Writing a story
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Elsewhere by Yan Ge: A vibrant and beguiling short story collection
There is a universality and perspicacity to ge’s writing, an understanding of what matters.
Yan Ge's work has been translated into a number of languages and it’s easy to see why. Photograph: Joanna Millington
A short story collection can be a great vehicle for showcasing different styles and forms, and so it is with Yan Ge’s Elsewhere, the English-language debut from an award-winning Chinese writer whose work has been published in a number of Irish literary journals and anthologies. Born in Sichuan, Ge lived in Ireland for a number of years but is currently based in Norwich, where she completed an MFA at the University of East Anglia and was the recipient of the UEA International Award 2018/2019. Other accolades to date include the Mao Dun Literature Prize and being named by People’s Literature magazine as one of 20 future literature masters in China.
There is an impressive range to the nine stories in her collection. Settings vary from contemporary New York, London, Sweden, Dublin, China in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake, or that country centuries earlier, amid power games and political machinations at court and among the disciples of Confucius. It’s a lot of material for a relatively short number of stories but for the most part Ge handles the shifts skilfully, with nimble changes in tone, pace and style that reflect the broad scope of her stories.
Elsewhere is a collection of depth and dimension. The spare, limpid prose style in many of the stories allows for moments of strong emotional impact, such as the stunning second story, Shooting an Elephant, which charts the listless, lonely months of a newly married Chinese woman, Shanshan, who is trying to put down roots in Dublin with her Irish husband. After a trauma on their honeymoon in Burma, there is a disconnect in the marriage: “They were like two comets chasing each other in circles, sometimes getting closer, yet always light years apart.” There is a palpable sense of loss and longing as Shanshan moves around the north inner city, pining for her mother, pining for home. She strikes up a friendship of sorts with a shop assistant who has a Chinese tattoo. The guy thinks it means “home” but an errant dot changes the meaning to “grave”.
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These little touches are everywhere in Elsewhere. Language is a central focus, miscommunications abound, adding to the isolation and dispossession of Ge’s characters. A Chinese couple decides to only speak English around their baby. People watch a foreign film with no subtitles. Characters assume new names to fit in with their adopted cultures. Ge is interested in outsiders, marginalised individuals trying to assimilate. The protagonist of No Time to Write, Cliona, was brought up in a peripatetic household. Now a jobless and directionless woman in her 20s, she explains, “Years of relocating and dislocating have injured each one of us in this family. Everyone except my little brother Ian. Ian lives in Porto with his girlfriend Sara and is as happy as a goldfish.”
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‘I miss breakfast rolls and the sense of humour but our life in the US has been as normal as anyone else’s with young kids’
This quote is indicative of Ge’s style generally: quietly momentous realisations about the human condition that are often underlined or undercut with dry humour. In the opening story, The Little House, first published in The Stinging Fly, the protagonist loses her virginity to her friend Six Times in the middle of an earthquake. Afterwards, he tries to clean up the mess: “I told him I would prefer to have dried sperm on my belly than cold beer and the filth from his socks. He said he was sorry.” In the story Stockholm, a writer describes her work: “Mainly about small towns in China, I said. The unspeakable natures of their residents. Gossiping, bickering, pilfering and fornication. Basically, a bunch of faithless people indulging in petty crimes.” Other stories have a noted playfulness to some of the stylistic decisions. The couple’s happiness in Shooting an Elephant may depend on the outcome of the Slab Murphy court case. Centuries old Confucian monks speak in modern Irishisms: “Ah for f**k’s sake ... You will in your hole.”
This story, Hai, closes the collection and accounts for almost one-third of its length. While the period detail, philosophical insights and depiction of power mongering among the supposedly noble Confucian brothers are all well done, there is a marked lack of momentum, a tediousness creeps in as the story continues, which seems a strange way to finish such a vibrant and beguiling collection.
It is a minor off-note in an otherwise major publication. Ge’s work has been translated into a number of languages and it’s easy to see why. Whether she’s concocting surreal tales of immigrants in New York or giving a painstakingly vivid account of a writer and new mother pumping her breastmilk at a literary festival in Stockholm, there is a universality and perspicacity to her writing, an understanding of what matters. As another writer on the panel at the literary festival notes, “To narrate is to make choices, to cut out the insubstantial and to inaugurate order.”
Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts
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Writing for TV is nothing like you (probably) thought
The entertainment industry’s fourth wall is crumbling as more than 11,000 unionized writers picket for the first time since the 2007 strike, venting more than a decade’s worth of frustrations about the experience of working behind the scenes in Hollywood.
TV writers, whose projects are most immediately affected by the strike, have been trying to undo misconceptions about their jobs, which they say were never particularly glamorous even in the heyday of network TV. In the age of Netflix and Disney Plus, many writers say, grueling workloads and vanishing job security threaten the entire profession.
The Washington Post spoke to writers, union organizers with the Writers Guild of America, studio representatives and experts to debunk some persistent myths about TV writing.
“TV writers are rich, or at least glamorous.”
Leaving aside one-in-a-million star showrunners like Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy , it might seem that even the average TV writer is living the dream, getting paid to create stories watched by millions of people, in a star-studded industry that earns billions of dollars annually.
It might even look that way on paper, with the lowest-paid TV writers in the union earning at least $4,154 per week of work.
But TV writing is competitive and brutally unpredictable, with seasons shrinking and shows often canceled on short notice. Many writers say their paychecks get stretched very thin between lean times.
“Before I got this job as showrunner’s assistant … I had gone through a period of unemployment for three or four months, and I was feeling very demoralized,” said Lindsay Grossman, who was on set for the “Motherland” reboot. “I’ve been trying at this for a long time and for it to be that difficult to find a job 10 years in, it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Back when network television reigned supreme, a typical 22-episode season of, say, “Seinfeld,” could employ a writer for 40 weeks or more. But in the streaming era, many seasons have shrunk to 12, eight or even fewer episodes. According to the WGA, a typical writing job for a streaming service lasts about 14 weeks. That means fewer weeks of pay.
Writers today have fewer weeks
of guaranteed work, resulting in
reduced and unstable income
In recent years, staff writers have had to work for multiple shows per year to make the same income as in previous years, when writers often only worked for one show, according to the Writers Guild of America. Television work is competitive and unstable, and working on one show per year—let alone multiple—is not guaranteed.
Staff writers work a median of 20-25 weeks
tper year, which guarantees a $4,546
minimum weekly income. Of that, they take
home about two-thirds of the pay, after fees
Note: Staff writers are the lowest level of writer titles.
Minimum weekly income varies by number of weeks
worked and is set by the 2020 Writers Guild of America
Source: Writers Guild of America
JANICE KAI CHEN/THE WASHINGTON POST
Writers today have fewer weeks of
guaranteed work, resulting in reduced
and unstable income
42 weeks paid
Staff writers work a median of 20-25 weeks per year,
which guarantees a $4,546 minimum weekly income.
Of that, they take home about two-thirds of the pay,
after fees and taxes.
Note: Staff writers are the lowest level of writer titles. Minimum weekly
income varies by number of weeks worked and is set by the 2020 Writers
Guild of America contract.
Writers today have fewer weeks of guaranteed work,
resulting in reduced and unstable income
Staff writers work a median of 20-25 weeks per year, which guarantees a $4,546 minimum
weekly income. Of that, they take home about two-thirds of the pay, after fees and taxes.
Note: Staff writers are the lowest level of writer titles. Minimum weekly income varies by
number of weeks worked and is set by the 2020 Writers Guild of America contract.
Writers today have fewer weeks of guaranteed work, resulting in reduced income
But in an era of complex plot arcs and high production quality, writers say it takes roughly the same amount of work to shoot shorter TV shows as their longer predecessors, leaving a handful of writers with a more grueling workload.
“I just worked seven days a week, 13 to 14 hour days, for three months to make an eight-episode order,” said Danielle Sanchez-Witzel, a showrunner who’s worked on network shows such as “New Girl,” “My Name is Earl” and “The Carmichael Show,” and is also on the WGA committee negotiating with studios for a new union contract. “Me and one other writer worked those hours. It’s exhausting. It’s unsustainable.”
Writers can try to work on multiple shows in a year to balance out the shorter gigs, but many complain that studios are hesitant to hire someone with overlapping commitments, while some simply forbid moonlighting within Hollywood.
There’s also the matter of shrinking residuals — the percentage of profits some writers get each time their show is re-aired or licensed. The exact formulas for these are complex, but the WGA says that generally, the residuals from streaming platforms are far lower than those from network TV.
Ultimately, many writers are forced to work jobs outside the industry to make ends meet, or let their careers stagnate by repeatedly accepting jobs at the same pay rate.
“Every TV character has their own writer.”
Well-written dialogue might sound like the product of a single mind, but the real process is messier.
“Every writer in that room participates in mapping out the show, the story and the characters,” said Laura Blum-Smith, director of research and public policy at the Writers Guild of America.
On paper, at least, there’s a hierarchy in your typical show — an ecosystem in which entry-level writing assistants and veteran story architects collaborate and teach one another.
At the bottom of the pyramid are writers’ assistants, who help keep higher-level writers organized and communicate between different teams. Most of them are not yet eligible to join the WGA.
On the next rung are union-protected staff writers, who may write the first draft of a script. More senior writers, such as story editors, might then tweak and perfect the script — maybe sharpening the snappiest one-liners.
Even higher tiers such as producers and executive producers — also known as showrunners — shepherd the writing through the filming process, often making last-minute revisions as the script is brought to life.
But as studio executives look to save money by downsizing writing budgets, many of these divisions have become blurred. The WGA complains that many writers are now doing the job of several people without any extra pay, and that TV writing is transforming into essentially gig work — with everyone treated like an independent contractor.
Warner Bros. Discovery unintentionally called attention to the phenomenon when it relaunched its streaming service, Max, this week. Many writers protested that the new app’s preview screens no longer identified who wrote a show or movie, lumping writers in with directors and executive producers as “creators.”
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios in their contract negotiations with the WGA, has pushed back on some of the claims. Unlike independent contractors, spokesman Scott Rowe noted, writers receive pension and health-care benefits and are eligible for a paid parental leave program.
The writers’ room.
If you’ve seen “30 Rock” or the “Key & Peele” sketch about “Gremlins 2 ,” you know what a writers’ room is supposed to look like: a big mess of creative types huddled around a table, swapping jokes and ideas until their collective wit produces a Hollywood script.
There’s actually a lot of truth to the cliché. Writers’ rooms have been a staple of TV almost as long as the industry has existed. They are creative workshops that guide a show from conception to last-minute edits and plot pivots that crop up during filming.
Or, they used to be. The walls are closing in on writers’ rooms, which have been significantly downsized in the name of cost-cutting since the last WGA strike in 2007, and which the union says will soon be extinct if the studios have their way.
“The companies are trying to eliminate the writers room and turn writing into a freelance profession,” WGA negotiator (and writer) Adam Conover said on “The Town with Matt Belloni” podcast this month.
The term “mini-room” has become a pejorative industry shorthand for the downsizing. In some cases, studios are actually hiring fewer writers per show. But more commonly, writers are becoming more like temporary workers than integral parts of a production. Sanchez-Witzel says that often, only a handful of writers get to stay on for the entire production process, leaving the showrunner and maybe two or three other writers to handle all subsequent script changes.
In the long term, some worry what will happen to the craft without rooms where fledgling writers can learn from experienced colleagues.
“If we’re creating a system where nobody is learning how to actually make television at the higher levels, no one’s going to be making television in 10 years,” said film critic and writer Drew McWeeny.
The studios don’t exactly deny shrinking the writers’ room. The union’s demand for mandatory staffing “is in reality a hiring quota that is incompatible with the creative nature of our industry,” Rowe, the AMPTP spokesman, said in a statement. “We don’t agree with applying a one-size-fits-all solution to shows that are unique and different in their approach to creative staffing.”
“TV is popular, so jobs must be plentiful.”
There are more shows than ever before. But shorter seasons and the shrinkage of the writing room has created a paradox of fewer jobs.
More than twice as many original English-language shows were released in 2022 compared with a decade earlier, according to research from FX Networks — 599 to 288.
But whereas a typical network show might have had 10 to 12 writers or more, streaming services tend to hire between six and eight.
Kyra Jones, a writer on “Queens,” “Woke” and “The Right Swipe,” said the competitive job market poses “one of the biggest threats to increasing diversity and inclusion in television writing.”
Showrunners “end up being scared to take a chance on a writer with less experience,” she said. “They want to make sure that they have someone who they think can get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, making the rooms very top-heavy and only hiring executive producers or co-executive producers, high-level writers, which leaves us out in the cold.”
Jones moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to pursue her career after successfully landing two writing jobs. Instead, she had to go on unemployment last year and now works remotely part-time at her old job — Northwestern University’s sexual health and violence resource center — while she waits for another opportunity in TV.
“Writers finally ‘make it’ when they get a hit show.”
Hollywood has long marketed itself on the American Dream, an opportunity for real-life rags-to-riches stories. Ava DuVernay climbed her way up from a film publicist to an Emmy-winning producer, for example. Larry David sold bras and drove cabs in New York before striking gold with “Seinfeld.”
Many writers say the past five to 10 years have broken the machinery of career advancement that made those star turns possible. What’s more, it’s getting harder and harder for them to even know how many people watch their shows.
Streamers have much more data about their viewers than box offices or networks that rely on Nielsen ratings ever could, but the companies closely guard this information — even from their writers.
Writers whose project is streaming-only are paid a flat residual rate based on how many subscribers are on the service. For example, a writer whose work streams on Netflix will make more money than one who writes for a smaller streamer such as Paramount Plus. But within a particular streaming service, the pay is the same. Writers on Netflix megahits like “Stranger Things” or “Bridgerton” earn the same pay as those who write the lowest-viewed shows on the platform, Kaufman said.
“[Streamers] boast to Wall Street about the technology they use in their algorithms, and then they tell us nothing,” Sanchez-Witzel said.
Writers say that not knowing how successful their work is undercuts their ability to demand better pay — a particular concern since streaming residuals are lower than for network shows. It also chips away at the notion of Hollywood’s meritocracy.
“If you make something and a billion people watch it, you don’t make more money than if it was a disaster,” writer-director Judd Apatow told Variety this month. “That’s not good for creativity because it takes away a lot of the motivation for the creative people, because people work really hard to create some sort of cushion for their lives.”
Sydney Sweeney talks true story behind Reality Winner movie: 'You can't even write stuff like this!'
Spoiler alert! The following story contains details about HBO's "Reality," a new film about whistleblower Reality Winner.
Sydney Sweeney is always up for a challenge.
“Honestly, if a character wasn’t difficult for me, I wouldn’t do it,” says the actress, 25, a two-time Emmy nominee for HBO’s “Euphoria” and “The White Lotus.”
“Reality” is no exception. In HBO’s nail-biting new thriller ( now streaming on Max ), Sweeney plays former Air Force linguist and National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner , who was arrested in 2017 on suspicion of leaking a confidential document to nonprofit news site The Intercept. She was found guilty and sentenced to more than five years in prison for the data breach, which helped expose Russian interference in the election of former President Donald Trump.
The movie is adapted from Tina Satter’s 2021 Broadway play, “Is This a Room,” which is scripted verbatim from the FBI transcript of Winner’s interrogation and arrest. The 82-minute film is set entirely at Winner’s house, with tense moments that are frequently stranger than fiction.
“I was reading the dialogue like, ‘You can’t even write stuff like this!’ “ Sweeney says. “I was very intrigued by it (but also) scared, because I knew I wanted to be able to honor Reality’s voice as much as possible.”
Sweeney and writer-director Satter tell USA TODAY about the true-life story behind “Reality.”
The NSA whistleblower's real name is Reality Winner
Winner's mom confirmed the authenticity of Reality's name in early conversations with Satter. “Reality’s father, who’s now passed away, got to choose (her) name and said he wanted ‘a real winner,’ “ Satter recalls. “Her dad was a bit of a character.”
Reality Winner's Pokemon bedspread, personal Quran gave a glimpse at who she was
Pictures of the actual Winner, 31, are featured throughout the film, all of which were provided by her family or pulled from social media. (In the most memorable photo , Winner smiles while holding her pink-and-black AR-15.) Sweeney and Satter were fascinated by Winner’s eclectic belongings, from her sketchbooks to her punk-rock posters.
“Her Pokemon bedspread, I just loved that,” Sweeney says. “It was such a funny choice for her, and that spoke about her humor and the person she is at home.”
Adds Satter: “Her marked-up Quran was really important to show, because Reality has this wide-ranging interest in religion. Her Quran was then used against her in her attempts to get bail, like, ‘She had a strong interest in the Middle East! Maybe it meant something sinister about her character!’ But it was truly this intellectual and spiritual interest for her.”
Much of the FBI interrogation was spent talking about her dog and cat
For a movie about leaking classified information, a surprising amount of Winner’s initial interrogation was focused on everyday minutiae. When FBI agents arrive at her house in Augusta, Georgia, she asks if she can put away her groceries first so they don’t spoil. A gym junkie, Winner stresses about missing an upcoming powerlifting competition and a yoga class that she teaches. There's also a lot of back-and-forth about Winner’s pets and who will take care of them if she goes to jail.
“It’s such a high-stakes moment in someone’s life, and there’s almost levity to the conversation around the dog and cat,” Sweeney says. “She was an animal lover and a mother to (them). She was responsible for them, and she wanted to make sure that no matter what happened to her, they were going to be OK.”
She complained about TVs showing Fox News at work
The film opens with Winner working in a cubicle, surrounded by TV screens blaring Fox News. Later, as she’s being interrogated, we learn that she filed multiple complaints to her bosses about Fox News playing in the office, suggesting that Al Jazeera or "a slideshow with people’s pets" would’ve been more appropriate.
Trump repeatedly denied that Russia hacked the U.S. election in his favor, although Winner's leaked document showed evidence of Russian cyberattacks on local election officials.
“The repeating denials and lies about things that she literally could see ‒ that’s why she chooses to share that information,” Satter says.
Winner has said "explicitly that Fox News was truly, really intense to have happening all day long," Satter notes. "What felt like a very specific news view in her head and workspace did make a big difference and was very aggravating.”
Reality Winner is now out of prison
In 2018, Winner received the longest sentence ever imposed by federal courts for leaking material to the media, and was the first person sentenced under the Espionage Act when Trump took office. She was released from prison in June 2021 on good behavior, and is on probation until November 2024.
“She’s considered the signature person charged in the Espionage Act of the Trump administration,” Satter says. “She did get this extremely intense sentence. She probably was being made an example at some point, in the way they wanted to frame that case.”
She’s been ‘very supportive’ of the film, but can’t watch it yet
Winner has not yet seen the film for herself. “She spoke again quite recently to us and said it’s still too traumatic for her to watch and (relive) that day," Satter says. "But she does approve of it and has been very supportive.”
Sweeney also got to watch the movie with Winner’s family at the Berlin International Film Festival premiere in February. “It was absolutely incredible,” Sweeney recalls. “Her mom hugged my shoulders and said she gained another daughter, and that she truly saw her daughter in my performance. That was such a beautiful moment to share.”
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A short story collection can be a great vehicle for showcasing different styles and forms, and so it is with Yan Ge's Elsewhere, the English-language debut from an award-winning Chinese writer ...
Words should be added gradually — a general guideline is five words per week. Use the word wall daily to practice words, incorporating a variety of activities such as chanting, snapping, cheering, clapping, tracing, word guessing games as well as writing them.
and. Anne Branigin. May 29, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT. 30 ROCK, A Season 7 scene set in the writers' room. Pictured are Katrina Bowden (left) Tina Fey (center), and Keith Powell (far right). (Ali ...
The following story contains details about HBO's "Reality," a new film about whistleblower Reality Winner. Sydney Sweeney is always up for a challenge. "Honestly, if a character wasn't ...