Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Every Day I'm Hustlin'

I recently had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at the University of Georgia (Go Dawgs!) to address undergraduates interested in pursing careers in film and television production. It was odd to be in a position of any authority, but in my years since graduation I have learned enough to be helpful to those who are just getting started. As I gave what little bit of wisdom I could, it occurred to me that some of the ideas that I and the other TV/Film vets were offering to these fresh faces were the same things veteran authors have been saying to us newbie writers.

1. No one cares what you WANT to do, until you show them what you CAN do. 
Kids, do not, let me say it one more time, DO NOT walk into your interview for a production assistant job and tell the coordinator that you want to be an Executive Producer. Guess what? No one cares. When you've proven that you can work sixteen straight hours without complaining, arrive to work fifteen minutes early for your six AM call time, remember how many raw sugar packets the director likes in her coffee (It's zero, dummy. She doesn't use sugar), and show up to work with the worst cold of your life and manage to keep your germs to yourself, then maybe someone will ask you what you hope to do someday. I know it sounds harsh, but it's the truth.

Doesn't this also have to apply for writers? I'm not agented, so I'm just assuming here, but I can't imagine that a prospective agent cares about aspirations for fame and glory if the manuscript isn't done, the edits aren't taken seriously, the deadlines are missed and the platform is nonexistent. Hey, little writer, you want to be the next Nora Ephron, but your manuscript is in shambles and the only one who reads your blog is your mom? Well, good luck with that. Proving that you can do the work is the first order of business.

2. Find your angle.
On one of my first jobs in the television industry I made up the position that then became mine for almost a year. I was working on a children's show and there were about thirty kids at a time who needed constant supervision. "Hey- it sure does look like you guys need a kid wrangler." I said to no one and started wrangling kids. I was good with kids, so I went for it and before I knew it, bam! I had a regular gig.

Maybe as writers, we don't have to sacrifice our eardrums and sit in a room with thirty over-amped, competitive, and creepily adult stage kids, but we do still have to find our angle. I've heard it repeatedly. Find your voice. Find what makes you connect with readers in a way the others don't.  We have to find our "in'.

3. Speak up, but don't say nothin'.
Networking is important while making your way in production. No one gives a flying fig about your resume and you will almost never be hired because of it. If, however, someone says, "Sure, I know Joe. He's a great guy" well, then go ahead and start planning that vacation you'll be taking at the end of the project. The key is to avoid being a schmoozy creeper who is constantly trying to work someone. You have to give something; a recommendation, a favor, hell, just a funny video that passes the time during a lighting change, to make people remember you as someone who added something to their days/weeks/projects/lives.

As writers, we learn the same thing while we're trying to build a readership. It's not enough to just say, Hey- I wrote this. Read it. We've go to give value to our readers. So, yes, you do have to speak up to let people know you exist, but you can't just make noise. You have to say something real. 

4. Don't just pay back, pay forward.
This one I didn't say while I was talking to the undergrads, but I wish I had. One of my fellow panelists told the audience to "be nice" which is solid advice. I wish I had added, be nice to everyone. Don't just suck up to people you think can do something for you. Don't just make your boss happy. Make your fellow crew members look good too. Sure, it's important to show gratitude to someone who helps you achieve a goal, but it's also important to be the person who helps someone else achieve her goal.

Writers, this goes for us too. We have to (and from my limited experience, are pretty good at) support other writers. We have to follow back, "Like", retweet, leave comments, add reviews and otherwise help our fellow authors spread their works and build their audiences and we can't just do it because we expect others to do the same for us (though you're kind of a jerk-wad if you don't). Without the support of our fellow writers, we're left to hoping that we find a really kick ass agent and/or publisher who is going to take on all of the responsibility of promoting our work. Again- good luck with that.

The bottom line- it takes a lot of hustle to achieve a big goal. You have to give your all, all the time and keep trying when things don't go the way you planned.

And, because this is what I sing to myself when I feel like I'm getting things done, it's time to quote Pharrell/Jay-Z, "I'm a hustler, baby. I just want you to know. It ain't where I been, but where I'm about to go..." (Quit singing there. That song gets pretty gross pretty fast.)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Too Close For Comfort

I read a lot (A LOT) of chick-lit, so I recognize the formula. It might be wrong to admit there is a formula, but screw it. That's just the truth. Reading chick-lit is like watching a romantic comedy; the story is predictable but in the most comforting way. Have you ever watched a romantic comedy that didn't end the way you wanted it to? And weren't you mad when you didn't get what you expected?  Yeah, me too. (Side note: I'm still not over "The Break-up" (2006). I hold a grudge.)

All of this is to say, I'm used to seeing the similarities between other authors' published works and my work-in-progress. As I've accepted the inevitability of following the chick-lit rules, I don't let similar rhythms or even plot devices make me question my work or what I'm trying to do. What does bother me is when I'm reading one of these similarly structured stories and find writing weaknesses that I recognize from my own work.

Here are just a few: 

Joke Fail-  When a character is telling a joke or a funny story and it doesn't land, it makes the reader uncomfortable. Whether the writer knows it or not, her joke just bombed and the audience is uncomfortable. I found this in one of my supporting characters. His voice was meant to be the glib voice of absurdity ridiculed, but after review, his words were just trite (the annoying cousin of predicable). As a result, I've changed his tone and his dialogue. I had to give him a greater stake in the story and explore more of his depth as a character. I'm much happier with him now. He's someone I would actually like to know instead of a caricature of someone I once met. Lesson Learned: Hackneyed jokes are red flags for under-developed characters.

Dialogue Disorders- Unless you want to waste word space with endless "saids", (Jen said to Ben..., Ben said to Jen..., Ben and Jen said to Ken...), it's important for characters to be easily identified by their dialogues. I notice most often that this is a problem when you're dealing with a character being written by the opposite sex. In the case of chick-lit, it is usually the male voice written by the female author that doesn't work. This was no exception for me. Nothing can douse a hero's romantic flame like making him sound like a girl.  Lesson Learned: Run a guy check for the man talk. If the (or just "a") man in your life says, "A guy would never say that" , the dialogue probably needs a tweak or two.

Offensive Repeaters- If you start screaming "pick up a thesaurus" at a book, there is a problem. I have found myself doing a lot of yelling with several, very  popular, books lately and it makes me nuts! When a word or phrase is over used to the point of distraction, it takes the reader (this reader especially) out of the story. To make sure I wasn't committing the same crime I did word searches for strong words that I found and anything that ranked over 10 uses in my 60,000 word document was changed. The worst offender was "whore" with 15 uses. (I might want to mention that to my therapist.) Lesson Learned: The thesaurus and the word search function are your friends. Use them.

Should these unfortunate similarities between my unpublished manuscript and other authors' published works be comforting? I mean, hey, someone got that junk through. Maybe, but not really. It makes me more nervous that even if (wait, I'm supposed to be positive) when, I get published, that the work I put out could still be crap. No one wants that. So, no, it's not comforting at all. I suppose what I can take from this is that, as it's been said before, being an avid reader makes you a better writer. So what am I going to do to work on my skills? Read.

Yay! I just justified another trip to the book store!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The One Where the Plot Goes Missing

I am a life long T.V. junkie. Since I pursued a career in television production, I thought all of those hours committed to the consumption of episodic programming, particularly silly sitcoms (the louder the laugh track the better), had served me well in my goals. Ah, you just can't beat the comfort of rationalization.

What's that you say? Read my writing? Fine. Ok. I don't see why, but-


Perhaps my little habit hadn't prepared me well for my new path. Once it was in pieces, I was forced to see that my manuscript was not a plotted story, but a collection of episodes; small, sometimes silly, events connected by character, time and place, but not events that were necessarily entwined or relevant to one another and definitely nothing that was propelling my protagonist in any direction.

Well, shoot- that's a problem.

After a sleepless night of some not-so-nice meditation (it went something like- "you suck" "you shouldn't have even tried" "what made you think you could do this"), it occurred to me that the solution to my big problem was pretty simple. I needed to define a tangible goal for my protagonist. I had established my goal as the writer, meaning I knew what I wanted her to experience, learn, and achieve, but I hadn't given her a goal within the context of the story. With that addition, without changing the tone or intention of the novel, I finally had motivation for events, connections of cause and effect, and (miracle of miracles!) an actual plot. Yay for growth!

Ok, maybe it's not fair to blame my literary shortcomings entirely on television, but it is also called the idiot box, so I'm just going to let it ride. Oh, rationalization, how I've missed you.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Playing With (Story) Blocks

Have I ever mentioned that the revision process is hell? While I'm working my way through this hellish process chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph and line by line, there has been one thing that stands out as the most helpful tool in my re-write toolbox and it's the thing that removed most of my hard chosen words and turned my manuscript into a small collection of half pages that are both voiceless and utilitarian. That tool is chapter summaries. It's such a simple idea- go through the manuscript one chapter at a time and summarize each one. So easy! So useful! Why is it so helpful? (It's cool. I know that's what you're thinking.) It's helpful in a few very specific, but really important ways.

1. Structure Check- Like a story, a chapter should have a beginning, middle and end. Summarizing a chapter makes it easy to spot if the chapter is delivering on its story responsibilities.

2. Chapter Cuts- This one is major but painful. In my earlier editing efforts I could feel when a chapter was dragging, but I couldn't bring myself to cut it. All that work just to be deleted? I couldn't deal with it. But, when that dragging, unnecessary or redundant chapter is reduced to a few paragraphs, it becomes a lot easier to draw an aggressive red X through it and move on. (Note: when I went back to the manuscript I straight deleted red-X chapters. I did not read the chapter again. The red X shows no mercy.)

3. Plot Overhaul- I suppose not everyone will need this one, but I sure did. My plot was seriously, majorly, horrifically flawed. Once those not-so-pretty chapter summaries were done, I could physically move things around like little wordy building blocks and see where the plot was lacking. Sure, it left me with some chapters to be written from scratch, but at least now, when someone asks me what my book is about, I have a confident answer.

Now to give credit where credit it due. I did not come up with this nifty solution. I have to give credit to Chris Baty who was speaking at the Crossroads Writers conference in little old Macon, Georgia. Maybe the use of chapter summaries is a technique known by the writing vets, but it was new to me, and when I was sitting in a hotel meeting room and I asked my question- What do you do when you're stuck in revisions? - Mr. Baty threw out chapter summaries as a real and constructive solution. His answer was neither fluffy theory blow-off nor bitterness laced shutdown, both of which are abundant at writers conferences. He said- here, try this. I tried. I liked. So, props to that guy. If you're stuck like I was, give it a shot. Maybe it will work for you too. Maybe.