riding bitch

The life of a writer and survivor of loss.


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Barry Levy’s 10 Tips for Screenwriters

Besides the occasional celebrity sighting (last week, Kiefer Sutherland), one of the perks of living/working where I do is the access to industry professionals. Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in an intimate roundtable discussion with Barry Levy, screenwriter of VANTAGE POINT (2008) and the upcoming PARANOIA (2013). Barry shared some valuable insight on the realities of professional screenwriting.

He began by explaining how he got started in the business, as the assistant to the head of Nelvana, an animation company, and quickly rose through the ranks to development executive. His first scripts, mostly low-budget horror films, were all unsuccessful. The ones he managed to sell were produced direct-to-video, so never made it theaters. His early career included highs like being flown first class to London to meet a prospective director for one of his scripts, and lows like having to sue a producer to get paid for a film. His first nine writing credits totaled less than $21,000.

Frustrated with writing for others, he decided to write for himself, the result being VANTAGE POINT. It sold within 24 hours, the morning after an all night bidding war. Today his 5 year-old daughter goes to kindergarten with – and has professed love for – the son of the producer he sued. Such is the irony of life in Hollywood.

Barry then shared some basic facts that he thinks every aspiring screenwriter should know:

1. Your job is far bigger than just what you write. How you interact with people is a huge factor, and it will catch up to you.

2. You will be alone A LOT, so you better really love to write. Not surprisingly, feature writers are known for having less social skills than television writers.

3. As a screenwriter, nothing is in your control, at times not even what’s on the page. Writing for film is a collaborative experience, and not always for the better. You will receive notes from studio execs, producers, directors, actors, friends and family, and you will have to listen to these people, some more than others. You can also be fired, replaced, rewritten and/or misinterpreted. Your words can be changed on set. You could show up to a movie premiere and literally not recognize the movie that was made based on your script. You have no control.

4. You will struggle with this lack of control for as long as you are a screenwriter.

5. Striking a balance between work and life will help you deal with the lack of control. Kids and/or animals can put things in perspective and help you turn your brain “off” from work. Writing a spec script and/or directing affords you a little more control, but not all writers want to be directors.

6. Whatever you turn in should feel like your final draft. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so put everything you’ve got into making it as good as it can be.

7. Never say “No” to a note, even if it’s the worst note ever. Say “Let me give it some thought.”

8. Be aware of the “math” of writing when approaching agents. The average script by a newbie writer sells for Writer’s Guild (WGA) minimum of approximately $35,000, of which an agent gets 10%. Usually, agents work in teams of 2, sometimes 3, so they’re actually not making that much money on your sale. Don’t take it personally if your calls don’t get returned as fast as the screenwriter who sells for six figures. 

9. Confidence is key. You need to know who you are, define who you are, and own who you are. When considering writers for projects, producers and executives make a list of possible candidates based on their recent work. If you write a horror film, followed by a romantic comedy, followed by a children’s movie, it will only confuse the industry. Don’t try to do, or be, too many things at once.

10. If you’re really serious about screenwriting, you should listen to the weekly free podcast by screenwriters John August (Go, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Titan A.E., Charlie and Chocolate Factory) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III, Superhero Movie, Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie).  They give fantastic advice and information on a wide range of topics related to screenwriting, pitching, dealing with agents, producers and more. http://johnaugust.com/podcast or subscribe via iTunes.

I found Barry to be really down-to-earth, funny and endearing. He had no pretensions or romanticized views of Hollywood. He wasn’t bitter. He just told like it is. And even though his advice was somewhat sobering, he managed to give everyone in the room hope.


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Danny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules of Filmmaking

This week I am reblogging this incredibly generous and informative article written by director Danny Boyle for Moviemaker.com. For those unfamiliar, Mr. Boyle is the director of such films as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. People are sharing this article via Twitter and Facebook (how I learned of it). I’m sharing it here so we can talk amongst ourselves. Please note, everything from hereon comes from Danny Boyle, not me. Enjoy!!

1. A DIRECTOR MUST BE A PEOPLE PERSON • Ninety-five percent of your job is handling personnel. People who’ve never done it imagine that it’s some act, like painting a Picasso from a blank canvas, but it’s not like that. Directing is mostly about handling people’s egos, vulnerabilities and moods. It’s all about trying to bring everybody to a boil at the right moment. You’ve got to make sure everyone is in the same film. It sounds stupidly simple, like ‘Of course they’re in the same film!’ But you see films all the time where people are clearly not in the same film together.

2. HIRE TALENTED PEOPLE • Your main job as a director is to hire talented people and get the space right for them to work in. I have a lot of respect for actors when they’re performing, and I expect people to behave. I don’t want to see people reading newspapers behind the camera or whispering or anything like that.

3. LEARN TO TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS • Ideally, you make a film up as you go along. I don’t mean that you’re irresponsible and you’ve literally got no idea, but the ideal is that you’ve covered everything—every angle—so that you’re free to do it any of those ways. Even on low-budget films, you have financial responsibilities. Should you fuck it up, you can still fall back on one of those ways of doing it. You’ve got Plan A to go back to, even though you should always make it with Plan B if you can. That way keeps it fresh for the actors, and for you.

4. FILM HAPPENS IN THE MOMENT • What’s extraordinary about film is that you make it on the day, and then it’s like that forever more. On that day, the actor may have broken up with his wife the night before, so he’s inevitably going to read a scene differently. He’s going to be a different person. I come from theater, which is live and changes every night. I thought film was going to be the opposite of that, but it’s not. It changes every time you watch it: Different audiences, different places, different moods that you’re in. The thing is logically fixed, but it still changes all the time. You have to get your head around that.

5. IF YOUR LAST FILM WAS A SMASH HIT, DON’T PANIC • I had an obsession with the story of 127 Hours, which pre-dated Slumdog Millionaire. But I know—because I’m not an idiot—that the only reason [the studio] allowed us to make it was because Slumdog made buckets of money for them and they felt an obligation of sorts. Not an obligation to let me do whatever I want, but you kind of get a free go on the merry-go-round.

6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL STORIES ABOUT OTHER CULTURES • You can’t just hijack a culture for your story, but you can benefit from it. If you go into it with the right attitude, you can learn a lot about yourself, as well as about the potential of film in other cultures, which is something we tried to do with Slumdog Millionaire… Most films are still made in America, about Americans, and that’s fine. But things are changing and I think Slumdog was evidence of that. There will be more evidence as we go on.

7. USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD • You have so much power as director that if you’re any good at all, you should be able to use that to the benefit of everyone. You have so much power to shape the movie the way you want it that, if you’re on form and you’ve done your prep right and you’re ready, you should be able to make a decent job of it with the other people.

8. DON’T HAVE AN EGO • Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce. Not everyone believes that, but I do. I won’t stand for anyone being treated badly by anyone. I don’t like anyone shouting or abusing people or anything like that. You see people sometimes who are waiting for you to be like that, because they’ve had an experience like that in the past, but I’m not a believer in that. The texture of a film is affected very much by the honor with which you make it.

9. MAKE THE TEST SCREENING PROCESS WORK FOR YOU • Test screenings are tough. It makes you nervous, exposing the film, but they’re very important and I’ve learned a great deal from using them. Not so much from the whole process of cards and the discussions afterwards, but the live experience of sitting in an auditorium with an audience that doesn’t know much about the story you’re going to tell them—I find that so valuable. I’ve learned not so much to like it, but to value how important it is. I think you have to, really.

10. COME TO THE SET WITH A LOOK BOOK • I always have a bible of photographs, images by which I illustrate a film. I don’t mean strict storyboards, I just mean for inspiration for scenes, for images, for ideas, for characters, for costumes, even for props. These images can come from anywhere. They can come from obvious places like great photographers, or they can come from magazine advertisements—anywhere, really. I compile them into a book and I always have it with me and I show it to the actors, the crew, everybody!

11. EVEN PERFECT FORMULAS DON’T ALWAYS WORK • As a director your job is to find the pulse of the film through the actors, which is partly linked to their talent and partly to their charisma. Charisma is a bit indefinable, thank God, or else it would be prescribed in the way that you chemically make a new painkiller. In the movies—and this leads to a lot of tragedy and heartache—you can sometimes have the most perfect formula and it still doesn’t work. That’s a reality that we are all victims of sometimes and benefit from at other times. But if you follow your own instincts and make a leap of faith, then you can at least be proud of the way you did it.

12. TAKE INSPIRATION WHERE YOU FIND IT • When we were promoting Slumdog Millionaire, we were kind of side-by-side with Darren Aronofsky, who was also with Fox Searchlight and was promoting The Wrestler. I watched it and it was really interesting; Darren just decided that he was going to follow this actor around, and it was wonderful. I thought, ‘I want to make a film like that. I want to see if I can make a film like that.’ It’s a film about one actor. It’s about the monolithic nature of film sometimes, you know? It’s about a dominant performance.

13. PUSH THE PRAM • I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it “pushing the pram.” You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff—that’s what people go to the cinema for. This could apply to a romantic comedy; you push anything as far as it will stretch. I think that’s one of your duties as a director… You’ll only ever regret not doing that, not having pushed it. If you do your job well, you’ll be amazed at how far the audience will go with you. They’ll go a long, long way—they’ve already come a long way just to see your movie!

14. ALWAYS GIVE 100 PERCENT • You should be working at your absolute maximum, all the time. Whether you’re credited with stuff in the end doesn’t really matter. Focus on pushing yourself as much as you can. I tend not to write, but I love bouncing off of writing; I love having the writers write and then me bouncing off of it. I bounce off writers the same way I bounce off actors.

15. FIND YOUR OWN “ESQUE” • A lesson I learned from A Life Less Ordinary was about changing a tone—I’m not sure you can do that. We changed the tone to a kind of Capra-esque tone, and whenever you do anything more “esque,” you’re in trouble. That would be one of my rules: No “esques.” Don’t try to Coen-esque anything or Capra-esque anything or Tarkovsky-esque anything, because you’ll just get yourself in a lot of trouble. You have to find your own “esque” and then stick to it.

Full article (with pictures) here:
http://www.moviemaker.com/articles-directing/danny-boyle-15-golden-rules-filmmaking/

Happy creating!


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3 Tips for TV Line Producing

The other day I sat in on an inspirational conversation with the Line Producer of a popular half-hour comedy television show. The Line Producer is the person who “tows the line” of the budget, meaning she makes sure episodes are delivered on time and on budget. I won’t get into everything she said because they’re too specific to television production, but here are a few universal nuggets:

“Coming under budget is a bad thing because it means you’re producing scared.”

When you have a budget and deliver the episode way under, it means you’re not very good at your job. You over-estimated how much things would cost originally (i.e. inflated the budget). Then you committed the cardinal sin of not using all your resources on the screen. The studio wants a great show, a hit show. If you deliver $10,000 over budget you won’t get in trouble. If you deliver $100,000 under budget, you will.

“Line producing is like playing 3-D chess in space with math.”
As a line producer, your job is to protect the showrunner’s vision, protect the studio’s money, and keep your crew happy. You’re the one who signs the checks, so you better be sure you’re responsible for them. You have to be great with numbers, great at solving problems and managing people. You have to be comfortable making big decisions and small decisions. You also have to be willing to use the carrot and the stick.

“To be a good line producer, you must have self esteem.”
No one will believe your words if you don’t. You have to believe in yourself and your abilities. You should be able to go home and sleep well at night, not worry about your work. This isn’t to say things don’t come up. They will. But feel confident in your decisions and know that whatever happens, you know how to fix it. Believe your words.

At the end of the lecture, she mentioned having been inspired by the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken.

Here it is:

The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Happy creating!


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Anatomy of a Television Pilot

For those unfamiliar, a “spec” television script is written for an established show. A “pilot” is written to sell an original, new show, be it comedy or drama. I’ve written mostly film screenplays to date, and one spec television script (for the show HUNG). These days I’m writing my first ever television pilot, and I gave it to my manager two weeks ago for notes. She sent me back three television pilot scripts to read, all being produced this year on major networks, all similar in tone to mine and to each other, but with distinctly different plots.

Reading these scripts was incredibly helpful and inspiring. They were all great scripts, easy to read and compelling. I will watch these shows. More importantly, they were very well structured and well-developed… both areas in which my own script needs improvement.

The following are some things I picked up from these scripts:

They were all one-hour dramas, one clearly meant for cable, the other two meant for network. How could I tell? Because of the controversial subject matter, curse words, nudity, etc.

They were 62, 67 and 69 pages long, respectively.

They all had 5 acts. An Act is basically how the show is divided (like chapters). On channels with commercials, the commercial breaks separate the Acts.

Each Act ended with a twist that made me want to know what happened in the next Act. Put another way, each twist propelled the plot in a different (forward) direction. And the Really Big Twist was on the last page of Act 5, the last-minute or two of the pilot. This is what gets viewers hungry to know what happens in the next episode.

I’m going to focus the rest of my analysis on Script A because it had the clearest structure.

Script A was 62 pages long and had a total of 79 scenes:

Act 1 – 17 pages, 16 scenes
Act 2 – 8 pages, 4 scenes
Act 3 – 15 pages, 28 scenes
Act 4 – 11 pages, 10 scenes
Act 5 – 11 pages, 21 scenes

You can tell from this that Acts 3 and 5 had a lot of very short scenes, indicating perhaps a chase sequence. In general, scenes are no longer than 2 or 3 pages (most are shorter).

The narrative set up of Script A was established in Act 1. So, basically by the first commercial break you have an idea of the show’s main dilemma and the main characters.

The characters were established as follows:
5 main characters were introduced in Act 1
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 2
1 main character was introduced at the top of Act 3
1 minor character was introduced in Act 5

The title of script was explained in Act 4.

The location of the story shifted dramatically in Act 5. It’s hard to say if the whole show was going to move there or if it was just for the pilot (me thinks the latter).

Without knowing anything further, you basically now have a rough structural guide to a one-hour dramatic television pilot script. Obviously, these numbers are not set in stone and you can deviate from them. Personally, I don’t plan to deviate from them that much because I want my pilot to resemble the pace of Script A.

But you need more than a rough guide. You need to read some scripts for yourself, preferably scripts that are similar in tone to yours.

Here are three sites for free scripts you can download:

https://sites.google.com/site/tvwriting/us-drama/pilot-scriptshttp://www.simplyscripts.com/tv.html
http://www.dailyscript.com/

Try breaking a couple down like I did and see what you come up with. If you have more tips and/or advice, by all means chime in.

Happy creating!


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10 Tips on How to Receive Notes on Your Writing

Apologies for skipping last week’s Industry Friday post. I was pulling an all-nighter to finish my pilot, which I turned in last Friday morning. This week I received notes on the draft. I’d like to share some insight on this process which every writer deals with some point or another. Getting notes can feel a bit like getting advice on how to raise your children. Your first instinct is to tell the note-giver to go F*** themselves. You must fight this instinct, breathe, and remember the following:

1. You gave your work to this person(s) for a reason. Hopefully, because you respect their opinion or they were referred to you by someone you respect. What smarts the most, of course, is when someone you respect gives you the cold hard truth, your work still needs work, your work would be better off as fire kindle. I once sent a screenplay to a mentor who wrote me back a 3-page typed letter basically saying: “throw this crap out, start again.” I was REALLY disappointed. But he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning, Oscar-nominated writer, and I was not. After the hurt and hangover wore off, I realized how lucky I was that he would take the time to write me a 3-page letter! I took his suggestions and wrote a much better screenplay.

2. The note-giver is trying to help you. Whether they’re correct in their advice is beside the point. If they’re not an agent of Satan, chances are they have positive intentions. (And if they are, then who cares what they say? Just nod your head and say thank you.)

3. Your work DOES need work. Especially if it’s a first draft, but even if it’s your tenth. Any professional screenwriter, playwright or author will tell you, until it is either printed or on the screen, you can and will make improvements.

4. Did you ask for specific or general notes? If it’s your first draft, you’re probably seeking general story notes. If it’s your tenth, do yourself a favor and tell the note-giver ahead of time to not suggest radical story changes but rather specific page notes. It’s also okay (and wise) to ask someone to simply proofread your work.

5. Does the note-giver understand what you’re going for? Did you write a serious period piece and receive notes on how to make it funnier and more modern? If the note-giver doesn’t tell you their general understanding upfront, then you should ask them to make sure you’re both talking about the same project. If yes, then great. If not, it’s useful to know that your draft did not communicate your intentions, OR this note-giver is not the right person to read it.

6. Always get a second opinion. Opinions are subjective, especially about art. So, if you’re seeking feedback, never rely on only one person. Ask several people (whom you trust and respect). If more than one person gets back to you with the same note, chances are it is a valid point that you might want to consider.

7. Realize that the note-giver might have an agenda. Sometimes people give notes based on what they want you to write, not on what you’ve actually written. You have to be discerning and…

8. Trust your instincts. Don’t automatically take every note you receive. Sit with it. Imagine how it would change the piece if you applied it. Would it change it drastically or just a little? Often the best notes are actually things we know to be true but were too lazy or afraid to address. Sometimes we don’t know how to address and secretly hope the note-giver will tell us how to do so. But this should be avoided if possible. It’s up to the writer to solve his/her own problems. The note-giver is just there to tell you if you succeeded or not.

9. Take the good notes, leave the bad. Sometimes you receive a gem of a note, something so brilliant you wish you had thought of it yourself. If this happens, remain calm, do not overreact (lest the note-giver suddenly want co-writing credit) and by all means take the damn note! You can do the happy dance (and thank your lucky stars) in private. Conversely, think of all the bad notes like rain water, as in a little rain can’t hurt you.

10. Say THANK YOU. You should nod your head and say thank you to anyone who takes the time to read your work, regardless of who they are, whether they give you good or bad notes, whether they have an agenda or any of the above. In fact, unless you paid for the notes you should offer to do something for the note-giver in return. Reading your work took time and mental energy. Insightful notes are a gift for which every writer should be grateful and humble.

Finally, one of my favorite quotes from the movie MIDNIGHT IN PARIS as said by the character Ernest Hemingway to the character played by Owen Wilson who has just asked for Hemingway’s opinion of his novel:

“My opinion is I hate it. If it’s bad I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing. If it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate it all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.”

Happy creating!


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What You Are Now Enjoying – an Interview with Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

What You Are Now Enjoying, a new collection of short stories by Sarah Gerkensmeyer

I am so pleased to introduce you to author Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Sarah and I met during our January writer residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. Since then, she has published a collection of short stories entitled What You Are Now Enjoying and is currently making the promotional rounds. I asked Sarah if she would be interested in discussing her journey here at Riding Bitch and am thrilled she said yes! I think you’ll find a lot of information and inspiration in her answers. Be sure to read the excerpt at the end.

Q. Sarah, can you tell us about yourself: who are you?
I am a mother, writer, teacher, wife… Everything in my life feels like a juggling act at this point. Because of this, I immensely enjoy a glass of red wine and an episode of New Girl. I have always loved to write (I know that’s cliché–but it’s true).

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

author Sarah Gerkensmeyer

Q. How do you describe your book?
From Wonder Woman as an angst-ridden teenager to ghost twins to monster catfish to the secret relationships between polygamous wives, the stories in What You Are Now Enjoying approach the familiar in unfamiliar ways, allowing us to recognize and claim the unordinary moments in our own often ordinary lives. I’ve found myself using magical realism and fabulist elements to try to tell everyday stories about everyday people.

Q. Where do the stories come from?
I absolutely love this question. And I’m thrilled to be able to answer: I’m not sure. Lately I’ve realized that this is okay–a sense of mystery and even confusion in my writing. I’ve found myself trying to talk to my students about this–how any element of the unexpected, the unknown, the mysterious is a gift to our writing, not an annoying roadblock.

Q. That’s a great piece of advice! Did you approach the book with a theme or did you find the theme as you wrote?
All of this was very much a gradual (and even surprising) discovery for me. I wrote the extremely short (and especially strange) stories that are in my collection just after my youngest son, Charlie, was born. I was desperate to return to writing but couldn’t face the huge project of my novel. And so I thought of these little pieces as a distraction and guilty form of procrastination. I had no idea that they would end up cementing together a book. But when I stepped back and looked at them, I realized that they held threads of some of the things in my other stories–loneliness and a feeling of inertia.

Q. What was the hardest thing about writing your book?
For a few years, it was trying to figure out when/if I had a book. Beginning with my time in graduate school, I over thought the project (I think only one of the stories that I wrote in graduate school made it into the book). I think I was especially self-conscious in this regard as a writer who was dabbling with surreal and fabulist elements. I had to recognize that those weren’t the things I was writing about. Rather, I was using them to write about very real and very ordinary people.

Q. How long did it take to write? Did you write it full-time or while doing other things?
This book has been coming together, bit by bit, since about 2002. I always wanted it to come together quickly, but now I’m glad that it had plenty of time to stew. I needed time to figure things out.

Q. How did you get it published?
It’s very hard to sell a collection of short stories as an emerging author. The big houses want to buy novels, because that’s what sells. Smaller presses have become a champion for short story collections, but many of them only consider submissions via their annual prizes. And so I sent my book off to a few prizes and was lucky enough to catch the eye of Stewart O’Nan, the novelist who judged Autumn House Press’ Fiction Prize.

Q. What did you learn from the experience (of writing and publishing)?
As for the writing: it will come when it wants to come. And when that book does finally come together, love it. Even if it isn’t the creature that you originally intended it to be. As for the publishing: authors are expected to do a lot of leg work these days, even at the bigger presses. I was part of an inaugural program called the Launch Lab at Grub Street in Boston. We learned how to direct our energy in ways that fit our personalities and our work. The program helped me realize that I need to find pockets of PR that feel intimate, where real conversations can occur. Because of this, I’ve really enjoyed participating on various blogs (thanks, Niva!) because this is a world of passionate writers and readers who want to have a real conversation about books.

Q. What are you working on now?
I’ve returned to the novel that I set aside when my second son was born. And I think the strange stories in my new collection really gave me the fuel to return to it with fresh eyes. I’ve done a lot of intense research on congenital heart disease for this novel. It takes place in the Northern Minnesota wilderness. There’s a pregnancy, and somebody has blue skin… Maybe that’s enough of a tease.

Q. What lessons will you apply from this one to the next one?
I’ve discovered that a sense of urgency (and even anxiety and panic) can be put to good use. As a mother especially, this has been a good thing to learn. My children, and my teaching, and all the other things I love don’t need to be set aside so that I can write. The rush (and even the anxiety) that I get from trying to juggle all of these things can be harvested and can provide an exciting sense of momentum in the stories that I tell. These things aren’t in the way of my writing. They can be helpful.

Q. How is writing short stories different (for you) than writing a novel?
When I write a short story, (especially a very short story) I know that a breath of fresh air isn’t too far off. And so I’m able to pull myself into complex and strange worlds with a great deal of abandon. There isn’t as much hesitancy as when I sit down with a longer project. And sometimes I think stories can be more immense than a novel. They can create a sharp sense of echo, or what ZZ Packer calls “resonance.” I think that’s why I’m working with a much more fragmented structure in the current draft of my novel–in an attempt to simulate that same kind of feeling that I get from a short story.

Q. Do you have any advice for other writers who are moms and/or teachers?
While I do think parenting and teaching can inspire and fuel writing in unexpected ways, I still think it’s so incredibly difficult. They aren’t necessarily completely separate things, but sometimes you do need to find a way to step into only your writing. I’ve found writing residencies (like Vermont Studio Center, where Niva and I met) to be invaluable in this regard.

Q. Last question – will you share with us an excerpt from one of your stories?
Sure! This is from the beginning of “My Husband’s House”:

I didn’t go looking for my husband’s new place until after his fourth or fifth late night visit, after a long day when the sun had set without much color. I couldn’t believe what he had told me that first time he showed up in the middle of the night in our bedroom a few weeks after he had gone missing, a living ghost. Yet the first place I tried was the river. The further you follow the river back into the woods, the further back in time you go. Kirk’s favorite noodling spot is beneath an old railroad bridge that must be at least eighty years old, a bunch of broken timbers running across the water. When I got there that night, the water was slow and not too cold. It came up to my thighs when I reached Kirk’s spot nestled into the far bank.

I stood in the dark water, my feet shifting in the silt, and continued to not believe my husband. I crouched down—the water pulling at my old blouse, seeping up its seams—and cursed him for telling lies. Reaching with my right hand, I closed my eyes and felt my chin hit the water. I didn’t believe him. But I’d been drinking, and that was enough to make me curious. It was enough to let me change my mind once everything started to happen, the tugs and the pulls and the sinking shift. I was relieved and tired when I realized that my husband had been telling the truth, that there was no way to stop what was happening. I could feel it then: all of Ohio, its towns and its churches and its roads and its rivers—this old, snaky one especially—swallowing me up.

It makes you feel like singing, like burping after a fine meal and then closing your eyes, because who cares if anyone heard.

Awesome! THANK YOU Sarah. I can’t wait to read your book.

If you want to learn more about Sarah or find out how to purchase What You Are Now Enjoying, please visit http://www.SarahGerkensmeyer.com


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How to be an Alpha Bitch

There is a moment in every woman’s life when she comes to understand that the only way to get what she wants is to be an Alpha Bitch. Knowing this does not make it so. She must either decide to become one or accept that she doesn’t have what it takes. If the former, and contrary to what you might think, she does not decide to become mean. She decides to become a leader. One that inspires obedience, loyalty, respect, fear and above all, love from her subject, be it man, child or beast.

Step 1 to being an Alpha Bitch is

1. Recognize that you need to be the Alpha Bitch
It’s okay to not realize it right way, as long as you realize it before the subject realizes that between the two of you, she is more Alpha than you are. Usually, this means while they’re young, still look up to you and/or don’t yet realize their own strength. Once you’ve made the decision to be the leader

2. You must decide how you want the subject to behave and be consistent in the message.
This requires a lot of foresight and energy. If you’re like me and have a set of rules for home and a set of rules in other people’s homes, it can be even more challenging, though not impossible. The trick is to be get the subject to listen to you wherever you are, and to never question your authority.

Ruby with bamboo2

3. Realize and accept that when the subject misbehaves, it’s really your fault.
This is often hard to accept because on some level we wish the subject would know good behavior instinctually. But accept it you must. No matter how good the subject might be, she will not know these behaviors inherently and must be taught what is good behavior and what is bad.

4. Always look the subject in the eye and never show fear.
Your eyes, voice and body language are all key factors. To command, you must be commanding, period.

5. Reward the subject with treats when they do what you want. Learn what is the most valuable treat.
Self-explanatory.

6. Withhold treats when the subject does not do what you want.
Ditto.

7. Learn when to withhold treats for other reasons, for example when the subject grows too accustomed to treats.
Learn to sometimes withhold treats in order to increase their value. Sometimes we learn this by accident because, for reasons not necessarily within our control, treats become unavailable for a period of time. The next time we give the treat the subject appreciates it that much more, which makes training easier.

Ruby with bamboo3

8. Follow up treats with praise.
The goal is to get the subject to behave even without treats all the time, for the subject to forget that bad behavior is even an option. The goal is for good behavior to become the norm.

9. Realize and accept that there will be exceptions
After all, the subject is what it is, and cannot be blamed for having these urges. Every now and then, let the subject blow off some steam and just be themselves.

ruby with bamboo4jpeg

10. Be patient, compassionate and loving. Don’t always be in training mode.
It’s okay to show affection, to laugh and play and indulge and spoil, to a certain extent. As a professional trainer recently told me, “Eventually, she’ll realize that everything good in her life comes from you.”


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Darcy Thiel Talks Publishing

If you’ve been following the Industry Friday series, you are familiar with guest blogger Darcy Thiel. Darcy has written a book about losing her husband to cancer in 2010 and up until now she and I have been discussing our experiences with caregiving (her interview with me is here http://helpforhealing.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/guest-blog-part-2/). Today we discuss the process of writing the actual book and getting published. The timing couldn’t be more perfect because tomorrow is her book’s launch party! I’m very excited for her.

Q. What has been the most challenging aspect of writing your book Bitter & Sweet?

A. It feels sometimes like “grief brain” is permanent. So accomplishing anything can be hard on some days, much less a huge project like writing a book. Two things were hard. One thing, were the days when a wave of grief hit. I could talk/write/process for days and even weeks like I was just telling someone else’s story. Then for no reason that I could identify, it would be a crying, grieving day and the subject matter was larger than life. The second part was learning new things. I would have given up at least a trillion times if my dear friend Brigitte wasn’t working with me full time. She does all the research and information finding. She has the patience of a saint coupled with a brilliant mind!

Q. How did you secure publishing?

A. We have actually “self-published”. First, we had to form a publishing company, which meant forming an LLC. It is called Baby Coop Publishing, LLC. Once you do the research, it’s tedious but not difficult. You fill out forms and then do legal notices in the paper. Total cost is about $350. After that, we did our research (ok, Brigitte did) and came up with what we thought were the best options. Lightning Source is the company that distributes our softcover book. All of the files were downloaded to them. They have certain companies they distribute to, but it’s most of the biggest in the industry. When they get orders, they print and ship. It’s called “print on demand.”

For the ebook versions, we went with a company called Book Baby. We are still in the process of downloading and revising with them. I thought this would be easier, but it has different challenges. Every reader (Nook, Kindle, Kobo, etc.) looks different. So it’s very hard to design something that looks good in every version. We are hoping to have that released within another two weeks.

Q. What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book?

A. My dream is that my book will be useful and helpful to people in the same way that other books helped us. You have listed a bunch of books and what you have gotten out of them – I’d like to be on that list some day. For a person struggling with cancer, they can find inspiration in the way that Tim dealt with his illness. For a person handling the tasks of being a caretaker, it is full of helpful ideas of how to be a patient advocate. For loved ones and family, it is full of practical ways of how you can truly be a support to the people you care about.

Q. What do you hope to achieve with your book?

A. The previous question answers the more spiritual goals of the book. On a practical level, I would love to pay off the mortgage of the house before my social security runs out! But the reality of how much money you make on a book is very small indeed. When you realize how many books you have to sell to really make a living, it’s almost impossible.

A much for practical goal for me, is that I am hoping that the book will help generate more referrals to my counseling practice. That is my main profession and passion and I will be doing that for many more years than I will be writing books.

Thank you, Darcy, and good luck tomorrow!

For more info on Darcy Thiel, please visit her at
http://www.marriageandfamilycounseling.net
http://www.helpforhealing.wordpress.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/helpforhealing

The very touching video trailer for her book is also available here: http://youtu.be/Xapeagk_5tE

Happy creating!


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10 Steps to a Happier Place

To make up for yesterday’s 10-bullet-points-of-kvetching post, for which I apologize to the readers and The Universe, here are 10 common sense reminders (in no particular order) of what to do when you’re down. And by you, I mean us.

1. Get Some Rest – If this means going to bed earlier, taking a nap during the day, sleeping in your car or under your desk at lunch (been there!), or asking your partner to let you sleep an extra 15 minutes, do it. It’s amazing how much better you feel when you’ve had enough sleep. Yesterday was a prime example of what happens when I’m tired. I get cranky, bitchy, whiny.

2. Have Fewer (Unrealistic) Expectations – If you’re a working adult with multiple responsibilities, if you’re a single mom (if you’re single, period), if you’re grieving, sick, or healthy and simply overwhelmed, if you’re human, then you know there are only so many hours in a day, and you have only so much energy. Be realistic. Make your To Do list as long as you want (mine is pages long) but realize you will not get to everything at once. You will get to what you can. And that’s okay.

3. Be Easy on Yourself – Do you beat yourself up about all the things you do wrong? Or the things you didn’t do, rather than the things you did? Do you compare yourselves to others and wonder what’s wrong with you that you can’t accomplish the same? Stop! This is useless energy that doesn’t help you or anyone who has to deal with you. Every person is different. No person is perfect. If it takes you longer to reach your goals than others, this doesn’t mean you’re a lazy bum. It means you’re human. And you’ll get a whole lot more done if you redirect the negative energy towards something positive.

4. Be Grateful – I know it’s a cliche, but some cliches are good and this is one of them. Even in our darkest moments, we can find something that will make us smile, if only for a brief moment. The sound of children’s laughter, the rainbow the sprinkler makes in the morning sun, the breeze in our hair, a song. Maybe it’s simply looking around and recognizing what we have instead of what we don’t, the blessings in our life instead of the curses. Again, I know this is harder said than done sometimes, but it’s worth keeping in mind. Even the unlucky are lucky in some way. The challenge is figuring out how.

5. Focus on Yourself – Not in a narcissistic way, but in a don’t-worry-about-what-he-or-she’s-doing way. Focus on yourself. The only thing on this earth that you can control is you.

6. Take Your Vitamins – Eat well, drink water, get up and move around every now and then, and yes, take your vitamins. Besides being a healthy (and these days, necessary) supplement, they can actually improve your mood and energy level. I had skipped my vitamins the last few days but this morning I took them and no lie, I feel better.

7. Be Friendly – Say hello to people that pass you by. Say please and thank you. Tip your servers. Give someone a compliment. Hold the door for a stranger. Let other cars pass in front of you. I don’t mean be fake, but little gestures of genuine kindness can make a world of difference to others and to you.

8. Watch Bad Television – Whatever constitutes “bad television” to you, sometimes it’s okay to indulge in it. Personally, I consider reality TV bad. But I admit to watching a few shows. Project Runway is my favorite. But I will sometimes leave American Idol on in the background while I’m doing other things. And more recently, I’ve been watching The Face, which is a combination of America’s Next Top Model and The Voice. Totally ridiculous but Naomi Campbell is one diva beyotch and thoroughly entertaining.

9. Help Someone – Helping others is good for them, good for you, good for the world. It can also add a sense of meaning to your life. You can never go wrong.

10. Think Happy Thoughts – I’ve always been a moody person and my mother used to say this to me a lot when I was a kid. My late husband used to say the same thing, in his own way. I couldn’t always manage it as a child or an adult, but I try and I think it’s good advice.

peace pic


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Adapting Non-Fiction for TV and Film

You’re probably familiar with films based on novels, but did you know that many award-winning films are based on non-fiction books or articles? Here are eight such films:

On the Waterfront (1954) – Screenplay by Budd Schulberg, based on “Crime on the Waterfront”, a series of articles in the New York Sun by Malcolm Johnson, which won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Waterfront

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) – script by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George, based on the book “Red Alert” by Peter George

Into Thin Air: Death on Everest (1995) – screenplay by Robert J. Avrech, based on the book “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer

A Beautiful Mind (2001) – screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the book “A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash, Jr., Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics” by Sylvia Nasar

Iris (2001) – screenplay by Richard Eyre, Charles Wood, based on the book “Iris: A Memoir” and “Elegy for Iris” by John Bayley

Seabiscuit (2003) – screenplay by Gary Ross, based on the book “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” by Laura Hillenbrand

Into the Wild (2007) – screenplay by Sean Penn, based on the book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) – screenplay by Ronald Harwood, based on the book “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominique Bauby

In a lecture I attended last October given by Brad Schreiber, an accomplished writer/teacher/consultant who was kind enough to share with us the Writer’s Pledge (Industry Friday #8), I learned some interesting facts about adapting books or articles for film.

1. If you think your story would make a great film, here are some reasons to write the book first:
– You will have more control over the material.
– You will most likely automatically be a producer on the film.
– The other producers won’t be able to get rid of you.
– Adapting the book is usually a faster process than writing an original screenplay.

2. On the other hand, these are some of the challenges of adapting:
– Books have interior dialogue. In film this becomes Voice Over Narration, and too much narration is usually not a good thing.
– Books can have a lot of non-action. Film is all about action (even a non-action film).
– Books can be non-linear. Films are generally (but not always) linear.
– Books are culturally specific. Films are intended to have a global appeal.
– Books leave much to the imagination. Films rely on specific images.

3. Another important consideration is thematic focus. Generally, a film focuses on a certain aspect of the book or subject matter rather than the entire story captured in the book.

Two examples:

In the film A Beautiful Mind, the producers decided to leave out the fact that Nash was apparently bisexual and instead focused on the love story between him and his wife.

Dr. Strangelove was based on a non-fiction book about nuclear disaster. The director Stanley Kubrick thought it was so bleak to the point of being absurd, so he made into a dark comedy.

If you’re in the book-writing stage, you need not worry about these things now, but keep them in mind for later. If you’re a screenwriter, then think about what your angle would be on the non-fiction book or article you want to adapt. What is the central story and how will you approach it? If you’re a producer, realize that the person who wrote the book or article might not be the best person to write the screenplay, but they will probably be the most knowledgeable about the subject.

Happy creating!