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.

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 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.

Distractions: Benefits and Pitfalls

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  1. The Bachelor/Bachelorette (my personal tv fix)
  2. Phone call
  3. Email
  4. Modern Family
  5. Google
  6. youtube – aww, cute barfing alien baby!
  7. Music
  8. Snack
  9. Books/Magazines
  10. Video games
  11. Go to mall
  12. Blog – cookies, yum! Not that I can make any
  13. Walk
  14. Email
  15. Blog – this one! (but hey, this shouldn’t count – right?)
  16. Jello
  17. Pee…

The list could keep going. After all, we are all warriors fighting a great war against everything  – TV, the internet, friends, family, you name it.

Like I said, the list is never ending….especially for a writer wannabe (who works from home – the ultimate distraction!)

Now, here’s some good news about distractions: they are actually a good thing if you plan them right. For several of us writers, there might be days when you feel robotically inclined to do nothing but work. Me? I do have those days but there does come a point when all that creative energy starts to flush down the toilet a bit…the point that is otherwise known as ‘writer’s block’. A burnout. And yes, Writing is SUPPOSED TO BE CREATIVE! More on writer’s block in another post.

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I know, I know…I did say this was a post on how to ‘avoid’ distractions. But for now, here are some things that are currently working for me and some that several working screenwriters also use. I will be posting more details about some of these points in future posts. I would love to hear feedback from you guys on anything that did/didn’t work:

Wake up early (I am not a late night worker unless I am pressed for deadlines, but this has literally saved my life!)

Set a routine/ schedule (Helped me immensely – even if you are not a ‘schedule-my-life-not-that-robotic’ kind of person)

Give yourself rewards/motivations. If you are going to get distracted, try distractions which help you write better aka. reading a great screenplay/novel. You should be doing that anyway if you want to be a screenwriter.

Go workout. I am no workout junkie, but nothing better to get all that blood in your brain pumping and rearing to go before you get into it. Or better yet, take a walk. Successful screenwriters like Ron Bass, Robin Swicord, Leslie Dixon do it too!

Remember it’s a job – and you are a writer. The beautiful thing about writing is once you get into it, it really is the ultimate distraction if you are passionate about it.

Set goals and deadlines. Time yourself. Be judicious with it. One thing that works for me is I intentionally rush through things. Sometimes you just can’t rush art – but the thing about writing is that you can always rewrite. That’s the point. (btw, this doesn’t mean I always get things done on time…but tricking your brain does help in getting things moving).

Be a two-timer. Work on another project. Seriously. Here’s a case in point: I slaved on one project, one  for YEARS and then going nowhere, finally put it away, and took a break from writing (another post on that another time).  Then I restarted it and also started working on a second project and voila –

Internet, your frenenemy? I use a mac. Self-timing apps like ‘freedom’ and ‘selfcontrol’ work great or you can do the simple thing and turn off your network, but I didn’t trust myself enough so I went for the apps instead. Low-cost or free.

Go take a nap. I am a napless zombie, but especially if you are stuck, this might help rather than hurt. Sometimes you need to just hit your brain’s off-switch so it resets.

Ideas – where do they come from and where to get them?

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It was the year 2009, and I had just barely managed to regain my confidence to write again. ‘Regained’, considering an incredibly long eight-year hiatus from film school – a hiatus mostly spent, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, now that I was free as a bird (any intelligent person reading this is probably thinking ‘Duh! Something in film obviously!’) To put things more in perspective, unlike all the Stephen Kings and David Koepps out there (you know who you are), I had always considered myself a ‘one great idea’ kind of schmuck. There were several interchangeable reasons I felt this at the time, good reasons:

A. I had no talent and no other good ideas whatsoever.
B. I had so many brilliant ideas that it was simply impossible to be decisive and weed anything decent out of the bunch.
C. I had better things to do…like bawl my eyes out and watch ‘The Bachelor’ romantically propose to the girl of his dreams on TV.

Case in point: writing, I have come to discover, is both an organic and technical process. And ultimately, the thing that ended up working best for me was perseverence – talent or no talent..and cheesy as it might sound to some, sometimes we just have to sit in the driving seat and try different things until the ignition of our brains roar to life. Here are some things that helps me brainstorm ideas and loglines (in no particular order):

• Writing down a list of things that interest, titillate, excite you the most (for example, if it’s movies, books…you can go deeper into specifically what sort – fantasy? Anime? romance novels?)

•  Newspapers.

•  longform.org – a great site featuring stories each day.

•  Stories from your grandmother and loved ones.  Ask around – everyone has a story, you will be surprised what you will find. One of the great things about discovering character, good dialogue is observing, daily people interactions.

• Everyday activities – things you see when you take a walk or drive, people, places, paying attention to them.

• Reading books, comics, magazines and screenplays. It has really helped me in my understanding of how to build my characters, also different ways to craft dialogue and story pace and rhythm.

• Movies/TV – all the emotional highs and lows, a good movie or tv show can put your imagination on overdrive. Read somewhere that ‘Hunger Games’ was inspired partially by reality shows, for example.

•  Using Word Clouds.  Here’s one I discovered recently, but basically you can use preexisting wordclouds or create your own and use some of the words to form your ideas/loglines. Wordle.net is a great one.

And one last thing…whether you are a screenwriter or any other writer, I encourage you to also write down an idea a day – just one! And see how far that takes you. The more ideas you generate, the better you get. Let me know how you do – and if anyone has any other tips they want to add, post it in comments!