Does stupid sell?

As dylanmcpreviously noted, both Julia and I have newly completed manuscripts we are attempting to market the old fashioned way, that being the agent and conventional publisher route. We have saleable books in every respect of the word. Well written, with interesting characters and plots that tie in with popular culture. Julia’s in a form of ghost hunting story with light humor. Mine is a kid shooter book that explores what these horrendous deeds do to the people who are often forgotten after the fact: the friends and family members of the victims. It honestly amazes me that neither of us has received more than a mere blink of interest from agents, which once again begs the age old question: what do today’s agents want?

Since I am sort of a TV addict, I’m going to use a current television series to tie into the title of this post. The show is Hostages, currently airing on CBS. The show has an interesting premise at first glance: a doctor who was scheduled to operate on the president is forced to pledge she will kill said president in order to save herself and her family, all of whom are being held hostage by a rouge FBI agent. The problem is, this show is being stretched over a series of 15 episodes when it should have been, at best, a 90 minute made-for-TV film. Each week something more ridiculous happens to keep said hostages from escaping the clutches of the evil FBI guy. Last week’s gem gave viewers (the few who are left) the reason why this seemingly competent, decorated FBI agent has gone ballistic. For those unfamiliar with the show, which probably includes most of you reading this, the explanation was that his wife is dying of cancer but her cancer is curable if she gets a bone marrow transplant. Alas, there is only one match in the entire world: her estranged father, who—Are you ready?—just happens to be the president. To quote the infamous Forest Gump, stupid is as stupid does. So, after that “shocking” revelation, the doctor becomes sympathetic to her hostage holder and begs him to give her some time to find another suitable bone marrow donor.

So now for the question on all of your minds: why in the world am I still watching this loony show? Pure curiosity. I want to see how many more stupid plot twists (a generous description, I realize) this group of writers (again, a generous description) were capable of coming up with. I can’t help but wonder how much longer it will be before FBI man and Killer Doc wind up in bed together. That, in turn, could lead to a plot to kill Doc’s husband, who, for the most part, is the only sane character in the entire show. Even the actors, including the handsome and talented Dylan McDermott, seem anxious for this thing to just end.

And finally, to answer my own question, yes, I guess stupid does sell, as long as you know how to wrap it in a fancy package and top it off with a pretty red bow.

Patience, Virtue, Morality, and other lost arts

timeWe live in the instant age, which we can tie directly to the mesmerizing advancement of technology. On the surface, this makes our lives easier. When I first began writing, I worked on a manual typewriter that belonged to my grandmother. In my twenties, I was thrilled to have an electric typewriter! So much easier on my fingers, and a lot better looking result on the page. When I got my first computer in the late 1980s, a used Atari 800, which came with a dot matrix printer, I thought I was in heaven. No more carbon copies, no more typing over mistakes with white tape or using white paint to cover them up! Talk about the wave of the future.

By 1994, home computers were becoming commonplace. Our first was a Pac Bell 486. I barely knew how to turn it on, let alone use it. So I read the manuals for DOS and Windows 3.1 cover to cover until I understood how it worked. It soon became an everyday tool in my writing and a homework helper for my girls. Shortly thereafter, the dial up internet was born. Bills in excess of $50 a month, just to connect and stay online for a few hours a week. Hours to download any type of program or update. Disconnects along the way so you had to start all over.

Today, I have the majority of my music collection, which is extensive, on a digital “cloud” located somewhere in Apple’s Universe. Music that is accessible instantly on my iPhone with the swipe of a finger, or, if I want to get really fancy, via voice command to Siri. Speak into the microphone, and she finds the song and plays it. If I miss a TV show, most are available via aps from the networks. I can swipe my finger again, and watch a full hour long show. Or a movie. I can watch video clips of everything to basketball instant replays to the latest news conference in Washington. Amazing. No other way to describe it.

And as a writing instrument, the modern computer is far more elaborate than I ever could have imagined. When I was working on Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in the late 1990s, there was next to nothing insofar as research available on the internet. I had to check out books from the library, look at magazines and newspapers on microfilm, and then either photocopy or write down in longhand the information I was researching. Hoop Lore was done about 50/50, as more and more info became available on the net. If I were writing a non-fiction book today, I would expect that 98% of my research would be done from my office chair.

All of that is well and good. But as technology evolves ever faster, we are beginning to see the downside. It reminds me of the series finale of the TV show, Battlestar Galactica. (The Sci-fi network’s remake, not the original.) In that final episode, we learn that several characters have lived through numerous lives, with the society in which they live always ending the same way: technology evolves to the point where it destroys humanity.

Now, I’m not saying we’re going to be taken over by a mean generation of robotic Siris or anything like that. But, it is impossible not to see the effect this instant age is having on the younger generation. Think about that silly AT&T Universe ad campaign currently airing. A 6 or 7 year old boy rocking in chairs with his grandfather talking about how “back in the day” they had to watch TV in the room where it was hooked up. Or, the one that really irks me, the 12 year old boy talking to his brothers about how back in his time, it sometimes took a minute to download a song. I’m not sure who the brains at AT&T are gearing this nonsense toward, but for me, it’s so nauseating I would never consider switching to their service.

As for our day-to-day lives, I have noticed people becoming more and more rude, more and more demanding. They want what they want, and they want it now. (Most don’t want to pay for it either, but that’s a rant for another day.) My husband sees this every day in his contractor’s business. Clients who take months to make up their minds about what they want. Then, when they finally decide, they call him and ask if he can put their kitchens in that afternoon. When he explains others are now waiting ahead of them, many get irate and do whatever they can to spread nasty rumors about his business. I am now seeing the same thing on Ebay. I used to do a lot of selling on there 10-12 years ago. The service was fairly new, and the people using it, buyers and sellers alike, were mostly civil. Others outright friendly. I would estimate that I had trouble with perhaps one out of a hundred customers. Today it’s more like one out of ten. People pay instantly with Paypal, and then expect their package to be sitting on their doorstep the next morning. I wish I could say I’m exaggerating.

Recently, both Julia and I upgraded our computers to systems running Windows 8. Neither of us particularly likes it. It’s very different, geared toward (should have seen this coming) people 20 and under who live their lives walking around checking Facebook and Twitter every five minutes on their phones. When Julia voiced her distaste for this “upgrade” at a writing get-together last week and said she hopes Microsoft dumps it soon, our resident sage, Lesley, said “I don’t think we’re going to go backwards.”

Lesley is right, of course. There’s no going back. Technology changes on a daily basis, and we either strive to change with it or get left behind. I’m sorry to say that there are more and more days where I think I might just opt for the latter.


Larry Hagman’s J. R. Ewing: The villain we loved to hate

US actor Larry Hagman of the TV series "When I read about Larry Hagman’s death in the newspaper, the first thing I did was text my oldest daughter, Carrie.  “Larry Hagman died!” Carrie and I used to watch the original Dallas together every Friday night, and we both love the new update on TNT. Carrie responded a few minutes later with: “I know. Now we will never find out what J.R. was up to this time!”

Carrie’s response really typifies what the character of J. R. Ewing was all about: the towering man in the big white cowboy hat was constantly up to something, and it was never good. It was, however, always interesting—enough so that millions of viewers turned in every Friday night to see his latest scheme unfold. We were rarely disappointed.  J. R. wasn’t above using anyone to get what he wanted, including his own parents. If he had a soft spot, it was his son, John Ross. But even then, he wasn’t above using his boy against his on and off again wife, Sue Ellen, in his latest power grab.

To those of you who weren’t avid Dallas fans, I’m sure J. R. sounds like a terrible character with no redeeming values. The type who, as writers, we are told to avoid using as main characters in our stories at all costs. Why? Because readers supposedly can’t relate to people like J. R., characters who are simply too one-sidedly evil for readers to relate to. Normally, I agree with that rule of thumb. Dallas’s writers must have as well, as initially Hagman was signed to do only six or eight episodes of the show’s debut season back in 1978. Instead, J. R. loomed larger than life for Dallas fans over the course of an amazing 14 year run. Take that, rule of thumb.

There’s little doubt Hagman’s portrayal of J. R. is what led TNT to revive the show this past summer. To the developers’ credit, they were smart enough to include Hagman in the update, as well as Patrick Duffy (J. R.’s righteous little brother), Linda Gray (Sue Ellen, J. R.’s ex-wife), and Ken Kercheval (J. R.’s long-time wannabe nemesis). Early ratings were so strong that another full season was ordered after only a few episodes had aired.  Fortunately for fans, Hagman managed to film enough scenes for six episodes of season two, which will begin to air in January. The show’s writers did an excellent job of blending the old characters with the new generation, enough so that the new Dallas has a good chance of remaining on the air for awhile. Another generation of back-stabbing Ewings. Who could ask for anything more?

Thanks, Larry! And rest in peace, J. R. We will always love you.

LOST: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The other day I was thinking about the special books I’ve read during my lifetime—and by special, I mean those I enjoyed enough to read multiple times. As a young girl, I loved the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys stories and read them countless times during Wisconsin’s hot, humid summers. I also adored every book in the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley—a prized collection that still claims treasured shelf space in my office today. As an adult, my special list includes Ordinary People (Judith Guest), Colony and Outer Banks (Anne Rivers Siddons), Saint Maybe (Anne Tyler), Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), Lost Boys (Orson Scott Card), Hearts in Atlantis and 11-22-63 (Stephen King). Okay, so I haven’t reread the latter yet; I know I will eventually, so it makes the list.

What it is about the books on my adult list that lures me in for a second or third read? Without a doubt, the combination of great storytelling and memorable characters. Which brings me to the heart of this post: Jody and I are watching LOST all the way through for the third time.

As unbelievable as it is, we continue to pick up clues, bits and pieces that make the LOST experience more engaging than ever. We are midway through season 3. So far, we have debated the following: Was Locke taken over by the smoke monster during that first encounter in the jungle, way back in season one’s fourth episode (Walkabout)? Did the monster sense something about John’s character during that meeting that would make inhabiting him an easy task? The first time through, Locke was one of my favorite characters. I loved how he embraced the island as magical, how he believed in hope and destiny. But seeing him now, there are obvious clues he was being manipulated into thinking that way, in much the same way he allowed his father to control his life before the plane crash.

Our other main question is, has Ben relived all of these events before? Is that how he knows so much about the plane crash survivors? We see Desmond moving through time by the second season, which explains how he knows Charlie is going to die. In fact, Desmond’s time travel actually dates back to the first episode of Season 2, where he meets Jack on the stairs of a stadium while running. (“See you in another life, brother.”)

I could detail at least half a dozen more scenarios we have been pondering, but here’s a suggestion: relive the magic that is LOST for yourself and make your own list of questions and possibilities. You’ll be glad you did.

Creating despicable characters: ABC’s V breaks cardinal rule of fiction and gets away with it


All experienced writers know the major villains of our stories must have at least a few likable characteristics in order to for them to seem believable. This is based on the theory that every person, even a serial killer, has some good in him/her. I’ve known a few people (thankfully not serial killers) who I feel challenge that theory, but nonetheless, it is an acceptable rule of fact where fiction writing is concerned. If your villain is one dimensional, with only evil thoughts and deeds to judge, readers are apt to get bored and put your story down.

The first major exception to this rule for me was Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. (I suppose, if you want to stretch things, you could point to his intelligence as being a “good” quality, but given he used that intelligence to kill people kind of wipes that theory away.)  Naturally, the character became even more memorable once he hit the big screen thanks to an incredible performance by Anthony Hopkins.

Many years have passed since Silence of the Lambs hit theaters, but I have finally discovered another exception to the villain rule: the character Anna from ABC’s V. If you aren’t familiar with the show or plotline, the V stands for Visitors, a race of aliens who have descended upon Earth intent on wiping out the human race and taking Earth as their new home. The humans don’t know this, of course. On the surface the Vs look just like humans. Beneath their fake skin, however, they are disgusting lizard creatures with vampire-like jaws and incredibly long tails that are used in various methods of murder.

The Visitors are led by their queen, Anna. She skins her own people to gather information. She imprisons her mother in a dungeon. She uses her daughter as a prostitute.  Her ultimate goal is to find a way to remove humans’ souls so she can convert their empty shells into a slave race. Aptly, the actress who plays this monster, Morena Baccarin, is incredibly creepy looking—pretty on the surface, but with eyes and facial expressions that mirror pure evil.

I sincerely hope V is renewed for a third season so I can keep watching this dreadful woman. Why? Because I desperately want to see her fail. I want her shell game exposed. I want The Fifth Column, a group of humans working against the Vs, to succeed. It’s an elementary conflict, this good versus evil, but there’s nothing elementary about Anna.

Just goes to show, rules truly are made to be broken.

The Drive to Succeed

I used to consider myself a very driven person, the type who maps out goals and does whatever it takes to reach them. Back in the late 80s when I first started writing on a serious basis, meaning I actually believed I could write a book and sell it, I became pretty consumed. I read and read and read. Books on writing, books on editing, books on marketing. Competitive titles within my chosen genre and outside of it. Often times, I was reading three or four books at the same time. In between those efforts, I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I was determined to make it as a writer.

Although my determination hasn’t wavered over the years, it has mellowed. I reached my initial goal of selling a book with the 1999 Nixon-Presley title, and followed that up with Hoop Lore in 2007. What I haven’t done is sell a novel or reach the point where I can make a steady living as a writer. Maybe someday I will, but if not, I don’t plan to spend the rest of my life bemoaning my so-called failures.  

Everyone has goals. Whether those goals are obtainable or not depends largely on how hard we’re willing to work to achieve them. Or more to the point, whether we’re willing to make achieving them the most important thing in our lives. Elvis made music the most important thing in his life and the lifestyle surrounding that thing killed him at 42. Kobe Bryant makes basketball the most important thing is his life. Kobe seems too obsessed with being and staying the best NBA player in the world to get swallowed up by the fast-paced lifestyle that surrounds him the way Elvis did, but I often find myself wondering whether number 24 ever has time for anything but thinking, breathing, and playing basketball.

Say an angel drops out of the sky and offers me the chance for a do-over in which I become a bestselling author. Do I jump at the chance? Sure, until said angel adds that the do-over entails erasing everyone and everything else that has made me who I am today. “You’ll have to concentrate 100% on your writing,” the angel explains. “You won’t have time to get married or raise a family. There’ll be none of those needy, furry, four-legged creatures running all around the house saturating your carpets with hair and your heart with love. You won’t spend sunny mornings puttering around in the garden. You’ll never get addicted to Elvis Presley or the NBA, and you certainly won’t waste your evenings watching old TV shows on DVD.

Say what? No Jody? No Katie or Carrie? No Jose or Michael? No Dr. Kookiehead??? (Please see my Photo Flap page for more information.) Not get hooked on Elvis? No NBA? And what was that about gardening? (“No need,” says the angel, “you live in a condo.”) A condo! No. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. (“Yep. A condo with no TV.”) What? Surely this angel is out of its mind. No basketball? No Mary Tyler Moore and Chuckles the Clown? No J.R. and Dallas? No Star Trek? No Battlestar Galactica? And, oh my God, no re-watching every single episode of LOST four or five more times? Seriously?

“Time’s a wasting,” says the angel, tugging on its wing. “Ten seconds and counting.”

I need only one. “Thanks,” I say, nursing a twinge of regret, “but on second thought, I’m pretty happy with how things turned out the first time around.”

LOST Finale: Final Take

I waited a week before re-watching the LOST finale to see if my first impressions changed, only to find that my original conclusion—the show was all about the characters—is even more obvious the second time through. I had a tear or two in my eyes throughout that first viewing, mostly during the final few scenes. Last night, I was in tears for most of the final hour, and many spots during the first. All of the characters I had grown to love and care about over the past six seasons, each of whom was indeed “lost” when they arrived on the island, found their way to redemption. Jack saved the island, ensuring that life would go on and in the process finally accepted that death is a part of life; Kate proved to herself that she could be a better mother than her mother was; Sayid accepted he was a decent person worthy of forgiveness despite his past transgressions; Sun and Jin proved true love never dies; Sawyer learned how to trust; Hurley became the caretaker he was always meant to be; Locke’s faith was rewarded when he believed enough to let go; Ben learned he still has things to learn.

Fans will continue to debate the overall message of LOST for years to come, and none of the conclusions that evolve from those discussions will be proven right or wrong. We all take away from the show what it gave to us on an individual basis. There is no absolute interpretation—and therein lies the point. As in real life, LOST was about life, death, and everything that happens to us in between.  

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Disney and ABC studios for seeing what I know was an incredibly expensive and risky project through to the end. So often good programs appear and then disappear without warning, leaving fans frustrated. As incredible as it seems, LOST never achieved a regular spot in the top 10 or even top 20 shows for much of its run, yet ABC stuck with it, just as they promised they would. I’ve watched an incredible amount of television over the years, but I can say here and now without a doubt that I never enjoyed any program as much as I did LOST. And so, as Elvis would have said, thank you, ABC. Thank you very much.

The Lost Finale and Why the series didn’t have to end.

I cannot imagine how any writers who have followed the Lost series to its conclusion could fail to have found it a stimulating learning experience.  While viewers debate the meaning behind the Scriptural names, the river of light, the plug in the hole, the various realities, the ancient mythological themes, the time travel and shifting relationships (who loves whom? Should he or she love someone else?), and Connie ( hat off to you, Friend) admires the depth to each character and how each one changes hues, prism-like, with our further scrutiny (ah how like real life, real people), what struck me most, overall, was the use of analogy.

When I say analogy I want to rope in every synonym: allegory, metaphor, variation, symbolism, etc.  Call it any one or more of those things; it is one of the greatest of writer’s trick. (Why I don’t remember to use it myself more often beats the hell out of me.)

It is also the most easily forgotten secret. And such a valuable one, too.  A writer using symbolism can give meaning even when he or she isn’t sure what that meaning really is.  The power is shared between writer and viewer.

Plato knew that when he wrote “The Allegory of the Cave.” (Granted, It might have helped generations of students, perhaps, if a few of the people chained in the cave had fallen in love with each other.) Kafka knew that when he wrote “The Metamorphosis.” (That cockroach can symbolize every teen’s worst phobia, the fear humans have of becoming unrecognizable in extreme old age, or . . . whatever you can think of. ) Allegory/ symbolism, etc. lend themselves to the use of strong imagery, which stays in the memory–and then the story does too. How clever is that?

In my opinion, Lost could have gone on virtually forever.  While survival was always the main theme, the second theme was the characters finding themselves—nothing like the perfect title to remind you what you’re writing about (or help you decide). Obviously the Lost screenwriters had to come to some sort of agreement on an analogy they could use for the “other” reality—firm enough, anyway, so that viewers would see that there was an attempt to explain life and death and tie things up.  But if the writers had not been forced to make some meaning clear in the conclusion, I see no reason why the series could not have gone on for several more seasons.  (Part of me wishes really badly that it had.)

Thanks, writers of Lost.