The South Florida Writer’s Conference

October 1, 1997
Written by

"The writer who sells writes very lean prose."

Paul Lazarus

Former V.P., HBO Feature Film Productions

A Special Report

The South Florida Writer's Conference

By Nancy Ess

Authorlink South Florida Correspondent

One of the great draws of the South Florida Writers conference is its Miami location, where the literary community flourishes like native bromiliads. This year's South Florida Writer's Conference drew about 150 particpants, and was held in conjunction with the University of Miami creative writing department.

The conference lineup included a surprising number of choice speakers and a wide range of appropriate seminars on writing and publishing(See Highlights from Sessions below)

Speakers included Lester Goran, novelist, translator, and creative writing Professor at the University of Miami, whose newest short story collection, Tales from the Irish has garnered high honors and praise; Barbara Parker, a hot-selling dynamo, who turns out a successful legal thriller each year; Barbara Bottner, author of more than twenty children's books and writer of numerous animated films, and Robert Antoni, Professor in the University of Miami English Department, whose novel Divine Trace reaped the Canada and Carribean First Book Award.

Also presenting were Paul Lazarus, faculty member of University of Miami's School of Comunications, and former Vice President of HBO feature film Division; John Balaban, Director of the Creative Writing Division of the University of Miami English Department, and a poet of major import, whose After Our War won the Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets and a nomination for the National Book Award; Fred D'Aguiar, faculty in the University of Miami Creative Writing Department, and poet, novelist, and film writer and winner of the Whitebread First Novel Award; Evelyn Wilde Mayerson, faculty in the University of Miami Creative Writing Department, and writer of six novels and two juvenile books, whose novel Well and Truly has been optioned for film.

Other speakers were Campbell McGrath, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Prize of $50,000 for the best book of poetry in 1996; Peter Schmitt, faculty in the University of Miami Creative Writing Department, and a young upcoming poet who has already received an award from the Academy of American Poets, and the effervescent Arky Gonzalez, travel writer and the President of the large and prestigious Society of American Writers.

Several agents joined the speaker and panelist lineup, including Janell Walden Agyeman, now associated with Marie Brown and Associates and former editor at Doubleday; Edwina Berkman, of Dana Reed Author's Services Agency; and Mark Ryan of New Brand Agency Group. Other speakers included self-publishing guru, Dr. Tom Williams; theatrical producer, Mandy Greenfield; publisher, Charity Johnson; and intellectual property attorney, Harold Greene. Highlights from Conference Sessions

Panel Discussion: Finding Your Audience

Moderator, Michael Thorton, pulled out an orange. (Yes, the kind you eat!) On it he had affixed a formidable dollar sign with a dark black magic marker. "From concept to tale you have a seed . . . then you take it to the marketplace." The art of literature bears some resemblance to the Florida orange industry, according to Professor Thornton, who detailed the key processes as "seeding, pruning, packing, to market."

The panelists readily agreed that the marketplace often presents a prime example of the "tail wagging the dog." When asked, "what causes inspiration or ignites your creativity within your specific craft," two of the panelists quipped, "Deadlines," and one writer agreed that if he waits for inspiration "there will be a hole in the paper." According to Arky Gonzalez, "Professional writers write when they don't feel like writing."

Although the panelists agreed that the market dictates their writing choices to some extent, there was less consensus on the subject of rewrites. Travel writer, Arky Gonzalez strongly disapproved of constantly revising during the initial writing process. He suggested that money making non-fiction writers should knock-out an outline proposal every day. He also suggested that articles that have been rejected by one publisher should be sent out to the next publisher the same day that the rejections are received. On the other hand, several authors confessed that rewrites account for between 50-95 percent of their work.

All in all, the panelists agreed that the publishing industry is rough, tough, and very commercial . . . but a writer still plies his or her trade with inspiration.

Getting an Agent's Attention

Janell Walden Agyeman

Literary Agent

Marie Brown Associates, Literary Services

With a long career in the literary business, Janell Agyeman started as an editor with Doubleday Books, and currently conducts her Miami-based literary agency in association with Marie Brown and Associates, located in New York.

According to Ms. Agyeman, while "everybody wants a sure thing," the literary business is "a genteel crap shoot!" Sales are down for all categories of books. Publishers are more conservative than they have been in the last twenty years. "The media synergy has to be right." Every agent assesses prospective clients, with questions like "What kind of media connection do they have going?" "Are they already a celebrity?"

Big publishers have become conservative because of the cost of doing business. Small publishers and independents may be free enough to be mavericks, but even they are constrained by shelf space. Editors no longer want to edit. They are marketers, known for their taste in literature. Pressed by the time constraints of their job, editors do not have time for the traditional work of editing manuscripts. Inundated by mountains of manuscripts, editors have to be so "high" on a particular work that they can sell the book to the rest of the house. Before a publisher will touch a work, everybody in the publishing company must be "up" on the book.

Moreover, the superstores have changed the complexion of the industry. Because they command better discounts, and may order 2,000 copies of a single literary work at one time, they have the attention of the publishers. Publishers also find themselves facing huge returns from the booksellers, making them even less likely to take chances.

New authors therefore find it very tough, even with an agent. Many authors go unpublished not because the book isn't good enough, or because there isn't an audience, but because the perceived audience is not large enough.

Knowing these perils of the marketplace, writers must know their market and produce an exceptional product. Agents look for a presentation that says "ready." Authors must learn how to market themselves, must be prepared to define their readers, and must convince the agent that they will devote themselves to bring the work to the audience. Agents prefer authors who will produce book after book after book.

Since most of the bigger publishing companies will not touch unsolicited manuscripts, agents are most concerned in finding the right match. The agent travels on her contacts and her reputation for recognizing good literary talent. Ms. Agyeman feels that contact with most agents should be by query letter. She prefers no manuscript or excerpt until she requests it. Authors should never send in anything that needs revisions. Query letters with typographical or grammatical mistakes raise serious questions about the author's abilities. She would like her turn-around time to be 2 weeks for query letters, a month for samples, and no more than four to eight weeks for manuscripts, but sometimes she finds it hard to adhere to her own deadlines. Screenwriting: What Sells & Why

Paul Lazarus

Screenwriter and Director of Film Productions, Communications

Department, University of Miami

Former V.P. of HBO Feature Film Productions

Relax, fellow writers. According to Paul Lazarus, Hollywood is not interested in stealing your work. Having said this, Mr. Lazarus still advises writers to protect their works by either mailing a registered letter, establishing a copyright, or registering the work with the Writer's Guild.

Screenwriters must submit works that look professional. Come to grip with the professional format for screenplays. The screenplay must be an appropriate length. 120 pages was the old standard, but because of production costs, often in the range of $40 million, newer screenplays should average 100-110 pages. Use a 12 point font. Page numbers are essential. Don't number scenes. The margins and the spacing should be correct. Formatting should be consistent, since it assists the reader. "Don't do anything that stops the reader's eye. If you stop the reader's eye, you are going to have a problem. The easiest thing to do in Hollywood is to stop reading the script."

By and large, most scripts should have dialogue on the first page. A noticeable exception was "Basic Instinct." However the first scene description was so dramatic that nobody could stop reading it. Script reviewers immediately classify writer as "amateurs" when the script describes camera angles or includes technical production notes.

According to Mr. Lazarus, 35,000 screen plays were registered last year with the Writer's Guild. Approximately 220 movies were made, and perhaps two times that amount were optioned. With all these scripts, nobody in the business who reads scripts can say that they see more than five good scripts a year.

"Because of the comparative bankruptcy of Hollywood's soul," there are a lot of sequels and television show adaptations. With movie productions averaging $40 million to $100 million, Hollywood cannot afford to choose a script that has audacity. When small movie makers hold costs down, they can take more chances.

The writer "who sells" writes very lean prose. "Shrink from the moments that are arch or contrived," Mr. Lazarus told his audience. "I hate where a character talks to himself. I come from New York where they lock them up." One of his authors was totally opposed to contractions, and his dialogue never worked. "Screenwriters should use slang, contractions, and conversational language." On the other hand, they should avoid writing ethnic dialect because the script may be viewed as politically incorrect.

Dialogue that is "too much on the nose" is not good dialogue. "Edge into it. Tiptoe around it. Too much 'on the nose' doesn't give the actor any play. . . . Timidity is even worse. You must get to the obligatory pay off."

Most movie production companies will not accept a screenplay except through an agent or a lawyer. Many writers have an impossible time obtaining an agent for a screenplay. On the other hand, Paul Lazarus suggests that any writer can hire a lawyer to submit a script.

For those who seriously contemplate a screenwriting career, go to Hollywood and expect to wait for 10 years before you see your work on the screen. Dead Poet's Society took 6 years before Robin Williams noticed the script. It was on the top 10 best unproduced scripts for years.

Paul Lazarus did not spare his South Florida Writers Conference audience, assuring attendees that it is almost impossible to be a successful screenwriter from any other city except Los Angeles. Looks like its time to establish some film production companies in our own fair city. How Self-Publishing Pays

Professor Tom Williams

Publisher, Venture Press

Tom Williams tells the story of two young men who published a cross-word puzzle book and made a little money. They decided to publish more books. Their names: Simon and Shuster. Of course, the trade name now belongs to a great conglomerate.

According to Tom Williams, many books turn reasonably significant profits. But no big publisher wants many of these often worthwhile books. One publisher flatly rejected a book that Mr. Williams published, then went on to buy thousands of copies of his book for its book club.

Computers now make it possible to publish relatively inexpensively. Once the book is printed, it must be distributed and marketed. For small publishers the bookstore may be a poor place to sell a book. Other markets such as Internet, tourist stores, and book clubs may be a better choice.

The present economics of the publishing industry leaves little profit for the writer. Once the publisher, distributer, wholesaler, and bookstore pay their costs and take their profit, only 10% of the revenues are distributed to the author–and that assumes there is a profit. Thus, if a book costs $6.00, and the book sells well, the author can expect only 60¢ per book. Since the return rate for books throughout the publishing industry is about 40%, authors often see little or no royalties. On many occasions, an author can only count on the advance, and new authors rarely receive eye-opening advances.

Self-publishing, on the other hand, can be profitable even if a comparatively small number of books are sold. Before jumping into the publishing field, however, the writer should know that self-publishing works better with some genre of books than with others. Books with a readily identifiable niche market– like "the Kidney Stone Handbook," or "Dealing with Rheumatoid Arthritis"– have a high chance of success. A general-audience novel, on the other hand may require expensive marketing that will eliminate profitability. Tourist trade publications offer a promising self-publishing niche. Poetry, non-fiction, and even novels that are linked to tourist locales may be marketed quite profitably. Where the title of the book contains the name of a city, county, or state, the book can be sold in local bookstores and promoted in various tourist spots.

Authors who consider self marketing should use print-houses that specialize in the self- publishing market. Such printers print a high volume self-published titles and thus offer much lower printing rates. If you decide to self-publish under your own imprint, choose a name for your publishing company that is not identifiable with your own.

Once the book is printed, the real work starts. Mr. Williams offered extremely explicit and valuable information about promoting and marketing small press books. In fact, Mr. Williams turns a nice profit by "marketing" his valuable "marketing advice."

Copyright, Authorlink 1997

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