Magic Words, Money, and The Roswell Award at Sci-Fest LA: City of Angels, Day 3
“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” John Cage
Bullish readers, this will be a long post about money and mindsets. Brace yourselves.
“Learn how to manage your writing money,” said Dean Wesley Smith at one workshop. “If you keep thinking of it as found money, you’ll keep frittering it away. Then one day, you’ll wake up and realize that you’ve spent all your money.”
At break time, I went up to him and Kris Rusch and said, “I see how that’s a problem if you overspend. But why is it a problem if you’re cheap?”
They couldn’t really answer, so I kept on saving my pennies and working on my writing, same as always. Except in the past year plus, I’ve started levelling up in my writing career. A few highlights: Terminally Ill hit the Kobo bestseller list and was called “entertaining and insightful” by Publishers Weekly and “utterly likeable” by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; Kobo chose me as their thriller writer for their Gone Girl campaign; I got my first short story publication in EQQM (“Om”); I was shortlisted for the Derringer Award for the best short mystery stories in the English language; I flew to LA as a finalist for the Roswell Award for Short Science Fiction.
They say women are better than men at saving money, and worse than men at taking risks that make money.
I could feel this happening with me. Now. When I’m at a point in my writing career when I can feel the need to ascend.
Frugality has always been my double-edged sword. I can squeeze pennies like a champ, but when I think back on my life, I’m ashamed of some of the things I did to save money.
So I flew to Los Angeles, knowing I only had a 1/6 chance of winning the Roswell Award, but I got to meet actors and producers and entrepreneurs and ask them the thing that’s most on my mind: what made you decide to take the risk of moving to L.A. for a career in the industry? Isn’t that basically a crazy thing to do?
I’m going to paraphrase from memory. Actors, please correct any errors if I’ve misquoted you or you want to change something.
“There are more opportunities here, and less access to opportunities. If in a smaller town there are 1000 actors for every job, here there are 10,000 actors for every spot. But I knew I would be able to make something work.”—Betsy Zajko
Betsy: I just knew.
I explained to her Jennifer Cruisie’s rats with islands philosophy. Betsy’s a rat with an island.
“It’s like a circle. Sometimes you’re at the top, and everything is great. Sometimes you’re at the bottom and you think you’ll never get anywhere. But most of the time, you’re in the middle, heading toward the top or the bottom of the circle.”—Burl Moseley
Burl was working in New York, but he saw more opportunities in L.A. Getting his first break was tough. The whole “how can you get a job if you don’t have experience” trap, multiplied a thousand times.
For the first year, he spent his time acting at kids’ birthday parties. It took a year for him to get his first break, and two years for things to flow. Now he can’t do parties anymore because he’s too busy. We only got to talk a few minutes before he skateboarded away. (Like I said, everyone drives, and parking is a problem, so he skateboards to and from his car.)
He wasn’t worried. He knew he’d be able to figure something out. “It’s all about the mindset.” I told him he was a rat with an island, too. I wrote about rats with islands over here (just search for rats; all my LiveJournal posts got imported as one block).
“Everyone wants to be a star without doing the training. I had the training.”—Cheryl Francis Harrington
I had no doubt. Not only was she a fine actor, but she was serious about her acting as a craft. She was willing to put in the time and energy.
Cheryl was the first actor to take an interest in my career and suggest I go on Imdb Pro and write a speculative script. “Did you go to the Writers’ Guild?”
I laughed. “I took a picture of the building.”
“You should go inside.”
I asked her about being a woman of colour in the industry, because even in 2015, it limits your options. She said, “Everyone gets pigeonholed. I’m a character actor.” Instead of worrying about politics, she said, “I’d rather be working.”
“Only five percent of SAG members make enough money to pay into the pension and get health insurance. This is not a good industry if you want to play the odds. This is something you do because you can’t not do it. Artists don’t get to choose.”—Tucker Smallwood
Tucker: What does failure mean to you?
Me: Well, what if I write something and nobody likes it?
Tucker: So it’s not commercial. Is that a failure?
Me: Well, no.
Tucker: If you wrote something worthwhile, something you believe in, then it has intrinsic value. If I get to interpret something, illuminate a scene in a way that no one else has done before me, then that’s a success.
“What kind of money are you talking about? A thousand dollars is nothing. Take ten thousand dollars a year, or whatever you’re comfortable with, and use that to get yourself out there. Go for it, girlfriend!”—Sasha
Sasha was my airbnb host. She was also an entrepreneur at the co-helm one international business before she spearheaded two more. She made me a feta omelette and toast for breakfast, and we talked on her little balcony. When I told her about my hesitation about spending $1000 to come here, a look of disgust swept across her face.
She believes in taking risks.
Doctors take calculated risks every day. The average American emergency physician gets sued every five years. So I’m used to taking risks at work. Just doing airbnb is a risk—my husband’s parting words to me were “Good luck, and stay in a hotel.” I take risks in my writing all the time, to keep it interesting for myself. I make friends with anyone.
But I never risked my writing money. I sat on $17,000 in my American bank account for four years because I thought “Better not touch that. I may never make another dime from my writing.” Which meant that I missed the big upsurge in index funds during that time. (Now it’s in the market, making a few hundred dollars. Well, better than nothing.)
It’s not that I’m suddenly going to spend $10,000 a year promoting myself. But I realized that I was asking these questions because my end goal is not selling a few books and patting myself on the back. I do want to explore every opportunity that comes by, on the off chance that something big might come of it.
Which meant I had to detach from my balance sheet. Yes, I would lose money on this trip to L.A. no matter what. And everyone here was saying, “So what?”
These are the dreamers, the artists, the actors and entrepreneurs who were all willing to move to the epicentre of the entertainment universe on the unlikely chance that they’ll make it. Or at least make it enough to keep on going.
For them, a thousand dollars was nothing.
Natalie Goldberg wrote a chapter in Wild Mind called “Who gave you permission?” She says that a writer will usually find someone who encouraged them along the way. For the past few months, subconsciously, I’ve been looking for permission to get a little crazy, more impractical, to stop counting pennies and start throwing down.
So I went to the Roswell Awards trying not to mind so much if I won or lost.
I’d decided to wear my beautiful full-length Oonu dress, a dress I could wear to the Oscars. And after my daughter Anastasia led me on a walk where she wore fairy wings and I wore a witch’s hat, I remembered the last time I was in L.A.: I won second place at Writers of the Future, and one of the artists, Aja, bought a large pair of red wings made out of real feathers and wore them down Hollywood Boulevard. Now I’m back for another award ceremony, I have a daughter I occasionally nickname Asia, and I would wear her wings.
The 300 submissions for the Roswell award came from around the world, including Russia, India, and the rest of Asia. Here are the final judges:
Katherine Fugate (Writer, “Xena Warrior Princess”)
Rosalind Helfand (Director, The Roswell Award)
Jack Kenny (Executive Producer, “Warehouse 13” “Falling Skies”)
Jordan Roberts (Screenwriter, “Big Hero 6”)
Mike Werb (Screenwriter, “Face Off,” “The Mask”)
Maryelizabeth Hart (Co-owner, Mysterious Galaxy Books)
Rosalind stressed how difficult it was to choose the finalists, and for the first time, I thought, Hey. That is pretty impressive. It is pretty unlikely (a 2% statistical chance) of getting picked. It is an honour to be here.
I should’ve known that before, but I guess it’s a bit of imposter’s syndrome, that at the back of my mind, I think, Well, I did it, so it can’t be too major.
But look how hard it was to get here. Hats off to the honourable mentions! I’d like to read Catherine W. Cheres’s story. She seemed very cool, and not just because she shared her bruschetta with me.
Next, the Hollywood actors read our stories. They didn’t tell us ahead of time who was reading or what order they’d read.
1. Grandma’s Sex Robot by William Hawkins: well, what would you do if Grandma made her sex robot an active part of her life? Funny with a poignant ending, read emphatically and unapologetically by Gates McFadden, the Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I was a little disappointed that she wasn’t reading my story, but she was perfect with this one.
2. Sowing Seeds by Donna Glee Williams: a story about giving your children up for an uncertain future. A touching story read beautifully by Jasika Nicole (“Scandal” & “Fringe”), a young woman whom I could just picture as a mother making this heartbreaking choice. Interestingly, she was the only actor who used an electronic reader. The others read their stories off of paper copies.
3. RN2399 / 2037 by Liam Hogan: a letter to the narrator’s alternate self, who could save the world. Armin Shimerman (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) did such a good job on this one, flowing right through the jargon at the beginning to the meat of the story without a hitch.
4. Inside by T. Lucas Earle: Great story about a relationship where you have to dig past the surface, but the narrator likes to act instead of asking questions. Patricia Tallman (Babylon 5) rocked deadpan lines like “Sometimes he goes down on me….Sometimes I go down on him, but he doesn’t seem to like it, but he says it’s him, not me.”
5. Cardiopulmonary Arrest by Melissa Yuan-Innes. This one’s mine. By now I was really wondering who would read my story.
So when the bio said he was from London, I thought, yes, this calculating story would work so well with a British accent. And then Simon Kassianides (Agents of SHIELD) came out in his perfectly cut black suit and black shirt, and I was thrilled. Thrilled, I tell you. Look at him!
Plus I got to listen to him. Sorry, we weren’t allowed to record it, but he delivered the word “proboscis”—and the rest of the story—flawlessly.
After he finished, he mouthed the word, “Brilliant.”
Now, I know that British people throw the word brilliant around more than North Americans do, but it still felt good. The author stood up after every story, so I planted my feet and waved my wand at the audience while they applauded. And I loved chatting with Simon onstage afterward (more on that later).
6. Heaven Scent by John McCollum. A light-hearted story about a dog who discovers an aquatic man, read comically by David Blue (Stargate Universe) who was dressed in a chicken T-shirt.
And the winner was…Grandma’s Sex Robot by William Hawkins! Who can resist a sex robot, after all?
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“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” ~Winston S. Churchill
“The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense.”― Thomas A. Edison
“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.” — Mary Lou Cook