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Archive for April, 2012


I have been thinking about doing a blog post about some of my guilty pleasures in the form of books I could read over and over again or movies I could watch ad nauseum.  I have a small list in my head of comfort books and movies I could use to make up that blogpost.  I was formulating the post in my head when the greatest movie of all time came on TV tonight.

The movie is Stage Door made in 1937 and stars Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, and Eve Arden just to name a few.  This is a great movie and it is filled with the top female actresses of the time.

My mother made me watch this movie when I was a little girl.  I used to watch old movies from the 40s, 50s, and 60s on Sunday mornings when I was a kid.  Katharine Hepburn was quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses.  I was familiar with movies such as Desk Set, A Lion in Winter, and Bringing Up Baby.  Not to mention the groundbreaking films Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

My only knowledge of Lucille Ball came from the re-runs of the Lucille Ball Show.  And I didn’t know that Ginger Rogers even existed. without Fred Estaire.

Oh, and this is where I give away the plot of the movie, so if you’d rather be surprised, stop reading now.

This movie is exquisite.  With a primarily female cast, it takes place in the 1930s NYC in a boarding house for actresses called The Footlights Club.   The house is filled with young, hardworking, penniless, aspiring actresses fighting and scraping for the chance to be discovered.  In walks Terry Randall (Hepburn) a socialite who is set on trying her hand at acting.  She is certain that by applying her intellect to the trade, she could be a great actress.  The truth is, she’s a terrible actress as her wealthy father suspects.  He agrees to allow her the time to “find herself” while behind the scenes, he buys a part for her to give her the vehicle to fail and thus return home.

The part he buys could have gone to one of the other girls in the house.   A young actress named Kay Hamilton, played by Andrea Leeds, hoped for the part that was handed to Randall, who of course has no idea.  Opening night of the play, Randall’s big night, Kay commits suicide in her grief.  Ginger Roger’s character, Jean Maitland, spills the beans to Randall just before the play begins, letting Randall know in no uncertain terms that it’s her fault.  Randall is forced to go on stage with all her shock and grief and gives an unbelievably touching performance where she utters the famed line, “The calla lilies are in bloom again…” and she’s a huge hit.

 

In death, Kay Hamilton makes Terry Randall the actress they all hope to be.

 

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Glimmertrain is a publication that has regular monthly contests for writers.  Each month has a theme.  April’s theme is “Family Matters.”   I have three short stories nearly ready to go for this month’s contest.  Well, OK, two that are nearly ready.  They just need a good once over for fine tuning.  The third is only half written, but I can finish it in time.  The deadline is looming, however.

The Glimmertrain deadline is April 30.  Three days, three stories to finish.  I was originally only going to submit one, but I think all three are good enough for consideration.

A bigger deadline is looming on May 1.  That is the early bird deadline for the Writer’s Digest contest.  The actual deadline is May 15.  I have a pretty good story I can submit for that one, but it needs some editing.  I don’t know if it will be ready for May 1.  It might be, but I can definitely have it ready for May 15.

I have a lot of writing work to do this weekend to get ready for these contests, but I am up for it, definitely.  Wish me luck!

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This weekend I downloaded on iTunes and watched the movie Melancholia.  I love odd movies and this movie seemed to fit the bill.  I opted to purchase the movie outright instead of renting it.  I have rented movies from iTunes before only to purchase the movie a couple of days later.  I just knew that I would like this movie, so I figured why waste the money, just purchase it now.  My sister tells people that the longer, stranger, and boringer the movie is, the more likely it is I will love it.  In fact, if there is any way a movie can be made so it is like watching an historical documentary, omg I love it!

Well, OK maybe that’s not entirely true, but I do love a variety of movies.

So, what did I think of Melancholia?

 

Let’s just say I should have rented it.  What went wrong you ask?  The visuals were stunning.  The storyline was potentially fascinating, giant planet (Melancholia)  headed towards earth, supposedly only to do a fly-by and not crash into earth, we promise, pinky-swear, right hand up to God.  Insert compelling cast of characters and watch their lives unravel as the clock ticks down to the inevitable outcome and bam you have a hit.  Potentially awesome movie.  Except it wasn’t.

Why didn’t it live up to the hype?  Characters.  The creators of this movie took a potential win and threw it into the path of Melancholia by creating a host of characters I simply could not care about.  And that is supremely disappointing because I was disposed to love this movie.  Instead I found myself praying Melancholia would smash into Earth just so the movie would end.

My brother disagrees with me and thinks it was a great character study about the two sisters.  The one who spent the movie as the solid, stable sister holding the whole family together who falls apart at the end versus the crazy sister who pulls it all together at the end.  Yeah, that could be interesting if I cared enough about the two sisters to even remember their names for this post.

Which brings me to the point of my post.  Creating believable characters that people can care about.  I’m not talking about making people love your characters, because let’s face it, there are a lot of pretty unlikeable characters in literature, movies and TV.

When writing characters, however, you have to give your readers something to hold onto to, that ephemeral quality that your readers can identify with that draws them into the story.  Generally, this is easy to do with protagonists.  For example, Harry Potter, the lonely orphan child in the cupboard under the stairs, treated badly by his Aunt, Uncle and cousin, who longed for a better life with the loving parents he never knew who also happens to be the greatest wizard the world will ever know.  Compelling right?  I suppose a lesser author could have mucked that up, but thankfully, on the 7th day, God created JK Rowling.

But just as important as creating great protagonists, an author must create a believable, complex antagonist that we can love to hate.  Let’s face it.  Where would Harry be without he-who-must-not-be-named aka Voldemort.

Let me give you two examples of compelling antagonists that I think have that “it” factor that can help draw the reader in and add a level of depth to your story.

Voldemort – Harry Potter Books

Voldemort is the quintessential evil bad guy, but not just because he did evil things.  Yes, he did do bad things.  He killed Harry’s parents and tried to destroy the wizarding world all the while plotting Harry’s demise.  Evil, evil man, yes.

But what makes Voldemort a great antagonist is his humanity.  All of the things we can identify with in Harry also exist in Voldemort.  Like Harry, he was an orphan child, alone in the world, hoping for a better future.  Like Harry, he finds out that he is special because he can do magic.  Like Harry, he can speak to snakes.  Like Harry, he was the greatest wizard of his day.  Harry even identifies with Voldemort on a certain level and struggles with his own identity trying to figure out how he could have so much in common with his nemesis.  He struggles to grasp how they can have such similarities and yet be so different.  What makes Harry good versus what makes Voldemort evil?  Who is to say Harry won’t end up going down the same path?

Voldemort is great not because he helps Harry overcome evil in the world, but because he helps Harry overcome the evil inside himself.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter – Silence of the Lambs

Do I really need to say anything about him?  Creepy, genius, eats his victims, strange moral center, a truly scary person.  Why do we like him so much?  Even now, just thinking about him, my skin is crawling.

Dr. Lecter is intelligent and refined.  He speaks calmly and slowly, looking you directly in the eye.  He studied psychiatry and thus knows human behavior and how to manipulate people.  He knows what he does and what he says repulses and frightens you, but his behavior draws you in and disarms you nonetheless.  He treats you with respect, so you are inclined to offer the same respect to him.  And then he calmly and brutally kills you and eats your liver with a side of fava beans a nice chianti.

This makes him one of the scariest characters in literature and the movies.  But what really makes him a great antagonist is that he can be all these things and show deference and respect to Clarrise Starling.  He challenges her to think about the evidence in a major unsolved string of murders and helps her catch the killer.  All the while, he is able to compel her to share very intimate details of her psyche.  Nonetheless, when he escapes custody, Clarrise is certain he will not come after her because, as she says, “he would consider that rude.”  And he confirms this by telling her he does not “plan to pay her a visit because the world is more interesting with her in it.”

So the scariest person you have ever met, who has managed to get inside your head and learn what makes you tick, and  has let you know what he is capable of doing to you is walking the streets free as a can be but  says he respects you enough to leave you alone.  I would never sleep again.  In fact, after writing this, I might not sleep tonight.

 

It is vitally important to make sure your readers or viewers care about your characters.  The characters are why we read the story, or see the movie.  The characters tell the story.  The characters help us care about your story.  It is through the eyes of your characters that we sometimes find out something about our own lives.  They don’t always have to be likable, but I think they always need to be great.

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Forgive Me Father for I Have Sinned

Yes, yes, I broke one of my own rules. I committed the cardinal sin of seeing a movie BEFORE I read the book. I know. The shame of it all.

The minute I could download on iTunes the movie Never Let Me Go, I did. I saw the trailer somewhere and I thought the story looked very compelling. I am also a fan of Carey Mulligan and enjoyed her acting in the movies An Education and Pride and Prejudice. Plus, it takes place in England, and since I have already expressed my deep appreciation of all things British, it was a win-win-win as far as I was concerned.

Just so you know, I do plan to discuss the plot of the story a little and the differences between the movie and the book, so if you would prefer not to know until you have had the chance to check them out yourself, stop reading now and come back to this post later.

I enjoyed the movie, even the creepy “reveal” scene where one of the teachers tells the children their true purpose in life, (more on that later).

Well, I finally read the book this week. True to form, I was not disappointed, the book was much better than the movie. Better mostly because of added depth and detail of the story, characters and their relationship to each other.

I loved the movie, but there was so much ground they did not cover, I think if I had read the book first, I may not have liked the the movie as much as I did.

Major Differences:

The first major difference was the love triangle. In the book, the love triangle is not nearly as pronounced as it was the movie. From the beginning of the movie practically, you feel an acute sense of injustice at the fact that Ruth pre-empts Kathy as Tommy’s girlfriend. Kathy is noticeably heartbroken and forever relegated to the role of third wheel.

In the book, Kathy is Tommy’s friend and does not really express romantic interest or heartbreak for much of the story. The relationship is much more complex and there is more of a slow, life-long growth towards a romantic interest than the perpetual yearnings of young unrequited love.

In both the book and the movie, Ruth betrays Kathy. In the movie, the betraying primarily revolves around Tommy. In the book, while the ultimate betrayal revolved around Tommy, Ruth’s betrayal is much more constant. Ruth is a “frienemy” in every sense of the word. She includes Kathy as one of her intimates and then later betrays her very early on. This continues throughout the story at Hailsham and the Cottages. But she also does care about Kathy, probably as much as she cares about anyone. When one of Kathy’s favorite possessions goes missing, Ruth, unbeknown to Kathy, recruits both male and female students to try to find it.

The big reveal, the astonishing plot of the both the book and the movie is that these children are clones created to donate their vital organs to keep “regular” people alive. They do not live past their mid-late 20s, although no specific age is given, and once they have made 3-4 donations, they die, or “complete” as they say in the story. The book and movie handle this very differently as well. In the movie, one of the teachers tells the children in a big dramatic scene and the children are stunned and horrified.

In the book, there is more of a slow build to this. In the book, the children always know that their job is to make donations, that is why they were created. They just aren’t told upfront what those donations will be. The reality is being revealed to them slowly a bit at a time, so it is not a huge shock when one of their teachers agonizes over whether to tell them the truth. As in the movie, she tells them, “you’re being told and not told” the truth of the purpose of your lives. So, by the time the truth is revealed to them, while the teacher struggles with the truth, the children are much more accepting. That is the horror of the book, not how stunned the kids are of their fate, but that their reaction is almost, “Yes, we know this, we will donate our vital organs until we die. You’re not telling us anything we do not already know.” That’s not to say the kids do not later try to find ways to put off their donations, or that they maybe do not dream of having a different kind of life, but they do not try to completely thwart the system.

The second big reveal comes right before the end. The kids talk about how they were trained at Hailsham to create art and write poems to “reveal their souls.” Tommy is one of the big proponents of this since he thinks it will allow the powers that be to look into his soul to show that he and Kathy are truly in love and therefore worthy of having their donations put off for a while. In both the book and the movie, it is revealed when they ask for a deferral that they were encouraged to create art not to reveal their souls, but to prove that they souls at all. To prove that they were, in fact, “all but human,” as their former teacher Miss Emily puts it. In the book it is left at that. In the movie, of course, so much more is revealed about how the clones are viewed by society as a whole and why Hailsham existed and why it ultimately closed.

One thing the movie did better than the book. The final scene where Kathy reflects on her life before she is set to begin her donations. She asks if in the end, where the lives of the donors any different than that of the people they help. She surmises, that after all, they all complete. Maybe none of them really understood the meaning of their lives or felt they had enough time. I found that insight to be touching and was noticeably absent from the book.

Obviously, I enjoyed the book so much more than the movie. I still enjoyed the movie, and I’m very glad that I downloaded it. This book, however, had so much depth and consequence, that I think you cannot get away with just watching the movie. I highly recommend both.

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I wrote a short, short story a few years ago for an NPR contest.  I did not win the contest.  There was an excruciatingly small word limit of about 300.  I based my short story on this photo of my father, which has always been one of my favorite photos of him.  

Reading through the story now, I can clearly see the flaws, but I like this story.  It is partly auto-biographical and partly fiction.  I’ll leave the reader to decide which.

Image

Here is the story:

The Jersey Shore 

Danielle sat on the beach at the Jersey shore, her arms wrapped around her knees which she pulled up to her chest.  She rested her head on her knees, watching her niece, Emily, playing in the sand.  

The sun beat down on the side of Danielle’s face and she could feel little droplets of sweat rolling down her cheek from her hairline.  Emily, just barely 18 months, sat coolly in a small hole in the sand under a child’s beach umbrella in her pink hat and bathing suit alternately flailing sand around with her shovel and squishing clumps of it in her small fists, squealing with delight.

Danielle smiled at Emily as she noticed a flock of seagulls, not a hundred yards away.  The scene reminded her of a picture of her father standing in a crowd of seagulls on this very beach throwing pieces of bread in the air for the birds to eat.  This was one of Danielle’s favorite pictures of him.

Her father used to bring her siblings to the Jersey shore for a week or two ever summer when she was a teenager.  Danielle never went.  She was angry with him then.  Her parent’s divorce was particularly bitter and both of her parents used to fight through the children.  

Danielle always took her mother’s side in their arguments. To punish her father, she refused to attend his annual trip to the shore.  

She never regretted her anger, which she still felt was justified.  After all, refusing to pay child-support for his four children as a way to punish his ex-wife was absolutely wrong and worthy of anger and tears.  

Her anger eventually cooled and she was able to explain to her father, who never really understood her ire, that it was not the money that made her angry, but the fact that he was so willing to deny his children the dignity of secure home that made her most angry.  She was never sure he actually understood her reasoning, but she still forgave him and they developed a friendship that she had not previously thought possible.

It was that friendship which would later anger her mother as the debate over his past child-support, or lack thereof, came to the fore again when he applied for disability for a transplant surgery.  He took Danielle’s mother to court to request forgiveness of the past debt.

In a departure from her younger self, a move that shocked both her parents, Danielle refused to take sides in the arguments that ensued.  She staunchly stood her ground and refused to participate.  It was no longer her fight.  

This position of noncommittal allowed her the guiltless freedom she needed as she sat at her father’s bedside before and after his transplant surgery; to be there through the illnesses that followed; and to sit by his side, holding his hand as the doctor held a stethoscope to his chest, listening to his final heart beats when he died.

Those memories she was glad she did not trade for a fight that, in her mind, was no longer worth waging.  Perhaps, she thought, if she had forgiven him sooner, she could have added at least one memory of a trip to the Jersey shore.

Danielle reached into the bag of food they brought to the beach for snacking and grabbed a bag of popcorn.  She picked up her niece, who was already bored with playing in the sand.  She turned to her brother and his wife and said, “Come on, let’s feed the seagulls.”

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No, this is not a political opinion post.  That’s not what this blog is about.  But today an event so magnificent happened that all of DC stopped working and ran outside to view it.

The space shuttle Discovery was flown today on the back of a 747 to Washington Dulles airport to be housed at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museum located nearby.  The shuttle made at least 4 passes of DC and the Washington Mall.  It flew over my neighborhood at least twice.  And I missed it!

I work from home and I had the TV on (muted of course) this am to see the Discovery news.  I had no idea it would be flying this close to DC since it was scheduled to land in Dulles, which is about 15 miles from me.

When I found out it was flying over DC, my very cool boss gave me clearance to take some time to go outside so that I could see it.  I ran out of my apartment building and had apparently just missed it.  😦

Then I came back in and sat here dejectedly as I watched my Facebook page light up with shuttle pictures from my friends.  My sister works near Dulles and said that she got to see it.  She told me that if I saw it on TV, I didn’t miss anything.  

As I sit here watching it land at Dulles on TV, I beg to differ.

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So, I’ve been thinking of a blog post for today.  I have not really wanted to look at the computer anymore and had nearly given up on posting today.

Luckily, a friend from my writer’s group shared some very exciting news with me tonight!

His name is Jeff Miller and his book, The Bubble Gum Thief is being published.  I do not know the exact date, but you can already pre-order it Amazon.  This is excellent news!  Jeff has been working very hard to get this published for at least a year or two.  I am so happy for him.

Since we are in the same writer’s group, I have had the pleasure to read a chapter, maybe more of this book.  I love it and cannot wait to read the rest.  This book is a police mystery/thriller, and no, it’s not about a guy who steals bubble gum.  I do not normally delve into that genre, but I enjoy reading Jeff’s work.  I have read a screen play by him, a chapter of this book, a poem he spontaneously wrote at an AWG meeting, just to name a few things.  His writing is prolific, effortless, engaging, creative, and thoughtful.  I enjoy reading his work and I’m sure you will too.

I know I cannot wait to read the book when his publishers finally release it.  Please check out his website and check out his book!  I will add and update once a full release date is announced.  

I fully predict this book will be hot and sell millions.  I will write a review of the book after I read it.  I also promise to follow up with a review of the movie that will obviously follow and will truly lament all of the wonderful scenes they leave out!

Good luck Jeff!

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