Tag Archives: Tananarive Due

Selma, mighty Selma (2014)

“People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”  –James Baldwin

la_ca_1021_selma

David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.

 

I was raised by two civil rights activists – attorney John Due and the late Patricia Stephens Due—so stories of Martin Luther King, Jr. were common in my house. My mother first met Dr. King at a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) workshop in Miami in 1959. My aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, who attended with her, is an activist. Our godparents were activists, black and white.

Even without an official holiday, my sisters and I got to skip school every January 15 for annual birthday celebrations that brought neighbors, activists and politicians to our home to reflect on Dr. King and the legacy of The Movement. We held hands, listened to Dr. King’s speeches, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” As an adult, I co-authored a civil rights memoir with my mother, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.

My parents always stressed two things about the Movement:

  • The Movement was not about a single man, but about the faceless marchers and activists who were willing to put their lives, safety and futures at risk.
  • King was only a single human being. Often, he was afraid for his life.

The most vivid family anecdote, to me, was how my mother’s German shepherd, Scout, lunged at Dr. King at a press conference in St. Augustine in 1964 and filled his face with fear. (I can relate. My earliest memory is that same dog glaring at me, and I am still afraid of dogs.)

Which brings me to Ava DuVernay’s masterful film Selma, starring talented powerhouse David Oyelowo as Dr. King. This film, shot in only 32 days, took fifty years to bring to the big screen—and DuVernay’s masterwork is worthy of the wait. Although my parents did not go to Selma, this stirring film captures the civil rights movement – and the Martin Luther King, Jr. – from my parents’ stories. It is the truest civil rights depiction I have seen on film.

Its timing is also remarkable, released in the midst of a growing #BlackLivesMatter national social movement underway to complete the civil rights work depicted in the film. And it offers its own potential history: Ava DuVernay, already nominated for a Golden Globe, could become the first black woman nominated for, or to win, an Oscar as Best Director.

Selma is so relevant that it’s almost uncanny—the police abuses, the tear gas, and the brave masses willing to risk their lives for change. Bradford Young’s beautiful cinematography unfolds at times like a dream, at times like a nightmare, eerily reminiscent of so many images we see from protests here and now.

Selma is a film about Dr. King and the quest for voting rights—but it is also about politics, activist strategy, intergenerational divides, inter-organizational bickering, marriage strain and the heroism of young and old, black and white, to create that historic march. Selma depicts Dr. King and the civil rights era of my parents’ stories—a terrible and wonderful moment in history when, as my mother so often said, ordinary people did extraordinary things.

Some of my favorite moments are the most mundane, human ones: a husband and wife emptying the trash together, a man finding late-night solace in the voice of a gospel singer, comrades laughing around the table while they enjoy a meal prepared with love. But the film also doesn’t shy away from the Movement’s violence, pain and frailties. Part portrait, part love letter, part primer, part call to action, Selma is a singular film of its time.

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo as Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King

Too often, black artists have seemed invisible to the Academy—or, when they weren’t, voters’ choices did not reflect our own sensibilities as viewers. Too often, we have been stereotyped and typecast or left out altogether, our stories relegated to the wings.

I have seen many fine films this Oscar season, but none as big as Selma.

When Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions hired Ava DuVernay to direct Selma, he got it right.

Ava DuVernay got Selma right.

With Selma, Oscar has a chance to get it right too.

*****

On Ava DuVernay

Selma ava-duvernay

The only people surprised by director Ava DuVernay’s storming of Hollywood are those who haven’t been following her on Twitter. DuVernay, a former publicist, is a leader who has built her own national grass roots network of supporters as a woman filmmaker writing, shooting and distributing her own films through AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement)—and leaving a social media blueprint for others to follow. She is an eloquent champion of independent artists. (See her on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” here.)

Before Selma, she wrote and directed two independent films, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (the latter also co-starring Oyelowo, winning her Best Director at Sundance). The quiet scenes from Selma are reminiscent of DuVernay’s mature grasp of characters and relationships in her earlier films. Selma’s social justice message is subtly hinted in Middle of Nowhere, a love story set against our era of mass incarceration. (That film was presented before the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of prisoners fighting predatory phone rates.)

Ava DuVernay was the first guest I invited to Spelman College in 2012, at the start of my two-year appointment as Chair in the Humanities. I literally laid out a red carpet for her, introducing her as a future Oscar winner. (She brought a brief clip from Middle of Nowhere, but that film had not yet been released. She appeared with lead actress Emayatzy Corinealdi.)

Even then, I recognized DuVernay as someone who could change the face of Hollywood, just as I recognized Barack Obama as a man who could be president when he appeared before my Los Angeles church as a U.S. Senator in 2007.

DuVernay is both evidence of change and its agent. Her film is an homage to past activists and a visual mission statement to today’s, who themselves are learning the burn of tear-gas and the horror of facing down police officers’ guns.

Ordinary People

Selma, after all, is about We the People.

Then, as now, the activists are the true stars of Selma: stalwarts in Selma and Birmingham and Tallahassee, Florida, and elsewhere who faced beatings, jail or death day by day, paying the price of our Constitution’s promise with their blood. It is impossible to include every face, every name, but surviving activists, their children and their grandchildren can see themselves reflected on the screen.

Many activists did not recover from the emotional traumas they suffered in the 1960s. My mother wore dark glasses her entire adult life because of teargas thrown in her face in 1960, when she was 20. She died at the age of 72, and I have no doubt that the Movement stole years from her life. My aunt agrees with me.

The Stephens sisters, as they were known as students at Florida A&M University, organized a campus CORE chapter and began staging sit-ins after the 1959 Miami workshop. Together, they were arrested and jailed after a 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. Once, Tallahassee police officer kicked my aunt in the stomach at a protest.

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Priscilla Stephens arrested in Tallahassee in 1961. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/267341

Aunt Priscilla fled the United States to live in Ghana in 1964 after a series of ailments she later recognized as stress: Hives. Ulcers. Temporary paralysis she suffered in a jail.

“We couldn’t allow ourselves to feel fear,” she says now. But her body felt it.

Activists’ PTSD went unnamed, and often untreated. Some were ashamed to tell family members they had been to jail. Some committed suicide. Some simply never came home.

Names you do not know. Movies that will never be made.

Selma captures the face of their sacrifice. My mother would have loved Selma, had she lived to see it. Like me, at times, she would have wept.

Today, on opening day, Aunt Priscilla, now 76, will see Selma with a group of friends in the city where she was first jailed. (After their Woolworth arrest, she and my mother were among a handful of Florida A&M students who spent 49 days in jail rather than pay their fine. During their time in jail, the students received a telegram of support from Dr. King.)

Aunt Priscilla knows the film will be painful, but she is eager to see it.

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

My late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, arrested in Tallahassee in 1963

“People forget, and they don’t know what happened,” says the retired educator. “If someone can tell the story, it’s good for our children. We are losing our children left and right. They don’t know the importance of anything—Why is it important to vote? Why is it important to do your best? Why is it important not to go to jail? Our children are lost, and they think it’s always been the way it is now. They can’t compare, but we can. I know the struggle continues—it’s not over. But they don’t know what the Struggle was all about. They’re being prepped for jail instead of for life. It’s more dangerous for our children now.”

She recalls the first time she met Dr. King, at the same 1959 CORE workshop with my mother. The workshop ended with Dr. King leading the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” “He sang ‘We shall overcome someday,’ and I told him, ‘No, Dr. King, we shall overcome today.’”

Like the younger activists portrayed in Selma, she says she and other local activists groused about Dr. King’s tactics of swooping in and out of town. “That’s how they talked about Dr. King: He was getting all the publicity and we were doing all the work.”

Once, over lunch, she asked Dr. King how he kept his ego under control when he was lauded by so many. “He said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but you have to keep focused.’”

That, at least, is the way she remembers his words.

Selma and History

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

The true-life Selma to Montgomery march, 1965

Selma has overcome so much and soars so high that the well-publicized complaints from some historians about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal are particularly painful. In the flurry of Oscar politics, the drumbeat will be: This film shouldn’t win because it isn’t the truth.

It also means that potential viewers might skip it. And some Academy voters might steer away, as they did when Denzel Washington was nominated for Hurricane.

I have both seen Selma and read the history, and this is my view: Historical films, like historical novels, are a form of fiction. Freedom in the Family, which was nonfiction, taught me that memory itself is faulty—so the notion of “truth” is always a bit slippery. Filmmakers could not get the rights to Dr. King’s speeches, for example, so those are fiction–reportedly penned by DuVernay, though the sole screenplay credit goes to Paul Webb.

In historical fiction, the “truth” lies in the essence of the story being told—the spirit of an event. Any historical film is the starting point for understanding history, not the destination. Selma is not a documentary, and even documentaries are subject to filmmakers’ interpretations. Historians can debate the actions and attitudes of President Johnson compared to his character in his film, and I would suggest, as I always do, that we all research the history ourselves for a fuller picture. The roles of some activists, too, are minimized while others are highlighted. All historical films have omissions, interpretations and scripted dialogue.

Selma King and Johnson

I believe Selma’s depiction of Johnson represents the Movement’s struggles with the White House through the 1960s civil rights era—the fight for change versus political expediency. A film called LBJ surely would have its own sensibility. Other civil rights icons are also worthy of their own films.

As DuVernay said in her interview with Jon Stewart, “We don’t paint anyone as a saint in this–we don’t paint anyone as a sinner.”

Selma sets out to mold a human character from an icon, but also to capture “The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Like No Film Before.” It’s a lot to ask.

Selma does that and more. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marchers at Edmund Pettus Bridge come to vivid life.

Selma-movie-Bridge-scene-592x333

The march across Pettus Bridge: Selma film (2014)

 

Next month, when I participate in a speculative fiction conference on the Florida A&M University campus where my parents met and I was born, I will see Selma with my 80-year-old father, John Due.  Like John Lewis, Andrew Young, Diane Nash and a shrinking number of other activists, my father is a survivor of the civil rights movement. Like all people of advancing years, those activists wonder if their legacies will be remembered.

With my father, "Freedom Lawyer" John Due

With my father, “Freedom Lawyer” John Due

My mother is no longer here, but my father is still a community organizer and lawyer with freedom on his mind and in his heart. In Florida, he inspired young activists who went on to help create the Dream Defenders.

Selma took far too long to get made. A decade ago or longer, so many more activists could have enjoyed the validation of seeing their contributions represented symbolically on the big screen. So many more young people would have gained a deeper understanding of how steep the price is for change.

But I’m so glad Selma is here today.

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award-winning author, screenwriter and filmmaker. She is the former Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. She lives and works in Southern California. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com. See her 2003  book appearance with her mother, the late Patricia Stephens Due. 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Virtual screenwriting workshop with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes January 10-31, 2015

 

Are you working on a screenplay, or do you have a screenplay idea you’re not sure how to start?

Morpheus ScreenwritingDo you want input from industry professionals on your screenplay idea?

Are you an author who would like to learn to adapt your books to film?

Whether you’re a screenwriter, a novelist or a producer, there has never been a more exciting time to try to get your foot in the door in television and film. But it all begins on the page – with a terrific screenplay or teleplay.

After a successful fall workshop, authors and screenwriters Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (WGA) are offering an online screenwriting workshop Jan. 10-31 to help you whip your project into shape. Until Dec. 31st, register at our Christmas rate for $300. Regular registration if $350–so save $50 by registering now. Space is limited.

Here’s what one of our writers said midway through our fall workshop: “I want to thank you and Steve for an incredible experience thus far.  I have truly learned a lot…..and I went to FILM SCHOOL!”

REGISTER NOW: 

Here’s what you get:

  • One 30-minute personal phone consultation with Steven Barnes or Tananarive Due
  • Notes on 10 pages of your screenplay and treatment/outline. (Choose whether to receive notes at the start of the workshop, during, or at the end of the workshop.)
  • Four weekly hour-long video Google Hangouts sessions with instructors Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
  • College-level syllabus with outside viewing and reading
  • A guest appearance by an industry professional to answer your questions
  • Peer review from other screenwriters in the workshop

Here’s what the workshop requires:         

  • Registration fee ($250 early-bird / $300 regular / $350 late)  SPACE IS LIMITED)
  • An existing screenplay or a screenplay idea you can outline
  • RECOMMENDED TEXTBOOK: Story by Robert McKee
  • Willingness to participate in peer review with other workshop members
  • Internet access for one-hour weekly Google Hangouts lectures / discussion

TandSteve2

Who are the instructors? 

Steven Barnes

New York Times bestseller Steven Barnes has written more than twenty-five science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. His “Stitch in Time” episode of “The Outer Limits” won an Emmy. The NAACP Image Award winner also has written for “The New Twilight Zone,” “StarGate,” Andromeda,” and “Ben 10.” He has been nominated for  written for Hugo, Nebula and Cable Ace Awards. In 2013, he and his wife, Tananarive Due, co-wrote and co-produced the short film “Danger Word,” based on their novel, Devil’s Wake. He and Due recently sold a cable TV adaptation–details soon!

Tananarive Due 

Tananarive Due, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), has been named to the Grio100 and Ebony Power 100. The Essence bestseller and NAACP Image Award winner has also won an American Book Award for The Living Blood. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus. She is the former Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. In addition to co-producing and co-writing the short film “Danger Word” with Steven Barnes, she currently has several book projects under option. She and Barnes recently sold a cable TV adaptation of one of her ovels–details soon! 

WANT TO ENROLL? CLICK HERE TO REGISTER NOW:  

You may also email us your questions at Tanacoach@gmail.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under On writing

My Writing Process: Blog Tour

 

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

I was invited to participate in this blog tour on writing by a very enthusiastic and talented writer named Serena Lin I met as her VONA workshop instructor. She posted last week on her Drunken Whispers blog. (Her thoughtful post is well worth reading!)

Question #1: What are you working on? 

I am, at last, researching a new novel.  My working title is The Reformatory, and it will be a historical supernatural suspense novel set in 1930s Florida.  My most recent solo novel was 2011’s My Soul to Take, the last in the African Immortals series that began with My Soul to Keep–so I have had a long break from novels.

Here’s why:

My two-year appointment as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College ends this month, concluding a wonderful three years of teaching at Spelman.  During that period, although I published two YA zombie novels (Devil’s Wake and Domino Falls) and one Tennyson Hardwick mystery novel (From Cape Town with Love) with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, those projects were already in process when I began teaching.  I had not begun work on a new solo novel…until now.

As eager as I was to quit my day job when I left The Miami Herald in 1998 to begin writing fiction for a living, Spelman taught me a different kind of liberation as a writer: the freedom not to write for a living. During this period, I have been writing short stories and speculative scripts and/or treatments for film and television projects, allowing me to grow as a short story stylist and to get more traction in Hollywood.

While I was at Spelman, I co-produced and co-wrote my first short film, Danger Word, with Steve. The director, Luchina Fisher, also co-produced the film.  Danger Word stars veteran actor Frankie Faison and newcomer Saoirse Scott, and it was nominated for Best Narrative Short at the Pan African Film Festival and the BronzeLens Film Festival.  Although we included this story of Kendra and Grandpa Joe trying to survive the zombie apocalypse in Devil’s Wake, the original short story, “Danger Word,” was my very first fiction collaboration with Steve in YEAR, published in Brandon Massey’s Dark Dreams. (In that original story, the older girl was an 8-yera-old boy named Kendrick instead.)

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I now have more books optioned simultaneously than ever before, and I am working as a co-producer on most of them. Becoming a filmmaker has been an important step in creating more interest in my work.

As for The Reformatory, I’m not going to say much else about it except that it’s from the POV of a 15-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy who get caught up in the horrors of the era’s criminal justice system. (For a hint, read my previous blog posts, “Unburying the Lost Boys,” Parts I and II.)  In terms of previous work, it’s more in line with The Good House or Joplin’s Ghost.  However, it would be appropriate for both adults and readers over fourteen. I think.

I do think it’s possible to talk a project to death.  As writers, either we are talking about what we’re writing or we are actually writing. Until I have done more actual writing, I will do less talking.

Question #2: How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

I’m not sure how to define my “genre.”

Most of my work has a supernatural element that would suit a “horror” label, but many of my readers do not consider themselves horror readers. Just today, a colleague said, “I’m scared, but I’ll read it because it’s you…”

I love Octavia E. Butler, Stephen King and Nnedi Okorafor, but most of my reading is not in speculative fiction.  I tend to read more historical and black literary novels in the vein of Tayari Jones, Bernice L. McFadden, Leonard Pitts and Dolen Perkins-Valdez.  History, race and culture are primary in my inspiration. Often, as in the novel I’m researching now, the speculative element is in service to the history–exposing it, acknowledging it, correcting it.

Long Hidden 2

But a historical bent does not make me unique, as you can see if you check out the newly-published Long Hidden anthology of historical speculative fiction. (Here’s a free link to my new short story in the anthology, “Free Jim’s Mine.”)

My research into the abuses against children at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, has been a vivid reminder of  how so-called “horror” in fiction is mild compared to the horrors in history.

Which leads to…

Question #3: Why do you write what you do? 

Writing supernatural or post-apocalyptic fiction is an emotional escape for me.  I literally was brought to tears every time I started reading nonfiction accounts about the Dozier School like The White House Boys (Roger Dean Kiser) and The Boys of the Dark (Robin Gaby Fisher with Michael O’McCarthy and Robert W. Straley).  My mind reeled with every page: Who would treat children like this?

Sometimes it’s less horrifying to imagine a supernatural entity at work than it is to reflect on our casual human monstrosity.  Demons make more sense of the nightly news.

My fascination with mortality began at a young age, and I have been trying to process it ever since. I don’t have the ability to pretend it away, and less so since I lost my mother in 2012.  This awareness has driven my ambition, my faith, my writing.  I write stories of unimaginable crisis to process my fears of loss, illness, death.

I write to witness the amazing inner strength of my characters.

The zombie apocalypse is fiction, but every generation suffers its apocalypse.  We are the walking dead.

No matter what our beliefs about what happens after death, that’s a lot to process.

How does your writing process work?

I write novels and screenplays, and both begin with the outline. I don’t outline shorter works, although sometimes I think I should. From a practical standpoint, I learned the value of detailed outlining as a published writer, when I was able to sell a novel based on three chapters and an outline.

I’m surprised by the number of writers who tell me they’re struggling with a project, but don’t want to outline–or hadn’t thought of it. Outlining, to me, isn’t a creative buzz-kill that crimps all creativity; it’s a simple diagnostic tool to show me if I understand the story I want to tell, the direction I want it to take, and whether or not it has the legs to get me there.

My chapter-by-chapter outline for Blood Colony was 30 pages long.  But after it’s written, my outline’s job is done.  For a novel, I might write the outline and then never refer to it again.  I know the story after that; the rest is just the details. After I finished The Good House, I referred back to my outline and realized I’d left out a few images and scenes, but the book had outgrown my hazy concepts at the start of the journey. The outline was enough to show me what I had–the rest was created in my daily practice.

No outline should be written in granite. (Screenplays are different, since I often write those collaboratively and the outline literally grows into a treatment, which grows into a script without dialogue, which grows into the full script. That’s the Robert McKee method in Story, and it works for me.)

On deadline, I also use page quotas.  Depending on the project, my page quotas vary from 3-5 pages or 5-7 pages. Page quotas are an incredibly useful tool, as are deadlines. If Idon’t have an external deadline, I create my own.

Doesn’t sound like “fun”? Wandering aimlessly through a long project isn’t fun for me. I don’t like creative rollercoasters, just as I don’t like rollercoasters in real life. My fun is in watching my characters react and grow through the story.  Even with an outline, there is plenty of room for surprises on each page.

The idea isn’t what matters most–the power is always in the execution.

Sometimes I have three or four hours to write. Sometimes I have fifteen minutes. Sometimes I only have time to read over what I wrote during the last session, but at least that keeps the story fresh in my mind.  I used to think I needed a closed door to write, but now my office doesn’t even have that.  Most of our writing props and rituals are only an emotional crutch–or, worse, an excuse not to write.

Having said that, sometimes I make the choice not to write. I give myself over to my students, or my family, or, say, a short film fundraising campaign. I can feel “flow” reading student manuscripts, shooting video, editing video.

But I always come back to writing.

Writing is not always fun for me, although it is much of the time, just like when I was 10 years old. But even “small” writing projects are difficult. The longer I write, the harder it gets.

The challenge may be what I love most of all.

“First, forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”   ― Octavia E. Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories 

The two writers I have selected for the Blog Tour next Monday, 5/26: 

TINA MCELROY ANSA

Tina McElroy Ansa is a novelist, publisher, filmmaker, teacher and journalist. But above all, she is a storyteller. Her five best-selling novels, essays and reviews have won praise from The New York Times to First Lady Michelle Obama, who has quoted from  the writer’s “Baby of the Family.” Ten years ago, Ms. Ansa established the Annual Sea Island Writers Retreats on Sapelo Island and St. Simons Island, Georgia , where she has lived for 30 years.  Since 2004, she has conducted the writing workshops  at colleges and cities throughout the Southeast.  She  also leads private writing retreats by request.

She is at work on her sixth novel to be published by DownSouth Press, the independent publishing company Ms. Ansa founded in 2007. See her website at www.tinamcelroyansa.com.

DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER

It’s a special pleasure to invite one of my former MFA students from Antioch University Los Angeles. If you don’t know his work, this won’t be the last time you see his name. He’s author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa NocturnaHe co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of HistoryDaniel is also an essayist and blogger who recently made an impact with his essay decrying the lack of diversity in publishing literature for BuzzFeed.  He writes regularly for Salon.com and co-edited of Long Hidden. He’s a great writer and a great advocate for writers.  You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter.

Plase spread the word with the hashtag #mywritingprocess

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.)  

1 Comment

Filed under On writing

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.

16 Comments

Filed under On writing

ACTION! How editing a book trailer taught me to flow without words

Writers, you know the feeling:  mind racing, heart pumping, fingers flying on the keyboard.  That’s creative flow.  I have fallen into flow while writing novels, short stories, screenplays, poems, and blogs, beginning with the picture books I wrote as young as age four.

But last weekend, something remarkable happened:  I fell deeply into flow, but I wasn’t writing.  I wasn’t even typing.  I was using iMovie to edit the video I’d shot earlier that day on my iPhone.

Despite having written several screenplays—my husband and I sold three drafts of our adaptation of my novel The Good House to Fox Searchlight—I had never edited video.  Last year, when I shot a book trailer for my novel My Soul to Take in my basement, I did it in one take precisely so I wouldn’t have to edit video.  When I noticed something bothersome in one of the scenes, I went down and shot the whole thing again.

But my ideas for a book trailer for the upcoming novel I co-authored with my husband, Steven Barnes, were more elaborate than a single take would allow.  Although the trailer would be short, I wanted to sew it together in the style of the horror movies Steve and I love.  And since I wanted to recruit my 8-year-old son as the star, I didn’t necessarily want him to be present during scenes I thought might frighten him.

Atria Books–July 31, 2012

Our novel, Devil’s Wake, is a YA/crossover novel about teenagers seeking safety and community after an infection that mimics a zombie outbreak, although we never use the word “zombie.”  The trailer is intended to create a mood more than to convey the plot.

I could have taken a YouTube tutorial on how to use iMovie 11, but instead I signed up for a free workshop at my local Apple store.  In a single hour of furious note-taking, I learned enough to get me excited and ready to work.  (If you don’t have a Mac, you can use Windows Movie Maker.)

I started small, using iMovie’s trailer template.  While it didn’t allow me the flexibility of adding my own sound, it had a polished look that gave me ideas for how to splice the rest together.  And although the template only allowed for several two- to three-second clips (approximately), I discovered that if I continued the next clip where the last one left off, I could create a sustained shot—for instance, my son walking down the stairs for several seconds.

I know, it doesn’t sound like much—but I was ecstatic. I was obsessed.  I examined clips in tenth-of-a-second increments, looking for the right places to splice, the way the film majors in my dorm used to when we were undergraduates at Northwestern.  I hunted for just…the right…spots.

I was in flow.

That day, I learned that storytelling is storytelling for me, whether it’s written or visual.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.  Stories don’t have to be told in words.

When I teach my screenwriting class at Spelman College this fall, I’ll give my students a short assignment to shoot and edit a video themselves—so they can experience filmmaking from the inside out while they write their screenplays.

That’s especially important in an industry that makes precious little space for projects by people of color—but all screenwriters should realize that writing a script is only the first step.  If they ever want to see their movie made, they might have to shoot, direct and finance it too.  (That is also true for novelists hoping to be discovered by Hollywood.)

No, I don’t think I’m Spike Lee or Kathryn Bigelow.  My little trailer is just a newbie effort.  No crane shots or tracking shots—yet.  To me, the important lesson was the realization that I had no reason to fear the technology, and that I could use editing to create illusions and impressions that would tell my story.

I hope to shoot at least two more trailers before the book is published in July, this time without the safety wheels of the template.   Next time, I want to use sound.

And screams.

TO SEE THE FINISHED TRAILER, CLICK HERE. 

Tananarive Due, the incoming Cosby Chair of Humanities (2012-2013) at Spelman College in Atlanta, is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com.

5 Comments

Filed under On writing

This Little Light: writing through pain and loss

Today is not the day.  It could be but it is not.  Today is today.

–Audre Lorde

Recently, my father and I spent most of the day at my mother’s bedside—him with his laptop and me with mine—and spun words to try to whisk ourselves somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  I worked on my upcoming mystery novel; my father, a civil rights attorney, worked on his memoir on race and racism.

While my mother slept, we wrote to try to dull the pain of her dying.

My mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, is gravely ill with thyroid cancer.  After a two-year fight with ups and downs, advances and setbacks, my sisters, father and I are realizing that she will not be with us much longer.  Her moments of responsiveness are farther apart.  Her body is weaker and weaker.

Although in years past I found comfort in journaling during times of crisis, I have been unable to journal about the experience with my mother’s illness.  I wrote a column about her cancer fight for CNN.com [SEE STORY HERE] last June, but since then I have been largely wordless.

Holding my mother's hand

Instead, I am busy.  In addition to the time I spend with Mom, I teach my classes at Spelman College, I’m raising my 8-year-old son, Jason, with my husband, and I’m racing to finish a novel that has been competing against my mother’s illness since the day it was born.

But the novel, which I’m co-authoring with my husband, Steven Barnes, is far from a burden—now, my novel is my sanctuary.  When it is finished, I’ll be expelled from my world of imagination, left to face the reality of here and now.

Recently, I assigned my Spelman freshmen a literacy narrative, an essay recalling a significant encounter with reading and/or writing during their formative years.  As an example, I shared my experience as a 14-year-old during race riots in Miami, the day in my junior high school cafeteria I first learned that I could write to save my sanity.  My essay, “I Want to Live,” described a society without bigotry and hate, and writing it made a pain in my chest go away.  I remember my mother telling me how lucky I was that I have writing as an outlet.

Mom also taught me the power of writing as a tool of preservation.  In 2003, we co-authored a nonfiction civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which is oh-so-precious to me.  If we do not write our own stories, Mom always said, they will never be told.  We must write, she said.

And here is my old friend, yet again.

Over these past difficult years, months and hours, watching my mother’s decline, I often have reassured myself with the stanza in Audre Lorde’s poem, “Today is Not the Day,” which she wrote while fighting breast cancer:  Today is not the day. / It could be but it is not. / Today is today.

Those words have served not only as an inspiration through this season of uncertainty, but also as a reminder that Lorde herself found refuge from her cancer battle in her writing.  One day, I hope writing will help ferry me to the other side, too.

But I know that writing will not patch every hole, or stanch every tear.  I have heard about a writer I admire who reportedly could not write for a year after her own mother’s death.  Writing, like everything in life, has its limitations.

But as my father and I sat in my mother’s room together—each of us transporting ourselves to a different world—I remembered anew what a blessing writing has been in my life.

Today was not a good day with my mother medically, and I am writing.

Tomorrow, I will be writing.

We write.  We write.  We write.

UPDATED 2/8/12:  Patricia Stephens Due died on February 7, 2012.  From CNN’s “In America” blog:  http://wp.me/p1Ezur-1PM

For more information about Patricia Stephens Due, see Wikipedia.

Hear an interview with Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (2003)  LISTEN

(left to right) John Due, Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due outside of the White House after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009

28 Comments

Filed under On writing

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?

9 Comments

Filed under On writing

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.

8 Comments

Filed under On writing

Writing & the day job: 5 tips to balance art and commerce

The first time I walked into my agent’s office at John Hawkins & Associates in New York, I noticed a framed letter from turn-of-the-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar on the wall.  The letter is dated Dec. 31, 1901, addressed to the agency founder.

Paul Laurence Dunbar: 1872-1906

          Dear Mr. Reynolds, 

           A merry Christmas and a happy New Year.  Both should be abolished.  I am broke!

Once the thrill of seeing a century-old letter from Dunbar wore off, its message was ominous.  I had the security of being a novelist (not a poet, for Pete’s sake!), but I never forgot the cautionary tale framed on my agent’s wall.

That was in about 2001, and I was riding high in my fledgling career.  The advance for my first novel, The Between, had been slightly higher than my annual salary as a reporter for The Miami Herald.  My next, for My Soul to Keep, was higher still.  In both black fiction and horror fiction, the book circuit was a thriving village of new writers, ambitious editors, courageous booksellers and readers starved for more.  Terry McMillan had taught publishers that black folks did read, and we were stoking their appetite.

I left my job at the Miami Herald after a decade in 1998, when I married fellow novelist Steven Barnes.  We had met at a 1997 conference at Clark Atlanta University entitled “The African-American Fantastic Imagination:  Explorations in Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror,” alongside Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez and Samuel R. Delany.

Heady times.

But if I had sat Octavia down for a frank conversation about writing and finances, she could have told me a grim tale of struggle.  “Celebrated author” and “rich author” are not synonymous—and never have been.  (Octavia achieved a level of financial security she’d never known when she was awarded her MacArthur Genius Grant in 1995.)

Steve supplemented his income as a novelist with television writing on “The Outer Limits,” “The Twilight Zone”…even “Baywatch.”  More recently, he has written for Cartoon Network and BET, and launched a life coaching and internet sales business.  Most novelists you read and admire have day jobs, often as college English or writing professors.  I have been teaching part-time in an M.F.A. program at Antioch University Los Angeles since 2007, and I have private writing clients.  Writers also earn income through speaking engagements and writing workshops.

But it’s a piecemeal and unpredictable living.

The only writers I know who get health care strictly through their writing are those who earn the qualifying minimum of more than $30,000 a year through Hollywood’s Writers’ Guild of America (WGA)—but it’s not easy to earn, especially year after year.  Screenplays are tough to sell.  Television jobs come and go—one year you’re the story editor on a hit series, and the next year you could be unemployed.  C’est la vie.

When I quit my day job in 1998, I couldn’t imagine a better existence than setting my own hours and spinning fiction all day.  I still sometimes feel guilty when I’m writing in the middle of the day, as if there’s something else I should be doing.  (Well, nowadays that something is called “grading papers.”)  Liberation never gets old.

But unpredictability gets old.  Fast.

In my novel Joplin’s Ghost, an up-and-coming R&B singer who fears she is “selling out” has ghost encounters with the spirit of turn-of-the-century ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who died virtually penniless and bitter trying to mount an opera.  That novel’s conversation about art and commerce was a message to me, and to all artists.

Often, art and commerce must take divergent paths, one setting the other free.

I’m proud of everything I’ve published that bears my name, but I’m not happy with lashing a whip over my muse.  I was trained on deadlines as a journalist, but rushing to finish a project because of financial need feels like sending my inner child out to work while I sit at home eating Bon Bons, yelling, “Faster, faster!”

I wrote both The Between (1995) and My Soul to Keep (1997) as an unpublished fiction writer holding down a full-time newspaper job.  Neither book was under contract; I wrote them strictly because they were stories I wanted to tell, even if no one else ever read them.  Most writers I know juggle fiction, their day jobs and their families.

Can my outer grownup relieve my inner child?

I’ve been blessed so far to feel like I’m writing exactly what I want to be writing—except for that short story collection I’ve dreamed of, perhaps—but one question now nags me:  What would I be writing if I didn’t support myself with my fiction?

What would my muse give me if I let her run outside and play?

TIPS FOR BALANCING ART & COMMERCE:

1.)     So you’d like to leave your job to concentrate on your fiction!  Great, but be realistic. Unless a supportive partner/family with a steady job is there to help your dream come true, you should have two years’ worth of savings first.  You might spend your first year of freedom writing—and your second year looking for a new job. Don’t wait until your money runs out to figure out where you will land next. If your employer offers a leave of absence, that’s probably better than starting fresh.  This is a tough economy to leave a job without careful planning.

2.)    Even if you have what seems like a secure respite from the workplace, remember that you can’t predict the future.  Circumstances change.  Keep your job skills current in case a partner’s job loss or family member’s illness force you back to work sooner than expected.  When I left journalism in 1998, there were few blogs, no Blackberrys, no Facebook, no Twitter.  Google was a start-up.  If I hadn’t learned internet marketing through my books and my husband’s internet sales business, I would be a complete dinosaur in the job market today.  If you’re a lawyer, pay your Bar dues.  If you were in medicine, keep up with advances.  Don’t assume you’ll be writing at home forever.

3.)    If you can’t afford to leave your job, don’t despair:  You CAN find the time to write.  Gather tools to help you create laser-like concentration so you can dive into flow state if you only have 30 minutes instead of four hours.  Write on your lunch break.  Turn off the TV at night and hide in the bathroom, if you must.  (I’ve written in hotel bathrooms many times to avoid disturbing a sleeping family.)  Even if you don’t have time to write temporarily, read over the last pages you wrote on a regular basis to keep characters fresh in your mind—that way, when you DO get unexpected writing time, you don’t have to waste your hour refreshing yourself.  If you don’t have a fiction project underway, journal or blog to keep your writing mind sharp.

4.)    Choose your projects carefully.  When I talk to my film agent, he cautions me not to even try writing certain scripts because the marketplace won’t support them.  That attitude can be taken to extremes. Most bestselling writers you know are writing exactly what they darn well please.  E. Lynn Harris didn’t gain fame jumping into the thriving bisexual black fiction market—he created his own market.  You’ll produce your best work if you’re writing your bliss.

But…

While you should listen to advice about what sells and what doesn’t with a grain of salt…DO listen.  Write your bliss…but see if you can steer your bliss.  Steve uses a great Venn Diagram (intersecting circles) to help students and clients determine what they should write.  One circle represents your dream projects.  The other represents projects you think you could actually sell.  Shade in the portion in the middle where those circles intersect, try to write THAT.  If you’re only imitating a successful writer or trying to follow a trend, beware: by the time your book is published or your screenplay is produced, readers and audiences will have moved on.

5.)    Don’t expect your writing to support you.  Even if you finally land that great contract, don’t expect a similar income flow next year, or the year after.  It’s better to be surprised by an income that’s higher than expected than disappointed by inevitable ebbs and flows.  If you somehow get rich through your writing—congratulations!  But baby, it ain’t the way to bet.  (See Paul Laurence Dunbar letter above.)

6 Comments

Filed under On writing