Friday, May 13, 2016

How to Get from A to B

I've encountered this problem twice in the past couple of weeks, once in my own writing and in a fellow writer's work at group. You have your story all laid out. The next move your character makes is to charge into a burning building...but why?

(please keep in mind, these are made up examples)

My writer friend had her MC charge back into the building to get his phone. This method of getting him into a flaming house made him look...

A: dumb
B: superficial

Neither of these fit with her character, who is actually very intelligent and not materialistic. But she did want him to come off as a little naive so I suggested she have the antagonist trick her MC into the building by saying there is a little girl trapped in there. Her hero rushes off to save the girl, discovers he's been fooled, feels like an idiot, and we, the reader, feel terrible for him (because we've all made mistakes like that.) We also love him for being so selfless to try and save a little girl, and we hate the antagonist that much more for tricking our hero into the burning building.

In my own example, I had everything figured out. My MC was going to rush into the building to save the little girl on his own, because he was the typical all-American selfless hero. Then, tooling around on Goodreads I found a review that struck me.

Oh goody, another book about the all-American good guy, running into save everyone.

She was right. It was probably new a hundred years ago, but it's old now, and struggling to break into a competitive market, it's imperative to be different. I didn't have to re-think my entire plot, only the motivation and character aspects. Instead of my MC going into the burning building on his own, I had him dragged in there by my antagonist. Now I have something interesting. Why did the antagonist pull him in there? How is my MC going to get out? I can still showcase some of his more heroic aspects by how he resolves the conflict, and I've created a question that will (hopefully) keep readers reading.

And on a side note, I encourage everyone to go on Goodreads, start following the heavy readers and reviewers and take note on what they say. They probably read almost as much as editors and agents, and I've gotten many ideas on what to do and what not to do by what they find unoriginal or overdone. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016


I've started reading Manga books, as research, because I have an idea for a book that involves a character who is an aspiring graphic novelist, obsessed with Manga. I'm not new to the Manga-verse. In high school, during my *cough* periphery raver days, I used to rush home after school to make sure I caught the latest episode of Sailor Moon. I also had a crush on a boy who introduced me to some of the darker Manga like  Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll and Wicked City.

In college, at the video store, my friend and I discovered Ranma 1/2, the slapstick series about a boy who turns into a girl when he's hit with water. It's hilarious. It's also a graphic novel, so it was about time I read some Manga instead of watching it.

And it's amazing! As in the animated versions, the plotlines vary from the serious, to the hokey, to the slightly demented and strange. The artistry also remains unchanged. Characters with large eyes, small noses and scenes captured in alternative angles. I always remember one from Ghost in The Shell where the entire scene was portrayed in the reflection in a pair of sunglasses in the rain. Beautiful.

So I'm enjoying my research, also becoming a fan myself, and learning other writing skills. Specifically, the inciting incident, the moment where your character's life changes and the plot of your novel begins. You're supposed to make this happen quickly. In fact, if you're following a formula, it's basically...

Introduce your character's normal world - Now change it. (inciting incident)

In YA, sometimes this can take a while. Or sometimes there's a page of introduction - inciting incident - then pages and pages of backstory. But what I've noticed in my Manga is a quick turnaround. The one I'm reading now had 1 page of normal life right into BAM! inciting incident. I read one a couple of weeks ago that had only a few pages of normal life before the inciting incident. And I like it. I like not waiting for the action to happen, and not flowing from there into tons of backstory. I think as novelists we worry, without the background, no one will care about our characters. But I do care about these characters. I learn just enough about them in those first few pages to keep reading.

I'm not sure if the skills can completely translate without the imagery, but it's inspiring me to try.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Where Have I been? The Phone

This was going to be a post about the house. With pictures. But then I lost the pictures because you see, around Halloween, I dropped my phone, and not just a little, "oopsie," the screen basically shattered. Thank goodness, I had that screen protector. Not to protect the screen apparently, but to keep the little shards together and protect my finger from getting cut by them.

I used it like that for a few months because one, I had just gotten the glass replaced at one of those mall kiosks before the break and hated to spend more money on it, and two, I went to the Apple Store during Christmastime and quickly ran away when I saw the crowd. I finally went back, and well, here is my Yelp Review about the experience, a delightful second person narrative.

You walk in. You tried to come in once before, but it was a weekend and you could barely get past the doors. Tonight is a Monday night. The entrance is deceptively clear. You're greeted by a chipper, red-shirted girl who asks what you need. You say you made a service appointment. She leads you up the thin aisle, between tables neatly set with Apple products. The deeper you go into the store, the more crowded it becomes. The long, thing room seems to shrink around you.

You are introduced to another person in a red shirt with an iPad. You tell him you made a service appointment. He taps away on his screen and you fidget from foot to foot. Are there more people in here than there were a minute ago? Loud voices bounce off the metal walls and jab you like prodding fingers.

He tells you no "geniuses" are available at this time. You snicker at the pompousness Apple has at calling their store associates "geniuses" and wonder how he can say it with a straight face. You're told to sit at a crowded table with the others and wait your turn.

As always, in waiting situations, you turn to your trusty iPhone. Names are called (not yours) and you wonder why they bother making appointments when they make you wait longer than you do at the doctor's office. You check Facebook. Again.

More names are called (not yours) and more people crowd into the store. A bead of sweat rolls down your cheek. You can feel the anxiety setting in. This would be your own personal hell if they started feeding you brussel sprouts and made you watch Fox News as well.

You start to hate yourself for allowing yourself to be treated like cattle all for the sake of this tiny, handheld computer. Ten years ago you lived very happily without it. Now you wait in a long, thin sarcophagus and fidget like an expectant puppy at the shelter for you to be chosen by one of the "geniuses".

Finally, your name is called. You meet with a bearded, 24-year-old hipster with an iPad. He asks you some questions. You answer them. He runs a diagnostic to tell you what you already know, your phone is broken. You're also screwed. There's nothing they can do except sell you another one.

He tells you at least he didn't make you wait an hour and half to tell you that, like you should be happy they're trying to rip $600 from your pocket now, instead of 2 hours from now. You bite your tongue to keep from swearing at him. It's not his fault. He's just another cog in the machine. You take your broken phone and storm out of there.

You're happy to finally be free, but you're also angry that they won't fix your phone. You swear you're going to get a Samsung, or something else, but you know that's not true. You also know it won't solve the problem. No matter what phone you get, you'll have to sign up for 2 years of service. You'll always be owned by someone unless you move to a cabin in the woods and live a self-sufficient, disconnected life as a hermit. But you also know that won't happen. So you leave, feeling angry, disappointed, degraded and disgusted with yourself that you're going to let them win. You're going to pay the $600 dollars, and you're going to continue to be a slave to the technology machine.

But you're going to order the phone online, because by God, you are never going into that store again.

As you can see, it didn't go well, so I had to bite the bullet and get a new phone. From AT&T, not the Apple Store. I had done my iCloud back-up, but when I restored my files, not everything came through. I lost most of my pictures AND a good chunk of my 90's mix. (So sad!) To top that off, the computer we had it all backed up on was stolen when our house was broken into right before we moved. Bad luck, huh? Overall, though, I've tried to be positive. We still might be able to get the pictures off the Cloud onto a new computer, and at least I didn't have any nudies there. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Where have I been? The Essay

I haven't posted since Septemper, and that's because we were buying a new house! It's lovely. It's bigger, in the country, came with a CHICKEN, has tons of character and a million little projects to keep me busy for the length of my 30-year-mortgage. But what prompted me to give up my city house and move to the country? It was actually an essay contest. This essay contest.

I did not win. I did not even get chosen as a finalist, but I knew that was going to happen. I just had to write it, because, you see, I had a plane trip to take. And I know, most people don't move because they have to get on a plane. But  I am crazy about planes. The only way to get me on one is to pump me full of pills and alcohol and then lead me, wobbling, to my seat.

Getting me on the plane is not the problem. There are drugs for that. It's the commitment. The time between clicking, "Purchase" on my plane ticket until the moment I'm prepping myself in the airport bar. As soon as I receive the confirmation email for my flight, I get this sinking feeling like my fate is sealed. I chose the one plane that's not going to make it. I only have two months left to live.

Believing you're going to die is a great way to make you take a hard look at your life, what's working and what isn't. I had been dragging my heels on moving out of the city. That is what old people do when they've given up on having friends and culture.

But then the Rock Spring Farm essay contest came along. I wasn't planning on entering. The entrance fee was $200! But the farm sounded so lovely, I just wanted to write an essay to see what I would write. Then I read it, and I felt hopeful, peaceful. I edited it down to the word count and read it again. I showed it to my husband and he said it was perfect. That was what we wanted. That. And if by some miracle, I survived this plane trip, things needed to change.

My entry essay is below.

Fifteen Seconds
I am a city girl. But I don’t want to be. Between our house and neighbor’s house, there is eight feet of grass. From my bedroom window, I see power lines and clusters of other houses. When I go to sleep, I listen to the cacophony of cars speeding down the highway and the train blaring its horn as it rickets down the tracks.

In the morning, it’s a mad dash to get everyone ready for the day. My three-year-old son doesn’t want to put on his shoes. I can’t find my pants. My husband doesn’t have time to shave…again. By the time everyone is packed into the cars, we’re exhausted, and it’s only eight-thirty. I sit in traffic and start cursing over the fifteen seconds I have to wait for the light to change. Fifteen seconds! I’ve timed it. It’s nothing, and yet in that moment, it’s everything.

Both of my parents grew up on farms, my mom in Tennessee, my dad on Long Island. My mom tells me stories about the clothes she used to sew for tobacco worms and Pet Chicken who followed her around the farm like a dog. When she starts telling me one of her “farm stories,” her southern accent grows deeper, and her hazel eyes take on a wistful sparkle. Mine do too. We spent almost every summer on that farm along with my Great Aunt’s cattle farm only a mile up the road.
I always told my mom, “I’m going to live here when I grow up.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because it’s so green!”
Having grown up in Arizona, it felt alive when everything else around me was barren.
When my grandmother died, they divided up the land and sold it. After my Great Aunt lost her twin (my Granny) and her husband, she couldn’t work her farm anymore. Since she had no children of her own, only my mom who was already in her late sixties, they decided to sell her land and move her into an assisted living facility closer to my parents.

For a moment, I thought about raising my hand and saying, “I’ll take it!” But I was only in my twenties, newly married and couldn’t ask my husband to give up our city life and move onto a farm in Tennessee. However, after the farm was sold, I told him my crazy idea, and he said, “I would have liked that.”

My dad has a similar story. His father was a truck driver who dreamed of buying himself a little farm, which he eventually did and moved his family from Queens into the country. They started a chicken farm, and at my dad’s fiftieth high school reunion, he brought out his old high school yearbook and showed me the ad for their famous, thirteen egg dozen.

When I was six, my grandfather died, and shortly after, my grandmother sold the farm and moved into an adult community…not before I had a chance to visit and walk with my dad down the quiet road to the sound. I dug up my first clam there and tried my first grilled eel.

My husband and I dream of the day when we’ll have enough money to buy some land, move out of the city, get some chickens, and grow a garden. Somewhere I can write, and where he can build the furniture pieces he has scrawled out in his sketchbook, a place where our son and future children don’t have rush off to daycare. I want to live in a place where my son can be safe, where he can run barefoot, and where, when he is an old man, he can drive by the farm with his children and get that wistful look in his eyes, rehashing old stories.

My husband and I often talk about self-sustaining living, utilizing wind and solar power, and growing our own food. At Rock Spring, we would do that. We would do a little bit of everything, really. I’d love to have a few chickens, horses, goats and a vegetable garden. My husband would love to get his hands dirty, building hand-crafted furniture and bringing a classic car back to life.
I would also love to see my family for more than a couple of hours a day. I would love to go to sleep to the sound of crickets and wake up to chirping birds instead of sirens. I don’t want to waste my life sitting in traffic and being angry about it.

I’ll admit, I know very little about farming. I will need help. In the next few years, my parents will need help too. That’s part of my reason for writing this essay. I want them to spend their last few years back on a farm with their grandchildren, and I want my children to know their grandparents. Rock Spring is also fairly close to my sister. She lives in D.C. with her now fiancĂ©e. We see each other once, maybe twice a year.

On our last visit, we took a trip back to Tennessee with the whole family, and when we got home I asked my son, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” Without pause, he shouted my sister’s name. I’m glad he loves his aunt so much. I’m sad he can only see her every six months. At Rock Spring, I picture weekend family get-togethers, dining on home grown vegetables.

I’m a dreamer, admittedly, but I’m also an achiever, like my truck-driving grandfather turned farmer. My husband and I know we’ll have to learn, to work. We’ll have to sweat, bandage blisters, and build callouses. We’re willing to do it because we want a different life, and I can’t think of any better way to spend my inheritance from my Great Aunt’s farm than by investing in my own. I want fifteen seconds to be fifteen, blissful seconds, where I can pause, think about my day, and be eager to face it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

I was more fun before YouTube

Today, on Facebook, one of my friends posted this.

MUST SEE VIDEO. The Anderson News captured an incredibly emotional scene when the father of a second grade student at...
Posted by LEX 18 on Wednesday, April 29, 2015

It's a video of a little boy surprised by his father returning home from duty in Iraq. Like most people, my eyes teared up, and then the camera panned over the uncomfortable faces of his classmates and I thought, "Oh that poor kid."

Once he sobers up from the overwhelming joy at his dad's homecoming, that kid is probably going to say the same thing. "Oh my god, did I just bawl my eyes out in front of Amanda?" The next day the boys will start calling him "crybaby," and the name will be virtually branded on his forehead until high school.

In the olden days, (the 90's) this would all be forgotten in a week, but now, this kid's breakdown has been posted to Facebook so not only have his classmates witnessed it, almost 7 million other people have too. This video will also likely be re-passed around every Memorial Day, Veteran's Day and 4th of July. He will be thirty and this video will still be circulating. He'll be at his middle management job, and he'll run into Mary from accounting by the coffee pot, you know, cute Mary, the one he was going to ask to dinner until she says, "Hey, I just saw this video of you, sobbing in your father's arms. So sweet." Great, because ya know, that's exactly how you want your potential dates to see you, as a little boy sobbing in your dad's arms.

Things that used to be private moments are now plastered all over the internet for everyone to see, and we love it. We love getting a glimpse into other people's lives, crying at the tender moments, laughing at their mistakes. Some of the people in these videos love it too, purposely setting up moments to record so they can become You Tube "stars." We've created a culture that now rewards stupidity and embarrassment. But there's a cost, like for the kid in the video above, and for the moments on the other side of the screen.

Case in point. A Fourth of July party a few years ago, and after too many beers and hotdogs, I was moved to sing a rendition of the National Anthem with sparklers. As soon as I hit the first note, the phones came out. All of a sudden, I went from being just another ass in a folding chair to Angelina Jolie headed down the red carpet. Drunk me didn't care. The next day, Hungover Me panicked when I found the video posted online, comments already flowing in. I made my friend take it down.

It seems harmless, right? Video gone and forgotten....except, I haven't forgotten. The next party, my favorite song came on. I wanted to get up and dance, but my eyes immediately bounced across the camera phones in everyone's hands, like a thousand little eyes ready to stand up and stare, and not only stare, but capture the moment for eternity. I kept my ass in the chair this time and continued talking about politics, because politics are safe. Boring adult conversations don't get posted to YouTube and watched a million times. And the result is a boring party that no one really enjoyed and no one remembers.

Parties in the old days were always fun. Look at MadMen, those crazy sixties parties where people took off their clothes and wore lampshades as hats. You know why people did that? Because there were no cameras. Even in the early 2000's. Yes, we had cameras, but they were old cameras, with film. If someone took a picture of you doing something embarrassing, there was a good chance there was going to be a finger over the lens, or the film would get over-exposed. There was an even greater chance of that film never getting developed. That picture getting scanned and put online afterward was nearly impossible, because ya know, people are lazy. You also really had to want it, and I think, when people have a second to think about it, they're like, "Maybe I shouldn't post that photo of my son on the potty." Because really, if someone took a picture of me on the toilet, they would either be dead or in jail. It's a crime, folks.

But now, you don't have to think. You shoot, post, and then a million eyes are on it, and this my friends, is why we have selfies of girls in front of a poo-filled toilets circulating online. That would have been caught long before it made it online when I was younger.

Now, I'm not trying to take down YouTube, I just think people have forgotten or don't even know what life was like before. Not everything needs to be videotaped. Not everything needs to be posted online. I give everyone a solemn vow that before I record something, it will not go online. It will just be for us, to privately look at and enjoy when we're old and we can laugh about how silly we were. I also make it a rule at my parties. No paparazzi. It takes a few minutes for people to adjust to the idea, but once they do, and the vodka comes out, my parties are memorable. But, I don't have any proof of it. You'll just have to take my word for it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Cliffhanger

Defined by wikipediaA cliffhanger or cliffhanger ending is a plot device in fiction which features a main character in a precarious or difficult dilemma, or confronted with a shocking revelation at the end of an episode of serialized fiction. A cliffhanger is hoped to ensure the audience will return to see how the characters resolve the dilemma.

The phrase I focused on here is "hoped to ensure the audience will return." HOPED. Because I despise cliffhangers at the end of a book. At the end of a chapter? Sure. Then I can get some immediate resolution, but when you're reading the first of a series and you have to wait a year for the answer, it's torture. In fact, I usually feel duped, so I don't even bother getting the next in the series for fear it will try to trick me again. (Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.)

I expect that the conflict raised in the novel will be solved by the end of 500 pages. When it isn't; it's frustrating. Yes, I get that you're trying to sell more books, but what I prefer to do is to solve conflict A and introduce conflict B in my last few pages. That will ultimately be the focus of book two, but I want my readers to feel like the time they spent with me in book one wasn't just a build up to something else. (Although, I'll admit, I am a shameless user of the cliffhanger for my chapter endings.)

Q: So, where did this blasted device come from?
A: We can all thank Thomas Hardy. In “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” a novel that was published in fifteen installments in Tinsley’s Magazine in 1873, the main characters literally fall from a cliff at the end of one of these installments.*

And since then, characters have been hanging from cliffs, defusing volatile explosives, catching husbands in affairs, and tearing off weaves all for the sake of dramatic pause for the past 142 years.

But I want to take a poll.

How do you feel about cliffhangers? free polls

*Source: "Tune in Next week" from the New Yorker.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Writer's Retreat Complete

I just got back from my first writers' retreat in lovely Gilmanton, NH. I had two full days of writing up in the peaceful farm country of NH with the ladies' from my writing group in a historic country home.

Going into this, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd set myself up for this wonderful, productive weekend, drinking wine, typing out page after page, and then settling down for dinner with more wine and a rousing discussion of our progress followed by a heated game of cards. It sounds perfect, right? But you never know if that's what will really happen. However in this case, it did. I got thirty-five pages written and learned a new card game.

The house, for starters, was lovely. Although built in 1790, it was purchased by the owner's grandmother in 1930, and I swear to you, nothing has changed since then apart from the necessities like plumbing and wifi. It still featured the ornate wallpapers of the art deco age and the beds with mattresses atop rusty, metal springs. It was like staying in a museum, and we were pretty sure the house was coated in lead paint, which is fine, since none of us like to eat paint chips.

As proof of its age, at that far door in the foyer, there are penciled in lines marking different children's heights with the name and the year. They went on both sides of the molding and onto the closet door.
There were also shelves of musty old books, including some first editions.

The house was large enough to accommodate more than the five of us, and we all were able to claim our own writing nook. I started in the gazebo here.
But to combat the sun, I had to keep my laptop screen on bright, which drained the battery pretty quickly. I moved inside for a while, and after lunch, decided to explore the barn. And that was where I found my place.
From there I had absolute quiet, a nice summer breeze and a view of the woods. After poking around a bit more, I also found it had its own "bathroom," an indoor outhouse. Betcha haven't seen one of these in a while...if ever. And in case you're wondering, yes I used it just to say that I have peed in an outhouse.
In my previous post, I mentioned the creepy dollhouse upstairs and its creepy little doll residents.
They were there, of course, as horrifying as promised, and they had a friend.

For some unholy reason, one of my friends actually wanted to sleep in this room, even after we had a discussion about how scary doll horror movies are. A terrible idea to talk about right before bed, by the way, when you are with a group of people known for vivid imaginations. 

As expected, sometime in the night, she heard scurrying, and as much as she hated doing it, she used the flashlight on her phone to check the dolls, making sure they were snug in their tiny beds. Another writer didn't even mess around. She slept the entire night with the light on. 

But apart from the few moments of terror, creaking walls, and the highway traffic rolling by at night, we really had a fun and productive time. We're already planning our next retreat, and if you have the urge to stay in an old, historic house to get the creative juices flowing, here's the listing. Bill was an awesome host.