Sunday, August 30, 2009

My Muse

Every time I write I have to get in The Zone--the place where the story becomes more real than reality and the words fill up the pages almost like they're writing themselves. It's not an easy place to get to, and every writer has a different way to get there. For me, I use music.

Songs have their own mood and feel, and listening to them puts me in the same state of mind. So I have my entire music library categorized into sad songs, angry songs, tense songs, giddy songs, jealous songs--name an emotion, there's a song for it. And before I write a scene I take a minute and figure out which emotion the characters should be experiencing and then run that playlist in the background. You'd be amazed at the difference it makes.

But it goes even deeper than that. Songs also have their own personality, and which ones you like says a lot about who you are. So one of my main character development exercises is to make a playlist for each of my main characters and fill it with songs that they would listen to. It can take quite a while, and usually requires a lot of scouring the iTunes Store and googling song lyrics. But it's worth the effort. I listen to the character's playlist when I'm writing their dialogue, and it always gets them talking on their own.

The only downside of this trick is that I often have to listen to music that I personally can't stand (my music library has a number of embarrassing albums). But it's also gotten me interested in music that's way cooler than I am. In fact, most of my new favorite bands I found because I had to figure out what my two older boys (who are really cool) would like, and I knew it had to be in the Indie-Rock, Alternative, Emo scene--the kind of music I was always a little intimidated by. So I guess it's kind of a give and take situation.

But if you ever hear me blasting Miley Cyrus or the Jonas Brothers please don't judge me. It's a sacrifice for my art--a big one. And if you're ever scrolling through my iTunes and notice that most of my playlists are named after people that don't exist, don't worry--there is a method to my madness. You may not understand it...but trust me, it works.

Friday, August 28, 2009

For Lack of a Better Word

The more I write, the more I find myself disappointed in the English language. As much as I love words, there just aren't enough of them, and so many have been ruined--overused and abused to the point that they seem trite and pointless. It's a constant struggle to find a proper means of expression.

I think Steve Martin's character in Roxanne put it best:

"Words are all used up, they're hard to say...they've all been wasted on the shampoo commercials and the ads and the flavorings. Hollow, beautiful words. How can you love a floor wax? How can you love a diaper? How can I use the same word about you that's used about a stuffing?"

Of course, he's talking about the word love, which is probably one of the grossest examples of word defilement and decimation. But there are plenty of others. One of my favorites is adult. Sure, by itself it doesn't sound so bad. But look what happens when you attach it to something, like: "adult book." Sounds like something with an XXX rating, doesn't it? And why is that? Because the porn--oh, I'm sorry, the "Adult Entertainment"--industry has latched onto it as a way of cleaning up their image. So now what do I say if I write a book for adults that isn't pornographic? Is it a Grown-Up book? An Older People book? A Mature Reader's book? Nothing works. I need better words.

And then there's all the times there's simply no word to describe something. What do I call my Grandma's second husband? My Step-Grandpa? Or what about his grandkids? Are they my Cousins-in-Law? Where's the word to describe this all too common phenomenon?

Or even better, what do you call a female between the ages of 18-30? If you call her a girl, everyone starts imagining jump ropes and pigtails. But calling her a woman sounds old and motherly. I happen to fall into this particular category and must admit, I don't even know what to call myself. What am I? According to my thesaurus I can be: a lady, a lassie, a damsel, a mademoiselle, a gal, a broad, a miss, or--my personal favorite--a tootsie. Are those really my only options? And why don't guys have this problem? They can be boys. They can be men. But they can also be guys. So where's our "in-between" term, girls? And how come we've taken the time to name that little ball of tissue hanging in the back of our throats (a uvula, in case you're now wondering) but we don't have a word for an enormous age demographic of our society? Am I the only one confused by this?

So what do I do? Do I rebel? Do I invent my own words and hope they someday end up in the dictionary? I suppose I could...but I doubt it would help me get published. No, I suppose I have no choice but to do what all my other fellow writers do. I must fight the fine fight the hard way, armed with a dictionary and a thesaurus and my own witty repertoire. And I suppose it's probably better that way. After all, if writing were easy, everyone would do it. And then where would that leave me?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Superstar Scientist

"I can't believe you're wasting your time on this," complained my mom for the tenth time as she sighed and stomped back upstairs. "It's so stupid."

The 'stupid waste of time' in question was my fourth grade science project, which my Dad and I were currently working on, taking over the kitchen and living room and generally making a huge mess downstairs--which probably explained my mom's frustration. But we ignored her and persevered. After all, this was for science!

Okay, to be honest, I didn't care about science. I cared about the Superstar Board.

Whenever any of us did something our teacher considered worthy, she would tell us to sign our name on the Superstar Board. It was a white sheet of posterboard with the word "Superstar" written across the top in Black marker, but to my fourth grade self it was the Holy Grail. Because at the end of the year, whoever had their name on there the most times was going to win a special prize. She didn't tell us what the prize was...but I knew it had to be something amazing. And I was determined to win it.

But getting your name on there wasn't easy. It was sporadic and random at best, and half the time it was like she forgot all about it (which she probably did). When the year was more than halfway over I only had my name up there three times--which was still more than most, but hardly the tremendous lead I wanted to have. So when my teacher announced that anyone who chose to enter the Science Fair (it was voluntary at my school) would get to sign their name five times I was practically drooling. There was no question about it: I was entering the science fair.

Which brings us back to that night. My mom knew the Science Fair wasn't required, and simply couldn't understand why I would choose to spend so much time and effort for something I didn't have to do. But she didn't understand about the Superstar Board. She didn't understand that I was going for the brass ring. She just knew I was messing up her house. And she didn't like it. Fortunately, my Dad was more supportive. I doubt he understood the glories of signatures on the Superstar Board any more than my mom did...but he liked science, and really, what parent is going to discourage their kid from voluntarily doing homework?

We were investigating, "Will Salt Make Water Boil Faster?" which is about as exciting as it sounds. It involved boiling numerous of pots of colored water, some with salt, some without, and timing how long it took them to reach the boiling point. (In case you're wondering, the ones with salt did boil a little faster). We took pictures of the entire process, which we rushed to a one hour photo place (I had kinda procrastinated on the project...which was probably another reason my mom was so annoyed) and then I spent the rest of the night creating my display board with my thoughts on all the various steps of the Scientific Method. I didn't think it was all that fabulous of a project, but I didn't really care. All I wanted was my five signatures.

So when I turned in the project the next day and signed my name those five glorious times I was satisfied. My teacher gave everyone the date and time of the Science Fair and encouraged everyone to attend, but I wasn't really paying attention. I'd already gotten my reward--and it was so worth it.

Naturally we didn't attend. My mom still thought the whole thing was stupid (her word, not mine), and even I had to admit my project looked pretty lame compared to some of the others I'd seen when I dropped it off in the multi-purpose room. So I didn't really care. It wasn't like I was going to win with my silly pots of boiling colored water.

Except later that night the phone rang, and it was for me. A friend from school, calling to congratulate me. Congratulate me.

My project won first place.

I can still remember the look on my mom's face when I told her. Even I couldn't believe it.

First. Place.

How had that happened?

The next day I collected my ribbon from the principal's office, and it was big and blue with the number "1" on it. My teacher had me hold it up and everyone clapped for me. A photographer from the local paper even came and took a picture of the first, second, and third place winners in front of our projects. As first place, I was in the center, sandwiched between a kid who'd built his own lightbulb (second place) and a girl who'd done something elaborate and complicated with plants (third place). And then there was me, with my photos of boiling water.

To this day, I have no idea why or how I won. I mean...I boiled some water....and I beat a kid who built his own light bulb? But there must have been more to that project that any of us could see, because it even won second place in the District Science Fair. Yes, you heard me right. Second place. In the District.

And while all of that was very fun and exciting (my dad and I certainly had a lot of fun teasing my mom about it), that wasn't the best part. The best part was that my teacher told me I could sign my name five more times for winning the Science Fair. And when I won second place at the District she let me sign it five more times. Fifteen signatures in all, from one afternoon of boiling water. Seemed like a pretty good deal to me.

Naturally I won the Superstar Board contest at the end of the year. I ended up with 19 signatures--clobbering the competition. And what did I win?

A notepad.

It was pink, with a sketch of a duck in the corner, and there may have been a pencil to go along with it--I can't really remember.

Needless to say, I was...disppointed.

But years later I realized something. Yes, the notepad I'd won was lame and totally not worth it. But the Science Fair ribbons stayed pinned to my corkboard for years...and even now, I still have them stored away somewhere. So sometimes things don't turn out to be as great as you think they'll be. But sometimes things turn out way better than you could have ever imagined. The important thing is that you try. Because if I could win first place in the Science Fair with a last minute project about boiling water...anything is possible.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Word Nerd

Confession time: I love words. And when I say love, I mean love. I mean my desk calendar is "A Word A Day," my favorite board game is Scrabble, and sometimes I read the Dictionary for fun. I'm not exaggerating. Call me a nerd all you want--you wouldn't be the first, and you certainly won't be the last. But I don't really care. I am who I am. And I am a Word Nerd.

When I was a little kid adults joked that I was "four going on forty" because of my vocabulary. My friends even used to call me "Dictionary." But I always took that as a compliment. It wasn't that I was trying to impress people with my fabulous phraseology. I just like words. I pay attention to them. If I don't know what they mean I look them up. And if I like them, I start using them.

I mean, why would I say that carrying a big box is heavy or awkward when I could say cumbersome and imply both, with an added dash of unwieldy? Why say excessive when superfluous is so much prettier and rolls off the tongue like a dance? (Say it with me...superfluous. See what I mean?) I'm not trying to sound pretentious...I'm just trying to pick the best word to do the job. I'm trying to have some variety. I'm trying to have some fun. Fun with words--yes, it is possible.

My obsession got a lot worse when I was in High School. My tenth grade English teacher must have been a fellow Word Nerd, because she made us keep "Personal Lexicons" (I think I was the only kid in the class who already knew what a lexicon was). We had to keep a journal of words, phrases, and clippings that caught our fancy. Collecting words? Why had I never thought of this before? Naturally I was hooked.

I've been keeping a Lexicon ever since (housed in a series of Disney Princess journals for good measure). Some of my favorite entries:

Kerfuffle: a comotion
Bumbershoot: an umbrella
Somnific: causing sleep
Verdant: green with vegetation
Penultimate: next to last

I could go on and on, but I'll stop there. I understand that most people do not share my affection for vocabulary. I don't understand why...but to each their own, I guess.

And now that you know this about me, perhaps you can better understand why I gravitate toward writing. It's not just because it gives me free reign to geek out in word land all day (though that is an added bonus)...but because it gives my words a purpose. They're not just random entries in a journal anymore. They're tools at my disposal, an entire descriptive arsenal to "show not tell" the stories in my head. And someday I'll hopefully string enough of them together to finish my book. I still have a ways to go on that...but I'm enjoying the journey.

In the meantime...Scrabble anyone?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Force Isn't With Me

A long time ago in a USC classroom far far away there was a fresh faced film student on her first day of Sound Class. Her Professor, Tom Holman (the T.H. in THX--for those of you who don't know) began his lecture on the importance of sound design with a dramatic demonstration. The lights dimmed, the projector rolled and the first five minutes of Star Wars: Episode IV began playing with its original production recording only. The opening crawl was endless without the iconic John Williams score, feet stomped across rickety wooden sets, and Darth Vader and his storm troopers spoke in...British accents. And as the lights came back on the room fell silent and the guy next to her leaned over and murmured, "Can you believe how different it was?" She shrugged her shoulders and whispered back--a little too loudly, "I don't really know. I haven't seen it."

A gasp echoed through the room and all heads turned to catch a glimpse of: The Girl Who'd Never Seen Star Wars.

How could this be? How could anyone born after 1977 manage to exist without watching this epic battle between good and bad, dark and light, Luke and Vader? And how could they possibly score a coveted spot at the USC Film School--sponsored by George Lucas himself--and his Alma Mater to boot? Should they take her outside and string her up for such sacrilege?

Fortunately for me, they didn't, and I lived to tell the tale. In fact, it became my trademark--my conversation starter, if you will. I was boldly going where no one had gone before (wait...that's Star Trek, isn't it?). And when I graduated from USC two years later I could proudly say I still hadn't seen it--take that George Lucas!

So for those of you experiencing paroxysms of rage right now, please, let me explain. It's not that I don't appreciate Star Wars for what it is. Believe me, I know better than most what an earth shattering thing it was--revolutionizing special effects and sound design, creating the concept of the blockbuster, launching actors like Harrison Ford into Superstardom--not to mention creating an epic dogma that has changed pop culture forever. I get it. I get that it's important. I get that it's beloved. And I don't deny that it deserves it. It's a great, wonderful thing. Go right on ahead loving it. Just don't expect me to like it and we'll get along just fine.

And if you want to blame someone, blame my parents. My mom hated the movie the one and only time she saw it, so it was not a part of our limited VHS collection. Worse: my dad was a Trekkie. I was forcibly exposed to so many Klingons and Vulcans and Ferengi that I grew to despise them--to the extent that I not only rebelled against anything Star Trek related, I took it one step further. I swore off Sci-Fi altogether. I wanted no part of anything with the word "Star" in the title. And I intended to stay that way.

Enter my husband. Let me put it this way: his dad went to USC Film School with George Lucas back in the 60's. They were friends. They even worked together at one point. Needless to say, my husband grew up living, breathing, and sleeping Star Wars. So when he found out he was dating someone who'd never seen the movies that he describes as being "the defining pieces of his childhood," well...let's just say he wasn't happy. Horrified is probably a better way of putting it. And he was determined to change me.

Because I loved him...I agreed to give it a chance.

I tried. I really did. I endured a Star Wars marathon. We started with Episode IV, because he thought I should experience it in the same order everyone else had--plus he likes the originals better. I watched the whole saga play out, every over-hyped moment from, "May the force be with you," to, "I am your father." I met Jedis and Wookies and Ewoks and talking droids...and I sincerely tried to like them. But...I just couldn't. I can't even explain why. I guess I just don't get it. I get why everyone respects it. I just don't get why they like it. Sorry people. I guess I'm alone in my principles.

Miraculously he still married me, and through the five years of our marriage we've settled into a strange sort of truce. He has one room in the house where his action figures and posters are allowed to exist in all their glory (plus a garage full of merchandise and paraphernalia he can't bear to part with). In return, he doesn't make me watch the movies. He knows he can watch them anytime he wants, but I'm going to go in the other room and read. It's not an ideal arrangement, but it works. And he did accomplish one amazing feat. Thanks to him I am no longer The Girl Who Never Saw Star Wars. I came. I saw. I...wasn't moved.

So, the real question is: will I ever see them again? Will I cave into my husband's peer pressure and give them another chance? Well, I suppose anything's possible...and I've learned to never say never. But I think Princess Leia said it best: "I'd just as soon kiss a Wookie."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Voices In My Head

If you've ever heard a Character Writer talk about their process, you've probably heard them say that their characters talk to them. And if you're not a writer, you probably started worrying about things like "insanity," and "schizophrenia" when you heard that. But it's not as crazy as it sounds--trust me. It happens to me all the time. to explain this bizarre phenomenon to someone who's never experienced it?

Think of your best friend or your spouse (or maybe they're one and the same). Think of how well you know that person. And then imagine that someone else started to tell you something about them. Maybe someone you work with tells you they saw your husband at the mall buying a Fox shirt. But you happen to know that your husband despises Fox to such a degree that not only would he never, ever be caught dead wearing one, he would never even be seen in that store. Right away your brain says, "Nope, uh uh, you must be mistaken." It's the same thing with your characters.

If you're really a character writer, you spend hours with them, delving deep into their pasts until you know them. You know what they like, what they hate, what they're afraid of, what makes them tick, their strengths, their weaknesses, everything, anything. You know more about them than anyone would possibly need to know--way more than what will ever end up in the book. That's what makes them real to you. And that's what gives them their voice.

So when you write a scene with your characters, it's almost like they're in control. You may want two characters to get along and be best friends. But if you know that one character hates anyone who drinks soda (maybe their dad was a dentist and tormented them with pictures of cavity rotting teeth until they were traumatized by anything sugary) and the character they're supposed to be friends with has a six-pack a day habit, guess what? They're never going to get along. You may be able to get them to play nice occasionally...but best friends? Out of the question. And if you try...they'll argue with you. The scenes will feel forced. The dialogue will sound contrived and unnatural. And all of it will be totally unusable. Why?

Because when you know someone really well you know what they're going to say. When you call your best friend to tell her you're getting married you know how she's going to react. If she's been secretly planning your wedding with you for the last three months she's going to squeal and cry and talk wedding plans. But if she's going through a bitter divorce and has decided that marriage is for the birds she's going to lecture you and try to talk you out of it. And if she said or did anything different you'd know she was lying to you. It's the same thing with dialogue. When you write a character you really know, their dialogue comes as naturally and effortlessly as if they were whispering it in your ear. Whole conversations will simply write themselves and you'll look at your pages at the end and think, "Wow, where did that come from?" It came from the characters. They were talking for themselves.

So do I actually hear a little voice in my head talking to me? No. That would be disturbing. But my characters do speak to me. They boss me around and push me and fight me for control every step of the way. Does that mean I've lost control of my own story? Of course not. I'm still the writer. I can still manipulate the plot all I want. But I can't always control the way my characters will respond to what I throw at them. So sometimes I have to change what I put them through. Or I have to change their past. But in the end, it only makes my writing stronger, because it makes it real. It's not some perfect fairy world where everyone is a robot and responds to my every command. It's real life where people are different and unpredictable and exercising their own free will. It's crazy, surreal, and incredibly aggrivating. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Magical McMuffins

It was 10:48 am today when my boss (who also happens to be my dad) decided he could simply no longer ignore his craving for the Almighty Egg McMuffin. In a rush of enthusiasm, he burst out of his private office into the main room and offered to treat everyone to the greasy breakfast sandwich of their choice. You should have seen the way his face fell when we informed him that the magical time period called McDonald's breakfast had already ended 18 minutes earlier, and he either had to lower his standards and head to one of the fast food chains who serve breakfast all day--or get in the mood for a cheeseburger.

He was disheartened...but not deterred.

My dad has many philosophies (don't make the mistake of asking to hear them unless you have a few hours to spare) but a major one is this: "It never hurts to ask." It's a philosophy I wish I could live by, but I have too much fear of rejection. I'd rather risk missing out on something great than put myself out there and then be shot down. I like to play it safe. Go for the sure thing.

So when he left with two different orders (one wish list full of breakfast sandwiches and one for--ugh--cheeseburgers) I knew full well what was going to happen. He was going to be the guy in the Drive Through line everyone hates because he takes forever to order. He was going to try to schmooze the bitter, minimum-wage fast food employees, not realizing that they simply aren't paid enough to care whether or not he would like breakfast hours extended. And he was going to come back bearing cheeseburgers. That's the way the Universe is supposed to work.

So imagine everyone's surprise when he showed up ten minutes later bearing McMuffins.

Don't ask me to explain it, because I can't. My dad rarely ever eats McDonalds, and yet for some reason the lady who works there remembered him. And when he asked for breakfast sandwiches with a charming smile and a funny story about how all his employees told him it was impossible, she did the unthinkable--she said yes.

So here's the real question. Is this startling proof of the validity of my dad's philosophy enough to change my behavior? I'm...still deciding. I refuse to redefine my lifestyle because of McDonalds. But I will tell you this: those were the best Egg McMuffins any of us had ever had.