Category Archives: Toni McGee Causey

i don’t know what the hell to call this one

by Toni

Part I

Conversations while I am copy editing:

Someone Who Is Remarkably Still Alive*: "Are you done yet?"

Me: "Am I still breathing?"

SWIRSA: "Does growling count?"

Me: "Then I’m not done."


SWIRSA: "I’m curious. You made all of this up, right?"

Me: "Yes."

SWIRSA: "It’s your writing. You got to pick and choose what went in there."

Me: "Yes."

SWIRSA: "So why didn’t you put only the stuff in that you wanted to keep the first time around and save yourself all of this trouble?"

Me: "Do you prefer burial or cremation?"

Part II

Writing comedy is a lot like stealing a car while on crack and with a couple of AKs in the back seat while you’re moseying on over to the police station to thumb your nose at the cops, just to see if you can get away with it.

Part III

There is no "easy" — no matter what the genre. Not if you’re reaching for the high bar. There’s comfort knowing other writers feel the same way.

Part IV

Writing well, I’ve learned finally, isn’t some big, mysterious code to be broken, and there isn’t some aha! moment where all is revealed if you just click the tumblers to the right one more click. There are a lot of little truths writers pick up along the way and each writer’s application of those truths is what gives the writer his or her voice. Some of these I heard early on, but didn’t quite get them the way I do today, after years of practice. Some I wish I’d heard a lot earlier–I think I would have learned quicker.

Elmore Leonard has done this better, but here are a few basic little black dresses of truth:

story = character in conflict

I used to hear a lot of people saying story = character, but that leads to the misapprehension that a writer can go on at length about a character’s background or childhood, where we’re learning all about how the person became who they were, and we’re bored to tears (if we’ve gotten very far). Unless the conflict — the story that’s going to be resolved one way or another in this telling — starts in that childhood, cut to the conflict of the now.

This also means that each scene should have conflict. If it doesn’t, the story has stopped. Find the conflict, whether internal or external, and let it inform the action of the scene.

Active voice:

This is a personal choice, but I prefer active voice. Examples (caveat — it’s one a.m. and I am copy edit blind, so these aren’t great):

(passive) Joanne was running down the street.

(active, but flat) Joanne ran down the street.

(slightly better) Joanne sprinted down the street.

(more visual) Joanne’s tennis shoes slammed against the asphalt, faster than her heartbeat. (Feel free to chime in with better examples.)

Another point: commitment. Whatever type of story you’ve decided to write, commit to it. Don’t try to be all things to all people. It’ll never work. Expect to offend some, and be disliked by others. This is like choosing shoes to go with the outfit. (I have just lost every single guy who reads the blog.) The red ones may go or the black ones may go, but you’re gonna look pretty dumb if you wear one of each. And if you decide to pick the purple, then by God, work the purple and don’t be worried about whether or not purple is popular.

Be specific. You don’t appeal to a wider audience (generally) by being generic and appearing to write about Every Man (Woman), but by writing about a unique experience. Sci-Fi notwithstanding, this is generally about what it is to be a specific human facing a specific trial that matters in a very specific way.

Okay it’s your turn–what writing truth or preference do you keep on your mental checklist of things to do to improve your writing?

(*no, this wasn’t my spouse, who has way more sense and is very supportive)

i hope you dance

(no idea what happened to the code to make it unreadable this morning, yikes)

When I was twenty-two, a woman ran her red light as I was going through the intersection, and there was no place to go. I managed to turn the little truck I was in so that her engine didn’t plow directly into my door, but I can still hear the squealing of the tires as we slid toward one another, the screaming of the metal as our world collided and everything went black. I came to with a crowd gathered around my totaled truck; my doors were locked and no one could get in. The paramedics were on their way and my two-year-old son screamed from his mangled car seat. People told me later that I destroyed the metal of the safety bar that held him in place–just ripped it apart with my bare hands. I only remember checking to make sure he wasn’t pierced or cut, and he seemed fine, though it would take the emergency room doctor an hour to reassure me.

I wish I could tell you that I completely changed that day, and that I lived life as if every day was my last, but I’d really prefer to not have lightening strike me dead and give me bad hair.

It did, however, make me go ahead and start submitting my writing for publication. I sold not long afterward, my first article to the local newspaper. When no one crucified me for thinking I had some sort of ability to write and, geez, get paid for it, I did it again. And after that, I was completely hooked, no matter how difficult the target.


We can’t be writers without them. We can’t put words and stories together without risking failure.

Later on, my screenwriting professor (I’d gone back to school by then) had a pet saying about criticism that used to get on my nerves. It was, "They can kill you, but they can’t eat you." I pointed out to him one day that of course they can kill you and they can eat you–just as long as they do it in that order, though, I’m fine.

This year, I’m going to write in a second genre, and that feels like a risk. (I’ll also be writing the third Bobbie Faye book as well.) It scares the hell out of me, because I don’t know yet if I can pull it off. But I do know this: I’d regret it later if I didn’t try. I want to set the bar higher, quality-wise, for both books, and I want to learn. The whole prospect is terrifying, because what if I just fuck it all up? What if I aim higher and fall appallingly far?

Well, it won’t kill me. (I think.)

And the potential growth is worth the risk. Like the song lyrics say:

"If you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance."

This summer, I stood in the back of a little country church, the white walls a stark contrast against the summer green woods surrounding it. My aunt was laid in front. Most of her life, she lived in cranky desperation. I don’t think I ever knew her to be happy.

She was funny, though.

It was listening to her and my mom tell their funny stories that taught me the cadence of humor. When we visited and stayed late into the night, I used to pretend I was asleep so I could stay in the room long enough to hear the grown-up stories of the people they knew. My aunt could make a phone book funny. It is very hard to pretend you’re asleep when you have tears streaming down your face from laughing.

She loved those paint-by-numbers kits. When we visited, there would be a couple dozen completed pictures leaning against the kitchen wall, surrounding the room. She never framed them, and seemed to have no appreciation for them once she was done. I think she liked doing them in about the same way others will do a crossword puzzle. Everything she chose to do, though, was low-key, without risks of being critiqued on ability. That was reflected across her life, and I wondered if she’d risked a little more, tasted something extraordinary, would she have found more joy?

She had a gift for making people laugh, for seeing the absurd.

I wish she’d taken more chances.

What I finally learned is that, for me, I can’t regret the things I tried and did my best for, even if I fail. I can’t allow myself to worry what other people think or if it’s the right choice. Like anyone else, I am a champion at wondering what the hell to do sometimes, industry-wise. When careers are on the line, risks can seem gargantuan. But really, in the long view, they’re not. We probably won’t die, and with that, there’s always a chance to try again. It may be painful as hell, but we’d never know the joy if we didn’t try. Cram as much living into now as we can, because this is it, this is all we have.

So how about you? What are you going to try to do this next year? What’s worth a risk to you?

when in doubt, throw hard candy

(aka: The Santa from Hell)

(I’ve been asked to re-post this as a Christmas tradition.)

When the kids were little — I think Jake was three and Luke was seven — Christmas felt like it was going to be slim. Make that downright anorexic. So I was looking for a way to bring a little fun into the season, something that wouldn’t cost much.

I had a brilliant idea. (I should come with a warning label: If brilliant idea occurs, step way-the-hell back for your own safety.)

Anyway. The idea was to have someone play Santa at our house for a pre-Christmas visit. We’d invite all the neighbor kids and their parents and each family would bring a gift for their child ahead of time. I’d hide the gifts away and squirrel them to our Santa, who would come in the house with lots of Ho Ho Hos and joy and jovial warmth and after regaling the kids with whatever it is Santas regale kids with, he’d give out the presents. There would be hot chocolate and apple cider, a beautifully lit Christmas tree in the background. Maybe even singing, if the kids wanted to sing. We would be so sappy, Hallmark would sue. Or throw up, but whatever, it was going to be great.

When I write it out like that, it sounds like a very nice day, doesn’t it? It really does seem normal and sane and I should have known that in my world, “normal” and “sane” do not apply.

It progressed innocently enough… I invited all of the neighbors, who loved the idea, especially since it was a fairly tight season for everyone. The “gifts” to the kids were held to a very low budget, so everything was fair and equal. There was a tree, decorations, lights, apple cider and hot chocolate, brownies, cookies, you name it for a sugar fix, someone was going to bring it. All I needed was a Santa.

Finding someone with a Santa suit wasn’t quite as easy as I had expected; most of the people who have them are booked for all of December, and it was two weeks before Christmas and looking a little bleak. And forget getting one of those guys for free. Like I was crazy for thinking this was the season of giving or something. Of course, the kids already knew that Santa was going to come to our house for our party, the specific date was set, so there was no going back at that point. (Could you look a bunch of 3 to 7 year olds in the face and tell them Santa wasn’t showing up? If so, here’s your application to Mercenaries-R-Us and Osama’s on line two.) So. Had to find a Santa. Was getting a little scared as the day approached and there was no Santa to be had.

Then a member of our family, who we still speak to even after this event, suggested a certain older friend-of-the-family. I had met this FOtF several times, and he’s a little… erm… warped. He is very very sweet, but also sort of odd, disjointed, but in a quasi-live-in-a-fog sort of way. Jovial, though, he had down pat. He had the rotund belly, the jolly round cheeks, the perfect Santa nose. The thing that worried me was that he was incredibly bashful. And when he did speak, he was extremely quiet. I couldn’t remember him putting together two whole sentences in a row, unless you call smiling and nodding a lot “sentences,” but at this point, I figured, what could it hurt?

Now, in retrospect, I understand why the heroine always goes down into the dark basement when she’s heard a noise, there’s a serial killer known to be in her neighborhood, someone who’d been stalking her and had keys made to her house, and yet she goes anyway, armed with only a pony-tail clasp and Malibu Barbie lipstick. She was thinking what could it hurt?

Our house was tiny, so the plan was for me to hide the bag of toys at our back door for Santa to grab, then he’d go around and come in the front door, where everyone was gathered in the living / dining room area. Tree lit? Check. Apple cider? Check. Hot chocolate? Check. Sugar high toddlers on the ceiling? Check. So many people packed in there, we were going to need pregnancy tests soon? Check.

But no Santa.

An hour goes by. The kids get higher and rowdier and the adults get fidgety and gossipy and God only knows how many families we managed to break up on that one night. Meanwhile, Jake (three) wandered off to the kitchen. I could see him (very very tiny house) from the dining room, when we heard a noise outside. A distinctive ‘HO HO HO” noise. At last.

Everyone turned expectantly toward the front door. I didn’t want Jake to miss this, so I ran into the kitchen to scoop him up, when suddenly, the back door BURST open with Jake not a foot away from it, and in bound Santa, HO HO HOing at the TOP OF HIS LUNGS, and RUNNING, people. RUNNING. There was NO ROOM TO RUN so Jake turned away from this screaming giant red monster and beelined it back to the living room, which meant he went OVER me, over a few other people standing in the way and did Santa stop? No, no he did not. Santa ran smack over me, over a few other innocent bystanders, and to top it off, the whole running time? He was throwing candy. Hard candy. And I don’t mean “lightly tossing it to the cute little four-year-old standing there with her jaw open in abject fear….” No. I mean hurling it, 95mph over the plate there, Babe, pinging parents, knocking out a couple of random elementary kids and everyone started dodging and diving for cover and did he STOP? No. No he did not. He kept whizzing that candy and HO HO HOing and running (now in circles in the living room) and kids were screaming, Jake was crying, Luke was hiding, I was still on the floor in total shock, and when he did stop, finally (I think Carl tripped him), he started with the presents. Not a single jolly word did this man speak. He pulled out presents, asked the kid’s name, and the really smart kids hid behind their parents, because he HURLED the gifts at their heads. Hurled. I’m not kidding you.

By this point, there was hot chocolate and apple cider everywhere, there were a couple of wet spots on the sofa I didn’t want to identify, most of the kids were wailing and trying to climb their nearest parent and on top of everything else, Santa had managed to drop one of the kid’s presents outside… though I had the presence of mind to realize what had happened and I had a stand-by gift ready (in case one of the parents forgot) and so that was solved. When he finished slinging the last present, did he SIT DOWN and calmly tell lovely stories to the kids to keep them from growing up to be SERIAL KILLERS?

No. No he did not.

He started up again with the running and HO HO HOing and throwing even MORE CANDY. You’d think the man was on a float and we were thirty feet away, and when he finally finished careening over a couple of kids who hadn’t been trampled on the first go-round, he sprinted to the back door and ran out into the night.

The back door slammed and the whole house hushed for a moment in stunned silence. Parents looked at me like I should be locked up, and those were the nice polite expressions, comparatively speaking. Then the shrieking began, and the confusion (toys had been dropped and stomped on by Santa on his way out) and there was just no way to rescue it. I’ve never seen a bunch of people leave a party faster in my life.

But I tell you what. Whenever someone would say to those kids, even years later, that they “better be good because Santa was watching”… man, they’d straighten right the hell up. And I don’t think a single one of them touched hard candy for years.

So tell me… what traditions have you experienced in Christmases past that didn’t exactly go as planned?

turning off and tuning in

One of the great things about being a writer is that my office is wherever I happen to be. There’s no dress code, no specific work hours, no boss breathing over my desk, no time clock to punch and plenty of snacks when I want ’em. I get to interview lots of interesting people for research, and it’s amazing how many doors will open for the statement, "Hi, I’m an author, and I’d love to ask you a few questions."

There’s also no one to tell me to stop working, take a break, go have fun, be with my family.

It’s hard, sometimes, to turn off the writer-within. The person who listens to the trivia around, listens for the little factoids that are a boon, meets new people and sees potential characters. But it’s critical to do so, especially with family.

Turning off the hyper-focused writer, and just… being. Not carrying around all of the stories, the characters lives, their joys, loves, consequences, heart-breaks, laughter.

So I’m… well, vacationing. I’m in beautiful Colorado (in the snow) and having a wonderful time watching major events in my family’s life.

I still have a hard time turning off the writer within. How about you? How do you set aside work (no matter how much joy it brings, no matter what your employment)? Give me some tips, because I just saw about six people I want to immediately go sit down and describe for future characters.

making it work

How do you make it work?

Think of Project Runway — the TV reality show where designers are given a challenge for each show, an ungodly short deadline, a very tight budget (usually), competitive working conditions, an experienced adviser (Tim Gunn, who intones ‘make it work’ several times each show), and the ultimate opportunity to be completely humiliated in front of prestigious judges and a national audience.

It’s the writing world in microcosm.

When you’re under deadline, you don’t always have the luxury of having the time to set the manuscript down for a while (a week, a month, etc.) and then come back to it fresh, able to re-read and make sure that you’ve nailed down the vision you had for the story. It’s a simple truth–good writing is often in the polishing, the editing, the rewriting. There is a scary balance to maintain: trying to improve with each book and yet, get the next book out on a schedule that’s probably a lot tighter than what you had for the first book, when you were writing in the hope of selling. To  make matters more difficult, each book is different, (well, it should be), so the lessons learned on the first book aren’t necessarily going to completely cover everything you need to know for the second and so on.

All of the little decisions add up to the final result, and some of the wrong turns can be corrected with experience or objectivity.

A friend of mine (a very talented writer in her own right) wrote to me recently after I’d finished the second book and asked me if there was a point when it felt easier than "gee, there’s this whole alphabet thing, and it makes letters and wow, words." Does experience solve everything?

Unfortunately, no. I think I learned more on the second book than on the previous one and probably half of the other things I wrote, all put together. I have so much more to learn. But there are a few things I try to do when completing a project to double-check the work and make sure it’s as polished as I can make it, in spite of the pressure. So when the stress is high, when there are expectations (both self-imposed and inherent in the publishing process), what do you do to double-check your efforts, to try to turn in the best project possible? What are some of your tricks or tips?

Here are some (very) random items on my checklist:

One of the last things I’ll do with a manuscript, when I have the time, is work backward; this helps me cull extra verbiage, and makes sure that I’m not "reading into" the sentences more than what’s there because I’m reading out-of-order. (This is difficult to do, I’ll admit, but extremely effective when I force myself.) I’ll also break the manuscript down by acts, once it’s done, and check the turning points to see if the pacing works. Another thing I’ll check on is to make sure that every secondary character had a reason to be in the story: did they affect the outcome? did they matter? If not, they don’t need to be in there.

What’s on your checklist? How do you "make it work?" (I’d love to see anything you do project-wise, and if you’re not a writer, how you help mitigate the stress of deadlines in your own line of work.)

on character and shame

This is a short blog today, because I wrote ‘the end’ on the final draft of the book (and turned it in so I would quit tweaking the damned thing)… and it occurred to me that a lot of what I do in a final draft is to go through each character and make sure they are articulated on the page clearly, that their motivations track across the story, that their actions are both in sync with their goals but that they also are contradictory beings, as humans are. Strong character development is to me the Holy Grail–I enjoy a thousand different things about writing and reading, everything from high concept to literary–if the characters are interesting.

Interesting characters. Now there’s the subject of entire workshops–lots of how-tos (inner goal, outer goal, background, mannerisms, style, voice, etc.) Tons of good advice out there. When I was in a screenwriting course, my teacher had us do an exercise which crystallized character for me in a way that I hadn’t experienced with any other exercise, and I use the concept to this day: what is your character ashamed of? Nothing quite gets to the core of a person like shame will, because it’ll tell several things: where they failed, what they valued, if they’re continuing to fail, what they learned, and if it broke them. True character=choices under pressure. The choice your character makes at their worst moment is who they are, really, even if they manage to lie to themselves most of the rest of the time.

Our assignment was to write two pages which showed the shameful action, showed how the character both chose that action and felt about it… without explaining that they were ashamed. No telling, just showing. It was probably the most difficult two pages I ever wrote, but I learned more about showing character in that one exercise than in the rest of the entire degree coursework.

So, if you’re a writer, what sort of questions to you ask yourself in order to hone your characters? Do you have any exercises you do, or lists, or what?

And for everyone: memorable characters you wish you would have written or could meet?

Surrendering America

How much do you want to surrender America to the corporations?

Think about this carefully. This writers strike affects you. Wherever you are, whatever you do, this is going to affect you. 

You may say, "But I’m not a writer," or "I don’t watch TV, films," or "I barely use the Internet." Doesn’t matter. In fact, the corporations are pretty much counting on you not realizing this is about you. (I hope you read Alex’s post yesterday explaining it and Guyot’s comment in the response section, because they nailed the cause and cost.)

Now some of you are thinking, "Wait a minute. How big a deal could this actually be? It’s not on the news, no one’s jumping all over this nationally, and if it was really going to affect Americans, someone would have noticed, right?"

12 thousand+ people are on strike. Friday, nearly 4000 people showed up for the WGAw (Writers Guild of America, West) rally in Century City. 4000. Many thousand crew members are going to lose their jobs, and yet, many of them support the WGA’s position. Teamsters are not crossing the picket lines. SAG (Screen Actors Guild) is 100% in support of the WGA.

You know what the lead story on MSNBC was Friday night (owned, I believe, by GE)? That Brittney Spears’ attorney–who was the same attorney for that wacky dead Anna Nicole Smith–had had to sue Anna Nicole’s estate because he hadn’t been paid for hours he’d worked for that estate. The only thing they didn’t bother to begin that little piece of vital information with was, "Dear America, here’s how stupid we think you are: this is what you want to know about."

They (MSN) eventually mentioned the stirke when they announced Schwarzenegger’s comments, (the whole coverage by NIkki Finke has been stellar–page down below first comic), which lumped all writers into the millionaire status, as if they were dilettantes who were simply out to hurt anyone who didn’t give them what they wanted. It’s the position the corporations would love America to take: that if those bratty writers would just quit being so selfish, all of this would be over and people wouldn’t have to be hurt. The average guild writer earns in the vicinity of $61K a year. Average, meaning, statistically, half of them earn below that. But wait–do the math–the bigger salaries of the few top writers/showrunners are averaged into that figure as well, and so that means that a much larger percentage of the actual guild members earn far far below that figure. Many of them have second jobs to try to pay the bills. Do you realize how many people have to make below poverty level in order to get an average of $61K when the few bigger writers’ salaries are included? These writers are not dilettantes. They are struggling to survive, to keep their bills paid.

How is it that 4000 people can rally for two hours with helicopters flying overhead (as seen in Stee’s video) and it’s not a major headline on every channel? We know that Lindsay Lohan is out of rehab. We know the latest thing Brittney is doing or not wearing. This strike is going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s going to affect the economy. If thousands of people are out of work in one of the major US cities, the domino effect is going to start: the mortgage woes that are already bad? Going to get worse. More bankruptcies, more lenders losing money, more ripple effects outward. This will hit Wall Street, which will in turn touch the rest of the economy. And yet, this is not being discussed on your nightly news.

According to Nikki Finke, the strike barely rated a 655 word report in the L.A. Times business section. 655 words. 12,000 people on strike in the industry that spends millions of dollars every single day in that particular state, mostly in the L.A. Times area and they buried the story in the business section? I don’t know about you, but I’m not really sensing the bravery there. If they’re quashing a story this big, right here in America, what do you think they’re hiding elsewhere?

The corporations own the news stations. The corporations are anti-guild, and would like to break the guilds. Think I’m exaggerating? (I’ll get to why that matters to you.) The corporations had months to negotiate with the writers guild, and they refused to budge one single iota. As Alex and others commented yesterday, they were actually asking for rollbacks, big honking cuts in what the writers currently get. Now, maybe you’d think, "Oh, well they’re asking for that because they’re hurting, not making any money. The economy is kinda scary right now." At the same time they were asking for rollbacks, here are two of the current headlines / facts, which they confirmed or reported:

"Viacom’s Profits Shoots Up 80%"


[Disney’s Bob Iger] boasts about "another year of outstanding financial results. We posted record net income and record earnings per share for our 2007 fiscal year, bolstered by a strong 4th quarter performance. These results stem directly from our emphasis on the creation of high-quality content across all of our businesses, backed up by a clear strategy for maximizing the value of that content across platforms and markets."

That’s an 8 with a 0 on it up there. Eighty percent. Does anyone out there actually believe that one of the reasons for the uptick in profits has nothing to do with distributing content over the Internet? (If so, seriously, nice rock you’ve been living under. Love what you did with the curtains.)

The AMPTP, the corporations, actually claimed that no one knows what’s going to happen with "this Internet thing"–that it was "too new" to be able to predict how the income would work or even if it would work. I’m kinda impressed with that stunning ability to be that creative, actually, in the face of blatant profits. Jon Robin Baitz (a showrunner for the TV series, Brothers & Sisters) wrote in his open letter to Schwarzenegger that:

The deeply insupportable position they have taken in adopting a blanket refusal to address the economics of new media with us is laughable. Even as they insist to their stockholders that this revenue stream is the hope and reality of their future. To insist on two entirely contradictory positions is either morally bankrupt, or simply profoundly amateurish.

Because they claimed they could not know if there was ever going to be a profit from the Internet… (Okay, an aside… they don’t know? Really? That whole iTunes thing just flew right by them? This Google thing, and YouTube thing, a complete mystery?)… anyway, since they don’t "know" if this whole "distribute stuff on the Internet" platform could be profitable, the corporations want to give, literally, ZERO, to the people who create the content which gets distributed on the Internet. So the writers said, "If you don’t make money, fine, we don’t make money. All we’re asking for is a percentage, not a flat fee per show. Just a percentage. And a teeny tiny one at that." The corporations said no.

The reason they did that? It’s not just about the internet downloads of today. They’re looking to what’s about to happen. Everything is going to be on the Internet soon. Your computer and TV will likely merge into one unit within the next five years. It already has merged for many of the twenty-something generation: they are only bringing their laptops to campus and downloading TV through their cable connections. If the corporations don’t have to pay anyone for Internet downloads, they make 100% profit.

They will make billions in advertising. With no cost of delivery, because the customer pays for the cable bill. No DVDs to cut and distribute. Huge profit margin, because it can play on infinite "channels" any time a customer clicks on the site. The normal residuals paid to a writer now for re-runs on TV? Will disappear. The re-runs will soon be able to fall under the "Internet promotion" description if the corporations have their way. Isn’t that a neat trick? Pay the writers tiny minimums initially, force them to accept zero dollars for the Internet by waiting them out in this strike (while firing the crews, laying off staff), and then when the writers are starving and losing their houses, they’ll have to accept zero compensation just to have a contract. By the time they have recovered, assuming they do, all delivery of content will be through the Internet and no one will have to pay those pesky TV residuals–so they’ll get everything even cheaper.

The corporations walked away from the negotiating table, and Nick Counter, their chief negotiator, has stated emphatically that they will not return to the negotiating table unless the strike is called off. They absolutely would not negotiate before the strike was called. Why on earth would anyone delude themselves that they would give anything if everyone went back to work? They wouldn’t need to: they would have immediately won. They want to break the guild, and to do so, they forced the strike.

The corporations walked away. They won’t come back. They know it’s going to hurt a lot of people. But they are the plantation owners of today, asking the writers to take very small minimums for the show (barely living expenses) and make nothing later while they make a fortune. They’re protected by their wealth. The corporations have billions of dollars and plenty of insurance and except for those pesky stockholders, they are pretty much beholden to no one. Many people suspect they have every intention of waiting it out. In fact, not only will they use force majeure to cancel contracts without penalty, a lot of industry people assert they wanted the strike in order to use the clause. (Why do you think they came to the table on that last day, promised to negotiate if the writers gave up the DVD raise request and, when the writers did give that up… the corporations did not give back anything? Nothing. They got what they asked for (drop the 4 cent DVD raise request). Instead, they waited ’til the strike deadline and then walked away. They did it so that they could use force majeure: the clause that allows them to cancel contracts if there is an ‘unexpected’ work stoppage. If they appeared to be trying to prevent this stoppage [i.e., coming to the table to supposedly negotiate], they could look horrified when the strike went ahead and they then had legal justification to use the force majeure clause.)

So how does this affect you?

Aside from the ripple effect on the economy, and that’s going to be big, and aside from the fact that culture will forever change if we lose the really good writers in TV and film and are subjected to more and more corporate excuses for advertising, or Advertainment, every corporation in America is watching to see if the unions will cave. Where the writers go, the country will follow. Health care, pensions–unions will have a harder and harder time holding onto them if this big union falls. (I’m not working for a corporation, you say. I don’t benefit. If the corporations keep growing unchecked and without having to have any responsibility to the individual, then you’ll be affected. What you buy, what you eat, your health-care options–will all change.)

Now someone out there is naively going to utter the "free enterprise" argument. And I’ll say this: it’ll be free all right. When the corporations don’t have to pay the creators to use the content, the creators will have no control over their content. When the corporations have control of all information delivery–and they’re demonstrating their muscle now–how far away is it that they snap up all of the delivery systems of the Internet? How soon before censorship and control is exerted, because they have the content? If they control the content, they control the country. Period. And you, my friend, will be irrelevant. You, your children, our grandchildren.

So how much do you want to surrender America?

The only way the corporations are going to come back to the table early–in time to keep millions of people from being harmed–is if they feel the kick in their shins, in their profits. Stop watching TV online. Write to an advertiser (surely there is something you bought that you saw on TV), write to a corporation, sign a petition, write to a NEWS ENTITY and ask them why aren’t they covering it?

Your country is changing, right in front of your eyes. This is a chance to do something about it.

Do you care?

ghost stories

I never believed in ghosts. Until I was in a room with one.

When we were young marrieds and had our first son, we moved into a house that was in terrible shape. (Young, assuming we could fix it up. I think easy was tossed around a few times. Idiots got tossed around a few times as well, usually by older family members.) The house had been in one family since the early 1930s, and had been the first house built in a field in south Baton Rouge–a field which would later become the Garden District, an inviting place of live-oak trees and Craftsman and Colonial homes, where families crowded the sidewalks and neighbors talked to one another. Our house had not kept up with the majority of the neighborhood, which had made fixing it up a smart deal. The trick was, the homeowner was the daughter of the original owners, and she only wanted to sell to a family, not to someone who was just going to renovate and turn it over. Her mom, she’d explained, had loved kids and had wanted to have many more and was unable to. She, the daughter, had been unable to have any children at all, and while her mom was alive, the neighborhood had deteriorated. It was only after she’d died (in the house) that the area had started to revitalize. But because the house was so rundown, no one but developers had made offers and the daughter was losing hope.

So we bought. I was pregnant, and the daughter was thrilled. We had a house, which was such an improvement over the apartment where there was a basketball court in front of our door (literally, five feet in front) and if I never heard the thoing sound of a basketball hitting concrete or the kathunk shwish of it hitting the backboard and then the net, I would be the happiest camper on the freaking planet. I really wasn’t squicked out that the old woman had died in the house, which seemed to bother a lot of people. It hadn’t been a violent death. Everyone’s gotta die somewhere–might as well be in bed in a home she loved.

Odd things happened in that house. Missing items showed up in strange places. Often, the very thing we needed was suddenly on the table behind us, or on the counter. We hadn’t remembered putting it there, but in my pregnancy haze and my husband’s hectic schedule, we chalked it up to forgetfulness. You know, how you’re standing in front of the refrigerator, looking at your glasses on the top shelf, wondering how in the hell did they get there when you just had them on in the living room. Stuff like that. Common. What wasn’t quite as common was walking into a room and seeing someone walking out of the other door, only to follow and find no one was there in the hallway or the porch. Tricks of the light, though. Highly active imagination. Pregnancy hormones. Stir craziness.

When Luke was born, he had colic. Bad colic, constant, and the doctor claimed he’d ‘grow out of it’ and there was nothing anyone could do to help. Luke was miserable, and rarely slept. My peace of mine and sanity slowly disintegrated with my exhaustion. One night, I heard Luke crying from his room and then suddenly stop. I’d already been on my way toward him when I heard him giggle.

Giggling was so rare, particularly in the middle of the colic pain, that all of the hairs on the back of my neck pricked, and as I entered the room, I saw an old woman bent over his baby bed. He was looking up at her, laughing, though I couldn’t hear her saying a word, and since it was three something in the morning, I shouted–because who in the hell was this woman and how did she get in my house and why in the hell was she standing over my child? I ran toward the bed.

And she was gone.

That was it. I thought I was unraveling. My husband came running in to see what I was shouting over, and I think I maybe said something like mouse because you do not say ghost when you haven’t been married all that long. I shook from the adrenaline, my husband went back to sleep and Luke? Didn’t cry for the rest of the night.

A few days later, we were battling another colic session, and I carried Luke around with me, dancing with him, keeping him moving, which seemed to bring his only relief. I stood in the kitchen, when I heard something creaking in the living room. When I looked through the kitchen door, through the dining room archway, the rocking chair… was rocking. By itself. Luke and I were the only people in the house. And it wasn’t just rocking, as if it had been bumped and was jostled, nor was it rocking as if to the rhythm of my movements with Luke, because I was standing still as a post and it kept rocking.

That rocking chair had been left by the daughter. It had belonged to her mother, she said, who’d never had the chance to rock grandchildren, and wouldn’t I like to have it? To which I’d said, "Sure," since at the time it seemed perfectly innocent to take a gift chair when I didn’t have a rocking chair yet.

I was seriously second guessing that decision as the chair rocked. By itself. For more than thirty minutes.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was so beyond freaked out, that I actually looked at the rocking chair and said, "Would you please stop? You’re scaring the hell out of me."

And the chair stopped. Right then, just stopped. Mid rock.

Made it much worse, actually, because I knew then that I was losing my mind. Which then meant they were going to take away my child, so I just needed to shut up and not tell a soul.

So I didn’t.

The old woman returned many times after that. I used the rocking chair (see School of Denial, Valedictorian), and I got used to her being in Luke’s bedroom at night. I also got used to him sleeping more and giggling often and I ignored the fact that someone was leaving the room just as I entered and I started to enjoy the fact that I would always find exactly what I needed when I needed it, usually close by (especially if I was holding Luke). It was my own private little insanity, and I’d just as soon not advertise it.

We sold the house and moved when our second son came along and we needed more space; I took the rocking chair with me. I never saw her again, though, and the chair never rocked on its own at the new place. I also had to find stuff on my own, which was kind of annoying, but I got back into the habit.

One day, we were visiting my sister-in-law, who’d moved into a home down the street from our original house, and I noticed a ‘for sale’ sign up in our former front yard. The new owners hadn’t been there all that long, though, and it surprised me that they were moving already. I asked my sister-in-law why they were moving, and she rolled her eyes and said, "They think the house is haunted."

"Really? Why?"

"They claim that every time they fight, something breaks or someone throws something. The kids are little and the mom said that the dad gets really mad and when he starts yelling, something of his is usually broken,which just makes everything worse. And someone keeps messing with his keys. The wife claimed that one time, someone hurled the keys at his head, and it wasn’t her–she was supposedly on the other side of the room."

"Weird." I’m pretty sure I affected a completely innocent expression.

She went on to tell me other things that the wife had told various neighbors–and I nodded. I must have not seemed surprised enough, because she cut a cynical glance at me. "You don’t believe it’s really haunted, do you?"

I did a quick calculation of how old my kids were vs. the length of time it would take to declare me insane and said, "No, of course not."

Do we hang around after death? Can we do something that has a lasting, positive effect? I don’t know. Whether she was real or not, I know that I was a scared, exhausted mom and she helped. Sometimes when I felt particiularly impatient and worn down beyond coping, I would see the chair rocking and remember how much she’d wanted kids and grandkids and never had them, and that knowledge helped me dig in and find the patience I needed. I’m not entirely sure how we would have survived without her there.

I really wish I could see that chair rock on its own again.

So, ghost stories. Do you have one?

motivational quotes for writers

Very short blog today… when you read this, I’ll probably be flying home from the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, Tennessee, which is just a fantastic book festival–extremely well-attended. (The volunteers estimate an attendance over the weekend of 25K-30K.) If you ever contemplate attending a book festival and want to try to find a good one? Get thee to this festival, because it rocks.

Our panel was a lot of fun (hosted by the wonderful JB Thompson, moderated by the very talented Tasha Alexander, with terrific and amazing writers J.T. Ellison, Marcus Sakey, and Derek Nikatas), and our subject essentially boiled down to writing advice for various stages of publication, from writing the book to getting through the publishing process. It was a kick for me to hear the other writers’ advice on different subjects–I think no matter where we are in this game, there are always insights and encouragement to be gained from listening to another writer’s journey. Sometimes it’s just nice to know others have gone through the craziness that we go through.

I don’t know if we’ve done this here in a while at Murderati, but I’d love to open the floor to hear what your favorite writing or publishing advice / motivational quote is. I’ll start off with three favorites:

"Write the book you want to read but can’t find." (?)

"One of the perks of being a writer: you can actually kill all the assholes." (Jenny Crusie)

"You have to protect your writing time. You have to protect it to the death." (William Goldman)

I could use a little inspiration as I’m on the home stretch of a polish… so… what are your favorite quotes / advice?

taking risks

I am producing an indie film right now.

A cousin’s wife asked me recently, "How do you go about producing an indie movie?"

My honest reply is that you must have a check list:

Am I insane? (check)

Do I know a bunch of talented-but-insane people who want to work incredibly difficult, long hours, for free? (check)

Do I know, or can I find, insane people willing to part with their money, with only the guarantee that they may not ever see it again, much less a profit? (apparently, yes)

Being a producer is quite a lot like running the long con–you have to convince a tremendous number of people that something that doesn’t exist will eventually exist, if they just pony up their time and money. You have to convince people to take a risk when it is not logical, nor sensible, to do so. And you have to do this knowing ahead of time that what you’re doing is running a bluff, particularly when producing your first movie, because no one really knows for sure if you can do what you’re convincing them you can do. Until you’ve done it. And the best strategy is to tell them ahead of time that you’re running the long con, that you’re asking them to take a risk on something that may turn out to be nothing, but if they hop on board, they get to take that risk with you, and who knows? It may just work out.

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve hedged my bets with a terrific script.

I didn’t want to be a producer. I am probably the most reluctant producer on the planet right now. We have money in the bank for the film, people working their asses off… we’re about to go out of town and shoot some very physically demanding scenes… some incredible footage in the can… and I hadn’t planned on doing any of this. Except that I was handed a terrific script. One that took some risks. I couldn’t not do it.

When a friend of mine said last year that he was polishing up a script of his and he wanted me to produce, I half-ass promised him that I would, if I liked the script. I will be honest with you: I never believed he’d hand me a script I’d like. Not to disparage his writing ability, but because I’m pretty tough on scripts and he knew that. I was glad he knew this about me, because I was going to be honest, and also? I didn’t have time to do a project that didn’t grab my attention and hold on. In fact, I just flat didn’t have time, between the debut book, another one due, family stuff and a construction company. So when he did hand it to me, I started reading the script and thought, Uh oh. This is actually good. And I kept reading it and thought, damnit, this is really freaking good. The writer flipping surprised me and yet, it worked, and I liked the controversy and the resolution. It had the advantage of having an interesting hook (What if an assassin has a major crisis of honor and confidence, and his choices determine which of the people he loves will die?), compelling twists, rich visual imagery, and characters who walked off the page. At which point I thought, fuck, I have to do this movie.

The only notes I had to give the writer was to allow himself to take bigger risks in a couple of places where I could tell he held back. There were notes regarding reorganizing what we see first, to build that compelling hook, but other than that, the script stands as he turned it in. He took some risks: he may not please everyone, and in fact, may tick a lot of people off, but he let his story take some risks and as a result, he has a unique, compelling tale.

Taking risks. It’s what good stories do. If we take a risk, we’re in danger of being a visible failure, of leaping out there without a net and splatting to the floor of the canyon. We may fail. Hell, we may fail miserably. Execution matters. But to not take the risk means to work within the status quo. Aiming for acceptance, aiming for not being vulnerable, and managing, mostly, in not being memorable. Not creating a passionate response.

And who wants to live a life without passion?

So tell me, please, about some good books or movies that you’ve read / seen lately which took some risks which made them compelling and memorable.

(And if you’re anywhere near Wordsmiths Books in Decatur, GA, just outside of Atlanta, Thursday at 7:00, come on by and say hello.)