The Big Bang Theory of Writing, Publishing and Technology

The new frontier lies not beyond the planets, but within each one of us.

–Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Biodynamics

Civilization is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor.

–historian Arnold Toynbee

There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate….[We need parents who] elevate learning at the most important life skill.

–Thomas Friedman, New York Times (11/21)

Critical thinking, problem-solving, communicating effectively, and collaborating; all essential skills for writers as well as students. And if learning is the most important life skill, writers have to be perpetual students as well as teachers.

Technology’s Gifts to Writers

The ability to string words together that have the desired effect is a gift as well as a craft. Writing that delivers the value the author intended is a gift to readers worth more than what, if anything, they pay to read it. But technology is also giving priceless gifts to writers, among them the opportunities to

  • learn about anything on the Web instantly.
  • keep up to the minute on new developments.
  • write about more subjects. 
  • making your work immediately accessible to readers around the world.
  • find agents and publishers.
  • promote and profit from your work and your services in a grow number of ways.
  • communicate in the media your audience prefers.
  • collaborate with people around the world.
  • create and maintain communities of writers, fans, and people to help you.
  • accomplish these things without leaving your desk.

How to Thrive in a New Universe

The advent of technology was the Big Bang of a new universe that continues to voyage outward at an accelerating rate. Nobody’s in charge of it; no one knows where it’s going; and no one understands what it means. Publishing is a rapidly spinning planet in the media galaxy of that universe.

What does this mean to you as a writer? How can you plan a future that’s as full of uncertainty as it is opportunity? What do you need to do and have to thrive as a writer?

You need to

  • develop the crafts of writing, storytelling, and communicating online and off.
  • have literary, publishing, and financial goals that keep you passionate and motivated.
  • be a contentpreneur who keeps generating new work, balances commerce and creativity, is responsive to the markeplace, and takes responsibility for your success.
  • keep figuring out the fastest, most productive ways to use technology.
  • build the communities you need.
  • build your visibility while test-marketing your books.
  • promote your work and yourself.
  • stay committed to your future.

What an exciting time to be alive! Discover your future on the frontier of your unexplored potential. Find the stories and ideas that you must share with your unique voice, and give them to the world. And endowed with the gifts technology provides, you will thrive in this amazing new universe.

The Eighth San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / President’s Day Weekend, February 18-20, 2011 / Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel on Nob Hill / Keynoters: Dorothy Allison & David Morrell / Pitch your book to agents and editors from both coasts / More than 50 breakout sessions / 100 presenters / Indie Publishing Contest / www.sfwriters.org  / [email protected] / blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog / twitter: @SFWC /
facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/San-Francisco-Writers-Conference/112732798786104 / free MP3s at sfwriters.info / open to anyone: a day of in-depth classes on Monday, February 21st

New! San Francisco Writers University: Where Writers Meet and You Learn, a project of the San Francisco Writers Conference / Laurie McLean, Dean /  www.sfwritersu.com / [email protected]

Unleashing your Muse: Writing Drunk, Editing Sober

If you want to get to the top, you’ve to start at the bottom, same with anything.

–Keith Richards in the number one New York Times  bestseller Life

Three cheers for National Novel Writing Month! Anything that convinces aspiring writers to churn out 50,000 words in a month deserves huge thanks from booklovers. According to an article in the New York Times (11/14),  NaNoWriMo (www.nanowrimo.org) has inspired writers around the world to produce almost 200 million words.

The words of the French noir poet Charles Beaudelaire in his poem “Get Drunk” have seduced millions of college students. He advises them to get drunk and stay drunk on anything–wine, poetry, virtue. Every November thousands of writers get high on turning out more than 1,600 words a day for thirty days without taking the time to edit them.

Agents and editors are wary of the event, because on December first, writers,  eager to sell their “finished” novels, start contacting them. New writers aren’t always aware of the difference between writing and typing. Putting words on a screen is admirable and perhaps the beginning of greatness, but it is only the first step.

At a recent Netroots conference for progressive organizations (www.netrootsnation.org), Eden James, managing director of the Courage Campaign (www.couragecampaign.org), advised writers to “write drunk, edit sober,” to unleash your imagination and creativity run wild when you’re writing your first draft.

But after your right brain has unleashed your first draft, it’s time for your left brain to kick in and do as many drafts as needed to make sure every word is right, and your work has the impact you want it to. The first readers to share it with are those who can help you ensure your work is ready to submit. Check out the list of readers to enlist at www.larsenpomada.com. Join or start a critique group, online or off. Try www.meetup.com to find a local writers group.

NaNoWriMo has produced one bestseller, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, but not in thirty days. When your trusty band of readers tell you your work is ready, test-market your book with an ebook, a podcast, and print-on-demand copies. Ask for feedback.

Writer and editor Nina Amir offers the same challenge in November for nonfiction writers. So if you’ve been yearning to let that memoir spill out of you, there’s your chance. For information, visit www.writenonfictioninnovember.com.

But since you missed this November, why wait for a year? Invite your muse to sit on your shoulder. Ask a friend to join you or at least encourage you and get high on writing. If winter has you stuck indoors, give yourself the gift of time and let it flow, let it flow, let it flow. You may be starting at the bottom, but your outburst of prose may lead you to the greening of a career.

The Eighth San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / President’s Day Weekend, February 18-20, 2011 / Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel on Nob Hill / Keynoters: Dorothy Allison & David Morrell / Pitch your book to agents and editors from both coasts / More than 50 breakout sessions / 100 presenters / www.sfwriters.org  / [email protected] / blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog / free MP3s at sfwriters.info / open to anyone: a day of in-depth classes on Monday, February 21st

New! San Francisco Writers University: Where Writers Meet and You Learn, a project of the San Francisco Writers Conference / Laurie McLean, Dean /  www.sfwritersu.com

Anything is Possible: A Cause for Thanksgiving

There are only two ways of telling the complete truth–anonymously and posthumously.

–author and economist Thomas Sowell

A writer on a science fiction panel once observed that after Philip K. Dick died, the sales of his books shot up, so for him, death was a good career move.

There’s a trend toward shorter books with shorter chapters because they’re cheaper to buy and more important, faster to read. So what chance could a 500,000-word, 736-page, four-pound, $35 autobiography, published by a university press and written by a dead man who had never done anything heroic or barbarous have to succeed? Enough if the man was Mark Twain, who insisted that the book not be published until he was dead for a century.

U.C. Press did a first printing of 50,000 copies, an ambitious number, considering the state of the business. But Autobiography of Mark Twain reached the number two position on the New York Times bestseller list. An article in the Times (11/20) noted that even with 275,000 copies in print after six printings, booksellers couldn’t get their hands on all the copies they wanted. UC Press has its printer turning out 30,000 copies a week to try to meet the demand.

Women buy, read, edit, and agent more books than men, but one reason for the book’s success is that it’s an appealing gift for men that makes the giver look good. The book is at the happy intersection of history, biography, and autobiography, all wrapped up in the life and times of one of America’s greatest writers. Advance publicity and excerpts in magazines helped as did Twain’s wit, insight, and relevance.  Also, it’s a nonlinear book readers can dip into and read as much of as they have time for.

It’s reassuring to know that anything is possible, that the unexpected can still happen. And when a book merits its success, it restores my faith that if a book is good enough, it will find its audience no matter how it’s published. For the second of the three-volume set, maybe UC Press could get Twain to tour and Tweet. Now that would really be a good career move. 

I hope you have enough reasons to keep writing and to have a happy Thanksgiving weekend.

The Eighth San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / President’s Day Weekend, February 18-20, 2011 / Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel on Nob Hill / Keynoters: Dorothy Allison & David Morrell / Pitch your book to agents and editors from both coasts / More than 50 breakout sessions / 100 presenters / www.sfwriters.org  / [email protected] / blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog  / free MP3s at sfwriters.info / open to anyone: a day of in-depth classes on Monday, February 21st

New! San Francisco Writers University: Where Writers Meet and You Learn, a project of the San Francisco Writers Conference / Laurie McLean, Dean /  www.sfwritersu.com

10 Things Hollywood Looks For in Your Book (Part 2 of 2)

John Robert Marlow is a novelist, screenwriter, editor and script consultant.

When deciding which books to option or adapt, Hollywood studios and the production companies that team with them look for very specific things. Picking up where the last post left off…

A REASONABLE BUDGET. In the book world, the publisher’s cost-per-page remains the same, whether your characters are playing checkers or blowing up a planet. This is not true of film, and the less costly your project is to film, the more potential buyers you have.

LOW FAT. Because of time and budgetary constraints, there’s little room for anything not absolutely essential to the onscreen story. Novelists can burn ten pages describing a room. A screenwriter might do this in a sentence–and going on for more than a paragraph will mark him or her as an amateur.

FRANCHISE POTENTIAL. If a film based on your book can be endlessly sequeled, that’s a big point in your favor. If the first movie hits, it’s a safer bet to release a sequel to your film than it is to risk vast sums on something new and untried. There are eighty-six movie sequels now in development.

“FOUR QUADRANT” APPEAL . Studios divide the moviegoing public into four large segments, or quadrants: young male, older male, young female, older female. The greater the number of quadrants your project appeals to, the better. Titanic and Avatar are four-quadrant films.

MERCHANDISING POTENTIAL . Film studios make more money from film-related merchandising than they do from the films themselves. A lot more. Films with low or no merchandising potential continue to be made, but the tidal wave is moving the other way–favoring projects with strong merchandising appeal.

This article is a condensation of  “What Hollywood Wants: 10 Things Studios Like to See in Adapted (and Original) Scripts.” John also writes the Self Editing Blog http://selfeditingblog.com.

The content of this article is copyright © 2010 by John Robert Marlow.

The Eighth San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / President’s Day Weekend, February 18-20, 2011 / Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel on Nob Hill / Keynoters: Dorothy Allison & David Morrell / Pitch your book to agents and editors from both coasts / More than 50 breakout sessions / 100 presenters / www.sfwriters.org  / blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog / free MP3s at sfwriters.info / Also available: A day of in-depth classes on February 21st

New! San Francisco Writers University: Where Writers Meet and You Learn, a project of the San Francisco Writers Conference / Laurie McLean, Dean /  www.sfwritersu.com

10 Things Hollywood Looks For in Your Book (Part 1 of 2)

We’re delighted to have an excellent two-part blog by  John Robert Marlow, a novelist, screenwriter, editor and script consultant.

When deciding which books to option or adapt, Hollywood studios and the production companies that team with them look for very specific things. To maximize your project’s appeal, incorporate these elements into your book or adapted screenplay…

A CINEMATIC CONCEPT that can be communicated in ten seconds, via something called a logline. Sound impossible? Try this: A fugitive doctor wrongly convicted of killing his wife struggles to prove his innocence while pursued by a relentless U.S. Marshal. (The Fugitive.)

A RELATABLE HERO that a large segment of the moviegoing public can relate to, root for, sympathize or empathize with.

STRONG VISUAL POTENTIAL. Simply put, film is less flexible than print. Film is a visual medium, and interesting things must pass before the camera, because all of the details are on the screen. Two people standing still and talking doesn’t cut it.

A THREE-ACT STRUCTURE. The vast majority of commercially successful films are “classically structured” into three acts. Even those with additional acts (like Star Wars) have only three major acts; the others fall within that framework.

A TWO-HOUR LIMIT, of sorts. If a story cannot be told in two hours or less (one hundred twenty script pages), it may be too costly to shoot. Industry veterans with proven track records warrant exceptions; newcomers do not. This is more a challenge for the screenwriter who adapts your book–but if it just can’t be done, that’s a problem.

To be continued…

This article is a condensation of  “What Hollywood Wants: 10 Things Studios Like to See in Adapted (and Original) Scripts.” John also writes the Self Editing Blog http://selfeditingblog.com.

The content of this article is copyright © 2010 by John Robert Marlow.

The Eighth San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 18th-20th, 2011 / Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel on Nob Hill / Keynoters: Dorothy Allison & David Morrell / Pitch your book to agents and editors from both coasts / More than 50 breakout sessions / 100 presenters / www.sfwriters.org  / blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog / free MP3s at sfwriters.info / Also available: a day of in-depth classes on Monday, Febraury 21st

Query Letters 2: Avoiding “The Oops Factor”

I have written two novels: One is fiction, one is nonfiction.

–the beginning of a query letter we once received

            Agents only read queries far enough to make a decision. They know that if someone can’t write a letter, they can’t write a book. One query letter we didn’t have to finish reading began: “Not that I compare myself with Shakespeare’s Hamlet…” Avoiding these common mistakes will help you:

Typos, spelling our names wrong, poor grammar and word choice such as fiction novel, which is redundant

Proofread your letter online and in hard copy, and have at least one other knowledgeable reader do it as well. You will avoid having to look at the letter after you sent it and saying “Oops!”

  •  Impersonal salutations: Dear Sir, Gentlemen, To Whom It May Concern. Use the agent’s name.
  •  A list of agents you’re emailing. Use individual letters. 
  • Handwritten letters. In the age of computers? 
  • Sending work we don’t handle. Only contact agents who handle what you write.
  • Writing to both of us. Send to only one person at an agency. Whoever it is will pass it on, if necessary.
  • Long paragraphs. Aim for three or four paragraphs on the page. 
  • Asking about a smorgasbord of unrelated books or kinds of writing. Only ask about your best, most salable book. 

Agents would rather receive unique submissions, but you can speed up the query process by  sending a one-page query letter to as many agents as you wish simultaneously online or off.  Write the letter that would excite youyou’re your readers about your book, and if you have a salable book, agents and editors will be glad to see your work.

The Third San Francisco Writing for Change Conference: Writing to Make a Difference / November 13-14, Hilton Financial/Chinatown / www.sfwritingforchange.org / Keynoters: Million-copy selling authors Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior) and John Robbins (Diet for a New America)