You’re the Voice

You know the feeling. You’re reading back through the start of a new project, admiring the first 10 pages of what might be your next novel. Yet, you recognize that something isn’t quite right. You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s there – daunting and taunting you. So, you read through your words again, determined to find the culprit. Often, the obvious is overlooked. The problem plaguing you could be this: you’ve written your story in the wrong narrative. Instead of telling your tale in first person, you’ve opted for third person, or vice versa. The struggle is real, as they say.

While there’s no golden rule that a specific genre should be written in a specific narrative, this choice is often determined by novels that have come before yours. Take a peek at the first paragraph of the top-selling novels in your genre. What narrative are they being told in? The same as yours? Maybe you’ve decided to break the rules and change things up by heading down a third person path when first person is the genre go-to. This is a risk worth taking, but only if its true to your story.

The question of which narrative to use can be answered by determining the most important elements in your work:

  • Whose story is this?
  • Who is your narrator?
  • Whose perspective does this story need to be told from?

This choice is ultimately yours, my fellow writer. Yet, it can be one of the most difficult to make. I recently suffered from this very issue while working on a new short story of mine. I was three paragraphs away from finishing the first draft when I came to terms with the fact that the manuscript was fighting back. It took a few read-throughs over a few days to identify the problem: this was not a story that needed to be told in first person —  it needed to be told in third. So, I rewrote the story with a third person narrator, and it worked.

I encourage you to to do the same, especially if the story and the voice aren’t working. Make the change. See what happens. You’re the voice.

Founder Chat: Screenplays — Part 2

 Nancy: Books rely heavily on description and dialogue to reveal character. How does that differ in a screenplay?

Wren: This is one of the greatest challenges when it comes to screenwriting. You not only have to rely on the actor’s intuition to convey the emotion but also on the director’s overall vision for the film. This is why it’s so important to write the best screenplay you can because you’re really creating a blueprint for the production team and the cast. On the screen, visual elements are really what’s telling your story. Yes, exposition comes through dialogue, but the audience is responding to what they’re seeing on the screen.

Nancy: How long do you think it normally takes to write a screenplay from a novel? Is it common for an author writing a novel to create the screenplay simultaneously?

Wren: The length of time really depends on the complexities of the novel. One of mine went through 32 rewrites while going from stage play to film. In the end, only 10 pages remained from my original script. Many of the changes were required based on production limitations and budget issues. Yes, many writers write both a novel and a screenplay simultaneously. They really inform one another during the creative process.

Nancy: When you write a screenplay, how do you know when you are done? Do you hear fireworks or are the angels singing?

Wren: I would love a choir of angels to announce the end of a screenplay. That would be wonderful. I feel like the screenplay is done when I’ve told the best version of the story I can — when I feel I’ve done the characters justice. It’s tough to know when you’ve reached that point because it’s hard to be objective about our own work. At some point, you have to force yourself to get up and walk away.

Nancy: From horror to romance, what differences does genre make in an effective screenplay?

Wren: Genre is everything in a screenplay because each genre comes with their own set of rules, their own set of audience expectations. For this reason, I think some of the best screenplays are genre hybrids. Kelly Fremon Craig’s screenplay for Edge of Seventeen is a great example of this. That movie successfully fit into multiple genres.

Nancy: How important is the format?

Wren: The format in screenwriting is critical because it’s industry standard. It’s one of the biggest challenges for a new screenwriter.

Nancy: Can a screenplay be reviewed and edited in the same way a book is edited, or should you find people who specialize in screenplays?

Wren: I recommend that screenwriters have their work critiqued by other screenwriters, or someone in the entertainment industry that is familiar with the format, such as a producer.

Nancy: I have been a fan of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for several years. Are there other screenwriting books you would recommend?

Wren: Yes, I really recommend The Screenwriter’s Bible. I use this book each time I teach a screenwriting course. It’s a terrific resource for many reasons, including learning the rules about formatting a screenplay. I also recommend Syd Field’s classic book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Both of these books are resources for most screenwriters. I also recommend checking out a wonderful program called The Script Lab. They offer a low-cost online program called Screenwriting Summit that is fantastic. They have a tremendous library of videos that are conversations with executives, agents, producers, and screenwriters. Each is filled with very valuable information about the industry and your life as a professional screenwriter.

Nancy: Once completed, polished, and ready for publication, my guess is that a screenplay requires an entirely different approach for marketing, compared to books. Is that true? What should the author be focusing on at this point?

Wren: Once your screenplay is finished, the next step is getting it into the hands of someone who can get the project to the screen, whether that’s a producer or an agent, or even an actor. It’s almost impossible to sell a screenplay without having an agent. If a screenwriter has finished a script that they feel has potential, I would recommend securing an agent. The Writer’s Guild of America publishes a list of reputable agents for screenwriters.

Nancy: For me, I think the real work of writing a novel is perseverance coupled with humility. I have to work on it every day and be willing to recognize where I am wrong. You are such a prolific writer of books, plays, and screenplays. What would you say is the ‘real work’ of it for you?

Wren: Disciplining myself to write every day has been a challenge for me over the years. I love the end result, of having written something, but the actual writing process is tough for me. Any writer can talk about the many sacrifices required to be a writer in this world but the finished result makes each of them worth it. Before I became a professional writer, I didn’t realize how much work each step of the writing process required. The writing itself is hard work, but so is the planning, marketing, and business side of what we do. Writing takes more stamina, dedication, and discipline than most people realize. It’s a demanding career, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling.

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Founder Chat: Screenplays — Part 1

The manner in which our small group of friends helps one another with thorny writing problems is one of the roots of Amelia Indie Authors. From time to time we’ll share a Founder Chat — one of the founders interviewing another author about an area of particular interest or expertise. Enjoy!

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Upon completion of a recent blog post, I realized I had the core for a new book set in the 17th century. I began blocking the content right away and began the first chapter. Starting a new project like this is an exciting time full of outrageous dreams and marvelous promise. As I watch historical programming on BBC, Netflix, Amazon and elsewhere, I think my story could be a movie at least, if not a series like Poldark, Outlander or Versailles.

But I have never tried writing for the screen before. Am I crazy? Should I just go wash the dishes and get a hold of myself?

Fortunately, a dear friend introduced me to someone who has some answers. Wren Valentino is the award-winning author of several novels and collections of stage plays and poetry. He has written over 50 stage plays that have been performed in three languages in nine countries. His work has appeared in over 100 publications.

And so, I am deeply honored that he has agreed to answer some questions about writing screenplays, which I share today with Amelia Indie Authors. Thank you, Wren, for sharing your knowledge and experience. Here goes:

Nancy: First of all, how do you know if a story idea has potential as a screenplay?

Wren: Screenwriting is really a form of visual storytelling. When I start working on a project, one of the first things I do is determine what form suits the story the best. When a strong visual component is there, that’s a big indicator that the story needs to be told on a screen, instead of on a stage or page.

Nancy: Some film or series productions are based on novels, while others are developed directly for the screen. Either way, there has to be a screenplay. Other than length, what are the main differences between a book and a screenplay?

Wren: There are many differences between books and screenplays, all of which can make the adaptation process difficult. In most cases, when audiences reject a film version of their favorite book, it’s related to the difficulties the screenwriter had in adapting from one form to another. Novels and screenplays are written so differently, that they’re not always compatible when it comes to adaptation. One of the biggest challenges is adapting a novel written in first person narrative into a cinematic story. In a book, we have insight into the characters internal thoughts and emotions, but translating that onto the screen can be tough.

Nancy: When would it make sense to start with the screenplay, instead of a book?


Wren: I recommend writing any story in multiple forms and then deciding, as the writer, which form is the strongest choice. Some stories will only work in one form, so then the decision is made for you. I often know immediately that a story is a screenplay when I visualize the story more than I hear it.

Nancy: What if I already have a novel that has potential for the screen? What is the best starting place for an author to adapt a book into a screenplay?

Wren: This can be a really helpful exercise for any writer who thinks their novels has cinematic potential. By adapting your novel into a screenplay, they will inform each other. For example, whenever I adapt a novel or play of mine into a screenplay, I always end up going back to the original story with new discoveries I’ve made by writing the same story in a different form. Writing a screenplay is a challenge, especially because the format is so specific. I really recommend that if a writer is considering a screenplay, they should take a screenwriting course. If anything, this will help with learning and understanding the complexities of the format, the rules and why they’re necessary.

Nancy: Is it common for authors of novels to do their own screenplays or is it better if done by another writer?

Wren: I highly recommend that if a novelist has an indication that there’s interest in adapting their book into a screenplay, that they write the screenplay. I know many writers who will write the screenplay version while they’re writing the novel simultaneously. Emma Donoghue did this very thing with her novel Room. When producers came to her wanting to adapt the film for the screen, she already had a screenplay ready for them. Who knows the story better than the person who created it?

Nancy: It is my understanding that all good screenplays follow the same basic structure. Is that true in your opinion? Have you tended to follow any particular guideline or does the idea that ‘rules are made to be broken’ apply in this case?

Wren: Screenplays for most American made films do follow a fairly similar three-act structure, with significant plot points happening at prescribed times in the film. This has a lot more to do with the attention span of an audience, rather than storytelling. For this reason, I tend to watch and admire foreign films and foreign TV shows more, as they tend to not only break these rules but demonstrate a greater devotion to true storytelling, especially where character development is concerned. I’m all for breaking rules, but it’s important to learn the rules first so you know how and when to cross those lines.

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The Art Connection — Part 2

SPECIAL GUEST POST: This is Part 2 of an inspiring talk presented by Linda Hart Green, one of the principals of The Shady Ladies Art Gallery on 8th St, in Fernandina Beach. Click here to see Part 1.

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We also internalize messages about who we are and what we are supposed to do from others. As someone trained to understand people and organizations from the perspective of family systems theory, I encourage you to spend time reflecting on the patterns of communication and relationship in your family of origin.

There we will find both the seeds of our inspiration and the weedier messages both overt and subtle that can impede our artistic vision. My family has a very strong work ethic and there is nothing wrong with that. But I did not learn much about when it was OK to stop and rest or play and that such time was equally valuable. Our deep Protestant roots added a strong sense of the imperative to serve others. There is nothing wrong with that either. But does one serve others at expense of the self?

Those of us who came along in the wake of the Greatest Generation of WW II and those who were reared by those who came through the tribulations of the Great Depression may especially have to wrestle with internal questions like, “Is being a writer a selfish pursuit? Is painting a real job? We have also heard it said in our presence sentiments like: “Poetry is nice but it doesn’t feed hungry people.“ The arts are for those with leisure time.” You can add your own messages to this list. We each have to do the work of integrating our backgrounds, our life experiences, our family responsibilities with our internal yearnings. We are our best selves when we first honor our deepest longings and are true to our own hearts.

I ask your indulgence as I give you an example using theological jargon! It’s my occupation hazard! One’s “espoused theology” is what one says one believes. One’s “operational theology” is what one’s life says about what one believes.
For most us, getting espoused theology and operational theology to line up with each other is a life’s work. We have to practice what we preach!

True spiritual maturity is the integration of the two. I had to realize that while I preached that all are equally loved and accepted by the Holy One, I acted toward myself like I had to work to earn that acceptance. I preached that we are each co-creators and that creating honors the spark of the divine in each of us but making art wasn’t OK for me. The preacher had to bring her espoused theology and her operational theology into alignment or…start practicing what she preached!

I would love to be able to tell you that my creative journey has been a straight line of growth and success for the last 20 years. Truth is, I went back to the pastoral ministry full-time and full-tilt in 1999. At first, I took time to take some classes but then I let my schedule be crowded by other responsibilities. I set up a room in my parsonage, but it fell into dust and disarray. I dabbled with art in fits and starts. I injected the arts wherever I could into the life of my congregation. But there was more work for me to do. I had another profound shift ahead of me.

By this time, it was 2005 and I had weathered the storm of a church fight and a divorce and had met and married Harry, a Unitarian minister! Scandal! I was really kicking up my heels. We went together to our ministry and career counseling center to discuss our future life together. There I was blessed with another caring person important to my journey.

My counselor told me that I was ignoring the artistic side of who I was at my peril. Every test, every exercise, every question and answer session pointed to the fact that I was as much an artist as a minister. With that encouragement, I began to reintroduce art into my life. Seven years later, I took another leap of faith and retired early and we moved here. At first, I made art at home and worked for several other artists on the island. Last year, my 3 other art partners and I opened our own place, Shady Ladies Art Studios.

I am indebted to many for inspiration along my creative journey. Some names you know like Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way workbooks. A theologian I want to mention is Matthew Fox. Those of Roman Catholic background may know of him and that he is a controversial figure who was censured by the Vatican and removed from the Dominican order. He is now an Episcopal priest and prolific author and teacher. In 2002, he wrote a systematic theology of creativity, entitled: “Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

He is known for reimagining the biblical stories and teachings in a way that shows that they speak of humanity’s original blessing, not original sin. From that original blessing flows our passion to co-create along with the divine.

He writes that it is the task of artists and writers to lead not only ourselves and our communities but also all of CIVILIZATION by growing our hearts, deepening our compassion, and calling out what is unjust and ugly. Artists and writers are the ones who can help guide others through perilous times of cynicism, boredom, and despair. (written in 2002!) Even more true today!

Thank you for allowing me to share some of my personal and professional journey with you, my fellow creative people! Our mediums may differ, but I can affirm to you, from my own experience and from what I have learned that you are made with original blessing! You are here to see with open eyes and open hearts and open minds. The world needs to know what you see and to benefit from what you create in response.

As you write, may you be filled with the energy and joy that comes from participating in the flow of creativity that permeates the whole world.

The Art Connection -- Part 1

The Art Connection — Part 1

SPECIAL GUEST POST: Not long ago, Writers by the Sea, the local chapter of the Florida Writers Association, was treated to a talk by Linda Hart Green, a member of the Shady Ladies art co-operative. She spoke about the connections between creating visual art and writing. She graciously agreed to share her thoughts with us.

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Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian-American poet who began writing her own poems at the age of 6! She is often asked how she became a writer. She put her response into a poem entitled, “Please describe how you became a writer:”

“Possibly I began writing as a refuge from our insulting first-grade textbook. “Come, Jane, come. Look, Dick, look.” Were there ever duller people in the world? You had to tell them to look at things? Why weren’t they looking to begin with?” ”

My guess about you is that no one has to tell YOU to look at things! My guess is that you have been looking all of your lives. You know no other way to be in the world. Looking brings you both joy and pain. But you will not turn away. Feeling the need to look and to record what you see is why you write and why I paint! Those of us who are compelled to look wish we could take a break from it. Turn it off for a while. But we know that price of NOT looking is too high. We want to see the world in all its beauty, diversity, humor, irony and pain.

Henry David Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at but what you see.” What is the difference between looking and seeing? When you see, are you fully present in mind, body, and spirit? When you look, are your eyes working, but your mind is several steps behind or several steps ahead of where you are?

For artists and writers, that just won’t do. Poets and artists need to be fully present to what they see so that they can be awake to connections, analogies, and metaphors that help explain and to give meaning to life’s journey. This kind of seeing can bring needed insight to a difficult situation or it can take something simple and see in it a thing of transcendent beauty.

A poet who is a well-practiced seer is Mary Oliver. In her book of essays, “Upstream,” she recounts her lonely and difficult childhood. She took refuge in nature and in the world of literature and writing. Her lifetime of quiet and patient observation in nature has opened deep insights that ring true.

In her poem, “When death comes…” she sums up her life’s goal: “when it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” Writing and the visual arts connect in their creators’ desire to be married to amazement! To not take a single thing or a single day for granted. We want to see those things that bring us an “aha” moment or cause us to draw in our breath.

If we allow cynicism, anger or indifference to what we see dull our amazement and shut us down, then we forego the opportunity to contribute an insight, observation or story or image that the world can have only through us and only if we share it. Only if we share it. It is one thing to see. It is another thing to put what we see “out there.”

Here is another point of commonality between artists and writers. We desire to put what we see “out there.” “Out there” can be very scary. Self-disclosure involves risk. We have to detach from our desire for approval, recognition, and credit and become immune to rejection. We have to validate our own vision and learn to accept constructive criticism. That is so difficult! When you have a drawer full of pink slips or a closet full of paintings that were not accepted to shows, it is tempting to withdraw into a cocoon of self-protection.

NOT giving voice or vision to what we see is also scary. We risk squelching that spark that makes us each uniquely who we are. When the temptation to withdraw comes as it will, we can tackle it by focusing on process over product. Process over product. We can find enjoyment in the act of creating not just the results. Morning pages, doodles, poems in the margins, sketches and silly rhymes are all part of the process.

In 1995, after twenty years in the professional church ministry, I came to a point in mid-life and mid-career where I really felt the need to do something radically different. Sure, I had put myself out there as a woman in a profession traditionally dominated by men, but I had not given my artistic desires any room to breathe and grow. I had always loved art and had always drawn and done creative projects but I had not fully blessed those inclinations with devoted time and practice. As happens with many, I had let my career take over my life.

After a year of contemplation and planning, I resigned my job which at the time was as a regional consultant for our denomination with the 300 Baptist churches in Massachusetts. I took an unpaid personal sabbatical and returned home to New Jersey with my former husband.

All but my closest friends were shocked. “What about your career track? You will have a gap in your resume,” they warned. All those voices wanting me to change back were very loud. You have heard them too. I needed to heal from my overwork and begin to correct the perfectionist tendencies that constantly told me I needed to do MORE. Instead, I needed to listen to my deepest inner voice that said, “You are enough.”

I left my unopened moving boxes and practically ran to sign up for my first art class. At that first class, I got out my new supplies, put my paper on my easel and FROZE. I just sat there immobile, staring at that blank pad of drawing paper. I imagine all of you know exactly how I felt.

I will never forget the kindness of that first teacher. My fragile new art self could have been dead in the water at that moment in the hands of the wrong person. That kind of life-draining teachers or “shadow artists” as Julia Cameron calls them in The Artist’s Way are out there and we have all run into them. But this teacher did not scold or scoff or berate.

After giving our instructions, he casually walked around the class. He saw my dilemma and came up behind me and quietly whispered in my ear, “Start.” What a gift! And…I did! Of course what I drew was tight and didn’t nearly fill the page. And I erased a lot. Over the next weeks and months, as I did the exercises he taught and started to feel less self-conscious, I could relax more, take more risks and start feeling the freedom of learning new ways to record what I see.

As writers and artists, we need to overcome our hesitancy and simply start! We can’t feel worse than we already do! I got better at seeing and recording what I saw, too. I had doubted my ability to make my hands create what my eyes saw. My vision in my left eye is poor due to a birth defect and I have terrible depth perception. I felt embarrassed about it as a child who wasn’t good at sports and ashamed when I was a klutzy teenager. How could I be an artist? We all have internal messages of self-doubt that we mentally rehearse. We can let them hold us back and define us or we can put mental brackets around them and stop listening to the negativity.

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Linda Hart Green is the Shady Lady pictured on the far right. Part 2 of her article will be published here soon.