My Favorite Creativity Gurus

Brenda Ueland wrote the book IF YOU WANT TO WRITE: A BOOK ABOUT ART, INDEPENDENCE AND SPIRIT, one of the best works on creative process. I love her book, STRENGTH TO YOUR SWORD ARM, a collection of her astute, funny, short, packed articles from a newspaper column she wrote in her hometown. And I love her biography, ME, a title she used well before Katharine Hepburn did.

Natalie Goldberg wrote WRITING DOWN THE BONES and other great books on writing process and life and creativity.

Jessica Abel is a comics artist and storyteller who is helping lots of folks go down the creative path. Her website is here. Check it out.

Screenwriting by the Numbers

Cover of "The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps ...
Cover via Amazon

1/1/12. Happy New Year! Getting things organized. I’ve wondered which projects to pursue and how.

A Few Personal Words on TV Writing and Process 
I’ve had several meetings with Michelle from my writers group to kick around ideas for TV writing. Last Friday we met at the beautiful Twin Oaks Library and discussed it further. We’d been heading in that direction for a little while: we admire each other’s work; TV is collaborative; she and I bring varying talents and interests to the table which we felt would compliment each other during the process; and, we both have our own TV projects going. We discussed working together on both of those projects, and we made a list of current produced shows for which we’d like to try writing an episode together. Great discussion and interesting process.
Trouble with Murder
I learned I can’t brainstorm a way to kill a victim in the opening of an episode of CASTLE! Not one. Mind went blank. You pretty much need that skill if you’re going to write a murder mystery. Embarrassed! I’ve heard my own self say far too many times, “I have a hundred new ideas before breakfast.” Ha! Not that day. Well, we discovered we each want to continue our own projects separately, but what a shot in the arm to discuss the possibilities! The experience helped me rededicate writing time to my TV drama. We’re going to keep meeting to support each other in the creative process. You cannot believe the show she’s creating. I’m amazed, and you’re going to love it! After she registers her show with the WGA (Writers Guild of America), and if she says it’s okay, I’ll say more about it in this blog.
Ellen Sandler Encourages Writers to Be God! (She writes comedy).
The numbers below are mostly just a fun way for me to mention and describe my favorite teachers. I was inspired to try TV writing by Ellen Sandler of EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND fame, after reading her article, “The Writer as God,” on The Writers Store website. I grabbed my pen and started right then. She’s clear, humble, talented, funny, inspiring. And this article sealed the deal. She teaches classes in person about writing original TV drama at the Writers Store in Burbank, CA, but has not yet offered the class online. I’m keeping my eyes out for that. Her book, The TV Writer’s Workbook, helps you learn how to write for existing shows.
TV, Feature, Business, Blog in 2012
As for writing in 2012, I’ve narrowed it down to:
  1. $elling completed feature script (DEPARTURE POINT, TEXAS)
  2. Finishing and $elling 1 new feature script (AGE OF AQUARIUS)
  3. Finishing and $elling 1 original 1-hour TV drama pilot & several more episodes (ART AND COMMERCE)
  4. Writing 1 blogpost every week (on this here blog, LIFE & WRITING)
In honor of the time of year, the day of the year, I resolve to write 1 to 2 hours per day on each of the above – a little less on the blog, a little more on the feature script. If I do, I will finish these projects this year and start making some money! 2012, the year of writing for pay!
To welcome the new year, I’ve found it’s wise to say goodbye to the old, so I’d like to pay homage to the teachers who have created materials that help me learn and practice screenwriting. The zig-zag path of creativity is leading me into screenwriting as I put fiction and creative nonfiction in the file cabinets for now. The following concepts are seared in my brain and integrated into my creative process. If you’re on the screenwriting path, I hope this list of numbers (concepts, inspiration, and links to resources) helps you as much as they continue to help me.
Screenwriting by the Numbers
  1. One Logline
  2. Two Halves
  3. Three Act Structure
  4. Four Actual Acts
  5. Five Moments
  6. Six Things That Need Fixing
  7. Seven Elements of Story
  8. Eight Sequence Method
  9. Nine ?? (If anyone can think of one here, please let me know).
  10. Ten Minute Sessions
21 Days

22 Steps

40 cards

80 scenes

100 pages

  1. The Logline (or 1-line or Oneline) –  The one line that encapsulates your story. You must have one later on to sell your script, and you better have one early on, so you know where you’re headed as you write. Look for this and more in Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made by Alex Epstein – Fun. Easy read. Great tips on everything from creating to business. You can put these ideas into practice immediately. Epstein has a great blog, too:  Complications Ensue. And he has a great book on TV writing called, you guessed it, Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box.
  2. 2 Halves – Makes me remember to make the midpoint of my script a false high for the main character if the story is a traditional comedy, as in, it ends happily, and to make it the actual high point if the story ends in tragedy.
  3. 3 Act Structure – This one’s about rhythm.  It’s a reminder that the whole story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Every sequence has scenes of preparation, scenes of conflict, and scenes of resolution. Every scene has a set-up, an action, and a resolution.
  4. 4 Actual Acts – When you learn 8-Sequence Structure you find out that Act 2 is NOT one long rambling act of mish-mash that’s twice as long as each of the other two. Act 2 is really two separate acts that behave in an orderly fashion even as the story runs along in a surprising manner to the audience.
  5. 5 Moments – The ideas about your movie you can’t get out of your head. They’re the ideas that made you want to write the movie in the first place. They may be stunning visuals, lines of dialogue, the dramatic ending, the self-revelation. Keep close to your inspiration, even if you rewrite those scenes beyond recognition or cut them out completely. I can’t remember who said this. If you know, please let me know. It may be anyone referenced in this post, or quite possibly David Milch, creator of DEADWOOD, who not only quotes everyone who ever had anything to say about writing and language, but also says his own awesome quotes on life and writing pretty much all day long I bet. For proof, check out the DVD extras in DEADWOOD, and prepare to be blown away.
  6. 6 Things That Need Fixing – This is from Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He says in the first act, you have to introduce all the quirks and problems you’ll spend the rest of the movie working out. He has a fun and entertaining way of teaching 8-Sequence Structure. Worked great for me as a review, having already studied The 8 in a more intense way mentioned in #8 below.
  7. 7 Elements of Story. It’s always a good idea to brush up on the basics of story: 1.)Character; 2.)Plot; 3.)Setting; 4.)Theme 5.)Point of View; 6.)Symbol/Image; and 7.)Tone/Language/Style. I think Truby, mentioned below in #22, helps integrate all the elements organically while helping you develop your story. In fact, I’ve always felt most information on the 7 elements (some teachers point to only 4 or 5 main elements, but still discuss the 7 listed here) do a good job defining them and giving examples, but they do not do so well actually helping you integrate that knowledge into the practice of writing. Discover Truby.
  8. 8 Sequences – Every great movie is made up of 8 sequences of equal length, 12 and a half pages each (or 15 or 10 depending on the length of your script). Each sequence functions in certain ways no matter what movie. Learn these to help you outline your story or guide you in rewriting. From Screenwriting, The Sequence Approach:  The Hidden Structure of Successful Screenplays by Paul Joseph Gulino. I’ll discuss the 8 sequences in future posts.
  9. 9 – I’ll add a 9 in a future post if y’all give me some ideas! Thanks.
  10. 10-Minute SessionsPilar Alessandra’s book, The Coffeebreak Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time, delivers on the title’s promise, getting you started no matter how you work or where you begin your process. Quick lessons followed immediately by exercises help you practice what you just learned. You may use the book piecemeal, or run straight through it. No writers block while you’re doing these exercises. I’ve got one of her classes on DVD and I took her 6-week email class on rewriting which was extremely helpful without being overwhelming.
  • 21 DaysWriting a Movie in 21 Days by Vickie King – Easy read. Helps you see your movie in your mind’s eye, which is great if you haven’t done that yet. After all, movies are visual. Great introduction to sequencing. Vickie King claims you can write your movie in 21 days. While that may or my not be true (more likely not), you can visualize the entire story and outline it and get started in a big way if you need help with structure and visual thinking. While there are numerous arguments about whether or not learning structure helps or hurts a writer, as with anything, use what you need and leave the rest on the side of the road. I always feel it’s good to know the rules you’re breaking.
  • 22 Steps…John Truby understands and clearly communicates what story actually is and how you do it. His book is THE word for me right now. The Anatomy of Story:  22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby – Slow read. Complex. Helps you organize your story without imposing false structure on it. Truby leads you organically through the story you want to tell. Every sentence in the book reveals a secret you already knew at a feeling level. This book helps me organize all the countless notes I make when I first put my story ideas down on paper. It’s what you do anyway, but he tells you what it is you’re doing, where to start, what’s related to what, how to proceed. I can tell it’s going to save me tons of time. I tend to write down everything way too many times. Truby’s ideas and methods help me recognize what goes where almost immediately. Clear exercises at the end of series of related chapters take you along the 22 steps at your own pace. I do the steps as I read about them, but you can wait for the clearly-marked exercises.
  • 40 Cards… At least 40 index cards as an outline on your floor, wall, bulletin board, or white board, will guide you well, especially if you include on each card the protagonist of the scene, the conflict, and the emotional change that occurs says Blake Snyder in Cat.
  • 80 Scenes… Write 80 scenes and you have a feature screenplay. More or less. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.
  • 100 Pages… Shoot for 100 pages on your feature. The limit used to be 120, but nowadays it’s 100.

Other fun books on screenwriting:

What are your favorite books or best classes on screenwriting, writing, or story? What are your writing goals? Creative, business, process, anything? Do you know of any screenwriting or story instruction I can fill in for  #9?

Happy New Year! Happy Writing!

Structure and Being in TRAIN DREAMS by Denis Johnson

About halfway through the novella, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, I was inspired to stop reading long enough to draw a picture of the structure of the story. Across the page I drew a straight line representing world history and American history on a continuum of about 100 years. Through that line I drew a curvy line representing the personal history of the main character, Robert Grainier, a man hired by various railroad companies in the western United States for the hard labor of building and repairing tracks and bridges. Where the straight historical line crossed the curvy line of Grainier’s life, I drew X’s. The X’s represented events of natural and regional history of the American northwest and the personal histories of Grainier, his acquaintances, friends, and family. The center point is where the story begins, 1917, when Grainier is thirty-five and has a wife and young daughter.

Reading this beautiful and vivid book and making the diagram inspired me to start my own novella by doing the following: choose what I feel is the most compelling invention, technology, movement, or event in American or world history, and use it as the midpoint or prime of my main character’s life. Extend my research fifty years in either direction for context and setting. Set the story in the regions of Texas I’ve lived, or else in a region in the United States to which I feel connected and about which I want to know more. Make a list of several industries, jobs, and careers in the region. Read first-hand accounts of life, work, family, politics, culture. Keep a running list of the stories I can’t get out of my heart. Let those blend and percolate with the stories I’ve lived, witnessed, heard, read. Let the main character bubble up from the magic creative cauldron and start speaking to me.

I felt Johnson must have done all these things in the writing process.

Yet, as I continued reading the story, Johnson’s imagery spoke to me about those lines I had drawn. Both the straight line and the curvy line reminded me of train tracks. I started feeling the underlying image in the novella, trains, or more specifically, I felt the impact of the first train image affecting the main character, essentially an orphan train that brought Grainier from his birthplace to the home of his uncle at an age before which he can remember nothing. It may be missing from his memory, but it’s the connection to the underlying event shaping his entire life. I’ve heard it said that every myth is actually about what’s missing. The hero or heroine will spend the story finding that which is lost. Train Dreams follows Grainier through a life where he walks along charred pathways, past open windows, and into forest clearings searching for himself by searching for the family that’s missing. The sheer amount of loss this character suffers in the story proper is matched only by his initial forgotten losses. His ability to commune with nature in its elemental vastness and its individual representatives, allows him to find in some form everything that was ever lost to him.

I wondered if Johnson’s inspiration for the story was the poignant reality in our history of orphaned children riding trains toward uncertain futures from 1854 to 1929. If not, I’m convinced it was something equally heartbreaking. Any of the life and death events in Train Dreams could have been the initial inspiration. I’m reminded to undertake writing stories arising from feeling and not just from ideas of structure or research. Structure and research will help me shape the writing process, as long as I’m taking the first step from the heart, because I simply have to. Johnson’s book feels like a foregone conclusion, a myth we’ve all heard told, an experience we’ve all had.

It’s clear why “train” is in the title. In the first paragraph we get a description of the train bridge Grainier and others are repairing. Train imagery fuels the story’s outer events and inner impulses. I wasn’t as clear at first about the “dreams,” but now I know. Two weeks after reading Train Dreams, I recall the story through my own vision, as if remembering my own dream. In the dream I’m Robert Grainier, a laborer, a husband, a father. I’m seeing through the eyes of the human being who lived that life, created those memories, suffered those tragedies. I can feel the pain in my arthritic joints from long years of hard labor. I can see the fluttering wrappers from the chocolates and the fluttering pages of the Holy Bible I imagined my wife holding as long as she could in an attempt to save something while escaping a raging wildfire. And I see the specter of my daughter inside my cabin, or at least my fractured heart, returning to me after I thought she was lost forever. I see all this from my own mind’s eye, as if I’m recalling my own dream. I’m not sure how Johnson managed that. I’ll have to reread the book to find out.

Have you read anything by Denis Johnson? What’s your favorite? What’s your favorite myth and why (movies, books, anything)? If you’re a writer, how do your story ideas come to you?

Writing Instead of Reading

Cover of "The Huffington Post Complete Gu...
Cover via Amazon

Here’s what I wanted to read today:

Self Editing For Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King

For obvious reasons. It’s already helped me immeasurably with its first instruction on narrative summary and how writers overuse it. Turns out I’d written an entire story using large chunks of narrative summary, and I didn’t even realize it. I was surprised I’d used so much narrative summary given all the practice I get writing screenplay scenes. I’ve gone back to the story to create more scenes in real time. It’s much better now, or it will be.  In the long run, the screenwriting will help me write better short stories. And so will the book Self Editing…when I can get to it. There’s nothing like being down deep in a screenplay rewrite to make me want to work on my short stories.

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging by the editors of the Huff Post and Create Your Own Blog: 6 Easy Projects to Start Blogging Like a Pro by Tris Hussey

Again, for obvious reasons. These two books helped me plan and get started. But I’ve also learned through experience you create your blog by writing a post every week. That deadline, even self-imposed, comes up fast, especially if you have a day job and if you’re working on other writing, as well. So far, it’s scary and fun. Weird and normal. Weird to put out work that’s unfinished, raw, on the fly. Normal, because it captures the authentic flow of life and writing every week.

The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

I’m yearning to start a new script, and I think this is the book to crack open for that purpose. I want someone to tell me how to do it, get me started. But I’m at a place where I need to listen to my own voice and just write. This is the last rewrite before I post the script on Inktip.com and hopefully sell it fast! I’m going to use this wonderful Truby book as a reward when I’m finished.

Train Dreams: A Novella by Denis Johnson

I read a moving review in The New York Times by Anthony Doerr on this Johnson novella that made me want to run out and buy it and read it immediately. I ended up putting a hold on it at the library, and I’ll go pick it up tomorrow. Doerr writes this about the book, “It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like “Little Red Cap.” It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.”  He also compares it in the beginning of the piece to your favorite “most devastating” place in nature, that you want to share and keep safe at the same time. I’m there. Reading it tomorrow. Can’t wait. The review is wonderfully written, too. Check it out.

Instead of reading all these books I got tons of writing done today. Maybe I’ll read a little before sleep tonight. Big work day tomorrow and hopefully tons of writing, too. But I’ll hit the library early and pick up Train Dreams in hopes of getting to it.

My sis, Kim, studied acting at The University of Texas at Austin (and got her BFA there). The great Sam Shepard visited her playwriting class. One of the students asked him which playwrights he reads. Shepherd answered, “I don’t read plays. I write them.” That quote can float me along while I’m writing but having a hard time getting in all the reading I want to do. For me, it’s writing first, the great, wonderful, difficult, wrenching work. Reading is the reward and inspiration for the labor of writing.

Do you read when you’re writing? What are you reading today? What are you looking forward to reading?

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