New Year Review

Personal, Podcasts, TV, Work

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New Year’s has never been my favorite holiday, though I admit I like it more as I get older. It’s refreshing to eat healthier and clean out your closets, even if the spell only lasts a few weeks. However, as December waned, I took no joy in all the year end round-ups and “best of” lists. I had a gnawing irritation in my gut. I felt like a failure for not meeting my goals, for not getting any closer to the career and life I want. And that feeling was stealing my joy.

Christmas was busy enough to keep me distracted, but the feeling of failure was still lurking around. After Christmas, I was driving and feeling dejected, listening to a rebroadcast of one of my favorite podcasts, Dinner Party Download. The episode contained an interview with Jason Segel, from back when he was promoting his critically-acclaimed movie, The End of the Tour. I listen to DPDL every week, so I had most certainly heard the interview before. Maybe I missed it last time, or maybe I forgot, but Segel dropped some wisdom that was so simple and clear that it lifted me out of my anxiety fog.

“If you are being nice to the people around you, and are trying to take care of yourself and do a little exercise, and are working as hard as you can at what you do, then you’re entitled to have a little bit of peace.”

-Jason Segel

Yes! Yes, Jason, I am entitled to some peace. You know, it’s not as if all this anxiety has propelled me forward in my “career.” It’s not some renewable energy source that I can use to fuel my life. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Anxiety kills creativity and sucks the fun out of everything. So remind me of this in a few months, when I’m still plugging away at writing, with no success, still a 32 year-old barista, still not sure what to do with myself. Just remind me that none of those things should get between me and my enjoyment of life.

A list of things that I did in 2015

  • Wrote a screenplay.
  • Signed my first option agreement. (That one kind of fell in my lap, but I’m counting it because it’s a big milestone for me.)
  • Changed jobs. Out of retail hell, hopefully for good.
  • Grappled with screenplay structure and seem to have come to terms with it. For this I have the Scriptnotes podcast to thank, as well as Craig Mazin‘s talk on structure at the Austin Screenwriter’s Conference.
  • Speaking of which, I attended the aforementioned Austin Screenwriter’s Conference and found my tribe.
  • Oddly, I finally began using two social media sites that have been ubiquitous for years: Pinterest and Instagram.

A list of things I’d like to do in 2016

  • Read more books. (I created a Books board on Pinterest (which is pretty heavily influence by NPR’s Book Concierge) to keep track of my must-read list.)
  • Make a list of classic movies and watch them.
  • Spend less time mindlessly scrolling the internet.
  • Have better posture. (Continuing the trend of “discovering” things everyone already loves, I think I may like yoga…)
  • Cook from my cookbooks more. (I have whole cookbooks from which I’ve cooked nary a recipe.)
  • Submit my work to screenplay festivals.

There. Nothing on that list is unachievable. Some of those things are actually fun.

The Year’s Best

As my New Year’s gift to you, I’m listing some of what I’ve watched, read, or listened to this year.

I’d love to hear about your favorites of 2015 and what you’re looking forward to in 2016. Happy New Year!

 

Life After Austin

Work

Last week I attended the Austin Film Festival Screenwriters Conference. I’m back to normal life now. But I feel different. I feel less anxious about my career path. I feel less anxious about my writing. It could be post-conference afterglow, but I think at least some of it will last.

But why? Nothing has changed since I went to Austin. I didn’t have a magical breakthrough on my script. I didn’t meet any high-level industry insiders. I didn’t discover a guaranteed path to success (because there isn’t one.) What I found at the screenwriters’ conference was bunch of other screenwriters. We met at panels and parties and had meals together. We bonded and commiserated and laughed together. I watched their faces and saw myself in their expressions. It seems like a small thing, but they listened to me and remembered details about our conversations. We talked about our scripts. We gushed over our favorite shows and movies.

What I learned is that my private anxieties and neuroses are not personal flaws, they’re just pretty common characteristics of writers. (I know, a neurotic writer, who would’ve thought?) Turns out I’m not the only “late bloomer” beginning a career in screenwriting. I’m not the only person making a crazy bet on terrible odds–I’m just the only person I know making that bet. Until now. Now I know a whole lot of crazy, hopeful, impassioned and inspired screenwriters.

It just feels damn good to have found my people.

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Processed with VSCOcam with a1 preset

Productivity and Breathing Room

Personal, Work

There are countless advice articles for writers encouraging us to write everyday. Steven Pressfield, who I touted in my previous post, orders us to defy Resistance and write. The beautiful force of love and wisdom and profanity that is Cheryl Strayed tells us to “write like a motherfucker.” I believe them and agree with them because what they’re talking about is hard work, and I’ve grown suspicious of anything that purports to be easy.

But recently I favorited this tweet:

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I favorited it almost without thinking, because it’s true for me. Often solutions to problems, ideas, or rewrites will come to me when I’m not doing anything related to writing. Driving is an especially productive time for me, which is somewhat unfortunate given that I haven’t mastered voice-recorded dictation. Last week I sent my script out to two friends for feedback. So it’s kind of a natural point to let it breathe. But in the meantime, another of my ideas began to coalesce in my brain. I sat down and wrote a beat sheet of sorts for a new script. But the whole time I kept writing and thinking the wrong character names because my head’s still in the other script.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this week. How to find the balance between writing like a motherfucker and giving it time to breathe.

The War of Art

Books, Personal, Work

I can’t believe I forgot to write a blog post last week, because I actually had something really cool to share. Last week I read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and I felt like I was reading a book about myself. If you know me and you’ve wondered over the years, “What is the deal with Alison? She’s seems smart enough. Why can’t she get her shit together?” (Believe me, I’ve been wondering that too.) This book has the answer. It’s Resistance.  Resistance is the inner force that works against us whenever we try to do something positive or creative. I recognized it the moment Pressfield began to describe it. I’ve wrestled with Resistance for years. I feel it everyday. But now that someone has identified it for me, and clued me in to its devious manipulations, I feel more powerful to fight it.

There are so many takeaways from The War of Art, that I could never convey them all in a blog post. I highly recommend reading it yourself. Especially if you are someone who’s always had a desire or calling you’ve never fulfilled, or never tried to fulfill.  You know who you are. And it doesn’t just apply to creatives. If you’ve ever dreamed of doing something that would be good for you and the world, but a little voice told you not to, because of fear, insecurity, or inertia—you should read this book.

Normally I don’t read a lot of “self help” books. I tend to get bored with them. But I will probably read this book again. That’s how great it is. I also read a follow up called Do the Work, which is shorter but takes the concept of Resistance and lays out more practical advice for actually doing the work required to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.

I’ll leave you with this quote from The War of Art.

Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

– Steven Pressfield

Filling the Well

Personal, Work

  

I’m traveling today, so this update will be brief. Last week I told you I had moved on to a new script after hitting a wall with the first one. Well, after a weekend away from it and most of Monday spent running errands and listening to music, I got some new ideas. So I’m back in the old script!

I bet you’re not surprised. I think everyone has a related experience, when all you needed was a little break to refresh your mind. That’s not to say I have it all figured out, but at least I have a direction. 

I can’t remember where I read it, but recently I saw a passage from Julia Cameron about filling your well. Creative work drains your “well” so you must take time to fill it with more images, and I think, sounds, smells, stories, tastes, and feelings.

As artists we must learn to be self-nourishing. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them– to restock the trout pond, so to speak. I call this process filling the well. 

– Julia Cameron


I think I will read some of her books. 

Progress Update

New outline/timeline and 13 pages into version 3. 

My Challenges

Figuring out what the hell I’m doing. 

  


Screw the Muse

Personal, Work

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Not to sound repetitive, but it was another weird week. On Tuesday I enlisted the services of professional screenwriting consultant, Erik Bork. I’d read a lot of his blog entries and liked his tone. Some screenwriting blogs have obnoxious graphics and a kind of arrogant tone. Erik’s tone is honest and down to earth and he writes about issues that concern me. If you go to his website, you can sign up to receive his Ten Key Principles of Screenwriting. I found these to be really helpful and informative.

Erik raised some issues regarding my screenplay that I can’t seem to get around. The conflict is too internal. The characters are underdeveloped. I know with enough work I could fix the characters. But I’m stuck on this internal conflict. The idea for the script came to me several years ago and I’ve been building it a little at a time. I never stopped to consider the structure of the story, or the main conflict. Looking back it feels like I started building a house without a blue print. But by now the idea is solidified in my head. After our conversation, I sat down and tried to manufacture an external conflict, but it felt like I was straying from the story I wanted to tell. The thing is, I know Erik is right. I agree with his criticisms. I just don’t know how to fix it.

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So I decided to put this script aside and begin work on another idea. The new idea has a more straightforward, external conflict. I think it fits better into the screenplay structure. This week I started hashing out the story. The idea isn’t as fully formed as the other and the scope is bigger. I’m entering a territory where ideas don’t just come to me from the ether, I’m actively producing them. It’s hard. At the same time it’s empowering, not to be dependent on the “muses” for inspiration. And my hope is that once I’ve digested the formula for screenplays and gained more experience as a writer I can go back to the script I wrote this month and make it better.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve taken on an enormous task. Maybe I’ve set my goals too high. Three screenplays in six months could be crazy. But I’m going to try anyway. Not trying isn’t an option.

And I’d like to thank those of you who’ve encouraged me over the past week. Your words are greatly appreciated.

Progress Update

This week I began outlining a new script. It’s all handwritten so far, nothing in the computer yet. I also did quite a bit of research on Monday and Tuesday. I love doing this research because I don’t have to turn it into a term paper and hand it in for a grade. In fact, I can play fast and loose with the facts because I’m writing fiction!

My Challenges

Keeping my spirits up and the wheels turning. I’ve also been breaking some of my productivity rules this week, spending too much time on social media and no time in face to face meetings with friends. I will do better next week.

A Weird Week

Personal, Work
A beautiful photo to get you through these last teasing weeks before spring. (Photo via Unsplash.)

A beautiful photo to get you through these last teasing weeks before spring. (Photo via Unsplash.)

It’s been a weird week. I’m waiting for feedback on my second draft and I’ve been a tad under the weather. So productivity was down, but only slightly. I re-read my draft a couple of times and I’ve found myself growing quite fond of the characters. You’d think characters would be like children, you birth them and immediately love them. But these characters came to me only partially formed and I had to build them into something interesting.

But are they interesting? That’s the question that nags at me. I’ve succeeded in creating something that I like. But I’m not one of those artists who’s just in it to please themselves. Actually, other people not liking my work would not be the worst thing. Other people being bored by my work would be the worst thing.

Progress Update

This week I read and edited my draft, sought feedback, and re-wrote the short film script that will accompany this feature length script. The good news is that I’m actually ahead of schedule by about two weeks. Oh! And I thought of a title. (That’s big for me.)

My Challenges

Being patient and figuring out how to fill the gap between finishing the draft and getting feedback. I brainstormed a little for my next script but didn’t feel like I could devote enough head space to it yet.

 

The Need for Feedback

Personal, Work

There’s a feeling you get when you think something you’ve written is good. I like that feeling but I don’t trust it. This story came from my brain, of course it would strike a chord with me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see flaws in my work. That’s what this week has been about: correcting flaws, filling in gaps,  and trying to create a cohesive story.

A lot of what I’ve done this week has been what I’ve called “punching up.” Comedians are often hired to do this for comedy scripts. They add jokes and make existing gags funnier. My script is not a comedy, but I’ve been trying to apply that concept to each scene; up the conflict, enrich the characters, obscure the exposition. In a perfect world I imagine all those things would flow out of you and into the script, eliminating the need for drafts. Maybe that’s how the Charlie Kaufmans and the Paul Thomas Andersons do it.

The funny thing is, I’ve come to a point where the flaws are not jumping out at me. Last week and the week before, they were glaringly obvious. I don’t have illusions that my script is perfect. I suspect I’ve reached the limit of my knowledge, or awareness. For this reason, I reached out to a trusted friend to read the script and offer feedback. It helps to have fresh eyes read it and react to it. But I know from experience that not all feedback is helpful. I think a good rule of thumb is to reach out to someone with at least your level of expertise (or higher). I’m also considering reaching out to a professional screenwriting consultant for feedback. Given the cost of consultants, I’m not sure I want to put that much money into this particular script. It’s something I’ll have to mull over.

Progress Update

This week I finished the second draft, did two read-throughs, and a couple rounds of revisions based on my own notes.

My challenges

Fighting fatigue and loss of momentum. Knowing when something is good enough.

Forget Charlie Kaufman, this is Charlie Mauldin.

Forget Charlie Kaufman. I give you Charlie Mauldin.

Finding Balance: A Libra’s Story

Personal, Work

Formula vs. Freestyle

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about formula. Some writers are adamantly against it. Others, especially writers of screenplays, embrace it. (A quick Google search will net you opinionated missives from both sides of the line. )The formula that seems to have been accepted by much of the screenwriting industry is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, which I have read and found helpful, but also a bit confining. I feel that slavish devotion to formula will lead to predictable and boring films. But a total disregard for structure can make a film unwatchable. After all, beginning, middle, and end; rising action; falling action, denouement; these are all part of a formula, right?

I am using the Save the Cat beat sheet as an outline for my script. It has helped tremendously. But I do like the concept of learning the rules so you can break them later.

Externalized Internal Conflict

I talked with screenwriting consultant Erik Bork about my idea, and my concerns that all the conflict was internal, leaving me with a lack of action. We talked about how, due to the visual nature of film, screenplays need an external manifestation of conflict. I am excited to put this to the test, trying new ways to externalize, or visualize conflict. But since the idea I’m working on right now is naturalistic in style, I’m sticking to more realistic ways of accomplishing this. For now, at least.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is the ideas we’re “given” and how to know if they’re good or not. For the sake of this endeavor, I’ve chosen not to throw out my overall idea for the screenplay, and to work hard to craft it into something good. But there’s always that little voice that says, “This idea is lame. What a piece of crap.” It’s the same voice that asks me everyday, “Why are you even doing this writing thing? The odds of it going anywhere are so low. What a waste of time.”

I’m ignoring that voice.

Ink on Paper vs. Fingers on Keys

Do you work better with a pen and paper or do you compose on a computer? I haven’t been doing this long enough to have an established process, but I am naturally averse to routine anyway, so maybe I never will. This week I’ve relied on pens, markers, notebooks, and index cards to help me organize and visualize my thoughts. But when it comes time to actually write out these ideas, typing directing into the document is so much faster.

I’ve become fascinated with the inside of professional writers’ rooms. I love to see how they organize and visualize their ideas.

This must be the most hilarious writer's room to work in.

This must be the most hilarious writer’s room to work in.

This is a still from the trailer of a new documentary, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn. (Click to watch the trailer.)

This is a still from the trailer of a new documentary, My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn. (Click to watch the trailer.)

Progress Update

This week I rearranged the order of the events in my story, which I think made it much more interesting. I’m also in the process of adding that external manifestation of conflict that I talked about earlier. I think this will also make the story’s resolution more satisfying.

My Challenges

My challenges this week have been staying motivated and fighting fatigue. Vigorous brain work always saps my energy and I end up needing breaks and a lot of snacks. Next week I hope to find the balance between wasting time and taking periodic breaks.

 

Show Your Work

Books, Personal, Work

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Today I reread Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work. His book is the reason I’m blogging about my screenwriting efforts. He makes a simple and logical case for doing something I’ve always found difficult: letting people see behind the curtain. For a person with perfectionist tendencies, it’s much more comfortable to keep your work hidden until you’ve finessed and approved every detail. But Kleon makes the case that a lot can be gained from sharing online throughout your process. Through sharing I could find a community, get feedback, acquire an audience, and potentially deepen my understanding of what I’m working on.

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Kleon pulled this quote from Harmon’s 2011 interview with Wired magazine. (Click to go to the article.)

But even if I gain none of that, if I keep sharing on a regular basis I will eventually have a nice record of what I’ve been up to.

Progress Update

This morning I finished my first draft! It feels a bit premature to drop the confetti and balloons. It will no doubt be the first of many, many drafts. But it feels good to have accomplished something.

My Challenges

The story I’m writing now deals with more everyday aspects of life, like work and relationships. Things I’ve written in the past dealt with more extreme behavior and emotions. My challenge right now is to find conflict in each scene (or create it) and raise the stakes enough to keep it interesting.