Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How to Survive a Writers Conference: Dos and Don’ts to Making it Out Alive

Putting the flick on hold this week in celebration of the lit. Today, head on over to Beyond the Margins and check out my just-posted interview with celebrated literary agent Mitchell Waters. He's worked for bigtime agency Curtis Brown for 16 years, and gives some great insight into the publishing business today.

Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace literary conference is this weekend, April 30-May 1st. Beyond the Margins will be there in full BTM regalia. We'll have our own table in the lobby complete with booksmarks, a specially-printed anthology of our work, smiles, and more. Also, from 6-7:30 PM Saturday night we'll be hosting an open mic event at Pairings Restaurant. And now that James Franco has bailed on his Muse appearance, our open mic will be the hottest after-hours event going. Although there's a 50-person limit in the room. But having too many people show up is a good problem to have, so bring it on!

If you're planning on attending the Muse, or just want to learn more about writer conferences, read on to find out what to expect:

Writer conference season is gearing up here in Boston with the upcoming Muse and the Marketplace on April 30 and May 1, and other New England conferences in the coming months—Wesleyan Writers Conference, Cape Code Writers Center Conference, and  Bread Loaf.  So if you plan to attend a conference, it’s time to brush up on your writer conference etiquette.

Writer conferences offer:
  • À la carte workshops and panels that usually cover both the craft and business of writing.
  • The rare chance to have your work critiqued by a professional author, agent, or editor.
  • Ways to meet like-minded writers interested in starting writing groups, networking, and trading critiques.
  • The opportunity to compress months of online research and networking into a few days.
No matter your area of interest or level of skill, if you’re a writer planning to attend a conference in the coming months, consider the following guidelines to ensure you get your money’s worth:

Come prepared. Bring an iPad, laptop, or a note pad (paper-based application) to take notes. If you have a business card, bring a stack. This is your chance to meet and greet, to schmooze and show off, and exchange vital stats with other writers. Plus you never know who you might share an elevator ride or cocktail hour with.

Follow the rules. If the conference guidelines state not to bring full manuscripts with you, don’t bring a manuscript with you to hand to every agent and editor you see. Nobody likes a writer who’s too pushy, and you want to make a good impression. If the dress code is business casual, don’t wear your favorite stonewashed jeans, ripped at the knees from stage-diving that Ramones show back in ’87. Dress appropriately.

Put into it what you expect to get out of it
. Don’t attend a conference if you don’t plan on doing anything while you’re there. If you don’t attend workshops, readings by guest authors, or panels on the state of publishing, then you will leave with the feeling that it wasn’t worth it. You’ve paid money to attend, so get your money’s worth. If you don’t get your first choice for a workshop or class, make the most of whatever event you’re signed up for.

Bring your open mind. Maybe you have one reason to go to a conference and that is to see your favorite author read or meet with the one agent you know can get your book published. These are good reasons to attend, but you’ll be missing out on other elements of a conference. For example, one year I sat in on a non-fiction workshop on journalism. As a novelist, I had low expectations for learning anything pertinent about fiction writing. But it turned out to be an instructive session where I picked up some great tips about research and how to self edit my writing.

Also, if you’re just interested in learning craft, you may be missing an opportunity to learn more about how to write a query letter or what types of books agents are buying this season. Conversely, if you just want to network, you might miss out on learning about how to fix your novel’s structure problems or how to write better dialogue.

Manuscript consultations. If you plan to meet with an author, agent, or editor to discuss your work, plan ahead and sign up with the person that can provide the most appropriate feedback for your project. If you want a general critique of your work in terms of where it fits into the current marketplace, consider meeting with an agent that handles work like yours.

A publisher, while offering no less wonderful advice, is thinking only of the specific magazine or publication that she works for and not what other publishers want. On the other hand, if you consider your writing perfect for a certain publisher, then this is a great opportunity to get the specific feedback you need to get your foot in the door.

Spend a little extra…. Often conferences offer additional opportunities and special events that cost a little extra but can be worth it. Aside from a manuscript consult, you might also have the opportunity to eat a lunch or two with a selection of literary folk and engage in casual business chat. A little extra might get you five minutes to try out your pitch on an editor or to receive feedback on your query letter from an agent.  Who says money can’t buy happiness?

…but don’t spend it all. A few years ago I spent well over a week’s salary on a five day conference. It was a wonderful experience but the expense sent my finances into a hole for months afterward. If you can afford to attend a conference this year, go for it. If you can’t, start saving now for next year. Keep your eyes out for conferences offering grants and scholarships.

Enjoy after-hour events. An average conference day ends around 4 or 5. But that doesn’t mean the day’s over. Often there are related activities to keep you busy well into the evenings. Cocktail hours and open mics and after parties. Often events are coordinated in advance, but sometimes it’s just you hitting the closest bar with a few writer friends to compare notes and dish. If you have the time, these after-hour events are a great way to round off your conference experience. And who knows? Maybe that person you just struck up a conversation with at the bar is an agent who handles manuscripts just like yours.

Follow up. If you garner business cards and some face time with an agent or editor you would die to work with, don’t forget to follow up after the conference to thank them for their time, and remind where you met them and what you write. That way, when you send them a query, you’ll already have been introduced.

Have fun. Yeah, it’s an intense situation: you and hundreds of other hungry writers mixing it up with publishing industry luminaries. Just walking into the conference on that first day can be a fret filled journey of terror into the inky unknown. But remember, all the other attendees probably feel similar trepidation. So with that in mind, take a deep breath, push through that door, and smile. If your smile drops the minute you see that registration line, then go to Plan B: pretend everybody there is naked. Works for me every time. If you don’t know a soul, walk up to the nearest person and introduce yourself. And have fun. Seriously.

This post originally appeared on Beyond the Margins--used with kind permission by me.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Conspirator

Spoiler alert-o-meter: I won't give away the ending. But you can read all about it here.

Robin Wright plays Mary Surratt in Robert Redford’s new flick The Conspirator, about the Lincoln assassination and subsequent conspirators’ trial. Mary Surratt and her son and daughter, recently moved from the south, ran a boarding house in Washington, where her son, John, met with John Wilkes Booth and others who planned clandestine political shenanigans. The civil war was winding down and of course we all know how that worked out for the rebel south. They were pissed off, to say the least. It is in this atmosphere of never give up, never surrender that The Conspirator begins.

After Booth shoots Lincoln, Mary Surratt is arrested and is to stand trial as a co-conspirator along with a group of young men, many of whom John knew . The movie posits the question, Was Mary in on the whole assassination plot from the beginning? Or was she an innocent woman whose only crime was having a son who couldn’t give up the fight? But John Surratt is not among the men standing trial. He fled town a couple weeks before the assassination. So, why was Mary arrested?

Robin Wright (now entirely Penn free!) plays Mary as beleaguered, dour, secretive. The part does not call for big drama, but Wright endows the character with saintly calmness: Mary would rather pay for her son’s sins than see him arrested and tried. The esteemed statesman Reverdy Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), takes it upon himself to see Mary Surratt gets a fair trial. Since it’s basically still wartime (the war is technically over, but not all generals from the south have surrendered), she is not being tried by a jury of her peers but by a military tribunal. At the insistence of the secretary of war Edwin Stanton (played with righteous indignation by Kevin Kline) Mary Surratt is to be used as an example, and found guilty no matter the trial’s outcome. 

Reverdy Johnson assigns young lawyer Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) to defend Mary in the courtroom. Here the movie both kicks into gear and stumbles. The story is interesting enough, even for those who paid attention in American History: everyone considers Mary Surratt just as guilty as the other proven conspirators. Aiken is war hero for the Union who agrees that Mary is guilty as hell, why should he defend her?

It’s an order and Aiken is a lawyer first and foremost. He’s smart, if a little naive. Digging into the facts, he realizes not all is as it seems. He rips apart the stories of the two witnesses for the prosecution, which is led by Danny Huston, in righteous bad-guy mode. He also starts visiting the boarding house to see Mary’s daughter, Anna (Evan Rachel Wood) who is understandably upset that her mother is on trial or her brother being sought as if he were a murderer. She’s hiding something. Mary too seems to be hiding something during Aiken’s visits to her cell. What was John Surratt really up to?

James McAvoy plays Aiken as if he is arguing a case in a John Grisham adaptation or trying out for a part in the latest TV show about younger lawyers. This is the mid 1800s but he moves and acts too petulantly, too impatiently. It’s like McAvoy studied the wrong movies and read the wrong books to prepare for the role. He looks good in a beard, but comes across as too contemporary. This is in contrast to many of the other players who have mastered the accents, language, and manners of the time. A beard does not a Civil War era character make. I know what you’re saying: Unreliable Narrator, you just admitted you know nothing about history. That doesn’t matter—what matters is that McAvoy’s Aiken fit well into the rest of the movie, and he stands out as a distraction.

That said, he certainly doesn’t ruin the movie. McAvoy’s miscasting grew on me, especially in the scenes where Aiken starts to come around to the facts of the case. Or rather, to the non-lies. It’s fun to watch him deconstruct the pre-planned testimony of the two witless witnesses to the chagrin of the tribunal. One of the witnesses is played by the wonderful Stephen Root, who has been showing up in lots of surprisingly places lately including Cedar Rapids. He does comedy and historical courtroom drama!

I saw The Conspirator the afternoon it opened. I knew nothing about it except it had to do with Lincoln’s assassination. I stayed away from all reviews—which I try to do anyway if I think I might review the movie myself. I had no idea Robert Redford directed the movie until the closing credits. During the movie it was fun to recognize the actors. The sight of so many well-known faces (the flick also stars Justin Long, Alexis Bledel, Norman Reedus, and Colm Meaney) can be distracting, especially for a movie that peddles in historical events. But without the Hollywood cast, The Conspirator would have played more like a History Channel docudrama with reenactments.

Redford’s direction is straightforward, letting the story and actors lead the way. It’s shot with a sepia tone and a gauzy lens. The politics are strictly liberal. At the end of the movie we are told that after this trial, all citizens arrested for a crime would be tried in a civilian courtroom in front of a jury of their peers (Guantanamo Bay much?). How you feel about The Conspirator depends on how you feel about the excitement and majesty of history and courtroom dramas.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Friday afternoon matinee, April 15th, 3:50. Price $8.50. Viewed solo. Snack-Fancy red licorice and a Builder's Bar.

Coming Attractions:

Circumstance. And I quote: "The audience at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival has given its top U.S. dramatic prize to Maryam Keshavarz's 'Circumstance,' a Farsi-language look at a pair of teenage lesbians in contemporary Iran. Sundance Film Festival Official website writes: 'Splendidly constructed and saturated with a sumptuous sense of style and sensuality, Circumstance marks the arrival of an exciting, original talent. First-time feature writer/director Maryam Keshavarz registers a rare glimpse of forbidden love in today’s Iranian youth.'"

Crazy Stupid Love. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Kevin Bacon, Julianne Moore. A young couple and an older couple going through dramady romantic escapades, while Ryan, a player, shows Steve, a shy, awkward dude, the ropes to picking up women. At least that's what I think happens. Along with some other stuff.

Everything Must Go. Will Ferrel stars in a movie based on a Raymond Carver short story. The movie's about a guy who's wife throws him out of the house (not quite what happened in the story) and he ends up living in the front yard. And since I based a movie on the same story, I happen to know it's Why Don't You Dance? But who wants to see a movie called that, when you could see one called Everything Must Go. My theory about movies based on short stories is that they have a better chance of being successful adaptations than those based on novels (too long to adapt well). I'm curious.

Larry Crowne. This one could be cute in a not-too-cloying way. Tom Hanks plays a guy who is fired from his job, downsized because he doesn't have a college degree. He goes back to school, and gets grumpy but cute teacher Julia Roberts. Lessons and love ensue. Tom Hanks also directs.

Tree of Life. Whatever this movie ends up being about, it will look gorgeous. Brad Pitt plays a father in some scenes, and later, after, Sean Penn plays one of his grown up sons. There's shots of oceans and sun and rain and other elements.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The King's Speech

Guest review by Muriel Smith.

Albert was never meant to be King. He was shy, retiring and had that awful stammer. He was the younger of the two brothers and everyone knows that the philandering older brother, Edward, should have been King.

In The King's Speech, Edward (Guy Pearce) comes across as a playboy who would rather be off playing with his friends, drinking, smoking cigarettes and chasing the love of his life, an American divorcee. Meanwhile, dependable, likable Albert (Colin Firth) stays home in the palace with his beautiful wife, the Duchess of York (Helena Bonham Carter) and their two daughters (the oldest little girl will eventually become Queen Elizabeth).

A flashback shows Albert (known as Bertie) at his father’s deathbed, trying to say goodbye. Bertie stammers and becomes flustered, at which point his dying father sits up in bed and bellows at him to stop stammering and learn how to speak. It becomes achingly clear that Bertie has had an unhappy childhood. Even his own brother calls him “b-b-b-b-Bertiie.”

Bertie’s wife helps him find a speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an eccentric Australian who, upon meeting Bertie, asks him what he would like to be called. Bertie replies, “You may call me Your Royal Highness,” to which Lionel answers, “I’ll call you Bertie.” Thus begins a lifelong struggle to improve Bertie’s speech as well as a long and happy friendship between the two men which goes on for the rest of their lives.

The acting in The King's Speech is superb. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush play off of each other with just the right amount of pizazz. Some of the funniest moments in the film are when Lionel has Bertie doing all kinds of acrobatics and histrionics to help him relax, and thus help him speak without stuttering.

When Lionel visits the palace for the first time, he is surrounded by luxury in an enormous room with one elegant chair placed in the center. As Lionel is about to sit down on it, Bertie jumps to attention, grabs Lionel and shouts, “Only Kings can sit in that chair.” Lionel continues to dance around the chair, trying to sit down, while Bertie struggles to keep him out of it. “No other person has ever sat in it,” Bertie says, “only Kings.” When Lionel finally succeeds in pushing Bertie out of the way and sits down, he gloats at Bertie as if to say, “I’ve won this round.”

This is, indeed, a great movie. I recommend it to everyone, young and old. And here lies my one criticism. Because of one short scene where Lionel has Bertie shouting the F-word like a rapid fire machine gun as fast and as loud and as long as he can keep it up, the film is rated R. If only he had used the D-word (duck) or the L-word (luck), then it would have been a perfect family film. Children would enjoy it and learn some history in the process.

I hope Hollywood takes note of the kinds of films millions of people want to see.

(Editor's note: A PG-13 version was recently released in a limited run. So, I think they took Muriel's recommendation to heart. Also, look for the movie on DVD and Blu-Ray on April 19th.)

Royal Cinemas, Harwich 6, $6.50 senior price.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Spoiler alert-o-meter: Nothing that you haven't seen in the trailer.

Limitless concerns the simple story of a simple writer, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), who, faced with a book deal deadline and no manuscript, accepts a free pill from a distant acquaintance who promises it will help him access 100% of his brain instead of the usual 20%. The pill works quickly. The first thing Eddie accomplishes is bedding his landlady. Next he cleans his apartment. Then he bears down and writes the first few chapters of his book within a day. This has his agent drooling for more. Problem is, he only had the one pill and after its effects dry up, so does his creative mojo.

He goes back to see his acquaintance. While out running an errand for him, the acquaintance is killed .The funny thing about these crazy pills is that after trying only one everybody needs a big stash of them by any means necessary. Eddie finds the body and, after calling 911, locates the rest of the pills and a convenient wad of cash. Cleared of any wrongdoing by the cops, he goes back to his little apartment and finishes his novel in four days.

With his novel done, he’s bored with writing (the bastard, I guess he was never a real writer to begin with) and decides he wants to use his brain in new and exciting ways. In dizzying succession he learns how to play the market, make some money, and position himself to make more. He finds new friends, and flies around the world to have dinner in any country he wants. He buys a great car and dates hot women of his dreams. He’s charming and outgoing and well groomed. He’s everything he could never be when he was just a slacker, drinking too much and slamming his soused noggin against the unresponsive keyboard.

He’s having such a good time, that he barely notices some shady-looking dude following him. Then there’s a Russian mafia guy he borrowed seed money from to start his money-making venture. That guy wants his money back. Hey, no problem. But after the Russian steals and ingests one of Eddie's last pills, he wants more than just his money. He wants more pills.

The plot, as I say, is pretty simple. But the filmmakers move you smoothly through Eddie's world, throwing curves into the story that you don’t always expect. Also, if you’ve seen the trailer, you may think you know the story already. But don’t be fooled. This is one movie that after the first hour moves beyond whatever the trailer leads you to believe happens, shifting gears and running serpentine through the second hour. The ending (at least for me) came as a pleasant surprise.

Throughout, the camera moves with a sometimes fluid, sometimes manic energy that drops you into Eddie's brain when he’s dosed (for lack of a better term—Eddie is, after all, taking drugs throughout the entire movie). When he takes a pill the world becomes more colorful. He sees mundane details close up as if for the first time—door knobs, the beautiful face of his young Asian landlady, the objects in her handbag, the shade of her fingernails, the logical trajectory of events just before they happen. 

When he runs out of pills, as we know he eventually must, we see his world fall back into muddy browns and reds. In a taut scene, his girlfriend, trapped by the aforementioned shady-looking dude in Central Park because she happens to be carrying the pills, takes one so she can focus better and figure out how best to get away. This gives the filmmakers a chance to show how the pill works on somebody else (she runs fast, charts her next moves lightning fast, and uses a child's ice skate blade as a weapon).

The pill is, of course, a hyper-strong variation of medication that has been on the market for decades. Ritalin, Adderall, Dexidrine. All designed to help people with ADD or ADHD focus better. Some people without these symptoms take these so-called smart drugs to not just help them focus, but to feel euphoria and control social anxiety. Students at highly competitive schools may take these meds to cram for exams or write a paper.

But none of these medications is mentioned in the movie. And while we see Eddie withdraw from the effects of the pill after he stops taking it, we don’t really see the kind of rapid decline that a true drug addict might experience going cold turkey. Oh, did I mention how, when you stop taking the pill, you end up a former shell of yourself, or dead? There is a plot twist which takes care of this last detail a little too cleanly. But this is a movie, and it needs to get wrapped up at the end of two hours.

Robert DeNiro shows up as the big wig at a big company that hires Eddie as a consultant to help him with an upcoming merger. It’s fun to watch Eddie outthink and outmaneuver his way to, if not the top, then a comfortable position where he can take care of himself and his girlfriend for the rest of his life. While making money seems to be the only thing he wants to accomplish, the finale reveals he wants to use his powers of perception for good, instead of being just another smart guy who makes money off the backs of people who aren’t as quick.

At times Limitless plays like a long episode of the Twilight Zone. Other times it's like watching a male fantasy come to life—what young male wouldn’t want to date beautiful women, drive fast cars, and access their memories to incorporate the most arcane knowledge they don’t even remember learning into a spry, disarming conversation? Oh, and look like Bradley Cooper, if that’s your thing. It's like Spike TV with an MBA. In a good way.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday night bargain show, March 29, 7:40. Price $6.00. Viewed with Liz. Snack-Fresh sliced apple.

Coming Attractions:

Insidious. Horror movie from the director of Saw and the producer of Paranormal Activity. Looks like a ghost story. Or a kid-possessed-by-devil story. Or both! Out today.

Apollo 18. What really happened on this moon landing (scary stuff) and why we never went back (boo!).

Arthur. Remake. No Dudley Moore. No Liza. Just Russell Brand and Helen Mirren. Too bad...wait what? Helen Mirren? Color me there.

Hannah. Some girl is raised as some kind super, hyper, special human. Is she bionic? Is she just pissed off. You decide.

Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal has to relive the same eight minutes on a train to figure out who blew it up (hey, I didn't write it). Each time he goes back in, he falls a little more for a young woman, played by Michelle Monaghan, until he's determined to save her from dying in the inevitable train explosion. Out today.

Thor. Third movie with a name for a title. Now in 3-D! Marvel Comics' Thor gets the big-budget treatment. With Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero, along with Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, and Anthony Hopkins. Not out yet.