Friday Photo: One Hundred Years of Solitude Edition

One Hundred Years of Solitude

There’s something about an old-fashioned paperback that can’t be duplicated in this digital age. It’s not neat and clean like e-text. Paperbacks reveal themselves through use. Good books become worn and tattered as they’re passed from reader to reader. The better the book, the worse it looks.

This is my $3.95 copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It shows a couple decades of use. I read it in college, read it again when I had a job working in one-person library, packed it when I moved to Florida, packed it again when returned to DC, boxed it up a couple more times as I switched apartments in Washington, reread it some more and finally placed it on a shelf with much shinier books in better condition.

It’s the book I won’t part with, no matter how shabby it gets.

Every Communicator Needs a Real Photographer

Leica M9 and prosecco

This recent post by Vocus – Every Communicator Needs a Real Camera – highlights how important photography is for business. We depend on photos for blogs, web sites, brochures, tweets, Facebook posts and other kinds of marketing collateral.

Photos are a kind of shorthand, selling a product more effectively than a hundred lines of copy. They communicate who you are and what your brand stands for. Photos are essential to sharing your message with the world.

Despite this, photography is an unappreciated medium. Because free photos are widely available on sites like Flickr, and because anyone with an iPhone can take a picture, many organizations pay little money or attention to their photo needs. Yet, a compelling business case can be made for paying for photographers and photography.

A couple of examples:

1. At a company I worked for, the CEO received a major award at a trade show. We wanted to run a story on the web site about it. But the only photo we had was a blurry iPhone shot from fifty feet away. Without a good photo, we couldn’t do the story.

2. I was the photo coordinator for the DC Shorts Film Festival, responsible for managing a volunteer army of photogs who captured images of film screenings, crowded parties, red carpet arrivals and VIP events. This is an awesome event that you should attend. But don’t take my word for it – check out the photos and decide for yourself. In addition to helping attract attendees to the festival, these photos demonstrated to sponsors how their products were being enjoyed, were included in the annual report and were widely shared in social media.

The Vocus article states that communicators need a good camera. But a camera is just a tool. You need someone who knows how to use it. That person is a photographer. Look for one in your organization. Don’t make photography “other duties as assigned” but give them the time, money and equipment they need to tell your organization’s story. Invest in photography the same way you invest in web site hosting, email marketing and social media.

And if you don’t have a photographer, hire one through a group like APADC.

In this digital age, digital photographers are essential. Don’t miss the important moments in your company because no one had a decent camera. Hire a photographer to create images that you’ll use for years to come.

Friday Photo: Finally, Spring

Cherry blossoms blooming on the Tidal Basin.

Cherry blossoms blooming on the Tidal Basin.

This was the winter without end, days and weeks worth of single-digit temperatures that made me want to curl up with a bottle of bourbon and stay inside forever. I’ve never had to wear so many layers. It was a real winter, the kind I thought that DC never got with its mild Mid-Atlantic climate.

And it literally just ended  – we had snow a couple weekends ago, as if we lived in Westeros and spring and summer snows were a common occurrence. I am not convinced winter is over.

The cherry blossoms arrived late but, finally, we’ve been treated to a stretch of glorious mild days. I rode my bike down to the Tidal Basin to get the above picture. It’s an iPhone shot and edited in the Flickr app, using the Denim filter.

Someone must like it – the photo has received 75,000 views in two days. 75,000 views from “unknown source” according to Flickr’s stats. I think the pic might have been in Explore.

My advice for visiting the cherry blossoms is simple: go early. Do not attempt to drive. Hop on a bike or the Metro and get there before 8 AM. The light is better and you won’t have to deal with the crowds. Enjoy spring before the snows return!

In the Blueberry Soup: The WABA Vasa Ride

Riverside check-in for the WABA Vasa ride.

Riverside check-in for the WABA Vasa ride.

I survived the legendary Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) Vasa Ride. The ride began early Saturday morning at the House of Sweden in Georgetown. Riders got to choose from three route lengths: 15, 30, and 59 miles. Destinations and routes were not disclosed before the ride. When you checked-in, you were given a cue sheet.

Which I just glanced at, seeing that we were going to Potomac. I signed-up for the 30-mile ride and figured I’d just follow the pack. Wrong!

Starting off from Georgetown, the group of a hundred riders or so threaded its way up the Capital Crescent Trail before making a right (what? should’ve looked at the cue sheet!) at Fletcher’s Cove and heading up Reservoir Road to MacArthur Boulevard.

Once on MacArthur, the road cyclists accelerated away from me on my Specialized Sirrus. I lost contact with the peloton. Behind me were a mass of slower riders – I hope you’re not following me, because I didn’t read the cue sheet…I knew that MacArthur would eventually lead me to Potomac so I kept going.

It was a lovely morning for a ride. The route went through the leafy-green Palisades, then past the faded Glen Echo amusement park, across the single-lane bridge at Cabin John, by the Old Angler’s Inn and the entrance to Great Falls. The road was filled with cyclists, some from the WABA ride, others just out enjoying the day. Every kind of bike and every kind of rider was represented.

It had been a gradual incline up from the river before we reached the massive hill at Great Falls. The top of the hill was a natural stopping point for many cyclists, including me. The Vasa ride went from here to Potomac via Falls Road before returning by Persimmon Tree Road (I found out later).

http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3735/13431535585_4ee74a14c1_z.jpg

The first half of the WABA Vasa ride.

Cars were speeding along Falls Road. I didn’t want to deal with that. And I’m not good at following directions or being part of a group. Continue reading

Errandonnee Winter Challenge: Twelve Errands by Bike in DC

I am a weekend cyclist. I primarily use my bike for fun and recreation. Plus, it’s the quickest and easiest way to get around DC.

What I liked about the Errandonnee Winter Challenge is that it recognized the utilitarian aspects of cycling. It’s not about riding vast distances clad in lycra. Instead, the Errandonnee Challenge was to use your bike for 12 different errands over 12 days. While there were also sorts of complicated rules, provisos and mandates (the contest was created in Washington, after all), the idea was to use your bike for everyday activities, highlighting how you can do anything by bike.

I looked at it as an opportunity to use my bike more often. Or, rather, bikes, for I would be completing this challenge on two of them – a Specialized Sirrus and a Breezer Zig7 (a foldy bike).

And I would capture it all with Instagram.

Errandonnee 1: Marie Reed Field
Distance: 2 Miles
Category: Health
Bike: Specialized Sirrus
Remarks: It was a short city ride to the play the beautiful game on this new turf field in Adams-Morgan.

Errandonnee 2: Georgetown Waterfront
Distance: 10 Miles
Category: Health
Bike: Specialized Sirrus
Remarks: There was no way I was staying inside on a warm Saturday. After lunch, I biked to Georgetown to get some sun, then made a loop around the National Mall before returning home.

Errandonnee 3: Gibson Guitar Room
Distance: 2 Miles
Category: Work
Bike: Breezer Zig7
Remarks: The next day, I spoke on a panel about screenwriting for DC Shorts Mentors, a four-week class on filmmaking. The class took part in the Gibson Guitar Room, which is a super-cool private venue near the Verizon Center.

Continue reading

Mentoring Screenwriters at DC Shorts Mentors

Actors conduct a live screenplay reading at DC Shorts Mentors.

Actors conduct a live screenplay reading at DC Shorts Mentors.

I had the opportunity to be a part of DC Shorts Mentors, joining Joy Cheriel Brown, Greg Tindale and John Hutson in a panel on screenwriting. DC Shorts Mentors is a four-week long workshop on how to write, edit, produce and market a film.

On the panel, we spoke about our background in screenwriting. I primarily discussed my experience as a judge for the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition, sharing what we looked for in terms of a short script. A good story is the most important requirement, one that starts out with a problem and works its way through it. Using the proper screenplay format is necessary for the simple reason that scripts are really hard to read without it.

We don’t want bad Tarantino. You have a unique story to tell. Write your script, not some imitation of someone else.

For example, Five Days in Calcutta, which won the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition, is an example of a simple premise – two cranky old men bickering – that’s funny, well-executed and unique.

Joy and I also really liked DC Shorts finalist The Goblin Baby, a script that has the quality of a really dark fairy tale, one of those scripts that is very personal but with the universal themes of loss and horror. Writer Shoshana Rosenbaum just wrapped-up filming this short so hopefully we’ll see it at the DC Shorts Film Festival in September.

Next came the questions, which arrived fast and furious from the assembled class at Gibson Guitar Room – they asked about screenplay format, screenplay software (use Final Draft or Celx) story structure, books, classes, screenplay direction and a million other topics.

Next, the writers had to write. We gave them an hour to write a short script, with my fellow mentors there to work one-on-one with writers. That was fascinating. Some people squirreled themselves away and began writing. Others needed some help getting started.

After lunch, Greg led a crew of actors in a live reading of short scripts submitted from the class. Writers had a chance to hear their work read aloud before a live audience, as well as get feedback from their fellow writers and the actors – an invaluable experience. They got to see how actors can shape their words as they applied their craft. A good script must give the actors room to make decisions – not on the words, but in how actors deliver lines, stage direction and so on. Words on a page can sound very different when read aloud before an audience.

Film is an inherently collaborative medium. The word is not sacrosanct. If you’re a screenwriter, your work is likely to be changed by writers, producers, directors, actors, editors, just about everyone. Something to know before you begin.

But to write a screenplay, you have to actually write a screenplay – that was my advice to the aspiring filmmakers at DC Shorts Mentors. You can read books about screenwriting, take classes, hire consultants… but eventually you have to sit down and write. There’s no substitute for that.

You can still get tickets for DC Shorts Mentors, which runs until March 30. And don’t forget to enter the DC Shorts Screenplay Competition. The regular deadline is April 30.

How to Write a Screenplay: DC Shorts Mentors

screenplay photo

I was honored to be a mentor for DC Shorts Mentors, a four-week long workshop on how to write, produce and market films. Each weekend brings a different set of mentors on how to write a script, work with actors, shoot a film and then market it to the world.

I was there for a day to contribute my expertise as a screenwriter. I  won the Film DC Screenwriting Competition for my screenplay Mount Pleasant. For winning the contest, I had a chance to visit the set of The West Wing during its final season. I’ve also taken part in the 48 Hour Film Project, interviewed filmmakers for On Tap and generally been a part of the local filmmaking scene – including being a judge for DC Shorts and other screenplay contests.

The screenwriting advice I shared at DC Shorts Mentors is simple:

1. Read books about screenwriting – but not too many

You can spend your entire life reading books about screenplays. From saving the cat to getting past the reader, a whole industry exists to instruct aspiring screenwriters (and take their money). I read a bunch of them and they created a cacophonous racket in my head. There’s so much advice, it’s overwhelming.

Stick to the basics. Stick with Syd Field and Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Field is the master; everyone else is a lesser copy.

And if you have formatting questions, Elements of Screenwriting Style is indispensable. It’s like Strunk and White for screenplays.

2. Read screenplays

My screenwriting journey began when I friend of mine gave me a couple of scripts to read. We had been in a writers’ workshop together, discussing short stories in a basement conference room. She shared with me the classic of the genre which, believe it or not, is the script for Rocky. Yo! It is the archetypal hero’s journey.

Luckily these days, plenty of scripts are online at sites such as Simply Scripts. Find the scripts from your favorite films and read them. I read a bunch of them – On the Waterfront, Taxi Driver, Swingers, Raising Arizona, Fisher King. Read them closely, study how they begin, how suspense is maintained and how they conclude.

2. Write

Find the writing habit that works best for you. I like writing in coffee shops – something about watching other people work makes me feel like I better work as well. And I love coffee. Turn off social media and tell yourself that you’re going to write for the next couple hours, even if it’s just a single word.

Beginning writers get hung up on screenplay format. It is tricky and different from what you’re used to seeing. You’re going to need software to turn your story into a correctly-formatted screenplay. Fortunately, there are numerous options in screenwriting software, from the free Celtx to the industry-standard Final Draft. I also like Montage, which is for Macs.

Remember, buying expensive software doesn’t make you a screenwriter; completing a screenplay does.

3. Edit

You will not catch your own typos or idiosyncratic turns of phrase. You need an editor. Find a friend, loved one or a disinterested party to read your finished script. Does it make sense? Do they understand it? Is everything spelled correctly?

The simple step of reviewing your work is something that most people don’t do – and will be appreciated by screenplay contest judges.

4. Find a community

Writing is a solitary art; filmmaking is not. Find a community of writers and filmmakers to join. This can be an online community, like Done DealZoetrope or Amazon Studios.

Or connect with people IRL. Volunteer with DC Shorts to meet fellow film fans and help select movies for the festival. Join Women in Film and Video. Take classes at Arlington Independent Media or the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. In the DC area, the opportunities are endless.

5. Enter a screenplay contest

The dream of every screenwriter is to see their work on the big screen. And there are an endless number of screenwriting contests promising a chance at that dream. A lot of them are… questionable.  What screenplay contests will make a difference in your life?

Austin Film Festival and Conference – It’s a great festival and a great conference that attracts major Hollywood players. Winners go on to have careers in the industry.

Nicholl Fellowships – Sponsored by the Academy Awards. All you need to know.

Sundance Screenwriters Lab – If you have an indie mind-set, this is the contest for you.

DC Shorts – Yes, as a judge for this competition, I am hopelessly biased. But the finalists get a live reading before an audience and the winner gets $2000 to turn their short script into a film. That’s a great deal.

6. Make it yourself

Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to make a movie. These days, anyone with a DSLR or an iPhone can be a filmmaker.

Think you need a lot of money to make a film? The delightfully creepy Man in 813 won Outstanding Local Film at DC Shorts and cost $100 to make. It was shot on a Canon Rebel T2i, a digital camera you can get at Costco.

Think you need a lot of time to make a movie? Join a filmmaking team and make a movie over a weekend for the 48 Hour Film Project.

Think your no-budget film will look like crap? Read The Angry Filmmaker to get tricks of the trade.

In summary, the screenwriter’s journey is a difficult one. You are conjuring something from nothing. But movies depend on it for they begin with the written word. By studying your craft, taking it seriously and doing things yourself, you can bring your vision to the screen.

Friday Photo: Capitol Snowglobe Edition

Two men walk toward the Capitol in a snowstorm.

Two men walk toward the Capitol in a snowstorm.

If I have learned anything from this winter, it’s the importance of taking pictures while the snow is still fresh. It’s when the white stuff is at its prettiest. After a few hours, it starts to melt, get shoveled and become begrimed with city filth.

Monday was (hopefully) the last snowstorm of the year. And it was a good one, dumping six inches of dry powder across the city. The government was closed and the city was shut down. But Metro was still running underground so I took it to the Smithsonian shortly before the storm ended.

Emerging from the station, the National Mall looked like a massive snowglobe. Flakes were flying, the wind was blowing and in the distance you could just barely make out the Capitol. While the museums were closed, plenty of people had come to the Mall to enjoy the day, including cross-country skiers, kite skiers and cyclists. Though the temperature was in the 20s, it was too beautiful of an experience to miss.

I took this photo with my Canon Rebel while standing in the middle of the National Mall, right in front of the Smithsonian stop. We’re looking toward the Capitol. It was freezing and my hands nearly froze but it was worth it to get this shot.

Bad weather makes great photos.

Update: this photo was featured on the Capital Weather Gang!

Defeat Writer’s Block the WordPress Way

WordPress pencilsIf you’re a writer, that first blank page can be daunting. The blinking cursor awaits. What do you have to say? Do you really have what it takes to write a whole book?

Yet, the same writer, when put in front of a friendly blog interface, will immediately start writing. After all, it’s just a blog. It’s not serious. Blogs are for cat photos, cappuccino comparisons and lists of your favorite films.

Writers and readers love blogs because they are:

Ephemeral. It’s not permanent media, imprinted on a page. They exist here and now but could be gone in a year or two.

Timely. Blogs do not have six-month long publishing lead times, like books and magazines. They are about what just happened.

Social. Blogs are social. Feedback is immediate. Content is shared, rated and commented upon.

Bite-sized. You’re not reading Ulysses on a blog. Posts are a few hundred words, designed to be written and read in a sitting.

People who say they cannot write a book will write blog posts. They will write scores of them. They will write so many that, when you add them all up, they’ll have written a book without realizing it.

The solution to writer’s block to tell yourself that you’re not writing. You’re blogging. It’s not serious – it’s just a blog, one that you can revise, change, edit and even delete if you want to. No one even has to see it.

Take the outline you have for that Big Serious Book. Use it as a blueprint for your blog. Take the items on the list and write a blog post for each one of them. Do one a week. Remember, a blog post isn’t final. Think of your post as an exploration of a topic rather than the last word on the subject. A blog post is a chance to try out ideas, conduct research and get feedback from a live audience (if you want).

Dealing with a sensitive subject? You don’t have to make your blog public. Create a blog on WordPress.com and it keep it private. Share it with a few people – or no one. It’s up to you.

More comfortable with email? Did you know that you can literally mail it in? Post to your WordPress blog by email, if that’s more comfortable or convenient. You can also update your blog with your favorite mobile device.

Afraid to hit the “publish” button? WordPress has a solution for that. You don’t have to publish immediately. You can schedule a post to run on the date and time of your choosing. You can write your scathing expose of daycare regulations, leave the country and then have it publish when you’re safely overseas.

Are you more organized than most people? WordPress can accomodate that. Rather than creating posts organized by date, create pages and sub-pages by subject, matching them up with your undoubtedly elaborate outline. Use tags and categories as a kind of index for your document. WordPress is underrated as a tool for organizing text.

Looking for a popular topic to explore? Check out what’s fresh on WordPress to find something to talk about.

Really stumped? WordPress has tool for that. It’s called Plinky. Every day, it provides a new prompt to get you writing, a question to consider like, “What was your favorite toy as a kid?”

The key to overcoming writer’s block is to tell yourself that you’re not writing. You’re blogging. It’s not serious. It’s just a blog. And with the help of the friendly WordPress blog interface and a few simple tools, you can defeat writer’s block.

Friday Photo: Mysterious Snow Edition

Scott Circle in the snow

Meteorological winter ends Saturday. Too bad no one has told actual winter, which continues on unabated, with the coldest temperatures we’ve seen in decades.

Even winter has an upside though: snow. While we haven’t gotten a lot of snow, we’ve had some pretty storms, like the photo above. Low clouds, ground covered in white, flakes swirling through the streets give this urban scene a slightly mysterious quality. It’s an iPhone pic, from Scott Circle in Washington, DC. I’m up a couple of steps, standing on the Hahnemann Monument, to better capture the scene.