Morning Coffee: Happy Endings

feetHave you ever read a book or watched a movie you were really enjoying until you got to the end? A story that had an ending so disappointing, or infuriating, that you wished you’d never wasted your time or money? I have. For example, I got all the way to the end of “Thelma and Louise”, expecting that at any moment they’d find the courage to step forward, when all of a sudden they drove off a cliff! Really? I was beyond disappointed.

Then there’s the example of a truly amazing ending, one that left me spell bound. Last night I watched “Sunset Boulevard”. I hadn’t seen it in years and was in the mood for a classic movie. A movie from the days when the characters weren’t jumping from bed to bed and didn’t drop the f-bomb every other word. First, I must add that the best line I’ve ever heard is when Gloria Swanson, aka Norma Desmond, says: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Even though she was clearly living in her own little fantasy world, you totally believed her.

If you haven’t seen the movie, the year is 1949 and Norma Desmond is an aging silent movie star who believes her return to the big screen is inevitable. William Holden plays Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who, while trying to evade the men who have come to repossess his car, happens upon Desmond and her loyal friend and servant (and first director/first husband) Max. Ms Desmond has a screenplay that needs editing. Her plan is to present it to her old friend Cecil B DeMille. Gillis is drawn into her fantasy world as he helps with her screenplay, realizing too late that she has fallen in love with him. During his attempt to escape her web of dreams she shoots him. The house is besieged by police and reporters, notebooks and cameras in-hand.

They find Norma Desmond at her dressing table putting on her make-up. She has completely lost her already weak grasp on reality and believes she is preparing to shoot a scene from her screenplay. When she hears “the cameras” are ready for her she appears at the top of her grand staircase. Max, waiting at the bottom with the news cameras, sets the scene for her and calls action. Norma slowly, gracefully, descends the staircase, through the crowd of police and reporters who watch frozen in place, both enthralled and horrified by her madness. Her eyes play to the camera as only Gloria Swanson can. At the bottom of the stairs she drops character, gives a speech about how happy she is to be back on set at Paramount, and then, looking at Max, speaks that famous closing line: “All right, Mr. DeMille. I’m ready for my close-up.” I sat mesmerized as the credits rolled.

When most people think happy endings they think happily-ever-after. They think Cinderella and Prince Charming. They think Hallmark movies and Harlequin romances. Yes, those are your traditional happy endings. But the kind of happy ending I’m talking about is the ending that leaves the reader/viewer sitting mouth open and totally blown away. The kind of ending where you know that it could be no other way, good or bad, where you don’t feel cheated. The kind of ending where you can do nothing else but hug the book to your chest or sit slack-jawed, as I did last night, and stare at the credits while letting it all soak in, reliving every word, every action, over and over again in your head.

It’s the kind of ending every writer strives for. The kind of ending that leaves their audience coming back for more.

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Morning Coffee: Inspiration

RevisionsWriters are always looking for inspiration, that spark, that idea that gets words on the page. It could be the search for an intriguing character the reader will either love or hate, or both. It could be a setting that stirs the imagination. But it’s not always about inspiration for the perfect written word. Sometimes we need a whole lot of inspiration just to write the words, to sit our butt in our chair and start typing. We question whether or not we have the talent, the right, to call ourselves writers. We begin to wonder if there aren’t better ways we could be spending our time, like scrubbing the bathroom grout with a toothbrush. For this kind of inspiration we turn to other writers.

That’s why I urge other writers, particularly those new to the process, to join a critique group. It helps tremendously to be able to talk to people who know exactly what I’m going through, the questions, the doubts, the struggles. And it never hurts to hear that something I’ve been working long hours on to perfect has hit the spot.

I also own a number of how-to books by famous authors: “Make Your Words Work” by Gary Provost, “On Writing” by Stephen King, “Writing from the Inner Self” by Elaine Farris Hughes, “Object Lessons” by Eavan Boland, “bird by bird” by Anne Lamott, and “write naked” by Jennifer Probst. Some of these I haven’t even gotten around to opening yet, but they’re all sitting here giving off good energy as I type.

And when I feel like there’s nothing but garbage spilling from my fingers and onto the page I remember these famous quotes:

“You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” William Faulkner

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.” C.J. Cherryh

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow

If you’re happy telling people you’re an aspiring writer, then go ahead and continue to explain to anyone who will listen how you have an idea for a fabulous novel that would be a guaranteed best seller…if only you had the time to sit down and write it. If you want to call yourself a writer, then you must sit down and write. Your first draft may well be garbage; that’s basically the definition of a first draft. What matters is what you do with it. Do you put it in a drawer and feel content in the mere accomplishment of finishing it? (Okay, if that’s enough for you.) Do you rush it off to e-book so you can share it with the world? (Please, no!) Or do you now take a deep breath and go back to the beginning to delete, add, rewrite? That one’s my choice. Get it down and don’t look back until after I type the words “The End”. It’s just that sometimes I need a little nudge, a reminder why I’m doing this and what I need to do to get it done. And from what I hear from published writers, even the famous ones, sometimes they need a little inspiration, too.

Morning Coffee: Patience

winterIf there’s one thing I need as a writer it’s patience. There’s a lot of waiting in this business. You send out a query and you wait. If they ask for a partial you hurry and send it and then you wait. If they then want a full manuscript you send that and…you guessed it…you wait. And you wait and you wait and you wait. Sometimes you get a quick “no thank you” response, but even with a rejection you often have to wait, possibly months.

Right now I’m waiting to hear back from an agent on my novel, Mary Bishop. She’s very busy. I know this because she’s currently not accepting unsolicited submissions. (Mine was requested.) I’m trying to be patient but it’s not easy. A whirlwind of questions keep playing through my mind: Did she receive it? Maybe she didn’t see it in her no doubt overloaded email. When do I decide she isn’t interested? Is it ok to write a quick follow-up email? What if she was considering asking for more and now I just annoyed her by pushing so she says no thank you?

We live in a world of instant gratification so none of us like to wait. If you finish reading your current book after store hours you can get another with just a click of an electronic button on your e-reader. If you decide you want to watch a movie but don’t want to go out in the rain, or maybe there’s nothing of interest playing at the local Cineplex, there’s always Netflix or Hulu or one of the many other movie-streaming sites. You can get almost anything with a click of a button.

Add to that the issue of self-worth. We all think we’re special. After all, our parents say so, our teachers, the media. Psychologists everywhere espouse the importance of making everyone feel equally talented, equally important. Everybody wins; nobody loses. Your children play sports? Rest assured they will come home with a trophy at the end of the season…even if their team finishes dead last and your kid couldn’t catch, kick, or hit a ball if their life depended on it. Afraid that college course is a little too hard and your child won’t pass after all the money you spent on tuition? Afraid a failing grade will make your child feel bad? Don’t worry. Some college professors no longer give grades.

Yes, I could self-publish my book. I could upload it onto Amazon…and then wait. Wait for all the orders to come pouring in, or not. A lot of people do that. I’ve read some very good self-published books. But I’ve also read even more bad ones. I’d hate to find myself in the latter group because I didn’t have the patience to wait for an agent or editor to give me a thumbs up, and questioned the intelligence of those who gave me a thumbs down.

So I’ll keep waiting. And if this agent isn’t interested, or doesn’t reply in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll just move on to the next person on my list. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on my next book. I have to believe someone will eventually recognize my greatness. They can’t possibly all be clueless.

Morning Coffee: Food as Setting

RevisionsWhen we think “setting” in a story, we think in broad pictures like woods or ocean shore. We think events, like a wedding or a battlefield; or a geographical location as large as a particular country…or planet if your thing is Sci-Fi. But setting is so much more than that.

Over Christmas I was discussing my book with a friend who had recently read it for me. One of his comments was how much food played a role in Mary Bishop’s story. I had never thought about it before, but he was right. Food is always there. It doesn’t matter if you’re happy or sad or angry, alone or in a group, celebrating or merely breaking your fast with friends. What’s a movie without popcorn?

Food can be used to put your characters in a more vivid place for your readers. Consider: The scene is a high-end restaurant. Soft music is playing, people are talking, candlelight flickers against the spotless crystal glassware. The waiter walks over and places two dinners on the table. He has to use a towel so he doesn’t burn his hands on the heated plates. One is a steak dinner, meat the perfect shade of red inside, its juices mixing with the steamed vegetables and potato. The other is chicken with wild rice and overtop is drizzled an amazing reduction. Your mouth waters. Are you one of the happy two sitting at the table, toasting the occasion, laughing, cutting into your dinner and smiling your approval with that first perfect bite; or are you standing on the other side of the glass window looking in, cold, only a few coins left in your pocket, unable to even buy a cup of coffee to get warm? Same scene, but two very different settings.

When Mary Bishop is faced with her first Christmas alone after her husband’s death, she remembers holidays in the past. She thinks about her mother’s Christmas feast back in Virginia, before the Civil War stripped them of so much and left them hungry. Two very different Christmas’ and food plays as big a part in that setting as the people. When Mary’s reunited with an old friend and wakes one morning to find her house in northern Wisconsin filled with the smells of fresh biscuits in the oven and sausage gravy on the stove she’s taken back to “home”. For Mary’s friend Sarah, it’s Mary’s homemade jam that takes her back to their southern roots.

Whether it’s the visual, the taste, or the smell, food helps define setting. Now, unless you’re writing a book specifically about food, or a character obsessed with food, I wouldn’t suggest putting it in every scene. But consider it where it will sharpen your scene with detail.