Conversations with Filmmakers

The Winnipegfilm festival 1 Real to Reel Film Festival took place last week and they needed a small army of volunteers. When the plea went out for drivers to chauffeur filmmakers around town, I signed up. I thought, “Hey, I’ve got a mom limo and tons of chauffeur experience” (soccer, piano lessons, youth group, …).

To be honest, while I wanted to help, I had an ulterior motive. I was curious. I’ve done a lot of research into the publishing industry, but knew nothing about the film industry. So, I had a pile of questions. Why film? How did they get started? How difficult is the industry to break into? Just to name a few.

The Vehicle-A short film by Corbin Saleken
The Vehicle-A short film by Corbin Saleken

I would have a few filmmakers locked in my car for a half hour each way—plenty of time to ask my questions. Cue the maniacal laughter. Mwahahaha!

I learned a lot over the weekend and found that authors like me, struggling to get noticed, and these up and coming filmmakers have a lot in common.

  • Newer and cheaper technology has made it easier for anyone to get into the game, but has also made competition fierce. Filmmakers struggle to get their work in front of an audience.
  • Like writers, these filmmakers work tirelessly to polish their product and then send it off, hoping it will get plucked out of the slush pile and make it into a festival. Getting into a festival is an honour, even if they don’t win any awards.
  • I also learned more about the importance of the “N” word. That’s right. Networking. Shiver. Scary stuff, I thought. I was a keen observer, watching what these filmmakers did and how they did it. And it doesn’t seem so scary anymore.
Missed Connections- A short film by Rebecca Riley.
Missed Connections- A short film by Rebecca Riley.

The moment that probably impacted me the most was at the awards ceremony. The director of a runner-up winning documentary came to the front to receive his award and spoke about the years he spent making the film and how he dreamed of seeing it on the big screen in front of an audience. I understood that desire. I thought of how satisfying it must be to have the opportunity to share your blood, sweat, and tears with others and I imagined what it would be like for me—to have even a hundred people enjoying my years of toil. It would make it all worth it.

We all—writers, filmmakers, musicians—can feel lost in an endless slush pile, as numerous as the sand on the seashore. But, we take small steps. We persevere, taking much more rejection than acceptance, hoping one day we can share our art with an audience—to have others touched, entertained, or thrilled by our work.

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Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades, as well as short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Chekhov's Nerf Gun

nerf gunsOkay, so Chekhov never mentioned a nerf gun, but I’m a children’s writer—I prefer darts to bullets. What he had to say about shotguns, however, changed the way I write descriptions.

If a shotgun hangs on the wall in the first act, it must go off in the last act. -Chekhov

I couldn’t get this quotation or its implications out of my head. Descriptions have been a sore spot for me, an area I’m actively trying to improve. But, I struggled to understand which description were necessary, which painted a picture for the reader, and which created a distraction and made the reader want to flip a few pages forward to get back to the action.

gunsChekhov’s shotgun hit me right between the eyes. My lists of trees and shrubs, hair colour, and weather patterns had to go. Every word needed to have meaning and move my story forward, especially my descriptions. And if they didn’t, well, that’s what the delete button is for. For me, it also opened up a new world of symbolism, foreshadowing, and anchors to the past. A description could be a thread woven into the story at the beginning that mingles with the other fibres, hidden in some places, but always present, and in the end explodes into a rich and intricate tapestry.

The question was no longer what does he look like? But, what is it about him that is important to this story? So when I told you in my first scene that my character runs on the sunny side of the street or that the house next door is for sale, I told you because it matters, not only in the present scene but in all the scenes that follow.

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Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Two days + One Word = 48 Hours of Frustration.

tabloidI spent two days on one word: tabloid. The word made it to my third draft and as I toiled on that fourth draft the word grabbed me. It’s a fine word if you’re a thirty something mother of four, an example of me intruding on my protagonist’s story. She’s a seventeen year old girl and she hated the word. It’s not something she would say. I thought back,back, back to when I was that age. I wouldn’t have said tabloid either. My mom used to read romance novels; my teen self called them “mom’s kissing in the wind books.”mcmullet

I decided to consult the experts. I started with my in-house target audience: my daughter. “What would you call those magazines about celebrities in the grocery check out? She looked at me like I was nuts. She’s always sceptical when I approach her with odd hypothetical questions. She knows it’s for a book. “I don’t know.”

Well, that was unhelpful, so I went to my second source. My husband’s work requires him to have an ear to the ground for youth culture. I threw the question out to him. He informed me that teens don’t read those magazines. They get their “news” online and talked about a flat world. Ah, yes. Israel invades Gaza. News. Kim Kardashian leaves her husband. News. But, it’s not my protagonist reading the tabloid, it’s her mother. And she thinks they’re low brow (also not a term she’d use), but I was still left with the question: what would she call them?

I played with different ideas–synonyms, antonyms, and an internet search to find names of different tabloids and still nothing seemed quite right. After two days of thought I finally found the phrase I was looking for. What is it? It’s something unique to my character, it’s how she thinks and in the words she thinks in. I’m on the hunt for more of these words so I can toss them. Hopefully they all won’t take so long to resolve.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Katniss Vs. Bella

katnissA couple of years ago I stumbled across a heated online debate and I can guarantee that if you read YA fiction you’ll have an opinion. Who is the better role model for teen girls; Katniss from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, or Bella from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight? The question irritated me and not because I couldn’t decide between the two. It made me question my role as a writer. Is creating role models for teen girls my job? Should I be concerned about the example my characters set?

These questions split me down the middle. As the mother of a teenage daughter, I want her to read books with characters who set good examples. But the writer side of me screamed, “No way!” I want to develop characters who are real people and real people are flawed. Real teens make mistakes. They shoplift, smoke, and do drugs. They fall head-over-heels for boys who aren’t good for them. They lie, they sneak out at night, and they ditch school. They drive too fast and they post pictures online they should’ve kept private.bella

Let’s look at sixteen year old Bobby— an excellent student, star of the basketball team, and always obedient to his parents. A great role model, but where’s the story in that? In fact, my teen self hates Bobby and his perfect life. If I tell you one day perfect Bobby snapped and set fire to the school gym—now we have a story. Bobby wasn’t so perfect after all.

As a writer I also need to create change within my characters. My characters need to learn and grow as the book progresses. They will  revel in their successes and suffer for their choices. I refuse to preach to my readers; I allow my characters to live with the consequences of their decisions—good and bad— and let my readers draw their own conclusions. I pose questions and it’s up to my readers to answer them.

My best Katniss impression. I manged to throw the spear about 20 feet. If I had to kill in order to eat, I'd starve.
My best Katniss impression. I managed to throw the spear about 20 feet. If I had to kill in order to eat, I’d starve.

At the same time writers don’t let their characters get away with much.  Perfect Bobby wouldn’t be an interesting story, neither is Bobby taking the devil’s lettuce every lunch hour, getting expelled from school, and then living happily ever after. Again, no story. At least not one with any conflict and writers are all about conflict. I’m not a public service announcement, but Bobby’s decisions are going to have radical consequences that the reader will live with him.

Finally, I’m not into creating characters who promote a political agenda. Who decides who is a good role model and who isn’t? Maybe you like that Katniss portrayed a strong woman. That’s nice, but most of us can’t nail an adversary through the heart with a bow and arrow from 100 yards out. Most of us girls harbour insecurity and self-doubt, so when we write about girls, some girls are going to appear “weak,” but don’t we all have our weaknesses? Doesn’t it give us comfort that there are others out there like us?

So, no, I do not create my characters to be role models. It might happen they show admirable courage or turn their lives around in a way that’s sets a good example, but it’s not what I set out to do. I set out to stay true to the character and the story she needs to tell.

And do I want my daughter to be like Katniss or Bella? Neither. I want to encourage her to be herself, to live in her own story, to be strong in her own character. As a parent I’m still the number one influence in her life; I want to teach her to make wise decisions and I want to have discussions about the books she reads and the characters therein. They should be discussion starters. What were Katniss’ or Bella’s flaws? How did they deal with them? What were the consequences of their decisions?

I know, I know, even as you read this in the corner of your mind you’ve been deciding– Hmm, Katniss or Bella? Go ahead and share your opinion, better yet, tell me what role you feel the writer plays in bringing forward characters who set good examples.

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Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.

Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.

Speaking of High Treason

Independence Hall
Independence Hall

Philadelphia 1776. The Declaration of Independence was edited, signed, sent to press, and then carried into Independence Square. For the first time, ordinary citizens— British citizens– heard these words: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands…”            

A riot broke out. Windows smashed. Shops looted. Loyalists hid. Even those sympathetic to the cry, “no taxation without representation,” trembled. For, what would the king do to them when he realized their insolence? Many average citizens did not want to disturb the status quo. They wanted go about their days peaceably: make a living, feed their families. This move could destroy it all.

My husband and I journeyed to a town outside of Philadelphia for a friend’s wedding. We had one day to ourselves, so being a history buff, I was anxious to see the birth place of the Declaration of Independence. Setting foot inside historic Independence Hall gave me chills.

I imagined men seated at wooden tables, arguing the creation of a new nation, a pen dipped in an ink well, pressed to parchment that would form the cornerstone of a future world power. I also sensed mothers quaking for fear of their children’s future and the wives who had to face the strong possibility that their husbands would be executed for treason. That loyalists family members would disown them. That the king would take everything from them. I sensed the courage it must have taken to be labelled as traitors—terrorists of the day.

Assembly room where the Declaration was signed.
Assembly room where the Declaration was signed.

My first novel shared so many themes with those men as they sat on the cusp of either a revolution or a squelched rebellion. Over the previous months I struggled as I edited that novel and I realized that some of my frustration lay with my protagonist; I didn’t know her well enough. That day I walked through Independence hall with her. We breathed in the history that would repeat itself for her. She had to make the same decision: to quietly endure the circumstances of a dystopic world, which was her nature, or to risk her life by rising up to “throw off such government and provide new Guards for their future security.”            

I felt both her fear and her courage, what it must take to stand up against incredible odds. She knew her chances of success were slim, but the alternative, never trying for fear of losing was unacceptable, detestable. That infinitesimal glimmer of success became the anchor her hope was tied to. She didn’t write a formal declaration, she developed an internal one—her own manifesto: it’s better to die free than to live under tyranny. I returned to the novel with a renewed commitment to see it through to the end. My protagonist needs to tell her story and the world needs to hear it. What steps do you take to explore your characters, isolate their voice, and walk in their shoes?

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Melinda Friesen writes novels for young adults and middle grades and short stories. She is a full-time mother of four and part-time student at the University of Winnipeg.
Melinda Friesen authored Enslavement, a young adult dystopian novel, released by Rebelight Publishing. When she’s not writing, Melinda works as marketing director and acquisitions editor at Rebelight Publishing Inc.
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