Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Sex and the City: It’s All About the Ending

Thank you, Deb, for having me as part of your blog hop on “TV Done Right.” This is a great follow-up to Caroline’s blog hop on TV endings that sucked. It’s ironic that we writers are doing blog tours on TV, but TV has been experiencing a “golden age” the past few years, and there’s a lot we novel writers can learn from our counterparts in the teleplay game.

Although Deb’s hop is focusing on series in their entirety rather than just on endings, I believe that the ending determines how viewers or readers feel about the show – or book, or movie – as a whole. There are millions of pissed-off “How I Met Your Mother” fans due to the way the series blew its ending. I am one of many pissed-off “True Blood” fans because Sunday night’s series finale ended with Sookie pregnant by some anonymous guy. The converse, of course, is that if a show does it right, the warm-and-fuzzies color the entire series – even if some seasons and some episodes were decidedly weak. My example: Sex and the City.

For the sake of this argument, let’s forget (I’d like to) that there were two movies that followed the end of the series, and that (God forbid) there’s even been talk of a third. Let’s concentrate on the night Big rescued Carrie in Paris, when she looked up from collecting her broken necklace from the floor of that hotel lobby, and saw him walking through the door. I still get chills, thinking about this moment, ten years later.

For a show ostensibly about the power of female friendships and women’s ability to stand on their own (high heeled) feet, it was the ultimate fairy tale moment: The Prince coming to rescue his princess. And it worked so well because these two people had been through more downs than ups during the series run; I, for one, was convinced they would not end up together.

Carrie broke up with Big when he discouraged her from going to Paris with him; he returned with a bland fiancĂ©e. (“Your girl is lovely, Webbell.” “I don’t get it.” “And you never will.”) Their first break-up happened when Carrie pressed Big to say that she was “the one,” and his response was, “You could be.” In this finale, on a wind-swept bridge in Paris, Big took Carrie in his arms and told her the words she’d wanted to hear for years: That she was the one. Natasha, Aiden, Post-It Note Guy … all those others were just distractions. Carrie and Big were going to be together after all.

It worked because, like the show itself, it doesn’t happen in real life. In real life the man you spent years loving and hating finally disappears forever, and you marry the guy who waited patiently in the background. In real life writers don’t have $100,000 worth of shoes and live in a Manhattan walk-up. In real life no one can walk down the street in six inch Manolo Blahniks without falling flat on their face. Sex and the City was not real life. It was a fairy tale, and its ending reflected that.

Of course, even though Carrie and Big were the main attraction, I can’t leave out the other characters and their happy endings. Samantha, whose battle with breast cancer had left completely asexual and totally not herself, finding her big O again. Miranda, the cynic of the bunch, accepting everything that being part of a family included, taking care of her mother-in-law as she slid into dementia. And Charlotte, finally getting confirmation that she’d become a mother at last.

Please indulge me as I go on an aside about how much I loved Charlotte and Harry. Poor Charlotte, so desperate to marry she ended up with a guy who was not only wrong for her (Trey), but wrong for any woman. Then hiring Harry as her divorce lawyer because he wasn’t good-looking and she wouldn’t feel the need to impress him. Falling for him anyway. Converting when Harry told her he couldn’t marry a woman who wasn’t Jewish. Becoming completely immersed in Judaism. And then the angry fight with Harry: “I gave up Christ for you!” that breaks them up. Being adopted by the bubbalas at her temple. Attending a singles event at the temple, where even the absolute perfect man can’t shake her funk about Harry. And then when Harry shows up, she apologizes and asks if they can start over. He says no. Then drops to his knees and proposes. Oh, God, what a moment that was!

And the series finale reveals just how perfect these two are for each other: When an adoption falls through, Harry cries and Charlotte is the one who comforts him.

So I won’t get into the many missteps the series had along the way. They were erased from my memory as I watched Carrie swagger down the street, fortified by brunch with the girls, and answer a phone call from “John.”

Tune in tomorrow for Monique McDonell’s choice!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Why Did She Do That?

As a reader for a literary agent and a reviewer for a book review web site, I read about 2-3 manuscripts and books a week. All of the manuscripts I read for the agent are unpublished, and many of the books I read for the web site are self-published. There’s a certain ruthlessness in reading these projects. Most manuscripts are not ready for publication, or even representation. Most self-published books couldn’t attract traditional publishers for a reason – even if that reason was a too-small market for an otherwise good book. It’s hard to get lost in a book that you’re reading for an evaluation; even while you’re trying to lose yourself in the story, half of your brain is keeping a checklist about what works and what doesn’t.

I only have the same 24 hours a day that everyone else has, and I found myself no longer having time to read for the simple pleasure of it. This was ironic because the reason I wanted to work for the agent and the web site (other than being a writer myself) was because I loved reading so much. So I decided to “cleanse my palate,” as it were, and read a few books that has already been vetted by other professionals – in other words, bestsellers that had been well-reviewed.

It was a well-timed break. Not only did I fall in love with the stories, but without having to catalog a writer’s strengths and weaknesses, my mind was able to wander the way an every day reader’s mind does – wondering about the characters and plot. What’s going to happen next?

The two books I chose were Liane Moriarty’s “The Husband’s Secret” and Taylor Jenkins Reed’s “Forever, Interrupted.” It was a highly scientific decision based upon the fact that both books had gotten positive press and they were both available at my local library. “The Husband’s Secret,” obviously, is about a woman who finds a letter written by her husband and the fall-out of his confession; “Forever, Interrupted” is about a young widow dealing with the mother-in-law who didn’t know she existed.

It was pretty obvious, due to the novel’s multiple points-of-view, exactly what the husband had done. But I was still engaged by the question as I read the book. Similarly, while reading “Forever, Interrupted,” the question, “Why wasn’t the mother ever told about the marriage?” nagged at the back of my mind as its narrative unfolded. (And yes, the questions were answered by the books’ endings.)

What is the question you want readers asking while they read your book? Do you even have a question? Plot springs from a character’s goal and the actions the protagonist takes to reach that goal. Most readers will be asking the question, “Will she achieve that goal?” In “Forever, Interrupted,” the protagonist wanted to have a relationship with her mother-in-law, and that question stood in the way.

Questions of motive are also intriguing. Perhaps your readers know what happened, but not why. Keep them guessing. Keep them asking. Draw out the clues. Deliver the answer in the end.

The purpose of story, no matter what form it takes, is to elicit emotion. What emotion do you want from your readers? Keep them engaged, questioning, laughing, crying.

A surprising number of unpublished manuscripts that I’ve read do not attempt to engage the reader in this manner at all. There’s a popular saying among writers: Show, don’t tell. This usually means writing out a scene rather than describing what happened in it. That’s also the best way of engaging the reader emotionally. A summary just doesn’t elicit emotion the way “showing” does.

If a reader isn’t asking questions, there’s no reason to keep reading the book. Give her a reason.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Looking for Beta Readers!

I’m happy to announce that after writing about five drafts of my current light women’s fiction novel THE SEESAW EFFECT, I’m ready for other people to tell me what’s wrong with it! If you’re a writer and you’ve got some time to beta read, please let me know! A short synopsis is below, followed by the first chapter:

The Seesaw Effect
What happens when you’re on the high end of the seesaw, and your partner jumps off? A big, painful crash! When it comes to the work-life teeter-totter, Erin Murphy is a balancing-act expert. True, she works for Democrats while her husband Jack is a spokesman for Republicans, but at home they’re in sync. Their children -- 13-year-old animal-nut Jessica and 8-year-old Batman-obsessed Michael – come first. And her career is just as important as his. But on Election Day, everything changes. Suddenly, Erin is out of a job … and Jack is the new star of The Right Choice TV network! As Erin searches frantically for her next position, Jack begins to practice what he preaches. Their house turns into a battlefield: What’s wrong with saying “Merry Christmas” to their son’s Jewish teacher? How can there be global warming when it’s cold outside? Jessica takes her mother’s side (her father is a “disgusting planet murderer”), while Michael just thinks it’s cool that Dad’s on TV and he’s making a million dollars. And Michael’s not the only one impressed with the family’s new money: Who are all these new people floating around Jack, and what do they want? As Erin’s friends take sides about what she should do with Jack 2.0, the only person who understands is a fellow stay-at-home parent: Scott. Scott is easy to look at, and just as frustrated with his marriage as Erin is… But the biggest battle is Erin’s alone: Should she keep pounding the pavement? Or become a perfect trophy wife and mother that Jack now wants her to be? Without a title and a salary, how can Erin figure out who she really is?

Chapter One

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried. But Churchill was in D.C. during an election year. There were only seven days left until Election Day, and it was a miracle I still had hair. And about those other forms of government: Were they really all that bad?

Yes, it was “only” mid-terms, but for everyone I knew – including my husband Jack – that meant 60-hour work weeks, neglected spouses and children, lots of bad pizza and rumpled clothes. I had 200 unanswered emails, 42 texts and 17 unheard voice mails (Who the hell still leaves voice mails?).

Halloween was in four days and I still didn’t have a costume for our son, eight-year-old Michael. (Our daughter, Jessica, 13, was too old to trick-or-treat, but she was putting together an outfit that made me glad I had gotten her the HPV vaccine.)

And I hadn’t paid any of the bills that were due on the 1st.

I still had to write ten more press releases, twenty more letters-to-the-editor, and three more op-eds; not to mention proofing six speeches and approving the latest fundraising letter. Instead, I logged onto my bank’s web site to send out checks.

Erin's paycheck -- $2000 (net, two weeks.) That was the only item on the “plus” side.

Mercedes paycheck -- $600 (our Spanish-speaking, non-driving nanny. She made $300 a week. Extra if I needed her to stay late.)

Maid to Order -- $200 (a hundred a week. They did laundry, too.)

Kids Taxi -- $200 (a hundred a week to shuttle Jessica to her volunteer job at Second Chances Wildlife Rescue and her horseback riding classes, and Michael to soccer and baseball practice, because Mercedes -- despite her name – couldn’t drive. And frankly, while she was great with the kids and they could talk back to me in a language I couldn’t understand, I really didn’t want her behind the wheel with my precious cargo in her back seat.)

Takeout Taxi -- $350. I ordered from them at least three times a week. You could choose from any restaurant in town -- Hamburger Hamlet, Chili's, Fridays, etc., -- and they would deliver your food right to your door. If Jessica wanted a hamburger and I wanted seafood, they even made two trips. I couldn’t live without Takeout Taxi. I could live without spending about thirty dollars a meal.

Peapod -- $500. The grocery store that delivered. Yes, I knew I paid about thirty percent more for the food, not to mention the delivery cost, the fuel surcharge, and tipping the driver, but who had time to do the grocery shopping anymore? Plus, I could schedule them to deliver when Mercedes was home, and spare myself the chore of putting away all that food.

And those were just the expenses that showed up as monthly bills. Adding the cost of gas, parking downtown, (I know I should be environmentally conscious and take the Metro. But when your nanny calls in the middle of the day, babbling hysterically in Spanish, and the only word you can understand is "blood," you don't want to be waiting around the Farragut North metro station wondering when the next train will arrive.), wearing decent clothes, eating nice lunches, and not to mention paying taxes -- the truth became painfully clear: I wasn’t doing this for the money. Because I wasn’t making any.

I had just finished the concluding sentence of a Pulitzer-prize winning op-ed on why Minnesota should re-elect Representative Michael Fine when my boss, Ken Wharton, walked in. He shut my office door behind him – never a good sign.

“I hate to do this to you, Erin, but we’re pulling the plug on the Fine piece. The numbers just aren’t there, and the board doesn’t want to risk our reputation.”

“How does that risk our reputation?” I asked. “We’re a group that lobbies for environmentally conscious candidates. No matter what their polling says.”

“The board’s also worried about the budget. We’re a week out and money’s really tight.”

“It doesn’t cost anything to send an email to the Star-Tribune. Even with the attachment.”

“Just look at the numbers.” He handed me a poll showing that the Republican challenger, a business executive named Michelle Morgan, was up by nine points. This late in the game, that was an insurmountable lead.

“Why don’t you draft a release congratulating Morgan and saying we’re eager to work with her on her environmental initiatives.”

“She doesn’t have any,” I sniped.

“This is the way the game is played. You know that.”

“The election’s still a week away!”

“And we need everything ready to hit the wires as soon as the races are called. So get to it.”

He walked out, leaving my door open and my spirit sagging.

It was hard to get excited for a mid-term election. Traditionally, Democrats were more likely to stay home when the White House wasn’t being decided. And traditionally, Democrats were the ones who cared about environmental issues. Even with the weather getting wackier every year, the economy made it difficult to run front-and-center on the green stuff. So we threw all our support behind those Democrats – incumbents and challengers -- who were willing to run on our issues. This year, we had twelve. We had identified seventeen, but five had contacted us via back channels and had asked us, no offense intended, to please stay the hell away from their race.

The ultimate irony was that our group was funded by corporations. Yep, “Corporate Citizens for Planet Earth” was a fully-owned subsidiary of Corporate America, Inc. It was a small group of companies that had decided that the higher costs they’d pay if, by some miracle, cap-and-trade or other environmental legislation actually passed was worth it for the PR value. Sure, I’d much rather work for the Environmental Defense Council, Save the Planet Now, or Resources for the Future. Those groups were the true believers – so much so, that they refused to work with us. But when I was looking, they weren’t hiring.

“He didn’t fire you, did he?”

I looked up. Robyn Needle stood in my doorway. Robyn was 15 years younger than me, a lawyer, and more driven than a Porsche. Around her, I always felt like I should be doing more; that I should get by on less sleep and maybe farm the kids out to their grandparents for a couple of decades.

“Not today. Why? Did you hear something?”

“We’re going to lose all these races, Erin, and Ken knows it. In fact, he and the board want it to happen.”

“That sounds just a little bit paranoid.”

“Think about it. They fund us because we make them look good, like they care. It’s good PR. But if it’s all Republicans on the Hill, they don’t have to try anymore. You think they really want to pay for cleaner water? Who was the last Republican who fully funded the EPA? Nixon?”

A chill crawled up my spine. She made perfect sense. In all my years on the Hill, I never went wrong betting on cynicism and self-interest.

“Just wait,” she predicted. “Come Wednesday morning, it’s going to be a whole new ball game.”

By 5:30, I was almost done with my overdue emails when my cell phone started singing “The Sound of Music.” It had to be my husband, Jack. He didn’t have a lot of hobbies, but one of them was changing his ring tone to a song he knew I hated.

“Which suit makes me look better?” he asked as soon as I clicked “answer.” “The blue or the black?”

Surprisingly, I did not have every item in his closet categorized and memorized.

I stalled. “It depends on the shirt and tie.”

“White shirt, right? White for TV?”

“Oh, it’s for a TV interview?” For a guy with a journalism degree, Jack had the annoying habit of burying the lede.

“Not just an interview.” He let those words hang in the AT&T-sponsored air for a minute. “Election night coverage. You’re talking to the host of ‘The Right Votes.’ Starting at six pm on The Right Choice Network.”

“Wow! That’s… I’m just… that’s fabulous news, babe.”

Oh my god, my husband was going to be on The Right Choice Network. TRC. Only a few years old, it was formed by tea-loving zealots who thought a certain news organization named for a cunning animal was too soft on liberals. I wanted to throw up.

“But… but…” How to say this gently… “Don’t they usually book people months in advance for this?”

“Yeah, it was going to be Senator Northridge. But apparently he’s fled to Singapore. Something about fifty pounds of heroin and twenty guns in his house… That guy was always a nut.”

Always a nut. Like Northridge was some frat boy caught toilet-papering a sorority house, rather than a drug dealer. Jack never did take things all that seriously.

“Anyway, they saw that takedown I did of that union stooge Tony Brock on Safari News last week, and I was their first and only choice. They want more businesspeople involved with the network.”

Technically, Jack was an association person like me. Neither of us had ever worried about a bottom line. But there was no point in arguing semantics. “Well, congratulations. That’s amazing.”

“I just hope I don’t come across as too big an idiot.”

“You’ll do great,” I assured him. “You’ve always done great.”

“On ten-minute interviews. This thing’s going to be at least five hours long.”

“There’s only about twenty races anyone really cares about. We’ll prep on them, and you’ll do fine.”

“Really? You’ll help me?”

“Of course I will.”

This question wasn’t as off-base as it appeared. Jack and I worked at opposite ends of the political spectrum. He was the vice president of communications for the American Business Association. Despite its innocuous-sounding name, that group was nothing but a mouthpiece for Republicans.

Republicans pay a lot better than Democrats. Even though Jack was only a level or two above me, his salary was three times what I brought home. Which made sense, because Jack was only in it for the money.

I was the true believer. Jack didn’t really believe anything. Some days it was because he was cynical; other days he just didn’t care. He worked for ABA because they offered him more money than the hospital people and the shipping people did. Maybe that’s why he was so good at his job. It’s easier to craft arguments for or against a position if you really didn’t care either way.

The other benefit to Jack’s not caring was that we didn’t take our work arguments home. Our house was about the kids’ afterschool activities; where we were going on vacation; have you seen my yellow tie. It was a place of peace; an oasis in a political jungle.

Oasis. That’s right. I was just about to leave when I remembered I hadn’t paid the gym fees. $150 for the Athletic Oasis. And just like that, my paycheck was gone.

It was a good thing I wasn’t in this for the money. Because I didn’t have any.

Can you help? Please email me at JDeise1002@gmail.com!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Write What You Know: A Real-Life Case Study

People sometimes apologize to me for not being able to make one of my son’s baseball games. I always say “don’t worry about it,” and I mean it. If I were honest, I would say, “Thank you… we really don’t want you to come!”

It’s not that I don’t love my friends and family members. Of course I do. It’s just that the last thing my husband and I want to do is make small talk while our son is on the mound. Can you imagine chatting away amiably while you’re being waterboarded? I’m not saying that watching Alex pitch is akin to torture. When you’re being tortured, at least you know there’s something you can say to make the torture end. When our son is pitching, only a perfect inning will end the torment. And that’s completely out of our control.

In my book, KEEPING SCORE, my main character, Shannon, talks about how she feels watching her son at the plate:

Then it was Sam’s turn. My stomach dropped to my feet. I had an intense desire to go to the bathroom. My hands were trembling. I hoped Sam felt better than I did.

This is a pretty good description of how I feel when Alex is pitching. It’s a good description of how I felt when he was in Sam’s position – that is, a 9-year-old playing “rec” baseball. (“rec,” short for “recreation,” is the lowest level there is.)

The sad part is, there is no difference as far as nerves are concerned between watching 10-year-old Alex pitch for his rec team – The BCC O’Briens Lions – and watching 20-year-old Alex pitch for the summer league championship in the Trop. The nausea. The racing heart. The intense desire to be anywhere else but here.

And of course the only thing worse than watching your son pitch is watching your son not pitch.

Baseball is a game where you can’t hide. Football has a huddle; soccer is expected to end in a 0-0 tie, and basketball is the definition of a team sport. But in baseball, when you’re throwing, catching or hitting the ball, it’s just you and the ball. It’s an individual sport masquerading as a team sport. If you mess up, everyone knows right away that it was you.

I give my son a lot of credit for having the strength of character to thrive under this stress. To make it even harder, a few years ago he refashioned himself from a starter to a closer. The good part about being a starter is that if you start off shaky, there are still several innings left for another pitcher to come in and try to make up for your mistakes. There’s no backstop when you’re the closer. You’re the guy they bring in when there are no outs, bases loaded and your team is only up by one run. If you blow it, it’s too late to salvage the game. If you can’t deliver, there’s no one warming up in the pen to clean up your mess. It’s you or nobody.

Obviously, Alex was not thinking about his parents when he made that decision.

When I wrote KEEPING SCORE, Alex was in high school and I was sufficiently removed from all the drama around travel baseball that I could laugh about it. But there’s the internal drama that never goes away. Maybe when Alex hangs up his cleats for good – something that hopefully won’t happen for another decade or so – I’ll write another book about baseball. In the meantime, if Alex is playing in a town near you, and you want to come to the game… do Tom and me a favor: Don’t tell us you’re there. If he does well, run into us in the parking lot afterward. If he doesn’t, pretend you were never there to begin with.

Oh, and here’s the last out from the championship game. It did come down to a save situation for Alex’s team in the bottom of the 9th. This is what happened:

Buy KEEPING SCORE on Amazon here!