Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why "A Christmas Story" Became a Classic

Warning: if you haven’t seen the movie A Christmas Story even once, you will probably won’t get a lot out of this post and there are plenty of spoilers here to boot. If this describes you, by all means do yourself a favor this holiday season and SEE THIS MOVIE before you read this, especially if you’re one of those merry souls who feel your Christmas season isn’t complete unless you view the likes of Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty and the Grinch. A Christmas Story is a modern classic that has the distinct privilege of being featured in a 24-hour marathon on TBS (the Turner Broadcasting System) and watched by millions of people every year. I watch it at least six times each marathon and love it more and more each time I see it.

A Little Background

A Christmas Story is a 1983 movie based on short stories by American author and radio humorist Jean Shepherd from his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Set in late 1930's / early 1940's Indiana, it follows the adventures of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his relentless pursuit and acquisition of his heart’s desire for Christmas: a Red Ryder BB gun. The film did not impress critics in its theatrical release and had limited audience enthusiasm, in part because holiday-themed movies were not in vogue during that time. Over the years, thanks to television and in particular the TBS marathons, the film has grown significantly in popularity and ranks near the top of all-time favorite holiday movies.

Story Structure

A Christmas Story is easily contained within the 3-act story structure, with each act featuring Ralphie trying to convince an adult (his mother, his teacher and Santa Claus himself) that the BB gun would not be the instrument whereby he would “shoot his eye out” (an ongoing motif that links the acts). In all three cases, Ralphie’s elaborate methods to convince the adult in question of the safety of the toy are successfully foiled, but at the end of Act III, Ralphie’s father (the “Old Man”) comes in to save the day and makes sure Ralphie receives the gun from Santa.

The plot follows the basic pattern for all good stories: the hero (Ralphie) wants something so badly he’s willing to do whatever it takes — within reason, of course — to get it. Along the path of this journey, he is repeatedly thwarted from reaching his goal by stronger and stronger adversaries, increasing his desperation and lengths he’s willing to go until finally, when it appears his mission has failed, he gets what he worked so hard for.

Subplots Galore

If you watch the movie enough times, you become intimately familiar with the subplots. Some of them:
  • The Old Man’s constant war with the neighbor’s dogs
  • The Old Man’s constant war with inanimate objects (the furnace and family Oldsmobile)
  • The Old Man’s gift of creative cussing pulled out on many occasions
  • The infamous "Leg" lamp
  • Ralphie and his friends’ escalating confrontations with the neighborhood bully
  • Ralphie’s mother and her overprotectiveness of his younger brother
  • Ralphie’s finally receiving his long-awaited Little Orphan Annie decoder ring (and being disappointed by the “secret message” it provides)
All of this is played in the background to the overall theme: Christmas and Ralphie’s getting his perfect present on Christmas Day, mixed in with the odd daydream here and there, consistent with that which floats through any kid’s mind during a long and boring day.

Tying All of It Together

Unlike in lesser made films, the myriad subplots do not detract from the main story in this movie, but rather enhance it. At the end, Ralphie does get his gun — but he also beats up the bully so badly that he has to be pulled off the kid before he did him any serious damage, essentially providing satisfying closure for both dramatic points. The Old Man’s lost final battle with the neighbors’ dogs leads the family to enjoy a charming, but odd, Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant that remained a cherished memory for Ralphie (as narrator) for the rest of his life — as only delightfully strange events in our lives can do.

There are many other examples of how the subplots weave within the main story and/or the characters’ motivations and personalities. There’s not a bit of wasted dialog or action; any further editing would do irreparable damage to the overall effect of the film.

Thus the appeal of A Christmas Story: it cultivates a familiar storytelling approach with highly entertaining subplots that enhance the effect of the time and place, and thus, the overall feel.


One can speculate on a number of themes. Here are a few examples:
  • Persistance pays
  • If it’s worthwhile goal, it’s worth fighting for
  • Never come between a boy and his BB gun
No matter which one you decide on, though, there is plenty of subtext to consider.

Hidden Lesson?

After Ralphie gets his gun, he rushes outside to try it. An ill-advised shot nearly causes what most of the adults in the movie already warned him about: he comes close to really shooting his eye out. However, thanks to some creative storytelling, Ralphie is able to successfully blame the near tragedy on something else, only eliciting the sympathy of his ever-supportive mother. Perhaps the lesson learned is this: adults really do know better than kids, but that knowledge is certainly limited to what input the parents have access to. True to form, however, movie heroes, even kids, always win the day, even through deception and subterfuge. Didn’t we all survive childhood with a bit of that?

Final Thoughts

I’ve taken time to analyze my own feelings about what makes The Christmas Story such an enjoyable one to watch over and over again. Sure, it’s a little holiday tradition I’ve established for myself, coming from a very traditional (and large) extended family. We humans enjoy our little rituals, don’t we? ☺

However, I think it’s more than that. Perhaps it’s the realism of the sets and the nostalgia they elicit. Or maybe it is, at the end, a heartwarming story about a young boy who gets his Christmas wish, courtesy of Santa (with an assist from a bighearted father who remembered his own boyhood). There certainly appears to be genuine affection expressed by the boys’ mother toward them and even an amused tolerance of her husband’s larger-than-life personality. I’m sure it’s all that and more, for me and for the many people who camp out in front of the TV every Christmas to watch it.

Merry Christmas to all!


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Playing Catch-Up (Ever So Briefly)

I'm not sure if I should be shocked or amused that the last post I made to this blog was back in early June.  To say the year's flown by is not only a cliché, but a regular comment I keep hearing from both my off-line and online friends.  What the hell is going on?  Did someone speed up the timeline?  I feel like it was just last week we were celebrating Christmas and here we are again, with only thirteen shopping days left.

New Book

What have I been doing, writing-wise, since June?  To begin with, I decided to publish another collection of short stories again, this time without poetry.  The working title is Secrets of the Foothills, which is a spin-off from the first book, In the Foothills (and yes, I have the title for the next one to follow this one).  I have several stories completed, but unedited, for the new book, plus I have several stories plotted, but in various stages of completion.  Needless to say, this has kept me very busy the second half of 2011.  The book should be released by August 31st, 2012.

Screenplays & Television

At the same time, I've also been busy working on my screenplays (I have several in various phases of development).  Writing those takes a totally different mental state and is a welcome respite from the short story writing.  I've been getting a lot of interest in my scripts lately, too, so perhaps the industry is opening up a bit.  Can I get a witness?  No?  

One of the most promising new projects I have in the entertainment genre is a TV series (a sitcom) that I think would be a hit, but as always, only with the right producer, director, cast and crew.  I've already outlined a treatment with an entire season of plot lines written up.  "All" I need to do is write up a synopsis for each episode and package the whole thing as a single treatment.  Perhaps more to come on that later.

The Idea Jar

Finally, I made the "mistake" of opening up the idea jar.  I do this sometimes and just collect random titles or phrases I read everywhere (including from Twitter), then writing them down to noodle on.  From there, I just free-write a plot line based on the title alone.  Amazing out of all of those, how many are viable future projects.  To say I have more to write than I will have years to live is no exaggeration!  Believe me, it takes a lot of discipline not to get sidetracked on any of these new ideas.

Seasons Greetings

That's all from our hill, where the wind doth blow and Christmas is nigh.  Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season (especially you Druids, from whom we get the quaint custom of dragging dead pine trees into our homes).



Sunday, June 5, 2011

What's New - Week of May 29, 2011

Good evening, gentle reader. June arrived at our little enclave with little fanfare. Rather, the infamous “June gloom” stopped by for its annual visit, promising a few weeks of un-summer-like weather. After a cold, wet winter and a cooler than normal spring, I’m starting to wonder whether the sunny California weather is just a myth anymore.

On-Going Activities

Editing remains the top activity lately, though I’ve done my share of writing, too. I spent part of the week going back through some of my other WIPs (short stories, this time) and editing them as well. I’m always pleased when I revisit any of my WIPs, especially after I let a lot of time go by, to see the work with new eyes, which enables me to make the piece even better. My advice to anyone editing their own work is to put it away for a while after the first draft (at least a month, unless you’re on a deadline), the return to it. It makes all the difference as far as what the finished product turns out to be.

For example, this is a piece I began in January 2010 which I just edited for fun:

They've only known him as The American. He lived in the small pink bungalow as close to the shore as was sensible. At times, the tide lapped within six feet of his front door, leaving eddies still swirling in their wake. When the summer storms arrived, the structure appeared to pitch against the angry winds, but no matter how strong the gales pounded the shore, the bungalow stayed upright and true. At those times, The American could be seen sitting on his front stoop, rocking back and forth, watching the storms' anger, almost challenging them to wash him out to sea. For fifteen years, maybe more, the man and his shelter survived all comers and stood stronger after each battle.

The children from the neighboring towns dared each other all year long to say hello to him. Every once in a while, a brave soul or two would venture as far as the front door, but would lose their nerve before actually knocking, instead running away as though a ghost accosted them. The American could be seen standing on the front porch, surveying the hasty retreat of the brown-skinned urchins that tried to make contact with him.

Does the beginning make you want to learn more about this mysterious man?

First Lines

Sometimes I like to indulge in an exercise of creating first lines for short stories (or longer works) just to see what my mind can conjure up. It certainly helps get the creative juices flowing. Here are the first lines I came up with this week (as always, these are raw and may not go anywhere):

I came to Santa Lucia de la Terra for only one reason: to die.

Wherever Tonia traveled, bad luck could be found sitting proudly in the sidecar.

Steven walked to the open window, stuck his head outside and witnessed the end of civilization.

Many knew Peter all too well and that made him a marked man, for no one in town wanted to see him alive by the next morning.

As the explosions grew ever closer, Crystal stood up in her Mustang convertible and viewed the Pacific for the last time.

Anxious to greet the day, Bob tore out of his driveway and plowed into the neighbor's '57 T-bird, ran over a garbage can, shifted into first and laid rubber all the way down Friendly Lane.

Life had a funny way of throwing curve balls at a person, as Priscilla discovered the night she returned home and found her husband and all her belongings gone.

Three days before, Terry stood on the very edge of taking his own life, but since he found the false wall in his house, he wanted to live forever.

The excruciating pain in his torn knee caused Jim to pass out, his head hitting the solid oak table as he fell and splitting open the back of his head.

Chambliss stood on the boardwalk, watching the vendors sell their kitschy wares, and wished that they notice him just once.

Armed with her last grenade and an overused baseball bat, Loretta realized that reinforcements weren't going to arrive in time, so she girded her courage and headed out to meet the invaders head-on.

Gideon slid back the hidden panel and stuck his hand inside the small compartment, then pulled out the paper tube he knew would be there, now yellowed with age and darkened by plant spores.

If you’ve never tried this before, definitely give it a go (and let me know how it turned out).

New Story Start

I woke up this morning with a title for a short story in my head, a bit of an odd thing, called “Monty McGillicuddy Is Dead.” I’ve laid out a basic plot and a snippet of the start:

Sundays are my designated do-nothing-but-watch-sports-and-nap days. So, in honor of that tradition, I was fast asleep during the last round of the Masters when the phone rang next to my head, jarring me awake.

"Hey, John, it's Dad. Are you in the middle of something?"

I rubbed my eyes and sat up to clear my head. "No, just watching golf. Anything wrong? You and Mom okay?"

"Sure, we're fine. No, I wanted to tell you something. I don't know if you remember him from school, but I just saw in the paper the Monty McGillicuddy is dead."

Monty McGillicuddy. I hadn't heard that name or even thought of him in at least ten years.


"Oh, sorry. Yeah, of course I remember Monty. How'd he die?"

"That's the thing. They don't say what he died from. But who cares, that jerk's dead and that's all that matters. You probably don't remember how he made your life a living hell for so long."

I chuckled. "Oh yeah, Pop, that's not something I'd be like to forget ever."

My dad laughed, too. "I suppose not. Well, it may be wrong for me to say it, but I'm glad he's dead. Seeing what he did to you, I hated him. And I don't hate anybody, you know."

That much was true. My father had unusual tolerance for just about everyone and for those he didn't, he usually reserved judgment, saving that privilege for someone else.

"I know, Pop. Look, thanks for the news. I'll check it out on the web."

I hung up the phone and walked over to my office. In a few minutes, I found a couple of obits and a piece on a midwestern law school website that discussed how Monty's sudden death was a "sad loss" and how he was an "honored member" of the faculty. So that's what happened to my old nemesis. For some reason, this revelation about his last occupation surprised me more than news of his demise. To think that Monty would be honored by anyone, the least of which being law students, caused me to laugh in spite of myself.

This is another story I just want to sit down and write, stopping all other WIPs, especially since the whole thing is more or less formed in my head. This is both a curse and a blessing, as I say (probably too often). There aren’t enough hours in the day, I tell ya!

So, with that little editorial comment, I’ll sign off. Wishing you a great week!

- Michael

Monday, May 30, 2011

What's New - Week of May 22, 2011

Greetings and salutations, all. Today is Memorial Day in the States (and our twelve year wedding anniversary, too), so while I wait for my wife to get primped up for our night out, I decided to write a short blog post.

On-Going Activities

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a large amount of my writing time on two things: editing my works-in-progress and writing brand new material that has nothing to do with the former. As I noted in my last post, I downloaded Celtx for the iPad and have working to get my various screenplays synced between the desktop and tablet versions. That gave me the chance to revisit some of my favorite future projects and think a bit more about what I want to do with them.

Besides Project X to which I referred last time, there’s also Projects Y and Z (also screenplays). All three of them have potential commercial appeal and I can’t wait to be working on them for real. That’s one of the challenges of having these ideas - there is not enough hours in the day to do all the writing I would love to be doing. It’s funny - there was a time I had major insomnia, but I was so zoned, I couldn’t write much even while I was completely awake. Now I’m back to being able to sleep without trouble, so I find myself stealing time from my designated sleep time to write. As we all know, eventually the piper has to be paid.

Short Stories - New Idea

A week wouldn’t be complete without my drafting a fresh snippet or three. Here is the start of a short story thriller I began a couple of weeks ago (as always, this is raw material. God knows what the final product will look like):

The instant I heard the shot, I knew the last of the guards sworn to protect me to the end met his fate like the rest of his comrades.  I'm all alone, I thought to myself.  No, not completely alone.  That would never be true so long as they roamed the island.

Death's ugly stench filled the cave, forcing me to seek another hiding place.  Theirs was a race drawn to such horrors like the stars to the night sky and I only had a little time before they'd be upon me.  Thank God they weren't as numerous as the stars - maybe I could still escape their clutches if kept my head on straight!

The guards told me that in the event I had to flee, I would find a barely passable exit at the rear of the cave.  My lantern barely put out enough light to see more than a few feet in front of me and I only had two flares left, but I had no choice.  I strapped on my threadbare backpack and took off.

The sound of my footsteps echoed as I stumbled half-blind over the slick limestone.  Behind me, I heard nothing but silence.  So far, so good.

I climbed over a four foot pile of rocks and almost fell face first into a small pool of murky rainwater.  The water looked green with algae, a sure sign there would be plenty of slippery rocks to deal with as I made my way to freedom.  I stepped gingerly over the water and continued along the narrow path down the end of the cave wall.

When I first arrived eleven days before, I couldn't believe how fortunate I was to find such a deserted place.  My pilot landed the plane on the leeward side of the island, guiding the Cessna with the precision honed from years of landing all types of aircraft on slivers of flat iciness atop of Alaska's most delicate glaciers.  He cut the engines and we both jumped out, me with my backpack and fishing gear, him with a cooler of beers and food.  We both cracked open a cold one and toasted our safe landing.

"I'll be back in ten days to get ya," he told me, chugging down the rest of his brew.  "Just meet me here around 1:00 in the afternoon.  You'll see me coming in from the northeast."

He pointed in the general direction of his intended flight path, but I knew where he meant.  I surely would be here on time to pick up my ride.

My pilot climbed back into the cockpit, started up the Cessna's engines and took off again, heading back to Guam, his home base.  I watched him until the plane was a mere speck on the horizon, then looked around the beach to figure out my next move.

I spent years seeking out the most obscure spots on the planet to play survivalist, escaping the brutal corporate grind a couple of weeks every year.  Nature always fascinated me and untamed nature appealed the most to my sense of adventure and deep desire to return to the basics.  I certainly was no misanthrope, as my circle of close friends and business acquaintances would tell you; simply put, I needed time away from mankind to recharge my batteries.  A little danger intentionally put in my way certainly helped my restoration.

What will happen to our hero? Hopefully, a lot. Will he survive? Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m not tellin’. :-)

OK, that’s all for now. I said it was going to be a short post.

Until next time,


Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's New - Week of May 8, 2011

Mid-May and you’d think Spring would’ve stayed sprung, no? This morning, it was cold and rainy here on The Hill, a place known for both cool weather and that famous “dry heat” the Southwest is famous for. Well, not to complain - weather like this makes it easier to suppress the demons tempting me to go outside and play. Writing’s what it’s all about. And on that note ...

On-Going Activities

I took a week off from editing Lens Flare and instead spent some time on my screenplays - both works-in-progress and those in the queue. Some of this was done in order to test out Celtx for the iPad, which I finally broke down and bought (now that they lowered the price by 50% and added a syncing function with the desktop app).

In order to test this, I exported the current incomplete draft of A Grand Delusion (the one I’m writing based on my short story of the same name) from Final Draft into text format and then imported it into Celtx desktop. It took a bit of time to format it properly (that is, to assign the correct elements to each piece of text), but once I completed, I sent it over to my iPad and it looks great! Definitely a plus, especially since I recently purchased a Bluetooth keyboard for my iPad. Much better taking that to bed to write on than my MacBook Pro.

Then I decided to use Celtx for the iPad to begin the opening scenes for a script I’ve had in on my to-do list for several years. I’ll call it Project X for now, as I think the title is too intriguing to give away at this time. The app worked wonderfully and after I synched it back to my desktop, I was able to easily pick up where I left off.

There are a couple of other screenplays I have in progress (unnamed for now as well) that I started in Celtx which now reside on my iPad. This will make it so much easier to write & edit them as time permits. Once I have first drafts completed, I’ll move them over to Final Draft to polish and prep. How cool is that?

Ricochet Man - The One That Got Away

Whenever someone’s about to tell a joke, they say “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.” I’ll ask the same indulgence in the (re)telling of this story.

Back in 2005, I wrote my first screenplay called The Rebound Guy. I don’t remember the original logline (it’s in my notes somewhere), but here it is now:

After spending a lifetime bedding women on the rebound, a lothario finally falls in love and finds himself in competition with his own brother for her heart.

The idea for this came to me in a dream. We were living in our downtown LA loft apartment (our 18-month bohemian period) and I woke up one Saturday summer morning with this idea fully formed in my head. I had just bought a Toshiba tablet PC and remember writing the treatment longhand on it (forty pages worth), even including music that would work perfect at various points in the movie. I already knew who would play the main roles and everything.

I next bought Final Draft and proceeded to write the screenplay in about two weeks time. After several drafts, I asked my wife to edit it for me - she was a creating writing major, after all - but alas, she procrastinated. Summer turned into fall, fall turned into winter and finally I couldn’t wait any longer and did the final review & edit myself, then posted it on Inktip (around February 2006) and waited.

Not too long after, I got a call from a producer - the wife of a well-known DC, in fact - who expressed interest in working with me. I met her and her husband at Starbucks near their home and long story short, they wanted to option the script. Naturally, I was thrilled. This was my first screenplay and it was possible someone was going to turn it into a film!

I hired an entertainment lawyer - I didn’t have an agent - and he edited the contract. I sent it to the producer who, to my surprise, had no objections with any of the changes. We were ready to sign.

Then I got the brilliant idea to secure the domain for the movie - and when I did the look-up, I saw that Twentieth Century Fox Films already took it. No!! More research showed that they announced the pitch for a movie with that title in Variety in December 2005 - long after I wrote mine, but before I posted it to Inktip. Clearly, this was a coincidence, but the loglines at the time looked almost identical! Their script hadn’t been written yet, though the writers were chosen, and Seed Productions was going to produce it. Their executive producer happens to be Hugh Jackman, who would also be the star of the movie.

I guess I’m too honest - when I told my producers about this, they decided to pass on the opportunity and I was left high and dry. I retitled my script to Ricochet Man (a play on “rebound guy”) and altered it a bit to distinguish it from Fox’s - my producers recommended I make it about a pair of brothers instead of a guy and his best friend. Even though I’ve had interest from others in making this film since then, I’ve not gotten past the negotiations stage with any of them.

A few interesting tidbits:
  • Three years ago, I sent Seed Productions a letter and told them I had the completed script and wrote it before they did (if they every did). They sent a succinct reply back telling me they had no interest.
  • Fox’s movie has yet to be made. IMDB Pro lists it as being released in 2012 - this has changed virtually every year since it got on the site. Since it doesn’t appear that any talent is yet attached to this project, I predict it will be pushed out again.
  • Seed Productions no longer appears to be associated with the movie, nor is Hugh Jackman, for that matter.
And so, that’s the scoop in the nutshell. There are hundreds of stories in the naked city and that’s just mine. Will I see the movie if it’s ever made - probably.

Short Stories - New Idea

This was also one of those weeks where I had ideas that I had to start working out or I would bust. This snippet began with the opening scene just tripping in my head - I think I was daydreaming while waiting for my turn to be questioned during my recent jury duty service. I couldn’t wait to get home to capture it and then kept it going, the entire plot sketched out to complete. Here it is (so far), raw and unedited:

Harvey Biscombe stumbled and limped his way along the uneven sidewalk, stopping at short intervals to observe the most mundane things: a bird gripping a styrofoam cup in its beak, a plastic bag held aloft by the updraft from a passing car.  The world's small dramas still mesmerized him, despite his diminishing eyesight and failing attention span.

Other pedestrians strode by him, almost toppling him in the wake of their got-to-get-to-work passage.  Sometimes he used his cane like a bullfighter with his cape and issued a full veronica after each passing body, artistry that left no lasting impression on his conquests, but instead elicited sneers of derision.  After each torrent of abuse, Biscombe would chuckle in that way old men do, dry and throaty, with a hint of a rasp from tired lungs.

At stoplights, he stood with the others, waiting for the signal to cross, but as soon as the signal changed, the sea of humanity pressed him forward and caused him to dig in until the crowd pushed past him.  He then stepped off the curb in two full steps and inched across the street, just making it to the other side before traffic continued.  Without fail, he would turn toward the passing cars and wave as though thanking them for the privilege of letting him share their street with him.

After walking several city blocks in this manner, the cityscape changed from busy and bright metropolis where pedestrians outnumbered the vehicles to the gray outskirts, devoid of crowded sidewalks and dense auto traffic.  Instead, Biscombe would have to walk around or over the occasional transient that lay in his path.  Ancient Fords and Chevys, blue smoke billowing from rusted tailpipes, snuck past him, heads and eyes turned, watching his every move, suspicious of his odd presence in their neighborhood.

Do you want to guess where Harvey is going and what happens next? You may be surprised at where this story leads him.

Next Week

I didn’t cover everything I thought I would this week, so I’ll tee them up again for next time:
  • Some unlikely plots I’ve dreamt up
  • A silly TV series idea
  • Doc On Loan - results from the first ScriptFrenzy
  • Another short story snippet
So until next time, have a great week and keep writing!


Sunday, May 8, 2011

What's New - Week of May 1, 2011

It’s Mothers Day, so my hat’s off you all of you who are mothers or have mothers. And now, the week that was ...

On-Going Activities

Editing dominated the week’s work, as has been the case for the last month (I’m up to chapter 5 right now). Lens Flare remains the novel I’ll most likely publish first among those I’ve already invested a lot of time in, which is why I’m being particularly fastidious about the editing process with this partial manuscript. I stopped at chapter eight before and from there I’ll pick up the writing. I can’t wait.

The Genesis of Yet Another Story

As I’ve noted before, it’s easy to become distracted from your task list to chase another “really great idea.” I encourage everyone not to be so rigid as to dismiss that burst of inspiration, especially if you’re like me and think they’re gifts from your Muse ... she doesn’t like being rebuffed, trust me. Instead, take a little time to jot down some key information or a snippet of prose so you can come back to it later. That is, unless the idea is fully formed, of course - then you may need to sketch out the entire thing before you lose it all.

Case in point - last Saturday morning, I woke up at 6:30 and as always, our almost fifteen year-old beagle mutt observed me lift my head and in a blink, she stood in front of the sliding glass door of our bedroom, wanting to see if the Food Fairy left her anything overnight - only to be disappointed, I assure you. I watched her trot to the other side of the house, then meander her way around the back deck, exploring her queendom and trying to decide where to leave her Morning Deposit. A pretty stiff wind rose unexpectedly and shook the trees, something that caused her to be distracted and standing, sniffing the air for whatever interesting smells the wind brought her way. For whatever reason, the phrase “Idiot Winds” popped into my head, so I got up out of bed and walked down to my study to capture this (note this is very raw):

  1. Fired up Evernote
  2. Created a new noted and entitled it “Idiot Winds,” adding “Titles” as the tag
  3. Launched Google Chrome (my new browser preference) and went to Amazon.com to check the title. It turns out, Bob Dylan has a song called “Idiot Wind,” but I’m not worried about that.
  4. I wrote down the premise: “A freak windstorm buffets a small rural town, causing the residents to behave as strangely as the weather.”
  5. I then wrote the opening scene:

“I bet I can beat you to that ridge,” Jenny yelled, looking back at Toby. She pointed to the spot for emphasis.

“You never have before,” Toby said, holding his horse in place. “What do I get if I beat you?”

“The usual, I guess,” Jenny said with a wicked smile. “But what do I get if I beat you?”

Toby laughed. “I never thought about it. We’ll figure it out if that ever happens.”

Jenny trotted Chestnut over to Toby and slapped him on the arm, then took off for the ridge at a full gallop.

“Cheater!” Toby shouted as he and Liberty set out after her.

The pair spurred their horses repeatedly, jumping over dips and ruts at a frenzied pace, nearly caroming against each other several times. Their horses knew the drill and galloped as fast as they could, each wanting to take their rider to victory.

A thousand yards from the finish line, Chestnut slowed up without warning, almost causing Jenny to pitch headlong over the horse’s head. Moments later, Toby passed her and raced to the ridge’s edge. He stuck his fists in the air and let out a war whoop to declare victory. When he turned to await Jenny’s late arrival, he saw her standing next to Chestnut, holding him back by the reins as he strained to get away.

In a moment, he reached her and got off of Liberty, then grabbed Chestnut’s reins along with her.

“What’s going on?” he asked her as they both struggled to calm the horse down.

“No idea,” Jenny replied between gritted teeth. “Something spooked him awful.”

“Was it a snake?” Toby asked, scanning the thick grass. “I don’t see anything around here.”

Jenny didn’t answer, but pulled harder on the reins, cooing softly to her horse. After several minutes, Chestnut got the message and relaxed, still panting, a look of panic in his eyes.

“We’d better go back,” Toby said, mounting Liberty. “I don’t like it when these horses start acting skittish.”

Jenny climbed back on Chestnut and the two trotted back toward the ranch.

“By the way, I won,” Toby said with a snicker. “We’ll discuss the terms of your surrender later.”
Will this go anywhere? Maybe. I already know what’s going to happen in the next scene, but before I write that, I will plot it out. This is definitely a short story, nothing longer - and at least it will be fun to write.

30 Rock Idea

If you’ve never seen this comedy, you’re missing one well-written, funny show. What’s interesting is I’ve mostly only watch it on Netflix as I have other things going on when it airs (and believe it or not, I don’t have a DVR - don’t ask).

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the premise, Tina Fey (from SNL fame) plays the head writer of a variety sketch show, in charge of a group of “characters” who are tasked to produce this live show every week. Fey (as Liz Lemon) spends a large part of her time trying to get the writers, acting talent and others to create something watchable while the remainder of the time, she obsesses with her less-than-stellar personal life.

My idea sprung from my recent addiction with Angry Birds, the computer game sensation that’s really captured a lot of eyeballs (and money) from the ever-hungry gaming community. In my plot, Liz belittles her staff who have become obsesses with a computer game, mocking them every chance she gets about how lame it is. At some point, they challenge her to try it and she goes about proving how dumb it is - only she realizes it’s not as simple-minded as she originally thought. The more she tries to prove her point, the deeper she gets into it until she becomes even more addicted than anyone else in her office.

Liz’s addiction moves to dangerous levels. She starts neglecting her hygiene, her job, her relationships, and mostly everything else just so she can play this game. At some point, she goes head to head with an online opponent who taunts her and as a result, brings Liz’s game up several notches. When she finally reaches the last level, she discovers she’s made it into the top ten players and that all of them are invited to compete for the championship trophy. Unfortunately, that championship coincides with a deadline for a two-hour special she and her team have to finish and air that same evening. Liz has to choose between this big show and the championship. The question is what does she do?

It’s unlikely I’ll write this episode - fan fiction really isn’t my thing - but if someone from the 30 Rock writing team wanted to steal this, I’d be happy to look the other way.

A Perfect Tenant - A Movie I’d Love to See Made

I’ve written three feature-length screenplays (so far), one of which is called A Perfect Tenant. Here’s the logline:

“When a couple takes in a conniving boarder to earn extra money, it’s up to their ten year-old son and Great Dane to convince him to leave.”

Think of it as a comedic Pacific Heights, the movie starring Michael Keaton as a crazed tenant who is bound and determined to force his landlords (played by Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine) to abandon the property so he can buy it cheap, using the California tenant laws in his favor. In my version, Robin Williams would play the tenant who moves from house to house, taking advantage of naive landlords by faking injuries in order to gain free room and board. Unfortunately for Charlie Pound (the tenant), his new landlords have a bratty son, Kyle, and his destructive Great Dane, who are hellbent on expelling the usurper. Hilarity ensues when Charlie falls victim to Kyle’s pranks time and again until the joke goes to far and Charlie really gets hurt, forcing Kyle to kowtow to Charlie’s every whim.

Maybe some day ...

Next Time

That’s all for this week. Possible topics for next time:
  • Discussion of Ricochet Man (another feature-length screenplay I wrote)
  • Some unlikely plots I’ve dreamt up
  • A silly TV series idea
Until then, have a great week!


Sunday, May 1, 2011

What's New - Week of April 25, 2011

Aloha! It’s May Day - or Lei Day (if you’re in Hawaii). Here’s a snapshot of the week that was.


I spent another week of editing Lens Flare. I remember that when I first started writing, I hated (dreaded) the editing process. Like many other beginning writers, I felt that I poured it all out on the page already and except for fixing typos and grammar nits, my work was sacrosanct. As one matures as writer, that dread you feel becomes an opportunity to approach “perfection” - certainly not in the purest sense of the word, but as close as you think you should be before putting it before an audience of critical readers.

The thing about the process of editing (and re-editing and re-re-editing) is much like a sculptor that fashions a share out of a blob of clay - at first, the substance of the finish piece is barely seen within the medium, but after cutting, smoothing, massaging and tweaking, the final product finally emerges. Oh, what a great day that is!

But how do you know when you’re really finished? After all, if one can never achieve “perfection,” then it stands to reason you can keep editing for the rest of your days. Sometimes you really do need the input from an interested third party to get feedback before calling your work “done.” Be prepared for whatever you may hear, though - if you’re squeamish about getting well-meaning critique about your new baby, you may be in for a major shock when your reader sends you a laundry list of “must fix” items (especially after you’ve invested so much time getting it right in your eyes). Advice for receiving critique on your work: take what you need and leave the rest. Similarly, if you provide critique, be constructive, but kind - tough love is great for keeping kids out of trouble, but artists’ egos are fragile things, so there’s no reason to live by the motto “it’s cruel to be kind.”

Work-in-Progress (Last): Jenkie and Me

The only novella in the bunch (and only one of three I’ve attempted to write over the years - the other two having been put on the back burner, perhaps indefinitely), this work features two young women of limited means who opt to leave high school in order to pursue factory jobs. These two women are best friends, but are very different in temperament and motivation.

Meredith, the “me” in the piece and who tells the story in her own voice, feels that completing high school is unnecessary as she has no plans to go to college - first, her mother can’t afford to send her and is already working two jobs just to make ends meet. Meredith feels compelled to contribute to the family income instead of frittering away her time in school, where she won’t learn anything useful to apply to the goal of making money now. Meredith’s mother is dead set against her daughter quitting school as she’s a bright girl with lots of promise; however, Meredith is determined to no longer be a “drain” on her mother and gets her way. Jenkie, on the other hand, has a drunk for a father and unlike Meredith, isn’t the greatest student anyway, so quitting and going to work is not a big sacrifice for her.

The two young women start out in the same place, but their personal paths diverge early at their new job, leading them both on a journey of self-discovery and clarity. Jenkie & Me captures their story.

This concludes a brief description of WIPs I want to complete this year.

Right-Brain Stimulation

Having had a technology background, I always thought of myself of being left-brained (logical) versus right-brained (creative). So how did a left-brainer find a use for his right hemisphere? More to the point, how does one stimulate that part of the grey matter that helps one produce decent writing?

In my case, I came from a family of musicians (on both sides). My Italian mother’s father, straight from the old country at eighteen, earned a living playing guitar and mandolin with some friends after he first moved to Peekskill, NY from Naples. We are related to the Carusos, thanks to my maternal grandmother (though none of us can really sing that well). On my father’s side, there are guitar players, drummers, banjo pickers and players of all kinds of other instruments as well as talented vocalists, many of them professional (or semi-professional).

So it was only natural that I would pick up an instrument (guitar) at the age of nine and with instruction from one of my uncles - another musician, of course - learned to play. In time, I went on to learn how to play the keyboards and compose music. While I don’t play much these days (though GarageBand has given me an outlet for my composition again), I found that during the times I played, that my ability to create stories became much easier because of all the right-brain stimulation.

These days, I find I get the same kind of stimulation by studying and enjoying art. If I ever get stuck when writing, I merely pull out my two-volume complete works of Vincent Van Gogh (by Taschen) and look at the paintings for a half-hour or so before going back to the computer. Or lately, I’ve really been exploring the abstract expressionists, a group of artists I associate with bebop jazz or beat poets because of the structured “unstructuredness” of their work. Unlike with music or writing, I can’t draw or paint for spit, but I can certainly appreciate the complexities and subtleties in producing such artistic works.

My recommendation to all writers: if you get stuck, need a break, what have you - don’t turn on the TV or organize your sock drawer. Just go the Google Images and browse the millions of images from the great masters of the arts. I promise it’ll be a worthwhile use of your time.

The Period Controversy

Recently, I had a discussion (or a gentle debate) with someone on Facebook about the correctness of two spaces following a period at the end of a sentence. This person claimed that two spaces are no longer required after a period - that this is an artifact from the world of typography and now that we have computers with proper font spacing, there is no need to accommodate that any longer. In fact, I was sent a link to an article on Salon.com supporting that point of view. Admittedly, the writer did a great job supporting his position and perhaps I could be swayed but for the following reasons:
  1. Pick up any printed (and recent) novel these days and it is likely you’ll see the two-space convention.
  2. Most writers make a stink about one-space usage when critiquing others.
  3. After years of typing a la two spaces, my brain refuses to let me fingers type only one.
I did experiment with the one-space method and I can’t seem to shake the notion that paragraphs look a too packed that way. I know it’s probably only psychological, but if your target readers are over the age of thirty, it’s probably a good idea to stick with the old school way of doing it. When I start seeing the one-space convention become the norm in book publishing, I may force myself to change. Until then, I’m sticking with what I know best.

Next Time

Possible topics for my next blog post:
  • Genesis of yet another story
  • A 30 Rock episode I’d love to write (and may do so anyway)
  • A Perfect Tenant - a movie I’d love to see made
Until next time, cheers!


Sunday, April 24, 2011

What's New - Week of April 17, 2011

Happy Easter (if you celebrate) or happy Sunday (if you don’t) ... time for a brief update from my little piece of heaven.


This was another week of editing Lens Flare. A couple of interesting things I’ve noticed in my efforts that I thought I’d share.

First, since I wrote this during NaNoWriMo, I can clearly see how I just went full out writing without a lick of editing along the way. Sometimes, the typos (or inadvertent word substitutions) I’ve found make me laugh, if not confuse me. Using homophones for words I wanted to use is a typical mistake, but in other cases, I’m downright puzzled as to what I was trying to say when I wrote it - I mean the word comes out of left field. I usually find reading the paragraph aloud helps me figure out the right word (or words) to help it make sense. It still amuses me as I think to myself what stream of consciousness was I riding when that word popped onto that digital paper.

Second, and something that requires more work, are the plot flaws I mentioned last time. While I outlined this book in pretty extreme detail before I started writing it, I didn’t have it laid out paragraph by paragraph - nor do I think that’s the “right” way to do it, at least for me. But the two plot points that need adjusting are going to take me some time to resolve to my (and the reader’s) satisfaction. Not that this bothers me, mind you - it’s all part of the process.

Work-in-Progress Time: A Grand Delusion

Last year, some writer on Facebook ran a contest to find a guest author to contribute a story to an anthology he was penning. Contestants were given the first sentence and were expected to write a story from there. Here is the line:

Jake Everson woke up one day in St. Bart's and picked up the newspaper to discover he'd died that morning in Spain.

I didn’t think about the plot too much - another one of those where I just started writing - and landed on a drama about two rivals, one of whom took their rivalry way too far. Originally, I called the story “An Interesting Exchange,” but after I was chosen as one of three finalists, the author and his editor asked me to find a different title, so I came up with “A Grand Delusion.”

While my story wasn’t chosen for the anthology, I liked it so much that I decided to write a screenplay based on it (with the same title). It’s an interesting change writing a screenplay based on one of my short stories. For one thing, I have so much of it written already, at least for a first draft. I think the story has enough surprises and plot to give the whole drama enough “legs” to make it a feature film.

Ideas - Where Do They Come From?

So as you’ve seen in my blog posts, ideas don’t typically have a single point of origin, at least for me. Sometimes they can be a single line, as with “A Grand Delusion.” Other times, it’s just a title that triggers an entire plot. Other places I’ve gotten ideas from:

  • Overheard comments
  • News headlines
  • Tweets
  • “What if” questions
  • Dreams (mine or from others)
  • Daydreams
  • Myths
  • Song lyrics
  • Human interest pieces
  • Science articles
  • Other stories, movies or books (without plagiarizing, of course!)
Really, getting ideas isn’t the problem, if there is one. The bigger challenge is having enough time in a normal lifespan to be able to finish the writing all that these ideas demand. I have an idea bank right now that would keep me writing well into my hundreds and that’s if I stop coming up with new ideas today. As noted in a previous post, however, the ideas never stop and sometimes I have to pause to capture the hot thought of the moment so I don’t lose it. May it always be this way!

Word Count vs. Clock

Discipline is one of the biggest challenges writers have to master. We all lament there aren’t enough hours in the day, but if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit we fritter away many hours every week that could be invested in writing (or editing, marketing, querying, etc.). Every time you turn around, there’s another article about what’s the best way to achieve that discipline.

There’s one school of thought that swears by the word count method - write until your word count for the day is met, then you’re free to do other things (presumably writing-related things, but they never say). Start small, they say, then increase the word count until you get to a number that you’re comfortable with and more importantly, that you know you can do without burning yourself out. After all, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon (unless you’d doing ScriptFrenzy or NaNoWriMo, then it’s definitely a sprint!).

Then there’s the other school that swears that the clock method is the only way to go. Take a kitchen timer (or the timer function on your smart phone, your pick), set it for a duration, then write until the alarm goes off. Move on to another task - editing another piece, let’s say, or reward yourself somehow - then set the timer for another session and so on. The idea is to write without stopping to edit or puzzle over a particular word or phrase, but rather to muscle through and save the editing for the period designated for editing, and in this way, get as much down on paper as possible within the time constraints.

I’ve actually employed both of these methods, depending on my mood and circumstances. However, I also use another method. Simply put, I lay out what I want to get done for the day - write a chapter, a number of scenes, a first draft of a story - and keep my head down until I achieve that goal. I typically note the time I start and end so I have an idea as to my speed in case I need to schedule specific slots of time for subsequent chapters, scenes or drafts. But that’s just me - your mileage may vary - but consider the task list method.

Finding what works best for you is probably one of the most important things a writer should strive to discover in order to be successful. You may not know until you experiment over several months (or years) or you may evolve from one way to another over time. Remember, your methods for writing can be as unique as your voice. No matter what you do, just keep writing!


Someone recently asked me what contests I think are most worthwhile. The short story contests sponsored by Writer’s Digest, The Writer or other writer-oriented publications (on- or off-line) are all valuable venues to help showcase your work and get your name out there. On the screenplay side, there’s Scriptapalooza or BlueCat (or contests sponsored by screenplay-oriented magazines, both on- and off-line). I recommend you do your research before you enter anything, however - go with a legitimate organization that has a reputation of actually awarding prizes instead of just advertising that they will.

No matter which contests you enter, they’re worth the price of admission, so to speak - the entry fee is nominal - because even if you don’t win, you’ll have the opportunity to have someone else read your work and depending on the contest, you could get objective feedback from a professional. If you’re worried about rejection, there’s only one piece of advice I can give you: get over it. Unless you’re one of the superstars of the publication world, you’re going to get rejected much more frequently than you’ll hear “yes” over the course of your writing career. It’s all part of the learning process, no matter what feedback you get. Don’t let the fear of failure - or success - get in your way of being a writer!

Next Time

Topics for my next post:

  • Complete my description of my works-in-progress
  • Right brain stimulation
  • The period controversy
Until then, have a great week!


Sunday, April 17, 2011

What's New - Week of April 10, 2011

Sunday night and it’s blogging time. The content of this one is a bit different than originally planned.


More editing of Lens Flare this week, where I spent most of my writing time this week. As I go through, I’m using Scrivener’s highlighting tools to call out weak plot points and other concerns so as not to interrupt the flow of the editing process. With me, just like with writing, I get into a rhythm with editing and don’t like to pause to research or puzzle over a flaw in the storyline ... rather, I’d much prefer calling it out in with a quick highlight and note about what’s bugging about that particular area and continue on. Anyway, I’m pleased that I’m still enjoying the story and the moment I’m accumulating here will get me past the place I stopped at without holding me back.

I mentioned last time that occasionally, a story just starts forming in my head and I have to take a time out to write up what’s distracting me to get it out of the way. It could be as simple as a single line of dialog or an observation. This week, quite out of the blue, the beginnings of a short story crept out from my subconscious and as I wrote it down, I was surprised to see how fully-formed it was words just tumbled out of my brain. Here it is, in its entirety:
I first met Henry Dimple in the fall of 1921, a man of difficult temperament and an apparent lack of cultural breeding of any sort. One afternoon, I wandered into Morey's Deli over on East 53rd and seated myself at the rear table, my back facing the rest of the patrons. I only desired one thing that afternoon and that was a private place where I could collect my thoughts and have a bite to eat. As luck would have it, the bistro wasn't particular crowded and within a few moments of my arrival, a red-headed waitress, two pencils stuck in her beehive hairdo, hurried over and in an exasperated voice, asked me what I wanted to eat.

"Just a bowl of chicken noodle soup, my dear," I replied pleasantly enough.

She scribbled my order down on her pad and walked apace behind the counter to add my request to the queue. I watched her for a moment or two more, then turned my attention to the daily newspaper someone kindly left behind.

Less than a minute later, as I browsed the business section of the paper, a gentleman sitting behind me leaned over to me and grunted, "Hey, are you done with that yet?" and pointed at the newspaper in my hands.

I chose to ignore him and kept reading, hoping my frank rudeness would send him away. Instead, he stared, his beady brown eyes boring holes into the back of my head and no doubt at the same headlines I was reading. To say the matter was unsettling would be underestimating my pique.

"May I help you?" I said, turning sharply and glaring with what I hoped would be sufficient menace.

If the cad felt any remorse about barging in on a stranger's personal space, he didn't give any evidence of it. Instead, he reached out and touched the corner of the paper and waited for me to react. I didn't disappoint him.

"See here," I exclaimed, withdrawing the newspaper from his grasp. "Would you be mind enough to leave me to my affairs? How would you like it if I just reached over and touched your coffee cup over there?"

I pointed at the cup for effect, then turned around to begin reading again. The waitress stopped at my table to leave a glass of water, then scurried off to wait on some new arrivals. I took a moment to get a good look at my tormentor under the guise of watching the waitress. Just as I expected, he fit the image of a common criminal: sunken eyes, weak chin, nervous twitch in the corner of his mouth.

"Are you done with that paper yet?" he asked again, a rising urgency in his voice. Persistence walked closely with this man.

I have no clue where this came from, mind you. The name “Henry Dimple” - say what now??? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I mean, this isn’t my style of writing by any stretch, but I’m just happy to be the conduit in this case. I haven’t been reading any older short fiction as of late, so i’m wondering what the source was. Another thing I’m wondering is where will this story go from here. Right now, It’s best to leave this one to simmer for a while (perhaps indefinitely).

Besides these beginnings of a story, two other ideas, both taken from news, popped in my head. Both of them have potential as great screenplays - one is a sci-fi morality play and the other is a tale of justice long denied. I don’t want to go into more detail than this, but the lesson here is ideas can come from anywhere, so it pays to keep your eyes and ears open. In cases like this, I don’t do anything more than snapshot the related web page and write up a 1-3 sentence paragraph so I remember what this was about later.

Another Work-in-Progress

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago a short story that I wrote and needs editing called “Breathe.” I wrote this several months ago over a couple month period. It’s a retrospective by one man on his life as a teenager and how a single mistake had such far-reaching consequences and affected him so profoundly that he really never was able to recover. The theme here is universal: a single decision can have an unexpected (and undesired) impact.

The story begins like this:
At sixteen, I could swim like an Olympian. This didn't happen as a result of some cosmic accident of genetic predisposition or preternatural talent passed on to me by ancient aquatic ancestors. My grandparents beached themselves on New York's gentle shores under the watchful gaze of Lady Liberty and her offer of welcome that so many immigrants took quite literally. While the roads weren't paved with the promised gold of prosperity, their new lives turned out better than they expected their future would if they stayed in those Mediterranean fishing villages. From my grandparents’ time to my own, the inevitable march of familial sprawl swept us onto the jungle green grass of the suburbs and all that particular nirvana offered.
I may want to hold off publishing this on my blog, but instead submit this as a content entry sometime in the future.

The Trick of Aphorisms for Writers

Or if you prefer, shorthand guidance for beginning writers and how it’s somewhat misleading.

You’ve heard it all before:
  • Show, don’t tell
  • Never use adverbs
  • Limit adjectives
  • Never start a story with dialog
  • Never use variances on the infinitive “to be”
  • Use a more common word rather than a more “fancy” one when you can
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
  • Etc.
With such strict “rules” (as they seem to be), it’s a wonder that anyone writes at all. Think about it: we have all these lovely words in English at our disposal and we’re told not to use about half of them!

Okay, perhaps it’s not so bad. The aforementioned writer friend (the crap-cutter from the previous post) seemed to be a slave to these aphorisms, God love him, so when he pulled out his red pen to edit a peer’s work, he’d slash and burn following the above guidance, often turning the piece into a sea of blood. When I would ask him what the story was about he had edited so liberally, he couldn’t answer: simply put, he was so intent on finding fault based on the above rules that he failed to read the story!

It’s easy to fall into the trap of no longer remembering how to read for content once you’ve written (and critiqued) a lot of work. The other other trap is to treat the above guidelines as hard and fast rules. I used to have a T-shirt that read: “Rule #1: there are no rules.” Perhaps that’s a bit too nihilistic. How about “There are exceptions to every rule” or “Rules are meant to be broken?”

So when do you break the rules then? It’s probably wise to read many works by your favorite authors - preferably those who’ve been published in the last 10 years or so - to see what the trends are in popular fiction (presuming you’re writing fiction ... if not, then you have a whole bunch of other rules I can’t help you with ... see what I did there with the preposition?). If you see the so-called rules being broken by these authors, then it’s safe to say you can do under similar circumstances in moderation and judiciously. After all, writing is all about communicating without boring your reader to death and if writing is stilt, yet conforming with all the rules, then you’ve failed, plain and simple.

More importantly: don’t forget how to ENJOY reading.

Next Time

Here are a few topics for next post (repeated from last time):
  • Continuing discussion on my works-in-progress
  • Where do ideas come from
  • Contests
Until then, have a great week!


Sunday, April 10, 2011

What's New - Week of April 3, 2011

It’s Sunday night and time to wrap up the week that was.


Another week of editing (mostly), again spending time going through Lens Flare. After being away from it for a couple of years now, I’m surprised to find out a couple of things: the story keeps my interest and I have quite a bit of work ahead of me to fill in some of the descriptive prose that is normally left out of short stories. While a novelist has a lot of room to expand on the details that address the senses, a short story writer, at least in the modern iteration of one, doesn’t have that luxury. I remember when I first started writing short stories, another writer with whom I became friends kept on me about cutting out the “crap” and leaving only what was needed to carry the narrative to its conclusion.

Well, that’s all fine and dandy if you’re only writing short stories, but when you get to your novel, that kind of approach doesn’t usually cut it. Sure, it’s definitely worthwhile to keep your narrative lean no matter what you write, there’s something to be said about describing the scene, the people, the backstory and all the rest that makes a novel truly readable. And frankly, with short stories for publication, one is typically limited to a specific word count limit, while with a 150,000-word novel, you aren’t so constrained by word count alone.

Another Work-in-Progress

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m writing a short story called “My Life as a Serial Hostage.” This story, like many of those I’ve written or have at least outlined, came to me out of the blue. I can’t say exactly where I was or what I was doing when the title popped into my head, but when I fired up my computer and began typing in Evernote (not “Evernotes," as I mistyped last time), the following came out in a flood:

First, let me make one thing clear: despite popular opinion as expressed in the press as of late, I have never put myself in a situation to become a hostage. Never, even once. No one seems to believe that some people attract certain kinds of disasters and exclusively those. I can drive eighty miles an hour the wrong way down a busy city street and maybe walk away with a minor fender-bender. However, put me into a public place that is a likely target for criminals to hold innocent people for large sums of money, and there you'd be likely to find me. It is my personal albatross, something I came to terms with a long time ago. No one seems to understand that.

As I continued writing, I discovered the story “had legs” and I could really make something of it. Many ideas aren’t like that, at least write away. I don’t throw out my ideas, but on rare occasions I put them on the back burner, sometimes indefinitely, but always with the hope that I’ll return to them someday.

Anyway, this story is going to be a bit of a humorous piece, despite the rather ominous title. I look forward to finishing it and perhaps publishing it on Facebook or my blog.


Every writer has his or her own preferred method for writing and for those who outline like myself, they usually are particular about how they approach. I’m a total outliner and have been since, oh, forever. I think in outlines; it helps my brain sort through the morass and sheer volume of “stuff” that crisscrosses my synapses all the time. I learned a long time ago not to shut off the spigot, but rather to get to some sort of writing device right away and outline the hell out of whatever idea pops into my head at the moment. Sometimes I get distracted from a current work-in-progress for this new one. Some authors call it getting pulled into the rabbit hole (or some such thing). I don’t know, but it seems to be a waste if I don’t jump on the idea of the moment.

So how do I do it? I pretty much have it down to a science, though it differs depending on the type of work it is. Here’s how I do it for screenplays:

  • Original idea in 1-3 sentences.
  • A single paragraph expanding on the original idea
  • 3-5 paragraphs, expanding on the single paragraph (one for each act)
  • Scene descriptions - one bullet point for each scene with 1-3 (short) sentences for each
At this point, I have enough of an outline - then it’s time to fire up Scrivener and move all that into its structure (though sometimes I’ll go directly to Final Draft and use its tools to do the same thing). I like working with virtual index cards and both applications have those in their toolkit. Once I populate the index cards, I’m ready to expand upon the details of the scene description, then begin to start writing the sluglines. After that’s completed, it’s time to start writing!

My approach to outlining novels is a bit more complicated than that (I’m usually using tables for those) and for short stories, it’s much simpler.

With all this outlining, it doesn’t mean I just don’t sit down and write something beginning to end without an outline - I’ve done that before, too. However, with an outline, I don’t have to worry about being pulled off a project and then come back to no idea how to continue.


Another form of outlining is mind-mapping and if you’ve never tried this, you ought to because it’s a great way to brainstorm. While you can do this by hand, I recommend MindGenius, the best tool for this I’ve found. Essentially, you start out with a central idea in a circle (or rectangle); from there, you draw lines to other circles (called “children”) where related ideas are written; and from there, you continue draw lines to even more circles for more related ideas.

The trick with mind-mapping is you don’t stop to edit, you just write/type. Turn the internal editor off and just get the ideas down as quick as they come to you. It’s both gratifying and surprisingly liberating to do this.

The thing about MindGenius is, unlike any other software out there, is that if you select a shape and start typing text, it automatically creates a new child idea (with its own line and circle). In this way, you can type ideas even more quickly because you don’t have to pause to click a mouse or type in a key sequence. I’ve written entire outlines to screenplays using MindGenius.

The down side about this software: it’s only written for the PC and I’ve recently confirmed with them (again) that they do not plan to write a version for the Mac. No worries, I have it on my PC laptop for when I need it.

The Other Brother - Why I Never Finished Writing It

I began writing this novel in 2002 and by 2004, I had completed 175,000 words and still had about 20% left to go. The story is about the strained relationship between two siblings and how ultimately, one of the siblings has to get past that estrangement to come to the aid of the other in a time of crisis. The problem is the story was based (in large part) on real life experiences and I wasn’t convinced at the time that I would want the story as written to see the light of day for fear of the backlash that I would receive.

Of course, I’m not planning on throwing out the manuscript, either, so I’m sitting on an incomplete novel that may or may not be worth publishing someday. That is what you call a quandary, gentle readers. And so, for now at least, The Other Brother sits languishing on my hard drive, ready for the day I decide to pick it up again.


Next Time

Here are a few topics for next post:

  • Continuing discussion on my works-in-progress
  • Where do ideas come from
  • Contests
Until then, have a great week!


Sunday, April 3, 2011

What's New - Week of March 27, 2011

Here are updates for the week, as well as some comments and observations I wanted to share.


This was editing week, an exercise geared to reengaging me on trying to complete my first novel, Lens Flare. I have one other novel about 80% completed, but shelved that a few years ago (called The Other Brother, currently at 175,000 words), mainly because I knew it needs serious editing before I could feel comfortable penning the rest of the first draft. I wrote about 35,000 words of Lens Flare for NaNoWriMo a few years ago, but failed to meet the word count necessary by the end of November. From there, I put the manuscript to the side as ran into a plot challenge I couldn’t resolve. By editing what I have thus far, I reengage myself with the story and can reconnect with the plot points I’ve outlined, but have yet to draft into the manuscript.

Lens Flare is a novel of political intrigue, quite a departure from my screenwriting, which tends toward comedy almost exclusively. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I will say that the theme is pretty timely in today’s climate in and around the Beltway - not to mention here in the Los Angeles area. In future blog posts, I’ll be sharing excerpts from the book to give a flavor of what’s to come. As for my timeline, I’d like to get the first draft completed by the end of the year. It will take me another three solid months of editing until I’m ready to engage an editor and a final polish will follow after that. How I plan to publish remains to be seen ... I’m tending toward self-publishing on for the Kindle right now, but it depends on whether I get interest from any publishers before I decide.

When a Title Defines the Storyline

Last week, one of my online friends expressed amusement over the title of one of my screenplays in draft called Skeeter Huggins, Rodeo Clown. Believe it or not, I came up with this title completely out of the blue several years ago (long before Paul Blart, Mall Cop hit the big screen). I don’t know where that title came from ... none of my notes from back then indicated what inspired me. Those same notes indicated some ideas for the plot, none of which survived the current storyline.

I’ve written many loglines for this script, but here’s the current one:

Tired of failing at everything, a former high school football star becomes a rodeo clown in order to win prize money and the respect of his estranged family.

Naturally, it’s a comedy and in my mind’s eye, it’s a great vehicle for Will Ferrell.

I have the entire scene breakdown written down, so the draft is progressing nicely. I hope to have a finished product by the end of August this year.

Tools of the Trade

Factoid #1: I use a Mac to write. Up until a couple of years ago, I was a PC-only kind of guy, but my wife needed a replacement Mac when hers crashed, so I decided to get a Macbook Pro when she got hers. Converted! However, I still use my PC for many other things.

Factoid #2: My favorite programs for writing are Evernotes (for capturing ideas on the go); Scrivener (for organizing and outlining everything I write); and Final Draft 8 (for the actual screenwriting itself).

Next Time

In my next blog, I’ll discuss one or two of my others works-in-progress; I’ll share my outlining technique, including a bit on mind-mapping; and I’ll reveal the real reason why I never finished The Other Brother.

Until then, have a great week!


Saturday, March 26, 2011

What's New - Week of March 20, 2011

I haven’t been keeping up this blog like I did when I first create it - no surprise, I’m sure there are thousands of blogs across the blogosphere that have been abandoned. With all the other writing I do, this seems to be the easiest to leave at the bottom of my to do list. Let’s see if a weekly update “takes.”

Here are some of the projects I’m currently working on:
  • Short story: “My Life As a Serial Hostage” (draft)
  • Short story: “Breathe” (editing)
  • Screenplay: a drama, based on one of my short stories, called A Grand Delusion (draft)
  • Screenplay: a comedy called Skeeter Huggins, Rodeo Clown (draft)
  • Novella: Jenkie and Me (draft)
  • Novel: Lens Flare (draft)
This is just a subset of the projects I have in various stages of completion, mostly in draft form. As I’ve noted in previous blog posts, I like to have a lot of projects going on at the same time. But the above projects I want to finish in 2011. Stay tuned ... in future posts, I’ll be more specific about where I am in each project and what I’ve done since the previous week on any/all of them.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 7 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


Five more months went by before I heard anything more about Sherri. I had just arrived home from a new client’s office just when the phone rang.

“Jack,” the voice said. It was her. I turned up the volume, straining to hear more than her voice. Any background noise would help figure out where she was calling from, but instead I only heard a slight crackle of static.

“Sherri, I -- “

“I just wanted you to know I’m alright,” she interrupted. “I’m pretty sure that everyone’s gone crazy looking for me, but I couldn’t do it.”

“What couldn’t you do?” I asked her.

“Oh, all of it. Staying with you, moving in with Sam, the whole thing. I was just sick of living a life that I thought I should have and I assumed you would be the one to make that for me. But you’re too damaged to be any good for anyone.”

I almost objected, but I could see her point. “What about Sam?”

“Oh, Sam is sweet and I know he would treat me well. But he was only going to be my rebound from you and I didn’t think that was fair to him. So I just took off.”

“You know the cops are looking for you. Good old Sam told them I must’ve done something bad to you because you never showed up. Does he know you’re okay?”

She hesitated for a moment. “Yes, I talked to him this morning.”

“Where are you?”

“That doesn’t matter, Jack, it’s over. I’m not coming back to California again, ever.”

I considered her words. Sherri turned her back on a state she said was the garden paradise of the world at one time. She must’ve been really unhappy with her life to leave it all behind like this and I was the only one to blame.

“I’m painting again,” I told her, hoping that would sway her.

“Good, I’m glad. You’re a talented artist, Jack, you need to paint.”

“I’ve gotten my life back on track, too. No more drinking, at least like I used to. No more feeling sorry for myself, either.”

“That’s wonderful. Sounds like my leaving helped you break through your blockage and now you can move on, too.”

I wanted to jump through the phone and shake her. “No, no!” I insisted. “Sure, I needed a wake-up call, but I didn’t need you out of my life and I still don’t. Damnit, Sherri, I miss you! I miss us. I have no interest in meeting another woman and starting over. You’re ‘it’ for me. Can’t we try again?”

I give her credit. She stayed silent long enough to convince me she was really thinking about it, but instead she uttered a quiet, but firm, “No, Jack” and without another word, she hung up.

Right then, I saw the entire picture. Just like that crossword I childishly ruined all those months ago, Sherri only wanted to come up with a solution to our future, but I blocked her at every turn. Instead of continuing to struggle, she chose a puzzle she knew she could solve and left me to figure out my own, whether I wanted to or not. Maybe someday I’ll do just that.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 6 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


For the next few weeks, I followed every lead I could find to locate Sherri. I had a copy of her electronic address book on my computer from when we combined Christmas card lists, so I spent hours calling her old friends to see if they had any ideas. Like her family, all of them had little to share with me. For a while, I thought I could tell that they were avoiding giving me information in order to protect Sherri, but after the third or fourth call, they realized the situation was serious and I wasn’t just stalking an ex-girlfriend.

I traveled by bus or train through the Bay area and even north to Oregon and Washington, then south all the way to San Diego, but turned up empty. One of her cousins suggested I check Chicago since he recalled back when they were kids that Sherri had been drawn to the Windy City at one time. My dwindling finances prevented air travel, so I held off on that trip for a while as well as any to Florida and New York, two more leads from her friends that came in.

Officer McHenry contacted me often during this time, but I had no news to offer him nor did he have any for me. One day I received an unexpected visit from a San Francisco city detective, a tall, thin-as-a-rail kind of guy with the unlikely name of Jefferson Tremaine. He walked in like he owned the place and started poking around cabinets and drawers without so much as an explanation and certainly no search warrant. For a moment, I wasn’t even sure he was really with the city, but he whipped out his identification when I challenged him, so I let him carry on with his unconventional investigation.

After he left, I called McHenry to complain and asked if I shouldn’t report this to police superiors. Much to my surprise, he almost pleaded with me to not do that. Instead, he swore that I’d never see Tremaine again unless he had a search warrant in hand. True to his word, there were no more visits from the detective until the one-month anniversary of Sherri’s disappearance. This time, Tremaine, search warrant in hand and accompanied by technicians, searched every inch of the place, dusted it for fingerprints and even used luminol to find try to find traces of blood. They spent more than two hours performing all their cop duties, then left as silently as a mime troupe. The detective thanked me at the door, perhaps a more little gruffly than necessary, but I didn’t challenge him about his attitude. I was just glad to be rid of him and his crew.

The next day, Officer McHenry called to find out if Tremaine followed protocol this time and I assured him that he did.

“Look, Mr. Gantry, I’m sorry for all this. You’re still a person of interest in this case, but unless there is any further evidence from yesterday’s visit, I’m pretty certain your status will change. In truth, more missing person cases go unsolved than solved and it’s usually because the person who’s disappeared simply does not wish to be found. Unfortunately, that means the police department and even the FBI waste a lot of manpower tracking these individual down for no reason.”

“No problem, officer, I understand. Believe me, I’m just as anxious to find Sherri as you guys are. I need closure at this point, if not for any other reason than peace of mind. But I’ve run out of ideas and also out of money. I need to get back to work.”

McHenry paused for a moment. “I don’t see why you shouldn’t do that, Mr. Gantry. If we need you, we can arrange something convenient with your schedule.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

After I hung up with him, I sat down in front of my computer. Too many months had passed since I last did anything creative or even looked for new clients and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do so in time to make a difference to my almost empty bank account. However, Desperation is a strong taskmaster, especially accompanied by his twin sister, Hunger. I had no choice but to beat my way back.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Solving the Puzzle (a serialized short story): Part 5 of 7

Author's note: I've written quite a bit lately, though I haven't shared any of it publicly. This story was written based on a single word prompt ("Solve") and it's quite different than most of the other stories I've written. I hope you enjoy it!


I lay on the couch and slept most of the afternoon. By the time I woke up, it was close to eight o’clock and I found myself hungry for dinner. I looked outside and saw the afternoon clouds gave way to torrential rain, so instead of going out, I called in for pizza delivery, then turned on the TV to pass the time.

An hour later, I heard a knock on the door and got up to answer it, my wallet already in hand.

“Mr. Gantry?” a uniformed policeman said when I opened the door. His partner stood next to him, a grim look on her face.

“Yeah, I’m Jack Gantry. Is there something wrong?”

“Sir, we have a report of a missing person, a Ms. Sherri, um … “ he paused, looking down at his notes. “Sherri Gibbons. Did you know her?”

“Yes, she is, I mean, was my girlfriend.”

The cop peered inside my apartment, but couldn’t see past me. Instead of blocking his view, I swung the door open and welcomed the two of them in with a sweeping motion of my hand. They hesitated.

“Look, sir, by inviting us in, you’re giving us the right to investigate. You don’t have to do that, at least until we provide you a search warrant. Also, you may want to consult a lawyer.”

I smiled and waved them in again. “Please, officers, I have nothing to hide. Come on in and investigate as much as you want.”

The male cop looked over at his partner, then led the way in. I waited until both were inside before closing the door.

“I hope you don’t mind, the place isn’t tidied up at all,” I told them. “Sherri did the housekeeping around here. Please have a seat.”

I led them to the sofa and sat down in my easy chair.

“Fire away, Officer, um … ” I said.

The cops sat down, facing me. “I’m sorry, I’m Officer McHenry and this is my partner, Officer Lauder,” the male cop said.

“Go ahead, Officer McHenry. I’m all ears. By the way, I have a pizza coming, so I may have to get up to answer the door.”

McHenry nodded and took out a pen. “I promise this won’t be long, Mr. Gantry.”

“Call me Jack, if you would. Mr. Gantry is my father’s name.”

“I prefer ‘Mr. Gantry,’ sir,” McHenry said. “Now when was the last time you saw Ms. Gibbons.”

“Last night. She packed her bags and moved out.”

McHenry scribbled notes on his pad. “Did she say where she was going?”

“No, but I overheard her on the phone with some guy named Sam.”

The female office cleared her throat. “Excuse me, why did she leave, sir?”

I looked over at her and blinked a couple of times. She wanted me to show some emotion, but I had most of that drained out of me at the bookstore.

“She was tired of living with me, I guess. I’m a disappointment in her eyes and she had enough.”

Officer Lauder nodded and withdrew to let her partner continue.

“Do you know who ‘Sam’ is, Mr. Gantry?” he continued.

“No, I only met him today. A couple of hours ago, he was camped out in front of my apartment door, waiting for me to come home.”

“Where were you before that?”

I smiled. “Looking for Sherri. Sam called me early this morning looking for her, though he never said who he was. She apparently never arrived at his house as scheduled.”

“I see,” McHenry said, then looked back at his partner and mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

“Mr. Gantry, may I take a look around while my partner continues to question you?” Lauder asked, standing up.

“Sure thing, help yourself,” I told her.

Just then, there was a knock on the door and I got up to answer it.

“It’s the pizza. May I?” I asked McHenry.

“Sure, go ahead.”

I paid off the delivery boy and put the pizza box on the counter, then returned to the living room. Lauder hadn’t returned from her inspection of the apartment, so I took my seat and waited for more questions.

“The pizza smells good,” McHenry said, looking up from his pad again.

I laughed. “I’d offer you a slice, but I’m guessing that’s against regulations.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” he said, looking somewhat depressed about that. I felt bad for him for a moment, then I remembered that he suspected I did something to Sherri.

“Any more questions?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, looking back at his pad. “How long have you been living with Ms. Gibbons?”

“At least five years,” I said. “We’ve known each other since college, even dated then. But it wasn’t until she moved to San Francisco and looked me up that we really got serious. Shortly thereafter, she moved in.”

“When did things start going sour in your relationship, Mr. Gantry?”

I sighed. Everyone’s a couples counselor these days.

“About a year now, I guess. I’m a freelance artist and I hadn’t been getting many commissions, so I started getting depressed, then started drinking a bit too heavily. The more I drank, the less motivated I was to look for new clients or even paint anything on my own.”

McHenry looked around and took note of the bare walls. “Where’s all your work?”

“Sold or given away,” I said. “Or thrown out.”

“You throw out your work? Why is that, Mr. Gantry?”

I shrugged. “I was disgusted by some of the pieces I painted. It was either throw them out or gouge my eyes out.”

McHenry made sure he wrote that in his notes. Obviously, I was a dangerous character if I’m talking about maiming myself. Could harming another person be the next logical step?

Just then, Officer Lauder returned from her tour of my newly created bachelor pad. I waited for her to make some sort of cop-like pronouncement, but she just shook her head. Her partner nodded and stood up.

“Well, Mr. Gantry, that’s all we need right now. We don’t see any signs of violence right now, but until we find Ms. Gibbons, we won’t be able to rule out bringing in detective to do a thorough investigation of this place,” McHenry said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “Please contact us if you hear from Ms. Gibbons or learn of her whereabouts?”

I took the card from him. “Sure thing, officer, I’ll contact you right away.”

The two cops walked to the door and I let them out.

“Thank you,” I told them and watched them walk down the hall to the stairwell, then closed the door.

Later that night, I tossed and turned in bed again, occupied with concern for Sherri’s welfare. At one point, it struck me as bittersweet that here I was, caring about her when I couldn’t give a damn about her when we lived under the same roof. If God provided wake-up calls, this was mine. I had to get my life back on track, but I didn’t know if I could until I knew where Sherri was. I just had no idea where to continue looking.