Tag Archives: writing

Running to Write

It seems like a lot of my writer friends are also runners, which is a good thing. I have run since the age of thirteen and it changed my life. This remains the seminal experience of my teenage years, whether the fall cross-country meets, sizzling spring track workouts, or the fun-runs in between (which are usually anything but). I had come to a very awkward and unhappy point in my life at thirteen, if not running I am sure I would have chosen Hare Krishna. Running, especially long distance running, offered the sort of discipline (and devotion) that I needed.

Of course, all to say I am pretty interested by the intersections between my two passions. I read a great blog entry from Literature Is Not Dead the other day via my friend Kristan Hoffman’s blog: “Running through Writing’s Solar System” which laid out the parallels between the two things. To paraphrase: Running takes practice, so does writing. Those who hit the pavement more often are the ones likely to succeed, just as the writers who lock themselves in rooms are the ones who earn the most money.

I would add a couple of layers. One, quantity of writing never equals quality. If that were the case, the phonebook would be a classic of world literature. It’s the stories and language that counts. Nor should writing ever be a race. Sometimes it’s almost the reverse: the more time you spend with your novel, the more nuances you can add, the more you can toy around with the sentences, and the more time you have to make it perfect. What world class runner could get away with admiring the rocks in Central Park during the New York City Marathon?

That said, writing is like running because cross training is definitely key. Just as you have to hit the gym every week in track, you have to be prepared to read, research, and revise outside of your writing time. Consider it the literary equivalent of bicep reps. You don’t use your arms to run, but they sure come in handy during the last few yards of a race as you pump your way to a PR.

Anyway, these are just thoughts—mainly for discussion’s sake. I would love to hear from runners, writers, and runner-writers in the comments about what they think. Is running like writing—or not?

Also, for those die-hards, check out The Runner’s Literary Companion still one of my favorites. It even includes an incredible short story from a Hardy Boys ghostwriter that has stuck with me to this day: “John Sobieski Runs.” And one of my favorite authors ever, Toni Cade Bambara has a short piece “Raymond’s Run” which must have been the first short story I ever fell in love with. Definitely worth a read!

Writing Down the Bones

So I was recently browsing at my new favorite bookstore, the aptly titled Last Bookstore on Main and Fourth in downtown LA, and I ran into an old friend from middle school.

Writing Down the Bones was perhaps my first, and really only writing guide I have taken seriously. I first read it in seventh grade writing class (I went to a very progressive Montessori school that offered electives like that in middle school). Author Natalie Goldberg’s voice captivated me, and still does. I have parsed other “how to write fiction” books, but never got into them. Either the author offered too much advice, or none at all.

I’ll give you an example of how great this book was. In the introduction, Goldberg writes “the book can be read consecutively and that may be good the first time through. You may also open to any chapter and read it…And don’t just read it. Write. Trust yourself. Learn your own needs. Use this book.” She offers me the freedom to find what I need from the book, and she doesn’t dictate the “do this, then you’ll be able to do that” approach, either. Writing is about finding one’s voice, one’s own way, and she understands that.

And the book is filled with gems. She describes an automatic writing exercise to get the juices flowing: “the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel…Like grating a carrot, give the paper the colorful coleslaw of your consciousness.”

Look, I know it sounds like a hippie energy awareness exercise, but it works. As a writer, there are so many internal processes that your mind has to ignore to get to the truth of the writing. If writing is about honesty, then first thoughts are truth serum.

I remember so enjoying the class (and the books) that I sort of became compulsive in seventh grade about writing at least a page a day. I still have these poems, but I can’t really make sense of them. You talk about adolescent angst, this is super-angst. It should go into an angst museum somewhere.

But I’m glad I wrote them, because they helped me sort out some of my problems and think about my life a bit more analytically than simply letting the tension build. It worked (and works) as an outlet.

And that’s another of Goldberg’s lessons: writing isn’t about being famous, it’s not even about finishing some magnum opus, it’s about writing. And if you can find a way to fit writing into your life, then that’s a gift, and one you should hold onto.

What are your favorite books on writing? What else in the genre would you recommend?

Stephenie Meyer vs. Just a Writer

Everybody’s still obsessed with celebrity. In an era when you can follow on twitter your next-door neighbor and probably have a better chance of reaching him or her, we still fall for the trap of idolizing people just because they are famous. Maybe it’s an LA thing, but I find myself and others more obsessed with becoming famous than writing anything good. It’s a trap, and it’s scary.

I think every writer needs to take a step back from their career and ask, “Why am I doing this?” It’s not enough that you want a book contract. It’s not enough that you want fans on Facebook. I know, everyone is in it to win it, but why win something, like a fan base, if you can’t justify it? There’s no satisfaction in just being famous; besides the money, the adoration, and the free swag, who cares, right? OK, fine, a lot of people care. But there are deeper rewards and they exist outside the arena of celebrity.

The belief in writing has to be stronger than the desire for fame. Your words making a difference on the page have to be of greater concern than the swag at the back of an awards show. I forget who wrote this, but somebody much smarter than me wrote that books are like daughters, you want them to be regarded by a couple of people, not the whole town. I’m sure I butchered that quote, but you get the point. It’s better to have good fans versus many fans (although the latter is probably more lucrative, cf. Stephenie Meyer). But hopefully by the time you do get famous, you will have earned it, you know? That’s good fame. Nobody I know is there yet, but as long as you’re on that path, and you’re honest, and you’re writing, what else do you really need?

Besides swag goodie bags…

Edward Is Too Famous!

The Short Film: What Works?

Hammer Open Projector Night

Last week I was lucky enough to attend another Open Projector Night at the Hammer at UCLA. In case you haven’t heard how this event works, directors submit videos and they are played on the big screen for two minutes. At any time, the audience can shout down those videos and at the two minute mark, they get to choose (based on applause) whether to keep the tape rolling. I won’t talk about how my film did, suffice it to say I was unfairly judged.
Many of the videos were voted down, and some weren’t. After analysis of the ten or so successful films and the other thirty that didn’t make it, I drew some conclusions about how to make an enjoyable short. So, here goes:

1. Suspense. No matter what the subject-matter, if a movie had a hint of suspense in the first two minutes, the audience would vote it on. However silly it may sound, even an unopened box will lend enough mystery to merit an additional two minutes. Audiences love to play detective, if you keep them asking why they will watch your video.

2. A Unique Perspective. I keep thinking of one film, Kelp for this example. The movie told the story of a man falling in love with, well, kelp. This may sound odd and a little unjustified, but it had the audience riveted well past the two-minute mark. Audiences will feel compelled to watch if you can introduce something different into your movies.

3. Good Production Values. A good script only goes so far in safeguarding your film from rejection. If it is well-lit, shot smartly, and edited tightly, the audience will want to watch. Think about it this way: how many people are going to check into the seedy motel versus the five-star Four Seasons? Not everyone has a multi-thousand budget, but if you do, use it. There are ways to prettify the Best Western.

4. Humor. Make the audience laugh and they will love you forever. We’re not talking funniest-film-in-the-world-better-than-the-Marx-Brothers but if you inject some humor into your script, and it is meaningful and uncontrived, the audience will appreciate your video that much more.

5. Brevity. Remember you are making a short video. If you have something important to say, find a concise way to say it. For me, some of the funniest and most profound videos have been less than two minutes.

6. Animation. Trust me, it doesn’t matter what the cartoons are doing, (even juggling knives, eyes, and assorted limbs as in one video) people will want to watch it. I don’t understand why or how this is, but just trust me, it’s kinda scary.

Now let’s move onto what never works:

1. A lack of conflict. I think my video suffers from this. Ultimately, conflict drives narrative. When there is no central struggle, the movie drags and the audience gets bored. I agree, audiences are more impatient in the age of cellphones than ever, but that’s still not an excuse. Why else would a teenager sift through seven-hundred plus pages of the final Harry Potter if not to know what will happen to Harry and Voldemort?

2. Grossness. Guess what, it’s 2010 and thanks to the internet, audiences have seen everything. If your purpose is to shock your viewers, the only thing you need is a time-machine. I prefer intelligence, elegance, humor, and solid filmmaking over anything “truly shocking” and so did the audience that night.

3. An agenda. There was one terrifically horrendous video shown that night whose sole purpose it seemed was to spread racist hysteria. The audience quickly shouted it off. We write and direct films because we do have an agenda, but that is not reason enough to make a film. If your purpose is merely to make a ridiculous point, then hand out fliers instead.

Anyway, those are my ideas. Let me know what you think; what is a short movie you liked and why? Post a link or just let me know. Before I make my next short, I need to know.

A Trailer for Kelp

Telling Details

Jafar from Aladdin

When I read screenplays the first thing I look for is a story. Sure, I love descriptions of flowers, trees, etc., but let’s face it, how much fun is a still life? Next I look for well-sketched characters, the kind who seem human, you know, with flaws, nervous tics, back stories, that kind of thing. If you have an interesting setting, that’s a plus, too. Don’t just set your story in Philadelphia, make it funky South Philly, or the still quite colonial Old Town, or the preppy University City. Do something, just don’t risk making it generic.

But what really makes me love a movie are the telling details. These are pieces of dialogue, scraps of description that tell me the author has worked hard at creating the story-world of the screenplay. In a tossed-off sentence the writer reveals more about the story than a page of text.

My favorite example of telling detail comes from Disney’s Aladdin, which features one of the best Disney villains, Jafar. Just as Aladdin finishes his grand entrance to Agrabah, the rechristened Prince Ali approaches the royal advisor who begins to question him.

Jafar: Where did you say you were from?

Aladdin: Oh, you wouldn’t have heard of it.

Jafar: Try me.

In this single second we see two sides of Jafar, the curious diplomat and well-seasoned traveler, as well as the sinister jerk who is trying to suss out this newcomer. He has been everywhere, but we don’t learn why, either. He is mysterious; but the audience can tell that hidden behind this idle curiosity is a Faustian desire to know things only for selfish reasons. I think at this point Jafar begins to realize Prince Ali’s true identity.

OK, time for a less villainous example. This comes from the last line of Goodfellas, another classic that is required viewing. These are the final words of the movie. Sorry to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Henry gets placed in Witness Protection after ratting out his fellow goodfellas in a plea bargain.

Henry Hill: Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.

What I love about the last line is the part about the spaghetti. It seems to sum up all of Henry’s life as a gangster. He has tried so hard for an authentic experience only to be left with “egg noodles and ketchup.” It’s an earthy letdown but one that reveals his human side. No matter what he tries, where he goes, he can never live up to “spaghetti with marinara” and he is “an average nobody.” If this doesn’t get to the heart of his character’s flaw, I don’t know what else could—a modern day Cain stricken with not a mark on the forehead but crummy pasta on the plate.

Finally, this telling detail comes from my first screenplay, My Father the Agent, which continues to go unsold. Agents, I am warning you, this script heats up by the day—please take it off my hands before it burns down the apartment.

Joking aside, this line comes from the final act. Danny has worked his entire life to not be his conman father, and then after a summer with him in San Francisco, he realizes he is becoming him. This line comes from his aunt Carol to her son Adam; both have been tricked into believing Danny is making a movie. Just as Danny is filming an appearance with a local talk show host, the fraud comes out.

Carol: What did you expect with the dad he has?

This is the moment Danny realizes how far he has come from his old dad-denying self. Now he must reconcile those two versions of himself and find who he truly is. For the last fifteen years he has been denying he is his father’s son, but now he realizes he is—if only because he is thoroughly disliked by the rest of the family. And he has to accept that. I won’t give away the movie, but this leads to a climactic last scene.

These details do not have to be anything profound, don’t get me wrong. Some just add to the overall picture of the character. In Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Pee Wee is missing a bike, not an SUV, Hummer, or Honda. This tells us a lot about his character, mainly his almost creepy love of all things childish.

What are some telling details you like? Why? Which ones come readily to mind?

Script is Done (Almost)

The Script

The Script

You ever have that feeling where you’re almost done with a project? And you can’t quite get over it? I have been looking at the third draft of my full-length feature script all day. I got it bound this morning and ever since then, I have been reading, taking notes, editing where necessary, and generally not knowing where to go next.

The script is done, but it’s not quite. It needs a serious trim from 108 pages to about one hundred because it’s a comedy and I know audiences start to shift in their seats after ninety minutes. There are some scenes that are clunky, the set-ups in others are tenuous, and the entire premise falls apart when you spend a few days thinking about it. Yet like a house, the foundation is there, and after the third draft, the walls are up too. Maybe the roof is not complete, nor are the decorations set in place, but I have ideas. I know which windows I want to spruce up and which door fixtures I want to get rid of entirely.

It’s an exciting process because I don’t know if this script will get made. It could never. In fact, this blog post may be the only time you hear about “My Father the Agent,” AKA what Jon worked on all summer. Or it could be the start of something meaningful.

In fact, the mere existence of this script is meaningful to me. It is a third draft, fine, but it is also a complete script, one, if given a mandate, I could hand out to someone in a couple of days (although I need more than a couple of weeks to make it perfect (if that’s even possible)). And that’s a first for me, at least in terms of full-length screenplays. I’m almost there. Now all I need is some encouragement.

Another view of the script

Another view of the script