By Dalia Martinez It’s happened more than a few times. I sense someone behind me but when I turn around no one is there. While I consider myself a modern woman of science and logic, there are times when I cannot find a logical explanation for spooky things. I grew up in a beautiful 1940s art deco apartment in Los Angeles. It was spacious and well-lit. But it also came with heavy footsteps in the long dark hallway, the toilet cover that closed itself with a thud. There were doors that opened and shut at all hours of the night. My mom, my brother and me often felt something staring at us, but we never talked about the spookiness until we moved out.
My stories aren’t like something out of HBO’s
“Tales of the Crypt." But, if you’re in the market for writing the next
“Hemlock Grove,” legendary screenwriter W. Peter Iliff ("Point
Break", "Patriot Games", new gangster Netflix series- and
yes, "Tales of the Crypt") shows you how to break into the business and write for cable and web
viewing. Through fun-in class exercises, you'll develop compelling characters
and find the stories that will give viewers goosebumps.Class starts Monday, November 11.
The mind plays tricks on us. Brain science shows there are times our brain fools us into feeling phantom touches or a presence. But what if it’s not always a mind trick? What if there is a presence? Perhaps of a loved one or… something, someone else?
For this week's writing prompt, make a list of times when you thought you felt a ghost or a presence. Maybe it was your mind playing tricks on you? Think of the things that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Pick one. Add a sensory detail to it (smell, taste, sound, touch).
Earlier this year, I lost a life-long friend. One night, I was dreaming about her when I woke up to an obnoxious loud beep coming from my electronic fan. There’s a button that presses down to turn it on and off. The only times it turns off is when the power goes off and nothing else works. This particular night, it was only the fan that stopped working. I walked to it in the dark, “it’s her,” I said to myself, turning it back on. This could’ve been an electrical glitch but I want to believe it was my friend letting me know she was still around. I wasn’t afraid, but comforted by the darkness and her playful presence.
Now for 10 minutes, write about your experience, including the sensory detail (e.g. rattling chains, someone tapping your shoulder, a strange odor…). Then, post your results in the comments of this blog. You could win a free class!
Imagine the first movie you sell turns into a Hollywood blockbuster. That's what happened to W. Peter Iliff. Like many dreamy-eyed scribes, Peter waited tables in Los Angeles as he worked on his screenplay, "Point Break" about bank robbers who are part of a surf gang. When he sold it to Columbia Pictures, his new career began with a bang.
In the last 25 years, he's been hired to write or sold 50 film and TV projects for six figure fees. He's written under contract for nearly every studio and TV network in Hollywood. Over and over he's been hired to rewrite or doctor a script. He's faced dozens of studio and television execs. So, Peter knows what it's like to write scripts that sell.
Peter took some time out of his busy schedule working on his new crime drama series for Netflix to answer a few questions for us.
You've written many pilots and movies. Where do you get your ideas from? Our job as Hollywood writers is to sell, sell, and keep selling. We must constantly generate new ideas. But that’s fun. My daily routine includes reading the L.A. and New York Times, various magazines, and books. I am always reading a new book to hone my craft. The key to finding ideas that sell is crafting ones that fit the business model of the buyers. Can you imagine this idea as a one sheet ad in the Calendar Section? Does it have great lead characters that big actors want to play, because without hooking stars to justify the spend, these projects will never get made. It’s important to read the Hollywood trades to stay current on what is selling. And more importantly, who is buying? What can students expect from your class? The #1 take away from working with me is getting an authentic lay of the land in Hollywood. How do the working pros navigate this landscape? Working writers succeed because they understand the business model. What are the pressures on that studio/network executive? How can you craft your product to give them what they need to advance their careers? The recipe for a successful writer is half talent and half used car salesmen. What's your favorite part of screenwriting? Breaking the story is the hard part. Then there is the outline, and good writers spend half their time constructing this skeleton for their project. I’ve had feature film outlines that are 50 pages long. My favorite part of the process is finally getting to start writing the script. This is dessert. When I start hearing the character’s voices in my head, I’m rolling and having fun. The very best part of writing is working with talented actors who make your words and characters come alive.
And your least favorite part of screenwriting? Getting told by the studio “that we need to go another direction.” In other words, getting re-written. Ugh. Studio meetings can be difficult. You are sitting in a room with extremely over-worked producers and executives. They probably had to read and make notes on five scripts last night. And sometimes their ideas can make your blood boil. But you have to stay calm, professional, and realize that while their idea may be lousy, they might have found something that needs fixing, and it is your job to find a better way to fix it.
What is your writing process like? I prefer to work at home in my office, my dogs on the sofa, my 10 guitars on the walls behind me, perhaps one on my lap, Sports Center on mute, and Pandora Radio playing Foo Fighters. I got my start working on newspapers, writing in those noisy bullpens, trying to concentrate amidst total chaos. So now I cannot write in silence. I make writing fun. Many screenwriters dream of a successful career like yours. How did you make it happen for yourself? I had a simple mantra. “I will not be denied.” I was inspired by that great story of young Steven Spielberg who had the balls to set himself in an office at Universal – that nobody had given him. He found an empty room and just went for it. My first job was as a “runner” for the ABC series “That’s Incredible.” I was always being sent to various studios. So I would go around, find copy machines, make copies of my script, then give it to any producer I could find. I once pretended to be an agent for some small talent agency, selling my client, who was me. When an executive at Warners asked me and my client to come in together for a meeting, I was in trouble. When the executive discovered my ruse, she took pity on me because she loved the script, and helped get me signed by William Morris. What projects are you currently working on? What's next for you? I think the film business is getting tougher, because studios make less films, and develop fewer scripts. How many original films were in last year’s top 10 grossing films? One. Bridesmaids. The new frontier is TV, and specifically premium cable, where viewers are binge viewing, and writers are essentially writing novels for TV. So I have sold a crime drama to Netflix, using my Point Break brand. My reps heard my idea, then hooked me up with the producer from “Entourage,” and the director of the original “Fast and the Furious.” Since you are working on a new TV show for Netflix and have written on shows like Tales From The Crypt, what do you think makes a good TV show and what are you trying to accomplish in your new surf crime drama?
Characters, characters, and characters! We want you to be drawn in by our characters, understand their motivations, and feel what they are feeling. We want to create a fascinating world that the viewer wants to keep coming back to. The writing room is a terrific opportunity to push each other to excellence. The writer has to verbally pitch ideas, some which get shot down, while others get tossed about, and become better ideas. Thanks, Peter! That was fascinating. You've really shown that tenacity and commitment to craft go a long way. Writing Paders, if you're committed to your craft, now's the time to put it in action. Sign up for Peter's classes before they're full!
Maybe you are a child of the 70's and you still say “Good night John-Boy” to your siblings. Or maybe you think the 80's is the best decade ever. Thriller, Like A Virgin, The Cosby Show and Family Ties come to mind. If you overdosed on Squeeze-Its and Hi-C when you were growing up, then you are probably a child of the 90's. Or, maybe you came of age in the early 2000's and still find yourself inadvertently singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time."
As writers, we often look back on our lives to find inspiration and reflection for our creative work. We have some great classes coming up to help you make your true tales into riveting stories. On Tuesday, October 29, bestselling memoirist Brett Paesel ("Mommies Who Drink," LA Times, More) will be teaching a memoir class. And on Wednesday, October 30, master storyteller Brian Finkelstein (The Moth) shows you how to tell a riveting story for the stage. Sign up now, before the classes are full and your memories have faded!
For this week's writing prompt, think of the best years of your life. Write down what year that was a part of (e.g. 1982). Make a list of sensory details (smell, taste, sound, touch) that were part of that epoch -- things that make you nostalgic (e.g. snorting Scratch and Sniff stickers, the sound of Velcro ripping a Trapper Keeper open, the pop of Nerd candy…). Pick one. Now write about a moment that involved that sensory detail for 10 minutes.
If there is one time I’d like to travel back to, it’s the early 80's in Miami. We get nostalgic for various reasons. But there always seems to be a time that rises above others. It was a time before I counted calories, before I panicked about incurring late fees, before I lost many of my loved ones, there was a time when the world felt safe.
As a kid in the working class neighborhood of Little Havana in Miami, the early years of the 1980's were unmatched in joy to any other point in my life. My brother and I played outside till the streetlights came on, riding our bikes without worry of harm. My friend was a blonde girl with ringlets. She tried to show me how to blow bubbles with gum, but I accidentally spat it out. She picked it up off the ground and rolled it between her hands before I popped it back in my mouth. I know…gross, but it’s the innocence of these times that make memories so endearing.
Now it’s your turn. Tell us what your favorite decade or time period is. What made it so great? Use your specific time-based sensory detail and write for 10 minutes about your experience. Then post your story below. You could win a free writing class!
You know who I mean. It’s that guy or girl who has everyone at the party hanging on their every word. Just the way he tells a story makes him seem so attractive, so magnetic, yet…relatable.
I’ve never been that person. When I get in front of a crowd, my hands start sweating, my heart pounds and I feel like I might hyperventilate. If I do finally get up the nerve to tell my anecdote, it falls flat. I’m the awkward one who wants to hold an audience in the palm of my hand like that. But. I. Just. Can't.
Still, I've got a few stories in me. I'm a writer. Telling stories is what I do. I'd like to be able to tell one in front of an audience too.
Our time has come. This October, Brian Finkelstein, award-winning storyteller and host of The Moth will be teaching a new round of his popular storytelling class at Writing Pad! You can dip your toes into the storytelling pool this Saturday, Oct. 19, at his 1-day Storytelling Bootcamp. If you really want to master your storytelling skills, sign up for his 5-week Storytime Plus starting Wed., Oct. 30. By the end of class, you’ll be ready to perform in a fun show at Writing Pad (don’t worry, there’ll be sangria to loosen you and the audience up)!
For this week's writing prompt, make a list of three crazy things that happened to you or a memorable trip. Think of a story you’d often tell at parties. Pick one. Add a sensory detail to it (smell, taste, sound, touch).
One of my favorite stories is about the time I went bungee jumping. I guess I thought I was pretty tough, hiking 10 miles round trip just to jump off a 120-ft. high bridge. I like a thrill, so I’m all excited. But when we get to the top, I climb over that concrete railing and look beneath me at the rocky ravine, I am afraid I'm going to pee my pants. There is nothing keeping me from certain death except this relatively thin cord clipped to my torso. Every instinct in my body is telling me that I'm in grave danger. When it comes time for me to let go and jump backwards, my mind starts racing. What if I do it wrong? What if I grip the cable and chop off a finger, or fling back my head and snap my neck? What if the cable breaks?!
The guy counts down – 3-2-1…bungee! And I’m supposed to let go. But I don’t! So the guy – he had a blond mustache and a deep blue gaze -- he tells me, “Look at my eyes. I’m gonna count down, and you’re gonna jump.” I nod. I might cry I’m so scared. But I look into the guy’s eyes, and I bend my knees: 3-2-1…BUNGEE!!
Surprising myself, I let go. And it was amazing.
So, now it’s your turn to take the plunge.
Write a story about something crazy that happened to you or a memorable trip, making sure to include a sensory detail, for 10 minutes. It could be funny, poignant, sad -- anything you want. Then post your story in the comments below. You could win a free writing class!
Ben Loory's short stories are unique and have universal appeal. Maybe it's his background in screenwriting. Or maybe it's his talking televisions and humorous octopi. Or perhaps its his succinct, yet dream-like prose.
Publisher's weekly has compared Ben to Kafka and famed Hollywood animator Tex Avery. His stories capture the imagination of readers and critics alike, drawing them into a world of contemporary fables, tales unlike any they've encountered. His stories have appeared widely in online and print publications ("The New Yorker," "Best American Short Stories," "Glimmer Train") and have been showcased several times on NPR's This American Life.
Ben's book, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day (Penguin, 2011) is now in
its fifth printing, and had been chosen for numerous awards, including the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Program, the Starbucks Coffee
Bookish Reading Club, one of 10 Best Fiction Books of
the Year by the Hudson Booksellers retail chain, and the Nobbie
Award for Best Book of the Year, given by the arts and culture
This October, Ben will be teaching two classes at Writing Pad! Join us for a 1-day classto ignite the short stories inside of you on Sun., Oct. 20, followed by a4-week class beginning Mon., Oct. 28 that will end in you getting published. Read on for a glimpse of how the artistic mind of Ben Loory works:
The stories from your collection, "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day," are short and often fable-like. Where do your ideas originate?
I don't know that I really have ideas -- I only deal in images and emotions. I get a flash of an image -- like a canoe, or a tree -- and then I have a character interact with that and the story moves on from there. But the story as an idea, a concept, only exists once the story's complete, once I've finally found my way through the whole thing to the end. I never conceive of a story as a whole, or have any kind of outline or blueprint or "something to say"; writing for me is a process of discovery; it's not about ideas, but about the unfolding of a particular character in a particular situation.
Can you share about your writing routine or process with us?
I tend to write first drafts very quickly-- often in ten or fifteen minutes. Then I spend months and sometimes years editing and rewriting and taking the story apart and putting it back together again until the whole thing makes sense. I work at night all alone in my house when everything is quiet and there are no distractions. I drink a lot of tea and I walk around the block constantly. There's really not much difference between me and a crazy person.
What appeals to you about writing short stories?
I write short stories because that's what comes out; it's not so much that they appeal to me as that I seem to appeal to them. In real life, I try to speak simply and clearly and to the point. I guess that doesn't make for a novelist.
Despite the fantastical premise of some of your stories, are they ever inspired from real life?
When I'm writing them, my stories always seem completely removed from me, like something happening on some other plane of existence, but once they're done, I can always see my own life in them. Sometimes quite transparently, to the point where it's a little embarrassing. I mean, obviously no one can ever write anything that doesn't come filtered and shaped by their own experience. It just might be a little harder to spot when on the surface you're talking about octopi and spacemen.
You received your MFA in Screenwriting from the American Film Institute, and continue to work in film. How does screenwriting influence your short stories, and vice versa?
Actually, I haven't worked in film for years. I stopped writing screenplays as soon as I started writing stories; I was just so much better at writing stories and enjoyed it so much more. That being said, my stories definitely grew out of my work as a screenwriter. My obsession with clear story structure and my focus on visual storytelling comes directly from that experience.
You also got your bachelor's degree from Harvard in Visual Arts. What type of art did you do (or do you still do)? Does it influence your writing, or do you write about your art?
I studied film. Harvard was kind of a weird place, and I think they were almost ashamed to actually have a film department so they stuck it in the basement of this English department building and called it part of the "Visual and Environmental Studies" department, which also encompassed drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design and some other stuff. (No one ever explained to me what the "environmental" part was. Maybe architecture? I really don't know.) Anyway, yeah, I studied film. Film history, theory and criticism, as well as documentary and narrative filmmaking and animation. It all led me down the road to screenwriting, which led in turn to writing stories, and here we are. I still see my stories unfold in my mind as little movies or cartoons as I write them.
Your short stories have been featured in The New Yorker, as well as on NPR -- two things many writers dream of accomplishing. How did it happen for you, and did it change things for you as a writer?
I wish I could say I had anything to do with all that, but really I didn't -- it was all my agent and my editor at Penguin. I'd published around fifty or sixty stories in various literary journals before my story "The TV" got into The New Yorker, and I always expected someone to approach me about putting a book of them out, but no one ever did. Then the day after that story appeared in The New Yorker, I got a book deal from Penguin. So yes, that definitely was a game-changer! As for NPR, they've been amazing-- I think more people have found my work through This American Life and Selected Shorts than any other way. It's been a godsend. And, once again, I had nothing to do with it. So much of finding success as a writer is a matter of luck and of finding people who believe in you.
What do you consider the most important element for a short story?
Relentless forward motion.
Your stories are usually 1000 words or less, how do you make sure that you squeeze in a complete story in such few words?
1000 words is actually a lot of words. I mean, we all tell each other stories all day long and most of our stories are pretty short. If someone's telling me a story and it takes more than five or six minutes, they've probably already lost my attention. Stories just don't need to be that long, and they don't need to get longer just because you write them down. If you stick to the point and always keep moving the story forward, the end will come soon. It almost has no choice.
Can you give us a preview of some of the things you will cover in your class?
As a writer, I just focus on understanding character (and story) as a simple conflict of desires. Everything else I do flows directly out of that. We'll definitely be covering these things.
Thanks, Ben! That was so helpful and insightful. Writing Pad-ers, I bet you've got some great stories to tell, too. And I bet you're dying to learn how Ben does it, and you want to get them published. So sign up now before his classes are full!
Lauren Weedman is everywhere -- but you might not always recognize her because the writer/performer is so good at transforming herself. You may know her as the drill sergeant-like chef from, "The Five-Year Engagement." Or as Horny Patty from "HUNG." Or as the hilarious correspondent from "The Daily Show." Or maybe you've attended one of "The Moth" shows she hosts in LA.
She's appeared in a slew of popular TV shows and her first collection of comedic essays, “A Woman Trapped in a Woman’s Body: (Tales from a Life of Cringe),” was named by Kirkus Review as a top ten Indie book for 2007 and was optioned by Fox TV for a pilot. She also has a second book of essays coming out this year through Penguin and a regular role on HBO's much-talked about show,"Looking," slated to roll out next year.
Lauren's secret to success as a performer is that she's got a niche: her 8 acclaimed-one woman shows have launched her career. And lucky for you, she's got a class starting this Wed., Oct. 16 in which she'll teach you how to do it too.
Lauren was kind enough to take some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions:
How did you get into solo performance?
Way back in Seattle I was asked to be a part of a 'variety show' -- with dancers and performance artists etc., and I decided to write a monologue. It was in the back room of an internet cafe called The Speakeasy, and the experience of having full control of my words and experience on stage was GOOD. Actually the first time I thought, "I want to do that," was watching Whoopi Goldberg on HBO in the 80's doing an off-Broadway solo show. It blew my mind -- the idea of doing comedy that had characters and that was allowed to be dark and challenging as well.
Where do you get your ideas for your shows, and how do you decide what genre (plays, one-woman show, essay) you want them to be?
My ideas come from whatever is going on or obsessing or traumatizing me at any given time. And I can use the same material for both essays and solo stuff. The details and set ups change but the story itself is the same -- I think.
What are some tips for generating ideas to write about?
For me, it's very personal. It really comes from what I'm involved with at the time. Recently, I've been traveling alone a lot and seeing all these business men in hotels getting prostitutes (I should clarify -- I'm not WATCHING them get prostitutes. The people who work at the hotel will point out to me, "Okay -- see her? She's a high-end call girl," because they know I'm fascinated. Anything that matters to me, makes me react, or upsets me is material. Keeping a journal of moments/characters/music/movies that matter to you is a way to generate ideas.
Can you tell us a little about your process for writing?
I prefer to tell a story to a director before I write it down. Afterwards, I make notes but don't script it out to keep it loose and allow for more improv and discovery with it. I don't finalize scripts until I'm done with the run of the show. I go from verbally sharing it to outline to improv to script.
You are now a regular on HBO's series, "Looking" and have appeared in many TV shows and films. How have your one-woman shows helped your acting and writing career? As much as I'd like to say, "Just do the show you want to do and tell the story that you want to tell," I will say that solo theater has been vital for myself. I've never been an easy fit for a lot of the female roles in TV and film out there, but once people see me and hear my voice in my shows, I've been brought in to many projects. I got the Daily Show show job from one of my shows and also a writing job on the HBO show HUNG. But I always try to stay grounded in the art of solo theater and don't try to look at my shows as giant auditions. Though in L.A. they certainly can be. The thing is when you get to create your own work -- and strengthen your own voice -- you will bring people to you. And work. And stalkers. If I had not started doing my own work I would have been going insane waiting for the right project. I want to work and create and tell stories and perform. Bottom line. And I'm not going to wait around until someone else tells me I'm allowed IN. Creating my own work has changed how I approach auditions. Mostly because I'm not so starved and needy as I used to be. Well, that's a lie. My shows have gotten me acting jobs but mostly they help me feel like an artist. So when I walk into the TV world or Film world, I'm coming in with a life and perspective that I can bring to my work. I feel like this is all sounding so general. I blame the quesadilla I just ate.
You have written a book of comedic essays, "A Woman Trapped in A Woman's Body," and have a second essay collection forthcoming. How is writing for print different than writing for the stage?
It is completely different because with the essays I obsess and I'm alone and I re-write the shit out of them….and I can do so much more with a 'look' on stage. The editor of my first book used to send me notes like "Remember, we can't see your face!"
Thanks, Lauren! Whatever was in that quesadilla, it inspired some great stuff. Dear readers, don't miss your chance to study with Lauren!! By the end of class, you'll have a completed solo show and had a chance to perform it. Sign up herefor her class, "From the Page to The Stage" before it's all full!