riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Rejection Can Be a Good Thing

Shortly after my last post, in the beginning of June, my book agent called with her response to my memoir draft. She had read a few chapters before, but this was the first time she’d read the whole thing. I was anxiously awaiting her opinion and held my breath when her number appeared on my phone. Then I heard her say, “I’m sorry to say this, but it’s not for me.” 

My heart sank into the pit of my stomach. After four years of hard work and getting my hopes up that I might actually be able to take my book to the next level, I was being shown to the door. I was crushed. 

After further reflection and lots of encouraging emails/discussions with fellow writers, I realized that she had done me a favor. It’s like when someone breaks up with you… at first it hurts, then you realize, “Wow, I dodged a bullet!” Because clearly that person isn’t the right person for you.

And clearly, this agent wasn’t the right agent for me.

When you read the Thank You’s at the end of almost any book, the author inevitably thanks his/her agent for their tireless help, encouragement and championing. Case in point: at the end of her memoir WILD author Cheryl Strayed writes to her agent, “Janet, you are my friend, champion, and literary kindred spirit. I will always be grateful to you for your support, smarts, and love.”  

A champion is someone who believes in you, will fight for you and stick with you through thick and thin. I’m sure this agent has been a champion for others (she was highly recommended to me), but she was obviously not going to be my champion. How could she be if she didn’t respond to the material?

So, I’m glad that she was honest with me. She basically set me free to find my true champion. 

The other gift, though, is that by rejecting my manuscript, she gave me a chance to make it better. The little feedback she did share with me basically let me know that the book isn’t ready yet. One could argue that just because it didn’t do it for her, doesn’t mean it won’t do it for others. I’ve had several people tell me they loved my manuscript. I also know I’m a good writer. But I’m not beyond seeing that my work could be further refined and focused. To think otherwise would be foolish. It is my first book, after all. I want to get it right!  

So, for this I’m also grateful. Eventually, when I go out to other agents, I’ll do so with a manuscript that’s gone through another round (if not multiple rounds) of drafts, readers and feedback. I’ll know that what I’m putting out there is  the absolute best it can be. 

Writing a book is hard. It takes years. There are many stops and starts, a lot of bad drafts before a good one, and a lot of rejections.

If you don’t believe me, take it from these veterans:

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” – Barbara Kingsolver

“Every rejection is incremental payment on your dues that in some way will be translated back into your work.” – James Lee Burke

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath

“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.’“ – Saul Bellow

“Often, you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir. If you’re failing as a writer – which it definitely feels like when you’re struggling to write regularly or can’t seem to earn a living as a freelance writer – maybe you need to take a long-term perspective.” – J.K. Rowling  

For more inspiration, read the rejections of many best-selling authors here: http://www.literaryrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/

The point is, rejection is part of the game. Even if you’re not a writer – it’s part of life. But it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Learn from it. Sidestep it. Step over it. Inspect it if you must, but keep moving forward.

By all means, don’t let rejection stop you. Don’t take it personally. And never ever give up on your dreams. I’m not giving up on mine!

Happy creating.

 

 


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10 Lessons Learned From Writing

Writer-Series2

It’s been almost a year since I published my first essay on Modern Loss, and a little over half a year since I quit my job to write full-time. I now have half a dozen professional clips to my name, in addition to a part-time writing job, my memoir in progress, this blog and my experience as a screenwriter. While I am not an expert, I have learned a few important things about writing, especially this past year.

1. Writing is a huge responsibility

I think writing non-fiction carries a higher level of responsibility than writing fiction because you’re not making it up, you’re writing about about real people, events and facts. In both genres, you have to watch for grammar and spelling, historical accuracy and cultural representations, but in non-fiction you’re also responsible for quoting correctly, getting the facts right, and remaining objective. Each story you write has your name on it, so any mistake reflects directly on you. I recently made my first mistake (misspelling a source’s last name), and it was mortifying. The error has since been fixed, but it really brought home how vigilant I have to be, and how much responsibility comes with this kind of work.

2. Writing (well) requires listening

As a screenwriter, listening is essential for capturing dialogue and interviewing research subjects. As a journalist, listening is at least half the job. You’re listening for good quotes, for the story, for what is not being said, and for how things are being said. I’ve learned a lot from listening to the way people talk, when they take pauses, the pace of their speech, when it rises and doesn’t, if it sounds rehearsed or spontaneous. I’ve also learned from listening to my own speech because I record interviews. I tend to take a lot of pauses and not be direct enough due to nerves. One of my goals is to learn how to be a better public speaker.

3. Reading makes you a better writer

Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, reading is the best way to learn about storytelling, character development, plot and sentence construction. Fiction and non-fiction have their differences, but essentially they’re both forms of storytelling and share many of the same rules. I like to read when I’m writing because it both relaxes and stimulates my brain. I get ideas from other writers. Watching a really good movie can teach you about writing too, but reading is the best way to see how an author constructs a story.

4. Writing is about structure (and discipline)

Structure is the framework of a story, the way it’s told, the way the facts, plot points, character introductions are organized. It’s also (for me) one of the more challenging aspects of writing. I recently read a non-fiction book called “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” by Jon Krakauer, the author of “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air.” I was very impressed by how he unfolded the story, which included dozens of characters, historical events, non-linear time shifts, a criminal investigation, a trial, dozens of book excerpts and quotes. It was a mountain of material organized in a very precise, easy-to-read, engaging way.

Likewise, a productive writing schedule requires structure in your own life and being disciplined. As many writers can attest, routine is a good thing.

5. Editors are essential (good editors make you better)

Editors aren’t usually famous (in filmmaking or publishing), but in each respective industry, they’re generally regarded as the next most creative position other than writer. I’ve worked with several editors, and they have made all the difference. The good ones can see through the words on the page to the larger story, communicate their edits clearly and precisely, and make your writing better without changing your voice. I work as an editor sometimes and learn a great deal from being on that side of the process.

6. Writing is the fun part

I think most writers will agree that the writing process is a lot more than just writing. It’s research, thinking, structuring, pitching, promoting and so on. The time we spend actually sitting in the chair writing is less than people might think, but it’s also the sweetest part.

7. Writing isn’t just about you

Now more than ever, writers are expected to create their own fan base and bring them along wherever they go. This means that as much as we might be inclined to be loners, we have to get out there (physically and virtually) and “work it” just like any other business person. Unless you’re already famous, the days of being a recluse who’s rarely seen (but everyone loves your work) are over.

8. Writers need a community

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating… writing is a lonely pursuit, this is why having a community is so important. Find your community, find your tribe, and be generous. Read other people’s work, provide feedback, say Yes more than No, share contacts and opportunities, support your fellow writers in word and deed (and tweets), don’t be jealous, insecure or competitive. There are plenty of stories out there, and billions of readers. The more you give, the more you receive.

9. Writing is about readers

One of the big differences between screenwriting and literary writing is the relationship with the reader. Most people don’t read screenplays, so it’s generally not a writer-to-reader experience. A screenplay also goes through many iterations and interpretations before it reaches the screen. On the other hand, literary writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, is one of the most direct communications with readers possible (the only more direct is blogging). It’s literally a relationship, and like any relationship, it takes effort to build and maintain.

10. Writing requires a helluva lot of courage

Some writers can hide behind their writing better than others. For those of us who write personal essays, memoirs and personal blogs, we are putting not only our writing out there, but also our personal lives. I find writing articles scary too, because it’s telling someone else’s story (see #1). But the personal writing is by far the most vulnerable, and the best of such writing comes from writers who lay it bare and let you into their most intimate thoughts, fears and weaknesses. We feel connected to them because they have exposed a truth about themselves that we ourselves don’t have the courage to admit, but desperately want to know we’re not alone. This is not easy for writers to do. So, be nice to your writer friends. 🙂

Last thought: if you don’t feel compelled to write, if you don’t like to be alone, or if you don’t want to deal with criticism, don’t do it.

What are some lessons you have learned from writing?

Happy creating!


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Writers and Dogs

Ruby snow cone nose

My dog, Ruby

I think every writer should have a dog (if possible).

Dogs are the ultimate companions for people who like to be alone. They’re quiet enough to let you work, but active enough to unglue you from the chair every now and then. They’re more demanding than cats, but less demanding than children or other adults. You can concentrate with a dog in the room. You can read with a dog outside (I do this every day). They open your eyes to things, and take you outside of your head. They keep you grounded.

Dogs also give us the opportunity to love and nurture another being. Initially, I was worried that owning a dog might be too distracting, but I actually enjoy the responsibility. Sometimes it’s frustrating, like the other day when I had to stop a really great writing flow to take her to a vet appointment. But ultimately, it’s always rewarding (I was glad I took her to the vet).

Their loyalty is good for the soul, perhaps even the ego, which we all know is fragile with writers. Dogs never get mad at you, or criticize you, or even question you. All they want is to please you, to be near you, to love and be loved by you. People have told me that when I leave a room, Ruby will stare at the door until I return. That loyalty is another reason why she’s allowed to be off-leash so much. She might run off to chase something, yes. But she would never just run away.

Ruby and farm2

Ruby brings so much into my life, it’s hard to put it into words. She has helped (and continues to help) me heal from loss. She makes me laugh. She reminds me to play and be curious, to stretch and get plenty of rest. She provides me with companionship and affection. She protects me better than any alarm system. She also provides structure to my day, which is broken up into three-hour stretches of work followed by a 30-minute break outside (longer when it’s warm out). She sleeps while I’m working, but when I’ve worked for longer than usual, or past a certain hour, she will come over and put a paw on my leg, like “okay, it’s time to stop now.” Sometimes I feel like I belong to her, not the other way around.

The other day I told a friend that “if I were to die before my dog, she would be my main concern.” I try not to think about it very often, or of the more likely scenario that she will go before me. But every now and then I remember that Ruby and I only have a relatively short time together (hopefully, the long end of short). My next thought is always the same, “That’s why I’m giving her the very best life I possibly can.” Whenever that day comes, I will mourn her terribly, but I will also know that she lived a great life, full of fun and love, and we gave each other all that one could possibly give to another.

Here are some photos of other writers and their dogs (many of which I got from here):

Amy Hempel

Donna Tartt and Pongo (photo by Jill Krementz)

Dorothy Parker and Misty (photo by Roy Schatt)

E.L. Doctorow and Becky

Edith Wharton and her pups

John Steinbeck and Charley

Kurt Vonnegut and Pumpkin

Maurice Sendak and Herman (photo by Tim Knox)

Maurice Sendak and Herman (photo by Tim Knox)

Stephen King

Virginia Woolf and Pinka (photo by Gisele Freund)

William Faulkner and pups (photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)

For those of you who own cats, you’re also in good company.

Tennessee Williams and Sabbath

William S. Burroughs and Ginger

William S. Burroughs and Ginger

More pictures of writers and dogs: https://www.tumblr.com/search/writers%20and%20dogs

A fun post about pets who were loved by famous authors: http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/04/29/literary-pets/

A site that shows writers at work – some with their pets: http://writersatwork.pfauth.com/

Happy creating!


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10 Tips on How to Maintain as a Writer

I’m reviving the Industry Friday series (where I post professional advice on Fridays) with some thoughts on how to maintain as a writer. Now that I’m writing full-time, I’ve noticed several habits that help me stay productive and avoid getting stir-crazy. The foundation for these habits is a deep love of writing. If you don’t love it, none of these habits will help. Writing is inherently lonely and difficult, but I believe these habits help maintain a healthy equilibrium.

1. Get up early

You’ve heard me mention the Plath Hours before. I can’t stress enough the benefits of squeezing a few extra (peaceful, quiet) hours out of the day. You don’t have to wake up as early as 4:00 am. Even an hour before your normal wake up time will increase productivity. Or start with 15 minutes earlier and work your way up. As I write this, it is 4:12 am – I actually woke up today at 3:30am without my alarm clock going off. This is because I’ve grown accustomed to getting up early. Of course, this means going to bed early, and possibly taking brief naps during the day, but it’s worth it. Here’s an article to help you get started.

2. Take a shower and get dressed

If you write at home all day, it might be tempting to roll out of bed and work in your pajamas, but don’t do it. At least, don’t stay in your pajamas. At some point before your “normal” work day begins, take a shower and get dressed. You don’t have to dress formally, but wearing clothes that are clean, comfortable and presentable will affect how you feel, and possibly how you approach your work, even if you never leave the house.

3. Have a routine

Contrary to what some people think, “routine” is not a bad word, and I don’t know any writer who doesn’t keep one. Whenever you choose to get up, have consistent, set work hours, including lunch break and quitting time. If you need to run out to do an errand, schedule that into your day, but don’t start cleaning your house, doing the laundry or watching TV in the middle of your day. If you wouldn’t do it at your office job, don’t do it at your home office.

4. Take a daily walk (or more than one)

Personally, I think every writer would benefit from owning a dog. But I understand that dogs aren’t for everybody. But do take a walk, or several walks, every day, rain or shine. Your brain and eyes need a break. Your lungs need fresh air. Your mind needs to reset. Your body needs to move. Get the blood pumping and let Nature inspire you. Gyms and classes are great too, but Nature is free and literally right outside your door.

5. Read books 

You don’t have to join a book club to read a book. But if you do join a book club, you will definitely read at least one book a month. And you will meet other people who love books and love to read. The most important thing is to read, not just for research or work, not just the news, not just online, and certainly not just your Facebook feed. Reading flexes the mind at the same time it relaxes it. Reading also gives us ideas and makes us better writers.

I’m part of a book club now, and we alternate reading one fiction and one non-fiction book every month. The other night I went to the meeting, which takes place in a small local bookstore, even though I hadn’t read the assigned book (I read a different book by the same author). At the end of the evening, everyone listed their favorite books they read this year. I now have a list of 15 great books to read! I truly enjoy our lively discussions.

6. Find your people

The worst thing a writer can do is write in solitude and not have any type of support network (of other writers). You need people in your life who will read your work and give you honest feedback, with whom you can discuss life as a writer and writing issues. People who “get” you artistically and professionally, people you can trust, be vulnerable with, and with whom you share mutual respect, no matter what level everyone is at. I am incredibly blessed to have found my people and thank g-d for them every day (hi goats!).

7. Join a library

Libraries are incredible resources, great places to work, and they’re free. If you’re looking for a specific book and the library doesn’t have it, some will order the book for you. My local library does that. Even though I live in a rural area, I have access to any book I want.

8. Eat well (and stay hydrated)

It sounds so simple, but sometimes writers forget to eat, or neglect to eat healthy because it might take longer to prepare. Another bad habit is not drinking enough water. I’ve been guilty of both in the past, but now I eat a hearty breakfast every day, a moderate lunch and dinner, and drink tea and water throughout the day. My vices include coffee in the morning and wine at night, but not too much of either. Because I live in a rural area and restaurants are far and few between (and expensive), I’m also cooking again.

9. Back up your work (and have more than one computer)

Back up your work in multiple places, all the time, and if you can afford it, have two computers. This way if one goes down, you can keep working, which just happened to me recently. My desktop shut down and wouldn’t start again. Before panic set in, I remembered that I have a laptop, transferred my thumb drive (on which I keep all my current projects) and continued working without skipping a beat.

10. Listen to the radio

Public radio is another amazing resource, and in my house it’s on almost all day. It’s my primary source of news, music, weather and local events. You will hear interviews with filmmakers, authors, political analysts, poets, musicians, actors and more. You can listen online too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something on the radio that made me pause with thought or emotion. Some of my favorite shows: Fresh Air, The Roundtable, The Diane Rehm Show, The Moth Hour, Ted Radio Hour, and American Music Roots.

And one more…

11. Go out and have fun!

I once knew a writer who never left the house except for meetings and would feel guilty about taking time off to spend with family or travel. He was also plagued by migraines. I don’t know if the two related, but I could never understand why he kept driving himself so hard and seemed to get such little pleasure out of life.

Living a full and healthy life (emotionally, physically, spiritually and socially) is part of what makes for great writing. The best material is life itself.

Happy Friday and happy creating!

Sunrise from my office window

Sunrise from my office window


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Barry Levy’s 10 Tips for Screenwriters

Besides the occasional celebrity sighting (last week, Kiefer Sutherland), one of the perks of living/working where I do is the access to industry professionals. Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in an intimate roundtable discussion with Barry Levy, screenwriter of VANTAGE POINT (2008) and the upcoming PARANOIA (2013). Barry shared some valuable insight on the realities of professional screenwriting.

He began by explaining how he got started in the business, as the assistant to the head of Nelvana, an animation company, and quickly rose through the ranks to development executive. His first scripts, mostly low-budget horror films, were all unsuccessful. The ones he managed to sell were produced direct-to-video, so never made it theaters. His early career included highs like being flown first class to London to meet a prospective director for one of his scripts, and lows like having to sue a producer to get paid for a film. His first nine writing credits totaled less than $21,000.

Frustrated with writing for others, he decided to write for himself, the result being VANTAGE POINT. It sold within 24 hours, the morning after an all night bidding war. Today his 5 year-old daughter goes to kindergarten with – and has professed love for – the son of the producer he sued. Such is the irony of life in Hollywood.

Barry then shared some basic facts that he thinks every aspiring screenwriter should know:

1. Your job is far bigger than just what you write. How you interact with people is a huge factor, and it will catch up to you.

2. You will be alone A LOT, so you better really love to write. Not surprisingly, feature writers are known for having less social skills than television writers.

3. As a screenwriter, nothing is in your control, at times not even what’s on the page. Writing for film is a collaborative experience, and not always for the better. You will receive notes from studio execs, producers, directors, actors, friends and family, and you will have to listen to these people, some more than others. You can also be fired, replaced, rewritten and/or misinterpreted. Your words can be changed on set. You could show up to a movie premiere and literally not recognize the movie that was made based on your script. You have no control.

4. You will struggle with this lack of control for as long as you are a screenwriter.

5. Striking a balance between work and life will help you deal with the lack of control. Kids and/or animals can put things in perspective and help you turn your brain “off” from work. Writing a spec script and/or directing affords you a little more control, but not all writers want to be directors.

6. Whatever you turn in should feel like your final draft. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so put everything you’ve got into making it as good as it can be.

7. Never say “No” to a note, even if it’s the worst note ever. Say “Let me give it some thought.”

8. Be aware of the “math” of writing when approaching agents. The average script by a newbie writer sells for Writer’s Guild (WGA) minimum of approximately $35,000, of which an agent gets 10%. Usually, agents work in teams of 2, sometimes 3, so they’re actually not making that much money on your sale. Don’t take it personally if your calls don’t get returned as fast as the screenwriter who sells for six figures. 

9. Confidence is key. You need to know who you are, define who you are, and own who you are. When considering writers for projects, producers and executives make a list of possible candidates based on their recent work. If you write a horror film, followed by a romantic comedy, followed by a children’s movie, it will only confuse the industry. Don’t try to do, or be, too many things at once.

10. If you’re really serious about screenwriting, you should listen to the weekly free podcast by screenwriters John August (Go, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Titan A.E., Charlie and Chocolate Factory) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III, Superhero Movie, Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie).  They give fantastic advice and information on a wide range of topics related to screenwriting, pitching, dealing with agents, producers and more. http://johnaugust.com/podcast or subscribe via iTunes.

I found Barry to be really down-to-earth, funny and endearing. He had no pretensions or romanticized views of Hollywood. He wasn’t bitter. He just told like it is. And even though his advice was somewhat sobering, he managed to give everyone in the room hope.


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Finding Freedom Within Order

Creative folks want need to be creative in order to function, much like an athlete needs routine exercise. We need to work in our office or studios, without interruptions, without noise (unless that’s your thing), without worries. We need physical and mental solitude, freedom, and space, within which our imagination can soar and the divine spirit of creativity can flow.

Pablo Picasso, Photo credit: Edward Quinn

Pablo Picasso, Photo credit: Edward Quinn

However, unless we’re Picasso or some other mega-successful artist who can hire nannies, maids, bookkeepers, gardeners, dog walkers, and so on, we have to take care of all these and other responsibilities ourselves. We might even have to work a day job until we make a living from our creative pursuits. Many of us find ourselves spending all of our time just trying to survive and manage our households, less time on our art, and very far away from “solitude, freedom, and space.” If we’re not willing to abandon our families, pets, jobs, or creative passions, what can we do?

One of my favorite quotes, originally sent to me by my sister (who got it from another person) several years ago: “Be regular and orderly in your life so you may be violent and original in your work.” What does it mean to be regular and orderly? Let’s break it down step by step.

Before doing anything else, you must get organized. Get a filing cabinet, some folders, paper clips, stickies, stapler, tabs, whatever you need to sort and order all the paperwork of life. If you work in a large office, you could always “borrow” some of the smaller stuff (just don’t walk out with a filing cabinet or shredder). Once you have your supplies, go through all your papers and

Throw shit out. You might think you need a hard copy of every bank statement and bill, but in this digital age you absolutely do not. Almost everything can be found online, which means you should throw out (or shred) the hard copy, including any random piles of articles, recipes or directions you printed out months ago. You can find it online.

Create piles. Whatever paperwork you keep, put in piles: automobile, children, medical, pet, mortgage, legal records, etc, etc. You might end up with six piles. You might end up with twenty. If you end up with 100 piles, something is terribly wrong. Remember, you should only be keeping what cannot be found online.

File the piles. Put the piles into folders, label the folders, store the folders in filing cabinet, put filing cabinet aside. Congratulations. You just created a lot more space and peace of mind.

Create a budget and schedule of expenses. This could be as easy as looking at your monthly bank statement and seeing how much money goes where/when. Make a list and consider programming your online calendar (or your phone) with reminders of when certain bills are coming up. Your expenses shouldn’t be a mystery and bills should never come as a surprise. You don’t want to think about money (or the lack of it) any more than necessary.

Create a personal schedule. It doesn’t have to be militaristic, but plan out your average day from beginning to end, even if you never refer to it again, just to see how you’re using your time. See if you can “schedule” some creative time into your day or week, then inform your family, “On this day(s), from this hour to that hour, I am not to be disturbed.” Post your schedule where everyone can see it, and stick to it. If necessary, lock your door to keep intruders out. If your intruders are too young to be left completely alone, then schedule your creative time for when they’re asleep, doing their homework, or not at home.

Create a long-term schedule. This could be a month, six months, one year, five years, or all of the above, but doing this will help you determine how to prioritize your projects and manage your time. Are you working towards a show, application or publication deadline? Where do you see yourself in three years creatively? What do you need to do to make that happen? Work backwards and set your deadlines. If you have no specific goals for now, that’s okay too. Sometimes we simply need time and space to think.

Create your work. Once you’ve organized your papers, taken care of all the mundane “life” stuff, informed your household of your schedule, locked your door and taken a moment to soak in the reality that you are FREE to create now… do your happy dance, set your spirit free, let your imagination go wild, be bold, and take risks. This is YOUR time.

Happy creating!


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Danny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules of Filmmaking

This week I am reblogging this incredibly generous and informative article written by director Danny Boyle for Moviemaker.com. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Boyle is the director of such films as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. People are sharing this article via Twitter and Facebook (how I learned of it). I’m sharing it here so we can talk amongst ourselves. Please note, everything from hereon comes from Danny Boyle, not me. Enjoy!!

1. A DIRECTOR MUST BE A PEOPLE PERSON • Ninety-five percent of your job is handling personnel. People who’ve never done it imagine that it’s some act, like painting a Picasso from a blank canvas, but it’s not like that. Directing is mostly about handling people’s egos, vulnerabilities and moods. It’s all about trying to bring everybody to a boil at the right moment. You’ve got to make sure everyone is in the same film. It sounds stupidly simple, like ‘Of course they’re in the same film!’ But you see films all the time where people are clearly not in the same film together.

2. HIRE TALENTED PEOPLE • Your main job as a director is to hire talented people and get the space right for them to work in. I have a lot of respect for actors when they’re performing, and I expect people to behave. I don’t want to see people reading newspapers behind the camera or whispering or anything like that.

3. LEARN TO TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS • Ideally, you make a film up as you go along. I don’t mean that you’re irresponsible and you’ve literally got no idea, but the ideal is that you’ve covered everything—every angle—so that you’re free to do it any of those ways. Even on low-budget films, you have financial responsibilities. Should you fuck it up, you can still fall back on one of those ways of doing it. You’ve got Plan A to go back to, even though you should always make it with Plan B if you can. That way keeps it fresh for the actors, and for you.

4. FILM HAPPENS IN THE MOMENT • What’s extraordinary about film is that you make it on the day, and then it’s like that forever more. On that day, the actor may have broken up with his wife the night before, so he’s inevitably going to read a scene differently. He’s going to be a different person. I come from theater, which is live and changes every night. I thought film was going to be the opposite of that, but it’s not. It changes every time you watch it: Different audiences, different places, different moods that you’re in. The thing is logically fixed, but it still changes all the time. You have to get your head around that.

5. IF YOUR LAST FILM WAS A SMASH HIT, DON’T PANIC • I had an obsession with the story of 127 Hours, which pre-dated Slumdog Millionaire. But I know—because I’m not an idiot—that the only reason [the studio] allowed us to make it was because Slumdog made buckets of money for them and they felt an obligation of sorts. Not an obligation to let me do whatever I want, but you kind of get a free go on the merry-go-round.

6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL STORIES ABOUT OTHER CULTURES • You can’t just hijack a culture for your story, but you can benefit from it. If you go into it with the right attitude, you can learn a lot about yourself, as well as about the potential of film in other cultures, which is something we tried to do with Slumdog Millionaire… Most films are still made in America, about Americans, and that’s fine. But things are changing and I think Slumdog was evidence of that. There will be more evidence as we go on.

7. USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD • You have so much power as director that if you’re any good at all, you should be able to use that to the benefit of everyone. You have so much power to shape the movie the way you want it that, if you’re on form and you’ve done your prep right and you’re ready, you should be able to make a decent job of it with the other people.

8. DON’T HAVE AN EGO • Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce. Not everyone believes that, but I do. I won’t stand for anyone being treated badly by anyone. I don’t like anyone shouting or abusing people or anything like that. You see people sometimes who are waiting for you to be like that, because they’ve had an experience like that in the past, but I’m not a believer in that. The texture of a film is affected very much by the honor with which you make it.

9. MAKE THE TEST SCREENING PROCESS WORK FOR YOU • Test screenings are tough. It makes you nervous, exposing the film, but they’re very important and I’ve learned a great deal from using them. Not so much from the whole process of cards and the discussions afterwards, but the live experience of sitting in an auditorium with an audience that doesn’t know much about the story you’re going to tell them—I find that so valuable. I’ve learned not so much to like it, but to value how important it is. I think you have to, really.

10. COME TO THE SET WITH A LOOK BOOK • I always have a bible of photographs, images by which I illustrate a film. I don’t mean strict storyboards, I just mean for inspiration for scenes, for images, for ideas, for characters, for costumes, even for props. These images can come from anywhere. They can come from obvious places like great photographers, or they can come from magazine advertisements—anywhere, really. I compile them into a book and I always have it with me and I show it to the actors, the crew, everybody!

11. EVEN PERFECT FORMULAS DON’T ALWAYS WORK • As a director your job is to find the pulse of the film through the actors, which is partly linked to their talent and partly to their charisma. Charisma is a bit indefinable, thank God, or else it would be prescribed in the way that you chemically make a new painkiller. In the movies—and this leads to a lot of tragedy and heartache—you can sometimes have the most perfect formula and it still doesn’t work. That’s a reality that we are all victims of sometimes and benefit from at other times. But if you follow your own instincts and make a leap of faith, then you can at least be proud of the way you did it.

12. TAKE INSPIRATION WHERE YOU FIND IT • When we were promoting Slumdog Millionaire, we were kind of side-by-side with Darren Aronofsky, who was also with Fox Searchlight and was promoting The Wrestler. I watched it and it was really interesting; Darren just decided that he was going to follow this actor around, and it was wonderful. I thought, ‘I want to make a film like that. I want to see if I can make a film like that.’ It’s a film about one actor. It’s about the monolithic nature of film sometimes, you know? It’s about a dominant performance.

13. PUSH THE PRAM • I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it “pushing the pram.” You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff—that’s what people go to the cinema for. This could apply to a romantic comedy; you push anything as far as it will stretch. I think that’s one of your duties as a director… You’ll only ever regret not doing that, not having pushed it. If you do your job well, you’ll be amazed at how far the audience will go with you. They’ll go a long, long way—they’ve already come a long way just to see your movie!

14. ALWAYS GIVE 100 PERCENT • You should be working at your absolute maximum, all the time. Whether you’re credited with stuff in the end doesn’t really matter. Focus on pushing yourself as much as you can. I tend not to write, but I love bouncing off of writing; I love having the writers write and then me bouncing off of it. I bounce off writers the same way I bounce off actors.

15. FIND YOUR OWN “ESQUE” • A lesson I learned from A Life Less Ordinary was about changing a tone—I’m not sure you can do that. We changed the tone to a kind of Capra-esque tone, and whenever you do anything more “esque,” you’re in trouble. That would be one of my rules: No “esques.” Don’t try to Coen-esque anything or Capra-esque anything or Tarkovsky-esque anything, because you’ll just get yourself in a lot of trouble. You have to find your own “esque” and then stick to it.

Full article (with pictures) here:
http://www.moviemaker.com/articles-directing/danny-boyle-15-golden-rules-filmmaking/

Happy creating!


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Lessons From ‘THE GODFATHER’

godfather

In this day and age, I think it’s safe to say that most people have either seen or at least heard of the film THE GODFATHER, starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, John Cazale and Diane Keaton, along with a host of other stellar actors. It was released in 1972, directed and co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the book THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo, and produced by Paramount Pictures, which was being run by Robert Evans at the time.

Everything about this movie is legendary. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won three: Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), and Best Screenplay Adaptation (Puzo and Coppola). It was the first “crime family drama” of its kind. Its characters, shooting style, music and dialogue all became part of our national consciousness and filmmaking history. Brando’s performance is still considered one of the best film performances ever, revered, mimicked and parodied the world over.

For those of us in the movie business, or who are film buffs, the making of the film is also legendary. In the biographical documentary THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE, Robert Evans talks about some of the epic fights he had with Coppola before, during and after the shoot, and the enormous pressure he was under to make sure the film was a success for the financially ailing studio.

Last weekend, as I was dissecting my book and stitching it back together, I watched the film with the director’s commentary on so I could hear the other side of the story.

Now it’s difficult to imagine, but at the time Coppola wasn’t a famous director. He was an up-and-coming director and only 32 years old. He had a young wife and children. He didn’t get paid much and neither did anyone else on the film, which was made for 6.5 Million. Considering how much it grossed (approximately 133.6 Million domestic, 243.8 Million worldwide (www.boxofficemojo.com), the budget was miniscule.

To save money, Coppola had to get creative. Certain wide shots and long shots were filmed without the real actors, but with extras dressed to look like them, and the actors’ voices dubbed in later. Coppola used his own newborn baby, Sofia Coppola, for the infamous Baptism scene/sequence. He hired other family members to do the music and be extras. When he edited the movie, he lived in the “maid’s room” in James Caan’s 2-bedroom apartment.

The best part of the commentary is when he talks about his fears of getting fired, which were very real and lasted almost the entire time. It’s a strange Hollywood thing, but just because a studio hires you doesn’t mean they support or trust you. Coppola was faced with opposition to practically every decision he made: the actors, the music, the locations, the lighting, the editing… EVERYTHING.

At one point, he was so convinced he was getting the axe, he called Robert Evans’ secretary to ask if he should even go to set. She told him to go because they wouldn’t fire him mid-week (it was Wednesday), but on the weekend. He used the time to re-shoot a scene the studio had complained about, and fire the people on his team whom he considered “the traitors.” A pre-emptive strike, if you will. And it worked. Paramount was flustered and Coppola made it to another week.

There were times when he was so stressed, he didn’t know if he could keep going. There were times when he felt insecure. He remarks that when THE FRENCH CONNECTION, a high octane action-thriller, came out in 1971 (while he was editing) and was a huge hit, he was sure that no one would want to see his dark, slow movie with a whole lot of talking. Of course, now we know that he did keep going. But he overcame all those obstacles without knowing whether the film would do well. He overcame them by believing in himself.

According to Coppola, the moral of the story is that a director should trust his vision and stick to it. If he had caved to the demands of the studio, or his own doubts and fears, the film would have been totally different and most likely not a success. The choices he made were unpopular. He had to defend them tooth and nail. But in the end, those choices are what we remember about the film and why people like me, and many others, still watch and study it thirty years later.

And by the way, the horse head was real. They got it from a dog food company.

Happy creating!

Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando

Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando


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3 Tips for TV Line Producing

The other day I sat in on an inspirational conversation with the Line Producer of a popular half-hour comedy television show. The Line Producer is the person who “tows the line” of the budget, meaning she makes sure episodes are delivered on time and on budget. I won’t get into everything she said because they’re too specific to television production, but here are a few universal nuggets:

“Coming under budget is a bad thing because it means you’re producing scared.”

When you have a budget and deliver the episode way under, it means you’re not very good at your job. You over-estimated how much things would cost originally (i.e. inflated the budget). Then you committed the cardinal sin of not using all your resources on the screen. The studio wants a great show, a hit show. If you deliver $10,000 over budget you won’t get in trouble. If you deliver $100,000 under budget, you will.

“Line producing is like playing 3-D chess in space with math.”
As a line producer, your job is to protect the showrunner’s vision, protect the studio’s money, and keep your crew happy. You’re the one who signs the checks, so you better be sure you’re responsible for them. You have to be great with numbers, great at solving problems and managing people. You have to be comfortable making big decisions and small decisions. You also have to be willing to use the carrot and the stick.

“To be a good line producer, you must have self esteem.”
No one will believe your words if you don’t. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities. You should be able to go home and sleep well at night, not worry about your work. This isn’t to say things don’t come up. They will. But feel confident in your decisions and know that whatever happens, you know how to fix it. Believe your words.

At the end of the lecture, she mentioned having been inspired by the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken.

Here it is:

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Happy creating!


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Musings From a Non-Expert

Well, it’s Friday and… I got nothin’. Honestly, I feel like the Industry Friday posts have caught up with me a little, like I’m not sure what more industry ‘expertise’ I can offer because I’m still learning myself, still trying to make a living at my chosen field. What do I know that you don’t know already? Or can’t Google and find out for yourself? I guess I’m thinking of nixing the series or perhaps changing it into something else. A forum for discussion, a day for guest blogs and/or interviews, but not necessarily every week, and not always on Fridays. 🙂

On a different note, here’s an inspiring story about a woman who self-published her first novel and became a best-seller: http://news.yahoo.com/texas-woman-self-publishes-hits-182850961.html

A lot of folks have suggested I do the same with my memoir (about me and Kaz) and I’m considering it. Either way, I need to do a book proposal, which has been an absolute wall that I have yet to figure out how to scale. Not sure what the issue is exactly, except that I’ve never written anything similar and find it difficult to “sell” our story. My memoir is not a ‘how to’ book. It’s a love story that shows how the entire experience of loving and losing him changed my life. For a proposal, I need to articulate why anyone else would care, why a stranger who’s never heard of me or Kaz would want to buy this book. I just started reading Thinking Like Your Editor (thanks, Caitlin) so that might help me figure it out.

Curious what others are working on. Are there writers out there? Have you faced this type of challenge before? Written a book proposal or self-published a book? I’d love to hear from you.

Happy creating and thanks for tuning in to these posts.