Posts Tagged ‘J. B. Cheaney’

Riding Herd on Time

February 1, 2016

tyranny-of-timeBack in the mythical age of young-adulthood, time was everywhere—on my hands, waiting to be killed, never flying unless I had a paper due.  Baby #1 slowed the clock even more: who knew a day could be so long?  That changed with my decision to start homeschooling.  All of a sudden there was never enough time, because it burned at both ends.  “Time is my enemy,” I remember saying savagely. But of course it isn’t the enemy; it just acts that way when you treat it that way.

It’s the great healer, and the ultimate killer.  It brings all things to pass, waits for no man, runs through the roughest day, and bears all its sons away. It’s essentially mysterious: “I know what it is, provided no one asks me” (says Augustine), but weighs heavily on a guilty soul.  “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” muses Richard II, the most introspective of Shakespeare’s kings.

And the impatient reader says, “Yeah, okay, lots of profound people have said profound things about time.  So get to the point: how do I find more of it?  Time is money.”

So, has this ever happened to you?  New Year’s Day, or the first day of school, you make a schedule and promise yourself you’ll stick to it.  Maybe it lasts as long as a week, but more often, by day three or four you chuck it.  Things take longer than you thought, or you just don’t feel like doing what the schedule says you must do, or it’s too hard or interruptions get in the way or it’s boring.

This has happened to me over and over, so this year I approached the issue from another angle.  Instead of trying to wrestle time to the grid, I sneaked up on it from behind. What do I accomplish, and what do I want to accomplish better?  Thinking through everything I do, I found these activities fall into four basic categories.  I gave them names: Janie/mom/grandma, Janie Cheaney, Janie B. Cheaney, and J.B. Cheaney.  I drew four columns on a piece of notebook paper, and headed each column with one of those names.

 

The first category is who I am as a person and family member.  About how much time in a week do I timespend just being a human?  Starting on the far right column, I wrote everything I could think of, plus time spent doing: number of hours sleeping, shopping, preparing food and eating it (and cleaning up afterwards), keeping the house from looking like a pigsty, even talking to my kids on the phone (since they don’t live anywhere close, the little scamps).  I wrote all this and more, added up the total and put that sum directly under the list, as well as on the far left side of the page.

Next, who I am in my community and church.  How many hours a week do I spend actually in church, and how much preparing Sunday school lessons or Bible studies?  How much in volunteer work and lunch with friends?  All of it went in the second column from the right, with the total number of hours underneath and also added to the running total on the left side.

My professional life splits in two, roughly divided between Christian writing and fiction writing (at this point, they’re not the same).  Janie B. Cheaney writes for World Magazine and blogs at RedeemedReader.com; J. B. Cheaney writes fiction for kids and tries to market the same.  There’s a bit of overlap in these, indicated by the little arrows you may see between the two columns.  Both involve some marketing, blogging, Facebooking, and maybe (one of these days if I can ever figure it out) Twittering.  I also count reading time because Janie B. reviews books—nice work if you can get it, but it puts me to sleep sometimes.  Adding up my professional hours showed me two things: 1) I’m going to have to create an additional blog and Facebook page to accommodate them, and 2) I work an average of 45 hours a week.  After all these years, I can prove I’m a FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL WRITER.  So don’t mess with me.

After adding up all these hours and subtracting them from 168 (the number of hours in a week), I came up with 29 hours and 45 minutes unaccounted for!  That’s more than a whole day!  I’m breathing easier already.

beattheclockThe purpose of all this is not—like scheduling—to see how much activity I can cram into a twenty-four span.  The purpose is to show Time what it’s dealing with (I’m serious, pal).  It also shows me what I can realistically expect from a day.  “Realistically” is key—if you have young children at home or if you let your Doberman make out your schedule, you’ll have to set aside at least six hours daily for Mr. Unexpected to drop by.  Otherwise, given something you might call a “normal day,” you can start assigning your various obligations to blocks of time.

“Blocks,” not linear increments.  Our days don’t flow minute-by-minute, but rather bump-by-bump: periods of single-tasking followed by periods of multi-tasking; times of relative calm interspersed with times of hectic activity. Figure out when you are most productive and/or when you are least likely to be interrupted.  If those hours are not the same, synchronize them if you can, and tackle your most challenging tasks for that block of the day.  Squirrel your less-demanding tasks into those blocks when you’re more available, and arrange the things you can do simultaneously (like listening to an audio book while mopping the floor, or practicing French while driving—though that sounds like it should be illegal).

Of course you will not find yourself automatically doing what your planner says.  Your planner doesn’t understand human nature, much less your individual slacker mentality.  That’s where discipline comes in.  It’s also where standard advice that you’ve heard a million times comes in: whatever requires the most concentration needs to occur when you are best able to focus (for me this is 6-8 a.m.).  Do not check your phone.  Do not check your email.  Do not peek at Facebook, even for one teeny-weeny second.  If you can only set aside one hour a day to work on your novel, whip your attitude into line and tell it you won’t tolerate any backtalk for this one hour.  Do your best to scale back interruptions and streamline routines.  Lay out your clothes and mix the ingredients for your breakfast smoothie in the blender the night before.  When you take a break, keep it to ten minutes or less.  Ride herd on those productive hours, and you can loosen up the reins for the rest.

Case in point: I can do all my serious writing between 6 and 11 a.m. with a half-hour break for breakfast and a quick check of the news–4 ½ hours.  Afternoons are for uploading, Facebooking, research, business and personal emails . . . and everything else.  I don’t have to fill each week with everything on my hour log—self-employed people get vacations too.  And I’m not always going to be as productive as I planned because stuff happens.  (Look on the bright side when it does, maybe you can write about it!)

There’s also this: My times are in his hands (Ps 31:15).  Anyone who’s ever tried to command the hours learns that she’s not the boss.  But at least I know the Boss, and I don’t have to feel destroyed every time the plan goes off the rails.  There’s a bigger plan at work.

 

Friday at the Movies: Charles S. Chaplin

July 24, 2015

hollywood2 (2)For the last hundred years at least, he’s the one face everybody recognizes and associates immediately with “silent movies,” even though some of his greatest films were talkies.  He was known for comedy, but considered himself a serious artist.  He made gobs of money for corporations, but was one of the first movie actors to insist on artistic control—to the extent of forming his own film company that still exists today.  Universally loved but not personally loveable, a shrewd businessman, a prickly personality, a brilliant storyteller, a loner who touched millions of hearts—that was Charlie.

Plenty has been written about Charles Chaplin and I don’t need to write another biography (if you’re Chaplin1looking for biography, Sid Fleishman’s Sir Charlie is delightful).  Some film historians try to slight Charlie because there was a lot going on in Hollywood at the time that had nothing to do with him, but he so dominated the industry—especially the box office—he can’t be ignored.  He and Hollywood grew up together: after a desperately-poor London childhood and fleeting success in vaudeville, he arrived in sunny California at the age of 28 and proceeded to make 35 movies for Keystone in one year.  Though he later turned up his nose at Mack Sennett (head of Keystone) and frantic slapstick humor, his two years with Keystone launched him into the stratosphere of wealth and fame: by 1916 he was, literally, the most famous man in the world.  His face was showing up in nickelodeons and cantinas and makeshift movie theaters on six continents—anywhere a room could be darkened and a projector set up.

Everybody loved his signature character, the Little Tramp.  The Little Tramp is more recognizable than Chaplin himself: bushy hair and mustache, oversize shoes and undersize bowler hat, baggy pants, toothy smile.  He’s a loser who lives hand to mouth and stays barely within the law but always seems to come out okay in the end.  He refined the character in later full-length movies like The Kid and The Gold Rush, but there was always an underlying strain of despair in the Little Tramp, as there is in all the best comedy.

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, Chaplin has reached the peak of success.  He has established himself as a free agent and in the following year he will form his own production company with three of the greatest names in the biz: Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.  United Artists, they’ll call it.  Chaplin has a big film project in mind, which will become his first recognized masterpiece: The Kid.. The story is simple: the Little Tramp accidentally acquires a baby who’s been left on his doorstep, names him Johnny, and goes on to raise the boy as his own until Johnny’s mother comes looking for him.  In IDK, I imagine Chaplin latching on to Isobel’s mother as a likely candidate to play the mother role, a development that stirs up confusion and resentment in Isobel.  Nothing remotely like that happened, of course: the mother’s role is played by Edna Purviance, and even in those early days it’s not likely such an important part would be entrusted to an amateur.  But that’s artistic license on my part.

Chaplin2Though it isn’t mentioned by name in my novel, The Kid is probably my favorite Chaplin movie: full of laughs and charm and heart tugs, due as much to Jackie Coogan in the title role as it is to Charlie.  You keep expecting both the comedy and the sentiment to go overboard, but it never does.  (Watch it!)

Three Chaplin movies are mentioned in IDK.  Tillie’s Punctured Romance was his first Keystone flick; the movie reportedly introduced the concept of “meeting cute.”  The Bond was a public-service short film that Ranger and Isobel see at Grauman’s Egyptian theater before the main feature.  Ranger describes Shoulder Arms, a comedy that that mines some funny business out of a very unfunny war.  In Chapter 10 Chaplin attends a party at the home of Titus Bell (Ranger’s father), and in the course of the evening he performs the “Oceana Roll Dance” that would later appear in The Gold Rush.  The roll dance cracks me up—I think it’s the deadpan he maintains throughout.  Isobel thought it was hilarious as well, in spite of her mixed feelings about Mr. Chaplin.

Though he kept making movies into the thirties (City Lights, from 1931, is considered one of his best), Charlie’s heyday was the twenties, and he never hit his stride with the talkies.  He also fell out of love with America (long story), and moved to Switzerland, not exactly a film-making mecca.  But he made a mark on culture and history that can’t be erased.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Friday at the Movies: D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

July 10, 2015

Some people think film is just Keystone Cops crashing cars or somebody’s pants falling down.  But it’s a lot more.  It’s the new art: telling stories with light and motion.  This is going to be bigger than the Sistine Chapel!

Ranger Bell, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends 

hollywood2 (2)A lot of kids are bitten by the movie bug in their early teens, but Ranger, the pivotal character in IDK*, had the good fortune to be bit by the best.  D.W. Griffith is his hero, and Ranger’s burning ambition is to work for the master on the way to becoming a master himself.

Griffith broke into show business as an actor in cheap vaudeville houses, and everybody agrees he wasn’t a very good one.  But he did gain a sense of what audiences appreciated: emotion.  They liked thrills and chills and action, but also wanted to laugh and cry.  When he gravitated to film acting for the Biograph studios in New Jersey, he learned to tone down his hammy stage-acting style—for one thing, the camera couldn’t capture all those broad, wild arm gestures.  But the camera could move in on a face and catch the smallest twitch of a muscle or glimmer of a tear.  A face on film could connect with the audience more intimately than a live actor ever could, and once he discovered the emotional power of the movies, D.W. was never going back to live theater.  The story is that one day a director was sick and D.W. was drafted to take his place.  The director’s chair quickly became his perch for the rest of his artistigriffith1c career.

When Griffith left Biograph he took the studio’s best cameraman with him.  This was Billy Bitzer, who worked closely with him for the next sixteen years and collaborated on some of the most ground-breaking work ever produced up to that time–like The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915.

This is the film that made D.W. Griffith a household word, but it’s hard to even talk about, much less watch.  It’s the story of a southern family during and after the Civil War, and all they lost and suffered.  The first half includes some truly thrilling battle scenes and appealing family relationships.  But the second half is all about noble southerners fighting “bad Negroes” by raising up a little army later called the Ku Klux Klan.  The way African-Americans are shown (even the “good” ones) is racist and insulting, even though Griffith claimed to love and admire them.  Still, The Birth of a Nation can’t be ignored because it broke so much new ground in film-making.  Griffith used quick intercutting to make the battle scenes more dramatic, high angles to capture wider views, fades between scenes, lots of extras, and eyeline matches, where the camera is adjusted to frame the same view a character is seeing.   He even had an original score written, which was played by live orchestras in all the big theaters where the movie opened.  For emotional punch, audiences had never seen anything like it, and Birth of a Nation  was a huge hit.  (Although it’s worth noting that many Americans were not comfortable with its blatant racism even, and it was banned in some cities–even entire states, like Kansas.)

The praise and criticism showered on him was so overwhelming Griffith decided that he had to top himself for his next feature film.  He had already made a touching little drama called The Mother and the Law, but in the meantime he saw an Italian film called Cabiria, which was set in ancient Sicily and Carthage.  The movie used fabulous sets and shocking set pieces, like small children in Carthage being sacrificed to Moloch. (It’s disturbing to watch, even today: here’s a clip, and try to ignore the soundtrack).  Griffith was impressed by the spectacle and determined not to be outdone by any Italian, so he postponed the release of The Mother and the Law and decided to incorporate that story into a larger tale spanning centuries.  That became Intolerance, subtitled “Love’s Struggle through the Ages.”

“The ages” take in Babylon’s fall to Persia in 539 B.C., the earthly ministry of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew Massacre in France in 1572, and the modern story of The Mother and the Law—all intercut and stitched together with the theme of someone not tolerating someone else.griffith2

Most of the money and effort went to the Babylon segments (which Ranger describes with great enthusiasm in Chapter 3 of IDK).  Elaborate battle scenes and court scenes involved a literal cast of thousands, which meant some clever camera work.  Though not filming from a balloon.  They actually tried it, and Billy Bitzer got sick.  Most of the panning and zooming shots were done with a camera on tracks, but film historians to this day don’t know exactly how.

The monster Babylon set towered over Sunset Boulevard, and once filming was complete Griffith was so broke he couldn’t pay have it demolished.  The remains of Belshazzar’s court stood for four years, peeling and crumbling, until the city finally ordered it torn down as a public nuisance and fire hazard.  (That’s where Ranger takes the girls in chapter 3.)

intolerance-set2Intolerance won high praise but didn’t earn back enough profit to justify its expense.  In my opinion, though Intolerance has some fine moments and The Mother and the Law story is genuinely touching and sweet (this is the film Isobel sees in Chapter 4), it’s too long and incoherent to make a strong impression.  But it did enhance Griffith’s reputation, and he went on to make some great movies, like Hearts of the World (described in Chapter 11), Broken Blossoms, Way Down East, and Orphans of the Storm.  Were they “art,” as Ranger believed?  Most movie historians agree—

When he finished, he was the leader of an industry acclaimed not only as entertainment, but as art . . . Griffith did not achieve this miracle alone, but he deserves unstinting credit for achieving it at all.   Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood: the Pioneers

You can get Intolerance on Netflix, but I warn you, as Isobel is warned by the family cook Rosetta, “those dancing girls in Babylon didn’t wear enough clothes to dry a saucer with.”

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Films

Charles S. Chaplin

Friday at the Movies: How to Watch Silent Films

July 3, 2015

hollywood2 (2)(In anticipation of my next novel, which will go on sale in October, I plan on a series of posts about the silent movie industry and its profound meaning.  Well, forget the profound meaning–I just found the subject and the movies to be seriously fun!)

I don’t like silent movies.  They’re dumb and hard to understand and the film quality stinks and everybody moves too fast and wears too much makeup and they’re old . . .

Well, silent movies are old.  That’s true.  And that has a lot to do with why they’re hard to watch—at least until you get acquainted with them, and understand a few hard facts.

First, a lot of the film quality is bad.  The movies were produced on celluloid, an early plastic compound that was ridiculously flammable—the film would spontaneously combust if temperatures reached 150 degrees centigrade (which some projectors did).  That’s what happened to over half the silent movie film ever produced, due to poor storage or handling.  Of the film that remains, a lot of it is scratchy, warped, or overexposed–some scenes glare while others sulks into shadows and you can hardly make out what’s going on.  Some of that may have been the fault of early directors and techniques that were still in flux.  But a lot of it is just age.

Second, the speed at which many films are shown today is too fast.  Shooting speeds varied in the early days, generally from 18 to 22 frames per second (today it can be as high as 60 frames per second for high-rez).   Since the earliest cameras had to be cranked by hand, cameramen tried be consistent but there were slight variations in film speed that didn’t match the projection speed.  Even in their own day, the movies were apt to look jerky and hyper.  Sometimes, especially in early comedy like the Keystone Cops, the fast speed was deliberate.  But more often it was just because the projectionist didn’t know his business.  Today, action sequences that were supposed to be dramatic and exciting often look like the sight equivalent of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Finally, the soundtrack that’s often matched to silent films is just awful.  I watched a DVD of The Gold Rush, for example, that has a nauseating organ score all the way through.  After a while I noticed it was eating into my brain.  I had to either turn the sound off or turn the movie off (click here for a clip from The Gold Rush that’s more delightful).

Still, there’s plenty to appreciate about the best of the silent films, especially if you watch a progression of them from around 1912 to 1921, when the industry made amazing strides.  During the twenties, the industry produced some of the greatest movies ever made (snooty film historians say so!)  The range of camera techniques opened up, goofy slapstick gave way to sophisticated sight gags, and facial expressions, even in the weepiest melodrama, can still make audiences cry.

From this . . .  (A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

From this . . .
(A Trip to the Moon, 2003)

After the first sound movie debuted in 1927, the silents were doomed, even though some of the best ones appeared in the very early thirties.  At first they were much better than the “talkies” for photography.  because early sound pictures required actors and cameras to huddle around a microphone.  The action was obviously limited.  Big sweeping views like battles and parades and crowd scenes were impossible, so for a while you could have either spectacle or sound, not both.  Of course, the technology improved so that now you get both.  But it may have been a good thing that movies weren’t hindered by sound technology at first—it freed up cameramen and directors to develop their visual range, including special effects that are pretty impressive even today.

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

. . . to this (The Thief of Baghdad, 1924), in a a mere 22 years!

So, how to watch?

  • Check your expectations.  The beginning of anything is going to look awkward and crude, and when you consider that The Great Train Robbery, one of the first motion pictures that told a story, was made in 1903, it’s pretty amazing that the industry was able to offer up three-hour spectacles like Intolerance only fourteen years later. Technicolor, wide-screen, high-rez, surround-sound, and CGI have all happened since, but it took 100 years!  Let’s just admire what some very talented people were able to accomplish in a very short time.
  • Try to get the best soundtrack you can.  When big-name directors and actors premiered big movies, they often commissioned an original score to be played along with it, by a live orchestra.  Of course, this was only possible in the prominent cities and theaters.  By the time these films reached smaller towns, the local keyboardist had to match the action to short piano pieces.  The musician might have a book of scores considered suitable for love scenes, sad scenes, dances, fights, funerals, etc.—meaning the piano or organ player was flipping through the book continually as the film rolled.  The silent comedies and dramas you can can get on DVD today usually have a piano or organ score.  These are bearable if they don’t go on to long.  But for a longer picture, try to find a full-orchestra score.  For example, Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad is available with a classical soundtrack by Rimsky-Korsakov—or an organ.  Ditch the organ if you can.
  • Be patient with the film quality.  Even the best-preserved movie classic will probably be uneven in spots—blurry, shaky, or scratchy.  As mentioned earlier, at least half of the film produced during the silent era didn’t make it into the future because it wasn’t stored properly or it was simply lost.  So be grateful for what we’ve got.
  • The best tip is appreciation. Motion pictures were a brand new way of telling stories, for the first time in 200 years (if you count the development of the novel) or 2000-plus years (if you go back to poets like Homer).  Acting and the stage had been around for millennia, but film had totally different demands and possibilities.  Limits, too, especially during the silent era.  Those early directors had to figure out how to communicate as much as possible through action and expression alone, and they caught on fast.

I’m not a snooty film historian, but if you want to explore a bit of the development of the movies during the late teens and early twenties, here’s a list of titles you’ll be able to find on Netflix or Youtube (the asterisk indicates they’re mentioned in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends):

Tillie’s Punctured Romance* (Charlie Chaplin and Louise Dressler)

Coney Island* (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton)

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm* (Mary Pickford)

Intolerance* (directed by D. W. Griffith, with a cast of thousands)

The Gold Rush (Charlie Chaplin)

The Kid (Charlie Chaplin)

The General (Buster Keaton)

The Mark of Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks)

Other Posts in this series:

D. W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Charles S. Chaplin

Countdown to IDK: First Words

June 19, 2015

What grabs you about a book, from the first page?  Some readers like getting right into the action, as in

  • Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.  (Tom Clancy, Patriot Games)
  • Renowned curator Jacques Suaniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.  (Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code)
  • None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Middle of Somewhere)

Some want to identify immediately with a character:

  • Call me Ishmael.  (Herman Melville, Moby Dick)
  • I am an invisible man.  (Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man)
  • I didn’t mean to do it.  I just got carried away.  (J. B. Cheaney, My Friend the Enemy)

Other readers like a strong sense of place or time; they want to setting to descend on them like a mist.  For example

  • The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, like the highest seat of a ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. (Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . .  (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.  An English boy of any learning whatever knows that.  (J. B. Cheaney, The Playmaker)

Other readers are looking for a jolt of mystery or suspense:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.  (Louis Sacher, Holes)
  • One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War, and the next minute he was gone.  (Michael Grant, Gone)
  • Last night’s weather forecast predicted rain.  This isn’t rain.   (J. B. Cheaney, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous)

And others like a shot of emotional adrenaline:

  • What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? (Eric Segal, Love Story)
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.  (Nora Zeal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God)
  • “Stop! Halt! You’ll kill each other!  (J. B. Cheaney, The True Prince)

(Look at me swanning around on the same page with all these great authors!)

Every author knows that first lines can make the difference between a reader reading or a reader refusing (though most readers will stick around at least for a paragraph).  But more than that: a first line can set the tone for the whole story.  Of course you want to engage the reader with some sense of the action to follow.  Of course you want to surprise and mystify.  The question is how.

For my soon-to-be-published novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, I decided to go for voice.  That’s the indefinable quality that makes one person’s style different from another’s.  When you read Call me Ishmael next to You don’t know me without you have read a book called Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter, you know you are in for a sojourn within two very distinct personalities.

I decided to try for that.  Meet Isobel Ransom, the narrator and cover girl of I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (Sourcebooks, Oct. 2015):

* * * * * * * * * * * *

      The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  That was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.

It wasn’t all my fault.  She pushed me before I pushed her—figuratively, I mean.

She’d picked a bad time to tangle with me, for I was in a drippy, dismal mood, like our Seattle weather that day.  While walking from my room to the stairs with an open book—Jane Eyre, my new most-favorite—I heard a moaning noise behind me, starting low and growing louder: “AhhhhWOOOO!”

I turned around.  “Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”

A cobwebby ghost was creeping up behind me: Sylvie, draped in gauzy curtains she’d somehow pulled down from our parents’ bedroom window.  “AWOOO!  I’m the ghost of the battlefield.  No—I’m Daddy’s lonesome spirit come back to haunt you, and . . . Quit it, Isobel!”

I had smacked her on the shoulder with my book.  She smacked me back, so I pushed her against the banister and she stumbled on the wads of curtain under her feet.  The next moment she was bouncing down the stairs, howling at every bump.

The noise brought Mother from the study and Rosetta from the kitchen.  Both could only stare at first, flummoxed by the noisy cocoon I was frantically trying to unwrap.  Sylvie had made it all the way to the bottom without breaking anything, I was pretty sure.  Father used to say he was going to take her on the road as a scientific curiosity because her bones were made of rubber.  But the fact remained that she had been pushed, and someone had done the pushing.

“Isobel,” my mother said accusingly.

“I’m sorry!  But she was acting silly, as usual, and saying she was Father’s ghost, and we know that Father’s alive and well, but I can’t stand it when she . . .” Et cetera.  And all this time Sylvie was yelling that it wasn’t her fault.  She was just playing, and I hit her before pushing her, and so on.

Rosetta stepped in to lend a hand, and finally Sylvie was standing on her own two feet, both of us waiting for Mother to send us outside for a switch from the forsythia bush.  But she just looked at us, lips pressed together, the silence lengthening like the long shadow that had fallen over us ever since Father left for France.

“That does it,” Mother said at last.  “I’ve had enough of dreary days and melancholy daughters.  We’re going to California for the summer.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

So the adventure begins .  .

postcard

Countdown to IDK: Cover Coverage

June 12, 2015

Some of my covers I’ve loved; some I cringed at, just a little.  I got kind of a shock with my first-ever published novel, The Playmaker, which looks like this:

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

Alternate Title: Revenge of the Theater Nerds!

First of all, the character, Richard Mallory, looks nothing like I described him in the book.  I’ve heard that artists were supposed to actually read the book to get design ideas, and this artist wouldn’t have needed to read far—the description is in the first chapter.  Second of all, nowhere in the story does Richard attack anyone with a sword.  Third of all, what’s with the font style?  It looks like “Goosebumps.”  (On the positive end, I really like the bear in the background, even though lots of kids guess it’s a dog.)  I did bring up the Goosebumps font with my editor, who explained that the design team was going for boy-appeal.  And in the end I can’t complain, because The Playmaker is still in print—after fifteen years!

myfriendtheenemy

Alternative Title: Please Love Me. Please.

Usually the hardcover image carries over to the paperback, but that didn’t happen with my third published novel, My Friend the Enemy.  To your left is the hardback, which quickly made itself scarce.  No wonder; to me this cover says Read me because I’m thoughtful and sensitive and good for you.

MFTE.pb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other hand, here’s the paperback edition, which says Read me because I’m a great story about a girl and a boy and their fraught friendship during World War II.

I might hesitate about reading the first.  I’d pick up the second in a heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

 

My first publisher, Random House, always gave me a completed design and basically said, “Here.  We hope you like it.  (And too bad if you don’t.)”  My current publisher, Sourcebooks, asks for my ideas ahead of time and doesn’t use them.  But they also ask for feedback and are willing to make small changes.  So here’s what the cover of my goes-on-sale-in-October MG novel looked like in its first version:

hollywood

“What do you think?” asked the editor.  Well . . .

Isobel Ransom, the main character in I Don’t Know How the Story Ends (that’s what IDK means, if you’re wondering) lives in Seattle.  The story takes place during the summer of 1918, while America is involved in World War I.  While her father is serving as an army surgeon in France, Isobel and her mother and sister travel to southern California to spend a couple of months with her aunt, who lives in a sleepy little town called Hollywood.  But times are changing fast for Hollywood, soon to become the motion-picture capital of the world, and Isobel is caught up in the frenetic, wild-west age of movie-making.

First of all: nothing in the above design says 1918.  The look is more 1930’s.

Second of all: nothing says California.  The look is more depression-era Kansas.  In fact, a couple of people I showed it to said the first thing that came to mind was The Wizard of Oz.  Since that was also the first thing that came to my mind, surely it’s no fluke.

Third of all: nothing says motion pictures.

I mentioned all this to my editor: the girl’s dress needs to change; her hair should be different; what’s that thing in the background that looks like a broken-down fence; why is the landscape so desolate; and can’t we stick in a few palm trees or something?  And finally, where’s the movie camera?

No movie camera.  The philosophy behind this cover is that the story reflects universal themes and they didn’t want to make the time and setting too specific, in order to appeal to as many readers as possible.  I don’t know about this, since movies are about as universal as we get these days, and the specific subject matter seems to generate plenty of interest whenever I mention it.  But they did take the landscape and costume into account, and here’s what we ended up with:

hollywood2

Still no palm trees.  But it passes for California, and if you look closely you can make out the hazy outlines of the blue Pacific. And the girl’s dramatic pose is a nice touch–even if it makes older readers like myself immediately hear the opening bars of “Tara’s Theme.”

So, what do you think?

Keep watching for reviews, blurbs, first paragraphs and chapters, and more!  You might even find out How the Story Ends!  (And oh yes, you can pre-order here.)

Character Qualities, III

May 29, 2015

Continuing this short series on character interviews . . . If you’re just joining us, I’m exploring the use of imaginary “interviews” as a way for authors to get to know their characters better.  Somebody on this Bus Is Going to Be Famous is a great example of the benefits of this technique, because with nine (count ’em! Nine!) main characters I needed an effective way to get to know them better.  Earlier this week I visited with kids at Montessori Magnet School in Kankakee, and asked them which interview they’d like to see.  The winner:

SHELLY GUADALUPE ALVAREZ!

(She’s not surprised at all.  Just wait until she’s famous–everybody will want to read her interviews!)

What’s your favorite color?cartoon_0025

Silver!  That’s my brand.

What do you consider to be your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is determination and focus.  Is that two qualities?  How about focused determination?  Or determined focus?  You know Roger Foulkes, on American Star Search?  He says not having a focus is like playing darts with a balloon. He means you have to be sharp.  And I guess kind of hard, too.  I can’t think of anybody in my whole school like that except me.  Focus means you have to think about something all the time and set goals for yourself and figure out ways to reach those goals.  The only people I know like that are in the All-City Glee Club.  I’m the youngest member, did you know that?  Luke Springer, our coach, says that I—

What?  Go on to the next question?  Okay . . .

In what area of your life would you most like to improve?

Well, I believe that you don’t focus on your weaknesses; you build on your strengths.  So sure, I want to improve on everything there: voice, volume, breath control, musicality, body stamina, flexibility.  Grades?  Okay, I want to improve on those enough to get into some good performance schools.  Even though, like, how is it going to help me to know when the Civic War was or how to find the area of a circle?  But whatever it takes, I guess.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

Claire, definitely.  Did you know she was the youngest of six kids, and their dad ran off and their mother had to work all the time and she grew up in Arkansas?  And she made it big singing country and western?  Yeah.  You can find her old clips on YouTube, age 15 or something like that, singing “Wildwood Flower” on an acoustic guitar.  Wearing white cowgirl boots and a shirt with a fringe!  What I admire about her is that she wasn’t afraid to change or, you know, evolve.  She kept the white boots but that’s it.  And now she’s so . . . so . . . just dazzly.  She lights up the whole stage.  She’s going to be in St. Louis in January and I’m dying to go.  But Dad says it’s either that or save the money for camp, so . . . Nobody should have to make a choice like that!

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Sparkly.  Exciting.  Focused.

What do others not understand about you?

Well, I think everybody understands my goals, and that’s all I care about!

But . . . I don’t think they understand what performing does to me.  I guess maybe they might think I’m just a showoff.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.  Really, a lot more.  Like music.  Music takes me places, you know?  When the music gets inside and starts swirling around it kind of lifts me up and swirls me around, too.  And then I’m exactly who I want to be, not a little Mexican beanpot like Uncle Mike says.  (I guess I used to fart a lot, though I don’t remember.)  He still calls me that, even though my ears fit my face a lot better and my hair got long and thick enough to cover them.  It’s like a big hilarious joke that nobody thinks is funny except him.  He’s a loser, anyway.  But the music, that’s what people don’t get.  The talent show really showed me that.  I know, it was just a little dinky elementary-school show, and when the sound went off I would have freaked, totally, except for the music.  It was inside me—no, it was me, and it made me so much bigger and stronger I could pick up that whole cafeteria full of kids and take them anywhere I wanted to go.  Talk about focused!  I was so there, I never want to be anywhere else.

That’s what I wish people understood about me.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll be 22.  Claire did her first concert tour when she was 19, her first platinum album at 20, her first Super Bowl halftime at 21.  Does that give you an idea?

What was the happiest moment of your life?

Well, I was going to say the talent show—duh!  But then I thought a little more about this question, and I remembered this funny thing from way back when I was only 7.  M6y grandpa on my mom’s side, Papa Early, he gave me my first showbiz break.  Really.  He was the entertainment chairman of this old-folks group he belonged to, the Golden Gang, and he came up with this bright idea to have a grandkids’ talent show.  He called it Bragging Rights Night, because he told us he got tired of all the old duffers bragging on their grandkids and wanted to see all these wonderkids strut their stuff (he actually talked like that).  He’s the one who talked my parents into letting me sing, because I used to sing for him on the back porch on barbecue nights.  He picked two songs and even coached me a little.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I always liked to sing but never thought about performing.  I didn’t get too nervous, or not too anything until I was halfway through “The Good Ship Lollipop” and noticed all these old people smiling at me.  Really smiling, not like Aw Isn’t She Cute, but like I was making them happy.  And that made me happy.

At the end of the show, Papa Early picked me up and walked around with me like I was, like, three years old.  “Here’s my little star,” he kept saying, like he wanted all his friends to know me.  And all the time they were smiling like they were still in that happy place.

Papa Early died a few months after that.  Heart attack, really sudden.  I wish I could remember him better.

What’s your greatest fear?

Well, if you want to stay focused you can’t think about fear!  So I’ll pass on this one.

If you died tomorrow, what should your epitaph be?

What kind of question is that?!  And what’s an epitaph?  Like, what you put on your gravestone?  Okay, if you want to know how I’d like people to remember me, how about Shelly Alvarez: a Real Shooting Star.

But really, it’s a stupid question.

___________________________________________

To see how other characters answered these same questions, here’s Bender and Igor.

Character Qualities, II

May 27, 2015

So, last week I introduced

The Interview

as a useful tool for helping an author get to know her character.  That is, about halfway into the first draft, I  figuratively sit the main characters down and ask them a set of predetermined questions, which they must answer directly, as if they themselves were writing or speaking.  Some details of their answers are already in the manuscript; others will never find a place in the story.  Nothing mystical happens here; I’m answering as if I were Jay or Shelly or Igor.  But I have to use what I’ve already determined about them, what I’ve come to know, and what I might be able to feel my way toward, in order to answer these questions.

Last Thursday, I posted my interview with Bender Thompson at the request of the class I Skype-visited.  Today, at the request of King Middle Schoolers in Kankakee, IL (thanks for your great questions, guys!) I’ll share my interview with

ROBERT JAMES PRICE SANDERSON, better known as “Igor”

(I pronounce it EE-gore, by the way)

 What’s your favorite color?

Igor

Neon!  I know, lots of colors can be neon.  But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What do you see as your strongest quality?

My strongest quality is my abdominal muscles because I can leg press 200 pounds.  No kidding.  My Webelos troop that I was in for about two seconds (before they kicked me out) had a fitness day at the Y and we tried out all the machines.  That’s what I could do.

In what area of your life would you like to improve?

I would like to improve my report card.  But not enough to, like, work at it.

Who had or has the most influence on you?  How and/or why?

The person who has had the most influence on my life is the Incredible Hulk.  That’s why I turn into this big green destruction machine when nobody’s around.  The person with the second-most influence is probably my real dad.  Even though I don’t really remember him.

What three words would your friends use to describe you?

Funny, crazy, hysterical.

What do others not understand about you?

My friends don’t understand how smart I really am.  I’m just pretending to be stoopid.  Most people don’t realize, but it takes a lot of brains to act dumb.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In ten years I’ll probably be finishing junior high.

What was the happiest moment of your life?

My happiest moment was when I finally managed to flatten the Empire State Building in Monster Donkey Kong.

Okay, here’s the truth: my happiest memory is the day we left for Disney World, in Florida.  Big Al, my stepdad, told us two weeks before that we were going on this vacation, but up until that minute I didn’t believe it.  I’ve been told enough things were happening that ended up not happening.  Big Al is a morning person—when he’s at home his normal get-up time is like 4:30 in the morning—and he likes to get an early start on any trip, so we were on the road before the sun came up.  I know what that that time of day feels like, because every time we make a move that’s when we leave: it’s kind of fuzzy and blurry but sharp at the center.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, Big Al had the van all loaded up so all we had to do was pile in, but I was already awake—I’d been lying in bed thinking about Space Mountain and Haunted Mansion and all the other rides.  The baby was a little fussy when Mom strapped her in her car seat, but I knew she’d be out like a light once the car started rolling.  Little Al and Samantha started a fight over whose space was whose and Mom told them to knock it off, but not like she was mad.  Big Al said, like he does every time, “If we ain’t got it, we don’t need it,” and we backed out of the driveway.  There was a rim of orange light on the horizon and I knew that in about fifteen minutes Big Al and me would be the only ones awake in the van but we wouldn’t need to talk.

Of course, we ended up having to leave a day early and I never got to ride Space Mountain.  I guess nothing can be perfect.

What is your greatest fear?

My greatest fear is that someday the space/time continuum will break down and I’ll wake up to find I’m 87 years old but still think like a kid.

If you died tomorrow, what would your ideal epitaph be?

Here’s lies Igor Sanderson—just kidding!

(Illustration courtesy of Tielman Cheaney, Cartoon Vegas.)

101 Ways to Say “I Love You”

February 6, 2015
  1. Just say it: “I. Love. You.”love-you
  2. Say it with flowers, chocolates, or Hallmark.
  3. Say it with poetry.

(#4 – #101: all the different ways you can say it with poetry–guess what this post is about!)

Poetry has been around as long as language has–in fact, it’s the world’s oldest literary form.  Of all the poetry that’s ever been written, a significant percentage is love poems.  Of all the poetry written by amateurs and song writers, a significant majority is love poems.

Love is a great thing–some people even think it makes the world go ’round.  But love is also a mighty big word, referring to feelings expressed by and for God, parents, husbands and wives, teenage crushes, a boy to his dog, a girl to her horse, a patriot to his country,  Expressions of love can be grand and glorious, so much so that they lose focus.  A very famous example is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s tribute to her husband Robert (himself a poet of renown):

How to I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breath and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace . . .

Here’s a more recent example–one of Petulah Clark’s greatest hits (trust me, she was very big in the sixties):

 My love is warmer than the warmest sunshine

            Softer than a sigh;

My love is deeper than the deepest ocean,

            Wider than the sky.

 And so on.  The problem with these grand expressions is that sometimes they can sound like “just words.”  Love is a great thing, but usually expressed in little ways.  If my love never gets the chance to sacrifice his life for me, will he at least take out the trash twice a week?

The key to writing effective love poems is the same key to writing effective anything: BE SPECIFIC!  Every love relationship shares some common characteristic: affection for the other person, wanting the best for him or her, sharing problems and joys.  But since everybody is different, every relationship has its own personality, private jokes, small irritations, individual quirks.

So here’s the deal: Valentine’s Day is coming, and the retail community is trying to make you feel guilty.  Unless you buy flowers, candy or cards–at the very least–or a spa vacation or cruise at the most, how will your beloved know what’s really in your heart?  It’s an obvious attempt to calculate affection by how much money you spend, but you don’t have to fall for it!  Just write a poem.  It’s personal, heartfelt, unique, and doesn’t cost a thing.  (Even though it wouldn’t hurt to pony up for chocolate.)

That is, doesn’t cost a thing but agony as you start sweating out what to say and how to say it.  But there’s no need to sweat.  Here’s your problem: love is such a huge subject it’s hard to get a grip on it.  The solution is, you start with small things and everyday details.  Here are three ways you might do it, with “poem starters” included.  (Thanks to Jack Prelutsky, whose book Read a Rhyme, Write a Rhyme furnished the idea of poem starters.)

  1. Focus on the object of your love, using details.

Don’t think of qualities, like loyalty or punctuality (often the qualities that draw us to our spouse is the very thing that irritates us later!).  Think little things, small kindnesses, helpful words.  Here’s a simple poem start for kids, called “Because.”

Because you stay up with me when I’m sick;

Because you set limits and make them stick;

Because you make little sacrifices, day by day

   to provide what I need and teach me God’s way . . .

Or, in a more romantic vein for grownups:

Because of the way you comb your hair,

Because of that sway when you walk down stairs . . .

End the poem with a short couplet (two rhyming lines) that sum it up, such as

Because you’re you

I’m stuck like glue!

(Couplets, incidentally, are the easiest rhyme scheme for beginning poets.)

  1. Focus on how your love affects you.

Here’s one for those people who don’t like to go all mushy.  Imagine the object of your poem as an inanimate object (several objects, actually), and then say what you would do in response.  For instance:

If you were a basketball I’d dribble you;

If you were a cookie, I’d nibble you.

If you were a pizza, I’d savor you;

If you were a sore foot, I’d favor you . . .

And so on, for as long as your imagination holds out.  End with a summing-up couplet beginning

Since you’re none of those things, then here’s what I’ll do:

______________________________________________

(And surely you can think of a final line, maybe with “you” at the end?  Or blue, few, dew, grew, new, slew, too, true, view, or hullabaloo?)

  1. Say it with flowers.

Just not the kind you order from FTD.  Write a poem titled “My Bouquet,” or something a little less sappy, in which every line is built on a flower.  The two previous poems depended on rhyme for their effect, but this one uses alliteration–that is, using the same first letter or sound for significant words in the poem.  For example:

Here’s a daisy for that day

   you dropped everything to help with my budget report.

Here’s an iris for the eyes

   that smile when they see me all dressed up.

Here’s wisteria for the way

  ____________________________________

 Here’s a pansy for the praise

  ____________________________________

Here’s ______________ for the ___________

 ____________________________________

You get the idea.  In case you’re not up on botany, here are some other flowers that might provide alliterative inspiration: violet, dahlia, lily, rose, hibiscus, geranium, hollyhock, clematis, sweet pea, honeysuckle, snapdragon, gladiola, black-eyed susan, peony, primrose, columbine, orchid, and phlox.  Just kidding about the last one–if ever a name does NOT belong in poem, “phlox” is it.  You may “tie up” the bouquet with a rhyming couplet, or a line about how these flowers will never fade.  And chances are they won’t.  Your poem may never make it to a poetry anthology, but it’s very unlikely that the recipient will throw it away.

That doesn’t look so hard, does it?  Now, go make someone happy.