By Lauren E. Smith
When it comes to fiction, award-winning author, J Ryan Stradal, infuses his tales with charm and depth. His short stories are just the right mix of fantasy-reality, have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, named a finalist for the James Kirkwood Literary Prize, and have been featured in McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and The Rattling Wall, amongst other places. Recently, he’s cooked up his first novel, “Kitchens of the Great Midwest,” which received first prize in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Competition and has been acquired for publication overseas in seven countries. When he isn’t wearing his writer’s cap, he’s using his editor’s eye to sift through works of fiction for online culture magazine, The Nervous Breakdown.
Editor by day, writer by night, we snagged a few moments with J Ryan to talk craft and about what he’s serving at his 1 Day Short Story class on March 9th and 5 Week Short Story class that starts on March 16th.
1) If you had to pin your writing down to a genre and style, how would you describe it?
I attempt to write fiction that I consider humorous and humane. I don’t like obvious heroes or anti-heroes. We’ve all been both a hero and villain to ourselves and to other people at some point in our lives. I try to capture both extremes within the stories of a few of the significant characters in my book.
2) Your short stories have been featured in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Many writers dream of accomplishing this. How did it happen for you, and did it change things for you as a writer?
I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my late 20’s. It was ten years between my first adult writing class and finishing and selling a novel. I think it would’ve taken less time had I started taking classes earlier; I met a lot of important peers in those classes, including the people who alerted me to these publications. And there were a lot of rejections. I got my first story published in 2006, and I didn’t get another one published until 2010. Yet I never quit writing those four years. I look back on a lot of the stories I wrote during that period, and reading them now, I feel that they’re pretty bad — one of them I must’ve submitted over forty times, and man, I’m glad no one ever accepted it, although you couldn’t have told me so at the time when I was banging down doors with it, trying to get that elusive second publication credit. That said, I’m extremely grateful these stories exist. Every one of them made me a little bit better.
3) You’re on the advisory board for 826LA, a non-profit writing and tutoring organization. Tell us a little about what 826LA does and how you got involved.
826LA started ten years ago in Venice, and I leapt on board immediately. I was at home writing an embarrassing first novel that will never see the light of day, and my mom was dying of cancer, and I needed something constructive to get me out of the house. It turned out to be a life-changing experience.
826LA provides free educational and creative programs and workshops for local school kids — everything from after-school tutoring to SAT and college essay prep. It’s full of great people, and working with kids in Los Angeles is a pretty incredible experience.
4) What ingredients go into making a compelling story?
What I most often look for in a story are empathy, voice, and detail. I like plot — I love a good ending — but without those three things, plot is pure tedium. I think the biggest favor a writer can do for themselves is understand and feel for their characters, even the ones they disagree with. The most common issues I see among emerging writers are characters they don’t know or care about and lack of sensual detail.
5) You currently work as a fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. How does your role as editor influence your own writing?
Seeing what’s being published every week has definitely kept me up on what readers and publishers are responding to. I don’t think it’s directly affected my fiction, but besides actually writing, I can’t think of a better thing for a writer to do than to read constantly, and reading new fiction every week for work has been wonderful and stimulating.
6) Your first novel, Kitchen of the Great Midwest, has already received an award and tons of recognition. Tell us a little about your book and when can we get our hands on a copy?
It’s the story of young orphan in the Midwest who grows up to become the chef behind the most exclusive pop-up dinner party in the world. Each chapter is centered around an ingredient she’s introduced to at a different time in her life, and all of those ingredients, save one crucial one, are served in a meal at the end of the book. It comes out on July 28th, but you can pre-order one here. Thank you in advance, if you do that.
7) Did the writing process for your novel differ from the way you approach short story writing?
No, in each case I wake up in the morning and I write exactly what I want to write most that day, and I put it all together later on. With the novel there was simply a lot more post-first draft construction. Before I start writing, I know what my endings are almost all the time, and I just start at a point somewhat distant from those endings. With the novel, I started twenty-six years before my ending. That was one way of ensuring I’d write three hundred pages.
8) What can students expect to learn in your class?
Whenever I lead a class, I just want students to leave with something new or something they hadn’t thought about going in. I liked to do a lot of in-class writing as a student, and as an instructor, my Writing Pad classes will probably follow suit. As a writer, challenging your narrative comfort zone is essential, and while you can always return there, it doesn’t hurt to return wiser. I’m looking forward to seeing what the students unlock in themselves.
By Lauren E. Smith
Breaking into the business of TV Writing is difficult but not impossible. Drama Scribe Pat Charles can help you create the most important item in gaining entrance into that world – A great spec pilot. Pat has produced and written for the hit series Bones on FOX, FX’s Sons of Anarchy and ABC’s Resurrection. Pat was also accepted into the prestigious ABC/ Disney Television Fellowship in 2008 as well as several other screenwriting fellowships. To date he has sold original cable pilots to HBO and Showtime where he is currently developing. Be on the lookout for his brand new show, The Right Mistake, a drama series that’s being produced by Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Prods and Fox.
What does it take to craft a solid pilot that’s irresistible to viewers and executives? We were lucky enough to sit down with the writer in advance of his class, From Network to Cable: Writing The TV Drama Pilot, (5 Wk) starting March 25th.
1) How did you make your debut into television writing?
I had a Soprano spec and an original that were both well received by friends who were also aspiring screenwriters. I entered a lot of contests and those samples came to the attention of people in the industry. Those specs got passed around by several studio, network and production executives, which got me a lot of meetings and resulted in my first job.
2) You were a Disney ABC Television Fellow. What shows did you spec for your application and what was the fellowship process like?
I had a House spec and an original. There were several interviews and networking functions where the execs got to see you interact with people in different settings. I was only in the fellowship for a short time because I got my first offer as a staff writer two months after starting the fellowship. My situation was a bit different in that I got staffed on Sons of Anarchy, which was an FX show two months after entering the fellowship. My understanding is that the fellows that get staffed now can only work on ABC shows while they’re in the fellowship.
3) How did the job on Sons of Anarchy come about and what was it like working on that show?
An executive – I’m still not sure who – passed my specs to the Showrunner and the EP of SOA and they read it and responded to it. They brought me in for an interview and I spoke about the type of stories I liked to tell. They thought I was a good match for them and they offered me the job.
4) Selling a pilot is hard, let alone selling one to prestigious networks like HBO and Showtime. What advice can you give aspiring writers who are ready to pitch?
Find a story that you’re really passionate about and make sure you know that world and the characters in that world inside and out. You need to be able to be able to paint a vivid picture of your characters, the season arcs and the world where your show occurs.
5) How do you come up with ideas?
I read voraciously – newspapers, books, magazines – and I try to meet and talk to a lot of different people. You never know where a great story is going to come from.
6) You’ve written for Cable and Network. What are some of the differences you’ve experienced?
On cable shows you obviously have more freedom to push the envelope and tell a wider variety of stories while the networks often have to crank out so many episodes that you often need a procedural engine to generate many stores in a short amount of time.
7) You’re a Dad now. How do you balance being a father and a successful TV Writer?
With the help of a very understanding wife. It’s difficult but you find a way to make time for the things that are important.
8) Drama seems to be really popular now, by viewers and writers alike. Why do you think so and why did you select the Drama route?
I think it goes in cycles and I believe that in a few years comedies will be popular again. I’ve just always preferred drama to comedy. It was just a personal preference.
9) What are the essential ingredients that Dramas need to make it an engaging, binge-worthy show?
Compelling characters in interesting situations.
10) You were a producer on Bones. What are some of the differences between being a staff writer and a writer with producing responsibilities? Which do you prefer?
Producer levels writers are usually expected to be more involved in the actual producing of a show in terms of casting, addressing notes from the studio and network, overseeing the shooting of their episodes and editing. It’s different from show to show but in short as you get to the producer level you’re responsible not only for delivering a good script but for helping that script become a solid episode.
11) What are you currently working on? What’s in store for you next?
I’m working on a pilot for Showtime, a feature for a small production company, a spec feature and a spec pilot.
12) What can students expect to learn in your class?
I hope that the students will get an understanding of how to craft a solid story with compelling characters.
We can’t wait to binge watch your new show, Pat! Inspired to develop the next hit drama? Look no further and take Pat’s upcoming class, From Network to Cable: Writing The TV Drama Pilot, (5 Wk) starting March 25th.
By Lauren E. Smith
Emily Cunningham is a rising star in the highly competitive world of literary publishing. As an Associate Editor at Harper, she’s worked with an impressive slew of political heavyweights including Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. Her focus is narrative nonfiction with an eye to biography, history and memoir. Most recently, she’s assisted with forthcoming titles “Terms of Service” by Jacob Silverman and “Forgotten” by Linda Hervieux. Both books will be released later this year.
Emily was kind enough to give us a peek into the New York Publishing world, along with what’s to come in her online “Book Proposal Workshop,” (7 Wk) starting March 3rd that will help you craft a book proposal that stands out and sells your book in the best possible light.
1) Tell us a little about your career path. How did you become an editor at Harper Collins and what drew you to this career?
I was a reader and lover of books and writing from an early age. I went on to major in English in college and always knew that my future career would involve literary pursuits in some way. I was interested in journalism but ultimately decided to give book publishing a try. I attended the Columbia Publishing Course (a summer program for college graduates looking to break into publishing) and got my first job at Grove/Atlantic, another excellent publishing house. An opportunity for advancement came along from Harper and I grabbed it!
2) The market is competitive. What makes a book stand out as something that is worth publishing?
A book’s viability comes down to some combination of: Is the idea behind the book new and does it reframe the discussion in some way? Is the author already well-known—does he have a built-in audience that we can count on to buy the book? And last but of course not least: What is the quality of the writing? All of these factors and more play into the acquisitions conversation.
3) What kinds of stories/books are hot on the market right now?
It’s always changing. In the past five years or so there have been a lot of pop science books about human behavior and how the brain works—books like Thinking Fast and Slow and titles by Dan Ariely. These are a sort of cousin of books like Freakonomics and The Tipping Point which have presented a new way to apply social science to everyday life or pursuits. All of these books, and many in the same vein, have been tremendously successful and well-received from a critical standpoint.
4) Can you walk us through the decision process of a book that goes from a submitted manuscript to a best-selling memoir?
The first step is the editor falling in love with something she reads on submission. After she and her colleagues (led by her publisher) make a decision to acquire it, the editor and author work together to refine the manuscript into the best possible version. Sometimes this takes many months, even years! Once the manuscript is finished, though, the many other departments that make up a publishing house—marketing, publicity, sales, cover design, subsidiary rights, and production—all come together to push the book out into the world. Each person has their part to play: getting the cover design exactly right, pitching the book to booksellers (who hopefully fall in love with it), and building a publicity campaign. The editor is the liaison between the author and all of these efforts—really the in-house cheerleader for the book.
5) It seems you’ve primarily stuck to nonfiction, do you see yourself making the jump to another genre?
My list is actually split roughly down the middle between fiction and nonfiction. I love fiction and, like many other editors, thought when I got into publishing that that’s what I’d work on. But I have really gained an appreciation for nonfiction, both as an editor and as a reader outside of the office, since I’ve started my career.
6) How has the evolution of Amazon shopping and Kindle purchases affected the publishing world?
The answer is both “a lot” and “a little.” Obviously the advent of the e-book was a huge change for publishing. There was a lot of panic in the industry in the early days that the print book would be lost and everyone would stop reading. That panic has subsided as everyone has realized what an asset the e-book is for the publishing industry. Many readers love the ease and convenience of reading on a device, and they love that they can think of a book and start reading it a few minutes later after ordering the e-book. In truth, e-books have brought many people into, or back to, reading, and that can only be a good thing for publishing. Ultimately, it’s the editor’s job to help make the book the best it can be, and publish it the best way possible, and those goals are the same regardless of what format readers are using.
7) What makes a pitch perfect book proposal?
An excellent book proposal is clearly and engagingly written and includes a good amount of sample material (at least one chapter) so that readers can get a strong sense of the author’s writing style. A good proposal also explains the market for the book and how it compares to other, similar titles. (If an author discovers that there are already a lot of books on the exact topic he wants to explore, that can be a red flag.) It’s helpful when a book proposal includes a tentative table of contents, and perhaps chapter-by-chapter summaries, so that the editor can see how the structure of the book will unfold. Lastly, a good proposal includes the author’s credentials—both his background and his qualifications for writing the book.
8) What new Harper Collins nonfiction titles can we look forward to getting our hands on in 2015?
I like the question! Two books I am particularly excited about are Jacob Silverman’s Terms of Service (on sale in March), a book about social media and digital culture. A completely different but no less exciting project is Linda Hervieux’s Forgotten (on sale in November), the story of the only all-black combat unit to serve at D-Day; it’s a powerful account of how the battles fought at home, against the deeply-engrained racism of the U.S. military, were equally intense as those fought in uniform on foreign soil.
9) What is the most important piece of advice that an editor will never give you?
Be nice to your editor! She is the one charged with rallying the troops at the publishing house in support of you and your book.
You don’t have to be a New York local to get schooled in publishing by Emily! Take advantage of her online “Book Proposal Workshop,” (7 Wk) starting March 3rd.
By Lauren E. Smith
From top blog to book deal, writer, storyteller, and producer Jessie Rosen has taken Hollywood by storm with her bold and charismatic stories. Jessie’s blog, 20-Nothings.com, was named a Top 25 Blog by TIME magazine and among the Top 100 Websites for Women as well as Top 10 Websites for Millennials by Forbes in 2013 and selected by Jane Pratt’s xojane.com as one of SAY MEDIA’s supported portals. Since launching her award-winning blog, Jessie has conquered just about every genre in the biz. She has published essays and articles in E! Online, Marie Claire, AOL and The Daily Beast. She recently sold a YA novel to James Frey’s publishing company, Full Fathom Five. Additionally, her “no-boys allowed” Sunday Night Sex Talks storytelling series has become a nationwide guilty pleasure.
We were thrilled when Jessie took a break from blogging to share how she survived “the most significant, least important decade of her life” and how she plans to use these experiences to teach her upcoming classes: So You Want To Be A Writer, (4 Wk) starting March 7th and So You Want To Be A Blogger, on March 14th.
1) How and when did you make your debut into writing?
I technically made my debut into writing as a senior at Boston College. I had an incredibly supportive journalism professor who encouraged me to submit assignments to a few local publications where he had contacts. But the real start of finding my voice and developing my own style was my blog, 20-Nothings.com, that I launched in 2007. That’s when I started writing every single day. From the blog I was approached by places like Aol, Marie Claire and The Daily Beast to contribute pieces. Today, I maintain the blog but have made another debut into writing for film and television. That began after a friend in New York recommended I submit a one-act play to a festival in Manhattan. From there my love of writing in that format was born, and TV/film followed shortly.
2) You’ve written across several mediums. Do you find it challenging to switch hats? Have you found a common thread between styles?
My love is writing for stage/screen, so I do find it hard to slip into straight prose only because I miss the dialogue heavy format. As a result I was told to write very dialogue-heavy prose! But the real challenge for me is slipping between drama and comedy. I’ve been doing more and more of that now that I’m working on a dramatic novel. I find it takes me a beat to lighten my tone and mood or weigh is down if I’m starting from comedy and slipping back into drama. It just takes practice.
3) How did the Sunday Night Sex Talks storytelling series evolve?
The storytelling show started because I was looking for a way to become more part of the community here in L.A. I moved here in 2010 and realized quickly that so much of career development is about the development of friendships and contacts, so I wanted to find a way to cultivate that in a fun, dynamic environment where I could also challenge myself. I have always been a huge fan of storytelling, so the idea for Sunday Night Sex Talks developed out of a combination of that AND a really funny, real-life sex talks night that my girlfriends and I would organize in college. Luckily Bar Lubitsch was willing to try it out, and now three years later we’re sold out every month!
4) Last week you held the first co-ed Sunday Night Sex Talks, how did that go? Will you ever do it again?
We are already scheduled for another co-ed sex talks at UCB on March 31st! I’m staying loyal to the girl’s only events in addition to this co-ed shows, but it is really interesting to see how the show shifts from a no-boys crowd to a co-ed group. I love the opportunity to have both.
5) You recently sold the YA novel, “Full Fathom Five,” to James Frey’s publishing company. Tell us how you did that and what your book is about.
The book is a twisty revenge tale about a mysterious death at a high school. I like to think of it like GONE GIRL meets PRETTY LITTLE LIARS. I sold the book off a proposal and outline that I worked on with my manager and book agent. The whole process began because my manager felt I could expand my writing into books and challenged me to try out a new genre and new voice. Apparently she was right!
6) You’ve been blogging since 2007. Has anything changed since then that has made blogging more difficult? Easier?
I think blogging is more difficult now because the landscape is busier. People spend less time really reading long articles online and are more interested in the Tumblr or, even shorter, Instagram-style content. For me that means diversifying what I write in terms of length and format so I can meet the reader with the amount of time they have to spend reading.
7) You blog at least twice a week. What makes a compelling post and how do you keep your page fresh for readers?
For me, compelling is always about personal content. I write a lot about what it’s like to be a newly married person struggling to build a career in a difficult industry, and I try to be as honest as possible about that experience. I also think compelling posts have easy-to-digest topics like “Why I Didn’t Change My Name” or “5 Ways to Give Yourself Fake Confidence.”
8) You’re making a transition into television and film writing. What’s next for you in that world? What television shows and films do you look to for inspiration?
I’m working on a number of pitches now that are both based on content that I’ve developed personally and content out there in the world such as other book properties available for development. I watch a LOT of television, so I’m always looking to see how stories are being told in different ways – for example Black Mirror which is a sort of updated Twilight Zone style – or stories being told in traditional ways but with great, great twists – for example The Good Wife which is a traditional procedural show done incredibly well.
9) Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
WRITE. Write as often as you can and for as long as you can tolerate. Do not focus on making it perfect or making it marketable at first. I think so much of writing is about finding voice, and you cannot find your voice unless you’re committing a lot of time to getting words on the page (or screen) and figuring out how you sound best.
10) What can students expect to learn in your creative writing class at Writing Pad?
At the beginning of my class I explain to my students that we’re going to cover how to write AND how to be a writer. Those are two different things, but they’re equally important. The first is about getting comfortable with writing dialogue, developing a strong ability to show vs. tell, finding ways to create interesting plots and characters, etc. But becoming a writer is a different game all-together. It’s about confidence, persistence, desire, and overcoming fear, frustration and negativity. That’s my favorite thing to teach.
By Marilyn Friedman
Thank you to those of you posted for our Writing Pad Valentine’s Day Contest. We received so many hysterical entries that the choice was hard, but after much deliberation, we selected the winner, Phil Krampf! Phil won a free 1-day class of his choice. Below is his response to the question “What was your worst Valentine’s Day Disaster?”
Phil is a comedy writer who is working on a close-to-final draft of a Rom-Com. His favorite, and only, place to write is in the room behind him in the picture, where he tends to act out scenes and loudly re-do dialogue, so there’s literally no place like home.