Patience, Iago – for screenwriting as well as novel writing

Camera - FilmDiane Drake, my teacher for an online screenwriting course I'm taking for fun and potential profit - ;) - recommended this interview with Michael Arndt. If you don't know who he is ... it turns out very few of us know who creates the stories behind the films we watch. How sad is that? (Next time, watch the credits!) Arndt wrote the screenplays for "Little Miss Sunshine" (for which he won a Screenwriting Oscar), "Toy Story 3" (Oscar nominated), and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (which grossed a mere$424,668,047 ... domestically - and nearly a billion worldwide). The whole interview is inspiring, but what I particularly loved was his closing: "Just be patient. It took me ten years of writing before I finally sold my first script." If you'd like to watch a fabulous little video about screenwriting by Arndt, here it is. I think I've recommended this next bit before, but it bears rereading: The Twenty-two rules of Screenwriting, according to Pixar - no matter what you're writing. See you at the movies!
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At My Mother’s Knee: How I Started Writing

My guest author today is my friend and fellow Bay Area writer Linda Gray Sexton, whose Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians is just out. Linda's previous books include Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year which was optioned by Miramax Films; Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide; and four novels. Real Simple says of Bespotted, “Animal lovers will adore this emotional and touching story." Linda's story of how she started writing is one of the most touching I've had the privilege to share here. - Meg book_bespottedI was born into a home filled with shelves stuffed full of books. When I was a child, my mother, the poet Anne Sexton, frequently read aloud to me, and the first book I would remember well was a dog-eared blue volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, full of all its macabre horrors. As I reached the early years of my adolescence, she showed me the public library, where I spent uncountable hours with novels and the biographies of famous women. I am not sure that I recognized at this point how much of a famous woman my own mother was already becoming, or perhaps I did, on an unconscious level. At the bookstore she told me there was always money for books—no matter how strapped we were—and bought me every one for which I asked. Eventually, when I was thirteen, she won the Pulitzer Prize, at last becoming an icon in the world of what is known as “confessional poetry,” being read by thousands of those who identified with her candid poems about love and loss, mental illness, suicide, and her own personal truths. When I turned eleven, she invited me into her writing room. There, she asked me what I thought of various poems, respecting my opinion and, after a time, playfully dubbing me her “greatest critic”. The two of us worked together on her book Transformations, which took the fairy tales of my youth and reinterpreted them. I chose the stories she would write about, and then helped her to revise them. I began to write poetry and short stories, on which she offered her opinions. Curled up on the worn green couch in her writing room where she sat rocked back in her chair, her feet elevated on a bookshelf, I listened seriously. She was a gentle but hard critic. I grew used to writing many, many drafts and revising endlessly, as she did, but I enjoyed this part of the process; I rewrite, to this day, in both my fiction and my memoir, as mercilessly as I can. It is the first draft that I find difficult, because she taught me that to for it to “work,” you must tap down into the unconscious, and sometimes I find that difficult to access initially—though those depths have become a distinct aspect of both my fiction and my memoir. It was hard to be a writer, I discovered, and I never had one poem or short story published, but I persevered, determined to find my own voice. When eventually I did find that voice, and my own first books were published, (initially a non-fiction book about the choices women of my generation were making between family, career and their own personal needs in the seventies, and then later, four novels and three memoirs), I found one piece of her advice equally invaluable. My mother always told me, “Linda, tell it true. Tell the whole truth.” As I went forward to tackle memoir, these words stood by me, inspiring me as I dealt in prose with topics she had confronted in poetry. I, too, wrote of family secrets, my own mental illness, and even the process of coming to forgive her for her eventual suicide. These were footprints I found myself unable to refrain from following. Author Photo Linda Gray SextonUltimately, I am extremely grateful to my mother for having given me my start as a novelist and memoirist. Still, she always told me, “Never be a writer, Linda, because I will follow you around like an old gray ghost.” Yet she also said, “Live to the hilt! Be the woman you are!” I found myself listening nearly helplessly, without choice, to the latter. Despite continual problems with others identifying me solely as Anne Sexton’s daughter regardless of my own success, I have learned to make my own way toward peace and acceptance with the inevitable “gray ghost” she did indeed turn out to be. I bless the days I spent at her knee. - Linda
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Switchbacks: Writing a First Novel

Désirée Zamorano's novel The Amado Women is just out from Cinco Puntos Press. Bustle called it one of Eleven Moving Beach Reads That'll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada and Remezcla listed it as one of 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014. She is also the director of Occidental College’s Community Literacy Center. Lovely to have her here on 1st Books! - Meg CoverAt book chats, audience members ask me how long this novel took to write. I am not sure how to calculate. Do I count the years between drafts? Do I count the months of mourning the second draft, when my laptop (pre-Dropbox) was stolen? Do I count the years I put it aside, convinced it was the wrong story for me to tell, at the wrong time? I’m the kind of writer who feels too many things deeply. A small moment, a tiny rupture, a casual rejection. Almost a decade ago I sent my VIP NYC agent the manuscript that would become The Amado Women. She had been unsuccessfully shopping my mystery novel around, and I thought this family drama was better, this one would be successful. My agent’s response was swift and final: she dumped me. Now, I knew a few things about a writer’s path, having devoured thousands of pages of advice. I knew, for example, that you had to do work, the writing. I also knew every single writer’s journey was different. A very few emerge from the gate gilded and anointed. For others it is an arduous, treacherous switchback path. But with the finality of that agent’s rejection I questioned this dream of mine, and the perseverance that was overwhelmingly necessary. Was it time to abandon this aspiration and move on? That was when I discovered Carolyn See’s book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. I was too unsuccessful, I thought then, to call myself a writer. But I certainly was a dreamer. In this book Carolyn See offers two writing recipes, the 18-minute chili and the 18-hour chili, but in both the key beginning ingredient is “Fun First.” Fun? I had so many layers of expectations that the fun, the entire reason my third-grade soul had been entranced by the concept, had been squeezed out. I devoured then reread that book, with its generous voice and its thoughtful counsel. That book became the mentor I did not have. From her seeds of playful encouragement I connected with other writers. I continued to attend conferences. I honored the people who supported my goals. And, of course, I kept writing. A few years later I invited Ms. See to speak where I teach. I brought my copy for her to sign. I’m reading her inscription now. She wrote: “It’s only a matter of time!” I began to query publishers directly. Cinco Puntos Press liked my draft enough to give me notes and recommendations. I dove in, then sent it off, and worked on other books. They sent the draft back, with more notes, saying it wasn’t quite right for them. At this point, I was done with The Amado Women. I put the manuscript and their comments away. Again, too many layers of expectation, and I took it as a profound rejection. The French director Robert Bresson says, “Make visible, that which without you might never be seen.” Whisper that to yourself when you’re frozen by rejection. I kept writing. Two years later Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press emailed me and asked me where my next draft was. Wait, she was querying me? I dug out the manuscript with all of her comments. What I had previously taken so deeply now looked simple and manageable. DZamorano - author photoWhen they told me they were publishing my book I began to have sleeping problems. I would wake up for the day at 5 a.m., or stay up at night till 3, or wake up at 3 and fall asleep at 5. During these sleepless times there was this constant thrumming, in my ears, in my brain, cascading around my chest. Was I sick? I wondered, in the middle of the night. Was I dying? It literally took me months to puzzle this one out. I finally realized, not long before my first reading, what it was: I was happy. Trust a writer’s insight. Now I realize how ridiculous I have been, all these many years, to allow one thing to define success for me. One. How ludicrous. And yet in July, while being introduced to the audience at my hometown bookstore I looked around at my friends, my family, my supporters. Then I took the mic. “There’s something I’ve wanted to say for a very long time now,” I paused and looked again at the standing-room only crowd. “Thank you for being here tonight.” - Désirée  
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Two Resurrections in One

Liz Rosner has not one but two books coming out now - a new novel, Electric City, and the poetry collection Gravity. To celebrate, I'm running a post she did when Blue Nude came out in paperback. The Kirkus verdict on Electric City: “With deft descriptions, Rosner sketches the bustling city, on land long cherished by aboriginal culture, which grew and flourished as whites invaded and industrialized … offers a gentle meditation on love and loss.” And check out her gorgeous new website, too. It's designed by the amazing Ilsa Brink, who also does mine! – Meg ElectricCitybyElizabethRosnerFor many of us, writing–not to mention publishing–may feel like a matter of life and death.  In my case, the past two years have been a period of grappling quite literally with both, and winning two big prizes at once:  my own restored health after breast cancer treatment, and the resurrection of my out-of-print second novel. Here’s the story, in hopes it might inspire others who are facing life-threatening illnesses and/or a loss of faith in the writing life.  On my 49th birthday, new year’s eve in 2008, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When I later discovered that I carry the genetic mutation called BRCA-1, which guarantees a rather high risk of developing the disease, it seemed that my fate had been inscribed all along; it was simply a matter of timing.  My mother had died of breast cancer in 2000, so my anxieties about survival were elevated even further.  As readers of my novels The Speed of Light and Blue Nude already know, much of my writing reflects an exploration of my inheritance as a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, so it seemed doubly ironic that now I was dealing on a physiological level with my legacies as well. Allow me to note that my two book deal with Ballantine Books came about in the year 2000, just months before my mother’s sudden death.  The actual publication date of Speed , September 4, 2001, meant that 9/11 was the first day of my book tour.  Need I explain?  Cancellations everywhere.  My agent said to me: “Well, we’ve lost momentum, and we’ll never get it back.”  The tears I might have shed stayed caught inside, as I felt forced to acknowledge losses so much greater than my own.  So what if I’d been waiting my entire life for this moment?  Death and devastation were ruining the lives of thousands, even millions of others.  It took me almost a year to realize that this pattern of deferring to the pain of everyone else was a perfect echo of my entire childhood; nothing I suffered could ever begin to measure up to the vast traumas endured by my parents.  I was supposed to be grateful to be alive.  No disappointments were important enough to capture anyone’s full attention when epic tragedies deserved all of my sympathy. The good news?   The Speed of Light garnered prizes in the U.S. and Europe, was translated into nine languages, and was optioned for a film by Gillian Anderson, who was determined to adapt and direct her first feature film.  Sales rose and fell and rose during the next nine years, almost always in direct correlation with some news flash from Ms. Anderson.  The book “still has legs,” as they say in the business.  The film remains “under development,” with the option renewal money keeping me afloat. Fast forward to the publication of my second novel, Blue Nude, in May 2006.  Warned by just about every writer I knew to be wary of the “Sophomore Syndrome,” I dared allow myself to hope that the book would defy those expectations and prove even more successful than my first novel.  Friends joked that as long as a world war didn’t break out within a week of my publication date, I’d be in great shape.  Having been orphaned at Ballantine no less than three times, I was now under the care and guidance of Random House executive editor in chief, feeling blessed by his approval and support.  Or so I thought. GravityPoemsbyElizabethRosnerHomeland security and world peace notwithstanding, the book received some rave reviews and was purchased for translation by one of my nine foreign publishers.  No film option, no prizes, but terrific recognition as one of the year’s best books by the San Francisco Chronicle, and status as a national bestseller.  When I found out that my editor was retiring, and that Random House had decided not to print the paperback edition of Blue Nude due to mediocre sales at Borders and Barnes & Noble, I began to feel the shocking pangs of loss yet again.  My second novel went out of print, and as far as I was concerned, it had died of unnatural causes, and without an obituary. In May 2008, and despite my new agent’s suggestion that I give up on any hope for a paperback edition until I had a new manuscript to pitch, I requested and won reversion of rights for Blue Nude.  All it took was a letter from an attorney who specialized in intellectual property (since my contract had stipulated this option was available to me).  With my rights in hand, I was blessed to have the biggest and best champion of my novels on my side:  Dan Smetanka, former executive editor at Ballantine, who had been the one to acquire my work in the first place, back in the year 2000.  He had never given up on me, and as an independent editor, now proceeded to pursue some of his own leads for a possible paperback deal. Meanwhile, my cancer diagnosis grabbed and held onto center stage.  I went through two surgeries in February 2009, and began chemotherapy in late March.  The day came when I felt it was necessary to shave my head so that I didn’t have to watch my curls fall out in terrible clumps.  Looking into the mirror, I saw the face of my father as a concentration camp survivor.  Genetic history was rising to the surface all over again.  I drove into the hills of Marin to visit a friend who had survived two bouts with breast cancer.  We sipped tea together.  She told me I looked like a Buddhist nun. Driving back downhill from that visit, I received a cell phone call from Dan Smetanka.  He insisted that I pull over and park the car before he would talk to me, so I did. “Blue Nude has a paperback deal with Simon and Schuster,” he said.  I had nearly forgotten such a thing was possible.  Can you picture a bald woman by the side of the road, sobbing behind the wheel?  Can you spell the word miracle? Blue Nude is itself the story of a resurrection, about a return to life by way of artistic collaboration, a healing of history that is both personal and collective.  When the paperback comes out in September 2010, it will have a beautiful new cover, and an astonishing second chance, against all odds.  My cancer is gone now, and my hair has grown back too.  I’m nearing completion of my third novel, “Electric City.”  We’re alive. – Liz
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Nothing but a Desk and a Typewriter

Delighted to host Elena Mauli Shapiro, who first appeared here when her debut novel, 13 rue Thérèse came out. She's back with a sophomore novel, In the Red, which Koren Zailckas calls "exotic, dangerous, deviant, delicious." - Meg SHAPIRO_INTHEREDI was in college when she first came to me.  It was summer of my sophomore year and I was working as a teller at Wells Fargo Bank to raise tuition money for Stanford. Bank teller is one of those jobs where the body repeats the same motions all day, over time acquiring muscle memory for the work.  Sometimes I could leave my body at work and send my mind elsewhere.  I would often write snippets of poetry on pieces of blank receipt tape when there was a lull between customers.  These small papers were all over my workstations, like white leaves fallen off the language tree. The rhythm of the work made sentences pop into my head in voices that were sometimes not my own.  One morning I heard in a slightly accented voice the words I am not a child of America.  Until my lunch break, these words floated at the top of my consciousness like these insects that can skitter Jesus-like on top of water. When time came for my half-hour lunch break I went to an empty room upstairs from the bank where there was nothing but a desk and a typewriter.  I rolled a piece of paper into the typewriter and met my new protagonist. She was Romanian and her name was Irina.  A name that mirrored my own in structure and sound.  Over the years I wrote many stories for this double of mine, always of tortured love, always with an undercurrent of menace. I carried Irina inside me for seventeen years until she was ripe to be a book. Finally the story came to fruition as the novel In the Red. authorpicIrina, a Romanian orphan raised by Americans, has never felt at home in the good life given to her.  When she meets Andrei, a dashing criminal from her unknown country of origin, she comes unglued from all the good things she has been given in an attempt to find out who she is.  The draw of sex, power, and money certainly plays a part in her decision--which never really feels like a decision.  It feels like being sucked down a tunnel with no light at the other end.  In this tunnel, she meets other criminals, both compelling and terrifying, and a young Russian mail-order bride named Elena.  Elena is a mystery who becomes her only friend.  Irina's story, underpinned by Romanian myth, asks what is a lone woman's place in the world, and how is she supposed to find it? In the Red is a novel about foreignness, morality, capitalism, the meaning of America.  It is a novel about how trauma informs history, turns it into myth.  It is a novel that asks how we tell ourselves who we are, and how we hold ourselves up against a world that never ceases to swallow us. It is a novel about how Irina was wrong when she first came to me that foggy morning all these years ago: we are all children of America. - Elena
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Draft the Acknowledgments. Write the dedication.

I always love hosting debut novelists here, and ones who are lawyers from Ann Arbor--does it get better than that? Jodi Picoult calls Julie Lawson Timmer's Five Days Left, released yesterday, “a beautifully drawn study of what is at risk when you lose control of your own life. Unique, gripping, and viscerally moving." So yes, it does get better! And Julie's story of how she got started is very moving, too. - Meg 5 Days Left, a novel by Julie Lawson TimmerMy husband is in automotive marketing, and he’s forever coming up with phrases I’ve never heard of. For example, you know that little plastic clip some cars have on the inside of the windshield on the driver’s side, that holds parking card passes? That kind of thing is called “a surprise and delight.” Who knew? The concept of “push/pull” in marketing speaks to whether a company is pushing a product on you or whether you are pulled toward that product. Pushing a product--say, a car--would involve offering incentives like rebates and zero percent financing. When consumers are pulled toward a car, though, it sells at sticker price, or even above. (Ford Thunderbirds sold above sticker). How does this relate to writing your first novel, or to how I wrote mine? Well, list with me all the methods you’ve heard about how to push yourself to write an entire novel: set daily word count (or page count) goals; get up two hours early; write for a certain period of time each day; do the 1k/1hr challenges on Twitter; sign up for NaNoWriMo; BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keyboard); swap a chapter/week with a critique partner to keep yourself accountable. I have tried every one of these push methods and for me, they all work because I am Type AAA--I would rather cut off a limb than miss a deadline or a word count target. But pushing yourself can feel like drudgery, and even the most disciplined of us can only deal with “Ugh, I have to write 498 more words before I’m allowed to quit for the day,” for so long. In Michigan, in winter, at 4am, “I have to meet my word count” is not as enticing as the warm bed you’re trying to drag yourself out of. If I had only push techniques to sustain me for the two years it took me to draft, revise, query, restructure/rewrite and revise again before I got an agent and a book deal, I’m not sure Five Days Left would exist. What kept me going was identifying a pull. I’m sure you could list some of these with me, too: imagine yourself winning the Pulitzer/Nobel/ Man/Booker. Picture yourself at the premier of the movie you’ve sold the rights to--walking the red carpet with the star (Clooney) and the director (Scorcese). Draft the Acknowledgments section, in which you rave about your wonderful husband who, in addition to putting in long hours at his own job (say, in automotive marketing) also stayed up countless late nights with you, discussing character motivation and plot issues. Write the dedication. Julie Lawson Timmer author photoFor me, it was this last one that did it: For Ellen. Ellen was a friend of mine who died after a long, brave and gracious battle with cancer. From the second I conceived of the idea for Five Days Left, I knew there would be a dedication page and I knew it would say, simply, For Ellen. Those two words, more than word count, page count, BICHOK, critique partner swaps, NaNoWriMo 50k-in-a-weekend challenges, 1k1hr Twitter challenges, more than any dream of a book deal or a movie deal or a literary prize, made me climb out of bed day after day after day. For two years. Even in winter. Even in Michigan. Mostly at 4am, but often at 3am. For Ellen. I cannot think about, or write, those two words without feeling my eyes sting and my throat close, nor can I think about Ellen without those things happening. And I cannot, and could not, conceive of a world in which I set out to write a book dedicated to her and then didn’t finish it. For Ellen pulled me out of bed, out of the depths of “I can’t finish this” despair and “I’m not good enough” fears. Recently, I was struggling to finish my second book, which deals with step-parenting, foster care, adoption and the general question of what makes a parent/child relationship--is it biology, law, love, or what? I had piled up all the pushes I could think of--notations in a calendar about what chapter I’d reach by what date, a deadline I made a point of announcing to my agent so there’d be no way I could let myself miss it, and a few others. They were all leaning against me, those pushes, pressing me to write, and I was miserable. And then one night, it hit me: For the five children I’m most connected to: Jack and Libby, Sammie and Maddie, and Evan. Two by DNA. Two by law. One by baptism. All by love. The pull. I finished the book ten days later. - Julie
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