Short Stories, Scripts, and Novels: He’s Written Them, Now He Teaches [Q&A]

This is a Q&A with Hal Ackerman.

What initially brought you to writing?

I liked making people laugh and, in junior high school, to annoy as many teachers as possible.

You have a lot of experience in screenwriting, what led you to this area of writing? 

I had originally been a New York playwright.  My plan was to go to Hollywood, sell a screenplay for an obscene about of money, and return to New York to write plays.

How’d you end up from being a playwright in New York to teaching at UCLA? 

I got screwed on a stupendous play writing gig in New York and wanted to go somewhere with integrity. So… Hollywood.

After a few years, I was doing pretty well, selling scripts and getting hired. By chance I ran into the younger sister of an old high school pal, who was married to the area head of the screen writing program. He invited me to teach. Total serendipity.

What’s your process when going to write a story or script? 

The two are quite different and perfectly similar.  Being attacked by some compelling aspect of a character in a circumstance.  When you are writing plays, ideas come to you in terms of theater.  When you are writing movies, they come as movie ideas.

How is short story writing and screenplay writing different?

Especially these days, when movies are about escaping from the human condition and other forms of fiction are about exploring the human condition, the differences are greater than they were years ago, when mainstream movies were both entertaining and interesting.  Independent films now, and of course television, are filling that gap.  But that is about the marketplace.

The inherent differences are that a movie audience only has access to what they can see and hear.  A short story reader has access to a character’s inner life–thoughts, feelings memories.

Each medium has different strengths, different goals, and “consumers” come to each for different experiences.

How is writing fiction different than writing about personal experiences?

For me, there is not a lot of difference.  Most of my “fiction” pillages events in my life; though fiction allows manipulation of those events, placing an emotional experience from real life into a physical encounter that might be different than its source but still contains the emotional truth of the actual event.  The distance of writing about “him” rather than “I” allows for greater honesty and truth in a way that does not mean how an external surveillance camera wold see events, but rather a surveillance camera of the inner landscape.

What advice do you have for students and writers interested in screenplay writing?

Write them.  Read my book.  Make a writing schedule for yourself and keep to it.

What kind of writing schedule to you have? How does one make a realistic writing schedule for themselves? 

My schedule is my schedule. Everyone has to fit their writing schedule in with their own life. Read Writers at Work. These are a series of essays of writers talking about how they do it.

Obviously it will be different for a single parent with three kids and four jobs than a 20 year-old with no job. Think of how it would be if you were working at a hospital or driving a cab. You have your shirt and you better report for work. Some days it’ll be busy, some days a snooze. Some days overtime or a double shift. But you have to put your butt in the chair. That means making time when you are doing nothing else.

The alternative is quite simple: no writing will get done.

Teaching at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), what did you noticed were major struggles in learning/writing scripts? 

Story.  Story.  Story.  Story.  Discovering what story IS and what it isn’t.

How can you find out what is or isn’t the story? 

  1. Describe the character’s circumstances and the thing he/she wants desperately right now (It must be concrete, not abstract. Not being a loser is abstract. Going the distance with the champ is concrete).
  2. The obstacle that makes achieving it impossible.

In addition to short stories and scripts, you’ve written novels. How was that writing experience in comparison? 

Great fun. For me, it incorporates the sense of structure I developed as a screenwriter, with the exploration of character and situation that comes from fiction writing.  It allows for more breadth and depth than screenwriting generally does.

What was the inspiration for your novels: Stein, Stoned and Stein, Stung

For Stein Stoned…it was a first line that kept running through my head.  “The phone rang too early for it to be good news.”  I needed to see who was calling and why.  Once the book was written (after many false starts) and taken on by an agent, she wanted to have a second book idea as part of a sales package.  I had remembered reading years earlier about a quirky occurrence of honey bee rustling.  I had had several weird experiences with bees that I could impart to my protagonist.

You’ve written and published several short stories. What drawbacks (if any) are there of short story publishing? 

I love writing short fiction.  To make a living at it, one must merely write and sell ten short stories every day.

What advice or strategies would you recommend for short story writers looking to publish their work?

There are many, many, many journals in print and on line. CwroppsDuotrope, Poets and Writers all give writers hundreds of markets to submit.

CWROPPS is the acronym for Creative Writers Opportunities List run by Allison Joseph, poet and professor at Southern Illinois University. It’s a Yahoo group you can subscribe to and she updates with a mixture of calls for submission (for poetry or fiction) with help wanted’s and residency information. 

Duotrope is a writers’ resource online that costs $5 a month (or less for an annual subscription) and offers a search engine of publishers, a submissions tracker for organization, data on publications, and inspirational themes to help writing along. There’s a free trial option for those interested. 

Poets and Writers is a monthly magazine for creative writers and a website with a multitude of resources. It does cost money to purchase a subscription. 

Of your scripts, short stories, and novels is there one or another you found more rewarding? More difficult?

All of them and all of them.

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