Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Day of the Doctor (No Spoilers)

Yesterday, I saw the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who in the theaters in 3D. This blog won't be a discussion of the episode itself (because Spoilers!) instead I want to talk about my experience seeing it in the theater.

I went by myself because none of my friends or family in the area are caught up with the latest episodes. The only theater that had a showing of The Day of the Doctor was over an hour away, but in the end I decided it was worth it. Matt Smith is my favorite Doctor and his time is very limited. Plus, 3D! So I left early, arriving at the mall an hour and half before the movie was scheduled to start. I checked in at the kiosk and got my ticket. There was already a fair number of people in "line" (a roped off area marked "Doctor Who" showing 7:30). 

This was only my second experience going to the movies by myself, but I had faith that an audience of my fellow whovians would be friendly and I was not disappointed. People of all ages were waiting patiently in line, most seated, chatting about their theories and favorite Doctor Who moments. I sat down behind some high school girls. Behind me a middle-aged woman and her mother sat down. There were fezs galore and plenty of bow ties and converse shoes. I even recognized a t-shirt from an artist I follow, Karen Hallion.

The theater staff let us in with still an hour to go. I got a good seat a little less than halfway up the rows and right in the middle. An older gentleman watched my seat and coat for me while I ran to get popcorn and a drink. After I sat back down, I was joined by a father and his thirteen-year-old daughter. They were charming and we spent the next hour discussing our mutual love for this five decade long television epic. 

I enjoyed the episode thoroughly, but I enjoyed the people around me even more. When the lights dimmed, I could feel the tension around me. The eager anticipation. The excitement. Matt Smith appeared larger than life (watch out for that chin! Yowzah!) and gave a brief intro and told us to put our 3D glasses on. Then David Tennant appeared and the crowd went wild, drowning out his words. 

Laughter and gasps and tears rippled through the audience as we shared this incredible experience. There are few opportunities to share feelings with a crowd of strangers and honestly I felt a little overwhelmed. I've spent the last year or so as basically a hermit, but for once the crowd didn't make me feel panicked. These people are part of my tribe. I don't know most of their names and I'll likely never see them again, but for an hour and a half we shared something bigger on the inside. We shared excitement and anxiety. Terror and hope. We connected through this fairy tale of a mad man with a blue box. 

There're only three words that can express what this experience meant to me. 

Fantastic! Allons-y! Geronimo!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Denver or Bust!

It's been a while since I've written and I'm sorry. I've had a pretty exciting development interrupt all of my November plans (including NaNoWriMo. I'll try again next year).

I'm moving to Denver!

My boyfriend got a new job and we're headed West. I've always thought I would enjoy living in Colorado and now I finally get to. I'll be super busy over the next couple of weeks. Lots of packing, dancing wildly to musical soundtracks, and getting everything organized. But I wanted to check in with my blog followers and let you guys know what's going on. The next time you hear from me, I'll be writing from the Mile High City!

Monday, November 11, 2013

3 Books On Writing That Are Actually Worth Your Time

My mother has never put much stock on How-To-Write books, and I can understand why. It seems like a lot of people, whether published on their own or not, feel the need to tell other people how to go about writing a book. This a particularly difficult task because there are as many ways to write a book as there are writers. My way may not work for you. Your way might be completely foreign to me. Either way, as long as we both reach the end goal (a finished book!), what does it matter how we got there?

I have no time for the books that promise a foolproof way to success or tell you how to write the next breakout novel. That's nonsense. No one can predict what's going to be big. The only thing to do is write the book you want to write and write it well.

But I do think there is a place for books on writing. For me, that place is asking the right questions.

Aside from the very basic, "This is a verb. You need to have characters." ultimate beginner's books, I've found a few that actually turned out to be helpful. (The titles are links to the books on Amazon)

1. Elements of Fiction Writing: Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

This is actually the latest book I've read and it's been incredibly helpful. I was having trouble with my new book because it's told from two main characters' POVs in first person. I really felt like I hadn't solidified those characters and I turned to this book to help. The thing I liked best about this book was that it didn't tell you how to create in depth characterization. It asks you the right questions so you get there on your own. It really is a book of tools, not answers, and those tools have turned out to be very useful. Card takes you on a journey from basic character creation to understanding your story as a whole and how characterization plays into it. It's well written and easy to follow. I would definitely recommend it to anyone having trouble fully realizing their characters (also take a look at my blog about using the Myers Briggs test to understand you characters here).

2. The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell

This book is a really interesting adaptation of Sun Tzu's famous work with a literary twist. It approaches writing a book like a battle. From mental preparation to tactics to what to do after you've "won," it covers the entire experience of writing a novel. It does tend to be overarching and big-picture oriented, but the author does a good job of using concrete examples from real books to illustrate his points. It's full of encouragement and big ideas. It get's you to stop and think, then start writing. The first time I read through it, I kept putting the book down and working on my own book. Any book that gets you to sit down and write must be doing something right.

3. Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction by William Bernhardt

I've talked about this book before in my blog The Importance of Outlining, but I really can't stress how helpful this book has been. New York Times bestselling author, William Bernhardt, teaches a series of small group writing seminars that are basically the reason I finished my first book in one year. If you can't afford to take his classes or are too far away geographically, this book (and the rest of the Red Sneaker Writer series) are the next best thing. For me, structure is such an important part of creating a workable first draft. Otherwise you end up with 70,000+ words verging on stream of consciousness. It's hard to organize a mess like that, so why not start out with organization? From overarching structure to how to format an individual scene, this book gives you the nuts and bolts of writing. If you don't know how to use the tools, how can you create something amazing? Every time I start a book (and if I'm having trouble in the middle) I pick up this book. It helps me sort through my pile of scenes and characters and ideas to get to the skeleton of my story. And make sure that skeleton can support the book's weight.

If you have any questions about these books or know of some others that are helpful, comment below!

Friday, November 8, 2013

Myers-Briggs Test for Characters

So I've put Nanowrimo on hold because I just didn't have a good grasp of who my characters are. I know their pasts. I know what they do and even why, but I couldn't wrap my mind around how they think. Since I'm writing in 1st person POV for both of them, that's kind of important.

I've done a lot of different things, trying to get a firm understanding of my MCs. I've filled out pretty much every questionnaire I could find, most full of trivial details. I've got concept pictures of them. I've worked out their past lives. But I still couldn't quite understand them.

I looked over several psychology/psychiatry books (because, let's face it, when I don't understand something I turn to science), but I still couldn't find what I was looking for. My main characters aren't crazy. Books on psychosis and biopolar disorder and borderline personality disorder didn't help. I began to feel like the thing I was seeking was so ordinary, so commonplace, that everyone else automatically understood it. What was I missing?

Then I remembered something. The Myers-Briggs test. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a psychometric questionnaire that is supposed to examine differences in how people perceive and make decisions about their world. Whether they're more rational or emotional. More introverted or extroverted. Based on the work of Carl Jung, the MBTI "focuses on normal populations and emphasizes the value of naturally occuring differences." (Wikipedia)

Which was exactly what I wanted.

I've taken the test twice so far, one time for each of my protagonists. But it was so helpful that I'm considering taking it as my antagonists, too.

There are four areas that the MBTI measures and for each area, there are two options. The first is Introverted vs Extroverted. Intuition vs Sensing. Feeling vs Thinking. And Percieving vs Judging. There are 16 possible outcomes of the test, and each one gives a lot of information about how the person handles energy, information, decision-making, and their lifestyle.

For instance, one of my characters tested INTJ, meaning she's introverted, intuitive, thinking, and judging. This tells me that she prefers one or two close friends and quiet time. That she's good with abstract thinking, but not necessarily at focusing on current situations. She values objective criteria, but doesn't have much use for social considerations. She also likes to have a sense of control which can seem limiting to other people.

That's incredible! Now when I write as her, I know that focus will be something she struggles with. That she uses memories and speculation about the future to understand the present. That she might get overwhelmed by a crowd or be severely uncomfortable when she loses control. Hopefully, I'll be able to translate all of this information into organic, sincere writing because now I understand how she thinks. Hopefully I'll be able to fully get into her head.

The test is only 72 questions and you can take it for free here as many times as you like. After you get your result, you can look it up on Wikipedia for more information (just type INTJ or whatever your result is into the Wiki search bar). It'll also give you historical and fictional examples of other people who are the same type. Typelogic.com is another site that will give you a lot of info.

If you're having trouble solidifying your characters, it can't hurt to give this a shot. It worked for me. Let me know if it works for you!

Also, I found some fun charts showing MBTI types for the characters of Harry Potter and Downton Abbey. (I'm Hermione and Tom! Although occasionally I test as Luna and Matthew.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Poisonwood Bible: A Review

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is the best book I've read in a while. I'd heard it mention before, but I didn't know much about it. I bought it because it follows a zealous missionary family as they journey into the heart of the Congo in 1960 and I thought it would give me a good insight into the type of people that dedicate their life so zealously to their religion. I got more than I ever could have expected.

Instead of following the missionary himself, the story focuses on the women around him - his wife and four daughters. This is their story.

As a writer, arguably the most fascinating aspect of this book was its structure. It has five point-of-view characters, the mother and daughters, and each is written in first person. As someone who loves first person for its intimacy, this book is exactly what I picture when I say first person can be done amazingly. I've read a lot of articles and op-eds that declare first person the realm of the beginner. That true "literary" works are not written as such. That's complete bunk. Of course first person can be done badly. So can any POV. And, yes, first person may actually be more difficult to do well, but when someone with the skill of Ms. Kingsolver does it, it transcends all expectations.

Each character had such a uinique voice that even without the character's name at the beginning of each chapter, I would have known who was speaking. From the physical immediateness of little five year old Ruth May to the shallow, almost illiterate complaints of sixteen year old Rachel, each character achieves individuality. I'm sure this took a lot of work on the writer's part, but it comes off as so easy, so organic, I never once questioned the author's choice of POV.

The story itself weaves a complex tapestry of what counts as "everyday" life in the Congo with the vast socio-economic history of the region. The questions it forces its characters (and readers) to confront are intriguing and uncomfortable. It questions religion's place in a world where one person or one group of people hold such dominating power over others. From the abusive relationship between the father and his family to the abusive relationship between the colonial powers and their victim Africa. The Poisonwood Bible is a spectacular work of technical ability, social consciousness, and the intimacy of a family.

It is by far one of the best books I have ever read and I met its end with the melancholic regret of finishing a good book. I'm sure I'll pick it up again in my lifetime if for no other reason then to study the masterful writing technique of Barbara Kingsolver and her other books have earned a place on my to-read list.

“Listen. To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know. In perfect stillness, frankly, I've only found sorrow.” 

-The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Friday, November 1, 2013

NaNoWriMo: Day One

Well, it's here. I have to admit even though I did some planning, even though I've got my outline done, November 1st snuck up on me. I wasn't planning for November to start until sometime next week! But apparently the calender doesn't keep my plans in mind.

So here we are. Day one.

What's the first scene I have? Only one of the most complicated and delicate scenes in the existence of literary fiction: an attempted suicide in first person.


I'm just a glutton for punishment. But I'm in my chair. I've got a steady supply of coffee and a comfy blanket. I'm ready to get started.

Today's goal is 2,000 words. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Twitter: Shakespeare Style

So I've been posting an extended poem under the hashtags #twitter #poetry. It was interesting writing (and I'm sure reading!) a poem in such a fragmented manner, but for those of you who didn't cotton on, it was a sonnet, Shakespearean style. I'm posting the whole thing below for those who couldn't follow or just want to see it as one whole poem. Enjoy!

Twitter: A Sonnet

Here I must conform to limits on space
Where letters count and numbers hope to rise.
My thoughts still seek a vast unending place
That does not submit to shape or size.
They cannot fit in characters so small
Softly typed, a breath to the tempest world.
They speak only barely, if heard at all.
Only when seen are they a flag unfurled.
Yet still I type, my fingers pounding keys
An attempt to harness the things within
But the words do not heed my desperate pleas
Laughing at pride, my original sin.

Doggedly I sit, as day bleeds to night.
Hopeless, I know. What can I do? I write.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Value of Leaving the House

As some of you know, about a year and a half ago I moved to Greenville, a small town in rural East Texas. It's a nice enough town and the people are friendly, but it's the kind of place where you meet people through work, church, or children. I have none of these things. So my range of social interaction outside of my house is limited to my brother, his family, and some of his friends. Otherwise it's just my boyfriend and our three cats.

So I've turned into a bit of a hermit.

Though without the epic beard.

I sit at my laptop and work on my book. I go grocery shopping once a week. Bob and I occasionally drive "into town" which translates to a 45 minute to 1 hour drive to some part of the Dallas metro. But that's about it. For a while, I didn't even really see my brother unless something was happening, i.e. niece's volleyball game, game night, etc.

But I have to be careful, because all of this "me" time, this wonderfully productive and creative coccoon ... well, it can be suffocating. No one can exist in a vacuum. Most of all someone who creates. We need to see people's reactions to our creations. We need to bounce ideas off others and be, in turn, inspired by them. So people like me, people stuck in their own little bubble, need to make an effort to leave the house.

I've got a lot of excuses not to. There's no one close to me. The closest writing group I found was an hour and a half away. The closest meetup for NaNoWriMo is about that too. Seriously.

But it gets to a point where you just have to suck it up and do what it takes. This last Saturday I drove to the opposite side of Dallas for a NaNoWriMo plan-in session in Denton, TX. Sure it was three hour drive there and back. Sure there were gas costs and I had to drive it by myself, but it was totally worth it.

I met some really great writers and people and I hope I'll force myself to keep in contact with them. I'm historically bad about that kind of thing, but all I need to do is make the effort.

I'm also going out to my brother's house once a week. Just to hangout. Just to talk and listen to someone different.

So I may be the stereotype of a lonely writer, and it's true, writing is a very solitary activity, but contact and inspiration and connections are like air to creative people. We get lost in our vacuum, our head-space. We need to break out and take a breath.

We just need to leave the house.

Friday, October 25, 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013

So I've got a story. I've got characters. I've got an outline. But most of all, I have a goal.

This year's NaNo is going to be a bit different for me. Last year I already had a novel started. I had approximately 30,000 words and I used NaNoWriMo to kick me entire gear and write the last 50,000.

This year I'm starting with nothing. No words to speak of and a book that I expect to be 120,000 words long or so. In some ways this is more intimidating. I'm not going to be able to finish such a long book in one month, but I should have an incredible start.

Last year I had difficulties with time management and only barely met the end word goal. This year, it looks like there might be an even bigger obstacle in terms of time on the horizon...


... but I'm still going to try and power through. That may mean doing bigger word counts at the beginning so I have some room in the middle of the month. Who knows.

For me, NaNoWriMo is more than a word count goal. It's a catalyst. It kicks my brain into gear and I can churn out more serious work in that one month of crazy deadlines than I can any other month of the year.

I'm ready. Are you?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Importance of Outlining

Outlining. For some writers it's a dirty word. For me, it's the reason I finished my first novel.

That may sound a bit extreme. There were many factors that contributed to my realizing that goal, but I cannot stress how important outlining was. Especially since I wrote the last half at the break-neck speed of NaNoWriMo. If any book has helped me with this process, it's William Bernhardt's Story Stucture: The Key to Successful Fiction
Insert shameless plug here.

Outlining my story helps me fill out the in-betweens. The segments that happen between major turning points. I knew where I wanted to go, but until I outlined, I had only the vaguest sense of how I was supposed to get there. And like any map, outlining is only a suggestion. A simple route from Point A to Point B, but that didn't stop me from wandering off the map when my characters led me.

In terms of process, it's a lot easier for me to sit down and write an entire scene. I pick up the next index card (yes, I'm old-fashioned) and I write that scene. I know where it's going and I know where the story is supposed to end up. Some people prefer to write from middle to middle that way they aren't starting with a blank page. As for me, I tried that, but I could never bring myself to stop in the middle of a scene. If I got started I had to go until it was finished.

I also believe outlining gives you a chance to look at the story structure as a whole. Outlining defines the trees, but it also gives you a pretty good idea of what that forest is going to look like when you're done planting. You can see things like, are you ramping up the intensity? Do your subplots find resolution?

Above all, the reason I'm talking about outlining today, as I prepare for yet another NaNoWriMo, is to remind myself. Yes, coming up 60-100 scenes is time consuming and exhausting. Yes, my OCD means I have to have the index cards fully filled out and in a semblance of order. Yes, I could be watching Netflix. But outlining is important.

So I'd better get busy.

Monday, October 21, 2013

My Crazy Process: Creating Side Characters

So in preparation for this year's NaNoWriMo, I've been hammering out my new book. Think Salem Witch Trials + Book of Job + a pandemic plague, all on an abandoned, near-future Galveston Island. Most of the book takes place in a religious commune and I want this community to feel solid and real.

I've had some trouble coming up with side characters (aka, the members of the commune), but I finally figured out a process.
Piles of people!

Now, I admit it looks kind of crazy. It's the kind of stuff that might raise questions in more stable-minded folk. But I gathered almost 150 pictures of random people - all ages, genders, races, etc. - cut them out and started making families out of them.

I'm totally normal, right? Right.

I think the reason this has really helped me is that I'm a visual person. I've had "concept photos" of my main characters since the beginning. Looking at a person's face helps me envision an entire life for them. Helps me figure out who they are. A face is the starting point. Give me that and I can create an entire world.

I know a lot of people don't function like this. They're less visual or perhaps just less OCD. That's great.

This is the kind of background work that often isn't obvious in a finished novel, but even if you don't memorize the charts, even if you don't keep track of who is related to whom and how they got there, I hope I can give you a depth. The impression of a real community - of real people who live and love and work together through all the trials that I will undoubtedly put them through.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Classics Project: A Year of Classic Literature

I've always considered myself fairly well-read. After all, I read all the time. Then I saw one of those lists. You know the ones. "100 Best Books of All Time" "100 Must Read Classic Works of Literature" Those. And while I do usually score above the "average" person, that has always felt like a really low bar. Many of these books have been influential in our society, and I'm starting to feel like I'm missing out.

So I've decided to start a project. The Classics Project. I'm going to take one year of my life and devote all of my pleasure reading to the classics. I'll give myself a pretty large selection and write a review for each one so you, my readers, can follow along in my literary journey. Honestly, it's kind of shocking which books I haven't read, but please don't judge me too harshly! After all, I'm not listing the plethora of books that I have consumed. ;-)

Here are some quick rules about the list. 1) It has to be something I haven't read. 2) It has to be fiction. I prefer novels, but I do have one or two plays on the list. 3) It has to be a work of literary importance. I honestly don't care if it was written 200 years ago or 10. If it's great, it's great. 4) I'm trying not to duplicate authors with some notable exceptions, in which case, I either really love the author or I couldn't decide which was a better representation of their work. If you think I've picked the wrong book feel free to let me know in the comments! 5) The final decision is mine. I know a lot of you have very strong opinions on what should or should not be on a list like this, but ultimately this list is for me. You can definitely make one of your own though! 6) No Dickens. Just no. I'll watch his stories on the BBC.

I don't expect to finish in one year, because let's face it, some of these books will take longer than three and half days. I do plan to continue reading and writing reviews beyond 2014, but I will no longer be limited to classics.

So without further ado....

The Classics Project:

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathon Swift
  3. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  4. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
  5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  6. Middlemarch by George Elliot
  7. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  8. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  9. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  10. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  11. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  12. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  13. The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
  14. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  15. The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
  16. Ulysses by James Joyce
  17. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man  by James Joyce
  18. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  19. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  20. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  21. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  22. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  23. Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
  24. A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
  25. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  26. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  27. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  28. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  29. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  30. The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
  31. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  32. The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas
  33. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  34. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  35. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  36. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemmingway
  37. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemmingway
  38. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  39. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  40. The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller
  41. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  42. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  43. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  44. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  45. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  46. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  47. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  48. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  49. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  50. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  51. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
  52. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  53. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  54. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  55. The Plague by Albert Camus
  56. The Bell Jar  by Sylvia Plath
  57. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Wolf
  58. My Antonia by Willa Cather
  59. Native Son by Richard Wright
  60. The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  61. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  62. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  63. The World According to Garp by John Irving
  64. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  65. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  66. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
  67. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  68. The Heart is a LonelyHunter by Carson McCullers
  69. Blood Meridian by Cormac MacCarthy
  70. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  71. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  72. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  73. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
  74. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
  75. The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
  76. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thorton Wilder
  77. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  78. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
  79. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
  80. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
  81. The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie
  82. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
  83. The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
  84. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  85. Last of the Mohicans by James F. Cooper
  86. Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
  87. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes
  88. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
  89. The Thin Red Line by James Jones
  90. The Source by James Michener
  91. The Hunt for RedOctober by Tom Clancy
  92. Babbit by Sinclair Lewis
  93. The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by James Ford

What do you think? Is there a book or two you think I should add? I'd like to get this list up to 100, so please comment below!

Edit: As I write a review for these books, I will change the title to a link. Check them out!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Learning to Sit Still

Lately I've had a lot of trouble reading.

Not comprehending, but just sitting still long enough to read more than a paragraph or two. I work at home and I usually have some Netflix show or Spotify playing in the background. So not only is the sitting still a problem, so is the silence.

I honestly think that I've just fallen out of the habit. When I was a child, I read all the time. ALL the time. But now, it feels almost like work.

As an aspiring writer, this is no good. I need to read for research and inspiration. I need to read fellow books in my genre to get an idea of the market. I need to read.

So last night I laid down (I love reading in bed) and I read. And read. And read. I didn't go to sleep until sometime after 2am. When I woke up I still had my glasses on, a frequent experience when I was a kid.

So maybe I don't have trouble reading. Maybe I have trouble starting.

Knowing that, I'll sit down today at an appointed "starting" time and I'm pretty sure I'll have no trouble at all.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Fixing the First Page

I attended a writer's conference recently and so much importance was placed on the first page. I understand that many agents completely reject a manuscript if the first page isn't amazing. Good isn't good enough.

So I've decided to rework mine.

I've written and rewritten the first page countless times already. I'm planning on moving the dialogue up. I plan on moving some of the description down (or completely eliminating it). But how do you know when it's finally good enough?

I feel like I've gotten to the point where I can't even see what I'm writing. I've read and reread the words so many times that they no longer have meaning. There's so little objectivity left in me that further editing seems impossible.

What do you do to make your first page sing? Do you feel like you've come up against a wall of words and have no idea where to go from there?

Sylvia Plath said that the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt. Truer words have never been said.

I think I'll make the small changes I can see and let go. I'll fix those little things and send it out into the world to fend for itself.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

On Birthdays and Rejections

So yesterday was my 24th birthday. It was also the day I got my first rejection letter.

As a writer, I know that I am bound to get more rejections, that this is just the first of many. That rationale did not stop me from feeling desperately disappointed. In many ways it was a trauma. This was an agent that I'd met in person, who'd heard my book win 1st place, and with whom I'd felt the possibility of a connection. And after all that, she still didn't like my book.

So what did I do? I cried and called my mother. Then I sent out five more queries.

It's okay to feel sad. It's okay to be disappointed, but it's not okay to quit. I am a writer and, one day, I will be published. That's all there is to it.

I've got a long list of agents to query and I've got another book in the works. I'm going to keep writing and keep working and I am going to have a career.

I knew that the business side of being a writer was going to be hard and it is. And I don't like it. But that's part of what being a professional is. Doing the job completely, even the parts you hate. Because writing isn't just a hobby for me. It's what I do. What I want to spend the rest of my life doing, because in the end, the good parts - the stories, the language, the people - completely outweigh the bad.

So go ahead and cry. Then get back to work.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Rose State Conference Part 2: Finding an Agent

One of the best parts of any writer's conference is meeting amazing agents and editors. I've tried to narrow my focus and I pitched two different agents last weekend. It can be surprising which ones you connect with and which ones you don't.

I pitched last year to an agent who requested my manuscript, but I never heard anything back. A year later I was ready to try again.

For someone who always enjoyed acting, pitching creates a unique sort of stage fright. Perhaps it's more intimidating in a one-on-one setting. Perhaps it's just knowing that these people took time out of their busy New York lives to listen to a ten-minute talk about a book they've never read by an author they've never heard of.

So after you get the best possible pitch written, after you practice and practice (Not too fast! Enunciate!), after all of that stress and anxiety you sit across from an agent and you sell your book. Or try to.

This year there were some pretty big names at Rose State. The two I was most interested in were Regina Brooks and Marcy Posner.

Regina is younger and has an interesting background (she worked as an engineer at NASA!) and for some reason, I just felt like we would click. On Friday, we were told to just sign with one agent to make sure everyone got a chance to pitch, so I signed up with Regina.

The next morning, I'm sitting outside of the designated room, waiting on my time when I notice the sign up sheets on the wall. When I'd checked earlier, all of Marcy Posner's slots were filled. Oh well, I thought. She wasn't my first choice anyway. But now, there were three blank spots where someone had whited-out names. What the heck. It can't hurt to pitch twice. I signed up for Marcy. 

With Regina, I started out a little rocky. There was no one to keep track of the times and I wasn't sure if I was supposed to go on in or wait until I was called, so I missed the first few minutes of my allotted time. She was very nice and I gave my pitch (which was a little rushed). She listened politely and pointed me towards a contest her agency does for YA books. She also gave me the name of another agent in her company that might be interested. Those all sound positive, yes, but the reception was less enthusiastic than I'd hoped for. To be honest, I was pretty disheartened.

So I went to lunch and came back. By the time of my next appointment, I was feeling pretty laissez faire. What happened, happened. It was good practice.

This time, everything seemed to work out perfectly. My appointment was at the beginning of a chunk of times so there was no one in front of me. Marcy was already seated and seemed a little bored, so I went right on in. This time, my pitch was near perfect. It came out more conversational and Ms. Posner and I ended up discussing the book for quite a while. She asked me questions about myself, about my writing process and what my goals were. We even chatted about various television shows and books we liked. Turns out she's a big fan of dystopic/post-apocalyptic fiction. Even though we started early, we ended up going over our time limit by five or six minutes! 

But I think the best thing was that she said she'd get back to me within a couple of weeks.

After waiting months and months for the first agent I pitched to (who still has never contacted me back), it was refreshing to speak to someone who was serious about me.

While it's still very possible she may not be interested in representing my book, it was a great experience. So now I sit here, refreshing my email every five minutes, cautiously optimistic.

Maybe she'll be the one.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rose State Conference Part 1: Winning First Place

Talk about a weekend of ups and downs. This last Friday through Sunday was the Rose State Writer's Short Course in Midwest City, Oklahoma. It's a small, but intense gathering of writers, aspiring writers, agents, editors, and practically everyone with an interest in the publishing industry. It'll take me several blog posts to cover all of my experience, but it is definitely worth sharing.

I attended the convention's debut last year where I won an honorable mention in the poetry contest, pitched to an agent for the first time, and met some amazing aspiring writers.

This year was even better.

Friday kicked off the weekend with an introduction by William Bernhardt, the New York Times bestselling author, organizer of the Rose State conference and, most importantly, the best writing teacher I have ever had the pleasure of studying under.
William Bernhardt

Guest of Honor, David Morrell - author of First Blood and creator of the Rambo character - also gave a great introductory speech. But for me, the most exciting part of the evening was the announcement of the contest winners. 

Like I said previously, I won an honorable mention in poetry last year. This year I submitted to three categories: Poetry, Flash Fiction, and Writing for Young Readers. While I was very disappointed about not winning any recognition in poetry, I was thrilled for my mother, Claudia Wagner, who won an honorable mention in the new category, Flash Fiction. Then came the Writing for Young Readers category.

I waited without much expectation as Bill Bernhardt read the list of winners going through a considerable number of honorable mentions to second place and - finally - to first place. Instead of immediately calling the names of the winners, he read from their entries. 

I felt almost numb as Bill's deep, expressive voice read out: 

"They took me to the interrogation room again the next day. The room was entirely white. I’d never noticed before. Though it was the same room I’d been questioned in, it seemed somehow different. Why did they bring me here again? There was nothing left for me to tell them."

My words. My book. 

My friends started cheering before I fully comprehended what was happening. I'd won. I was shaking as I got the certificate and check for $100. I'm still not sure I've completely processed it. 

My book - the book that took one year of my life, that has cost me tears and time, that I poured myself into until I had nothing left to give - my book won.

And that's not a bad feeling. 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Writing Prompt: Manifest Destiny

So my mother and I are in Midwest City, Oklahoma for the Rose State Writer's Short Course. (I promise I'll write all about the conference later!) It's really great to get to spend some time with her and what's one of the first things we do? Pull out our 642 Things to Write About and pick a prompt. So here it is, from page 52.

Flash Fiction Prompt: You wake up by the side of the road lying next to a bicycle with no memory and no wallet. What happens in the next hour?

photo by Lee Orr

Memory is a strange creature. Gravel scrapes my palms as I sit up. I remember the word gravel. I recognize the pain of raw, exposed skin. The sun is setting over the mountains.

 I remember sunsets and solar systems. Nine planets. Well, if you count Pluto. I do.

The front wheel of my bicycle is bent and spinning slowly, an awkward elliptical rotation. Like Pluto’s. How can I know so much about a tiny frozen rock that I’ll never see? Never touch or smell or stand on. And yet… I can’t remember my name.
I stand, dusting pebbles and dirt from my capris.
They took away Pluto’s name. No longer called “Planet.” I doubt it noticed.
The prairie stretches around me, empty and nameless. Where was I going? My bicycle points towards the mountains like an injured bird-dog. West.
Manifest destiny. Go West, young man! Pikes Peak or bust. It’s strange what the brain chooses to store. What gets erased. The sun sinks lower.
Even without a name, I exist. I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I act.
I pick up my mangled bike, pull it back to the road, and point my feet towards the mountains. Maybe I’ll find my name somewhere on the road. Maybe I won’t. Either way, my feet lead me West.

I head into the sun. 

Check out my mother's very different - but equally fun - response to the same prompt here!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Writing Prompt: My Mother Broke Every Plate

From page 260 in "642 Things to Write About:"

Prompt: Start a story with the line "My mother broke every plate in the house that day."

My mother broke every plate in the house that day. Shards of blue and white porcelain sparkled across the kitchen tile like fragments of her life. She'd collected each piece meticulously. A saucer here, a plate, a teacup.

I held the only survivor behind my back. A sugar bowl. I wanted to place it gently in a basket and send it down a river to keep it safe from my mother's wrath. From her grief.

The violence of her act shocked even her. She stood quivering, surrounded by the shattered remnants of her collection. For the first time, the willow print made me feel like weeping. 

I sat silently for my own protection, and for that of the refugee that I clutched. The small bowl felt cold against my skin.

She'd been washing the dishes when the phone rang. I was supposed to be drying them.

The first plate dropped from her hands by accident. The second she let go, releasing her grip slowly. Intentionally. The third she threw.

Then the next. And the next. Harder and harder, building herself up like a tsunami. A ceramic wave crashed through her. The result of some far off earthquake. 

The last plate slipped through her fingers like sand. It landed atop its ruined family, a single chip in its oriental edge.

The wave collapsed, leaving my mother alone in the rubble.

Check out Claudia Bookwright's response to the same prompt here.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Haiku Challenge: The Art of Tentacles

So this week I've been refocusing on my artistic pursuits more than my literary ones (Bad, Grace!). So while I have been pretty productive with pen and ink, I only managed to write four haikus last week. Here they are, along with a sampling of my latest visual arts.

"Cephalopod"                                                             "Our Lady of Diablo Rojo"


Momentum matters.
A lesson I learned today
from herding llamas.


La petite sirene
in moonlight, she calls to me
and turns to sea foam.


My art lacks focus.
What's the solution to this?
Just add tentacles.


Drawing tentacles:
a lesson in the physics
of undulation. 

"Cephalo Rojo"

Friday, September 13, 2013

MaddAddam: A Book Review

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood is the third installment of her apocalyptic series that started way back in 2003 with the phenomenal Oryx and Crake. The series explores a world of powerful corporations and biotech and the consequences that a single individual's actions can have on the world.

Let me start by saying that I loved the first two books. Oryx and Crake was exciting and fascinating and set the apocalyptic stage perfectly. The Year of the Flood, the second book, is my personal favorite. It follows an extreme sect of environmental/religious fundamentalists and two of the members' survival before and after a plague known as the waterless flood. Both of these books raised significant questions not only about their fictional world, but about our world and our belief systems. They made me question myself and the culture I live in. They gave me a new way to think about our world.

Then comes the much-anticipated end of the series: MaddAddam. I live in a small town with only one bookstore and I bought the only copy they had on release day. I went home, read it, and finished it within a couple of days. So why has it taken me nearly two weeks to write my review?

Throughout my reading of this final book, I had mixed feelings. I love Margaret Atwood's writing style. She is eloquent and thoughtful and her word use is superb. I love the world she created. I love the characters. Yet...I did not love this book.

It was okay. It wasn't bad. It was significantly better than a lot of other stuff that manages to get published. But it wasn't "Margaret Atwood" good. It wasn't what I had come to expect ever since I picked up The Handmaid's Tale when I was a sophomore in high school. I was disappointed.

It's hard to convey just what that disappointment meant to me. I even tried to convince myself that I wasn't disappointed. I was just having a couple of "off" days. Maybe something else was stressing me out so I couldn't enjoy the book properly. Then I finished it and realized that, no, it wasn't me. For the first time, I was disappointed with a Margaret Atwood book.

I think the main reason the book was lacking in comparison to its predecessors was that the first two books were full of powerful questions. MaddAddam was full of answers, and, honestly, they weren't as satisfying as the questions. It felt like the entire book was an attempt by Margaret Atwood to tie up the loose ends of the first two books. It lacked the inspiration, the spark that brought the others to life. It felt like literary checkbook balancing. I think I would have been just as satisfied if she'd never have written this book. In other words, it was very anticlimactic.

For an author that is known for writing powerful and relevant speculative fiction, MaddAddam falls far short of the bar she set for herself. The writing is technically good and the characters are the same ones that we fell in love with in the first place, but the book itself did not meet my expectations.

I haven't read any other reviews and, frankly, I'm not interested in them. I understand that many people will probably rave about the book and it is good. Just not in comparison to her other works. This experience has been much more to me than just a disappointing read. It was a fall from grace. Margaret Atwood has always been my inspiration. The paragon I aspired to be like.

And she still is.

But now I know even the best authors can write mediocre books.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Haiku Challenge: Science, Sci-Fi, and Cats

I've been feeling kind of melancholic this week and I think my haiku reflect that. I was also influenced by the latest Margaret Atwood book "MaddAddam" (review to come). So here are this week's haiku.


Will the future split
between gritty and shiny?
Sci-fi metaphors.


Sit doing nothing.
Maybe it is a slow healing.
I'll wake when it's through.


Gathering more words
for my curio cabinet
of better phrases.


Bypassing the pleebs,
The technocratic elite
splice what's left of life.


Two cats sleep under
my wingback chair while I write.
There is peace at last.


My brain's diluted,
lost among the molecules.
Reconstitute me.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Haiku Challenge: History, Politics, and Life in 17 Syllables

This last week or so has been filled with a number of historical and political events. The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr's "I have a dream" speech. Marches across the nation that served as a memory of the suffragists who fought for women's rights to vote and a reminder of how far we still have to go. New kitten drama continues. And Twitter is continuing to serve as a surprising outlet for all of these things.

Here are the haiku's from this last week.


Haiku - like new thought -
Breathe softly and disappear
without impression.


Would the solid clank
of a press imprint my words
more firmly than keys?


One hell of a night.
Pain wracks my head like lightening.
Fucking allergies.


Alone among friends,
The writer in me panics.
Paper is kinder.


Nineteenth amendment
Gave women the right to vote.
We should use it now.


Exhausted, throat-sore
I make my way through darkness
To the ones who wait.


Mad Men: Where women
are not allowed to play and
nice guys finish last.


M.L.K. Jr
once had a dream that spoke
to all. Still we dream.


Life falls short of dreams.
Everything sounds much better
when it's on paper. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

100 Writer's Project: In the Beginning

Introducing... Claudia Wagner!

My first novel, first draft almost finished. How did I get here? If I were Michener I would start--In the beginning, God. This blog post begins only a little later than that, but well before cell phones and the internet.

I used to write and submit poetry for publication. Acceptance letters along with the standard thank you and a promise of two copies of the issue in which my poem would be published thrilled me. But in those pre-cell-phone days, it cost a fortune to call all my friends and relatives long distance to tell them the good news. Not to mention the expense of buying additional copies of said issue and postage to send those copies to friends and relatives.

I’ve worked for a small-town daily newspaper. I’ve seen my by-line and my name in cutlines enough. But the idea of a book with my name on the spine sitting on a shelf in the Edmond Public Library seems much too grand. It shimmers above me in the night sky, brighter than the moon. A dream, a desire, a star too brilliant to look at and too distant to touch.

Knowing that a novel was beyond me, my book started out as a short story. I’ve written short fiction. I took a course in college. I understand how it works. So all I needed was a prompt of some kind and a deadline. My daughter provided the prompt and the deadline allowing me to choose the genre.

I ignored her prompt and chose murder and science fiction. And I went to work.

The deadline came and went, and the work proved to be as undisciplined as I. The story would not limit itself to short fiction. So I reconsidered the situation and decided to do a little book, a murder mystery that takes place on a colony in low orbit around the asteroid Ceres. But I needed help.

I happened to attend a monthly meeting of Oklahoma City Writers, Inc. at which William Bernhardt was doing a two hour presentation on novel writing. He talked about outlining. An instant turnoff since my research paper days too many years ago. But he made sense and showed how to plan the structure of my book. He was talking about the actual nuts and bolts of constructing a book-length story.

Three years plus several months, three of Bill Bernhardt’s intensive writing workshops plus a conference here and there, and I am coming around the last turn on this full-length murder mystery science fiction novel.

Bill said write every day. Four hours a day. If I had done that the book would have been finished long ago. Did I mention that I’m undisciplined? I heard somewhere that Stephen King says to write four hours a day and read eight hours a day. Or was that Mark Twain?  The eight hours reading I could go for, whoever said it.

There was a recommendation that I join a writers’ critique group for support and critical input. But that meant I had to also give support and critical input. I left every one of those meetings feeling bad because I had said harsh things to people as earnest about their writing as I was about mine. Tact is not one of my virtues. And have I mentioned lack of self-control?

Then somewhere else the advice was to just write it all the way through, do not do any editing until the story is complete. What a good rule. But mine is a murder mystery. As I wrote I discovered things that needed to appear earlier in the story. That required a rewrite of a scene. Editing? Even sitting down to begin the next writing session without looking at what I’d done the day before was impossible. Reading the work from the day before required minor or major changes. Did I mention that I tend to break rules even when I impose them myself?

What have I learned these past three-hundred, ten pages, and counting? Somewhere I heard that the definition of the verb to persevere is to begin again, and again, and again. No matter how many times my discipline fails, my control is lost, and my rules are broken, I can begin right now where I am. My book will be written and I will be launched into the night sky to find my name on the spine of a book in the Edmond Public Library. Just gotta finish this book first.

Claudia Wagner
I was born in Oklahoma. I learned to read under my mother’s ironing board. I learned the importance of stories around the dinner table during holidays and in the cellar during storms. I started writing to entertain my classmates. I continued to write because classes or work required it. Sometimes I wrote to understand my life. I have been office help, a welfare case worker, a fast foods manager, and a roustabout in the oil patch. I have also worked for the USDA. I’ve managed a veterinary clinic, helped care for my dying mother, and been a Page at the Edmond Library. I am a woman, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. I believe the future of humanity is as unlimited as the Universe. And I believe that we as a species are imaginative enough and brave enough to move beyond the Earth into that Universe.

For more from Claudia, check out her blog, The Bookwright.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Haiku Challenge: Twitter's Take on Poetry

Recently one of my fellow writers and denizens of Twitter, Alexis Lantgen, inspired me to do something I'd never truly considered before. Use Twitter for more than just 155 character snippets of though. Use it for poetry. And what poetry form could be more appropriate than haiku?

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that uses 17 kanji for one poem, which English speaking poets translated to 17 syllables of 5 then 7 then five again. Traditionally, Haiku were about nature, but that is becoming less common, and let's face it, writing about falling leaves and cherry blossoms is really not my style. Another aspect of haiku is the use of juxtaposition or the "cutting word." Most haiku use imagery or symbols to strike a discordant note in the poem.

Anywho... here are my Twitter haiku from last week.


You say I'm grown-up,
But sometimes I am a child
who's just pretending.


Once Ulysses-proud,
Our world fell to the sea gods.
Oceans consume us.


Four years of laughter,
We celebrate more to come
with a new kitten.


Late in the evening,
I forget all I've not done
and fall swift asleep.


Yesterday's haiku
proved itself a lie, false hope.
A night without rest.


Paralyzing fear
distracts me from my duty.
I submit my work.


New Sunday morning
Cat chases the new kitten
I wish I still slept

I'm still working on the use of juxtaposition, but it's a nice way to start the morning. Who would have though Twitter could be a tool for poetic expression?

If you're interested in following my forays into the Twitter #haikuchallenge, follow me here, on GraceW_Writer

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Taming of the Mew: An Adventure in Cat Behavior

First off, let me introduce Matches:

Matches is a big, black tomcat that Bob had when we met. He's sweet, smart, and craves attention more than a lot of dogs I know. He's also very much Bob's cat.

I've got countless more pictures like this. He loves cuddling. Matches will cuddle with me too, but Bob is his person.

So I wanted a Matches of my own. I've been pestering Bob for a while and attempting to forcibly adopt any kitten we come upon. My best friend got two new kittens. Bob's friends have acquired kittens. I wanted my own. A fact that Bob was intensely aware of.

So because he's super sweet (and let's face it - he loves cute kittens just as much as I do), Bob decided to get me a kitten of my own to celebrate our four year anniversary.

We went to the shelter with a completely open mind. I didn't care about gender. I didn't care about breed or color. All I wanted was a cat that would love me as intensely as Matches loves Bob.

And this is what I found:

My own mini-Matches. He was the first kitten we saw when we walked in. He was vocal and exceedingly friendly. He wanted us. He chose us. I attempted to look at all of the kittens, but I just kept coming back to this little guy. I took him out of his cage and he immediately gave me kitty kisses (rubbing his face on my nose). That was it. He was the one. 

Introducing Julius Robert Oppenheimer (Oppie for short):

I certainly didn't intend to get a clone of Matches, another black boy-cat with a loud meow and big ears. Their personalities are very similar and, we hoped, compatible. Matches didn't see it that way.

Matches has always been an "only cat" and while he is great with dogs, he hates cats. And we brought one into his house. 

For the first couple of days, Matches hissed at the kitten continually. And at us. And at the world in general. He transformed from a happy, lovey cat into a grumpy old man in the space of twenty minutes. Neither of us was surprised, but it upset Bob. He missed his kitty. The kitty Matches used to be. 

I've always had lots of animals growing up and my dad is a vet, so I wasn't that worried. Of course it would take time. 

At first, Matches was too scared to even approach the kitten. He spent the first evening hunched up in a corner. Slowly he was goaded (by an overly enthusiastic kitten) into asserting his dominance. Matches has never had to prove his dominance before, so it didn't come naturally to him. And Oppenheimer wasn't making it easy. Oppie is fearless and inquisitive and talked ugly to Matches. That kitten has a mouth on him. Eventually they began to interact and Matches realized he was bigger. Much bigger. 

A few wrestling matches later, their interactions felt less like fighting and more like play. Matches still wasn't pleased, but a couple of days on he was beginning to act more like his old self. The fateful key ended up being Oppie's litter box. 

When Matches was finally allowed in Oppie's bathroom, he immediately used the litter box and it was like a switch had been flipped. Suddenly everything was infinitely better. Matches cuddles Bob and still gives me kisses. The cats chase each other around the house and are comfortable napping on the same bed. All this only since last Wednesday. 

Several of our friends have expressed surprise at how quickly these two have adapted to living together. The only advice I can offer is this: let the cats work things out between them. It's good to be there to make sure that no one gets hurt, but some fur has to fly for them to figure out who is on top. That's normal. They're going to hiss and talk ugly, but eventually, they'll settle down. 

Now we have two black cats. I have a cat that loves me, that hurries every morning to cuddle and kiss me. Bob has his Matches back to normal. Matches has a playmate. And Oppenheimer has a forever home. 

All is right with our world. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Orange is the New Black: Hope for American Television

After my rather bleak view about television last week in Elementary vs Sherlock: The Trouble with American Television, I am excited to say that there is light at the end of the T.V. tunnel!

Introducing... Orange is the New Black
Orange is the New Black is a dark comedy/drama following the unlikely felon, Piper Chapman. The show is based on the memoir of real life convict Piper Kerman and follows the thoroughly engrossing day-to-day lives of women living in prison. The most striking aspect of this show is it's humanity. With a large ensemble cast that could have easily devolved into stale stereotypes, all the women in this federal corrections facility are fully fleshed out people with back-stories, dreams, and flaws. Spanning a vast racial, socio-economic, and religious spectrum, OITNB is the most progressive and risk-taking show I have watched in a long time. The humor is harsh and spot on, the drama intense, and the main character proves herself to be admirable, relatable, and disturbingly human. 

I don't want to get too much into a direct review of the show. It's good. Go watch it. My main point is what does Orange is the New Black mean for American Television?

First off, the format is the real revolution. OITNB is a Netflix original series and the entire first season is available for streaming online. For T.V. gluttons like myself, this makes it easy and satisfying to consume the entire series in a few days. More importantly, the fact that it airs only online gives the show a freedom not experienced by network T.V. or even by cable. They don't have to meet any FCC regulations. Sex and Violence has become common place on cable and both make a solid appearance in OITNB. Even more importantly? They don't have to please advertisers. This gives the writers an unheard of freedom to write what they want and to write it well. They do not disappoint. 

The main character is a secular humanist. There are many characters across the LGBT spectrum, including a very well written Trans-woman. Racism is addressed directly without any sugarcoating or tiptoeing around the meat of the subject. OITNB attacks these issues and more head on with a fierce and heart-wrenching authenticity. These real-to-life characters are dealt with intelligently and fairly. I have never seen anything like it on regular T.V. 

There is a reason why OITNB generated more viewers and hours viewed than the former spectacular Netflix originals House of Cards and Arrested Development (who boast a total of 12 Emmy nominations in 2013 between them). 

The era of Internet Television is here, and I am definitely excited. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Elementary vs Sherlock: The Trouble with American Television

As I have thoroughly established, I am a lifelong fan of British television. I grew up watching Masterpiece Mystery with my mom and now I have developed an intense - if one sided - love affair with the Doctor from the BBC's stunning sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Through the years, I have avidly consumed British media and for the last few years, Sherlock as become one of my all time favorites.

Sherlock, written by Stephen Moffat, features the thrilling actor Benedict Cumberbatch who embodies the character of Sherlock Holmes better than any of the varied and talented actors that came before him. The writing is crisp, the dialogue pithy, and the mysteries confounding. Sadly, as with most British television, the seasons (or series as they're known across the pond) are short. In Sherlock's case, very short. The show only has three episodes per season and it's been quite a while since the cliffhanger ending of season two.

Now that I've established my personal bias, let me turn to Elementary, an American production.

During the devastatingly long interim between Sherlock seasons (and it doesn't help that Doctor Who is also on hiatus), I've been searching around for something to fill the void. Though it may seem so, I certainly do not limit myself to British television. There are several American shows that I love: The Newsroom (and the West Wing. Basically anything written by Aaron Sorkin), Game of Thrones, Smash (I love a good musical), and Grey's Anatomy (yes, I know. Keep your teasing to yourself). So I am not in any way against American programming.

I heard from several people who like Elementary and the concept of Lucy Liu as Watson was intriguing so I decided to give it a try. After seven or eight episodes (because I badly wanted to like this show), I gave up. What was wrong with it? It wasn't a bad show per se. In fact, I would consider it above average for the American crime-solving genre. But because of the timing and the connection to Sherlock Holmes lore, Elementary faces the inevitable - and inevitably detrimental - comparison with the BBC's Sherlock.

Let's start with the basics.

The Casting:

As I've said previously, I think that Benedict Cumberbatch is the greatest actor to play the Character of Sherlock Holmes ever. This obviously puts - let me look up his name - Johnny Lee Miller at a disadvantage. I think it says a lot that when you look at IMDB's Elementary page, Miller isn't even billed at the top. Which brings us to the companions. Drs John and Joan Watson. I like the risk that the American writers took casting Lucy Liu as the damaged and intensely loyal Dr. Watson. It's a great twist and I think she does a good job. I think she suffers much less by comparison with her counterpart, Martin Freeman. Once again, however, she comes to the table with a handicap because Martin Freeman, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is spot on casting and is easily the most memorable Dr. Watson of all time.

There's a reason why the fangirls are so obsessed with the Cumberbatch/Freeman pairing and it's not just their pretty eyes. They become the characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson so thoroughly that they cement themselves in your mental image. They are Holmes and Watson.

The Show:

Sherlock has three episodes at one and half hours a piece, which basically makes each episode a movie. Elementary, on the other hand, is limited to the approximately 45 minutes show of American prime-time. By nature of time-frame alone, Sherlock is able to delve much more deeply into each story, allowing the writer to craft an intricate and compelling mystery. Elementary, on the other hand, devolves into a typical and expected crime-solving show that happens to feature characters with the names Holmes and Watson. Oh, and Holmes is a recovering heroin-addict. Honestly that is about as much as the show has in common with the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

Which brings me to the main point. Casting aside - because although not nearly as good as the Cumberbatch/Freeman pairing, Miller and Liu aren't bad - the main problem with Elementary is that it's not smart. Elementary's Holmes doesn't blow me away with any cleaver deductions and the mysteries themselves are laughably predictable. The entire point of Sherlock Holmes is that he's a genius. Not only is a genius, he is THE genius. The smartest man that ever lived. A damaged yet compelling detective that solves crimes purely with the power of his amazing intellect.

There is just no comparison between the shows on an intellectual level. I STILL haven't figured how Sherlock escaped death in the last episode and I've watched it many times over. And that's the point. We need the writing to be, not only smart, but smarter than we are. We need a show that keeps us guessing. That keeps us on the edge of our seat and has enough clues and subtleties that we can watch the show over and over and still not catch everything.

This is a problem throughout American Television. The vast majority of shows lack any intellectual punch. They're dumbed down. If American television gave their writers the lee-way to write truly great shows, I have no doubt that they could do it. The problem is not that American producers aren't capable; it's that they don't give good writers the time and money needed to created a masterpiece like the BBC's Sherlock. I, for one, wish they would.

After all, smart is the new sexy.