This time, let’s talk about her. The hot chick.

Much as I’d like, this does not mean a whole post devoted to Famke Janssen, Hayden Panettiere, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, or Allison Mack. Alas, not even some of the hot chicks I’ve actually met and hung out with, like Eliza Dushku, Catherine Bell, or Reiko Aylesworth (who is one vicious pool shark). However, if any of these names conjure appealing images and thoughts, feel free to hang onto them for the upcoming extended analogy. Or pick someone you may remember from high school or college.

(Heterosexual female readers—my apologies. This analogy is also going to be a bit one sided, and may even seem a bit shallow at points…)

I think most of us at one point or another have known one of those incredibly sexy and alluring women and had hopes and dreams (or lurid fantasies) about ending up with her, yes? After all, how could she fail to see all my interesting qualities? My intelligence, sense of humor, self-assured nature, and casual disregard for fashion trends. I mean if Famke / Allison/ Eliza/ Reiko just got to know me, it would all work out.


Well, probably not. Let’s be honest, a woman like that tends to have her pick of mates, so odd are they’re going to lean towards someone… well, a bit more physically attractive. Not always, but that’s the way to hedge your bets. Likewise, they probably want someone with similar fashion and music tastes. Heaven forbid, there are even those females who are a bit shallow and are going to be looking for someone with money to spend on them.

Now… does this mean all and every lust-able woman is out of reach? Not at all. Everyone’s unique, we all have our funny quirks, and there’s a chance that Hayden has been secretly hoping to meet someone just like you. More hopefully, just like me.

If not, though, it might mean you need to make a few changes in your life. That is, if you’re serious about this connection with Anne. Exercise a lot more. Shower a lot more, too. Get a haircut. Stop buying clothes at Wal-Mart. Listen to something that isn’t ’80’s retro soundtracks. Possibly even get a job you hate that brings in more money.

Then you also have to deal with the fact that, well, lots of people are paying attention to a woman that hot. If you’re at a bar, a party, a club—you don’t think you’re going to be the only person who notices Eliza over there, do you? She’s going to be mobbed by people. Dozens, maybe more. Yes, half of them are way out of her league and don’t have a prayer of connecting with her, but they’re still there, in the way between you and her. And by the time you reach her, you’re going to have to try twice as hard to impress her (without looking like you’re trying hard) because she’s so tired of dealing with all these other folks.

And even after all this—after you get your act together, make changes to yourself and your life, and fight your way through the crowd– Angelina might decide to stay with Brad. Maybe not. You never know with these things. But there’s a decent chance she might.

So… ready for the analogy?

Writing professionally is like going after the hot chick. In this case, Famke is the agent or publisher you hope to win over, and you are your writing. Yes, there’s a good chance that there is an agent or publisher out there that will take your work just as it is with no changes whatsoever… but it’s probably not Famke. Or Catherine. Or Reiko. Or…

If you really want to land that dream agent or get that publisher to notice you, odds are you’re going to have to work at it. You need to be willing to make changes—maybe even ones you don’t like—to make your manuscript into something they want to read instead of just something you felt like writing. You need to stand out amidst hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other writers. Yes, half of them probably have no business being there, but the agent or publisher still has to work through all their stuff to get to yours, and will probably be feeling pretty tired and negative by the time they get there.

Despite everything you’ve seen in the movies, nobody ever gets the hot chick without some effort.

November 27, 2007 / 1 Comment

Finding your Legal Pad

About a year ago I was lucky enough to end up with a new laptop. Not that there’s anything wrong with my loyal desktop, but I was heading off on a four week business trip to the frozen north and I needed something more portable with wireless capability. It’s far from the most stunning or powerful model on the market, and the battery only lasts about two hours a shot (less with music), but I can easily say it’s almost tripled my productivity. I write these columns on it, I pounded out the majority of a screenplay to meet a contest deadline, and started poking at my second novel for the first time (in all honesty) in about a year.

In fact, I barely do any creative writing at all on my desktop these days. Sure it gets second drafts and polishes, but it’s become much more of a “social” machine now. A place for e’mail, Dawn of War, and Cities of M’Dhoria. Although it’s been only a dozen months or so since I got the laptop, this small evolutionary step only really stood out when I was thinking about this month’s column, where I really wanted to talk about legal pads.

No, trust me. This is all going somewhere.

One of the biggest causes of writer’s block for all of us, in my mind, is simple fear. Fear that the words that are about to flow down and out through our fingertips, dance across the keyboard, and appear on that screen are going to be anything less than Oscar/ Emmy/ Nobel-prize-winning gold. That they are not going to be worth writing down. So we pause, we stall, we overthink, and eventually, whether consciously or not, we’ve put off writing for another day.

Thus, the legal pad.

Many years back, when I was in college and mammoths were crossing the land bridge into North America, there was a sidebar article in Writer’s Digest defending the use of blue ink and legal pads as a valid “method” of writing because it frees the writer up creatively. It was so ridiculously simple and true, it’s stuck with me for almost twenty years, and now I’m sharing it with you.

A legal pad is about the lowest form of paper there is. Seriously. That’s why lawyers use them (zing!). They’re cheap, disposable, bright yellow, and absolutely no one is ever going to accept a screenplay written on one. Absolutely. No. One.

What a relief.

That means whatever we do on that legal pad is not going to be seen. We can rest assured going in that it doesn’t need to be gold. In fact, it can be crap. Complete crap. No need to worry about spelling or grammar or fact-checking. We are off the hook and utterly free to scribble out three or four nonsensical, utterly inaccurate pages of crap every day in that horrible handwriting that baffles our parents, friends, and loved ones. A legal pad is a safe place. We can scrawl out anything at all without care or concern. Most importantly, without fear.

Write down that new screenplay. Write out Casablanca or The Maltese Falcon or The Princess Bride from memory. Write a list of college friends or family pets or people you’ve slept with or people you want to sleep with. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing as long as you are writing. All you need to do is put pen to paper and write.

Because that’s what it’s all about. Getting the words flowing down and out into the world. Any words. Once you’ve got momentum, it’s easy enough to slip off onto that new script, and before you know it you’re two or three pages closer to another Oscar statue on your mantle. Or at least a few more bucks in your bank account.

This is what all of us, as writers, need to do. Find a place or a format where, bizarre as it sounds, the content doesn’t matter. A legal pad. A laptop. A placemat. A PDA. A way that we can just write, just put out anything we can that fills up that bright yellow page. Without worry of censure or criticism of any type.

This little Gateway laptop has become my legal pad. I can sit here and stab away at this odd-shaped, compacted keyboard and not worry about the quality of my output. I know absolutely no one’s ever going to see what’s on it (except maybe my girlfriend leaning over the couch to peek, or my cat sprawled across the keyboard). So I can whip out the first draft of this column while watching The Batman/Superman Movie (Kevin Conroy is the one, true animated Batman) and not feel at all guilty about some of the references and examples I toss out, since I know they will never, ever see print. They probably won’t even make it to an editor’s desk to be red-lined.

Find your legal pad. Write on it every single day. Anything at all, because the important thing is to write.

And to read next month’s column.

July 8, 2007 / 1 Comment

Fueling the Fires

So, now you’re writing. Good. It may have been a slow, arduous process to get started, but you’re putting words on paper (or on an electromagnetic memory bubble) and that’s the important thing. You’ve got forward motion and momentum.

The question now is, how can you make sure you don’t lose that momentum? How do you make sure that you keep writing, and this doesn’t become a scattered, every- third-weekend activity? Well, this problem was covered in your driver’s ed class. The simplest way to keep moving is to make sure you have fuel.

Now, hold on, before we go any farther, let’s pause for a moment so I can explain my one, single, simple rule. What works for me may not work for you and it almost definitely won’t work for that guy over there. That’s one of the most important things about writing– finding out what methods and habits will work best for you. My girlfriend requires near-silence to work, but I usually put some music or a classic movie on in the background (the first draft of this little essay was written during The Day The Earth Stood Still). I also dislike too much input once I’ve got the idea in my head, while my friend Eric writes best working with his wife, Trish. I’ve read that Stephen King works mostly in the morning, while Neil Gaiman writes almost exclusively at night (but I’ve never met either gentleman, so that could all be a pack of lies I just made up to round out this paragraph).

In the end, if anyone (including me) gives you a rule for how you have to write, take it with a grain of salt. If they tell you this is absolutely the one and only way the process of writing can take place, have a whole spoonful of salt. Writing is a very personal, individual process, and all any of us can do is suggest what works in our own day to day lives to keep us at it. One of your jobs as a writer is to sift through all the hints, tips, and suggestions you hear and figure out which ones work for you.

Which brings us back to momentum and fuel. The simplest law to follow is the basic input-output rule we’ve all heard since our school days. What goes in influences what comes out. In order to write, you must read. And if you want screenplays to come out, you have to put movies in. Good movies and bad movies, screenplays and scripts, movies in your favorite genre by your favorite director, and movies you’d never watch by people you’ve never heard of.

Now some of you may be like my downstairs neighbor, the Vamp. She wants to write a book, but she’s not really into reading. She’s still pretty sure she can write a best-seller, though. If this also describes you, ask yourself this– if you don’t love watching movies, or if you hate reading scripts, how can you possibly hope to write one?

So, that’s what you need to be doing. Read scripts, watch movies, and study them with a passion. Where you can, read the screenplay and watch the film. Find the best movie you can think of in your chosen genre, examine it, and figure out what it does right. Why is he or she your favorite character? What makes this your favorite scene? Why do people like this film?

Now, once you’ve done that, watch the worst movies you can find and pin down what they do wrong. Yes, anyone can say “it just sucks,” but can you identify specifically what needs to change with the story? Watch the whole movie (not just a random scene or two) and track problems that plague the script. If you got hired for the remake, what would you change?

This is one of the hallmark skills of a good writer. Most of us can tell that a scene works, but being able to tell why things work in a scene is a separate skill altogether. How often have you seen a screenplay copy a scene from another film without really understanding why it worked originally?

Oh, and before you start downloading or running to the Writer’s Guild Foundation to read scripts, here’s one more additional tip. Don’t read screenplays from thirty or forty years ago and use these as your golden standard. Styles change; formats change, and while Chinatown is still an amazing movie, odds are no one would touch that script today. On a similar note, don’t read screenplays by Quentin Tarrantino, Robert Rodriguez, or Christopher Nolan. They may be some of your favorites, but these gentlemen are usually in the extremely lucky position of writing scripts they know they are going to direct, which gives them a little more leeway and freedom in their work. They weren’t necessarily doing anything wrong, but if you or I tried it, we would definitely not be doing it right.

So, now that you know what fuel to use, go forth and stoke your fire. Give yourself the energy to keep moving forward on your projects. And keep writing. Above all, you must write.

March 19, 2007 / 1 Comment

The Basics

People talk a lot about ways to help move your career forward, especially here in Hollywood. There are hints and tips about networking and getting produced and strategies for finding your agent and finding your audience. Yet somehow, amidst all this, they often overlook one of the most basic, elemental components of our craft.

The writing.

How many times have you turned on the television or dropped your ten bucks at a theatre, and found yourself shaking your head afterwards. “Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea? How does stuff like this get made??”

Well, first thing– someone finished the script for it.

Allow me to fall back on a little publishing fact, which I’m relatively sure applies to the film industry as well. Barely one percent of the people who call themselves “novelists” even finish their first novel. We’re not even talking about sales yet, mind you. This is simply getting a whole novel written down on paper. I was at the San Diego State Writer’s conference a few years ago, and watched as a man walked out in an angry huff when he was told no agent would even talk to him until he had a completed novel.

Y’see, it doesn’t matter how many hints and tips and strategies you follow. If you don’t have a completed, polished script in your hand, you can’t make a sale.

Ahhhh, I see the hands already. You there, in the back? Why, yes, yes he did. Just last summer, Creative Screenwriting magazine wrote about how David Koepp pitched the idea for his story Ghost Town to Dream Works and Universal for a very tidy two million dollars.

So, let’s have another show of hands. How many people reading this are David Koepp?

Ahhh, I see only two hands now. One is a screenwriter in New York with over twenty produced film credits, more than a half dozen of them being major box office blockbusters. The other is the marketing exec from my job, Danny, who suffered a head injury assembling the new office furniture and now has problems telling pictures and mirrors apart.

Want a better example? Something a little closer to our (and yes, I am saying our) level? My friend Eric works on a series for the Hallmark Channel. He and his wife had tried writing an episode for the show, but were told the company had a deal with the existing writing team. However, when time began to run short and the writing team wasn’t coming up with anything, the producers pulled out Eric’s script again. His completed, ready-to-go script. And now my friend and his wife are produced screenwriters, just like that.

You see, for those of us (and, again, I am saying us) without a solid resume to lean on, sales depend on actual writing. To be blunt, no one is going to trust us. I may have the greatest story idea of all time locked up in my head, but until it’s written out it’s no different than the worst, most cliché-ridden idea ever, because I’m the only person who can see it. This is why we have to write. Above all other things, we must get coherent words on paper in an established, industry format.

We must write!

Now, let’s look at the opposing example. My downstairs neighbor (I call her the Vamp, not because of her sexiness, but because she’s very pale, has prominent canine teeth, and is rarely seen during the day) found out I was a writer and showed up at my door one day asking for tips on getting a sale. She wanted to know about agents, advances, selling rights, and so on. I answered all of them, and then told her that the thing she really needed to do was actually write out the youth-oriented fantasy she had in mind (starring a character based on a younger version of herself).

“Oh, well the writing’s the easy part, right?”

“Ummmm… Not really.”

“Well, I know how to write, and I know my story. How hard can it be?”

“Cool. Let me know when you’re done. I’d love to read it.”

I ran into the Vamp in the hall one night a month or two later (coincidentally, right about the time Eric told me Hallmark was re-considering his script) and casually asked how the writing was going. She hadn’t started it yet, but was still sure her clever idea would go over very well and earn her fame and fortune.

It’s been said before that if you write two pages a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a novel. By the same token, if you write two pages a day (giving up a night or three here or there), in just two months you’ll have a very solid first draft of a screenplay.

That’s all. A mere two pages a day. That could be as little as four hundred words. Not even half of this column.

That’s the commitment you need to make to yourself if you want to be writer. Your first goal must be to take that rough idea in your head, that amazing story, and put it down on a page. Type it, scribble it, scrawl it, dictate it, do whatever it takes.

Until you have done this, nothing else matters.