Sunday, August 26, 2012

Finding Your Reader

In today’s Internet age, finding someone to read and critique your work is like tripping over piles of dirty clothes in a teenage boy’s bedroom – it’s not that hard. 

While a lot of book reviews on Amazon and other review sites are pretty spot-on, you can’t always take it as the gospel (as evidenced by this New York Times article “The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy”).  How else to explain gushing five star reviews for crappy books?  Seriously, did we read the same book?  On the flip side, sometimes, people are just downright vicious in their criticisms.  It’s clear they get off on putting people down and nine times out of ten, without the anonymity of the Internet, they wouldn’t dare say even a fraction of those nasty things in person.

In short, sometimes you just have to take the feedback the masses give you with a grain of salt because you can’t please everyone all of the time. 

As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I’ve decided to take the plunge into self-publishing via Kindle.  As a girlfriend of mine declared when I told her of my plan, “let the people decide!”  Now, while I fancy myself an okay writer and have even managed to make a living as a freelancer for the past five years, I’m realistic.  As much as I would like to rush and upload the manuscripts that have been collecting virtual dust on my computer for the last ten years, I realize I need someone to vet me first.  It’s one thing to dash off a one-page press release, quite another to birth a 70,000 word manuscript filled with multiple characters and a plot. 

In his brilliant book, “On Writing,” Stephen King makes the case for the “IR” or “Ideal Reader.”  The Ideal Reader is the audience made up of one person you try to please with your writing (for King, this is his wife, Tabatha).  Will they bust a gut at this passage?  Will they cringe?  Will they think this is a sparkling piece of prose or the worst piece of shit they’ve ever read?         

In trying to think about who I’d like to read my completed manuscript, I agonized.  A lot of folks give it to their significant other, but since I’m currently single, that’s out for me (of course, my ex didn’t like to read, so he probably wouldn’t have done me much good anyway).  There are friends, of course.  To be honest, most of mine are loaded down with toddlers and newborns at the moment and just don’t have to time to sit down and read anything that’s not a picture book.  

I finally settled on my youngest sister as my “IR.”  I chose her for a few reasons.  One, even though she’s family, I knew she wouldn’t sugar coat it.  In fact, she’s pretty much renowned for hating everything.  It’s kind of her shtick.  Two, she’s extremely smart with an unusually high bullshit meter.  Three, she’s a voracious reader.  While she doesn’t read suspense, which is what I write, she wouldn’t be jaded – I knew she could give me a good perspective from a pure reader’s point of view.

I asked her if she’d be willing and she gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. 


After fiddling with the manuscript based on the feedback I got from my weeklong writing class, I sent it to her, bracing myself for the onslaught of criticisms.

I was happy to hear she liked it (yay! I mean, since she hates everything).  She had some good, solid suggestions for improvement and with one exception (remains to be seen if I’ll implement), I incorporated everything she complained about.  She was thoughtful in her criticisms, which I appreciated.   

While in Toronto for class, one of my fellow students offered to read anyone’s manuscript when they were ready.  I decided to take her up on it.  I think this will be worthwhile because she doesn’t know me from Adam, so she’s certainly not obligated to give me a good review, plus, it’ll be good to get another perspective.  I’m curious and nervous to see what she has to say.

It can be nerve wracking unleashing your baby onto the world, but getting solid criticism from others can only help you.  Joy Fielding said that in addition to her husband, she has two additional people that she always gives her manuscripts to before she submits to her publisher.  She said it was based on the feedback of one of those readers that necessitated rewriting the first ten chapters of “The Wild Zone” three times.  Stephen King says he has a group of four to eight core people he lets read his work while in draft stage.  Tabatha even shamed him into cutting two pages of back story in “Bag of Bones” down to two paragraphs.

Choose your IR wisely.  You don’t want someone to blow sunshine up your ass; you also don’t want someone to tell you it’s terrible unless they can give you solid feedback as to why.  Either way, look for people who will help you improve your work.

It can only help.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Oh, Drama

With daytime dramas (or soaps, as some call them) dropping faster than fleas off a dog in winter, the network heads who’ve pulled these shows off the air say it’s because viewers don’t want scripted, serialized drama.

 Say what now?

If audiences don’t want serialized drama, how to explain the success of the INSANELY addictive reboot of the classic “Dallas?” If you didn’t catch the first season on TNT this summer, HULU it, stalk your program guide for reruns, pre-order the inevitable DVD from Amazon – whatever – do what you have to in order to get caught up before the show returns in January.  You will find yourself hooked on this soapy, sexy drama before Larry Hagman can wriggle his scraggly eyebrows.

What about the shenanigans of that Emily girl on “Revenge?”  The continuing sagas of “Game of Thrones,”  “Mad Men,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Pretty Little Liars,” the forthcoming “666 Park Avenue?”


I could go on, but these shows differ from procedural dramas like “Law and Order” and “Criminal Minds,” in that the characters lives take center stage and feature continuing storylines.  These are critically acclaimed, award-winning dramas with loyal viewers who always wonder “what will happen next?”  (You pretty much don’t wonder what will happen next on “Law and Order,” because it’s the same each week; someone will be murdered, the detectives will collar someone who may or may not be the culprit and there may or may not be a trial.  Lather, rinse, repeat.)

Cablers like AMC, HBO, VH-1 and ABC Family continue to order scripted dramas for their primetime lineups, so clearly, they see the merits in offering this type of programming to their audiences.  Reality TV and crappy talk shows (seriously, enough with the talk shows) aren’t enough to sustain a network.

So why are primetime serialized dramas thriving, while their daytime counterparts have been slashed to a mere four shows?

The writing, the writing, the writing. 

“The Young and The Restless,” long the No. 1 daytime drama and once the symbol of masterful, character-driven drama, has suffered mightily over the last few years from moronic writing.  Dreary counterfeit painting heists, convoluted and uninspired murder mysteries, bank-robbing chipmunks, dual doppelgangers, a 70+ year-old man bedding his 30-something twit of a former daughter-in-law two times over and is the mother of his grandchildren, are but a small sampling of the drivel that has been allowed to run amok in Genoa City the past few years.  Stuff like this is why daytime has a bad name.  Perhaps recognizing it’d had been asleep at the wheel for far too long, the show’s owner, Sony, cleaned house and finally replaced the head writer who’d been allowed to trash this show’s legacy.  Time will tell if the new head writer can right the ship before it too goes the way of so many daytime dramas before it.

It’s not that audiences don’t want scripted, serialized drama.  We want GOOD, scripted serialized drama – not the work of uncreative hacks who think the audience is too stupid to realize they’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes by spoon-feeding us one stupid storyline after another.

The desire for serialized, watercooler drama is why we watch mini-series, read trilogies/series by our favorite authors and save a month’s worth of “Downton Abbey” and “True Blood” on our DVR.   We DO want intelligent characters, absorbing drama and stories that aren’t dumbed down to the lowest common denominator.  We want to be entertained, maybe even little shocked a little along the way, but we want to be HOOKED (writers should want this, too). But to say we don’t want to follow the trials and tribulations of our favorite characters each week or each day is just silly.

We want to know what happens next.


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It’s the Character, Stupid

Whether it's TV, film or literature, I’ve always gravitated towards strong, smart female protagonists.  I don’t much care if they’re saints or sinners - even a little cray cray - if they’ve got some smarts, a little bit of cunning even, I’m on board.

There’s nothing I hate more than a female character being dumbed down for the sake of the plot. I’ve read chick-lit where I’ve wanted to throw the book across the room because the protagonist is a weak-willed twit.  I’ve read suspense novels where the female character stretches patience and credibility beyond all reason, all because the author needs her to be in a precarious situation.  I remember thinking this when I read “The Pelican Brief,” a book I otherwise enjoyed.  Darby Shaw had been portrayed as brilliant, but she got dumbed down for the sake of the plot.  She could crack a major conspiracy, but she didn’t realize using her credit cards all over town would lead the bad guys right to her? 

Mitch McDeere never would have been so dumb.

A female protagonist who was never dumbed down for the sake of plot was Brenda Leigh Johnson (played by Kyra Sedgewick), late of the recently departed “The Closer.”  Brenda was a total bad-ass, not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the vilest of criminals in order to get justice.  Granted, it wasn’t always a fair fight, because some of them were dumber than a box of rocks, but it was never more satisfying than when Brenda nailed a murderer who underestimated her because of her petite frame, pastel sweater sets and honey-drenched Southern twang.  While her pursuit of criminals often came at great personal and professional cost, you could never accuse her of being sacrificed to propel the plot forward (remember, character drives plot, not the other way around).

Brenda Leigh Johnson, one of the most intriguing female protagonists in film, TV or literature, has taken her last confession on "The Closer." (photo credit: TNT/Karen Neal)
While Brenda was hardcore in the interrogation room, what made her all the more intriguing was that she was by turns a total mess and a total softie.  She was a sugar addict, keeping a stash of candy bars in her desk drawer and let’s not forget those ubiquitous chocolate snack cakes, which seemed to fortify her after a tough day at the office.  She wore garish dresses, hung onto her oversized purse like it was a life-preserver and dissolved into a quivering mass of tears when her cat, Kitty, succumbed to illness.  She was fiercely protective of her squad, crazy about her parents and deeply in love with husband, Fritz.      

My point is, Brenda was smart and strong but flawed.  That’s much more interesting, and frankly, relatable, than a character who is all good or all bad or a charter member of Mensa or a candidate for World’s Dumbest Person.  It’s the details, the – pardon the pun – shades of gray that make for a compelling character.  They can be a mess and make mistakes, be led astray and even have daft moments, because that’s what how we are in life.  And that can make us a lot more willing to go along for the ride.

I’m not sure if I’m going to watch “Major Crimes,” the spinoff featuring the Captain Sharon Raydor character.  Raydor, who’s grim, by-the-book persona, provided an interesting counterpart to Brenda’s more colorful and audacious antics, may not be entertaining or outrageous enough to drive the story forward.  Then again, we don’t know a whole lot about her, so perhaps time will tell if she’s the right person to lead the Major Crimes Squad, or if “The Closer” should have bowed out gracefully.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Brand Me, Baby

One of my guilty summer pleasures is “Next Food Network Star,” on the Food Network.  I don’t actually watch any of the resultant shows; I mostly watch for the competition aspect and so I can steal a recipe or two for my own kitchen.

Every season, I have to wonder if these contestants have either never seen a past episode of this show or they think they can game the system, because inevitably, quite a few of them show up to battle it out for Food Network stardom without having thought about one of the most crucial aspects of the competition:

Their brand.

Susie Fogelson, senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy for Food Network, always presses the contestants to think about their “point of view” or brand.  Some are pretty clever (“The Gourmet Next Door,” “Sandwich King”) and some require a little tweaking (“Girl on Grill” evolved into “Grill Next Door.”).  Some have a vague idea when they arrive, then do a complete 180 during the competition and come up with an entirely new POV that lends itself to a longer shelf life.

One of the more arrogant contestants from this past season was a guy by the name of Malcolm.  During the show, Malcolm was frequently praised for his food, but was hammered each week for not having a POV.  He was defiant, telling his mentor, Bobby Flay, and the judges that he didn’t need a POV, because it would limit him.  It was only when his head was on the chopping block did he “miraculously” decide he was all about soul food. 

To no one’s surprise, he was eliminated. 

During the reunion, Susie asked him yet again why he didn’t have a POV and yet again, Malcolm’s arrogance took over, as he stated he didn’t need one.  Susie was too nice to say it, but I will; this adamant stance against choosing a POV is why he doesn’t have a show on the Food Network.

On one hand, I can understand the fear of “boxing” yourself into one idea, but that’s a really short-sighted view.  Developing a POV or brand gives you focus and a foundation.  Look at any Food Network Star.  While their brands are pretty definable (Giada: modern Italian, Barefoot Contessa: easy elegance, Rachael Ray: 30 minute meals), they’ve been able to extend those brand into other areas, all while staying true to their core.  Cookware, appliances, cookbooks, gadgets and groceries are just a smattering of the offerings you’ll see from these culinary superstars, because it makes sense for their brand. 

That is the essence of a good brand; making it solid enough to be easily definable, yet flexible enough to branch into new territories without diluting it (for textbook evidence of this, look at Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl empire, which started with booze and now includes shapewear, skincare, books, DVD’s.  She stays true to her brand by utilizing the simple idea of “practical solutions for women.”)

Frankly, this is no different in the publishing world.  While I think a lot of writers chafe at the idea of “branding” themselves, thinking it means they’re selling out, the truth is, if you study the careers of successful authors, indeed many of them have a brand.  Branding hasn’t hurt James Patterson, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich or a whole host of other popular authors.  Stephen King presides over a vast body of work that includes horror, mystery, fantasy, science fiction and suspense.  Nor has he limited himself to the novel, churning out short stories, plays, poems and screenplays—even non-fiction.

Last year, I had the chance to meet bestselling author, Wendy Corsi Staub, who judging by her output, I don’t think sleeps, told the assembled crowd at the book signing that branding gave her a leg up.  In fact, Wendy started out on the publishing side, eventually moving across the aisle to become a writer and said that she always approached writing as a business and right out of the gate, thought about building her brand (no seriously, check out her long list of suspense, YA and what she calls “women’s fiction,” many of which have been NY Times Bestsellers).  Clearly, approaching her writing career from the standpoint of building a brand has proven to be a successful formula for her.  And she’s also nice J

The brand I envision building for my own writing career is suspense novels that explore “The Dark Side of Love.”  We’ll see if I’m successful or not.

Susie Fogelson told “Variety” earlier this year that Food Network is in the business of building stars and “a star in this day and age is a multifaceted brand.”

It’s when you refuse to define yourself that you miss out on the opportunity to expand.

Now, back to writing.