Aaron Sorkin and Me – Part I


Seven months ago, I signed up for the Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting MasterClass. I raced through the first several lessons, then that life thing happened. Aaron went the way of James Patterson, relegated to the bay window beside my desk, my current manuscript printed and tossed upon him with the hope he might read it while he waited for me to return.

He’s off the ledge now, and I’ve resumed the classes. In case anyone wonders, there has been no nose picking by Aaron thus far.

Lesson 01 – Introduction

My first impression of the class is a positive one. I find Aaron engaging and charming. He apologizes early on for not being an eloquent speaker, but I feel this “swerving all over the road” when he talks makes him personable and easy to listen to.

He begins by saying, “Writing, like any other art form … there are chunks of it that can be taught, and there are chunks of it that can’t be taught. So, we’re here for the parts that can be taught.”

Me: Ok. I’m here to learn!

Lesson 02 –Intention and Obstacle

Before anything, start with intention and obstacle. This is the most important thing in drama. “Without them, you’re screwed blue.”

Somebody wants something (intention). Something stands in their way (obstacle). The obstacle must be formidable, and the obstacle can’t be too easy to get out of.

Me: Aaron gives good examples of how quickly you should consider introducing the intention, depending upon whether you are writing a play, a movie, or a television show. I found this interesting and felt it was helpful to my own writing.

Lesson 03 – Story Ideas

There are two parts to having an idea:
1. Know what an idea is
2. You have to have it

You don’t have an idea until you can use the words BUT, EXCEPT, or AND THEN

It was a normal day like any other day, and then all of a sudden ….

Me: Aaron shares how he came up with some of his ideas and why some were great and others not so much. He even uses baseball metaphors. I liked all the stories he shared, but I especially liked this one:

His first television series was Sports Night (I loved that show!). He became addicted to watching Sports Center on ESPN. He’d watch it late at night while he was writing the movie, The American President (one of my favorite romantic comedies!). He’d stay up late at night writing the movie and turn on Sports Center to keep him company.

He thought that Sports Center place would be a fun place to work. Make friends there. Meet your girlfriend there. The thoughts in his head about Sports Center were all short stories. His agent told him that sounded like a television series, and that’s how Sports Night came to be.

Lesson 4 – Developing Characters, Part 1

You start with Intention and Obstacle AND Tactics.

When Aaron starts writing, he doesn’t have characters in his head. He starts with the intention and obstacle and the tactics used to overcome the obstacle in order to define what the character is going to be.

He shares examples from The Social Network and The West Wing to show all three – intention, obstacle, and tactic.

Lesson 5- Developing Characters, Part 2

I’ll share two gems from this lesson:

  1. Don’t write long biographies beginning when your character was five years old. Don’t say, “Here’s what this character would have eaten when they were five years old.” Because the character was never five years old. They were born at the age they are when the lights come up. The character only gets to be five years old if he says, “When I was five years old, I saw my father kill himself.” Then, and only then, the character was five years old.


    Not from the class.

  2. I wouldn’t take out a yellow legal pad and a pen and start writing down character traits. None of that will come in handy. You do it because you think you’re supposed to do it. You feel like the more you write down on this legal pad, the more human the character is going to be. What’s going to happen is you’re going to have a scene where a guy or girl needs their parents to loan them money for something, and you’ve got this legal pad beside you, and you’re trying to figure out how to work creamy peanut butter into the scene, because you think that will make your character more human. FORGET IT! Forget that stuff!

Me: I love the legal pad advice. I’ve read numerous times that we should write biographies of our characters, complete with character traits, and I simply can’t do it (don’t want to is more like it).

This lesson also includes:

– Write Characters, Not people (I think I have this down pat. I love writing characters! Mama!)
– Writing Characters Unlike Yourself
– Identify with Your Anti-Heroes
– The Actor will Complete the Character

Lesson Six – Research

There are two types of Research when writing:

  1. The nuts and bolts Research. Find out how many nuts and bolts were used to make The Golden Gate Bridge. This is “hard” research.
  2. The other type is when you don’t know what you’re looking for yet, and it’s research where you’re trying to find the movie.

Talk to people. You never know where a cool story is going to come from. They’ll refer you to other people.

Sub-topics in this lesson:
– How to Interview
– Meaningless Research (interesting examples here)

Lesson Seven – Incorporating Research

Q. How do you incorporate research into writing?
A. It depends on what you find out.

Locate a problem in your research and start writing about it.

When it comes to dialogue, Aaron has written technical lines without knowing what they meant, but because of the research, he knew the words were correct. You get the story and some dialogue from research. You get to use what you want – and not use what you don’t want.

Aaron says the more important truth is that there is an inner moral compass if you are writing non-fiction. There is lying all through your writing. People don’t speak in dialogue. Lives don’t play out in a series of scenes that form a narrative.

If you are telling a true story, especially if the people are still alive, take the Hippocratic Oath – first do no harm. Do not do (write) something that changes the fundamental truth.

Aaron shares a great story here about something as simple as a beer in The Social Network.

Lesson Eight – The Audience

You want as much as you can for the audience to be a part of what’s going on. Treat them like they are smart, because they are.

Don’t lose the audience. He gives an example of a television movie with a scene that rang false. If you make an audience groan, it’s hard to get the audience back.

He shares a moment that doesn’t work in the movie A Few Good Men (my husband loves that movie!) and says if you put confusion in the mix, even a tiny little bit of confusion, the audience will be apprehensive.



Me: When I took the James Patterson MasterClass on Writing, I found him to be passionate and motivating, which in itself was worth the price of the class. I gleaned many good tidbits, but I had already picked up the majority of the information from writers’ forums.

Aaron Sorkin’s class is different. The material is presented as if you are writing for the screen, and by sharing so many stories from movies, plays, and television shows he has written, I find there is more material for me to consider in my own writing.

Have you taken Aaron Sorkin’s MasterClass? If you have, what did you think? If not, stay tuned. I’ll be gifting a class after I’ve finished the thirty-five lessons and shared some of my notes and thoughts.

James Patterson and Me, Part II


James Patterson is a patient man. He’s been sitting in the bay window next to me since June of last year. I tossed a couple of my manuscripts on top of him, but I don’t think he read them. Nevertheless, I finally dusted him off and listened while he presented the next eleven lessons of his MasterClass.

Here are some of my notes as well as some of my thoughts.

Lesson 12 – Building a Chapter. James wants us to choose a viewpoint. He writes in first person with limited third person. Others have told him that’s cheating, but he says, “I don’t give a shit. It’s my creation. I can do whatever I want.” I thought that was rather funny. His reasoning? There are no rules, and you can do whatever you want as long as it works. Ahh, a man after my own heart.

James also wants us to find a voice. I think I’ll save the challenges to my voice for another blog post. Let’s just say, I like my voice in my writing, and one of the most consistent comments in my reviews is that my books are an easy read. I contribute that to my writing style – my voice. I read once that just because something is an easy read doesn’t mean it was easy to write. So true!

The lesson also covered using each chapter to grab the reader’s attention and propel them on to the next chapter.

Lesson 13 – Writing Suspense. We are encouraged to know our genre and what’s already out there. Not to imitate it, but to avoid it. Be fresh, new, and fascinating. Intrigue your reader. Set up questions that the reader must, must, must have answered.

James said he doesn’t always write realism. One of his characters is a detective with ten adopted children and a wife dying of cancer. It could happen, but it’s not a likely scenario. We have to be willing to allow our readers to suspend disbelief. I liked that, and I think that’s what makes writing fiction so much fun.

Sidebar. Do you have a DVR? Do you ever pause a television show and see you have captured an actor with a less-than-flattering look on their face? I pause James frequently while I’m taking notes. I couldn’t stop laughing for a few minutes when I realized I caught him mid-pick. I’m sure he would proclaim, “There was no pick. I did not pick. There was no pick.”


Lesson 14 – Ending the Book. James asks us to think of the endings to books and movies that we have enjoyed and to think about why we liked those particular endings. He also addresses cliffhangers. Cliffhanger for a television show = ok, fine. Cliffhanger for a book = people get mad. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them, but there will some fallout from people who despise them.

James also imparts an activity for the ending of your book that he says is the secret to all great endings. He claims this one tidbit of information is worth the price of admission to the class. I don’t know about that, but I did think it was a good idea. I won’t share it here. I’ll let James tell you if you choose to take his class.

Lesson 15 – Editing. Not your editor’s editing, but the editing and polishing you do yourself. Keep these thoughts in your head at all times: move the story forward and hold the reader’s attention. If your words don’t do this, rewrite. Remove distractions in your writing and cut the boring stuff – in dialogue, too. Stay positive during your edit. You didn’t make mistakes; you are making your story tighter and better.

I starred this item: Pace will pay the electric bill. Write a page-turner. I love when people write to let me know they couldn’t put down one of my books. And yes, I am paying our electric bill. Maybe one day I’ll be able to replace the wiring in our old house. Or the evil plumbing. Or maybe we’ll just move.

Lesson 16: Working with a Co-Author. Now that I’ve made James sit in my bay window for six months, and then showed him mid-pick, I’m sure he won’t be calling me anytime soon to co-write a book with him.

However, he does clear it up once and for all that writing with another person is a true collaboration with both people writing the book.

Lesson 17: Getting Published. He gives good advice on how to handle your query letters. Publishers are spared my query letters, and I am spared rejection letters, by simply self-publishing whenever I have a book finished. In fact, I published my latest on December 10 but neglected to stop in here to show it to you. Have a look:


Lesson 18: Book Titles and Covers. James didn’t go into what’s good and what’s not with a cover. He mostly wanted to impart that your cover will draw the consumer to your book and communicate what’s inside. A tag line, blurbs from other writers, and your own information will sell your book. I’m happy with all of my covers. My pink covers convey the light, breezy aspect of the stories (also the chick-lit genre), and you can’t miss that the books in my second series have a murder in them.

Lesson 19: Marketing the Patterson Way. James suggests we brand ourselves. I think I did a pretty good job of establishing my Susan Hunter brand. I’ve used pink and her face everywhere. James says that we also establish a relationship between the consumer and ourselves.

James Patterson = page turner
Maddie Cochere = humorous mysteries

What’s your brand?

Lesson 20: Hollywood. I got a kick out of this lesson. The lesson to be learned is if Hollywood comes calling, take the money and run. Everyone will lie to you (even if they don’t have to), and the movie will most likely not resemble your book at all.

Lesson 21: Personal Story. James shares a bit about his life and how he came to be a writer. Very nice.

Lesson 22: Class Closing. Thank you James Patterson for taking the time to present your MasterClass.

So, the bottom line. Was it worth the $90 I spent?

I don’t believe I learned anything that I haven’t read or heard before, but I’m glad I took the class. James’ thoughts and insights helped to reinforce my belief that I’m on the right track, and it was good for me to hear how he writes. He’s also an engaging and motivating speaker. The class was worth the price for his passion, motivation, and encouragement alone.

He finished with a thought that made me smile. He said we don’t have to blindly follow the rules that have been set down for writing. (I split an infinitive to tell you that.) People get too into the rules. Just because it’s been done forever a certain way doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right. You don’t want to walk away from what’s been done, but “we do new shit.”

If you’ve read both of my blog posts about the James Patterson MasterClass, and you think this is something that might benefit you, please tell me in a comment below. On January 15, I’ll be randomly gifting one class from all interested parties. If you’d rather send a note directly to me to be added to the giveaway, my email address is on my About page.


Have you already taken the class? What were your final thoughts?

EDITED TO ADD: 1/15/2016 – All names in the hat for the free class were assigned a number. I used the random number generator at random.org … and the winner is … Jami Gold! Thank you to all who participated.