Sunday, June 28, 2009

Thoughts on How to Keep on Keeping On

"It doesn’t matter how many times you go down. It doesn’t matter how many times you’re in the dirt. If you can pull yourself up one more time than you go down – that’s what it’s all about." -- Dick Beardsley

This past Friday and Saturday I attended a writer's conference in Grand Rapids with a friend of mine who I have mentored through writing her first book manuscript in the past year. It's been a while since I've been to a writer's conference... And it's been even longer since I've sat in the audience instead of standing up front presenting. I really enjoyed it.

I stayed up late on Friday talking with the lovely Janet, a transplant from Nashville to Michigan this January ("Welcome to 20 below!"). Her narrative non-fiction book follows the pregnancy of a 16-year old girl and presents her experience in a series of personal vignettes and diary entries. Janet has been married for 25 years. The book is a version of her story. It is timely, engaging, and -- from what I saw -- well crafted. It is also blunt, honest, and full of hope.

I ate breakfast with a woman whose lyrical, soul-baring book details how she coped with raising her three children when her husband and her best friend, the pastor of a small church, drove away one morning... and committed suicide before the day ended.

I enjoyed a lively discussion about screenwriting and the difficulties of cracking the film industry with Gerald who writes futuristic adventures that ring creepily true when he pitches them -- making you wish you could pick one up from the airport bookstore, because it would certainly make the time in the terminal pass in a flash.

I traded good-natured ribbing with the talented and intellectually interesting Seth (18 going on 30), who tried to appear cool and jaded by the whole bit, but who was just too interested in life to completely pull it off. Seth, who recently lost a finished fantasy manuscript when his computer crashed, now realizes the great value of something called a "backup." But he also realizes that his re-write is better. So who's to say that the crash was a disaster?

I ate lunch with Mary. Her nearly completed a narrative non-fiction book tells of her life-altering involvement in a support group for a young co-worker who discovered that she was in an advanced stage of breast cancer when she was 10 weeks pregnant.

These and others at the conference have been told by people in the industry myriad ways that their projects don't readily conform to what is "salable" or "marketable."

"It's just not right for us."

"Those types of books are dead right now."

"I don't represent that sort of thing... But good luck..."

A person's project can be discounted with breathtaking speed.

And yet, we writers keep on. We persevere. We know there is a market for what we write -- if, for the only reason that we would read it, if we had the opportunity.

My new friend, Dick Beardsley knows something about perseverance. He has tried -- and failed -- at things more times than most people. Interestingly enough, though his successes are what made him a running legend, his failures in life are what continue to make what he has to say relevant.

"There is no formula for success. But there is a formula for failure and that is to try to please everybody." -- Nicholas Ray (Director, "Rebel Without A Cause," among many, many others...)

"Nobody makes a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little." -- Edmund Burke.

So -- to struggling writers, screenwriters, poets -- and marathoners -- everywhere: Keep on keeping on. Here's a massive helping of perseverance, determination, and fortitude to see the thing through. No matter what anyone says.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Plot Spots

Last Tuesday, in my Writer's Workshop, we discussed Plot. Now -- I'm not one of those who believes that a story is either plot-driven or character-driven. No: I happen to believe that all stories are inextricably tied to the characters within them (even if the only character is the narrator...).

However, I also believe in the Plot Spot. The Plot Spot, as I explained to my students, is the Thing that impacts a character's life and forces that character to make a choice. The resulting story, then, hinges upon the character's choice. For instance:

A major early Plot Spot in Wanted, is the Store Shootout. It establishes every major plot point that drives the next 30 minutes of the film, and it presents Wesley, the main character, with a choice that will impact the rest of his life.

A significant Plot Spot in Happy Feet occurs where Memphis loses the egg that has been entrusted to his care. Though he recovers it, he blames that incident for damaging his son and making him "different."

Some stories have many Plot Spots -- many crossroads that force their characters to make life-changing, long-term, significant decisions. The story line of such works eventually looks like a dot-to-dot of possible turning points, connected by a single line of choices.

Other stories have very few Plot Spots. One could argue that Twilight only has two. If Edward didn't save Bella in the high school parking lot, she wouldn't even know to ask about his special powers. And if James wasn't such a tracker, there would be no reason for Bella to run to Phoenix. (Of course, that's overly simplifying the story -- but the point is that some story lines are heavily reliant on Plot Spots. Others are not.)

After examining what constitutes a Plot Spot, I challenged my students to examine their current projects in the light of "What Happens?" One way to do that is to practice Playing God with a particular scene. For instance:

Underline, or otherwise identify key plot points in your scene. For each one, articulate:

• How will this point pay off later?
• Why is it important for the reader to remember this?
• How will this affect the character’s choices / life?

• (brainstorming option) Identify at least 5 reasonable, logical choices the character could make as a result of each plot point. Follow each choice a short distance to see where that “plot road” takes you.

o Look for ways to work in these “alternate paths” in other characters, to illustrate to the reader the validity of your lead character’s actions.

o KNOW, beyond any doubt, why the story unfolds the way it does. The lead CANNOT a passive victim of chance. Know the consequences your lead unleashes.

o Explore dark alleys. (This is especially effective in ascertaining that you, the writer, are not being Too Nice to your main character. Let him or her fall into some difficult places. Beware of treating your characters with kid gloves. Remember: how we handle hardship is what defines us.)

My students are to bring their re-worked scenes, complete with Plot Spots, to class this week. I'm always amazed and inspired at how a hard look at What Happens can make one's writing SOOoo much more interesting.


My friend, Trudy Morgan-Cole, had a very successful online book launch for her latest work, By the Rivers of Brooklyn. In fact, she actually charted in the Top 10 of the Canadian online bookseller that she used to do the launch. I'm so proud of her! Yay, Trudy!

I donated a complete "Character Building Practicum" as a bonus prize to a lucky winning writer who participated in the online launch. I'm always happy to help my friends with their marketing efforts. And I'm looking forward to working with the writer who claimed the prize.

I've just finished a manuscript edit of an inspirational memoir written by an author I've been mentoring for the past year. It's quite good, I must say. She is attending the Grand Rapids Christian Writer's Workshop with me later this week. With luck, she'll be able to bring the project to the attention of a good agent or publisher who can get it in print in a timely manner.

The Marathon Man screenplay edit continues, and should (God willing) be finished this week. This is great, because Ryan has promised me that he will have his edits and additional content ready for me by the end of the month.

I hope to also finish the sample chapter for the Marathon Man book proposal by the end of this week. Not only will it be good to be able to send it off to the agent who has requested it, but it will free me up to work on two personal projects that are clamoring for attention.

Never a dull moment. If someone were to chart the Plot Points in my life, I wonder what sort of story would be taking shape...

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

By the Rivers of Brooklyn

I am always thrilled to help my friends who are writers celebrate their successes. My latest friend with a great writing success story is Trudy Morgan-Cole, who recently saw her book "By the Rivers of Brooklyn" printed.

You are invited to the online launch party for the book -- an invitation of special interest to all writers.

Go to this link on and order the book today, June 17, 2009. Not only will you get an enjoyable read hot off the press, but you will also be entered in a drawing for two cool Writer Related prizes.

FIRST prize is a detailed manuscript evaluation of either your novel or non-fiction book from Trudy herself. What an excellent opportunity to have a critique from an award-winning working writer -- just for the price of a book!

I am providing the second prize to another lucky winner with writing aspirations.

I'll be donating a complete Character Development Practicum: A personalized one-on-one character development session that includes brainstorming, arc planning, developing backstory and personal history, dialogue development, determining motivators, and defining characteristics.

I do this for every major character for every major project, and it's one of the things I teach my Workshop students to do.

When Trudy awards the prize, the winner can send me a Word .doc or .pdf of his or her character's introductory scene, a second pivotal scene, and notes on the character's purpose and journey. I will read the scenes in a timely manner and respond via either e-mail OR a 30-minute personal phone consult (US and CAN only) at the winner's convenience and at no expense. [Winners may determine whether they would prefer to communicate via e-mail or phone.] For 30 days afterward, I will answer related follow-up questions and discuss further character development strategies via e-mail.

So there you have it: Two extra reasons to support an online book launch, in addition to being one of the first people to get your hands on a great new book!

(To be entered in the drawing for the prizes, you must follow the instructions on the launch page. Good luck!)

In Other News

The Major Project for the USHJA is in the middle of the layout and design process. All appears to be on track with that...

Ryan's book is as done as I can make it for now, and is awaiting further content and clarification.

The Marathon Man screenplay has had a wonderful breakthrough moment involving a major character and pivotal story stuff. Paul and I are working on it daily, polishing it up and making it perfect... as perfect as possible.

Most of the Marathon Man book proposal is finished and has his blessing. The only thing to do is finish up the Sample Chapter. Unfortunately, work on the screenplay has cut into work on the book proposal. Resolving to better divvy up my time, because I really want to get the proposal to the agent who has evidenced an interest in it before she forgets she said "send it."

I'm in the middle of conducting a Writer's Workshop at the Coloma Library on Tuesdays through June. Last night's session focused on "Planning and Plotting." Over 20 people attend each week. I think it's going quite well. I know I certainly enjoyed teaching it. I'll post expanded notes from the sessions as blog entries in future days. I love being in front of a classroom again.

Next weekend (June 26 & 27), I'll be in the middle of a classroom, attending a small niche Writer's Conference in Grand Rapids with another writer friend of mine. Looking forward to getting away for a bit and getting recharged (hopefully). I have two manuscripts to edit before we go, however. Which means that I should end the update and get back to work.

See you all at the virtual book launch!

Sunday, June 07, 2009

"UP" and Away...

We just returned from a matinee showing of UP. As far as I'm concerned, it is the gold standard of "heart" in recent movies. The whole family got weepy on it at different times, and for different reasons -- but it's a comedy. Funny and tragic, human and fanciful, it is both popcorn entertainment and moving storytelling.

I have a new goal in life: to write for Pixar. As I understand it, all of their stuff is developed in-house. They accept no outside scripts or story submissions. But if I could be a part of their development and writing team, I would gladly move from my Michigan paradise, and even bid good-bye to the horses, move to California, and never look back.

The movie has singlehandedly restored my faith in the film industry (though, truth be told, "The Hangover" and "Land of the Lost" threaten to cause an attitudinal relapse :yeesh::). It's gratifying to know that someone out there is telling wonderfully complex, vivid, entertaining stories AND having them made available to the public.

So -- to all the people at Pixar, my hat is off to you. Please let me know when you have an opening... Will write for food -- and I can live off PB & J's for a loooooooong time.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Recognizing a Great Idea

Last night I taught the first of a 5-part Writer's Workshop at the Coloma Library.

The general topic was "The Care and Feeding of the Creative Gift." We began with a discussion about "What makes a Great Idea?" We focused on how to recognize something brilliant when it occurred, and how to apply the "great" filter to our current projects.

In order to qualify as "Great," an idea must first pass the Personal Litmus Test. You must be able to honestly answer "Yes" to two questions:

1. Is it worthwhile? and
2. Does it interest me?

(Be honest here. How much does it push my buttons and get me fired up? Can I obsess about it, study it, research it, live it, breathe it, eat it and sleep it from now until it’s done? If not... it's not great. Dedicate your valuable time to working on something else.)

The next series of hoops the Idea must jump through are the rather mercenary ones that a publisher is going to put in its way. These include questions such as:

* Is there a universal touchstone / chord?
* Does it have an audience?
* Does it fit into a genre?

(The answers must be "yes," or the idea is dead in the water. What the writer must do, however, is answer the following:

What do I know about this audience?
How well do I like this demographic?
What do I have to offer that has not yet been done?
What do I have to say that had not yet been said?
What do I know about the genre?
How well do I like my competition?
How will this contribute to what’s out there?

Finally, the Idea must jazz you enough for you to answer these questions in the unequivocal affirmative:

(*) Am I willing to do whatever it takes for this to find an audience?
(*) Will I accept responsibility for promoting this when it’s done?
(*) Can I envision great success for this?

I told my students what I tell every aspiring writer: Passion is key. If the answer to ANY of these primary questions is “NO,” then walk away. Don’t waste your time or energy, because life is too short to waste it on something that doesn't move you.

Lack of knowledge is not a limiting factor. Knowledge is readily available.
Lack of enthusiasm, however, is a kiss of death.

In Other News

Work on polishing the Marathon Man script and crafting the book proposal progresses. Both our subject and his lovely wife are being wonderfully helpful and forthcoming.

Speaking of Great Ideas -- I had one today that impacts this project. If it pans out, it could be the "Excitement Meter" equivalent of setting off a fireworks display in a candle store. Further bulletins on that front as events warrant.

I'll be attending the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Conference this year. I haven't been there since Cassandra was born. (In fact, this past week, I just got back a script with consult notes from a friend that I met there when she was a panelist 8 years ago. How time flies...) I'd love to have the Running script done in time to enter it in the screenplay competition. But that's looking doubtful. Considering throwing one or two others in the ring, though. Further bulletins to follow on that front as well...