Monday, February 27, 2017

Losing that Lovin’ Feeling Blog Hop!

Thanks to Deb Nam-Krane and Caroline Fardig for putting together this Blog Hop! And thanks to Kerrie Olzak for the previous installment!

Most people who know me really well know that I tend to get a little obsessive over my entertainment options. High school and college saw me glued to and completely obsessed with General Hospital. That was killed by the mob – both my obsession and the show. As a grade-schooler, it was the Little House books and TV show. As an adult, I revisited General Hospital (with the same sad result), shared a Harry Potter addiction with my son (a series that never disappointed me), and fell in love and had my heart broken by Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire hunter series, Anita Blake. (which inspired me to write my own vampire book, The Ties that Bleed.)

But none of those compared to my obsessed with the TV show M*A*S*H. As a middle-schooler, in the days before VCRs, I would record episodes on my tape recorder, listen to them over and over again, type them up and distribute them to my friends, whom I pretty much bullied into sharing my obsession. Thanks to the world of syndicated reruns, I was able to watch my favorite show over and over again. I “shipped” Hawkeye and Hot Lips before shipping was cool (and before Sam and Diane on Cheers made sit-com couples a thing.) I wrote fan fiction.

The series ended in 1983 (with a big goodbye kiss between my favorite non-couple that warmed my heart) and so did my obsession. However, with the advent of DVD players and ubiquitous cheap DVD collections, I was able to buy the entire series (plus the movie that started it all) and keep it with me forever and forever.

Other things happened between then and now. For instance, I got old. I also tried juggling a career and motherhood for a while. I became more politically aware. I started paying a lot more attention to current events. I became addicted to other series.

A few months ago, I returned to some of my favorite episodes of the series. I tend to circle back to the earlier ones, which were long on comedy and short on life lessons, especially the ones that featured lots of scenes of my favorite non-couple together. What I saw broke my heart. Sexism and even misogyny disguised as humor. Actions that illustrate what is now called a “hostile work environment.” What I had taken for sexual tension was hostility over female power.

One episode, “Check Up,” centered around the camp all getting physicals, with the result that Trapper John is diagnosed with an ulcer. Hawkeye assigned himself the task of evaluating Hot Lips alone in her tent. He makes several sexually suggestive remarks during the exam. (A similar scene happens in an episode where everyone in the camp gets the flu, and he insists on giving her a flu shot in the derriere.) When she turns him down, he tells her she needs to lose 10 pounds (the character is obviously at a normal weight) and makes fun of the shape of her legs. Later, Hot Lips’s insecurity over her looks drives her to get drunk at Trapper John’s farewell party and throw herself at him. After watching the episode, I felt sick.

Although Hawkeye aggressively flirts with Hot Lips in many episodes during the earlier part of the series, it obvious he doesn’t like her. She’s a major and he’s a captain, so even though he’s a doctor and she’s a nurse, she outranks him. She’s career army and believes in the mission of the war; he’s a draftee who believes everyone in government and military is a clown. There’s no real attraction between them at this point –he uses sex and humor to keep her in her place. She’s a woman and a nurse; he’s a man and a doctor; when she pulls rank on him, he (figuratively) pulls out his dick.

I’m not the only one who ships this couple, and I and the other shippers cling to the episode “Comrade in Arms,” when the two actually get together, as nirvana. It’s a two-part episode; they hook up at the end of part 1; in part 2 Hawkeye wakes up with Hot Lips in his arms, already regretting the assignation even before she regains consciousness. In most of this episode, Hot Lips plays entirely against character, trying to build a relationship with Hawkeye, who’s desperately trying to keep her at arm’s length. It’s the ultimate insult to the character (and written by Alan Alda, the actor who played Hawkeye). This episode has always made me angry (I even wrote a fan fiction version of part two that was more in line with Hot Lips’s character several years ago; if you read it, please note that I wrote it many years before I had taken a single screenwriting course!), but not until I took another look at the earlier dynamic between the two of them did I pinpoint the reason why. This two-parter shows that sex, rather than a culmination of passionate feelings, was more about Hawkeye finally taking his place on top of her. (His “let’s be friends” speech at the end of the episode is a continuation of this dynamic.)

I’m not 11 years old anymore, but these realizations broke my heart. I’d often wondered if M*A*S*H had lasted a year or two longer, if the two would have gotten together in the manner of other sit-com couples. And while later episodes of the show toned down the sexist humor (and one episode, guest starting Meryl Streep, even called out Hawkeye on his sexism), Hawkeye never really saw any of his potential love interests as more than a one-night stand. His most enduring relationships were with Trapper and BJ – other male doctors he respected as equals.

That M*A*S*H collection still has a place of honor on my bookshelf of DVD collections. But I think the next time I want to revisit my past obsessions, I may pull out some of my old General Hospital DVDs instead, which showcased female doctors in the 1970s.

Don’t forget to “tune in tomorrow” to see what’s disappointed Caroline Fardig!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ten Copy-Editing Tips

I’ve been overwhelmed with copy-editing work lately, which has been good for my bank account but not so good for keeping up with the blog. Copy-editing helps me as a writer, because when I notice issues in other people’s manuscripts, they stand out in mine as well. Here’s a quick list of ten tips I picked up while evaluating work. These are in no order; I’m just going through a manuscript I recently finished and picking them out. I hope it helps you in your next go-round!

1. Fire the gun. Anton Chekhov famously wrote that if you refer to a gun in act one, it has to go off in act three. The corollary is also true: If a gun fires in act three, you have to place it in act one. But even objects less important than guns and gun shots need to be established before they become important. If a character throws a phone at her boyfriend, make sure you’ve placed the phone in her hand before she throws it.

2. Suddenly, last summer. Everything happens suddenly. Get rid of this word every time you see it. “The door opened” is more effective, and less Snoopyish, than “Suddenly, the door opened.”

3. Be careful to distinguish your narrative voice as the author from your characters’ internal narration. If you’re writing in third person, you’ll need to describe things dispassionately, while your characters will have their built-in biases in their voices. Don’t mix up the two.

4. Structure your sentence around your strongest possible verb. Don’t write “He gave her an angry look.” Write “He glared at her.”

5. Don’t over-explain. Readers don’t need to be told that a character got up from the couch, walked across the room, grasped the door knob, turned it, and pulled open the door. “Got up to answer the door” is fine. They will fill in the blanks.

6. “and then” are not a couple. “He took off his shirt, and then she pulled off his undershirt.” Delete “and.” “Then” will be fine without her.

7. Use vocabulary that matches your characters’ backgrounds. A high-school drop-out would not use Latin phrases. A PhD candidate would not make subject/verb errors.

8. Don’t repeat yourself, or say the same thing twice. When we edit our own work, we’re usually aware when we repeat the same word. But phrases can be repetitive without being duplicative. For instance, “There were no discernable bullets that she could see.”

9. “At” and “to” are not your friends. “He whispered to her.” “She smirked at him.” The reader knows who those gestures are for. Getting rid of your “to”s and “at”s cleans up your copy and brings down your word count.

10. Whether or not you agree with me, you only need “whether.” “Or not” is understood.

Ten tips, and I only scanned the first twenty pages of the last manuscript I turned in. I’ll do the next twenty if this is helpful!

Monday, January 30, 2017

How to write when the world is falling apart

It’s been a tough few months to be a writer.

Artists in general tend to be on the liberal side. It’s not a coincidence that most of Hollywood – bar a Scott Baio or Mel Gibson – is up in arms over the current Administration. Painters, dancers… anyone who utilizes creativity on a daily basis, anyone whose own empathy is the foundation of their work, generally tends to be progressive.

And so much so for writers.

While there are definitely some well-known voices in fiction that lean conservative, most folks tasked with creating stories and characters out of nothing have an uncanny ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. And that ability usually leads to a liberal outlook.

It’s been a tough few months for me.

Ever since the election, rather than being able to concentrate on the voices in my head that propel my stories forward, I’ve been consumed with consuming news about politics. Nothing’s been good, except the marches, and every day since the election, things have gotten worse.

And I don’t think I’m alone in this. When I scroll through my Twitter feed, I find that most of the writers and publishing professionals I follow are retweeting news articles and commenting on Trump’s latest actions. In fact, the occasional blurb about a new book seems sadly out of place.

Undoubtedly, writers are being inspired by current events. Novels are being plotted and pantsed as I type this, starring intrepid teenagers and women fighting with the resistance against Trump. Stories featuring minorities, refugees, transgender men and women.
These writers are more productive than I am. Over the past few weeks, I’ve done little more than plan my rewrites and rewrite the outline for my fifth novel. My head is so filled with worry about what’s going on that there’s none of the peace I need to create.
I don’t think I’m the only one. I wonder if, two years from now – assuming we still have a recognizable society – there will be a dearth of new books because the people who would have been writing them were spending hours on Facebook, reading, sharing and commenting on articles.

I’m torn between wanting to give myself permission to be as informed as possible even if that takes away hours from my writing time, and wanting to kick myself in the pants and get the work done, regardless.

But it’s a much better position to be in than the refugees from Syria have.

And as for the question I posed as the title for this piece... I don't have an answer.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year, Old You

Writers like new years, because new years come with resolutions, and resolutions come with lists, and writers like to make lists. Also there’s that word “new.” Is there anything that gets a writer’s heart pumping more than that brand-new idea? That shiny, sparkling new character? Typing the words “fade in,” putting in that fresh piece of typewriter paper (okay, haven’t done this since the 1980s but I still remember the feeling), new new new!!

I love resolutions, and I’ve started many a new year making lists of what I was going to accomplish, writer and life wise. Many of these resolutions were familiar because I’d made them the previous year, and the year before that… and the year before that….
But most of the resolutions around writing centered around new projects. My latest idea for a screenplay. A short story. Two novels. So many exciting beginnings, so much promise, so much fun.

Many writers don’t have a problem starting new projects. We have a problem finishing them.

And while it’s true that some ideas honestly aren’t as good as the writer originally thought they were, others could have been workable if the writer had barreled her way through. Too often, though, while we’re in the middle of the muck, another new shiny idea pops into our minds, and we abandon what we’re working on to play with the new toy.

I admit I’m guilty of this myself. Several months ago I abandoned a YA project when I read of very similar projects being purchased by major publishers. I was also very aware of the issue of cultural appropriation, and I feared I wasn’t the right writer for this story; the authors who had sold their stories mirrored their protagonists, and I did not.

However, in a few weeks (once I get the notes back from the developmental editor I hired), I plan on starting the 10th draft of a manuscript I’ve been working on for over two years. I’ve worked on other projects in the meantime, and several times I’ve thought of just chucking the whole thing when I couldn’t figure out how to solve a problem. But I think the concept is appealing, and timely, so I’m not going to give up on it. Even though I’m 70 pages into a book that also has an appealing concept.

Ultimately, it’s up to the writer to decide for herself whether a project is worth the hours, days and even years it might take to get it up to publication standards. Having a writers group is a great place to share these dilemmas. If other writers tell you not to give up, you should listen.

In my own writers group, though, there are several writers who’ve been working on great ideas, only to set them aside to play with the next great idea. Sometimes I want to shake them when they report they spent the week researching Next Great Idea, when the Last Great Idea was something that was marketable in a number of ways.

For 2017, let’s put away the shiny new toys and dig up some old, abandoned projects. Yes, the blinking cursor on a blank screen is always exciting, but so is finding the first several chapters of a book that was begun two years ago.

My 2017 writing goals are:
 Update my latest novel and self-publish it if my agent can’t sell it;
 Rewrite the first ten pages of an old screenplay and enter it in the contests;
 Rewrite another screenplay and enter it into the contests;
 Rewrite and polish the novel currently out to the developmental editor;
 Finish the first draft of my latest novel.

I’m not starting anything new. But if I’m successful, 2017 will have a lot of endings.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Rory Gilmore, Hermione Granger, and what happens when clever girls grow up

While I wasn’t able to watch the Gilmore Girls revival over Thanksgiving, I spent the following Saturday on the couch with a friend, bingeing on all four episodes. During the run of the show, I’d usually found Lauren Graham’s Lorelei the more interesting character, as she juggled romantic relationships, raising Rory, and her inn-owning ambitions along with her rebellious and often immature nature. Rory, a book smart good girl, had her own paradoxes – the relationship with bad boy Jess; sleeping with married ex Dean – but her essential nature was a person who appreciated systems, who figured them out and figured how to be successful within them. This is the type of person who does well in school, who ingratiates herself with her biggest enemy, and who attends an Ivy League college.

Or maybe Hogwarts.

Rory may not be a witch, but she has quite a bit in common with Hermione Granger, another straight-A student with questionable parentage. Hermione was more rebellious than Rory, but then again, she had to be. Voldemort wasn’t moving in on Chilton or Yale; Rory’s biggest rebellion was dropping out of Yale and moving into Richard and Emily’s pool house. But at the end of the series, she graduated from Yale and spurned Logan’s proposal in order to cover Senator Obama’s campaign for president. Similarly, after helping Harry vanquish Voldemort, Hermione went back to Hogwarts for her final year.

This year, fans were lucky enough to be reunited with both young women. Rory is now 32, and Hermione is in her late 30s in the Rowling-approved play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Unfortunately, adulthood has been rough for both women.

During the run of the Gilmore Girls series, I never bought Rory as a future journalist. A journalism major myself, I noted that the people around me were obsessed with current events and a lot more aware of the outside world than the typical college student. (This is also why I never became a journalist.) For all her pop-culture references, Rory spent a lot of time in her own head, reading famous novels and enjoying isolated Stars Hollow. Even though Mitchum Huntzberger was supposed to be a bad guy for telling Rory he didn’t think she was cut out to be a journalist, I agreed with him.

So I wasn’t too surprised to see Rory floundering as a freelance journalist, a career that requires a person to go beyond pre-set rules and systems, to flout convention, to question and probe and examine beyond what is presented as truth. Even so, what took her so long? When we last saw Rory in 2007, she was primed for an explosive career. As a member of the pool covering Obama, she would have become part of the White House press corps after he was elected. If she had been cut out for journalism, that path easily would have led to her becoming the next Christiane Amanpour. And if not, the contacts she made could have led her to the business side of publishing. Instead, despite her “Talk of the Town” piece in the New Yorker, Rory’s a mess. She’s nowhere near the smart, determined girl who had to choose between Harvard and Yale.

Which brings me to Hermione, who might have faced the same decision after graduating Hogwarts. In Cursed Child, Hermione is the Ministry of Magic. But she’s a bad one, an administrator who is so careless with an illegal time turner that two below-average teenage wizards are able to crack her spell and find it. (I won’t get into the canon-violation of time travel rules that were carefully spelled out in Prisoner of Azkaban.) Characters constantly talk over her and treat her as an impediment rather than as the cleverest witch of her generation. And in alternate time lines where she does not marry Ron, she becomes a complete mess. Of course the cleverest witch of her time would be nothing without a man! Poor Professor McGonagall is stripped of her own cleverness, also becoming only an impediment.

For the girls who grew up loving these characters, what does it say that they fail to become fully functioning adults? For women who appreciated them as girls and hoped to see them equally successful as women, the disappointment goes beyond the field of entertainment. Fictional role models are just as important as real-life role models. When the writers who created these characters cannot see their clever girls growing into successful adults – when their stories are no longer as important as the stories of the men in their lives, or the sons of these men – where does that leave their fans?

Like the rest of us, watching as the smartest woman of her generation wins the popular vote by nearly three million, and is forced to watch an orange clown ascend to the most powerful office of the free world.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

My Pitch for Pitch!

I watch way too much TV, which is one of the reasons I’m behind on my current novel and I haven’t updated my blog in months. Unfortunately it looks like I may be getting back an hour, because my favorite show of the new season isn’t as universally loved as it should be. Do you love shows about strong women? Do you love shows with some soapy elements? Do you love shows about sports? Then you should be watching Pitch.

Pitch revolves around Ginny Baker, the first woman to make it to the MLB in a fictional version of the San Diego Padres. (This is not a far-fetched development, as there are already young women pitching in baseball programs at the college level.) Ginny is 23; she was drafted out of high school; she’s beautiful and African-American. She’s more than a baseball player; she’s a symbol that women can accomplish anything. Her first start was in a sold-out stadium, with eager young girls waving signs with her name. Not surprisingly, she balked – literally and figuratively. How can she play her game and live her life when she's a symbol for half the country?

But Pitch is about more than Ginny and it’s about more than baseball. Like Friday Night Lights, a show to which it’s been favorably compared, Pitch is about the characters and relationships between them as the show explores what it takes to get to the top and stay there. Numerous flashbacks show Ginny’s relationship with her dead father, who was killed in an accident with a drunk driver the night Ginny pitched her high-school team to the state championship. Bill Baker had made it to the minors and dreamed of having a son follow in his footsteps. But Ginny was the one with the golden arm, and guiding her to the pros became the focus of his life, as he sacrificed his marriage and Ginny’s childhood.

The series also explores the relationship between Ginny’s best friend and teammate, Blip, as he navigates the pull between his home life and baseball fame. Then there’s veteran catcher Mike Lawson – Ginny had his poster on her wall growing up – who provides Ginny with guidance but whose body is aging out of the game. Mike is having a secret affair with Ginny’s agent Amelia, who sometimes is more of a mother to Ginny than her actual mother, whom Ginny caught cheating on her father when she was twelve years old. And then there’s Oscar, the Padres’s GM who’s in the middle of his own divorce, trying to save his job while running a losing team. Ginny’s ex-boyfriend Trevor is a catcher on another major league team; she dumped him when he didn’t quit the game as he’d planned.

So lots of opportunity for good, soapy stuff.

But what ties all these characters together is the theme of how hard it is to get to the top of your game and stay there. Ginny didn’t get to the majors through hard work and talent alone – she got there by working harder than just about every man in the league. And while the sexism that greets her is constant and sometimes overt, it’s more of a threatening rain cloud than a violent thunderstorm.

It’s like Friday Night Lights. It’s like Nashville in the baseball world. It has a female lead character. (She’s not Connie Britton; she has more the bite of Olivia Pope than the bleeding heart of Tammi Taylor/Rayna James.) It features minority actors in many roles. Why aren’t more people watching? (On the other hand, we didn’t get a lot of viewers for those shows, either. Natch.)

I never played baseball (I played softball for a season or two. I was terrible.). But my son plays. I’ve had a front seat to his struggles… and often that front seat was the car seat, as I drove him to practices, games, lessons, showcases to different states, and college visits. (I even wrote a book based on the early years, KEEPING SCORE. You can buy it here.)

You don’t need to know the infield fly rule in order to appreciate this show. It does help to have an appreciation for the fact that following a dream takes hard, hard work. And achieving the dream isn’t the end of the story. Ginny is the first female professional baseball player. Only seven hundred or so people play baseball at the major league level. Her hard work is worth following. I am particularly hopeful that the show will feature flashbacks to her junior and senior years of high school, when she’d be going on college visits and taking part in Perfect Game showcases. Which college did she commit to before she was drafted? (Most top baseball players commit to colleges their sophomore or junior years of high school. Since they are not draft-eligible until the end of their senior year of high school, no top player puts off committing in the hopes of getting drafted.)

Pitch is on Fox, Thursday nights at 9. Originally the network was going to hold off till the spring, but with Scandal on hiatus due to Kerry Washington’s new baby, they thought Scandal’s viewers would be attracted to this show. Unfortunately, they seem to be watching Notorious instead. The fall debut works nicely with the excitement of post-season baseball, but I think a Wednesday at 10 slot – the old Nashville airing – would have worked better.

Remember how TV fans lamented that they hadn’t found Friday Night Lights until it was too late? Don’t make the same mistake with Pitch!

Monday, August 22, 2016

How to Be an Adult

Back-to-school photos are popping up all over Facebook. From my own newsfeed, the youngest celebrating his first day at kindergarten while the oldest her senior year in college. Tomorrow, my son – who refused college photos but sent me a picture of his Capitol Hill ID badge when he was interning this summer – jets off for his first year of graduate school. This generation of kids, parented by us so-called “helicopter parents,” should be the most prepared young adults ever to tackle the real world. But last night I came home to a sinkful of dirty dishes and a 22-year-old who informed me he didn’t know which ones should be washed and which ones put in the dishwasher. (To be fair, his 49-year-old father expresses befuddlement at this as well.) I was, needless to say, surprised: This is a young man who had his own apartment the last two years of college, who easily traverses the Washington, D.C. Beltway; who flies on his own and rents cars. (I didn’t check off those last two items till I was in my 30s.) Obviously I had taken his mastery of these steps as proof that he had mastered the ones beneath them. I was wrong.

And I’m not the only parent missing an item or two from my pre-nest-push-out check list. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. are filled with articles written by Millennials complaining about being an adult, not feeling like an adult, being tired of “adulting,” etc. It’s interesting that this generation sees adult as a verb – an action that be started or stopped – rather than a noun, a state of being.

My fellow helicopter parents, we did this.

We felt sorry for our incredibly busy children, who had demanding school schedules, travel sports, and a plethora of “volunteer” commitments, required both by exclusive colleges and public and private school graduation requirements. (Ask a Gen Xer what they had to do to get into the University of Maryland College Park, and weep at the answer.) Our kids were only getting five hours of sleep, for pete’s sake! Sure, we could have taken away their smart phones, but maybe they really were texting about homework, not sexting. So we cooked their dinners and didn’t ask for help with the dishes. We did their laundry. We drove them to school so they could catch up on homework or sleep.

And now they are college graduates and looking wide-eyed at dirty dishes, not to mention paying their own way by working real jobs that offer low pay and only two weeks of vacation a year. How, they ask, will they spend a month in Italy with only two weeks of vacation?

So they apply to graduate school, and put off the “adult” conversation for another two to four years. Perhaps by the time they’re too old to be on their parents’ health insurance policy, they will feel like full-fledged adults.

But probably not.

So if you’re like me, and you somehow assumed that your offspring’s incredible grasp of current affairs meant that he also knew how to close the lid on a top-loading washer, I’m offering a list of milestones that every son and daughter should reach before moving out of the house for good. (If they don’t know how to do these things, that doesn’t mean they get to stay forever.) In order to truly be considered adults, they should be able to:

 Grocery shop for balanced meals
 Cook simple meals and follow recipes for more complicated ones
 Know what to do and who to call if in a car accident
 The rules of tipping
 Keep a relatively clean home
 Routinely wash sheets and towels
 Do laundry regularly
 Pay their own bills
 Pay off credit cards every month, or hold only modest balances
 Drink only moderately during celebratory outings, and plan ahead so that driving isn’t an issue
 Make own doctor and dentist appointments and regularly manage preventive car
 Use birth control every time
 Have a realistic picture of their friendships, work relationships and romantic relationships
 RSVP appropriately
 Own up to mistakes (i.e., speeding tickets, broken appliances) and offer restitution
 Solve simple problems without needing help
 Spend a day working and taking care of themselves without whining about “adulting.”

Before you send your child out into the big, wild world, make sure he/she can handle the items on this list.

That is, assuming you can handle them yourself.