Formulaic is a four-letter word.

At least I’ve never heard it spoken with positivity. Even before I’d heard the word, when I wrote magical adventure stories for my friends in seventh grade, I shirked patterns and motifs; I pushed boundaries and wrote a lot of crap, but it was all pretty original—as original as we can be after everything that’s been written before us.

 

This fear of formula and drive to be different kept me from taking too much writerly advice as a young artist. In college, avoiding the formulaic kept any craft book geared toward genre writers out of my hands. In grad school, the only writing books I read were dense tomes on rhetoric and what story meant, as opposed to how to tell a story. Even after I broke free of my strictly-literary chains, I slid books back on the shelf at the first mention of word-count limits, genre expectations, plot point placement, tropes… I viewed these guidelines as rules. What art had rules?

 

But stories are designed. They’re intended to take us someplace for whatever reason, from simple escape to learning something important about what it is to be human. All great art does this. I read a few terrific craft books like Self-Editing for Writers and Wired for Story, but still steered clear of books that gave advice on how to bring a story together. I could write stories. I’d put out some very good ones. I’d published over a dozen, some in respected journals. Of course I knew how to bring it all together. Yes, books are looooong. It’s easy to get sidetracked. I knew I was sometimes tangential, but I knew what my book was about. I didn’t need a formula. I did not need a map.

 

This summer, my manuscript was a finalist in the Sandy Writing Contest. I attended the Crested Butte conference with a niggling feeling. I’d done well in a contest or two before, had had numerous manuscript requests from agents and editors, and had other writers love my opening pages, synopsis, and premise. The end rocked. Still does. But the middle. I knew I had middle issues. Second act-itis, literally. Act two was swollen. When I received my next request from an agent, I decided to give the manuscript a good critical read. Nothing, I assured myself, was wrong with it that a week-long revision couldn’t fix.

 

As I read, however, that niggling feeling grew into a certainty: I’d been shopping a book that wasn’t ready. Every chapter from the one-quarter point to the three-quarter point read wrong to me, with problems ranging from inactive villains to murky character goals. Considering how to begin again, I felt overwhelmed.

 

One writer I met at the Crested Butte conference was Stuart Horwitz. His book, Blueprint Your Bestseller, sounded interesting, detailing a revision process that required printing your manuscript and actually cutting it to pieces, separating each of your scenes. His mantra was, “Ninety-nine good scenes in the right order.” Or one hundred and ten, whatever. He kept stressing that this process was a method, not a formula. After I took the time to think about this distinction, something clicked.

 

Many of the methods and processes I’d shunned over the years had nothing to do with conforming and everything to do with getting your story straight, something I needed urgently, and Horwitz’s book fell into my hands at exactly the right time. I decided to use the method in Blueprint Your Bestseller, which has you track your manuscript’s theme and major story components to keep you on point, while stressing fluidity rather than rigidity. This helped me keep my follow-the-directions gag reflex under control. I did cheat—I did not physically chop my manuscript up, but I did cut a lot and re-ordered most of what was left. I’m working on the revision, feeling fantastic about this book for the first time in, well, maybe ever. My theme, discovered via Horwitz’s method, is deeper, more meaningful, and yet simpler than I’d ever imagined.

 

So my point—and you probably already know this, but if you’re bull-headed about it like I am—not all processes for writing novels are formulaic, molding your story into a pattern, however loose. Many are methodical, giving you the tools to tell a great, meaningful story without any dots to follow or lines to stay inside. I still resist the formula. I have embraced the method.

 

We’ll see what ensues.

This is Halloween

…not quite, but we are getting there. My decorations are up, mine and the handful of neighbors’ who celebrate. If asked what we’re celebrating, most of us would talk about the holiday being simply fun. Halloween is the answer I give when asked what my favorite holiday is.

 

But technically, I don’t celebrate holidays, not in the strict definition of the term meaning, “holy day.” Different cultures and religions take part in an array of traditions, feasts, and activities on and around October 31st, calling the day or the evening by names like The Day of the Dead, Blue Christmas, Samhain, or Hop-ti-Naa. I grew up calling the last evening of October Halloween, but even that name has religious origins.

 

My favorite day needs a new name.

 

Halloween is my New Years Eve, as it is for many pagans, the night that feels like an end and a beginning, a new turning of the wheel. It isn’t a holy day for me, connected to or concerned with any deity, but a day to reflect upon and celebrate the cycle of life and death. It is the end of autumn in the Celtic calendar, the calendar that makes sense to me. While some Halloween traditions were borne from religion, a blend of them set my senses alight:

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpooky decorations—Fellow enthusiasts understand me. If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaunted houses—This is primarily the entertainment attractions. I’ve explored purportedly haunted hotels and houses and have been on several ghost tours, welcoming spiritly interaction, and have been disappointed. But I do love a good haunted attraction. I’ve been to some impressive over-the-top houses of haunts and some eerie ones, but my favorite is still the Haunted Mansion at Disney World.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAScary movies—What can I say about this that I haven’t covered in previous blogs? I guess I haven’t yet said that I’m optimistically awaiting Guillermo del Toro’s haunted Mansion film, and I’m available to write the screenplay.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWeirdly cool desserts—I love desserts, and ghostly ones are a plus. I make a Graveyard Cake with candy bones mixed with bloody jam in each grave. Yum—bloody bone cake.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFlickering jack-o-lanterns—Although some sources posit that these glowing gourds hark back to superstitions and fears I don’t subscribe to, I love them. One story is that jack-o-lanterns originated to frighten off evil spirits, but it seems like evil spirits would like them.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe idea of the dead being close to us—I love a lot of people who are dead, including my parents. I would give so much to talk with them again, rather than only to them.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWitches, skeleton, ghosts, and all manner of spook—I don’t know; I just like them, okay? It’s all about the spooks for me, in one form or another. So I think I’ve come up with my name for my favorite celebration day, just eighteen nights from tonight.

 

Allow me to wish you a Happy Spooksday! And a frighteningly wondrous Spooksnight!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

Happy Thirtieth, Colorado Gold!

colorado gold

My favorite conference turned thirty this month, the Colorado Gold, hosted by Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers in Denver. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve attended. But I think my first was in 2002. I remember being a little lost. I envied the people who knew everyone and wished I lived closer to Denver so I could be more involved. (I was over an hour away!) But I met my goals that year: to get a “send-it” from an agent and find a critique group.

Each year I attended, I felt a little more at home, less nervous, less isolated, making an effort to find other writers I could connect with. I learned to smile at EVERYONE. I kept getting send-its but no agent. I could write well and pitch well, but my story had holes. I had put in my 10,000 hours as a writer, but I needed 10,000 more hours as a storyteller. I’m still clocking those hours.

A couple of years ago, I decided these conferences were too expensive to simply get one send-it from an agent and/or editor who might not fall in love with my story. If I was going to keep attending, I needed to get more out of these conferences. I began to focus more on the other writers I met, on getting to know them and their work, reading their books and reviewing them, learning from everything they said and everything I read. So many dynamic, wonderful people attend Colorado Gold, writers who write a lot and still have time and energy to help a comrade with craft, give business advice, share a story and a laugh. I liked those people. I wanted to be one of them.

This is not a success story. Yet. I still don’t have an agent, but I haven’t given up, weary as I sometimes get. When lassitude sets in, I turn to my writer friends. Most of them have suffered from inertia at one time or another. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

This year, I was able to attend four writers conferences, all in my home state of Colorado. Colorado Gold is my favorite and has been for years. Most of my writer friends are there, and I encourage writer friends who aren’t regulars to attend.

If you’re a writer who’s never attended, consider this your personal invitation. And feel free to contact me with questions.

Next year, I might have to chop one conference from the itinerary. It pains me, but I think I need an actual vacation next year. You know when it’s time, and it is time. But if I have to miss one conference in 2015, the Colorado Gold will not be that one.

If you will be there next September, find me and say hello.

A Lingering Summer Slump

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People often talk of winter being depressing: the cold, the gray, the skeletal trees. I get it. But there’s something about summer that does a whammy on me, every year, no matter how much I try to psych myself out of it.

It could be many things. One night during my freshman year at college, I dreamed— vividly—that I would die on July 31st. When that day rolled around again, I eased carefully through it, and of course, I survived. I never truly believed the dream prophesied my death, but these fears stay with you sometimes. Every July, I wane. I grow lethargic.

But August first has come and passed, and still I slouch and moan. And I’m not the only one. I’ve heard other writers complain that this past month was a tough one to stay focused and motivated. Tougher than usual. I want to do less, move less. Have I joined too many social events this summer? Maybe. Do I need a vacation, a week away?

The spooks in me should be coming out. It’s August, which begins my autumn. The Celtic calendar has always made more sense to me, because the longest day hearkens the middle of summer, not the beginning. The longest night is the mark of the deep center of winter, not the start of it. But it still feels like summer. Could this longer-than-usual lag be a symptom of global warming?

I work in an air-conditioned room. During the day, it could be any season at all, and still I gaze at nothing and think of little. This is all probably just a hundred small worries and troubles, ganging up on me. But do I fight back? No. I sigh.

There, I just sighed again.

In thirty-six hours, I’m headed for the mountains, where maybe it will feel more like fall. I will retreat. For four days. We’ll see.

Do you suffer times like these? How do you slog through?

A Return to the Vampire Chronicles

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This particular obsession began, for me, with The Vampire Lestat. I picked up some magazine I wish I still had—I kept it for a couple of years and then lost track of it—and read an excerpt from the novel, which was either soon to be released or just had been. The character yanked me in, as did the story of this young man in 18th Century France being turned into a vampire, which was not as common a story in the eighties. But that swaggering voice, and his assertion that he’d only ever wanted to be good caught me and held me. I had to have more.

So I began with book two, backed up and read Interview with the Vampire, and gobbled up every new chronicle in hardcover, purchased the day of its release. I fell madly for Armand. And then Antonio Banderas played him in the first film. Slurp. But Anne Rice’s vampires were more philosophical and passionate than later vampires, and her prose was more romantic, her worlds richer, her histories deeper.

As with most love affairs, mine with the vampires cooled, somewhere around Merrick. But I read all ten books, choking up as I read the final words of the series, ending with Blood Canticle in 2003.

Like many fans, when Ms. Rice sold her house in the Garden District of New Orleans and announced she would no longer write about vampires and witches but would dedicate her craft to God, I actually felt a little nauseated. It seemed like she’d been sucked into a cult. Eventually, I got a grip. But as I predicted years ago—with fingers crossed—she reneged. A new Vampire Chronicle is promised in October, and I’ll be there to buy my copy. I will forget to eat and refuse to sleep as I read it. Perhaps I should take a couple of days off work…

Of course it will be good. It has to be.

We sometimes outgrow authors, as we outgrow music, styles, almost everything. Have I outgrown the vampires? We shall see. Beginning September first, I will spend my autumn immersed once more in the dark and dangerous, romantic and indulgent world of Lestat, Armand, and you know, the other ones. My plan is to remain in the world of these creatures until I read the final words in the new chronicle, Prince Lestat, due out on October 28.

It’s true that I also said I would re-read all of Stephen King, and I have yet to re-conquer The Stand. But I still say I will get there. I want to rejoin with what made these stories and their worlds so real to me, what made them work for me and millions of others. And what didn’t work.

Perhaps I will find that none of it works for me anymore. If so, so be it.

If you need me, I’ll be in the shadows.

Giving Up on Writers Conferences

Many writers have done so. Statistically, I guess we’re more often introverts than extroverts. And maybe introversion keeps many writers from attending conferences to begin with. I often see fellow writers sitting alone at conferences, keeping quiet, not necessarily unfriendly if approached but sort of collapsing in on themselves. To me, this seems a waste of time, and maybe they’re thinking the same thing, that they should have spent their dough on an editor or a stack of books on craft, maybe a trip to Key Largo, a writing retreat or a date with destiny. Certainly shyness causes some of this reticence, but perhaps disappointment plays a part as well.

A writer friend recently attended the Crested Butte Writers Conference with me. She’d begun to feel discouraged by a lack of engagement with other writers in online classes and with writers and publishing professionals at events and conferences. She questioned whether writer gatherings were worth the time and money anymore. This conference was her final swing—to go in with a positive attitude, offering enthusiastic participation. If she once again felt isolated in a crowd, she thought she would be finished with writers conferences.

The idea horrified me, almost as if a friend had threatened suicide.

This was the third of five conferences I plan to attend this year, all in my home state of Colorado. I adore writers conferences and retreats, where I hang out with my tribe, and I believe you get about as much out of them as you give. But if you’re timid or say, suffer from Asperger syndrome as my friend believes she does, your comfort level at a conference could have a negative impact on your attempts to make friends or good impressions. It’s true that some writers go simply to learn. Some go to gather positive vibrations. But most, I think, have goals that are more socially and professionally oriented.

It can be daunting, exhausting, and some argue that we shouldn’t waste our time. This advice, given to a tired writer questioning the validity of attending conferences could talk them out of a lifetime of friendship or a chance to meet their perfectly matched editor or agent. It’s like a time travel story—what might have been.

Ah, well. I’m happy to report that my friend had a good conference. An editor is interested in two of her manuscripts. She made some new writer friends. She’s feeling less gloomy. I, of course, came home invigorated and practically writing in my sleep.

What do you think? What effect do writing conferences have on you? Why do you attend them or choose not to? Have you ever given up on them?

I lived without writers conferences or any meaningful fellowship with other writers for the first thirty years of my life. I don’t think I’d want to go back to that.

There are worse things to be hooked on, by far.

The Exorcist–If I Ran the Remake

exorcist

I first saw the film, The Exorcist, in high school. I was fifteen, at a friend’s house, and I thought the film was gross and a little silly. I did catch a bad case of le crush on Jason Miller, who played Father Karras. My friends said I was a freak and that he was old and ugly.

I rewatched the entire film in college, probably drunk. I don’t remember being impressed, but I still thought Jason Miller was hot. My college friends were a bit more understanding.

Rumors that the film is being remade, possibly as a ten-episode miniseries come and go. My favorite article about it is a hilarious preemptive review of what many fans fear the remake would be, by Evan Saathoff:

Future Movie Review

I never cared whether the remake happened nor what anyone would do with it. Then I read the book.

The Exorcist bumped my beloved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to second place on my list of favorite novels. I’ve read it twice now, and I still love the book, in spite of one humdinger of a line describing Father Karras looking at Chris MacNeil: “The priest probed her eyes.”

Nobody’s perfect. But you can read my review about why I love the book so much here:

Why didn’t anyone tell me this was my favorite book?

Fans of the film list it at the top of their untouchable lists when it comes to remakes. So after I fell in love with the novel, I decided to rewatch the film with an editor’s eye and a non-alcoholic drink, asking questions: what would a modern remake look like? What would I change, if it were up to me? What would I mimic? Who would I cast?

What fun! So here we go.

Something I would certainly change would be to spend more time in Iraq with Father Merrin. In spite of some wondrous cinematography, those scenes feel episodic and confusing, even if you have read the book and know what he’s going through. I’d fight to keep the stunning scene with the sunset behind the Pazuzu statue and the cut to the mad dogs fighting, then back to Father Merrin facing the statue, each on their little cliffs with the sun setting between them. It’s a lovely yet ominous prelude to the coming showdown between these two fascinating characters.

Some of the music in the film is distracting, but the creepy iconic theme would remain, if I ran the remake.

Other things it would be a shame to lose:

The old boxing pics of Father Damien Karras, framed on his mother’s table. If you set the film in the present, this might be too hard to keep.

Burke Dennings, the foul-mouthed director and the butler, Karl Engstrom, fighting, mirroring the mad dogs.

The desecrations in the church, which are far ickier and offensive in the film. In the book, they’re only vaguely described at a party.

The doctor telling Chris her daughter’s problem is in her head: “A lesion…in the temporal lobe.” I heard, “Legion.”

The hypnosis scene where Regan looks like hell but sounds so sweet, saying someone is inside her sometimes. She’s distant and not herself. In the book, her head clears briefly, which lessens the tension.

Lt. Kinderman telling Damien he looks like John Garfield in Body and Soul. It’s a perfect description, but probably impossible to keep, because someone else will have to play Father Karras. (Rest in peace, Jason Miller.) In the book, the lieutenant says he looks like Brando.

The very disturbing bed bouncing scene. In the book, it’s anticlimactically and confusingly described as “violent quivering.”

The possession and exorcism scenes—please, no CG.

Damien’s quiet voice, especially when speaking with Chris. I loved the subtle attraction between them that never gets resolved. On their first meeting, he lights her cigarette for her in his own mouth, because her hands are shaking so badly. After Regan vomits on him, she washes and irons his clothes. In the book, she takes his sweater off him, pulls it up to chest level and pauses while he questions her, then she tells him to lift his arms as if he were a child. These scenes, both in the book and the film, are subtly, beautifully intimate.

Chris’s out of the blue, off-topic question—“And how do you go about getting an exorcism?” This is perfectly derived from the book. Father Damien tells her, “Well, the first, thing—I’d have to get them into a time machine and get them back to the sixteenth century.”

That shot. Where Merrin arrives on a misty night and stands beneath the lamp post. I would replicate it as exactly as I could, an homage.

The shock. The profanity the demon uses must stay, as well as scenes like the crucifix rape. In the book, it goes on too long, is more detailed, and could go overboard. These scenes were done well in the film.

Damien’s hesitation during the exorcism as the bed levitates, and Father Merrin says, “The response, please, Damien.” And again when Regan’s head turns completely around. Father Merrin says, “Damien!” Damien mutters, “Amen.” These are also pulled intact from the book.

The book’s exorcism scenes include too many distractions, people talking to each other and coming and going. We lose the focus on Merrin and the demon. It’s cut well in the film, but in the book, it lasts for days, and Father Merrin talks to Damien in the intermissions about his childhood and a pet duck named Clancy. Some genius might be able to make this work. I’m not sure I could.

In the book, the demon rages at Father Merrin’s death. It’s better in the film, the demon wearing an almost sad expression as Damien comes in, and then it laughs.

Damien’s death scene, when Father Dyer rushes from across the street and holds his hand, his voice breaking as he asks Damien if he wants to make his confession, and Damien squeezes his hand, squeezes it again after each question during the pronouncement of his last rites. His friend absolves him, crying.

The shot from the top of the stairs, after Damien is dead. Sirens wail and lights flash. Then we cut to the stairs in daylight. There’s no blood, and we hear the sounds of children playing.

The original film has some problems I would address in my remake:

The noises Chris hears in the attic and thinks are rats sound like a small lion, but in the book, it’s only faint scratching and rapping, like big thumping rat tails. It is impossible to believe that you could hear that roaring sound in your attic and think it was rats.

Some weird cuts and too-brief scenes, possibly a symptom of the directing style at the time, are annoying.

Chris turns a wasted Dennings out into the cold alone, telling him a car is waiting at the curb, turning her otherwise sympathetic character callous. In the book, the assistant director and Sharon escort Dennings home.

Regan, in a trance, wanders downstairs in her nightgown during a party and tells the astronaut who’s scheduled for a moon orbit, “You’re gonna die up there.” In the film, it’s not clear who she’s talking to, which makes the line sound vague and nonsensical.

Damien’s dream scene where we can hear him snoring and moaning is funny and does not have the sad effect it’s meant to.

Detective Kinderman finds the Pazuzu head figurine at the bottom of the stairs after Dennings tumbles down them to his death—how did it get there? What is this supposed to mean?

Merrin leaves Iraq saying he has something to do. We think it’s terribly important. Later, we find he’s in Woodstock, working on a book. We almost think he’s fled from his duty. Later, a messenger brings Merrin a note as he’s walking through the woods, and that’s it. In the book, we get one of my favorite scenes that I’m not sure how to translate to film. The book tells us he’s taking in all of nature, which he loves, and that:
“He knew what (the note) said. He had read it in the dust of the temples of Nineveh. He was ready.
“He continued his farewells.”
And so we know Merrin returned to say goodbye to his home and await the demon’s call.

I’d add the short standoff scene between Pazuzu and Merrin after Merrin first arrives at the MacNeil house, only told secondhand in the book, where Pazuzu says, “This time, you’re going to lose.”

The book contains so many details and subplots that could be explored in a longer forum, such as the absent father, Howard.

Karl and Willie Engstrom are rounded, intriguing characters in the book, especially Karl, who is described as “a talking, breathing, untranslated hieroglyph.” In a longer piece, you could add in Kinderman’s investigation of Karl as a suspect in Dennings’s murder, and you could include the subplot about Karl’s daughter, the drug addict, whom Willie believes is dead.

The book shows a very different encounter between Damien and the derelict in the train station. The film only shows Damien ignoring a man who asks him to “Help an old altar boy, Faddah.” And the demon repeats this line during the exorcism. But the book has Damien only imagining the derelict saying this as he approaches, clothes smeared with vomit. And Damien gives him money. We see him struggling to care about the man in spite of his revulsion. It complicates his character nicely.

Mrs. Perrin, the psychic, is absent from the film. She suspects something is amiss with Regan and gives Chris a book about witchcraft and possession, which disappears from a table and then is shelved, but no one seems to know who shelved it. Then Winnie admits to finding it under Regan’s bed after Dennings is thrown from Regan’s bedroom window. It opens the argument for the entire possession having been a case of auto-suggestion.

Damien’s first interview with Regan is much longer in the book and includes the demon giving him glimpses of Regan, Burke Dennings, and various demonic personalities, stating, “We are a multitude.”

The heated discussions in the book between Damien and Chris, where they’re sharing cigarettes like a married couple, would be interesting to see.

The book chronicles a much more gradual, tense, and intriguing slide from Regan’s “illness” to her possession.

A long piece could cover more of the developing friendship between Damien and Lt. Kinderman, and the deep friendship between Damien and Father Joe Dyer, which would give the film’s ending more emotional impact.

Who would I cast?

Chris MacNeil—Cate Blanchett. Well, she just rocks. She might not accept the offer, though. We’ll just pretend everyone is dying to be in this film.

Father Damien Karras—The actor I currently have the hots for would not be right for the part. Do you suppose we could get Leonardo DiCaprio?

Father Merrin—Daniel Day Lewis. In reality, he’s not quite old enough, but he could easily play an older man.

Lt. Kinderman—Ralph Fiennes. I can see him going all Columbo on everyone.

Sharon—Julia Styles, who I think would complement Cate Blanchett well.

Burke Dennings—Brent Spiner. I can’t wait to hear him say the word, cunting.

Regan—An unknown. In the book, she’s described as a shy, diffident redhead with pigtails and braces.

Joe Dyer—Don Cheadle. He’d pull off the dry humor well. He’s white in the book, but everyone in the book is.

Maybe, with ten episodes to play with, a writer could find a way to show some of the beautiful, quiet mini-scenes that make the book unforgettable. Like Damien watching Kinderman walk away after Kinderman confides that he thinks Regan killed Dennings and gently begs Damien, who looks like death, to get some rest. Kinderman doesn’t know Damien has been going through this horrendous exorcism for days. He only knows that Regan is suffering from a mental illness, and after talking with Damien, he has decided to leave the matter to a higher power for now:

“Karras watched him as he listed down the street, watched with fondness and with wonder at the heart’s labyrinthe turnings and improbable redemptions.”

I don’t know. Maybe if Spielberg directed these ten episodes and handled them as he did Empire of the Sun, we’d have something. I know the diehard Exorcist film fans would choke. But the book is so much more than a two hour film allows us to see. Perhaps ten hours would give us a visual experience that frightens us, shocks us, keeps us up at night, and yet lodges in our hearts the same feelings the book gave me.

I’d love to see that. I really would.