Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Next Big Thing (Week 28)

I'm very grateful for being asked to participate in The Next Big Thing, which Jayne Denker is spreading across the blogosphere.

1- What is the working title of your book?

The latest is The Fall; we’re also launching the submission request for the next anthology, which has a working title of Summer Burn.

2- Where did the idea come from for the book?

This time last year we were finishing up what became SpringFevers, the first anthology from Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. We didn’t have a title for the collection yet. All we had was an organizing framework. Spring Fevers is a collection of relationship stories. But as we were coming up with Spring Fevers, our editorial team suggested that we do more anthologies and use the seasons as a connecting theme. From there sprouted The Fall, which as a title lent itself to sharing tales from the apocalypse. Of course, with the hoopla and concern about the Mayan calendar predicting a massive change in the world as we know it on December 21, 2012, we thought this would be the perfect year to do The Fall, so we hustled ourselves right into another project.

In a sense, Summer Burn will be somewhat of a mix of the previous two anthologies, in that we’ll focus on relationships that are by their very nature short-lived. The emphasis will be on the burn rather than the summer. One of the questions to be explored is whether a relationship is meant to last or not.

3- What genre does your book fall under?

It’s an anthology, and the stories in The Fall touch on a variety of genres. We have what might be considered “traditional” apocalyptic tales – stories of individuals and communities dealing with war or plague or some version of destruction and its aftermath – as well as atypical apocalyptic tales that share a sense of humor. I think readers will be pretty surprised to find a lot of laughs on the path to Armageddon. But to be more specific, you’ll find Young Adult, Steampunk, Romance, Fantasy, and some straight forward

4- Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmm, that’s actually difficult for me. I’ll try to answer for the story I wrote, “The Last Day of Fall,” which focuses on four people who decide they need to leave the relative safety of where they live after a devastating string of terrorist attacks left it a fallow field. I have images in my mind of who these people are, but I purposely left the physical details of the characters rather vague. I picture the main characters, Michael and Beth, to be in their mid-twenties. In my mind, he’s slim, dark-haired, probably still fights off the occasional pimple. She’s small and lithe with an athlete’s build. I suspect there’s any number of young up-and-coming actors who could fit those roles. I’d need to do a casting call and whip through their comp cards before setting up an audition.

5- What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Fall is an exploration of the apocalypse, with glimpses of ancient prophecies, technological Armageddon, failures of government, a distracted deity, and yes, zombies sharing the moment with love, yearning, humor, and hope.

6- Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The Fall, like Spring Fevers, is published by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press, which is the LLC I launched earlier this year. They both contain stories by agented authors as well as those who are still seeking representation. I do not have an agent currently, but I do intend to seek representation when my novel-in-progress is ready to submit. I value the control of independent publishing, but I also respect the advantages of traditional publishing.

7- How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The short answer is about six months. After the necessary prep work we did as a team, we launched a request for submissions back in April and made decisions on stories as we received them. The submission deadline was in August, but we’d already been editing the previously approved stories before then. We were scheduled to publish on October 29. If that date sounds ominously familiar, it’s because Hurricane Sandy swept through much of my home state of New Jersey that same day. 

I lost power in the midst of applying for the copyright online and had to delay publication a few days. Even as they expressed sympathy for my situation, everyone involved in the publication of The Fall found a certain level of irony that a collection of stories about the apocalypse was itself affected by a disaster of almost apocalyptic proportions. In the days immediately after the storm, I was able to do what I needed to publish  aided by the generator at the first aid squad where I’m a member.

8- What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is a horrible thing to admit as publisher, but I’ve not fully compiled that comparison. I think it’s a small field because it’s not very lucrative. Instead, I’m competing against the enormous number of inexpensively produced independent publications, so spreading the word has been critical. Indeed, that’s really what we’re trying to do overall in Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. My goal with these anthologies is to help build awareness for each of these authors. Ultimately, when the first of these writers attracts broader attention with their debut novels, their new fans will look for their earlier works. We’ll be here and good readers will continue to be exposed to the family of writers in the Elephant’s Bookshelf Press catalogue. Personally, I love the idea that my little company could help readers discover not only the early works of authors they know from novels they love but also other talented authors who might not yet have a publishing deal.

9- Who or What inspired you to write this book?

The first anthology, Spring Fevers, arose from an email conversation between writer Cat Woods and me. I’d been thinking of exploring independent publishing and an anthology seemed like a good way to get started. I decided to be a bit more entrepreneurial with the project and created a publishing company. The goal of Elephant’s Bookshelf Press is to help emerging authors establish themselves. We’ve published the first stories of writers I think will eventually be able to make a fine career out of their writing. We also have stories by several agented writers whose debut novels are scheduled to be released within the next year or two.

10- What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?

The final story in The Fall is one that readers will either love or hate. It’s called “The Last Sacrifice,” and it’s written by a South African writer. It’s a disturbing tale that depicts a tribal high priest whose faith to his gods is total, despite a series of disappointments when the gods seem to disapprove of the sacrifices that have been made. I think readers are going to either love or hate that one. There won’t be much middle ground. It’s very intense.

Tagged for next week (Week 29) are some of my very talented writer friends. Check out their blogs next Wednesday, December 19, when it's their turn to post answers to these same questions about their own works-in-progress!

Ryan Graudin (Ryan Writes)

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Q&A: Author R.S. Mellette

R.S. Mellette is a fiction writer, screenwriter, actor of stage and screen and a font of clever ideas that translate into enjoyable, engaging, and fascinating characters. He is currently between agents. In 2012, he had short stories published in each of the anthologies produced by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. He shared some thoughts with us about the similarities and differences between writing for film and television versus writing for print as well as a little bit about what shaped him as a writer.

EB: How long have you been working in the entertainment industry?
RSM: Depends on what you want to call working. I caught the bug my junior year of high school when I realized that my dream of becoming an astrophysicist might not be within my skill set. I was acting in a school-sponsored show at the same time and was told in a serious way that I was good. That's when I decided to go into theatre.

If you want to count bill-paying jobs in the industry, I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started working at Universal Studios around 1990. Since then, I've been employed in one way or the other in the business. Sometimes I'm in an office doing work that could be in any other business. Sometimes I'm on a set with the director and producer keeping up with script changes. There have been times when I was in charge of everything and times I was a lowly extra.  I'd like more of the former.
EB: How does your background in theater, television, and film inform your writing?

The skills definitely transfer. In fact, most of the actors I worked with at North Carolina School of the Arts are now writers. Peter Hedges (What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) was a year ahead of me. In my acting group alone we had Mary Beth Bass (Follow Me), Richard Register (TV's Make It Or Break It) Bobby Bowman (Yes, Dear; My Name Is Earl; Raising Hope), Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games), just to name a few.
When actors train -- and I mean a university degree, study-as-hard-as-a-doctor-or-lawyer type of training -- they are really studying writers. A stage actor will say "I've done Mamet" or Simon, or Shakespeare, or Moliere, or whoever. By not only reading these stories, but getting inside the characters, seeing everything from the character's point of view -- literally -- then joining an ensemble to tell the story live in front of an audience for immediate feedback, an actor learns very quickly what works and what doesn't. We also see words on the page turned into a real thing, like a set, costumes, sound, lights, etc. This helps the budding writer learn what words do inside other people's heads.

As I've become more of a novelist, I constantly marvel at the little things that work in all of the arts. In college we actors were told to make a list of active verbs, since that's what we play. An actor can't play an emotion. We can only try to achieve a goal against great obstacles. Any writer who doesn't find that sentence familiar needs to study more.
When writing, I try to approach each character as if I had to play the role live on stage -- where a slow scene feels like death. I could never do that to another actor, nor my characters.

EB: Can you share a few tips you’ve learned from screenwriting that translate well to novels? 
RSM: Working on Xena: Warrior Princess, I learned the importance of the "Act Out" -- the beat just before they cut to commercial. This is the same as a chapter end in books. In TV, like in theatre, these need to have an extra strong hook, since the audience will literally walk away for a while. You have to have a big story beat to make them want to come back.

When I got into film editing I learned things like "always cut on motion." If there's nothing happening on screen just before a cut, then the scene will feel slow painfully slow, even though it's really just milliseconds too long. In a novel, if there are too many words in a sentence, the read feels slow -- regardless of the style.
There are a thousand other little things like this in my head.

EB: What is Dances With Films?
Dances With Films is a film festival in Los Angeles with the motto: “No Stars. No Politics. No Sh*t.” My film premiered there in 2000 and won best screenplay. I've been working with them ever since.

Again, the similarities between industries is fascinating. A screenwriter/director will have a project that they'd like to be distributed by a major studio, just like a novelist has manuscripts they'd like to have published by one of the big six. The filmmaker may make the movie, just like the writer may self-publish the book. The difference is the filmmaker then has to find a distributor to sell his/her movie, where the writer has to sell individually.
Dances With Films gives uber-indie filmmakers a place to show their work. We break the ice for a lot of filmmakers. I guess in the publishing world it would be like having a convention where unpublished writers are chosen for the quality of their work to do a reading for a live audience. Sure, there might not be editors or acquisitions execs in the audience -- but having the feather in your cap of being chosen might help along the way.

EB: You’ve had some feathers in your cap from the television world. For example, a character you created for an Internet project happened to become the first to translate to screen. Please share what happened and how that came about.

RSM: It's kind of a long story, but I've gotten good at condensing it over the years. One of my first jobs on the lot at Universal was for Television Information Services. They did all of the computer stuff for TV production, sales, etc. When I left that job, I "floated" on the lot -- which is like being in an old-fashioned temp pool. I landed the job on Xena when a fax from the Hercules office in New Zealand landed on my desk. Someone handed it to me saying, "This came to the wrong number, throw it away." It was the final approval for the series budget on a new TV show, so I called the Renaissance office to ask if they were waiting on it... a couple of months later, I had a job.
Later, I ran into one of my old bosses from TVIS. He was doing this thing called a webpage for Xena. I was vaguely familiar with what that was and asked if he wanted to meet with the writers. I knew full well an idea would come out of that meeting, and that I'd be the only one available to write it. That's how The Xena Scrolls were created. A year later, when they did an episode based on my characters on the website, I got the story credit.

A year after that, when all my friends in TVIS were replaced by an entire department called New Media – and companies wanted to merchandise products based on my characters that were only on the website, and not in any episodes, the lawyers came in and it all got shot to hell. A few years after that, the WGA had a long strike asking for many of the same things I was back in 1995. I don't think either one of us got them.
Did I say I'd gotten good at condensing this? I lied.

EB: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer first and actor or filmmaker second?
I've always written, but I never thought of myself as a writer until I temped as a writer's assistant on a Fox TV show called M.A.N.T.I.S. The writer I was working for asked me if I'd like to stay on full time. When I said yes, I knew I was putting acting on the back burner for long time.

After making my movie, JACKS OR BETTER, I wrote a script called HANNAH'S ADVENTURES IN SPACE, which did well in a couple of script contests and landed me two different managers, but everyone said it was such a big budget project that it couldn't sell without a built-in audience. I had been told for years that I should turn it into a book, but I didn't want to be one of those bad screenwriters who show up in theatres in Los Angeles trying to do their movie as a play so they can sell it as a film.
My beloved theatre is not their stepping stone.

My Dad has always been a struggling novelist, so I knew that writers felt the same way about their art as I did about mine. When I did decide to try Hannah's Adventures In Space as a novel, I worked hard to learn the art, the world, the culture of being a novelist. I worked with my Dad on that manuscript. He taught me a ton. Even with the suggestions I didn't agree with, I learned that I have a voice. Through a writing group here in LA and on Agent Query Connect, I polished even more.
Now I consider myself a writer -- be it stage, screen, or novel -- whatever is best for the story and the marketplace.

EB: That’s an important distinction I think a lot of writers don’t understand. How do you determine whether a story is a novel, a screenplay, or a play? 
RSM: In a word? Budget. (laughs).

I think the story is the story is the story, regardless of the medium in which it's told – but the telling of the story changes. You have to take advantage of what each format brings you. POV for example. In Hannah's Adventures, the screenplay, I can put the leads in different locations and cut between them even though Nadir, the sidekick, is the narrator. That's an excepted convention of film. The book is in first person, too, but the medium isn't so forgiving. Nadir had to be involved in every scene. At first, this stopped me dead in my tracks. My Dad and I worked hard on how to "introduce the evidence" into the story – but once we did, it became much stronger. Now, if I ever get to go back to the screenplay, I have to put those changes in where they help the telling of the story in a movie, and keep them out where they don't.
My current project, Billy Bobble Has a Magic Wand, started as a bad short story, became an even worse TV pilot, then a pretty good novel. At least I think so. Now, I've gone back to the TV pilot, taken a breath, and slowed my pace. A TV series gives a writer hours and hours of time to tell the story. Each episode is just a chapter or two. Characters can develop almost in real time. It's a whole new challenge, and a whole new field to run around in. I'm having fun.

EB: How do you approach a new story or novel? What spurs your ideas?
RSM: Damned if I know. If I'm actively trying to come up with a new story I try to get really, really bored. I wrote in high school that, if necessity is the mother of invention, then boredom is the father. If I give my brain nothing to do, it will start entertaining itself, then I just listen.

I also try to forget a new idea as soon as I get it. The ones that keep coming back are the ones worth working on. Right now I have ideas lined up like planes landing at LAX. My problem is juggling writing time, selling time, and life time. But every writer knows about that.
EB: Yes, indeed. I just saw an arrivals board appear in my mind with the titles of a dozen of my works in progress and works in a mental holding pattern. Seems like everything’s being delayed. Must be bad weather over Cleveland.

RSM: And don't you love it when someone says, "You're a writer? You know, I have an idea for a book..." You want to point to that board and say, "try another airline."
(Both laugh)

EB: Anyway, the stories that appeared in Spring Fevers and The Fall were both pieces you’d written years ago and had to revise to make a bit more accessible to a contemporary audience. In digging through your trunk, what have you found about your writing and how it’s progressed over the years?
RSM: I think every writer has those moments when they read some old work and think, "I wrote that!?" This can be an exclamation of joy or dread. I have a lot of stories in the trunk that I hope to burn before I die for fear of someone reading them -- but with “The Idea Exchange” (Spring Fevers) and “The Last Performance of the Neighborhood Summer Theatre Festival” (The Fall), I felt like I'd channeled some other, better, writer. Sure, they needed polishing, but not as much as I had thought they would.

That's the thing about short stories, there really is no good reason to write them except that you must. There is a lot of passion in short stories, and that almost always makes for great writing.
EB: I think that’s a great way to close. Thanks, R.S. for your time and sharing your experience with us.

RSM: Thank you.

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