Don’t Try to Break the Pony, Work through the Story: An interview with contest winner Timothy J. Smith

TSB: Tim, thank you for taking the time to share your experience with other writers. How did you come up with the idea for Cooper’s War which became Cooper’s Promise?

TJS: It’s somewhat convoluted. I had written a novel in which a straight, white FBI agent and gay, black CIA agent had teamed up to solve a nuclear smuggling case in Poland. I had wanted to bring these two characters together again, and I wanted to write about blood diamonds and/or human trafficking — there’s a ‘political’ element in all my writing. I went to Antwerp, Belgium, to do research on the diamond business, and while there met with women who had been rescued from trafficking. But no matter what plot I concocted, it all felt contrived, not something that would naturally bring together FBI and CIA agents.

I always had the idea for an opening scene in my mind, involving my black CIA agent in a bar in Africa, and finally I just decided to write it and see where it would take me. I’m glad I did, because in that scene, the CIA agent met Cooper Chance, a deserter from the war in Iraq, stranded in Africa, young and coming of age. Suddenly I had my character. It was no longer the story about the CIA or FBI, but Cooper’s story.

TSB: What was the most challenging aspect of adapting the novel into a screenplay?

TJS: The novel is short and the story told from a single POV, which made it easier to adapt than would normally be the case. I didn’t have to lose subplots or try to discover the dramatic thread. In general, my narrative work is written with ‘scenes’ in mind, so that also makes it easier. The hardest thing is to get all the ‘literary-ness’ out of my action scenes and descriptions and reduce them to the bare minimum, as required in screenplays.

TSB: Do you have any formal training in screenwriting?

TJS: A couple of week-long workshops at the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport, and then just reading lots of scripts.

TSB: Approximately how many rewrites have you done on this script?

TJS: That’s hard to say. Five? A hundred? Every time I pick up a script, I can always find something I want to change in it.

TSB: What recommendations do you have for aspiring screenwriters?

TJS: Always find time to write, don’t give up, and pay attention to feedback. Writing is a craft you have to learn, not a pony you need to break.

TSB: Anything you want to say about yourself or the script or writing in general?

TJS: I came to writing in my mid-40s after an exciting, jam-packed career in international development. It’s been a total life shift, from a very public advisor to governments around the world to a reclusive writer at my desk. I’ve learned to love everything about writing: the challenge of the craft, the competitiveness of getting ‘discovered’, the people I meet and writers conferences I attend, and the occasional ‘highs’ of winning a contest when I’m usually surrounded by a sea of rejection letters. It’s a whole lifestyle that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Of course, I want to get published or produced, but the pursuit of that is probably, ultimately, more rewarding than the recognition itself.

TSB:  Tim, you have a great script.  Congratulations on winning The First 10 Pages Contest.

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