Do not give up

May 2, 2018 0 comments

It’s so easy, isn’t it… to just say, “The hell with it…” and go back to whatever life you were living before you got bitten by screenwriting fever.

It’s hard, isn’t it… to sit alone in a room, with only the thoughts in your own head, rambling around, smashing into each other, sometimes making sense, often times not… while you try to translate it all into something that make sense on a page.

How many times have you just wanted to run out of the room and say, “Fuck it!” I know I have. And yet…

As of today, my latest screenplay “TILLIE” (with co-writer Blake Pinter) has been sent out into the world. Getting to this point, where we felt that “Tillie” was worthy to show, was a two-year investment of our lives. That does not mean a daily full-time job. It means, like most struggling screenwriters, we made a commitment to meet at least once a week, sometimes more (I was happy when it was more) and bring this unique story (based on a novel by Helen Reimensnyder Martin) to life. How do people do it, I wonder? In between jobs, relationships, family commitments, life commitments. How do they carve out the time to write their masterpieces? I don’t know, they just do it. And for what…?

If it isn’t for the joy of writing, if it isn’t because you believe that the story has something powerful or important to say (or even just something extremely entertaining)… if it’s not for that, then what’s it for?

When Blake suggested we take on the story of this gifted little girl who is trapped in a hellish world of working for her tyrannical father while dreaming of being a teacher and seeing worlds beyond the confines of her little town of New Canaan in Pennsylvania Dutch Country in the 1890s, I was deeply intrigued. What I didn’t realize is how much time and effort we would need to make Tillie’s world seem “real.” Neither of us had ever adapted anything, and “TILLIE” was based in a world that was extremely foreign to me, although a bit more familiar to Blake. We had to dive deep into the era and spend lots of time researching the unique language of the Pennsylvania Dutch (lots of tag questions ending with “ain’t?”), the clothing, prayers and hymns of the New Mennonites, and the harsh realities of farm life and social life in this particular time and place.

Writing “TILLIE” forced me to use every tool I have learned along the bumpy road to becoming a professional screenwriter. In the midst of us taking on this project, I was hired to write four TV movies (two of which have been completed, one of which is in pre-production) and a TV pilot. Of course I was extremely grateful for the work, and sometimes, it is necessary to step away from your main project and get a fresh perspective. That said… “TILLIE” kept calling my name, and, as of today, “she” has been successfully launched and is out into the world, submitted to her first competition.

This is, I well know, the beginning of another road… the one to getting this project produced. It could be a short one or a long one… but it’s a road that must be taken.

In the process of writing “TILLIE,” I have learned a lot about pitching and query letters and all the things that we are constantly told we have to know about in order to get something produced.

But the main thing, I think, that one must have is COURAGE and CONVICTION, because without either of these, there is little point in writing a screenplay unless you have the funds (or someone you know does and is willing to part with them) to make the project yourself. Getting people on board, getting people to believe this project (or any) is worth investing their time, money, blood, sweat and tears in… this is a major undertaking.

I do not know what will happen to or for “TILLIE.” But I know that Blake and I stuck it out and completed it. And that moment… when your brain is fuzzy after that nine-hour proofread where you start to become one with the screen and disappear into letters and commas and white space… that moment when you realize it’s done… all I can say is, I imagine it’s like giving birth to a child. A child as PERFECTLY FORMED AS IT’S GOING TO BE at the moment. At some point, one must allow the child out into the world, let it breathe, let it stumble, let it cry and scream, run back to you, run away from you. You must let it live.

And so, today, May 2 (in Tokyo), May 1 (in the USA), we have let TILLIE take her first steps… and I am proud, so proud to know that we did not give up and have created a beautiful, living, loving story… about someone who wants to BE WHO SHE IS, not who she is being told to be. About someone who wants to LEARN and GROW, someone who knows there is something better out there.

“TILLIE” may come from a different era, but she is absolutely alive and real in 2018, because, like so many protagonists that I have come to grow and love, she is willing to pursue her dreams, no matter the cost.

We will report back on “TILLIE” as the inevitable notes and comments come in. I know Blake and I will keep striving to make her as strong and powerful and vibrant as we can.

Staying the course

February 14, 2018 0 comments

In the past, I was very conscious of my blogs, trying to make sure that they were written in a way that may be of benefit to others. But finally, it has occurred to me that the first person they need to be of benefit to is myself.

I came to screenwriting late. I had spent many years following my songwriter/musician dreams, and they ultimately brought me to Tokyo. Working in Tokyo expanded my horizons to the point that it finally came clear that my path wasn’t songwriting, but screenwriting.

That started a 20-year journey for me which has only recently begun to bear fruit. I went the full course: the online classes, the in-person weekly classes (back when I was traveling back and forth between Tokyo and L.A.), the one-on-one tutors and coaches (from the Writers Store, which sadly closed), the mentoring from great writers who had worked in the trenches — you name it, I did it.

During all that time, I wrote. Finally, last year, my efforts paid off a bit. I got hired to write four Lifetime movies. While I had been aware of Lifetime, it was not a world where I spent a lot of time. But let’s say it has been a fertile learning ground and I was able to apply all I learned over those 20 years. It was a fantastic feeling.

In the midst of two of those scripts, I was asked by a producer to do a rewrite on a TV pilot being marketed to Netflix/Amazon… but in Japan. I was uniquely qualified to do the job, and, with my co-writer, I delivered 58 fresh pages in five days. At the end of it, I thought, “You know what? I can do this. This is not a fantasy. I do not need another 20 years of classes. I can do this.”

It was a liberating, uplifting moment… which I really needed, because as I imagine most writers will say, we spend so much time alone and/or in our heads that we start to question whether there is any validity at all in what we are doing or pursuing. I mean, yes, we must have dreams, but even the slightest encouragement or acknowledgment or nod of approval can mean a lot. In the case of the pilot, it was well-received with thumbs up. It made me feel great. As to its outcome? I don’t know. But I do know I did my best.

My Lifetime jobs are over for now. I am now back to my own projects — which means I must work better and harder, because there is no executive producer sending notes or reminding me of deadlines. There is only me and my strong belief that I have a unique voice and a special talent. And sometimes, that may be all there is to encourage me to keep going.

Being specific

September 19, 2017 0 comments

How making specific choices can elevate the quality of your screenplay

When I started the journey of writing BIG SISTER with my co-writer Blake Pinter, I of course had no idea where it would take us. When we won a “first prize,” I thought it meant we were “on our way.”

The first prize was nice, but it didn’t really matter. The prize was not from the short list of “recognized” competitions. Nonetheless, it meant something to me. It meant this story that I felt needed to be told had been acknowledged. It had managed to climb above other scripts and survive. That’s no small feat.

Missing components

But… somewhere in my heart I knew some element or component was missing. It was, I felt, the reason the script has not gone as far as I think it could (meaning: produced and distributed as a feature film). This came to light when I participated in a group mentorship offered through Roadmap Writers, which more and more writers are hearing about and gravitating towards. The mentor in this case was a gentleman named Chris Deckard.

Chris picked up on an element of the script which we originally put in as a sort of B-story. The lead character, LYNN, spends her whole life focusing on others while ignoring herself. This type of behavior backfires and at the end she’s forced to face herself and ask for help. It is, we believe, a unique story about an enabler and the price they pay for being one. But the element I’m referring to is a book that Lynn is supposedly writing. Her sister, Suzanne, who idolizes her, can’t understand why Lynn hasn’t gotten around to the book. The reason Lynn gives is that she’s focusing her energies on helping her boss/lover Oliver with his book and career. Finally, when that relationship ends badly, Lynn does return to her book, but realizes that she has nothing to say.

It’s a device that served us well… except… Chris pointed out: Okay, so, she writes a book or tries to. Who cares? So what?

A-ha moment

As soon as he said that, I realized the issue. The subject matter of the book is not specific. There’s no pressing reason for Lynn to write it. It’s a book that she said she would write long ago and hasn’t yet. There isn’t anything connected with it in a real, emotional way to make it important enough to really matter.

Then, suddenly, in the shower, where all my good ideas come to me (what is it about water and creative ideas?), I realized why. The missing component of this story is that it is based on a tragic family incident that I was unable to address in the script. It was simply too painful. And so, I created a whole world around the incident, without addressing it. The result is a script that resonates with people, but as I now see, is not addressing the elephant in the room.

Chris was right to focus on the book. He (gratefully) acknowledged that the rest of the script was very real and all the dialogue felt authentic. He wanted to read past the first 10 pages because he quickly became interested in our characters. All those were pluses. But… the book. The non-specific book about a non-specific topic that is being written for a non-specific reason. That.

The book, I now realize, is what Lynn must write to express the family tragedy that she and Suzanne know about only too well. Lynn is trying to brush it under the rug, while Suzanne is pushing her to write about it in the way only she (Lynn) can.

By addressing this, by making it real, by making it tangible, by being specific,  it will allow an undercurrent of raw emotion to travel along with the main story, an emotion which is, in fact,  intrinsically part of the main story.

When tragedy strikes, people deal with it in different ways. I chose to deal with it by writing a screenplay. But I held back on what hurt me the most. Now, thanks to Chris’s keen eye, I’m going to update the script and let the truth resonate. And be specific about it. Being specific, really, is the key.

More soon. Now, back to the pages…

A new screenplay, a new journey

July 24, 2017 0 comments

And so the adventure begins…

My writing partner, Blake Pinter, and I have finished a working draft of our new screenplay, “TILLIE.” As most creative projects are, this was a major labor of love.  I am sure neither of us realized what we were getting ourselves involved with by taking on this adaptation of the book, “TILLIE, A MENNONITE MAID; A STORY OF THE PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH.”

In order to write this, I made some major changes; mainly, giving up my career as a professional musician. It became impossible to devote the time and energy required to write this while also working until midnight and taking three trains to get home. After holding our first reading yesterday, and hearing our work come to life,  I know I made the right decision.

“TILLIE” is the story of a young girl who hungers for an education, despite her father’s belief that, at the age of 12, she’s “learned enough for a girl.” It takes place in 1890s Pennsylvania Dutch Country. To write it, Blake and I immersed ourselves in researching the era, the (New) Mennonite religion, the unique language spoken in this area, and the accompanying traditions, clothing, slang, philosophies and more of that time. We were fortunate to actually visit the area where this story might have taken place and get a picture of how life might have been for Tillie.

Everything that Blake and I have written to date is about people seeking their identity and discovering their truths and their strengths. “TILLIE” spoke to us on many levels and we hope we have done it justice.

Although the road to write this first draft was a long one, I know full well that it is just square one on the game table. To do this properly, we know there will be notes and rewriting sessions. That is part of the journey, we understand. But just getting here has been an amazing ride.

I hope in the months that come we will have good news to share about “TILLIE.”

Put it down on paper

June 15, 2017 0 comments

A lot of people talk about wanting to write a screenplay. Okay. Great. But… how will that help them? Are they in the “exploratory” stage, where they’re not sure if they really want to/can/should? How long will that go on?

Here’s an idea: Put it down on paper. Yes, I know; we live in a digital age. Okay, put it on a digital page. (Oh, that rhymed!) You can always rewrite it — and trust me, if you’ve done any kind of screenwriting (or writing in general), you will quickly understand that rewriting is what you will be doing most of the time.

But where will it all lead? We don’t know. It might not lead anywhere. But it might lead somewhere glorious.

I have been hired three times to write for indie production companies, but my most recent assignment was the best. First: I was paid in full (wow, what a great feeling!). Second: Because I had put in the hours (years is more like it) of hard work to hone my craft, I was able to to deliver a tight, well-written screenplay in three weeks (granted, I was given a detailed outline). The fact that I was able to do that, and that the director and producer were pleased with my efforts, was only achieved because of one particular message I paid attention to: “Give yourself the freedom to write badly.”

That is a quote from Ellen Sandler, one of the best writing teachers I know.  I was lucky enough to spend time with Ellen when I invited her to Tokyo (where I live) to teach some writing workshops. Her observations and comments liberated me from thinking everything has to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect. But it’s not going to be anything at all unless you put it down on paper.

If you make the effort to write on a regular basis, you might be surprised: you might actually get paid for your words. That you put down on a page (or a digital page).

It can happen. Think about it. (Better; WRITE about it!)

Listen to your heart

May 17, 2017 0 comments

A simple phrase, and yet…

When it comes to screenwriting, do you jump on bandwagons because “that’s what the studios want”? Or do you write stories that truly resonate with you?

I ask this because I’ve been reading so many “helpful articles” and “things you absolutely must know” if you want to sell your script. It seems there are many “rules” that readers apply to a script, and if those rules aren’t followed, poof, it’s gone. Apparently one of those rules is about scripts that don’t appeal to the reader’s sensibilities.

Today I read how a reader passed on the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” because he thought “no one would be interested in the subject matter.” I thought that attitude was cavalier. But what it made me realize (yet again) is that the entire business of screenplays is subjective.

I have had people read my scripts and say, “sparkling dialogue, great characters, emotional storyline,” and others say, “dialogue was okay, characters were so-so.”  Who is “right”?

I don’t think anyone is “right,” because, as celebrated screenwriter William Goldman once said, “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The more I write and attempt to get my screenplays out there, the more I reflect on the power of Mr. Goldman’s statement.

That said: Keep writing what’s important to you. Study, learn, read, have an awareness of the market place, but don’t let all the noise stop you from writing the screenplay that sings in your heart.

The Endless List of Things You Must Know

March 24, 2017 0 comments

At some point I became aware that I was being bombarded by articles/emails  that contained phrases to the following effect:

  • The Ten Things You Must Know To Make it as a Screenwriter!
  • Learn the Five Elements Your Screenplay Must Have to Give It The Spark It Needs!
  • You MUST Enter This Screenwriting Contest If You’re Serious About Screenwriting!
  • Only one seat remaining in this screenwriting class you MUST take!

Perhaps you’ve read these articles and have been swept up in a wave of powerful emotions: “I better get on board or I’ll miss out.” Maybe you think that If you don’t leap at these opportunities the instant you get them, your chance will pass you by.

I don’t think so.

For a period of about three years, I jumped on almost every  course, class, pitch event, and contest I could. I was certain by doing so that my script “Big Sister” would sell.

It has not sold–yet. But the benefit of all the things I participated in was: I got great notes,  insights, tips and advice from executives, readers, judges and producers. I was also able to refine my verbal/written pitch so I will be able to present myself well when the day comes.

Maybe most importantly, I learned  the following:

  1. If I don’t participate in such-and-such a class/event/contest, there will always be others and I will still learn from the notes, insights, tips and advice.
  2. It takes a lot of time to participate in all of the above.
  3. I am better served coming to the table with 3-5 solid projects in case one of them piques someone’s interest enough to say, “What else do you have?”

I let the background “must do” hysteria die down and took a step back. I now have finished writing a historical drama (screenplay), further developed my concept for a TV drama, and wrote a screenplay on assignment (paid) for cable TV.

I now feel more confident about approaching the screenwriter’s “must-do” list. And since I know it is endless, I can always return. For now, all this screenwriter “must” do is write with clarity and purpose.

A new year, a new month, a new page

January 8, 2017 0 comments

I love the month of January for all that it represents… the newness, the freshness, the chance to “start over.” These wonderful gifts can, and should, be embraced every day.

As an American, I know my country, and the world, will face some harsh new realities this year. This wonderful “January feeling” has been a struggle to maintain mentally and emotionally, but it is essential for me to do so in order to create. Because that’s what I do: I create.

This year I did not make any resolutions. I decided that as things occurred to me that needed attention, I would act on them appropriately. This has been working well, so far.

So, how will I approach my wonderful dreams in 2017? I think I have an answer.

In 2016 I spent six months participating in programs offered by Roadmap Writers. Roadmap is all about screenwriters, for film and/or TV, and I greatly benefited from all I learned. My scripts are better, my thinking is clearer, and I was able to, at last, pitch my feature “Big Sister” with a sense of authority.

Despite all I learned, I did not come away with a manager or agent, as many of the other writers did. But what I did come away with was an acknowledgment of myself and my talents.

For many years, starting with songwriting, and now screenwriting, I took classes, studied privately, entered contests, made a few splashes, and yet… as of this writing, I have still not connected on the level I’ve wanted to. And it occurred to me one day as we were entering 2017, that the main reason for that is: I was unwilling to “submit” to the power of my own talents, to the “call,” if you will, of my greater self.

It’s hard to say what tipped the boat, but one day I woke up and asked myself: “Do I believe in my talent or not?” And I just blurted out, “Yes!” Getting to that “yes” has taken me eons… but, better late than never.

There are many things I want to say, about the state of my country, about my adopted country (Japan), about the entertainment industry, about … well, just about everything.

But for now, I will say that I love writing screenplays, I love embracing my “brand” (female-driven dramas with sharp humor), and I love the opportunity to put words down on the page in such a way that they have the potential to move another human being. And these days, somehow, I am doing so with more frequency, passion, commitment, confidence and belief.

So, here’s to January, and all that it might bring. My pen is in hand, my page is blank, and my imagination is rich.

The ink continues to flow…

November 6, 2016 0 comments

THE DEVOLS

I wrote my first script in approximately 1997, a sitcom. My co-writer Blake Pinter and I were clueless, but thought we were funny. We had an idea: Two nut sisters, who can’t stand each other, must live with each other in order to survive. It was originally called “The DeVols.”

I knew one high-level TV writer who had worked on “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown,” “Frasier,” and other extremely big shows. He agreed to read my pilot. He wrote a scathing 8-page dissection of it. If I had been young and impressionable, I probably would have driven off a cliff. But fortunately, I had 18 years of therapy behind me. I had thick skin; I could cope with his criticism.

This is good, because I have encountered all kinds of criticism in the entertainment business. I started as a songwriter. My worst experience was with an A&R person at Geffen Records. I played some of my songs for him. He said “no one” sang songs by songwriters anymore, that artists were writing their own songs (I guess he never heard of Diane Warren). He also said if I hadn’t been sitting there, he would have thrown my songs in the trash.

It was unnecessarily cruel. He didn’t have to love my songs; hating them was okay, too. But what the meeting lacked was constructive criticism. At any rate, I persevered with my songs and about 8 years after that meeting, I finally got a song produced and released. One dream achieved, a million to go.

PERSEVERE

Back to “The DeVols.” Although the criticism I received on it was scathing, I still felt the idea was worth pursuing. I put it on the “back-burner” (something I do not like to do), but sometimes it takes ideas years to form fully. It wasn’t until the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out that my co-writer said, “It’s TIME for ‘The DeVols.'”

Blake was always more progressive than I. I was too afraid to go out of the box. But Kimmy opened doors in my mind and I went back to “The DeVols” and updated it via a class I took through Roadmap Writers.  The script is now called “Better Together.” It received a quarter-finalist in the Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship (as “The DeVols”).  It’s still about two nut sisters — but it’s grown into something richer and more layered, as I’d like to think I have. If I had succumbed to the criticism I received so long ago, would I even have wasted my time pursuing this? No. The problem (?) is: I still believe in it. And I think, ultimately, that is the point of this post.

MY PEN WILL NEVER RUN DRY

Maybe I was clueless when I started. But I have persevered. All my scripts have “placed” in competitions. I am proud of that. None have been produced, other than the short scripts I have produced myself, but being acknowledged by competitions is what has given me the impetus to keep going.

Soon, I will have been writing screenplays on and off for 20 years. During that time I have been hired three times to write screenplays for others. None, including the one I mentioned in a previous blog, have been produced, despite what people said and promised. People get ideas, they want to do something, they get others involved… and then… things suddenly change. It is the nature of the business. So, that is why I made my own films; I don’t have to wait for others to get their act(s) together.

Now I am mainly focused on writing screenplays and teleplays. No one is paying me to do this… YET. But, I believe, one day, someone will. So, for those that ask “Am I wasting my time?” “Does any of this mean anything?” “Will I ever get paid to do this?” “Am I too old?” “What’s the point of this?” — I think the answer is in the words on your page. Your commitment to them. Your belief that they matter.

So, here in my Tokyo office, lit by light filtered through prisms on a crisp fall day, I continue to write. I have lots of paper, lots of ink, lots of ideas. My pen will never run dry.

I need 48 hours a day…

August 20, 2016 2 comments

… which I don’t have and never will. So, I’ll try to wedge this in while I have a few spare minutes.

I started off this year with a screenwriting assignment that, to put it politely, didn’t work out well. I have now been presented with another screenwriting assignment, and I’m eagerly looking forward to it, although I have been warned that it is going to take up all my time. That’s okay. Based on the knowledge I have, it will be produced. When that day comes, I’ll reference this blog post.

In the meantime, I am in the fourth month of a five-month journey with Roadmap Writers. I am not a salesman, but for my money (literally), Roadmap Writers is what I have been missing in my writing life for years.

As a result of participating in Roadmap Writers, I believe my loglines for my projects are much better, I believe my script “Big Sister” is in fighting shape and ready to be produced, and I believe that my pitching ability has improved. The last one is a big one for me, because it is the one component of being a screenwriter that I have little confidence in, and I admit it. But I will say that I feel much more comfortable than I did before and that is a major step forward for me.

One thing I’d like to share: In my pitch I was focusing a lot on the storyline and giving lots of details. I still do, but as a result of a pitch-coaching session, it was brought home to me that maybe one reason people weren’t connecting to the pitch is because I wasn’t coming at it from an emotional connection. In my mind I was, but I can see what the coach meant, and now I’m leading with that emotional connection more. We’ll see how things go, but… anyway, I feel better about my pitch.

Also as a result of participating in Roadmap Writers’ classes, a producer has expressed interest in “Big Sister,” and I have a one-hour TV drama (“Spice”) that basically came from a one-line joke I made to my friend. I am still in shock that we developed it into a TV show. Now we have to prepare the “bible” for it, but I’m looking forward to that.

There’s more… but you get the drift. The classes, lectures and pitching opportunities in Roadmap Writers have taken almost all my time, which is one reason why I don’t blog here often.

As a side note: Earlier this year I cut back to a bare minimum my playing piano at night. I’m proud of being a professional pianist, and I earned a fair amount of money being one, but it was cutting into all aspects of my life, mainly good sleep. I now have more energy to pursue my second greatest love after music, screenwriting, and I’m ecstatic. Yes, I made a number of sacrifices to do this, but I’m much happier doing what I’m doing.

I’ll touch base, hopefully again, this year. Meanwhile, if you do have a moment, check out Roadmap Writers. They rock!

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