Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Resolution time?

"I love to my resolution is to try hard to make time to read some books this year."

I've seen that resolution on lots of blogs this week. Frankly, it puzzles me. It makes no sense to me that people would have to force themselves to do something that they claim to love. I don't know why those people can't just be honest with themselves and admit that they don't actually "love" to read; they love the idea of being well-read because they desire for people to think they're smart. I can speak from personal experience that for people who really love books, reading is such a great joy that you can't stop us from reading. We'll lose sleep to read, steal time for reading at every possible opportunity, and even sneak books into places we shouldn't. But if you don't feel that way about books, so what? Find your own joy. Maybe it's drawing. Maybe it's music.

Even more puzzling (and saddening) to me is this resolution:

"I really love my resolution is to finally force myself to work on that script/novel I've been meaning to write for years and years."

How can someone purport to "love" writing if they never willingly do it? I suspect that there are a lot of Walter Mittys out there who love to dream about being admired and acclaimed for their writing, and confuse that with a love of writing. You know the type: they spend lots of time imagining their Oscar speech, but no time working on their screenplays. Look, writing is hard, and it's quite often a chore, just like any day-to-day career. But for those who are born to do it, there's a certain thrill and satisfaction in the doing of it, too. If writing doesn't bring you that joy, why on earth would you want to torture yourself? I think there are an awful lot of people out there who are making themselves miserable dreaming their lives away.

Resolutions are something you wish to do because you know it's for your own good, although it goes against your true nature. In a way, resolutions reveal a lot about who you truly are.

S0: who are you, really?

I say: the person you are when you're alone, when you're left to your own devices, is who you truly are.

Now, some people don't like being alone, perhaps because they're not all that interesting and are bored silly by their own company. Or they can't stand being alone because they have no idea who they really are, and they're afraid to find out. Or they simply need other people to give them a sense of purpose and identity, because they only know how to "belong" to a clique -- they've never really learned to think and act as an individual.

But let's say you do spend a fair amount of time alone. What do you do?

Do you actually read the "literature" you claim to admire? Or do you read trashy magazines you claim to disparage?

Do you get out and hike in the "beautiful outdoors" you claim to love? Or do you flop on the couch and play video games weekend after weekend?

Is there a disconnect between the person you pretend to be, and who you really are?

One thing I find very interesting is that most of the frustrated, wannabe* writers I know are also (unhappily) single, and complain about the misery of (not) dating the same way they complain about the misery of (not) writing. I don't think this is a coincidence. When meeting potential romantic partners they tend to have the same disconnect between who they really are, and who they fantasize they are. They'll describe themselves as writers -- even though they never write -- or creative, even though they rarely create anything. They'll describe themselves as energetic and active even though they're usually couch potatoes. They'll claim to be adventurous, active, deep, and literate, and a fan of various "smart" pursuits like foreign films and gourmet food and classical music...yet when left to their own devices they'd rather just glaze over in front of Survivor. With such cognitive dissonance getting in the way, no wonder they can't find a compatible match.

My wish for everyone for the new year is that people accept themselves as they are. While we should all strive to improve our lives, I think we should strive to be "me, only better," rather than "me, only completely different."

So -- to all you aspiring writers fighting the good fight, my New Year's wish for you is that 2010 is the best year ever for your writing career. And to all the "wannabes" out there, give yourselves permission to let go of false dreams and find your true purpose in life.

And to everyone, everywhere: may you have peace, joy, and fulfillment.

*not to be confused with "aspiring" writers, who actually do write but just haven't broken in yet.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

There's no such thing as overnight success....

Sorry for the sparse posts of late. "Real writing" (as in, the kind that kinda-sorta pays the bills) has stolen all my time lately, and forced me to temporarily neglect my bloggy blathering. Actually...this reminds me of something I've been meaning to discuss here -- a big bad four-letter word: TIME.

Whenever a working writer attends a cocktail party, it's pretty much a guarantee that someone will tell him: "I could be a writer too, if only I had the time."

And in a sense, that person is right. In the same sense that I probably could have been an Olympic gymnast, if only I'd "had the time."

If only I'd started at the age of five. If only I'd gotten up at four o' clock in the morning every day, to practice. If only I'd practiced after school every day, late into the night. If only I'd kept practicing every day for the next ten or twelve or fourteen years -- forsaking friendships, dates, hobbies, entertainment, and other activities that most people consider normal. Yep...if only I'd been lucky enough to have that kind of "leisure" time on my hands, I might have been an Olympic gymnast too.

Of course, on top of all that effort, I'd have to possess the natural talent to be better than all the other thousands of hopefuls who'd also spent their entire lives working towards the same dream. And the cruel part is, I wouldn't really know if I had that kind of talent, until after I'd spent all those years practicing.

Guess what -- that's what it means to be a writer, too. You don't do it on the occasional weekend a couple of times a year when you feel "inspired." It isn't something you hope to do eventually, or force yourself to do every once in a while. It's what you ARE. Your whole life is designed around it. You've been doing it practically every day since you were old enough to read. And it's the only thing you could ever imagine doing.

Everyone who earned good grades in high school English and can compose a decent paragraph imagines he has some special writing ability, and all he needs is a bit of free time to crank out a bestselling novel or a blockbuster screenplay -- just as every kid who can do a split or a handspring probably thinks he can be a gymnast. But the level of excellence which distinguishes the elite from the mediocre in any highly competitive field does not come cheap.

It costs much more than most hopefuls are willing to spend.

Because the price is time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why doesn’t Hollywood make movies for "me?"

I hear this complaint all the time. "Hey! I’m a [baby boomer, senior citizen, intellectual, evangelical, etc.] ... why doesn’t Hollywood make movies for ME?"

Frankly, there’s a certain tragic narrow-mindedness to this viewpoint, as it presupposes that people have nothing to gain from seeing movies about people who are different from themselves. Presumably "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was exclusively for dashing male archaeology professors and "Die Hard" was made for middle-aged New York cops. And I guess only lonely robots found Wall-E’s story compelling.

From my point of view, one of the greatest things about movies is that they offer the opportunity to broaden your experience. To travel places you could never hope to visit. To embody people you could never hope to be.

But, okay. Let's say you really are itching to see movies about people like YOU. Well. Here's a list of 1000+ movies that were released in theaters last year. How many of those did you see, or even hear of? Are you sure not one of them was for you?

Isn't the real question: Why didn’t I know about the movies I would have liked?

The thing is, you don't hear people say "why aren't there paintings being painted for me?" "Why aren't there books being written for me?" In most of the arts, there's an assumption that you have to put some effort into finding those works which suit your taste. The same goes for film. Sure, a handful of would-be "blockbusters" are advertised incessantly, but they only represent a tiny portion of the movies created each year. Really, if you believe mass-consumption tentpole extravaganzas represent all available movies, then you probably believe all restaurants are McDonalds.

Every single year, hundreds of films are released that represent practically any conceivable taste. Offbeat films. Challenging films. Personal films. There just isn’t much mainstream money generating mainstream ads to promote these films, because they don't appeal to broad mainstream tastes. Every year, quality niche films are made, with the optimistic view that discerning audiences will hunt down and celebrate these little gems. If you care that much about finding special movies that are made for "you," track those films down. Go to film festivals. Subscribe to Netflix and take a chance on some indie films. Start a film club with like-minded people, swapping film suggestions. (Hey, maybe even make your own little indie film.)

And you know what? When Hollywood sees that those "niche" movies are making money, they will make more of those movies.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Aspiring screenwriter tip of the week: Avoid writing autobiographical scripts

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die."

This famous Mel Brooks joke illustrates an important point. Everything that happens to you is the most dramatic thing in the world -- to you. This is why, in general, you should avoid writing autobiographical scripts. You simply don't have the perspective to see which parts of your life story (if any) might be compelling to a wider audience. You don't want your screenplay to be the literary equivalent of that bore at the cocktail party who goes on and on about himself.

Over the years, many people have inquired about hiring me to write their "amazing true life story" of surviving cancer, or overcoming domestic abuse, or recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. (One guy even wanted me to write his "inspirational" true life story of becoming a yoga instructor.) Or sometimes it's the true life story of their aunt, grandparent, etc. They always swear it's the most interesting story ever. (Many of these people even think I'll be so blown away by their great story that I'd be willing to write it for free, and we can "split the profit" when the script sells. Um, never ask a professional to spend months of his or her life working on your labor of love on speculation, by the way. It's...well, just plain rude.)

Sadly, not a single one of these "amazing true life stories" has ever proven to be unique enough or compelling enough to be worth my time. I'm sorry to break it to you, but your life, as fascinating/sad/unfair/funny as it may seem to you, is probably more mundane than you realize.

On the other hand, maybe your life really is quite astonishing. Maybe you ran off to join the circus as a six year old, ran away from that circus to become an assassin at eleven years old, ousted the government of a small island country at seventeen years old, and for the past twenty years you've been teaching blind kids how to play professional polo. Well, believe it or not, your extraordinary life is a problem, too, story-wise. Because, as Mark Twain said, "The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible."

Mundane or extraordinary, your "true life story" is unlikely to make a good film. See, life, real life, is full of wild coincidences, vague motivations, ambiguous results, illogical decisions. That kind of "reality" doesn't work in a movie. Drama (and when I say "drama," I mean comedy too) needs to have a direct chain of consequences: This cause (choice/action by the hero) clearly leads to this effect, which then leads the hero to make this choice, and so on, until the big conclusion. Drama needs to make sense. Character motivations need to be clear. Choices need to be understandable. Story threads need to tie up in the end. That's what a "story" is.

Now, go make something up! You're a writer, goddamn it!


Further reading (aka Somewhat Related Posts from People Smarter Than Me):

Here's what TV writer & Jeopardy champ Lisa Klink has to say about writing "reality."

And among Writer on Writing's observations about bad contest entries, he notes that "reality is not a story point."


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who is "Hollywood?"

The internet is littered with entertainment-related blogs and entertainment-related sites, where non-Hollywood people love to post (frequently, and with many exclamation points) about how very, very much they do not care about Hollywood, not at all, not one little bit.

Why anyone would go out of his way to seek out sites to which he is so actively indifferent, I don't quite understand.

"Why should I care about Hollywood!? They’re all just a bunch of immoral, filthy rich, far-left idiots who hate America!!!” the comments read (though spelling and grammar tend toward the creative -- not too surprising considering a current cultural climate which derides intellectual achievement as "elitist" and un-American). Generally the commenter will go on to describe himself as a "real" American from the places where the real people with real values live.

For a moment I’ll pretend the question "Why should I care about Hollywood?" is not rhetorical.

First of all, Hollywood is not Tom Cruise. Hollywood is not Paris Hilton. Hollywood is not the .0001 percent of super-rich super-famous people pursued by the paparazzi, any more than "computer programmers" are Bill Gates. "Hollywood" does include a tiny handful of top actors, directors, producers, and writers; sure. But the average Hollywood professional hangs out with the A-listers about as often as the average American hangs out with Congressmen.

Hollywood, actual Hollywood, consists of thousands and thousands of middle-class (if they’re lucky!) people who work very long hours building sets, rigging lights, and doing all manner of unglamorous, grueling technical jobs for which they will never become famous. Most of these people quite frankly have neither the time nor the opportunity (nor, for that matter, the desire) to attend extravagant parties and hang out with celebrities. They don’t endorse political candidates and give interviews in glossy magazines. They don’t live in mansions in Malibu and fly private planes around the world. They get up way, way before dawn and drive to work and get bossed around by supervisors who don’t appreciate them nearly enough. They struggle with stress and fatigue and overwork because they have too much to do and not enough time to do it. They make an hourly wage. They worry about job insecurity and health care and debt. They are Democrats and Republicans; they are the highly-educated and the high school dropouts. They are Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and non-believers and every religion under the sun. They come from big cities; they come from the Heartland; they come from the Bible Belt; they come from countries all over the world.

Should you care about them because their jobs are hard? No, at least not any more than you care about your neighbor or your husband or your friend or anyone else whose job is hard. Most Americans, after all -- no matter where they live -- have jobs that are hard.

But here's why you should care about Hollywood, if you care about America:

American entertainment is beloved all over the world. Entertainment is a product that America makes better than any other country. But more importantly, it's America's biggest export. Saying you don't care about Hollywood is like saying you couldn't care less if Detroit never makes another car. If you care at all about the American economy, you really SHOULD care about Hollywood. And while many Americans may not like the “values” depicted in hit Hollywood films, consider this:

In almost all (hit) Hollywood films, the good guy wins. The regular citizen fights City Hall and succeeds. The little guy achieves his impossible dream. The villain’s greed is punished; courage and determination are rewarded. The hero risks his own life for others, and saves the day.

Foreign films often have downbeat endings, but American films reflect the unwavering American belief that even the humblest among us, with guts, hope, grit, and ingenuity, can triumph over anything.

That is an American value which transcends all religions and creeds. I believe it makes us a good people, and even a great people.

But then, what do I know...? I, too, am "Hollywood."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thumbs down to this screenplay contest....

Like most working screenwriters, I am opposed to "dollar options." There are countless reasons why dollar options are a terrible idea for the writer, and why you should never agree to one. Please, please don't fall into the trap of being tricked into believing that a free or el cheapo option will make you a "professional screenwriter." This is so far from the truth it's laughable. All a dollar option does is tie up the rights to your work so that it's unavailable when a serious producer comes along who actually wants to buy it.

This brings me to today's sad topic: an established, formerly respectable screenplay contest that has just been taken off my "mildly recommended" list, and placed on my "avoid" list.

Say it ain't so, IndieProducer. In the past this contest seemed all right. It's run by people who have actually made a couple of films. Their entry fee was a bit high in relation to their modest cash prizes, but it was within acceptable parameters. They had (based on my limited polling of past entrants) a good track record of responding to emails, and generally met their deadlines for announcing winners. Overall, this contest has rated a neutral-to-mildly-positive on my "recommended contests" scale.

Okay, some aspiring writers aren't impressed by cash prizes, and think "exposure" is the only good reason to enter a contest. I respectfully disagree. The folks who think cash prizes are silly are people who have well-paying day jobs and would blow a big cash prize on a new plasma TV or a trip to Hawaii. I, on the other hand, always look at cash prizes in terms of how many months of "room and board" they'll cover for a struggling writer. For instance, in one particularly good month I won $11,000 total from three different screenwriting contests -- $2,500 from a relatively small contest that I won, $2,500 from a pretty big contest in which I was the runner-up, and $6,000 from a prestigious contest that I won. That $11,000 came at a time when I was so broke I couldn't even afford to buy a ream of paper, and was considering taking a temp job to make ends meet. All of a sudden I knew I'd have many many months of stress-free writing. Was that valuable to me? Hell, yeah.

As for "exposure" -- well, very few screenplay contests are SO prestigious that Hollywood actively seeks out the names of the winners. With the exception of the Nicholl Fellowship -- which is so prestigious that winning it, or even placing in the finals, means that your phone will ring non-stop -- when you win a contest, you need to do the work of informing agents and producers about your award. In that regard, pretty much any contest win is helpful, provided that you have an intriguing logline and can write a snappy query letter. Being able to mention in your query letter that the script has won an award is "extra frosting" to tempt the producer into reading it.

But, back to IndieProducer. I noticed that this year, they had changed their prize to an "option" with the production company that runs the contest. Basically, this is a way that a production company can charge a reading fee for considering your screenplay -- by disguising it as a "contest entry fee."

Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with small production companies running contests as a way to find good scripts. Indie companies don't have the resources to pay readers to weed through thousands of unsolicited submissions. Thus, they either "hire" interns to cover scripts for free (an exploitative practice in itself), or they institute a policy of "no unsolicited submissions" and rely on databases like InkTip -- a favorite of bottom-feeding and ultra-low-budget producers -- in their search for decent, cheap material.

The difference between entering a production company's contest, versus simply paying a reading fee to be considered by said production company, is that with a contest, somebody wins. This is important. If a production company simply charges reading fees, they can keep doing that forever with no intention of ever making a film. Reading fees can be their sole source of income. They don't even have to read any scripts; they can just collect the money and throw out the screenplays. On the other hand, if there's a contest involved, the company is legally obligated to pick a winner and give them a prize. And that prize should be something tangible: cash with no strings attached, or a PAID option, or other prizes of real and measurable value. And a respectable production company will award you a prize big enough that (after also paying their readers) the company is basically breaking even on the contest. In other words, the contest is legitimately a way for them to find promising material without going broke -- it's NOT a way for them to make extra income.

Which brings me back to IndieProducer. I had to do a little research (they're not being too forthcoming about the details of their "prize"), but guess what? When asked, they will admit that their prize is an UNPAID option. Yep, that's right. By entering this contest, you get to pay $35-$40 for the chance to win an UNPAID option. (Oh, and you also get a plaque.) This is icky on so many levels I don't know where to begin. Of course, the contest organizers are quick to point out that this is an experienced and respected production company. Yay.

Look: If you've been a screenwriter for any length of time you have producers (including, yes, "established" producers) offer you dollar options all the time. And if you have any sense at all, you turn them down. One of my scripts had seven or eight different producers try to option it for free (well, a buck). I always said no, and continued to enter the script into contests, winning over $18,000 in cash prizes. (By the way, I would've been ineligible for those contests if I'd accepted an option!)

Every time I turned down their free/dollar options, the various producers chided me for passing up such a "great opportunity" to work with people with "solid connections." Don't ever believe that b.s.! A producer with no money and no access to money doesn't have the ability to get a kite off the ground, never mind a movie. And, if they DO have access to money, but don't have the decency to make a small "good faith" payment to you -- say, at least enough to cover your rent for one month -- well, that's not someone you should work with. Ever. Fortunately for me, I didn't fall for the empty flattery of any of those losers -- therefore my script was totally available when a producer with integrity came along who really DID love my script...and who proved it by paying me decent money.

How sad that the "winner" of IndieProducer won't be able to leverage his contest victory by sending his script out to interested agents and producers. Instead, he'll get to celebrate his win by watching his script collect dust for a year. If the prize were a PAID option of a few thousand dollars, at least the writer would have something to show for it -- AND the company would have more incentive to actually make the movie.

Never enter a contest with a FREE OPTION as the award. Trust me, you don't want that booby prize!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Aspiring screenwriter tip #1: It all counts

As some of you know, I've won a whole bunch of screenwriting (and other writing) contests -- enough to cover my rent and basic necessities for several years. A lot of folks claim that writing contests are simply lotteries, and if that's true, I must be one hell of a lucky person. Maybe so; I am Irish, after all.

But if that's true, I'm not the only "lucky" one. If you follow contests, you'll see the same few names crop up over and over in the winners' circles. Meanwhile, the people who swear that contests are "crapshoots" point to the fact that they themselves rarely place in contests, as proof of contests' randomness. I can't help but notice that a whole lot of these very "unlucky" writers also (coincidentally, I'm sure) make a lot of grammatical errors in their message board/blog posts, and betray a certain tone-deafness in terms of sentence flow and style.

"But I'm only writing fast, on the internet! I try much harder to write well when it actually counts!" is the defense these "unlucky" aspiring writers use to explain their jarring and unreadable posts. Well, haste can certainly account for an excusable typo or two. But if your natural inclination when writing is to spew clunky, illogical, unaesthetic sentences rife with errors, you're at a significant disadvantage in the competition to become a professional writer.

To look at it another (perhaps less threatening) way, imagine two aspiring singers:

Person A has a natural sense of pitch, and sounds good even when idly humming to herself or belting out an improptu karaoke performance. Her voice sounds pleasing to the ear. If you overhear her singing along to her iPod, you immediately think "what a lovely voice" and want to hear more. For Person A, it is her voice's natural inclination to be on-key and aesthetically pleasing...she doesn't have to fake it. In fact, she'd have to really "try" to sing badly.

Now consider Person B. Person B really, really wants to be a singer, and feels entitled to a singing career precisely because she wants it so much. Ever since she was little, she's dreamed being rich and famous, and she loves to be the center of attention, so she believes a singing career is her destiny. Person B sounds fairly good when she sings in the shower (at least in her own opinion), but when she gets the chance to sing publicly, her voice tends to break or hit the wrong key. She blames the imperfect performance conditions, and gets frustrated because if only the audience would be silent, if only there were no distractions, if only the songs were more "right" for her range, if only she had more time to warm up, if only the acoustics were the same as in her bathroom...she's certain she could sound almost as good as Person A. Even so, her voice is generally on key, except for a few wince-inducing screeches, and although her voice doesn't have a "nice" tone exactly, it's not altogether awful, either. It is not her voice's natural state to be on key and aesthetically pleasing, but if she's really, really trying and conditions are perfect and the audience isn't too discerning (in other words, if they possess no singing ability themselves), she's passable. She compares herself only to the worst singers, and finds that she compares favorably. She tries to ignore all the singers who are much better than she is, and if she can't ignore them, she rationalizes that they've all been given an unfair advantage by some kind of rigged system.

To become a professional singer, Person A is going to have to put in a tremendous amount of work (years and years), learning to control her breathing, learning to expand her range and volume, learning how to have good stage presence, and many other skills. If she does all that, she might -- might -- have a shot. much of a chance do you think Person B has?

I have never, ever read a decent script by a person who doesn't write snappy, articulate, properly-punctuated message board posts and emails. Sorry, but you can just tell who can write and who can't, even in a casual setting.

Sure, I know there are those (invariably lazy, illiterate people whose message board posts are riddled with spelling and punctuation errors) who say they can't be bothered writing properly in an email, blog, or message board forum, but who claim to bring their A game "when it counts."

But I don't believe them -- not for a second. You're either a writer all the time, or you aren't. A talented opera singer doesn't default to singing off-key in the shower. Singing on-key comes naturally if she has talent. She still has to work to achieve excellence, but competence is a given!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Starving screenwriter tip: How to find an extra $1000 -- and more importantly, some peace

How often have you come up with your best ideas while in the shower, or taking a drive by yourself, or practicing a relaxing hobby? Your subconscious is working on story ideas and plot twists all the time, but it needs a chance to communicate with you. That requires long blocks of protected peace and quiet. You never know quite when you're going to slip into this meditative, daydream state.

Now, isn't it really frustrating when you're having an elaborate dream, and you can't wait to see how it all turns out -- and then you're jarred awake by, say, the yammering of morning DJs, causing the dream to slip irretrievably out of reach?

In the same way, phones invade your mental space, shattering the dream-like state of "flow." A few times when I've forgotten to shut the ringer off on my phone, I've lost entire paragraphs, scenes, and dialogue exchanges, because some telemarketer called -- literally, a day's worth of work that could never be recovered. Non-writers don't understand why these interruptions are so devastating, because they think writing is pretty much just "typing" -- when in actuality, it's hours of contemplation punctuated by bursts of transcription. They think if you're interrupted, you can just recover your train of thought some other time. But you can't, any more than you can recover an elaborate dream once the alarm clock has intruded. So why on earth would a writer want to risk this intrusion 24/7, everywhere he goes?

The solution: ditch your cell phone.

Getting rid of your cell phone is enormously freeing. First of all, starving writers should avoid buying anything that requires an expensive long-term contract, such as a cell phone. You may be able to afford it this month, but three months from now you might dearly wish you were free of that financial obligation. Even a minimal cell phone plan costs you many hundreds of dollars per year, and some people even spend well over a thousand dollars a year on a fancy cell phone, unlimited minutes, texting, etc. I suppose this might make sense for a few occupations, such as ER doctor, or perhaps "celebutante." But why would a writer willingly sign up for indentured servitude to a device that has a devastating effect on his work? That's just plain crazy.

You'll be amazed how much more creative you'll be, how much clearer your thinking will be, if you ditch the infernal device. Whenever you're alone on the bus, or you're sitting in the park with your dog, or you're early for a meeting, you can read a book or jot down some free-associative ideas. I know it's a totally "retro" idea that anyone should actually be alone with his own thoughts for a few minutes, instead of having a vapid conversation and/or text dialogue about every inane thing that happens throughout the day -- but try it. (By the way, if you hate being alone, and are easily "bored" by contemplation, then a writing career is probably not right for you.)

Okay, do people get in touch with you?

Ah. Well. There's email, of course, which is both convenient and free. And there's this old-fashioned thingy called a "land line," which can be surprisingly adequate as a telecommunication device. Chances are if you live in an apartment building you're going to need to get one anyway, because the front door intercom (err...if you're lucky enough to find a building in which this device isn't broken) usually connects to your phone line. You can get a bare-bones land line for about $10-$12 a month -- but, note that this doesn't include long distance, which can be expensive with a bare-bones plan. To make long distance calls you might want to get a pre-paid phone card (it's still cheaper than a monthly cell phone service), or, arrange for family and friends who have fancy cell phone plans to call you back during their "free nights and weekends."

I definitely recommend spending the extra few dollars a month (+ annoying set-up fee) for voice mail; it's a bargain. I have a land line, but the ringer is frequently turned off; with voice mail I can check messages when it's convenient for me and won't interrupt my writing. When I won the Nicholl and was suddenly deluged with calls from reps and producers, I made the small investment to get voice mail service, and have been satisfied with it ever since. It allows people to leave messages if I have the phone turned off, or if I'm on the internet (by the way, I have free dial-up, and you can get it too -- but I'll talk about that in an upcoming post). When people leave a voice mail they have no way of knowing they aren't reaching a cell phone, so if for some reason you want to maintain the illusion that you're one of the cell-phone-owning masses, voice mail will help you keep up the facade.

Now...maybe you're worried that you'd feel vulnerable without a cell phone, afraid that you might get stranded somewhere and be unable to call for help. This is a totally understandable concern, and perhaps a good reason to get one of those temporary, pay-as-you-go cell phones that are for sale in grocery stores. But -- don't give anyone the number; it's only for an emergency!

Money saved by ditching your cell phone: Varies; many hundreds of dollars per year.
Daydreams saved from oblivion: priceless.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The "Final" Houdini Seance, part three

Dr. Edward Saint: Tonight we are in the very heart of glamorous Hollywood that Houdini loved so well. He lived here. He worked here. Houdini loved Hollywood. And Harry and Bessie Houdini celebrated their twenty-fifth, their silver wedding anniversary here, and all the greats of Hollywood were present. And Houdini made a speech and said, “You are all invited now to be at our fiftieth, our Golden Wedding ceremony.” And Will Rogers got up and gave an impersonation and said, “Houdini, I’ll be here, but this is the way I’ll be coming in,” and he walked like an aged old man with a cane.

Will Rogers is gone. Houdini is gone. Nearly two-thirds of that famous gathering is gone. But this is the kind of a night they all would have loved. Nothing could have kept them away. It’s a Houdini night, with the spotlight of the public on Houdini, with the whole world paused to see or hear Houdini step on this side of the curtain. Now, let us bow our heads in meditation and prayer.

O, thou Mastermind of the Universe, please let the spirit of understanding descend upon us that are gathered here in the Inner Circle tonight. We are each in his own way seekers after truth, please let thy spirit of understanding guide us and bring the light of truth to the many friends that have earnestly formed psychic circles and gatherings throughout the entire world. Aid us, guide us on this most important question of mankind: spirit communication from across the grave. We ask this universal understanding in all humbleness, and we offer our grateful thanks to thee. Guide us please, Amen.

O, thou disembodied spirits, those of you that have grown old in the mysterious laws of spirit land, we greet thee. We have gathered here at the appointed time; we have complied with all of the requirements to enable all of you to make your presence known. Members of the spirit world have long known of the intention of this important gathering tonight. All is in readiness. Please now, the time is at hand. Make yourself known to us, any of you please. Manifest yourself in any way possible. Please let your united strength and knowledge aid Houdini in coming through. It is the spirit of Houdini we wish to contact.

Houdini, are you here? Are you here, Houdini? Please manifest yourself in any way possible! Take from this earnest gathering any strength that may be necessary for you to use. Take any vital thing from us as you may need to enable you to carry out your promise of years ago. We have waited, Houdini, oh so long. Never have you been able to present the evidence you promised. And now, this is a night of nights. The world is listening. Harry, your world, your audience. And Bessie is here, your Bessie, who was part of you for thirty-three years -- she is here, Harry, pleading in her heart for a prearranged sign from you. It means so much to her, to all of us, to the world. Harry, we are all seekers after truth. Please manifest yourself by speaking through the trumpet. Lift it, lift it! Speak through it, speak! Speak, Harry! We are watching and waiting, Harry. Levitate the table. Move it. Lift the table, move it, rap on it! Spell out a code, Harry, please! Ring the bell. Let its tinkle be heard around the world. Do it, Harry! Please! Please, Houdini, we are waiting, Bessie is waiting!

O, thou spirit, your religion is based on love, and by that very token, a love of 33 years that has even entered into eternity, by that love I ask that you come through with the evidence. By the love of the little silver-haired widow, by the love and esteem of the countless friends -- the evidence, Harry! And Houdini, Houdini, Dash -- Dash is listening in; Dash, Hardeen, your brother. Your brother has joined us with a circle he has formed in New York City, three thousand miles away. He had joined with us to seek the truth. And a circle in Baltimore. Philadelphia is listening in; in Providence; in Chicago, Leonard, who was once a protege of yours; a circle in Portland, Maine. And in the faithful city of Detroit; in Victoria, Canada; Takoma; Rockford; Oakland and San Francisco -- all over the world, all joining in, come through Harry! And Houdini, Colonel Harry Day, member of the British Parliament, has formed a circle in London, England. Colonel Day was your closest boyhood friend. Houdini, you must come through. And at the bottom of the world, Australia, the country where you made history has joined in. We are crying to high heaven, to the powers that be, we are crying in one mighty magnetic voice from every corner of the Earth, and the hearts and minds of them who choose are centered here tonight. We want the evidence, the truth! In the name of humanity and love, if there is communication from the great beyond, come through with the evidence!

Narrator: Then followed calm and silent meditation. And again, a tense and dramatic soul pleading, in which Mrs. Houdini joined Dr. Saint. But no sign from Houdini. At last Dr. Saint, in a voice that broke, and filled with emotion, asked:

Dr. Edward Saint: Mrs. Houdini, the zero hour has passed. The ten years are up. Have you reached a decision?

Mrs. Houdini: Yes. Houdini did not come through. My last hope is gone. I do not believe that Houdini can come back to me, or to anyone. After faithfully following through the ten-year Houdini compact, using every type medium and seance, it is now my personal and positive belief, that spirit communication in any form is impossible. I do not believe that ghosts or spirits exist. The Houdini shrine has burned for ten years. I now, reverently, turn out the light. It is finished. Good night, Harry.

Narrator: Beatrice Houdini turned, and with Dr. Saint left the roof, and stepped inside, while the others waited respectfully at a distance. And suddenly, a long low distant rumble of thunder was heard. It began to rain. Now remember, those skies had been clear but a few moments before. It rained just long enough to wet everyone on the roof of the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel. And then it stopped, and didn’t rain again all evening. To people who do not live in California, this may not seem strange. But California does not have showers as do the East and Midwest. The country out here is rainless for months. And when rain comes it rains for days. A brief heavy rain is an unheard-of phenomenon. Was that a sign? I recall a very dear friend of mine, a magician who was with me on the roof at the time of that seance, stating as he left the roof: “Houdini wasn’t that sort of man; Houdini was too big of a man, to come back and shake insignificant little bells, to write his name on a piece of slate, or to toot horns. Harry Houdini was a dynamic personality. Harry Houdini was a man of great ego. Harry Houdini was a man of great force. Harry Houdini, if he could return, would not have returned as a horn-tooter, but perhaps as something dynamic, as something great, as something forceful. a drop of Heaven’s rain."
[The recording concludes with the sound of thunder.]

If you'd like to hear the recording for yourself, you can find it at The Internet Archive.

Hope you enjoyed this. Happy Halloween!

Friday, October 30, 2009

The "Final" Houdini Seance, part two...

Dr. Edward Saint: Ladies and Gentlemen, in this cathedral-like atmosphere tonight, I wish to remind you that this is a most solemn occasion for the close friends that have gathered here. That the zero hour of the tenth anniversary of our departed friend is fast nearing the end, and that the results of tonight are primarily of a personal and private nature only. No attempt is being made to sway the world, or to convince the skeptics one way or the other. This is a personal gathering aiding Mrs. Houdini in completing her ten-year vigil, and to aid Mrs. Houdini and ourselves to a final and logical conclusion. Nor is it expected or intended that others must necessarily agree. But, this last personal attempt to contact the spirit of Houdini has aroused interest throughout the world, and to that extent will the findings here tonight be publicly recorded. We wish it distinctly understood that in this last and final attempt, we are interested in Houdini coming to us instead of to a stranger. Should Houdini contact a stranger anywhere in the world tonight, we know that Houdini will leave proper identification.

On behalf of Mrs. Harry Houdini, I wish to thank all members of the press, both local and worldwide, the various national magazines, and the hundreds of individuals throughout the world that have aided. I wish to thank the sincere friends in the four corners of the United States, Canada and Europe, in the forming of twenty or more simultaneous seances, coinciding with our final attempt here in Hollywood. I wish to thank the several hundred friends, trained observers, and several dozen renowned psychics and mediums that are present with us here tonight, and especially, the past president of the California State Spiritualist Association, present here tonight, whose kindly advice has been of great value.

Every facility has been provided tonight that might aid in opening a pathway to the spirit world. Here in the inner circle reposes a medium’s trumpet, a pair of slates with chalk, a writing tablet, and pencil, a small bell, and in the center reposes a huge pair of silver handcuffs, on a silk cushion. Facing the inner circle, stands the famous Houdini shrine, with its doors ajar.

The world knows that the Houdinis were always open-minded regarding spirit communication. Houdini sought to communicate with his beloved mother after she passed on, but he found no evidence that he could rely upon. The Houdinis always believed that in their search, if you remove the fraud, what is left must be the truth, and they together were always seekers after truth. Before Houdini’s death, the Houdinis made a compact that the first to go would try to contact the survivor. Houdini had promised to deliver a message in code, to his wife, also to open the silver handcuffs, and other signs, if he should pass over first. It so happens that Mrs. Houdini survives, and she made it a sacred duty to carry out the terms of the compact.

The first year found Mrs. Houdini every Sunday between the hours of 12 noon and 2 o’clock, locked up in the privacy of her own room, seated in front of Houdini’s photograph, waiting for some sign of Houdini, as prearranged in the compact. The truth regarding spirit communication was to Harry and Bessie Houdini a very sincere and profound question. During the following years, each anniversary of his death has been devoted to Houdini. During the last ten years, there have been times that Mrs. Houdini felt that surely, Houdini was coming through, that her hope of communication would be fulfilled. She was willing to believe, but the evidence did not stand up.

At no time has Mrs. Houdini ever received a psychic communication from Houdini, nor has anything occurred anywhere in the world that would lead Mrs. Houdini to believe that Houdini was trying to come through. Yet, hundreds of alleged psychics and mediums have written in and stated that Houdini has appeared to them in some form or other. In Chicago they said he walked boldly into a room. In Kansas City, Houdini was said to have written a long letter to Mrs. Houdini. In Long Beach, Houdini was said to hypnotize the medium, and then delivered a message through her. In New Zealand, he drank a cup of tea. And in Santa Monica, he escaped from several pair of handcuffs by dematerializing his hands.

These things may be. Surely, it is not for Mrs. Houdini to decide. But we all believe, and many prominent psychics agree, that if Houdini has appeared all over the world in spirit form, under every kind of manifestation, and doing this many times every week of every year of the last ten years, then we believe that the great Houdini will, on this last authentic seance, come to the little silver-haired widow -- the little lady who for thirty-three years stood by the side of her beloved Harry, listening to the applause of kings and emperors, and the world at large. A few days before his death in Detroit, Houdini, in a most strong and firm reminder again said, “Bess, Darling, I’ll come back to you, if it is possible -- even if I have to go through Hell to do it.” That was Houdini talking.

Houdini was an editor of the old New York World. He was an honorary Lieutenant of Police, and instructed a class of detectives and officers of the police force regularly in New York City. He was the author of many books, a writer of many magazine articles, a publisher of a national magazine, head of many magical organizations throughout the world including societies in Berlin, London, and New York City. Member of the exclusive Circumnavigators Club, the Masons, the Elks, and many others. He headed investigating committees that led him to appear on the floor of Congress at Washington D.C. "The Houdinis," Harry and Bessie, presented a remarkable magic act in the palaces of Europe and throughout the world. Houdini was working in secret with Thomas A. Edison on a delicate psychic detecting instrument and a process that would permit him to take flashlight photographs in the dark without the flash being visible. A thousand interests had Houdini, besides his search and collecting of rare first editions to make his library on magic and occultism the largest private collection in the world -- which led to the creating of the Houdini Room, in the Congressional library in Washington DC today. Houdini spent much time in aeronautics, wrote authoritatively on the subject, and was one of the first seventeen fliers in the world, owned his own plane, and was the first man to ever successfully fly an airplane in Australia, winning the aerial trophy in Melbourne, Australia, March 15th, 1910. That, in brief, was the man Houdini.

He had safes and vaults in his home, and vaults in banks that his lawyers had access to. But one secret now made public for the first time, is the fact that Houdini had one safe deposit vault, in a bank or trust company in the East, under some familiar name other than Houdini, and of which the secret location rested only in Houdini’s brain. In this vault was kept highly secret papers, and into which was always place a certain glass case of jeweled metals, and a diamond question mark pin with a rare pearl drop -- a gift from Harry Kellar to Houdini. The jewel box was always on display in the Houdini home, but prior to closing the house to go on a vaudeville tour, Houdini always placed this box in the secret vault. Many things were left untold because of the unexpected death of Houdini in Detroit. There is a law, a time limit; Madame Houdini has year by year awaited word, that the federal government had located or opened the box long overdue. Perhaps the vault rent had been paid years in advance; however, this secret vault has never been located to this day. No medium or psychic has ever brought forth information from Houdini, or the spirit world, touching on or leading to its discovery. So if any circle tonight, in any town in the world, believes that they are contacting Houdini, let them identify themselves by bringing forth this information regarding the secret vault. [ be continued... ]

Next time: Saint pleads with the spirits, and Bess reaches a decision.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The "Final" Houdini Seance, part one

Those who are aware of my real identity know that I'm a big Houdini aficionado, and that I spent many years researching Houdini's life and writing about him.

Like Houdini, I don't believe in "mediums" or "spiritualists." Nevertheless I find it fascinating that 83 years after Houdini's death, people are still holding seances in the hopes of hearing from him. As great a showman and "escapologist" as Houdini was, so much of his mystique today, his larger-than-life mythology, is inextricably linked to mysticism and the supernatural. The "spirit of Houdini" has never been able to answer the question of whether consciousness lives on beyond the grave, and ironically, it's his very silence on this matter that has contributed to his immortality.

Great personalities who die young remain larger-than-life forever, and people never forget a great unsolved mystery. Thus Houdini's premature death at the height of his fame, as well as the enduring "cliffhanger" of his promised return from the grave, have kept his memory alive for 83 years, and will no doubt keep it alive for centuries to come.

In honor of the anniversary of Houdini's death (Halloween), I bring you a transcript of the final "official" Houdini seance, performed on the rooftop of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood on October 31, 1936. The recording was released in 1959 and is introduced by a narrator; I've included that preamble here. As the whole recording is really long, I'm going to split it into three posts. The second installment will contain hints about Houdini's "secret vault" -- (a mystery within a mystery).

Transcript, Part One:

Narrator [
George L. Boston]: Houdini, the greatest showman that ever walked this Earth, died October 31, 1926. Prior to his death, he was seeking out and exposing fraudulent spirit mediums. He boasted that there was nothing that a spirit medium could produce by way of alleged psychic phenomena that he could not reproduce by trickery. Despite this he took no chances. He and his wife, the late Beatrice Houdini, resolved between them that, whichever one died before the other, that one would try to contact the survivor. They further agreed upon a secret code. This was decided upon to prevent fraudulent mediums or magicians from claiming that they were able to contact either one of the Houdinis. It was further agreed that the survivor would use every type of conceivable seance to contact the deceased. That, once each year, on the anniversary of the death, the survivor would hold a small gathering of friends, so that some message might possibly be heard. All attempts were to be discontinued after ten years.

Houdini died first; his widow did not succumb until 1942.

For nine years after Harry Houdini’s death, she tried to reach him. Once she seemed to believe that Arthur Ford, the celebrated spirit medium, had actually reached her husband. Later she decided she had been mistaken; that Mr. Ford had not received the real code message.

There were, during those years, almost daily reports of Houdini’s spirit visiting mediums all over the world, but not a single instance could actually be proven. It is notable, however, that Houdini definitely did not contact the one living person he had loved most -- his wife.

Thus it went, til October 31, 1936. This was the tenth anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. After this date Mrs. Houdini was to stop searching; the tenth seance was to be the final one. In charge of arrangements was the late Dr. Edward Saint, an old-time showman and Mrs. Houdini’s business advisor. Dr. Saint decided the affair should achieve epic proportions, and proceeded accordingly.

The roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood, California was rented for the occasion. Now the Knickerbocker is just about one block from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, the movie capital’s most fabulous street. A bleacher-like seating arrangement was built, which could accommodate about 300 people, and fully this many were invited by engraved invitation. Sound equipment and a special lighting system was installed. Seats for the inner circle were arranged directly in front of the bleachers. As early as 7 o’clock in the evening the invited guests began to assemble. People from all walks of life, but chiefly magicians, spiritualists, newspapermen, and others who had special interest in the affair.

Up there on that roof it was uncommonly cold. The sky above was clear and bright, with the stars shining brilliantly. It was so cold that most of the invited guests were actually chilled. Making up the inner circle were: Mrs. Houdini and Dr. Edward Saint; the Honorable Charles Fricke, a judge of the California High Court; two newspapermen; a past president of the California Spiritualist Organization; a member of the American Institute of Psychic Research, Hereward Carrington; and two magicians. One of the magicians was Caryl Fleming, then president of the Pacific Coast Association of Magicians, and the other was a publisher of a magazine devoted to the concerns of the conjurers, William W. Larsen Sr.

On a table in front of Mrs. Houdini and Dr Saint was a small altar bearing a picture of Houdini. Over the table [clearly he meant to say “altar” - A.U.] a tiny light which had burned for ten years. On a low stand in the center of the inner circle was a small table. On it was located a pistol, loaded with blank cartridges; a tambourine; a locked pair of handcuffs which had never been unlocked since Houdini’s death; a slate; a bit of chalk; a large bell; and a trumpet. In addition to manifesting himself to Mrs. Houdini, via the secret code, Harry Houdini’s spirit was to be prevailed upon to shoot the gun, unlock the cuffs, talk through the trumpet, and so on through the list of objects. Such were the proposed tests.

Now it seems that Dr. D. Jalini [I am uncertain of the correct spelling. - A.U.], a well-known west coast mystery worker, and a few other outstanding magicians, didn’t really believe that anything was going to happen. They feared that the invited guests and the waiting world were doomed to bitter disappointment, and possible disillusionment. So, they offered their services to help better matters. It would be excellent, they told Dr. Saint, to get Houdini’s handwriting on the slate, and they could assure its appearance there. Or to cause a dove to fly up from the center of the table, seemingly created out of nothing.

Dr. Saint wisely refused these generous “offers.” The seance was to be conducted on a strictly legitimate basis; the tricks of the conjurers were taboo. Promptly at 8 o’clock began the regal music of Pomp and Circumstance -- this was the last music that Houdini ever used; he had always opened and closed his act with this music. Here is the actual voice of Dr. Edward Saint, recorded during the seance on that memorable night, October 31, 1936. [ be continued...]

Next time: Part Two, the actual seance from 1936.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Special recipe: Houdini's last meal

On Sunday, October 24th, 1926, Houdini collapsed after struggling through a show at Detroit's Garrick Theater. For quite some time he'd been suffering from crippling abdominal pains and a very high fever, but then, he'd always been accustomed to ignoring pain.

After the show, despite pleas from his wife that he go to the hospital, Houdini stubbornly returned to his hotel. There, the hotel's house physician, a 25-year-old just out of medical school named Daniel Cohn, insisted that Houdini go to the hospital immediately. It still took some time to convince him, but Houdini finally relented, and was taken to Detroit's Grace Hospital late that night. Around 3:00 the following afternoon (October 25th), doctors operated, and as soon as they opened him up they knew Houdini was doomed. They removed his gangrenous, ruptured appendix, sewed him up, and assumed he would die in a matter of hours.

By sheer force of will, he lasted almost a week. He died at 1:26 on Sunday afternoon, October 31, 1926 -- Halloween.

During Houdini's last week, Houdini told Dr. Cohn that he had a "yen for Farmer's Chop Suey," a dish popular with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. This craving was no doubt one of nostalgia rather than hunger, as Houdini was gravely ill with peritonitis and virtually unable to eat. It may also have been a response to his very high fever, as the chilled, creamy salad was traditionally eaten on hot summer days.

Eager to do anything that might make Houdini's final days more pleasant, the young doctor hurried over to a nearby deli and returned with some Farmer's Chop Suey, which he shared with his famous patient. It is apparently the last meal Houdini ever ate.

Houdini was a man of substantial wealth, who had traveled all over the world and who frequently dined with celebrities and royalty. So it's interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that his final meal request would be for a simple peasant dish: comfort food.

In honor of Houdini, I bring you a recipe for his "last meal." Please note: there is no single "right way" to make Farmer's Chop Suey (though your Jewish grandmother will no doubt insist that HER way is the right way). It is by its nature a mish-mosh of available raw vegetables, so feel free to adjust it to suit your tastes. But do keep the radishes -- they give the dish its zing.


1 cup sour cream
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp white pepper

Raw veggies:
1 cup lettuce, shredded, or 1 cup chopped celery, or 1 cup shredded cabbage
1/2 cup radishes, diced
1/2 cup cucumbers, chopped roughly
1/2 cup carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1/4 cup sweet onions or green onions

Mix together sour cream and cottage cheese, salt, and white pepper.
Gently fold in veggies, until all are well-coated with the cream.

Chill mixture well before serving.

Next time: The 1936 Hollywood seance; or, What's the deal with "Houdini's secret vault" anyway?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lifestyles of the broke and anonymous; or, Why a screenwriting career might not be for you

When I won a Nicholl Fellowship a few years back, I was astonished how many would-be screenwriters asked me questions like: "Are Fellows forced to quit their day job?" "Are Fellows forced to move to Los Angeles?" And my favorite: "How could anyone be expected to live in L.A. on $30,000!?"

(To answer these questions: No -- Fellows aren't forced to quit their day job or move to Los Angeles -- but who the hell wouldn't, if he's serious about exploiting this hard-earned big break? And as for living in L.A. on $30,000...well, actually I managed to make that money stretch for TWO years, as I'd already been surviving in Los Angeles on LESS than $15,000/year [without receiving food stamps or welfare, I hasten to point out to the ever-enraged right-wingers out there]. How did I manage? Well, it wasn't easy, but writing is so essential to me that I'm willing to sacrifice just about anything to do it.)

I frequently run into people who claim that they really, really want to be screenwriters, but they just can't quit their secure 9-to-6 corporate job, and/or they can't move to L.A., until they "make it" as a screenwriter to the extent that writing will support a "comfortable lifestyle." They fantasize that a script they work on for a couple of weekends a month will suddenly sell for a million dollars and presto! -- they'll be a "successful screenwriter" and all their cares will be over.

But these people are not serious writers -- they're wannabes and hobbyists.

The harsh truth is, the vast majority of "professional screenwriters" -- and by this I mean, screenwriters who have sold at least one script or have been hired for at least one paid writing assignment -- will never make another cent from screenwriting. Of course, they can't know they'll never make another cent, so for a few years they'll continue to write full-time, spec after spec, and they'll continue to go to countless pitch meetings, and their reps will continue to send them out for assignment after assignment, with none of these efforts resulting in a sale or paid gig. This is the part that non-screenwriters don't understand when they say things like "When a screenwriter is unemployed, why can't he just go get a day job until he lands another writing job?" The thing is, when a screenwriter is "unemployed," he's not sitting around watching soap operas and waiting for his agent to call. He IS working full-time -- he's just not getting paid for it. He's spending 50 or 60 hours a week writing, and countless other hours on the non-creative "business" side of his writing job. And this unpaid, full-time job will continue until:

a) one of his specs finally finds a buyer,
b) one of his specs happens to be just the right "sample script" that lands him a paid assignment, or,
c) he ends up so deeply in debt that he must "quit screenwriting for a while." (Which usually means quitting for good -- because if a screenwriter isn't continuing to produce new spec scripts, he'll be dropped by his reps, he won't have any new samples to circulate, and he generally won't be considered for open assignments.)

Therefore, even if a screenwriter has just sold a script for "six figures" (which typically translates to about mid-five-figures the screenwriter actually receives), that $40,000 - $60,000 paycheck must not only make up for all the debt the screenwriter has accumulated during his years of toiling away unpaid, but it must also last indefinitely, because the screenwriter has no idea when -- or if -- he will ever be paid again. So he'll need to make every penny count, and will need to live just as frugally after breaking in as he did before breaking in.

That's why, if you can't bear to live frugally, screenwriting is not the career for you!

For true writers and artists, the object isn't to get "rich" or even well-off -- the object is simply to survive to create another day. (Thus the title of this blog.) If your goal is to get rich, you'd be better off doing almost anything else! Most working writers average less per year than retail employees.

In the upcoming months, this blog will offer tips on how to get lots of great things free (such as internet service, college courses, entertainment, and much more), how to eat healthy, tasty food for less than $5/day, and how to re-assess your life to put writing in the forefront. It will even offer tips on your screenwriting career.

Next up: Houdini's last meal.

'Til then,
Stay hungry. But don't starve.

Cheap Eats From the Land of the Pharaohs

[This week's special recipe is brought to you by fellow frugal writer, VirtualStranger.]

My thanks to Ace, who’s asked me to contribute a few thoughts and recipes of my own to this shiny new blog. It’s been just over three years now that I’ve been living 100% off my writing, so I’ve got an idea or four on how to live cheap here in the big city, not to mention a few money-saving recipes of my own. Of course, as has been mentioned here before, if you’re determined not to live without all your creature comforts and nights out, well... maybe you should stick with that steady paycheck.

So, that being said, I’d like to talk to you about one of the best vacations I’ve ever had in my life.

Just over ten years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Egypt for a few weeks. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was about nine. My then-girlfriend and I (we’ll call her Abby) spent six days in Cairo and then took the train all the way to Aswan and started working our way back. I got to hike the ridge around the Valley of the Kings, spent an entire day at Karnak, and discovered a disturbing number of similarities between myself and the mummified remains of Ramses II.

Anyway, we’d been in Cairo for a few days when some local friends of hers suggested we go grab some koshari (also translated as koshary). I had no idea what it was, but for some reason the name made me think it was a pastry or something. No clue why, to this day. As it turns out, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s the Egyptian equivalent of hamburgers and hotdogs. You can get it from street vendors, little hole-in-the wall places, and even a few full-on restaurants. The average koshari vendor has four or five steaming vats, sometimes in the twenty gallon range, each one with its own ladle. You get a bowl, one ladle-full from each vat, and spice to taste.

I’ll be honest-- at first glance it was unappealing. The ingredients seemed a bit random and I couldn’t picture them possibly tasting well together. Needless to say, I was very wrong and Abby and I ended up using koshari as our fall-back food three or four times during the trip. It also didn’t hurt that a very large bowl of koshari rarely cost more than two Egyptian pounds (about sixty cents, American, at the time).

So, you ask, what is this miracle food and how do I make it?

Okay, first tip. Koshari is made in batches. Big batches. It’s far more difficult to make it in small amounts, so just accept you’ll be making enough to feed six or seven people (or one starving writer for a week). Once you accept that, you’ll need...

12 oz dry chick peas (about 2 cups)

10 oz dry lentils (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 cups of uncooked elbow macaroni or 2 cups of uncooked rice

1 26 oz can of spaghetti sauce (something without meat or chunky veggies)

hot sauce

You should be able to get all of these ingredients for $5, or perhaps even less. You’ll also want to get a small bottle of your favorite hot sauce. I’m fine with Mexican ones like Tapatio. My lady friend likes Vietnamese sriracha. [Ace adds: hooray for “rooster sauce!”] Plain old Tabasco would probably work, too, if you’ve already got some handy.

You’re going to need to soak the chick peas for at least 12 hours before you start cooking. They’re going to expand a lot, so make sure they don’t get wedged into a mass and try to keep a good water level. You may also notice kind of a beery foam. Don’t be worried, it’s just what chick peas do. [Ace adds: If it’s a hot day and the chickpeas start to ferment like crazy, put the bowl in the fridge.]

Lentils cook very quickly and don’t need to be soaked ahead of time.

To cook:

CHICKPEAS: Drain pre-soaked chickpeas. Place chickpeas in a large pot of fresh water and bring to a rolling boil. Turn heat to “low” and simmer chickpeas for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours, stirring infrequently. Drain cooked chickpeas and set aside.

LENTILS: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add lentils. Turn heat to low and simmer for 25 - 40 minutes, or until lentils are tender but not mushy. Drain lentils and set aside.

PASTA and/or RICE (koshari sometimes includes both): Cook until “el dente,” according to package directions. Drain pasta.

Once everything’s cooked, grab a bowl. Traditionally you layer koshari, starting with a layer of macaroni or rice, then the chick peas, lentils, tomato sauce, and hot sauce on top. We generally go about 40% macaroni, 30% chick peas, and 30% lentils. A lot of the flavors here are going to mellow the hot sauce, so don’t be scared to go a tiny bit heavier than you normally would. We tend to do this in an assembly-line style for the first meal, and then it all gets mixed in a large pot or tupperware container. One batch generally makes about six or seven meals, split between two people.

That’s koshari. I’ve found it’s good for potluck dinners or other social food events. You can prepare everything and mix it in advance, but if you bring it in separate pots it becomes a bit more of an event and you can explain it as you prepare bowls. You get to brag to your friends about your worldly, international cuisine, and feed all of them for less than the cost of a Starbuck’s cup of coffee.

And if you ever happen to be in Luxor, there’s a great little place for it about two blocks north from the McDonalds.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Starving screenwriter tip: How to save over 1,000 dollars (and hours!) per year

$1000 could really help your screenwriting career, couldn't it? Think about it:

$1000 equals six months' worth of food, if you eat frugally (about $5/day).
$1000 equals entering two or three writing contests every month.
$1000 is postage for over 2000 snail-mail query letters.
$1000 is a new computer, the one expensive thing a serious writer can't do without.

Where can you find an extra $1000 a year? Here's an easy way: If you have cable or satellite TV, GET RID OF IT.

Yep, get rid of cable. Really. It sucks up your time. It sucks up your money. Having all those channels encourages you to "veg out" and look for something, anything to watch whenever you have a block of free time. Writing a book or a screenplay requires daily effort and motivation, much like training for a marathon. You have to work at it pretty much every single day whether you feel like it or not, and much of the time you won't initially feel like it. (Starting is always the hardest part, isn't it?) It's so much easier to follow the path of least resistance: "Damn, I was gonna write tonight, but I have to find out how 'Unsolved Mysteries' turns out. Maybe after the show's over. Oh, but then there's this cool show about ancient weaponry on...." Sound familiar?

It's always easier to be passive than to be active, so eliminate the extra temptation. Every hour you spend watching TV, you probably could have written another quarter- to a half-page or so. How many hours a day do you spend watching empty and forgettable TV? Two? Four? Over the course of a year, that's a whole first draft of a novel, or first draft and first re-write of a screenplay you might have written!

I'm not saying "never" watch TV, nor am I saying that TV is "bad." There are some wonderful, fun, well-written shows, with compelling storylines and complex characters, which can enrich your life and your creativity. But figure out what handful of shows you really want to see, and plan your viewing carefully. If you miss out on a really great show you can catch it later on DVD (more on cheap and free DVD rentals in another post). Just don't sit around channeling-surfing* to "see what's on." Skip the junk shows that don't add anything to your life or your creativity (reality shows, talk shows, tabloid "newsmagazine" shows, and all the "filler" shows you don't like but are scheduled in between shows you do like). Shut off the nonstop distraction and give your mind the space to work on your projects. Take a walk. Read. Do a puzzle. Bake. Paint. Take a nap. Doodle. Daydream. Whatever allows you to think.

Let's say you waste about three hours a day watching forgettable shows you don't really care about. This is actually a pretty conservative figure, considering most people waste that much time just on "late night TV" alone; most people waste much MORE than three hours per day. But anyway....

3 hours a day x 365 days = 1,095 hours a year, wasted.

Do you know how many hours there are in a month of 31 days? Just 744.

In other words, if you waste a mere three hours a day watching TV, you are frittering away well over a solid MONTH out of every year. So don't tell me you "don't have any time to write," if you're still watching hours and hours of TV every day. You are simply choosing to be passive, rather than choosing to take the harder (but perhaps infinitely more rewarding) path.

*Now, none of this advice applies to the normal, regular person who isn't a professional or aspiring writer. By all means, you dear normal folks lucky enough to be free of "the midnight disease," enjoy all the scripted shows you can find! After all, without readers and audiences to entertain, what would be the purpose of writing?

Money saved by getting rid of cable: $500 - $1200+/year.
Time gained for writing, reading, thinking, and sleeping: priceless.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Useful word of the day: ultracrepidarian

Today I'd like to focus on one of my favorite words. It's a rarely-used word, one in danger of obsolescence, which is unfortunate because it has so much relevance today:

ULTRACREPIDARIAN n. Someone who gives opinions on matters beyond his knowledge. (Also adj. -- pertaining to one who gives opinions on matters beyond his knowledge.)

ULTRACREPIDATE v. to criticize beyond one's sphere of knowledge.

The word comes from a story recorded by Pliny. (If you've read much Pliny, you know he was a rather "creative" historian, so this story may be apocryphal.) Anyway....

According to the story, the famous Greek painter Apelles was hanging his paintings in a public square, when a cobbler approached and examined one of the paintings. "You've depicted the sandal wrong," the cobbler said, noting that Apelles hadn't included enough loops in the leather straps. Apelles accepted the suggestion and repainted the shoe. The cobbler then went on to smugly critique various other aspects of the painting, such as the composition, the color, and so forth. At this point the painter interrupted, declaring that "the cobbler should not judge beyond the sandals." (Ultra crepidam means "beyond the sandal" in Latin.)

This story is also the source of the proverb, "the cobbler should stick to his last" ("last" being the term for a shoemaker's pattern).

In contemporary parlance, ultracrepidarians are "armchair quarterbacks."

To use it in a sentence: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach, ultracrepidate on internet message boards.

How to make "chewy" tofu:

1. Place a package of water-packed tofu in the freezer until frozen solid (at least overnight).
2. Let thaw completely.
3. Press the block of tofu between two plates until most of the water is squeezed out.
The tofu will be spongy (thus able to absorb sauces), slightly tan, chewy, less fragile and (imo) better tasting than unfrozen tofu.

A lot of people talk about tofu "absorbing" the flavors of whatever sauce it's cooked in. But the truth is, plain ol' tofu straight out of the package is too saturated with water to absorb much of anything. It makes a decent ricotta cheese substitute (with the addition of strong-flavored herbs such as oregano and basil, or mixed with spinach and stuffed into manicotti shells and slathered in a zesty red sauce). But for recipes that call for chunks of "meat," I vastly prefer using pre-frozen tofu.

Compare the two: try dousing a chunk of ordinary tofu with wine and/or soy sauce. Then try the same experiment with a frozen, thawed, and wrung-out chunk of tofu. The difference is amazing!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cheap-ass recipe of the week: Spicy peanut-ginger noodles with veggies


2 packages Ramen noodles* (you won't need the flavor packet)
2 12-oz. bags of frozen veggies (an Asian veggie mix including bean sprouts is usually best, or sweet-tasting veggies like carrots and pea pods, but you have a lot of leeway here).
6 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons soy sauce ("reduced sodium" will taste better)
4 heaping tablespoons peanut butter (natural, creamy, or even chunky)
2 heaping teaspoons minced fresh garlic
2 tablespoons grated fresh (not powdered) ginger
pinch of cayenne pepper, to taste

crushed peanuts (optional)

1. To make sauce: Combine water, vinegar, soy sauce and sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Add peanut butter and whisk until smooth (you can use a fork if you don't have a whisk). Add garlic and ginger, and whisk again. (We're talking maybe 30 seconds of whisking. Don't knock yourself out, here.)

Taste to see if the sauce needs more kick (I usually add a bit more ginger at this point).
Add a pinch of cayenne, to taste. I love hot food, but I'm going to suggest YOU start with 1/8 tsp - 1/4 tsp of cayenne rather than the rather larger amount I use....and then add more if you think it's not spicy enough! Or you can leave the cayenne out if you're a spice weenie.

2. Stir fry veggies a few minutes until they're cooked but still have some firmness...because mushy veggies are gross.

3. Boil noodles 2 - 2 1/2 minutes (save the flavor packets for a rainy day...plain ol' "Oriental Broth" can be nice sometimes). Don't boil the noodles for quite the whole 3 minutes recommended on the want them slightly under-done because they get gooey very easily in this recipe!

4. Drain noodles, toss in a big bowl with veggies. Gently mix sauce into noodle/veggie mixture.

A couple of tablespoons of crushed peanuts sprinkled on top are a really nice addition if you've got them.

You're done! Makes about 4 servings.

Leftovers: You'll notice that the garlic will become more pronounced when the noodles are refrigerated, and the ginger (which is a fragile flavor) will be diminished, throwing off the balance. Adding a little more grated fresh ginger to the leftovers is recommended (but do it AFTER reheating the noodles).


Variation: Spicy peanut-ginger noodles with veggies with tofu

Add chunks of "chewy" (frozen-and-thawed) tofu to the noodles and veggies.

Cut about 1 cup's worth of the tofu into 1 inch cubes.
Pour a little bit of soy sauce over them and let them soak it up.
Very lightly sear the tofu, just enough to warm it up (unless you like it crispy; I don't).
Add to the noodle-veggie mix and toss with peanut sauce.


*Note to vegetarians: If you're frustrated by the scarcity of meatless ramen noodles, I just wanted to point out that one commonly-found flavor, Nissin Top Ramen's "Oriental" flavor (in the dark blue wrapper) is reportedly vegan. Nissin confirms this in their FAQ: "Our Top Ramen Oriental flavor contains no animal products."
Be careful not to by the Maruchen brand instead -- their Oriental flavor contains beef.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

All those "L.A. haters...."

Gone is the city, gone the day,
Yet still the story and the meaning stay:
Once where a prophet in the palm shade basked
A traveler chanced at noon to rest his mules.
"What sort of people may they be," he asked,
"In this proud city on the plains o'erspread?"
"Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?"
"What sort?" the packman scowled; "why, knaves and fools."
"You'll find the people here the same," the wise man said.

Another stranger in the dusk drew near,
And pausing, cried, "What sort of people here
In your bright city where yon towers arise?"
"Well, friend, what sort of people whence you came?"
"What sort?" the pilgrim smiled,
"Good, true, and wise."
"You'll find the people here the same,"
The wise man said.

-Edwin Markham, "The Right Kind of People"

"L.A. sucks." Right? It’s so very "real" to hate L.A., or at least to declare one's hatred of L.A. It's practically obligatory. Particularly if you don't live here and you deeply resent everyone telling you that if you want to work in Hollywood, moving to L.A. is a MUST.

Granted, we have a lot that's bad here: congestion, crime, pollution, high prices, crazy people, frenzy, chaos, stupidity.

And we have a whole lot that's good: gorgeous weather, jaw-dropping parks, hiking, horseback riding, boating, biking, beaches, open spaces (no, really); world-class museums, concert halls, and universities; tolerance, whimsy, artists, thinkers, doers, genuises. You can meet people from every corner of the world. You can sample the cuisine of every country you can name (and plenty you've never heard of). You can go surfing at sun-up, and ski snow-capped mountains by afternoon.

In other words, we have everything here. And, true to the sentiment in the poem above, I think when a person hates Los Angeles it actually says more about the person than the city.

If you’re intolerant, judgmental, set in your ways, and prone to being unhappy, you will HATE Los Angeles. If you’re nervous and uneasy around People Who Are Different Than You, the immigrants will drive you crazy. The crazy people will drive you crazy. The lack of homogenity and predictability will drive you crazy.

The thing is, I’ve lived in a whole lot of places and found that on the surface anywhere can appear unpleasant. On the surface, the South is vapid and phony. On the surface, the Midwest is conformist and ignorant. On the surface, the Northeast is superior and aloof. On the surface, the West is flighty and self-absorbed. And if you can only see the world in terms of "us" and "them," you’ll never see beyond the surface, no matter where you go, and you'll never realize that all those places are full of folks who are essentially decent, hopeful, hardworking, and honorable.

So, it's normal to be fearful of moving to L.A. But, if you want to be a screenwriter -- if you're really, really, serious about it -- you have to. I'm sorry. But you do.

Is it technically possible to break in from the middle of nowhere? Before you scour Variety for anecdotes about supposed far-flung outsiders who broke in -- (these stories are largely P.R. distortions, by the way) -- yes, it's not unheard of. But understand that these rare stories are the exceptions that prove the rule. And considering the long, long, long odds against breaking in even if you have everything in your favor, why make your chances even worse?

By refusing to move to L.A., you’re hedging your bets. You’re not willing to go to the very limit in the pursuit of your calling. Why? Is it because deep down you know you won’t make it? Because you're not willing to sacrifice your "creature comforts" and financial stability? Because you have a spouse who isn’t entirely supportive? Because you’re not sure this is what you really want?

Okay. Now we're getting somewhere.

See, I don't think this "fear of Los Angeles" thing is really about L.A. at all. I think it's about what L.A. represents. As long as you remain in your small pond, Hollywood is just a fantasy, and your would-be career (much like your purely conceptual World's Greatest Screenplay) exists in the perfect realm of ideals. But if you move here, it means you're really serious about this screenwriting thing. It's not just a daydream any longer -- it's a commitment. And when you commit yourself to something so big, so ambitious, so staggeringly unlikely, you expose yourself to ridicule and rejection. You don't get to be a big fish in the small pond of East Cupcake anymore, boasting of your undiscovered genius, about how you could surely write rings around all those Hollywood hacks and turn the town upside down. Hollywood will put you through the toughest test of your life, and your talent (or lack thereof) won't just be a hypothetical any more.

But at least you'll know.

Los Angeles infamously makes a bad first impression; when you arrive you'll endure one of the world's least convenient airports, from which you'll promptly merge into a stupefying traffic jam. Strip mall after strip mall will scroll past your car like a Hanna-Barbara background. In fact if you stay less than a week or two, you might see nothing but freeways and strip malls. But don't worry; the ugly stuff is just for show. See, if everyone knew how interesting L.A. can be, why, everyone would move here, and there just isn't room. The longer you're here, the more you'll discover that L.A. is really thousands of different little neighborhoods side by side. You'll find the one that fits you. And you don't have to change at all. In a city that has every walk of life, you're accepted as you are.