Lamar Giles
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For Writers: What you can learn from the MAD MEN

Courtesy of USAToday

Last night I caught INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO and the special guests were the talented creator and actors behind one of TVs most popular series, MAD MEN. If you aren’t familiar with the 1960s period drama about an advertising executive who is a portrait of duality, no worries, this lesson won’t be lost on you.

Towards the end of the episode, during Q&A, a drama student recounted her experiences in amateur productions, explaining how invaluable she found the weeks and weeks of rehearsals her troupe participated in before a performance. She asked how much rehearsal time the MAD MEN cast had before they shot their scenes. The answer shocked her and most of the audience.

There were no rehearsals on the MAD MEN set.

Jon Hamm, the show’s star, explained that they participated in a weekly table read (think middle/high school English class, where everyone takes a role and reads Shakespeare aloud from their desks), then the next time they got to practice was during the lighting set up right before they shot. No true rehearsal, just a chance to familiarize oneself with the material, then go home and make sure you knew your #&$* before the cameras rolled.

As important as that fact is, it pales to the reasoning behind it. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, explained that every minute they’re on set costs money, so there’s no time to waste. Although he pointed out that if a guest actor doesn’t know their lines, he will fire them (at costs of up to 100,000 dollars for the time it takes to replace them and reshoot) because unprepared people cost more in the long run.

Consider that. The amateur actor (that’s not meant as a dig, just pointing out that the student who asked the question is not yet a professional) admitted that extensive rehearsals increased her comfort. The pros let her know that they don’t get that luxury. Yet, MAD MEN is one of the most critically acclaimed, award-snatching shows on television. A lot of that has to do with stellar scripts, but without talented (and prepared) people to do the work on a tight schedule, the scripts wouldn’t mean a whole lot.

How’s this relate to you, dear writer? After all, you won’t be dressing up in a retro suit and pitching ads for LIFE cereal and Vick’s Cough Syrup. You’re not performing.

That’s where you’d be wrong. You’re not an actor, but your profession requires that you perform on demand. Or, it will. When you crossover from amateur to pro. Think about it. Deadlines. Proposals. If you want to be a book-a-year writer, then you have to be prepared to write fast, fast, fast.

You have all the time in the world to write book 1, your baby, that masterpiece your Muse faxed you from Heaven. As soon as you sell it to Massive Publishing House X, you’ve got people to answer to. Deadlines to hit. It’s a role you better damn well know.

If not, you will be replaced. It will cost them less in the long run.

But, if you can manage to do the job in the time allotted, not second guessing, and trusting that preparation is better than comfort, then who knows…maybe when they come up with INSIDE THE WRITER’S STUDIO*, you’ll be able to shock a few amateurs with what you’ve accomplished.

*Yes, I’ve fantasized about it. And yes, I’m the first guest. ;)

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What you can learn from Sam Jackson (other than cool ways to say f***)

courtesy of IMDB.com

I just read this incredible NY Times article on Samuel L. Jackson and felt the need to wax philosophical on the benefits of preparation.

It was a quote by director William Friedkind (Rules of Engagement) that stood out to me initially (a lot in the article stands out and I could base a series of posts on the phenomenal actor’s life, but for now…), “Sam is a director’s dream. Some actors hope to find their character during shooting. He knows his character before shooting. Sam’s old-school. I just got out of his way. I never did more than two takes with Sam.”

I put the emphasis on ‘before’. For a reason.

For Spring 2012, Jeremy Lin has been the international poster boy for ‘readiness’, the idea of maximizing a singular opportunity even when you’re at the low point of your career. It’s a great in-the-moment story, but it remains to be seen if we’ll be discussing Jeremy in the same breath as the greats (or even next year).

Sam Jackson’s longevity stretches back 40 years. HE DIDN’T GET HIS BIG BREAK UNTIL 1994! But he’s maintained the same level of preparation and professionalism through feast AND famine. Let’s be real…the last 2 decades have been a fantastic feast for him. He averages 4 movies and 300K in residuals per year, he’s the highest grossing actor in history, this guy could phone it in for the rest of his life and still be a BAMF (go to any crowded theater/fanboy flick and anticipate cheers if he should pop up…it happens every time).

My point: this isn’t a guy who shows up on set hungover, with an assistant making up cue cards because he doesn’t know his lines. He could. But he doesn’t. He’s still treating the work like he’s struggling, like he’s not the most memorable character from Pulp Fiction, or Mace Windu, or effing Nick Fury.

After all his massive success, he’s still ready BEFORE.

Are you?

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Quick Q&A with Brandon Massey

I’m starting something new here on the blog. I’m reaching out to my favorite authors, authors I’ve just discovered, and any author in between to participate in a quick Q&A session just for the hell of it…

I LOVE talking shop with anyone who’s willing to listen (most of the time that’s other writers) and I know there are people who like to know more about the process from the inside.

I hope to feature a different author AT LEAST twice a month. Most of the writers I’ve met are gracious, open people who like exploring new forums. Maybe over time, this can become a favorite hang out for notable wordsmiths. The literary version of Inside the Actors Studio.

Without further delay, our first author, Brandon Massey

Brandon is the author of a dozen acclaimed novels. His latest, COVENANT, is a real thrill ride, as I’ve stated before.

LRG: A lot of writers have a goal of getting published. Beyond that they tend to target sustainability. I would say you’ve accomplished both, so what sort of goals do you set for yourself now?

BM: My primary goal these days is keep growing as a writer, and for me, that means writing pretty much every day, reading constantly, and seeking out new life experiences and insights.  That last point is especially important. I’ve found that I get my best ideas by ripping a cloth from something that I’ve personally experienced or have some knowledge of, and using that as the basis for a story.

LRG: What has been your greatest accomplishment during your time in the publishing world? What about your biggest disappointment?

BM: Probably my greatest accomplishment is that, for the most part, I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to write, and I’ve managed to find an audience for my stories.  That is extremely gratifying.  I’ve never paid much attention to following the fads.  I write the kind of stories that I’d like to read, and fortunately, a number of people other than myself enjoy them, too.

Biggest disappointment?  Definitely realizing that traditional publishing is basically like gambling.  Talent and hard work has very little to do with success in that realm.  It’s all about the numbers and someone’s subjective (and unproven) opinions of what’s worth publishing.

LRG: eBooks and Independent Publishing…a lot of people make it seem like we’re living in the Publishing End Times. What’s your take?

BM: I don’t think the so-called Big Six Publishers are going anywhere.  I think they will adapt to the new delivery models.  Furthermore, so long as there are writers who want to be taken care of, who want to avoid the business aspects of publishing, traditional publishers will always have a crop of writers from which to pick.

With that said, I do think you’ll see independent authors continuing to carve out a niche for themselves, simply because the channels have been opened.  A few will earn fortunes, a number will earn a good living, and still more will make “hobby money.”

The most gratifying thing of all?  Writers finally have options now.

LRG: You fall through a time warp and land at the feet of a younger version of yourself as they type “The End” on the first novel they/you will ever publish. What would you say?

BM: Start on the next book. Immediately.  Don’t get hung up on one project.  Keep moving and building momentum.

Brandon, thanks for stopping by and giving us a little insight into what you do.

Remember everyone, COVENANT, is the new novel and you NEED to add it to your collection. It’s available in paperback and on your favorite eReader.

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Know the business…

I wanted to write something fun this week, but a more serious topic presented itself.

An author friend of a friend just had their book “accepted” by a “notable publisher”, but in order for them to move forward with  the contract and have their book published, the author must come up with…wait for it…THIRTY THOUSAND DOLLARS by the end of the month. The author reached out to her contacts (one of which is a buddy of mine) soliciting donations to make her dream come true.

So, you’re probably wondering why I’m not naming this “publisher”. There’s a couple of reasons.:

1) What they’re doing isn’t illegal (but it should be) –  Though they actually call themselves “Co-Publishers”, they openly admit to being a vanity press on their website, and as part of that admission they come right out and say you’ll have to pay if your book is “accepted”. So, no lies are being told.

2) If I have to call my lawyer, I better be having as much fun as Charlie Sheen - I don’t know if I’d be crossing any legal lines if I actually called the publisher out here. And I don’t want to find out, so I’m staying mum on names. That silence, however, brings me to the point of the post.

Writers…guys…you gotta listen when I say this. LEARN THIS BUSINESS. I know what it’s like to want to see your words in print, and I know how good it feels when someone who’s supposedly legit says you’ve got what it takes, but you gotta use common sense. In what world does a 30K Publishing contract that has THE WRITER PAYING THE PUBLISHER make sense?

Money should go TO the writer.

If you plan to pay (and there’s nothing wrong with that…particularly in the changing publishing climate) understand that you can publish your book for a hell of a lot less than 30 Grand.

Do your research, and don’t get all googly eyed at the first company that manages to slip the word “bestseller” on their home page. A good place to do your homework and filter out the scams is Preditors & Editors. Remember, no one cares more about your career or well being than you. Act like it.

This has been a PSA from your Friendly Neighborhood Writer-Man.

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Writer Secret #4,282: It’s never NOT hard

You ever see one of those masked magician shows? You know, where the guy tells you how magic tricks really work at the risk of being blackballed by other magicians across the globe (sidenote: being blackballed by these guys would seem much scarier if they were more like Voldemort and less like Penn and Teller…anyhow). Today, that’s me. I’m going to dispel some of the myths and murmurs I’ve heard over the years relating to what writing is and what writers do. Without a mask. Because I’m fearless.

In this edition, I want to talk about the idea that it’s just easy for (some) writers to knock off story after story like they’re a print factory (Cough-STEPHEN KING-Cough). Obviously, when it comes to personal experience I can only speak for myself, but I know enough writers, and have read enough about writers by writers to infer that what I’m about to share with you is pretty universal.

If there is a such thing as a muse, she’s a lazy $&#^*. She’s the equivalent of those people who find out you’re a writer and say stuff like, “I’ve got this great idea. [they tell you their idea and it isn’t great at all]. You can write it, then WE can sell it and get rich. Just promise not to steal it.”

Oh, I promise, and my word is ironclad.

Anyway, the idea may come in a flash. In its skeletal form it might be the right mix of suspense, and comedy, and have a dog in it. That’s the fun part, the dreaming it up.

Getting it on paper legibly, with the words in the right order is another story all together.

You have to do the work (I’m in the midst of an anxiety filled revision at this very moment), and there will be times where it’s tempting to just do something less strenuous. But, the sense of fulfillment when you finish…the knowledge that someone may read what you slaved over and enjoy it…dulls the birthing pains.

It’s never NOT hard, folks. But it is worth it.

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Whose villain are you?

We all like to believe ourselves the hero of our own life story. But, we’re less eager to consider that we are the villain in someone else’s…

However, if we can take a moment to think back on the less-than-savory exploits of our own past, we might find story telling gold.

It’s not an easy thing to do, to look in the mirror and see things as they really are, not as we wish they were. I don’t know if anyone ever does it successfully, but it’s the ugly moments that are most real, and if you can wring them for all they’re worth you can create real characters.

Real heroes (based on you).

Real villains (based on you).

Think about it. I’ll discuss this in a bit more detail next post…

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