Wednesday, March 28, 2012

John Vorhaus: Author, Producer, Screenwriter Shows a Winning Hand

How do you interview a guy who's jumped out of planes, written for the Los Angeles Times, been multi-published in multi-genres, and says of himself:
  • I’ve taken psychedelic drugs.
  • I’ve seen Stonehenge.
  • Not on the same day.
  • I played in a women’s poker tournament, in drag. Made the final table, too.
  • I’ve worked as a mime, a ventriloquist, a jester, Santa Claus on stilts, and a pretty crap juggler.

I knew not where to begin, but I jumped in anyway.  So here's what else John Vorhaus had to say for himself, when I began asking questions.

Poker. Fiction. Comedy Writing.  Is there any subject or genre (teen vampire romance?) that you’ve tried to write and failed?

I keep trying to write a great hard-boiled mystery/thriller with lots of dead bodies flying around, but I just can't bring myself to kill with relish, which is what I think that genre requires. Meanwhile, I've tried and failed to write many things within my own genres (sunshine noir, snarky comedy, pop philosophy, how to). My hard drive is filled with projects that have crashed and burned. Every self-respecting writer's is, IMO.

How do you pick what you’re going to write next?  For a beginning writer, would you advise sticking to one project until it is done, or switching back and forth between two or three?

Sometimes I'm writing what's next on my to-do list -- and more and more these days I'm playing catch-up with a longish to-do list. But when I reach that blessed place where the only thing to write next is... whatever comes next, then I just listen carefully for the muse, and write what she whispers in my ear. I very strongly recommend having more than one project going on at once, for several reasons.

First, your projects learn from one another; discoveries you make over here are discoveries you can apply over there. Second, if you get stalled on one project, you have some place to turn other than "I suck" despair. Third, when your brain gets worn out from a long day of, say, writing dialogue, it still has energy to apply to a different sort of creative problem, for example developing a story. These tasks engage different parts of the brain, and thus extend a writer's daily window of productivity.

What genre or authors do you like to read for pleasure and/or developing your own skill set?

I read tons of non-fiction, just for fun and for learning. I'm a history buff. I adore anything by Bill Bryson, and learn by studying his airy, unforced prose. On the fiction side, I'm not too interested in reading "literature." I want my fiction reading to be easy and fun. A novel is meant to be a ride, and if I don't feel like I'm being taken along on a good ride, I tend to put the book down.

I met you at a writers’ group called AWG, then more recently online via Writer Unboxed.  You’ll be speaking again at AWG in Glendale (California) on April 7.  Why do you think writers groups are important, and is there such a thing as belonging to too many groups?

Writers groups serve a text purpose and a subtext purpose, both important. On the text level, there is so much to learn about writing that working with others engaged in the same effort is always a fruitful way to spend time. On the subtext level, we writers always want to know that we're not out there all alone, lost in solo suffering. Writers groups send the strong message that "You are not alone," and that, too, is always good. I don't think you can belong to too many groups unless you fully substitute being in groups for actual writing. As I've always said, improving as a writer is easy: If you want to get better, write more. If you want to get a lot better, write a lot more. That'll happen whether you interface with writing groups or not, but it WON'T happen if you just talk about writing without actually doing it.

Platform is the new buzzword for writers.  We know you need some kind of online presence if you want to be taken seriously as a novelist or a non-fiction author, but what about screenwriters? Would having a platform help their careers - and if so, where would you advise starting - website, blog, Twitter?

I don't think having a platform would be all that helpful to a screenwriter. The purpose of the platform (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) is to create a bridge between writer and reader (buyer). But that's a mass-market kind of thing. Your public space wouldn't attract enough of the right kind of screenplay buyer (producer, agent, studio) to be all that worthwhile -- nor would it necessarily tell them that you have the right stuff. Then again, I'm such a huge fan of "going off in all directions at once," I would never discourage anyone from having a public presence, because you never know when your market will shift and you want to reach out to consumers directly.

[Bev here: Might be useful for screenwriters to start with Twitter. Some screenwriters have leveraged it for success, and at the very least, by Following various people in the industry, you'll be updated on what's trending.  It would be difficult, IMO, to write a contemporary script without some hands-on knowledge of social media.]

What’s your personal time split - how much time do you spend writing, and how much time on platform/networking/promotional stuff?  Do you consider time spent playing poker to be fun or Research?

Time spent playing poker is fun. It's only research when I'm working on a new poker book; but really, if I call that research, I'm glorifying the term. Poker is how I unwind from writing. As to how I split my time, like almost every writer I know, I spend too little time on promotion, and too much time feeling guilty about that. The thing I love -- my drug -- is putting words on the page. The rest is just a necessary evil. However, you could look at it this way: No matter what your job is, you don't get to do only the fun part. Consider a baseball player. They love to play the game, yet even the most successful ones take batting practice and fielding practice every day. That's not the fun part, but it's necessary. Generally I devote Mondays to promo because, what the hell, it's Monday and it's not going to get any better anyhow. Also, if I run around in my writing (as I often do), I know that I can still be productive by devoting some time to promo.

Musing further, I realize that part of my daily habit is posting something new to Twitter and FB every day, first thing in the morning. For the past six months, I've been doing stuntwords: words of my own creation and definition. For instance, today's stuntword is MEGAHURTS: what a megakick in the meganuts does. I think my followers (@TrueFactBarFact on Twitter and John Vorhaus on Facebook) appreciate the daily hit of creativity, so much so that they'll then sit still for the endless links to my books that I throw in.

You travel to many different countries, like Bulgaria, Norway, Jamaica, to teach and consult.  Americans have borrowed a lot of comedy from the UK - is there anything we could or should be stealing from other countries?  Is there anything that surprised you - something that Romanians, say, think is hilarious, that absolutely would not go over well in the US?

One thing I've noticed and appreciated is how the mere act of translating a phrase from one language to another can make it seem fresh and new. There's a French expression, for example, that translates into English as "The train of your sarcasm rides upon the rails of my indifference." If I use that line, I will sound terribly clever, but really all I've done is poached a translation.

I've also noticed that many writers in many countries are terribly self-conscious about being writers. They don't think they have the right to take a stand with their work, tell other people what to do and think. Well, I think that this is not just the writer's right but obligation, so I'm constantly encouraging them to rise up, step out, and FAIL BIG! We Americans find this concept easier to grasp, because we've been taught from an early age to try to get the things we want. Maybe it's an entitlement thing or a Manifest Destiny thing, but Americans are less afraid to go for it than the people of many countries I've visited. However, writers do feel fear, regardless of nationality. To writers who feel fear, I would say... FAIL BIG. That's a mighty liberating attitude to have.

Your latest book is the little book of Sitcom.  I don’t write sitcoms, I write [drama; fiction; paranormal romance; poetry; thrillers].  Why would I want to buy this book?
Well, because it has something to teach you dramatic (not just comic) story and scene structure. Are you aware that every scene has a  pivot? The pivot is the new piece of information that triggers a change in emotional state, and it divides the scene into three parts: pre-pivot, pivot, and post-pivot. Say a guy is out having drinks with his buddies. He's having a good time; he's happy. Then he sees his girlfriend on a date with another man. That's the pivot, the new piece of information that triggers a change in emotional state. After the pivot, he is angry and concerned. The pivot tells you what the scene is about, and that is true of comic scenes and dramatic scenes alike.

Not for nothing, you'll also learn how to have an effective practice of writing, use logical tools to solve knotty creative problems, and oh by the way obliterate writer's block forever. At $5.99 at the little book of SITCOM, I think that's kind of a steal.

What question have you never been asked, that you always wanted to answer?
What's an apostrophe catastrophe? An apostrophe catastrophe is a big grammar failure and one of my absolute pet peeves. Consider the phrase, "PUNKS NOT DEAD." Well, how many punks? If it's more than one punk, then there's a word missing. It should be PUNKS ARE NOT DEAD. And if it's punk, the concept, then the apostrophe is missing, and that's just an apostrophe catastrophe. Here's another one I saw last week: "It looked at it's self in the mirror." That sort of usage makes me want to slit my wrists, yet at the same time I celebrate such unintended fails and even, I confess, collect them.

John Vorhaus is best known as the author of The Comic Toolbox: How to be Funny Even if You’re Not.  This seminal book on writing comedy for television and film is now available in four languages, and continues to be a definitive source of information and inspiration for writers from Santa Monica to Scandinavia.

An international consultant in television and film script development, Vorhaus has worked for television networks, film schools, and production companies in 30 countries on four continents, including half-year stints in Romania and, God help him, Russia in winter. He has traveled regularly to Nicaragua, where he helped build a social-action drama designed to teach the young people of Nicaragua to “think for themselves and practice safe sex.”

I did mention he's speaking in Glendale, California, on April 7, right? Which means that while you are welcome to leave a comment and ask John any question you like, right here (and I hope you do), you can also, if you're in the Los Angeles area, come to the AWG meeting and ask him questions in person, for FREE!  Have him autograph his books for you.  Rub his pretty head for luck.

(Okay, I am not actually sure that last would be cool with him.  Maybe you should ask first.)

But, you can meet John Vorhaus.  And I can tell you, you will be entertained, and enlightened.

Got questions (or thoughts to share), now?
Please do.

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