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NanoPbbbbttt!!!

Every year, there’s a big, organized movement by writers called NanoWrite, which is an effort to produce a book in a month. For the thirty days of November, writers track their progress, blog in online forums, and sometimes even meet up with others in their geographical area to lament the process.

This year, for the first time in two years, I am on the hunt for a new agent. And I thought to myself – what better way to take my mind off the process than to participate in NanoWrite? I prepared an outline, set quotas for myself, and wheeeeee!

Yeah, no. That is not how I operate. I can’t give myself a quota of words to write each day and then expect it to be good. By mid-November, I had 11,000 words of a manuscript I honestly do not care enough about to finish.

But here’s the value I got from NanoWrite: I realized I can’t make myself write. And in realizing that, I began thinking back to the book that got me my agent, PROMISE ME YOU’LL COME BACK, and how much I loved writing it and the books that inspired it. So instead of spending the rest of this month plugging away on NanoWrite, I’m instead devoting the time to reading the books and watching the movies that made me want to be a writer.

Here is my new goal. By the end of November, I will have read the following: BIG FISH; THE STEPFORD WIVES, THE GIVER, THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES OF THE GARDEN (worst title in the history of literature but probably the most direct inspiration for my becoming a writer), CORALINE,MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, BREADCRUMBS, TUCK EVERLASTING, THE NEVERENDING STORY, THE WIZARD OF OZ, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, and THE SECRET GARDEN. I will also watch: PLEASANTVILLE, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.

These works are in line with what inspires me, and my style, and I already have some ideas percolating that I’m really excited about. However, I am not outlining or writing until I am done with all of these, and the ideas have had the opportunity to settle. I’ve learned my lesson before about writing before I was ready, and it’s a shame not to learn your lesson.

And of course, check out all these great books I get to read!

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Good Night, Robin Williams

One of my dad’s favorite movies is GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM, a 1980s film about a radio disc jockey stationed in Vietnam. Cast in the lead role, Robin Williams garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (He lost to Daniel Day-Lewis, as Day-Lewis decided to make a film that year). I still remember watching that movie in my dad’s shed, surrounded by sawdust and wood-working equipment and hearing the hiss as Dad opened yet another beer, and laughing at how funny Robin Williams was.

As everyone in the world knows, Robin Williams took his own life earlier this week. I still cannot fathom how someone as funny, as highly regarded, as loved would do that. A CNN article commented on how Williams has left behind four movies that will be released post-humorously. The article referred to them as a “gift” left behind, and I have to agree.

While this is a writing blog, I have to write about the passing of Williams because of the characters he’s created. Film, television, or book – it’s all about the characters, and thank God that Williams was cast in some of these roles. Here, without fanfare, are my top five:

Number Five – JUMANJI.  I still remember seeing this movie in theaters; and when I gave my latest book to my agent, I pitched it to him as “JUMANJI meets GOONIES.” Williams plays the adult version of a kid who was sucked into a board game featuring a jungle setting. He’s finally released by two kids who dust off the old game, and they must finish the game he began in order to repair the damage it’s done. While zany and fun, there’s no doubt that William showed many levels to the character. And all while being chased by monkeys.

Number Four – GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM.  Not surprisingly, as Williams was a gifted stand-up comic (such an understatement), the scenes where Williams was on the air were un-scripted. The director just let Williams run with it, which was smart (or rather, not dumb), because Williams was brilliant and much funnier than any script would have allowed him to be.

Number Four – THE BIRDCAGE.  Okay, I lied. As I write this, I realize I don’t have a top five. I have a top seven. So these three tie for number four. In THE BIRDCAGE, Williams is the “man” in a homosexual relationship with Nathan Lane, who is flamboyantly gay. Seriously, rainbow-colored maypoles are less gay. The two are forced to pass Lane off as the “lady” of a straight marriage for the benefit of their son’s future in-laws. The interplay between Williams and Lane is drop-dead hilarious.

Number Four – MRS. DOUBTFIRE. “HELLLLOO!!!” (With pie on face). Such a classic moment. Williams is the drag queen in this one, where he disguises himself as a matronly older woman to spend time with his kids. The movie has a lot of pure comedy, and slapstick moments; but it also shows a vulnerability to Williams. There’s a scene where he’s speaking honestly with the judge in his child support case, begging the judge not to take away his kids…it’s the work of a fine actor.

Number Three – DEATH TO SMOOCHY. Gawd, I love this movie. Seriously. Go buy it immediately. It’s all black humor, and it has Edward Norton and Danny Devito too….completely worth it. In it, Williams steals the show as a cocaine-snorting, washed-up children’s performer who finds himself booted from normal programming in favor of Norton’s Smoochy. He then loses it and vows revenge on Smoochy. (“I’m going on safari, mother f$$$er! Sa-FAR-I!”). I still don’t understand how this movie tanked. Bad.

Number Two – DEAD POETS SOCIETY. I’d estimate that I have seen this movie about thirty times, no exaggeration. “Oh captain, my captain.” Williams plays the spirited new English teacher of a stuffy all-boys prep school in New England, and you can completely understand why he had such a profound impact on his students. Williams got another Oscar nod for this one, but he lost to Anthony Hopkins for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

Number One – GOOD WILL HUNTING. This movie has been in my top five movie list for at least ten years now. When ARGO came out and I had to reshuffle movies to fit it, only this movie and A FISH CALLED WANDA were unquestionably safe. Williams in GOOD WILL HUNTING, who is the psychologist assigned to prodigy/parolee Matt Damon, is so touching and funny, I literally find myself holding my breath in some scenes. He finally, finally got his Oscar for this one.

So there you have it. Robin Williams, you are loved, and you will be missed.

Good night, Robin Williams.

Finding Your Soul (Critique) Mate

When I first started writing, I didn’t share my work with anyone. It felt so private, an intrusion on something very personal given that I always adhered to the adage of writing what I knew. In my stories, familiar faces cropped up, frequenting haunts I knew too well. I didn’t feel comfortable letting anyone else into that world because first, it was too private; and second, what if my writing wasn’t any good?

Eventually, when I decided I wanted to get serious about my writing, I revisited that mindset. Thing is, the vast majority of writers don’t write their debut novel without assistance by others or involvement in the writing world. There’s a whole underground world of us – on forums like query tracker and absolute write, and active in writing groups and reading everything we can get our hands on.

It’s all practice. All of it. And every writer, no matter how good, is better for doing it.

One of the most valuable – if not the most valuable – assets for a writer is a critique partner. I have had, without exaggeration, at least two dozen. Of those two dozen, I have four consistent critique partners who have stuck with me for at least three years. These partners will tell me when I need to scrap something, point out embarrassing grammar errors I’ve skimmed over after numerous re-reads, and hone in on weak points to a story. They tell me when they love what they’ve read, but they’re also honest when they don’t love it. That’s what’s valuable – geez, what if I didn’t give my books to my critique partners before they went to my agent? He’s a busy guy. I have to make sure my work is vetted before I toss it into his inbox.

If you are a writer, and you are looking for a critique partner, the first question to ask yourself is what approach you want from a critique partner. Be honest. I’ve had writers I’ve exchanged with who love it when they get line edits and they’re told honestly that their story needs to be restructured. On the other hand, I’ve had writers who have argued with me when I tell them that something that happens in the novel isn’t physically possible, or distracting, or that a character isn’t well-developed. It’s subjective – everyone says take what’s valuable and leave the rest when it comes to comments.

Do you want someone who will be honest with you? How critical is too critical? (There’s a distinction between constructive criticism and being plain mean). Or do you just want support?

The next question is what you want from a critique partner. Do you want line edits? Overall comments? Do you know what you want them to focus on with a particular piece of work? (such as dialogue, character, whether a certain plot line works). This is important, because when it comes to critique partners, it can be imbalanced. I’ll tell you, I’m a line editor and I give an overall critique – I don’t think I could do it any other way and be happy with myself. This takes an enormous amount of effort, and sometimes I feel a little let down when I swap with someone new and it’s obvious I spent hours and hours critiquing their book when all I get is a few lines in the margin on mine. That’s not anyone’s fault – it’s just different styles. However, if you have a critique partner you’ve worked with for a while, you know what you’re getting and they know what to expect from you.

A lot about finding the perfect critique partner comes down to trial and error. You exchange with another writer, and you see how it goes. Ultimately the relationship fades out, or it stays. I am lucky enough to have four critique partners that I’ve worked with for at least three years, and each of them has read at least three of my books. (And for anyone who is actively looking for places to find a critique partner, I found all of these individuals on query tracker).

The longevity shows that we’re doing something right: Ashley, Veronica, Kate, and Rachel, I appreciate you! I’m a better writer because I listened to you.

How Ralph S. Mouse Scarred Me for Life

*Before I dive into this post, I have to state the obvious, which is that Beverly Cleary is a national treasure.

When I was in grade school, a wise teacher assigned our class Ralph S. Mouse to read. She also included Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh on our reading list. These assignments taught me two things: one, fantasy, in middle grade, is fantastic and will help shape and stretch a child’s imagination; and two, rodents are actually short, furry people in adorable clothes.

I have always been an animal person. I have three cats, and by the time I’m forty, I hope to realize my destiny of having acquired enough to be properly categorized as a crazy cat lady. I think squirrels are cute, and I would totally rather have a bunny eat the carrots in my garden than shoo it away. I also look the other way when mice come into my basement during winter. They’re not hurting anything.

Part of all of this is because I’m a softie, but the more I think about it, the more I think that this is all Beverly Cleary’s fault! From the time I was about eight – and up until about high school age – her books were the end all, be all when it came to books. Every kid with a normal, dysfunctional family (not an oxymoron when you think about it) will connect with the Ramona books. And the idea of a talking mouse that rides a motorcycle and will be your friend? Coolest thing ever. I still remember painstakingly putting together a shoebox consisting of Ralph’s “bedroom.”

Now, however, I have a problem. Because of the way mice and other animals were personalized in books like Ralph S. Mouse and Nimh, there is a part of me that will always look at them as little people. Accordingly, this is why I was so traumatized today.

In keeping with my life goal of becoming a crazy cat lady, my fiancé and I adopted two little kittens we have named after the Parks and Recreation characters – Knope and Wyatt. We affectionately refer to Knope as our mute, bowl-legged, cross-eyed little orphan, as these are all accurate adjectives describing him. He’s very timid and certain that we want to eat his face.

Wyatt, on the other hand, is the Ted Bundy of kitties. He’s adorable and charming, but he is also a murderer with a modus operandi of always killing the same type of victim in the same location: mice. Today we equipped him with a bell collar, but this is only after a second mouse went to the great beyond.

I will admit it. I felt beyond horrible to discover Tiny Victim #2. And I’m a person who grew up in a rural area! (I’ve never been squeamish about bugs and snakes). When I tried to understand the root of my abject pity for these poor little rodents, I traced it back to literature. As a young, impressionable child, I was taught that mice have souls, cute personalities, and feelings very much like my own. Goodness, how many times did I read Ralph S. Mouse? (Then, of course, there’s the damage inflicted by Disney, what with its adorable little woodland creatures and circus animals like Dumbo). No wonder I almost shed a tear over finding a furry casualty today.

So what about you? What childhood books have forever changed your perception about something?

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Wyatt and Knope (mouse murderer featured right)

Not “That” Happy Any Longer

As writers, we all have little quirks we could do without. We might get bogged down in description, overuse dialogue tags, or have redundant word use. That’s okay. That’s part of the process. Identify and eliminate the quirks.

Speaking for myself, I’m “that” happy. For whatever reason, in an initial draft, I employ about 500 to 1,000 unnecessary uses of the word “that.”  It’s like a public speaker who keeps saying “um.”

In my defense, “that” is really easy to add to a sentence. “Mom told me that if I slammed the door one more time, it was straight to the orphanage.” There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but take out the “that:” “Mom told me if I slammed the door one more time, it was straight to the orphanage.” See? Nothing is lost.

 

I’m not sure how I didn’t notice this issue earlier. After five books and the acquisition of several truly amazing critique partners, I’ve noticed a lot about how I write – how I can be episodic (not always bad, but on occasion), how I prefer first person point of view, how I have the tendency to end chapters with one-word sentences. All of my books must have humor, or I can’t fall in love with them.

There are bad things, too. I like dialogue tags. I have redundant word use. A fourth and fifth draft is always necessary.

And now there’s the issue with “that.” I discovered it because one of my critique partners noted I “filtered” – wrote things like: “I saw an orange car parked in the driveway,” not “An orange car was parked in the driveway.” A waste of words, and a way to distance the reader from immediate action.

Once I realized I did that, I started to look for other ways to cut word count. To eliminate the unnecessary. And that’s how I found “that.”

Boy, does it make a difference. With WHEN BRIAN CAME HOME, my agent wanted me to add an entire scene near the ending. I was worried. BRIAN was already creeping up on 50K, and for a middle grade contemporary novel, that’s in the high word count range. But by the time I cut out the “thats,” revised for filtering, and cut the excess, the book was only 48K even with the additional scene – exactly the length I’d aimed for in the very beginning.

My lesson here was not every word is precious. In the end, some of them have to go, and the book will be better for it. Murder your darlings, and hopefully the ones left will be good enough to publish.

 

 

Ooh, Shiny Object! How Smart Phones Divert Readers

This Tuesday, while riding on the metro in D.C., I looked up from my copy of THE SHINING to check out what other solo passengers were doing. About 90% were checking their phones, and only about 10% were reading something – whether it was the newspaper, their Kindle, or a good old fashioned paper book.

This got me wondering. How much has modern technology, and the instant gratification it presents, affected readers’ willingness to finish a novel?

iPhones and Smart Phones present instant gratification. You can book hotel and restaurant reservations, text, and check out sports scores in seconds. And since you have to carry your phone with you anyway, it makes sense that you’d spend a ride on public transportation playing on your phone rather than reading some stuffy book. This means that while a decade ago, the average customer of public transportation might read one book a week while waiting for her stop, she now texts her husband, updates her Facebook profile, and surfs the web.

Phones do more than divert readers from books. They make them prefer a different kind of book. Years ago, books the size of phone books were frequently best sellers, and slow movers were still page turners. Phones make us more impatient. We’re used to articles that can be read in five minutes, succinct Twitter postings (at 140 characters, they have to be!), and short news feeds. We receive information so quickly (and efficiently), that we don’t want to sit down to read a long novel. Instead, we pass right over it at the library and instead go for Snooki’s autobiography (God help us. I’ve never read it but I suspect it might even be a pop-up).

As much as I genuinely love to read, I wonder how much having a smart phone has affected me. How much reading time do I lose by playing with my phone? And how much do the shorter articles I read on Wikipedia, CNN.com, and THE WASHINGTON POST make me less willing to sit down to a monster of a novel? A few months ago I put down Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (gosh, I’m ashamed to admit that) because the length was long and the print was tiny. Instead, I read a young adult novel.

In the end, it goes like this. The people who want to read, will. I didn’t read 11/22/63 (again, there’s the cringe), but at least I read something. And  when I’m on my phone, I’m not spending time I would have normally spent reading. I spend all day reading legal jargon, and being on my phone is mindless stress release. Reading, while enjoyable, entails thought and effort.

For the people who aren’t inclined to read in the first place, I do think smart phones divert them. When reading’s a chore and the option is a bright, shiny object with tons of social medial and information, the phone will win every time. And because the information available via phone is packaged so neatly and efficiently, these would-be readers reach for magazines or surf the internet instead of investing a considerable amount of time in a book.

And the publishers weep…

Silver Linings Playbook: When Great Books Make Great Movies

For months, I have not written a blog post. I wish I had a better excuse than laziness, but sadly I do not. I write a weekly blog for my law practice, and work has been extremely busy, so I will lean on these reasons as valid explanations. And now I’m back!

This week I’d like to talk about SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, which everyone should purchase immediately. I refer to the book and the movie. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, the film, deserves props for pulling off a fantastic adaptation of a fantastic book, and anyone interested in writing or screenwriting should check them both out.

In SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, the novel, Pat has recently been released from a Maryland mental hospital, where he has spent the last several years due to an unfortunate incident involving his wife Nikki, a fellow teacher, nakedness, and white-hot rage. Now out and living with his parents, Pat is convinced he can get his wife back by showing her how much he has changed. He doesn’t understand that Nikki is gone forever, and that robbers didn’t really break into the house and steal his wedding pictures – his mother destroyed them because they’re creepy to have around.

Then Pat meets Tiffany, a woman whose mental state is marginally better than his. Tiffany promises Pat that if he agrees to participate in a dance competition with her, she will deliver a letter from Pat to Nikki. Their unusual courtship begins due to Pat’s blind pursuit of a woman long gone, but transforms into something more. They’re each a mess, but they help one another.

SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, the novel, doesn’t have the necessary ingredients for a feature film. It’s quieter, more character-driven. It doesn’t share the film’s climatic ending, where Pat’s father has bet his entire life’s savings on the results of a Philadelphia/Cowboy’s game and Pat and Tiffany’s performance in the Benjamin Franklin Dance Competition. It’s a book about a man’s journey to get his shit together, and while it’s powerful and emotional, it doesn’t scream “blockbuster.”

With a bit of shaping, however, screenwriter David O. Russell turned it into one. I have very rarely encountered a movie that is just as good as the wonderful book from which it is adapted, and this makes the list. (Other books/movies on the list include: HIGH FIDELITY by Nick Hornby, an English novel which was Americanized in the 1999 John Cusack film; THE CIDER HOUSE RULES by John Irving, which was drastically condensed – including both plot points and characters- in the screenplay, also written by Mr. Irving; and THE STAND by Stephen King, which is a 1300+ page masterpiece that was turned into a wildly entertaining mini-series in the mid-1990s).

I generally hate watching movies that are adaptations of books I love, especially when the screenwriter has taken major liberties (and therefore risks) with the plot. Here, Mr. Russell’s cuts and alterations pay off – Tiffany’s age is altered from 39 to mid-20s, and we get Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-winning performance; Pat’s dad changes from an absentee jerk to a soft-hearted Italiano, and we get Robert DeNiro’s likable and emphatic Patricio; and other characters’ roles are marginalized or expanded to suit the plot points.

Nothing was sacrificed in exchange, and that is what is important. We still feel Pat’s pain, and we still see the chemistry between Pat and Tiffany. We emphasize with a family dealing with Pat’s mental illness. That is the difference between an adaptation that works and one that doesn’t: whether the essence of the original remains intact. Here, this is a particular accomplishment because of the free flow of ideas that run through Pat’s mind in the novel. Pat does not narrate the film, so we are not right in his head.

If you have not both seen SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and read the novel by Nathan Quick, I urge you to do so. These present a rare gift for the audience: two works with the same soul but so well suited for their respective mediums. And so very, very good.