Monday, January 27, 2014

Are you mentally fit to write?

Joseph Hampton 

Guest Blog

Today's advice comes from screenwriter/director Joseph Hampton, who has written for Tyler Perry's "House of Payne"  and "Meet the Browns."   His screenplays include "The Legend of John Henry,  "Felon Fund" and "Illegal Aliens."    Here, he gets real about the importance of getting mentally fit to write.  

Advice from writer/director Joseph Hampton 
Get your Sh-t together!
 Whether you’re a professional writer or someone trying to get into the business, my advice to you is ‘seek help now!’   Seriously.  I’ve been a professional writer since 2006 and it can be lots of fun or scary as hell. Often it’s both at the same time. The only way to weather the storm is to take your emotional and mental health as seriously as learning your craft. If going fishing or kicking the cat keeps all your gray matter in the right place, please keep doin’ what you’re doin’. But if you have even a small sense that you could use a mental tune up, I recommend you do it sooner rather than later.
    The main tool for a writer is his brain. If you aren’t getting healthy in your mind, you might as well smoke three packs a day, eat bacon sandwiches with a side of bacon sandwiches and play hopscotch in heavy traffic. ‘Ju gonna die, mane’ figuratively— maybe literally. Neither one is a pleasant thought, so, why risk it if you can fix it?
Drugs and lemon-meringue colonics.  Are you thinking what I used to think, ‘If I straighten out all the screwed up wiring in my head I won’t be unique anymore. I might sweep away a franchise along with the crap that’s making me hate myself!’ Chances are if you weren’t fighting off emotional demons and self-medicating with booze, drugs or lemon-meringue colonics, you’d become a better writer. You’d at least get more done and be a more tolerable lunch date. Why? Because you’d have a better sense of what interests other people and you’d be more open to the world around you. (Just please, for the love of Carl Jung, fight the urge to tell everyone about your therapy sessions.)
    What do I know? None of us are having the same life experience, right? In a nutshell I woke up one night last year staring into the darkness and blathering like an idiot to my wife. Everything that had been buried under comedy scripts and smart-assed comments was bubbling up to the surface. No, actually it was splashed all over the inside of my head like Quentin Tarantino had just filmed there. Luckily, we found a counselor within a day and he helped pull me off the ledge I was on. The first thing he told me was, ‘your childhood was defined by rejection and you’re in a business defined by rejection. Every time a script doesn’t sell you have exactly the same emotions you had as a kid.’ I never thought a rejected sitcom script could be that big a deal. I thought (as I’m guessing many of you think) finding success in my writing would solve all my problems. Maybe it can act as a buffer, but on a bigger stage with bigger budgets we just make bigger messes.
     Bullshit mountain.  It’s not easy airing this dirty laundry in public. I want to seem totally together, at least long enough to wow them in the next pitching session. The problem with seeking help for mental or emotional issues is that no one wants to be that guy. But I’m not necessarily talking about checking into a padded room—though I’ve worked for a few people who could use it. I’m suggesting a couple of hours with an experienced counselor who can help you find your triggers and who can sift through the mountains of bullshit creative people hide under.
    What have you got to lose? Just like you needed an experienced writer to teach you structure, you need someone qualified to help you deal with the content of your mind. Give it a shot before Vincent & Jules show up inside your head  & start reciting Isaiah.

Joseph Hampton, owner and operator of EasyFeat Entertainment Inc.,  has written for Tyler Perry's "House of Payne," "Meet the Browns."   His screenplays include:  "Illegal Aliens," "Felon Fund," "Standing Pat," "Man of Steel," "The Legend of John Henry" and "The Wolf of Aachen."   You can follow Joe on Twitter at

Monday, January 20, 2014

How to give your story a skeleton

Brian Egeston
Today's advice comes from Brian Egeston, a TV writer, novelist and  Vice President of Development for Bobbcat Films in Atlanta, Ga.   His most recent project is the  dramatic mini-pilot titled "Birth Right," which is available at He tells us the importance of giving a story structure. 

 Advice from novelist/TV writer Brian Egeston
Stories Need Skeletons and Heart ...
    In my early days as a novelist, my writing process went like this: 1. Turn Computer on.  2. Write book.  3. Finish book.   4. Pray it’s good.  I was na├»ve enough to think I had the entire story in my head. I did, but it had no structure. In its finest state, a story-- whether it’s a feature script, stage play, novel, short film or haiku—will present itself to an audience as a beautiful body of work. Bodies cannot move without a skeleton. 
  Every story must have some type of structure. Whether you’re following an eight-sequence formula for your feature, Blake Snyder’s save the cat, a classic three-act structure or simple plotting along with a basic begin, middle and end, don’t write a single word of your story until you have its bones built. Spending time on the skeleton of your story allows you to create twists, turns, foreshadow big events toward the climax and catch unforeseen problems. 
    Here’s an example: I sit down to write a story about a man who buys a dog for his kid. Simple, right? Rather than outline my story, I peck away at the keyboard with some narrative about searching craigslist for free puppies and wind up at a strange man’s house filled with cigarettes and Chihuahuas. The dogs chase him out and he doesn’t buy the dog. The end. Hilarious—and unfulfilling. 
  Questions loom.  The questions loom for the audience, when did the character decide to find a dog online. Why is he searching for a free dog? Was there a moment when he decided against buying the dog? What started his search? What happens when he rings the doorbell at the strange man’s house? What if he bought a cat instead of a dog? What happens when he gets home and his son doesn’t see the dog? How is the story resolved that relates to the man’s initial quest for a canine.
  These questions are all over the place, but when we spend more time answering questions that comprise a story skeleton or outline or beat sheet, questions and holes become plot points and solutions. 
 Another significant part of a good story is the heart of matter. This is not to say you need a melodramatic, sappy, ‘King of the World’ Titanic scene. Rather good stories are based on a real emotional moment. Action blockbusters, broad comedic movies, silly sketches and even tight one-line jokes are based on a true emotional gem. 
What's it really about?   "Men In Black III" wasn’t about fighting aliens. It was about a man traveling through time to learn why his father wasn’t a part of his life. When that moment is revealed, it makes the journey of special effects, jokes and action all the more rewarding for the audience. In an episode of The Office, Michael Scott releases his short film, 'Threat Level Midnight'. The episode isn’t about a silly homemade movie, it’s about revealing a character’s passion and desire to accomplish a goal. Ultimately it gives the audience added insight into who he is and makes us love him even more.
   Comedian Henry Youngman’s joke, Take my wife—please is perhaps one of the most concise and insightful jokes ever written and it speaks volumes about a man who is frustrated in his marriage. This joke is tight, it’s hilarious and it’s sad. In four words the writer tells a story that explores each side of the drama masks. Both Greek muses, Thalia and Melpomene have been satisfied. 
   Youngman, was actually very fond of his wife, Sadie. She traveled with him on the road and when she fell ill, he built an ICU room in their home because she was terrified of hospitals. Makes the story even better. 
   As humans, our bodies go through a lot—as do stories. But without a good skeleton and heart, neither of the two can survive. 
    Eight Major Plot Points:
   Save the Cat Beat Sheet: Bridesmaids

Brian Egeston is Vice President of Development for Bobbcat Films in Atlanta, Ga. After publishing six novels and three anthologies, he began a career in TV writing as a staff writer for Tyler Perry’s "House of Payne".  The following season he was promoted to Head Writer for the show and served as a creative consultant for Tyler Perry’s "For Better Or Worse". He was also Head Writer for The Rickey Smiley TV show and Head Writer for "Uptown Comedy Live". Egeston’s most recent project is the release of his dramatic mini-pilot titled "Birth Right," which is available at

Monday, January 13, 2014

Finding a writing partner: Is it really worth it?

Don Woodard 
Guest Post

Today's advice comes from Don Woodard, a veteran TV writer and  producer best known for his work on "Just Shoot Me," "Dream On" and "Rodney".   Oh, and then there is that little credit I am most jealous of:  "Family Guy".    As an actor, he's appeared on Newhart,  Perfect Strangers and The Golden Girls.  So aside from being versatile,  he's got great stories for a cocktail party.   Here, he discusses the joys -- and pains --  of having a writing partner. 

Tips from TV writer Don Woodard

No man is an island ... and I’m guessing no woman is an island, either...

   Writing alone is a blessing. The idea of tuning out the world and creating something unfettered and so wonderfully right-brained that the words flow free and that voice comes alive and… Crap. I should start over. No. Push on. No, I hate how this is starting. Unfettered? Really? Unfettered? Shut. Up. YOU shut up. Wonder who’s winning the hockey game. Great question. Back in a sec.
     So writing alone is also a curse.
    Working with a partner has its rewards and difficulties. For most of my twenty-plus years writing TV, I had a partner. I wouldn’t be the first to describe it as a second marriage, with a lot of ups and a few downs. Familiarity breeds contempt and all that. Jesus, if he sucks one more pad thai noodle through those thin, pursed bastard lips of his, I swear… You get the idea.
    On the other hand, what a joy, when that critic in your head starts to weigh in, and there’s someone else in the room to help calibrate the dreaded scales of judgment. “Is this funny?” “It’s very funny.” “It doesn’t feel funny.” “That’s because we’ve read it thirty times. I laughed out loud when you pitched it. Nothing’s changed. It’s still funny.” “Okay. But please stop slurping your pad thai.”
    So what’s right for you? I’ve loved collaborating daily with someone. Television shows certainly like hiring partners. They get twice the talent (let’s hope) and twice the sweat equity for the price of one. In these discount days, studios have been known to hire writers on the condition that they pair up with someone else they’ve hired, which, returning to our marriage analogy, well… These arrangements are still legal in certain parts of world, no?
    I think partnering is especially good for comedy writers for the “is this funny” factor alone. It’s also a lot easier to come up with story ideas that have beginnings, middles and ends when you have someone to bounce your genius off of. And if, at worst, both of you are terrible at deadlines and discipline, there’s a guilt factor involved that pushes even two of the worst procrastinators across the finish line. (“I am not going to be the one to screw this up.”)
     So there’s one piece of advice: Get a partner.
     Here’s another: Don’t.
     If writing with someone else is not for you, then set those hours, close that door, ignore that phone, and write. But step out into the daylight more often than you think you need to.
     Here are a few quick thoughts if you’re going to slog it alone:
     1) Find a few critics. Ask friends to read your work. If at all possible, try not to pre-load your request with humility (“I know this sucks, but…”) or the TV Guide logline (“It’s ‘Game of Thrones’ meets ‘The Sopranos’ meets ‘Hoop Dreams’…”) or what you’re aiming for (“With these 500 words, I topple the United Nations…”). In most cases, it’s better if people come to it cold. Let the material speak for itself. If you tell someone, going into it, that you don’t think the dialogue in the confessional scene sounds realistic? Guess what?
    2) Use The Rule of Three, or at least the Rule of Two. If one person says your main character is playing beneath his intelligence in your brilliantly funny and revealing “new, mean boss” scene, that should elicit a “hmm” from you. If no one else has a problem with it, it’s probably working. But if Person Two and Three ask why your hero is acting like a douche in front of his superior when he’s never acted that way before and it doesn’t seem motivated and, yeah, it’s kinda funny but it doesn’t seem real? This is not the time to get defensive. Breathe. Your scene needs work.
   3) Don’t be insular in the first place. Find a writers’ group. Or take a class. Networking is important in this business, and you will most likely meet some folks who will travel the same roads at not-the-very-same pace. Feedback from these same people is even more important. Hearing how you’re doing is a good thing; you’ll know, instinctively, whose notes to respect, and whose to ignore. (Just remember the Rule of Two or Three.)
   So that’s it for now. Trust your voice. But trust others, too. Television is about as collaborative as it gets.
   And if you can’t handle the feedback? No worries, as the kids say.
   That’s what playwriting is for.

Don Woodard is a veteran TV writer and  producer best known for his work on "Just Shoot Me," "Dream On" and "Rodney".    He was part of the legendary LA improv company The Groundlings ("pre-Ferrell, post-Shakespeare," as he describes it) and had guest roles on several classic TV shows including: Newhart,  Perfect Strangers and The Golden Girls.  Today,  Don lives in North Carolina and raises money for a non-profit law firm that provides free civil and legal aid to low income people.  Follow him on Twitter @WoodardWrites

Monday, January 6, 2014

Successful screenwriter reveals surprising secret weapon

Guest Post 

Michael Lucker 
(Today's advice comes from writer, director, producer Michael Lucker who served as screenwriter on the animated sequels to MulanLilo & StitchEmperor’s New Groove and 101 Dalmatians and has helped pen more than 20 other feature-length screenplays including  "Vampire In Brooklyn,"  "Home On The Range" and "Spirit," which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002 for best animated feature.   Oh, and did  I mention he once worked as an assistant for Steven Spielberg?  You can sign up for screenwriting classes taught by Lucker at Screenwriter School.)  

 Advice from Screenwriter Michael Lucker 

 How I get in the mood... 

      Not many people know this about me, but I can dust like a sonuvabitch.  Vacuum.  Scrub.  Window clean even.  When there’s writing to be done, there’s really no telling how much house cleaning I can squeeze in.
    I used to say once I had my ducks in a row, I’d write.  Since there is obviously an infinite amount of ducks one can conjure, I went out and bought three just so I’d have a limit.  Those squeaky little yellow toys you play with in the tub.  Then I lined them up on my desk… in a row.  And poof!  No more excuses.  Then I wrote.  And you know what?  That was the easy part.  Sitting in the chair was the hard part.
     Once I got there, the angels and guides descended from the heavens and filled my fingertips with enough quirk and mirth to fill countless pages.  So what’s the lesson?  Stop with the excuses already.  We’re creative for God sakes.  No one is going to be better at coming up with excuses than us.  So throw caution to the wind… and sponges and brushes and rags.  And just write.  You can always dust after.


Michael Lucker is a writer, director and producer with twenty years experience creating film, television, animation and digital media.  He also teaches screenwriting through the Screenwriter School.   He began his career writing and directing TV commercials in college at Boston University.  Later he landed in LA  working in production before taking a job as assistant to Steven Spielberg at Amblin Entertainment on feature films IndianaJones & the Last Crusade, Arachnophobia, Joe Vs. The Volcano, Always, Back To The Future II & III and Jurassic Park.  As a screenwriter, Michael helped pen more than twenty feature screenplays for Paramount, Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, and Universal.  He also served as screenwriter on the animated sequels to MulanLilo & StitchEmperor’s New Groove and 101 Dalmatians.   He consulted on content for Turner Entertainment and worked for several non‐fiction production houses before launching his own production company, Lucky Dog Filmworks, which has served as his home for developing and producing television, commercial and branded content.