Tag Archives: My Soul to Keep

Danger Word: how my first short film is giving birth to my feature screenplay

Update 7/13: The My Soul to Keep feature screenplay I wrote with my husband, Steven Barnes, is finished and being shopped. 

In December, I posted here that I was going to begin working on a My Soul to Keep screenplay (with husband and collaborator Steven Barnes).  Today, we’re on page 73.

A novel's journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

A novel’s journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

Progress hasn’t been easy.  But as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, I’ve been inspired by teaching talented students, guest speakers like director Ava DuVernay, and an Octavia E. Butler Celebration in March that featured a Black Science Fiction Short Film Festival and shorts like Pumzi, Wake, and The Abandon.  I’ve also had interest and input from directors and producers.

But since My Soul to Keep was in development at Samuel Goldwyn Productions and Fox Searchlight in past years, I understand that there is a long road between a producer’s query and a movie.  I have lost author friends who never lived to see it: Octavia, L.A. (Leslie) Banks, E. Lynn Harris.

Several other screenwriters have written drafts of My Soul to Keep in development, but Steve and I had never written our take.  I realized that emotional factors were blocking my writing progress.   It was so difficult to coax my Muse out to play when I couldn’t promise that the writing would be anything except a long exercise toward disappointment.  As a screenwriter on other projects, I’d been down that road before.

Then Steve and I decided to co-produce our first short film, Danger Word:  15 minutes on a shoestring budget.  We’re flying to the rural New York location to begin the shoot in two days–and it has already changed everything.  Taking control of my creative process in the film world has coaxed my Muse out again. (To learn more about Danger Word and how you can support this film, please click here to see our Indiegogo page. Our deadline is approaching!) 

The idea to do a short film came out of the blue.  In the wake of the Octavia E. Butler Celebration, other filmmakers were also inspired to pursue funding for their projects: M. Asli Dukan, who is in post-production for her groundbreaking black science fiction documentary Invisible Universe; and Atlanta writers/filmmakers Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade, who recently completed an Indiegogo campaign for their steamfunk short film Rite of Passage: Initiation.  (Trailers for both were screened at the Celebration.)

Suddenly, we believed.  We had an audience.  We could do it.

You can do it.  Sometimes artists forget those four simple words; the very words that propel our art.  But between HD video and crowd funding, the film landscape has become more accessible.  It isn’t easy by any means, but it is easier. (Our preproduction campaign in progress, for example, has been powered by social media, primarily Facebook.)

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison (“The Wire”)

Enter Danger Word.  That was the first piece of prose I ever wrote in collaboration with Steve, so it’s only fitting that it will be our first film together.  Originally published in the Brandon Massey’s 2004 Dark Dreams anthology and re-imagined as an episode in our 2012 YA horror novel Devil’s Wake, it’s the story of a young girl and her grandfather who have survived the zombie plague in his wooded cabin–and how an outing goes terribly wrong.  Rural location. Two main characters.  My friend Luchina Fisher had just directed a short film in 2011, Death in the Family, and she was excited about directing Danger Word.  The first day I floated the idea on Facebook, a prospective cast member wanted to see a script.

And in the midst of the duties of a producer–everything from fundraising to helping with decisions about casting to the makeup/FX artist–Steve and I have steadily been working on My Soul to Keep.  We will finish our first full draft soon.

If you haven’t read it, My Soul to Keep is the 1997 supernatural thriller that launched my African Immortals series: it’s about a 500-year-old immortal, Dawit, who breaks away from his secret brotherhood to find love with his daughter and wife, Jessica.  It’s a thriller with a love story at its core.

Why has Danger Word helped so much in the creation process for My Soul to Keep?

Because as a novelist who took up screenwriting later in my career, I struggled with the notion of spending weeks or months on a project that might never see the light of day.  Sure, I wrote drawers of unpublished fiction when I was learning my craft, but I’d been spoiled by book contracts and the certainty that someone would read my work.  Since most screenplays are never produced, period, screenwriters don’t have the luxury of that certainty–or even that likelihood.  Twelve drafts later, a project might die in film development–and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get twelve drafts.

And screenwriters of color face obstacles that make a tough industry even tougher.

But watching Danger Word come to life–hiring a veteran actor like Frankie Faison to star in it,  watching an excellent team assemble around a story about a girl and her grandfather–has convinced me that I can make a film.

And if I can make a short film, I can make a longer film.   If I can make a longer film, I can make My Soul to Keep one day.

My Muse likes that idea just fine.

Learn more about Tananarive Due at www.tananarivedue.com 

To contribute to Danger Word, CLICK HERE TO GO TO INDIEOGOGO 

To see the panel of authors at Spelman College’s Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts on March 21, 2013, CLICK HERE for the YouTube video.  (Panelists included Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Sheree R. Thomas, Brandon Massey and Jewelle Gomez.)  

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The long walk of faith: a novelist decides (again) to write her own screenplay

When I was in college at Northwestern University, I asked Stuart M. Kaminsky the best way to break into screenwriting.  His answer: write novels.  (Nowadays, when adaptations comprise at least 50 percent of produced films, his advice rings just as true.)

In my case, he turned out to be right.  Almost as soon as my first novel, The Between, was published in 1995, I got calls from producers—including Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks—who were interested in producing it as a film.  It was eventually optioned for a year by Longbow Productions, which produced A League of Their Own.  Then it stalled.

I got closer to the screen with my second novel, My Soul to Keep, which Blair Underwood optioned for three years before it was in development for seven years at Fox Searchlight. It once got so close to production that the studio exercised its option.  (Translation: Instead of renting to own, they bought it outright.)  “We will make this movie,” the studio president told me in the commissary one day.

Good times.

Just a few of the many unproduced drafts of My Soul to Keep

After the rights to My Soul to Keep reverted to me last year in the midst of my mother’s long illness (and her death this past February), I weighed several options.  I was tempted to option it to a producer and director I know and respect who wanted to pitch it as a television series.

Then I was offered a screenwriting class at Spelman College, where I am the 2012-2013 Cosby Chair for the Humanities, and I got an idea:  Why not write a screenplay for My Soul to Keep?

I earned membership in the Writer’s Guild of American (WGA) based on an adaptation of my novel The Good House I wrote with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes.  We developed the script with the production team that had brought My Soul to Keep to Fox Searchlight—Blair Underwood and Nia Hill and D’Angela Proctor of Strange Fruit Films. With Forest Whitaker attached to direct, we sold three drafts.

But, as with My Soul to Keep, it never got made.  And in all of those years of development, I had never written my own adaptation of My Soul to Keep.

If you teach a subject you love, you know how the teaching experience can energize you, and I needed a boost of energy. Steve and I had developed a dramedy called Inauguration Day (a family drama centered around President Barack Obama’s inauguration), a horror script called The Pack, and pitched everything from an adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Patternmaster to a zombie television series we eventually wrote as our most recent novel, Devil’s Wake.

After years in Hollywood, hearing everything from “Do the characters have to be black?” to suggestions from producers that were so far afield that they sounded like kiss-offs (though never at Searchlight or from my own team), screenwriting came with a sting. As I told my screenwriting students on the first day of class, screenwriters can’t just self-publish a screenplay and expect people to read it as if it were poetry or prose.  Screenplays need a major element—production, which can cost a fortune—to see the light of day.  Beyond that, screenwriting is so collaborative that it’s a very different experience from writing a novel.

Because my screenwriting has been so speculative—and I needed to make a living—I haven’t written a screenplay since 2009.

But suddenly, a perfect storm.

I don’t have a novel under contract.  I’m leading a class of eager screenwriters.  We’re studying screenplays, talking to screenwriters and trading ideas.  It’s the perfect laboratory for writing.

And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  I’ve barely written a word of fiction since my mother’s death, beyond the deadline heat to finish my latest suspense novel with Steve (and in partnership with Underwood), South by Southeast, which will be published this Sept. 18th.

But I am going to write a draft of My Soul to Keep.  Probably three or four.  Maybe five or six.  Or twelve.

Steve is also a good influence on me.  He has been developing a screenplay with a major producer over the past few months, and watching him work has inspired me.  He’s on his third draft and still going strong.

But don’t expect me to post a writing diary and updates on this blog.  This is the last time I plan to write about it.  Too many writers spend precious time talking about our projects when we should be writing.  Like Nike says, I’m going to Just Do It.  (Journalism students, I’m also setting a blogging example, as you can see.)

The road is long between the decision to write a screenplay and the final project on the big screen—much of which is out of my control.  But that’s show business.

As a twentysomething Miami Herald reporter who aspired to write novels, I had an idea for a book about a woman who discovers that her husband is a 500-year-old Ethiopian immortal.  But when I sat at my keyboard to face the blank screen, fear paralyzed me.  What made me think I could write such an ambitious story?  What if I failed? The same fears haunt me now.

Now, as then, I recall words from the I Ching:  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Students, let’s walk together.

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Your blockbuster book trailer (on a budget)

For years, writers have been using book trailers to bring attention to their work, hoping to create the coveted “viral” YouTube video…or at least make a few readers curious enough to check out their next book.  Several companies offer services to produce trailers for authors, and some of them do good work.

My husband, Steven Barnes, and I were thrilled in 2010 when our partner Blair Underwood directed and produced The Best Book Trailer Ever Made (in our opinion) as part of the Vook (video ebook) for our mystery collaboration From Cape Town with Love, which I have written about on this blog.  But Blair had a $5,000 promotional budget from our publisher to produce several video vignettes that were woven together into a trailer…and most of us won’t have that kind of money to invest.

Fresh from my experience on From Cape Town with Love, I decided to shoot a short promotional video for my upcoming novel.   And I wanted to do it with no budget, no cast and (virtually) no film experience.  Years ago, I remember watching what I thought was one of the scariest movie promos I’d ever seen–a trailer for the movie Se7en that was brilliant in its simplicity: If I’m remembering right, director David Fincher simply stared into a camera and talked about how he’d just made the scariest movie of his career.   He was so convincing that I had goosebumps by the time he finished, and I couldn’t wait to see his film.

Coming Sept. 6th

My upcoming novel is a supernatural thriller, My Soul to Take, to be published Sept. 6th.  It’s part of a series I launched in 1997 with the novel My Soul to Keep, about a woman who discovers that her husband, Dawit, is a 500-year-old immortal.  The Living Blood that created his immortality has sustained three other novels, and is the core of a fictitious underground drug called Glow that can heal any ailment.  I decided against the Fincher staring-into-the-camera idea because my first take didn’t work for me.  Not enough mood.   Ultimately, my own face bored me.

So I decided to do what countless other horror filmmakers have done when they want to produce cheap movies:  I went the mock documentary route.   All I would need was a video camera,  a dark room and a premise.  The premise was easy:  I’d already established an illegal network to transport the Glow in my previous novel, so I decided to shoot a video tutorial for “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.  (I’d similarly posted “rules” for conductors on the Facebook fan page for my fictitious character Fana-Glow Healer.)    All I needed was images and my voice, and I’d find a fun way to promote the book directly at the end.

Of course, equipment was a limitation, since my favorite video camera is on my iPhone.  I knew it would look cheap, so I used the effects from a $1.99 iPhone app called 8mm Vintage Camera to make the video quality look even worse.  (“That’s right, folks–I meant for it to look like this!”)   And by doing it all in one take–actually three takes, since my flashlight didn’t work once and I flubbed lines in another try–I didn’t even have to learn video editing.  Heck, I didn’t even insert credits.  It’s all on the screen.

And it’s all in the script.  Try to use cleverness to compensate for your lack of cash.  To me, that’s the real lesson of this experience:  If you can bite off a tiny chunk of your novel’s premise and find a way to bring it to life, there’s no need to spend a lot of money.  A book trailer can be a series of quick video footage from man-on-the-street style interviews with people who love your work–or will pretend they do.  A book trailer can take any shape or form you can dream up…no matter how small.

I’m not saying this trailer will win any Oscars, or get a million hits.  But it was fun to shoot, and my readers got a glimpse of a world they love.

CLICK HERE to see what you think.  What are your ideas for making a book trailer on a budget?

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Writing & the Art of a Good Scare

 

I try to sound sympathetic, but secretly   the stories are music to my ears.

I couldn’t sleep.  I had to put your book   down for a while.  The cover was so  scary that I had to take if off.  I can’t look at dead leaves the same way.  My husband dressed up like your character and scared me to death when he jumped out of the closet. (He’s a keeper!)

The great Harlan Ellison once advised me to avoid labels like the plague, and I know some readers are forced to argue my case at their book club meetings.  The scariest book I’ve ever read may be Toni Morrison’s Beloved, alongside novels like Pet Sematary by Stephen King.  Horror is just a label.

But I like to write scary stuff.  I don’t know why.  If I want to write about a woman in a difficult relationship, her lover is an immortal.  If I’m reuniting a character with her grandmother, Grandma has been dead for years.  I can’t help myself.  Sometimes I wish I could.

Often, the supernatural element is more gentle and metaphysical, but once in a while I set out to give readers nightmares.

Original hardcover: My Soul to Keep (1997)

It’s not an easy task.  Novelists have to compete with real-life headlines and everyday turmoil that are far scarier than anything we can dream up.  Haunted house—so what?  The bank just foreclosed on your house.  Your boss just laid you off.  Your parent is in a nursing home.

The challenge of writing scary fiction, I think, rests with the very thing that appeals to us as readers and writers:  We’re looking for an escape. No matter what else happens to us over the course of our lives, we won’t have to confront a demon that can possess us.  Most of us, anyway.    Horror fiction scares us in a safe context.  As both a writer and a reader, I look to characters unfortunate enough to land in these books for tools about how to behave when the world caves in on us.

My favorite experiences as a writer are when I can make myself cry…or scare myself.  The crying is easy—I’m a softie.  I can find myself bawling as I write a scene a reader might encounter without the blink of an eye.  Whatever pain I’ve pricked might be purely personal.

But if I scare myself…chances are, I’ll scare the reader too.

The scariest book I’ve written may be a novel called The Good House.  It’s my only book about characters facing a force that’s Evil through and through—so evil it had to be put to sleep hundreds of years ago, and my characters accidentally woke it up.

Every writer of scary fiction has a different philosophy about how to scare the pants off of readers, but I’ll use The Good House as an example of what worked for me.  (And bear in mind that many of these tools are useful in creating engaging fiction across the board.)

1.)    Create characters your readers believe.

This is probably the most oft-ignored rule in bad horror movies and fiction.  You can create the most frightening concept imaginable, but if you don’t have real people to unleash it on, your readers will yawn.  Who would read a 300-plus page novel about a dog barking outside of a Pinto unless they really cared about the mother and son trapped inside?  (Cujo.) Ask Stephen King how important characterization is in creating horror fiction.

While I was writing, I tried to make the protagonist in The Good House especially vivid by pinning up a photo of Angela Bassett, after whom my lead character was named.  I tried to infuse my book’s Angela with the brittle strength Bassett conveys in so many of her movie roles.  The rest was just trying to imagine how I would behave if I found myself in her horrible predicament.

2.)    Delve into your own fears.

This might sound like a no-brainer, but sometimes writers do everything they can to avoid touching the heart of what frightens them.  The Good House was chock full of real-life horrors:  A friend’s sudden loss of her teenage son.  A story from a shaman about a demon gone wild.  A bizarre newspaper story about a man who drowned his son in front of his playmate.

Most of all, I was grappling with intense feelings of isolation during the six years I first moved away from my family, job and friends in Miami to live in the Pacific Northwest.  I expressed my own sense of rootlessness in a character with similar feelings, only amplified.   It’s no coincidence that I wrote my first supernatural novel, The Between, after experiencing 1992’s Hurricane Andrew.  (And that hurricane later showed up in my novel The Living Blood.)

3.)    Create a real world.

On one level, your readers are daring you to scare them.  They’ve hunkered down into a mindset that says I-know-this-isn’t-real-so-there.  A short prologue that introduces your supernatural element or gives them a tastes of the horror to come is a fine hook…but after that, slow down and take your time.  Ground your story in the mundane aspects of life we all know and recognize…and then slowly begin to show your supernatural hand.  By the time your readers realize you’ve roped them into believing the unbelievable, it’s too late.  They’re stuck on the ride.

Also, give your characters—and your readers—time to breathe.  One thrill-ride after another will desensitize them for the moments you really want to count.  Slow down.  Add some levity.  A quiet dinner.  A love scene.  Then…gotcha!

4.)    Steer clear of movie clichés.

The Good House has elements of both a traditional haunted house novel as well as an Exorcist-style demon…but I didn’t set out to imitate anything I had seen before.  My challenge was to try to re-imagine familiar concepts and make them my own.  In her last novel, Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler delved into vampire mythology with her own unique interpretation, drawing on her skills as a science fiction writer.  In my view, far too many writers set out to write horror fiction because they’re inspired by movies rather than the route any good writer should follow—reading a lot of good literature and developing a unique voice and perspective.

If you’ve seen it a million times before, so have your readers.

Don’t watch horror movies, except for fun.  Read, read, read.

Note for screenwriters:  This applies to you too.  If you want to write horror scripts, READ horror scripts.  And Oscar-nominated scripts.  And any quality scripts you can get your hands on.

I wrote three drafts of a screenplay adaptation of The Good House for Fox Searchlight with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes. My creative breakthroughs as a screenwriter during that time came after reading scripts like Josh Olson’s A History of Violence, Alex Garland’s 28 Days Later and 12 Monkeys, by Chris Maker & David and Janet Peoples.

Watching the films is cool too, but I learned far more from reading the screenplays before and while viewing the final product.

Where’s the movie version of The Good House?  So far, still on paper.  In my imagination.  Like most film projects, it fizzled out, awaiting a new home.

But meanwhile, Steve and I are collaborating on our first horror novel together—a zombie novel called Devil’s Wake.  (It originated as a short story, “Danger Word,” we published in an anthology called Dark Dreams, recently reprinted in The Living Dead 2.)

And yes, it’s going to be scary.

*****

2015 update: The Good House is currently optioned again. My newest short story collection, Ghost Summer, is on sale now. My YA zombie series with Steven Barnes, Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls, is also available now. WATCH the short film adapted from “Danger Word”: www.dangerword.com.

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“THE END”…and the Mourning After

Ask any writer how writing a novel or screenplay can take over your life.

Once, I wrote a research-intensive novel in six months on a publisher’s deadline, start to finish.  The Between, my first novel, took a year.  My Soul to Keep took two.

Writing a novel is more than sitting at a computer to type words on a page:  It’s bringing a world, and the people who populate it, roaring to life.  Since I don’t have a beach house or a wintry mountain cabin retreat, I create soundtracks that help me fall into the world quickly, and that music truly does seem to take me somewhere far away.

When things are really working, it’s very much like Alice’s rabbit hole.

I see the scenes unfold.  I hear the characters talking to me, even when I wish they’d shut up and leave me alone.  I shed tears when I prick pain hidden in the imaginary world of my story.

I love my novels, or I wouldn’t have made the commitment to begin the journey—but there’s always a point when the project fills me with terror.  At any time, especially before the all-important midway point, a long project seems to threaten to disintegrate into nothing but lost months and a failed project.  (Since I’ve been a professional writer, I’ve only started one novel I never finished…100 pages that ended up forgotten in a drawer.  It can happen.  Luckily, it wasn’t under contract!)

Then, one day, the magical day arrives…and you type the words THE END.

It’s an amazing feeling.  A whole section of my brain empties out.  Celebration!

Except….what fills up the hole my project made?

Last week, I sent my editor the fourth installment of my African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep—this one entitled My Soul to Take (Fall, 2011).

My Soul to Keep was published in 1997

The summer was a brutal rush.  The last two or three weeks were particularly hard, since I could see the finish line:  To bed late, up early.  Glazed eyes when I talked to my husband and 6-year-old son, since I was nowhere near them.  My soundtrack of operatic climax music blasting in the house all day long, and in my headphones until late at night.

Then…silence.  Waiting.  And a palpable sense of loss.

Now I miss the novel.  Badly.  I’ve been harassing my editor and advance readers, champing at the bit to jump in and start editing so I can visit the world again.  I’ll have a couple more chances to live in the novel before it goes to press…but one day soon, I’ll be cast out for good.  And no editing will replicate the feeling of creating the scenes for the first time.

I’ve been through this cycle again and again, and it never seems to get any easier.  The empty feeling always takes me a little bit by surprise.

I mean, sheesh, it’s not like they’re real people!

But to writers, our characters are absolutely real.  We can touch the worlds we create.  Screenplays are even worse, because so few movies make it to the screen—at least I’ll see my novel in a book store one day!  I could self-publish if I had to….but how many of us will go out and make our own movies?

As days go on, the ghosts in my head will be replaced by daily living concerns.  And I’m lucky to be co-authoring a zombie novel called Devil’s Wake with my husband, STEVEN BARNES, that is well underway…so at least I have a new creative home to move into.  All I need is a soundtrack.

But the only thing as hard as dreaming a world is leaving that world behind.

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Clearing the mist: My African Immortals in Blood Prophecy

Recently, I heard Terry McMillan read from Getting to Happy, this fall’s forthcoming sequel to Waiting to Exhale—and she mentioned that she had to re-read her watershed novel to research the new one.  After all, we forget our characters’ voices, occupations and quirks.  (Heck, sometimes we forget their names!)

Writing Blood Prophecy is a particular challenge in that regard because it is the fourth book in my African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep in 1997.  The series follows the lives of mortals and immortals who have contact with Living Blood that can heal any ailment almost instantly, examining issues of life, loss and mortality.

What would it be like if we could live forever?

My Soul to Keep was followed by The Living Blood in 2001 and, finally, Blood Colony in 2008.  (OK, so it was a long wait.  I didn’t know the series was going to continue!)

Each novel is intended as a stand-alone novel for new readers, but as the author I have to continually check in to make sure I know who’s who and what’s what.  Just to make it interesting this time around, I’ve added a pop star named Phoenix I introduced in a completely unrelated novel entitled Joplin’s Ghost.

My African Immortals novels always challenge me because of the fantasy aspect, historical research and character quirks related to their incredible longevity. I’m also asking questions about human nature.

This time around, I’m also realizing that I have a bit more to learn about my African Immortals themselves.  The premise of My Soul to Keep was that 59 Ethiopian immortals live in an underground colony in Lalibela, Ethiopia.  They were mostly off-stage during the first book, but I actually took my characters to the colony in The Living Blood.

Even so, I’m realizing that I have a lot to learn about them.  I try never to retread old ground in a new book, which means I’m having to open up my world a bit.

And while much of the series has focused on a reader favorite named Dawit, he has dozens of Life Brothers I’m still learning about as I go.  With advice from my husband and soulmate, Steven Barnes, I’m now writing an essay to fill in some of the foggy aspects of who these men are and what makes them tick. I’ll be writing a similar essay about my antagonist, who was introduced in Blood Prophecy.

What is their history?  What are their desires?  How can I humanize them?  My essays will be very similar to the writing exercises I assign my MFA students and coaching clients.  And why not?

The longer I write, the more I have to learn.

Blood Prophecy will be published in 2011.

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