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!

Sacrifices, Successes

May 1, 2016 0 comments

I often look at days between my blog entries and wonder where they’ve gone. But then I remember… they’ve been spent writing. Since I last checked in, I, along with my two wonderful co-writers, have been able to get “Big Sister” in fighting shape, write a new screenplay (we can’t divulge the details yet), start mapping out a one-hour dramatic pilot, and make notes on one of our earlier projects, “Mend,” which we know needs a good polish. I was also, somehow, able to revise and update my first book, “Freelancing in Tokyo” — although, looking back, I’m not sure where I wedged that all in.

The amount of hours and days spent at my computer, alone and in meetings with my co-writers, does boggle my mind. But the results, for me at least, have been worth it.

Are there sacrifices? Yes. And perhaps the biggest one for me was letting go of my regular “job.” I put quotes around it, because it was never a regular job. You see, I happen to be a professional pianist and accompanist. I have made a fairly good living this way for most of my adult life. But it was becoming painfully obvious to me that if I really wanted to commit to screenwriting and make a go of it, I could no longer continue.

For years I was somehow able to juggle multiple freelance jobs and survive on 4-6 hours of sleep. I’ve always been a person with excess energy, but when that energy starts to dissipate, things don’t get done. And I was not able to devote the time and energy to my writing projects… and I didn’t like it.

What happened, in essence, is that the writing started to move front and center. It took precedence and demanded attention. Making the decision to leave behind my musician days was something that troubled me for months, but finally, it just became obvious that I had to do it.

My “success” is the time and energy I am now able to devote to something that has taken me by the shoulders and shaken me up and said, “This is what you are supposed to be doing; this is what you must do.” I could not argue with something so strong. My “last night” of performances was a scant two weeks ago… and while I have pangs of bittersweet memories, I have done the right thing.

The point of this post is to encourage you NOT TO WAIT. I should have done this years ago, but, frankly, I was afraid. A friend told me once, “Jump and the net will appear.” I understood what it meant, but I wasn’t quite ready to stand at the edge of the cliff. Well, here I am; I stood, jumped, and survived, and I’m writing this to you as someone who’s “been there.”

I have many dreams and many passions and they are almost all connected with the written word. This was the right move for me… and I hope you will let my experience inspire you to pursue your dream, whatever it may be.

Create Your Own Writers’ Retreat

February 27, 2016 0 comments

There are many, many, many opportunities for you to spend tons of money on writers’ retreats. You can join a group of like-minded individuals and be guided through your project (in my case, screenplays) and gain the benefit and insight of those who have walked the road before you.

But what if the opportunity arises for you to create your own writers’ retreat? This is what happened for me and my co-writer, Blake Pinter. We are currently nearing the end of a two week retreat in the perfectly lovely Cape May in New Jersey.

I knew nothing of Cape May and had never even been to New Jersey prior to this visit. I have learned a lot on so many levels that I can’t imagine not doing such a retreat again, if all the cards align.

In our case, a friend’s house in the Cape May area became available and we brought our suitcases, our laptops and our dream project with us.

We do not have anyone guiding us or instructing us or prodding us. We have only our own consciences and desire to write a great script. We also have peace and quiet and enough time and space to spread out and think clearly about what we really want to say.

Blake is from New Jersey and is a frequent visitor to Cape May. But for me, everything was fresh and new. I was able to take brisk walks along the shore in the morning, explore the quaint, charming streets and “soak up” the atmosphere. All of this gave me a fresh view of not only what I was trying to achieve, but also a new perspective on myself. Speaking for myself, I became quite clear that it is essential to “get out of town” as often as possible in order to refresh the mind and the creative spirit.

This particular experience was unique and I don’t know that we will have such an opportunity in the future, but if we are not offered one, I know I will have to create one.

Wherever you might be in your writing career, if you need to “get away,” do so. Even if it is for a day or two. Allow yourself the time and space to look at your pages, new or old ones, with eyes refreshed by nature or a new city or a different environment.

As this retreat draws to a close, I am cherishing every minute and I know it will be sad to say goodbye. But I am buoyed by the fact that we have essentially “banged out” a rough draft of a new screenplay, and that was the goal.

 

 

Because I write

August 25, 2015 0 comments

In 2007 I went to the Screenwriters Expo in Los Angeles. The highlight of it was taking Ellen Sandler‘s class on pitching. I didn’t realize at the time that she would become a mentor and a role model and a constant source of inspiration. I bought her book, The TV Writer’s Workbook, and to make a long story short, brought her to Japan in 2008 and 2009 to teach her wonderful writing workshops.

I continue to stay in touch with Ellen and what I love about her is her command of her craft, her brutal honesty and her piercing questions. While she was in Tokyo, she and I went to lunch at a traditional style Japanese restaurant in Asakusa, the ancient part of Tokyo that actually makes Westerners feel they are in a uniquely exotic country and not a modern metropolis. While we ate our tempura and rice and miso soup, we naturally started talking about writing. At some point she asked me what sounded like a very simple question: “Why do you write?”

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I think it was some pseudo-philosophical comment on what I felt I had to say, and that I wanted to write for certain TV shows and certain movie stars. As I was in the midst of my babble-fest, she said, “No. You write because you write. Because you are a writer. Because you have to. It has nothing to do with money or fame or anything else. It’s something you have to do. You can’t not write.”

Now… she may not have said those exact words… but she said words to that effect.

This last week I was reminded of this conversation, because, based off a 5-page sample and synopsis I prepared for the Nameless Media Company in Nagoya,  a very influential American film organization requested a full screenplay from that sample for further consideration. The only caveat is that I had about two weeks to write it. Fortunately because I’ve been doing my homework all along, I had my outline of the entire screenplay ready to go. While part of me panicked, the rest of me did what I was supposed to: sit down and write. I wasn’t thinking about fame, fortune, future opportunities, meeting the stars. I wasn’t even thinking about my eventual paycheck. I was just thinking: I am going to write and I am going to finish it. The only thing I had on my mind was writing. As I was in the midst of the screenplay, I heard Ellen’s strong, distinctive voice ring in my head “Because you write.” And, at last, I understood what she said so simply and eloquently. It finally had meaning for me in a real, tangible way.

In fact, ever since I finally made the decision to cut back on my performance schedule (I’m a professional accompanist and pianist), the only thing I’ve done is write. As a result, I was able to update my two feature scripts, update my sitcom pilot, write a spec script for Younger with my brilliant co-writer Kimberly Tierney, prepare my book Freelancing in Tokyo for a second printing, and finish off this new screenplay for Nameless. If I had been thinking about anything other than writing, I would not have achieved these things.

There were moments, while I was writing the new screenplay for Nameless, that I wanted to run screaming for the hills.  Hide. Slip under covers and pretend it was night. But while I was writing the screenplay, I forced myself to focus on it and only asked myself one question:

“Do you want to do this or not?”

The answer was a resounding “yes.”

So, if you ever wonder whatever happened to David Chester and why you don’t see him anymore, the answer is easy: because he’s writing… and he’s loving it.

Rewriting: Learn to love it

March 23, 2015 0 comments

I am now, finally, able to work on rewriting our script “Mend.” Most of last year was taken up focusing on “Big Sister,” taking online courses with Corey Mandell and other writers’ courses, and performing as a professional pianist. In the time away from “Mend,” my eyes have been opened to many things, most importantly, to myself. Even though I am not the characters in my screenplays, I am part of them, and, as a human being, as I’ve dealt with many transitions in the last few years, these experiences have opened my eyes to new emotional vistas. Gratefully, I am now able to apply them to our stories in ways I couldn’t have imagined doing before.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, writing a screenplay is like raising a child. You must guide it through treacherous waters until it can learn to stand on its own two feet and step out boldly in the world. With our main character in “Mend,” a woman who struggles to prove to her mother that she has talent and that she is worthy of the love and respect the mother bestows on her older sister, we realized that we had to push her harder and make things much more difficult for her. I am proud that “Mend” placed as a finalist and several times as a semi-finalist in screenwriting competitions, but I think what that means is: our characters were strong, but they were not yet where they needed to be.

Today’s rewrite session forced me to dig deeper, go farther, and ask harder questions. This is the joy (and pain) of screenwriting: you must be willing to dive into the emotional core of a character and intimately understand what makes them tick. If you don’t know that, to my way of thinking, the character will not resonate with truth. After a year spent away from this project, coming back to it with an enlightened sense of self has allowed me to restructure a lot of the dialogue with more immediacy and tension and purpose.

Rewriting doesn’t pay the bills. And in fact, it may be just one more level a writer must go through before discovering even more important truths about a character. But rewriting cannot be dismissed and, even though sometimes I feel a cold pain in my chest before I sit down to address script issues and weaknesses, I often come away (usually several days later) with a great feeling of joy at having emotionally connected with these imaginary characters to the point that I can write lines of dialogue that ring with authenticity. For me, that is a good day’s work.

We’ll see how tomorrow goes, but, for today, I embraced rewriting, and it rewarded me with moments where my characters became alive.

Screenplays: They’re alive

March 21, 2015 0 comments

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. I am in awe of people who have busy lives and manage to keep blogs running full-speed. Since my last entry, I’ve been “transitioning.” I was playing piano six nights a week and still trying to invest quality time in my writing and in my relationships, both private and professional. Truth alert: There are only so many hours in a day. Although I am used to juggling many things at once, it finally occurred to me that the less I juggle and the more I focus on my writing, specifically my screenplays, the happier I am. So, no more six nights a week of playing piano and much more time spent on my writing. My whole demeanor has changed and I am approaching my writing with energy and confidence.

That said: For anyone following me or interested in what I’m doing, I have spent a lot of time on the synopsis and pitch and logline for my dramatic screenplay “Big Sister.” I think the time was well-spent. I’ve learned a lot, through online classes, through private coaching, through meetings with my co-writers and fellow writers. I even managed to teach a class about “writing compelling scenes,” in Tokyo and Taipei. Invigorating experiences.

The upshot is: a script is a living thing. I think we, as writers, can “raise” our creative child until it’s capable of “flying,” and then we have to let it go out into the world. It may return for some occasional TLC, and that’s fine. But then we have to send it out again. And again. And again. As long as the script is “alive,” it deserves its chance in the world.

Let the next step of the journey begin.

Scriptnotes: Knowing what works best for you

November 6, 2014 2 comments

I have sometimes felt that I must stop everything else I am doing in life and simply focus on my writing. When I was writing Big Sister, I would shut out everything and everyone and slip into the world that I created. It was not hard to do because I knew the characters extremely well, and the leads “spoke” to me. “They” wrote it, more so than I did. I loved every minute of the process and without a doubt, of all my creative endeavors, and there have been many, writing a screenplay, especially Big Sister, has given me the greatest joy.

But, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, being a screenwriter is not enough. You also have to tirelessly self-promote, perhaps be aggressive, even obnoxious. You have to hound people. You have to remind people who you are. You have to convince people that what you’ve written is worth 90 minutes of their time to read. And further, you must convince someone that investing a million or more (preferably more) is also worth it for them. None of these come naturally to me. I can pretend and say they do, but they do not.

Perhaps as a result of that, I have created everything on my own. In other words: I have produced my own album (solo piano), published my own book (“Freelancing in Tokyo”) and written and produced my own films. I have learned a lot through these experiences. But I don’t think I ever went into any of them thinking, “Since I am the producer, I am therefore God, and I do not need to rely on others’ opinions.” Far from it. I have always had a team of some sort. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, it takes a village to raise a creative project. There may be someone who spearheads the event, but without the input and advice and opinions of respected peers, it isn’t going to happen… at least that is how I feel.

I’ve been fortunate to meet so many talented and smart people in my journeys to put together my projects. I’ve been amazed at their input… but then again… when someone is removed emotionally from a project, it is sometimes easy for them (assuming they have the ability and perhaps some qualifications) to offer a fresh perspective on what you, the creator, thinks is so glorious and perfect.

Fortunately, I learned a long time ago that criticism, if constructive, is gold. I have been lucky enough to interact with two top television writers over the years. Both of them were unsparing in their criticism. I would call their comments harsh, brutal and sometimes cruel. But because I knew they knew more than I did, I did not flinch (okay, maybe I did once or twice). I “took it,” and I rethought my projects, and all of them were improved because I applied what I learned from them.

In the same way, there are times I will receive notes from highly intelligent, creative people… whether they be peers, colleagues or the nameless, faceless reader from a high-profile contest, and I’ll think: These people really put their heart and soul into these notes, and I really value them… even if I disagree with them.

Recently, on Big Sister, we received what I can only call extremely well-written notes. The reader thoroughly invested his or her time in our script and I was amazed, actually, at the detailed observations. Nonetheless, the reader believed we would have a stronger script if we had what they considered to be more of a “happy ending.” They wanted further participation from minor characters in ways that I found to be completely at odds with what Blake and I had written, and they wanted “justice” for the antagonist (one of the two in the script). And yet… I completely disagreed. Sometimes characters get off “scot-free” (their term) for things we, the audience, know are wrong. Sometimes the protagonist suffers and learns lessons in harsh ways… and most times, in real life, there are no happy endings.

Big Sister is far, far from a dark story. There are harsh lessons for Lynn, our main character, to learn. But there is a reunion of sorts between her and Suzanne, her younger sister… a reunion which hints at a fresh start. I find this very effective and powerful. I understand the desire to have happy endings, but the more films I watch, the more I know that often times they are fabricated to give the audience what they want. I feel Blake and I made an intelligent compromise with the hint of a new beginning for Lynn… and we definitely end on a positive note, with lessons learned all around.

The point I want to make is, and forgive me for using a cliched expression: “Take what you get.” In other words: extract from notes what has value for you and be grateful for the other ones, as well. Someone took the time to invest in your project, and that is half the battle.

 

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