Tag Archives: rewriting

Hitting The Writer’s Block (And Breaking Right On Through It)

In all my nearly twenty years as a poet and writer, I’ve never believed in writer’s block.

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And this isn’t a piece expounding on how I suddenly found myself staring into the blank Microsoft Word document glowing back on my laptop, how my fingers froze, or how some unfelt before fear from the Great Beyond had turned on the faucet and I started sweating profusely.

No, I still don’t believe in writer’s block.

But it believes in me, and it almost hit me nonetheless. Hard.

As many of you probably know, since March of 2013, I’ve been writing a series of mystery novels under the auspices of “Hipster Noir” on the PATH train during my morning and evening commute to work. Three novels later, over 200,000 words, and one proposal to pitch them all to an agent or publisher, I’m still going strong with my fourth novel, The Curious Case of Tomorrow (Or, The Trouble with Time Travel).

But this fourth novel, which is a direct continuation of the third, the way Quantum of Solace is a continuation of Casino Royale, started making me second guess some things. I would still get on the PATH train from Grove Street in Jersey City to the World Trade Center stop on the other side of the Hudson, and my fingers would still go to work with my iPhone music library shuffling between Tom Waits and Gin Wigmore, with an occasional Lykke Li ballad or Pearl Jam anthem cutting in over the seven-minute or so ride.

This time, however, felt different.

I knew that I was really searching blindly for a spark. Now I can’t get too detailed here because I’d have to divulge what my fourth novel is all about, and I haven’t even published any of the first ones yet, but this was the first time over the course of almost thirty-six months that the writing was not yielding anything that I was getting truly excited about, the way the first three novels had done.

Nonetheless, I kept going. I kept writing every morning and evening, just like I’d done for nearly three years. The only difference was that instead of having my characters, story, and all its plot twists, McGuffins and organically sprout from within, I was actively searching for that spark, yet never thinking to admit that I may have finally found what no writer has ever actively searched for:

The Writer’s Block. And yes, I capitalize it like a proper noun ‘cause it deserves a proper level of respect. Anything that pushes us to become better writers does.

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The way I see it, we are the ones who create the Writer’s Block, by pouring out so much of who we are and what we are in our writing. At one point, we run out of things to write. But as Tom Waits sings, “you build it up, you wreck it down…” in a song appropriately titled “Hold On,” that’s exactly I did. I gave it form, shaped the shapeless into something that, in time, and once I found its weakness, I could hope to break right through.

Back to my Curious Case of Tomorrow. Amid my searching within not one, but two separate timelines that this new novel has split into; after figuring out that what I was writing this time around was no longer a mystery novel, but a science-fiction spaghetti western (if there’s even such a thing); when I finally surprised myself one day riding that iron horse through those morning and evening tunnels humming with the electricity of possibility, I knew I had finally blasted right through that ‘Block.

I had found my voice. Again.

Then I realized that it wasn’t the first time this ever happened, but it was the first time I became aware of it’s happening. And I dealt with it.

The Writer’s Block isn’t a stumbling block, it’s an uncarved block. It doesn’t necessarily have to stop your creativity. It’s not the blank page we stare blankly at, but the page that stares at us and pushes us to shut up our minds and write anything, which proves to be the most frightening thing for us writers –– to write without purpose. Without saying anything.

Writing for the sake of writing. Of calling ourselves writers.

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The Uncarved Block, or Pu, as Taoist abstract art.

But at least we’re writing, and in doing so, we’re showing that ‘Block whose boss.

Not enough of us do this. We hit the ‘Block and we wait for the right words. We complain about it on Facebook. We may go out with our friends to forget about that blank stare for a few hours. And each of these may actually work (or seem to work) to get you back on track.

But to find the right words, you’ve got to write down the words. It’s the Taoist principle of Pu –– the Uncarved Block. Though this particular tenet tells us we should let the world carve us into what it wants. From a writerly perspective, we simply need to start with a vague idea and the raw materials of what needs to be said and then hack out the words that don’t add to it. This way, all we’re left with are the ones that do work, and which will resonate and be remembered long after they’re read.

They’ll also be the ones that will remind us why we started writing in the first place.

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TEDx 2014: Living Up to My Middle Name

“Storyteller. Nostalgist. TED talker, too.”

That’s what I changed all of my bios on social media to ever since I had the privilege of speaking at TEDxJerseyCity on Saturday, November 8th, 2014.

Now I think we all know that TED is a big deal, but I didn’t put that into my head until after I got off the stage at PS4 on Bright Street in Downtown Jersey City because I knew I would have panicked. I consider myself so fortunate to have spoken at most of the top film festivals all over the world –– household names like Sundance, SXSW, and TIFF –– but a TEDx talk is a TED talk, and it’s an honor granted to a few people all over the world.

And for the first time in a long time, I had to work for it.

Here's the original outline. Very bare bones.

Here’s the original outline. Very bare bones.

I wanted to dive into what the process of preparing for a TEDx talk was like for me because it was very different than anything else I’ve ever had to prepare for. First of all, I had to audition for the part, and that brought me back to when I used to perform Shakespeare in the parks. I haven’t auditioned for anything since then, and the organizers of TEDxJerseyCity took this part of the process very seriously.

In fact, I almost didn’t make the cut.

When I did my first audition, I was trying not to focus so much on crowdfunding and instead veer that subject I could talk about in my sleep more towards the power of the crowd. My four-minute audition piece was quite honestly a mess. But one of the organizers, Alicia, believed that I had something truly important to say, and so she met up with me at The Warehouse Café and helped me shift the focus of the talk back to what I’m really meant to talk about –– crowdfunding –– and through that, reveal the power of the crowd through personal stories, examples, and a quick lesson on how ordinary people like us have the power to create positive change in the world because money is no longer an obstacle now that we finally have the tools to overcome the problem of lack of funding.

Initial draft of my first audition piece.

Initial draft of my first audition piece.

Freshly armed with that as my focus, and a couple days of hardcore rehearsals, I ended up wowing the judges during the callbacks that I almost didn’t get invited to, and I made it onto the roster along with sixteen other proud Jersey City speakers who would take the stage and talk about a “Brave New World” of their choosing at TEDxJerseyCity 2014.

The other part that was most difficult for me personally was the actual writing of the talk. See, whenever I speak at an event, I never write down what I’m going to say. It’s all very beatnik (I am a poet, after all) –– “straight from the mind to the voice,” as ol’ Jack would say. The only other time I felt I had to write out my talk was during my SXSW Future15 talk about being a face in the crowd of crowdfunding, where I talked about crowdfunding through the lens of the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith.

The first slide from my SXSW Future15 talk, 2014.

The first slide from my SXSW Future15 talk, 2014.

But I basically did the same thing with the written out version of my TED talk that I did with that SXSW one. I tossed it in the trash and winged it.

The thing about “winging” something is simple: You have to be confident that there’s a wind beneath those wings to hold you up, and that wind is the intention behind what you want to say. How you say it, that’ll always be secondary.

Before we bust into a chorus of Bette Midler’s famous tune, let’s get back to TEDx. Aside from the rough outlines/four-minute audition pieces, I wrote a full outline and a first and second draft of the talk. What I noticed was each time I wrote it, I would add more to it. Always more. Never less. And ultimately when I had a week left and was about to start rehearsing my talk, I let my fiancée Marinell read it.

And she liked it.

Sort of.

“I can’t picture you saying it like this,” Marinell kept on saying, and no matter how many times I reassured her that “the talk that I give on stage will most likely sound nothing like what’s written,” she still wasn’t convinced until I took her to my apartment and performed it for her for the first time. No notes. No cheat sheet. Nothing.

And she loved it.

And this is the last draft, complete with the notes that helped create the final draft.

And this is the last draft, complete with the notes that helped create the final draft.

Did the writing out of the entire talk help me keep the intention behind those words in the forefront of my mind? Sure. But knowing myself the way I do, I should’ve simply sketched out a quick outline onto a couple of napkins and worked off of that. When you know your subject matter, it makes no sense to spend all that time writing it out; just know what you need to say and practice getting it out in the order you need it to be presented, and all will be well.

I spent the next entire week practicing every night after work –– again, something I’m not accustomed to doing. I recorded each rendition of my talk into my iPhone, all the while timing it more old school on an old Breitling stopwatch I permanently borrowed from a high school science class. From my first time of twenty-six minutes to just barely cutting it down to the eighteen-minute TED maximum, the more I practiced, the more I knew what I needed to get across to my audience.

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I was so happy when I snapped this photo for Instagram –– got that talk down to just under seventeen minutes.

On the day of the talk itself, I practiced one last time in the morning, and I was pleased to get it down to fifteen minutes. That meant, I now had precious time to infuse into the talk the spontaneity that makes all of my talks all the more memorable. The quick asides and off-the-cuff additions, but most importantly, working with the crowd in the moment to create with them the best talk possible. To give to them the speech they want to hear. And I think I accomplished that with my TED talk.

But man, it was a lot of work!

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It’s been a week since my TEDxJerseyCity talk, and I’ve been thinking of my Dad a bit more lately. It always happens during this time –– he passed away eight years ago on December 16th –– but this time feels a little different. I find myself wishing I could take a minute and tell him all about my talk, and to hear him in that silent whisper of a voice he left this world with say that he’s proud of the man I’ve become.

I know he is, of course. But sometimes you just need to hear it.

But it’s funny –– We all know that “TED” stands for “Technology, Entertainment, and Design,” but it’s also short for “Teddy,” a nickname for “Theodore” and what the “T.” in “John T. Trigonis” stands for.

And it was also my father’s name, too.

My TEDx talk marks a huge milestone for me, and I have no idea where it will take me next. Perhaps nowhere. Perhaps it will afford me further opportunities to talk about the power that crowdfunding gives to mild mannered men and women all around the world. Time will tell, and I want to thank you all ahead of time for helping me get here.

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Writing Like a Martlet: Five Months Past, Five Lessons Above

A martlet is an interesting little bird –– one with no feet that spends all its time flying because it can’t ever land. Lately, I’ve felt very much like a martlet when it comes to my own writing.

I mentioned in my blog post “Riding the Writer’s Road: Three Lessons Learned in Three Months of Writing” that I spent a lot of time resisting the writer inside, passing him off as a hack or a sell out. Since shrugging off this false notion, I’ve become more than “just” a poet and an author. While I’ve been hard at work on my book Crowdfunding for Filmmakers: The Way to a Successful Film Campaign for Michael Wiese Productions and my proposal and first eight pages of my comic series Siren’s Calling, I felt the need to soar into some fresher kinds of writing, just to keep myself actively hammering away at my wordsmith’s blade.

Here’s where and some of what I’ve been writing over the last month or so:

Broken Frontier
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself as a comics journalist (man, if only that could be a career!), reviewing a few of my favorite titles each month like American Vampire, Batman, Swamp Thing (all three written by my favorite comics writer, Scott Snyder) and Near Death. I’ve also written a review of the first episode of Kevin Smith’s Comic Book Men, as well as a blog about the Robert Kirkman/Terry Moore lawsuit over The Walking Dead franchise and an article about Molly Crabapple’s super successful Kickstarter campaign for her fine art project Shell Game.

Film Slate Magazine
I’ve also written a couple reviews for this top-notch film website and may be reviewing some films from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, if time permits. You can check out my review for the screenwriting documentary Dreams on Spec and one for an indie film called The Trouble with Bliss, which includes some insightful quotes from an interview I did with actor Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and director Michael Knowles.

Jersey City Independent
So far, I’ve contributed one story for Jersey City’s premiere source for fresh, up-to-the-minute news called “Tachair, Grace Church and Others Help Fill the Bookstore Void in Jersey City” about the lack of a bookstore in my town. Hopefully there will be more articles coming up in the near future once Snooki and JWoww get the hell out of Dodge!

Lamplighter Magazine
A while back, former student and fellow writer Patrick Boyle established Lamplighter, NJ’s alternative art, poetry and culture zine, to which I contributed an article about “How I Joined the Zombie Insistence.” Very soon, my second article, “In Praise of Plastic: The Album’s Last Stand in the 21st Century,” will be featured in the first print issue of Lamplighter Magazine, so I’ll keep you updated on all that. Once I find a bit more time, I hope to add a little more digital ink to the Lamplighter website.

My article "War for the Dead" featured on the Broken Frontier homepage.

Each of these four websites has proven a solid whetstone for me to keep my writing skills sharpened as I undergo the painstaking process of revision and proofreading on Crowdfunding for Filmmakers. As soon as the manuscript gets sent off to MWP on May 1st, I’ll be diving back into one final revision of my feature-length vampire screenplay A Beautiful Unlife and the second rewrite of my hit man screenplay Caput.

It’s been an intense month with all of this diverse writing I’ve been doing, and, as always, I’ve learned a great deal about the craft of writing, the world around me, and the microcosm of myself. That said, here are five new lessons learned that can help keep every writer soar high as a martlet without any care to land.

Deadlines are Important Although the deadlines I get from Film Slate Magazine and Broken Frontier are soft at best, they’re still deadlines, and having them has greatly improved the pace at which I write. If I write a 200-word review today, I should have something to show for it tomorrow. It may not seem like a lot of words, but for someone who wants 200 of only the best words for his or her review, it can prove quite a challenge, and we writers have to be up to that challenge at all hours of the day or night.

(Cut the Sh*t in Parentheses) Much the way parentheticals –– quick bits of direction from a writer to an actor –– are omitted from most contemporary screenplays, I’m learning how to omit them from my writing entirely. I realized I use them too much, and anything fenced in between parentheses are usually nothing more than the writer’s afterthoughts, and an afterthought, by definition, isn’t worth mentioning since you thought of it after the fact. Keep it after the fact and your writing will stay golden.

Of Editors and Writers When you write for magazines and review sites that love everything you write and post it almost immediately, you get a little spoiled and may start to expect every site you write for to accept your work as is, without question or edit. That said, the article that was published by The Jersey City Independent was not the article I originally wrote. It’s funny, because I constantly preach to my students to never be afraid to “kill your babies” –– all those lovely lines that don’t add anything to your story, article or poem but that you love and don’t want to get rid of –– but when someone else does the killing for you, it naturally feels wrong. Even if it’s done in the most humane way possible, as the JCI editor had done to mine:

I edited out a lot of your beautiful turns of phrase, but some parts of your prose felt a little too florid to me for a news piece. Sometimes I just felt like I needed to whack some adjectives and cut to the chase. I also took out the bit of editorializing you included because I didn’t want to come out and state an opinion.

With the exception of the word “whack,” this is a compassionate explanation, and as much as I understand and agree with the editor’s points, it still hurt when I first saw my abridged news piece. It’s sort of like Candy and his dog in John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men; he’s hurt after Carlson shoots his old dog instead of doing it himself. At the end of the day, however, when you’re writing (1) news (2) for publishers (3) for a paycheck, the writing isn’t about you anymore, and we have to give the editors exactly what they want, and should be able to kill our own babies before they do.

“The Tao is Forever Undefined,” a Writer Defined Forever A Taoist at heart, I go flow with the invisible current of the Universe in everything I do. The other day I met with a young man who reached out to me on Facebook and offered me what I thought was a job as a social media person. Considering that in another year or two the amount of classes I teach per semester may be substantially reduced due to budget cuts, I decided to entertain this notion as an alternative source of income. Long story short, and after listening to a twenty-minute homily from this young man’s senior officer who was nothing more than a textbook for sales pitches and psychology, I realized this “job” was nothing more than a pyramid scheme. A waste of time? Of course not, for it helped me to see that I could never do anything else but what I’m doing now, which is writing and teaching. And if classes become scarce, I’ll simply have no other choice but to put my writing skills, creative and otherwise, to more lucrative uses, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Balance is Bliss While I like writing my reviews for Swamp Thing and The Trouble with Bliss as a diversion from my red inking of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers, I still have to balance these new kinds of writing with my own projects, both creative and expository, to keep the worlds I’m working on floating soundly in the galaxy of myself. Luckily, many of the publishers I write for allow me to be creative with my words, and for that I’m thankful, since it helps me deal with those who prefer straight news to my strong editorial biases. But it’s that kind of balance that keeps us writers moving in the forward direction with every piece we pen.

These lessons I’ve learned are lessons we all learn as writers committed to the word trade. Until next post, I’ll leave you with something I tweeted as soon as I left that meeting with the pyramid schemer.

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Riding the Writer’s Road: Three Lessons Learned in Three Months of Writing

Today marks the beginning of my fourth month writing The Tao of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers, and on May 1st I should have a complete manuscript ready to turn in to the editors at Michael Wiese Productions. Back in December, I wrote a post called “Tao Te Trig: The Flow, the Muse and the Working Writer’s World” about what I’d learned during my first month of being a working writer, so I thought I’d continue that here with three important lessons I’ve learned in three months as an author.

Lesson #1: Get Organized, Stay Organized
I’m no stranger to the written word; I’ve written at least a couple thousand poems (if you count my napkin poems of 2000 – 2003), a dozen short stories, one five-act play, and four feature-length screenplays (two of which are still with us) and the one thing I’ve learned is to get and stay organized. I wrote about my ten pages a day screenwriting philosophy, but I find each type of writing demands different requirements and so each requires unique organization.

Sometimes the texture of a napkin is more conducive to a decent poem than a page from my Moleskine.

For The Tao of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers, I spent a day and broke each of my eleven sections into weeks. I worked a four-day per week writing schedule, my days off from teaching, and squeezed in some extra hours on the days I did work but had a substantial lull between classes. If I finished my weekly quota, I refrained from getting a head start and instead worked on something else; I was already being pretty ambitious with my weekly schedule as it was, and sticking to it was challenge enough.

Now, I have a complete first (and rough) draft of my book of about 300 pages (more than I ever thought I’d write!), which will now need to be cut down during the revision stage; and a new stage means new organization.

Lesson #2: “Be Impeccable with Your Word”
This is the first of four agreements I took to heart from reading Don Miguel Ruiz’s book of Toltec wisdom The Four Agreements, which I discovered buried at the bottom of a box of books at one of the universities where I teach.

The Four Agreements of Don Miguel Ruiz.

You may wonder why my two blogs, Hat & Soul and The Trigonis Review, don’t have a regular frequency for posts, and that’s because I refuse to push any of my writing out into the world that isn’t at its very best. An idea is precious, and it exist in our minds in its purest form; there it retains 100% of its power to inform, to inspire, and ultimately, to transform. Once we attempt to translate that idea into words, it will undoubtedly lose some of its original essence because words are all too human while the idea itself is divine. By the time we choose our words, we may only be getting across to the reader 75% of the actual, untainted idea.

Therefore, in order to maximize the power of language, writers must be impeccable with our words. If we know we can say something more clearly and concisely to ensure that our readers will understand exactly what we want them to understand, then we owe it to ourselves and to our readership to put forward only our very best writing.

Lesson #3: Resistance is Futile
As much as I don’t want to admit this to myself, let alone to all of you reading this, I spent a great deal of time resisting my natural calling as a writer. I’ve always prided myself on being a poet, and I’ve been trudging along this mysterious life with a suitcase packed full of self-imposed rules of what it means to be a poet –– Always Think Deep Thoughts; Always Appear Beat and Brooding; and above all, Never Sell Out, which oftentimes means only the first two words of that sentence for me.

"Untamed Muse" by Tom Kidd: A great depiction of my vision of a poet.

Sometimes it takes more than a imaginary muse to tell you how it is and help you see the world through a different pair of shades.

How did The Tao of Crowdfunding for Filmmakers come about in the first place? My girlfriend Marinell and I were talking one night about how so many crowdfunders were benefiting from my first Tao of Crowdfunding blog post, and she suggested I write a book about it since I’d been grumbling about not having an actual book of poetry published yet. I declined, to which she retorted that I really should start making money off my writing. Initially, the poet in me got upset, but the writer hidden deep inside heard the call. I wanted to write a poem, but instead I wrote a solid proposal with the idea in my mind of proving to Marinell that a legitimate book publisher would, in fact, want to have this book as part of its catalog. Interestingly enough, I didn’t need to prove anything to her –– she already believed in me with utmost certainty that I could do it; instead, I ended up proving it to myself. The rest is history and a Twitter hashtag.

And here I am now, closing in on my 34th year and I finally understand that while only living the life of a poet I’d been neglecting my “Unlived Life” as a working writer; I never believed someone would want to pay to read something I’d written. I’ve since unpacked my old Million Miler filled with fabricated Rules and the faintest whispers of Resistance and embrace the scribe’s boulevard up ahead, with all its curves, turns and crossroads, and green lights as far as the eye can imagine.

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What are YOUR thoughts about life on the “scribe’s boulevard”? Writers, any advice you’d care to share from your experiences? Readers, any thoughts from the reader’s perspective of things will help us pack this Comments section for the long journey ahead.

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From Fire Comes Light: Screen(re)writing from the Soul

During the past two years, and under the tutelage of Hollywood script analyst Michael Ray Brown, I’ve been writing, rewriting, and revising my fourth feature-length screenplay called A Beautiful Unlife.

Its very first draft, the first 30 pages of which I co-wrote with long-time friend and collaborator Joe Whelski, was a straight up comedy, which isn’t my forte. In its first major rewrite, the story made the leap from lowbrow laughs to Citizen Kane. Drafts three and four brought it somewhere in the middle of this chain of extremes, and by the fifth and now sixth draft, it’s finally nestled snugly in the comfort zone of what A Beautiful Unlife is actually meant to be––a darkly comedic vampire film.

Now granted, two years isn’t a long time to work on a screenplay, but for a poet and short filmmaker like myself, keeping my attention poised on a single project for that long and seeing it through to its sixth inception is quite a triumph! I’ve only written three other feature-length scripts in my time, one of which was a short feature (about 50 pages), the other two just exercises (though I didn’t think that then) that only ever reached a second draft and are now boxed up in my brother’s dungeon, their computer-generated counterparts long since erased.

Being a self-taught screenwriter, I looked to various screenwriting books to help guide my way. When I’d written my very first screenplay for Alain Aguilar’s film Cog, I only had one blueprint to go by, Alan Ball’s screenplay for American Beauty. Later on I eventually read Syd Field’s Screenplay, what was back then the screenwriter’s Bible. In recent years, I’ve also paged through a plethora of other books, namely Robert McKee’s Story and Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno, but I found that they all just regurgitate the same information in Screenplay, just a slight bit differently.

But during my rewrite of A Beautiful Unlife and from revisiting these renowned books, I found that these same books, when taken too much for Gospel, can brighten the wonderfully dark corridors of the labyrinth of a screenplay so intensely that a writer can forget the joy of finding one’s own way out of that darkness with just a torch.

That was the case with me; I was worrying too much about logistics and not enough about my characters and the story they wanted to tell. As a result, I became stifled, uninspired, and couldn’t write. More so, I even avoided working on the rewrite for a few weeks. Then I decided to let myself go, like I had done with my first rewrite, which had earned a “qualified consider” from Michael, and to not worry about plot points and composition and just write. Write from my gut, from my soul, from whatever you want to call it. And when it was all writ and reread, everything was in place, including a brand new ending that made sense, and I made it out of this maze by writing from the fire in my gut, not from the fluorescent tubes of my brain, which should be reserved for revision and polishing, not writing or rewriting.

This little anecdote reminds me of a helpful nugget of insight I discovered last October at the 2009 Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles. As screenwriters, we all have a tendency to get hung up on the most unimportant aspects of the craft (Should I use all caps for sound effects? and How do I format phone conversations? are two questions that spring to mind.) The number one emphasis still is and always will be story. I heard it from Michael and at least five other seminar instructors: Producers couldn’t care less if your second plot point happens on page 28 or 38; they only want to keep turning pages.

I’ll conclude with this: Write from the soul of your story and you’ll never go wrong. And in terms of books, the only book every screenwriter needs to fully digest is one that’ll teach you nothing about screenwriting but everything about story (no, not Aristotle’s Poetics, although it comes in at a close second!) It’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Every character goes on the same journey, from King Oedipus to Luke Skywalker, from Bill and Ted to Basil in A Beautiful Unlife. It’s a pretty safe bet that this model is never going to change.

Campbell's Hero Quest is THE progenitor of screenplay and story structure.

Every other book out there––and there are plenty I haven’t mentioned––when taken with a grain of salt, is gravy.

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