Monday, March 24, 2014

Want to be a more productive writer? Put down your crystal ball

     He didn't have it all figured out...
     The words are still echoing in my brain.
     That's basically what my favorite author, Armistead Maupin of  "Tales of the City" fame,  told a packed auditorium about many of the clever plot twists, characters and callbacks scattered throughout his nine book series.   He didn't "plan" them ahead of time.    He just wrote.
     I mean, I knew the early books started as newspaper columns, but come on...
     You really didn't "see' the whole story before you started?  Or at least half?  There are anagrams and intricacies that could only have been achieved by months and months of outlining, right?
     He didn't have it all figured out.
     He just wrote.
     He told the audience that in the
beginning,  his goal was to just stay one step ahead of the readers.  And he found that when he needed to "connect the dots."  They just seemed to be there.
      Really?   What is this?  Magic?
     I like to plan.  Well, I take that back.  I'm not a planner in my day-to-day life --  much to my boyfriend's chagrin.  But when it comes to a writing project,   I can outline like a mutha.   My brain wants every detail spelled out before I start.   Every twist.  Every turn.    I want to be clever.     I want to know that when the heroine wears the blue dress in Episode 3,  it will become a significant plot point in Episode 75 and later how it will appear -- to the audience's surprise --  in the closing shot of the series finale.
     I can easily get caught up, postponing the actual "writing" while I think and over think.
      He didn't have it all figured out. 
      He ... didn't.... have... it ... all ... figured ... out?
      He didn't have it all figured out! 
     ... Whew!  What a relief!
     The Universe knew I needed to hear that.   I needed to be reminded to trust myself enough to just WRITE.    Sometimes you gotta put away the charts and graphs,  the outlines and the formulas and just dive in.
      You can't connect dots that you never actually created.
      I get it.  Loud and clear.
      Will I change my ways completely?
      Well .... let's just say I'm planning on it.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Deadlines: How to turn this enemy into your best friend

Jen Kelley
Guest Post     

     Today's writing advice comes from Jen Kelley,  the co-founder, head writer and co-artistic director for Sketchworks, Atlanta's premier sketch comedy theater. Jen is also a casting director and co-founder of Big Picture Casting, after spending many years as a talent agent and co-authoring the book "The Actor’s Guide for Kids". 
      Despite all of her accomplishments,  I always think of Jen as "teacher."   It was Jen who taught the first sketch-writing class I ever took (... and the second ... and the third... and the...)   It was her example, guidance and encouragement that put me on a path that eventually changed my career and my life.  I still use many of the techniques she taught me then today.   As a writer, she's practical and fearless.  And is one of the few people I know who actually  embraces  the rewrite process, whether it be plays, sketches or films.  Today, she talks about her love/hate relationship with deadlines. 

Advice from writer/casting director Jen Kelley 
Who needs a stinkin' deadline?  I do  

   It’s 11 p.m, Sunday night and I’m just now sitting down to write a piece for Robin’s blog, which is appropriately titled, “Bitch, Procrastinate, Write” – due tomorrow of course.
    I love a deadline. I hate a deadline. I love to hate a deadline. But without deadlines, I might have little to show for myself. One thing I tend to do, without really intending to do it, is to declare a deadline out loud to a group of people, who will now hold me accountable.
    The first full-length play I wrote, I created such a deadline. A couple producers told me they were looking to produce a comedy. I quickly mentioned that I had written a play that might be up their alley. I told them a little about it, and we decided we would have a play reading in two weeks. I would line up the actors, and they would hear the play out loud and then decide if they wanted to produce it.
   Now, it wasn’t a lie. I really had written a play and in my mind, that play was comedy gold. BUT, and there is always a “but,” that play had been written many years ago when I was still writing on a word processor and I was just out of college. I mean, the damn thing was on a floppy disc. My current computer couldn’t even read it. But that was OK, I had a hard copy. I found that hard copy and re-read it.
   While the idea still had merit, I soon realized that I could only salvage about 15 percent of it. Most was sophomoric at best. The rest of it, well, it made the sophomoric crap look like golden sophomoric crap. Needless to say, I had to start re-writing and FAST.
    The table read was already scheduled. I was in deep. As you can imagine, the next two weeks were insane. I wrote every night into the wee hours. When I resurfaced, I had a multimedia, three-act play. I was still rewriting up until the read-through, but the point is this: the deadline got that play written. Without it, the play would never have been produced, let alone sold out every night like it did.
    Another thing I always wanted to try was standup comedy. I kept talking about it, but I never did anything more than talk. Then one day, on a whim I signed up for a standup comedy class. I had eight weeks to write my routine and then perform it at the Punchline.
   While I still have stress dreams about it, I did it. I met the deadline, and it actually went fine. I crossed another item off my bucket list. Never underestimate the power of a class deadline. All you have to do is commit.
    While deadlines can be tremendously stressful, they give you a finish line to race toward. When you declare realistic deadlines out loud to the world, you make yourself accountability. If saving face is your reason to write, so be it. So, here in front of everyone who bitches, procrastinates and eventually writes, I declare that I will complete my screenplay by 3/9/15.
  I’ll be writing right up to midnight the night before. Needless to say, 3/8/15 is going to be one stressful day.

    Jen Kelley is a casting director and co-founder of Big Picture Casting, Inc.  In addition to her casting director career, Jen co-authored  "The Actor’s Guide for Kids, a step-by-step guide for parents of child actors. In 2001, Jen co-founded Sketchworks Theatre, Atlanta’s premier sketch comedy troupe where she has written and produced hundreds of sketches. She currently serves as Co-Artistic Director, head writer, director and producer.  Jen has also written industrials, short films, and plays.

Monday, March 3, 2014

How to shut up your inner snob -- and start writing

Guest Post 

Madeline Hatter 
   Today's writing advice comes from author/comedienne Madeline Hatter, who I had heard about long before I actually met her.   One, because people genuinely love her and her comedy.  And two, because,  at first glance, folks were constantly getting us mixed up.  (We still are puzzled by that.  But at least from my end , considering her popularity, I guess it wasn't so bad! )   Madeline describes her novel,  "Lookin’ in the Mirror,"  as  "an unromantic comedy."   And I'm not surprised.   Madeline has a delightfully unique and quirky way of looking at the world.   Here, she talks about  killing your inner snob as a key to sparking creativity.  

Advice from Author/Comedienne Madeline Hatter
Keep Your Snob in Check
    I can be a snob. Some days, I wrong-headedly affirm that snobbery: I'm a hipster, hee-hee.  I say wrong-headed, because snobbery is dangerous to your process. When you're brainstorming stories, but throwing them all out because they're not “original” enough -- or whatever contrived reason -- it's destructive. And for me, all this was happening before I even touched a key.
   Several years ago, I wrote a novel, with a sequel built in.  Literally. The first one ends on a cliffhanger. And having not written the sequel dogged me for a long time. So why wasn't I
writing? Snobbery.
    My first novel  ("Lookin’ in the Mirror")  was a spoof of sorts.   I called it an “unromantic comedy” because it followed the same tropes of a typical rom-com, but nobody falls in love.  But the second would definitely be a rom-com, and that started to bother me.  “I'm so hack,” I would mull to myself.  I'd berate myself to come up with stories in other genres.  To no avail.  Along the way, the messaging became more destructive, with articles touting some established author's process of completing 25 books a year.  Finally, I decided that if I wasn't going to write, I needed to do something else.
    Years passed, and I had freelanced a little.  I covered basketball, politics, and then left writing entirely. (Mostly because politics will drive you nuts.) I got into cooking.  Organic living.  Locavorism.  Interesting stuff, but I wasn't producing anything.  And at my core, I am a creator.
     At the encouragement of a coworker, I did my first standup set.   I wasn't horrible, just really, really rough.  Looking back, I got some really good laughs for a first-timer. And it wasn't an audience stacked with family and friends.  Then, I took a class at The Laughing Skull.  Our graduation show was another feather in my cap. “I can do this,” I thought. But it wasn't long until that old snob came around again.   And I started looking for “deeper, more thoughtful” material, “getting bored” with the stuff I already had – stuff that was getting laughs!  Then, the articles: Louis C.K. writes a whole new show every six days!
    Admittedly, this process did bring me to sketch comedy, improv, and now acting – which have also been very good to me. (I'm featuring in  I Hate Hamlet at Lionheart Theatre  starting March 13!)   But the time came to put the kibosh on "Le Snob."
     “This is bullshit,” I said to myself.    “I'm not a middle-aged white man who's been in comedy for 20 years!  I can aspire to create material on that cycle, but if it doesn't happen, so be it.  I'm me.  I need to write what I know, in the cycle that I have.”  The message: Learn to appreciate yourself... Your talents, skills... What you bring to the table. If you need to, list them.   In fact, it's better if you see them written down.   In your own handwriting.  And if you're like me, doing so will bring you to finally admit some things you've been hiding, like...
     Datgummit, I like rom-coms!   So what if the last one or two, or fifty, have really driven it into the ground.  There have been some cherished greats in the genre -- or at least just cherished by me. “So screw you, Snob!   I like happy endings!   And shut up, comedy self.   You know I'm not talking about massage parlors fronting for prostitution.”
Now all I need to do is sit down long enough to write that sequel...

 Madeline Hatter is a former journalist and graphic designer. Author of the unromantic comedy "Lookin’ in the Mirror".   Atlanta comic.  Now, actor.   Madeline is the sardonic girl next door, delivering killer quips with her disarming smile. You may know her from her YouTube video Thank You Black History. Soon she will feature in the Lionheart Theatre production I Hate Hamlet, running March 13-30, 2014 in Norcross, Ga.  Madeline enjoys outdoors activities with her dog, watching sci-fi/fantasy, practicing Spanish, and writing.   While working as a journalist, she published the unromantic comedy "Lookin' in the Mirror".  Now she's looking forward to starring in romantic comedies!