Monday, June 28, 2010

Allez! Allez! Allez!

As promised, I’m going to inflict my love of cycling on you now. This is because cycling is awesome and because the Tour de France starts next weekend.

To be honest, I have no idea how I’m going to fit blogging into my life with all the Tour de France watching I’ll be doing in July. I mean, how on earth am I going to watch 8 hours of race coverage per day AND get some writing done AND still have time to neglect my kids?

In addition to watching the grand sport of cycling on television, I also ride. I ride because apparently I like to suffer, which is the heart and soul of what cycling is all about, assuming you’re doing it right. (I know. It doesn’t sound like fun, but trust me, it makes perfect sense when you’re out there on the road.)

As a matter of fact, just yesterday I was out for a ride. When I left home, I had a lot on my mind. Mundane troubles and some not so mundane ones. It was 99 degrees, and I was sweating like hell’s glassblower, and so I poured a bottle of water over my head while I was tooling along. This in itself is part of what I love about cycling. When in your life, can you say to yourself, you know what? I’m hot. I think I’ll just pour water over my head right now and then you do it and shake the excess off like a sheep dog. Then you just keep on moving.

By the time I got home, things didn’t seem so bad anymore.

It’s occurred to me many times in the last few years that the reason I love cycling so much is that nothing makes me feel like a kid again quite like riding my bike. You can just get on your bike and start cranking those pedals, and it all comes back to you. It’s like a time machine, really. At least it is for me.

And yes, of course, it's good exercise and all that. But it's so much more. It's therapy, too. And maybe a little philosophy thrown in for good measure. It's an attitude adjustment with spokes. I can ride away from my problems, at least for a while, and blast away whatever’s bugging me by totally focusing on turning those pedals and hauling my butt up a hill. To what end? There is no end. Because getting up that hill is all you can think about at that particular moment and the reason why is irrelevant. You just do it. And you do it hopefully without puking, but if that happens, well, then, you just rinse off your shoes and keep going.

I hope you have something like this in your life. Something that is pure and simple and totally absorbing. Something that you throw yourself into utterly, that makes you use up every ounce of what you’ve got. But somehow, when it’s done, you feel renewed. Joyful, even. Like nothing and no one can slow you down.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tear It All Down and Start Over? No Problem!

Surely I’ve told you about my house before, haven’t I?

My husband and I bought our current house just about four years ago. Great location. Truly. The house itself? Ummmm, yeah.

What can I tell you about it? It's brick, it was built in 1945, it's pretty big. It was just what we needed to shelter our brood of girl children. We bought it through an estate sale. More to the point, we bought it in “as-is condition." For those of you unfamiliar with real estate parlance, "as-is condition" means “sublimely crappy.”

Did I mention the good location?

One of the many, many things that needed addressing so that our home might look just a little less like a mid-century crack house was the wallpaper. This house was filled with old wallpaper. I'm talking acres of the stuff. The former owners of our house – well, let’s just say the wife must have been BIG into wallpaper and the husband must not have given a damn what the little woman was up to.

Let me tell you, they put the stuff everywhere. Nearly every single room. And what wasn’t wallpapered was paneled with dark brown paneling (alas, the horror of paneling is a diatribe for another day). They put wallpaper not just on the walls but also on the ceiling. They put it INSIDE THE CLOSETS. Yes. Madness. Wallpaper madness. On two occasions – in two different rooms -- we have removed a layer of wallpaper, only to find another layer of the exact same pattern beneath it.

It goes without saying that all this wallpaper was atrocious. But, please, definitely do not take my word for it. Here, let’s just take a look at two wallpapers that we haven’t yet gotten a chance to remove:

Why, yes, those are kitty-cats in a shower!

And, no, you are not mistaken; those are dogs dancing in a speakeasy.

This is but a sampling, my friends. But a sampling. The only reason these two wallpapers haven’t been taken out yet is because of their kitsch factor.

Oh, did somebody say kitsch? Let's see. I'm sure I’ve got some flamingos around here somewhere. Ah, yes, here you go:

Of course, all this wallpaper is old and crumbly and requires a combination of harsh chemicals and maximum-strength elbow grease to remove. The living room alone took my husband and me SIX WEEKS to de-wallpaper. That was working side-by-side each evening, scraping it all off -- centimeter by centimeter of gold foil and grass cloth. Sounds fun, eh? They don’t make chain gangs do this kind of work. That’s how bad it is.

OK, so obviously anyone who knows us, knows about our house “situation,” as we call it, like it’s an acute mental condition, which, you know, kinda it is.

I made a comment to someone the other day about how I want to re-do this or that room, maybe someday tear the horrible addition off the back of the house and start fresh. This person then said to me, “Oh, my God. How can you even think about that after all the work you’ve put into this place?”

I just shrugged and said, “Eh. I could do it in a heartbeat.”



She was shocked to hear this, and I, in turn, was shocked at her dismay. I mean, just because you’ve worked your butt off on something doesn’t mean you can’t improve it still. Then I realized, haven’t I had the best training in the world for this sort of thing?

Let’s see, years on end of thankless, horrible grunt work only to rip something all apart and start all over again? That sounds a lot like something else I do.

We writers – we’re made of tougher stuff.

Now, as your attorney, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to advise against ever buying a fixer-upper. If you are determined to ignore the advice of counsel, however, I do urge you to read this questionnaire to determine your fitness for such pursuits. Consider this just one of many cautionary tales. I’ve got so, so many others, one of which involves a runaway belt sander.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hijacking the Narrative

I have three daughters. The younger two, who are 5 and almost 7, recently discovered the show “Full House” on one of the umpteen Nickelodeon channels we get. Who knows why this show has caught their fancy? Maybe it’s merely that the show features three girls, and they could relate.

I had to explain to them the concept of re-runs – that the show ran from 1987-1995, which was way, way, way before they were born. Then I had to break it to them that these kids they’re seeing are now all grown up. Well, first I had to tell them that Michelle was actually played by the Olsen twins. I did this without getting too much into the specifics of the Olsen twins’ lives and certainly without touching upon the notion of “made millions on merchandising” or “clubbing” or “heroin chic.”

What’s interesting seeing the episodes in this compressed format – the reruns are on every day and are often out of order – is that it’s readily apparent how the show evolved and that Bob Saget sort of got shunted aside more and more with each successive season. I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m assuming that originally the show was supposed to be a vehicle for Bob Saget, and it was supposed to be about his struggles as a father cobbling together a life after his wife dies.

Clearly, though, as time went on, the John Stamos character got a lot more airtime, and they also focused on the girls’ exploits in high school and such. But obviously – at least obviously to me – John Stamos got more screen time because he was way cuter and more appealing to viewers than Bob Saget. (That doofus Dave Coulier’s character pretty much stayed the same throughout each season, which is lucky for him. Had I been a writer on that show, he would have met with a grisly fate midway through the third episode, perhaps in a tragic fireworks accident: “And that’s why you should never, ever light illegal Chinese bottle rockets in the basement, kids.”)

So it got me thinking about how sometimes when you’re writing a story, you start out writing about one character only to have another hijack your narrative. Maybe this happens as you go along and you realize that hey, this one guy is way more interesting than this other guy. Maybe I'll go in that direction. Or maybe you write one character’s story but then your readers – well, they’re less interested in what you’re interested in. Basically, you’ve written an entire novel about Bob Saget, and they want John Stamos.

I would guess that at some point every author deals with this, particularly when you’re dealing with agents and publishers who might have different ideas about what's going to appeal to readers. Maybe they find a subplot more compelling than the main plot or maybe they just know readers will be less interested in the travails of your paraplegic ventriloquist MC and more intrigued by his roommate, who’s a smoke jumper struggling to fit in with normal society because as it happens, he’s also a werewolf. In a weird way, it’s kind of a compliment, but it still presents problems. What do you do now? How do you break the news to Bob Saget that he’s no longer the focus of attention?

I’m curious to know 1) if you’ve had this happen when being critiqued or maybe before you even get to that point – maybe you had one character pulling you off in a direction you hadn’t intended to go; and 2) how you handled it.

I suppose the greater question is: Do you consider it a reasonable compromise or a complete capitulation to give the reader what he/she wants?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Too Good to Live

Aside from spreading anti-itch unguent on myself like I was slathering a hoagie roll with mayo, I spent much of last week tweaking my manuscript to get it ready to go out on submission.

And by tweaking, I mean, of course, killing off the very last of my precious darlings, watching the light go out of its eyes while I knelt over its body, screaming "Nooooooo!" to an indifferent God.

The thing is, I don’t really have a problem killing my darlings. At all. I rarely argue with suggested changes – or rather, I am well-aware of and in agreement with Dr. Johnson’s famous line: “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

It’s not as though I haven’t been doing it all along. I tell you, I am a highly-trained darling-killing machine. Seriously, like Jason Bourne or something. One by one I have taken them out. From first draft to revision to second revision to copyediting. I lay hidden up on a ridge, M40 in hand, picking them off one by one with the cold, calculating eye of a sniper.

But it doesn't matter how battle-hardened you think you are, there’s always one line you really, really like. One line you think is gonna make it, against all odds.

It’s like when you’re watching a WWII movie and there’s that noble first lieutenant character. He's the stand-up guy who takes the brunt of the commanding officer’s ire and insists that his men get some R & R at a halfway decent Belgian brothel for a change. You know, ‘cause they’ve been working hard and deserve it. He’s the kind of guy who's full of common sense, effortlessly cool, and routinely brave. And, of course, good looking -- but in a regular-Joe kind of way.

And you know full well as you’re watching, as you get more and more attached to the guy, that at some point, that character is going to get sent on some foolhardy recon mission, and he’s sure as hell ain’t gonna make it back. Maybe you hope otherwise, maybe you think, just this once -- just this once, he’s gonna make it out alive.

But no.

He always gets killed just steps from safety by a stray bullet or because he threw himself on a grenade to protect the life of the most reprehensible guy in the platoon. Too good to live. That’s what he was. Just like that one last line I wanted to keep.

Perhaps we should have a national darlings memorial. For all those who have lost their lives in the service of better writing.

Oh, my. I do believe I hear the sound of a lone bugle playing. So sad and forlorn but also, so beautiful. It’s like a Ken Burns film here right now. I wish you could hear it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


Guys, I am covered in a poison ivy rash. Ugh. My arms, my legs, my hands.

Two words will suffice to describe my condition: weeping + blisters. Obviously weeping is never a good thing, but when you combine it with blisters, which are also never a good thing, you get a really, really bad thing. Two wrongs make a wronger wrong.

In short, I am hideous. Like, small pox hideous, or post-nuclear-apocalypse-and-all-that's-left-on-earth-are-zombies-like-me hideous. 

People may brag about having a high pain threshold, but I’ve never heard anyone claim to have a high itch threshold and now I know why. I want to claw my own skin off.

I’ll be back once the magical steroids do their thing. In the mean time, if you see this stuff in yours or anyone else’s garden, stay the heck away from it.