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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2009 Successes & Failures

December 26, 2009

If I were to make a list of “What’s Hot & What’s Not,” I think New Years Resolutions are eking their way onto the “Not” list. Read John August’s latest post if you need convincing.

What I will look at is successes and failures.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the measurements of success. If we were to look at the game of football, the ultimate goal in any given year is to win the Super Bowl. Inside of that goal, are 16-19 sub-goals per year – to win the game. And inside of each of those games are further sub-goals: to score a touchdown. If you ask any coach or player what they’re thinking about in any given week, the answer is always the same: the next game. And if you were to ask any of them what they’re thinking about in the middle of the game, the answer will always be the next drive; or the next play.

And yet, inside the game of football, there are a million ways to measure performance. Rushing yards; passing yards; touchdowns; interceptions; turnover margin; time of possession; punts inside the 20; explosive plays; “passer rating”; penalties; number of 100-yard rushing games per season; December record; number of times Jessica Simpson is mentioned during the broadcast . . . the list goes on and on.

Often, as humans, we trick ourselves into thinking that the measurement is the goal itself. When that happens in football, the result is selfish players who want more touches so they can pad their stats, ultimately leading to a poor locker room environment, bad teamwork, and a team that, realistically, won’t win the big one.

In real life, it can be just as insidious, though for most of us it’s less public.

So when it comes to being a writer, what are the measures? Finishing a screenplay? Writing every day? Selling a script? Yes, those are measures. But remember, they are not the ultimate goal.

So … what are my 2009 measures of success/failure?

  • I’ve doubled length of Charisma, from 40 pages to 82. I’m still embarrassed to admit that I haven’t finished it, but you know what, I doubt I’m the only one who’s struggled to finish the first project that he really cares about. The fact that I’ve kept at it for 2 years is a big deal.
  • I released my book, Ups & Downs, and have had a few scattered pieces of success with it, but overall have gained very little traction. I have two boxes of books in my study, and the predictable future is that they will stay there unless I change something.
  • I had 23 blog posts in 2008 and 304 visits from October-December 2008; and 64 blog posts in 2009 with 407 visits from October-December (with a few days left to go).
  • Over the last few months, I’ve come up with structures to increase my productivity, and now I have one to track the time I spend doing various activities, including writing. This way, I can do with my life what football players do with their game – look at where the failures occurred, and adjust accordingly.
  • I don’t know how many books I read this year or how many movies I watched. I feel like I should be tracking that, too.
  • I’ve figured out that I don’t like doing marcom (marketing communications), and am shifting my business more toward narrative nonfiction ghost writing; book editing; tech writing; and proofreading, all of which I enjoy.

For 2010:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Continue reading every day and log every book I finish.
  • 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.

So are these New Years Resolutions? Maybe. But they’re realistic, and I know going into it, that the likelihood of completing every one is slim, and if I screw up, I won’t stay mad at myself, I’ll just get back on the horse and keep riding.

Because success is just a function of being willing to fail more times than the other guy.


It’s a Lonely World at the Top

August 5, 2009

I’m reading The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss.  The whole thing is about how to avoid the drudgery of the 2,000 hr work year that then leads to a delayed retirement.  So instead, find ways to work smarter, not harder, and spend your time doing the things you love.

A recent chapter points out, almost as a sidenote, that it’s “a lonely world at the top.”  In other words, it can be easier to score that one perfect 10 that walks into the bar than with any one of the five 8s.  Because there’s a level to which the people who are extremely successful are left unapproached by society.

I’ve long felt that I could make three phone calls and be talking to Stephen Spielberg, if I really set my mind to it – the only thing that’s held me back is that I don’t really have anything to say to him.  That’s not a conversation I particularly want to waste.

So it’s got me thinking about who I would talk to.  In my dream scenario, what are the things I really want, and who do I need to talk to to make that happen?

I think Kevin Smith is my guy.  Charisma is about a stripper who becomes a superhero.  Sex and comic books – the two things he loves most in the world.

Okay, but it’s not finished, and I don’t want to show him a script that I know is crappy.  But the first scene is pretty good, so I could make sure that’s all good to go, and then say, “Look, I just want you to read the first 7 pages and tell me if you want to keep reading.”

So now it’s just a matter of tracking him down … I know Brea Grant, who was in 16 episodes of the last season of Heroes.  I bet she worked with someone who’s at least met him.  After all, Kevin Smith is a comic book nut – how could he not have run into some of them at Comic-Con or some other comic book convention?  And it just so happens I want Brea to play the lead, so if I can get her interested, then I just might be able to make my way through.

I also know an entertainment lawyer who seems to know everything and everyone.  Oh, and I’ve got e-mail addresses of a dozen people I met at AFF, who I’ve never contacted, some of whom are pretty damn famous.  Maybe I could look through those and find a mentor or a champion for me.

I can’t say that I don’t feel self-conscious dreaming like this on a blog for all to see.  But I think it’s interesting what kind of possibilities show up when you recognize that you’re the one that’s holding you back.


Improv & Vampires, or How to Stay Awake on a 3-hour Drive

July 27, 2009

I’ve started another improv class, this one at MerlinWorks at the Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin, TX.  I chose this one from the growing hoarde of improv schools in Austin (I can name 5 off the top of my head … an impressive feat, considering three years ago it took me 15 minutes of Google searching to find one) for the simple reason that they have a track that focuses on narrative improv – i.e., improv that tells a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Day one, hour one, we’re introducing ourselves to the other people in our class by finding out what stories we have in common.  Like, what kind of stories we both like.

Vampires came up a lot.

I haven’t seen or read Twilight, by love Interview with the Vampire and Underworld.  I’ve always wanted to do a vampire story, but Interview is a pretty tough act to follow.  As an adolescent I tried, with a short story I called Blood Moon.  Although I think that one was actually inspired by the movie Hocus Pocus.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about my take on vampires and how you might incorporate them into a modern world.  Of course, Twilight and Underworld, and Blade have done that to varying degrees of realism, but I’m looking more at the descent-into-hell melodrama that characterizes movies like Natural Born Killers and Requiem for a Dream. I’ve become intrigued recently by the concept of hedonism, and combining that with a vampire story fascinates me.

There’s nothing more beautiful as a writer than being on a long journey, coming up with an idea, and then using the next several hours of that journey to flesh that idea out.  The entire plot of Charisma came to me during one of our long hikes through the Alps.  And all of a sudden I had that turning point, and I had that character arc, and I had inciting incident, and I had that image of the opening scene.

Before I knew it, I was at home, sitting down at my computer and banging out the treatment.

I need to get back to work on Charisma. To hold myself to account and finally finish a story I’ve started.  But when I’m done, I know what’s next.


The Bald Exposition

April 7, 2009

It’s amazing how, looking back at something you wrote a long time ago, it’s completely different than you expected.

One of my pet peeves is bald exposition.  “Oh, Dad.  You know I work today … it’s the biggest football day of the year and the bar will be packed!”  And writing Charisma, I didn’t remember having any of that in there.  Yet, when I looked back at it today as part of a writing sample I wanted to send in to someone, I was amazed at just how much of that crap there was.

Now good actors, surely, could deliver such lines and make them sound good.  But I’ve always said that good writing doesn’t need good actors to make it sound good, so it was suddenly incumbent upon me to change it completely, eliminating any direct references to anything.  When Chelsea asks her father what he’s doing, his reply is now “Nothin’,” which for some reason communicates so much more than if he actually said what he was doing.  Suddenly, it’s no longer the biggest football game of the year.  In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a football game, until the end of the scene when Chelsea tells her Dad to enjoy spending the next four hours explaining to Mom what a first down is.

Maybe it’s never done … maybe you can never eliminate all the exposition … after all, it’s imperative, for the entire movie, to set up this scene as Chelsea telling her Dad she works at a sports bar, while she’s getting dressed to go to work as a stripper.  Is it really exposition when people are giving false information?

It’s all so complicated.  Why can’t writing be as easy as criticizing other people’s crap?


Subplots – The Love Story

January 11, 2009

When I started writing Charisma, I was really trying to avoid a love story between our heroine and Ben, her roommate/mentor.  As a general rule I hate romantic B-plots in action movies, because they’re so trite and predictable, so I wanted to have the love between them be completely in the subtext and not addressed on screen.

But the more I write, the more glaring is the omission.  While I like the fact that it’s all in the background, it’s becoming obvious to me that something in there has to be addressed, or else it’s going to hang out in the room like a really nasty fart.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize that no producer or director would let the screenplay go to production without it being addressed somewhere.

One of the themes of this film is the dichotomy between nudity and sexiness; the nudity in strip clubs is so gratuitous that it stops being sexy, and were I to direct this film, one of the ways I would do it is to exploit that theme by having the nudity (in the strip clubs only) be so rampant that you stop noticing it, while the other moments in life – when Ben and Chelsea are having an honest conversation, or when Chelsea is seen doing something completely banal and human – would play up the sexiness.

I have no idea, yet, how I want to address it, so I was bouncing ideas off my wife, and as soon as I mentioned the idea of Chelsea and Ben having a sex scene, she went through the roof.  “No, you can’t do that to Ben!” she exclaimed.

I was a little surprised, and not a little pleased by her reaction, because it meant that I’d created characters she cared about and hit on an idea that elicited an emotional reaction, which is what film is all about.  So in spite of her protests that I was being a jerk, I continued down that train of thought.

If they were to have sex, I like the idea of an incident not unlike the Meredith/George debacle from Grey’s Anatomy.  Because the stripper with the heart of gold who falls in love with the boy who’s trying to save her is cliche, and that’s the thing I have to avoid.  On the other hand, I kind of like it when films hint at that love or sexuality, where they have an almost experience, and then decide not to, for whatever reason – which would be easy to manufacture given the vast amount of history between these two characters and the vast amount of baggage each of them carries.  It would also set up some good internal conflict, and would make for a good Gap Between Expectation and Result and break the stripper cliche, since you’d expect sex to be no big deal to her, except that it is.

So I’m still thinking about it.  In an early draft outline, I had Chelsea walk in on Ben while he was masturbating.  I loved the idea, but it didn’t fit into the plot, so I replaced it with something else entirely, and now I get to bring it back.  That excites me.  But more than that, I like the fact that I’m opening up my second act , and giving myself more to not to say in those unspoken love scenes.


Montage Overboard

January 7, 2009

How many montage sequences is too many?

In reworking my second act, I’ve noticed that I now have four montage sequences in the first 50-odd pages of the screenplay, and I’m worried I’ve gone overboard.

In part this is a stylistic choice – the first such sequence occurs in pages 1-4, and it was very much intentional, and very much a cool way to introduce our heroine.  During the opening credit sequence, we’re interspersing a phone conversation with shots of her getting ready for work.

The second is pages 29-34, and it’s basically the first turning point.  I’m worried about that, because I think it may be a cop-out for me to avoid having to write the scene. That said, it’s supremely cool because of the visual imagery, and because we’re again cutting back and forth time-wise – this time even more so, moving between “before the decision” and “after the decision” until the “before” catches up to the “after” and we see how she got there.  So although I think it needs a little work to make the “after” scene stronger, I feel pretty good about it structurally.

The next one, which is the one I  just reworked, starts only 6 pages later.  This is worrisome.  Plot-wise, Chelsea needs to spend the entire day in the library reading, fall asleep in the library, wake up at 6 am, find a group of people doing Tai Chi in the park, giving her the idea to take martial arts classes, and then spend the entire day at the martial arts studio, before going home where she gets arrested.

As the “hero develops his mad skillz at the top of the second act” sequence, it makes perfect sense to make it a montage, but looking at it in context, just 6 pages after the one before it, it feels a little cheap.  I employed the same before/after time-cut device, and now that I’ve done it I realize that I’m just being lazy and trying to avoid creating multi-dimensional scenes.

So now I need to figure out how to make this multi-dimensional.  Which is hard because right now it’s conceived purely to advance the plot.  But if I can eliminate this montage, I can probably keep the one that comes after her arrest, which is basically the midpoint, establishing a theme that the major moments of the film occur in time-cut montage sequences.

So I guess it’s time to put my thinking cap back on.  Thematic scenes?  You bet.


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