Why I’m Glad I Don’t Live in L.A.

January 21, 2013

The attitude around whether or not one has to live in Los Angeles in order to make it in the film industry has changed drastically over the past few years. A decade ago, anyone you asked would say that without a doubt you must live there, at least for some period of time. Then social media happened. All over the place, scripts were getting made not because of who you know, but because of how many people on the Internet know you. Digital technology improved, and the barriers to entry dropped dramatically. More films were getting made at lower costs, resulting in a lot more rough but a lot more diamonds, too. The “top tier” film festivals lost their stranglehold on the indie market, with more and more deals coming out of second and third tier festivals.

In short, the world changed and a new reality emerged, one that’s given an unprecedented level of access to Hollywood for people all over the globe.

Everyone knows this now, and yet people still like to tout the benefits of living in L.A. No doubt, they are plentiful: being surrounded by the industry, the buzz, being able to take that meeting today instead of next week, chance run-ins with industry players, and so on.

Well, I’m here to share with you the reasons why I’m glad I don’t live in Los Angeles–not because I hate the city (I actually love it there), but because it’s been the best thing for my career.

In 2006 I left my day job to start working as a freelance writer. I’ve been doing that full time ever since. The experience has at times been humbling, terrifying, agonizing, and exhilarating. I’ve had moments of joy that are unparalleled in any other profession. I’ve contemplated suicide. I’ve failed more times than I can count, been rejected more times than anyone should have to bear, and succeeded more times than I sometimes feel I deserve. I’ve got evangelists who are begging me to work for them, and I’ve had people tell me I’ll never make it in this industry (sometimes the same people).

But at the end of it all, I’ve learned some invaluable skills. I know how to market myself. I know how to network. I’ve kept staying the course, and have been rewarded for it.

Most importantly, I’ve been making my living as a writer for most of my working career. People are impressed when I tell them I write and edit books for a living, and have been doing that for seven years now. It gives me credibility. It’s given me tremendous experience. Most people don’t think about the similarities between writing a technical manual and writing a screenplay, but they’re there. And of course, the similarities between editing a fiction book and writing a screenplay are considerable.

I don’t know that I would have had this opportunity in Los Angeles. Most of the people you talk to there fall into one or both of the following categories: (1) they’ve been working in the industry full time since they graduated from USC, and (2) whatever job they have leaves them no time to write. You hear all the time stories of people who are talking about it but have subconsciously given up. I’ve been able to keep writing, and make my living. I’ve been patient. And I’m being rewarded for it.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for being an outsider. Most of the people I meet when I come to California are folks I know either directly or indirectly through Austin Film Festival, and they’re delighted to see me and find out how things are going. They love that I offer a perspective from outside the insular bubble of Southern California. And they’re happy to arrange that meeting for while I’m in town. I can call somebody up and ask if they want to go out to lunch just ’cause, but that’s a much more unusual invitation if we both live in the same city than if I’m flying 1,500 miles to be there. And I get to put all my meetings together into one whirlwind adventure of a week.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t move to Los Angeles (though some people I know would). Nor am I saying that I never will–n fact, I fully expect that at some point that’s going to be the natural and obvious thing to do. But I will say that I’m glad, when my wife and I contemplated it a year and a half ago, that we made the choice we did.


The “Let’s just blurt out a whole bunch of crap at once” blog

November 1, 2012

True to form, I haven’t written in a while. The hustle and bustle of reading for Austin Film Festival keeps me in “I can’t talk about the scripts I’m reading so what the heck do I blog about?” mode. This is followed by “It’s been so long since I’ve blogged, what the heck do I blog about?” mode, which is then followed by the “Let’s just blurt out a whole bunch of crap at once” blog. So here goes.

  • Recently finished Lolita. At first, I had it pegged as the best book I’ve ever read. For someone who gets some of the (extensive) allusions made throughout the book, it’s a very interesting read, and I’m particularly fascinated by the way he justifies his actions, at least at first. Also interested how, in the movie, the protagonist Humbert Humbert comes across as someone who can’t really help himself, whereas in the book he definitely comes across as a sexual predator for whom one loses pretty much all sympathy by the end. The middle of the book did drag a bit, but overall a fascinating read and one I’m glad I checked out.
  • Was kind of pissed that they made a movie of Cloud Atlas before I got a chance to read it. It’s been on my list for a few years. So I’ve started reading it now, and hopefully will finish before it’s out of theaters. Another book that’s designed (at least on first impression) for people with allusive minds.
  • Read a few great scripts for the AFF screenplay contest, including The Break-Up Nurse, which won the Enderby category. It’s one of my favorite things to do during AFF is to meet the people’s whose scripts I read. I only briefly got to meet the author of The Break-Up Nurse, but I got her card and am looking forward to sitting down with her when I visit L.A. in December.
  • Two main lessons from AFF:
    • Why is it this character in this particular situation?
    • “Words for actors are a problem. Silences between the words are an opportunity.” — Terry Rossio.
  • Speaking of acting (and L.A.), I’m attending Will Wallace’s acting class for two straight weeks in December. Will be glad to get some intensive time practicing on-screen acting. I think that’ll make a huge difference for me.

I’m sure there’s a lot more, but I’m happy just to get something on paper … er, server … again. Ciao.

The #1 Mistake When Meeting a Producer for a Potential Writing Assignment

August 20, 2012

Okay, the title of this post may be somewhat of an exaggeration. But given the veritable cornucopia of information out there on how not to act like a complete a-hole when you meet a producer, I’ll give you enough credit to assume that you’re at a slightly higher level of competence, that you’re actually able to maintain reasonable relationships in the film industry, even if you haven’t sold anything just yet.

Thus beginneth my tale:

Last October I met with a producer/director who was looking for a writer on his newest project. I’d actually met him for the first time a year earlier, and he had mentioned the kind of projects he was interested in pursuing. I didn’t really have anything to show him at the time, but we connected on Facebook, and I’d sent him a writing sample many months later, and although he remembered none of that by the October in question, I was very polite and understanding about it, remembered the kind of projects he was interested in, and asked him how they were going. So far, so good.

He told me that he now had a premise for the story he wanted to do, though it was very rough, and he was actively looking for a writer to develop the project with him. Again, so far, so good.

I re-sent him my sample, and he read the first thirty pages of it on his iPad that evening, and liked it enough that we set up a meeting for the following day. So far, so very good.

We met for well over an hour. He talked about the idea that he had, and I bounced some thoughts off of him. He wasn’t crazy about anything I said, but he felt that I had a good sense of what he was looking for, so I said I’d work on it some, and I’d send him a treatment when I got the chance. I was working on a bunch of other projects at the time, so I told him it would be at least a few weeks, or maybe a month, before I got the chance to look into this and send it to him.

He was fine with that. But here’s where it went south.

I don’t remember how long it actually took me to look at my notes from our meeting. What I do remember is that by the time I was done working on those projects that had held me over in the first place, I had other projects in the works. And then others. And the couple of times I did look at my two pages of notes on this particular project,  I was completely uninspired to work on it, and had neither the time nor the ideas to develop the concept any further.

Thus beginneth the lesson: assuming, as I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, that you’re not a complete a-hole, the number one mistake you can make when meeting a producer who’s interested in working with you on a writing assignment is waiting.

There will always be other projects to work on. And when you’ve got a system in place to get daily writing done and hard deadlines in place to work on those other projects, those other projects will likely get done. But when someone pitches you a new project, take the very first opportunity you have to work on it and get something into him. Not because he’s expecting it straight away, and not because you’ll be damaging the relationship if you don’t, but because that’s the best way to ensure that the work actually gets done.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this lesson six months ago, I just learned it today, when I realized I’d made this mistake for the second time on a completely different meeting with a completely different producer. Granted, this time the offense wasn’t nearly so egregious: the meeting was not 9 months ago but 5 weeks ago, and I walked away with three-and-a-half hours of interview footage, as well as stacks of books, court documents, letters, and other material relating to the subject in question, all of which can (and has) helped me to get back into the mindset of the project as I’m trying to wrap my head around it. But the fact remains, when I left that all-day meeting 5 weeks ago I had the beginning of the film in my head, as well as the ending, and it would’ve taken only a few hours of work to come up with a pretty solid middle that would’ve gotten us at least moving in the right direction. Instead, I worked on other things, and now I’m having to play catch up, spending hours or even days re-familiarizing myself with the material so I can get back to where I was.

So don’t wait. If you’re meeting with someone for a potential writing assignment, carve out the rest of the day and night to get some writing done. Otherwise, plan on carving out the next several months.

Thus endeth the lesson.

The Top 2 Percent

March 5, 2012

At this year’s Austin Film Festival, Shane Black said something to the effect of: Ninety-eight percent of this business is just awful. People lie, they steal, they screw with you, they ruin your work, there are thousands of disgusting, despicable people in this business that just make our lives a living hell. But we still do it. Because that two percent that’s good is so unbelievably amazing, we’re like heroin junkies looking for another fix.

I’m paraphrasing very liberally here, but go with it—I’m making a point.

I still remember when I won the part in Conversations with My Father: I was 13 years old, and of the hundreds of kids who auditioned, I was one of two selected to play this role at the Old Vic, “London’s most famous theatre.” When my agent told me, I started laughing—a release of tension I just couldn’t control. In her stern British voice she said, “Is that funny?”

“No,” I said, mustering up all the seriousness I could. I’m just . . . I’m happy.”

“Good,” she said, “you should be.”

I passed the phone to my parents, who spent the next however long discussing business details, while I spent the rest of my evening bouncing off the walls, thanking God, crying, and asking my parents how they could possibly expect me to finish my homework at a time like this.

That was the 2%. That was that moment.

Much of the run was great, too. The play starred Judd Hirsch, and before every show I’d go into his dressing room, and he’d give me notes from the night before. He was one of the most wonderful people imaginable. I didn’t think much of it at the time, it was just normal. But looking back, I realize what an amazing opportunity it was to have this legend of the theater coaching me as an actor. At one point during the run I thought I had mono, but I was just exhausted from traveling between home, school, and the theatre all day long—each about a 45 minute journey away from the other—leaving me with very little time to sleep.

But that, exhausted as I was, was the 2%.

When I was 24, six months into doing some spec work for a company in New York that was developing an animated sitcom, I had a similar experience. I was sitting at work when I got the e-mail: they were cutting me a check for $500 and were going to pay me hourly to continue writing for them. Again, I laughed, a continuous nervous exhale for several minutes. The guy in the next office over, wondering why I was doing an extended Butthead impression, asked me if I was okay. Again, I couldn’t concentrate—how could I possibly be expected to work at a time like this?

That was the 2%.

As it turned out, that was the day my career as a freelance writer began. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—filled with struggles, failure, rejection, and a roller coaster of financial and emotional highs and lows—but ultimately one of the most rewarding, and although there have been times I’ve come close to going back to a j-o-b, in the end I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The challenging thing about creative writing is that these moments are so difficult to come by. You can spend years writing screenplays, or novels, and not get calls like this. Not get recognized for your work. So I’ve started acting again, which has a much quicker gratification cycle. A few weeks of auditions come with a lot of rejection, but my yeses also come much more regularly, affirming my sense of self-worth and the joy of working as an artist. After a play, people tell me how great I am. At Texas Renaissance Festival I won both Performer of the Day—an award given by the creative director—and Best New Character—an award voted on by the entire performance company. And last weekend, at Sherwood, the guy who created the stage act I’m participating in and has been doing it for 10 years, said “You could take a dump and the audience would love it.”

Needless to say, it was a compliment. That’s the 2%.

And although I’m exhausted, and although there’s plenty of gossip, and rejection, and nastiness in this industry, the compliments like these, and the laughter of the audience, and the occasional $20 bill in the tip box are so great, I’m like a heroin junkie looking for my next fix. Just one more. Just one more. I don’t think I can cope without one more.

Catching Up

December 26, 2011

It’s been a while. My last post was three months ago, and since then a whole lot has happened. With the end of the year coming up, I’ve been thinking about my annual completion of goals/creation for the New Year, but in the meantime there are just so many things I want to talk about.

  • Acting: Went on cast for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and pretty much accomplished everything I set out to do. Created a swordfight that everyone was talking about. Won Performer of the Day on the third weekend, and Best New Character at the end of the season. Made a lot of friends, and had just a ton of fun. And I’m setting myself up to do more with that (hopefully in a way that I can actually make money at it) in the coming year.
  • Books I’ve read: Reading for AFF seems to slow things down on the reading front. Up to a point this year, I was counting the number of books I read, and then I stopped, because it just seems weird that the entire couple of months I’m reading 30+ scripts, I don’t get to count any of that toward my book count. But whatever. I’ve been on a crusade looking for self-published books that have sold well, as a possible avenue to finding property to adapt into movies. To that end, I just got done with Waiting for White Horses by Nathan  Jorgenson. As a storyteller I felt the drama could have been much more consistent; as a screenwriter I felt it could have been much less meandering; as an editor I felt it was way overnarrated; and as a product of the twenty-first century I would have preferred the plot move in a different direction. But the literary fictionist in me could appreciate it for what it was – a product of love, and a deeply personal story to which anyone familiar with rural America can relate.
  • Movies I’ve seen: Been a lot of these. Two of the recent ones – and also two of the best I’ve seen this year – were Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (in IMAX – totally awesome) and Midnight in Paris. Both had really well-written scripts with strong character voices.  Also watched the entire first season of Dexter (and can’t wait to see more), and got to see some amazing stuff at Austin Film Festival – the ones I still think about, and talk about, are The Artist and Butter.
  • Screenwriting: Taking ScreenwritingU’s ProSeries. Although I am, at this point, about three weeks behind, the information and the attitude of the class is really amazing, and I’m hoping to spend the next week or two catching up. Tonight I get to watch The Usual Suspects, starting with the end first. Fun. The script I’m working on is the true story of Ragen Chastain, the world’s only plus-sized professional Country & Western competitive dancer. And I’m continually taking Postville to the next level.

I guess that’s it for now. Catcha in the New Year for completion and goals.

Getting Out of the House

May 30, 2011

I wrote the following several weeks ago, submitted as a guest blog, but it didn’t quite fit their need so I’m now posting it here:

I’ve been working on a screenplay rewrite that’s been kicking my butt. It seems that my wildly inventive, foolproof plan for finishing the first draft (a.k.a. writing every day) completely failed me during the rewrite process, and I let roughly a month go by before I sat down to do any meaningful work on it.

Fortunately, I know that I work best under deadlines, so as the May 15th deadline for Austin Film Festival’s screenplay competition drew closer, I was more likely to sit down and get the darn thing done. But I was still having a horrendous time working at home, because for whatever reason I associate home with “the place to play video games and watch TV.”

So I posted a message on Facebook, asking if someone would loan me their house for the weekend, for the express purpose of getting some concentrated work done on the screenplay. After a few hours I got a text message from a friend of mine, saying she was going out of town from Friday to Tuesday and volunteering to let me use her house while she was gone. I snatched up the opportunity, and by Saturday night I was sending the author of my screenplay’s source material a draft, with the promise that he’d have edits back to me by noon Sunday.

As I [wrote] this it [was] now Wednesday, 11 days before the AFF deadline, and I [was] one scene away from having a working draft to send to some other screenwriter friends while I tighten up the characters’ voices. Oh, and tomorrow my mom goes out of town for three weeks and is letting me use her house as my office while she’s gone. I’m a genius.

So, obviously, that was written on May 4th, and it is now May 30th, Some three and a half weeks later. Turns out my mom’s place wasn’t really ideal for working either. Not sure why. But Postville is pretty much finished, and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office and WGA. I will soon be submitting it to various festivals, and then setting it aside for several months, probably.

Now, what to work on next …

Playing a Big Game

January 1, 2011

This time last year I discussed successes & failures from 2009, and began to create goals for 2010. Met some of them, didn’t meet others. As I begin to create a strategic plan for 2011, it’s time to complete on my plan from 2010, to see what worked and what didn’t, to acknowledge what I’ve accomplished and create a new one for next year.

For 2010:

  • What I said I’d do: “I’d like to continue my existence/time management structures. The goal is to have my time measured every day, without gaps. Realistically, I will get upset with myself some day for not doing something I was supposed to do, will make myself wrong, and won’t do it. But I will be back on track within a week, because I have enough people holding me to account for doing it. If I can go the entire year having missed, 30 days, I get a bronze star, 20 days a silver star, and 10 days a gold star.”
    What I did: I actually went quite a bit further with this, and began to train myself in Mission Control, a well known time-management system. As soon as I implemented it I got super-productive, so then I took on more to do, and immediately got confronted again by how much I had to do. Ratfarts. Anyway, I am now pretty reliable for tracking billable hours and scheduling my time.
  • What I said I’d do: “Finish the novel I’m working on with my dad, a short story/novella I started right before my dad’s and my scheduled start date, and Charisma.”
    What I did: I did finish that short story, although we ended up quitting on the novel pretty quickly because it wasn’t very good. And I still haven’t finished Charisma – Barely worked on it last year. I have, however, been working on some other projects, and I just finished the bible and first three episodes for a Web series, which I’m going to begin shopping around.
  • What I said I’d do: “Exceed this year’s 64 blog posts and 407 4th-quarter visits, without being one of those annoying people who posts what color shoes they’re wearing every day.”
    What I did: 55 blog posts, which was a little bit less but still respectable. But my big win, I blasted through my 4th quarter visits goal with over 1,000 4th-quarter visits.
  • What I said I’d do: Attend, in some capacity, the 2010 Writer’s League of Texas Agent’s Conference, the Austin Film Festival, San Diego Comic-Con, two comic book conventions closer to home, and two more authors/publishers conferences/conventions.
    What I did: Attended WLT Agent’s Conference and AFF, but not the others. AFF in particular proved to be extremely valuable for me this year.
  • What I said I’d do: Continue reading every day and log every book I finish.
    What I did: Don’t think I read every day, but I did log the books I finished, ending the year at 21. Perhaps not a lot for a professional writer, but I’m continuing to develop the habit.
  • What I said I’d do: Come up with a marketing plan for Ups & Downs that gets the two stacks of books out of my office as a result of sales.
    What I did: Um. No.

Other accomplishments not reflected in the above:

  • Closed my first ghostwriting contract, developed my website in such a way that it’s proactively driving customers to me, started leading workshops on how to write a nonfiction book, and performed stand-up comedy–doing very well at it.

Goals for 2011

  • 55 blog posts and  average 500 visits a month for the 4th quarter.
  • Finish three screenplays, one in time to submit to AFF, Nicholl, and several other screenplay competitions.
  • Attend San Diego Comic-Con, Austin Film Festival, WLT Agents’ Conference, the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, and the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, as time allows (some of those my be on conflicting dates).
  • Start acting again. And get paid for it. God I miss acting. And getting paid for it.
  • Edit 12 books.
  • Close sales on two more ghost writing projects.
  • I want to produce $25,000 in revenue in the month of January. This will require, rather than just surviving at the game of being a professional writer, growing a pair of balls and creating something completely new. It’ll mean finding clients who  really recognize what good content is worth, and who recognize that I can provide it.

Here’s to 2011.

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