Making the Time Count

Lately, I have had a gnawing feeling. It is in my throat and sometimes it moves to my stomach. It seems to start as soon as I think about what I have to do. It really begins to pulse when I think about what I haven’t done. I am suffering from…procrastination: the scourge of writers, the plague of completion, the seed of doubt.

Please, is there a cure?

As far as I know there isn’t one. If there are sports psychologists that spend hours with professional athletes coaching them through their doubt with guided imagery, talk therapy, hypnosis, maybe even past-life regression, there have to be writers’ psychologists, right?

Here’s how I imagine a session would go:

“Doctor. I can’t seem to write anything. And when I do, it’s no good.”

“Well, have you written anything at all? And how do you know it’s not good?”

“I just know.”

“Has anyone besides yourself read it?”

“UH-uh. No.”

“Then how do you know?”

If a writer’s therapist were to ask me if I have written anything in the past week, I would probably say no. nothing.

But, if I were to actually print out what I have written, the pages here and there, the one-liners, pages from my notebook, I actually have written quite a bit. The two-thousand-words-a-day practice, which I adopted from reading Stephen King’s On Writing—the only book he wrote that didn’t leave me permanently terrified of swimming in the middle of a lake, or walking past sewers—is something I have tried seriously to do for years.

Somehow, even while battling procrastination, I can just about reach my quota of words throughout the day. Call it muscle memory. The words are not always connected, and not written at the same time. I think my writers’ therapist would say that’s a good place to start and, “Now, let’s try and structure your time better.”

Right now, I don’t have the distraction that so many people do: a full-time job. I need one, though, and I am looking. I am preparing myself to lose the large chunks of time that I am so spoiled by, and I know I am going to have to use super powers to focus in order to finish my book, or any articles, or whatever project I am working on.

What about the millions of parents, single and paired, who write and publish and work? They are doing it. It’s harder than it looks, but maybe it’s also easier than I think. Mia Couto, the Mozambican writer currently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, is a full-time biologist. Atul Gawande is a practicing surgeon and public health researcher, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and has written three best sellers.

I have decided to approach procrastination as a constructive challenge while I am working towards finding a job. What do my favorite writers do? Well, Virginia Woolf had a writing shed. Having the space to write was so important to her that she wrote an entire book about the political and social significance of personal creative space in A Room of One’s Own. She recommended writing for several solid hours at a time and had tea brought to her by servants. Okay. Maybe I shouldn’t look to an early 20th century writer for complete guidance. How about Haruki Marukami, the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or 1Q84? He gets up early and writes for three or four hours, sometimes more, and then runs or swims. Every day. Susan Sontag would get up every morning at eight and write for as long as she could. She wouldn’t answer the phone, or open her mail, and she never went out. Occasionally, she would meet one friend for lunch, but never more than twice a month. In the evening, after five, she would allow herself time to read. My favorite is Roald Dahl—he had a writing hut too. In it, he surrounded himself with things that made him happy (chocolate? peaches?). He sat in a big chair and wrote with a notebook in his lap for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Even if he didn’t have an idea (which was seldom), he would sit in the chair and just think.

There’s a pattern developing. Boundaries and time. Recently, I changed my writing quota from two thousands words a day to writing at least two hours every day in the morning and two more in the afternoon. What a gift! Writing in blocks of time instead of a word count feels less forced. I end up having more time to write better. I don’t feel as scattered and I know I have accomplished something. Still, I sometimes find myself checking email in case something exciting is happening somewhere where I am not, glancing at Amazon to see if there might be any Italian shoes with red buckles on sale, or eh, eh, cough, getting a drink of water. I have to make my time allotment worth it, so now I have started setting my alarm. Depending on my state of agitation, I set the alarm for between thirty and fifty minutes. It seems to work. The alarm allows me to know that a break is coming at some point, I can get up for five minutes, and then get back to work.

What I really want to say is, I love to write, and sometimes it’s hard. But I am finding if I take my half-hour block and write, and stop thinking about my future best-seller, and just stay in the moment, it’s not as daunting. Sometimes I love what I write and then hate it two days later, what was I thinking? What writer doesn’t experience that? I think it’s impossible to look at one’s material and not have judgment. We all do it. What I have learned, and have to keep re-learning nearly every day is, it takes time, it takes discipline, and I need to trust myself. I think my writers’ therapist would agree.





Writing: The Toolbox IV

Let’s talk. About dialogue. About speech. About sentences.

As a screenwriter, dialogue is one of the mainstays of my craft. In fact, it’s one of the only two tools I am allowed to use to bring a story to life: dialogue and action. It’s like writing with one arm tied behind my back.

Sentences are vital to the reading experience and the communication of meaning. They are more than conveyors of information. They are more than the sum of their content. It is important to look at the building blocks of a sentence. Sentence construction affects everything, and with every choice of sentence formation, a new meaning and a new perception is born in the reader.

I see sentences as pictures. To me they have color, texture, shape. They are sensory experiences, with flavor, sound, and a feel of their own. They are word images, letter pictures. When I write, I want my sentences to look good, literally. I don’t want the seams to show. I don’t want the reader to see the writing choices. I want my sentences to appear as though they were born perfect and could be no other way when, in fact, much work and thought went into their construction.


I continue writing about the collected tools of the craft, based on my years of experience. Here are a few of my tools for writing effective sentences and dialogue:

10. The First Line

The first line of dialogue, and the first sentence of a work of prose, is like a name. It’s the first impression a reader gets about a person, a character, and even the writer. If it’s a good name and a good sentence, you make a good impression.

In screenwriting, the reader of a script is the gatekeeper, the one to recommend a script to their superior, or not. The power of thumbs up or down often lies in the hands of an intern, an assistant, a nary beginner, but if you can’t get past the first reader, you’ll never make it on the screen. How will you get past the first reader?

When people browse a table of new book releases, you will see them pick up a book, read the first few lines and either buy it or put it back down. The first line is a great opportunity to engage the reader quickly, and perhaps make the sale. Ideally it also encapsulates the meaning of the entire work.

In the script of Bull Durham, the first line of a voice-over dialogue is: “I believe in the church of baseball.” That statement encapsulates everything the movie is about as well as the character. It captures the film’s characters’ obsession, and devotion at all expense, to the game of baseball.

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, the first line of dialogue is: “It’s your best work, Basil, the best thing you’ve ever done.” Of course, these are the famous first/last words for the entire book, which end in disaster for the central characters.

In Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky),  the first line of the book is: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This portentous line prefaces the entire book in summary of theme and meaning, and projects the coming tragic story.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the very first line of dialogue on the first page is: “And this,” said the Director opening the door, “is the Fertilizing Room.” It is the core summary of the subject of the book, a perfect teaser.

In Joan Didion’s collection of essays, The White Album, the first line is: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This line captures the heart of her musings on murders and migraines, The Doors and the Hoover Dam. Stories are the fabric of our lives, and Didion grabs her idea with the first sentence.

In Robert Towne’s Chinatown, the first line of dialogue the protagonist speaks is: “All right, enough is enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, Curly. I just had ‘em installed on Wednesday.” This first line serves not only as an attention grabber, but it gives away the subtleties of Gittes’ life. He’s a low rent private who deals with guys named Curly. Venetian blinds are a luxury to him. He takes the kind of cases that are sordid and sad, the kind that make grown men cry and eat Venetian blinds. This will all come to haunt him later.


11. Empty Dialogue

Don’t write empty dialogue. Empty dialogue is the kind of exchange that gives the reader nothing in characterization or drama: “Hello.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “Come in.” “Sit down.” “How have you been?” “I’m fine.” These are exchanges we have spoken and heard a million times in our lives. Find a new way to say an old thing.

If you find you’ve written an empty line of dialogue, cut it if you have to. It’s better to have silence. Let a character walk into a room without the usual greeting, perhaps in silence, and the reader immediately wonders what is going on and is quickly engaged.

Open a produced screenplay of a well-liked movie to any page, and you won’t find a boring line of dialogue in it.

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, Phil, the nurse, comes into the room of the cancer patient, and instead of asking, “How are you?” says, “How’s the day then?” The difference between these two lines is the difference between the reader being mentally asleep or awake. A new way of saying things is exciting for the mind of the reader, and the well-worn path is tedious or so uninspiring it becomes invisible.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is introduced to Daisy for the first time, and her greeting to him is not “I’m pleased to meet you,” but “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness.” New ways of saying things in dialogue not only excite the reader, but also create vibrant, compelling characters.

In The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, the first line of dialogue, Carmen greeting Philip Marlowe as he enters the house, is not a boring, “How do you do?” it’s “Tall, aren’t you?” Marlowe responds wryly, “I didn’t mean to be.” This first exchange could have been boring, but never in the hands of Raymond Chandler. It’s vibrant and fresh and grabs us right away.


12. Line Leaks

This is a personal pet peeve. I believe in strong lines. Direct lines. A clear sentence is muscular, energetic, compelling. When I teach my screenwriting students about dialogue, I tell them to revisit their script when they’ve written their first draft and slash every “Well,” “Ok,” “So,” “Look,” from the beginnings of their dialogue lines. I tell them to cut every word that requires a comma at the beginning of a sentence. In every day life we often resort to these “time buyers.” But they clutter the line. They leak the energy out of the sentence. And they weaken the content.

“Well, I want to go to the fair now,” is not as good as, “I want to go to the fair now.”

“So, when did you arrive?” is not as good as, “When did you arrive?”

“Ok, what did you have in mind?” is not as good as, “What did you have in mind?”

We put these little buggers into the beginnings of sentences out of habit, out of a desire to sound natural, but this is often at the expense of clarity and energy. Try it out on your own work. Don’t let the energy leak out. See how many “well” words you find at the beginning of dialogue, and see how much better the line reads without it.

These are a few practical approaches to sentences and dialogue. There are more, and I will share them in upcoming posts. In the meantime, be bold, cut the clutter, get to the point, and make it fresh!


Previous posts in the series:

All images courtesy of Bettina Gilois 

Spotlight: The Flat World

There are two worlds those with the privilege of portable technology inhabit…

Heart Connections: Into and Beyond the Particular

I recently gathered with a small group of friends to watch a documentary that was made two years ago about our friend Renee in her final months of life. Nine chairs were arranged in a half-circle to transform the Santa Monica office lobby where we met into a theater. On the lobby’s granite welcome desk by the basket of teabags, paper cups, and hot water kettle was a box of tissues. A serene painting of watery blues and greens was taken down so the wall behind it could be used as a projection screen. While we waited for two latecomers, someone passed around homemade doughnuts. We did not talk about Renee. Later, when the nine of us sat dabbing our eyes in the projection’s glow, I kept staring at the mounting hook we’d left in the wall. Here she was, two years after cancer, with a thirty pound picture hanger in her forehead. I wondered what she’d think of the memories we’d hung on her.

Renee lived with an open curiosity about other cultures and their methods of healing, and she gambled with her life to find out if they’d work. She lost, in the end, which means we all lost. By the time she started chemotherapy, her cancer was advanced, and from then on everything was a cocktail of radiation, chemo, medical marijuana, and, later, morphine. Despite this, when I think about Renee what I remember most immediately isn’t the cancer or the treatments, but her gratefulness and grace, and how I learned that a person can move through life and death—both—with a sense of wonder, and with fierce kindness. Even in the last months, she was concerned about others. But how are YOU? she would ask, interrupting the cancer talk. After she lost her hair, before she dyed it platinum and skulked cancer-chic across a fashion runway for the last time, she told me, Just before I was diagnosed, I had been looking for a new teacher. I believe that is why I have cancer. Yoga, meditation, nutrition—I studied them all deeply. It was time for me to find a new teacher.   

Renee Heidtman in 2012. Photo credit: Valerie Brown

Renee Heidtman in 2012. Photo credit: Valerie Brown


The day before the nine of us sat together in that still lobby to watch a filmmaker’s collage of our friend, the most powerful earthquake in the region’s recent memory rocked Nepal. The wreckages from the quake, the aftershocks, the avalanches, and the difficulty of aid deliverance to isolated villages has the current death count near six thousand expected to rise beyond ten thousand. The horror of the news quickly filed itself neatly in my mind among other mass-horrors wreaked by the intersection of Mother Nature and human development: Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s earthquake, Japan’s earthquake and tsunami; and those wrought by civil unrest: the Arab Spring, Central African Republic, too many to name.

At the risk of sounding ignorant, or worse, uncaring, that I group these events in a lump shows how little I truly know about them. So far, living here on the San Andreas Fault System for the past nine years, I am precariously privileged. I feel concern, sympathy, and worry for the people caught in these traumatic events, but my heart yearns for something more specific. Large numbers like “six thousand” awe me with their hugeness, but they are almost beyond my grasp. Thinking about villages like Langtang, which was entirely wiped out in the Nepal earthquake, is as unfathomable as the Hubble telescope photos of galaxies.

While watching the documentary interviews of Renee’s younger sister Rita, I realized that the particularness of individual stories is what helps my heart comprehend not just pain and suffering, but love and yearning, care and concern, desire, fear, hope. Even as relief efforts excavate through rubble and seek to reach remote areas, it is the tragedy of a singular person that I knew that has me tearing more tissues from the box. On the drive home after watching Renee’s documentary, I wondered if there was a young woman in Nepal whose body was fighting the same cancer at the moment the fault lines shifted. Was there a younger sister caring for her when the earth gave way? Had someone been praying for a new spiritual guide, and is now marveling with regret, Be careful what you wish for?

Lately I’ve been reading submissions for Lunch Ticket’s creative nonfiction team. It’s an honor to do this work. I believe there’s no greater teacher for a writer than the written word, and what I learn from the pieces I read is priceless. One thing I’ve noticed is that many very good submissions that we ultimately reject fall into two camps: the first tell a particular story about a particular person, the second tell a general story about an idea. Both often contain beautiful prose, delightful imagery, good intention. What many essays miss, however, is a recognition that the reader aspires to connect with the writer.

The essays in the first camp share the writer’s personal experience. They are often a memory of an experience, or a tribute to a loved one. I understand the need to write these stories down. I want to write about Renee, to document her, to preserve her. And yet, few readers of Lunch Ticket knew Renee; few will truly care to read my tribute. If I want an audience of anonymous strangers to read a story about Renee, I need to create a connection from my heart to the readers’. Renee is a person whom I loved, but just as she reached beyond the situation of her illness to find a deeper meaning, I need to write beyond my love for her to find a connection with you.

The essays in the second camp simply don’t get specific enough for the reader’s heart to truly comprehend. I heard this morning that a fifteen-year-old boy was found alive after being trapped for five days under rubble in Kathmandu. His face is in the paper; he could be my fourteen-year-old daughter’s classmate. He has a name—Pemba  Tamang—, he worked at the hotel whose rubble he was buried in for those five days, he ate ghee to survive. I don’t mean to be dismissive or crass, but Pemba Tamang means more to me than the six thousand others. Already, with only three facts about the boy and a photo of his face, I worry for him, I care for his well-being, I wonder about his future and how these events will shape him, I think about his family. I have to remind myself that I don’t know him at all. I feel I already do.

There’s a strange alchemy that occurs when a writer tells a story in such a way that a reader can relate. If the devil’s in the details, the heart is too. Through a balance of detailed writing in exposition and scene, a good essay can bridge the chasm between strangers. The onus for building this connection is on the writer. It is the details of the writer’s specific circumstance, and the writer’s introspection about it, that creates the gold of creative nonfiction.

photo credit: Casey Noel

Renee Heidtman in 2012. Photo credit: Casey Noel