Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Career Curveballs, Disguised Blessings, and Staying Optimistic When Your Publisher Closes

Note: I hope you're reading this out of sheer morbid curiosity, and not because a panicked search for "MY PUBLISHER IS CLOSING! WHAT THE HELL HAPPENS NOW?" brought you here.

Early in January, a small publisher that published ebooks and paperbacks made me an offer of publication.

Self-portrait: January 9, 2014
My immediate reaction was. “YAAAAAAYYY!” Which was followed almost immediately by hyperventilation and a search for a small paper bag.

Though I was thrilled to be offered publication -- that great golden ring that often feels so elusive to those of us writing in the spec trenches -- I didn't want to sign a contract in haste. Book publishing is a business. I wanted to make sure I was making a good business decision.

So I did what any sensible writer would do. I drank a pot of coffee. Then I did my research.

First, I read the contract I was offered. I made sure I understood the terms, the royalty structure, the rights I'd be granting, the termination clauses, and the duration of the contract. I compared the contract with contracts from other publishers. And I sought some professional legal advice. No red flags waved in front of me.

Next, I looked up the publisher to see if it was mentioned in Writer Beware, Preditors and Editors, or any other forum that warns writers away from sharks. No alarm bells rang.

This is not a Totoro. It is a cat wearing cut paper.
Things are not always as they seem.
Afterwards, I went to the publisher's website and nosed about a bit. I saw a site that had a few kinks in it, but nothing that couldn't be worked out. (I've worked as social media consultant for small presses in the past. I know what growing pains look like.) I liked that they had more than just a stable of two or three authors. I liked that their cover designs showed progressive improvement. I liked that their website was constructed to appeal to buyers. (Publishers' sites that try to lure would-be authors are a sure sign of sharks in the water.)

I also went to Amazon to see how their books showed up in the world's largest bookstore. I looked at their editing, proofreading, formatting, cover design, and overall presentation.

Then, I emailed the publisher, requesting a few days to consider and asking some questions about plans for marketing, distribution, and promotion. I asked if I could speak with a few of their leading authors. They responded promptly, with answers that made sense to me, and kindly provided me with contact information of several authors.

My next step was to ask advice from World's Coolest Literary Agent (not mine. yet.) who has a different manuscript of mine under consideration. I told her what I'd been offered and shared the results of my research. She generously made time to make observations and gave some sage "off the record" advice, for which I will be eternally grateful.

Finally, I contacted some authors currently publishing with this publisher and asked about their experiences. I asked about things like marketing, distribution, and editing practices. I asked what they liked and what they would improve. I also asked about their experiences with other publishers.

Iz time to celebrate, yes?
I weighed all the pros against the cons. In the end, I determined that -- for me -- the strengths outweighed any weaknesses of the offer. So I signed.

I diligently edited and sent the manuscript. A kickass cover was designed. I started spreading the word of the book's imminent release. I even found an awesomely talented director to do the book trailer.

And then... I noticed that the publisher had gone dark. Silent. No Twitter updates. No response to email. Nothing.

Now, don't get me wrong. I know that the publishing world is one that often turns very slowly. One manuscript spent the better part of a year in the hands of an agent before she made a decision (one that required near-catastrophic self-medication with caffeine and chocolate. I may never be the same...). So I'm not one to panic if a publishing pro is incommunicado for a few weeks.

And yet -- as the initial publication date rapidly approached, and still no contact, I grew concerned. Something didn't feel right. I contacted some of the publisher's other authors and discovered that my fears were true: last Friday, the publisher announced (to them -- not to me. STILL not to me) that it is closing, due to health reasons, effective May 1. Contracts are void. Authors are left high and dry. Don't let the door flap our fannies on the way out.

I felt as if I had been left at the altar. Wait. What? But... we had plans! You... You told me you loved me!

I am luckier than some. My book never actually got printed. It's still virginal and pristine. At least two authors whose books are already published are wondering how, when, and if they will receive the thousands of dollars in royalties owed them.

I understand that small publishers are often only one- or two-person operations. I wish the owner of my former publisher all the best and hope her health improves. But that doesn't change the fact that I'm hitting the query mines again when I'd hoped to soon be celebrating my publication day.

And yet... writers are by nature optimistic. If we weren't optimists -- committed to our work, believing in our stories, and stubbornly convinced that others exist who will love what we write as much as we love writing it -- the sheer volume of rejection that inevitably accompanies a writer's career would chew us into dust and spit us out in a graveyard of broken dreams.

Perhaps I am deluding myself, but the career curveball of my publisher closing may be a blessing in disguise. God has a strange sense of humor. I have a little experience with such things.

I present Exhibit A: The Case of the Missing MRIs:

In 2005, while I was under contract and on deadline for Geoff Teall's book, WunderGuy was working in Los Angeles when he developed serious medical issues. Along with uncontrollable seizures, he had a complete break with reality, vivid hallucinations, forgot he had a child... the whole 9 yards. UCLA examined him and determined he needed brain surgery. Again.

Since his insurance was an HMO in California, we found a surgeon at UCSF and came home to Michigan to let him recover, to regroup, and to plan a trip out West. I mailed all of his MRI films to the neurosurgeon in San Francisco. And the films promptly got lost.

As in LOST.

The Post Office had delivery confirmation, but to UCSF, not to a person.

The films were lost for over a month! (Some of them were ten-year old originals. This was before DVD MRI's were common.)

Finally, after a month (during which time WunderGuy stabilized and we got his seizures under control -- and he remembered our daughter existed), we learned the films had been found.

So... we geared up and went out west, expecting to undergo surgery.

When we got there, they spent an entire day prepping him, examining him, shaving his head in a few places and sticking these green Lifesaver-like things to his scalp, so they'd know where to drill. Then they told us to get a good night's sleep. As if.

On our way to the hotel, with less than 8 hours to go before the procedure, the doc called. He'd looked at the scans again, with another neurosurgeon, and both of them agreed -- the "tumor" wasn't what UCLA thought it was. It was scar tissue from WG's earlier surgery (10 years before). No new surgery warranted.

And I'm like: !!?!?!

Turns out, one of the things that tipped the neurosurgeon off was the fact that WunderGuy had stabilized for several weeks. Had the scans not been lost, he wouldn't have had time to stabilize, and they would have happily opened his head up.

We later discovered the real reason for his troubles wasn't a tumor recurrence. It was an extreme allergic reaction to new meds, which took nine months to work their way out of his system.

Now, I happen to think those lost files was God making sure WunderGuy didn't have unnecessary surgery. He moves in mysterious ways. (Feel free to disagree with me. You won't change my mind.)

Oh -- and the missing files? They were *literally* down the hall in another department -- Epileptology. Where, oddly, we had to go, since he didn't have surgery.

How does this have ANYTHING to do with my publisher closing (or yours, for that matter)?

First, I can console myself that, as bad as this is, it's nothing compared to brain surgery.

And finally, the optimist in me is confident that -- just as with the Case of the Missing MRIs -- this may be a mighty blessing in disguise. If it is, then better things are just around the corner. It would be foolish of me to complain...

Onward and upward!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A Short Lesson: From Script To Screen With No Budget in Three Days

"No education is ever wasted," is one of my mother's favorite mantras. Nothing is truer when it comes to writing. Every script I write -- no matter how small -- teaches me something. Case in point:

Last November, my friend Paul Martin, a director (and occasional script collaborator), was one of five filmmakers chosen to participate in the Sony 4K Challenge as part of the Napa Valley Film Festival. Every participant was provided with a brand-spanking-new Sony 4K camera, assigned a genre, and allotted 72 hours to make a five-minute film, from start to final edit.
Ready? Set? SHOOT!

The rules included:

1.) Genre (Western, Noir/Thriller, Rom-Com, Comedy, and Drama) would not be assigned until the clock started on the challenge.

2.) Each genre included a required location, though additional locations could be used.

3.) All footage had to be shot on locations within Napa Valley.

4.) In addition to the assigned genre and location, each film must include a required catch-phrase ("There's something a little off about that guy."), feature a shot of the Sony equipment, and incorporate an assigned prop.

5.) Only Sony equipment could be used for filming and post-production. Editing must be done on Sone Vegas.

So, when Paul called and told me, "I need a script! Like, now!" a few days before the Challenge began, we started brainstorming a story that:

* was readily adaptable to multiple genres,
* wasn't reliant upon a single location,
* required minimal actors, lighting, set-up, and SFX,
* could be made with no budget,
* was visually interesting.

We came up with a romp in which a time-traveling documentarian discovers love when a colleague accidentally joins him on a botched trip to the past.

The script was readily adaptable for pure comedy, romantic comedy, or drama, if we got assigned those genres. It featured a scene set in the "Wild West" and one set in the 1929, either of which could be expanded for either a Western or Noir.

It made use of the locations we thought we knew we could count on: a castle, a saloon, and a train. Plus, we knew we had access to horses and riders.

It also took into account that Paul is a huge fan of Mel Brooks, so whenever possible, he gravitates toward oddball physical humor (Hence, the Lackeys).

The first version of the script was very straightforward. It included an in-text note that shouted "I HATE THIS APPROACH! CONSIDER THIS ALTERNATIVE" in reference to a section Paul suggested and it wasn't nearly oddball enough to make him smile. In it, each "time change" was marked by a flash of bright light and a "wub-wub-wub" sound effect -- something Paul hated even more than the scene meriting my in-text note.

Eight hours and four rewrites later, we had come up with this, the original jumping-off script (reformatted for blog purposes):



Sterile lab-like area. GREG, 20’s, our hero in futuristic goggles, inspects a video camera with all the intensity of a skydiver checking his safety harness.

KARIUS, a goggled technician monitors the situation through a window.

Greg psyches himself up... Gives a thumbs up.

KARIUS: Copy. Initializing outgoing sequence.

The door opens. LACKEY 1, wearing swim goggles, escorts goggle-wearing TESS (20-something) into the room.

LACKEY 1: Parka yu butt.

Lackey 1 leaves. Slams door behind him.

KARIUS: She can’t be in there.

GREG: You can’t be in here.

TESS: This isn’t the restroom.

She runs for the door. Her goggles flash red. She smacks into the door. It doesn’t open.

Karius worriedly checks monitors. Situation not good. LACKEY 2, wearing a rubber diving mask, plays swimmer in the window.

KARIUS: Coding is not calibrated for two.

GREG: You heard her. Get out.

Goggles flashing, Tess body slams the door. Nothing. Greg drops his camera and helps her.

KARIUS: It won’t abort! I’m losing con--

Greg and Tess both lunge for the door.

Greg and Tess burst through into a gorgeously frescoed dining hall. Greg takes off his goggles.
Tess walks smack into a wall. She checks her unlit goggles.

GREG: Might as well take ‘em off. They don’t work here.

TESS: We’re lost in time AND WE’RE DISCONNECTED?

GREG: They’re working to bring us back. I’m sure it won’t be long.

Chaos reigns. Alarms sound. Monitors flash dire warnings. Lights flash. Karius frantically punches buttons.

Lackey 2 wears a fire helmet and knocks periodically on it. Lackey 1 shoots off a fire extinguisher.

LACKEY 1: Bee-do! Bee-do! Baa-hahahaha!

POOF! Smoke! Situation deteriorating!

GREG: Rule number one -- don’t interact with anyone.

TESS: Stealth mode. I. Am. Invisible.

She freezes in front of a fresco of a woman in the same pose.

GREG: No. You’re in the way. Ooo, if we were connected, I’d tell you EXACTLY what you are--

He turns around--

And discovers a spear point at his throat.

A club smashes him to the ground. Lights out.

Tess, wearing a steel helmet, holding a mace, sneaks in.

GREG (O.S.): Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.

Tess taps her mace. It BOOMS like a drum. She does it again -- adding a cool back beat to Greg’s Ow’s. She smiles. Gets into it. This is fun!


Tess hurries over. Greg is in an iron maiden. He’s seen better days. Tess fiddles with the latch.

TESS: You were about to tell me what I am?

GREG: You’re late. What took you so long?

TESS: Promise you won’t get mad?

The latch won’t open. Tess smacks on it with the mace handle.

GREG: Stop it! Someone’s going to hear!

Tess spins her mace meaningfully. Shakes her head.

TESS: We interacted.

She springs the latch. The iron maiden flings open, toppling Greg to the ground.


TESS: You’re mad, aren’t you?

Greg reaches out and grabs Tess’s hand for help up. Tess screams and jerks away, repulsed.

TESS: Think of the pathogens! Uh-oh.

Sounds of clanging metal and pounding feet. An angry horde of medieval men outside. The door shudders. There is no way out. They’re trapped.

The door flies open--

A gold rush saloon in full swing. Spittoons. Gambling men. The great unwashed. A PATRON pulls a floozy into his lap.

Tess and Greg materialize in a dark corner of the bar.

PATRON: I got me a snort of oh-be-joyful. Now how ‘bout a Valentine’s kiss?

The floozy squeals with laughter. She snuggles the man. Tess stares, riveted.

She pulls her goggles from her pocket-- They don’t work. She makes goggles with her hands and focusses on the couple.

Greg picks a hat up off the bar and places it on Tess’ head.

CLINK. CLINK. CLINK. Spurs rattle as footsteps of an angry TOUGH GUY approach.

TESS: What are they doing?

GREG (to Tough Guy): We don’t want any trouble.

TOUGH GUY: Only women in here’s working girls. You ain’t working. Girl.

Tough Guy reaches for Tess. Greg stands and gets in his way.

Tough Guy spits. Grins evilly. Pulls his gun. The bar falls silent. Patrons scoot out of the way.

PATRON: What’s that!?

A red laser light appears on a wall. Bar patrons scramble over themselves to get it. (Cats after a light.) The light disappears.

ALL: Awwwww.

Tess and Greg are gone -- running through a swinging door.

TOUGH GUY: Git em!

Greg and Tess hide in a bush near a railroad track. Tess picks up dirt and runs it through her fingers.
Tough Guy passes them on horseback.


GREG: He’ll be back. Let’s go.

Greg and Tess collapse, exhausted. The car is empty.

TESS: I’m starving.

Greg digs in his pocket and produces a tiny box full of teeny pills. Tess brightens. She happily eats one.

TESS: You brought enough for a week. What were you researching?

GREG: The Great Disconnect. How, and when, we stepped away from reality. Stopped letting things touch us.

Tess makes goggles of her hands again.

TESS: What are you talking about?

The train car transforms into a sumptuous 1920’s dining car, packed with people, wine, and a sumptuous, elegant buffet. (Include props: wine bottle, corkscrew, olive oil & cupcakes)

TESS: What is that?

She points to a fruit plate. 

GREG: I have no idea. And we just ate.

Tess ignores him. She samples some of the food. It’s heaven.

TESS: Oh, this is good... And this is--better!

A CONDUCTOR approaches, punching tickets.

Tess holds a decadent cupcake toward Greg.

CONDUCTOR: Your tickets.

Tess offers the conductor a bite.

The train rolls away, as Tess and Greg hit the ground.  A MUG lurking outside watches them suspiciously.

Tess surveys the sad remains of a smashed cupcake.

TESS: Well, that’s just criminal.

MUG: Who you calling names, Dame? What do you know?

GREG: Nothing.

TESS: I know it’s Valentine’s Day.

She licks crumbs from her fingers. Greg cringes.

MUG: You know too much.

Mug reaches for them. Tess and Greg scuttle backwards to evade him. Mug herds them inside--

A big BOSS sits in a corner. Mug pulls a gun and looms over Greg and Tess.

MUG: Spats told me to peel an eye for ‘spicious characters. That’d be these two crumbs.

Boss nods. A violin case sits on the table in front of him.

TESS: Is that real?



TESS: Can you play it?

Greg hides his face in his hands.

BOSS: Rub ‘em out.

Mug laughs evilly. Starts to pull the trigger.

Tess and Greg instinctively grab each other. They close their eyes.

Tess and Greg hugging. People all around them walk and stare at their electronic devices. A SECURITY GUARD walks by and smiles.

SECURITY GUARD: That’s what it’s all about. Happy Valentine’s Day, folks.

The activity around Tess and Greg stills. As one, the people put their electronic devices and look at the couple.

Slowly, the people connect with one another, reacting to Tess and Greg. Some high-five. Some hug.
One couple kisses. Tess and Greg watch, curious.

Tess and Greg materialize kissing.

Karius smiles with relief. She’s no longer wearing her goggles and drinking a glass of wine.

Lackey 1 puckers up and comes toward Karius. Karius becomes instantly serious.


Tess and Greg come up for air.

GREG: We may have changed a few things while we were gone.

TESS: Yeah. Well, I still need to pee.

They kiss again.

Lackey 1 and Lackey 2 pucker up and head toward the camera.


The process of making a movie in less than three days could fill up a month's worth of blog posts.

Twenty-four hours before the challenge, our lead actor pulled out and Paul had to recast. The day of challenge, Paul learned that he'd been assigned a Western genre, with olive oil as the required prop, and had lost access to both the required location and the saloon. LET THE GAMES BEGIN!

Here is the result of on-the-fly filming, taking a basic script and making it work within the parameters of what is possible at the moment: (Note that the flashes and SFX to designate time changes were added back in. I stood vindicated.):

Participating in the challenge as the "offsite midwestern writer" was great fun. I learned about how very fluid a script needs to be when presented with challenges of the trenches. The tighter the budget and the schedule, the more the script will change to meet immediate demands. That's why the original premise must be clear -- so the inevitable changes don't derail the story.

The cool thing is: "Valentimes Day" is an official selection of The Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival, this weekend. And it was chosen without the selection committee knowing that it was filmed in three days on no budget -- and edited on Vegas, for heaven's sake!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

From the Vault of Favored Poems: Dickinson's "The Master" (#PoemMo)

Between 1858 and 1861 or 1862, when Emily Dickinson was in her late twenties and early thirties, she wrote several intimate letters to someone known only as "the Master." Drafts of three of the letters survive. Though rich in imagery, poetic language, and emotional nuance, there is no way of knowing whether they were ever mailed. (Dickinson asked at least one person to burn all correspondence after her death...)

To this day, the Master's identity remains a mystery.

I didn't know any of this backstory when, in university, I was introduced to a poem of Dickinson's sometimes called "the Master." (She did not title it so.) I just knew that I liked it far more than her poems about death. It spoke to me then in a way that still resonates:

The Master
by Emily Dickinson

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys,
Before they drop full Music on --
He stuns you by degrees --

Prepares your brittle substance
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers -- further heard --
Then nearer -- then so - slow -

Your Breath has time to straighten,
Your Brain -- to bubble cool --
Deals one imperial Thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

The poem was written in 1862 and appears in Fascicle 22. Thanks to the internet, one can view the handwritten original.