Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Bucket List for Writers

Bucket List

Do you remember the 2007 movie "The Bucket List" starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman? The title is derived from the slang term "kick the bucket" meaning "to die." In silent Western movies a character would fall down kicking over a bucket. That was the signal to the audience that he had died.  Many people have written their personal bucket list of things to do before they die just like in the movie.

In recent weeks in the United States a young woman, Brittany Maynard, has made news by writing her personal bucket list. She has an untreatable, painful brain tumor and death is in the immediate future. She has moved to the state of Oregon where the right to die act is legally practiced. She has selected November 1 as her date of death. In the past few days, she checked off the last thing on her bucket list.... a trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I wish her well in her journey.

A bucket list is different than a to-do list. The latter has things on it like: buy soap, return library books, buy gas, and register for writing class. It is meant as a reminder of tasks you wish to do today. A bucket list is a reminder of things to fulfill but on a grander scale (play at Carnegie Hall versus practice recital pieces). It includes goals you wish to accomplish, dreams you realistically want to fulfill and life experiences you desire before you die.

Writing a bucket list forces you to think what you really want. Some items may be materialistic but most are adventures or goals you set for yourself. It is a plan for your future. It is a blueprint for where you want to go and what you want to do. It gives clarity and focus to your life. To me, it makes me think about what I will work hard to make happen, places and people I want to see and challenges I want to tackle. It is realistic.

I know I will never be a ballerina (I am five feet tall and in the later part my 60th decade) but this doesn't diminish my desire to enjoy number four on my list: another performance of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet. The first time I saw them perform, I cried I enjoyed it so much. The BL solidifies my number three desire to spend two weeks in Paris. I do not want to play the piano at Carnegie Hall but I do want increase significantly my playing skills to better understand and enjoy music. These are legitimate items on my bucket list.

We, as writers, can benefit from a Bucket List aimed at our writing. Some goals for me to put down may be to finish the novel I started five years ago; send more query letters to different agents regarding my newly finished nonfiction book; learn to spin wool so I can write an article for the weaving magazine; refine what public libraries I want to visit to do research for a new idea I have for a different nonfiction book; and clean out my writing files! Thinking about what I want to accomplish versus what I have to accomplish gets me excited and motivated to check things off my BLW (Bucket List, Writing).

Your BLW is probably entirely different than mine. Yours may include finding a writers' retreat for the summer of 2016, winning a writing contest and trying your hand at Goth novels. Who knows? You know. You know what your heart is beating toward and where your brain is heading. Write down a BLW,frame it and put it on the wall in front of your computer. Put on the teakettle or coffee pot and get busy.
Bern, Switzerland
Tulips in Holland

Monday, October 27, 2014

“After all, tomorrow is another day."

 The title of this post is the last line  in both the book and the movie of Gone with The Wind. It is one of the truest adaptations of  book into movie form.

What is the trick to making an excellent movie from an outstanding book? Does it make any difference if the movie is true to the story? How do authors feel about their books being made into movies? What does it serve to duplicate a good book onto the movie screen except to make money?

A group of seven authors in New York debated these questions. Their feelings were divided into three camps:

(1)           I do not care what they (Hollywood) does with the movie if it remains true to the spirit of my book. 
(2)           I want it to be as true to my book as possible
(3)           I do not want a thing changed.

Numbers one and two are the only achievable answers to the question. Why? The author brings his one perspective to his book. A movie involves not only the perspective of a screenwriter but also the director, costume designers, editors, location settings and choice of actors. Multiple inputs are needed for a movie.

The author builds a sustainable image. He chooses his target audience and writes to them. A movie expands the book to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. The author has to work hard choosing words that show and not tell. The movie uses more effects visually showing emotions and actions in a much shorter period than is possible in books. A book can meander into its main plot whereas a movie must grab the attention of the viewer immediately so as not to be boring.

Each reader builds in his imagination what the characters look and sounds like, what the setting looks like in each scene and the pace of the book. The reader also goes through these same paces along with the plot pacing. He decides if he likes or dislikes, tolerates or abhors the characters. It may take him a long time to understand his conclusions. Movies make you immediately mentally vote on these things because it is has only two hours to present a much larger plot of a book. Dialog is more essential in both venues but more of it occurs in a movie because movies by nature demand action.

Some authors do not care what a filmmaker does to their books. They figure that the movie is two hours of free publicity for their book and/or other books they have written. The film can be made for a small audience or a blockbuster with name actors, lavish costuming and settings. Both try to make money. The studios can write off the smaller budgeted movie or movies that do not capture the audiences. Films can be made and seen by a test audience using various endings. Books do not have that luxury.

The risk in making a movie from a book is that the viewers go to a movie because they liked the book. Their expectations are built on what they individually visualized in their minds and what conclusions they came to at the end. We know what the ending should be. Maybe the movie is true to the book (Gone with The Wind is a prime example) or maybe the movie only has a passing acquaintance to the book.

Movies from books do have advantages to the public at large. Most adults read fewer than five books a year but discover that they like this story and seek more works by the author. Movies bring children back to reading. Movies can be a family affair watched together.

Books are a renewable source of stories for Hollywood. An actor may recommend a book but decline to star in it when he reads the final script. Good casting can make the book an even bigger hit; poor casting like Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher or Katherine Heigel as Stephanie Plum make a movie sink like a body in cement aimed into the Jersey River.

Here are some books being made into movies. I rarely see movies if I have read the book. The movie is never as good as the book (one exception is GWTW). Do you see the movies after reading the books? Which do you prefer?

Mockingjay  by Suzanne Collins
Gone Girl and  Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
The Switch by Elmore Leonard
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
A Walk in The Woods by Bill Bryson
Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Devil’s Knot by Mara Leveritt
The Best of Me by Nicholas Sparks
The Giver by Lars Lowry

Read a follow post on October 29, 2014 for Dr. Seuss’ response published posthumously made regarding his books made into movies. It is delightful, shocking, and enlightening.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

An Inside Look at Reasons Your Writing Might Be Getting Rejected

Years ago I read about an author who wallpapered her entire bathroom with rejection slips from editors and agents. I don't remember now what this activity was supposed to accomplish, according to that author, but I do remember thinking that I, personally, would not feel encouraged by facing a rejection-wallpapered bathroom every morning, especially before I've even had my coffee.

What WOULD encourage me is some clear, no-holds-barred explanations of why stories remain unpublished. This is the kind of encouragement I found in Jessica Page Morrell's book, Thanks, But This Isn't For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected. Morrell, a developmental editor and writing teacher, takes the reader through fourteen chapters that cover everything from the first line to "The End," pointing out potential manuscript weaknesses that even the most careful writer might not be aware of, plus a helpful glossary of publishing terms.

Morrell's approach is not delicate--in fact, "blunt" might be putting it mildly--but she gets her point across. Think of it as tough love for the writer's soul ("soul" being something she's not crazy about, by the way, as in "she felt his passion in the depths of her soul"--phrasing she calls "cringe-worthy." I told you, this is not a book for the thinnest of skins!)

Even if you haven't yet finished your story (or haven't even started it; I'm looking at you, NaNoWriMo participants), you'll still find useful information that might help you swerve around some potholes in the first place. So the next time your manuscript receives a rejection letter, instead of posting it on the wall next to your toothbrush holder, try reading through it with a copy of Thanks, But This Isn't For Us at your side. It just might be a more effective brain stimulant than your morning coffee!

(Note: this review comes from my own, dog-eared personal copy of Thanks, But This Isn't For Us, not a publisher's review copy. Just so ya know.)

(This column first appeared in October 2011.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What Makes a Good Ghost Story?

Who doesn't love a good ghost story? One of my favorite books when I was young was Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful (Random House, 1961 and subsequent editions), in which the master of creepy supernatural thrillers introduced nine spooky stories by a variety of authors. My beloved copy had belonged to my brothers before me, and at around age 10, I snapped it up. I loved it so much that I recently hunted down a used copy on the Internet and have it before me now.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," was Mr. Hitchcock's characteristic opening. He went on to say that he'd compiled these particular stories "to provide reading for young people who are at the awkward age. Children who are too lazy to walk but still too young to drive. Here are nine stories carefully compiled to furnish reading material in Life's great waiting room where we while away the hours until our driver's license is issued."

Further on he wrote, "[One] reason I am not addressing this book to adults is (and believe me, this hurts) they insist they don't believe in ghosts. [Emphasis in the original.] It's shocking, really. After all, these are the people who write our country's laws and pay our allowances. I don't know how they could become so confused. Perhaps you are partly to blame. You have not watched them closely enough and they have fallen in with bad company."

I loved these stories, which included selections by such august authors as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But my favorite of the collection was The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall by John Kendrick Bangs, which contained all the elements that my prepubescent mind thought a good ghost story should have:  a creaky old house, strange midnight appearances, unfinished business,  a clever solution, and a quirk of amusement.

I don't believe in ghosts. But I did write one ghost story back in my student days, which I'm still rather proud of after all these decades. If you care to read it, it's posted here.

What about you? Do you have a favorite ghost story? What, to you, make up the essential elements of a good ghost story?

Monday, October 20, 2014

Murder Mystery Update: The Story Comes to Life

The history-mystery fund-raiser plan is percolating along! (For those who are following this event as it unfolds, the previous update is here.)

To recap, I've been writing a history-themed murder mystery to be performed at a fund-raiser on behalf of a local history museum. Last time I explained a little of how the story and characters were developed. Since then I've gotten some questions about the process, so here's a little Q and A.

Is the story based on an actual murder that really took place?

No. The crime is entirely fictional, some of the characters are purely fictional, and even the "real-person" characters do fictional things.It is above all a fun story meant to entertain, but we hope that some nuggets history will be learned along the way.

For example, the owners of a ladies' millinery shop play a role in the story. There really was a millinery shop on Sandpoint's Cedar Street in 1920, and the sisters who owned it really existed. But beyond that, we don't have many facts to go on: what their personalities were like, how they spoke, and so on. I ended up loosely basing those characters on dress-shop owners Ruby and Pearl Pratt in the delightful BBC series Lark Rise to Candleford.

Pearl and Ruby Pratt own the dress shop in Candleford

As with any good historical fiction, we've woven threads of make-believe onto an historical framework. Guests will learn about Prohibition, the local economy, political concerns of the day, fashions, music, and goings-on around town.

Will the guests be involved in the story, too?

Yes. As each guest sends an RSVP to the fund-raiser, he or she is assigned a real character from local history to portray, to the extent he or she is comfortable doing so, along some backstory and suggestions for costume and lingo. We'll have everyone from grocers to bankers to ranchers to loggers to schoolteachers, all partying like it's 1920.

How did you do your research?

Mostly from combing the local newspapers of 1920 and oral histories left by people who lived in the area. As the event is a fund-raiser for a history museum, making use of the museum's resources to do the research seemed appropriate.

Who did the crime?

I'm not telling.

Check back to find out more about "A Little Party Never Killed Anybody." And as always, feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Jabberwocky: Whimsical Neologisms

“Jabberwocky,” a poem penned by Lewis Carroll in his 1871 novel, Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There, is considered one of the greatest nonsense poems written in English. Delightful to read aloud, the poem’s singsong cadence, made-up words, and vivid imagery demands the reader’s interaction.

from: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
By Lewis Carroll

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.

The words made little sense to Alice, “It seems very pretty," she said when she had finished it, "but it's rather hard to understand!" (You see she didn't like to confess even to herself, that she couldn't make it out at all.) "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas--only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate---"

The whimsical language created for the poem by Carroll resulted in three neologisms (newly coined words that fall into common usage) and a plethora of nonsense words:

Jabberwocky: meaningless speech or writing.

Galumphing: to move with clumsy and heavy tread.

Chortle: a snorting, joyful laugh or chuckle; a combination of the words “chuckle” and “snort.”

In the book, Humpty Dumpty tried to explain the gobbledygook for Alice. He described “rath”as “a sort of green pig.” In his notes, Carroll described it as “a species of badger that “lived chiefly on cheese” and had smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag; appendixes later described it as “a species of land turtle “that lived on swallows and oysters.” No one truly knows. Have you ever seen one?

Frabjous: a combination of fabulous, and joyous.

Frumious: a combination of fuming and furious.

Gyre: to go round like a gyroscope.

Mimsy: Humpty described mimsy as “flimsy” and “miserable.”

In Jabberwocky-fashion, Douglas Adams included a poem in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly

Oh freddled gruntbuggly thy micturations are to me
  As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee my foonting turlingdromes
  And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my
  blurglecruncheon, see if I don't!

Wanna have some fun? Try fabricating fabulous new words yourself. Use Jabberwocky, Dr. Seuss, and "Oh Freddled Gruntbuggly" for inspiration; refer to your dictionary and thesaurus for information; and let your imagination fly.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

5 Tips for Writing CharacterDescription

Artists draw pictures with ink, or paint, or pencil; but writers are challenged to draw pictures of their characters using words alone.  What does the character look like?  What are his/her personality traits, habits, shortcomings, strengths or idiosyncrasies?  The secret lies in outlining their  characters in detail, then introducing them slowly, through description and action.  Some helpful tips include: 

1. Develop a Character Chart 
The first step is to create a Character Chart outlining everything you know about your character. Many examples of Character Charts can be found online; some are very comprehensive, but you can tailor them to meet your needs.  The more complete your profile, the easier you'll find it to describe your character through words and action.   

2. Don't Make a List
An item-by-item list of characteristics, or giving too much information at one time, is boring for the reader and considered lackluster writing.  Skilled writers introduce the character then sprinkle tidbits throughout the story, allowing the reader to “discover” the true nature of the character in small doses.  The reader gets the same information, but in a much more enjoyable way. 
Sharon Rose might sit on the floor beside her bed like a sick child.  She often felt drained of her proper nature.  Her mind was like a liquid in a sloppy container.  Her soul rolled from side to side of a rocking boat. – Wright Morris, Plains Song
3. Beware Adjective Addiction
Adjectives don't add the spice you are looking for and result in making a boring list longer. Effective writers follow Mark Twain’s advice on adjectives:
When you catch an adjective, kill it.  No, I don't mean utterly,  but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice. – Mark Twain 
4. Choose Not “To Be”
Don’t fall into the habit of using the common “ to be” verbs which are considered weak because they don’t show action.  Replacing these verbs with action verbs results in powerful and concise writing. 
Nature forgot to shade him off, I think... A little too boisterous--like the sea. A little too vehement--like a bull who has made up his mind to consider every colour scarlet. But I grant a sledge-hammering sort of merit in him.  ― Charles Dickens, Bleak House
5. Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Following the old rule of “show, don't tell" enables writers to introduce their characters in a more interesting way, drawing a picture that is complete and well rounded.  If a particular trait is vital to the storyline, find different ways to imprint the trait you consider important through the character’s actions and/or interactions with supporting characters.
She [Sybil Vane] crouched on the floor like a wounded thing, and Dorian Gray, with his beautiful eyes, looked down at her, and his chiseled lips curled in exquisite disdain. There is always something ridiculous about the emotion of people whom one has ceased to love. ― Oscar Wilde, the Picture of Dorian Gray