Shakespeare for Screenwriters

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I’ve been a fan of William Shakespeare ever since freshman high school English class and, coincidentally, our study of Hamlet. That this prolific playwright could not only stitch together so seamlessly a multitude of complex characters – and swiftly move them about in a minimalist set – but also explore timeless themes that would still resonate hundreds of years later was astonishing to me. Had he lived and worked in this century instead of his own, The Bard might have dabbled in screenwriting, a whimsical “what if” I encouraged students to explore in my writing and drama workshops back in the 70s. Shortly thereafter, these speculations gave way to new conversations with actors in my theater company (coincidentally named The Hamlett Players), a touring troupe that echoed Will’s own creative approach to “less is more.”

It was, therefore, exciting to recently meet a kindred spirit in J.M. Evenson whose new release, Shakespeare for Screenwriters, will continue to fuel the discussions about enduring plots and archetypes as well as that longstanding debate of whether he really, truly authored all those plays and sonnets himself.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s start with some brief background on who you are and what you do.

A: I am both a writer and a scholar. I received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA’s famed School of Theater, Film and Television. I’ve been a writer in LA for the last 5 years. As a screenwriter, I’ve worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. In addition, I’ve kept up my scholarly work by teaching Shakespeare, composition, and film part-time at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. This book is, in fact, a perfect meeting of both my most passionate interests.

Q: How and when did you have the epiphany that a playwright who lived so long ago could impart creative wisdom to aspiring screenwriters in the 21st century?

A: I remember it clearly. One day, after finishing up with my teaching at Pepperdine, I was trying to come up with ideas for a new story. I thought to myself: if only I could write like Shakespeare! And it dawned on me: if I spent some time analyzing his works to see how he did it, or what they might call “reverse engineering” his writing, perhaps I could learn a thing or two. The idea for this book was born that day — I knew I could not be the only person who could learn a thing or two from the greatest writer who ever lived!

Q: Controversy continues to simmer among scholars regarding the true authorship of The Bard’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets.  What’s your own position on the debate?

A: I believe the debate is motivated by class politics. Edward de Vere, the man most often identified as the secret writer of Shakespeare, was a cultured aristocrat. Shakespeare was, by contrast, relatively low-born. In fact, the class difference is a main part of the argument: how could such a low-born person possess such unrivalled genius? In their minds, genius is the purview of those with money. This is an argument I simply do not buy.

Q: In your book you make the point that Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers of all time. What do you believe is the secret to Will’s sustainability and modern-day popularity?

A: I think Shakespeare’s unique creative genius transcends barriers of language, culture, time, and place. He never goes for the small story. Love, family, power, war — these are the issues Shakespeare addresses. His plays touch a nerve because they are raw, human, and utterly timeless.

Q: What’s your favorite Shakespearean play?

A: I love them all, but my personal favorite is “Hamlet.” I wish I could explain why this is in terms that made sense. I can’t. It just grips me tight and holds me from the first words until the end. It’s love!

Q: What is your favorite Shakespearean speech or catch-phrase?

A: I think probably the famed “to be, or not to be” speech from “Hamlet.” I’ve read the speech a thousand times — maybe more — but I find something new every time.

Q: Numerous film adaptations have been made of Shakespeare’s work. Which one resonates the most with you?

A: I actually love many of the adaptations. Some of them are excellent all around, such as Branagh’s “Much Ado,” which literally made me fall out of my chair laughing in the theatre; some are landmark films, such as Olivier’s “Hamlet”; some are of sentimental value, such as the Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which was the first Shakespeare play I’d ever seen; some are of special interest, such as the ultra dark version of “Macbeth” directed by Polanski right after his pregnant wife’s murder by Manson. Each one offers new insight on these amazing stories.

Q: Which do you think lend themselves better to screen adaptation – Shakespeare’s comedies or tragedies?

A: There have been dozens of remarkable adaptations of both his comedies and tragedies. I think directors like Joss Whedon, with his fabulous recent version of “Much Ado,” prove that Shakespeare’s comedies are as timely today as they were 500 years ago. Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” shows that Shakespeare’s tragedies are powerful no matter which language they are filmed in. The history plays are also marvelous — Branagh’s “Henry V” is absolutely riveting, one of my top favorites. No matter what the genre, Shakespeare’s plays continue to speak to each new generation. It’s truly amazing.

Q: Give us an example of a modern movie that demonstrates the writing principles you see in The Bard’s scripts?

A: Let’s take an example from the most famous of all Shakespeare’s heroes: Hamlet. Far from a typical hero, Hamlet is actually best known for questions and doubt. He is a psychologically complex character — smart, introspective, angry, despondent, euphoric, and possibly insane. The key to building psychological complexity into your heroes is giving them an inner conflict. Watching a hero struggle with inner conflict generates sympathy and creates psychological depth that audiences recognize as uniquely human.

For Hamlet, the struggle begins in the very first pages. He is visited by the Ghost of his father, who tells him that he was murdered by Claudius, the reigning king. His father’s Ghost demands that Hamlet kill Claudius in revenge.

If Hamlet were a typical avenger, he would go do it. But Hamlet is a thinker. In a moment of pure anguish, Hamlet asks his famous question: “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” In this passage, we discover the true nature of Hamlet’s dilemma. Why do bad things happen to us? Is it better to die than to suffer? What happens to us after death? These are real questions — ones that humanity has struggled with since the dawn of time. The directive from the Ghost thrusts Hamlet into a moral quandary, and from that moment on, Hamlet is ripped apart by an agonizing internal conflict. Should he, or shouldn’t he, kill Claudius?

Audiences love watching characters be torn apart by inner conflict. Take Jim Stark (James Dean) in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955), for instance. We watch Jim battle both his inner demons and the treacherous world around him. As he tries to cope with Buzz and his gang of bullies, Jim looks to his father for help. Over and over again, Jim asks his father: “What can you do when you have to be a man?” The question becomes central in the most famous scene, when Buzz forces Jim to play a game of chicken. Jim knows it’s a dangerous game, but if he doesn’t play, how can he be a man? When Buzz’s jacket gets caught on the door handle, accidentally dragging him over the cliff to an explosive death, Jim goes into an emotional tailspin. His anguished guilt erupts when he screams out the celebrated lines: “You’re tearing me apart.”

Many screenwriting manuals will tell you to find a single motivation and make sure your hero stays on point. But what we learn from Shakespeare is that sometimes it’s better to not to limit your characters to one motivation. Let your characters struggle with their inner conflicts. Let them have flaws, and let them overcome. Above all, let them be human.

Q: How does Shakespeare’s five-act structure correlate to what we’ve been hit over the head with in three-act structure?

A: Here’s an interesting but little-known fact: there’s no such thing as a five-act structure for Shakespeare. The five-act structure is purely a construction of modern editing practices. If you look at the original works printed in the Renaissance, you will see that there aren’t divisions into acts or scenes.

I do think there is something to be said about Shakespeare and structure, however. Shakespeare wasn’t beholden to formulas. Some of his plays obeyed the set-up, rising action, falling action model; some do not. “Othello,” for instance, rises in action to (what we call) Act 3, Scene 3, when Iago convinces him that Desdemona is cheating on him. This is the turning point of the play — not unlike, say, the turning point in “The Godfather,” when Michael embraces his family (and The Family) and kills Sollozzo. Other plays, like “King Lear,” are structured like an avalanche: the play begins at a high point, with Lear happily dividing his empire, but then immediately begins an inexorable march into shocking tragedy. It ends with Learn naked and insane, holding his beloved dead child, with his empire ruined and everything lost, before he dies. It’s an unusual structure now, and it was unusual in Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare was a maverick — he was then, and will always be, unique.

Q: If you could take any of his plays that have never been adapted to the medium of film, which one would it be, how would you define the new context in order to appeal to mainstream audiences, and who’s your dream cast for it?

A: Amazingly, there are no plays from Shakespeare that haven’t been committed to film. Some of the less well-known plays have not gotten the big release treatment from Hollywood, but all of them have been filmed at some point. The BBC has been diligent!

Q: What’s the most important thing modern writers can learn from Will?

A: I think a lot of writers these days are worried about making their ideas fit into standardized formulas. They give up on their voice and everything that makes them unique in the hopes of making it.

I’d just remind them that Shakespeare was a maverick. Instead of adhering to formulas, Shakespeare made every single play exactly what it needed to be without worrying about whether or not it broke the rules. What Shakespeare ultimately teaches us is to do whatever it takes to make your story right. If you need to, break the rules of today — just as Shakespeare broke the rules of the sixteenth century.

Q: Shakespearean plays were typically light on the number of female roles in the cast (primarily, of course, because those roles were played by males). In your view, which of his works could best be adapted to a film – regardless of setting or circa – in which the cast was comprised of a majority of females?

A: I don’t necessarily believe that his works are light on female roles — or at least no more so than Hollywood today. In almost every play, there is a strong female character. In “Macbeth,” it’s Lady Macbeth; in “Lear,” it’s Cordelia; in “Antony and Cleopatra,” it’s Cleopatra. The list goes on. In some of the plays, the female characters steal the show, as is certainly the case with Lady Macbeth. Almost all of Shakespeare’s major female characters are fascinating in their own right, regardless of whether or not they are or were played by men or women!

Q: Let’s say, hypothetically, you could sit down for lunch with the world’s most prolific playwright. Where would you go and what three questions would you most like to have answers to before that meal is over?

A: This is a difficult question. I am not sure what I’d ask him. Probably the first question would be if he’d read my screenplay! (I’m kidding. Sort of.)

My first inclination is to say that I would ask him detailed questions that have been bothering us for 500 years: Why does Hamlet delay? Why does Iago do it? What drives Macbeth? But the truth is that I like the fact that we don’t have solid answers to these questions. I like the fact that there are ambiguities in the way these characters were written. Every time I read Hamlet or Lear or Othello, I see something new. The characters seem to change and grow as I change and grow as a person. It’s like the Mona Lisa: if we could change her smile, would we? She’d lose part of her charm.

Q: What’s your best advice to new writers who dream of making it big in Hollywood?

A: I had a wonderful teacher at UCLA, Professor Howard Suber, who told me that the most important determining factor in how well a writer will do in Hollywood is not their talent or their networking skills; it’s how they handle despair. It sounds depressing at first, but the hard truth is that you will encounter setbacks in this town. Everyone does! You just have to learn how to handle it. The most important skill you can have in Hollywood is persistence — never, never, never give up!

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have several projects in the hopper. First, I’m gearing up to teach an online class through ScreenwritingU on specific lessons that writers can learn from Shakespeare. Second, I’m finishing up a children’s book that I just wrote. Third, I’m almost done with the proposal for my next book on writing, about which I am very excited — stay tuned for that one!

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I just want to say how delighted I am to be doing this interview here with you! Many thanks!

 

 

 

 

Writing the TV Drama Series

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If you frequently say to yourself whilst channel-surfing, “I could write a better series than that,” think again. It´s a lot harder than it looks. Pamela Douglas, author of Writing the TV Drama Series, explains why.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let´s start out with some background on why you decided to pursue a writing career and why, specifically, it turned out to be in television instead of novels or plays.

Writing of any kind is a means to discover truth and tell it. Our currency is the truths of real lives, human desire ranging from the most deeply held passions and secrets to lusts and foolishness and mistakes, or whatever brings a moment of joy. Writers deal in insights people gain through knowing each other. And in today´s fractured society, it is absolutely necessary to make sense of our experience in the way humans always have, by creating stories that explain why things are as they are. All that is within the mission of any serious writer. As for the method you choose to convey the characters and stories that make up our world, it doesn´t matter. Each form has opportunities and limitations, but good writing (or bad) is up to you.

Power does matter, though. Through television, you reach millions of people. And because of the intimacy of the medium – how close and personal it is to the viewer – the creator wields great influence. Even the lowest rated shows are seen by more people than all but the most successful movies; and compared to TV, plays and novels aren´t even on the radar. That´s not to say writers shouldn´t explore all means of expression, or that artistic fulfillment can´t be found in art films, novels, poems and plays. But I have always been keenly aware of the power of stories to raise consciousness, both individually and in addressing society´s critical challenges. TV, especially the best dramatic series, can have an impact beyond anything else.

How did you get your first break and who were your mentors?

I had no mentors. No relatives or friends in the business, and no one slipping me onto a staff as a favor to anyone. Instead, I had opposition as a woman in a male-dominated field, as a person of color when the guys in charge were more comfortable with someone like themselves, and later as a person who insisted on quality when stereotypes or an easy laugh line at the expense of truthful characters might have been more commercial.

I built my career by continuing to write, by writing well and growing as a writer, by learning how this business works, and working it as well as I could. Ultimately, by some people´s measure, I failed. That is, I did not become extremely rich or own an empire of shows. But I´m proud of some of what I wrote and glad my work was recognized by the Humanitas Prize, the Writers Guild, and Emmy nominations – though winning awards was not my motivation.

My first paid TV writing job was when I was quite young — Trapper John, M.D. in the mid 1980s. I got it by realizing that a member of the continuing cast, Madge Sinclair, was being under-used and guessed the producers might be open to a pitch with a story for her. I admired Madge´s work outside the show, and knew she was a great actress, though I´d never met her. So I went in to that meeting and told the producers an honest tale about something her character might experience. They did indeed have a commitment to give her an episode, and no one on the staff had a clue. So they bought it, I wrote the script, it was produced, and Madge received her first Emmy award for my episode.

What television shows were you hooked on as an adolescent? And what programs do you never want to miss as an adult?

I didn´t watch TV when I was an adolescent. In the late 1960s and early 70s I was involved with the Civil Rights struggles, and my interest was in writing what was happening around me. Even while I was in school, I published in newspapers and magazines, ran a community filmmaking workshop, and free-lanced some news segments for a local TV station. My writing included fiction and I was always involved in visual arts as well. But sitting and watching TV wasn´t on my schedule.

But if you´re asking about historic series that I admire, M*A*S*H remains remarkably current and incisive. It was also before its time as half hour dramatic comedy and political comment. Later Hill Street Blues was the great progenitor of today´s best drama, followed by NYPD Blue.

Current shows I never miss include (in alphabetical order) Boss, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, and I sometimes catch The Good Wife, Girls, Nurse Jackie and The Big C.

Among shows not currently broadcast, I strongly recommend binge-viewing The Wire (all 60 hours), The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica. Friday Night Lights and certain episodes of House are good viewing too.

Lots of people watch TV series and probably say to themselves, “I could write something better than that!” Would you say that it´s harder or easier for newcomers to break into television writing than it was in the days when creative works were all produced on typewriters instead of computers?

People who believe they could write better than shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones or The Wire are deluded. What are these people viewing? The lowest level of any creative form deserves that sort of derision, and it´s easy enough to point to badly written movies, YouTube posts, lyrics and any other writing. I would tell those people to stop watching garbage and tune in to the brilliant literature that is richly available all over the TV spectrum, especially on basic cable, and try to learn from the best.

Most media stopped using typewriters more than thirty years ago, before I started working in television, so I can´t address that. The news in the 21st century is the multiplicity of outlets. Long ago in the era of three, then four broadcast networks, the number of shows was limited. Then came Premium Cable (HBO and Showtime) with innovative dramas. And now basic cable stations – AMC, Starz, USA, TNT, and many others – are all producing drama series, many of them outstanding. In addition Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu and other Internet entities are going from short gags to full-length scripted shows. This is a great time to write for TV.

What kind of opportunities are open to aspiring television writers and is it mandatory that they live in Los Angeles?

First, aspiring writers should go to a film school that offers a series of classes in writing for television. Be sure the classes are taught by people who have actual industry experience, preferably on quality TV series. Basic courses in screenwriting usually precede the TV classes, so students get essential skills. Then you will be ready to join workshops and find mentors to grow and refine your work. Once you have a professional quality portfolio you can attempt to be represented by an agent (or manager) and find entry-level jobs on shows. Among those beginner jobs, accept anything at all that gets you in the mix, even receptionist or p.a. Higher up the chain are Writers Assistants and Researcher, but those are competitive positions. Joining a staff of a show is the goal, but that usually takes a very strong portfolio, excellent representation and perseverance.

Since most shows are written and created in Los Angeles, even when they shoot elsewhere, it is important to live in Los Angeles. However, once in a while staff jobs may become available in New York, Miami and elsewhere.

Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

The Third Edition of Writing the TV Drama Series is essential to writing current television because it combines three aspects you need: craft, how the industry works, and perspective on the future. Interviews, analyses of script segments, and step-by-step guides to both writing and placing pilots and episodes make this the truly complete book on the subject. It has been adopted by TV networks in their programs for new writers, and is required reading at the major film schools throughout the United States and internationally, where it has been translated into other languages. Anyone who has not read it will find themselves out of the loop.

I was pressured to write it by years of students in my classes, and the first edition was the exact class I teach. Initially I was reluctant to take time away from my creative work to spend on a text. But at the time no source was available that I considered complete and current enough, so I had to write this. Since that earliest version in 2005, I have enhanced the book greatly as the world of television continues to evolve in exciting ways.

What´s your best insider advice for someone who wants to pursue a screenwriting career?

Get into the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the Writing Division, and take the entire television track culminating in creating an original series in the TV Thesis. You will graduate with pilots and episodic spec scripts as well as internships that give you insights into how shows run. If that´s not possible, find another film program that approximates this. In Los Angeles, UCLA extension offers non-degree introductory and intermediate classes open to the public. The Tisch School at NYU is another excellent choice. Search around for offerings at universities near you.

If schools are out of the question, read and watch everything you can find, especially produced scripts, and then join a workshop for feedback as you write.

Which type of writing do you think presents a bigger challenge – TV or movies?

Unquestionably TV is more challenging. A single movie script has an arc that ends, and usually has a single major quest or conflict. Of course there are complications and dimensions of characters, and ideally, a fully developed antagonist. But structurally, it´s relatively simple. That´s not to say movies can´t be entertaining and stimulating. For directors, special effects and stunt people and certain kinds of actors, theatrical films may be more fulfilling. And some kinds of subjects – especially fantasy action – are far better suited to movies.

For writers, TV offers a range of story-telling that is long, complex and multi-layered. Because storylines must be able to continue for 100 hours (in a traditional 5-season run) a larger potential has to be developed in relationships, character depth and story surprises. In “the long narrative” a single story doesn´t end in an hour, but may weave through many episodes, or a full season, as in 12-episode seasons typical of shows like Dexter. Even in procedurals like The Good Wife, House, CSI, and so forth, where plots do conclude in each episode, enough “legs” must be present in the franchise and “juice” in the characters to make viewers want to watch the show again next week and next.

For a working writer, TV is greatly more demanding than movies. If you´re on your own writing a screenplay, you can work your own hours at your own pace and take as long as you need to figure out all the elements and rewrite after getting feedback over and over. But television writers have to be on top of their craft and fast. There´s no time learn on the job; if you´re on the staff of a show you must deliver finished, polished work, on time. The show is on every week, and if you don´t write the script, someone else will, and you´ll be gone.

What are some of the most significant changes you´ve observed in the American television market?

Five great changes have made television better in the 21st century. (1) The proliferation of broadcast outlets, especially the increase in scripted shows on basic cable; (2) The high quality of TV literature that now goes beyond premium cable and extends competitively everywhere; (3) alternates in viewing including DVR and other time-shifting technologies that make shows accessible at any time, and mobile and other devices make shows accessible at any place, thus increasing overall viewership; (4) The rise of the Internet as both a delivery and production powerhouse, adding even more opportunities for original shows including those for niche interests; (5) International production collaborations and international audiences for American shows and American-international hybrids. All five demonstrate that TV is in a growth phases, and where newness and growth prevails so does opportunity.

Given the proliferation of reality TV shows, does this mean that producers don´t have much interest in courting writers that know how to pen original plots?

First, so-called “reality” or “unscripted” shows are neither real nor unscripted. They are written by writers and acted by actors who deserve to be credited and properly compensated for their craft. Those who unfairly exploit writers by defying minimum working conditions and labor laws don´t belong at the bank cashing in; they belong in court, in my opinion. Because stations are now backing away from the legal and economic complications of those shows, the proliferation of them is slowing. I´m not saying the number of new reality shows is being reduced because the producers who profiteer off them have suddenly gained morality. They are dwindling because the profits aren´t what they used to be. And finally viewer fatigue has set in.

Original, professional-quality pilots are very much valued.

In addition to being an accomplished writer, you´re an artist. What has art taught you about writing and vice versa?

Both co-exist as expressions of my insights and visions. Some subjects are better treated with words, especially those that rely on character development and explore relationships and issues over time. Visual arts are immediate and passionate responses, and a chance to have a different kind of visceral impact on individual viewers. Writing is more difficult than painting partly because of sitting long hours at a computer, and partly because writing can´t fall back on physical materials; confronting a blank page is more daunting to me than a blank canvas. But neither specifically teaches the other. They are complementary aspects of a creative life.

Writing the TV Drama Series is available at Amazon as well as Michael Wiese Productions (http://www.mwp.com).

 

A Conversation with James Lawless

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I had the opportunity to interview James Lawless, a poet, literary author, teacher and philosopher. It is fascinating to explore other points of view in this vast literary universe and for those readers who enjoy more textured writing than is commercially available, they may find a kindred spirit in Mr. Lawless.

(I would recommend readers check out his ebooks and read the samples; it’s easy to get a sense of the flavor and rhythms of his work from the first few paragraphs.)

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste

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Q: You’ve referred to Finding Penelope as your “wry glance” at the genre of chick lit. Please elaborate.

A: Just as Cervantes’ Don Quixote was a send-up of the proliferation of novels of chivalry of his time, I attempt in Finding Penelope to send up the chick-lit genre and show it for what I believe it is: a fatuous and formulaic comfort read with no claim to art. Part of the development in the character of Penelope is centered on this realisation. She starts off as a romance novelist with her de rigueur happy ending demanded by her readers and her unflappable agent Sheila Flaherty. However, after she endures various vicissitudes, she comes to realise that life is not always happily ever after and she resolves from then on to be true to herself and her writing.

Q: That’s a fascinating approach. As a poet, scholar, short story writer and novelist, you chose to play with form in Finding Penelope, switching tenses frequently. What inspired you to weave your story this way?

A: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are great influences on me particularly in their steam of consciousness techniques. Nineteenth century narrative styles are no longer adequate to address the multimedia and high-tech world of the twenty first century. The weaving in and out of Penelope’s consciousness of past, present and future hope is in keeping with modern living varying from its frenetic texting and emailing to the deeper revelations of the solitary reverie or epiphany as Joyce called it.

Q: How refreshing that you’re bringing that “flavor” back into our present-day literature. What was your writing process for this project?

A: I tried to be disciplined although it didn’t always work. I showed up like a clerk most mornings in my little office, petit bourgeois as Flaubert would say but dreaming subversively — my dreams are my freedom. I am more productive when I go to my cottage in the mountains of West Cork where I have no Internet to distract me. For Finding Penelope I travelled to Spain to do research on the Costas particularly on the expat way of life and on the drug culture and the criminality associated with it. I also consumed a high octane level of chick-lit.

Q: What a range of research! Share with us your affinity with the Spanish culture. What about it speaks to you?

A: When I was in secondary school, an enlightened Christian Brother introduced some of us to Spanish extracurricular studies and it opened up a new and polysemic universe to me. I delighted in learning of a different culture in an Ireland which at the time was rather insular. Spanish of course stretched beyond Europe to the great South American continent with its powerful potential and also to the huge Hispanic population in the USA. I enjoy the literature not only of Spanish writers like Javier Marías but also Borges, Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. So Spanish has huge significance even from its scale and global representation. Having  a second or a third language equips one with extra keys to unlock different ways of seeing the word. Perhaps what I learned most— and this probably helped my story writing— was to try to see the world from the point of view of the other to get a different angle on things. I think that’s beneficial not only artistically but also for our understanding of world peace.

Q: Thank you; as someone with a multicultural heritage, I agree. In your book Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world, you explore how poetry opens up worlds within our present experiences. How do you consider your background as a poet and an author of short stories (which I count as a poetic form) has shaped your life and your writing?

A: I studied Gaelic in university. As an undergraduate, one of the most impactful compliments I received from a lady lecturer was ‘tuigeann sé cad is filíocht ann’— ‘he understands what poetry is’, based on some creative work I had submitted. This encouragement inspired me to delve deeper into poetry. I read poems from anthologies in Irish and Spanish and English and some of the great Russian poets like Pasternak in translation wherever I got a chance: in between meals, stealing moments to read like Francis Copeland did in The Avenue, on a train or a bus, in a bar, in a dentist’s waiting room; when ill or down, poems could pick you up as they opened windows on the world. This poetic affiliation, I would like to feel, sharpens my prose writing.

Q: It certainly invokes a rhythm in your work, from what I’ve read. What do you love the most about poetry?

A: Matthew Arnold claimed that poetry would replace religion in the world. What I like about poetry is that it has no boundaries and the best of it has no agenda; it involves some of the best minds using the best language to attempt to interpret life in an unfettered way in so far as is humanly possible.

Q: Capturing the inexpressible, as many artists endeavor towards. You’re an arts graduate of the University College Dublin and you received your Masters in Communications from Dublin City University. As an author of accessible literary fiction, how has your education assisted you?

A: Some artists and autodidacts believe the university is anathema to creativity. Perhaps there is some truth in this as I remember when starting my first novel Peeling Oranges soon after I had finished my MA thesis (which later with additions became Clearing The Tangled Wood) and found myself with a mass of research information about the old tenements of Dublin and about the Irish and Spanish civil wars—I had all these footnotes and appendices written in jawbreaking, academic jargon. So I soon realised that in order to write fiction I had to unlearn the methodologies which I had employed in academe—that is not to say an academic or non-fiction text is not also creative; it is just that like Clearing the Tangle Wood it has different parameters to a novel or poem. But notwithstanding, the university did help me in at least two ways: it gave me the bottle to finish a project and it taught me how to research, which hopefully I have learned to do now without getting too bogged down now as I attempt to introduce it as seamlessly as possible into fictional narrative.

Q: You’ve also been on the other side, as a teacher; what did you enjoy most as an educator?

A: The act of teaching itself I enjoyed, sharing with people who were open to learning. However, as an artist I felt  hemmed in by the institution. The souls and the institution don’t blend. Teaching is also a great way of articulating and clarifying what you want to say within boundaries of course. The boundaries are the problem, so teaching is not really a free act.

Q: How valuable do you think a university education would be for writers today?

A: East Anglia and other ‘creative writing’ universities are in danger of churning out homogeneous writers and sometimes give the impression rather arrogantly that they are the only ones, the real McCoys of writers. While there are some of these writers I admire such as Ishiguro and McEwen, art is, like dreams by its nature, anarchic and therefore I would be wary of restricting it with rules and regulations.

Q: You touched on this in your blog entry “Creative Writing Schools”. What is your philosophy as a teacher?

A: Similar to my philosophy of life in general which is that life is not what you make it but what you make of it. Opening minds, including one’s own in a mutual process to learn about the world without dogma.

Q: As a fellow reviewer, how do you find your treatment of other stories influences the way you approach your own writing?

A: I grew up believing in the canon of literature and although we have developed interiorly since the time of Dickens and Hardy, we have not improved on their story telling or plot making skills. Indeed I believe the modernists may have discarded that quality and thrown out part of the baby with the bathwater in their attempt sometimes to be ultra-clever. I think writers of today should return to the methodology of Dickens with the benefit of hindsight of course and repair the tear made by the modernists between popular and highbrow fiction. For me the criterion is just good writing illustrating a style and narrative skill with an insight into the human condition. A writer like the undervalued Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road is an example of a modern artist who was able to span both these bridges.

Ironically, I believe the division has done more harm to good novels than to bad, because with the proliferation of mass market popular fiction, the average person (whose ancestors consumed Dickens classlessly) nowadays tends to frown on anything deeper, deeming it snobby writing. So what I look for when I review a book is something to aspire to, something I would have liked to have written myself and maybe to encourage others to consider also. Like the appreciation of good music, the appreciation of good literature is something cultivated.

Q: As someone who has been taught writing in the age of “make it tight” and “massacre all adverbs where possible” it’s interesting to consider that point of view. What are other experiences, places or people who have influenced your work?

A: I think it was Graham Greene who said nothing much happens after twelve. So like many writers, my childhood was my source: my mother reading to me as a child, my aunt’s visits with comics, a long gap in years between me and my siblings, family banter and tales, my father buying me my first diary— these were seminal experiences and later my travels to Europe and America provided many writerly insights. But I suppose the most important experience is a cultivated solitude, a condition and ability I have trained myself to do over the years while simultaneously not turning my back completely on a social life, to maintain a mental balance if such a thing is possible.

Q: I am amazed you could achieve a mental balance while publishing seven books in the space of approximately five years. How did you organize yourself?

A: With discipline, as I say going to the ‘office’ most mornings and the cultivation of solitude and believing most of all that what you are doing has value.

Q: You’ve also published different ways—as an academic, small press, etc. What has been your favorite method of publication?

A: No one in particular. Each publication is a hurdle and sheer hard work to promote.

Q: Marketing is one of the hardest aspects to being a writer nowadays. Your website [http://jameslawless.net/] is nicely put together and you are widely available through social media. What do you find is the best marketing strategy?

A: I manage my own website. I’m only learning how to blog and would like to generate comments. I send my blogs to Facebook which seems to elicit more responses. As regards marketing, I’m prepared to give any media a try as a means to an artistic end. It’s all about being known and valued. The great thing about the Internet is its global dimension— people from all over the world reading or downloading your work in seconds and then just as easily being able to communicate with the author. We are living in exciting times with great artistic possibilities.

Q: Yes, for every difficulty we seem to have great opportunity. What advice would you give to writers just starting out on the path to publication?

A: Ask yourself are you serious about your work; are you prepared to bleed for it, or are you just a dilettante? Is your work really good and original or merely imitative of a million others? Are you an artist with all of what that entails? Do you believe passionately in your art? If that is the case, you persevere, you take the inevitable rejections on the chin—editors are human; they can’t always get it right. Believe in yourself.

Q: Thank you. Your fictional work seems to carry a theme of cross-culture (particularly between Ireland and Spain), politics and threaded with a romantic/poetic atmosphere. What would you say is at the heart of all that you write?

A: What I write about is not what I know but what I want to find out, things that impacted on me: in my education for example being taught through the medium of Irish, the place (or absence as in the case of Derek Foley in Peeling Oranges) of religion or ideology in our lives such as the civil wars in Spain and Ireland; the all consuming monolith of capitalism obsessed me in For Love of Anna; what suburbia (being a product of it ) was about was my preoccupation in The Avenue; and what true writing strives to be in Finding Penelope and so on. A reviewer said the romance in some of my novels tends to be more than a mere love interest, but that it is sometimes strewn with history or politics such as with the extreme nationalist Sinéad in Peeling Oranges; and even Anna in For Love of Anna ,which is considered the most romantic of my novels, is also an acronym for Anarchist of the New Age. As regards the poetic element, I think I have alluded to that already.

Q: Yes, I like how you define your work as “accessible literary fiction.” By the way, what is the latest on The Avenue becoming adapted to film?

A: Still ongoing, under consideration.

Q: Your latest novel, Knowing Women, just released this month. Please tell us more about this project.

A: Knowing Women is about a vulnerable man, Laurence J Benbo, who is wrongly tainted sexually. With all the paedophile cases going on at the moment— and there is no doubt most of them are justifiable—I wondered what if opinion and the law were to get it wrong. Benbo is perceived as a weak character particularly sexually, but he is no paedophile and when he stands accused, how will society judge him in the hue and cry of vindictiveness?

Wow, that’s quite a challenge to take on, but I’m sure your treatment will make for a fascinating read. I wish you all the best and thank you for this interview.

A Conversation with Laura Davis

Laura Davis

Laura Davis is the author of seven non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal, The Courage to Heal Workbook, Allies in Healing, Beginning to Heal, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be and I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. Not only have her groundbreaking books sold more than 1.8 million copies worldwide but she also leads weekly writing groups and memoir writing retreats in the Santa Cruz, CA region, as well as an annual summer writing retreat in Bolinas, California, a two-week writing and yoga retreat in Bali, 10 days in a Scottish castle, and other international retreats. She recently took time from her busy schedule to share what inspires her…and how she inspires others to learn more about themselves through the transformative power of writing. 

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer.

A: Well, when I was in my twenties and thirties and maybe even into early forties, it wasn’t always easy to see the through line. I’ve always been such a maverick and I’ve never been one to follow a traditional path. But looking back now, I can see the connecting threads clearly.

I’ve always been deeply committed to writing—both as a tool for my own understanding of myself and as a means to communicate with others. I have always been able to be more honest on the page than I can be face-to-face. The page is the place where I discover what I think, what I feel, what I yearn for, what I need to say to somebody. The page is the place I come to a decision when I’m standing in the crossroads, and life is kicking me in the butt, screaming: “Move!”

On the other hand, I’ve never written just for me. I love the interplay of author and audience, writer and reader. I published my first book, The Courage to Heal, in 1988, and it unexpectedly (to me anyway) became a huge best-seller, catapulting me into a level of notoriety I wasn’t prepared for. That book was about healing from child sexual abuse, and it was the first book of its kind. My co-author, Ellen Bass, and I laid out the roadmap for healing in a simple, compelling way that just hadn’t been done before. It became the groundbreaking book in the field, the one that has made a huge difference in the lives of generations of women (and men) who had been abused. And it was through The Courage to Heal that I learned the power of the printed word and the awesome, humbling responsibility of being an author with, literally, the lives of your readers in your hands.

Q: You became famous because of the most painful thing that ever happened to you – incest with your grandfather. How did the challenges inherent with this constant exposure in the spotlight ever allow you to heal emotionally?

A: You have to realize, The Courage to Heal came out when I was only 31 years old. I was so young! For a number of years, I was the poster child for incest. Every TV interview I did, every radio appearance, every time I stood on a stage and spoke out to a thousand women who’d lined up around the block to hear me, all I had to work with was my own story, my connection to a power greater than myself, and the determination to reach out to the women in that room, telling them, yes, healing is possible. You can do this.

Because I was so young, and because I was so consumed by my own healing process, incest was my whole life at that time. It was as if the letters I-N-C-E-S-T were just screaming at me from my living room. They followed me everywhere. So for a time, what I was doing and what I was living were in synch. But as the years went by and I healed from my own abuse and began to move on, I no longer wanted to be known as the “incest queen.” I no longer wanted to meet people because of the worst thing that had ever happened to them. I wanted to meet them in a different playground, in a field where the past no longer had such a hold.

Q: Referring back to your desire to meet people in a venue other than than of victim survival, how did you reinvent your sense of purpose?

A: Once I had earned the scary right to create my own life, not one predetermined by trauma, I knew my work had to move on, too. And so I quit the lecture circuit and quit writing about sexual abuse. I moved to Santa Cruz, California (where I live now), met my partner, and started a family.

My books moved in new directions, too. A couple of years after my son, Eli, was born, I teamed up with a wonderful parent educator, Janis Keyser, and we wrote Becoming the Parent You Want to Be.

As I began to heal a long, very painful estrangement from my mother, I started researching, and eventually wrote, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation.

Clearly, my books track my interests in life. Right now, I’m writing a memoir about my relationship with my mother and the unexpected, amazing journey we’ve been on together.

When I look at my body of work as a whole, all my books have a similar theme: growth, change, human evolution, healing. Since I’ve always been fascinated with peoples’ stories, all of my books include a lot of those as well – varied, gritty, real, honest, deep, human stories.

Q: “Forgive and forget” is advice that’s commonly dispensed but, in the case of truly heinous acts, is it universally practical, especially if the offender has no remorse nor seeks redemption?

A: “Forgive and forget” is one of worst things you can say to someone who is suffering after being grievously hurt. It isolates people and tells them that shutting down and smoothing things over is preferable to acknowledging and working through the hurt. I would never give that advice to anyone, and I challenge anyone who does. “Forgive and forget” is like slapping a band-aid on a festering wound. I don’t believe we can “make ourselves forgive.” The anger and unresolved feelings just go underground. True forgiveness, if it comes, only arises naturally at the end of a very long, committed process of healing.

Forgiveness is a personal choice on a religious, ethical and moral basis. I have always maintained that for trauma survivors, it is not a necessary part of the healing process. I’ve seen people live through terrible trauma and go on to live productive, positive lives without forgiving their perpetrators. Ultimately, we have to move beyond the injury, let go of our grief and rage – as well as our identification with being a victim, but whether that moving on ultimately includes forgiveness is an individual matter each of us must come to terms with on our own. How can anyone dictate another person’s spiritual evolution?

Personally, I have forgiven my grandfather, the man who abused me. But it wasn’t anything I tried to achieve. That feeling of forgiveness arose naturally and spontaneously after many years of healing, when I’d finally earned the right to put the incest to rest. I had released my grandfather long before that – letting go of my anger and neutralizing his impact on my life. The added forgiveness was a gift, but it was not something I consciously sought or created.

Q: What intrigues you the most about human transformation?

A: I’m fascinated with human evolution – how we carve away all the things that were laid on us or expected of us – in order to become the people we were meant to be. Not all of us make it all the way to the core, but I’m a cheerleader for that true self – for the true expression exists in each of us if only we can get out of the way.

That’s why I love teaching long-term writing groups, because often, students come in thinking they’re going to be working on one thing, and they do, often quite successfully. But then, over the course of months and years, they sometimes peel that initial goal back and something deeper, that they were really meant to write, comes bubbling up to the surface. Before that moment, they didn’t feel ready or safe enough; they never had the proper conditions and support to make telling that story possible. It doesn’t matter if it’s memoir or fiction; the process is the same. And then one day, they’re ready, and the real work begins.

Q: What do you love the most about your work?

A: It isn’t when a writer shares a beautiful sentence (though I can swoon over a well-turned phrase); it’s when a writer tells the real truth. It’s watching people crack open. I love watching my students find their strength, their voices, their own direction. One of my favorite students, Bonnie Harris, once said to me, “Laura, you say you teach writing, but you don’t really teach writing. You teach transformation.” It’s not exactly the kind of thing you go around saying about yourself, but it’s absolutely true.

Q: If your philosophy of life were printed on a tee-shirt, what would it say?

A: It’s the challenges in life that teach us the most.

Q: Tell us about the classes you’ve been teaching in Santa Cruz as well as the ways you’re creatively expanding beyond your own community.

A: I teach ongoing weekly classes in both writing practice (a “finding your voice” class) and feedback classes where people working on projects at home bring their work in to be critiqued. I love my weekly students and the intimate community that builds up in those classes.

To expand my geographical range, I’ve also started a free online community, The Writer’s Journey Roadmap, where I send out weekly writing prompts and people can post their responses on line. Over the past two years, that’s developed into a lovely online space for people who want to share their work in a safe, encouraging community. (http://www.lauradavis.net/roadmap)

Q: What’s your favorite thing that you’re doing now?

I love retreat teaching because of the intensity, because we’re all unplugged from life at home, coming together with one purpose – to write our brains out and go deep into our writing. People often arrive the first night of a retreat, looking tense and afraid, and then by the time they’re hugging everyone goodbye, their faces are cracked wide open and they look deeply refreshed. And it’s not just a quick high that fades. I’ve watched people make profound changes in their lives because of something they experienced on a retreat with me.  

I’ve been teaching an annual retreat in Bolinas, California, right on the high cliffs of the Pacific for a week every July–and I’ve been doing that for years. Last year, for the first time, in part because my children are getting ready to leave the nest, I also led an international retreat to Bali. My partner taught yoga and I taught writing, and we teamed up with a wonderful local eco-tour company who kept us in small, local hotels and introduced us to amazing artisans, dancers, shamans, and all kinds of incredible adventures. We used our writing time to document our travels and to dive deeper into the descriptive world. And starting our day with yoga was just divine. I fell deeply in love with Bali and the Balinese people. I can’t wait to go back this June (June 21st-July 5th) with another group of writers (http://www.lauradavis.net/cometobali).

I’ve also added a second international retreat this year–this time to the Scottish Highlands, near Findhorn. It will be at the end of the summer, (August 14th-28th) and we will be living in a Victorian mansion, a sister center to Findhorn. In addition to exploring the gorgeous Scottish countryside, and diving deep into our writing, we’ll be living in a successful sustainable community and witnessing what that means on a day-to-day basis.

Q: What can students expect to learn from these overseas excursions?

A: When I teach, I like to take my cues from the students who come, but in the trips to Bali and Scotland, we will definitely utilize a lot of what we see, hear and experience each day to develop deeper powers of observation and the capacity to better capture sensory detail. These are useful habits no matter what genre we work in. We will use our writing time to glean every bit of insight we can out of our trip, the community we’re visiting, to help us take full advantage of the kind of change and openness only travel can bring.

Writers at all levels – as well as their non-writing spouses – are welcome to join us. Readers can learn more at http://www.lauradavis.net/cometoscotland.

Q: Over the course of your career, what accomplishment are you the most proud of?

A: Like many parents, my marvelous children come to mind first. They’re amazing young people and I can’t wait to see who they become. I’m very proud to have been a foundational part of their lives.

But when I set them aside and look at my literary work, you might think I’d choose The Courage to Heal, and the three other books I wrote about healing from sexual abuse. Those books have been read and translated all over the world, with more than 2 million copies in print. I still get letters (well now, texts and emails and FB messages) from grateful readers who tell me that the books have literally saved their lives. That is immensely gratifying.

But really, to tell you the truth, the books I feel the most proud of are two books I wrote this past fall – two volumes conceived and completed on a very tight three-month deadline. My brother had convinced me we should do something special for our mother’s 85th birthday. We agreed to have a big family party for her around Thanksgiving because that’s when our relatives gather. He said he’d be in charge of the party and I said I wanted to make a book for her.

I put out a call to all our relatives and all of her old and new friends asking for photographs, tributes and stories. The material started pouring in! In three months, I created two incredibly beautiful books – using everything I knew about constructing and writing a book – and printed two copies through blurb.com, and gave them to her. They were filled with her own writings, pictures of her being crowned campus queen at City College in 1937, photos and reviews from her acting career, stories and photos from everyone she had ever loved. Considering where my mother and I were 30 years ago (she was the prime subject of I Thought We’d Never Speak Again), I have a lot be proud of. My mother does, too. We both worked hard at our reconciliation.

My mother has dementia and these books, A Tribute to Temme – Volume 1 & 2, literally gave her back her life. She lives in assisted living now and her world has shrunk dramatically, but every day she looks at those books and remembers her travels, her friends, her former life and who she used to be. That’s definitely the thing I’m most proud of today.

Readers can learn more about Laura, her books, and her workshop retreats at http://www.lauradavis.net. Email her at lauradavis@lauradavis.net.

 

 

 

 

 

What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More

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“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps,” wrote English essayist William Hazlitt, “for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”

While pain and loss are the common denominators that universally produce tears, identifying the elements that trigger giggles, chuckles, and rip-snorting, knee-slapping guffaws is much harder. Humor is not only predicated on whether we´re a victim, participant or observer in the hilarity that ensues but also age, gender, education, ethnicity, social status and even where we live. A penguin that walks into a bowling alley in a New Yorker cartoon is likely to generate adult mirth from an incongruous caption that mixes sophistication with silliness. In a children´s show, the same penguin isn´t funny until he gets hit in the face with a cream pie or tries to evade an oncoming rush of bowling balls. If someone trips over the penguin in America´s Funniest Home Videos and smacks his head on the ball-return mechanism, we laugh at the man´s clumsiness, disregarding the realities of potentially knocking all his teeth out or getting a concussion from which a blot clot forms and subsequently kills him.

Humor sits at a complex intersection between context and audience. And who better to explain what tickles our collective funny bones than Brad Schreiber, author of What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let’s start with some general background about who you are, what you’ve done, and when did the writing bug first bite you?

I describe my writing background as “psychotically eclectic,” because I have written for film, TV, stage, radio, advertising, fiction, nonfiction and was once hired to write dialogue for a pre-recorded phone line called “Dial-an-Insult” but I´m not so proud of that. I attended Burlingame High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I actually became more interested in acting than writing. Then, I eventually was the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper and Editor of the school literary magazine as well.

My writing career evolved from medium to medium and I now crossover in TV, film, books and theatre. Writers who work in numerous media find that some pay better than others, but those others sometimes provide greater artistic satisfaction so the trade-off is calculated and very worthwhile. I´ve always advised writers to try and develop their skills in one more than one area.

Some people are funny in person while others are funnier in print. Which category best fits you and why?

I think I am funniest wearing my flannel pajamas covered with the character Stewie from the TV series Family Guy. I think the humor writer who is “good in a room” pitching or has performance experience has an advantage over other comedy writers in TV and film. Success in those media is predicated not only on perceptions of your talent but your personality and ability to adapt to new suggestions.

Thus, the comedy writer who has performed onstage may well have this advantage. I don´t think more introspective humor writers need to be standups or in comedy groups, but I strongly advise taking an improvisation class at least once to loosen up, to expand their abilities, to free associate. When I was 18, I was in a comedy troupe in the Bay Area called the Burlingame Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately, an actual orchestra complained when they saw our name on the bill at a club, asking who we were and why they did not get the gig. Still, performing on radio, TV, stage and in recording studios helped me to gain confidence in meeting new people and promoting my work.

Humor covers a broad spectrum of everything from pie-in-the-face pratfalls to sophisticated wit and sarcasm. Tell us a bit about what kind of mirth appeals to different demographics and how writers can use this awareness to pen funny scripts and stories.

This is a tricky question. As I say in my humor writing book What Are You Laughing At?, humor is as personal as the clothing you wear, and sometimes in as bad taste. I´m not sure of the exact demographic for fruit-pie-in-the-face compared to meringue but I can tell you this: the more people you try to appeal to, the broader and less sophisticated the humor becomes. Thus, a comedy screenplay based on wordplay will not be as accepted in other countries as one relying upon physical comedy.

English male comedians like wearing women´s clothes. Perhaps because women get to wear more silk. I don´t know. But the English also have a love of wordplay, so there is room within the culture for sophistication as well. I think it´s dangerous to make universal assumptions about what kind of humor will appeal to Ecuadorians. Here´s an example of the unpredictability of humor to a specific nationality. After one of my books was published, I went to the Book Expo America in New York City. I met a group of German publishing executives at a party. They were dressed in suits, seemed very intelligent, business savvy and knowledgable about American culture and the corporate world. But when one of them mentioned not liking a type of food because it made him fart, they all erupted into laughter like a group of prepubescent boys. Then, they started talking nonstop about flatulence. But it would be a mistake to think all Germans like fart jokes. Or at least, I pray to God they don´t.

In the end, you should write humor from passion and from strength. As always, it is good to learn about all kinds of approaches to comedy. But I have to quote the great Bill Cosby, here: “I don´t know what the key to success is. But the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Who did you think was funny when you were growing up? Who do you think is funny now?

My mother, Mona, was an actor and writer and told great jokes, did voices and had a profound effect on my artistic development. I watched way too much TV as a child. I watched stuff that even bored me. But there were no computers then. I loved certain animated series, including Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had jokes for kids and adults combined. An early TV series I enjoyed was My Favorite Martian with Bill Bixby and the great Ray Walston. I don´t think the show would have worked so well if Walston´s humorous intensity, his commitment to the role, wasn´t so focused. The two antennae protruding from his head also helped.

 

I recall seeing Bob Hope early on TV and loving the quality of his material. Of course, he also had tremendous writers, including the great Larry Gelbart, who I was fortunate enough to get to know a bit. One of the great honors of my life was getting a blurb from Larry on my humor book, saying, “Finally, a how-to by somebody who actually knows how to.” Prior to the great Johnny Carson, Jack Paar exhibited not only a brilliant wit but an exceptional intelligence for a talk show host. I could go on and on. Generally speaking, I want humor writers and performers to have a unique approach to the world as they see it: I don´t want something warmly familiar. I want something that feels like it builds on the history of humor.

Tell us about your book, what topics it covers and what inspired you to write it? What’s the takeaway value you want readers to have when they’re finished?

It´s the only book I know of that looks at all forms of humor writing, both in script and prose form. It´s also the only book to have an out-of-focus, closeup of a laughing pig on the cover. You see, there´s a lesson right on the cover: As you laugh at the pig, it laughs at you too.

The book not only has over 75 excerpts from great humor writers but also writing exercises I have created. I used to teach Humor Writing at UCLA Extension and the book built upon my course materials. I also have insinuated some principles that apply not only to humor but to dramatic writing as well.

What are some of the common mistakes that people make when they’re trying to write humorous dialogue and silly scenarios?

Vulgarity for shock value. Cultural references that will become dated. Sketches that do not have a beginning, middle and end but repeat a situation or character flaw over and over. Using exclamation points and all capital letters to make unfunny dialog somehow funnier. DO YOU THINK THAT´S ALL IT TAKES!!

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about comedy?

I can tell you the worst advice I have ever heard and I have heard it more than once: Analyzing comedy kills it. Wrong. Understanding the flow of words, how juxtaposition creates humor, why shock and surprise work, all these things are important to know. I have a section in “What Are You” called Yiddish Sound Theory, explaining why certain words sound funnier than others that have the same meaning. You require talent to write humor but understanding principles will aid all writers of comedy.

What are some movies and television programs that you think lend themselves well to the study of comedic delivery?

I don´t believe in citing my favorite movies and TV shows and comedians too often because everyone´s taste is different. But I do believe you as a writer and/or performer should be able to tell anyone why you like one person over another. Is it about material or intonation or appearance or facial expressions or topics? If you force me against my will- which you are, damn you, Christina – here are some faves: Verbal dexterity in standup: Robin Williams. Uniqueness as a female standup: Phyllis Diller. TV ensemble acting: The Carol Burnett Show. Uniqueness of sketch writing: MadTV. The last American comedy film that I thought broke new ground was The Hangover. If you disagree with any of this, then I didn´t mean any of it.

What’s the most recent thing you laughed about and why was it funny?

I´m a playwright member of the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. After a recent reading of a darkly comedic play of mine, some folks, including Mark Rydell, who runs things, gathered at a deli. He told me how he knew the meekly humorous actor Wally Cox, who came over Rydell´s mother´s house for dinner once. Mama Rydell kept giving him more food and Cox kept politely saying he was full. Finally, when she ignored him for the fifth time, in his typically timid voice, Cox said, “Shove it up your ass, Mrs. Rydell.” Mark said his father laughed so hard that he cried. Now I ask you, if Cox was anything but mousy, would this line have elicited laughter?

If you could go to lunch with any comedian from the past or the present, who would it be and what question would you most like to ask him or her?

Even though I knew him, I would bring Larry Gelbart back to life and have a nice, long lunch with him, shot on video, to keep for posterity. While he was not a comedian, he was one of the most remarkable comedy writers in history. His career spanned radio, TV, theatre and film. He infused his characters, no matter how flawed, with great humanity. He broke comedic ground with the TV series M*A*S*H, films like Tootsie, his remarkable theatre work, including Mastergate and films like Barbarians at the Gate. His adaptability, his perspective on the changing nature of humor and his brilliance with both comedy and drama in writing made him very special. He was also a mensch and I loved him.

What are you working on now?

I got the rights back to my first book, Weird Wonders and Bizarre Blunders: The Official Book of Ridiculous Records and I published it as a Kindle book on Amazon. My book about Jimi Hendrix is under option with me to write the screenplay. I am also adapting Becoming Jimi Hendrix as a musical and I am attached as screenwriter to a project about Formula One car racing that will be a big, international co-production.

Where can readers learn more about you?

http://www.BradSchreiber.com and also they can enter my name at http://www.RedRoom.com for more video, audio and reviews. THANKS, CHRISTINA! I mean, thanks, Christina.

How to be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity!

How_to_be_a_writer

I read How to be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! < http://howtotellagreatstory.com/2012/10/how-to-be-a-writer-in-the-e-age-and-keep-your-e-sanity-by-catherine-ryan-hyde-and-anne-r-allen/> by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne R. Allen last year and I’m thrilled to see what their first updated version will be like, to be released in e-book form soon. The title of their book is right on the money.

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview both ladies on their collaboration on this project, and their warmth and generosity shines. They will also teach a workshop on the subject: < http://digitalageauthors.com/> The Tech Savvy Author, with local radio personality Dave Congalton, set for March 2nd in San Luis Obispo. 

Interview by Joanna Celeste

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Catherine Ryan Hyde

What drives you to write?

That’s a bit hard to quantify. There’s a special feeling that goes with one’s “calling” in the world. It’s not easy to put words to it, but I know it when I feel it. It feels like a sense that I’m more sane, more “me,” when I’m doing the work. I think at the heart of things writing is a type of communication. Under the surface of how it feels at the time, I probably write to feel more a part of things, to feel I’m not on my own little planet all alone.

That captures it perfectly. What inspired you to collaborate with Anne R. Allen on How to be a Writer in an E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity?

I’d been wanting to do a nonfiction book for writers for many years. I felt my struggles and my rejections had given me stories to tell, stories that might help other writers take heart. But then the industry began to change so fast. And because I had an agent and a publisher, I realized I was out of touch with the experience of the modern struggling writer. I knew the feelings, and the courage needed, but the details had changed. So Anne’s and my collaboration was made in heaven, I think, because she is so on the cutting edge of the rapid changes in our industry. I felt that our two perspectives would come together to create a complete package.

It certainly felt complete. I enjoyed your sections on editing. How has your experience as a professional editor shaped you as a writer?

I think it’s made me very detail-oriented, and very aware of how much grammar, punctuation, and even neatness count. It’s also helped me put rejection into perspective, because I know some of the reasons a writer’s work is rejected. They are often far less a reflection on the quality of the work than we tend to imagine.

Yes, sometimes the best way to learn is to be in someone else’s shoes. You’re also a teacher—you’ve taught at various workshops and conferences. What was the most rewarding aspect of that experience?

All of teaching feels rewarding to me. Which is good, because if the constant struggle of making a living in publishing is ever too much for me, teaching gives me a soft place to land. I think the best part is when I’m told—or when I can see—that a student has left my workshop more inspired, with a new sense of enthusiasm toward his or her own work.

What did you find most students struggling with?

Story arc—the idea that something needs to happen, that characters need to evolve, that the end must carry that comfortable sense of resolution. Some have trouble with character depth. It pays to know yourself deeply, because it’s unlikely your characters will be deeper than you are. And then on a smaller scale, I see people struggle with the finer points of grammar and punctuation. We all went to school, but many of us did not do so recently, and what we haven’t used in the meantime we lose. So it’s essential that writing students brush up on their English.

Something we’re always learning, it seems. Do you recommend any books on that subject?

I’m a big fan of The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed by Elizabeth Gordon. You can tell by the title that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. A sense of humor is helpful when reviewing punctuation. The book has been around since I was brushing up, but is still available in paperback. I also like Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss for the same reason.

You shared many rejection stories with us, and I loved your section about defining success. Could you share with us some stories of your recent successes? You’ve just published a new book The Long, Steep Path: Everyday Inspiration from the Author of Pay It Forward and over the last couple of years have published several books, including Jumpstart the World, When You Were Older, Don’t Let Me Go, When I Found You, and Second Hand Heart.

The biggest two successes have been the US indie editions of When I Found You and Don’t Let Me Go.

When I Found You went on a 5-day free promotion last March. Over 81,000 people downloaded it in those 5 days. After the promotion it rose to #12 in Kindle paid. The combination of the free downloads and subsequent sales gave it a popularity ranking of #3 in the Kindle Store, #5 on Amazon as a whole. For a couple of days it was hovering between two Hunger Games books on the Kindle home page. Amazon Publishing took notice, and will bring it out this March under the Amazon Encore imprint.

Congratulations!

Later we put Don’t Let Me Go on a 2-day promo, and over 60,000 copies were downloaded in just that short time. It didn’t go as high in Kindle Paid as When I Found You. I think its top number was #34. But its numbers have stayed high longer, so we have actually sold more copies of Don’t Let Me Go. And, by the way, Don’t Let Me Go has broken my record for both quality and quantity of Amazon reader reviews. The previous record holder was Pay It Forward, with 202 reviews accumulated since late 1999, 126 of which are 5-star. Don’t Let Me Go has garnered 232 just since June, 176 of which are 5-star.

So that feels like a great outcome to me, especially since these are indie editions.

Awesome! How do you manage the organization of the myriad of activities required to be a successful writer in this E-age?

I’m not sure organization is the right word for it, at least in my case. I think with networking and promotion, as with the work itself, I tend to run on inspiration. Sometimes I get more done than other times, but it works out in the end. Then people say I’m disciplined, which never fails to make me laugh. Fortunately, just as I love the communication of writing a story or novel, I also love the communication of daily social networking. So it tends to drive itself, which is good. Because, like most writers, I do have two left brains.

Your advice on marketing and social media is extensive in How to be a Writer in an E Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! What would you say is the essence of any successful marketing campaign?

Human relationships. People buy books by authors they feel they know. So it’s always about making connections with readers. Asking a bunch of relative strangers to buy your books in one non-personalized posting has never enjoyed much success.

You keep in touch with people all over the world, and you’ve been published in the U.S. and the U.K. What are the primary differences between working here and across the pond?

At first I thought UK readers were more receptive to literary fiction, but then those same novels took off here in the U.S. as well. So now I think reader tastes are more or less the same on both sides of the pond. For a time the biggest difference was that the US industry was falling apart at the seams, so I was quite dependent on the more intact UK market for my income. Now the US market is stabilizing and many of the troubles we’ve just come through are hitting over there. It’s been an interesting—albeit troubling—process to watch.

That’s neat that you’ve had such a range of experience with various publishing houses, and also with different avenues of publication–from indie presses to working with the Big Six. Please share with us what the publication process has been like for How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity.

At this point I’m what the newly-changed industry calls a hybrid author. I have traditionally published books and independently published books. And in How to be a Writer in the E-Age…And Keep Your E-Sanity! I have a book published under the third model, the new breed of small publisher. The difference for me is that I do far less work than I do for the indie books, yet I get more control than I did with traditional publishers. There was quite a lot of checking and proofing of the various drafts of the formatted work, and of course an author always has to promote, but on the whole it’s been an easy path for this book. As publishing paths go.

Your book is full of useful advice for writers (new, seasoned, and every shade between). If there was one thing that you wish you had known when you had just started out as a writer, what would that be?

I wish I’d know that rejection didn’t mean what I thought it did—that it didn’t mean my work wasn’t good, or even necessarily that the editor who rejected it thought it wasn’t. I wish I’d known that rejection didn’t mean that the same editor wouldn’t publish another of my stories or novels, or, in one extreme example, even the same one. Rejection is never easy, but if I’d known it was often not a true reflection of the work, I might have saved myself a lot of grief. Which is why I share so much about rejection in the book.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Just that writers need to stick together. It’s a very tough business. People tell you to thicken your skin. I’m not saying it’s bad advice. But sometimes you will need to tend your own wounds. This is what Anne and I hoped to achieve with How to be a Writer in an E Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! We really do want to help other writers feel more supported, more balanced. More sane.

That about sums up how I felt after reading it, so thank you.

[For more information, visit Catherine <online> http://crhyde.squarespace.com/.%5D

Anne R. Allen

 How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! covers many areas from getting started, learning to determine when one is a “real writer”, rejection, working with editors and agents, navigating social media, working within critique groups and making the most out of the various types of feedback, maximizing the value of writer’s conferences, the protocol for handling cyber bullies and trolls, querying, defining one’s genre, learning to self-edit,  overcoming depression, writer’s block and self-doubt, and several aspects of getting published, including knowing when to go traditional or self-publish, and what to expect after publication (which was quite enlightening). How did you divvy up the sections between you and Catherine?

It happened kind of organically. We have different fields of expertise–I’ve been with small presses and Catherine has experience with the Big Six and self-publishing, so things fell into place very easily. I don’t remember having to decide. Things just happened.

The pacing of the book is perfect, balanced between your voices. How did the writing process go?

We got together about once a month to outline and plan what we wanted to say, then wrote the pieces and emailed them back and forth. Once we met at my house, but Catherine’s a vegan, and a great cook, so mostly we met at her house and brainstormed over a great vegan meal she prepared. She lives about a 45 minute drive up the coast from my house—a gorgeous drive.

No wonder the overall tone of the book is so warm, what a great atmosphere to work in!

As part of the initial price for the e-book, you offer free updates every six months, to ensure the guidance remains current. Your first update is set to be published this week. What is your process for updating the book?

I perused all my entries in the book and saw some needed to be completely re-done. That took some research. But for most I just had to tweak a few things. We kept some of the references to the “Big Six” publishing companies, although I explained they’re now the Big Five-or-maybe-Four-and-a-half.

How does this work for those who purchase the paperback; do they get access to the updates in a way, either by supplemental pages emailed to them or by receiving a discount on the e-book?

No. Our publisher really couldn’t afford to do that. It’s just the e-book that has free updates.

That’s an amazing deal for a $2.99 e-book.

As an author known for your comedic mysteries (The Camilla Randall series) and your comic thriller (Food of Love), I welcomed your treatment of the various subjects of writing in How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! What is the value of humor in writing?

I’ve always loved books that made me laugh. I loved reading P.G. Wodehouse  and Angela Thirkell when I was in high school—my parents had a great collection of British humorists. And I loved Kurt Vonnegut, who has dark humor in all his books.  As different as they are, I think they all influenced my writing.

Also, I was in the theater for many years and I learned how to engage an audience by making them laugh, and I transferred it to my writing. I didn’t do it consciously, but the humor always creeps in. 

I enjoy the humorous touches in your posts. Your blog http://annerallen.blogspot.com/ was named finalist for “best publishing industry blog” by the Association of American Publishers and one of the “Top 50 Blogs for Authors” by TribalNation.com, and your section on blogging was extensive in the book. What would you say is the essence of a successful blog?

Every successful publishing blog is successful in a different way. Joe Konrath’s can be hard-hitting and no-B.S. Kristen Lamb’s is chatty and girly and funny. Chuck Wendig’s is R-rated and raunchy. But they have three things in common: 1) They’re “you” oriented instead of “me” oriented.  2) They give great information. 3) They have strong, honest personal voices. I think those are the most important elements of a great blog.

How did you arrange for Ruth Harris to co-blog with you?

She made long comments on my blog a lot—and they were so useful and insightful. I told her she needed to have her own blog and kept hammering her about how we all needed her expertise. (How many people have been on the NYT bestseller list AND edited for a Big Six publisher?) But she didn’t want to make the time commitment. So I asked her if she’d like to be a regular guest on my blog. She jumped right in.

She’s finally started her own blog< http://ruthharrisblog.blogspot.com/>—mostly with links that make great writing prompts, but she’s branching out with some great new features, like “The Story Behind the Story” guest posts from authors talking about what prompted them to write their novels. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun.

I will have to check that out. What about writing do you most enjoy?

The sheer act of creation. When the kernel of an idea starts sprouting into characters and scenes and the people come to life on the page and start doing things I don’t expect. I never know where a book is going to go and I love watching the whole thing unfold.

I appreciated your insight into the subject of depression and creativity. You covered the importance of remaining centered, but what are the ways you personally find balance?

I’m not always good at that. But I try to walk every day and take time to meditate and be in my body instead of living in my head all the time. I love to go out and listen to music and dance. I love roots and world music. We live in a great area for it.

Sounds lovely. What is your favorite motto?

“Everything in moderation. Including moderation.”

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’m so grateful to Catherine for partnering with me on this book. I was an out-of-print writer without much of a future when we first came up with the idea of a book. She took a chance by linking her name with a relatively unknown author. Since then, I’ve got a publisher who now has published six of my mysteries. If I was going to pick a moment when my career started to come back to life, I’d say it was that lunch when we came up with the idea of a book on “the care and feeding of the writer’s psyche”—and I’ll be forever grateful to Catherine for that.

We’ll be forever grateful to the two of you, for writing (and maintaining) such a heartfelt, comprehensive and knowledgeable book.

[To learn more about Anne or her various creative pursuits, visit her <online> http://annerallen.blogspot.com/%5D   

Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay

Rewrite cover

Once an aspiring writer commits pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – there comes a point when s/he starts to believe that every word, every phrase, every idea that results from such effort is the stuff of perfection and, thus, exempt from editorial criticism. Was there ever a more dreaded word in the English vocabulary than “rewrite”? It can be anything from a simple request for clarification, a suggestion about rearranging chapters for a more cohesive flow, or maybe even changing the heroine’s name from Ethel to Juliet, but to the ears of the author who has tirelessly brought the project to life, it all sounds the same: “Are you an idiot or what? This is terrible. You didn’t get it right the first time. Do it again.”

It’s not that the editor hates you or hates your story, nor is the editor telling you anything with the dark intention of making your project worse. The goal, first and foremost, is to make it the best it can be and, accordingly, make you an even better writer than you might ever have thought possible. Paul Chitlik, author of Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay (Michael Wiese Productions) shares his insights on what you can learn from going back to the drawing board.

 Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: “The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E.B. White. For a lot of aspiring authors, however, any suggestion that their original prose might even remotely contain flaws or inconsistencies causes them to instantly put up defenses and arguments to the contrary. Why, in your opinion, are they so averse to taking their material back to the drawing board?

A:  First, writing is hard.  Writers naturally only want to write as little as they can get away with.  While this works in journalism, and sometimes even fiction, it doesn’t work at all in film or television (and I’ve worked in all of them). 

Sometimes, too, they want to do it “their way.”  They feel restricted by the format, which many call the formula.  While some good films are made outside of the format (very few Hollywood films, to be sure), most fail that don’t follow the traditional format, which developed for 2500 years in playwriting and then 100 years in screenwriting.  We know what works.  Why try to re-invent the wheel.

Speaking of wheels, think of writing within the format as manufacturing an automobile.  You wouldn’t have square tires just because you liked squares or you wanted to be different.  You need round tires, an engine, a transmission, a steering wheel, and brakes.  But even though you are restricted to four wheels (and sometimes, three, but rarely, though one of my favorite roadsters is the three wheel Morgan), you have a wide range of designs in which to show your originality.  A Jetta is very different from a Ferrari, yet they are both automobiles.  And if you want to be original, you certainly can:  You can make a DeLorean or a Honda Fit or a Nissan Cube with a wrap around back window.  But if you decide that you feel restricted by four wheels and want to add a fifth, well, you might find that the old format worked better.  But working off of four, you might go to six and find some success.  Try the four first, though, and have good reason to add the other two, if that’s what you want.

Creating art is a very personal thing, and new writers are not used to the collaborative process that is film and television making.  Unless you’re going to write it, cast it, act in it, shoot it, cut it, and distribute it yourself, you’re going to have to collaborate.  Get used to it.

Q: Which is the more efficient practice (and why): (1) to rewrite after you’re completely done or (2) to rewrite as you’re composing?

A:  I rewrite the previous day’s original pages before I start a new scene.  But I don’t usually go back farther than that unless I need to set up something that I’m paying off in a scene that comes to me outside of the beat sheet.  But it’s best to plough through the first draft to keep your focus and then let it rest for a few days or even weeks before tackling the rewrite with a fresh perspective. 

Q: Okay, let’s be honest, how many rewrites did you do for Rewrite?

A:  Not including the in-process second edition, I did about five rewrites before I submitted it to the publisher and another two after.  Then we both decided it was done.

Q: How did this particular book come about and who do you see as its target demographic?

A:  One of my students in a UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting class in rewriting sent me the outline he had done of the course and suggested I write a book on rewriting.  I thought that was a very good idea since there were no how-to rewrite books.

Its target is new writers who don’t have a support system like a professional writer does.  A professional can go to his manager or agent, his development executive, his director, even his writer friends for feedback.  Someone in Sioux Falls can’t.  Also, some professionals feel they need to do a few drafts on their own before going back to the studio, but don’t want to share their work for whatever reason.  So they refer to my book.  More than one has told me s/he has done this.

Q: Tell us about your academic and professional background that prepared you for the challenges inherent in penning a book.

A:  Academically, I studied comparative literature in college, meaning I read mostly novels and plays in Spanish, English, and Italian.  Hundreds (literally) of them.  I moved to Europe after grad school and worked as a translator and journalist.  Back in the US after five years, I worked as an English as a Second Language instructor and then a college administrator.  One day I said to myself, “This is not the plan.” 

I soon got back into writing, starting with a job as an executive story editor on a syndicated show where I supervised upwards of 140 scripts.  They were mostly crap (even my own), and I supervised the rewriting of every one of them.  Since then, I have written hundreds of television scripts and been commissioned to write over a dozen films (five of which have been made, some under a pseudonym for various reasons).  In classes at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University as well as private workshops over the last twelve years, I have supervised the writing and rewriting of something over 1800 scripts!  I know what works and what doesn’t.  I know the process.  The challenge was boiling down everything into less than 200 pages. 

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

A:  When I started the book or started my career?  If it’s the career, I would have started fresh out of school instead of wasted so many years doing other things. 

If it’s about the book, well, I wish I would have known (but no one did), what the true profit margins are in e-books.  I know now and my publisher and I have come to a new agreement.

Q: Do you ever go back and read some of the things you wrote earlier in your career? If so, in what ways has your style or focus evolved with age?

A:  I sometimes go back and read old stuff when I’m looking for something specific that has nothing to do with writing and I find my old work.  Some stuff is really bad – no form, no story, just clever wording.  Some is just raw emotion.  My focus is more on story than on self now.  I tend to write about people struggling with an issue instead of me struggling with an issue.

Q: If you hadn’t heard the siren call of television in the 1980’s, might you have gravitated to a career as a playwright? (Hey, directing your first play when you were only 11 seems like an auspiciously theatrical start.)

A:  I did write a couple of plays when I decided to go back into writing in the 1980s.  They’re not too bad.  What I should have done then, and what I’m doing with a project now, is to shoot the play as a play and get it circulated.  It would have shortened the time I spent out in the cold.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the importance of structure in a screenplay. So many writers simply jump in and start tossing elements about without any preconceived game plan about how to make them coexist and move the story forward. Why is structure a critical factor and what are some examples of movies where structure was clearly nonexistent?

A:  Structure doesn’t restrict, it frees you to explore.  It’s a road map.  Nobody says you have to follow it, but it will be hard to get to your destination without it.  Still, you can go down dirt roads if you want to, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably not going to get there, wherever there is.  With a structure, you always have the option to take a diversion.  Without structure, all you have is wandering.

Look at Tree of Life or Cloud Atlas or Melancholia.  But only if you have to, because I’m still trying to get back those lost hours.  They make little or no sense.  Yes, they’re beautiful films, from an aesthetic point of view, but there’s a reason millions didn’t flock to see them, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen all three, but you have my sympathy if you have.

Q: Is too much focus put on crafting the hero and, thus, neglecting the attributes and motivations of the antagonist that opposes him?

A:  A good film has a balance.  The antagonist must be 110% as smart, as strong, as handsome as the protagonist.  The more interesting he or she is, the more challenging, and, yes, the more human, the more we care about the challenges s/he presents to the protagonist.  The better the antagonist, the better the film.  The protagonist must have barriers that are real.  If they’re not, if they’re not difficult, then we lose interest.

Q: What role do you believe the central emotional relationship plays?

A:  The central emotional relationship (the love object, the person with whom the protagonist must either create or mend a relationship) serves to humanize the protagonist, to give the audience someone else to cheer for, and to give the audience an emotional reason to root for the protagonist.  In a romance or romantic comedy, even in a buddy film, this is the only reason to see the film in the first place. 

Q: Screenwriting is both an art and a science in which storytellers strive to deliver a compelling visual while, at the same time, adhering to the rules and protocols of formatting, time constraints and available resources (including budgets). If you want to break the rules – or make brand new ones that others will want to follow – how do you go about accomplishing that?

A:  First you must know and be able to employ the current rules.  Then you can break them for effect, especially in formatting and editing.  But even if you do something different, such as the found footage film I did for UPN in the 90s, Alien Abduction, which was the precursor for Blair Witch and Paranormal and its imitators, you still need to tell a story.  That is, there’s a person, he has a goal (wants something), but there’s a rock between him and the goal so he has to go over, under, around, or through the rock to get to the goal.  That’s the only rule you can’t break.  All the rest are up for grabs, so long as you tell a good story.  Even the order in which you tell it doesn’t matter (See Memento, which has one story going backwards and another going forwards – both following, in their way, traditional structure.).

Q: What are some movies that were either successful or mind-numbing failures insofar as coloring outside the lines?

A:  See above examples of films I wish I hadn’t seen.  Films outside of the usual are Moonlight Kingdom, Amour (though I would argue it does follow traditional structure in some ways), Groundhog Day (though, again, I would argue it’s right on course).  Can’t remember any more off the top of my head, but will probably think of one just after the interview comes out.

Q: Legend has it that – amongst the plethora of diverse jobs you’ve held – you once joined a circus sans skills but just because you wanted to write about it. What did learning how to put up and take down the tent for a three-ring circus teach you about yourself, about life, and about Hollywood?

A:  Whoa!  Big question.  First, it taught me to be bold.  They had to hire the people that the Employment Development Department had sent over, so I wasn’t picked.  But I told the foreman, on the sly, that I’d work for free.  It told me to be bolder when I could.  It had rained the day before and we were literally up to our ankles in mud.  Many quit.  I did not.  I persisted.  When the foreman asked if I would stay on, I said, “Yes, if you pay me.”  He agreed to pay from that moment on.  “No, from the first minute this morning.”  He agreed, and I ended up setting up and striking the tent several times in the course of the next few weeks.  The next summer, when I showed up, this time with leather gloves because I knew how to prepare myself, he took me on.  That time I just did it for fun. 

I learned I could do just about anything I wanted, and if I did it well, people would pay me for it.  I learned that it’s better to do something hard that’s fun than something easy that isn’t.  After all, I worked alongside elephants that helped put up the tent.  I gained some self confidence.  Once I had to climb to the top of the tent from the outside to repair a seam problem.  If I could do that, I certainly could work with a studio executive or a cranky actress.  

Q: What personal or professional accomplishment are you the most proud of and why?

A:  Still most proud of some of the episodes I worked on for The New Twilight Zone.  We had the freedom to do what we wanted with very little interference.  As a result, my writing partner and I were nominated for a WGA Award.  I would dream of something at night, come in the next morning, and we would write it.  What’s better than that?

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A:  I’ve written a three-part, goes-against-traditional-structure, script that I plan to shoot using a four camera set-up on a sound stage, much like a television play from the Golden Age.  Something shot like Marty or Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Script’s done.  Date’s set.  I’m now raising the money and getting the crew and cast together.  I’ll direct this time, so I’ll have no one to blame if it goes wrong.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A:  I’d like them to know how tough it is, that screenwriting is not for the faint of heart nor the thin-skinned.  Not only do you need to be talented, you need to be persistent and patient.  And it helps if you’re independently wealthy and not worried about money.  But if you have talent, practice, drive, and confidence you may be able to make a living at it.  And maybe change the world a little bit.   

To learn more about the author, visit http://www.rewritementor.com.