Five Places to Write in Washington, DC

courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery
Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC.

If you want to truly write a book, and not just live out some Eat, Pray, Love fantasy, then you need to go to a boring place. That’s the conclusion of Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup, in a recent blog post. He advocates going to a place where there is nothing to do.

While writing is a solitary activity, it doesn’t mean you need to be alone while doing it. I’m a city person, and like to write around other people, even if I’m not talking to them. A writer’s retreat in a remote cabin would probably turn me into the Unabomber. I need to see and hear other humans.

I’ve written two books in public in Washington, DC. These are my favorite places to write in the city:

1. Peets – 17th and L. I liked it when it was a Caribou, and I like it even more as a Peet’s (better scones). Located on a corner, with windows all around, it’s the perfect clean, well-lighted place. If you’re creatively stuck, you can always stare out the windows at cyclists going by on L Street. On the weekends, it’s so slow that I wonder how they stay in business. But they do and that’s perfect for me.

2. Cove – If you need more structure, than check out the co-working space Cove. They offer desks, fast wifi, coffee and even meeting rooms, all at a very reasonable rate. They have locations around DC but I like the Cove on 14th Street above Barcelona. If you’re there on a Sunday morning (when I like to write), you’ll have the place to yourself.

Never too hot for a cappuccino!
Cappuccino by Illy.

3. Renaissance Hotel – West End. Hotel lobbies are underused writing spaces in this city. This one has an Illy Cafe in it and they make the best cappuccino in the city. One upside/downside: no free wifi. If you can’t control your social media compulsion, come for the isolation.

4. Kogod Courtyard – Located at the National Portrait Gallery, it’s a calm oasis in the center of the city. There’s wifi, plentiful seating and a cafe. Plus, if you run out of ideas, you can always explore the fascinating exhibits at the museum. Open from 11 – 7.

5. Pound the Hill – This indie coffee shop has awesome food – the chicken salad is particularly good – and they even have a happy hour. With art on the walls, it’s a cute place on Capitol Hill to get some work done.

Note: I hate laptop campers, especially in small places like Pound. Give yourself two hours, do your work, and then leave. You can get a lot done if you give yourself a deadline.

A writing place doesn’t need to be boring. It just needs to be a spot where you like to write. When I wrote Murder in Ocean Hall, I discovered that I liked to get my writing done early in the day. And that I couldn’t do it at home. I had to leave my apartment, as if I were going to a job. Which is why I love and patronize coffee shops. While you may have a different preference, the most important thing is find the writing place that works for you.

Savage Harvest: Among the Cannibals

Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest
Carl Hoffman, author of Savage Harvest

Humans were made to eat like Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, not farmers.
– Chris Kresser, Your Personal Paleo Code

Americans are in love with the Stone Age. They long for the nirvana of the Paleo era, when we ate nothing but free-range mammoths and were strong, healthy and free of neuroses. Chris Kresser claims that our health has declined since the Stone Age while doomster Jared Diamond has called agriculture “the worst mistake in human history.”

It’s the ultimate form of liberal guilt. Our civilization has ruined the land with freeways, processed food and vaccinations. And there’s far too many of us. Man is a plague on the earth, according to Sir David Attenborough.

If only we could go back to when we lived as hunter-gatherers and ate nothing but locally-sourced organic food.

You can. And it all takes is a trip to New Guinea.

Savage HarvestIn researching his book Savage Harvest, author Carl Hoffman spent months with the indigenous Asmat people of New Guinea in his quest to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller. When he vanished in 1961, Rockefeller was one of the wealthiest men in the world and was collecting primitive art for his new museum.

Hoffman told the fascinating story behind this mystery at Salon Contra, an arts salon sponsored by Philippa Hughes of the Pink Line Project. He spoke before an intimate audience of the culturally curious who sipped white wine and politely asked questions.

To understand what happened to Rockefeller, Hoffman realized he had to understand the Asmat people and their culture which, until recently, included head-hunting and cannibalism. Living in huts in a swamp, the Asmat subsist on the sago palm and small crabs. Hoffman said he didn’t see a green vegetable for months. (There’s some speculation that cannibalism is a necessity for hunter-gatherers who don’t get enough protein and fat.)

In the patriarchal Asmat culture, the women do all the work, traveling every morning to the sea to cast nets for crabs. Most children are unschooled. The men spend the day smoking, drumming and engaging in sex with each other.  While nominally Catholic, they believe that spirits cause people to die and that the world must be balanced between the living and the dead. This need for vengeance to balance out the world has had tragic consequences – the Asmat live in two feuding villages separated by a no-man’s land.

But they are also known for their beautiful woodcarvings, which is what drew Rockefeller to the region in 1961. In Savage Harvest, author Hoffman retraces the steps of Rockefeller in an attempt to solve the decades-old mystery of his disappearance. It’s a true journey into the heart of darkness, conducted by a man who immersed himself inthe spiritual world of the Asmat.

Before you seek nirvana in the Stone Age, check out Savage Harvest. Read this fascinating mystery from the comfort of your air-conditioned home, with a glass of clean water at your side, protected from cannibals, and ponder the benefits of civilization.

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.

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.

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.

The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle

The Up Side of DownMegan McArdle has failed. By her own admission, she has failed multiple times, from her love life to her career choices. Which makes her the perfect person to write the book on failure.

The Up Side of Down argues that we all must learn to fail a little better, a little faster and to, most importantly, learn from the experience. There is no growth without failure, whether we’re talking economies or individuals.

McArdle bolsters her case with examples from business, medicine, physchology and economics. Discussing everything from the learning styles of children to the Solyndra debacle, she offers a kaleidoscope-look at the varieties of American failure.

And she makes a really important point on failure – we’re a nation founded by people who couldn’t hack it in the Old World. It wasn’t comfortable lords who built this country but starving peasants willing to risk a sea voyage for the opportunity to start anew. These failures created the greatest nation on earth.

One of the best chapters in the book discusses the plague of long-term unemployment, a problem once unique to Europe that has become an American scourge. McCardle writes with great compassion about people who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the cruelties of the job market that keep them that way. She likens unemployment to a dark room that you’ve stumbled into. The people who get out are the ones who keep moving, pursuing multiple opportunities in hopes that one of them will pay off.

The Up Side of DownMcArdle’s career illustrates this principle. An MBA who was jobless following 9/11, she (among other activities) started blogging, which led  to positions at The Economist, the Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Blogging was just one of several different options that she pursued during unemployment.

It is to our benefit that she found success as a blogger. McArdle is one  of the best explainers of economic ideas (far better than the needlessly wonky and overrated Ezra Klein). She takes the dismal science and puts it into terms anyone can understand, using examples from her own life.

For example, her desperate pursuit of a man who didn’t want her illustrates the idea of “sunk costs.” She had put in too many years to give up, having invested too much emotionally to just walk away. The failure was so devastating that she left NYC, moved to DC, and found her future husband – an example of the positive aspects of failure.

Interestingly, she cites surveys where many people cite failures – getting fired or divorced -as the best thing that ever happened to them. These calamities prompted people to try new things and find love elsewhere. We are “failure machines,” willing to try different solutions until we find the one that works. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We need more failures. Like Steve Jobs. Prior to the Macintosh, he failed with the Lisa, an overpriced personal computer that no one wanted. And before the success of the iPhone, there was the ignominy of the Newton. Jobs kept iterating, coming up with new ideas and new products, undaunted. Taking lessons from each failure enabled Jobs to find his way to success

McArdle discusses young journalists who sabotage their own careers by just giving up. So afraid of turning in a lousy manuscript, they write nothing. But a terrible first-draft can be fixed; one that doesn’t exist cannot. McCardle tells writers that they have permission to suck, realizing that this simple bit of advice is key to unlocking creative potential.

America needs to regain its taste for failure, something we have lost in the malaise of the Obama Economy. Risk-taking needs to be encouraged once again. Failures are learning experiences. Failures indicate confidence in the future – we’re willing to try new things, to make investments, to take chances.

“We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” I love this quote by Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. It perfectly expresses the optimism and can-do nature of the American spirit. We’re going to keep trying things until we find what works. Even if that means failure. Especially if it does.

The Up Side of Down is an overview of failure. We must embrace failure, treasure it, and, most importantly, learn from the experience. The secret to success is rooted in the hard lessons of failure.

Mentoring at DC Shorts

writers at DC Shorts Mentors

For the second year, I’m going to be a screenwriting mentor at DC Shorts Mentors. I’ve been a judge for the DC Shorts Screenwriting Competition, won the Film DC screenplay competition and interviewed filmmakers for On Tap, so I’m glad to share my knowledge with budding screenwriters. I’ll be speaking on a panel on March 8 with other writers.

What I like about DC Shorts Mentors is that it’s 100% focused on the practical elements of filmmaking. This is not a class on theory. These weekend sessions are led by people who have made award-winning films. If you want to learn how to write a script, work with actors, light and shoot a film and then market it to film festivals, then DC Shorts Mentors is for you. These are workshops – not just a sit back and listen experience – where you will be expected to write, work with perfomers and share your ideas.

The objective of DC Shorts Mentors is to develop the skills necessary to create outstanding short films that can be accepted into film festivals. Workshops are designed for filmmakers of all levels and take place over four weekends in March. All for just $200.

Classes are small and take place at the super-hip Gibson Guitar Room. Last year, there were people of all ages and experience levels – everyone from retirees making documentaries to webisode-crafting millennials. If you’re interested in joining DC’s indie filmmaking scene, DC Shorts Mentors would be a good place to start.

Guest Post on Digital Book Today: Want to Be Productive? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop

Fueled by caffeine, surrounded by low chatter and the hum of background music, I am at my most productive. Something about being in a coffee shop just makes me want to get to work. I wrote my first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall, in a couple of downtown DC coffee shops. I prefer Caribou Coffee, particularly stores that are populated by freelancers and grad students. Being around the studious makes me feel like I better get writing.

Check out my guest post – How to Be Productive? Get Thee to a Coffee Shop – on Digital Book Today. It’s about the link between coffee shops and getting things done.

Digital Book Today was founded by a book industry veteran. Its mission is to help readers find new authors in the digital world. It focuses on e-books and provides a great list of free new e-books every week.

Friday Photo: The Wallace Line Edition

The Wallace Line
Printers Row journal with The Wallace Line standalone supplement.

There is a special thrill to seeing your name in print that electrons will never be able to replace. Books and newspapers are physical objects. They are permanent. And they exist in the real world, not the virtual one.

Which is why I was delighted to get this awesome package in the mail. It’s my short story, The Wallace Line, which was printed as a standalone booklet in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row. My tale of a trip to Komodo that goes horribly wrong was a finalist for the 2013 Nelson Algren Award for short fiction.

And my name above the fold in Printers Row! That was a wonderful surprise that I will cherish for years to come.