Creativity: Irish Writers Centre Director Valerie Bistany

In this series of interviews about the creative process, I’ll be talking to artists and people who work in creative fields to discover the common traits of creativity and what, if anything, is different. I’d also like to discover what creative practices could be used by people who don’t consider themselves artists in the traditional sense and how creative thinking is fundamental to growth and creation in all aspects of life.

Valerie Bistany is a professional arts manager, producer & events coordinator with over 25 years of international experience in Ireland, England and the USA working with organisations such as Dance Ireland, Dublin Youth Theatre, the Abbey and Pavilion Theatres. She is currently the Director/CEO of the Irish Writers Centre where she has worked since 2013.

For the best part of her career prior to this, she worked in a freelance capacity in programming, strategic vision planning, as an independent evaluator and as a creative mentor in the professional arts and voluntary sectors with The Ark, Tivoli Training Centre, DIT and with various artists and arts offices, amongst others.

Also a certified mediator, Valerie began mediating as part of a political dialogue facilitation team working with Northern and Southern Irish politicians at Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and has since worked family, community, workplace and elder mediation, both on a professional and a voluntary basis. She was a founder member of Facing Forward, a restorative justice NGO that promotes and offers training in victim-offender mediation.

Originally from Lebanon, she has lived and worked in England, Italy, Spain and the USA, but has made Dublin her home these last 28 years.

What about your work motivates you? What is your forte and what do you think makes you good at /curious about this forte? What strengths do you admire in others?

I’ve been lucky enough to work in the arts for my entire career. My roles have always been in a supportive capacity to artists – this has included stage management for touring drama and dance,  a variety of administrative and production roles, and in the last decade or so working as a creative consultant to arts boards and arts offices, and a creative mentor with individual artists.

What I love about the arts is how an idea can manifest into a creative work through a collaborative process – even the ‘solitary’ arts of literature or visual arts cannot stand alone once they are created – they need to be born into the world and that requires connecting with others to bring them to an audience. This is where someone like me comes in. What I can bring is an experience about many areas of the arts and pragmatic yet ‘arty’ approach to guide a work to fruition. I think I have a strong sense of vision and a facility in being able to define a suitable process which is unique to the project, while also holding the big picture.

Of course, none of this can happen without the right team of people, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with incredibly talented and committed practitioners: artists, producers, administrators, actors, dancers, artists, the list is long. I think that those who have chosen to work in the arts have (that overused, bland word) a passion, but one which goes beyond the call of duty, one that has become an existential condition. (In 1990s artspeak it was coined as the “hidden subsidy” in the Irish arts sector.) The insecurity, the low irregular fees for such long hours would not be tolerated in any other profession, so what is it that sustains artists? It requires a kind of resilience bordering on stubbornness, a self-conviction in spite of the knock-backs, hardship and loneliness, and yes, a love for doing the work. This is the kind of courage that I admire in artists. To quote Erica Jong’s famous book, they “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

When your creative well runs dry, how do you refill it? Do you have techniques you return to?

I am not a practicing artist, but even as a producer/facilitator, creativity is important for visualisation and I have needed to persuade others that my ideas could help them. In my current role as director of the Irish Writers Centre, I would say that at least 95% of my work is administrative and about 5% is creative. Ironically, it occurs best when the pressure is on (say, when I have a funding deadline) that I really need to think fast and flesh out a project or idea so that it is comprehensible to others. That inspiration comes ‘off-piste’ on a daily basis, often when I’m not at work. For instance, I was watching the Late Late Show one Friday when they had someone on who I thought would be a great speaker for one of our collaborative cross-border programmes aimed at emerging writers. We didn’t contact her in the end, but her interview honed my thinking about suitable speakers, and indeed, we may try to get her again, down the line. In this job, you are never really off duty – and this is the kind of vocational quality that is required in working in the arts – but it comes easily if you are interested in your work.

Personally, I find that my own (non-work) creative ideas come to me when I’m an audience member – often in the theatre – when whatever is going on onstage sparks off a chain of thought which leads to an artistic idea. It can also happen when reading or hearing interviews, particularly with writers and activists.

How do you maintain your authentic self/voice? Does the constant comparison on and/or influence of social media help or stifle this?

I have always found it easy to be my authentic self, and while I may not always be everybody’s cup of tea, in the main, the person I am has connected positively with others and I have made a reasonable success of myself as an arts practitioner. I am not an aficionado of social media, though I do keep an eye on it in respect of my job. As a resource organisation, sometimes the IWC can be criticised for doing something or not doing something, and oftentimes, our intentions are misinterpreted or misunderstood. It can be said heedlessly, which is hurtful, but I am trying to develop a thick skin about these things. People forget that there are other humans running institutions and that it is not a faceless entity.

However, if I were a professional writer, I would be answering the question differently, because I would be referring to my artistic voice. Artistic voice is any artist’s life study. In Spanish, “dar a luz” translates to “to give to light” – a poetic construct for what we call giving birth – the image it evokes is the crowning of a baby’s head as it emerges from the mother’s body. This is how I see the artistic voice – it emerges from the deepest core of oneself it is a hugely precious and fragile thing, which needs much loving nurturing if it is to emerge and thrive.

What inspires you to work with artists and in a creative field?

There is no doubt that much art that is created is a bit hit and miss. But when it is good it brings us out of the mundane day to day by connecting us to meaning, and when it is really good, it connects us at a deeper core level. You know when a piece of art connects because it communicates itself intuitively with a truth and integrity told in a way which you have never experienced. Exposure to multitude of artistic works creates many acts of truth which increases our sense of belonging to one another. Belonging to one another on this planet, which is incredible, and our existence in it quasi-unfathomable.

Do you think an artist’s national identity influences them?

Yes, I do. Invariably, an artist’s individual realm of existence is the pallet from which their art is created. There is the old adage “write what you know”, which has much truth and merit.
However, I would be equally encouraging of writing what you don’t know, for how else can you learn and grow to expand your horizons? When I was working in youth theatre, a leading playwright and screenwriter asked me why I was so keen in providing opportunities to bring young people abroad. I found it an incredible question to be asked – surely, I thought, there was everything to be gained from travelling: the act of getting there, negotiating being away from home (perhaps for the first time), being in a group setting, experiencing a new culture and language, and most importantly, seeing and feeling the impact of all of this on oneself.
I’ve continued to ponder the question, and now I can also see that he may have been saying, surely there is so much to see, hear and learn right here in Ireland. Yes, that is also true, if you can take the cultural lens off, but it is only by going away that you can get some distance from your national identity, get to understand it by holding a mirror up from across the waters, and seeing which parts of the reflection you believe hold true.

How do you keep positive when an idea fails or when you get negative feedback?

Difficult question. I get depressed, like everyone else! But I find keeping physically active a great help – I cycle to work every day and teach Ballet-lates, a hybrid form of pilates and ballet. I also sing in a choir with a great bunch of people. Staying active and connected are important to getting through bad times. But if I’m lucky enough to get constructive feedback, that really softens the blow and shows a path towards improvement. In my job, I often have to send out rejection emails to applicants of various residencies or programmes, and, remembering the many times I’ve received impersonal rejections, I take great care to try to explain (even in a general way) why their application didn’t succeed this time, encouraging them to try again.

What do you think is the value of collaborations, artistic and otherwise?

I have said much about this already. A fulfilled life includes other people.

Committing to creative work, given the often-meagre financial rewards, can make it a struggle. What do you think artists can do to help overcome this? What advice would you have for someone starting out?

Again, I have described this above in respect of the commitment and courage required. In this respect, one often hears: ‘don’t give up the day job’ and ‘don’t marry another artist’, and while this may seem flippant, there is truth in not being financially rash. Everyone has a different level of tolerance in respect of their financial needs and I would advise anyone transitioning to becoming a full-time artist (or freelance anything for that matter) to cast a cold eye at what the future might look like without the financial security of a regular salary.
The other thing that often gets overlooked is the loneliness of being an artist, the lack of routine and potential isolation. If you don’t have the personality, self-discipline and drive to lead that sort of life, and you think you can continue with a ‘day-job’ while also creating art, then for goodness sake, do that.

Many artists work best when they continue to have other daily stimuli which may feed their art. Think Flann O’Brien (journalist), Anton Chekhov (doctor), Philip Glass (plumber), Bram Stoker (theatre manager), performance artist Amanda Coogan is a professional signer for the deaf and most remarkably, one of our Novel Fair winners Catriona Lally (also winner of the Rooney Prize) continues as a cleaner in Trinity College because it not only pays the bills, but the physical act of cleaning is part of her mental preparation before she writes in the afternoon.

What is the best thing about being a person who uses her/his creative skills? How does it enrich your life and help you in other areas?

To put it simply, I think a life without creativity is a life half-lived. Luckily, creativity is a very broad concept which can interpreted in many ways, and most people do engage in some level of creativity, as defined by them. It provides an avenue for curiosity and fun – ideally, it is about finding a way back to our younger selves, as children before self-awareness kicked in, and connecting in with authentic self.

How do you view the role of the arts in society: the role of the artist? Do they have a “responsibility” as an artist?

In this age where, increasingly, entire sociology, history and philosophy departments in universities are being axed, where, with the advent of coding as a new subject, history is being dropped, where critical journalism is an endangered species, where social media and fake news make a mockery of truth and history as we have known it heretofore, there is a crying and urgent need for those who can reflect our world back to us in a way that we can make sense of it. There is also a need for those who can act as a barometer for ethical standards and to express our humanity to ourselves in a variety of modes. In all the bad news that assaults us daily, there is also a need for those who can see and show us the beauty in our world and the love and kindness. That, I believe, is what artists can do in a way that no others can, by doing it though their own sense of truth and authentic voice. In reflecting the world back to us, warts and all, artists make a powerful contribution to keeping us human.

Literary Agent Jeff Kleinman

I often wonder how other writers manage social media and self promotion. It is a necessary evil but it often comes at the cost of writing time. Creating this balance seems to be crucial in the publishing world right now.

In this year’s Publishing Day, I hope to explore this issue more, with the panel members and Reedsy co-founder Ricardo Fayet, who will be giving two workshops on platform and marketing.

In the meantime, we interviewed panelist Jeff Kleinman who is a literary agent, intellectual property attorney, and founding partner of Folio Literary Management, LLC, a New York literary agency. He loves unique voices, magnificently strong characters, unusual premises, and books that offer up some new perspective on something he thought he already knew something about or never even dreamed existed. He represents bestselling authors Garth SteinEowyn Ivey,Jacqueline MitchardElizabeth LettsKaren Dionne, and Charles Shields; as well as many first novels, including Benjamin Ludwig’s Ginny Moon, Val Emmich’s The Reminders, and Rhiannon Navin’s Only Child.

Agents play a unique role in the literary world as they are wedged between the creative world of writing and the commercial world of publishing.  From the perspective of someone who bridges the two worlds, what advice do you have for writers regarding developing and maintaining positive and professional relationships with the commercial side of writing (agents, editors, and publishers)?

Keep a positive attitude. Sometimes writers seem to think that the “business” side of the publishing world is out to change them, get them, destroy them – when in actuality we’re usually just trying to get the best book that can connect with the most people. Know that’s where we’re (almost always) coming from. Publishing can be a grueling, low-paying business – we do it because we love books, love the written word – not because we’re out to squash a writer’s creativity. So remain positive, engage us in dialogue, remember that we want the best for both you and your book.

The ways that people discover new books has changed over the last decade, and there seems to be increased pressure for authors to engage with social media platforms.  This almost seems to create a “second job” for writers, who may want to put more focus onto their craft.  In your opinion, how important is an author’s platform?  Do you have any advice for striking a healthy balance?

It used to be that books were either “review driven” or “publicity driven” – now that so many book review venues are gone, and with the rise of the self-publishing juggernaut, the public may have a more difficult time figuring out how to find new/interesting books to read simply because there are so many books available. That said, the essential issue of how people will discover your book hasn’t really changed all that much: the author – and the author’s voice – drive readers to her books. All social media does is make it easier to get to, and engage, those readers. What has changed, certainly, is that readers feel a closer relationship to writers, and can be more emotionally engaged with them than before.

Publishers are looking for authors who can effectively engage readers – there’s no question about it. An engaged readership buys books. But twitter doesn’t really convert to booksales – if you have 100 twitter followers, you might sell 1 book. (if 100 facebook followers, 20 book). The best way of really engaging your reader, at this moment in time, is through email newsletters: if you have 100 followers, you might sell 50 books. Social media just makes people aware of your voice and hopefully drives them to signing up for your newsletter and becoming engaged readers.

My advice, then, is to limit marketing – social media, email newsletters, etc. – to maybe an hour a day. Maybe less. You can even set aside a couple of hours once a week and create enough posts for a week. It doesn’t at all have to be a full-time job, and shouldn’t be.

I understand that beyond being a literary agent, you are also an intellectual property lawyer.  I imagine intellectual property rights have significantly transformed in the Internet Era.  If we were to focus on the basics, what questions would you advise writers to ask during the initial stages of the publishing process?

Make sure that before you sign any publishing deal that you continue to own the rights to your work – that you’re granting your publisher a license to publish the work, but not own it outright. I’d always advise finding a publishing attorney (not your brother-in-law the divorce attorney) to review a contract.

As someone who often hears and reads story pitches, do you have any advice for being concise during a pitch, while still generating interest?

I never like the idea of “pitches” – that always feels too Hollywood to me. Think of being able to describe your book in a few sentences, but don’t get hung up on the actual wording of the description: what’s important is the idea behind the book, not the actual words that are used to make up your brief description of your work. The big problem is not the actual words, but that you’re spending time working on a project that might feel too familiar, or somehow turn a reader off. A couple of examples: I see a lot of women’s fiction where X [husband, sister, mom] dies and Woman has to return to [husband’s home, Woman’s home, mom’s home] to figure out what happened, and in so doing resolves the central issue in Woman’s own life. When I see this kind of familiar plot, it’s generally something I’ll skip reading because it feels too familiar. Similarly, reading about child molesting is often a big turn-off. These types of topics (too familiar, too off-putting) may make a publishing professional less excited about your work no matter how dazzling the “pitch” is.

Keep in mind that a pitch can be extremely effective: as a tool to describe your book,
as a roadmap to keep you on track (if as you’re writing you see the book going off-track, having that pitch in mind may steer your novel back on course), and as an indication that the book is ready to be seen by agents and editors (if you can’t describe your book concisely, it often means that you haven’t quite digested it yet, that you still need to edit and polish it a bit more to really hone in on what’s critical about the book).

Can you tell us about a debut author you’re excited to launch in 2018?  What made their writing stand out to you?

I’m really excited about Rhiannon Navin’s ONLY CHILD, debuting from Knopf (and multiple other publishers worldwide) in early February. It’s a heartbreaking story that I thought would be tough to sell – it’s narrated by a first-grader whose brother is killed by a school shooter, and it becomes up to the first-grader to save his disintegrating family and community. I don’t tend to do books with dead kids in them – I find those kinds of projects personally too difficult to read – but this book wasn’t about dead kids: it’s a book about hope, and sorrow, and resilience. It’s gorgeously written by a woman who has no publication credentials, no social media following – and English isn’t even her first language (she’s German). But the voice is so strong and so heartrending that I couldn’t put the book down. Rhiannon’s the mother of three boys, and she spent a lot of time listening to how they really speak – and Only Child reflects this.

Find out more about Florence Writers’ Publishing Day.

 

Self-publishing expert David Gaughran

If you are thinking about self-publishing or promoting an e-book, even if traditionally published, author David Gaughran is your man. A font of information and knowledge about all the tips and tricks (and pit falls!) of self publishing and the online book in general, he helps to demystify this relatively new way to publish.

David is the author of the three historical adventures and has helped thousands of authors to self-publish their work via his workshops, blog, and two popular writers’ books: Let’s Get Digital & Let’s Get Visible. He has been featured in the Telegraph, the Irish Times, the Guardian, the Irish Examiner, the Sunday Times, Huffington Post, among others.

This is an interview done whilst he was here for the Florence Writers Publishing Day 2017.

How did you get into self-publishing?

I had been querying agents for 18 months with gradually less catastrophic failure when I finally had an agent who wished to represent me and shop my first novel to NYC publishers. I had it made! Then he dropped me like a hot potato a few weeks later. I was pretty despondent, as you might imagine, and started looking at alternatives. Starting thinking about quitting altogether, in fact.

This was early 2011 and I really was very close to walking away from writing. But then I heard about Amanda Hocking getting a $2m advance off the back of self-publishing success, and Barry Eisler turning down half a million dollars to self-publish instead, and then decided to take a closer look at that option myself. Turned out things had changed quite a bit since the vanity days, and then took the plunge myself and never looked back. In fact, an agent approached me after my first little bit of success and I got to write my own rejection letter this time. That was quite fun, I must admit.

What advice can you give for those looking to self-publish?

Here’s the mistake most people make: they skimp on editing and covers, they don’t publish professionally, they wonder why their book isn’t selling, and then they spend big on an ill-advised marketing package which doesn’t do the business for them. The basics are so important. You have to nail that cover. The editing should be pro-level, not your English teacher friend. The presentation must be immaculate. That’s all doable stuff, but people get into an awful hurry at this point and just fling the book out the door. Take a moment. You’ve spent so long writing this, doesn’t the book deserve a little careful prep before you send it out into the world?

The other big mistake that newcomers to self-publishing make is to go to one of these companies that promise to take care of everything for you. Don’t. Do. This. At best you will be published in a sub-standard way that will harm your ability to reach readers and build an audience. More likely you will be scammed for thousands and have little to show for it. It’s easier, cheaper, and more effective to do it yourself – and by that I mean outsource each task to trained professionals (i.e. editors and designers). Please don’t do your own cover. The world is begging you.

How do the stories you tell develop through your writing process?

Like anything, I’m improving with experience, and also learning that talent doesn’t mean squat compared to sweat. I used to be an instinctual writer, and now I’m a little more deliberate. I used to mostly be a pantser, and now I’m more of a plotter. Not saying one is better than the other, but this way is most certainly working better for me. I used to spend a lot of time staring at a blank page. Now I more-or-less know what I’m going to be writing in each session, and they are much more productive as a result. More importantly, I’m finding my work has more resonance now that I try and map out the emotional journey I want the reader to go on in advance of starting the book. Seriously, read “Take Off Your Pants” by Libbie Hawker if you want to improve that aspect of your writing. It’s the best plotting book I’ve ever read. One of the best books on writing I’ve ever read. Even for pantsers!

Why do you prefer digital over print publishing?

All the reasons. But let’s look at this from the reader perspective first. Readers buy e-books from four or five different places, instead of a hundred thousand different places. Most readers get e-book recommendations from a handful of websites, instead of tens of thousands of different newspapers and magazines. What does that mean for us? Well, it’s much easier and cheaper to both publish digitally and to reach e-book readers with our marketing messages. I do print publishing. Most self-publishers do also. I’m even in bookstores, have done bookstore events, I’ve done a signing at the London Book Fair, and have had the pleasure of being in national newspapers. That’s all good fun, but I don’t focus on selling print books. It’s hard to get nationwide bookstore distribution (however you publish). It’s expensive to market to print buyers (however you publish). Self-publishers focus on e-books as a result, and most of our sales are digital. So it’s not necessarily that I prefer one over the other. I’ll go where the readers are, and where the easier pathways to readers are. If books in pill form become the next big thing, I’ll happily focus on that instead. A reader is a reader.

But to finally circle back and answer the actual question, digital publishing is faster, cheaper, and more forgiving too. I can go from MS to published e-book in a matter of weeks. Days if it’s already edited. The print process takes much longer – maybe a couple of years longer via a publisher. Print is a physical object that needs to be manufactured and shipped and stored (and returned). The logistics are messy and costly. It’s a pain, to be honest, as much as love physical books as an object. Also, if I make an error, or want to change some of my end-matter to include a new release or something like that, you just can’t do it with a print edition unless you start from scratch again. With an e-book, it’s simple.

What can you do as a self-published author that other writers can’t with publishing houses? 

I’m trying not to be catty and say “make money.” More seriously though, we get up to 70% on e-book sales. The rates that publishers pay authors are dreadful. Best case scenario is usually 17.5% (14.9% after the agent’s cut), and the publisher gets a giant 52.5%. That’s indefensible. Especially when advances are dwindling.

Money aside, I have total control. This is great! I get to decide my cover, my price, my launch date and strategy. I don’t have a publisher pressuring me to go on some time-wasting blog tour – which is just busy work to keep the author off their back and to make it look like they are doing something. My books look just as good as anything coming from the publishers (we actually outsource to the same people!), and I pay for that with a flat fee which I generally recoup right after publishing – instead of signing my rights away for a long period, possibly forever. I also keep all my movie rights, foreign rights, TV rights, and all that other stuff that publishers are now trying to grab – and did option one of my books to an LA movie producer too, so that can still happen if you self-publish.

The most important thing, though, is that by self-publishing I’m guaranteeing that someone who cares about the book will be in control for the lifetime of the book. I’ve seen many writer friends sign nice deals with great editors, and the experience turning sour over the short/medium-term. That’s the normal trajectory of a publisher-author relationship, it seems. Publishers will usually care about your book for the first few months after publication. They are not normally going to be running marketing campaigns a year down the line. But I can do that because I still own the rights (and still care).

I could talk forever about this, but being the captain of your own ship is great. If I want to keep writing historical adventures, I can. If I want to take a break and write some non-fiction or short stores, I can do that too. No one is pressuring me to write a certain way, or to stick with a certain series. I make all of my own career decisions, usually after hashing things out with a circle of writer friends.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Find out more about Florence Writers.

Literary Manager Marilyn Atlas

Marilyn Atlas was a panellist at the 2017 Florence Writers Publishing Day and we caught up with her before the event to chat about characterisation and writing in the TV & film industry.

Marilyn Atlas is based in Los Angeles and brings to our event a wealth of experience as a literary manager, award-winning producer, writing instructor. She is particularly passionate about the portrayal of women in non-stereotypical roles and can help authors focus on creating credible characters in their stories. Marilyn has placed first-time novels with “Big Five” publishers and is always on the lookout for fresh material for the entertainment industry. She is co-author of ‘Dating Your Character: A Sexy Guide to Screenwriting for Film and TV’.

How can writers make sure they avoid using stereotypes while writing characters?

Stereotypes in writing are born from laziness and ignorance, but sometimes they’re used in jest as a parody. A character can also be sneaky and deliberately act like a stereotype and later undermine that perception for personal gain. For example, the Reese Witherspoon character in “Legally Blonde” starts out as a very limited character, but then she transcends how other people regard her, and even surprises herself when she decides to direct all her energy and attention to law school. When I speak to writers I talk about “cultural coding,” which is the conscious manipulation of stereotypes to defy expectations. It’s a way of putting the audience at ease and then blowing up the ground out from under them.

Avoiding stereotypes is to take the road less traveled. Every character must be well thought out and have an inner and an outer self which the writer is intimately in tune with. It takes work to flesh out an authentic, well rounded character with unique quirks and habits. It’s easy to slap a stereotype on the page and call it a character.

I’m a firm believer that characters are what make stories memorable. If you don’t care about the person driving the story, then why would you care about the scrapes they get into? If a character isn’t compelling or relatable, then that character who is featured in a dire set-piece – a sequence that builds on the tension and excitement of three action scenes – will still ultimately leave the audience indifferent once the dust settles.

My book Dating Your Character is rooted in how binding plot to character results in taut and visually arresting stories.

How does writing for the screen differ from writing for the stage and how does this affect adaptation of a piece?

I’ve talked to my writer clients about how inspiration strikes them. An idea comes … like a whiff of smoke. They chase it … sometimes it vanishes in the wind … they turn one way, then another, and it’s gone: there’s nothing there. A week is spent mulling over the premise. Then, they spend time with the character in the hope they will start to reveal themselves, listening for snatches of dialogue, probing for their deepest needs, then lastly thinking about their physical characteristics.

(Though, I should note here that every writer’s process is different.)

They start picking at the central question that keeps driving and pushing the character, like it’s a self-protective scab that’s grown over an issue they’ve been avoiding out of a sense of denial or self-delusion. It’s here then that they have to decide: What are they writing? A play? A movie?  A book?

Can that central question and the other problems in the character’s life be contained within a play that is propelled by a dissection of their interior and moments of explosive dialogue? Or would it benefit from a cinematic treatment, detail-rich environment and dynamic external forces of action that arise out of the character’s choices and state of mind as the stakes progress? Usually the answer is incontrovertible and just announces itself.

How can writers and people in the film and TV industry encourage more diverse characters and themes in productions?

You can’t do that and be effective if you’re coming from a place that’s PC. Merely trying to capitalize on what is currently a popular sentiment for inclusion is crass and people can sense if you’re just being opportunistic. You have to earnestly want to open up the playing field to people who haven’t been actively sought out before.

And I say that, because some well-intentioned executives, when they do fling open their door on “free-for-all Friday” one day a month, they’re not sitting back and letting a powerful storytelling voice wash over them. They have a preconceived idea of the kind of story they’re expected to be pitched by the person in front of them. That kind of constricting categorization and level of expectation may not permit the listener to absorb the merits of the story objectively. Objectivity is key in determining the saleability of a project, but so is empathy. You can’t immediately tune out the person pitching if they’re simply interested in sharing a slice of life that you weren’t preparing to hear about or hadn’t previously associated with a person from that background. Thankfully I do find in the last several years, executives have been buying projects that reflect social inclusion and diversity. And as later noted, TV shows that reflect diverse characters are in the zeitgeist and doing very well both critically and ratings-wise.

Because I suffer from major wanderlust and have traveled extensively, I’ve personally always gravitated to writers from various countries. And what resonates for me is a writer’s ability to create unique characters and worlds where I can find a little bit of myself in.

I was one of the producers of “Real Women Have Curves,” a small HBO film about a young Latina who wants a different life from the life of her immigrant parents. What really led me to invest years of my life to bring this to the screen was the complexity of the main character, Ana. She has divided loyalties and is wrestling with how to choose to self-identify. These are questions everyone deals with, but the story is also set very specifically in the barrio and what the harsh conditions of working in a sweatshop — even one owned by your own family — is like. It felt at once very particular and yet universal, too.

My associate Elizabeth and I always talk about what draws us to the writers we want to represent and the projects we’re developing. Elizabeth feels that writers, who know their characters “as fully-fleshed beings completely separate from themselves,” tend to forge new paths and tackle story issues that put the creators themselves on edge — and that freshness, when you find it, we find immediately arresting. That was the main impetus of the book that I co-wrote with Elizabeth and Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein.

It’s precious when you discover a finely honed, authentic voice that is both self-assured and cognizant of the marketplace. That’s probably the reason why we have such a small client list, we’re incredibly picky!
But, consciously, as a long-time advocate of diversity, I’ve always made a special effort to welcome and listen to viewpoints that are different from my own, because seeing the world through a different lens and listening to the stories that people have to tell broadens your own perspective.

Why do you think television and specifically streaming websites like Netflix are able to produce film and TV with more diverse story lines? 

Netflix and the cable channels, both advertiser-supported and subscriber-based only, have niche audiences that are willing to pay for interesting stories that bring them out of the routine of their own lives. Netflix has also chosen a business model that doesn’t spend money on development. They don’t incubate a pilot idea, shoot it, and then throw it away if it doesn’t work. They commit on a gut instinct to one season. So, they don’t splash their money around in the kind of lottery system that the TV networks do. They hold onto their poker chips, then selectively decide to go all in. Another smart tactic that Netflix is employing is that they’re buying shows based on books, which provide a built-in audience for them.

Find out more about Florence Writers.

Interview with thanks to Shelley T Martin.