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Plymouth, Michigan, doesn’t have much in common with Hollywood. But from there Burnstein tickled Tinseltown’s funny bone with his script for Renaissance Man, the film that started his career. Since then, he co-wrote Mighty Ducks 3 and is currently writing an original science-fiction film for Avnet/Kerner, the production team behind Ducks.
“At the start, the odds are against you because you don’t live in Hollywood,” says Burnstein. “But you can distinguish yourself because of it. The most important thing is to have a screenplay worthy of reading, one that is really your best shot.
“Don’t fall in love with the first draft. Rewriting is critical because so many scripts are floating around Hollywood,” he says. Burnstein claims only the title and lead character’s first name remain from his first draft of Renaissance Man. “You could write 19 first drafts for 19 different movies and sell none, or rewrite one project 19 times and be in a position to sell it.”
Finding Connections — and Making Your Own
As in most things in life, personal connections can be crucial. And if you’re not on Speilberg’s dinner list, you’ll need to be creative — and diligent.
Friends. A friend introduced Burnstein to § Read the rest of this entry…
For many writers, noise inhibits creativity. How do you reduce this potential distraction and focus on your writing? In just the same way you can ignore background sounds when you’re caught up in a good book or movie: You devote yourself to the story. To have the same keen attention, you must block out annoying racket and sharpen your concentration.
William Faulkner ignored the constant ear-splitting roar of a dynamo as he wrote “Sanctuary” during his midnight to 4 a.m. shift in a Power plant’s boiler room. Dr. Albert Schweitzer penned numerous articles and books amid the clamor of his jungle surroundings.
You can use a steady noise to cover up other abrasive ones. An air conditioner or fan drowns out practicing musicians, dogs barking or carpenters hammering next door. Many writers find that it’s easier to concentrate on their work with an inoffensive background sound.
Music helps, too. Certain types of music written by Baroque composers (Bach, Vivaldi and others) are particularly relaxing. The stringed instruments and the tempo of 55-60 beats a minute produce a conducive setting for writing.
Sounds aren’t the only noise a writer must deal with. Interruptions come in all shapes and sizes, but focusing on your work can help you deal with any distraction.
Trying a new approach to solving some of your old writing problems can boost your creativity and productivity. Your writing will become as Henry Miller said, “like life itself, a voyage of discovery.”
Sleep, Perchance to Write
To produce dreams that enhance your creativity, you must first conjure a mental picture of your writing goal and then create a statement affirming that the goal has been achieved. Then follow these steps:
* Get comfortable. Noise should be at a minimum. Close your eyes. Inhale through your nose. Take the air down to the diaphragm. Count to three. Exhale through the mouth. Do this three times.
* Imagine yourself within a pleasing scene. For me, it’s lying on a lounge chair near a pond on a warm fall day. The water reflects the colors of the surrounding tree leaves. All of nature is in harmony.
* Push your heels down on your chair or bed. Feel the tension; now relax them. Do the same thing with your hips, back, shoulders, neck, head, arms and hands. Push down against whatever surface they’re touching, then relax. Tighten and relax the muscles while taking three deep breaths. Repeat silently ten times: “I am becoming more and more relaxed.” (The main objective is to relax your mind and body so that the subconscious will accept your affirming statement.)
* If procrastination is the problem, picture yourself doing something you enjoy — gardening, reading, whatever. Immerse yourself in the activity and feel the pleasure that you derive from it. Next, see yourself going to your desk with the same enthusiasm for your writing. For other writing goals, picture yourself accomplishing them.
* Silently repeat this statement ten times: “Because writing is important to me, I approach it with the same interest I have in (name activity). Other things will be done after I finish my writing.” For other writing goals, repeat a statement that affirms that your goal is achieved. Keep the statement positive and in the present tense. If you do the exercise during the day, finish by saying, “When I open my eyes, I’ll feel great.” Otherwise, allow yourself to drop off to sleep.
One Character to Go, Please
To achieve specific goals for your writing, you must “program” your mind to work on the problem as you sleep. You may, for instance, want to develop a character for a story.
* Before going to sleep, review everything you’ve written about the character. Then do the first three steps above. When your mind and body are relaxed, the critical (conscious) mind becomes nonjudgmental and the inner (subconscious) mind will accept what you say.
* Picture your goal as achieved. See your character in detail as you’ve described him. Finally, say several times silently: “I see my character as a fully-developed person in my dream.”
* When you wake up, keep your eyes closed and try to re-create the dream. Then write down everything you can remember. Do this before you get out of bed; otherwise, you’ll forget the dream.
It’s best to do your dream planning when you’re not under a lot of stress and when you can wake up without an alarm clock (they can make you forget your dreams). It might take several nights or longer, but keep a positive feeling that you will have your desired dream.
You can use this method to help reach any writing goal. The point is to relax your critical, conscious mind and allow your subconscious to offer suggestions.
Robert Frost defined creativity as “looking at something old in a new way.” Often our own creative batteries need recharging in order to develop new solutions to old writing problems: finding time and ideas, getting started, and dealing with distractions. The following tips will get your creative gears in motion.
Finding the Write Time
Life circumstances can limit both your writing time and your creativity. How often have you said, “I’d get so much writing done if I just had an extra hour in my day”?
To find that extra hour — or even just 15 minutes — to nurture your creativity, try examining how you’re spending the time you have. On a sheet of paper, list all your waking hours. For each hour record your activities — and be specific. For a week, make a note of everything — taking a walk, reading, preparing dinner and commuting to work.
At the end of the week, look back on the daily logs and circle each day’s leisure time. Then go through the daily logs again and draw a fine under those leisure times when you’re absolutely free of distractions and interruptions — these are potential writing times. You’ll probably notice that you’ve made time for watching television, talking on the phone, going out to dinner. If you can do it for those activities, then it’s not unrealistic to find and devote 15-60 minutes a day to writing.
Look first at the hours from about 7 to 11 p.m. Is there a television program you watch faithfully each week? The news? A sitcom? Do you watch a show before or after that one? Could that time be used for writing?
Next, look for uninterrupted chunks of time throughout your day. Do you take a bus or train to work? If your round-trip travel time is 45 minutes, can you use 30 of those minutes as writing time?
Dan, a student in one of my classes, used his commute to think through and write a story. Every day on the bus, Dan focused on his story and concentrated on his character. He didn’t waste 10 or 15 minutes trying to out what to write about; he simply took notes on the thoughts he had about his story.
After a few months, the plot line began falling into place. Dan’s character became more and more believable. In fact, most of the story was written using those 20-minute sessions on the bus.
Marjorie Holmes is the author of numerous books and articles, as well as the mother of four children. How did she manage to do both? “There were thousands of times when I thought I would go mad, mad, mad, with interruptions and frustrations,” Holmes said. “Yet no matter what, I managed to turn out a little something almost every day. Even a scrap of an idea or an observation.”
Curiouser and Curiouser
“Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect,” said Samuel Johnson. Writers who lack it — or stifle it — are at a disadvantage.
One powerful idea generator that activates curiosity is the daily newspaper. It pulls you into a whirlwind of emotions and events. Crime, death, advice and laughter are discussed, documented and delivered to your doorstep. Reading the paper can be a routine exercise or a treasure hunt for ideas.
Become a creative reader. Tackle those pages with a pen in your hand and this question in your mind: How can I use this in my writing.? Jot notes in the margin. Put check marks next to articles to clip for future use.
As you read about the teenager who unexpectedly inherited $3 million from an eccentric neighbor he’d befriended, your active mind should ask questions: How will this change his life? How would the average person spend that much money? What would I do with it? You can explore the answers to these questions and others in your own articles, stories and poems.
Advice columns such as Dear Abby suggest a host of potential topics. Many even provide a story fine. What could you develop from these questions: How do I deal with a child who is on drugs? A jealous spouse? A workaholic husband?
Interviews on TV talk shows range from the informative to the bizarre and can stimulate your creativity. A show that reunites high school sweethearts after 30 years might prompt you to consider whether you’d marry your high school sweetheart today.
Of course, your daily newspaper and favorite talk shows are only two places to apply this technique. Once you develop your curiosity, you’ll question everything around you and imagine all the possibilities.
Sleep on it
A stimulated imagination works nonstop. Even when you’re not awake, you’re thinking and creating and dreaming. Ideas for stories and ways to develop them can be revealed in dreams. Plots can be acted out by your characters on your mind’s movie screen. Why not tap into this source?
Even people who say they don’t dream really do; they just don’t remember. We spend 20% of our sleeping hours dreaming. Adults may dream for up to 90 minutes during an eight-hour period. This can be a very creative and productive time, especially if other duties limit your writing time.
Authors, scientists and artists throughout history have looked to dreams for ideas and insights. Dante, Goethe, Milton, Blake and Tolstoy were influenced by their dreams. J. B. Priestly dreamed his three essays “The Berkshire Beast,” “The Strange Outfitter” and “The Dream” in detail.
Researchers agree that whatever thoughts you have right before sleep greatly influence the content of your dreams. After thinking for several nights about a poem that could convey her feelings about depression, Anne, a beginning writer, had a dream: “I was alone in a large Victorian house. A foot of snow had fallen during the day — the wind drifted it against the door. As I looked out the window, I felt an overwhelming sense of isolation and depression. The blizzard became the metaphor for depression in my poem.”
With practice, you can deliberately induce dreams of artistic creations or dreams that solve problems. “Your dreams can become your own source of inspiration,” says Dr. Patricia Garfield, author and dream researcher. (See the sidebar on page 31 for advice on how to influence your dreams.)
Warming Up Your Writing Muscles
Perhaps your creative roadblock isn’t in getting an idea, but in how to get it on paper.
These five exercises will help you break the ice at the start of a writing session. I recommend you spend a minimum of 15 minutes warning up for every hour you intend to write.
* Pick a word that defines your mood at the time you’re writing (such as sad) happy, romantic). Write several paragraphs about how you feel and why. This exercise can act as a catharsis to clear away emotional blocks that inhibit your creativity.
* Read a favorite poem or quotation and write your reaction to it. A literary shot in the arm or an insightful comment can stimulate an idea. It can cause you to recall an experience, a person or an emotion you could write about.
* If you’re planning to write a story during your regular writing session, use journalism’s five Ws to help you figure out what to say: Who is the story about? What is the plot? Where does it take place? When does the action happen? Why are you writing it? Write a rough outline based the five Ws.
* As you look at your high school year-book picture (or one taken when you were a teenager), ask yourself these questions: How have your priorities changed since then? What career did you want to pursue in high school? Did you do it? What three important life lessons have you learned since you graduated?
* Open your journal. Keeping a journal or diary or writing letters may be especially helpful if you have trouble developing an idea. A journal serves many purposes. It can be a trusted friend to confide in or a sounding board for solving problems.
“Creative people in many fields have traditionally kept journals because the form encourages the creative process,” wrote Tristine Rainer in her book The New Diary. “The journal provides a place to deposit the first flash of creative imagination or experience.”
Cecilia, a former student, writes articles about teenagers and their problems. Before beginning a piece, she writes letters to her niece and nephew who are in high school. Cecilia never mails these letters, but they help her picture her readers and their needs. They let her express her ideas in a way that would interest teens.
“No writing is a waste of time,” author Brenda Ueland assures us. “With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has stretched your understanding.”
A basic piece of advice for writers, given so often that perhaps you’re sick of hearing it, is: “Everything in a story — dialogue, action, thoughts, mannerisms, descriptions — should both advance plot and reveal character.” It’s good advice. The problem, however, is that it tens you what to do, but it doesn’t tell you how.
Since “everything in a story” is dauntingly broad, let’s narrow it to this: How does dialogue reveal character?
The obvious answer is through content. The person who says “Look at that adorable baby” is a much different character from the person who says “Anyone who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad.”
The content of your character’s dialogue is the main way you let us know who he is inside.
However, it’s not the only way. You have other tools at your disposal for making dialogue convey characterization. They am diction, sentence construction and grammar.
What Words to Choose
Diction means word choice, and it reflects your character’s education, precision, imagination and background — no matter what the content of the speech. Consider the following two passages. Both are dialogue, in which a character comments on another character’s housekeeping:
“Course she ain’t much of a hand to housekeep: slut’s wool all over the place. When yer mind is that fixated on things above, the dirt’s bound to settle below.”
“I know I can leave all household arrangements to you, Mr. de Winter said so, and you must just run things as they always have been run, I shan’t want to make any changes.”
Can you see how much the diction tells us about each of these people? Mr. Spencer and his language are uneducated (“ain’t), colorful (“slut’s wool”) and analytic (he gives a reason why his neighbor’s housekeeping is so bad). His word choice also reflects his country background through his use of regional idioms (“much of a hand to housekeep”). In contrast, the young second bride of Maxim de Winter uses entirely different diction. Her words are formal (“all household arrangements”), bland (no colorful word choices) and general (no details like “slut’s wool”). Her diction reflects an educated English background (“shan’t”). This is appropriate, because the young woman is formal, bland, educated, British and very uncertain of herself.
A subdivision of diction is language specific to a given group: slang, dialect and jargon. The rule here is to tread lightly. Often just a single word of slang, dialect or jargon is all you need. Look, for instance, at these five replies to the simple question “How was the movie?”
“Y’all really want to know?”
“My word, it was violent.”
“Domestic poison, foreign major-grosser.”
Each reply uses diction to tell us not only about the movie, but about the speaker. These speakers are, respectively, a youth, Southern, British, genteel and in the film business. Or else they wish they were those things.
What is your character like? Do her words — not only the sense of her speech, but the individual word choices — reflect her personality and background? If not, can you alter a word or a prase here and there so they do?
The Complexity of Sentences
This one is tricky, because much depends on context. For instance, each of the following uses short, curt sentences:
“Make three copies of that, please.
Send one each to Jane Denby and
Chad Lawrence. Put the third in my
“I never knowed my daddy. He left
early. I was 9. He left my dog. it was
“That’s Jemison. Candy’s lawyer. A
real son of a bitch.”
These sentences are all similar in length and simple in construction (no dependent clauses, no compounds, no participial phrases, and only the first uses simple prepositional phrases). Yet each gives much different impressions of the speakers, due to content and diction. In the first, the curtness comes across as commanding. In the second, as simple-mindedness or extreme youth. In the third, as gruff taciturnity. Such flexibility makes it difficult to issue absolute rules coordinating sentence structure with characterization.
However, here are some helpful guidelines:
* Long, complex sentences give an impression of education and intelligence. Here, again, is the second Mrs. de Winter:
“Whenever you spoke to me or
looked at me, walked with me in the
garden, sat down to dinner, I felt you
were saying to yourself, `This I did
with Rebecca, and this, and this.'”
The dependent clause, lengthiness and parallel structure (“spoke,” “looked,” “walked,” “sat,” each followed by a prepositional phrase) tell us that this person is intelligent. Stupid people simply don’t talk like this. They can’t. (Note, however that the reverse is not necessarily true. Short sentences don’t mean a character is dim-witted. There can be other reasons for curtness, as we saw in the three examples above.)
* Very long, very complex sentences may make a character seem pretentious. This is especially true if the diction is also formal. Jean Brodie, the queen of pretentiousness (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark) expresses her sense of job security in this overblown way:
As for impropriety, it could never be
imputed to me except by some gross
distortion on the part of a traitor.
She sounds like the pompous snob she is.
* Speeches that pair a heavy-duty subject with a lightweight one make a character seem ridiculous. It’s a great way to create a comic effect. Jean Brodie, who’s not only pretentious but ludicrous, demonstrates this sort of sentence construction as she describes her summer vacation:
In London my friends … took me to
visit A.A. Milne. in the hall was hung
a reproduction of Botticelli’s
Primavera which means The Birth of
Spring. I wore my silk dress with the
large red poppies which is just right
for my coloring. Mussolini is one of
the greatest men in the world, far
more so than Ramsay MacDonald,
and his fascisti….
What a mismatched jumble! Like the character.
* Sentences that run on and on indicate an emotional person, either always emotional or in the grip of temporarily upsetting circumstances. Teenage John Maples, in John Updike’s story “Separating,” uses short sentences fused into one long incoherent sob:
“It’s not just the separation, it’s the
whole crummy year, I hate that
school, you can’t make any friends,
the history teacher’s a scud.”
To create a sense of emotion out of control, try long sentences that are constructed of short ones separated by commas.
This one’s easy. A character who uses correct grammar will be perceived as brighter than one who doesn’t.
In a way, this is very unfair. In real life many intelligent people deliberately speak ungrammatically. Sometimes they want to hide their intelligence; sometimes they want to fit in with neighbors or family, sometimes they were raised to think that correct speech is stuck-up. If that’s the case with your character, you must make sure we know it. You might, for instance, have another character say something like, “Dan talks like a dockworker but don’t let that fool you — he’s as shrewd about business as they come.” Or, you might indicate intelligence with a physical detail: “Candy’s silly words tripped all over themselves, but her shrewd blue eyes never left Sean’s face. He could see the calculation there, steady and cold as precision machinery.” Or, you might structure an early scene so that we’re shown the contrast between bad grammar and intelligent action. In fact, these techniques can actually aid characterization by adding very human texture and contradictions to a character that might otherwise seem one-dimensional.
In one sense, of course, how characters talk is never a function of their personalities alone, but also of a writer’s overall style. No character in a Henry James novel, no matter what his station in life, will talk like a character in a Joseph Wambaugh novel. But within the limits of your own style, your characters should not all sound alike. If they do, you miss opportunities to deepen their characterization through their dialogue. Pay attention to each person’s diction, sentence construction and grammar. It will make your dialogue far more revealing, interesting and readable.
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