Sunday, January 29, 2012

On Being a Screenwriter (or Down the Rabbit's Hole)

I am so excited about having the opportunity to get my mystery novel, On the Road to Death’s Door, out to people via Amazon.  But the format I honed my skills on is screenwriting.  

Back in the 1990s I had the opportunity to team up with Christine DeSmet, a wonderful writing teacher at UW-Madison. We wrote a pilot script for a tv series we’d invented called Ask Gloria.  That pilot earned us a spot in the Warner Brothers Comedy Writers Workshop. Over three hundred people had competed to get into the workshop, and eleven of us were chosen.  We spent a week–all expenses paid–at a posh hotel in Chicago.  Our instructor was Reinhold Weege, the creator and producer of one of the most popular sitcoms of the late ‘80s, Night Court. 

We had a fantastic time and learned an amazing amount.  But what we discovered about ourselves was that neither of us was interested in moving to L.A., and neither of us was interested in working 12 to 15 hour days (often long after the actors leave the set), both prerequisites to becoming professional sitcom writers. Oh, we loved the writing.  We just weren’t interested in the lifestyle.

So, we switched our focus to feature film writing, something a writer can do from anywhere in the world. Over the years we’ve written ten screenplays together. We’ve done a lot of marketing, taken two trips out to L.A. together, won a couple of awards, and had a couple scripts optioned. But that big break remains elusive.

Our biggest success was with a screenplay called Chinaware Fragile that we co-wrote with Bob Shill of Veradale, Washington.  Based on the true life story of Dolly Cameron, Chinaware Fragile tells the story of the sex-slave trade in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 1900’s.  Sadly, the social issues mirror much of what is still going on today.  Dolly ran a mission house that rescued the slave girls; she was bold, fearless, and passionate about her cause.

Chinaware-Fragile took the first place award in an alternative film festival call Slamdance, which took place in Park City, Utah at the same time as the famed Sundance Film Festival.  That win garnered us a manager who helped us get an option deal with New Line Cinema.  New Line paid us decent money for the option, and it looked for a while like the movie was going to go into production as they shopped around for a director and a lead actress.  However, they couldn’t seem to interest a director into taking on the movie, at least not for what they were willing to pay.  And it turns out they were in the middle of funding a huge gamble on a fantasy trilogy being directed by a then unknown New Zealand director named Peter Jackson. Yeah, it was Lord of the Rings. 

So Chinaware Fragile languished.  New Line renewed the option a couple of times, but eventually the rights reverted back to us. So…if you know a director or producer looking to do a period action movie about an amazing woman who made a difference in the lives of the people she touched, please, send him or her our way!

Chris and I haven’t given up.  We’re still writing and still networking.  But we’ve branched out.  Together we’ve dabbled in playwriting.  Individually, Chris writes romance novels (more about that to come!) and is beginning her own mystery series. I’ve been freelancing, writing corporate and educational video scripts—all of which have been produced—and working on the mystery novel with my other writing partner Mary Joy.

One of my favorite compliments about On the Road to Death’s Door is that the final chapters are impossible to put down.  I credit that to my screenwriting experience.  I’ve learned to write stories that are visual and action-oriented. 

But I think the most important thing I’ve learned from all my years as a screenwriter is to never give up. Someday I’ll see my words on the big screen. But until that happens, I’ll just keep on writing. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Stephen Colbert Interviews Maurice Sendak

OMG! OMG! OMG!  Did you catch Stephen Colbert’s interview with Maurice Sendak? 

Spoiler alert: Where The Wild Things Are is not what you think it is…according to Sendak. 

And Sendak is not what you might think he is.  

But…what a wonderful old curmudgeon! A gay old curmudgeon, by his own admission. 


He had some not very nice things to say about a particular current politician.  And he accused Colbert of being “a man of little imagination.” 

If you are someone who needs to believe in the innocence of childhood as portrayed by books like Where the Wild Things Are…then, yeah…don’t watch the video. 


And I’m not even going to get into what Colbert did to In the Night Kitchen. Except to say that his copy is now filled with conspicuous little holes, and he has a plastic baggy full of tallywackers.

But…if you like a surprise, and can accept people as they are, and you delight in curmudgeons – even those who had a hand in buildilng the foundations of your (or your child’s) literary life – then check out the interview.  Here’s the link:

                     * * Stephen Colbert's Interview with Maurice Sendak * *

                   * * Pt. 2 of Stephen Colbert's Interiew with Maurice Sendak * * 

                              * *   Uncensored - Maurice Sendak Tribute   * *  

Please post your comments and let me know what you think!


[Image: "Where The Wild Things Are" graffiti, in Kelsey-Woodlawn, Saskatoon, SK, Canada by Scott Woods-Fehr]

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Guest Blogging for Kindle Mystery Blog

One of the fun things about blogging, I’m discovering, is networking with and getting to know other bloggers.  This week I had the opportunity to write a “guest blog” for J.P. Hansen’s Kindle Mystery Blog. 

Titled, “Research Brings Mystery Writing Alive,” my guest piece focuses on the variety of experiences Mary Joy and I had while doing our research for our book On the Road to Death’s Door up in Door County and elsewhere.  As I said in the blog spot, I love research.  You can learn so many interesting things and meet so many interesting people.  And it’s turning out that my new adventure with blogging and getting to know other bloggers is also helping me to learn interesting new things and meet interesting new people. 

For instance, J. P. Hansen is an author and a freelance editor.  His book, The Vanilla Lawyer inthe Mayhem Blues, takes place against a backdrop of corporate greed, race relations, and politics in the music business.   J.P. also enjoys writing poetry.  In between writing gigs, J.P. pays the bills by working as an editor. He works with a variety of businesses, non-profits, and charities, as well as writers and publishers. 

My thanks to J.P. for giving me the opportunity to contribute my voice to his blog. (I’ll be asking him to return the favor in the near future).  Please take a hop on over to the Kindle Mystery Blog to check out my writing there.


Friday, January 20, 2012

What 1,000,000 Means to Me

I have so many things I want to blog about, but I think I will delve into politics for a bit. Disclaimer: I am an unabashed progressive. Very much a liberal, though a perhaps a bit moderate in my later years. If you can’t stand people who think true Americans take care of other Americans, then perhaps you want to stop here (you can wait, and read my next blog for a different topic).

So…one million.


David M. Schwartz, in his picture book How Much is a Million? says that if a million kids climbed onto each others shoulders, they would reach higher into the sky than airplanes could fly.


One million cheeseheads…stack them up. That’s how many people think Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin neglected to tell them during his campaign that he was going to tromp on collective bargaining, dump on public workers, and slash Badgercare and school spending while promising to give public money to private schools. He did tell us he was going to kill the high speed train project, and the jobs it would have brought to the state. But I guess some people didn’t believe him.


I’ve always had a backseat interest in politics. But a year ago (11 months, to be exact) I took four days off school without pay to exercise my right to speak out against what I believe to be the tyranny of corporate funding of politicians. People will say the “union bosses” made us do it. But I sat in an MTI meeting for over four hours while teachers debated the pros and cons of continuing the protests. It was agonizing. We voted. No one told us what to do.


However, Scott Walker refused to listen to the hundreds of teachers and state workers who showed up at the Capitol Building. By the next week thousands were marching. Still the governor didn’t listen. Some of the Republican legislators described the protestors as “smelly college students” and “out of state union thugs.” I’m here to tell you that there were people older than me marching, people in wheel chairs and with canes, people with babies and young children, public workers and private sectors people with signs supporting public workers. I hate crowds, but I was inside the capitol building (before they found ways to shut people out) when there were 5,000 people or more, singing and shouting. No one smelled. And I never felt unsafe.


What I find most amazing is that each week the crowds grew larger and more vocal, and yet our governor refused to listen. He kept talking about a mythical “silent majority” that he believed supported him. The weekend that the farmers came to the Square with their tractors, over 100,000 people showed up to support the State Senators who’d left the state in order to stop a vote and to give the people of the State time to think about was in the proposed bill the governor was rushing through in his first weeks in office. The governor refused to listen.


We recalled two Republican legislators over the summer. And kept all of the Democratic ones that were up for recall in office. The governor still refused to listen.


So this fall I helped collect signatures to petition for a recall of Gov. Scott Walker. I wrote an op ed for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel detailing my reasons why. In the print version of the newspaper, they paired my piece with an anti-recall op-ed. That’s fair. Discourse and debate is always good. Over 300 people commented on my essay. A lot of them in childish, mean-spirited ways. But, hey, democracy is messy. I knew what I was getting into when I went public with my opinions.


You need to know that the recall effort – the collection of all those signatures – was truly a grassroots effort. I know. I went to the organizing meeting. I stood on a street corner in the cold and snow with others, collecting signatures on a Saturday morning.


And now the results are in. More than one million people have declared that they want a new election. They want a second chance to vote for someone who will respect democracy and listen to them. Is Scott Walker listening now? Nah. He fled the state. On the day the signatures were delivered to the Government Accountability Board, Gov. Walker was in New York arranging to get more campaign money from corporate bigwigs.


One million people. 


That is so awesome. We could climb on each other’s shoulders and reach past the place where planes fly. We can reach toward hope. Maybe then the governor will listen.
[Photo Capitol Protest: Nicole O'Connor/www.nicole-oconnor.com]
[Photo Crowd Protest: ra_hurd/Flickr]

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My Mystery Novel: On the Road to Death’s Door


It’s not news to anyone who knows me that I recently co-wrote and published a mystery novel called On the Road to Death’s Door. The story takes place in Wisconsin’s scenic Door County. The heroes of the novel are a retired couple, Emily and Stan Remington.
My wonderful co-writer is Mary Joy Johnson, my sister-in-law. We are publishing under the pen name M.J. Williams. Mary Joy’s maiden name is Williams. And my legal maiden name is Margaret Mary Joque. So we both have MJ as initials in our names. And we both have the connection to the Williams name (I got mine from her brother—my wonderful hubby Mark).
The book is currently available in e-format for the Kindle at Amazon.com and for the Nook at Barnes and Noble. It will also soon be available in paperback through Amazon and, hopefully, other vendors. We are independently publishing it through Amazon’s print-on-demand service called CreateSpace.
You’ll be hearing lots about the book in posts to come, so that’s all I’ll say for now. Except that writing the book was so much fun—we spent a week up in Door County doing on-site research—that we’ve decided to make it into a series. The second book will be called On the Road to Where the Bells Toll. It takes place in Boston.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why am I Blogging? And Why MadCityWriter?

I blog because writing is just something I have to do. And it’s a way to procrastinate from writing my novels and screenplays, while feeling like I’m doing something legitimate.

I certainly don’t believe I am a great writer, or even a particularly good writer. However, expressing my thoughts via a keyboard is as second nature to me as picking up a book to read when I sit down to use the…ahem…you know what I mean. And yes, it has to be a keyboard. While I will take pen or pencil to paper in a crunch, I do my best internal thinking when my fingers hover over the QWERTY pad. I'm a big believer in the power of journaling. It seems to me that blogging is just another form of journaling--a very public one, however.

Why MadCityWriter? I took that name on several years ago because I thought it was kind of clever, and it’s easy to remember. Mad, of course, is for Madison, which is often nicknamed MadCity, and does have its own sort of bizarre culture. The problem with using my own name is that Peggy Williams is probably one of the most common names in the universe. And, there’s another Peggy Williams (from Madison, if you can believe it) who is a clown. I don’t like clowns. I don’t dislike that Peggy Williams. I just don’t like clowns. [Image: africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

Monday, January 16, 2012

Welcome to Musings of a MadCityWriter!

My goal with this blog is to entertain, inform, and perhaps even engage you, the reader, as I embark on this new segment of my journey as a writer, a reader, a teacher, and an observer of life.

My life as a writer: I have always been a writer. I worked on my class newpaper in fourth grade, engaged in round robin writing with a group of friends during my middle school years (we were working on the next great Beatles movie!), worked on my highschool newspaper for three years, won a state level essay contest sponsored by the Pepsi Co. my senior year of high school, and enjoyed writing provocative essays for assignments in college.

As a freelancer, I have worked writing corporate and educational videos; I’ve written magazine and newspaper articles; I’ve contributed a vast amount of content to online enterprises such as Suite101.com and Examiner.com; I’ve co-written a dozen screenplays and a couple of plays; and most recently I co-wrote and published a mystery novel. I have also written a children’s novel that I hope to publish soon.

My life as a reader: I tend to enjoy non-fiction more than fiction lately, but I try to read widely, if not prolificly. I love discussions about books, and enjoy listening to authors talk about their books on NPR and other forums.

My life as a teacher: my experience for years and years and years was on the kindergarten/first grade level. I have been both a private/Catholic and public school teacher. I have a B.S. in education from Michigan State University (Go Sparty!) and a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Bucky!) in curriculum & instruction. Most recently I moved out of the classroom and into a position where I provide professional development to teachers while still keeping my hand in testing and providing academic intervention to students one on one.

As a life observer, I probably have no more insight or an interesting life than anyone else. But including this gives me the flexibility to expand my “musings” on this blog. Hopefully you will find my musings worth the read and worth checking back in to see what else I may have to offer.

I’m also open to ideas, so feel free to leave comments, especially if there is something specific you would like me to muse upon; or if you would like to muse upon my musings, please do so.

Mark Twain said, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." I guess I'm about to remove all doubt. Wish me luck!