Family Ties


Growing up, my family hung out with the V’s; short for my parents’ compadres, Auntie Betty, Uncle Mario and my three cousins. Crammed in my Uncle Mario’s VW bus (which we called, “URK”) we’d drive to Coronado for bonfires, Presidio Park for picnics and memorably up to L.A.

I vaguely remember the day we spent at Universal Studios. But I can vividly recall the drive we took in URK to Boyle Heights and Echo Park. My Auntie Betty pointed out the house that her parents had bought after her father ended his service with the U.S. Army. The house is still there but sadly most of the Victorian mansions and Arts and Crafts bungalows – and in the case of Chavez Ravine, an entire community – have given way to the post-war development of L.A.

My Auntie Betty’s niece has co-curated “Lost to Progress: The Modernization of Los Angeles” at Heritage Square . Opening tomorrow, May 2nd and running till June 28th, the exhibit coincides with National Preservation Month. This important exhibit explores the controversial evolution of Los Angeles through the examination of and the significant changes that led to the eventual destruction three lost Los Angeles Communities: Chinatown, Bunker Hill and Palo Verde (Chavez Ravine).

Heritage Square is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Regular admission applies; free for museum members. Click here for more information.

Subtext

This is probably somewhat illegal but what the hell. Anyway, have you ever talked to someone who repeats how happy/smart/humble they are? When that happens, I always wonder if they’re saying it to convince me, or themselves and then of course, my imagination conjures all sorts of lurid possibilities as to why. Unlike most four year-olds, a writer never grows out of the “why’s”.

This scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s is pitch perfect in conveying subtext. It helps if you’ve seen the film in its entirety to appreciate Holly’s subterfuge, but Audrey Hepburn’s performance does a lot of the work for you.

Check it out and then have yourself a great weekend!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eFvDlWDHMU&hl=en&fs=1]

Tone Deaf

Musique by Gustav Klimt @ Art.com

The other day Ryan and I were talking about the books and scripts we’ve read lately. I had just come off a two-month reading dry spell during which I’d start a new book and then put it down at page 20, not caring what happened in the end.

Up till I had a child, my rule was never to leave a book unfinished. But I’m 35 now and in my family that makes me just shy of middle aged. My great grandma lived till she was 76 and my great grandpa and Grandma Mary stuck around till they were 88 … mas o menos (neither were forthcoming about their real ages). So compared to what I want to accomplish in this lifetime and my probable life expectancy, I don’t have a lot of time to waste.

Anyway, Ryan argued that the reason why so many movies fall short and why so many books go unfinished is that their authors are tone deaf when it comes to story. Even though many writers come up with great ideas and snazzy hooks, and possess enviable literary wit, they can’t move a story from point A to Z.

So when I think about the books that I’d given up on, I realized indeed they were tone deaf in story. In other words, nothing was happening except the protagonist complaining about his or her life. Or worse, I was reading an author who clearly loved hearing him or herself talk. Nothing was at stake and no one or nothing was in jeopardy and those my friends are the building blocks of a good story.

Now this isn’t a literary fiction versus popular fiction rant. Nor does it have anything to do with my constant irritation with books titled, “The Candyman’s Daughter” or “The Stinky Cheesemaker’s Wife.” I don’t think that you don’t have to be “genre-fied” to spin a rip-roaring yarn. For example, even some books that cultural connoisseurs have deemed literary fiction, tell stories. Check it out:

In Cold Mountain, a soldier is making his way back home and to the woman he loves. Inman is in constant peril and much is at stake.

In Water for Elephants, a young veterinary student joins the circus and falls in love with a married woman. On each page, Jacob’s life and that of an elephant are on the line.

In The Great Gatsby – it’s read in high school so it’s a certifiable classic literary novel – a man tries to woo the golden girl who’s married to a lout. Jay Gatsby risks his heart for idealistic love.

So recently I came across a book that lacked a story and I froze with terror that the dry spell had started again.

(By the way, I won’t name names because that’s cheesy and I don’t need attention so badly that I’ll risk your hate mail.)

Going back to the book … The character was cute but if you read chick lit, you’ve read her a thousand times over and better. The writing was fast-paced and in a few places quirky enough for me to crack a grin. And guess where it takes place? If you thought New York, you win!

I gave it up at page 7 even though:

  • A major publishing house bought and published it.
  • An editor, marketing/PR person, copyeditor, sales squad, cover artist and a cast befitting a Cecil B. DeMille epic worked on it.
  • You’ll find it on the tables at major book stores.
  • Many prominent women in media called it the best thing since their vibrator.

Okay, I made up the part about vibrators but you get the idea.

This book, out of thousands, was plucked for publication even though IT HAS NO STORY.

Seriously dude, that’s the problem. Too many people are story tone deaf and yet have the wherewithal – time and a laptop and in some cases, friends in high places – to write a manuscript that gets published. Trust me, I know. Having judged plenty of contests and having read some awesome work by the members of my former critique group, there are stories out there that can’t find a place at your local bookstore. They’re held off because (a) they’re not “high concept” enough (an over-rated ideal, let me tell you) or (b) publishers can’t take chances on stuff that’s not regency romances or vampires. (Dude, I do don’t get the vampire thing.)

But could someone become pitch perfect when it comes to story? Do you have to be “special,” or can you cultivate it?

Hmm. That’s a toughie. I guess it’s up to the individual – not that I’m claiming to have been born with great literary prowess …. just ask the people who proclaimed their hatred of my books on Amazon.com. But when it comes to story, I’m always learning by reading books and watching movies. I read plenty and preferably, beyond the confines of my genre.

When I’m lucky to find that special book or movie that make me forget that I’m a writer, I reread/rewatch it to spot how the author structured the story. I even take notes and ask myself the following:

  1. What does she reveal about the characters? But most importantly, how and when does she reveal what they’re trying to keep secret?
  2. How does she work characters against each other and create conflict that make me hold the book tighter, or lean forward towards the screen?
  3. Where are the pulse points of the story? (One could call them plot points, turning points … whatever floats your boat.

I’m not saying anything new about story telling, by the way. I think every writer knows these questions instinctively and through writing and rewriting and more writing and rewriting, you understand what you’ve been doing since you were playing make-believe as a kid.

So with that all said – oh, I feel like I could walk on air! – I’ve got some storytelling to do.

Why I Love the 70’s

I love the 1970’s not just because was I born in the era of disco, Nixon and bell bottoms. I love the opulence of the decade. The giant gas-guzzling land yachts known as cars. Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels and Bionic Woman were prime-time TV and I had this thing for the Roll-O and Calgon commercials. The 70’s was the decade when my parents fell in love and my mom carried daisies in her wedding bouquet.

So while I was supposed to be working, I found this video on YouTube and it just inspired why I love that decade. When I see Linda Ronstadt singing – yes, they actually sang on live, national television back then – and her back-up singer in a yellow jump suit, I just think that they were much more real than we are now. Music is prepackaged, manufactured and lipsynched. Back then, it was a girl with a voice, not much fashion sense and a tambourine at her hip.

Also, this is the song that I play whenever I sit down to work on Aracely Calderon.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haZPPBJC8Ic&hl=en&fs=1]

Just wondering…


It’s not like I don’t have other things to do but these questions have been bumping around in my head. Hopefully by letting them go, I can get on with life … and be free of another excuse to procrastinate.

  1. Why are books titled, “The So-And-So’s Daughter” or “The Such-and-Such’s Wife”? Have you noticed there is a plethora of titles like these? Is it a new genre in which women are defined by the men they’re related to? I tried reading “Ahab’s Wife” and at about page five, I was thinking more about how to perfect my red beans and rice recipe as opposed to uh, Ahab’s wife. So I hope that if the title, “The Ballad of Aracely Calderon,” doesn’t fly, my editor won’t change it to: “The Mariachi’s Daughter.” I better knock on wood just in case!
  2. When a book is described as “a celebration of love and friendship” or something vaguely positive and uplifting, does that mean no one knows what the heck the book is about? Does it mean the heroine will learn she has cancer in the third act and die? And if so, why would I spent money on a book like that in this economy?
  3. And finally, what’s the appeal of galoshes on book covers? To me they symbolize the inconvenience of exchanging your cute footwear for clumsy, sweaty, icky rubbers, as our British friends call them. To my friend, Margo Candela: I’m not bagging on your galoshes. You’re taller than me. You can pull them off whereas galoshes on me would look like wading pants. However if they came in a wedge heel, I might reconsider my opinion.

Okay so there you have it. This is what happens in my head when I’m not writing, cooking, gardening or taking care of the Little Dude.

Sign of the Times

My Pretty

If you came here looking for the entry I posted earlier this week about a certain blogger who attacked another author, I have taken it down. She removed the attack from her blog and out of respect for that gesture, I’m doing the same.

Thank you for your comments, although I disagree with those which cut down her work. She is a truly gifted author, one whom I admire and respect. Her quotes are on my book covers and I’m honored by her generosity and support. But real friends speak up when they see the other standing at the edge, or doing something that is ultimately self destructive.

The conversation is now over and its time for us to get back to doing good work. The day after I posted my response to the attack, I found this quote while having lunch with my husband. I’d like to share it with you:

“Keep in mind that our community is not composed of those who are already saints, but of those who are trying to become saints. Therefore let us be extremely patient with each other’s faults and failures.” – Mother Teresa

NaNoMo with Kelley Armstrong

In 2005, Kelley Armstrong wrote a book during NaNoWriMo. She had been published in adult fiction but decided to take a new direction with her writing. Her gamble paid off and now she shares her tips and experiences that resulted in a new YA series that launched this summer with The Summoning.

Chica Lit: How did you prepare for NaNoMo 2005?

Kelley: Oooh, that’s reaching back a bit far for me. I would have had an outline–when I want to write fast, I need to know where I’m going. Oh, and I remember that I cleared my plate of other work and told my agent I was doing NaNo, so I’d be “off-line” for a month. I haven’t had that luxury since (I’m doing NaNo now and have edits for my main series coming in the mail right now) But it was nice to be able to have that first NaNo clear.

Chica Lit: On those days when the blank page glared back at you, how did you just keep writing?

Kelley: Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. I make myself sit and write anything until it starts to flow. And I give myself permission to write crap. I can always go back and edit or delete it, but I can’t work with a story that exists only in my mind. It has to be on the page.

Chica Lit: At the end of NaNoMo, how many words had you written?

Kelley: In 2005, it was over 60,000. The last two years, it wasn’t much more than 50,000…namely because I can’t clear my plate the way I could back then.

Chica Lit: And then you revised and revised and revised … how did you sell The Summoning?

Kelley: Well, it was a little bit easier for me, already being published in another area. The Summoning is young adult urban fantasy, and I have an adult urban fantasy series. I’d had the idea for The Summoning for years, and had been talking it over with my agent when, within a few months, she got a couple of cold calls from editors saying that if I ever decided to try young adult, they’d like to see it. Perfect timing! So I decided I’d give it a shot for NaNoWriMo. I got most the first draft done that month…and I immediately knew I could do better. I liked the characters and the basic plot, but saw a lot of problems too. So I put it aside for about a year. In late 2006, I rewrote the first act, and my agent took that, along with a synopsis, to the publishers, where it sold. Yes, that sounds incredibly easy, but I spent many, many years doing the whole query-rejection cycle, so I know how lucky I am to be able to bypass that now.

Chica Lit: What will you be working on this month?

Kelley: This month I’m doing the third book in the trilogy that began with The Summoning. What I learned from my first NaNo is that writing fast works for me. I can immerse myself in the story and push forward without stopping and second-guessing anything I wrote the day before–I don’t have time to! So for the past three years, I’ve managed to arrange my schedule so I’m always in first-draft mode during NaNo. This year, it worked out perfect and I was able to start the book Nov 1st.

Chica Lit: Check out the website for Kelley’s exciting series at www.chloesaunders.com. For excerpts and insights in to all of her books, visit Kelley’s main site at www.kelleyarmstrong.com.