Monday, October 29, 2012

My NaNoWriMo Pep Talk

Thursday is the first day of November, which, for most people, means the beginning of cold weather, preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the kids’ first report cards of the year, etc. But for novel writers, November is something completely different – National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo. Writers all over the country who are up to the challenge are spending this November trying to complete a 50,000 word novel (approximately 175 pages).

According to its web site, NaNoWriMo has been around since 1999, although back then apparently it was just 20 or so writers hanging out in San Francisco in July. There was more information on the site about how the concept has grown since then, but I don’t really care enough to read that much into it. The web site offers a ton of fun: message boards, regions and other ways to meet other writers, programs, etc. If you join the web site, you can pick your region and see who lives near you. Often there are kick-off parties and other get-togethers where you can meet other writers. If there’s no one nearby, the message boards have people chatting about every topic you can imagine.

To me, this all says one thing: Writers are some of the best procrastinators I know.

It’s ironic that the program urges writers to write 50,000 words in a month, all the while giving them a plethora of activities they can do instead of writing. For that matter, why chose November at all? It’s only got 30 days, and several of them are devoted to that food orgy we can Thanksgiving, and then it’s all getting ready for Christmas. Why not January? There are 31 days devoted to nothing, and even writers would rather write than follow up on their “going to the gym” New Year’s resolutions.

Last year I took a class through the Bethesda (MD) Writer’s Center called the Extreme Novelist. The instructor made us sign a contract saying we would write for 90 minutes, six times a day. And at the start of each class, we had “accountability” – going around the room and saying whether or not we had done our writing, and why or why not.

By the end of that eight-week class, I had finished the first draft of my novel. But most others weren’t so lucky. Very few people were able to manage writing every day they promised – in fact, most of them hadn’t written at all. There was work (an understandable excuse), or TV was good that night, or they were tired, or they were travelling, or the kids were sick, or the wife was mad… whatever.

Honestly, it’s easier for me to get my writing in than the average person. I don’t have a “real” job, and my son is off at college. But then there’s that second trap that writers fall into … the “I just didn’t feel like writing” trap. This is close to having “writer’s block,” but it’s not the same. It’s when you have a general idea for a short story or a screenplay, but rather than writing, you’ve got this incredible urge to go for a run (and since that never happens, you have to go for that!) or clean out the bottom of the refrigerator. If you don’t feel it, this trap tells you, the writing isn’t going to be as good.

Here comes the part in the essay where you would expect to be told to write anyway. If you have a job, write at lunch, or on the train home, or during a conference call that you’re not really participating in anyway. Or if you’ve been bitten by the “I don’t want to’s,” tell yourself to write for just 10 minutes every day, just to see what happens.

But no, those words aren’t coming from me.

If you don’t have time to write, don’t write! Hey, you’ve got kids that someone should pay attention to. If you don’t feel like writing, don’t do it! You spend enough time in your life doing things you don’t want to do. Why should you spend your rare, sacred, precious free time doing something you don’t really want to do?

Because really, what’s going to happen if you make that time, get those words down, avoid the siren’s call of the message boards and the parties and the check-in phone calls? You might actually finish your book. And if you finish your book, you might be competing with me in the golden ticket hunt for an agent. Do you have any idea how many queries a day agents get? I think it’s in the hundreds. When you multiply that with the number of agents who are out there, even subtracting the queries from the same writer to every agent in the Guide, what you have are a whole bunch of people who were able to get their 50,000 words done.

So kick off your shoes, put your feet up and watch a little TV. Leave the writing to me. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Heather Webber: Why Crazy is no Subtitute for Character Motivation

Once again, General Hospital fans are saying goodbye to Heather Webber. But it’s not her swan dive off the roof of General Hospital that’s felled Heather, or even her mental illness. Like many characters before her, Heather is the victim of that bane of storytellers everywhere – lazy writing. In her case – and in many others who’ve had “crazy” substituted for “character motivation” – it’s easier to make a character “nuts” than flesh out a three-dimensional villain. And this shortcut shortchanges both story and viewers.

Let’s back up to 1977, when the Heather character was first introduced. Heather Grant came onboard as a babysitter for Peter and Diana Taylor. She was from an underprivileged background, and wanted nothing more than a rich husband to take care of her. She set her sights on Dr. Jeff Webber. Although he was only an intern, Heather recognized his potential and his shaky marriage to Monica. Offering a shoulder, she got much more in return. Deliberately becoming pregnant, Heather was furious when Jeff refused to divorce Monica to marry her. After many twists and turns (Monica, at the time, was about as devious as Heather, and from a similar background), Heather finally took baby Stephen Lars to New York City in pursuit of her dreams of fame and fortune.

Heather was unfortunate enough to fall into the clutches of shady Mrs. Hadley, who promised her all the money she’d need to move to California if only Heather would give her the baby to sell. Heather agreed, even offering up Diana Taylor as particularly needy and desperate enough to buy a baby. After the sale, though, Heather was left with only $200 – not enough to move to LA. As luck would have it, Jeff Webber tracked her down, professing his love. But Heather knew she couldn’t tell him the truth about the baby, and backed up Mrs. Hadley when she claimed the child had died when Heather had been hospitalized with pneumonia. Jeff, grieving, took Heather back to Port Charles with him and married her.

Heather resumed her job as Peter and Diana’s babysitter, looking after the baby they renamed Peter, Jr. (PJ). This closeness to her child reminded Heather of what she had lost, and she began to think of a plan to get him back, all the while trying to give Jeff a replacement child. Her machinations seemed to work – Heather became pregnant, and, due to the couples’ closeness, Peter and Diana named Jeff and Heather PJ’s guardians.

When Heather lost the pregnancy and was subsequently unable to have another child, she shifted her plan to get PJ into high gear. Deciding that Peter would never be able to raise a child on his own, and knowing that Diana had already had one nervous breakdown, Heather decided to push her into another one. She stalked Diana and pretended that a mysterious man was following her and PJ. Heather feared kidnapping. Diana was honestly at the end of her rope, and Heather planned an awful climax – she would slip Diana LSD to bring about the full symptoms of a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, Heather herself ended up drinking it, and the breakdown she had pushed her into a mental institution for two years.

Jeff didn’t learn the truth about his son for nearly two more years, after Peter and Diana had both separately died. He took the boy to Arizona to avoid being around Heather, who’d been released from the mental institution and cleared from involvement in Diana’s murder.

Heather spent the next few years stirring up trouble in Port Charles. She was involved with P.I. Joe Kelly, until he discovered her cheating on him with Scotty Baldwin. Her relationship with Scotty was on-and-off, as Scotty was also wooing her cousin Susan, on account of Susan’s big financial settlement she earned from having Alan Quartermaine’s son, Jason. Heather and Scotty were two scheming peas in a pod, but that didn’t stop Alan from appointing Heather Jason’s guardian when Susan was murdered. Heather left town abruptly in 1984 after a call from Jeff saying that Stephen Lars was sick, he was busy with his new kids, and he needed her help. When the character left town, she was definitely not crazy.

Unfortunately, when Heather returned this year and previously in 2007, the writers decided she was completely mad in order for her to do crazy things like plot to kill Edward, kidnap Laura, and the current storyline with Sam and Jason’s baby. Crazy might be a convenient way to have a character behave in convoluted ways in order to produce certain plot points, but it’s not emotionally satisfying.

The Heather Webber from the 1970s and 80s was a fully realized character. She had a back story and motivation that prompted her every action. Even though her actions were destructive, her motivation was not. She wanted her son back, without her husband finding out what she had done. She loved her son and her husband. Who couldn’t understand that?

Watching Heather gaslight Diana and try to get away with it, while Joe and Anne were hot on her trail, gave viewers a strange discombobulating feeling. Because Heather’s point of view had been so well-established, you couldn’t help but want her to get away with it. Even though what she was doing was so, so wrong.

Was Heather crazy back then? Yes, she was probably a sociopath. But a fully formed, well-drawn one who did have rooting value. The depth of her character made her actions understandable. True, you couldn’t plug her into any plot hole; she didn’t kidnap Jeff and keep him tied up in a shack to make him love her. But that incarnation was much more satisfying. She was a villain whose actions the viewers could understand.

Today’s writers find it easier to have a villain be “crazy” like Heather or completely unrealistic, like Helena. This may result in faster storytelling, but without characters that viewers can understand, it’s also fodder for the fast-forward button.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Fairy Tales and Haunted Houses

With the CW network adding an Alice in Wonderland reboot to its schedule, the fairy tale trend in entertainment is not going away. Even though films like “Red Riding Hood” and “Mirror, Mirror” didn’t do as well as hoped for at the box office, TV seems to be a different story. ABC’s Sunday night offering, “Once Upon a Time,” is an audience favorite, with strong buzz and good ratings. I also watch NBC’s Grimm and ABC’s 666 Park Avenue. Although the latter isn’t based on the fairy tale world, it’s a world ruled by magic, and a lead character whose type often appears in supernatural fiction. Of the three, the new 666 Park Avenue is my favorite. Sadly, it hasn’t found an audience, and I’m afraid it might be canceled soon. If you have a Nielsen box in your house, I urge you to watch this show!

I find myself starting to lose patience with “Once Upon a Time,” and the ratings, while still strong, are softening. I wonder if other fans are frustrated with the same things that I find annoying. This show debuted last year with a strong premise – that residents of Storybrooke, Maine, were in fact fairy tale characters who were cursed to live out ordinary lives and not remember who they were. This is the type of premise that gets people in two ways – one, since fairy tales are a part of everyone’s childhood, the audience was instantly familiar with the characters – and two, the parallel lives concept is a popular one, and seeing both the fairy tale and the ordinary lives in the same episode is entertaining.

The first season centered around young Henry, the adopted son of Storybrooke’s mayor Regina. Due to a book of fairy tales he’s been given, Henry is the only one who realizes that the town is populated by magical characters – and his own adoptive mother is the evil Queen who tried to kill Snow White. When Emma Stone, Henry’s birth mother, comes to town, Henry informs her of her true identity, and that she is actually the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. As the season progressed, we met other fairy tale characters and learned their fairy tale back stories (Red Riding Hood’s is particularly different than the more familiar tale). Eventually, Emma and the other characters began to believe Henry, and the season ended with the curse being lifted and the populace of Storybrooke remembering who they really are – only to be felled by another curse.

It’s a compelling premise, but many of the episodes are starting to feel gimmicky to me. I have no trouble believing that Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty were all princesses in the same magical kingdom that also housed Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumplestiltskin, and Red Riding Hood. But the show seems to add a new magical character every week, and then try to shoe-horn him or her into the plot. Captain Hook is slated to show up next week. To me, he doesn’t belong in this universe. Neither does Lancelot, Mulan or Pinocchio. The original fairy tale characters were all collected by the Brothers Grimm, and their stories were edited down to be appropriate for children. They share the same antecedents, and their familiar origins make them seem like family to each other. The newer characters just don’t fit in the same way, even if Disney does own the rights to all of them now. I shudder to think that Winnie the Pooh might be making an appearance.

Conversely, characters who don’t play a role in the real fairy tale universe have important roles in the show. Snow White and Prince Charming never had a daughter, and she certainly didn’t grow up to give up a child in adoption. Snow White’s evil stepmother didn’t have her own evil mother. I’ve heard rumors that Henry’s father will turn out to be important, but who could he possibly be? Aren’t all the other important characters taken?

It’s obvious why the evil queen Regina had to be given her own evil mother – it allows the writers to soften her character. Similarly, Rumplestiltskin, is in love with Belle from Beauty and the Beast and sometimes teams up with Emma. I assume he’ll be clashing with an even bigger bad as the writers seem to root for his character. In fairy tales, the good learn lessons and the bad are vanquished. There is no character growth. Snow White’s stepmother ordered the huntsman to cut out her heart. The actress who plays Regina may be pretty and her lips tremble on cue, but that’s no reason to mess with the foundations of story.

The show uses flashbacks to the fairy tale world to spell out questions such as why does Snow White’s stepmother hate her so much – questions that don’t necessarily need to be answered, as we are all familiar with the woman’s vanity and her magic talking mirror. In the beginning, these flashbacks were illuminating, but now I find them annoying. Why? They aren’t in order. We already know how these stories end – Regina curses the kingdom; Snow and Charming send their baby in a portal to another world. All these flashbacks to what happened before merely illustrate what we already know, and as George Lucas found out the hard way, sometimes it’s better to let viewers imagine the back story themselves than to disappoint them by spelling out a past that isn’t as good as they imagined it. While I don’t think I’d have this issue if the flashbacks were chronologically consistent, that’s a moot point. No one is going to worry about how Snow is going to overcome the curse that she can’t have children when we already know she had Emma. Filling in the details is a waste of time.

The trajectory of this show reminds me of “Lost,” another show that relied on mythology and flashbacks (although those flashbacks were in chronological order… for the most part.) “Lost” lost its footing somewhere around the 3rd season, but found it when the producers told ABC that they would only be producing a few more years left of shows. This schedule allowed them to plan out the rest of the series and come up with an ending. By giving themselves a deadline, the producers gave a focus and an energy to the rest of the series. Unfortunately, it ended with a whimper rather than the bang that fans were expecting. I do think the producers of “Once Upon a Time” could learn from this lesson. Tell ABC you’ll give them the five more years and then you’ll be wrapping things up. Give the viewers a happily ever after, and make sure it’s a journey they’ll enjoy.

NBC’s “Grimm” seems to play in a similar playground as “Once Upon a Time.” The premise is that police detective Nick is actually a Grimm, a man who can see beyond the human facades of the “big bad wolf” creatures that live among us and like to commit horrible crimes. Each episode starts with a quote that sounds like it could come from a fairy tale. Then there’s a murder; Nick goes to investigate, finds out it’s a supernatural bad guy, and eventually solves the case. In the first season, “Grimm” borrowed from a few fairy tale standards – Rapunzel, Goldilocks and the Three Bears – but most of the “Grimm” creatures seem to spring fully formed from the minds of the series writers. Nick has a serious girlfriend who was cursed into not remembering him, a partner who’s recently been enlightened about the whole deal, a “big bad wolf” good guy helper who explains all the various types of bad guys out there, and a boss who, unbeknownst to him, is actually such a big bad guy that even Nick can’t see him for what he truly is.

Even though “Grimm” is supposed to be another look at fairy tale characters in real life, it does not resemble “Once Upon a Time” as much as it resembles “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Like Buffy, Nick is a “chosen one,” chosen to fight magical creatures but without any magic of his own. There are legends, a book to look up the bad guys in, and even a magic shop. But while Buffy effortlessly wove in messages about identity, responsibility and desire so well that it seemed to be two shows at once, “Grimm” is only surface deep. Perhaps the writers have handicapped the storytelling by giving Nick a serious girlfriend and making his best friend the big bad wolf. Of Buffy’s three loves on the show, two of them were vampires. There would be a lot more storytelling juice if Nick’s girlfriend were secretly a witch. Who knows, maybe the writers will go there eventually. Right now, all the payoff seems to be in Nick finding out his boss is evil… and I’m not sure that’s a payoff that really gives viewers a reason to stick around.

“666 Park Avenue” is giving its viewers a reason to stick around, but unfortunately, they are not. The series is a combination of a less gory “American Horror Story” and a darker “Fantasy Island.” Jane and Henry (who are not married… yet) have become co-managers of an imposing pre-war building off of Central Park. Scary things happen – bleeding walls, dying lights, creepy children who are probably dead – and Jane, like many horror movie heroines before her, likes to investigate these things in her underwear. The building’s owners are Gavin and Olivia, who seem a lot more interested in Henry and Jane than owners probably should be. The series is three episodes old, and in them we have seen Gavin smoothly manipulate residents by giving them what they wish for and then having these wishes explode in their faces. He’s a living, breathing, bald Monkey’s Paw. (As the series progresses, we may find out that he’s neither living nor breathing, but he is most definitely bald.) By the end of season one, I just know that we’re going to be screaming at Henry and Jane not to open that door!

And this is why I think “666 Park Avenue” deserves a full run. This is a show with a strong throughline and an obvious direction. The horrors in the building are on a collision course with Gavin’s devil-making deals, and Jane and Henry are caught in the middle. It promises to be a fun ride, and I want the full roller coaster.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"There's no place like home" ... but where's home?

“Where are you from?” was not designed to be a difficult question. But it’s a question I heard a lot this weekend. My husband and I attended our son’s baseball parents’ weekend at Mississippi State University. Most of the folks, naturally, were from Mississippi. And we’re from…. ?

On the roster, it says my son is from Potomac, Maryland. That makes sense, as he was only with us here on Treasure Island for two weeks. But he doesn’t have an address or a place to call home in Maryland, anymore.

I still tell people I’m from Maryland. When I meet people in Florida, it’s the first topic of conversation, and many of them are from other places, too. In Mississippi, I explained that we live in Florida now but we are from Maryland. After all, I lived there almost my entire life. I’ve only had a Florida driver’s license for a little more than two months.

How does one transition from being from one place to another? I still read my hometown newspaper every day (granted, it’s a little different on my iPad.) I follow the D.C. news station on Twitter. I keep up with local gossip from all my Facebook friends back home.

I lived in that house in Potomac for 12 years – the longest I’d ever lived in any single home. In the summer, the top floor was way too hot. It had a tendency to lose power during snowstorms and thunderstorms, and it took forever for the power to come back on. One winter we were trapped there for three days without power with two feet of snow on the ground, and the temperature in the house got down to 35 degrees. I hated the house during that time. But it was mine.

This house in Florida isn’t mine. Of course it’s not because we’re renting it. But we also got rid of all our furniture and rented the home fully furnished. I had loved the furniture we had bought over the years – the tiled kitchen table, the sectional sofa with the marble coffee table. There’s nothing in this house I would have ever bought myself. (OK, the furniture in the movie theatre is pretty cool.)

Plus, since I don’t know how long we’ll be staying (for various reasons, one out of our control, we may not be here the full year), I’ve only unpacked a few family photos and none of our artwork. We still have a room filled with boxes. It’s hard to feel at home when you’re not completely unpacked, and when the landlord’s giant painting of angry lions stares at you from across the hall.

And of course, how could this place feel like home when my son isn’t here? In an odd way, I think that helps with not missing him so badly. I don’t have 12 years of memories of eating dinner together at that table, watching TV together on that sofa. He was only here with us for two weeks and spent most of that time at the gym. He has a room here, of course, but since it’s not his furniture or his posters, it doesn’t feel like his. I’m sure if we were still in Potomac, I’d be going into his room every day and missing him terribly.

Strangely enough, the dog has made herself at home quite easily. She has a favorite perch. She enjoys guarding the front door. And she very much prefers the back yard, with the pool, the dock and the fence that allows her to run around unleashed. It is her home and she isn’t going to let anyone forget it. I guess wherever Tom and I are, that’s home to her.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Sports, politics, cave men and TV

Yesterday my husband took me to the Redskins/Buccaneers game. The Redskins won at literally the last second, so it was a successful game. But there were long stretches – experts might call them the third and fourth quarters – where the outcome was in doubt, and it gave me plenty of time to muse on the sports scene, and fandom in particular.

I’ve been a Redskins fan since high school. My father was a fan, and in those days – the 1980s – it was easy to be a fan, with the whole going-to-3-Superbowls and making the playoffs every year thing going on. Interestingly enough, those were also the years in which I became an obsessive General Hospital fan. That could say something meaningful about how we form our permanent identities in high school, but considering I was also a Republican back then, maybe not. (Of course Reagan was president, so who wasn’t a Republican??)

The game was terrific, and I’m sorry that local fans couldn’t watch on TV – it was blacked out. The stadium was so crowded, though, it was hard to believe. Most vendors ran out of food at halftime. And frankly, I think it’s unfair to black out games because the stadium isn’t 85 percent sold out three days before the game. I dare NFL commissioners to sit for four hours in the hot Tampa sun and try to follow the action on the field without going blind and dying of heat stroke. The Rays play under a roof. Hey, maybe that should have told you something! Then again, no one goes to the Rays games either.

We sat on the visitor’s side, which faces west. The Bucs and their fans were already in the shade. It’s a good thing the game started at 4:30; we all would have melted otherwise. We were surrounded by other Redskins fans, which made the Skins’ successful plays that much more wonderful and their failures that much more heartbreaking. When the Skins pulled it out in the end, we fell in with a crowd chanting “RG3” on the way back to the parking lot.

My friend Ang hates football. Whenever I post something on my timeline about the Redskins, she chides me for caring so much. And of course she’s right. Whether the Redskins win, lose, or are abducted by aliens has absolutely no impact on my life whatsoever. So why do I care so much? Why did I have a knot in my stomach when Tampa Bay kicked the leading field goal with less than two minutes to play?

Sociologists, or anthropologists, or some kind of gist, have postulated that the reason why sports teams are so popular and fans get so obsessive is because of our tribal ancestors. The theory goes that back when we were cave men, there was an evolutionary advantage to sticking together – there was always someone home to look after the cave men babies. And this is why today we paint our faces purple and black and occasionally someone gets beat up in the parking lot for supporting the visiting team.

This would also be the reason, these gists say, that one’s identity as Republican or Democrat means so much to a person. It’s why, they say, a Christian believes the estate tax should be demolished and a businessman is against abortion. Tribe members take their cues from other tribe members, and lock-and-step beliefs follow.

I’m not sure the gists have that part right. How I feel about politics is very different from how I feel about sports. And my son calls himself conservative, yet he picks and chooses from Republican and Libertarian beliefs to follow.

Rather, my feelings for sports are similar to my feelings about good TV, movies or books. It’s the story, and it’s the catharsis. It’s the chance to feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat without anything real at stake. Just like TV is the chance to fall madly in love with the wrong person, perform surgery or work for the mob without risking anything in real life.

Maybe we do still have the hearts of cave men, if not brains. For a cave man, every day was a struggle against the elements. Their lives were short and hard. When they felt a surge of adrenaline, it was because they were being chased by a mountain lion, not because they were watching their TV hero get chased by one on the small screen.

But sports does best TV in one important way: There is always next season. There will always be a next season. But every TV show must come to an end.