MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT



"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser
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The Story of My Life! Ken Atchity's My Obit: Daddy Holding Me


“At the prompting of a marketing friend, I was advised to title this book, My Intensely Madcap, Lebanese/Cajun, Jesuit-Schizoid, Terminally Narcissistic, Food-Focused, East Coast/West Coast, Georgetown/Yale, Career-Changing, Cross-Dressing, Runaway Catholic Italophile, Paradoxically Dramatic, Linguistically Neurotic, Hollywood Academic, ADD-Overcompensating, Niche-Abhorring, Jocoserious Obit. But when my designer pointed out that title wouldn’t fit on the spine, much less on any public display list, I changed my mind. Again! The story of my life.

Which this is at least the first volume of. I hope it makes you laugh, spares you some of my grief, and leads you to insist on telling your story to anyone who will listen.”

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Kenneth Atchity Featured in The Visionary


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"You cannot fail at being yourself, which means doing with all your might what you were born to do with your light, your vision, and your time.”


There is no such thing as was—only is,” William Faulkner wrote. “If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.” Time is a human creation.


Time keeps then now. Time causes aging, not age. A mayfly has no time to realize its lifecycle is mere hours; fellow mayflies don’t remind it or post countdown clocks on its walls. By and within ourselves we are ageless. And time is what we make of it. We must make the time to do what we do best, what we were born to do.

Light is the universal mind revealing its potential. “Let there be light,” the creator said, and his very words were the light “that shineth in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Without the darkness whence it came, there would be no light; darkness is the chaos created by fear, unease with the universe—but also the womb of love and light. Light begets perception, and perception at its brightest is what we call vision.


Let your voice rise to the heavens called the Elder and the voices of the group rose strong and clear to greet the First Ray to celebrate its arrival in the cycle of this new lifetime as the ancients called the day this new journey of the Earth around the axis of its heart, to welcome it with outstretched arms and hearts wide open yes here the Light loved to shine


Reading Birgitte’s words makes me rejoice anew in that time of first light that I’ve sought throughout my life to dedicate to vision. Born on a farm, I’m happiest when I awaken an hour or two before dawn. This is my time, spent with a cup of savory coffee and a half-hour of reading inspirational words like these; followed by attending to my latest “visionary” project. Currently, that’s the completion of a family chronicle; prior to that it was my novel The Messiah Matrix, which explores the origins of Christianity from an unusual and little-discussed historical perspective.


I believe in the power of stories to change the world. My passion for stories has not only changed my life; it has been my life—hundreds of books sold to publishers or published by Story Merchant Books, two dozen New York Times bestsellers, thirty movies produced to date, several television series sold. All stories I felt needed to be told. It’s been my beloved vocation to inspire storytellers to reach for their maximum audiences. The books and movies we’ve developed have reached millions worldwide and it’s the best feeling to hear, on a plane from Hong Kong to Tokyo, that a complete stranger saw “The Meg” or “The Kennedy Detail” and loved it.


Each day I’m ready for the sunrise, facing it with an exhilarating sense of promise and potential—and the power to choose how I fulfill it.


Vision weaves light and time into patterns, drawing our attention to them as confidently as male peacocks spread their tail feathers, young bucks clash with their antlers, or sea anemones vibrate color, drawing attention to the lifeforce’s need to replicate itself, thereby overcoming time and dancing with love and immortality. 


What is the purpose of this cosmic dance? we wonder. What is the purpose of life? Just as a California poppy bursts open with hues brighter than the rainbow, an antelope leaps across the Colorado prairie because she can, or the alpha lion’s mane grows shaggier with power, the purpose of life is simply to fill our human experience with forms we create to celebrate the splendor and beauty of the universal mind.


One of those forms is time, the first expression created by humanity in response to the universal creation of light. While we wait for life to make its ultimate expression known to us, we ourselves reach for it by bathing in the light the universe sends to remind us of its eternal promise.


No matter how far we ever are from reaching that highest expression of ourselves, let us remember the words of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset: “I think the only immoral thing is for a being not to live every instant of its life with the utmost intensity.” That’s what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he declared, “Full effort is full success.”


Birgitte’s mellifluous prose reminds us that you cannot fail at being yourself, which means doing with all your might what you were born to do with your light, your vision, and your time.

~ Ken Atchity

Dr. Kenneth Atchity is an American producer and author who has worked in the world of letters as a literary manager, editor, speaker, writing and career coach, columnist, book reviewer, and professor of comparative literature. Called a "story merchant" by a visiting ambassador to the United States, Ken's life passion is finding great storytellers and turning them into bestselling authors and screenwriters.

A member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Ken has made numerous radio and television appearances and given keynote speeches at conferences throughout the world. He has produced over 30 films, including the Emmy-nominated “The Kennedy Detail,” and received awards and grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation.

Following studies at Georgetown (A.B., English/Classics) and Yale (M.Phil. Theater History, Ph.D. Comparative Literature), Ken has served as professor and chairman of comparative literature and creative writing at Occidental College; editor of Contemporary Quarterly: Poetry and Art; columnist-reviewer for The Los Angeles Times Book Review; Distinguished Instructor, UCLA Writers Program; and Fulbright Professor of American Studies at the University of Bologna.  

Learn more about Ken and his work at www.storymerchant.com.

The Story of My Life! Ken Atchity's My Obit: Daddy Holding Me

“At the prompting of a marketing friend, I was advised to title this book, My Intensely Madcap, Lebanese/Cajun, Jesuit-Schizoid, Terminally Narcissistic, Food-Focused, East Coast/West Coast, Georgetown/Yale, Career-Changing, Cross-Dressing, Runaway Catholic Italophile, Paradoxically Dramatic, Linguistically Neurotic, Hollywood Academic, ADD-Overcompensating, Niche-Abhorring, Jocoserious Obit. But when my designer pointed out that title wouldn’t fit on the spine, much less on any public display list, I changed my mind. Again! The story of my life.

Which this is at least the first volume of. I hope it makes you laugh, spares you some of my grief, and leads you to insist on telling your story to anyone who will listen.”

Stopping Time by Ken Atchity


Managing your work doesn't work for a simple reason: Work is infinite. Good work only creates more work; in fact, bad work creates more work too. So the more you work the more work you will have. It's basic common sense that you can't manage an infinite commodity.

What can you manage? Time. You not only can, but must, manage your time because time is all too finite.

They say, "If you want to get something done, find a busy person." The busy person succeeds in getting things done because he knows how to manage his time. We all have the exact same amount of time at our disposal, 60 minutes each hour, 24 hours each day, 168 hours each week, 8,736 hours each year. If you put one hour into a project each day for a year, you'd have worked on it for 365 hours -- more than enough time to write a book, build a house, launch a new product, plan and execute a new campaign. "If you put a little upon a little," said the ancient Greek almanac writer Hesiod, "soon it becomes a lot."

One memorable day in Manhattan I was delivering a broken antique wall clock to my favorite repair shop. As I completed my drop off and turned to leave, I noticed an ultra-modern stand-up clock constructed of shiny pendulums, a different metal each for hours, minutes, and seconds, all enclosed in a sleek glass case. It was simply the most beautiful timepiece I'd ever seen.

Then I realized: it had no hands. At first I thought, No wonder it's in the shop. It's broken. Then I studied the clock more closely.

No. It was designed that way. It was a timepiece that Salvador Dali would have been as thrilled with as I was.

And it reminded me that time is a free force. It just happens, whether you do anything about it or not. It's up for grabs.

It doesn't belong to your employer, or to the government, or to anyone but you!

The trick is where do you find that free time? -- a question busy people are asked regularly. Here's their secret: busy people make time, for the activities they decide to prioritize. One good way to wrestle with that question is to ask yourself, "Where do I lose it?" You'd be surprised.

Make a chart of your weekly hours and use it to determine how many hours you devote to each activity in your cluttered life. Maybe you'd be surprised, or maybe not, that most people have no idea where the time goes. They come up with a grand total of 182, or 199, or 82 hours of activity -- until they remember that they, like every other human, have only 168 hours each week to spend.

Then we get serious and analyze exactly where they're lying to themselves about the time: forgetting about the endless phone calls with friends, or the true amount of time in front of the television, or the accurate time devoted to the daily commute, or the time doing absolutely nothing but staring out the window. When we get the time inventory accurate most people are surprised at the truth. But the truth is the first step to freedom, and managing your time effectively is the greatest freedom of all.

I call it "making the clock of life your clock." I believe in this philosophy so much I haven't worn a chronograph for nearly thirty years, despite owning a vintage wrist watch that belonged to my father and an even older pocket watch that belonged to my grandfather. The only chronograph I carry around with me is one that allows me to make life's clock mine: a stopwatch. It makes the Spanish proverb, la vida es corta pero ancha ("life is short but wide") come true. You can get an app on your cell phone!

The stopwatch method of time management is simple. You use it to make sure that your Priority Project is getting the amount of attention you want to give it to move it -- and your personal success -- ahead with certainty. You know that the wall clock, or the one on your wrist or displayed on your cell phone, has a way of running away with your day. You say you'll work on Priority Project from 7 to 8 a.m. and something is certain to come along to disrupt that hour almost as though life were conspiring against you. What's really happening is that you're letting life interfere with your personal time management. Of course when the interference occurs, you tell yourself "I'll catch up later," or "I'll start again tomorrow and this time protect myself from interruptions," but over the years we discover that life runs rampant over any such resolutions.

The stopwatch method works best in a life jam-packed with stimuli and distraction. It allows you to "steal time." While clocks on wrists and walls record public time, your private prime time happens only when your stopwatch is running. The stopwatch allows you to call "time out" from the game everyone else is engaged in.

Simply promise yourself you won't go to sleep at night until, by hook or by crook, you've clocked one hour (60 minutes) of working on Priority Project on your stopwatch. Turn the stopwatch ON when you're working on it, and OFF when you get interrupted. Your stopwatch minutes may be gleaned over a six-hour period, or over a twenty-four-hour period. You "steal" them when you can: waiting at the dentist's, community on public transportation, when an appointment hasn't shown up yet, when your cell phone dies and no one can reach you until you've replaced or recharged the battery, when your date for the evening calls in sick. It takes a few days to get used to this process, but once you do you'll recognize the power it gives you over time.

Isn't it hard to work in fits and starts? You might very well ask that very good question. The answer is that it's actually easier to work that way than it is to work without stopping if you employ the time-management technique of linkage.

Here's how linkage works. The phone rings, so you have to turn off your stopwatch. But you let it ring one or two more times, taking that time to make a mental decision about what you'll do when your stopwatch is running again -- that is, in your next Priority Project session. And here's a useful secret: it doesn't matter what decision you make. The minute you make it, as you answer the phone and go on from one activity to the next, your mind starts thinking of better decisions than the one you made; in fact, your mind becomes increasingly motivated to get back to that Priority Project because it knows exactly what it will do when the next session begins. You've created an automatic linkage, that makes restarting when your stopwatch is next running, no longer an occasion for blockage. Instead, you're fully ready to jump in and get as much out of that next session as possible before it's interrupted by life's next distraction.

And, yes, have a desk drawer filled with stopwatches so you can employ a different colored chronograph for each major activity you're engaged with.

The stopwatch method can truly make the clock of life your clock.


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Dr. Kenneth Atchity has been consulting on time management for decades. His 20 books include Write Time: A Guide to the Creative Process, from Vision through Revision; and How to Quit Your Day Job and Live out Your Dreams.


Follow Ken Atchity on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kennja

Write Your Novel to Be a Film by Kenneth Atchity




Novelists seeking representation complain that none of their books have been made into films. At any given moment, we have literally stacks of novels from New York publishers on our desks in Los Angeles. Going through them to find the ones that might make motion pictures or television movies, we — and other producers, managers, and agents — are constantly running into the same problems:

    “There’s no third act... It just trickles out.”

    “There are way too many characters and it’s not clear till page 200 who the protagonist is.”

    “I can’t relate to anyone in the book.”

    “At the end, the antagonist lays out the entire plot to the protagonist.”

    “There’s not enough action.”

    “There’s nothing new here. This concept has been used to death.”

    “We don’t know who to root for.”

    “The whole thing is overly contrived.”

    “There’s no dialogue, so we don’t know what the character sounds like.”

    “There’s no high concept here. How do we pitch this?”

    “There’s no real pacing.”

    “The protagonist is reactive instead of proactive.”

    “At the end of the day, I have no idea what this story is about.”

    “The main character is 80, and speaks only Latvian.”

    “It’s set in Papago...in the 1960s, and is filled with long passages in Uto-Aztecan.”

    “There are no set pieces.”

Of course anyone with the mind of a researcher can list a film or two that got made despite one of these objections. But for novelists who are frustrated at not getting their books made into films, that should be small consolation and is, practically speaking, a useless observation. Yes, you might get lucky and find a famous Bulgarian director, who’s fascinated with the angst of octogenarians, studied pacing with John Sales or Jim Jarmusch, and loves ambiguous endings.

But if you regard your career as a business instead of a quixotic crusade, you should be planning your novel from the outset to make it appealing to filmmakers.

Give us a strong (preferably male) lead who, good or bad, is eminently relatable — and who’s in the “star age range” of 35-50 (where at any given moment 20 male stars reside; a star being a name that can set up the film by his attachment to it).

Make sure a dramatist looking at your book will clearly see three well-defined acts: act one (the setup), act two (rhythmic development, rising and falling action), and act three (climax leading to conclusive ending).

Express your character’s personality in dialogue that distinguishes him, and makes him a role a star would die to play.

Have someone in the film industry read your synopsis before you commit to writing the novel.

Though I’ve observed the phenomena for several decades now, it still surprises me that even bestselling novelists, even the ones who complain that no one has made a film from their books yet, don’t write novels dramatic enough to lend themselves easily to mainstream film. It’s a well-known phenomenon in publishing that, with very few exceptions, the more books a novelist sells the less critical his publisher’s editors are of his work. So time and again we read novels that start out well, roar along to the halfway point, then peter off into the bogs of formless character development or action resolution.

A publisher invests between $25,000 and $100,000 or more in publishing your novel. A low-budget feature film from a major Hollywood studio today costs at least $40 million. There is, from a business point of view, no comparison. Risking $40 million means the critical factor is raised as high as can be imagined when your book hits the “story department” — much higher than the critical factor of even the finest publishers. Hollywood studies what audiences want by logging, in box office dollars, cents, and surveys, what they respond best to.

If you want to add film to your profit centers as a novelist, it would behoove you to study what makes films work. Disdaining Hollywood may be a fashionable defense for writers who haven’t gotten either rich or famous from it, but it’s not productive in furthering your cinematic career.




The Story of My Life! Ken Atchity's My Obit: Daddy Holding Me


“At the prompting of a marketing friend, I was advised to title this book, My Intensely Madcap, Lebanese/Cajun, Jesuit-Schizoid, Terminally Narcissistic, Food-Focused, East Coast/West Coast, Georgetown/Yale, Career-Changing, Cross-Dressing, Runaway Catholic Italophile, Paradoxically Dramatic, Linguistically Neurotic, Hollywood Academic, ADD-Overcompensating, Niche-Abhorring, Jocoserious Obit. But when my designer pointed out that title wouldn’t fit on the spine, much less on any public display list, I changed my mind. Again! The story of my life.

Which this is at least the first volume of. I hope it makes you laugh, spares you some of my grief, and leads you to insist on telling your story to anyone who will listen.”