Saturday, July 28, 2007

Novel notes

Finishing a novel is both exhilarating and unsettling. You've spent three or so years with these characters you've come to know right down to how they like to eat their pasta, and suddenly you aren't spending time with them every day. Right now, another writer is reading my manuscript, and once I get her feedback, I'm delivering the baby to my beloved agent. I know the only solution is to start something new, and lucky for me, I have a new idea and I'm also working on a script.

I really think that all writers, at least if you're like me, need to keep all their novel notes, just to remind themselves that wrong turns can lead to right ones, that characters sometimes take months to breathe on the page, and that writing has something of a miracle in it.

I know this is a short entry, but I have ten loads of sandy laundry from the beach to take care of. And I admit I'm really proud of the fact that I spent four days at the shore and am still pale as parchment.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Novel Finished! Beach Blanket Bingo and Dame

First the big news for me.

I finished my novel, which is called Traveling Angels.

This is incredible because it has taken me almost four years and much angst to do it. I thought I was done two years ago and then I showed the synopsis to a writer friend who made me realize that I had a whole huge subplot that was pulling apart the main thrust of the novel. (I make all my writing students at UCLA do synopsis and this is why. It really does show up holes and wrong turns in your work. In the course of writing one novel, I may redo the synopsis a thousand times. OK, I'm lying. But it feels like a thousand times.)

A few weeks ago, the novel made its way to my screenwriting partner, and to two other writers, and suddenly, with their help (thank you, thank you, thank you) it unlocked. It's an extraordinary feeling, giving birth to a novel. But before I can send it to my incomparably fabulous agent, Jeff is reading it and so is another writer. Then more revisions, and then to my agent. September, my favorite month, is my deadline!

I really think the secret to finishing is to have something else in the back of your mind that you want to do, and for weeks a novel has been brewing and I'm finally ready to let go.

I also want to tell everyone to please watch out for the launch of DAME magazine. It's an online magazine that is part Salon, part Jon Stewart, and I'll be writing about books for them.

And I’m off for a week’s vacation. All of my friends always think it’s a hoot that I go to the beach, because they know me.

Okay, I’m no Annette Funicello. All my life, I’ve avoided the beach because A. I don’t tan. I grew up being called Caspar the friendly ghost (at least I got the friendly moniker), and it’s only recently, with the "anti-tan/pale is healthy" contingent, that I now get a seal of approval. (Last week, a woman stared at me on the subway and just as I was about to get really paranoid, she blurted, “You have really nice, pale skin.” And B. I’m afraid of sharks and jellyfish and all manner of things lurking in the ocean.. And C. I don’t really like hot weather. Give me winter any day.

Before you roll your eyes, you should know that my partner in crime, my husband Jeff is a lot like me. He doesn’t swim, and like me, his idea of a perfect summer day is four movies in an air conditioned place with cushy seats and no one kicking our chairs or coughing or talking too loudly during the film. But then we had our son. You can’t keep a kid from the beach! I actually think it’s a criminal offense in several parts of the country, so we started to go. But because Jeff is a smarty pants as well as a sweetheart (this is a guy who took me to a Japanese supermarket for our second date), he found the perfect place for us.

Every year we go to Ocean City, NJ. It’s got boardwalks you can bike on every morning, surreys you can rent, and enough honkytonk stores to make your eyeballs buzz. (My favorite is one that sells figurines of clowns in all sorts of professions, like a clown doctor, a clown artist, and a clown rabbi.) There are great arcades and those fab photo booths, plus a movie theater, and we stay close enough to the water so we can take our son swimming for a half hour, and then head for a no-holds-barred game of mini golf. The last time we were there, MaryAnne from Gilligan’s Island fame showed up—now, really, how can you beat that for kitsch?

So, I’m packing tons of books to read (Alice Sebold’s new book, and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves), my knitting (for those of you who knit, it’s a Rowan pattern, so you know that it is, indeed, a mother, and I have already ripped out the front three times and am ready to scream), my black swimsuit (of course, black, I live in the NYC area), and of course the sunblock with an SPF of 9,000 so I won’t tan even if I’m on the sun.

Be back in a week. See you later, alligators.

Read This Book!

I admit, I love reading about seekers. I love it when people chuck their workaday lives and go live in Nepal, or when they leave NYC to live in a tiny town in Montana for a few days. As soon as I picked up Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found them All by Perry Garfinkel—a national bestseller now in paperback about how he traipsed the globe to find the heart of Buddhism—I was hooked.

Garfinkel’s a smart, funny writer, nicknamed “Mr. Turtle" because he could fit all his possessions into his car. His career seems busted, his back hurts, his latest romance has fizzled, and when National Geographic gives him the opportunity to span the globe investigating Buddhism , he grabs it like it’s the solid brass ring. Already I love it because how can you help but root for him?

Garfinkle travels from Sri Lanka to Thailand, China, Tibet, Japan, Europe and San Francisco., exploring how Buddhism has adapted to each culture, morphing from a religion into a household world. And what a journey it is! In Poland, there is a Bearing Witness retreat set around Auschwitz. Ecology monks in Thailand wrap saffron robes around trees to keep them from being illegally cut down. Each incident is truly revelatory, and the panoramic cast of characters Garfinkle includes adds to the depth. (I liked the Buddhist stand-up comic, myself.) Most moving, however was Garfinkle’s talk with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, where Garfinkle’s preconceived notions about God fall away and give rise to something deeper and more meaningful.

Teaming with life, bristling with wry humor, and undeniably smart (I know, I said that already, but smart always matters in a book) Buddha or Bust is both deeply thoughtfully and friskily rambunctious.

And as for me, I may not follow Buddhism, but I’d happily trail after Garfinkle on any journey he wants to take.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Films, Fame and What Really Matters

For every novelist I know, the brass ring is getting a movie out of your novel. I’ve had options for four of my novels, and at one point, I was unnerved by how long the process could take and how quickly things could stop (I had a producer disappear! For two days Madonna considered my novel Into Thin Air for her directorial debut and then that interest fizzled!) that when I got another option, I lied and said I could write the script, that in fact, I had written dozens of scripts before.

“Fine,” the producer said, “Fed Ex me one of your scripts tonight.” In a panic, I ran to the bookstore and bought up half the screenwriting books there, and I stayed up until four in the morning hammering out a first act for the book the producer had optioned. I prayed it would be enough. I sent it off, and two days later the producer called.

“You lied,” he said. “You can’t write scripts. Why should I hire you to write one?”

I sat, terrified, trying to think what to say. “Because I’ll do it for free?” I asked.

I guess it was an offer he couldn’t refuse (my agent at the time wasn’t happy, but I was delirious.) He gave me six weeks to learn how to write a script, and I wanted this so much that I did learn. I learned well enough for him to use the script, and though that film never go made (welcome to the world of movies), another script I wrote made me a finalist in Nickelodeon’s Screenwriting Fellowship. Every since then, I’ve been in love with the process (and FinalDraft, by the way, is God’s gift to screenwriters.)

To my astonishment and delight, I’m back in the film business again. First, because of an essay I wrote for the anthology, The Other Woman, which got into New York Magazine’s special Love and Sex Issue before the anthology was even published. I wrote the script for it and all of a sudden there was all this interest and I am now trying not to bite my nails as I wait to hear.

But what is really exciting is when you can do a film, and it really can have world impact. A friend and colleague of mine, Leora Skolkin-Smith, has just become my screenwriting partner in a project I’m really excited about: Edges, her novel which was published by Grace Paley’s Glad Days Books and is now an audiobook read by the brilliant actress Tovah Feldshuh (It will be released during Jewish Book Week in November.)

Edges is set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it explores the changing borders of the relationship between a young girl and her mother. It’s a fantastic book, and when I admit when Leora told me there was a film development deal in the works, I gathered my courage and got pushy and asked (okay, I begged) her to let me either write the script or help her write it. We've already done the miniscript, and are about to start on the real script. (I can't wait, I can't wait.)

To be shot on location in Jerusalem, some of the proceeds are to go towards building an archive in the name of the very first people of Palestine before WWII. Meant to heal the peace process, this would show that everyone—Muslim, Jews, Christians and Armenians did live together peacefully once, and can do so again. The film is meant to promote a better understanding and to really do something to try and stop the heavy and mounting losses.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Let us now praise story structure gurus

There is always a point in writing a novel or script, when, just like Dante, you are lost in a dark, tangled wood (hopefully it isn't the bottom circle of the Inferno, but sometimes it sure feels like it.) You have no idea what your book is about anymore, or you've lost the character arc, or you just feel caught in the mire and you are seriously, and you mean it this time, seriously thinking of giving up writing and going to air conditioner repair school. Despite this trauma, you can't move forward. Or back. Or anywhere. Sigh. I know the feeling.

There are a lot of story gurus. I took Robert McKee's famed story structure class in Manhattan and left feeling much more befuddled than when I came in (but I did get to see Casablanca again, which was sort of nice.) I had some of the Truby story structure tapes at one time and was enthralled, and by the way, I think everyone should visit his website because he picks apart films and shows you where they work, how and why--and how they don't.

Most of these story structure people are really for screenplays. I tend to show my work to other writers whom I trust more than life itself, but when I was so confused in my novel that I had no idea what my main idea was anymore, I also asked Jeff Lyons, a smart, funny screenwriter, who seems to have this uncanny ability to thrash through the strangling vines and find the story breathing underneath, for help. (Okay, I begged.) Jeff's got this company with the megacool name of, and though it's primarily for screenwriters, I swear he knows novels.

Again, I know, I know, novels are not screenplays, but sometimes a little structure can be a very big thing.

Read This Book!

One of the things that tickles me the most in the world is that I get to read for a living. How wonderful is that! When I read as a critic, I read the book twice. First to just be lost in that incredible waking dream world of the book, especially if it's a novel. Then, I read and take notes, I try to make connections, and I'm never really lost in the book because my critical mind is tick, tick, ticking. But something else kickstarts, too. If a book is really wonderful, the writer in me starts yearning, "How did this writer do what he or she did? And how can I learn to do it, too?"

That's the way I felt about Valerie Trueblood's novel, Seven Loves, in paperback so there's absolutely no excuse not to snap it up. For anyone who needs buzz before you buy, well, there's high praise from the likes of Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Strout, and in any case, trust me, the novel is truly magical.

The novel is the story of May Nilsson, made up of the moments of her life, specifically seven of them where love in one form or another holds court. She roams back and forth in time to talk about her husband, the lover she takes in her 40s, her girlhood, and when she is aged. (And you probably can count on your fingers the last time you read a novel that had such a truly interested and interesting old woman in it!) Trueblood's said she's anti-plot, but there is a thread here--and I followed it totally enraptured.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Comfort writing food

Right now, I'm finishing the revisions of my novel, which is called Traveling Angels. I feel like I am caught in a hallucination. I work ten hours a day, and when I'm not working, I'm thinking about the work or I'm emailing or calling other writer friends to ask them if they also are feeling like hurling themselves off a bridge. (Sometimes they are, sometimes they're not. It depends where they are in the writing.)

But in these tough writing days, what a girl needs is comfort, and lots of it, and one way is with food. Chocolate, of course, is always the key, at least for me. I consider it one of the four basic food groups, and this recipe below is fast, easy, and except for the chocolate, really good for you, too. And for those worrying about fitting in their swimsuits, this recipe has practically no calories at all (not that anyone looking for comfort food cares about that!)

I'm a kamikaze cook--I don't really measure and I leave a mess in my wake, but here are the basics.

Comfort chocolate pudding

Half a bag of really good semi-sweet chocolate
2 cups of soy milk
3 tablespoons of arrowroot (it's a natural thickener)
Cinnamon to taste (I like a LOT)
Vanilla to taste, or even better, almond or orange extract
1/3 cup maple syrup (also to taste.)

You put everything in a pan and heat it up, stir, taste, add whatever you like. Bring to a boil and it will thicken, then put in the fridge and in two hours, bliss.

Promotion and its discontents

I love writing. I really do. Even when the writing is going so terribly that I start considering a career in air conditioning repair, I still love it. What I don't love is the promotion, a necessary evil that every writer needs to know about. I know lots of wonderful people who can help, and the first up on my list is Carolyn Howard-Johnson, whose book The Frugal Book Promoter:How to do What your Publisher Won't, (she also wrote The Frugal Editor: Put Your best Book Forward to Avoide Humiliation and Ensure Success) should be on every writer's shelf.

Howard is the founder of Author's Coalition and she runs a blog that gives authors a chance to really reach out to the public and extend the life of every great review by posting it in cyberspace. And even better, she also teaches at UCLA, so she's a colleague.

I can vouch for Carolyn personally, because she helped me a great deal promoting my last novel, plus she has a heart the size of Jupiter, so she has my devotion. She saved me from air conditioning repair school!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

In praise of Blade Runner

I admit it. Besides eating way more chocolate than is good for me and being unable to resist complicated looking earrings, I am a book junky and movieholic. I've been known to get up at four in the morning to watch a rerun of the film noir Scarlet Street, with Edward G. Robinson, and I'll happily go to NYC's arthouse The Angelica and see whatever is on any of the screens. Thanks to Netflix, there are always films at my house. So why am I so excited about the reissue of Blade Runner? Here's why:

1. It has bad actors giving stellar performances.
Sean Young is extraordinary. As the replicant who believes that she is human, who insists that the photos in her dresser are pictures of the mother who loved her, the mother whose death she mourns, Young will snap your heart in two. And Harrison Ford, who is usually as wooden as my dining room table, is a revelation. When he explains to her that her memories never happened, that the photos are doctored, that there was no mother at all--well, that moment is quietly brilliant. I loved this scene so much I had a character in my last novel, Girls in Trouble, thinking about it all the time.

2. It has layers of meaning.Trust me. Go see the film and then I will be happy to discuss the film for hours.

3. The book is based on a book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick, who is a genius.

4. As a novelist and a screenwriter, I'm always interested in how a story is put together. What's really fascinating about this is that all the versions of the movie--the one with the voice over and the one without, the one with the happier ending and the one that is bleak--all of them work!

Please. See it, see it, see it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Anthology fever

I wanted to tell everyone about two fantastic anthologies, I'm so proud to be included in

The first is The Other Woman, edited by Victoria Zackheim. My essay, Cassandra, was excerpted in New York Magazine's special Love and Sex issue, and I appeared on The Today Show with Victoria.

I also have a piece in Ellen Sussman's anthology Bad Girls. She's got this fantastic website devoted to it, so please take a look!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

But wait, there's more!

I can see where this is going to get addictive. I wanted to mention that I am also a prize-winning senior writing instructor at UCLA Extenstion on-line, one of the most fabulous jobs on the planet. I'm a professional namer, too, a screenwriter, movieholic and avid knitter. Once I get the hang of this, I'll start posting links to other websites, and more.

Welcome to my blog

I must admit I'm new to blogging, but here's where I can wax rhapsodic about writing (or whine), offer tips, tell you what I'm up to, and rant and rave about the publishing world. Please hang on as I learn to navigate this and in the meantime, please check out my webpage,