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Writing in Restaurants 2007

By Jonathan Dorf

It's been more than two years since the last Writing in Restaurants, and in that time I've come across many new writing-friendly venues. Today, I'll be serving a five-course meal of writing tips as I introduce you to some of my latest favorites. Unless otherwise noted, these aren't plug-in or wireless venues, but they're wonderful places to stoke your creativity nonetheless.

Square One Dining, Los Angeles, California

Get your writing day started right with what may be the best breakfast in town at this outpost in Silverlake. They open at 8:00 AM and close at 3:30 PM, serve breakfast all day (try the decadent, dazzling French toast--and they serve lunch, too, as it gets later). It can be a bit of a madhouse on the weekend, but try coming on the later side. It's a great time to sit, relax and enjoy the atmosphere.

Alcove Cafe and Bakery, Los Angeles, California

My other favorite cafe-style venue, this one is in Los Feliz in a converted bungalow. They have a sprawling, oasis-like outdoor seating area and a large, varied menu of salads and sandwiches, plus excellent breakfasts served into the early afternoon. Great energy and open late enough that you can spend your day here--with desserts large enough to have their own gravitational pull.

First Course Writing Tip

Picture a bulldozer and a shrub. There's not much mystery about what's going to happen if the bulldozer drives over the shrub: no more shrub. Who wants to watch such a mismatch? It's the same with the characters in your play or screenplay. If one character has all the power, there's no suspense in the outcome, and the audience has no reason to keep watching. Instead, each character needs to be equally formidable. Maybe one character is cunning, or another holds a valuable secret, or perhaps another is simply physically strong. If every character has a weapon of her own, then the outcome continues to be in doubt, and the audience continues to be interested.

Mandalay, London

And now for something completely different. Mandalay is a small, family-owned restaurant in the Marylebone section of London, but it was one of the culinary highlights of my recent trip there. Prices are among the more reasonable in town, and the friendly servers are more than happy to help you navigate the menu of Burmese delights. The relaxed atmosphere is perfect for finding your writing bliss.

Noura, London

The Lebanese restaurants in Los Angeles tend to be short on ambiance, with their tasty food often best enjoyed as takeout. Noura (I ate at the one in Belgravia, but there are several throughout the city) is quite the opposite. The restaurant is sumptuous and extremely comfortable, with polished, friendly service that went the extra mile by steering me toward a "lunch" special that I didn't even realize they were still serving and then, at the mere inquiry about dessert, they brought me a variety of superb baklava gratis.

Second Course Writing Tip

Most writers struggle with exposition: what does the audience need to know, and when do they need to know it? The challenge--easier said than done, of course--is to provide that information without making it obvious that you're doing so. One simple but winning strategy is to "break it up." Anytime a character's line of dialogue has more than one piece of information in it, it calls attention to itself as exposition. Instead, separate your information, so that it sneaks into the play. This way, you're assembling the world of your play, but the audience will never see the "under construction" signs.

Ninderry Manor, Yandina, Queensland, Australia

Technically, Ninderry Manor, on Australia's Sunshine Coast, isn't a restaurant. It's a bed and breakfast, but the food is worthy of a high-quality restaurant, and oh, what a place to write. Owned by Aki and Miyuki, perhaps the most hospitable couple on the planet, Ninderry Manor offers gorgeous views and all the comforts of home (assuming you live in a lovely and comfortable one). There are ample places to plug-in, and they even let me connect through their own internet connection to download my email. And let's not forget about the food: Aki is a French-trained chef, so breakfasts are gourmet, three course affairs, and he'll do special dinners with advance notice.

Spirit House, Yandina, Queensland, Australia

Like its name, the Spirit House is a magical place. A lighted path directs you through the woods until you reach the restaurant, which consists of a small main house and "tentacles" on both sides, with many of the tables outdoors and encircling a small lake. It's dazzling, and it has the effect, because of the way the tentacles are organized, of making you feel as if you're almost dining in private. But it's not just a pretty place to enjoy your evening meal--it's some of the best Thai food in a country that has an awful lot of wonderful Thai food.

Third Course Writing Tip

My friend, the writer Ed Shockley, is fond of saying that "great writers work in the specific," and it's one of my favorite pieces of writing advice. It's not just an "old car," it's the "ancient station wagon with the taped- up driver's side window." That's not a flower you hold in your hand, it's a dead lily. The details are what capture the imagination and attention of your audience, and they help you, the writer, to learn about your own characters and create a richer play.

Raincity Grill, Vancouver, Canada

Raincity Grill sits mere feet away from English Bay, and every table has that calming water view. While it's considered one of Vancouver's best restaurants at any time of the day, weekend brunch is actually quite a bargain (at night, expect to pay serious money here). With a choice of breakfast or lunch dishes, and with croissants, scones and other complimentary breakfast pastries to get you started, take in that bay view and get to work.

Wings, Eugene, Oregon

Wings is located at--not surprisingly, given the name--an airport. The small, modern airport in Eugene is one of my favorites. The uncrowded, hassle-free environment is ideal for getting work done, and what makes it even better is that Wings has plenty of seating, plenty of plug-ins, and the airport has free wireless throughout. The food is solid, with a varied menu that ranges from soups and sandwiches to pastas and entrees, and you can watch a variety of sporting events, or hunker down to write or research.

Fourth Course Writing Tip

Trying to develop a character and running into a wall? Here's a way to break through: remember that characters are defined by their actions. So rather than trying to assign arbitrary qualities to a character, come up with a series of events in his life (I like to come up with a minimum of three). For example, he crashed the family car when he was sixteen. What was the fallout from that? How did it affect his relationships? What if another character won the science fair? How did that change the way she behaved toward her friends? By giving characters behavior, you jumpstart the invention of their personal qualities and their lives--and therefore your play.

Reader Restaurant Recommendations

Gran Caffe Degli Artisti and Café Steinhof, New York, New York

My two favorite places to write in New York City are Gran Caffe Degli Artisti, 46 Greenwich Avenue (in the Village), which has Italian sandwiches and sweets, and Cafe Steinhof, 7th Avenue & 14th Street in Brooklyn (the outer edge of Park Slope), which has reasonably priced Austrian comfort food (gulasch, schnitzel, etc.) and WiFi. - A.P.

Readers also recommend two small, upscale chains, Panera Bread Company (free WiFi) and Cosi as good places to sit and work. Go to their websites to find out if there's a location near you!

Fifth Course Writing Tip

It's time to finish off with something sweet. While I highly recommend heading to the Alcove for one of their mammoth cakes or to Square One for some of their artisan, ahead of the curve comfort food, here's something that can potentially save you enough money to buy several meals. Did you know that you don't have to copyright every work you write individually? It's possible--particularly with short pieces--to copyright works as a collection. For example, I took all of my ten-minute plays and copyrighted them collectively as "Dorf Short Shorts." I then copyrighted all of my one-act plays collectively as "Dorf Knee Shorts." Yes, I think the titles are terribly clever, but more important, this tip saved me hundreds of dollars. Now you probably do want to copyright full-length pieces individually, but for shorts or related pieces, why not copyright them as a collection and then treat yourself? And there's even better news on the horizon--the U.S. Copyright office is currently beta-testing an electronic registration system costing $35, a $10 savings (not to mention what you save on postage and printing) over the traditional registration.

Happy eating, relaxing and writing!

Meet the Author: Jonathan Dorf

Author of more than 30 published plays with over 1000 productions worldwide, Jonathan Dorf co-founded publisher YouthPLAYS, co-chairs the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights and is Final Draft's resident playwriting expert. He created the content for Playwriting101.com, Google's top-ranked playwriting website for over a decade, and teaches playwriting through Screenwriters University. He has served as Visiting Associate Professor in the MFA Playwriting and Children's Lit programs at Hollins University, as United States Cultural Envoy to Barbados and been a guest speaker at schools and festivals ranging from the University of Southern California to the...