The Writer Gene

noun thē wrī-tər\ gēn\

A peculiar piece of DNA that compels you to express yourself in words, and ties you to everyone else who possesses it.

August 13, 2013

Working with Visual Artists

One of the things that I truly cherish about the many years I’ve spent working in the interactive media business, is the great privilege that I’ve had to work with so many phenomenally talented visual artists.  I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I first began to see imagery of a world that I could only express in words begin to take life at the hand of someone who could draw.  It was nothing short of phenomenal.

My first experience with this magical relationship occurred shortly after I sold my first project, an interactive game that was set beneath the sea in a mythical place inhabited by human-fish hybrids.  Following that somewhat psychedelic exploration, I found myself employed at Walt Disney Imagineering, where working with artists to bring concepts to life with visual treatments and storyboards is a standard part of the creative process.

Most recently, I have been working on a series of mobile edutainment games that are being designed to make learning Math and English fun.  Without the help of a talented storyboard artist, much of this work would not be nearly as coherent, detailed, or perhaps even possible.

As I reflected on this the other day, I began to realize just how much all these years of working with visual artists has positively affected not just my ability as an interactive designer, but my craft as a writer and a storyteller as well. The exchange of ideas with artists, the act of expressing those ideas, and the many conversations in and of themselves have made such an enormous contribution to my overall growth.

So if you’re a writer and you’ve never had the opportunity to work with a visual artist, I strongly recommend that you actively find a way to do so.  Perhaps you have a friend who draws who would be willing to storyboard something you’ve written as an exploratory exercise.  Or maybe there’s a program at a local university that you can tap for volunteers.  Either way, taking a scene from one of your scripts and bringing it visually to life on the page will be an invaluable experience.

And perhaps most importantly, this process will also help you understand that no matter how hard you try, the work you produce on paper will never look exactly the way it does in your head.  Seeing the creations of your mind in pictures is a great teacher, a great “alleviator” of the pain that art is not — and never can be – perfect, that it will always emerge from us in a flawed state, and that those flaws and imperfections are part of what makes it unique.

To learn about my book, Live To Write Another Day, A Survival Guide for Screenwriters and Creative Storytellers and check out blurbs and reviews, click here.

Purchase Live To Write Another Day

July 30, 2013

Do You Have the Writer Gene?

Reblogged from The Huffington Post – 5-29-13

About twenty years ago I had a critical decision to make in my life.  I had moved out to Los Angeles to pursue both screenwriting and acting, had studied at some prestigious schools, and had begun to pick up bits of work on both fronts.  The problem was, I wasn’t making enough progress in either career.  And though I didn’t have to look far to see other “writer-actor hyphenates” who somehow effortlessly wore both hats, I knew that for me it had to be one or the other.

So I asked myself a simple question: What is it I really want to do with my life the moment I wake up in the morning?  How do I want to spend the precious hours I’ve been given on this wonderful planet?  Because when you get down to it, that’s all life really is, isn’t it?  Just a series of experiences that we choose to have—experiences that, when it’s all said and done, ultimately tell the story of who we are.

Put in those terms, the answer became crystal clear.  When I wake up in the morning, what I want to do is write. Or perhaps more accurately, what I need to do is write.  Acting was fun, but writing is in my DNA.  In other words, for better or worse, I was born with the writer gene.

It was at that moment that I truly fell in love with the process of creative writing.  I realized that writing, like life, is nothing more than waking up each day, remaining focused on the task at hand, and trusting that the result will take care of itself.  It’s about paying attention to what works and what doesn’t, learning from your mistakes, having patience with yourself, and above all, taking pride and pleasure in how you choose to spend the time. I also came to realize that process is the key to surviving, psychologically, in a very difficult business. Process is not only a way of working; it’s a life preserver that gets you through the turbulent waters, both personally and professionally.

Now, you’d think that after years of practicing this zen-like approach to the craft, I would have become some kind of “writer-buddha,” sitting at my keyboard in a state of meditative bliss.  But just nine months ago, I once again found myself questioning my path.  Has all this time really been well spent, I thought, or has my writer gene finally betrayed me?  Is my voice actually being heard, or is it more like that proverbial tree falling in the forest?

The irony of all this navel gazing, of course, was that I knew damn well I could have never done it any other way—which ultimately got me thinking about other writers who doubtlessly share these thoughts and feelings.  So, with much trepidation, I decided to write a book about it. If just one other writer would benefit from what I had to say, I reasoned, the effort would be worth it.  And who knows, maybe I could even help myself a little bit along the way.  It would be “altruism by way of exorcism.”

The book I eventually wrote, Live To Write Another Day, A Survival Guide for Screenwriters and Creative Storytellers, is as much a reflection on my own personal journey as it is a practical handbook.  But most importantly, it’s the beginning of a conversation I hope to continue to have with my fellow writers, a conversation that’s focused not on box office or book sales, but on the actual work, the process of writing.

Like a golf swing or a pitcher’s motion, the writing process is something that you have to make as repeatable as possible so that you can consistently use it to produce quality work.   That’s not to say it’s mechanical or lacking in artistry.  Rather, it’s a way of working, a way of identifying problems and overcoming obstacles, a recipe that each individual writer must develop and over time make uniquely their own.  In the book I use my own experiences as examples of how to accomplish this, with the humble hope that it will both enlighten and even inspire others, from novices to seasoned pros alike.

Being a writer means walking through life with dozens of untold stories constantly bouncing around in your head—a series of puzzles, each one more vexing than the last.

That’s why if you’re like me and you have the writer gene, there’s nothing more important than your process.  Your best work will only come when that process unfolds naturally, and you give yourself permission to fully engage in it one patient step at a time… every day… from the moment you wake up in the morning.

To learn more about Live To Write Another Day, A Survival Guide for Screenwriters and Creative Storytellers and check out blurbs and reviews, click here.

Purchase Live To Write Another Day




July 16, 2013

Writing in Your Sleep

In my last post, I wrote about the importance of making a writing schedule for yourself and sticking to it while working a day job or spending time on other creative endeavors.  Now I’d like to share another technique that I often use in my process, particularly when I don’t have as much time to write as I would like.

This technique, which I call “sleepwriting,” is something you can use to both deepen your writing and to keep your mind working on your story subconsciously while you sleep.  To be clear, this isn’t something that I do too often to brainstorm a story.  It really works best after I’ve completed an outline and am in the thick of writing the first draft.

What I do is the following:  At night, when I get into bed and close my eyes, I center myself a bit, as if I’m going into a meditation, and focus on the opening scene of my story.  I take my time imagining it in my mind, trying to envision everything in that first location as vividly as possible.  Then, when the “scene” is set, I let that opening moment start to play, as if the actors have just responded to me calling “action.”

I then proceed to methodically step through the beats of the story, a little more rapidly now, as if the whole story was a montage sequence.  While I do this, I also keep a running tab of the outline, kind of seeing the words on the page simultaneously, and checking the beats off one by one as they flash by.

For me, this exercise is almost like counting sheep.  I rarely recall finishing the story.  I almost always float off to sleep somewhere in the middle of act two or three.  Sometimes I even awaken from doing this with ideas, either for whole scenes or for little details that I can jot down for the next time I sit down to write.  But the most valuable thing I get out of it is that when I do get back to the keyboard, I find that the scenes almost write themselves because they’re so firmly rooted in my subconscious.  It’s not that I don’t have to buckle down and sweat over them at some point to really make them work.  I’m not saying this is magic.  It’s just another way of tapping the natural, archetypal mechanisms we all must tap into as writers, especially when by necessity, your mind needs to be occupied with other things for the majority of each day.

Give it a try and let me know what you think!


July 2, 2013

Making Writing Time

Over the course of my writing life there have been wondrous times where I’ve had the luxury of being a full-time writer without having to do anything else for a living.  Unfortunately this isn’t one of those times.

The silver lining of this little fun fact however, is that I haven’t had to sell burglar alarms or tend bar, or do any of the many other things that I’ve done in the past in order to survive.  No, lately, I’ve had the privilege of working as a Creative Director on some innovative edutainment games that are being developed for use in public schools.  A very worthy undertaking of course, but one that still leaves me with one problem: when to write?

Now, for any of my writer brethren out there who may think that this is only a problem that confronts “unsuccessful writers,” think again.  Did you know that T.S. Elliot worked as a publishing executive for most of his life, promoting the work of other poets?  Or that Joseph Heller worked as a teacher and a copywriter for a small ad agency while he was writing Catch 22?  How about Kurt Vonnegut?  He managed a Saab dealership and worked in PR throughout his early career.

If you have a story that you’re burning to tell, you simply have to make the time to write.  The best way that I know to solve this dilemma is to create a schedule for yourself that allows you to make steady progress, even if it’s slower progress then you would like.

Recently, I wrote a spec television pilot in about seven weeks (not counting the outline phase).  Normally writing a 60-page script like this would take me about half that amount of time, but with my day job requiring my full attention between the hours of 10am and 7pm the process was stretched out quite a bit.   I’m also not at my best at night after being creatively focused on something else all day, so that eliminated evening writing.

Given all these limitations, here’s the schedule I put together for myself to get the script written:

Monday – wake up at 5am, work from 6-9am before leaving for work.
Thursday – wake up at 5am, work from 6-9am before leaving for work.
Saturday – wake up at 7am, work from 8am-midnight
Sunday – wake up at 5am, work from 6am-10am

Total writing time per week = 26 hours

The reason this schedule worked for me is that (a) I’m far more focused early in the morning than I am at night; (b) I’ve always had great “writing stamina,” that is, once I’ve gotten a story “cracked,” it’s pretty easy for me to stay focused on it for long periods of time, hence the Saturday writing marathons when most of the work was accomplished; and (c) I simply stayed committed to it.

Is this the ideal situation?  No.  Not by a long shot.  But can it work?  Absolutely.  In fact, I just finished this script about a week ago.  Now, every writer is different.  You may be better at night than I am.  Or you may be the type of writer who can take an hour during your lunch break and be very productive.  Unfortunately that’s not me.  Whatever your process though, the key is to figure out what works, devise a plan, and then stick with it.

Finally, here’s one last bit of advice if you find yourself in this type of situation.  Because your time is limited, try and force yourself not to edit your previous work when you sit down each time to write.  It’s difficult, because as we all know, it’s easier to tweak and polish then it is to plow forward through raw earth.  But if you don’t put your head down and grind through each session, by the time you look up at the clock you’ll have to stop and won’t have gotten very far.  So do the best you can to simply sit down and tackle the unwritten scenes without looking back.  If you’ve taken the proper time to outline and think your story through you should be able to at least stumble through the bare bones of each scene.  Of course there will be times when you’ve become so disconnected from the core drive of the story that you’ll have no choice but to go back and solidify a few things so that you have a sounder foundation to work with, but for the most part, you will make better headway by withstanding the pain of leaving things a mess for as long as possible.

Once you’ve gotten that first draft out of you, you’ll find the entire process will start to get a bit easier, and it will be all downhill from there.  Just set that schedule for yourself and be religious about it. That’s the best way that I know to find the time to write while managing other work, especially if the other work is also creative in nature.

June 17, 2013

Twenty Feet From Stardom

Twenty Feet From Stardom is a brilliant new documentary from Director, Morgan Neville and Producer, Gil Friesen, that chronicles the lives and careers of the music industry’s most legendary back-up singers.  The film is an absolutely mesmerizing portrait of a profession that most of us very much take for granted, and for the first time shines the spotlight on a very uniquely talented cadre of artists whose work is not only indispensible, but truly inspiring.

Being an avid fan of the classic rock of the sixties and seventies, I was truly struck by how little I knew about these incredible performers.  But now, after seeing this film, I can assure you I will never forget the names of such singers as Darlene Love, the grande dame of the ensemble who at one point in her life ended up cleaning houses, only to rise like a phoenix and return to her music career; Merry Clayton, whose haunting riff on The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter has always been one of my favorites; and Lisa Fischer, whose performances in the movie, dating back to her early work with Luther Vandross, are absolutely breathtaking.

The common thread that weaves its way through all of these stories is one that we all know well.  It’s the story of the person who has a dream, struggles against all odds to achieve it, overcomes obstacles, fights off inner demons, finds a way to stay true to who they are along the way, perseveres, and eventually triumphs.  It’s a hero’s journey in the classic sense, and it couldn’t be portrayed with more sensitivity and eloquence.

Still, I can’t help thinking that there is even more to this thematic exploration as it’s captured in this particular movie, something that speaks to the very soul of every artist everywhere.  These singers, though some of them had (or still have) aspirations to be stars, don’t sing for fame or fortune.  They sing because it’s who they are.  They sing because they can’t not sing.  They sing because they literally must make their voices heard.

In a world where senseless YouTube videos and reality television shows can make anyone a “star,” and where technology has turned the media landscape into an ocean of options that is virtually unable to distinguish the talented from the talentless, it’s incredibly refreshing to see such monumentally gifted individuals have their day in the sun.

As a writer, I found this story so moving, not just because of the impeccable skill with which it was told, but also because of the many similarities that we, as writers, have with back up singers.  Like backup singers, we toil in the shadows, out of the spotlight, oftentimes preferring it that way, but for the most part feeling that on some level we will never get the credit we deserve.  And for those of us working in television, film or interactive media, like backup singers, our job is in many ways, to give others the foundation to do theirs.  No lead singer sounds as good without those background vocals, and no actor, director, or producer can do anything without a script.  Even the popularity of the successful novelist comes with a certain aloofness, a palpable distance from the “front of the stage.”

If you’re an artist of any kind, but particularly if you’re a writer, you owe it to yourself to go see this film.  I promise you, the deep, heartfelt, commitment to the craft, and the emotional truth with which its expressed by the magnificent singers in Twenty Feet From Stardom, will be something you never forget.

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