About G Robert Frazier

After a lengthy detour as a reporter and editor for a daily newspaper telling true stories, now I'm making stuff up as an author and screenwriter.

Screenwriting Twitter is a thing

Screenwriting Twitter is a thing that can be educational, empowering, and oftentimes amusing.

For those uninitiated, screenwriting Twitter is where all the would-be, hopeful, and think-they-are-expert screenwriters, along with a few actual industry folks, hang out when they’re not writing because, well, writing is procrastinating for most and Twitter is the epitome of procrastination.

In any event, on any given day you are likely to find robust debates on all things screenwriting, from copyrighting your work to whether you should share loglines with the rest of the world to how to format your sluglines (bold!). Keep in mind there is a camp of writers who contend there are no rules of screenwriting, that you can do as you like because no one, including Hollywood (which some say isn’t a thing), knows what they want or can agree on how they want it. There are “guidelines” and “conventions” and patterns, but if you trust books like Save the Cat you should be shunned and shamed. That’s because it follows a proven formula of how movies have been made and, heaven forbid, if your story should follow an existing pattern or formula and not think outside of the box (but that’s fodder for another article altogether).

Bottom line, you must take everything you read or hear and ultimately make up your own mind because no one in this industry really knows anything.

Supposedly, screenwriting Twitter (#screenwriting) is also great for networking and building relationships with other like-minded screenwriters. I’ve followed a few Twitter “regulars” and interacted with some of their tweets, but I haven’t really developed any “friendships” or “connections” yet. These things take time. I did draw the attention of Stage 32 (an online screenwriting site that provides script services, webinars, and pitch meetings with execs – for a fee, of course!) who sent me a nice message saying they’d seen me on Twitter and invited me to contact them to help further my career.  I haven’t taken them up on the “offer” yet. It seems there is money involved and, well, I don’t have any.

I also enjoy Twitter for its occasional fun tweets. You can often find threads about favorite movies, movie tropes, and jokes about screenwriting. It’s somehow comforting to know that others are going through the same feelings of doubt and insecurities about writing as you are and that you can laugh about it.

Most of the time, the screenwriting community is supportive and encouraging. Members routinely chime in to help celebrate even the smallest of individual accomplishments, whether that is finishing a first draft of a script, placing in a contest, or, better yet, landing a manager, agent, job in a TV writers’ room, or a spec sale! I’m in this camp because I firmly believe in supporting creatives regardless of where they are in their careers.

That can’t be said of many in the Facebook screenwriting community who can be downright rude, insensitive, and condescending. This group would much rather malign you for your incomplete loglines, your pesky questions about the craft, or your requests for feedback on your work. It’s gotten so bad in a couple of the screenwriting Facebook groups that I’ve quit the groups and have had to block some users. I just don’t have time or patience to put up with haters and “better-than-you-alls.”

That’s not to say that all Facebook screenwriting groups behave that way. The Tennessee Screenwriting Association, of which I am a page administrator, strives to be supportive and always encouraging. We know screenwriters are at various levels of their career and if we can help them out or point them in the right direction to furthering their craft, we’ll happily do that.

I guess what I’m saying is, pick and choose your friends and groups carefully. No one likes a hater, no one likes a know-it-all.

So, enough about that. Time to recap the week:

Writing update

So, last week I had a goal of finishing a spec script based on the TV show What We Do in the Shadows (the new season starts next week on FX!). I’m still not there yet, but I’m closer. Maybe this week will see me cross the finish line.

I also had planned to outline a new comedy pilot, which is a spinoff to my 2019 Austin Film Festival finalist screenplay ZARS: Zombie Apprehension & Relocation Service. I’ve already got the teaser or cold open written (that’s generally what is known as the first scene of the script that serves as a tease to the episode ahead). I also have a couple scenes mapped out, but I still need to come up with the connective tissue that will hold everything together.

Both of those projects will be at the top of my to do list for this week. Then it’s on to my feature script Jerry Lonely and planning/outlining/character work for a mystery novel I’ve got up my sleeve.

Reading update

I finished reading The Good Death by S.D. Sykes and Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger and wrote a book review for BookPage. I’ll let you know whey it gets published. In the meantime, my review of Small Favors by Erin A. Craig has been posted on Chapter 16’s website.

Next up is City on Fire by Don Wilson (it doesn’t go on sale until April but I’ve got an ARC!) and Horror Library Vol. 1, a collection of horror short stories newly republished by Dark Moon Books.

And on the comic book front, I’m reading Batman: The Adventures Continue, Season One, which reprints the first eight issues of the comic book series continuation of the Batman animated TV series.

That’s it for this time out. Tune in again next week as I ramble on about something else.

Skipping Killer Nashville conference a difficult choice

Some devious and cunning minds will gather in Franklin (TN) this week for the Killer Nashville writing conference. I wish I could be with them, but this whole Covid pandemic thing has convinced me otherwise.

I’m fully vaccinated (although apparently a third shot is in the cards), and KN organizer Clay Stafford promises the conference and hotel are taking precautions, but I’m not comfortable taking any chances. Heck, I’m still masking up everywhere I go and I’m still using Walmart’s pickup service for my groceries until this all blows over.

Killer Nashville founder Clay Stafford poses with guests Joyce Carol Oates and David Morrell.

Killer Nashville is one of my favorite events every year, which makes missing out so difficult.

The four-day event held each August (this is its 15th gathering after skipping last year because of the pandemic) attracts some of the best authors from across the globe for informative, educational, and entertaining panels on writing mystery, crime, and thrillers across a variety of mediums, including novels, short stories, and screenplays.

Anne Perry

The event is typically headlined by a few best-selling authors. Past guests have included Jeffery Deaver, William Kent Krueger, Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Max Allen Collins, Anne Perry, and Janet Evanovich, to name just a few. This year’s conference honors guests Walter Mosley, Lisa Black, and Tennessee’s own J.T. Ellison.

In addition to a nonstop slate of panels presented by attending authors and other guests, the event features an awards banquet for best published and unpublished novel in numerous categories, a mock crime scene to test your deductive skills, and pitch meetings with agents and editors.

But perhaps one of the best aspects of the conference is just meeting and networking with folks. I’ve met numerous authors and am fortunate to call them friends. The writing community at Killer Nashville is just that – a community of writers who genuinely support and encourage each other in all phases of their writing journey.

Clay Stafford

The event, of course, wouldn’t be the success it is without the vision of KN founder Clay Stafford (there’s a great interview with him here) and dedication of his staff. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside each of them over recent years as a book reviewer, Claymore contest reviewer, and volunteer. I even served on a panel one year, which still blows my mind.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.

Writing Week in Review

My co-writer Jay Wright and I finished some revisions to our crime feature script Kings of Mississippi and submitted it to the Finish Line Screenplay Contest. We got some excellent feedback on our first read through from one of their readers that strengthened some of the emotional elements of the script. Now we wait and see if the revised script makes the quarterfinals cut.

I also tweaked a short horror script I wrote called Kurupira and entered it in the Fresh Blood Selects contest.

My other short horror script Skin, which just narrowly missed the Finals stage in the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition, failed to even make it to the quarterfinals in The Script Lab’s Free Screenwriting Competition. Sigh. Of course, there were 13,000 entries overall and only the top 1,000 made the first round of cuts. I’m sure Skin must have been right there knocking on the door, though, probably at No. 1001. Yeah.

And I made a little more progress on my spec script episode of What We Do in the Shadows. If you’re familiar with the FX show, you know it’s about a trio of vampires living in Staten Island. In my episode, Nandor and his familiar Guillermo attend a “Vampires Anonymous” meeting, while Laszlo and Nadja go to a Little League baseball game. To coin a phrase, hilarity ensues.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had planned to start on my feature script Jerry Lonely, but I’m still outlining it. Hopefully, I’ll have all the major plot points worked out and be ready to do the actual writing in September. The title has piqued the interest of several readers who want to know more, but all I will say about it at this point is that I’ve been watching The Godfather movies as prep work.

Which brings me to: My writing calendar.

Every couple of months or so I revise and prioritize my list of ongoing writing projects. I have a list of screenplays (shorts, TV pilots, and features) and other writing projects (shorts stories and novels) that I try to juggle. I try to match it up with upcoming contest or submission deadlines and then go from there.

Often, my plans go to hell, and I find myself having to reconfigure them a couple months later. But at least I’m trying.

I plan to use these weekly blog posts in part to help hold myself accountable to my writing plans by posting updates on my progress each week. My goal in the week ahead is to finish the first draft of the What We Do in the Shadows script and outline a TV pilot script. Check back here next week and I’ll let you know how I did.

What I’m Reading

Last week, I posted about the importance of reading and I’ve been making progress on my to be read pile.

I read the pilot script for the Emmy-nominated Hacks and listened to a streaming panel with the creators and actors, courtesy of Deadline’s Contenders series. There are more than a dozen other panels with the creators and stars of other Emmy-nominated shows on the platform, all free to view online.

I also finished reading a screenplay from one of my fellow Tennessee Screenwriting members and will be sending him some notes after I post this.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger, which I should finish by the weekend. I’ll then start on The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. I’m reviewing both books for BookPage.

Until next time…

Read everything, read always

Welcome to another weekly installment of my blog.

Since I updated you on my writing efforts last week, I thought I’d take this week’s space to write about my other passion: reading.

They really go hand in hand, of course. If you’re going to be a great writer, whether it’s a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, or journalist, you need to be well-read. You need to not only keep up on your respective industry’s news and highlights, but you also need to read what others are writing. And, more importantly, you need to study.

“People like to say that the best advice they can give to writers is to read a lot. And that’s true, of course. But you shouldn’t just read literature. You should read life. Read movies, and art, and people. Read everything around you, very critically. Then build your method out of that process.”

— Anthony Veasna So

I know, it sounds like work. But if you’re passionate about it, like I am, then reading is a pleasure.

When I first ventured into screenwriting, I really didn’t know much about the craft at all. I bought a few books about screenwriting to learn about the basics: character arcs, story structure, format, and so on. (The folks over at Script Reader Pro have put together a great list of the 12 Best Screenwriting Books to Read in 2021, if you’re interested. And as if that isn’t enough, they also have a nifty list of the 8 Best Non-Screenwriting Books That Will Help You Become a Better Screenwriter, focusing on such topics as fear of failure, productivity, creativity, motivation, the ego, stress, sleep, inspiration and more.)

Of course, there’s only so much you can get from a book on the craft. To really experience the nuances and intricacies of screenwriting, you must read screenplays. The more you read, the easier it is to recognize how other writers…write. What they do well, how they do what they do.

When I first ventured into the screenwriting game, I enlisted as a script reader for the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition in 2014. After an introductory session on what to look for in a good screenplay, I was off and running. I think I read over a hundred scripts in my first year! I even got to serve as a judge one year.

The folks at Nashville appreciated me so much, they recommended me as a reader for the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition. I’ve read for them for several years now, although I haven’t read nearly as much over the last two years. For one thing, I’ve been writing more so I’ve had to limit my reading output. And, secondly, I’ve focused more intently on reading screenplays from produced shows and movies. Instead of reading with a mindset of looking for what not to do, I’m reading with an eye toward what screenwriters did to make their scripts sing.

Scott Myers, who writes the daily Go Into the Story blog, has compiled this list of 30 screenplays to read. And if that’s not enough, there’s more here. He even has a seven-part series on How to Read a Screenplay for structure, characters, themes, style, and more.

Reading the scripts for Academy Award nominees and Emmy-nominated scripts has been a new priority for me. These are supposed to be the best of the best scripts, so I try to give each of them a thorough read. Fortunately, there are numerous sites online that make the award-nominated scripts available. Every time I see one listed, I immediately download and save it to my cloud server. (Scripts tend to disappear from the internet after a while, so it’s best to save them when you can.).

I’m currently reading this year’s crop of Emmy-nominated scripts (including the pilot episodes for Ted Lasso, The Queen’s Gambit, Lovecraft Country,  The Crown, and many others) ahead of the awards show in September. I admit, I haven’t seen a lot of the episodes – I’m limited to what’s on Amazon Prime and DirecTV – as there are too many streamers out there. But reading the scripts can be equally as educating and entertaining.

The Script Lab has a great library of screenplays of produced movies you can download and read. And if you want to read what some of the best unproduced screenwriters are writing, you can check out some of the top winning scripts from The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship.

I’m also always happy to read screenplays from screenwriting peers and provide feedback. The Tennessee Screenwriting Association meets each week to read and critique scripts from members.  I recently read fellow member Elvis Wilson’s Driving Top Down, which is a semifinalist in the Vail Film Festival screenwriting competition, and Bob Giordano’s new script, Southern Draw.

I also recently had the pleasure of reading the hilariously entertaining How to Make it in Hollywood by Christopher O’Bryant and Shia LeBeouf Won the Wrong Mutherf*ckin’ Screenwriting Competition by Kevin Nelson, both of whom I came across on Twitter (I’ll write about networking, another important aspect of the screenwriting game, another time).

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”

— Dr. Seuss

If I’m not reading screenplays, I’ve more than likely got my nose in a book. I read and review books regularly for BookPage and Chapter 16 (click the links to see my reviews). I used to get a lot of ARCs (advance reader copies) of books before they hit the shelves, but since the pandemic started the books have largely migrated to electronic versions (which I don’t prefer, although I do have a Kindle and tablet). I favor physical copies, but I make do as best I can. I’ve even been “reading” some audio books for BookPage (another topic for another day).

I’m currently reading a pair of mystery/crime thrillers, Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger and The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. And waiting in the wings, Don Winslow’s City on Fire. (Sadly, Winslow just announced he’s delaying the release of the book until early 2022 because he’s canceling his book appearances this fall due to the pandemic. He was slated to be at this year’s Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but will hopefully reschedule for next year’s event.)

I’m also making my way through the recently re-issued seven-volume Horror Library series of books from Dark Moon Books, which I’ll be reviewing on this and other sites.

And finally, I scour the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and my e-mail for tips on the craft of writing as well as industry-related news. I’ll pass along links to some of the more interesting and useful articles in future blogs (something I used to do here quite often).

But I’ve rambled long enough. Let me know what you’re reading in the comments!

A near miss, a spec script, and a screenplay in a month

Hello and welcome to my website.

I’m relaunching these weekly posts highlighting my writing life. It’s a way to hold myself accountable on my writing goals and a way to commiserate with like-minded creative souls (as well as a few old friends!).

These columns will include a little of everything. And by that, I mean I may write about topics of interest, tips or lessons learned about the craft, upcoming webinars or events I think may be of interest, and, of course, updates on what I’m writing, reading, and more.

You may not care, or you may find a link or nugget of information valuable to you within. Either way, you can tell your friends and family someday, “I knew him when…”

Today, I’m talking about my short screenplay “Skin,” screenplay readers, and why it’s important to have a spec TV script in your portfolio.

So, let’s get started!

What I’m Writing

My short screenplay “Skin” – a macabre little number about an unusual couple who survive by wearing the skins of their victims and their argument over one of their next skins — advanced to the semifinals of the Nashville Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition! According to script competition director Cat Stewart, my script got “a few finalist votes,” but that wasn’t enough as only unanimous finalist vote-getters made the elite Finals round. So, close but no cigar.

Still, it’s exciting that it had such a good run in the contest, reaching the top 13 scripts in the shorts category. Unlike last year when I entered my TV comedy pilot “Bill Fisher’s Trading Post” (also a semifinalist!), the pool for shorts was written by writers from anywhere in the world, not just Tennessee. And it still reached semis and damn near got into the finals!

I must be doing something right!  

The truth is screenplay contests are all very subjective. One reader/judge may be absolutely blown away by your words, another may only be mildly impressed. People have different tastes. You never know how they are feeling going into the read. Maybe they had a long day in their real job or were facing a family situation (this Covid pandemic is enough to stress everyone out!), so they weren’t in the mood. Maybe they had a great day and were ready for someone to wow them. Maybe they weren’t especially keen on horror with a socio-political twist. Maybe they were looking for a laugh instead.

So many factors go into any read.

An earlier version of the same script made quarterfinals in the Killer Shorts Screenplay Competition in January before bowing out.  But it failed to even make quarters in either the Filmmatic Shorts Competition or the Holly Shorts Competition. So, you never know. In the end, it’s just a matter of connecting with the right reader.

Kind of like winning the lottery.

So, what now? Nashville is including the logline and synopsis for the script in its competitions packet for interested producers, so we’ll see if it gets any bites. I may also post it on Ink Tip, which is a site where you can post your scripts for possible producers who may be interested in optioning it. Another possibility would be to film the script myself. I know several people who have had some film experience who I’m sure would be more than happy to help.  I don’t think I’m at that point yet, but it’s certainly something to think about. I’ve entered it in a couple of other screenwriting contests and am waiting to see how it does in those.  

In the meantime, I’ve been working on finishing up a spec script based on the What We Do in the Shadows TV series. My goal was to have it finished and entered in the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Contest, but that deadline has come and gone. More likely, I’ll try to enter it in another upcoming contest on my calendar. Last year I wrote a spec for Young Sheldon, the spinoff series from The Big Bang Theory. It was loads of fun and is one of my favorite scripts, and this one is proving to be just as much fun.

Writing specs (which are scripts set in the world of an existing TV show) used to be one of the tried-and-true ways people broke into the screenwriting industry. But with the thirst for new material by all the different streamers, cable channels, and networks, original series scripts are more sought after than ever. That doesn’t mean having a spec or two in your portfolio is a bad idea. It can serve as proof that you can write to whatever show in whatever voice that’s needed.

And like I said, it’s fun. Like fan fiction, only better.

This month, I’m participating in Goal Post, a one-month challenge to write a screenplay from start to finish. If I can churn out three script pages a day, mission accomplished. It’s eminently doable and, if nothing else, will serve as a good incentive to push myself to finish another script. It may come out like crap (most first drafts do!), but it will give me something to work on, polish, and make stronger.

I’m still playing with the title, but for now I’m calling it “Jerry Lonely.” How does that sound?

I’ll keep you posted each week on my progress.

Until next time, then…Keep writing!

G. Robert Frazier

Ranting and Raving: Journalism may not be fake, but it’s lazy

Fake news? Nah, more like lazy news.

Journalism today isn’t what it used to be. Part of that has to be because of the overly cautious news sources who routinely withhold information out of so-called privacy concerns. But, back in the day, journalists had ways to work around such roadblocks. They had sources inside of sources who could point them to the answers they sought.

And when that failed, there were databases they could access for other information. (There still are.)

Nowadays, however, it seems if a source says “no, I can’t give you that information,” that’s it. End of story. No further effort required. Here’s what we know, or rather what the sources will tell us. We’ll leave the rest for another time when maybe they will be ready to spoonfeed us a bit more information.

Case in point:

This past week, a guy opened fire on a city police officer in my town. The officer gave chase, resulting in a shootout in a crowded shopping parking lot. The perpetrator was killed.

Police then learned that a K9 dog had been shot in the initial drive-by. During emergency surgery, the dog died.

The news reports on the incident didn’t provide much more information than you just read. The name of the perp was released, and his age, and the name of the dog.

The dog’s funeral was covered extensively.

But I have yet to see an article about the man who did the shooting. Beyond his name, who was he? Why did he open fire on a police officer?

 The TBI is investigating, so I guess that means there’s nothing more to be released until they get ready to release it.

A journalist worth his salt wouldn’t quit there. You’ve got a name, so let’s figure it out. What town did the guy live in? Did he have a criminal record? Did he have a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram page? Are there friends or family on his page that can be contacted? Actual people who can tell us more about him? What information or sources can be gathered from his obituary?

That’s fact-finding information any good journalist should pursue in any situation. There’s a story behind the story here, but no one seems interested in it. If the official source doesn’t share the information, does that mean it’s not worth pursuing? Or is it because journalists today are lazy?

Local journalism isn’t alone in its apparent laziness.

All week long, CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins has bemoaned the lack of access to the President and anyone in his administration. We know from past experience that when Trump and his co-horts do answer questions, they are riddled with lies in any case.

Kayleigh McEneny finally took a handful of questions from the press for the first time in over two weeks on Friday, but refused to take a question from Collins.

Kudos to Collins for trying, but honestly, what did she expect?

I suggested in a tweet to Collins that she should find another source to answer her questions.

In other words, journalists, don’t be so lazy.

Books: Campbell’s latest disappoints; Tobey thrills, Bain delivers again

by G. Robert Frazier

In between the books I review for BookPage, Chapter 16 (Humanities of Tennessee), and Killer Nashville, I do manage to squeeze in a few other reads from time to time. Below are a few reviews for books I’ve read this year not included on those sites.

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell

I was thrilled when I received an advance reader copy of this book from Flame Tree Press. Ramsey Campbell is a master of the horror genre, so I dived right into this novel, expecting heart-stopping chills and scares that would keep me up at night.

the-influence

Campbell sets the stage quickly enough as Queenie, the matriarch of the Faraday family, dies, setting in motion a series of bizarre events. Queenie asks to be buried with a lock of hair from her great-niece, 7-year-old Rowan, with whom she has a strong rapport. Rowan’s parents, Alison and Derek, and Alison’s sister Hermione, who was traumatized by Queenie as a child, argue over the Queenie’s odd request, but Derek ultimately allows it. Soon after, Hermione is discovered dead.

Rowan, meanwhile, seems to be taking on some markedly different traits, including a condescending attitude toward her classmates and a growing aloofness toward her parents. A new friend, Victoria, who coincidentally shares Queenie’s real name, also begins to have a strange influence over Rowan and eventually appears to take Rowan’s place in the family.

Has Queenie’s spirit leapt from beyond the grave? Will Rowan be able to escape her great-aunt’s influence and return to her rightful place in the family?

Campbell’s writing is darkly atmospheric and mysterious, building slowly in intrigue and suspense. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a slam bang horror opus like I was hoping for, but more of a slow-burn novel with subtle creeps. Not that that’s a bad thing, it just isn’t my thing, so I was ultimately a bit disappointed.

The God Game
The God Game

The God Game by Danny Tobey

I’ve never been obsessed with gaming. Sure, I used to play Sonic the Hedgehog on my Sega Genesis console and I used to play NHL hockey video games, but I never got sucked into the whole gaming world. I bought a Wii game console once – it’s still connected to my TV – but I haven’t used it in years. I just don’t have time for it.

The God Game

I don’t even like movies based on video games. Not even Ready Player One could change my mind.

So, a book about gamers was not really on my list of must-reads, but since St. Martin’s Press decided to send me an advance reader copy of Danny Tobey’s The God Game, I was obliged to read it.

Billed as a dark thriller, the book follows several teens who become obsessed with a video game created on the dark web and controlled by a mysterious artificial intelligence that believes it’s God. Tobey wastes no time in establishing that this isn’t exactly a compassionate god, though, as when the boys ask the game why there is war, it responds: “Because killing feels good.”

The deeper the teens delve into the game, it becomes abundantly clear that they aren’t playing the game, the game is playing them. Before long, it forces them to do dark deeds at its behest or suffer serious consequences in their real lives.

Tobey creates a typical teen cast – characters subjected to bullying by their peers or dealing with various pressures of growing up – which lends authenticity and depth to the story, then sets them loose in a fast-paced, high-stakes adventure ala Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. There are some fun scenes and it never gets boring, though it does plod toward a somewhat predictable outcome.

Murder She Wrote: Trouble at High Tide by Jessica Fletcher & Donald Bain

Mom was a big fan of Murder She Wrote, and I must admit I liked the show too. Yes, it was formulaic. Yes, it was quite tame as far as murder mysteries go. But somehow it was always an entertaining diversion.

MSW Trouble at High Tide

After Mom passed, she left her collection of Murder She Wrote novels to me and I’ve been trying to read at least one a year as a sort of tribute.

Trouble at High Tide was another fun read in the series with Jessica Fletcher stumbling upon a body on a Bermuda beach during a vacation (doesn’t she always?). At the same time, the local police are caught up in a series of brutal Jack the Ripper-style killings. Whether the cases are related in some way remains to be seen.

Jessica and an old friend, Inspector George Sutherland, investigate all the requisite suspects, uncover a slew of secrets, and get dangerously close to the killer. Donald Bain, whom I met at a Killer Nashville writing conference prior to his death, expertly captures the essence of the TV series sleuth.

Magic, mystery garner Jean Rabe honors

Jean Rabe may not be a household name, but it should be. Chances are, if you are into gaming, if you are into fantasy, if you are into mysteries, you’ve encountered her byline atop a story or two. Check your bookshelf, and you just may find her stories or novels in your collection. Her latest novel, The Dead of Jerusalem Ridge, has just hit bookstores, while the author was just named a grandmaster by theInternational Media Tie-In Writers. Jean was gracious enough to speak with Story By about the award and her career, as well as share some timeless writing tips.

Congrats on being named a grandmaster by the International Media Tie-in Writers. What an accomplishment! You posted on Facebook and in your newsletter that you were “dancing” over the news. Has it sunk in yet? What does this achievement mean to you?

Jean Rabe 4

Jean Rabe, International Media Tie-in Writers Grandmaster

I never expected to win an award like this; there is no higher honor a tie-in writer can achieve. I still don’t consider myself in the same league as a Grandmaster. I’ve been on the USA Today Bestseller list several times, but I never hit New York Times. I’ve been published in lots of languages in lots of countries. I’ve been in the game lots of years. I’ve just never considered myself a “big deal.” The award is typically presented at the San Diego Comic-Con, a huge venue with well more than a hundred thousand attendees. Despite my fear of crowds, I would have braved it to get the Faust. So maybe it wasn’t a bad thing, the virtual presentation, kept my knees from knocking too much. I am so incredibly honored to have been handed the Faust, an award for doing something I’ve loved and enjoyed. I still am in disbelief.

When did you get the writing bug and how did you get your start? Who are some of your influences, past and present?

I started writing fiction in second grade. I always loved stories, sf in particular when I was a kid. I told my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Burleson, I wanted to be a paperback writer—she’d asked everyone what they wanted to do when they “grew up.” She said my plan wasn’t practical and that maybe I should consider being a nurse or a teacher. I won some writing contests in grade school and high school and got a bachelor of science in journalism. So I’ve been writing a lot of years … newspaper reporter, game designer, and editor, and now a full-time novelist. Maybe I’ve always had the bug; I can’t imagine doing anything else. Mrs. Burleson was wrong.

My influences. Hmmmmmmm. Mark Twain, love reading his stuff. Byron and Shelley and Keats, really like the English old masters. Louis L’Amour. Also: Elmore Leonard, Gene Wolfe (who was a very good friend of mine), Andre Norton (a very good friend and co-author), Ed McBain, Joe Haldeman, James Lee Burke, and W.P. Kinsella, to name some. I’m influenced by a lot of people; I think all writers are.

How did all of that lead to you writing media tie-ins?

DragonlanceAfter writing for three newspapers (and deciding I wanted to do something else), I took a job at TSR, Inc., the then-producers of the Dungeons & Dragons game. I worked as the head of the RPGA Network (Role Playing Games Association), and later as an editor and a designer. TSR published game-related fiction and occasionally had open tryouts. I submitted ideas, outlines, and sample chapters and finally one year I scored! It took me three rewrites … it was my first novel, after all … and Red Magic came out in 1991. It’s a Forgotten Realms tale set in the land of the Red Wizards of Thay, a creepy and powerful bunch. After that I wrote a couple of choose-your-adventure books…which are tough to write, then I managed to land in Krynn with Dragonlance, where I fit the best. Three standalones there, and three trilogies, several landing on the USA Today Bestseller list. After leaving TSR I still wrote Dragonlance, but I added a few Shadowrun titles, and I got to play with Rogue Angel for quite a few books. As for tie-in short stories Twilight Zone, Transformers, Metamorphosis Alpha, Pathfinder … I even got to write a Star Wars tale.

What are some of the challenges of writing characters and places in someone else’s world? Are there certain restrictions or guidelines you have to play by with each series? How do you keep it all straight and maintain the tone of each series?

There are a lot of restrictions and guidelines. You have to respect the property and its characters and stay true to what already exists. People read tie-ins because they are fans of the property—be it a TV show, roleplaying game, computer game, movie, comic book, etc., and they want more of a particular world. You have to honor the “sandbox” you are playing in, and treat it with care. There is a lot of competition to land a tie-in, and many authors were New York Times Bestsellers before they landed their tie-in gigs. If a tie-in author doesn’t stay true to the subject, he won’t get another chance … too much competition out there. Some properties help their writers, handing over “bibles” and world books. A good tie-in author reads other books in the line for flavor and background. One of the things I did with Dragonlance was to create a spreadsheet containing the characters I used. I filled in the details for canon characters, then I added the characters I was creating from whole cloth. I was fortunate with my Dragonlance trilogies that I got to craft the main characters for the sagas and sprinkle in the veteran heroes and villains as the plot merited.

What is your favorite story or novel you’ve written among all of your media tie-ins and why? What is your favorite series to write in and why?

My favorite character is Dhamon Grimwulf, who I took through two Dragonlance trilogies and a standalone. I tortured the poor soul, but he came out a hero in the end. I have two favorite media tie-in projects: my goblin trilogy—Goblin Nation. I love writing characters who are other than human, and I had a boatload of them to craft. The goblins and hobgoblins were born from whole cloth, and I based some of them on dogs I’d had through the years. Because the goblins were a slave race I gave them an odd speech pattern: they didn’t use “I and me” because they didn’t have a real sense of identity, they were property. Tough to write the dialog, and frustrating when a copyeditor at the last minute threw in some “I and me” here and there and I couldn’t do anything about it. Anyway, I liked taking my cadre of goblins from slaves to the masters of their own destiny and setting up their nation. Made me feel all fuzzy inside. My other favorite tie-in was a Shadowrun novel called Shadows Down Under, which I set around Canberra, Australia, where I visited many years back. I’d made notes when I was there, saved postcards, and subsequently sent the characters to the nifty places I’d traipsed through, and past some questionable spots, too.

A few years ago you began writing your own mystery series of novels. Your fourth novel in the Piper Blackwell series has just been released. What were some of the challenges of making the transition to your own original works?

The Dead of Jerusalem RidgeSo many of my tie-ins were original works, set in established worlds. The real transition for me was in swapping genres. I’d been writing fantasy and science fiction, and I wanted to jump to a new spot on the shelf—mysteries. I’d been reading mysteries for a lot of years and just wanted to try my hand at writing them. A former news reporter, I’d covered courts, crime, plane crashes, assorted things, so I had a good background for mysteries. And I’d written a true crime novel with F. Lee Bailey, When the Husband is the Suspect. The problem was being in a new pond. I didn’t know editors in the genre, so I had to start from scratch. Then agents told me they liked my writing, but that my books were cozy police procedurals and they’d have a tough time selling them. So I formed Boone Street Press, and I hire an editor, copyeditor, layout guru, cover artist, and publicist … all the things a traditional publisher does. It lets me write my cozy police procedurals, or uncozy-cozies as some call them. And I don’t have to wait years from when I send it off until it might show up on a shelf. Indie publishing fits me fine.

Which do you like best? Writing tie-ins or your own original stories? Will you continue to write media tie-ins?

I love to write … so both! Lately, my tie-in work has been short stories for fantasy roleplaying games, going back to my roots. I adore writing short stories, as they are a lovely break from long fiction. But the original stories I’m writing now are my property, and that’s a big thing to me. I own them. And I’m responsible for them, producing, promoting … my babies. I have two originals outlined and I’m partway into writing both. I need to pick one and crank on it. And I need to start outlining a fifth Piper Blackwell book—I already have some idea nuggets.

Now that you have been named a grandmaster, what’s your next big goal as a writer? A Shamus, maybe?

The Bone ShroudHa! I wasn’t expecting the Grandmaster nod, that oh-so-coveted Faust. I certainly don’t expect any more awards. This past fall I took first place in the Illinois Author Project adult division for The Bone Shroud, a standalone thriller I set in Italy. I didn’t expect that one either. Awards are just surprises to be treasured. Icing on my writing cake.

What advice would you have for new writers, regardless of age, trying to break in?

I could expound on that question for days. I used to manage the Gen Con Game Fair’s writing track and so scheduled many topics on that question, but I’ll take a quick stab here.

There are more than one million books published a year. Most of that because self-publishing is an option now, offering an alternative to the big houses. So you’re competing in a huge market. Make sure your book is clean—well edited, has no wasted scenes, and is filled with memorable characters. To that end, take advantage of writing programs available on the internet—blogs, classes, online workshops all designed to help hone the writing craft. I have more than forty novels and more than one hundred published short stories to my credit. And I still read writing advice blogs and books and take classes. Never stop learning. Never stop trying to improve.

Make sure your shelf has some essentials: Strunk & White, Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook, a good dictionary, thesaurus, and maybe a dictionary of word origins. Why physical books? So you don’t have to shift screens to consult an online reference book. Curl up with a dictionary some night and just read it. Highlight words that sing to you and that you want to put in your writing.

Follow posts about which agents are looking for clients and what type of books they specialize in. Read blogs about which publishers are buying, or educate yourself on all aspects of self-publishing. Consider attending a writing-focused convention: World Fantasy, World Horror, Killer Nashville; there are a lot out there … many doing virtual seminars because of the pandemic.

Write every day … even if you have something you’d rather do. And read each day, too, even if it is just a chapter; it keeps you thinking about stories and words.

My biggie: Always carry a notebook. Buy one of those small chunky ones at the Dollar Store, a size that’ll fit in your pocket. And take it everywhere. I see abandoned buildings during my travels that I want to describe; people—how they are dressed, walking, talking; cars; all manner of things. I fill my notebook with stuff I want to sprinkle in my fiction. And a notebook is handy for jotting down plot ideas. Always carry a notebook.

Follow Jean at:

American Hero: Remembering John Lewis

dscf1339

Congressman John Lewis, 1940-2020

Note: With the loss of civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis on Friday, I thought it would be appropriate to honor with him with an article I wrote for BookPage in 2016.

By G. Robert Frazier

It is appropriate as we enter Thanksgiving week to express our gratitude to the people who have influenced our lives in one way or another or who have made sacrifices on our behalf so that we may live better.

This past Saturday, I was fortunate to be among hundreds of Nashville-area residents able to give thanks to an American icon, Georgia Congressman John Lewis. (More than a hundred others were unable to get into the packed auditorium at Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School.)

A graduate of American Baptist College and Fisk University, both in Nashville, Rep. Lewis was a leader in the Nashville student-led, nonviolent sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington and helped lead the Selma to Montgomery March as part of the voting rights movement in 1965.

His account of the events make up the pages of a historical comic book trilogy, March, co-written by Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. March: Book One is the citywide Nashville Reads pick for 2017. The third volume in the series just won the National Book Award for young people’s literature and garnered him honors as the Nashville Public Library Foundation’s Literary Award winner for 2016.

Regardless of age, it is a story everyone should read.

“When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come and walk in my shoes,” he told the racially diverse crowd, which greeted him with a standing ovation. “Martin Luther King would be very proud of this audience. You look like the makings of a beloved community.”

Lewis recounted the challenges and incidents of the civil rights movement, including many of his 45 arrests for civil disobedience along the way.

“I didn’t like segregation,” Lewis said. “I didn’t like racial discrimination. I didn’t like riding the broken-down buses to school.”

As a child, he grew up listening to the message of civil rights pioneers like Rosa Parks and King, whom he would eventually meet. “They inspired me to find a way to get in the way, and I got in the way. . . . By sitting down, we were standing up,” he said.

Lewis still sits down when necessary. This past summer he inspired a sit-in on the floor of Congress itself.

“We still have a distance to travel,” he said.

He implored today’s youth to carry on the fight for equality and justice when needed.

“When you see something that is not right, not just, you have a moral obligation to stand up,” he said.

But most importantly, he said, “We must come together as one people. Not just as an American house, but as a world house. . . .  Just love everybody. Love is a better way. Be kind. Never hate. Keep the faith. Never, ever give up.”

He stressed a need to set a path to citizenship, adding that “Pope Francis said we are all immigrants. We all come from some other place.”

Following his lecture, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry presented him with a collection of recently discovered photos and images of his first arrest records in Nashville from 1961, 1962 and 1963.

“I hope these photos remind you of what you have done and the legacy you have left us,” Barry told him, adding, “I thank you for your message of peace, I thank you for your message of love, but most of all I thank you for your message of kindness.”

The photos will go on display in the Civil Rights Room at the Nashville Public Library.

“It’s here in this wonderful city where I really grew up,” Lewis said of his return to Nashville. “The first time I got arrested in this city, I felt free. I owe it all to this city. I feel more than lucky—I feel honored and blessed. I came to say thank you.”

No, sir, it is we who are honored and blessed. It is we who say, “Thank you.”

The Last Scoop’s reporter tenacious, razor-sharp

By G. Robert Frazier

I’d love to see Clare Carlson in the White House Briefing Room.

The main character in R.G. Belsky’s new novel, The Last Scoop, she’s tenacious, razor-sharp, asks tough questions, and doesn’t back down from anyone. President Trump would likely try to silence her by claiming she’s “fake news,” but Clare isn’t the type who would take it sitting down. She’d snap back until, a) she loses her White House press credentials or b) sends Trump running back to the Oval Office with his tail between his legs.

The Last Scoop by R.G. Belsky
Oceanview, $26.95, 9781608093571

That’s not to say that Clare doesn’t have more than a few faults.

Her brash style makes more enemies than friends. She’s no good when it comes to sustaining a romantic relationship (she’s been married and divorced numerous times). She can be deceitful when it comes to getting what she wants. And she isn’t above lying to her long-lost daughter, though with good reason.

Journalists are, by nature, supposed to be impartial observers, dedicated to detailing the day’s news in matter of fact, unbiased fashion. But Clare’s first-person narration easily draws readers into her world while showing her real feelings and emotional reactions to events.

In other words, she’s human.

In The Last Scoop, all of the above comes into play as Clare gets caught up in an investigation left unfinished after the death of her mentor, Martin Barlow. Clare feels somewhat guilty about turning her back on Martin since her move to the big city of New York where she is now a TV news editor and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.

To make amends, at least in her own mind, she takes up Martin’s last story: uncovering a serial killer who has left bodies in his wake for decades. Her nose for news and relentless pursuit of the truth soon finds her butting heads with her boss, the local district attorney, and the FBI.

Belsky, who marks his third novel with Clare as protagonist and fourteenth novel overall, has crafted another a fast-paced mystery. As a former metro editor with the New York Post and managing editor at NBC News, Belsky knows the news biz and it shows clearly.

While I was a bit disappointed to learn the identity of the serial killer – I’ll only say that I feel it’s become a bit of a cliché in the mystery genre in the interest of giving away spoilers — one thing you can be certain of, Clare Carlson is anything but fake news. Here’s hoping Belsky has another scoop or two for Clare to expose in future novels.

Waggoner’s Mouth of the Dark a weird read

Tim Waggoner writes some weird stuff.

Mouth of the Dark

Mouth of the Dark
Tim Waggoner
Flame Tree Press
 240 pages, $14.95
ISBN-13: 978-1787580114

One of his latest, The Mouth of the Dark from Flame Tree Press, is a perfect example of just how weird. What starts as a missing person story quickly morphs into an other-dimensional romp against bizarre creatures and crazed killers. Check logic at the door and suspend your disbelief, because this shit gets crazier by the page. And that’s a good thing, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Waggoner’s story focuses on Jayce Lewis as he pounds the pavement in search of his adult daughter, Emory, who has been missing for eighteen days. No one seems to know anything about her or care, for that matter, further frustrating Jayce and amplifying his sense of desperation. Even his estranged wife isn’t all that concerned. But Jayce presses on, believing if he can find her, he might also be able to reconnect and strengthen their relationship.

Things take a bizarre turn, though, when he encounters a pair of teens more intent on protecting their “meat” than in helping him. Only the timely intervention of a mysterious woman named Nicola, who scares them off with a jar containing “the screams of a hundred dying men” prevents them from carving him up and putting a premature end to his search. Weird, huh?

And that’s just for starters. Things get weirder. Really weirder.

Before long, Nicola leads Jayce into an otherworldly Shadow realm, where its denizens cower in fear from something called the Harvest Man. Jayce should be scared out of his mind, if he hasn’t lost it already. Anyone else would be. But with Nicola’s help, he’s able to navigate the strange realm and confront the Harvest Man, as well as the monster inside him.

Further explanations, which probably wouldn’t make much sense anyway, may ruin the overall plot. Suffice to say, rarely a page passes without some new revolting twist to squirm at. This one’s strictly for fans of hardcore horror and dark fantasy, so be warned. But also rest assured, you’re in the hands of a Bram Stoker Award-winning author. Weird as that may sound.