Wednesday, June 20, 2018

If She Were Your Child

Jewish kids learn about the Holocaust really early. Not in school, Hebrew or otherwise, but at first by eavesdropping on whispers of elderly relatives at Passover seders. In shul, during Kaddish. We are brought up to know both the horror of what happened to others like us, and the appreciation that we were born in a time and in a country where we were free from fear that we would be targeted, even killed, over our religion. Still, I don’t know of any Jewish kids who didn’t play the “what if” game, who didn’t imagine themselves in 1930s Berlin.

I learned about the St. Louis late enough that I can still feel the tingle of horror that went down my spine when I read that the USA—my country! The good guys!—sent a shipload of Jews back to Europe to die. And that we had quotas forbidding them to emigrate here. That Otto Frank was denied safe passage to the U.S. for his family. That the U.S. government was infested—I use this word deliberately—with anti-Semites; that heroic FDR himself disdained Jews. That we knew about the concentrate camps and still decided not to bomb the railroad tracks leading to them. Knowing this, it became easier and easier to imagine myself as a girl, trapped on that ship, no way out, sent to die.

Today, there are many countries in turmoil. Their people are poor, their governments can’t meet their needs, and some of their citizens have turned to heinous crimes to support themselves or because growing up in such cruelty breeds cruelty. Others are doing everything they can to escape these countries; to give themselves and their children a chance of a better life in the U.S. This has been going on for years, and it’s getting worse.

Yes, parents have sent their children unaccompanied to the U.S., hoping they would reach the country safely. Jewish parents in Europe in the 1930s did this as well. These kids have been detained at the border. It’s a horrible mess, but what waited for those kids in their home countries was even worse.

What would you do if she were your child? What would you do if your country was burning down around you, and you only had enough money to get your child to the relative safety of the neighboring country up north, the land of the free and the home of the brave? Would you be brave enough to send her alone?

Or maybe you’re “lucky” enough to have enough money, enough resources, that you can make the trip together. You know if you can just make it to the border, you can tell the border guard that in your home town, your brother was killed by gang members, and they said they would kill you and your daughter if you didn’t sell drugs for them. You made it this far, barely surviving, so you can claim asylum and try to start over in a country where you have nothing, know no one and barely know the language. (Yes, I know that some folks claiming asylum are members of these same gangs. We are supposed to have a process to sort them out.)

Sadly, while you were on your perilous journey, you didn’t get the memo that the Justice Department had declared “zero tolerance” for asylum seekers; that you would be assumed to be a criminal, jailed, and your daughter would be taken away from you to live in a “tender ages” shelter, where there is no system for insuring you’d ever be reunited again. Oh, and the Justice Department has unilaterally decided that gang persecution and domestic violence are no longer reasons to be granted asylum, so you’ll probably be sent back home to die. And maybe you’re even at peace with that, because you did what you came here to do, got your daughter to safety, and maybe she’ll be adopted by an American family. In any case, you’ll never know what happened to her. You won’t know that the months she waited in a place that some have described as a “summer camp,” where adults were forbidden to comfort her cries and teenagers taught themselves how to change her diaper, have damaged her forever. She’ll never be able to trust anyone again, never be able to form a healthy attachment, because in her young mind, her mother abandoned her.

There are two types of people in this world: There are the people who see that mom from Honduras and say, there, but for the grace of God, go I. I don’t know if it’s because I’m Jewish and was raised on the stories of Anne Frank and others, or because God made me a writer with the unquenchable thirst to know and feel the stories of every person I came in contact with. But I read about these people and I wonder if I could be strong enough to make this journey.

There are also people in this world who don’t see themselves in other people; who see them as literally “other.” The worst of them call them “cockroaches;” say that they “infest” America, that laugh at the cries of these children. The better of them argue logically that these kids were jailed during the Obama Administration, that there is enough going on in our country that we need to take care of our own first, that there just isn’t enough money to help, that their countries are hopeless and we need to keep their crime from our borders.

I’m not going to pretend I have any answers. There are no easy ones, and I’m not informed enough to make policy proposals. All I’m left with are feelings—that our country is broken, owned completely by those who value their own bottom line above everything else. That our world is broken, as too many live in poverty and violence and too few want to spend the time and money to help them. That our souls are broken, as too many see what’s happening and say it’s not their problem because it’s not their children.

I’m so ashamed of what our country has become. I’m so terrified that the worst is yet to come.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Then suddenly…

The popular television show M*A*S*H had an episode in one of its later seasons where everyone in camp was reading the same murder mystery – The Rooster Crowed at Midnight—passing around chapters and getting into it… only to discover that the last page was missing. No one knew who did it and everyone was going nuts. Finally they managed to track down the author via telephone call back to the U.S.

I don’t remember who did it. But that’s not the point. The point is, readers are desperate for an ending. They want to know what happened; they made it through the beginning and middle; now give us an ending, dammit.

Just this past week, I read two separate books in completely different genres where the author stopped rather than ended it. In both instances, right in the middle of the scene, leaving the reader dangling, wondering yes or no.

Why on God’s green earth would anyone do this?

This is not fun for the reader. This doesn’t make us lean back and imagine the ending the author declined to provide. This pisses us off.

I currently write domestic thrillers. Suppose I just end my latest one, leaving my protagonist on the floor staring into the killer eyes of the person who did it, realizing with her last gasp of consciousness that it was—

The end. Roll credits.

No. This is sadistic. This is mean. This is a good one to encourage readers not to read your next book.

Perhaps the yes ending is too happy and the no ending too depressing. Too bad. Craft a yes ending with an ominous caveat; give us a no ending with a note of hope. You’re a writer. It can be done.

Next week’s winning Powerball number are

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Bias and the fictional character

My book House Divided has been out since November. A romantic comedy about a Democrat married to a Republican, it’s garnered 25 reviews, most of them good. Naturally, though, I tend to concentrate on the bad ones. Two of them said the same thing: This would have been a good book if the author hadn’t been so biased.

“Bias” is a word that’s being thrown around a lot these days, along with “fake news,” “deep state,” “propaganda,” and a bunch of other terms that imply that folks who should be non-partial are letting their own personal views of the world color their reporting. And when you’re looking to understand what really happened in Trumpland today, you don’t want those events filtered by someone who thinks Trump is the second coming, or that Trump is the devil incarnate. While it’s absolutely true that reporters all have their own personal biases, viewpoints, and moral values, the best reporters are aware of these biases and actively try to keep them out of their reporting.

Fiction writers are not reporters, and we have no such requirements. Our job is to create worlds and characters that draw in readers and spark emotion. And characters—especially characters written in first-person point-of-view—have biases. They believe the moon landing was faked, or that children should only be born in marriage, or that pets are an important member of the family. Characters who don’t have views of the world come across as one-dimensional and flat; people who only react to events, never acting.

Characters need bias. They need to have a point of view—not the point of view of first, second, or third, but the point of view of, “The world is a good place.” “Other women want my boyfriend.” “If I don’t have children, I will die alone with thirty cats and no one will find my body for six months.”

In House Divided, my protagonist, Erin, is a Democrat. She believes in taking care of the planet, that a woman’s career means just as much to her as a man’s does to him, and that institutions such as her children’s school should do more to recognize that. While she is not me (in some cases, she is the me I wanted to be), we share many of the same beliefs. She is a first-person protagonist.

My book is filled with Democrats and Republicans; it is a real “Inside the Beltway” novel. But I took care—I tried, anyway—to have some Democrat characters be assholes and some Republicans be really great people. Having everyone be good or bad because of their political beliefs would have been biased on my part. (Although, let’s face it, we all know that…. Oh, never mind…)

Your characters might not live in D.C. They might have nothing to do with politics. But they have opinions about things that have nothing to do with the plot in which they currently find themselves enmeshed. Make sure you know what those views are.

Make sure your characters are biased.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Me Write Pretty Someday?

My latest novel has been on submission for about a month; ten editors have requested it and one (as far as I know) has already passed. I know that publishing is an industry in which things happen at a glacial pace, but I have no idea how other writers concentrate on their next project while waiting to hear back. I’m about forty pages into a first draft of a new thriller, and people are making coffee and making jokes like they don’t have a care in the world. Please be creeped out, characters!

The editor who passed said she was intrigued by the premise, but the writing didn’t make her want to keep turning pages. I don’t know if this is every writer’s worst nightmare, but it’s definitely mine. “Your idea is great, but you can’t write for shit!” Please let me crawl into a hole and die.

I’m aware of the phenomenon called “imposter syndrome.” I’m also aware that nothing I write could ever be described as lyrical, literary, or any of those adjectives used to describe writers who come up with phrases such as “Her eyelashes curled onto her lids like upside-down question marks in a six-point serif font.” I wasn’t poetic even when I wrote poetry.

I like thrillers and comedy; I write thrillers and sometimes people are funny in them. I think in terms of plot and twists and character motivation. My people don’t live under big starry skies; their victims bleed until the carpet squeaks red. My protagonists tell their tales in first person and they don’t get distracted by pelicans diving kamikaze-style into the water. (I sometimes do, though.) When I read thrillers, sometimes I notice fancy turns-of-phrase, but more often I’m trying to figure out fancy turns of plot.

Does this mean I’m doomed? When editors read my thriller, will they roll their eyes when my characters roll theirs?

I don’t have an MFA. I’ve heard mixed things about the programs. On the pro side, there’s nothing like spending a year or two fully immersed in your project, with other writers and faculty members figuratively by your side. By focusing on small, specific chunks of pages, scrutinizing every word, the words get better. They have to. On the con side, though, that laser-like focus on pages sometimes means the forest gets lost for the trees. And I’ve heard that MFA programs sometimes produce novels that are more literary than commercial, with writers who focus on description over character feelings. An agent I used to edit for complained to me, “How can I sell something that leaves readers cold?”

But I’d like to write pretty someday. Perhaps, if this round of editors all agree that my writing is lacking, I’ll start looking into MFA programs. I can’t ever see myself writing a literary novel about love and grief and pain. But it would be nice to think up a few more ways to describe how blood saturates a carpet.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Love from the Other Side of the Aisle

For Valentine's Day, the New York Times ran an article about couples who were on the opposite sides of the political spectrum. I'd heard they were looking for folks to interview, but their application asked for a video, so I decided not to participate.

After reading the article, though, I wish I had! It would have been great publicity if they'd let me mention House Divided. If you haven't bought your copy yet, click on the link above!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Different but Good Blog Hop Post

Thanks again to Deb Nam-Krane for suggesting this blog hop topic! I’m excited to be kicking it off today!

I was generally one of those folks who looked forward to remakes. If it was good in its first incarnation, the second should be even better, right? The remake of Dirty Dancing killed that naiveté once and for all. Even with this belief, however, when Disney remade the Parent Trap in 1998, I had no desire to see it at all. My memories of the original were too precious to be trifled with. (We won’t mention the sequels.)

The Hayley Mills comedy came out in 1961; I saw it for the first time in the early 1970s on TV when it ran as part of the Wonderful World of Disney, which aired on Sunday
nights. I loved the movie so much that I spent years looking for its novelization, and it’s the only book I saved from my childhood. I’m not sure I can pinpoint what was so great about that movie, but I think it has to do with discovering that there’s a whole other you out there, and then switching places with her. It’s a plot that worked well in soap operas, too.

When the Lindsay Lohan version came out, I ignored it. I had a four-year-old myself by then, and instead of taking him to see it, we watched the original. It wasn’t until years later, when a friend whose pop culture judgment I respect enormously said she thought the Lohan version was actually better than the original, that I finally broke down and rented the movie.

She was wrong. It wasn’t better. It was different but good. Parts of the original movie were better. And so were parts of the remake. Of course, neither movie satisfactorily answers the question: What kind of monster takes one of their children, leaves the other, and never mentions neither sibling nor other parent ever again?

Where the original is better:

 Hysterical food fight during the dance after Sharon and her friends cut off a part of Susan’s skirt. The remake subtracts two years from the twins’ ages, making dances and boys a little out of reach, so this scene is cut completely.

 Hayley Mills. She’s a better actress than Lohan (older and more experienced), and her Sharon and Susan characters are more distinct than Lohan’s Hallie and Annie.

 Brian Keith. His California ranch owner was hunkier than Dennis Quaid’s vineyard owner.

 Mitch’s ranch house. This personal setting – the house Maggie actually walked out of – was a more emotional setting for a reunion than a hotel.

 Mitch and Maggie’s back story. Not sure what it was, but I bet they were together longer than Nick and Elizabeth’s meeting and marriage on a cruise ship. Also I’m sure Maggie’s tiresome mother had something to do with that break-up.

 No annoying “downstairs” romance. Really, did anyone care about Chessie and Martin, who came across as closeted? (especially in leather…. And that Speedo… UGH.)

Where the remake is better:

 Lohan’s hair. Hayley Mills was adorable and what they did to that poor girl’s hair is a crime.

 Elizabeth’s character. Granted, the original Parent Trap came out in 1961, when it was unusual for women to have careers, but Maggie and Sharon lived with her parents; she dressed up like June Cleaver to attend Red Cross meetings and let her mother boss her around. Elizabeth was a famous wedding-dress designer and an inspiring figure to both daughters.

 The chemistry between Nick and Elizabeth. Sure they got married too quickly and divorced even faster, but there was obviously a lot of love and hurt between these two characters. Mitch and Maggie screamed at each other constantly; she even gave him a black eye. It was hard to imagine them calming down and having a respectful relationship.

 Meredith James. A much more attractive, formidable rival than Vicky Robinson, who was neither as young nor as charming as the character was supposed to be.

 The ending. Nick and Hallie beat Elizabeth and Annie back to England… following her back because he didn’t do it the first time she left. Much more romantic and satisfying than Mitch telling Maggie he missed her hair pins in his fishing tackle box.

Where Both Movies Got It Wrong:

 No explanation of how the twins ended up at the same camp. One giant coincidence is allowed per book/movie, but this one is too big for me.

 No good explanation of the premise of the movie… but would any explanation be good enough? The original ignores it completely (although interestingly enough, there is dialogue in the novelization that never made it into the movie where Susan makes a pretty good guess), while the remake implies that Elizabeth took Annie back to England on an impulse. Still, keeping a parent and twin from a child is monstrous. Perhaps that aspect is ignored because addressing it reveals the parents to be narcissists.

 Mitch and Nick being so old and boring that a young woman could only be interested in them for their money. Sorry, no. Brian Keith was a hunk and Dennis Quaid was nothing to sneeze at either.

 Both Sharon and Annie are as equally at ease on that camping trip as Susan and Hallie are. Maybe life in a Maine camp loosened them up a bit, but honestly they should be almost as squeamish as Vicky and Meredith were.

But the lists above are merely quibbles. Whether you prefer the Parent Trap original flavor or Parent Trap extra spicy (ie Lohan and her red hair), you’ve picked a great movie. The remake is different, but still good. Who wouldn’t want to discover a secret twin… especially one you could switch lives with?

I’m anxious to see what Morgan writes about tomorrow! Check him out here!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Writing to a Prompt: Ten Meaningful Minutes

For the past several years, I’ve run a writers support group that ends (almost) every meeting with a “write to the prompt” exercise. Some days we take too much time with the discussion, some days everyone has to leave early, but usually we try to get in it. There are those who refuse to participate, claiming they get nothing out of the exercise or that they’ve already done enough writing this week, thank you very much. That’s not the point, of course. Writing to a prompt forces you to write about a subject that you did not choose. Many writing instructors use prompt writing as a regular feature of their instruction, and there are dozens if not hundreds of books containing prompts if thinking one up is too taxing.

In last week’s meeting, my friend Diane came up with this prompt: super blue blood moon

I haven’t written poetry regularly since high school, but the phrase scratched something inside me, and this is what came out.

Writing to prompts is definitely worth it.

A shadow long across the lake
A heart that’s broken by its fate
A tidal pull of savage songs
A nightly whisper in the fog
Of all that’s known to mice and men
Is taught and learned and known again
As we reach into the past
To see what’s in the shadow cast
A moon so full, so blue, so much
The universe’s secrets clutch
Within her hand and to her mouth
To stop the truth from pouring out.