Monday, March 29, 2010

Chapter, Chore

I don't have a housekeeper. It's my mess, I should clean it up. Well, it's also the mess of two sons, a husband, and two dogs, but WE should clean it up. If you're a woman, you know that means you will clean it up. Man, I should have gambled and had a third child. Maybe she would have liked to help her mom around the house. Yeah. Those are some low odds, huh? Anyway. People think I don't have a job. Well, they know I do, but they act like I don't. I'm imminently interruptible. And dispatchable. After all, I don't report to work anywhere, even though I work all the time. I've actually got three full-time jobs, but who's counting? Well, me, but I don't count. So here's my key to a semblance of sanity: Chapter, Chore. This only works in the re-write process, but with a little discipline, it works well. If I sit at my desk too long I get antsy. If I'm away from my desk too long I get antsy. I should just face it. I'm constantly antsy. So I break it up. I rewrite a chapter, then force myself to stop, get up, and do a chore. I switch the laundry or load the dishes or mop the floor. Then I get back to my desk, rewrite another chapter, force myself to stop, get up, and do another chore. I do have to force myself to stop rewriting, too. It's easy to get into the flow of the story, and who likes chores? But sitting at the desk too long can make me stale, and a stale author makes for uninspired rewriting. I find that the combination of sitting at the desk and getting up to do something "active" makes the day productive and...enjoyable. My house gets cleaned, my book gets rewritten. I think it's a good approach no matter what your job is. If you've got a desk job and e-mail's driving you bonkers, reply to five, then do something else. Reply to five more, do something else. If you're a student facing homework and chores, do a subject, do a chore. It keeps the boredom out of both. (And it would shock and amaze your mother, and also make her happy.) So that's it for now. I'm feeling antsy, which means I've been at this desk plenty long enough. Time to do some dishes!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Script vs The Novel

This image was done by one of the very talented followers of this blog (xxCammyLoverxx). I've always wished I had the ability to create visual images. I don't, but I'm glad she does! When the Random House website for Sammy gets updated, I hope we'll have a gallery wall where reader art can be displayed. Anyway, thanks CammyLover. You are very talented! Onto news: It almost doesn't seem fair, but I received a couple of bound galleys for Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher this week. That’s right, I, who already know what happens, have the "book", and you, who are having bad dreams about it, don't. Sorry! (I'm having anxiety over some of your bad dream comments -- what if after all this time you don't like it. Argh!) Anyway, for those of you who don't know exactly what a bound galley is, basically it's the paperback pre-version of a book that will come out in hardcover six months down the road (and subsequently come out in actual paperback a year and six months down the road!). Bound galleys have mistakes in them (sometimes a lot of mistakes), and their purpose is to give critics, book reviewers, and the like plenty of time to read the book and write a review timed to (approximately) coincide with the books release date. I have never been an official book (or movie, or, you know, any sort of) critic, and I don’t think I would want to. I love the critics who love my work, and I'm annoyed with the ones who pick-pick-pick; especially the ones who don't seem to get the larger picture of what I'm trying to accomplish. So maybe I don't accomplish it with them. Maybe I shouldn't care. But I'd be lying to say it doesn't sting when I read something negative about a work I've poured my heart and soul into for a couple of years. I've never actually been slammed by a reviewer, but I have felt misunderstood. And helpless. I mean, there's no rebuttal to a review. It's that critic's opinion. And it's printed and read by how many people? And what gives authority to their opinion? They aren’t required to obtain a critic’s license (or even a learner's permit!). So what qualifies them to criticize the work of others? Maybe they should write a book and see a) how hard it is to finish, and b) what it feels like to be critiqued. Well, I've been having a pretty eye-opening experience these past few weeks. Sort of a girl-in-the-mirror thing. I may not ever have been paid to be a critic, but that doesn't mean I'm not a critic. How many times have I said, The movie wasn't nearly as good as the book! Lots. Either they left out my favorite parts, or they put in things that just seemed so unnecessary, or they cast it so completely against my vision of the characters that the movie just didn't work for me the way the book did. And I always felt completely justified in rendering my opinion. But for the past few months I've been studying the form of screenplay writing. I've read books, scripts, etc., because I think my upcoming novel The Running Dream would make an amazing movie, and I would like to at least attempt to put my vision of how it "should be done" in a form where it might get considered. So I've been writing the script. And what I'm writing differs, in parts, substantially from the form of the book. Whole scenes that are never seen in the book (because it's a first-person narrative) are written as real-time scenes in the script. And some of the scenes take place in a different order. It has been fascinating for me to see the necessity of making changes, and it's given me a newfound level of appreciation for the skill required in converting one art form into another. That doesn't mean that I no longer think that Hollywood ruins stories by adding hackneyed scenes or removing parts that contribute key character development. It does. What it means is that I now appreciated how different the forms are, and how challenging it is to work within script-writing parameters. Not everything from the book is going to make the script. It just can't. The question becomes: What to leave out without losing the integrity of the story? It's a tough call for the author to make because everything in the book is there because you felt it was necessary for the story. In the movie Flipped, there is no Champ. There is no "Mystery Pisser". I loved Champ. I loved the name of the band. I loved the little "P.I.P" grave marker in the backyard. (And if you don't know what I'm talking about, I guess you'll just have to read the book.) None of it's in the movie. Rob Reiner explained: "There just wasn't room." I was okay with that before, but I get it now. Bottom line: I think all authors should take one of their books and turn it into a script. It's an eye-opening, educational experience. One that will cause you to think twice before criticizing the movie.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A New View of The Unfair & Cruel

My son Colton and I went on a run together today and somehow we began talking about the importance of having a philosophy for your life; of finding a moral compass; of having sound reasons for what you believe to be right and wrong. Colton has a great moral compass, and every time I see him put it to good use I'm filled with a wonderful sense of pride. And relief. I know it will serve him well throughout his life, and that although it may lead him through some rugged terrain, he'll be glad he followed it. He's also reading The Running Dream manuscript, and there's a segment in it where one of Coach Kyro's "philosophies" comes out: "Life isn't about what happens to you, it's about what you do about what happens to you." And really, that's the key to life. Bad things happen to good people--they just do. But it's how you deal with those bad things that will either scar you and scare you, or make you stronger and more determined. And being stronger and more determined will eventually take you where you dream of going. It's funny how that works. Of course I didn't have that little gem of knowledge in my back pocket when I was in middle school being bullied by girls whose parents seemed to buy them whatever they wanted. Or in high school when my dad made me drop the transmission of my clunker car and change the throw-out bearing of my myself. Or in college when someone torched our family's business. During those times I just thought the world was unfair and cruel. Which it can be. But if you can make it through those unfair, cruel episodes, life can also be joyous. And that's what you've got to keep in your back pocket. The belief that things will get better. Meanwhile, let me present a new perspective on the unfair and cruel. They are what make for good writing. No one needs to tell you to remember the traumatic times. You'd love to forget them, but can't. So instead work with them. Scratch that. Make them work for you. It's experiences in life that give us something to write about, and since good fiction is applied tension, you'll have an arsenal of good material if life hasn't been peachy (and not a whole lot if it has). Does the girl who jabbed me in the derriere with a sewing pin in seventh grade have a multi-book contract with Random House? No, but I turned her into Heather Acosta, so she's in a bunch of books! Would the kids whose parents give them brand new cars when they turn 16 know how to write effectively about the grimy underbelly of a car, or what transmission fluid feels and smells like? No, but I do, and it sure came in handy when writing Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Moustache Mary. And the people who torched the family business--where are they? Not in jail where they belong, but they're living with themselves and I don't imagine that to be a very good existence. Not exactly justice, and yet...from their actions came such angst in me that I started writing. This doesn't undo what they did, but if I didn't agree with Coach Kyro it would have been easy to become bitter and jaded and resentful because of it. Instead, I became a writer.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chained To My Desk

I have spent the week chained to my desk. We’re at the copy edited stage of both Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher and The Running Dream, and the process—while always fussy—has never felt like such complete tedium to me. Maybe it’s just not a good idea to do two three-hundred page manuscripts back-to-back. For those of you who have been following me through the process or are interested in writing and aren’t real sure what “the copy edited stage” might mean, here’s a summary of the book-writing stages so far:
  • I write the book
  • I rewrite the book
  • I repeat that second step 15 – 20 times
  • I send the manuscript to my editor (Nancy) in New York
  • She reads it, mulls it over, and sends it back with a cover letter saying what she loves about it, and suggesting ways to make it even better. The manuscript itself is marked up in pencil, with nice comments and smiley faces balancing out the edits and suggestions.
  • I give the letter and margin notes a while to sink in, because after having rewritten the story so many times, the initial response is to groan and say, But I like it just the way it is! This is also the stage during which my house gets really clean—I’m thinking, brooding, avoiding.
  • I finally tackle the rewrite and discover that it’s not so bad; that Nancy (as always) has come up with some good suggestions and that a little extra work makes the book tighter and better. I end this stage happy and grateful for her input.
  • I send the revised manuscript back to Nancy and she reads it, approves it, and hands it over to a copy editor.
  • The copy editor brews herself a giant pot of tea, takes out her red pencil and her reference books, and proceeds to bloody my manuscript with punctuation, grammar, and style corrections. And questions. Somehow there are always lots of questions.
  • The copy editor gives the manuscript back to Nancy, who then goes over the little red marks and either agrees, adds a “?” for me, or crosses out the copy editor’s “correction”. (She does this in a different color, so I know who’s “talking”.)
  • Nancy then sends the manuscript to me, and (after I groan over all the markings) I brew myself a gigantic pot of tea, find a color pencil different from the ones already used, and begin going through the manuscript AGAIN.

So that’s where I am right now. And Sammy Keyes and the Wedding Crasher wasn’t so bad because Nancy saw the copy edited version before her vacation and ran interference with the copy editor markings before sending it to me. This was not the case with The Running Dream. I just received the raw copy edited version. This is the third manuscript that this has happened with, and the difference to me is huge. For one thing, commas drive me crazy. And there are differing schools of comma placement. You may get a copy editor who is a firm believer in Method A for one book, and one who is a firm believer in Method B of another book. Sometimes they both look at the same book. It’s like comma wars! Commas getting put in, commas getting crossed out…put in commas being removed…it drives me batty! I use commas to indicate a pause in speech (or, you know, separation of clauses, etc.), but I’m no comma expert and consequently I can spend half an hour agonizing over one page worth of small punctuation changes. Who am I to question the Comma Queen? Well…the author? But I don’t want to be pig headed. And since I know I’m not a comma expert, I ask myself, Why not just take the word of someone who is? Because sometimes what’s correct is just wrong for the style of the book or the voice of the character. Anyway, when Nancy hasn’t gone through the marks before I get it, there’s no buffer. There’s no “kid speak” or “style” or just X-out from Nancy to let me know that I don’t have to worry about that particular correction. And consequently I question everything I want to cross out or revert. Or I feel I have to justify or explain my reasoning in the margins. It’s not just commas or punctuation, either. Copy editors also often do a little fact checking, and if they call some part of your story into question, you have to double-check your facts and that means revisiting the things you may have been up to speed on a year ago when you wrote the book, but aren’t so sure about now. It’s all tedious and time-consuming, and I really have to battle against feeling annoyed. I have to remind myself that the copy editor is trying to help make the book better; that she’s an expert in an area that I’m not. So I weigh each mark she makes carefully and try to see through the eyes of someone who hasn't read the book 20 times. Sometimes I'm surprised to realize what isn't on the page that should be. And then, inevitably, she’ll find some totally embarrassing mistake I’ve made and I’ll be so grateful for her attention to detail. I always write a gigantic THANK YOU in the margin and concede that slogging through the Red Sea of Commas was worth it. Difficult, but worth it.