Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Notes on Joker

This film is brilliantly acted by Joaquin Phoenix. The movie sets out the descent into utter madness of a barely working clown when his meds are stopped because of budget cuts. The film offers a gritty portrait of his life and delusions. But the ending of the film strains for a big moment that doesn't register.

In Fellini's 8 1/2, the director Quito is creatively stuck while trying to find an ending for his latest film. He sets out on a path of 'retiring' the memories and moments of his life that have defined him and his creative spirit. At the climax of the film, he realizes he can integrate all those memories to support his creative self and this is acted out by a celebratory ending that includes a marching band. This scene has been recreated in other movies, including Big Fish and Shortbus.
The moment of celebration in Joker is set off by Author Fleck killing a talk show host on live TV setting off a riot for which he is a symbol. But the intense focus on Arthur's life never quite explains why he has become that symbol and, if he is that symbol, why anyone would  care about Arthur Fleck.
Somehow the moment is meant to convey that Arthur is fully integrating with his persona the Joker. I was left wondering if it was just another delusion.

Monday, September 2, 2019

What IS Plot? An Online Workshop Offered by Pennwriters

What IS Plot?

Pennwriters Online Class:
October 3-31, 2019
Class Title: What IS Plot?
with PayPal

Register online at

Or send a check to Treasurer, Pennwriters, Inc. PO Box 685 Dalton, PA 18414

Many writers are consumed with the idea of creating the effect of what a plot does without first understanding what a plot is. What a plot does is raise dramatic questions a reader or viewer will follow to get answers. What a plot is is the process of generating questions around the outcome of a story’s promise that gives a story a dramatic shape and outcome fulfilling to an audience. This workshop is designed to guide writers to an understanding of what creates a dramatic plot, and to offer practical advice on how they can create dramatically satisfying plots for their stories.
Writers in this workshop will be guided to understand a simple plot outline for some popular stories with simple plot mechanics. This outline will convey a fundamental truth of storytelling, how the elements of a story transports its audience.

Writers will then be asked to use that knowledge to outline the plot of a popular story they enjoy.
Finally, writers will be guided to apply this understanding of plot mechanics on a project they are working on. This could be outlining a story they have only begun to create an understanding of the underlying mechanics of that story, to creating a plot outline that guides a revision of a complete manuscript.

The completed outline will include creating plot questions for each step of the novel.
The goal of the workshop is for students to be able to create a detailed plot outline for a novel or script and to understand the mechanics of how other popular stories are constructed.

Instructor Bio:

Bill Johnson is a produced playwright, optioned screenwriter, and has read manuscript submissions for a literary agent. He is the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a workbook that explores how to create dramatic, engaging stories; and web master of Essays on the Craft of Dramatic Writing, a site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays (; Bill has lead workshops on writing around the United States, including the Southern California Writing Conference, Write on the Sound Conference, and the Expo Screenwriting Conference in Los Angeles.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Author Leni Zumas Hosts Willamette Writers PDX Chapter Meeting 9/3/2019

Multi-awarding winning author Leni Zumas hosts the September 3rd meeting of the Portland chapter of Willamette Writers. The meeting is held at the First Congregational Church and begins at 7 pm; doors open 6:30pm.

Leni Zumas won the 2019 Oregon Book Award for her national bestselling novel RED CLOCKS, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the Neukom Prize for Speculative Fiction. Red Clocks was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice and was named a Best Book of 2018 by The Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Entropy, and the New York Public Library. Vulture called it one of the 100 Most Important Books of the 21st Century So Far.

Zumas is also the author of FAREWELL NAVIGATOR: STORIES and the novel THE LISTENERS. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Granta, The Times Literary Supplement, Guernica, BOMB, The Cut, Portland Monthly, Tin House, and elsewhere. Her work has received support from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Regional Arts & Culture Council, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and directs the creative writing program at Portland State University.

Learn more about Leni at her website,

Learn more about the Portland Chapter of Willamette Writers at

The meeting is free to members of Willamette Writers and $5 suggested donation for guests, including Meetup Guests.

Learn more about WW chapters in Vancouver, Salem, Eugene, Newport, Corvallis, and Ashland at

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Oregon Poetry Association Adult Poetry Contest

Fall 2019 Contest: September 1 Deadline

Limit: one entry per category.
1) Poet’s Choice: Limit 80 lines, any subject, any form. Judge: Carl Adamshick.
2) Members Only: Limit 20 lines, any subject, any form. Entrant must be a current OPA member. Judge: Leah Stenson.
3) New Poets: Limit 30 lines, any subject, any form. A new poet is someone with no more than two poems published in online or print journals. Self-published work is not considered published in this context. Judge: Stephanie Adams-Santos.
4) Traditional Form—Blank Verse: Limit 40 lines, blank verse form (unrhyming iambic pentameter), any subject. 
Judge: John Morrison.
5) Theme—Our Common Life: Limit 40 lines, any form, on the subject of “our common life.” 
Judge: Toni Lumbrazo Luna.
Spaces between stanzas do not count as lines.

Poet’s Choice: 1st $100; 2nd $50; 3rd $30; 3 Honorable Mentions.
All other categories: 1st $50; 2nd $30; 3rd $20; 3 Honorable Mentions.
All 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place poems will be published on the OPA website and in the annual anthology of prizewinners, Verseweavers.

OPA Members—Flat rate of $8 for up to five poems (limit of one poem per category).
Non-members— Flat rate of $15 for up to four poems (limit of one poem per category).

Submitted electronically or postmarked by September 1, 2019, midnight PDT.
Electronic submissions (preferred; see guidelines below): OPA Submittable.
By mail (see guidelines below):
OPA, Contest Entries, PO Box 14582, Portland, OR 97293

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Willamette Writers to Host 50th Annual Conference

Writers Join Libraries, Small Presses, and Independent Bookstores for a Weekend of Craft and Community

Willamette Writers, the largest nonprofit writers’ organization in Oregon, is celebrating 50 years of building community, honing craft, and launching careers. Approximately 700 film and publishing industry professionals and aspiring writers will gather at the 2019 Willamette Writers Conference, August 2-4, 2019 at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel.

The three-day event offers over 70 workshops, lectures, keynotes, and evening events all focused on building community and strengthening craft. World-class instructors, including Marketing Guru Jeff Goins and New York Times Bestselling Authors Hallie Ephron and Kristina McMorris, will lead students through a weekend of focused writing instruction. Screenwriter Peter Craig (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I and II and the new Top Gun) will share a keynote conversation, and Pulitzer Prize nominees, Janet Burroway and S. Renee Mitchell, will join writers this August.

In addition, the conference will provide attendees with the opportunity to pitch film and literary industry representatives in hopes of advancing their careers. This year, editors from Hachette, Penguin, Lonely Planet, and James Patterson’s new imprint, JIMMY, will provide on the spot feedback and accept pitches. Agents, managers, and producers from top agencies, including TriadaUS, Foundry, Romark Entertainment, and many others will sit down with writers to help them find the support they need to launch their career.

But the conference isn’t all about the connections with industry gatekeepers. Throughout the weekend, writers will be building their writing community with peer-to-peer networking opportunities.

“For fifty years, Willamette Writers has worked to connect writers with their communities,” says Executive Director Kate Ristau. “This year, we are working hard to collaborate with literary organizations and create new possibilities for partnership and connection. In particular, we are inviting libraries, small presses, and independent bookstores to join us at our annual conference. We believe they are vital to our writing community, and we are proud to work with them in our next 50 years.”

Writers will attend panels on publishing with small presses, connecting with libraries, and working with bookstores. Aspiring authors will get the chance to meet small press publishers at the Conference Trade Show, and meet booksellers throughout the weekend.

Willamette Writes has spent the last 50 years working to grow the careers, craft, and community of Oregon writers. This year, and into the future, we are striving to build relationships with the people who put stories into the hands of readers. Join us the first weekend in August for what’s sure to be a fantastic event.

Registration is currently open now. For more information, visit

Willamette Writers, a nonprofit organization, is the largest writers’ organization in Oregon and one of the largest in the United States.  Founded in Portland in 1965, it has grown to over 1,900 members with chapters in Portland, Southern Oregon, Mid-Valley, Vancouver, Salem, the Oregon Coast, and Corvallis.  More detailed information is available at or by calling (971) 200-5385.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Portland: Pitch Perfect with Cynthia Whitcomb

Every author needs an elevator pitch. From telling friends what you are working on, to pitching an agent at a conference, it helps to have a clear understanding of how to present your work. Join us on July 2nd at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in downtown Portland (doors open at 6:30PM) to discuss pitching your work with Cynthia Whitcomb. You’ll learn everything you need to know to make your pitch perfect. 

About Cynthia Whitcomb

Cynthia Whitcomb has sold 75 screenplays, thirty of which have been produced. She has been nominated for the Emmy, W.G.A., Humanitas, Oregon Book Award, Drammy and Edgar Allan Poe Awards.  Her works include Buffalo Girls (miniseries, starring Anjelica Huston, nominated for 11 Emmys.)   I Know My First Name is Stephen (for which she was Emmy nominated.)  Mark Twain and Me starring Jason Robards (Emmy, Best Children’s Program.)  Whitcomb has created roles for Martin Sheen, Ellen Burstyn, Liev Schreiber, Gena Rowlands and many others.  Her plays for theatre include Lear’s Follies, The Seven Wonders of Ballyknock, and Parnassus on Wheels. Her most recent screenwriting book is The Heart of the Film.  She teaches screenwriting locally and takes a group of writers on a trans-Atlantic writing cruise every spring.  More info at

July 2 @ 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm
First Congregational United Church of Christ
1126 SW Park Ave
Portland, OR 97205
Free to members of Willamette Writers and full time students under 25; $5 for non-members.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Perspective on Shifts in Tone in Stories

by Bill Johnson

I was recently a judge in a screenwriting contest. I noted a particular issue in scripts by inexperienced writers. They often used a shift in tone to create a dramatic effect. For example, a script with a realistic tone shifting to a comic tone. Or a script with a realistic tone shifting to a melodramatic tone.

These shifts can have the effect of disrupting the flow of a story.

To understand why this happens, consider that the foundation stone for what I teach about writing in A Story is a Promise is that a story creates movement, and the movement transports the audience.

That movement can be simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Or complex: Mulholland Drive. Memento.

To understand this jarring effect, consider that you have grown up in Portland, Oregon, you are downtown, and request an Uber ride to the Portland airport, which is East. The driver shows up and gets on Highway 26, driving West.

You're going to have a visceral reaction to this. The direction of the movement of the vehicle is wrong. At a minimum, you're probably wishing you called a cab. If you are a young woman, alone, and it's night, you are probably having more desperate thoughts.

The reaction to a shift in tone in a movie, novel, or play is more subtle, but the reaction is the same. You go from sitting back to enjoy the ride to wondering why something just happened. You have been bumped from the story.

I'm not suggesting a movie can't have a twist. In the recent film Arrival, the main character appears to be having flash back about the birth and death of a daughter. These are actually flash forwards. I was tremendously impressed by the skill with which this was pulled off. But the issue of how we and the aliens in the movie interpret time was part of the story. The twist arose from the nature of the movement of the film.

Years ago Peter O'Toole was in a movie where he's an English aristocrat who believes he's Jesus Christ. He hangs himself on a cross. His extended family is desperate that he have a heir to continue the family lineage.

At the end of the film, Peter appears to be normal and goes off to attend a session of the House of Lords. But when seen from his point of view, he's switched from thinking he's Jesus to believing he's Jack the Ripper.

While the movie has a comic tone, Peter's family has always been in deadly earnest about the need to reshape his personality. The movie always had a realistic tone under the comedy.

A more recent example comes from the Men in Black series. In the first film, there's an overall comic tone but the character played by Tommy Lee Jones gives the story a moral center. He looks at humanity and individuals with a clear gaze. It's a wonderful film.

The most recent film, Men in Black: International, has one of the main characters played as a buffoon. Buffoons carry no dramatic weight. So the plot ambles along until the movie is over.

That shift in tone from comedic with a serious undertone to borderline slapstick deflates the action. It might have worked in a stand alone film, but as part of a series it just feels like the movie is going West when the airport is East.

Whether a dramatic effect is within the scope of a story's overall movement or not is situation where a writer might need to lean on skilled readers to convey whether an effect was amazing or disconcerting.

The recent online commotion over the ending of Game of Thrones is an example of what happens when the expectations of an audience are violated.


Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon and Smashwords.