Monday, April 22, 2013

She Ain't Heavy, She's My Daughter

One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year was “The Heavy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Diet, A Memoir,” by Dara-Lynn Weiss. It’s the story of how Weiss helped her nearly obese 7-year-old daughter Bea overcome her food addiction and achieve a healthy weight. With all the talk about childhood obesity, Weiss has firsthand experience with how difficult the battle is. It’s not about adding more time at recess or swapping white bread for wheat bread. Bea was an active child with healthy eating habits who did not drink soda. Weiss did not take her daughter to McDonald’s every day. Yet Bea’s body told her to eat more food than it required to run, and the excess pounds kept piling on. Most of the book is about Weiss’ struggle to help Bea control the urge to eat. In the beginning, she concentrates on making sure her daughter has plenty of healthy food and no sweets. But the weight stays on. It’s only when Weiss begins counting her daughter’s calories does the weight loss become consistent. The book ends happily – Bea achieves a normal weight and is able to control her urges when she goes off to sleep-away camp.

I found the book interesting because I’ve always thought there was a fundamental difference between people who were naturally skinny and those of us who aren’t. I remember in high school going over to a friend’s house whose mother had just baked chocolate chip cookies. The scent was overpowering. I would have eaten every single one of them if I could. My friend had half a cookie. She just wasn’t hungry, she explained. Needless to say, this friend was quite skinny, and I was not.

Weiss notes that from the time Bea was eating solid foods, she liked just about everything Weiss put in front of her, and was a charter member of the clean plate club. The girl’s eating habits were innate; she was born with a body telling her to eat more than it needed. “She complained constantly of being hungry,” Weiss writes. “She polished off adult-sized plates of food. Other kids didn’t.”

I can’t imagine what it took for someone as young as Bea to learn to ignore the messages from her body, chose healthy foods, and stop eating before she felt satiated. Except for the naturally skinny (an ever-dwindling population), these are abilities most adults don’t have. Weiss did an amazing job helping her daughter lose weight even while she was terrified she’d lead her daughter down “an unhealthy path of food obsession and body image problems.” I hope that Weiss keeps readers updated on her daughter’s progress as she grows older. Unfortunately, I doubt that she’ll do that because Weiss has been vilified by the public.

Before Weiss published the book, she and Bea were the subject of an article in Vogue. Perhaps because of the magazine’s content, perhaps because an article couldn’t capture the entire nature of Bea’s problem, Weiss was not seen as a woman who rescued her daughter from a lifetime of illness and ridicule. She was seen as a shrew who literally took candy from a baby. When the article was published, it reached far more than the Vogue readership. Excerpts appeared everywhere online, and the commentary was brutal. Weiss was a vain, self-centered New Yorker who was starving her child in order to have her conform to the “Vogue” beauty standard.

Not surprisingly, Weiss was crushed. She had helped her daughter with a serious medical issue, and she had thought she might be able to help other parents in similar situations. Instead, she was being called a monster.

I wouldn’t blame Weiss if she took Bea into hiding for the rest of her life as a result of this treatment. But it would be a shame if she did. Weiss learned so much during this process, and there is so much we can learn from her and Bea. Did the diet really enable Bea to overcome her food addiction, or did she develop some kind of amazing willpower that allowed her bypass all the desserts offered at camp? As someone who struggles with this issue every day, I want to know how she did it.

Weiss’ treatment illustrates the amazing hypocrisy there is toward the country’s obesity issues, at both the child and adult level. While child obesity levels have become alarming, Weiss’ story illustrates that the offered solutions won’t cut it. It’s not about activity levels or the content of school lunches. But pointing that out and restricting a child to an appropriate amount of calories – even a child who is obviously heavy and obviously consuming more food than she needs – is seen as harmful behavior. Yet when that child grows into an obese adult, he or she is shamed and blamed for making poor food choices. The obese, we have decided, did it to themselves.

Yet every day more and more research is published showing that humans have little control over their appetites. “Salt Sugar Fat” discusses food manufacturers’ deliberate formulas that make their products addictive. Studies of bacteria in the gut reveal that the obese carry different microbes than skinny people. Gastric bypass surgery, once seen as a last resort for the heaviest of the heavy, is shown to have an immediate, positive effect on controlling the appetite – and also plays a factor in the stomach bacteria.

Yet solutions less drastic than surgery are still few and far between. Meanwhile, every day it seems there is another article about superskinny models or mannequins or Photoshopped pictures. When two-thirds of Americans are overweight, I am not sure that the superskinny models are part of the problem. I do not see a superskinny model and eat a gallon of ice cream in response. Yes, I’m sad that my abs will never look like hers. But I know that she’s been Photoshopped and probably has a drug problem in order to cope with the fact that she’s only allowed 100 calories a day.

America has an obesity problem. And it’s not caused by videogames or school lunches or kids not walking home from school. As a nation, adults and children alike have lost touch with their innate hunger and satiety sensors. We can no longer self-regulate our appetites and are forced to use external clues, such as calorie counts and measuring cups, to tell us when to stop eating. Dara-Lynn Weiss has an important story to tell about how a young child learned to regulate her overeating. It would be a real loss if judgmental, hypocritical voices stop her from sharing this journey.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Looking for Mr. (or Ms!) Right Agent

The good news is, I finally finished the revision of my novel. It’s off to the publishers who requested it back in December, and I’ve returned to the chore of querying agents. I’m hoping that the fact that two publishers are looking at it will make the book more appealing – after all, if publishers are already looking at it, that answers the question about whether it’s commercial, right?

I know there are some writers who love this process – they’re the ones who are combing through the writer’s guide to agents before they’re even finished their first drafts – but I am definitely not one of them. (I would much rather be working on my next novel, or outlining that new idea I had for a screenplay, or reading someone else’s book.) While it’s gratifying that there are many agents out there who say they are looking at new writers and want to read women’s fiction, it still feels like an exercise in futility. I know the statistics on first time writers and the slush pile. I know how much work it takes for an agent to sell a new book by a first-time writer. Just those two factors are depressing enough.

Even worse is when I look at these agents’ web sites to see what specifically they’re looking for, beyond genre. They set extremely high standards and very low standards at the same time. They warn writers to proofread their work; not to depend completely on spell check. And then they say they’re looking for “exquisite writing,” “characters that move and inspire,” “amazing, unique voices.” I wilt in the face of these requirements. (I can proofread, however.)

I understand an agent, who receives hundreds of queries a month, wanting to represent only the brightest, shiniest properties available. As a reader, though I am not looking for the qualities that move them. I don’t want exquisite writing. I want writing that tells the story in such a way that the writing becomes invisible. (There’s a joke about movie reviewing; that appreciating the cinematography is a way of saying you didn’t appreciate the plot. I feel the same way about the “exquisite writing” comment. If it’s the fancy turns of phrase that caught your eye, what does that say about the characters or plot twists?) I don’t need characters that move and inspire; I want characters I can identify with. As for voice? I’m looking for plot.

Yes, I’m a reader/book reviewer, but when I take a look at the bestseller’s list, it seems to me that many readers agree with me. The biggest sellers are propelled by the best plot twists. If I were an agent, “commercial potential” would be the number one factor I’d be looking for.

And truthfully, my writing is not exquisite. I don’t spend a lot of time describing flowers or sunsets or the way the sunlight sparkles off my heroine’s hair like so many tiny diamonds. My characters are average women in specific situations. I believe my biggest strengths as a writer are dialogue and structure. Is that enough?

I have a list of about 50 agents, and I’m hopeful, but not too much. I know the odds. And at the same time, I’ve met a lot of women’s fiction writers through Facebook over the past year, and nearly all of them have gone the self-publishing route, and they seem happy. Still, I’m not ready to put that dream aside – the one where my book is published by a major house, where I’m not paying out of pocket for editing, cover design and distribution. And I’d much rather spend my time working on my next book rather than marketing this one.

Whatever happens, I’ll let you know.

PS: For those of you who are curious, here’s my one-paragraph synopsis of my novel, “Keeping Score” – women’s fiction at 89,000 words:

Divorced mom Shannon Stevens and her best friend Jennifer spend every weekend on the sidelines, cheering on their 9-year-old sons in their soccer and baseball games. When Shannon’s son Sam decides to go out for a summer travel baseball team, Shannon is sucked into a mad world of rigged try-outs, professional coaches, and personal hitting instructors. But it’s the crazy, competitive parents who really make Shannon’s life miserable. Their sons are all Derek Jeter and Bryce Harper, and Sam isn’t fit to fetch their foul balls. Even Jennifer succumbs to the competition, placing her son Matthew on a top travel team and keeping Sam from earning a spot. Sam winds up on a struggling team that constantly loses to Matthew’s, and Shannon winds up in a flirtation with Matthew’s coach. Can she really date the man who didn’t think Sam was good enough for his team? As Sam works to make friends, win games and become a better baseball player, Shannon tries to keep from becoming one of those crazy baseball parents herself. In this world, it’s not about whether you win, lose, or how you play the game… it’s all about KEEPING SCORE.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Nashville and Smash: Why One Worked and the Other One Didn’t

Last year, two rather similar TV shows debuted to impressive press coverage and ratings. Smash, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a Broadway musical, was produced by Steven Spielberg, featured Angelica Huston and held the promise of a real Broadway musical being staged from the TV version. And Nashville was created by “Thelma and Louise” scriptwriter Callie Khouri, produced by her Nashville-producer husband T. Bone Burnett, starred Connie Britton, and held the promise of real country hits coming out of the TV show.

With NBC banishing Smash to the graveyard of Saturday nights, it’s obvious that one of these shows succeeded while the other failed. And while there’s been plenty of press given to Smash’s former showrunner and her personal and professional failings, as always, a close look at the storytelling reveals what worked for Nashville and what was sorely missing from Smash.

When the shows first debuted, I was more interested in Smash. I love big, splashy Broadway musicals; when I was ten I tried to write my own musical based on an album of my parents’. I love Wicked so much I’ve seen it four times, and Smash star Megan Hilty played Glinda. And it’s New York! Nashville, on the other hand, was about country music, which I can’t stand. But it starred Connie Britton, and who doesn’t love Connie?

Right from the start, both shows were structured in a way that foresaw its success or doom. Nashville featured three point-of-view characters – Juliette, who was on top and trying to stay that way; Rayna, who’d once been on top and who was trying to stay relevant, and Scarlett, who was at the bottom of the ladder and looking for a way to step up. Smash, on the other hand, has a plethora of point-of-view characters – Tom, Julia, Karen, Ivy, Derek, Eileen, and Jimmy. Originally, the show was centered around whether Karen or Ivy would be selected to play Marilyn, and while that question is a little too narrow to sustain a show, limiting the points of view to Karen and Ivy (and perhaps Julia) would have given the program a greater sense of focus and urgency. (A point of view character in a TV program is any character whose actions and goals drive a plot line.) Furthermore, as characters Karen and Ivy were just too similarly situated. Karen was fresh off the farm, but chorus-girl Ivy was looking for her big break-out role – they were only a rung or two separated from each other on the ladder. The show would have been quite different had Ivy been a Rayna James or a Juliette Barnes competing with Karen’s Scarlett-like character.

Nashville also features an important element that Smash is sorely lacking – a “will they or won’t they” couple for fans to root for. Guitar-player Deacon has never gotten over ex-lover Rayna, and earlier this season it was revealed that he fathered her older daughter (which he does not yet know). The sexual tension between these two is high, and the ages of the characters make this couple particularly appealing to the 18-49 female demographic that dominates TV viewing. Smash, unfortunately, has no such couple. Karen is currently saddled with smarmy, snarky, musical-writer/ex-drug dealer Jimmy, a character nearly as distasteful as last season’s Ellis. Last season she was stuck with political hack Dev, who added absolutely nothing to the series and was wisely dismissed (as was Ellis). In the last episode, director/womanizer Derek told Karen he had feelings for her, but he is such a dislikable character that no one could possibly be rooting for the two of them to get together. Last season Derek hooked up with Ivy, but that storyline seems to have been dropped. The other point-of-view characters have been involved in minor romances that don’t seem to have rooting value for anyone. Although last season married Julia had an affair with a married actor, a storyline I found intriguing, but that too has been dropped.

These storyline decisions may not be the only reason why Nashville is doing well and Smash is circling the drain. But I do think they offer two important lessons to writers:

One, use life stages to compare and contrast your main characters to each other. The stories of Rayna, Juliette and Scarlett are specific to Nashville. But the echo they provide can be duplicated in other locales. For example, if a main character is a new mom, having characters around her who have no children or older children can highlight her dilemmas. If the character is a teacher, having a mentor and a newbie in her life helps focus on her specific challenges.

Two, give your audience an outcome to root for. Whether or not you deliver that specific outcome is a different – and debatable – subject, but your audience (reader or viewer) needs to want something to continue reading or tuning in. Nashville, and many other popular TV and book series, delivers this with Rayna and Deacon. Smash was not even able to give audiences a specific Marilyn to root for. Ask yourself, what do I want my audience to want? If this is a question you can’t answer, there may be a problem with your structure or characters.

Personally, I want Rayna to become a motherfigure to Juliette, to get back together with Deacon, and then to have it all explode in her face when her daughter’s paternity is revealed. For Smash, I just want it to end quickly.

Monday, April 1, 2013

My Own 50th Anniversary Marathon

Today is General Hospital’s 50th anniversary. Just a year ago, no one thought the show would see this day. All My Children and One Life to Live had both been canceled, and General Hospital’s ratings were actually lower than OLTL’s. But then Bob Guza, who had spent a decade at the helm of GH, replacing hospital-based love stories with mob-centered psychopathology, was finally fired, and the Frank/Ron dream team put the mob on the back burner, put character and history first, and saved the show.

This past weekend, Soapnet celebrated the anniversary by airing a marathon of 50 of GH’s best episodes. I’m sure I speak for many fans when I saw I was disappointed with the selection. While many of the Luke and Laura episodes had aired in marathons past, there were also too many episodes from the Guza days that only served to showcase how the mighty show had fallen.

Understanding that most shows before 1979 were taped over, and not including the shows that were aired as part of the marathon, below is my list of the 50 episodes I wish the marathon had included. I have not included any shows later than 2000, as I stopped watching as Guza’s destruction took hold.

Please add your own episodes as part of the comments!

Scotty proposes to Laura on her 17th birthday.
Audrey tells Jeff that Steve is his father.
Laura finds Bobbie and Scotty together and gets into a car accident.
Rick and Monica spend the night together after he walks out of surgery.
On the day the cardiac wing opens, Rick and Monica are sued for malpractice.

Alan drops a roof on Rick and Monica.
Alan gets blown up trying to shoot Rick and Monica.
Alan announced to all of Port Charles that he is Alan, Jr.’s natural father

Heather over Diana’s body, writing “Anne” in her blood.
Robert ambushes Luke in his apartment, looking for the Ice Princess.
Ice Princess disappears at the Port Charles auction.

Joe Kelly catches Heather in bed with Scotty.
Robert and Luke rescue Holly from her evil relatives in Canada.

Jimmy Lee arrives at the Quartermaines on his motorcycle.
Jimmy Lee and Celia have sex for the first time.
Jimmy Lee kidnaps Celia the day of her wedding to Grant.
Luke and Robert rescue Bobbie and Monica, who are being held hostage in the GH cafeteria.
Robert and Grant rescue Celia and Holly, who are being held by the Russians at the International Fair.

Port Charles learns of Lesley Webber’s death.
Anna Devane arrives in Port Charles and Robert remembers their relationship.

Ginny Webber kills DL Brock.
Anna and Robert fake a relationship while investigating Donely on Jimmy Lee and Celia’s wedding train.
While battling Sean, Robert seemingly falls to his death.
Robert comes home to find Robin in his living room.
Anna and Robin are reunited in the Asian Quarter.

Lucy Coe transforms herself.
Terry O’Connor kills her husband Kevin while he’s fighting on the cliff with Jake Meyer.
Anna and Duke meet and dance at the Policeman’s Ball.
The Quartermaines move into Kelly’s/Alan walks in on Monica kissing Sean.

Burt Ramsey is revealed to be Mr. Big.

Tony sleeps with Lucy.
Grant Putnam kidnaps Anna.
Robert rescues Anna.

Colton realizes he’s the one who killed Frisco.
Monica realizes her one-night stand, Ward, is actually Alan’s nephew, Ned.
Duke fakes his death in a warehouse explosion.
Felicia gets amnesia and thinks she’s Phoebe.

Alan and Lucy dispose of Victor Jerome’s body.
Lucy marries Alan in a tacky red dress.

Anna and Robert make love during an earthquake.

Jason, Jagger and Karen fight with Cal while they’re stranded on an island.
Ryan thinks Audrey is his mother, attacks her.
Dominique dies in Scotty’s arms.
AJ and Julia make love in the Bahamas.
Sonny and Brenda meet at a car dealership.

Lois jumps out of Ned’s birthday cake.
Kevin, Mac and Felicia rescue baby Georgie from Ryan in a carousel.
Jason Morgan and Robin meet for the first time at Stone’s bridge.
Jason is shot while Sonny and Carly have hate sex.