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 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 January 2016 it is now an All-Time Best Seller in iBooks with 23k downloads and over 600 5-star reviews!  Check it out here:

Paperback: Part of My Heart
Free Kindle ebook: Part of My Heart
Free 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 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 download our lovingly crafted free 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!)
Free Kindle ebook: Part of My Heart
Free Apple iBook: Part of My Heart

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Accelerate Your Writing Talent with a Writers Group

I'm a big fan of Dan Coyle's book The Talent Code.  He describes the fascinating methods some of the most talented athletes, performers, and business people use to grow their skills.  I've been thinking about his book for months and how it applies to building writing talent.  He has a section in the book that mentions writing talent (as evidenced by the Bronte sisters) but I wanted more.  We were lucky enough to have him give an engaging talk at Pixar today.  The talk inspired me to get my thoughts down about how Dan's principles of building talent apply to writing and specifically to writers groups.

Talent Hotbed
Dan talks about unique areas called "talent hotbeds" - places like Brazil (soccer), Spartak Academy (tennis), and Meadowmount (classical music).  We have a mini talent hotbed here at Pixar - our writers group.  This is a picture of a few of our members:

Laura runs our group - that's her holding the Austin Film Festival's Enderby Entertainment Award.  She was one of 10 writers out of 6,764 who won this prestigious competition.  That's the top 0.15%.  That's awesome.  But what's incredible is that Susan (on the right) was a Finalist this year (top 0.74%).  And I (on the left) was a Finalist in 2012 (top 0.77%).  We've had one other Austin Finalist from our tiny writers group (Stephan).  Our group ranges between 4-8 core members who meet regularly.  That means that half of our writers have made the Finals of one of the most prestigious screenplay competitions in the world.  This isn't a coincidence - the odds are astronomical.  So what's happening in our writers group to grow this talent?

Feedback Loops
Dan made a great point today that Pixar wasn't built out of glass and steel and our swimming pool.  It's a place built on feedback loops.  That's ingrained in our culture of "plussing" and the mantra of "fail early, fail often."  We make 8-9 bad versions of our movies in reel form before we put the finished film out to the public.  And all employees are invited to the screenings to give feedback to the producer.  So we're constantly failing, iterating, and improving over the course of the 4-5 years it takes to make our films.

We've carried those feedback loops into our writer's group.  Writers bring in pages every week and guess what - they're not pretty.  I've contributed plenty of terrible pages over the years.  Wooden dialogue, sagging second act, unsympathetic characters, etc.  But we know that our group is a safe place to bring these bad pages.  We do a table read (so you can hear your cringe-worthy dialogue out loud) and then we give feedback to the writer.  "Have you thought about this?"  "What if you...?"  "What are you trying to achieve with this scene?"  It's painful to hear this feedback.  But the writers suck it up and learn to look at the work more objectively.  Then they come in the next week with slightly better pages.  The other great thing about giving feedback on others' scripts is that it lets you spot the problems in yours.  By noticing when something isn't working over there you notice that you're having the same problem here.  One of the worst screenwriting teachers I ever had would just tell everyone that everything they wrote was wonderful.  That's no way to grow.

Another concept Dan has is "what's in your windshield?"  What are you looking ahead to?  Who are you looking up to?  We're spoiled here at Pixar because we get amazing filmmaking guests through here regularly.  People like Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Jon Favreau, Michael Arndt, Alexander Payne, Lindsay Doran, and Thomas McCarthy.  Sometimes they'll even come talk to our little writers group.  This gives us concrete inspiration - someone to aspire to be.  Within Pixar we have so many talented writer/directors that we look up to.  And we also look up to and challenge each other.  Seeing your fellow writers place highly in contests motivates you to work hard to also place.  That's exactly what's happened.

Toggle Space
Dan talked about "toggle space", which is the area between a group being too nice and too mean.  I may be butchering this concept but that's what I remember about it.  It's basically an oscillation between contention and connection.  We have contention in our writers group in that we tell each other what we think is wrong with the scripts.  Feelings can get hurt but people are passionate about making the work better so we know it's coming from a genuine place.  There's not a lot of gray area in our discussions - people speak their minds.  Newcomers often have a hard time adjusting because we dispense with the standard "compliment sandwich" approach to feedback and go straight for the meat.  It's faster and more effective to just get to the notes instead of dancing around them.

But that contention is tempered with connection.  We support each other and root for each other.  We go to screenwriting retreats and festivals together, where we drink and bond.  We meet up for meals and celebrate each other's achievements with cupcakes and champagne.  We tell each other about interesting writing-related events coming up.  We are a community.  So when you get that tough feedback you know it's coming from a place of love and support.

The Edge of Talent
Dan talks about finding the edge of your talent - that uncomfortable place where you're struggling but growing.  In our writers group, we throw ourselves into new genres and formats.  Seeing Laura tackle a historical period piece motivated me to attempt my first adaptation of a mythological cycle.  Even when someone tends to stick to a certain genre they will usually set a challenge with the structure (recurring timelines, multiple protagonists, etc.)  This means that we often fail (especially in the early attempts), but it ensures the work never grows stale and that we are constantly learning.  Our group has grown and sought new challenges outside of screenwriting, from children's book writing to directing a narrative short to directing a feature documentary.  We've built a habit of putting ourselves in uncomfortable places and trying new things.

Writing can be such a solitary activity.  But a very effective way to build writing talent is to join or form a writers group.  You get so many benefits, from feedback to community to inspiration.  If you want to accelerate your writing growth,  I recommend two things:

1) Buy Dan's book.
2) Join a writers group.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I am slate.

Another writing exercise from Lissa Rovetch.  For this one, we were supposed to use this opener: "Who am I?  Just a _____."  We had to write in first person from an object's perspective.  Some of the options were: plastic fork, slate rock, wood, toothbrush, tea bag, smooth and round rock, or an index card with a shoe on it.  Here's mine:

Who am I?  Just a piece of slate.  I have seen empires rise and fall, great lumbering beasts dominate then fade, the cracking and cooling of the earth.  I was born from the fiery womb of a volcano, ejected into the air and slammed into the dust far from my mother.  Her fertility faded and now she slumbers, a slumping hulk of what she once was.  Now grass and flowers grow on her face - they no longer burn at the sight of her intensity.  She deserves the rest, after ten thousand years of pain and heat and change.

But I wonder if she misses it, despite or because of the chaos.  If she pines for the glory and magnitude of her old self.  Or if she is content to let new life grow upon her, to support and nourish rather than destroy and create whole landmasses in her fury.

I don't know that I would miss it.  I like being a rock, the constancy of it.  The solidity, the dependability.  I don't need to change.  I can stay right here, on this spot, and never worry what I'll look like tomorrow or eons from now.  I'll look exactly the same.  The same plain face, the same uninteresting situations.  I'll never have a fall from grace like my mother.  I'll never have regrets.  Because regrets require opportunities.  And I have had none.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


This story was prompted by a giant fuzzy circle of fabric from Ikea.  On the back it cryptically said, "Gilbert."

Gilbert was always punctual.  Wait, that's not right.  Gilbert was always punctuation.  A period, to be precise.  But not your ordinary, run of the mill tiny black dot type of period.  No, Gilbert was a wooly, dyed in the rough mountain man of a period.  He was a pioneer and sort of a prophet.

You see, Gilbert was the very first period to ever walk the face of God's green earth.  He was born in the badlands of Utah, the son of an eclipse and a wooly buffalo.  From a young age, he realized he was quite different from everyone else, so he just sort of leaned into that difference and set out to learn his purpose in life.  He never bothered to try to fit in to normal society because he knew if would be a strong and incongruous burden upon both them and him.

The thing about Gilbert was - you could believe him.  He never put on airs, never cared for deceit or deception.  He was who he was and he was fine with that.  People came to respect him, to value his integrity.  Townsfolk would seek out his opinion and whatever Gilbert said, well, that was the end of it.  Period.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Grand Gestures and Grand Canyons

A white tablecloth draped over a table on the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Bottle of wine and two place settings.  Perfect location to ask her to marry me.

Although it's kind of dusty.  And freaking hot.  Even though it's sunset, it must be 90 degrees.  I can't wait to see my beloved.  If she can even Google Maps her way here.  Her Mini Cooper summer tires may not be the best off-roading choice.  I told her to wear something elegant which probably means high heels which will not go over well on this scorched and cracked desert floor.  Oh, God - what if she got stuck?  She's probably wandering out there in the desert, broken heels and dirty dress, cursing my name.  Was that a coyote howl?

The sun is going down.  At least it will be cooler.  Too cool.  Now she's gonna freeze to death out there and it's all my fault.  When do the rattlesnakes come out?  Is it daytime or nighttime?  Or maybe I'm thinking of gila monsters.

Lori, I'll never forget you.  It will be tough, with many weeks, no, months of mourning.  But I'll find a way to carry on.  To feel again.  To eventually maybe even meet someone half as awesome as you were.  Maybe that cute barista.  We'll hit it off and date for a year or two (in your memory.)  Eventually I'll realize she's the one.  The second one, after you, of course.  And I'll take her out to a romantic dinner to propose.  Somewhere scenic and epic to show the grandeur of my love.  Maybe Hawaii.  Hmm, I wonder if I could get a table to the rim of a volcano.