Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Perceptions Matter

The other day, I was included in the photo shoot for the annual report at the nonprofit organization where I work. From my perspective, the key contribution I made was when the photographer was setting up the first shot. He was going to have me at white board, looking like I was leading a meeting.

“I don’t think you want to have the middle-aged white guy leading the meeting,” I said.

Almost immediately there was agreement around the table. A moment later, a woman whose family is from India was at the white board.

The characters experience the story. And perceptions matter.

As an author, you need to know your characters, but I think it’s at least as important to know how your readers will see your story.

I’m not arguing for being politically correct (whatever that means these days). But I’m saying we’ve seen a lot of the same stories. There's room for diversity.

We don’t need the story to be about the middle-aged white guy all the time. As a reader, I’d like to know more about the 20-something Indian girl; or better yet, the Native American woman in urban America.

There’s lots of stories about teens who feel like fish out of water. I mean, that’s what being a teenager is all about, right?

But what about the third grader from Egypt, or the second grader who moved to mainland U.S. from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. There are so many stories that can be told.

What are their stories?

Usually, when I talk about these things with other writers, the chief argument is that they need to write what they know.

I get it. But it’s also true that to learn, we need to explore the unknown.

What are you writing? Could it be made better by changing the race, gender, or orientation of the protagonist?

Give it a try, even if it’s just a writing exercise. You might surprise yourself.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Questions for those who write for children

Lately, I've been working on a short novel. The best part about it is I know exactly who my ideal reader is, because I read to them every night.

The characters in this story, which I believe will be the beginning of a series, are third graders, just like my girls. We're talking about a book that'll probably have no more than 10,000 words. This is not a middle grade novel.

It's not ready for prime time at all; I haven't even finished the first draft, and I know I've created some tangents I'll need to lop off before I'm done. But that's part of the editing and revision process; I'm writing right now.

But I'm curious about what other writers out there have learned during this process.

How have you determined whether you're writing with the right language? I tend to write too old (probably related to my writing for a business audience for the past twenty-plus years).

Do you test with children?

Do you share with other parents?

How do you find these things out for yourself?

If you have thoughts or suggestions, feel free to comment here. Or send an email to me at matt@elephantsbookshelfpress.com.

And if anyone's interested, I'm putting together an early readers' team for these books. I'm very much at the early stage of this, but I'll definitely give you free copies of the book when it's ready.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Novelists, Meet Filmmakers. Filmmakers, Novelists

By R.S. Mellette

Right now, there seem to be two schools of production in Hollywood – those companies that make movies based on short stories or novels, and those that don't. I haven't run the numbers, but I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that the first group is doing a lot better than the second.

The companies making films based on published properties tend to be either major studios or mid- to upper-end independents. A few of these companies started as uber-indies and were smart enough to acquire published work, and are now playing in the big leagues. Temple Hill with the Twilight series comes to mind.

But most uber-indie production companies don't mess with published works. I know this because I've been a screener and/or programmer for the Dances With Films Festival in Los Angeles since 2001. I can't tell you the number of submissions I've screened where I think, <em>why did the filmmakers decide to tell THIS story</em>?

I'm also a novelist. I have novelist friends all over the world who have wonderful stories they've told on paper. They would love to see these works made into films, but they’re completely baffled by the filmmaking community.

This article is intended to help both sides bridge the gap, meet each other, and hopefully work together on mutually beneficial projects.

I'll start with the filmmakers:

Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like you to think long and hard about why you chose filmmaking as a career. Deep down in your soul, is the answer to that question, "I want to make movies," or "I want to tell stories?"

Don't cheat. If you had to choose between just making movies and just telling stories, which would it be?

Knowing thousands of filmmakers, I have a feeling that most would never give up the set. They love the sweat, pressure, art, camaraderie, adrenaline, thrill, and insanity of making movies. Creating the story on the blank page is secondary to making the story come to life, and that's fine. That's why you're filmmakers.

Sure, some would rather gouge out their eyes than make someone else's story, but most are just as happy to make any story – as long as it's good, or the pay is high.

So, filmmakers, don't feel like you must also be the story creator. You're a storyteller, for sure. No doubt about it, but you don't have to tell a story that you created. Better that you should find someone who has the same passion facing the blank page that you have facing an eager cast &amp; crew.

That someone might be a screenwriter, sure, but many screenwriters have the same answer to the "why did you get into this business?" question as you do. So many of them – even some very good ones – want to make movies more than they want to tell stories. If you ever do take a meeting with a screenwriter, tell them you're not going to make the movie, you're just going to publish their story. See how they react.

Novelists, on the other hand, are 100 percent pure storytellers. Their passion is what they've put on the page. Your turning it into a living, breathing thing is wonderful, mostly because it means more people will be exposed to their story. And, let's not lie, they'd also be into increased royalties, participation deals, etc.

But their passion is the page, not the stage.

Now to novelists:

Men and women of letters. There is no way around it, filmmaking - as both a business and an art - is a social endeavor. Film sets have been accurately compared to a royal court. Navigating them can be hazardous to your health.

Still, the best way to meet filmmakers is not when they are dressed nice, celebrating the premiere of their film at a festival, but when they are covered in blood, sweat, and tears while working as a Third Assistant Director on someone else's project.

Why? The filmmaker who has just premiered has two years of trying to sell that movie to the public before they can even think about their next film.

They also have a slew of people who have been pitching them like crazy, and they've burned all their favors on that first film. The second one will be ten times more difficult to launch.

Meanwhile, the hardworking crew of that film are owed some favors. If they want to step up to the plate as a producer/director, their chance is next. You just have to hope they didn't answer "to tell my stories," to the question of why they got into this business.

But how do you get on the set? How do you get to meet filmmakers when all they do is work on each other's projects and go to festivals?

That's easy. Every film needs people. From extras to PAs (Production Assistants), filmmaking is social because it takes so many people make them. And there's more good news.

Because of the availability of cheap, high-quality, digital cameras, you don't have to live in Los Angeles or New York to find a filmmaking community. Chances are, there is a filmmaking group in whatever town you live in.

Hit the internet, find them, and join up. If you do live in a filmmaking hub, and you can afford to take a low-paying job, sign up to be an extra. The pay is terrible for non-union (and the work isn't readily available for union), but you're usually fed well and it's a lot of fun.

But what do you do once you're on the set, or in a meeting of filmmakers at a group? First, don't try to be what you're not! The industry is full of those people.

Don't tell anyone you're a screenwriter. Everyone is a screenwriter. They need another screenwriter like the Sahara needs more sand.

Just tell the truth. You're a novelist. You don't know anything about filmmaking, but you'd like to meet some filmmakers to maybe talk about some projects. I think you'll find filmmakers think novelists are as mysterious as you think filmmakers are.

Okay, novelists have a way to meet filmmakers, but how do filmmakers meet novelists?
Filmmakers. Novelists write. They also read. If you're going to reach out to a novelist, you're going to need to read them.

But your buying all the best sellers and slogging your way through them until you find a writer you like is just like a novelist trying to network with a major filmmaker. The big novelists don't need your uber-indie eager help with their major works.

So what's the answer?

Short stories. Anthologies. You can get to know ten to fifteen authors reading an anthology in the time it takes to read one novel. And if you reach out to pretty much any author with, "I read your short story…" you will immediately have their attention.

Short stories are like short films. They are a labor of love. Sure, they might also be a way of testing out an idea, or just getting something done, but just like your short films, they are gems that you never forget.

I often call Elephant's Bookshelf Press the Sun Records of publishing. Just the way Sam Phillips discovered Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, etc. Matt Sinclair has published <a href="http://www.stevencarman.com/">Steven Carman</a>, <a href="http://rclewisbooks.com/books/">R.C. Lewis</a>, Robert K. Lewis (well, actually Don M. Vail), <a href="http://www.mindymcginnis.com/">Mindy McGinnis</a>, and many more.

Are they as big in the writing world as Sam's discoveries are in music? No. Not yet. If they were, you wouldn't be able to work with them. But they are just as talented.

Filmmakers, if you're looking for a story to tell, anthologies are a good place to start. <em>Roller Ball</em>, <em>Running Man</em>, <em>Stand By Me</em>, <em>Breakfast at Tiffany's</em>, <em>Brokeback Mountain</em>, <em>Children of the Corn</em>, and so many more feature films started life as short fiction. Fire up the Kindle app on your phone, download some anhologies, and get reading. EBP is a good place to start. When you find a writer you like, reach out. You never know what beautiful friendship might begin.

R.S. Mellette is the author of Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand and Billy Bobble and the Witch Hunt, both from Elephant's Bookshelf Press. He also has written several short stories that have appeared in EBP anthologies.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Different Take on Book Launches

No two books are alike, and from what I can tell, book launches are often different.

The latest book from Elephant’s Bookshelf Press is unlike anything we’ve ever published before, and so is the launch. Which the Days Never Know: A year in Vietnam by the numbers is the first nonfiction book from EBP.

The name might imply that it’s a memoir, and in a sense that’s correct. But not quite. It contains memories from the author, Dr. Donald McNamara, who walked off his flight home from Vietnam on January 13, 1968; we published the paperback on the fiftieth anniversary of his return home. But the book conveys moments more than memories, impressions rather than intensity.

Which the Days Never Know does not set out to recount battles or delve deeply into personal matters – or even personnel matters. Instead, Don takes the approach of a workaday soldier.

Everything in the Army seemed to have a number, he said, so in his book Don marched through 365 days – the typical one-year term of service in Vietnam – number by number.

From a visual standpoint, he wanted the book to look like verse or poetry.

From a publishing standpoint, I knew right away that we were taking a risk. But I think it’s a risk worth taking.

In launching EBP’s nonfiction division, I wanted something that felt true to what the company has been aiming to accomplish – its mission, if you will. Unlike many EBP authors, Don is not unpublished; he has retired as a professor of literature and during his academic career wrote pieces on Irish language and literature in particular. He also has written countless journalistic pieces, which is how our paths crossed.

But EBP prides itself on helping authors share their voice and helping their stories find an audience.
As a bit of EBP trivia, Don helped me find the voice of my company, years before I knew I become a publisher. He taught me the phrase bionn gach tasu lag, which I used in the first paragraph of the introduction to Spring Fevers, EBP’s first book, back in 2012. For those who do not recall the intro – or might not be fluent in Irish – it means “every beginning is weak.”

And in a mirror image of Spring Fevers, I have decided to publish Which the Days Never Know first in paperback; Spring Fevers was originally planned as an ebook only.

Think of this as a soft launch.

In this age of electronic and independent publishing, we learn to stagger launches every few months – more often, if you’re able to write that quickly – and build up a team of eager early readers. These approaches can work. I haven’t done that with Which the Days Never Know.

As I said above, this is a very different book for EBP -- and for me. I’m not sure he’s aware, but Don has been a helpful mentor to me as I’ve grown as a journalist and author. Many EBP authors are people I’ve met maybe once or twice. Most of them I’ve never even spoken to on the phone. Don and I worked together years ago. We even shared office space.

Without a doubt, I aim to build the audience for Don’s book, but I also want to share with this audience. I want to share the book with readers who might be able to use it best; veterans’ organizations, for example. I suspect the paperback version will be better appreciated for those groups, though I’m sure many of those readers also enjoy building their ebook collections.

In fact, for readers who buy a copy of the paperback, I’ll provide them a free ebook version.

So, if you’d like to get a free copy of the ebook, send an email to matt@elephantsbookshelfpress and we’ll make that happen.