Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself. – Doris Lessing

Go forth into the unknown, explore the caves of your unconscious, fear not your “dark side,” find the gold.

— Robin Hoffman (@AuthorAlchemy)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Writing Advice from SexyWolfen

By guest blogger Joseph Greene

WHEN I REALLY sat down and thought, “You know, I think this writing thing is what I want to do for the rest of my life” it was about 12 years ago, at the wise old age of ten.

I had always loved writing stories, mostly for the happiness it provided for others. I thought, “Why stop there?” and decided to write short screenplays. Which I did.

I finished my first full length screenplay a year later. Granted it wasn't in the industry standard format and I hadn't yet discovered the buggy wonder that is Final Draft. But hey, for a kid with low self esteem you'd think I had written half the Bible.

But I guess that's enough tooting my own horn for right now. Let’s get down to business.

Really, my writing style was wild and misguided until high school. I won't go into detail, but there are a bunch of stories about talking food. That's when I met my mentor . . . writing wise anyway. Really showed me what writing is truly about. Mort Castle, Pulitzer Prize nominee and writer of some pretty darn good horror. I thank him every day for getting me where I am today . . . writing-wise.

But anyway, some quick things to share.

1. You Can't Be a Judge of Your Own Work

Since you write the stuff, you know it better then anybody . . . but come on, no one writes for just themselves. Seek out as many people as you can to read it.

Be wary of other screenwriters sometimes. From my experiences, they can sometimes be the rudest, most snarky individuals since the ladies that work in the office of your local high school: you know, the ones that are the least helpful on the planet.

If you got family, hit them with it. I know it's tough to get any American to read something, but if you nag enough you'll be successful in that task. But that's hard to do as well when you have a 120+ page screenplay to chuck at them.

2. Write About What You Know and What Excites You

If I wrote a book about corn reapers, it might be informative, hilarious at times and quite heartwarming. But would be published posthumously . . . me having died from boredom. Write about things YOU would want to read about.

That's what makes writing hard during high school/college. I always hated having to write about some lame Toni Morrison novel straight off the Oprah's Book Club list. Or Romeo and Juliet (I swear if I have to read that one more time).

I really don't have to work that hard to find interesting things to write about. I just look out my window. I'm 22, so by the laws of nature, I have to live someplace crappy. ’Tis life.

What do I see?

— Crazy guy who never wears a shirt and yells a lot.

— Dude across the way selling various weaponry. Nice guy. We go out for lunch sometimes.

— Strange Mariachi/tuba music with Spanish wailing over it.

The possibilities are endless. Take a walk and see what's what.

3. Accept Criticism

Doesn't mean you have to listen to it. When it comes down to it, you really gotta use your gut. Because if you're not proud of your work, the heck if the reader is going to. Be sure to always get a second, third, and seventh opinion.

4. Writing is Healing

Long as I can remember, the best times I've had involved writing. As writers, we're the ultimate control freaks. While we're writing, we're in total control and nothing else really matters.

Even when times were tough in my family, writing would always cheer me up. Nothing like drowning your workplace in a pool of fire to brighten a bad workday.

5. No, There is Nothing Wrong With You

During my 2 years of writing classes in high school, I went to the school psychiatrist about 20 times for different things. It got me out of math, but that didn't make it any less irritating. People saying they “just don't get it.” You have two choices there.

A recent experience made me question my writing. My estranged father happened to run across some of my work and used his political connections (shoutout to Chicago politics!) to have me dragged out of my home and thrown in a mental hospital. Took my friends three weeks to convince them to let me go.

What that thought it was . . . my writing was a little better than I thought. Which kinda brings me back to the judging your own work thing. If people have complaints about things IN your story instead of how it was written, then you've done your job.

Keep writing. And thanks to Milli for letting me spend some time writing for you.


JOSEPH GREENE is a live or die writer, part time blogger, and an editor from time to time. He blogs at SexyWolfen and his Twitter handle is SexyWolfen. He's written a number of short stories in the past but his current focus is feature screenplays. Joesph lives in Chicago, Illinois and doesn't intend to go anywhere.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Serpentine, Shel, Serpentine!

IF YOU'VE NEVER seen 1979's classic, The In-Laws,do yourself a favor and stock up on popcorn. This is Banana Republic humor at its best.

The story starts out in New York, centered on an upcoming wedding—but without any inkling it will end up in Central America, insanity and mayhem.

The bride's parents have invited the groom's parents for dinner. If you think you have crazy in-laws, try marrying into a family headed by Vince Ricardo.

Peter Falk does such an intense wacko job as CIA agent Vince Ricardo, it makes Colombo look mellow.

Alan Arkin as dentist Sheldon Kornpett—the straight man of this inspired comedy duo—could not be more perfect. At one stage, Ricardo urges him to “go with the flow.” Kornpett replies, “What flow? There is no flow” with such acid deadpan you'd swear Alan Arkin was living through the pain of this himself.

For me, that was the best line of dialogue in the movie. I even wondered whether Falk and Arkin ad libbed that part or whether the screenwriter was that acute. Either way, these two old-time actors made Andrew Bergman’s screenplay come screaming to life.

The line most remembered from this movie involves learning to “serpentine.” It would spoil all the fun to tell you anything about that; you'll just have to rent the movie and see for yourself.

The In-Laws is one of those films that you'll love simply because it’s so preposterous.



MILLI THORNTON is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She blogs about writing and creativity at

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tears of Elation

YESTERDAY I RECEIVED an email from the PAGE Awards, one of the three screenplay competitions where I’ve entered my script. As far as competitions go, this was my #1 pick, and it was also the one I used as my deadline to get the script finished.
Dear Milli,

2009 marks the sixth anniversary of The PAGE International Screenwriting Awards contest, and it has been a record-breaking event! We received 4,394 scripts this year, submitted by writers from all across the United States and around the world. Most importantly, our Judges are telling us that the overall quality of this year's entries is the best they’ve ever seen, and we're hearing some great "buzz" about many of your screenplays. So the next few months promise to be very exciting!

Today, we're officially kicking off The 2009 PAGE Awards announcement season and we have some very good news for you…

The First Round of competition has now been completed, and the Judges have selected the top 25% of all entries. Based on your First Round scores, we're very happy to inform you that your work was selected to compete in the Second Round:

Ghost Train

Congratulations!! Given the level of competition you faced, this is a real achievement.

When I opened the email I was only half-inclined to read it. After placing *nowhere* in a much smaller competition (one that was judged within 30 days of the close of entries), I was not nurturing any hopes—and especially not after seeing an earlier report from PAGE about how many entries they’ve received. The number was staggering. (See the 2009 Map of Contestants.)

As I lethargically skimmed the email and saw the word “Congratulations” my primal reactions took over. A flood of goose bumps roared through my body, even while my mind could not accept the news. I just could not believe it on a logical level.

It sank in slowly. I began excitedly emailing the news to friends while still in mental disbelief. When my husband came home I ran to the kitchen and told him, with tears of elation spurting.

Wow. This was an exceptional feeling. It was worth all the hard work of completing my screenplay just to experience that feeling. The feeling that I actually made it out of the slush pile and scored well enough to move up one notch.

The PAGE email went on to explain that “the top 25% of all entries are now being given an additional round of judging. (Because some scripts were entered and evaluated in more than one category, a total of 1,400 scripts have advanced to the Second Round.)”

1,400 scripts is still pretty formidable. This coming Wednesday, July 1 is when they’ll announce the quarter-finalists.

I’m kind of torn. On the one hand, if my script does not advance any further, I'll still consider that email to be validation for finishing my first script.

On the other hand, those PAGE people sure do know how to arouse your hopes!


MILLI THORNTON is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She blogs about writing and creativity at

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sunflower Ranch & the Vespa Blogger Friendship Award

WHEN I STARTED this blog my main goal was just to have fun.

Screenwriting can be intense, and the writing format—as much as I love it—is restrictive. I need other ways to express myself while I learn and grow as a screenwriter. So I was really just doing it for myself.

I barely had anything posted when my first follower showed up. The icon for Sunflower Ranch that suddenly appeared in the sidebar surprised the heck out of me. I wasn't ready to promote the blog to my friends yet, much less strangers.

I didn't think I was ready for followers. . . .

But life brings us little rewards whether we feel ready or not—and Sunflower Ranch became much more than just a silent (or even a commenting) follower; she became a friend.

Now I knew that whenever I posted something, someone was listening. Oh, and the wonderful, encouraging comments she’d leave on my posts! Then one day Sunflower Ranch left a message saying I was one of her choices for the “Vespa Blogger Friendship Award.”

As a writer and author, I love nothing more than the feeling that one of my readers also counts me as a friend.

I hope you’ll check out the Sunflower Ranch blog. It's not a screenwriting blog, but you'll find many treasures there. Everything from

fun challenges for writers


outdoor beauty and poetry


humor (Bad Day at Hallmark)


The Gettysburg Address.

I’ve enjoyed the short stories too. Grandma Was a Flapper is my absolute favorite, but you should also check out A Fine Irish Lad, based on a bit of family history.

I am pleased and honored to accept this award from Sunflower Ranch and I look forward to the continuing friendship.



Inside the Heart & Mind of Blogger Sunflower Ranch

Milli's Picks for the Vespa Blogger Friendship Award (coming soon)


MILLI THORNTON is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She blogs about writing and creativity at

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Character Development in 2009's Star Trek

I WILL DEFEND this movie to anyone who didn't like it.

It's not that I'm a huge Star Trek fan who just has to get my fix. Like most human beings on Planet Earth, I'm quite familiar with the main characters . . . but I'm certainly not the kind of loyal fan who could reach back in my memory to identify a character from one of the early episodes in the 60s.

For instance, my husband immediately recognized Captain Christopher Pike (played by Bruce Greenwood in the 2009 movie) as being the Captain Pike—just prior to Capt. James T. Kirk—who ended up in a wheelchair operated by brainwaves.

I wasn't expecting to become so entranced with this movie. My fear beforehand was that

(a) the special effects would zap me in my sound and light sensitivities (which many big-production movies do these days)

- OR -

(b) I would not be able to relate to the characters (because I've barely watched the Second Generation and whatever else has come after that).

Neither of these fears proved true. The movie relied on strong storytelling, drama, suspense and a cohesive team of actors, rather than flooding your senses with special effects. And the character development across the generations was extremely satisfying—even for a naïf like me who has been out of touch with the way Star Trek has developed over the years.

I'm sure many Star Trek scholars could write about this with the right historical details and penetration. I just want to state how impressed I am with how skillfully this movie tied together so many threads of character development, with its theme of generations mirroring one another across the light years.

I felt awe for the massive story legacy created by the original TV series and everything that came after. It looks to me like these characters have been developed possibly more than any other characters in the history of the TV/silver screen.

And they’ve stood the test of time. Not only was I entertained throughout the movie, but I cared what happened to Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekhov, Sulu and Uhura, even though they were played by actors I had not seen in those roles before.

I still don't understand the bit about the middle initial “S.” for James T. Kirk (and even my husband wasn't sure about that one). But if you haven't seen this movie yet, try to see it while it's still in the cinema. This is a big story and it deserves the big screen.


MILLI THORNTON is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She blogs about writing and creativity at

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Writers, Do You Really Want a Critical Assessment?

By guest blogger Raff Ellis

Editor's note: Though aimed mostly at writers who want to publish books, this advice is worth pondering before seeking critiques for your screenplays.

I’M OFTEN ASKED by writers, aspiring or otherwise, to review their latest creation. The first time I was asked several years ago, I dove into the work and told the author many things I thought needed to be fixed. I was being frank and, I thought, helpful. I was shocked when the defenses went up and the author rationalized nearly every comment I had made.

Of course, one man’s soup is another’s slop—meaning that judgment is pretty much subjective, especially with works of art, and writing is indeed a work of art. Even with this qualifier, most writers take umbrage at almost any criticism. This is why I have become hesitant when asked to review another author’s work. It has turned into a lose-lose situation, sort of like giving stock tips—if it goes up, the buyer is a genius; if it goes down the tipster is a bum.

Many years ago I participated in a writer’s forum where the moderator was a best-selling author (you may have heard of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit). Everyone was encouraged to submit writing samples, which would be read aloud by the moderator, and commented on by the group. Some of the criticism was pretty frank but I nonetheless submitted something to be read each week. Others never submitted, something I couldn’t understand. What was the point of being timid? If you wanted to be a writer, you must have realized that your work, if you were lucky, would be exposed to a large and critical audience. Better to suffer the slings and arrows from a small group than a much larger one.

When I was finishing up my book, Kisses from a Distance, my publisher assigned me an editor and over a four-month period we exchanged some pretty rancorous eMails. In the end we became friends and my work was a much better product because of his efforts.

Speaking from personal experience I would like to tell writers to adopt a more receptive attitude towards criticism. Cultivate a group of readers who are knowledgeable, trustworthy, and honest. If all you are looking for is affirmation, there are many more who will give it than not—because most people are non-confrontative by nature.

Admittedly, publishing has changed a lot in the last few years and some really good works aren’t attracting offers. However, if everyone likes your work, and you aren’t getting to first base with publishers, it’s possible that your readers aren’t critical enough. And, by all means, before you invest in self-publishing, make sure that your masterpiece has undergone a reputable critical review. Once it’s printed, it’s too late.


RAFF ELLIS is a former computer industry executive and prolific writer of short stories, essays, and political commentary. His first book, Kisses from a Distance, was published by Cune Press, Seattle, Wash. He lives in Florida with his wife Loretta and their faithful companion Antar.

Watch the book trailer for Kisses From a Distance on YouTube

Friday, April 17, 2009

Would You Wear This Jacket to the Movies?

EMOTIONAL IMMERSION. Do we need this artificially heightened for us when we go to the movies? Shouldn’t the movie itself be enough?

Researchers have developed a jacket lined with vibration motors—64 actuators that rest against the wearer’s arms and torso—designed to induce relevant sensations and emotions while watching a movie.

Product developers want the jacket to connect the wearer more fully to the character, such as feeling his or her survival anxiety. For instance, the jacket can cause a shiver to run up your spine or other sensations related to a fight scene.

The goal is to study “the effects of touch on a movie viewer’s emotional response to what the characters are experiencing.”

I can imagine this jacket becoming popular and, with more research and refinements, becoming ever more sophisticated. One comment on an article at IEEE Spectrum cited a “scent collar” developed for the army that could also be used for more sensory realism.

Being the sensitive type (I feel too much already), I would not wear this jacket in the hope of spiking my adrenalin response to action scenes.

(I realize I’m in the minority here ;~)

However, if the jacket could induce greater levels of the emotions I do want more of—inspiration, love, gratitude, romance, creativity—then count me in!


See the jacket and read more details


MILLI THORNTON is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She blogs about writing and creativity at

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Questions They Will Ask You After the Pitch

THIS WEEK I watched a DVD called How to Pitch and Sell Your Screenplay.

The DVD was helpful in its analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of live pitches given at the New York Pitch Exchange—but, for me, it also raised more questions.

Despite my “I can do this” attitude and plan of action from my previous post (Fear of Pitching), I’m pretty darn nervous about this whole pitching thing.

Let’s say I manage to make my memorized pitch sound natural, vibrant and compelling (still workin’ on that) and someone actually calls me. After I’ve delivered the rehearsed stuff, according to Laurie Scheer from the DVD they’re likely to ask me questions I don’t have any scintillating answers for.

Who’s the market?

Anyone who enjoyed Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone and the kind of story—like Some Kind of Wonderful—that features a love triangle where the unlikely one turns out to the true love.

Will it go over like a lead balloon if I cite movie classics from so long ago?

Who do you see starring in your movie?

First time I’ve come across this. Everything else I’ve heard or read warns about trying to foist your desired cast upon weary agents, producers and directors.

In my head as I was writing I saw John Cusack in his mid-twenties and Mary Stuart Masterson in her early twenties. But I’m sure that old-fashioned answer won’t fly!

So how do I find the perfect actors to fit the roles? Watch more movies, of course . . . but it could take time to find the right actors.

Hmm, should I have entered those screenplay contests? The idea was to live my dream—but when it boils down to the marketing maybe I’m just not ready.

Why this story now? Why should we produce this?

Laurie suggests that your answer should be about how your movie
(a) reflects something in society, or
(b) has new entertainment value.
My movie does not handle any deep and meaningful societal issues or dwell on the cutting edge of special effects, super-heroes or violence. It’s simply a lot of fun and—I believe—very entertaining.

It’s the kind of make-believe world you can lose yourself in for the pleasure of putting your problems on the shelf for two hours.

How do I say this without sounding clichéd?

Who are you? What is your brand?

I’m used to thinking of myself as the Fear of Writing lady who enjoys helping other writers overcome their inner blocks and reignite their imaginations. This is my first screenplay and I don't have a solid idea yet for how to “brand” myself with it.

It’s a time travel romance—but even though I passionately love my story it doesn’t break down to Who I Am as a writer.

Or does it?

I enjoy fun stories full of irony but not too much violence. Does that sound too much like Screenwriter Lite?

How does your content work for other media (eg. cable, wireless)?


I have not watched TV for over 20 years. It just doesn’t appeal to me. Of course, it would be death to mention that sentiment! So how do I get around my complete ignorance on this subject?

Same goes for wireless. In fact, I’m not even sure what she means by that. Is she talking about the new media, where characters from shows are said to come to life on the Internet with their own blog or social media presence?
If you have experience with pitching (or even if you don’t!) and can shed any light on these issues, I welcome your comments and suggestions.

MILLI THORNTON is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She blogs about writing and creativity at

Friday, April 10, 2009

Fear of Pitching

MY FIRST SCRIPT is waiting patiently for me to mother it.

Over time, this mothering will involve many things, but the major monster under the bed right now is learning to pitch.

I’m an introvert who would rather sit alone and write than have to sell my work verbally to jaded industry people who’ve heard it all before.

But mothers are people who will do anything and everything they can to give their children all the advantages in life. Right?

OK, so let’s rephrase that “I’m an introvert, blah, blah, blah” stuff to:

I *can* do this.

Today’s post will mention a few of the things I’m currently doing to overcome my fear of pitching.


After reading even one book on pitching, this would seem like a no-brainer . . . but apparently not.

In Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds,Michael Hauge interviews executives on pitching. Time and again, these executives bemoan writers who

(a) pitch with no focus
(b) ramble and take up too much time
(c) don’t know their story
(d) try to cram in too many details.

I saw this illustrated in dramatic terms when I watched the DVD How to Pitch and Sell Your Screenplay.

Pitch expert Laurie Scheer analyzed pitches given at the New York Pitch Exchange. Even without Laurie’s analysis, I could see many of the writers getting themselves into troubling by failing to know and rehearse their pitches ahead of time.
You must be “off-paper” when pitching. Meaning you have to memorize the pitch. That being said, I usually took cue cards with me as a safety net during the pitch. The pitch must be delivered like you’ve just thought of it, not like you’re repeating lines from a memorized pitch.

—Sharon Y. Cobb, screenwriter and author of False Confessions of a True Hollywood Screenwriter

If I spot an opportunity to go out of my comfort zone—enough to inspire rather than intimidate me—I try to jump on it.

For instance, yesterday I recorded an intro/outro for Guardians, a podcast novel by Twitter friend Kimi Alexandre. This was easy and fun to do. Kimi provided the short scripts; all I had to do was call her voice mail and do the recording.

I rehearsed ahead of time and did not stumble or sound nervous (even though I was a little nervous about the prospect of hearing my voice on someone else’s podcast).

Seems like such a small thing in retrospect, but it did boost my confidence!

Not only that, Kimi now wants to interview me for her blog ( So I’ll have another fun—albeit slightly nervous-making—baby step to continue the momentum.

A little bit of nerves = good. Adds extra energy to the mix!


I’ve been to two meetings here in my new city (Youngstown Executive Toastmasters) and will make my first speech, the “Icebreaker” in May.

The Oh, Pinon chapter of the Santa Fe Toastmasters helped me greatly back in 2001 when I wanted to become a writing workshop presenter.

An article on my Website, The Author in Public: Gaining Confidence, chronicles my adventures with the warm and wonderful people of the Oh, Pinon Club.

Yes, Toastmasters is another fabulous way of taking baby steps. Granted, giving a speech is more like stepping into the deep end. But the people of Toastmasters are so friendly and supportive—and their evaluations are so positive and helpful—that this is still one of the best ways to get comfortable speaking face to face.


Got fear of pitching? Or perhaps tips to help writers who want to become better pitchers? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts and ideas.


MILLI THORNTON is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She blogs about writing and creativity at

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

A Crazy Writing Dream That Came True

LIKE MANY FOLKS, I spent years watching movies as an armchair screenwriter.

As the credits rolled, my husband was used to hearing me shout either “Darn that was good! I wish I’d written that!” or (in familiar tones of disgust), “Even I could write a better movie than that.”

In 2001, I made a teensy start on this reckless dream by writing a treatment—an outline using the venerable three-act structure.

I could have gone on from there. I certainly had the tools at hand. Final Draft scriptwriting software, Sid Field’s Screenwriting Workshop (video set), Hollywood Creative Directory (52nd Edition), Formatting Your Screenplay by Robert Reichmann and Story by Robert McKee.

Plus, I was already a writer.

But I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t see myself as a “screenwriter” and I didn’t have enough faith that I could do it.

Later I even gave away the software, the video course and the various books in a contest I ran to help promote my book. You can see the winner, Dawn Hunt, on the Fear of Writing blog (Three Very Happy Prize Winners).

It wasn’t until years later—2007, to be exact—that I rummaged around in my computer files, opened that cobwebby ol’ treatment and commenced to get my hands dirty as a screenwriter.

(Yep, I had to buy new software.)

What caused me to try again?

That little tidbit (and many others) will be revealed when I launch my work-in-progress, an e-book entitled How I Wrote My First Screenplay in 29 Days.

For now, I want to cut to the chase and announce that on Tuesday, March 31, 2009 around 10:15 p.m. EST my dream finally came true.

After tons of good, old-fashioned hard work, a huge learning curve, lots of fun (as well as the occasional “dark night of the soul”). . .


. . . I submitted my finished screenplay to the contest I’d chosen to act as my self-imposed deadline, The 2009 PAGE International Screenwriting Awards, a mere one day ahead of their April 1 deadline.


Was I happy? You bet your sweet bippy!

It’s just that the happiness was buried under mountains of exhaustion.

But isn’t that the way it oughta be? Any dream worth having is worth getting a little exhausted for.

The issue of whether screenwriters are crazy to want to live this particular dream will be discussed in future posts.

And, now, please join me in a glass of champagne, merlot, beer, sparkling grape juice, cactus juice or your beverage of choice.

Here in my house, it’s TIME TO CELEBRATE!

P.S. In case you’re wondering—No! I did not pull off the entire process in 29 days. If I had, you'd need to suspect a script that stinks of sloppiness and lack of development. But I did write my first draft in 29 days. Achieving that showed me what I was capable of and motivated me for the work ahead.

If you’d like to know more about the e-book, please sign up for the RSS or email updates for this blog. Scroll to the top and look in the left column.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Driving Miss Daisy on stage

THIS EVENING WE attended the Oakland Center for the Arts (Youngstown, Ohio) for a performance of Driving Miss Daisy directed by Terri Wilkes.

The show started on time, which was much appreciated. The previous play we attended (not at the Oakland) started early and we missed part of the first scene. A bit disorienting when you come in knowing zero about the story line.

I’ve never seen the movie for Driving Miss Daisy so was a newcomer to this story. Glancing at the program before the lights went down, I was interested to learn this was a Pulitzer-winning play (1988) before it became a movie.

The play featured only three characters: Miss Daisy (Molly Galano), her son Boolie (Eric Kibler) and her chauffeur, Hoke (Johnny R. Herbert).

I had to strain a bit to hear the first few lines and feared it would be a strain throughout the play. But my ears quickly adjusted to the acoustics and it was not a problem after that.

This is a lively play, dialogue-wise, and the actors were excellent. I soon forgot I was watching only three performers on a largely unchanging set—I was too busy laughing. I laughed and chuckled almost non-stop and wished the rest of the audience would have been a little more giving in this department.

At the end of Noises Off!—a wonderful play we attended during the winter in Salem, Ohio—one of the actors had explained how supportive it is for the cast of a comedy to have feedback coming from the audience and he expressed thanks for all the laughter.

Perhaps some folks believe it’s rude to create noise from the audience and that’s why the laughter was only scattered. But, come to think of it, I notice the same thing at the movies. Cinema audiences, for the most part, seem so repressed!

Fortunately, most of the Driving Miss Daisy crowd warmed up by about mid-point. My husband was chuckling from the get-go and I’d been worried he only went to please me.

The only time I wasn’t laughing was during various tragic moments when the theme of prejudice was rendered in all its starkness. The actors did a great job with the mood changes. Goose bumps flooded my body as I felt the darkness of these human tendencies.

There was only one set change, when Miss Daisy’s “car” (a simple arrangement of chairs, plus an actual trunk to represent the trunk of the car) was transformed in a simple way that helped show her advancing age.

The sound effects were enjoyable and perfectly timed. The images projected on the back wall of the stage helped tell the story. Black and white stills showed the change in car models over the period of the story, along with a synagogue and other relevant buildings. The face of Martin Luther King was shown briefly to drive home the poignancy that underlies this story.

The cast received a standing ovation and they deserved it. I was more than happy to jump out of my seat and join in.

I also enjoyed filling out the survey provided by the Oakland, but there wasn’t much to suggest in the way of improvements. Not even by me, the gal who loves to give feedback!

All I could think to scrawl in the Comments section was “Everything was excellent!”

And we shall return.

Next up: Reefer Madness The Musical, May 1 – 16.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Your Screenplay Sucks!

First published 11/14/08 on the Fear of Writing Blog

FORTUNATELY, THIS IS NOT something someone said to me. This is the spiffy title of a funny and brilliant book by William M. Akers, and I heartily recommend it to almost anyone writing fiction.

The full title is your screenplay sucks! 100 ways to make it great. Here are some of Akers' 100 ways, from the table of contents:

-- You have not written something you care about!
-- You haven't worked your dialogue hard enough!
-- You don't have enough tension!
-- You have not shouted at each scene, "How can I jack up the conflict?!"
-- You haven't made "place" a character in your story!

Notice a pattern here? These are issues that many fiction writers face. Aspiring screenwriter or not, you're also bound to enjoy Akers' wisecracking and insightful supporting examples based on popular movies.

I've read other screenwriting books where the author bases his arguments around examples from movies and I've always learned something useful (usually enjoying the examples enough to put some of the movies in my Netflix queue), but Akers makes it come to life like Frankenstein busting out of his table straps. His examples are so vivid, funny, educational and entertaining, it makes me want to SCREAM (but only from an excess of creative inspiration . . . and that unparalleled feeling of reading a book so good you could almost eat the pages).

If you're still hesitating to buy this book, let me put the screws in a little deeper. From his list of 100 sins to commit against your own screenplay, there are some things I would never have dreamed of doing (so, therefore, “I didn't need the advice”); for instance,

-- Your story is about miserable people who are miserable the whole time and end miserably! Or worse!!
-- You want to be famous more than you want to write!
-- You call specific songs!*

*(This one refers to those newbie screenwriters who specify which songs they want for particular scenes; a definite no-no.)

I could have gone through the table of contents and skipped the chapters containing the advice I don't need. I love anything that saves me time! But, in this case, that would be dumb. I'm learning something from almost every chapter of this book, even when I fully expect not to.

And for the chapters about the really assinine things I would never do, I may not learn anything new but it sure is "fun on a bun" (as Londa is fond of saying in The Philosopher's Apprentice).

In section 11, “We have no rooting interest in your hero!” (a problem I'm 95% certain I don't have with mine), Akers says:

“Your hero does not have to be sympathetic. He doesn't have to be nice. Just because development people or writing teachers say your main character has to be likable, doesn't mean you have to listen.”

My hero is a deeply nice person—with a hankering for innocence and purity—and that's his flaw. The movie would not work without it.

Despite that being true for my current story, previous to reading this book I already knew the main character of any story could be a Grinch—and I'm not afraid to do that in my own writing (see "The God of Mystery" from Fear of Writing). But reading section 11 (along with #13 “Your Bad Guy isn't great!”—though I believe mine's pretty juicy) gave me an electrifying new idea for a screenplay; a story idea I may never have arrived at by skipping chapters in the hasty belief the advice would not be relevant to me.

There’s another reason why non-screenwriters might find this book not only entertaining but educational. On every page, with every sentence, Akers shows us how to write. If I was only allowed to review this book with one meager paragraph, I would say,

"This book is my precioussss. It burnses me to put it down. Must keep reading! Never, ever get between me and my copy of your screenplay sucksss! or things could get nasssty. (Hint: Ever seen me sssqueeze a fish?)"

It doesn't make sense, really. Akers spends the whole book telling me what I'm doing wrong and why I'm a schmuck. He insults my intelligence with his list of 100 and drops the guillotine on my hopes of ever getting a screenplay deal. And I love it! Every page is like a gigantic bowl of chocolate ice cream. Now that's good writing.

Just reading this book and absorbing his inimitable style, even if you don't (to your detriment) take any of the advice, can teach you good writing.

So, dear blog readers . . . have you bought your copy yet? If you're not already driving to your local bookstore to snatch it up, here's the link again so you can buy it online through Akers' Website (don't forget to look at all the funny pictures and read the wonderful chapters that didn't make it into the book):

your screenplay sucks! Buy now! Get it here! What are you waiting for? . . . editors or agents to call you on your cell phone?!

P.S. This is the kind of book that poses a painful conflict if you’re forced to pick a favorite line, but so far one of my winners is “Hans Gruber, marriage counselor.”

P.P.S. You may already guess what that refers to, but if not you need to buy this book—not only to laugh and marvel at this clever punch line but to find out why this concept might be important to your own writing.


RELATED POST: Your Screenplay Sucks! Part II

(being news of the breakthrough that happened for me after reading less than 40 pages)


Your Screenplay Sucks! Part II

First published 11/14/08 on the Fear of Writing Blog

Part I of this entry was my book review for your screenplay sucks! 100 ways to make it great by William M. Akers.

The review includes some of the ways non-screenwriters can benefit from reading Akers' book.

But, wait. There's more.

One of the many reasons I'm bubbling over about this book is due to today's mind-blowing coffeehouse event. Akers' book showed me a problem I didn't realize I had with my screenplay.

Panic? Disappointment? Deep sense of failure as a writer? Not at all. Largely because I already felt creatively liberated by reading this book, the solution came to me shortly after I realized the problem.

To get away from the distractions of laundry and e-mail, around noon I took carefully chosen reading material to Peaberry's Bakery & Café and settled in for some luscious reading. I intended to stay at least three, if not four hours, making considerable headway with some important goals related to my screenplay.

But first I indulged in several more pages from the delightful novel I'm currently reading, The Philosophers Apprentice by James Morrow. My breve tasted divine and I only had to move tables once (due to fellow patrons talking in megaphone voices on their cell phones). Coffeehouse bliss.

Next I read another section from The Way of Story by Catherine Ann Jones (another highly recommended book for writers). Then I turned to the most serious business of the day: allowing myself to be entertained and moved to wicked grins and laughter while learning hugely from your screenplay sucks!

My blissful long stint in the coffeehouse was cut short, however, when a brainstorm overrode all other wishes and desires. The brainstorm was the cumulative result of reading six more sections from Akers' book . . . but the part that made me rocket out of my seat and rush home to my computer was the following sentence from section 16 (“You don’t give your bad guy a Bad Guy Speech!”):

“Then, in Chapter 21—Magua's Pain—Montcalm and the reader hear what's boiling Magua's guts.”

This refers to The Last of the Mohicans, but you don't have to see the movie or read the novel it's based on to get the point. Akers makes it abundantly clear in just a few paragraphs.

What I realized from Akers’ example is that my bad guy, albeit doing well in most other areas, doesn't ever reveal the motivation behind his anti-social and violent behavior. Worse, I'm the bad guy's creator and even I didn't know how his badness got seeded. Plenty about what boils my hero's guts but no revealing history for my BG.

I drifted into daydream mode and started scribbling in my writer's journal. Because Akers already had my mind in such a fertile place, it only took a few minutes to know which scene I'll need to use to show my bad guy's motivation. I know which character’s going to talk about it/show it and what she's going to say—could even result in one of the best lines from the movie—and how the other character will react (classic case of denial).

Some of the details of the Freudian incident from my bad guy’s past are still a bit hazy, but no problemo. That can be fleshed out as I go.

At first, I was a bit ticked off about having to add anything to my script that might pile more pages onto it. My finished screenplay is currently 112 pages; screenplays for feature films should be between 100 and 120 (but a full 120 pages for a newbie might require some justification . . . namely, a killer script!).

Still, the more I daydreamed and brainstormed, the more I could see how much this short but critical addition—it should amount to a page or less—will enrich my story.

I was so gratified with this development, the world was a more thrilling place to be, the music on XM Radio sounded better than ever, and my most pressing problem with my Friday afternoon had become:

“There are not enough hours in the day to do all this fun creative stuff!”
You have to be happy at your desk, at that laptop in the coffee shop or in the front seat of your car, doing your writing, whether you ever get paid or not. Otherwise it is no fun. Getting paid should not affect what you want to do.

Because, if it's not what you want to do, why are you doing it?

—William M. Akers, page 286, your screenplay sucks!

RELATED POST: Your Screenplay Sucks (Part I)