Writing the TV Drama Series

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If you frequently say to yourself whilst channel-surfing, “I could write a better series than that,” think again. It´s a lot harder than it looks. Pamela Douglas, author of Writing the TV Drama Series, explains why.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let´s start out with some background on why you decided to pursue a writing career and why, specifically, it turned out to be in television instead of novels or plays.

Writing of any kind is a means to discover truth and tell it. Our currency is the truths of real lives, human desire ranging from the most deeply held passions and secrets to lusts and foolishness and mistakes, or whatever brings a moment of joy. Writers deal in insights people gain through knowing each other. And in today´s fractured society, it is absolutely necessary to make sense of our experience in the way humans always have, by creating stories that explain why things are as they are. All that is within the mission of any serious writer. As for the method you choose to convey the characters and stories that make up our world, it doesn´t matter. Each form has opportunities and limitations, but good writing (or bad) is up to you.

Power does matter, though. Through television, you reach millions of people. And because of the intimacy of the medium – how close and personal it is to the viewer – the creator wields great influence. Even the lowest rated shows are seen by more people than all but the most successful movies; and compared to TV, plays and novels aren´t even on the radar. That´s not to say writers shouldn´t explore all means of expression, or that artistic fulfillment can´t be found in art films, novels, poems and plays. But I have always been keenly aware of the power of stories to raise consciousness, both individually and in addressing society´s critical challenges. TV, especially the best dramatic series, can have an impact beyond anything else.

How did you get your first break and who were your mentors?

I had no mentors. No relatives or friends in the business, and no one slipping me onto a staff as a favor to anyone. Instead, I had opposition as a woman in a male-dominated field, as a person of color when the guys in charge were more comfortable with someone like themselves, and later as a person who insisted on quality when stereotypes or an easy laugh line at the expense of truthful characters might have been more commercial.

I built my career by continuing to write, by writing well and growing as a writer, by learning how this business works, and working it as well as I could. Ultimately, by some people´s measure, I failed. That is, I did not become extremely rich or own an empire of shows. But I´m proud of some of what I wrote and glad my work was recognized by the Humanitas Prize, the Writers Guild, and Emmy nominations – though winning awards was not my motivation.

My first paid TV writing job was when I was quite young — Trapper John, M.D. in the mid 1980s. I got it by realizing that a member of the continuing cast, Madge Sinclair, was being under-used and guessed the producers might be open to a pitch with a story for her. I admired Madge´s work outside the show, and knew she was a great actress, though I´d never met her. So I went in to that meeting and told the producers an honest tale about something her character might experience. They did indeed have a commitment to give her an episode, and no one on the staff had a clue. So they bought it, I wrote the script, it was produced, and Madge received her first Emmy award for my episode.

What television shows were you hooked on as an adolescent? And what programs do you never want to miss as an adult?

I didn´t watch TV when I was an adolescent. In the late 1960s and early 70s I was involved with the Civil Rights struggles, and my interest was in writing what was happening around me. Even while I was in school, I published in newspapers and magazines, ran a community filmmaking workshop, and free-lanced some news segments for a local TV station. My writing included fiction and I was always involved in visual arts as well. But sitting and watching TV wasn´t on my schedule.

But if you´re asking about historic series that I admire, M*A*S*H remains remarkably current and incisive. It was also before its time as half hour dramatic comedy and political comment. Later Hill Street Blues was the great progenitor of today´s best drama, followed by NYPD Blue.

Current shows I never miss include (in alphabetical order) Boss, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Mad Men, and I sometimes catch The Good Wife, Girls, Nurse Jackie and The Big C.

Among shows not currently broadcast, I strongly recommend binge-viewing The Wire (all 60 hours), The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica. Friday Night Lights and certain episodes of House are good viewing too.

Lots of people watch TV series and probably say to themselves, “I could write something better than that!” Would you say that it´s harder or easier for newcomers to break into television writing than it was in the days when creative works were all produced on typewriters instead of computers?

People who believe they could write better than shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Game of Thrones or The Wire are deluded. What are these people viewing? The lowest level of any creative form deserves that sort of derision, and it´s easy enough to point to badly written movies, YouTube posts, lyrics and any other writing. I would tell those people to stop watching garbage and tune in to the brilliant literature that is richly available all over the TV spectrum, especially on basic cable, and try to learn from the best.

Most media stopped using typewriters more than thirty years ago, before I started working in television, so I can´t address that. The news in the 21st century is the multiplicity of outlets. Long ago in the era of three, then four broadcast networks, the number of shows was limited. Then came Premium Cable (HBO and Showtime) with innovative dramas. And now basic cable stations – AMC, Starz, USA, TNT, and many others – are all producing drama series, many of them outstanding. In addition Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Hulu and other Internet entities are going from short gags to full-length scripted shows. This is a great time to write for TV.

What kind of opportunities are open to aspiring television writers and is it mandatory that they live in Los Angeles?

First, aspiring writers should go to a film school that offers a series of classes in writing for television. Be sure the classes are taught by people who have actual industry experience, preferably on quality TV series. Basic courses in screenwriting usually precede the TV classes, so students get essential skills. Then you will be ready to join workshops and find mentors to grow and refine your work. Once you have a professional quality portfolio you can attempt to be represented by an agent (or manager) and find entry-level jobs on shows. Among those beginner jobs, accept anything at all that gets you in the mix, even receptionist or p.a. Higher up the chain are Writers Assistants and Researcher, but those are competitive positions. Joining a staff of a show is the goal, but that usually takes a very strong portfolio, excellent representation and perseverance.

Since most shows are written and created in Los Angeles, even when they shoot elsewhere, it is important to live in Los Angeles. However, once in a while staff jobs may become available in New York, Miami and elsewhere.

Tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it.

The Third Edition of Writing the TV Drama Series is essential to writing current television because it combines three aspects you need: craft, how the industry works, and perspective on the future. Interviews, analyses of script segments, and step-by-step guides to both writing and placing pilots and episodes make this the truly complete book on the subject. It has been adopted by TV networks in their programs for new writers, and is required reading at the major film schools throughout the United States and internationally, where it has been translated into other languages. Anyone who has not read it will find themselves out of the loop.

I was pressured to write it by years of students in my classes, and the first edition was the exact class I teach. Initially I was reluctant to take time away from my creative work to spend on a text. But at the time no source was available that I considered complete and current enough, so I had to write this. Since that earliest version in 2005, I have enhanced the book greatly as the world of television continues to evolve in exciting ways.

What´s your best insider advice for someone who wants to pursue a screenwriting career?

Get into the USC School of Cinematic Arts in the Writing Division, and take the entire television track culminating in creating an original series in the TV Thesis. You will graduate with pilots and episodic spec scripts as well as internships that give you insights into how shows run. If that´s not possible, find another film program that approximates this. In Los Angeles, UCLA extension offers non-degree introductory and intermediate classes open to the public. The Tisch School at NYU is another excellent choice. Search around for offerings at universities near you.

If schools are out of the question, read and watch everything you can find, especially produced scripts, and then join a workshop for feedback as you write.

Which type of writing do you think presents a bigger challenge – TV or movies?

Unquestionably TV is more challenging. A single movie script has an arc that ends, and usually has a single major quest or conflict. Of course there are complications and dimensions of characters, and ideally, a fully developed antagonist. But structurally, it´s relatively simple. That´s not to say movies can´t be entertaining and stimulating. For directors, special effects and stunt people and certain kinds of actors, theatrical films may be more fulfilling. And some kinds of subjects – especially fantasy action – are far better suited to movies.

For writers, TV offers a range of story-telling that is long, complex and multi-layered. Because storylines must be able to continue for 100 hours (in a traditional 5-season run) a larger potential has to be developed in relationships, character depth and story surprises. In “the long narrative” a single story doesn´t end in an hour, but may weave through many episodes, or a full season, as in 12-episode seasons typical of shows like Dexter. Even in procedurals like The Good Wife, House, CSI, and so forth, where plots do conclude in each episode, enough “legs” must be present in the franchise and “juice” in the characters to make viewers want to watch the show again next week and next.

For a working writer, TV is greatly more demanding than movies. If you´re on your own writing a screenplay, you can work your own hours at your own pace and take as long as you need to figure out all the elements and rewrite after getting feedback over and over. But television writers have to be on top of their craft and fast. There´s no time learn on the job; if you´re on the staff of a show you must deliver finished, polished work, on time. The show is on every week, and if you don´t write the script, someone else will, and you´ll be gone.

What are some of the most significant changes you´ve observed in the American television market?

Five great changes have made television better in the 21st century. (1) The proliferation of broadcast outlets, especially the increase in scripted shows on basic cable; (2) The high quality of TV literature that now goes beyond premium cable and extends competitively everywhere; (3) alternates in viewing including DVR and other time-shifting technologies that make shows accessible at any time, and mobile and other devices make shows accessible at any place, thus increasing overall viewership; (4) The rise of the Internet as both a delivery and production powerhouse, adding even more opportunities for original shows including those for niche interests; (5) International production collaborations and international audiences for American shows and American-international hybrids. All five demonstrate that TV is in a growth phases, and where newness and growth prevails so does opportunity.

Given the proliferation of reality TV shows, does this mean that producers don´t have much interest in courting writers that know how to pen original plots?

First, so-called “reality” or “unscripted” shows are neither real nor unscripted. They are written by writers and acted by actors who deserve to be credited and properly compensated for their craft. Those who unfairly exploit writers by defying minimum working conditions and labor laws don´t belong at the bank cashing in; they belong in court, in my opinion. Because stations are now backing away from the legal and economic complications of those shows, the proliferation of them is slowing. I´m not saying the number of new reality shows is being reduced because the producers who profiteer off them have suddenly gained morality. They are dwindling because the profits aren´t what they used to be. And finally viewer fatigue has set in.

Original, professional-quality pilots are very much valued.

In addition to being an accomplished writer, you´re an artist. What has art taught you about writing and vice versa?

Both co-exist as expressions of my insights and visions. Some subjects are better treated with words, especially those that rely on character development and explore relationships and issues over time. Visual arts are immediate and passionate responses, and a chance to have a different kind of visceral impact on individual viewers. Writing is more difficult than painting partly because of sitting long hours at a computer, and partly because writing can´t fall back on physical materials; confronting a blank page is more daunting to me than a blank canvas. But neither specifically teaches the other. They are complementary aspects of a creative life.

Writing the TV Drama Series is available at Amazon as well as Michael Wiese Productions (http://www.mwp.com).

 

What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More

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“Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps,” wrote English essayist William Hazlitt, “for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”

While pain and loss are the common denominators that universally produce tears, identifying the elements that trigger giggles, chuckles, and rip-snorting, knee-slapping guffaws is much harder. Humor is not only predicated on whether we´re a victim, participant or observer in the hilarity that ensues but also age, gender, education, ethnicity, social status and even where we live. A penguin that walks into a bowling alley in a New Yorker cartoon is likely to generate adult mirth from an incongruous caption that mixes sophistication with silliness. In a children´s show, the same penguin isn´t funny until he gets hit in the face with a cream pie or tries to evade an oncoming rush of bowling balls. If someone trips over the penguin in America´s Funniest Home Videos and smacks his head on the ball-return mechanism, we laugh at the man´s clumsiness, disregarding the realities of potentially knocking all his teeth out or getting a concussion from which a blot clot forms and subsequently kills him.

Humor sits at a complex intersection between context and audience. And who better to explain what tickles our collective funny bones than Brad Schreiber, author of What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories and More.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Let’s start with some general background about who you are, what you’ve done, and when did the writing bug first bite you?

I describe my writing background as “psychotically eclectic,” because I have written for film, TV, stage, radio, advertising, fiction, nonfiction and was once hired to write dialogue for a pre-recorded phone line called “Dial-an-Insult” but I´m not so proud of that. I attended Burlingame High School in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I actually became more interested in acting than writing. Then, I eventually was the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper and Editor of the school literary magazine as well.

My writing career evolved from medium to medium and I now crossover in TV, film, books and theatre. Writers who work in numerous media find that some pay better than others, but those others sometimes provide greater artistic satisfaction so the trade-off is calculated and very worthwhile. I´ve always advised writers to try and develop their skills in one more than one area.

Some people are funny in person while others are funnier in print. Which category best fits you and why?

I think I am funniest wearing my flannel pajamas covered with the character Stewie from the TV series Family Guy. I think the humor writer who is “good in a room” pitching or has performance experience has an advantage over other comedy writers in TV and film. Success in those media is predicated not only on perceptions of your talent but your personality and ability to adapt to new suggestions.

Thus, the comedy writer who has performed onstage may well have this advantage. I don´t think more introspective humor writers need to be standups or in comedy groups, but I strongly advise taking an improvisation class at least once to loosen up, to expand their abilities, to free associate. When I was 18, I was in a comedy troupe in the Bay Area called the Burlingame Philharmonic Orchestra. Unfortunately, an actual orchestra complained when they saw our name on the bill at a club, asking who we were and why they did not get the gig. Still, performing on radio, TV, stage and in recording studios helped me to gain confidence in meeting new people and promoting my work.

Humor covers a broad spectrum of everything from pie-in-the-face pratfalls to sophisticated wit and sarcasm. Tell us a bit about what kind of mirth appeals to different demographics and how writers can use this awareness to pen funny scripts and stories.

This is a tricky question. As I say in my humor writing book What Are You Laughing At?, humor is as personal as the clothing you wear, and sometimes in as bad taste. I´m not sure of the exact demographic for fruit-pie-in-the-face compared to meringue but I can tell you this: the more people you try to appeal to, the broader and less sophisticated the humor becomes. Thus, a comedy screenplay based on wordplay will not be as accepted in other countries as one relying upon physical comedy.

English male comedians like wearing women´s clothes. Perhaps because women get to wear more silk. I don´t know. But the English also have a love of wordplay, so there is room within the culture for sophistication as well. I think it´s dangerous to make universal assumptions about what kind of humor will appeal to Ecuadorians. Here´s an example of the unpredictability of humor to a specific nationality. After one of my books was published, I went to the Book Expo America in New York City. I met a group of German publishing executives at a party. They were dressed in suits, seemed very intelligent, business savvy and knowledgable about American culture and the corporate world. But when one of them mentioned not liking a type of food because it made him fart, they all erupted into laughter like a group of prepubescent boys. Then, they started talking nonstop about flatulence. But it would be a mistake to think all Germans like fart jokes. Or at least, I pray to God they don´t.

In the end, you should write humor from passion and from strength. As always, it is good to learn about all kinds of approaches to comedy. But I have to quote the great Bill Cosby, here: “I don´t know what the key to success is. But the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Who did you think was funny when you were growing up? Who do you think is funny now?

My mother, Mona, was an actor and writer and told great jokes, did voices and had a profound effect on my artistic development. I watched way too much TV as a child. I watched stuff that even bored me. But there were no computers then. I loved certain animated series, including Rocky and Bullwinkle, which had jokes for kids and adults combined. An early TV series I enjoyed was My Favorite Martian with Bill Bixby and the great Ray Walston. I don´t think the show would have worked so well if Walston´s humorous intensity, his commitment to the role, wasn´t so focused. The two antennae protruding from his head also helped.

 

I recall seeing Bob Hope early on TV and loving the quality of his material. Of course, he also had tremendous writers, including the great Larry Gelbart, who I was fortunate enough to get to know a bit. One of the great honors of my life was getting a blurb from Larry on my humor book, saying, “Finally, a how-to by somebody who actually knows how to.” Prior to the great Johnny Carson, Jack Paar exhibited not only a brilliant wit but an exceptional intelligence for a talk show host. I could go on and on. Generally speaking, I want humor writers and performers to have a unique approach to the world as they see it: I don´t want something warmly familiar. I want something that feels like it builds on the history of humor.

Tell us about your book, what topics it covers and what inspired you to write it? What’s the takeaway value you want readers to have when they’re finished?

It´s the only book I know of that looks at all forms of humor writing, both in script and prose form. It´s also the only book to have an out-of-focus, closeup of a laughing pig on the cover. You see, there´s a lesson right on the cover: As you laugh at the pig, it laughs at you too.

The book not only has over 75 excerpts from great humor writers but also writing exercises I have created. I used to teach Humor Writing at UCLA Extension and the book built upon my course materials. I also have insinuated some principles that apply not only to humor but to dramatic writing as well.

What are some of the common mistakes that people make when they’re trying to write humorous dialogue and silly scenarios?

Vulgarity for shock value. Cultural references that will become dated. Sketches that do not have a beginning, middle and end but repeat a situation or character flaw over and over. Using exclamation points and all capital letters to make unfunny dialog somehow funnier. DO YOU THINK THAT´S ALL IT TAKES!!

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about comedy?

I can tell you the worst advice I have ever heard and I have heard it more than once: Analyzing comedy kills it. Wrong. Understanding the flow of words, how juxtaposition creates humor, why shock and surprise work, all these things are important to know. I have a section in “What Are You” called Yiddish Sound Theory, explaining why certain words sound funnier than others that have the same meaning. You require talent to write humor but understanding principles will aid all writers of comedy.

What are some movies and television programs that you think lend themselves well to the study of comedic delivery?

I don´t believe in citing my favorite movies and TV shows and comedians too often because everyone´s taste is different. But I do believe you as a writer and/or performer should be able to tell anyone why you like one person over another. Is it about material or intonation or appearance or facial expressions or topics? If you force me against my will- which you are, damn you, Christina – here are some faves: Verbal dexterity in standup: Robin Williams. Uniqueness as a female standup: Phyllis Diller. TV ensemble acting: The Carol Burnett Show. Uniqueness of sketch writing: MadTV. The last American comedy film that I thought broke new ground was The Hangover. If you disagree with any of this, then I didn´t mean any of it.

What’s the most recent thing you laughed about and why was it funny?

I´m a playwright member of the Actors Studio in Los Angeles. After a recent reading of a darkly comedic play of mine, some folks, including Mark Rydell, who runs things, gathered at a deli. He told me how he knew the meekly humorous actor Wally Cox, who came over Rydell´s mother´s house for dinner once. Mama Rydell kept giving him more food and Cox kept politely saying he was full. Finally, when she ignored him for the fifth time, in his typically timid voice, Cox said, “Shove it up your ass, Mrs. Rydell.” Mark said his father laughed so hard that he cried. Now I ask you, if Cox was anything but mousy, would this line have elicited laughter?

If you could go to lunch with any comedian from the past or the present, who would it be and what question would you most like to ask him or her?

Even though I knew him, I would bring Larry Gelbart back to life and have a nice, long lunch with him, shot on video, to keep for posterity. While he was not a comedian, he was one of the most remarkable comedy writers in history. His career spanned radio, TV, theatre and film. He infused his characters, no matter how flawed, with great humanity. He broke comedic ground with the TV series M*A*S*H, films like Tootsie, his remarkable theatre work, including Mastergate and films like Barbarians at the Gate. His adaptability, his perspective on the changing nature of humor and his brilliance with both comedy and drama in writing made him very special. He was also a mensch and I loved him.

What are you working on now?

I got the rights back to my first book, Weird Wonders and Bizarre Blunders: The Official Book of Ridiculous Records and I published it as a Kindle book on Amazon. My book about Jimi Hendrix is under option with me to write the screenplay. I am also adapting Becoming Jimi Hendrix as a musical and I am attached as screenwriter to a project about Formula One car racing that will be a big, international co-production.

Where can readers learn more about you?

http://www.BradSchreiber.com and also they can enter my name at http://www.RedRoom.com for more video, audio and reviews. THANKS, CHRISTINA! I mean, thanks, Christina.

How to be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity!

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I read How to be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! < http://howtotellagreatstory.com/2012/10/how-to-be-a-writer-in-the-e-age-and-keep-your-e-sanity-by-catherine-ryan-hyde-and-anne-r-allen/> by Catherine Ryan Hyde and Anne R. Allen last year and I’m thrilled to see what their first updated version will be like, to be released in e-book form soon. The title of their book is right on the money.

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview both ladies on their collaboration on this project, and their warmth and generosity shines. They will also teach a workshop on the subject: < http://digitalageauthors.com/> The Tech Savvy Author, with local radio personality Dave Congalton, set for March 2nd in San Luis Obispo. 

Interview by Joanna Celeste

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Catherine Ryan Hyde

What drives you to write?

That’s a bit hard to quantify. There’s a special feeling that goes with one’s “calling” in the world. It’s not easy to put words to it, but I know it when I feel it. It feels like a sense that I’m more sane, more “me,” when I’m doing the work. I think at the heart of things writing is a type of communication. Under the surface of how it feels at the time, I probably write to feel more a part of things, to feel I’m not on my own little planet all alone.

That captures it perfectly. What inspired you to collaborate with Anne R. Allen on How to be a Writer in an E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity?

I’d been wanting to do a nonfiction book for writers for many years. I felt my struggles and my rejections had given me stories to tell, stories that might help other writers take heart. But then the industry began to change so fast. And because I had an agent and a publisher, I realized I was out of touch with the experience of the modern struggling writer. I knew the feelings, and the courage needed, but the details had changed. So Anne’s and my collaboration was made in heaven, I think, because she is so on the cutting edge of the rapid changes in our industry. I felt that our two perspectives would come together to create a complete package.

It certainly felt complete. I enjoyed your sections on editing. How has your experience as a professional editor shaped you as a writer?

I think it’s made me very detail-oriented, and very aware of how much grammar, punctuation, and even neatness count. It’s also helped me put rejection into perspective, because I know some of the reasons a writer’s work is rejected. They are often far less a reflection on the quality of the work than we tend to imagine.

Yes, sometimes the best way to learn is to be in someone else’s shoes. You’re also a teacher—you’ve taught at various workshops and conferences. What was the most rewarding aspect of that experience?

All of teaching feels rewarding to me. Which is good, because if the constant struggle of making a living in publishing is ever too much for me, teaching gives me a soft place to land. I think the best part is when I’m told—or when I can see—that a student has left my workshop more inspired, with a new sense of enthusiasm toward his or her own work.

What did you find most students struggling with?

Story arc—the idea that something needs to happen, that characters need to evolve, that the end must carry that comfortable sense of resolution. Some have trouble with character depth. It pays to know yourself deeply, because it’s unlikely your characters will be deeper than you are. And then on a smaller scale, I see people struggle with the finer points of grammar and punctuation. We all went to school, but many of us did not do so recently, and what we haven’t used in the meantime we lose. So it’s essential that writing students brush up on their English.

Something we’re always learning, it seems. Do you recommend any books on that subject?

I’m a big fan of The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed by Elizabeth Gordon. You can tell by the title that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. A sense of humor is helpful when reviewing punctuation. The book has been around since I was brushing up, but is still available in paperback. I also like Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss for the same reason.

You shared many rejection stories with us, and I loved your section about defining success. Could you share with us some stories of your recent successes? You’ve just published a new book The Long, Steep Path: Everyday Inspiration from the Author of Pay It Forward and over the last couple of years have published several books, including Jumpstart the World, When You Were Older, Don’t Let Me Go, When I Found You, and Second Hand Heart.

The biggest two successes have been the US indie editions of When I Found You and Don’t Let Me Go.

When I Found You went on a 5-day free promotion last March. Over 81,000 people downloaded it in those 5 days. After the promotion it rose to #12 in Kindle paid. The combination of the free downloads and subsequent sales gave it a popularity ranking of #3 in the Kindle Store, #5 on Amazon as a whole. For a couple of days it was hovering between two Hunger Games books on the Kindle home page. Amazon Publishing took notice, and will bring it out this March under the Amazon Encore imprint.

Congratulations!

Later we put Don’t Let Me Go on a 2-day promo, and over 60,000 copies were downloaded in just that short time. It didn’t go as high in Kindle Paid as When I Found You. I think its top number was #34. But its numbers have stayed high longer, so we have actually sold more copies of Don’t Let Me Go. And, by the way, Don’t Let Me Go has broken my record for both quality and quantity of Amazon reader reviews. The previous record holder was Pay It Forward, with 202 reviews accumulated since late 1999, 126 of which are 5-star. Don’t Let Me Go has garnered 232 just since June, 176 of which are 5-star.

So that feels like a great outcome to me, especially since these are indie editions.

Awesome! How do you manage the organization of the myriad of activities required to be a successful writer in this E-age?

I’m not sure organization is the right word for it, at least in my case. I think with networking and promotion, as with the work itself, I tend to run on inspiration. Sometimes I get more done than other times, but it works out in the end. Then people say I’m disciplined, which never fails to make me laugh. Fortunately, just as I love the communication of writing a story or novel, I also love the communication of daily social networking. So it tends to drive itself, which is good. Because, like most writers, I do have two left brains.

Your advice on marketing and social media is extensive in How to be a Writer in an E Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! What would you say is the essence of any successful marketing campaign?

Human relationships. People buy books by authors they feel they know. So it’s always about making connections with readers. Asking a bunch of relative strangers to buy your books in one non-personalized posting has never enjoyed much success.

You keep in touch with people all over the world, and you’ve been published in the U.S. and the U.K. What are the primary differences between working here and across the pond?

At first I thought UK readers were more receptive to literary fiction, but then those same novels took off here in the U.S. as well. So now I think reader tastes are more or less the same on both sides of the pond. For a time the biggest difference was that the US industry was falling apart at the seams, so I was quite dependent on the more intact UK market for my income. Now the US market is stabilizing and many of the troubles we’ve just come through are hitting over there. It’s been an interesting—albeit troubling—process to watch.

That’s neat that you’ve had such a range of experience with various publishing houses, and also with different avenues of publication–from indie presses to working with the Big Six. Please share with us what the publication process has been like for How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity.

At this point I’m what the newly-changed industry calls a hybrid author. I have traditionally published books and independently published books. And in How to be a Writer in the E-Age…And Keep Your E-Sanity! I have a book published under the third model, the new breed of small publisher. The difference for me is that I do far less work than I do for the indie books, yet I get more control than I did with traditional publishers. There was quite a lot of checking and proofing of the various drafts of the formatted work, and of course an author always has to promote, but on the whole it’s been an easy path for this book. As publishing paths go.

Your book is full of useful advice for writers (new, seasoned, and every shade between). If there was one thing that you wish you had known when you had just started out as a writer, what would that be?

I wish I’d know that rejection didn’t mean what I thought it did—that it didn’t mean my work wasn’t good, or even necessarily that the editor who rejected it thought it wasn’t. I wish I’d known that rejection didn’t mean that the same editor wouldn’t publish another of my stories or novels, or, in one extreme example, even the same one. Rejection is never easy, but if I’d known it was often not a true reflection of the work, I might have saved myself a lot of grief. Which is why I share so much about rejection in the book.

Is there anything else you would like to say?

Just that writers need to stick together. It’s a very tough business. People tell you to thicken your skin. I’m not saying it’s bad advice. But sometimes you will need to tend your own wounds. This is what Anne and I hoped to achieve with How to be a Writer in an E Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! We really do want to help other writers feel more supported, more balanced. More sane.

That about sums up how I felt after reading it, so thank you.

[For more information, visit Catherine <online> http://crhyde.squarespace.com/.%5D

Anne R. Allen

 How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! covers many areas from getting started, learning to determine when one is a “real writer”, rejection, working with editors and agents, navigating social media, working within critique groups and making the most out of the various types of feedback, maximizing the value of writer’s conferences, the protocol for handling cyber bullies and trolls, querying, defining one’s genre, learning to self-edit,  overcoming depression, writer’s block and self-doubt, and several aspects of getting published, including knowing when to go traditional or self-publish, and what to expect after publication (which was quite enlightening). How did you divvy up the sections between you and Catherine?

It happened kind of organically. We have different fields of expertise–I’ve been with small presses and Catherine has experience with the Big Six and self-publishing, so things fell into place very easily. I don’t remember having to decide. Things just happened.

The pacing of the book is perfect, balanced between your voices. How did the writing process go?

We got together about once a month to outline and plan what we wanted to say, then wrote the pieces and emailed them back and forth. Once we met at my house, but Catherine’s a vegan, and a great cook, so mostly we met at her house and brainstormed over a great vegan meal she prepared. She lives about a 45 minute drive up the coast from my house—a gorgeous drive.

No wonder the overall tone of the book is so warm, what a great atmosphere to work in!

As part of the initial price for the e-book, you offer free updates every six months, to ensure the guidance remains current. Your first update is set to be published this week. What is your process for updating the book?

I perused all my entries in the book and saw some needed to be completely re-done. That took some research. But for most I just had to tweak a few things. We kept some of the references to the “Big Six” publishing companies, although I explained they’re now the Big Five-or-maybe-Four-and-a-half.

How does this work for those who purchase the paperback; do they get access to the updates in a way, either by supplemental pages emailed to them or by receiving a discount on the e-book?

No. Our publisher really couldn’t afford to do that. It’s just the e-book that has free updates.

That’s an amazing deal for a $2.99 e-book.

As an author known for your comedic mysteries (The Camilla Randall series) and your comic thriller (Food of Love), I welcomed your treatment of the various subjects of writing in How to Be a Writer in the E-Age… And Keep Your E-Sanity! What is the value of humor in writing?

I’ve always loved books that made me laugh. I loved reading P.G. Wodehouse  and Angela Thirkell when I was in high school—my parents had a great collection of British humorists. And I loved Kurt Vonnegut, who has dark humor in all his books.  As different as they are, I think they all influenced my writing.

Also, I was in the theater for many years and I learned how to engage an audience by making them laugh, and I transferred it to my writing. I didn’t do it consciously, but the humor always creeps in. 

I enjoy the humorous touches in your posts. Your blog http://annerallen.blogspot.com/ was named finalist for “best publishing industry blog” by the Association of American Publishers and one of the “Top 50 Blogs for Authors” by TribalNation.com, and your section on blogging was extensive in the book. What would you say is the essence of a successful blog?

Every successful publishing blog is successful in a different way. Joe Konrath’s can be hard-hitting and no-B.S. Kristen Lamb’s is chatty and girly and funny. Chuck Wendig’s is R-rated and raunchy. But they have three things in common: 1) They’re “you” oriented instead of “me” oriented.  2) They give great information. 3) They have strong, honest personal voices. I think those are the most important elements of a great blog.

How did you arrange for Ruth Harris to co-blog with you?

She made long comments on my blog a lot—and they were so useful and insightful. I told her she needed to have her own blog and kept hammering her about how we all needed her expertise. (How many people have been on the NYT bestseller list AND edited for a Big Six publisher?) But she didn’t want to make the time commitment. So I asked her if she’d like to be a regular guest on my blog. She jumped right in.

She’s finally started her own blog< http://ruthharrisblog.blogspot.com/>—mostly with links that make great writing prompts, but she’s branching out with some great new features, like “The Story Behind the Story” guest posts from authors talking about what prompted them to write their novels. I think that’s going to be a lot of fun.

I will have to check that out. What about writing do you most enjoy?

The sheer act of creation. When the kernel of an idea starts sprouting into characters and scenes and the people come to life on the page and start doing things I don’t expect. I never know where a book is going to go and I love watching the whole thing unfold.

I appreciated your insight into the subject of depression and creativity. You covered the importance of remaining centered, but what are the ways you personally find balance?

I’m not always good at that. But I try to walk every day and take time to meditate and be in my body instead of living in my head all the time. I love to go out and listen to music and dance. I love roots and world music. We live in a great area for it.

Sounds lovely. What is your favorite motto?

“Everything in moderation. Including moderation.”

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I’m so grateful to Catherine for partnering with me on this book. I was an out-of-print writer without much of a future when we first came up with the idea of a book. She took a chance by linking her name with a relatively unknown author. Since then, I’ve got a publisher who now has published six of my mysteries. If I was going to pick a moment when my career started to come back to life, I’d say it was that lunch when we came up with the idea of a book on “the care and feeding of the writer’s psyche”—and I’ll be forever grateful to Catherine for that.

We’ll be forever grateful to the two of you, for writing (and maintaining) such a heartfelt, comprehensive and knowledgeable book.

[To learn more about Anne or her various creative pursuits, visit her <online> http://annerallen.blogspot.com/%5D   

Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay

Rewrite cover

Once an aspiring writer commits pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – there comes a point when s/he starts to believe that every word, every phrase, every idea that results from such effort is the stuff of perfection and, thus, exempt from editorial criticism. Was there ever a more dreaded word in the English vocabulary than “rewrite”? It can be anything from a simple request for clarification, a suggestion about rearranging chapters for a more cohesive flow, or maybe even changing the heroine’s name from Ethel to Juliet, but to the ears of the author who has tirelessly brought the project to life, it all sounds the same: “Are you an idiot or what? This is terrible. You didn’t get it right the first time. Do it again.”

It’s not that the editor hates you or hates your story, nor is the editor telling you anything with the dark intention of making your project worse. The goal, first and foremost, is to make it the best it can be and, accordingly, make you an even better writer than you might ever have thought possible. Paul Chitlik, author of Rewrite: A Step-By-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay (Michael Wiese Productions) shares his insights on what you can learn from going back to the drawing board.

 Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

**********

Q: “The best writing is rewriting,” wrote E.B. White. For a lot of aspiring authors, however, any suggestion that their original prose might even remotely contain flaws or inconsistencies causes them to instantly put up defenses and arguments to the contrary. Why, in your opinion, are they so averse to taking their material back to the drawing board?

A:  First, writing is hard.  Writers naturally only want to write as little as they can get away with.  While this works in journalism, and sometimes even fiction, it doesn’t work at all in film or television (and I’ve worked in all of them). 

Sometimes, too, they want to do it “their way.”  They feel restricted by the format, which many call the formula.  While some good films are made outside of the format (very few Hollywood films, to be sure), most fail that don’t follow the traditional format, which developed for 2500 years in playwriting and then 100 years in screenwriting.  We know what works.  Why try to re-invent the wheel.

Speaking of wheels, think of writing within the format as manufacturing an automobile.  You wouldn’t have square tires just because you liked squares or you wanted to be different.  You need round tires, an engine, a transmission, a steering wheel, and brakes.  But even though you are restricted to four wheels (and sometimes, three, but rarely, though one of my favorite roadsters is the three wheel Morgan), you have a wide range of designs in which to show your originality.  A Jetta is very different from a Ferrari, yet they are both automobiles.  And if you want to be original, you certainly can:  You can make a DeLorean or a Honda Fit or a Nissan Cube with a wrap around back window.  But if you decide that you feel restricted by four wheels and want to add a fifth, well, you might find that the old format worked better.  But working off of four, you might go to six and find some success.  Try the four first, though, and have good reason to add the other two, if that’s what you want.

Creating art is a very personal thing, and new writers are not used to the collaborative process that is film and television making.  Unless you’re going to write it, cast it, act in it, shoot it, cut it, and distribute it yourself, you’re going to have to collaborate.  Get used to it.

Q: Which is the more efficient practice (and why): (1) to rewrite after you’re completely done or (2) to rewrite as you’re composing?

A:  I rewrite the previous day’s original pages before I start a new scene.  But I don’t usually go back farther than that unless I need to set up something that I’m paying off in a scene that comes to me outside of the beat sheet.  But it’s best to plough through the first draft to keep your focus and then let it rest for a few days or even weeks before tackling the rewrite with a fresh perspective. 

Q: Okay, let’s be honest, how many rewrites did you do for Rewrite?

A:  Not including the in-process second edition, I did about five rewrites before I submitted it to the publisher and another two after.  Then we both decided it was done.

Q: How did this particular book come about and who do you see as its target demographic?

A:  One of my students in a UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting class in rewriting sent me the outline he had done of the course and suggested I write a book on rewriting.  I thought that was a very good idea since there were no how-to rewrite books.

Its target is new writers who don’t have a support system like a professional writer does.  A professional can go to his manager or agent, his development executive, his director, even his writer friends for feedback.  Someone in Sioux Falls can’t.  Also, some professionals feel they need to do a few drafts on their own before going back to the studio, but don’t want to share their work for whatever reason.  So they refer to my book.  More than one has told me s/he has done this.

Q: Tell us about your academic and professional background that prepared you for the challenges inherent in penning a book.

A:  Academically, I studied comparative literature in college, meaning I read mostly novels and plays in Spanish, English, and Italian.  Hundreds (literally) of them.  I moved to Europe after grad school and worked as a translator and journalist.  Back in the US after five years, I worked as an English as a Second Language instructor and then a college administrator.  One day I said to myself, “This is not the plan.” 

I soon got back into writing, starting with a job as an executive story editor on a syndicated show where I supervised upwards of 140 scripts.  They were mostly crap (even my own), and I supervised the rewriting of every one of them.  Since then, I have written hundreds of television scripts and been commissioned to write over a dozen films (five of which have been made, some under a pseudonym for various reasons).  In classes at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University as well as private workshops over the last twelve years, I have supervised the writing and rewriting of something over 1800 scripts!  I know what works and what doesn’t.  I know the process.  The challenge was boiling down everything into less than 200 pages. 

Q: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started?

A:  When I started the book or started my career?  If it’s the career, I would have started fresh out of school instead of wasted so many years doing other things. 

If it’s about the book, well, I wish I would have known (but no one did), what the true profit margins are in e-books.  I know now and my publisher and I have come to a new agreement.

Q: Do you ever go back and read some of the things you wrote earlier in your career? If so, in what ways has your style or focus evolved with age?

A:  I sometimes go back and read old stuff when I’m looking for something specific that has nothing to do with writing and I find my old work.  Some stuff is really bad – no form, no story, just clever wording.  Some is just raw emotion.  My focus is more on story than on self now.  I tend to write about people struggling with an issue instead of me struggling with an issue.

Q: If you hadn’t heard the siren call of television in the 1980’s, might you have gravitated to a career as a playwright? (Hey, directing your first play when you were only 11 seems like an auspiciously theatrical start.)

A:  I did write a couple of plays when I decided to go back into writing in the 1980s.  They’re not too bad.  What I should have done then, and what I’m doing with a project now, is to shoot the play as a play and get it circulated.  It would have shortened the time I spent out in the cold.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the importance of structure in a screenplay. So many writers simply jump in and start tossing elements about without any preconceived game plan about how to make them coexist and move the story forward. Why is structure a critical factor and what are some examples of movies where structure was clearly nonexistent?

A:  Structure doesn’t restrict, it frees you to explore.  It’s a road map.  Nobody says you have to follow it, but it will be hard to get to your destination without it.  Still, you can go down dirt roads if you want to, but if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably not going to get there, wherever there is.  With a structure, you always have the option to take a diversion.  Without structure, all you have is wandering.

Look at Tree of Life or Cloud Atlas or Melancholia.  But only if you have to, because I’m still trying to get back those lost hours.  They make little or no sense.  Yes, they’re beautiful films, from an aesthetic point of view, but there’s a reason millions didn’t flock to see them, and it’s unlikely that you’ve seen all three, but you have my sympathy if you have.

Q: Is too much focus put on crafting the hero and, thus, neglecting the attributes and motivations of the antagonist that opposes him?

A:  A good film has a balance.  The antagonist must be 110% as smart, as strong, as handsome as the protagonist.  The more interesting he or she is, the more challenging, and, yes, the more human, the more we care about the challenges s/he presents to the protagonist.  The better the antagonist, the better the film.  The protagonist must have barriers that are real.  If they’re not, if they’re not difficult, then we lose interest.

Q: What role do you believe the central emotional relationship plays?

A:  The central emotional relationship (the love object, the person with whom the protagonist must either create or mend a relationship) serves to humanize the protagonist, to give the audience someone else to cheer for, and to give the audience an emotional reason to root for the protagonist.  In a romance or romantic comedy, even in a buddy film, this is the only reason to see the film in the first place. 

Q: Screenwriting is both an art and a science in which storytellers strive to deliver a compelling visual while, at the same time, adhering to the rules and protocols of formatting, time constraints and available resources (including budgets). If you want to break the rules – or make brand new ones that others will want to follow – how do you go about accomplishing that?

A:  First you must know and be able to employ the current rules.  Then you can break them for effect, especially in formatting and editing.  But even if you do something different, such as the found footage film I did for UPN in the 90s, Alien Abduction, which was the precursor for Blair Witch and Paranormal and its imitators, you still need to tell a story.  That is, there’s a person, he has a goal (wants something), but there’s a rock between him and the goal so he has to go over, under, around, or through the rock to get to the goal.  That’s the only rule you can’t break.  All the rest are up for grabs, so long as you tell a good story.  Even the order in which you tell it doesn’t matter (See Memento, which has one story going backwards and another going forwards – both following, in their way, traditional structure.).

Q: What are some movies that were either successful or mind-numbing failures insofar as coloring outside the lines?

A:  See above examples of films I wish I hadn’t seen.  Films outside of the usual are Moonlight Kingdom, Amour (though I would argue it does follow traditional structure in some ways), Groundhog Day (though, again, I would argue it’s right on course).  Can’t remember any more off the top of my head, but will probably think of one just after the interview comes out.

Q: Legend has it that – amongst the plethora of diverse jobs you’ve held – you once joined a circus sans skills but just because you wanted to write about it. What did learning how to put up and take down the tent for a three-ring circus teach you about yourself, about life, and about Hollywood?

A:  Whoa!  Big question.  First, it taught me to be bold.  They had to hire the people that the Employment Development Department had sent over, so I wasn’t picked.  But I told the foreman, on the sly, that I’d work for free.  It told me to be bolder when I could.  It had rained the day before and we were literally up to our ankles in mud.  Many quit.  I did not.  I persisted.  When the foreman asked if I would stay on, I said, “Yes, if you pay me.”  He agreed to pay from that moment on.  “No, from the first minute this morning.”  He agreed, and I ended up setting up and striking the tent several times in the course of the next few weeks.  The next summer, when I showed up, this time with leather gloves because I knew how to prepare myself, he took me on.  That time I just did it for fun. 

I learned I could do just about anything I wanted, and if I did it well, people would pay me for it.  I learned that it’s better to do something hard that’s fun than something easy that isn’t.  After all, I worked alongside elephants that helped put up the tent.  I gained some self confidence.  Once I had to climb to the top of the tent from the outside to repair a seam problem.  If I could do that, I certainly could work with a studio executive or a cranky actress.  

Q: What personal or professional accomplishment are you the most proud of and why?

A:  Still most proud of some of the episodes I worked on for The New Twilight Zone.  We had the freedom to do what we wanted with very little interference.  As a result, my writing partner and I were nominated for a WGA Award.  I would dream of something at night, come in the next morning, and we would write it.  What’s better than that?

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A:  I’ve written a three-part, goes-against-traditional-structure, script that I plan to shoot using a four camera set-up on a sound stage, much like a television play from the Golden Age.  Something shot like Marty or Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Script’s done.  Date’s set.  I’m now raising the money and getting the crew and cast together.  I’ll direct this time, so I’ll have no one to blame if it goes wrong.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A:  I’d like them to know how tough it is, that screenwriting is not for the faint of heart nor the thin-skinned.  Not only do you need to be talented, you need to be persistent and patient.  And it helps if you’re independently wealthy and not worried about money.  But if you have talent, practice, drive, and confidence you may be able to make a living at it.  And maybe change the world a little bit.   

To learn more about the author, visit http://www.rewritementor.com.

 

The Art of Assessment

art of assessment
Christina [Hamlett] introduced me to Magdalena Ball last month, as she knew that I had recently started publishing book reviews. I was familiar with Ms. Ball from her previous interview with Christina but I was not expecting Ms. Ball to be quite so generous (even though she refers to herself as “gregarious” and the tone of her book conveys that attitude as well). In addition to this amazing interview and her guide to reviewing, Ms. Ball offers a free e-course “How to be a Reviewer”).
For more information about The Art of Assessment, please check out my book review at http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-and-interview-the-art.  It has become my bible as a reviewer.

Interview by Joanna Celeste

**********

Q: Why did you write and assemble The Art of Assessment?

A: The Art of Assessment was actually my first book, written about 14 years ago. I wrote it initially as an adjunct to The Compulsive Reader to be used as a how-to guide for my reviewers to help them write more thorough and consistent reviews. It started off as a small, 20 page pamphlet, but as the interest in the site grew, I decided that it would be valuable to turn it into a full-length book and look at a range of reviewing, particularly since, at the time, I was doing a lot of mixed media (children’s videos, concerts, and CDs as well as books) and there wasn’t much out there in the way of guidance.

Q: How do you consider the skill of good assessment an art form?

A: I think that writing a good assessment is like any kind of writing—there is always an element of art in it—the sense of what works and what doesn’t; the “ear” that a reviewer develops by close, active reading. It’s also a skill, which can be learnt to a certain extent, but the creative element—the building of a new piece of writing; determining the overall approach; the theme of the review and writing something that does justice to the work itself—is art.

Q: What is the broader value of a well-written review?

A: Of course a well-written review is of value to both an author and a reader. But in a broader sense, as publishing becomes ever easier, the need for curation is vital. We need close readers who can help filter the good from the bad—applauding great work and providing critical judgment on work that isn’t so good. It’s important for society to have that, and I suspect that the demand will continue to grow dramatically.

Q: You wrote about the need to deliver balanced reviews, and to approach negative reviews with tact, but what about where the story is awful and there aren’t sufficient good points to balance the negative? (Such as with those books you simply cannot finish because the process of reading is too arduous, or where the author’s style is painful, or the book is ridden with so many typos you wonder how it ever got published in the first place.)

A: I feel quite strongly about the fact that, if a book can’t be read in full, that it needs to be put aside and a review bypassed. This is especially important when the author is unknown and the house is small. Writing a super-negative review of an amateurish effort is like kicking a kitten. It’s not only a waste of effort, it’s mean-spirited and can cut down a new author in a way that’s not helpful to anyone. I know this seems a little like a contradiction of my earlier statement, but I also feel that reviewers have a responsibility to remain professional and not use their reviews to put others down needlessly. Curation is one thing and bullying is another. It’s far better to just put a book aside and write a thoughtfully worded note saying that the book needs a professional edit or that it’s not working for you than to write an extremely negative review. I also think that it’s wrong to review a book when you haven’t read it all. It’s fine to not be able to finish a book but I think that if you can’t read it, you shouldn’t review it. Otherwise you’re judging based on skewed criteria. There’s nothing wrong with declining to write a review on the grounds that the quality is not up to publishable standards. I’ve done it a number of times.

That said, if a book is published by a well-known author and/or a reputable publisher and is error riddled or badly written (especially when you know the author can do better) then I think a negative review is most certainly in order. But the book absolutely must be read in full—even if it’s painful. Otherwise I don’t think you’re being fair to the author.

Q: Thank you. (That’s a relief; I have a policy of never writing harsh reviews of new authors as well.) Could you please give us a sample of what you would write to an author in the situation where you’re politely declining a review?

A: Yes. Here’s an example of how I have (on numerous occasions, both for myself and on behalf of another reviewer) declined a review: “Hi Joe, thanks for sending The World According to Cricket. I’m afraid that I’ve been unable to finish the book and therefore am declining the review. As I’m sure you know, the review process is subjective and I’m sure you’ll find another reviewer who will be able to review the book for you. In the meantime, I wish you all the best with the book’s promotions.”

You’re not obliged to give them a reason (this isn’t a paid-for critique), but if the book is rife with errors, you could indicate that. If they’re really dismally untalented, I wouldn’t mention it. There are readers who may well like the book, you’re just not one. You’re not obliged to do this either but if it’s a small/self-published book, I’ll sometimes offer to send it back to them, or even to put it into BookCrossing or donate it to the library—just to be nice—it’s a small world out there! But don’t let them draw you into a discussion. If they try to pump you for reasons (doesn’t usually happen) then be evasive or stop answering the emails altogether.

Q: How do you define the broad scope between the amateur reviewer and the professional reviewer?

A: This used to be a very clear distinction. A professional got paid for their work and an amateur didn’t. However, there are many forms of “payment”, one of which is publicity and books and some reviewers get paid sometimes and sometimes they work for the publicity, the sheer joy of sharing their opinions, or as part of a broader online presence/platform. So the distinction is now fuzzy. Also we’ve moved into a situation where everyone is a reviewer—when people buy a book on Amazon they’re encouraged to put up a review and it doesn’t have to be thorough or professional. There are a lot of opinions available—some useful and some not so useful. So I’d say that the difference between the two is that an amateur is not looking to put together a formal, professional quality review but is just voicing an opinion. A professional is someone who takes the ‘job’ seriously (whether paid or unpaid), and puts care and attention into the review—making sure it’s thorough, balanced, substantiated, well-written and based on a close reading.

Q: As someone with degrees in English literature (Your honors degree in English Literature from the City University of New York and your postgraduate studies of English Literature at Oxford) how valuable do you consider formal education in the pursuit of becoming a truly professional writer?

A: I do think that my studies helped me a lot in learning to read more complex types of texts. I’ve already been a big reader and I don’t expect that this would be any different if I did an engineering degree instead of a literature one, but obtaining an English degree requires a lot of evaluative writing (assessment at college/university level is almost all evaluative writing), close reading, analysis and synthesis and these are all relevant to the kinds of writing I do (particularly nonfiction—the reviewing work for example). However, I do think these days that “formal” education isn’t any more valuable than informal education. I just did a 10 week (free!)

Q: Wow! That course sounds amazing. Where can we find it?

A: ModPo was utterly brilliant. (I don’t know when the next one will happen, but they’re definitely planning another one.) Though it wasn’t part of a “formal” degree course, it was as good as anything I did in a formal setting and hugely valuable to my writing. There are many resources now available to students, and I use the term student very broadly. We’re all students and the learning process never stops. So while I think taking courses is certainly of value and can open and stretch even the oldest, most jaded writers, having a degree matters rather less I think than it used to.

Q: Most review sites have specific format and style guides, and The Art of Assessment emphasizes the need for thoroughness and depth (as illustrated by your sample reviews). How much can a reviewer deviate from those established formats and style in the fostering of their own “voice”?

A: Having a guide makes the writing easier and it’s always important to follow site guidelines when submitting a review, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. I’m not sure all sites would be so open, but I’m very open to novel formats. I’ve published reviews in verse form, in question and answer style, and even in multiple path options!

Q: Multiple path options?

A: I actually removed the multiple path review as the reviewer wanted to publish it elsewhere and it was a paid gig—quite a few years ago—but it went something like this: If you think that the review should talk about characterisation next, then click here. If you prefer it to talk about plot, click here.

As long as a review is, as I mention a lot (on my little soapbox), thorough, balanced, substantiated, well-written and based on a close reading, as far as I’m concerned, I’m willing to take any kind of format or structure. Of course it takes a lot of skill (or art if you like!) to be that creative. It’s far easier to stick to a template.

Q: Your book covered almost everything but a travel section. While the basic principles probably apply, could you direct us to any specific resources for learning how to deliver travel reviews (in addition to reading other reviews) and where we might get them published?

A: That’s a good point and maybe I’ll add it later (you’ve already given me a few new chapters to work on!). I guess one of the reasons I didn’t include travel is because travel writing is a whole genre in itself and encompasses a lot more than just a review—a whole book can be written around a trip or visit. But for those who love to travel, it’s a wonderful profession and there are jobs out there for it, too, especially for really good writers. You can also combine travel writing with other forms of writing. For example, Anthony Bordain is the travelling chef. Glenn A. Baker is the travelling rock and roller. Firstly, as with any other form of writing, I would recommend beginning by reading others, and getting a feel for the best kinds of travel writing. Michael Palin and Bill Bryson come to mind immediately. Also magazines like Conde Nast Traveler are a good source of shorter forms of travel writing: There is also quite a good online site.

Thank you. That’s very generous of you! In your book, you suggest new reviewers read up on good reviews to hone their craft. How would you recommend someone contact an established reviewer to request guidance or mentorship?

Well, there’s nothing like a little flattery. One easy way to get guidance and support is to submit work to an established site. This will often result in some excellent guidance and if you get a few reviews published and want more guidance or mentorship, it’s easier to ask for it. I do think a direct request for mentorship might seem a little odd. There are, however, formal mentorships available through almost every writers’ center and that might be a good place to start.

Q:Thank you. (I’ll hunt down those writer centers for my website.) You were born in New York City, studied in England and live now in NSW Australia. How does your international background contribute to your approach in reviewing (and life in general)?

A: I think that leaving the country I grew up in has broadened my perspective in many ways. I was pretty green when I went to England! There was so much I didn’t know—about geography, about history, about the world in general. I was quite an embarrassment, especially because, as a New Yorker, I naturally thought of myself as reasonably sophisticated and worldly and wasn’t backwards in making my uninformed opinions known. Having been exposed to a number of cultures I feel like I’m multilingual (in English!) and able to read across cultural boundaries quite well.

Q: As someone who has been exposed to a few different cultures around the world, I understand; you couldn’t have encapsulated the experience better. I love how you talk about “reading across cultural boundaries”. What’s an example of that from your life?

A: ln my life I work with a lot of different nationalities. I can often understand the subtle body language of an Australian versus a Canadian versus a New Zealander—or their colloquial expressions. It helps with communication. In reading, I feel I can more easily penetrate into the setting and context of a book. For example, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, one of my favourite novels, is so inherently Australian, from the way people talk to the kinds of dreams they have and the way they relate to one another. I feel I understand that now, whereas I wouldn’t have gotten it to the same extent before I left.

Q: You received a Masters in Business from the Charles Sturt University and a Marketing degree from the University of Newcastle. When and how does this education and experience come into play as a reviewer (and in the direction of your various endeavors)?

A: I’m not sure that the business and marketing degree have had a dramatic impact on me as a reviewer—they were both done for the day job and certainly taught me some skills in terms of metrics, statistics, promotional processes, and analysis, which may have some positive effect on my ability to promote my work, my site, and my other writing (the novels and poetry books for example). Mostly though, they were time-consuming when I did them and impacted on my ability to spend more time doing creative work. Everything is a trade-off in terms of time.

Q: Tell us more about your work as a knowledge specialist in a multinational company. What does your job encompass and how does this feed into your passions?

A: Firstly, my day job supports my writing habit. Knowing that the money is coming in frees me to not worry too much about the overall financial situation with my writing—I’m free to do what pleases me and to not stress too much over sales figures. I’ve been doing this job in various guises for nearly 24 years (!), so I’m reasonably well-skilled at it and have managed to organize very flexible working hours which has suited me through the births of my three children, a range of life transitions, and of course my all-consuming writing passions. So I’m very lucky to have the job. Additionally, I work in R&D, managing the library, looking after a range of commercialization activities and am actually very stimulated by the science (as my poetry will certainly show). I’ve even walked out of a meeting with a few choice words or concepts in my head, and had to write an entire poem on the spot.

Q: Cool! How many poems from your Sublime Planet have come from this process?

A: They’re all kind of sciency! But at least 30% were directly inspired at work. Plasmonic nanobubbles, Dryland Salinity, Blind Deconvolution, and Plane Strain all came out of words that came up in real conversations and left me salivating! (I’m a little strange that way I know).

Q: (I don’t think that’s strange at all, but then I’m a bit of a closet geek.) ow has your work as a reviewer enhanced your authorship?

A: One of the key things my reviewing has done in a marketing sense is to give me a big online profile with readers. The Compulsive Reader has over 10,000 subscribers to our monthly newsletter and we get some 30,000 hits a day—all readers! That’s an amazing network of people who know me, have been reading my reviews for some 14 years and who I can promote my other writing work to. In addition, being in the habit of close-reading has really helped me to understand what makes for a good book—it’s “ear-training” that translates into a really good sense of what does and doesn’t work from a writing point of view. No class can teach that—it has to come from regular reading. Of course I also read how-to books and having a regular in-pouring of new material has not hurt my own writing (other than to distract me away from it since there’s almost nothing I’d rather do than curl up with a book).

Q: In your previous interview with Ms. Christina Hamlett in November, you mentioned you had nearly completed your next book of poetry [Sublime Planet], and that you were on your third novel—this one a science fiction/time travel adventure. Please update us on these projects.

A: The writing part of Sublime Planet is done. That’s a collaboration with my poetry partner Carolyn Howard-Johnson. The book is a full-length poetry book focused on environmental poetry. We’re currently editing and working with a wonderful artist who is doing the cover for us. The idea with that book is to release it for Earth Day 2013 (April 22). We’re planning to give a proportion of the profits to an environmental charity (yet to be confirmed), so the whole project is very exciting and bringing together a number of threads in my life that are of interest to me. There was a strong sustainability theme in Black Cow as well, so it’s a good follow-on.

My third novel will probably take a bit more time to finish! I’m not a fast fiction writer and am still hard at work finalizing the plot points and setting up my beat sheet (a step-by-step plot outline), but I’m pretty excited about the direction the story is taking—it’s a big change for me and working cross genre is proving very interesting.

Q: Please elaborate on how your work is cross-genre.

A: The work has elements of sci-fi (my poetry too)—there is time travel (sometimes in the poetry), aliens, and the new novel will also be historical fiction, but it’s all rooted in the psychological and more literary fiction than anything else.

Q: From my research into the publishing industry, I was advised against promoting more than one project at a time, but you manage to write and market across several genres (nonfiction, poetry and prose, as well as your reviews and blogging), seemingly simultaneously. What would be your advice to others who want to tackle a similar range of projects?

A: Sometimes across several genres in a single work! I think that it’s important to do what excites you and gives you pleasure as a writer and not take too much note of the market or what’s ‘hot right now’ (particularly because the buying public is fickle). That’s why I’m so grateful to the day job for freeing me from trying to do a ‘breakthrough’ work. I try to stay interested in what I’m doing and for me that means working in different media. When I’m finding the fiction is challenging and I need a break I’ll work on poetry (which is always pleasurable for me). Nonfiction (blogging, writing articles, etc) and reviewing is always there too—something I tend to do for enjoying as a second part of my reading. I think that it’s good for the writing mind to have different hats—keeps everything fresh. I also find that the exacting process of getting a single line perfect in poetry can make for richer, more vibrant and poetically powerful prose. Having a good sense of story and character development often makes for more interesting poetry and nonfiction. And of course the more you write the better you understand what others are writing and the processes behind them, so everything works together.

Q: You are a poet, writer, reviewer, mother, radio host, blogger, friend, wife and life-artist; how do you manage to juggle everything, be stellar at what you do, and keep your sanity?

A: I’m definitely a juggler (but not sure what ‘life-artist’ is—sounds good though!).

Q: I consider you a life-artist because you appear to handle everything with a certain grace, and you project the sense that life should be approached as another art form; something to be celebrated, played with, rather than endured.

A: I’ll take it (even if the grace part isn’t, um, always true). I credit my sanity (such as it is) to a few things—firstly, my husband, who most certainly keeps me grounded (sometimes kicking and screaming that I want to stay airborne!). My children also definitely keep me grounded. I guess if I’m giving advice on how to juggle so many things at one time and keep the sanity I’d say to try and focus on each one when it’s being done, or as my mother would put it, ‘be here now’. So if I’m reading a book, I’ll read it as if it’s the only thing I’m doing. Even if I’m dipping in and out a lot, because I keep getting interrupted, I’ll still read it with intensity; even when I’m not reading, I’ll let my mind play over the story, the characters, and the plot. If I’m writing, I’ll try to give my writing serious focus when I’m doing it. It may be only 10 minutes of focus, but that’s the thing I’m concentrating on for that 10 minutes and I try to make it like it’s the only thing in my life just for a little while. Otherwise ‘overwhelm’ sets in and nothing is done well.

Q: How do you deal with writer’s block?

A: For me, the block tends to come when I hit some problem—usually a fiction based one—such as how I work out a plot issue. I like to brainstorm through it—to just stop writing and do some mindmaps or talk to my kids about it; they’re a great source of plot since they all read a lot (don’t know where they get it from).

Q: That’s brilliant. I brainstorm with my family as well. May I ask, what are mindmaps?

A: Mindmaps are where you have your central idea in the centre and brainstorm related points around it.

I was really struggling with something the other day and I told my daughter and she just started throwing ideas at me at a very rapid pace—how about…how about…what if… She was really awesome (and I promised her a credit). By the time she had finished playing around with ideas with me, I was completely unstuck and ready to get back to it. For people without such a wonderful, in-house resource, using any kind of brainstorming method or working with a friend often helps. Another thing that helps me with block is to swap genres. So if I’m struggling with a poem, I’ll switch to my novel. If I’m having difficulty with the novel, I might just take a break and write a review. All writing has a tendency to free you up—getting the writerly juices flowing again.

Q: What is your favorite method of preventing burn-out (like when you read too many books)?

A: I never burn-out from reading too many books! Reading is almost always a relaxing pleasure for me. But I do have tendency to have far too many projects on the go at once, not to mention a busy family life and a full-time day job (see question above about ‘sanity’). I’m kind of energized by all the stuff going on around me (it’s all interesting), but if the noise levels start to get too much (I’m pretty sensitive to noise) or I feel I’ve got one too many projects going on and I’m not giving decent attention to any one thing—I become too abstracted and dispersed—then the best way for me to deal with that feeling is exercise. In my case, breathing-based exercise like swimming or yoga is ideal. 30 minutes of swimming laps, or an hour of yoga, will almost always settle me and help me get perspective or work out problems. It’s not always easy to take that 30-60 minutes when I’m so overloaded, but I try to do it nearly every day. If I don’t, I really feel it.

Q: This is very helpful, thank you. One area you were not able to cover in your book was that of organization (in terms of how to schedule deadlines intelligently, offering enough time for one’s own editing process, for the review site’s submission turn-around, etc.) as well as dealing with authors or people who consider a review has not accurately captured their product. Will there be a follow-up book that covers these subjects, or supplementary articles published through your blog?

A: Organization is a pretty big topic that extends well beyond reviewing, but perhaps I’ll take you up on your suggestion to look at how, for example, one might deal with the very likely scenario of having many books to review and setting up a priority system. I have to work it out myself first! Actually I do have a kind of system—I do try to do things in order, but sometimes there are really urgent deadlines. For example, Mike Scott of the Waterboys is in Australia this week, and I only got his book to review last week. He was pretty keen for me to include info in the review on his Australian tour, so I put aside everything else and just did that. Impending interviews will often require that a book gets prioritized as well. I always use a to-do list which I manage on an annual, monthly, weekly, and daily basis, ensuring that the big projects flow through from annual to daily so that I find time each day to work on them (otherwise they’d never get done…).

But overall, scheduling deadlines intelligently, leaving enough time for editing and review site submission turn-around all come down to general organizational practices, which may be beyond the scope of my book, and have been covered really well elsewhere. David Allen is a pretty smart guru on time management. He has a free newsletter, podcasts and lots more on the topic. I also like Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Productive People. It informs most time management philosophies that are out there and is still simple enough to just incorporate into a lifestyle. You can get the habits online.

In terms of dealing with disgruntled authors or marketers, basically I just try to deal with them professionally, but not too humbly. If you’ve read the whole book (or experienced the whole product—see my note above about not reviewing something you can’t finish), written [your review] well and substantiated your comments, you don’t need to justify your review in any way. You’re not a marketer, nor are you working for the author and it’s not up to the author to judge your review.

Your audience is primarily the reader and being honest is important. If someone wants a PR person, they’ll need to hire one. Otherwise, by all means, strive for thoroughness and accuracy and fix errors where they occur (and don’t review on a partial experience—I know I keep saying that!), but don’t feel the need to pander to author egos. Negative reviews are, unfortunately, part of the process (all authors get them), and a reviewer should never apologise for their review.

Q: You previously discussed happiness and optimism with Ms. Christina Hamlett. What gives you strength?

A: My family is my key source of centredness which, if it’s not too new-agey a thing to say, is the core of my strength.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

A: Joanna, this was such a thorough interview—I think you’ve covered everything! If readers want more, they can always drop by my website. There are some freebies there, as well as information on all of my books.