Monday, July 26, 2010

Reality TV: Why Not Us?

Chefs. Fashion designers. Visual artists. Comedians. Even hair stylists.

They’ve all had competition shows on cable television. Why not us writers? Why don't we have our own reality TV competition thingy?

I realize this would pose a challenge, especially in terms of creating "riveting" TV that viewers will "want to watch." I realize that writing is just, you know, sitting and thinking a lot and then writing stuff down. In other words, not a whole lot of action. But if we put our minds together, we could do it. I mean, we’re the ones who write all these shows for other people, after all. Surely we can script some compelling TV for ourselves.

All we need is a panel of celebrity judges, the promise of a book deal for the winner, and a cast of quirky contestants (God knows that last one wouldn't be hard to put together). Check it out. I’ve already pounded out  ideas for twelve full episodes. Took me all of twenty minutes:

Episode 1: The contestants struggle to produce 1000 words a day for five consecutive days while staying in a small, seedy hotel next to an elevated subway track, all the while subsisting on a steady diet of ramen noodles, Red Bull, and bourbon.

Episode 2: The writers cope with rejection.

Episode 3: The writers cope with rejection.

Episode 4: Four writers quit the competition. Then unquit. Then quit again. All will beg the producers to return to the competition by the following morning, like the sniveling gluttons for punishment that they are. Marie, who writes paranormal horror romance, is the first contestant to utter, “I’m not here to make friends.” The other writers roll their eyes because this is just the sort of predictable dialogue she creates.

Episode 5: One of the contestants is found slumped over his laptop, dead. No one realizes he's missing until after the scheduled outing to the headquarters of a clearly dying traditional publishing conglomerate (this episode sponsored by Amazon’s Kindle DX). The others try to conceal their glee at the smaller pool of contestants while Gerald, 81, a former staff writer for “Gunsmoke,” is heard to say, “Poor bastard’s probably better off.”

Episode 6: Tempers flare as the remaining contestants wait sixteen weeks for a response from the judge’s panel on the outcome of the previous challenge. Chuck accuses Melanie of stealing his idea for a modern update of King Lear, featuring all vampire characters. A torrid affair develops between one writer and the imaginary heroine he has created.

Episode 7: The contestants must condense descriptions of their novels into twenty words or less in order to please a panel of A-list agents. A popular uprising occurs, however, when several writers reject the panel’s authority, claiming agents have no idea what good writing is. The rest of the contestants then nervously rush to assure the agents of their ever-lasting fealty by posting fawning comments on each of the agent’s blogs. Gerald gets word that his sixth wife has passed away. He elects to stay in the competition, saying, "She was going to leave me anyway. Just like the rest of them."

Episode 8: Each contestant is tasked with creating a writing blog that does not feature the words, I, me, frustrated, or sucks in any the posts. They are thrown an additional curve ball when the judges disallow the use of any cartoon from “I Can Has Cheezburger."

Episode 9: The contestants are divided into two teams, and each team is given $50. With this limited budget, each team must create a book trailer that doesn't look like something whipped up by a junior high AV club. Debbie struggles to balance the demands of the competition with her guilt about leaving her twelve disabled cats, all of whom she's left in the care of her unsupportive spouse, who keeps calling her and asking when she's coming back home and also where she thinks he might have left the remote. David suffers from writer's block. As do Marjorie, Emile, and Tom.

Episode 10: Contestants battle each other to see whose grammar and proofreading skills are preeminent. The loser is tossed from the competition after being beaten with a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style in a modern interpretation of the 17th-century rite known as “grammatical stoning.”

Episode 11: Simmering resentments come to a full boil. After one too many mojitos, Anthony blurts out, “Everyone here is laughing at your stupid novel premise, Miguel. I’ve seen mold spores generate better ideas.” Meanwhile, 58-year-old Ramona tells the other writers, “If you haven’t got a substance abuse problem by the time you’re my age, consider yourself lucky.” Debbie tearfully bids farewell to return home to her cats, four of whom have suffered health set-backs in her absence because her husband forgot to give them food and water and medication.

Episode 12: A winner is chosen by the expert panel of judges and awarded a book deal. Half the contestants insist the winner totally sucks and the other half think the winner is totally the bomb.

I’ll admit there are still some kinks to be worked out, but this is just a first draft. I’m certainly willing to revise based on feedback. (Bravo TV, if you’re reading this, call me.)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Mind-Bikini Problem

It’s July. It’s crazy hot.

We decide to take the kids to the pool Saturday evening after dinner.

Normally I’d join in with the swimming, but I’d just gotten my hair cut and seeing as there are only about 6 days per year that my hair is in a pristine state of sleekness, I decide to sit this one out and preserve what little remaining time I have with my perfect coiffure. Plus, sitting poolside affords me the opportunity to watch my kids doing cannonballs. There’s hardly any point in doing a cannonball if no one’s watching you and saying, “good one” in a distracted sort of way.

So. Yes. I’m going to sit by the pool and read my book and occasionally give a thumbs up to one of my cannonballers, and that's all I’m going to do. But then I look up, and I see her.

Oh. Dear. God.

I won’t do a double-take. I won't. I’m not going to look at the middle-aged woman in the bikini with an openly agog expression of dismay tinged with disgust. Nope. Not gonna look. There’s a policeman in my head saying, “Move along. Nothing to see here. Just get back to reading your book, ma'am.”

But, OK, I can’t. I just can’t avoid looking at her.

Seriously, WHY would she wear something like this? Why would she put herself on display like this, with the belly hanging over and the sagging what-not and the insufficiently thorough bikini wax? Of all the bathing suits she could have chosen, why this one? It's a slow-motion train wreck IN A BIKINI, and I cannot not look at her. I cannot not wonder what happens inside the mind of certain human females that makes them don a skimpy bathing suit and look at themselves and think, “Hell, yeah.”

OK, what is my problem? She has the right to wear whatever she wants. Of course she does. It’s just... I mean, come on. WHY? Why would you wear that?

Here’s a hard and fast rule about wearing a bikini if you’re over forty and you’ve had a few kids: don’t. That’s all. Simple, right? There's only one exception. Look in the mirror and ask yourself: "Am I Demi Moore?" No? Then don’t wear a bikini.

All right. That's enough. I’ve got to stop dwelling on this. I’ll just get back to the reading and put this out of my mind and stop wondering and being so judgmental and all that. I wish the bikini lady godspeed and hope she puts a towel over herself soon. Hey, there's an idea. Should I go over there and say, "All the god-fearing adults here at the pool passed a hat around, and we will pay you $87.65 if you will please please please put a towel over yourself"?

Now I'm squinting. OK, that helps a bit. I'll squint so I don't have to look directly at her. That will save me and my poor, poor retinas. I'm sure my eyes now have early-stage PTSD. Thank you, middle-aged bikini lady. Thank you. 

Several dozen cannonballs later (“that last one was definitely the best one”), we pack it in for the night. On the way home, my husband is seized by the horrific memory that he’d used the last of the coffee that morning and will be facing a bleak, un-caffeinated sunrise unless we stop and get some coffee. So we swing through the grocery store so he can hop out and get his forty-pound canister of coffee and then we’ll be on our way home with our chlorinated children, who are now fighting in the back seat like red-eyed vampires.

And then I see this woman coming out of the grocery store, pushing a shopping cart filled with watermelons. Like a dozen watermelons and nothing else. What’s up with that? I mean, if she had a bottle of vodka with her I’d have thought, Of course. I see where you’re going with this. But why on earth would a woman be buying a dozen watermelons on a Saturday night? WHY? WHY? WHY?

Honestly, my curiosity just wears me out sometimes.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Staying Power

Here’s something I’ve always wondered about: why do some stories stay with us while others don’t?

(Just to be clear, I’m being all rhetorical-like at the moment. No need to whip out your iPhone or your iPad and quote me results of some Stanford study on memory retention.)

Here’s a perfect example of what I'm talking about: back when I was in 5th or 6th grade – so, like, ten or eleven years old -- I read this short story about a soldier. That might well have been the title of it, just “The Soldier.” The setting for the story was medieval times, and I think the main character – a soldier obviously -- was supposed to be a knight.

I can’t remember the details exactly, but I do recall that the young soldier was desperate to prove his valor, as were all the soldiers in the kingdom. In fact, each young soldier was given a shield, and when he’d proven his worthiness in battle through an act of supreme courage, a star would magically appear in the center of the shield. To have a star on your shield set you apart. It was sort of a rite of passage for all soldiers in the kingdom, and without that star, one could never really consider himself a man of valor and worth.

Obviously, the young soldier wanted to have a star in the center of his shield because he, like everyone else, wanted an outward sign that he had proven his bravery. Again and again, however, the young soldier is passed over for all the dangerous missions because he hadn't yet earned his star, and so he is denied the opportunity to do anything courageous to prove himself. Kind of a Catch-22 kind of thing going on there, though I'm sure I didn't know what that term meant back then.

Anyway, as time goes on, the young soldier remains without a star even as everyone around him seems to be earning them. He is quite forlorn.

Well, conveniently enough – this being medieval times – there is a huge battle looming with their bitter enemy in another kingdom, and the young soldier hopes he will be sent to fight this enemy.

Alas, he is again passed over and instead given the task to stay behind and guard the castle. He is deeply upset but he undertakes his duty anyway, despondent and resigned that he may never earn his star.

Now as it turns out, while most of the soldiers are far away engaged in this epic battle, the castle comes under assault from a powerful witch or something, who can transform herself into a number of pleasing forms. The witch wants to gain entry to the castle and poison the king or do some other dastardly magical thing while the rest of the king’s army is off fighting.

The witch becomes a beautiful young woman who tries to entice the soldier into letting her pass. When that doesn't work, she then uses other tricks on the soldier, offering him riches and so forth. The soldier rebuffs each and every temptation. He holds the evil doer at bay and does his duty – keeping the king and the castle safe.

When the other soldiers return from battle, they are amazed to see that the young soldier’s shield bears a star. How can this be? He stayed behind. He did nothing courageous. How could he possibly have earned his star? Even the young soldier discounts his accomplishment at first, thinking that it does not merit this reward.

But, no, there is no mistake. The magic star is always right. He has proven his bravery not in the usual way, through fighting, but through his steadfastness.

So that's the tale, and I've always wondered why has it stayed with me. I’m not even sure I got all the details correct, but I still remember the gist of the messages it contained: many battles are not obvious to others, and therefore most acts of bravery go unseen. Sometimes being brave simply means refusing to give in. And more importantly, we ourselves are too quick to dismiss many acts of courage because they're not big and showy.

What’s most amazing about the fact that I remember this story so well is that I was not a big reader at that age. I know a lot of authors go on and on about their love of reading from the time they were young, but I can assure you, that was not me. I was probably out setting fires back then, and most things I read in school went sailing through my head unnoticed. What’s more, though I don’t even remember the author’s name, I do remember this story, and it has been meaningful to me all my life.

Why am I sharing this with you?

I just thought this soldier story might be worth keeping in mind the next time you sit down to write. It seemed to me the perfect example of why we do what we do and how we go about doing it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why I’m a Twit*

Ha, ha. Yes, I’m sure there are loads of reasons why, but I’m talking about Twitter, people.

Pretty much the only thing I miss about working in an office environment is being able to take a break from work to saunter down the hall and shoot the breeze with a fellow malcontent before returning to my rock-breaking. Of course, in between these tete-a-tetes, were copious, inane instant messages like:

Psst… Roger is coming down the hallway toward you now. He’s not wearing an undershirt today, and I swear I saw a third nipple. Have a look-see and IM me back.”


“I really appreciate that Sally has bravely come to work to infect us all with her pleurisy or consumption or whatever the heck she has that’s been causing her to wet cough incessantly since 8:45.”


“I am so bored right now I’m building a paper clip replica of the Eiffel Tower, complete with three little French paper clip people. Oh, and one of them is smoking a filterless paper clip cigarette. What are you doing?”

Then I would fantasize about pulling the fire alarm and getting to go home early.

Good times.

But of course, once my “office” became my home, and once “at work” meant writing, messing around like this would have meant wasting MY time, and I never wanted to do that. So I hunkered down. I tuned out and turned on, or whatever that phrase is.

All good, right? Well, yes and no. I got writing done. That’s for sure. But complete work isolation was not without its consequences. Somehow after years and years of next to no contact with the outside working world, I found I had developed some kind of generalized reticence disorder. Frankly, before I started this blog, my ideal model for authorial self-promotion was to adopt Thomas Pynchon’s approach. Pretty much nuclear submarines have a higher profile than he does.

Now, I realize writing is a solitary activity, but getting published is decidedly not, and you can’t really get anywhere without coming out from under your rock at some point. Querying, for example, requires that you, you know, initiate contact with other humans known as agents. So you've got to get into the swing of things whether you like it or not. Plus, unless you’re committed to a life of serial killing, I think it’s generally accepted that socializing is good for you for a host of reasons. And good co-workers can make any insufferable job that much more sufferable. Pretty much you can boil office camaraderie down to this exchange:

“This sucks.”

“Dude, I know.”

Unfortunately, if you're a writer, you don’t have any co-workers, not unless you go looking for them. Hence, the Twittering. It's kind of become my replacement for walking down the hallway to see what the other inmates are up to.

I realize that for some of you – well, the very word Twitter triggers your gag reflex. If you haven’t gone near Twitter with a ten foot pole, let me explain what it is all about: despite what you’ve heard, Twitter is kind of like an ongoing cyber-cocktail party. You pop in, you pop out. You talk, maybe make a (hopefully) witty observation, and then you move on. Of course there are those who stay too long and say too much and make fools of themselves. This is true of all parties, no? You steer clear of those folks, which is fairly easy to do.

So this is why I tweet. Because it keeps my social gears oiled so they don't get rusty and because it reminds me of the good old days when I was stickin’ it to the man on company time. Of course, I realize that now I’m the man. And I’m not really stickin’ it to myself, ‘cause that would be dumb. Well, whatever. I think you know what I mean, and like I said at the outset, I’m a twit.

*I dedicate this post to my friend and former co-worker, Pat, who made working at the "dry-cleaners" that much more bearable.