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3 Things I Learned from Moderating the “Empire” Writers Panel

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Photo credit: Kima Jones

Saturday, I had the pleasure and honor of moderating of writers from the hit show “Empire” at L.A.’s Leimert Park Book Fair: Joshua Allen, Eric Haywood, twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James, Attica Locke and Carlito Rodriguez.

For an hour, the writers spoke frankly about their own careers, their experiences in Hollywood, and what it’s like to work for mega hit show “Empire”—which simply must be one of the best writing environments in television. As in…Best. Job. Ever.

They laugh all day. Yes, they argue. Yes, they get the job done. But they have “Good Times” sing-alongs. Their stomachs hurt because they laugh all day. One of the writers actually said this.

But I digress.

Leimert Park Book Fair

Leimert Park Book Fair

As a novelist who is also writing screenplays and pitching my novels for TV and film, I’m always eager to hear the secret to success from veterans—just as I listened eagerly to Anne Rice when I interviewed her in 1992 as a newspaper reporter dreaming of becoming a novelist. From Rice, I learned that I should shed my reservations about writing about the supernatural. I never confessed that I wanted to write novels, but Rice told me that she had learned to laugh off the stigma of genre because her books are taught in universities. That realization was a breakthrough, and I wrote my first novel, The Between, within nine months of our interview.

The “Empire” panel may provide its own kind of breakthrough—helping me focus my resolve to work harder, and smarter, to break into television and film.

The first thing that stood out: the collective EXPERIENCE in the room. Attica Locke had never worked in a TV writers’ room, but she’d spent years writing unproduced scripts for studios. (She only started writing novels–which are acclaimed–because she couldn’t produce her own politically charged legal thrillers like her new novel, Pleasantville.)

Even other writers with little television writing experience brought experience from other realms: Carlito Rodriguez was editor-in-chief of The Source. Joshua Allen was a playwright. Even young writers like identical twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James had years of experience in television. Everyone on the panel earned their seat at the writers’ table after years of striving and not despairing at setbacks—Allen worked on “Hostages” for a year, for example, and then it was canceled.

And most writers had waded through the experience of being “the only one in the room,” as discussed in a recent NPR article based on comic Wyatt Cenac’s anecdote about Jon Stewart shouting him down when Cenac was the only black writer in the room on “The Daily Show.” You’re the only person of color at the table. Or the only woman. Or the only [fill in the blank.] Carlito Rodriguez joked that he is black, but he is also Latino—“which still makes me the only one in the room.”

They, too, have learned how to choose their battles and experienced the extra stress in their bones. But now, they say, they feel like they have found family.

Eric Haywood, who previously wrote for “Soul Food” and “Private Practice,” rightfully pointed out that “Empire” benefited from the pioneering work of Shonda Rhimes. (I would compare Rhimes’s impact on television to what Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale did for black writers in publishing.)

Here are my biggest takeaways:

1. Write more. So you finally wrote that screenplay? Congratulations. Now move on to the next one. My screenwriting time competes with my prose writing time, but I want to learn to better set aside time for both. One screenplay will not build a career in Hollywood. Neither will two. Or three. Remember how much rejection you face with your prose? Expect more rejection in Hollywood.

2. The Way is in Training. I have never taken a Sundance lab or even a two-day boot camp with Robert McKee. Collaborating with my husband, Steven Barnes (who has extensive TV writing experience), I have learned to write screenplays by writing screenplays (with smart notes from producers), reading screenplays, and reading books about writing screenplays. I write good scripts, and I love teaching screenwriting, but I can always learn more. With an 11-year-old son, two part-time teaching jobs, and a life as a novelist, the focused time, energy and effort even a short a class demands would be good for me.

3. Network, network, network. Because I already have cultivated industry contacts over fifteen years as an author trying to adapt my books to film or TV, I tend to be too low-key about following through after new connections. I collect business cards I often don’t end up using. I let email chains die. I’m a bit shy, so I’m not a naturally social person—I’m a writer!—and I live too far outside of the city to take a drive to L.A. lightly, whether it’s for lunch or—dear Lord—a meeting. But everyone knows Hollywood is built on lunch and meetings, so am I serious or not? I may not be able to do everything, but I need to be more active in the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA). That’s a start. And lunch now and then with new people wouldn’t kill me. (Find a way to improve your version of networking, i.e. attending a film festival with accessible panelists.)

These principles aren’t new to me. They’re not new to you either. But sometimes it takes a panel of writers to help clarify what we already know.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA and creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her short story collection, Ghost Summer, will be published Sept. 1. 

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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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WRITERS’ SECRETS: You tell me yours, I’ll tell you mine

What tips and tricks get you through the writing day?

Anyone who writes regularly knows that writing is a complex psychological and technical process, much more than coming up with an idea and happily typing on the page.  As writers, we trip ourselves up at so many stages:

  • We want to write, but never find the time.
  • We write, but we don’t finish what we write.
  • We finish what we write, but we don’t submit for representation or publication.
  • We don’t KEEP submitting until we find the right home.

And writing never gets any easier.  With every new project, I am besieged by voices that tell me my writing is terrible, my new  project won’t hold up to anything else I’ve written, and I’ll be laughed out of the industry.  Every project.

Recently, when I mentioned this on Twitter, one of my followers confessed that her internal editor has prevented her from writing any fiction since January.  That’s no joke.  For some writers, fearful voices might mean a project is never written.  A dream is deferred.

Here’s another secret: I have to fight to find time to write too.  I once knew a poet who disappeared to a cabin in the woods each summer to do his writing, but I never learned the art of the complete-peace-and-solitude model—the closest I get to that is a closed door and a deadline.  The less time I have to write, the less time I have to search for a magical state of “flow.”   Because of my career in journalism, I’ve trained my Muse to show up on a schedule, more or less, whether she likes it or not.

How do I do it?  By editing my freshest pages on the project, or my most polished.  And lots of music.

Because writers often work alone, too often we feel like we must suffer alone.  That’s why it’s so important for writers to seek out each other’s fellowship, and to hear writers they enjoy confess that they grapple with the same struggles.  I have had great teachers, readers and advice along the way.

My single best piece of writing advice might have come from my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Estaver.  “In order to be a writer,” she told me, “you must wallpaper your wall with rejection slips.”  While that advice may not hold as true in the era of instant publishing, it was the perfect advice for an insecure artist about to weather her storm of rejection.

That one simple statement told me that it wouldn’t be easy.  It wouldn’t come quickly.  It would be the battle of my life.

Once I knew that, I could relax and get started.

What was your best writing advice?  What secrets get you through your writing day?


Tananarive Due has won an American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award.  Her audio MP3, “Secrets to a Writer’s Life:  From Inspiration to Publication” is available for instant download.  CLICK HERE for more information.


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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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Writing through the Fear

Years ago, I had the opportunity to work with the Alex Haley Estate to write a novel on the life of Madam C.J. Walker, The Black Rose.   I had access to papers, letters, documents and transcripts Haley had compiled while he was researching his novel before his death.

I wrote The Black Rose with research from the Alex Haley Estate

In one transcript, Haley was getting a pep talk from a relative, akin to “You can do it!”  I wondered if Haley had felt daunted by his success after Roots.  How do you follow up an international blockbuster?

That pep talk stuck with me.  There I was, a young writer trying to write my first historical novel on a tight deadline in partnership with a beloved author’s estate, and I felt gripped by fear each day.  I stared at Madam Walker’s photo for inspiration.  I thought about my parents’ civil rights battles in the 1960s.  Whatever it took.

You can do it, I told myself.   Haley’s pep talk could have been for me.

Fear touches all of us, and it can be crippling.  Fear is also sneaky; it whispers to us in a voice that sounds very much like our own.

I’ve wrestled with those voices nonstop while I’ve been working on my current writing project, tentatively entitled Blood Prophecy, the fourth book in my African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep.  Each new book feels like a lot to live up to.

Here’s what happened recently:  With an eye toward the deadline, I expanded my outlining process by creating index cards for my remaining scenes.  I was writing an especially difficult portion of the book—a reintroduction to the colony of immortals in Lalibela, Ethiopia, that first appeared in The Living Blood,  entering my fantasy realm more deeply.

And my writing was speeding up.  Considerably.  My page quotas from the early pages felt slim compared to my new marathon writing sessions.  I was on fire!

This is CRAP! my voice shouted to me.  You’ll have to throw it all out.   Slow down.

It was a Friday afternoon, and the inspiration seeped right out of my head.  The characters—who had felt real enough to hear and touch a moment before—morphed to mere symbols on a page.  It looked like a mess.  I still had two more hours before my son came home, but that brought the end of my writing day.

You can guess what happened next:  I read the Friday pages over the weekend, and they were fine.  First draft, of course, ripe for texture and tweaking, but the revisions came easily.  And quickly.  And I’ll have plenty of chances to revise it later.

I had psyched myself out of a stellar writing day because I got scared.

Fear has stopped me before.

After I wrote The Between, my first novel, it sat in a drawer for a year because it had been rejected exactly twice, by a contest and a mega-agent.  I convinced myself it had been only an exercise, that it wasn’t good enough.   A year later, when I got the confidence to begin submitting, I found an agent immediately…and she sold it in two weeks.

As a writer, my fear has manifested in many ways, always slowing me down.

And I’m not alone.  My husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, surveyed 300 writers on what they most wanted to see in a writing course.  The top answer had to do with addressing fear.  (His free course, “The Seven Faces of F.E.A.R.,” is available at www.diamondhour.com.)

No matter how many times I undergo the cycle, once in a while my fear voices fool me.  In book after book, I have to remind myself to ignore the voice that says that whatever I’m writing won’t measure up to my previous work.  It’s so unfair to compare first drafts to finished books!

I can only imagine how Alex Haley felt.

But I’m happy with the progress of Blood Prophecy.   I’m having a reunion with old characters, and learning more about new ones.

And I’m writing it as fast as I can, without fear.


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