Thursday, January 24, 2013

How to Look Like an Amateur

Recently on the excellent Good in a Room blog, Stephanie Palmer did a post on how to avoid being seen as a rookie. The post was mostly related to pitching and much of it was advocating an online class she’s offering.* However it got me thinking about the various ways aspiring screenwriters expose themselves as rookies or amateurs. Here are a few of the ways I’ve observed that you could brand yourself as not professional:

You don’t know format, acceptable length, or standard style. Producers and development execs are fond of saying they’d buy a script written longhand on paper bags if it was good enough. They’re lying. There is so much material flooding the market they need ways to cull it down to a manageable amount. The first filter they use is, “Has the writer bothered to learn proper screenplay format, and for that matter Basic English?”

Professionals write scripts in the proper format. They know grammar and spelling. They deliver scripts in a length range that is suitable for production and appropriate for their genre. They know not to put camera direction in their scripts.

These are basic standards. If a writer hasn’t learned them, the assumption is they haven’t learned the bigger things like character development and structure. And they obviously haven’t worked professionally. You can learn these things from any number of books or blogs, and by reading a lot of screenplays – something professional screenwriters all do.

You only have one piece of material. “Writers write,” as the old saying goes. It’s nearly impossible to write a good screenplay on your first try. Quality writing takes practice. And to be a working professional requires a certain self-discipline and ability to finish. That means professionals will have a stack of sample scripts ready to show.

Maybe you’ve managed to write one great screenplay. Good for you – you’ll get attention. But if you show it to an agent, the first thing they’ll want is to see another one. If a producer likes it but can’t buy it for whatever reason (it might not have to do with quality – it could be budget or they have something else similar), they’ll want to see something else. At the very least you should be working on something that you can show them in a month or two. If you’ve only written one thing they will doubt your ability to produce consistent professional work.

You aren’t up on the business. Professional screenwriters understand they are entrepreneurs working inside a larger industry. They’ve educated themselves about that industry and keep up on the latest news.

Can you name the major studios? Do you know the difference between an agent and a manager? Do you know what movie topped the box office last weekend? Can you name the biggest hits from last year? Do you know the hot films at Sundance? Do you know what the latest big spec script sales were? Have you seen the latest hit films? At this time of year you should have seen most of the Oscar nominated films, too.

There are two reasons this is important. First, this is the kind of stuff likely to be discussed in meetings and you want to be able to participate in the conversation. Second, you don’t want to be in the embarrassing situation of pitching a story identical to the latest script sold or latest indie film sale. In the Internet age it isn’t hard to stay informed. You can read Deadline and subscribe to Done Deal. It’s also not a bad idea to subscribe to the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, or both.

You aren’t familiar with other work in your genre. If you write sci-fi you will be meeting with people who like sci-fi. They will talk about other films in the genre, as well as books, comic books, etc. Nobody can possibly see and read everything, but if you are unfamiliar with a lot of the things they reference, it marks you as someone who is out of the loop.

This is bad for a writer. You need to have familiarity with your genre so you don’t inadvertently write and pitch things that have already been done. Professionals know their genre.

You don’t behave like a professional. You’re not a team player. I’m using the term professional in this post to indicate writers who work fairly regularly. To work regularly in film you have to get along with other people. This means you dress and behave appropriately in meetings. It means you are on time. It means you are prepared. It means you can take script notes and discuss story changes without getting angry or defensive or bursting into tears.

Especially in the early phase of a business relationship, the person potentially hiring you will be looking for signs of whether you will be easy to work with. If you’re late to meetings it’s likely you can’t meet deadlines. If you’re unpleasant to be around, mercurial, a prima donna, then working with you will be a chore.

You don’t know how to pitch. Okay, pitching is hard and many professionals don’t do it well. But if you work regularly you will be asked to pitch a lot. Successful professionals will acquire at least a basic competence at telling a story verbally. And if you pitch well it will instantly create a sense of professionalism that might overcome a lack of experience.

You do too much razzle-dazzle and rely on gimmicks rather than talent. Breaking in is hard and staying in is just as hard. The competition is intense. Which leads writers to try to give themselves a leg up with gimmicks. This includes bringing outlandish props to a pitch or using unusual packaging to deliver a script. It also includes trying to hard sell or hard schmooze people.

This business requires a lot of selling and it’s useful to know some sales techniques, but ultimately you’ll succeed because you have talent and a solid work ethic. If a writer needs to resort to trickery it raises the suspicion that they may be trying to compensate for a lack of ability or effort. Professionals are adept at selling but they make sure their primary sales tool is quality work.

You stink of desperation. Again, this is a competitive business and nobody succeeds without a lot of failure and rejection along the way. The buyers know this but they also want to feel confident in you. They get worried if they get the sense you’re someone nobody else wants to work with. Even if you don’t have a lot of success to point to, you need to create the impression that you’re on the way up.

If you seem desperate they will shy away. You should have confidence in yourself and your material. You shouldn’t complain about how unfair the business is or how mean all the other buyers have been to you. Professionals are the opposite of failures, so if you project failure then you mark yourself as not a professional.

To a certain extent it doesn’t matter if someone sees you as a rookie. People love hot new talent in Hollywood. If you are young and unproduced, maybe fresh out of school, they will know you likely have a day job and aren’t hobnobbing with movie stars. And they won’t care – as long as you demonstrate the tools and attitude of a professional.

Film is a high risk/high reward business. Making films requires an enormous investment in time, money and politicking. The buyers want to have confidence that you will hold up your end. So it’s not that you’re trying to trick them into thinking you have experience you don’t have, it’s showing them you’re ready to take the next step – that you’ve done your homework and that you’re prepared.


*I don’t have any first hand knowledge of Ms. Palmer’s class but based on her experience and blog I suspect it would be valuable to anyone who wants to pitch better. Also, I am not in any way affiliated with Ms. Palmer or Good in a Room.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Setting the Scene

One of the first decisions you’ll be making when you start writing a scene is the location where it’s set. This will often be dictated by your story needs. But to the extent that you have some choice, there are a few things you should consider.

First, what will be visually interesting? We’re writing for film, remember. Maybe you have a scene of a girl telling her boyfriend she wants to break up. Initially you’ll probably think about setting this scene at one of their houses or at a restaurant. But wouldn’t it be more visually interesting if they were on a trail above a waterfall? Or in a mall? Or at an ice skating rink?

Second, the setting can enhance the dramatic or comedic elements of the scene. What if the break up was happening at church during a service? Or in front of a line of parents bringing their kids to sit on Santa’s lap at the mall? Or while they’re attending a wedding? You’ll get added mileage from the setting that will add to the dramatic conflict.

When writing description and action, it’s important to remember that you can only write what we can see and hear because film can only deliver visuals and audio. You can’t write smells or textures. You can’t say, “The room is hot and smells of rotten eggs” – how would the audience know that?

Similarly, you can’t tell us what a character is thinking or feeling. You can’t say, “Marcus enters, feeling frustrated by a long day at work and the fact his girlfriend didn’t return his call.” Again, how will the audience know that?

There is a bit of a grey area here. You could say, “Marcus enters looking frustrated.” My rule of thumb is if an actor can express it, I can write it. An actor can express frustrated. They can’t express “I had a long day at work” without some dialogue or behavior. If that fact is important, you better figure out a way to get it out in exposition.

Writing physical action like fight scenes, shootouts or car chases is a tricky balancing act. Imagine you have a fistfight in your story. Some writers will write out every blow, feint and stumble. Others will simply say, “They fight” and leave it to the stunt coordinator and director to sort things out – after all if the film gets produced that’s what will happen on set anyway.

I think the best approach is something between these two. You want to describe the action in enough detail to bring it alive for the reader, but not so much that it’s tedious and slows the pace. Here’s how I might write a fistfight:

Andy and Pete circle each other, fists clenched, feinting and testing each other.

Finally, Andy has had enough -- he makes his move, catching Pete with a thundering roundhouse.

But Pete barely staggers. And now they are both going at it, trading vicious blows, blood and bruises spreading across their faces.

Pete is bigger, stronger -- but Andy is faster and meaner. He keeps it going longer than he has any right to. In the end, though, Pete lands a blow straight on Andy’s nose.

Andy crumples to the ground, senseless.

There is a widespread – and not unfounded – belief that development execs and producers skip the action/description lines and only read the dialogue. I even once had an exec say she skipped the action scenes in my adventure script because, “all action scenes are pretty much alike.” She then went on to complain that the script felt “disjointed.”

This rather clueless exec aside, I think the best way to prevent people from skipping your action lines is by writing efficient and evocative description that contain valuable information. Any decent reader is going to read the action lines on the first couple pages. If what they read there is vital and entertaining, they’ll keep reading them. But if your description is bogged down with excessive and irrelevant detail, the temptation to start skipping or skimming is enormous. Remember, development execs, agents, managers and producers read dozens of scripts a week so they need to get through them quickly.

There’s another reason to be judicious. If you throw a bunch of detail at us, we might miss the important stuff. If you want us to know a character is married because she’s wearing a wedding ring, then you need to highlight that fact – say something like, “She absently fingers a wedding ring with a very large diamond.” And don’t bury that line in three paragraphs describing her appearance and clothing or we’ll likely miss it.

Another thing to consider is the use of camera direction – things like:

We cut to a close up of Sam’s face.

The camera tracks along with Megan as she rides her bike down the street.

Most of the time this is to be avoided. This is the realm of the director and cinematographer and they don’t like some writer telling them how to do their job. First of all, you’re probably not as good at determining shots as they are. Second, it’s too early to really know what the best shot is. You haven’t seen the actors rehearse and you don’t know the layout of the location. Also, bringing up the camera takes the reader out of the story and reminds them they are reading a screenplay.

There are exceptions when a very specific camera angle is crititical for telling the story. For example, when you are following the feet of a killer through a scene because you don’t want to reveal their identity yet. And you might come up with an awesome opening shot that sets the stage for the movie visually that’s so good it’s worth describing. But you should use these extremely sparingly.

Like most things in writing, the more specific you are, the better. You are painting a picture in the reader’s mind and creating a guide for the people who will produce the film. Don’t just say, “Sam climbs into his car,” say, “Sam climbs into his late model Mercedes E.” Or “Sam climbs into his rusty Ford Pinto.” It’s an important distinction, don’t you think?

Finally, most screenwriters have a rule of thumb: no more than four lines (not sentences) of description in a paragraph. You want to leave a lot of white space on the page so it reads easy.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Elf Analysis: Dramatizing the Internal

Back in December I was doing a series of posts on the movie Elf (written by David Berenbaum) when I was rudely interrupted by the end of the year and the need to post my best-written movies of 2012 list. I was not quite done with Elf yet, though, so let me return to it for a post or two.

One of the biggest challenges to screenwriters is dramatization, particularly of the internal journey of the characters. Good screenwriting follows the adage “show, don’t tell.” Bad screenwriting tells – or rather has the characters tell, describing their thoughts and feelings with on-the-nose and expositional dialogue.

Way back in December I talked about how Buddy’s arc in Elf is learning to accept himself as he is. One way to show an arc is to place the character in similar situations at the beginning of the movie and at the end and demonstrate how their reactions are different.

Buddy starts the movie at the North Pole feeling like he doesn't fit in with the other elves. Because of the premise of the story, this was pretty easy for Mr. Berenbaum and the filmmakers to dramatize. What is the difference between a human and an elf? Size, for one. We see Buddy being too big for the elf world – squeezed into a chair in a classroom, hunched over in a tiny shower, etc.

Mr. Berenbaum also came up with the idea that humans can’t make toys at the speed of the other elves. This is shown in a scene where Buddy confesses to his supervisor that he is way behind on his quota of Etch-a-Sketches that he’s making. (The bad version would have been for the elves to sit around and discuss how Buddy doesn’t fit in.)

In the climax of Buddy’s story, he’s given up hope when he encounters Santa who has crash-landed in Central Park. Santa needs Buddy – Buddy’s the only one who can fix Santa’s sleigh. It’s a notable change from Buddy’s failure with the Etch-a-Sketches in the opening. Buddy’s not a burden to the Santa enterprise, he’s a necessity.

We also see how Buddy’s unique place in the world (human raised by elves) saves the day because it turns out the repair isn’t enough. They’re going to need some Christmas spirit to power the sleigh. And that spirit comes from previously cynical people that Buddy has converted with his joy and enthusiasm.

Finally at the end of the film the filmmakers show Buddy and Jovie first singing with his human family, then visiting Papa Elf up in the North Pole with a new little baby. Buddy fits in – and not because he’s changed, but because he’s found his place in both worlds by being himself. In mythology terminology, Buddy is now Master of Both Worlds.

Walter’s internal journey is also well dramatized. Walter rejects Buddy repeatedly before finally accepting him at the end. But this is actually part of a bigger problem – Walter prioritizing work over family. And this is shown through dramatic scenes that force Walter to make choices. Choices are another great way of revealing character’s internal journey.

When Buddy first comes to visit Walter at work and says that he’s Walter’s son, Walter kicks him out. We later see that security has been told not to let Buddy back in. Walter does not even accept that Buddy is his son. Then at home we see Walter take his dinner and eat in his room because he has work to do. He chooses business over family.

Later, after Walter’s been forced to accept the truth, we get another business meeting where he makes a choice – the pitch from Miles Finch, the famed children’s book writer. Buddy and Miles get into a fight over Buddy’s misimpression that Miles is an elf and Miles’s sensitivity about his height. Walter takes a side – Miles’s side, telling Buddy to get out. Walter chooses business over family again.

But then later Walter is in another business meeting when Michael comes to tell him that Buddy has run away. Walter has to make a choice between work and family yet again. And his boss actually demands he choose work. But Walter refuses, leaving the meeting.

You have to lay the groundwork for this change of heart, of course. If a character simply behaves one way in one scene and another scene then they just seem inconsistent. But we believe Walter’s change because we’ve seen him become aware of his failures with his family over the course of the film. When he kicked Buddy out after the meeting with Miles, Walter felt bad. When Michael accuses Walter of only caring about himself, we understand why Walter finally shifts his priorities.

I mentioned in a previous post that Walter has to prove his acceptance of Buddy by singing a Christmas carol at the end of the movie. This is a great demonstration of his change of heart. And in fact singing is a device layered throughout the film to reveal both Walter’s and Jovie’s arcs. Let’s look at how this is done in more detail.

Singing is first planted in the opening scenes of the movie. When Buddy is in elf class, he is taught: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” We also learn that Santa’s sleigh is powered by Christmas spirit (augmented by a jet engine). This is an important plant that will come back later.

We get an additional little reference to singing when Buddy first visits Walter and Walter thinks he’s there to deliver a singing telegram. Mostly this scene just shows Buddy’s willingness to sing. But then he goes to Gimbles and meets Jovie. She’s grumpy so he suggests they sing a carol. Jovie says she doesn’t sing, especially in front of other people – another very important plant.

The singing device pays off when Buddy overhears Jovie singing in the shower and joins in on the duet – and Jovie yells at him. This both reinforces Jovie’s shyness about singing and creates a connection between the two characters through song.

Finally, we reach the climactic scene. Santa’s sleigh is struggling to take off in Central Park because Christmas spirit is at an all time low (and this makes total sense to us because it was planted in the opening.) Jovie hears this and remembers Buddy’s advice: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” (paying off the opening plant). She climbs up above the crowd and begins singing.

We know what this means because we know she’s shy about singing in front of other people. We’ve also seen that she was cynical about Christmas at the start of the movie and that she was charmed by Buddy’s enthusiasm for Christmas trees on their date. So when she sings we know that she’s overcome her cynicism.

But wait! They get even more mileage out of the singing device – because Walter’s there, too. And when the crowd starts singing, Michael notices that Walter is just mouthing the words. Finally Walter joins in – and Santa’s sleigh flies. The ending is powerful and emotional and yet nobody is talking about their feelings. They are taking actions that demonstrate those feelings.

I tracked this out to demonstrate several things. First, it’s important to find devices like singing that can be used to illustrate the characters’ internal feelings. Second, it shows how useful planting and payoff are – everything comes together in the final scene because it’s been carefully set up from the very beginning of the movie. I don’t know, but I’d guess that the opening plants were added after the filmmakers figured out what they needed for the ending. Finally, notice how these plants and payoffs pull us through the story, providing forward momentum and a sense of cohesiveness.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Best Written Movies of 2012

It’s time for my best written movies of the year list. Sorting through the choices, a couple of things stand out. First of all, this was really a pretty strong year for screenwriting – particularly when compared to last year. I think only The Descendents (screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) from last year would definitely have made my top ten this year.

Second, there don’t appear to be any movies that are candidates for classic status – films that will be lauded and referenced in years to come (possibly excepting The Avengers, but that would be because of its unique role in tying together Marvell’s multi-franchise film world approach. On it’s own terms it’s just an above-average team adventure movie).

However, the bench on quality is deep this year. Normally there’s a big drop from my number five to my number ten film, but this year the gap between five and fifteen is minimal. So lots of worthy entertainment for your ticket dollar, but not much that was genuinely life changing.

Anyway, on with the list! I have to give my usual disclaimers: This is the list of what I think are the best written movies, which is not the same as the movies I liked the best. Also, though I watch a lot of movies, I haven’t seen everything. So obviously if I didn’t see something it’s not on this list. And remember, this is my list… if you don’t like it you can make your own (also feel free to comment but please be polite)!

1. Argo (written by Chris Terrio) – Tense, edge-of-your-seat suspense plus a healthy dose of humor and rich, efficiently drawn characters. A great ride that also feels moderately important.

2. Django Unchained (written by Quentin Tarantino) – Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction is also one of his most straightforward stories. It has a lot of the best of Tarantino – rich characters, witty dialogue, tense scenes, fun action and style – with very little of the worst – pointless digression and pacing problems. Its terrific fun from a filmmaker with a real voice.

3. Robot & Frank (written by Christopher D. Ford) – Great because of a complex, lovable main character and his complex, lovable robot. Also has some genuine twists and a powerful emotional message… not to mention quite a few laughs!

4. Looper (written by Rian Johnson) – Both a tight sci-fi thriller and thought provoking meditation on good and evil, aging, and the need for human connection. Plus some mind-bending ideas about time and time travel. Engages on the intellectual, emotional and visceral level.

5. Wreck It Ralph (story by Rich Moore & Phil Johnston & Jim Reardon, screenplay by Phil Johnston & Jennifer Lee) – Two of the most charming and tragic characters of the year in Ralph and Vanellope. Plus, tons of humor and sly nostalgic beats for the video game generation.

6. Life of Pi (screenplay by David Magee) – Thoroughly engaging despite a high degree of difficulty (the character is alone in a small space through most of the story). Probably the most spiritually thought provoking movie this year. A little difficult to rank because so much of its power comes from the visuals rather than the script, but there are no big flaws I can see in the writing.

7. Silver Linings Playbook (screenplay by David O. Russell) – A fairly standard romantic comedy structure enlivened by complex and original characters and a powerful thematic undercurrent about mental illness. Takes a little longer than it should to get going, but delivers a great, emotionally satisfying ending. And, it’s pretty funny.

8. Lincoln (screenplay by Tony Kushner) – Another thought provoking film with enough emotional content to keep us engaged. I love the intimate look we’re given of Lincoln the man. Bonus points for high degree of difficulty given the relatively dry nature of how the conflict unfolds.

9. Cloud Atlas (written for the screen by Lana Wachowski & Tom Tykwer & Andy Wachowski) – This one may surprise some people. I would remind you this is a list of best written movies. The film stumbled from some unfortunate make-up and an unconvincing delivery of the pidgin language, but that was not the screenplay’s fault. The writing craft here is rock solid and thematically ambitious. Characters are well drawn and the action is tense and engaging. An interesting, flawed film, but a really good script.

10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (screenplay by Lucy Alibar & Behn Zeitlin) – This choice is also a little problematic as I felt the story was stretched a bit to fit a feature running time. But it’s also one of the most distinctive and original films in a year that didn’t have enough that was distinctive and original. Makes the list for its voice and for capturing the specific world of a little girl in an unusual society.

As I mentioned, there were a lot of other very well written films this year that might make this list were I in a different mood when compiling it, so I’m going to list eight Honorable Mentions in no particular order: The Avengers (story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, screenplay by Joss Whedon), Ted (story by Seth MacFarlane, screenplay by Seth MacFarlane & Alec Sulkin & Wellesley Wild), Zero Dark Thirty (written by Mark Boal), The Hunger Games (written by Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray), Skyfall (written by Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and John Logan), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (screenplay by Stephen Chbosky), Celeste and Jesse Forever (screenplay by Rashida Jones & Will McCormack), and Flight (written by John Gatins)

And for my Worst Written Film of the Year: Prometheus (written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) – A bunch of logic holes, one-dimensional characters and pseudo-intellectual claptrap trying to pass itself off as profound.

Dishonorable mention: The Bourne Legacy (story by Tony Gilroy, screenplay by Tony Gilroy & Dan Gilroy) – elevated exposition above action and character in one of the least thrilling thrillers ever.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

On Resolutions and Writing Habits

I have more to say on my in-depth analysis of Elf, but with the new year upon us tradition demands I take a break to post on a couple of other topics (I’ll return to Elf in a week or two). One of those topics is my Best Written Films list, which will be my next post. Today I want to discuss the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions and the broader topic of writing goals and habits.

Habit is a powerful force, one that can work for you or against you. For example, I try to exercise five times a week. When I’m in that routine it isn’t hard to get motivated to go to the gym or for a run. In fact I get frustrated and grumpy if I miss a workout. But if that habit is interrupted for any length of time – by illness or travel, say – then I find it takes a great deal of willpower to get off the couch and back to the gym afterward.

The good news is we can change our habits with a little effort.

Most writers write at a certain time of day – this is a habit. Some get up at 4 am and write before their family wakes up. I usually do two writing sessions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – when my schedule allows. I have difficulty writing at night. I just can’t seem to focus and my motivation is weak. But it wasn’t always like that.

I remember having lunch with one of my college screenwriting professors a few years after I graduated. I told him I had completed three new specs in the previous year, all while working a full time day job. He was amazed and asked about my writing habits. I told him I made it a point to write for a minimum of an hour every day after I got home from work, no matter how tired I was. I didn’t require that I produce a lot or that it was any good, just that I sat at the computer for an hour. And those hours added up.

He didn’t think that would work for him – it usually took him several hours just to get up to speed. As a result he only wrote on weekends when his teaching responsibilities didn’t interfere. I suggested that perhaps the reason it took him several hours to get up to speed was because he only wrote on weekends. I felt my daily habit kept momentum going so I didn’t need so much warm up.

I don’t know if he tried my technique or if it worked for him – I believe different writers function best with different habits. But obviously I was productive and he felt he wasn’t, so he probably needed to make some kind of change to his habit.

A few years ago I realized I had developed a bad habit. I was wasting way too much time playing computer solitaire. So I made a rule that I could play three games of solitaire and then I had to start writing. Now it’s become almost like a superstision. And by the time I finish my third game, I’m excited to get to my script.

I’ve recently learned this is a common habit-building technique known as a “trigger.” It’s basically the Pavlov’s dog approach. Give yourself an easy, unthreatening routine that you perform just before the activity you want to make a habit. After a while, your subconscious will associate the two. So if you always make a pot of coffee before sitting down to write, making a pot of coffee will signal your brain to switch to “writing mode.” Most people find it easier to start making a pot of coffee than to start writing, so it eases you in.

I like to make New Year’s Resolutions, both personal and professional. It’s hard to make resolutions for the whole year, though. For one thing, by April I’ve forgotten all about the resolutions. Plus, it’s hard to know what will be the best thing to be doing in December. If I resolve to write three specs what happens if I get an assignment or maybe get inspired to write a novel? Of course I can change my resolutions and nobody will care in the slightest, but doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?

So though I do pick a few broad goals for the year, they are usually related more to improving my habits than achieving specific milestones. And, I’ve started making monthly resolutions (another idea I’ve discovered is not particularly original). Those have turned out to be far more valuable.

It’s a lot easier to focus on improving one thing for a month than sticking to several things for a year. And studies have shown it takes about three weeks of repetition for something to become a habit. So if, for example, you resolve to make one networking call or email per day in January, by February you won’t need a resolution to continue the practice because it will have become a habit.

I’ve gotten into the bad habit of spending the first hour or so of my day reading blogs, returning emails and checking Facebook. Nothing wrong with any of that per se, but I long ago realized I’m at my most creative and productive when I’m most rested. That means I’m using the best part of my day for tasks that don’t require much mental power.

So my January 2013 resolution is to spend at least the first thirty minutes of my day doing “idea development.” I’ll take some potential project and brainstorm or do character development or noodle with an outline. I’ll spend my most creative and productive time doing tasks that require the most creative energy. Facebook and blog reading can wait until I’m worn out.

I can’t tell you what your resolutions should be, of course. But I will suggest a few things that might spark some ideas. Obviously you could resolve to change a writing habit, as I did. You could also resolve to improve some business habit – make a daily networking outreach, enter a certain number of writing contests, more regularly follow industry news, practice pitching every day, etc.

Or you could make an educational resolution. A writer friend of mine once resolved to “master character development.” That’s a little amorphous for me, but you could take a class and resolve to listen carefully to the feedback. Or read a book that addresses a particular weakness. Or work on spelling and grammar.

You could try to improve a creative habit. I used to write my first drafts very quickly and as a result most of my scenes were underdeveloped. Then years ago I started making it a point to stop at the beginning of every scene and think through what the scene was about, what the characters wanted, and what I could do to really develop the scene in an unexpected way. As a result, my first drafts got a lot better. You might resolve to write dialogue that’s more reflective of character or to avoid clichés or whatever your personal creative weakness is.

And whatever you resolve, I wish you good luck with it!