Football Haiku

For a moment put aside the extracurriculars of professional football-the money, the smack talk, the police records of prominent players-and just watch the athletes. Watch a play set in motion, the choreography of who runs where, the focus, grace, and power of a superstar receiver as he pulls an impossible pass out of mid-air, hugs to his chest and fends off would-be tacklers. I am not the first to recognize the poetry, nor am I the first to put it in haiku form. Heck, it’s fun to write about play off the field, too. Enjoy.

Polamalu’s hair,
insured for a cool million,
sells dandruff shampoo.

Ben Roethlisberger
tested team’s code of conduct.
His word against hers.

Is that a gun in
Plaxico’s sweatpants or is
he glad to see me?

Retire at your peak,
some say, to preserve legend.
Brett Favre should have listened.

Men in spandex pants
bent over before the snap.
No close-ups, thank you.

Bieber and Ozzy
to star in Superbowl ad,
in Tron costumes. Ecchh.

Pressure Tom Brady
and the Patriots will fall
just like the redcoats.

Coach Jimmie Johnson
silver hair, saggy man boobs
kicked off Survivor

Rex Ryan can fit
several feet in his mouth.
Kink, or weight loss plan?

Care to indulge in a bit of word play and write your own? Let’s hear it!

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Novels Best (And Worst) Adapted For the Screen

Kudos to The King’s Speech for its twelve Oscar nominations; I can’t wait to see it. While many of the nominated movies were made from original screenplays, like The King’s Speech, some were adapted from best-selling books, some done better than others. Having seen so many of my darlings crucified on the screen, I let out a sigh of relief when a favorite novel is adapted well or at the very least, respectfully. Here are some of my favorite adaptations and some that are simply a waste of electricity. As always, your actual experience may vary.

Among The Best

1. The Color Purple

Thanks to the ministrations of Steven Spielberg, Alice Walker’s Pulitzer-winning novel of an abused young woman’s journey to freedom was done and done well. Whoopi Goldberg (before Star Trek and The View) shines as Miss Celie, a shy, young woman kicked around by her father and given away in marriage to a man who neither loved her nor respected her. This was also Oprah Winfrey’s first feature film, and she was terrific. Although The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it didn’t win a single one, although other organizations gave it high honors. (Suck on it, Academy.) Although it bugs me that the lesbianism angle was stripped from the book, except for one fleeting kiss. I guess that wouldn’t have been acceptable to film audiences thirty years ago. Still a great movie.

2. The World According to Garp

Because his novels are often so inward-facing and long, John Irving doesn’t always translate well to screen. Released in 1982, Garp was the first of Irving’s movies to hit the screen, so he didn’t yet have the clout to control the script as he did in The Cider House Rules. But under semi-legend George Roy Hill’s directorial hand, the movie was magical. It had so many beautiful moments, and Robin Williams was born to play the lead character, T.S. Garp. John Lithgow is uncharacteristically understated as transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon. Glenn Close plays Garp’s mother, Jennie. Great film!

3. The Accidental Tourist

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is my favorite Anne Tyler novel. I think it might be too subtle for cinema, but The Accidental Tourist made a brilliant movie. William Hurt is phantasmagorical in the lead, an emotionally wounded man who travels but never wants to leave the comforts of home. This movie put Geena Davis on the map, and earned her an Oscar. She does a beautiful turn as the quirky woman who starts to put William Hurt’s character’s pieces together again. I worried about the movie losing some of the beautiful subtle moments of the book, but it didn’t. The director quietly added a brush stroke here, a dab of paint there, and made it almost as good as if not better than the book.

Why Did They Even Bother?

1. Dune

Oh. My. God. David Lynch took Frank Herbert’s brilliant, iconic, multiple-award-winning science-fiction series and turned it into not just, by many accounts, the worst film of 1984 but laughable fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It took me years to get the image of Sting in a metallic diaper out of my head. (Bonus trivia: Patrick Stewart and Alicia Witt had small roles in this film.)

2. The Road to Wellville

This is one of TC Boyle’s earlier novels, and I think the first he undertook about a historical figure. Along with a boatload of short stories and novels, he wrote several more stories of complicated men in this vein, including The Women, about Frank Lloyd Wright, and The Circle, about Alfred Kinsey. Wellville centers around Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (yes, that Kellogg, played by Anthony Hopkins), told from the perspective of a rich young man (Matthew Broderick) who brings his wife (Bridget Fonda) to his Battle Creek Sanatorium. The 1994 box-office-bomb was played for cheap, scatological laughs and decimated Boyle’s book. Even sadder, it was filmed at New Paltz, NY’s Mohonk Mountain House, a resort about a half an hour from me. I can’t go there without thinking of this travesty.

3. Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York

This novel by Gail Parent, previously a television comedy writer, has been called the Jewish girls’ answer to Portnoy’s Complaint. The story is essentially a suicide note by a young, single, overweight Jewish woman in New York who can’t find a husband (because that was essential, back in the day). I read it when I was in my teens, over and over and over again because it was spit-milk-out-your-nose funny. When I heard it was to be made into a movie, I was really excited, but it became a complete and utter disaster. Jeannie Berlin, the actress chosen to play Sheila Levine, was skinny, gorgeous, and didn’t even look Jewish, even though she is Elaine May’s daughter. I give this bomb two thumbs down and a kick in the Balzac.

This is but a small sample of the many. Which of your favorite novels have adapted well to the big screen, and which ones just made you want to scream?

10 Guilty Pleasures

What I love about guilty pleasures is the way they humanize us. Could you even imagine that your firebrand English Lit professor reads romance novels like popcorn? Or that your macho, beer-guzzling neighbor melts while watching Disney princess movies with his little girl? In fiction as in life, these traits define a character. They can help your reader fall in love with a protagonist or empathize with a villain. Remember the nasty, obsessive-compulsive writer Jack Nicholson played in As Good As It Gets? That first scene of him stuffing his neighbor’s dog down the trash chute should have sealed our opinions of him. But then we find out he not only writes romance novels, but hand-feeds that same little dog bacon later in the film. This helps transform him from a cardboard character into a complex and much more interesting one worthy of our empathy. A well-placed guilty pleasure in your characters’ lives could do the same. Here are a few of mine:

1. The Wedding Singer. There are very few Adam Sandler films I like, but I could watch this one over and over. And I have. It’s a cheeseball poke in the 80s’ eye, but I love it. Adam Sandler is sweet and funny as a heartbroken, struggling musician. Drew Barrymore is adorable as the naïve waitress he courts. All of this and a cameo by Billy Idol, too! Aw, now I want to watch it again.

2. Lindt white chocolate truffles. Yes, they’re overpriced and not very good for me, but so smooth and creamy it’s like velvet on your tongue. I have to buy them individually, or I’d down the whole bag.

3. Awards Shows. Oh, make some popcorn and get cozy as the glitterfied and glamorous take to the red carpet! I know some people vilify them as self-congratulatory puffery, but the puffery is why I watch. Some eight-year-old girl inside me is squealing, “Look at all the pretty dresses!”

4. Miss America. This is sort of in the same category as awards shows, as it catches my eight-year-old self in its glitter zone. Beauty pageants, unlike awards shows, have a special cheeseball factor: the interviews. Bliss!

5. Lady Gaga. Finally, a vocalist comes along who understands marketing and branding herself as well as Madonna. The kooky get-ups, the wild videos…and she can sing, too.

6. Legally Blonde. Reese Witherspoon goes to Harvard! So fun!

7. Gilmore Girls. A little saccharine, you might say? But I think this show is brilliant. It’s got quirky characters and great lines, amusingly obscure cultural references, and it’s a kind of comfort food for me. I have the first few seasons on DVD, and the night before my mother-in-law had a radical mastectomy, I chained-watched episodes until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I still watch, nearly every weekday, while I’m on the treadmill.

8. Family Guy/South Park. If either of my parents caught me viewing these shows, they might question the astronomical checks they wrote for my college education. But some days, you just need to laugh your ass off like no one’s watching.

9. Bugs Bunny cartoons. Tell me this isn’t one of yours, too. I double-dog dare you.

10. The Ten Commandments. I loved Ben-Hur, but at the risk of getting bombarded with mail accusing me of heresy, The Ten Commandments is probably one of the most mock-worthy movies ever made. Where to start? The overacting? The ponderous, pompous score? Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price as Egyptians? Or the memorably cheesy lines that make this movie the Greatest Drinking Game Ever Told? (Don’t blame me. Seriously, I went to a Ten Commandments party where people downed a shot for each iconic, but stupid, line.) I still love to watch it.

Okay, now that I’ve embarrassed myself in front of everyone and invited public scorn, it’s your turn. What are some of your guilty pleasures? Why do you like them?

7 Things Bugs Bunny Taught Me About Writing

Since childhood, I’ve been a huge fan of the cartoon rabbit that animator Chuck Jones called “an amalgam of Dorothy Parker, Rex Harrison and D’Artagnon.” Watching Bugs and his Looney Tunes pals again (thanks to a friend’s gift) reminds me of all the lessons that Wascally Wabbit taught me over the years. Some even about writing. For instance:

1. Get your chops down. A daily writing practice keeps you sharp-witted and ready to face down any adversary, including despicable villains, faint-hearted protagonists and loud-mouthed ducks.

2. Don’t take any guff. Is your internal critic jabbering up a storm? Or is some muscle-bound galoot robbing you of your beauty sleep or threatening your carrot patch? You can take them. All it takes is a good strategy and a little charisma to get everyone back in line.

3. No experience is wasted. Even if you miss the left turn at Albuquerque, have to fight a raging bull, or return a crying penguin to the South Pole, try to enjoy the ride. And take a few notes for your next story. After all, it worked for Kerouac and Hemingway.

4. Persistence pays off. You may have to play a lot of bit parts in the chorus before you get your starring role. Is writing is the love of your life? Stick with it and stay in the market for a better chance of becoming happily published.

5. Know when to improvise. Sometimes the script isn’t going the way you want. Acme Instant Holes, exploding cigars, distracting kisses, or cream pies all give you a handy exit strategy.

6. Research rules. Your hero has to stare down a lineup of burly sluggers or play a round of golf to settle a bet with an irate bagpiper, and you know nothing about either sport. Find an expert. Or learn on the fly. Just be prepared to chop up the golf course or give up a lot of homers until you get the feel for it.

7. Rise to the challenge. There are hunters, agents, critics, coyotes, Tasmanian Devils, and other saboteurs around every corner. Animated rabbit or aspiring writer, it’s not an easy life, but a most rewarding one if you choose to accept the challenge.

What about you? Are you rising to your challenges? Or are you searching the Acme catalog for reinforcements?

One Man’s Freedom Fighter Is Another Man’s Antisecrecy Group

Listen to the news sometime. I mean, really listen, beyond the sound bytes, hairstyles, and the cringe-worthy way some of them pronounce “often” and “inundated.” Or that one American network that thinks we’re so stupid, a world map graphic is now used to show where each news story is occurring, even those in large US cities. Try to catch the way anchors, correspondents, and political officials pronounce the names of countries. Take note of the adjectives used to describe potentially inflammatory individuals, situations, or groups. It’s really fascinating. Can you imagine the groupthink that went into those decisions? I see a bunch of suits in a room, bandying about various phrases, cringing in anticipation of the angry letters they might get if certain terms are used. It’s lead to some interesting tweaks of the English lexicon.

For instance, my Journalism 101 professor, who looked exactly like J. Jonah Jameson, said the word “try” is a big tip-off to media bias. As in, “The president tried to rally foreign leaders to get behind his peace agreement.” Meaning, “Our editorial slant is that we disapprove of the president and hope his flawed, imprudent agreement fails.”

But that’s old news. With a 24-hour news cycle, who has time for subtlety?

How newscasters and politicians pronounce the names of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries is also a clue. The late Peter Jennings, Canadian by birth, suddenly became Latino when he had to say “Nicaragua” or “Ecuador.” It’s silly, really, a politically correct nod to our neighbors to the south, whom I’m sure are lovely people, but probably wouldn’t mind if we pronounced their countries’ names with our American accents. Do you hear that on the BBC? I don’t think so. Listen now, as President Obama pronounces “Pakistan.” PAH-ki-stahn. Are you guessing that news outlets rooting for his failure probably doesn’t pronounce it that way?

Certain terms are also buzzwords pointing to editorial slant. Remember Ronald Reagan? (Google it, kids.) Remember his dealings with the Nicaraguan Contras? This band of fighters resisted the Sandinista government that took control after dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle was overthrown in 1979. Taking a cue from the French Resistance in World War II, the contras were called “freedom fighters” by the CIA and the Reagan administration. The contras themselves preferred to be known as “commandos.” And I’m pretty sure the Sandinistas (and those on the American left who supported them) didn’t call the Contras “freedom fighters.” Probably more along the lines of “rebel scum.”

The US media had a little tussle with itself after 9/11, about the use of “terrorist,” an emotionally charged word that was often applied indiscriminately to refer to people who weren’t “actual” terrorists. This led to terms like “enemy combatant,” which the Obama Administration dissed in 2009.

And now, Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has journalists scratching their heads again. Some outlets debated the use of “whistleblower,” and if Assange is truly thus. The New York Times now calls WikiLeaks an “antisecrecy group.” Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden call him a terrorist. So now, one man’s terrorist is another man’s antisecrecy advocate. Just doesn’t roll off the tongue.

What euphemisms have you heard rolling off the tongues of those on the news? How do you think we should pronounce Pakistan? Join the discussion!

Wackiest Writing Advice I’ve Gotten

I don’t know why, but tell someone you’re a writer and more often than not, you will walk away with unsolicited advice, maybe from a tidbit that person heard on Oprah last week. Even asking for advice can be trouble. Some of the head-scratchingest advice I’ve gotten has been from those in the book industry. Here are some of the wackier things I’ve heard: (Note: Your actual experience may vary.)

1. Write what you know. Pretty much every writer has been hit with this one. Yes, writing about people, places and situations you are intimately involved with might make your writing more immediate and more powerful. (How could Mark Twain have pulled off so many of his great novels if the Mississippi didn’t course in his veins?) But this type of dogma can limit your creativity by forcing you to focus solely on what and whom you’ve been exposed to. What about science fiction and fantasy writers, who imagine worlds so palpable it’s hard to believe they don’t exist in “real life”? How could Gene Roddenberry have created Star Trek or Frank Herbert written the haunting, sandworm-infested world of Dune if they’d stuck solely to writing what had passed by their eyes and ears? Perhaps we could tailor that phrase, as many have suggested, to read, “Write what you want to know.”

2. Comedy doesn’t sell. Augh! And me, a (mostly) comedy writer! Yes, comedy is subjective. This may be why some agents are reluctant to take it on. But there sure are a lot of people buying Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Sophie Kinsella, Rita Mae Brown, Nick Hornby, Dave Barry, and this guy, who you should not read, apparently, if you have a heart condition or are drinking any liquids.

3. Adults don’t want to read stories with teen protagonists. An agent told me this, as I shopped around a novel with a sixteen-going-on-thirty-year-old protagonist. I think it’s ridiculous. Had she never heard of Holden Caulfield? Or maybe Bella Swan? Twilight readers aren’t all teens. Many of them are mothers of teens.

4. The novel is dead. Are you kidding me? We could argue about the possible disappearance of printed novels underneath the wave of e-book sales, but story itself? No. We humans want to read stuff about other human beings. Or Romulans, depending. Sales figures show that. Categories may shift in popularity (vampires this month, cheeky British singletons the next) but taken as a whole, novel sales are not horrible, with romance novels at the lead.

5. Women can’t write male POV characters (and vice versa). This is a fascinating bit and I could probably write a whole blog (or two) about it. A teacher of mine, for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration, regularly lectures women writers to stay out of men’s heads. That we couldn’t possibly know how men think, and if we asked one, they’d lie. I have a problem with this. Yes, I’ve read many stereotypical, cardboard or just plain WRONG female POV characters written by men (Steve Martin’s Shopgirl in particular disturbed me), and I imagine you guys could give me a few examples of off-key male characters written by women. But have you read Memoir of a Geisha? Arthur Golden did his research, interviewed geishas and even made himself up as one so he could get closer to the characters he wrote so brilliantly about. Jonathan Franzen took some heat for writing female POV in Freedom. NPR’s Terry Gross asked him if, as a man, he’d found it challenging to write Patty, his female POV protagonist. Franzen merely replied that he’d grown up around women. So, what’s not to know? I grew up with a father, two brothers, and later, a whole bunch of stepbrothers. And mostly (judging from the feedback of guys who’ve done my crits), my male characters are authentic. Unless they’ve been lying to me.

I hope you won’t lie to me. What is the wackiest advice you ever got about writing, or about anything else?

Keeping A Reader’s Trust: It’s All In The Details

I am a detail person. Others define this as a “picky pain in the ass.” But I see it as a positive attribute. It’s important to have a detail person on your side, someone who will find your errors before your readers do. For every Captain Picard there must be a Wesley Crusher, saying why the First Officer’s suggested fix for the wonky warp drive will lead to disaster. For every emperor strutting about in his invisible finery, there must be someone to say he’s got no clothes. And every writer should have another set of eyes on his or her work, particularly a sharp set of eyes belonging to someone who isn’t your spouse or your brother, unless that person can give you the dead-nuts truth. A sharp set of eyes may prevent the following small, but significant errors like:

1.  The dreaded anachronism. This is devilishly hard for people who write historical fiction. Especially those who write stories set in recent decades that many readers might have lived through. I once read a manuscript set in the early 70s (yes, sadly, in our age of immediate gratification this is considered historical fiction) in which a character was drinking a Diet Coke. No. No, no, no, no, no. I am a recovering diet soda addict. I know my products. Diet Coke did not come on the market until 1982. This character would be drinking Tab. Yes, it’s a small, picky pain in the ass thing, but if a reader catches it, this can compromise not only his or her experience but your credibility, too. Do your research. Even for the small things.

2. The location flub. That old bit of writing advice, “write what you know,” is sometimes correct. I don’t put total faith in it, otherwise, where would science fiction and fantasy come from? But if a scene in your book takes place somewhere you’ve never been, particularly if this is a well-known location in that area, learn all you can about it. In the best of all possible worlds, you would go there and take a walk around, absorbing all the details from the sights and smells to the sound and the fury. Then you would know, for example, that the Poughkeepsie train station (see photo), is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been maintained in its original, 1918 style, with wooden benches, and gives off a particular smell that’s somewhere between wet wood and old urine. It would not contain rows of blue plastic seating, as one novelist has described. Since I live near Poughkeepsie and have been to that station many, many times, hearing that novelist’s description made her a much less reliable narrator in my eyes.

3. Why is that character wearing a down coat in the middle of summer? This happens to me at times, especially after multiple drafts of a novel. Playing switcheroo with scenes can often mean little details get ignored. Watch for consistency. If you moved the pivotal argument scene between the protagonist and antagonist from an outdoor skating rink in winter to the protagonist’s cabin in Ecuador, she’s going to be awfully warm in that coat.

Have you come across anything in a novel that’s left you scratching your head? If you write, what do you do to make sure some picky pain in the ass won’t write you a letter about your protagonist’s choice of beverage?