Publishing is a storytelling medium I can happily swim in without feeling disoriented or overwhelmed. I have to remind myself it wasn’t always so. I have to remind myself that there was a time when I constantly needed bearing checks and a lighthouse to avoid the shoals.
The Hollywilds can feel like choppy waters, turbulent and chilly one moment, then warm and calm the next. The only orientation I have in learning not just a new medium of storytelling, but understanding an entertainment industry in the middle of its own structural upheaval and transformation is to look for the lighthouses.
Coming from publishing to screen is not a one-for-one match, of course. But it’s a lot closer than many other fields. Having a financial background and project management/business development backgrounds helps immensely. I’ll say boldly, that those backgrounds probably help more in the conversion to entertainment than any other creative experience I have. It also makes the case for diversifying skill-sets, and for having another form of employment or income that allows my creative side to breathe freely without being beholden to the whims or fickleness of others’ “creative” expectations—which are almost always financially incentivized… and not to my benefit.
When asked what I would do differently? I don’t know. I only know what’s working or not—and that will be different for everyone based on their skill-sets, desires, processes and willingness to grit (more on this in a minute). All I know for me is that the traditional pathways that I keep getting coached toward, by the most well-meaning and wonderful people, don’t actually work for me as an artist or an individual. “This is the way it’s always been done. These are the things you have to do.”
That doesn’t seem to roll in my favor, and from the looks of it—not much in anyone else’s favor either most of the time.
I’m not special. I have no delusions of being important. But I will say, The Pillars of Dawn is not a common size or proportion to what usually fits in those “always how it’s done” models. It’s a full storyverse. A galaxy of interconnected stories.
I can’t even tell you how many “what the fuck is this?” statements I’ve heard from middle-men. Or how many times I’ve been coached to make it smaller, easier, “dumb it down or the executives will be confused and pass.”
Yet, the first two studios we tried both seemed to spot it right away and are kindly reviewing it as a full scale Storyverse. I was asked to put the slides back in the deck that explained the original intent of the scale, and resubmit for review. My heart might just explode with happiness. All I wanted was for it to be considered in its fullness. It can be chopped up and meat-balled after that, because I understand full well that the production restrictions of film are real and resources are finite.
In publishing, I have carte blanche with budget. I can imagine or build or synthesize anything with raw, uncontained language. Words don’t have limits. The mind lives eternally in its capacity to dream ever-bigger.
Hollywild budgets have limits. Thus, while I adore that the scope is under consideration—I’m realistic enough to understand the probabilities. Don’t mind me while I soak it in for a minute, though.
There are tried-and-true paths for other creators. Somehow, my feet never found those. Maybe I pushed too hard to keep my independence. When my author friends were signing agents fifteen years ago, and landing publishing deals with the big houses—I refused to make the core changes that were required to move to an agency. (Take a male pen name, or a gender-neutral name or write other people’s projects, re-write Murder of Crows from Liam’s male point of view, etc.)
I declined two large publishing contracts because I refused to change the Avians to vampires, turn the Muses into men, or “add a magical school” to the core storyline. (If you read Sinnet of Dragons, you’ll know what I did there in a bit of a frustrated “kiss my ass”.)
While my friends were selling thousands of books and gathering thousands of reviews and quitting their day jobs—I was doubling down on a Kickstarter to self-publish and launch a publishing label, while working a corporate gig.
Don’t get me wrong. I tried to give up so many times. SO MANY TIMES. I might still give up. We’ll see. If there’s a coffee shortage, like, ever—I will just fucking quit at everything.
In the meantime, coffee and keep trying. Keep pushing. Keep annoying people by showing up. Keep irritating the way it’s always been done. Keep pulling on the loose strings. Keep whittling the knot in the wood.
Look for the lighthouses, avoid the shoals.
Here’s where the willingness to grit part comes in. Part A is knowing what kind of artist you are, or want to be. What do you need to feel fulfilled? There’s no right or wrong answer to this. IT’s YOUR WORK. YOUR LIFE. Do what fits you.
If you’re the artist who wants to meet a metric, make a paycheck, handoff to let others run the ball while you release creative strings and control. I recommend finding someone, a team even, who will set you up for the life of “handoff + paycheck”. Cool beans! Do that. Find your peeps. I’m learning the middle-men in the Hollywild love those types of writers and even expect it. If being fulfilled means hands OFF. Then you’ve got it made!
If you’re the “other kind”, well, then. You might be in for some grit work. Don’t panic. It’s going to be okay.
Look for the lighthouses, avoid the shoals.
Novelists are frowned upon by many (not all) of the middle-folk of this industry. The teacher in my showrunner course didn’t know I was a novelist and spent half an hour ranting about how novelists “think they’re writers but they aren’t. They don’t even know storytelling, and if you get stuck with a novelist for an adaptation, be prepared to have to handhold and placate in order to take their work and make it better.” Then he lamented no one wants to do adaptations because the writer’s original vision is so lame, and “his author” had only sold 40 million copies so wasn’t even one of those writers you should have to care about their opinions—not like George R. R. Martin or anyone valuable.
No need to take my word for what he said in his rant. You can purchase the class and download it for yourself—IT WAS FUCKING RECORDED and resold as a class.
Avoid the shoals.
If it had been a one-off, that would have been it, but over the last two years there have been multiple instances where similar statements have been made. Ladies, I hate to say this in writing—but every single similar statement that was uttered was made by a dude. Every. Single. One. Still, there are many wonderful male allies in the field. Don’t lose faith. They are here and ready to collaborate.
So, the data is out on whether it’s a dismissal of novelists in general—OR a male dismissal of female voices. Will get back to you on that one.
The point is that when you come in as a novelist there will be bias, and not in your favor when it comes to middle-folk, gatekeepers, and often the producers. And there will be yet more bias if you’re a female novelist.
Look for the lighthouses.
HOWEVER, not all hope is lost. One hundred percent of the time, my involvement with adaptation and my grasp on the source material has been a boost to the performer's interest and engagement. All interactions in person and via email thus far with performers have netted a surprising response, “If you’re going to be involved or be a producer and stay close to what you’ve written in the books—I’m in.” I did not see that coming. What a lovely surprise, especially after smashing my face against the other wall so often that my nose gets bloody whenever I even think of having to email a gatekeeper.
Male, female, non-binary performers have unanimously been encouraging, helpful, and interested in me remaining involved. This is both flattering and worrisome. Because I don’t know how much I’ll be allowed to be involved once I part with the options. So, my concern is that a few will drop out if I stop participating—and I really like them as people and as performers. The Pillars of Dawn won’t be the same without them.
The lighthouse here is that there is no apparent bias from performers regarding gender or storytelling format. HORRAY!
Willingness to grit is still sending those emails. It’s still bird-dogging the potentials. It’s still following up with the people who have already determined you to be low value, amateur, undeserving, or false. Worse, they have already decided you can’t script because you’re a novelist—or that the work you’ve submitted is too “something else that’s not quite right”.
Was the formatting wrong? “No, there were no errors. It’s perfectly clean.” (I had help!)
Was the method incorrect? “No, it’s exactly in line with method.”
What’s the problem? “Well, it’s not a shooting script, it’s a concept script. It’s just that it reads different from expected.”
Did I screw up the story? “No! The story is great. Concept good. Dialogue okay. I mean, the dialog could use some tweaking…”
Cool. I can do that. Is there something really wrong with it? “Well, it’s just going to be expensive. So expensive.”
So, it’s not the novelist thing—it’s the cost. “Exactly.”
Ah. More gritting, then.
Willingness to grit is annoying your agent when you know she’s busy. Willingness to grit is going back to those banks and making a case. Willingness to grit is taking out high interest credit to hire pros. Willingness to grit is clinging to your vision as long as you can. Willingness to grit is studying the aforementioned “ways it’s always been done” then finding enough of the similar ground you can live with that’s not a catastrophic compromise and blending it into the work so the “respect” has been paid, and the conversation can move on and the “stodgy old crabs” can feel like you at least earned the right to speak two sentences in their room. (Don’t worry, you can remove those pieces of the changes later, after their flinchy hackles have gone down. )
Willingness to grit is adding yourself back to the emails after a man has consistently removed you from the conversation. Willingness to grit is speaking up when the male producer in the room has asked you to be quiet so he can sell the concept, because “you don’t know how to sell yourself.” When really, he means, “I want to be lead and get the credit for X,Y, Z—before you open your mouth and contradict my plans for controlling your work.”
Willingness to grit is KNOWING that obstacles are present in many forms—and still finding a safe, comfortable, healthy way to navigate around, over, through, across, or under them to get to where you want to be.
Willingness to grit is also having a bingo-point in the back of your brain. That number or metric or moment at which you have already decided to pull the plug because the cost of being actively inhibited by a system or “collaborators” is financially, emotionally, or mentally detrimental or cost prohibitive.
Willingness to grit ends the moment I know without a doubt, there is no future for my work to be made to story-spec and with love in an industry that has no room or appreciation for the process or for me as an artist. That’s okay. I’ve got books to write.
Then bounce. Just peace out, knowing and believing no stone was unturned, no door left untried. Pack up and go live life—back in the woods, writing my novels, and discovering new creators to publish through the label.
Either way, life is good.
The most brilliant gift I can give myself as an artist is to work only with those people who can see me, the work, the vision. And if that’s not in Hollywood, that’s okay. It’s not going to stop me from creating, or writing, building a publish world or engaging with interested parties down the road.
The lighthouses are there to keep you from wrecking on the reef. Orient to the lighthouses until you’re safely in port—even if that port is back home where you started—no deal in hand.
Life is short. Go build something.
Best question ever from longtime friend and reader, Sharon. “If you had known the absolute mess you were getting yourself into at the beginning of this journey, would you have gone down this path?”
“Oh, good question! I don’t know. There are so many other rewarding aspects, I want to say yes.... but I would have prepared differently, and stocked up on more alcohol.”
The really funny part is that 2 years ago when I first decided to do this, Mark had asked me to write down my goals so he could help me stay on target. “Pick one that’s really out there, so you can surprise yourself or have something to reach for.”
It took two years, but we landed at that goal at the end of 2023. What happens next is anyone’s guess. I didn’t plan that far out.
I just wanted the full Storyverse for The Life Erotic, and The Pillars of Dawn to be considered for build out. The Life Erotic is smaller, more nimble and easier to move around, easier to place (I mean, aside from the sexy content issues.)
But POD… POD is a behemoth of a storyverse. It’s… massive, complex and cumbersome. It’s not a small world. Mark did his level best to help me trim it down, streamline it, make is smaller and more packageable. God bless him. More fruit baskets for Mark!
The truth is the POD storyverse was never made to be small or agile, nimble or easy to move. We always knew it would take a very specific kind of visionary studio and production team to see the POD Storyverse for what it is, and in a perfect world, they would want to play in it.
I get to play in it every day, so, I wasn’t worried about it. Not really. I mean. Okay. Maybe I was a little worried. One of my early conversations with him in the adaptation was, “I don’t know where to start—there’s so much story I can’t see the forest for the trees. It’s three worlds, ten primary characters, all their cohorts, 36 secondary characters and all the subplots, timelines, and like 172 ancillary characters, plus all the lore, histories, worldbuilding documents, pre-story prep and engines, woven throughout the Mandalic Story Structure. It’s a full Universe.”
He gave me some exercises to help me focus on which parts were the most important, and which parts to exclude because, “execs don’t care about that shit.”
Ah. Great way to start. No one cares about the 43 chapters of LORE?? Good to know.
It’s twenty years’ worth of build, some still in totes and stored on hard drives. My big stretch-goal, the pie in the sky wish, was to just have it considered as a whole universe at least once before allowing it to be chopped up and sold for parts.
The mini-version we built was still immensely satisfying and checked all the boxes for me to feel artistically contented. If we sell that smaller, compact version—I will still be greatly relieved and deeply humbled to be able to send POD out to a larger audience. However, there’s still that knowledge in the back of my mind that POD was designed to be so much more. It was made to be expansive enough to live within for a decade or more of mined material, and all the scoped transmedia materials to match. It was made to compete as an entertainment universe.
Again, not worried. Well… maybe a little.
Between the last two years of learning ropes and picking up the processes, I’ve pushed myself to learn how THEY do it. What is their process? What is their model? Which PMP steps are they most reliant on? And so forth. Workshops, classes, paid coaching, tutorials, private consults, books, pitch practices and more so I could at least sort of understand what was being talked about in the meetings I’m sitting in regarding my material.
Cross-train as much as possible, always. I will always advocate for this. If you’re a creative—learn other creative methods and mediums, so when you can see a gap or an opening, you can hold up the beam and buy some time for a bridge to be built. Also, in this case, I took a showrunning course so I would know how to be a better partner, supporter, and collaborator with the showrunners. That’s just courtesy. It’s on my end to make that stretch, not theirs. (Emmy winner, Gregori Martin, is the showrunner for TLE, and he's marvelous! We don't have a showrunner yet for POD, but I have high hopes!)
They will have their hands full learning a new universe and managing teams. It’s not their job to come to me. It’s my job to go to them, and to help hold up the tent while they take in the volume of the build and get oriented. (I built it, so I already know where everything is, and where all the bodies are buried.)
I’m excited to know what happens next! Curiosity is mixed with glowing humility and a warm tingling bubble of creativity I’m trying desperately to keep in check. It’s like the volcanic center that keeps my creative pilot light on just KNOWS bigger, more expansive space is about to open up for the next layer of creation and my engine is SO READY TO BUILD BIGGER! It takes effort to keep the build contained for the moment.
It’s work every day to find things for my brain to focus on so I don’t run ahead and keep ripping the trail. Wait. Wait for the cue to cut more trail, Athena. Wait for the next okay to build out, up, and across the chasm. It’s coming.
I have to remind myself I will get to build more—but for now, there’s some waiting that needs to happen. In the meantime, I can get back to my books and clear out some of those totes.
Do I hope to bring all that world and story to new audiences? Totally.
Do I hope they’ll have as much fun with it as I do? Absolutely.
Would I have planned better if I’d known what I was walking into two years ago? Yep. I would have gotten a wine delivery membership, and added chocolate to my Amazon pantry subscription. But, you live, you learn.
Then again, I supposed it’s never too late for wine or chocolate--- who knows what the next two years will look like….
Winter solstice blessings brought a bounty of beautiful beginnings on the development front. It looks as though 2024 might be like gunning for a merge window onto a crowded, speeding freeway. I’m down for it! Okeydokey.
Settle coffee mug in the holster.
Tighten seat belt.
Check blind spot.
Mash the gas.
The last week of December has been a mad dash of pushing out emails and swiping everything off my desk to reset the flow for upcoming volume. Yes, I had hoped to have a nice quiet winter of reboot and novel writing, but timing being what it is, Tangle of Mermaids might have to take the back burner for a minute or two. That’s the speed up or slow down process of merging.
Thankfully, the last few months of 2023 have been relatively tame so I’ve been able to get real sleep, and reorient to priorities.
You heard it here first… I am coming out of the woods. It’s a long story. It’s all good. Good reasons. Happy reasons. Healthy reasons. It’s time. More details on all that to come. Don’t worry—I’m quite happy to start making steps back out into the real world, towing a wagon full of work created over the seven years I’ve been sitting out here in the wilderness.
Seven years of building and stashing writing, ideas, concepts and planning models. Now it’s time to put it in the chute.
I’m always charmed by folks who are curious about my last seven years alone in the wild. When I say, “I needed to be alone to able to hear myself think, so I could get work done uninterrupted.” Most creatives immediately understand. Then there are those extroverts in the room who visibly shudder.
It’s equally amusing when I explain my corporate background, or work history which runs parallel to my writing life. Are you a business developer? Or a creative?
Who says they aren’t the same thing?
Molecular genetics. Regulatory and Compliance. Director of Finance. R&D. Project Management. Commercial loan auditor. Document Control and Database Management. And finally, owner and operator of a small business development firm, and a publishing label. (and waiting tables in between as needed)
All of my former corporate jobs have run on the same creative matrices as my writing and art—yes, even the jobs in finance and molecular genetics. Which means, thankfully, I happen to be one of those lucky artists who can build a budget, read a balance sheet, manage a team, run my own PMP, and build a contract from scratch.
Do I enjoy it? Actually, yes. I adore performing those functions. I still think pivot tables are the playthings of Satan, but I handle them just fine. Business development and Storyverse Construction are actually VERY similar. They run on a hierarchy of constructs, with gears and levers. Business functions such as auditing commercial loan files for internal cohesion and consistency for clients gives my left brain something to chew on while my right brain takes a break from writing and story craft. When people ask me how I relax in the evening, I honestly tell them, “I perform internal reviews on multi-million-dollar conglomerate loan packages and file indexing reports while listening to my favorite popcorn astrology podcasts… What do you do to relax in the evening?”
Everyone needs a hobby… preferably one that pays well, and only requires a few hours at a time.
Then I save my artistic mind, the build energy for story craft and world building—and because there is no pressure to make my art pay me what I want to be comfortable, I’m able to make creative decisions that are uncompromising, riskier, and which produce higher yield--at least for me--in the emotional fulfillment department.
Thus, my HOBBY life as consultant PAYS FOR MY REAL JOB as a creator. All if which I do from the middle of nowhere in the backwater woods of Oregon.
I hope that makes sense. It seems to be confusing at meetings. People seem to be flummoxed by my background on the regular.
A young exec in a meeting said, “The target margin for a cost-plus model is on the budget sheet. You just stick to the writing. Artists can’t really handle the numbers anyway.…”
My old financial aid boss would be laughing her ass off at this right now.
I was legitimately taken aback. My brain was processing quickly trying to decide if he’d intended to be so careless, or if he was young and possibly embarrassed to not know the answer to the question, or if he was trying to obfuscate and hide figures because he wanted to end the meeting early.”
“I dunno… I guess you could just try me on the budget sheet. I might surprise you.”
“Budget sheets take years to understand.” He said curtly.
Oh, pookey. It’s about to get really uncomfortable for you.
“Maybe not years, but with a little focus, they make sense. I’ve seen a show budget and schedule before. Every industry has different terms, but money is ALWAYS money—every industry still answers to the SUM. Whether you’re in banking, or entertainment—everything runs on the bottom line. Is your budget exportable? I have Excel or I can do a Google doc, whichever you prefer. Or do you just want to share your screen?”
I could tell he felt like I had somehow betrayed him. I wasn’t just a novelist from under a bridge somewhere in the hinterlands—it showed on his face that I’d been the asshole tricking HIM this whole time. How dare I?
“I thought you were an artist.”
“Worse. I’m an artist who understands the business side of making a creative living. There’s no shame in ethical profit—so I make money. Then when I want my art to make money, I ask for it to do that, too.”
Anywhoo, it is what it is. When you look like a dumpy gnome that just crawled out of a hole, all mossy-haired and yellow toothed, and step into a room to sell a script--assumptions will be made. It’s the nature of humans to quantify or judge quickly in order to navigate social expectations.
So, I guess some smile brightener, hair dye and a freshen up on the wardrobe will help a little in this regard. I mean, it’s been a minute since I’ve had to be presentable. Like, seven years kinda minute.
Long story short, too late, this is to say that coming out of the woods and back to society means bringing ALL previous experiences to the high-speed merge. I mean, lesson learned, I’ll clean up a bit first to assist with the being presentable and believable. I also provided my new agent with my corporate resume to help alleviate any confusion about my work experience running alongside my creative world building and writing experience when she’s making introductions or connections. Hopefully that will help some.
There’s not a lot that can be done about taking meetings in an industry where folks seem to be eager to be seen, but not to see. Eager to be heard, but not to listen. Desperate to reach, but not to be touched.
Hopefully, this next part of housing the IPs will be quick and easy and we’ll be on to assembling the teams in no time at all. Because I WOULD LOVE to see people, talent, builders and creators in their most authentic and creative selves. I would dearly love to hear them, learn them, discover who they are and how they work—then invite them to come play in these amazing sandboxes being built for The Pillars of Dawn and The Life Erotic. I can’t think of anything right now that would bring me more joy than to be able to see, hear, learn and reach for those creative geniuses who want to build.
So, I can’t even be mad at the kid about the budget. He knows what he knows. He’d been conditioned how he’s been conditioned. Though my crinkly Grinch heart felt for him. Being disabused of one’s illusions can be a rough kind of day.
It just makes me more determined, I guess, to find those unicorns in the Hollywild that want to see, hear, and be welcomed. But first things first.
Settle coffee mug in the holster.
Tighten seat belt.
Check blind spot.
May your 2024 be filled with all the joy and magic of your wildest dreams. See you on the other side.
Athena lives and writes in the Siuslaw Forest, Oregon.