Binge Watching and Writing

This week, I have to make a confession.

During the winter, when I had free time, I watched all six seasons of Gossip Girl.

And now you've met my inner snob, who thinks that I should be watching Bergman films and reading Tolstoy instead of a TV show about rich teenagers. But when I can't sleep at night, I don't think of Crime and Punishment. I turn to Netflix. And during that one fateful early morning when I clicked on the first episode in the first season of GG, I wondered if I could even get through ten minutes of this show before I abandoned it. Then it turned out I loved it. I wanted to say “kind of loved it,” but let's be real. I watched all 121 episodes of this show.

When it became clear that I was in it for the long haul, I tried not to judge. I grew curious. What was it about this show that made me want to watch it? If I figured that out, I thought I could perhaps write better books. I was hooked on this story. Why?

So here's my thoughts on why I stayed with Gossip Girl. (Warning: Spoilers abound.)

Visual stimulation: The actors are gorgeous, and they wear beautiful clothes. It made me think about the need for character description. We want to imagine what a character looks like. And clothes say a lot about a character. These details makes the stories more compelling.

Character development: On this show, the characters changed and grew. At the beginning, I thought Chuck Bass was revolting. By the end, he became a beloved character and “I am Chuck Bass” became my favorite line. What happened? They changed his hair. He had the audacity to wear bow ties and violet shirts and I want to say tunics, but now I'm wondering if I’m imagining that. We learned about his past. We saw his vulnerability and his heart.

The same is true with Blair. When the show started, I thought she was less interesting than Serena. But she grew on me. I started to love her gumption, her ambition, her love of detail, her realization of her calling. By the end, I was rooting for her, too. How did the writers do that? We saw her fail many times. She was often humiliated. She learned things and grew more lovable as the episodes went on.

I think the take-away I would try to remember from both these characters is the idea to allow your characters in the beginning to have a great many flaws and to let them take pratfalls. Do not be easy on them. Let them make huge mistakes. We will cheer them up, as they stand up again and somehow persist.

Family History: As I was growing up, I used to love to watch soap operas, specifically Days of Our Lives, with my mom and my sister. Watching Gossip Girl, I was often reminded of those summers, when we tried to watch our episode every day. If we were out during the early afternoon hours, my mother would take us to a restaurant that had tiny television sets in the booth where you could put in quarters, and we could watch our show. I can't remember very many specific details from the story, but I do recall there was one story arc one summer, where there was a character who, unbeknownst to the other characters, had gone mad. I can't remember if the insane person was a man or a woman, but I do know that character was an artist and was painting a portrait of Julie, a beautiful black-haired woman, one of the stars of the show. The painter would never let Julie see the work. But the viewers knew what was going on. This was not a standard portrait. This painting was a distortion, where Julie's face became a fun house mirror of the painter's anger and insanity. But when would she find out? What would happen then? I think I knew before summer ended. Watching Gossip Girl, I realized my love for these types of stories, complete with dramatic entrances and exits, outrageous behaviors, betrayals and mysteries. I have now given myself permission to go as operatic as I want to in my work, knowing that these are the stories that I have loved ever since I was a child.

Obstacles and Dreams Come True: Watching this show, I also recognized the pitfalls of a six-season series. Pacing is difficult. Early on, the viewer wanted two things to happen: Dan and Serena needed to be together, and Blair and Chuck had to be together. That had to be the end result. Today I was trying to figure out today how many times Blair and Chuck almost reconciled and then at the last moment, didn't. I think it may have been six, but that's just off the top of my head. As the series went on, the reasons why they couldn't be together became increasingly ridiculous. The writers did a greater disservice with the Serena/Dan story, sullying their connection to a point that by the end, I had to strain to believe that they would ever want to even hang out together any more. With Chuck and Blair, that wasn't a problem. Despite all their dysfunctions, they still seemed true to each other. I was happy that they did marry, although I was a little bemused by the journey they took.

So in terms of writing, it made me think that you really had to pay attention to the ways that you stymie the eventual outcome. Do the obstacles increase in dramatic importance? Do they make sense? Are the stakes legitimate? Have your characters retained their honor, or can you show why they acted in dishonorable ways so that the dream isn't spoiled by the end? All of these things feel really important to me as a writer.

So there you have it. I do feel I learned a lot from watching Gossip Girl. We had a lot of snow this year, and we were housebound. I would get my exercise and relieve my frustrations by pacing around the room with my headphones on, watching yet another episode of this show, and I was glad I could. If you have had a similar experience with a show you've binge watched, I would love to hear about it in the comments

What's Happening

Since we last met, I got married. It was eight days ago, but it feels like that ceremony took place many moons ago. It was one of those essentially perfect days. First, you have to know that I'm not a girlie girl. The idea of a being a bride in the way that it's often expressed in this culture makes me want to break out in hives. So we went simple. The day of the wedding, Mike and I went to our hair stylist. I showed her the flower crown that I bought on Amazon. I explained to her that I would be wearing a Hawaiian shirt for the ceremony, as would Mike. She braided my hair and put it up, and I felt pretty in a way that I could handle. (And this is one of those things that I figure you will either understand or you won’t. Either way, that’s okay.)

Then we drove down to Manteca, met some friends, and got married at Billie Hill's Hillbillie BBQ. No one had ever gotten married there before. We marched in with a music stand, and our friend Melissa wore her ministerial garb, and we had a spangled microphone, and my friend Lis, a professional videographer, recorded the proceedings, and people at the bar and on the other side of the restaurant watched with great bemusement, while I glowed and thought, “This is so us.”

So that happened, and then we went back to real life, except now I punctuate ever other sentence with “husband,” or “now that I'm your wife,” and it's rather obnoxious and fun. I'm getting over it, but that's because it feels like we got married a dinosaur age ago.

In the days that followed, I finished a solid draft of my book, The Sharpest Claw, Book 2 of the Cats of the Afterlife series. When I felt good about this draft, I turned it over one more time to one of my readers and my developmental editor to make sure the nuts and the bolts are in place. I went for a walk and listened to a Jane Austen book. I felt like fist pumping every bend in the trail. I only did it twice. I felt like I ran a good race. Here's some thoughts on this process:

You have to know that I'm of the Elizabeth Gilbert school of thought re: books and money. I would welcome abundant financial compensation for the writing that I do, but I don't have it linked to my everyday survival. I work as an editor and as a transcriber for food, rent, and utilities, and other everyday expenses that need to be addressed. I write for an hour a day. But that gives me the freedom to write about whatever I want and to schedule it however I want. That feels important to me. If I didn't have that underlying philosophy around writing, this book would have felt torturous to me. It was a tricky process, full of open doors that looked like dead ends, and if I had a linear timeline with a mandatory deadline, I would have felt very frustrated writing this book. Instead, as much as I could, and I would say that I was able to adopt this philosophy 85 percent of the time, I chose the attitude of curiosity and a sense of adventure. I trusted my characters and I trusted myself, even when it looked like a big mess.

This time around, I became seriously aware of the practice of planting seeds, of being okay with not having an immediate answer. Over and over again, I saw that when I had a question about a character or a plot point, I could recognize my uncertainty, let it go, and the answer would come to me. For this book, when I handed over an earlier draft to readers and my developmental editor, and I knew that it was problematic, but I didn't know how to fix it, I decided to read Save the Cat! Writes a Novel while the draft was in other hands, and it, plus my readers' and editor's feedback, gave me answers that made the revision process, although challenging, exciting.

There was a time once, when I was on a day job, and a co-worker called me a Pollyanna, and I considered that a major insult, and I adjusted my attitude so I was as cynical and grumpy and nonsupportive as everyone else there. That was a big mistake, and I now choose a path intrinsic to my nature. I am a Pollyanna. I can shout to you from the rooftops that writing is a magical, joyous experience. Will I have doubts and fears and foggy paths again? Sure. But I think these tools and this attitude will take me a long way. I hope it is in some way helpful for you.

Check-In

Apologies for the no-show last week.

Here's the thing: I'm getting married soon. We are having a very simple wedding that is deceptively complicated. It's easy to think about things in the abstract, but when it gets down to it, you have to visit the place where you want to go and talk to the people there. (Or at least I do. I'm horrid on the phone.) You have to consider apparel. (I ordered what looked like an inexpensive, what-could-go-wrong dress from Amazon. The color in real life was hideous, and it looked horrible on me. That's when I decided to follow Mike's lead and go Hawaiian for the event. As I said, it's casual.) And then there are the accessories. When Mike suggested that I wear a floral crown, I barked out “No!” as soon as the words were in the air. But then a few days later, I thought that it might actually be nice. So I should be receiving a floral crown in a few days. After the dress experience, my hopes are not high. But that's all right. I can always focus on some other sort of floral doo-dad if I so choose. Writing this down, it all seems frivolous and trivial, but it somehow has taken up a lot of mind space this past week.

In the actual writing life itself, I'm hard at work on the revision of The Sharpest Claw, the sequel to The Loudest Meow. It's actually been a really fun process where I lose track of time and I seem to know where I'm going. (Ha, ha!) It really helped when, with the feedback from my beta readers and my developmental editors, I figured out that I had several stories competing in one book. Actually, today, at breakfast, I thought of another storyline I wanted to pursue, perhaps in Book 3, and I had to stop myself and say, “I think that would actually be its own separate book.” It's quite liberating, to let stories have their own books. (Does any other writer reading this have this problem? Am I the only one?)

Finally, I had intended last week to write some thoughts on this article about how to mentor someone. In my life, I have sought out mentors because I've had so much to learn, and I wanted to learn everything. My experience goes along with what is reported in this article. I believe the best mentors are the ones that can look at your work and see your strengths and encourage you from there. Writing is challenging. It's easy to throw up your hands and say it's too hard. I've done that many times. You need a mentor who understands your work and can help you figure out how to make it bloom, knowing that over time, if you continue, you will get better. You can tackle more complex things, be able to see your faults more clearly as your writing days continue. But you need someone to see the good in you. You need intelligent cheerleading, both with your inner voice, and with the people you choose to invite in on your writing. Anyway, if this interests you, check out the link, and I will see you next week.

How Writing Has Changed Me

This morning, after a delicious breakfast at a Greek diner, I suddenly thought about how writing has made me a better person. It was something that I felt I needed to tweet about immediately, but then I thought I would expand on it here.

Writing teaches patience. In my experience, in order to write, you have to let go of at least a certain amount of control. Characters pop in my head and demand to be part of a story. They go on stirke when they're not happy with a turn of event. I have to listen to them in order to move on. I may have to move like a turtle and hang out in the sun until I have that aha moment that seems to come when I surrender and relax.

Writing makes me hunble. I think I know what I'm doing, and then I'm thrown for a curve. I experience days of rotten sentences or moments where nothing inspires me, and I feel like I'm right back to being a rank novice once again. It's happened so often that I'm now adopting an attitude of curiosity about it. What else can I learn? What is my next step? How can I become a better writer?

Writing gives me confidence. I have written three books. Even when times feel rough, I now believe that I can navigate the waters. It may take me a while. I may have to circle the wagon more times than I'd like, but I have faith that I will figure it out.

Writing brings me joy. I've wanted to do this ever since I was a kid. It's been a lifelong dream, and the fact that I can spend a part of every day pursuing it makes me happy.

That's it for now. It's just about time for a dinner of coconut shrimp, and who would want to miss that? To be continued, hopefully, for the rest of my li

The Oscars, Income Tax, and Writig

I'm terribly late this week.

I'm blaming the Oscars and income taxes.

I have watched the Academy Awards ever since I was a little kid, first with my mother and my sister, then with friends, and in the past few years by myself. It's best that way now. In my current grouchy years, I can no longer stay riveted on the proceedings. I have to be doing something else while I watch. Otherwise I would be bored. I would feel like I had eaten multiple boxes of candy. Don't get me wrong. I love chocolate. But I need only a certain amount, and I need to accompany it with something meaningful.

This year, I started watching at my typical time—the beginning of the red carpet festivities. I studied fashion far removed from my typical home uniform—a bathrobe beloved by our young cats. One of these cats, Samantha, will only sit in my lap if I'm wearing this robe. Both she and Indiana love to suck on the right sleeve. The left sleeve? Blah. The right sleeve is irresistible. And while this pageantry of color and glamour and varying necklines unfolded before my eyes, I would look down every moment or so at the papers scattered around me to start preparing my taxes.

I think in the future I will always hyphenate what I once considered Academy Awards Day. From now on, I will call it the Academy Awards-Tax Preparation Day. It worked quite well for me. It's hard to feel anxious about numbers while movie stars in evening wear pose in front of you. And there's the feeling of synchronicity when the ceremony begins, and while they're announcing the results of categories, I am working my way through my financial considerations. I ended up feeling quite satisfied, even though I hadn't seen hardly any of the films this year, and I still don't know the answer to my taxes, as I was just getting the numbers ready for my accountant to notify me of the final verdict. I will say that, to my surprise, I liked the no-host option, and I was thrilled to see Queen 2.0 with Adam Lambert take us through a few songs to launch the show.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, usually Sunday, I spend time figuring out what I want to write for this blog, and I get it done, while this week, I celebrated my holiday which I've honored ever since I was small and which now is a hyphenate. That's one reason. The other is, a kind of awards show wriggled its way into my draft a while ago, and while it now seems that it will turn up in a later book, it was one of my favorite things ever to write. Because even when previously adored things grow to seem a bit silly and maybe even tedious, they are still much loved, and that makes them really fun to stick in a scene. Try it and see!