Friday, September 21, 2007


I'm off to England on Thursday. These are photos of some of the areas I'm visiting, just to whet your (well, mostly my) appetite. The first one is from the North York Moors. The next threee are of the Yorkshire Dales. No, these aren't my photos. I found them in an online gallery. Check it out here.

Outlines, outlines

I'm a firm believer in outlining your story. There are a few successful writers out there who don't outline - Stephen King for example. Aaron Sorkin in TV (although Studio 60 could've benefited from some outlining, in my humble opinion.) And many writers resist outlining with all their might. "It messes with my creative process." "I get inspired as I write!" And on and on. Either these folks have a natural feeling for structure and what works in a story. Or their stuff meanders, wanders, offers up dry patches, and gets repetitive. They don't realize that outlining stirs your creativity - it helps you find out exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. It's the opposite of confining - it points the way, but also offers endless possibilities.

I don't think JK Rowling outlines. She's brilliant in her own way, don't get me wrong. But Book VII of Harry Potter got seriously dull there in the middle when the kids were camping the woods for months on end. A good outline will prevent that sort of thing by identifying it early in the process, giving you the chance to fix it before you spend all that time writing it. Once you spend days/weeks/months writing several chapters, it's a lot harder to just chuck them or even to give them a big overhaul. So outline!

I just finished a preliminary 15-page outline for the first novel in my proposed teen series, and a two-page 8-sequence outline for my TV spec. Victory!

The 8-sequence idea comes from Pilar's screenwriting class at On The Page, and I don't want to steal her stuff, so I won't detail it here. I ended up using it on my novel too. I'd already done the 15 page outline, but I went back and did a smaller, 8-sequence "beat sheet" (as they call it in the film/TV biz) in two pages, just to make sure that the structure of the outline worked. After all, you can do outlines until you're blue, but what good are they if you don't assess them and revise them in order to see what works? The good news - my outline works. I think. But the smaller 8-sequence beat sheet made me realize that I had a major turning point for my character lurking in there that I hadn't really zeroed in on. I've seen this in other people's writing too. A big, life-changing event occurs to the protagonist, and the writer just slides right past it, barely taking note. Beat sheets, outlines, structure - they all help you identify these moments.

The basic idea is that your character has a goal. (I need to buy milk to put on my cereal.) The character does something about that goal. (I walk to the store.) Complications ensue. (At the store, I drop the carton of milk, and the cute grocery clerk helps me clean it up, and it's love at first sight.)

From those complications, a new goal emerges (I want this guy to ask me out), the character takes action, (I return to the store the next day with my best friend to scope him out and flirt) , and another complication ensues (we meet him, we flirt, but he asks my best friend out instead of me). And so on. Now add on top of that, a structure - like the Hero's Journey, or Syd Field's 3-Act template, or Pilar's Eight-Beat template, and you've got a story.

The Hero's Journey is famous, but the basic idea is that a certain structure underlies the myths that last through the ages. This structure is useful in shaping a modern day story that will really work well for a modern day audience - and for future audiences. That structure is basically:

1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline.
2. A road of trials, in which the hero succeeds or fails.
3. Achieving the goal or "boon," which often results in important self-knowledge.
4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail.
5. Application of the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world.

As Campbell said in his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Your story doesn't have to involve supernatural forces for this structure to work. Almost every successful story you can think of, whether it's The Wizard of Oz, Chinatown, or The Great Gatsby, fits.

So now I'm off to write my huge, formatted outline for my novel. It'll be anywhere from 50 - 100 pages and really be a sort of first draft. And I'm also off to work out the scenes of my TV spec and get a more detailed outline for that. When I sit down to write these pieces, I'll know what I'm doing. New ideas will occur to me, and revision to the outline will occur. But I've got a map. Now I can figure out which path between point A and point Z I want to take. I usually favor the scenic route.

I'm off to England next Thursday. Yep. England. Two days in London, then a farm in Nottinhamshire, then York. I'm a lucky so-and-so, aren't I? But I'll be writing during the down times, taking that big fat notebook so I can keep moving forward. And perhaps do research for the next book!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Getting notes...

If you've ever wondered what it's like to get notes from an agent, or a development or network exec. Click here.

Write that TV Spec!

So I've chosen to write a spec TV pilot for my screenwriting class at On the Page. I was leaning toward making it a feature, but Pilar said that she thought the idea was fresher as a pilot, since she'd never seen anything like it on TV, but had seen features like it.

Here's the thing about writing a spec TV pilot - it's really really hard. You have to introduce an entire cast of characters that people will want to see for an hour every week, show the "franchise" - which is what viewers will see every week, tell an outstanding story, all in 50 pages. Crazy. You need five act breaks that will keep viewers interested through a commercial break. You need a strong protagonist with a complex background you only hint at. You need to keep it affordable. It needs to familiar enough that it doesn't alienate readers, but it needs to something new and fresh.

It's ridiculous! But that's part of the fun.

Monday, September 10, 2007

On the Page Rave

My friend Pilar has been teaching screenwriting and getting paid to be a screenplay consultant for nearly a decade. I've been tempted in the past to take one of her classes, and recently Pilar made me an offer I couldn't refuse - help her out as an assistant (which mostly involves folding up tables after class) and I can take the class for free. Her company is called On The Page. And Pilar rocks. Fair disclosure - I helped write her publicity materials when she was first starting up. Doesn't mean I don't speak truth! I do, I do. I know that now for sure because I had my first class with Pilar this past Saturday.

This is the From Premise to Pages class, which pretty much guides you through exactly that. The first class was three hours, and it was jam-packed with brainstorming techniques, logline pointers, structural ideas, and so on. It is a workshop, so we all got to throw out our loglines and get feedback. We volunteered to hear comments on our ideas and so on. Very helpful. Whether you're starting out with a theme, a character, or an event, Pilar's class can help you flesh out your screenplay from there.

I'm really looking forward to the next class. Pilar is not only smart, you can tell she's having fun when she teaches. She used to do stand up and act, so she's comfortable speaking in front of groups, is very funny, and can handle anything you throw at her. I feel very motivated and supported. This is what a class should do.

Now I have to decide which idea to move forward with. I've got an idea that could be either a feature or the (expensive) pilot for a TV series. And then there's my book series idea. Pilar's techniques could be quite useful for that too! Oy. Must decide before next Saturday. Any way I go, should be fun.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What is a Book Series?

I've gotten some questions on just what a book series is, exactly. At the workshop I attended, the official definition (by editors of varous YA book series) was:

A series is 2 or more books linked by characters or themes.

Very dry, I know. Examples would include Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, The A-List, Gossip Girl. Those are all teen books. In adult land, series books are often genre - mysteries, sci fi, or fantasy. Robert Parker's Spenser books, the Kinsey Milhone A is for Alibi books, Agathe Christie's Hercule Poirot books - these are all mystery series. Lord of the Rings, however, is not a series - it's a trilogy with an end point. Few "literary" novels become series.

Series books are beloved in children's lit because kids get addicted to them, which gets kids reading. Librarians and teachers are big proponents of series because kids who don't read stand alone books will gobble up series books.

From a fellow writer's notes at the workshop we both attended:

In coming up with a series, you need to:
Do research and see what's out there
Pick your age group
Pick your genre
Pick your main character and friends
Find your hook, come up with something different.

The hook is all important in book series. Given my Hollywood training, hooks and high concept are old hat to me.

Hook = the high concept or gimmick that frames the theme of the story.

1. Three friends who have to spend the summer apart.
Hook: connected by their dreams at night.
2. A child's parents divorce and she moves across country with her mom.
Hook: She turns into different people to cope
3. A child needs to improve his grades or get kicked off his sports team.
Hook: Brings baseball cards back to life to tutor him.

So you take something familiar and make it unique with an unusual twist. It's a coming of age story - on Pluto! You get the idea.

The familiar part of it means 1) your reader will identify with it - mystery readers who like male detectives will like Spenser novels; 2) your editor will recognize the genre; 3) the publisher will know how to market your work.

Yes, you must keep the market in mind when coming up with a book series. These things are money making machines. Study what has sold in the past, then put your own unique twist on it.

The twist makes your work stand out. Folks who read and liked Nancy Drew might try The Hardy Boys, which is basically the familiar Nancy Drew idea with the twist that the detectives are now brothers.

In our next post - how to write a series proposal.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Hot Writing

Ever tried to write when the temperature is in the triple digits? Ever tried structuring your story while you sweat and your cats come out from the bedroom and eye you blearily, meowing in anger because it's so damned hot?

Have I mentioned that it's hot? Well, it's hot. It's over 100 and the humidity is high, and my a/c is struggling mightily to keep my living room a reasonable temperature, with mixed results.

My lovely little MacBook gets so dang warm as I type on it. Surely it would be better for it if I let it rest during this ridiculous heat wave? I can't ask my brain to function in this sort of weather, can I? Heck, I have to go look in on a friend's cats later today in the Valley (the VALLEY, people, where it's even hotter...) so I need to move as little as possible and remain cool in the hours leading up to that event, right? Wouldn't want my brain to explode from the heat. Last night it was still 80 degrees at 10pm. I mean, come on here, folks, this sort of extreme is just stupid!

Oh heck. I'm procrastinating, and procrastination makes no sense. Still, I don't know how tropical authors manage. Perhaps they rely on trade winds, when all we have here in Hollywood is everlasting sun sun sun and a blast furnace of warm air zooming up out of Mexico. I'm praying hard right now the God of the Canadian Low that weathermen tell us is ambling in from the northern Pacific as we speak. Blow, Low, blow! Bring us back down to something reasonable and I promise never to mock Canada again. For at least a day or two.