Corey Mandell screenwriting/TV writing workshops – highly recommended

Can’t see the video? Open it here.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years shopping for film and television writing coaching. I’ve taken workshops, I’ve had professional coverage, I’ve read a hundred books and countless blogs.

Of all those possible learning resources, the only one I’ve ever recommended is the workshop series offered by Corey Mandell and Talton Wingate. Corey and Talton will again be offering the first workshop in the series, Professional Screenwriting and Television Writing, in September. It’s an 8-week class with live remote 3-hour workshops held once a week. Full-on lectures in Week 1 and Week 8: lecture, new concepts, writing exercises, and individual feedback on homework the other 6 weeks.

Go take it. Then take the Conceptual Intensive, which is a non-required class that you can take between the first workshop and the advanced class (which I just completed and absolutely loved).  The CI is the single hardest class I’ve ever taken as an adult, a firewalk with a mountain of homework and a sense of push-to-grow that reminded me of my Clarion experience, or the 41 stories I wrote in 41 days on behalf of Clarion West a few years ago.

(To illustrate this: I got laid off from my 2-year contract job along with 28% of the rest of the company last summer during the final week of the Conceptual Intensive. My first response was Oh, shit. My second response was Well, I’ll have time to do my homework now. And I did. It was totally worth it. That class scared the bejesus out of me, and I loved it.)

As you move through the workshop series, you’ll get to work with Corey, Talton, and their colleague Lauren “Tough Love” Ludwig (no, I don’t think that’s the middle name her parents gave her, but it should be). All of these people are smart, funny, expert, generous with their coaching, and every single one of them will learn your little ways as a writer and tell you to carry on, or to stop that shit.

I think it helps to have some writing (prose or screenwriting) experience going into these workshops, but it’s not essential. From my perspective, the people who have the toughest time are those who want to argue that the concepts being taught, or the feedback on their work, are completely wrong. I have seen a couple of people get very mulish in a way that I see in emerging prose writers as well: If you really understood what I’m doing you would totally see how perfect it is! Pro tip: don’t be that person, ever. It gets you nowhere.

If you want to learn more about screenwriting, have the will to grow and aren’t afraid of being truly workshopped – of hanging your ass out for everyone to see so that you can learn – then go check out the website and the class. Bring your growth mindset and your absolute willingness to embrace feedback, work your ass off, provide support to your workshop cohort, and get over the need to be perfect. Because the need to be perfect is the enemy of growth.

And if you decide to go for it, do let me know. I’d love to hear about your experience.

Faking it is a bullshit way to become a pro writer

I'm just as real as everyone else! (image from about a million Pinterest sites)
I’m just as real as everyone else! (image from about a million Pinterest sites)

(Hey, guess what? You can now find The OtherLife Journals on Medium!)

One of the biggest mistakes I made as a brand-new screenwriter with a real project at stake was that I was afraid to ask questions about my craft and my role. What did Real Movie People expect from a professional writer? I had no idea. I knew it was my job to write the script, but that’s like knowing your job is to wash the car. What do real car-washers do? Where do they start? What are the best tools? What are the most important parts to get right? Where’s the gruff-but-kindly gum-chewing grey-haired woman in greasy overalls who gives me a bucket and tells me Kid, make sure you close the windows tight, don’t use a stiff brush, and remember who owns the car?

I got instructions on proper screenplay formatting from books. I found lots of internet posts about the importance of pithy, active, visual storytelling, which were inspiring but not by themselves terribly useful. What I badly needed was specific writing advice on structuring screen stories, sequences and scenes driven by clear externalized goals.

Hard-won pro tip #1 to character-driven-novelists-turning-screenwriters: Feelings are not plot. You need both. I’m sorry. You actually need both in novels too, but you can get away with, for example, a single plot event engendering a whole chapter of feelz. This prose strategy, like so many, is not directly transferrable to scripts, and will not create a selling screenplay for you. Ask me how I know. ←

I also badly needed specific working-writer advice on attitude and approach. Who gets to decide what the story is? As the writer, was I supposed to fiercely defend the movie in my head against all challenges? Or was I supposed to change things up every time someone said boo? Were some people’s notes more important than others? If people didn’t understand the story, or didn’t like it, or wanted to change it, did that mean I was a bad writer? Wouldn’t everyone love it if it were good enough?

I needed to learn everything. But I was afraid to slow down and ask anyone. So I dove in and learned by doing, as I have done with most everything in my life. This is a great skill to have when you need it, when you have to make a wild-ass leap and take your best shot before you are ready. It is a bullshit way to become a professional.

I flailed my way into a place where people began responding to parts of the script with enthusiasm, and I didn’t feel so panicked all the time. What I should have done right then, the very first non-panicked minute, was find the best screenwriting workshop I could (I highly recommend this one), read the hundreds of scripts I should already have read by that point, hunt down writing analysis of scripts online, and et cetera. But I didn’t. Instead I started figuring out by myself what parts of my script people were liking, and how to apply those same principles to the parts that they didn’t.

As I continued to write version after version of OtherLife, I did learn some good craft from notes, from conversations, from blog posts, from sheer stubbornness. Unfortunately, I also learned a bunch of bad craft from those same sources. Most people who gave me specific notes were not working writers themselves, and didn’t know jack shit about how to fix what was troubling them. That didn’t stop them from giving me specific writing instructions, which I did my best to execute because they were producers and managers and agents: they knew what successful films looked like, and I assumed, hoped, clung to the belief that this meant they knew what worked in scripts.

Well, sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they were simply chasing money: a distributor was looking for a film that did x, and if we did x with our film they would read it. So off I went and did x to the best of my ability, often without the right tools. I wrote a lot of perfectly mediocre scenes — good story ideas uninterestingly executed, or over-explained, or too tightly packed because my developmental producer recoiled at anything that smacked to him of exposition.

Hard-won pro tip #2: Explaining is necessary in movies. We need context. We can’t read the minds of characters on screen like we can in novels. And showing — action without words — is important but not usually emotionally sufficient. At some point someone has to explain themselves, or the situation, or the other person, plainly enough that we get it. This is exposition. The skill is in doing it so that it becomes integral to the film moment we are in: the “visitor’s hall/science exhibit” of Jurassic Park is brilliant exposition, pure infodump wrapped in the skin of a theme park thrill ride. Context revealed through conflict — another excellent strategy for exposition, for great examples see every episode of Firefly — is something I understood intuitively early on, but had no vocabulary or conscious tools for. Understanding is good, but having conscious tools and knowing when to use them is what makes you a pro. ←

Other times, when told to do x, I had to stand my my ground and explain that x would completely derail the film because of the changes we would need in the rest of the script to support x if they wanted x make any fucking sense to the audience. Have you seen those movies where things just suddenly…happen? Those Wait, what? moments — that’s someone’s x, right there.

Hard-won pro tip #3: Even small changes to plot and character ripple forward and backwards through the script. This is just the same as short stories and novels, so stick to your guns and be super-specific about what Big Thing will break if this little thing is wodged into the script to make the distributor happy. Because when that Big Thing doesn’t make sense on the screen, no one will blame the distributor. They may not blame you either, but if you didn’t fight for it you will blame yourself. If they insist on the wodging, then do your best to handle the ripples, no matter how inclined you are to let them hang themselves with their own stupid choice. Because it’s your script until they take it away from you; and when they do, don’t you want it to be as strong as it can be even with its fractures? Because that’s your job. ←

Sometimes the people giving notes were absolutely right about the problem, but didn’t offer solutions. They were respecting my role as the writer: they expected me to go away and fix it. That was scary. I could handle trying to implement someone else’s ideas, and I could handle sticking to my guns when I knew an idea was fundamentally broken. But I didn’t know how to do pro-level diagnosis and identify the best solutions, because I hadn’t learned enough and I wouldn’t stop to get that help. Instead I went back to flailing. Sometimes I stumbled onto the right path, and I’m pretty proud overall of the script that made the Australian producers and director want to take on the film. But I could have gotten there much faster.

What was I so afraid of? Well, the surface-level fear was that I had to appear totally professional or I would be replaced. This fear is not unfounded: professionalism is a real thing, especially in a process-oriented creative industry. People making production decisions want a team they believe will do the job without babysitting or personal drama. This belief is based on some combination of credits, reputation, and previous working relationship. That’s one reason it’s such a hard business to break into (for anyone in any creative and/or technical role), and why I was afraid of shooting myself in the foot.

I spent two years terrified on a regular basis of being fired from the project. I didn’t realize until much later that the producers weren’t likely to hire a more professional writer unless another studio, mini-major, or distributor with deep pockets came along, because there would be no more development money until then. Even so, they had the right to replace me: and I knew that anyone bankrolling the film would replace me as part of the deal unless I could be That Perfect. So I continued to wrestle through on my own, with all the big mistakes and stress that any reasonable person except me would have seen coming like a mile-high train down five miles of straight track. Every time I got critical feedback about all the things that were wrong, I felt sad and angry and afraid, and sometimes I made dumb writing choices out of those feelings. Every time I got positive feedback about how someone loved the script, it reinforced my belief that my approach was the the right one: look, I was a better writer! Until the next round of criticism or rejection.

And I didn’t understand that all I had to do was to learn from others. It astonishes me now. I’m good at learning, and I’m good at helping other people learn. It’s one of my great strengths, and for years I turned it inside out and made it into a great weakness. I bought into the idea that in order to survive, I had to “just know” what I was doing. I believed that “acting as if” would magically transmute into “being real” someday. I believed that if I couldn’t do it all by myself, I wasn’t really a writer. And so I couldn’t be vulnerable: not to OtherLife people, not to other writers, not to anyone.

I cannot overstate how abysmally stupid this is. And I have lately come to understand that I have done it before, and that it has been the single biggest slowdown to my learning and growth as a writer and as a human being.

Hard-won pro tip #4: Do not make this choice. ←

I know where a lot of this “need to do it myself” comes from. I don’t think the underlying psychology is special or particular to me. I do think it’s frighteningly counterproductive. It is based in fear, and fear does not help us grow and improve as humans or writers or anything else. Ever. There are better ways to learn, in which we must be brave enough to reach out to others for help; to make mistakes; to practice until we get it right, however long it takes; to deal with how fucking long it takes sometimes; to keep going. We have to do our own work: but we do not need to be driven by fear off the nearest cliff just to prove that we can fly all by ourselves — or to prove that at least we know how to take a landing.

So I’m learning.

The OtherLife Journals are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking. Find them on this blog or on Medium.

Development hell

Aha, you’re fucking with me now, aren’t you? (image from The Breakfast Club)

Think of development hell as an infinite spin cycle. You are going to the Best Party Ever as soon as your laundry is done. Your amazingly cool shirt is too damp to wear but if you can just wait another 15 minutes… Oh good, it’s dry! But the wash cycle has left a spot on it, so you have to run it through again. It only takes 45 minutes: there’s still plenty of time to get to the party. Then the cat hoiks up a bile-yellow hairball on your jeans. That’s okay, you have another pair! Then your shoe breaks. But your hobby is cobbling (I think I said a really true thing about the entire indie film industry right there). You fix your shoe with a leather needle you had squirreled away in your junk drawer. You feel triumphant because you knew that needle would come in handy someday, no matter that it pokes you in the finger and makes you bleed all over your shoes.

And you dress and you’re sweaty and hopeful and excited, and you arrive at the Best Party Ever — and no one else is there. They all met another script that is throwing an Even Better Party than yours. You are not invited.

This happened for about eight years with OTHERLIFE.


My experience of indie development hell is:

Hell is other people’s checkbooks.

Hell is other people’s schedules.

Hell is other people’s need to attach themselves to 57,000 projects, thereby ensuring from their perspective that they will not miss whatever turns out to be the best party. This means you get two seconds of their attention per year, but because they are attached, you have to run things by them. Bonus points when they promise to read the script this weekend and get back to you on Monday, which ensures that you are too anxious on Monday to get any meaningful work done. About a year later you realize that “Monday” means “no.”

Hell is other people’s belief that female-driven films don’t interest men and therefore will not make any money. Apparently women do not go to the movies or have any desire to see realistic, complex women characters in films. Apparently all men who go to the movies are 15 years old, straight, and interested only in breasts and blowjobs. And if any grownup men did go to the movies, they would want to see movies about themselves because men are more interesting than women. Don’t believe it? When’s the last time you saw an interesting movie about a woman? The people who tell you these things are some of the same people who complain with no apparent irony that there are no interesting movies being made anymore.

Hell is other people’s egos.

Hell is your ego.

Hell is your belief that you will never write a film that will interest anyone because you are an unproven untrained middle-aged woman who wants to write about women, and we know how well that usually turns out.

Hell is your disbelief that you have to justify the reality of your women characters to so many producers, managers, executives and readers. When you get notes about the character not being likable because she raises her voice to a man, you have a vertiginous moment of feeling like you in are in a movie yourself.

Hell is your lack of experience which makes it very hard to separate good notes from bad ones. When you try to hide this lack of experience by treating all notes as equally important, your script becomes what is technically known as a giant spaghetti mess. You are the writer. This is your fault. In all seriousness, it is.

The hard part of development hell is knowing that if I were a better writer, my script would make people put aside their other 56,999 projects, stop tweaking, dive in and get this fucker made. But development hell happens a lot in indie productions because the script is almost there, has a good concept or a compelling character, and with a little work…It’s almost dry. It just needs a little spin.

There are plenty of reasons movies go off the development rails. OTHERLIFE was set up at a major studio and then put into turnaround, meaning that the studio decided so firmly not to make the film that they wrote off the costs and sent the script home from the party. Turnaround is bad because it sends a signal that the script may not be strong enough to engender confident financing: even if the script is not the real problem, the signal of unconfidence is still a real signal.

Also, if someone else wants to make the script, they now have to take on those sunk development costs. In spite of this, OTHERLIFE was nearly financed multiple times by multiple people with big checkbooks who would have signed off on all those zeros if only we could get (insert Big Famous Name) to direct or star. We showed the script to a lot of those Big Names. We had a lot of conversations about notes, about improvements, about tweaking this or that element of the script to make it better.

Development hell happens because people have faith in your script. It happens because people commit and work hard and keep trying. It happens because an amazing director (I’ve had four) with one or two films under their belt sees your film as a great opportunity to actually get something interesting made… with a little work. It happens because a producer (the count of OTHERLIFE producers is in the double digits) who wants to make great films finds something in yours that they think could be worth investing months or years of their lives in trying to realize. We had a couple of people who were just slipstreaming on the script, attaching themselves because someone at a party mentioned it and they thought they might be missing out on an opportunity (this is a true story). Those people directly contributed to slowdowns in development. Development demons, if you will. But most of the people who have crossed paths with OTHERLIFE have been good, smart, creative, passionate folks who want to make movies because it’s hard and meaningful and fun. Those people are goddesses and gods to me, every single one of them who ever touched this script or believed in the project.

We were close-but-no-cigar so many times, and some of those people who believed in the script stopped believing, and moved on. Sometimes that was my fault: I was the writer who couldn’t make the script better. That’s a special hell.

But I’m learning (more about which soon). That’s part of what these journals are for: to figure out what I’ve learned, to get better, and to share those lessons so that maybe other writers can benefit. Today I will say that development hell brings its own set of lessons. One of the biggest is that as a writer, so much of development is outside your zone of control — those schedules, those egos, those dollars. So the part that’s in your control — the writing — had better be fucking perfect. No excuses. No matter what. Sometimes all you can be in charge of is whether you suck it up and do it again and learn. So be the great big boss of that.

The OtherLife Journals (OLJ) are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking.

My film OtherLife is shooting now in Perth

OtherLife Countdown Clock
I’m thrilled to announce that my film OtherLife has begun shooting in Perth, Australia.
(Read the press release.)

OtherLife is directed by Ben C. Lucas (Wasted on the Young), a fiercely talented director and writer who brings depth and heart and passion to the film. The script is written by me, Gregory Widen (Highlander, Backdraft, The Prophecy), Lucas Howe, and director Ben Lucas. The film stars the fantastic Jessica De Gouw (Dracula, Arrow, and the forthcoming Underground), as well as Thomas Cocquerel (Kidnapping Mr. Heineken) and TJ Power (Eat Pray Love, The Sapphires, Wasted on the Young).

OtherLife is produced in Australia by Ticket to Ride, See Pictures, and WBMC. These fine people brought the film to Australia and put together a stunningly creative crew. You should see some of the photos… and you will! I’ll have a lot to say about the process in coming posts.

A special shoutout to Ben Lucas and producer Jamie Hilton for believing in the script and working so hard to bring it to Australia. Oh my god the stories…

And finally, three important people to thank:

Tommaso Fiacchino of Cherry Road Films (Al Otro Lado) optioned the novel more than 10 years ago. Tommaso gave me the opportunity to write the script revision a year later, after which I became the project’s lead writer. Tommaso and I have worked together since then in a close collaborative producer/writer process.

Marco Mehlitz of Lago Film (A Dangerous Method, Mr. Nobody, Only Lovers Left Alive) joined our Scooby Gang several years ago. His experience and expertise have been invaluable in navigating the wild waters of filmmaking. His belief in the script has kept us all going during the many times when things weren’t going well.

Tommaso and Marco have worked tirelessly on behalf of the script, and have afforded me a level of trust, access, and teamwork that is not always the norm for screenwriters. They are the champions of OtherLife. This film would not exist without them.

And thank you to my beloved Nicola Griffith for being here for every low, high, and what the fuck am I doing? moment.

Solitaire was first optioned more than 10 years ago. I became the lead writer on the script a year later. It took 3,326 days from the morning I began my first pass with the screenplay to the commencement of shooting. It has been, and continues to be, an amazing ride. I’ll have a lot more to see about it over the coming days, but for now I hope you’ll help me celebrate this dream of mine come true.

Notes on the long game: Hild

I’m crossposting this from Sterling Editing.

Writing is what I like to call a long game. It takes as long as it takes to write the best book we can. It takes as long as it takes to find the right editor and publishing path. It takes as long as it takes for the book to find its readers. Through it all, we must keep writing and reading. We must keep learning, stretching, reaching for the best within us. We must find our community of practice — the people who help us be better writers — and our community of support — those who encourage us, love us, feed us comfort food, let us give up writing for 24 hours because we’ve just been rejected again, but never let us give up writing for real.

All these things take work, energy, focus, commitment, the ability to find good feedback and do something constructive with it, and occasional long stretches of sheer stubbornness. And then one day the book is ready. And then it is out.

This week, Nicola’s novel Hild is out.

It’s been a long process. Nicola has been thinking about some aspects of this story for more than 20 years; researching for 10; writing and editing for 4; preparing specifically for this week with many months of very hard work. She has spent years building her relationships with her editor, readers, booksellers, reviewers, publicists, and other writers. She has been a part of the generosity economy that is so necessary to writing (to everything!) these days. And this week, her long-term investment is paying off with terrific reviews, many interviews, and lots of articles by Nicola about the book. Check out her latest update and follow the links. Read the reviews at NPR Books, at Vulpes Libris, at The Seattle Times, at Los Angeles Review of Books.

That’s the payoff for the long game of the writing itself. The payoff for the community came on Wednesday night, with a reading and launch party at Seattle’s Hugo House. Standing room only. Friends, family, readers, writers, people who read the reviews, people who love historical fiction. All sorts of people came to hear Nicola read from Hild and answer questions about the book. The goodwill in the room was so overwhelming that I thought my heart would burst.

People love a good story well told. People love to read. People love to connect with characters and the writers who bring them to life. Cue the Field of Dreams music: If you build it, they will come.

So today I want to say to everyone who writes: keep building. Believe in the long game. Don’t aspire to be a writer: go be one. If you write, you are a writer. If you stick it for the long game, if you play to be the best writer you can be, then you win the most important prize of all.

Thank you all for your support of Nicola’s work, and mine, and Sterling Editing. We appreciate you all.


I am a bit behind in announcing that “Eye of the Storm,” a story I love so much that I would hug it hard if I could, has been reprinted recently in two excellent anthologies.

Beyond Binary is an anthology of genderqueer and sexually fluid fiction — the first of tis kind, as far as I’m aware — edited by Brit Mandelo. Stories by Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Nalo Hopkison, and Cat Valente, as well as many other terrific established and emerging writers. Nicola did a long interview with Brit, and Brit also talked with Jeff VanderMeer at Omnivoracious. There’s a review at io9 and another at to get you started on investigating the book.

“Eye of the Storm” was first published by editor Ellen Datlow in Sirens and Other Daemon Lovers, which is now available in e-book. It’s a fantastic anthology, folks, well worth your reading dollars, with stories by Neil Gaiman, Pat Murphy, Joyce Carol Oates, Jane Yolen, Mark Teidemann, and Tanith Lee, just to name a few. I was thrilled to be included when Ellen put the anthology together in 1998, and I’m equally thrilled to see it in this gorgeous new edition from Open Road Media (who are also republishing her anthologies Alien Sex and Off Limits). Ellen is one of the formative editors of an entire generation of speculative fiction: she talks about editing in this interview with jim Piniciuk. And she is great to hang out with at the bar (grin).

Thank you to Ellen for loving my story all those years ago, and thank you to Brit for loving it now. I am happy to see “Storm” come out and dance again.

Enjoy your day.

Inside this writer’s head

I’m halfway through the Clarion West Write-a-thon and having a great time working on screenplays and thinking about a special project…and telling my sponsors all about my process, technique, thinking and feeling in weekly letters. Nearly 8,000 words so far, with many more to come.

Here’s a taste:

From A Writer’s Journey, Letter #1:
It’s not enough to just write every day. Writers have to think as well as write.
You might be surprised how many writers do not like thinking. How many writers want creation to be some kind of spontaneous magic. I was one of those writers for longer than I care to admit, and it brought me nothing but heartache and insecurity. I wish I had learned sooner to embrace one of the essential tensions of writing: it requires both unconscious and conscious work; both magic and clear, cold decision-making. Anyone who is unwilling to make their storytelling process conscious will never be a consistently good writer. Ever. I absolutely believe this to be true, and I should know: I spent years wondering why I couldn’t be consistently good before I finally sucked it up and started analyzing – and altering – my own process.
From A Writer’s Journey, Letter #2:
Ideally, I should accomplish this sequence in about 11-15 pages. Currently I’m at page 31 or so.
That sound you just heard? That was the producer’s head exploding ☺.
The thing is, this is a normal part of my process. I have a basic plan, and as I begin to write to it, I also begin to make deeper discoveries about the characters and their relationships. I am willing to follow my nose down some of those trails to see where they lead, and that means I write long. I write to explore, and I write to discover; but I also discipline myself to write within the basic beats that I have already established so that I can actually achieve some results. If I envision a story about star-crossed lovers in Chicago and then set all my scenes on the moon instead… well, that’s counterproductive.
From A Writer’s Journey, Letter #3:
Let’s talk about “on the nose.” Remember The Sting, when the con men would signal each other by touching their nose? It was how they signaled that something important was happening. It’s also a phrase we use in English to mean exactly or precisely. In writing, it means that there is basically no subtext: the characters tell each other exactly and precisely what they are feeling in dialogue, or the writer tells the reader in exposition (which is like being hit on the nose with a hammer).
What I did was a subtle kind of on the nose. By making Rae’s every response driven by her baggage, I hammer home to the reader Look, she’s acting just like a person with baggage, she must have some! Oh look, she’s acting like that again! I think we’ve got some baggage here… It’s not that she says her subtext out loud: she does it out loud all the time, if that makes sense. She is Clearly Troubled. She may as well be wearing a badge.

I’m doing my best to give my sponsors a peek behind the curtain, because my sponsors rock. They are helping to ensure the stability and sustainability of Clarion West, and they have become part of my Layla’s. You can be a part of it too, and spend some time inside my writer’s head. Sponsor me with a donation to Clarion West, and I will send you a full set of past letters, and all letters to come. There is no minimum donation: every dollar helps Clarion West change writers’ lives, and we are grateful for them all.

Thanks for considering it.

Enjoy your day.

Beyond Binary

As a person and as a writer, I’m fascinated by gender, sexuality and identity, and I put little credence in ideas about what men or women can/should/must do. Biology disposes us in ways that I think we don’t fully understand, but taking the leap from biological disposition to social- and cultural-behavior determinism seems to me… well, it seems remarkably silly. I’m not the science person in our house, but you don’t have be to a scientist to see ample evidence in the world of men people doing things in the world that men “shouldn’t” do, and women people doing things that they “can’t” do. And those people aren’t always presenting like your grandmother’s idea of proper boys and girls when they do those things.

I was having a discussion with my producer the other day about the difference between character and cliche. I’ve written a screenplay that explores gender in a heretofore unusual way for me. Generally, I create characters not beset by the usual rules of gender. I don’t apologize and I don’t “explain.” But this time, I’ve put two non-totally-standard characters into a world populated by gendered folks, people caught in their own culture and operating within their constraints as best they can. It’s a rough world. People get hurt physically and emotionally. There are prostitutes and drug addicts and mothers and children.

My producer, who is on his own road to a brand of feminism that I like to think I’ve helped with (grin), asked me why I was writing prostitutes and sexually jealous straight women and bad mothers, given my concerns about gender. Weren’t these things cliches? I could have hugged him through the phone; I cannot wait for the day when every person in my life pokes at anything that smells like cliche, the same way I cannot wait for able-bodied people to call each other out on using disabled parking spaces. (Note to those wrongheaded parkers: Well, I’m only going to be a minute! is not a valid reason to co-opt someone else’s access. Park at the end of the lot and walk your ass into the store. /rant off)

I told my producer that the point is not to avoid writing about prostitutes or jealous women: the point it to make them real, surprising, compelling. To make them human. Because some of us humans are prostitutes and jealous women and bad mothers. The cliche is not in the job we do or the relationship we have: the cliche is when that thing stands in for our entire humanity, and everybody nods and says Sure, that’s what those people are like.

I write about the Other a lot. But cliche is the ultimate othering, and it is bad bad bad bad writing. And this is why this particular screenplay that I’m writing fascinates and frightens me: because if I make cliches instead of characters, then I am an asshole and I have to go back and start again. I have already been an asshole a couple of times in a couple of scenes, and wow, there’s nothing like the stomach-drop of Oh fuck, look what I just did.

I am happy to report that I was not an asshole in my novella “Eye of the Storm,” which has recently been reprinted in the anthology Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction, edited by Brit Mandelo. If you’ve read my collection Dangerous Space, you’ve already read “Storm;” so buy this anthology for the many other evocative, provocative stories you’ll find. And take a look at this extensive interview that Nicola did with Brit about putting the anthology together.

I’m delighted to be included in Beyond Binary and pleased that there’s a whole group of stories where the others aren’t Other, they are us.

Enjoy your day.

** And if you enjoyed my musings above about character and cliche, then please consider sponsoring me in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. I’ll be writing every day, and every week I’ll send my sponsors an email account of my writing journey. The above is an example of the sort of thing I’m likely to include, along with the ups and downs of the work, the writing challenges I have, and how this writer’s life feels.

Write-a-thon: for CW and for me

It’s time for the Clarion West Write-a-thon. That means it’s time for me to step up with some writing goals and ask for your sponsorship.

More about that in a minute. First, for those who haven’t heard me talk about the Write-a-thon, here’s the scoop. I am the Board Chair of Clarion West, one of the world’s most highly regarded and prestigious workshops for emerging writers of speculative fiction, taught by the best writers and editors in the field (this year Mary Rosenblum, Stephen Graham Jones, George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant, and Chuck Palahniuk). Six weeks every summer that open the door to artistic transformation and professional careers. Six weeks that change lives.

We are a nonprofit organization. The Write-a-thon is our biggest fundraising event of the year. It’s a six-week writing marathon, like a walk-a-thon with words or a bike ride for cancer. Writers sign up and set goals, and then recruit sponsors. The sponsor makes a donation to Clarion West. The writer writes.

Last year, I was determined to raise the profile of the Write-a-thon, and I took a highwire approach. My sponsors gave me writing prompts; I wrote a piece of fiction to a prompt, and published it, every day of the Write-a-thon. 41 days of writing. Much of it very good.

It mattered to me. I’ll tell you why in a minute. But bear with me. Here is one of those prompted pieces. It isn’t the best of all the stories, but it’s the best one for this conversation.

Everyday Magic

Serena loved Open Mike nights: the everyday magic of music on the tiny stage of her sidestreet neighborhood joint, the way people settled in over beer and brats and cheered each other on. Her regulars were folks on their way home from the jay-oh-bee, community college study groups, young marrieds whose date-night budgets didn’t stretch to taxi fares, old-timers whose wives were dead or fled. A lot of them couldn’t sing worth a damn, which they’d all learned the hard way during the six-month stint of Karoake Hell before Serena sold the gear on eBay. But that wasn’t the same as making music together.

And tonight it looked like they might have some new voices. The couple at table five who were on their second round of vodka slammers, both wearing the classic Open Mike look, the mix of I cannot wait to blow you all away and Oh jesus fuck please someone shoot me now. The man in his seventies at the bar who put his name down when he thought no one was watching. And maybe the guy at table two. He wasn’t an easy read: the well-traveled guitar case against the wall didn’t jibe with the fresh careful haircut, or the boxed-in look in his eye. He drank his beer slowly, and by the time he was was near the bottom he still hadn’t put his name on the list. He looked like he was so far down his own rabbit hole that he might not even remember it was Open Mike, in spite of the banners over the stage and the adrenaline in the air.

When it was time, Serena stepped up on stage to applause and a wolf whistle from Bernie Ellison, who was still trying to get lucky one day. “Welcome to Open Mike at Layla’s,” she said. “All performers get a round on the house. One song to a customer. Let’s make some real music tonight!”

First up was Lamont Miller, freshly-showered from his construction job, his guitar like a toy in his big hands, singing another one of his unexpectedly delicate folk songs. This one was about a green river in a canyon, an eagle overhead. Lamont, soaring.

As the applause was dying, Bernie called from the back, “That was real good, Lamont, especially the part about the fish.” The couple at five looked startled, and then peered at Serena as if they expected her to shut Bernie down. She gave them a reassuring smile: it always took new folks a while to figure out that audience was a verb at Layla’s.

“Lamont, come on over and get yourself a beer,” she said. “You did good.”

Billie Mae Turcott stepped up with her ever-more-buzzy electric guitar. Punk wasn’t really Serena’s thing, but Billie was so passionate, and she was getting better at staying on the beat; and with every song, she brought a little more Billie Mae and a little less recycled Siouxsie Sioux. She took a Cosmo from Serena and high-fived her way back to her seat. Serena saw the guy at two frown a little: but she wasn’t that good.

The couple climbed on stage. “We’re real excited to be at Layla’s,” the woman said, as she checked the tuning on her acoustic. They called themselves Spider Bob and TJ, and they fulfilled the terrible promise of their names with squeaky voices and off-key harmonies. But theirs was a love song, and their glow touched everyone in the room. “Y’all just married?” someone called from the back, and Spider Bob blushed desperately and nodded while everybody cheered.

The old man was next. “I’ve heard about this place,” he said in a low and fragile voice: then he sang an aching a capella rendition of “Danny Boy” that had them all in tears, and Serena knew without being told, the way she sometimes did when the music and musician were particularly true to each other, that his wife had died in his arms in Intensive Care two nights before. It was all there in his music. He got a hug from everyone between him and the Jack Daniels that Serena had waiting on the bar.

She felt a touch at her elbow. The guy from table two said, “Can I still sign up?”

“You’re next,” she said, and waved him up to the stage.

As soon as his fingers touched the strings, as soon as he opened his mouth, Serena knew he and music were in one of those passionate long-term relationships, that they rode and rolled each other like a rollercoaster. He played clear and strong and true, and what he played made Serena shake her head as she drew a beer: a heartbroken it’s-all-over song. A breakup song. By the time he finished, Spider Bob and TJ were clutching each other’s hands and sniffling. He let the last chord die. He gave the crowd a thousand-yard stare. He said, “Thank you very much,” held his guitar for a moment, and then leaned over to put it away.

“Don’t you dare,” Serena said. He jerked, and blinked in her direction. “Don’t you dare come to my Open Mike with all that music inside you and then tell it goodbye. Not on our watch. Oh, please,” she added at his look of shock, and jerked her chin at the haircut. “What, you got a real job?”

He nodded slowly.

“Well, boohoo for you, big guy. All these people have real jobs, and they still make real music.”

“I just–”

“You just nothing,” she said. “You promise me right now that you are getting your ass back here next Tuesday to play, and nobody gives a damn about your presentation deadlines. You got that?”

He stared at her. Finally he said, “What is this place?”

“This is Layla’s,” she said. “Open Mike, every Tuesday. Come make music.”

“Shit,” he said. “Okay.” And Serena handed him the beer, and everyone cheered. He nodded, and drank, and she knew he felt it. They all did. A little everyday magic.


And now we come to the point. I am asking you to help me find my everyday magic.

Last year, I walked a wire in public for Clarion West. And I did it for me, too. I did it to stretch toward a vision of myself and my work that I thought perhaps was impossible to reach. I did it because I finally had to find out if I’m really a writer. Not an author: I am one of those. Not someone who has written beautiful words, been praised, won prizes: done that too. But am I, today, right now, capable of being the writer I want to be?

Last year I found my yes. Many of you helped me with that by sponsoring those works, and I am forever grateful.

But I am not being the writer I want to be. I am writing, a lot. Mostly screenwriting, and also building towards some new fiction. But I am losing the time war: I am slowly but surely giving ground to a thousand responsibilities and other challenges of my life right now. I’m doing my best to find the balance. But I need more help to sustain it.

Nicola is the best partner, editor, cheerleader and wellspring of love and support that any writer can have. But I need to know that my writing matters to people who don’t wear my ring. Right now, I need my Layla’s.

I commit to write on one of my projects every day for the six weeks of the Write-a-thon. I commit to write something good every single day. I won’t be doing flash fiction on my blog — I’ll be working on long-term projects that are deeply important to me. I won’t be walking the highwire in public, but I guarantee I will be doing so in private.

And I will take my sponsors on that journey with me. Every week, I will send my sponsors an email talking about my process that week. What I accomplished. My struggles and successes. The writing challenges and the aha! moments. What I’m thinking about as a writer. Whether I’m finding the balance, and how. This writer’s life.

If you support me by donating to Clarion West, you are not only helping a wonderful organization — you are helping me. You are telling me that it matters to you whether I show up in spite of whatever is going on in my life. That it matters to you whether I write.

You’ll be giving me some everyday magic.


Nicola’s Hild has a publishing deal!

Those who read Nicola‘s blog know that she has worked fiercely and with deep commitment for years on her current novel Hild. Finally, we can share the news that pre-eminent US publisher Farrar Strauss & Giroux will publish Hild in fall 2013.

We’ve been doing the happy dance in our house these past weeks. Nicola has a great publisher in FSG and a terrific editor in Sean McDonald, and they have a singular, splendid writer in her. It is a good match.

I’ve read Hild. It is magnificent. It is supernova brilliant. It is the best book Nicola has written so far, and that’s saying a lot. It is powerful, lyrical and brutal, with fascinating characters in an unexpected, compelling story that will take you so many places. Oh my friends, you are in for such a treat.

I am so proud of Nicola I am about to explode. Do me a favor: go read her post about it and leave a well-wishing comment over there. It’s a big day for her. A joyful day. After all Nicola’s hard work, after all her faith and hope, after all her guts and grit, Hild has found a home.