Writers and Concentration – Distraction Doesn’t Have to Win…Does It?

Nathan Bransford, author of the Jacob Wonderbar series of books, is one of TVWriter™’s go-to guys for writing and productivity tips and tricks. One particularly relevant example of Mr. Bransford’s helpfulness is the article below. Especially to this TVWriter™ minion in particular because, as my partner often says, “Distractions?” You don’t just  succumb to them, you create them just so you can do the succumbing.”

Sorry for the TMI. This should make up for it:


How to regain your concentration
by Nathan Bransford

Around the end of last year, I noticed something really alarming: I was having a seriously hard time concentrating.

  • I couldn’t write a blog post without flipping through random tabs.
  • I couldn’t read a book without checking my email.
  • I could barely make it through a long form news article.
  • Forget about trying to sit down to be productive writing a novel!

Since then, as you may have noticed with the uptick in blog post frequency, I’ve made a nearly-full concentration recovery.

You too can once again have an attention span greater than a hamster’s! Here’s what I learned about how to regain concentration.

Turn off your notifications

All of them, except for the barest essentials.

I now keep my phone almost entirely in Do Not Disturb mode, and have programmed just a few exceptions, namely phone calls from family members in case of emergencies. And I turned off notifications on my computer entirely.

Now…

  • When I walk down the street, I can let my attention wander without getting pinged. I have ideas again!
  • When I’m at my computer, I’m not getting distracted with incoming emails.
  • I’m not getting a random notification about the latest Netflix show I’m not going to watch.

Decide when YOU want to look at your phone. Don’t let your phone decide that for you.

(And for a look at some of the science behind the effect this type of technology is having on us, check out Jennifer Hubbard’s recent article in Creative Nonfiction).

Close all those browser tabs

I used to have about twenty tabs open to sites I would check frequently. Email. Facebook. Twitter. The weather. The news. You name it.

The problem with having a million tabs open is that I got into this mind-numbing habit of scrolling through them and checking for updates… even sites that basically never update.

And meanwhile, every time I got a Twitter notification or a new email, I’d jump and check it, interrupting whatever else it was I was doing.

Close those tabs, or at least limit to the precious few that you need to check a million times a day. Otherwise, open stuff only when you need to.

Write in full-screen mode

Even when I was writing, I was still constantly distracted. I’d see a new email open up behind my writing window and go and check it. And good luck if you happened to have Twitter open underneath your word processing application….

Read it all at Nathan Bransford’s Blog

Dawn McElligott: Philly to L.A. – The First Step is a Doozy

by Dawn McElligott

In February 2017, I was living in Greater Philadelphia and working at a global not-for-profit organization. The pay was low, the work was hard, and I was having tension headaches. Relief came in the form of feedback on the 2016 People’s Pilot contest from a distinguished gentleman with the initials, LB. The gist of the feedback was that the script showed enough professionalism to earn a staff writing position on a TV show but moving to Los Angeles was the first step.

By late March, I was ready to take that step. I quit my job, notified the landlord and started sorting my belongings. It took me two weeks of non-stop work to donate my used furniture to various charities and pack what I could take in the car. I borrowed money from a retirement plan for the journey. Finally, my car was packed a little after 5 pm on April 5, 2017.

I set the GPS for 200 Santa Monica Pier. Pulling out of the apartment house parking lot, I felt like I was blasting off for the moon. I drove as far as I could that evening. Fearing the effects of fatigue, I pulled over for the night and stayed at a low-budget inn. I had gotten as far as Shanksville, PA, the final resting place of Flight 93. Not exactly a good omen, but I took it to mean this was a significant journey.

The next morning, I headed out into the rain and drove to West Virginia. I had lunch at a McDonald’s restaurant. Returning to my car, an older, bearded man laughed heartily at, I suppose, my bumper stickers promoting the Hillary Clinton campaign. He got into his black pickup truck and drove away. I continued my journey too, reaching another small town, outside of St. Louis, MO, the following night.

The next morning as I prepared to leave the Comfort Inn, my Hillary Clinton bumper stickers yielded pairs of raised eyebrows from the older man and his wife, parked next to my car. Nevertheless, they seemed good natured and jovial, understanding that interstate highways bring all sorts of people together, even liberals and conservatives. They drove away and so did I.

Throughout the drive, I had too much time to think about dead relatives and friends that had passed away. In the solitude of my vehicle, I simply cried about my losses and fears for my future. Driving without the distractions of local traffic, allowed me to cry out numerous frustrations.

I might have wept out the heartaches that led to the tension headaches in Philadelphia. I began to realize why road trip movies had been so popular, years ago. Driving long distances does force introspection. The physical journey becomes a spiritual one.

Around New Mexico, I start to regret my decision not to buy a GoPro for the car. I would have picked up such spectacular footage! New Mexico’s tranquility informs me why it’s called “The Land of Enchantment.” I imagine my great loved and loving Shepherd-Rottweiler, “Punkin,” dead since 2014, reliving her youth by running happily throughout the valleys.

On Sunday, April 9, I set out from Albuquerque, NM to drive as far West as I could. I drove into Arizona and saw my first road signs, saying Los Angeles was a certain distance, 500 miles or so. What a welcome sight! I felt tired as I drove through Arizona, but I was determined to reach California, that evening.

As twilight descended, I arrived at the state’s westernmost frontier. The setting sun gilded the pointy peaks of the mountains before me, adding drama and an air of fantasy to the long-anticipated drive over the Colorado River, into Needles, CA. Hollywood couldn’t have staged a more dramatic entrance into the Golden State. Alas, no GoPro!

Not seeing any Comfort Inns or any other predictable, franchise establishments, I continued westward, despite the fatigue, until reaching Barstow. In Barstow I stayed at a hotel, part of a well-known chain. Undergoing major repairs, the inn appeared to be as close to collapsing as I was. Waking up the next morning, I realized that neither I, nor the hotel, was in a pile of rubble. It seemed like a good sign to me.

After paying the bill, I headed for my car in the parking lot. A lady parked next to mine said to me, “I love your bumper stickers… we tried.” We chatted for a bit and she left. I knew I was in a better place. I headed for Santa Monica. A traffic jam caused me to pull off the freeway in El Monte.

I found a business that does oil changes and car washes. When I paid for both, the cashier urged me to sit outside at a cute, little table in the warm sun. This was in high contrast to East Coast oil changes where I’ve been stuck indoors, pouring non-dairy creamer into coffee brewed during the Spanish-American War. Now, I was in the Golden State. Sipping soda outdoors, watching people towel dry my Hyundai Tucson, I thought of the new world I was entering.

I continued further until reaching the destination on my GPS: 200 Santa Monica Pier. A decade and a half earlier, I had lived in Anaheim but had to go back East when the Southern California economy collapsed in 2002. Now I did something I’d been waiting to do ever since. I waded along the shore of the Pacific Ocean.

Too exhausted to spend the rest of the day looking for an apartment, I treated myself to tacos, beer and conversation with the gentleman at the next table. It turned out that he had been raised in a small town next to Monroe, NY, where I’d grown up. He appeared to be an out of work actor, and in spite of facing homelessness himself, he wished me great success as he left with a wave and a “Welcome to L.A.!”

During much of the drive, I’d been afraid Southern Californians would see me only as “a woman of a certain age” arriving in Tinseltown too late for the party.  I’d thought of them as having arrived before me because they were more successful, alpha types who would see me as a failure upon arrival. I’d even envisioned them locking arms to prevent my entry into the City of the Angels.

As I watched the man go, it came to me that I was being hurt by old prejudices that I had to shed. Nobody here was trying to stop me. The only person I had to overcome was myself.


Dawn McElligott is a an award-winning writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles by way of Philadelphia and other points East. You can learn more about her HERE

How to be a good showrunner

One of the most knowledgeable writers on the web hits one out of the park…again.

We thought we had a showrunner pun when we uploaded this pic, but now we can’t remember what it was. Yikes!

by Ken Levine

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.  I know the WGA has seminars on this and some colleges offer courses in this, but the following points are pretty much everything you need to know.   (Reminder: Whenever I can’t think of an appropriate picture I always post Natalie Wood photos.)

The question is from Brian Hennessy.

Hey Ken – can I ask you what are mistakes that first time showrunners make?

1. Not communicating with your staff. It’s not enough to have your vision for the show; you need to clearly share it with your other writers. Don’t just assume. It’ll be hard enough for them without trying to figure out what’s in your head. Same is true with your editor and directors.

2. Be very organized. Time will go by much faster than you think. From day one lay out a plan. You want so many outlines by this date, so many first drafts by that date, etc.

3. Don’t squander that period before production begins. It’s easy to knock off early or move meetings back. But this is golden time before the crunch when actors arrive, cameras roll, and a thousand additional details require your attention.

4. Accept the fact that the first draft of the first script you receive from every staff member will look like a script from the last show they were on. It will take them time to adapt to your show.

5. Remember that every writer is not a “five-tool player” as they say in baseball. By that I mean, some may be strong at story but not jokes, or punch-up but not drafts. Not everybody is good at everything.  Consider that when putting together your staff.

6. Hire the best writers, not your best friends.

7. Hire at least one experienced writer. Otherwise, on top of everything else you’re doing, you’re re-inventing the wheel.

8. Don’t show favoritism to some writers over others. It destroys morale and no one loves a teacher’s pet.

9. Pick your fights with the network and studio. Don’t go to war over every little note. Antagonizing everyone all the time is a good way to ensure this will be your only showrunning gig. Yes, you’re an artist and you’re trying to protect your vision. And yes, a lot of the notes are moronic, but you have to hear them out. You have to consider them. You have to do the ones you can live with. The best way to get your way is to get them on your side.

10. Don’t overwork your staff. This goes back to being organized. There’s only so many times you can whip the same horse. Your people are dedicated to the show but not to the extent you are.

Read it all at Ken Levine’s great blog

Diana Black: Want to Capture & Hold TV Viewers? Write a Mystery!

by Diana Black

Have you played the ‘mystery’ board game “Clue” or the code breaking “Master Mind? What of the ‘super sleuth’ created by the novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes – now a franchise with movies, TV shows and video games. What about the plethora of other computer games and television programs all associated with… you guessed it – solving mysteries?

Focusing on ‘the little screen’ – television and more broadly, the web, which now ‘delivers’ across a diverse array of media platforms, writing in this genre ensures you’ll always have an audience eager for more IF your writing delivers an excruciatingly intense mystery and the screenplay itself, being a ‘page-turner’.

In this the mystery genre more than any other, the viewer must pay close attention if they’re to unravel the mystery and solve the puzzle. So what are we to consider if we’re to write mysteries? Well, apart from leading with a very strong ‘hook’, which is a given, there’s the following…

The ‘Physical Setting’ can be pleasant, ambivalent or malevolent – the environment is a character. A drama set in this landscape can be either ‘contained’ such as the British mini-series adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel by Sarah Phelps, And Then There Were None, or ‘labyrinthine’ – in space, such as Sliders, or across time, such as Labyrinth.

Many characters are suspect, and all are unpredictable. Their modus operandi, singular or in combination,may include:

Lying
Cheating
Manipulating
Being naive
Murdering
Thieving
Tricking
Helping
And, of course, more.

There’s one character you would be wise to include, although they’re never really “in the frame,” the Viewer.

You want the Viewer paying attention and trying to solve the mystery just as if she or he were a character in the story. For viewers to invest their time and effort, either watching weekly or binging, they must be enticed to figure things out along with the other characters.

If you give the Viewer some special, privileged info, well, that’s gold designed to involve them so much that they will want to jump into the screen screaming, “No, you idiot, it’s…!”

The Plot – twisted, spiraling, or linear – must contain blind alleys and surprises. Clues can be real ‘breadcrumbs’ leading the way ‘out’, or ‘red herrings’ that lead nowhere or into dark places – not necessarily a physical place. ‘Dark places’ can include the mindset of the characters.

The stakes must be high so we’re forced to solve the mystery with challenges that on the surface seem inextricable but the real problem lies underneath. We can have multiple ‘solutions’ all of which except one of them ultimately fail…

For dialogue to be suspenseful, lace it with: innuendo, lies, truths, predictions, SUBTEXT, the withholding of information, and contradictions between characters.

Scene structure should have the Viewer coming in late, and forced to leave early. For a Pilot, the tension needs to escalate and end with a cliffhanger but within the series episodes… deliver on the set-ups you created in the Pilot, by paying- them off throughout the episodes.


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer who frequently contributes to TVWriter™. (She used to contribute more frequently, but then she moved to Hawaii. Go figure.)

Diana Black: Compelling Characters Make a ‘Real’ World

by Diana Black

Lulu: “Honey, so sorry, can’t make it tonight… no, it’s not my, ‘I’m washing my hair’ night …I’m just busy… No, you’re wonderful but.…”

A great story idea, well-written script, skillful cast and crew with an intelligent director and showrunner at the helm – surely the recipe for a winning TV Series, but what ‘essential ingredient’ compels us to ‘tune in’ religiously?

Is it the hooks and plot twists, the lighting, sound, mis-en-scene? What makes the fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, now going into its 7th Season SOOO interesting and compelling to watch? And not only by adolescent nerds but by, for all practical purpose, everyone?

According to A.G. Walton – a contributor to Forbes, who in turn is commenting on the findings of Josue’ Cardona of “GeekTherapy.com”, it’s a range of elements that include the following attributes: intellectually challenging and multiple plots; unpredictable twists; an intricate and elaborate story world, and dramatic events that border on the visceral.

But what of character?

In this epic panoply of political manipulation; one which would be right up there with Rome under Caesar, it is according to Walton, the creation, destruction, and resurrection of archetypes. So what is an archetype and why, having been ‘done to death’ long before Shakespeare took up a quill, are they still so useful?

Aspiring TV and screenwriters may think long and hard before referencing them – the Queen, the Trickster, disgruntled Prince, foul-mouthed Washerwoman etc. But they work, precisely because they’re ‘character’ in a neat package.

We instantly ‘get’ them. They come into ‘our space’ with their over-night bag stuffed with accouterments that we instantly recognize – greedy, debauched, vile, manipulative, pure, sweet etc.

But is that all there is to the Game of Thrones characters? Are they merely just a bunch of one-dimensional archetypes? No – in our jaded world of hardened, cynical ‘little box watchers’– it requires more than that; as the revolving door of short-lived TV shows attest.

The secret to these guys is that they not only shamelessly embrace their archetypal nature, to the hilt, everyone one of them has a level of complexity that makes them seem real and as a result hated, feared, loved, reviled etc.

We’re left seriously wondering what word or deed they’re going to express next. ‘Warts and all’ they reflect us mere mortals – who will no doubt have to deal with the same, albeit modern-day equivalent conundrums, issues, and angst, tomorrow or next week, come Tuesday.

And the moral of my story here is….drum roll…invest like hell in your character/s if you expect your actors to lift them off the page.

The quickest, surest path to having those words and deeds appear perfectly natural and justified is for the writer, as well as the actor, to get under the skin of the character; to become that character, for better or worse.

The old adage still and will forever apply, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer who frequently contributes to TVWriter™. (She used to contribute more frequently, but then she moved to Hawaii. Go figure.)