Mid Year Review

Back in January, I wrote a post that was not at all about New Year’s Resolutions because I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. Except that I called it “Resolutions.” Dammit.

And now that we have made it through half of the year — I know, already! — I thought I should take a look back at those ideas I had in January and see how I’m doing.

First, the NaNoWriMo momentum.

*sigh*

I completely lost it. I’ve lost that sense of urgency and speed and “I can do anything.”

I have all kinds of excuses, and mostly they’re good ones, but in the end, they’re excuses.

To remedy this, I have signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo which runs through July. Sure, just like November NaNo, there’s a long holiday weekend and I’m hosting a party, and sure, the kids are home, not just for most days but for ALL OF THEM, but I don’t care. NaNoWriMo gave me discipline and a purpose. It forced me to make use of every spare moment, and to think about my day in actual increments of time:  ten minutes for this, an hour for that… I am one of those people who is more efficient when she is busy, and so this is a good thing for me.

I’ve already busted the curve for my cabin because I’m using it to finish my WIP, so I’m starting out with over 18,000 words under my belt which puts our cabin average words per day at well over 12,000. *snortle* Yeah, try to beat that, other cabins. I don’t actually know why the website doesn’t let you put in a starting point and ending point that accounts for stuff like this.

Second, read the books in my house before bringing in more.

I knew this would be a tough one, because the library is just FILLED with amazing books and PEOPLE WILL NOT STOP WRITING! And many of these people are my friends, dammit. Right now, in fact, I’m trying to write a review of “Invisible Monsters,” the sequel to Joshua McCune’s “brutal” (his word, not mine) debut novel “Talker 25.” (Read my review here). It’s hard, because the sequel is even more brutal than the first, if that’s possible (I still love you, Josh). So I’m also reading an update of Jane Austen’s “Emma” and just starting a non-fiction book called “Make It Stick” about the science of learning, because not only do I have kids who are students but a big part of what I do is teaching. Only one of those books — the McCune — actually belongs to me, and it was not in my house on January 1st.

Not keeping the resolution very well. I apologize profusely to Becky, Trudy, Cedric, Melissa, and all others whose books are sitting in my TBR pile.

Next up, donate books.

Oh, I’m doing really well on this one!

Well, not ME exactly. But the kids are doing great, or, rather, I’m doing really well on their behalf.

Within the past month, I have taken three giant boxes of books to the library.

*high fives all around*

Really, all this means is that the books that are currently in baskets or in piles on the floor will soon achieve the honor of shelf space. But we’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about victory!

That, and the really cool fact that our books may replace some of the tattered copies in the library’s collection. The librarian told us that yesterday.

That’s even better than going straight to the fundraiser shelves.

OK, moving on to the next item, which is read a classic.

That is not even on the horizon at the moment, although I had pegged it for the summer. At the moment, although I am proceeding at a pretty fair clip through my summer “to do” list, said list is two pages long and seems to grow faster than I can shorten it.

“Middlemarch” may have to wait. At this point, I can’t even see us getting away on a vacation until August, and all we want to do is take a road trip to Santa Fe. Which is a six hour drive. Seriously.

Last item on the list:  buy new makeup.

Yay! I did that, way back in January, as you can see if you look at my comment in response to @ravingreader. That doesn’t mean that I’ve had much occasion to wear it, though.

As it always seems to be, you win some, you lose some. I’m losing some of the big ones, though, and I’m counting on July’s Camp NaNoWriMo to get me back on track. What about you? Now that we’re halfway through the year, how are you feeling? Is it flying by or dragging along? Are you accomplishing your goals or lagging? Are you where you expected to be or not? I’m definitely not where I expected to be, but now — this June and July — I am pushing hard to get back to where I want to be. Let’s go!

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MG Must Read: The Stars of Summer (Gladys Gatsby 2) by Tara Dairman

Poor Gladys. She had no idea what she was in for when she became friends with rich, popular Charissa Bentley.

For her twelfth birthday, not only does Gladys get a super dinner out in New York City — naturally, at the place her restaurant critic alter-ego “G. Gatsby” has been tasked with reviewing — but she gets the “funnest” gift ever:  free admission for the summer at Charissa’s family’s day camp, Camp Bentley. A whole summer of swimming, and crafts, and sports… Gladys can’t imagine anything worse. But Charissa has another surprise in store:  as a CIT (counselor in training), Gladys will spend her mornings working, and with Gladys’ talents as a cook, where else should she be assigned but the camp’s kitchen?

Mrs. Spinelli rules the camp kitchen like a nasty school lunch lady out of every kid’s nightmare. “Salty meat on white bread and nothing too fancy, that’s what the kids go for,” she says (p. 71). In Mrs. Spinelli’s kitchen, the apples are all mushy Red Delicious, the lettuce is wilted Iceberg, and the cheese is only American. Gladys despairs.

To make matters worse, Camp Bentley has a celebrity guest that summer:  teen superstar Hamilton Herbertson, whose recent best-selling novel Zombieland USA has given him a rather enlarged ego.

As a writer working towards getting published, I personally hate Hamilton Herbertson more than anyone should ever hate a character in a children’s book.

This kid… ugh. I can’t even.

Anyway.

Adding complications to complexity, Gladys is assigned a Herculean — perhaps impossible — restaurant review assignment: she has to find the best hot dog in New York, a city known for its umbrella’d hot dog carts on every corner.

I won’t spoil any of the many delights there are to be found as the book unfolds with Gladys adjusting to life at summer camp, creatively fulfilling the challenge of her hot dog assignment (did you know just how many different ways there are to make and top a hot dog?) and dealing with both jealous coworkers and the pangs of twelve year old friendships.

Even more than the first Gladys novel “All Four Stars,” “The Stars of Summer” is about relationships and how complicated they can be. How you can love your friends but feel uncomfortable with how they behave. How your parents can be a frustrating and comforting at the very same time. How you can like someone but not “like” like him. Or maybe you do but you can’t admit it because of how your friends might react. Gladys takes very real, very believable steps into these deeper waters of middle school emotion without losing a scrap of her smart, funny self.

One of the great things about these books is that the author imbues them with a touch of humor for the adults who may be reading along or reading aloud with younger readers. Rory Graham, the brash host of “Purgatory Pantry,” resembles a female Gordon Ramsey of “Hell’s Kitchen” with long green-polished nails. At a critical juncture in the book, her guest chef on the show is Christoph von Schnitz, the Sausage King of Dusseldorf. The tagline of his trendy new hot dog restaurant? “The Best Wurst in New York!” (Full disclosure:  I almost snorted breakfast cereal out of my nose when I read that). Not that kids won’t get it — some of them will — but it adds to the pleasure in a book when there are layers of meaning. (The saga of Hamilton’s writing career, and his big ego, are definitely meaningful to anyone who has ever struggled and striven to get a book published. Thank you, Tara.)

Another thing I love about these books, and about Gladys, is how masterfully the author avoids the pitfalls of writing a “strong female character.” Too many authors have decided that in order to be “strong,” a female character has to be, well, a boy. She has to be tough, unemotional, and rigid, and of course, she has to wield some kind of weapon. For too long, strength has been defined in children’s literature as masculinity. No. Women have their own strength, and Gladys has that in spades. She knows her own mind. She comes to grips with her fears and faces them. She relies on her friends and finds commonality with those who seem to be completely unlike herself. She won’t let anyone or anything stop her from getting what she wants. That’s a strong female character. That’s a role model for our girls.

Plus, this book made me laugh out loud, and it made me cry a little. Can’t beat that.

 

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Rain and Transitions

On Sunday night, I went with my family and some friends to Denver City Park to see an outdoor jazz concert. We brought a picnic dinner and snacks, and were having a lovely time.

Here’s a picture of our spot, looking across the lake towards the Denver Museum of Nature and Science:

Denver city park 1

In true Colorado form, a storm began to gather on the horizon, and after the month we’ve had — Rain. Every. Single. Day. — we were wary but in the manner of people set up for an evening outside, we willed it away. “Oh, but there’s blue sky all around us.” “It won’t make it here.” “The wind is blowing the other way.”

It didn’t take long for the same view to look like this:

Denver city park 3

Undeterred, we partied on. Even those first flashes of lightning couldn’t dampen our spirits. There was wine. The band did their sound check and we ate our dinner.

And then the first raindrops fell.

Then there were more. And more.

We got out the jackets and the umbrellas. We stowed the food and got out the blankets. We laughed at how cold the rain was.

Some people dashed for the main house behind us, but we mocked them. Wimps. What was a little rain?

It rained harder, the drops bigger.

My husband and son started singing  “We all live in a yellow submarine…” and the group sitting next to us chimed in. It was kind of funny.

The rain got harder and colder. We huddled under our umbrellas.

My husband and daughter were sitting on low chairs right in front of me, so their umbrella was basically in my lap. The water drained down the umbrella and onto my right thigh, running down my leg and into my shoe. There was a wall behind me, so I couldn’t move back, and people on both sides of me, so I couldn’t shift aside. Meanwhile, the water from MY umbrella was rolling down the back of my pants.

I sipped my wine and laughed as thunder rolled overhead.

Tiny pieces of ice fell into my wine cup. Oh great. Hail.

At one point, I looked around and we were pretty much the only group still left on the lawn. My friend Cedric was sitting in a puddle about two inches deep.

I was hysterical with laughter. I literally could not stop laughing. I was shaking with it — that and the cold. I mean, how stupid was this? How ridiculous?

Finally, my husband and daughter and I made a run for it to the big house. Inside, it was crowded but upbeat. Lots of dogs and kids. Some people had set up their picnics on the concrete floor and we thought, “Oh, that’s what we should have done!” One group had internet and was streaming the NBA finals. My sneakers were so full of water, they oozed and bubbled when I moved.

I should probably tell you now that there are two things I really, really hate. One is being wet, and the other is being cold.

Yeah.

After about 45 minutes of this, they cancelled the show. We gathered our courage, went back out into the rain, and dragged our sopping selves back to the cars. The rest of our night was much better, with tea and a fireplace and dry clothes.

The thing is, as a writer, this was great. This happened on Sunday. Monday was my birthday. Water is metaphorical — change, transition, cleansing, all that good stuff. If I were writing a novel about someone’s life and they were facing a birthday, I’d love to drench ’em in a rainstorm. I’d fill the pages with great language about washing away the past and facing the future with renewed purpose and it would be so Jodi-Picoult-and-Nicholas-Sparks meaningful…

But that doesn’t happen in real life. It was just a coincidence. An intriguing one, but a coincidence.

Nevertheless, I hope that when I’m a fantastically famous author — which, coincidentally, is going to begin THIS YEAR — my biographer makes something of out of this.

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The Pitfalls of Prequels: Or, One Way “The Hobbit” Failed Us

George Lucas could tell Peter Jackson a thing or two about the pitfalls of prequels.

I’m only going to talk about one of the problems, and that’s as a storyteller, not as a fan. Because as a fan, I could go on and on, and none of us wants that.

The problem that struck me hardest – practically slapping me in the face repeatedly – was the lack of continuity of the storyline surrounding Legolas and its violation of the pact between writer and reader (or in this case, filmmaker and audience) known as the “willing suspension of disbelief.” You and the author are partners in your own self-deception:  you agree that, for the length of time that you are involved in it, you will believe everything the author tells you (magic rings are real) and in return, the author will not mess with your trust by doing anything so stupid or outrageous (suddenly changing what the ring does) that you can’t possibly strain your credulity any further.

As long as this pact is maintained, fiction works. When this logic is broken, we get a feeling like, “There’s something wrong here” or worse, “That’s it, I’m done with this story.” This can happen when a hero suddenly develops powers we never saw him have in order to save the day, or where a character acts in a bizarre way in order to advance the plot, or a simple question that would resolve everyone’s problems remains unasked (as in every bad romantic comedy ever). You find yourself throwing the book across the room or shouting at the screen in frustration, right?

And so we come to Legolas and his violation of the pact.

First of all, he is simply and quite obviously older, even though these films take place approximately seventy-five years before the events of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) films. Elves are not supposed to age but unfortunately that does not apply to humans. Poor Orlando Bloom.

But as jarring as his physical appearance was, it is nothing to the betrayal of CHARACTER that takes place.

In LOTR, Legolas arrives at Rivendell as his father’s representative to the Council of Elrond. But at that point he doesn’t show any recognition of hobbits generally or of Bilbo specifically despite the fact that they had had this rollicking adventure together. Because, of course, they hadn’t. Legolas was inserted into the Hobbit narrative when it became a film so that – what? More girls would show up? When is Hollywood going to understand that lots of women love fantasy and sci-fi and we don’t need a pretty face to be drawn in? (Not to mention how many women were going to show up for Martin Freeman. Or for Benedict Cumberbatch’s mere voice. Poor Hollywood. You just don’t get women. At all.)

But worse, unimaginably worse, is the destruction of his innocence. Legolas has two beautiful moments in LOTR when he witnesses death. When Gandalf falls in Moria, and again when Boromir dies, Legolas is stunned like the others, but his grief has a complexity to it: this is an immortal being confronting mortality. He is unaccustomed to it. In fact, in the words of the director/writers’ commentary track, he has never witnessed it before, nor has he witnessed other people’s suffering in the face of it. And give the young Orlando Bloom credit: he displays this bewilderment and awe in his eyes, on his face, in his body.

But wait. Here we are in the Hobbit films and Legolas is surrounded by death. Not just death, but slaughter on a massive scale. At the Battle of the Five Armies, the ground is littered with bodies – elves, dwarves, men and even animals – and when Thranduil, Legolas’ father, walks among them up to his knees in carnage, he is nearly expressionless. Numb. As are we. It’s too much to take in.

Not only has Legolas participated in this horrific slaughter, earlier in the same film, he describes to Tauriel how his mother was captured and killed by the Witchking of Angmar.

This Legolas is fully familiar with loss and death, both mass destruction and personal pain.

This Legolas would not have reacted as that Legolas did when Gandalf fell and when Boromir died. He would have shown a different quality to his sadness. He would not have been desolate in the same way because it would not have been new to him. He would not have been experiencing it for the first time.

This hardened, battle-scarred, world-weary Legolas – this GROWN UP Legolas – doesn’t belong in the Hobbit. He can’t be there, because then he would have been there in LOTR, but he wasn’t. The future can’t be different just because you filmed it first.

You violated the pact, Mr. Jackson.

Perhaps I felt this more because I had just watched all the LOTR movies before watching the final Hobbit movie, or perhaps it’s because of my obsessively detailed memory; perhaps most people wouldn’t notice this change in Legolas’ character. Perhaps Jackson and his cowriters were counting on the latter. I doubt it though; LOTR fans are among the most obsessive in the world.

And anyway, just because someone doesn’t notice that you cheated doesn’t make it right.

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A Wrinkle In Revising, Or Why I Haven’t Read The New Pages of A Wrinkle In Time

As you know if you’ve hung around here for any length of time, the single most formative book of my youth was Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” Originally published in 1962, it is a Newbery Medal winner and a classic of children’s literature. Simply put, it tells the story of Margaret (Meg) Murry and her quest to find her father who has been mysteriously missing for years. She is aided in this fantastic journey across space and time by her precocious little brother Charles Wallace, a jock named Calvin who has surprising hidden depths, and three odd women who are a fascinating spin on every trio of wise/weird/wyrd women that literature and mythology have ever created. And her dog is named for a character in Hamlet, so, there you go.

I was this close to naming my daughter some version of Meg. This close.

Thus, I was intrigued to find out that the Wall Street Journal had printed some “new” pages of the book. Apparently, Ms. L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte had discovered about three pages of writing in an unpublished, typewritten draft and those pages are now out there for fans like me to devour.

The Journal article discusses the political aspect of these pages – how they talk about the seductiveness of security and the danger that it poses to a democracy; highly relevant to our times, no? – but my reaction was much more that of a writer than of a reader.

Oh, God, what if someone found some of my crappy writing – or even some of my GOOD writing – that I had decided to cut from a published novel, and then decided to publish it anyway? After I was long gone and had no say in it?

This is a world of “special extended edition” DVDs (because nine+ hours of The Lord of the Rings was not nearly enough) and outside-the-covers apocrypha (J.K. Rowling says Dumbledore is gay!) and Stephen King’s add-backs to “The Stand” special edition so that the novel now tops 1,000 pages (I’ll admit, I own it but haven’t read it). I do understand the desire to devour more author content, to “know” what the author was thinking about every little thing in the stories that we love. Believe me, I have watched my LOTR special edition DVDs over and over and I always wish there was more. But let’s not lose sight of the creative process either. A big part of writing is knowing what not to say.

Interestingly, the Journal article says “cutting [the pages] was the right decision, one that strengthened the narrative.”

No kidding. You’re making my point here.

She and her editor would have weighed and considered the impact of those cut pages. They would have thought about the blatantly political terms of the section and the heavy-handed message it conveyed to her audience, and they made the decision not to include it, just for that reason. That’s why you edit and revise, not once but several times: to streamline and strengthen your work. To make it the best it can possibly be.

While these pages are interesting as far as they give insight into Ms. L’Engle’s political views, and while they may tell us something about her process as a writer, we need to understand and respect her decision as a writer not to include them in her final work.

I’m glad to see that her publisher, Macmillan, has “no plans to include the deleted passage in new editions.” That is as it should be.

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Lessons Learned From Acting Shakespeare – Part Two

Saturday, March 14, 2015, was the last day of my Shakespeare acting class. It was amazing.

Last week, I wrote a post about my impressions and feelings about the class based upon my experiences in the prior weeks leading up to that final class. This week, I want to add some thoughts based on that final class.

I am not cut out for this whole acting thing.

Let me go back in time, and I think you’ll understand.

When I was in college, I was the stage manager for a production of “The Lion In Winter.” I went to every rehearsal, and I knew that play inside and out – lines, blocking, everything.

One day, the actor who played Alais wasn’t there, and the director asked me to stand in for her in a scene. Easy peasy, right? I had to watch the other actors, say one line, and leave.

King Henry II and Queen Eleanor are having a knock-down-drag-out argument about and around Alais and then Henry says something to Alais like, “Go to my chamber,” and she says, “I’ll be waiting when you want me,” and leaves the stage.

I was so overcome with the emotions flying between the actors that when Robb (Henry) turned to me and said his line, all I could see was the fury in his eyes and I panicked and fled. I was in the wings before it occurred to me that I had a line to say and I had to stop myself from going back out to say it.

So the whole emotional sharing on stage thing is not me. I have a really hard time with it. Letting someone get into my space, or yell at me, or even look at me closely – this is not something I enjoy. When I said that this class was getting me out of my comfort zone, I meant that quite literally. I am physically uncomfortable with the whole concept of being up there and doing these things.

I am amazed I actually went through with this class at all.

Working without a net is good, but it’s better if you let someone spot you.

Memorization was optional in this class, which was a great stress reliever. As I said last week, these speeches are hard and there’s something so comforting in knowing you’ve got the words RIGHT THERE in your hand even if you don’t ever need them. There are drawbacks, of course: it restricts your gestures and distracts your audience.

However, as I described in last week’s blog, it is not easy to keep all of those words straight, especially under the stress of performance. So our good teacher Anne said that for the performances, we should hand our speeches to someone in the group to prompt us if we get lost.

What a difference that made for me.

Just knowing that Trudy was holding onto my paper for me, ready to supply me the words if I had one of my “Oh, shit!” moments again, made it possible for me to get all the way through without stopping, without blanking out.

I should have known.

It’s always better to have a safety net. You’re better off with a team, not trying to go it alone.

“A little terror is fine…”

That is a quote from my teacher. When she sent us an email detailing the arrangements for the final performances, I had replied to the group, “Am I the only one who is slightly terrified?” She replied, “A little terror is fine – an adrenaline boost, but don’t let it get the best of you!”

At the final class, we did a run through of all of the scenes and monologues before the final performances, and sure enough, everyone had issues.

But then, lo and behold, the guests were allowed in (the CSF Outreach coordinator and some family members) and we ran through it again… and it was marvelous! For me at least, the terror settled into a sense of “You HAVE to do this!”

First you crawl, then you leap, then you fly.

I’ve been trying to think of something to compare this to in terms of the learning curve, and I’ve come up with nothing. In the beginning, it is very slow going, like slogging through waist-deep waves at the ocean. You’re trying to do everything at once and end up doing none of it very well.

Even last week, at the penultimate class, we all had issues – some of us serious ones – that the whole group pitched in to try to fix. What, exactly, does Duke Orsino mean when he launches into the whole “O Spirit of Love…” part of his speech? How do you give a list of things variety and verve? Where, in that long string of words, can you take a breath?

But what is amazing is how suddenly and abruptly we all took a great leap forward. The difference between the final performances and the first read-through – or even the rehearsals the week before – was astounding. We weren’t Oscar-worthy by any means, but we were better than we’d ever been. In control, funny or impassioned or fiendish, we spoke the words and conveyed the emotion and didn’t overdo. We had a long way to go and we knew it, but we had come such a very long way already. We wished for another week – two, three – to keep going: to gain more confidence, to try something different, to keep working and striving…

I know I’m not cut out for acting, that it’s not a calling for me, that the terror is real and I’ll probably never shake it, but being in a group like that, working together, supporting each other through the fear, pushing through the challenges…

That is priceless, and worth every second, and THAT I would do again. In a heartbeat.

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Lessons Learned From Acting Shakespeare – Part One

My friend and writing group member, Trudy (@mabelgygi), convinced me to take a Shakespeare acting class with her. It’s an adult outreach program at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival (@COShakes) in Boulder, Colorado, where I see all my Shakespeare plays every summer. Trudy signed up as soon as she found out about it. She’s big on feeding her creativity and caring for her inner artist, whereas I’m always worried about all the stuff on my “To Do” list and stagnating in routine. But I have pushed myself outside of my comfort zone from time to time in the past few years with great results, and so when she mentioned this class and urged me to do it, I said, “Why not?”

Oh, as much as I love it, when it’s my turn to perform, I sure wish I hadn’t!

I will definitely have more to say about this class after Saturday’s final performances, and probably even more after the class is over and the lessons sink in further, but for now, let me just say this:

Acting is hard.

Not Nobel Prize-level science hard, but hard. There is so much to balance in your mind at once, it’s nearly impossible to keep it all together.

What’s so hard?

Let’s start with the obvious:  the nerves of getting up in front of a room full of people. They always say that people name public speaking as their greatest fear, and in fact, several of my classmates are in this class to improve their public speaking confidence. Once all eyes are on you, your thoughts flee, and your hands feel like parasites temporarily attached to your body. If they stay at your sides, you think you must appear stiff and awkward, and if you gesture, you feel like you must be flailing like an octopus.

Then, there are the words. Memorization is hard enough, especially as you get older (ahem), and memorizing Shakespeare is an entirely different task. I can talk till I’m blue in the face about how his language is in fact modern English, the same language we speak today, but the reality is that his plays are poetry, the grammar is often unfamiliar or tortured to fit the meter, and some of his words are archaic or made up. It’s not like memorizing Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. Particularly in the speeches, where a sentence may stream across four or five or six lines, you may not have a place to breathe, and you may forget where your sentence began by the time you get to the end.

Did I mention that the primary focus of this class is for each of us to present a monologue of at least twelve lines?

Once you’ve got the words down, you get up in front of the class and find that words + nerves = rushing. We all are so determined just to GET THROUGH IT that we spew forth a string of Shakespearean babble. The words are all there, but there’s no emotion behind them. Or there’s one emotion:  anger, or surprise, or seductiveness, or depression. No variation, no subtlety, no nuance. Just one big blast of words and feeling, and we’re so relieved we’ve gotten through and conveyed SOMETHING.

And then there’s movement. Somehow, we can’t keep still. We rock from foot to foot while we rush through the speech. We flail our hands (or only one of them), but never higher than chest level. Everything is jittery, small, timid, half-hearted. We know we should be moving, but we’re not sure how much, or when, and we’re deathly afraid of being still. Why? Why are we terrified of stillness, of slowness?

I don’t know, but we are.

The teachers are great. It is we students who have trouble absorbing the lessons: slow down; trust the words; plant your feet; if you’re going to move, MOVE.

In my head, I am Helen Freakin’ Mirren. I own that stage, and I speak every word with passion. I never forget a line and I finish with tears in my eyes…and the audience is in tears too.

When I performed last week in rehearsal, I forgot my words many times, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end. I did have one moment that my fellow students reacted to really well but I was so surprised by their reaction, I instantly forgot my lines. Ugh. As I worked, the teacher made suggestions, and I tried to make changes, but that meant thinking, which meant losing my grip on something else:  emotional connection, or memorized words, or gestures…

Rehearsal is the key, isn’t it? Doing it again and again. But what worries me is that I’m just doing the same thing again and again, not getting any better.

I’ll let you know after tomorrow’s final class.

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The Perfect Austen Man

I watched “Northanger Abbey” (2007) the other night. Again. Because, why not? How can you resist JJ Feild and Felicity Jones? (And it bears noting that as of this month, two of the actresses in this production have gone on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Actress:  Felicity Jones and Carey Mulligan. So there’s that, as well.)

After it was over, I couldn’t help but consider — again — Henry Tilney as an exemplary leading man. Charming; intelligent; kind; forward thinking (especially for a clergyman); good humored; gentle, playful and protective with the women he loves:  quite a catch indeed.

Which got me to thinking further:  Austen’s heroes are, for the most part, kind and solid men. The kind of men you can rely on in a pinch. Men who will wait around for you for as long as it takes. Good guys. The kind of men women always say they want.

So what does it say about us, as modern women, that Mr. Darcy is considered to be the pinnacle of Austen’s men?

He’s not a good guy. He’s proud, arrogant and, at times, mean. Seriously:  “I’d as soon call her mother a wit”? That’s cruel to two women at once, neither of whom is there to defend herself, and one of whom wouldn’t have even realized she’d just been insulted. He’s hard to talk to; every conversation is like dragging a donkey cart through the mud. “Forty miles of good road? Yes, I’d say that’s an easy distance.” Ugh. You really want to engage with this for the rest of your life? You’d always have to be on edge, ready to strike back with some bon mot, some sparkle of rapier sharp wit, some devastating comment. To paraphrase Beatrice in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Darcy may be fine for Sundays, but you’d want a different husband for every day wear.

Darcy needs fixing; he admits as much himself. And we all know that, fancy words aside, he’s not “fixed” at the end of the novel. He’ll relapse and need more work. Authors have made a cottage industry of P&P continuation novels which we’ve all consumed voraciously just to watch the lovebirds struggle to maintain that delicate equilibrium of the final pages.

I ask you, ladies, is this really what you imagine the perfect man — the perfect relationship — to be? A life of constant struggle, conflict and one-upsmanship? Always reminding your man to be his best self? How long before that joy (“And so I might still be if not for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth”) grew into something intolerable (“How long are you going to hold THAT over my head, woman?”).

Consider the alternative. Or, rather, the alternatives.

Now, we can set aside a couple of gentlemen right away. That Edward/Edmund fellow from “Mansfield Park” is distinguished only by the fact that he was once played in a film by Jonny Lee Miller. He’s not nearly as interesting as the Crawfords, and for heaven’s sake, he and Fanny are practically brother and sister! As my niece would say, “Ewwwwwww!” And I’m not big on Mr. Knightley either. He’s so patronizing and paternal towards Emma, and so much older than her, it’s really rather creepy. Plus, he and Emma have this strange mom-and-dad thing going on towards HER father, the whole thing puts me off.

But…

There’s Colonel Brandon, who devotes himself wholeheartedly to the women he loves, even when there is no hope of any return of affection. There is Captain Wentworth, whose loyalty and honor is as central to “Persuasion” as Anne Elliot’s. There is Mr. Tilney, whose virtues I’ve listed above. Mr. Ferrers is rather dull, it’s true, but you have to admire a man who is willing to shackle himself to Lucy Steele on a matter of principle.

Not a fixer-upper in the bunch.

So why, oh modern women, do you go sighing over the difficult, the challenging, the “I can change him” man instead of one of these kind, stable, amiable men?

Oh, right. Colin Firth. I’ll shut up now.

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Research: Finding the Fun

One thing about writing historical fiction:  no matter how much you know (or think you know) about your time period, you will have to do research.

It may be as simple as stopping, mid-sentence, to wonder, “Did the word ‘substantial’ exist in 1485? Or ‘dither’? Or ‘launch’?” Yes, to all of those; no, to “charade.”

It may be something as frustrating as trying to understand just what, exactly, is meant by the word “kirtle,” a ubiquitous article of women’s clothing in the medieval world. Is it worn under or over another garment? Yes to both, sometimes. What is it made out of, and what does it look like? That… depends. All I’ve been able to establish is that I’m pretty sure I’ve been misusing the term.

Last week, I was looking for music. Try to imagine a worse search: in a time when very little was written down, what record can there possibly be for music? And how would we know what it sounded like, or what instruments were used?

Thankfully, the internet has made research a much easier task. Colleges and universities have put their extensive collections of ancient documents on line, so rather than having to fly or drive to search in person, all I have to do is Google and click. It’s freakin’ amazing.

And I am lucky in my friends. I have connections with other writers who are history mavens, research goddesses and librarians, so when I don’t even know where to start looking (as with medieval music), they can point me in the right direction.

I asked fellow historical fiction writer J. Anderson Coats for help with finding a song for my novel. What I envisioned was a scene where my main character and her love interest were (naturally) flirting and he was trying to get her to sing with him. J recommended a few websites to try, and I spent a good part of one afternoon hopping around looking at medieval and Renaissance ballads.

This is more fun than you might think. Or, at least, it is when you are someone like me.

Especially when you find a song called “The Batchelers Resolution” (original spelling) with the subtitle: “Have among you now, Widowes or Maydes,/For I come a woing as Fancie perswades./I must have a Wife, be she Older or Younger,/For I cannot, nor will not lye alone any longer.”

I can’t describe the thrill that went through me. This is so exactly the sort of attitude displayed by Shakespeares’ Petruchio as he waltzes into the square in Padua at the beginning of the “Taming of the Shrew.” There’s even a verse about how he hopes he doesn’t get stuck with a wife who is a scold, because those are just the worst kind of women and he’d hate to be brow-beaten and controlled by his wife but heck, at this point he’d take anything because he just wants to be married already.

Oh. My. God.

Needless to say, the scene I had planned — the two of them flirting and singing together — is no longer being written. No, there is a very different thing happening now, and I’m still mulling it over:  what his intention is in singing this song knowing she will hear him, what her reaction is, whether he will see her reaction… All I know is, it will enrich the novel tremendously.

Yeah, research is work, but I’m so glad I do it.

 

 

 

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Resolutions

I am not big on New Year’s resolutions. They are almost always recipes for failure. But I have a few ideas this year that are not so ambitious that they cannot be achieved.

1.  Commit to, and carry forward, the lessons of my NaNoWriMo experience.

I got a lot out of NaNoWriMo in 2014. More than I expected; more than just the sloppy first draft of a short novel. I got so much out of it that I had to blog about it twice: here, and here. So, okay, it’s January 5th and I haven’t written A WORD in weeks but I am thinking. Contemplating. Ruminating. And when my kids go back to school tomorrow, I will dive back in. I have a plan. And motivation. And I know I can do just about anything, having beaten that NaNo novel into submission.

Boo-yah.

2. Read the books in my house before bringing in more.

I’ve already failed at this one, since I’ve got three bright, shiny library books on the table over there just waiting to be read. But! Bright shiny new books!

Seriously, though.

There are dozens of books in my basement and dotted around the house that I own or, worse, borrowed from friends. Some of these books I’ve had for years. And I HAVE NOT READ THEM.

This is the year I will remedy that situation.

3. Donate the books I don’t read anymore.

And when I’m done, I will get those books, along with other books on my shelves that I’m just holding onto for various reasons, off my shelves and into someone else’s hands.

Making room for more books. Mwah ha ha!

4. Read a classic.

When we leave school, we tend to leave off the kind of challenging reading we were forced to do there. See, there it is in the word “forced” as in, “I’d never read this book if someone weren’t making me.” I’m no fool, and I understand that I will never, ever read “Moby Dick” no matter how many times people tell me that it’s amazing and well written and… whatever it is. Nor will I read the seven million pages of “Les Miserables” or “War and Peace.” I just won’t. But there is a great benefit to reading challenging works that stretch us outside our usual zones of comfort and complacency.

This year, I will read “Middlemarch.” My background in literature is light on weighty Victorian novels. Plus, a few years back a woman named Rebecca Mead wrote a memoir called “My Life in Middlemarch” which was well reviewed and which caught my interest, but it seems pointless to read the memoir without reading the novel first.

5. Buy new makeup.

Yes, this one seems frivolous, but it’s necessary. I don’t wear makeup every day, or even once a week usually, but still, a woman needs certain basics and I had a vague idea that they should be replaced from time to time. So I checked, and Holy Maybelline, Batman! I am overdue. My most recent purchase of eyeshadow was for a wedding I went to enough years ago that they are already divorced and moved on to other people. I was so proud of myself for replacing my mascara last year (the previous one was probably three years old at that point), and now I find that I’m supposed to replace it every three to six months! So, yeah, it’s time for some new stuff.

What are your goals for this year? What are you excited about accomplishing? Let’s do stuff together!

 

 

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