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Write every day: The West Wing and Hamilton taught me about the rhythm of dialogue

As I’m working on my screenplay, I’m listening to the language of The West Wing and the Hamilton soundtrack. The rhythm and beat of the words, and the power of that language, are inspiring. Not a single word or line is wasted. They all matter. It’s writing we should all aspire to as writers and seek out as audience members.

What do you watch and listen to when you want to be inspired to write dialogue?

Write every day: Agent queries

Yesterday was the first true workday back after the holidays so you know what means—many agents are open for queries again! I started sending queries for my second Emerson Page novel. Here are some tips for those new to queries:

– Check out the hashtag #MSWL and this website: https://mswishlist.com. You’ll find what different agents are looking for right now and you can search by genre and age range of your manuscript.

– Follow every single guideline to the letter. Agents are flooded with queries so make yours stand out by following all their specifications. That might sound like a no-brainer but the number one complain I hear agents make is that people don’t follow their guidelines. Follow them, and you’re already ahead of many other submissions!

– Remember every query you send is one step closer to your dream agent. Querying can absolutely get discouraging. The process alone can be exhausting. And yet, unlike many fields, it’s the defined road to an agent which could lead to a possibility to get published. Do a little at a time. A few a day or a few a week. Whatever you can manage. It’s a long road so keep your spirits high and stay positive. We’ll get there.  

Write every day: The compost pile of writing

Neil Gaiman often talks about the compost pile of writing, bits of information and small stories we collect even when we don’t know what we’ll do with them. I’ve got whole Trello boards, post-its, emails, file folders, and cut documents (documents where I place cuts I make from larger pieces of writing) filled with these.

These compost components hit me at the strangest times and in the strangest places. Sometimes, I dream about them and wake up in the middle of the night to scribble them down. This is the main reason that I have a notebook and pen on my nightstand.

Many times it takes years for these bits to become anything. Sometimes they end up strung together with other fragments. Many I’m still waiting to see if they become useful at all in any way. If everything I have in the compost pile now were to become something, I’d have enough material to last a lifetime, maybe two.

Do you have a compost pile of content? How do you sort and organize it? Have any of those fragments been turned into something larger you never imagined you’d write?

Write every day: The single best tool if you’re writing a screenplay

One of the most informative actions I’ve taken as a beginning screenwriter is to watch movies with their screenplays in my lap. I read a scene, watch that scene, and read it again to see how it translates from the page to the screen. Here’s what I’ve learned in this process:

  • The final screenplay and the final movie often look very different. Scenes are reshuffled or cut altogether. I watched one of my favorite movies and saw that an entire storyline had been cut from the final movie. Lines and words are different, too. Unlike a book or short story, the final screenplay is nowhere near final.
  • Screenplays are short compared to most books. A two-hour movie is ~120 pages (~25,000 words). That’s half the words of even the shortest novel.
  • Every single word in a screenplay counts. There is no room, or interest in, excess description. No inner thoughts. If it can’t be said or shown on screen, then it doesn’t belong in a screenplay. Writing has very few hard and fast rules, but in screenwriting brevity is one of them. Eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary can speak and be seen.
  • Scenes are Lego blocks. One thinks to the other in sequential order. In novels, you have rest scenes. In screenplays, you don’t. The question “And then what happened?” is crucial to ask at the end of every single scene. The answer to that question is the start of your next scene.

If you’re writing a screenplay, reading screenplays and then watching their corresponding movies is the single greatest tool you can utilize. Are you writing a screenplay? Which screenplays do you recommend reading and watching?

Write every day: Nothing beats in-person research visits

One of my favorite parts of the writing process is research. I’ll dig through archives, old photos, memoirs, diaries, online sources, and anything I can get my hands on that helps me get a feeling for a time, a place, or a culture that’s in my writing. And as much as I love this portion of research, my very favorite channel is in-person visits.

My second novel takes place in New York City and Ireland. I live in New York so that in-person research was easy. I also went to Ireland for a week in 2018 to specifically do research for my book. Nothing could beat smelling the old books of the Long Room in Trinity Library, visiting an ancient tomb, learning about Celtic mythology in the oldest pub in Dublin, wandering the road of the Dark Hedges, and walking over the rocks at Giant’s Causeway.

All of those settings appear in the book, and those scenes are richer because of my visits there. Small details piqued by my senses are in the words because they’re in my mind and I can’t help but think of them when I set a scene in those places.

Have you ever done a writing trip to collect research for your work? Where did you go? What did you learn?

Write every day: Outlines are my Google Maps of writing

I’m a voracious outliner. Not everything always goes according to my outlined writing plan, but an outline gives me a place to start. It also gives me a way to chart my progress.

The tools I use for outlining are free and a combo of analog and digital:

1.) Handwritten index cards (or sheets of paper roughly the size of index cards). I like to pin them up on a wall and move them around as needed.

2.) Trello.com boards – this is a free online tool with a mobile app and website that updates across these channels in real-time. Think of it as an online list maker / bulletin board.

3.) Pinterest boards to store inspiring images.

4.) Unsplash.com is a site with free, high-resolution photos that you can store in collections. Like Pinterest, it’s also a great place to find and refer to inspiring images.

Are you an outliner? What are your favorite tools for it?

 

Write every day: How I’m going to write 10 new work in the next 10 years

How can I write one new work per year for the next 10 years? I tossed this idea around in my mind on the morning of September 22nd, the last day of summer, as I thought about tremendously prolific writers I admire. What separates them from other writers is their productivity and persistence. And that’s what I want to have as a writer.

Here’s the math that showed me that this wild goal is possible: write 250 words per day for 360 days. (Look I’m even giving myself 5 or 6 days off per year!) That’s 90,000 words. That’s a book. That’s almost two books! 250 words a day? I could write that while my coffee’s brewing. That’s only half a page. That’s less than the length of this post. And that got me very excited and curious. Could I actually do this?

Yes, that’s just a first draft. It needs LOADS of editing and rewriting. Yes, if you’re a planner and outliner like me, that takes time, too. Yes, there’s research. And yes, marketing is also time-consuming and extremely necessary. And you also have to pitch your own work if, like me, you don’t yet have an agent.

But in my mind the breaking down of this enormous task moves it from possible to probable. I could write a new work every year.

Always around the end of summer / beginning of fall, the new yearly inspiration for this blog strikes me. Someone says something or I read something, and the theme just clicks. I don’t worry about it anymore because it really does just happen.

So, this is my 2020 theme: I’ll be writing about the process of getting down 250 words of a new work every day. Most of the time I’ll be sharing resources, motivation, and encouragement for writers. If you’ve got questions, please ask them and I’ll do my best to either answer or find the answer for you.

Here’s to a 2020 filled with words and creativity that we can share with one another. If you’re on social media, I’ll be using the hashtag #250wordstoday to collect all of these thoughts this year.

Joy today: I finished editing the manuscript of my second novel

After two long years, I’ve completely edited my manuscript for my second novel, including a round of edits requested by agents in November. Like my first novel, this book follows the story of Emerson Page into a world built from mythology and love.

I’m so grateful to Justine and Erin at Byte the Book who introduced me to literary agents at a recent pitch event. Their comments and requests made the book stronger, and their unbiased feedback was priceless. Now it’s time to resubmit to those agents and start my queries. Here we go!

Joy today: The beauty of telling small stories

Small stories told incredibly well can be every bit as powerful as the sweeping, complicated tales of history. To be honest, I’m naturally drawn to the latter but telling those epic tales as a writer is not a place to begin. It’s a goal.

This spring, I’m attending my first screenwriting pitch event. I had a long conversation with my writing mentor and dear friend, John Bucher. I was considering writing an against-all-odds story rooted in the untold story of New York City’s most notorious and unlikely gangster.

Because it’s a period piece, I was worried that this would cause producers to count me out before I even finished my log line. In this kind of pitch situation, I’ve got to stack the odds in my favor in every way—a great story, strong writing, short shooting period, and a small budget without any complicated production or editing tactics needed. Period films by their nature are expensive and expansive because you have to recreate that world that the characters inhabit. Is a bold period piece for this pitch competition really the risk to take? Though I love the story, I doubted whether this was the time and place to take that shot. To check this hunch, I turned to John.

John said something to me that was an absolute lightbulb moment that I’ll be retelling for years to come: producers often look for a way to say no. Your job as a writer is to make that “no” very difficult for them to deliver. As The Godfather has taught me well, “Make them an offer they can’t refuse.” A killer small story that fits squarely into a genre that sells shows that as a writer you know the market. You understand it in your bones, and that shows that not only can you write but you also know how to make something. And that last bit, the ability to make something beyond words on a page is the secret sauce. If a film can be made on a sliver of a budget, that lets a producer take a risk on a new voice. If it costs them next to nothing to make, it gives them the chance to take a chance. And as a new voice, I’m a chance that I want them to take.

So, it’s back to the drawing board for me on this project but you know what? I feel great about it. I feel lighter. I feel like I’m starting with a blank page that can be anything my imagination can conjure. I don’t know what my genre or subject will be, but I do know the story will be small, relatable, set in the present day, and center around a strong female lead who’s underestimated. She’ll likely be in New York because it’s the city where I live, and the one that I know and love. And the rest? It’s all TBD. Stay tuned…

Joy today: What I learned during my first #PitMad writing pitch event

On Thursday, I participated in my first #PitMad, a quarterly Twitter event where writers put together up to three tweets about a manuscript they’ve written, add the #PitMad, age category, and genre hashtags, and hope that agents and / or publishers like their tweets. A like means that they’re interested in receiving your query. Think of it as a writer’s foot in the virtual door. With the likes in your notifications, you then research those agents and publishers, review their query requirements, and send in your materials. And then you wait, and likely wait and wait and wait.

I didn’t expect to receive any likes on my 3 manuscripts. I figured low expectations were warranted with so much competition. I was shocked and thrilled when all 3 manuscripts got some interest. I’m working on my queries this weekend, and am excited to see what comes of it. Of course, I’ll keep you all in the loop!

Here’s what I learned during my first run at #PitMad:

1.) Take your shot
Yes, there will be thousands of tweets in competition with yours. Yes, the odds are long. And yes, it’s worth it. Your manuscript deserves every shot at being published, even the long shots. In publishing, it’s all a long shot. Take as many as you can.

2.) Relatively minimal effort on your part
It’s three well-composed tweets. You can write them ahead of time and schedule to publish on the day of #PitMad. Yes, they take time to write but think about how much time querying takes, and most of those queries fall into the void. Write the tweets, post them, and see what happens.

3.) Love shines bright in the writing community
The best part of #PitMad for me was seeing all of the love fly around the Twittersphere that day. People retweeting and commenting on posts that piqued their interest made my day. Twitter can be a bullying garbage pile sometimes with so much disrespectful criticism, and it was nice to see it as a force for good for writers during #PitMad.

I will absolutely participate again, and if you have a finished manuscript, I encourage you to participate, too. For more details and the 2020 dates for #PitMad, check out https://pitchwars.org/pitmad/.

 

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