January 2019 in the Rear View

The first month of the year is almost over, and already so much has happened. Alas, not as much on the writing side as I’d like. If you’re wondering where I’ve been and what’s going on, here’s a recap.

  • We put our house on the market. Which has meant a slew of cleaners, handymen, and the like have been in and out, making it impossible for me to get any work done. The open house is this coming weekend, so let’s hope it’s all been worth it.
  • We’re looking for a new house. The flip side of trying to sell ours is needing to find somewhere new to live. There are a number of reasons for our move that I won’t go into, but right now we feel a bit like we’re in limbo, and that makes it difficult to concentrate on writing.
  • I got a nutritionist. After my thyroid was tested, and my GI tract was looked at, my doctor recommended I find a nutritionist. Which I did. And now I’m on some funky diet that I hate, but I will say I’ve lost quite a bit of weight already, so… I’m still living for the day I can have cheese and bread again, though, even if in tiny quantities.
  • I need surgery. Another fun follow-up visit with my doctor resulted in the news that I need some surgery. It’s day surgery, nothing major, but the recovery will be similar to when I had my C-section, which will mean no lifting anything heavy—right as we’re planning to pack and move. I don’t have a surgery date yet, so things are in the balance until we know when.

As you can see, my January has been eventful! And you might be able to understand why I haven’t been writing much either. Though one writing-related thing did happen this month: I got the rights to The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller back. I’ll be re-editing it and republishing it later this year. I’m considering a title change, though. What do you think? Should I keep the title or change it?

Here’s to maybe a little less excitement in February. How has your year started? Bang or whimper?

Movies: Fyre Fraud

Okay, so this is the documentary about the Fyre Festival that’s on Hulu. (I wrote about the Netflix one a couple posts back; scroll down to read it if you’re interested.)

Again, a short recap of what the Fyre Festival was intended to be: a major, exclusive music festival on a private island in the Bahamas. What it actually was: a horrendous mess. Billy McFarland helmed the whole thing, the idea being that this festival would bring attention to the Fyre app he had developed (with Ja Rule). But McFarland is a compulsive liar and scammer who comes up with big ideas, gets people to pour money into them, and then the ideas go nowhere. So after creating a cool viral video advertising everything Fyre Festival was going to be, and after getting many “social media influencers” (because that’s a job title now, apparently) to tweet or post on Instagram or whatever, he sold a ton of expensive tickets to this event that had zero planning behind it. He made promises of villas and yachts and getting to hang out with models and musicians, but he couldn’t back any of these up with, you know, reality.

Things got really bad when McFarland basically began making up numbers about how much money they already had, thus encouraging more investors to toss cash in the pot. That’s where the “fraud” part comes in.

Fyre Fraud has a bit of an edge over the Netflix documentary because it actually features an interview with McFarland, and we get to watch him (a) make up lies on the spot, and (b) squirm when he can’t lie his way out of the questions being asked. This film also talks to some of those social media influencers, the self-centered little do-nothings whose whole “jobs” are to… exist? Tell people their opinions? This is definitely the one to watch if you’re a little older and hate millennials. (For the record, I don’t hate them, but many seem to think the best way to contribute to the world is to film themselves constantly, as though the world is simply waiting to get a glimpse or hear what they have to say. Blame the technology, I guess—YouTube, Instagram, etc.—but I think there’s some fault in them, too. The need for perpetual attention and validation is a kind of illness, and they would benefit from a social media diet.)

That said, the other documentary interviewed a wider variety of people and looked more closely at the people trying to make the festival happen, while this one focused on McFarland’s fraud, hence the title. So watching both is not entirely redundant. In fact, I’d certainly start with the Netflix one as a base of information. But Fyre Fraud is a bit more laughable, so it’s a good way to finish off the pair. Think of one as the wine you drink with your main course and the other as a dessert wine. Different, but all part of the bigger meal.

An Obscure Author?

Back when I would devour Victoria Holt books, there was another author whose works I likewise snapped up: Sara Hylton. She seems to have quite a bibliography to her name, but at the same time, I’ve never heard anyone talk about her. So I don’t know if she’s less well known, or if I just don’t talk to the right people.

I discovered Hylton’s books when I found The Talisman of Set at the library. It was exactly my kind of thing: an Englishwoman who keeps having dreams of Ancient Egypt and then is given a talisman that connects her to (if I remember correctly, though it’s been a couple decades since I read it) a past life. Oh, I adored that book! Found a copy of it in a thrift store and bought it, and I still have it on my shelf. (Well, we’re moving, so my books are packed, but it will be on my shelf again when we unpack.)

I also have a copy of Easter at the Lakes, which is another book by Hylton I enjoyed. Truth is, I don’t often come across her books in libraries or even used-book stores. Not these days, anyway. When I was younger, our library had a number of books by her that I read, often more than once: Caprice, The Crimson Falcon, The Whispering Glade, Jacintha, The Hills are Eternal… I’d say if you enjoy Victoria Holt and Daphne du Maurier, you’d probably like Sara Hylton’s work as well.

I don’t know much about Hylton herself, but her most recent books seems to have been published almost a decade ago, and she started in the 80s, so she must be older now.

What authors have you enjoyed that you’ve never heard anyone else mention? Are there any you wish more people knew about? Or maybe an author you read years ago that you only recently rediscovered? I’d love to hear all about it!

Movies: Fyre

This documentary plays into a viewer’s love of schadenfreude. Here are a bunch of rich kids paying tons of money to go to some exclusive music festival and… Well, you probably know how this ends.

For those who haven’t heard about Fyre, it was a festival that was supposed to happen in April/May 2017 on a private island in the Bahamas. The festival was named for an app that was designed to make it easy to book big-name acts so that people didn’t have to hunt down booking agents, managers, and the like. That’s not a terrible idea, assuming you have enough people with tons of money looking to throw said money at rock stars or whatever (well, and I suppose plenty of corporations organize big events, too; my husband’s company holds a huge concert each June), but delve a little deeper and you’ll discover there were termites in the woodwork all along.

See, Fyre Media was founded by Billy McFarland, who already had some questionable successes with previous big ideas (Magnesis). Basically, McFarland could talk a good game, but had no ability to follow through. So, with Fyre Festival, he saw this chance to live large with the rich and famous, and he sold that dream to a few hundred others via a promotional video and by using “social media influencers” to create buzz. But when it came time to actually, you know, put together a festival? He was utterly useless. Worse, he kept throwing around money he didn’t have.

This documentary is fairly entertaining in that it interviews many, many people who were involved in Fyre Media and the Fyre Festival. They all throw McFarland under the bus, of course, but he seems to deserve it. After it all fell apart, as he faced litigation, McFarland was already creating yet another scheme. The guy is compulsive.

But at the core, this is the story of one rich kid bilking a bunch of other rich kids. I don’t feel sorry for either side there. I do feel sorry for the workers on Great Exuma who never got paid. It’s one thing to take money from people who have it to spare; it’s another thing entirely to take it from people who don’t have much to begin with.

Overall, a somewhat enjoyable documentary if you enjoy being wowed by the utter stupidity of some people and the audacity of others.

Presentation on Producing a Polished Manuscript

Last November, as the Camp Fire was at its worst, I gave a presentation at our local library for those brave enough to venture out into the smoke and haze. Not many, alas. But our library was kind enough to also record the presentation. It’s long—I had a lot of ground to cover. Here’s hoping you find it helpful, or at least amusing.

Good vs. Memorable

Sometimes I’m asked, “What books do you think are good?” and that is a very broad question because “good” is subjective. Also, it depends on your criteria for “good.” Do you mean “well written”? Do you mean “entertaining”? Do you mean books with characters I fell in love with? Or do you mean books that have stayed with me for years, despite whether I actively enjoyed reading them?

There is, perhaps, a fair argument that a book cannot be very good if it can be forgotten the moment you finish reading it. However, not all writers are aiming to live in long memory. While I hope readers enjoy Brynnde and Faebourne, I understand that those books and others like them are often kind of like candy floss, melting away as the reader moves on to the next thing.

Then again, just because a book is memorable, that doesn’t mean it is (or was) enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—we remember books (or movies) precisely because they had such a negative impact on us. Yet one could argue the author has done a “good” job because he or she has made the book into something you will never forget. No such thing as bad publicity? Some authors and filmmakers actively attempt to shock and discomfit their readers/viewers. If they do so, they consider themselves successful, even if critics and viewers hate their work.

Sometimes, though, it’s a neutral thing that, for whatever reason, leaves an impression. I was once talking to a friend of mine about (if I remember correctly, and if I don’t, it probably disproves me) Needful Things by Stephen King. And at one point we both said at the same time: “When Alan catches the glass.” This references a very specific scene in the book, one that has stuck in both our brains for years. After all, I’ve only read that book once, when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. I don’t remember much about it, but Alan catching the glass is burned into my brain… and velvet Elvis paintings.

At the same time, there are plenty of books I can recall liking, but if you asked me for specifics now, I wouldn’t be able to give you any. I loved “The Turn of the Screw” (and The Innocents), but I can’t give you any details on what about the story or film I particularly enjoyed. I only have this general feeling of: Oh, yes, I liked that one. This is true of so many books and movies, probably because we’re designed to remember what we dislike—what affects us badly—more than what we like. This is an old part of the brain, a holdover from the days when we needed to remember which plants made us sick or which animals were dangerous. But it’s the part of the brain that, today, makes us more likely to write a letter of complaint, or a bad review, than to praise something.

So what am I getting at here? I’m only pointing out that “good” is measured in many different ways. You can say, “I liked it,” but can you articulate why? And even if you don’t like something, if it stays in your mind and follows you around, does that make it “good,” at least on some level?

What books or movies have stuck with you over time? Did you like them? Or have they made an impression precisely because they were terrible? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Movies: Hearts Beat Loud

“Poignant” is the word that came to mind while watching this little indie film. I don’t know if that fits, exactly, but it’s what I actively thought at the time.

This movie stars Nick Offerman as Frank, single father to Sam, who is taking classes over the summer before leaving NY to attend UCLA. Frank has run a record store called Red Hook Records for 17 years, but now too broke to pay the rent, he has to close the place and find another job. He also has a mother (Blythe Danner) who “gets confused sometimes” and yet refuses to give up her rent-controlled apartment to live with Frank.

There are a couple of B storylines: Nick’s landlord Leslie is giving him mixed signals, and Sam falls in love with a girl named Rose. But the chief conflict is that Frank and Sam “jam” together, and after recording a song one night, Frank uploads it to Spotify and it gets put on a “new indies” playlist. It gets enough attention that there is interest in repping them, but Sam isn’t happy with her dad’s push for stardom. He used to be in a band with her mother, who sadly died in a bicycle accident, and Sam sees his desire to return to the limelight as pathetic. She doesn’t want to sign a contract and go on tour; she wants to go to med school.

As an aside, let me just say that I like to “collect” people who share the same birthday as me (date, not year), and Kiersey Clemons, who plays Sam, does! She really does have a magnificent voice, and she’s incredibly talented as an actress as well. No need for my well wishes, however, as she’s lined up to play Iris opposite Ezra Miller in a Flash movie. She’s well on her way.

Hearts Beat Loud is a small film, zeroed in on Offerman’s Frank as he navigates major life upheaval. While the storyline with Blythe Danner didn’t seem to go much of anywhere, overall this is a movie worth curling up with. If you liked Begin Again, or enjoy films of that sort, you’d probably like this one as well.

Books: The Legend of the Seventh Virgin by Victoria Holt

So, in the wake of re-reading The Black Opal and finding it disappointing, I decided to try another one of the Victoria Holt novels I have on my shelf. I’ve read them all, but it’s been a couple decades, so I don’t remember much about any of them except that I liked them an awful lot at the time. (Well, I remember finding the name Lavinia in The India Fan to be just the most elegant name… That’s literally the only thing I remember about all the Victoria Holt books I’ve read.) My question was: if, upon revisiting, The Black Opal wasn’t all that good, how do the others hold up?

The Legend of the Seventh Virgin is much older than The Black Opal, by almost three decades. So it’s probably not entirely fair to compare them as authors’ writing styles change over time. But these are the two I’ve read and refreshed my memory on, so these are the two we’re going with.

My chief complaint about The Black Opal was that the main character Carmel was really, really dull. Not so with the main character of TLOTSV. If anything, Kerensa Carlee suffers from a surfeit of personality. The problem here is that she’s not terribly likable. She is fixated on the local manor house known as the Abbas, determined to somehow make it her own. I guess she’s what some would consider a “strong female character,” but I think her counterpart Mellyora is stronger in a lot of ways (and much more engaging, though we only see everything through Kerensa’s eyes, as she is the narrator).

Cornwall, Victorian Era. Kerensa has big aspirations, not just for herself but for her brother Joe, who she is determined will be a doctor. Kerensa constantly wants people to do what she wants and is infuriated when they make choices different from the ones she thinks are best for them—but are really best for her, or suit her ambitions. I won’t spoil anything on the off chance you’d like to read this book at some point, but Kerensa is selfish and domineering, which she readily acknowledges but makes no attempt to change.

The other annoying thing is that Kerensa is repetitive in her narration, hitting the same points over and over again until readers want to scream, “Yes! We get it!” Time after time she goes on about her brother and how disappointed she is when he doesn’t become a doctor but instead a mere veterinarian. (I guess that was a minor spoiler. Sorry.) She harps on the house, her goals for her son Carlyon… [As an aside, I once had a bad review for one of my books because the reader didn’t find the names believable for the time period, but I ain’t got nothin’ on Victoria Holt. Just sayin’.] Kerensa orchestrates things in an all-out attempt to make her dreams come true, but the costs turn out to be great as well.

I suppose a lot of the fun in reading a Victoria Holt novel is that they’re so outlandish. They’re historical gothic romance, really, and I’m not sure much can be expected of them. I did find TLOTSV to be more absorbing than The Black Opal, but toward the end I was skimming. There were a number of false endings of a sort—just when you thought everything was settled, some other little thing would pop up and happen. If you’re a savvy reader, many of the twists were telegraphed, though I still enjoyed them for the high drama they were.

I have a few more of Holt’s books, but I’m going to take a break before trying any more of them. Although I used to read them one after another like a kid scarfing down candy, I feel I need a bit of a palate cleanser before tackling another.

IWSG: January 2019

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Question of the Month: What are your favorite and least favorite questions people ask you about your writing?

I love being asked about my writing, and I can’t think of any questions that annoy me or that I don’t like to answer. If anything, I wish more people would ask me about my work… Maybe I just like to talk about myself!

I suppose there are offensive questions, but that’s usually based on how the question is asked. I get accusatory-sounding questions about why I make characters gay, for example. “Why did you have to make them gay?” Look, I know that’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but sometimes as I’m writing a character, I come to understand things about him or her. I don’t plan it; my characters grow organically as I write. A lot of mine happen to be gay.

When I first started writing The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, I had planned for Peter to be a womanizer. Alas, he had different ideas, and it was Jules who stepped up to chase the girls. (I still have ideas forming in the back of my mind for a book about Jules.) When I was writing Faebourne, I had planned for George and Edward to get together, but… If you read the book, you see how that went.

That’s another thing I do get tired of hearing: “Oh, but you should be in charge of your characters and make them do what you say!” I find that creates stilted characters that are bound by plot. When reading, I can always tell when a writer was determined to stick to their outline because the characters don’t seem to breathe or act of their own accord. They do things that seem out of character or don’t make sense, and it’s usually because the author forced them.

It takes me a long time to write a draft because I’m a bit like Michelangelo, chipping away at the stone block and seeing the story take shape. I have a general sense of the story and what’s going to happen, but my outlines are very loose and free flowing. After that arduous draft, however, the refinement takes far less time. This is why it takes me about a year to write and publish a book: ~9 months of drafting and ~3 months of rewriting and editing.

Still, as long as people are respectful, I don’t mind answering whatever questions they may have.