Link Olio

Here’s an article from The Hollywood Reporter about the changing state of internships in Hollywood.  Looks like things are turning around, but only because people are finally speaking out.

A couple cool videos to also share.  The first is a panel discussion about television showrunning, put out by the Television Academy.  And below is a spooky spoof just for fun.


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Link Olio

Here are a few things of note from around the ‘net.

Vulture ran a series of horror-centric articles leading up to Halloween.  One of the best was this piece about the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

The New York Times also did a write up on Cemetery Dance and other specialty publishers.  Nice to see Rich Chizmar get some national recognition for his hard work.

Rolling Stone conducted a lengthy interview with Stephen King, in case you missed it.  His latest novel, Revival, comes out next week, and it sounds like a throwback to the straight horror stories he wrote in the ’80s.

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Halloween Stories IV

It’s that time of year again, when I share a few of my favorite short stories to help get folks in the Halloween spirit.  These tales are best read at bedtime, by candlelight.  Barring that, e-readers work just as well.

Ralph Adam Cram’s “The Dead Valley”

Robert McCammon’s “Strange Candy”

William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night”

I’ll also include links to the previous years I’ve been doing this:

Halloween Stories (2011)

Halloween Stories II (2012)

Halloween Stories III (2013)

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16 Lessons (4 of 4)

13)  Everybody’s first novel sucks.  Get over it.

You have one trunk novel, Blood Money.  You write it right out of high school.  It’s a pretty solid book for being written by an eighteen-year-old, but it’s far too complex an idea for your limited skillset at the time.  Your next book, Leviathan, is more streamlined and miles ahead in execution.  That doesn’t mean Blood Money was a waste of time and effort, 550 pages’ worth of birdcage liner.  You’ll learn more from that first book than any subsequent one.  Yes, it’ll kick your ass.  Embrace that.  Finish it.  Whatever you write, finish it.  Even if it’s a terrible rough draft that gets shoved in a drawer and never again sees the light of day.  The only truly failed novel is a half-written one.

14)  You’re gonna meet great people.

The writer’s journey is a solitary one.  On occasion you’ll bump into others on their own journeys, like ships passing in the night.  You’ll meet a plethora of folks along the way, the vast majority of whom will be decent, fun-loving individuals.  Readers and fans who show up to your booksignings.  Or literary agents on the hunt for a good book.  Editors who strive to make your manuscript that much better.  Librarians who help with research on your next project.  Talented illustrators who create stunning cover artwork.  Or contemporary authors who are there with topical advice or a sympathetic ear to commiserate.  There are bound to be some assholes in the mix, that’s unavoidable for any large group of people, but you’ll be surprised at the low percentage of book people who fall into that category.  And while you often can’t help those who’ve assisted you, it’s expected you pay it forward to the next generation.

15)  It’s a twenty-year investment.

For some it may be a shorter period, for others slightly longer.  I’d say twenty years is the average length of time between embarking on the writer’s journey and having it become your fulltime job.  The first ten years are devoted to learning the intricacies of storytelling, an apprenticeship in the craft of fiction.  It takes a decade to gather the tools necessary to pack your writer’s toolkit, then another decade to build a brand and transition your art from hobby to career.

16)  HAVE FUN.

There are two kinds of writers:  those who enjoy writing, and those who enjoy having written.  Don’t be the latter.  Love the process, warts and all.  On certain days getting every word down will feel . . . like . . . pulling . . . teeth.  Luckily, those moments are rare.  Most days you put in your time at the keyboard and move on with your life.  Then there are those rare, dazzling instances when your brain’s firing on all cylinders and everything lines up on its own, as if by magic.  Like cruising down Sunset Boulevard and hitting every streetlight green.  It’s easy to love writing at those moments; learn to love it equally on the lesser days.

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16 Lessons (3 of 4)

9)    Structure is your friend.

The sooner you impose structure on your creative process, the faster you’ll see a return on investment.  Writing a book is difficult work no matter what, so embrace any trick or technique that allows you to write smarter and more efficiently.  This is where a rigid routine comes into play.  If you have a certain time and place to write, you’ll quickly train your “muse” by Pavlovian response.  If you’re at your writing desk from 7-9 PM every evening, for example, you’ll find the words will be there to greet you more often than not.  Once you really get cooking on a project, let the momentum carry you through to the end.  Don’t stop.  If you pause midway through a manuscript, even for a day or two, you risk losing forward thrust.  Remember, it’s nigh impossible to recapture that initial rush of excitement for a project once it’s gone.

Structure is especially important when tackling a long-term project like a novel.  A rough draft takes several months, so the key to success is breaking it up into manageable, daily tasks.  Writing a book sometimes feels like wandering around in a whiteout fog.  Structure acts as a guide wire to keep you from veering off course.  And if you write the same amount each day (whether two pages or four or eight), you’ll notice those pages stack up quickly.  The beginning and end of a book may feel “faster” — especially when you’re slogging through the middle section of a novel — but structure reminds you that’s all an illusion.  Four pages a day is the same amount, no matter where in the book they fall.  (It’s funny how much of the creative process is predicated on fooling yourself in various ways.)

10)  Understand the difference between a premise and a plot.

This is something that tripped me up when I started, and I’ve noticed a lot of tyro writers fall into the same trap.  A quick lesson then:  A premise is the germ of an idea that impels you to write a story; it’s the backdrop against which you tell your tale.  (Hollywood calls this a hook.)  The plot is the series of events by which that premise plays out.  For example:

One day the earth stops spinning.  It slowly decelerates until halting altogether.  Half the world soon becomes a scorched wasteland, while the other half freezes in eternal darkness.  A habitable strip exists, however, a place of perpetual dawn called the “Twilight Zone” that has been overrun by the largest refugee migration in human history.

An interesting premise, but not a story in itself (apologies to Rod Serling).  So let’s add a plot:

After a new ice age settles across North America, geologist Bob Protagonist decides to move his family across the frozen Atlantic Ocean to Nouveaux Shangri-La, capital of the Twilight Zone.  His wife and daughter undertake the dangerous trek alone after Bob is approached by a cadre of explorers who need his help.  They recruit Bob to help find the lost Aztec city of Whogivesashit, where legend speaks of a fabled Golden Maguffin, a device so powerful it has potential to set the world in motion.

A workable plot (albeit skeletal) for our purposes, and not broken down into individual chapters.  Yet you see the difference?  A premise is a promise; the plot is the delivery on that promise.  Plenty of aspiring writers cut their teeth on vignettes, which tend to be all premise and no plot.  Their stories are full of thinking and feeling — but very little action. Many established “literary” writers are guilty of selfsame, long after they should know better.

Many elements go into storytelling, none more important than plot.  If you have a million-dollar premise, you need to pair it with a million-dollar plot; otherwise, the whole story feels off-kilter and frustratingly unfulfilled.  A lot of movies fail in this regard, especially high-concept sci-fi flicks.

EXASPERATED SCREENWRITER:  I have a high-concept hook!

STUDIO EXECUTIVE:  Great, let’s execute it with a paint-by-numbers, Joseph Campbell rip-off then call it a day!

11)  Readers carry their own baggage, and you have no control over how they react.

In a perfect world, readers who pick up your books would come to them tabula rasa, like flawless mirrors onto which your stories are reflected.  Sadly, this isn’t the case.  For some, those mirrors are smudged with dust and fingerprints.  Others may be cracked or fragmented into a thousand jagged pieces.  And a few are warped funhouse mirrors that distort anything viewed through them, including your work.

Readers come with certain expectations.  Those expectations are colored by their personal histories and experiences, their likes and dislikes.  Your baggage as an author is heavier than most, though it’s that very burden which makes your work distinctive.

Some people will love the stories you tell.  Others . . . won’t.  All opinions weigh the same, about as much as a fairy’s fart.  The only opinion about your work that matters is your own.  You can’t please 100 percent of people 100 percent of the time; however, you can aim to please yourself 100 percent of the time.  That said, pursuing perfection is as futile as chasing the horizon.  With a lot of diligence and elbow grease, you can get a manuscript within perfection’s margin of error, say, ninety-five percent of your original vision.

12)  No isn’t a four-letter word.

This is true of life in general, not necessarily just writing.  The more you hear no, the less it stings.  So ask out that cute girl at the gym.  Or submit that short story to The New Yorker.  The worst that can happen is they pass on it.  They’re not going to hunt you down afterward or kill your puppy.  Probably.

And understand there are different shades of no.  Artists spend their whole careers “failing up.”  There’s a vast difference between no and no-but.  No implies someone isn’t interested in hearing from you at all, while no-but means they’re rejecting your ideas for whatever reason but they like you as a person and want to work with you in the future.  Keep in mind you’re selling yourself as much as you’re selling your wares.  That’s true for any pitch meeting.

Check back throughout the week as I post more lessons.

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16 Lessons (2 of 4)

5)    Professional is as professional does.

Some people define “professional” solely in monetary terms.  A professional is someone who makes a financial living from his or her work.  And I agree with that assessment (to a degree), but I find that definition too restrictive.  Professionalism is about more than money.  Are college athletes less professional because they’re not being paid?  Was Stephen King somehow more professional the day after he sold Carrie than the day before?  No, of course not.  Getting paid for your work is important, yes, but more so is the manner in which you conduct yourself.  More than anything else, professionalism is about attitude.  I’ve seen bestselling “professionals” act dismissively toward their fans or be derisive of fellow authors.  I’ve witnessed “professionals” make fools of themselves at writing seminars and booksignings (alcohol is often a culpable culprit on these occasions).

6)    Editors do remarkably little editing.

This one came as a shock.  The very profession conjures a specific vision in my mind:  a grizzled gentleman with a red pencil tucked behind one ear, his sleeves rolled up as he tackles a mountainous stack of manuscripts on his desk — Farnsworth Wright or Maxwell Perkins incarnate.  The truth is that many of those editorial responsibilities have been turfed to lower-level publishing employees, line editors and proofreaders mostly.  They are the ones who fix grammar and point out inconsistencies, while “acquisitions directors” (executive editors) focus on a book’s developmental issues.  I’m sure some editors remain in the Perkins mold; unfortunately, they’re the exception rather than the rule.

7)    You don’t pick your readers — they pick you.

Don’t try to predict who will enjoy your work; you’ll guess wrong as often as you get it right.  See that kid loitering outside the public library, the one in the Godzilla t-shirt?  He may have zero interest in reading your horror novel.  But that blue-haired old woman sitting on the bench beside him is potentially your biggest fan.  I know a certain nonagenarian who’s a Richard Laymon fanatic.  She loves his novels (in all their gory glory) and raves about them.  Whodathunkit?  If you don’t want readers judging a book by its cover, then you should extend the same courtesy and never prejudge them.

8)    Every project presents a unique set of challenges.

I’m told every pregnancy is different.  I’ll never experience that firsthand, so writing a novel is the closest I get to that gestation process.  You spend all that time, energy and hard work (about nine months’ worth) to bring a manuscript into being, then you send it out into the world . . . where some asshole anonymously trashes it on Amazon.  Whatever.

For some books the challenge comes in the plotting or research stage.  This is especially true of period pieces.  Others may be a bitch to write, the rough draft taking a seeming eternity to complete.  Or perhaps trouble befalls you during the rewriting phase.  However it works out, rarely does a project go smoothly from plotting to publication.  Just ride out the bumps and know that it gets better.

Check back throughout the week as I post more lessons.

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16 Lessons (1 of 4)

I started writing in 1998, so as of this month I’ve been doing it for sixteen years.  As such, I figure this is a good time to share some things I’ve learned during that period.  Had I the ability to travel back in time to warn advise 13-year-old Jared Sandman, these are the nuggets of wisdom I’d impart to myself.  Here are the top sixteen things I wish I’d known when I began.  [I’ll break this up into four parts, because it’s fairly long.]  Some are rather vague, while others are quite practical and specific.  They’re in no order of importance, only the order they came to me while showering brainstorming.

1) There’s something broken inside you, which isn’t necessarily bad so long as you channel that energy constructively.

Every story is an expedition inside yourself, an opportunity to plumb the depths of your soul and stare into the heart of darkness.  There’s a bottomless pit somewhere in those depths, which you can view in one of two ways:  either it’s a yawning maw waiting to swallow you whole — or it’s the endless wellspring from which stories flow.  Since you can’t fix what’s broken, at least monetize it.

2)    Don’t be afraid to experiment (and fail).

Learning how to write well is largely a process of elimination.  By figuring out how not to approach a story, you slowly zero in on what works.  Harken Samuel Beckett’s advice:  “Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  Constantly challenge yourself to test new methods of storytelling.  Utilize a new voice, style or point of view.  Ply a fresh format:  if you primarily write short stories, switch to a novel (or vice versa).  Poems, comic books, screenplays, playwriting, take your pick.  The same goes for bookselling tactics:  experiment to find the optimum avenues to get your work into the world.  Most of it won’t pan out, and that’s okay.  Failure is a great teacher, if you’re willing to heed its instruction.

3)    Trust your instincts.  Rarely will they steer you wrong.

This applies equally to both the creative process and the publishing business.  That voice in the back of your head that whispers This scene isn’t working or That character’s motivations are suspect, it’s there for a reason.  That’s your inner critic, and you’ll form a very twisted Jekyll/Hyde relationship with him.  You’ll hate him, only because he’s right.  It’s best to rewrite the scene, recast that character.  And if a business proposal sounds too good to be true, it is.  Better to err on the side of caution rather than risk wading into a corporate quagmire.  Many potential landmines await your next footfall.  More than a few of them can be sidestepped by talking to colleagues who’ve previously navigated those same minefields.

4)    No one can teach you writing better than yourself.

Writing teachers are fine.  Lectures from guest authors or writers-in-residence are fine.  Workshops and conventions are fine.  But none of them teaches you more about writing than writing, the very act of composing stories and stringing sentences together like a popcorn strand.  Listening about writing is not writing.  Thinking about writing is not writing.  Reading about writing is not writing (yes, including this post).  Those other things can grease the wheels of creativity, but none of them will do the work for you.

Check back throughout the week as I post more lessons.

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Link Olio

I’ll be posting a four-part series about writing over the next week or so.  Until then, here are a few things from the Interwebz that caught my interest.

Television writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach published an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the New Golden Age of TV and what elements contributed to it.  He and Jose Molina host a podcast as well, which is full of great information about writing for television.  I’m sure I’ve mentioned their program before, but it’s worth reiterating.  Check out “Children of Tendu” or suffer the consequences.

I also came across this post about Murder, She Wrote. It skewers formula-driven scriptwriting in a hilarious fashion.  Even though I’ve never seen an episode of Murder, She Wrote, I feel like I’ve seen them all.  Just replace Jessica Fletcher with Magnum, P.I., MacGyver, Simon & Simon or any number of other procedurals from that era.  Sadly, these lazy formulas exist to this day, in spite of television’s New Golden Age.  I’d love to see someone lampoon NCIS, Law & Order or CSI like this.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this genius comic strip about my favorite superhero.  It perfectly summarizes why Bruce Wayne is both totally awesome and batshit insane (see what I did there?).

'Of course, sir. I'll have some muggers brought round.'

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Link Olio

Here’s a Los Angeles Times article from 1990 about screenwriter Shane Black.  At one point he was the highest-paid writer in Hollywood, then he fell out of favor with the movie studios and had to wander the desert for forty days and forty nights — okay, more like sixteen years — until he was tapped to direct Iron Man 3.  Now he’s on top again, and I’m sure he appreciates it more the second time around.

Also, check out this lengthy interview with several executives on The Simpsons.  Or, even better, this video with Conan O’Brien and a few of the show’s staff writers.

Finally, I bring you an impromptu Q&A session with Joss Whedon.  The full transcript is fascinating.

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Busted Pilots

Here are a couple of sitcom pilots from the ’90s.  The first, Pistol Pete, comes from John Swartzwelder.  He wrote more episodes of The Simpsons than anyone else, almost three seasons’ worth, including many of the absolute classics (“Itchy and Scratchy Land,” “The Cartridge Family,” “Rosebud”).  In 1996 he wrote this western pilot.  It’s kind of a misfire, truth be told, but funny in places and full of Swartzwelder comedic hallmarks.  He writes satiric novels nowadays, which you can check out here.

The next pilot is from 1991 and comes from Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel.  This one’s a lot funnier, Lookwell, played to perfection by Adam West.  I would’ve loved to see this go to series.  The concept — a faded celebrity who thinks he can solve real crimes because he once portrayed a detective on TV — is a brilliant one that can still work today.  Somebody please take this idea and turn it into a movie about a bumbling Columbo.

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