Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bound Treasure

“Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate,” said Johnny Depp’s character Jack Sparrow.
            For me, treasure is a favorite novel I’ve read until the binding breaks—and better yet, unexpectedly finding a new favorite novel. This weekend, I woke early and decided to read instead of knocking around the house, making noise, and waking my husband. I went to the bookshelf, to my I-want-to-read-that-someday section, and pulled down a thin novel titled P.S. Your Cat is Dead.
            I didn’t know anything about it, but with a title like that, how do you not give it a shot? An hour and a half later, I decided I ought to get out of bed.
What exactly did I find so compelling? Structure grabbed my attention first, followed by short paragraphs, immediate conflict, and humor.
            The main character lost his girl friend, his job, his apartment’s been robbed (twice), he received an eviction notice because they want to tear down the building, and his cat is sick. In spite of one horrible thing after another happening to this guy, the author manages to write it in a way that elicits smiles and occasional chuckles.
            Aside from being only a pleasurable read, can it also serve as an education? I want to write a book that takes hold and hangs on like this one did me. Specifically:
o   Pacing – how can I read that long and totally lose track of time? Because the story moved ahead in enormous leaps. You barely catch your breath before the next big thing happens.
o   Page Turner – I had to know what happened next. I’d thought about getting out of bed a couple times, “when this chapter ends.”
o   Humor – the sneaky kind, turn of phrase, developing organically out of the character’s personalities
o   OH CRAP moment – So far I’ve run across only one, but it was HUGE. I suspect there’ll be more, because I’m only about half way through.

Now I need to finish the novel to see if the last half is as good as the first, how the author wraps it up, and if he’s able to maintain the humor—it has turned a bit dark.
It may or may not be my next favorite novel. But if it fails me, I’ll go back to my bookshelf, pull down another novel, and settle into the recliner for a long afternoon of treasure hunting.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Princesses and Iced Tea

People ask me, “Larry, how do you come up with this stuff?”
My stock answer is, “I don’t know. I just do.”
But actually, I do kinda know—with imagination and practice.
For instance, a major league baseball pitcher throws thousands of balls a year to earn his place on the mound, and a quarterback doesn’t hit a receiver with pin-point precision accidentally.
I’ve been exercising my imagination since I was young, and it began with iced tea. I didn’t know what caffeine was at the time, how it affects you, or how you get it.
Apparently, my mother didn’t either.
I drank the amber refreshment year round and well into the evenings. Many nights, I knew I wouldn’t fall asleep but didn’t know why. Those nights I’d toss and turn and rearrange until I eventually drifted off.
Soon, I began making up stories instead of executing bedtime gymnastics. I slew dragons and shot it out with gangsters. I climbed mountains, fought pirates, rescued people from bank robberies, and rode dinosaurs.
As I grew older and my interests changed, so did my stories. I rescued damsels in distress, wooed princesses, and fought for the hand of many fair ladies. I struggled through championship games, receiving the winning touchdown pass or making a last-minute, impossible basket to win the game.
Then I began planning the stories I would play in my head that night based on something that happened during the day or something I saw on TV. I’d think about what could happen, and why, and how the other characters would react. Something big always happened, and something was always at stake—and I was always the main character.
My bedtime stories evolved into daydreams, and those daydreams have found their way onto paper or the computer screen. My “imagination muscle” has been exercised enough through the years that it kicks into action at the slightest urging. And now I’m co-writing a novel. That’s how I “come up with that stuff.”
And it all began with a glass of iced tea.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Leaky Spigot

No matter where I am, I always think I’m half an hour from anywhere else in town.
But there’s rush hour. Stop lights. Trains.
I don’t spend a great deal of time planning for delays. There I am at work, it’s 3:30, and I’m leaving for an appointment across town at 4:00. There’s a train, so I take the long way around, which has more traffic lights. At 3:45 I’m not even halfway to my destination, and I begin to sweat. At 3:50, I start spending more time staring at the clock on the dash than I do at the road. At 4:00 straight up, I careen into the parking lot on two wheels, jam my vehicle into park, and race into the building, breathless up to the receptionist, who can barely make out what I’m saying because of all the gasping.
Blogging is like that for me. One blog a week, that’s all I’ve got to do. Larry will do the other. I’ve got time.
When I sit down to blog (like leaving for my appointment) I think they will always take the same amount of time to produce. I’m as opinionated and narcissistic as the next person; surely I’ll be able to think of something about me and my writing to put on a page. Something interesting of course, because I’m all of that, too.
So here I am, careening into Tuesday with no blog, and apparently not as opinionated, narcissistic, or as interesting as I think I am, because instead of flying onto the screen like they should be, the words drip out like from a spigot that needs a new washer.
In retrospect I should have started thinking about this blog last week when I finished my other one. Or started yesterday. Or the day before.
            But here it is, and as I try to catch my breath, I have to wonder if I’ve learned anything.
Yes and no.
Yes, because I should start earlier, and no because no matter how you well you plan, there’ll always be rush hour, trains, and stoplights. Maybe I can outsmart my personal delays by planning to do two blogs for next week.
That way I’ll have one in my back pocket for days like today when I’m nothing more than a leaky spigot.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Insecurity's Ugly Head

How do you know when something you’ve written is funny? The short and simple answer is that you don’t. Just because something is funny to you doesn’t mean it’s funny to other people.
            When Larry and I got serious about finishing this book and actually trying to publish it, insecurities started chomping at my gut—What if you’re not really funny? What if people are laughing to be polite? What makes you think you can do this?
            How did I react to my namby-pamby self? I went where I always go when met with a challenge—books. And it turns out that there are precious few about humor writing—most talked about essays and magazine articles, but none on writing a funny novel. Of those I purchased (I think two), they both say that humor is wildly subjective, and, I’m paraphrasing here, “Good luck with that.”
Drama is different. Everyone would agree that a 9-year-old boy getting stung to death is tragic and tear jerking. But not everybody would agree that A Confederacy of Dunces is brilliantly amusing. To me, the wittiest thing about that book is the title.
What I learned is that humor writing can’t be learned. Writing itself can—here’s how you construct a sentence, here’s how you build a paragraph, etc.
Humor, though, comes from your characters, the situations they find themselves in, and from the authors ability to construct the story. As authors, we need to make sure we set our characters up well for comedic opportunity and to write every sentence as visually and actively as possible. And if it makes us laugh, then hopefully, our readers will be amused as well.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tiptoeing on Fingertips

The first word is the hardest word to write. When you one-finger-type you can’t waste words without knowing what you are going to say. I don’t usually sit at the computer to write without knowing what my first line is. I sit around and think about what I want to say or play the scene out in my head like I’m watching it on TV. My teachers used to call it daydreaming—like it was a bad thing! I call it prewriting, and I think it’s a very good thing.
            When I finally sit down and the words start tiptoeing onto the computer screen, they sometimes take the story in a different direction from where I imagined it would go. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m already writing. The story is flowing, and it takes me to basically the same ending. But sometimes it just goes where it goes, and I’m along for the ride not knowing where the next turn is until I get there. Sometimes it’s a rollercoaster ride, sometimes a leisurely Sunday drive. Either way, it’s an adventure.
And all because of iced tea. Oh yeah, I didn’t tell you about iced tea yet. I’ll tell you about that later.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Uh oh. I haven’t written a blog this week. What the heck am I going to write about? Maybe I’ll do it in the morning. What if you can’t think of anything then either? Then you’ve lost another day!
I had this brief conversation with myself over homemade tenderloin and half a jar of pickles.
Generally, I don’t even sit down at the computer until I have a first line or a theme in mind. But tonight is different. The rest of the week is totally booked, so I need to get it done tonight.
When stricken with writer’s block, advice is to just start typing whatever comes into your mind. So I sat and stared at the living room throw rug waiting for something to enter my head. Kitty litter. Who wants to hear about that? Cold air. Darkness at 6:00 pm. Thanksgiving’s on the way, and I have to snap four pounds of beans.
See how this doesn’t work? If any of our characters were domestic, sure I could draw off my crazy-cat-lady, dull, domestic existence.
I did write a couple scenes today. But for those, I wasn’t really trying. I whipped each of them out in about 20 minutes. One, I’d thought out ahead of time, but the other was almost entirely off the cuff. No idea what I was going to say when I started typing.
And that’s what’s fun for me. That’s how you discover new characters or new quirks in old ones. In all the time we’ve been working on this novel, I’ve only scrapped one scene and rewritten it before I sent it to Larry. So why isn’t it working with a blog?
Maybe it is. I’m over halfway to my word count.
What do I do when I need a scene and am producing garbage? Start from a different angle, a different point of view, or even at a different time. For the blog, I stated what was on my mind, which was basically, “I have nothing to say.”
In my opinion, there’s no point in producing garbage. Get up, do something physical, wash your hair, play with your toes. Let your subconscious rest and the scene will come to you.
Unfortunately for me, scenes usually present themselves when I have a head full of shampoo. So when that happens, I chant the main idea until I dry off, or make up a ridiculous song outlining the scene, or do a little dance. That way when I get out of the shower, I can run for the computer.
            You do what you gotta do, and that’s what does it for me. Everybody else needs to find their own inspiration.
            But if you want to try my way, put some of those little adhesive fish in our tub.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A, B, C, E, I, and J

Last night Becky and I were working on sequencing scenes in several chapters. Things were all coming together at roughly the same time and Becky was getting a little confused. After we got things in order, Becky wanted to know what time each character showed up at a location. (A great idea)
            If character J gets there after character I, and character B is 10 minutes behind, then B would have to have left slightly before character C. Character E has to be gone before J sees character A, or A won’t get there until long after I has left. But what if C leaves first? Then C and B would get there at the same time.
            You can see how confusing it can get, and we labored over our character’s comings and goings for what seemed like forever. Finally, we got it all worked out, and once again we proved that old rhyme: I before E except after C. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Character Quirks

We’ve done it—with stubbornness and perseverance, we’ve done it! Okay, who’m I kidding—it had more to do with timing and luck, but we’ve reached a short-term goal just the same. We are now three full chapters ahead to send to the critique group.
Whew, after all that hard work, time for a break right? Sort of. We took a bit of a holiday Saturday and drove for an hour to hear author Julia Durango speak on plotting. But the best part of the day? Spending drive time talking shop with my writing partner—no niggling thoughts of dirty laundry, a lawn full of leaves, or litter boxes. Just enjoying like-minded conversation.
The topic that dominated most of our chatter centered around characterization. Larry watched a program about the most memorable TV characters, and he wanted to know who mine were from sitcoms…immediately I thought of Carla and Cliff Claven from Cheers; Klinger from MASH; Larry, Darrel and Darrel from Newhart; and Les Nessman from WKRP in Cincinnati. (Interesting how mine were all from the 80s…did I stop watching comedy in my 20s?)
He agreed with many of mine, and threw in a few from the program and of his own, including Archie Bunker, Kramer from Seinfeld, Frazier, and pretty much any role played by Don Knotts.
We have a common liking for quirky and over-the-top. After all, what is comedy without quirky? We applied what we like about those characters to our own.
Are our characters over-the-top? A few, yes, but they can’t all be quirky—we need comedy foils for balance and contrast. Our main character is quirky, but not the quirkiest. Does that make him boring? I hope not.
Does it matter that our main character is a foil? I’m choosing to think not. He’s developed from a passive whiner to an active protector of his lady love. Although he may not have followed the “Hero’s Journey” as Julia described, his character has changed for the better, he’s learning something, and he’s good for a laugh or two.
After all, that is what we’re going for, right? The laughs.