riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Knowing Yourself as a Writer

Last week was interesting. On Tuesday, I received notes from my managers on a television pilot that I’ve been writing for several months. At the end of the meeting, they asked me if I could turn the script around by Friday. “Next Friday?” I asked. “No, this Friday.” I said Yes, even though Friday was only three days later, and I was supposed to drive to NYC on Wednesday and return on Friday. I wasn’t 100% sure I could do it, but I was pretty sure… if I stayed calm and approached the next three days with focus and discipline.

To be fair, the notes weren’t extensive. Some were just tweaks, but a couple were definitely more than that. They would require research, new scenes, and new dialogue. And the whole script would need to be tweaked to accommodate these new scenes.

I started that afternoon after the meeting by going outside with my dog and just thinking about things. I wrote nothing for the rest of the day except some ideas on a yellow pad.

Wednesday morning, I transcribed the notes from the day before (I record these meetings on my phone, so I can listen to them later). I organized the notes into “easy fixes” and “not so easy fixes,” and for the rest of the day, made as many of the easy fixes as possible, checking them off as I went. In the afternoon I drove to NYC, using those three hours to again think about how to approach the rest of the notes. That night, I didn’t write. I ate dinner, watched TV with my family and fell asleep.

Thursday morning, I got up early, made my coffee (I’d actually brought my beans and french press to guarantee there would be no hiccups), and did research for the two new scenes I had to write. By mid-day I was ready to start writing for real.

Now, I don’t know how other writers work, but before I get into my draft with any structural or character changes, I first make those changes in the outline and character breakdown. I need to see the changes from a birds eye view. Only when I’m comfortable with how the changes look, feel and flow in these two documents do I open the screenplay.

So, I spent a couple of hours working on the outline and character breakdown, then another couple of hours working on the actual draft. Before taking a break to run errands and eat dinner, I printed out the script and put it aside. After dinner, I read the new draft, made notes, then spent a couple of hours that night revising.

Friday morning, I tweaked everything again, several times. I debated sending it before leaving, partly to get it off my shoulders and out of my mind, partly just in case something happened to me on the drive home – at least the draft would be delivered! But my instinct (and several wise Twitter followers) told me to wait until the EOD. Why rush?

Friday afternoon, I drove back home, arriving around 5pm ET. I still had 3 hours before EOD in Los Angeles.

Before unpacking, I printed the script AGAIN, read it, tweaked and tweaked (it was a good thing I waited). I emailed it to my managers at 7:00 pm EST.

And that was that!

I’m not sharing all this because it’s a big deal. It’s really not. But last week showed me that I am getting better at knowing for example: how long it takes me to do things, how best to approach the task at hand, how to stay organized, how to not panic, and so on.

Will the managers like the new draft? Who knows. It’s all part of the process. I’m just happy I did what I said what I would do. And happy that I’m getting better at knowing myself as a writer.

Have a great week, everyone!


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A Literary Life

typewriters-vintage-retro-style-wood-wallpaper-previewA couple of weeks ago, I was walking with a new writer friend who is disillusioned with her day job. When she said she’s craving a literary life, I responded with an enthusiastic YES! And we mused on what that would actually look like.

My definition of a literary life is one where you make a living as a writer. Perhaps I’m a romantic, but a true literary life also means you’re writing projects that you want to write, as opposed to just writing for money (a combination of both is acceptable).

Examples of people who led/lead literary lives, some more happily than others: Joan Didion, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, Ronan Farrow, Shirley Jackson, and countless others.

Ironically, since the pandemic hit and quarantine life began, I’ve been living a semi-literary life, at least getting a taste of it. Being sent home to work and having a light workload afforded me much more time to myself, not to mention the general shutdown of everything and inability to go anywhere.

For the first time, I was home all day and still collecting a paycheck. My time was not entirely my own; I still had to check work emails and be available for conference calls, etc. But this took up only a fraction of the day. The rest of the time I was almost living That Life.

What does a literary life mean exactly? For one thing, it means a lot – and I mean A LOT – of time alone (the primary reason why this life isn’t for everyone).

I live alone so this is easy, but even if I had a partner or roommate, I would still need to spend a large part of my day by myself. Often I wonder if I’ll ever meet another partner who understands and is able to respect my need for long stretches of solitude.

While alone, I am mostly thinking, also watching movies or television shows,  making notes, researching, outlining, reading, talking to myself, and, yes, writing. 

When I’m IN THE ZONE, I rarely answer my phone. I prefer not to deal with people or really the world. I do take breaks but I really try to stay in the zone as much as possible and avoid outside distractions. This is the only way I can concentrate. Even then these measures are not always enough.

Sometimes I have to turn my phone and WiFi completely off. I’ve pulled back from the many volunteering activities I used to do, and, even now that things are opening up again, I only occasionally go out. The few times I did venture out, I was so quiet that people wondered if I was okay.

By no means, am I a workaholic.

I’m less confident that I’m not becoming a bit of a hermit.

I’m not sure everyone understands my behavior, how seriously I take my writing, or the countless hours necessary to write something good (it doesn’t help that I’m a slow writer).

Regardless, I’m absolutely determined to make a living as a writer… and every day I get closer.

In the past three months, I’ve managed to finish my screenplay and write two freelance articles. I’m now in the very early stages of writing the next screenplay. 

Soon, my time will be 100% my own, as my job let me go due to COVID (my last day is July 31). But I’m trying to think of it in a positive way. Like maybe this is another step towards my goal.

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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.