Sunday, July 31, 2011

How to tell a video from a DVD

My kids teased me the other day for calling a “DVD” a “videotape.” Apparently that’s like calling a “refrigerator” an “icebox,” a “Kindle” a “book,” or a “landline” a “telephone.” But as hip (do they still use that word?) as I try to be for my kids, I realize I’m fighting a losing battle when I mention things like “travel agent,” “wristwatch,” “long distance call,” “encyclopedia,” “fax machine,” and “TV set.”

I remember when my dad bought our first TV, long before there were HDTV Plasma Flat Screens. I was four years old, just had my tonsils out (remember those?), and came home from the hospital to find a 23-inch black-and-white RCA sitting in the living room. There were only three channels back then, with live programs like Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” Martin and Lewis on the “Colgate Comedy Hour,” and “The Red Skelton Show,” but that was enough for us. We didn’t even mind getting up off the couch to change the channel, since “remote controls” were figments of sci-fi shows like “Captain Midnight.”

Now my kids own several TVs, all the size of plate-glass windows. And instead of three channels, they get over 300, everything from BBC news to Spanish soap operas.

Music technology has also changed over the years. Back in the day I treasured my pocket-sized transistor radio, the forefront of giant boom boxes and portable Walkmans, even though mine was limited to the tunes I could pick up while turning the dial (like “The Wolfman Jack Show” bay-bah!)

Today my grandkids can listen to a tune like “Forget You” (AKA the “Asterisk Song”), have it identified (Shazam), download it (iTunes), and play it back (iPod) in seconds.

When I was a kid, I wanted to learn Morse Code so I could communicate with faraway friends over a shortwave radio, saving money I’d have to use for expensive long-distance telephone fees. I never did get past the letters S O S, but today I don’t have to. I can email, IM, text, chat, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, or Tango anyone, anywhere, any time. And instead of memorizing a complicated Morse Code, all I have to do is learn a few text codes, like LMAF (laughing my asterisk off) or PLOS (parents looking over shoulder.)

Remember the dot-matrix printers that looked like pointillism art? Three-inch floppy discs that filled up faster than you could type “save?” Typewriters that made a clatter, letting you think you were writing something important? Dictionaries instead of spell-check? Road atlases instead of GPS? Yellow Pages instead of Google? Mailing a letter instead of pushing a button (sometimes by accident)? Wondering what your friends are doing at this very moment instead of checking Facebook and Twitter? Using film in a camera instead of not? Coffee percolating on the kitchen counter instead of standing in line to buy it? Car keys instead of push-button remotes? Watching the scenery go by instead of viewing in-car movies?

Now if only they could invent something that teaches the videotape generation how to use these gadgets, we could really stay hip. Or cool. Or Sweet. Or Rad. Or Fresh. Or Tight. Or Dope. Or whatever…

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Worst Opening Lines?

I thought I’d drop by the American Book Review’s list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels and see if I agree with their choices. Here’s a sample—and how I might rewrite that first line to use in my own mystery series…

1. “Call me Ishmael.” - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick.

Yeah, the name Ishmael just doesn’t work for me today. I’d change it to “Call me Justin” or maybe “Give a shout-out to L’il Wayne.”

2. “A screaming comes across the sky.” - Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow.

Come on. A scream can’t come across the sky. A bird maybe. Or a rainbow. How about “A pterodactyl screamed across the primordial ooze that would soon be known as sky.” Now that’s an opening line!

3. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.: - Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Big mistake. The author gives away the ending in the first line! That’s just not the way to write a book. Marquez should probably read a few Nancy Drew mysteries before attempting to write another book.

4. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” - Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Sounds like a romance novel to me. If you want to write this stuff, you need to use words like biceps, not “loins.” And “Lolita” sounds like a hooker’s name. Try Kimberly or Khloe.

5. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” - George Orwell, 1984

Okay, you want your novel to ring of verisimilitude, then don’t start a book with a clock that strikes thirteen. That just isn’t plausible. Get an editor, Orwell.

6. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Vague, vague, vague. Be specific when writing your story, and avoid contradicting yourself right off the bat. Try “It was a dark and stormy night… ” and see where that leads.

7. “You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter.” - Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Obviously this guy needs to review Strunk and White before writing a book or whatnot. This is simply unreadable.

8. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” - J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.

What a put-off! If the author doesn’t even want to write about all that crap, then why should I bother to read it? Hey, we all had lousy childhoods. Get over yourself and write something uplifting, like “Heaven is for Real” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

9. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” - Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.

If I wanted to read a book about flowers, I’d buy a gardening book. Start your book off with a bang, like “Mrs. Dalloway, an escaped mental patient who’d murdered her gardener that morning, decided to bury him under the roses because he’d make good mulch.” See how that line grabs the reader in a way that “buying flowers” just doesn’t?

10. “All this happened, more or less.” - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Last but not least—well, maybe least—you just don’t tell the reader that the story you’re about to reveal may or may not have happened. I mean, what’s the point? If it happened, then write it down for us to read. If it didn’t, then go buy flowers or something.

Are there any first lines that don’t work for you? (You know I’m kidding, right?)


Sunday, July 17, 2011

A day in the glamorous life...

Adam Mansbach, the author of Go The Heck To Sleep (or something like that), became a bestselling children’s writer BEFORE his book was even published. Now he’s richer than Donald Trump (probably) and more famous than Harry Potter.

I thought that when I became a writer, fame, fortune, and a glamorous life would follow—margarita lunches with editors, world tours with publicists, and intimate chats with Oprah (oops, missed that window.)

The truth is, for most writers, the literary life is about as fictional as a character in a Dan Brown novel. I should know. I live it every day. Here’s a sample of my literary life, in case you were wondering why you haven’t seen me on “The Jerry Springer Show” yet (he still won’t return my calls.)

6:00 am – Still asleep. Are you kidding me?

7:00 am – Open one eye. Find three cats sleeping on my legs. Legs are numb. Dreamed I was paralyzed. Get the newspaper. Scan the obits to see if anyone my age has died.

7:30 am –Roll out of bed, trying not to disturb cats. Take shower, dress, put on makeup so I don’t frighten my cats or grandchildren.

8:00 am – Feed cats, take drugs, and open laptop. Check email. Ignore irate letter regarding my gall bladder surgery column. Reply to a dozen Facebook posts regarding a spelling error I made. Watch six videos from my cousin featuring funny animals.

9:00 am - Read publishing newsletter to find out how much other writers like Adam Mansbach are making instead of me. Say “heck” a lot—out loud. Google my name and find an article about “Penny Warner coping with head lice.” Different Penny Warner.

9:30 am – Decide I should get to work, since I have a book due in two weeks and am only half way through the rewrites. Think about making a margarita.

Noon - Stomach growling, brain fried. Treat myself to a trip to Target to get some exercise walking the aisles and buy candy. Purchase colored chalk for the grandkids. Eat a pizza to replenish energy.

1:00 pm – Return home, exhausted from Target exercise and sleepy from eating Target pizza. Check what’s on Syfy, FX, Chiller, Lifetime, and TCM. Seen everything. Take a nap.

3:00 pm – Wake up to find grandkids standing over my bed yelling, “She’s awake! She’s awake!” Play with them for the next couple of hours instead of getting back to work. Driveway is soon covered with multicolored chalk. Kids drew super heroes. I drew murder weapons.

5:00 pm – Say goodbye to grandkids and have a “glass” of wine. Wonder if there’s still time in my life to become an alcoholic. Watch news. Nothing about me.

6:00 pm – Eat dinner of leftovers—chicken thigh, Chinese takeout, and egg salad. Take Zantac and other drugs and wash them down with another “glass” of wine. Husband asks how book is coming. Wonder if wine bottle has been used as a murder weapon.

8:00 pm – Watch “My Yard Goes Disney” and “Cupcake Wars” to relax. Decide a Cupcake Mystery set in Disneyland would sell a heckalot of books.

10:00 pm – Go to bed and read a Rubber Stamping Mystery. Fall asleep and dream about being stamped to death by my own grandkids while trying to write a sequel to “Go the Heck to Sleep.”