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Screenwriter of: Edward Scissorhands/The Addams Family/The Nightmare before Christmas/Black Beauty/Corpse Bride.

The Ballroom for this event was predictably packed with those eager to hear words of inspiration and career insights from this iconic screenwriter known mostly for her work with director Tim Burton. As she sat on the stage and shared her early childhood stories, I was immediately reminded of the character Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and was a bit surprised when she eluded to feeling sympatico with that character herself. She was present at AFF 2011 to receive the AFF “Distinguised Screenwriter” award, presented to her by Johnny Depp, and to promote her new company, Small and Creepy Films. (www.smallandcreepy.com).

Caroline said that, since the age of four, she knew she wanted to “cast spells” with images and stories, adding that she has found that life is not about self-discovery, but about self-creation. She also said that every story she writes is essentially about dogs. “I think I was a dog in another life. All I want to write about is dogs,” Thompson said, citing her family dog as a remarkable animal who profoundly influenced her point of view from an early age.

Her first novel, First Born (1993) was inspired by a remark made to her by her mother, a woman not known for her tact or sensitivity of expression to others. As Caroline put it, the book was about an abortion that comes back to life to haunt its mother. Given Caroline’s proclivity to craft strange tales about strange characters, it seemed quite apropos that she would begin her writer’s journey with such a quirky fable. Yet, as she shared her writer’s journey, we got that her work is truly an honest extension of how she experiences life.

Of course, she had her share of Hollywood horror stories, saying that she has been fired five times from various projects over the course of her screenwriting career, and outright betrayed on a few occasions, saying, “I’ve learned not to put my soul in Hollywood’s way.”

She kept us laughing and amazed at her resilience, tossing off the hurt and disappointment, always focusing on what she wanted to do as a storyteller. On genre writing, she said, “Whatever it is that feeds you, let it feed you. Your only job is to find your voice.”

She also offered tips on dealing with various rights of passage to those who aspire to be screenwriters. On dealing with nerves before pitching, she said, “I just pretend it’s my cocktail party, and it’s my job to make them (studio execs) comfortable.”

For novelists and writers of fiction, she offered the tip that, when you sell a book, if you ask for the rights back after ten years, they have to give them back to you.

On getting through a complete screenplay, she outlined her own process. “I race through the first draft,” she said, “writing five pages a day before I let myself stop.” She said she doesn’t force herself to write more, even if she is inclined because she has learned that five pages a day is the right pace for her, adding that all writers have to find what works best for them. “My first draft is done in a month,” she said, then shared that she revises it about five times before she ever shows it to anyone else.

On creativity and finding that in oneself, she said, “Everything we do all day long is a creative act.” A remarkable, independent artist, when she said this, I’m pretty certain that everyone in the audience believed her.

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As a writer, how do I give you more than just information? How do I break through this real and imagined ethereal wall that separates my mind and your own, here on the tangible page? How do I keep you engaged, oh precious reader? ANSWER: Through making conscious choices while crafting a “LIVING” tale that dares to touch you.

Letters and words are naught but symbols we’re in agreement on, at least within general parameters. Yet language is a living thing that adapts to the times as all else that lives. Language flows from one generation to the next, with each decade of teens and change in technology adding its “two cents.” Language is alive and malleable. It even has the rhythm of Breath and Pulse – and a Reason, when done right. Respect this living Being that you use to write your prose, but do let it be your friend. Put on your 3-D specs, then sit and breathe together. Hang out a little.

The magic of a story comes from the Art of Choice with the language practiced by the teller. There are countless ways to say things. What words will you use? Will you challenge yourself to say more? I think of a Joni Mitchell lyric that was so artful: “I met a woman, she had a mouth like yours, she knew your life, she knew the devil in your deeds.” So much better than “I met your mother.” Artful choices. How will your tale unfold and present itself? Yes, that’s structure. Is your tale so well-built that if you saw it walking down the street you would ask it on a date? Be careful now – writing fiction is Quixotic stuff, the Sorcerers Apprentice. You must both encourage exploration and keep a keen eye out for trouble!

Self-Editing Your Prose

Please, never send a first draft of anything you write to anyone other than a collaborator. Nobody’s that good. (The editor in me needed to get that out of the way. Thanks).

Your second and third drafts might still be about structure, which is absolutely foundational, so do whatever it takes to nail that. But if you’re on the draft where you’re scrutinizing your prose, this is the time to remember the rhythm, the pulse, the life and breath of your story like someone sitting at your table asking you to pass the salt. THAT is your narrator, the real teller of the tale. It might be your protagonist or other character, or perhaps a defined Aspect of your Omniscient orator. (Oh, yes; if God is telling your tale, you should know how it feels to hang out with the god of your making). If all-seeing eyes peer into your characters and read their very thoughts and feelings, and expose their souls, what sort of Omniscient being do you imagine that to be? Are They holy, ephemeral and wise, or disinterested and vengeful? Or do They appreciate the comedic side of human reality; with a big cigar and feet propped on a cloud? 3-D specs, remember. Approach your story as a living, breathing being. Do your sentences and the words you’ve chosen reflect that essence?

When it comes to debuting authors getting their fiction published, the competition is much more than fierce. Learning to become artful in your languaging and word choices is the deep level of self-editing that can turn aspiring writers into published authors. Plus, it’s how all storytellers develop the means to sneak through that “wall” in order to tap readers on the shoulder and nibble their ear.

Now, that didn’t hurt, did it?

 

 

 

 

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