Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Heifer Update

or, Here's the Buzz...

Thanks so much to all who participated in spreading some Heifer Holiday Cheer by commenting my Let Your Dreams Help Others blog post. Twenty-four people commented here. (Several others commented on the link on my Facebook page, so I'll count them, too.)

Thanks to you (and thanks to the bighearted Mr. Bransford who inspired this adventure), a gift of bees has been made to Heifer International. Think of it: honey, flowers, pollination, increased crop yield, increased income -- all made possible for someone because you took the time to share your goals on my little blog.

So, blessings to those who responded (and you know who you are). Here's hoping that you start the year off with a smile. Know that your writing has been directly responsible for helping out another human being. Wishing you all health, prosperity, and happiness. May you all your dreams for 2010 come true!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let Your Dreams Help Others!

or, Happy Heifer Holidays!

In the spirit of the season (with special thanks to literary agent extraordinaire Nathan Bransford for the great idea), I'd love to hear your goals for 2010 while helping someone out at the same time. So -- please post three things below.

1.) Your name.
2.) Where you are writing from.
3.) What your goals for 2010 include. (If you're a writer, be bold and state your writing dreams. If not: be bold anyway! Dream big!)

I'll donate $1.00 to Heifer International (one of my favorite charities) for each of the first 100 comments that get posted before 12:00 p.m. EST tomorrow -- Dec. 24.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all!

(12 / 24 / 09 9:00 a.m. EST Addendum:

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, Blogger won't let me post a comment. I have wrestled with the beast, but it has gotten the better of me -- so in the interest of getting my house ready for Christmas tomorrow, I will do this workaround.

I simply want to thank all who have posted comments. Here's hoping that you find a way to make reality of all your dreams this next year. You're off to a great start. By posting below, your writing has already had a direct, positive impact on someone else's life. It doesn't get much better than that!

Thanks again!


Monday, December 21, 2009

Interviewing Skills

or, Top 10 Reasons to Talk to Cherie Burbach

On Friday, author and blogger Cherie Burbach featured an interview with Yours Truly on her Working Writers and Bloggers blog. (For those truly interested, see "Interview: Ami Hendrickson".)

Cherie is a delightful interviewer. Anyone interested in getting other people to respond to and answer questions would do well to follow her "interview model." This model includes the following 10 Interview Essentials:

1. Know Your Subject -- Cherie and I have never met. To the best of my knowledge, she is not an avid horsewoman. However, she took the time to visit my websites and familiarize herself with what I do. Her questions showed that she had done her homework. Answering them was a joy -- which made it easy for me to put "Respond to Cherie" at the top of my very lengthy To Do list.

2. Find the Joy -- Cherie's enthusiasm for writers and writing shows. It is stamped on every aspect of her blog. She clearly enjoys what she does and it is impossible not to share her enthusiasm.

3. Communicate Clearly -- Cherie's questions were clear, succinct, and to the point. They were topically targeted to keep answers a manageable size and open-ended so as to discourage one-word answers. When the interview was posted, Cherie sent me a personal e-mail letting me know that it was online.

4. Be Prompt -- Not only did Cherie communicate with me clearly, but she did so promptly as well. This promptness kept her well-placed in my in-box and encouraged me to make promptness a virtue on my part, too.

5. Be Personable -- Cherie's communications with me always had a personal touch. I never had the impression that I was just an assignment or a cog in a wheel.

6. Be Professional -- All of Cherie's communications were courteous, concise, and polished. I never felt that I was an also-ran in the mad-dash race of her life.

7. Be Interested -- In all of our correspondence, Cherie appeared genuinely interested in what I was up to and in what I had to say. This is of vital importance in an interview. The interviewer's interest directly affects the interviewee's willingness to open up.

8. Get it Right -- Cherie faithfully posted my responses to her questions. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I can't tell you how rarely it happens. When it does, it makes the interviewee breathe a sigh of relief and consider making you a beneficiary to his or her will...

9. Direct Your Readers -- At the beginning of the posted interview, Cherie singled out a sentence that she particularly favored. This serves the same purpose as a callout in a magazine article -- it directs the reader's attention. However, it also provides feedback of sorts and tells the person interviewed what he or she said that particularly resonated. This can help the person hone or clarify the topic at a later date.

10. Make it Easy -- Everything about working with Cherie was readily accomplished. This not only made it easy to connect with her and respond to her, but it made me happy to do so.

So, for those of you planning an interview with someone in the near future, do yourself and your subject a favor -- take a page from Cherie's playbook and make sure you've got those Top 10 interviewing essentials on your team.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Business of Books

I received an e-mail update from Janet, a writer friend of mine who is in the process of researching her first contracted book while finishing up the proposal for a pet project.

In her update, she commented on a "light bulb moment" she recently had:

I have almost finished my book proposal - that is certainly not an easy task for an unfinished book, is it? It did help me pick up steam, better determine my audience, and examine several others along the way. Published books are really successful business projects, aren't they?

Ah! So they are.

Most books that get in print these days are really businesses. The sooner a writer realizes this, the better! Too many writers treat their books like hobbies, or pets, or illicit affairs, or toys. They don't take the books or themselves seriously. They fail to realize that publishing is a business and are all too often lax about learning how that business operates.

One of the things I encourage writers to do is to set goals for themselves. I encourage writing goals ("I'll write X,000 words a day." "I'll finish X chapter(s) a week."). I encourage business-building goals ("I'll submit to X new markets each week." "I'll research at least one relevant manager this month."). In all things, however, I encourage realistic expectations.

Sometimes, overly ambitious goals can arise from an unfamiliarity with the rigors of the writing profession. As with any job, some days are more productive than others. If an unfamiliarity with the ups and downs of any business venture does not inform our writing goals, we tend to set those goals while dazzled by the glow of an exciting new project. However, if our goals are contingent upon our being brilliant every day, we not only set ourselves up for defeat -- but we also pave the way for burnout.

New York Times bestselling author Marie Bostwick has some excellent advice on how writers can stay motivated without burnout.

One of the things she suggests is that writers build in a certain number of "sick days" and "personal days" when developing their goals. Doing so, Bostwick suggests, allows one the writing equivalent of calling in to the office and taking a day off when necessary for one's life, liberty, and general well-being.

Bostwick's approach to the business of writing is well worth considering.

If you are a writer, I encourage you to come up with a plan that will make this next year the one that develops your Pet Project (you know: The One that's just begging for your attention). As you plan, however, I suggest that you consider the business you are in. You are in the business of creating. Of living your life. Of learning, and loving, and growing, and expanding your horizons. Beware of becoming a workaholic. Treat your writing, and your books, like any other business venture. Build your goals around a schedule that allows you to grow your business and remain "open for business" for many years to come...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Those Tricky Tax Questions

or, "What if I Only make $599?"

I have a post begun that continues last Tuesday's musings on character creation. However, several notes in my in-box this morning have made me momentarily switch gears and start thinking end-of-the-year thoughts.

Namely: "TAXES."

After the banner year that was 2008, thanks to several excellent opportunities (and one or two desperate clients), 2009 has been rather uninspired when it comes to the bottom line. Until recently. Suddenly, business has exploded as clients realize that sometimes it IS best to hire someone (me) who plays at things they work at...

Which means that though the year began with a bang that faded to a whimper over the summer, it will finish with a very strong and lusty yodel. I see a sea of 1099's in my future. My poor tax preparer...

In addition to clients bringing writing jobs, my in-box also featured the following e-mail from a former writing student:

Now that I am starting to get a few more writing credits (two articles accepted on a kid's website paying $35 apiece and an article on a mom's website coming out in Jan. in addition to about 11 book reviews so far)...

(I am SO proud! ::sniff::)

...I am starting to apply for higher paying freelance jobs. Well, these leads come from the web which can be a scary place. I have NEVER been asked nor never given my SSN. Yet, the jobs I have been paid for have paid very little, so I don't think they need it anyway unless it is over $500. I am keeping track of what I am pd. and will declare that for taxes, of course. Anyway, if I ever do get a job that pays more than $500, is there any way around submitting my SSN, in case it's a scam? I have read a little about getting an employee identification number that can be used in place of a SSN, but I know very little about that. Any thoughts or help would be appreciated.

OK - realize first and foremost that I AM NOT A TAX ADVISOR! I am a person who will happily wrestle with words all afternoon, but put me in front of a few numbers, and I quickly cry "uncle" and look for any easy out. It's not that I can't "do" the math. It's just that I HATE it. Which is somehow even more embarrassing.

So, now that I have ascertained that anything I might say on the subject of taxes is completely suspect, here is my response to the question:

If the job is legit, and you make over $600 (I believe that's the magic number now) from a single source -- not from a single job -- in a year, they will require your SSN in order to issue you your 1099. (As you probably know, we freelancers are generally considered contract workers.) Ask your tax preparer about getting an EIN -- I have one and, as I recall, it was relatively painless and involved less than the usual amount of bloodletting.

Generally, you don't need to submit your SSN until the company is issuing 1099's. Many legitimate places will issue you a check for work completed without having your ## on file.

WiseGeek posted this interesting article on the realities of being a 1099 contractor.

If you are worried about the validity of a site, or if a job makes your scam-meter go ::beep::, be very careful. However, by law a respectable employer has to know your SSN (or equivalent) in order to complete the federal requirements on their side...

Always check out Preditors & Editors, Absolute Write, and Writer Beware, if you have any doubts about the legitimacy of a job. It's often helpful to also do a search on the potential publisher's name, paired with the word "fraud" or "scam" and see what crops up.

...Ah, the joys of freelancing! If we have no tax questions, that means we are not working. My goal every year is to make enough money so I am HAPPY that I have to pay my "tax lady" to sort it all out.

Here's hoping that every writer reading experiences the same feeling of joy!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Character Confessions

Even though November is over, I have continued to work on my NaNo novel. As the work progresses, I have discovered (to my great surprise) that I have developed a rather poorly veiled crush on the character who is my principal Bad Guy.

This is quite unlike me. And though I like him -- a lot -- it doesn't stop me from writing down the horrible, despicable things that he has to do in order to move the story forward. It does, however, make me come up with a host of interesting ways to explain his bad behavior.

I must confess, this little obsession of mine has caused me to give the guy far more "screen time" than I had intended. It made me explore his motivations, define his drives, and flesh out his history more than I would have thought necessary had he been content to simply adhere to his original purpose in the story. My liking him has made him more real to me. Which, by necessity, forced me to make him more interesting in print.

It's been a good thing. I'm wondering how to make myself crush on all my major players...

This past week, I have been privy to several writers' "character confessions."

One lamented that the character she had intended for her protagonist ended up rubbing readers the wrong way. Without exception, all thought he was an "arrogant, manipulative, ass." This works well for House, but wasn't exactly what she was going for...

Several writers I've worked with lately have admitted that they don't know enough about their characters to know what they like, don't like, want, or work for. They know their characters' pasts and have plans for their futures -- but they don't know who these people are. Yet...

One writer identifies so strongly with her (fictitious) character, that she blurs pronouns when talks about her. "She" becomes "I," and then critique becomes dicey...

One male writer in the Writer's Practicum I facilitate consistently has difficulty creating real, believable females. He has a good grasp of plot and story, and a decent ear for dialogue -- as long as everyone involved has a "Y" chromosome. As soon as he introduces a female character, he abandons craft and clings to cliche. We're working on it...

Then there was the e-mail exchange with a young writer I coach, in which we discussed the importance of inhabiting the characters we create so they are well-rounded and real to us. He recognized his own shortcomings in being able to write from a female point of view:

"...actually, I always wonder about my female characters until a female reads them, and then I'm... relieved, but also a tiny bit worried about myself -- and what Dad would say if he saw the words "Well, he was really cute" typed by my hand as I was typing them. That sort of thing..."

I told him I was going to steal his confession for a post on the subject of characters.

We can get into trouble in a hundred different ways when we people our prose. Liking our creations too much can be as bad as not liking them.

One of the worst pitfalls is not knowing them. They become thinly veiled, poorly drawn caricatures of us (or people we think we know). Another, equally dangerous, pitfall is projecting ourselves onto them. This only results in our shielding them and not allowing them to grow into fully-realized characters.

The first step, I believe, is in recognizing our shortcomings. Sometimes identifying a fault or a weakness is all it takes to overcome it.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Bad Query! No Contract!

or, Tales from the Slush Pile

"The Rejectionist," a pseudonym for a literary agent's assistant who would rather remain namless, recently contributed an Op-Ed piece on the horrors of the slush pile to The Stranger.

If you're even remotely considering sending out a query letter in the near future, the post is worth a read -- not only because it comes from someone whom you are hoping to impress with your storytelling talent, but also because it drives home the fact that reading anything from the slush pile would make most mortals slit their wrists as a viable option to making the pain just... go away.

The assistant's job, as anyone even remotely associated with the publishing industry can tell you, is akin to trying to find a ready-to-eat gourmet meal somewhere within a full-to-overflowing dumpster.

Sure, it's possible. But it ain't probable. It ain't pretty. And sometimes it kinda just makes you want to retch...

The Rejectionist details the all-too-familiar elements of bad query letters. Of course, these include the de rigueur uninspired and unimaginative writing (conspiracy theories, cardboard caricatures instead of characters, aliens, graphic and mechanical sex) of talentless hacks who refuse to take their craft or their career seriously.

However, bad query letters can also afflict those who have a great story to tell. Sometimes, it's not the concept that's at fault. All too often, it's the execution.

The Rejectionist laments:

The bad query's sentence sometimes resembles a battlefield wherein subjects hack it out desperately with adjectives, perennially besieged by legions of unwieldy adverbs. Apostrophes go on suicide missions and commas appear at random.

It goes on from there. Read the whole post of "A Good Author is Hard to Find." Seriously. Then edit your current manuscript or, better yet, find someone you trust to give you an honest opinion about its "publishability."

(A note: the opinions of friends, family, and spouses do not count here. These fine folk serve the excellent and necessary purpose of reading what you write, loving it, loving you, and thinking you are brilliant. They are not the best selections for objective "would you buy this?" critiques and edits.)

Do yourself and your project a favor. Raise the bar -- because the publishing world is hungry for the next great writer. It's up to us to give those poor starving assistants something they can sink their teeth into.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Tales from the Writing Practicum

Last night was the weekly meeting of the Writing Practicum -- a group that I facilitate for writers who are interested in taking their writing to a new level and pushing for publication.

I am so proud of our members. They consistently produce and work at improving their craft. Their experience and styles vary greatly, but they are all improving and making great progress. I couldn't be happier for them.

For instance …

This past week, JoAnn took the plunge and started up a brand-new blog with the intention of developing a “Michigan Coffee Snitch” platform.

JoAnn is following Barbara's lead. Barbara began her Never a Barbie blog in October.

In the past month, Kelly got two new bylines!

In the past month, both Kelly and I wrote over 50,000 words and became NaNoWriMo winners.

In the past month, MaryLou signed up for NaNo and got a great jump on her brand-new novel project.

Bob is developing a series of young-reader chapter books...

Mary and Geri continue to work on their memoirs...

Janey continues to press onward with the first draft of her historical adventure / romance...

And we all are actively cheering each other on.

Writer’s Wish List

This month, Practicum members are encouraged to identify their goals for 2010 – both regular writing goals (word count, chapter completion) AND publication goals (number of new bylines, agent acquisition, platform development, publication acceptance).

Written goals keep us accountable and push us to be productive. I'm a big fan of them...

In addition to our critiques of works in progress, last night's meeting included discussion of the following:

* Harlequin's ejection from the RWA, MWA, and SFWA because of its newly launched vanity press.

* If you can type you can make a movie with your characters. (Kelly made one about Amber and Daniel, her NaNo novel heroine and hero, eating Indian food!)

* More thoughts on developing a writer's platform.

* (Last night was "Hooks and Intros" night.) Reasons why readers stop reading.

* Twitter chats for writers.

* And how to evaluate a Literary Agent.

All of this is accomplished with much laughter, digression, tangential movie and book references, comments on chicken curry, discussion of family moles, and dream casting.

So much to read. So much to write. So little time... I am eternally grateful to the Practicum for providing a much needed anchor / support group / creative outlet in the middle of my busy week.

Monday, November 30, 2009

NaNo No More!

or, Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Well, National Novel Writing Month is officially over tonight at midnight. I got my 50,000 words written -- just squeaked in under the wire today -- but the book is far from finished.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, though at times I felt that I was taking a month-long break from reality. At other times, I questioned my sanity because reality refused to take a break from me. In the month of November, the book I am under contract for (for my "real job") went to the publisher. This, of course, required the tying up of the myriad little editing loose ends that always accompany a major co-authoring project.

During the month of November, significant happenings took place with "Against the Wind," the movie about the life of Dick Beardsley that is in development...

November included an entire week of half-days of school, which significantly impacted my writing plans, since it's easier for me to be creative if a six-year old is NOT hanging over my shoulder asking to see what I'm writing...

November means that the choir I direct is adding extra practices in preparation for our annual Christmas cantata the second week of December...

It also holds Thanksgiving... And a thousand other reasons why I should be doing something other than writing.

It's the spirit of Thanksgiving that I will most associate with this year's NaNo.

I am so thankful to Robert, my wonderful husband, and my very good friend Chari, who both clamored (and continue to clamor) for more chapters. They pushed me to keep writing -- even when I got around word 30,000 or so and became convinced that my doing NaNo was an exercise in generating crap. Robert has always been my biggest fan. He has known of the story I am writing (my version of an Arthurian legend) for years. Chari, on the other hand, is completely unfamiliar with my source material. She's my "newest fan." Both of them kept me going.

Robert and Chari's enthusiasm and support reminded me how important it is for writers to say "I'm a writer," and to tell people what they are working on. Telling others of our projects not only makes our work more real, but it also makes us accountable to others and encourages us to finish what we start.

I am also thankful for the students I've worked with this past year who took the time to let me know that I was of use to them in some way. I know of at least three fellow NaNo contestants who signed up because I mentioned the contest. None of the three had ever written anything lengthy before, and all three finished!

Of course, each had to do the work him- or herself, but it makes my day to receive e-mails telling me that I had something to do with motivating a writer to take on something new. Sometimes all a writer needs is someone to think he or she is up to a particular challenge. I love being that person!

And so, as November fades away and December looms, bringing its own challenges, here's to all my writer friends -- especially those of you who jumped into NaNo with both feet this year. May you continually find yourself surrounded with those who encourage you to grow, who support your dreams, and who fill you with thankfulness!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

What's Wrong With the "10 Best Books of 2009"

or, SheWrites Takes on PW's "White Boy's Club" of 2009

Kamy Wicoff, founder and CEO of She Writes, an online writing community promoting women writers (though not excluding men as members), posted a piece earlier this week responding to the exclusion of women from Publisher Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2009 list. In part, Wicoff wrote:

We write fiction, we write memoir, we write scifi; we are bestsellers, we are award winners, we are just starting out; we are working hard, we are writing well; we are...not as good at it as men are.

Or at least that seems to be the opinion of Publishers' Weekly, which published its "Best Books of 2009" list on November 2nd and could not see its way to including a single book by a woman without destroying its integrity or betraying its unassailable good taste. Apparently books by women just aren't as good. Sorry, girls! Poor PW, they felt really badly about it. According to the novelist and journalist Louisa Ermelino, the editors at PW bent over backwards to be objective as they chose the Best Books of the year. "We ignored gender and genre and who had the buzz. We gave fair chance to the 'big' books of the year, but made them stand on their own two feet. It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male."

Not only were the writers of the books that made the list all male, but they were also overwhelmingly... white. PW may have been "disturbed," but they evidently weren't disturbed enough to question the validity of their list...

So what's wrong with the list?

"Nothing," some might say, "the books and writers on it are all excellent."

"Everything," others might answer, "but it's not just PW's fault. The shortcomings of the list only serve to underscore the flaws in the entire publishing industry."

No list is perfect -- and Top 10 Lists as a rule bug the heck out of me, because I rarely agree with them. But this particular list is patently absurd.

Of course it is ridiculous to assume that the only people capable of crafting outstanding prose in 2009 were white males. Which makes one wonder exactly what the PW editors and esteemed jury members who selected the titles on the list were thinking. Or smoking.

Wicoff has encouraged people whose literary tastes include more than just vanilla to do something about the "White Boy's Club" this year's list became. She's not suggesting that the books chosen aren't good, or that the writers aren't gifted. She simply feels, as I do, that perhaps -- just perhaps -- there are others out there who are equally talented, who have just as much to say, who don't belong to the Male Majority. To that end, SheWrites will be hosting its first ever SheWrites Day of Action tomorrow, November 13.

On this day, members are encouraged to do audacious things like actually purchase a book written by a woman and explain the reason for their choice. Imagine what literary heights we could reach and what wonderful reading experiences would open up before us if people would do that more -- buy a book and be able to state why they bought it.

I believe I may take Wicoff up on her suggestion. I know I am eager to see what others on the SheWrites site are reading. I'm always on the lookout for a great new book by an author I've never read before. I could use some ideas because, in my humble opinion, "it was on Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of the Year list" is no longer a viable reason to read a book anymore.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Contest Considerations

I am engrossed in my NaNoWriMo project (7,000+ words and going strong), and had decided to blog a big less during the month of November.

But then the incomparable Jim Mercurio, screenwriting consultant to the stars (and a really nice guy who loves The Boss) posted some pithy and cogent musings on contests and their obsessive entrants, and I had to share.

If (contests) can help you enjoy this sometimes lonely and always rejection-filled process of writing screenplays by giving you something to look forward to, then figure out your, as they call it in poker, bankroll: What you are willing to risk on contests? Even losing poker players can have an appropriate bankroll: The amount of money they are willing to lose in spending X hours of their life doing something they enjoy.

If you're a contest aficianado, I strongly suggest you read the entire post on evaluating writing contests and deciding whether or not they are for you. Then continue your education and read other posts in Jim's "A-List Screenwriting" blog. (Grab a cup of coffee when you visit -- he's quite prolific. He'd probably scoff at the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words in 30 days... I, on the other hand, find it no laughing matter. Happy writing -- I've got to go see a Muse about a novel...)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Austin Film Festival -- Day 4

or, The Producers Pontificate

I sat in on several panels today made up of People Who Make Movies (as opposed to those of us who merely write screenplays...). These included producers Richard Bever, Curtis Burch, Steven Puri, Victor Moyers, and attorney / producer Sally Helppie.

Some quotes from the panels that you can take to the bank:

"What gets producers excited is something that can get made. Market your story in the right way so I can see the dollar signs. Make it easy for us to pitch."

"You can probably get most films made, given enough time and enough willpower."

"I get excited when I read scripts that the writer loved writing. I look for a pure quality of craft and originality of idea or character."

"I started [my production company] with a Utopian vision. I thought, 'I'm going to create this writer's dream...' Reality is very, very different."

"You must be aware whether or not the budget fits the genre."

"Comic books are the new 'spec script.' You can talk about 'art' all you want, but this is absolutely true."

"Not all scripts lend themselves to a single-sentence logline. If that is the case, develop a log or pitch that can provide a way into your story that isn't necessarily linear."

"I prefer a two sentence pitch. The first sets up the character and the conflict. The second clarifies the story's tone."

"A real writer doesn't think about the marketing. When a writer begins talking about marketing, that's a tip off that the writer probably isn't any good."

"The most important thing to figure out is how to break through the noise."

"Identify the various support / niche markets that could be built into your distribution plan."

(Hmmm... I'll leave it to brighter minds than mine to figure out how to fit those last three comments into a cohesive world-view.)

A final piece of advice to independent filmmakers from the Money People:

"Don't waste time or money shooting a trailer to show potential investors. Instead, invest the time and the money to shoot a key, pivotal scene that shows the kind of production values they can expect if they fund the entire project. Show them that."

As you can see, it was a very mercenary day. Which is kind of a letdown after hearing so much about the artistic process for the past few days. The harsh reality, however, is that making movies costs money. It behooves those of us who want to see our words come to life on the screen to listen to those who know how to make that happen...

Heading home bright and early tomorrow (a 6:00 CST wake-up call -- bleah). Though the Austin Film Festival will be over for me, I still have a few more little tidbits to share.

Tune in for tomorrow's installment: Contemplating Karma.

Austin Film Festival -- Contemplating Karma

(From Friday's Festival Musings)


I'm at the AFF, sitting in the lobby of the Driskill, talking to Tim, the director / producer of My Run, which screens tonight (and which has a gung-ho promotional team, by the way), when this guy comes and sits on the couch next to me and starts talking to the woman at the other end.

It was one of those odd serendipitous things, when you realize that you have been a good person, and the universe is smiling upon you, and God has granted you a boon for the day.

You see, when I work on a script or a book, I actively engage in Dream Casting -- sometimes to an alarming degree. My studio walls will often rival the most obsessed fan's as I surround myself with pictures and clippings of my dream team (especially my principals). My husband is a longsuffering and understanding sort, thank heaven!

The script for Against the Wind is no exception to my regular working rule. I wrote it with my "perfect cast" clearly in mind. (Which, I realize, has little to no bearing on reality, and which will carry next to no weight when it actually comes time to cast the thing. But I've never been a big fan of reality, so it has little bearing on my life.)

The guy who joins us on the couch looks SO freaking much like my Ideal Lead for ATW, it was like God dropped him in my lap. So I finish up my talk with Tim and introduce myself (which I do to everyone anyway). Turns out he's an Austin-based actor who is a Festival volunteer.

So we got to talking. I talked about the script, and this guy is practically made for the part.

He ran track in college.
He grew up doing 4-H.
He even has a (get this) degree in Agriculture.
He's got the build, the athleticism, and looks enough like a younger Dick Beardsley to be weirdly spooky.

I talked with him and his friend Stephanie (a screenwriter with my darkly comic sensibilities -- we discussed the more hilarious aspects of her competition script that features a serial killer... but I digress) for over an hour. We watched clips of the 1982 Boston Marathon on YouTube, checked out Dick's website, and exchanged cards.

You just never know what might happen. But I like to believe in things like Poetic Justice and Karma. I like to think that if I lead a good life and write a good script, that great things will happen both to me and to my projects. Call me naive, but it beats believing that you've got to have a heart of stone or sell your soul to make it in this business.

I take my encouragement and find divine inspiration anywhere I can. So when someone who looks exactly like the lead I've envisioned sits next to me and we strike up a conversation about the project I'm working on, I choose to believe that can only mean one thing: Good Things Will Happen With This Script.

After all -- why believe in chance? Fate is so much more interesting...

Taking to the Stars in Austin (AFF - Day 3)

Regular readers know that while at the Austin Film Festival for the past few days, I have been dutifully attending panels and taking notes on various business-related aspects of screenwriting (Note #1: Don't Quit Your Day Job...). But I haven't actually gone to seen any films. Until tonight.

The evening began at the Paramount Theatre. At the door, a cheerful girl with an "AFF Crew" t-shirt checked my ID. As with all great theatre-going experiences, the smell of fresh popcorn greeted me as soon as I passed the hallowed portal of the oaken entrance. I was then ushered in by an austere gentleman in tuxedo, cummerbund, and bow tie.

I sat near the back and serendipitously met Bethany, one of Austin's newer residents and a writer for Film School Rejects. We struck up a conversation about ghosting, book authoring, and other subjects near and dear to my heart.

Then the lights dimmed, and a discussion on What Makes a Moving Story began, featuring panelists Ron Howard, Mitchell Hurwitz, and Steven Zallian.

Did I learn the One Thing that is going to help me sell my script the next time I pitch it. HA! No. But it was way cool to just sit and soak up the war stories of these pros.

Afterwards, they screened Apollo 13 to a packed house. Aside from recurring technical difficulties that I suspect stemmed from the projectionist's unfamiliarity with the old-school medium of film, it was one of those warm-and-fuzzy viewing experiences. It just felt good to be there.

When the film was over, they brought out no less than 9 panelists and a moderator. In addition to Ron Howard (director) and William Broyles and Al Reinert (writers), they had astronaut Jim Lovell, and members of the actual mission control crew from the Apollo 13 mission. The panel received a standing ovation for over 3 minutes.

More warm fuzzies...

Audience questions ran the gamut from craft to history:

Q: How do you make a story so compelling when people know the outcome even before the movie starts?

A: (From Ron Howard) The audience might know what happens, but the characters in the story don't. If the audience cares about the characters, they'll be swept along with the story.

Q: Was the film's 'lost at sea during wartime and following the phosphorescent algae trail home' story true?

A: (According to Jim Lovell) Absolutely true.

After the panel, I ran into Bethany again, as well as Neil, "Film School Rejects" publisher and editor. I was going to head back to my hotel before the streets got scary, but really wanted to see Caprica. Bethany and Neil, my two new best friends, were going to the screening and offered me a ride home afterward.

So off to the Alamo Drafthouse we went. What a great theatre! Cheesy "Mystery Science Theatre" films screen before the feature. You place your food order (coffee with cream, and pizza with fresh tomatoes and basil for me -- thanks!) and eat while watching. What could be better?

How about writer Jeff Reiner and actor Esai Morales in attendance?

Though I was a huge, raving fan of the original "Battlestar Galactica" series 100 years ago, I have never seen an episode of the new BSG. Maybe that would have better informed my take on "Caprica."

I thought it was OK. I liked the Ceylons, which were very cool. But I felt like I was watching a show mostly about modern families on Earth instead of watching something that happened "out there."

It's not like I'm pining for the lame effects the original series inflicted on us viewers. But I am a bit wistful for the clearly drawn "other world" that series brought us.

Still, Mr. Reiner and Mr. Morales were wonderfully generous with their time and their comments to audience members afterward. I wish good things for both of them...

And that about wraps things up -- for today anyway.

Tomorrow is the last day of the screenwriting conference. Further bulletins as events warrant.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Soul-Stirring Creative Inspiration from Elizabeth Gilbert ("Eat. Pray. Love.")

This is as inspiring as any sermon I could have heard today. Treat yourself to the 20 minutes it takes to see this. It will free you of any creative angst, and allow yourself to be open to the divine possibilities of inspiration...

Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert, for your insights on the creative process.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Quotable Austin Film Festival -- Friday

or, Words of Wisdom from the Masters

Marvin Acuna (Rainmaker Films)

On Re-Writing and Motivation…

“Write your masterpiece so you can give some other screenwriter the opportunity to rewrite it.”

“If you sell it, it’s not yours anymore. You have to let it go. Get over the fact that it will be re-written, and start writing something else.”

“The idea of a writer’s Catch-22
(you can’t get optioned without representation, and you can’t get representation without being optioned) is because you are being lazy. You keep thinking that way, and some day you’re going to be 90 years old and on your deathbed, whining that ‘I didn’t get to do what I wanted to do because someone didn’t do it for me.’”

“Imagine a wall that separates you from your dream of a screenwriting career. You can let it keep you out and beat you. Or you can decide to somehow get to the other side. You can chisel it down, dig underneath, climb over, blast through… But do whatever it takes to get to the other side.”

“You can direct your career if you choose to.”

Jeff Graup (Producer / Manager)

(Jeff has been one of the most consistently helpful panelists in the sessions I have attended. His rapid-fire answers to questions are wry, candid, spot-on, and practical. He repeatedly preaches the “Be Nice To People” mantra. I would LOVE to have him as my manager… Note to self: See what you can do…)

On Re-Writing – “I extract movies from my writers painfully, as if the pages are stapled to their bodies.”

Other Words of Wisdom from the How to Sell Your Spec Script panel:

On Readers’ Notes…

“If the reader is not getting the story you are telling, you are not doing your job.”

“Look underneath the note for the underlying problem that needs fixing.”

“Do not defend your writing. Do not argue. Merely take notes and ask “Why?” a reader feels something is unclear. Anything you feel the need to explain or defend, write down. Then put it in the script.”

Herschel Weingrod (Screenwriter / Producer)

On Storytelling…

“To want to be a writer of screenplays is to want to be a co-pilot.”

“Comedy is usually tragedy that happens to other people.”

“People say you should write what you know about. I think you should write what you care about.”

On Pitching, Script Marketing, and the Way the World Works…

“Writing a screenplay is an act of seduction. The script is intended to invite people to want to make the movie.”

“The problem with Hollywood is, nearly everyone knows the alphabet. The executives don’t know the first thing about lighting, or acting, or set design, or sound… Critiquing the words on a page is their way of contributing to a project.”

“If you actually follow (an executive’s) notes in the next draft, they will hate the re-write.”

“It’s a corporate movie business and corporate entertainment. The writer is essentially in ‘New Product Development.’ It is now a part of our job to discuss marketing and demographics, and to sell the execs on this ‘wonderful new product.’”

Boaz Yakin (Screenwriter / Director)

On the Realities of Re-Writing…

“The screenplay isn’t the last thing anyone is going to see. It’s a blueprint for something else – the movie.”

“One of the big struggles of screenwriting is to maintain your enthusiasm for the work because you spend so much time protecting yourself (from the inevitable negativity of the industry). You have to come to some sort of emotional agreement for how you are going to relate to the project.”

“If I want to protect something I wrote, I’d write a novel and never allow anyone to shoot it.”

“There are over 80 million people involved in making a movie. Getting a film made takes a small army. The script has to evolve along the way.”

“Don’t underestimate the importance of actors bringing their conviction and contributing to the tone of the film.”

“I am sick of ‘Good Screenwriting.’ Too many screenplays are overly technically proficient, but they have nothing to say. Don’t be boring. But you gotta be yourself. The stuff that gets my attention is the sruff that lives and breathes.”

Terry Rossio (Academy Award © nominated Screenwriter originally from Kalamazoo, MI)

On Craft…

“Make each word fight for the right to stay on the page. If you’re not doing it word-by-freaking-word, you aren’t working hard enough.”

“Writing a single sentence could take an hour. The writer is the only one willing to spend that kind of time with the words.”

“Something really wonderful happens when a writer is discovering something, when there is momentum or inspiration. You can feel this motion of scene resonating against scene. You know it when you see it or read it. But it’s so elusive that we don’t even talk about it.”

“Jokes age. What was hilarious the first time is no longer funny after the eighth read…”

And my personal favorite words of wisdom from Terry Rossio:

“Take the trouble to be extreme to your characters. Santa Claus. Superman. Mary Poppins. Sherlock Holmes… Your character has to walk into that crowd and BELONG with those characters.”

My thanks to all the panelists who gave of their time and wisdom to us in the audience today... Onward and upward.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Austin Film Festival: Thursday Recap

Evidently I had to come all the way to the Austin Film Festival to meet some cool filmmakers from Chicago.

This afternoon, I met Chris, the producer of Left Field, a documentary about the anarchistic subculture of urban kickball. My initial reaction was, "I had no idea that people played kickball after third grade."

Chris quickly set me straight on how wrong I was. He talked about his movie with such enthusiasm that now I look forward to seeing it when it screens on Sunday...

Later in the afternoon, I sat in on a panel entitled "The Art of the Pitch" with three panelists: a VP of production at Paramount, the Creative Exec. Director of Development at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and a Manager / Producer.

Suffice to say that though their credentials were STELLAR, only the Manager / Producer really had much to say to an SRO packed room of aspiring screenwriters. He was direct, honest, and useful. The others kept saying how the facilitator's questions didn't really apply to them because they never took pitches by unrepresented authors, and they didn't work with spec scripts...

Still -- the information we got was good.

(Some key points:

* A pitch must have a Clear Concept that people can get behind.

* Eventually the moviegoer must get excited about going to see the movie. NOW, however, the agent / manager / producer must get excited about acquiring the property.

* DO NOT write a boilerplate query letter. Though there is a fine line between "creative" and "gimmicky," the query letter or phone call must give the industry pro the opportunity to recognize your talent and hear your unique voice. It must also convey your unwavering enthusiasm for your project.

* If you want a screenwriting career, be in it for the long run. Do not expect overnight success. Plan to work at it for YEARS.)

My main quibble is just that most of the stuff that applied to the audience came from only one of the three panelists.

While there, I met Clifford, a fellow attendee. We discussed projects and leads and had a great discourse on querying and marketing. We ran out of time, but will probably pick up that thread and run with it later.

Immediately after the panel, I met Dick Beardsley's wife, Jill, who graciously picked me up and took me out to meet two of her friends for dinner.

"Oh!" she said upon meeting me in the hotel lobby,"You're much smaller than I expected!"

Evidently my Facebook pictures add pounds. (Note to self: smash camera...)

We had a lovely dinner, during which we discussed movies, travel (Dick and Jill leave for Bermuda tomorrow and he is flying home from Illinois tonight), and both the script and book proposal for Against the Wind, Dick's life story. I daresay I did most of the talking (which should surprise no one) and thoroughly enjoyed getting the opportunity to meet Jill and her friends Beth and Cammie.

Then, it was back to the Conference. I stopped in at the Driskill, where I met a whole slew of filmmakers, producers, writers -- and one world traveler. Most were from... Chicago!

There was Laura, the producer of the short An Evening with Emery Long, who handed me one of the flat-out best pieces of postcard marketing I've ever seen.

There was Anna (who somehow knew my name before I said it), who -- among other things -- is an independent pilot producer, and Megan who works in marketing and production, and who is here to have someone kick her butt into finishing a script of her own.

And I am kicking my own butt because I can't recall the name of the Chicago transplant who now calls Austin home, who regularly takes several weeks or a month off of work to travel the world. She (literally) just returned from a jaunt in Peru and Equador, and held us mesmerized with tales of hiking sheer mountain cliffs, zip lining at 500 feet over a river gorge, staying in youth hostels, and cruise around the world in 100 days when she was a student in college. How exotic, and interesting, and cool...

Left the Driskill fairly early because I was just -- tired. Tomorrow starts bright and early with "How to Sell Your Spec Script." I'll let you know how THAT goes...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Child's Play

or, It's Never Too Soon to Follow Your Dreams

The facility director where I conduct a Writer's Workshop on Wednesdays through October received this email from one of the attendees:

"I wanted to tell you i thought it would be a little scary to be the only kid there but I'm having fun and i am learning a lot of things! Oh yeah! I almost forgot. I will be leaving at 7:45 each week because i have to go to sleep for school. Just wanted to give you a heads up. I will see you on Wednesday!"

The writer is a 5th grader. She comes every week and sits in the front of the room. She is taking the class along with 20 or so adults. All share a common love of writing. She takes notes, asks informed questions, pays attention, and participates. Those who know her say that she writes all the time. I envision an Pulitzer in the girl's future...

At this early age, she has learned what many writers take years to understand: if you want to do something -- go for it. So what if it's "a little scary?" Go! Learn! Participate! Get involved! Your dreams belong to no one else. If you don't take steps to make them reality, they will do no one any good.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Applied Marketing

or, Short, Sweet, and "See What I've Done!"

I received the following update from a student in my current Writer's Workshop:

A funny thing happened after your social networking comments last night at class. I finally had time to review some of my writing today and remembered that I had submitted an article to a new website... I had forgotten all about it.

Anyway, I went to the site only to find that it had been published AND THAT I HAD 17 COMMENTS!! And, I am on their Facebook and Twitter pages, too! How funny!! Anyway, if you are interested, click Mamapedia on Facebook and on their first page of their fan site, my article can be found about halfway down called, "When Your Life Calling Changes." I was most excited about the favorable comments... See you next week!

I love getting these kinds of comments. I regularly encourage writers to post on blogs, social-networking sites, forums, and other online venues, as a way of getting their names and projects "out there."

Updates like these warm the cockles of my heart, and it's not just because a student took my advice and found a way to get herself published. No -- what really makes me smile is that I know she is internalizing some of the marketing techniques necessary for writers because she applies them in her note to me.

Not only does she tell me about her submission being published, but she told me the name of it, gave me a short positive review of it, and told me where to go to see it. This may seem like a small thing, but it's HUGE!

The more this writer gets used to applying these techniques as she works to network and build an awareness of her platform, the more it will become second nature to her. That way, when her book is accepted for publication she will be so accustomed to dropping her current work's title, kudos, and accessibility, that it will happen naturally.

Another student in my current Writer's Workshop is a surfer who has a small, self-published book about his surfing testimony. ("I gave my surfboard to God and he sent me to Hawaii for 27 years," is his short one-sentence About-My-Book pitch.) This past week, while he was surfing in Lake Michigan he got interviewed by Fox News.

Because of the Workshop's focus on marketing one's work, he gave the interviewer his book. To me, this seemed like an obvious thing to do. But he told me that he would have never even thought of it had it not been for my hammering home the importance of telling people about what you've written.

So -- again, for those of us who need the review -- Write. Create. Do your very best work. And then come up with a short, relevant way to let those interested in you or your subject know that your writing exists. Apply what you learn about marketing your work in the same manner that you apply what you learn about honing your craft. I've said it before, but it bears repeating: you owe it to your future fans to let them know that your work exists...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

or, Hang Up and Write!

Dr. John J. Medina knows why you haven't finished writing your novel.

Medina -- a developmental molecular biologist, research consultant, affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University -- has made the study of the human brain his business. Among many of the fascinating things he has discovered about how we assimilate and process information is this salient point:

The brain cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

In other words: multi-tasking is a myth.

Medina's new book Brain Rules: 12 Steps for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, explains that what we call "multi-tasking" is actually "task switching." In order to respond to an IM, for instance, you must first switch from the task at hand -- answering e-mail, doing laundry, talking on the phone, or -- OOoop! -- writing that chapter. Every "switch" takes time. Trying to simultaneously do many things requires multiple switches, which can actually make us less productive instead of more so.

In the Real World, our inability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time is the reason that talking on a cell phone significantly elevates a driver's risk of being involved in an accident.

In the Writer's World, this explains why I can spend an entire day "working" -- answering e-mails, sending out queries, teleconferencing, networking, doing research, making notes -- but not get any actual writing accomplished.

If I understand Medina correctly, the way to get more of my writing accomplished is to ::gulp:: take my mom's advice from when I was in school: turn off the music, stop passing notes to my friends, get off the phone, and get to work.

My novel calls. Gonna take Mr. Medina's (and Mom's) advice. How 'bout you?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Writer, Promote Thyself

or, Lessons from the Little Red Hen

I regularly speak to and work with writers who are actively working on developing their craft. Yet these writers often harbor the misconception that once they have perfected their writing, it will sell itself. They sigh longingly of being on "Oprah" and hitting the bestseller lists. They talk about holding book signings. And they think that the publisher is going to make this happen for them.

When working with newer writers, I tell them to spend as much time studying marketing as they do working on their writing. Many many books on the bestseller lists in recent years have gotten there more on the merits of a marketing campaign than on the beauty of their prose.

The realities of the publishing world, combined with the current climate in the spheres of technology, economics, and entertainment, have created a Perfect Storm of Doldrums ("a state of inactivity") when it comes to a publisher's plans to market a new author's work.

So, what's a novice to do?

Take the advice of that great literary figure -- the mother of inspiration -- the Little Red Hen. Do it yourself.

It behooves every writer to remember the Writer's Golden Rule: No One is More Interested in My Work's Success Than I Am. A new author who expects the publisher to put the entire marketing department to work on his or her book is riding a bullet train to disappointment.

When you consider that over 560,000 (HALF A MILLION, folks!) books were published in the U.S. in 2008, the competitiveness of the marketplace and the need for writers to take responsibility for promoting themselves become clear.

Consider Kelly Corrigan, the recent subject of a Washington Post article on book promotion for novice writers. She didn't see sales of her book take off until she spent some of her own money (smart authors know that's what the advance is for) and created her own media campaign for it. It was her story. She believed in it. And she took it upon herself to find ways to let people know that it existed.

The interesting thing about Corrigan's success story isn't that her book sat on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks. (Ok, truth be told -- that is a rather interesting part of her story...) What makes her experience selling her book so noteworthy is that she spent a modest amount of money and did it all herself. It didn't take getting on Oprah, or a coast-to-coast book tour, or a major billboard or print ad campaign. She used the means at her disposal and found ways to get the word out.

Now, I'm pretty well known for giving my little pep talks -- for telling authors that they can do it, that their work and their dreams have merit. This is true, when it comes to following your muse and working on your writing craft.

When it comes to marketing your work, however, I have to change my tune a bit. It's not so much that you CAN do it... You MUST do it. You must find a way to champion your book. Be creative. Study marketing. Study trends. Analyze what makes you buy a book and then apply it to your own project.

So, go on... Get out there... Write! Create! Indulge the Muse with wild, wanton abandon. And then be ready to roll up your sleeves and get to work. You owe it to your readers to crow a little about what you've done for them.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dream Accountability

Kudos and huzzahs to my friend Janet Grimes. Janet sent me the following e-mail to update me on her "dream accountability":

From the time we first heard rumors of Tommy's job transfer, now almost three years ago, the only plans I ever had were to move wherever he ended up and get some sort of job. My resume is unique, and if I've been able to prove anything through the years, it would be that I'm a hard worker and willing to learn anything. I would soon realize, however, that these skills don't convert easily into job interviews in Detroit, Michigan.

For the first time since I was fifteen years old, I found myself without a job. This unexpected time off allowed me to go on a mission trip with my youngest daughter, Malloree. It provided time for me to be still long enough to answer the question as to what I really wanted to do with my life. At the same time, the moving process forced me to sort through boxes of stuff I would not touch for any other reason.

And it was there that I found my answers - in the keepsakes packed in forgotten boxes, in the stillness, in my heart - I still want to be a writer. That is all I ever hoped to be, but was afraid to admit it.

This is not news to those who know me best, but I suppose it was a dream that deep down, I found several excuses not to pursue. During all those years of making a living, I could dabble in it without being held accountable for any accomplishments. I could dream about it without anyone asking how I was progressing.

I attended my first Writer's Conference back in June, and have been on fire ever since. I realized that in order for the writing world to take me seriously, I must first do so myself. This is no longer just a hobby.

The e-mail then goes on to outline some of the concrete steps she has taken to pursue her writing dreams:

* She has established her own website just for her writing pursuits.

* She has accepted a position as a book reviewer for a major Christian publisher (her preferred niche).

* She has a dedicated e-mail that links to her site

* She has established a Facebook Fan page for those interested in her writing pursuits.

* She also mentions her first online byline and states that she has been asked to provide more copy as an Editorial Contributor.

This is a writer who is pursuing her dreams. She has realized that her dreams were given to her to act upon, and shares my beliefs that one day we will be held accountable for what we did on this earth to make our dreams reality.

This month, I am teaching a Writer's Workshop to over 20 creative souls at the Bridgman Public Library. I am also continuing to facilitate the Writing Practicum every Tuesday evening. I am challenging the writers in both groups to take that Next Step -- whatever that might mean -- to make their dreams of being working writers come true.

Part of making a dream a reality is accountability. Everything I challenge "my writers" to do, I do myself. I continue to send out queries and push myself to the next level up the ladder.

I hear my own advice to writers ringing in my ears: No one is more committed to your success than you are. You have been given a dream for a reason. You owe it to yourself, your dream, and you future readers, to do everything it takes to make that dream a reality.

So, here's to Janet, and to every other writer out there who refuses to rest on his or her creative laurels. Set your sights high. Then take the next step necessary to reach that prize...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Platform Primer

I recently conducted an interview with Martha Cook, Managing Editor at Trafalgar Square Books and Horse and Rider Books. In the interview, I posed questions that I often hear from new and struggling writers about how best to break into the publishing industry.

One of those questions had to do with the elusive, necessary, and oft-misunderstood platform:

Q: I keep hearing about a “platform.” How important is having one? What do you look for in a platform when considering an author’s book proposal?

A: A platform – a significant, credible, sphere of influence – significantly improves an author’s chances of getting our attention! If we have a choice between two projects similar in subject and the writers have equal qualifications, we are always going to go with the author who has worked to gain recognition among people who are the audience for his or her book.

Authors who present at expositions, write articles for magazines, participate in online forums or have joined associations or groups that build their reputations make the publisher’s job of promoting and selling a book much easier and generally more profitable.

The real question is not "how important is having a platform?" Instead, it is, "how do I get one?"

Note Ms. Cook's definition of platform: "a significant, credible sphere of influence." The key to developing your platform is in the definition. Decide what you want to talk about, write about, expound upon, and be known for. Then get out there and do it. Write articles, keep a blog, comment in forums, Tweet -- but do so with the ultimate goal of developing a readership that shares some quantifiable, common theme.

Non-fiction platforms are somewhat easier to build. You determine your area of expertise (whether it's building bird houses, relationships, or virtual worlds...). Then you actively look for ways to spread the word so that YOU become inextricably linked with that topic.

Building a fiction platform can be somewhat dicier at first -- probably because it's a relatively new requirement in the ever-changing world of publishing. (I don't believe that a publisher ever asked Margaret Mitchell what her platform was when she was shopping "Gone With the Wind" around.)

But be not dismayed. Perhaps building your FicPlat -- a word I just invented because I like the way it sounds in my head -- is easier than you think. If you are already online doing research and contributing to forums, simply start paying closer attention to the posts you leave.

1. Decide in which "sphere of influence" you wish to leave your mark. Romance? Horror? Cutting-edge gritty urban poetry?

2. Establish a blog, website, and / or Facebook Fan Page. (Ideally, do all three...)

3. Make posts in forums, tweet, do some guest blogging, or write short online articles that have something to do with your chosen sphere.

4. Post regularly enough that you start building a readership that values what you say and that turns to you for "spherical" inspiration or information.

5. Continue writing your book. Then, when you approach agents and publishers with it, mention your platform and launch yourself to the head of the "consider" pile.

So there you have it: a simple 5 Step Plan for building a workable FicPlat.

Joanna Penn, who writes The Creative Penn has an excellent primer on building an online writer's platform. And hers is only 3 steps!

Also from the Creative Penn (which often has useful writing-related posts), comes this interesting downloadable podcast with Roger C. Parker on how to successfully build an author’s platform.

There is no time like the present to develop your platform. Here's to yours!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Useful Links to Stir the Creative Soul

All of these links relate in some way to a recent topic of discussion in the Writing Practicum -- a group of talented writers that I facilitate on Tuesday nights. Each of the first four is a sort of C.S. Lewis-like "Wood Between the Worlds" that serves as a jumping-off place to other, related sites that merit additional exploring...

For those who are outlining a story, organizing thoughts, brainstorming, or heavily involved in plot or character development, mind-mapping is a useful exercise. For highly rated and reviewed (free) mind-mapping software, try FreeMind.

If you are considering signing with a literary agent or manager to further your career, first read this excellent blog post on Questions to Ask before signing with an agent. The comments at the end are also enlightening.

If you are interested in finding ways to harness and direct your creative impulses, this blog post by the author of the bestselling "The 4-Hour Work Week" is a great introduction to the particulars of Lucid Dreaming.

And this blog post contains a very good primer on Personal Branding – important for authors interested in developing and establishing a platform. Pay special attention to the presentation embedded within the post. It's a whole mini-seminar in itself.

Writing Contests of Note

Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards (For poems less than 32 lines.) Deadline Dec. 1, 2009.

Genre Wars Short Story contest. For stories up to 2,000 words. Free to enter. Small cash prizes. Publication in anthology for winners.

And the Big One...

Writer’s Cruise with Cynthia Whitcomb

Depart April 10, 2010 for a 14 day cruise from Miami trans-Atlantic, to the Canary Islands, Barcelona, Spain; Villefranche, France; Florence or Pisa, Italy; ending in Rome on April 24 on the Royal Carribbean cruise line. Prices begin at less than $100 per day (not including airfare). Includes the Writer's Workshop, all meals, great networking, and being treated like royalty.

Find out about what happened during the 2009 cruise. Then, set your sights on the seas!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Top 10 Movies For and About Writers...

or, Thoughts on Completing "The Night Was..."

Throw Momma From The Train
I rewatched Throw Momma From the Train last night, after my friend and co-writer Paul Martin reminded me of the dreck the members of Billy Crystal's writing class came up with.

(Ya gotta love Mrs. Hazeltine's contribution to literature:

"Dive... DIVE," yelled the captain through the thing. So the captain pressed a button, or something, and it dove. And the enemy was foiled again!

I was freshly reminded how fortunate I am to associate with the truly talented writers in the Writing Practicum!)

Though I like "Momma," I found myself wondering how it would be reworked and rearranged if released today.

I suspect the entire opening "Writer's Block" scene would be excised completely and the movie would actually begin with Danny DeVito enduring the Momma from Hell -- all in the name of grabbing the all-powerful Reader by the throat and not letting go. In fact, it might be an interesting editing exercise to re-cut the film for "Today's Audience" and see how the story fared in the re-imagining.

Dated or not, the movie remains one of my favorite about the Writing Life. (What's not to like about Danny DeVito's hapless Owen confessing about killing Billy Crystal's hated ex-wife?: You're right. You're right, I'm no good. How could I do that? I'm a sick pers--[a billboard with a pastoral scene distracts him] Cows!)

Watching Billy wrestle with how to best complete the sentence "The night was..." got me to thinking, and inspired me to compile a quick and not-terribly-well-thought-out list of other favorite films that prominently feature writers. In no particular order, these include:

* The remake of D.O.A., which serves to remind us that people will kill for a good book.

* Atonement (though, truth be told, I tend to watch this more for Mr. McAvoy's performance than for Briony's story...)

* Moulin Rouge ::sigh::

* The hilarious and under-seen Tune in Tomorrow, with Peter Falk as the writer for a hot radio soap, and Keanu Reeves, Barbara Hersey, John Larroquette, Peter Gallagher, Elizabeth McGovern, and many, many more, as his pawns.

* Stranger Than Fiction, which is about the closest I've ever seen a movie come to the weird reality of a writer "with book."

* The inspired-by-true-life Shattered Glass (Say what you will about Hayden Christensen, I thought he was very good in this tale of a writer who fakes his way to the top...)

* Adaptation ("Don't call it 'the industry...'"),

* And, thanks to my 6-year old daughter, I would have to add both Miss Potter and Nim's Island for their accuracy in illustrating how obsessively real a writer's characters can become...

Of course there are others that feature writers: "The Muse." "Something's Gotta Give." "The Player." Even "Romancing the Stone" qualifies. Without trying too hard, you could probably rattle off several I haven't mentioned.

I suppose I should find it mildly concerning that in most movies, we writers don't come off as a terribly balanced or rational lot. But I don't. We have rich inner lives. We take reviews too seriously and ignore deadlines that we shouldn't. We're neurotic, creative, scheming, and driven. We plot the perfect murders. We manipulate kings and peons. Within realms of our creation, we decide who lives, who loves, who triumphs, and who fails. We fall in love with our words and -- subsequently -- with our characters. We are an odd but interesting lot, forever searching for the perfect way to finish the sentence, "The night was..."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Let the Judging Begin...

Updates From the Front of the 3-Day Novel Contest

I received word from the Powers That Be in the 3-Day Novel Contest that my manuscript has been received and logged and is now with their judging committee.

Since my entry has been officially processed, I get banner-display bragging rights (see accompanying "I Survived..." pic). I find this oddly gratifying, and suddenly have a greater understanding of the importance of war medals.

And now, of course, those of us who entered the fray must return to our normally scheduled lives while The Committee spends the next few months reading (and hopefully rereading) the submissions and debating their favorites.

In my mind's eye, I see several harried readers half-hidden behind stacks of submissions. Each desperately searches for a manuscript to love. Each knows that the likelihood of doing so is roughly the equivalent of finding one's Perfect Life Partner during happy hour at a singles bar. Hope, however, burns eternal. But time marches on, and no reader can spend too much time on any one manuscript because there are still so many others awaiting perusal. I envision an overworked coffeepot, boxes marked "Yes!" "No!" and "Kill Me, Kill Me Now!" and a stash of donuts to give the calorie-laden courage necessary to begin reading another draft.

The winners will be announced in mid-January, 2010. In the meantime, we are free to work on our drafts however we see fit (I am already inflicting portions on the Writing Practicum members), though we are reminded to save a copy in its original form.

Because of the cataloging process, they don't yet have total figures of entries for this year's contest. One wonders just how many of us were gluttons for such punishment. Best of luck to all who entered -- I feel a certain affinity with them, based largely on a shared lack of sleep.

I'm currently working on a book project that takes one elite athlete's insights, training tips, and strategies and applies them to Real Life. It's shaping up to be a fascinating look at what makes people successful -- no matter what arena they choose to compete in. One of the big tentpole tenets is simply: once you've raised the bar, that level of performance becomes your new norm.

I know that writing a novel in less than 3 days raised the bar on my craft. I would strongly recommend the experience to any writer. Though the contest has been over for weeks now, I continue to benefit from it.

Yesterday, I spent 5 hours working on a new novel. I completed 5 pages. Before the 3-Day contest, I'd have been content with that. Now, I'm not. I've been on the front lines of battle and lived to tell about it. I have a better understanding of what I am capable of. I know I have it in me to do better...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

More Useful Links for Writers

Blogs & Databases of Interest

Another database of agents

Blog with a great (recent) rundown of average advances and current sales info for several genres. (Look on the right under The Essential PMN for the list).

Insightful, frank, and hilarious blog written by an intern at a publishing company. (Kelly from the Writing Practicum highly recommends her!)

An interestingdiscussion and examples of omniscient and limited omniscient POV from
the blog of literary agent Robert Brown.

Bay Area Editor's Forum: Information on image Research and Permissions.

Call for Submissions:

The Ambassador Poetry Project

The Ambassador Poetry Project, a new online journal featuring poetry from and about Michigan and Ontario, is seeking submissions for the December and March issue. 


Blade Red Press

Small press looking for short stories for anthology. (See site for full details, but here's a bit...) The first Blade Red Press anthology of dark speculative fiction is now open to submissions. The anthology will be available in print and e-book format through online retailers in early 2010 (assuming sufficient submissions are received). Only submissions received between September 17th 2009 and November 30th 2009 will be considered.

Enjoy! And, as usual, Happy Writing!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Against the Wind

or, Marathon Man Movie Has a Name!

The results are in! We have a winner!

Over 450 entries were submitted in the Name the Dick Beardsley Movie contest. Thanks to all who participated. Your creativity and obvious enthusiasm were appreciated.

The Grand Prize winner is the title Against the Wind, submitted by Tommy Tidwell. Tommy will receive a $150 gift certificate from New Balance, a Dick Beardsley Foundation T-shirt, and bragging rights for naming the project.

The top 5 Runners-Up are:

Beyond the Finish Line – Sarabeth Orlowski
Hitting The Wall – Jack Royal
Running on Empty – David Edwards
After the Finish Line – Mark Berman
One More Mile – Jeff Smith

Each runner-up will receive a Dick Beardsley Foundation T-shirt. Congratulations!

Please note, some of the titles were submitted by more than one person, so the first one who entered the title will receive the T-shirt. But we would like to acknowledge the following people for their submissions:

Jeff Rayburn
Stephanie Kurpiewski
Julie Threlkeld
Renee Saxman
Leland Baskin
Ed Dodak
Janet Cain

We invite you to become a fan of Against the Wind on Facebook. There, you’ll find updates on the status of the film project and you’ll be the first to learn of other contests related to the project. Making a movie is just like running a marathon, and we are on mile 1. Thanks for your continued support, and we’ll see you at the finish line!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Dreamers and Doers

Every Tuesday evening, I facilitate the Writing Practicum, a group of writers dedicated to honing their craft and polishing their prose as they actively pursue publication.

We are all focused on the same goal – to become fabulously successful bestselling authors – and we are all committed to helping each other press on toward that goal.

Every week I am impressed anew with both the talent and the work ethic represented in our group. I am equally impressed by the lack of debilitating ego. We all know that we can write and are confident in our abilities. But no one feels compelled to pontificate and hold the rest captive. Instead, we are sincere in wanting to use what we know to help the others grow and improve.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the Practicum is mostly comprised of adult women with complicated histories. And then there is our newest member: a very gifted 17-year old young man. He only recently got his driver’s license, he has just started college, he still lives at home… He’s just getting started in life.

His writing would be good even if he were 20 years older, but coming from someone his age, it’s quite remarkable. Not only can he put words on paper, but he also has good insights into what makes a piece work. He isn’t just there to get our opinions on his writing; he contributes opinions to the rest of us as well. In our Practicum of MFA’s and published authors, he holds his own quite well.

His mother keeps a fairly close watch on what he does, and every week he has to leave the meeting right at 7:30, whether we’re done or not. We all wish he could stay.

This past Tuesday as he was packing up his computer to slip away, a woman who has been in the workforce longer than he has been alive asked, “Do your parents have any idea how talented you are?”

They don’t.

“Would it help if we told them how good you are, how important this group is, and how we’d like you to stay?” another member asked him.

“Please don’t,” he said quietly. “You’ll just make it worse.”

His parents are not writers. They don’t understand how he feels driven to stay up until all hours of the night creating characters and worlds, bringing them to life, and seeing what they’ll do. They don’t realize how remarkable it is that he completed his first novel when he was 16 AND is willing to ruthlessly edit and rewrite it to make it better. They don’t grasp the magnitude of what it means when he can effortlessly turn out 50 very readable pages in a weekend.

I can only imagine what they think their son is doing for two hours every week with 10 ladies “of a certain age.” I like to believe that if they only knew the extent of the practical writing education he is getting, they would allow him to stay and give their blessing. But I may be deluding myself.

Though it may be true that a writer’s greatest resource is a miserable, misunderstood life, I firmly believe that a writer’s greatest asset is at least one person who provides support and encouragement to follow the Muse wherever it leads.

I have taught workshops where I heard horror stories of writers whose spouses ridiculed their efforts and their ambitions to the point where the writer hid his or her work and only worked on it surreptitiously. Clandestine creativity -- how sad. I daily consider myself richly blessed with a husband who wholeheartedly supports my chosen path in life.

Support aside, I would further argue that a writer’s greatest contributor to success is his or her commitment.

I spent Tuesday with Janet, a woman who has always known she wanted to be a writer – but life kept getting in the way. Now her children are grown and she is finally able to revisit all of the projects she has been thinking about for the past 20 years. She, too, is talented. But she has decades of putting a dream on hold to overcome. (We all know that once a thing is done, it’s easier to do it again…)

Sometimes, the older we get, the more we become used to not doing a thing. That inertia can be difficult to surmount.

I give Janet a lot of credit, though. She has lived in the state for less than a year. She attended her first writer’s conference this summer (that’s where we met). She drove over 3 hours one way just to have a face-to-face meeting and to talk writing with me – knowing that I am neither an agent nor a publisher. She is actively pursuing her writing and is learning about the publishing industry, too.

Which just goes to show that even with unqualified support from your family, friends, or significant other, they won’t make your writing dreams a reality. You still have to commit to making them happen.

I applaud the members of the Writing Practicum -- from the 17-year old to those in their 60’s – who are willing to say “my writing is a priority.” I applaud people like Janet, who are unwilling to let the vagaries of life wrest their aspirations from them without a fight. Their dedication and perseverance never ceases to inspire me.

In the end, I think that’s what it all comes down to – finding those qualities in others that encourage us to continue pursuing our own dreams.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Writer-Related Sites of Note

or, Resources Make the World Go Round

Thanks to the tireless online efforts of Kelly, a member of the Writing Practicum (a weekly critique group for serious writers that I facilitate), these sites have come to my attention lately. Some, like Preditors & Editors and Absolute Write, I already knew about. Others were new to me. All, however, are indisputably useful to the working writer.

Practicing Writing: This blog includes (among other notable posts) a weekly posting of serious, legitimate contests, scholarships, and employment opportunities for writers.

Query Tracker

Preditors & Editors(for checking agent & publisher legitimacy)

Absolute Write (writer's forum)

Two excellent "from the front lines / I'll answer your questions" blogs:

Literary Agent Nathan Bransford's blog.

Literary Agent Chip MacGregor's blog.

Here, also, are two current competitions of note:

Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest Offering a $3K Grand Prize for the best story under 1500 words.

Graywolf Press New Writer Non-Fiction Prize Awarding a $12,000 advance and publication by Graywolf Press to the most promising and innovative literary nonfiction project by a writer not yet established in the genre.

The Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize emphasizes formal innovation, and rewards projects that test the boundaries of literary nonfiction.

Open to any writer who has published at least one previous book (in any genre) and resides in the United States is eligible. Submissions must arrive in the Graywolf offices between October 1–31, 2009. The winner will be announced in early 2010.

Required materials:
• One-page cover letter containing a one-paragraph biographical statement and brief (2-4 sentence) description of the project. Please include any previous publications in the biographical statement.
• A two to ten-page overview of the project, including a description of what is already complete and what work remains to be finished.
• A minimum of 100 pages (25,000 words) from the manuscript.

We writers can use all the resources we can find. Here's hoping you find these of use!

Happy writing!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pain-Free Book Illustration

or, Had I But Known: A Primer on Photos

Today, if all goes well, principal photography will begin on Ryan Gingerich's book. This is part of the project is always fraught with danger. Depending on how things go, it either means that the project will soon be finished, or that I have a boatload of work ahead of me. (Actually, no matter what happens, I have a boatload of work ahead of me. However, the size of the boat -- whether it be a dinghy or a battle cruiser -- remains to be decided.)

When I wrote my first book, I was unaware of certain key questions that needed to be asked before I signed the contract. One of those questions was "who will be the photo editor?" It wasn't until late into the process that I discovered I, the writer, was destined for the job.

The photographer for the project, a wonderfully talented individual, had never photographed for a book before. He took pictures -- over 4000 beautiful images. And then he gave them all to me.

Since I'd never written a book before, I wasn't certain what the protocol was. However, after spending literally weeks wading through photo after photo after photo after photo, I realized there had to be a better way.

Through trial and error, I've developed a system that works for me. It seems to be the most efficient, the least time-consuming, and the least painful for all involved. If I can get everyone, the models, the photographer, the expert, and me on the same page, the shoot goes quite quickly. The key, I've discovered, is taking the reins and directing the entire thing. (I was reluctant to do this at first. I felt that it smacked of dictatorship. But after several nearly disastrous projects, I discovered that "dictator" isn't necessarily a bad word.)

The first step is writing the text. Polish the text until it shines. Get the manuscript ready.

Then, go through the text and look for words that lend themselves to visual representation. Find the phrases that require illustration. Find the words that are particularly evocative. Think of an appropriate illustration for this text, and describe it.

Give each illustration a unique number. The easiest way to do this is in sequence within each chapter. For instance, every illustration in chapter 1 will begin with the number one. I generally use a dot to separate the sequence number from the chapter number. The first photo in Chapter 1 is titled photo 1.1. The second in the same chapter is titled photo 1.2, and so on.

Photos that require being grouped in a sequence, as is often the case with how-to books, are designated with alphabetical letters. So, for instance, four photographs in a sequence might be titled photo 1.1A, 1.1B, 1.1C, and 1.1D.

Directly underneath each photo description, I write a short suggested caption. Captions for photos and illustrations are generally taken from the manuscript text, and then elaborated upon in further detail.

What I've gone through the entire manuscript and indicated where illustrations are appropriate, I make a chart. The chart includes the photo name (1.13, for instance), the short description, and the suggested caption for the illustration.

This chart goes to the photographer, and becomes his or her shot list.

As each shot is taken, the photographer can indicate the frames or file names of the two or three best photos for each required illustration. I tell the photographer in advance that I do not want every single photograph he or she snapped. I only want ones he or she would feel proud of if they appeared in print. This, I have discovered, narrows my selection process down immeasurably.

I generally have 2 to 5 photographs for each possible illustration. I prefer doing the initial photo selection off of thumbnails because it takes so much less time than working off the flow photograph file. I weed out the ones that are patently inappropriate for the text. Then I look at the full files and find the ones that best match the text.

I insert the name of the appropriate file in the manuscript text next to the photo number. My goal is to make the entire manuscript submission readily and easily understandable for the publisher. The publisher then receives a hard copy of the manuscript, printouts of the photo thumbnails, a CD of the large photo files, and an electronic version of the manuscript file.

If all goes well, complete photo selection, edits, and placement can be done in a few days. If all does NOT go well, photo selection alone can take nearly as long as writing the manuscript in the first place. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

In Other News

Made good headway on the Novel in Progress today, while I await the photos to come in for Ryan's book. I'm really enjoying the long-term creative process that a novel requires.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow. Not only is it the next meeting of the Writing Practicum, but a friend that I met at the Christian Writer's Conference in Grand Rapids earlier this summer is planning to come spend the day with me at the beach talking writing stuff. Sounds great! Nothing like a kindred spirit to sharpen the creative edge and make the Muse work overtime!