Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What the Oscars Can Teach You About Writing

Yes! I'm back! Blogging!

Sorry I've taken such a long hiatus. Promoting one book and drafting another has managed to suck out all my writing energy. But the Oscars are this Sunday, and how could I not write about them? This year is especially exciting since there's such a tight race for Best Picture. Will it be 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, American Hustle, or another dark horse?

This has been called an exceptionally strong year for movies. The competition is tight. In another year, any of these 9 films could've walked away with Best Picture. For the second year in a row, I've managed to watch all 9 nominees, and I've walked away from each one with unexpected writing wisdom.

Don't be afraid to toy with convention
Movie: 12 Years a Slave
This could be the first movie about slavery since Gone with the Wind to win Best Picture. What's so powerful about 12YAS is that it turns the conventional slave narrative on its head. Epitomized in films like GWTW, slaves were usually depicted as happy to serve their kindly master and speaking in an uneducated "yes sir/no sir" fashion. Think Mammy and Scarlett. In 12YAS, we see slavery from the slaves' POV. They speak intelligently and are fully fleshed out characters with emotionally rich lives. The white characters are shown as cruel, sadistic, but also dealing with their own desperation, forced to live in a world they may not fully agree with. There is even a short scene with a former slave (Alfre Woodard) who went on to marry her master. These are depictions we haven't seen on film, and it makes 12YAS that much more special. As writers, dare to challenge the norm, dare to dig deeper behind classic archetypes.

Never make it easy on your protagonist
Movie: Gravity
To say Sandra Bullock's character has a rough go of it in space is an understatement. She spends 90 minutes barely surviving, scraping by from one set piece to another by the skin of her teeth. Alfonso Cuaron, the director, never makes things easy for his protagonist. She's either running low on oxygen or facing down space debris or narrowly escaping a fire. All by herself! Even until the very end, which I won't spoil, Ryan Stone had to struggle. That made her victories throughout the film all the more powerful. That made me root for her and get invested in the film. Never make it easy for your main character.

Unless you're writing non-fiction, you aren't beholden to the truth
Movie: American Hustle
To be honest, I didn't love this movie. I thought the story was all over the place, confusing, and in the end, I just didn't care about anyone. (How ironic that it's a frontrunner for Best Original Screenplay.) While the film is based on true events, David O. Russell didn't strive to make the movie accurate. He basically created his own story against the backdrop of true events. "Some of this actually happened" pops up on the screen at the very beginning. If you're writing a fact-based book, you're under no obligation to write it exactly as happened. You need to do what's best for the story, to make it as narratively compelling as possible. Even if that means casting a spunky 23-year-old Kentuckian as a 40-something Long Island housewife.

Dare to make your villains 3-dimensional
Movie: Captain Phillips
This could've been a standard thriller. They could've cast Liam Neeson as Captain Phillips and had him kick Somali ass. Taken meets I'm on a boat. What elevated Captain Phillips from genre thriller to Oscar-nominated film was that the writer dared to humanize the "bad guys." In the movie, the Somali pirates weren't cardboard villains out for money. They weren't depicted as angels thrown into this mess either. They did bad things, but they had real motivations. They were fueled by desperation and fear and pride and striving for a better life. You sympathized with them, even though you knew what they were doing was wrong.

Wow 'em with your ending
Movie: The Wolf of Wall Street
The above is paraphrasing from the great movie Adaptation when Robert McKee tells blocked screenwriter Charlie Kaufman that no matter what, you gotta wow 'em with your ending. The Wolf of Wall Street was a 3-hour movie about excess -- lots of excess. It dragged a little in certain parts. But that ending. Wow. That ending elevated the movie from good to great. People complained that the main character never got his comeuppance in the end. That was the point, and that's what made the movie so bold. In the final shot, Martin Scorcese literally turns the camera on us, a rapt audience. We may hate Jordan Belfort, but we all want to be him. It was a powerful ending that has stuck with me. So no matter the twists and turns your story takes, remember how important your ending is. It's your last impression on the reader.

There's no such thing as a stupid concept
Movie: Her
Her could've been a sketch on SNL. A man falls in love with Siri. It's a ridiculous concept. Yet through Spike Jonze's masterful script and direction, that idea became a brilliant, thought-provoking film which examined the nature of love and relationships. Jonze made it believable and relatable. Nobody was snickering after leaving this movie.

Have a healthy balance of plot and character
Movie: Philomena
This was the big surprise for me. What a fantastic movie. I didn't expect to love this movie as much as I did. Philomena is about a woman searching for her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years ago. I thought I knew where this story was going, but I was so wrong. The writers threw in nifty twists to Philomena's search as she got to know her son. (And it's all a true story, which goes to show that sometimes it pays to hew close to the truth.) But at the same time, the movie was a wonderful character study of Philomena and journalist Martin Sixsmith. They clashed over religion and faith and grieving over the past throughout their journey. The movie deftly balanced the "search for son" plot with the character study. I've read too many books where it's either one or the other, but you can mix both to wonderful results.

Comic relief is a wonderful thing
Movie: Nebraska
It's a black-and-white movie about a son taking his senile father back to his bleak hometown to claim a Publisher's Clearing prize he didn't win. Yet despite the depressing premise, Nebraska was surprisingly funny. June Squibb, who played Woody's tart-tongued wife, was hysterical. She kept the movie from being a total drag. She infused the movie with levity at all the right moments. Nobody wants to read a downer of a story. Just as comedies need moments of gravity, most dramas need moments of comedy. (Though not all. 12YAS is laugh-free, save for Brad Pitt's terrible accent.)

Never underestimate telling a simple story
Movie: Dallas Buyers Club
There's nothing groundbreaking in the script for Dallas Buyers Club. It's a premise that's been done before: outspoken, fish-out-of-water person fights injustice and takes on evil, faceless corporations. DBC is basically Erin Brockovich, but with AIDS instead of hexavalent chromium. The script follows all the necessary beats. And that's not a bad thing. You don't always need to turn convention on its head or craft a complex plot. A good story is a good story. DBC knew what it was and did it well, and people have responded.

Honorable mention to two other screenplay nominees:
Before Midnight taught me that sequels don't have to be retreads (like Hangover 2, Home Alone 2). Existing characters can keep growing, keep maturing, keep learning about themselves.
Blue Jasmine taught me how to take familiar stories and make them your own. Woody Allen took A Streetcar Named Desire and updated it for the modern world, much like Emma was turned into Clueless.

Have fun watching the Oscars this Sunday! Let me know what your favorite of the bunch was and who you're rooting for. (I'm hoping Leo pulls out a win.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Join the #NILTribe

So I had the pleasure of reading Lynne Matson's book NIL, coming out this March. It was wonderful! NIL is part swoony romance, part supernatural mystery, part wilderness survival guide, and completely entertaining. Anyone who loved the classic first season of LOST will love NIL. (yes, I just quoted my Goodreads review, but it's late and I'm tired and leave me alone.)

On the mysterious island of Nil, the rules are set. You have one year. Exactly 365 days--to escape, or you die.

What a hook! To read the rest of the pitch, check out the book's Goodreads page.

The coolest part about NIL's launch is that Lynne is letting readers and fans in on the excitement. She's starting a street team called #NILtribe where you can win prizes and get any scoops before the public. I'll let Lynne explain:

If you love books, especially thrillers, packed with mysteries, islands, secrets and ALL THE FEELS, then #NILtribe may be for you! All you have to do is tweet . . . or post to Facebook . . . or post on your blog . . . or comment on my blog: “I joined the tribe!” and add the #NILtribe hashtag. And that’s it! You’re in.:)

Over the three months, follow the #NILtribe hashtag on Twitter and Facebook for chances to win galleys of NIL, copies of other YA books I love and sweet NIL swag . . . and to discover NIL sekrits. Each day I’ll tweet using the #NILtribe hashtag. I’ll share cool facts about the characters, island sekrits, author interviews, giveaway links, etc. Each week I'll share new goodies that will be up for grabs by members of the #NILtribe in upcoming giveaways (spoiler: creepy bone cuff bracelet anyone?!) Each month will bring more opportunities to win NIL galleys, NIL swag, and after NIL’s release, signed hardbacks.:) And in the last month before release, all #NILtribe members will get swag-to-be-revealed… just by joining the #NILtribe.:)

And to all those readers-who-love-thrillers-and-islands-and-sekrits-and swoon? Feel free to use the #NILtribe hashtag as often as you like! Post anytime using the hashtag! You can countdown to Nil’s release, repost any of my posts, or post about why you're excited for NIL, Waiting on Wednesdaystyle. Just remember to use the #NILtribe hashtag, and you’re golden. :) Welcome to the tribe.:)

An awesome opportunity for an awesome book! Dig in!

Update: More details are live on Lynne's blog:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE BREAK-UP ARTIST cover reveal extravaganza!

I'm going to keep this short + sweet since my brain is fried. It's one of those Tuesdays that feels like a Thursday except, ya know, it's only Tuesday.

THE BREAK-UP ARTIST! Cover reveal extravaganza! Three parts! 

Part I - The Actual Reveal

In which HarlequinTEEN officially reveals the magnificent cover for THE BREAK-UP ARTIST for all the world to see.

Where: the HarlequinTEEN Facebook page --
When: Thursday 10/24 10:30 am

Part II - ICYMI Cover Reveal + ARC Giveaway @ Forever17 Books

In which I show off the cover once for all who missed it. On top of that, I'll reveal the book's official book jacket copy and *some special secret amazing news* that I'm nearly bursting with. Or maybe that's just fiber. But that's not all.

I'm also giving away 2 limited-edition cerlox ARCs of THE BREAK-UP ARTIST and a funpack of some amazing HarlequinTEEN debut contemporaries.

When: Friday 10/25

Part III - Cover Talk at YA @ YAInterrobang

In which I discuss the cool details behind the cover design. The cover is something that you can keep looking at and find something new, like those Magic Eye paintings from the 90s

When: Sunday 10/27

I am so far beyond excited -- like I can't even see excited from my house anymore -- to show you the cover for THE BREAK-UP ARTIST, to take one giant leap closer to bringing the book into the world. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

My first signing!

I better practice my John Hancock (Or rather Herbie Hancock)...because I have my first signing!!!

I will be signing advanced copies of THE BREAK-UP ARTIST at the Heartland Fall Forum, a conference for independent bookstores. I can't wait to meet all the amazing booksellers helping to connect readers with the books.

If you're attending, here's where I'll be:
Crown Plaza O'Hare - Chicago, IL
Regional Authors Booth -- 10-11am
Harlequin booth -- 2:30-3:30 p.m. 3:30-4:30 pm
*NEW* Booksellers Banquet -- 7-9 pm

Feel free to stop by and say hi!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What I've Been Up To This Summer

I can't believe summer is almost over! It flies by every year. This summer was particularly strange because here in Chicago, we only had a handful of true summer days. Otherwise, it was like an extended spring (70s, bipolar mix of rain, clouds, and sun). Today feels like a crisp fall day. Which I'm not complaining about, especially because I don't have central air. But still, as much as I hate the dog days of summer, it's weird not having them. It makes me appreciate the cooldown in September/October.

I haven't thought too much about the temperature because I've been so BUSY this summer. So busy I kinda neglected you, dear blog. I know what you're thinking --

via quickmeme

Well, here's a rundown of what's been going with me these past two months, kind of like the less-cool version of this epic montage.

* I finished line edits on THE BREAK-UP ARTIST and am in the middle of writing acknowledgements. It's this close to being a real book!

* I taught my first class - Writing the YA Novel - at Trade School Evanston and was paid in cupcakes.

* I'm speaking on my very first panel this Thursday about writing and publishing. Fingers crossed I'm not a rambling mess.

* I've been feverishly writing my new MS and crossed 50k words. I like writing in summer because the sun shining at 6 a.m. makes it much easier to wake up early. It's a struggle to get out of bed when it's pitch black outside. I should have a rough draft done by Labor Day, which is the fastest that I've ever written a book!

* I outlined a new super-secret WIP which I hope I can tell you about in the future.

* I have done some blogging, just not here. Check out my post at Michelle Krys's blog on query contests, and my summer reading reco at the YA Valentines. I have three more guest posts coming up in the next two months. In other words, see you in October possibly.

* I devoured ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK on Netflix. It has some of the best female characters ever written for TV. And what's most impressive is that despite the sprawling cast, every character is fleshed out and has a moment to shine. It's an incredible balancing act. Now I'm enjoying the final season of BREAKING BAD. (catch up on Netflix! There's still time!)

*I've seen a bunch of movies. WORLD WAR Z was hands-down the best one I saw this summer -- which proves that you should never be afraid of a rewrite. (THE TO-DO LIST is runner-up. Unfortunately, it bombed, but it's destined to be a cult classic.)

How has your summer been?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Interview with a SLOB: Mindy McGinnis

Most of you probably know about Mindy McGinnis through her fun, informative blog Writer Writer Pants on Fire or because her awesome-looking debut NOT A DROP TO DRINK hits bookstores this September. (Enter to win a copy on Goodreads here) But when she's not writing or blogging, she's a school librarian aide. Once I sold THE BREAK-UP ARTIST, I realized that the library world is totally foreign to me, even though I use libraries all the time. I spend time thinking about selling books, but getting your book into libraries is also important. People check out library books and get recommendations from their librarians every day. But what happens before that?

OOOhhh...books (via Wikipedia Commons)

So today, Mindy is taking off her writer hat and putting on her librarian fedora to answer some questions about how libraries buy books. And in the tradition of her SAT, SHIT, and CRAP series, I'll call this interview with a SLOB (School Librarian on Books).

How do libraries buy books? 
That really depends on the individual libraries. My own library is a public school in a rural area, and we've recently had to go through some serious funding cuts. When I first started, we had three full time librarian aides (one in each building) and one district librarian. Right now I'm the only full time librarian aide, and the District Librarian is also a part-time English teacher. So, our method of buying books has changed. We used to have the time to browse through School Library Journal, Horn Book, the YALSA site, read reviews, and hit up major book blogs. With our time so restricted now we use a service through Junior Library Guild where they send you an age appropriate selection every month.

How far in advance do they order them? 
In my own library we typically don't pre-order unless it's an anticipated big-demand sequel or series addition. Most of the time we rely on JLG [Junior Library Guild] to stock our shelves and then we do buy single titles through word of mouth or titles that our own browsing have led us to.

How do you decide what to buy? 
Our budget is restricted, so we buy what we know will circulate. Sequels and series additions are easy choices when we know the first title circulated well. Also we pay attention to the trends of what our kids are reading - which may not necessarily be what's trending in the industry. Right when zombies were going hard, all our kids wanted to read were contemporary issues books. So hey - we found them.

What do you think makes kids at your school pick out the books that they do? 
Two answers on that:1) The cover2) UsCovers are HUGE for teens. I can't tell you how many great books with bad covers have totally tanked with my kids because they don't want to be seen carrying them around. Our kids have learned to trust us though, and it's such a great compliment when a kid comes up to me and says, "Pick a book out for me. You know what I like."

Do authors ever reach out to you directly to pitch their books? 
In different ways, yes. I do have people approach me as a blogger for help with a signal boost, but also I've had quite a few YA authors (Simone Elkeles, Liz Norris and Lenore Applehans to name a few) donate copies of their books because they know I'm a school librarian. It also never hurts when I pick up a copy of a book and hand it to a kid and breezily say, "Yeah, I know her." ;)

Is there anything content-wise (language, violence, sex) that restricts you from stocking a book in your library? 
Tricky question. I don't enjoy censorship, but I do enjoy having a job. My library currently serves grades 7-12 and next year due to a building closure it will be serving grades 5-12. Obviously there are some content that is perfectly acceptable for seniors that a seventh grader shouldn't be near, let alone a fifth grader. Typically, because it's a small town, we know the kids, and usually we know the parents, too. We know their maturity levels, but we do make sure there's nothing too terribly shocking going home with someone who shouldn't have it. 

I've always said it's possible to have everything from Doctor Seuss to Cory Doctorow to E.L. Doctorow on the same shelf in my library... and that's pretty much the case.

So much great information here. Thank you so much, Mindy! You can find Mindy all across the web like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and her blog (link above).

And you can also find me there as well: FB. Twitter. GR.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Writing Realistically Unrealistic Dialogue

When I was a young lad kid, Dawson's Creek was the big cheese. (sidenote: I can't believe it's been off the air for a decade!) The main criticism of the show was that teenagers do not talk like these characters in real life. Dawson, Pacey, Joey, and Jen were too eloquent, using vocabulary that had been deep-fried in SAT Prep books. It was unrealistic. It's true that the characters didn't sound like real teens, but the dialogue was still one of my favorite parts of the show.

I love writing dialogue, and I love reading/hearing great dialogue. Snappy banter, witty retorts, juicy monologues. Yes, please, and thank you. The main purposes of dialogue is either to a) get out plot b) reveal character traits c) expose tension. Lots of writers use workmanlike dialogue: it gets the job done without being distracting. And usually the dialogue is enjoyable to read, even sometimes funny. But then there are writers who go the stylized route. Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Williamson, Kevin Smith, Shonda Rhimes. Their dialogue is heightened and no way would ever get confused with realism.

Olivia Pope in SCANDAL, aka the best show you're not watching with amazing dialogue and trench coats.

High school films especially can get away with this. Some of my favorites -- 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, Heathers, Easy A, Juno, Bring It On, Brick -- feature characters who sound nothing like real teens. They exchange witty banter, infused with unique vernacular, rapid pop-culture references, and intelligence. Again, I'm salivating here. The dialogue is amazing in these films. When I'm reading a book/watching a movie, I don't want to hear realistic teen talk. I am entering a fictional world filled with fictional characters. How they speak should be just as creative as everything else in their world. That's part of the fun!

10 Things I Hate About You is boss when it comes to this. The dialogue in that movie, especially for Kat, was stuffed with sharp one-liners, delicious back-and-forth, and hyper-articulate characters. The film had the sound of Shakespearean language transplanted into high school. (Seriously, I think my SAT verbal scores improved from everything I watched growing up.)

Some choice quotes:
"Has the fact that you're completely psycho managed to escape your attention?"

"Can we, for two seconds, ignore the fact that you're severely unhinged and discuss my need for a night of teenage normalcy?"

"What is it with this chick? She have beer-flavored nipples?"

"Remove head from sphincter, then drive!" 

"People perceive you as somewhat.."
"'Heinous bitch' is the term used most often."

I could go on and on and on and on but yeah, teenagers (and most adults) do not talk this way. So why does it work? Why is this type of whip-smart chatter so prevalent in teen films without being distracting?

Because even though what they're saying is unrealistic, how they're acting is.  And that's the golden rule. The dialogue may be heightened, the plot may be miles from reality, but what characters are feeling and how they're acting must be relatable or else you'll lose your audience. The teens in Dawson's Creek may talk like Rhodes Scholars, but people watching could relate to them and understand the emotion they felt. If your character is talking in sonnets, sure, we'll go with you on that ride. But if his beloved girlfriend cheats on him with his best friend and he just shrugs it off, then we lose interest. Because that is unrealistic and will confuse/frustrate your reader. (note: unless he has a good reason to react the way he does that makes sense within the story and all that jazz, but this is just a broad example)

I believe that creating realistic, relatable characters with heightened, unrealistic dialogue makes the reader experience much more enjoyable. We read books for escape. Watching a show or movie where characters are like us but with better dialogue lets us live vicariously through them. Who doesn't wish they could have witty banter with friends and crushes?

Ok, some more witty banter for the road, courtesy of Easy A:

Woodchuck Todd: [in Woodchuck costume carrying head] Hey Olive.
Olive Penderghast: Oh my God! The illusion is shattered! This is exactly why they put you in the gas chamber if you take your head off at Disney World.
Woodchuck Todd: Actually I think they just, you know, they fire you. You're thinking of Disneyland. Disney World is much more liberal.
Olive Penderghast: Oh yeah! I always forget Disney World went blue in the last election.

How do you feel about dialogue? Are you delighted or distracted by overly articulate teens?