Amateur Moviemakers

February 3, 2016

crazy-iphone-camera-lensIt’s a great time to aspire to be a moviemaker without any credentials whatsoever. Ambitious amateurs are proclaiming that anybody with a smart phone in his or her pocket is a potential filmmaker. Is it true that no special knowledge or skill is needed when you point that I-phone, other than the ability to hold it straight? And are the films being made with such minimal preparation any good? So far we haven’t seen the ambitious phone-wielders on a red carpet at the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes. But there have been enough breakthroughs in the past few years to give amateurs hope.

Just by googling “movies made with I-phones,” you can find numerous examples of phone-based productions that have garnered attention, a few of them enough to win prestigious prizes. For example, a movie called “Tangerine,” shot on an Apple device, was shown at the Sundance Film Festival. It is based on the true story of a love triangle that developed at a popular donut shop between a transgender woman, her boyfriend, and a biological woman.

On looking closer, it seems this production adhered to certain professional standards. The writer and director, Sean Baker, did know what he was doing. He used three phones, as well as an app called Filmic Pro, a Steadicam to keep the phones from shaking, and some adapter lenses to give it a professional look. He also employed post-production techniques that reflected his knowledge of traditional filmmaking.

There is now at least one annual festival devoted to recognizing and rewarding iPhone films. Belarus-born Chris Nong, also an established director, won an award at the second annual festival for an eight-minute Russian action movie shot with an iPhone 4. Again, other devices were used, and the director’s professional credentials were in evidence. Michael Koerbel, the producer of a TV series called “Goldilocks” that features a blonde secret agent called Jasmine, maintains that anybody can do it. He is also the author of a book called “Studio in your Pocket,” and the producer of several short films. He declares, “We want to inspire the next generation of filmmakers to get out there and start sharing their stories with the world.”

How about full-length feature films? “Uneasy Lies The Mind” (2014) was billed as “the first narrative feature film to be shot entirely on iPhone.” This film is a psychological portrait of a man suffering delusions due to a head injury. Accordingly, its use of distorted and disjointed images is actually a selling point. The director, Ricky Fosheim, the founder of Detention Films and known for his music videos, pointed to the relative affordability of this method.

So is everybody really doing it? These experienced directors give the impression that they are experimenting with ways of cutting costs and getting a production up and running with amazing speed, but that they could return to their more traditional and expensive methods at any time.

What about absolute rank amateurs? Are they doing anything noteworthy? Maybe not yet, but they are trying. There are numerous meetup groups here in the DC area devoted to writing scripts and critiquing them. However, if a movie is ever to arise from a script, it has to be “crewed.” That is true whether the filmmakers make use of their handy personal toys or bring in traditional cameras. You either need to hire an existing production company, which is an expensive proposition, or put together an amateur one.

The “Film in a Day” method is an increasingly popular and relatively affordable technique for ambitious but under-subsidized outfits. For example, a meetup group called Bethesda Amateur Filmmakers A to Z, located in suburban Washington DC, proclaims: “Writing, producing, directing, acting, filming, and editing, we do it all!” Founded in March of 2015, the group has two “executive organizers” in charge of all productions. They periodically send out a call for screenplays of five to seven pages, from which they aim to select one for production every two months. Once the script is selected, they put together a temporary production company, locate a single set, and accomplish the shooting in one day. Four films have been made up to this point, three to five minutes in length, and posted on youtube. They range from a comedy about bumbling thieves (“Decaf”) to a psychological fantasy about conquering internal demons (“Critics”). By necessity, the story lines and messages are simple, yet five minutes seems enough time to at least make a point. It’s not red-carpet stuff, but it’s a start.

girls-no-9-the-bell-jarI first encountered Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in 1972, when I was a sophomore in college. It was not assigned reading at that time, yet it was catching on like wildfire, especially among us young English majors. Apparently the novel was having a similar effect on many other college campuses. It was originally published in England, Plath’s adopted homeland, only a few weeks before her suicide in 1963. She had used a pseudonym out of belated concern for the many people close to her whom she had trashed mercilessly in the autobiographical story.

Plath was reportedly disappointed in the tepid reaction to the novel. Her only previous book, a collection of poems, had suffered a similar underwhelming fate. She had recently separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, who at that time was much better known than she was. Motivated by both pride and desperation, she was trying to find a way to support herself and their two children. American publishers were initially skeptical about the book’s salability, and she was unable to get it accepted by a U.S. publisher during her lifetime. Several years later, when imported bootleg copies began selling by the hundreds in bookstores, The Bell Jar finally caught the eye of the so-called American literary experts.

Having reread it recently, I can see what put publishers off. It details a nervous breakdown suffered by a young, talented college student. Plath’s forte was poetry, and it shows. The novel reads like the effusions of a poet trying to write a novel. It features a plethora of metaphors, which make for lovely writing but at times can look like showing off. Apart from this stylistic problem, the story suffers from something of a disconnect. As pointed out by one of the publishers who turned it down, the breakdown doesn’t seem to follow from the ordinary angst of a teenaged girl. The observations of a perceptive young woman, who’s going through a tumultuous time in her life, don’t prepare the reader for her plunge into suicidal depression.

Yet something about Plath’s novel certainly spoke to us young college girls. What brought it to life was that by the early 1970s, we knew it was chillingly real. Plath had indeed tried to commit suicide at 20 years of age, and she succeeded at it when she was 30. Like her heroine, Esther Greenwood, she was a scholarship girl at a prominent Eastern women’s college in 1953, who won a writing contest that entitled her to spend a month working at a New York-based fashion magazine. Like her character, Plath was beset by overwhelming ambition that was essentially stymied for girls growing up in the 1950s. She wanted both personal happiness and professional success. The magazine job turned out to be tedious and unsatisfying. She had a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, but who assured her with complete certitude that once she had kids, her creative life would become irrelevant. When she returned to suburbia from her New York adventure, everything seemed lifeless. Her mother’s van reminded her of a prison. The neighbors struck her as nosy and dowdy.

The college years can be a tough period of self-discovery and fear for the future. I hardly knew anyone in those times, including myself, who didn’t go through an episode or two of depression. Fortunately, few of us crashed as dramatically as Plath did. Yet in her later life, Plath came tantalizingly close to fulfilling that “having it all” goal. In fact, at the start of The Bell Jar, she almost brags about it. For a long time after her breakdown, Esther says, she hid away the gifts she accumulated in New York from various fashion companies, such as sunglasses and makeup cases. But “when I was all right again,” she brought them out, and “cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.”

For a while her marriage was almost idyllic, at least on the surface. She and Hughes took turns caring for their child while each managed several hours of writing time each day. But unfortunately for Sylvia, she married a man with a roving eye. The marriage seemed to grow more troubled after the birth of a second child, which made their childcare chores more complicated. However, her final breakdown was not triggered by her separation from Hughes. In fact, that trauma inspired her to write the anger-fueled poems that became Ariel, the collection which made her name. A more likely explanation is that the publication of The Bell Jar tipped her back into the adolescent angst that she thought she had escaped.

The seeds of self-destruction were always there, regardless of her circumstances. “Sylvia was doomed,” remarked her high school English teacher when he heard of her suicide. Even when she had posed as a fun-loving, carefree high school girl, he had detected the rigidity and falseness behind that sunny mask. It’s noteworthy that there was a history of depression on both sides of her family. She was able to make art from her illness, but the more prosaic truth was that she was mishandled by the psychiatric profession. That is one of the messages of The Bell Jar. Effective treatments for her condition either did not exist or were in an early stage of development. She became something of a guinea pig for drug regimens and electroshock therapy. So I conclude that Sylvia Plath speaks to us, but not for us. We understand her struggles, but most of us, thankfully, can’t begin to understand the desperate remedy that she seized.

The Baby Boom Still Roars

December 5, 2015

images (4)These days I feel an urge to occupy something. As a progressive from the school of aging baby boomers, I find the current political climate and level of discourse in the US increasingly scary. As far back as I can remember, political institutions have never been as dysfunctional as they are now. We baby boomers have a tendency to exaggerate our exploits and insist that we used to be more astute and involved than today’s kids. Back in our day, we stopped the Vietnam War, invented civil rights and women’s liberation, pulled off Woodstock, and accomplished much of this while half-stoned. My Republican parents tried to steer my brother and me toward their brand of conservatism, but it didn’t work. The “Greatest Generation” and its values were just too different.

My parents’ party has now gone off the rails, as they would agree if they were still around. The two front runners for the 2016 presidential nomination as of this date are astoundingly unqualified for high office. The more childish and bizarre their pronouncements, the more their fan base cheers. Worse, they’ve managed to intimidate more mainstream Republican candidates into adopting equally crazy or demagogic positions. Listening to these gentlemen debate, I wait in vain for the rare reasonable statement based on verifiable facts, or a policy proposal that could actually be implemented, or even a message that isn’t hate-filled venom. That is a very low bar for our national politics.

It’s a relief to have a forum where I can state my beliefs plainly, but it’s not a good technique for writing fiction. Since my stories tend to harken back to my youth, politics has a way of sneaking into them. Critics justifiably warn us of the dangers of turning what should be entertaining stories into polemics. Two of my novels feature fictional presidents who are corrupt and bellicose, and are obviously Republicans. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the real-life buffoons of this day and age. You couldn’t make up candidates like Trump and Carson. It’s even getting difficult for comedians to satirize them, as the reality almost matches the caricature. My writing inevitably reflects my beliefs and career experiences from over 40 years in government and quasi-government, but it’s best to keep these things understated while telling a story. I prefer to think I’m standing up not for a particular candidate or platform, but for reason and compassion.

My 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars, was inspired by my first permanent job after college. I spent more than five years during the 1970s at the Fulbright grants program, an international exchange program for scholars. My novel describes an agency called, somewhat ironically, the Peace Council. It’s an organization that awards grants to send professors and researchers overseas to disseminate American values. My heroine, Miriam, is a secretary at the Council and an aspiring investigative journalist on the side. She suspects that the program is serving to mask a corrupt administration’s interference with the political and economic systems of certain vulnerable nations.

Nothing like this ever happened in real life, to my knowledge. But it could have, if an evil deputy director got into bed, literally and politically, with an evil President. Miriam tries to gather enough evidence to write an explosive article for an underground rag, but she is hampered by her conflicting desire to advance in the organization, as well as her unhealthy attraction to the lecherous newspaper editor. One reader who critiqued Secretarial Wars thought the corrupt president was inspired by George W. Bush. It’s true the book was published during W’s term, but it took so long to write that the era it depicts more closely resembles his dad’s.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I mixed up sports and politics, to the confusion and disapproval of some critics. The story centers on fraternal twin sisters Jessica and Miranda, baseball fans since childhood, close but competitive in their personal relationship. Jessica is the founder and editor of an innovative sports magazine, while Miranda has a more traditional but important job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security. While they share a liberal outlook, Miranda accuses Jessica of taking her beliefs to an extreme, especially when the intense reporter sets out to investigate her suspicions of racism on the local baseball team. Jessica’s Cuban-born fiancé, the right fielder, is soon to be a free agent, and she fears he won’t get the contract offer he deserves from the biased owners. Then her world blows apart when he is kidnapped from his own ballpark after a season-ending game. Now she envisions a vast criminal conspiracy in which the team owner and his daughter are complicit.

My astute critique group accused me of using Jessica to lecture my readers about the insidiousness of racism. I was preaching to the choir in that group anyway, they pointed out. But how can that be, I protested, when Miranda is the viewpoint character, and she rolls her eyes whenever Jessica gets too strident for her? Furthermore, Miranda is friendly with a few of the teammates whom Jessica has pegged as racists, and is having an affair with one of them. Even so, my friendly readers insisted, we can hear your political voice bellowing through.

Politics turned out to be unavoidable in Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my tale of a young musical trio and its groupies. I tried to recreate the turbulent era of my high school and college days, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wherever their budding careers take them, the musicians can’t escape the threat of a military draft. Scared and confused, they write and perform both peace-and-love and militant songs. The threat of violence follows them, and real bombs go off around them. This was an era when radical leftists co-opted the antiwar movement with their bombings and crime sprees, giving all of us who protested the war a bad name.

I recently finished reading Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burrough’s fascinating account of the political violence that permeated that era. He quoted at length Joseph Conner, whose father Frank, a 33-year-old banker, was killed in the infamous Fraunces Tavern bombing by Puerto Rican radicals. The younger Conner deplores current efforts to rehabilitate some of the self-styled revolutionaries of that era on the grounds that they’ve lived exemplary lives since then. “To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not even remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. By leftists. So they were let off the hook.”

I agree with Joseph Conner up to a point. The bombers and bank robbers of that era were indeed terrorists. But I disagree with his assertion that liberals are incapable of calling these criminals by their right name, when I know many of us do. I’d like to see more right-wingers who are equally capable of condemning the bombers of abortion clinics. Political messages delivered with hate lose any high ground they ever had, and become more pernicious than the wrongs they claim to be fighting.

Writing For The Feds

November 10, 2015

_1407624Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a fiction writer. I’ve always preferred making things up to dealing in realities. However, once I grew up I had bills to pay, so I needed to find practical uses for my writing skills in various workplaces. My efforts weren’t always welcome, especially when I was starting out. Back in the dark ages, most employers just wanted you to type, and not worry your “pretty little head” about what you were typing. I tried to dramatize that phenomenon in my 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars

Eventually, I wound up as a budget analyst for the Department of Labor. Federal agencies usually submit at least three versions of their annual budgets during the course of each fiscal year. These documents must present an effective mixture of numbers and narratives to justify the agency’s continuing existence as well as to request funding for new projects. Some budget analysts specialize in numbers-crunching, and some are better at explaining what the numbers mean. In my experience, the numbers specialists are more respected, but they can’t get along without the writers, even if they think they can.

I enjoyed budget-creating most when I was still young and idealistic. When I arrived at Labor in the early 1980s, I wholeheartedly believed in the department’s mission to uplift and protect the workers of America. Some administrations were resistant to those goals, but the challenge of finding ways to carry out the mission while enduring hostile cuts was satisfying in its own way. One of the highlights of my career took place at a hearing on Capitol Hill when an opening statement I had written was read, word-for-word, by the agency head. The supervisor I had then was proud of me and had my back. I only realized later what a rare gem he was.

There’s a reason why workplace comedies like “The Office” resonate. Supervisors and managers are an easy target for satire, since few can resist abusing what power they have. With a few well-publicized exceptions, most higher-ups in the Federal government never get disciplined because they generally refrain from blatantly illegal acts. But borderline unethical behavior, as well as plain bad judgment, are pretty rampant. I’ve seen managers form cliques with their favorite employees (who may nevertheless badmouth them behind their backs), take dubious junkets at taxpayer expense, and hire the people they want while skirting proper hiring procedures. Sometimes the office is junior high all over again, and other times it’s like society at large, where the one percent who already have everything get all the promotions and perks. Yet jobs that involve writing seem to be coveted. I was always fighting off newcomers and interns who were brought in to try their hand at doing my job, as a test of their basic analytical skills. Until late in my career, I was able to defend my turf.

One quirk of managers is that they tend to believe in their own perfection when it comes to writing, so editing them can be tricky. More than once, we budget drones would depart the office on a Friday, leaving behind what we thought was a completed budget ready for final approval, only to return on Monday to find that a manager had screwed around with it over the weekend and turned it in with serious omissions and errors that weren’t there before. A backup edit could have prevented that, but those are not always appreciated. One time I was able to delay, by about thirty minutes, sending through a piece that would have gone to Capitol Hill full of silly typos if I hadn’t caught them. My supervisor at that time was annoyed by the delay, and incredulous that there could have been any mistakes. I finally learned to edit on the sly if possible. I once rewrote a budget narrative that had come from one of our brilliant IT specialists in pure, incomprehensible geek-speak. With the help of Google, I was able to translate it into plain English. In order to get it through without a lot of review, I passed it off as the higher-up’s original work.

Later on, a newfangled electronic budgeting system was introduced, designed to make everything work faster and more efficiently. Like all new innovations, it did help in some ways when it was working properly (a fifty-fifty proposition), but at times it made matters worse, since some managers didn’t understand its limitations. They thought it gave them license to send in program narratives right on deadline, or make further changes at the last second, which could then be loaded into the system. They expected a fully realized budget to pop out just by clicking a button. But even the fanciest machines don’t necessarily understand formatting or recognize human errors. Naturally, we analysts were blamed for any mistakes we couldn’t catch on the fly.

In spite of frustrations like these, I took pride in my job until I apparently got too old for meaningful work. Hitting a certain age is the kiss of death for many Feds. Age discrimination is rampant in the Federal government, regardless of the rules against it. I’ve heard many stories similar to mine, so I have to conclude that agencies routinely drive out good employees who might have had several more years of productivity left. I can understand, up to a point, the need to plan for the future by bringing in younger blood. But the discarding process can be unnecessarily humiliating, and uneconomical as well. Sometimes I felt like shouting out that graying hair isn’t necessarily a sign of senility. I still remembered how to do things I had done as a youngster, and I usually noticed what was going on under my nose. I also questioned the wisdom of bringing in younger people and overpaying them to do the same work we used to do at much lower grade levels. I saw the most experienced employees relegated to the kinds of routine housekeeping tasks that are unappreciated and unrecognized until they don’t get done.

Since I retired, about a year and a half ago, I’ve heard informally that it is indeed a problem getting enough of these new hot-shots to pay attention to certain thankless but necessary tasks. I expressed the opinion before I left that it might be advisable to familiarize more people with the grunt work. But now that I’m gone, that’s so not my problem. My job now is to polish the skills I once used to earn a living, and have fun doing it.

Storybook Heroines Grow Up

October 17, 2015

anne-and-matthew21Several of my favorite childhood storybooks featured heroines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who were aspiring writers. Most of these heroines all but gave up writing as they grew up, and even seemed to do it proudly, as if renouncing their fondest dreams was an essential part of maturing. For example, Anne of Green Gables, L. M. Montgomery’s plucky Canadian orphan, started a story-writing club with several of her schoolmates, only to “outgrow” it. As she told her guardian, Marilla, “The story club isn’t in existence any longer. We hadn’t time for it … it was silly to be writing about love and murder and elopements and mysteries.”

That is hardly the way to mature as a writer. One of the sequels in the Anne series, Anne’s House of Dreams, covered her early years of marriage to her longtime sweetheart, Gilbert. When asked by a visiting journalist if she still wrote, Anne said airily, “Oh, I do little things for children. I haven’t done much since I was married.” She goes on to deny that she ever had designs on a “great Canadian novel.”

Many years later, at a college reunion, Anne runs into an old rival for Gilbert’s affections. This woman, Christine, is a childless widow who appears to have sacrificed everything for her career as a book editor and publisher. She mocks Anne for having abandoned a once-promising writing career, instead raising six children. This story line suffers, in my opinion, because Christine is too bitchy to be believable. Her attempt to flirt with Gilbert is doomed to failure, since he isn’t a complete fool. Montgomery could have gotten some real drama into the story by making Christine a nice person and a real temptation to Gilbert. However, that would undercut the didactic purpose of the story, which was to lecture young girls that Anne’s life was rich and full, and Christine’s was empty.

Louisa May Alcott was another author who pushed this lesson for girls, in Little Women and its sequels. Unlike Montgomery, Alcott never married. She couldn’t afford to give up her writing career, even if she had wanted to. Her father, also a writer, didn’t earn enough to support his family, so Louisa had to do it. Yet her alter ego, Jo March, did give up a budding career as an author when she married a professor and devoted her energies to helping him establish a school for boys. This suggests that Jo’s chosen life was Alcott’s true ideal.

In the last installment of the series, Jo’s Boys, Jo’s older sister Meg sighs that everything would be perfect in her world if only her daughter Josie, Jo’s namesake, would give up her dream of going on the stage. It’s a judgment on herself, Meg confesses, for having worried her own mother by entertaining the same ambition as a young girl. Josie is set straight when she meets a theatrical idol of hers, who advises her to “go back to school and finish your education. That is the first step, for all accomplishments are needed, and a single talent makes a very imperfect character.” Only after she has developed the attributes a woman should have, Josie is told, should she consider pursuing a career.

I’m forced to conclude that young girls of past eras who aspired to unconventional lives lacked role models, at least in literature. There was no one urging them to “lean in,” not even the most successful authors.  Montgomery reportedly married under pressure, and suffered from an uncongenial match, but fortunately she had already established herself as an author. She needed the writing as a crutch against the depression that afflicted both her and her husband. As for Alcott, she wraps up Jo’s Boys by trying to have it both ways for her young heroines. The two ambitious cousins, Bess and Josie, are said to have “won honors in their artistic careers, and in the course of time found worthy mates.” Alcott doesn’t explain how this is possible in that long-ago era, well before women were encouraged to try to “have it all.” Ironically, two popular and beloved authors felt compelled to warn girls against following their lead, or at least taking the pursuit too seriously.

untitled (2)“In spring, everything was sunny.” That was how a recent Washington Post article began its postmortem of the Washington Nationals’ disappointing 2015 season. The article went on to describe “the rise and fall of a dream,” as if the failure of this team to achieve its goals was comparable to the collapse of a nation. Unbeknown to some analysts, many of us fans anticipated from the start that the 2015 season was a disaster waiting to happen. That’s because we understand how damaging super-high expectations can be—and that the baseball gods love to punish hubris.

These things are written in the clouds, after all. Certain deities have had it in for this team ever since it arrived from Montreal in 2005, denuded and abused from a period of neglectful MLB ownership. It was as if the newly constituted team had no right to exist, much less to develop into a contender. A series of near misses and agonizing playoff defeats in the ensuing years can only have one explanation: those pesky baseball gods haven’t let us off the hook yet.

Baseball pundits on the national level seemed to wish for this collapse. Apart from one quote from superstar Bryce Harper before the season began, taken wildly out of context, it was those pundits who kept anointing the Nationals prohibitive World Series favorites. It turns out that winning championships on paper is easy. Those “experts” now have the pleasure of crowing while the fans suffer. One writer I ordinarily respect, John Feinstein, the author of several entertaining baseball books, seems to utterly lose his rational mind when it comes to the Nats. He cited Bad Karma as a primary reason for the Nats’ struggles.

This Bad Karma, in his opinion, has lingered from the infamous Stephen Strasburg shutdown—three years ago! General Manager Mike Rizzo angered the gods with his arrogance in assuming it made sense to limit Strasburg’s innings in 2012, the year after his Tommy John surgery, because there would surely be other opportunities for him to pitch in the playoffs. How arrogant, fumed Feinstein, to assume such a thing. Never mind that Rizzo followed the medical protocol for such injuries, and that Strasburg did get another playoff opportunity, in 2014. Further, I wonder why the gods are so determined to punish this particular decision. Everyone wanted to see Strasburg pitch in the 2012 playoffs, but Rizzo took the decision upon himself, in the interests of the pitcher’s long-term health. It takes convoluted reasoning to portray that as anything but a selfless act, but it just goes to prove that the baseball gods can’t be reasoned with.

All season long, many fans have been wishing to see more passion and emotion from this team. A few days ago our wish was fulfilled, a little too emphatically. An altercation broke out in the dugout between Bryce Harper and newly acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon, whose bust-your-gut-every-minute lecture didn’t sit well with the young superstar. The fight only served to underscore the final unraveling of this season’s fortunes. As always, the baseball gods got the last laugh.

Are You Writing A Saga?

September 15, 2015

Secretarial Wars still shotWhen I self-published my first novel, Secretarial Wars, in 2003, the industry was less advanced than it is now, and both readers and reviewers were hard to find. Only a few were willing to take on my fairly long and complicated tale, inspired by my own secretarial experiences, friendships, and romances when I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC. The story focuses on three women, aged 24 to 35, with 27-year-old Miriam as the viewpoint character. There are numerous secondary characters, especially gossipy office colleagues and troublesome boyfriends.

I was fortunate enough to attract a thoughtful, if rather brutal review from a reader based in England. She did say, encouragingly, that she “enjoyed the banter between the three friends and wanted to know what would happen to them.” But that was somewhat negated by “lack of pace and over-complexity of plot.” In short, I was accused of writing a saga when the chicklit-style story didn’t support it.

The three friends, I must admit, are rather bumbling, as the reviewer said. She complained of too many details about “American football matches” that the girls take in, mostly for the purpose of trying to meet players after the games. Nobody can say the women aren’t ambitious in their own ways, yet the reviewer accused them of lacking “gumption.” Miriam, for example, wants to write an exposé that would blow her own government agency out of the water, yet fails for months to uncover the corruption simmering at her workplace. Perhaps overly cautious, she can’t afford to lose her job for the sake of investigative journalism.

The reviewer complains that “there are far too many characters for a story that is neither a saga nor a blockbuster.” But how, exactly, does a story qualify as a saga? Does it have to be multi-generational, like The Forsyte Saga, or about a family caught up in historic conflicts, like War And Peace? Can’t my story be a mini-saga, since the girls do manage to shake up their own little corners of the nation’s capital?

Maybe the places where they hang out are just too seedy. At their favorite night club, which one of the girls co-manages, they get to hobnob with a second-tier elite, including a faded football star and an underground newspaper editor. The climactic scene of the story features a fundraiser held at the club for a long-shot Mayoral candidate. Things get out of hand, and the girls end up spending the night in jail. Through all their tribulations, they don’t really resolve anything, except to grow up a bit. So how often do we start out writing stories that feel like epics/sagas/blockbusters at first, only to fall a little short?

How Not To Write

August 12, 2015

rockstar_08-LLike most amateur writers, I wrote a couple of novels that were disastrous, meandering failures before I managed to produce one that at least had an identifiable beginning and end, and something of a coherent narrative. I thought these early attempts were great, at least while I was writing them. I didn’t yet have honest critics to tell me otherwise. Only when I started listening to those tough-but-fair opinions did I start to improve.

I see now that these early monstrosities broke every literary rule in the book. Not that I’m a stickler for rules, especially now that I’ve self-published four novels that probably continue to break a lot of them. Traditional publishers are always trying to convince us outsiders that there are all kinds of rules that we’re constantly violating, and that’s why they dismiss us out of hand. Only they can let us in on the secrets that make their authors successful–and only if they choose to. The only problem with that theory is that I often catch my favorite traditional authors breaking those so-called rules with impunity. They’d laugh at the notion that they should follow any vision other than their own.

Nevertheless, I realize there are common-sense tricks that you can ignore if you like, but at the risk of putting your readers to sleep. One of these is knowing when to “show” and when to “tell.” I once tried to write a novel called Sycophants, about a record and film production company based in New York. Besides not knowing much about the subject matter, I seemed to have a real flair for showing when I should have been telling, and vice versa. For example, there’s a scene in which a dynamic African American preacher bowls over a roomful of mostly white football wives, who never saw his like before. How does the reader know he bowled them over? Because I said so! I thought the reader should take my word for it.

Even worse than this is the wooden dialogue, which sounds about as realistic as a blowhard Senator filibustering by reading the Congressional Record aloud. That sin is compounded when the conversation is supposed to be intimate. For example, here’s the female CEO of the production company taking a telephone call from a boyfriend working on the other coast: “Hello, dearest! Just the man in whose ear I’ve been desiring to whisper all day … if you hadn’t called soon, dearest, I was about to fly off into God knows what stratosphere. You know how essential it is for me to touch base with you at least once a day, to maintain what little ballast I have in my hectic life.”

How do you deal with a pile of unusable crap from your past? Do you write it off, or do you return to it years later and try to salvage what you can? I’m now trying to eke out some story lines from the mess that was Sycophants. It still stings that I went so far off track in the first place. But I suspect there are no short cuts you can take when you don’t know what you’re doing; you just have to do it, and take your lumps.

Piles-of-books-001Several months ago, The Washington Post carried a heartbreaking story by Cynthia McCabe about a struggling writer, Dennis Williams (alternate name: Katry Rain) who became despondent and suicidal when he concluded that his writing life, and consequently his entire life, were finished. Williams published one book with a small press, had one play produced, and self-published several “philosophical” works and novels based on that philosophy. He was also a teacher of English in Japan, apparently popular with his students, and had garnered some press attention many years earlier with a stunt to protest the Nixon administration.

But the writing success that he longed for wasn’t forthcoming. In a heartbreaking “give-up” gesture, he dumped a load of his unsold books on the doorstep of a used bookstore under cover of darkness one night. Eventually, he planned his death and announced it in advance, e-mailing several prominent journalists, all strangers to him, one day in advance. Was this a ploy to get the attention he’d never had? If so, it was somewhat successful, but he didn’t stick around to enjoy it. He threw himself off a building, exactly as he said he would. He wasn’t interested in being talked out of it (although at least one of the journalists sincerely tried to). Nor was he forcing anybody to read his work. He was just “done.”

Can struggling writers learn anything from this sad story? I don’t believe “struggling” has to mean “despondent.” Most of us learn to embrace the struggle. If our wildest dreams are punctured, we settle for more modest success. Williams seemed to have failed even with his forays into social media, which in my opinion should be nothing but fun. He had very few “likes” on his pages, much less “friends.” I suspect he was desperately seeking the approval of followers instead of trying to get to know them.

As for his novels, Cynthia McCabe tried to read them sympathetically, only to pronounce them didactic and boring. He must have cared more about lecturing readers about the “truth” than entertaining them. A writer has to decide which is more important. If we’re not mesmerizing as many readers as we would like, can’t we at least entertain ourselves? And why should we ever consider ourselves through with writing as long as we’re alive and there are still stories to tell? My advice, if you ever feel devoid of ideas, is to check out the daily newspaper. It’s depressing as hell most of the time, but it’s a panorama of life, full of all the agony and ecstasy you’ll ever need for inspiration.

79e3266fdd3e2954878548dcc5daf6a0I was amused to find a review on Goodreads of my 2014 novel, Handmaidens of Rock, that complained good-naturedly about my tendency to create bitchy, insecure, backbiting heroines. Do I dislike my own sex that much? The three in my latest story, Candy, Hope, and Theda, start out as high-school girls who attach themselves to an up-and-coming rock and roll band, but aspire to be much more than “groupies.” Sometimes, if they’re in a generous mood, they encourage each other’s aspirations–Candy as a journalist, Hope as a fashion designer, Theda as an actress and budding politician. Just as often, they accuse each other of unrealistic ambitions (who does she think she is?). In their downer moods, they acknowledge how limiting the groupie label can be. The only recognized purpose of such women is to love their respective musicians.

I get some of my inspiration for female bitchiness from real life, sort of. I’m a devoted fan of the Bravo network’s various “real housewife” franchises, including Orange County, Beverly Hills, Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, and Miami. The “real housewives,” needless to say, specialize in catfights. They’re women who have acquired status in their communities, occasionally through their own efforts but more often because their husbands (or in some cases, their sugar daddies) have subsidized their glitzy lifestyles. Many have begun to struggle with changing economic conditions, but all still feel entitled to spend money that they don’t necessarily have. In fact, Teresa Giudice of New Jersey spent so much money she didn’t have, or that her husband gained through various scams, that she’s now in prison. Another attractive profligate is self-described businesswoman and movie producer Sonja Morgan of New York. Sonja has been successfully sued for $7 million by a film company that had contracted with her to raise money for a John Travolta picture that never got made. This result was not unlike many of Sonja’s other business ventures, for which she nevertheless keeps hiring a slew of young, naïve interns.

The housewives’ encounters with each other are supposedly unscripted, but the women usually manage to give the cameras what they’re looking for, such as the overturned table at a dinner party (Teresa again, blaming her Italian temper). The season-ending reunions, which are presumably less scripted than the “unscripted” episodes, are even more entertaining. They take place in ritzy locales, but the seating arrangements often have to be shifted according to which catfight is currently hot. A recent Atlanta reunion led to an actual fight featuring hair-pulling and rolling on the carpet, followed by a real lawsuit.

My handmaidens don’t get physical to that extent, unless absolutely necessary to prevent interlopers from taking their places. They do undermine each other with digs and innuendos (e. g. Hope, the beautiful man magnet, is deemed “shallow,” while Candy’s efforts to be a reporter are ridiculed–she’s too busy describing events, her girlfriends say, to live them). The housewives also have difficulty celebrating each other’s triumphs. Take the way LuAnn de Lesseps of New York (otherwise known as the Countess, even though she’s long divorced from the Count) reacted to her friend Bethenny Frankel’s ecstatic news that she had been chosen for a magazine cover photo. (“Of course, you realize they’ll have to touch it up.”) Years later, Bethenny has yet to get over that insult.

When love relationships inevitably go south for both handmaidens and housewives, they need sympathy, but they usually get schadenfreude. My handmaidens, finding that rock musicians make lousy life partners, wish each other well in finding more compatible mates, but are not above saying “I told you so.” As for the housewives, at least two of them (Ramona in New York and Vicki in Orange County) seemed to have torpedoed their “perfect” marriages by renewing their vows on camera. They were tempting fate, some of their girlfriends say. Bethenny certainly wowed the New York fashion world with her unique wedding dress fitted to accommodate an advanced pregnancy, but as fate would have it, that didn’t lead to a marriage that lasted until the baby was out of diapers.

Sometimes the housewives do bond in adversity. Likewise, in the face of the band’s implosion, the “handmaidens of rock” finally achieve a semblance of sisterhood. Perhaps the lesson in all this is that a woman must fight to be respected for her own gifts, especially when she’s competing with equally ambitious women in a male-dominated culture.