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Smash Cut by Brad Gooch: Are You Cool Enough to Read This Book?

Smash Cut by Brad Gooch:  Are You Cool Enough to Read This Book?

*Check out my blog post for Carve Magazine about the Disabilities Panel at AWP 2015!*

Recently I became a book tour host.  Here’s how it works:  I tell the fine people at TLC Book Tours what types of books I like, and they send me free ones. I read the books and review them on my blog. It’s a win-win situation:  I get books; the authors get publicity. And, unlike a paying book review situation I did a few years ago (which shall remain nameless), I’m not required to give positive reviews. I can say whatever I want. Which means you know you can trust the following review of my latest TLC book…

Smash Cut by Brad Gooch is many things. At first I thought it a slightly pretentious, name-dropping memoir. Or perhaps a nostalgia-soaked literary ode to artsy-gay New York in the ’70s and ’80s. But as I got deeper into the book, I realized it’s something more. It’s a love story.

When I started reading Smash Cut, I didn’t know who Howard Brookner was, but a quick look on Wikipedia reveals that his life, especially the latter half of it, reads like a tear-jerker movie. He was a young director who gained fame for his documentary on William Burroughs (from whom he picked up a pesky heroin habit). His first feature film, The Bloodhounds of Broadway (starring Madonna, Matt Dillion, Jennifer Grey, and Rutger Haur), turned out to be his last. He was secretly battling with AIDS during the filming and died shortly before the movie was released, at the age of thirty-five.

Director Howard Bookner with William S. Burroughs, 1983. Photo credit.

In Smash Cut, the story of Howard comes packaged in the story of Brad, Howard’s long-time lover and best friend. In fact, Smash Cut is really Brad’s story, and perhaps that’s its downfall for me. The scenes without Howard — when Brad goes to Europe to pursue male modeling, for example — feel superfluous and indulgent, despite the fact that they are rather fascinating. It isn’t until Howard gets sick and the story turns its focus to him that I felt the true power of the book and the heart-breaking emotion behind Howard and Brad’s relationship.

The thing is, I’m a person who wants a story. I want a building of tension and a climax, and although that is certainly what happens in the second half of the book, memoirs can’t always have the arc of fictional stories. The first half of Smash Cut is more descriptive: of the clubs the men went to, of the eccentric/witty people they knew, as well as episodic: that time they went home to meet Brad’s parents, those nights when they hung out with Andy Warhol. There is a trajectory of sorts to be found in Brad and Howard’s relationship, but for a long time they are on-again, off-again and the story feels rather random…much like life, I suppose.

Let me be clear:  there are people who will love this book. If you were a gay man or an artist/model/literary type in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll love Smash Cut. If you wish you had been an artist/model/literary type in New York in the 70’s and 80’s, you’ll love Smash Cut. If you’ve fantasized about hanging out with people like William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Madonna, or Sean Penn, you’ll love Smash Cut.

Brad Gooch

Brad Gooch

 

And there were times that I loved this book, too.  It’s sophisticated and elegantly written, and besides, who doesn’t want to read juicy tidbits about Sean Penn?  But sometimes I felt that instead of welcoming me into this fascinating world, Gooch’s references and his endless parade of “who’s who in New York” friends made me feel like I wasn’t quite cool or smart enough to join his private party. At one point Gooch describes being in love with Howard, “in a cool fashion that didn’t exclude others” (66), but this memoir, especially at the beginning, alienated me at times with its name-dropping, its tangents, its references to things I didn’t quite grasp. (Describing someone as having a Mark Spitz mustache, for example, doesn’t help when I don’ t know who Mark Spitz is.)

On the other hand, there are also parts of Smash Cut that speak universal truths and hit emotional chords. Strip away all the celebrities and witty dinner parties, and what you have left is the story of two people trying to figure out love and death.  As morbid as it sounds, I was most engaged when Howard got sick. Brad had no choice but to grow up; to care for his dying partner and face his own mortality as well. This is something everyone can relate to, and it’s what ultimately makes this book an ode — not to artsy-gay New York in the ’70s and ’80s — but to the love and friendship between Howard Brookner and Brad Gooch.

Brought to you by TLC Book Tours!

Brought to you by TLC Book Tours!

AWP Pickup Lines, or, How Important is Platform?

AWP Pickup Lines, or, How Important is Platform?

Last week 12,000 writers and editors convened in Minneapolis for the annual AWP Conference (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs)… Perhaps you were one of them? Maybe you were there for the panel discussions and poetry readings. Maybe you came to buy or sell books at the book fair (or collect the free candy). But certainly you were also there, like everyone else, to network.

Sure, success in the literary world isn’t all about who you know, but who you know can help. I got my agent, for example, through a good word from my mentor, and I got my mentor through a suggestion from my friend Jeni Wallace. I didn’t meet Jeni at AWP, but you might have. She’s gone every year for over a decade.

But making contacts at AWP is no easy feat. You know the scene: thousands of sleep-deprived writers milling around under the fluorescent lights of the convention center, trying awkwardly to make conversation, despite the fact that most of them would rather be at home on the couch, curled up with a good book.

Eva and Jeni Wallace at the AWP 2015 book fair.

 

This was my third official AWP, and I told myself that this year was going to be all about making contacts. I have good reason to be collecting friends and followers. I’m now the Features Editor for Compose Journal and will soon need people to write articles for me. I’ll also (hopefully) have a book coming out some time in the next two years. And yet, I found it nearly impossible to tell people either of these things, much less hand out my silly business cards which have a picture of my face on them. I didn’t want to come off as a shameless self-promoter, like those aggressive types who thrust at you glossy postcards advertising their latest self-published memoir and then proceed to talk your ear off about it. So, I did what I normally do: I worked at the Burlesque Press table (my friend Jeni Wallace is the director) and promoted Jeni’s literary endeavors instead of my own.

But this AWP, a funny thing happened. On the first night of the conference, I composed a tweet using the hashtag “#AWP15,” I noticed that there was another trending hashtag: “#AWPPickupLines.” I laughed and told my fiancé.

“Tweet, “I’m an editor…wanna submit to me?”” he suggested.

“That’s pretty good,” I told him. So I did.

By the next morning, my tweet had been favorited and retweeted over thirty times, and I had eight new followers. I was pretty excited. I had managed to network without stepping foot inside the convention center. And I started to wonder, did I even need to go to AWP? I could sit at home in my pajamas and use Twitter to make just as many — probably a lot more — contacts than I ever could in person.

My friend (and former professor) Bill Lavender, founder of Lavender Ink, at one of the offsite reading events I attended.

On Thursday I went to a panel in which a cranky author complained about how the publishing world is now linked so heavily with social media. (And it’s true — last year I nearly got an agent through Twitter.) “My agent made me get a facebook page and an author website,” he complained. But I don’t share his negativity. If I can use social media to find readers and make contacts from the comfort of my own home… that seems pretty sweet to me.

In fact, I started tweeting more “#AWPPickupLines,” hoping to get more followers, although none of my lines were quite as good as the first one, nor garnered as immediate of a response.  (“Wanna sit on MY panel?” and “I’ve got two drink tickets in my pocket…”)

Then I started to wonder — are my Twitter followers really going to contribute to the success of my career? Writers are always being told to build platform, but according to my dear friend Jeni (who knows about these sorts of things), less than one percent of all your facebook fans and followers will actually buy your book when you have one. And according to Stephanie Bane at Creative Nonfiction, platforms are overrated:  “If you reach all one thousand fans of your author page no fewer than three times with an announcement of your book release, and include a link to Amazon, you could reasonably expect ten of them to buy your book.” And, she points out, only six percent of your fans are likely to see each of your posts, so that ten book estimate is extremely optimistic.

You know who might buy your book, though? Friends and acquaintances. And I’m not talking facebook friends or Twitter followers. I’m talking people you have met and interacted with in person. Think of how easy it is for people to click “follow” or “favorite.”   It’s just as easy for them to disregard what I have to say.

I think social media is important, and I’m thrilled to have more followers, but making the in-person contacts is important, too. In the end, you have to do both. Sure, I only made two or three real connections at AWP this year —  I’m talking people with whom I might actually get in contact or stay in touch.  That’s not much, but I suspect one face-to-face friend is worth twenty of the facebook variety.

My business card.  I gave out exactly three at the conference.

My business card. I gave out exactly three at the conference.

The Importance of Being Alone: Artist Dates & A Super Art Fight

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The Importance of Being Alone:  Artist Dates & A Super Art Fight

I’m getting married soon, but I was single for most of my twenties. I didn’t necessarily like being alone, but I got used to it. The first time I went to a movie by myself (Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, when I was 25), I felt awkward standing in line alone, but I soon realized it wasn’t that bad… even sort of nice.  Eating dinner alone at restaurants and drinking alone at bars aren’t quite as fun, but I’ve done both more than once.

As far as doing things alone goes, I have this strong memory from when I was 29 and single and living in DC. It was a Saturday evening. My roommate was gone (she spent most weekends in Maryland with her boyfriend), and all my friends were busy people with whom I had to make plans weeks in advance. So I was alone in the quiet house.

I was looking online at events for the next weekend when I realized there was something called “Super Art Fight” going on at one of my favorite venues on H Street… and it was starting in forty-five minutes.

It was too late to call around and find someone to go with me, and I wasn’t sure that any of my friends would actually want to go. Besides, I always felt guilty when I invited people to something that ended up being lame, and I had no idea what this “Super Art Fight” would be like. So, without giving it too much thought, I put on a pair of boots, grabbed my ipod, and headed out the door.

I also went to see the cherry blossoms alone.

That year, I also went to see the cherry blossoms alone.

 

It was a cool night, but not too cold. Feeling invigorated, I hoofed it the two miles to H Street, listening to my favorite songs on my ipod. I felt oddly exhilarated and free. I could stay out as late as I wanted. I could leave whenever I wanted. I didn’t have to feel guilty if the event sucked. I wouldn’t have to answer to anyone by myself. I smiled and took flying leaps over cracks in the sidewalk. I was strong and independent and a little bit wild! It was the happiest I’d felt in a while.

The happy feeling continued as I walked into the club, bought my ticket, and ordered myself a beer. Then I stood waiting for the event to start. With no one to talk to, I was hyper aware of myself and my surroundings. I watched the couples, the groups of friends; I noticed their body language and clothing and tried to guess at their relationships to each other. I wondered if people assumed I was waiting for someone, or if they realized I was alone. Maybe someone would come talk to me. I took a swig of beer.

No one came to talk to me, and after a while I realized that, in all likelihood, the other people at the club hadn’t noticed me at all because they were busy having conversations. The exhilaration from my walk was gone. I felt awkward and alone.

Then the show started. Two artists competed, each drawing on giant paper canvases while a punk band played video game song covers. It was (nerdy) fun, but I wished I had someone to talk to. Instead, I had to make comments to myself (in my head) about the action on stage. When intermission came, I checked my watch. Ten o’clock. My feet hurt from standing. I didn’t want to spend the twenty-minute intermission standing alone, feeling awkward. So I walked home. Despite how it sounds, I was glad I went.

 

I think this sums up what it’s like to do things on your own, at least for many of us. It can feel liberating and empowering. But it can also feel awkward and lonely, especially if you’re at a place where everyone else is being social. But I think it’s an important thing to do, especially for writers and artists. Because being alone makes you more aware — of both your surroundings and yourself.

In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests we get into the habit of taking ourselves on weekly excursions she calls “artist dates.” This could be a trip to a museum or a park or a bookstore (or to see a Super Art Fight). It’s simply spending quality time with your inner artist — and no one else. When you go on an artist date, she says, “you are receiving — opening yourself to insight, inspiration, guidance.”

Sounds like a good idea. And yet, I didn’t want to do it.  I’ve done the alone thing, I thought, when I first read about artist dates. Now that I have Paul, I don’t have to do things by myself any more. But I think I should, at least sometimes.

Think about it — you go on dates to get to know someone better, right? Well, even though going places alone isn’t always fun, it will help me get to know myself (and my “inner artist”) better. Even though it might bring up insecure feelings of loneliness, experiencing these emotions might be important.  Arist dates will help me to really notice the world, what I think of it, and where I fit into it. And like Cameron said, artist dates are a way of opening myself up to insight.  I won’t be able to hear my muse if I’m having a conversation with someone else.

So this past Saturday, I went on my first official artist date to the Macy’s Flower Show.  And I made a list of other date ideas (besides taking solitary walks, which I don’t think counts for me since I do that all the time already.)  I don’t know if I’ll go on an artist date every week, but I’m definitely going to try to take myself out more and get to know myself better!

The Macy's Flower Show in downtown Minneapolis.

The Macy’s Flower Show in downtown Minneapolis.

 

Where I’ll Be at AWP

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Where I’ll Be at AWP

The AWP Conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is this week, and in case you’re new to this blog, AWP and I have a strange synchronicity.

Back when I decided to give up full-time teaching to focus on writing, I moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts to be a “writer in residence” at my friend Nikki’s house. (OK, so I bitched to her about how I never had any time to write, and she offered me her guest room, rent-free, for what ended up being six months — the squeaky wheel gets the freakin’ oil, ya’ll.) Anyway, that happened to be the year (2013) that the AWP Conference was being held in Boston, a convenient hour’s drive away. So I went.

The Burlesque Press crew at Boston AWP 2013.  (Eva, Daniel, Jeni, Merridith.)

The Burlesque Press crew at Boston AWP 2013. (Eva, Daniel, Jeni, Merridith.)

While living on the Cape, I met the man who eventually became my fiancé. He ended up getting a job in Seattle, so I moved there with him. Guess where AWP 2014 was held. Yep, Seattle. How convenient. So I went.

Then Paul’s job told him he needed to move to Minneapolis, which is where we’ve been living since September. And guess where the AWP Conference is this year. Yep. Almost too freaky to say it, but I will: Minneapolis. How convenient. Obviously, I’m going.

And maybe you are, too?!

At the AWP Conference 2013

At the AWP Conference 2013

If you’ve been to AWP before, you know it’s gigantic and overwhelming and has a tendency to make you feel small, stupid, and uncool. The days are spent wandering around under headache-inducing fluorescent lights, listening to panels and trying to avoid eye contact with the people selling stuff at the book fair. The nights are spent at various readings and parties, where introverted writers gulp wine and make awkward small talk.

It’s a much better experience when you know people, even if they are vague acquaintances. So… come find me! Even if you don’t know me well, or at all, I’ll be flattered that someone wants to talk to me. I’m very friendly and non-threatening, and I might even ask if you’d like to write a feature for Compose Journal (because I’m now the Features Editor). Anyway, I’d rather make awkward small talk with somone than stand alone, awkwardly talking to no one.

Come find me!

Jeni Wallace and Eva, AWP 2014 in Seattle.

Jeni Wallace and Eva, AWP 2014 in Seattle.

Here’s Where I’ll Be at AWP:

-At the Burlesque Press table at the Book Fair (#515). I will be working and/or hanging out a fair amount here. I’m good friends with the director of Burlesque Press, Jeni Wallace, and her husband, Daniel, and trust me, these are some good people to know in the literary world. If I’m not at the table, you should totally talk to them. They will be selling their first book, Siren Song by Tawni Waters, and hyping the third annual Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball, which will be held this coming December in New Orleans.

-Wandering around the Book Fair, amassing candy and other freebies. Hey, that’s what it’s there for, right?.

-Attending a few panels, especially those about YA and Middle Grade fiction.  I may also go to the following panel:  A Thread Through the Labyrinth: Learning and Teaching Plot, at AWP, but even if I don’t, I strongly suggest you do, as I guarantee it will be helpful and not just a bunch of senseless babble.  Here’s the description:  Lynne Barrett, Joy Castro, Lauren Grodstein, and Daniel Wallace will discuss how writers well-trained in other aspects of writing fiction are often confused and daunted by plot, lost in its maze of possibilities. We’ll share our experiences learning how stronger plot invention enhances character, structure, and meaning in novels and short stories, and will suggest approaches to teaching how to perceive, discuss, and evaluate plotting. We’ll offer charts, maps, and other techniques for devising and envisioning a plot’s twists and turns.

-Walking to and from the Convention Center (I live downtown, about a mile away.)  Depending on the weather, I’ll walk outside, or try to navigate through the Skyway.

-At the following fun offsite event.  It’s a free (and open to the public) reading and reception this Friday night:

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Carp Poem, or, Are You Hungry for Poetry?

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Carp Poem, or, Are You Hungry for Poetry?

April is National Poetry Month, and I’m sad to say I don’t read much poetry. I could blame it on the Internet. In his article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr says the Internet has turned us into a nation of skimmers. People don’t have patience these days for deep reading, and deep reading — slow, careful, thoughtful — is exactly what you need to do to appreciate poetry. Internet or no, I don’t think I’ve ever had a lot of patience for poetry. Which is unfortunate. I’m missing out.

I know so much about “Is Google Making Us Stupid” because in my job as a college tutor/mentor, I’ve helped two different students write essays on the article for their Freshman Composition class. And that same Freshman Comp class recently assigned a poetry analysis.

I nudged my student to write his paper about “Carp Poem” by Terrance Hayes (see full poem below). I had never read it before, but a quick glance made me think it would be easier and more straight forward for him (a nineteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome) to understand than the other option, a Sylvia Plath poem.

Poet, Terrance Hayes. He’s very accomplished — check out his bio.  photo credit

 

If all I had ever done was that initial skim of “Carp Poem,” I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But, since I was helping this student with a paper, I read the poem again, more carefully.

I admired the way Hayes compared a pond of densely-packed carp to orange-jumpsuited boys in a crowded prison. And I loved the part about how maybe Jesus was able to walk on the water “that day” because of carp beneath his feet:  “the crackers and wafer crumbs falling / from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish / so hungry it leapt up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed / into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs.”

I then forced my student to listen to me read the poem out loud so we could hear if it had any “sound effects” (something he needed to discuss in his paper). We noticed alliteration:   “bangles, braids, and boots,” and “black men boxed and bunked.”   And I liked the sound of the mouth-garbling line, “so many fat snaggle-toothed fish ganged in and lurching for food.”

Crowded carp pond. Photo credit.

 

But it wasn’t until the third or fourth read-through that I really felt the impact of the last line, and suddenly I loved this poem. I looked over to my student, who had jotted down “hunger” as a possible theme. “What do you mean?” I encouraged.

“Like, the fish are hungry and the boys are hungry,” he said.

“What are they hungry for?” I asked, excitement mounting in my voice.

“Um, food?”

“Listen.” I grabbed the poem out of his hand and read:  “A room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet, / packed so close they might have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.” I looked at my student pointedly. “It’s almost like they’re hungry for poetry.”

And I wonder if maybe the rest of us are, too.

Am I hungry for poetry?  Are you, too?

Am I hungry for poetry? Are you?

It’s hard to read poems. They take time and effort and the slow, careful reading most of us don’t have the patience for. We don’t take the time to read them out loud and listen for “sound effects.”  We don’t take time to process the words and let them conjure up images in our minds.

Plus, there are a lot of crappy and/or pretentious poems out there. Wait, let me revise that to something more PC — there are a lot of poems out there that are not to my taste. But there are also a lot of novels in the world that are not to my taste (and I’ve suffered through some of them); it doesn’t mean I’ve given up reading novels.

I was glad I helped the student with his poetry analysis paper because it forced me to read a poem deeply, and with that deep reading I ended up really enjoying it. (So much so that I forced my fiancé to listen to me read “Carp Poem” out loud when I got home that night.) There are probably a lot more poems in the world that would give me joy if only I could slow down enough to read them.

Because skimming isn’t going to cut it.  If a poem is done right, each word has been chosen carefully; each word carries weight. If you skip a few, you miss a lot.

Slow down with your reading!

Slow down with your reading!

 

One of the things my student couldn’t understand about “Carp Poem” was why the author had broken up the stanzas the way he did. “What’s the point?” he asked.  “Why not just write it as a paragraph?” But perhaps poems need white space as a way to slow down the reader — to give them places to stop and reflect.

This month, I’m going to try to read at least a few more poems. I’m not sure where to find ones I’d like, so I’d love suggestions. I know I won’t be able to cure myself of my impatient reading habits, but I’d like to put some effort towards the occasional deep read. In Carr’s article he says, “in the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading… we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas.”

In this way, reading a short poem can feel like a spiritual feast.  It can become a meditation into our own mind.

 

Carp Poem by Terrance Hayes

After I have parked below the spray paint caked in the granite
grooves of the Fredrick Douglass Middle School sign

where men and women sized children loiter like shadows
draped in the outsized denim, jerseys, bangles, braids, and boots

that mean I am no longer young, after I have made my way
to the New Orleans Parish Jail down the block

where the black prison guard wearing the same weariness
my prison guard father wears buzzes me in,

I follow his pistol and shield along each corridor trying not to look
at the black men boxed and bunked around me

until I reach the tiny classroom where two dozen black boys are
dressed in jumpsuits orange as the pond full of carp I saw once in Japan,

so many fat snaggle-toothed fish ganged in and lurching for food
that a lightweight tourist could have crossed the pond on their backs

so long as he had tiny rice balls or bread to drop into the water
below his footsteps which I’m thinking is how Jesus must have walked

on the lake that day, the crackers and wafer crumbs falling
from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish

so hungry it leapt up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed
into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs,

and don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer too, in the power of food at least,
having seen a footbridge of carp packed gill to gill, packed tighter

than a room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet,
packed so close they might have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.

14 Words to Watch Out for (in Writing and Life)

14 Words to Watch Out for (in Writing and Life)

You know what’s awkward? Having parent-teacher conferences when the student in question is in the room — like the kind I’ve been having lately in my job as a tutor/mentor. You don’t want to kill the kid’s self-esteem or make him feel like he’s being ambushed. On the other hand, you need to express to both the parent and student that his current performance ain’t cutting the mustard. So you end up making tentative statements like, “I’d like to see you putting in a little bit more effort,” or “You’re starting to manage your time a bit better, but you’re still kind of wasting time.”

I often find myself using these types of qualifiers both at home and at work. The other day, when a student came in to work on a paper but instead spent the entire afternoon texting, I said, “I hope when you come in tomorrow you’ll be a little bit more focused.” Then I shook my head. “No.  Correction. I hope you’ll be a lot more focused. I hope you’ll be focused on the paper and not on anything else.”

Stop being so tentative and say what you mean!

Stop being so tentative and say what you mean!

As it turns out, I use these tentative qualifiers in my writing as well. I’m doing yet another revision of my novel (but my agent says we’re getting close to being done!) and I have noticed sentences like:

She felt slightly dizzy.

She was almost frightened.  

She was starting to feel somewhat confused.

Gosh, I thought, why don’t I go ahead and make her dizzy instead of slightly dizzy? As for the second sentence, what does “almost frightened” mean anyway? Either you’re scared or you’re not. And “she was starting to feel somewhat confused” is so far removed from the actual feeling. Do I really need all those qualifiers chipping away at the significance of the sentence?

Because, see, the problem with those parent-teacher conferences, is that all the “little bits” and “kind ofs,” make the parent and student think what you’re saying is not such a big deal after all. And you’re in danger of the same thing happening if you use too many in your writing.

Sure, I know that “she felt dizzy” has a different meaning than “she felt slightly dizzy,” and maybe the latter is what you really mean. I’m not saying that you never need these qualifiers. What I am suggesting is that you use the “find” function on your manuscript and search for the following words and phrases. Then decide if you really need them.

Words to Watch Out For — Do you really need to use these, or does the sentence work better without them?

a bit
a little
almost
barely
beginning to
kind of
in a way
nearly
practically
rather
slightly
somewhat
sort of
starting to

Get out your ninja sword and start slashing unnecessary words! photo credit.

 

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun: My Bachelorette Party & How to Write a Great Story

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun:  My Bachelorette Party & How to Write a Great Story

This past Saturday my dear friend Melissa had her beautiful baby, and I had my crazy-fun bachelorette party in DC.

Unfortunately, this turn of events meant Melissa couldn’t be at my bachelorette party, although that would have been sort of awesome, and I think there should be a Hangover -style movie in which one of the girls at a bachelorette party is pregnant and starts giving birth at the male strip club… not that we went to a male strip club or anything like that.

Anyway, this post isn’t really about my bachelorette party (which was fun and included karaoke and margaritas and mani-pedis, and lots of laughter). This is (sort of) about Save the Cat by screenwriter Blake Snyder, which I read in its entirety on the plane to DC.

Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

I’d been hearing about Save the Cat for years. It’s actually about how to write movies, but it applies to storytelling in general and can be helpful for novelists who are struggling with plot. It also contained some pieces of advice that were surprising/interesting, as they went against what I’m used to hearing.

For example, when I was getting my MFA, I was taught that fiction should be character-driven, not plot-driven. In fact, plot almost seems like a dirty word in some circles. Literary writing, many people assume, doesn’t pull cheap tricks like plot to keep their readers engaged. Come up with you characters first, MFA professors suggest, and let them decide what to do.  Which can work…  but it can also lead to stories without much page-turning power.

Snyder, on the other hand, says he rarely begins writing with the character in mind.  Come up with your idea and write your perfect logline, he says, then decide what type of person would fit that story best. Who needs this adventure or lesson the most? Who would have the biggest emotional journey in this situation? He’s not suggesting you slap some flat characters into a complex plot. He wants you to create complex characters who will best compliment the idea you have in mind.

And I like this suggestion. Maybe it doesn’t work for every book. Maybe some books need to be character-driven. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coming up with a great idea, a great scene, a great plot, and then deciding what sorts of people would make it work best.

Me at my bachelorette party.

Me at my bachelorette party.

Let’s take my bachelorette movie, for example, which I’m going to call Just Wanna Have Fun. My basic idea is that it’s a comedy of errors about a bachelorette party in which things go hilariously wrong. I have exactly one scene in my head: one of the girls, who is funny already because she’s enormously pregnant, goes into labor at the male strip club. (Maybe they’re snowed in there or something and can’t get to the hospital.) The bride has no choice but to help her friend give birth, assisted by some of the strippers. Hilarious.

That’s the basic idea. Now it’s time for the characters. Let’s think. The main character is obviously the bride. So who should she be? She could be timid or conservative or Type A, and this night is about getting her to let loose. But no. I don’t think there’s enough of a lesson to be learned there.

My friends created this bachelorette look for me.

My friends created this bachelorette look for me.

So maybe she’s a total party girl, or at least she was a party girl for a long time who always said the point of life was having fun, and even though she’s now in her thirties and about to settle down with a man she loves, she’s nervous about losing what she thinks is her identity. She’s not sure if she has what it takes for the whole marriage-and-kids thing.

And maybe this crazy night ends up revealing that there is more to her identity than partying, and that she is ready to let go of her party-persona and move on to the next phase of her life. Maybe, when she helps deliver her friend’s baby, she realizes that she’s more responsible and nurturing that she thought, and that she does (eventually) want to be a mom.

This situation is ripe with irony, which is one of Blake Snyder’s recommendations for a good story premise. The examples he gives: A cop comes to L.A. to visit his estranged wife and her office building is taken over by terrorists. – Die Hard and A businessman falls in love with a hooker he hires to be his date for the weekend. — Pretty Woman.  Ain’t it ironic?

At my bachelorette party, my friend Leigha (pictured with me here at a club) was four and a half months pregnant.

At my bachelorette party, my friend Leigha (pictured with me here at a club) was four and a half months pregnant.

So let’s do this Save the Cat style and first write a logline or one-sentence pitch for Just Wanna Have Fun. (By the way, you have to do this for novels just as much as movies. You must be able to tell people — agents, editors, publicists — what your book is about in thirty seconds or less.)

A one-sentence summary for a novel usually contains a character or two, the conflict or goal, what’s at stake, and the action the characters will take (see Rachelle Gardener’s post on the subject). Nathan Bransford’s template for this: “When [opening conflict] happens to [character(s)], they must [overcome conflict] to [complete their quest].”

So my logline for Just Wanna Have Fun might be: When party girl Lacy gets cold feet about her upcoming wedding, she throws herself the wildest bachelorette party ever…even though her best friend is nearly nine months pregnant.

I came up with this logline in five minutes, so it’s not the best. I’d probably work on it for a while: brainstorm more about the specific conflict and goal, think about the best and most concise way to encapsulate the whole story. But for now I like it. It summarizes the basic problem (cold feet) and the action Lacy is going to take to solve it (go wild). And it contains irony for sure — a bachelorette party with a pregnant best friend in tow.

Here I am doing karaoke at my bachelorette party.

And now, with an idea of the journey Lacy is going to take in one night — from unsure to ready-to-commit — I can start to flesh her out with more detail and make her a complex character. I can also start to brainstorm about her best friend, as well as the other women at the bachelorette party — who will act as foils to our bride-to-be.

Of course, this is all just hypothetical. I’m not actually going to write a screenplay (or novel) for Just Wanna Have Fun … or will I???

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!

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