A shower of ideas!

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As writers, one of the things we need to do that’s an essential part of being one is brainstorming concepts and what I keep hearing through the grapevine is: if you want to stay a writer, brainstorm a plethora of ideas. Constantly. 

As I have said in past posts, ages back, my quaint idea machine started with a single one but has since (thankfully) expanded. Our brains need mental workouts sometimes – in my case, honing certain habits, being DISCIPLINED (to an occasionally robotic extent that it extends to 3 AM in the morning where if I have an idea I am excited about, I can’t sleep)

Anyway, the point of this post is this: writing can happen at any place any time. For me, a lot of the time it happens when I hit the showers or I am driving – and I have gotten into the habit of writing down anything that inspires me. Even if it’s extremely random. Which is how I got this new concept last night… a new concept which was actually an old log line that I just wrote because I felt I had to write an idea down.. seemed like a dumb idea I was going to trash ten months ago but then I thought what the heck, keep it! It’s not adding anything to my hard drive space and then inspiration hit me today… like VOILA! And I revisited that old idea.

The same thing happened with another story. While we may never know how far success is in the cards for any of these, mind you, the point is – it turned into a good story I liked to write… and has cast a temporary smug satisfaction that comes with feeling good about something, even if it’s temporary.

So my somewhat profound or maybe-not-so-profound revelation : no idea is a bad idea without exploration. Of course there’s the oft chance it can turn into a bad one, but the point is ideas are ideas! Good or bad, they can come in handy.

The more you exercise your brain, the better you get… and the more you write and make it your life, the better you will feel doing it! So whatever fears, insecurities, doubts, harbingers, banshees affect your creativity, the best advice I ever got from someone is to put it aside and keep going – because you never know just how far it can take you and at the end of the day – your fantasies may just turn to reality… something I wish not only for myself but for all of you.

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The Art of Time Management!

So I just wanted to post up something real quick on time management . Anyhow, I have been purged with all sorts of appointments this particular week:

• Looking for new roofers to replace our leaky twenty-year-old roof.

• The dentist because after months of laziness, I look like this:

Not to mention my dear baby dog has a pre-neuter surgery appointment (Sad, but true – my baby – almost six months already – can’t believe it!) What were we talking about? Oh, yes – time management. So here’s the thing – my ability to wrangle time is like Indiana running after the giant ball thing in Raiders… and I think we can all relate. Whether you are a student, whether you are a parent, whether you are a working-at-another-job-and-doing-this-on-the-side dude, this is something that requires continuous work. Something I still struggle with, especially after the weekend when sometimes all I want to do is read comics and watch you-tube videos. Ok, and if you are not like me at all (watching you-tube videos) and also have the additional responsibilities of child-rearing and other stuff, the question is: how do you manage time – aka time to write?

A few years back, this was me: your friendly neighbourhood ‘sporadic writer’ who likes to write but only when the ‘mood’ sets, busy with a newborn, did it only when I felt like it, maybe once a week, twice a week. And why even that? Because I had one idea – just one that I thought would be fantastic if it ever became a movie. In other words, this writer was passionate about the material, but otherwise unsure and not quite committed.

The present. I have managed to develop a few things: better commitment to my writing, better time management but most of all – a vision of what my professional future should ideally be… something I had to search my inner being and discover for myself. Once I did, these are the words I stuck on my desk: ‘GET IT DONE’. That’s honestly all the things  it took me because I realized – my dream is not going to come to me. I have to push all the boundaries and do my best to PURSUE IT.

And commitment is a really tough thing because ‘writing’ in itself is immensely competitive, immensely challenging and immensely time-consuming.For me, it was the one idea I had that motivated me. The one idea has thankfully now turned into a truckload of ideas, some of which will hopefully launch into something better one day.

Anyhow, without further ado (I know – I think every post I write has this phrase now), here are some tricks I am currently using to manage my ‘writing’ time:

1) Think big. When I say ‘think big’ – if you love your story, believe in it… and commit to getting it done by a certain time, no matter what.

2) Set goals. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly.

3) While this is what I currently do full-time along with being a parent, for individuals with additional jobs to pay bills, I suggest goals realistic for yourself. There’s the great 1, 2, 7, 14 over at go-into-the-story.

4) Write EVERY DAY like you don’t have another one. I had a huge moment a few years back when I realized my biggest regret would be that I never even properly attempted to turn my one great idea into a film for the world to see. Commit to this and I promise – you will see results.

5) Don’t have to spend all your time working if you can’t – take breaks, but schedule them in consciously so you can return to the task at hand. I like to give myself a breakfast hour, sometimes a couple after dropping my kids to browse the news, as well as some time to exercise, walk the dog and organize myself before I start my day fully relaxed but also rearing to go. After which I do my writing in half-hour increments and set my goals accordingly on a white board. I know other writers who use a timer or stopwatch. If distractions trouble you, go to this post I wrote a while back. I thrive on the freedom app.

6) Start ‘heavy’ and then ease up. For me, initially when I was just learning the ropes, I worked harder and spent more time, now I still work hard but because I can predict the time frame of each stage, spend less time overall. The more writing you do, the better you become. More details in the next point.

6) Prioritize WRITING in your daily life. If you work all day in another job to pay the bills (which most of us do), try waking up earlier to write or sleeping later. When I was just beginning to establish my writing process and there just didn’t seem to be enough time in the day , I would get up really early – like four in the morning, the quietest time in my otherwise very noisy home. Eventually lack of sleep does catch up to you though –  so I reserve this sort of thing now only for emergencies and if I am really behind. For me, I found waking up early and working easier than staying up late, because at the end of the day, my mind would be too tired and mushed-up to be productive.

7) Look at this opportunity to write as more than an opportunity: it’s your job, your stories, your babies that will never see the light of day unless you give them life, until you take that next step and nurture them.  It is only after I mentally trained my brain to accept this fact, I was able to move forward and discipline myself to roll out my first script. I can’t remember the specific screenwriter – but there’s a famous one who used to be a lawyer by day, and would come home by night and spend an hour each day dashing through his screenplays, which ultimately landed him his first gig. In fact, there are many famous screenwriters  who manage to discipline and commit themselves to do this. I believe we all can if we really want to.

8) Speaking of breaks, I would like to add – I absolutely do succumb to the temptation of a good TV show now and then or lunch with a friend. Without getting too robotic, I try to stick to certain times of the day or week for doing these things, depending on the specific stage of work, but usually on my end, these are fairly scarce since once I start getting into the writing itself, I can’t stop. Honestly, everyone needs breaks and it’s not a bad thing at all if you don’t fall too far behind with your day’s work. But here’s the thing with me: I allot and schedule time for everything, so I can make all the odds and ends of my day work.

9) One final point regarding setting goals. Starting out, I used to be quite over-ambitious with these, but being over-ambitious can also lead to disappointment when you fall behind and don’t achieve them. There are several everyday reasons and possibilities this can happen, and when it does, it can be a bit disheartening initially. For this reason, I do give myself permission to alter my schedule and sometimes even go as far as scheduling in some ‘catch-up’ time each day. Ultimately, more than a race, it’s a creative process. Some people thrive in a high-pressure environment while others prefer something more relaxed. I am sort-of inbetween, depending on the story I am working on.

Yes, folks, time management in general is a tricky art, but it can be done. Any more tips or thoughts on this, post in comments. Look forward to hearing from you!

UPDATE: Posted the wrong links before. I have corrected them now.  

Before the First Draft Part 4: The Treatment

Here is a quick recap of the last few weeks:

Series Intro: What you should know before you write

Part 1- Loglines

Part 2 – Brainstorming and Research

Research 101: a little more info

Part 3 – Biographies

So onto Part 4. I am assuming many people reading this already have some rough idea of what a screenplay treatment is. If you don’t, a treatment is essentially your entire script in story-form or prose – in the simplest terms. The page length varies from a single page, four pages to more. This will more than likely not be the final treatment you have at the end if you were to move into selling and then pitching, but it’s certainly something I use to start in order to get some coherent overall idea of my story. The easiest way to start working on this is dividing your idea into three parts – the beginning (act 1), the middle (act 2), and the end (act 3). These are what one would consider the legs of your script – aptly the paradigm as Syd Field puts it, functioning the same way as the legs of a table.

Even though I am not one of those individuals who considers Syd Field’s books the gospel truth about screenwriting (case-in-point – his structural approach with plot points are a bit spare in my opinion. See more info, below), I do find his four-page treatment guideline-approach from ‘The Screenwriter’s Workbook‘ useful to start, in some ways.

half page – opening of story

half page – narrative synopsis of what happens in act 1

half page – dramatic recreation of plot point 1

1 page – four obstacles character confronts in act 2 – four paragraphs

half page – dramatic recreation of plot point 2

half page – narrative synopsis of act 3

half page – ending of story.

That being said, the way I approach writing that first treatment is what I have learnt from my mentor and several other books and resources.

• First, I start by writing three paragraphs, one for each act, focusing on the essence and avoiding details.

• Then in a separate doc, I continue by dividing each act into three parts: beginning-middle-end. At the end of each act, something major usually happens to propel the protagonist and plot into a new dimension.  At the end of Act three, there might also be an additional sequence after the main conflicts have been resolved – this is the Denouement

ACT 1 (1 – 30)             ACT 2 (30 – 90)          ACT 3 (90 – 110)

Beginning:                 Beginning:                 Beginning:

Middle:                       Middle:                      Middle:

End:                            End:                            End:

Denouement:

In terms of content,  the easiest part of the treatment is usually the very beginning, simply because I have already envisioned some kind of jaw-dropping sequence – something major which sets the story in motion. The middle is a little more intimidating – because there’s so many more pages and content there to fill – but again it’s about zoning in on the character’s growth and the conflicts in the story (something that should hopefully happen in the biographies-brainstorming stage). Once I have done this, I usually adapt some of the Syd field approach into my own and let myself go as far as I want. As long as I am gaining ground on my story, I don’t worry about with the length (case in point: a recent treatment ran to thirty-four pages).

So, to summarize, I am not suggesting a specific formula here. However, to avoid forthcoming headaches, I do believe knowing the structure of your story in the early stages is important – and this just happens to be my way of doing it. By the end of my treatment, I have usually nailed a majority of that down. Anyone else with thoughts on this, feel free to give your two cents in comments below. Next chapter: the outline (index cards, beat sheets and all that jazz…)

Before Your First Draft – Part 3 – Biographies

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Here’s where we are so far with this series:

What you should know before you write – the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of prep

Part 1 – Logline

Part 2 – Brainstorming and Research

In terms of the several steps before writing a first draft,  one of my most favorite things before writing any story is establishing my hero’s backstory: getting to get to know my main character. An ‘imaginary friend’ that, once conceived, would remain with me forever. Or at least the period of time it takes to write his story –  a few months, six months, a year and so on.  Sometimes, more than the protagonist biography, I get more excited about my antagonist but the point is: a story, in my opinion cannot fully function and be written well without characters you LOVE to drive it. Regarding how to write these, I usually write them in short story/treatment form starting with the very basic details. (A quick note: you can also go point-form, ask interview questions or combine all three methods, whatever it takes to dig into your characters)

So, without further ado, here are some pointers on writing your hero’s biography. These can also be used for other characters:

• Start right from the the time they are born – or before, as far back as you can go (if they are not human, the start of their lives). Depending on the character, I also like to do this in first-person, like you are reading their diary entry. Include details of their parentage, where or how they were born, relationships with their families.

• Establish what their core is. For example (hypothetically),  ‘Mr. Lickety Split is a poor ice cream maker in love with the richest girl in town.’ Conceiving a good logline also helps you here in terms of figuring out the rough direction you want your character to go.

• Establish the character’s ‘want’ and ‘need’. What a character wants when the story starts, what a character actually needs by the end (Mr Lickety Split wants the rich girl, what he needs is to be secure with himself and find someone who loves him for who he is).

• Go where your character takes you. However if you find yourself getting a bit lost in the details, focus on the most important pieces of their lives (happiest, saddest, most influential moments).

• Establish why the story happens to the specific character at this particular time (so in Mr. Lickety Split’s case, when the story starts, he is a high school junior whose motivation to make some summer money is so he can afford to take the rich girl out on dates)

• Establish their emotional, psychological landscape: who they are, their best and worst traits, what they like/dislike, why they feel and experience things the particular way they do when the story starts. I tend to focus on their temperaments and general emotional state when they encounter people and situations.  Figuring out the protagonists’ insecurities also helps me form the conflicts that he encounters on his own as well as with the nemesis (who represents my protagonist’s insecurities).

• The range of this biography can go all the way from before they are born to just the beginning of story, and further if needed.

• Speaking of conflicts and insecurities, zone in on these.

The more details you can muster on all your characters, the better. However, considering I do have a time limit and  don’t want to take forever doing these, the ones I stick to are the main ones – always the protagonist, nemesis, mentor and love interest (if there is one). Depending on the need as I go along, I also put together mini-bios for the parents, families, friends and any other new character that crop up. Go Into Your Story has a great section and tips on some of these steps as well. I encourage you to visit it.

Hope you are enjoying the trip so far. Next week: the Treatment.

Before your first draft – Part One – Loglines!

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Growing up in the early 90’s in a desert, I was one of those kids, the lazy ones who would rather spend  time in my room tucked up in a good book than go and enjoy the sunshine and play sports like my peers. It was also something my mom said I was doing while we lay on the pebbly Iraqi beach as refugees escaping Kuwait during the first Gulf War. My attachment to books growing up was so great, infact, that even when we were leaving Kuwait, the country I called ‘home’  and I had to choose what items I wanted, I left all my toys and took my books. Thus, through my love of good stories, my first writing adventures were born. Books were my best friends and movies became an extension of that.

Which brings me to the next point: what is the first thing you do once you know what you want to write? In those days, when all I had was a typewriter (eventually succeeded by a DOS computer and rickety dot-matrix printer), I would just…start writing, and see where it took me. Then, once I started educating myself, I discovered there were some small tricks here and there to get me to my writing goals sooner – which brings us back to our main subject.

A logline, as many of you are aware, is a brief, two-sentence bite of your idea – essentially your story concept in a nutshell.  Recapping generally, a good logline contains three components:

1) THE HERO/PROTAGONIST – who is the story about?

2) GOAL – what is the protagonist’s goal?

3) THE OPPOSITION/ANTAGONIST – who is against the protagonist? Who is stopping him from reaching his goals?

Some movie examples:

• What if Peter Pan grew up? (Hook)

• When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane and corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge. (Gladiator)

• An attorney, because of a birthday wish, can’t tell any lies for 24 hours. (Liar, Liar)

• After segueing from a life of espionage to raising a family, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez are called back into action. But when they are kidnapped by their evil nemesis, there are only two people in the world who can rescue them… their kids!  (Spy Kids)

• A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea. (Titanic)

Observing each of the above in detail, you may notice the first one bends the guidelines I just mentioned above, quite a bit. However (assuming everyone knows ‘Peter Pan’), it immediately introduces us to its intriguing concept (What happens if the one boy in the world who never grew up actually does?), and last but not least, gives us a tantalizing taste of the story… which is still the right way to go.

So, before you slog your way through that long journey to your finished 110-120 page script, why not start by distilling and boiling your concept into a sentence? (Note: I must mention that writing a logline before you start writing is not any kind of be-all, end-all rule! I have also found it a pain-in-the-butt because it forces you to simplify everything into something cohesive – a hard task when your inspired brain is boiling over with details!)

That being said, it is something you will need anyway after you have finished your screenplay – the ability to pitch your entire story in thirty seconds and entice agents, production companies, etc.

So my bottom-line: try it out and see how far you get.

For more background on this series, read my rant from last week. Next week: Brainstorming.