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On "The Soap Opera Effect," Written from My Soapbox

Well, it’s February now, and I have no comment on how my “intentions” have gone. But in light of Groundhog Day, I will share that I am just now popping my head out of the Homeland hole that I have spent the past two weeks in, marathoning seasons 2 and 3. It’s an incredible story, and the last episode of season 3 is such a sad but darkly beautiful and somehow appropriate ending to the Carrie/Brody saga, that I’m once again disappointed by the (mostly) American need to continue a show past it’s prime and until we’re all sick of it. There will be a season 4 of Homeland, and I’m a little exhausted by the thought.

There’s a reason trilogies exist. There’s something that feels right about a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not saying every show needs to be three seasons long, but I am saying that we need to recognize when a story has reached its end. Did anybody really still like The Office after Steve Carell left? (In fact I think a lot of people stopped liking it long before that). Obviously money drives the world of entertainment, and that’s not always a bad thing. But I worry we’ve gotten to a point where we don’t know how to let anything die a natural death.

The Brits tend to be famous for letting their shows play out for a few series, and then ending before they jump the proverbial shark. *From this I exclude Downton Abbey, which has jumped the shark so many times it’s floating off into space.* (Does that analogy work at all? Probably not, but neither does the writing for that show anymore).

I suppose what I worry about most is what I will call The Soap Opera Effect. Soap operas tend to last a quarter of a century, and with that much time on their hands, those people have to keep finding new ways to be miserable. They can’t all be happy all the time – there would be no tension, nothing to interest the viewers. So there’s always a new drama, a new setback, a new villain to steal our spouses away. And shows that last beyond a few seasons end up wandering down this road. Every time the characters achieve happiness, it’s ripped away again.

Obviously life has its dramas. And some people are faced with more of it than others. Me, personally? It’s a dramatic morning when I hit snooze too many times on my alarm and I’m running around the kitchen, throwing together a lunch that consists of leftover refried beans on some spinach and calling it a salad. Don’t get me wrong – drama is highly entertaining, but after awhile, it starts to feel forced. And when it happens to characters you’ve come to love, there’s something sad about that.

All of this applies just as easily to book series, of which I will name no names, but I’m sure you can think of one or two.

The difficult part, of course, is knowing when to stop, and I don’t think the answer is always obvious. Certainly there will be people who will want a saga to continue, and others who thought it should have ended quite awhile ago. You can’t ever make everyone happy, so for novelists, it’s up to them to stop when it feels right. For writers in television… it’s not so easy, since people higher up are usually making those calls.

For now, all I can do is trust that the writing that I’ve found so compelling thus far in Homeland will continue to surprise me into the 4th season.

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Intentions

Happy New Year! (two weeks late).  I can’t say I intended to take a six-week blog break, but such is life, especially around the holidays. It tends to get in its own way, especially when I let it. But speaking of intentions, I read a really lovely blog post that I can’t now remember the location of on the internets, and it mentioned how this lady preferred to make ‘intentions’ at the start of the new year rather than resolutions. By now we all know that New Year’s Resolutions are hogwash and are one more way to feel bad about our unaccomplishments. But intentions

That’s something I can get behind. There’s something a little softer and more forgiving about the things we intend to do. The things we resolve to do are spiky, barb-wired potholes and I don’t like them. I also tend to think that if the only reason you’re resolving to do it now is because the calendar flipped over, then you don’t want it badly enough. Just my opinion 🙂

SO my intentions for the near future are as such:
1. Return to my novel in any way, shape, or form. That’s it. A word, two words, anything. Sometimes I feel ashamed for the long breaks I take from a project that is, at this point, one of my life’s large purposes. But maybe that’s another intention I have:
2. Forgive myself for not achieving everything I want to. There are only 24 hours in a day, and 8-ish of them are spent passed out. Another 8 are spent at the Day Job, a couple more are used up during my commute and my meals. You get the idea. There’s not always a lot leftover for the things that aren’t necessary. But that’s ok. I need to be ok with the days when writing doesn’t happen, and still strive to make good use of the free time I do have.
3. Eat more veggies. We’ll see about this one.
4. Be more positive. I’ve already started this one with my husband by writing down one good thing that happened each day on a slip of paper and sticking it in a jar. It really forces you to focus on the good things as they happen, instead of dwelling on the bad (some of the time – the bad still sucks pretty bad – but it’s only January 12th, and I’m hoping it gets easier as the year progresses).

And that’s all I have for now. Perhaps I’ll add some more later, or strikethrough that veggie thing, but they’re just intentions. So it’ll be ok.

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Fear or Friend

“Sometimes if you haven’t touched your laptop in a while, you begin to fear it. You’re afraid to start typing and you’re afraid not to start typing. Writing becomes a stranger—and without realizing it, you’ve closed the door on your closest friend, your imagination. You’ve got to honor your imagination, for it is your ally.”

Perhaps my favorite part of NaNoWriMo was the pep talks they emailed participants throughout the month, and this one, by Holly McGhee, was one of many that struck a chord with me. As it is December 1st, NaNo is now over, and I will proudly admit that I have failed miserably. I did not even come close to reaching 50,000 words. (Who decided November was a good month for this? Couldn’t it have been January when no one has anything to do except complain about the weather?)

But I think the only thing I regret is that toward the end, I knew I wasn’t going to achieve even half the goal, so I simply stopped trying. There were holidays to prepare for, a business to run, and why bother if it was physically impossible for me to make the word count by the 30th?

This is a problem that I, and my writing friends, have had over and over. Sometimes we get bursts of inspiration, and then sometimes we haven’t touched our laptops in so long that even opening our Word docs seems an intensely daunting task. We hate the idea of tying ourselves to chair to force the words out, but we hate ourselves for not doing this as well. Sometimes writing does become a stranger, and to put it simply, this makes me sad.

The good news is that it’s never too late to go back and reintroduce yourself. Your story is always there waiting patiently for you to continue. And with that in mind, and knowing the holiday madness that awaits in December, my new goal for the next 30 days is to see my story as a friend I can’t wait to catch up with whenever I have a few free moments, rather than that call I need to make to my mother. I am determined to fear it less.

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Obvious Post of the Year: Some Stories Are Harder to Write than Others

I had the opportunity to spend most of yesterday writing and catching up with my NaNoWriMo-ing (“catching up” is misleading; I’m supposed to have about 25,000 words written by now, and I have… considerably less than that). But it finally struck me why this story is moving about as fast as a pregnant elephant: it’s realistic. 

My first novel was a sci-fi spy thriller with lots of romance. It was easy to end up with an overblown 140,000 words because it’s easy to imagine badassery, isn’t it? Of course she could high-kick that guy in the face. Who’s going to refute that, in the world of the story, that’s possible and even likely? But this second story is contemporary and based in a present-day, boring, natural high school. The place we all went for four years and hated. (If you didn’t hate high school, I don’t understand your life). The girl is also largely based on some personal experiences of mine (a terrifying task that I don’t recommend to anyone). But it was a story I really wanted to tell, and the most agonizing part of it is trying to figure out how the characters would actually talk to one another.

The closer characters are to our own reality, the more suspicious we are of them. We imagine what we might say or do in their situations, and any unexplained variation from that makes us cry foul. ALL characters must be believable, regardless of genre. But the spy in my first novel is so far removed from what we know in our daily lives, that she has a little cushion in how she interacts with others and the world, while girl-next-door protagonist, I believe, is pinned under the microscope. This isn’t something I had even thought about before beginning this project, but it’s something I’d love to discuss with someone else who has ever written across genres.

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On Waiting Around for Inspiration

“Inspiration is seductive and thrilling, but you can’t depend on it to call you. It doesn’t work that way. The good thing is, inspiration is irrelevant to whether or not you finish your book. The only thing that determines that is your own sense of discipline.”

This is a pep talk for all the NaNoWriMoers by Malindo Lo, and it reminded me of a passage from Stephen King’s On Writing, which I have been meaning to read for years but only recently delved into. He makes the same observation about inspiration, that you’ll be waiting around a long time if you put off writing in hopes that it will simply come to you when it’s ready.


I always find it interesting (and get a little jealous) when I hear an author say that a story came to them in a dream. It’s a lovely prospect, and makes it all seem very fateful and fortuitous. But for most of us, that inspirational dream never happens. The process, for me, starts with one ingredient. Maybe it’s a character trait, maybe it’s a sentence that I hear that just sticks in my brain and turns over nicely. Then I have to add other ingredients and begin the entire baking process, which often starts with an excited handful of pages and then progresses to slamming my head against the computer for the next 400.


This is why I don’t put much stock in the concept of writer’s block. It insinuates that you’re lacking inspiration and merely waiting for it to come back to you. It takes much of the agency of writing and creation away from you (and isn’t that the reason we love it in the first place?). Problems and puzzles are always going to present themselves, and they’ll stump us and frustrate us, but it’s our own sense of discipline, as Malindo Lo comments, that will get us through. We must always keep writing anyway, even if what we produce in difficult times is completely unusable. It’s all a part of exercising the writing muscle.

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The Thanksgiving Game

As the subtitle of this blog suggests, I think I tend to focus on a lot of the negatives of the writing process, but there’s one positive that I don’t stop to be thankful for enough (and since it’s November, it’s obligatory that I do at least one ‘what I’m thankful for’ post).

I met two incredibly talented and sweet ladies when I was in grad school, and they both happened to adore children’s and young adult stories as much as I did. Somewhere down the line we started writing together, and somewhere further down the line we started having meetings where we got absolutely no writing done because we were chatting too much. They have become two of my best friends and have supported my entire novel-writing process, and commiserated with my procrastination process. I love them.

And last night, as we tried to squeeze in an emergency meeting at 10 pm (way past my old-lady bedtime) at the Traveler’s Cafe, we yawned and sipped tea and sorted through riddles that M’s boyfriend had written for her. The riddles all have clues that spit out numbers to lead her back to a lockbox… it’s all very complicated, and very in character for this couple. We think we know what’s in the box, but it’s too soon to declare officially, so I will just say this: on the eve of a possible change in M’s life, I’m thankful for the change I made in my life to move to Chicago right when I did and enroll in the class where I met these two amazing women.

Who knows where I’d be now, or what (or if) I’d be writing.

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It’s Not Creepy Unless You Make It Creepy

So I love writing in graveyards. I know I’m not alone in this, especially since my ladies and I have had multiple writing sessions in Rosehill Cemetery here in Chicago. But I was visiting Boston over the weekend and came across this beauty in Cambridge. The gravestones are so worn down you can barely read them, but most are from the 17th and 18th centuries. This made me wish I had thought to pack my notebook… and maybe leave my husband somewhere for a few hours.

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In Defense of E-Readers (Or Anything That Has Words on It)

At this point the e-reader vs. paper-and-ink discussion is so tired that I won’t waste space enumerating all the reasons people report liking one or the other. What I will say is that (forgive me for using this expression in late October) as the holidays approach, I’m reminded of an occasion three or so years ago when I had a conversation on a train that renders the entire e-reader dilemma irrelevant.

I was on a packed red-line train in downtown Chicago during rush hour in December, and a man with slicked-back hair began talking to me about my festive red coat. First of all, as a rule, such close quarters generally call for averted eye contact and zero conversation, with the exception of muttered “I’m sorry”‘s when you lose your balance and stumble against someone, but that may just be the social hermit in me. I smiled at the man and then returned to reading my Kindle – what was on it at the time I can’t now recall. But the man wasn’t done. He asked me if I had gotten Christmas gifts for my family. I’m sure I said yes, although that was likely a lie (hermit and procrastinator), and again glanced down to my screen to return to my book. Undeterred again, the man asked me what I had gotten my parents. Now, at this point, I probably should have told him to mind his own damn business, but I only think of good comebacks 12 hours after the fact. I must have bought my dad some biography or other, because I said books. The man grimaced and said, “I would hate to get a book as a gift.”

Now, let’s examine. Putting aside the fact that he insulted the very activity I was enjoying when he interrupted me, what really alarmed me was the fact that he believed any and every book would be a bad gift. There are millions of published works on the market from fiction to nonfiction to graphic novel to cookbook to fantasy to post-modern apocalyptic sci-fi romance. You get the idea. And this man didn’t think any of those millions of options would be a satisfactory gift.

This is why I don’t care if you read from a paper book, an e-reader, or a stone tablet. The most important thing is that you’re reading. As I write this I know I sound like a schoolteacher, which I am not, but the sad truth is that adults need to hear this more than children. Reading is the only activity I can think of that demands that you exercise both your imagination and your morality at the same time, while also being in a totally safe space. Almost every work of fiction involves characters making either conscious or subconscious moral choices, and, while reading, you must not only imagine character, setting, dialogue, and more, but you must either consciously or subconsciously agree or disagree with these choices. Being pulled in both directions at once is another option too. And the best part? No one is there to judge you if you know it was wrong for Kelly to poison Sam, but you kind of think Sam had it coming. Life isn’t always clear-cut about good guys and bad guys, and literature (so-called “high” or “low” alike) knows how to show us this, along with our options.

Imagination and morality (and by morality I mean in the most general sense of how we interact with other humans) are two things that keep the world’s gears greased. Or my world at least. There are people who will disagree with me, and others who will always say they don’t have time to read. And I don’t think these people any less intelligent or worthy. I just think they’re missing out on something that can be both a learning experience and immensely enjoyable. Harry Potter always did the right thing in the end, even if we sometimes thought he was kind of an idiot for it. “The right thing” can be so hard to define, but literature, across the span of millions of stories, finds a way to put words to it.