Tag Archives: writing

Post-election: Why I’m journaling & not just sharing feelings on social media

I hear myself sighing and saying “Oh my God” at random times throughout the day.  I haven’t turned on TV news since about 9 p.m. on election night, although I follow print news closely–so I don’t doubt it’s as bad as I feared. I don’t have the comfort of denial.

I look on with admiration at those who can gather their thoughts enough to appear on interviews or panels, or write sweeping think pieces. I saw Roxane Gay’s address livestreamed from #FacingRace in Atlanta, and she took my breath away. But she, like me, said she was still unpacking, still processing.

So I have journaled. Not as much as I should–but some. Because processing my emotions is the only thing that will drive the numb feeling away, and I can’t afford to be numb. I have to be clear-headed to be most effective in Trump’s opposition.

At first, in shock and mourning, social media was my outlet. But that wasn’t, and isn’t, enough. Social media, although it’s powerful, has slowly eaten away at the energy I might have used for journaling–and sometimes my energy for writing, period. And it’s not necessarily bringing me closer to my feelings: social media is performance.

For me, social media is a place to rally, to comfort, to commiserate, to teach, to grow. Social media is not where I share my deepest feelings.

I had rediscovered my neglected journal a few days before the election, so we weren’t complete strangers when I needed to move beyond social media and try to unpack my feelings.

I still have a long way to go. I don’t cry when I journal, and I know the tears are buried in there. (Tears emerge most when I listen to music or play the piano.) And I haven’t yet written down my list of repercussions, or my strategy going forward. I must. I will.

But I’m acknowleding this event in history, documenting it, as my late mother Patricia Stephens Due would have said. (That, in itself, acknowledges that this is a fixed moment that will be behind us one day.)

I journaled about how I spoke to my 82-year-old father, Florida civil rights attorney John Due, who is always upbeat and was focused on his plans to meet with a local outgoing School Board president (that’s Dad; always moving forward); my 78-year-old aunt, who spent 49 days in jail with my mother for sitting-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in 1960 and was understandably anguished over the results; and a family member who was pondering leaving the country. I wrote about how my 12-year-old son, Jason, was full of anxiety on election night, asking if his friends would be sent away or if Trump would build a wall.

Two years from now, I might not have remembered details from those conversations. Or some of my elders may be gone by then, and I’ll have captured at least that brief snapshot.

I can’t pretend I’m great at journaling. My 2016 journal has about five or six entries. There’s a gap between January and July. So much is missing. So many of my thoughts are still tangled as I grapple with our new national reality.

But one day, this entire year will be fuzzy in my mind. It’s important to try to grab these strings of life, even–and especially–when they sting. I have never been suicidal, but I know people who have expressed thoughts of suicide since election night. (What if you would never hear the thought “I want to die now” buried inside you unless you shared it in your journal?)

Journaling prevents us from pretending events didn’t happen, from pretending we don’t have emotions about them, and from burrowing into distractions that will matter far less to us in the years to come than, say, a conversation with our father, or our child, or a friend who needed us, the year Trump was elected president.

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Tananarive Due has won an American Book Award, a British Fantasy Award and an NAACP Image Award. She and her mother co-authored: Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. Join the “Revolutionary Art: Social Justice Writing” course she teaches with Steven Barnes at www.createthenarrative.com.

 

 

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The beginner’s guide to making a movie with iMovie on your iPhone or iPad

Every fiction writer should experiment with screenwriting to learn about visual storytelling–and I believe all screenwriters should make their own film at least once. Luckily, making movies has never been easier, even if you have no experience.

This is a step-by-step guide to making your own trailers and movies with the iMovie app for iPhone and iPad ($4.99).

Although I am a screenwriter who co-produced a short zombie film in 2013 (Danger Word), I had never MADE a short film myself until a couple of weeks ago. I shot and edited (and starred in) a short horror film called “Lost,” which has a social justice message. It was great fun to film and edit on my iPhone, though many will prefer the larger iPad screen.

My flim is only nine minutes long. If you can, check it out before you read on:

I know it isn’t perfect. Every time I watch it, I notice something else I want to change. But I’m totally geeked about the fact that it exists–it’s out on YouTube just like a film with a full cast, crew and budget. And I made it literally from the palm of my hand.

I’m sure there are other video editing programs out there, but I have an iPhone 6, so I used the iMovie app. (The Sundance film Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5s, so you don’t need the latest phone.) My mini tutorial here will be focused on the iMovie app and its editing capabilities. I have not experimented with other apps or video editing programs.

Start small — with a trailer 

Even a nine-minute film is ambitious, and I would not have had as much confidence while I was shooting if I hadn’t started with iMovie trailers from templates. I’ve shot personal trailers I won’t share here (my son’s basketball game, for example), but I cut my teeth editing trailers for my books My Soul to Take, Devil’s Wake and Ghost Summer. The latter was a DIRECT inspiration for my short film: I found a spooky location I liked, and I wanted to build it into a longer video.

With the first trailer, My Soul to Take, I cheated and shot it all in one take. That’s the easiest way. No editing needed.

But most videos will need editing, and the iMovie trailer templates are a good tutorial on how to order your shots, choose which shots to use, and create a narrative from your footage. (Raw footage often won’t tell a story until you order it and give it meaning in context. My son’t basketball team never won a game, but my trailer made them look like champs.)

I won’t spend much time on trailers. You can watch YouTube videos on creating movie trailers. I also did not use the full iMovie program on my desktop–just the app–so its functionality was more limited. You can check out YouTube videos on how to use the full iMovie program. Apple also offers workshops on iMovie.

Trailer basics:

Push the

Push the “+” button to create a movie or trailer

When  you sign into the iMovie app, you press the “+” sign to create a New Project. (Or press “Theater,” which will take you to a “+” sign option.) You’ll have a choice between creating a MOVIE or TRAILER. For practice, choose TRAILER and start having fun. The prepackaged trailers don’t give you as much creativity, but they look and sound like authentic trailers.

Once you select Trailer, you’ll get a menu of trailer styles, from Adrenaline to Family to Bollywood. Pick the style that best suits the project you would like to make. (If you like horror, pick Spooky.)

Now comes the editing work: you’ll see a basic storyboard with empty video spaces for the clips YOU will provide. Be sure to keep all of the video clips you incorporate in your trailer or movie even after you have finished your project, until it’s uploaded or downloaded–if you erase the original footage, you’re also erasing the footage in iMovie. (I learned this the hard way.) 

Now you have your work space. Touch the first blank footage spot in your storyboard and you’ll get a menu of choices. All of my video clips were simply in my phone’s camera roll, which is where yours are likely to be. So, you can scroll through footage you’ve shot and try to decide what should go where in your trailer. (This is also true when making a regular movie, not just a trailer, but you won’t get the suggested shots and lengths. You’ll be on your own.)  

Now you're ready to start!

Now you’re ready to start!

Bit by bit, if you follow the guidelines, you’ll see an actual trailer taking shape, complete with opening titles and a fancy thematic presentation that can entertain friends and family.

Or, if you’re actually promoting a book or film, your trailer can be the real deal: a teaser to help motivate interest in your project. I have done both kinds. Both are great practice for the short film you’ve always been dying to make.

Again, this isn’t a full trailer tutorial. This is just covering the basics. Like me, you will find yourself racing to YouTube to find videos on how to navigate the program. But the iMovie app is fairly intuitive (more so than the full program, in my opinion), so you should get the hang of it pretty quickly.

Shooting your short film 

If you already have some video editing experience, you might want to skip making a trailer and get straight to original filmmaking.

Be realistic. You have an Oscar-worthy film in mind, but you’re a newbie. Just have fun making your first one while you build your experience. I chose a found footage horror style because I wouldn’t have to recreate many traditional camera angles (with cameras that can pan or pull back more smoothly). I also chose an isolated location (a hiking trail) so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with bogies (people wandering into my shots) or endless explanations. I really wanted the editing experience, so I craved a simple shoot.

For some of you, that might mean a scene in one room, limiting your film to a simple location. Maybe a couple is arguing or experiencing an intruder or a paranormal event in their bedroom. Think of the short old-time radio shows like “Suspense” and TV’s “The Twilight Zone” how they created stories with limited time and locations. What is your film equivalent?

Filmmaking is all about the art of illusion. Instead of wishing you could shoot in a mansion, try to think about alternatives. Maybe someone will give you permission to shoot a mansion exterior, but the interior shots are in that great dining room in your mother’s house she only uses for Thanksgiving.

What can you subsitute for the thing you really want? How will you create your illusions? Be creative!

I did not explore ALL of the functionality of the iMovie app. Don’t feel frustrated if there is missing information here. I learned one piece at a time, one Google search and YouTube video at a time. This is a basic primer.

Here’s a list of apps for filmmakers you might find helpful. (But see Rule #1 below. I did not use these.)

CARDINAL RULES FOR NEW FILMMAKERS 

  • Try not to spend a cent. Your iPhone was expensive, and the iMovie app is $4.99. You’ve spent enough. Unexpected expenses will crop up (I had to call Uber when I got lost hiking once), but have the mindset that you’re going to spend as little as possible at every step. Wait until you’re more experienced to start spending money.
  • A successful shoot is all about planning.  Whenever possible, don’t “wing it.” Whatever can go wrong will go wrong anyway, so your plan is the only thing between you and chaos. Have a “shot list,” a list of the shots you need to complete on each day of your shoot. (There’s an app for this, but see Rule #1. Paper and pencil also work.) Give yourself time between takes to set up shots. Phones will ring, power will go off, people will interrupt you–so be prepared for contingencies.
  • Keep it moving. Don’t fall in love with your visuals and linger forever. Don’t let characters sit too long in static conversation; mix up the camera angles or focus on an important item to enliven the visuals. Then trim, trim, trim.
  • Make your film look pretty. Filmmaking is Photography Plus–so there’s a reason Hollywood films have large, sprawling sets. You won’t have the budget for helicopter shots, but try to find the beauty in each angle, each shot. Don’t let loose wires and misplaced shadows ruin a great take. KNOW what’s in the frame before you push “record.” If you can’t find the “big” beauty in a shot, look for smaller snatches of beauty. Along those lines…
  • Light your scenes well. Even shooting outside, I had to do retakes because of shadows across my face, etc. Poor lighting dulls colors and details and makes your film less interesting–or sometimes impossible–to watch.

Which leads me to…

THE BIGGEST THINGS THAT CAN RUIN YOUR MOVIE  

  • A bad or uncompelling story. 

Many readers of this blog are writers, so don’t skimp on the script just because it’s a short film you’re making with your phone. In today’s social media environment, you never know what might “go viral”–so give your film a chance. I use a free program, writerduet.com, to write my screenplays. (If you’ve never written one, that’s where you start.) Begin with a “logline,” a couple of sentences about what your film is about. Then expand it to a treatment–what happens in each scene–and then add dialogue last. Watch short films to see what other filmmakers are doing with the medium.

The rule of thumb is that if you want a six-minute movie, write a six-page script, and so on. (It’s not a perfect rule, but it’s a guideline.) If you’re not a writer, find a short story you like and approach the author about a free option. Many writers will be flattered that you want to make an adaptation of their short work, even if it isn’t for pay. Do not adapt works you do not have permission to adapt.  

  • Bad acting.

I know — you’re not Quentin Tarantino yet, so you can’t find A-list talent to star in your short film. But there are good actors everywhere, and many are eager for a chance to get any kind of film experience. The problem is, instead of looking for the best actors we can find, we tend to look for the best actors we know. My son has worked with me on trailers, but I would look at a children’s theater for a child actor to carry a film. Or a local talent agency. Or a school drama program. Or ask parents at my school PTA. I may not find perfect casting, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

Using actors we know well can sometimes pay off great: We’re giving a friend or loved one a break, we’re keeping harmony on the set, and we’re sharing a bonding experience. But few things will ruin a film faster than a terrible casting choice. And not all relationships can withstand the pressures of filmmaking–even a small film. (I was very nervous about starring in “Lost,” but I decided I could make it faster if I didn’t look for an actress. My passion for the film’s subject — and weariness on the hiking trail — helped me produce the tears I needed on demand.)

Try to be objective. Do video screen tests, when possible. Good acting is half the battle. And make sure they don’t look at the camera unless you’re breaking the fourth wall for a direct address, or documentary style. 

  • Not enough coverage. 

Let’s say you shot your footage while you were in Miami, but now you’re back in Iowa and you have no access to a beach. But you forgot to shoot the important scene where your heroine swims from the ocean to the sandy shore. Unless you do reshoots, lack of coverage often means reimagining the scene–and sometimes improving it. But it’s never fun to realize you didn’t get enough shots to convey your story. Gaps in your footage will create confusion you may not be able to fix in editing, literally What’s going on? Where’d she come from? (I returned to my location for reshoots when I made “Lost,” so try to shoot somewhere reshoots would not be a hassle.)

  • Poor visual quality. Unless you’re doing a shakycam style on purpose, your camera should not shake. Invest in a cheap iPhone (or iPad) tripod so your camera work will look professional. Fill up the screen with rich images.

As your process goes on, you will learn what footage to fight for and what to let go.

  • Poor sound quality. 

Too many novice filmmakers underestimate the value of sound quality. The iPhone has terrific microphone access both in the camera itself and in the iMovie app, so there’s no excuse for poor sound. You can buy filmmaking apps that would improve sound, but even if you go with the basic setup, the mic on my iPhone was sensitive enough to pick up the sounds of a beetle’s legs crackling small twigs, shot up close.

Rules of thumb: Make sure your microphone is close enough to pick up strong sound. (And even if your sound is too low, as my cat’s mew was near the end of my film, you can adjust the volume of the clip in iMovie to make it louder–but you’ll make any background noises or hums louder too.)

Make your actors PROJECT. Just like I tell my screenwriting students about writing dialogue, acting is not conversation–it’s a RECREATION of conversation. That means slowing down, more careful enunciation, a few more subtle pauses, fewer “uhms.” All the while making it look and sound natural.

Check your footage as you go to make sure you’re satisfied with the video and sound quality. With a film crew, you would have a unit dedicated to creating great sound, and then a sound editor later to make it sound ever better. With “Lost,” I did it all myself. (And I have a passing airplane hum in in important shot I can’t do anything about. I would have lost too much I wanted if I’d muted the sound in the clip. Plus, I didn’t notice it until later.)

A note on cars and driving: Moving cars have a loud hum. Often, filmmakers will record sound later to recreate a conversation in a car–which is what I did in “Lost.” The opening phone conversation in the car was recorded over the video footage. (In our Danger Word short, actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott spoke only after their truck was parked, for example.)

  • Missing foley (Don’t forget the footsteps!) 

iMovie allows you to record sound over your video, even if you don’t mute the original sound. I was shooting in woods full of crunchy leaves, so I had plenty of footsteps. But I did notice a scene that was more like a still photo with no sound, and it didn’t fit–my character would have been in motion around the camera she had “set aside”–so I went back to shoot ambient sound for that scene. That’s called “foley.” If characters are walking across floors, or someone is approaching, amplify sound so that it will stand out. Footsteps matter in creating the illusion. If someone is preparing food in the kitchen, add a bit of clatter if it isn’t there, or running water. I added a cat’s mew to broaden the scene outside of the shot and lead the appearance of a cat on the bed, which might have looked odd without the preceding mew.

SPECIAL TIPS FOR IPHONE USERS: 

This may seem obvious, but a ringing phone will stop your video during a shoot. Put your phone in airplane mode when you’re shooting. Also be sure that you do not have your phone in “selfie” mode–I lost a great take because my camera was facing the wrong way! (I didn’t have a crew or cast, so I was both videographer and actress and couldn’t see it in progress.)

NOW YOU’RE READY TO EDIT YOUR FILM!  

Don’t wait until the film is entirely shot before you start editing. I edited “Lost” as I went to see how the footage fit together, and to suggest story changes I hadn’t thought about when I wrote the script. Because it was set on a hiking trail (and I often literally could not FIND the location I’d written into the script), I ended up doing a lot of improvisation during the shoot. Editing as you go will give you an idea of necessary reshoots, or give you ideas to tighten or reshape your story. 

If you select Movie from the “+” menu, you’ll also get a list of themes and options. Depending on which you choose, the movie will have a very different look: from a CNN iReport to a travel video, etc. I always choose SIMPLE, which gives me a clean work space. This is how it looks when you first start a “Simple” movie:

imovie10

Opening titles (secret hint)  

You can create your movie to fade in (with the gear tab on the right side, which has a few other options), but the app does not include a black screen for your opening titles, i.e. your movie title, who is directing it, your stars, etc. You can add text over any video image, but in my film I wanted to open with a simple white-on-black title: “A film by Tananarive Due.” (I also made a separate producer’s logo video I have used for a couple of different projects, but you don’t need to. If you want to make one, it’s just a mini movie you import like any other video footage once it’s on your camera roll.)

So here’s a quick hint: Cover your camera lens to create a black screen, about 15 seconds. You can go back to that footage to create closing titles too–although I didn’t see a way to make them scroll on the app. (Also, remember to turn down the VOLUME on your black screen, since sound will be captured even if the screen is black.)

Use the top “Add Media” symbol above to access your camera roll and import the black video footage. Then use the “T” symbol to add text (more on that below).

With text on the black screen, your opening title will look like this:

film by Tananarive Due

Now it feels like you’re making a movie!

In the photo below, I have already imported my video and recorded some sound. As you’re working, here’s what your iMovie work space will look like. (When you tap the “?” key in the top right side, hints light up like this:

imovie8

In the photo BELOW, notice the symbols on the right and left side of the images: these are your editing tools. Once you have selected a clip, the clip will light up in yellow. (This will be familiar if you’ve used the bigger program.) Once a clip is in yellow, you can trim it, edit the sound, or edit the image (slow motion, speed it up, freeze it, etc.)

Now you're ready to edit

Now you’re ready to edit

See the sybols on the lower left:

SCISSORS: Trim your clip down.

CLOCK: Change the pacing of the video.

AUDIO: Adjust the volume in the video clip, or adjust the sound.

T: “Text” — This is where you add text either in the center or bottom of your video, usually at the beginning and end.

The last symbol will give your video different hues, shades, etc. I usually prefer to work from the raw footage. Overdoing stylistic tricks like different hues, etc., may be distracting and look amateurish. (I only changed the hue once, for a flashback.) But take a look and see how the different filters change the appearance of your video.

How to trim a video clip:

Admittedly, trimming clips is my biggest frustration with the iMovie app–and will be the thing that drives more experienced filmmakers crazy. It isn’t super precise. When you tap the clip you want to trim, it will show up in YELLOW (as in the photo above). Tapping the SCISSORS icon puts you in trim mode. While the clip is in yellow, swipe your finger down vertically to trim it. It won’t always work the first time. There’s a magic touch involved. And it’s way easier to trim a clip down the center than it is to just lop off a second or two at the beginning or end–if it’s too close to the beginning or the end, it may not work. You will want to play with this and experiment.

Once you have successfully trimmed the video, the part you lopped off will show up in its own editing box. You can tap it to turn it yellow to DELETE or to edit it–say, if you wanted to add a sound effect or text only to that portion. (Unless you delete a trimmed video clip, it will still play in order in your movie, as if it was never trimmed.)

The more precise you want your trims to be, the more time it will take to play with the app to learn the magic touch.

Don’t forget to edit the TRANSITIONS. (See the tiny boxes between clips–they are “fades,” “wipes,” etc.) You edit the transitions the same way you edit the video clips, by tapping the symbol between clips until it turns yellow and offers an editing menu. Experiment a bit to see how they look. You can always change them later.

imovie11

Again, I suggest using the first option, NONE, for a clean edit the way most pros do it. In horror, I have used the Theme (“star”) transition a couple of times to draw attention to something scary–it’s a nice little effect–but too many gimmicks will make your film look amateurish, like saying “he exploded” instead of “he said” in your writing. Your viewer does not want to notice your transitions. The story is the most important thing.

 So, that’s how you edit your movie. One clip at a time. One transition at a time.

A few words on sound editing: 

The iMovie app has music and a few canned sound effects you can add to your film. The “Add Media” icon you use to import video clips will also take you to a sound menu. I have used the “Giggle” sound effect twice, but the options are very limited. More often, I have recorded my own sound over an existing clip to enhance it. Choose the spot on your video clip where you want to add new sound, press the MICROPHONE icon, and wait for the prompt to record. You can replay your recording before saving it and keep recording it until it’s right. (Notice all the added sound below, in blue and purple strips.)

imovie12

Theoretically, once a sound clip is in yellow (like the one above), you can slide it from either end to trim it (careful!), or even hold it to drag it to another spot in your movie. But be careful with sound editing in the iMovie app. I have accidentally erased sound clips, or accidentally moved a clip that was too small to erase and would not light up in yellow. I suggest recording the sound exactly as you want it in your film and limiting any attempts to trim or move it once it’s recorded. And if you’re recording new sound to REPLACE the original sound, don’t forget to go to your original video clip, tap it to turn it yellow, and then MUTE the sound. Otherwise, your new sound will blend with the original sound. (You can adjust the volume of either/both.)

Your end credits 

I haven’t found a way to recreate traditional rolling credits in the iMovie app, but you CAN use your black video footage I suggested at the start to create new title cards. iMovie offers a variety of styles for text, both at the bottom of the screen and the center of the screen, so have fun experimenting with the style that works for you. (Hint: Don’t linger too long.)

VERY IMPORTANT: Once your video is finished  

As I said earlier, even once your project is finished in iMovie, do not erase the original footage from your camera–or it will wipe out the footage in iMovie too. Definitely save a copy of the finished film on your camera roll. Your movie is not truly “saved” as a final project until you remove it from your phone or iPad. For me, the easiest way to do this is to upload it directly to YouTube.

But I have never been able to get the iMovie app to work properly to upload to YouTube directly. In fact, uploading any project more than a couple of minutes long to YouTube can be a major hassle.

So here’s a workaround: get a FREE app called YouTube Capture, which is the most consistent app I have found for uploading longer videos. First, link YouTube Capture to your YouTube page. (If you don’t have a page yet, you’ll need to create one.) Once you have saved your iMovie project to your camera roll, open YouTube Capture, tap on the video you want to upload, adjust the settings (Is it Private? Public? Unlisted? You can always change this later in YouTube), and start uploading.

(HINT: In settings on YouTube Capture, the default is to add Video Stabilization and Color Correction. Because I shot a found footage style, shaky cam movie, I did NOT want video stabilization. But I always opt for color correction. In your video, these defaults may not matter.)

Make sure you’re connected to wifi to upload your video. When possible, I even suggest babysitting the process, tapping on the screen occasionally to keep it from going black, because sometimes the app will glitch when your phone sleeps. Depending on how long your video is, uploading might take from five minutes to thirty minutes. If YouTube will not allow you to upload a longer video, you may need to go to YouTube SETTINGS and authorize YouTube to allow longer videos. 

Once your app says the video has uploaded to YouTube, it will take time–sometimes a long time–for YouTube to finalize it. But then it’s done! Show a few friends, get feedback, and go make changes in your iMovie project to upload again if you like.

As I said earlier, this isn’t a comprehensive course, but it should be enough to get you started.

So…ACTION!

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner. She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has also taught screenwriting. Join Tananarive’s email list. 

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Ghost Summer: Stories (Sept. 1) — My love affair with short stories, and why you should write them too

Ghost Summer - Final

Like many writers, I began learning my craft with short stories. By the time I finished my graduate English degree, I’d shifted my focus entirely from my unfinished novels to short stories. I needed to master beginning, middle and end.

Finally–a sale! In about 1990, I sold a short story called “Amusement” to a small magazine called Writers’ BBQ. I was ecstatic…and then I learned that the magazine went out of business. No publication for me. Although I continued to write short stories, they were repeatedly rejected. I did not publish a word of fiction until my first novel, The Between, in 1995. After that, my focus shifted back to novels. But I’d honed my craft on short stories first.

And I couldn’t walk away. When Gordon Van Gelder invited me to write for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I wrote a short story called “Patient Zero” that ended up in two best-of-the-year science fiction anthologies. And so it went on, a story here and there, only by invitation: Harlan Ellison (“Señora Suerte” in F&SF), Marita Golden and the late E. Lynn Harris (“The Knowing” in Gumbo), Nalo Hopkinson (“Trial Day” in Mojo: Conjure Stories), Brandon Massey (“Ghost Summer” in The Ancestors and “Danger Word” in Dark Dreams) and of course Sheree Renée Thomas (“Like Daughter” and “Aftermoon” in Dark Matter).  More recently, I’ve published three plague stories for John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey for their post-apocalyptic triptych that began with The End is Nigh (“Removal Order,” “Herd Immunity” and “Carriers.”)

I made it a personal goal to continue to write short fiction, not just novels. Why? Because my novels would be swayed by commercial concerns, but my short stories would exist for their own sake. They would most likely reflect my inner 10-year-old and the stories she wanted to write just because.

Sure enough, by the time I was ready to publish a collection, I was told that my longtime publishing house wasn’t interested. Short story collections weren’t considered profitable. And I sat on this collection for some time–years, I confess, because I was busy with my novels. Then I saw a collection called Kabu Kabu that Nnedi Okorafor published at Prime Books, a genre house with an editor I’d known since my very first days as a novelist, Paula Guran. The cover blew me away.

My collection found a home.

As you can see, the cover for Ghost Summer is also beautiful. But I didn’t fully appreciate how apt it is until I re-read my stories and noticed how many of them have child protagonists–from “Patient Zero” to “The Knowing” to “Ghost Summer” to “Danger Word.” They’re not stories for children, mind you (though they’re definitely YA appropriate), but many of these stories are about characters in helpless circumstances who must find their inner strength and light to survive and overcome. Children and adults alike must grapple with plague, apocalypse, possession, monstrosity and loss. Even zombies. (We crowdfunded and adapted “Danger Word” to a short film available for viewing at www.dangerword.com.)

Actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in the short film "Danger Word"

Actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in our short film adaptation of “Danger Word”

Publishers Weekly, in its Starred review, wrote: “In these extraordinary tales, American Book Award–winner Due (My Soul to Take) uses a clear-eyed view of history to explain (but never excuse) the present.” READ THE REST HERE.

Ghost Summer represents the past fifteen years of my short story publishing history, with a few newer ones–and one, “Vanishings,” that has never before been published. (A few erotica stories didn’t make it into the collection because they did not blend well with the other stories. Maybe next time.)

Aside from the creative exercise that has taken me away from series writing and dreams of bestsellerhood, my short stories have introduced me to readers who have never read my novels. My story “Herd Immunity” was a finalist for the 2015 Theodore Sturgeon Award. Short stories published years ago have found new life, and new readers, in reprints.

Admittedly, some of my recent love affair with short stories has been because of time factors: now that I am doing more screenwriting and teaching (I teach Afrofuturism at UCLA and in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles), it takes longer to write a novel. I’m currently working on a period novel set in this collection’s fictitious town of Gracetown, Florida, but I’m sure it won’t be finished until sometime in 2016, much less published.

In the meantime, though, I will continue to publish short stories. I meet an endless variety of new characters in short fiction, and short stories help me remember why I began writing in the first place.

Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in Danger Word

Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott in Danger Word

As a writing teacher and personal coach, I’m floored by how many excellent-though-unpublished writers I encounter who are trying to learn craft in the endless creative caverns of a novel rather than concentrating on short stories first. It’s akin to screenwriters who leap into features without writing a few shorts. The reasons: writers tend to write what they read, and there’s very little money in either short fiction or short films.

But I would not be the writer I am without my love of short stories. They demand clarity of thought and theme, more careful use of language, and the ability to draw readers into a world in only a page. Or a paragraph. On the practical side, they also take much less time to write, they can be published almost immediately (compared to a long wait with a novel), and they attract readers who otherwise might never find you.

So, I take my own advice: as I continue to work on my novel-in-progress, I will keep publishing short stories. If I keep working at it, I hope to get even better. And it won’t be fifteen years before I publish my next collection.

Tananarive Due is an author and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She has won an American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. Learn more about her work at www.tananarivedue.com

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For Writers: My Revision Breakthrough

 

Prime Books: June 2015

Prime Books: June 2015

With the upcoming summer publication of my first short story collection, Ghost Summer, I have been focusing on short fiction for the past couple of years. I always encourage newer writers to hone their craft on short stories before potentially getting lost in the maze of a novel, but with a caveat – writing short stories is not EASY. For some writers, they’re more difficult. The language is often sharper by necessity. But they’re also great for learning structural compression—beginning, middle and end.

I’m pleased with my first two Nayima survivor stories in The Apocalypse Triptych edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (“Removal Order” and “Herd Immunity”). I wanted the third story, “Carriers,” to take place about forty years in the future, reimagining my plague concept but keeping Nayima’s core character intact.

As the deadline drew near, I had breakthroughs and wrote in a white heat, believing I’d expressed my vision.

But the editors sent it back, asking for revisions.

******

I was ready to defend the story and point out all the reasons it was being misunderstood—but when I read it again after some time away, I realized they were right. The story was flabby and wordy. One scene was so crammed with infodump that it was like a textbook example. I’d saved too much of the good stuff for toward the end—an oh-so-revealing interaction with another character.

All feedback gives me a shape to walk toward in the fog. I spent hour after hour revising the story. I moved the late interaction higher, to the second scene, and the story brightened. Then, a domino effect: with an earlier reveal, the infodumpy scene could be significantly trimmed down AND now had much deeper emotional impact on its own merits.

Then I trimmed. And trimmed.

Did the sentence teach me anything about the character? Could the second half of the sentence be snipped off? Was it necessary to include this information? Was this sentence too clever for its own good? Some of the phrases and images that had come to me first, helping to ignite the rest of the story, ended up being cut.

The story got slim. And crisp. And engaging.

At the same time, I was getting feedback from Paula Guran, the editor of my upcoming Ghost Summer short story collection, on an unpublished story called “Vanishings.” It wasn’t working for her. It was confusing.

She wasn’t the first to say it. I’d been tinkering with that story for at least two years, on and off. I’d shared passages aloud with my MFA students (which led me to ban the practice), I’d given it to my best friend from college to read. (It didn’t work for her; she didn’t get it.)

Any time I struggle with a piece of fiction, I’m haunted by the unfinished stories on my old floppy disks, written in WordPerfect, when I was a newer writer. I lost interest in two novels, once about a hundred pages in, about two-hundred into another (hand-written, no less). I had a short story with a great gimmick I’d never truly paid off.

My unfinished stories haunt me—not because I really believe any of them were The One, but because I gave up on them. And I’m always afraid that I will give up on my stories again as writing seems to grow harder and harder.

But fresh from my last revision experience, I realized I could crack “Vanishings” too.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

Yes, Idris. Yes, we should.

The story faced two primary struggles: I had geared it toward literary readers who might not be familiar with fantasy or magical realism, so I had minimized fantastic imagery. And I was relying on the gimmick of a late reveal to give an entirely new sheen of meaning to the story. Like The Sixth Sense.

The delayed reveal wasn’t working. Period. And the lack of specific fantasy imagery only created confusion for the readers—I was hinting at phenomena that I wasn’t showing. (Also, in part, because I was holding back for the reveal.)

In January, lecturing at the Whidbey MFA program, I gave a talk on writing mystery and suspense that specifically addressed the pitfalls of too much concealment. And here it was, right under my nose.

Writing doesn’t get harder—it just stays hard. With practice, we expect it to get easier, but in truth we stretch ourselves and grow and grapple with new lessons. We seek new words to create order of the joys and terrors of our lives.

I don’t want to get tired of writing. Writing gives me too much.

All of my fiction in recent years, one way or another, has helped me process the long illness, suffering and death of my mother, Patricia Stephens Due, in 2012—and the growing toll of time on my friends and family, who are also aging, sometimes dying, like Octavia Butler and Leslie (L.A.) Banks and E. Lynn Harris. I still can’t believe any of them are gone.

If you don’t need to write, sometimes it’s not worth the trouble. Sometimes people are struggling to write because of an outgrown dream or outside pressure—and life is too short. (James Weldon Johnson’s poem “A Poet to His Baby Son” is about a father’s disappointment that his son seems to have a poet’s eyes. Oh, what a road for one’s child!)

With a struggling project, sometimes it’s appropriate to move on. In my case, I needed to write more short stories before I started a novel. I think this is true of most writers. The ideas were bigger than my skill level—and by the time I gained the skill level, I had bigger ideas.

But giving up is very different.

If you have to write—if you must write—don’t give up on yourself and your projects.

Carve out the time. Commit it to paper as a goal. Create an outline. Have writing quotas. And be brave enough to find beta readers to help you assess your writing. Trade manuscripts. Start a writing group, even if it’s only a group of two.

As readers, we can easily point out the flaws in the writing of others—but when it comes to our own, we often are standing too close. We need beta readers. We need editors. We need people who aren’t afraid to tell us the truth.

Revise.

And then stop revising and ask for a reader’s eyes. Because it may be ready at last.

Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes are teaching an online writing workshop March 7-28th. EARLY REGISTRATION OPEN. More information here. 

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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.

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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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I’m looking for 3 current Spelman College writers to send to Miami (VONA) in January. Here’s why.

Most of us know that becoming a writer takes voracious reading, good teachers and readers, conscious living, and endless practice. But the importance of a community cannot be overstated.  Not only does the right community of writers give you the careful readers every writer needs to grow, but community lends a sense of homecoming that can electrify your art.  For writers of color, who face specific issues of ethnicity and race both in their work and in the publishing world, a community can feel as necessary as oxygen.

That’s why I love the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), co-founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Diaz and Diem Jones, best known for its annual summer workshops for writers of color at Berkeley.  I have taught at VONA, and it’s an unforgettable experience.

Writers at VONA

In January, VONA is returning to the University of Miami for its three-day intensive workshop during the Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.   Here’s the faculty:

In fiction, Nigerian novelist Chris Abani (Graceland).  In poetry, Willie Perdomo (Smoking Lovely). Watch Perdomo on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” on YouTube. In memoir, Elmaz Abinader (Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey from Lebanon).  And M. Evelina Galang (Her Wild American Self), director of the MFA program at the University of Miami, is conducting a residency. It’s the same top-notch VONA faculty over a long weekend. In Miami.

Programs like VONA matter to developing writers.  That’s why, as the new Cosby Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, I’m looking for three Spelman writers to send to Miami VONA.

Yes, it will be challenging—Spelman students are undergraduates.  Although VONA has no educational requirements, many VONA writers are post-MFA and at the cusp of publication, if they haven’t been published already.  But it’s never too early to learn the importance of a writing community…especially when our students will return to campus to help other Spelman writers build a stronger community of their own.

The public at large can apply to VONA via its website. (Nov. 5th deadline): http://voicesatvona.org/Miami_VONA_2013.html

(left to right) Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz and M. Evelina Galang (instructors) with VONA/Miami participant Alejandro Nodarse

But if you’re a student currently enrolled at Spelman College (or know one), please continue reading below. (Oct. 26th deadline):

IMPORTANT: Spelman scholarship applicants should NOT apply through the VONA website.  In order to be eligible for the scholarship, you must submit to Tduespelman@gmail.com by October 26th.  Late applications will NOT be considered for the scholarship. (However, if you do not win and want to submit to VONA to pay your own way, you will still have time to apply to VONA directly via the website by Nov. 5th.)

APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS (Please read carefully)

PERSONAL STATEMENT: Your personal statement might carry as much weight as your page submissions.  Write at least 300 words explaining 1.) Why writing is important to you, 2.) What you hope to accomplish at VONA, and 3.) What your goals are as a writer. (Double-spaced)  Longer statements are permissible.

IN ADDITION: WE MUST SEE A SAMPLE OF YOUR WRITING

Indicate which genre you are applying for in your heading, i.e.:

Fiction and Memoir: 20 pages of your best prose.  It may be an excerpt from a longer work, a single work, or excerpts from shorter works. (Double spaced and proofread)

Poetry: 10-15 pages of your best poems.  Long and short poems in all forms are accepted.  (Single spaced and proofread)

ALL GUIDELINES MUST BE CAREFULLY FOLLOWED IN ORDER TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR THE SCHOLARSHIP.

Submissions must also:

1.)   Be sent electronically to Tduespelman@gmail.com in Word, attached as a text file.  Do not include any portion of your application in the body of the email.

2.)   Have a heading that includes your name, email address, telephone number and preferred genre (Fiction, Poetry, Memoir).

3.)   Be solely your original work.

4.)   Include the words VONA APPLICATION in your subject heading so it will be easily seen.

REMINDER TO SPELMAN STUDENTS:  You should visit the VONA website for reference at  http://voicesatvona.org/Miami_VONA_2013.html), but do not apply to VONA/Miami directly from the website unless you have received notification that you did not win and you are willing to pay out-of-pocket.

All scholarship applications will be processed by Spelman faculty.

QUESTIONS?

Send any questions to Tduespelman@gmail.com with the heading VONA QUESTION.

Good luck…and write on!

Tananarive Due, a novelist and screenwriter, is the Cosby Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College in Atlanta.  She is the author or co-author of a dozen novels, including the African Immortals series (My Soul to Keep, My Soul to Take) and the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with her husband, Steven Barnes, and actor Blair Underwood. Her website is www.tananarivedue.com.  FOLLOW her on Twitter @tananarivedue

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