Friday, August 28, 2009

In Media Res

You know how we, as writers, are supposed to always begin our stories with the main character's moment of change, otherwise known as throwing the reader into the tale en media res? I found a glowing example of this in a movie I watched last weekend, and I thought I would share its brilliance and simplicity. Since I like to have backstory clearly defined in my mind, and usually need to be reminded not to slam it on the reader, but rather to feather it in gradually, I found this helpful.

One of the opening scenes in Careless depicts the main character, Wiley Roth, returning to his apartment alone after working at a drab job in a bookstore. He goes to the kitchen, and a microwave sits on top of the freezer. He opens the freezer, and it is filled with Banquet frozen meals, minus room for five or six boxes. He opens the cardboard expertly, pokes holes in the plastic with a fork kept on top of the microwave just for that purpose, and sets the timer. Next shot, we see him reading a book on his couch, mindlessly forking the heated meal into his mouth.
Now we know that this character lives alone, doesn't cook, can't afford or doesn't choose to buy the more expensive frozen meals, and that his life follows the same pattern and routine every day. Except, of course, for today, the moment of change, when he finds a severed finger on his kitchen floor after his meal. Where does he put it? The freezer. And we are already familiar with the contents of the freezer.

The finger stands out among the frozen meals, and voila, his life is changed forever.

Now if only everything I write could work out that well. What do you do to make sure your backstory doesn't interfere with your beginning, the moment of change?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Editor's Day at the Santa Ana Zoo

I am so excited that I am recovered enough from surgery to attend this year's Editor's Day at the Santa Ana Zoo in October, hosted by SCBWI! Last year, I could barely walk. Now I can still barely walk, only with the boot and the crutches, but it's a better situation, and I think I can make it through a full day of walking around by that time.

I heart SCBWI events. It almost killed me not to attend the big conference in LA. I mean, it was just down the street! Or freeway. Whatever--it was close, and I didn't go. I was there in spirit, though.

So now I get to go in October and I'm giddy! Why? Because! That's why! So there! Oh, you want real reasons? Okay!

1. OC SCBWI puts on great events. The speakers and the editors who are attending this event are top-notch, and every word they say should be memorized and applied to my writing. The digital recorder gets new batteries for this day, for sure!

2. One of the speakers, A. LaFaye, is not only one of the best children's writers ever published, but was my instructor at Cal State for four years, and the person single-handedly responsible for my MFA. Okay, I did the work, but she told me about Spalding, encouraged me to apply, and wrote a letter to help me be accepted. I think that's a lot, don't you? She was always patient and supportive and knowledgeable, and without her I would not have come so far with my education. She made learning fun, and helped me to realize that not only could I become a better writer, but that I already was one. I owe her much, and hope that someday I can be as positive and influential an instructor for others like myself.

3. A couple other Spalding alumni will be there, too, possibly, so that makes it even better! I get to see Nancy! And possibly Christine! Yay!!! And I get to network with new people from SCBWI, who are always so positive and helpful. Really, it's a great crowd.

4. It's a week before my birthday, so it's my present to myself.

5. It's at the zoo, and we all know I'm an amateur zookeeper, so it will be nice to see animals that OTHER people care for, instead of me!

Speaking of animals, my son is awake now. I'm going to hunt down Harry Potter showtimes and see if I can convince him to shower and get dressed before Noon on a Saturday.

If you are in the So Cal area, I strongly encourage you to attend this event! You can join SCBWI and receive a discount on registration, and the membership alone will be worth your money, even if you don't attend. As a matter of fact, if you are a children's writer, I think it's the law that you join. Or, at least, it should be!!!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Movies Based on Books from My Childhood

Kid: Mom, there are lots of movies about books when you were young that are...well, they're GOOD!

Me: Yes, movies sometimes start that way, you know.

Kid: How?

Me: As books!

I know, it's hard to imagine. And I do think I have a glisten or two of youth left in my frail bones.

Today we watched The Phantom Tollbooth, starring Butch Patrick, produced in 1969. I explained to my offspring that this was what the world was like the year I was born. Not cartoonish and containing magical tollbooths or dogs with watches growing out of their sides, but rather with telephones with cords, and avocado green floral-inspired wallpaper that will seem to suck you in to a cartoonish netherworld if you stare long enough.

After the movie, we talked about enjoying the life you have and not being bored and lazy for no reason at all. We chatted about how Milo learned to appreciate all the wonders of the world around him, and how maybe the world my kid lives in isn't so bad, either. We agreed that it was ironic that Milo, the great time-waster, ended up becoming best friends with time itself.

Then he wanted to see another movie inspired by a book from my youth, which is apparently over, gone forever, blown away as dust in the breeze.

I remembered mentioning at a previous residency for grad school this great children's book I read as a child about two kids who hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and how I found that adventurous and brave and daring when I read it, but I couldn't remember the name. At the time, the other students insisted this book was called From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I thought they were incorrect. I remembered a much shorter title. But then again, by any name, it was a good read. So I looked it up on Netflix, and I found it on Play it Now. We watched that one, too, which inspired the quote from my son above.

They were right, and I was wrong. Then I imdb'd it, and voila! It wasn't always called by that long, yet unforgettable, title. The book was, yes, so I don't know why I couldn't remember that. But the movie was originally called The Hideaways. I knew it was something different. Now I have seen the Lauren Bacall version, and I want to see the Ingrid Bergman version. I wonder if that's on Netflix Play it Now, also? I love Netflix. Have I mentioned how I love Netflix? I have Youtube to thank for the first movie, though. I hope I don't get anyone in trouble by mentioning that. What impressed me the most was that there are also available on Youtube videos of a guy reading The Phantom Tollbooth, chapter by chapter. From a book. Even though there is a movie available.

Now, if you will excuse me, I do wish to finish the book myself, even though I have already seen the (not true to the book) movie. I explained that to my son, also, and he just shrugged, and said, "They did the best they could."

I thought he was going to be an engineer or an artist when he grows up, but now I know otherwise. He will be a screenwriter, because that is where his sympathy lies.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Tribute to The Phantom Tollbooth

I decided to re-read The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I don't remember a lot of it, so I'm re-discovering as I go along.

Do you remember Milo and Tock? Milo is "every boy," or "every child," and he is consumed with boredom and laziness. Ennui rules his every breath. (I just like that word. Say it with me: ennui. Don't you feel sophisticated?) Tock is a Watchdog. Literally. A watch and a dog. But he goes "tick" instead of "tock." Milo assembled the Phantom Tollbooth from a mysterious box in his bedroom and drove into the Lands Beyond, starting with Expectations, where all you can do is wonder. Just ask the Whether Man! Milo's travels then expand to the Doldrums, where he arrived by letting his mind wander and by "not thinking at all."

For procrastinators everywhere, I present a quote from Milo's visit to the Doldrums.

"As you can see, that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding, or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laugh, we'd never get nothing done."

"You mean you'd never get anything done," corrected Milo.

"We don't want to get anything done," snapped another angrily; "we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help."

Yay! Oh, me, me! I can do that, too!

Aside from the 1961 writing style (annoying dialogue tags and an unnecessary adverb), I quite enjoy this so far.

Sometimes, when writing, I feel like scratching my head in confusion, as Milo does here at the entrance to Dictionopolis.

"I never knew words could be so confusing," Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog's ear.

"Only when you use a lot to say a little," answered Tock.

Oh, I would never do that. Never. No writer would ever do a thing like that. Not even if they have a word or page count deadline looming the next day and they needed to pad a few pages with dialogue about sipping tea. Never I would use extraneous or superfluous language to fill a page. Unnecessary, nonsensical, additional, avoidable, repetetive, random, redundant, exorbitant, and/or haphazard dashes of linguistic irrelevance are not in my writer's toolbag.

Not me.

While in the market at Dictionopolis, Milo and Tock run into the Spelling Bee and the Humbug, who disagree and cause a mess. Or maybe Milo causes the mess, because he is blamed for it.

The Humbug throws out this little gem to the Spelling Bee:

"A slavish concern for the composition of words is the sign of a bankrupt intellect," roared the Humbug, waving his cane furiously.

I'm just going to ignore the dialogue tag and the unnecessary adverb. But really, I spell things correctly 99.99999999% of the time. I believe my intellect functions adequately, possibly more than adequately, depending upon many factors, including sleep, and pain levels. This statement from the Bug to the Bee seems to me to be similar to the old adage, "Those who can't write, edit." I have done both, and both are challenging positions. And believe me, without a writer, there's nothing to edit, so both sides should just quiet down.

Speaking of arguments, when Milo and Tock find themselves sentenced to prison for six million years for making the mess, they meet a Which. Not a witch, but a Which. Her name is Faintly Macabre, and her job in the past was to pick which words for used for what purposes. She was jailed because she became stingy and decided to keep the good words for herself. They eat them, you see, and most are quite tasty, juicy, and sweet. Now the only things Faintly is allowed to eat are sugar-coated punctuation marks, such as commas and exclamation points.

The best bit of advice the Which passes on so far is this:

"An ill-chosen word is the fool's messenger."

A bit of writerly wisdom, indeed. Of course, this proverb was intended to make the people of Dictionopolis stop using so many words so the Which could eat them all.

Here's my bit of wisdom to all writers everywhere today: Don't let the Which eat your words. Type them as fast as you can! You can always edit later. Don't keep the words inside, even when you visit the Doldrums. As Tock said to Milo, "It's bad enough wasting time without killing it."

And as Milo recognized when he escaped the Doldrums by starting to think again about anything, anything at all, "how much could be accomplished with just a little thought."

For instance, I didn't think I had anything to say in a blog this afternoon. Hm. And I've only read through chapter five so far!

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