Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview with Novelist, Screenwriter Sally J. Walker

Interview with Sally Walker, author (nonfiction, romance,
western, literary), screenwriter, poet, editor…

I don’t usually interview an author twice, but I feel Sally has gained much experience since I interviewed her in March of 2011. Sally, besides being an instructor on the subject of writing, has also made a name for herself with a solid-selling nonfiction book A Writer’s Year, several creative writing textbooks and novels in various genres that we will name later. She has also achieved more recent success as a screenwriter. She’s one of the few cross-genre authors I know who sells in all the areas she tries. Her grueling writing schedule that also takes into account marketing, teaching, professional editing and family demands makes my head spin.

Glenda: Sally, I’m glad to have a chance to interview you again. I think one thing I would like to know is how you structure your time to accomplish what you do and still have Sally time. For those of us who are unorganized in life, please share your personal philosophy of time management.

Sally: And I'm honored that you are back for more. My formula?  Lists, schedules, goals and flexibility.  I meld those four things and have since high school. THAT was a long time ago, but it tells you I have decades of practice in multi-tasking and driving toward goals.  In December every year I look at what I can realistically accomplish in both writing goals and personal arenas in the year to come.  I then consider the generalized tasks I have to accomplish to achieve the goals and those go on my office calendar. Realistic is the key word, flavored with flexibility.  "Life" intrudes so I simply adjust and shift gears. I don't obsess.  Being too anal creates stress.  My method creates satisfaction and joy.

During the last few days of each month I consider the next month's tasks on my calendar, as well as family events,appointments, assignments from The Fiction Works and any other writing that has come up.  I can then specify what has to be done on what days. Finally, each Sunday evening I consider what I accomplished in the past week and assess what has to happen in the week to come.  

When my three girls were young and going a gazillion directions with school, Scouts, dancing and music lessons while I was getting my degree in writing AND working full-time nights as a critical care R.N., I created a grid-type form that has the days of the week across the top and hours of the day in increments of half-hour down the side. I copied a file folder full of them.  Every Sunday I noted who had to be where (that Sally was responsible for) and included the dreaded household chores, my hospital schedule, and even my sleep schedule. I eyeballed blank spots then highlighted in yellow my designated writing time and in pink my designated reading time.  Those were sacred to me and woe to the family member who intruded for anything but an emergency.  The sheet was posted on the refrigerator for all to reference.

When I am on a deadline or am overwhelmed with lots going on (like the four years I was president of the Nebraska Writers Guild) I still use that form.  It keeps me focused and defies excuse-making and forgetfulness.

What happens when I get an assignment like the recent adaptation?  I break the work into manageable increments and slot those on that form, working backwards from the deadline. If "Life" interrupts my schedule I sometimes have to do marathons as I did the seven weeks when my agent asked for three screenplays I hadn't written yet.  I told the world to go away and my husband had to feed himself.  One of those scripts was the one optioned last year and another is under serious consideration for a Hallmark producer.

On a daily basis, my mornings are designated for on-line teaching, networking and marketing, with household chores woven in.  My afternoons are for professional editing and writing. My evenings are for reading, TV and movie watching, all part of keeping myself informed, motivated and the creative mind fed.  I usually check e-mail, student questions and Facebook before going to bed around midnight. I taught myself to speed-read in high school and thank God every day that I did.  The volume of material I need and want to read is a challenge.          
Glenda: Within the last year you’ve had success with your screenwriting that has led to other prospects for your novels, especially romance and westerns. I know there are ups and downs in screenwriting and you’ve experienced both. How do you cope with the fluctuations of the rise and fall in the business of writing?

Sally: Life is not fair, convenient nor predictable. A writer has to work hard at polishing the writing for it to be as close to perfect as possible. In screenwriting, I have learned to shift gears, put things on hold and revise as asked because collaboration and the tastes of others are factors in that process.  At any point someone more powerful than the writer can stop the entire process and the writer is out because someone else or another project was preferred.  Again, I don't obsess. I have an L.A. manager who is a recognized entity.  That does not mean I just write and let him market.  He has other clients; therefore, I actively market myself and stay positive. My own marketing efforts landed me the adaptation gig. 

Researching the Internet Movie Database  I identified the producer had recently done westerns with reasonable budgets.  I queried him via e-mail about one of my westerns.  He actually phoned me about the script.  We hit it off and he asked if I did adaptations.  I explained that I had recently prepped a class about that very topic.  The majority of the viewing audience and most writers have zero comprehension of the how-to's and whys of taking a novel to the screen.  He liked what I had to say and had options on three novels awaiting adaptation.  A thrill ran through me when he asked if I would give one a
shot.  If he likes it, he will contract me for the other two as well.  Plus, when he finishes production on his current project (a big-budget martial arts film) he wants to talk about my western.  I made the opportunity; it did not search me out. Will it result in contracts and credits?  Only God knows.

October 2012 a Nebraska indie producer optioned one of my romance scripts that will be filmed late 2013, possibly into January 2014, depending on cast and crew availability. Because of its holiday theme, it will not be released as a feature to theaters until fall 2014. We used the Writers Guild of America Low-Budget Agreement that establishes financial and rewrite specifics for indie producers working with a budget of less than $1 million.  

The whole pre-production process is convoluted and detail-oriented.  Here in July a director has been contracted and two other indie production companies are on board. Each of them brings different elements to the film-making process. Budget, cast and crew come next.  I've learned "It takes a village" applies to film-making as well as child-rearing. I am optimistic that it will evolve, but am also realistic that anything can go wrong.  I am not spending any of the future monies. Per the WGA requirements, one-third of the sale price will be payable two weeks before actual shooting begins, another third at the conclusion of shooting and the final third when post-production is completed and the film is ready for distribution.  That breakdown allows financially challenged indie producers to work with professional writers who have quality product.  My goal in this whole process is to earn the 24 points needed for WGA member card by the end of 2013.  That will open even more doors.

Am I frustrated that it takes a long time and is always complicated?  Not at all because that's just the way the business works. In the meantime, I do my teaching, marketing and writing on other projects.  Every day! I am not dependent on someone else's concept of success to feel validated.  My validation is in the writing itself.  Every day! 

Glenda: You related to me that the idea of 'branding' once seemed limiting to you. Now you have a better idea of what branding yourself means especially in this technical age. Other authors are uncertain about branding. Can you tell us what you learned about branding and just what it is?  

Sally:  For most people "branding" means they are identified as writing a particular kind of genre such as Scottish historical, young adult fantasies or military action-adventure.  Nora Roberts, the queen of contemporary romance, writes romantic suspense/mysteries under the name J.D. Robb.  J.K. Rowlings just "came out of the closet" and accepted acclaim for mysteries written under a pseudonym.  Authors like this were "branded" but wanted to write beyond their pigeon-hole.  Of course, these people had the readership and skills to sell beyond their first brand.

Many traditional publishing houses and agents currently suggest new writers focus on one genre to build a similar following and reputation.  I understood that, but ignored the dictates.  My interests, characters, and plots range far and wide.  Plus, I don't write in just juvenile lit, romance or westerns.  I don't focus on just stage plays or screenplays or novels.  I write in all those disciplines, as well as poetry.  My website at states my rationale for seriously writing in each of the disciplines.  Quite simply, my imagination is far-ranging.  I alternate between them as my mind answers to the nagging of story and character.  But, I write smart.  That means I have researched the market I am writing to and READ my competition to fully understand trends and successes.  If someone asked my brand I shrugged and said "Eclectic, I guess."

Then a screenwriting friend, Hawk Ostby (CHILDREN OF MEN, IRONMAN, COWBOYS & ALIENS) told me, "You create actor-intensive, powerful relationship stories, no matter what genre you write, and your material is always well-researched
with authentic flavor."  I have used that description as my "brand" when submitting to producers on my own.  The responses I have gotten range from "This script indeed reflected those qualities" to "No matter the script I read, you deliver intensity in character and plot."  I've sold, gotten referrals and been contracted for adaptations based on that "branding."  I've been told by readers that my novels reflect the same concepts.  It may not be genre-specific, but it works for me (and it is not

Glenda: Can you explain the increased demand for email queries when submitting?

Sally:  It boils down to the time factor.  Up until about 10 years ago all queries to publishing houses, agents and producers had to go through the snail-mail room. Writers had to wait six weeks to six months to get rejected or another six months to hear a pronouncement if a novel or full screenplay was requested.  Since starting my professional career in 1985 I have practiced the multi-project approach to my writing, so I wasn't chewing my nails waiting for someone to make a judgment.  If I got a rejection, it went back into the mail within 48 hours to the next editor or producer on my list for that project.  The months and years slipped by then little by little I made sales, but never enough to satisfy me or build a financially satisfying validation.  

As publishers, agents and producers moved into the 21st century and electronic communication, the whole process sped up. A lot of trees have been saved, though the U.S. Postal Service has suffered. Wasted paper has been saved, but also everyone's time.  That editor, agent or producer can read an e-mail query, compare and contrast with current projects, consider how intriguing the project sounds and tap out a reply.  Five minutes versus six months.  

As Editorial Director of The Fiction Works, I have learned the beauty of the process.  All TFW submissions are via e-mail and filtered through me.  I'm not overwhelmed because I speed-read.  If I am intrigued and the quality of writing is apparent, I pass the submission along to one of our sub-contracted editors who favors that particular genre.  If the project doesn't fit TFW, I succinctly state why and fire the e-mail back. Again, five minutes versus six months. 

TFW publishes my nonfiction work and novels (edited by one of our other editors) so I am no longer struggling in the print world.  Screenwriting is another animal.  My L.A. Manager, Joel Gotler of Intellectual Properties Group, markets both me and my scripts. However, I also take responsibility for marketing on my own, keep Joel informed and let him handle the business negotiations.  I keep a calendar on submissions and either send follow-up e-mails or phone the producer I
queried.  NOTHING happens overnight in L.A. (or anywhere else in the film industry) because financing and schedules are constantly in flux.  E-mail simply speeds the communication process and saves time and angst.                        

Glenda: The Gift Exchange is one of your stories optioned for a movie by a young producer. Is this the producer from Norfolk? Please tell us what you've learned from your affiliation.

Sally:  I explained above about some of the process I've learned.  The young Nebraska producer is Stacey Schaller of Norfolk, an advertising executive with a degree in film who is just starting up his studio.  Through my participation in the Nebraska Film Association he heard of my screenwriting and requested log lines of completed scripts.  He then requested to read THE GIFT EXCHANGE.  Two months later he phoned me and asked if we could discuss an option based on the May 2012 WGA Low Budget Agreement.  He told me "I want to do this script because the characters are complex but live their definitive moral codes.  It is not a simple story as much as it is a profound story about how people learn about one another and themselves. The circumstances of the story are unique.  You made me believe in everything so deeply that I have to make this movie." That's from my notes.  I had to write it down because I was so stunned that he "got it."  

I connected Stacey with long-time local writing friend and indie producer Jack Young (I met through NWW) and Mark Hoeger of the Omaha-based Oberon Entertainment (I met through Nebraska Film Association).  I think the biggest lesson I have learned in this process is the power of networking.  Determined, pro-active participants in ANY endeavor get serious attention.  Hobbyists or idealists will earn no more than passing politeness.  

I network daily, truly. I have maintained a multitude of relationships with friends and professional contacts in both publishing and film since starting my writing career in 1985.  The list includes TV producer Joe Wallenstein (now a professor at USC), Larry and Kat Martin (both best-selling western and romance authors), screenwriting guru Lew Hunter (who made the referral to my manager), former MGM executive Stephanie Palmer, many writers from around the globe and Nebraska's plethora of film-makers advocating tax-incentives to our legislators. I have perpetually practiced being sincerely supportive rather than acting the supplicant. When one gives, one is more likely to have help offered. 

Whenever I have reached out to another writer with advice or educational materials, I asked the recipient to "pay it forward" rather than thank me. That includes the teens I have mentored over the past six years who truly are forging ahead focused on writing careers. I am especially proud of novelist Annie Stokely, a UNL student who will be on the NYT best seller list someday, and Beth Groth who was one of the 3% of applicants to NYU's fall 2013 film program with several screenplays already written.  I've taught close to 5,000 people over the years, including the people of the weekly Nebraska Writers Workshop, but my teens make me glow.          

Glenda: As an author, you mentioned the many genres you work in. My readers are going to be curious to find the titles. Please give us a list of your books and where my readers can find them. I'm sure they will be particularly interested in The Gift Exchange and others that may be produced as movies.

Sally:  "The Gift Exchange" actually started as a short story that is included in the unpublished anthology ROMANCE AROUND THE CALENDAR that includes short stories about each of seventeen U.S. holidays. Another adapted story from that collection is "Resolutions are for Fools" under consideration at a different studio. From my unpublished children's collection STORIES OF CHRISTMAS PAST I adapted the 1880's western "On a Cabin's Eve" that is at a Hallmark producer. 

My 1994 award-nominated audio-book THE HEALING TOUCH I adapted into the ethnic flavored screenplay "Chaco."  TFW will be releasing that revised novella late in 2014 in a collection of three novellas about that community. THE SEDUCTION OF TEMPERANCE is available as a novella and is available on Amazon. One of my all-time favorite covers, BTW. I adapted it as the screenplay "Temperance" recently requested by two studios.

Another TFW-published work on Amazon is LETTING GO OF SACRED THINGS.  It is an episodic literary work roughly based on my grandmother's life.  I adapted two chapters of that book into a character-driven screenplay of 1950's small-town Iowa. 

DESERT TIME is my romantic western saga of 1859 New Mexico from TFW that I have no intention of adapting.  It is far too long and complex to reduce to a 100-page screenplay. It is on the TFW website and on Amazon.

Among my nonfiction works from TFW you can find on Amazon are A WRITER'S YEAR (365 essays of the writing
life) and three screenwriting textbooks.  I am contracted to add several fiction textbooks to the Write-Now Workshops library late in 2013 and into 2014.

Within the next two years I also anticipate the release of the novels LOVE, GUNS OR GRACE (a romantic, Christian western),PLEASE BELIEVE (romance of baseball in 1894 Nebraska), UNTIL THE HORSEWHISPERER (Scottish-flavored novel of 1870's Nebraska) and BIKES & BADGES (a contemporary romantic suspense of law enforcement vs. drugs). 
Here in the summer of 2013 I am on a heavy editing schedule for TFW and adapting someone else's western for a L.A.producer who liked my edgy western STORM MAKER.  He is currently in post-production of a big action-adventure and wants to talk about my script in a few weeks.  All crossable body parts are crossed.    

So, you can look for my books on my publisher's website  or on Amazon. Hopefully, in the fall of 2014 you will see the credit "Screenplay by S. J.Walker" on a screen someplace.  

I enjoy Sally’s spirit; some might say she has moxie, or a ‘go-getter’ personality. She’s certainly productive and I doubt she would be as productive if she didn’t discipline herself as she does with her lists, schedules, goals and flexibility. I recently communicated to her something to the affect that she never seems to take a break or catch her breath. I was instantly, maybe curtly, told that yes she does take time to herself. I guess that comes from Sally’s particular form of organizing. It gives her a chance to slate in those times to rest the mind and body. 

After this interview, I told Sally I now know why I can’t find The Gift Exchange through Amazon, Google search or anything. I’d read through her communication on the Nebraska Writer’s Guild forum The Gift Exchange was going from story to screenplay. I went searching, but I know that as a screenwriter, Sally doesn’t write every story into a novel. She does have an eclectic mix of talents and uses them to her advantage.

I don’t know what more I can tell you that you can’t glean from the interview above. Sally is someone I enjoy learning from as I do all the writers I interview. I tend to study the personality of characters so that I know what kind of reactions they will have to their particular situation. Each author has a distinct personality and I do borrow from that diversity when I write, as I do from other people. I think Sally understands that kind of absorbing of what comes across the path in front of me. 

I try to live practicing Sally's philosophy of  "Enjoy the journey, not just the destination."