Monday, May 2, 2016

CHAOS THEORY

A funny thing happens when you become a published author. People start asking you for writing advice.

Personally, I don't presume to offer advice; if I was so smart, it wouldn't have taken me so long to get published!

But one useful thing that writers can do for each other is share experiences and strategies. One writer's process may not work for anybody else, but the act of sharing them lets us know that we're all facing the same challenges, and not just toiling away in wretched isolation. At the very least, it may be encouraging to know that someone else's methods are even more haphazard than your own!

Recently, I was asked two common questions:

1) Do you outline?

I never used to, which is probably why it took me 8 years to produce a book! But these last couple of years, I've been lucky enough to work with editors who ask for fiction proposals (that is: a lengthy synopsis of the plot as a means of getting an idea approved — as opposed to having to write the whole dang book first!) And having now written 3 of them, it makes SO much more sense to actually know where the story is going BEFORE you start writing it!

Still, my process is chaotic. I start with a doc of Notes, where I put random details that occur to me about storyline, characters, setting, backstory, whatever. Pretty soon, I start another doc called Outline, where I pick out the most important notes and file them in some sort of chronology, to give myself some idea of the shape of the plot.

In Outline, I also try to see where the gaps are that I need to fill to hold the plot together, and figure out what kinds of scenes need to be added. And then, when the Outline gets too wordy, I start a Proposal doc, where I extract the best stuff from the Outline, and put it in an order I hope will be coherent enough to show the editor.

Of course, I'm always working on all 3 docs at once, because I'm not yet organized enough to make a stately progress from one to the next! But the good thing is, once I've streamlined my ideas down this way, I have a pretty good idea of what my story's beginning, middle, and end will look like.

And it doesn't matter if it's not all there yet (the midsections in my proposals are notoriously weak). Because, here's the thing: it's all going to change during the writing process anyway, and everybody understands this. So what you're doing is writing a blueprint for a story you want to tell, and giving yourself a general road map to get there.

2) Do you follow any of the plot structure methods that exist out there?

The ones I've encountered seem like arcane voodoo rituals to me. I tried the 9-box plot thingy recommended by a couple of friends, but the only time I found it useful was to diagram a book I'd already written, to see how well it followed the structure. Attempting to apply it to an idea for a book, hoping to somehow manifest plot, just didn't work for me. 

But it might work for you; like I said, my approach is chaotic, and I don't recommend it. If a box, or a graph, or a diagram, or whispering the lyrics to "Paperback Writer" over a smoldering cauldron of chicken bones unleashes your creative juices, then go for it!

There isn't any right or wrong approach. All that matters is getting those words on the page — how they get there is up to you!

Monday, April 25, 2016

WONDER WOMAN

Here's lookin' at you, Nancy Raney!
She never actually made a film, but Nancy Raney was the undisputed godmother of the Santa Cruz movie community. When she took her final bow last week, surrounded by her loved ones, it was truly the end of an era

As co-owner of The Nickelodeon with her husband, Bill Raney, who opened it in 1969, Nancy was the the theater's one-woman publicity department.

As soon as a movie was booked, Nancy was on the phone to get the word out, not only to us ink-stained wretches of the press, but to anyone else in town she could think of who might be remotely interested in the film, or its subject — schools, service groups, foreign language societies, politicians, surfers, artists, musicians, you name it.

She was also a tireless cheerleader for arts and culture in Santa Cruz. She attended, promoted, or otherwise supported such local institutions as Shakespeare Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Symphony, Pacific Rim Film Festival, and Santa Cruz Public Libraries, among others. An avid reader, she loved to organize cross-promotions with Bookshop Santa Cruz, or Capitola Book Cafe, any time a movie came out with a literary pedigree.

Nancy and Bill: too much fun.
But perhaps Nancy's most indelible influence on our arts scene—besides her buoyant personality—were the advance press screenings she organized at the Nick, so local scribes could get our reviews in print the same week a movie opened. I was only a lowly stringer at Good Times in 1976, when Nancy first invited me to a screening.

She greeted us in the lobby and ushered us into the auditorium, exuding her usual warmth and good humor. She had my life story out of me in no time (granted, at age 22, my story was pretty short). It's not that she pried, exactly, but she was always so interested in other people, and we found her interest irresistible.

As I inherited the job of full-time film critic, Nick screenings became a weekly event in my life. At first, I remember being worried about a potential conflict of interest: heaven forbid I should let myself get too chummy with the proprietors of a local movie house. Hah! I found I couldn't maintain a sense of aloof, professional decorum for very long, with Nancy. She was way too much fun!

It was never held against me when I wrote a bad review—and I wrote plenty. Nobody laughed about the stinkers more uproariously than Nancy. When I once revealed to her that I kept a mini-bag of M&Ms in my purse to keep me awake if a movie dragged, she gave me a family-sized jar of M&Ms for Christmas.

We both loved British history, Charles Dickens, and period books and movies of every stripe. And Nancy was fascinated by nuns, as only a Midwestern girl with a good Nordic Protestant upbringing can be. (And the naughtier the nuns, the better!) She had migrated out west in the first place to attend Stanford, which she also loved, and she kept in touch with a close-knit sisterhood of fellow Stanfordians for the rest of her life.

Oscar party, 1988: Buz Bezore, Nancy, me, and Art Boy

 When I married Art Boy (yes, Nancy was one of the few people in town I knew even longer than I've known him), he and I started hanging out with Nancy and Bill regularly at the Raney's mountaintop retreat above Happy Valley, enjoying Nancy's great dinners, telling stories, and always laughing like crazy. Our friendship continued on after they sold the Nick to Jim Schwenterley.

When we started hosting Oscar Night parties for local film folk, Nancy and Bill were at the top of the A-list. (She, always in a fetching negligee, since our guests were given the option of dressing up or wearing jammies.) And pretty soon, Nancy and I were taking field trips together that had nothing to do with movies — the Stanford Shopping Center; the Barbie Musum in Palo Alto (she knew about my weird fetish for dressing up my vintage childhood Barbies as the Best Actress nominees for those Oscar parties).

A trip we once took to the city (the reason for which escapes me, now), turned into Nancy's Swanky Public Restroom Tour of San Francisco. Upscale department stores, uber-plush restaurants and hotels, she knew 'em all! Then there was the time that Nancy, the instigator, in cahoots with Stacey Vreeken, one of my favorite ex-Good Times editors, sprung a surprise 50th birthday party on me, featuring just about everybody I knew in town.
Birthday Girl + instigators: Nancy and Stacey Vreeken.

When I took my first halting steps into fiction-writing, Nancy was there to cheer me on. She read all my unpublished novels in manuscript form (talk about a trouper!), and when I finally got one into print, she made sure her book club read it.

Nancy was no mean hand at writing, herself. A veteran traveler, she and Bill favored remote destinations—Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories; Papua, New Guinea; African safaris—and she wrote some fine travel pieces for the alternate alt-weekly. (In a photo in the Raneys' hallway from one of her last trips, Nancy is beaming down from the back of a camel.)

To my undying admiration, she once journeyed along the Trans-Siberian Railway (by herself!) To St. Petersberg to visit the Hermitage. For years, I was helping her edit her memoir of this astonishing event, but her life was always so full, I don't know if she ever had time to finish it.

It's hard to imagine Santa Cruz without Nancy Raney. I loved her pretty much from the minute I met her in the lobby of the Nick, and that never changed. We were as close as family—closer than most—but, now, it helps to imagine her perched on that camel, off on her next adventure.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

DOES DEAD MEAN DEAD?

SPOILER ALERT: If you're late to the party, and haven't yet caught all the way up to the end of last season on Game of Thrones (Season 5)—especially if you've been living under a rock somewhere, far away from any media access—STOP READING!

I mean it! I see your eyes trying to scan down the screen, like you think I won't notice. STOP IT RIGHT NOW! Go check your mail, or something. Or else I won't be responsible for the consequences.

Okay. For the rest of you who might have come in late, a quick primer on the GoT universe can be found here and here.

As we all know, GoT, Season 6, starts tonight, and the Interwebs have been all ablaze with speculation over whether you-know-who is really dead. Just because we saw him stabbed 85 times in the last shot of that last episode last season, does that mean a fan can't hold out some hope?

Everyone connected with the show (which had its season premiere for the press last week), insists, in no uncertain terms, that Jon Snow is dead. Deader than dead. Dead as the proverbial doornail. Dead as Monty Python's dead parrot.

The showrunners and cast are all pretty adamant about this point, even though the  first poster for Season 6 featured—wait for it—Jon Snow. And yet, I fear they dost protest too much.

Here's the thing. Even if he's dead, that doesn't necessarily mean he's out of the show. This is fantasy, complete with flying dragons and armies of the undead on the march. What if that nutball, religious-fanatic witch resurrects him? What if he starts popping up in the wolf-dreams of Bran Stark?

(For that matter, he could come back as one of the undead zombie White Walkers, but only if the producers really want to alienate the hell out of their audience.)

Granted none of the (many, many) other killed-off GoT characters have ever come back—not Ned Stark, nor Daenerys' Klingon husband, nor the victims of the infamous Red Wedding, nor Jon Snow's Wilding lover.

But my guess is, the producers will find some way to keep him a presence in the show. HBO is playing it cagey, with a teaser poster featuring Jon Snow's visage in the Hall of Faces shrine to the dead—but along with the faces of some other cast members whose characters are still among the living — so far.

The Hall of Faces has not previously been like the deceased Headmaster portraits at Hogwarts, who converse with anyone who strolls by. But there's no reason they can't begin to interact, somehow. It's fantasy—anything is possible!

Anyway, we'll find out (or at least get a hint or two) tonight. In the meantime, get in the mood with this compilation of Season 6 teaser trailers!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

SHAKES @ 400

Pop those corks! William Shakespeare's 400th anniversary is almost upon us!

Okay, the quadricentennial of his birth was celebrated back in 1964. But next week, April 23, is the 400th anniversary of his death (which was also his 52nd birthday, back in 1616), and why wait another 48 years to throw a party?

And there is much to celebrate in a low-born scribe (his father was a glove-maker), with an unremarkable education, whose plays are still being performed with gusto four centuries later—and still strike an emotional chord in audiences worldwide.

As my character Jack Dance, actor-turned-pirate-turned actor, says, in one of my unpublished novels:

"There’s no censure in Shakespeare, and every facet of life is represented— bawds and kings and villains and fools. Everything you could ever think or feel or want, Shakespeare has already written about it. And everything that happens in your own life affects how you to respond to him, so his words always seem new and fresh, however often you play them."

John Gilbert, The Plays of William Shakespeare, 1849.
Not surprisingly, I totally agree! But Jack is only 28 when he says this, so from the vantage point of my own great age, I would add this: as we grow in years and experience, Shakespeare's words become ever more relevant, as we continually view them from our own ever-expanding perspective.

Shakespeare is timeless, in the same way that mythology, folklore, and fairy tales endure. And their timelessness inspires succeeding generations of bards and storytellers to reinvent the stories for their own devices—or eras.

I remember the first time I ever read a review of the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I remember thinking,  What? Another writer can just appropriate a couple of Shakespeare's characters and make up his own story about them?

What a concept!

Recycled Shakespeare, like retold fairy tales, has become a genre unto itself, and one that I personally love! I've already flailed away on this blog about the fabulous Fool books of Christopher Moore  (which turn several Shakespearean tragedies into fodder for hilarity via King Lear's savvy Fool) and Alan Gordon's Fools Guild mysteries (reimagining Twelfth Night fool, Feste, as a Renaissance secret agent).

Ditto, Elizabeth Bear's gorgeous Ink and Steel duology, which takes Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe as its central characters. And we all know West Side Story, the classic stage musical riff on Romeo and Juliet.

But here are five more clever reinterpretations, examples of just how adaptable Shakespeare continues to be:

CALIBAN'S HOUR  In Tad Williams' beguiling revision, the much abused "monster," Caliban from The Tempest makes his way back to Naples one fateful night to confront Miranda, daughter of his tormentor and enslaver, Prospero. Now a fading beauty approaching middle age, with a teenage daughter of her own, Miranda is compelled to hear Caliban's side of the story—and reconsider who he is (and what has been done to him).

QUEEN MAB  Kate Danley dares to imagine a secret life for Romeo's witty, charismatic pal, Mercutio—one of the most lamented murder victims in all of Shakespeare—as well as a delicious afterlife as lover to the Fairy Queen, Mab.

INDIGO From mythologist and fairy tale scholar Marina Warner comes this decidedly rich and strange riff on The Tempest. It's a dark, simmering exploration into conquest, colonialism, and slavery, and their aftermath, not only for those conquered, but for generations of European conquerors as well.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM  Okay, no points for originality in the title department, but otherwise, this splendid episode from Neil Gaiman's long-running Sandman graphic novel series is a completely fresh delight. It imagines a very special performance of the Dream by Will Shakespeare and his company of players on Midsummer Eve before the king and queen of the fairies and all their impish court.

THE LION KING Don't laugh! A murdered king (who later appears as a ghost), a treacherous uncle, a young prince trembling on the brink of maturity, uncertain how to test his power—sound familiar? True, there's not a lot of singing or dancing in Hamlet, but at least the folks at Disney steal from the best!

Celebrations will be global throughout the year. Happy Birthday, Will!




Sunday, April 10, 2016

MIDSUMMER DREAMS

Last summer, Santa Cruz Shakespeare gave its last performance under the redwood trees of the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen at UCSC, its home for over 30 years. It was a sad moment for Santa Cruz theatre lovers.

Especially since this year, 2016, is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, with hundreds of celebrations planned by the global theatre community. (The anniversary of Shakespeare's birth was back in 1964, but why wait another 48 years to throw a party?)

It was sad to think that our own Shakespeare troupe would not be part of the festivities.

But, soft —do you hear that rustling sound? Forsooth, 'tis the phoenix-like wingbeats of SCS rising once again out of the ashes to reinvent itself—now with a midsummer dream of its own.

In the 7+ months since receiving their eviction notice from UCSC, the company has secured a new performance space in the middle of a pine and eucalyptus grove in upper Delaveaga Park—called (appropriately enough) "The Grove."

The Grove-to-be.
All they have to do now is build it.

Which is where we come in, Dear Patron. Members of the SCS community are invited to volunteer time, skills, and/or expertise to the actual building of the Grove. Groundbreaking commenced on April 2, and intensive construction goes on for the next 12 weeks.

General contractor Slatter Construction is in charge of the project, but volunteers can help out in everything from clearing brush, hammering boards, putting up drywall, painting, and site clean-up, to the plumbing and electrical departments.

Help build comfy NEW seating!
Unskilled as a laborer? How about providing a pic-a-nick basket of water and goodies for the hard-working crew?

Or become a donating member of the SCS family. The company has already raised more than 80% of the funds needed to complete the project, but a few extra sheckels would not go amiss.

Earn the coveted status of Founding Groundling with a donation of $50 or more. Or commemorate a loved one by naming a permanent seat in the Grove in his or her honor, complete with plaque, for a gift of $2,000.

Meanwhile, plans for the 2016 season are afoot as we speak. The plays have been chosen: A Midsummer Night's Dream —a fan favorite in every incarnation the company has produced. Hamlet—perhaps the poet's most eternal, enduring work. And Orlando, adapted from the gender-bent, time-traveling novel by Virginia Woolf.
J. Todd Adams, The Dream, 2009: fan favorite

(Remember the excellent movie of Orlando from 1992, starring Tilda Swinton at her most androgynous? It will be fun to see what SCS does with the story!)

The 2016 season plays July 12-August 28. Tickets go on sale May 16, although members can pre-order tickets as of May 2.

And fans are invited to the Season Launch Party at the Radius Gallery in the Tannery on First Friday, May 6, to meet and mingle with company members.

Visit the SCS website for more information, or get updates on the SCS Facebook page

Support your local Shakespeare company, and help SCS realize its midsummer dream. Make Will's 400th extra happy!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

PIRATES of PODCAST


 This just in, folks: my first podcast!

Last month, it was my pleasure to be interviewed by the effervescent Phil Johnson—stand-up comic and pirate aficionado, proprietor of the salty website, "Under the Crossbones." And now, our podcast is live!

It's a swashbuckling half-hour or so, where we natter on about my pirate books, our favorite (and otherwise) pirate movies, and the allure of all things piratical. Music and comedy round out the broadcast, so hoist a pot of rum and check it out here!

(PS: My interview starts at about the12-minute mark.)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

SEX, DRUGS, and ROCKABILLY

Hank Williams inspires flat biopic I Saw the Light


It's tough to get a movie biography right, to find a way to make the messy facts of someone's life as compelling as fiction Last year, the did it in  Steve Jobs, condensing the material into three key moments in its subject's career that charted his personal and professional evolution.

Then there's I Saw The Light, the biographical drama about legendary country singer-songwriter Hank Williams. Writer-director Marc Abraham doggedly trots out the facts of Williams' astonishingly short, and yet productive life (36 hit songs before his death at age 29).
Hiddleston in action.


But the material is presented without much insight, and the storytelling feels flat. It's like watching somebody else's home movies—interesting for awhile, but not personally involving.

Abraham never uncovers the person behind the image; he's content to stick with the persona of the raw talent living the self-destructive honky-tonk life.

Fortunately, the film stars the highly watchable Tom Hiddleston, the accomplished British thesp best known to movie audiences as Loki in the Thor franchise. He may not be the first person you'd think of to play Alabama-born, proto-rockabilly crooner Williams, but Hiddleston has presence to burn, and he looks great in a cowboy hat.

He even does his own singing. With a fresh, honest approach that doesn't try to imitate Williams, Hiddleston sells the music with his laid-back demeanor and killer grin. (Read more in this week's GT)

Saturday, April 2, 2016

FASHIONABLE FAIRY TALES


Dom's look: Don't call her 'Tink.'
Once again, it was all about fairy tales Thursday night on Project Runway All Stars.

It was only last September when the regular Project Runway (as opposed to the various Lite and Unleaded versions they now show pretty continuously between seasons) featured a challenge inspired by the hit musical Finding Neverland—a challenge won by a designer riffing on CaptainHook!

So, Thursday night, the challenge for each designer was to take a "literary heroine" and design something modern and fashionable inspired by that character's persona and backstory. 

Character names were drawn out of a bag, with one given to each designer. And it quickly became apparent that all these literary characters were all fairy-tale protagonists.

Which is fine with me; I've been adulterating fairy tales for years! And I applaud any pop culture institution that keeps these eternal tales in the limelight.

Kini's Alice: party in the back.
But it was also just as apparent that all these characters were specifically the Disney version of fairy-tale heroines. How do I know? One of them was "Belle," which was never used as a proper name for the heroine in Beauty and the Beast until the Disney version.

(French versions called La Belle et la Bete, like the Jean Cocteau movie, don't count, since "belle" simply means "beauty" in French.)

As usual, designers responded to the challenge with varying degrees of success. My favorite was Dom Streater, who was given Tinker Bell, described as a punky, impish girl hanging out with a bunch of London street boys. Dom nailed it with patterns and attitude (above). 

I wouldn't wear it, but she totally got the challenge.

I also liked Kini Zamora's riff on Alice in Wonderland—decorous in front, with that demure white collar (wait, isn't that what's usually called a "Peter Pan collar?"), but a crazy touch of Wonderland absurdity in the back with that outrageous, pink-lined ruffle. (One judge called it a "dress mullet.") 

What I really love about it is the white ankle socks in black heels—so perfect for Alice! (A too literal rendition of the classic Tenniel illustrations with white stockings and black flats just wouldn't have had the same panache.)

Neither of these won, of course; I remain undefeated in my inability to think like a PR judge. The winner was Asha Daniel's take on Rapunzel. Not a bad design of itself, but she didn't glom onto the potential of the challenge with the same verve as the other two. 

Asha's look: Towering.
(Although her outfit's columnar shape does sort of look like the tower itself, especially from the back, with Rapunzels long blonde braid hanging down.)

Btw, the dress for Belle didn't really work; nor did designer Layana Aguilar's explanation that she designed it so Belle could wear it when she was whisked off to Argentina to watch a polo match. 

In embroidering this scenario, Layana once referred to Belle's "husband" taking her off on this jaunt. But I think (and I'd have to watch the replay to be sure) that the second time, Layana called him "Beast."

And if "Belle" and Beast (not the Prince he turns into, but Beast himself) jet-setting off to Argentina together as a couple is an acceptable concept, I may be onto something in my own upcoming novel—where Beast gets to be the hero in his own tale!

Monday, March 28, 2016

FOODIE FOR THOUGHT

LA food critic crusades for diversity in lively 'City of Gold'

Whatever you may think you know about Los Angeles, you may find your assumptions challenged by City of Gold. And, no, it is not a movie about the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

It's a fascinating foodie doc by Laura Gabbert about Jonathan Gold, esteemed food critic for the LA Times, whose insightful writing about the culinary scene in LA has earned him a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism.

Gold has not won this accolade by choosing the most exquisite verbiage to describe plates of decadent delights. He's not that kind of food writer. What Gold does is hit the streets in his bottle-green pickup truck, cruising strip malls, ethnic neighborhoods, vendor carts and food trucks all across the sprawl that is LA in search of undiscovered eating experiences.

Jonathan Gold in action: man bites food.

And discover them he does, incredible treasures in the most unexpected places, mostly run by immigrant families who make up the vast cultural diversity of the city and its many, many 'burbs—from Mexican, Thai, and Szechuan, to fried grasshoppers and hot dogs. More of an explorer than a food critic, Gold writes insightful pieces about understanding cultures through the medium of food.

Many proprietors of the eateries he champions (often in hole-in-the-wall storefronts you wouldn't look at twice while driving by) credit him with saving their businesses. Says one observer, Gold brings "value to restaurants and experiences that other people weren't writing about."

At the end of the movie, Gold speaks about the liveliness of the local cultural scene, constantly reinventing itself, with new foods and ideas to share. "We are all strangers together," says Gold.

This is what community is. And when ignorant voices in society talk about closing borders, building walls, and homogenizing our cultural experience, this is what we lose.

(Read complete review)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

COPY THAT

In other book news—

I'm thrilled to announce that my next novel, Beast: A Love Story, has been officially copyedited and proofread!

I've been editing this book since July, off and on—mostly on—but I think it's all been worthwhile. My beta reader (okay, it's Art Boy) did a read-through after me, and he says it's honed to within an inch of its life.

So, tomorrow, this minutely marked hard copy goes back to my editor, Kaylan Adair, at Candlewick. Assuming she can decipher my corrections and suggestions (which may be assuming a lot), we are now one big step closer to production!

Which means I can go back to work on my next next novel for Candlewick. I'm working up a proposal and the first three chapters as we speak!

Stay tuned...