Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, award-winning novelist, screenwriter, songwriter, and poet Jonathan LaPoma.
In the past ten years, Jonathan worked in over fifteen American public schools as either a substitute or full-time teacher.
In 2005, he received a BA in history and a secondary education credential from the State University of New York at Geneseo. Jonathan has written two novels, A Noble Truth and his most recent one, Developing Minds: An American Ghost Story. He has also written five feature-length screenplays, and hundreds of songs and poems.
His screenplays have won over forty awards/honors at various international screenwriting competitions, including first-place victories in the 2014 Hollywood Screenplay Contest (Grand Jury Prize), the 2015 Las Vegas Screenplay Contest (two wins: Grand Jury Prize and Grand Prize for Drama), the 2014 London Film Awards (Grand Prize: Feature Screenplay category), the 2014 Awareness Film Festival, and the 2014 West Field Screenwriting Awards (The New York Award).
Jonathan lives in San Diego, CA, and teaches at a public secondary school
Norm: How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Jonathan: I started writing when I was about 8 or 9. I wrote a few short stories, and came up with ideas for television shows and video games, but I basically just ripped these off of existing stories, shows, and games (I still have most of these saved and I get a kick out of how terrible they are). I wrote like that for about a year or two, then stopped until I was about 17.
I think every writer is born with an
innate need to write, but, even though I started writing at a young
age, I didn’t realize this need until high school. I walked into an
English class one afternoon, and there was a blank piece of paper on
each of our desks. After the bell rang, my teacher simply said,
Several of my classmates looked confused by the instruction, but I got it right away. I filled both sides of the page and started on another. After that, I started writing every so often, but never anything resembling a story, poem, or song until I got to college. On my 19th birthday, I used my gift money to buy a guitar. A friend who lived across the hall from me in our dorm had a guitar and taught me some chords. I played it nearly every moment of my free time and learned songs by reading tabs online. But soon the urge to explore on my own took over, and I started writing songs.
The following year, I met a friend who was into poetry, and she encouraged me to write poems as well. She bought me a blank journal and I filled it within a month or two.
After college, I moved to Mexico for about five months and traveled through the country looking for answers to questions that haunt many young people trying to find their place in the world. It was a boozy, hazy time for me, but I experienced several profound, life-altering changes there, and got the idea to write these ideas after I returned home to Buffalo. This writing became my first novel, Understanding the Alacran.
Later on, I taught myself how to write screenplays. I’ve written 7 screenplays now, 5 of which have won almost 50 awards in various international screenwriting contests, and 1 of them has a director attached to it.
For me, writing was a slow progression. What keeps me going is a deep need to share my experiences and emotions with other people. I see writing as a form of healing, and I wish to share what I’ve suffered with and learned in an attempt to help others work through their own problems as well. I have a deep need to connect with others, and I find that I can do that on a profound and intimate level with my writing.
Norm: Did you read any special books on how to write?
Jonathan: Yes, I’ve read several excellent books on writing/screenwriting, my favorites being:
-Keys To Great Writing by Stephen Wilbers
-On Writing by Stephen King
-Story by Robert McKee
-Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
-Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman
-On Writing Well by William Zinsser
-The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
-Make Your Words Work by Gary Provost
-100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost
-Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne
I think the book that had the greatest affect on me was On Writing Well by William Zinsser. This may be because it was one of the first books I read on writing, but regardless, Zinsser’s approach was informative and inviting and made me feel welcome to improve my writing, in spite of my insecurities. Even after writing a novel and countless songs and poems, I felt like a fraud.
I’d taken numerous English courses throughout my life, but none focused on what makes writing effective and beautiful, so most of what I’d written came from my instincts. While reading On Writing Well, I was surprised at how many lessons I’d never learned. Like many people, I falsely assumed that, in order to be “good,” writing had to be clever, convoluted, aristocratic… But William Zinsser set me straight: above all things, writing needs to be clear.
I didn’t realize the uselessness of jargon and the effectiveness of good, strong words. This was my first real study on professional-caliber writing, but rather than overwhelm me, it inspired me to want to learn more—hence the large number of books I read after. I still have several books on writing in the cue, but I put those on hold to work on actual writing. I don’t think there’s any more important lesson to teach people how to write quite like the act of writing, but it was great getting an idea of what “writing” actually was before I got further into it.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer and screenwriter?
Jonathan: Regarding novels, one of my biggest mistakes early on was trying to capture every minute detail of the story, which constipated my writing. I fell into the trap of thinking that writing had to be elaborate in order to please, without realizing that the more detail I added, the less interested readers would likely be. Learning how to write screenplays helped me with this considerably (as did reading books like On Writing Well).
Screenwriting is much more structured than novel writing. You only have so much space to write lines of action and dialogue, requiring an economy and efficiency with words. I’d written two screenplays before writing Developing Minds, and this experience helped me while plotting out the structure of my novel. At times, it felt like I was writing a screenplay. Many of the action and dialogue lines in DM are quick and direct, and move along as would a screenplay.
Regarding screenplays, one of my biggest mistakes was writing a full treatment for my second screenplay, Dellwood, before I started the first draft. I got this idea from one of the more popular screenwriting tomes, but I felt this was a huge waste of time. Plotting every detail before beginning the first draft didn’t help, it hurt—like a sneeze that just wouldn’t come because I was conscious of it. I kept getting the urge to write dialogue and action lines, but had to control myself, which put a lid on my creativity. What I typically do now is write a rough order of scenes/events for the story, then start writing the first draft. This works better for me than knowing every beat before beginning the actual screenplay. It also saves a lot of time. Dellwood took me about 8 months to write, whereas my third screenplay, The Way Back Home, took me 5 days.
I believe “mistakes” are all a part of the writing process and only become actual mistakes if you repeat them without having learned your lesson.
Norm: In your particular case, how is the process different in writing screenplays as compared to writing a novel?
Jonathan: They’re very different. Screenplays require a strict adherence to several hard-set rules. To get taken seriously by Hollywood readers, scripts need to be formatted according to industry standards, which limit page numbers, margin widths, font size/type, etc… It’s also important to keep the story tight by avoiding flourish or anything that can’t actually be seen on screen. This was difficult for me at first because I love to use elaborate metaphors, descriptive language, etc… But learning screenplay structure has helped me with not only writing screenplays, but novels, songs, and poems as well. Novels, and many songs and poems, tell stories and can have multiple acts, even if those acts are simply implied (as would be the case for songs or poems that tell stories).
That being said, I strongly prefer to write novels. After writing two screenplays and dealing with the confines of structure, I felt like an animal let out of a cage when I began writing Developing Minds. The discipline I learned with writing screenplays helped keep me on the spine of my story, but I allowed my creativity to wander when writing descriptions, dialogue, figurative language, characters… When I write, I feel like I’m dancing, and I often move as though I were, letting the story’s rhythm take me over. I get this feeling when I do writing of any kind, but feel it most strongly while writing novels.
Norm: What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
This is a tough question to answer because one man’s terrible
advice is another man’s insight. For me, I’ve always been driven
by the more creative and artistic side of writing, so I often cringe
when I hear people telling writers to think of the markets, audience,
current trends, etc… before writing so they can make their work
more marketable when it’s finished. I believe this is a recipe for
disaster, and leads to careful, bland, worthless writing (although I
do think this approach makes sense when writing certain works of
To be of any worth, writing needs to be bold and honest—that doesn’t mean it needs to be “edgy” or “in your face,” but that writers should tell the story inside of them without worrying about what anyone else thinks. I write for myself and I write as honestly as I can. I put it all in there and trust that when others read my work, they’ll be able to identify with it because it’s so filled with raw, lived-in experience. If I approach my characters and themes and insights as if I were writing them for some focus group, my writing would no longer become my own, but rather a part of the tyranny of mediocre “art” that never rises above a sales campaign and intimidates other forms of creative expression to follow its path.
This being said, having a marketing plan in place from the start may be an excellent way for some writers to approach their work. It’s just not for me. I do what’s best for myself and try to pick up pieces of advice along the way that I know will help me.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
Jonathan: For nonfiction, any liberties are too much, unless the book is being sold as a “based on” story. For nonfiction, give me the facts. Give me raw, unfiltered reality. Find a story that lives and breaths on its own, and give it to me straight. I have no problem with authors adding their opinions/insights to works of nonfiction, as anything “real” is experienced through our different perspectives, but don’t bend the truth just to make it a story.
fiction, let the liberties fly. As Hemingway said, “All good books
are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and
after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that
happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you . . .” I
absolutely agree with this quote.
Even if what you’re writing is based on real events, if you make up characters and events that are based on the emotions you felt living through, or researching, those events, those made up characters and events may be truer than those in real life. An entire novel, or film, or song, or whatever, can take place entirely in someone’s head and still be as real as anything that could happen in everyday life. In that place where our feelings and imagination meet life is an endlessly fertile soil of creativity that only loses its potency if we shut our hearts and eyes to both. We need to experience life to recharge our creativity, but we also need our creativity to give us the strength and freedom to fully experience life.
Norm: Norm: What subjects do you teach in school and does your writing career ever conflict with your career as a writer?
Jonathan: I’m certified to teach social studies at the secondary level. My teaching career does conflict with my writing career in the same way any career would conflict with my writing, in that I have to split my time between both. I would love to write full time. My dream is to have the freedom to travel to a safe place where I can dive inside of my stories, experience them fully, and let them out. To immerse myself in music and poetry and prose without the fear that in doing so, I’ll lose touch with reality—that I’ll actually approach a truer more powerful reality by doing so.
While I’d love to write full time, there are many aspects of teaching that I’d miss. I think there is no greater responsibility that we have as adults than to be important in the life of a child. I love working with kids and helping them find the creativity and inspiration inside of themselves. If I ever did get the opportunity to write full time, I think this is the part of teaching I’d miss the most. Like Jack Kerouac commenting in Big Sur that he considered the ditch he dug to gather water an equal accomplishment to his writing, I don’t see my writing as any more important than any moment where I’ve helped a kid feel worthy or special or capable of improving themselves in some way. Any task we undertake can be a masterwork if we approach it with the right attitude and energy.
Norm: What purpose do you believe your two novels, A Noble Truth and Developing Minds serve and what matters to you about the two novels. Did you write the stories to express something you believe or was it just for entertainment?
Jonathan: Everything I’ve written, I’ve written to express a message of great importance to me. With all of my stories, I’ve felt a deep need to tell them—a need that has a greater purpose than to simply entertain. Writing for me is a form of therapy. By writing my stories, even if they have nothing to do with my own experiences, I’m able to get a better understanding of how I see the world and the emotions I feel while living in it, and I’ve been able to grow on a creative and personal level as a result.
A Noble Truth and Developing Minds are deep, personal stories, even though A Noble Truth has very little to do with my own real life experiences (although the story was inspired by a road trip I took with a friend after we graduated college). I wrote A Noble Truth with the hope that people who read it—and, maybe, someday watch the film—recognize that we can make significant changes on a social and political level by better understanding and confronting our own suffering. Developing Minds also explores this theme, and urges readers to use compassion with themselves and others in order to realize their potential as satisfied and self-actualized human beings.
It’s my dream that people who read/watch/listen to my work feel inspired to improve themselves and the world they live in in some way.
Norm: As a follow up, could you tell our readers a little about each of the novels?
A Noble Truth is a feature-length, coming-of-age dramatic screenplay
that follows two friends who take a road trip throughout the U.S. and
into Mexico with the intention of exploring what truths unite people
in a world slipping deeper into apathy and discord. On this quest for
truth, however, it’s soon evident that truth is the last thing
either man seeks. I wrote this screenplay in the vein of stories like
Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, and The Motorcycle Diaries, and it
explores the idea that a revolution on a personal level may be able
to inspire revolution on a societal level as well.
A Noble Truth has
won 13 awards/honors since 2013, including first place in both the
2014 Awareness Film Festival and 2014 West Field Screenwriting Awards
(The New York Award).
According to a judge in the 2015 Cincinnati Film Festival: “The message of reforming a dissatisfied America is a pertinent and modern theme that is relevant in today’s turbulent world. LaPoma delivers this social commentary with conviction and honesty, his writing showcasing his legitimate passion for his subject matter. Especially in the strife-enveloped America we live in today, his call for people-minded reform has the potential to connect to the numerous social groups and like-minded thinkers whose presence in today’s world has only grown in the past few years.”
Developing Minds is a dark but humorous coming-of-age novel that follows a group of recent college grads who struggle with feelings of alienation and their addictions as they try to survive a year of teaching in two dysfunctional Miami public schools. It offers readers a brutally honest look at the American public school system and the extreme measures many teachers take to cope with working in it. Kirkus Reviews gave it Recommended Review status and called it an "Entertaining and authentic look at the troubled American education system" (the review appeared in their August 2015 issue), the San Francisco Book Review called it "Incredibly artistic . . . raw and endearing," and the Stargazer Literary Prizes awarded it as a finalist in their 2015 competition. I see Developing Minds as a mix between Teacher Man by Frank McCourt and Post Office by Charles Bukowski. The novel can be quite graphic and vulgar, but underneath this rough exterior is a thoughtful story about a young man’s quest to find something pure in himself and in the world. The theme of compassion for one’s self as a means to realize potential is present throughout, balancing out the rougher material.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for the two novels?
Jonathan: A world that’s in need of improvement.
Norm: When writing the two novels, did you work from an outline and did you know the ending at the beginning?
Jonathan: With both A Noble Truth and Developing Minds, I started by writing a loose outline that did little more than line up the scenes. Once I have the spine of the story down, I like to just get into it and see what comes up, and that’s what I did with both of these. I see writing as more of an act of exploration than I do an act of engineering.
I did have the ending for both stories before I wrote them, and with both, I wrote to that ending, not knowing exactly what would happen along the way. I’m aware that this style of writing would irritate a lot of writers, but I’m more in the Stephen King school where I like to see the story for the first time as it arrives to me. For all of my screenplays and novels, I’ve known the ending first, and have written each in this style.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Jonathan: I’m on Facebook, Goodreads, LibraryThing, Twitter (although I’m still not quite sure how to use it), and a few other social media platforms. You can always check out my website, www.jonlapoma.com for more information, and join my mailing list for access to exclusive content (you can sign up by scrolling to the bottom of my website’s homepage).
Norm: What is next for Jonathan LaPoma?
Jonathan: Lately, I’ve been feeling an overwhelming need to start a band. Over the last decade, I’ve written hundreds of songs that have never seen the light of day, and it’s their time for some TLC. They’ve been patient with me for long enough.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Jonathan: Can I buy a million copies of your book in bulk? The answer is yes!
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Thank you as well, Norm!
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