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Home at Last: What’s Going On

Pont du Diable, in my beloved Ceret, where I just spent two weeks.

Pont du Diable, in my beloved Ceret, where I just spent two weeks.

After three weeks in France, I’m home again. Even though the Google and my phone still feed me the occasional search result or ad in French, it is nice to be able to understand the language people are speaking around me. (It’s always a shock to land back in a U.S. airport on the journey home and suddenly realize everyone is speaking English.)  It has been awhile since I blogged, with the exception of the prompt posts, so here’s what’s going on (a sort of Five on Friday on Saturday):

Reading — I’m reading the first book in the Cal Claxton series by Warren Easley. It is set in and around Portland, and I think it’s terrific.  I don’t read mysteries or male authors very often, so that’s saying a lot. By the way, he’s reading at one of my favorite bookstores next weekend–more info here.  I read a light novel by one of my favorite authors, Barbara O’Neal, while in France–she is great for frothy women’s fiction.  This one was called A Piece of Heaven, and is set in Taos, one of my favorite places. I also finished Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo, one of the books we taught at the workshop. It is not a quick read, but I loved it.

Movies — I didn’t watch as many movies on the long plane rides to and from Paris, because I was reading, but on the way I enjoyed the Melissa McCarthy movie The Boss and another one I can’t remember. Which says a lot about it, right?  On the way home I watched Me Before You. We taught this book two years ago and I’d loved it and the sequel and really wanted to see the movie. And I did. And I liked it.  A lot.

Writing — I’ve decided to do Nanowrimo. Want to do it with me? C’mon, it will be fun. I have an idea for a romance that I want to get out. Between now and then, I’ll be doing some prep work, and also taking the time to finish a novella I started this summer.  And maybe try to figure out how to rewrite the novel I finished a first draft of last year. That ought to keep me busy for a bit.  And by the way, my Bonne Chance bakery novel is in the hands of an editor, so think good thoughts, please.

Cooking — I woke to rain this morning, yay. I love the rain and I’ve been so looking forward to the return of fall weather.  “Live starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” F. Scott Fitzgerald.  This turn in the weather coincided with the arrival of a new cookbook yesterday.  Called 30-Minute One-Pot Meals, it is full of things to cook now that it’s cooler out. (We mostly grill all summer.) You know how some cookbooks you get and there’s some stuff you like, but tons of stuff you’d never consider making? In this cookbook, there’s like two things, period, that I can’t imagine cooking. Score!

Fiber — I carefully toted my knitting with me to France, because I found the year before that it calmed me in times of anxiety (like when I had to mail a package at the post office).  But this year I didn’t pull it out as much.  Now that I’m home, I’m back at it.  I’m actually going back to the basics and trying to re-learns some things. I’ve knitted all my life, but first learned from my 4-H teacher and then taught myself stuff, which has meant picking up bad habits and missing a lot along the way. So I’m following the simple patterns on this site and I’ve already learned some cool new things.  There’s a lot to be said for the beginner’s mind.

And that’s it, that’s all I’ve got, except for this: Debbie and I are meeting on Monday to begin planning our 2017 writing workshop in France. We already know where it will bee–Collioure, where we stayed last year, a wonderful seaside resort town full of picturesque scenery, cute shops and fabulous restaurants.  Leave a comment or pop me a line if you’re interested and I’ll put you on the list.

What is going on with you? Do tell. I’ve missed you.

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Christmas Movies

9_things_you_probably_didn_t_know_about_Love_ActuallyIt’s a few days before Christmas, and I still have shopping to do and presents to wrap.  And cookies to bake. Forgot about that.  So what am I going to do tonight? Watch a Christmas movie, of course.  Because, Christmas movie. Enough said.

In general, I’m a terrible movie watcher, which is ironic for a couple of reasons.

#1 is because going to see a film at the movie theater is one of the great pleasures of my life.  I love every bit of it; buying the crummy popcorn, watching the stupid advertisements, worrying that the people behind me are going to talk all the way through the movie.  There’s something about the good old shared experience of watching a film that I just really enjoy.

And #2 is that I often study–and recommend–screenwriting books to apply to novel writing.  Those screenwriters, man they have structure down.  And structure is one of the hardest things for a novelist to master, at least in my opinion (and I’m fully aware that might just be my issue, though I see it in students and clients as well).   And, yeah, I get it, reading screenwriting books without watching movies is sort of like writing a novel without ever reading one.

But for some reason there never quite seems to be enough time to go to the theater.  And I’m terrible about watching movies at home. I get antsy, for one thing.  But worse is my genetic propensity to fall asleep in front of the TV set. (I can’t tell you how many stellar performances I missed on The Voice this year.) It truly is genetic.  My mother was famous for dozing in her chair watching Frazier, her favorite show, with a stack of half-read newspapers in her lap. My sister falls asleep in front of the TV and so does my daughter, who loves to tell the story of how she fell asleep during one of her first dates with her husband.  He did marry her anyway,luckily.  Putting up with slumbering women is apparently a prerequisite for marrying into this family.  To this day, my husband pretends he believes me when I tell him I’m really not asleep and I haven’t missed a thing.

But Christmas movies.  They are different.  We have several that are required watching every year, and for some weird reason I don’t fall asleep.  I could probably recite every line of every scene of these movies, and yet I don’t get bored and pass out.  Go figure.

I have no idea why I don’t fall asleep during them, but I have been thinking about what makes them enduring, and that is just plain old-fashioned good writing: characters you care about, plot lines that have some teeth.   With the exception of a couple on my list, you could take the background of Christmas out of them and they’d still work.

I keep waiting for Hollywood to come out with a new classic Christmas movie I can add to my list but that hasn’t happened for quite a few years.  In the meantime, here are our favorites:

Must Watch

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. There’s no better way to start the Christmas movie viewing season than with this classic of goofiness which really does exemplify the crazy intentions we set for a perfect holiday.

Elf.  Yes, Elf.  Its a great screenplay and a great cast–James Caan (one of my all-time favorites), Will Ferrell, Mary Steenbergen, Zoe Dechamel. At a dinner party a few nights ago, I was shocked to find people who had never seen this movie.  It really is worth it. (It is actually showing at the Laurelhurst, if you live in Portland.)

Love Actually. If I could only watch one Christmas movie, it would be this one.  Like all things that have to do with love, it is easy to mock. But I love it.  So there. (And if you are a fan, also, here’s a link to some tidbits you might not know about the film.)

Will Watch if There’s Time

White Christmas. I’m not the best for old movies, but I do love this one.  Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney–what’s not to like? Plus, the ending where the big door opens up and the snow falls down is one of my favorites.

Meet Me in St. Louis. Not technically a Christmas movie, but still.  I’m not as big as fan of this as some of the other oldies, but my husband loves it so I watch it.  Once in a great while, anyway.

Can Watch Between Christmas and New Year’s

The Holiday.  This was a movie that appeared and disappeared in the theaters, but for some reason I love it.  In some ways it is tied more to New Year’s Eve and though its set at Christmas, there’s not a lot of Christmas stuff in it.

So that’s my short list of Christmas movies.  We’ve managed to watch the first three so far this season. Of course, this year I really am going to the theater the day after Christmas to see the new Star Wars movie.  (I don’t even know its proper name.  Everyone refers to it as the new Star Wars movie.)  And by then I’ll probably be back to my usual falling-asleep-in-front-of-the-TV routine.  But I’ll have had my fill of Christmas movies by then.

So, tell me in the comments.  What are your favorites?  Which movies do you like to watch over and over?

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Why Going to the Movies is Good for Your Writing

Pink-gold-mirvish-1852743-hIn my last post, I revealed the sorry state of my latest reading.  I've not read nearly as many novels as usual recently.  But one thing I have been doing is going to the movies.

If there's one thing I love to do on the weekends, it is to go to the movies.  I love, love, love it.  Love deciding what to see, buying popcorn and water (it used to be Diet Coke, but I've repented), entering the darkened theater and watching the ads that precede the film.  I love the trailers, and, oh yeah, the movie itself.  I love when the credits roll and you can sit and figure out who all the actors were that you recognized but couldn't quite put a name to.  And I love talking about the flick afterwards.

But we don't go to movies often.  There's always so much to do on the weekends–work around the house and the yard, for starters.  And nearly every weekend we have some kind of family dinner, which requires grocery shopping and cooking.

However, lately, we've been going to films on the weekend, mostly at small, restored theaters in town like the Academy and the Roseway.   We've seen movies old and new, because my movie taste is as eclectic as my reading taste.  And I feel like I've been inhaling story in all its aspects.

This is why its good for writers to go to the movies (or watch them at home, but that's not as much fun).  Because you will learn SO much about how to put a story together while you watch.  When I want to read about structure in the novel, I usually choose a screenwriting book, because these guys have it going on when it comes to structure.  Watching a movie helps me absorb and internalize it. When I read novels these days, I no longer read as a civilian.  I read as a writer, noticing everything the writer did as she wrote–how she plotted, and characterized and used dialogue and setting.  But because I don't actually write movies, I can watch them and just take it all in without stopping to think about every detail.  And as I launch into writing the next novel and trying to figure out what happens and how it all goes together, I'm finding that my movie watching habit is standing me in good stead.

(And I also highly recommend this book, which I wrote about in my last post.)

 Movies Seen

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  J'adore.  Ditto for the first one.  Its a great series.  Funnily and predictably enough, the theater was full of old people.  I read that this movie hit #1 in the U.K. the weekend it was released, shocking the experts.  Because, yeah, there really is a movie-going audience beyond teenage boys.

The Graduate.  The Academy Theater is showing a bunch of old movies this summer, and we couldn't resist going to see The Graduate.  Dustin Hoffman looks about 10 in the opening sequence, but he was 30.  And Anne Bancroft, the "older woman" he has an affair with? She was 36.  I kept thinking what a great job they were doing with the period details–and then I remembered.  It was the period!

Big Eyes.  We watched this one at home, on demand which isn't nearly as much fun as going to the theater, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  It's the story of how Walter Keane took credit for all those awful popular big eyed paintings in the 70s, when his wife was actually painting them.   What I loved was a bit at the end (not giving anything away) that said Margaret Keane, at age 88, still paints every day.  

Mad Max Fury Road.  You guys, this is a feminist movie.  I adored it! Some of the heroines are kick-ass old ladies.  So freaking cool.  As I watched it, I marveled at how they ever shot this thing.  Really fun and worth a couple hours of your time.

And, because this is a post about movies, I thought we ought to at least have a trailer.  But before you get distracted, what movies have you seen recently?

 

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5 Tips (Plus a Bonus) For Writing More Dynamic Scenes

(I've been working on this post for a few days.  I planned to publish it yesterday and then things happened.  Like having my granddaughter here.  And getting a tattoo!  Yes, you can tell me how brave I am!  It is wonderful!  I will post a photo when it is all healed.  But, anyway, here's the post at long last.)

I have discovered the secret to enduring long, overseas flights, and no its not paying for business class, though that would likely be the ultimate answer.

It is to watch movies.   Above_floating_flying_229463_l

On my recent flight home from Paris, I watched three, count 'em, three, movies.  I usually prefer to read on flights, so I couldn't believe how this made the time pass quickly.  The movies I watched were: The Other Woman (so-so but funny), Chef (wonderful–my favorite), and, for some odd reason, Maleficent.

One of the things I noticed watching Maleficent is how concise the scenes were–they used the smallest bits of time possible in order to move the story forward, sometimes showing an important bit in a line or two of dialogue. (I was interested to read an interview with the director, Robert Stromberg, who said of the writing, ""I met many times with Linda Woolverton, the writer. We did lots of roundtable discussions and sort of cut out the fat as much as we could and sort of purified the storyline as much as we could …")

And this made me think about scenes.   They are the building blocks of fiction writing, the discreet units that comprise a plot.  You've heard the advice to "show, don't tell," five million times by now–and writing in scene is one surefire way to do that.

Just because I have to be thorough, here's the Google's definition of scene, though I know you know it:

  1. the place where an incident in real life or fiction occurs or occurred.
     
  2. a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book.

We are, of course, talking today about the second definition.  

One of the problems I see most often in my travels through student and client manuscripts are issues with scenes.  Often they go on way too long.  Sometimes they seem rather flat–nothing much happens in them.  And sometimes, though not as often, authors write scenes when a quick bit of exposition would do better. 

So here are some of my tips for writing scenes:

1. Make them work as hard as possible.   A scene needs to accomplish at least one thing–show character, move the plot forward, or reveal crucial information, but if it can do more than one thing at a time, that's even better.

2.  Start late, exit early.  Sometimes I read (and write) a scene that goes on and on, when all it really needs to do is get in and get out. It can help to start as late as possible in the scene.  Don't show us your main character driving to work and then getting fired, start the scene in her boss's office.   This is one way the creators of Maleficent were able to use such concise scenes.

3. Have something happening in the background.  A hazard of scene writing is the talking heads scenario.  You have something to tell the reader, and wisely, you choose to do it in dialogue. But your characters just sit there and talk.  Alas, this gets a bit boring to the reader.  A simple way to avoid it is to have something going on at the same time.  In the movie Chef, the main character is constantly chopping or preparing food, or doing something.  It's a wonderful way to keep things interesting.

4.  Put your characters at cross purposes.  If all your characters want the same thing and agree with each other, there's no conflict.  And if there's no conflict, there's no story.  So put your characters at odds.  Give each of them a desire and make those desires conflict.  This can be very simple, such as two characters driving, one wanting to stop for a break and the other wanting to reach their destination as quickly as possible.

5.  Start and end in different places emotionally.  You may hear someone say a scene is flat. This is often when the characters start and finish the scene in the same emotional space.  They start sad and end sad, for instance.  Or vice versa.  It's much better to either move the character to a higher space emotionally or a lower space.

Bonus tip: Slow is fast and fast is slow.   This is a little saying I picked up somewhere along the way and I find it quite helpful.  I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating.  If something would go slowly in real life, it can be dispatched with a line or two in prose.  For instance, a lazy picnic at the park.  If something would happen fast, write it slowly.  For instance, the propane tank on the grill at the lazy picnic blows up.  

Okay, that's it, that's all I got for now.  Do you struggle with writing dynamic scenes?  How do you approach scene writing?

Photo by Glen26.

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