My Cinestory Contest Review

I first heard about CINESTORY several years back when I went to a screening of an indie film called Cake. The writer talked about taking the script to the Cinestory Retreat and finding support for it there. I went to their website and thought the experience sounded amazing — spending time in an idyllic setting working with professional writers on ones project, making friends and bonding, etc.

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Who wouldn’t want this?

Over the course of a few years I submitted two or three features to the Cinestory Contest (entry fee $55-$75) and never heard back, but last year, just as I’d finished a first draft of an original pilot, I saw they’d added an episodic lab for TV work, and submitted again.

This time, I was excited to get an email notifying me that I’d made the quarter finals, and more so when I got the email saying I’d made the semi-finals!

But some of the warm fuzzies cooled and floated away when I read this:

RETREAT FEES
GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Free
CATEGORY WINNERS: $1175
FINALISTS: $1600
SEMIFINALISTS: $1700

$1700??

Let’s go back and read that submission page again. Reading more carefully than I did, you’ll see that the grand prize winner gets “free tuition,” which by implications means the the other invitees… don’t. Also, if you go to their FAQ there is a statement noting that the is a cost for the retreat.

That cost, by the way, does not cover lodging or transportation. So, for me, the question became, do I have in excess of $2000 to spend in three days?

In other years, when I have been working a day job, the answer might have been yes. This year I am mostly writing, so the cost is on the high side for me. In truth, the $55 entry fee was already on the high side for me.

For me, the $2000 buys a month of food and rent, and expenses so I guess that’s like my own personal writers’ retreat?…  Except… not. Working at my desk at home is not meeting people and making connections. What if, like with the Cake, someone took a shine to my project and help shepherd it to fruition? What if someone just liked me, my writing, my work ethic, and it led to the job in or near a writers room? What if this were the opportunity  that changed my career?

I won’t ever know, because I didn’t go.

Luck, they say, is when preparation meets opportunity.  Once you’ve prepared, how far should you go –and how much should you spend — on the hunt for “opportunity?” for those little moments, those chance meetings that might change everything …or might change nothing?

Cinestory, by the way, is a non-profit organization. None of the mentors are paid. As noted in the FAQ, “they volunteer their time for free.” The way  they say it implies I should feel good about that, though I’m not exactly sure why I should feel good that money is just going to the organizers and not the instructors.  Isn’t that just saying that if I ever succeed in my own struggles to achieve a career and reputation in the industry then I can look forward to being asked to work for free, teaching students who are paying generously for the experience?  If you want to pick a profession  (besides writer) that gets consistently undervalued — it’s teaching!

So my review of Cinestory retreat is that it looks enticing on the website.  My review of the Cinestory contest marketing is that it feels disingenuous, despite what I’m sure are genuine good intentions on the part of the organizers.

If you are an aspiring writer with a day job and want to take a feel-good vacation that will maybe give you some inspiration, friendships, connections, you should totes submit. But if it doesn’t work out, consider using the same amount of money to take three 10-week long classes at UCLA extension, also taught by working industry writers who are being paid (albeit too little) to help you with your writing.

Writing Tip: Record Your Notes Sessions

Getting notes on a script can feel either “good” or “bad.”

“Bad” is when you are hoping for accolades, for someone to tell you it’s really close, and instead you hear that things aren’t working for the reader, they don’t understand things you thought were clear, and they have thoughts — a lot of thoughts!  In the cartoon version of your life that’s happening inside your head it’s a literal truckload of notes dumped on top of you. It’s overwhelming and it’s heavy. Like this picture — but with NOTES instead of money!

A truck dumping a load of money

It’s like this, but with notes instead of money!

“Good” is when you  know there’s some problems with your script, but by some stroke of luck, you have some folks who like it anyway because they see its potential, and hopefully they are a little bit smarter than you–or smart in different ways–and they say things that they think which makes you think things that you say and then everyone is very excited about where this can go. And while you’re all talking you start to “see” it. It’s like the visual version of having a word on the tip of your tongue — it’s not there yet, but it’s totally within your grasp and probably as soon as you get off the phone it will no doubt arrived fully formed. This is fun!

After a notes call you hang up the phone,with a sense of accomplishment — either because you’ve withstood the deluge without crying, or because you’ve held your own in a great conversation! Either way you clearly deserve to decompress by staring vacantly into the fridge for a full minute and maybe taking a stick of wrapped cheese and then wandering the apartment vaguely looking for the water glass you set down before giving up and getting a new one.

Then it’s time to get to work! You return to your computer, pumped to make this next draft the Great American Script…  and realize that the whole conversation you just had is a blur.

You don’t panic. You close your eyes and think: A few moments from the conversation come back, but now you aren’t entirely sure if you and the other person were talking about the same thing.  You remember thinking thoughts that were so profound you knew you’d never forget them, but you’ve forgotten what they were.

Shit.

Check your notebook see that you’ve got a few half sentences written down, like
“she should tell him that…” or
“maybe an element of betrayal”.

Double shit.

But wait! Now you look in the upper left corner of your computer screen, see the little Quicktime audible file and remember that you recorded the whole thing. Probably, it’s STILL recording, because you forgot you were recording. So you turn it off. You NAME the file with the project and date.

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This is great! You don’t have to admit to someone that you forgot everything they said! Plus, now you can transcribe the conversation, which at a 3-1 ratio could take three hours. Three hours of typing without having to solve any problems. Hallelujah.

And while you’re listening and typing, not only will you remember what you talked about,  but you’ll hear a bunch of stuff that you missed. Stuff people said while you were processing what somebody said before that. Tossed-off comments you thought were jokes, but now realize could be the key!

Re-listening to the notes will also help you process your emotions. However you felt during the call — good or bad — listening again will make you feel less so. If you felt good — hearing yourself talk will make you feel less brilliant, for sure. But if it was bad, you might find it wasn’t as bad as you thought. And putting it on paper will give you some distance, which — at least for me — is a better, more sustainable place from which to start a re-write.

Short Story “Tribe” in Turning Points Anthology

Mere hours after publishing my last post where I listed my difficulties receiving copies of the anthology in which I have a short story,  I received four copies in the mail, along with a lovely handwritten note from the editor explaining that since I’d paid full price, they were sending two copies instead of one — as well as my contributor’s copies.

Patience is a virtue.

Turning Points Front Cover

Here’s the back cover. My story, called “Tribe” is in good company. They came up with the description line, and in my case, did a better job than I think I would have.

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Writing into the Void

The other day in yoga class I realized I was crying. Not sobbing or anything so undignified, just that very quiet and ladylike kind of crying where you’re going about your business and you suddenly realize “oh, there’s water leaking out of my eyes…” If you  happen to be in downward dog when this happens, it’s interesting because the tears drip over your forehead and into your hairline, which is technically “down” but which you are conditioned to think of as up, so it’s like gravity is reversed.

As I hung there, watching tears drizzle onto my yoga mat, I tried to determine the source of the overwhelming sadness I was feeling. My EQ is not the highest, and I’m prone to delayed emotional reactions, so when I feel something, I’m often unsure if it’s in response to something that just happened, or something that happened weeks or months or years ago (which as you can probably imagine my husband loves) and I have to sort through the possibilities.

This day was December 2, which is my dad’s birthday, but he’s dead, so I thought, “maybe I’m sad because it’s my dad’s birthday and my dad is dead.” But it didn’t ring true. My father has been dead for eight years and while I always think of him on his birthday, it’s more a tug of nostalgia than the deluge of defeatedness I was experiencing.

I then considered whether I might be sad because of cancer. This one time I had cancer, and the surgery took place during the first week of December. My cancer friends talk about being emotional around their “cancerversaries.” It makes sense that one’s body might remember and react to that major trauma.

But no, I could feel that it wasn’t exactly it.

And then I thought about my own upcoming birthday. About how each year I inexorably grow older and fatter and less flexible and how the possibility of reaching certain life goals grows more remote.

The tears were falling a little faster. Yep. I was getting to it now.

My overwhelming sadness, I concluded, was not about illness or deceased fathers, or starving children in Venezuela or anything noble. It was, in typical fashion, about me. My ego. My thwarted aspirations.

And the trigger was not in the distant past. It was couple things that had happened that very morning.

The first requires a little background: A few months ago I actually finished a short story, so I did a small round of submissions. Many lit journals these days charge a couple bucks for an online submission, which I’ve come to terms with. It’s about the same as postage would be, it allows them to print a hard copy for their readers and maintain their database.  I seldom pay to submit to competitions, but in this case I’d  run across an upcoming themed anthology whose topic was so perfect that I forked over the fifteen bucks.

My story was selected for the anthology,and I received a congratulatory email. For some publications it’s a point of pride to offer a token payment, but others, like this one, offer only contributors copies, which, okay, I understand, it’s about as hard to run small press as it is to be a writer. The publishers said they’d be contacting us to get our addresses for our contributors’ copies, and noted they would also offer their writers a certain number of copies at wholesale price – five bucks instead of ten.

A month or so later, I recieved an email saying the anthologies had been printed and providing a link to the “wholesale” sales page. The email didn’t mention the contributors’ copies, and did not ask for my address. I waited a week or two, then wrote and asked about the copies. After several days, I received a one-sentence reply saying, yes, they would be sending contributors copies. The email didn’t offer any details about when, nor did it request my address. After another week or so, I sent a friendly reply, along with my address to spur things along. I received no response.

For some reason, on this morning, I’d thought, “oh, what-the-fuck, I’ll spend a few bucks and order a copy, just to see how it turned out.”  But when I clicked on the link there was no sign of a “wholesale price.” I sighed and paid $10 just to have it over with. Then I thought to check Amazon, and saw it listed there for $8.

I felt pathetic and ridiculous.  I’d worked a hundred hours on the story, essentially paid to have someone read it and then paid for the product. Not only had I not asked for payment, I’d ended up paying them – on both ends!

Probably due to the decreased self-esteem of the moment, I then broke my absolutely-no-social-media-before-noon rule and opened Facebook.

Fucking Facebook.

A friend had posted the latest from the LA Weekly. Once our local champion of alternative topics and long-form journalism, LA Weekly had been purchased by some secret axis-of-evil group who immediately fired ALL of the editors and all but one staff writer. And now they’d posted this ad on Twitter:

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Yes, an ad for new “contributors” who want to write, photograph or film about their town for a lark—not money, because, look at the picture – no one is WORKING — they’re just goofing around with their phones and tablets. What fun! Anyone  with access to a touchscreen should “contribute” to a publication about Los Angeles that won’t even pay  someone to help them spell “Angeleno.”

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of sympathy for miners and factory workers and old school P.R. people—anyone who’s trained to do something that used to be worth something, and now isn’t. When what you have to offer is worth nothing, it can make you feel like you’re worth nothing.

That might make you angry.

Or it might just make you super-duper-spring-a-leak-in-your-yoga-class sad.

After yoga class, I headed to the library to return some overdue books. This library has an attached coffee shop that sells fudge, and, no surprise, I was in prime fudge-eating mode. Before the woman at counter pared off a slice, she reminded me that their fudge costs $5.99 for a quarter pound. I told her to go ahead and hit me.

Three dollars later, I held my eighth-of-a-pound in my palm and thought, “This piece of 9-volt battery-sized chocolate has greater monetary value than anything I have written in the last two years.”

All my life I have adored libraries and entered them with anticipation. But on this day the endless shelves of books seemed not wondrous, but needy and pathetic, Mystery after mystery, thriller after thriller, memoir after memoir, all begging for someone –anyone — to choose them and give them a pity read. For free.

I was overwhelmed by all the books — not just in this single library but in the world. Millions of books. A Mount Everest of books, landsliding over everything — once revered classics getting squashed under The Hunger Games and Eat, Pray, Love and twenty-seven volumes by Lee-fucking-Childs and every self-published book on Amazon.

Sometimes I beat myself up for not being a great-enough writer, a fast-enough writer, a writer so in tune with the frequency of the universe that my work floats above it all with an angels’ chorus behind it.

But on this day, despite my sadness — or maybe because of it — I was kinder to myself: My lack of value, I thought, is not my fault, it’s just a result of where I’ve randomly landed in the queue of existence. I exist in a moment where there are more books than there have ever been before, more screenplays, more web-series, more magazine articles, more think pieces, more poignant, personal, political or inane observations on Facebook/Instagram/Twitter/Tumblir/Snap Chat. I happen to be someone driven to write at a time in history when the people who want to read or listen are outnumbered by the people who want to be read and be heard. Everywhere, people are desperately throwing their bottled messages into an ocean of bottles. I am just one of them. My angst is not unique. It is the angst of the bottle-throwing masses.

You know that inspirational quote (I once saw it on someone’s Facebook page)“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” 

A variant popped into my head: “What would you write if you knew it everything you wrote was destined for a fucking void?”

Maybe it was the fudge sugar hitting my bloodstream—but I felt something loosen inside me. You know how a bad situation can cross the line into being so-bad-it’s-hilarious?  I crossed the line. My writerly despair was hilarious. I was hilarious.

What would I write if the world was ending?
if all ink turned invisible after three hours?
if I was alone in an underground bunker and everyone outside it was a ravenous, illiterate zombie?

What would I write if climate change was real and none of it mattered?

Whatever the fuck I wanted.
The truth.
This.

Writing on the Other Side of the World

My first writing group — back at the very start of my transition to being a writer — was in Alice Springs, Australia.  Such groups come and go — when they survive for long periods, it is often on the wings of one energetic person.  The person you depend on to show up with the keys to the building,  who always shows up with enthusiasm and new pages. The person who accepts you and welcomes you when you are new, and whose history is long enough that when someone else new comes to the table, you learn it is actually someone returning.

For our group, Meg Williams was that person, and more.  She was a note-taker, and idea-maker. She was an ex-teacher working on a trilogy of middle-grade books. She was lovely, and though we hadn’t corresponded for a decade, when I learned she passed away last week, it pierced my heart.

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