Friday, March 26, 2010

Bloggerific Potpourri

Next week is Spring Break for the kids. Or as I like to call it, Spring Brake.

Like many of you out there, my writing productivity rises and falls according to the school calendar. Therefore I am getting out ahead of things and posting this bloggy potpourri now in case I get bogged down next week.

No, actually, let me put it this way: I WILL get bogged down next week and happily so. I fully intend to have a bit of fun and goof off. Like I don’t goof off every day, but still. I’m trying to be a responsible goofer offer by posting early.

Here we go:

• Have you seen the new movie trailer for Clash of the Titans? There’s a brief snippet featuring Liam Neeson commanding his minions to, “Release the Kraken!” Man, do you know how many times this week I have 1) wished I had a Kraken and 2) wanted to release it? It’s been a craptastic few days, that’s all I’ll say. My Kraken would have been working his butt off.

• I’m going to be doing some blog redecorating soon. Maybe some new throw pillows or a new floor mat. Seriously, though, probably more substantive changes than that. I’ve been doing some hard blog thinking lately, particularly on the direction I want to take things. And of course, once you have a blog, eventually you end up blogging about blogging. It’s like doing a clip show or musical episode on a TV series. It’s sort of expected, right?

• And further on the subject of blogging, supposedly I’m guest posting over at a blog you may already read regularly. Haven’t got the firm date when it’s going to run yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know. I think you’re going to get a kick out of the post. Sounds mysterious, eh? Building mystery and a sense of anticipation. It’s what I do.

• The road cycling season has kicked off in Europe, and I cannot wait to inflict my love of cycling on you all. I plan to proselytize in the most annoying fashion about what a great and awesome sport this is, and by the end of July, I’ll have you all hooked on the Tour de France, so help me. You will be waving the foam finger of fandom, I assure you. If you don’t know who Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are yet, oh, by golly, you will. You will.

• Dear God, you all have GOT to do me a favor. Please, please, please go over to Blythe Woolston’s blog and add yourself as a follower. This woman is so smart and such a good writer and her blog has, like, 8 followers. It’s outlandish and wrong. If you can come away from reading her blog without being the better for it, then there is little hope for you in this world. Go. Now. Just pour yourself a snifter of cognac and read through the whole thing. Here’s the link:

Let the Spring Breaking begin! Here's hoping I don’t end up on some video set in sunny Ft. Lauderdale, or, failing that, shouting and shirtless on Cops.

Monday, March 22, 2010


My Fellow Writers,

This post is a message from Regina Bennett, president of NSPOW, and is intended for all our long-suffering spouses, girlfriends/boyfriends, and partners. Please, encourage them to read on.



I want to take a moment to tell you about the Networked Spouses and Partners of Writers (NSPOW). We are a world-wide nonprofit network, established in 1441, by Mrs. Johannes Gutenberg, dedicated to supporting the people who support writers. 

Life with a writer is nothing if not challenging and as president of NSPOW and a long-time spouse of a writer myself, I understand that sharing quarters with our WPs (writer-partners) can be a right awful pain in the keester sometimes. Through NSPOW’s workshops, publications, and our annual meeting, we reach out to those unsung heroes who, through no fault of their own, are getting dragged along on a perilous journey to publication.

I want to take a moment to tell you about our upcoming annual meeting, the theme of which is, “The Nuts and Bolts of Living with Writers: Jesus, They’re Driving Me Up the Friggin’ Wall.”

Here are some session highlights:

1) Beyond ‘SMILE and NOD’: The Non-Writers Guide to Talking about Writing: Without question, the most important tool in your NSPOW toolbox is what we call in the trade, “feigning interest.” Many of you are already masters at this or you wouldn’t still be involved with/married to your WP after so many years, but some newcomers could benefit from the experiences of veteran feigners. Workshop leaders will go beyond the tried and true “smile and nod” method and teach you skills to help you navigate through the mine field that is any discussion of your WP’s work. In this hands-on seminar you’ll learn: extremely sympathetic nodding; advanced earnestness; effective brow-knitting; how to cover when you forget what she was just talking about; and enough writerly jargon to bluff your way through a conversation without sounding as if you really couldn’t care less.

2) Enthusiasm 101: Do you have adquate enthusiasm for your WP’s work? If you don’t, you better get some and quick. Some key phrases we’ll teach you: “I absolutely loved it!” “It was the best thing I have read in a long time.” “I don’t know what those agents are talking about? What are they? Crazy?”; and of course, “You’re gonna make it! I believe in you!” Here’s a little sneak peek from one of our most popular sessions : “If you’re having trouble coming up with new ways to express enthusiasm, just trawl through some movie reviews in the paper and paraphrase. Don’t be a doink and say the bit about 3 out of 4 stars because that’ll just make them suspicious and then you’ll ruin it for the rest of us.” Also includes the mini-course on meaningful gesticulations and facial expressions that show you're not just BS-ing them.

3) Obsessive Behavior in Writers: Why Slapping Won’t Help, led by renowned psychotherapist Dr. Jackie Biel. Are you living with an “Inbox Addict”? Has your WP been restricted by court order to stay 100 feet back from publishing executives and agents? We can help you through this. You’ll learn why you should never, ever say, “Would you freaking relax already?” or “Look, just try not to think about it, OK?” These sorts of comments will only aggravate the condition and cause your WP to lash out at you or accuse you of not understanding them. And once you get caught in that loop, my friend, you are in for a long night. We’ll teach you how to distract your WP so effectively, they may be able to talk to you about something besides writing for up to thirty minutes EVERY DAY! Imagine the possibilities? **We’re pleased once again this year to present two lucky workshop attendees with all-expense paid trips to Northern Canada, courtesy of the Manitoba Visitors Bureau. Thank you, Manitoba, for helping us to isolate our WPs from social media outlets like nobody else!

4) Setting Boundaries with Your WP: Tips and Success Stories: Have you ever found yourself in this uncomfortable position? Your WP has just finished a story/novel and has asked you to read it, but there’s nothing you want to do less, especially now that it’s March and your team bracket is still doing really well in the NCAA championship. What do you do? Of course you must respond with “I’d love to.” That’s just the way it is with writers. You have to say that or they’ll freak out or withhold conjugal affection from you. But in order for your life not to become too nightmarish, we’ll help you set up boundaries within your relationship so you can read on your own terms with no deadline hanging over your head. Our workshop leaders can even teach you how to effectively fake a stroke to stave your reading off almost indefinitely!

5) How to Handle Your WP’s Rejection: This workshop was so over-enrolled last year, we’ve added four concurrent sessions that run the entire last day of the conference, although really, people, as we said over and over last year, there’s honestly nothing for it. Just hunker down with a bottle of your favorite liquor, two shots glasses, and ride it out. The crying will stop eventually.

Remember, everyone, as hard as it may be at times to live with your WP, if you hang in there, you will earn that sought-after book dedication and the satisfaction of knowing that you helped a promising writer along in his/her career!

Good luck and as we say at NSPOW, “Happy feigning!”

Yours sincerely (no, really, I mean that),

Regina Bennett

President, NSPOW

Monday, March 15, 2010

Like Haggis for the Soul

Do you want to know what the term is for the opposite of a pet peeve? Turns out it's a Scottish word.

I'm talking about when you're watching a movie or reading a book, and something about it kicks you out of the story because it really irks you. Not that. The opposite of that. When you know the story is imperfect, but there’s something that keeps you locked in anyway.

I was going to do a post about my literary pet peeves, and then I did a complete 180 after catching the tail end of Star Wars: Episode 3 on cable last night. That’s when I realized that the opposite of a pet peeve is this: Ewan McGregor.

If Ewan MGregor is in a movie, I will watch it, and no matter what else is wrong with that movie, I will probably keep watching. Truth be told, all of Star Wars falls into this category for me for the simple reason that I have an eternally bright feeling of wonder leftover from 1977 when the first Star Wars came out. And once a movie or book gives you that feeling, you can forgive whatever other flaws it might have. Like the fact that every Star Wars movie always features some sort of battle vehicle that moves across the land on legs, even though there would be no conceivable engineering reason for such a thing to ever exist. I realize it’s just there because it looks cool, and I’m OK with that.

When it comes to books, I am a much peeved reader. Some things merely irritate me, and I keep on reading anyway, but some things are so annoying that they cause me to come to a dead stop, dismount the book, and smack it on the haunch to send it on its way. But I’m not going to dwell on the pet peeves here. Instead I'm going to focus on the Ewan McGregors that keep me reading:

• When an author is generous-minded, you can feel it in the way they create characters and resolve conflicts. They put these characters through their paces, but they don’t bat them around like badminton birdies. You can tell they respect these people --even the bad guys -- they’ve created and don’t hold it against them that they’re not actually real.

• Sheer creativity. I will keep reading if I'm struck by the sheer cleverness of a plot or the details of an imagined world. I’ll give one small example: the word “pensieve” to describe the memory-holding basin in Harry Potter. That is just so clever and perfect. I love it.

• Some of the best writing under the sun – as in “there’s nothing new under the sun” – capture people who are a “type.” And even when these types are full to the brim with distinctly modern quirks, they are still recognizably authentic. You feel like you know this person on the page because you know somebody like this in your life. It’s hard to reinterpret a type of character in a fresh way, but I appreciate it when it's done well. 

• If an author can make me laugh without trying to be funny – in other words, if humor arises naturally from the situation on the page, just as it does in life -- I love that. Especially when the character is just being honest at the wrong moment, to the wrong person, and doesn’t even realize he/she has said something amusing.

• Authors who can create good good characters get high marks from me. I mean, we all know that naughty is a lot more interesting than good. But if you can make a good character who’s not a bore, that takes some mad skills. Best recent example of this I can think of: Both Katsa and Po from Kristin Cashore's Graceling.

• If I’m reading along and so much as a single paragraph or a sentence makes me jump up out of my seat and say, “Yes! That is exactly right. Truth and beauty! Beauty and truth!” I am forever smitten with that writer. I haven’t had this happen in a while, but I’m always on the look out for it. The best example of this for me is the final paragraph of Middlemarch. If I had to point to a single reason that I have put up with all the miseries of the writing life, it is because I someday hope to write anything at all that is one tenth as good as that, even though I know I never will.

Oh, and one last, very important thing, maybe the most important of all. Any book makes me happy at the thought that though this day or week has been awful and full of disappointments of one sort or another, at least I have X to read when I get into bed tonight? By golly, that author has earned my eternal devotion as well.

So what about you all? What are your own Ewan McGregors**? What keeps you in it, even when you know a story’s not perfect?

**And, no, you may not change the name to something else, like calling them your own private Johnny Depps or something. Although, OK, Johnny Depp would be all right, too, but that’s the ONLY exception I’m going to make.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What's in a Name, Rose?

Is this what it’s like to be a Mary? Or an Emily? Or a Dylan? Good grief, I’m surrounded by Kristens these days.

At my daughter’s preschool there are no less than 3 women with the name Kristen, and that’s just for my daughter’s class alone. So that’s 3 out of 16 moms by the name of Kristen. And as if that weren’t bad enough, there are all these famous Kristens bouncing around nowadays: Kristen Stewart, Kristen Bell, Kristin Chenoweth, Kristen Wiig. Oh, and of course my sister-in-law is named Kristin too. I’ll let that one go because she got to the name first; she was born a day before me.

There was a time when I was the ONLY Kristen for miles around. People found it to be such an exotic name, they just shortened it to Kris because they couldn’t get their mouths to form into the “Kris” and the “ten” and put them together. I mean, it was sad. It’s not like there was anything tricky in there, like a trilled R or something with an umlaut over it. But that was my reality as a kid.

But now, geez, forget exotic. It’s like a Kristen bomb went off, and I can’t help but feel a little deflated. Admittedly, I had a good run, but now I think I’m … wait, don’t say it!


OK, I’m very anti-trend, but I think this itself may be a trend. A lot of the celebrity baby-naming nonsense is borne of the same drive to be un-run-of-the-mill. But truly, I think we can all recognize that there is such a thing as TOO original. This is not a goldfish you’re naming here, OK? It’s a person. A person who’s going to have to look at Diogenes Angus Lowenstein on his driver’s license one day.

Of course, there’s potentially a lot of fun to be had with celebrities as a result. You know what my husband and I briefly thought about naming our youngest daughter? Apple. Yeah. So then there’d be two Apple Martins in the world. Wouldn’t that just tick Gwyneth right off?

I got thinking about this name thing because I’ve seen several literary agents tweeting about popular names writers are giving to their main characters, and these names are not necessarily your names of long-standing appeal, like William or Katie. Each of them is what I would call “reasonably uncommon” or perhaps maybe “deliberately unusual.” Names like Austin or Peyton or Izzy (for a girl or boy). In other words, we authors are trying to be original. It’s just that we’re failing.

How does this happen? Each of us is trying to come up with a name for our main character that is not overused, but somehow we’re all independently coming to the same conclusions. There’s something to be said for the collective unconscious, I suppose, but honestly, I’m thinking that the urge toward originality is, in fact, the problem. A widespread urge toward originality ends up yielding a trend, which is, of course, the opposite of originality. Which then forces us to go farther afield to be original. Let’s face it, the only way to be truly original is to create a name that no one else wants to use. Like Chrysler or Waffle or Kevlar. Is that what we really want to accomplish? The pages of literature filled with silly and unappealing – but original – character names?

The reason this is important is that we have an important duty to perform as writers, and we potentially yield great societal influence. Books and movies are often the starting points for name trends after all. That name you’ve picked for your zombie love interest? He might just become the first in a national wave of Otises.

You’ve no doubt heard about the most famous example of this, that the name Madison came from the movie “Splash.” The name did not exist at all as a first name – and certainly it wasn’t used as a girl’s first name – until Darryl Hannah’s mermaid needed a more easily pronounced human name and happened to be standing on the corner of Madison Avenue at that point in the movie. Thank God she wasn’t standing on the Major Deegan Expressway at the time or else our elementary schools would be filled with Majors and Deegans right about now.

There must be a way around this, right? Maybe we can agree to start choosing names that are not super common but neither are they like three-legged unicorns. Maybe this is the way to short-circuit the urge toward ultra-originality.

I’ll get the ball rolling by throwing a few names out there as suggestions for main character names. I’ll start with the name Bobby. When was the last time you met a kid named Bobby? Seriously. The last kid named Bobby was probably your dad. It would be totally unusual in 2010.

Here are a few more to consider: Dave, Roger, Dennis, Carol, Donna, Rosemarie, Mary Ellen, Betsy, Kevin, Nancy, Denise, Amy, Carl. OK, if you want to get all tricky, feel free to use the boys’ names for the girls and vice versa.

I’d suggest Kristen but, you know, that name is so played out.

How do you pick your characters’ names? Phone books? Baby name books? Do you use unusual spellings of common names? I’d love to hear your methods and madness.