Voice Part V

Story of My LifeIf you grew up in the ’80s, a lot of this book will resonate. ‘Story of My Life’ is about a disaffected, privileged young woman who lives in NYC, and has everything she needs in a material sense, but a distant relationship from her parents who substitute money for their love and attention. Throughout the book you see a young woman, left to her own devices to figure it all out, amidst parties, drugs and similarly alienated friends and family. She yearns for more but can’t say what the “more” is, because she’s never really had it. But what she does have are ample opportunities for sexual and other adventures that she describes with such distance that it breaks your heart.

It’s written in the first person, the protagonist is female, and the author – the amazing Jay McInerney – is of course male. But he wrote this young woman so well, it’s amazing. You know his work; he wrote the acclaimed ‘Brightness Falls’ and ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ which became a movie. For my money, he’s the writer whose voice, more so than any other, captures the soul of New York City and the many people who try to invent and reinvent themselves there. This book, ‘Story of My Life’ was read aloud with my college roommate over a single night. We LOVED it because NYC loomed large in our lives at the time. Both the book, and the memory of that night with my roommate (and still one of my dearest friends) are incredibly important to me. I hope you read and enjoy it.


Evocative Writing

Going through the books I’ve read and rated (a part of my quest to identify all the books I ever read), I noticed something interesting. I give many five star ratings. I don’t think it’s because every single one of those writers wrote a perfect book – whatever that is – but it has more to do with whether or not what they wrote made me feel something. I rarely read solely because the subject is “interesting”. That I do for my other work around social policy. In that life, I read things that are interesting and that inform me about a particular issue and make me more effective as an advocate, speaker and writer; I enjoy it immensely and have learned so much about my country, the world and human nature in general.

But when I read recreationally, I read to “feel” something. If I learn something as well, that’s certainly a bonus.

So it’s been interesting to read reviews that other folks write, particularly bad reviews, of books that I enjoyed. Often, the negative reviewer will list at length the ways that the main character frustrated them or made them angry, how the protagonist made decisions they were befuddled by . . . and then they’ll go on to rate the book at one or two stars.

How can it be, I wonder, that you were made to feel something just by reading this author’s words on a page, and then go on to undervalue those words?

Now, this is very different from the negative review that says, “I just didn’t believe it. The author did not convince me” that these characters were in this situation, or that being in that situation, they would have made the decisions they made. That, I think, may merit some disappointment. But to acknowledge that the writing evoked an emotion and then go on to say that you didn’t like the book because you didn’t like the emotion itself, puzzles me.

Here’s an example of what I mean. When I saw the movies, ‘Gone, Baby Gone’ and ‘Mystic River’, I was absolutely horrified and made despondent by the subject matter. I was literally haunted by both for weeks after I’d seen them. Now imagine if I had been a movie critic and panned both on that basis alone.

Similarly, Chris Bohjalian’s book ‘The Double Bind’ continues to disturb me to this day, years after I first read it. I see it on my bookshelf and walk past it quickly, preferring not to even look at the cover, perhaps ever again. That emotion, however uncomfortable, does not take it off my list of all-time best books I ever read, almost purely because of how it makes me feel.

In my own writing, I strive for that. I want my characters to piss you off, or make you love them, or make you sad. If someone says that my main female character is a “nasty piece of work”, my hope is that they mean she’s a flawed person, not a flawed product of my imagination

In my soon-to-be-released book ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ my struggle has been that the main character is very unlike anyone I know, and certainly very unlike me. She is painfully insecure, easily susceptible to the influence of others, and not at all sure of who she is. These character traits make her say and do things that I find inherently unsympathetic. And that makes it tough to get in touch with her. So I’ve had to constantly remind myself that I need not like her choices, or even like her. I simply need to believe her. I hope you’ll check out ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ next month and then write me a review telling me if you believed her.

In the meantime, read the teaser and leave me a comment.

Happy Reading!


Emotional vs. Physical Infidelity?

ImageMy friends and I have an ongoing debate about the relative weight that we place on emotional versus physical infidelity. The central question goes something like this: if you were to discover that your partner was having many intense, deep and searching conversations with someone else, sharing their innermost thoughts and yet honestly hadn’t ever considered sleeping with that person, would you feel more or less betrayed than if you discovered they had a one-time only sexual encounter with that person and were genuinely not interested in repeating it?

For me, hands down the emotional infidelity would be a deal-breaker. I’m not sure there would even be anything to discuss. Sexual infidelity would also be a bitter pill for sure, but I think the nature of sexual attraction is such that I could understand (though not condone) an intense physical, momentary connection with someone else. Now what would concern me more about physical infidelity would be what it implies about my partner’s honesty, or their ability to forego sexual gratification in favor of something else (i.e., the emotional relationship with me) that they value more. 

Many of my friends are preoccupied with the actual act itself, the idea of their loved one touching and being touched by someone else. I wouldn’t want to picture that, certainly, but I think it troubles me far less than the average person. In my writing, I explore jealousy and infidelity in all its forms quite a bit, working out through my characters what that concept means to different people. I was first alerted to my apparently uncharacteristic lack of jealousy when I shared with a friend that an ex-boyfriend had gone to a strip club with friends. She was aghast and thought it was incredibly permissive (not to mention naive) of me to have “allowed him to get away with” such a thing – looking at another woman with lust, etc, etc. I explained to her that I thought men who went to strip clubs were being had – being sold an image of sexual wantonness by women who were more likely thinking about their dry-cleaning and despising the very men who gave them money. Still, she insisted strip clubs are like a gateway drug to physical infidelity and I should manufacture some disapproval even if I did not honestly feel it, the next time he suggested he and his friends were planning to spend their evening in that way.

Well, that boyfriend didn’t last for other reasons, but it got me thinking: are there gateways to emotional as well as physical infidelity that we should close off just to guard our relationships? Some women forbid their husbands or boyfriends from having female friends. Others don’t permit them to go on vacations alone or “with the boys’. For me, that all seems like a little too much work and in the final analysis, futile.

Emotional and physical infidelity are sometimes the consequence of opportunity and recklessly exposing oneself to temptation, but I think more often they are a symptom of something being broken to begin with. The question always, will be whether it’s worth the trouble to fix.

In ‘Commitment‘ I explore the relative weight placed on different kinds of infidelity, but also strongly encourage you to see this little known movie, ‘Last Night’ with Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington (also Eva Mendes and Griffin Dunne). Amazing treatment of this subject, well-acted and far too probing to have been a theatrical success, as all good films are these days.

And then I’d love to hear what you think. Emotional vs. Physical infidelity? Which is worse?

Going Home Again

They say you can’t do it: go home again, I mean. It’s a saying I never quite understood. I think it means that memory is flawed and what we remember about safe and familiar places is never what was. And even if  what we remember is accurate, we can’t  re-create it. One of the most amazing films about memory and nostalgia and home that I’ve ever seen was Terrence Malick’s beautifully filmed and profound work ‘Tree of Life‘ starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. It is non-linear and intentionally choppy, much like our actual memories are, and will evoke emotion even where comprehension eludes you. That movie, and my own recent trip home got me thinking lately about how we construct our lives based on what we think we once were; how the people we become are in large part based on our flawed recollections of what used to be.

As I write my characters, I find that it’s essential to know who they are, not just in the moment that I’m capturing in my novel but before that, so I spend countless hours thinking about what ‘home’ means to them.

Were they happy? Did they have a family that loved them? Was there a mother and father there? A mother and mother? Only a grandmother?

All of these questions, once answered, add a dimension to who they are in the time that I meet them. The answers to these questions inform how they will respond to other characters, to challenges, to happiness offered, and to the world around them. What I haven’t yet learned how to do consistently is to imply but not always explain all of these nuances to the reader. You know what I mean: those books that give you pages and pages of back-story that may or may not be interesting, but don’t necessarily move the plot along? Still, there are times when I think it’s important to  have characters “go home” either literally or metaphorically. In the novel I’m currently working on, one of the characters makes choices that make her somewhat unsympathetic to the reader and for that, I think it’s key to know what ‘home’ is for her. Only by seeing from whence she came – psychologically as well as literally – can the reader understand and perhaps begin to like her despite her faults.  The book, titled ‘Unsuitable Men’ will be out later this year and I’ll be working on meeting the challenge of having just the right balance of the character’s past and their present.

But for now, I’ve been given another challenge: my friend in the blogosphere Mistress M, whose amazing blog can be found here, has recommended me to participate in the  Tell Me About Yourself Award, where I must write seven things about myself that I haven’t revealed before, and nominate seven other bloggers for the same award. So I’d better hop to it . . .

The Empowering Character Arc

Well worth the read.

Screenwriter On Location

What is a character arc?

A Character Arc could also be described as the journey.  Remember, every protagonist must have a journey that they experience throughout the storyline.  Sometimes, it can be seen in the development of their character or personality they experience.  Some examples of this are frequently seen in the aspects of their persona—emotional, physical or psychological.

Why does a character need an arc?

A character arc helps to create believable characters that will always have universal appeal.  Without an arc, the character might not be convincing or interesting and could loose the audience.  The lead character must go on some kind of transformational journey.  If you want your audience to identify with your protagonist, create a complex journey for them to take.  Make him or her human.  Ask and answer questions like:  What is the their goal?  Define if it’s emotional or physical.  What do they want…

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Stealing Words

You’ve probably heard all about the kerfuffle last week when Jonah Lehrer, a talented, young writer resigned from The New Yorker after admitting that he’d fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan, patching together pieces of quotes others had gotten the old-fashioned way. Apparently, this wasn’t his first infraction, and Lehrer had previously been given a smackdown (albeit a gentle one) for lifting stuff from the The Wall Street Journal and a couple of other publications. This is nothing new. In 1998, Stephen Glass, a rising star at The New Republic was discovered to have been writing almost pure fiction during his tenure right under the noses of his colleagues, some of whom were widely recognized as some of the best minds in journalism. And then there’s Jayson Blair, who had to resign from The New York Times after he was exposed as plagiarist.

Interestingly, in each of the scandals, there was a fair amount of denial going on. Time and time again editors were forgiving of these transgressions and decided to “give the kid another chance” or chalk it up to a simple “mistake.”  To see how that can happen, you might want to check out, ‘Shattered Glass’, the film about the Stephen Glass debacle, with great acting by Hayden Christensen and the always amazing Peter Sarsgaard.

This phenomenon is not unique to journalism of course. People lie all the time in just about every field, unfortunately, but unless they’re pretending to be medical doctors or faking qualifications to fly jets, chances are they’ll by and large get away with it. But something about stealing the words of another is particularly odious to me. Maybe because I know how agonizing it is to come up with your own. Still, there is a part of me that sympathizes with these young writers at high-performance publications. The pressure to produce your pages must be incredibly intense, but they can’t just meet the word limit, they have to be brilliant while doing so.

And I do mean brilliant. I used to subscribe to The New Yorker and finally had to stop because I found that every single issue had something that was worth highlighting, attaching a Post-it note to for future reference or simply re-reading for the purpose of admiring the elegance of the prose. It made me sick, sick, sick with envy. So I stopped getting it. No, but seriously, I stopped because I could read it online and because I was building a veritable monument of saved magazines in one corner of my living room that was almost as tall as I am. These are not lightweights, is my point. The writers are held to incredibly high standards that I think might undo many of us, particularly if you’re the kind of writer who waits for the muse to visit and finds it difficult to produce a single word on command.

Another complicating factor is that writers tend to be voracious readers as well, and consumers of information in all forms. I cannot tell you how easy it is to have a stroke of genius come to you in the middle of the night, a particularly clever turn of phrase that later, over breakfast cereal, you realize is not your phrase at all, but a line from a song, or a movie or – the horror! – someone else’s goddamn book. And when that happens, it’s the scariest thing in the world. So I get the “mistake” defense completely. But apparently, this latest scandal is on a different scale altogether. Intentional fabrication disguised as fact is a tough sell.

Next month, ‘The Words’ starring Bradley Cooper and Zoe Saldana will hit theaters. It’s about a writer who faces the pressure of wanting to produce meaningful work that also supports him and comes up short. He discovers a manuscript, written by someone else that he passes off as his own and with that finally gets the acclaim his own writing did not. While I know that human beings are capable of all manner of petty deceptions or grand delusions, I’m fascinated that someone would do such a thing and am really interested to see how this character is developed. In my experience, few people write to become rich and famous.

First of all, writing is an inherently solitary pursuit; it’s just you and your words. And generally speaking, I think writing as a craft attracts people who prefer it that way, people who are hopeless cocktail party companions because they would rather not talk to you at all, they would rather be alone and writing. For the most part these are not people who want to be famous. Rich, maybe, acclaimed, yes, but not famous. Second, the point of writing, perhaps the only point is to see whether you can conquer the written word, whether you can sculpt and mold it into something that conjures up for others the picture in your mind. I can’t imagine why anyone would forego that pleasure and challenge in favor of a fleeting taste of fame. So I have no idea why the Bradley Cooper character does it in this film but I’m curious enough to go see it when it comes out.

As for Jonah Lehrer, I suspect the write-on-command construct was just all wrong for him. The tragedy of it is that no one seems to question his talent; but as a writer it’s the kiss of death to be known as someone who was caught stealing words.

More, more, more: A Word on Sequels and Trilogies

I’ve never been a fan of the sequel, and even less so of trilogies. In fact, with the exception of J.R.R. Tolkien and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m not sure it’s ever been done well. So with that said, it will probably come as no surprise that the recent rash of romance and erotica trilogies drive me insane. One author has been promoting an eight-part Fifty Shades-esque series online, which frankly boggles the mind. My theory (and I use that word intentionally, because of course, reasonable minds may differ) of story-telling is that as writers we should create the impression that we’ve dropped in on the lives of our characters just for a spell. Like an omniscient being, we open the door and peek in, taking a look and sometimes hearing their thoughts. But only for a little while. We journey with them for that brief moment in time and then quietly shut the door, leaving them to carry on.

My issue with sequels is that they destroy the illusion that our characters do in fact carry on, and reinforce the notion that they actually don’t exist unless we are witnessing their lives. In a factual sense, we know that to be true, of course, but the illusion of their reality is what makes characters compelling.  The books that have moved me the most are the ones that permit me to imagine what happened after I’m done reading it. It’s like pining for someone you’ve met, with whom you fell in love a little, but who you will never see again. Sequels and trilogies hammer you over the head, inundating you with more and more information and situations until you finally grow weary and fall out of love, moving on to another book, another author, another fictional love-interest.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s incredibly flattering when someone reads something you’ve written and ask you for more: I want to see what happened next! My reaction to that is always to say, I don’t know what happened next. Nor should I. What do you think happened?

The idea of revisiting a character over and over again, dropping in on their life repeatedly would feel a little like stalking to me. I would much rather open my omniscient writer’s eyes, survey the universe and see who else might be worth dropping in on. There’s nothing more delicious than that feeling, like discovering someone new and falling in love all over again . . .