Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Learning something new...

I think we can all agree that we should continually be learning.

I'm a writer, so I'm always eager to improve my craft. I write screenplays, novels, articles, copy, technical, all kinds of things. But, I also need to expand this growth with learning about how I learn best and how I progress in my writing. With a few recent changes to routine, I'm once again taking note.

I've begun taking a screenwriting class - to make certain I am improving that skill. It's from ScreenwritingU, their ProSeries, and I'm hoping it will allow me to write more commercially. Yeah, many people wouldn't have to worry about something like that, but I do - not because I don't write high concept, but because I'm really an Indie filmmaker at heart.

Recently a newer member of one of my writing groups dropped out. It's natural for groups to change over time, adding someone, dropping someone; after all, we change, we have different needs and requirements so we may outgrow or require more than the group can provide, our skill set may be different from most in the group and we don't match needs, we move, we move on, etc.

This made me realize a few things, in conjunction with several other timely events. I need to have several other people in the critique group who are on par with my writing level. Having some who are traversing the road of writing experience a bit closer to the beginning is interesting because it reminds me of those beginner struggles, high points, mistakes, as well as keeping my line editing skills sharp, though it's not necessarily where I want to be spending my energies (since I get paid for that sort of stuff). Having those who are ahead of me on the road teaches me more advanced skills and inspires me. But, there must be a balance or I find myself not receiving what I require for my writing -- and spending too much energy on the beginner stuff.

Choosing what to critique is a decision.

If I'm one of the folks who is a little ahead in that experience road, I have to decide whether I spend my time line editing and working on grammar, syntax and spelling, or do I challenge the writer with more advanced techniques of story arcs, subtext, character development, plotting, themes, and the like.

The question then becomes, what are they prepared to hear? This question is much more convoluted then it seems. We don't necessarily know, do we? We may think we can gage the person's temperature, and temperament, but may discover we're wrong. And if we're wrong, do we create more damage than help?

Choosing what to receive critique on is also a decision that must be made.

If there's a particular struggle or uncertainty, we must make clear to the group what it is we require from them. It might be an overall question, as in is the story progressing or is the story arc flowing? It might be about character or plots, or anything at all the we, as the writers, need clarification on. (I know, dangling participle.)

This brings me to the other side of the coin: when do we forego feedback?

Presenting a first draft in my screenwriting group has made me realize that this isn't a good idea - for me. Yup, kinda late now. Wish I'd realized this sooner. It's actually stifled my creativity completely! I've never felt so frustrated. I'm so concerned about page count, imperative in a screenplay, and closing all the loops in my complicated psychological suspense sci fi adventure story, that I can't get to the end. I'm too concerned with mid-draft and final draft issues that I can't let myself just play with the story, allow it to lead me where it needs to go, allow me to make mistakes and rewrite. I need to take a break from the feedback so I can actually finish the damn thing - a story I've grown to love (okay, and hate, since I can't just play with it.)

What do I need? I need feedback after I've finished my first draft and am going on to any draft thereafter! Hey, I've learned something really important. I won't make that mistake again - and I'm guessing I won't flounder like this again because of it.

And now?

So, yes, I'm learning things in the class, some of which is infiltrating (in a good way) into my other writing. It's giving me a chance to not just write organically, as I usually do, but to also make a cognizant effort to look at how and why I write.

It's nice to be able to take that step back every once in a while to evaluate why we have chosen to be writers - and can't be anything but... and hopefully this will help someone else out there.

Ciao for now.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What I learned at the WD West Conference

I attended the Writers Digest West Conference at the Loew's in Hollywood on Saturday. Since two conferences were going on simultaneously, the Screenwriters and the (non-screen) Writers, it was a terribly difficult decision on which conference to attend. Since things are (presently) moving along on The Cullings Principle screenplay, I opted for the novel writing. 

I met some wonderful people there, fellow writers, published and unpublished, screenwriters and not, whose careers I'm eager to watch unfold. 

A fellow writer always sends a "What I learned..." email to us after attending a film festival, so I thought I'd pick up her tradition. So, this is what I've gained from it:
  1. I'm doing all the things the speakers are telling us to do - except maybe blogging more (guess why you're reading this)
  2. I anticipate that being published and produced is literally around the corner (see #1)
  3. I avoided all the drunk people (see Dee's lists) by attending a day conference - though I have my doubts about a few folks...
  4. Driving 7 hours round trip can make one hallucinate
  5. Don't hallucinate when traveling the labyrinth from event to event - I'm pretty sure there were a few of us who entered another dimension when we turned left instead of right
  6. Don't eat the mints the conference puts on the tables unless you love surprises
  7. Since my humor is as snarky as many of the speakers', I may have a shot at more speaking engagements (clarification: snarky = good)
  8. Speaking engagements pay (so I'm told...)
  9. You can make instant friends in the agent pitching lines because everyone feels like the lobster about to be dropped into the boiling pot!
  10. "Breathe" is a common reminder in a pitching line (see #9)
  11. Wolfgang Puck's food tastes much better in his restaurants; apples are too healthy for most people (I am excluded here)
  12. Hollywood is often foggy and drizzly - what they don't tell you on the red carpet
  13. You have a 33% chance at choosing a workshop you don't need (see #1)
  14. It's better to memorize your speech or ad lib rather than just reading it (see #7)
  15. Men in funny hats may not necessarily be funny
  16. Men in period costume may not necessarily be time-travelers (but they may be funny)
  17. The space-time continuum is disrupted in pitching sessions: 3 minutes turns into 10 minutes when you're waiting; 3 minutes turns into 10 seconds when you're pitching
  18. The WD staff is really awesome!
  19. Most writers are really nice and will give of themselves (as in expertise, mind out of gutter please!) eagerly, willingly and happily!
Thanks for tuning into this episode of "What I learned..."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Critique Groups and Evolution


As a writer, I find it priceless to be part of a critique group - a good one. I happen to belong to two of those - one for screenwriting and one for fiction (and non-screenwriting). The latter I've belonged to for about 6 years, through its various transformations; the former is new - less than 6 months - and rolled along seamlessly from meeting #1 on. I have to say that I'm very proud of both groups because they have some wonderfully talented writers who give great critique.

I write articles about the craft of screenwriting, I edit others' work in script form, fiction and non-fiction, but editing one's own writing is done with blinders on - we can't help it, it's our own writing and there are things we cannot see. That's why we need others to read our material and point out the things we can't notice, like those nuances we hoped we translated for our audience but failed to.

Why this blog?

I'd like to discuss presenting works in various stages of evolution and how it affects and is affected by a critique group environment. There is a distinct difference in presenting an early (or new) draft to your group versus a previously polished (or near polished) draft. (I only call it a manuscript when it's considered finished.)

Communication with your group is vital, I want to hammer that home. The group needs to know expectations as both readers and writers. Positive feedback is as important as negative, and not in the "oooh, I really liked it" kind of feedback you'd get from a relative or good friend, but in the "don't change this because this really works" way. When a group only concentrates on the bad, the writer can get lost in trying to fix everything, even the parts that are good because they simply don't know they are good!

Early Draft

I'm newly discovering how frustrating presenting early drafts can be. The dynamic between presenting something new versus something you've worked on for a while is shockingly diverse. (I've been bringing projects to groups that have been at the final stages - meaning that they've been through many edits and have in some cases already been through beta readers.) Let's tackle the approach first.

It must be made clear to the group, which means reminders, that you are presenting an early draft. Why? Simply put, the story isn't finished!

Tell your group what it is you're looking for in their critiques. Is it the overall concept, characters, plot, subplots, what?

If your focus changes from meeting to meeting, let the group know. If you're looking for feedback on something specific that was not previously asked, let the group know.

This may seem like common sense and quite obvious, but I find that it is as important for the reader as for the writer to know your objective for that particular session.

So, remind your readers about this being an early draft. It must stay in the critic's mind so that the feedback is aligned with the issues encountered in beginning stages:

  • Maybe the story arc is not complete yet because you're presenting the pages as you write them and there isn't any more - it's still all in your head or in an outline that resembles a child's first figure drawing. 
  • Maybe you're still tweaking characters - fleshing them out, erasing one, combining two, or haven't yet assembled your entire "cast."
  • Maybe things are asked of you that you cannot yet provide:
    • A character's motivation in a certain action - you know he needs to do something but you haven't yet gotten to that part or completely worked it out, but you know it's important and it will lead to something important.
    • A scene that seems utterly out of another story but will link in later, you're just setting it up here
  • Maybe you've rewritten something already in an earlier section and must explain that change in order for the new section to make sense.
    • This is a serious issue with presenting early drafts and will be covered further below.
  • Maybe your subtext isn't yet subtext, but is blatant, ugly, monstrous and is hacked apart by your group.
  • Maybe you're just testing something out and the feedback will guide you toward deciding if it will be kept or not:
    • A plot twist
    • A character transformation
    • A scene - is it necessary?
    • Maybe you're trying to figure out if something can be done through dialog versus narrative, or vice versa
  • Maybe you have no idea where you're going but you just need to ramble for a while and figure out whether there is something in this idea that woke you up at 2 am and won't let you, even though you are directionless and the ideas the group is feeding you "just won't work!"
  • Maybe you just need to shelf this one and go to the next.
Rewrites - not presented

One of the troubles, and not with tribbles (sorry, Star Trek anniversary), is that you may be rewriting earlier pages as you present new ones. So, characters may have changed, a smaller story arc seems unfamiliar without the set up, or you may have completely rethought your main arc!

Making sure you're doing your job by letting the group know about changes you've made is imperative. How can they give you constructive feedback if old outdated information muddles their thoughts? Make sure you're giving them the changes BEFORE your readers go through your material - not AFTER.

Discuss with the group how they would like to see changes. Sometimes they are so vast that earlier pages need to be reread, but as a general refresher and not necessarily for a detailed critique or line edit. I've asked my group to reread large chunks at their leisure (with apologies) just so they can see the changes I've made and I don't expect details, just a general, "Yeah, this is better" or "No, this didn't work" and will ask them to elaborate enough so I can understand where I've failed or where I've succeeded.

Moving Forward

Eventually your piece will get to the polishing stage, as your group accompanied you through the painful awkward beginning stages of the project. Yes, it's a humbling experience but should never be humiliating. It will be painful and as a writer your skin needs to get pretty thick in order to survive the process to a finished manuscript - first you'll get it from your group, then your agent, then your editor! In between there will be the large flood of rejection letters from agents or publishing companies.

What makes a writer a writer? First, the fact that you must write and that nothing can keep you from it. Secondly, that you persevere and will not give up!

Keep writing!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Attending Film Festivals

My friend and fellow screenwriter Denise Landau wrote me this about what she felt she learned from our most recent visit to a film festival - into which our scripts made it into the finals (festival shall remain unnamed):

  1. It's a drag when Delta loses your baggage.
  2. There is nothing new under the sun at the writer's conference, i.e., no literary learning going on. Not for me, anyhoo.
  3. Film fests are populated mostly by men, except for a few gorgeous, young actresses. Other than you and me, there was only one woman writer there that I could locate. She had a terrible case of the flu.
  4. Gorgeous, young actresses do not have time for the likes of me.
  5. Old guys think I am some nice lookin' wool. I became quite popular, all of them buying me drinks and hanging all over me. There of them offered to help introduce me to the right people and/or turn my script into a movie... if I slept with them. One asked me not to tell my husband, because he had been threatened with a machete before. He had a little trouble with the 'machete' word, as he was seriously sloshed.
  6. A lot of people get sloshed at after parties.
  7. The flu (see #3) is contagious.
  8. It is a serious drag to fly with a case of the flu.

Here are the things I learned:

  1. Resting on your laurels will not keep you successful - i.e. not preparing anything worthwhile for the 2012 screenwriting conference may discourage return visits. 
  2. Bringing your husband to a film festival allows for a no-hitting-on zone. 
  3. Being allergic to alcohol makes other people NOT want to buy you a drink. 
  4. Allowing spouses of panelists to speak can backfire. 
  5. Don't let friends fly with the flu. 
  6. The stranger your hair cut or your shoes, the cooler you think you must be. 
  7. Showing a crappy film a panelist thinks is great, but really isn't, can make for interesting outcomes - see #1. 
  8. There aren't enough female screenwriters succeeding in the industry.

It's great being able to attend the festivals and the gala events in which you have reached finals and you get to meet filmmakers, screenwriters and actors. The nerves are wonderful - did I win? Did my friend win? You meet up with friends and get to meet new ones. You learn how certain people's personalities change with alcohol and learn whether you want to be around them at such times or not. You get free practice pitching your script and hope the other person is sober enough to enjoy it and is really interested and not just being polite. With any luck, the room you booked is also nice and with a good view.

I must admit that the best part of this latest festival was meeting up with old friends and meeting new ones. As a writer, the computer screen is your best pal, though generally opinionless, so the chance to be around other writers doing what you do, frustrated by similar issues, whose spouses can also commiserate, is a pretty neat place to be.

I'm finding more niche writers than anything else, in other words, independent film types. Since I belong to that group, I'm thrilled. Seeing people like Ted Hope work so hard to promote non-Hollywood projects thrills me to no end.

So, while I'm taking a little break from arranging acting classes, casting, producing, and writing screenplays, it's nice to reflect on the craft and all that goes with it. I've recently started a screenwriting critique group in Fresno (Woodward Screenwriting Group), a critique group, and I can't tell you how fulfilling it is to share work! I encourage it for those of you who are looking for feedback as you go along or after (you think) you're on the final draft.

Speaking of final drafts, there's a series I write for Three Lines or Less called "Creating an Unforgettable Screenplay." You can find them here. The latest one deals with Drafts...

KRL is also a place to find my articles, with one coming up soon about my experience at this recent film festival, but more about screenwriting.

See you next time!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Screenwriting...

I've started a series for Three Lines of Less on the "Making Your Screenplay Unforgettable." Here is the first article: Making Minor Characters Count.

Let me know your thoughts! No, really. Was it helpful?

I have a short story coming up soon as well, will post that when it's up.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Writing of THE CULLINGS PRINCIPLE - Part 2

  For a quick update on the script now. Since several more contests have announced and I've put the script up on a few more sites (including and, things are still rolling forward.
  The script won The Writers Place in the feature category (2012) and hit the Quarter Finals of Fresh Voices - I'm still in the running here. I've also placed either in the finals or long list of: 1 in 10 Screenplay Contest, Smashcut Screenplay Contest, Three Lines or Less (pitch), and FilmMakers International Screenwriting Awards. I will admit that there are two so far I did not place in. I am on pins and needles through July, when the last few contests will announce.
  One Producer has asked for the treatment so far, so I'm thrilled to see things moving - in any direction but back is great!
  Thanks for all of your support!

Friday, December 16, 2011



Over the summer I wrote a new full length screenplay - an adaption of my own novel. Why? It's absolutely fascinating to me to how a novel must differ from a screenplay, and from a play. If the same story is written as three different manuscripts (novel, screenplay, play), one ends up with three different stories on a theme.

The focus changes. Characters come to the fore while others are minimized, sometimes combined and occasionally deleted. The story arc remains the same, in my case, but subtext changes as do subplots. Speeches are swapped, expanded on or decreased. Entire sections are moved. Entire sections are deleted. Entire sections are added.

And the title, it changes as well...

THE CULLINGS PRINCIPLE is the screenplay. A MAN OF LETTERS is the novel.

Why? Two completely different markets. What works for one doesn't necessarily work for the other. There are different rules altogether.

The briefest summary I can give is this logline: In 1850‘s London, Owen Cullings desperately seeks his sister, purported dead in a curt letter. Fruitless months of searching allow his access into London’s high society and its underbelly. Ill and with only one lead left, the young attorney will have to face the truth about himself first...

So, it's a Victorian-era suspense. It crosses into several genres - literary fiction and GLBT included. It has a huge cast of distinct characters. It's verbose at times, while at others we find not a word. I respect the ability of the actors who will one day portray these characters.


So, let me backtrack a bit to the screenplay first. The most surprising thing I learned was that I am capable of cutting more than I ever thought I could. As a writer, you know how difficult it is to let go of certain scenes, or lines, or descriptions! But sometimes, it just has to go!

I have to say that since spec scripts have a page limit, it made the process quite simple. I had a goal. However, I didn't think I could cut almost 100 pages. Yes, you read that right! From around 202 to 118. How? It began with a simple formula: for every ___ pages I must delete ____. I kept track on a legal pads - doing the math, making the numbers shrink. Then I would do it again, if I didn't reach my goal. It  did this twice. All I can say is: It can be done!

On this journey I had to ask for help. I met a gentleman named Richard Broadhurst through a filmmaking friend and asked him to do coverage for the script. Yes, the first thing I apologized for was the length and told him I'd send him something shorter. He was wonderful with phone conferences and ultimately with some notes. It felt truly wonderful to be able to discuss everything from character development to plot, from language choice to formatting. I'm usually on the other side of the equation - as the reader/critiquer - and it was very helpful to be on this side for a change. It is very different from being in a critique group.

Richard gave me moral support and encouragement, and that, I believe, helped most of all. Also, he is able to discuss the negative and positive without putting the writer in a spot - it's a discussion, back and forth. He told me he appreciated the fact that I could TAKE critique without becoming defensive and could look at it objectively.

This is an important point - and it didn't come easy! It took me many years to learn how to do this. Yes, there are times it feels personal, but that is the lesson to learn: as a professional writer, do what needs to be done to make the story the best that it can be.

After several months of intense rewrites and a table read with some fabulous local actors (helps to be a casting director), the script was finalized. Robin Bodey also read the script and helped with her critiques, as usual.

It is important to state that this script is not a four-quadrant hollywood tent-pole blockbuster. It is a character study, a mystery, a coming of age tale. In a way, it is Merchant-Ivory material. It's a period piece. It's an indie!

It exposes the good and the bad, and the protagonist is heavily flawed - he's not perfect, he has to go through a lot to simply unearth parts of himself. And every character goes through an arc of discovery.


I have always been an independent film fan (and I'll include foreign films in this broad category) - it's what I seek out, what I thrive on. Ask my kids about our Netflix queue. As I submit for representation, I find that writers like me are sought only by a small percentage in Hollywood - as I suspected, I will do much better in the overseas (UK) market.

I have been told things like simplify the language. Minimize characters. Make the protagonist more lovable. I refuse. I have nothing against rewrites to smooth out problems, fix errors, just ask Richard! But I REFUSE TO DUMB DOWN MY MATERIAL.

I have respect for my audience. I will write for them what I want others to write for me: profound characters, smart dialog, complex plot, no limits. I don't want to figure out the plot from the trailer, nor do I want to discover it when I've just tapped my popcorn.

Let's look at some examples of good writing:
JANE EYRE (2011)
ETC. (I could go on for pages...)

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not comparing myself to them. I aspire to be a good writer, work incredibly hard at my rewrites, am the harshest critic of all, and punish myself when I fall short of expectation. I can only strive to be improve. Improvements are incremental - I learn little lessons along the way and hopefully by the time I'm 80, I'll be much better.


I have so far sent out the screenplay to a number of festivals and contests. So far I've reached the finals in EVERY one which has thus far announced. Despite the fact that this is not a Hollywood blockbuster. I'm absolutely thrilled - and gobsmacked! I'm still in the running for a number of contests which have not yet announced winners. I am hopeful, to say the least.

I will keep on working on new material and editing that which is not yet in a final draft. I am presently wrapping up the novel version (A Man of Letters) and will be submitting it within the month.

I will keep you posted...