Monday, May 30, 2011

Want success as a screenwriter? Write every day and don’t have a plan B

I recently spoke to Glenn M. Benest, who is an award-winning writer/producer with seven produced film credits, as we are discussing him teaching workshops through Your Plot Thickens. I wanted to know, in his opinion, what is the secret to screenplay success?

5 Tips for Becoming a Successful Screenwriter According to Glenn Benest:

1. Create a writing schedule

When I was a young writer, I had a job teaching. I got home at 2:30 pm, took a nap, then wrote every night from 7:00 to 11:00 pm. I also wrote all weekend. That was how I was able to churn out material that eventually got me my first paying job and launched me as a writer.

2. Write, write and write

The more you continue to hone your craft, the better off you'll be. Screenwriting takes a certain muscle or group of muscles and the more you exercise those muscles the stronger they become.

3. Don’t send your work out too early

We face a very tough environment today. Producers want screenplays that don't need much work to go into production. The closer the screenplay is to a final shooting script the better chance it has of being bought.

4. Get professional feedback

We all have tunnel vision when it comes to our own material; so we lose objectivity. We all need that kind of professional feedback that will push us to take our material to a higher level and give us a much better chance of a sale.

5. Don’t have a plan B

You have to want this more than you want anything else in the world. Decide you're going to make it no matter what. Take classes and go to seminars. Network. Live and breathe screenwriting. If you're going to treat screenwriting as a hobby, don't have illusions you'll make a career for yourself in this field.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

L. R. Horowitz's "While the Sands Whisper"

I want to let you all know about an author I have just had the privilege of learning about. Her name is L. R. Horowitz, and she’s both American and Israeli, but resides in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Her debut novel is called While the Sands Whisper.

What Is the Novel About?
While the Sands Whisper chronicles the forbidden love affair of a fifty-seven-year-old Jewish/Israeli woman with a Bedouin Sheikh, who is thirty years her junior.

After the main character, Ayishah, falls in love with her guide, Hakim, she learns of his participation in the Bedouin underground, filled with opium smuggling and prostitution trafficking.

But Ayishah’s life is also in danger. Because of her photography and Israeli nationality, she becomes a suspect of the Egyptian authorities, forcing her to leave the Sinai and the man she loves.

Autobiographical Fiction
While the Sands Whisper is based on the true experiences of L. R. Horowitz, who is a photojournalist by trade.

“The story of the novel is taken from my own adventures, based on years of travel to the Sinai desert, innumerable conversations, close friendships, love with a Bedouin and considerable research,” Horowitz shares.

"While certain events of my life in the novel are recounted, I give no pretense of telling exact truths. Incidents may have been created from my own fantasy, exaggerated or altered. This is my style of writing and why I've classified it as an 'autobiographical novel.' "

The Author’s Life
L. R. Horowitz was born and raised in New Jersey, the daughter of a Jewish Mafioso gangster. At the age of seventeen, she ran away from what she considered a “materialistic America” to Israel in hopes of finding true values and her true identity.

Horowitz’s relationship with the Bedouin began while she was living in Israel. As a foreign woman and female photographer working in Muslim societies, she was given special access to the private worlds of both Bedouin men and women.

“Often invited for a cup of tea or a meal in their open living rooms, I easily entered the male and female meeting quarters,” explains Horowitz.

“My [romantic] relationship with the Bedouin nomad, called Hakim in my novel, began at just such a meeting; twelve men sitting in a circle, serving me cup after cup of over-sweetened tea. The men always treated me with quiet respect.”

During the period Horowitz writes about her book, she was in the midst of a photographic project about the Bedouin in the mountains and desert. The man known as Hakim became her guide through this land.

“As a photographer, I have never been afraid of getting close to people. My everyday experiences with people of various cultures have been so enriching and intense, that I simply had to write them down.”

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sylvia Massara -- Champion of the Indie Writer

Not that Sylvia Massara won't interview you if you've published traditionally, but when I came upon this indie Aussie internet TV host, I was so excited to see the resource that she offers to self-published writers, who are in charge of doing all of their own publicity. Of course, it's indie writers who need the most help!

Massara hosts and produces The Lit Chick Show.

At first sight, I thought it was The Chick Lit Show, and I thought that was hilarious. But Massara's blog/show is actually called The Lit Chick Show, because Massara sees herself as the "lit chick" (literary chick). Yes, she's the author of no less than three novels: Like Casablanca, The Other Boyfriend and The Soul Bearers.

Nevertheless, Massara does like the "chick lit" genre a lot. She credits Bridget Jones's Diary as helping her through a difficult time in her life when she was involved with a married man. Before you judge, just remember how popular Bridget Jones's Diary was -- probably because a lot of us women have had similar relationship problems in the past -- at least with men who are totally emotionally unavailable.

Enjoy this video interview with Sylvia Massara, and don't forget to check out her wonderful blog for info about many upcoming authors.

And all you male authors out there, Massara also interviews men on The Lit Chick Show.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

So You Want to Be a Screenwriter...

Yesterday I did a very informative interview with Adam Coplan of

Coplan is an independent producer who has a lot of experience as both a script reader and as an executive.

In short, Coplan was the gatekeeper you had to get past in order for your script to move up the rankings into the higher echelons of production.

Coplan gave me some checkpoints to keep in mind for aspiring screenwriters.

Those First Five Pages

It wasn’t the title that Coplan said grabbed the attention most, but the first five to ten pages.

If you can’t capture the reader’s attention in the first five pages, you’re in trouble.

How do you do this? My two cents worth: Action, action, action. I would also say to properly illustrate the main character’s flaw. I am consulting on a script right now that has a great second-act journey (or the potential for one), which is usually the hard part.

But I am not getting a clear picture as to what the main character’s motivation is.

The writer hasn’t spent enough time illustrating what the main character’s flaw is, and therefore I don’t see why the main character is trying to get out of doing what he needs to do (the journey he needs to take) – and also what he has to gain on his journey, in terms of his internal emotional needs.

Keep It High-Concept

Back to Coplan. If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, Coplan's advice is not to write that big drama where you’re emulating all of your icons a la Scorsese and Woody Allen.

Coplan says: high concept, high concept, high concept.

Here’s how Alexis Niki defines high concept:

A "high concept" script is one whose premise:

- is universal;

- has a fresh twist;

- involves an empathetic hero who is dealing with a BIG problem; and

- can be summed up in a 25-word logline that gives a good picture of the entire movie.

Coplan also links high concept to originality. One thing I learned while at Writers Boot Camp was about the conceit of the script.

The conceit is that one thing that makes your movie different. Of course, we are never doing anything original when we speak in terms of story. There are really only seven basic stories.

If you already know you are going to be remaking one of these stories, then you need to throw in a fresh twist.

The conceit of the film is that thing we’ve never seen before. It can also be a new, different kind of character. Gregory House (of House) is perfect example: a misanthropic medical genuis. We’ve seen doctors save people before but not this doctor.

Keep It Short

Your script should also be short, according to Coplan. Whereas I have heard that scripts aren’t even 120 pages anymore, they’re 110, Coplan informed that your script should actually be more like 95 pages.

Make It a Comedy

And stick with comedy, people. Leave that slow period drama for when you’re already established.

Of course there are the options of independently producing and directing your own movie. But if you want to sell your script to another production company, comedy is the best way to break in.

A comedy with a high-concept, broad appeal, that is. Save those dark comedies for your own time (and dime). Or just write prose (which I am doing; I just can't shake my dark comedy habit).

Be the Writer and Just the Writer

Sure, we all should by now know that screenwriting is a visual medium. Tell the story through images not through words (dialogue). In other words, show don’t tell!

But what about not slipping in music references, such as: X song rolls over credits.

In Coplan’s opinion, not only do you add seven figures to the budget every time you add a song to your script, but you are also doing the job of the music supervisor. Your job is as the writer, nothing more.

Same goes for camera angles and excessive scene direction. That’s the director’s job, not yours.

Even if you are independently producing the film, someone is going to be reading your script (read: investors); so why not keep the script in line with the guidelines you would use to sell it to a major production company?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How to Publish for the Small Press Seminar in Long Beach

If you live in the South Bay (of L.A.) or Long Beach, I would like to let you know about a great opportunity we have coming up on May 24th, next Tuesday, at 7pm.

Edan Lepucki, who is an award-winning writer and the author of the novella, If You're Not Yet Like Me, will be enlightening us about how she got published with the small publishing company, Flatmancrooked.

The event will be taking place in Long Beach. I know it's a bit off the beaten track, but if you happen to live in the area...

We'll be meeting at:

Gatsby Books
5535 E. Spring Street
Long Beach, 90808

This is also a great way to support this independent bookstore (before they all die out!).

For those of you who live out of the area, I will be posting a write-up of the event on my blog.

Great Blog Post About the Importance of Editing Before You Publish

And I'm talking to you indie authors out there too!

Horror Author Jay Krow: The Pain of Editing: "Let’s talk about editing, Oh come on, it isn’t that painful, well maybe it is. But it’s the price we pay for choosing to be writers, like we..."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Twelve Beats of Story With Flaw at the Core

This past weekend, I taught a writing workshop, and we spent a lot of time discussing the main character's flaw.

Flaw is so, so important. As we speak, I am consulting on a screenplay, and I am asking myself, "Okay, what is the main character's flaw?" I am going to advise that the writer spend more time creating a great flaw for her main character.

Flaw is so important because it gives your main character something to conquer during the course of the story. It also helps to create three-dimensional characters as well as to flesh out the obstacles of the journey. A flawed main character is often very talented at creating a lot of his own obstacles. We therefore root for the main character as she progressively improves, especially if we've spent enough time making her likeable. In short, we want this main character to conquer those flaws and prevail!

As I promised my students on this past Sunday, here is a twelve beat journey map as it relates to flaw.

Act 1

1. State what your main character’s flaw is.

2. What is the worst thing that could then happen to that character, considering his flaw? How does your character then try to escape the responsibility of dealing with that inciting event, attempting to avoid doing what he needs to do? And how is he unsuccessful?

Act 2

3. How is your main character now pushed to confront a journey in a new world that will help him get over his flaw?

4. How does your main character's flaw get in the way of his success in this new world? How is he now forced to partner up with the worst imaginable person possible, considering his flaw?

5. How does this new person now push your main character to improve? Show us that improvement!

6. How does a new event now occur that knocks your main character off of his game, leading him to follow yet another new goal?

7. How does your main character continue to improve and thus conquer his flaw little by little? How does he now form a worthy opponent to the growing menace of the antagonist?

8. How does your main character almost get over his flaw and also almost conquer the opponent?

Act 3

9. How does your main character fail so that he now regresses back to his flaw in a worse way than ever?

10. Who breaks your main character out of his funk and pushes him back toward his main goal again?

11. How does your main character rouse the forces in preparation to fight the final battle?

12. How does your main character finally win in the confrontation and/or finally confront what is flawed about himself? And how does this confrontation solve other problems, which were an ultimate manifestation of his flaw?

I will be teaching another workshop soon; so stay tuned!

Things Your Scene Needs

I have learned that your scene needs:

- An objective
- An action
- An obstacle

This means your main character wants something.

She takes an action to get it.

But she is thwarted.

I would say that you should also have the characters wants very well-defined.

The character wants something.

Her wants are thwarted.

So what games does she play to try to get around those obstacles? What kind of manipulation does she employ?

Then what is the revelation at the end of the scene?

How does the realization that she can’t get what she wants move her on to another action?

I also just learned that every scene you write should have a:

- Goal
- Conflict
- Disaster

A disaster?

This is what C. Lee McKenzie on her blog, The Write Game, calls it.

The disaster is the big thing that happens at the end of the scene, that major obstacle that appears, which the character cannot get around.

Read more about the disaster on C. Lee McKenzie’s blog.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Give Your Characters At Least a Few Good Qualities

In response to a post I wrote yesterday, I have an example of yet another film that has very poor character development because the characters have no redeeming qualities.

It's a French film called Student Services -- or  Mes Cheres Etudes (en fran├žais) -- written by Emmanuelle Bercot. This movie chronicles the life of a student who gets into prostitution in order to pay the bills. I watched the film as I am always interested in what Europe is producing in terms of movies on topics such as the sex trade, as I wrote for magazines such as Playboy while I lived in Spain, and so I was immersed in this sort of writing myself.

Well... The characters are not likeable in the least. The main character's boyfriend is awful. I suppose Bercot wanted to show what an ass the boyfriend was as a reason for the main character's turning  to amateur prostitution to make ends meet.

In my opinion, however, if Bercot would have made the boyfriend just a little more likeable, instead of just a boor who demands his hashish and turns away from his girlfriend while she is trying to pleasure him because she didn't pay the electricity bill, Bercot still could have gotten the viewer on the main character's side. It would have been just a bit more lurid to watch a girl who actually had a tolerable boyfriend get into hooking. Or more deep and twisted. What if they were truly in love with one another? Perhaps the main character even could have had the misguided desire to use prostitution as a means to make her relationship with her boyfriend work.

While I lived in Europe, I was constantly being told how only Europeans have the huevos to delve into the dark side of life, as we Americans just can't go there. Our American movies are only happy, while European movies are deep.


Now that I have more understanding about what it really takes to make a good story, I think one can still journey through the dark side of life while making the inhabitants of the story more three-dimensional, with, dare I say, some good characteristics, not just depressing ones.

None of us are totally good -- nor totally bad. Even the crazy man who lives across the street from me and sometimes yells obscenities... He still has some redeemable qualities. (Of course, I have to be in an evolved state of mind to see them.)

Give your characters some good qualities, or suffer a one-dimensional story.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Importance of Creating Characters Who Are Flawed Yet Likeable

I know I've written about this before.
Probably because I have no trouble creating flawed characters.
What I do have trouble with is making them likeable.
A likeable character is just what it sounds like: your character possesses at least some attributes that are positive.
A character who has a flaw, of course, provides him or her with something to overcome during the course of their journey.
But a character who is too flawed also can be nauseating to spend too much time with.
I love Lars von Trier, who creates amazingly flawed characters, but if you’ve seen his last film, The AntiChrist, you will understand what I mean.
I personally couldn’t stand either character in The AntiChrist, which was not the fault of the wonderful actors who interpreted the roles (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), but the awful script.
Creating likeable characters means that you create characters who are sympathetic.
What is one way of doing this? Allot your character with at least something positive:
- Your character is capable of love –  and is loved by someone.
- They do something well. They have a talent.
- They do at least something that is good/selfless to/for another person. They give.
Creating selfish characters who only take, who we are expected to “like” only because we pity them, well… Hard to get on-board with a character like this. 
I saw God of Carnage a couple of days ago. One thing that was really brilliant about this play was how the writer, Yasmina Reza, made a “villain” out of each character, but also negated what was “bad” about each character by showing what was also negative about the others.
What I mean by this is— imagine you’re watching a couple fight. You want to side with one of the members, probably with the individual who is being least aggressive, whom you see is at least making an attempt to quell the fight and get along.
Well, what if both sides are equally aggressive (in their own time), but also equally sympathetic?
Both sides make some attempt to appeal to the other, even when they are being aggressive.
Or they show humor.
Suddenly, you see the reason one side might be snide. It's because they really do have to put up with actions that are so annoying and/or outlandish from the other characters.
I happen to be teaching a workshop today that deals with this very issue. I will most likely either video this three-hour workshop in parts so that I can feature it on this blog, or I will feature it as an entry.

Self-Publish or Rot in the Slush Pile... See What One Aspiring Writer Has to Say About It

Just read an awesome post from aspiring author Stacy Green's blog, Turning the Page, about the pros of waiting around for the one-percent chance you'll actually will get published in the traditional way -- or of just getting that book of yours out there so people can read it, via self-publishing.

What's your opinion?

Which way do you want to be published?

Traditionally or the self-publishing route?

Let me know -- and read the Turning the Page post.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Words That Only "Tell" for Fiction Writers

Just came across a great blog entry about telling, not showing, when writing fiction -- a major no-no! We are told not to tell but to show with screewriting. Well, approach your fiction in the same manner. In fact, even the words you use can be "telling" words:

- realized
- listened
- watched
- noticed
- thought
- felt
- saw

If your fiction is rife wtih those words, find a more unique way to describe what the character is experiencing. (I need to take this advice myself!) Read the rest of Donna K. Weaver's post, from her blog, Weaving a Tale or Two.

Weaving a Tale or Two: Storymaker Conference - Report 3: Show, Don't Tell...: "One very valuable class I attended was taught by Annette Lyon on Show, Don't Tell . I'd heard good things about Annette's class from other ..."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How NOT to Pitch Your TV Show

Mark Simon from Sell Your TV Concept Now explains how not to pitch your TV concept.

Mistake #1 - The Groaner
We dare you to open a pitch to network executives with any one of the following:
* "It will make us all millions!"
* "There's never been a show like it in the history of TV!"
* "It will be bigger than American Idol!" 

The sounds you'll hear will be groans of despair from pitch-weary execs who have heard these phrases so often their ears will bleed. We strongly suggest you hold the sizzle until last, or not at all, and lead with what your show is. One of the strongest and most compelling ways is to engage your listener is with a story that might be told by your show that gets them to feel something. This is the way Hollywood insiders, like super- producer Mark Burnett, pitches his shows - with a story. 
Mistake #2 - Crashed
We know this next bit of advice will sound crazy, but here it goes - don't memorize your pitch. We've done it and, trust us, it doesn't work. You'll spend way too much time to get every word, pause, and gesture just right only to have it work against you. 
The big meeting comes and you get half way through your pitch when the exec asks a question, or a phone rings, or someone comes into the room. Your brain registers ERROR and your lips freeze. You have officially crashed and to get going again you have to reboot! Nothing will suck the life out of a pitch than having to start over. 
Think of a pitch as a two-way give-and-take rather than a one-way download from you. You'll know a pitch is going well when the execs care enough to make suggestions or ask questions.
Mistake #3 - Bait and Switch
Execs assume that when they schedule a pitch meeting with you that you'll be trying to sell them a show. All too often though, pitchers attempt to WOW execs with how many stuffed animals, lunch boxes, or back packs they claim the show will sell before the execs are sold on the show. 
Pull a bait and switch by pitching merchandise before the concept and you'll not like the consequences. You'll look like a complete amateur. You will not sell your show. You will have killed any future chances of pitching to these people ever again.   
Networks have entire departments whose prime directive is to make massive amounts of money with merchandise once a show has a following. Leave it to the professionals.
Mistake #4 - Ignorance is Not Bliss
You'd be surprised how many people pitch shows to networks while they watch few shows, if any, on that very network. Woe to the person who pitches a show that is either just like a show that a network is currently airing or one that in no way fits within the network brand.

Network execs are intimately familiar with their own network's programming and nearly as equally familiar with the shows on competing channels. You are not expected to be as well informed as they are, but you will score big points if you can pinpoint the exact spot in a network line up for your show and be able to explain why your show is different, backed up by examples of competing shows.

Mike Moon, Vice President , Animation Development for Disney Channel and Jetix, had worked on the Cartoon Network series Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. A producer pitched Moon a show called A Home for Abandoned and Forgotten Imaginary Friends
Needless to say, that pitch didn't go too far and Moon was not too eager to hear another pitch from that producer.  
Mistake #5 - Diva Disaster
A good pitch can go bad quickly when you won't even consider a suggestion from an exec. Don't let a death grip on the details of your concept make you come across like a difficult diva.

In a pitch, almost anything should be up for negotiation within limits. Why not consider a female host or a change in location from Hawaii to Miami? If the execs want to change your show from a feel-good show about how little people have lives too, to mud wrestling midgets, then you may want to shop it elsewhere. 
In conclusion, a great pitch is all about the story. Let your enthusiasm and passion sweep listeners up for a ride they will never want to end.  
Mistake #6 - Fatal Error 
The confidence you have about your show will be infectious in a pitch, but tearing down the shows of the very network you sure to be fatal.  
Linda Simensky, PBS Kids V.P. of Development, has had her fill of critical creatives. She told us about one of her more memorable encounters. 
"This other producer started trashing all our programs while explaining how his show was going to save our network and all our other shows were crap. Sure, that completely makes me want to work with him," said Simensky.

The would-be savior was escorted out of the building by security and Linda made sure he was blackballed by all other networks as well. Ouch! 

Mistake #7 - Deer in the Headlights 
You make the pitch and the networks like it, they really like it. They ask you to leave behind your treatment. If your response is the "what-ment?" you and your show are cancelled before anyone sees the first episode.  

You need different tools to pitch each different genre of TV: reality, animation, sit-com, drama, sci-fi, or game show. When you pitch with these tools, and they've been professionally executed, you'll be confident the execs will be impressed and you could be well on your way to signing a contract.
You Never Get a Second Chance at a First Impression
Of course you want every pitch to be a winner. You also want to have an open door to be able to go back and pitch other ideas to the same executives. A burned bridge destroys the chances of not only your current idea, but your future ones as well.

Sell Your TV Concept Now!

I just had a wonderful chat with Mark Simon from Sell Your TV Concept Now. Simon is an expert pitch master, with many TV shows under his belt (I think he said 3000.) If anyone can help you put together your TV pitch -- and get it sold -- he can.

Anyhow, Mark had some interesting things to say about pitching for TV.

To begin with:

Are you worried about someone ripping off your idea so you don't tell anyone about it?

Get that idea out of the head. According to Simon, if you aren't prepared to talk about your idea to just about everyone, it's not going to sell.

In the full interview I am going to do with Simon for my new radio show for writers called the Writers' Radio Resource, we will be looking at:

- How to protect your work.

- The secrets to pitching.

- How to find the right people to pitch to.

- How to pitch correctly.

The last point is so important because, according to Simon, if you don't know how to pitch correctly and go into an executive's office at a network, and blow it -- you can lose your chance to pitch again at the network FOREVER!

Simon will tell me the red flags that execs look for when you pitch.

- What are the things that can turn an executive off?

According to Simon, the networks do keep lists! So you'd better have your pitch down before contacting executives.

Finally, Simon told me that the tendency for writers to complain that they're just not good in a room is "bullshit." (His words.)

"Anyone who has passion about an idea can pitch," says Simon.

I'll let you know as soon as the show is up for your listening pleasure. We are recording on Friday.

The Writers' Radio Resource is produced by Julia Flucht, an NPR producer.

Wonderful Site I Stumbled Upon About the Querying Process

Here's a wonderful post I found about... Well, the "link through" says it all.... BooksEnds, LLC produces a great blog about the querying process. I suggest you check out their site if you are in the midst of querying agents for publication.

BookEnds, LLC — A Literary Agency: Submissions 101: "Almost daily new readers are discovering the blog and many of these new readers are also new to the submission process and have lots of ques..."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Writing the Perfect Query Letter -- Before You Quake in Your Boots, Read What Writer Luanne G. Smith Has to Say About It

I recently read a very interesting entry on Luanne G. Smith’s blog, Prophets and Bards, which outlines the process Smith is taking toward querying her unpublished, debut fantasy novel, The Hearts of Dragons, to agents. I thought it would be interesting to hear about Smith’s process, since I am sure that so many of you aspiring writers out there will benefit from what she has to say.

Find Agents Who Deal With Your Genre
It sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? But I bet there are a lot of writers out there who make the mistake of just blasting out a bunch of queries to whatever agent, without taking into consideration first whether or not the agents they are contacting are even open to their particular genre.
In Smith’s case, her genre is speculative fiction. The Hearts of Dragons takes place in a futurist society and chronicles the tale of Cira Conway, a queen without an heir, in a primitive, post-apocalyptic Wales.
Smith thus targeted agents who were open to stories “that went beyond the paranormal and urban fantasy that is so popular today.” Smith used,, and Publisher’s Marketplace to “triangulate my way through the information and pinpoint agents I think would be interested in what I write.”
 How Does One Query?
In Smith’s experience, querying in “small batches” works best. “Five to ten queries at a time seems to be a good number to have floating around. Even though there are well over a hundred agents who claim to represent fantasy, really only about forty percent are viable agents. That means I have to carefully evaluate feedback, including the number of form rejections, to determine if my query letter is as strong as it could be. Doing this in batches means I don’t blow all my chances in one big shotgun blast of queries. Once a rejection comes in, that’s an opportunity gone; so it pays to go slow and constantly reevaluate not only the query but the work itself.”  
 Resources to Write the “Perfect Query Letter” 
According to Smith, one of the best places to study query letters online is at, which is a blog run by agent Janet Reid. “There are two hundred queries on the site with specific feedback about what works and what doesn’t. It’s brilliant. Also, Nathan Bransford’s blog has some basic ‘query mad libs’ advice about how to piece together the necessary components of a good query letter. Beyond that, getting feedback from other writers on forums and blogs is a great way to test the query before it has to actually go into battle.”
Attendance at Writing Conferences is Important
Attending writing conferences is another way Smith has been able to access agents.
“I’m fortunate to live in [Colorado], which has an active writing community. Both Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and Pikes Peak Writers of Colorado host annual conferences, and I usually go to both. In April, I pitched to an agent at the PPW Conference and got a request for my full manuscript. Both groups also sponsor writing contests with agents and editors serving as final judges. This past fall, my story, The Hearts of Dragons, won the fantasy category at the RMFW Conference, which resulted in a full manuscript request from the agent/judge. My story is also a finalist in the Crested Butte Writers Contest, another great writing organization here that has a conference.”
Querying, a Soul-Sucking Experience? 
Of course, no one likes rejection, and much less writers, who have often poured their hearts and souls (and hours of their life!) into their novels and short stories. Smith has something to say about what she calls the “soul-sucking experience” of querying.
“Querying can feel like a soul-sucking experience, especially when you start to measure your worth as a writer by the number of rejections you receive. It’s so important to remember that it only takes one yes, and if you stop querying at number twenty-one, and agent twenty-two is the one who totally would have ‘got’ your story. Over and over again, you’ll hear successful writers say at conferences that the only thing separating most of the published from the unpublished is perseverance. I have to believe that’s at least partly true.”
Great advice, Luanne!

Free Los Angeles Writing Seminar This Weekend!

Your Plot Thickens Writing Workshops has two free writing seminars on offer this weekend. If you live in the L.A. area, I recommend you take advantage of them.

First off, we have an Intro to Story Structure Seminar happening on May 14th -- that's Saturday -- 2-5pm, in San Pedro.

Secondly, on Sunday, we have the same free seminar taking place, also at 2-5pm, in Culver City: The Mary Pickford Studio, 8885 Venice Blvd., #102, LA. 90034.

Email me at to reserve your space.

In this seminar, we will be examining the basics of story structure and also that of character development.

Hope you can make it.

--Lara Sterling
(424) 209-8521

Monday, May 9, 2011

When Writing Fiction, Be Specific

I have been blogging a lot about short stories, probably because I am writing a collection of my own right now. I am also consulting on the short-story collection of one of my writer friends. Thus, I have some pointers for writers in terms of short stories – and in terms of fiction in general.

Be Specific
I cannot urge this enough. With the short story especially, you have little time to get across a lot of information. You don’t have time to be coy. Just spit it out: What are you talking about, who are you referring to. If you are introducing a character who is the main character's mother, don’t call her something else, like “confidante” the first time we meet her. She might be the main character's confidante, but why not give us more information? Don't just make up a bunch of metaphors that only allude to who she is -- why not just tell us who she is. I know this might seem “on the nose,” but, in a sense, it needs to be. And if this character isn't just the main character's mother, but her step-mother, then please tell us that too, from the get-go. I know a lot of writers want to build a kind of mystery around their characters, surprising the reader later, but unless you are a very experienced writer, this is probably not going to work. State the facts.

Name Your Characters
I know there are writers who have lived on this planet, who are capable of creating these wonderfully dreamy worlds in which characters don’t actually have names but are only spoken of in terms of pronouns and nouns. “She went to the store.” “The girl didn’t like the boy.” I think Marguerite Duras, who is one of my all-time favorite writers, probably did this. But remember, Duras almost won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most of us are not Duras. So please name your characters. Don’t try to create a wistful story by leaving out the names. It doesn’t make the story wistful, just confusing and vague. Give your characters names! This not only makes it easier for us to sort through the information, especially if there is more than one character with the same gender. “He needed to speak to him about his problem.” Huh? Which guy has the problem? Tell me!

Names also tell us a lot about a character. A character named Tracie has a different personality than one named Sloane, or one named Persephone. Names are important. Names make us relate to the character more when we're reading. We want to sink our teeth into details.

Same thing, writers: be specific. Location can tell us a lot about your characters: what kind of social status they have, what their interests are... Don’t expect readers from different parts of the country (or world) to  comprehend the idiosyncrasies of the boroughs or parts of your city, even if you are writing about New York or Paris. You are still going to need to describe the part of town or the neighborhood in more detail than just stating the place.

And if you are talking about mountains, why not tell us which mountains? Vermont or Colorado or Aspen? Think about the different kind of people who live in those different mountainous places. See how it makes a difference?

The same goes for locations within locations. So your character is sitting in an office. What is the office like? Describe it! Is it an opulent office, or a run-down one? A real-estate agent's office... Well, is this agent successful or not? This isn’t a screenplay. We need description here. You and only you, as the writer, have control over what the reader feels when they read your piece. Why not make it as easy as possible for the reader to understand the world you are trying to create for them?

Jobs and Age
Again, I am advising that you be as descriptive as possible. What kind of job your characters have describe to the reader who they are. Of course, we are not the sum total of our jobs, but let’s say all you do is write that your main character works at a club. We need to know what kind of club it is: a Kiwanis club, a dance club, a country club, a casino?

In terms of ages, think about how things mean different things to people of different ages. The stakes can be raised or lowered by a significant degree, depending on age. A single 20-year-old is different than a single 40-year-old. A married 20-year-old is different than a married 40-year-old. If you don’t come out and state the age, then you need to allude to it – a lot. You need to be very specific. X character is in college. Or she’s just graduated. Or she just recently celebrated her X birthday. 

Also, be specific about relationships. A son-in-law picks up his wife’s mom from the airport, and he’s late. Don’t let this just escape us. This is the perfect time to launch into some back story, even if this is a short story. Have the mother- and son-in-law always gotten along? Does Mom approve of him? Does she hate his guts? This is going to determine how she feels about him being late. And don’t let that confrontation escape us either. Let's see it!

Again, be specific about objects, stuff. If your main character has just packed a lamp because he is moving, what kind of lamp is it? A lava lamp is very different from an antique lamp given to you by your grandmother, which is very different from a lamp purchased at Z Gallerie or one purchased at a thrift shop.

I'll will include more tips later, so stay tuned.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What One Short Story Editor Seeks in Short Story Submissions

Here's a great link to the blog of the editor of a small-press print magazine for women out of the UK, called The Yellow Room. Jo Derrick, The Yellow Room's editor, gives some wonderful advice about what she's looking for in terms of submissions for short stories.

The Yellow Room Editor: What Am I Looking For In A Short Story?: "I'm often asked what sort of stories I want to publish in The Yellow Room Magazine. It's obvious, if you read the magazine, I think. Market ..."

Friday, May 6, 2011

Meet Lili Tufel, Indie Writer, Author of "Sand"

Meet Lili Tufel, another self-published author, who is enjoying much success with her novel, Sand. Shares Tufel:

"I am very excited to have recently received a five-star review for Sand from someone I've never met. She wrote the review I've longed to hear, 'I stayed up till 4am to finish the story.' I want Sand to keep people up late because they can’t put it down!"

Sand is a fast-paced, action-adventure novel. The description on Amazon says this:

"Dallas is a Special Forces Lieutenant, who is driven by his promise to protect the Colonel’s daughter, Abby, from an opium drug lord. He is torn between duty and his love for her when he discovers that the drug lord's charming, murderous son has befriended Abby, and there's no limit to how far he is willing to go to protect her."

“Kidnapping and hostage rescue are subjects I write a lot about,” admits Tufel. “I have always been fascinated or should I say traumatized by it because of where I come from. I was born in Medellin, Colombia and although I grew up in the United States, I heard stories while growing up about people my family knew that were being kidnapped by the Guerillas. All of those stories fed my overactive imagination.”

Tufel did extensive research before writing Sand. “I spent a lot of time reading military blogs. I interviewed and spoke to several military folks because I wanted the story to be realistic. In Sand, I mention very real topics, such as TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), which has been the signature wound of the war in Afghanistan.”

Tufel decided to take the self-publishing route for Sand because of the subject matter. “My novel is fictional, but it deals with realistic current events such as the war in Afghanistan. Because I write contemporary fiction I can’t wait for my book to be published two years from now when the story may not be as ‘fresh.’ ”

Social media has been vital to the promotion of Tufel’s book. She attributes her career as a real-estate agent, as partly the reason for her success.

"[With real estate] I strive to build relationships with my clients, who trust me and refer me to others. This is the same idea with social media. I strive to build relationships with my Twitter followers and my Facebook friends. If someone has taken the time to follow me on Twitter and read my blog, I make it a point to follow back and read their blog. My advice to writers is to take advantage of social networking but not just for self promotion but care enough to follow people back on Twitter and blogs, read and comment and build relationships."

So what's the future of e-publishing, in Tufel's opinion?

"I believe that e-publishing is taking a parallel road to the music industry, and it’s about time! In the music industry you no longer need a large record label behind you to make it. In my opinion, if you want to know the future of e-publishing look at where the music industry is today.

You can find Sand here:


Amazon UK

Apple iTunes

Barnes & Noble

Facebook Fan Page

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Experiencing Writer's Block? Every Writer Does Sometimes

Do you suffer from "page fright"? Neill D. Hicks guest-blogs about writer's block, in an entry entitled: White Out.


Writing is the most frightening profession you can undertake. Oh, sure, rescuing a kitten from a burning building, or topping off a skyscraper, or plunking down a few mil on the latest IPO may cause you to catch your breath once or twice, but writing is really terrifying.

At least with the kitten, the skyscraper and the IPO, you'll know you have an obvious, unmistakable success or failure. Writing is always uncertain. Even at its best, it never quite matches that Precious Vision that began the process. The product is always in some respect a compromise. The accommodations you've had to make with that precious vision may actually produce a superior work, but the written page will never be the air castle it was before craft objectified it on the page.

Every time you face the blank page, the potential for failure is enormously high, perhaps even inevitable. We're not talking about a popular or economic nonstarter here, but real personal deficiency, the kind of naked truth that jerks you awake in a cold sweat at night. We're talking about "I'm-a-fraud-and-everybody-knows-it" failure. That is what makes writing the most terrifying profession.

"White Out" is the reason would-be writers never get around to putting anything down on paper. It's also the reason that people who wouldn't dare perform their own hemorrhoid surgery are absolutely certain they can do a better job of writing -- after the original writer has knocked back the blank page to create a work of something out of a beginning of nothing.


Something that has always stayed with me from Hicks' Screenwriting 101 is the idea that writing is most difficult for writers, and that screenwriters, in the assembly line of film production, are the only individuals who are employed with the job of creating something out of nothing.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Your Five Minute Funding Pitch Perfected

I just read a wonderful article by Norman C. Berns, the complete version of which you can view at The article is about pitching to raise funding for your indie film or webseries. Essentially, Berns says this is a variation on the famed “elevator pitch.” It's a variation because for this pitch, “your investor is not there by fluke. Your potential investor has agreed to meet with you because there’s a problem that needs fixing. You’re there to solve that problem.” According to Berns, fixing your investor's problem can be as simple as providing him with a good investment. Or maybe he’s “on the lookout for new opportunities, or [he] might even have a tale to tell.”

Berns basically distills your five-minute pitch down to this basic formula:

First two minutes:

1. Introduce yourself
2. Acknowledge the investor’s previous work
3. Discuss current cinema as it applies to your film
4. Describe your film, casting, producer & director

Last three minutes:

5. How will this project solve the investor’s needs
6. What’s the deal you’re offering
7. Where will profits come from
8. What’s the anticipated ROI

Berns cautions to research exactly what your potential investor wants "fixed" before you get into that office.

“You have to know exactly [what]," says Berns. "If not, you’re delivering your pitch way, way, way too soon.”

I would listen to Berns. He knows what he's talking about. His three-part series on the history of writing, The Writing Code, recently aired on PBS. He's produced nine films for the Metropolitan Opera, winning an Emmy for his work on La Boehme, and was part of the production team that created the first webseries ever (The Hire for BMW).

For more information about Norman Berns, the seminars he teaches and his consulting services, please see his website:

Pick One Flaw and Keep Your Journey Simple

While reading a really interesting essay by Neill D. Hicks, author of Screenwriting 101, on none other than writer’s block (hmmm, we writers don’t know anything about that), I came across an issue that Hicks describes as the problem writers often have of injecting too much of themselves into their own work so that it actually impedes the writing process.

We regularly tell ourselves that we are basing a character on Cousin Charlotte or Uncle Max… but the truth is, all characters are you. Who else could they be? You, the writer, are probing your own soul to touch the vulnerabilities until you discover that the real-life stingy Cousin Charlotte becomes an eccentric millionaire as a character; and the real-life, good-natured Uncle Max evolves into a screenplay psychopath.

It can be delightful to give life to those quirky parts of your personality that you rarely show in public. But discovering that part of your essence that is angry, demented, wounded, or just desperately confused, can [also] suck the spirit right out of your soul.
Why, of course, I think all writers can benefit from a good dose of cognitive behavioral therapy. The issue comes when, unable to solve the problems of our own dark places, we find ourselves unable to solve our main character’s problems either. Hicks warns: “You aren't required to solve your complex inner needs, but [only] the character's relatively uncomplicated hurdle."

Hicks and I essentially had a discussion about this exact topic the other day before a presentation he was doing on a new book he is writing on genre. While we often want to create very complex characters who are very flawed, as that makes better drama, it’s actually necessary to, say, select one flaw from that mix, and that’s the particular problem the character comes to terms with at the end of the story.

The reason this is so crucial deals with another issue: that of the importance keeping your journey simple. The second-act journey, essentially, is the journey you hand-select to be the path that is going to be best-matched to your main character’s flaw. Case in point: If you have a character who suffers from commitment phobia, you are going to choose a second-act journey that puts them into a situation where relationships are everywhere. This is why romantic comedies that are focused around marriages often have main characters who suffer from commitment phobia. If I recall, The Wedding Planner with Jennifer Lopez, was about a wedding planner, who spent her waking moments planning weddings, although she was terrified to be in a relationship herself. Or, if you have the story of an ordinary man, who is pulled into a high-stakes situation in which he must take action, it is helpful to set up a main character who has trouble committing to anything. He can’t finish his book; he doesn’t want to look for a better job; if he sees someone getting hurt on the street, he’s the person who just keeps walking. He doesn’t want to get involved. That is, until he's forced.

It's ultimately very important to keep your second-act journey very simple in screenplays. You only have 110 pages for your main character to save the world and solve his inner issues, so that he can become a new and better-fuctioning human being. Unless you're trying to write a three-hour epic, I advise you keep your story simple. And I wouldn't advise you produce that three-hour epic screenplay unless you're Francis Ford Coppola. For all you aspiring screenwriters out there, who are actually hoping to get a screenplay sold some day: keep that story new and fresh, yes, but also simple!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Great Article About How to Structure Your Short Stories

If you want to learn more about how to structure your short stories, check out the following blog post on John Fox's blog, BookFox, which explains the how-to's behind the craft: