Friday, November 16, 2018

Choice be a Chick Tonight




He didn’t show up to two rehearsals so far. This was after I requested three times for him to check the schedule and make sure that he could attend all of them. Not a word.

The young man gave me a strange conflict sheet when auditioning: “Known/Unknown.” That was all it said. He later crossed it out and wrote, “Work 4 nights a week.” I was assuming he didn’t know which nights or what times, hence his lack of thoroughness. Turns out, the first two he was working, one which I found out when I made a point to contact him, the second when I called him to know why he wasn’t there. He told me that he thought he had made it clear that he was working Friday through Saturday. He said sometimes until six, sometimes until nine. All rehearsals started at six thirty. He said he thought he’d made it clear that he couldn’t work at all those days.

He was also extremely condescending. A neckbeard, of sources, a 21 year old techie who boasted constantly, introduced himself via argument and disagreement. The first thing he ever spoke to me was a criticism in a conversation he wasn’t a part of. For the rest of the night, I never heard him once agree with anyone.

He had gained a bad reputation at town. One person was his Uber driver, having to wait at least ten minutes every time the guy called. Another worked with him at a coffee shop. Being late and a no-show was his cup of tea. He ended up pissing off most cast members by directing and criticizing, including the play’s biggest sweetheart.

He complained about the part he got. He insulted the writer to her face.

I was going to fire him. I was actually looking forward to it. There was some part of me, deep down, who really wanted to take out all of my previous experiences with irresponsible and conceited pains-in-the-ass on him. But I thought better of it.

I am a strong believer in the golden rule. I am a strong believer that people can change.

When I took him aside and chewed him out, he was, understandably pissed. He accused other people of being too sensitive, claiming that he should be able to say, “That’s a fucking stupid idea” as long as he could back it up.

I did not say, “That’s a fucking stupid idea,” having him not take my blunt criticisms well; instead pointed out not only how having a judgmental person in the room directly impacts a person’s aptitude, and explained that even if he’s right, that everyone is overly sensitive, he’s the one who faces the consequences. We were going to fire him. His reputation around town was terrible, and I’d mentioned my stress dealing with him to a fellow theatre producer who wanted his name so she could never cast him. I somewhat wanted him to quit because I knew of people who I could count on who had, at that point, done pretty much the same level of work.

He needs to focus on his goals and reputation and take care of himself, ironically, by taking care of other people. I also made a big point to add that if you tell someone, “That’s a fucking stupid idea,” and are wrong you hemorrhage credibility where, “Here’s what I’m concerned about,” doesn’t. He’d often come across as naïve and oblivious on numerous occasions because of his tendency to state things he wasn’t informed about as fact.

He was offended that I made a point to say he was replaceable. I told him, truthfully, that he should be flattered. I knew that he could do better and so I was going through the effort to be clear about the problem and hopefully aim to fix it.

It is harder to work with and redeem someone who has failed you once (or especially several times) before than it is to start over with a new player. If someone takes the time to tell you that something isn’t working, it might mean that they need you, that they don’t think they can find anyone else, but it doesn’t necessarily come from that. I’ve never stuck beside someone because I thought I couldn’t do it without them. I’ve done it because I liked them, because I believed in them. And because I knew their mistakes were idiotic and easily fixed.

The conversation ended pretty well. It wasn’t filled with only criticisms, and I pointed out how his insults to the author (that his character wasn’t really about “acting”) was actually doing himself a disservice too. There were parts of acting that came easily to him, hence why he got casted after even getting himself off on the wrong foot with me. I told him honestly that I was glad the ideas were coming easily for him, but that wasn’t typically normal and it was a hard part to play. He was good at making things his own.

At the end, after the heat died down, I told him that I just couldn’t understand how he could miss so many rehearsals (very uncommon in my years of doing theatre) even after I’d told him to check the schedule.

“I’m a certain kind of special.”

Thing was, he was never late or absent again. He was actually the most punctual person from that point on, despite having claimed several times that being disorganized and tardy was an integral part of his personality. He had explained that he did these kinds of things at work and internships and other places, confirmed by his reputation around town.

My thoughts have always been, well, just don’t do that.

I’ve encountered this several times in my life, where someone who is severely failing in a certain area of their life refuses to change obvious behaviors causing it. Romantically, professionally, or even artistically, many people who can’t get a leg up are making obviously bad choices.

Show up. Be mentally present. Respect other people. Put in effort to do a good job.

These bare-minimum things are absolutely required if you want to excel, and once you’ve made the decision to be a good team player, it’s actually not hard at all. Even as someone dealing with depression, who dreads daily living, I am capable of being on time, listening to people, and thinking critically about how to achieve what is necessary.

Procrastinating is a choice. Tardiness, being unreliable, lying. All flaws are is really a series of choices. You don’t necessarily think about them, and sometimes they’re so ingrained that it’s far more of an effort to not do it. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s going to define you, that you are incapable of achieving your goals because of this tendency of yours.

Today I struggled to get out of bed. I was tired, like always, despite having slept fifteen hours the day before. How could I mentally go to work? It’d been like this for so long, and I couldn’t muster the motivation exist, let alone look at my overflowing to-do list. Yet, I knew that these unproductive days were eating away at me, that I had responsibilities, and so I made myself rise, go to the computer and start writing. And you know what? I feel a lot better now.

Sometimes the decision to do something is the hardest part. But it is still up to you to choose what you want in life and seize it.




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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Checklist for the Organized Non-Writer



I like checklists. They remind me that I’ve actually done something when my wired up brain is so intent on searching out things to be pissed about. Sometimes, also, things can get overwhelming and having them sorted out manageable action by manageable action can remind you that it’s all doable.

And that’s exactly what makes the checklist for the writer being completely useless:

1) Nothing is a bite-sized task.

2) It’s not linear step-by-step (but also, thank God for that.)

3) It’s really hard and unpredictable to get something checked off.

After a bizarrely emotional few months in which I struggled to see the purpose in life itself, I tried to pull back onto my feet in the usual way. By giving myself a to-do list and a few little chores a day, I could bring myself to feeling competent and get little reminders of what success feels like. But doing the web comic felt repetitive, always one step behind. I was too tired and unfocused to write a blog. The novels needed to be reread, and the fact of the matter was I simply just didn’t care. I didn’t care about creating or writing. I slept and worked all the time, and living felt like I was just moving forward for the sake of it. Couldn’t stop, yet no reason to keep going.

I decided what I needed was a checklist. I felt like my writing career had turned stagnant. What’s the best way to fix that? By figuring out what I needed to do to move forward. So I sat down with myself and created a sort of "What Must Be Done" list to give myself goals and feel like I wasn't the stagnant woman I felt.

-       Finish a novel. Fifty-thousand words in, I could do it a page a day by September 8.
-       Second Draft - Read through for pacing, flow, and mark down any big picture issues like character arcs, dynamics, intrigue, conflict, tension, and continuity. Sept. 13.
-       Get some space. October 13. (Work on another novel.)
-       Third Draft - Zoom in on specific scenes that are the weakest in the book. Oct. 18.
-       Fourth Draft – Focus on word choice, dialogue, clunky sentences, consistency in style. Oct. 23.
-       Contact Beta Readers. Nov 1.
-       Fifth Draft – Respond to readers’ critiques. Feb. 7.
-       Repeat betas, writers groups, etc. Professional Edit?
-       Polish Edit. May 18.
-       Jackson Hole Writers Conference. June 30.
-       Edit from Writers Conference. July 16.
-       Query letter.
-       Synopsis.
-       List of agents.
-       List of comparable titles. (Read contemporary books in the genre.)
-       Submit August 1, 2019.
-       Create a marketing “persona” of my readers.
-       Create a budget and marketing plan for existing and pre-existing projects.
-       Gather more of a returning “costumer” on my social media page.
-       Visit more conferences.
-       Rebrand Stories of the Wyrd artwork to be consistent.
-       Get new headshots.
-       So on and so forth. 

As I went on, I started to seek out things I might be excited to do. My list got longer and longer and many of it became “redoing” work I’d already put in, or getting off track until I became greatly overwhelmed.

For me to finish Take the Wheel the way that I want, I will be waiting a year to see any results, and even then, just because I can check something off doesn’t mean that it’s done with. There’s too many variables and room for quality control. And the main point is, the first thing on the list will take a while, while anything I can do "out of order" is also a huge time commitment.

Even dissecting it into subparts still doesn’t make you feel accomplished and missing the little deadlines I have (4,000 words a week) can give my heart a pretty hard twist.

I’m a hater of formulas and think everyone should experiment with their path to success, that no little “checklist” is going to help you get there. But seriously, why don’t I have some little dude telling me what to do step by step? Why does every choice have to be so difficult? Every step like I’m carrying a thousand pounds?

Failure, whatever that means, leaves you in the same position you started. Often just as blind or lost as Day One. The truth is, I’ve checked off most items on this list in my life several times, and at the end of the day, I don’t see my progress, even if the little list said so.

Let’s face it. As a motivational tool, this one isn’t a great one. It’s just a reminder of how slow and uncertain the process is. I wish there was a means to feel like you’re actually getting somewhere, that event he backtracks felt like moving backwards rather than just twiddling your thumbs in dismay of being a part of the void.

On the other side of things, I get to check writing a blog off my to-do list today. Three days late.




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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

It Ain’t Over Until I Stop Talking



A secret, unspoken joy of a small town is that particular moment when your professors go from being authoritarian experts and become your equally lost peers. Sometimes it’s a blessing, a means to return the gift of support and motivation your fifth-grade teacher instilled in you.

One of the most impactful adults of my childhood would go out of her way to make sure I’d be able to escape the other students when overstimulated by their, we’ll say, antics. She supported my creativity and rule breaking more than any other, and even allowed me to take charge of an entire class period to “teach short story writing” to my fellow third-graders.

As an adult, I encountered this woman again in my creative writing group, where I found her to be immensely insecure and uncertain about her convictions. Other members looked down on her and questioned her choices constantly, a giant man barking, “WHY?!” at her anytime he disagreed with her vision. Unexpectedly, I was given power to empower her just like she had for me.

It can also be a bad thing. Teachers are humans too, and with that comes all of the pettiness and politics that teenagers take possession of. My high school drama teacher had been the longest, most constant relationship out of all of the people who have taught me. I thought her stern and opinionated, but intelligent, passionate, and respectful.

Yet, when I became a teacher myself, I started to question her decisions, starting to realize the ineffectiveness (and unfairness) of how she prioritized the students with natural showmanship over teaching the eager. She wanted high quality shows with minimal effort, not to teach, not to challenge. There weren’t many “lessons” in her lessons. As I worked with her as an adult, professional peers, I found more unsavory practices. She would scream at the techies, insult her directors, and take over any group discussion to make it about her needs and her opinions. Her judgment was law and everyone else was a philistine. The work she produced itself wasn’t something I was too enamored with, and soon the woman who I’d idolized in my youth was nothing more than a stress-inducing diva.

She had had a lot to say about… well, everything, and was my initial introduction to a great deal of writing/acting rules. “Everyone wants something even if it’s just a glass of water,” sort of opinions. And I, as someone who despises being told what to do, never took it seriously, doing my own thing regardless. It was as I aged that I realized that these parroted pieces of advice weren’t always the clearest. Once I understand—via experience and practice—what they were trying to get out, I had more respect for them. But there’s one thing I’ve heard constantly that I still to this day think is too vague to be remotely useful: “Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end.”

While talking with a woman about the playwriting group I founded this year, she mentioned her idea—a café with strange characters—and my past mentor’s criticism: this whole beginning, middle, end shebang. The writer accepted the advice eagerly, but was unclear about which direction to go with it. To me, that made sense, as I always wanted to quip back, “The beginning is when I start talking, the end is where I stop, and the middle is everything in between.”

It’s sort of like when people say, “Get rid of it because it’s unnecessary.” Well, the whole book is unnecessary really. More to the point, I find that it’s misdirecting from the real issue—it’s not unnecessary, it’s that it’s boring and easy to cut. Or boring and doesn’t lead anywhere. Maybe it’s a distraction or looks like the author is rambling. But, the more important part is that it is boring, regardless of the impact it has later on. If it was interesting and off-topic, no one would bat an eye (unless they wanted to hear more about it.) So-called unnecessary details are what separates the story from the summary, and sometimes those little jokes that don’t move the plot forward are what actually keep the audience glued to the screen. To me, the word “unnecessary” is a shame tactic that requires little thought to get something to change something.

As an avid reader of new writers, I know how there are stories that don’t have their beginning, middle, ends, just verbose tangents that make you feel like you’ve wasted your time. Yet, I also say that there are so many exceptions to what constitutes as the effective trifecta of a story plot, it’s mostly based on an, “I’ll know it when I see it,” mentality. It’s difficult to warn a writer starting a new book what to look for without the use of a formula, and surprisingly, there are many formulas and rules to choose from. I recommend that all authors experiment with these, but that takes years of tooling around and research.

So what about the new writer who wants to make something cohesive?

A cardinal rule is to remain focused.

If I’m telling you the story about how I broke up with my boyfriend, I’m going to include the aspects and factors that I consider relevant. I may begin my story with how we met, but only if I think how we met is demonstrative of how we ended. So, by the fact that I had to ask him out and be incredibly aggressive, it might be a great place to begin if our relationship ended due to his lack of effort. How we met foreshadows how we ended. But if we just met in a grocery store and we broke up because he doesn’t think brushing his teeth is important, that might not be the best place to start.

What’s “on topic” is really easy to identify because it’s a true story: we have all this information we know we can’t tell each second of—two years together, there’s a lot of days that can be summed up or skipped over—and so we have a better natural filter. (Some of us more than others, of course.)

Fiction is a little more difficult, especially genres like fantasy and sci-fi when details like where the milk she pours into her cereal came from might be something the audience needs to know for sake of world building. Plus people love subplots.

However, the rules remain the same. Millions of things happen to these characters, not all of which need to be explained. Staying focused doesn’t necessarily mean to one story, but it does mean to ask yourself how information relates to other information, or if a scene is even telling the audience anything. Just because a character would go to the bathroom, being human an all, it can be left out unless the fact that they went at that time informs later or earlier actions.

Beginnings

Really, most people would agree that you can start a book out in anyway as long as it’s interesting. Personally, I would focus on that first, but I will throw out a few things that seems to be successful.

Good beginnings typically…

-Give strong sense of character.
            In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill’s dance through the “rat” infested cavern and his argument with his humanoid opponents immediately give a sense of how he handles conflict and endears him to us.

-Gives a sense of the author.
            Whether it be The Martian or Pride and Prejudice, the strength of those first paragraphs lie in the perspective/philosophy/sense of humor. We get a vibe to the voice of the book, and some insight into who the writer is; why they’re writing the damn thing in the first place.

-Gives a sense of the overall mood and/or theme of the book.
            “It was a dark and stormy night.” Horror, comedy, drama, a rollercoaster, you get a taste of what emotions the rest of the story intends to instill in you.

-Sets up important details of the character’s situation that explains later actions.
            When we see that Lilo has no friends, no family, and is intensely weird and alone, it becomes the foundation to not only the stakes in losing Stitch, but also makes sense as to why she remains loyal to her terrible, disloyal dog.

Middle

I remember, when first writing a novel, thinking about what the hell happens in the middle? And the truth is, this is the most flexible, yet easiest part to get wrong (as in, lose your audience.)

Good middles typically…

-Make a huge change in the character’s situation.
            So, if we see how the character handles conflict in their comfort zone, what happens when we take them to a place they’re unfamiliar? Blake Snyder, writer of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need refers to this as a “upside down world” and the idea is, after establishing a normal life, how far in the opposite direction can we go? I don’t think it needs to be absolutely polar, but definitely the middle is going to want to look very different from the beginning, if that be setting, social standing, or the types of problems the character now has.

-Explain the character’s priorities and concerns.
            There should be a moment of doubt and resistance when a character’s life changes—as humans don’t like change in general, and it adds to who your character is. When suddenly he’s faced with a decision, you learn a lot more about it when it comes to why he hesitates. Why wouldn’t he do something? What ultimately propels him?

-Show the “concept.”
            Your book often starts out with an idea, such as a young boy finds out he’s a wizard and goes to school, or even you’re in a café with a bunch of colorful locals. After you set up what’s normal and strange for the life of the people in your story, take a moment to play with the actual concept that caused you to write the book. Have Harry take a magic class. Let your locals make jokes at each other’s expense. For the first portion of middle section, write the book the way you want it to be without worrying (too much) about stakes or progression of plot.

-Set up more reasons the character needs to succeed.
            The beginning needs to tell your audience why the character cares about whatever it is he’s trying to do, but the middle needs to emphasize the importance. This is where you start adding stakes and developing even more reasons for the character to pursue his goal and, most importantly, to do it now.

The End

A good ending will, of course, tie the majority your threads together and leave the reader feeling something. Many amateur writers fail in this area because, honestly, they get impatient and they quick. They rush the ending and sort of just stop.

Endings, especially for novels, can get away with “lacking” certain aspects, even being improved because of it. Books in series, for instance, don’t want every problem tied up, and even standalones might do better if you leave the audience with a question rather than answering it for them. That being said, it’s very easy for a reader to feel ripped off if the author doesn’t have an ending with an impact.

Good endings typically…

-Leave the audience feeling something has changed.
            A reader will put the book down feeling scared or on edge, excited or satisfied. They might have new intellectual concepts to chew over, or even be inspired in their own life to make a difference. A bad ending will make a reader wonder why they bothered picking up the book in the first place, typically because though the author tried to instill emotions, they did not succeed.

-Utilize emotional swings within the last few pages to achieve this.
            There should be a moment of doubt as to whether or not the character will succeed/how they will succeed. If the hero ultimately wins the battle, at one point, he needs to look like he genuinely might lose. You don’t have to convince the reader of this, many books don’t, but if you can, all the better. If he comes in and just wins everything, blowing away the enemy in one fell swoop, the conflict doesn’t look hard enough, and the ending isn’t as much of a payoff. If you don't know what the main character is trying to succeed at, it's a sign that your story is just unfocused rambling, and it's likely you're boring the reader.

-Make it clear why you told the story.
            It was funny, arousing, or cathartic. It explained a big problem in our world we need to solve, or at least open up to discussion. You had a point, and you made it, even if you don’t give answers.

-It makes sense as to why we saw the rest of the story.
            If the ending would work just as well without the buildup, then the buildup isn’t working. Because we saw the whole thing from beginning to end, we see how what happened in scene two makes the finale make sense/more important to us as the audience. This falls in line with staying focused; at the last scene, we know why we needed to learn everything we did throughout the book.




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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Blinders are for Horses

“I’m done,” the least invested child of my class told me, racing past to put his poster on the finished pile.

I held out an arm. “What about all that white space?”

“You said I could have some if it was intentional!”

“Is that intentional?”

“Yeah!”

“Because it looks like you just got bored.”

He grinned sheepishly at me, quickly admitting, “I did get bored.”

“And it looks like it,” I replied, turning him back towards his seat. “Color in the background and then you can be done.”

When the students get older, the arguments get harder. Third graders sort of accept your answers for what they are, but middle schoolers start to become pedantic and make “On-Paper” rebuttals that can stump you if you don’t fully know why—or are willing to admit the truth about why—you believe what you believe.

Adults can be just as bad. “Artistic vision” makes me want to beat someone with a keyboard. Not because their tastes differ from mine, but because so many half-assed pieces are stunted by that excuse. It’s not that you create something “ugly” and are proud of it; it’s when you’re new to what you do and don’t challenge yourself. When something looks unfinished, or is painfully dull, and it’s claimed to be the vision in the first place.

On the other hand, sometimes that “finished” look is actually just an arbitrary restriction of professionalism; a singular method society demands even though many other options work just as well. There are associations, like the papyrus or comic sans font—even Times New Roman for hell’s sake—that come off as amateurish simply because the average Joe has access to it. There are cultural traditions, like ties are formal because ties are formal, which, one day, someone decided to buck the rule and created a new association—ties are for punk rock. The rule made way for a contradiction; the impact is caused by the breaking of the expectation. It begs the question: What is innovative and changing convention versus what is a mere amateur who doesn’t know how to do it correctly?

And more importantly, what do we do with the untalented artist who claimed his poor execution was just above our plebian imagination?

I should mention at this point I’m currently tranq’d out by anti-anxiety medication. For a long time when confronted with (what I considered) a poorly skilled soul who cried “vision!” I told myself to mind my own business and stop getting worked up—that focusing on the quality of my own skillsets is what will bring me satisfaction and yield results. But when you’re constantly looping into fight or flight mode, already feeling hot with pent up rage, this can be hard to do. Now that I’m synthetically calm, it’s easy for me to say the obvious: Don’t argue with bullshit artists. Worry about your own bullshit if you want to improve.

As I work with people of all ages, I find that the real trick to speedy development is simply looking to what they avoid. There are areas that don’t draw our interest, that we’re not practiced in, that we cut corners with, or ignore all together. These spots, blindspots as I refer to them, are easy to enhance on their own, and enhancing those will improve the broader picture in turn.

It’s a fairly quick and fun process if the artist is willing to a) acknowledge it is being unfairly ignored b) actually do something about it. Even a little something.

This might be the white of the paper on the drawing. It might that you don’t have a clue what women characters are thinking when a man awkwardly hits on them. It may be you zone out during action sequences, or don’t care about building a world that’s unlike what others have already seen, or that you find several different camera angles a waste of everyone time. It may be shadow, color, or just making your straight lines actually straight. In fact, it could be pretty much anything, and you may care so little about it you won’t even notice you haven’t touched it.

Sometimes, seeing these things can be difficult, even for the willing; on occasion they’re small and subtle, or it’s not a question you even thought to ask. You don’t always know what you don’t know. Which is one of the best reasons to get outside feedback. But, really, I’ve often found that most people are consciously bracing against a solution they’re already afraid of, a problem they’re denying, or a convention they’ve rejected that, if they just experimented a little, would open up a world of options.

Over the last few weeks I’ve had the same old arguments with children that I have been fighting all my life. Not just with my peers or my students, but even with myself. It’s the real question for every artist. Am I being too hard on myself? Or am I just being a lazy bullshitter?

We all have those moments when we can’t decide if it’s good enough, or the time we knew it wasn’t but couldn’t pinpoint why. In these times, I’ve realized there’s an easy question to ask yourself:

Is there a part of the story that I’m avoiding because I don’t know how to do it right?

And, as I say to my students, if the answer’s yes, there’s an easy solution.





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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Your Day Job Might Be Training for the Dream




I never believed college would be a magical ticket to better pay and respect. I did believe I would get through it with my personality and mind intact. Oh, the naivety of youth!

I went to college because I didn’t know what else my next step would be. High school has a way of pushing you forward while just float there, and when you finally get dumped into the sea, the opportunities leading off in any direction, you might suddenly realize you weren’t actually taught to swim or how to navigate.

But I hear echoes of the millennial philosophy, one filled with either criticism or complaints. Many people my age were told that college would lead to bigger and better jobs, and that you would end up working at a gas station if you chose a different path. This is attitude I’ve witness multiple times, either via the regret of those who pay the big bucks to take the most traveled path leading nowhere, or the disdain of our older generation attacking that sense of entitlement. My college boyfriend once said to me, point blank, that he would not take entry-level jobs or work for low pay if he had a college degree. The degree was to give him a leg up and have him skip the grunt work. He was a theatre major with no work experience and remained unemployed for the following two years, save for the volunteer work he did at a theatre. To this day, almost a decade after he graduated, he still lives at home and seeks out a masters.

Recently, I found a friend in a similar position, graduating after a good period of time, to find the workforce abhorrent. Having lived off a full ride scholarship since high school, her first foray into retail ended explosively. She now tells me she won’t get a job outside her artistic field and is supported by her boyfriend’s parents.

When I first graduated during the height of the recession, I felt completely lost. I had believed that the answers would just come to me—most people told stories of finding their career by accident—and yet, there I was in Los Angeles, unable to get a basic retail job. I struggled to determine since high school if I should focus my efforts and education on a “career” day job, or if I should just keep myself afloat, giving as much energy as I could to my real work. For months I wallowed in stagnancy, until finally I moved back home, found a job with a theatre company and started to work my ass off for what probably accumulated into two bucks an hour.

Since graduation, I've worked for theatre groups, a fabric store, a dog walking company, extracurricular education, a restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop, and a gift store. I took jobs as they came, moving all across the country and the world as I tried to figure what I wanted in life.

In 2016, I was living with my then-boyfriend in his home country. I couldn’t work yet, still on a visitor’s visa, deciding if I would commit to him and moving to Australia—halfway around the world. The things I had waited for for so long—a husband, a dog, having a permanent place to live, and a space of my own—were right in my grasp. But it had been so hard to get there and not really worth it. At all. He was the wrong guy, and the country, while beautiful, had restrictions that penalized me as a writer. I talk to many artists in Perth, and they all admitted that those who took it seriously would move to the U.S. or Britain. Even their own bookstores were filled with American works with only a few “hometown heroes” being praised in a sort of, “Good for you!” kind of way.

All the sudden, my life took a turn. Once the relationship ended astride my visa, I strove to do all the things moving to Australia would mean. I lived in NYC, started submitting my book to American agents, and experienced a year of the quintessential starving artist.

But I didn’t want that either.

I found myself stressed and constantly concerned with money. My roommate was batshit crazy, checking my lightbulbs when I left for work and abruptly stopping her phone call to shout at me there was literally a singular hair in the tub.

So back to Wyoming came I, determined to focus on my writing as my real job. For the first time, I made a decision. Writing was my career, and I’d take only work that didn’t subtract from it. Go to work and leave it there. No mental labor or decision making, little personal investment in the outcome. A job in which I had to take charge and worry about drastically subtracted from my ability to do so for my books. You only have so much to give.

Part of my work now focuses on marketing. I’m expected to create “personas” of my target readers—fictional people based off the sort of audience I’m aiming for. It also reminds me of how much salesmanship and presentation is relevant to being successful, and how easy it is as a writer to avoid talking to people all together.

I often felt like day jobs got in the way of really pursuing and having time for my real work, but there’s a lot of basic training that a writer needs if she wants to make a living, or even just be read by people who she hasn’t met. Or even those she has. These skills are not naturally learned during the actual writing process, but are quickly taught when you have to work for someone.

-How to talk to people, including negotiating with those who have financial leverage over you, or unsatisfied readers.

-That complaints about pricing aren’t always indicative of being “too expensive.” It’s common and not always intuitive. (People tend to complain more the cheaper your product is.)

-How not to approach a sale - a store or a manager you hope to sell your product to. Negativity is always off putting, and no matter how friendly or chatty you are with the employees, you must talk to the manager to get results.

-Just how important location is to selling something well. Both the shop itself, but its position in the shop.

-How much more effective a personal, one on one sale is to lambasting the public.

By playing “games” to see how good of a salesperson I could be, whether that means which words to use or how to reorganize the store, I got the opportunity for trial and error without a lot of risk on my part. Since I don’t care if the product is actually purchased, I don’t feel bad when the customer turns me down, but learn about why they did and have ideas on what to try next time. And there will be a natural next time without needing to put myself out there. Because I’ve worked along side a variety of people, seen hiring practices, had to deal with inventory and restrictions, I’m much further along in terms of having a head for business, how to work with people, red flags of bad hires, and how to present my work in a professional, trustworthy way.

Yesterday, I somehow got myself roped into the planning of a fundraiser non-related to anything I’ve been trying to save my focus for. As I scanned down the list of options for me to take the reins on, I felt a sickness in my stomach. So much work. So much stepping out of my comfort zone! But there was an obvious choice on there: Marketing. No one wanted to do it. I’m trying to learn it. I have other members of the committee with experience and ideas who can give me a good head where to start, and it’s a great place to begin my trial and error without having my name directly attached to any missteps. As I reframed the sudden responsibility in that light, I went from dread to excitement. Learning is a part of a process, and it’s better to have a safety net and other people to help you than to try and figure it out all by yourself when everything’s on the line.

You may hate your job or feel like it’s a waste of time. Maybe you don’t want one at all unless it’s directly taking your career forward. But you never know how it might help you with necessary lessons you never would have thought about writing by yourself in the corner of your house with fictional people backing you up. Sometimes, you have to get out into the world and test things outside of a vacuum, and a day job you’re not super invested in can be just the place.





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Friday, July 13, 2018

How Blake Snyder Saved the Adjective


My personal abrasion towards “formulas” and “writing rules” has been a little bit of a mystery. In my adulthood, I realized parts of it had to do with my parents’ tendency to be a little too free with advice and constructive criticism, often their impulsive ideas putting me into embarrassing situations. Anyone who has received advice—whether it be on writing, dating, parenting, travel, or auto repair—has found that not all opinions are helpful, some downright problematic.

In fact, I’ve started to realize that people often advocate for their biggest flaws. I often tell the story about the unpublished writer whose English came across as a second language due to his overwriting and perfectly proper grammar, and how he “reminded” me to never put a preposition at the end of a Facebook status so that I am practiced in perfect grammar for my actual work. I politely reminded him that his way of writing wasn’t for everyone, and not a style I was particularly interested in emulating. Just recently, a friend of mine, who is struggling with a man loudly rejecting any commitment to her, insisted that I should just start sleeping with someone (anyone) and that’s how you get feelings! Meanwhile, another friend’s mother-in-law was advising her not to feed her baby whenever it wanted, but instead give him a pacifier dipped in soda until the baby came around to her timeframe.

Blake Snyder was sort of the exception for me. I think, in part, it had to with a way he was introduced. I was working with a cowriter on a radio show we hope to produce next year and she pulled out Snyder’s Beat Sheet to outline from. This was not my normal way of going about things, but obviously, as there were two of us writing different episodes, we needed to get in on the general story before we could get started. As we filled in the beats, things became clearer to me, and all of the sudden, I realized it was exactly what I was looking for.

In many of my scripts (both play and novel) the characters are supposed to be funny with endearing connection to one another, but it never seemed to happen. I didn’t take the time from the plot to just have a fun moment. But where should a scene like that go?

Well, according to Snyder, page 30!

Blake Snyder was a screenwriter with, according to him, a good deal of script sells, some for millions of dollars. Only two of his movies were actually made—typical for the industry—but he believed himself to be great at knowing what Hollywood wants, and how to pitch it.

And I believe that.

For one thing, he immediately promotes to name your screenplay first; come up with a catchy title and then find a logline that goes with it. Script comes third to those things. Well, as I was reading Save the Cat, Snyder’s book on how to write a screenplay, I had several people ask me what it was about, some even saying, “Great title!” which was bizarre compared to most of the books I’ve read.

Since learning about the Beat Sheet last October, I’ve applied the lessons to most of my writing, in both editing and outlining. And regardless of the actual results, one of the nicest things about the “formula” is that I felt less overwhelmed. I understood how to keep the plot moving and had areas that I tended to ignore pointed out to me. In life, I avoid conflict as much as possible, being a pretty good smooth talker when it comes to difficult situations. It’s hard for me to have characters not understand where the other is coming from—or even just not care—and a lot of their logical discussions subtracted from the stakes and conflicts that could be there.

The Beat Sheet is an excellent way of putting emotional range in your manuscript as well as recognizing easy places to add in more conflict and, well, plot.

So I bought the book. I didn’t have people explain the Beat Sheet to me as well as I’d like, so I wanted to get it straight from the cat’s mouth. Unfortunately, the cat is more of a salesperson and less of a writer than I’d hope.

Snyder’s opening states that one reason he felt this book needed to be written was because most screenwriting advice is too formal and pretentious. He speaks like “real people” do, complete with a lot of exclamation points and some typographical errors.

Most importantly though, Snyder’s biggest “casual” way of talking is really the Trumpian-method and instilling credibility through confidence. Ever single one of his scripts is described, point blank, as “hilarious.” He constantly states how awesome his ideas are in a matter-of-fact sort of way. This in itself wouldn’t bother me, except that Snyder doesn’t seem to have a lot of taste.

The loglines he shows are of films that have been actually made, praising their qualities as examples. Not a single one of them stick with me. All of his own ideas tend to be pithy but unrelatable, campy, common denominator comedies that are only interesting because of the humor, not the plot, and not really the concept. But this is common. I read a lot about queries or pitches that succeed and what gets one person hot and bothered is not what gets another. And let’s face it, common denominator comedy sells. It’s most of what you see on the marquee, so I can’t disagree with his premise that, regardless of how I feel about them, this is what works in Hollywood.

The first time he lost me, however, was when he tried to show how changing character’s traits or situations could drastically lower the stakes in the movie.

“A just-hired employee goes on a company weekend and soon discovers someone’s trying to kill him.”

“In the example of The Retreat, again the adjectives come into play to tell us the writers most likely did it right… But let’s play around with the character to see other ways they could have gone with this same premise. What if the person going on the retreat is 65, has been at the company for 20 years, and is about to retire? Okay, so now it’s about a company “downsizing” its employees for real before they can collect their retirement benefits… No one will show up for that movie.”

Really? No one? Because that was the first time in 52 pages he’d talked about a movie that I actually was sort of interested in.

I like Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde, but for the most part, the vast majority of the films mentioned in the book sounded really dumb. Trying too hard, personality-less, and no hint of inspiration. Movies I would only go see because we wanted to do something and we showed up at the theatre to randomly pick what’s best for a large group. But, let’s be fair, that’s exactly what happened with Miss Congeniality and Legally Blonde. It wasn’t their premises I was going after.

The book, which is mostly bossy and closed-minded, still had some good ideas. Selling a script and writing a good one are two totally different skillsets, and while I wish Snyder had been more honest about his ability to sell a script rather than write one (Both of his produced scripts, Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot! and Blank Check, as awesome as they sound, have lower than 14% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes), I think that using Save the Cat! as a guide to make your script more attractive is a good idea. These tips can contradict your inspiration and innovation, and what makes for a catchy title isn’t always going to be one that you, well, like, (Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot? Really?), but they don’t have to. They’re good ideas to apply in moderation.

He was right in what he said about loglines needing to contain irony. Give us a trait that makes your character likeable (with an adjective), and then tell us something unexpected about it. Hollywood unexpected and real-life unexpected not being the same thing. And also, yes, title matters. It just does.

Truth is, I think he knew what he was talking about, but he was so bent around the axel when it came to “fake it ‘til you make it,” he made himself come off as a little oblivious:

“The amazing Sheldon Bull and I wrote a hilarious comedy in 2004. What if the President’s [sic] helicopter goes down behind enemy lines? And what if he is forced to capture Osama Bin Laden—all by himself? … We even had a great title: Chickenhawk Down. And here’s why we did not sell that script: Because there are about two people who can play the part of the President. It’s the lead. And there really isn’t anyone out there who can “open” that movie. Tim Allen was our first choice. And… who else? What we had done was paint ourselves into a corner on casting. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s a great story.”

I mean, I’m no Hollywood producer, but something tells me that Tim Allen wasn’t the reason you couldn’t get that script sold.

When I pointed this out to my brother, he said, “It sounds like they came up with the title first and just wrote a script on that.”

Well, yes. As Snyder advocates.

My problem with the book, and most books of its kind, is that instead of really thoroughly discussing the pros and cons of their suggestions, the outcomes and whys, mentioning the goals they are targeting, he just states everything like facts and rules and hopes you won’t recognize his Impostor Syndrome coming through.

But when I mentioned that, people couldn’t understand why he would want to point out the flaws in his thinking. He’s trying to sell a book! How would it benefit him to do so?

First off, my point isn’t really about him. It’s that writing books need to be clear to people who tend to latch onto formulas and get scared about being whimsical or, even, themselves. These writers can be incredibly emotional when the time comes to “break the rules,” ironically, more so than those who fight writing techniques like DEFCON 1. I’ve been able to articulately explain my reasons for them breaking out of their mold far more efficiently to people who hate writing rules than to those who love them. The latter are more likely to end up in tears or literally screaming, “THAT’S NOT MY JOB!” to a modest suggestion. The biggest breakdowns I’ve had to deal with as a critique partner is always with people who like the rules and don’t want to hear that doing what they were supposed to didn’t work.

 Mostly though, you get cynical people like me and just by being clear the context in which the suggestion will work, I’m more likely to agree with you. Just telling me you’re hilarious and amazing isn’t going to do the trick. When you say, “[Double Mumbo Jumbo is] a rule you and I can’t break!” and use an example of how Gods and aliens don’t go together, or something else I don’t believe, you’re sort of persuading me to throw the kitty out with the bathwater. I’m old enough now to recognize the consequences of being like that, but many people, especially teenagers, are more likely to say, “That doesn’t really make sense,” and toss the entire idea. If you however, point out, “Here’s what happens when you do this,” rather than just telling me not to do it, I’m more likely to hear you out.

Some people need permission to do something unexpected. Others need to feel respected in order to listen. Bossing them around just makes them stop listening.

Mainly, there’s more than one way to save a cat, and I think that most writing advice needs to promote understanding of cause and effect rather than just telling you what to do. A lot of advice is bad, and I would hate to live in a world in which only Blake Snyder’s films got made.


The book tells you how to sell specific types of movies. Parts are applicable to other mediums and genres, but really, he’s telling you how to make your comedic film alluring to producers. As a book on writing, if you can ignore his businessman talk, his narrow-view of the world, and know to take it in moderation, I think that playing around with these ideas can help clarify for you how to make your work better. The ideas certainly have made me feel clearer headed. I’m just glad I heard about the concept before I actually read it. And I think, in the end, that’s what Blake Snyder was all about.




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