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5 Tips for Being a Productive Writer

I haven’t been very productive with my writing over the last couple of weeks. Why? I’ll tell you why. If you want to be a writer, as in a professional writer earning money for writing, then you need to treat it like you do any other job. You need to make sure you have a schedule, show up on time, and put in the hours. Here are some tips to help you stay productive:

1) Just like any other job, you have a start time and an end time. Make sure you are setting aside specific time to write. Try to make it during the time of day when you are most creative. And don’t just sit there and stare at your screen, make sure you’re being productive. If you’re drawing a blank, do research. If you’re not feeling like researching, then write background on your characters. Just make sure you doing something related to your writing.

2) Hold yourself accountable! When working for yourself, it can sometimes be difficult to make yourself do work. It’s not too hard to do your normal 9 to 5 because you have someone holding you accountable. You must learn to hold yourself accountable. This blog has helped keep me be accountable because I know you’re out there reading, waiting for what excellently profound advice I have for you next week. Let me believe that. It helps me stay productive. For those of you that don’t have blogs, try rewarding yourself for sticking to your schedule and accomplishing your work goals.

3) Give yourself deadlines. In the real world of writing you must have a certain amount of work completed by a certain time (that’s another accountability thing). To help keep yourself on track (and accountable), create deadlines and adhere to them as if an employer gave them to you. It will keep you focused and it will help prepare you for the career you are working so hard to have.

4) Limit your distractions. Often times when I sit down to write or do research I get distracted by news updates, twitter, Facebook, and everything else. Before I know it I’ve spent hours watching cats be scared by cucumbers and learned nothing about what I’ve sat down to do in the first place. Try turn off your Internet connections when you’re writing so these things don’t monopolize your attention. If you’re doing research, turn off your social media notifications. Stay focused on the task at hand.

5) Have a designated area to do your work… a writing workspace. Don’t sit in the same place with your laptop where you do other things such as eat, watch TV, or sleep. This will only confuse and distract your brain. Have a specific place were you write, a place where you don’t do anything else but write. This will help train your brain that when you are in this space, writing is going to take place.

Until next week, stay productive! Write!

Tools to Help Create Character Background

When creating characters, it’s always helpful to interview them. “What? Interview a character that you’ve made up in your head? Isn’t that like having an imaginary friend?” Yes. Writers talk to their characters… all the time. It’s therapeutic, actually. And often times, while writing, your character may surprise you and do something completely unexpected. That’s when the fun happens.

So, in order to get to know what makes your character tick, it’s helpful to ask a lot of questions. You might not know the answers and sometimes you might have to think a bit about your character to get an idea. And don’t be surprised if those answers change a little bit down the road. Your characters won’t always be honest with you at first.

Now I know some of you may not be the best at interviewing and you may need a little help, so this blog is about providing you will tools for the process. There are plenty of questionnaires out there to help. And don’t think that any question is too odd. A question like, “what’s in your medicine cabinet?” or “What music is on their favorite play list?” can give lots of insight to your character.

Once you’ve gotten to know your character fairly well, write a short biography about them. Hit the highlights. Keep it to a couple paragraphs no more than a page. This will help you define their personality. At this point you should have a pretty could idea of how they’ll react in most any given situation. But like I mentioned earlier, they will surprise you on occasion.

There’s another tool that can be helpful to beginners. Once you’ve got a general idea of the personality types of your characters, use Persona to see how they interact with each other. This will help when writing those interaction scenes between the hero and villain, or even between the hero and his/her sidekick. Tinker around with it and see what pops. Until next week, keep writing!

Character Research

Now that you’ve crawled around in your character’s mind and maybe even learned a bit about your own shortcomings and issues, it’s time to learn more about what your characters do. If their job is an integral part of the screenplay, you’d better be able to convince your audience that they know it… even if the integral part is that they don’t know their job. For instance, if the point of your script is that your protagonist knows nothing of how to be a president and is completely inept at it, you would still need to know the details of that position in order to be convincing.

So let’s discuss my character, the female Pakistani special agent. First, I’m not a female, but I have spent a great deal of time with the opposite sex. I can draw on some of my past experiences to help me uncover her personality. I have a long history with brilliant, badass women.

Second, she’s a special agent. I don’t have any background in this area, so I will definitely need to do some research. The fact that she is an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agent makes it a bit more difficult to research. I can devour all that has been published about the ISI, but most of it will be biased. The likelihood of me getting to interview someone in the ISI is pretty slim, so I’ll need to rely mostly on what I find on the Net.

Third, she’s Pakistani. I do have some friends that were born in Pakistan. I can interview them and I’m sure they can provide me more information than what I can dig up from just a Google search. But the Google search will give me some good insight, as well.

Other things I’ll want to research: monks and monasteries in Pakistan. She was raised in that environment. I’ll need to research monk’s living habits, most notably Pakistani monks. This is all stuff that will make my character more believable.

Then we throw in the Indian-born CIA agent. I’m kind of in the same boat with India as I am with Pakistan. As for the CIA part, there’s lots of information on the Internet. The likelihood of interviewing a CIA are better than an ISI agent and what I get from there I can use for my protagonist, too.

As you can see, there’s a ton of research (work) that goes into writing a screenplay. It’s not just sitting down in front of a computer and banging our scene after scene until you’re done. If you want your characters to have depth, you need to put in the work, dig deep, research! Until next week, keep writing!

Developing Your Characters

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Last week I mentioned that we would be working on the outline of the story this week. I lied. What I really meant to say was we would be developing our characters. This process can take a bit of time. You might already have an idea of your main characters’ attributes in your head, and you might even know how they interact with some of the other characters. But what do you really know about your characters?

When developing your characters, but sure to dissect them, find out why they are they way they are. What happened in their past that created their current personality traits? What knowledge do they have and where did they get it? What kind of childhood did they have? What drives them? What scares them? What is their flaw? What keeps them from achieving their goal?

Remember the Joseph Campbell’s eight character archetypes? Which one matches your character? After you’ve decided which character archetype you’re working with, determine the character’s personality traits. I use the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI). This will help you create a backstory for your characters. Just for fun (and as an example) let’s dissect a well-known protagonist:

He is an orphan, one of the most common PMAI archetypes. He is un-
trusting due to being orphaned at a tender age. He speaks multiple
languages because his family traveled throughout Europe; his father
was a Vickers armaments company representative. He learned navi-
gation and seamanship skills in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.
He was raised by his aunt and was expelled from Eton College at the
age of 12 for inappropriate conduct with one of the school’s maids.
He lost his virginity at the age of 16 during his first trip to  Paris. He
seeks safety and is afraid of being abandoned, which keeps him from
creating any real lasting relationships.

Any ideas who this character might be? If you said Bruce Wayne, you have horrible deduction skills! Either that or you really need to brush up on your knowledge of film and literature. Of course this is James Bond. Although these facts are not revealed in the first film (or novel), they do help develop his character. The more you know about your characters the more depth you give them.

You don’t need to breakdown every character this way. You don’t need to know the motivation of the busboy that spills water on the villain. Secondary characters are just that, secondary. But you should breakdown all of your main characters in this fashion. Give them depth. Give them three dimensions. Make them relatable! This process will most likely take more than just one week, especially if writing isn’t your day job. Until next week, keep writing!

Progression of a Logline

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What is a logline? It’s one sentence (on rare occasions 2) that succinctly sums up your entire script… perfectly. And if we’re following the rules, keep it to about 30 to 35 words. Sounds easy, right? Most writers find that it is one of most difficult things to write. How can I sum up my entire script, all the nuances, all the action, all the heartstring pulls in just one 30 word sentence?! You don’t. You keep it to the inciting incident, the protagonist, the objective of the protagonist, and the stakes.

I’ve mentioned in a previous blog the template for creating a decent logline given by Blake Snyder. The problem with this template is that it makes your logline entirely too long, but it’s a good place to start. For more tips and templates on creating a perfect logline, read this article by screenwriter Noam Kroll.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me document the many iterations of my logline. I have not yet written my story, but I do have a vague outline. This is good for having a solid idea of what your film is about. This will greatly help you in creating your logline. If you can’t come up with a decent logline, then your story isn’t completely formed yet. Here is the first attempt at my logline:

When cargo disappears along Pakistan’s trade route, a brash ISI spy must team up with an India-born CIA agent to capture an international terrorist before he starts World War III.

I joined a couple of writing groups to help me with my logline, just to get some feedback from other screenwriters. I’ve posted links to those groups below. The first comments I received were: What’s the cargo? Is it nuclear? Biological? And what’s ISI? Is that like ISIS? Not just from one person, but multiple people. After reevaluating my choice in words, I realized that the cargo was not important to my story and I needed to make sure it was understood what an ISI spy was all about. Insert, my next attempt:

Investigating thefts along a trade route, A Pakistani special agent finds she must partner with an India-born CIA agent to capture an international terrorist before he starts World War III.

If you can, try to get second opinions from folks other than the one’s that provided feedback the first time. Don’t eliminate the first group; just make sure to get other opinions on the new iterations. My next comments were as follows: What are the personal stakes for the protagonist? Be more descriptive. My first thought was, World War III seems like pretty high stakes, but I’ll see what I can do. Then it dawned on me, it really wasn’t personal for my protagonist. Coming up, third re-write:

Investigating possible terrorist activity to prevent World War III, A brash Pakistani special agent must set aside her trust issues to work with an India-born CIA agent or risk losing both her career and country.

Now it was personal! Now we see that, not only does my hero have trust issues, but she’s being forced to work with someone from a country of which she is at odds with. And she’s brash on top of it? Personal. Descriptive. It’s starting to come together, but it’s still not quite right. And it’s pushing the limits of the word count. Time to tighten it up:

A brash Pakistani special agent investigating possible terrorist activity must set aside her trust issues to work with an India-born CIA agent to prevent World War III.

That’s it! Right? I check one last time with my group. It feels a little flat. The trusting issue is descriptive of the protagonist, what’s the physical hurdle she has to overcome? “To prevent World War III?” That’s a bit cliché, don’t you think? Damn it! You’re right. So I think long and hard, what’s the obstacle for my hero? This is what I finally came up with:

A brash, untrusting Pakistani special agent is forced to partner with an India-born CIA agent to stop a relentless and unstable international terrorist from plunging the entire world into war.

Boom! That’s it! Now that’s a logline that’ll grab you by the… throat. And it’s right in the 30-word sweet spot. Hopefully this demonstrated progression will help you when it’s time for you to create your logline. I did have a little extra time and toyed around with a few story title ideas. Let me know which is your favorite:

Entangled in a World of Deceit

Revolutionary Deceit

Universal Truths and Deceit

 

This week I’ll be working on character development. Until next week, keep writing!

 

As promised, here are links to the groups I joined:

Screenwriter’s Treefort

Logline Centeral

Script Advice Writer’s Room

 

A Screenplay: From Conception to Submission

Now that the majority of the screenplay contests and fellowships have ended, it’s a great time to start your next project. As I’ve mentioned before, you should always be working on at least one project if not multiple projects at a time. And the time between submissions is the perfect time to start a new project. If you’re wondering how long it would take for a novice/amateur writer to conceive a story, complete the screenplay, submit it to consultants, eventually to contests/fellowships in order to get it seen by as many potential producers as possible and maybe get it optioned, then this is the blog for you!

I have a concept for a new film in my head. I’m going to document in this blog each week the steps I take and the progress I make to get the screenplay completed and submitted to contests. I will not be using any of my contacts to move it forward. This will be purely a demonstration of how long it might take for you, the beginning screenwriter, to come up with a plausible storyline, write a screenplay, have it reviewed by professionals, and then ultimately submit it to contests.

This week I’ll spend crafting my logline. A whole week just to write a logline? Yes. If you’re a beginner, and even if you’re not, you most likely have a day job, which doesn’t allow you more than a couple of hours a day to spare on writing. Take those couple of hours each day and work tirelessly on your logline. Perfect it. Don’t be afraid to test out your logline. Read to your friends. Ask for their opinion. When making conversation standing in line a Starbucks, ask the stranger in front of you what they think of your logline. Try to stick with your film demographic. You don’t want to ask grandma and grandpa what they think of your story idea if you’re aiming it at 18 to 24 year olds.

If you feel that you’ve got the perfect logline and there are still days left in the week, then toy around with some movie titles for your script. You might have the perfect one already picked out, but take some time and see what other titles might pop out of that creative brain. Throw those out at your friends and strangers in line along with your logline. See which one gets the most attention. This is exactly what I’m going to do this week. Come back next week to see how it goes.

Keep writing!

Perfecting Your Pitch

Your script is complete. You’ve done rewrite after rewrite and you’ve finally gotten it to where you feel comfortable with shopping it around. Now you need to work on your pitch. You should have a couple different variations of your pitch ready to fire off at any given moment. You should have an “elevator pitch” and your standard pitch.

What’s an elevator pitch? It’s a quick synopsis of your script that you can rattle off to an executive in about 1.5 to 3 minutes. Example: while riding in the elevator. Executives and producers are busy. They don’t have time for your 10 minute break down. Hell, they eat their lunch in less time. Now I want you to keep in mind… I’m not telling you to jump in an elevator with Spielberg or Bruckheimer and vomit your pitch all over them. I’m saying if the opportunity arises where you’ve started a conversation with someone and you happen to mention that you’ve written a script and they ask, “What’s it about?”, you’d better have a short pitch ready to spit.

If you’ve gotten lucky enough to actually be invited to pitch your story in someone’s office, this is where the standard pitch comes in. Typically you’ll be scheduled 10 minutes. Some may schedule longer, but always be prepared for a 10-minute pitch. Very important: Do NOT have 10 minutes worth of pitch. Keep it to five minutes and give yourself time for them to ask you questions. “What kind of questions are they gonna ask, Tony?” Questions you will not be prepared to answer! In all seriousness they will ask you questions about your main character such as, “Why do we care about him/her?” They may ask you about your setting and why does it need to take place there. But they will always, without fail, ask you a question you will not be prepared to answer. Take it in stride, don’t take too much time to think about it, and let it fly. You will most definitely think of a better answer after you leave the office, but the important thing is not to let it rattle you.

Practice pitching your script in front of a camera. Watch the playback. Listen objectively. Rehearse it, but please try your best not to sound rehearsed. I’m an actor with a background in door-to-door sales (keep that under your hat) so I’ve got a bit of an edge with it comes to making my pitch not sound rehearsed. The trick is to make it sound as though you are describing it to your best friend. That’s where the camera comes it. If you play it back and you don’t believe the words falling out of your face, neither will the producer. Practice on your friends. Hell, practice on strangers. If you can get a perfect stranger interested while waiting in line at Starbucks, then you’re off to a great start.

Key points to have in your pitch, make sure you cover the character and story arc. Just touch on the highlights, you don’t need to cover every scene. Remember you’ve only got 10 minutes and in most cases less than 3. Don’t forget the hook. There’s gotta be a hook. Don’t give them the ending right from the start. Let them ask you. You want them to ask questions. It shows they’re interested. Try to be prepared. Inevitably you won’t be, but don’t let that deter you from making the effort. Flying by the seat of your pants won’t help you in this moment. Until next week, keep writing!