Sunday, February 24, 2013

Why I've Never Seen STAR WARS

I have never seen Star Wars.  Or any of the sequels.  Or prequels.

I realize that this makes me something of an oddity.

First off, let me say that I’m sure Star Wars is an excellent movie.  Please don’t write to tell me that I’m crazy or un-American or a bad mother.  I am unquestionably certain that any movie that manages to burrow its way into the popular culture with the tenacity of Star Wars has much to recommend it.
I know a few things.  I know about Princess Leia and the hair, about all the robots.  I know James Earl Jones was the “voice” of Darth Vader.  I mix up Yoda and Jabba the Hutt.

In order to explain why I’ve never seen Star Wars, I’m going to have to write for a second about Ronald Reagan.  This is the first (and probably the last) time I will ever do this on my blog.
Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was promptly dubbed “Star Wars” in the press, a fact that apparently irritated him. His Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle was more sanguine, telling colleagues, “Why not? It's a good movie. Besides, the good guys won."

Here’s the thing.  I don’t believe in good guys.

The movies I like to see, the books I like to read, are about real people, who sometimes do good things and sometimes do bad things.  Some of my favorite characters in literature (Soames Forstye, from John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga and A Modern Comedy trilogies) and cinema (Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) do some very, very bad things.  I still find them lovable.  Why?  Because I get them.  And why is that?  Because I do bad things.  So does Tracy, my best friend of many years, who is as close to being a saint as it is possible for a human being to be.  So does everyone.  People are complicated.  Anytime I read about people who aren’t, I get bored.

Here’s another thing.  Winning.

If you’re one of the good guys in Star Wars, then presumably, you’re trying to win something.  Since I haven’t seen the movies, I can only surmise just what that something is.  Perhaps you are killing bad guys, or saving the world, or maybe even saving the Universe.  That’s wonderful.  I applaud you.

My life, as a person who is sometimes a good guy and sometimes a not-so-good guy, doesn’t look like that.  The challenges of my days include being a good girlfriend to my partner, being a good mother to my adult children, trying to take care of my Alzheimer’s-afflcted mother who thinks I’m after her money, making sure I run every day, making sure I write.  Each evening, the way I know I’ve won is if 1) the people I love still love me back, 2) my Achilles tendons aren’t throbbing, and 3) I’ve got at least two more pages of whatever manuscript I’m working on safely stowed away on my computer.

I don’t know from saving the Universe.  And when I'm reading books or watching movies, I want to learn about people whose challenges, while not identical, bear some sort of resemblance to mine.  Similarly, I'm more attracted to stories in which "winning" is more private--and possibly more ephemeral--than is an intergalactic journey to rid the world of evil.

Just in case you think I’ve never even tried to like a movie about good guys winning, I will let it be known that early in our relationship, Robert took me to see 300, and after ten minutes, I rested my head against the wall of the Orinda Theater and fell asleep.  I snored So Loudly that he had to wake me up, for fear I would distract the other moviegoers.

If I were going to have given the good-guys-winning genre a fair shot, I probably should have started with Star Wars.  But I already had a 30-year record of not watching it under my belt, and I just couldn't convince myself to break it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

On Writing and Pound Cake

Today, I’ve been struggling with the middle-grade novel I’m working on.  And then I remembered the pound cake.

This morning, I decided I was craving pound cake and I would expire if I didn’t get some.  But since I don’t eat wheat, it’s not as simple as driving up to the store and pulling an Entenmann’s off the shelves.

Still.   I had everything I needed: the best gluten-free flour on the planet (Gluten-Free Klippy’s:, eggs, butter, milk, vanilla.  After a walk on the beach, I set about gratifying my obsession.
Within an hour and a half, I was pulling a beautiful—if decidedly homemade-looking—pound cake out of my oven.  This is what it looked like:

Okay, I can’t show you what it looked like, because I can’t figure out how to get the picture off of my phone.  But take my word for it: it was beautiful, with a lovely, buttery, brown top.  My kitchen smelled delectable.

The recipe’s final instruction was “Cool ten minutes; remove from pan.”

I couldn’t cool ten minutes.

I couldn’t cool two.

As it turned out, cooling ten minutes may have been the most important instruction of all.

Suffice it to say, the pound cake was not ready to leave the safety of its womb-like loaf pan.  It ended up in pieces all over the kitchen floor.  I didn’t cry, but only because I was too hungry (which somehow reminds me of when I asked my Lamaze instructor if I would pass out while I was in labor, and she said, “No, you’ll be in too much pain.”)

I didn’t cry, but I was disappointed.

Several hours later, here I sit, stewing over this manuscript, worrying that I haven’t described something properly, or that I haven’t created enough tension on page 67.

And then I remembered the pound cake.

And suddenly, I knew with epiphanic certainty that the best thing I could do for this manuscript is to let it cool.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

You're Not the Boss of Me

One of the things I love about being a writer is the fact that I make major work decisions alone.  I decide what I am going to write about.  I don’t have a boss sending me memos with subject lines like “Suggestions for Next Project.”

Given this, it’s easy to forget that other people besides me are involved in the production of books.

For the past few months, I’ve been writing a middle-grade fantasy novel.  This is something entirely new for me, a self-imposed challenge I was anxious to take up.  I found myself uninspired by the things that usually interest me: contemporary kids, real-life problems, small lives examined and laid bare.  Fantasy—a genre I enjoyed as a kid—beckoned.

So far, I’ve been enjoying the work.  I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary fantasy and writing every day.

Recently I learned that the story I’m writing belongs to a sub-genre of fiction called “portal fantasy,” which means that characters are able to pass from the real world into the fantasy world.  Think Narnia.  Think Oz.  As a child, I was enchanted with the notion that there were secret doorways allowing entry to a hidden world.

I also learned that publishers aren’t buying portal fantasy.  I learned this from a post called “Portal Fantasies and Cycles of Desire,” featured on the weblog MAKING LIGHT, written by Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, both editors of fantasy and science fiction at Tor Books.  Here’s the post:

This makes me fucking bananas.  (Sorry.  I try not to swear on this blog, because I know sometimes children read it.  But come onI mean, come on.)

Never mind the fact that so many of the best fantasy novels of all time involve passage into another world.  (ALICE IN WONDERLAND?  Hello-o-o?)  Never mind that the most transformative children’s book of the last several decades focuses on a character who learns that he is a wizard living in a muggle world.  Never mind that, as my friend Molly Joss, publishing industry analyst and author of several non-fiction books ( asks rhetorically, “In fact, isn't reading fiction, all fiction, falling through a portal into another world?

I think the Nielsen Haydens have it right, and in time, the tides will shift, and publishers will want to buy portal fiction again.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep writing. And not because my fabulous agent, Jennifer Laughran, read forty pages and said she liked it and to keep going.

I’m going to soldier on because if I were to give up, then I’d be allowing somebody else to tell me what I can and cannot write.  I’d be trying to write to the market, which I think doesn’t make for very good books, and which I also think is odious on principle.

I write what interests me, what excites me, what makes for the kind of story I like to read.   I think that means I suck at marketing myself.  (And as an aside, if I hear one more writer talk about “branding” herself, I’m going to gouge out my eyes with a fork.)    But I’m okay with that.

I’d love to hear from other writers, editors, people who buy books, and children who read them.  What do you think about all this?