Freelance on Fleek: Copywriting for the Unglamourous

November 20, 2015 by

I heard the knock at my front door. The kids were just settled in for naptime, and I looked forward to taking advantage of the newfound calm that silenced my home. I cautiously open the door, as I’m new to the Midwest and not yet used to the concept of door-to-door sales still existing. I still have East Coast paranoia, thinking people only knock on other’s doors for nefarious reasons.

“Can I help you?” I ask.

He’s wearing a pair of khaki dress pants, a white shirt and a tie. He means business. “I’m so sorry. Did I wake you?”

It was two o’clock in the afternoon. That was the moment I realized I was officially a freelancer. I think I’d actually changed out of my pajamas that day, too, and there’s a 50% chance I wore a bra.

Any parent will say there’s nothing glamorous about living with toddlers – they’re messy, sticky, loud, smelly, and needy. Combine that with long days in front of various computers scattered around the house, four cats, and a diagnosed compulsive disorder triggered by chaos; I’m lucky just to make it into bed at night.

However, I love the life I’ve created. I won’t tell you it’s fashionable, and I’ll never tell you it’s easy, but it is rewarding. I’m a full-time mom of two and a freelance copywriter, social media manager, and marketing writer. Two days before my 501 residency, I walked out of the retail pharmacy where I was a manager for over ten years, and decided I was going to change careers.

I went into the freelancing world completely blind. My husband’s job relocated to Indiana, where I had no family or friends. After a few months in our new home in the Midwest, I wanted to find a way to work from home while being able to set my own schedule. That desire led me to freelance writing, where I learned that it would take three key elements to be successful: Focus, Clients, and Balance.


In January of 2014, I created my own website, relying on my husband’s skills in web development to simplify the process. After that, I generated a “work-specific” email account to keep all the job requests separated from my regular inbox, and then I turned to social media. Literally. I think two days passed before I realized I was distracted by Facebook. Three swooning couples had gotten engaged, two high school acquaintances had babies, two more were now pregnant, seven foodies were stuffing their faces with Instagram-worthy cuisine, and four gym-bound friends proved, that, yes, they ”even lift, bro.” I hadn’t done anything other than stare at the timeline.

If I wanted this freelancing thing to work, I had to do the unthinkable as a writer: FOCUS. With so many time-sucks, from social media and gossip blogs to television and even books, finding time to work was going to be essential. So I had to make sure that whatever free time I found, I spent it focused on the task at hand.

It’s important to note that I use the term “focus” loosely. My motivation to write 500 words is that I allow myself to play a level of Pet Rescue Saga, or spend five minutes reading Buzzfeed lists. I mean, how else can you get through the day without seeing 10 Cats Who Are Better At Life Than You? You’d also be surprised how much you actually want to do laundry when you’re trying to procrastinate.

While I’m easily distracted, I can stay disciplined when working under a deadline. The trick is finding unconventional opportunities to blend writing with other tasks. I travel from Indiana to Wilkes-Barre frequently, which is about nine hours. That’s time, as a passenger, I can focus on the laptop. If I could finagle my breast pump and all its wires, tubes, and accessories, into the seat of our Subaru, I certainly could turn it into a mobile office just as easily.


It may seem obvious, but the most important part of being a successful freelancer is the actual work. However, finding the work was not quite as apparent. This is where the whole endeavor becomes unglamorous.

After doing some research about freelancing sites, I created accounts on both and (which is now a part of the Upwork community). Within just a few days, things really took off on Fiverr. Here’s the catch though: I was offering 500 word SEO friendly articles for $5, of which, Fiverr takes 20%, meaning I made $4 for each article.

I was underselling myself, but we all have to start somewhere. I never actually expected it to take off, or to have more than 20 clients in two weeks wanting to give me money to pretend I knew about things like metal roofs, Formula One racing, and the Australian real estate market, none of which I had first-hand experience with.

I lowered my word count three months later, because it was getting difficult to manage all of the projects. And while I still only made $4 per article, it only took about 20 minutes to write each one, provided I stayed off Facebook and FOCUSED. In theory, I was earning $12 an hour, which I consider a win for not having to get dressed, or leave my house.

While it may seem like a lot of work for very little money to begin with, I’m glad I went through the service for a variety of reasons:

  • Protection. I wasn’t out there on my own trying to collect money and hoping these random people would pay me. The money was secured before I delivered my product.
  • SEO. Search Engine Optimization techniques are always being updated, thanks to the constantly changing algorithms from Google. Doing quick short articles on a variety of topics helped me hone my SEO skills and understand more about traffic, views, meta descriptions, subheadings and other techie mumbo jumbo. While it’s not necessary to know SEO to write a great article, it certainly helps and can give you an edge over the competition.
  • Portfolio. This is the big one. Because I had done these articles, I had something to show my skills when the heavy hitters came to bat. I built a portfolio of different types of writing, which demonstrated a range and ability to higher-paying potential clients.
  • Networking. Because I was delivering product to clients and they were satisfied, my confidence in my work grew. I knew that I was able to write an informative article and meet the customer’s specific requirements. I also felt more comfortable with the industry as a whole, and was able to communicate with clients in an efficient manner. This gave me the ability to take my portfolio and actively seek out new clients off the service.

Now that I’ve moved on from the “getting started” phase, I barely do any work on Fiverr anymore, and am working independently for a variety of different marketing firms and businesses, many whom I found through direct networking relationships. Basically, I knew someone who knew someone who needed work. I solicit business more openly now, because I have the confidence in my writing and am more comfortable with freelancing. I know my limitations and my timeframe for job completion. Now I meet a business owner with a flash heavy website that gives very little information for their customers, and I openly ask if they’ve ever thought about revising their current web copy. You’d be surprised how a simple conversation can score you a job when you freelance.


As I’m writing this, my almost 4-year-old daughter is styling my hair and applying pretend makeup to my face. I don’t really notice. I’m in the zone.

I’ve learned how to balance the many aspects of my life, in order to commit fully to each one. I’m a stay at home mom first and foremost, and while my heart will always lie with my children, my passion is with my writing.

Most of my freelance jobs aren’t very creative, but that doesn’t mean that my personal writing hasn’t benefitted. Writing is writing, and each word you put on the page is a conscious decision, whether you’re writing the next “Great American Novel” or an article that literally contains the phrase “if the bear starts to eat you.” That last one is a real quote from a commissioned article on bear attacks.

I write Every. Single. Day. I’m continuously thinking about words and sentences and brevity. I’m thinking of paragraphs and structure and properly communicating cohesive ideas. Whether I’m writing about collaborative consumption or the latest tax laws, I find a way to learn from every piece I turn in.

Finding the right balance between work and home when you work from home can take some getting used to. I set a goal each day of how many words or articles or pages of web copy I want to write, and then I figure out how I can separate that goal into smaller tasks that I can complete at various points throughout the day. I set my own schedule, although I don’t really work off my own time. Each day is different, because kids are different every day. For the most part, we stick to a routine, but some days we may want to cuddle and watch movies and I only write 500 words that day, and other days they play together without mom and I can complete a whole job and have time to work on my personal writing projects, even if it means I’m at my computer until midnight.

My days are hectic, and sometimes when I finally get to my upstairs computer, and hubby has taken over parenting for the day, I’m mentally exhausted. Even trying to write 100 words can feel like torture. I often have to remind myself that it’s okay to feel that way. The point is about being flexible, and being okay with whatever the day throws at me. Some days I exceed my goals, some days I just reach them, and there are other days where I accomplish very little. And that’s fine. I may need to let the laundry pile up for a day or two, or order take-out instead of a homemade dinner if I’m trying to meet a deadline. It’s all about creating the right balance.

“What? Wake me?” I ask the salesman standing on my chalk drawing covered porch. Just because my skin is pale from lack of vitamin D, I’ve been drinking from the same coffee mug for two days, my hair naturally grows into a messy bun now, and there are toys scattered all over my living room doesn’t mean I spend all day sleeping. “No. I’m a freelance writer.” I answer confidently.


Nichole KanneyNichole Kanney received her M.F.A. from Wilkes in June of 2015, and is actively engaged in screenwriting, football, and student loan repayment. You can find her writing and laughing in her own little world, comprised of the three important C’s: coffee, cats, and characters.

3 Bits of Wisdom About Producing a Writer’s Conference by Donna Talarico ’00 MFA ’10

October 22, 2015 by

HippoCamp-2015I’m a conference junkie. I have lots of notches in my conference bedpost, but over the past five years, my love for them has grown much deeper. Since 2010, I’ve attended almost 30 conferences and spoke at almost just as many. For me, events where likeminded people get together for a few days to learn and share are completely exhilarating experiences. I liken my favorite conference, HighEdWeb, to a creative writing residency: an intense few days where, around the clock, you’re with colleagues who turn into close friends over the course of just a few days. It’s also quite like summer camp. And if you attend annually, it’s a homecoming of sorts every single time.

So when I launched Hippocampus Magazine, a monthly creative nonfictional journal, a creative nonfiction conference was part of the plan, but it was part of Phase II. Our mission is to entertain, educate and engage readers and writers of creative nonfiction, and a conference would allow us to bring that vision to life, bringing something that resides on the Internet into real life.

At Year Five, I decided we were ready: we had credibility, we had a following. Planning began in August 2014, and August 7-9, 2015, we held our inaugural HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers in Lancaster, Pa. It attracted 140 writers from 19 states. It was, in my mind, a huge success. The energy from the conference lasted for weeks, as seen from hashtag activity and attendees blogging about their experience and cheering on new friends. That energy is still kind of there today, as of this writing almost three months later.

I took aspects of conferences I love—mostly in the technology and marketing/communications realm—and put our own spin on them. I’d like to share a few conference planning tips, which may be of interest to others planning writing (or any kind of) events or those who just want to be more involved as an attendee.

Keynote speaker Lee Gutkind presenting at HippoCamp 2015.

Keynote speaker Lee Gutkind presenting at HippoCamp 2015.

The Back Channel Matters; Nurture It

It’s a given these days that your conference should have a hashtag. But, aha! It’s what you do with that hashtag that’s a challenge for many conference planners. This fall, I went to two events that had hashtags, but the organizer’s official accounts were silent. And, barely anyone was tweeting. If you’re going to create a hashtag, here are two bits of advice:

1) As the organizer, use it. I repeat: use it. Attendees want to interact with you, so if the official account is not even using the hashtag, getting a conversation going will be slow-going. Also, get the folks behind the organization to use the hashtag, too. For example, I tweeted from the @hippocampusmag username, and then also from my own account, @donnatalarico.

2) Don’t set it and forget it. We had hundreds and hundreds of tweets because, for our conference, social media wasn’t passive. We encouraged people to tweet during announcements, and, of course, the hashtag was all over our printed materials, on the website and every email and social media post leading up to the event and in all follow-up communications. If you can’t hang with the hash, leave it off (but I strongly advise against that).

Finally, some people may be following along with the hashtag, even though they are not in attendance. Pay attention to them, wherever they are. Talk to them. Tweet them messages like, “Oh! We wish you were here!” Sometimes, through Twitter, people discover conferences from the hashtag while the conference is going on—and then they’ll sign up for your newsletter to get more information for next year. This happened to me; my friend Nikki was tweeting with #asja-something. I was like, “What is that?” And then I discovered an organization I hadn’t heard of: The American Society of Journalists and Authors. And ASJA has an annual conference in New York, and also regional events throughout the year. I wouldn’t have known about it had someone in my network not tweeted about it. I can say that #hippocamp15 got major traction. We made new friends, and I bet we’ll see some of them at HippoCamp 2016.

Money Matters; Watch It

It’s so cliché to say, “I was a communications major; I don’t DO math.” I even have an MBA! But I’m more of a words person. Your conference budget matters. On paper, we had a clear budget – this is what we spend on keynotes, this is what we spend on marketing, etc. However, this was the first year, so it was risky to guess what attendance might be, what a fair price might be based on that goal. When it was all said and done, everything worked out, but not without the need to put personal funds into the mix. Know that, just like in any business, the first year might not break even (that’s all I wanted to do with the conference; have it pay for itself). If your organization doesn’t have funds set aside for a large-scale event (we didn’t; who does?), be prepared to take out a loan or borrow from elsewhere, even to get you started. You will most definitely have expenses before tickets go on sale and conference revenue rolls in. For example, your location or keynote contract may require a deposit before registrations really kick in.

You want the conference to be a good value, but you also need to price it right so that, based on your attendance goal and expected costs, you can be sure to cover expenses. Pay close attention to the convention center contract to find those add-on fees so you aren’t surprised later, like a 21% service charge. So, say your food minimum is $10,000: you need to actually plan for $12,100 for your food line item. Make sense? Also, pay close attention to what your registration costs and how many discounted/free passes you give, especially if you’re financing this yourself. (This isn’t the equivalent of giving a friend a free meal, folks.) Factor discounts into your budget from the start, otherwise you’ll eat away at your bottom line. Don’t undersell yourself, either. In all, treat your conference as you would a business.

Atmosphere Matters; Create It

“This is the best conference food I ever had.”

I heard that statement dozens of times at HippoCamp 15. One of the things I’ve seen at other writing conferences, and even a few within my industry (marketing/communications), is that food is hard to come by. Even water. It was important for me to keep attendees fed and caffeinated. It makes a difference in attention span. Every session room had water glasses and chilled pitchers—we even got compliments about that. Many conferences, attendees buy their own drinks or fill up their own water bottles at fountains. HippoCamp also included most meals, except for a “dinner on your own,” which was deliberate, because it was a big deal for me to invite writers to my city, and this allowed people to get out on the town. Since the days were long, we had built-in snack and coffee breaks, too. Of course, all of this contributes to the ticket price, but think about it: if attendees needed to purchase meals elsewhere, they’d still be spending money beyond the registration price. Why not keep people on site and bonding with one another?

I started with food because I’m writing this post before lunch, but there’s more to the atmosphere than just an array of birch beer, Lebanon bologna, and cheese. What is the overall feel of the conference location? Is it cozy, colorful and comfortable? Or does it feel like you’re in a prison, with harsh, institutional lighting and rock hard seats? Don’t underestimate the importance of location and professionalism of presentation to the morale and spirit of your guests.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of leaving the logistics to the pros. Our conference venue was professional and offered a team of experts in executing a conference—we did not have to worry about a thing after we gave them our schedule, technology needs, attendee counts, and menu. Rooms were just set up. Food just showed up. If a room was too chilly, I just had to push a button on the Marriott’s Red Coat app, and someone took care of it. While it’s a bit more expensive to go to a conference center, it’s worth the stress-free experience for planners. I didn’t have to coordinate tech and an outside caterer or talk people into helping me set up 200 chairs (in five rooms!). Because of this attention to detail from the venue, the conference staff just focused on being part of the conference, being there with our attendees. You can piece-meal an event, or you can trust one provider with it all.

In Summary

There is so much I could say about planning a conference, but I wanted to focus on three areas I feel other conferences could improve upon or that might get overlooked by a new conference planner; after all, when it’s said and done, whether the logistics get screwy, attendees will overlook that if the caliber of content is high.

Our post-conference surveys were overwhelmingly positive. This is because we built a little community for these few days—actually, more than three days as it began months before the conference and, as I noted, lasted for months after. We put the attendee experience above everything. (We also had cookies and milk, so that helped!)

If you were at HippoCamp, you can attest at how seamless things went. But don’t let this fool you! Planning a writing conference—any conference—is grueling work and there are many moving parts, many minute details, and personal sacrifices (in time and money) that you’ll make. But, done right, man—you just might have a life-changing experience and, in turn, get to change others’ lives by what they take home from the conference.


Donna Talarico - HippoCamp15Donna Talarico is an independent content writer and social media/storytelling consultant

Founder/publisher of Hippocampus Magazine. She is a three-time Wilkes alumna and currently completing her M.A. in Creative Writing – Publishing.

Sam Chiarelli: A Dinosaur Safari

September 24, 2015 by

Writing is about overcoming obstacles: self-doubt, scheduling, silence. Creative nonfiction poses an additional challenge to its writer. You have to live what you write. While memoir forces an author to confront difficult internal circumstances, the science writing I wanted to pursue created external issues for me.

T. rex DMNS

When I began working on my M.A. thesis, I had no idea how much the CW program would influence my life. After ‘speed dating’ mentors, I walked to Kirby Hall with the creative nonfiction faculty. I was the only member of my cohort to choose CNF, so for the next hour, I had the nonfiction superstars all to myself.

Becky Bradway explained my project to the other faculty members. “Sam’s book is about dinosaurs,” she announced. “He’s drawing on his own obsession and knowledge to write about his childhood.” Becky coaxed the dinosaurs out of me during my first semester. I had no idea what I would write when I entered the program, but if writing what you know is a sound maxim, then dinosaurs seemed an appropriate choice.

That’s all I had then—a decision to write about dinosaurs. As the faculty posed questions to help me develop my manuscript, I realized I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it, whatever ‘it’ was. How would I structure the book? How would I use my own experiences? I struggled to answer these questions convincingly.

After listening to ten or fifteen minutes of discussion, Dr. Lennon intervened. “This is all well and good, Sam,” he said, “but you can’t write a book about dinosaurs sitting behind a desk. You have to go on a dig! You have to get out there and really do it.”

His words sliced through me. I was terrified by the weight of what he said because it was the truth. The truth resonates in your ears, and your heart, and your gut, whether you want to face it or not. I had a competing truth, however: anxiety. A paralyzing travel anxiety that had been growing and festering for years. I could feel its tentacles consuming me like the deadly embrace of a strangler fig.

The anxiety started—as you might expect—with dinosaurs. My parents spirited me to Disney World in 1996. I was ten years old, and as much as I loved everything Disney, I craved dinosaurs—specifically, the animatronic dinosaurs at the Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot Center. Mickey could wait. We had to start with the dinosaurs.

I rushed past the dancing fountains and shimmering flower gardens toward the Universe of Energy building, its angled roof adorned with thousands of solar panels capturing the Florida sunshine. Upon arriving at its doors, my heart plummeted. A tiny notice delivered the bad news.


I’d come all this way and I’d be forced to settle for dinosaur-shaped shrubs outside the building. Topiary does not satisfy a ten-year-old’s lust for gigantic robotic monsters. My parents, with ‘we have to come all the way back here again, don’t we’ faces, pledged that we’d return some day to see the refurbished dinosaurs.

The second Disney trip took place three years later. I was suffering with a sinus infection, but neither headache, nor fever could deter me from the extinct giants. At Epcot, I found the Universe of Energy pavilion had been rebranded. Now, as Ellen’s Energy Adventure, the ride was upgraded to include an animatronic Ellen DeGeneres, with a mechanical Bill Nye the Science Guy thrown in as well. I don’t even remember them though. Sorry Disney.

I remember the brontosaurs—anatomically and behaviorally incorrect in just about every way, but breathtaking nevertheless. As I passed beneath the thunder lizards in a serenely cruising tramcar, the behemoths swung their serpentine necks towards me. Fronds of water plants dangled from their clumsy mouths. Overhead, the lights of artificial stars twinkled in the darkening sky. Rocky canyon walls faded into the painted horizon beyond. The last rays of a red sunset bloomed into the blackness, pierced by a shimmering crescent moon. It was a surreal prehistoric heaven.

Among the dinosaurs, time and place evaporated and I felt like I was actually riding through the Jurassic. As a boy, this was the only place I wanted to be–the American West, 150 million years ago, where colossal animals struggled to survive in a savage, yet beautiful world. Aesthetically, the scene referenced the animated Disney classic Fantasia, in which dinosaurs battle to the odd time signatures and violent percussion of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The connection to the film deepened as the ride turned a corner and I saw the plated Stegosaurus, my favorite dinosaur, and Allosaurus, a bloodthirsty, bipedal carnivore locked in a perpetual, mechanical struggle. My neck hairs stood on end. How I wished I could take a journey to the time of the dinosaurs. How I longed for a dinosaur safari.

By this time, other dinosaurs had made their way to Orlando. The new Animal Kingdom park opened with a ride called Countdown to Extinction, but I can’t remember much about it. Unlike the peaceful tram in Epcot, Countdown to Extinction thrashed me from side to side like a roller coaster. I spent much of the ride clutching the brim of my baseball cap, hoping it wouldn’t fall off and be lost forever in the Cretaceous period. The villain of the adventure was a large, razor-toothed predator that sported bony horns on its head—Carnotaurus, the meat-eating bull. I was more frightened of the way the ride jostled me in all directions. Carnotaurus was scary, but the rough treatment from the ride was worse.

A few days later, baseball cap intact, I boarded a plane bound for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. During the ascent, the plane struck an air pocket, dropping a few dozen feet in a miniature free-fall. My hands turned white as I clenched the arms of my seat. I felt sick. My breaths came shallow and fast. Every one of my neurons fired danger. I felt like I was on Countdown to Extinction again, but this wasn’t a thrill ride. This was real. I felt the distance between my feet and the earth and imagined the air swirling around the plane’s fuselage. My brain couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. I wasn’t able to think or talk. The unfamiliar feeling of claustrophobia rippled through me. I couldn’t fight the fear. I could only endure it.

The plane landed safely in Pennsylvania, but could not pull up to the terminal. We landed in a raging winter storm. Several inches of snow had already fallen. As other travelers walked across the tarmac, cursing the blizzard and wishing for a return to Florida, I crouched down on all fours and kissed the sweet-smelling snow. I had no business being miles above the planet’s surface, I reasoned. I would never allow myself to feel that way again. More than a decade would pass before travel anxiety would revisit me.

In 2010, my then-girlfriend wanted to see a blues festival in Chicago. If there was time before the concert, we could visit Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History—a place rich in dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. I couldn’t wait.

My girlfriend’s parents drove the twelve-hour journey west to the Windy City. From the backseat, I eagerly awaited the transition from the forested hills of Pennsylvania to the Midwestern plains. But the flat Ohio farmlands bewitched me. After several hours of seeing nothing but cornfields in every direction, I felt a numbing fear coursing through my limbs. My feet moved involuntarily. I became frightened of the immense sky, the same enormity that nearly swallowed me as a child. The flight or fight response became my entire reality. I could not disengage the fear and it devoured me. I was pulled into shadows I didn’t know existed. My thoughts rushed so quickly that I felt dizzy. My vision spun. In my delirium, the clouds and the atmosphere dissolved, and I could see the distant stars. I felt like the Earth was crashing out of its orbit and beginning an endless fall.

A rest stop a few miles down the road allowed me to stretch my legs and put myself back in touch with the physical world. Recovery took time. I was far from home and every point of the horizon offered only more cornstalks. Worst of all, we had left late. There would be no dinosaurs on this trip.

I returned to Chicago only a few months later with some friends. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to let feelings of discomfort rule my life. And although I did see the dinosaurs, I didn’t shake the anxiety. Each trip I took thereafter only made the worry stronger. No matter what I tried to do to alleviate the fear, it grew worse.

During that second trip to Chicago, I decided to return to my undergraduate alma mater to pursue a degree in creative writing. As I began to write my dinosaur-laden M.A. thesis, the anxiety developed still further. I could no longer bear to be on the highway for even a few miles between exits. My hands produced sweat at the thought of highway driving. I decided to avoid interstates altogether. Even the lengthy wait at red traffic lights began to affect me. My lungs would constrict. Every muscle in my body would tighten. I could not control my brain or my body.

My eighteen months as an M.A. student passed quickly, and I spent nearly all of my time assisting with the production of SenArt’s Kids for Cash film. I had very little time to write, and wasn’t pleased with what I’d produced for my thesis. However positive the encouragement I received, I knew I had a much better book in me.

I decided to take time off after graduating. I needed to learn how to write the book I wanted to create. I needed to figure out the form and structure of my manuscript. I wanted to put dinosaurs in a new context and produce something original.

I returned for the beginning of the M.F.A. program at the January 2015 residency. I’d never really left the program. I came to the readings at every residency during my sabbatical. I needed the biannual recharge that residency offered to focus on my project. And I wrote hundreds of pages about dinosaurs, throwing most of the digital words away. I experimented with structure and form, examined what worked and what didn’t, and kept going.

“Still working on the dinosaurs,” became an answer I was embarrassed to give during residency conversations. I felt it was turning into my ‘Gaza book’ and asked Jeff Talarigo how he finally found the way to tell his story.

“Just keep writing,” he said. “You’ll find it.”

Beverly Donofrio told me I needed to think more deeply about my subject matter.

“How do I go deeper?” I asked, laughing. “It’s about dinosaurs.”

“I don’t know,” Bev answered, “but you need to figure that out.”

When I returned as an M.F.A. student, I had found my voice and figured out how to go deeper. I came back with a structure—interviews with scientists, artists, and pop-culture figures about why dinosaurs are so popular. The book was taking shape and I knew I was ready to write it as I crisscrossed the northeast U.S., interviewing dinosaur experts and traveling into museum backrooms, offices, and basements.

But Mike Lennon’s words still reverberated in my ears. I couldn’t write a dinosaur book by sitting at home. For my book to be legitimate, I had to conquer my anxiety. I had to fulfill the dreams I had as a boy, to visit the American west, to see the fossilized dinosaurs in the lands they knew as home.

My mentor, Becky Bradway, lives in one of the most cherished paleontological areas in the world—Denver, Colorado. The rocks in the surrounding Rocky Mountain foothills, and in the deserts of western Colorado have captured the remains of the most famous Jurassic animals. These great creatures were first found in Becky’s proverbial backyard, and she invited me to visit her so I could finally see the remnants of the dinosaur world for myself.

I tried in 2012. I have railroading in my blood (my mother’s father was a flagman), and the first dinosaur hunters crossed the country by train. Since flying was out of the question, what better way to see the U.S. than through a coach window? But I wasn’t mentally prepared for the trip. The anxiety was waiting for me—waiting for the first cornfield or open sky. I was always worried about becoming worried. I could not escape the fear of going to that place where everything was out of control. I returned home after only reaching Pittsburgh. It was a sore defeat, and I had to tell everyone who was excited about my big trip that I wasn’t able to complete it.

But when I started the M.F.A., I knew I had to get myself to Colorado. My book just wouldn’t work without the material I’d get in the West. My M.F.A. paper research showed me that. But more than anything, I needed to prove to myself I could make it there. I wanted to see the snow-crowned Rockies, and the scrub brush littered deserts that provided the backdrop for every dinosaur documentary I considered sacred as a boy. I resolved to conquer my fear.

Through counseling and exposure to highways and journaling and meditation, I reversed the patterns that caged me. Slowly, I began to think—began to know—the trip was possible. None of it was handed to me. There was no magic bullet. Overcoming the fear was rooted in hard work. But I always thought of the dinosaurs (and if I’m honest, Bilbo Baggins, too).

I set out from Harrisburg on Wednesday, July 22nd. It took two and a half days to reach Denver by train, but Becky was waiting there when I arrived. Together, we explored the museums of Denver, with their exquisite dinosaur specimens. We hiked to fossil track ways and visited prep labs.

I continued west, through the Rocky Mountains to Grand Junction, Colorado. The sun set in a brilliant red sky behind the stone ramparts of the Grand Valley. It was there, near the Utah border, that I first saw the spectacular colors of the desert rocks. This was no documentary. I was finally walking in the land of the dinosaurs. No longer were dinosaurs only to be found in museum displays, or the sound stages of Disney robots, or childhood fantasies. I had arrived in the rocky relics of the Jurassic. This is where dinosaurs are born a second time, where they are pulled from their stony tombs and live anew in humankind’s imagination.

A Dinosaur Safari

The next morning, I boarded a small white van. I looked at the immensity of the sky, and the strange shapes of the ridges and bluffs. Oddly, I felt at home. As the van rumbled down I-70, I laughed at myself. Only a few months earlier, I couldn’t drive 10 miles on the highway from Pittston to Scranton, and here I was on the other side of the country, on my way to a dinosaur dig site.

As the gravel crunched beneath my feet and I was given my tools, I thought of everyone in the creative writing program that encouraged me. I was able to fulfill my dreams and become a better writer—and a better person—because of our community. My book takes place at the vertices of my life, where fear and fascination meet. And although this is my story, I know anyone can push themselves further than they thought possible with the support of their peers and mentors.

Writing is about overcoming obstacles, and if it wasn’t, why do it? On my travels, I learned that it’s the most difficult things we encounter that define us. Doubts and worries and missteps will always happen, but it’s our response to them that matters.

“Well, I’ve made it this far,” I thought as I walked toward the quarry. “I’d better find something good…”

11824923_850632513937_5393897599008890507_nSam Chiarelli is completing a book-length manuscript about his dinosaur obsession. He’ll earn his MFA degree this January.

Dale Louise Mervine: Shifting Perspective

August 28, 2015 by

Walking into a room filled with people I did not know, I scanned the area quickly and headed for my safe spot—a back corner. Right or left doesn’t matter, but having the rest of the room in front of me does. For me, the corner means safety. No one looking over my shoulder or staring at the back of my head; no one approaching without me knowing. I have been in school a long time, and I cannot remember a class where I did not beeline for the corner.

Until HippoCamp. Although I was fulfilling the role of “sponsor” and representing Wilkes University and Etruscan Press at the inaugural HippoCamp15 Creative Nonfiction Conference, I was also excited to be an attendee—especially as this was my first writing conference.

Friday afternoon, after the rest of the crowd had meandered into the “Heritage C” conference room for the early reception and I felt it was safe to leave the booth, I sidled into the room and glanced at the back rows; both back corner seats were filled. Since this was just an overview of the weekend, however, the room was less than half full so I went to the right and chose a seat in the second-to-last row. I reminded myself that if I wanted that back corner seat, I needed to scope it out sooner; however, when I walked into Heritage C for the readings later that night, I skimmed right past the corners and edged up the right side to slide into the second row.

Wilkes/Etruscan Booth at HippoCamp15

Wilkes/Etruscan Booth at HippoCamp15

The opening reception that evening found me back in the hall at the Wilkes/Etruscan booth; I’ve worked booths like this before, including once in the recent past for the Holocaust and Genocide Studies degree I was taking at the time. Then, I spent the majority of the event chatting with a French history professor and wondering if he had a girlfriend; few people were interested in the topic I represented, and conversion was far from my mind. At HippoCamp15, however, I felt no nerves, no concern for my ability to make small talk, no fear that I would force someone into a conversation. I soon realized that no writer engages in a conversation they wish to avoid; indeed, we tend to welcome the sharing of books, interests, and writerly news.

It was luck that for my first writing conference I worked behind the scenes as well. I’m not the “reach out and grab” type and I’m not a salesperson. In this atmosphere, however, I didn’t feel like one. Everything I said that weekend came from a well of sincerity within me—a well that only refilled with the conference’s atmosphere.

When I searched for an MFA program, a low-residency program was not on my list. Uncertain how I would fair in an online class, I also wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the extra eighteen months getting another MA—I had earned a Masters in English in 2004 and was just finishing one in history (although anyone who knows me knows this weak argument is sophistry…I love school). What won me over in the end, however, was the relationship Wilkes had with agents and editors and the realization that I would leave Wilkes with a completed thesis. The MA is a vital portion of the entire program Wilkes has to offer. I don’t feel like I’m trying to make a sale when I tell someone that—and I’m pretty sure they don’t feel as though I’m feeding them a line. I honestly admit the first “boot camp” residency was both the best and worst week of my life, but would repeat it in a heartbeat if I could. Explaining the foundations classes and the one-on-one semesters with a mentor doesn’t come from a manuscript I’m obliged to memorize; it comes from my enthusiasm to share what I’ve discovered.

I engaged in conversation with those who wandered up to the table. We talked about their writing interests. I spoke with students in MA programs in American literature, creative writing, and English; with attendees interested in their memoirs or their family histories; and with Wilkes alumni recalling their time in the program. Without realizing it, I managed to pepper each conversation with positive attributes of the program; as usual, my passion for something bubbles up and overflows.

As I drifted into the first panel Saturday morning, I once again found my back corners taken. Dropping my bag at a somewhat secluded spot and stepping out for a moment, I returned to the room to find a man sitting next to me, and my hackles rose. Who dared sit next to me? There were other chairs available—although it was filling up—so why sit next to anyone? I shrugged my instinctive protections off, however, and turned my attention to the topic at hand. As part of the takeaway, we each drew a map—the panel was on place in our work—and after about four minutes we were directed to discuss our map with our neighbor. Since the wall was my only other option, I turned to the man I had—only forty minutes earlier—been mentally castigating. Sharing our maps and our stories engaged us in each other’s work and brought us together as writers; my mental images about his upbringing were quite unfounded.

Wasting no time to get to the next room for the second panel, I strode right to the front and (since habits do die hard) chose a corner seat in the front row. I wanted no head in front of me, and didn’t care who was behind me. The other attendees melted away; no longer strangers of which to be wary, we were all writers eager to add to our repertoire.

After the third panel—standing room only—as I was collecting my things, the woman to my right turned to effuse about the flash nonfiction exercise we had just completed. There was a time my nervousness would have precluded my engagement in conversation with this woman—who had read the night before and been part of that morning’s debut author panel—and yet our mutual excitement over the panel brought us together for a brief moment.

In one short day I’d evolved from wary observer to active participant. I no longer considered myself an outsider watching the “cool kids” hang out, but thrust myself into their party and sat down at their table, where they welcomed me with uncapped pens.

Mervine_PhotoDale Louise Mervine is a current MA student and graduate assistant at Wilkes University. When she’s not writing, she’s arguing with her cats to please not step on the computer, listening to her pet skunk roll empty jars of baby food in the room above, and looking for excuses to take a nap. She lives in York, PA, whether she likes it or not.

Nathan Summerlin’s CineStory

November 18, 2014 by

idyllwild1Idyllwild, California feels separated from the rest of the world. The little mountain town of 4,000 is nestled in the San Bernardino National Forest. It’s quiet. It’s clean. What air there is at the mile-high elevation is fresh and clear. For reasons I cannot guess (given the size of the town and the fact that it’s 2014), Idyllwild offers more than one place to rent movies.

Maybe Idyllwild has some strong movie mojo, because the tiny town, two and a half hours east of Los Angeles, hosts the annual CineStory screenwriting retreat. (Two and a half hours can turn into six if you’re unfamiliar with L.A. traffic. That’s not a hypothetical figure – leave early in the day.)

CineStory is a nonprofit organization that aims to nurture new screenwriting talent through its annual retreat and fellowship. The retreat unfolds as a mix of panels, one-on-one sessions, and meals. Meals may seem an odd inclusion in that list, but the schedule allocates plenty of time for lunch and dinner socializing. The mentors – all industry professionals who donate their time – eat with the writers (that’s you – your CineStory badge has “WRITER” printed right below your name. The badge is a handy reminder for those moments when you doubt you could ever possibly be a writer – just check your badge! I still check mine from time to time.). Meals are a chance to talk shop in a laid back setting with people who know what they’re talking about. For me, this was an education in itself – getting a sense of how professionals talk about their own projects, the industry, and how one works within the other. It’s also one of the ways CineStory builds an extraordinary sense of community during the short four days of the retreat.

The panels cover a lot of different topics, from how to get a manager to sign you (the panelists in this case are working managers) to what producers look for in a script (with, yes, actual producers). A few panels blur the line between presentation and workshop. One session focused on crafting a great logline, and the writers all had a chance to present our loglines for critique by the panelists. Two sessions are devoted to writers pitching to mentors as if they’re in a meeting with studio executives. The mentors then conduct an “after meeting,” in which they talk about the pitch and the writer as executives would after the writer has left the room.

You’re assigned three ninety-minute meetings with mentors for one-on-one sessions. Each mentor has read your script before the meeting. I received several pieces of game-changing feedback. One example: I found out that my story, about a sixteen-year-old kid on a mission to rescue his dad, was straddling the line between a PG and PG-13 rating. In PG-13 movies released in the last five years, parents are almost always absent from the main story line. Guardians of the Galaxy? Mom dies, Dad missing. Hunger Games? Dad dead, Mom incapacitated by grief. The prevailing wisdom is that a PG-13 audience doesn’t want to see a movie about kids and their parents. They want stories in which the kids face challenges on their own.

I had time (meals!) to bounce that advice off several mentors during the rcinestory-badgeetreat and almost everyone agreed. The lone standout said this may be true, but that his recommendation was for me to write whatever story I’m passionate about, regardless of the market. Since my passion for the story didn’t hinge on the dad rescue, I changed it.

My big takeaways:

  • A better understanding of the movie business. Especially the way in which each script has to be considered for a very specific spot in the market.
  • How to shift my story’s plot and theme to give it a better chance of finding a home in that market.
  • New friends. Everyone at CineStory loves movies. Everyone there either is a writer or appreciates writers and the fact that – as writers – we alone have the ability to begin the process that results in a movie. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that an amazing sense of connection and camaraderie develops among the writers, mentors, and organizers.

I highly recommend CineStory. Remember to get out of L.A. ahead of traffic, then you’ll have time to enjoy the drive, walk around Idyllwild, and kick back with a rented DVD before the real fun begins.

You can find more information about CineStory at their website,

nathan  Nathan Summerlin is a screenwriter, as well as a current M.F.A. student and Graduate Assistant for Etrsuscan Press. He lives in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Jason Carney: Starve the Vulture

November 10, 2014 by

Jason Carney, an alumni of the Wilkes Graduate Creative Writing program, is due to release his memoir, Starve the Vulture, in January of 2015 with Kaylie Jones Books. Starve the Vulture has already received excellent feedback, including a review from Kirkus Book Reviews which states, “Carney will easily win sympathy for his life, in which he has persevered to show others the hard work of his salvation.” The novel opens violently, with a car crash happening right before Carney’s eyes, just before a moment of epiphany which leads to Carney’s “grace”. This traumatic experience opens the novel with an enticing sense of danger, consistent with the chaotic uncertainty of Carney’s early life. There is an immediate understanding that the contents of this memoir will not be for the faint of heart. starvethevulturecorrect

Akashic’s website describes the memoir as, “A lyrical, mesmerizing debut from Jason Carney who overcomes his own racism, homophobia, drug addiction, and harrowing brushes with death to find redemption and unlikely fame on the national performance poetry circuit. Woven into Carney’s path to recovery is a powerful family story, depicting the roots of prejudice and dysfunction through several generations.” (You can head to Carney’s page on Akashic’s site by clicking on the book cover to the right.)

One of the most prominent themes in the book is the importance of tolerance and compassion, and how those two things led to Carney’s redemption. Carney learns–through his relationship with an empathetic gay man dying of AIDS–to set his prejudices aside. When Carney does this, it leads to a greater, horrific discovery about the nature of his personal hatred for homosexuals–but instead of getting stuck in his own tragedy, he shares what he has learned about himself and the root of bigotry to students all over the country. Carney teaches others, when we lash out at a group of people, we learn to do so from personal experience and past prejudice.

Recently, Carney had the honor of performing a TED event at Mountain View College near Dallas, Texas. During his talk, he discussed the origins of his family, the hatred he once held for minority groups, and how he was taught to use poetry to define his world. He recites a few of his poems to a completely enraptured crowd, comparing past crimes against minority groups to modern statistics about the disparity between black and white inmates in America. He urges “White America” to have an honest discussion about the continued segregation of minority groups in our country, the silence of hatred, and the lack of conversation that perpetuates it. Carney closes the discussion by stating, “White America needs to have an honest conversation with itself because we segregate ourselves and we talk about freedom.”

I urge readers to check out his talk here:

Carney’s memoir is one of the most important memoirs you will ever read. I encourage everyone to get their hands on this book, which is available for preorder on Amazon. Until then, I was fortunate enough to have Jason Carney answer a few pre-emptive questions I had about the nature of Starve the Vulture, which you can read below!

Tell me a little about your book. What does it mean to you?

Starve the Vulture is the deciphering of the signs of my life. The breaking down of moments to their meaning, when a person takes a look back at their life trapped within severe moments of adversity.

I know that you mostly write poetry–why the switch? Was this a story you had been planning to tell for a long time?

I have been telling this story for 15 years on poetry stages and college campuses. So the progression from poetry to prose seems like a natural one. I had no intention of writing this story until my mother died in 2007. After my plunge into the final throes of addiction and the car wreck, I went to NYC and stayed on long-time friend and American Poets Roger Bon-Air Agard’s couch in Brooklyn. The next thirty days were spent at the Spring Lounge in Manhattan. Eight hours a day, in the back corner with my laptop. From those crazed and drying out hours of writing came 47,000 words which have been molded and revised into the present thread of the story. The original title of the book was Flowers from my Mother’s Funeral.

How was writing this similar to or different from writing poetry?

Similar in the sense that a narrative is a narrative. The poetry slam thrives on narratives, which I think helped me cut to the core of the scenes and not waste time with bullshit that did not belong. I honed my ability to bare my skin in that arena. You cannot hide in front of an audience. After a while, they become part of your writing ritual. I mean the writer brings this influence into the writing process with them.

Was writing this memoir a cathartic experience for you?

In the sense that this book gave me a gift. I wrote it to heal part of myself. This is the gift of this type of project. All writing should be done first for the writer and second for the audience. You cannot give away what you do not have. You cannot manufacture the treasure either, it will manifest the way it wants to in the writer’s life. The gift I received from vulture was not the one for which I wrote it. However, when it presented itself, I fell to my knees in that dorm room in gratitude. I refer to a spiritual gift here—no money or movie option or publishing contract can give this type of gift to you. It must come from the writing. From the universe to the artist, a thank you for the excavation of their bones.

Writing about things does tend to stir up the past and allows old things to resurface in your mind, were there any memories that came back to you that surprised you while writing this?

No not really. That is not true, when I wrote about spending time with my grandparent from the ages of 7-12 on Friday and Saturday nights, I was surprised at the hidden emotions of happiness

that I had denied myself for many years. The chapter was eventually cut from the book, yet when I read those passages I still tear up and cry. Happiness is hard for me.

I know that you had to change a lot of names for the memoir. Is there a concern that the people you’ve written about might recognize themselves and be angry?

I tried to write folks the way I remembered them being. I wanted to change names when discussing illegal acts. I am willing to put my actions out there, but I don’t have a right to expose anyone else. Those involved will recognize themselves, those not involved will not figure their identity. I will not tell them. The names in the book are not clues either. They are just random choices, they hold no secret meaning or metaphor. Cuban came from the lunch I was eating, Yardstick from the yardstick my son was using as a Light-Saber. And so on.

How do you feel the experiences you’ve had have shaped the man you are today?

Everywhere you go there you are. You are the constant in your own life.

Do you ever feel embarrassment in your professional life because of where you’ve come from, or prouder because of the adversity you’ve overcome that others have never been tested with?

I don’t measure myself against you or anyone else. I am unique to me and as common as everyone. No one is more or less than anyone around them. But I offer for you to under-estimate or overlook me. I like to be an unexpected surprise.

I usually make the last question, “What advice do you have for other aspiring writers?” But you have a story so powerful, so interesting, and very unique. I think a better question might be, “What advice do you have for other members of the human race who are faced with adversity?”

In the words of Jimmy V. “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.” Throwing your arms up into the air is a sign of praise as much as it is a sign of surrender. People should be happy for what gifts they do have, especially amid all the clamoring for what they do not have.

Jason Carney Southern HeritageJason Carney, a performance poet from Dallas, Texas, is a four-time National Poetry Slam Finalist, honored as a Legend of the Slam in 2007. He appeared on three seasons of the HBO television series Russell Simmons’ Def Poets. Jason has performed and lectured at some of our nation’s finest colleges and universities as well as high schools and juvenile detention centers from California to Maine. A graduate of Wilkes University MFA Program for Creative Writing, where he was an honored winner of the Etruscan Prize, the Bergman Foundation Scholarship, and the Norris Church-Mailer Scholarship. He is Co-founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit Young DFW Writers.

Ross Klavan’s (a) “Schmuck”

August 12, 2014 by

Ross Klavan, the charismatic voice of the creative writing program and one of our beloved screenwriting faculty members, was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and process for his novel, Schmuck with The Write Life blog.schmuck

Schmuck takes place in 1960’s New York, where Jerry Elkin and Ted Fox rule the radio airwaves. Between Elkin’s zany dialects and impressions and Fox’s golden, straight-man voice, they’ve got it down pat. But if listeners could hear between the lines, they’d notice an undertone of tension between the hit team. Jerry resents Ted for his dismissive attitude towards TV offers, and his ability to sweet-talk the ladies. Even his own son gets the girl, Sari Rosenbloom, an eighteen year old bombshell that Jerry can’t get off his mind.

Between seedy, well-connected mobsters, a head-swiveling femme fatale, and a son that just doesn’t get it, Jerry navigates this post-war, Jewish-infused, zany, larger-than-life landscape.

Schmuck was published by Greenpoint Press and is available through their website, which can be found by clicking here:

You can also purchase the book on Amazon and through Barnes & Noble.

Schmuck is loosely based on your father’s radio show. Why write something so close to home?

The most famous joke about show business is the one about the guy in the circus who sweeps up behind the elephant. You know which one I’m talking about. He walks behind the elephant with a broom, clearing all the elephant crap and cursing to himself about how much he hates his job. And when somebody says, “If you hate it so much why don’t you quit?” He says, “What?! And leave show business?!” I’ve lived all of my life connected to show business and I’m sort of the guy sweeping up behind the elephant…and also the guy writing about the guy who’s sweeping up. All writing and performing is obviously based in your self since you’ve got no other place to begin. I’m lucky that my own personal lunacy–mishegas as the holy men say–leans sharply toward a combo of the masochistic and exhibitionistic. That means that I can exploit my own experience and then beautifully alter, embellish, form, shape, structure and compose until it both seems real and strangely heightened, both at the same time. It’s either that, or I go back into analysis.

Does your artistic work take from your real life often, and is it hard to balance between what’s real and fictional?

My work almost always takes off from real life, at least to start out. As for the line between real and fictional—I don’t know, it’s not so solid for any of us, I think. I like to jump back and forth across that line or blend both sides or step aside and see what gets called up from the dregs. That’s an incredible pleasure. Dream experience—that’s real experience, too, just a different kind. And like I said before, I’ve spent all my life around show business and I like writing about show business—not major movie stars and big money deals, for some reason that’s a snooze for me. I like the other levels. Clowns and jokers and radio guys who live in a world of TV. Where people are desperate and striving like their life depended on it and not usually succeeding. The screenwriter who can’t sell anything and who ends up shot dead by his mistress and floating in her pool, to me that’s a better story than the big names who end up on the cover of “Vanity Fair.” It’s plays more in my imagination. For a while, when I was younger, I supported myself as a reporter doing grunt journalism and you were supposed to be accurate above almost anything else. Eventually, my mind started to develop hemorrhoids. Even if you’re not going to be in the arts, I highly recommend living by the imagination as long as you’re not walking off a cliff.

“Schmuck” has been said to blend zany humor with a deadly somber undertone. Was it hard to write in such opposition?

It’s much more difficult to live with that opposition, which many of us do. It’s sort of like, one minute it’s all “ha-ha-ha” and you recognize the Absurd…then, when you see how absurd it all is, you start to feel it’s all so sad there’s not enough tears in the world to cry, and then you start laughing again because you hear yourself thinking that and it all seems so ridiculous. I tried to give Jerry Elkin that quality—underneath it all, he knows that we’re all sharing a misshapen rock spinning around in space and nobody really knows what the hell is going on.

Jerry Elkin is loosely based on your father. Has your father read the book, and if so, what does he think of Jerry?

My father died ten years ago so he hasn’t read the book—at least, I don’t think he has. I like to imagine that if he’s out there in that Great Radio Station in the sky, that maybe he got a few laughs out of it. He had a pretty wicked sense of humor that stayed with him until the end.

Do you have a specific process that you use when you write, and does “Schmuck” differ from your usual process because of it’s roots in your own life?

A theater director once told me that he went into rehearsal with a specific goal in mind for each particular session and then, when he got there, it was time to go home even if rehearsal only took five minutes. For some reason, that’s how “Schmuck” was written. Every time I sat down to work, I had a specific problem to solve—not a number of pages—but a chapter or a scene or a sequence of scenes to finish. Just what felt right. When that was done, I headed for the couch, lay down and put the “New Yorker” over my face. I also kept a notebook of ideas and lines and things to look at or change when I hit the next draft. Every project has something of its own character. I usually start off with a process of free association, just riffing and coming up with scenes and ideas that light up, even if they seem to be totally unrelated. Then, if I haven’t completely cracked up, I start finding some kind of narrative line that connects what scenes I’m going to use.

What the most important thing that you want to convey to an audience when you write, and how do you try accomplish that?

That’s an incredibly tough question to answer so I’ll hide from it as best I can. One way of looking at it—only the book itself can answer that question, otherwise there wouldn’t be a reason to write it. Also, you don’t want to get between the reader and his or her experience of the book–a writer has no business being there, you should be off working on something else or taking a nap. Then, overall, I’m going for something that’s tremendously alive and vital, or I hope it is, anyway—I don’t have any grand theories that make sense and I’m not smart enough to have any mind-bending ideas. But I hope the reader comes away at least with a feeling of life and enjoyment—like they’ve been hit in the head with some kind of weird tuning fork. And in a book, I think, you do that by rhythm, tempo, structure and a certain kind of language.

Sari Rosenbloom has been compared to Daisy Buchanan. Was this an intentional inspiration, and how else does “Gatsby” fit into “Schmuck’s” world?

Oh, yeah, there’s a definite “Gatsby” thread running through the story. Partly, that’s because I wanted to convince my audience that I’d actually read at least one great book. Also, growing up, I spent all too much time not too far from the real Gatsby House—or what was supposedly the house Fitzgerald used–and I got a feel for the parvenu’s outlook. Then, at one point, I started to think of “Schmuck” as a sort of “Gatsby” that’s told through the eyes of Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster character, the guy who fixed the 1919 World Series. Which, by the way, is not a bad trick if you can get away with it.

You’ve written scripts for Miramax, Paramount, and TNT. How does your script writing differ from your novel writing?

At the gross level—which may be our favorite—a script has more people involved and you get a lot more money. But aside from the practical–there’s a common level in all narrative writing, I think, from commercials to novels to feature films. You’re dealing with characters and stories and people and you’re trying not to bore anyone. I wrote the film “Tigerland” which starred Colin Farrell but I did the script off the first draft of a novel I’d written. I’d worked out the story already, so it was much easier than starting from zero. For prose fiction–a novel can rest more in its language, going directly into the reader’s psyche, a mind dart. A screenplay has to do that also but it has to unfold in the reader’s imagination as a film, so that even a character’s consciousness is there to be literally seen, heard and understood in a medium that’s going to be watched and that takes place in time, somewhat outside of the viewer’s control. At some point, even if it becomes second nature, you have to care about that when you write a screenplay. I love film—I’d have to say that film and a kind of molecular understanding of what it is to write a screenplay have only been of the greatest help in other kinds of writing, especially prose fiction. It teaches you to move a story, not to be precious with yourself, to make everything count.

Your wife, Mary Jones, is a painter. Does her artistic vision bleed into your work, and vice versa?

Mary’s a terrific artist and I’ve probably learned much more from her than she’s learned from me. Her courage and seriousness and willingness to take chances, her connection to her own work and her respect for it, her ability to let it change…that this is part of everything she does and that she wears it lightly, I’ve gained from all this now for a long time. When we first knew each other many years ago, I remember once she lost a lease on her studio and was looking around for a new place. I asked her why she didn’t just rent a cheap apartment, what difference does it make where you paint? And she said, “Because during those times when you’re not selling anything or you’re stuck or you feel like everyone hates your work, it’s important to have a place to go that reminds you who you really are.” Maybe writers have to have a version of that, too…and since we don’t need a lot of brushes or canvases, it can just be in the mind.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Ah ha! The old advice question. Sometimes I hear writers say that there’s more bullshit out there about writing than there is about sex…but actually, I think, a lot of the writing advice is pretty good. It’s just…what do you do with it once you hear it? How do you make it your own? Can you actually sit down and use it? Then there’s this—I think what most of us want when we go after advice about writing is for somebody else to do the real work for us. I’m not talking about specific craft questions. But we live in a world that’s got a large sign across the sky that says, WARNING: DON’T BE ALONE IN YOUR IMAGINATION! And effort, pain or frustration? Forget about it, they get chosen last for the team. But that’s exactly what writers have to do and where they have to go, hour after hour. Real problems with writing are solved by writing. Eventually. Maybe painfully and with much frustration. OK, on some days, more easily. On some days, it’s like a tight muscle opening. So the best advice is that, ultimately, there’s no advice—you have to do your own work, day after day. Abandon all hope! Nobody can do it for you. And if you’re having one of those days when you think everything you’ve done sucks, you don’t deserve to live and you’re wasting your time at the pad or the keyboard…well, after you’ve screamed into the pillow, try not to have too much to drink and then, take a look at your stuff and try to see very, very specifically, exactly what it is that’s turning the blade in you. Try to see exactly what it is that you don’t like. Because that, exactly, can be fixed. With a generality, you’re screwed.


Ross Klavan’s work spbossklavanans film, television, radio, print and live performance. His original screenplay for the film Tigerland was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, he recently finished an adaption of John Bowers’s “The Colony,” and he has written scripts for Miramax, Paramount and TNT, among others. The “conversation about writing” he moderated with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer was televised and published as “Like Shaking Hands with God,” and his short stories have appeared in magazines and been produced by the BBC. An earlier novel, “Trax,” was published under a pseudonym. His play “How I Met My (Black) Wife (Again),” co-written with Ray Iannicelli, has been produced in New York City, and he has performed his work in numerous theaters and clubs. He has acted and done voice work in TV and radio commercials and has lent his voice to feature films including Casino, You Can Count On Me and Revolutionary Road and the new Amazon web series Alpha House, written by Gary Trudeau. He has worked as a newspaper and radio journalist in London and New York City. He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter, Mary Jones.

Todd McClimans’ Time Traitor

August 4, 2014 by

In collaboration with Wilkes Magazine’s Summer Reads Contest, in which participants comment on the featured book of the week in order to win a free copy, I interviewed Todd McClimans, author of Time Traitor, whose book is currently participating in the contest.

Todd’s book, the first in the American Epochs series, is a middle grade, sci-fi/history novel about the adventures of children who travel to significant events in American history, such as the American Revolution, and where they meet historic American icons like Benedict Arnold.

The book’s Amazon reviews are very telling, with comments like, “McClimans does a masterful job of character development with his young heroes Ty and Kristi as well as the story’s supporting cast of friends and foes,” and “The author doesn’t shy away from the brutality of slavery or ground combat, and he does a fine job of showing that history, even the most painful aspects of it, is more complex than any textbook could capture.”

You can find out more about the book by going to Time Traitor’s website (, or it’s Facebook page (

Could you tell me a little about your book?TT-frontcover-103013

Time Traitor is the first book in the American Epochs series, a Middle-Grade historical/sci-fi series that is meant to take kids to important eras, or epochs, in American history and hopefully trick them into learning some important history while enjoying a story. I decided to incorporate science fiction and time travel instead of writing traditional historical fiction because, for one thing, I would LOVE to time travel myself and writing stories about time travel is the next best thing. But, equally as important, I want my readers to experience the events in history through the eyes of contemporary characters to which they can relate.

 My main characters, Kristi (an African American girl from a rich family) and Ty (an orphaned boy from England) are real life kids with real life problems. Kristi is struggling with the divorce of her parents and lashes out in school as a way of getting attention. Ty is an introverted bookworm who deals with bullying and harassment and is unwanted by his step-father after the death of his mother.

The two discover that their eccentric history teacher, Dr. Xavier Arnold, is a direct descendant of General Benedict Arnold, a former patriot who sold out his friends and countrymen by switching to the British side during the Revolutionary War. Xavier Arnold, in an attempt to improve his tainted family name, invented a time machine to go back to the time of the war and assist Benedict in his plans for treachery and make him a hero again, but for the British this time. He drags Kristi and Ty back with him as pawns in his scheme and they have to traverse colonial America to stop Dr. Arnold and force him to return them to their own time.

How did the idea come to you?

I am currently an elementary school principal, but when I came up with the idea, I was a fifth grade teacher. I used novels about specific time periods in history to help the students gain a better understanding of the time periods and the cultures of the people in our social studies curriculum (Sign of the Beaver—frontier life and Native American relations, Rifles for Waite—western theater of the Civil War, etc.). But, beyond Johnny Tremain, I had trouble finding novels about the Revolutionary War for my students. So, I decided to write one of my own.

About how long did it take you to write it? What was your favorite/least favorite part of the process?

My first draft came to me quickly. It took me about six weeks to plan and outline the story. Once I had an outline, it only took me about two months to write my first draft. However, I am a compulsive reviser, so I spent the next eighteen months rewriting and revising before I started submitting. Revising is my favorite part of the whole writing process. In the classroom, I tried impressing upon my students that stories, or any other kind of writing for that matter, are never truly finished and can always be improved upon.

I love how you can simply change a few words or descriptions around to make a story funnier, scarier, happier—whatever-er.

My least favorite part is most definitely the submission process. Trying to boil your story, your baby, down to a few sentences in a query letter that probably won’t get past the cubicle of a college intern in a publishing office or agency is daunting and discouraging. I hate to use the cliché needle in a haystack, but that’s how it feels.

Have you started work on any of the other books in the American Epochs series? Can you tell me anything about those?

The second book, Time Underground, is currently with the editors at my publishers and is due to be released in November of this year. In Time Underground, Kristi finds out that her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was a slave who escaped on the Underground Railroad and survived to sire her family. However, he had a younger brother who attempted to escape with him, but was caught and disappeared from history. Kristi and Ty go to 1858 to find Kristi’s uncle and help him get to the north and safety.

I’m about 25,000 words into the first draft of the third book in the series. My working title is Time to Heal—but I’m not in love with that title yet, so I expect it to change. The third installment is set during the Civil War where Ty works in the hospitals and experiences the horror of Civil War medicine before he’s dropped right on top of Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg and the Confederate assault.

What was it like trying to collaborate factual, historical events to turn them into a fictional, fantasy narrative?

It was very important that my narrative be as historically accurate as possible. As I stated above, I wanted my readers to learn about the historical events while they are reading, so I do a great deal of research before writing and while I’m drafting. I believe the term for it is active history. It’s not a rote recitation of historical events, but a recounting of events through the eyes of characters who do not see the outcomes as predetermined. It’s a fine line to tread, but that makes it all the more fun to write…and hopefully to read.

How do you work with suspended disbelief, making something so fantastical become a believable scenario?

I use some author’s license and try to write in a way that seems believable. My stories are technically science fiction because of the time travel, but they are not traditional sci-fi. I don’t go into extended explanations into the science behind my time machine or the theoretical possibilities of time travel. I think it works because my stories are written from the points-of-view of young characters who don’t really care how they were transported through time, just that they were transported and what they are going to do about it. I count on my readers to use their imaginations while they are reading, giving them an active role in the story instead of a passive one.

When writing a young adult novel, do you have to give your language any special consideration? Is it difficult not to condescend to your intended audience? What do you think is the real difference between YA literature and Adult literature?

My series is meant for a Middle Grade audience (ages 9-14), a step younger than YA. That being said, storytelling is storytelling so I don’t see a whole lot of differences in the language for different intended audiences. Kids are more intuitive than we give them credit for. They know when language and descriptions are condescending and they’ll drop a book much faster than an adult at the first sign of condescension. No middle grade reader would be caught dead reading a “kiddie book”.

I see the major task for any writer, whether he/she is writing MG, YA, or Adult books is the ability to get his/her readers to relate to the characters and the real life issues they face. A story comes alive when the reader can see him/herself in the main characters. Take an adult detective novel, for example. The antagonists often deal with social issues such as alcohol abuse, broken marriages, or kids who won’t talk to them. Adult readers can relate to those issues. YA readers deal with teen angst (do we still call it that???) in their real lives. Many antagonists in YA books deal with questions and decisions about overbearing parents, individuality and independence, an even sex, alcohol, and drug use because those problems/questions are real to YA readers. MG readers worry about their parents’ divorce, bullying, and mean teachers. I see these issues as more innocent, yet no less real to the characters and the readers.

Have your children read Time Traitor? What do they think?

My oldest son is eight and going into the third grade. He has the reading ability to comprehend Time Traitor, but he doesn’t have the background knowledge about the Revolutionary War to truly understand the importance of the events in the book. I’ll wait until he reaches that point in school to let him read it.

What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?

I’ll be cheesy and steal Nike’s motto. Just Do It. Everybody knows someone who wants to write a book someday. And all of those people have real, legitimate reasons for putting it off (jobs, family, time, etc.) But to be a writer, you have to actually sit down and write it. Then rewrite it and rewrite it. You have to understand that you’re going to write a lot of garbage along the way as you learn. But the more you read and the more you write, the better your writing will develop. I’m not aware of any savants who sat down and wrote the Great American Novel on their first shot. You get out what you put in.

IMG_5076Todd McClimans is an elementary school principal and former fifth grade teacher.  He holds bachelors degrees in Creative Writing and Elementary Education and master’s degrees in Creative writing and Educational Leadership. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and three young children.  A self-styled history buff and fantasy nerd, Todd first became interested in writing about American history when teaching his fifth graders the riveting stories of patriots and their struggle for independence during the Revolutionary War.  He aims to bring history to life for young readers by writing stories with a careful mixture of historical fact and fantastical story-telling with characters to which children can relate.

What are you Writing for?

July 21, 2014 by

Let me introduce you to Gaia. Gaia is a human clone or more aptly, a human garden. She is a twisted, mutilated version of woman with little conventional beauty to behold. Yet there’s a sense of strength in her structure and: the beat of her HEART, the bright BLOOD pumping through her veins and the light yellow aura that floats above her- are riveting. Gaia struggles, as so many main characters do, to find her place in the world.


She is also the main character of my sci-fi script, GAIA, which took first place in The Indie Gathering’s sci-fi feature script contest, one of a couple dozen contests I entered over the past two months or so. The win is my first and a welcomed reprieve from the repeated thrashes of rejection from others.

Admittedly, the validity and usefulness of screenplay contests continues to be debated, especially for any contests other than the “Top 5.” Indeed, as I searched for contests, and weighed the benefits and costs of each, I struggled not to let the naysayers drag me down.

Site after site, person after person, nay after nay; these sounded much like this:

“contests that charge over $25 aren’t worth it”

“any other than the top 5 are a waste of time”

“contests are a waste of time… they won’t help you sell your screenplay”

“contests are good for the ego, but that’s all.”

Of course, some of these comments were by people who had not yet placed in any contest, but not all of them and some were directly from people working within the film industry. Regardless, the impact varied little.

With each nay, my enthusiasm waned, even after my win. That is, until I realized something so profound that when I told Confucius he said, “Do what?” Not really, actually he rolled his eyes and said, “Uh.. duh.” So what is this not-so profound realization?

In the screenwriting world (and in fact, most any artistic industries), a reverberating factor of success seems to be the ability to find like-minded people.

A win may or may not mean you write well, but it means that someone or several “someones” appreciated your writing. It doesn’t matter if they appreciated it because it was “good” writing, or because it was a “good” story or for some other reason. All that matters is that you made that connection. For that win, you “won” someone over, and each contest you enter increases your chance to connect.

Think of these contests as fishing. They take time, money and can be tiring. Sometimes you’ll get a nibble, sometimes a bite, but you won’t get anything if the fish in the lake don’t like your bait. Even the biggest worm won’t hook a fish if the fish in the lake prefer crickets. Thus, for me, these contests are my pole.

I use them to gauge the interest in my bait. What other route offers you so much direct access to such a large, diverse range of people. Whether the judges are members of the Hollywood elite or not, they are people you can connect with.

There are many reasons why cult followings are popular and movies that have them are ultimately successful. Not every success is based on the size of the catch. Sometimes it’s taste that counts.

And as I consider the value of screenwriting contests, I remind myself also that Indie films and the whole site of Kickstarter are all about funding based upon a connection. Not a network of who you know, but a connection of a shared vision and goal. And isn’t that why we write anyway; to connect with others?

Autumn pic

Autumn Whiltshire earned her Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She writes poetry, short stories and screenplays. Her thesis script, Gaia won first place in The Indie Gathering’s 2014 Sci-Fi Feature category.  You can follow Autumn at:

L. Elizabeth Powers: Contesting Rejection

July 14, 2014 by

Recently I shared the news with my Wilkes Creative Writing “family” that my short screenplay The Importance of Sex Education was chosen as one of six finalists in the D.C. Shorts Film Festival Screenwriting Contest. I had just sat down to a late Chinese Buffet lunch with my mom when the festival organizer called me to inform me of the selection. I was so thrilled I couldn’t eat another bite. (I had to pay the full “all-you-can-eat” price anyway.)

When I was asked by The Write Life to speak of my experience of submitting to festivals, I hesitated because in order to share such an experience in its entirety, I must admit to all the rejections!

As a burgeoning writer/filmmaker, one is inevitably guaranteed more rejections than acceptances, and while this is well-known, the rejections still sting. But, the stings lessen with experience and a good acceptance letter can numb any number of past or future stings. I am lucky that with this script, I only received one rejection prior to placing in this contest. But, I’ll be honest, it wasn’t exactly the same script.

I had entered this script into another festival some months ago. While it received favorable remarks, it did not advance into the final rounds. When I received the rejection, I went back and reworked it. Though I had shared it with a few people the first round, this time I found new readers. I did some polishing (mostly cutting) and then I sent it off again to the D.C. Shorts competition and this time, it advanced.

Of course, the standard advice is to not send work off to start with until you think it’s “perfect. “ For me, that would mean never sending anything. I have to let go and send my work off in the belief that it is ready. But, if it comes back, that gives me the guilt-free excuse to reopen it and piddle some more, or on rare occasions confirm that it’s as good as I can get it. I rarely resubmit the same exact work after a rejection.

As for screenwriting contests, there is an on-going controversy as to whether or not they are worth the effort. After all, there are hundreds of contest winners every year that don’t get their scripts optioned or produced, and tons of terrible scripts that DO get produced. I tend to think that for me, as someone who is early in her career, it’s worth the effort for networking, and for resume building. Of course, the networking aspect only makes sense for someone who actually means to attend the festivals. Festivals that are film and screenwriting are of particular interest to me because it’s an opportunity to meet other industry types and not just screenwriters.

The D.C. Shorts competition was for shorts only. I like short film festivals as you often get to meet filmmakers early in their careers as well. Some would scoff at the effort and cost of submitting a short film, preferring to submit only feature length in the hopes of getting it sold or produced. But, short scripts also show off writing skills, and for me, the goal is as much to garner notice as a writer as it is to sell any particular script.

Of course, some competitions are more valuable than others and it’s worth it to investigate them before submitting. One thing to consider is the cost versus payoff. How well-known is the festival and how much prestige would participation garner? If accepted, do you get a free pass? And, if so, what kind of conference offerings are there? Is there prize money? (D.C. Shorts offers $2000 production fund to the winner and as a filmmaker, I would like to shoot the script.)

Many script competitions offer coverage (feedback) for a few extra dollars. I’ve not partaken of this option, personally, and probably would not elect to do so unless I knew absolutely who was providing that coverage, and that the person was a true industry professional and not, say, a film school intern. That’s not to say professional coverage services aren’t valuable: I’m just not sold on the value of anonymous festival coverage. There are a few competitions that offer free coverage, though, so of course that is welcome.

As for the festival at hand, the six D. C. Shorts screenplay finalists will be read publicly September 19 at the U.S. Navy Memorial Heritage Center in Washington D.C. The winner will be chosen by audience vote at the end of the event. My script, The Importance of Sex Education is a short comedy that follows 12-year old Adeline as she fumbles her way into puberty in 1975 with some embarrassingly errant assumptions about sex.


L. Elizabeth Powers

L. Elizabeth Powers received her MFA from Wilkes University’s Creative Writing department in 2013. Before that, she worked for 12 years in feature film visual effects. She currently works as a freelance artist, and as a designer for Etruscan Press. Her short film, Killing Time, was a finalist in the Louisiana Film Prize 2012, and she has had work published in Poetry Quarterly, Red River Review, Every Day Poets, The Germ and Big Country Magazine. A story she penned while at Wilkes can be read in the current issue of Belle Reve Literary Journal. She has worked in Shreveport and New Orleans, LA for the past few years, though she is currently helping out on her family’s farm in Texas.


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