out of all the other writers a magazine might have on staff or in their cache of freelancers -- why should they take a chance on someone who is totally new, whose work they aren’t familiar with?
Sure, for a magazine, you could break in by writing some awesome spec article. But why not heighten your chances of being chosen to write the piece by determining what sort of expertise you might have and then finding a magazine that caters to that interest?
For nonfiction books, you often don’t need to have the whole book finished in order to get a book deal. You need a proposal, of course, and a few chapters. But if you demonstrate that you can write through those chapter samples and then also turn in a great proposal for how you are going to write the rest of the book, there’s a good chance you can convince a publisher to give you the money to write it. But, more often than not, they are going to also want to know the answer to that same question: why you? Why you, out of all the other writers out there, who might be pitching similar proposals for similar books? Therefore, it’s up to you to demonstrate your creds.
Maybe you want to write a book about childcare. If you’re a mom, you can spin this into a role of expertise (of course if you partner up with a pediatrician or a child psychologist all the better). The same goes for becoming a food writer. Do you really spend all your time keeping up with the major food trends? Can you show an editor that you really know what you’re talking about by showing them that you know about foods that they're not even familiar with? This is why doing a blog is so great. You have a portfolio of writing samples right there in the blogosphere. Plus, chances are, if you post new entries often, you are keeping up with the newest trends regarding whatever subject you are blogging about. 
Editors are busy people. They are often too busy to take your call. But they’re also too busy to think up all the article ideas in the world – and so they absolutely love to be pitched great ideas for stories.
This is just food for thought if you have an idea for an article you want to write for a magazine or for a book: show why you are the expert opinion on the subject.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tips for Creating Great Dialogue

Want to learn to create awesome dialogue that will pull readers in and differentiate you from the pack of writers whose characters all sound the same? Here are some tips!

Think about what each of your character's attitudes are: Are they happy? Are they sad? What I mean is are they are a happy or sad person overall? Do they take a gloomy perspective to life or an optimistic one? Do they find barbs in every compliment? Or are they the sort of person who pulls others up out of bad moods?

Think of who your character is and how they approach life. Then fool around with writing some dialogue by creating a situation that this kind of character would be faced with.

For example: a character who thinks the whole world is against him has to ask for help when his car breaks down.

A character who is perenially happy is going to approach this situation differently, as is a person who finds sexual innuendo in everything -- or a person who very much has a victim mentality. What about the person who gets off on gossip. Or that person who always must one-up everyone on everything. You get where I'm going. Think about the attitude with which your character approaches life because this is going to inform the kind of dialogue he or she uses.

Related to this is what your character's background is. Obviously if you are a professor of English you are going to have a different way of speaking than a guy who fixes cars for a living. (Although a great way of creating a deep characters is making your mechanic speak as if he were a college professor.)

Sure, we don't want to stereotype too much. Still, how much education we've had, our social class, etc., does often have an impact on how we speak. And these differences can be subtle. A professor of English at the local community college might speak differently then one from Harvard. The same professor who comes from the South may speak differently than someone from the North.
Again you can brainstorm the different ways that different characters might ask for the same thing. Say, your characters all want a cup of coffee.

The elitist wants a cup of French-pressed Ethiopian roast with no cream.
The coach dad wants a cup of joe.
The New York taxi-cab driver wants a cup of caw-fee.
The Brit wants a cuppa.

You get it. And then does your character say thank you when they get their coffee? Or do they just take it and drink it without saying anything? Or do they even just send it back because they don't like it? All this is what your character can be saying that lets the reader (or audience if this is a screenplay) learn about who your character is without having to use a lot of expository sentences to get across the same idea.

Another great way to distinguish characters is by creating a catch phrase that you character always uses. I learned this in a character improv class, but you can also apply this to your writing. Is there that one thing that the character always (or often says) that can distinguish him from everyone else. This is especially true when writing screenplays. You want a reader to be able to cover up the character names and STILL be able to get an idea of who's talking.