Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Damn it

Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

She was one of the best. Period.


Monday, February 27, 2006

First chapter crazies

Beginnings are brutal. The blank page sits there, mocking our impotence. Sometimes, just to shut it up, we throw down the first words that come to mind (even if it's "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."), then recoil in a mad fit of deletion.

The blank page represents infinite possibilities. There's nothing so perfect as the unwritten novel. We see it all laid out in our minds, like a kid ready to build his first sand castle: it'll have moats, and spires, and windows, and...and a drawbridge! My sand castles always looked more like sand shanties--even the serfs wouldn't want to live in them. I'd get discouraged because it wasn't what I imagined.

At the beginning of a journey, you can go in any direction, but after that first step, you officially have a Path. What if it's the wrong path? That kind of thinking can drive you nuts and result in a major case of writer's block, but it's true. It's difficult to go back in later drafts and change the beginning, because it has more of a set-in-stone feeling than any other scene.

Until I started selling proposals, I always began a novel somewhere in the middle, with whatever scene I found most compelling, then I'd go back and write the beginning once I had a good sense of the characters. Now I submit the first X chapters of a book along with an outline, which is great from a business perspective. But it means I end up polishing and revising the beginning before I've written the rest of the book. Talk about chiseled in granite.

When I look back at opening lines from my novels, I realize that most of them stayed as originally written, even if the scene as a whole changed. That first moment of inspiration somehow worked.

So here's the first line of Voice of Crow:
The forest breathed.
We'll see if it sticks.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

The joys of home ownership

Woke up this morning (da-DAA-da-dun) to the sound of growling (Meadow, at our old foster Brutus, who was hiding behind her from the new foster Sunshine), whining (Brutus, at the cat, for walking around on the bed), meowing (the cat, at me, for having the gall to sleep until 6:30), and finally, rushing water.

All but the last are normal morning sounds. All but the last have organic sources without the ability--or at least the inclination--to cave in the ceiling of the downstairs bathroom.

I'm the type who blows little annoyances way out of proportion. Getting a red light when I'm in a hurry because some idiot in front of me was driving 5 mph under the speed limit--blood pressure, through the roof. Discovering the milk is bad in the middle of making pancakes--disaster that will ruin my life forever.

But major catastrophes, such as, oh, I don't know, the hot water pipe bursting and causing major water damage to the lower level of our house, I take in stride. I'm even able to count the ways in which it could have been worse:
  • It could have happened at 3am instead of 6, when I probably wouldn't have heard it until our basement was under 100 gallons of water (or however much our hot water heater holds).
  • It could have happened while I was in the bathroom, drenching me with scalding hot water.
  • It could have happened while we were away.
  • It could have been the cold water pipe.
  • We could have had a decent basement ceiling instead of those lame drop ceiling tiles that give way at the slightest pressure, thus allowing the water to land on the floor where it could be sopped up, instead of traveling through the bowels of the home, exacerbating our existing mold problems.
There, that's enough. I'm sure I'll be less sanguine once we get the bills from the plumber and the contractor.

Which reminds me: Angie's List is a great source for finding out which home repair companies in your area have provided satisfactory (or unsatisfactory) service. Membership allows Joe and Jane Homeowner to fill out reports on companies they've tried, grading them on things like price, workmanship, punctuality, and professionalism. The Los Angeles Times called it "The Zagat's of Home Improvement."

They just opened up in the Baltimore/Washington area and are offering a free one-year membership to B/W residents. It's coming to New York in March.

Now let's see, Water Damage contractors....

UPDATE, for those who care, 2/27/06: Good news--The plumber said we could use hot water anywhere but in the upper bathroom shower/tub. Yay, we have clean dishes! Yay, I have clean hair! Bad news--they have to rip out part of our wall (behind the vanity) to replace the connection fitting, and it's going to take them all day and cost a bundle.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Celluloid sewage

Nominations for the 2005 Razzies have been announced!

Since 1980, the Golden Raspberry Awards have been "saluting" the year's worst pictures, and 2005 really made the judges dance with glee, offering up such exquisite crap as Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalow, House of Wax, and the Why-God-Why? Dukes of Hazzard movie.

A new category this year goes beyond the silver screen to honor the "Most Tiresome Tabloid Targets." Yep, Tom 'n' Katie are on the ballot, as well as Britney, Bride of Britney, and Spawn of Britney.

On the Razzie site, you can see a video of the classy and gracious Halle Berry, who was the first celebrity to actually show up to accept her award (for worst actress in Catwoman).

This is the first year I've been blessed not to have wasted any of my increasingly scarce free time on any of the Raspberry nominees (I'm still seething over Daredevil). On the other hand, I haven't seen any of the Oscar nominees either, other than Batman Begins, which was nominated for Best Cinematography (go Wally Pfister!!).

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Going...going....

In the absence of a place to be,
she stands there looking back at me,
hesitates, then turns away.
--Counting Crows, "Mercury"
According to NASA, tonight is the best chance all year to see Mercury. The fickle little bugger will be visible just after sunset, appearing as a "pink star" above the horizon. Before long, it'll be too close to the sun to see from our vantage point, so check it out tonight if you can.

Or just live with the regret forever. Your choice.

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And the winner is....

Thanks to everyone who participated in my side contest to the Smart Bitches WHA? contest. Just over half of the entries guessed correctly which one was mine, but quite a few were thrown off by the vampire entry. The correct answer was--wait, I'll give you a hint:

Photo: Canadian Press

Inspired by Canadian cutie Brad Gushue, FROZEN IN TIME (Entry #7) tells the tragic love story of a Mormon girl and a Swedish curler as they battle amnesia, sunstroke, and right-wing Marxists.

Congratulations to Maria, who won an autographed cover flat for Eyes of Crow by guessing the correct answer and by being the one whose name was on the first piece of paper my husband's hand hit when we did the drawing.

Oh, and by the way, I won the contest.

UPDATE, 1:30 PM: Team Gushue just took 6 (yes, 6!) in the sixth end to go up 10-3 over Finland. Gushue could have made it a world-record 7, but threw it out the other side. The commentators said it might have been a "sympathy throw" so as not to embarrass his opponent. Isn't he the ginchiest?

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Perfection

-Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, 'I don't believe in the Beatles, I just believe in me.' Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus and I'd still have to bum rides off people.
--Matthew Broderick, Ferris Bueller's Day Off

There are a lotta bad -ism's in the world, but one of the worst is commercialism--no, wait, now I'm channeling that kid Alfred from Miracle on 34th Street.

I meant, perfectionism. It's not as bad as fascism or communism or fundamentalism, but it can ruin the chance to be spectacular.

Take Sasha Cohen. At the '02 Salt Lake City Olympics and ever since, she's been on the prowl for perfection. When she bobbled one element in a performance, she would let it destroy her entire program. Nothing but the gold was good enough. The portrait the media painted of her was one of extreme seriousness, and I wondered if she still found joy in her life's work.

She went into last night's long program with a slight lead over Irina Slutskaya, the gold medal favorite. It was obvious Cohen was tight: she fell several times during warmup, and the look on her face as she approached the center of the ice was one of doubt and fear. We all knew it was over before it started (and not because it had actually taken place 6 hours before).

Sure enough, she fell on the first two jumps, and it looked like Cohen's long program would turn into a disaster. The gold medal--probably the entire podium--was out of reach. No one would blame her for sleepwalking through the rest of her routine, mournful and resigned.

But then something amazing happened. Rather than give up, she pulled herself together and completed her program with breathtaking brilliance, turning an athletic competition into a work of art. Perhaps she thought she was only skating for pride now, that her medal hopes had died. But her courageous performance garnered her a silver medal, after other skaters couldn't rise above their own mistakes.

As soon as she missed those early jumps, as soon as the quest for perfection ended, Cohen set herself free. With nothing to lose, she had everything to gain. I hope she cherishes that silver medal, because it represents the most important triumph of all--the one over her own demons.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, as you know, I'm revising my outline for Voice of Crow per my editor's request. It's due on Wednesday. I have the basic plot figured out, but I'm trying to flesh out the theme and conflicts.

Because I don't just have to sell myself to readers, librarians and booksellers. I have to sell myself to my publisher. If they think VOC is going to kick ass, they'll put more enthusiasm behind Book 1, Eyes of Crow. So this proposal isn't just a hoop I have to jump through in order to get the second part of my advance check for Book 2. It's also an opportunity to impress my publisher, the one who can make my first publishing experience happy or miserable.

No pressure there, right? Why must I always raise the stakes to a do-or-die level? Does it really raise my performance or just my blood pressure?

Today I'm going to try to forget how important this stupid outline is, and just lose myself in the love of the story, let my intuition and imagination take me where they want to go. Forget all my publisher's expectations and guidelines and just ask the question:

"Wouldn't it be cool if....?"

Because in the end that's what fiction's all about. It's not about each word ending up in the perfect place, because there is no such thing. (For instance, I'm not even sure I've conceived a coherent argument in this post; I think I've spoken for both sides and possibly a third or fourth side, too. But oh well.)

Perfectionism, with all its empty promises of self-acceptance, can freeze the imagination until it's as cold and insensate as Olympic ice. Don't let it happen to you today. Just write, dammit.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Spam Word of the Day

A new Thursday tradition here at Jeri's Lair o' Lexicography. I'll post the most creative word from the subject lines of that week's spam.

If you have a good "spample," please send it to me (the word, not the spam) using this contact form. If I pick your suggestion, you'll win a free, brand-new, previously-only-available-in-Singapore box of

periwinklescrape

delivered in a plain brown wrapper. Guaranteed to make her moan.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Then and now

In June 2003 we fostered a puppy named Buster, who came from a shelter in Waverly County, Tennessee. Here's a picture of Buster when he was a baby at the shelter:



Here's a picture we took of him during the three weeks he lived with us (when he was 3-4 months old):



The other day I got a picture from Buster's adoptive mom:


who said that he has always been the best-behaved boy and has made her family very happy.

People ask if it's hard to foster dogs, if we get attached to them and miss them when they go. Usually the answer is no, we don't get attached, although I did get choked up when I went to wash Buster's blankets and got a whiff of his puppy smell. In every case we've felt that our foster dogs were going to the perfect home and were destined for a long, happy life.

But it's always nice to get confirmation. Think I'll go drop a note to Meadow's foster moms.

-------

See a video (Windows Media Player, 4.4 MB) starring Buster and Meadow: The Saga of the Rope Toy.

P.S.: My digital camera doesn't do sound, so enjoy your trip back in time to silent Home Movies of Yore.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The nutmeg

When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.
--Raymond Chandler
As you might have guessed, I've given up on outlining my second Luna Book (Voice of Crow) using the First Draft in 30 Days approach I began a couple of weeks ago, seeing as it's due in only nine days.

I'll probably try the method another time, but I found it overly structured for this project. I couldn't get past Day One - Character Sketches. Part of me was bored at the non-stimulating categories (Internal Conflict, External Conflict, Background), and part of me was just plain scared of VOC, and still is.

What's so scary about an unwritten book? Well, besides the usual spooky blank pages, it's Book 2 of a trilogy, which means not only is it the second in the series, it's also the second-to-last.

Duh, right? But there is a point here.

See, to figure out what happens in Book 2, I need to know what will happen in Book 3, how the whole shebang will, well, shebang (hey, Ricky Martin declared it a verb). My original trilogy outline, the one I wrote before I'd even started Book 1, no longer feels right. It requires my main character to make an unsympathetic and uncharacteristic decision at the end of Book 2. The only reason why she'd do it is because of an event that must happen in Book 3.

So now I have to rethink the entire trilogy's story arc to fit with what I now know about the main character.

(It's possible that if Eyes of Crow sells well, my publisher will ask me to continue the series past three books. But I'm not sure I'd want to do it. There are too many series that stumble on long past the point where the author has anything new to say.)

Back to my original point, which had something to do with the Chandler quote above. I was struggling through the outline, feeling a total lack of interest, and sensing that something was missing. It reminded me of this one time I was cooking chili from a recipe that didn't quite work. It needed a surprise ingredient, something to wake it up. It needed--and this will sound strange--nutmeg.

My nutmeg moment arrived on Sunday when I decided to take one of the minor Eyes of Crow antagonists and give him a huge role in Voice. He now has his own narrative point-of-view and subplot, making his development an important key in the overall story.

This bad-guy-turned-good (or has he?) was the equivalent to Chandler's man with a gun. He changes everything. His presence shakes up the storyline, and his inner conflict gives the work a new dimension beyond the standard good versus evil.

Most important, he cured my boredom. So Chandler was right: if you get stumped with a plot or lose interest in your book, introduce a catalyst.

Maybe a guy walks through the door with a jar of nutmeg.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Contest Alert: WHA Happa?

Last week during my fit of procrastination (more on that later), I entered a writing contest over at Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels (Warning: Adult Language and Mature Themes, as you might have guessed).

Our assignment: write a synopsis for a romance novel featuring that favorite trope of night-time soap operas: the amnesia storyline.

I've decided to start a little side wager here at Madame Jerita's Bayside Betting Parlor*:

Guess which of the eight entries was penned by Moi (that's French for "Jeri"). Send your guess (one per reader) by Thursday, February 23, midnight PST. I'll draw a name from the correct answers.

The winner will get an autographed cover flat of my first Luna book, Eyes of Crow. These are made in very limited number, so even if you're a friend or family member, don't assume you're gettin' one, unless your name is Mom.

YET ANOTHER SIDE BET: If I get 25 or more entries, I'll up the prize to an autographed ARC (Advance Review Copy) of Eyes of Crow. These are expensive for me to make up--even more than buying the book itself--but unlike the book, it will be available in June, not November. So tell your friends!

Contest subject to something or other by law. Another thingie may not apply. Void where prohibited.

*Lose three races in a row and get a free Apple-tini!

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Friday, February 17, 2006

I'm not alone

Hating a book comes because novelists never get it completely right. We always miss, by a hairsbreadth if we're lucky, worse if we're not, the vision we've chased Ahab-like for years.
-- author Tom Grimes
Not that I thought I was the only writer who'd ever gone through the My-Book-Sucks angst (as lamented most recently here), but it's encouraging to hear from a best-selling, Edgar Award-nominated author.

Tess Gerritsen explains Why Authors Hate Their Books.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Warming the world, one lazy wanker at a time

It's a blanket! With sleeves! It's.....the Slanket.

But wait: don't take the cozy-looking guy on the home page's word for it. Learn the science behind the Slanket, complete with diagrams and technical words like "toasty burrito."

If you'd thought of this, you too would be a thousandaire by now, just like Gary.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Got Call?

A year ago today, I received

The Call

the one all writers dream about, the one from a publisher saying, "We want to buy your book(s)!"

(I should note that for Requiem, The Call came in the form of The E-Mail, which was fortunate because I had a whole weekend to decide whether I wanted to go the e-book route. I did, and I'm glad for several reasons, but the fact that I got an e-mail instead of a phone call was indicative of things to come.)

Unlike some writers who are brilliant at remembering poignant details of moments like these, all I could recall as I wrote in my journal the night of February 15, 2005, was the following:

I was sitting on the couch, hard at work on Angel's Gambit, a currently defunct writing project. (When I say 'hard at work,' I mean I was creating a new playlist in RealPlayer called "AlternaChicks," featuring bands like Belly, Hole, Liz Phair, etc.)

The phone rang. My husband picked it up, looked at the caller ID, and gasped:

Chris: Honey, it's--it's Luna Books!
Me: Well, of course it is. What took them so long?

OK, I didn't say that. I probably said something that can't be repeated on a family blog. But I knew that the decision process had moved on to the last stage, and if the answer had been No, it would've come in an e-mail or letter. So a call meant YES.

Anyway, moving on to where I pick up the phone and say hello:

Stacy (editor): Jeri? I have good news.

Everything after that is a blur. She rattled off some numbers, and I thanked her for the offer and told her I had to acquire an agent before I could make any decisions. Part of me wanted to say, Yes Yes Yes!! right then and thank her for saving me from eternal oblivion, but I demured.

Then I called my family. One of them said, "I guess you'll be quitting your job now."

Snort!

Thus began the education of my loved ones on the realities of publishing, on how getting a contract doesn't change one's life, except to make it busier. My first advance check (which I received five months after the original offer, mainly because the contract took four months to negotiate) vanished in the face of overdue taxes, credit card bills, and mortgage payments, as will the second (I hope to use the third to pay for promotional expenses).

A year later, I'm still at the same job, one that gives me the flexibility to pursue my own goals as well as enough money that I don't (usually) have to raid our joint account to buy groceries or pay the electric bill.

On the outside, nothing has changed. But where it counts, everything has changed. The Call finally gave me permission to take writing as seriously as any other business. I wish I hadn't needed that external validation to start working my butt off. If I'd applied myself more, The Call might have come years sooner.

If you're an unpublished writer, pretend you're not. Pretend you have an editor waiting to see your manuscript by a certain date, and stick to it.

If you've submitted a novel for publication, start writing the next novel, and the next one.

Don't abandon a project midway; even if it sucks, finish it and improve it on the rewrite.

Be your own toughest and most supportive boss.

Take a stand with those who would distract you: First, gently and respectfully state your need for writing time. If they keep up the pressure, gently and respectfully instruct them to sod off.

And remember, no one ever had "World-Renowned TiVo Watcher" etched on a tombstone.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Delivered! On Time!

The United States Postal Service now has the final edits of Eyes of Crow in their capable little hands (complain all you want about the new postage prices--those people get the job done for way under market value). It's due Friday and will probably arrive tomorrow or Thursday.

The marathon is over. No more chances to improve the novel, other than a few words here and there on the galley proofs, which I won't see until May. Any shiny new ideas about the world will have to go into Book 2, the proposal for which I'm supposed to be working on right...now.

But I'm not. I'm finding other things to do, because I don't want to think about it.

I used to be a monster procrastinator, but grad school cured me of that. See, I was in a professional program (Master's in Public Policy, which is like an MBA for Guvmint Types), and in professional programs, unlike academic ones, things are due when they're due. Students are reminded again and again that in the real world, employers don't like to hear excuses. In my classes, you were only excused from an exam or received an extension on a paper if you were dead.

So grad school (go Terps!) gave me the discipline to be a professional writer, and when I say 'professional,' I mean it as an attitude. Deadlines are not arbitrary and shouldn't be treated as such.

There are writers who always miss deadlines whose careers, on the surface, don't seem to suffer for it. But let's say the budget at Megalithic Publishing, Inc., has been cut, and the editor has to decide between offering new contracts for two of her midlist authors, whom, in a nod to Reservoir Dogs, we'll call Mr. Mauve and Mr. Chartreuse.

Mr. Mauve and Mr. Chartreuse have comparable sales and receive similar advances, but Mr. Chartreuse turns in his manuscripts anywhere from one to six weeks late. This tardiness forces everyone on MPI's end to work harder and faster to maintain the publication schedule. Maybe Ms. Editor has to change her vacation plans or spend less time editing other authors' material during this crunch period. If the author's really late, the publication schedule changes, which is a headache for publishers and book buyers alike.

Luckily, Mr. Chartreuse probably has a Ph.D. in arts or sciences to fall back on when his writing career tanks.

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Monday, February 13, 2006

Movies about writers

Sooner or later—usually sooner—every writer tells a tale about a writer.

After all, what could be more fascinating and entertaining than our struggles and triumphs? War? Love? Barracuda attacks? Mere mind candy compared to the agonizing wait for the agent’s phone call or the scalpel-sharp prick of a reviewer’s pen.

Screenwriters are no exception to this ultimate manifestation of “Write what you know.” They explore and exaggerate our idiosyncrasies and pathologies until sane mothers everywhere learn to dread the day when their child dons a black turtleneck, buys a Glimmer Train subscription, and announces, “I want to be a writer.”

Below is a by-no-means-exhaustive sample of films that chronicle the writing process and the psychological challenges we either overcome in glory or succumb to in shame.

10. Shakespeare in Love (1998, screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard)

Playwright Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) struggles with writer’s block while creating Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter. His muse arrives in the form of a cross-dressing actress cast as Romeo (Gwyneth Paltrow). Their forbidden love affair is the catalyst for an improved version of Will’s new play.

I include this movie not only for itself, but because it provided a framework for the 1999 short film George Lucas in Love (which I’d stick in here at # 9.5).

Lesson for writers: A goldmine of inspiration may lie inside your own broken heart.

9. Delirious (1995, screenplay by Lawrence J. Cohen and Fred Freeman)

Soap opera scribe Jack Gable (John Candy) gets hit on the head and wakes up inside his own show. After discovering he can control his new reality just by writing it, Jack makes his favorite character fall in love with him. Unfortunately, a new writer in the “real world” has other plans for the storyline, and their dueling realities make for some fun moments.

Unlike most of the other members of this list, Delirious isn’t a great film, but for writers it’s worth a rental just to watch Jack inhabit the scene he wrote while drunk. Imagine your worst typos come to life.

Lesson for writers: Authorial control is an illusion, even when you have a magic typewriter.

8. The Shining (1980, screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, based on the Stephen King novel)

Alcoholic novelist Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as winter caretaker of an empty Colorado hotel, hoping the isolation will cure his writer’s block. His head does fill with creative ideas, courtesy of the hotel’s ghosts, but most of them involve chasing members of his family with an axe.

Lesson for a writer’s spouse: If you ever find reams of paper filled with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” get out of the house. Now. I don’t care if it’s snowing.

7. Sideways (2004, screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the Rex Pickett novel)

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti) has written one long, serious, and deeply personal novel—The Day After Yesterday—which, at the beginning of the movie, sits on an editor’s desk at a small publishing company. During his weeklong adventure through Pinot Noir country with his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church), Miles checks his voice mail every day but receives no news about the book.

Just when he has hit a low point both personally and wine-wise (the two men are tasting at the swill-producing “Frass Canyon), Miles reaches his agent on the phone. The ensuing scene will cause any writer to laugh and cry in the same breath and make other moviegoers give you funny looks.

Lesson for writers: Abandon all hope, ye who enter this life. Well, 99% of hope, anyway—you’ll need that one percent to write your second novel.

6. Wonder Boys (2000, screenplay by Stephen Kloves, based on the Michael Chabon novel)

Aging hippie, writing professor, and once-acclaimed debut novelist Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) is 900 single-spaced pages into his sophomore effort with no end in sight. He and his agent (Robert Downey, Jr.) desperately need to end his seven-year publishing drought with a success.

But Grady has other problems, including his pregnant girlfriend (Frances McDormand), who happens to be the university chancellor’s wife, her recently deceased dog—shot by Grady’s protégé James Leer (Tobey Maguire)—and the protégé himself, who is a work of fiction in his own right.

Lesson for writers: The only thing harder to handle than failure is success.

5. Total Eclipse (1995, screenplay by Christopher Hampton)

This film centers on the obsessive affair between two 19th-century French poets: the brilliant teenager Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the older, somewhat less brilliant Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). In their mad romp through Europe, they fight, make love, fight again, drink a oil tanker’s worth of absinthe, fight some more, and somehow find time to write some of the best poetry the world has ever seen.

Lesson for writers: If great art can redeem a cruel little twerp like Rimbaud, maybe a decent novel or two can make up for that time you cheated on your taxes. In the greater moral scheme of things, I mean.

4. Misery (1990, screenplay by William Goldman, based on the Stephen King novel)

Novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is rescued from an auto accident by his “number-one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates). She holds him hostage and forces him to write another installment of his Misery Chastaine romance series, which he has come to despise. The most painful scene for writers to witness is not when she takes a sledgehammer to his foot but when she forces him to burn the only copy of his just-finished serious novel manuscript.

Lesson for writers: Killing off a beloved character may harm more than your royalty statements.

3. Finding Neverland (2004, screenplay by David McGee, based on the Allan Knee play The Man Who Was Peter Pan)

James Barrie (Johnny Depp) has just penned another theatrical snorefest when he meets the Llewellyn Davies family playing in the park. Together with the four boys and their mother Sylvia (Kate Winslet), he creates a series of make-believe scenarios that evolve into the play Peter Pan. A stunning opening night silences the critics and gossipmongers.

Lessons for writers: Ignore those who deride your imagination. You are more alive than they’ll ever be. Just as important: cherish those who believe in you.

2. Sunset Boulevard (1950, written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett with D.M. Marshman, Jr.)

William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a broke, failing, bitter screenwriter. He becomes involved with Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), once a silent film queen and now a narcissistic has-been wasting away in her mansion with only a butler and a chimpanzee for company.

With money and flattery, Norma persuades Joe to write her comeback script, which he knows will never be produced. Joe hates himself for becoming a hack and a kept man. He makes one last stab at real writing, but his pact with Norma has set him on an inevitable, tragic path.

How tragic? The first shot reveals Joe floating dead in a pool. He narrates the film from beyond the grave.

Lesson for writers: Hollywood can turn an artist into a whore faster than you can turn bread into toast—and the results are just as irreversible.

1. Adaptation. (2002, screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, sort of based on The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean)

The ultimate meta-narrative, Adaptation. chronicles the difficulties Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) faces in adapting Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief.

Charlie’s neurotic self-talk will resonate with any writer. Faced with a blank page, he thinks in a voice-over:

“To begin. To begin. How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes. Maybe banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.”

Frequent bouts of masturbation provide commentary on Charlie’s creative process as he struggles to do justice to Orlean’s work. Meanwhile his twin brother Donald breezily pens his own preposterous thriller script following the principles laid out in Robert McKee’s classic screenwriting guide Story.

A desperate Charlie seeks out the guru he once disdained. McKee instructs him to put more of life’s drama into his screenplay, and above all, “wow them in the end.” During the movie’s denouement Kaufman simultaneously employs and undermines every Hollywood movie trope—guns, drugs, sex, car chases, and characters growing, falling in love, and overcoming obstacles.

Lesson for writers: Charlie Kaufman’s genius lies not only in his talent and originality, but in the willingness to trust his own voice. You’ve got one, too, so let’s hear it.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Insert Tab A into Plot B

Emperor Turhan (dying): How will it all end?
Kosh: In fire.
--Babylon 5, "All Alone in the Night"
Sometimes when writing a story you head bravely down one plot path, only to realize that it's a dead end. Then comes the Big Delete.

For instance, I thought I had the Major Jeopardy at the end of my vampire novel figured out. A fire seemed like a scary climax, since vampires are a bit allergic to it, and a fire during the daylight would be just about the worst thing that could happen to them. If they stay, they burn. If they leave, they burn.

But then I realized, what bunch of dumbass vampires wouldn't have some sort of emergency plan in place for such an occasion? Not my bunch of dumbass vampires, that's who.

So I un-wrote the fire. It was a silly idea to begin with, a result of trying to cram my story into the formula that states:
When X number of pages remain, at least one of the main characters must find themselves in mortal danger.
Pah! This sub-subgenre is riddled with cliches as it is. I already had a more moving, shocking sequence planned for the scene after the Stupid Fire, when the audience should be taking a deep breath, thinking, Whew, they survived the fire, now everything's--Holy %$&^!


Blogger's Note:
I wrote this post about a week and a half ago, while I was finishing the first draft of Bad Company. Since I was using all my creative brain cells for the novel, the post ended up disjointed and rambly (yes, more than usual). But I thought it made a good point about the temptation to produce cookie-cutter material in this age of copycat publishing.

Anyway, I found a way to delay the shocking moment until near the end of the last scene, which should be a denouement, when things are looking happy and relaxed. And it just now occurred to me that the tension is resolved by setting a fire. Hah--the joke's on me! But it's not a Stupid Fire.

Hmmm, come to think of it, I'm still not very coherent. Try to wrest some meaning out of this post if you can. Or not. I'm going back to bed.

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

FD30 Day 0 - Brainstorming

Chapter One of First Draft in 30 Days addresses the brainstorming process, which author Karen Wiesner claims should be an all-day affair.

No, that doesn't mean standing for hours at a white board shouting out non sequiturs like those corporate brainstorming sessions we've all suffered through at one point (or several hundred points).

It means the book is always on your mind, percolating in the foreground or background, no matter what you're doing. It means missing exits on turnpikes or burning pots of rice because your mind wandered into your fictional world. It means reading a newspaper article and running for the scissors (not with scissors of course--we novelists not named Hemingway are a tame, risk-averse sort) to clip it out and add it to your story folder for that work.

Using her suggestions, I made a list of brainstorming techniques I'd like to use for Voice of Crow:

  • Make a soundtrack: I've done this for every novel I've ever written except Eyes of Crow.* Even then, I had a RealPlayer Playlist consisting of appropriate movie scores, world music, etc. (I listened to the three Lord of the Rings soundtracks every day for the last few weeks of writing the first draft.)

    However, for Voice of Crow (and maybe Eyes, retroactively), I'd like to go back to my tradition of making a real soundtrack, using modern music to express the characters' situations and emotions. Though it's set in a fantasy world without electric guitars and synthesizers, certain human conditions are universal: falling in love, losing a parent, getting dumped, having one's village burned to the ground, etc.

  • Take archery lessons: Two of the point-of-view characters in Voice of Crow are hunters, preternaturally skilled with a bow. Might be nice if I picked one up for the first time since I was 13, the better to get inside their heads.

  • Do a collage: 1) Get a big piece of cardstock, any color. 2) Gather photos from magazines, websites, etc., that remind you of your setting, characters, or other elements of your work. 3) Go nuts with a glue stick.

  • Write letters to each of my main characters, some from me, some from each other, ignoring for the moment that all but one of them are "pre-literate." I think this is especially important for non-point-of-view characters, to be able to hear their voices more clearly.
I'm excited to try these suggestions, because brainstorming the Aspect of Crow series doesn't come naturally to me. It takes place in a world unlike our own, so my brain usually considers it "over there." I think about it when I sit down to write, but it doesn't infect my mind 24/7 the way my contemporary novels do.

Stay tuned for Day 1. This train is leaving the station!

*Heck, I've made soundtracks for parts of my life (Junior year of high school, the six months I was in England, and the first six months of 1992).

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Friday, February 10, 2006

Final draft ups and downs

My First Draft in 30 Days endeavor has met a brief delay while I finish the final edits on Eyes of Crow, which are due back to my editor by noon next Friday. Her changes were minimal, and she said she loved it. So I'm basically done, right?

The Perfectionist in me just fell over laughing, banging her heels against the floor, holding her stomach, pointing at me with sadistic glee.

Looking at my cluttered home, my haphazard wardrobe, my free-spirited schedule, no one would ever guess there's one of those nasty P's in me. Certainly when it comes to external matters like housekeeping and putting clothes on my body, "whatever" is my motto.

Not so with my work, especially this novel. This draft is my last chance to make major changes, anything more than a word here or there. My last chance to explain some odd contradiction, to flesh out the details of a setting, to add that drinking song to Chapter Nineteen.

And there's this pressure, you see, the fact that this book marks my Big Debut, and if it's not Oh-My-God-The-Best-Book-Evurrrrr, my career will be over. Reviewers will snark, sales will stagnate, and my publisher will sigh and say, "Well, we gave her a chance. Next?"

I want to move on to other projects, like revising the proposal for the next book. I've rewritten this novel four or five times and have read it at least twice for every rewrite. My editor says it's good, and yet...I keep wondering, if I take one more pass, maybe I can bump it up from Good to Great, or from Great to Phenomenal, or from Phenomenal to Some Adjective They'll Invent Just for Me, Which They'll Then Retire Like a Star Football Player's Jersey Number.

When in fact, it's probably as good as it's going to get. A few tweaks here and there will round things out, and the end of the second-to-last chapter really should be cut or rewritten to maintain the poignancy of the preceding scene, but for the most part, it's done. I think.

So now, the ups and downs. Tuesday I sat down to read the novel from start to finish (they tell you to do this in one day so that you can see how it flows). For the first half of the book, I was thrilled, enchanted, charmed. This truly was the Best Book Evurrrrr.

By 3 PM, I started to get tired. Very tired. And bored. I would turn each page and think, "Oh God, not this scene!" I started to hate it. I imagined the reviews, the things they would laugh at, the things that would make my book go hurtling against walls all across the country--or worse, the things that would put readers to sleep, which is where I was headed fast.

(Oh, it couldn't have anything to do with the fact that afternoons are my least alert time, or the fact that my cat woke me up 7 or 8 times the previous night. No, it was the objective quality of the book that inspired my drowsiness.)

So after a good night's sleep and a day at work concentrating on someone else's issues, I picked up the second half of the book again, hoping to figure out what went wrong. Maybe I just needed to restore some cut material from the previous draft, or maybe I need to flesh out scenes with more descriptive language.

Turns out, all I needed was a good night's sleep. It was fine. Yeah, the prose in the second half was a bit rougher, due to being revised more often, but I fixed it.

I learned something this week (cue inspirational music): Mood doesn't matter when you're writing a first draft, but never try to edit when depressed or fatigued. Everything will look like rubbish.

Better go work on that penultimate chapter now.

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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Quick music poll #2

Which band do I hate more, Steely Dan or Aerosmith?

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Monday, February 06, 2006

First Draft in 30 Days

One of the most common questions I get from the curious is: "Do you outline before you start a novel, or do you write by the seat of your pants?"

The answer, like the answer to so many other questions asked of me ("Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi?" "Are you right-brained or left-brained?" "Do you think the Steelers deserved to win the Super Bowl or do you think the refs handed it to them?") is

BOTH

I usually begin with a rough outline--selling a project on proposal requires it--in which I lay out the basic story arc. Then I jump in with both feet and start writing the first draft.

However, somewhere in the dreaded middle of the book I start to wonder: what comes next? I look ahead at the big scene at the end of Act 2 and think, how do I get there? Days if not weeks have been wasted in this abyss.

My goal for the next decade is to write two excellent books per year. Not one excellent book. Not two good-enough-to-be-published books.

Unfortunately, a glance at a calendar tells me that 2006 and its successors still only contain twelve months, despite my petition to add an extra one in between May and June (Vote for your favorite: "Chocolary" or "Cheesetember").

My dilemma: how to fit several drafts of two novels into these puny excuses for a year? I can't write much faster (8-10 pages/day) without sacrificing quality and therefore adding drafts, so the solution is to write fewer drafts.

Enter Karen Wiesner's First Draft in 30 Days, a method that will help me produce a solid, detailed outline of my second Luna book, Voice of Crow, in roughly a month. Theoretically, this outline will result in a first full draft that will need fewer revisions, thus cutting the time from first thought to manuscript delivery by a significant percentage.

To keep myself dedicated to the process, I'll be blogging it daily (more or less). Keep an eye out for posts marked "FD30 - Day X".

In the interests of science and helping other writers interested in this method, I promise to A) make a good-faith effort to follow the process as outlined in Wiesner's book, and B) be honest about how well it works or doesn't work for me.

Today is Day One. Tune in later to see how it goes.

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Final scene

I just finished the first draft of Bad Company, more or less, a few minutes ago, while listening to Nirvana's Unplugged in New York album (it appears in Chapter Four, so I thought it appropriate). There are still a few holes to plug, but I've reached "The End" for the fifth time in my life.

Instead of relief, I feel a sudden loneliness. It's like I held a big party, and a huge group of my weirdest and fun-est friends all left at the same time. My head feels empty.

A small price to pay, though, for such a kick-ass party. I can't wait to invite you all.

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NEW RELEASE!

This Side of Salvation

This Side of Salvation, Jeri's new contemporary YA novel!

Now available in hardcover and ebook.

“A smart, well-rounded, and unpredictable tale...bringing to light issues of belief versus free will, spirit versus body, and family versus self.” —Booklist, **Starred Review**

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Shattered

"Shattered," a Shade novella!

Available here on this website as a free download in all major ebook formats, as well as a printable PDF (now with photos!).

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Jeri Smith-Ready

Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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