What I accomplished by writing an hour a day for most of a year

My goal for the past few years has been to write for an hour a day, every day. If I write for an hour and want to keep going, then I can–there’s no upper limit aside from what the day demands in other obligations.

I was hit or miss for much of that time. Writing in the evening was hard after a long day of work and often there would be a rehearsal or a show or a social event that would sabotage me. For a while I tried waking up early and writing for an hour before my nine to five. I loved this because it liberated me for the rest of the day–my real work was done, the rest was easy. But waking up at 6am was not easy for me, mostly because I have trouble going to sleep before midnight.

But in July I quit my job to do freelance consulting instead and this freed up my schedule. So since then I’ve written almost every morning for 1-3 hours. I probably miss it once a week, maybe two if I’m traveling or have the flu.

I can’t recommend this method highly enough, if you can swing it. It trains your brain to be ready to write every day and the sheer force of habit means that I just sort of show up at the cafe near my house every morning, no matter what my mental state is (half-asleep, hungover, feeling good, hungry, whatever).

And at the end of the year, I like to look back at my writing folder on my laptop to see what I did, because at any given moment there’s a 75% chance that I feel like I haven’t accomplished much lately. This is what I produced this year (quality varies, of course):

  • A full-length play (later adapted to a one-act play)
  • Another short play
  • A 20-page treatment for a screenplay
  • A 20-page outline for a screenplay
  • A 117-page screenplay (on the 2nd draft now, not quite complete)
  • A 12-page short film
  • A dozen or so sketches, plus many one-line jokes for The Radio Television Theater Hour
  • A six-episode treatment for a web series (around 15 pages)
  • Four short treatments for feature films
  • Five or six short satirical pieces
  • A hundred or so headlines for my (rejected) Onion News Network submission packet
  • Assorted brainstorming, journal entries, and other ideas that went nowhere

I’m not putting this out there to show off. It’s not special, it’s just what happens when you show up every day. Give it a try.

Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I love books about writing. I think for me they serve as sort of a moral support to keep me going. I don’t know that they’re particularly informative or can really teach you to be a better writer, at least if you’re not writing a lot already.

Anyway, I’m reading On Writing by Stephen King now. Actually, I’m listening to the audiobook. It’s a really good read (listen?) even though it’s geared more towards novelists and it had a lot of his personal history, which I wasn’t really expecting. Part memoir, part discussion of the craft. And I haven’t read many of his books either.

Anyway, I’m not going to review the book or anything. But there was one passage that made me laugh, where he says something like “every writer remembers the first time they put a book down because they just can’t stand to read it.” And that reminded me of the first time I did that.

I was in a hostel in Lisbon, Portugal and somehow I had acquired a John Grisham novel. Not one of the more well-known ones. I have no idea which one it was, this was maybe 13 years ago. And I remember being hungover in this hostel and having absolutely nothing else to read and just trying to slog through it but the plot was so emotionally manipulative and the dialogue was so awful that it would make me anxious whenever someone was about to speak.

And I just had to stop reading it, even though it meant having nothing else to read except for the weird rantings on the side of my bottle of Dr. Bronner’s soap, which is not really a good read per se but can occupy your mind because the writing is so convoluted and hard to decipher.

I had read John Grisham in high school and remembered liking the stories so I thought maybe I just grew out of them? Or maybe this one was just a bad apple. I don’t know. Later on in the trip I stumbled upon The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy and boy was that good travel book because it sucked me in and was like 900 pages. And even though the writing wasn’t Dostoevsky or anything, it was good enough to not want to throw the book out the window and make it through.

A Big Whore in a Small Town! At The Annoyance!

My short play, A Big Whore in a Small Town (the Western comedy I wrote last year) will be performed at The Annoyance Theatre (by far my favorite comedy theater in Chicago, seriously it’s an amazing place) this month as a Triple Feature.

Triple Features are their way of putting up 20-minute experimental works to give people a chance to showcase their work, develop it, and just have an outlet for writers/directors/actors to try new things. So my play will be one of three shown, each 20 minutes long.

I’m really excited about this because I’ve been developing it off and on for a year now. I originally wrote it as a full-length play and had to compress it to get it down to 20 minutes. My hope is that it goes well and I can develop it into a full-length play somewhere.

We had our first rehearsal today and it went well. The other actors are really great and so is the director. And someone asked me “did you just write this so you could play a Mexican bandido and a French bounty hunter?” Um, yes. Yes I did.

It’s funny and irreverent and has a real theme and all. You should see it if you’re into that sort of thing.

Here’s the details:

Triple Feature @ The Annoyance (851 W Belmont)

8pm on January 11, 18, and 25

Tickets: $7 (link)

My Adobe Premiere workflow for editing improvised scenes

I’ve been editing the first episode of my web series, Words Fail Me. The actors have a set of circumstances that they know in advance but all of the dialogue is improvised. It’s the first improvised video I’ve had to edit and it’s taken me a while to figure out a workflow that makes sense and isn’t insanely time-consuming.

I should say that this is the first time I’ve done this and that I’m still very new to editing in general, so your mileage may vary. But I’m putting it out there in case it helps someone.

With a scripted scene, you usually have 3-5 takes of the scene for each shot (wide, medium, CU, etc.). So basically the editing is about telling a predefined story using the different shots. But with this shoot, I had a general idea of where I wanted things to go, but the actor had a lot of input and free reign, within the basic constraints that I had laid out. All of that is to say that what we ended up with, story-wise, was a bit messy.

For this episode, we did a wide shot (without sound), a master (medium shot), and a CU. We did a few takes of the medium and CU, but there was no script and the dialogue changed. After each take, we took the parts of the story that we liked and emphasized those moving forward, but we didn’t make an effort to repeat the dialogue verbatim. The story beats stayed the same, but the dialogue changed. The beats within any given take also tended to change–some takes only had a few of the major story beats and they were often in a different order.

That’s challenging to edit because each take is a little different. With 45 minutes of footage, I would have to spend a lot of time searching for what I needed. So, I came up with a solution to break the process into smaller chunks and make it more manageable.

Here’s what I did to simplify the process:

  1. I reviewed the footage to get a general sense of how I wanted to structure the story (while putting together the trailer).
  2. In Word, I wrote an outline for the story, sketching out nine beats for the story, and then created sequences in Premiere for each story beat.
  3. I dragged all the clips onto the timeline and went through all of them, cutting them up into chunks that related to the various beats. If the first two minutes of a clip were related to beat 1, I would cut and paste that part of the clip to the Beat 1 sequence, and so on.
  4. By the end, I had nine sequences (one for each beat of the story) with five to six clips related to that beat. These were much more manageable chunks to work with (3-7 minutes each). I edited each of these sequences individually to come up with the best possible version of each beat.
  5. Once I had all nine beats the way I wanted them, I put them all on a master sequence and connected them.
  6. Finally, I massaged the master sequence to get it to work together smoothly, using the wide shot as a cutaway for any moments where I wanted the dialogue but didn’t want to use the video.1

The nice thing about working this way is that it separates three distinct tasks (‘writing’ the story, searching/organizing the footage, and crafting the actual edit to tell the story) into separate chunks so you don’t have to switch between cognitive modes. This freed my brain up to focus on one thing at a time. And it forced me to figure out how I wanted to tell the story before I started any of the actual editing.

Again, I’m new to this. YMMV. And please contact me if you know a better way or have any tips!

  1. I wish we had shot more b-roll because it would’ve this easier and created some diversity in the imagery. Lesson learned. 

My review of Grown Ups 2

If you’re wondering why I would even bother to review this movie, then you haven’t been listening to The Worst Idea of All Time podcast. Which you should because it’s so damn funny. The hosts, Guy and Tim, are watching Grown Ups 2 every week for a year, analyzing the movie, and slowly going insane.

After listening to 40 episodes in the last week, I bit the bullet and finally watched it. Here are my thoughts, my absolutely dead-serious, not at all tongue-in-cheek thoughts.

This is Sandler’s foray into experimental filmmaking. He’s in unchartered territory and in over his head, but you have to admire the bravery– he’s experimenting with anti-narrative and anti-humor but packaged in a completely commercial vehicle (even the excess of product placement is a joke in itself).

Look at the hard, unmotivated cuts, the unexplained actions, the furious randomness of the whole thing. He’s trying to tell us something about the world–something that he tried to tell us (presumably, I haven’t watched it) in Grown Ups that we just didn’t listen to.

And the joke is on us–he set out to break the comedy genre and the expectations around it and then was squarely rewarded for it, for all the wrong reasons. If that’s not a meta-commentary on our society, then I don’t know what is. This is not a man failing at comedy, this is a man asking the question “why is comedy?”

The obvious comparison is Godard’s Weekend. A non-linear or non-existent plot. Unmotivated cuts. Bizarre, unintelligible characters. Violence without motivation or consequences. Horrific accidents that happen for no reason, with no effect on the plot and no empathy evoked.

The climactic party scene, with all its fantastical elements (Shaq’s blue pee, a dog bonging a beer, and the surreal violence to name a few) and characters in costume, is a clear nod to Weekend’s fantastical use of famous historical figures showing up in the woods.

Let’s delve into the big party scene. It has all the trappings of a major climax–action, noise, excitement, proximity to the chronological end of the movie. But it’s a cargo cult, it’s empty. You think this is a failure of execution but no, you’re dead wrong. It’s exactly what the film calls for–an anti-climax, a charade. It’s as if to say “this is not a traditional story! look how empty it is!” And you, by not seeing it, are empty too.

Which brings us to the question: is Sandler content with genre-bending or is he actually trying to say anything? I say yes. The film wrestles with (sometimes literally) the changing notions of masculinity, sex roles, father- and motherhood, and the sometimes heartbreaking struggle of children trying to grow up with well-meaning but obviously not-up-to-the-task parenting. If anyone is going to deliver that message and get people to listen, it has to be Sandler himself, the poster child (no pun intended) for men-children everywhere.

In this case, the title says it all: Grown Ups 2. It’s about adults in America and the prognosis is not good. Perhaps the surgeon does not wield the knife with skill, but he surely sees that the patient is sick.

The fight scene at the party really brings this home. The only character who fits the “real man” archetype, Tommy Cavanaugh (played by Steve Austin), chooses to sublimate his raw physical strength to make the man-child (Lenny Feder/Adam Sandler) feel better about himself. But it’s a sacrifice he makes not for Feder, but for his children.

And so here we have masculinity turned on its head– the dumb meathead is the only man who in the end actually A) thinks more than 5 minutes into the future and B) is willing to sacrifice anything for a child–in his case, it’s his entire identity sacrificed for the sake of another parent’s child.

Not only would none of the other adults in the movie make this sacrifice, the thought would not even occur to them.

He called you out, parents, and not only did you hand him a pile of money, you brought your kids. You think they’re laughing at a guy who burps, farts, and hiccups at the same time. But they’re laughing at you.

Watch the trailer for Words Fail Me, my new web series

Words Fail Me is a comedic series of portraits of self-involved and seriously flawed people who desperately need something from each other but just can’t find the right way to put it.

Set in Chicago, the series rolls up its proverbial sleeves to ask some questions you didn’t even think to ask: what do you do when you wake up to a new roommate, get extorted by your babysitter, or spill CIA secrets to the tamale guy?

The stories are written in advance and the dialogue is improvised by actors that Robert met while taking classes and hanging out at The Artistic Home theatre, as a way to give some serious actors with dramatic chops a chance to do comedy.

Production is by Hannah Welever (cinematography), Erin Turney (sound), and Erin Miller (production assistance). They are all very good at what they do and you should hire them if you need this sort of thing.

Want to hear about new episodes? Subscribe at:

A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity

This quote from Harold Pinter’s 2008 Nobel Prize lecture was quoted by Charlie Kaufman in the screenwriting speech I mentioned yesterday:

A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection – unless you lie – in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.