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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Nine to Five

     Someone should make an alarm clock that plays this song. I’d so buy it because even though I don’t work, I still have to get up at an ungodly hour to face the daily grind. So what if it’s just me forcing myself to write every day. (Come to think of it, I’m kind of a jerky boss when it comes to granting time off. On my personal days I’m expected to do laundry and perform light janitorial duties.)

     Before I get down to writing, I have to cattle-prod my three kids onto the school bus and pick up the trail of disaster left in their wake—discarded pjs, breakfast bowls, pebbles from the playground that have been dumped out of shoes onto the kitchen floor. This takes some doing, so a tune like “9 to 5” would provide the kick-in-the-pants necessary to get me up and on my way, which means I should invent the aforementioned alarm clock. (Quick! Get Dolly Parton on the line.) There’s always the chance, however miniscule, that I might someday work 9 to 5 (or 6? 7?) again. After all I had a job interview last week the second in six months.
     It was a last-minute thing. A human resources rep called to schedule the meeting for the next morning, and I kind of had to scramble to get it together—but that’ll be our little secret. The night before, I sewed some buttons on the sleeves of the classic, tailored shirt I wear on interviews because the cuffs stick out at odd angles. The shirt itself has hooks and eyes down the front instead of buttons, which adds charm but is a bitch to do up. (I could wear it on an Amish farm—that is, if the community accepted someone with my language, which they don’t.) I had to steal high heels from my daughter, since I don’t do that nonsense anymore. Even more enjoyable was struggling into pair upon pair of nylons only to find they all had runs in them. By the time I was through, I felt like I’d spent forty minutes at the gym, but I was finally dressed (and two pounds thinner). Oh, corporate America, why do you put yourself through that?

     I had to straighten my already straight hair, because it’s not nearly straight enough to grace an employable woman’s head. Then I choked down three spoonfuls of yogurt so I wouldn’t pass out driving. (This while cutting back dramatically on my usual coffee intake.) I packed up my portfolio and my laptop in case the employer needed to see the web site that I made a few months ago in order to appear far techier than I am. After a nerve-racking ride, during which I kept expecting a meteor to burst through the atmosphere, because it was the day one had actually landed in Russia, I made it to the place ten minutes early. Unfortunately it took me ten minutes to traverse the parking lot, hobbled as I was by those damn shoes. (They’re not that high; I guess I'm just uncoordinated.) I got there just in time and was herded into the office of the associate creative director, whom I’d be filling in for while she takes a maternity leave if hired. (It’s a temp job, but could lead to permanent. Or not.)

     The job is lovely. Everyone there seems lovely. The collateral pieces they work on are--you guessed it--lovely. I would be thrilled and blessed to do that job, even temporarily, because it would be the perfect gig with which to get my feet wet after all these years. What’s more, I’d feel good about covering for someone so they could take a longer, worry-free maternity leave. I know how stressful it was for me to try and concentrate on a new baby while thinking about what was going on back at the office. My time off for maternity always fell during times of widespread uncertainty regarding job security, which wasn’t fun. It seemed like karma to be afforded this opportunity thanks to someone starting a family, especially since I sometimes feel as if I’ve sacrificed my career to raise my kids. It didn’t help that my last interview was going great until the interviewer said straight-out that I would have a tough time getting a job after spending so much time at home. Needless to say, I didn't get that one. 

     This interview seemed different in a good way. Things were going well, until she asked for a longer sample of my writing. Longer. I felt like saying: “Will 80,000 words do?” and pulling out the manuscript I’d entered to the ABNA, but I refrained. That’s not what she meant, of course. She wanted a happy medium between the snippets of copy I’d been trained to write over ten years in advertising and the novel-length writing style I’ve been honing for the past five years. I didn’t have it. It left me feeling like my writing is either too short or too long. Never just right. Here's praying that the Goldilocks Syndrome isn't the kiss of death for me.
      That's why I’m even more glad now to have at least made it through the pitch phase of the ABNA. Many people have objected to that stage, and I can see why. It's hard to pitch a book to a stranger, even harder to pitch an entire career! Maybe I’d feel differently if I was out, but as it stands I like knowing what’s expected. In terms of cadence, tone and word-count, I revel in the formula of writing a pitch. A luxurious three hundred words is plenty of room to be descriptive when one’s used to chiseling copy down to nubs, mostly to accentuate cool graphics. There was a time when brevity was the main directive in advertising, and I adapted my long-windedness to accommodate. If anything, I would’ve thought it would be even more of a requirement now, in the age of Twitter and Facebook.
     So, anyway, I directed the interviewer to that spanking new web site of mine, where I’m hoping she’ll find what she’s looking for within the transitory blurbs I wrote to move a reader smoothly through the work. I also sent some radio spots along. I hope she sees /hears that sense of flow, so important in copy for catalogs, as well as proof that I can write longer pieces…when given the luxury. In the meantime, I’m going to invest in a nice pair of comfy ballet flats.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What's Your Fave "Les Miz" Sub-plot?

      The musical Les Miserables made a big impression on me when I first saw it many years ago. Not only did I memorize all the song lyrics, I used the first few billowing strains of the overture as the music in my morning newscast for a college project. (It was awesome—way better than that clich├ęd morning chorus my classmates used.) It fascinated me how all the music tracks could be laid on top of one another to great effect, so much so that I might’ve thought to do something like this at my wedding. It wouldn’t have been called a Flash Mob, because they didn’t exist back then, and I would’ve had to befriend some professional singers first. It’s obvious this group has had some vocal training. My wedding guests? Not so much (although after a few drinks they probably were convinced they sounded like Maria Callas.)

As you all know, the latest movie version of Les Miz was released over Christmas. The positive response to the film proves the storyline’s universal appeal. Perhaps it is because the epic tale includes a little something for everyone—whatever stage of life you happen to be in. I went in with the prediction that a completely different set of themes and morales would pop up at me this time around, as I am a long way from where I started on this journey we like to call life. (Just as all the characters strayed from the path they’d imagined for themselves.) So, think about it. What plotline of the epic tale appeals to you most and why? Here. I’ll help break it down.

    A Mother’s Love   As I had no kids during my first exposure to the play, I didn’t quite get this one at the time. Since then I’ve had an epiphany—or, more accurately three (named Cassie, Bri and Cam). Everyone knows a good mom will walk to the ends of the earth and back again to protect her child. Fantine is no different, and I ached for her when it became clear the arrangement she so painstakingly secured for Cosette would not last. (She would’ve gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those meddling factory workers!) If only I could find a nice innkeeper man and his wife to take care of my lot while I work. (Just kidding. I need to have the little rugrats in full view at all times if I’m to have any peace of mind.)

Forgiveness. It was a beautiful moment when the priest forgave Valjean his thievery and let him have that candlestick, thereby changing the course of a man’s life. Thanks to this compassionate act, Valjean became a mayor instead of some good-for-nothing lowlife. I’d like to think that things like this might happen, and I wish I could rewind to the days when I thought it a possibility… But God Almighty, have you seen what’s happened since? Kwame Kilpatrick. There’s a mayor that has been let off the hook a few too many times.

Revenge (a dish best served twenty years later, so it's no wonder it’s cold). This issue rears its ugly head in every story, various songs and in the latest incarnation of the old board game Clue: Murder Mystery Mansion. It will be our steady companion until the end of time. Case in point, that hit show on ABC, the one based loosely on The Count of Monte Cristo. Reality check: people don’t spend as much time plotting elaborate plots of revenge anymore. We’re simply not that smart. So unless they add an app on Facebook, we’ll have to get our fix through fiction. Yes, revenge makes for a good story, but I have a message for Javert: Seriously, dude. All he did was steal some freaking bread. Get over it.

Revolution I found it interesting that this movie was released on Christmas Day with trailers meant to make us shiver in anticipation. We couldn’t wait to storm the theatres for that wonderful musical that not only depicts a world rife with social injustice and heinous violence, but also centers on a bloody and ironically ineffectual revolution. Did it occur to anyone else that, considering the vast disparity between the classes in this country and the state of the economy, we’re probably closest to our own revolution than we’ve ever been before? Is that something to be celebrated and anticipated? To me, the timing of this re-release seemed ominous.

Young Love Marius and Cosette. They’re young, they’re in love, they don’t kill people. Snore. Bonnie and Clyde they are not.Various incarnations of these kids turn up in every play I’ve ever seen, and they always turn my stomach. To me this is the least interesting tangent of this classic story. I’m so not a romantic.

Unrequited Love Or maybe I am, because I feel differently about Eponine’s doomed love for Marius. This is my favorite, favorite, favorite sub-plot of Les Miz, and all the years that have passed since I’ve last seen the musical haven’t changed my feeling on the matter. I relate to Eponine’s face-pressed-against love’s glass stance in this play. The fact the world is falling apart around her and she’s still pining makes her that much more sympathetic. Her character interests more than Cosette aka Mary Sue ever could. (Have I mentioned I love the underdog?) True, a little drop of rain can’t hurt them, but the buckets falling from my eyes might drown this enchanting duo, two gleaming points of the love triangle that never was. Ah, Eponine! Ah, humanity! Ah, Marius, you are the biggest dolt ever! Oh well. At least my expansive tears might make the flowers grow.

    It Takes a Village  A good man’s willingness to raise a stranger’s daughter. So hot. The way those fathering skills just come out of nowhere. The way Valjean pays it forward. I’m drooling over his self-sacrifice. It doesn’t hurt that Hugh Jackman is in the role, but honestly, it doesn’t matter to me who plays Valjean. Nothing sexier than an honorable man. (Case in point: Bates on Downton Abbey. Every woman I know is lusting after him, although he’s not what you’d call traditionally handsome.) You gave your word to a stranger on her deathbed that you’ll take her daughter in. You promise to raise the girl to the light. And you do—even as the pathological jailer tries to hunt you down. Jean Valjean, I will love you till the day I die.

Unhygienic Inns Bed bugs, rats, phantom charges, seedy managers, over-priced mini-bars (C’mon, they’re scandalous rip-offs!). This topic is relevant even today. Thank God for reviews.

Lecherous innkeepers, Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and bullying—In a perfect world Fontine could’ve marched down to human resources and reported these instances of verbal abuse. It's amazing that this theme seems even MORE relevant today than it did several years ago. Shame on us.

War-bred Camaraderie Pre 9-11, this had a whole different meaning. Enter the war on terror and the difficulties we're having facilitating our returning milary's transition into the mainstream of society, and it's hard to put this into context.

Everlasting Life This sub-plot (and the priest’s contribution to the storyline) had me thinking this might be something my mother would enjoy. Back then it never would’ve occurred to her to attend a play entitled Les Miserables unless forced. (Back then this was a common lament: Who wants to watch a play about miserable people?) In any case, I never got a chance to buy her tickets, so I was ecstatic that she saw the movie around Christmas—and liked it.

Rising above one’s station A former criminal becomes a mayor. A pious officer of the law is warped by obsession. A young girl desires to rise above her circumstances, yet is content to die in the arms of her secret crush. Armed only with passion for a cause and little or no training, educated men rush into battle and fall. New regimes gain a power they'll eventually abuse and the whole cycle starts again. Les Miz is a story that calls into question whether the promises of democracy are ever fulfilled. It sure isn’t keeping up its end of the deal as well as darling Hugh, I mean, Valjean. So, I return again to my point of the trailer being somewhat ominous. Yet the powers that be don't seem afraid the peasants will hear echoes of their own circumstances and revolt. And if they're not worried, then neither am I. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

It's Not About the Money

     Okay, writing peeps. Here’s a topic that affects us all. Money. It’s obvious by the way we’re scrambling for the sweetened, $50,000 pot that Amazon is awarding in this year’s annual breakthrough novel contest. Drip. Drip. Hear that? That’s the sound of 10,000 writers drooling simultaneously. Nothing to be ashamed of, folks. The green stuff comes in handy. Wifi’s gotta work. Kids've gotta eat. My question is once we make it—get the contract or take the plunge of self-publishing, rake in the dough, garner good reviews, attract the readers—what if someone balks at paying for the product?

     I follow a catchy blog called The Red Pen of Doom which, this week, featured a guest blogger who reviewed a romance novel by Kat Martin (Deep Blue). I’ve never read any of this writer’s work and probably never will now, thanks to a review that concluded with a demand for money back. Plus tax. (Does a reviewer even have to pay for the book?)
     Okay, so maybe the demand was simply to prove a point, but it got me wondering what you guys think of this trend. Should booksellers refund money to readers who are dissatisfied with a book? How can one be sure that such things don’t stem from an ideological difference between the author and reader? I worked in retail. I totally get the mentality that the customer is always right—and in cases of bad editing, sub-par quality of download, other technical issues, I’m on the side of the consumer. But what’s to stop people from reading books and saying they’re dissatisfied just to get it free? We’re on the honor code here—and need I point out that society is getting less and less honorable as we speak? 
By all means, let's throw her another bone.
     For example, I could buy 50 Shades of Grey, even though I find both the subject matter and the syntax repulsive. I could read it in order to see what all the hype’s about and then demand a refund, which if granted will have allowed me to read the book without contributing to the author’s dubious success. Will I do that? No. I only buy books I have an actual interest in reading, and very rarely spend money on even these. (For those of you tempted to sneeze the word “cheapskate” into your palms: Yep, that’s me.) I’m a huge proponent of the public library.
Not to mention, deep.
     The last two books I purchased were Holly Schindler’s A Blue So Dark and Sarah Darer Littman's Wanna Go Private. I absolutely loved A Blue So Dark, and hated Wanna Go Private, which I reviewed on Goodreads, although briefly. I only ordered the latter book because it dealt with Internet safety and I am in the process of revising a middle-grade mystery set against the backdrop of social networking. I wanted to see how another author handled themes of cyber- safety, and, as far as I was concerned, this mission was accomplished. In my opinion, Littman handled this topic badly, with cardboard characters from the 50s that seemed transplanted into this decade and exposed to porn. There were many objectionable, downright creepy scenes that were painful to read, as well as a predictable ending. I chalked that ten bucks up to research, and got on with it.
     Even though I was disappointed with my selection, I recognized the author's triumph in getting it published, for it was a publishable book, just not my taste. Now it sits on a shelf of my bedroom, for I can’t in good faith recommend it to my daughter, even though I think the subject matter is important, especially for her age group. In the closet of that same bedroom hangs a pair of leather pants that I bought eight years ago. I wore them once and then decided I am just not the kind of gal who can get away with wearing leather pants. Will I be returning to the boutique and asking for my money back? Not in this lifetime. We make choices, and sometimes they’re…unfortunate. Not everything's like the picture.
Chalk it up to a fleeting insanity, and move on.

     I checked out the reviews of Easily Amused, by Karen McQuestion, a previous ABNA participant now in print, and was surprised to see that she’d popped in with a personal response to a one-star review. McQuestion politely suggested that the reader call Customer Service to get her money back. It might be brilliant marketing, but it made my stomach queasy. Authors get so little that is tangible from the sale of the book as it is. Just the pride of attaining a dream, seeing their name (and oftentimes a pen name) in print, some good reviews, the admiration of their peers and 20% (if they’re lucky). Dissatisfied readers have the chance to leave a negative review, and that should be enough recompense. Granting refunds sets a scary precedent, in my opinion. What say you?


Friday, February 1, 2013

You Are Here


                    Or, actually...   here.

To put things into perspective,
this is Earth from Voyager 1 in 1990.
First off, thanks to all you ABNA-ers who have stopped by. That’s why I love the contest. Such a good kick in the pants to do productive writerly things. While I didn’t have much work to do on my manuscript (since I’ve been fanatically editing all year and have rewritten the pitch more times than I’m willing to admit) you guys have inspired me to beef up my blog.
     Today I’ve got geography on the brain. I wonder if you are like me in thinking that where you're born (and where you live now) affects your writing.
     I am from Detroit. I grew up here. I get the D. Granted, I don’t live downtown, but Detroit is the nearest metropolitan area, not to mention the skin crinkle on my hand to which I point when people ask where I’m from. I attended college there, which was a wonderful, formative experience, and worked for many years on automotive ads that symbolize the city and its peeps. Detroit seeps into my writing in sometimes subtle, sometimes glaring ways. Do you feel the same? Perhaps there are cities you’ve lived in that show up in your writing more than others? Let me know in comments, s’il vous plait.
Not Imported From Detroit. Just set there.
     In my case Detroit adds a layer of rage, drive and grit to my characters. (What do you expect from people living in the shadow of a huge fist?) I sense a like feel in the works of other writers who hail from the area. By the same token, I can always spot an author who tries to “write Detroit” without ever having been here. An example that comes to mind is Linda Howard in Mr. Perfect. She does her research and tries to get it down pat, but there is something lacking. I can almost envision her as she picks some Detroiter’s brain via phone (she admits as much in her acknowledgements), instead of making the requisite road trip. (In all fairness, who wants to come here?) As a result, the worship of cars isn't as seamless as it should be, and appears to be photoshopped in, as incongruous as a Hemi engine on a Volkswagen bug. Howard has no grasp of how the love of cars is woven intricately into our lives. 
     Similarly, I remember reading somewhere that Stephenie Meyer resorted to Google in her search for an atmosphere in which vampires could thrive. That's how she came up with Washington. Because of this, I'd argue that her depiction of the area is as soulless as the Cullens. In contrast, Debbie Macomber’s work (Yeah, Debbie, Linda Howard. I read romance. Wanna make something of it?) brings to life the majesty of the Pacific Northwest in her Cedar Cove series. Her love for the geography she's chosen for her characters shines out of every paper pore (or pixel for you ebook junkies).
     I feel strongly that we must build our worlds on a firm foundation of reality if we are using a real-world locale. Take my advice. Don’t try to fudge it. The people who populate those actual places will end up feeling resentful, and that is hard to get around, no matter how good the story.