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.
Athena lives and writes in the Siuslaw Forest, Oregon.