Steal My Script

I’m so delighted today to host one of the most generous authors I know, M.J. Rose–whom the Washington Post calls “an unusually skillful storyteller.” M.J. has an absolutely terrific new novel out this week, The Witch of Painted Sorrows, which Kirkus calls “A cliffhanger … Sensual, evocative, mysterious and haunting.” It’s been selected by Indie Booksellers for the Indie Next List and by librarians for the Library Reads List. And M.J. is sharing a story here today about the differences between the New York publishing world and Hollywood. Read on! – Meg

M.J. Rose: Steal My Script

WOPSI was one of those crazy kids who read walking down the street but I didn’t think about being a writer. I wanted to be a painter. I started going to art school when I was 6 and graduated college with a fine arts degree.

Out of college I landed a job on Madison Ave in a top ad agency and rose up the creative /corporate ladder fast. By the time I was in my late 20’s I was the creative director of a $150 million agency and by the time I was in my mid 30’s, I’d written and produced over 100 commercials for all kinds of products from McDonald’s to Opium perfume.

It was time for a new challenge. I knew how to write tiny mini-movies, maybe I could write an actual movie.

About 5 scripts later, I’d been optioned 3 times, flown out to LA twice and was hard at work juggling a full time career in ad land and trying to break into the movie biz.

But it was the script that a certain A list actress’s film company “borrowed” and “forgot” to pay me for or give me credit for that turned me into a novelist.

I sat through two showings of my – not my – movie in the theater. As I watched my idea, my characters, even some of my dialog up there on the silver screen, first I cried, then I got mad. And after I left the theater, I called my lawyer.

61C16faXnhL._UX250_Yes, he said, he had all the letters from the production company saying they were considering optioning it but the cost of fighting that giant was going to be more than what I would be owed. I’d lose the tiny reputation I was building. And, my lawyer reminded me, the movie had been a flop and lost millions. Did I even want to associate myself with it?

A few months later over drinks with a screen writer friend in from LA, I complained that I was having trouble starting a new script. I was paralyzed by the thought that if it too were stolen, there was nothing I could do about it.

“If you want to protect your ideas and really be “in” the movie biz, you need to move out to LA.”

I gave him the top 3 reasons I didn’t want to — I loved New York, I adored my job, and my family was here.

“Well if you’re determined to write and determined to stay in NY, write a novel. The publishing world is here. And they almost never steal books.”

The next day I took the idea I’d been trying to write as a movie and began writing it… as a book.

A stolen script, my passion for Manhattan, my family, and my advertising career turned me into a novelist. And yes, a lifelong love of reading. - M.J.

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5 Funny Irish Writers on How to Write

Iris-Murdoch-Between-Saying-and-Doing_edited-1In case you need some good old Irish inspiration to set aside the green beer for the pen this St. Patrick’s Day weekend, I’ve dug up five funny Irish writers to give us all a bit of advice:

“Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one’s luck.”
– Iris Murdoch

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
– Oscar Wilde

“I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.”
– Maeve Binchy

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
– Samuel Beckett

“The first 12 years are the worst.”
– Anne Enright (from a lovely list in the Guardian that I commend to you)

Happy writing! – Meg

P.S. Yes, that is Paris in the picture; I haven’t made it to Ireland yet.

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A 1st novel in … a mere 20 years

I am so incredibly delighted to host my dear dear friend and mentor Madeleine Mysko. I first met Madeleine when a writing class I took–a group which connected with each other but not so much with our teacher–decided to go in search of a new teacher together. It was my great luck that someone in the group found Madeleine. I was in that new, fragile place where so many writers fall out of confidence. Madeleine allowed me to believe. Her second novel, Stone Harbor Bound, which I LOVED, is just out. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Two-time National Book Award finalist Stephen Dixon says of it, “Only a seasoned and serious writer of Madeleine Mysko’s skills could have written a novel like Stone Harbor Bound, with its vast array of different and psychologically complex characters and interweaving narratives, and done it with such artistry and ease.” Enjoy her post about her first novel, Bringing Vincent Home, and please have a look at Stone Harbor Bound! – Meg

Madeleine Mysko: A 1st novel in … a mere 20 years

Madeleine-Mysko-Stone-harbor-mountain- coverI often say, with a sigh, that it took me ten years to write my first novel, Bringing Vincent Home.

In truth, it took me nearly twenty—if I count the years when I was carrying that story, unaware it was even mine to write. Those were the years during which I graduated from nursing school, served in the Army Nurse Corps, married, earned a master’s degree in English, raised four children, and studied poetry in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. All along, since high school, I’d been writing poems and short stories, working hard on them. But all along I wouldn’t have described myself as working on a novel.

Once, after a short story of mine appeared in a literary journal, a very desirable agent contacted me. Alas, she wasn’t interested in my short stories. She wanted to know if I had a novel. I told her I was working on one—a forgivable white lie, given that at the time I actually believed I merely had to write a little longer to produce more pages. In other words, I was a poet and writer of short stories who was grimly aware that, in order to get the fab agent, I’d have to write a novel.

Around this time I had a new friend—John, a fellow instructor at Johns Hopkins and member of my writers’ group. John was about my age and, like me, had served in the Army during the Vietnam War. He was an avowed novelist with an admirably stout finished manuscript and another in the works. I was in awe of the experiences that informed John’s novels. He had served in the Peace Corps. During the war, he had served in a combat zone, whereas I had only served stateside on the safe and beautiful post of Ft. Sam Houston.

One day, John showed me some photos from his recent trip to Vietnam. There he was in the photos—a man in his late forties now, a smiling tourist in the country where decades before he’d been deployed as a soldier. Then John handed me a single photo, an old one. There he was in combat fatigues, fresh-faced and sunburned, his arm flung around a buddy of his. He didn’t look old enough to legally order a beer.

Tears came to my eyes. I couldn’t speak. I was thinking of the soldiers I’d known back then—patients of mine, wounded soldiers flown out of Vietnam to the burn ward, where it was my job to care for them. As I held John’s photo in my hand, it struck me how young those soldiers had been. They were just kids really, some in their teens.

John studied my reaction. “Have you ever written about the war, Madeleine?”

I’d written a poem once—a highly compressed poem, distanced, tortured. “Not really,” I said.

“You were nurse on the burn ward, right?” He shook his head, and smiled through the frown. “Think about it.”

I thought about it. The story I had to tell wasn’t only mine. It was theirs as well, those wounded soldiers of my generation and the families they came home to. I thought about how much work it would be, how large a canvas I would need—the canvas of a novel. I figured it would take me years.

And I was right. All those years to realize I needed to write a novel—not merely a novel but rather the novel—and then ten more years to teach myself how to do it. Revision after revision, changes back and forth in point of view, characters appearing out of the blue to take over, and other characters allowing me to pack them up and let them go.

Now, having paused to look back and tell myself the story of my first book, I see how very good those years were. I learned so much, and was blessed with a sense of purpose. I went forward from those years with what it would take to write another novel, and now to begin a third.

So I won’t close with a sigh. Instead, I’ll think about it, as my friend John would say, and close with gratitude. – Madeleine

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Writing while holding a day job

I have a two guests this week, so I’m doing for the first time ever morning and evening posts. This morning’s is Elizabeth Collison, whom I met through her editor at HarperCollins, the amazing Hannah Wood. Elizabeth’s debut novel, Some Other Town, is “Wry, peculiar, and compelling” according to, which goes on to say, “The novel asks: how do you restart a stalled life? It’s not a new question, but Some Other Town is certainly a funny, fresh, and real answer.” Elizabeth received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has worked as a graphic artist and technical writer–experience that has served her well as a writer in ways she shares here today. – Meg

Elizabeth Collison: Writing while holding a day job

Some-Other-Town-Cover Until recently, I worked full time for a large corporation. I had in fact worked there for years. But then a few months ago, I left my job. And last month my first novel was published.

I did not quit my job because of the novel. I do in fact need to work, in many ways it makes the writing possible, and not only because it feeds and houses me while I am at it. You could say that really what I work for are the company benefits, something that I will get to. But first, some background on workplace. That is, my particular experience with workplace.

My recent job at a corporation was not my first. Among other jobs I’ve held, I have worked as a bartender in a pizza joint, also as a restaurant part-time grinder of fresh meat. I have worked planting seedlings in a tree nursery. And for a couple of years, I was an adjunct college instructor, teaching classes in fiction writing and poetry.

For the most part, I did not mind the jobs in restaurants and nurseries, they were easy to excuse as just day jobs. But I did not much care for teaching writing. It cut too close, and I could not help feeling it was, at its heart, a con job. At the time that I taught, I was too young, I knew too little, had published almost nothing at all. What did I know of writing? And at any rate, can you really teach writing? How dare I tell undergraduates what is what. I felt like a clown and one day a student said that it showed. “You are always half smiling at the things that you tell us. It’s like you are in on a joke.” And I knew then I had to quit. I was not taking it seriously—how could they?I resigned at the end of the semester, and because I was living at the time in northern California, people told me I should move south to look for a job. There was this place, they said, Silicon Valley. You’ll find work there that pays well.

So I did, I moved south and found a job, if one not particularly well paid. I became a writer of marketing material for a mainframe computer corporation. Mainframes no longer exist, haven’t for years. But at the time, the company I worked for was one of the famous mainframe makers. So I figured they knew what they were doing, and I watched the others there to learn how things worked, what the corporate rules were, what was expected to be said and done. Then I did the expected, and at the corporation’s quarterly meeting a few months on, I received an award for my first project, brochures for a new set of mainframes to be called the Navigator Series. And yet, I myself did little. I supervised. I directed. I consulted on copy. But I did not write a word. As it turned out, the Navigator Series did not do much either, it never happened at all. And later the company was gone too.

I moved on to work for other corporations. I began writing more, but in a technical, not marketing, vein. And corporations became my day job, my big-girl waitress job. I told myself the work did not matter to me. Certainly, I knew, I did not matter to it. On my floor, I was simply the wordsmith, a dismissive term among engineers. And eventually, just as with the adjunct teaching, our mutual disregard began to show. On my annual review, this demerit in the category Teamwork: Rolls eyes in meetings.

Elizabeth-Collison-author-photoAnd yet, all this work in the world has been useful to my writing, and I would not trade it for what some call the writing life. The reasons?

  • I learned to write to spec and on deadline.
  • Which in turn taught me to focus, to complete.
  •  I learned to manage my time, more importantly to value time. Like any working person who also wants to write, I learned to find or steal the precious hours: late nights after work, weekends, early mornings typing in the photo lab before the others arrived. Then also in the many moments between, scribbling plot twists during meetings, editing pages on the treadmill at lunch.
  • I learned the world is full of interesting people, ones I would not have found without work. And I discovered the richness and secrets there. It is an odd thing—you can know your coworkers as a kind of insider, as no one from outside work could, maybe not even a spouse. And yet, you can know little of the person’s life other than work. What mysterious beings, then, coworkers are.
  • From them, I attained some perspective on literature. That it does not always mean much to other people. That their lives and worlds are already full, without having to read about lives and worlds of others, without having to read much at all.
  •  Still, I found my coworkers did not mind hearing a good story now and then. Or telling one themselves. And it is this that I’ve cherished perhaps most about work. How full it is of good stories.
  • Elizabeth

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