50 Ideas. 5 Days. Go!


50 in 5

In my recent post In Case of Natural Disaster, I made a passing reference to my 50-in-5 lists, a writing habit I created for myself a few years ago as I’ve gotten further and further into this crazy tv writing career. And the texts and conversations that poured in as soon as I posted it all tended to swirl around one question — What is this 50-in-5 thing?  So, I thought it was time for some answers.

The Short Answer: A List. 50 Ideas. 5 Days.

Yep.  You heard me. 5-0 ideas. 5-0 loglines. 5-0 characters and creations and complications. Fifty.

I give myself 5 days to come up with 50 ideas — written down and saved for future storyline ideas. Now, lest you think I am some sort of story genius with ideas just pouring out of me all the time… It’s true!  It’s all true!  I am a genius!!! (*goes mad with power*)

Just kidding. 

The Long Answer: 49 Terrible/Mediocre/Ehhh/Boring Ideas. Hopefully one good one. 5 days.

50-in-5 lists are messy, and that’s perfectly all right. 

I’ve found that the easiest way to start a 50-in-5 list is to start a new doc on my ever-present laptop.  There are other times I’ve put everything on post-it notes or handwritten the lists in my journal.  But I’m at my most organized when it’s all on my computer. And post-it notes fall off the wall and get vacuumed up or tucked away in yesterday’s mail — and I for one hate the idea that my Emmy-winning idea is lost in the belly of my Roomba. That would suck.

But find a way to organize and keep these lists — whatever works for you!

The list begins, and every morning — before I do any other writing for the day, I come up with 10 ideas. I push myself until I hit 10. I’m not allowed to do anything else until I get to those magic double digits.  If I have a spectacular idea day and come up with 11 or 13 or 15 off the cuff, so much the better.  But tomorrow, I have to come up with 10 all over again.  (No cheating or stockpiling today’s ideas for tomorrow. I’m onto you!)

10 ideas. Go!

Each idea has to be its own world or story. No cheating with half-ideas like — A girl named Ava. Or — The biggest apology in the history of the world!   If that were the case,  could just pull up a baby names website and a list of emotions and call it a day.  That’s not going to be helpful when I need to have story ideas later. Each idea has to give a sense of the world or a complication within that world. The story of Ava and her career as a professional juror in this far-future world in which ‘trial by a jury of your peers’ is no more.   Or:  Aliens come to earth for the first time and are extremely apologetic.  “We didn’t realize we’d left you off the list of inhabited planets for the last several centuries.  Welcome to the New Republic!” 

What stories do you want to see? What stories do you want to tell?

And the most important part: they don’t have to be perfect ideas, or even good ones. Most of the ideas from each day are going to be almost immediately discarded.  They’re similar to something else that someone else has already written. Or they’re romantic comedy ideas that I will never, ever write. They’re not interesting to me. They’re utterly ridiculous. (My clown car cleaning shop idea stands out loud and clear here.)

Don’t be afraid of the bad ideas or get stuck on needing to have 10 amazing ideas every day.  You’ll get stuck somewhere early on in your daily list and give up.  If I can’t come up with three ideas today, how can I ever come up with fifty ideas by Friday???  It’s not easy.  But keep going.

Why do I do this to myself?

I spend all day every day thinking about story.  It’s the glorious life of being a writer.  So I realized I needed a way to organize and hang onto the good ideas that pop into my head pre-coffee. I may not want to write that particular story today or any time this year, but if there’s the seed of a good story there — I can save it the day I’m ready for it.

I also need a way to get all of the bad ideas out of my head so I don’t have to think about them anymore.  There’s something about seeing a really truly terrible story idea in black and white, unblinking on my computer screen.  Beforehand, I think: Hmmm… maybe that could be something? And then when it’s in front of me, I can safely say: Wow. No. That’s like the worst idea. Ever. EVER.  It’s okay to let it go.  Now I never have to think about that story again, and I free up just a tiny bit of brain space that will hopefully be used for something else better tomorrow.

The last five projects I’ve written – three pilots, one feature and one webseries – have all come from the best of my 50-in-5 lists.

I actually don’t think I could live without them now.  Plus — when I’m really desperate on my worst days, the days where I wonder if I really can keep writing as a career — they’re an amazing way to procrastinate and yet still be productive in the long run.

And in my neurotic writer brain, by the time I’m done with the list, there’s a quiet voice in the back of my head that says: Yep. You can do this. Keep going. 

I use my 50-in-5 lists for writing… but I wonder what else they could be used for?  Ideas, anyone? I’d love to hear… 

I write a lot about my writing life. Interested in more? Check it out!

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The World Cup and Life Off-Planet

(How’s she going to tie those two together???  I know you asked.)

world cup

I seriously love today.

Just a few miles from my house, the LA Kings are gearing up for their Stanley Cup victory parade.  I will forever and ever be a Colorado Avalanche fan (you can take the girl out of Colorado…) but there’s something fantastic about being in my adopted home city, celebrating together like this.

And I’m curled up on my couch writing today, the World Cup playing in the background. The world is watching and celebrating. And I’m really sure that if I wanted to, I could walk down my street to one of our local sports bars at noon and watch the game with a bunch of people I don’t know, but who would immediately become great friends.  But I should probably eat lunch before I hit a sports bar, you know?

I’ll be the first person to admit that I am not the most sports-inclined of us all. 

I broke my hand playing soccer when I was younger.  I tore tendons running across a level floor.  God did not grace me with the athletic gene, it would seem.

But I am all about the stories that come out of events like the World Cup.  It’s like the Olympics all over again.  These athletes have been preparing for this moment their entire career – their entire lives.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain — and they play like it.  Now is not the time to hold back — now’s the time to run that 4 minute mile they’ve been dreaming about their entire lives.   (Mixed metaphor? Maybe.)

There’s also something glorious about a world at war, pausing to play beautifully together.

Just for a brief moment, we are all humans together. 

Just humans. Together.

I think it’s this same feeling that’s drawn me to all things NASA– and space-related.  I dream about off-planet colonies, and Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin have always been two of my heroes. They are stories of great adventurers, of men and women the world over — living at the very top of their skills, miraculously accomplishing the thing that was impossible yesterday.  The most recent episode of Mad Men totally nailed the excitement of the world coming together to watch a beautiful leap forward. And even though I know that story backwards and forwards — I was totally in that moment.

We come together around our common stories.

I wake up every day dreaming about the possibility that I’ll actually see a Mars landing in my lifetime.  (Seriously. Every day.  It’s one of my many obsessions.)  I’ll never work at NASA.  And I seriously doubt I’ll ever walk on the moon unless somebody totally rocks out space tourism like, pronto.

But I am a storyteller.

I write for TV and tell stories of a world further along than we are — where humans live off-planet, where they’ve already accomplished the things we can only dream of.  Where we’ve come together to make something beautiful and bigger than ourselves.  But one day, I’ll tell a story that will inspire someone to GO. and DO. and CREATE.  A story that makes the world wonder: What if??  Those are my favorite stories.

Maybe we’ll actually start chasing our dreams out into the stars.

And for that moment, we will all be humans together.


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The Fault in Our Stars

I read The Fault in Our Stars a little over a year ago, and quite literally from the first page — I was in awe.  “Made up stories can matter…”

I’m always leery of novel adaptations – especially ones for the smaller, more intimate books I’ve loved so well.  But this one was absolutely wonderful.  (Perks of Being a Wallflower nailed the novel-to-film adaptation too, brilliantly so.)

And so, Hazel Grace Lancaster will always be living among the pages of a book and in the frames of a film… and we will love her for it. 

And there will be Augustus Waters, fighting for Hazel, encouraging her, loving her.

I think my favorite part of this book and this story is how deftly the deep emotions of life — not just love, but loss, anger, frustration, joy, and even boredom — are dealt with.  Augustus and Hazel are wildly imperfect, facing the unimaginable truth of I will not make it to my 20th birthday.  They’re angry and scared, and it makes them lash out unexpectedly.  These aren’t the preternaturally wise, overly effusive Wise Cancer Kids that we’ve come to expect from our Literature of the Sick Children.  (Augustus occasionally gets close to it — until you realize he’s trying to sound wise and important and he’s not actually all that awesome at it.)

Hazel and Augustus’ existence is not predicated on teaching everyone around them: Carpe Diem!   They watch movies and egg someone’s car and laugh at Patrick, their support group leader.  They’re funny and occasionally wise. They wonder about their families, and how they will handle a post-cancer kid life.  I wonder what my parents will do after I’m dead.  It’s a fact of life, not a strangely speculative question that will never actually have to be answered.

I wonder what happens after I’m dead.  

We all get one life to piece together — filled with 24-hour days and 7-days-a-week.  You go to school, learn how to ride a bike, grow up, finish school, fall in love, find a career, have a baby (and very rarely in that actual order).  You create Your Life.  And the whispers in the air will tell you that unless you’ve got thirty thousand followers on Twitter or a hit movie or your name in the company’s letterhead… well, you haven’t really made it. And so we fight and scream.  We cry because we’re afraid:

What if none of this matters? 

We stand in front of the great void, screaming at the top of our lungs, praying we making a difference while actually wondering deep down in our souls if we are the only ones listening to our voices — like maybe the wind is echoing too loudly and sweeping our own words back across our faces.

There will be many of us out there who make an enormous difference in the world.  I feel like the luckiest girl in the world right now that I’m surrounded by people who get out there and DO the things that most of us will never get a chance to do.  I have friends who are CEOs of their own companies, showrunners and writers, lawyers, editors, directors, musicians, teachers.  They go ahead where few will dare to follow.  The world around us is changing — and we’re trying to create Our Life in a way that matters.  But the echoes of screams and the adoration of the masses won’t be the things that will pull you through into tomorrow.

The most impactful moments of my life have come unexpectedly — in the small moments of dinner with friends or picking up the phone at 4 in the morning, standing together in front of that great void, finally realizing that we are not alone in this… that it is better to be loved deeply by one than adored from afar by millions of strangers.

I’m here for you. Just you.  Okay? 

You are enough.

Go see this movie!


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