Todd Croak-Falen

I figure if you came to my About page, you're looking for something a little deeper than the one-paragraph bio you saw in one of my books. Plus, I never really stop and think about how all of this came to be, at least not in a chronological, comprehensive way, so it would be kind of nice for me to run through it.

When I look back on it, I realize that reading and writing have always held an undeniable pull for me. I began writing little books in first grade, stapling the pages together into a spine. For Christmas in second grade, I asked for (and received) a book on how to write cursive so I could teach myself. I didn't want to wait until third grade to learn. Back then, I was just following my instincts without much question. I now have the perspective to realize that these things were unusual, and say a lot about me as a person.

The summer after I completed middle school, my family moved from Altadena, California to Portland, Oregon. I was excited, but there was still a month or two before school started, and I didn't yet have other ways of meeting people. I spent a lot of time alone in my room. Every morning, painters would wake me up at 7:00 am as they set up their ladders against a nearby house. And so would begin another day of stifling boredom.

I soon decided to write a YA novel not only to entertain myself, but to have something to show for my time. It was called Snow Aces, and was about two best friends in middle school who had adventures sledding down the hills of their neighborhood and doing battle with a local bully, whose sister the main character had a crush on. I cranked out some good pages, but ultimately got stuck after several chapters.

It wasn't until halfway through high school that I began work on a new novella, Kevin. I was once again sitting at home, bored, when I randomly decided to create a more interesting world to escape into. I had no idea where the story was going, and I certainly wasn't working off an outline — I just made everything up as I went along. Whatever I decided would make the current scene more interesting, I threw in.

Soon, the floodgates were open, and I found myself racing toward an exciting climax. I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with the ideas that were coming in — and the fact that I was writing the entire thing by hand because I didn't own a computer wasn't exactly speeding things along. I would take my handwritten notebook (plus the loose pages rubber–banded to the notebook) to the computer lab at school and transcribe as much as I could after school class each afternoon.

I won't even recount the plot of this one, but it was important because it was the first long–form book I actually finished writing. From that moment on, I had the mentality that I was somebody who finished projects.

Then, midway through high school, I saw Michael Mann's Heat, and my entire worldview pivoted. It was the first — and probably still the only — time I'd seen a character like De Niro's in a movie. Not a wildcard who "plays by his own rules," but someone methodical and introverted; a detail–oriented perfectionist who planned out all his moves in advance before executing them. He felt like a real person to me, and in fact I identified with him a lot (minus the sociopathic qualities).

But even beyond this, Mann's storytelling style captivated me. Whereas a novel plays out in the theater of the reader's mind, I was blown away by how much control a filmmaker had over his or her audience's experience. They could use angles, edits, lighting, and music to create very specific moods, and I decided I wanted in on this.

My focus shifted almost immediately to screenplays, and I quickly and obsessively wrote a very stylized feature–length CIA action epic called The Aggression. I also wrote, directed, and edited a short James Bond movie on VHS for a class project, which was a lot of fun.

After high school, I majored in Film Production at Chapman University in Orange, California. (This had the added benefit of getting me out of the Portland rain and back into the California sun — all part of my plan.)

It was here that I wrote a sequel to The Aggression called Corruption, which actually incorporated a lot of elements from Kevin into its B–story. I also wrote a standalone feature–length comedy called Defective Miller, about a 25–year–old still living at home with his parents who advertises himself as a private eye despite having no training, experience, or license. Defective Miller won first place in Chapman's Calliope publication.

Junior year, I wrote two short scripts worth mentioning: Welcome To My Mind and The Image-Conscious War Zone. Both were a departure from my previous action–adventure forays. Welcome To My Mind was a character–driven relationship piece about a high school senior trying to win the heart of a damaged girl who considers him too stable to be attractive. The script was a finalist for Chapman's Location Filmmaking program, in which the school funds a handful of student films each year. However, Welcome To My Mind was not chosen for funding.

The Image-Conscious War Zone was in a similar vein, but much darker. It told the story of a sensitive, reclusive, heartbroken, well–known author who is attempting to withdraw from the world when he is seduced — and ultimately betrayed — by a young female journalist. The project was performed as a play at Chapman University, directed by my good friend, Todd Luoto.

At the end of my junior year, I was awarded the Cinetech Most Promising Filmmaker grant, which provided funding for my senior thesis film. That summer, I used the money to film Welcome To My Mind.

Senior year, I teamed up with my friend David Malki to produce his Location Filmmaking project, Accusation, about a man whose stepdaughter accuses him of inappropriate advances, sparking an investigation by her school. The film went on to earn Dave and I the Best Picture Award that year at Chapman.

The end of college was a difficult transition for me. While most of my friends were getting internships or jobs, moving to Los Angeles, and pairing off as roommates, I was down to $300 and no car. The only realistic thing to do was move back into my parents' home in Portland for a couple years. Unable to find film work in Portland, I got a job in sales — a skill I figured would serve me well in Hollywood, anyway — and saved up for a car. Then I transferred my job to Los Angeles and rejoined my film school friends, eager to get my career off the ground.

I soon reteamed with Dave to cowrite a short script called Expendable, a James Bond–style action–comedy told from the henchmen's point of view. I produced — and Dave directed — the movie, which went on to play in over 30 film festivals worldwide. We then wrote a feature–length version of the concept called Henchmen Wanted, which landed us a manager.

It was during these years, however, that it became painfully clear that I would never be able to save up the money to direct my own movie at my current salary and with the high cost of living in Los Angeles. I was constantly having to find creative ways to stay afloat financially, and survival was my main focus. But writing was always free, and my focus soon turned back to novels — my original passion. This freed me up creatively to write without a budget in mind. Locations, props, cast, crew, and food were no longer limiters.

Writing a novel also meant that my project could actually see the light of day. Whereas if I finished writing a screenplay, the next step was to produce it if I wanted anybody to experience my story, if I finished writing a novel, the words were the finished product.

Although my original attraction to film had been the amount of control it would afford me over the audience's emotions, I had also discovered firsthand that the finished product never quite comes out the way you envisioned it. Shots are a little different, performances, the look of the actors, the colors, locations, etc. Everything gets compromised at least a little until you wind up with something different than what you thought was on the page.

So there was something refreshing about retreating into the world of novel–writing. This also provided me with the opportunity to tell a story that was far too internal to make as a film. This novel was Catch Up To Myself, which went on to become my first published book.

I wrote the entire manuscript by hand, although for very different reasons than I had in the past. This time I did own a computer, but I wanted to get two passes out of my first draft: one to handwrite, and another while transcribing. As I transcribed, I made improvements and caught mistakes and repetitions, resulting in a much more polished first draft than normal. This is a technique I've used on every novel and short story I've written since.

This first draft of Catch Up To Myself took me two years to write, about four times longer than I was used to with screenplays. (A novel has much more text on each page than a screenplay — and more pages.) This required me to start outlining in more detail than I had in the past, as I couldn't possibly hold every nuance and callback in my head for that long. The outline for Catch Up To Myself was about 26 pages long, which was massive for me at the time. Now, it is common for me to work with 80+ page outlines, as I break down each scene into precise detail.

I continue to alternate between writing novels and screenplays, deciding which medium to use based on the type of storytelling style a particular project calls for.

I hope you've enjoyed this voyage through my writing career. It's been a bit therapeutic for me to recount all this; it feels so different looking back than it did at the time. If you have questions or comments, please email me via the link below; I'd love to hear from you, and I do my best to respond to everybody.

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Todd Croak-Falen