Just Signed Up For ASJA Writers Conference

If my experience with last year’s American Society of Journalists and Authors (“ASJA”) conference is any indication, this year’s event should be productive indeed. According to the 2017 ASJA Annual Conference website page, a central theme will be change and disruption of a writing industry once deemed staid. Entitled “Pivot Publish Prosper,” this 46th gathering will tackle the creative side of writing as well as the business aspect of commercializing words. It should be a busy two days.

Using Photos to Attract Blog Readers

inspiration, sunset, photography

In a recently reposted essay, Joel Friedlander of book design fame extols the virtues of utilizing snappy photographs to grab readers’ interest. I heartily concur.

In my eleven years of blogging at Pension Risk Matters, followed by Good Risk Governance Pays and now I Paint With Words, I have included an image in nearly every write-up. A visual can sometimes be more evocative of an idea or feeling than words alone. A selection can enhance the central message even when it’s not directly related to the subject at hand. To reinforce my commentary about building trust, I embedded an illustration of a giraffe atop an elephant with the latter walking across a tightrope. The image is colorful, whimsical and, from what website visitors tell me, different enough to merit a second look.

When someone reads a book, they often draw from their experience or don their imagination hat. The same thing is true for authors. I’ve never been to Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka but the captivating streaks of orange and purple at sunrise shown here make it easy to weave a tale about adventure or finding one’s self at the end of a windy mountain path.

I’m reminded of a movie scene from “Shadows in the Sun” by Brad Mirman. Harvey Keitel plays a famed genius who is on hiatus since his wife died. He is visited by a younger writer who wants him to create anew. It’s late afternoon and the protégé mutters “The sun dropped” as they look out over the Italian hills. His mentor counters with aplomb. “The sun set slowly, igniting the sky in fiery shades of red and orange. In the distance, dark clouds rolled over the horizon, riding the summer winds. Soon, day would give way to night, and with it would come the silence that washed over everything.” In this passage, there is a beautiful coming together of what the artist sees with his eyes and feels with his heart.

As any writer knows, being able to tell a good story is everything. If an image helps, we’re all better off. As I’m writing my first screenplay, I track in my mind’s eye how I think each scene should appear. It’s a solid technique that works for many. Why buck the trend?

We Lost A Friend But Kept His Grace

Many authors are told to write about their personal experiences. Others advocate for good research as a substitute for “been there, done that.” Whatever your philosophy, most agree that writing about the human heart makes sense. There are universal traits that transcend borders and inspire and engage. Kindness, fear and love are just a few examples.

Sometimes the process of getting words on paper may be less about selling a work and instead helping someone cope or celebrate. That’s my reason for writing tonight. I am sad and wanted to express myself by reflecting on the loss of a good and decent man.

One day after his seventy eighth birthday, a close friend left us. He had been diagnosed about six weeks ago with cancer. After surgery, the doctors told him that another twelve months was his to do with it as he saw fit. Unfortunately, that promised lifeline was cut short. His wife called my husband on January 11 to tell us what we did not want to hear. Since then, he and his family have been front of mind.

For this gentleman and scholar, I say thank you. You never failed to appreciate your family, colleagues, students and pals. You never took things for granted. You were generous in many ways. You shared your sense of humor and politely listened to my corny jokes. You held out your hand to those in need. You honored your wife and children and made it clear they were your top priority. You encouraged those just starting out as much as you reassured those with a few years under their belt. I never heard you yell or treat anyone with disdain. To the contrary, you were polite. You asked questions. You gently offered insights and wisdom. Yours will be a legacy of integrity and faith in others.

Yes, we lost a friend but we kept his grace. We will remember him as a shining star of humanity and someone who left too soon.

Nudges to Write on Schedule

As I explain in “Goal Setting With the Help of An Accountability Buddy” (December 29, 2016), there are real advantages of having someone regularly push you to stay on track. I’ve never worked with a creative partner this way so I welcomed the idea when a friend asked me if we could goal-set together. Having had our first weekly call this Monday, here are my thoughts:

  • Creating my “to do” list to share with someone else takes time but it forces me to seriously reflect about macro and micro objectives, decide how many hours I ought to allocate to each activity and rank what has to get done first.
  • It feels good to be able to bounce ideas off someone else regarding timetables, especially because I know the person on the other end of the phone is organized and focused on his success – and mine.
  • Putting a hierarchy chart on paper lets me visualize what I need to do.

As any writer knows, giving life to words can be a lonely endeavor, especially if you are doing it late at night after your “other” job. Dialoging with someone on a regular basis about accomplishments, frustrations and stumbling blocks seems right to me. As author Chuck Sambuchino describes about his teammate, “…the road to publication … and seemingly endless wait has been so much better with someone to chat with along the way.” Click to read “How a Critique and Accountability Partner Can Help Your Writing and Career” (Writer’s Digest, November 16, 2013).

I will keep you posted on my progress as I write with my eyes on the prize, knowing that someone will kindly question me should I miss deadlines.

Value of Happy Endings in Film

If you have yet to see La La Land with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, consider a trip to the cinema for an entertaining tale of two young people with Hollywood dreams. Set to music, the film is visually appealing and a nice throwback to the Fred AstaireGinger Rogers type productions of yore. The stars, box office draws both, convince the audience to root for them as they seek fame and fortune. Their path is not easy. We watch the protagonists realize their share of hard knocks and disappointments. Yet they triumph … sort of.  (Stop reading here to avoid SPOILERS.)

By taking risks, they both end up with undeniable career wins. One becomes the kind of famous actress she once served as a barista. The other opens a jazz club where he plays nightly to a flowing crowd. The rub is that they are no longer a couple. We know this because we see “what if” home movie footage of the two leads with a family they will never have. On cue, the hanky moment appears. The Sebastian character looks up from his piano, sees his former amour Mia seated next to her husband. Their eyes connect. She appears visibly bereft as does he. He falters at the keys, trying to gain strength to continue. He nods at her as if to say “It’s all good and meant to be.” Moviegoers sob, at least some of them. I suppose the message is that nothing is free. Love had to be sacrificed in the name of art.

As some reviewers point out, there are plenty of individuals who pursue a dream, accomplish much and yet remain with the one who knew them when. Why substitute sad for happy? I felt similarly triste when I watched Splendor in the Grass, the 1961 offering by director Elia Kazan and award-winning writer William Inge. You root for the star-crossed duo played by Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood, only to realize in the end their lives had led them in different directions, never to join again. More tissues please. Sob.

Part of me acknowledges that sad endings may be more realistic and perhaps even more memorable but I still favor happy ones. Some agree, adding that smile-friendly movies do better at the box office. Others counter that life is not always a metaphorical bowl full of cherries. Screenwriter Philip Gladwin worries that the journey of the hero, a la Joseph Campbell, is losing ground to an undue focus on “death, destruction and despair on screen in the last couple of years.”

If one’s goal is to sell, then obviously a writer needs to research what is commercially viable. However, if the purpose is to make a difference in an upbeat way, I don’t see how one can give up on fictional ideals, even if they are challenging to attain off the screen. Then too there is the issue of what satisfies the writer. For my part, I much prefer putting words on paper that enliven, entertain and ultimately inspire positivity. That does not mean that my main characters effortlessly glide through time or are simpletons who guffaw all day long. They endure adversity and are the better for it. They focus on the upside and keep moving forward. That’s about as real life as it gets for those who dare.

Dogs and Cats in Books and Film – Oh My

set pets

During the last year, my research about the science of happiness and gratitude, along with my related analysis of what publishers are buying, suggests that stories about dogs and cats continue to be big business in the literary world. They are pop culture and movie favorites too. Although my debut inspirational gift book, soon to hit shelves in January 2017, is not exclusively centered on Fluffy and Rover, I’m excited that some of my pages reflect the sweetness of beloved pets.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (“ASPCA“) estimates that 40 to 50 percent of U.S. households include 70 to 80 million dogs and 74 to 98 million cats. It’s no surprise then that spending is significant. In a spring 2016 press release, the CEO of the American Pet Products Association, Bob Vetere predicts future robust growth, beyond the 2015 tally of more than $60 billion. That’s a lot of food, veterinarian visits and cuddle toys.

Slate columnist Daniel Engber informs and entertains with his 2013 article entitled “The Curious Incidence of Dogs in Publishing” (sub-titled “If kittens rule the Internet, why do puppies reign in print?”). He affirms that dogs are super stars, with “at least 44 dog-related works of fiction” since 2008 and 57 non-fiction projects in 2011 and 2012. Based on my review of 2014 to 2016 deals, the popularity of dog books persists. Canines are still in vogue and how.

For everyone else, don’t meow in your milk. Cats have a place in the hearts of the millions of people who watch online videos about tabbies and tigers. Jason Eppink, Associate Curator of Digital Media for the Museum of the Moving Image tells us “How Cats Took Over the Internet” in an exhibit about “anthropomorphism, the aesthetics of cuteness, the Bored at Work Network, and the rise of user-generated content.”

Gizmodo writer Bryan Lufkin credits heavy feline video website traffic to the appeal of cats as mascots for the tech world. Others, such as scientists and cultural gurus, are similarly fascinated by the notion that cats behave like humans. They are curious and independent. Thanks to his article, I now know that there is a convention called CatCon® “where pop culture and cat culture converge.”

For those who agree with W.C. Field’s maxim “Never work with children or animals,” you might want to think again. Authors and film artists could lose precious commercial opportunities by ignoring the heart pull of cats and dogs, whether imaginary or real life cuties.

“The Fall” Finale – Edge of the Seat Scary

Scary Horror Hospital Corridor

If you like psychological thrillers and have yet to see The Fall, grab the popcorn and prepare to be glued to your sofa. After broadcasting its third season in the United Kingdom, this tantalizing BBC produced crime show is now available to Netflix streaming customers.

Created by entertainment guru Allan Cubitt, The Fall takes the viewer on a bumpy ride for seventeen episodes as Gillian Anderson (starring as a senior police investigator) tries to capture a killer (played brilliantly by Jamie Dornan) and then, once caught, make sure he is punished with a long jail term. In between the chase and the search for justice, the audience struggles with the villain’s double life as an adult. He appears to function as a productive member of society and is shown as a loving father of two young children. When told of his horrible abuse as a boy in Season Three, fans wrote they felt almost sorry for him, despite the vast damage he inflicted on his many victims. Tragically, no one who crosses the path of the so-called Belfast Strangler comes away unscathed.

Though I initially powered up Season One to pass the time while recovering from surgery last year, I became thoroughly engrossed with Mr. Cubitt’s storytelling ability, his clever use of metaphors and his gift in conveying so much about the characters with few words. Others no doubt felt similarly as The Hollywood Reporter called the show “the highest-rated drama series launch on the channel since Rome in 2005.”

I plan to watch again, this time with pencil in hand so I can take notes about style and technique. In an interview about his process, Allan Cubitt talks about starting with research and “extensive reading” that quickly segues into a “beat-by-beat outline.” In answering a question about the role of themes, he calls out “best dramas” as those which “create variations on a series of themes.” In his latest work, the duality of hate and love takes center stage.

Be forewarned. The finale of The Fall is violent. I had to turn away from the screen several times. If the goal was to haunt the audience by depicting the goblins of a very dark soul, the writer succeeded.

Self Publishing Learning Curve

Diagram of publishing

In the last few months, I’ve been getting a crash course in independent publishing from idea generation to distribution. Candidly, the process is considerably more work than I anticipated but I am excited about the feedback from beta testers and the continued validation about potential readership appeal. I will report much more about what I’ve learned as my first of several books gets closer to a launch in early 2017.

For now, I offer three observations:

  • Writing for profit is a serious business. One should have a good idea, investigate competitors and figure out how the final book should be priced, marketed and sold. For each of the two books I’ve been working on in 2016, I expended considerable time on market research, conducting field interviews and talking to publishing professionals about format, fulfillment models and budgeting. I ended up writing a 100 page proposal for each book. I subsequently wrote the drafts, edited several times and asked individuals to give me feedback before finalizing each manuscript.
  • Read what industry pundits have to say about writing techniques, publishing trends and lessons learned from commercially successful authors. Authors, agents and publishers are often generous with their insights. Luckily, I’ve found some wonderfully experienced persons to help me navigate the sometimes choppy literary waters.
  • Stay focused and optimistic. Even a well-prepared person can falter at the cash register but my view is that your chances are vastly improved if you are informed and organized.

Screenwriting the “Save the Cat” Way

Cat wearing sunglasses relaxing in the sea background

I’ve been longing to attend a “Save the Cat” screenwriting workshop for many months. I’d heard great things about this disciplined approach to storytelling. I was not disappointed.

The content was developed by the late Blake Snyder, billed as “one of Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriters” and author of several popular “how to” books. My instructor was Ben Frahm, likewise a screenwriter with an impressive track record in the entertainment business.

I have more to learn about creating a “beat sheet” that translates a three act piece into fifteen key events to ensure drama, pacing and appeal. I am still reading books and articles about this approach. It is comforting to know that tools exist that can help versus hinder a novice fiction author. Staring at a blank page is not for the faint of heart.

One message that particularly resonated with me is that a writer is unlikely to be commercially successful if the end user is ignored. Know the target market. As an entrepreneur and someone who has developed several products from scratch, this makes perfect sense. One can only sell what someone will be willing to buy.

As Ben so eloquently said, the artist’s job is to create something that hopefully keeps moviegoers in their seats, waiting with bated breath for the next “can’t miss” moment. These are wise words, especially today with keen competition from other artists and fickle consumers who have plenty of ways to pass their time.

Watercolor Eye Candy and a Lesson in Courage

Mark Schiff Watercolors

As many writers, musicians and artists attest, getting started is the key to giving voice to your desire to inspire others. If you don’t begin somewhere, you’ll never move forward. As I discovered this evening during dinner with a good friend, a fellow yoga student is walking this walk in a big way.

Meet Dr. Mark J. Schiff – painter, credentialed restorative dentist and a true role model when it comes to the “just do it” philosophy. As Mark explains in an interview, his encounter with artists while traveling in California in the early 2000’s was the jump start for a blossoming career as an artist. Since he decided to go for it, he has won awards and had his work showcased by the Agora Gallery in New York City.  A local showing in Connecticut begins on September 9. Click here to view his many “Paintings from the Heart.”

According to a recent video, Mark “finds inspiration in love” and seeks to display “the beauty in the world.” He encourages others to embrace the child within who wants to create and does so freely, without worrying about being judged.

Besides the lovely colors and designs he shares with us on canvas, Mark shows us all that a willingness to try is an essential first step.