The Whirling Dervish of the London Screenwriters’ Festival

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If you felt anything like I did over the London Screenwriter’s Festival weekend (Oct. 23-25), then whirling dervish sounds about right. I have just started to get back to “normal” life (though seriously, is anyone really normal after such an inspiring and motivating weekend?!), and so I want to share some gems of what I learned at the festival.

Thursday – Oct. 22

The festival proper begins on Friday, but the week leading up to the festival is full of writer-oriented events. The only one I could attend since I was flying in from the US was Pitching Thursday with Pilar Alessandra. Pilar is a US film executive who leads conferences and seminars for screenwriters across the world. She is also incredibly personable, warm, funny, and energetic.

Nuts and Bolts: Pitching Thursday is designed for festival attendees who have either never pitched before or want to gather Pilar’s wisdom. The pitch begins with a log-line, which is basically a one-sentence plot summary. As Pilar says, “you sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Thus, the log-line needs to identify:

  1. the main character
  2. the focal point of tension

The pitch starts with the log-line and then based on the producer/executive’s response, you might continue the conversation with a more detailed explanation of the feature or TV series.  Now, the truth is that Pilar can explain things much better than I, so I recommend visiting Pilar’s website here: On the Page.

Friday:

9:00 am: My Friday began with attending the festival opening ceremonies. Chris Jones, the festival director, is wonderfully warm, vibrant, and motivating. He began the festival with many words of encouragement and some activities to set our minds and hearts in the right direction. Want to get a little taste of Chris’s mentality? Stand up, put your feet shoulder width apart, place your hands on your hips, stick out your chest – and assume the Wonder Woman pose.  Stand like this for a moment and envision the success of whatever project you’re working on now. For novelists, memoirists, and poets, imagine yourself at the podium in a crowded bookstore or at a desk signing copies of your book.  For screenwriters, imagine yourself on set, headphones round your neck, watching a brilliant set of actors bringing your script to life.  Stand that way and just breathe.  I truly believe in this kind of self-actualizing imagining.  And it worked for me because the next thing on my slate was to go pitch my idea, and what had been a terrifying prospect just a few hours before was suddenly completely manageable.

10:30 am: Pitching. The idea of pitching had me terrified for weeks leading up to the festival. After Chris’s motivating opening program, I was ready to go!  After the first session ended, I went straight to the pitching location. This year, the festival used a number ticket system so pitchees could go to the desk to check in and get a number. Then, at 10:15, we all lined up in accordance with our number. When the doors opened, I went straight for an executive on the top of my list. I managed to meet nearly all the executives I had wanted to, and the only ones I missed were because they had not been at the session after all.

What I learned from this pitching session was to enter into each conversation with an open spirit. Just start a conversation. I asked each person I met with how their day was going. I found that it was easy to deliver my log-line and then let the conversation unfold organically from there.  In the preceding weeks, I had spent hours and hours in preparation – delivering my log-line to my wall, the dog, and my wife; and also thinking over the questions an exec might ask and practicing the most concise and precise answers I could develop. My advice (beginner’s advice, mind you) is to come prepared. Know your log-line and your pitch forwards and backwards. Anticipate the questions they may ask and develop succinct answers. Remember, you only have 5 minutes – no time for rambling!  The more prepared you are (for anything, actually), the easier it will be.

I hesitate to list any names or production companies here, simply because everyone’s experience will be so varied.

2:00pm: Meet the Super Agent Duncan Heath

This seminar was an interview and Q&A session with Duncan Heath, moderated by Julian Friedmann. I have to be honest here, folks, the jet lag of my trans-continental flight hit me really hard in this panel and I was struggling to maintain my attention. This is in no way reflective of the discussion. Duncan Heath was engaging and funny, as was Julian Friedmann. What I took away from this seminar was that the industry does have room for some rogue agents, but probably not that many.

Also, the main note I took on this was Heath’s words: “it’s more difficult to get a film made than a book published.” Being in fiction, I already know how difficult it is to get creative writing published, so this was disheartening – though, frankly, not surprising. We all know that the numbers are approaching lottery range when it comes to submitting our work. Just today I was reviewing information about the Script Pipeline’s upcoming contest and the numbers are daunting – 1 winner out of over 5,000 entries. But this is the business, so there’s no point trying to evade it or worry about it.  Keep at your work and don’t fret about the rest. (Because worrying and wringing hands never got anyone anywhere.)

3:30 pm: Getting Under the Skin and Into the Minds of Your Characters by Kira-Anne Pelican

In this seminar, we explored how to develop rounded characters that reflect the true complexity of the human experience. How you engage with character development may come in many forms, but Pelican’s approach is a psychological one. She suggested that we build characters based on The Big Five personality traits:

  1. Extroversion
  2. Agreeableness
  3. Neuroticism
  4. Conscientiousness
  5. Openness to Experience
  6. Activity (this is a recent addition to The Big Five, so we can assume that at some point it will be renamed The Big Six)

Pelican reminds us that memorable characters have at least one or two extreme traits.  A good exercise here is to go through your own favorite television series and movies. Identify where your favorite, or most memorable, character stands in relation to each of these.

An important thing to consider is how you will use these character traits to motivate the activity of your characters. As Pelican noted, characters who are high in Neuroticism are active and reactive. They are excitable and perceive ordinary situations as threatening. Thus, a broken antique tea cup may be enough to send your neurotic character on an adventure to replace it.  On the flip side, a character low in neuroticism, a laid-back personality, is less driven by conscious goals. Something very big must happen to energize these characters into action. Think about The Pineapple Express. This film needed something major to motivate these dead-beats off their couches.  In the end, a series of high-stakes events keeps the action unfolding and forces these sedentary, low neuroticism characters to take action.

Another key point from this seminar was to make good use of your secondary characters. Secondary characters act as mirrors to our protagonists, so give them differing traits that hold up well under contrast.  For instance, in love matches, people are often drawn together by one shared trait, but then differ in many others. Where we differ is where the tension and conflict arises, and where we are similar is where we are pulled back together.

Pelican also identified six universal emotions, those that transcend culture or time:

  1. sadness
  2. joy
  3. anger
  4. fear
  5. disgust
  6. surprise

A few others include:

  1. shame
  2. pride
  3. love
  4. compassion

In addition, here are the universal motivations Pelican shared in her seminar:

  1. sex or dating
  2. physical skills
  3. mental skills
  4. wealth
  5. attractiveness
  6. caring for loved ones
  7. forming a coalition
  8. building a legacy for the future; finding meaning

Lastly, what human would be human without some connection to a belief system? Whether we agree, disagree, or are indifferent to religion and spirituality, it is nonetheless something that each of us has had to grapple with at some point in our lives. Thus, belief systems are critical to developing your characters. And here, it can also be helpful to think of belief system as synonymous with value system.  We’re not talking solely about religion, though that is part of it.  More importantly, we’re talking about the values, principles, and beliefs that guide your characters’ actions.  Therefore, consider your character’s code of conduct – is it a moral or amoral code? Does his/her code coincide with society’s law and values? (Point of tension!!) How do the events of the film change or transform his/her belief systems? As always, the #1 question we should be asking is: what does the character believe at the beginning? –> What does the character believe at the end? –> How do the events instigate the change?

All of the above – personality traits, emotions, motivations, and belief systems- come out of psychological research, but we don’t have to look far to see how these are all part of successful television series and films.  In the end, we are attempting to recreate “real” life on film, even if we’re in the middle of a fantastical universe or two thousand years in the future. In the end, human beings, whether in life or on screen, are motivated and driven by the same things. By understanding the fundamentals of human nature and psychology, we can bring a deeper resonance of meaning to our own characters.

5:00 pm: In Treatment: Document Therapy – Ludo Smolski

In this seminar, Ludo Smolski guides us through creating development documents. Smolski identified that the main difference between a development document and a selling document is the end goal.  How we write these documents depends upon where we are in the process and what the goal for that document is. A development document is designed to give the work-in-progress shape, guidance, direction, etc. A selling document is, rather obviously, designed to highlight the points of the film or series that make it sellable; the goal is to sell the work and thus the language and design will be geared toward that purpose.

What I found most interesting – and a little exasperating – about this seminar was that there is no set definition for what a treatment is or how it should look. For someone like myself who thrives within boundaries, guidelines, and specific rules, I find this difficult. However, for people who prefer a little more freedom and struggle to follow rules exactly, I’m sure this was quite a relief! Smolski shared many examples of treatments to help us envision what these may include and how to format them. Many of these are available via a simple google search for “screenplay treatments.”

Overall, it appears that most treatments are in the 7-10 page range. Another key point is to write the treatment in the same tone as the script itself. Thus, a treatment for a comedy film should be…funny!  A treatment for a drama should be serious.  Etc. Above all, anything you write should be written well.

6:30 pm: Manifesting Success: Chris Jones and Jonathan Newman

This seminar was a lovely wrap-up to my first day. As with the opening ceremonies, this seminar focused on our minds and imaginations, but where we switched lanes was to explore how we often allow the voice in our heads to prevent us from doing or pursuing the things we want to do. Rather than restate points from this seminar, I’m going to point here to the blog post up on the LSF website, which I wrote as a response to this seminar:How I found success by recognizing my own fear of rejection

What I also recommend is that whenever the voice in your head says, “yeah, but….” that is the moment to explore what the voice is “really” saying and what the motivations are behind it.  Chances are, the voice of dissent arises because of fear.  It can be a fearful thing to dedicate hours and hours, years and years to a project that you know may never go anywhere beyond your computer. So many authors write about how the books or screenplays which end up in the bottom drawer, never to see the light.  This is just part of the process. The sooner we stop saying “yeah, but…”, the sooner we can get down to the business of making things happen and manifesting success.

Saturday:

9:30 am: This morning, I began with an appointment to the Legal Clinic with Julian Wilkinson of Blue Pencil Set – Laws of Creativity. During this time, I wanted to talk about the nuances of adapting a screenplay, purchasing rights and options, and so on. This was a helpful and informative seminar.  Please forgive me for not sharing more details since there are a number of pieces still in the air regarding this project.

10:30 am: Into the Mind of Characters through the Eyes of Actors – Mel Churcher

This seminar was perhaps one of the most informative and interesting that I attended.  In this seminar, Mel Churcher brought in a group of actors to show how a script is read, interpreted, and performed by actors.

Here are a few main points of Churcher’s lecture-portion of the seminar:

  1. Life, Logic, and Depth – these three aspects should rule the writing of a screenplay. To me, this relates to the saying about fiction and how readers enter into fiction by “suspending disbelief.” We are asking the same of audiences, and thus, we must carefully review our scripts for those places where audiences will be unable to suspend disbelief, what I also call being “thrown out of the story.” Scripts that adhere to life, logic, and depth will keep audiences invested and avoid the chance they will be distracted by an inaccurate or implausible detail.
  2. Thoughts – dialogue are thoughts made available to audiences; actions and needs drive thoughts.
  3. Believable dialogue – we rarely speak in full sentences. People who know each other well speak in short-hand. They also rarely hold eye contact. Established relationships will have a deep well of mutual understanding and experiences. We need to avoid the pitfalls of expository dialogue by recognizing the shared information and omitting it.

After the lecture section of this seminar,Churcher shared an exercise she often does with her actors. Each actor pulled out a random line from a bag. Then, the two actors met briefly to figure out what the story is, who the characters are, why they are saying their respective lines, etc. etc. Watching the actors develop a pair of lines into a fully realized scene with deep backstories for each character – and all in the course of about 5 minutes! – was very interesting. I would imagine that most don’t need reminding of this, but it helped me to re-orient myself that the actors who perform our scripts are every bit as creative and artistic as the we are, and they can be critical to helping us fully realize the emotions or underlying stories at the heart of the scenes.

Churcher then invited festival attendees to write a brief scene with two characters and just a few lines of dialogue. Six of these were then performed. First, the actors were given their lines by the writer. Then, they performed it. Churcher then invited the writer to respond if the performance matched his or her vision, then clarify what needed refined, and the actors performed it again. Most often, the clarifications were around the way emotion was delivered – tone, cadence, body language, etc. In some cases, what seemed like an angry exchange during the first performance was refined to be a drunken, silly escapade.  This was interesting because the dialogue indicated an angry or aggressive situation, but in reality, the emotions were quite different.

Then, Churcher opened the floor for questions, and particularly for questions to the actors. What I found most interesting about this was how varied the actors were in their approach – some focused on background, history, and understanding all the ins and outs of a character, whereas others preferred to get a feel for the character from the script and did little preparation before a first table read. Most interesting, one of the actors said that the first thing he does when he gets a script is to mark out all the stage directions because he wants to enter the character himself and do what feels right to him as the actor/character. In response, another actor indicated that she does not mark out stage directions; instead, she reads them to get a sense of the emotion of the scene, but ultimately, she agreed that she prefers to choose how to move, respond, etc., herself.  One point of consensus was that all actors preferred to have very limited emotional language in the script because, and this I found so interesting, they may try out a range of emotions and a variety of approaches to that scene and do not want to be pigeon-holed by the writer’s specific idea about what everyone is feeling. (And this was brought to life on Sunday morning when I attended the Live Actors Table Read)

2:00 pm: Script Surgery

The other submission-based workshop I was accepted for was the Script Surgery. For this workshop, I submitted a 2 page outline of the script and the first 10 pages. I then met with Anne Woods of EuroScript to discuss my script. Again, since there are still so many things in the works, I do not with to go into too much detail, but I found this to be an excellent experience, and I strongly recommend writers to submit their scripts to a professional script editor.

3:30 pm: Story Analysis for Readers and Writers – Pilar Alessandra

In this seminar, Pilar described the process by which a reader engages with a script in order to determine if that script will receive a Pass, Consider, or Recommend. This seminar appeared to be designed for those who read scripts for production companies; however, this information can be helpful to writers so that we understand how readers respond to our works and the process for reading. Essentially, a reader will often write a report on the script that resembles a book report – overview, description of plot, comments, and a final judgement.  Once again, I will refer readers to Pilar’s website: On the Page. 

5:00 pm: Writing to Win the Hearts and Minds of the Preschool Audience – Panel Discussion moderated by Mellie Buse

For this seminar, I actually attended this because as the mother of a three-year old, I was interested in how shows are designed for children, and have entertained my own thoughts about potentially writing a children’s show.  The panel was comprised of Michael Towner, James Mason, and Catherine Williams, each of whom have developed award-winning programming for children.  Most have worked or been affiliated with CBeeBie’s, the BBC station for children.

Of note is that children’s television writers must be aware and knowledgeable about the three developmental ranges for the preschool audience – 0-2; 2-4; 4-6. There is some slight overlap, but in general, these age groups also break down according to psychosocial stages of children. Thus, writing for children means understanding the stage of the children, what’s important to them, what they already understand, and where they are building skills. For instance, one example was that of a doorbell. In the 0-2 age group, children don’t really comprehend what it means when the doorbell rings. However, the 2-4 or 4-6 age group will understand that the doorbell means someone is at the door. The 2-4 group may recognize the sound and understand its meaning, but may not know that they should not answer the door. The 4-6 group will recognize the sound and understand that they should not answer the door (hopefully).  Thus, what the writer includes in the show needs to be relevant to the target audience – i.e. doorbells in a 0-2 show are fairly pointless, but doorbells in the 2-4 or 4-6 age group are opportunities for learning.

What I also found interesting was the discussion on compliance. I hadn’t realized how important this was on the writing side of things. As a parent, of course, I’m very vigilant about making sure that content is appropriate, but there are whole committees and governmental organizations who also have a say. For instance, a particular concern is “imitable behavior.” That is, a human or human-like character cannot engage in behavior that is unsafe and which children may imitate.  A funny story was about a show where a scene portrayed a character jumping in a puddle.  That had to go because, the compliance team argued, children can drown in two inches of water.  Thus, no puddles.  If you decide to write for children, make sure that your characters do not engage in unsafe behaviors which a preschool audience may imitate. (Obviously, this doesn’t count for older age groups since I grew up watching Mutant Ninja Turtles beat the crap out of everyone with nunchucks and an array of Ninja battle devices, so…)

Next, the panelists discussed story lines and related this to the new Bob the Builder series being created for CBeeBie’s. In children’s programming, particularly for the 4-6 age group, a show should be driven by an A and B story line. The A story is the main story.  In Bob the Builder, the A story is the thing that needs to be built. The B story line is the character story. This is where the characters create a mess to the A story line that must then be resolved.  The A and B story lines come to a joint conclusion when the project is built and the characters have resolved their interpersonal conflicts.

Lastly, successful series need to be shows in which children can watch the show out of order and still manage to understand. Thus, a story may be driven by a soft arc, but can still be understood without having seen previous episodes. For instance, the show Topsy and Tim has an over-arching theme of children moving to a new house. However, the individual episodes are written so that the characters face a contained problem.

6:30 pm: Paula Milne in Conversation with Barbara Machin

This interview was interesting in that I had not known much about Paula Milne before this interview. I know, someone start building a stake and gather some tinder. However, I was very familiar with the shows she’s worked on, developed, and written. Milne has an amazing story of leaving school at 15, reentering art school, and becoming a script reader for ATV and BBC. Her career is simply one of those stories that leaves one in awe of her productivity and success. The range of her interests is also staggering – from The Virgin Queen to Die Kinder to White Heat – politics, family, culture, history- she covers it all. In addition, Milne speaks with a no-nonsense, call-it-like-I-see-it approach that is quite refreshing in an industry that can sometimes feel like everyone’s walking around with swollen lips from kissing ass. Not Milne. She is a writer who deserves your viewership. For more information on Milne and her credits, please visit her IMDB page here.

Sunday:

9:00 am: Actors Table Read LIVE

For this seminar, a pair of brave souls submitted a scene from their film script. This is a joint project so both writers were present. I will not share details of the script or scene, but provide an overview of what I took away by watching a director and a group of actors navigate this scene.

First, the actors ran through it and then the director checked in with the writers to ask if the scene, as performed, reflected their vision of it.  The writers offered a little clarification in terms of what has just happened before this scene and where the characters are heading through the film.  Then, the actors ran through the scene over and over. What I found most interesting was when the director suggested that a few lines might come through better if they were performed by another actor than the one indicated in the script. In this scene, three women are discussing a situation. One of the women is commenting on the behavior/thoughts of the other two. In between two of her lines was a line by the third character. The director gave all three lines to the first one and this changed the tone of that scene immensely. Initially, the scene could have either been one of supporting the two characters or making fun of them. When all three lines went to the one character, the tone was significantly altered and refocused so that the way she goads the other two women came across much more clearly, as well as amping up the tension.

This was a real education to watch the actors interpret the dialogue, then to see how the director re-envisioned a section. The ways that emotion were evoked was simply amazing!

10:30 am: What will actually happen to your finished script? Live Script Edit – Lucy V Hay

This seminar was perhaps the second most informative for me of the festival weekend. Hay was a real pleasure to listen to – she’s brash, funny, clever, and no-nonsense. This is another seminar that was so rich with information that I feel my best approach will be to share Hay’s website so you can read it for yourself: Bang2Write

But let me share the basics of this seminar and some of the gems I learned (you’ll need an empty treasure chest before reading further). First, this seminar was also a submissions-based process whereby a number of brave individuals shared a page or two of their scripts-in-progress to then be put on the overhead projector and picked apart by Hay and the audience. Kudos to those who did this! While it may have been hard to hear some of the feedback, please know that your contribution was incredibly helpful to the audience.

The main focal point during this seminar was all on formatting. And with good reason – Hay shared that most readers (who are work-experience readers – i.e. 20 year olds who are getting a foot in the door by reading spec scripts) will open the first page, look at the formatting, and the decide whether to read the first 10 pages or not. Reasons for not reading the script?

  1. Any font other than Courier, 12 pt.
  2. Excess use of ALL CAPS, bold type, or italics – anything that draws attention to itself rather than the content
  3. Scenes that go right into dialogue without first describing the scene
  4. A page full of dialogue and no descriptions of scene- i.e. scene action – remember, films are visual things, not auditory. Dialogue bridges the gaps of what the visual elements can’t convey.

After the open-close test, we also need to be aware of and avoid the following:

  1. Don’t give camera directions. The only appropriate one is “Fade In” at the beginning. The director decides where the camera will be in the scene.
  2. Don’t put “Copyright” or “All Rights Reserved” on the title page – As Hay says, this will set off the “loon alert” for readers. Copyright is implied because you wrote it. Copyright in the UK and US is immediate upon writing the script. For writers who want additional protection, you can register your script with the UK or US Writer’s Guild for a fee or you can mail yourself a copy of the script and keep it unopened – the date on the postmark serves as the copyright. (Note, the mail idea is one I’ve read about in other forums but was not mentioned by Hay, so I don’t know how she feels about that particular approach.)
  3. Don’t use ALL CAPS for character names except for the first time they appear in the script.
  4. Don’t use ALL CAPS for sounds. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s not necessary and can result in a reader rejecting your script if he/she sees too many ALL CAPS.
  5. Don’t number scenes – that’s done on shooting scripts.
  6. Avoid excessive stage directions – i.e. “walks toward window” or “turns head” or “smiles,” etc. Your script will stand out if you don’t have these, plus the actor and director will ultimately decide how characters will move about the scene.

In terms of scene description, here’s what Hay had to say about good scene description:

  1. reveals character
  2. reveals tone/genre
  3. builds story world
  4. reveals writer’s voice
  5. pushes story forward
  6. is original and no cliched

Hay also discussed that most spec scripts have entirely too much dialogue. As she said repeatedly in her seminar, films are visual. Thus, a good script is built upon solid visuals and descriptions. Where you can show something via setting or action, do it. Interestingly, she said that American writers tend to be more solid on the visual aspect of things, so as a member of the American contingent, I found that heartening.

Lastly, we must remember that the screenplays you purchase at the bookstore or read online are almost always the shooting script, thus, this is why so many writers number scenes or include camera directions – because this is what we’ve seen in the screenplays we’ve read. But just remember that a spec script is under a different set of expectations and scrutiny. For more help and guidance, visit Hay’s website and check out her books. If you get a chance to attend her seminars, I highly recommend it. She’s personable, knowledgeable, and very funny.

2:00 pm: Breaking into Channel 4

This panel was comprised of Lisa Walters and Phillip Shelley who both produce for Channel 4, and then Anna Symon and Jane Eden, who obtained writing jobs with Channel 4 and other venues after completing the 4Screenwriting Course. This course is a 5 month program that begins in January and runs to the end of May. Applicants supply a CV, writing sample, or 25 pages or more of a script. Successful applicants then meet in small workshops to develop a pilot for a television series. They also attend networking events that can connect them to agents and producers. More information about the opportunities at Channel 4 can be found here: Channel 4 Screenwriting Opportunities.

5:00 pm: Beyond the Chick Flick: Writing the Female-Driven Screenplay – Pilar Alessandra

Ok, so I’m going to be a broken record at this point and say that this seminar was one of the most informative for me at the festival.  Well, if you ask my my favorite movie, I’ll give you a list of five, so it only follows…

In this seminar, Pilar once again brings her energetic, witty, and personable approach to talking about writing female-led movies. As Pilar has said at a number of her seminars, we’re finally at a place in the industry where production execs are saying, “yeah, but could this be a female?”

First, Pilar had us shout out a few stereotypes of women: stressed, negative, emotional, ditsy, hormonal, bossy – these were a few that jumped out. Pilar suggests taking that stereotype and looking for its positive correlative: gossipy = well-informed; catty=competitive. As with anything else, a stereotype is based on some grain (however tiny) of truth and is then expanded beyond the bounds of reason. What we need to do as writers is to take those stereotypes and turn them on their head rather than play into them.

Next, we need to address the cliched backstories of female-led movies: a recent breakup, a dead child, parental abuse. While these are valid backstories, Pilar reminded us that these are the backstories we see for almost every female character. When writing a female protagonist, we need to look for a more nuanced backstory, something that reveals all the facets of being a woman, and most importantly, doesn’t play into the cliches we’ve seen so often. If, however, we do want to use a break-up or dead child, use it in a surprising way. For instance, in Kill Bill, the female protagonist experiences both things – a breakup and a dead child. She uses that backstory to resume her bad-ass assassin mode and bring hell down on her former clan.

Now let’s look at what our characters do in private. Female characters most often: eat, cry, box, or dance. It is what it is. Give your protagonist something a little more interesting to occupy her alone time. How can you nuance her behavior in a way that reveals her depth? How can you break out of the stereotypes and portray women in a more realistic light?

One approach to action and plotting is to give your female character what we consider typically “masculine” approaches to problems. For instance, in the old model, a female character would use her womanly wiles to manipulate a male character into giving her information. In the new model, she breaks into the office and steals the computer herself. We can also take the male-driven templates and give them to female characters – The Godfather – with a female boss; Star Wars – with a female Luke Skywalker (or Darth Vader). We can also re-spin female-driven templates: Cinderella – saves the world; Anna Karenina takes over Wall Street.

So this sums up Pilar’s seminar on the female-driven film. Once again, I recommend visiting her website for additional information and resources.

6:00 pm: Festival Close

Once again, we attendees packed into the auditorium to listen to words of inspiration from Chris Jones. One again, we assumed the Wonder Woman pose and once again, we imagined ourselves and the successes that can come out of this weekend.  It was a tearful goodbye. Tearful, but inspired and activated. Time to take action, folks! Get out there and do it.

How I Found Success by Recognizing My Own Fear of Rejection

Hello Friends!

Here’s a blog post on the London Screenwriter’s Festival blog. This started as a brief story I shared with the festival’s director, Chris Jones, who then asked me to expand this to be a blog entry. Thanks for taking a look! Please share your own thoughts about how you identify yourself and what hurdles you overcame to embrace it fully.

London Screenwriter’s Festival Blog Post

Online Literary Journals

Hello Readers!

As a follow-up to the print journal list, I have created a list exclusively for online journals.  This list is by no means comprehensive – it would be impossible to keep updated on all the online literary journals out there!  These journals have been gathered through my connection with the “Calls for Submissions” and “Hey, I was published and I wanted you to know” pages on Facebook (which I believe you all should join as soon as possible), as well as suggestions from fellow writers.  I encourage anyone who reads this to add in the comments section any additions of literary online journals.  If you do so, please also include as much information as you can – reading periods, length limits, genres, and so on.

Thank you for reading and best of luck submitting and publishing your work!

Kind regards,

Amy Foster Myer

Online Literary Journals

The Short Story Writer’s Literary Journal Database

Hello Fellow Writers!

Ever feel like you just don’t know where to submit your work and perhaps more than a little overwhelmed trying to navigate through the submission guidelines of literary journals?

After many weeks (and many hours), I have finished compiling what I hope will be a massive time-saving and publication-generating resource for all of us.  Attached to this blog is a Word document which lists all the journals provided at the end of the 2014 Best American Short Stories anthology edited by Elizabeth Strout.  The Best American series provides a wonderful kind of phonebook at the end of the book listing all the American and Canadian short-fiction publishers.  What I have done is go through this list, visit each journal, and gather the information that writers need up front: reading periods, word limits, submission methods, and any specific aesthetic interests noted on the submission guidelines website.  At the end of the database is a list provided by Clifford Garstang at cliffordgarstang.com which compiles the Pushcart Prize nominations for the last 10 years, thus showing writers who is pushing work forward for additional awards.  Thank you, Clifford!

Before moving on to the nuts and bolts of this list, I want to share a blog from Ploughshares.  Sarah Banse writes in her post “From the Slush: Have you got what it takes?” about the process (yes, it’s a process) of getting rejected.  In this post, she shares stories about writers being rejected and what we can do to help our “odds.”  Ultimately, art is subjective – some might even say arbitrary.  What appeals to one reader will not appeal to another.  Publishing is a little like playing the slots – hundreds of quarters go into that machine with one, maybe two, jackpots.  But this is what we love to do, right?   Here is Sarah’s blog: Ploughshares Blog: From the Slush Pile

How to Use this List:

~Journal names highlighted in purple came directly from the 2014 Best American Short Stories anthology.  Unhighlighted ones are ones which I have come across in my own searches and submissions.

~Yellow highlights – mail only

~ Red highlights – no simultaneous submissions

~ Green highlights – only accept work from specific groups – i.e. women writers, those living in a specific region, etc.

~ The information that was available is provided here.  At times, journals did not indicate when reading periods ended, if there were fees, or what their word limits are.  For instance, if a journal is nor currently reading, information about fees was not always available.  I put together what was readily available without having to create accounts or log in to additional submission managers.

What this List Doesn’t Do:

~While thorough, this list is by no means comprehensive and utterly complete.  There are probably hundreds, likely thousands, of other journals out there.  Feel free to respond to this blog with more suggestions, but please take a moment to provide the important stuff – reading period, word limits, fees, etc..  Another good resource is to join the Call for Submissions group on Facebook: Call for Submissions.  I also recommend joining AWP so you can access their Writer’s Calendar, which includes calls for submissions and contests.

~This list does not indicate aesthetic (unless the submission guidelines specifically indicated it).  It is still each writer’s responsibility to submit their work according to the journal’s individual aesthetic and interests. 

~ This list doesn’t include the big names – The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc.  We all know them and we all also know that fiction is nearly all solicited and from writers whose careers we covet.  I did include the biggies who publish work from emerging writers, such as Glimmer Train, Tin House, and Ploughshares, just to name a few of my faves.

~ This list is not for non-fiction or poetry submissions.  This list is solely based on the guidelines provided for short story/fiction submissions.  That’s what I write and submit, so that’s what you get.

 

Literary Journal List

Breath in

If matter can be neither created nor destroyed,

                                Then,

Is it really so hard to believe

that life,

                that breathing

operates in the same way?

That as I inhale,

it is only because someone else

released

              the gift of

                               their breath?

That my exhale, the gentle push of oxygen and carbon dioxide,

must be received

                              somewhere else?

Across the marble of our Eearth,

each expanding belly

is matched by a contracting one.

The shallow breaths of infants

and

             the elderly.

The robust inhalations of athletes

                                                             matching

the robust exhalations of other fit bodies.

And then an army of me’s,

middling in our unathleteness.

Our panting exertions.

                                         Our mouth breathing.

Six billion of us working

                                           together.

Our bodies dancing over time and space.

Convex body matching

                                       concave one.

In and out.

Look Through It

My favorite activity be it spring, summer, fall…and yes, I suppose even winter, is walking.  Long walks through my neighborhood, getting lost in a place I know as well as the puzzle shape on the back of my dog’s neck.  My feet tired, always walking too far, and nearly wretched by the time I make it home.  But best of all is watching the way my neighborhood changes from season to season.  Watching the crocus and tulip give way to columbine and flox, then submitting to piles of leaves and clogged grates.   Too often, the walk becomes about the destination – how far I can get, a retail street I want to meander along to see what’s changed, or grabbing a coffee or waffle.  I walk by the budding trees, the street arrayed in pinks and purples and whites.  “How pretty,” I think as I stride past, seeing only the flower nearest my line of sight, missing entirely the tiny bright veins in the petals, those webs of life that course through us all.

 

Today, I stopped and looked.  I stood under magnolias and gazed up into the patchwork of pink and brown and blue sky.  I saw the network of flowers as a pattern of color, not as individual pieces attached to more individual pieces.  The trees were one, connected through all their pieces – ground to trunk to limbs to branches to stems to flowers to the wind and the sky.  I stood alongside a dogwood and looked into the white petals like so many ballet slippers.  The apple blossoms against a blue sky, a wedding veil catching a fresh breeze.  Cheery blossoms so deeply pinkish-purple that I recognized ambrosia swirling in the silver cups of Athena and Diana.

 

Too often, we walk by the world, even as we walk in it.  Stop.  See into it.  Look through it.  Look beyond.

Daily Prompt: Careless Whisper

On a summer Portland morning, my dog and I stopped at a park to enjoy the grass and stare up into the branches of the great walnut and its sun-dappled leaves – well, that’s what I was doing while my dog sniffled around for exciting new aromas. We were not alone, but shared the park with a woman eating a sandwich from the Plaid Pantry down the way. My dog wandered over, of course, seeing what might be up for offers or if a lick of packaging might be necessary. I called her back, apologized to the woman, and said to my dog, “stop that now. No one likes a beggar.” As I rose to leave, I saw the woman’s backpack and sleeping bag tucked under the bushes near the park fence. She was homeless. I have never said anything so insensitive in my life and all for lack of just observing and putting two and two together before opening my mouth. (Not to imply that this kind-faced woman begs for anything, but nonetheless). I woke up for nights afterward, ashamed in the dark of what I’d said.

Day 3 AWP Conference

Saturday March 1

  • 9 am.  “What the Dog Said: Writing in Unusual Points of View.”  Panelists: Lydia Ship, Anthony Varallo, Amina Gautier, Cara Blue Adams.  This panel addressed the way that unusual points of view can be used, such as writing from the pov of a dog or an unusual character.  Amina Gautier read from her story “Push” in which she writes from the pov of the bully, not the victim.  This choice allowed her to create sympathy for both characters rather than the sentimentality that often comes from writing the victim’s story.  Tony Varallo read from his story “Family Debates,” an almost script-like short story which is incredibly hilarious.  One key point was that the choice of point of view must be in service to the story, not the other way around.  That is, don’t write from 2nd person point of view because you think it’s kind of cool and wonky (it is), but because this point of view reveals something that would otherwise be hidden.  Write from the point of view of the dog or the ant or the used tea-bag when it reveals something in the story that could not have been revealed another way.  When we use point of view as a catchy look-at-me device, readers see through it.  “Point of view is a writer’s first and last choice.”
  • 10:30 am.  “So You Want to Build a Platform: But What is it & Why Do You Need One?”  Panelists: Shelia McMullin, Molly Gaudry, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Sheryl Rivett, Arisa White.  This panel was largely directed toward women writers, and “platform” here is more of a societal construct than a writerly one – i.e. building a place for women writers to build a community around their particular “issue.”  My own thinking of this was “platform” as in “the place for a writer to showcase work, provide a C.V., and generally promote one’s self as a writer.”  Both were covered.  WordPress was commonly showcased both by Molly’s personal and theLitPub.com website.  Blogspot, though connected to Google and thus more likely to get a high placement, is considered to be on the way out.  The idea of being a good literary citizen appeared once again when Molly Gaudry pointed out that a blog is not really a place for you to talk about you – but to talk about what you’re reading, what events you’re going to, to post reviews and suggestions, etc….and then maybe a little about yourself.  Feedly.com was offered as a place to compile your blogs so you can quickly access the ones you want to read.  Statcounter.com was also offered as a site that will tell you minute data about your blog – how readers found you, where they clicked to next, how long they spent there, etc.  LinkedIn was not widely used by the panelists, but attendees noted that they’ve had some success by participating in groups.  The question was raised – do I need multiple platforms (sites) for my different voices?  The answer was no – you can put all that in one place – even if your range is from the everyday, to humor, to family tragedy/memoir.  Some writers, such as Roxanne Gaye, do in fact maintain multiple sites that deal specifically with different ideas, topics, or voices; but largely, writers are putting this all in one place.  Many panelists made this distinction: Facebook for family and friends and brief updates; Twitter for humorous one-liners and non-sequitors (and when drunk); a blog for lengthier posts as well as showcasing work.  When one upgrades to WordPress premium, the ability to archive and organize work becomes much easier.   A recommendation was also made to keep to a schedule – once a week is usually sufficient.  Also, be picky about what you post.  If you post too much drivel, readers will un-follow you.  And again – for every 1 post about yourself, post 10 more about other people.  When I came home, I immediately looked into how to go premium with my WordPress and the price tag of $99/year seemed a little high when I could get my domain name from godaddy.com for $13.99 for two years.  However, a writer friend then said “Oh noooo,” when I told her I’d gone with godaddy.  WordPress is a place for writers.  There’s something to be said for community, remember?
  • 12 pm.  “Amazon for Authors.”  Panelists: Jon Fine, Jason Ojalvo, Phillip Patrick.  This panel highlighted the various options for self-publishing on Amazon.  Also, and very importantly! Amazon has launched multiple imprints.
    • 47North – for sci-fi, horror, and fantasy
    • Thomas&Mercer – mystery and thriller
    • Montlake Romance – romance
    • Amazon Crossing – translations
    • Amazon Encore – reprints
    • Little a – literary fiction
    • Story Front – short stories
    • Day One – a literary journal
    • Kindle Singles – 500-30,000 words for those hard-to-place works

Kindle also offers many resources for writers in terms of developing their online and Amazon presence.  Definitely worth checking out.  I personally have the first of my sci-fi/fantasy novels on kindle (under Avery Meyr – warning! (or should I say hooray!)  adult content).  Once I’m finally done reliving the glory days of AWP, that’s my next stop.

  • 1:30 pm. “Rethinking Linking: Stories and Novels, Structure and Beyond.”  Panelists: Anne Sanow, Clifford Garstang, Mary Akers, Dylan Landis, Imad Rahman.  Linked stories can pose a problem for writers and publishers – is it a novel or is it short stories?  How can it be both?  In this panel, writers addressed the difficulties which required them to, at times, either not call it anything, or call it a novel when it is in fact short stories.  Linked short stories work much differently than the novel.  Each story must stand on its own in a novel-in-stories, while chapters are part of a whole.  Mary Akers defined a novel as having a narrative arc whereas the linked stories have a “through line.”  Since we still talk about stories having an arc, I picture this as a kind of straight line with arcs that rise and fall, leaping off from that line but falling back to meet it at the conclusion of each story.  Some pitfalls of the linked stories is often the disappearance of a character.  Dylan Landis related how the beginning of her work opened with a character who then disappeared for the rest of the book.  Repeatedly, she was asked what happened to Rainy?  Ultimately, her next book of linked stories, which she has called a novel, focuses on Rainy’s story.  There was also the question of chronology – some panelists used chronology and some did not.  Clifford Garstang noted that some readers reported they’d read the last story in his work What the Zhang Boys Knew first, a troublesome thing because though each story stands on its own, they are meant to be read in order.  Imad Rahman noted the opposite – his stories can be read in any order.  Some writers wrote out of chronological order when composing the book, but ultimately put the stories in chronological order because it just happened to give the book the proper shape.  How do we link?  This idea of linking is very nebulous: what is a linked collection to one is just a collection to another.  However, Mary Akers’ point about the “freighted object” reflects that linked short stories, though independent of one another, need to have that “through line,” and this is most often created through an object.  In Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, the freighted object is the car – first the legitimate son inherits money and buys a car; then, in his grief, he beats the shit out of the car; finally, the legitimate son loses the sports car to his illegitimate brother, thus lending a kind of legitimacy and inheritance to the hushed-up child.

 

And this wraps up my AWP event!  I had one more panel I’d wished to see, but my brain was full and soggy and rather angry at the rudeness of two people who sat by me during the last two panels (a blog on AWP etiquette may be forthcoming).  I returned to the bookfair to catch a few more booths – ultimately, I did not see everything, but I did come home with about 40 lbs. of given-away and purchased journals, collections, and craft books.  It was a wonderful time, and I was glad to both go and go home.  I love all 14,000 of you who attended AWP and I also loved driving away from you and home to my wife and daughter, who, when I entered the house, jumped up and down on the couch screaming “Mama! Mama! Mama!” at the top of her voice and then hugged me for five minutes straight – a lifetime to a two-year old.  It will feel like a lifetime until AWP in L.A. in 2016, and I look forward to reading the blogs of those go to Minneapolis (brrrr) in 2014.

Day 2 AWP Conference

Friday February 28

  • 9 am.  “Passive Characters in Contemporary Fiction: Writing Problem or Literary Strategy?”  Panelists: Stephanie Grant, Bruce Machart, Eileen Pollack, Hannah Pylvainen, and Sergio Troncoso.  The most common “mistake” that appears in the workshopped story is the passive character, or alternately, a plot that is essentially the “sit and think” story.  Sit-and-think stories take many forms – driving around, wandering by one’s self, cleaning the basement, and so on.  William Maxwell has a story called “So long, see you tomorrow” which is pure reminiscence and non-action, but which clearly has made it out of workshop and into the world.  Can these stories take flight?  The answer from the panelists was a re-sounding “no.”  Why do sit-and-think stories not work when many of us spend 98% of our time sitting and thinking about stuff, or being depressed on the couch, or taking walks in which we achieve these epiphanies about our lives or the world?  Because fiction is not about the 98% of the time we sit in our sweats on the couch.  It’s about the 2% of the time we get off our ass.  While a passive plot is not going to work (i.e. my own flash story in which an old woman sits and knits and thinks about her life), passive characters can work – as long as other characters are actively working for or against the passive character – i.e. “Bartleby the Scrivener” Herman Melville.  However, this does not mean that passivity is passé.   A passive character can reflect and illuminate a society or culture which entraps and oppresses, providing those aha! moments about ethics, religion, morals, society, etc.  Passive characters are often passive because they are undergoing extreme existential crises.    And the passive character calls into question our own passivity.  Ultimately, the passive character should only be used in those situations in which the writing is working at a higher ethical or philosophical level than what we might call commercial fiction – i.e. the passivity is a call to arms or a reflection of societal/cultural changes that the writer wants to bring attention to, thus making the reader become active in asserting his or her own activity in the face of a passive-making world.  (Had some great aha! moments myself on how to make “Knit to Purl” as well as “A Second Chance with the First One” active stories rather than sit-and-think or sit-in-my-dead-mother’s chair all day stories.  Love the inspiration that comes from panels!)
  • 10:30 am.  “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family.”  Panelists: Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, Stephanie Elizondo Griest.  This panel addresses the pitfalls of writing about family – our children, our parents, our own lives.  The panelists ranged the gamut from writing about their impaired, though very bright and independent, autistic son, to incestuous parents – an evil family secret, to family history that is embraced by the clan in a way that welcomes the writer as family historian.  The panelists ranged in their beliefs about what the writer should divulge to family before going to press.  One panelist indicated that full disclosure and rights to deletion were granted to family members, while another panelist did not tell anyone before it went to press.  The question is one of asking for input versus preserving the writer’s integrity of telling his or her own story.  Offering family members a first read and the option to change or delete can help families to participate in and contribute to a book about themselves.  However, the input, fears, and drama that can arise might also inhibit the writer from writing honestly in the current or future projects.  Both sides seem justified.  The reactions from family members was also wide and varied.  Some panelists reported that revealing family tragedies brought family closer.  Others reported irreparable splits.  Joy Castro said it best: “if the relationship is already tenuous, it will likely fall apart completely.  If it is already strong, it will just be strengthened.”
  • 12n. “Author and Editor: the Relationship that Builds a Book.”  Panelists: Chuck Palahniuk, Monika Drake, Jess Walter, and Calvert Morgan.  Chuck Palahniuk’s editor was unable to attend and so his long-time workshop partner Monika Drake sat in.  The discussion tended toward how Jess and Calvert worked together on making editorial decisions on the book, as well as the way their relationship evolved in the time they’ve work together.  A few disagreements were covered, particularly how Jess turned in Beautiful Ruins to his editor and accidentally left “the” at the beginning of the title.  A debate ensued as to the thematic nuances of The Beautiful Ruins vs. Beautiful Ruins.  Ultimately, Jess won this argument (as, I imagine, all writers think he should have), and it became a story they joke about.   Chuck and Monika addressed the trust needed in a successful workshop, as well as the need for working with people you’re willing to “steal from” (Chuck Palahniuk).  Ultimately, the point is that workshopping with those who consistently bring strong work fosters a healthy competition that encourages continuing to strive for the best writing, the writing that makes workshop-mates laugh or ooh and ahh – i.e. the response that we want to have created.  This is a long-standing workshop of around 15 years, so clearly these are the folks we want to hear from about how to make a workshop last.   Finally, when asked if any of these authors believed they would get to a point where they did not need their editors or workshop-mates, the answer was an unequivocal “no.”
  • 3 pm.  “How Readers Read: A Report from the Stacks of Submissions.”  Panelists: Lisa Mecham, Jeffrey Hess, Dawn Raffel, Erin Harris, Erika Goldman.  Though this panel indicated that it would be about how readers read and thus, how works are chosen to move out of the slush pile and into the next round, I found this panel tended more toward the individual processes and aesthetics of these particular publishers.  What is also difficult here is that each panelist is the publisher and therefore is not reading the “slush,” but instead the pieces that make it past their interns and into their in-boxes.  A more generalized approach might have been helpful.  For instance, Lisa Mecham is a long-time reader for Tin House, and yet we did not hear from her about her own process of reading slush submissions and deciding which 1 or 2 to recommend for further reading – having been a Tin House reader myself, I know that this is the process – 1 or 2 out of 25 submissions given to a reader will be sent on for further reading.  Also, in my two years at Tin House, just one slush submission was published – this is perhaps a more helpful idea of what writers are up against in a more statistical sense.  Writers also face the individual aesthetic and arbitrary “likes” and “dislikes” of the reader.  Again, to use my own experience, if a story was too graphically violent against women or animals, it received a “no.”  These are simply stories I can’t stomach – although, in all fairness, the quality of the writing was my peak qualification – it just happened that people who write about beating women or animals also don’t tend to write well – at least the submissions I read, though a recent New Yorker story would call that into question (I didn’t like that one either and thought the writing was nothing out of the ordinary).  Thus, while I don’t feel more illuminated on the subject of how readers read, I do sense that my own experience as a reader is a pattern for the general trend in reading.
  • 5pm.  Queens University Alumni Event.  This was a wonderful event held upstairs at the Pine Box.  Had an Old Fashioned and then a Raspberry Beret (yes, insultingly girly – but I couldn’t pass up a vodka-framboise combination!).  Loved reconnecting with Dawn Barron, Karen Celestan, Beth Uznis Johnson (Hooray again for publication in StoryQuarterly as well as admission to Tin House’s Summer Workshop!), Christin Rice, and Anne Hillesland.  Fun time had by all.  I shared the story of how Chuck P and Monika D put together a book-tour called “Bedtime Stories” with their workshop group (also comprised of Chelsea Cain, amongst others).  They dressed in PJs, brought their stuffed animals, and read adult bed-time stories.  We will definitely be making this happen at our next Queens Alumni Event.