Monday, July 30, 2012

To Kindle or Not To Kindle

Recently, I was out and about reading my Kindle when someone asked me how I liked it. I enthusiastically replied that I liked it quite a bit, much more than I thought I would. The person shook their head and said, “But there’s something about the feel of a book.”

 I don’t disagree, but here’s the thing; the revolution will happen whether we want it to or not. How many of us out there said we’d never buy a Blackberry, iPod or DVD player? Can you imagine still sitting in your house with a beeper, Sony Discman and a VCR?

I certainly never thought I’d buy a Kindle. I was a book person dammit! I worked in a bookstore for over five years and my bookshelves are crammed with more books than I’ll read in this lifetime or the next. I believed in the purity and sanctity of the paper page and there’d be no prying books out of my cold, dead fingers.

Well, when I decided I would be uploading my books to Kindle, I pretty much had to get with the program and buy one. And I’m glad I did. I can check out books from the public library, download audio books, magazines and newspapers. When I signed up for Joy Fielding’s class, we were all instructed to read three of her books beforehand, as they would be discussed. I already owned two of them, but couldn’t find the third at any of the four bookstores I went to (not even at the library). Rather than put it on special order, I bought the eBook version from the comfort of my couch.

Easy breezy.

The fact is, I still buy physical books. Quite a few of them. In the past three months alone, I’ve purchased Andy Cohen’s “Most Talkative,” “Skinnydipping” by Bethenny Frankel, Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” and over the weekend, I happened upon a rare books dealer where I purchased a perfectly trashy-sounding book from 1966 called “Doctors’ Wives” that I look forward to toting to the beach.

I’ll still ask my family for books as gifts for Christmas and Birthdays. I’ll still reread my paperback copies of “Catcher in the Rye” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” as I’ve done several times over the years. But the truth is, technology is inevitable, as we’ve seen in virtually every other aspect of entertainment. The train is speeding down the track and we can either get on or let it pass us by. Books are the last frontier to be conquered by technology.

Just think—in the next 20 years, people might be saying, “But there’s something about the feel of a Kindle.”


Monday, July 23, 2012

How to Write a Bestseller with Joy Fielding – Days 4 & 5

Well, after availing myself of Canada’s culture for a week, I am back home in the good old U.S. of A. As I predicted, I didn’t manage to get up blogs about the last two days of class with New York Times Bestselling Author, Joy Fielding, so here’s a slightly condensed version of what we learned on days
4 & 5:

Day 4
We’d each been asked as a writing exercise the day before to do a five point outline of our manuscript. That was tougher than a 25-word or less summary.  I handed in my five points for critique and got a pretty good response, with Joy’s comment that I seemed to be “figuring it out,” and she liked what we discussed in class the day before with regard to my plot.

Onward to the tidbits:

-  Don’t leave troubling questions in your story

-  Don’t be wedded to the facts

-  The dramatic journey is important, vs. what actually happened

-  Get away from the literal truth to get to the real truth – what’s important is the revelation

-  Book Titles: choose something with an emotional pull; you’re telling a story in a few words

-  Joy doesn’t like a few of her titles; in fact she “hated” the title for “Don’t Cry Now,” (good book, BTW) and felt “The First Time” “wasn’t strong.”  She particularly liked the title for “Mad River Road,” which was inspired by an exit she saw off of an expressway in Ohio.

-   Write for the people who like you
    -    “Bad writing is contagious.”  Indeed.

-   Sequels should allow you to come to each book on its own and make sure you carry your theme all the way through each book.  Joy is currently working on her first series/trilogy.

-          Questions to consider when writing a series:

o   Will the characters age (if you live in Sweet Valley, apparently not.)

o   How much will the characters lives change

o   Continuity

o   Be mindful of giving away too much information

o   Keep each element of the series fresh

o   Each standalone book should have a distinct beginning, middle and end.

-   It was recommended we all read “Silence of the Lambs,” as it was “masterfully done,” particularly the way the characters are seamlessly woven into the narrative thrust, which remains strong throughout.

-   We finished our in-class critiques and I got a pretty good sense of who would be selected to read their piece at the end-of-week luncheon the next day.  No, it wasn’t me.

Day 5
We were all a bit sad, yet inspired by the intensity of the week and all we’d learned.  Had it been a week already?

Joy came to class bearing some of her books that she thought might be helpful for a few of us in untangling our plots or figuring out our narrative thrusts.  Since some folks were writing about science fiction or YA Fantasy, not everyone received a book. I was delighted to receive a copy of “Kiss Mommy Goodbye,” (which Joy signed) and I’d never read.  She challenged each of us to read the books from an analytical standpoint, to study what she did and why, since there were “no accidents,” in what she wrote.

Joy declared the commercially minded writer should start their book from their ending.  Hmmm....

We delved quite a bit into self-publishing and what a game-changer the Internet has become in that arena, as it has removed the gatekeeper.

One of the most fun parts of class was when Joy shared her own journey to bestsellerdom.  She wrote her first book, “Best of Friends,” longhand at her parent’s kitchen table (she told us “don’t bother” reading it, as it’s “not that good,” and sent it to five publishing houses. Putnam published the rough draft, not changing a word and it took Joy four years to get the second book, “The Transformation,” published (another early effort she said “don’t waste your money” on), and later “Trance.”  I can’t remember which of the three she said she had tried to read recently and couldn’t even get through it.  It was “Kiss Mommy Goodbye,” (the new addition to my library) that broke her through, making her a bit of a phenomenon in the publishing industry. And the rest is history.  Coincidentally, she said that was the first book she did an outline for and doing so changed everything.

We ended class by casting our vote for the story to be read at the luncheon (it was who I thought it would be, and who I voted for) and tendered our evaluations of the course and of Joy.  I gave it high marks, deeming it to be a phenomenal experience.  My only quibbles were that it would have been nice to have the books we were asked to read ahead of class be representative of multiple points of view and getting a bit of one-on-one time with Joy would have been great.  Otherwise, I was thrilled with the experience. 

So of course, I am brimming with ideas on how to fix my ever-present plot problems and move forward with my manuscript.  My first order of business is to make the edits Joy and the rest of my fellow students suggested (well, with two exceptions).  The second order of business is to read “Kiss Mommy Goodbye,” and do the critical analysis Joy suggested.  Third will be to continue honing in on my “narrative thrust” and finally tackle my plot problems to the ground once and for all.  Finally, I will press my “first reader” into service, which should be interesting.

BTW, I just read that Reese Witherspoon bought the movie rights to “Gone Girl.”  Not sure how I feel about that. 

To be continued…

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How to Write a Bestseller with Joy Fielding – Day 3

The day is done and I survived my critique.
But I’ll get to that.
Today’s lesson revolved around the all-important point-of-view (POV), technique, characterizations, and moving the narrative forward.  Some of the insights:
- Flashbacks have to have a purpose.  They should be interesting and shouldn’t be too long because they can stop a story.
- Always ask yourself, “how do I move the action?”
- Action, Action, Action
- Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
- Guard against passive characters – “said the woman who wrote a book about a woman in a coma [‘Still Life’]. ”   Direct quote, I swear.
- Characters have to be doing something, as opposed to things happening to them.  If they are merely a receptacle for the action around them that’s not that interesting.
- If nothing is changing in your narrative, nothing is happening in your narrative.
- In popular fiction, don’t write a downer, but don’t worry so much about a happy ending as much as a satisfying ending.
-Humor will make a character likable.  So can charm.    
- Use everything, every experience.
- Don’t censor yourself
- Don’t be afraid of drama.
- Your situation can be ridiculous if the characters are believable.  But there always has to be a payoff.
- In publishing, nobody knows what they’re doing (well that’s a relief.)
- Always play fair with your reader.
- If you’re going to introduce something, bring it back.

The Critiques
I’d be lying if I said my bowels weren’t churning more than a little today as I awaited critiques from my fellow classmates about my chapter.  But, I reminded myself to listen and not get defensive. 
I reworked my 25 words or less description to make it less vague, as was the complaint, and the second version was met with enthusiasm: 
1st version: A woman disappears and is later killed…except death isn’t always what it appears to be.
2nd version: A woman struggles to untangle the secrets of her sister’s life that may have lead to her death.
Overall, my fellow classmates were fairly complimentary to my pacing, dialogue and characterizations.  Everyone agreed I started strong, but didn’t end strong, which when I looked back at the end of the chapter, I got it.  The other complaints were things I pretty much expected, as they related to plot and things I’ve been trying to solve for the past few months. I kept my cool and didn’t get defensive (yay!!) but focused instead on answering questions that were asked.
Joy said that overall – “especially the first part” – was “well-done” (double yay!!) and had some minor edits and a few ideas about how I might work myself out of the plot holes I have. 
So, not too many body blows.  Of course I haven’t read the written comments yet, so I just might be crying into my wine later tonight.
We critiqued three additional pieces and they went pretty much as expected.  One student’s piece suffers from an identity crisis (is it romance? Horror? A cooking book?), another’s description was quite different from the submission and the third piece was pretty good, but had some POV issues to be worked through.
Tomorrow, we discuss the final four submissions. 
And I’m out of the hot seat.

Now…onto that wine…     

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Write a Bestseller with Joy Fielding – Day 2

If you’re in any type of creative field, chances are, you have a thin skin, which stinks, because you really need a thick skin.

Day Two of class with Joy Fielding was pretty intense, as we started critiques of everyone’s work, but more on that in a minute.

First, a few tidbits:

-          I got a chance to “talk shop” with Joy a bit before class started.  We talked a bit about Chicago and a book tour she did there once where her publisher put her in a crack house of a hotel.  I mentioned I had worked for a bookstore in college and she asked if I knew the author escort for the chain and I did.  We gabbed about him for a bit and turns out we had a similar opinion about him. 

-          Joy asked us what we thought about yesterday’s author readings.  Everyone was pretty much in agreement about what we liked and what we didn’t like and Joy gave a few tidbits about how a bad reader can kill a reading and signing, no matter how entertaining the book is.

-          She reiterated that if you’re not in love with your book and your characters, no one else will be.

-          In contrast to what Gillian Flynn shared atPrinter’s Row Lit Fest, Joy is an outliner, believing you must know the ending before you start, because it helps you to keep “upping the ante.”

-          She shared how she came up with “See Jane Run,” and shared a copy of her original outline.  Contrary to what you think of for an “outline,” it was actually done in a narrative format, vs. bullet points.  Okay, maybe I’ll rethink my stance on formal outlining, since I now know it’s possible to do it and not feel like I’m back in English Comp 101.  Maybe.

-          She originally saw “Whispers and Lies” as a play 30 years ago, kind of in the vein of “Single White Female,” (which came much later).  She re-imagined it years later as a deceptive young woman who rents a cottage from an older woman.  If you haven’t read it, check it out.  It’s one of those books that meanders along like it’s not going anywhere then – Bam!

-          She rewrote the first ten chapters of “Wild Zone” three times because…she didn’t outline. Hmm…

Writing Exercise
We got our first bonafide writing exercise in the form of describe our book in 25 words or less.  I took a wrong turn because in trying not to give the whole thing away, my description was termed as “too vague.”  Oy.  Gotta go back to the drawing board and come up with something new. 

I’ll post both in the near future.

Interesting enough, when one of the students read her description, I was floored, because her chapter didn’t match her description at all.  And I’m not talking vague – I’m talking she was describing a totally different book than what she handed in.

The Critiques
We critiqued four first chapters today. This was actually a good exercise, because it kind of let me know what to expect in terms of how the process would go.  My goal, when my turn comes tomorrow, is that I don’t come off as defensive, as some people did.  I’ve gone into the process by reminding myself to be open and receptive to the comments, good, bad and ugly, because it can only help.  I don’t want to fall into over-explaining, being flip or arguing.  In other words, being defensive.  Of course, I may be singing a different tune this time tomorrow, but my plan is to just take it all in and apply accordingly.

For the most part, a lot of my comments on the submissions echoed what everyone else felt, though I was baffled to hear one student praise as their favorite, a piece that was overwhelmingly viewed as not that strong. 

But what do I know.

The Advice:
-  Good ideas don’t die.  But still write them down.

-  Don’t front load all the backstory or characterizations.  Reveal them slowly, but not so slowly that the reader gets bored.

-  In every chapter, give the character a goal and try to stop them from reaching that goal

-  Describe what people look like.  You don’t have to overdescribe them, but enough so that the reader has a visual of some sort.  It adds depth to the characterization.

Writing Exercise Two
We wrapped up the day with an assignment to outline our book in five sentences from beginning to end.  In other words, five key events in the narrative (in order) that demonstrate, “what story am [I] telling.”

On that note, until tomorrow.

Monday, July 16, 2012

How to Write a Bestseller with Joy Fielding – Day 1

It's here!  The first day of “How to Write a Bestseller,” as taught by Joy Fielding at the University of Toronto.  This week-long class, of course, doesn’t guarantee that what you write will automatically catapult you to the top of the bestsellers list.  But, it does promise, at the very least, to give the 12 aspiring writers who plunked down their hard-earned cash, the tools to learn how to write a good book that readers will want to read.

During the week, I’m going to attempt to put up daily blogs detailing the experience and my own observations.  Notice I said “attempt.”  This lets me off the hook if my good intentions go south during the week.
With that said, here goes:

Class – Day 1
Admittedly, I had a bit of trepidation in the day or so leading up to today.  I would be meeting Joy Fielding, heroine of my literary dreams.  My work would be critiqued by Joy along with 11 of my peers.  Would they hate it?  Would they get it?  Each student was asked to submit a chapter from a novel in progress a month before class and after slaving over my chapter, I sent it along with more than a little nervousness (I was a little disappointed to learn later that some folks had thrown together submissions at the last minute.) 

Even though I had scoped out the location of the classroom the day before, I still wanted to arrive a little early to get settled.

And who should be waiting at the elevator but Madame Fielding herself!  Recognizing her instantly, I ventured a hesitant, “Are you Joy?”

              “Yes, I am,” she said, shaking my extended hand.

                I held out my hand and introduced myself, explaining I would be taking her class.

                “Oh, good,” she said.  “Do you have any idea what classroom we’re in?”

                I did indeed. 

Imagine – me showing Joy Fielding where to go.  Insane.  While I recognized her right away, she did look a little different than her pictures, as the famous often do.  The photographs on her website reveal a redhead with runaway waves; in person her hair was a soft, cotton candy blonde.  She wore a simple, white cotton, short-sleeved sundress decorated with hot pink roses and delicate blue flowers and flat, strappy sandals that matched the color of the roses on her dress.  She was petite in stature, but, as I would soon discover, not in personality.

Class Begins
As expected with these sorts of things, the participants and their backgrounds were varied; a few teachers, one guy who works in television production, some retirees, a few students, one girl with a marketing background similar to mine (of course she and I struck up a conversation later about the joys and woes of working for yourself).  I was the lone student from the States, which seemed to impress people that I would travel all this way (truthfully, an hour and so change by plane. I think it took me longer to get through customs.)

Joy let us know right off the bat that she is a blunt person, explaining, “I’m no good to you if I can’t be honest.”  She asked us in our critiques of each other’s work to be specific about what worked, what didn’t, what we liked, and where we felt it went off track, adding that we should “leave the harsh stuff to [her].” 

The Advice
Echoing what I heard Barbara Taylor Bradford say about a month or so ago, Joy told us that CHARACTER DRIVES PLOT.  While commercial fiction is more driven by plot than literary fiction, which is more reliant upon character, Joy couldn’t seem to stress enough that you have to know your characters inside and out, almost before they were born, before you can figure out what motivates them to do what they do, which in turn…drives plot.

As far as bestsellers go, Joy said much to the chagrin of the publishing industry, there’s just no way to predict what will become a bestseller, but said if you can address a common fear or touch on a nerve, that will help tap into that elusive “phenomenon” that so many are chasing.  Of course the “50 Shades of Grey” craze was discussed, as about half the class had read it in spite of the bad writing, because it was just so “titillating.” 

And yet somehow, I still don’t want to read it.

Some additional advice:

-   To justify excessive dialogue or procedure, introduce some sort of threat to keep the reader interested, i.e. sex or violence.

-          Dialogue should keep the plot moving.  See point above.

-   Three things are required for writing a novel: imagination, life experience and discipline.  And of course, luck.

-   Shorter chapters=page turner

    -   As much as people swear in real life, they don’t like to read it (go figure).  It seems like using the Lord’s name in vain seems to ignite fury in readers.  Joy’s stance on this is that “it’s just not worth it.”    

-   WRITE…everyday.


We didn’t delve into critiques today, but were assigned to come prepared with our comments on four of the submissions for tomorrow.  Joy’s blistering commentary, which she promised to go into more detail on during the week, was that 90 percent of the submissions had atrocious grammar, spelling and form and she had to wonder “how many of you had ever even looked at or read a book in your lives.”  Ouch.  Well, she said she was blunt.  I hope I fell in the ten percent.

A few other tidbits:

   -    Write what you like to read and analyze it.

   -   There is a dearth of fiction for young men that isn’t in the fantasy/sci-fi realm.  Could be a goldmine if someone tapped into it.
       - Word of mouth sells books.  

   -  “If you want the facts, read non-fiction.  If you want the truth, read fiction.”
       - Joy too, had just finished “Gone Girl,” and she and I had the chance to have a 30-second book club.

We ended the day by attending a welcome lunch hosted by the university and hearing short readings by the 15 instructors also teaching writing courses (a celebrated group full of bestsellers and award winners on topics as varied as screenwriting, memoir, graphic novels and comic books).  I’ll try and add more about them in another post.

There was so much more, but I just tried to hit the highlights.  Tomorrow we get our first writing assignment and the critiques begin. 

Until tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Joy Fielding, Friend In My Head

The past few weeks have been filled with lots of travel and thus lots of time reading on planes.  I spent a week in San Diego, which was 90 percent work and 10 percent play (I finished "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn.  OMG.  Run, run, run to read this book.  Outstanding); five days in Boston, which was 99 percent play (I actually decided to include a bit of the city in a new manuscript I just started working on, so a little bit of work.  I also started "The Talented Mr. Ripley," my first Patricia Highsmith.  Astounding so far.  I didn't realize she also wrote "Strangers on a Train.")  And later this week, I'm headed to Toronto for what I believe will be the trip of a lifetime.

I've blogged previously that I'm a huge fan of Joy Fielding, a New York Times-bestselling author of some pretty terrific suspense novels.  My introduction to Joy was the fabulous "See Jane Run," and my love affair continued through "Don't Cry Now," "Puppet" and "Mad River Road."  My all-time favorite Fielding-penned books are the aforementioned "See Jane Run," "Whispers and Lies" and "Grand Avenue."  There's a reason so many of her books are bestsellers; the woman knows how to write a page-turner.

I keep tabs on Joy's web site, where she writes a regular letter to fans, keeping them updated on her life and most importantly about new releases, book tours and other projects she's working on.  A few years back, she mentioned she'd be teaching a writing class at the University of Toronto.  I about wet my pants -- the chance to learn more about the craft one-on-one from one of my favorite writers?  Shut the front door! 

Alas, like most things in life, we can always think of a reason not to do something and my excuses were abundant (not the least of which was I didn't even have a passport); it would be too much money, where would I stay, I couldn't take a week out from work (when you work for yourself, you don't work, you don't get paid).  On and on and on and on.

At the time, I mentioned to my step-mother how much I wanted to be able to travel to Toronto to take this class, but just didn't see how I could make it work. 

"Listen," she said.  "If you want to do it, just do it."

Instead of taking her advice, I listened to the nasty little naysayer in my head and let the opportunity slip through my fingers.

Last year my step-mother died at the incredibly young age of 56 and of course, something like that really puts your own life into perspective.  I thought about this when a few months ago, I saw that Joy had decided once again to teach the course.  My step-mother's words echoed in my head and I knew it was no accident this opportunity had reared its head yet again. 

So, I registered for the class.

While I am a firm believer there's such a thing as hiding behind endless writing classes and groups as opposed to actually writing (and I do write -- every single day), this was too good an opportunity to pass up.  If Aaron Sorkin was giving a Master Class on scriptwriting, or Oprah Winfrey wanted to give a seminar on how to build an empire, wouldn't you go?

I leave for Toronto later this week and I can't even begin to describe how excited I am about getting the chance to learn more about the craft from Joy (as Wendy Williams would say, I've already decided she is a friend in my head and therefore, we are on a first name basis).  I have also vowed to leave my fragile, creative ego at home and go in with an open mind and a willingness to receive the information and most importantly the feedback, because it can only make me better.

I'm going to attempt to blog each day about the experience, as I know it will be an incredible one.  Even if I don't get a blog up everyday, there will be a blog of some sort, because this will be too cool for me not to document.

O Canada, here I come!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Love in the Afternoon

Lately, “General Hospital” has been good.

Not mid- to late-eighties good – we may never see those glory days again – but good.

Last year at about this time, “General Hospital” was uneven, uninspired and unwatchable.  It had dissolved into the kind of dreck that gives soaps a bad name, marred by dull storylines that lacked any kind of heart, much less an emotional payoff, which is what soaps are all about. 

Since “Cartini” (head writer Ron Carlivati and executive producer Frank Valentini) took over, “General Hospital” has gotten a shot in the arm.  The humor and energy have returned to the show.  Complexity and richness are slowly seeping into the plotlines and the dead weight that had sunk this once mighty show to the depths of bad TV are slowly but surely being excised and set out to pasture.  It’s mining its storied history by bringing back old faves like Anna Devane and Felicia Jones and made the genius move of plucking some of “One Life to Live’s” most popular characters and throwing them into the Port Charles mix.  Finally, not one, but two powerhouses in the form of Todd Manning and John McBain that can make the cartoonish Sonny Corinthos dance to their tune.  Brilliant.  And Tracy Quartermaine hasn’t been this funny—or watchable—in years.     

I attribute this resurgence to the writing.  It’s always about the writing.

Think about it.  When the writing’s bad, it’s all bad.  It’s why, with all other things being equal, a show like “Frasier” will thrive, while a show like “Joey” will wither and die the minute the seeds hit the soil. 

The writing.

Bad writing will kill any show and the soaps are no exception.  People like to lay the blame for why soaps have dwindled on a whole bunch of reasons: O.J., reality television, shifting viewing habits.

Sure, these are all factors, but 90% of the reason why soaps have been shot through the heart is bad writing.

The writing.   

Bad writing killed “All My Children.”  When you have ludicrous storylines like Erica Kane’s unabortion walking around town sipping lattes and death by poisoned pancakes among other atrocities, it’s no wonder that show swirled down the drain.  Bad writing (and a crappy production model) killed “Guiding Light.” Bad writing is slowly sucking the life out of “The Young and the Restless.”  I realize this is the No. 1 soap, but I think people must be watching out of habit, because it’s boring, one-note and downright nauseating more days than not.      

When the writing is good, soaps will rival anything on primetime or in the theaters.  “Ryan’s Hope” was one of the best-written soaps ever to air, with six Emmy’s for Best Writing and 12 Writer’s Guild of America Awards to its credit.  Delia’s manipulation of Pat, Rae orchestrating Frank’s downfall, the love story of Mary and Jack?  Sensitive, riveting, beautifully written material.  “General Hospital’s” second Golden Age in the mid-90’s was a master class in soap storytelling.  Years later, shows are still trying to recreate the powerhouse tale of Maxie getting B.J.’s heart and have packed nowhere near the emotional wallop that classic story did. Hands down, “One Life To Live’s” Tale of Two Todds in 2011-2012 was the best storyline on any soap.  Period.  It had it all – suspense, drama, humor and terrific twists you never saw coming.

I still believe there’s hope for the soaps.  “General Hospital’s” burgeoning renaissance tells me so.  If the networks will stop filling the important head writer role with hacks who don’t respect the medium, there’s hope.  If the head writers draw on the rich history of their shows, there’s hope.  If they don’t sacrifice character for plot, there’s hope.

The writing.  It’s all about the writing.

Now.  Let me go fire up the DVR and watch today’s “GH.”