Monday, September 1, 2014

Orange is the New Black and the Art of Leaving the Viewer Hanging

We recently buzzed through the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black. I wanted to focus on one technique that I thought the show used to great effect. There are moments in the show that are incomplete but leave the viewer wanting to know more. This does a couple of things. It places narrative hooks that leave the viewer wanting more, and adds to the depth of the world.

David Mamet is the biggest proponent of this technique:

Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early.
Why? So that something’s already happened?
Yes. That’s how Glengarry got started. I was listening to conversations in the next booth and I thought, My God, there’s nothing more fascinating than the people in the next booth. You start in the middle of the conversation and wonder, What the hell are they talking about? And you listen heavily. So I worked a bunch of these scenes with people using extremely arcane language—kind of the canting language of the real-estate crowd, which I understood, having been involved with them—and I thought, Well, if it fascinates me, it will probably fascinate them too. If not, they can put me in jail. 

The Wire had visual variations of this. The series is over and people are still wondering about Rawls in the gay bar. The camera casually passes him by, like we weren't supposed to see him in there but did. And of course Rawls means nothing to the character scanning the crowd so the reveal is a casual bombshell to the audience.

Back to OITNB. 

The first scene is a personal anecdote that Taystee is telling at an AA meeting. The scene starts with her saying:

“So there I am, topless, sitting on this bulldozer, like in a construction site. So I’m sitting there, barbecue sauce on my titties, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck? Again?’”

We do get an ending to the tale but no start. The tale is funny and sad at the same time we want to know more but never do.
 The second scene takes place in the visiting room where an inmate is talking to her husband. She feels the he is letting the bank run all over him in regards to not dropping some late fees. At the end of this scene she tells him:

You get a baseball bat, the wood kind, not the fucking metal kind, and a big trash bag, the black kind, not the see-through kind...

The scene then moves to another inmate, one that we've been primed to see, and we can only hear the above exchange in the background before it fades completely. We want to know what to do with the bat and the trash bag damit!

The last example is played as a recurring joke. There's a joke that is told by two different characters in two different scenes. They only give the setup 

"So a penguin and a farmer walk into a bar..." 

and the punch line.

"And so the penguin says, "Dude, he's not an eggplant, he's retarded".

Even though it's played for laughs the audience is still in the dark and wants to know more.

So leave 'em wanting more. Not just by seeking resolution to a cliffhanger at the end but by investing them in the smaller moments in the middle too.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back off! I'm Writing!

by Kristi Belcamino

One thing I’ve learned in my writing journey is if I want to be a writer, I have to guard and protect my writing time and sacrifice other leisure activities.

I have to protect my writing time against outside influences and temptations, such as the desire to grab a latte at a café table overlooking the Mississippi River.

Or maybe my cupboards are bare and I need to stock up on food at the market.

Possibly a friend called and wants to meet for an early lunch.

For me, any one of these appealing distractions are really a step onto a slippery slope to a non-writing day.

This was all fine and good before I had book contracts and deadlines to meet.  Not anymore. A day lost writing means not only fewer words on the page, but a longer time to get back into the story on the next day.

So I must fiercely guard my writing time, which is normally 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. Anything that needs to be done in my life outside of writing can be done before or after. Otherwise, I’d never have written a book. And without these rules, I would not finish the one I’m going to start next week that is due in December. I got a slight kick in the pants this week, when I saw the book, Blessed Are Those Who Weep, already up on Amazon and Goodreads with an April 7th pub date.

Luckily my career is in journalism, so working on deadline is something I am used to. I don’t believe in writer’s block. Editors screaming at you and the fear of losing your job effectively eliminate writer’s block for life. I’ve learned how to write fast. Every minute counts on deadline. And distractions can be deadly.

In addition to guarding your writing time, choosing to lead a writerly life also involves sacrifice.

For me, the first thing I cut out several years ago was TV watching. I just couldn’t fit it into my day, not if I wanted to read at night, which is something that helps me as a writer. I do believe that studying TV shows can help with writing, but I also believe that studying movies can help more, so I do set aside at least one day during the week to watch movies.

A few years back, before I wrote my first novel, I was an avid reader of blogs. I probably wasted a few hours a day reading blogs about style and European life and food. That was the second thing to go. I love reading blogs, but if I’m going to be a writer, it is something I can’t take the time to do. Now, I have a handful of writerly blogs I read every day and use Feedly to skim the headlines and decide which ones to read each morning.

Time online can be an incredible black hole time suck, especially for someone with the tendency to engage in addictive and compulsive behaviors, so I must limit myself.

I do allow myself to spend a lot of time on Facebook, but because this is a way to keep in touch with my readers, I indulge myself here the most.

And I set aside time on Saturday mornings for another online activity I love: checking out Pinterest. By designating Saturdays for this, I actually look forward to it and enjoy my time looking at cute clothes, animals, and pictures that inspire me creatively.

Those are just a few of the things I do to protect and guard my writing time? What do you, dear readers, do or find works for you?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Writing with an iPod, Part II

Scott D. Parker

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about my new iPod Touch and the new apps that I now could use to help me craft ideas for my stories. I focused on the Index Card app for brainstorming ideas and scenes for stories. It’s a great app and I still use it.

Then I figured out something even more fundamental for writing: actual composing on the iPod. Yes, really.

So, when I’m here at my Mac, I use Scrivener to write fiction. I love this program for its simplicity, ease of use, and its programmability. But there is no iOS version of it. Yes, I always moved a copy of the updated file to Dropbox every time I close a writing session, but there’s no good way to write on *that* file on the fly. It’s only a copy.

What to do?

Well, there is a program and is available on the fly: Google Docs. A little over two weeks ago, it finally dawned on me what I can do: use Google Docs to always have a working copy of the book with me. Scrivener is still the primary, but Google Docs is the wonderful on-the-go solution. Here’s my current, efficient writing schedule for my work week.

I use Scrivener for my 5am writing session. When I am done, I compile the file and copy it to Dropbox. I also copy the current scene/chapter into a Google Docs file. It has *all* the scenes up to that point. There’s a 10,000-word-count limit to Google Docs and my scenes average just under 1,000 words so I have a series of Google Docs files of my book out there. There are three parts now. I’m on Part III.

Here’s where the magic happens. On my iPod Touch, I now carry a working copy of my book in Google Docs. I take a five-minute break every hour at the day job. In that break time, I walk the atrium, basically I do laps, usually around five or so. As soon as I start walking, I have the iPod in my hands, the current Google Docs file open to where I left off that morning. I walk and type *on the iPod* for five minutes. True, I can only get a hundred words or so in five minutes, but I take *seven* breaks per day. That’s about 600-700 new words in little five-minute snippets. The hardest part is when the five minutes are up and I have to return to work.

Let’s do the math. I can get around 600-800 words in the 5 o’clock hour. Then, in my breaks, I can get another 600-700 words written in the working file. That’s over a thousand words per day, which is a personal goal for me. But just under half of that count is written on a little bitty iPod screen with my thumbs.

To close out the day, I copy the material I wrote in Google Docs back into Scrivener and save that updated file. Boom. I’ve just moved the needle forward and moved that much closer to The End. As a bonus, I have my book saved in three places: the Mac (Scrivener), Dropbox (word file of Scrivener export), and Google Docs.

I get some funny looks from colleagues who can’t believe I’m writing on the iPod, but I am. I love this little thing. It’s making my writing days so much more productive.

Does anyone else do this kind of thing? What are the ways y’all write on the fly?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Doing Holly's Bucket List

By Steve Weddle

So, yesterday Holly West posted a list of things she had wanted to do. Getting a novel published was top of the list. And she'd done that. Heck, I read the novel and dug it. Grab MISTRESS here.

OK, so here's her list

Let's see how I've done.

1) Learn a foreign language.

I have a minor in German. Had a minor? How does that work? I had to take a bunch of German in college to go with the BA in English. So I think I took one extra class and ended up with a minor in German. But I don't speak German, nor have I ever used it. So, I guess I had a minor. It is nutzlos now.

2) Learn to play the guitar.

Ugh. What is it with all this learning? Speak another language and play the guitar? Holly wanted to host a telethon in Paris? Goodness, that sounds like so much work. 

I played the guitar, poorly, in college. I own a guitar. I play the banjo, though. I have three banjos. In fact, I just took the drone string off my clawback banjo and can now, uh, I feel like I just lost you. OK. Here's a song Frank Bill sent that's good. It's banjo.

3) Visit Africa.

OK, honestly. Host a telethon in Libya and you're covered. Africa would be a fun trip, especially if you got to shoot giraffes. Like Holly, I don't care much for flying. I mean, you're in this big metal tube sitting next to people who want to talk to you while you know you're falling through the air with people in a little room 10 feet behind you making poopoo or peepee or pornos and the waiters and waitresses are pulling water and ice out of some holding tank that hasn't been cleaned since the first Bush presidency. Here's some Replacements for Jay:

4) Be a graphic/web designer.

I was a graphic designer for a while, back in the 1990s. That was my first pro job in newspapers. It was too much work. Pagemaker and Photoshop and then QuarkXPress and then Illustrator and then Dreamweaver and a handbasket of other programs I now use as often as German. Why is it that Holly wanted everything to be so much work? All this learning? Are all you people like this? Why are you all so busy? Goodness. 

5) Learn how to dress myself stylishly.


Oh, hey, before I forget. I'm teaching a short story class over at LitReactor. If your bucket list contains "Hang out with cool folks and Steve Weddle and learn some fundamentals of short story writing," then you'll want to head over here.

And I swore off Facebook because of the timesuck, but I still have a work account over there which you're not allowed near and a very tiny Earl Withers account you're welcome to harass. Oh, and I've peeled off Twitter for the most part, except for the @SamBelacqua account and a few other accounts I'm in and out of. You know, I'm finding Tumblr to be better suited for my pop in and then run away method. If you need me on Tumblr, I'm under my actual real name over there at, though, as usual, I do keep a fair number of fake/anon accounts around.

Heck, was that on my bucket list? Snag 29 URLs, 14 Twitter accounts, 11 Facebook profiles, and five Tumblrs? If so, then, you know, BAM!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Give it Up

by Holly West

I'm willing to bet that most of us have, if not actual written bucket lists, a running mental tab of items we'd like to accomplish in our lives. For a long time, writing and getting a novel published was at the top of my list. Now that I've done that, I realize that particular goal is kind of never-ending--I'm always writing, trying to better myself.

But there are other items on my list which I've pretty much conceded defeat to. I know that goes against the principles of positive thinking, but let's be honest here--I'm never gonna be a size two or win American Idol. Sometimes you have to give up goals and be okay with it so you can move on to the ones that are actually important to you.

So in that spirit, I thought I'd share a few of the items on my personal list that are unlikely to ever be accomplished.

Realistically, I will never:

1) Learn a foreign language

The closest I will ever come is my rudimentary Spanish skills acquired in high school. Hey, that was enough to get my husband and I by in Peru, so I figure it's enough. Still, I cling to the idea that someday I'll be fluent in Spanish--I'm just not willing to put in the work to make that happen, Rosetta Stone's full immersion learning system be damned.

And speaking of Peru, I have something else to add to this list: Much as I'd love one, I will probably never have a baby goat.

2) Learn to play the guitar

I've wanted to play the guitar since I was a kid. When I left for college, I sold my flute, which I'd played since the fifth grade, so I could buy myself a guitar. I carted that damned thing around all through my twenties, thirties, and into my forties, only giving it away when we moved into our current house three years ago. In all those years, I never learned to play it, or the second one I acquired along the way. Now, the only guitar I own (yes, at one point I had three unplayed guitars) is the one my Grandpa used to play. It's displayed in the entryway of my home.

3) Visit Africa (Except Maybe Egypt)

I've always said I wanted to go on a safari someday. But honestly, I'm not that great a traveler (the picture of me with the goat above notwithstanding). I don't like to fly and I refuse to be away from home longer than ten days because I hate leaving my dog, Stella. Like so many things in my life, I love having traveled, but while I'm actually doing it I'm a little bit anxious and missing home by day three. With so many other locations in the world I'd rather see, I'm officially crossing Africa (and that safari) off the list.

4) Be a graphic/web designer

When I quit my job fifteen years ago, it was with the understanding that I'd work from home as a web designer. While it's true I designed a few websites (to my knowledge, none of those designs survive), I never learned the skill set to do it properly or efficiently. The same goes for graphic design.

But for some reason I've always considered myself the graphic/web designer type. I can't quite give up that ghost. A couple of weeks ago I told my husband I was thinking about taking some design courses online with the goal of eventually earning some extra money. His response: "Who's gonna hire you?"

So.... yeah.

5) Learn how to dress myself stylishly.

Obviously, I know how to dress myself. I just don't know how to dress myself. All those magazine articles about dressing for your body-type (I'm an apple, if it wasn't obvious), using accessories to make a statement, using classic pieces to build your wardrobe.... I'm still clueless. It's not that I don't try, I just lack the fashion gene. It's time I admit that and move on.

Now, my friends, it's your turn. Tell me what Bucket List goals you're ready to give up in order to make room for the important ones?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gabriella Giovanni Research Trip

By Kristi Belcamino

This year's summer vacation involved a tangential side trip to do research for my third novel in the Gabriella Giovanni mystery series.

The third book in the series, Blessed Are Those Who Weep, comes out April 7th, 2015, so I decided to include a side trip to the Bay Area on our annual family vacation.

With the kids up at their grandparent's house in northern California, my husband and I headed to our old 'hood — Oakland. We rented a little apartment in the Oakland Hills as our home base and began exploring all the areas that appear in my book.

We moved from the Bay Area to Minneapolis in 2004 and in between then and now, I'd written two books based in that area on memory alone so it was fun to actually go visit the spots that are key in my novel: Contra Costa County (suburbs east of Oakland), Oakland, and North Beach in San Francisco.

I also visited a few secret spots I can't reveal since they would be spoilers for my new book.

Here are a few places we visited:

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Perfect Pets for Each One of Us

Scott D. Parker

I had a post already planned about increasing writing efficiency--you’ll get it next week--but our family had a loss yesterday. Our wonderful, beautiful dog, Azula, eighteen years old in July, passed away. What made the death especially wrenching was that we had to decide to do it. We had been managing her pain all summer with medicine, but this past week, she went downhill fast. It was the right thing to do, but it sure as hell hurts a whole lot.

When my wife and I met, I had two cats, she had two dogs, and “this bunch must somehow form a family.” We did, and added a human to the mix as well. The other three animals all passed away naturally here at the house. Basically, they took the decision of when or if to put them down out of our hands. You don’t realize how much of a blessing that is until you are faced with a situation when you have to schedule an appointment, make arrangements, carry the animal to the car, drive to the vet, and go into their offices with everyone knowing why you are there. And if they didn’t, the tears on our faces would have told the story.

The good folks at West Houston Veterinary Medical Associates were so gracious to us. When the time came, our beautiful girl didn’t even need the drug that stopped her heart. She was so tired that the anesthesia was all she needed. One last sigh and she no longer hurt.

We still do, of course, and will for awhile. Everyone thinks that their pet is the best pet in the world. The best thing about a pet is that the animal is the perfect pet for your family. ZuZu was my wife’s second dog and she had her two years before she and I even met. Eighteen years is a good, long life for a dog and, even though this last week has been rough, I wouldn’t trade any of the awesome times I had with her. She was my first frisbee dog and dang if she didn’t *always* beat the frisbee and catch it in midair. She ran so fluidly and gracefully.

For all you pet lovers and animal lovers out there, hug your babies today just a little tighter. They bring so much joy to our lives that they open a special place in our hearts set aside just for pets.

The writing life is a part of our lives and our lives will, on occasion, experience pain. I worked all morning yesterday until noon when I took the rest of the day off to help my wife--man, she was so strong, God bless her--do what we had to do. I had already done most of my fiction writing for the day before noon, but I’ll tell you a little secret we writers know: the act of writing can help you get through pain. Me writing this piece helped me praise our beloved puppy but also reach a nice calmness. Oh, I know I’ll weep in the days to come, but I’ll be smiling much more than crying. In fact, I think I’ll write more about my memories of our dog, Azula. She was such a blessing.