Moving Forward (in the face of a pandemic)

May 4, 2020 0 comments

Fellow scribes,

First, I hope you and your loved ones are well. At the end of the day, for me, this is all that matters, not how many pages I wrote or whether I got a dream job. My concern at the moment is making it through the day in one piece.

When it became clear that the world was in trouble, I turned to Facebook and Twitter to connect with friends. In particular, I found the writing community on Twitter to be greatly supportive. That said, I also saw lots of people saying, “I’m getting so much done! I’m writing so many pages!” And for me (as perhaps for others)… I couldn’t do that. It wasn’t like, “Great, a pandemic! Now I can write 24 hours a day!” No. It was more, “Do I have enough food and medicine and supplies to take care of myself and my partner?”

I found it difficult to write anything. I couldn’t understand the purpose. When the day felt dark and heavy and people had determined that toilet paper was the most precious commodity on earth, I struggled to make sense of it all. One thing I knew, though, was that human beings adapt to even the worst situations. If things are taken away from them, they will figure out how to do without, whether that means modifying, substituting or reimagining.

And when I got clear on that, I felt certain I would survive. That I must survive. That whatever it is I feel I must say or do while I am on this earth, that it has value.

It was this belief that finally got me to sit down again and rethink some of my earlier work and update it. It’s funny, isn’t it? When I was removed from it for almost a month, part of my mind was still thinking about it, processing it, making sense of it. And I can remember two distinct moments where I had epiphanies. Where it suddenly came clear to me how to address problematic areas in my script. And when I addressed them, I noticed something:

I had become a better writer. I had been writing nonstop until the pandemic hit, not even thinking about what I was writing. I was lucky that I had gotten two writing assignments last year. I worked with people who produce films all the time. I learned from them. But I didn’t have time to think about what I learned until everything seemed like it was pointless.

Well… it’s not pointless. Because by putting words on a page (or typing them), I prove I am here. I prove I have something to say. And that simple action… of making a commitment to write something, helped me remember that I am STILL ALIVE. And that, to date, I am lucky, because I have not been felled by this horrible virus. So, I need to keep creating and using my gift, in spite of all I see going on around me. My gift may only save one person: myself. But if that’s all, then I’m grateful I have it.

Please do not give up. That is my message today. Easy to say, hard to do. But, please. Do not give up.

 

Facing the page

April 27, 2020 0 comments

I thought a splash of color would help invigorate us all. I hope you are fine wherever you are. I am “sequestered” in Tokyo. I have not been on a train/subway for over a month. But I am fine and intend to stay that way.

Maybe you’ve had moments during this “covid crisis” where you’ve asked yourself, “Why am I doing/not doing this?” For about a month I could see no value in writing anything. I proofed a few scripts for other people; that was about as much creativity as I could allow myself.

But after about six weeks of being in a daze, I woke up and thought… “Okay, maybe it’s better to be writing, because there is something therapeutic and cleansing about it. And… the more I write (and read and give/receive notes), the more I become aware, the better a writer I become.”

So, I put my nose to the grindstone over the weekend and wrote a 1-page pitch for a script a producer has been interested in, based on a pitch paragraph. I felt the same sort of doubt/fear, nervousness/excitement that I always feel when I have an idea that I think might work. I fought past my fears and got it down on paper. You might think “one page” is no big deal, but when I basically had to pull a 3-act story out of my head when all I had was a paragraph, you might understand my reluctance to commit to it.

But that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Committing to the idea, facing the page, getting the words down. I finally did what I know is good advice: I just wrote the whole thing down and printed/edited, over and over until I got it into a tight one page. Apparently the production company is happy so far, so the effort was worth it.

I just want to say: I FEEL YOU, I HEAR YOU. I know that fear, that worry, that concern, “Can I really do this yet AGAIN?” And I would like to believe that, “Yes you can!”

So, sit down, pick up the pen (or get your keyboard dusted off)… and just write. It’s much easier to edit/critique, fawn over, etc. when you actually have something down on the page!

What’s YOUR Story?

December 15, 2019 1 comment

What is the story that YOU want to write? Not the story that you think Hollywood wants. What is important to YOU?

For each of the original feature screenplays I have written (four to date, ALL finalists, some multiple times), I did not start out by saying, “I wonder if this will go over in Hollywood?” I just wrote them because I felt there was something intriguing about them. If I had stopped to wonder if it was “castable” or “diverse enough” or any of the other things that screenwriters are supposed to “take into consideration,” I may not have written anything, because I would have been too worried, thinking whether I was hitting all my “marks.”

I am a human being who has been around the block several times. I have seen just about everything there is to see and experienced a lot of happiness, a lot of tragedy. In other words, I have life experiences to draw from. I feel this is the reason my scripts have resonated. I feel confident that one day an original script of mine will be selected for production. I would like to believe that it’s because the story comes from a place of truth and authenticity.

The point is: write what is important to you. Say what you need to say. Create characters that incorporate all the levels, shadows, nooks and crannies of your imagination — and then let them speak to you. You will be surprised how they take hold and demand to say things that only they would say. Coupled with vibrant characters and a story that makes people think, pause, cry or laugh in a genuine way — these are the type of stories I find most compelling.

Question less; write more. My bit o’ wisdom from my magical little office in the heart of Tokyo.

How to write a screenplay in 10 days or less

November 26, 2019 0 comments

Where the Magic Happens

To those who might be reading this:

If you are a screenwriter, produced or not, you will know those moments… those moments when you start to question… WTF am I doing?

Let the moment surface, and KEEP GOING. It took me nearly 18 years of writing, submitting, getting notes, taking classes, seminars, entering competitions, making my own short films (producing, directing, scoring, casting, art department) before someone was willing to take a chance on me. In the last three years I’ve written six commissioned feature screenplays, three produced and airing on various streaming platforms, with one more scheduled to be shot next month and another hopefully early next year. I’m grateful for the work and the opportunities. At the same time, I am also working hard to promote my own original stories. Writing commissioned screenplays, where the essence of the story and the main characters are basically decided for you, means you are helping someone else achieve their vision. But in doing that, you can learn a tremendous amount about things you may not have been thinking about, i.e. locations, budgets, casting restrictions, level of language and violence, and more, which may be helpful when approaching your own work.

Maybe the most important thing I’ve learned is: I can write a feature screenplay in 10 days. I am a slow, methodical writer who thinks very, very carefully about everything (my cowriter would say I think too much… until he later says, “Oh, yeah, you were right.”). But in the case of the last script I was hired to write, I didn’t have the luxury of time. But what I did have were three tools that helped me immensely: 1) A one-page synopsis so I could quickly grasp what the story was about. 2) A simple questionnaire about my characters so I could understand at a glance who they were, what their goals were, what was standing in their way. 3) A fully-fleshed out outline, scene-by-scene (with scene headings), with brief action description (and occasional lines) so I would be able to understand the whole story without having to read 90 pages to get it. #1 was given to me; I created #2 and #3 based on #1.

By having these three tools (especially #3), I was able to sit down on a Saturday morning, say my prayers, and dive in. I did my best (really, really hard for me) NOT to reread what I had written until I got past 50-60 pages. Even then I kept pushing myself to go farther. It’s true, I did have the director of this project on speed-dial (well, the modern equivalent), and if I needed clarification about what we could/couldn’t do, he’d respond ASAP and I’d know how to proceed. But what I discovered by doing this was:

“Oh… wait… You mean… I CAN write a screenplay in 10 days or less and… it doesn’t have to take SIX MONTHS TO A YEAR  (or longer)? Huh… I didn’t realize that!”

Because I was writing for someone else, and because there was a time limit (“Write it quickly, but don’t do it sloppily!” — that was my directive!), AND because I am getting paid to do this, I did it.

BUT WHAT IF… I applied those same principles to my own FABULOUS ideas? True, I wouldn’t be getting paid (AT FIRST), BUT if I really believe in the project… I WILL be getting paid. So, next up is my original screenplay that encompasses so many of my personal passions that I simply MUST write it. I will follow my own principals above, and I will PAY MYSELF (a pittance, but still) for each milestone reached. By doing this, I will have a screenplay, once started, in 10 days or less.

The other IMPORTANT ADVICE is: “Give yourself the freedom to write badly!” This advice is from my cherished mentor, Ellen Sandler, who wrote for the TV show EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. By giving yourself this freedom, you stop getting hung up on every single word and just plow forward. I think the thing you will discover is: Do I really have a story or not? If you do, I would say the words will fly off your keyboard (or pen). So, I encourage you to give the above a try. There are many character questionnaires out on the Internet. Find one that suits your purposes; make sure it’s thorough. And… dive in. You might be surprised to find yourself with a solid first draft in a little under two weeks!

BIG SISTER resonates on BLACK LIST!

July 29, 2019 0 comments

To those of you who follow me, you know I have written a script called BIG SISTER. The script is important to me, because certain elements of it are based on a series of tragic events that occurred in my family. So, when readers “get” what I’ve tried to put on the page, it’s particularly gratifying.

I’m not sure why I didn’t post this before, but… here are comments from the BLACK LIST (2019) which discuss the strengths of BIG SISTER. Enjoy!

“BIG SISTER is a strong, dramatic script with compelling characters. The script is well structured — the plot reveals itself in an even pace and no scenes are too expositional, keeping the audience engaged with the characters in the present. We are able to garner a depth of knowledge about the characters by the various settings we find them. The dynamic between Lynn and Suzanne feels real and earned — it is clear by the way these characters are developed that they care deeply for each other and have had their rough patches in the past. When the story reveals that there is a deeper pain regarding their mother, it is a moment that feels truly like the audience has uncovered something they might not have been expecting. Lynn and Suzanne have many strong moments of nuanced dialogue together that express the themes of this feature — self-reliance, compassion, and moving forward despite circumstances. It won’t be lost on the audience that Lynn is helping a fraud of a self-help guru while needing a piece of that self-help herself. The feature ultimately ends on a bitter-sweet moment where we see clearly the character roles flipped between Lynn and Suzanne which displays the tremendous growth both sister have gone through through the duration of this feature.”

Pitches and perseverance!

July 27, 2019 0 comments

Hello all.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. From about February until early this month I was essentially writing non-stop. One project I had been hired for; one project I had been asked to help create with a published author; the others were my own, which I needed to bring up to speed after getting some excellent notes.

I’ve learned a lot in these last six months, including how to pitch, to the best of my ability, my two original screenplays BIG SISTER and TILLIE. I am much more confident about the pitching process, but it is still something that dredges up fear in me. Nonetheless… if push came to shove, I could pitch my projects. Don’t underestimate the importance of being able to do so.

For me, I found a combination of using QuickTime to do either audio or video recordings, plus Smart Countdown Timer (an Apple app) were just the tickets I needed to be aware of how long I was talking.

I was also fortunate that one of my peers is really good at pitching and she listened to me stumble my way through my rough versions and gave me stellar advice. She helped me condense my intro and then simply break the story into three acts. Now, I had all that, but she helped me focus on what was important. Also, my cowriter and I divided each chunk (four: intro, plus three acts) into either a six minute pitch or a five minute pitch (one project is a bit more complicated). By practicing each chunk in the allotted time (sometimes 1’15”, sometimes 1’30”), I quickly became aware of what needed to be axed.

Also, through my training, I realized the value of naming only three characters (sometimes that’s impossible), but three seems to be as much as people can focus on. I cut any extraneous details and did my best to focus on the emotional high points of each act. The desire to explain and give vivid detail is overpowering, but I had to scale back.

Next I want to get my elevator pitches down. I do have my loglines down, but I think a good 1-2 minute elevator pitch is essential as well.

I do not write “big” films. I write much more intimate, dysfunctional family dramas. I do not want or need superheroes or special effects. The power in my stories comes from the interactions of the characters and how they cope (or don’t) with the situations they find themselves in.

All of my feature scripts (all four, even though I am only now pushing two) have been finalists. That alone has given me the courage to go on. But in addition to writing, one must learn how to pitch.

I practiced till I was blue in the face. But my cowriter, who is generally calmer than I, got me to slow down, cut out extra words and phrases, and just be natural. This has taken a long time, but it can be done.

I see via social media so many people questioning and criticizing themselves. Don’t. Please don’t. Write. Get the advice you need from colleagues or trusted friends or pros. Keep doing that until you’ve raised your confidence level. Every story is unique, even if it has similar elements.

Keep at it, as they say. I’ve been writing for DECADES, and I have now written four commissioned screenplays. I’m not famous or rich, but I’ve been paid and three of the four screenplays have been produced. This gives me hope for the future. I hope it gives you a bit of hope, too!

Labors of Love

January 20, 2019 0 comments

Today I learned that my coming-of-age feature drama TILLIE placed as a finalist in the PITCH NOW Screenplay Competition. Many people I know dismiss a lot of these competitions unless they are on a shortlist of “recognized” ones. But why? Weren’t those “recognized” competitions also newcomers at some point? Did they automatically become “the one” to enter?

Competitions are a blessing and a curse. Yes, probably some of them are not worthwhile, while others do make valiant efforts to maintain visibility and professionalism. This is not going to be a blog about how to “find the best competitions.” To me, getting this acknowledgment from a competition is a tip of the hat to “keep going.” TILLIE is my third feature to place as a finalist. TILLIE is a complete labor of love. My co-writer Blake Pinter and I decided for the first time to adapt a book, in this case, “TILLIE: A MENNONITE MAID.” We felt this 1904 story was still compelling and demanded to be retold. So, this finalist nod was an affirmation that our decision to do this was the right one.

I don’t blog here as often as I like, but I hope to check in more, especially next month on my self-imposed writer’s retreat, where I hope to give any readers that drop by updates on the projects I have decided to take on.

Writing the screenplay is only one small part of the puzzle. It’s now up to us to find some good people who can understand our vision for this project. I know they’re out there, and that’s part of what this year is going to be about: connecting with them and convincing them that TILLIE is a project that deserves their time and attention and commitment.

I’ll touch base again soon.

Believing in dreams

June 9, 2018 0 comments

Every day I wake up and work on my screenplay, I am believing in a dream. It is either dangerous, foolish, insane, plain dumb, or the best thing I’ve ever done.

I was a professional pianist working frequently at top hotels in Tokyo for over 20 years. During that time I did an endless list of other jobs: voiceover actor, English teacher, actor, chef, dancer, singer, journalist, short film producer… you name it, I did it. But somehow, I always found pockets of time to write. I did not realize it is what I should have been doing all along.

One day I woke up and said, “If I don’t stop all this other nonsense right now, I’ll never finish my screenplays.” So that’s what I did. Of course, that came with a huge cost: my salary. I did, finally, get a few screenwriting jobs, for which I’m very grateful. But still, I am not what you would call “employed.”

And so, I employ myself. I wake up every day, do some kind of exercise to make sure I’m limber and awake, and I work on my screenplays. I do not have writer’s block. Perhaps it would be good if I did, because I cannot turn off my ideas.

It helped, I must say, to have taken a plethora of screenwriting classes, seminars, webinars. I did not have confidence in my ability and felt I should learn from people who knew. So I did. And now I do have confidence. And when I wrote for other people, I’d like to believe that that confidence came through. And now that those jobs are over, I apply the wonderful skills I learned to my own writing.

And I dream. And I keep dreaming. I dream that my projects, my ideas, my voice — all will finally come together in a way that will resonate on a high enough level that the right combination of people will say, “Yes. I like this. Yes, let’s do this.”

I do not know if that day will come. But if I do not dream of wonderful things, and if I do not take actions to bring those dreams closer to realities, then… I should not be doing this. But I found a powerful thing to love (and hate!) in screenwriting. It is such a unique form of writing that you simply have to love it to wrestle with it on a daily basis. You slap, pound, push, pull … it’s a bizarre lump of clay that sometimes gives, sometimes does not. But you continue.

When you are alone in a room with just a screen, a keyboard and your ideas, it can be the most fantastic thing in the world, while being the most precarious thing. This is the chance I take on a daily basis. The dream I dream.

Do not give up

May 2, 2018 0 comments

It’s so easy, isn’t it… to just say, “The hell with it…” and go back to whatever life you were living before you got bitten by screenwriting fever.

It’s hard, isn’t it… to sit alone in a room, with only the thoughts in your own head, rambling around, smashing into each other, sometimes making sense, often times not… while you try to translate it all into something that make sense on a page.

How many times have you just wanted to run out of the room and say, “Fuck it!” I know I have. And yet…

As of today, my latest screenplay “TILLIE” (with co-writer Blake Pinter) has been sent out into the world. Getting to this point, where we felt that “Tillie” was worthy to show, was a two-year investment of our lives. That does not mean a daily full-time job. It means, like most struggling screenwriters, we made a commitment to meet at least once a week, sometimes more (I was happy when it was more) and bring this unique story (based on a novel by Helen Reimensnyder Martin) to life. How do people do it, I wonder? In between jobs, relationships, family commitments, life commitments. How do they carve out the time to write their masterpieces? I don’t know, they just do it. And for what…?

If it isn’t for the joy of writing, if it isn’t because you believe that the story has something powerful or important to say (or even just something extremely entertaining)… if it’s not for that, then what’s it for?

When Blake suggested we take on the story of this gifted little girl who is trapped in a hellish world of working for her tyrannical father while dreaming of being a teacher and seeing worlds beyond the confines of her little town of New Canaan in Pennsylvania Dutch Country in the 1890s, I was deeply intrigued. What I didn’t realize is how much time and effort we would need to make Tillie’s world seem “real.” Neither of us had ever adapted anything, and “TILLIE” was based in a world that was extremely foreign to me, although a bit more familiar to Blake. We had to dive deep into the era and spend lots of time researching the unique language of the Pennsylvania Dutch (lots of tag questions ending with “ain’t?”), the clothing, prayers and hymns of the New Mennonites, and the harsh realities of farm life and social life in this particular time and place.

Writing “TILLIE” forced me to use every tool I have learned along the bumpy road to becoming a professional screenwriter. In the midst of us taking on this project, I was hired to write four TV movies (two of which have been completed, one of which is in pre-production) and a TV pilot. Of course I was extremely grateful for the work, and sometimes, it is necessary to step away from your main project and get a fresh perspective. That said… “TILLIE” kept calling my name, and, as of today, “she” has been successfully launched and is out into the world, submitted to her first competition.

This is, I well know, the beginning of another road… the one to getting this project produced. It could be a short one or a long one… but it’s a road that must be taken.

In the process of writing “TILLIE,” I have learned a lot about pitching and query letters and all the things that we are constantly told we have to know about in order to get something produced.

But the main thing, I think, that one must have is COURAGE and CONVICTION, because without either of these, there is little point in writing a screenplay unless you have the funds (or someone you know does and is willing to part with them) to make the project yourself. Getting people on board, getting people to believe this project (or any) is worth investing their time, money, blood, sweat and tears in… this is a major undertaking.

I do not know what will happen to or for “TILLIE.” But I know that Blake and I stuck it out and completed it. And that moment… when your brain is fuzzy after that nine-hour proofread where you start to become one with the screen and disappear into letters and commas and white space… that moment when you realize it’s done… all I can say is, I imagine it’s like giving birth to a child. A child as PERFECTLY FORMED AS IT’S GOING TO BE at the moment. At some point, one must allow the child out into the world, let it breathe, let it stumble, let it cry and scream, run back to you, run away from you. You must let it live.

And so, today, May 2 (in Tokyo), May 1 (in the USA), we have let TILLIE take her first steps… and I am proud, so proud to know that we did not give up and have created a beautiful, living, loving story… about someone who wants to BE WHO SHE IS, not who she is being told to be. About someone who wants to LEARN and GROW, someone who knows there is something better out there.

“TILLIE” may come from a different era, but she is absolutely alive and real in 2018, because, like so many protagonists that I have come to grow and love, she is willing to pursue her dreams, no matter the cost.

We will report back on “TILLIE” as the inevitable notes and comments come in. I know Blake and I will keep striving to make her as strong and powerful and vibrant as we can.

Staying the course

February 14, 2018 0 comments

In the past, I was very conscious of my blogs, trying to make sure that they were written in a way that may be of benefit to others. But finally, it has occurred to me that the first person they need to be of benefit to is myself.

I came to screenwriting late. I had spent many years following my songwriter/musician dreams, and they ultimately brought me to Tokyo. Working in Tokyo expanded my horizons to the point that it finally came clear that my path wasn’t songwriting, but screenwriting.

That started a 20-year journey for me which has only recently begun to bear fruit. I went the full course: the online classes, the in-person weekly classes (back when I was traveling back and forth between Tokyo and L.A.), the one-on-one tutors and coaches (from the Writers Store, which sadly closed), the mentoring from great writers who had worked in the trenches — you name it, I did it.

During all that time, I wrote. Finally, last year, my efforts paid off a bit. I got hired to write four Lifetime movies. While I had been aware of Lifetime, it was not a world where I spent a lot of time. But let’s say it has been a fertile learning ground and I was able to apply all I learned over those 20 years. It was a fantastic feeling.

In the midst of two of those scripts, I was asked by a producer to do a rewrite on a TV pilot being marketed to Netflix/Amazon… but in Japan. I was uniquely qualified to do the job, and, with my co-writer, I delivered 58 fresh pages in five days. At the end of it, I thought, “You know what? I can do this. This is not a fantasy. I do not need another 20 years of classes. I can do this.”

It was a liberating, uplifting moment… which I really needed, because as I imagine most writers will say, we spend so much time alone and/or in our heads that we start to question whether there is any validity at all in what we are doing or pursuing. I mean, yes, we must have dreams, but even the slightest encouragement or acknowledgment or nod of approval can mean a lot. In the case of the pilot, it was well-received with thumbs up. It made me feel great. As to its outcome? I don’t know. But I do know I did my best.

My Lifetime jobs are over for now. I am now back to my own projects — which means I must work better and harder, because there is no executive producer sending notes or reminding me of deadlines. There is only me and my strong belief that I have a unique voice and a special talent. And sometimes, that may be all there is to encourage me to keep going.

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