NaNo, NaNo

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you signed up to do the NaNoWriMo competition that starts on November 1, I bow to you. You’re in for a wild ride. I’ve done it three times, and each time I learned something new about myself, my writing, and the patience of my loved ones.

November is probably the worst month of the year to devote to writing a novel. Sure, 50,000 words is a rather short novel (most of my hover around 100,000 words), but it’s still a lot of writing, and a lot of time away from November–oriented activities, like visiting family and food preparation for Thanksgiving. Guarantee that if Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, were a woman, he’d have picked a different month. Like March. March is a good month to write a novel. It’s all blustery and cold outside. There aren’t any major holidays. And bonus, it’s got 31 days! Twenty-four extra hours to get in that word count and let the dishes pile up in the sink.

The first time I did NaNo, in 2004, I think I was out of my mind to even sign up. I had no business writing a novel. For one, I was already writing a novel. I was also pulling 50-hour weeks on a major project at work. And just for kicks, I had family coming to stay with me during Thanksgiving. I would wake up at 5:30 every morning, snort some coffee, write for about an hour and a half, go to work, come home and collapse. On weekends, I wrote as much as possible, banking away word count to spot me on those days I would need to cook and be a good hostess and go to the hospital to visit my mother-in-law, who was ill at the time. But I finished. Despite everything. Despite unexpected demands on my time, despite loved ones who needed my attention. Despite even working on somebody else’s computer when I had to be away from home for a couple of days.

I was so proud of myself. I loved watching my word count rise, I loved sitting down to my computer every morning, wondering where these characters would take me. It seemed that story was just flowing out of me, and I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. Even now (mainly because this is the manuscript I’m currently editing for a shot at publication), I remember where I was when I wrote which part. I remember the part I wrote when I woke up the morning after Election Day and my husband told me that once again we had no president-elect. I remember the first morning, when I closed my eyes in front of the keyboard and just started typing. (It’s a trick I use to defeat the blank page.)

You’ll be proud of yourself, too. Your word count will rise. You’ll get pep talks in your e-mail box from Chris Baty and from other published authors. Maybe I’ll send you one, too.

Just a few tips for planning ahead:

1. Set a daily quota. This is the Mother of All NaNo Rules, or at least it is for me. Take that 50,000 words and divide it by the number of days you will realistically be able to work on it during the 30 days of November. (Could be worse. Baty could have picked February.) Put that quota on a sticky note in a prominent place. If you can write more, great. Maybe you’ll even be able to take Black Friday off and go shopping.

2. Keep healthy food in the house. This is not the time to live off Doritos and Red Bull. Makes some meals in advance if you have the time, and freeze them. Have healthy snacks around you can grab. When you do cook, think leftovers. I make triple batches of stuff. The last thing you want to do is eat crap all month long and wake up sick on December 1. That’s a lousy time to be sick.

3. Lower your standards for household cleanliness. A little dust and a few spiderwebs never killed anybody. The dishes in the sink aren’t going anywhere. You are not a failure because you don’t have clean underwear or you’re slurping coffee out of a soup bowl. If your family members are so indignant, let them take up a sponge and have at it.

4. Don’t skimp on sleep. A tired writer is an unfocused writer. It’s also bad for your health, especially if you are ignoring point #2 and living on Doritos and Red Bull.

Good luck, back up your work, and have fun!

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What’s In A Name?

I’m pretty sure that everyone writing fiction has at some time been stumped for a name for a character. It has to feel right for the character, match his or her personality, age, socioeconomic status, historical era. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and the right name just bubbles up out of my subconscious. Sometimes I flip through a reference like the telephone directory or the thick baby-naming book I keep on a shelf in my studio. But usually I draw on people I’ve met throughout my life. Maybe it’s a first name, or last name, or sometimes both. After all, that handy disclaimer at the front of the novel absolves me from litigation if someone doesn’t like the way I portrayed his or her crooked teeth or penchant for pornography or stiff drink.

But character names used on television and in the movies get far more scrutiny. Lift a well-known person’s name or portray a famous likeness too closely and you might find yourself in court. Or at least slapped with a nasty cease-and-desist order.

I often wonder if on-screen characters’ names also come from people in the writer’s lives, and in at least one case, I’m right. A reliable source (a livery driver who once drove the “real person” to the airport) gave me the story behind one of the minor characters on the television show, Seinfeld.

If you’re a fan of the show, you may remember Lloyd Braun, who popped up in three episodes played by two different actors (Peter Keleghan and Matt McCoy). He played George’s childhood friend and nemesis. Even though the character had a short grip on reality after a nervous breakdown sparked by losing the mayoral election for David Dinkins, George’s mother (in the classic episode “The Serenity Now”) often scolded her son by saying, “Why can’t you be more like Lloyd Braun?”

Lloyd Braun is indeed a real person; a television executive and producer who did some projects with NBC during Seinfeld’s reign. He’s probably best known for greenlighting Lost for ABC, and became the voice that began each episode with “Previously, on Lost….”

Prior to this, he was an entertainment lawyer, representing, among other clients, Seinfeld co-producer Larry David. The two were also golfing buddies. According to my source, a friendly wager between Lloyd Braun and Larry David on the links led to Braun’s allowing David to use his name on the show in any way he desired, however egregious.

Braun lost. (Wonder what kind of bet Art Vandelay lost?)

Another instance of a real person – though not actually a person – making it into fiction was a little more personal.

If you’re a Psych fan, look for a minor character named Penny Pascaretti, who appeared only once in the first couple of seasons. One of Psych’s writers, Andy Berman, a former child actor who had a recurring role on The Wonder Years, once dated someone in my family. On a walk down my street during a holiday visit, Berman met a neighbor’s dog, a yappy but lovable little thing. Penny belonged to the Pascaretti family. Berman liked the sound of the name and made good on his promise to use it in an upcoming episode.

Other than those two, in the words of George Costanza, “I got nothin’.”

What’s your favorite character name, in print or on screen? Do you know of any drawn from real life? If you are a writer, how do you choose your characters’ names?

Ten Reasons Why Cloris Leachman Kicks Betty White’s Butt

Betty White is lovely, talented and charming, but for sheer substance, chutzpah and staying power, I’m giving my “Kick-Butt Babe Award” to the brilliance that is Cloris Leachman. Here’s why:

  1. In 1962, on one night, she was a guest star on three different LIVE television shows. Top that, Tina Fey!
  2. She dares to bare, with style. In an homage to (or parody of) Demi Moore’s naked pregnant Vanity Fair cover, Cloris Leachman posed nude, painted with images of fruit, for Alternative Medicine Digest in 1997.
  3. She’s a former beauty queen (Miss Chicago, 1946), yet enthusiastically embraces opportunities to take roles that are comically unglamorous. Which is probably why Mel Brooks tapped her for the evil Nurse Diesel (“Those who are tardy don’t get fruit cup!”) in High Anxiety and the mysterious Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein.
  4. Although when cast as landlady Phyllis Lindstrom in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cloris Leachman had more acting experience than Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper put together, but never hogged the spotlight.
  5. In addition to her Oscar and nine Emmys (more than any other television actor), this seasoned Broadway pro also sings.
  6. While other actresses complain about quality roles for older women, Cloris Leachman has never lacked for work. She has been working pretty much steadily since high school, and she’s now in her mid-eighties. What other actor has had this much staying power?
  7. In her own words, she’s one firecracker of a dancer. (She made it to the sixth round of Dancing With The Stars in 2008, partnered with pro Corky Ballas.)
  8. In addition to the regular role of Jenga-master, randomly-demented Maw Maw in the new sitcom, Raising Hope, she currently has four movie projects in various stages of production, and is starring in a one-woman show about her amazing body of work.
  9. Who else do you know that’s been on Lassie, Joan of Arcadia, Two and a Half Men, AND kissed Ronald Reagan? (Besides Margaret Thatcher.)
  10. Like Lady Gaga, she’s worn garments made from food. Cabbage, to be more precise, for a 2009 PETA ad. The dress is rather elegant, but I don’t believe she’d be able to do a jive in it.
  11. Bonus reason! She gives good interview… while wearing her fuzzy bedroom slippers.

The End

Have you ever read any books so captivating that you disappeared inside the world of their characters, that you stole away and read another page and another page every chance you got? And when you got closer to the end, your heart filled with melancholy because you’d soon be saying goodbye to that world? And then the ending just kind of…sucked?

Yeah. I hate that, too.

That happened when I read Nicholas Evans’ first novel, The Horse Whisperer. While not exactly the greatest of writing, I let myself get tangled up in the love story. I hung on the central conflict of Grace MacLean’s heart: her husband, Sam, or the cowboy, Tom? Oh, how she vacillated! How she was torn asunder! And then…just when you think she’s chosen to give up her city-girl ways and ride off into the sunset…Tom falls off his horse, hits his head on a rock and dies. (FYI, the movie has a very different ending.)

I threw the book across the room. Not that I harbored any secret passion for the dude; cowboys aren’t my style. But Nicholas, HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO ME? You get me all worked up for the resolution of the central conflict and then—surprise!—you take away the protagonist’s responsibility. Completely abdicate your role as the author by basically saying, “So much for your decision-making capabilities. Let’s just take that silly little problem away from you.”

Bah.

I just had a similar, although not as vociferous, experience with a book I just finished reading, The Heretic’s Daughter, by Kathleen Kent, a historical novel set during the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t read it…) The protagonist is, you guessed it, the heretic Martha Carrier’s daughter, Sarah. She is an old woman, now, looking back on the ten-year-old girl she was at the time of the trials. The writing is lush and poignant, the situation horrific. (Kent is a descendant of Martha Carrier and grew up hearing stories about her.) At one point, before Martha is taken away to prison for merely being her authentic, bold self, she entrusts Sarah with a red-covered ledger book that is supposedly the written history of the Carrier family. (The father had come to the new world from Wales, under a veil of mystery.) This book could be the undoing of the family, Martha tells Sarah, and orders her to guard it well, never show it to her father because he doesn’t know it exists, and not read it until she’s “of age” to understand.

So the story rolls along, through the trials, the executions, and finally the breath of sanity that frees the remaining prisoners and stops the witch hunts. Sarah narrates, very quickly, the rest of her life, taking a brief pause to mention the red book. It confirms that her father had had a prominent role in Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Okay. Big deal. She’d basically heard as much through town gossip. And everyone seemed to be afraid of her father. So the harm to their family from actual knowledge of this secret would be…?

None!

ARGH! The payoff should have been bigger. Bolder. What secret could be worth all that real estate in the story? Not enough of a payoff, in my opinion. It’s like the quote attributed to Chekhov about the gun – that if you show it, you have to shoot it.

And you? Have you ever read any beautiful books that disappointed you in the end?

Words You Can Say on Television

Come on, people. I thought we’d been through this already. George Carlin said the words, got thrown in jail, and that’s the template the FCC had been using ever since. You could use every pseudonym in the Urban Dictionary and even dream up a bunch of your own to refer to the load in baby’s diaper, and you could even use the scientific name, but you couldn’t say what “it” really was. You could call someone an ass, but you couldn’t show one.

But lately a couple of frowned-upon words have been sneaking in—and one isn’t even on the list.

I noticed that instance when former Governor-Wants-To-Be-Governor-Again Jerry Brown’s advisor called Meg Whitman a whore. (Always make sure phone call is disengaged before using salty language to describe the person you just spoke with.) ABC went with it, as did CNN, Fox, and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough (although MSNBC and NBC later on bleeped it, or called it the “w-word.”) But using the word “whore” is distasteful on certain networks – and, oh, how local news anchors strained themselves coming up with pseudonyms. My favorite? “…A word that rhymes with sore.” (I’ll take “bore” for $300, Alex.) Why is “whore” any worse than “hooker” or “prostitute?” Is it the context? Is it the kiss of death and an FCC fine if any male politician calls a female politician a whore? Even when the male politician is as much as or an even greater whore than the female one?” It’s not like Brown’s team said that Meg Whitman sells her body for cash. That would be wrong. I don’t live in California, nor care a whit which of these pols gets elected. I’m just using them as an example. Describing your opponent as a political whore is probably not the nicest choice of words, but follow the money, honey. If you’re taking it for favors, doesn’t matter what sex you are, you’re still practicing the world’s oldest profession. So why can’t we call it what it is?

As annoyed as William Shatner is about the title of his new show, you still can’t say “shit” on network television (although they produce it quite regularly.) I was surprised to find out that “shit” is used as all forms of speech on “Mad Men.” I know AMC is a cable network, but it’s “basic cable,” like TBS and Comedy Central and they watch their potty mouths. Guess you have to be Matthew Weiner to get away with it. Or the BBC. BBC America’s shows with Gordon Ramsay have him “shitting” all over the place, although it’s bleeped in his Fox-broadcasted shows.

The ruling is that networks are subject to government-regulated censorship, and cable networks subject to what advertisers will accept. So I guess nobody’s objected yet. Wonder how far they might push it? I’d love to hear that prissy Trudy Campbell drop the f bomb during dinner.

What do you think of swearing on television? Creative expression that defines character, or a coarsening of our society? Or somewhere in the middle?