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.

The 21st Century is a Really Bad Time for Control Freaks

The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks.
- Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor for Innovation to the U.S. Secretary of State

The State Department trusts its employees to tweet – why doesn’t yours?

The above quote was mentioned by Graham Lampa, State Department Office of Public Diplomacy, at the SocialGov Summit, a workshop on how government agencies are using social media to help build a more connected, responsive, and performance-driven government. The event featured digital experts from the State Department, USAID, Peace Corps, Red Cross and the Philippines government who discussed using social media to connect with audiences at home and abroad.

Lampa brought up the quote from his former boss when someone asked, “How are tweets cleared in your agency?” The answer is that State trusts its staff. In a rapidly changing world, there is not time to send social media through some cumbersome review process, particularly when you have staff scattered across the globe. State trusts its Ambassadors and consular staff to speak for the agency – and the country.

A friend of mine used to work for a Very Important Nonprofit (that no one has heard of outside of Washington). It believed that the world waited for their announcements as if they were Kremlin communiques. Even a simple tweet required multiple levels of sign-offs and approvals, with anxious emails parsing every single word over the course of days, sometime weeks. When the tweets finally reached the outside world, they read as if they were written by pedantic lawyers. They were ignored.

This is how you kill off social media. Who would want to tweet for an org like that?

But your employees will talk about you. They’re tweeting, posting on Facebook, pinning on Pinterest, holding Google Hangouts and taking pictures on Flickr. The conversation is taking place and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Communication can’t be controlled, even if you review every tweet employees produce during working hours.

“The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks,” as Alec Ross says. The State Department has 270 locations in 172 countries. It’s budget is in the tens of billions of dollars. They have guns, badges and the power of the federal government but even they can’t control what people are saying about them online. State wisely recognizes that they can’t control the conversation – instead they must contribute to it, using their best resource: their people.

Your employees want to help. They’re already talking about you on Facebook. Rather than tangling them in some social media policy, trust them to communicate your message online. After all, you hired them, didn’t you?

Get employes on your side. Get them tweeting for you. They are your best resource for they represent the authentic voice of your organization. Make them ambassadors for your brand – and get out of the way.

Tell It Slant: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsLiterary fiction gets a bad rap. It doesn’t have to be ponderous, inscrutable, unreadable. Literary fiction doesn’t have to mean some doorstop of a book that will be earnestly discussed in quiet voices on NPR, the kind of thousand-page novel that everyone buys and no one reads. Literary fiction can be more than just a marker of elite taste – literary fiction can be fun, inventive and playful. It can have a plot. It can be enjoyed.

Authors like Michael Chabon, TC Boyle and Gary Shteyngart demonstrate that you can write sophisticated fiction that’s loved by the public.

Kristopher Jansma shows how its done in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. This debut novel, now available in paperback, follows the worldwide travels of the ultimate unreliable narrator. It’s like ten books in one – a Southern coming of age story, an academic farce, a New York excursion and an expat’s tall tale – propelled forward by neatly contained chapters (which are like stories within stories). The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is compulsively readable, filled with oddball characters, strange situations and sudden turns of fate, all told by a sort of Nick Carroway, looking on enviously at the Gatsbys all around him.

My only criticism: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards switches scenes too quickly. Plot threads are picked up and dropped. Sometimes, you want to know more about that couple in Dubai. You want more – a good sign in a novel.

Ultimately, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a book about stories, the ones that are true, and the ones we tell ourselves. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson says, a mantra that runs throughout this novel. With their ability to tell it slant, novels contain truths that you won’t find in the newspaper.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards demonstrates the power of literary fiction to provide enlightenment through entertainment. Great storytelling is a kind of trick, an ancient one that we’re programmed to enjoy. Like listening to some stranger’s shaggy dog tale, we know that what we’re hearing is not technically true. But we have to know how it ends. Great literary fiction is like that, wrapping us up in an engaging story that tells it slant.

Imperfect Art is Better Than No Art at All

Artomatic, 2008

Artomatic, 2008

Artomatic is ten floors of bad art. Held every couple years in an abandoned office building, it’s a multi-week, multimedia arts event held in the Washington, DC area. Artomatic is non-juried. Pay a small fee and you’re given a section of wall to hang your work on. Like some sort of bizarre department store, Artomatic is home to thousands of square feet of slapdash painting, crude sculpture and out-of-focus photography. Added to this joyful mix of mediocrity are garage bands, freelance DJs, teen dance crews and deeply personal works of unwatchable performance art.

It really sucks. But that’s the key to its success. There’s an undeniable energy to the experience that you won’t find in some staid museum. No curators organized the art for you. The lighting is harsh. There is no audio tour. And around the corner could be anything – photos of Keds, a male nude or some impressionistic take on your home town that you fall in love with.

Artomatic celebrates the artist. It is about the messy process of art, as you struggle to achieve perfection with the most imperfect of materials: yourself.

As the author of two novels, I’ve met plenty of people over the years who say they have the perfect idea for a book. It’s so brilliant that they hesitate to even tell me about it. Maybe it’s the next War and Peace.

But we never find out because they never write it.

There’s a great chapter in The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle about writers, procrastination and the fear of failure. We put off work because we’re afraid that our work won’t be perfect. We have the perfect manuscript – in our heads – but in writing it down, it will inevitably be corrupted by our imperfections, ending up like one of the misbegotten pieces hanging on the walls of Artomatic.

Yet, despite the psychological peril, writing gets done. Novels are written, screenplays drafted, poetry composed. Why?

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

McArdle has her own advice for writers: you have permission to suck. Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It can be terrible. But get it done and get it on the page. You can fix a bad first draft; you can’t fix nothing.

Letting go of perfection is freeing. Tom Wolfe’s career began with a case of writer’s block, after being hired to write an article for Esquire:

I was totally blocked. I now know what writer’s block is. It’s the fear you cannot do what you’ve announced to someone else you can do, or else the fear that it isn’t worth doing. That’s a rarer form. In this case I suddenly realized I’d never written a magazine article before and I just felt I couldn’t do it. Well, Dobell somehow shamed me into writing down the notes that I had taken in my reporting… so that some competent writer could convert them into a magazine piece. I sat down one night and started writing a memorandum to him as fast as I could, just to get the ordeal over with. It became very much like a letter that you would write to a friend in which you’re not thinking about style, you’re just pouring it all out, and I churned it out all night long, forty typewritten, triple-spaced pages. I turned it in in the morning to Byron at Esquire, and then I went home to sleep. About four that afternoon I got a call from him telling me, Well, we’re knocking the “Dear Byron” off the top of your memo, and we’re running the piece.

You have a unique story to tell. But only if you share it. Let go of perfection and write it down in all its messy glory. It’s not going to be the idealized version in your head. It’s going to have rough edges and jagged corners. It might lack supporting beams and doors and windows. All of these problems can all be fixed – but only if you have the raw material to work with. You can’t reshape illusions.

Your work may be as flawed and imperfect as the art hanging on the walls of Artomatic. But it will be real. It will exist in the world. And imperfect art is better than no art at all.

Friday Photo: Construction Crane Edition

construction crane

14th Street NW in Washington is one of the hottest corridors in the country. This once beat-up strip lined with auto repair joints is being transformed into blocks of condos, micro-apartments, restaurants and high-end retail. Very high-end.

This is one of the construction cranes that Mayor Gray touts as proof of the city’s growth. He’s right – this crane is building a set of $500,000 condos on the site of an old parking lot.  There used to be empty lots on 14th Street and boarded-up buildings. They’re just about gone now, the march of construction cranes marking their disappearance.

Photos n’ Boots at the Frye Company Popup Gallery

Frye boots

Those are some expensive boots, pardner.

How  can I get you into a pair of $398 boots?

Perhaps an evening of beautiful people, interesting photos and delicious cocktails?

On Thursday night, I attended the Frye Company Popup Gallery in Georgetown. It’s a beautiful store, a virtual temple to leather on Wisconsin Avenue. The evening, curated by local arbiters of cool Worn Creative,  featured hand-crafted drinks from Catoctin Creek, as well as music spun by U.S. Royalty.

I was there for the art. Hanging on the walls of the two-story Frye Company store was work by Jim Darling, Amber Mahoney, Martin Swift and Jessica Lancaster. I’m a huge fan of Jim and Amber, having met them through InstantDC. I think Jim is best at portraits – he’s able to respectfully connect with people (even strangers on the street) to create photos that capture the essence of a person. And Amber creates beautiful dreamscapes that have the quality of myth.

Both of them are also incredibly nice people – hire them the next time you need photos.

Jim Darling and his fiance Amy.

The Worn Creative model is also really interesting. We’re bombarded with marketing messages these days – most of which we ignore. Think of all the banner ads, commercials and billboards that you pay no attention to. How do you break through the clutter?

One way is through creative events like this popup gallery, in which you combine art, music and drinks to create a brand experience to lure in potential buyers. It’s more effective than creating a 30-second commercial that people will ignore. And a lot more fun for your target audience. It’s also local, featuring DC artists, and personalized, for it was invite-only. The only thing missing was its own hashtag.

The future lies in this kind of creative marketing that seeks to surprise and delight buyers rather than bludgeoning them with messages that they seek to avoid.

The Frye Company Popup Gallery successfully imprinted in my head the belief that their boots are cool and drool-worthy. Going in, I thought $398 boots were ridiculous. But the experience of the store has altered that perception, sending me down the marketing funnel toward the inevitable purchase of some enviable boots.