I Want to Write Short but I Write Long, I Want to Write Fast, but I Write Slow…

Some people are good at tweet-length writing. I’m not. Some people are good at 500 word or 1000 word “flash fiction.” That’s usually not me either. I had a class once where each week we wrote from a prompt and the limit was 800 words. That was fun. But later, when I went back to turn the exercises into actual stories, they landed more in the 3000-word range. This was okay. 3000 words is about 10-12 printed pages, and even in a world with ever-shortening attention spans, most people can manage ten pages.

My last story that earned some accolades was about 3000 words and there’s a good chance that its contest performance had to do with its abbreviated length. This is not me trying to be self-deprecating. I’m pretty sure that when a reader has an obligation to read a hundred stories for a contest, they are going appreciate the stories with a lower page count! The people running the contest were traditionally screenplay contest people, and readers for screenplay contests can tell you it’s usually a job that pays by the script, not by the page, and it usually doesn’t pay enough to work out to more than minimum wage if you actually take time to read every page. Thus there is often a rule for readers — official or less so — that if the work doesn’t grab them in the first ten or 20 pages, they don’t need to keep reading. (While I’m sure other variables were at play, in was my 10-page story that won, while my 32-page story stalled out in the semi-finals.)

Literary journals also tend to appreciate stories around 3000 words or less — they can print three or four stories instead of one long-ass story. In the last eight or so months, I’ve worked on four short stories. I hoped in the beginning they might end up being about 3000 words.

They have not.

They have turned into long-ass stories. Each one is between 8000-10,000 words. This is like the no-man’s land of fiction. Too long for most journals, almost-but-not-quite in “novella” territory. Technically, I think they qualify as “novellettes, ” which most people haven’t heard of, much less read.

There are things called “chapbooks” which are like fancy, high quality ‘zines of between 16-32 pages. The majority of calls for chapbook submissions are for poetry— I think traditionally, a chapbook has been a mini-collection of poems — but a few places publish chapbooks of fiction. The artsy-craftsy part of me thinks maybe I could commission some illustrations and make a chapbook myself, I guess just for fun, since after I gave a dozen away as Xmas gifts I’m not sure what I’d do next… sell them on Etsy maybe?

The question is not pressing yet, because none of the stories are finished. They are so long that when I reached the end of the second draft of each, I was overwhelmed by the idea of going back and revising right away. They are long, weird, and strangely episodic — I’ve begun giving them miniature “chapters” as an organizational feature. I’m worried they might be boring. And bad. Bad and boring. They might be stuff like people write during a pandemic and then wake up and realize is terrible.

But the truth is, I won’t know if these stories work until they have gone through all the layers and permutations still to come. I am a messy maker. In my high school drawing class the teacher once came by, looked at something I was working on and paid me a sort-of compliment, saying that at some point my art always looked like a hot mess that he would secretly think was irretrievable, but then at a later point he would walk by and be pleasantly surprised because it actually came together. (He also noted that he didn’t really understand the mechanics of how this happened.)

This was a helpful observation to think about when I’m at the hot mess stage in my writing and feeling depressed and fearful it’s not going to get better. I remind myself that the mess is only a stage in the journey, and if I just apply myself, with patience and persistence, I might end up with something good. (It also reminds me that even if people I look up to don’t see my path, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.)

Thinking this helps some, but it certainly doesn’t immunize me against being depressed. With each project, I reach a point where I’m fearful that I’ll never get it to where I want it to be, artistically. On top of this, certain people ask what I’m working on, and in an attempt to show them that I’m not a complete wastrel, I tell them. They, in turn, in the nicest, gentlest way, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? It’s taking you forever, and that is not something we can sell.” When this happens, I often stop working on the unsellable project in order to work on a project that I think is going to be better / faster / more commercial, only to have that project arrive in the same place as project before it — the same place all the older projects are, because even though I set them aside to work on something else, I’m always planning to come back for them, like Rambo First Blood Part II. *

So right now I have four stories and two screenplays that are all in this purgatory, waiting for me to come in, guns blazing, and break them out. But I’m not really a guns-blazing type girl, so it’s more likely I’m going to have to half-carry, half-drag them out. One. At. A. Time.

And it’s going to take too long, because it’s not fast, and the results may be long, though I’d prefer something short, and though I wish the path was straight, it’s circuitous. That’s just the way it is.

*Full disclosure, not actually a movie I have seen.

My Name in The Hollywood Reporter

Today I saw that The Hollywood Reporter published this article last week.

The article is mostly about another project at Jumpcut, the studio that has optioned a pilot I wrote called Jack 9, but Jack 9 is mentioned here in the subheading…

And later in the article, I am named in conjunction with the project.

To amend a few details, my name has an additional “t” at the end, the project did NOT go through the Jumpcut incubator and I’m not sure that Freedom Road is still involved… but still, it’s fun to see one’s project in print.

Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.

THE END

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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Representation!

So, here’s a little news on the professional front.  I’ve got representation now! A little more than a year ago, I received an email from a college classmate, introducing me to his manager and suggesting that we might enjoy working together. I had some work ready to go, so I sent the manager some samples which he liked and thought maybe he could do something with. He suggested that we spend time working together to see 1) How we worked together creatively and personally/professionally, 2) If I could continue producing work, 3) If he could get my material read (and what the response was), and 4) If we could get me more representation in the form of an agent.

Early on, I think most aspiring writers have a vision of being “discovered,” by someone who “falls in love,” with their writing. Clearly, this scenario was a bit less romantic. After taking a moment to calibrate, I was grateful for this. There’s a certain rush that comes when people LOVE you immediately, and say you are brilliant, and “you’re going places, kid.” But I’ve now had some Hollywood relationships that began with enthusiasm and fanfare end with no fanfare at all. As the saying goes “If you let yourself  get swept off your feet, you’ll probably land on your ass*.” So, this probationary arrangement was not unappealing to me.  I figured it would keep me from getting complacent and keep us both working to impress the other.

For about the next six months we tested the waters.  I was very happy with both his notes and his work ethic. Creatively he was insightful but not too pushy, and I liked how he was responsive, detail-oriented, and didn’t over-promise. We discussed formalizing our relationship based on that, but there was an issue that we were having a hard time getting readers to respond to the work we sent out. And by respond, I don’t mean emotionally respond–I mean even glance at the material and take the time to say no. This is not surprising, because feature scripts, especially from new writers are a hard sell**. But, it was a point of concern.

Then, I tried my hand at writing a television pilot.  This time, when my manager sent it to three people, amazingly, all three people responded. They didn’t all respond with “yes, tell me more about the series,” but they all read it and responded (and one of them said, “yes, tell me more about the series.”) This seemed like some movement in the right direction, and gave my manager the confidence to show the pilot to agents and a couple of agencies. One of them was interested, and I went in and met with them. Before our second meeting with the agency, the manager and I signed a contract.

So, for this moment, I have a “team,” consisting of both and agent and manager. They cannot work miracles, and they will not be champions of everything I write. But for certain projects that they feel have marketplace potential, they can amplify my visibility…to convince more people to read a script, and arrange some meetings with people at companies who have a track record of getting things made. That, for me, is a huge step forward.

So, YAY, representation!!

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*Actually, this is not “a saying,” I think I just made it up. It’s pretty good, though, right?

**Some depressing but informative articles about selling spec feature scripts.

The Odds of Selling a Spec Screenplay (2011)

What are your real chances of success? (2012)

What Screenwriters Can Learn from Hollywood’s Dismal Spec Market (April, 2016)

2016 Spec Script Sales to date (October, 2016)