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 or start 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.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Real Rules of Fight Club

The first rule of Fight Club is: don't be late.  We close the doors at 9 P.M. and the building owner will not let us stay open past 11 P.M.  NO EXCEPTIONS.  It's not fair to other people, some of whom may have driven long distances to be here, to wait to fight until you show up.

The second rule of Fight Club is: if you aren't current on your dues, you don't fight.  Lately there have been some people (I won't name names) who tag along with their friends and aren't really official members but they fight any way.  That's not cool to the rest of us dues-paying members, some of whom sacrifice buying 3-ply toilet paper to be here and ready to fight.

The third rule of Fight Club is: if this is your first night, you have to wear a name tag.  It's hard to keep track of people with all the comings and goings, and this just helps all of us get to know each other better.  I know it's kind of dorky and singles you out, but you won't care when blood is spattered all over your nice Italian loafers and someone has ripped your shirt off to gut punch you more effectively.

The fourth rule of Fight Club is: well, this isn't a rule.  More of a suggestion.  If other people bring a birthday card for one of the members it would be nice if everyone signed it.  Not signing it makes people feel left out and unpopular.  Just scribble something banal and then you can stand under your moody swinging fluorescent light and growl like an animal to intimidate your opponent.

The fifth rule of Fight Club is: leave the basement how you found it.  Scar Throat Joe has been very kind to let us use his space for the past few months but lately he's been grumbling to me about blood stains and loose teeth he finds on the floor.  Treat the basement like you would the fighting pit in your own home.

The sixth rule of Fight Club is: if you use the last cup of coffee, it's your responsibility to brew a fresh batch.  I've left very clear instructions next to the coffee maker, so just follow those and you'll be all set.  By the way, this DOES include when you hurl the steaming coffee into your opponent's eyes.  You threw it, you brew it.

The seventh rule of Fight Club is: have fun!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Chimp Heist

Another short story beginning from Lissa's class.  This one's about a kid who really wants a chimp.  I can't remember what the writing prompts were, except I believe they involved: every day, one day, and a detailed description of a veggie burger.

More than anything in the world, Melvin wanted a chimpanzee.  Every day, he asked his parents for one.  And every day, their answer was the same:
Well, sometimes it was a variation on that response:
"Are you crazy?"
"How would you feed it?" and:
"Do I look like I'm made of money?"
But basically, no.

So every day Melvin rocked on his rocking chair and schemed of ways to get his hands on a bona-fide chimp.  He couldn't go to the pet store, even in disguise.  For one thing, he was too young.  Also, he only had $37.23 to his name - stashed in his porky porcelain piggy bank.  He couldn't fly to Africa for the same reason.  He even tried some occult magic as a last resort, but he didn't really believe it would work and sadly was proven right.

Then one day as he was rocking his rocking chair, building a chimp out of Legos, he dropped a Lego onto the floor under his Dad's easy chair.  He reached his hand under the chair (very carefully, in case his occult magic had accidentally summoned some child-snatching demon.)  Mostly he came back with lint.  But he felt something else under the chair - some paper.  Pulling out the paper he saw the usual boring headlines about stock prices and pictures of grown-ups covering up their faces.  He was about to toss it when an ad caught his eye:

"Chimpanzees coming to the Grand Forks Zoo."  Chimpanzees.  They never came to North Dakota because it was too cold.
"This is a once in a lifetime chance," thought Melvin.  He immediately called his best friend, Sanders. "Hey, it's me.  We're gonna break into the zoo.  You in?"

Melvin and Sanders locked the door to Melvin's room.  They spread out maps on the floor, schematics, biology books on the feeding habits of chimpanzees.  They were prepared.
"Nothing can stop us," said Melvin.
"Boys, lunchtime!" yelled Melvin's Mom.
"We're busy!" said Melvin.
"Too bad, you need to eat."

They kicked the papers under Melvin's bed as his Mom wriggled the door handle.
"Why is this locked?" she said.
"Uh, we were eating Play-Doh," blurted Sanders.  He was a terrible liar.  Melvin opened the door.
"We were reading comics, Mom.  What's for lunch?"
"A veggie burger with avocado, bacon, lettuce, and tomato."
"Yuck," thought Melvin.  But he didn't say anything.  He was going to be the perfect child until he could get his hands on that chimp.  Oh, how he longed to play catch with it, to teach it how to breakdance, and use it to play pranks on his enemies, like Suzy Wormser.  That pickle-faced tattletale Suzy Wormser.  He'd dress the chimp up like a little boy, get Suzy to fall in love with it, then pull the rug out from under her feet.  That would teach her not to spread rumors about people's tendency to wet the bed.  Lily-livered Suzy Wormser.

"Mom, Sanders and I need to be dropped off at the zoo for a field trip."  Melvin munched from his sandwich and tried to act casual.  His eyes met Sanders', who looked like he was about to explode.  Melvin casually stomped on his foot.
"Where's the permission slip?"
Sanders' eyes bulged.
Melvin slid a poorly-spelled permission slip to his Mom.
"These are the people who teach our children," she sighed.  Then signed the slip.  Melvin took another bite of his veggie burger.  He was darned if it didn't taste delicious.