Saturday, September 10, 2016

Pancho Bandito and the Avocado Desperadoes out now!

My brother Jonathan and I have just released the next book in the Pancho Bandito saga.  It's an epic tall-tale adventure series told in the picture book format.  It was inspired by our favorite animated series like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Samurai Jack, mixed with a fun tall-tale feel like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.  This one has some cool Olmec mythology and a big secret about Pancho's family.  We're very excited that you can pick it up starting today!

Paperback     iBooks     Kindle

Friday, July 8, 2016


We have a fresh new website and logo for our kids books, both designed by the talented Jonathan Sundy.

The new website has fun sections for each book like Part of My Heart or Pancho Bandito.  Find things like free coloring sheets, read-aloud videos, fan art, creator bios, and more.  Please check out the new website at:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Most Valuable Thing I Learned at Pixar: How to Fail

I worked at Pixar for over eight years.  The most valuable thing I learned there was how to fail.

Failure - it has such a negative connotation.  Our school system and society have turned it into a bad word.  It implies rejection, humiliation, and not being good enough.  I remember the video games I played as a kid and how crushing it was when you died.

But failure is absolutely vital to all creative endeavors.  It's part of being human - the only way we learn to walk is by trying and falling over and over.  Failure is the process of learning, of becoming.  Failure is about growth, not death.

I see it in my daughters - the fear of failure.  The fear of not being perfect.  Nobody's perfect.  Not celebrities, heroes, or even the greats of ancient history.

The Long Game Part 1: Why Leonardo DaVinci was once a loser from Delve on Vimeo.

This message that failure is bad does a disservice to budding creators.  They only see the polished end product.  They don't see the umpteen drafts that went into it.  The first seven books that didn't sell.  Most "debut authors" have written several unsuccessful novels that didn't find a publisher.  The "10-year overnight success" is a cliche for a reason.  People like to focus on success because it's attractive.  It's a dream.  "I could be that person," they fantasize.  And they think the first thing they write will be some massive breakout hit.  They don't see the failure that went into producing that hit.  The years of doubt and toiling in the shadows that led to it.  This is much more the norm rather than the exception.  But most people see that debut hit and think that's what will happen to them.  The first thing they ever write will be huge.  So they try to write their first thing and guess what - it's pretty terrible.  They can't reconcile the huge successes they see and their own lack of ability.  They think they're one of the unlucky ones who was born without talent.  However, "greatness isn't born, it's grown" - Daniel Coyle.

So folks give up instead of soldiering on through failure after failure, improving at their craft.  This is why many people don't write - they think they're not naturally good at it.  Surprise - writers don't come out of the crib spouting beautifully crafted lines.  They built the skill over years and years of practice.  Maybe they had some spark of initial talent but that's definitely not enough.  Persistence through failure is what it takes.  That's what I learned at Pixar.

Disclaimer: Not going to get into specifics but will talk about general process.  I was a tech guy there so take my view of the story process with a huge grain of salt.  This is not Pixar's opinion, only mine.

At Pixar, we constantly attempted to identify failure, correct weak spots, and not get too complacent.  This started from day one.  On my orientation several years ago, they walked me (an IT guy) and the other employees starting that day (barista, software engineer, etc.) into the beautiful Main Theater and sat us in row six, where the directors sit.  They told us "you're all filmmakers now."  And they meant it.  We, along with the other thousand or so folks who work there, were charged with identifying failures in the films (and in the company) and then "plussing" them.  Plussing = making it a little bit better.  The entire company had a voice and we were encouraged to e-mail our notes directly to the producer.  Pixar doesn't make films better than anyone else.  They just make them over and over until they get them right.  We averaged roughly 8-9 low-res visual drafts of the films (in storyboard form called "story reels") over the course of the several years it takes to make each film.  And the early versions of most of the films are frankly terrible.  This includes Woody being a jerk (see video below) in the early reels of Toy Story.  The films improve dramatically over those 8-9 rounds of screenings.  By the time we got to the final iteration after years of effort, it was usually working well.

The failure starts from the very birth of the film.  The simplified version of how a film starts is that a director or story artist comes up with three personal ideas and pitches them to John Lasseter.  John picks one of the three and tells them to develop that.  Right off the bat, there are two failed ideas.  After that, there are hundreds of "failures" as ideas about the story are pitched and discarded.  Then the story artists draw tens of thousands of temporary boards for the reels - that's tens of thousands of "failures."  The Braintrust (a group of peer directors and writers) weighs in with their opinions and blows up the reels again.  The beleaguered director and his/her team are constantly being confronted with the fact that the film's not good enough yet.  They collate the useful feedback, make some decisions, and then make it better.  And that's just the story side of it.  There are daily/weekly reviews of animation and other production elements where small teams analyze, find weak spots, and plus them.  It's a grind toward greatness.

Sometimes a film will even make it to production and then get canned.  That's an expensive failure.  But it's more important than putting out a subpar film.

In a sense, Pixar displays and celebrates their failures.  Their art galleries are full of concept art, character design, environment design, and gags that didn't directly make it into the movie.  But there's a beauty in the process of discarding, and out of those lovely "failures" the final film emerges.

Ed Catmull (Pixar co-founder and president) was always saying the danger is that we rest on our laurels.  We get complacent.  He sat the whole studio down right after our first billion dollar movie.  We thought it might be a celebration or something, but it was quite different.  He said something to the effect of: now was a dangerous time for us and "success hides problems."  The temptation is to play it safe and conceal failure from each other.  But it's vital to get trouble spots into the open so they can be corrected while the problems are still small.

Andrew Stanton (director of Finding Nemo and Wall-E) has a mantra "be wrong as fast as you can."  That failure is in the DNA of the place.  It's why I love collaborating with Pixar people - because they get it.  They know it's not going to be perfect right away.  They're willing to fail their way forward to something better.

But even at Pixar, I saw people afraid to fail.  Afraid of not being perfect.  Even in the place where failure is part of the culture.  I saw many talented people there afraid to try their own creative endeavors or obsessively working on "perfecting" a project for too long when they would be much better off declaring it a learning experience and moving on to write something new.

My own writing process is filled with failure.  It takes me 8 or 9 drafts of a screenplay to get it to a place I'm happy with.  I've written so many failed screenplays and failed children's books.  My brother Jonathan and I tried a children's book concept for years that just didn't work.  We finally wrote it off and moved on to a new project.  Then we took an earlier failed idea called Disaster Cowboy, retooled it, and it's now the basis for an ongoing children's book series.  I'm not alone.  Most writers struggle with a story for multiple drafts before it finally yields.  Example: Ernest Hemingway from The Paris Review (1958) interview:

How can you use failure to help you be a better writer?  First of all, stop being afraid of it or treating it as a bad word.  It's vital to fail and move on.  It's helpful to get a straw man out there to play off of and start to define the project.  Much better to write a terrible first draft/outline and retool than to be paralyzed by the blank page and have nothing concrete to work from.  Get the story out in a low-res form (e.g. logline, rough idea, 2-page synopsis, beat sheet) and then refine the resolution as you go.  I often trick myself into writing by saying that I'll write the bad version first and refine later.  Then I'm not stuck in fear of the blank page, because I know this draft is only temporary and no one has to see it unless I want them to.  Having said that, it's important to show folks your early rough work since it's much easier to change things at that stage than when you've already sunk months/years into a project.  Just get something bad down and fix it later.  This is the concept of the "vomit draft."  For me, I ease my way into writing the actual draft via half-formed notes and outlining.  I sometimes write over a hundred pages of notes about a project before writing a single script page.  Outlines are another good way to test the script before committing to script pages.  I tried once to write a screenplay without outlining - it was a failure.  I got too far in to want to redo the whole thing but I could tell it wasn't working.  It fizzled out because I didn't know where I was going.  But I learned from that failure.  I learned that I'm definitely a plotter, not a pantser.  It's important to fail in your writing process as well, to test your boundaries.  Try new things out to find what works for you and doesn't.  That's how you improve.

I'm a failure.  I've written 30 projects over 14 years and none of them have been hugely successful.  A few of my children's books have started to sell but there's a long way to go.  But I'd rather be a failure with 30 projects under my belt than someone who's never failed because they've never tried.  Someone with zero projects to show because they're too scared to start.  Or with one unfinished project they're too scared to show the world.  They'd be much better off finishing, getting it out to the world, and moving on.  Pixar taught me how to fail and for that I'm grateful.  I hope you all learn to fail too.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How Do You Write So Much?

"How do you write so much?"  I get asked this question a lot.  Personally, I don't think I write enough.  But folks keep asking me so I'll give a shot at answering.  Until recently, I had a full-time IT job and wrote on the side.  I had (and still have) all the other demands on my time: a wife and kids, a house, and hobbies.  But I still managed to write.  I've written around thirty projects to various stages over the past fourteen years, mostly screenplays and children's books.  That doesn't seem like a lot to me - two projects a year to some degree of completion.  But people were still mystified that I could produce anything.  "How do you write so much?"  What they really wanted to know was some secret, some "trick" to being able to write.  As if there's some Nintendo cheat code or software program you could use to unlock magical writing ability.  There's no magic to it.  It's like any of those other self-improvement questions where you know the answer but hope there's another way.  Sorry, buddy, it's diet and exercise.  Or in the case of writing, it's this:

That's my office chair.  I got it at IKEA many years ago and have worn it down by sitting in it and writing.  The padding has worn out so much that my legs get a bit numb after a writing session.  The Germans call it "sitzfleisch" (sit + flesh) - the ability to persist or endure in a task.  AKA "butt to chair."  It's the same thing as Malcolm Gladwell's ten thousand hours or Dan Coyle's deliberate practice - the ability to persevere in building your ability through repetition and discipline.  Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) always talks about sitzfleisch.  Writing is like a muscle, in that it needs to be regularly exercised to be strong.  So sit until you write something.  Then do it again the next day.

I write whenever I can snatch a free moment.  The main time I write is in the evening.  I tuck the kids in, tell my wife not to bother me for an hour, put on my headphones, and I write.  I don't watch TV or play Xbox or anything else until after I get in that one hour a day.  Like you, I'm tired from work and the commute and the dozen things around my house that need fixing.  But I sit in that chair any way.  And I find I usually enjoy myself once I get started.  For bigger things like breaking a story I usually need more than an hour so I'll do those on the weekend when I can get at least two straight hours free.  My wife is wonderful in that she'll take the kids to some event nearly every weekend to give me some precious writing time.

Mind you, I don't only write in the aforementioned chair.  I write wherever I can.  I've written on planes, trains, cars (while my wife's driving), couches, beds (while sick), coffee shops, libraries, hammocks, bars, BBQ joints, work offices, cafeterias, etc.  I use a laptop and headphones to write - that gives me portability and noise cancellation.  I write to music (usually themed to the project I'm working on).  That does two things: focuses me and cues my brain that it's time to write.

"I wish I could write," you say.  "I don't have time.  Commuting eats up my day."  I've commuted two hours a day for several years - I use the time to think about story, record Voice Memos into my iPhone, or listen to writing podcasts.  Mostly I use the commute for working out story ideas in my head or education about the craft.

Writing isn't hard.  Starting to write is hard.  When you're actually already writing and it's flowing, it feels pretty fantastic.  If I know any tricks, it's ways to fool myself into starting to write.  Here are a select few items from my Writer's Bag O' Tricks:

Trick #1: The main reason I write in Movie Magic Screenwriter (even my books) is because it has an inline notes feature.  I prototype my scenes there and know that my notes will never show up on the printed page/.pdf so it doesn't feel like "real" writing.  That means by the time I put it on the script page I've already written a few drafts as notes.  Then the process of writing the script pages is more like transcribing my notes into a different format.  That reduces the pressure.

Trick #2: Another trick I use is to tell myself that I can always fix it later.  I save multiple copies of every file I'm working on before I change it - it's a psychological tactic to tell myself I can always go back to an old version if I don't like what I write.  Psst: I never go back.

Trick #3: Lately I tell myself I'll only write for five minutes because that feels super easy.  Of course I never write for only five minutes.  Once I get started it's fun and I don't want to stop.  But I still have to tell myself I'll only do it for five minutes.  Honestly, if you only write for five minutes a day you'll produce a lot more work than someone who writes for zero minutes a day.

Trick #4: Another trick I'll use is to put on my headphones and start my writing music before I'm ready to write - the Pavlovian response kicks in and as soon as I hear the opening bars of my playlist I have to write.  So I trick myself by saying I'll just listen to the music.

Trick# 5: Never start from zero.  I'll usually begin by reviewing notes I left myself from the night before.  Then I'm always working off of something rather than having to invent from a vacuum/blank page.  At the end of my writing session, I leave at least one writing task to start with the next day.  It's a nice small thing to start with that will get the gears rolling and carry me into the rest of my writing.  Even just reviewing notes or outlines is a great way to spark ideas and automatically trigger yourself to write.

Using all of the above tricks, I've managed to fill these four boxes with my writing:

That's fourteen years of writing.  I know, it should be more boxes.  I don't write as much as I should.  But at least I write.  I fill some boxes.  And if you fill enough boxes with drafts and half-started projects and finished scripts, you end up with boxes like this:

Boxes full of your books that people buy and read and love.  So sit in your chair and fill a box.  Then do it again.  Then some day people will ask you, "how do you write so much?"

Monday, September 14, 2015

Screenwriting and the Austin Film Festival

The gorgeous Driskill Hotel in Austin, TX - AFF Headquarters

Welcome fellow screenwriters!  The greatest screenwriting festival in the history of the world is coming up at the end of October.  I'm lucky enough to be a panelist for the first time, along with excellent writers Susan Brunig and Emily Zulauf.  We'll be speaking on "Creating and Sustaining a Kick-Ass Writers Group."  Thought I'd collect my posts related to screenwriting groups and the Austin Film Festival (AFF) for your convenience.  Enjoy!

HTD Express Podcast - AFF guide and screenwriting process podcast I did with the unstoppable Handsome Timmy D.

Sense of Direction - serendipitous events, or more reasons to go to AFF.

Accelerate Your Writing Talent with a Writers Group - taking the principles of Dan Coyle's excellent Talent Code book and applying them to building writing talent.  Also, the importance of desserts.

Pixar Writers Workshop - how we organize and run our extracurricular writing group at Pixar.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pancho Bandito now available for pre-order on iBooks!

My talented illustrator brother Jonathan and I have made a new high-quality children's ebook!  It's a tall tale picture book with a unique hero and gorgeous Western landscapes.

It's available for preorder until Oct. 3 2016 for a limited time low price of only $0.99!  Click below to get this great deal!

You can also visit our website at

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Part of My Heart

My friend Sansu and I created a short children's book about a baby heart born to human parents.  Update: as of June 2016 it is now an All-Time Best Seller in iBooks with over 36k downloads and over 900 5-star reviews!  Check it out here:

Paperback: Part of My Heart
Kindle ebook: Part of My Heart
Apple iBook: Part of My Heart

In this post, I'm going to talk about self-publishing that children's ebook.  We'll go through the process and share some lessons learned.


The inspiration for this story came from my (at that time 4-year-old) daughter Nora.  She asked me where she came from.  I wasn't ready to give the birds and the bees talk, so I gave her the emotional truth: she came from the love Mommy and I have for each other.  That explanation satisfied her.  I was also inspired by this quote from Elizabeth Stone:

"Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous.  It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside of your body."  I took this literally.

I wrote the story over four months in Lissa Rovetch's class.  Also in that class was Sansu, a super talented Korean artist/author.  We had taken years of Lissa's classes at Pixar together and always felt a kinship in that we both went to emotion first.  She enjoyed the story and drew a picture.  Here's that early art:

I had been looking for an excuse to collaborate with her for years so this was a wonderful opportunity.  We decided to do a children's ebook together.

Why An Ebook?

  • Full creative control.
  • Much faster process than traditional publisher.
  • Basically free to create.
  • Liberating to create a finished product.
  • Could share with family and friends.
  • Digital means instant global distribution and removes barriers to exposure.
  • The book would live online 24/7 as a calling card for our work.
To simplify the project, we decided to set the goal of publishing a straight ahead children's book (2-D art) as a free Apple iBook.  This would let us create and distribute the book for free.  We wouldn't need to pay conversion costs to other formats or worry about designing the art to work on multiple platforms.  We also decided not to do it as an app since we didn't want to bring in a third person to do coding/interactive elements.  We decided to keep it something we could accomplish between the two of us.

Art Production and Layout Tools

With a finished story, we met bi-weekly over six months to produce the art.  Sansu created all the art and my role was mostly giving feedback.  She mostly drew directly on the iPad with the app iDraw.  In Sansu's words, "It's a powerful drawing tool and does cool things like layers.  The images are not too expensive in memory because it's a vector app."  For the handwritten text near the end of the process I believe she had to import into Photoshop and do that there.

Sansu used the wonderful app Book Creator to see the layout in continuity.  She was drawn to Book Creator because it was so easy to create dummy books.  She also found it fast and easy to import/export images from albums and edit pages quickly.  She loved using the drawing pencil tool to sketch visual notes on top of the book while we met.

Art Production Process

Our working process was really cool: we would meet for an hour or so and Sansu would bring her iPad with the art loaded on it.  I would give notes and she would draw changes directly over the images right there (via Book Creator).  It really accelerated the normal cycle of feedback and editing because she could give herself visual notes in the moment rather than have to translate words into art.  I found I enjoyed giving feedback on the art - felt like a movie director in that I was giving my take on the layout, staging, and emotional truth of each page/scene.  It was so inspiring that I'm now looking to write/direct a short film.

Art Challenges

Sansu had a hard time drawing humans in the beginning.  She usually draws more abstract animals or fantastical creatures.  She invested time in sketching people on the subway, cafe, and streets.  It was especially difficult to draw a human with a heart child, since they look totally different.  She wanted them to be connected even though they are different forms in her drawing style.  For example, she used simple lines for their arms and legs, and simple dots for their eyes to tie them together.

Early basic images:

Some finished art:

Exporting the Book with Book Creator

Once we had the artwork and text all finalized, it was simple for Sansu to use Book Creator to export an .epub file.  This is "book" file that we would eventually publish.

Publishing With iTunes Producer

iTunes Producer is the free app you use to prepare something for sale on Apple's stores (including the iBook Store).  We followed a good tutorial on how to use iTunes Producer.  You'll need to categorize the book, give other info about it, and choose sample images.  It is a thrilling experience to hit submit and know that your book will be in over 50 countries within 24 hours.

Tracking Downloads With iTunes Connect

Apple also provides a free (noticing a theme here?) website called iTunes Connect which you can use to track downloads/sales in various countries.


We also signed a legal collaboration agreement up front that was a modified version of a free online form.  I encourage having an agreement so that it makes it clear up front who owns what.  We also filed for copyright once we had a finished product.  It's not strictly necessary, but it was pretty cheap and makes it easier to defend your work should you ever have legal action.

Results & Benefits

So was it worth it?  Yes.  It took us about 10 months to write, create the art, and publish the ebook.  With a traditional publisher it would take more like three years!  Apple and ebooks in general have streamlined the process and removed many of the traditional barriers that prevented independent creators from getting their work out to the world.  It was a liberating and energizing experience.  It was a great feeling to own our destiny and have full control from writing to art to layout to font choice to publishing to promoting.  Thanks to the internet and free tools, it's recently become possible for one or two people to be their own end-to-end creative enterprise with a global reach for next to nothing.  That's really exciting.  Can you say "disintermediation?"

The whole process was mostly free, except for my and Sansu's time.  We did pay a small fee to copyright the book but that was optional.  And Sansu bought the iDraw app earlier but used it for her art creation process.  We initially gave the book away for free since our primary aim was to create a finished product and remove any barriers to people finding us and enjoying our work.  I enjoyed the process so much that my brother Jonathan and I are now working on a new children's ebook series.

Sansu had this to say about the process: "Collaborating with Mike was fun and I love his story.  I didn't have a child when I started this project.  I could only imagine what it was like to be a parent.  Mike explained and gave me inspiration - for example with details like the blue and pink striped blankets that babies get in the hospital and how parents hold their babies.  I found reference images and imagined what it would be like to hold a baby and watch it grow.  I was pregnant with my first child during the creation of the book and am now raising my son.  Since having my own child, I feel more attached to the story and love the book even more.  It is truth.  Children are part of my heart."

The best part of all was that our family and friends across the globe could read something we made and it wasn't compromised by the traditional publishing process.  Thousands of other people also downloaded it and left stellar reviews.  My favorite review was from Nora, who inspired the book.  She asks me to read it to her all the time.

Hope to see your own book online some day!  In the meantime, please get our lovingly crafted book and share it with someone who is a part of your heart.

Ratings\reviews much appreciated!  They help make our book more visible.  Thanks!

Paperback: Part of My Heart (makes a great new baby or Valentine's Day gift!)
Kindle ebook: Part of My Heart
Apple iBook: Part of My Heart