Friday, December 31, 2010

Review of "Tranquillity Initiative"

In his review of my book "Tranquillity Initiative" - which he called a "good read" (with) a really good "reveal" at the end." Jon Steel took issue with my villains as a little too much "baby killers" although he said they worked the plot along. Actually the plot wouldn't work without them, but that brings me to a chapter in my forthcoming book "What Car Would Hamlet Drive: 2000 Questions To Ask Fictional Characters."

In my fiction writing, I write in the thriller genre. In this genre it is imperative that my hero be kept in a state of immanent peril.

In "Hamlet's Car," I pose the idea that "your hero is defined by your villain." If the villain isn't strong and truly threatening, then it's hard to see your hero as truly brave or in danger. The only way to make your villain truly threatening is to have him (or them) do really bad things to other people - kill, main, torture, rape - so that when your hero faces his nemesis - or a collection of nemesis allies (villains usually have supporters or employees who are equally bad) - you fear for the hero because you understand what the villain is capable of.

During the time I was finishing the writing of "Tranquillity Initiative" I had a conversation with a woman I had known in Vermont. Her husband had returned from Iraq a very damaged man. For months he had terrorized his wife and children, keeping them virtual prisoners in their house in order to protect them from attack. "The army turned my husband into a killer," she told me. "Then they sent him home without bothering to turn him back into a civilian." I thought that was very interesting and it bore out some of my character theories.

In "Tranquillity Initiative" I needed a second stream of villains (the "baby killers") because I had seriously weakened the terrorists by giving them anthrax when they released the disease into the population. Besides which, I had made the terrorists somewhat sympathetic because I motivated them by having their families killed - "Digging through the rubble of what had remained of their homes until they had torn off their fingernails." Of course the terrorists were terrorists and behaved like terrorists but their mission was not to attack the hero, it was to attack the population of New York. So the baby killers were needed to attack the hero.

Writing is such an interesting activity - It is a never ending array of problem solving. I love doing it, learning about it, picking it apart and talking about it.

I'm grateful for Jon Steel's very interesting review. I learned from it. I look forward to the rest of the reviews that are scheduled to arrive over the next weeks and months.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I disliked "The Tourist" intensely

Watching "The Tourist" was about as exciting as watching grass grow in winter. What a waste of talent and money. Angelina Jolie looked and acted like a manikin in a store window. The best that could be said about her is she dresses up well. Her energy, or the relative lack thereof, was matched by Johnny Depp's. His quirkiness tried to come through a couple of times but it didn't add much to the film. The sound was ridiculous but at least the vocals matched the plasticity of the characters. The best that can be said was that Joli's dresses were gorgeous. The Director was an idiot.... "Let's get a little more cheese cake...." "How about another shot of Joli's ass...." They tried for a twist at the end but it was pancake flat. Don't waste your money even for the DVD or download. It's one of those films that the talent will groan about when they realize it's on their resumes.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

This quote from my newest review for "Tranquillity Initiative" is music to my ears. I have spent over 25 years picking away at a book on character development. I guess this will be the cover quote.

"The first big thing that hit me about this book is a specific talent that Joan has as a writer that I've rarely seen, and I've read A LOT of books. Throughout the book we're presented with several characters who have contracted the anthrax virus through one means or another. In a matter of a few short paragraphs, Joan was able to make me care about those characters. One character was presented on one mere page, but I loved her and cared about her as if she'd been a life long friend. I've been going over and over this in my mind and I still can't figure out how she did it. Even if this isn't a book you might be interested in, if you're a writer, you might consider picking up this book to learn a few hints on character creation. I'm stunned at the way that Joan has taken a mere glimpse at a person and made them someone I cared about."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

New Movie Studio

Amazon is promising to do for scriptwriters what it has done for book writers. In that vein I have just posted the movie version of "Tranquillity Initiative" on Amazon Studios. Life in the digital age is amazing and wonderful and exciting and replete with possibility.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

More 5 Star Reviews

Five Stars on Amazon, Five Stars on Barnes and Nobel and now this excellent review on It's very exciting. Almost every day I find someone new talking about "Tranquillity Initiative."

Sunday, November 28, 2010


I have just completed and finished 51,157 words of the novel "Relentless:The Story Of The Search for Typhoid Mary" in the time period between November 1-30, 2010, which makes me a winner of the competition.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Keeping Character Pages

As I listen to (I've read and re-read and now have books on tape) the Harry Potter Series I am constantly amazed at how identifiable each of J.K. Rowling's characters are and the consistent reminders that she uses to remind us of who each character is. Luna Lovegood is dreamy. Hermione Granger has brown bushy hair. Ron Weasley often says "You're mental." Hagrid is "Too big to be allowed."

I remember listening to an interview with either Jim Dale or Stephen Fry - who are the actors who read the Harry Potter series - and the particular actor said that he had recorded the accents of each of the characters and reviewed them before each chapter and possibly before each segment. We have a recording studio in the back of our house where music is made and I'm amazed at what my son-in-law can do with Protools.

Television series have notebooks filled with information about characters not only for the writers but for the actors and directors to review them for enriching their understanding of the character. It's impossible to hold everything in memory over years and years.

Character Pages are the same thing as recording accents and speech patterns except that you keep the visuals as well as the auditory. On Character Pages you write down preferred swear words, eccentricities, identifying habits and patterns, special things like physical features, or preferred clothing choices.

In Typhoid Mary - which will be the story I am working on for National Novel Writing Month - one of the characters will be very much like a woman I knew in Vermont named Constance Perry. She used to punctuate phrases with "Don't you know?" which has a wonderful old fashioned cadence in my ear. Typhoid Mary is known to have had a foul mouth - well in 1906 foul mouths are much milder than in 2010 - so how foul am I going to let her get without stepping out of period? Since National Novel Writing Month begins tomorrow I'm going to spend today creating and reviewing character pages.

Character Pages are begun as you outline and maintained as you write. With the advent of the computer you can always go back through the book or movie and add in bits and pieces that expand on the knowledge of each character.

Is it necessary to do all this work around writing? Absolutely not. It depends on who you are as a writer and how good you want your book to be.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Real Life and Fiction Meet

This week a suspected Anti-immigrant group sent Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona a suspicious toxic white powder closing his office and reminding us of the Amerithrax attack on September 18, 2001 which is sent by letters to several news media offices and two Democratic U. S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others.

It is always amazing to me as a writer how real life truly does mimic fiction – not always in the best of all possible ways. Years ago when I was President of the National Emergency Care Advisory Council – I worked very hard to get television to correctly represent first aid in programming. The reason I did that was because people were emulating television (which claimed to be emulating people) and doing real harm to injured people. Of course if television was having their professional first aid squads emulate the mistakes of the general population that didn’t make sense but it did keep them from being responsible in their programming. Not much has changed by the way.

In my new novel “Tranquillity Initiative” I wrote about what would happen if the second bomb that the terrorists were planning to deploy was successfully dropped from a sky scraper. Among the things that would happen would be that there would be a collapse of the police, fire, emergency medical services, public health, and garbage collection services with horrendous results. Another result would be that New Yorkers would flee to the countryside which would arm itself against the refugees. We saw that happen in the Algiers Parish of New Orleans as people tried to get to dry land and safety.

In the early 1800s, New York City essentially burned to the ground. There were a number of reasons why that happened. One of them was that the previous summer there had been a terrible outbreak of cholera and the fire department had been decimated to the point where it didn’t have the staff to put out the fire. If an anthrax weapon were to be deployed over New York, the various departments would see their staffs massively cut by debilitating disease and if, for example, there were riots major parts of the city might simply burn. Today we can pull from neighboring states and counties, however, a lot of damage could take place before New Jersey, Connecticut and Westchester could get across the bridges and through the tunnels (providing they aren’t jammed by traffic trying to escape) – parts of Long Island would be taken out by the germ warfare so Queens would probably be decimated as well.

It is fascinating to sit and read history and to apply the lessons of past disasters to the possibilities of present time. The major lessons are that not much changes when a writer applies human nature to catastrophe.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How To Write A Book That Positions You As An Expert In Your Field

This is the opening discussion in my new ebook - now available on Kindle - "How To Write A Book That Positions You As An Expert In Your Field"

To Get A Publisher Or To Self-Publish.

Most writers are not candidates for big publishers. They may be candidates for small niche publishers; they may not be candidates for any publishers. This book, for example, is a candidate for e-books but not for print publishers. In the day of self-publishing, and e-book publishing, getting published by other people isn’t all that necessary. That is particularly important to realize since you, as author, are going to have to do the bulk of self-promotion anyway.

Big name publishers, like Doubleday or Harcourt Brace, are becoming fewer and fewer. Yes, they sometimes give advances, which you pay back out of the sale of your book, but you have to pay back in full if it turns out they don’t like your final product. Yes, they sometimes put money into a national tour, and they take care of all the little problems like lay out and copy writing. But, there’s just one major problem – if your book isn’t a hit in a few weeks, it goes off the shelves, out of the book stores, gets remaindered or languishes forever in Amazon warehouses or you get to buy whatever copies are left. With the advent of the big discounts at the super stores which are in competition to see who can sell the most by lowering the price of your book, you get less profit from your books. The policies in big publishing, and big chains end up being costly for the little guy and it pays to know what business is like in the book world before you enter it.

Finally, there’s the issue of who gets the profits. If you get 1 - 5% of the sale of your book with a big publisher you’re lucky – and that’s not entirely unfair. They take the risk, make the advance, eat the returns if the book doesn’t sell, have the book edited, copy edited, printed, distributed and, if they do happen to publicize it, keep the staff to do that on their payroll. They have big buildings, big staffs, international representation and a lot of overhead. So you take your couple of bucks profit and keep your day job.

Since you’re going to have to store a bunch of your books anyway – for back of the room sales – you might as well publish it yourself and keep the profit. Unless you are already really famous, and have a great publicist on your payroll, books that have been published by big publishers usually don’t usually have a long life – although that’s somewhat less true with the advent of where 49% of all books are sold. If you are using your book in your seminars and workshops for back of the room sales, you need to have copies for the duration of your career (which you buy at half price from the publishers as long as they’re in print and then you self- publish). Unless you have a big name and a large following, it’s probably best to consider self-publishing early in your decision-making process.

NOTE: Even if you are going to submit your project to a publisher, it’s a good idea to have a copy editor look it over before you send it in. Editors don’t like misspellings, awkward English and typos.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

My grandson who is eight liked this movie. I thought it slooooooooow, thin and dependent on the 3-D as a substitute for true content.

When Soren, a young owlet, falls from his nest one evening, he’s plucked up and taken to the sinister St. Aegolius Academy. Once there, he must use his wits and bravery to escape his captors. Soren and his new band of orphans fight their way through many dangers, hoping to find refuge with a group of brave owls thought only to be a legend—the Guardians of Ga’Hoole! They find the Guardians, and return with them to the Academy in order to defeat the masked and evil owl and save all the other owls from evil domination. That sounds a lot more interesting than this movie turned out to be.

The first rule of good script writing is to keep the plot turning as it advances and each turn must be different and interesting of its own accord as the plot is revealed. This movie fails to do this. It flipped back and forth but the flips were rarely very different. A major plot point – the time line of hypnotizing Soren’s sister and handing her over to the traitor among the Guardians, was developed backward what we say being the reverse of what was reported – sloppy and lazy in a movie with so few plot points. I don’t believe there was enough to the book to keep the movie interesting. Watching owls fly over different scenes does not fill that need for change and development the plot of a full length movie requires. It might have done better as a television series where the dearth of material wouldn’t have been so obvious. It was occasionally beautiful, marginally interesting, not once exciting and at times utterly boring.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Why I love making villains sympathetic

I'm about to embark on the National Novel Writing Month competition with a subject that has been languishing in my computer for years. I'm very excited about it. What's interesting about the subject of Typhoid Mary is that it echoes today with decisions that have been made about public health, with prejudice and bias about disease and misunderstandings about the cause of disease.

I'm going to write about Typhoid Mary - one of the world's great medical villains. Mary was the first person identified as a healthy disease carrier. This is such a twisty story it's going to be interesting to see if I can bring it off.

Just as the early handling of HIV-Aids was colored by prejudice against the gay population, so Mary's case was mishandled by the prejudice against Irish Immigrants. A bias against Immigrants that resonates today.

Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) always claimed that she was persecuted. And she was. Other typhoid carriers killed and infected more people and they were not locked in quarantine for life. The supposition is that she became famous because she was Irish at a time when Irish immigrants were not widely popular. She was a woman without children and not regarded as a "bread winner." She was powerful, violent and profane. She used salty language that the people who dealt with her found offensive. Most of all she denied her condition (and had the medical findings to back her up) and fought for her freedom. My theory is that George Soper the man who discovered her and isolated the cause of a disease that killed 23,000 people in America (when only 10% of those infected died) used her to make his fame and secure his place in medical history well beyond the simple fact that he discovered her. The interesting thing is that her fame persists while you only learn his name by reading about her.

My job as a writer is to make her sympathetic. George Soper, because we wrote and spoke about her extensively, controlled her story. Much like the losers in a war, Mary Mallon became a villain in the perception of the general public of her time. But Mary as villain is too easy a story and not nearly as interesting as Mary Mallon whose life would be destroyed if she ever admitted even to herself that she was a carrier. Mary Mallon the proud woman, valiant victim, who had learned to support herself at the top of her profession. I plan to get her up a tree and throw stones at her. I plan to strip her bare and pour salt in every wound. I plan to make you love Mary even as you understand that she made very bad choices.

I have never liked two dimensional villains or 100% sympathetic heroes. Pure evil might be frightening but it is not nearly as much fun as villains with foibles and contradictions. Childish behavior. Passionate if unlikely love interests. Behavior that everyone in the play, film or book interprets as a good child or good person that masks the evil below. In my book George Soper will be Mary Mallon's nemesis. A physically short, Jesuit-like person with OCD who is very interested in being really famous. Although he has already achieved a certain status as a Typhoid Expert, Mary is his ticket to true and lasting fame. During his life he enjoyed that fame but it has not outlasted her.

The joy of this story is that it skates along the time line of history and my job is not to make up the whole story but to bring these characters to life - to fill in the blanks and make the characters alive and interesting. It is also my job to put things like the science of the day into perspective. It was just the beginning of microbiology. The chemist who regularly tested Mary for Typhoid at her own expense found her to be consistently negative - quite possibly because his science was not as cutting edge as the Department of Health. Lots of mysteries to explore. It will be a marvelous month.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Book Structure and "Are Your My Mother?"

Probably the best structured of any children’s picture book that I have read and the book that best illustrates structure for any piece of fictional writing is, “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman.

Structure of fiction books and movies is not the three act play that most of us are brought up to think of. They have three acts but the acts are not equal.

In a movie the first twenty minutes (Act 1) is the introduction to the character and the situation in which the character finds himself…. at twenty minutes (1-3 pages in a children’s picture book or 1-2 chapters into the novel) there is an “inciting incident” which causes the main character to make a decision that sets him on the track of the rest of the movie, novel or children’s picture book. Generally, he thinks it is the thing that is going to solve his problem. In a well structured novel, the first chapter or two is the equivalent of that first twenty minutes of a movie or the first few pages of a children’s picture book.

In “Are You My Mother?” the set-up takes the first two or three pages. The mother bird is sitting on an egg. She sets off in search of food. The baby bird hatches, doesn’t find its mother. The inciting incident, that sets it on the track for the rest of the book, is the decision to set off to find its mother. From that moment on, it’s on a track that turns every one or two pages up to two or three pages of the end (every 15 minutes in a movie, 1-2 chapters in a novel).

In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a dog, a cow, a cat, a chicken, a boat, a plane, a car… and always his question is “Are You My Mother?” and always the answer is a variation on the theme of, “No.” Each time the question is asked or thought, the answer is slightly different. The plot is turned and each section of the plot is handled slightly differently. If you use the seven Harry Potter books as samples of that template each chapter leads to a different confrontation with a variation of Lord Voldemort, or someone else or some elucidating situation or circumstance. Each situation and each confrontation is different. Each chapter adds to our knowledge of the wizarding world, or Harry or Lord Voldemort until you have the entire tapestry before you.

Finally, in each modality there is a visit to the Valley of Death in which all is apparently lost for the lead character. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy, tragedy, Sci Fi, mystery, novel, movie, children’s story – in a well structured book there will be a moment at which the lead character finds himself in a hopeless situation. In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a “Snort.” The snort, which is a steam shovel, picks up the baby bird – at which point the bird thinks it’s a gonner and so does any child listening to the story for the first time.

Then follows the resolve. The Snort puts the bird back in his nest. His mother comes home. They recognize each other. They snuggle lovingly. All in 2-3 pages.

In a well constructed book – like the Harry Potter books – Harry is confronted by a variation on the theme of Lord Voldemort and survives. The end of Book Three is slightly different in that Harry saves Serius (his godfather) and does not actually confront Voldemort to do battle. It allows Serius into Harry’s life and it sends Wormtail (Peter Pettigrew) to the aid of Lord Voldemort. Number six is also a transition book. It takes out the powerful Dumbledore, it introduces the first Horcrux, and it sets Harry onto the path of ending the fight with Voldemort in which one of them must die.

The “Die Hards” bring up another problem. What happens when you have a strong character who has met many Valleys of Death and isn’t intimidated by them. In that case the Valley of Death is applied to someone he cares about (his wife, his daughter) and the character confronts it on their behalf. Whatever is going to elicit the emotion of all is lost is what the writer uses.

Structure is fascinating to study. After you’ve enjoyed a good move or book for the first time, read it for the way in which the author handles structure. Watch any studio-created action adventure (a high concept movie which plot you can encapsulate in a sentence or two) with a stop watch and at 20 minutes the action changes to the track the movie will ride on. Between 90 and 110 minutes the Valley of Death appears and you slide into the resolve. Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality, the Die Hards, the Lethal Weapons, Transformers, Avatar all structured in the same way. The interesting thing is how brilliantly and differently each of them does the exact same structure.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How J.K. Rowling uses magic to shift scenes

Children’s books as a rule are allowed to have only one point of view. Even if you are writing in the third person you only write from the main character’s point of view. If you are writing for adults, you have the luxury of shifting from one point of view to another, but not with children’s stories. For most children’s stories the only way you can get around something happening somewhere else is if someone tells you about it, or your main character dreams or imagines it…. Even dreams and imaginings are not common in children’s literature.

J.K. Rowling got around that difficult limitation by allowing Harry Potter to see into Lord Voldemort’s mind because of the lightening scar on his forehead – the result of Voldemort’s murderous attack on Harry when he was a child. The visions of other people and other places is generally accompanied by tremendous pain in the scar – which lets the reader know it’s not usual or not happening in Harry’s present time or place. The lightening scar is Harry’s attachment to Voldemort. It is also the writing tool that expands the writing platform that Rowling enjoys. It is an exceptionally clever way to incorporate information that could otherwise not be incorporated into a children’s book.

The limits of a single point of view are one of the things that make writing children’s books very challenging, more challenging than writing adult fiction.

Superstitions in Harry Potter

The Harry Potter series continues to fascinate me as does the growth and mastery of J.K. Rowling.

As she developed as a write, J.K. Rowling began including expletives that were specific to the wizarding world. Like “Merlin’s Beard!”

To my delight in her seventh book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” Rowling got around to Wizard-specific superstitions. What she does that is so delightful is skate right beside something that is familiar in our regular world, touch it a tiny bit so that is becomes specific to the world that isn’t ours but it is so familiar we don’t need explanation.

In a conversation about The Deathly Hallows and their inclusion in a children’s book of cautionary fairy tales she discusses:

• May born witches will marry muggles
• Jinxed by twilight undone by midnight
• Wand of elder never prosper

It is the wand of elder that is important to the through line of the story, the other two superstitions give credibility to the third. It’s very clever writing. Truly J.K. Rowling can be used a textbook for exceptional writing.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Book Review of "The Camel Club" David Baldacci

I always find Baldacci a bit over the top when it comes to writing plot and structure - his books are a lot like throwing noodles at a refrigerator and they all stick. But I liked this book - unbelievable as much of it was - I liked the characters, I liked their fallibility in the face of very big villains. It moved and I didn't get impatient with it as I often do. I thought the bit at the end with Oliver Stone's daughter really weak and stupid. But then I usually fault Baldacci for some unbelievable plotting.

This was a page turner. If he'd ever figure out that he could still tell a good story with half the number of characters and a more straight lined plot he would be a great writer. I think he's a great seller but I don't think he's a great writer.

However this book is worth buying.

Live Free or Die Hard Review

For me this was an exercise in excellent writing and that's always an important beginning. Contrary to most belief in Hollywood, excellent scripts are needed for good movies.

As in the first Die Hard, the whole movie is about getting two people who have become estranged back together. In the Die Hard they blew up a building to get Holly and John together. In this Die Hard they take down all the electronic systems (banks, electricity, etc) in order to get John together with his daughter - who hates her father so much she uses her mothers maiden name as her own last name.

The first Die Hard used that estrangement as the outcome of all the mayhem, the second Die Hard and third Die Hards had to do something else and they weren't nearly as good.... this one goes back to what worked the first time - even making references to the first movie that were hilarious then and remain hilarious now. It's a fascinating continuum.

The other writing rule that this movie carries off spectacularly is: "What happens when your lead character can't grow?" John McClain is already as strong and tough and invincible as he can get. So they bring in a character who can grow, who moves from utterly powerless geek to superhero under John's tutelage. It's an interesting writing trick and I thought they did it well.

Some of the special effects were outrageous and it was hard to suspend disbelief even as it was hard not to enjoy them. The villains were delightful. The humor under the carnage is fun. It was a good movie.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Review of "The First Family" David Baldacci

Review of First Family – David Baldacci

It starts with a birthday party at Camp David which turns into the kidnapping of the President’s niece. It is a Sean King / Michelle Maxwell mystery. The former Secret Service agents turned private investigators have been featured in Baldacci books before. They track the improbable story to its violent and TOTALLY off the charts unbelievable ending. Its got a few parts that move well. A few character moments that work, but on the whole this is not a well written story.

I didn't like First Family very much, but it moved well enough so that I didn’t put it down in the middle. Baldacci is very spotty for a best selling author, often because he doesn't write structure well and depends on lots and lots of confusion instead of a fluid well constructed track. The plot is definitely convoluted although given some of the strange things that have been happening in America in the last decade or so not totally unbelievable. I like the main characters although they weren't as compelling in this book as they have been in the past. It's something to read if there isn't anything else available. This is definitely not one of his better books.

How I came to write my novel Tranquillity Initiative.

I came to write Tranquillity Initiative, my novel that is coming out this fall, because I picked up a fascinating little book on Techno-Terrorism. At the time I wanted to write an action movie. I was a few years out of Paramedic training and fascinated by emergency medicine, so I decided to write about an anthrax attack on New York. This was well before 2001. I wanted my villains to drop a bomb containing anthrax off a building where the germs would spread in the worst configuration possible – so I chose the World Trade Center. The twin towers were still standing at the time and were perfect for my requirements.

Several drafts later I showed it to a friend. “You can’t have the worst possible thing happen at the beginning of the book,” he said. “The whole script goes downhill from there. I went back to the drawing boards.

How would I structure the release of the Anthrax so that everyone in the city would know it was there, and still have something to be scared would happen at the end? The answer was two bombs. One opened by mistake and distributed into the city at the beginning, one to be properly deployed from a tall building at the end – with everyone painfully aware of the consequences. To point out some of the things I didn’t approve of that were going on politically, I made the bombs American issue, stolen off one of our bases.

Next, I had to decide where the accidental distribution would take place. Why not Times Square? There were old buildings on the west side of the square that would do well for immigrant housing. Lots of people from all over the world travel to the Square. Later in the tale, I could still have my battle on top of the twin towers, which remained the best place from which to deploy weapons grade germ warfare armament. Actually, in one early draft I had made the germ warfare contagious, but it rapidly became clear that I could wipe out the human and animal populations of the world so I switched to a deliberate decision not to make the spores transmit human to human. Of course that discovery was made when I was still using optimal deployment off the North Tower at the beginning of the story.

The story became good enough and solid enough to transpose into novel form so I spent months expanding the film. I was now working with a movie and a novel. That’s a wonderful exercise because you learn so much about your film characters in the process. Then came 9/11 and the loss of the optimal buildings on the west side of the City. I went back to the drawing boards. I needed another ending. I needed another building. This time I had to rewrite both a novel and a movie.

I’ve always loved Grand Central Station with its whispering corners, countless entrances and exits, bookstores and junk food, the feeling of history that treats the eye with every glance. While my villain settled on the magnificent Chrysler building for his final deployment, my imagination traveled to the dark tunnels of Grand Central and the ending fairly wrote itself.

A visit to the Chrysler building was a complete surprise. I had walked past it all my life without going inside. I was unprepared for how beautiful the lobby was. A quick study of its history and the way its construction played into my plot was an unexpected bonus. I spent months and months rewriting, using the Grand Central tunnels I remembered all the years from early childhood riding the trains out of the lower level on the New Haven and Hartford line in the years before Amtrak.

And now, after a zillion changes, my novel is almost ready to be released and I’m thrilled. Look for it in your bookstores this fall. Tranquillity Initiative.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review of "The Wrecker" Clive Cussler

Review of
The Wrecker
Clive Cussler and Justin Scott

At the turn of the 20th Century trains were the planes and the telegraph was email. Detective Isaac Bell takes on a brilliant, wealthy and diabolical adversary bent on destroying Osgood Hennessy, the Southern Pacific Railroad's self-made president, who is constructing a short cut through the Cascade mountains in Oregon. The stakes are high. If the ruthless and brilliant villain is successful he will be able to take over the Osgood’s national railway and become immensely wealthy and famous. If he wins he will destroy Hennessy and own his railroad. Isaac Bell, the Van Dorne Detective Agencies top agent, is pitted against a villain almost as smart and ruthless as he is. In the beginning I thought this story was for men mostly – although I love action films I’m not crazy about cars and I can take or leave trains – but once the story got going it was riveting. Cussler has a talent for description that takes the reader right into the action. He also creates characters you care about whether it’s to like them or dislike them. His villains are nasty, his heroes principled. Don’t plan to be doing anything else after you’ve hit the last third of the book.

look for my book "The Tranquillity Initiative" this fall
Joan Meijer

Book Review of "Gone" by Jonathan Kellerman

This is another Alex Delaware mystery. In this story Hollywood wannabes are showing up dead or missing. Eventually the tracks lead to an acting school and a family trio.

I kept hoping this book would get more interesting - I had started it and put it down before because it wasn't engaging. This time I was determined to finish it, but it was an effort. It's slooooooow.

I can tell you immediately what I disliked most about it. Every time you meet a new character you are subjected ad nausium to physical descriptions. I enjoy picking up one or two interesting points about physicality that crop up time and again to advance the plot, or give us more information about the character or quickly remind us who the character is if he or she hasn't shown up in awhile. Kellerman's use of description is more like name dropping than true characterization. I don't care about name dropped shoes if they aren't essential to the story. In Kellerman’s case it’s shoes, jacket, pants, hair cut….and on and on and on.

Kellerman is a good writer as far as technique is concerned but in this book he doesn't have much to work with. It's a weakly plotted book.... no real surprises, a few twists - I wasn't expecting a torture chamber at the end, the chamber was gratuitous anyway. The major problem with this book is that you don't care enough about anyone to get exercised about their demise other than in a general way, like reading about inconsequential strangers in an obituary. The villains are not very interesting, the missing people aren't all that interesting, Delaware's personal life isn't that interesting - there's some threat to his life but that is an obvious diversion rather than integral to the plot, his relationship with his detective friend is okay. I think the book is 2/3rds fill because there isn't really enough of it to have justified writing it.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Hazards of Writing a Cross Over Book

In the late 1980s, my sister, Suzy Prudden, was very famous as a Fitness Expert. She had 8 national tours behind her, had appeared on all major morning shows and on a thousand radio and television shows. What neither she nor I realized at the time was that she was totally burned out. She had discovered metaphysics, she was fascinated by the body-mind connection and she wanted out of Fitness. Shortly after Suzy and I became writing partners Suzy became friends with Louise L Hay of Hay House fame. Suzy had been talking for some time about combining her love of metaphysics with her fame in fitness. The result was MetaFitness: Your Thoughts Taking Shape. Suzy and I wrote it in the late summer in her marvelous little guesthouse in Topanga. I had flown in from New York for a two week writing intensive and the book just flowed out of us.

It came out in a variety of formats a year later. Suzy and Louise had created an exercise video with Suzy doing the exercises and Louise reading affirmations. They had created tapes with the same thing. They had combined metaphysics, physical exercises and body-life information in the book. Oprah plugged it on her program and it took off and became an overnight best seller. Then it died.

Oprah may have liked it, but the rest of the press didn’t, and the market wasn’t happy with it at all. People who liked fitness hated the metaphysics. Metaphysics people didn’t like the exercises. In Tampa one radio host screamed at Suzy, “There’s a serious problem with fitness in America, have you ever heard of hypokinetic disease?” My response was, “Yes. The term was coined by Dr. Hans Kraus and Bonnie Prudden, our mother, in our living room in 1956 shortly before the two of them presented their work to the AMA which led to their presenting their work to President Eisenhower at the White House and the founding of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.” Of course we knew about the trouble with fitness in America, but we felt that combining the body and the mind in sports activities was part of a solution. I think our presentation was a little light on that connection.

We followed MetaFitness with Change Your Mind Change Your Body a Harper SanFrancisco publication which, once again, didn’t satisfy either market.

As I moved on in my writing career and started teaching, I came to understand the hazards of the crossover. We had not prepared the market – either market – for these books. We were a good ten years ahead of where the market eventually went. Being avant garde is all well and good, but then you have to take the fact that you are well ahead of your time into consideration and focus on links that the different markets can relate to. I think if we had focused on the fact that using affirmations during exercise protects against injury and enhances performance might have helped with the Fitness market. I think focusing on the fact that your body is the house your spiritual being lives in and must be nurtured and cared for might have helped in the metaphysics area, but those are two different books.

My students see cross-eyed when I bring up marketing and selling, but publishing is all about selling books. It’s not just about writing them. You must identify a market, a place in the bookstores, people to talk to questions they have, things that might help them relate to your books and then write your book. The problem starts with the bookstore. Where does your book fit on the shelf? Look at the problem for the MetaFitness book in the bookstore. MetaFitness had Suzy in a pink leotard on the cover. Hay House always had their books in the Self-Help section of the bookstore. In the late 1980s, when the book came out, Self-Help people wouldn’t look at, let alone buy, a book with someone in a leotard on the cover. Fitness people, who would, didn’t go into Self-Help. The bookstore wouldn’t double the books exposure by putting it into two sections, that’s a waste of valuable space. And, we had written the book more for the spiritual people than for the fitness people. When we got around to Change Your Mind Change Your Body, I argued for a more spiritual cover – no leotard. Harper SanFrancisco compounded the problem by putting ten pictures of Suzy in a leotard on the cover. So, where did this one go in the bookstore and who did it satisfy? It went into Self-Help and it didn’t sell.

We had by now identified the problem but we still had a problem. Suzy was still recognized as a fitness expert and our agents would go to publishers and talk to them about Suzy the Fitness Expert. Publishers would come back that yes they wanted a fitness book and we would talk about spirituality. It was a complete mismatch.

So what do you do when you are prematurely in a mixed field? I would suggest focus groups. Who can you reach best in your two groups and how can you reach them? If they won’t buy what you want to write, what will they buy? Which part of the bookstore will you be in and how will your market find you there? How do you prepare your market to receive your information?

Constant focus on the market may seem very boring to the creative mind, but it’s the path to publication and success.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why You Shouldn’t Write Your Autobiography

The first question I ask when I’m teaching classes about writing is, “How many of your want to write your autobiography?” Probably 75% of the people in the room raise their hands. “Don’t even think about it!” is my response.

I know all about people wanting to write their autobiographies because it’s a topic of conversation at many cocktail parties. “You should write a book about my life, it’s been so interesting,” people say to me as soon as they learn I’m a writer.

“What have you done to change the world?” I reply, which usually results in a blank stare.

Think about the people who have biographies written about them. Presidents, movie stars, world leaders, top the list. People are the subjects of biographies because of what they’ve done – who they are is incidental. People in America don’t read very much as it is, they might be interested in listening to something interesting that you did, but generally they wouldn’t buy a book about you unless you are a big name.

Suzy Prudden and I have written four books together. We have included some biographical information about Suzy in the introductions but the books were not about Suzy. One of them was a straight fitness book. Two of them were crossover books (more on that in another blog) that included metaphysics and fitness. One was a straight diet book. We put the biographical material in the introduction to tell those who had never heard of Suzy who she is and why she is qualified to write the book.

Autobiographies should be about what you did that people want to know about. That being the case, you have to figure out what you did? Our mother, Bonnie Prudden, changed the world’s view of fitness in America and was an original “first” in areas like rock climbing and the National Ski Patrol. Katherine Hepburn was a movie actress who had a scandalous affair with Spencer Tracy. There are hundreds of working actresses, some of them box office celebrities, but not many of them are on the level of being interesting enough to rate a biography. In my personal opinion it’s that scandalous affair that makes Katherine Hepburn so marketable – just as it is Richard Burton that made Elizabeth Taylor more marketable. Oprah – who has changed the world – is marketable simply because of the difference she made personally, but Ricki Lake – another talk show host – is not.

As you think about what you have done that deserves to be written about, think about who will buy what you’re writing about. If you have founded an organization that helps people with a rare disease access help function within their community, be aware that the people, who suffer from that disease, or members of their family, are your market. So what do you talk about? Do you talk about your troubled childhood? Not unless it applies to the founding of the organization. Do you talk about how the disease impacted you and your family, what you did about it and what you have learned and experienced that would be of benefit to others with the same problem? Yes. Is it your autobiography – yes a portion of it.

Selling to a niche is the most profitable and interesting approach to marketing and writing. All writing is about sales, so when I talk about marketing I’m talking about reaching the people who are interested in what you have to say. If you aren’t interested in reaching that market you might as well not do the writing.

I can’t tell you how many people tell me that their book is for everyone. No book, including the Bible, is for everyone. For example, your book will be of no value to someone who doesn’t read. Unless it’s a children’s picture book, it will not be valuable for infants and children. So right away, it’s not for everyone. It’s important to figure out who it’s for and what it’s meant to accomplish because that informs the tone and direction of the book. If you’re writing for high school students you don’t write in the vocabulary of graduate students.

In my Home Study Course, “How to Write a Book That Positions You as An Expert in Your Field,” I write for professionals who are primarily interested in back of the room sales. They are looking for a book that addresses an audience they can talk to, an audience that will in turn buy their book. If you are booking speakers for cancer survivors, would you hire a speaker who has formed a successful organization for cancer survivors after surviving for ten years herself and has written a book about her experience? Once you have identified what your audience is interested in learning about you can write the book easily. More to the point, you know how to market it, who to reach and how to reach them. They’re your community.

So the answer to the question should you write your autobiography is generally not as a straight story of your life. You should turn it into a problem solving book about something you did that would interest a niche. You should include the parts of your biography that prove that you are qualified to write the book and that show the impact of what you did on your own life.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Clubs, Groups, Organizations and Memberships in Character Development

This area defines and reflects character choices. When a person joins a club, group or organization, they are making a statement about their beliefs and what they hold important in their lives. A member of the ACLU is a person who is interested in causes that concern the legal rights of American citizens. They are willing to take some very unpopular stands and they defend the rights of people to live within their constitutional rights, even if those people are extremely unpopular. Members of the KKK and other white supremacy groups have power issues. Members of the KKK believe they are protecting the threatened rights of a superior white race, fundamentalist Christian beliefs and family values. They don’t think of themselves as racists. They think they are right.

Members of Sororities and Fraternities are fundamentally similar, they feel comfortable together, they have shared values and go on to have shared experiences. Rushing is all about finding freshmen similar in every possible way to the fraternity and sorority members already living together.

Dan Brown built his book “The Lost Symbol” around The Masons, a fraternal order that is steeped in secret rites and metaphysical beliefs. The story is particularly interesting because the prime character Robert Langdon is not himself a Mason nor does he subscribe to many rumors about the organization. Peter Solomon – Langdon’s friend is a very important Mason and has a Masonic Ring that figures strategically in the story. It’s an excellent use of a group and its trappings.

Organizations flit in and out of the Harry Potter series. In Book 5 when Harry and friends form a club to circumvent Dolores Umbridge’s deficient teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts Class, by forming a group called the DA (which the call Dumbledore’s Army), Umbridge counters by banning gatherings of three or more people. The DA worries about not being able to meet, while other students worry about not being able to meet for the Gobstones Club, and everyone realizes that Quidditch Teams fall under the same ruling. The handling of this issue is interesting because she mentions only concern about the Gobstones Club, but by mentioning them implies that there are other clubs that remain unidentified. Were I writing a term paper about the Harry Potter series, I might ask what clubs do you think were active at Hogwarts and what did each of them do?

How does the author use clubs or groups in the story? What kinds of organizations does this character like? What does the membership, or refusal to be a member, say about the character? How does the character’s group-attitude conflict or agree with the attitudes of others in the play or story? What does group attitude say about the character? Is this character an active or inactive member? An office holder? A rebel? Does he always wear a club ring, pin, or key chain? If yes, does he play with it or use it in some way to underscore his character? Is he late with dues? Only go for the parties? Try to be the life of the party? Try to be the club hero? Is he the club funnyman? What two or three mannerisms convey club membership? Have these mannerisms changed or not changed over time? What about club memberships as an employee or employer? What is this person’s relationship to colleagues and significant others as a result of club memberships?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Villains and Enemies

“A man is known by his enemies.” The growth of a hero is defined by the power of the villain. Enemies can be a great deal more interesting than heroes and can actually make the hero more compelling. How many books and movies have fallen flat because the enemy wasn’t very interesting? Or conversely, made the reader so uncomfortable that they didn’t finish the book? Villains are every bit as important as heroes, maybe more so.

One great pitfall for writing enemies is overplaying their evil and making them two dimensional.

I am currently reading The Lost Symbol and I don’t like the villain. The energy of the book keeps dropping every time he appears. He’s evil, strong and difficult to overcome, but there’s nothing truly interesting about him – he’s just a very sick, OCD, psychopath. I keep putting down the book and find myself reluctant to pick it up again. Dan Brown seems to like psychopaths, but in The Da Vinci Code the albino, Simon, at least has a background that justifies his murderous behavior and a great love and loyalty to his protector the Bishop Aringarosa. Indeed there is a question that Simon would have been as murderous had Aringarosa not misused that love. Those elements make him sympathetic, understandable, as much a victim as his victims and infinitely more interesting than a simply evil character. As a reader I have my limits in terms of how much sociopathic behavior I enjoy. For me as a reader and a writer the logic of the villain has to make some real world sense and to be other than simply sick.

Enemies must want the same thing as the hero from the opposite direction.

The villain wants to get something. The hero stands in the way of the enemy achieving his goals. The enemy by definition has to be bigger, stronger and more powerful than the hero. There has to be on-going doubt in the mind of the hero that he can overcome the enemy – but he always has to try. If the hero is powerful himself, then the enemy must be come in a pack, or at least one or two steps ahead of the hero. If the main hero is exceedingly strong, then there must be someone in the mix that is less strong who becomes the symbol of the hero’s growth line. Stories are about growth and change in the face of adversity. Transformers is about equally matched giants who do battle for good and evil, and to the extent that their transformations and interactions are fascinating the story would be one dimensionally interesting. It is the young Sam Witwicky who represents the growth curve of the hero. He doubts himself, considers himself to be something of a loser and persists in the face of overwhelming odds to emerge the human hero. The Alamo, Custer’s Last Stand and similar stories to the contrary, satisfactory stories do not generally end with the villain winning. The doubt in the mind of the reader should be how the hero can win, not if the hero can win.

Enemies can also be archetypes.

If you watch an American war movie, the enemy is always the guy on the other side – Germans, Russians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Arabs, Native Americans, the Confederate Soldier – the list is long and predictable. The other side is easy to identify and they generally have stereotypical attributes that make them more difficult to battle and sometimes provide the exploitable Achilles Heel by which they can be defeated. For example, in movies Germans are always super soldiers and punctual, the resistance always can tell when they will make their rounds – which works against them in the end.

Giving the enemy some sympathetic qualities can make for interesting story telling.

If a sympathetic enemy doesn’t get in the way of the story, it makes the story much richer. It’s well known that heroes pay heavy prices for their activities. Sometimes it’s interesting to make the villains pay as well. In life behavior is seldom black and white and by adding a heavy psychological price to the villain’s role, the story becomes much deeper and often more compelling. I tend to like to give my villains reasons to be bad. It doesn’t make them less bad. It doesn’t make them easier to defeat – in fact in some cases it motivates them to continue even after they logically should have been dead. The trick in making the villains sympathetic or at least comprehensible is to make their goal more horrific than they are – drop and A-bomb on Chicago for example – so that no matter how much you understand their behavior, you don’t see them as good and you still have to stop them.

Approaches to enemy development

Write a biography of the enemy as full as the biography of the hero. Who are the enemy’s allies or henchmen and how do they inform you about the enemy? What are the enemy’s goals and objectives? (Hint: they are very close to the goals and objectives of the hero.) How does the enemy contribute to our understanding of the hero? How does the enemy contrast to the hero? How do the goals and objectives of the enemy advance the plot? The better your understanding of the enemy, the better use you can make of him.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cyrano de Bergerac and the Metaphysics of the Nose

Louise L. Hay pioneered the meaning of body parts. What became exciting was the discovery of how those meanings played out in literature long before Ms. Hay began her work. Suzy Prudden and I wrote a book called "The Wisdom of the Body" and we accompanied the book with "Body Wisdom" cards. On one side of the card was the body part. On the other the significance and an affirmation written to deal with the problem the body part represented. When we would attend Carolyn Myss conferences, where Suzy would do energy breaks, we would have our product table in the back of the room. We put a basket with the cards on it so people could draw cards with an eye to buying them. It never ceased to amaze me how every person who drew a card told us that either they were having physical problems with the body part – or they were dealing with a life issue connected to the body part. When I started working on character development, and wrote "The Character Book," it became obvious that body parts ought to be included.

The Nose

The nose represents self-recognition, how characters see themselves in the world. How comfortable the character is with that vision of himself. Among other things, it indicates whether or not the character wants to be noticed or if he prefers to be invisible. The nose symbolizes a character’s ability to know what he wants and how to get what he needs. Remember the power of the Roman nose? The nose is tightly bound to its function – smelling.

In addition, the nose is very idiomatic. It can represent how willing a character is to listen to his intuition and his ability to “sniff out” information. Some characters have a “nose for news.” “Nosy” is a nose word that indicates “sticking your nose into other people’s business.” There is a certain degree of honesty in the nose. People come to understand things because they are, “as plain as the nose on your face.” By the same token you can, “cut off your nose to spite your face.” You can “count noses, “win by a nose,” “follow your nose,” “hold your nose and do something you don’t like doing,” “keep your nose clean,” “brown nose,” “keep your nose to the grindstone,” “be led by the nose,” “look down your nose,” be precisely "on the nose,” “pay through the nose,” “rub your nose in it,” find something you’re looking for "right under your nose,” you can be “snooty” (for snobbish), and people can “walk with their nose in the air.”

Stories have been written with nose or smell themes.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the classic story of a man and his nose. True to nose-issues, this is not a story about who the man is as much as it is a story of how the man thinks someone else will find him; a story of self-limitation or self-selection because of the perception that another will find him ugly, with tragic results for everyone. Cyrano is a man who is in every way superior except for his perception of himself as physically attractive. Because of his gigantic nose, and his belief that the love of his life will reject him, he refuses to declare his true feelings to his cousin, the gorgeous and intellectual Roxane. Christiane, has no problems with his nose, his concerns are with his brains – or the relative absence thereof. But Christiane is beautiful and Roxane is attracted to him. Learning that he is about to become part of Cyrano’s company of guards, she asks her cousin to protect him. Cyrano does more than that. He uses Christiane as a surrogate through whom to woo and win Roxane’s heart – even if that means handing her over to Christiane. Like a true man with nose issues, Cyrano chooses to stay invisible in the shadows. Christiane dies. Yet even after his death, Cyrano never dares to proclaim his feelings to Roxane until, on his death bed, he reveals himself to have been Christiane’s voice all along. At that moment Roxane learns that she has lost the love of her life twice. This is a story that deals with – how a man reveals himself to the world, how he remains unseen to the person who matters, how he reviles himself when looking at himself through her eyes. The issues of the nose both obvious and subtle are the centerpiece of this story.

Other Cyrano-like, Nose or Smell stories include:

Roxanne staring Daryl Hannah and Steve Martin
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind
Perfume the movie starring Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman
Penelope the movie starring Richard E. Grand and Catherine O’Hara

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Avatar Review

Would it surprise you to learn that Avatar is a formula movie? In my last blog about structure I said that structure is a three act play with two short acts at either end of a long, constantly turning act. Avatar follows he formula exactly, but it’s so well done it’s actually hard to see.

Avatar is about a marine who thinks he will never walk again because, although it is possible to repair damaged spinal cords, he doesn’t have the money or a prayer of getting the money. His inciting incident is his decision to fill his dead twin brother’s shoes in the Avatar program on the planet Pandora. His decision is colored by the offer to repair his spine – and return his legs – that is made by his superior officer. His decision looks like it’s going to solve all his problems.

Now comes the first interesting problem solution. This man is a marine with a mission, a warrior by his own definition. Yet in the world of set up and pay off that is movies, he has to be perceived as having the ability to change into a compassionate leader – to move from the Knight to the King – which is not always a logical move. Strangely, there’s no direct dialogue to support that perception, rather there is a shot on his face of loving compassion when he first sees the Avatar body he’s about to inherit from his dead brother. A look and a statement of how much he looks like his identical twin that opens the door to possibility. It’s remarkably out of character, but it establishes that there’s more than meets the eye to this professional soldier. There is depth and warmth that lurks under the warrior that can translate into something unexpected.

The track that is the rest of the movie twists every 10-15 minutes, sometimes less, back and forth between the world of the Avatar among the Aborigines – the natives of Pandora battling to save their planet from the ravishment of greedy business men – men only concerned with their bottom line, back to the world of the businessmen in which the marine serves as a spy. It moves the marine toward being in support of the Aborigines. It moves the Avatar ever – closer to a leadership position within the Aboriginal community and an appreciation of the magnificence of what they are. Parallel change and growth occur in both the marine and the Avatar.

Another interesting problem solution is how to change the Avatar from a Knight to a Prince. In this movie you are dealing with major archetypes. In the world of archetypes Knights fight for Kings, they rarely become Kings – Robin Hood fought for King Richard the Lion Hearted, he did not become King. Knights may get the girl, they rarely get to marry them – Lancelot won the heart of the fair Guinevere, he didn’t get to marry her. In Avatar the marine is chosen by the Princess to become her Prince Consort thereby elevating him from Knight to Prince. Princes can become Kings.

Finally there is the Visit to the Valley of Death when the scientific unit, in which the marine is resting his human body, while conjoined with his Avatar, is breached and he begins to die of lack of oxygen. He is in total jeopardy and his Avatar body cannot function without him.

He is restored of course, the Avatar triumphs and there is resolution which I won’t spoil for you. It’s a perfect execution of a formula movie. And the special effects are stunning. It seems that special effects can now convey whatever a movie visionary can envision.

I’ve heard that it was a weak script and it is a little long in parts because of the Director’s well justified infatuation with the special effects, but it’s not all that weak. It’s not Star Wars, it didn’t leave me breathless, but it’s a really nice ride and well worth seeing in theaters and owning on DVD. It’s relevant to today and the problems faced by our country and particularly our professional soldiers. It’s a perfect statement of the ruthless greed of big corporations. It has lots going for it and lots in it and James Cameron deserves kudos for creating yet another brilliant classic.