Tuesday, May 23, 2017

AHA!

Having trouble dragging the first draft of your novel to the finish line?

Here's a tip from Stephen King: the first draft is always just for you. No one else will (or should) ever see it. This is how you tell yourself the story.

I don't know when, or where King ever said this. It's just one of those tiny infobites that occasionally pops up in the Random Shuffle that is my brain. But even though I've forgotten where I heard or read this nugget, the idea itself is so savvy and reassuring, it's stayed with me.

It's especially pertinent now that I'm working on the first draft of my next book. (The one coming out after Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge.) This is the first time I'm working from a detailed proposal that includes the beginning, the (dreaded) middle, and the end of the story.

My previous book-writing method was to just plunge into an idea and flail around for the next couple of years, but I'm beginning to see the wisdom of actually making a plan first.

Things are, in fact, going more smoothly than usual. But here's the thing: at this stage, when you're still telling yourself the story, you haven't thought of every detail yet. There will be plenty of "aha!" moments in the course of the writing (and rewriting) — but now is not the time to sit around waiting for them!

The job now is to get a complete story onto the page, by fair means or foul, even if it means writing something stupid to connect scene A to scene B. Don't agonize over every word choice, and don't get hung up on details.

And whatever you do, don't stop!

There'll be plenty of time later to throw out the stupid stuff. (And a lot of stuff you think is great now; that's what editors are for.) Everything is going to change, anyway, but until you have something that at least vaguely looks and quacks like a duck on the page, you won't be able to proceed to the next step — revising. And believe me, that's where the real work begins!

That's when you get to those "aha!" moments too. But you have to get there first!

Monday, May 22, 2017

THE 'HOOD FIGHT

Activist resists callous city planners in Citizen Jane

Guess what? You can fight City Hall. With engagement, activism, and a keen sense of moral outrage, we, the people, can foil the best-laid plans of mice and politicians, however mighty they may think they are. Matt Tyrnauer's excellent documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle For the City, shows how it's done, a call to arms that could not be more timely in this chaotic political moment.

The city referred to in the movie's subtitle is New York City. The story begins in the late1950s, where the battle lines are drawn between Utopian post-war urban planning and the communities and concerns of real-life people.

Leading the charge is Robert Moses, an imperious, celebrated urban planning czar who callously decrees, "You have to move a lot of people out of the way," (mostly low-income residents) to make room for the so-called "Urban Renewal" he envisions. (Or, as James Baldwin calls it, in a vintage TV clip, "Negro Removal.")

In the opposing corner is journalist Jane Jacobs, who develops her "theory of opposition" to Moses' plans. A city resident since 1934, whose freelance stories on urban life earned her a position as Associate Editor at Architectural Forum magazine, Jacobs believes a city should be "a place with scope for all kinds of people."

Jane Jacobs: resistance in action
She believes that life lived out on the streets, on the stoops of old buildings and the sidewalks in front of them, creates community; even residents without a lot of money can create rich neighborhoods. Whereas Moses' solution is to tear down all the old buildings, eliminate sidewalk culture, and remove people to soulless highrise towers: i.e.: housing projects.

The welfare of the people involved, uprooted from their community life, is a matter of complete indifference to him. "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs," he chuckles, in a TV clip.

Filmmaker Tyrnauer sets up Jacobs vs. Moses as a "battle for the soul of the city." He posits that Jacobs' influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is as defining a moment in 20th Century radical politics as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1962), and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1963).

Jacobs consistently fought for the lives and concerns of real people over insular, elitist goals and corporate greed. It's a fight we're still engaged in right now. (Read more in this week's Good Times)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

THE INSPIRATION GAME

Matisse: Studio, Quai St. Michel. Seminal.
Okay, we're the last kids on the block to see the excellent exhibition on Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn up at SF MoMA.

But it's so worth seeing!

At first glance, you might not think that the prolific, French post-Impressionist genius, Matisse, has much in common with California mid-century modernist Diebenkorn.

But the whole point of this show is to demonstrate the connections between the two.

Diebenkorn was a lifelong admirer of Matisse. And through a judicious selection of paintings by both artists, this show suggest how Diebenkorn was inspired by the French master through different stages of his own career, during the process of finding his own voice.

Diebenkorn: Window (1967) I love this — so rich!
It's fascinating to see how that influence plays out — not necessarily in subject matter or theme, but certainly in color palette, shape, and the energy of the paint on canvas.

Both artists progress through stages of figurative and abstract work, and while connections between the works are not always obvious, we gradually come to realize how much even the abstract, color-blocked, expressionistic images for which Diebenkorn is best known pay subtle homage to Matisse — even the figurative and decorative Matisse.

In some cases, the curators attempt to show the direct effect of a certain Matisse over a subsequent Diebenkorn, but the influence is far more general and fluid than that.

The curators know this, too, and the connections are ours to discover.

Matisse: Blue Window (1913)
They wisely begin the exhibit with the Matisse painting above, "Studio, Quai St. Michel" (1916). As our docent tour guide pointed, out you could draw a direct connection between this seminal Matisse image and just about any Diebenkorn work in the entire show.

This exhibition got me thinking about inspiration vs. imitation. If you've spent any time at all in museums, you've probably seen some young student, or fledgling artist, with easel and paint box set up before some great painting, studiously rendering a copy.

The idea is not to replicate that painting exactly, like a forgery, but to teach yourself how and why that painting works through the process of painting it yourself.

This is a necessary step any creative artist has to go through —understanding something we love by making our own version of it — on the way to establishing our own, unique, creative voice.
Diebenkorn: Ocean Park #79 (1975)

The visual artist paints and paints and paints until he or she gets some idea of where their work is going. In the writing biz, we call this editing.

And you keep working over and over again until you get it right. The early, abstract Diebenkorns from his Urbana series (from his time as an art professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana) come first in the SF MoMA show. It's possible to glimpse the Matisse influence, but these paintings are a little chaotic for me; Diebenkorn is still finding himself.

But as the show continues, you can see Diebenkorn getting a grip on his art as he perfects the sophisticated distillation of color and line that owes so much to the spirit of Matisse, yet is so distinctly Diebenkorn.

Full disclosure — I didn't know anything about Diebenkorn, and most likely would never have sought out his work if he hadn't been paired up with the mighty Matisse in this show. I'm generally more of a figurative, narrative kind of art-lover.

Diebenkorn does Matisse!
But now, I'm a fan! His colors are extraordinary, and there's a kind of monumental serenity to his images that I find quietly profound.

My favorite piece in the show? Diebenkorn's "Recollection of a Visit to Leningrad" (1965) (at left). From across the room, this looks like a Matisse, with that swirling, organic pattern on the left. Up close, it looks like a Matisse grafted onto a geometric, color-blocked Diebenkorn.

Turns out the painting was done after Diebenkorn viewed Matisse paintings at The Hermitage in Leningrad on a trip to Russia the year before. In one way, you get the sense of viewing a Matisse on a wall with another landscape outside, possibly seen through a window.

But in another sense, you see in this celebration of Matisse, the old master beginning to make way on the canvas for the mature Diebenkorn.

This show is up at SF MoMA for one more week. See it if you can, and be inspired!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

BEAST UPDATE

Hey folks, here's another update in the Beast saga!

This week, I received a hard copy version of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, straight from the copyeditor! So I was sharpening my quill pen to scrawl my "yea" or "nay" on suggested edits, supply alternate changes, if necessary, and seize my last opportunity to make any last-minute substantive alterations.

Fortunately not too many of those. Intrepid  Candlewick editor Kaylan Adair and I have already re-edited and revised this thing so many times, there weren't even any typos left for me to correct — only my persistent misspelling of one frequently-used word. And my always uncertain grasp on the realities of commas, and when to use them.

(For which, I apologize, retroactively, to anyone who has ever entrusted me to edit your manuscript. My approach to commas is creative and free-form, although not exactly correct— apparently!)

Anyway, shipped my shaggy Beast back to the publisher today. And I'm eagerly awaiting the next step on the road to my expected pub date, March 6, 2018.

Stay tuned!

Monday, May 15, 2017

IN THE BAG

Have you heard about the Brown Bag program? Once a week, the stalwart folks at Grey Bears provide a grocery sack full of fresh produce for qualified seniors county-wide. (Including home deliveries to hundreds of housebound seniors.)

But here's something I didn't know until a few weeks ago: you don't have to be in the low-income bracket to qualify. Anyone age 55 or over is eligible to receive a bag of goodies — every week! — for a ridiculously modest investment of only $30 a year!

For a long time, Art Boy and I never even considered participating in this program; we thought a weekly surprise package of produce we would be fun, but we didn't want to take food out of the mouths of people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.

But then one night we had dinner with Grey Bears honcho Tim Brattan, who invited — no, implored us — to join the program. The organization has to provide brown bags for X number of participants in order to retain the crucial grant funding that keeps the program going. So anyone in the correct age bracket willing to spend as little as $30 per annum (or more, if you're so inclined) to support the program is welcome to sign up.

And just look at what you get! There's been a box of strawberries in our bag every week of the three weeks we've been part of the program! (Hey, that's practically worth the annual investment right there!)

There's usually a selection of root veggies — potatoes, yams, carrots, onions (one week there were parsnips, which I discovered I love!) — and an apple or an orange, or two. This week we got two big, fat portobello mushrooms! Some sort of bagged salad greens is also part of the deal, shredded coleslaw cabbage this week, but last week it was a bag of fresh spinach leaves — pre-rinsed!

And let's not forget the bread! The brown bag is stapled shut, so the contents are always a surprise, but you get to pick out a loaf or two of whatever you like from a mind-boggling variety of breads.

Food is locally donated, and a community of 75 Grey Bears volunteers put the bags together each week, to be trucked to various distribution points around town. When you sign up, you'll find out where the nearest drop-off is, and your name will go on a list at that location. You'll get an official membership card in a couple of weeks, but as soon as your name goes on that list, you can start reaping the bounty!

To sign up for the Brown Bag program, or find out more about this intrepid organization, visit the Grey Bears website.

Salut!


Sunday, May 14, 2017

ORDER UP

Hey, intrepid readers!

Just found out my next book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, is available for pre-order as we speak on Amazon!

Yes, it's still going to be a long wait; expected pub date is March 6, 2018. But if you're one of those ferociously organized types who hates to wait around until the last minute, now's your chance to go to the head of the line and avoid the rush later!

I have no idea when shipping will actually commence. I don't even have ARCs yet (PubSpeak for Advanced Reading Copies), although I have seen the cover — and it's pretty cool!

All of which will be revealed in due time, of course, right here. Stay tuned . . .

Thursday, May 11, 2017

BROODING BEAST

The countdown continues toward the pub date of my next book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, coming in Spring, 2018.

Meaning: it's time for my Beast of the Month!

This is from English illustrator Paul Woodroffe, from a 1905 edition of Beauty and the Beast. My version of Beast is not nearly as humanoid as this one. (Although I do love his elegant backswept horns!)

But his brooding posture, and the mysterious mood of this image feel just right.

I also adore the prominent candlestick, lighting the scene. A silver candlestick plays a very important role in my story!

Woodroffe was famed as an illustrator of fairy tales and other children's books, Bible stories, and Shakespeare. But he was also renowned as a stained-glass artist, as you can tell by the elaborate design of the panel (or possibly chair back) behind Beauty in this image.

My Beast borrows a lot in terms of mood and atmosphere from golden Age illustrators like Woodroffe. But I've shaken up the classic story too!

Pub date is currently planned for March 6, 2018. Stay tuned . . .

Sunday, May 7, 2017

MENAGE á DOG

Wife vs pet in funny JTC season closer Sylvia

If you share your space with a pet, chances are you talk to the little critter. (Oh, go on, admit it!) You're probably convinced your pet understands what you say (even if he chooses not to respond), and that you can tell what he's thinking.

But you never have an actual conversation with your pet, in which each of you speaks and responds to the other. Not unless you're in the play, Sylvia. In this 1995 comedy by prolific playwright A. R. Gurney about a man, a woman, and a dog, everybody talks to the dog — and the dog talks back.

A new production of Sylvia is the crowd-pleasing final offering of Jewel Theatre Company's 2016-17 season. The show is literally back by popular demand: it was a huge hit when it was first produced at JTC in 2009, and has been much-requested ever since. For this reprise edition, director Diana Torres Koss has assembled the original four-person cast, and they make the most of every syllable of Gurney's funny script.

Greg (Shaun Carroll), who works in the financial industry, comes home from the park one day with a stray dog called Sylvia (Julie James), an excitable, overly-affectionate lab-poodle mix — to the dismay of Greg's wife, Kate (Diahanna Davidson). 

James and Carroll: smitten
 With their children out of the nest, Greg and Kate have just relocated to an apartment in New York City from the suburbs. Kate is eager to pursue her new career teaching Shakespeare to inner-city kids. But Greg is facing a midlife crisis, fractious with his boss over a job he hates.

At this stage of her life, Kate doesn't want the responsibilities of a dog. But Greg gets unlimited support from Sylvia; they adore each other, and Kate starts to feel like the third wheel.

Sylvia is not meant to be a magically talking dog, like a canine Mr. Ed. It may be that we're simply witnessing the personality that Greg and/or Kate project onto her onstage, as their marriage is tested. But James has a high old time in the role emulating doggy behavior. She scratches, she sniffs, she leaps into Greg's arms shrieking "I love you!"

Grooming brings out her inner French Poodle
When nervous or excited, her "bark" is staccato cries of "Hey! Hey! Hey!" And when Sylvia spies a cat in the park and goes ballistic, James is hilarious, lunging and spewing verbal invective.

The more anthropomorphic the part becomes, the funnier James is, strutting like Kate Moss after her first trip to the groomer, or turning coy and trampy when Sylvia comes into heat. She's abetted in these transitions by B. Modern's sly costumes; she dresses Sylvia in overalls and high-tops when she's homeless in the park, with increasing use of black leather, lace, and heels, as the dog comes into her own.

Carroll and Davidson are great as the couple caught up in this unlikely ménage a trois. And J. T. Holstrom is  a riot in his three roles: a macho guy in the park giving Greg tips on canine psychology; a snooty female friend of Kate's who suffers the business end of Sylvia's curiosity; and an ineffectual marriage counselor of indeterminate gender.

I didn't actually buy it toward the end when Sylvia, the dog, lectures Kate about what love is. But I didn't care by then, since the show is so entertaining.