Tag Archives: screenwriting

Hugo: When Two Storytelling Masters Meet on Screen

During the 18 months I worked on George Lucas’ Blockbusting book as a researcher and ghostwriter, one recurring storyline captivated me over and over: the origins of various moviemaking techniques and genres. With all due respect to Thomas Edison, the Lumiere brothers and Edwin Porter, the moviemaking we know today threads back to a single source: the magical French filmmaker Georges Melies. The eccentric former stage magician brought storytelling, imagination, color, fantasy and magic to the big screen more than 100 years ago, as best known in his seminal one-reeler from 1902, Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1865 classic sci-fi novel, From the Earth to the Moon.

On Friday, while looking for a good movie to attend, Martha and I saw the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s new film, Hugo. It had “great story” written all over it: a boy and girl embark on an adventure within the clock towers and inner walls of Paris’ Montparnasse (central train station) to discover the mystery behind an automaton found by Hugo’s late father (I want to be careful here not to give away too much of the plot). In chasing this mystery, they come across a discovery that changes the lives of everyone concerned — and brings some very important history back to life. For two hours, I marveled at the intersecting storylines, the use of classic page-turner dialogue like “it wouldn’t be an adventure if there wasn’t danger,” the rich characters and settings, and the way Scorsese masterfully wove colorful 1920s Paris into his deeper story.

That’s the essence of the plot line. Here’s the treasure: within Hugo, we became reacquainted with the great Melies (again, I won’t tell you how).  For 500+ movies (of which approximately 80 remain), Melies wrote, directed and co-starred in his movies, painted and designed his sets, and splashed color and magic throughout his studio. Beginning in 1896, two years after cinema’s inception, he made movies for the thrill of seeing his imaginations and stories in live action — and for the way they enlivened his adoring patrons. Now, thanks to this incredible gift from Scorsese, Melies comes to life again for a time and generation in dire need of reconnecting with their imagination and their ability to live their dreams. Everyone who wants to reconnect with the pure pleasure of making stories would do well to learn everything you can about Melies and the gift he gave the world through his filmmaking.

If you have ever wondered about the starting point for real movie-making, or about the way great stories are told, see this movie. We experience the tale of how one person can change the world — told over and over again, through the actions of several characters. This movie is a celebration of what makes pure storytelling so much fun, both for the creator and the reader/viewer: coming up with ideas, letting your imagination run with them, and letting the characters play them out, no matter how fantastical, colorful or magical they might be.

Hugo is a modern cinematic masterpiece by a masterful filmmaker who never makes the same movie twice. There are no bombs, profanities, car chases, inane characters or clichés. Rather, there is magic, imagination, adventure, deep character interaction and the sweetest qualities of romance. Somehow or another, with everything else having been done, Scorsese found an original thread in one of his favorite playgrounds — bringing history to life. In the same season he brought us the George Harrison documentary on HBO, he comes up with Hugo. Wow!

Whether you love movies, love stories, write stories or love adventure, mystery and imagination, Hugo will take your heart and inform as well as entertain you. For anyone who writes stories, shoots photos, makes movies, paints or engages in any other creative form, this movie is a must-see.

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“Calculate Less”: Keynoter Derek Haas’ Message of Writing Success

You may not know much about Derek Haas as a person, but if you like westerns or action thrillers, then you know some  films he’s screenwritten: 2 Fast 2 Furious, 3:10 to Yuma, and most recently, Wanted. On the reading side, you might also know Columbus, the “protagonist” of his bestselling action thriller novel, The Silver Bear, and its two sequels.

Derek keynoted the Southern California Writers Conference in San Diego in an unusual but refreshing way: after spending 20 minutes tracing his ever-growing career, he took questions from the audience of nearly 300.  Leave it to Southern California Writers Conference directors Michael Steven Gregory and Wes Albers to march off the beaten track (after all, the tongue-in-cheek motto of this particular conference series, at which I love to teach, is “We’re going to help you suck less”) and find yet another writer who never forgets what it took to succeed — and the pearls of wisdom he gathered along the way.

A humble man, Derek possesses a genuinely caring nature for his fellow writers. Even after spending years dealing with the buzzsaw that is Hollywood filmmaking. “Most screenwriters won’t give any credit to the uncredited writers who help out on a film,” he said. “But a film is a collaborative process, and I’m happy to give credit and tell you how good any writer is who collaborates on a film I’ve been involved with.”

The writing bug first bit Derek when he was 12, and the story is as cute as full of generational clash at it gets. “When I was 12, I took a Stephen King book off my dad’s nightstand. I turned on the closet light in my bedroom — my parents thought I was asleep — and I read until I was finished. That’s when I knew that I had to do this. For my next birthday, I got a typewriter. Then, when I was 17, my dad looked at my love of writing, and my talking about writing as a career, and he said, ‘Do you want to eat hamburgers or steak?’ Look into business school.”

Derek’s career reads like most success curves of author/screenwriters. He and his screenwriting partner, Michael Brandt, met while in graduate school at Baylor and found they “liked similar things and laughed at the same jokes.” They caught a break early on, when one of their screenplays was handed to Brad Pitt and he decided to star in the movie. However, that ended when Brad joined Julia Roberts on another picture. He then co-wrote 2 Fast 2 Furious, the second of the now four-movie car action thriller franchise, followed by 3:10 to Yuma, based on a short story by his personal idol (and mine, too), Elmore Leonard. “I really liked the 1957 movie with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin,” Derek told the audience, “but when I received the screenplay to look at a remake, I realized it didn’t have a true second act.” So Derek and Brandt, along with others, refashioned the movie into a tight western with modern sub-themes that starred Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

After 3:10 to Yuma, when filming The Double (to be released later in 2011) in Detroit, Derek received a call — from Elmore Leonard. He thought at first it was a joke, but then accepted Elmore’s invitation to a barbecue. Derek had just started the popular website Popcorn Fiction, his attempt to bring back the glory years of short and pulp fiction — one of Derek’s two major nostalgia trips. (The other is radio westerns from the 1930s through 1950s, like Gunsmoke). Popcorn Fiction features short fiction from screenwriters. After getting through a little star-struck spell at the master craftsman’s house, Derek worked up his nerve. “I asked him if he had anything he could contribute. He gave me 15 unseen, unpublished stories, dating back to 1953. One was not good, one was OK, and 13 were gems. We’re working through his agent on getting them published.”

Also, unbeknownst to any of his Hollywood colleagues, Derek was working on a book. It became the bestselling The Silver Bear, featuring a contract killer lead character, Columbus — who appears in a pair of sequels, the latest of which comes out later in 2011. The Silver Bear opens with, “I don’t want you to like me.” Derek explained this by offering some of the best advice I’ve heard in awhile on characterization: “To me, the key to good characters is leaving a little gray. If you have an antagonist, make him do something good to bring the readers in. If you have a protagonist, make him do something that pushes the reader away a little bit.”

Besides answering questions about his movies, Derek received a few specific craft- or mission-based questions about the writing process. One particular exchange, which should be printed in every magazine and every blog, concerned an author’s question about keeping an eye on trends and readers’ concerns as you write your story.

“Calculate less,” Derek said. “That should be a motto for writers.”

He then elaborated. “I can’t tell you where Hollywood is going with trends. Look at 3:10 to Yuma. I thought it was a pretty good film, a great story, with great actors, including Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It only made $60M in the U.S. and practically nothing — $16M — overseas. So they said westerns are dead … and along comes True Grit that makes $170M. They were saying the same thing twenty years ago, and then you had Dances With Wolves. You can’t write to what’s hot or not hot in Hollywood or in the bookstore.

“Write what’s in your heart. What’s in your heart doesn’t have to be a memoir. It can be an action thriller, or a romantic person, or a contract killer. Write the story that comes from your heart.”

The major craft point he gave is something that is life-or-death to screenwriters and playwrights — and novelists, for that matter: knowing when to begin and end scenes. “My screenwriting partner likes to call it the ‘cup of coffee’ syndrome,” Derek said. “Bad writing is having two people come into the cafe, look around, describe the setting, grab menus, find a waitress, be seated, look over the menu, order two cups of coffee, stir the coffee, take a sip and then start a conversation. Good writing starts with the conversation. It’s really important to not start your scene too early or end it too late.”

Finally, he talked about the polishing process. All weekend long, as we worked with authors’ manuscripts, the mantra of the faculty was the same: “polish until you can’t perfect it any more — then have someone go over it. Then send it.” So many times, unrefined manuscripts are sent to agents and publishers. So many times, writers have just lost their best opportunity. “My partner and I have one rule between us,” Derek said. “Make it better.”

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30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own

Since the holiday season is upon us, thought I’d create a “gift list” to use when shopping for your writer friends – or yourselves.

This list is very simple: 30 Books (Plus One) Every Writer Should Own. I realize this is subjective, but it encompasses the type of material we need when working on our books, articles, essays or other projects. This list is also designed to spark new ideas, or to further exploration of ideas you already have.

In the list, you will find several self-help writing books, collections of conversations with authors, memoirs, technical books, books addressing other creative genres (music and art, specifically), and works written by some of the greatest authors.

While I would love to include my own writing books in this list – Writes of Life and The Write Time … that’s not for me to judge. One day, someone might create a list that includes them.

In no particular order, here is the list, with personal impressions from my experience as an author, poet, journalist, editor and writing teacher. You can order them through Amazon.com or your local bookstore. Take this list with you during Black Friday or Online Monday (or whatever they call it). Also, let me know what you would add to this list – I’ll run your suggestions and any comments in a future blog.

1 & 2. On Becoming a Novelist and On Writers and Writing, by John Gardner. We start with a bang – a two-for-one. No novelist has ever conveyed the craft and writing life better; then again, he was perhaps the nation’s most refined fiction writer and teacher of fiction at the time of his death in 1982.

3. Writers Dreaming, by Naomi Epel. Conversations with noted authors on their dreams, plots or ideas that came from dreams, and how they work with their dreams. A vital read if you, like me, believe the 6 to 8 non-waking hours of the day contribute mightily to the writing process.

4 & 5. Storycatcher: The Power of Story to Change Our Lives, by Christina Baldwin. Reading and working the prompts in this book is like drinking nectar, further flavored by your own words when they spin together perfectly. In other words, this book does magical things to one’s ability to journal, write an essay or story, and heal. Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest is another Baldwin title worth owning.

6. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. After nearly a century, this book remains a staple of working writers and teachers. Its greatest value might be in emphasizing the need to write tight – crisp, concise, to the point.

7 & 8. Punctuation for Writers, by Harvey Stanbrough. This book deserves a spot on every writer’s desktop alongside The Elements of Style. It presents punctuation as a timely, valuable asset to every written sentence, rather than the necessary evil we first met in grammar school. Whenever I write a book, this gem sits on my desktop. An alternate Stanbrough pick: Writing Realistic Dialogue & Flash Fiction.

9. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard. In my opinion, one of the best memoirs ever written. I’ve read it 10 times, and counting. This masterpiece brings together nature, voice, observation, listening, creating, inner feelings, outer environment, hubris and hope … and every word sparkles with brilliance. What else is there? If you want more Dillard, go with Three By Annie Dillard – a collection that also includes An American Childhood, and The Writing Life.

10. A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. This is a tremendous book on how the physical senses play out in the natural world, and how we can attune better to our own senses … a critical aspect of deep writing. Some of the stories of how animals use their senses are breathtaking – and reminders of how much more sense-itive we can (and should) become as writers.

11. Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay. This book contains a history of primary colors, how they were mixed for artists since prehistoric times, and the fascinating stories behind the substances and creators of these colors. A great book of observation, journalism and craftsmanship. Good writers always form close alliances with color and tone; here’s a wonderful map into that journey.

12. Library: An Unquiet History, by Matthew Battles. I believe every writer should know basic library science and library history – and this book provides a wonderfully off-beat account of both. From Sumeria to your local library, the adventures of the printed word and its storage – and the wars fought over books – could not be better told.

13. The Browser’s Book of Beginnings, by Charles Panati. As writers, we should know the origins of every subject about which we write – and the etymology of the historical words we use. The incredible material can either be used in your works – or prompt little “archaeological” digs of your own. An alternate selection: The Book of Lists, by David Wallechinsky.

14. Writer’s Market, by Writer’s Digest Books. Between the great articles on marketing, editing and craft, and the thousands of publishing listings, how can any working writer not operate with this book close at hand?

15. 1001 Ways to Market Your Books, by John Kremer. John has been teaching marketing workshops to writers for a long time, and this book has become a staple for working writers nationwide. In this era of online communities and direct author involvement in promotion and marketing, its importance has never been greater. Writing today means doing good business; you will find a number of strong marketing strategies for your book in here.

16 & 17. Dimensions of a Life, ed. Jon Halpern. Written to honor great poet-essayist Gary Snyder on his 60th birthday, this collection of essays, stories and poems by more than 70 contributors focuses on aspects of Snyder’s life, work, personality, cultural influences, and more. It’s like taking 70 gemologists, peeling a diamond open, and seeing how that diamond comes together, one side at a time. Alternate selection for fans of Beat poetry and literature: Lighting the Corners, featuring the works and conversations of Michael McClure.

18. The Language of Life, by Bill Moyers. The subject of a 1995 PBS special, this book features conversations with 25 great current poets. In it, you will see how writers and poets develop voice, and read priceless insights on observation, imagery and craft.

19. Henry Miller on Writing, by Henry Miller. This book changed my writing life; I learned to really finish my book manuscripts after reading it. One of the 20th century’s most prolific writers and artists shares his take on the art and craft of writing – and the insights and tips fall from every page like fruit trees perpetually in season.

20. The Crossing Point, by Mary Caroline Richards. Every writer, teacher, artist, artisan, poet and those concerned with the creative process would do well to own this book of essays, talks, poems and musings by one of the 20th century’s greatest purveyors of personal creativity (and part of the famed Black Mountain literary movement). My copy is hopelessly ripped, underlined and dog-eared from extensive use; I can feel my creative electrons jumping each time I open this book.

21. How To Think Like Leonardo DaVinci, by Michael Gelb. Here it is, in a single hardback book: the visual imprint of the creative mind and creative process. Its exploration of the ultimate Renaissance man brings out the creator in all of us. This book is filled with page after page of creative inspiration; I can’t last more than four pages at a time without putting it down and writing to exhaustion.

22. A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf. The beauty of this diary is that we truly see the inner triumphs and struggles of a great literary figure – but also how every minute of every day was spent writing or gathering the seeds for future works. A great look at the inner world of the perpetually working writer.

23. The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, by Marc Weingarten. The story of the New Journalists – the writers to whom every current journalist, memoirist and narrative non-fiction author owes a debt of gratitude. Beginning with Norman Mailer and Truman Capote, these were the pioneers of incorporating fiction-writing and deep inner personal feelings into non-fiction work.

24. The Language Instinct: How Mind Creates Language, by Stephen Pinker. During our growth as writers, we realize more and more how vital it is to understand the nuances of language, its im-pressions as well as ex-pressions. This book, written by a renowned linguist, shows the way. Read it, and you will find yourself listening to every person’s spoken word more closely – and capturing it more completely in your next piece of writing.

25. Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. A modern classic for writers seeking the deeper, inner places from which to write, and the relationships of their feelings and perceptions to the outside world. The vignettes and essays in this book are tight, concise – and built to prompt you to write.

26. Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, by Glenn Kurtz. Music and writing are so closely linked, structurally and creatively, that it behooves every writer listen to music deeply, if not play or study it. But this stellar memoir is about more than music: it is about the art and hard work of practice, and how practice creates ultimate attunement with one’s instrument. In the case of writers, that means written vocabulary and voice.

27. Bird By Bird, by Anne Lamott. Anne’s deeply felt, highly observant look at the little things in life – a prime topic of both her fiction and non-fiction books – informs this collections of essays/prompts. In it, she shows how she invents verbs to suit the action of the moment – reminding us that we, too, can invent words.

28. Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. While this book is somewhat limited, in that it spells out “only” 5,000 cultural facts or subjects people should know about, I consider it vital reading to every writer who wants to make an imprint on society – and in particular, younger readers. Due to breakdowns in education, funding and the like, writers are in a particularly crucial position of helping to educate and advance our culture. We can develop a strong base with this book.

29. On Writing, by Stephen King. The man who re-invented the horror genre – in both books and films – wrote this heartfelt, deeply informed book to the writer who fights, struggles, bleeds, perseveres and stops at nothing to write … then comes back for more. In other words, a book for all of us.

30. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee. The author put 40 years of screenwriting experience into this book, which rises far beyond the world of the screenplay into something much more universal – the art and craft of writing a compelling story by visualizing a moment and then drawing it out. This book works for all writers. Alternate selection: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby.

The Bonus Book: On Being a Writer, by Theodore Strickland. This Writer’s Digest Book Club selection is now 20 years old, but just as much of a treasure as the day it was published. It features wide-open conversations with a number of best-selling authors; between them, they canvass and discuss every nook and cranny of the writing process.

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