Friday, February 28, 2014

On Privacy - Thinking Out Loud

from Jacqueline

This is going to be one of those “off the cuff” and probably rather long posts – nothing concluded in my mind and without the structure of the well-considered essay.  Just a few thoughts to, perhaps, inspire a few in return – a conversation, if you will.

I’ve been thinking about privacy and its first cousins solitude and silence this past week.  I think about these things a lot.  Not because social media seems to have brought such considerations up close and personal – to coin a phrase – but because I value all three and do my best to cradle them gently, lest I lose them.  And I was traveling all day yesterday through three airports (privacy aside, you pretty much all know how I feel about flying) – and unless you’re driving alone on a deserted road with no radio signal and a dud sound system, travel will always compromise privacy, solitude and silence.

In one airport yesterday, among the people around me, I learned the following:  That the young man in the black pants and black check shirt with a black tie – though the shirt was hanging out of his pants – was on his way to California to make a movie about skiers.  Even the people in not so close proximity to him knew this about him (and I’m using some of his language here) – that he didn’t give a f**k about what so-and-so thought, but everyone just had to get out there and make it happen.  He fielded several calls to this effect, and I was not the only member of his audience – for what does a projected voice demand, but an audience? – to notice that he chewed the inside of his mouth as if he were eating dinner while talking, and he looked around and fidgeted as if he could not concentrate on just one thing.  I did not want to hear any of this, so I moved away, as did other audience members – but we shuffled straight into another “sharing.”  The woman with very dyed blonde hair, a bright pink smock and tight leggings spoke in a voice loud enough to let everyone at gate B9 know exactly what she thought of her ex.  In my book she was trumped by the girl next to me who had to make arrangements for her two dogs, given the delay – I began to worry about her dogs.  Anyone who has been at an airport in the past twenty years would have a similar story of unsolicited information reaching them too loud and too clear.  These experiences led to me thinking about privacy and what we consider it to be now – and I began by looking at myself, and my behavior with regard to that which is personal in my life.

Once, at a meeting of writers, the person interviewing me said words to the effect that, “We know all about Maisie Dobbs and the other characters in Jacqueline’s books, but here’s what we know about Jacqueline – that she’s a writer, that she was born in the UK, and that she lives in California – and that’s it!”  And I wondered if that wasn’t all everyone needed to know.  Around the same time, my then publisher encouraged me to add more about my life to my website – a page with details about my pets, for example.  They wanted to see more about my family, about me – to “share” with my readers. I was pretty much convinced that all my readers wanted to know was when the next book was coming out!  But I went ahead and “shared” more about who I am and what I had done, and it seemed that no big dam of information was breached.  You see, despite what you might read about me or by me, I’m a rather private person.  Or am I?

Writing posts for has given me the opportunity to indulge in the personal essay – and what is the personal essay if not an opportunity to touch the universal by way of the personal? You who visit this blog know quite a bit about me, don’t you?  You know I adore my horse Oliver, that I am getting to know Wolke, who I bought last summer and that Maya, our Labrador was a rescue pup from the LA County Shelter.  You know – I think – that my beloved mare, Sara, had to be laid to rest last summer, and that losing her all but broke my heart.  You know my Dad died in 2012 – I wrote about him on my Facebook page, mainly to thank the booksellers and readers who were so understanding when I had to cancel most of my book tour.  You know that sometimes I like to write about the lighter moments in life, and that at others I write about elements of life that affect me deeply.  But where is the line?  Have I opened a bottle and released the genie of my past, present and future so that nothing is private any more?  I wonder about that sometimes, especially when I skirt very personal questions at events (such as bookstore readings and so on).   I try to use humor when I do that, scanning the audience for the next raised hand.  At one bookstore event several years ago, the bookseller said afterwards that she had never known an author have so deal with so many personal questions, tap-dancing around them. I wondered, then, if perhaps people think I am the characters I write about, and because they know so much about Maisie Dobbs, perhaps they think they know me more intimately than they do, therefore such questions are OK.  I think other authors with a series have experienced the same thing. It’s not that we don’t appreciate every single person who bothered to turn out to see us – heaven knows I am so grateful for that support – but sometimes we unwittingly blur our own line in the sand, and therefore must look to ourselves for the consequences. 

And remember, I’m still thinking out loud.

Although I keep my cellphone with me for emergency purposes, I find I am leaving it off more and more.  I called my husband yesterday from a discreet place in the airport to tell him about the flight delays and that I would call from the car when I’d arrived at my final destination.  Then I turned off the cellphone.  There was nothing important I wanted to say to anyone, and at that point, there was nothing I could do about any emergency that might arise, so it was better left off.  No big-voice sharing from me.

I’m also thinking more about what I want anyone to know about me, and I want to make sure I am clear with myself – what do I want to hold close?  What do I want to reveal because there’s something of a story there. I have shared personal stories when they have inspired something in my writing  - and I love to read the same of other authors.  I’m interested in where stories come from.

Finally, perhaps we all think we’re more interesting than we are.  On the other hand, in the sharing of stories – even the most personal stories – we know we aren’t alone in the world.  There’s something to be said for that – as I said earlier, when the personal becomes the universal.  The word “universe” means “one song” after all, and apparently the root of the word “conversation” means “learning together.”

I just think some conversations are best held in private.

In closing – here’s something I read in “When Women Were Birds” by Terry Tempest Williams:

“It is winter.  Ravens are standing on a pile of bones – black typeface on white paper, picking an idea clean.  It’s what I do each time I sit down to write.”

What do you think?  Maybe we can pick this idea clean ….

Thursday, February 27, 2014

How to Write a Novel Part Six

James O. Born

We've gone through a lot these past six weeks.  We have come to understand what it takes to get our heads on straight and comprehend what we want to say when we start our blockbuster novel.  We’re not quite ready for experimental literature, so were going to follow the three act structure.  Our characters should be deep and interesting with flaws as well as positive traits.  The hero and the antagonist should be equal and have the ability to cause each other serious damage.  And we haven't even got the plot or story yet.
No, I'm afraid we need one more week on characters.  They're just that important.  So we talked about good guys and bad guys.  Basically main characters.  But are they the only two people in your novel?  I doubt it.  Aside from a few books and movies over the years, usually involving some form of nuclear devastation or a worldwide plague, every story has a number of people in it; especially the more realistic police or legal thrillers.
So now we have to think about secondary characters.  But not too many.  There is no set rule on this, but my feeling is once you get past eight or nine named characters things can get confusing.  Especially if some of the names are similar.  I read a review of one of my novels once where someone pointed out I used the same letters to start last names.  It was just a little quirk I had developed, but didn't realize.  I worked so hard at making the characters unique, I screwed up and left their names similar.  There is just so much to keep track of with characters.
The beauty of secondary characters is they can be completely and wildly quirky.  They can talk in rhyme, if that's how you want it to be.  That may not work for a main character, but to have a secondary character with some sort of brain trauma, which has forced them to speak in rhymed verses would be interesting.  At least to me.  And the beauty of writing your own novel is you can explore those kinds of characters.
The secondary characters are intended to support, not overshadow the main characters.  They can help in the hero's quest, but they can't complete it.  Just as they can assist a villain and do a lot of dirty work, but they shouldn't be the brains of the operation.
The secondary characters are what turn good books into great books.  They mark the author as someone with imagination and attention to detail.  I love the supporting cast.  Not just in books, but in TV and movies well.  It's always the goofy brother or the ditzy girlfriend that makes me laugh and keeps me interested in the story.
But secondary characters can also provide great motivation.  If you don't believe me, start a story with a wisecracking, amiable sidekick and see what happens when he gets killed in a shootout with two escaped convicts.  Suddenly the story went from important to personal and you feel it viscerally, rather than interpreted cognitively.
Try a love story without a supporting cast getting in the way of your two star-crossed lovers.  Even a story about cavemen would have a character who wanted to run the tribe and keep the hero from successfully completing his quest.
The other important thing to remember is that no sidekick realizes there are sidekick.  Every character is the hero of their own story.  Just like we talked about last week with villains, no villain realizes they’re a villain.  They think they're justified their actions.  A sidekick doesn't realize they’re only a minor part of a larger story.  To them the protagonist is off doing their own thing while our supporting character is living their life.
Think about the world we live in now.  Are you someone else's sidekick?  Do you have sidekicks?  Who is the comic relief in your life?  Who's your good friend who gives you advice that is always wrong, but you listen anyway?
The beauty of writing your own novel is that in real life you may not be able to fix those things or say what you want at the right time.  When you have a year, two years, or maybe even five years to write your great novel, you can't get the right phrase out at just the right moment and fix all the little things that annoy you in real life.  You can even fix them by killing someone.  That is a scary and awesome ability.  Just remember, the consequences.  In fiction and in real life.

That's what we can talk about next week: consequences.

Monday, February 24, 2014


Patty here

Recently, I attended a presentation held in a room with bad acoustics. A microphone stood next to the lectern but the speaker wasn’t using it, which made her words sound like the low murmuring of a buffalo herd.

I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I looked around. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying the show. My hearing isn’t what it used to be, so I figured I was the only one trapped in mumble-hell. I fidgeted for a few more minutes before whispering to the person sitting next to me.

“Can you hear what she’s saying?”

“Not a word,” he whispered back.

I leaned over and posed the same question to the person behind me, a youngster whose hearing, I hoped, had not yet been downgraded by too many ear-splitting salsa bands. She couldn’t understand the speaker, either. What? So everybody was going to suffer for the better part of an hour and do nothing? Learn nothing?

Martyrdom does not become me. I interrupted the speaker and asked her pretty please to use the microphone. I wasn’t surprised when she seemed surprised by my request. People often think the voice they use to chat with a friend in a quiet tearoom, is the same voice needed to carry sound over the heads of 100 people all the way to the back row.

 News flash: Unless you’ve played King Lear on Broadway, that isn’t how it works.

As if microphone-avoidance-public speakers weren't bad enough, mumbling actors seem to be the darlings of Hollywood television shows and films. Lines are delivered in whispers from actors who seem to have mastered the art of ventriloquism. I sometimes can’t hear them or even read their lips.

A couple of days ago I saw a trailer for Paul’s favorite TV series True Detective. The scene took place in a dimly lit room. The lines were delivered in quiet, intense voices. I couldn’t understand the dialogue. I cranked up the volume, but by that time I'd missed the message.

Usually after I've been lured into upping the volume for quiet scenes like this, a mega-decibel commercial airs that blasts me out of my chair.

I can’t control Hollywood or even people giving talks, except as noted above. However, here's my suggestion, for what it's worth. If you are giving a presentation, please enunciate, speak into the microphone, and if you include a Q & A, repeat the question before answering it. Your audience will love you. Better yet, they will hear you.

Do I sound like a grumpy old person? WHAT? I CAN'T HEAR YOU!


Thursday, February 20, 2014

How To Write A Novel, Part Five

Quickly, I’ll summarize our previous lessons: Read a bunch of novels, know why you want to write a novel, get your head on straight, write it because you enjoy writing, and write fully developed heroes as characters. Pretty easy so far, right? Now we get to the fun part.

Writing villains, bad guys or whatever you want to call the antagonist. Many writers will tell you these are the characters they really get into. In all my years of going to writing conferences, reading about craft and listening and teaching aspects of writing, I think I've heard more about creating bad guys than any other topic. The one phrase that always comes up is, "No one thinks they’re the bad guy of their own story." Even some of the cartoonish James Bond villians are doing things for reasons they think are right. Very few characters are bad just for the sake of being bad.

One of the clear exceptions to that was Thomas Harris’ fabulous creation of Hannibal Lecter. The evil genius from Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs seemed to be diabolical for the sake of being diabolical. He was crazy, but likable. Not crazy in the way of Charles Manson or Paul Levine, but a controlled, focused crazy. People seem to agree that this was a situation where that made the character even more interesting.  He was evil for the sake of being evil. But then later sequels fleshed out the character more and we started to understand why he did some of the things he did. Was Harris wrong to do this? Of course not, it was his novel to write. His series to continue. But this goes back to the earliest rule of writing which is, "There are no rules." 

From my experience, writing novels with criminal bad guys, who sometimes are a little mentally unstable, I like to show that there are other parts of their lives where they function reasonably well. It may be a stable family life or a willingness to be a good father. It may be that they're polite to elderly people or love animals. Just some glimmer of normality that the reader can identify with and not just chaulk up the character’s actions to being a bad guy. You don't necessarily have to put in a reason why they do bad things, but let the reader understand a little bit about them. Let the reader realize they have a certain motivation.

I thought because I can base my antagonists on actual criminals I had met in my previous life. I was never vindictive or nasty to defendants I arrested and often that resulted in long conversations where they would admit things, not necessarily related to whatever charges they were facing. I was always amazed at how people can rationalize the actions they take from theft to homicide. I never met an embezzler who didn't honestly believe they were owed that money. They felt their company had slighted them in some way or withheld compensation and all they were doing was balancing the scales. I never once interviewed a drug smuggler who didn't mention that narcotics should be legal everywhere in the world. And if I pointed out the fact that at the moment they were not legal in the US, the smuggler would not acknowledge that as a viable reason for facing jail time. Even pedophiles can come up with justifications for their actions. No one truly believes they are a bad person.

I like books where I'm not sure if someone is a good guy or bad guy. Sometimes it takes a while to figure it out. Sometimes it depends on your perspective. Maybe someone who is politically motivated and does despicable things meets with your approval because you agree with their positions. Or, perhaps, they’re even more despicable because they hurt the ideals you stand for. 

I like the atypical villain. An older example, which most of you are too young to remember, would be the little girl from The Bad Seed. Angelic looking blonde girl with the sweet voice who ruthlessly murders anyone who gets in her way. Brilliant.

The common theme tying all of these blog posts about writing a novel together is that you can do it your way. You're like a combat soldier, when you understand there is nothing left to lose, you can cut loose and do it anyway you want. Decide that you are not going to get published. You just want to write. In that case, write the book you want to write and do it the way you want to do it.

And have fun creating bad guys. 

Today's famous quote on the rules of writing:

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” 
—W. Somerset Maughan

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

PSU vs. FSU; Aging; True Detective

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Penn State Picks Florida State's Pocket

Penn State, my alma mater, steals Florida State president Eric Barron and will pay him $1.2 million per year, more than double his current salary.  What!  Is he a football coach?  Is he bringing Jameis Winston along?

Actually, Barron is a great choice.  A former Dean of Penn State's renowned College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, he's a world-class climatologist and distinguished educator and administrator.  (He also better be a good fund raiser, in today's climate, and I don't mean global warming).

So, sorry to Jim Born, noted FSU grad.  At least we didn't get Jimbo Fisher, too.

Nice story about Barron here.

Paul Levine Revelation on the Arithmetic of Aging

While swimming laps, this came to me. In my sixties, I have to work out twice as hard to stay in half the condition I maintained in my thirties. Jim Born, on the other hand, is still as youthful as in his rookie cop days.

True Detective: My Favorite TV Show

HBO's "True Detective," which is not about Jim Born, is my favorite show on television. Complex and layered, heavy on dialogue, seeded with literary clues, it's a humdinger, to use one of my father's expressions. To quote Andrew Romano from The Daily Beast:
"In my opinion, True Detective—the story of a pair of retired Louisiana cops and the sinister murder investigation that forever changed their lives—is not only one of the most riveting and provocative series I've seen in the last few years. It's one of the most riveting and provocative series I've ever seen. Period. The acting is brilliant. The plot is addictive. The allusions are rich. The philosophy is mind-bending."

We're now five episodes into the eight-episode season, and it turns out I've been clueless as to many of the clues being dispensed in this murder mystery/thriller. So, for other fans, I recommend, "The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate 'True Detective.'"

And..."The Crazy Mythology That Explains 'True Detective.'" illuminating interview with show creator, sole writer, and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto: "Inside the Obsessive Strange Mind of True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto."

Paul Levine

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Awesomeness of Joss, Gus & Nick

Patty here

Whether you are following the winter Olympics or not, you have to love the story of the trio of young men who swept the men’s slopestyle ski event with the gold, silver and bronze medals. If you’re playing catch-up, here’s a great article from the Los Angeles Times written by Bill Plaschke.

Winning is lovely, or as Joss Christensen (gold), Gus Kenworthy (silver) and Nick Goepper (bronze) would likely say, “awesomeness,” but as a writer, what ignited my imagination was the backstory of each of these young athletes.

Joss Christensen's father died of a heart condition in August 2013. His mother wasn’t sure she could make it to Sochi until friends helped her buy a ticket and get her a hotel room. Joss skied with a photo of his dad inside the pocket of his suit. He said this about his dad: “He’s always supported me and never said stop. I wish he was here and I hope he’s looking down and smiling. I did it for him.”

Gus Kenworthy became an overnight sensation, not only for his skiing but for rescuing a stray female dog and her four puppies from an uncertain future and spiriting them into the safety of the Olympic village. Apparently, the Russians are exterminating stray dogs in the area. I guess they think homeless canines looked bad on the international stage, but reportedly at least some of the dogs belong to families who have been evicted from their homes to make way Olympic roads and buildings. Now Gus is leaving Russia with a silver medal and perhaps a few new friends.

Gus with his new pals

Nick Goepper is from that famous ski destination—Indiana. Indiana? Really? Last time I checked a map, Indiana wasn't anywhere near Aspen or Vail. In his Times article Plachke writes: "As a child, he would spend three months a year skiing down the 400-foot bump of a hill at Perfect North Slopes near his home. It was about one-fourth the size of an average ski resort vertical drop. The other nine months, he would ski off AstroTurf and pipes on a homemade backyard obstacle course." Nick's story is a double whammy: local-boy-makes-good AND success-against-all-odds.

So what does this have to do with writing books? Writers work hard to create characters with this degree of awesomeness. One of the tools I use is to write a personal anecdote about an incident that changed the character in some way. This preliminary background work may never appear in the novel, but I know what happened and that knowledge helps cement the character's psyche and motivation.

hardback cover
The bird-shit cupcakes: Before writing my first novel, I wanted to create an incident to show how Tucker Sinclair’s single mother struggled financially but still tried her best. I also wanted an example of how Tucker learned at an early ago not to be intimidated by bullies.

My books have humor so I decided that in first grade Tucker's mother bakes cupcakes for the class for Tucker's birthday. She uses store-bought frosting but it's expensive so she only gets one can and thins it out with water to make it stretch (Pookie would never be confused with Martha Stewart). The cupcakes are a disaster. A bully in Tucker’s class makes fun of her and tells everybody the frosting looks like bird shit. Six year-old Tucker challenges him in defense of her mother and he backs down.

I had no intention of using that anecdote. It was just for me. But in my second book, Tucker is throwing away leftovers from a disastrous dinner. The white sauce reminds her of the cupcake frosting and she jokes about what happened all those years before.

Get real: The careful planning writers do before starting a novel makes the characters, setting and events real for the reader. The stories of Joss, Gus and Nick touched me emotionally and reminded me not to give short shrift to that phase of writing. Their poignant histories sent me back to strengthen the anecdotes I've already created for the characters in my work-in-progress because back-stories work best when they are replete with emotion and humanity.


Friday, February 14, 2014

A Few Random Thoughts About St. Valentine & His Day

from Jacqueline

 There was a time when sending a Valentine card was done in secret.  You never signed your name, and you left the card somewhere to be found by the object of your desire and affection, or you posted it to their address, anonymously.  That’s how it was always done when I was growing up.  Then I came to America and found that a Valentine is pretty much sent to every man, woman, dog, cat, grandma, grandpa, favorite teacher, aunt, uncle, best friend and, of course, the object of affection from afar.  That is what you could probably call the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

(Caption:  "OK, first things first - did everyone sign the card?"  From last week's New Yorker)

 Both my husband and I (sorry, I know that’s an incorrect locution in the eyes of Americans, but when I was at school we were taught that to say “and me” was bad manners and incorrect. Personally, I think it’s because the Queen says “my husband and I” and of course “over there” what the Monarch says, is what is right.  Which is why a River named the Thames is pronounced “Tems” – and that’s a piece of trivia I’ll save for another time), anyway, as I was saying, both my husband and I tend to either forget St. Valentine’s Day altogether, or we remember at the last minute.  You can see the cogs working in our brains all day.  “Is today someone’s birthday?  The date sure does ring a bell.” We’re like that on our wedding anniversary too – but blame the woman who married us for that one.  She put the wrong date on the marriage license, so we’re never quite sure if we should celebrate on October 21st or 22nd.  Last year my husband called apologizing profusely for forgetting the anniversary – I’d forgotten too, but I wasn’t going to tell him that!

 So, what’s it all about, this Valentine’s Day? 

 According to that fount of sometimes suspect information, Wikipedia, there are many legends surrounding St. Valentine.  “One is that in the 1st century AD it is said that Valentine, who was a priest, defied the order of the emperor Claudius and secretly married couples so that the husbands wouldn’t have to go to war. Soldiers were sparse at this time so this was a big inconvenience to the emperor. Another legend is that Valentine refused to sacrifice to pagan gods. Being imprisoned for this, Valentine gave his testimony in prison and through his prayers healed the jailer’s daughter who was suffering from blindness. On the day of his execution he left her a note that was signed ‘Your Valentine.’”

 I like the idea of marrying people so men wouldn’t have to go to war.  I think Valentine would be all for marrying anyone who wanted to be married, regardless of sexual orientation, color, cultural background, or whatever – that’s what I call family values, and I think our Valentine would have been a staunch supporter of love, never mind from whence it came or to whom it was directed, and who shared that love.  Good for him!

“St.  Valentine’s Day is a day for love, romance and devotion,” says another commentator.  If that is so, then let me count my loves.

I love my family, my husband, my dog, two horses and a cadre of true friends that amounts to true riches in this world – surely more than one person deserves. 

I love where I live ...

and I love where I came from, in equal measure.

 (Don’t worry, I’ll stop the laundry list right there – this isn’t supposed to be a list of Our J’s loves).

But let’s think of love today, and what it means to love without condition, to love until your heart is so swollen you think it might break.  What does it mean to have love for one’s fellow human beings, indeed for every resident of this earth that we love so much?  When I get that far, I think of our poor beleaguered earth, and remember the saying, “You only hurt the ones you love.”

Have a lovely St. Valentine’s Day.  Go on, give the ones you love a great big hug – via Skype if that’s all you can do.  After all, love makes the world go round.

And finally, I really love the fact that the dog next door has stopped barking.  Jeez, talk about testing the limits of love thy neighbor!!!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

How to Write a Novel, Part 4

Building Characters

I have kept up my bargain to blog more often and this gives me a chance to put some of the concepts I use in every class I teach on writing into a written form, and as a bonus I’ve tricked Patty into being my copy editor. I know in my heart it's wrong to take advantage of people as nice as Patty, but it really helps people as lazy as me to have others do my work. This, however, is not what we’re going to talk about today in relation to writing a novel. In week one we talked about preparing to write a novel by reading other novels, studying writing and thinking about our idea.

In week two, we talked about the structure of the novel as relates to a three act play. Always think about the beginning the middle and the end and how you're going to reach each destination. One of my good friends, author Tom Corcoran, used to ask people if they "wrote a novel" or if they "typed a novel." I thought that was one of the greatest sayings of all time. It's so good I can't believe I'm giving proper credit to Tom. Regardless, think about getting your point across in a clear, concise and dramatic way. Don't use filler.

Our last session was just to make sure you're doing all this for the right reasons. Or the wrong reasons. It's your choice.

So today we need to talk about possibly the most important part of your novel: the characters. In fact, characterization is so important that we will break it down into two, separate blogs. This week we’ll talk about heroes or lead characters and next week we can talk about the infinitely more interesting bad guys.

The first thing I like to consider is the physical aspect of the character and I always base it on someone that I know personally. I don't tell that person that they’re the basis for the physical aspects of the character, but it gives me a very clear idea of what that person should look like and how their body type would react to different situations. Being subtle in the description of your character is my personal preference. The old trick of having your hero look in the mirror and assess themselves is a little bit of a cliché akin to the dead guy having written a letter that says, "if you're reading this letter it means I'm already dead." And then the entire novel is summarized and solved in a few paragraphs.  Often having a different point of view is effective in describing a character.

Once, years ago, at a writing conference, I heard a discussion about using a shortcut by saying a character looked like a famous person such as George Clooney. All the writers agreed that this was a lazy way to describe a character. I agree in general, but there are always exceptions to rules.

Next you have to establish your character's demeanor. Are they quiet, boisterous, obsessive, intelligent? These are all big questions to ask yourself before you write a novel. Just avoid the obvious of saying something like, "Jack was a boisterous, intelligent jerk." Instead have Jack walk into a bar and greet people loudly with inappropriate remarks and references to physics. In essence, it's one of the most basic rules of writing: show, don't tell.

If your character is tough, have the opening scene be about him fending off three attackers while digging a bullet out of his chest by himself. Don't just say he is a tough guy. One of the best examples of this I have seen was actually in a film. In the movie LA Confidential, Russell Crowe gets across his anger issues in the most effective means I can remember. I understand he is an actor, but someone wrote that scene. And I don't think it was James Elroy. More likely listed screenwriter Brian Helgeland.
That's Paul on the right, BTW
The hero doesn't necessarily have to be a good guy or girl.  They can have flaws. In fact, they must have flaws. Think of them as real people. Do you know anyone who is perfect?  Aside from Paul Levine, I don't know anyone who has such superior intellectual and physical gifts. Yes, I mean the guy on the right.  Sorry, I just passed out laughing.

Think of the novels that you’ve read and why you root for the character. A good example is James Lee Burke's iconic detective, Dave Robichaux, who questions his own motives in almost every book, but to the reader he is an unquestionably good guy, rescuing orphans from downed planes and adopting them, helping the downtrodden and ultimately dealing ruthlessly with the bad guys. This is a flawed, frail character emotionally who overcomes these obstacles to prevail.

Our own Paul always creates interesting and funny characters with detailed backgrounds. One of my favorites is Jake Lassiter, a former Miami Dolphin who is now a lawyer. His first adventure, in To Speak For the Dead, is great. Below is the cover for Mr. Lassiter's latest adventure.

There are so many different ways to create interesting characters that I would look stupid trying to explain them all here. I would rather look stupid doing something else so I'll leave it up to you to study some of the novels you’ve loved and decide how that author made their characters come alive.

This week’s famous rules for writing (Courtesy of

1. Substitute “damn” every time you’re inclined to write “very." Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

2. Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. Anton Chekhov – The Three Sisters

3. The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.   Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises

Next time we'll talk about antagonists.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sex and Putin: Do I Have Your Attention Now?

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

More Dishwashing, Less Sex?

The New York Times Sunday Magazine struck a nerve over the weekend with a story entitled: "Does a More Equal Marriage Mean Less Sex?"

Based on a study in the American Sociological Review entitled, "Egalitarianism, Housework, and Sexual Frequency in Marriage," the article had produced 862 on-line comments by Monday afternoon.  (Many were modern versions of the out-of-date but perhaps apropos term, "Poppycock!"

The study found:
"that when men did certain kinds of chores around the house, couples had less sex. Specifically, if men did all of what the researchers characterized as feminine chores like folding laundry, cooking or vacuuming — the kinds of things many women say they want their husbands to do — then couples had sex 1.5 fewer times per month than those with husbands who did what were considered masculine chores, like taking out the trash or fixing the car. It wasn’t just the frequency that was affected, either — at least for the wives. The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction."
I'd like to hear readers' opinion.  Not to mention that of noted dishwasher and laundryman James Born.  As I am temporarily single, I don't get a vote.

Putin Gives Me a Pain

I don't know about you, but I just don't like looking at the pompous and arrogant Vladimir Putin, and he's taking the fun out of the Olympics for me. (I half expected the little weasel Edward Snowden to show up at the Opening Ceremonies with the Russian strongman).

At least, humorist Andy Borowitz made me laugh with his New Yorker tomfoolery,  "Sochi Hotel Guests Complain About Topless Portraits of Putin in Rooms."

Paul Levine

Monday, February 10, 2014

Team Woody versus Team Dylan

Patty here… 

The country seems obsessed by the recently revived battle between Woody Allen and his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow over allegations he molested her twenty-one years ago when she was seven years old. Both camps and their defenders have been flaming each other in the press since this article appeared in Vanity Fair last October. 

I remember reading about the abuse charge when it happened but the details had faded. That’s why I was amazed how quickly people took sides: Team Woody versus Team Dylan. The attacks and counter attacks are coming too fast and furious for me to process, but here are a few highlights:
  • January 12, 2014: Woody Allen won the Golden Globe for lifetime achievement.
  • January 27, 2014: Robert B. Weide wrote this article in support of Woody Allen following renewal of the allegations in October 2013.
  • February 1, 2014: Dylan’s open letter in Nicolas Kristof’s New York Times blog, in which she blasts Hollywood in general and Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin in particular for appearing in Allen's Blue Jasmine.
  • February 2, 2014: Ronan Farrow and Mia Farrow tweeted in support of Dylan.
  • February 7, 2014: Allen denies the allegations. 
  • February 7, 2014: Maureen Orth of Vanity Fair speaks out in support of Dylan.
  • February 8, 2014: Rebuttal of Allen's denial by Dylan Farrow and the full text here.
Some commenters on social media and news websites remained neutral but most either were adamant that Woody was telling the truth or that Dylan was telling the truth. After reading some of the back-story and without pointing any fingers, here are some questions: 
  1. Why did Dylan choose to tell her story in the New York Times and why now? I read that she has a book in the works but I could find no evidence that that's true. I hope it isn’t true. If so, it makes her motives murkier. Some people speculate that she’s seeking her fifteen minutes of fame or helping launch Ronan’s career in broadcasting. I dismiss both of those claims as implausible. She says she wanted to tell her story in a voice that had been silenced for so many years, but she also allegedly said that her mother's bombshell revelation that Ronan's biological father could be Frank Sinatra and not Woody Allen overshadowed her story and made her feel as if nobody cared.
  2. Did Dylan warn her siblings before igniting this firestorm? There are deeply personal details in the court custody papers released that could prove damaging, if not to careers, at least to psyches. Some sources report that Mia did not know beforehand that Dylan planned to publish her letter.
  3. It’s been reported that the prosecutor had “probable cause” to file child sexual abuse charges against Allen but chose not to because Dylan was too fragile to testify, and he knew he couldn’t win the case without her testimony. Did he make that decision on his own or was Mia involved? 
  4. Why did Dylan call out Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin in her NYT piece? Was she trying to damage Blanchet’s Oscar chances as well as Allen’s? If so, that would be a damn shame. 
  5. What does Dylan hope to gain? Does she feel that this trial in the court of public opinion twenty-one years after the fact is for the greater good or does she have some other reason? 
No one disputes that these allegations are serious. If true, Allen should be held accountable. Often law enforcement, judges and lawyers believe a person is guilty but that guilt can't be proven. If there is insufficient evidence to convict, the case isn't filed and the accused is excused. Like it or not, everyone in this country is presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. That’s how our criminal justice system works. 

After reading various accounts, I’m leaning toward an opinion about what happened. I'm also remembering the McMartin sexual abuse trial in which children were coached to report fabricated acts of molestation. Until I’m sitting in a jury box, listening to all the evidence, I can't make an informed decision. Right now there’s only one thing I’m fairly sure about. What do you think? 

Woody, Frank, Ronan