Four Reasons To Enter Writing Contests

FOCUS Entering writing contests has many advantages, beginning with how it forces you to focus on a single goal. It’s easy to become distracted, moving from one writing project to the next, without actually finishing any of them. Making the decision to put all your efforts towards writing a great piece for a writing contest might be just what you need.

DEADLINES I find that writing without a deadline is extremely difficult. I allow myself to think I’ll get around to finishing a project sometime, because I don’t have a deadline, and end up in an endless cycle of procrastination. I recently entered a screenwriting competition, and the looming deadline was just enough motivation to finish writing the script.

REWARDS If you win a lottery, it’s great to have the cash, but you don’t really have a sense of accomplishment. Anyone can buy a lottery ticket. However, if you win a writing contest, you’ve demonstrated that you have significant talent and that’s something you can be proud of.

YOU WIN, EVEN IF YOU LOSE So, you focused on one project until it was finished, paid the entry fee and entered it in a writing contest. Even if you’re not competing with the general public (like a lottery ticket), your entry is still up against all the pieces submitted by other writers. What if you don’t win? You now have a new item prepared for the literary marketplace, and that puts you way ahead of someone who has a dozen unfinished projects.

Copyright © 2023 by J. Paul Cooper

Update: My story, “The Challenge” has been included in NEW SPACES, an anthology of science fiction short stories published by Lintusen Press, a collaborative micropress.


I Think I Have a Great Story Idea

I’ve lost count of the times I thought I had exceptional story ideas, but they didn’t produce the literary success I had anticipated. Does that mean I was wrong? How do you know whether a story idea is indeed, “great.”  

It seems obvious that J.K. Rowling had a fantastic story concept with the Harry Potter series, since each novel was an international bestseller, and they were all adapted as blockbuster movies. The first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, however, was rejected by twelve publishers. If J.K. Rowling had given up after eleven rejections, would it have meant the story concept was flawed? No, but a manuscript with significant potential might have been lost forever.

What about originality? Can a story idea that has themes like those found in other books or movies, still be considered original? The television series Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were set on space stations, and for five years (1993-1998) both were on air at the same time. The movies White House Down, and Olympus Has Fallen were both about a terrorist attack on the White House and released in the same year, 2013. Can you imagine telling animation companies that they must stop producing movies with talking or singing animals, because it has already been done? A story idea must have some distinct elements, but writing a story that is absolutely unlike anything else that has been previously written, might be an impossibility.  

The reason so many stories can have similar themes yet retain aspects that set them apart from other stories, is because they flow from the minds of unique individuals. Two writers will not image the same characters or create identical worlds. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien and the A Song of Fire and Ice series by George R R Martin both include dragons, and battle scenes, but you’d never get them confused.

Perhaps exceptional story concepts are distinguished by how many ways they are adapted. The novel, War Horse by Michael Morpurgo was adapted as a feature film The War Horse (2011) by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis. It is also a play, adapted from the novel by playwright Nick Stafford.

Although it’s not something you can anticipate while writing, the possibility exists that you won’t know you have a great story idea while working on a project. Writer Stieg Larson died in 2004, before his crime trilogy, beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, became international bestsellers and were later adapted as feature films.

Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee publishing companies will accept your manuscript, even if it’s based on a great concept. Scarcity is a reality that affects all aspects of life, including literature and editors are forced to reject manuscripts with great potential, because budget constraints limit how many books they can publish.

The most important question, however, is whether you’re going to write. Your story idea might result in a bestselling novel, an Oscar winning screenplay, or a Tony (Antoinette Perry Award) winning play. It might be an eBook forgotten in an endless sea of thumbnails, or another screenplay that’s never produced. Is it worth it? Absolutely! What I’ve observed in other writers, and experienced myself, is there’s sense of accomplishment when you finish a writing project, and joy in the process as you let the creative juices flow.

I’m starting a new project. I don’t know whether publishers or producers will think my concept has potential or if they’ll just ignore it. Nevertheless, I will be writing, because I think I have a great story idea.   

Copyright © 2023 by J. Paul Cooper            

Book Review

Becoming A Writer-Staying A Writer by J. Michael Straczynski

Benbella Books 2021 230 Pages

If you just read about J. Michael Straczynksi’s success writing scripts for television series, as well as feature length screenplays, and comic books, that alone would be enough to convince you to buy Becoming A Writer-Staying a Writer. And it would be a good decision.

Having worked in Hollywood for decades, Straczynski offers a wide range of advice useful for both new and experienced writers. My favourite chapter was Annnnd Here’s The Pitch. If you hear the term “pitching” the first image that comes to mind might be a movie producer’s office in Hollywood. Straczynski, however, notes that an editor who is publishing your first novel, might want know about the second book you’re planning to write as well. This is useful knowledge, since many writers conferences include pitch sessions with agents and editors.

I appreciate Straczynski’s approach, as he discusses both the challenge involved in approaching agents, and practical steps you can take to develop a reputation as a solid writer. According to the author, having short stories published and offering to write a script for an independent filmmaker’s first short film can help in that process.

Straczynski’s book discusses technical aspects of writing, as well as emotional issues like Writer’s Block and Imposter Syndrome. Becoming A Writer-Staying A Writer is a perfect balance of straightforward advice and humour; Straczynski never denies that writing is a difficult process, but he reminds us why it’s important that we keep trying.

Copyright © 2023 by J. Paul Cooper

Do Your Characters Have Quirks?

It’s been many years since I’ve seen this character on television, yet I can still hear his voice when I’m walking through the dessert section of the grocery store, “COOKIES!” Why? There were no expensive CGI effects on Sesame Street. You remember the Cookie Monster, because no other character is quite like him, he’s one of a kind. You can see a reflection of yourself in the Cookie Monster, because he’s obsessed with cookies, and everyone is obsessed with something.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back,” in The Terminator (1984) you’re anticipating his next move. It’s an action movie, so you know that someone’s going to get killed, or something is going to be blown up. If you’ve watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban (2004), you remember Professor Snape saying, “Turn to page 394,” despite the fact he didn’t say it during an exciting scene. Allan Rickman developed a cadence for his character’s speech that was so unique, you can’t forget what he says.

Watching a B movie, the first thing you’ll notice, is there’s nothing about the characters that you can relate to, they’re just cardboard cutouts; constructed from layers of cliches. They don’t feel “real.” One science fiction movie I started to watch, began with a soldier who has gone rogue, he’s ignoring his commander’s orders to stand down. How many times have you seen that happen in a movie? A maniac has kidnapped a woman, and he’s acting exactly as you’d expect a maniac to behave, wild eyes, screaming, making threats, etc. What’s unusual, or memorable about these characters? Nothing.

As you’re writing, think about whether the movie that’s showing on the movie screen in your head is a B movie. Do your characters have any traits that will make them memorable? Consider Saving Private Ryan (1998); all the characters are wearing uniforms, so they aren’t distinguished by their clothing. but each one has a distinct personality that makes them feel like real individuals. And that’s what draws you in, it allows you to wonder what it would be like, to be in their situation. Likewise, if Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) feels like a real person, then you can imagine what it might be like commanding a starship.

There are endless options when developing characters; age, gender, height, clothing, speech (cadence, accent, slang), occupation, food preferences, where they were born, where they’ve lived, there hopes and dreams, who they’ve loved, how they voted…. Throw in time travel and things get really interesting; he was born in 21st Century, but has been sent back to live in the 17th Century. If you’re writing science fiction, you’ll have to stretch your imagination to make an alien character stand out from other aliens!

The reason you can create unique characters, is because you are a unique human being with a unique imagination. You hear people say, there was only one Steve Jobs, or there was only one Jimmy Hendrix, and that’s true, but there is also, only one you. Keep writing!

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

Who Knows You’re A Writer?

Since you talk about it, your friends, family, and co-workers know that you’re a writer. If someone asked any of them, they’d say it’s your hobby. For many writers, however, it’s more than a hobby, it’s a passion, it’s who they are. So, how do you make the point that you’re serious about the craft of writing, and reach people that can help you develop a career?

Submit Your Work: This may seem like an obvious step to take, but it can be frightening, especially for beginning writers. You may have written a literary masterpiece, but no one will know will recognize your talent, unless they can read it. It’s possible to spend years on a novel, constantly making changes, and never submit it to a publisher, or self-publish it. It’s true that if you never make your writing public, no one can criticize it, but it also means no one can appreciate it.

Join A Writing Organization: Many writing organizations have member pages, where you can include a photo, a brief bio, items that you’ve had published (or self-published), and information about the types of writing you’re interested in. Recently, after someone saw my profile on a writing organization’s website, I was invited to be a guest author on a television show about writing. It will be aired later this fall on a community television station; so only few people will see it, but it does demonstrate how having a profile can be effective.

Look For Unusual Opportunities: Two of the most unique writing opportunities I’ve come across have involved coffee and beer. The first involved short stories being published on cardboard coffee cup sleeves, the ones they put on cups to protect your hands from the heat. The second one involved a brewing company, they were looking for short plays (54 words) to print on their beer cans. In both cases, the author’s name was included, so potentially thousands of people would see the names of the winning writers.

Start Blogging: If you’ve been reading blogs by writers, now’s the time to join us, and share your passion for, and knowledge of writing with everyone. You’ll never know what your potential is, or who will read your blogs, until you get started.

Note: I was profiled in the “A Day in the Life” section of the Calgary Guardian ( on October 26th. I also finished writing a feature-length screenplay and entered it in a competition.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

A Player at the Literary Casino

If you’re a writer, you’re a gambler, even if you’ve never played blackjack or roulette. You make bets at the literary casino with the most valuable, irreplaceable resource – time.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is deciding how much time you’re prepared to wager on a single bet. You start writing a short story, but soon realise that fully developing the concept will require a much larger project. You were prepared to gamble a few hours on a short story, but are you willing to go all in with several months or a year on a novel?                                                 

When you’re a player at the literary casino, you must be flexible, ready to change the game. You have a great story idea which you plan to write as a novel, but then you find out a local theatre company is looking for new plays. Why not roll the dice, and write one based on your story idea? If your play is chosen, your name will appear in the program; an excellent opportunity to raise your public profile. A good review mentioning your name in a newspaper or magazine would be even better     

Playing at the literary casino requires strategy. Once you’ve finished writing a book, do you send the manuscript to a traditional publisher, or do you self-publish? It could take months or years to find a traditional publisher willing to print your book, but it’s more likely to be placed in physical bookstores and libraries, than self-published books.

If you want to keep costs down and publish your book immediately, you can self-publish an eBook. The downside is that, if it’s only available as an eBook, it won’t be as visible as physical books on shelves and display tables.

Due to the popularity of self-published eBooks, a new industry has developed: pre-made eBook covers. Although it’s convenient, you have to be careful, because some of the eBook cover designers offer the same cover for multiple sales. In other words, you could end up buying a cover that has already been used for another writer’s eBook.

Especially for writers without an agent, trying to sell feature length screenplays is probably the most challenging game at the literary casino. It’s a high-risk gamble with time, because many film and television companies won’t read a screenplay unless it’s submitted by an agent, and some agents won’t take you on as a client, until you’ve already sold a screenplay, or at least had one optioned.

Fortunately, there are still some film companies willing to accept unsolicited screenplays from writers without agents. Before they read your screenplay, however, you’ll have to sign a release agreement, acknowledging that they may have already received screenplays with concepts similar to the one you’re submitting. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to take legal action if they produce a film with a concept similar to the one you’ve submitted. Despite the potential risk, I’ve submitted screenplays to numerous film and television companies, after signing release agreements. If you want to play this game, you better have steady nerves.   

Imagine that you’ve just had a screenplay accepted by a film company. If they’re willing to pay you up front, that’s great, but you might be asked to make a wager on the film itself. An independent film company with limited resources might offer you a deferred payment option, promising you a portion of the film’s profit. Although it’s possible the film won’t make any money, and therefore you won’t get paid, don’t walk away from the table yet; there’s still the onscreen credit to consider. The cold, hard reality is that until you have an onscreen credit, the film and television industry doesn’t know you exist. Even if the deferred payment option doesn’t put any cash in your bank account, you should make sure you get an onscreen credit for your efforts.   

Consulting with a lawyer is always a wise decision before signing contracts. As with agents, lawyers know what has to be included in contracts,mmn to protect your interests.  

What’s exciting about the literary casino is that once you learn the basics, there’s no limit to the games you can play. The writing skills you acquire in high school and university are the building blocks you need to write blogs, articles, essays, short stories, plays, novels, non-fiction books, and screenplays. Once you decide to play, the only question is how much time you’re willing to wager. The stakes get higher, the more hours you spend working on a project, but so do the potential rewards.

A warning to anyone interested in betting their time at the literary casino; writing is addictive. There are novelists and screenwriters who’ve earned millions through their craft and could retire at any time, but continue to create new material. They can’t stop, because they love the game.   

Bullet Train: A Movie Review

Bullet Train (2022) is a wild ride from start to finish, with plenty of plot twists and great fight scenes that keep your eyes glued to the screen. But, it isn’t just the action that holds your attention, it’s how the story unfolds and how unique characters interact with each other.

Have you ever watched a B movie, and immediately notice that the actors seem to be portraying stereotypes, rather than real human beings? It could be the dialogue is so poorly written, that the actors don’t have much to work with. On the other hand, even if the story is based on great source material, if the actors lack talent or experience, they might still sound like the after-hour voice recording for a drug store, “If you’d like to use our automated prescription service….” Fortunately, in Bullet Train, screenwriter Zak Olkewicz had great material to adapt, there were experienced actors who could bring the characters to life, and Director David Leitch knows how to film a great action scene.

One of the characters introduced in Kotaro Isaka’s novel Bullet Train is Prince, a malevolent teenager who manipulates schoolmates and adults, enjoying their suffering. Joey King’s portrayal is spot-on, as she effortlessly switches from the heartless vixen, to the scared, vulnerable adolescent, influencing the actions of other passengers.

Lemon is an assassin, and what makes his character memorable are his constant referrals to the the children’s series, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (1984-2021). The sharp contrast between the brutal killer and the childlike obsession makes him seem like a real person, because he doesn’t fit a particular stereotype. The same technique was used with the character Dolores Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix (2007.) Delores Umbridge always wears pink, and her office walls are lined with images of kittens, yet she’s a cruel, pitiless tyrant.

And then there’s Ladybug, the main character portrayed by Brad Pitt. It’s easy to relate to Ladybug, because he seems to be plagued by bad luck. We’ve all had days when we can’t seem to get anything right. Just imagine having a day like that, but you’re on a train with a group of assassins, and just one wrong move could cost you your life.

Why is Bullet Train a great movie? It begins with Kotaro Isaka’s brilliant novel, introducing interesting characters and a unique setting. In the screenplay, Zak Olkewicz tightens the plot, and eliminates unnecessary characters. Director David Leitch finds just the right balance between action and story, accentuating the dark humour. And finally, the actors bring the characters to life. If you can’t leave your seat, because want to know what happens next to the characters, then the filmmakers have been successful.

P.S. I continue to celebrate small wins. I had an article, “Taking A Shot At Unscripted Television,” published in the July-September 2022 issue of Westword, the Magazine of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

The Essay: More Than Just a Homework Assignment

When you hear the word, “Essay,” does a homework assignment immediately come to mind? Even if you were given a wide choice of potential subjects, an essay was still something you were required to do. It was work in the worst sense: drudgery. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking of essays as an opportunity to think deeply about a topic you’re interested in, and in the process, improve your writing skills.

One advantage of writing an essay, is it prepares you for working on larger projects. If you find the thought of starting a four hundred page novel or non-fiction book intimidating, writing an essay is a good place to start. You often hear writers talk about getting into “the flow,” when they become so absorbed in their art that time seems to stand still and there is no limit to their creativity. Once you experience “the flow,” the larger projects won’t appear so frightening; instead you’ll have to set time limits on how long you’re going to write at each sitting.

Another benefit of writing essays is it forces you to focus. Whether you’re writing an essay to submit to a newspaper or literary journal, you’ll have to stay within a specified word limit. Since brevity is key, you’ll have to carefully choose your words. It’s an excellent tool for learning how to edit your own writing, as you start to recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs essential for a coherent argument, and those which can be deleted.

Have you ever had the experience of listening to a political speech, a commencement address or a sermon, and feel as if the speaker made all the important points he had to make in the first ten minutes, but is still talking thirty minutes later? That’s why it’s important to read through an essay several times before submitting it to an editor; making sure your writing is tight. A common error is to use the same word over and over again: It was a really intense storm, the wind was really strong, and the waves crashing on the shoreline were really big. Repetitive words are distracting for a reader, and it only takes a moment to look up alternative words in a thesaurus.

One more reason to write essays: It’s a way to introduce yourself to editors, and the readers who enjoy their publications. If you haven’t had any success pitching articles or short stories to magazines and literary journals, check and see if the publications accept essay submissions. A published essay is a valid writing credit with your byline on the page. I recently submitted an essay to a major newspaper. If it’s accepted, then my essay will be available to thousands of readers. If it’s rejected, at least I’ve made contact with the editors of a national newspaper, and who knows where that may lead.

Is there a newspaper, magazine or literary journal that you’ve always wanted to be published in? Why not take a few minutes and see if they publish essays? You never know, it could be the opening you’ve been looking for.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

It’s In The Bag

It’s a very simple, but effective premise; your character finds something he wasn’t expecting to find, and is faced with a moral dilemma. The 2007 movie, No Country For Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and A Simple Plan (1998) adapted from the novel by Scott B. Smith are both based on this simple concept. In both cases the main character finds a bag full of cash. These are excellent examples of beginning with the question “What if?” and then thinking about the worst possible outcomes. You’re basically giving yourself the freedom to be paranoid.

Starting with this one idea, finding something unexpected in a bag, has immense potential. What if the coach of a professional soccer team is organising the team’s equipment before a game and finds a severed head in one of the equipment bags? Who put it there? How did that bag get mixed with the team’s equipment? Was it there to send a message to someone on the soccer team, who owes serious money to a very aggressive loan shark and/or the mafia?

Is your novel or short story a Western? A bag full of cash could fall off a wagon, or stagecoach. Are you writing a science fiction screenplay? An extra crate could be found in the hold of a deep space cargo vessel, containing an unusual device. What happens when a member of the crew tries to activate it, and is successful? Does she find herself in another galaxy or dimension?

To ratchet up the tension, you can have your character do the right thing and still end up in a life threatening situation. He finds a large cache of cocaine and calls the police. Unfortunately for your character, a crooked cop takes the cocaine, but doesn’t drive it to the station or record that he’s taken custody of the illegal drugs. A short time later, members of a drug cartel, who owned the warehouse where the drugs were found, arrive in the city. Now, the corrupt police officer needs to kill your character, before the cartel members talk to him.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. The next time you’re not sure where to go with a story, try asking these questions: What could my character find, that would complicate her life? What could my character find, that might get him killed? What could one of my characters find, that would send the story in an unexpected direction?

Keep writing, there’s still time to tell great stories in 2022!

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

Just One Idea….

You never know where inspiration will come from, or whether you’ll have the same idea twice. It’s essential, therefore, to get into the habit of recording your creative ideas and make sure you don’t forget them. Every scene you imagine, every character that pops into your head, has the potential to be developed into a complete story.

A few years ago I was walking to church when the final action scene for a Police Thriller filled my mind. (You’re a writer, you know what it’s like, that mini-theatre in your head!) From that one scene I started wondering how the cop got herself into such an unusual situation, and it eventually became a feature-length screenplay that I’ve submitted to several film and television companies.

The good news is you don’t have to worry if your schedule prevents you from immediately focusing all your time and energy on writing. It seems that once you’ve taken the step of writing an idea down, your subconscious takes over, filling in all the details. And, as more of the story unfolds in your mind, you’ll become eager to start writing, get into the flow, and immerse yourself in the world you’re creating.

When you have a creative mind, it feels like you never seem to have enough time to write, especially if you have a full-time job. (And regardless of how it may be treated by society, being a stay-at-home parent is a full-time job too!) You can, however, consider it a good sign that you aren’t running out of ideas; that just proves that you have a healthy, active imagination.

It doesn’t really matter where the original idea may fit into the story, or whether it will eventually become a play, a novel, a screenplay, or a short story, since a good story idea can be adapted for just about any format. The short story you’re writing can be expanded to become a novel, or you can adapt the novel you’re writing as the basis of a screenplay.

You can start immediately, by recording your ideas in a journal, sending yourself an e-mail, or writing a note and sticking it in your purse or wallet. One great idea can change a writer’s life.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper