Archive for May, 2011

Screenwriters, Beggars, and Whores By Bill Prystauk

May 25, 2011

When I first heard about a one-page screenplay contest at Moviepoet, I gave pause. This site had offered this free contest in the past and my first one-page idea about a murder was ill received. The feedback, however, proved valuable and it was clear I hadn’t executed a story with a solid beginning, middle and end. And with the broad margins, type and spacing associated with screenwriting format, getting a story on one-page had proven difficult.

Though I never read the script, I’ve seen the short film “Shot of a Lifetime”  – a story told in a mere five seconds and it worked. This one-pager then, this one minute of film, was a challenge I wanted to meet head-on – Hell, I had another fifty-five seconds to play with. But coming up with a story that wasn’t the equivalent of a bad joke was far from difficult. I wanted to do something dramatic and poignant.  I’m not exactly sure where the idea came from, but I imagined a “manly” man cross-dressing for a contest, winning said contest, then going home in drag to confront his wife. I pounded out the story of “Catalyst” in short order, revised and tweaked and submitted.

When the results came out a month later, I was disappointed. My script hadn’t even earned an honorable mention. Most comments involved questions that could only be answered if the script was a feature. Many people (it’s open judging for any writer logging into the site once registering for free) could not determine where the “catalyst for change” even appeared in the script. Needless to say, it was evident I had written something obscure and I hadn’t delivered my tale completely.

Rejection Hurts, But Can Lead to Better Writing

Theme had apparently been unclear and my beginning, middle and end didn’t work. As a writer, I had failed. Regardless, I had other scripts to write and would simply learn from the exercise to tell a better story.

But that was a lie. I knew in my heart the story was solid and that in one-minute I had delivered a complete tale to the audience. The story made sense, the catalyst for change was clear and the theme was solid. Then, I received some more feedback from a couple of people who had voted on the scripts for the contest. They thought the script was “brilliant.” One, a close friend, Chris Messineo, who didn’t know I had penned the screenplay because it was blind viewing, thought it was the greatest short I had ever written. Damn. He encouraged me to send it elsewhere and try to get it produced. (When Chris is thrilled about something, he means it.)

Remarkably, I discovered a one-page script contest from WILDsound in Toronto. I entered and soon learned I was a Finalist. Actors in Toronto then performed the script on-stage and the clip was placed on the WILDsound site. The bad news: Judging would be determined by internet voting. For the first time, the fate of my work would not be handled by a group of professional writers, producers, directors or even agents. I was suddenly in the midst of a popularity contest.

Of course I wantedto win. After all, the winner would have his/her short produced. This meant the writer would receive that all-important screen credit – something every screenwriter lives for. So I did something I loathed and despised: I contacted everyone I knew via WebCT, Facebook and regular email to get them to vote – as well as their families and friends, and so on.

Even America's Sweetheart Spent Time on the Streets

I told Ken Vose, a screenwriter in the Wilkes University MFA Program, that I felt like a beggar and a whore, to which Ken replied, “You’re a screenwriter. You’ll be a beggar and a whore forever. Get used to it.” I continued to beg right up to the very end – but ultimately fell short by a handful of votes. “Catalyst” came in second place.

Chris Messineo, the man behind Off-Stage Films and the New Jersey Film School, made me feel a little better. Apparently, the winner of the previous WILDsound contest had his film shot and it was awful. Not the story per se, but its filming. I found the short films of previous winners and noticed that the lighting was bad, many camera angles were weak and the overall feel was one of sterility. Still, I was out of a much desired credit and now had another script that would just collect dust in a drawer. The announcement of “Catalyst” as a produced piece of creative work would not appear in my CV, making that tenure tract position at Kutztown University all the more harder to attain.

I was ticked.

Then, something unbelievable happened.  Out of the blue a high school friend, Debbie Valenta, contacted me from Los Angeles. She had produced several films and worked with Roger Corman for a couple of years. Debbie had recently formed a yet unnamed production company with two other women and was looking for a short script they could film. She knew I wrote screenplays, and even read “Catalyst” when I was “begging and whoring” for votes on Facebook. I submitted four short scripts – and they chose “Catalyst.” Collectively, they loved the story. Whew. The tale did indeed work and my original gut feeling was validated. The only dilemma, and it was a small one, was that they wanted the short to be five to ten minutes long.  Knowing Debbie’s level of expertise and penchant for detail, I am not concerned about the film’s quality. However, I realize that not winning the WILDsound contest may have been the best thing possible for me. This is made clear by the fact this new production company will use “Catalyst” as their calling card to attract investors and talent. In the world of screenwriting, that’s a big deal.  Regardless, even though the script hasn’t been shot yet, it has the best chance of seeing the light of day. And if it does, I will get that credit and maybe more opportunities will come my way if the short is well received. Time will tell.

Once again, the advice to all writers is not to quit. And even if your script is shopped around, this does not mean you can’t resubmit years later. Ken Vose recently sold a horror script that is older than me, as he told me.  As long as we’re honest about the quality of our writing, there is a chance that work will find a home somewhere, and this goes for all screenwriters, playwrights, poets, fiction and non-fiction writers.  Sure, we may feel like we’re a “beggar and a whore” on occasion, but as long as we’re respectful and devoid of cockiness, we’re simply just asking to be heard. We’re pitching. We’re selling. Just like we do in an interview for a job. And if we don’t sell ourselves we’ll never achieve anything with our writing.

Who is Bill Prystauk?

In 2011, Bill’s dramatic horror, “Ravencraft” is currently a Top-Three Finalist in the 2011 AWS Screenplay Contest. His dramatic ghost story, “Risen” was the First Place Winner in the 2010 Horror Screenplay Contest and is currently being shopped around Hollywood. Furthermore, Bill’s character driven, crime/action/horror script “Red Agenda” was the First Place Winner in the 2008 International Horror and Sci-Fi Film Festival and was a Top-Five Finalist at Screamfest. In 2006, he was the Second Place Winner of the Screenwriters Showcase Screenplay Contest for his erotic crime thriller, “Bloodletting,” which is now a novel under consideration by award winning, Akashic Books.

Bill Prystauk Loves a Pink Background

Bill has also won numerous awards for other screenplays as well as poetry. He completed the Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in June 2011 to earn his MFA with concentrations in screenwriting and fiction. Bill currently teaches English at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and is exploring the use of homes in horror movies in his book, “Home is Where the Horror is.”

Advertisements

An Interview with Patricia Harman

May 19, 2011

Patricia Harman is a mother.  She is a wife.  She is a midwife.  Now, she belongs to an elite group of writers who have written multiple memoirs.   After the success of her first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, a story of the babies she helped bring into the world, Harman felt a need to tell her own storyArms Wide Open, her newly released second memoir, is just that.

Arms Wide Open is Harman's second memoir

It is the story of how a young, hippie woman living on a self-sustainable commune, came to be an influential member of the medical community.  I reviewed Harman’s book for Hippocampus Magazine last month, and she was nice enough to grant me an interview shortly thereafter.  Here is our Q&A:

How different was the process of writing this book, compared to writing The Blue Cotton Gown?
My first memoir, The Blue Cotton Gown, didn’t start off as a memoir.  I just wanted to tell the stories of the amazing patients I met in the exam room of the OB/GYN practice I share with my husband.  Gradually, I realized I needed to tell more and I began to weave my narrative in with the patient’s.  I decided to write Arms Wide Open because readers asked me about references to living in a rural commune in the Blue Cotton GownAha! Thinks I.  That could be another book!  While The Blue Cotton Gown was written during the days that lived it, Arms Wide Open went back decades into my past.  I had the advantage of having some twenty or so journals hidden in a box in the closet, that I’d kept, but not opened, all these years.   

The first part of the book deals with your self-sustainable life in Minnesota, and the cabin in which you, Stacy, and Mica lived alone.   There were times I would almost cry for you, it sounded and felt so difficult.  Would you do it again?  What did it teach you?

I currently live in on three acres of land with a vegetable garden, woods, fruit trees, a view of the lake, and all the modern conveniences, but I do sometimes wish we lived more rurally.  Though subsisting without electricity, central heat, running water or a bathroom wasn’t fun at times, there was a simplicity and closeness to nature that I miss.   I think what I learned from those times is “Moderation in all things.”  We thought we could save the world being witnesses for a very pure life on the land, but we were so extreme it didn’t make sense to anyone.

Despite most of the book’s narrative happening at the tail end of the civil unrest of the 60’s and early 70’s, you manage to keep politics out of your story, for the most part.  Was this difficult for you?  Was that a choice you made consciously?  
In the first draft I was more political and I consciously took some of that out; not because I wanted to hide my true beliefs, but because I felt it would date the book.  When you finish a manuscript, you don’t know when it will be published.  I thought, for example, if I wrote about the presidential election of 2008, the book would seem past tense by 2011.   I did mention “the wars in the middle east” and how I felt about them, but that was a safe bet! Ten years from now, they will probably still be fighting.  I also made it clear we believe that war isn’t the solution to the division of the world’s precious resources.  I tried not to get on a soapbox and be preachy about the environment or to sound like I was giving a lecture.

In Arms Wide Open, you talk a lot about natural childbirth.  Do you still embrace that concept so strongly?  Why do you think there has been a return to those ideals as of late?

Harman during her "hippie" days

I embrace the idea of natural childbirth more strongly than ever.  I don’t think everyone has to have their baby at home, but as much as possible, I would want for women and their partners to experience birth as it was meant to be, a simple, transcendent experience.  Technology and medical malpractice lawyers have taken something precious away from us.  Birth should be a feminist issue again and I think that is starting, partly because the C/Section rate in the United States is so out of control.  33%.  That’s right.  1 out of 3 women now have their baby born by major abdominal surgery.  Not the way things should be…..Don’t get me started!

Since you are a politically minded person, I’d love to ask your opinion on healthcare.  Are we heading down the right road?  Is universal healthcare attainable?  And should it be?

The health care system in the US is in very bad shape.  This year the Health Insurance Industry has made record profits as patients postpone surgeries because they can’t afford their big deductibles.  Then there are the 46 million Americans with no health insurance at all. This, in the richest nation in the world.

We have a summer cottage in Canada and we get to know the locals up there and have learned so much about their national healthcare system.  We are definitely supporters of some kind of universal health insurance in the US.  It’s the strength of the insurance industry and the pharmaceutical companies that make reform difficult.  Their propaganda have the American public so terrified of change, that even if it would benefit them, people vote against it.

Little by little, I believe things will get better.  In the recent health care reform bill, just having young adults able to stay on their parent’s insurance plans until they are 26 is a help and there are other benefits to children.  They can’t be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions anymore.  The Children’s Health Insurance Program (Chip) was extended and all health insurance plans must now provide immunizations and other preventive care for kids.

Finally, you belong to a small group of writers who have written two or more memoirs, will you do it again?  Is there more you’d like to share with your fans? 

Patricia "Patsy" Harman

Currently, I decided to stop milking my own life for stories before readers get sick of me.  I’m working on a novel, set in the Great Depression in West Virginia.  The heroine is an inexperienced midwife, a former suffragette and union radical, on the run, hiding out in the mountains.  I imagine I will write about myself again, someday.  I still have all those journals in the box and have had adventures that astound even me.

**Arms Wide Open is available now on Amazon, or through your local independent bookseller.  For more on Patricia Harman, please visit her website.

Ten Ideas for Keepin’ it Real

May 12, 2011

Preparing for writing success demands common sense and self care

by Gale Martin

You’ve just completed your novel, your memoir, or your chapbook. You’ve gotten strong feedback from your beta-reader(s) or an outside evaluator through the Wilkes University Creative Writing program where you’ve received unprecedented access to the almighty gatekeepers—agents and editors. Maybe you attended a conference and pitched your book to an agent who requested a complete manuscript. Nothing can stop you now. Surely, you’ll have a publishing contract in hand within months, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. According to Putting Your Passion into Print, more than 150,000 books are conventionally published every year. That’s an incredibly large number of publishing opportunities compared to the number of screenplays actually made into feature length films every year. There’s plenty of room for good books—yours included.

Statistics such as ‘less than five percent of popular booksellers total sales are bestsellers’ provide reason enough to be optimistic that you may one day join the ranks of published authors. That is, if you don’t expect too much success too soon. That’s the fastest route to burnout. Expecting to be the next overnight writing sensation might be the single greatest handicap to the writing career you so desperately seek. Prepare instead for a long slog. Commit yourself and your faculties to writerly habits and a lifestyle that can sustain you and your writing career.

Keep writing.  After I wrote my first novel in 2005, I was so proud of the fact that I’d completed a work of fiction, I used to carry it around with me wherever I went. After a few months, a pair of tired arms, and only one nibble from an agent, I realized that completing a novel was only the beginning of my writerly journey. I began writing flash fiction, short stories, and humorous essays while I began plotting my next novel. One of the writers I follow on Twitter who is also a literary agent never sold his first book—the one he was certain would sell. But sold plenty after that. So, keep writing. It’s never good to pin your hopes to one manuscript.

The Raven's Bride by Lenore Hart

Not to mention that editors and agents want writers who are good for more than one book. One of the Wilkes’ faculty members Lenore Hart sold her latest book The Raven’s Bride before it was written. Her publisher was banking on Lenore’s reputation for producing another publishable novel.

Keep submitting other work elsewhere.  As long as you continue writing, you’ll not only be honing your craft, have work to submit to publications and contests. For most of us, rejections far outweigh acceptances. You have to submit a critical level of work before the odds start turning in your favor. Once they do, every acceptance is validation to stay the course and builds confidence which you’ll need for more rejections and the inevitable slog.

Set reasonable goals.  In recent craft classes at Wilkes, writer Lori A. May shared a framework for goal setting for a rich, focused writing career. Her model encourages writers to think in bigger chunks beyond the next story, the next month, the next acceptance. Set goals that will stretch you. But don’t doom yourself to failure either by comparing yourself to someone who’s achieved instant publishing success or setting irrational goals, such as, “Will have literary representation in one month.” Perhaps you won’t. I just interviewed a writer on my blog Scrivengale who has published four books but doesn’t have an agent. Make your goal instead, “Will query five agents every month.”

Volunteer to judge a contest. Reading others writers’ work with whom you’re not competing head to head, within your cohort or in the Wilkes program in general, can be eye-opening. It’s a productive way to learn from others’ mistakes and successes while being a good literary citizen.

Look for outlets to read your work. If none exist, create one. One of the great privileges published authors enjoy is the chance to read their work in public venues. In the Wilkes program, students are given several opportunities to do that. Once you’re out of the program, it’s one of the things you miss most.

Public Readings Provide Exposure

At least I did because I love reading my work. Not seeing anything available in her hometown, one of the students in my cohort Ally Bishop went out and created an outlet for writers in Central Pennsylvania to read their work—published and unpublished—readings in which I’ve taken part. I know other Wilkes students are following Ally’s example, approaching galleries, book shops, and coffee shops about offering literary readings.

Get a writing group together. Writing is an insular life. If you don’t have an editor to give you pause to think about your narrative arc, to redirect your work, you would probably benefit from participating in a writing group. I said a writing group, not a shredding group. I’ve been in a shredding group—an utter waste of time and potentially devastating. If you can find a handful of other writers committed to careful reading and constructive criticism, it helps fill the gap left between working with a faculty mentor or a professional editor and writing in solitude.

Explore other avenues of sharing your work, like Scribd. I just learned about www.scribd.com, a social publishing site, where tens of millions of people share original writings and documents. One young woman who wrote a memoir but couldn’t obtain any interest from a conventional publisher, shared her memoir in segments on Scribd, obtaining three thousand readers per post. Few bloggers can attract that volume of readership. It may be worth your time investigating.

Write something for sheer enjoyment. I’m not sure where I heard about this online writing community at The Write Idea, an international group of poets and prose writers, but for three years now I have participated in a nine-round fiction contest with some of the most generous, talented writers I’ve ever met. It is sheer fun to receive the prompts, chat them up on the site, and see how everyone fares following each round of judging. This contest is something I do just for the love of writing and as such, the sustenance it offers me is invaluable.

Create something for sheer enjoyment. I read Jane Friedman’s blog There Are No Rules  regularly, which is how I learned about Scribd. In one of her columns, Jane also mentioned a site called About.me, which allows writers and other creatives the chance to create a free splash page, in lieu of a full-blown website. It was a great exercise trying to encapsulate my writing experience and persona into a splash page and lots of fun doing so.

Strive for a more balanced life. Shortly after I finished the Wilkes program, I needed a month to thaw out, having combined my studies with demanding full-time jobs. Then I looked around my very untidy house, threw myself into some cleaning projects, and planned an anniversary celebration. I also recommitted myself to regular church attendance and singing in the choir, which meant rehearsing one night a week away from my *sigh* laptop, which I was certain was attached to my fingers. I don’t know if I’ll ever have the level of life balance I enjoyed before I began writing creatively, but the writing schedule a master’s or MFA program demands wasn’t going to sustain my marriage or a life well-lived. I simply had to make some changes.

To outsiders, it may appear that I’ve ratcheted down my expectations for my publishing career, but that’s not an accurate assessment of my approach to my post-Wilkes writing. I’m merely steeling myself for a long slog but fully intending to appreciate any smaller success along the way.

Gale Martin

Gale Martin has been writing creatively since 2005. Recent accolades include first-place in short fiction from the 2009 Writers-Editors International and Scratch writing competitions. She also received her first Pushcart Prize nomination in 2009 for a short story published in Greensilk Journal. Her work has appeared online and in print in various publications such as The Christian Science Monitor, Sirens Magazine, Duck & Herring Company’s Pocket Field Guide, and The Giggle Water Review and in several anthologies. She hosts a writing blog called “Scrivengale.”

She hosts an opera blog, “Operatoonity,” and is the accredited Metropolitan Opera reviewer for Bachtrack, an online site featuring classical performance. She lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which serves as a rich source of inspiration for her writing.

An Agent’s Take on Query Letters

May 2, 2011

So you’ve written your book.  You’ve crossed every T, dotted every i, (you don’t own a computer, I’m assuming?), and you’ve arced every character.    Now what?  The manuscript over which you have carefully toiled for the last year or two is ready to find a home.  First stop?  The dreaded query letter.  Whether you are heading to the small presses, or looking for an agent, almost every outlet for your book will require a query letter.  For some, this comes easy.  For others, it can be a task as arduous as writing the book itself.

I recently spoke with Sarah LaPolla, an agent with Curtis Brown in New York City.  Sarah is a generous agent who shares her insights with the writing community through her blog, Big Glass Cases.  On her blog she also publishes excerpts of manuscripts from new authors, allowing them some much-needed exposure.

Sarah LaPolla of Curtis Brown, LTD

Sarah is more than an agent, she is also a writer.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from The New School.  This gives her a unique bond with her clients, making her an approachable champion of the craft.  In our interview I asked Sarah about her thoughts on the do’s and don’ts of querying, and what projects she’s interested in right now.

Q:  What are two or three simple things you look for in a successful query?

Sarah:  To me, a query is written successfully if it a) says what the book is about in a few short, descriptive sentences and b) follows my guidelines, which means via email and pasting the first five pages into the body of the email.

Q:  How many queries do you receive in any given week, and do you read each one personally?

I receive anywhere from 150 to 200 queries a week via email. I do read each one personally and respond to each one. I hate the “form rejection,” but it’s a necessary evil and I always feel that someone would rather have acknowledgment, even if it’s a rejection, than be left in the dark.

Q:  Does humor have a place in a query letter? (Please don’t say no, please don’t say no…)

Of course! There’s a difference between being funny and being kitschy, but being funny can be a huge asset for your query. You want to show personality, especially if the project itself is funny. One thing that writers sometimes do is write the query in the voice of their main character, which I think they think is funny or clever, but it’s always just awkward to read. So, use your humor well! Don’t force it, but don’t be afraid to be yourself either.

Q:  Do agents like to see that pieces of the manuscript were published elsewhere?

I don’t think it’s necessary to say that in a query letter, unless the publication is a major one.

Q:  What’s the number one mistake you see in query letters?

Not including a title. If you don’t have a title, make one up just for query purposes. I think a lot of writers have the mentality that a publisher will change it anyway, so they just don’t include one. Sometimes the publisher will change a title, but not every time. Plus, not only do I want to call it something, but I like to see the author’s own creativity.

 Q:  How much does the market (in terms of what’s hot in stores right now) play into what you are willing to represent?

The market is certainly a factor. For example, I say all the time (online) that I am tired of vampires and part of that is a personal preference, but another part of that is that the market is just over them for now. I emphasize “for now” because all trends come and go. If I have enough of an interest in a project, even if it’s not “hot” right now, that wouldn’t stop me from taking it on. A good story is a good story. There’s always room for that.

Q:  What brought you into the world of agenting?

Sarah: My desire to work in publishing brought me to New York, and from there I trolled craigslist and mediabistro for internships until I found one at a small literary agency. It wasn’t where I thought I’d be, but it was definitely what I knew I wanted to continue. A friend I used to intern with told me about a job opening in the foreign rights department at Curtis Brown, so I applied and a little over two years later, they let me start developing my own list.  

Q:  In terms of new clients, what are your interests right now?

I really, really want to see a scary horror novel (preferably with ghosts, but it can be more traditional too!) for YA and a Tana French-like mystery for either YA or adult. A well-written science fiction for YA would be great too – like a new Ender’s Game

Q:  Finally, what is one book that changed your life?

"It made me fall in love with YA," Sarah says of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Wow. Actually, I want to think this is a hard question, but it’s really not for me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I read it when I was 14 or 15, which was the year it came out. It was about a 15 year old who felt alienated, which is pretty much every 15 year old. But I absolutely fell in love with the main character and his friends. I wanted to be in their group, even though they were somessed up.  

  I’ve tried to read it every year since then, so I’ve read it many, many times. Every time I find something else to connect with, even if it’s not the teen angst anymore. It’s just a brilliant book. It made me fall in love with YA, and it actually introduced me to YA. I doubt my love of books would be as great without it, so who knows if I’d even work in this field if it was never published.

If you’d like to query Sarah, please visit the Curtis Brown website for the proper guidelines.   I also encourage you to visit her blog, where you will not only read some insider tips, but will find new and exciting voices, as well.  I want to thank Sarah for stopping by The Write Life and answering my questions.