September 15, 2014
Thanks to my versatile Kindle Fire, I recently explored the tragic story of Revolutionary Road in both movie and book form. It’s a cautionary tale that seems relevant to anyone trying to balance a creative career with domestic and workaday responsibilities. Originally a novel by Richard Yates published in 1961, the story is set in post-World War II suburban America. It evidently resonates with contemporary audiences, as it became a well-regarded 2009 film reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the equally tragic but much-more-in-love couple from 1997’s Titanic.
The film is quite faithful to the book. It portrays a young couple whose belief that they are too talented and special to endure an ordinary suburban existence ultimately leads to their destruction. Many people strive for this kind of balance, and find it difficult, if not killing. To avoid self-destructing over it, one must ultimately come to a more realistic understanding of what’s achievable.
Frank and April Wheeler’s life in the suburbs is prosperous enough, and would be envied by many. They have a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood, friendly (although sometimes nosy) neighbors, and two adorable children. Frank has a decent-paying job with possibilities for promotion. What more could they want?
What they want most is not to be ordinary. Frank hates, or more accurately, disdains the job. April studied to be an actress, but failed at it. She depends on her husband to make their lives special, and resents his inability to do it. They both indulge in affairs, which fail to alleviate their boredom. Then they concoct a much more ambitious plan to blast through the ordinariness. They will chuck everything and move to Paris, counting on the city itself to bestow the specialness they crave. What will they do there? It’s not that Frank wants to paint city scenes or write a novel. They figure that April will support the family with secretarial jobs while he looks after the kids and “finds himself.”
The friends with whom they share this implausible plan are mostly appalled at their lack of responsibility, but are mostly too polite to say so. The only person with sufficient courage to spell out the flaws in their thinking is a recent mental hospital patient whose illness seems to spur his honesty. In the end, the Wheelers’ castle in the air comes crashing down, wrecked by the most prosaic of realities, an unplanned pregnancy. How will they handle that? It turns out they can’t.
August 15, 2014
I’ve been at this self-publishing game since 2003, when I published a novel I’d been working on for at least a decade. It’s been fun and rewarding, but not what I’d call lucrative. Luckily, I never expected money or fame. In fact, I didn’t think it was in the cards for anyone who chose self-publishing. Maybe it wasn’t, back then. But now there are enough success stories popping up every day to get any writer salivating.
I don’t begrudge anyone their success; quite the opposite. I just wonder how they do it. Some are hitting the jackpot by writing a lot of books, preferably in a series, and doing it fairly fast so as not to keep the fans waiting. I have yet to figure out how to write fast. To get it right takes me endless drafting and rewriting, followed by critiquing and editing, followed by more rewriting. And that doesn’t even include the final touches of line editing and formatting, which are best done by professionals who don’t come cheap.
In order to make anything close to a decent living in digital self-publishing (defined as the magic figure that might tempt an author to quit his day job), it seems necessary to publish a new book no less frequently than once every six months. A shorter interval between books would be even better, especially if it appears advisable to offer one or more for free in order to market the others.
So how do these hot-shot authors get so prolific? It can’t be just because they have more time than I do. I couldn’t pull off the same feat even if I wrote every day, all day. Could it have something to do with genre? Perhaps sci-fi and fantasy lend themselves more easily to rapid writing than the complicated plots and character development that my chicklit-style novels require. There’s undoubtedly a knack to keeping plots simple and improvising on proven formulas. That is not to cast doubt on the quality of such rapid-fire books. As long as they’re attracting readers, their authors are doing something right.
July 23, 2014
Is it possible for writers to get even with various adversaries by fictionalizing them? I’ve met enough snobs in my life, for which I hold long-standing and useless grudges, to populate several novels. If I couldn’t do that, my deep-seated resentments might give me ulcers.
My old college dormitory, way back in the early 1970s, served as part of the inspiration for my 2007 novel The Rock Star’s Homecoming. I imagine it could’ve also given rise to stories like “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Mean Girls.” There always seemed to be “popular corners” where the cliques lived together in cozy groups.
I had a rough time as a college freshman because my roommate considered herself socially superior to me in every way. We suffered from basic incompatibility, as I was too academically serious for her. She critiqued my struggles to fit in, but had no real interest in helping me out. We were mostly cordial on the surface, but not being quite the idiot she took me for, I gradually became aware that she was bad-mouthing me behind my back. We broke up at the end of the year when she chose one of the more popular girls to room with the following year. She sprang it on me one day, asking with pretended concern who I had lined up for next year. Her plan, no doubt, was to create her own popular corner with her new roomie, and live happily ever after.
Only it didn’t quite work out that way. I don’t know what happened, but I picked up some gossip about their ugly breakup, after only a few months, during which my ex-roommate reacted like a screaming, jilted wife. Karma, perhaps?
Things like this shouldn’t happen in adult life, but they do, right into middle age and beyond. I’ve encountered “popular corners” in my various workplaces. As I wrote in my office drama, Secretarial Wars, there are “Gigglers” and “Whisperers” in every office. Cliques tend to form naturally, and there is no sense in fighting that. But when supervisors cultivate elite groups within their staffs, issues of fundamental fairness come into play.
The Federal government lacks the drama of “The Office,” with its love triangles, mergers, and sudden firings. We are supposed to have various civil service protections, but discrimination can be subtle and hard to prove. For example, although we’re supposedly protected from age discrimination, I have no doubt my gray hair torpedoed my career.
Somewhere along the line I acquired a new supervisor who claimed to appreciate my abilities proven over many years, but promoted two new, much younger employees over me and spent most of his energy cultivating them. Since he was nice to me on the surface, it took me a while to realize he was saddling me with grunt work and forgetting to include me in the important things. I’m sure the “one percent” syndrome thrives in many offices, a system rigged to ensure that those who are already privileged reap nearly all the benefits available.
The situation upset me greatly, but anticipating retirement, I lacked the energy to look for another job or to fight back much. I exchanged real self-respect at work for an easier life. In turn, my employers missed out on what could have been at least a few more productive years by failing to utilize my true skills and keep me engaged. I read a review of the final episode of “The Office” which summed this up nicely: that the loss of passion for a career can be liberating if it sets you free to pursue other passions.
Even in the adult world, “popular corners” tend to break up of their own accord. They involve flawed individuals, after all. I began to suspect some of the closed-door meetings from which I was excluded weren’t total love-fests. The fact is, privileged workers can easily turn into children who’ve been showered with too many toys. They don’t really appreciate it. When it came to paying the price of fame … which I suppose would have required them to be on call more than they wanted to be … they balked.
Getting back at real-life snobs on paper can give you a psychological boost. But there are times when real life doesn’t need any fictional embellishment … when trusting to Karma works out just fine.
June 15, 2014
I’ve avoided reading bad reviews for a while now. I’ve heard too many cruel jibes about my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, which admittedly has a complicated plot. Recently, via Google, I discovered a couple of not-so-bad reviews. A few readers have had the patience to stay with the story until it resolved itself. At least they admit there is a story. But I recognize that complex plots, with lots of characters, need simplifying if we want them to be made into movies … and who doesn’t?
I submitted all three of my novels to professional screenwriters who attempted to transform them into cinematic products. I was warned in advance that large portions of the original stories would likely end up on the cutting room floor, as movies require a more streamlined plot and cast of characters than novels do. So how much do I miss the parts that had to go?
There was no getting around the fact that Let’s Play Ball needed simplification, although the basics were spared. It’s about a Cuban-born Major League ballplayer who is kidnapped from his own ballpark and transported back to his homeland. His sportswriter fiancée and her fraternal twin sister, sometimes assisted and sometimes impeded by the police, set out to discover who did it, and why. My story involves collusion between two filthy-rich and powerful owners with political connections that reach as far as the White House and the Cuban government. A militia movement assists with the kidnapping for its own racist reasons. The smoking gun is revealed via an Oval Office tape, secretly recorded by the President’s girlfriend as punishment for his perceived betrayal of her. Along the way, there are plenty of other sexual hi-jinks.
The screenplay, by contrast, boils down the evil governments and militias to single individuals with simpler motives than world domination. For example, a mechanic named Ricky tampers with a player’s motorcycle. He has no notion of trying to expose Oval Office chicanery. He’s merely working for a baseball owner whose motive is preventing an embarrassing revelation about steroid use on his team. The evil owner, whose son-in-law is a U. S. Senator, isn’t exposed via secret tapes. Instead, his daughter confronts one of the avenging twins, who possesses damning evidence against her, in the bathroom at a political fundraiser. This leads to the arrest of both owner and daughter in front of a roomful of supporters.
I’m not saying a book should try to be a movie, as they are vastly different animals. But my story became more cinematic by acquiring visual settings: a Congressional hearing room, a press conference, a raucous fundraiser. Eye-catching images were added: a smashed vehicle, a woman throwing out a first pitch, a car alarm that creates a distraction outside a ballroom. Not to mention the hot lovemaking, which I suspect would come across even hotter on the screen than it does in the pages of the novel.
April 29, 2014
I always wanted to be in pictures. I’m a financial backer, in a very modest way, for a Kickstarter-backed film project called “Freelancers The Series.” It’s a fantasy epic produced by Witness Pictures, the independent film company that produced my three book trailers. This series, which has aired four episodes so far, features a strong heroine, and I mean a really strong heroine, named Caitlin.
To put it mildly, she’s a more vivid presence than the “heroines” in my novels, who are doing their best (and often failing) to navigate college dormitories, offices, and the dating scene. Caitlin is a warrior in a fantasy landscape that looks medieval to the naked eye, but has numerous modern touches, such as hip dialogue and flirting. “I think she likes me!” says one of her male adversaries. She is trying to right a wrong done to her family by stealing back a mysterious key. Along the way she steals a lot of other things, and soon ends up on wanted posters.
I have no doubt Caitlin will eventually prevail in her private crusade, even if she has to duel every evildoer who is responsible for her family’s distress. By contrast, my heroines’ idea of victory is not being stood up for the majority of their dates, or getting through a pile of typing before their bosses explode.
My girls, of course, do aspire to more exciting careers. I’ve featured amateur journalists who would prefer to get big stories without having to sleep with their sources, but can’t always manage that. I have a heroine who starts out as a bureaucrat with Homeland Security and ends up conducting a wildcat investigation of her brother-in-law’s kidnapping. My girls would love to lead heroic lives, but they’re not like Caitlin, a true adventurer with the skills of a cat burglar. Dressed all in black, she routinely walks on window sills, climbs up walls, and carries a sword she’ll use if she must, although she regrets shedding blood unnecessarily.
Critics have advised me to strengthen my heroines. Maybe they should take Caitlin as their model as they navigate their workaday worlds. There are, after all, many different kinds of landscapes to conquer.
March 28, 2014
I’ve been reading some nasty screeds lately about Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series “Girls.” The show follows the New York-based adventures of four twenty-something girls who somehow lack the fabulousness of their predecessors, the Sex And The City women. Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, a struggling writer and the least glamorous of the girls, is naturally the one I identify with. Her evident inspiration, Carrie Bradshaw of SATC, was a popular columnist, and thus not nearly as relatable. You would think followers of “Girls” who are struggling writers themselves would be just the type to identify with Hannah, yet viewers love to hate her. Her narcissism, immaturity, and poor life choices may resonate, but that doesn’t make her likeable.
Of course, it’s Lena we resent, not Hannah. Like many of us, Dunham writes semi-autobiographical stories. Those of us who dabble in chicklit often feature heroines who screw up a lot; in fact, if they didn’t, there would be no story. Writing instructors tell us it’s essential that our characters grow up and figure things out in the course of a story. Since Dunham’s series is presumably set to run for a few more seasons, Hannah’s growth process is agonizingly slow. She still hits up her folks for money. She’s had numerous near-breakthroughs in her writing career, but something always goes wrong. Her relationships seem promising for a few episodes, but something is always off kilter.
Lena Dunham’s success proves that you can make a living by making hay out of your mistakes. But how did such a screw-up land an HBO series? Not by doing the things her alter ego does, but by working hard, taking risks, getting a little bit lucky, and cultivating helpful connections rather than alienating them.
Lena’s success might give us all hope, except that Hannah’s struggles seem more believable. During the current season she landed a respectably salaried but unfulfilling job shilling for a corporation. She can’t resist telling her boss that there’s no way she’ll be doing this job in ten years, because that would mean she never became a real writer. That day she comes home from the office not quite sure whether she quit the job or not. Either way, she vows that from now on her free time will be devoted to becoming the writer she was intended to be. She tells her actor boyfriend not to talk to her for three hours, as that’s the amount of time she will be allotting each evening to her own creative pursuits. When she’s done, she’ll be ready to listen to him describe his own day. While she’s telling him this, she falls asleep on the sofa and he tucks her in. So much for pursuing fame and fortune in your spare time.
February 25, 2014
I’m getting a kick out of Frederic J. Frommer’s “You Gotta Have Heart,” an entertaining history of Washington baseball encompassing four different teams from 1859 to 2012. It describes the special sort of heartbreak that seems to have haunted DC baseball fans for more than a hundred years (including that appalling 34-year gap from 1971 to 2005). The word “heartbreak,” when applied to sports, is hyperbole. Yet when your team loses, especially when it should have won, it feels tragic. The aggrieved fan really ought to acquire some perspective no later than the next day, considering all the immeasurably worse things that are happening in the world and could even strike close to home. Yet what other city has “suffered” so endlessly as to inspire a long-running musical based on the proposition that the only way out of the doldrums is a pact with the devil?
I took personally the loss of two Senators teams, in 1961 to Minnesota and 1971 to Texas. It still feels like betrayal, and it even feels like the Twins and Rangers are at least partly ours. The first time it happened, it took my family a few years to warm up to the lousy expansion team we acquired in their place. The second time it happened, I was away at college when they slipped away behind my back … which in some ways made it worse.
The book describes the dramatic break in the clouds that the 2012 playoffs brought about: the first postseason baseball in DC since 1933. The Nationals played an up-and-down Divisional series, with the ecstasy of a walk-off win in Game Four followed by yet another heartbreak in Game Five. A floating strike zone tightened at the worst possible moment for the young closer, Drew Storen, who twice nearly closed out a divisional series win.
Those of us who take these things to heart are often told to “get a life.” I agreed in principle, until I read what some of the most respected political figures and pundits in town had to say about that loss. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell likened it to “a death in the family,” and added that Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential election was only slightly more painful to him. Democratic political consultant James Carville called it “one of the great searing moments of my life.” Columnist Charles Krauthammer, preparing for a television appearance and following Game Four at the same time, predicted he’d be the first person ever to have a heart attack on live television. So there you have it: bi-partisan fanaticism in DC.
January 17, 2014
One of my favorite novelists, Pat Conroy, has written a couple of memoirs that explore the roots of his fiction. The latest one, The Death of Santini, tackles the most painful source of his inspiration, the brutal treatment he and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot.
Conroy was always destined to be controversial, with such an array of dark and violent subjects to choose from. His first book, The Boo, was originally self-published (something we indies can take to heart). His second, The Water Is Wide, described his experience as an inexperienced teacher in an impoverished African American elementary school. His methods got him fired after a year, and his indictment of the segregated school system provoked a fair amount of outrage in the South. Since then, Conroy has continued to deal with the hot topics that roiled the nation during the 1960s, such as southern racism, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. He also tackles the most personally sensitive topic imaginable: his own experiences with mental illness, including the psychosis of a sister, the suicide of a brother, and his own periodic breakdowns.
Conroy’s writing tends to be lush and metaphor-filled, something that many so-called experts frown on. Certainly we indies get slammed if we’re perceived to be too flowery. That’s why I was delighted to read his blast against the naysayers: “I trained myself to be unafraid of critics, and I’ve held them in high contempt since my earliest days as a writer because their work seems pinched and sullen and paramecium-souled.”
A paramecium-souled critic! Has anyone ever put it better? I’m certainly not knocking constructive criticism, which authors need, but haven’t we all encountered our share of these paramecium souls? Don’t we know what it is to be willfully misunderstood by readers who refuse to suspend disbelief long enough to accept our vision? That kind of automatic dismissal precludes thoughtful judgment and lends itself to nit-picking. And don’t even get me started on the hordes of anonymous trolls who feel qualified to write a “review” based on a two-minute skimming.
Conroy also goes on to explain why he doesn’t write reviews, or at least bad ones: “I made the decision to never write a critical dismissal of the works of another brother or sister writer, and I’ve lived up to that promise to myself. No writer has suffered over morning coffee because of the savagery of my review of his or her latest book, and no one ever will.” We could all take a lesson from those words: a thoughtful critique is one thing, a hatchet job quite another.
December 10, 2013
More than a decade into the self-publishing revolution, it’s hard to believe we’re still being subjected to dire warnings about “vanity publishing.” Can there possibly be a more tired phrase than that? If it’ll do any good, I’ll admit that I’m vain. Whenever I publish, I chose to pay dearly for the privilege. A complete package includes professional covers, copyrights, thorough editing, and at least rudimentary marketing. Those don’t come cheap, and all are absolutely essential for even moderate success.
Like many other aspiring authors, I have found the traditional path not totally unresponsive to my queries, yet ultimately unsuited to my type of writing. There are simply too many rules. I like to mix genres, which makes it next to impossible to fit into a publishing niche. My novels start out as chicklit, but then I complicate things by adding healthy doses of social and/or political commentary. Not an easy sell.
Traditional publishing is not only too limiting in that way, but takes too long. For someone who’s no longer a spring chicken, years of compromise, rejection, and frustration are not a good option. And yes, it takes “vanity” to believe that stories representing my own vision from start to finish, not someone else’s idea of a commercial product, are worth putting out. My only obligation is to make sure they’re not a half-assed job, but the very best I can do.
Does that make us indies any more vain than traditionally published authors? Not so much these days, I believe. On the contrary, it looks like even the trads are increasingly expected to do their own self-promotion, assuming they aren’t famous already. So can’t we just agree that all writers are vain? We must be, if we persist in thinking we have something to say that the world should hear.
November 5, 2013
The Beach Boys, that goodtime band of my youth that always seemed to personify Fun, Fun, Fun, have devolved into quite a mess. The tragic part of the story began many years ago with the loss of the two younger Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl. The band survived, with the help of talented replacements, but it was wracked by dissention. These days, first cousins Brian Wilson and Mike Love are leading separate factions. Love has been suing Wilson regularly since 1989. He’s won most of the legal battles, including the right to call his version of the group The Beach Boys. After pursuing separate paths for many years, the two combatants tantalized their fans with a 50th Anniversary Reunion in 2012, only to break up again.
Is the divorce final this time? Two versions of the band are now touring the country, playing some of the same locations and many of the same songs but also presenting distinctly different visions of what the brand has come to mean. I saw both versions, Parts One and Two, in Atlantic City about two months apart. Despite their differences, they both tapped into that crowd-pleasing sense of fun, reeling off many of their biggest hits. Both bands feature longtime members of the group: Wilson has Al Jardine and David Marks in his lineup, while Love has Bruce Johnston.
Brian is forbidden to call his outfit the Beach Boys. There’s some justification for this, as he’s clearly the one who has strayed from the original model, having sequestered himself in recording studios for long periods to experiment with new sounds. He also works somewhat incongruously with classic rockers such as Jeff Beck, who couldn’t be farther from the surfer mold. Mike, by contrast, has never stopped trying to be a teenager. During his show, which is especially heavy on the old car tunes, he flashes pictures of his first wreck of an automobile (Little Deuce Coup) and then his current flashy one. When he relives high school with songs like “Be True To Your School,” cheerleaders join him onstage.
Both of the shows are heavy on nostalgia and evoke the good old days, but I wonder: can’t these two just get along before it’s too late? They are family, after all, and they’re both in their seventies. More importantly, they represent two distinct but equally important aspects of the band, both of which were essential to their original success: the creative genius represented by shy and reticent Wilson, and the promoter’s instinct personified by outgoing, flamboyant Love. Why not celebrate them both … together?