Tag Archives: screenwriting

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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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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Auteurs Rising: Filmmaking’s First Act Revisited

I recently had a brief but insightful discussion with a screenwriter friend of mine about just how long it should take to write a short script. Apparently, someone mentioned she’d taken a while to finish her fifteen-page script,  suggesting that in the time it took her to finish writing it, he or she could’ve completed the entire film from Final Draft to Final Cut, perhaps. It got me thinking about this lightning-fast world of ours and the many filmmakers in it who hold to this mentality, that the more films they make, the better their films will get in time. While this makes perfect sense from a technical skills standpoint, it says nothing about quality storytelling, and for a film to be as good as it can be, the script needs to be as good as it can be.

If the three acts of filmmaking are writing, shooting and editing, then quality can only begin in that first act, like the exposition of any great movie. It comes down to a question of quality versus quantity, and the former in any film, indie or otherwise, begins on the page. So every filmmaker should practice being a filmwriter first and foremost. Innovation in filmmaking is another integral part of the process, but a filmmaker should know his or her story inside and out and work out any kinks on paper before they can discover interesting and effective new ways of progressing that story from beginning to end.

But today, since new toys are readily at every indie filmmaker’s disposal and at relatively cheap prices, just about anyone can shoot some footage, edit it together on an iPhone and swiftly move on to the next. At this year’s Cannes Short Film Corner, for instance, my short film Cerise was one of 1900 other short films that’d been registered at the festival’s Digital Film Library. With this faster workflow in mind, it’s no wonder there are so many more auteurs out here making movies on more regular bases, and each time hoping one of them might afford them their big break.

It’s the same procedure that screenwriters undergo, really. They slave over laptops tapping away at their next feature with the same levels of hard work and hope that filmmakers exhibit when they bring those words to life on the screen. But screenwriters know the importance of composing coherent and compelling stories before the cameras start capturing them in HD; you can easily revise a few pages of dialogue, but you can’t revise a few slapdash shots that were slapdash because they weren’t fleshed out enough in the first act of the filmmaking process. Then, two wicked words are born: “Reshoot” and “Overbudget.”

Nowadays, though, it seems indie filmmakers––most of whom don’t necessarily consider themselves screenwriters––choose quantity over quality in the hopes of perfecting their storytelling skills that way because of the belief that “film is a visual medium.” This crutch seems to excuse most filmmakers from ever honing their skills as filmwriters, which might be acceptable if the story you’re telling with the camera isn’t your own (here’s the other crutch, that “film is a director’s medium.”) But with most indie filmmakers I know, the stories are our own, and stories aren’t told through storyboards alone; even comic book panels need words.

As a filmmaker second and writer first, shooting a script that’s not 100% camera-ready can be counterproductive, not to mention pricey––a laptop and a latté look better on the budget sheet! I work on a script for as long as  it needs, getting the dialog right, describing the action on paper so well that my crew will see the shot the way I see it (I rarely use storyboards, though drawing was my first art), and then shoot it swiftly and without much extraneous thought on set. It’s the only way I can ensure the quality in my work.

Aside from the two features I’ve been working on, I’ve been slowly crafting two short films in a “Memory Trilogy” I’m piecing together. The first film, Statuetory, is five years old and wasn’t entirely working until I decided to challenge myself and tell the story in a nonlinear fashion. That was all it needed; now, a story that was a bit confusing and as preachy as early Woody Allen is now a bit less talky and much more filmic. I couldn’t have rewritten this short script back then the way I’d recently done; I needed the experience of writing Cerise, then rewriting it mere days before it was shot. Now, Statuetory and the second installment of the trilogy, Café Mnemosyne, are both ready for the 5D Mark II.

This question of quality versus quantity reminds me of what a screenwriting professor told me once, which I’m sure I’d mentioned in a previous post. He said that back in Hollywood’s heyday, creative writing classes were a required part of students’ studies as tomorrow’s screenwriters. Nowadays, creative writing’s not even on the lunch menu for most filmmakers. That’s probably why there’s not many Billy Wilders out there anymore. Quality begins in Act One, no matter how beautiful and innovative your images are in Act Two or how innovative the edit is by Act Three. If it takes you a week to write a three-page script or six months to draft a twenty-pager, let it be. The audience doesn’t care how much time you spent writing the story, but it’ll be the first thing they critique if you didn’t spend enough on it.

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Ten Pages a Day: Getting Your Screenplay From First Page to First Draft

Traditional screenwriting is kaput, in my humble opinion.

For those of you who follow my tweets and Facebook status updates, you might recall that a few weeks ago I finished the first draft of my latest feature-length script Caput, a hyperbolic Hudson Hawk of an action drama that centers around a mafia hit man who’s peculiar quirk inhibits him from “getting out” for good.

Back in December I was determined to write Caput “the right way” which meant sketching some character bios, finishing a full outline, organizing a scene-by-scene breakdown on index cards, and getting through all the other step-by-step instructions that you’ll read in just about any book on screenwriting. It works for so many of my friends and colleagues whom I respect a great deal, but I found that it just doesn’t work for me.

When I write, the words need to flow. I can’t put too much thought behind them. I spent January, February, and March doing absolutely nothing with Caput except a very rough outline, which only got me up to the midpoint (in Syd Fieldian terms) before I was completely stumped. I spent a few days ruminating over it, sketching out some possible directions, but nothing seemed to work. So I put it aside, defeated for the time being.

Then I woke up on the morning of April 4th and got ready for my normal Monday teaching back-to-back Civilizations courses at one of my universities. I had packed my laptop since I was showing The Passion of the Christ as part of our chapter on Christianity, so I had a good five hours to sit down in that dark room amongst my students and write ten pages. That was my goal. It sounded reasonable enough. Ten pages, and that was all I wrote. And even though I felt the drive to continue, I parked my thoughts at page 10.

The next day, after a modest workout and even more modest breakfast, I sat at my little faux-wood table and wrote another ten pages. And ten pages a day it would be for the next two weeks, typing practically non-stop for an average of between two to three hours. By getting into “The Zone,” and most importantly by not thinking too hard about what I was writing, I was organically creating a bigger story with new characters, an entire subplot, twists and more twists with MacGuffens and other textbook elements strewn in here and there. It’s a beautiful mess of a script, I’m sure. But it’s fresh! And beginning this week, I’ll be putting together a tight revision of this first very rough draft that no eyes but mine will see.

Now I suppose it’s the poet in me, working from inspiration, letting the words flow from brain to page as if they were being whispered into my ear by some magical muse with a thick Italian accent (and pointing a gun at my ribs, too!) And although the two mediums are not worlds, but galaxies apart nowadays, one feature is the same for both: Words. If we spend too much time in our minds plotting and re-plotting, nothing gets written.) Just write out that first draft! It’s only when you have it writ that you can tell if it’s a hit.

So then, back to what I stated earlier, that traditional screenwriting is kaput. Okay, not quite. Though many script coaches and analysts will disagree with me here, I’ve found you don’t have to spend your time writing those character sketches, outlining on index cards. Just get the basic story and scenes written out and run with it. And most importantly, don’t overdo it. If you’re a writer in this day and age, you’ve probably got a job to go to at some point in the day, so write what and when you can. Tennessee Williams used to get up at 6am and write until noon every day. Well, we’re not him; most of us have to squeeze in our daily dose of writing with our morning orange juice. For me, it’s ten pages a day. For others it may be Pilar Alessandra’s Coffee Break Screenwriter approach or the “Million Dollar Method” popularized by Chris Soth and USC. And still some may simply learn tips and tricks of the trade by following the insightful tweets of The Script Lab, Screenwriting U, and Raindance Film Festival amongst others.

Whatever your method and however you do it, just write that script!

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Craft Before Content, Part Two: Anyone Can Be a Writer Nowadays, Right?

Nowadays, people are allowed to fancy themselves as anything they like with just a smidgen of experience and a lot of book smarts. When someone asks me what I am, I quickly reply, “I’m a poet.” I can back that up not with book smarts, but with bookmarks on every scholastic, literary and poetry journal in which my words appear, from my first poem “Paradise Lost” printed in Enigma back in 2001 to my current verse packed tightly between other new international voices of poetry and prose in Iodine Poetry Journal and Harpur Palate and many others.

However, I also try my hand at writing screenplays. So far, I have over ten shorts, seven of which have been made into films, and four features, one made, one forever in rewrite hell, and two that found a comfortable home in the shredder. I’ve never sold a script, and for all intents and purposes, I may be an F. Scott Fitzgerald waiting (not) to happen––a wonderful wordsmith but a terrible screenwriter. Therefore, I don’t really consider myself a screenwriter. I’m simply a guy who writes screenplays.

The paradox of today is the fact that I can call myself a screenwriter because simply writing screenplays is sufficient criteria. From the few scripts I’ve read from others like me, screenplays don’t even have to be in proper Hollywood Standard formatting, can have egregious typos straddling every sentence, and don’t even have to follow the traditional structure since as soon as a book is written on the subject, it’s already outdated because everything moves much quicker than they did back in Hollywood’s heyday.

When I decided to delve into this one-time hobby a bit more seriously, though by no means as a possible profession, the first thing I did was learn the craft of how to actually write a screenplay, then the structure, and then I practiced the discipline of sitting down and writing the actual script (this, by far, being the hardest part.)

When it comes to learning the craft of specific forms of writing, I go back and forth between condoning book smart writers and condemning them as “one hit wonderers” who wrote successful piece that people enjoyed and who now consider themselves experts at their respective form. In regards to my own work, I’m in a frame of mind that experience and practice are king. There are lots of us out there, so the ones who stand out are the ones who’ve got the innovative ideas, yes, but they’re also those who know a bit more than just the basics of storytelling and screenplay structure, learned from practice.

Now, I believe that the “innovative ideas” part can’t be taught; that is something more of a gift that some writers have and others don’t. But the other two any aspiring writer can learn in a variety of ways.

Back in 1996, I took my first ever creative writing course with a wonderful professor (and wannabe creative writer) at New Jersey City University whose passion for literature revitalized my spirit when I was all set to pursue a degree in journalism. We used a very basic textbook called Creative Writing. I remember paging through the book’s 14-point font and cheesy contour drawings of egghead writers smiling dumbfounded before a typewriter (as if that’s ever how it really is), and I always marveled at a screen shot from Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein on the page under the chapter title “Fiction Writing.” It was such a ghetto book, but it taught me the very basics of storytelling, which I’d already been exposed to from watching movies and writing my own short stories. When I then took Advanced Creative Writing, there was no textbook and my professor, a fiction writer, made us write only fiction (a challenge for me, since story had never been my forte.)

As an intermittent creative writing professor myself, I recently stopped using a textbook for class. I used to use a Penguin book called Imaginative Writing, which offers lessons on the typical aspects that all writers should know like voice, mood, and point of view, and spanning the three major genres of creative writing, that of fiction, poetry, and playwriting. But I found myself asking too often “who are these editors?” and “What have they written besides this textbook?” Now I Xerox pieces of recent flash fiction like Don Shea’s “Jumper Down,” poems by past and present greats, and I screen short films like Our Time is Up. Primaries, not secondaries.

University textbooks, of course, are miles apart in quality when compared to the more “industrial strength” paperbacks we learn from and love. Books like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! and Robert McKee’s Story are important in shaping the screenwriter, and today, I’m noticing more and more that people are coming along calling themselves screenwriters or fiction writers because they’ve digested all the regurgitations of three-act structure and have practically drowned themselves in Joseph Campbell’s world navel, but they sometimes end up taking chances without prior know-how or enough experience with straight-up linear storytelling. Sometimes those writers get lucky, but most times the audience has to work harder to maneuver out of  the labyrinth of a feature that should’ve been a short, a “Young Goodman Brown” that dreams to be a thousand page Stephen King bestseller and so on.

So while I believe that beneath the surface of their expertise, many authors who pen screenwriting manuals, for instance, are just exceptionally good readers of screenplays rather than actual screenwriters, I do believe that in today’s vast realm of aspiring writers, these kinds of books are becoming more and more necessary as teaching tools for tomorrow’s wordsmiths who may not have the luxury of attending Screenwriting Expo or even to take an Intro to Creative Writing course in college.

In that pivotal creative writing I took at NJCU, I originally learned how to write plays, not screenplays. My first short play was called “The Dog of Sorrows,” a dark comedy (way before I knew what dark comedy was!) about a guy who murders his wife believing she’s been unfaithful because his dog told him so (somewhat based on the David Berkowitz story). My professor loved it. But when I decided to go into screenwriting, I had to learn on my own how to write a screenplay. I had plenty of content, but I had to learn that craft first.

The lesson learned is this: Before jumping into a specific type of writing, learn how to write in that form. It’s about the originality of your idea, yes, but you have to play by the ever-changing rules of the game, and the game is format, structure, pacing. Today, writers rely too heavily on the tools and not enough on the knowledge; they expect Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter to take care of the formatting for them, but if you need to format a phone conversation, you have to know how to format it, ‘cause there’s no button for that in Celtx.

The other way to learn structure and formatting is to read screenplays, a practice that every script analyst or consultant stands firmly by. The problem is most of the scripts you find are shooting scripts, and those aren’t the kind of scripts screenwriters at the “aspiring” level will be writing, and I learned that by reading the two screenplays I’ve ever finished from beginning to end––Alan Ball’s American Beauty and Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I might read Black Swan when it’s available, mainly for structure. I was all set to read The Social Network, but after finally watching the film, I wasn’t impressed enough with the film to choose Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning adaptation over, say, a Chuck Palahniuk novel just for kicks.

For content, there’s no doubt that reading screenplays can be good practice for aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers. But then again, as my friend Ralph Greco once tweeted to me: “Forget reading the scripts, just watch more JODOROWSKY and you’ll be fine ;)”

Words to live by!

So how do YOU go about learning the craft of the types of writing you do? Tell a little tale in the Comments section!

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Craft Before Content, Part One: The Bob Ross Effect

The other night I was at Bar Majestic in Downtown Jersey City with Marinell all set to do some serious Cerise planning and prep work. Above us on a big screen, a video playing––The Joy of Painting, featuring an artist, white button-downed but laid back, with a palette over his left arm and an easel and blank canvas before him. He also had an Afro and beard, and when he lifted his brush to the canvas, it was nothing short of magic!

Of course, this most famous of American artists is none other than Bob Ross, who made a career for himself by painting “happy little trees” with simple dabs of a fan brush. For a good ten minutes, Marinell and I were both enthralled by how effortlessly (and quickly!) he created a barn sitting in a bed of water surrounded by earthy black trees enfolding the area beset by a lovely orange sunset amidst clouds heavy with shadows.

This isn't the painting that mesmerized us, but it's a darn good one, too!

What struck me most was this: there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation in Bob Ross. He felt out the picture in his mind’s eye and fluidly swiped and stroked it onto the canvas, at one with the Tao of his own art. His knowledge of the craft of oil painting, the wet-on-wet technique in particular, must’ve been such that he didn’t have to think about it. He knew how to use every tool in his shed, and by the time the credits rolled, a wonderful piece of commercial artwork was laid out before him.

As writers, we can learn a lot from the Bob Ross method. We spend our early years learning how to comb back a dangling modifier, when to use a gerund phrase and why it’s important to vary our sentences. And we probably hated every minute of it! But without those crucial years of exercise upon exercise, we could never have elevated ourselves to the level of being able to put words down using the tools we’d learned about in college English classes––things like voice, diction, mood and tone that we practice primarily on countless thesis papers. But then we learned literary and plot devices––flashback, nonlinear storytelling, and all the other tools at the disposal of the creative writer and its myriad subtitles––novelist, poet, screenwriter.

You can’t reach a destination in a beat-up Chevy that breaks down every couple hundred miles, but you don’t want to Lamborghini it either ‘cause you’ll miss the journey in between.

The first thing our teachers ever give us to work with in our writing classes is a simple pencil because we’re able to erase our mistakes. And we will make plenty of them! But eventually we graduate to a pen––ink––and with that power of permanence comes a greater responsibility to write what we wish to say well enough the first time. To this day, the only time I use a pencil is during revision, which is the only time I let my second-guessing monster off the leash to tear up my words.

How is it then that some people feel they can skip all that tedious exercise, or worse yet, not pay attention to (or forget) all that basic knowledge gained high school and college writing courses and fast forward to creating their own stories? Much the same way a person can’t climb Mount Everest with arms and legs as thin as twigs, or Bob Ross wouldn’t have risen to his full potential without practicing every day during his brief breaks, a writer can’t tell a compelling story without practicing the craft. The constant act of writing is great for perfecting your story sense, but you have to know how to write well first.

And here’s a two-minute glimpse into the magic that we all can create…as long as we know the right spells! Enjoy!

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A Writer’s Roots: My Super Powers and Secret Wars as a Wordslinger

“I can’t believe it’s been twenty-five years since I bought my first Super Powers figure!” said the salt-and-pepper haired hipster working the floor at St. Mark’s Comics while pointing out a few figures behind a glass case in the back room. We both took a well-deserved moment and stared off in awe, he at the issues of The Flash and American Vampire I was holding, and me at his Rebel Alliance T-shirt.

It was at that moment one of my earliest memories bolted across my mind: I must’ve been six or seven years old when my Uncle Chris took me to a toy store and bought me my very first Super Powers action figure. I was convinced that he picked one without a cape because he thought it might cost less or something (or perhaps I just never took the blue cloth cape out of the box due to the excitement of owning my first ever Batman figure.) And who would have thought that one figure would catapult me onto a life-long journey as a writer seeking out great stories of my own to tell?

The Super Powers Collection Batman action figure (with cape!)

Like every kid at that impressionable young age, I had a vivid imagination. I would outline very rudimentary tales using my action figures as characters. I wasn’t one of those smash ‘em up rug rats that only wanted to slam toys together in an epic battle between good and evil, the victor pecked with minor scratches, the loser missing an arm or leg. Not me. I was interested in the details in between the fisticuffs. I wanted to know why a mental melee was no match for a battle of brawn in order to set the bad guys straight.

Prior to owning my Batman and Superman Super Powers figures, I also owned a handful of Secret Wars figures, namely Spider-Man, Daredevil, Dr. Doom and Kang (why Kang I’ve no idea!) At the time, I didn’t know much about these costumed heroes except from what I’d seen on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. As for Batman, I’d only gotten a slight glimpse into the Caped Crusader’s backstory through the 1960’s series rerunning every morning. In fact, my very first comic book was Marvel Tales Starring Spider-Man #210, which cost 75¢. I remember I only had a quarter on me. Then a kind mother gave me the additional 50¢ to buy the comic. I was so grateful. I must’ve read it at least a hundred times, even after the cover had torn off; and I even read the cheesy Spider-Ham story that took up the last six pages of the comic. From that day on, I started saving up my quarters and dimes and bought more comics, enthralled by the stories. Eventually, I got the crazy notion that maybe I could tell stories in my own words, since it seemed natural enough, inbred in everyone, I thought at the time.

Secret Wars: Not a great series but a great collection.

Years later, when I’d moved onto collecting other action figure lines like Batman: The Animated Series (which initially got the St. Mark’s hipster and I trading stories) and X-Men, I would cook up stories long after my dad had gone to sleep at night. But instead of Bruce Wayne in the starring role as Batman, it was me, or rather John Enders––I used my brother and sister’s last name from their father because, as a kid of fourteen years old, you tend not to appreciate the hard to pronounce surnames like “Trigonis,” especially when you’re the “quiet kid” living in a primarily Spanish-speaking neighborhood.) Beneath the mask of my Batman Returns Catwoman figure was any girl at school whom I liked but was too shy to talk to. My Secret Wars Spidey was a friend of mine who’d moved away; but in my unwritten narratives he was only a brief flight away in my die-cast Batwing, and we would join forces and outwit the sinister middle school bullies who assumed supervillain emblems and hatched plots to take over the world. Y’see, back then, my action figures were pens, but there was no ink, only a story that would exist each night for a few hours as I played, then dissolve as soon as my eyes tired and I’d close away my alter egos to the Reebok shoebox where they slept while I was at school reading Dickens or Fitzgerald.

Eventually when I started high school and made friends, I advanced beyond the oral tradition of my Homeric ancestors and started writing down my stories. At first, they were based on video game characters like Trevor Belmont from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and King Arthur in Super Ghouls and Ghosts, but those short fictions further evolved in the form of Dungeon Master’s logs––yes, I was a Dungeons & Dragons kid rolling for initiative, a Bic in one hand, Funyuns in the other, and a Monstrous Compendium before me opened wide to some wicked beast I hoped would thwart my fellow dice-rolling rogues along their heroic journey. The bulk of these quests, chronicled in six or eight marble Mead notebooks, found their way into my first full-length play The Legend of Jonathan Gracco, Part One: Ordeal of Love, which I would revise years later as a college sophomore because of Shakespeare and make further revisions in an independent study in playwriting during my senior year.

The immortal cover for Konami's first Castlevania game.

Flash forward to now: Through all of these experiences with story in its various inceptions, I had built up the confidence necessary for this once timid tale-spinner to tell distinctive stories without borrowing from what’s already been told. I believe in the age-old creed: Write what you know. It’s got to come from my heart; that’s the only way I can churn out a tender parable like Cerise or a poem that touches someone thousands of miles away in a pub in London, or perform a spoken word piece that washes over an audience at an open mic. Nowadays, however, I find that stories are too thought out, too erudite. Book smarts is one thing––if you want to learn how to format a script, for instance, consult The Hollywood Standard or search online––but real writing comes from within, from the heart. A writer can’t be made paging his or her hours away in between the countless hardbacks out there about story structure and character arc. To learn how to write novels with literary merit, read Hemingway or Fitzgerald; to write bestsellers, read Dan Brown; to craft beautiful poetry, read beautiful poetry. And if you want to tell stories, all you have to do is pay attention––really pay attention––to the world around you and the world you’ve created within you. It’s all there, waiting.

The truth is that not everyone is a writer. But as storytellers, if we want to tell stories that are naturally compelling and original, we shouldn’t spend so much time with all those secondary “How To” manuals out there, but instead learn from the primaries. If you want to write a movie, read the script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Inception instead of immersing yourself in the dogma of Story or Screenplay. (Don’t get me wrong, though, those books, like vitamins, are great supplements; treated as gospel, however, they can often inhibit the natural flow of a writer, and at times even nullify a story if the writer becomes overly concerned about plot points and page counts.)

When I attended Brooklyn College for my MFA in poetry, none of my three professors ever assigned anything for us to read other than poetry, and all from one textbook, Poems for the Millennium, Volume I. We read the book cover to cover. My mind transmogrified, and I’m only using this sexy $25 word because there was something magical about it that made it more than just a transformation. Only then was I able to I write my entire master’s thesis on the red line from Times Square to Flatbush Avenue and back every Monday and Wednesday for two years.

A writer’s mind should remain closely connected to his or her heart, like a child’s. Everything in our childhood, all those stories in the backs of our minds, whether it’s the Nancy Drew mysteries that enthralled you as a little boy or girl or, as in the case of the St. Mark’s Comics clerk, the Sunday night premiere of Batman: The Animated Series which sparked something in us that made us want to follow a series to the end of the season, or made us want to write our own, is practice. Maybe, like me, you just played with your toys a little differently than other kids, plotting out intricate stories with your Star Wars figures or a twenty-sided die, stories which would never blacken the immortal white plane of a sheet of paper. And if there is something like that for us to tap into, then we must tap into it because story comes easy when you set the derrick in the right spot. Then all you’ll have to do is dig and your story will undoubtedly flow.

The classic Super Powers Collection comic advertisement.

From where do YOU draw your ideas and inspiration for the stories you create? Tell me an interesting tale in the Comments section; I’d love to read it!

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What the Dickens is Going on with Writers Today?!

Charles Dickens wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the immortal opening sentence to A Tale of Two Cities. Just imagine if he had left behind a typo!

Today, writing truly sees the best of times (we’re free to write whatever we choose, express any thoughts we wish) and the worst of times (too many of us do so without properly revising and proofreading our work before it goes off to print or post.)

I understand very well that anyone can fancy themselves a writer with a few articles published online or with some self-published books. I’ve put out five chapbooks of my own in that same manner. But in each one, quality takes precedence, not only in the ideas I’m expressing, but in the way those ideas are put down in words.

Dickens

It doesn't get more serious than Dickens!

As a freelance professor, I run my red pen across many a run-on & dangling modifier, so I’m used to seeing it in the world of higher education. But more and more I’m watching as those same careless errors worm their way into more professional kinds of writing.

Years ago, I was hired to copyedit a manuscript that was self-published and for sale on Amazon before I got my hands on it. The book was riddled with typos and incongruous sentences, and even whole paragraphs that made no sense at all. I travailed the book in about five or six of the most arduous hours of my career. Another time, a friend of mine sent out a mass email with the first draft of his short script attached. The email was teeming with passion, so naturally I was excited to read the script. However, it was so grammatically marred that I couldn’t even find a loophole into the story itself.

Most recently, an acquaintance I’d met on Facebook asked me if I’d read a script he’d written. I asked him to send me a one-page synopsis and treatment, and my spider sense started tingling. The treatment was littered here and there with careless formatting oversights and some spelling errors that could easily have been remedied by a firm dose of proofreading.

I gave this acquaintance the same advice I offered my friend and the budding young writer: If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you’ve got to take your writing seriously.

It’s in our nature as creatives to want to exorcise the demons harbored within, give original shapes to the abstractions that wilderness our minds; but like exorcism or architecture, writing is a craft that should be learned and put to practice before sitting down at a laptop to tap out your next litany.

This isn’t some opinion-based issue about whether or not to use the Harvard comma. We’re talking about basic William Zinsser principles on how to write well. I’ve written about writing being serious business in the past because I know firsthand the kind of impression an ill-placed error or half-deleted sentence can leave on a publisher or hiring manager. I once applied for a full-time job as a copyeditor for a DVD distribution company in New York City. I passed all the copyediting and fact-checking tests with ease. On my resume, however, which I’d thrown together in a hurry, there was a single typo that spelled my defeat. This brief stint with carelessness had gotten the better of me. Now, even on rush projects, I exercise patience and strive to make sure that whatever I’m writing is as flawless as possible before I share it with others.

We writers, we’re only human, it’s true. We make mistakes. But we either have to learn to be better than those mistakes by learning from them, or be responsible enough to have someone else proofread our work for us.

So I’ve decided to don my professor’s hat and recommend some helpful books to those of us who may have a harder time than others with this ever-messy matter of English mechanics.

Writing Handbooks:

Pick up anything by Diana Hacker, she’s the pro! Take your pick from my two favorites—A Writer’s Reference or Rules for Writers—or any other handbook that has her name on it.

Writer's Reference

The #1 handbook for writers.

The Bedford Handbook is also a great resource for writers, as well as the lesser-known Scott Foresman Handbook for Writers.

For a quick reference, I’ve been putting to use a pocket guide called Easy Writer, which I find to be a fantastic resource (plus, it sounds like the movie Easy Rider).

Books on Style:

Of course, first and foremost is the industry standard: William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White’s The Elements of Style.

There’s also a thin sliver of a book concisely packed with sagely insights on how to write with “clarity and grace” simply called Style, by Joseph M. Williams.

A similar book is Style & Difference by Donna Gorrell, which helps to get a writer’s work to stand out from the flock of all the once-in-a-while writers out there.

Grammar Website:

While there’s no such thing as a perfect grammar and spell check system, Grammarly.com comes pretty close.

The bottom line is that we, as writers, need to take the craft of writing seriously, and we have to start from the bottommost rung all the way to where the last one on the ladder ends, because if you can’t take that first step, you’ll have one hell of a time stretching out your ideas toward the stars.

And if you’re not yet sold on the “impotence” of proofreading, here’s a fellow poet and educator whom I look up to saying the same thing (in fewer words). Enjoy!

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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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