Tuesday, June 16, 2015

My Son to the Rescue (Instead of Father's Day, How About Son's Day?)


Depression can creep around a hurting soul like ivy. What’s worse is the big D entices you into a gloomy way of life, sometimes to a point of no return. But in many cases, happiness is waiting with a change of perspective, and in my situation, a nudge from an unexpected hero.

            My darkness started in 2000 when in one week, I changed jobs, bought a new house, moved to a different state, got married, and my father died of cancer. The following year brought the loss of my mom and grandmother, and a layoff from the job I loved. Save for the birth of my son and a couple of other blessings, life looked pretty bleak. The recession had cheapened my profession almost into oblivion and I was running scared. Through it all, I worked hourly jobs, determined to help provide for my family, and hated my predicament. Later, I would learn that this noble attitude of staying busy and keeping my nose to the grindstone with angst is called projection in psychiatric circles.

            The worst was yet to come.

            New Year’s Eve 2012, my wife blindsided me with a divorce notification. Looking back, I couldn’t blame her. I was miserable to live with. If I thought I was next to worthless before, I turned into a train wreck after that. Each email from her attorney sent me into a panic. A day didn’t pass where I failed to bawl. The greatest pain—I’d let my son down. No more happy family. Guilt became a powerful ally for depression.

            On the advice of counselors, friends, and family, I read self-help books, stuck with my workouts, and mingled, but as far as I could see, rock bottom was where I’d stay forever.

            A surprising source showed me the way up. At a comic con, my son, cash burning a hole in his pants, paid $20 for a shoddy necklace—we’re talking about the kind you find in gum machines—which, of course, fell apart within an hour. I tried to dissuade kiddo from begging for a refund, certain they’d tell him to get lost. In tears, he hounded me. I relented. We meandered back to the vendors’ table. They were very gracious and promptly swapped with him. My jaw nearly unhinged in amazement. I had been so twisted with funk that a simple refund seemed like a miracle. It marked the first hint that my view of the world had strayed way out of alignment. I told my son that very instant that he’d made a lasting impression and I would commit to working on my attitude. He continued being an inspiration because of how well he adjusted after the divorce. His grades remained strong as did his spirit. Most importantly, he loved me.

            Soon, the self-help books started making more sense. This theme kept cropping up in them and resonating with me: You have all the tools right now to achieve contentment. Like with any discipline, martial arts for instance, time and practice is critical. I didn’t just become giddy overnight. In fact, operation happiness seemed undoable many times, but I kept plugging. Per my therapist’s advice, I maintained a journal of bad things, recording my first thoughts about them and knee-jerk feelings. After a few months, I learned that a super high percentage of the entries were non-issues. Most of the ‘horrors’, I didn’t even remember. My thoughts and feelings in the situation were off-the-charts unjustified. This realization to just roll with it felt like gaining a superpower.

            Compassion burgeoned in me. Taking one day at a time, challenges weren’t so insurmountable. Rarely did anything bother me. I found love again as well.

A better job with great benefits and hours also came my way. Although not fitting to my background, it turned out to be a gift that kept giving. The position, which required lots of customer interaction, earned me constant praise on my voice. Remarks like: “You should be an announcer,” or, “I could listen to you talk all day,” flattered me often. They reminded me that during the college days and shortly thereafter, I performed in restaurants and coffee houses. On my girlfriend’s requests, I picked up the six-string again. With a fresh outlook on life, and a passion for ‘remaking’ oldies with my own style, I've been hanging with musicians again. The best part is: my drummer son wants to be a part of it. Courtesy of Tumbling Dice, junior got to sit on stage with their drummer. Who knows? Maybe I have the next Bruno Mars on my hands.

As adults, we often think of kids as flexible, especially when it comes to physical aspects like sports injuries or their ability to sleep in the most awkward of positions. But if we really take a closer look, their flexibility across the board is astounding. With today’s technology alone, they are constantly relearning. To find myself again, all I needed to do was relearn. And it proved to be a great rediscovery.

My friends listen to me play and tell me that they’re glad to see my smile again, that I’ve come a long way. I always answer, “It wasn’t me. Of all places, a convention for superheroes, my son flew in and gave me a blast of his powers.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Quarry: A Submission Parody


Any writer worth his or her salt is cringing at the spelling in that title. Oh, call it an inspiration from watching Bill Murray on David Letterman last night, or maybe my restlessness with the publishing industry, but I feel like having some hardcore, irreverent fun. I’ve always wondered what kind of responses I would get if I sent out a query letter intentionally fraught with errors and inane ideas.

Thus, here is the inquiry I will be sending out to agencies and presses to see what kind of bizarre fish might bite.
###
Quarry: the Blossom in my Shoo, a romantic Spense by Milo Angsy phd.

Its not what you think. Please reed on.

Blondy bond shell Trigger Norris was a wellknown firecracker. She didn’t take no crap from nobody. Her way or the hiway. One day, a purchase of a brand new pair of pumps changed all that. The shoo salesman was so hot. And really nice. But is he a space alien? Trigger simply can’t wield her regular attitude at him. Things she usually hates about guys, hairy arms, protruding Adam’s apples, and football worship (he wears a Cleveland Browns wrist bands), she finds adorable in this nerdy clekr.

Well, he asks her on a date and she finds herself somehow uttering yes, and before you know it they’re chomping dinner at Applebee’s, swappin their life stories. His name is Milo. AND HE REALLY TELLS HER THAT HE’S AN ALIEN FROM PLUTO, the planet that is no longer classefied as a planet anymore so he got kicked out with all the rest of his shpecies. At first she’s kind of creeped out, but then she gets into it because HE seems to believe as much.

When a robbery breaks out in the restaurant and the bad guys take them hostage, weird things start to happen. It’s not like Milo is a superhero or anythin. But the crooks get in wacky arguments with him every time they threaten to hurt Trigger. Will he prove to be her night in shiny armor? And what is that in Trigger’s shoo?

Inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, this book will sell millions.

As you can see, I am a doctor. My doctor’s degree is in paranormal investigation. That alone should makes this a hit as there is some reallife stuff in there.

I would be happy to come to your office and discuss the contract. No need to send a limo. I’m quite humble and eager to share lots of funds with you.

You can reach me tomorrow between 8AM and 7PM Mountain time. Please don’t call during lunch. Oh, and I can call you if that works out better too. If there’s any reason you can’t chat tomorrow let me know and we can work around next week also.

Doctor Milo Angsly
and Author
###
 
Yes, I’m really going to send this. I’ll share any interesting responses. Disclaimer: I have written romances before and they are NOT easy, so please don’t take this as a dig to the genre.

Ta, ta.

Gusto

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On the Verge Part 3 by Cardinal Robbins

Last time, I shared the need for metrics generated by your brand and explained how writing fanfic (fan fiction) can greatly benefit you – if your eyes are on writing for a TV or streaming media show created by someone else. I was all hot to write for John Munch's character on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, putting long months of sweat equity into writing heavily-researched fanfic. It was a great way to ensure I could write all of the ensemble's characters well.
 
Here's a hurdle for you. While I was writing my first of two spec scripts, it was time to try for the brass ring: an agent. It can all become a muddled Catch-22 situation, and it was no different for me. To get your foot in the door, you need to have an agent, because no legitimate production company is going to risk getting sued by reading unsolicited (non-agent submitted) work.
 
Agents don't want to represent you for one or two spec scripts you've written for your favorite show, no matter the popularity of the show or how well you write. Unless you're seeking a staff position and have the talent to get invited into the Writers' Room, agents are absolutely convinced you cannot provide them with a steady revenue stream. Thus, you're not worth them so much as saying, “Sorry. Pass.” Every agent between NYC and LA has stacks of L&O: SVU specs piled high to the sky. We'll talk more about what I call “the agency dilemma” in a future blog post. I wanted to acknowledge it now, so no one would think I'd somehow scored an agent in advance.
 
Let's talk about some of the things I did to be sure my script was too good to be ignored:
To make sure my story was a strong one, I shared it confidentially with those who were the most dedicated and detail-oriented in my group of fellow fans. These were the people who would bust me on anything that I tried to pass off as canon which wasn't. Those who had police procedural expertise would also stop me cold if I played too fast and loose with how law enforcement agencies actually operate.
 
In an attempt to prevent too much, “That's not the way it works!” comments, my first call was to our local police department. Burbank (CA) has a department which understands community outreach, especially reaching out to the entertainment industry. In no time at all, I was at headquarters with a high ranking officer and nationally respected detective, encouraged to ask every question on my mind about how an Internal Affairs investigation really took place. Not too long after that, I was accepted for the BPD's Community Academy, which was a very thorough overview of everything you wanted to know about our city's law enforcement agency. (Yes, there was a graduation ceremony and reception. The BPD takes community education very seriously, for which I'm still extremely grateful. Sometimes a free series of seminars can be worth more than anything money could buy.)
 
Fortunately, thanks to social media, I'd made friends with a really cool woman on Facebook who is also a John Munch/SVU fan. She's a Special Agent (Forensics) for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. She's not only exceptional at what she does for her state's equivalent to the FBI, but offered her expertise to me whenever a project needed to be 100% realistic. She is a natural instructor who has taught me more about DNA evidence than I ever could have hoped to learn. (It's a paltry payback for her amazing generosity, but I swap her advice on re-qualifying with her weapon; she has to remain proficient with her Glock. I'd happily buy her a personal Starbucks franchise for her living room, if I could!) It takes a village to write, no matter how you access necessary information. Between law enforcement and the internet, I was getting an education and serious progress was being made.
 
The next major hurdle? I needed to know the language of the Writers' Room...especially the showrunner. If you can't speak their language, there's no way in Hades you'll be able to discuss what works, what doesn't, revisions from the writer's side, or changes other people in the process (director, actor, editor, producers, etc) need you to make. No matter what people tell you, there is no single book which will provide complete information on show-speak. I referenced at least four books, while digging for info on the web – keep in mind there wasn't as much internet-based information available just a few short years ago.
 
This is where social media helped tremendously. I got on Twitter and started following the SVU cast, as well as #hashtags which led me to more fans. Additionally – because Mr. Belzer is such an interesting fellow – I was not only re-tweeting things he said on Twitter, I was ferreting out things other Belzer fans would find irresistible and tweeting about it. I made sure to include Belz's Twitter handle, in case he needed to correct me on anything. During all this, I became acquainted with SVU's newest showrunner, the incomparable Warren Leight, who had just taken over from Neal Baer.
Why is this important? Networking is always good, even if it's just introducing yourself as another fan of the show. Also, Warren was a tremendous shot in the arm for SVU from a writer's standpoint: Neal Baer's Writers' Room was a closed shop, while Warren was not only open to new writers, he genuinely wanted to give good scribes a hand up. He works much more along the lines of what the Writers Guild of America had in mind, when they began requiring shows to use at least two new writers every season.
 
I'm a curious cat, to say the very least. I like to meet interesting people, less for networking and more to see if there are ways I can help them. Social media, especially Twitter, allowed me to do this while having the most fun ever, I kid you not! Little did I realize, people started to seek out my tweets, respond to them, and suddenly the ball was rolling – my expertise on the details of Belz's career garnered attention from a lot of people. Including the man himself.
 
Warren had been extremely encouraging all along, with the express knowledge I would never pitch to him. (I'm enough of a professional to respect that policy. I'd even mentioned it to him first – no pitching!) The SVU writing staff is a friendly, approachable, fabulously helpful group of people. More than once I needed sage advice from my favorite SVU writer and he never failed to steer me in the right direction or share pointers generously, as long as I wasn't specific. (No pitching!) One of the writers' assistants gave me much needed nit-picky details about things like Munch's new shield number via his promotion to sergeant – even sending me a photo of him holding the prop badge. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have made the acquaintance of so many wonderful individuals. The writers' assistant? He's written two episodes of the series and the young man is no slouch!
What is today's take away?
  • At this phase, get plot/story critiques from those who thoroughly know your audience.
  • Do your research by studying, digging deep, making connections, and asking if there are local experts you can interview.
  • Establish connections via e-mail, by social media, basically in every way possible – not so you can shamelessly use people for your own means, but because it's incredibly enjoyable and you never know where it will lead.
Next time, we'll talk about how friendly networking (to volunteer your services) can lead to things you never thought possible – not in your wildest dreams.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On the Verge 2: A Writing Addict's Quest to See Where Curiosity or Insanity Takes Her


On the Verge

A Writing Addict's Quest to See Where Curiosity Insanity Takes Her

By Cardinal Robbins

Last time, I shared what my obsession with writing feels like, as well as what it's like when your favorite author seems sent from Above to convey one clear message: Do. Not. Quit. EVER.

You just cannot argue with that when it happens. If you haven't received your 'cosmic intervention' yet, you will. A song on the radio playing every time you make tangible progress, a friend who tells you something they've never said to you before, a kind soul who takes you aside – while knowing little about you – explaining you're golden, you dare not stop now. Yes...you're on the verge.

 

The first thing you'll feel is overwhelmed. I remember the first time, thinking, If I'm genuinely supposed to do this, why am I feeling pulled in ten thousand different directions? Because it's
time to sit down, take a deep breath, then ask yourself, What is my heart's desire? A novel? A play? The urge to storm Hollywood with the latest, greatest script about something no one has seen before? Think about what grabs and holds on to your passion. (Not some “Fifty Shades of Gray” throbbing of the er...'heart'...either. That's not the passion we're talking about here.) If you have a near compulsion to share something with others via the written word, that is where you begin – with hard decisions.

 
 
Here's how it shook out with yours truly: I'm an avid fan of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” because of an extremely talented fellow by the name of Richard Belzer. I can quote chapter and verse when it comes to his character, Det. Sgt. John Munch, whose fame began on “Homicide” and carried into at least ten shows. (More like twelve or so, but who's counting?)
 
 
Richard's character was under-utilized in most seasons of the show. Sure, he was definitely a strong presence thanks to his natural charisma, but rarely did the writers dig deep and give him a script featuring his character as it should have been written.
 
 
Here's where it gets weird. (There will be a lot of this, expect it.) I hung pretty tight with fellow Belzer fans online. As I got to know increasingly greater numbers of people, they learned that writing was something I loved, that I wanted to write again after a two-year hiatus from having written live content for Apple. When I mentioned my determination to write a spec script for SVU, an ensemble story revolving around Munch, they practically carried me to a mecca of...don't cringe and roll your eyes!...fanfic. Yes, fan fiction.
 
 
Fanfic has always had a bad reputation for being nothing more than Mary Sue/Marty Stu tales featuring unbelievably perfect gals or guys who could do anything and everything to the extreme. She sings well enough the Metropolitan Opera didn't even need her to audition? Check. He's lost 542 pounds and now has a perfect 30-inch waist with no stretch marks or sagging skin? Check. Sparkly vampire who doesn't incinerate on the beach and wears silver chains? Check. Every one of us has seen at least one Mary Sue or Marty Stu and have the crow's feet at the corners of our eyes from all the cringing.
 
 
My friends in fandom asked me to write some John Munch fanfic for them. I complied because, who better than hardcore SVU fans to bluntly tell me whether or not I'm writing those characters accurately?
 
 
You might be surprised, but writing good fanfic such an educational process I found articles recommending all would-be spec script writers need to spend some serious time writing fanfic for fans of the show in question. Why? Dedicated fans will tell you if you're on target or need to hang it up. And tell you they will, in no uncertain terms. These people (myself included) will give you invaluable feedback faster than any script doctor you've paid a small fortune to – and the feedback is free.
 
 
NO sparkly vampires in my fanfic! You could practically smell the gunshot residue on John's hands. I kept him in danger of losing his badge, his pension and – more than a few times – his life. My fiction passed the test, thanks to kind souls who generously took the time to give honest critiques. I was getting close to taking the next step.
 
 
During this time, keeping in mind all of this took place over 2001 through right now, lit agents had begun to drill it into every prospective author that we need a platform and a brand. Brand, BRAND, BRAND. (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”) Fanfic was not only the greatest practice, it also gave me plenty of time to consider how I wanted to present myself to the world. Admittedly, it took me a while to figure out this “brand” stuff. I can market the daylights out of everyone else, but was flummoxed at the prospects of doing the same for myself.
 
 
Eventually, it fell into place. I had been using my pseudonym for years, mostly to remain safe on the internet. Almost suddenly it evolved into my brand – Cardinal Robbins, the tigress who wrote gritty cop fiction; shot a Glock 35 well enough to be considered LAPD & FBI competent; did the time and effort required for research; worked hard to create interesting, well-developed, age-appropriate characters; a sense of humor, sure, but no-nonsense, quietly determined to succeed.
 

Fanfic quickly provided the fan base I needed because “metrics” were another vital part of a writer's platform. How many fans do you have? agents wondered. Have your readers followed you on all possible social media? How do you plan to get new followers? It was all about the numbers, which then and now equate to potential sales volume or Neilsen ratings. If you don't have a way of proving you can get the numbers to provide a revenue stream for an agent, either literary or entertainment, they want nothing to do with you. Cold hard fact, Catch-22, but there it is.


As I transitioned from fanfic to writing my first SVU spec script, social media was taking off
like a rocket to Pluto. My education is in marketing communications – I took to social media like a Frenchman to foie gras, er...a duck to water, let's say. Fiction and social media was, for me, a marriage made in heaven. Which was a bonus, because while I had no idea at the time, it was my way in.
Today's lesson:
Take the time to narrow down and understand your passion, what you truly want to write. Then, find like-minded people to write for who definitely 'get' what you're writing and are willing to give you nothing but constructive feedback as they critique your efforts. (All my friends were not fans of gritty cop fiction. I discovered that the hard way.)
Next time, the rubber hits the road as we progress from fanfic to my first SVU spec script.
 

 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On the Verge 1: A Writing Addict's Quest to See Where Curiosity (Or) Insanity Takes Her


On the Verge

A Writing Addict's Quest to See Where Curiosity Insanity Takes Her

Hello. I'm Cardinal Robbins. I've often lurked here, because I enjoy reading the “Chiseled in Rock” blog. While I couldn't become a RMFW member because I'm in Southern California, the knowledge and perspectives here could not be ignored. Gusto Dave Jackson got my attention the quickest, because he has a writing style much like one of my all-time favorite authors: Harlan Ellison.

I've yet to have the pleasure of meeting Gusto Dave in person, but in a bizarre turn of events I have met the amazing Mr. Ellison. Harlan is quite a character, to say the least. He's extremely mercurial, has zero tolerance for steer manure, and always tells the truth – even if it's bone shatteringly blunt and you're not ready to hear it, good or bad. When we met at a mutual friend's party, he was in an incredibly good mood and sat down to chat. He encouraged my insanity instead of recommending a straight jacket coupled with psych meds and years of intensive therapy. Who needs BASE jumping, NASCAR driving, or riding the craziest roller-coaster you could ever imagine for a rush? Absolutely nothing compares to having your favorite writer practically make a beeline for you (without your threatening him with a weapon), to talk about your writing instead of his! I still have no explanation for why this happened. This was in the realm of UFO landings and vacationing in the Bermuda Triangle with Sasquatch. All I know is, he understood my obsession on the deepest level, sympathized like no one else ever had or could, then told me to let no one discourage me. Write. Or. Die.

Each time we read exemplary writing our addiction is triggered; inspiration is our heroin, there is no 28-day rehab for us, no Higher Power to delivery us from sleep deprivation while we scribble furtively with a hopeful heart. We're chasing the dragon, people. We're hooked on being able to read what we often wished others would write for our consumption. We get a profound thrill from the challenge of carefully crafting words to make others feel genuine emotion. It's all a power trip like nothing else. And, if we're lucky, some of us will eventually get a boost in the bank account for our often Herculean efforts.

I'm not to that point...yet. My bank account consists of dust, cobwebs, a dried up moth or two...it's an ugly sight. Yet there's no way I can quit, not until I see my name on a printed book – or on some type of streaming media that's rented, sold or subscribed to which people find entertaining. My family calls it my “weird, wonderful life,” and I agree completely. My term for it is being “on the verge.” Gusto Dave  expressed interest in how I've progressed from making my high school English Comp teacher break down and bawl when I killed a character to how I've created a unique series concept, collaborating with Richard Belzer and his non-fiction writing partner, David Wayne.

Fellow writers, even I could not make this stuff up.

Knowledge and experience are worthless unless they are shared with others. I'm breaking all the rules – pulling, pushing, twisting, bending them all and oddly enough I'm making steady progress. After all, weren't rules meant to be broken? You bet they were! I'd like nothing more than for you to join me on this wild, crazy journey, sharing the highs, lows, and how to get past the hurdles meant to rip the heart and soul out of even the most dedicated among us.

Come with me, because I'm far from the only one who's on the verge. You are, too; I can feel it. Together, we are going to succeed.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Funds That Publishers Ostensibly Expect You to Fork Out

If one considers my trials and tribulations with publication, this article could come across as fairly negative – a sour grapes kind of thing. However, given the news of my recent new romance and how on top of the world I am, the actual reason I spill these truths is to poke a little fun and most importantly give heads up to unsuspecting new talent entering this profession. And frankly, haven’t I been doing that for years anyway?

                This topic is a little touchier, though. I reveal the magician’s secrets so to speak.

                The sad truth is the publishing business isn’t what it used to be. There have been countless forums that point blame all over the place, so I won’t belabor it with any of my theories of cause, but I think we can all agree that the mantle of author doesn’t carry the same prestige as when I wore a high school sports uniform. Actually, unless you’re the big NYT Bestseller, the industry has become a pyramid scheme from what I can tell.

                The real authors I know talk of days when advances were crowning validation that you’d made it. Of course, the publisher encouraged using some of it for marketing (a very foreign word to authors back then, not like now how it’s drilled into you). Today the skimpy advances out of New York for new authors, basically understating that he or she is a gamble, are expected to be used for advertising the title.

                With a typical small press, here’s the kicker, there are no advances, yet they still egg you on to break into your piggy bank and get wild on boasting your new release. One time on an email conversation with the marketing department of a press for one of my books, I got all excited when they dazzled me with T shirts, mugs, and stickers as possible advertising tools. As the correspondence built, it dawned on me that they were tiptoeing around saying that I had to foot the bills. Can you imagine what a star I felt like being nudged to spend my millions?!

                Here’s another thrilling investment for you aspiring authors clinching it with indy presses! You’ll more than likely have to buy your hard and soft backs even though you’re published. So, here’s to hoping those signings you broke your hump to set up with surviving bookstores go well otherwise that box of books winds up being some expensive Christmas cards.

                Early in my ‘success’ game, all motivated to get the word out about my big hit, I queried lots of review blogs from the prompting of my agent. I must have hit up 30 or 40. Only two answered me and they wanted – you guessed it – their cut. Everybody’s got their hands out, children.

                About eight years ago at a conference I attended, I wish I could remember his name, a gentleman on a panel said it was going to be like this, that authors would be on their own when it came to funding.

                Free enterprise is a right I and many men and women served in the military for, but you should be painfully aware that nowadays, not only is writing a time suck, but also a significant financial cost.

                On to more chipper subjects, dear friend of mine and well connected screen writer Cardinal Robbins will be sharing her compelling strategic moves in this biz.

Gusto