Is there a writing heaven? At Flavorwire, I divulge my favorite spot

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Do you have a certain nook or outdoor haven where you consistently produce your best work? Mine is just a hop, skip, and jump around the block, at one of the most gorgeous bars in the world (not kidding), the Eden Bar. See for yourself in this recent article by Flavorwire in which about a dozen authors with recent or forthcoming books share a revealing range of locales, from the modest to exotic. Many thanks to editor and VCFA alum Sarah Seltzer for inviting me to participate.


Short stories to Film? The surprising path to a collection getting optioned

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I remember meeting my soon-to-be editor, Ryan Rivas, for lunch one winter day two years ago, and going over the book contract he’d recently offered me as head of the Orlando-based literary publisher, Burrow Press. The collection, Train Shots, would be my first; all of the stories save one had been published in respectable but mid-list journals. “And if say, a filmmaker would happen to approach you and want to make a feature film, here’s that section,” he said. “Right,” I said, with a generous dash of sarcasm and an eye-roll. “Like that’s going to happen.” We had a good laugh and moved on to the next.

Well, be careful what you mock, I suppose. Because what happened, of course, is that seemingly far-fetched scenario came true. Filmmakers and producers are actively looking for stories — not just novels, and not even collections that one would deem closely-linked. They’re simply seeking out great stories that ring true.

And yet, while getting your book optioned for TV or film is nothing short of a dream come true, there are some sobering realities that one discovers along the way.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that 8 out of 10 projects that get optioned never get produced, whether the filmmaker struggled with the script, the financing, other projects took precedence, or life interrupted. But, as a longtime writer friend who recently saw his work hit the silver screen recently assured me, often the best stories are the ones that get made.

So how did Train Shots, my little 150-page collection of darkly comic stories, catch a filmmaker’s eye? Without a doubt, the book getting into the hands of a “connector” in the community helped. Pat Greene is one of those mainstays in Orlando who knows everybody, and by everybody I mean a range of artists in all mediums from here to New York and beyond. Not long after the book’s release and its winning an IPPY Gold Medal, Pat informed me that he’d recommended it to a friend of his, an indie producer and director now based in NYC named Hannah King, and that she’d loved it. “She really wants to meet you,” he told me, more than once.

I said sure, not thinking too much about what that might mean. Pat put me in touch with Hannah, but she and I didn’t get together until she came down to Winter Park around Thanksgiving. As soon as we sat down, it was evident that Hannah was an avid literary connoisseur, a fan of Andre Dubus III, Edna O’Brien, and others. We began to talk about the book, and she said she could see the stories as a film — not all of them, but those that mostly took place in the Winter Park area, just north of downtown Orlando. As she talked I could see the wheels in her head turning; she had her own vision. As a central Florida native, she felt the stories precisely captured a cross-section of locals and resonated with her on a deep level. Practically speaking, she was also looking for another Florida-based project that she could produce on the heels of Dirt Roads, her indie feature currently in the works.

“I’d like to option the book,” she said.

There’s nothing that quite matches the thrill of encountering those who express such a sincere interest in your work. Especially an artist in another medium, for whom your imaginings have inspired a wholly distinct reincarnation. We met a few more times during her visit; initially we discussed the two of us co-writing the script, somewhat modeled after Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. I’d worked on scripts before, and had taken at least one screenwriting class in college, so I felt up to the task. But a few weeks later, and as I was handed marching orders from the editor for my forthcoming novel, it became evident that Hannah understood her vision best and was better suited to go at it alone. I felt incredibly relieved and all too happy to offer my input as consultant. A fiction writer only has so much head space, after all, and my novel needed me.

Thus began a long back-and-forth from mid-January to June. Although my literary agent hadn’t represented the collection when I signed with Burrow Press, he readily (and generously) agreed to assist in finding a film agent to represent me in negotiations. And this is where I’ll attest that having an agent in your corner even when you just have a book out with a small press may turn out to be essential. Neither Ryan nor I were prepared to handle a film option deal. The contract was amended several times; each time I skimmed through the PDF red-lined with suggestions from the Beverly Hills-based agent, my eyes glazed over at the legalese. About every other week someone seemed to be out of the country, and a couple of more weeks would go by. By the time we were ready for signatures about twelve recipients, lawyers, assistants, etc., were on the thread. I was beginning to feel it would never happen.

But then one day in mid-April, shortly after AWP, the finalized contract came in. I was in rural Minnesota, in post-conference recovery at my relatives’ free-range cattle farm. So the contract was signed and notarized in Chippewa County — as if the turn of events wasn’t surreal enough.

Perhaps the biggest burst to the signing-a-movie-option-dream-bubble is just how modestly the author is compensated when you’re not a big name like Stephen King or J. K. Rowling. At first I couldn’t believe it, but the indie film world is much like the indie publishing world, operating on teeny tiny margins and budgets, and teeming with individuals for whom art matters. Much of the compensation is built in on a sliding-scale, and kicks in if and when the film is actually made or not. So no five-figure amount, alas, certainly not up front; my agent confirmed this. Not even four-figure. But it was still heartening to receive the sum, and to know this filmmaker’s faith in my stories is real.

We’re in touch, Hannah and I, me immersed in final novel proofs  for Juventud and lining up events for the fall. She’s working on the Train Shots script, several hours a day. When you’re starting out as a writer, and for so many years, it can feel like nothing is happening, or is ever going to happen. I believe in writing fiction as a practice and a profession, but there are times when I wonder if I might end up homeless when I’m seventy-five. But then, and rather quickly, much changes and in ways you utterly would never expect. A small thing like a film option gives you the affirmation that your work means enough for others to invest in, that you are, in fact, a leader and an entrepreneur, creating not just your worlds and characters but real opportunities for others.

So don’t wait. The world is awaiting your stories.

You may read the official press release for Train Shots here:

Train Shots Optioned for Film

And in Orlando’s Bungalower:

Story Collection by Local Author Optioned for Film