Monthly Archives: February 2014

The cutting room

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
―Truman Capote

I’m doing it.  I’m going to tear apart my favorite script to date.  Don’t be fooled by my bravado, I created a separate file to do all this tearing and cutting because I’m a giant scaredy-cat and have the same inner fear of every writer about to revise that I’m changing my baby for the worse.  Which it totally possible.

However, one thing is for sure: if I don’t tear this thing apart, it WILL NOT get better.

I hate revision.  I’m set in my ways and have a hard time seeing around what I’ve already accomplished.  But as Capote would agree, the scissors are just as important as the pencil.  Here are my tips for revision:

1) Give it away

Send you work out for someone else to read.  They will see things you did not and not see things you intended them to.  Either way, it will tell you something about your work.  Feel free to discard the suggestions you don’t think fit, but be open.  If you only believe the good and throw away the bad, your writing WILL NOT get better.

2) Walk away

Unless you have immediate ideas about how to fix things, put the project in a drawer for a while.  Come back to it after a healthy amount of time has passed and try to read it as if it were not your own.  Get some distance to get some perspective.

3) Create a new file

If you save the original work and use a new file to revise, some of the fear of “messing up” will be taken away.  In this new file you can hack, tear, and stitch with abandon.  Plus it’s much easier to move things around if you can just copy and paste from the original.

4) Walk away again

Let it sit for a week or so and then read it again.

5) Give it away again

If your readers will agree to it, have them read the revision.  By the way, when say readers I don’t mean your mother or husband.  Get some writer friends!  They’ll have more knowledge and will hopefully be honest with you.  You know you’ve found good ones when they give you excellent advice but don’t get butt-hurt if you don’t take it.

6) Take all the advice

Just for an exercise, create a new file and revise using every piece of feedback you have even if you don’t agree with it.  See what happens.  It might just open up something for you.  You can throw it away later if not.

7) Know when to stop

I could read everything I’ve written every day until the end of the world and still find something to change each time.  Know when to put your tools down and say done.

8) Proofread!

For the love of god, proofread.  Please.  Use find & replace to fix common mistakes like their/there/they’re and it’s/its, etc.  Nothing screams amateur more than spelling and grammar mistakes.  Proofread.  Seriously.  Proofread.  I’m going to say it one more time, proofread.


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All the single ladies

“Women want love to be a novel. Men, a short story.”
―Daphne du Maurier

Celebrated author of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green (@realjohngreen), set off a twitter firestorm yesterday when he suggested that people were unnecessarily harsh on Stephanie Meyer and that much of the vitriol surrounding the Twilight Saga was because misogynists dislike and dismiss things simply because teen girls like them.  I’m paraphrasing his words here, and probably getting his point wrong, but to be fair it wasn’t entirely clear.  He later somewhat clarified by saying that what he meant to say was that women writers tend to get treated more harshly in the media and that we give male writers a pass when it comes to misogyny.  But that’s not what he actually said.


Being a woman writer, I felt a little compelled to weigh in.  Firstly, I have read the Twilight Saga and the writing isn’t good.  It’s pretty terrible actually.  One particular simile will haunt me (“the tires screeched like a person screaming”) because after I read it I felt compelled to start marking all over the book with a red pen.  What Meyer does expertly is create characters that are 1) blank enough yet still a Mary Sue, so that readers can insert themselves easily into the role (The Oatmeal called her “Pants” for this reason in a humorous opinion article), and 2) an exaggerated versions of absolute perfection, but you know, still real and stuff.

Now I’m not going to argue that we don’t give men a pass on misogyny (i.e. Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc., which children are still supposed to swallow in secondary school without ever criticizing), however this is not a reason to give women a pass on bad writing just cause they’re ladies who write lady things.

Which brings me to another Twitter firestorm as of late.  Potato Salad Gate.  Some idiot reader/writer (I can’t remember who because he was just an idiot who isn’t worth mentioning by name) decided that all women have the same POV, write essentially the same story, with little or no creativity, and all those stories somehow include making potato salad.  Huh?  Yeah, I was confused too.  But lots of people chimed in with the same tired old line of “good scripts will rise to the top of the pile” regardless of the writer.  Looking at what is put onto screens big and small, we all know that isn’t true.  (update: this same idiot recently fully completed his career-suicide-by-twitter by reiterating that all women have the same POV and that this is why they aren’t writing groundbreaking scripts. Oh, and he said “girls.”  “Girls” all have the same POV.  Which to me just says he’s still a boy.)


I want to see groundbreaking scripts regardless of your gender.  But if you wanted to throw a couple more complex female protagonists into the mix, I wouldn’t cry about it.  Regardless of YOUR gender.


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Writing with children

“Writing is the only way to talk without being interrupted.”
―Jules Renard

Lies Jules, all lies.

When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter I was partway through my MFA at Northwestern.  For some odd reason I never once worried about how I was going to keep writing when I became a mother.  Frankly I looked forward to it.  And for the first several months it was easy, because my husband was home working as a contract attorney and we switched off baby duty.  But then we moved and I started my thesis and everything started moving a lot slower.

I had idealized being a writing mom.  I thought it would look something like this:


Which in all fairness, is pretty much what it looks like (though I can only dream about being Tina Fey, which I do, often).  However, I never connected this picture with an actual inability to write.  Or more accurately, with a lack of time or attention for writing.  And if I thought it was difficult with one, I really learned my lesson when number two came along last spring.

This post, like almost all my posts, is coming out after the kids are finally in bed for the evening.  Usually after 9pm is safe, though there’s the occasional 10:30/11pm wake up.  This is the only uninterrupted writing time that exists in a house with young children.  I tried to write during nap time, but as I have previously discussed, babies and toddlers have a sixth sense about work attempting to be done nearby.  I think they grow out of this after five years when naps are replaced by kindergarten and the real work can officially resume.

This isn’t to say I get nothing done.  On the contrary, the majority of my writing has been completed after I became a mom.  But it hasn’t been easy.  The hardest thing is having to quit mid-stride because I’m needed elsewhere.  But that’s just life.  We can’t all be Salinger (who by the way, didn’t produce much once he went recluse).  Frankly, having to constantly divide my attention has made me a better writer.  I’m now able to turn off my writing brain at will* and actually go to sleep.  No more jumping up and down all night long to scrawl random thoughts on sticky-notes that make no sense in the morning.  Once the computer goes to sleep, so do I.  Work/life balance.  Because, lord knows someone will be awake and needing something from me exactly 30 minutes after I fall asleep.

I’ve been lucky with my son, though he’s only ten months old at the time of this writing, he is relatively independent.  I can sometimes write a couple paragraphs or do a little editing while he plays by himself.  My daughter would have none of that.  She was on me like a spider monkey 24/7.  But one day I blinked and now she’s in preschool.  Though I struggle to get more than an hour or two in every couple days right now, it will be all too soon when my second baby is walking out the door in the mornings, his lunchbox clutched in his soft, stubby hand.  And I’ll have a very empty house for a few hours with no one but my characters to keep me company.

So a lot of people ask me how I’m able to work with two small kids at home.  The answer is sometimes I’m not.  But I carve out little pockets of time and I have a supportive partner who believes in my writing and picks up the slack when I really need it.  And I break out the computer after 9pm.


*This is a boldface lie.

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One step above blank

“You can fix anything but a blank page.”
―Nora Roberts

I never used to outline.  Meaning the first screenplay and handful of short stories I wrote weren’t written from an outline.  My limited experience as a newbie write told me to just put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and go go go.  But as my writing grew, where I had previously been happy to meander lost along the highway and hope to happen upon my story, I realized I needed a map if I was going to get from Fade In to Fade Out.  To continue with this overused metaphor, sometimes I find a couple hand-scrawled directions will get me there, other times I need fully loaded satellite GPS.

Outlining is a personal choice but before you decry it, I suggest you try it (poetry baby).  Cause there’s no one way to do it.  Personally I have used synopses, index cards, excel sheets, post-it notes, treatments, and that chart thing from Dramatica.  I recommend trying all of them.  They all work for different kinds of projects.  My second script grew out of a eight page synopsis, my novel from an excel sheet of chapter breakdowns, my dramedy from index cards, a historical script from post-it notes, a sci-fi script written with my partner from a treatment, etc. etc.  It is especially important to outline when working with a partner, otherwise the left hand won’t know what the right hand is doing.

I wrote my first outline without even realizing it.  You see, my daughter was a co-sleeper.  She slept in our bed and napped in our bed.  The crib was a dangerous pit of hot lava to her.  But as long as I sat on the bed next to her, she would take two 2 hour naps per day.  At first I just ate cereal and watched a lot of television, then after I exhausted all the good shows and found myself tuning in to a marathon of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t be using this time to be productive.

Little known fact: the clicking of keyboard keys sets off an internal alarm clock in children under 5.

I couldn’t type on the laptop during naptime.  Inevitably, she would wake up less than a page into whatever I was working on.  Somehow, she could easily sleep through a boisterous round of Gypsy nuptials, but a few clackety key strokes and her little eyes would pop open and she would immediately start asking what was for lunch.  I had to figure something else out if I was to get any work done.

Before the advent of Final Draft Writer for iPad (Paleolithic, I know), I had to download My Writing Spot in order to be able to at least make notes when they occurred to me.  I could type using the on-screen keyboard without setting off the baby alarm.  Mostly I jotted down dialogue or worked on novel chapters.  Then one day I had an idea about a project I had been mulling over for years.  This is how most projects germinate for me.  I have a vague notion of something I would like to see or a character I think is interesting and then I chew on it for months and, yes, in some cases years, until a story emerges.  This day, by the light of morning television and the sound of a snoring infant, the idea for Etoile finally gelled.  I saw the entire story from start to finish and had to get it down before it was gone again and my attention turned back to mushed peas and tummy time.  Since I couldn’t just start writing it in Final Draft like I wanted to, I used my iPad to write a very short synopsis so I could get it out of my head.

Usually for me, my characters start to have conversations with each other before the whole plot reveals itself.  I only get snippets at a time and almost always I know the beginning and end and have no idea how to fill the black hole in the middle.  I just start writing and hope it’ll work itself out.  So that’s what I did.  I started writing from my short synopsis and immediately ran into problems.  I went back and fleshed out the synopsis into a real outline, adding plot points and characters.  When I headed back into the screenwriting software the script came very quickly.  And it wasn’t half bad.  I needed to cut about 15 pages as  I tend to write long anyway, and the great problem with following the outline was that I didn’t plan the length of scenes very well.  What looked short on the outline was very long in the script.  I sat on it and revised it for several months.  Finally I chucked it up on the Black List where it made the monthly Top Lists.  I was over the moon!  However, being a period film about ballerinas in the Paris Opera, it didn’t get a lot of downloads.  No biggie.

Currently, I’m revising it to put in a major competition and know it could stand to have at least ten more pages trimmed.  How long is this monster of a script, you ask?  Originally 132.  Then 128.  Now 124.  It really should be 115.  And that is only because it’s a period piece.  Page length will be a future post because there are interesting things going on with this subject lately.

I knew there were a couple scenes I could cut but it wasn’t tightening up the way I wanted so I enlisted outside help from my sometime writing partner.  He pointed out some issues that were totally on the money and I opened it back up thinking I was going to fix everything.  But I had no idea how to start rearranging the entire plot to accommodate the fixes.  Here’s the problem with outlining: you become so married to the outline that it becomes impossible to deviate.  Changing a scene here or there, tweaking a character, adding and subtracting dialogue — that’s all fine.  But majorly changing the bones of a script?  That’s real revision.  If I figure out how to do it, I’ll let you know.

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Everyone’s a critic

“Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember writing.”
―Joyce Carol Oates

It is easy for writers, or anyone really, to get their hackles up at the slightest provocation.  But criticism is part of the job description.  You need thick skin.  Like alligator/armadillo/dragon hide.  Because you are going get butt-hurt at some point, whether you’re trying to be cool or not, you will.  It’s part of being creative.  The real test of your professionalism is how you take it.  The most important thing to know is that if you can’t learn to listen to the criticism, not only will you not grow as a writer, you will also never work as a writer.

A bedtime story for you all:

I was contacted a while back to work on a script adaptation of a self-published book.  The author was highly interested (who wouldn’t be?) in having their book adapted, however they felt the book had been written in such a way that there was no real work to be done; one could simply type the book into screenwriting software and voila! a marketable script.  This is not the case. Ever.  Even the best, most highly regarded best seller are adapted, cut, stitched, changed and generally destroyed in order to make a film.  It’s just the nature of the game (more on adaptations later, that’s a post for another time).  However, this author was having none of it.  I could feel the pushback almost immediately and so wanted to make sure he would be okay with the changes before I did substantial work.  I should note, at the time we did not have the book rights.  That is a huge mistake.  Always get the book rights first then you don’t have to go through what I went through.  So I gently suggested minor changes first, building up to the larger ones.  Nope.  He had really thought these characters, scenes, horrible cliché-ridden plot points through and just couldn’t understand why I would change one word.  After months of back and forth, I bowed out.  His book has not found a publisher and probably won’t be a movie any time soon.  Know why?  Of course you do.  He couldn’t take the criticism.

Fast forward.

I’m contacted to do another adaptation.  First draft goes out and comes back with major revisions.  Know what I did?  Of course you do.  I MADE THE REVISIONS.  Because in the end, in this business, you have to adapt.  Stand your ground for the things that matter and let the other stuff roll off your back.  Take the criticism.


Which brings me to feedback.  Inevitably someone will some day ask you to give them feedback on their writing.  You should do it.  It’s great practice and reading more scripts, any scripts, will improve your own writing as you will start to be able to tell when things are working and when they are not.  Even better, you’ll learn to give notes which will someday help you take them too.  But friendly feedback is different from studio notes, therefore you should not tell your writer how to fix things, but rather give them an impression of how different elements feel and leave the fix up to them.  I.e. the dialogue is wrong vs. the beat felt rushed.  See the difference?

In the end, once you slough off that newbie layer of naivety and ego, you’ll be able to tell the worthwhile criticism from the trash.  They are both out there, and believe me when I tell you, EVERY piece of writing could use some improvement.  Though once you realize that, the trick will become knowing when to stop.

But that’s also a post for another time.


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Field of dreams

“Don’t break the chain.”
―Jerry Seinfeld

Unless the Seahawks are playing the Super Bowl.

(Though technically – TECHNICALLY – this right here counts, so I’m still good.)


For those wondering what the heck I’m talking about, you can find info and a download from the Writer’s Store here:

Or search your iTunes or GooglePlay for the app.

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