The Thing About Discipline Is…

“In the great artist you see daring bound by discipline and discipline stretched by daring.”

Robert Brault, operatic tenor

It’s not about discipline at all.

It’s all about balance.

All the elements discussed in these pages can be boiled down to two vital factors.  The first is passion.  How to foster it.  How to bond with it.  How to harness, utilize, grasp, understand, and eventually, in those magical moments…

Transcend.

The second is this.  Not discipline.  But balance.

The problem with passion is that it is rises at the very heart of self-identity.  Self-expression.

And this can lead to self-absorption.  The unacknowledged assumption of too many artists that they stand at the center of their own universe.

Balance.  Balance is the key. Read more

Clarity Part Two: A New Take On An Old Word

“All of our actions take their hue from the complexion of the heart, as landscapes their variety from light…Very vew people have a natural feeling for painting, and so, of course, they naturally think that painting is an expression of the artist’s mood.  But it rarely is.  Very often he may be in greatest despair and be painting his happiest painting.”

Francis Bacon

With the onset of postmodernism, a new dirty word has entered the English language.

Emotion.

The highbrow artist may scorn it.  The intellectuals might dismiss it out of hand.  Too many critics may decry it as passé.  But there is one thing they ignore at their peril.

The audience still craves that emotional hook.

If you are aiming for a profession in commercial art, you had best pay careful attention to what your audience wants.

So how to do this.  Well, for starters, you need to be honest with yourself.  Emotions can be faked in the short term.  But over time, a false emotional tone to your artistic work becomes just another word for prostitution. Read more

Clarity Part One: The Eternal Question

The question, ‘What is the movie about?’ will be asked over and over and over again.  I work from the inside out.  What the movie is about will determine how it will be cast, how it will look, how it will be edited, how it will be musically scored, how it will be mixed, how the titles will look, and, with a good studio, how it will be released.  What it’s about will determine how it is to be made.”

Sidney Lumet, Academy Award-winning producer and director

For over fifteen years, Nicholas Burgess-Jones was the premier music-video producer in all of Europe.  He gave Guy Ritchie his start as director.  With offices in Los Angeles and London, he has worked with many of the world’s biggest acts, right across the music spectrum, from Barry Manilow to Boy George.  He is constantly asked to gauge the potential success of new acts and new sounds.  And for him, it all comes down to one question.

Is there a purity of direction.

Make no mistake.  He is not saying, a particular direction.  He wants to know, has the group arrived at a point where they are focused upon one specific compass heading.  Any direction can conceivably work.  So long as it is just one.

Regardless of our artistic medium, when it comes to bonding with our audience we all share one common trait. Read more

You Can Never Tell

“I’ve been able to work for so long because I think next time, I’ll finally make something good.”
Akira Kurosawa, film producer and director

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Last week my younger brother and his wife sold their Raleigh home, where they raised their three beautiful children, and moved to another state where he is beginning a new job.  In the midst of this hectic and somewhat traumatic period, his wife came upon one of my earliest manuscripts.  It was entitled The Quilt, and this is its story.

Twenty-seven years ago, my mother’s mother started work on a quilt for us as a wedding present.  But then she had her stroke, and sewing became impossible.  Someone from her home town of Smithfield heard about this, and volunteered to help.  Over the next several months my grandmother’s last work was passed from one quilting group to another, until it was finished and sent to us three weeks after our wedding.

When the gift arrived in Germany and Isabella started to open the box, I told her she had to stop, there was such an intense feeling of having my grandmother there in the room with us.  I wanted to capture this on the page.  I took the unopened box into my study, and spent the next six weeks writing the story.  Only when The Quilt was finished did I let Isabella see our wedding gift.

We had to postpone our honeymoon because we were both working on very tight schedules.  Three months later, we flew first to Minneapolis and met with the publishers of my first book.  Then we flew to Hawaii. Read more

Moving from Dream to Deal

“I have never worked a day in my life without selling. If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard.”
Estée Lauder

“People don’t ask for facts in making up their minds. They would rather have one good, soul-satisfying emotion than a dozen facts.”
Robert Keith Leavit

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This is a love letter to all you writers.  Everyone else, please bear with me.

Writing an overview has proven time and time again to be a challenge that stumps even the most experienced of writers. How do you take this massive story that you’ve built and condense it down to a page? While is it important to give an accurate summation of your story, it is also important to sell your story.

Somewhere out there is an author for whom writing a commercial overview is a piece of cake. They sit down, the concept is hovering in the air over their computer, they type it out, done and dusted. I haven’t met them, but I’m sure they exist. If you happen to be that lone individual, I’d advise you not to tell other authors. Your end will be swift and certain.

For the rest of us, the story overview is a beast.

You have all these ideas that are swarming around in your head. You have a huge cast of characters, a growing storm of events, and three or four hundred pages later, you’ve created a fabulous tale.

Then comes the hard part.

How on earth do you distill all this down to one page? How can you tell your story in just a few paragraphs, create in that tiny space a vision that is so compelling the gatekeepers will fall over themselves in their haste to offer you a publishing contract, a film deal, the keys to the kingdom, whatever?

After twenty-five years as a published author, the simple answer is, it doesn’t come easy.  For my latest story, entitled Miramar Bay, I worked on the overview for seven weeks.  All through the initial phase of shaping the characters and the story, I returned over and over to this daunting task.  I knew I had something great here.  The challenge was, creating an overview that made other people feel the same way.

I am going to offer you a few simple steps that will help deconstruct the project, and hopefully guide you towards a synopsis that is magnetic in its appeal.

Do This Now:

  • Start with the question, so what’s your story about? Imagine you are seated in a television studio.  The cameras swish around on silent rubber wheels.  The lights are intense and aimed at you.  The much-loved interviewer shows you that world-famous smile, and then asks you that question.  What is your story about?

How do you respond? You have the live audience on the other side of the camera,  and they’re genuinely eager for you to tell them what they’re going to go out and buy the very next day.

Write out what you would say.  Limit yourself to just one paragraph.

Then set it aside.

  • Accept that it is a gradual process. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this first effort is going to be your finished project. Creating the winning overview is done through trial and error. A few days later, write your first paragraph again.

Keep a notebook just for the overview. If you’re like me, most of these early attempts are not going to fit. But gradually you come to terms with the key element to the successful overview, which is:

  • Your job is not to tell your story. Your goal is to SELL your story. At some point there will come that moment when you discover the amazing concept, the emotional foundation that fuels your quest to write this story. When that happens…
  • Focus on that silver thread. Usually this emotional punch will help you identify the key plot line and characters that drive the story. The entire overview must center upon this one element. This time, when you write the paragraph, you will discover that the entire concept is real in a new sense. The paragraph that results is often called the story’s hook.
  • Begin with the hook, end with the climax. Gradually you develop a story concept that was not there before. As a result, you will often perceive your story’s climax in a new light. Write this final paragraph next. Remember, you are not entering into a contract. You are not required to actually keep this climax. You are selling.
  • Develop a log-line. The log-line is a Hollywood term, signifying the one sentence or even just a phrase that shouts to the world: This is unique, this is great, come join me on this amazing ride. At some point during the writing of my overview, I will go to the movies and walk down the line of posters for coming attractions. I visualize my story up there as a poster, and sketch out ideas for what this log-line might be. My goal is to come up with two, and I place one at the beginning and another at the end of my overview. These help the editor sell the story to the pub board, and the sales staff place your book with buyers. Oftentimes they also appear on the book’s back cover.
  • Polish and distill. Only at this point do I begin to concern myself with length. Because I want my overview to work with Hollywood, I must limit myself to one page. It is very rare for anything longer to be considered by senior executives.       If an overview gets that far up the food chain, a junior exec will trim the longer structures. I much prefer to do that myself.

A final bit of advice: Refrain from speaking with anyone about your work until your overview is complete.

This serves two purposes. First, you have created a commercial structure, and that is what outside readers are really all about. They respond to your project, not to the tender seed of creative fire that exists at heart level.

Second, you now have a means by which you can present your story in a brief and concise fashion. When someone asks what the story is about, you actually know what to say.

I wish you every triumph in making a winning transition from creative project to commercial success.

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Davis Bunn’s next novel MIRAMAR BAY comes out March 28th 2017. Don’t forget to order your copy today!

The Day after The Day

“Each of us have moments when we are swept away by an inner sense of excitement about something we are doing or want to do.  In this state, whatever we are working on seems to come alive with significance and even necessity, and our contribution seems to validate who we are or, perhaps more accurately, who we can be.”
Martha Graham, dancer and choreographer

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Say you have a truly perfect day.

Your art sings with such passionate ease you feel it flowing with your breath.  Time becomes a measurement applied to mere mortals.  You become genuinely united with the creative moment.  The heavens open, the angels descend, and they sing with you.  It is, in a word, glorious.

Then there is the next day.

Because you have returned to the mortal realm, your first temptation is to review the previous day’s work.  But let’s be perfectly honest here.  You’re not doing this because you actually want to change anything.

You’re after a cheap high.

You want to feel that same incredible union, without the blood and sweat and tears.

But then you realize that the product of your intense experience is not quite perfect.  What you created has a flaw.  You pluck at this tiny imperfect strand, and gradually all the glorious emotional impact fades away.

And you doubt it ever happened.  You become tempted to dismiss the entire experience as a passing illusion.

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There is a scene in my upcoming release, Miramar Bay, where scene when Connor goes racing off on his motorcycle in the dark with the headlights off.  How I happened to write it goes like this:

I was at the end of a very long day.  Tired, strung out, a lot going on, and I was running away from two half-finished scenes that I simply could not get right.  So I went to the gym.  And there in the middle of my workout, Connor talked to me.

It was just so incredible, hearing this guy confess his deepest secret.  I felt so moved.  I borrowed a pen and pad from the gym’s manager and scribbled out the entire scene, like I was listening to Connor confess.  Broken, afraid, totally uncertain as to what he should do next.  But it was this moment that propelled him to do what he did.  Take the midnight bus to Miramar Bay.

Connor raced bikes.  His own ride of choice was the fastest street-legal bike in the world, a Ducatti.  And while Connor had been rising up the impossible glass mountain of LA fame, his escape had been rides through desert hideaways with outlaw buddies.

But that night Connor had been alone.

He pushed his bike up the desert cliffs north of Palm Springs, one switchback after another, and did so with his lights off.  The motor screaming, his blood pumping, illuminated by the moon.  Why?

Because he did not care whether he lived or he died.

That was the confession he shared with me.  I wrote it down, and when I was finished, I felt as though I had been given an incredible gift by a guy who was a lot better, and far greater, than he gave himself credit for.

Welcome to Miramar Bay.

So why am I sharing this with you?

Because of the next day.

When I sat down at my desk, I faced the same quandary as I had before I left for the gym.  The same two unfinished scenes.  The same imperfect structure that I had to get right.  The same doubts, the same fears, the same…

Do This Now:

  • The issue here is not inviting the next moment of unbridled inspiration.  The key element, the crux to arriving at the point when inspiration happens, is this:  Work through the hours of drudgery. 
  • You need to fashion a means of maintaining this discipline when the hour is hardest.  Not when it comes easy.  You must do this.  You must.
  • For myself, the answer has come through not allowing myself to reread what I have written until the first draft is completed.  I want to go back.  I hunger to see what I am creating.  But I don’t give in.  I can’t, and maintain my daily productivity, my drive. 
  • You must design your own method for making it through the slog.  I suggest you start with my concept, and hold to it until you fashion your own. 
  • Whatever it is, however you make this work, consider this one of the most vital steps you will take as an artist.
  • Do this now.

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Davis Bunn’s next novel MIRAMAR BAY comes out March 28th 2017. Don’t forget to order your copy today!

Dealing With Fear

“We promise according to our hopes, and perform according to our fears.”
Rochefoucauld

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You have every reason to be afraid.  In fact, if you’re not scared, you’re probably nuts.

Of course, some of us would say that being monumentally skewed is helpful to becoming a successful artist.

For those of us burdened with sanity, we have to learn how to deal with our fears.

Thankfully, there’s a lot of that going around.

You would think that after a while this whole fear thing fades into the background.  And maybe for some people that happens.  But for myself, and I think for a lot of other artists as well, this is the truth behind the mask:

So long as we keep growing, so long as we delve deeper into the creative potential, we are going to face the dark lonely hour of fearing we’ve gotten it all wrong.

When I started work on my current release, entitled Miramar Bay, I had three very real bugaboos staring me in the face.  It was sort of like returning to that childhood era of waking up and just knowing there was a monster under my bed.  Only in this case, I knew it was there because I had made them. Read more

The Rewards Factor

However rich or elevated, a nameless something
is always wanting to our imperfect fortune.
Horace                      

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When we think about being rewarded for our creative efforts, our thoughts immediately turn to the other.  The outside world.  How the critics will respond.  Whether a publisher will offer a contract.  A film studio buy your work.  An agent sign you up.  A gallery give you that first show.  A producer or director recognize your acting abilities.  A major label…

Really?  You want to put your creative life in their hands?  After all they’ve done to you and your dreams?

Because that is basically what you’re doing, if you wait on them to reward you.

Here are two reasons from personal experience to take a different approach.  The first comes under the heading of, too late to matter.  As in, if I had waited for the first contract to reward myself, I would have quit years before it happened.

The second is a little more complicated.  But even more important.  As I’ve said earlier, my seventh completed work was my first to receive a publishing contract.  But the break did happen, and the offer did appear, and the dream did come true.

Sort of.

The publishers who offered me my first contract thought the story had the potential to become a hit.  But their premier in-house line editor was out with a family emergency.  So they decided to hire an outsider.  The line editor is the specialist who goes through a manuscript, as the title suggests, line by line.  Making sure the style remains constant, grammar is just so, characters remain exactly the same, cities are correctly described, and so forth.  The line editor they chose to work with was one of the best in the business.  Several of the biggest names on the New York Times bestsellers’ list demanded that she handle their work. Read more

The Great Divide

Two opposing laws seem to be in contest.  Which law will prevail, only God knows.  But of this we may be sure—that science will obey the law of humanity, and will always labour to enlarge the frontiers of life.
Louis Pasteur                          

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Among the principals to building a creative life, this one stands alone.  For all the others, whether you apply them or not really is a question of direction and character and your own personal strengths.  This lone concept is what I would urge you to do, regardless of how it might seem at first.  Try this.  See if it works for you as it has for me.

All creative professions reach a point where the divide must be crossed.  You leave behind the creative act, and you enter the commercial realm.  What is absolutely vital is to recognize this, and define it, and do your utmost to keep the two separate.

The creative arts are driven by one set of principals.  The commercial world is bound by a totally different set of laws.

They feed upon one another.  They require each other.  The existence of both are intertwined.

But maintaining a clear mental and emotional separation between them is vital to heightening your creative drive. Read more

Rising Up

“When the moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss.”
Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago

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There are moments in every artist’s life when cause and effect simply do not apply.  Life ceases its disorderly flow, and the creative process becomes an open door to a higher level of existence.  Part of what draws us to the creative realm are these moments when we become free in a sense that only the artist can experience.

The question is, how to make room for more such events.

There are three stages to this process.  First comes acceptance.  Doubt and struggle and the wracking discomfort of enforced change are all vital elements.  They must be acknowledged, worked through, and then set aside.  Time and space must be made for these exertions.  For myself, this requirement is met in my sketchpads.  I face my own weaknesses, I confront all I do not know, I recognize my many imperfections.  All this is done on the hand-written page.  What I discover, day after day after day, is that when I return to the work and reform it into the manuscript of my story, the struggle is gone.  I have found not just a solution, but an opportunity to expand into the creative realm. Read more