Country concert distilled as poem

Jack Ingram

Sometimes a poem’s the best way to capture the essence of an experience. Case in point: my excursion yesterday to “Country Throwdown,” a marathon country music concert in Saratoga Springs with many bands, including Montgomery Gentry, Jack Ingram, Jamey Johnson and Little Big Town. There was lots of excellent music, but maybe it’s time to face the facts: I’m not the music fan I was 40 years ago, either in body or spirit.

It’s fascinating how modern country musicians channel the musical styles of rockers of my generation, including Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Jamey Johnson was the only headliner who played what might be termed traditional country.

Here’s my poetic take on the dark side of the day’s happenings (it’s always easier to wax poetic about the shadow side of things):

 Country Throwdown Concert

“On your feet!” The singer screams the order.

The crowd obeys, fists pump the air.

A shirtless youth salutes with horny fingers.

Erratic heartbeat of the bass thumps in my chest.

Extrasystoles hammer, relentless, triggering fears

of cardiac arrest. Red searchlights swivel

through clouds of smoke, target band and fans –

the entryway to hell. Batted by the mob, enormous vinyl balls

with New York Lotto logos crash endlessly above. One hits me

on the head, sparking phobic high school volleyball flashbacks.

Yellow-shirt security patrol with eagle eyes and walkie-talkies.

Outside the music shed, the crowd queues up and funnels through

metal barricades in quest of precious liquid.

Blue shirts check IDs and brand us with plastic bracelets.

We’ve been stripped of private bottles at the gates,

so now are forced to pony up eight bucks a cup to quench our thirst

on the arid patch of chewed up grass

called a beer garden. Shades of Germany.

Outside, the ATM machine attracts long lines –

suckers in search of cash, desperate for food and drink,

cowboy hats and black skull-logo tee shirts.

I’ve come here trying to conjure up

that long lost summer of love in Sixty-Nine.

Crows feet around my eyes and fifty extra pounds

brand me an imposter among the lanky girls

in skimpy shorts and cowboy boots. Ten hours of music

is seven too many for my aging psyche and physique.

To my relief, the headline final act is crass and mediocre.

I steal away to beat the traffic jam, pass through metal gates

emblazoned with a banner overhead:

All exits are final. No reentry.

They’ve got that right – I can’t go back again.

 © Memorial Day, May 31, 2010 Julie Lomoe

Writing workshops – are they worth it?

Several women writers I know are off to a three-day writing workshop at a local retreat center, and I admit I’m jealous. Expense was a factor. Still, I could have gone, but I don’t write well in groups, and I’m resistive to the idea of following the directions of other writers, so I took a deliberate pass.

My voice flows entirely differently when I’m alone at my computer. Maybe it’s because of the way I taught myself touch typing in high school. I remember sitting at my mother’s old Smith Corona manual typewriter, fantasizing about the jazz musicians I had major crushes on – Miles Davis and Charles Mingus chief among them. The words flowed from my fingers, and by college, I was capable of turning out twenty-page papers with minimal typos in frantic all-nighters. Then while trying to make it as an artist in SoHo, before becoming an art therapist, I had numerous menial jobs that jacked up my words per minute even higher.

For me, writing in longhand just doesn’t cut it. When my hand can’t keep up with my ideas, my thoughts turn sludgy and slow. The proximity of others close by, scribbling away on their own papers, conjures up thoughts of final exams, wracking my brain for the right answers and scrawling them frantically in blue books. Remember those essay questions, the way you had to watch the clock and ration your time? Time’s usually at a premium in these workshops, too, and you’re expected to come up with something reasonably coherent and contained in the span of a few minutes. When the facilitator asks if you need more time, that probably means there isn’t any.

Then comes judgment time, when the workshop leader inevitably asks, “Who’d like to share?” I’m usually one of the first to volunteer, because I find it hard to focus on others when I’m waiting my turn. The work is almost invariably met with appreciative murmurs, oohs and ahs – I can’t remember a time when anyone’s actually critiqued me harshly. But the impact of the praise is diluted by the fact that everyone gets equally favorable reactions. I’m my own most severe critic, and there’s always someone whose work is insightful and profound enough to make me feel inferior.

Of course work produced in this high-pressure environment can serve as a springboard for more writing after the session is over, as most workshop leaders acknowledge. There’s always time to expand and explore, to mine the longhand scrawls for little gems that can be tweaked and polished at leisure. But I confess I’ve never gotten around to reworking the pages I produce at these events. Instead I stow them away unread until they resurface months or years later, whereupon I scan them and toss them in the recycling basket.

Would it make a difference if I brought a laptop to these affairs? Maybe, but I’d be terrified to find out. What if my random musings were just as mundane and sludgy even if I could type them? My facile fingers argument would be blown, and I’d be exposed as terminally mediocre.

So there’s my argument against writing workshops. Having written it, I’ve got to admit I could easily write a blog post of equal length detailing all the reasons these workshops can be wonderful. There’s the collegiality, the energy generated by being in a community of writers . . . but I’d better quit while I’m still feeling negative, or I’ll berate myself for not signing up for that workshop after all.

What about you? Do you enjoy going to writers’ workshops and retreats? Can you do your best work there, or do you think they’re just a waste of time and money?

Quitting my soap opera cold turkey

Michael Easton

I swore I’d quit my soap opera cold turkey this week. They’d wrapped up two significant plot lines on Friday – almost, anyway – and it seemed like a good time to give up my insidious and shameful habit of watching One Life to Live. But literally at the last minute, they dropped in a dead body, so I suppose I’ll have to tune in one more time at least.*

Those writers really know how to pile on the plot twists, drag out the suspense and keep you hooked. Two major power couples reunited Friday. Trying to stop Natalie from flying to London, John made it to the airport in time to learn she’d missed her flight, whereupon she showed up in hopes of catching the next one. Close-ups of long meaningful looks – no blinking allowed. Despite the fact that she’s recently widowed and his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend miscarried after being pushed down a flight of stairs, John and Natalie obviously belong back together – it’s just taken them a few years to realize it.

Mark Lawson

Meanwhile Jessica realizes Brody’s her true love after all. She’d forgotten that fact when she suffered amnesia after Mitch gave her too much electroshock therapy. For months now, she’s believed she was 18 years old and destined for Christian, her first true love, and she even fixed the votes so the two of them could be king and queen at the senior prom, despite being in their late twenties at least. Though she’s been a wife and mother, she feels like a virgin, and the horndog Ford is set to take advantage of her innocence when her memories come flooding back and she realizes she was almost raped by Mitch.

Confused yet? Small wonder, yet I haven’t even begun to describe the ramifications of these plot lines, which are only two of many being played out on OLTL at any given time. A few months ago, I generated a table on my computer with one row per day and eight columns for the major plotlines. I started out with one page per month, but that wasn’t nearly enough space. Now each page has four days – that’s 32 boxes per sheet, and it’s still not enough room for all the plot twists.

I use lilac paper for these charts, and by now I’ve accumulated enough pages to make an impressive conceptual art piece in an avant garde gallery. I’m a member of a new coop gallery that has the perfect wall space, but I’d be ashamed to display such repetitive, obsessive-compulsive art under my real name – it’s embarrassing enough even to be writing about my addiction here.

I’ve also done family-therapy-style genograms of the characters on One Life to Live. At any given time, there are over 40 characters on the show, some major contract players and others occasional walk-ons. Diagramming their relationships is tricky, since the number of marriages and affairs is mind-boggling, and sometimes it seems everyone in the fictional town of Llanview, Pennsylvania, is related to everyone else in an incestuous hillbilly hollow.

The real reason I want to stop watching, aside from the fact that OLTL falls during my most productive writing time? Truth be told, I don’t like most of the characters that much. I’m a huge fan of Michael Easton, who plays Detective John McBain, and Mark Lawson, who plays former Navy Seal, Brody Lovett, isn’t bad either. There are some sympathetic middle-aged characters too, but they’re getting less and less air time, and the show is skewing more and more toward adolescence. Too many teenagers, and too many adults with the emotional maturity of teenagers.

So why am I still watching? Well, there was that impetuous bedroom scene with Natalie and Brody last week – how will their true loves John and Jessica react if they find out? Or not if but when, because that particular plot twist is too juicy to pass up. Then there’s that horndog Ford, who we last saw lying in a pool of blood, with Marco washing the blood off his hands. But is Marco truly capable of murder? Or did Hannah do it?

With so many plot lines on such a huge, complicated canvas, and half a dozen writers credited on every show, there’s something for everybody. And for a mystery writer, there’s a lot to learn about how to hook an audience. 

When it comes to TV, which shows are your guilty pleasures? And do they have any redeeming value in terms of your plotting techniques?

*I did watch again, and Ford’s not dead after all – when last seen, he was being wheeled into the ICU. Cold turkey may be too much to expect, but at least I’ve given up those lilac plot charts, and I’m limiting myself to partial reruns on the SoapNet channel so as not to interrupt my prime writing time.

Depression – forecast cloudy, cool and drizzly?

Weather report from the dreary Northeast: cloudy, cool and gray with intermittent drizzles – a lot like the weather inside my head the past few days. Outside, they’re predicting a positive change, and tomorrow’s forecast promises a perfect spring day, sunny with temps in the seventies. I wish my mental state would brighten too, but I’m not at all sure.

I’ve written here before about my bipolar diagnosis, but from the perspective of someone who has it well under control with medication. Over the past several years, my disposition has been amazingly, predictably sunny.  Now that depression is rolling in like low cloud cover and fogging my brain, my impulse is to hide, to retreat into silence. Who wants to read a blog that’s basically a downer? Maybe you’ll read it and never return. If I can’t say something nice and cheery, better not to say anything at all, right?

Wrong. I’ve always been big on self-disclosure in this blog, and it would feel hypocritical to change now, so I’ve decided to go public with these feelings of depression. My novel  Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders is all about transcending the stigma of mental illness, and sharing feelings is one way to go about it. The book’s protagonist Erika Norgren reveals her bipolar diagnosis on the 11 o’clock news, and when the book was published, I came out of the closet as well, to my enormous relief. I’m hoping that sharing my feelings here will have an equally therapeutic effect.

I’m a firm believer in the biochemical nature of manic depression, as some still prefer to call bipolar disorder, and I know medications work. A couple of months ago, my shrink tweaked my meds, changing one of them to something less apt to promote weight gain, but in retrospect, maybe that was a mistake. Yesterday, after taking to my bed for the afternoon, I was  alarmed enough to call him, and I’ll be seeing him soon, but he wants me to monitor my moods a little while longer rather than changing the meds too abruptly.

I could launch into a whole laundry list of things to be depressed about, but realistically, I have far more things to be grateful for. This kind of depression isn’t about rationality, though – that’s what’s so frightening about it. Images of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico come to mind – the toxic black muck keeps pouring up unstoppably from the depths.

Never fear, I have no intention of dragging you into my slough of despond on a regular basis. There’ll be cheerier postings in the days and weeks ahead, but I may occasionally offer progress reports on my mental status. Meanwhile, I feel like Tinker Bell in Peter Pan – my inspiration is flickering, and I don’t want it to die out. If you believe, it would be good to hear some applause right about now.

Time to jettison my paperwork past

“You’ll probably inherit this house someday,” I told my daughter a couple of years ago. Her first response: “I hope you clean out all the paper first.”

Since then, she’s bought a house of her own, and she doesn’t need mine. Nor does she need all my papers, and neither do I. Or so I’m trying to convince myself, but the process of divesting myself of years of accumulation is wrenching. Yesterday I threw out four years of my life in the form of Franklin-Covey day planners. They were four years I’d just as soon forget – 1998 to 2001.

I’d shut down my home health care agency, ElderSource, Inc., on Halloween of 2007, and I hadn’t begun writing my mystery novels. Those years were ones of flux and uncertainty, pulling up stakes in New Paltz and trying to adjust to the Capital Region where I knew no one. My mood swings veered toward the depressive end of my bipolar spectrum. Yet I kept those day planners compulsively – two facing pages per day, one for my (nonexistent) appointments, the other for my goals and accomplishments. They’d made sense when I was running an agency, less sense during my long stints of idleness punctuated by the potholes of various low-level temp jobs

I didn’t want to reread those planners, and I recycled them properly, separating the papers from the fake brown leather binders. “Are you sure you should have thrown those out?” my husband asked later when I was crowing about my accomplishment. No, I’m not sure, but downsizing is essential, since our house is half the size of our old one. For too many years it’s been choked with plastic bins and cardboard cartons of papers and memorabilia, and we need to open it up to the possibilities of the next phase of our lives. Renting a storage locker for over $1,000 seems like a cop-out, bleeding money while it lets us postpone the inevitable confrontation with clutter.

Besides, my husband wants the pink room for his office. That’s where much of my stuff is stored – an upstairs bedroom painted Pepto Bismol pink, where the papers jostle with old art and jewelry-making supplies. My own office already occupies the adjoining bedroom, and he deserves a room of his own instead of the sunroom that’s destined to become a dining and garden room if we can ever get our act together.

What’s so unnerving about jettisoning big chunks of my past? It has to do with posterity, the notion that someday someone will want to read all my meanderings – the journals and morning pages full of kvetching, the first drafts of my novels. Consigning them to the recycling bin means surrendering to the knowledge that no one really cares.

Things came to a head yesterday when Richele Corbo, our Nia teacher, asked us to bring photographs of ourselves as young children, so we could dance to our inner child during a beautiful routine with music by Christine Aguilera. To my chagrin, I couldn’t find a single one, though I know I’ve got a few stashed away somewhere in those cartons. (Interestingly, none of the other women brought photos either – they couldn’t find them or “forgot,” or as one woman, a therapist said, “My inner child’s too shy to show herself.” We’ve got photos of our children and grandchildren, though.)

When my mother died in 1970, I was too shattered to return home to Milwaukee and sort through family memorabilia, so I left the task to my father and brother. Equally devastated, they weeded out and destroyed practically everything – the home movies, the high school yearbooks and family photos. To this day I blame myself for lacking the courage to go back and salvage more of those tangible memories.

Now, while I’m still sound in mind and body, I have the chance to do things differently, so that my daughter and granddaughters aren’t faced with those overwhelming choices. Can I distill the essence of those countless cartons into three or four carefully culled archival boxes? Maybe so, if I make believe I’m moving to – heaven forbid – an apartment in a community residence.

What about you? Do you have trouble divesting yourself of your paperwork past? Any stories or helpful hints to share?

Writing the Breakout Mystery: Donald Maass’ Quickie Version

How do you write the breakout mystery, the novel that transcends genre and takes your work, and perhaps your career, to the next level? Literary agent Donald Maass gave a condensed workshop on the topic at the Mystery Writers of America’s recent Edgar Symposium in New York City. I picked up lots of good pointers and I’m passing on a few of them today, along with an exercise you can use to deepen the plot of your proposed book or your work-in-progress.

I was delighted to realize that Eldercide, my suspense novel about end-of-life issues, has many “breakout” characteristics; here I’ll refer to them to illustrate some of Maass’ key points.

Higher purpose – philosophical questions: breakout novels aren’t simply about an isolated crime. (Eldercide addresses the question: When quality of life declines with age and illness, who decides if you’re better off dead? Our society is rapidly aging, our allotted life spans growing ever longer, but at what cost?)

Multiple points of view and story lines as well as more characters – breakout novels usually utilize multiple third-person voices, often including those of children, old people, or the antagonist. (Eldercide opens with the viewpoint of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient, a client of the home health care agency Compassionate Care. Several of the victims have their own points of view, as does the villain.)

The victims matter more than in the usual crime novel. (In Eldercide, we empathize with the victims, whose struggles with declining health and dignity are described in vivid detail).

There’s at least one three-dimensional, fully developed antagonist, who may or may not be the killer. (My villain, Gabriel, is  charismatic, conflicted and reasonably compassionate. He refuses to harm animals, even if it costs him his job, and he channels his obsession with the protagonist, nursing supervisor Claire Lindstrom, into passionate, expressionistic paintings.)

Here’s Maass’ exercise for creating larger, more multiply layered stories with more resonance:

Give your protagonist a life issue separate from the main story. Now complicate the problem: how does it get worse? Think of a solution – why doesn’t it work? Think of another way the issue gets worse, and the way most people would solve it. Why wouldn’t this work?

In the workshop, Maass challenged us to use this technique with our own novels. (I chose to work on the sequel to Eldercide and explore the travails of Paula Rhodes, the CEO of Compassionate Care, whose experience is inspired by my own eight tumultuous running a home care agency.) Complicate the situation still another way, he told us. Who’s going to get hurt? How does the situation cripple the protagonist? What brings the problem to a crisis?

Next, he said, give the protagonist still another problem, but a less serious one, perhaps something humorous or annoying. (I gave Paula secret problems with clutter and disorganization, topics close to my heart.) Again, envision an easy fix, why it won’t work and how it gets worse. What’s the worst-case scenario?

Maass estimated that enfolding these additional story lines into an existing plot might add an additional 30 or 40 pages for the protagonist, and suggested using the same techniques to enrich additional characters as well. There’ll be more scenes, more events, more characters, but the novel will be the richer for it.

It’s also possible to use similar techniques to develop the major themes and settings of the novel, but those are topics for another day. Maass gives intensive weekend and weeklong workshops, and you can learn about them by visiting his agency’s website, www.maassagency.com. More economically, you could buy his book Writing the Breakout Novel by going to the same site. You can even download his book The Career Novelist free of charge.

Reviewing my notes from the conference, I’m amazed how many intriguing twists and turns I came up with for Paula’s character in just a few minutes. Will I try Maass’ methods with the sequel to Eldercide? Absolutely! I’d love to write a breakout novel that actually breaks out.

Have any of you used Maass’ techniques or similar methods? How did they work for you?

Laura Lippman and Lee Child share the view from the top

Laura Lippman

Early in your writing career, you have to believe you can reach the top of the best sellers lists even if you never confide that conviction to anyone else, according to Laura Lippman. That was one of the tips she shared at the Q&A session with fellow best-selling author Lee Child at the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Symposiuim last week. Capping a day of illuminating panels, their informal dialogue conveyed a vivid sense of what it feels like to be a best-selling author – and it’s anything but easy.

Lee Child

When they began writing mysteries, both Lippman and Child already had 20 years of media experience, Lippman as a journalist and Child in the TV industry. The initial goal for both? Simply to get published. Child knew he would make it, at least to the entry level of publishing. “You need to be blind to the possibility of failure,” he said. Both began writing to please themselves rather than worrying about the “oughts” of mystery writing or the ingredients for commercial success.

What’s luck got to do with it?

Both consider themselves lucky to have reached their level of success, but “luck accrues to those who work hard,” according to Lippman. She acknowledged, though, that some gifted and hard-working authors just don’t catch a break. Some fall by the wayside, and “the people who persevere may need to reinvent themselves and write under a new name” with a new series if that’s what it takes to keep getting published.

Both authors emerged in 1997 along with Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben. They all kept “showing up,” publishing a book a year with the goal of making each book better than the one before. Writing never gets easier, said Lippman. If you ever think it’s easy, you’re in trouble. And with increasing success, there’s more pressure and more anxiety.

“There’s nothing that will ever convince you you’ve made it,” says Child. “The horizon keeps shifting” as authors like Dan Brown come along and dominate the best seller charts.

Keeping a series fresh

Lippman has written four stand-alones, including the recent Life Sentences, in addition to her series of ten Tess Monaghan novels. They allow her to explore characters and themes that don’t necessarily mesh with her series, but after the time away from Tess, she’s grateful to be back in her company. “Make sure you write about a character you like spending time with,” she advises.

Child, in contrast, has no plans to write stand-alones. He plans to stick with his protagonist Jack Reacher. “I’m not as smart as Laura,” he quipped. “I’m just trying to get by.” This of course elicited comments from Lippman about his brilliance. Child pointed out that Reacher has the advantage of traveling to many settings for variety. Nonetheless, he said with self-deprecating humor, “It’s okay to write the same novel over and over again with minor changes – it’s what people want and expect.” Over the years, readers build up a relationship where they feel they know Child, and they often write to him confiding things they don’t tell family or friends.

I came away from this discussion with a vivid sense of the unremitting hard work, dedication and self-confidence it takes to maintain a writing career at their level of success. “There’s always something new to chase,” said Lippman. “You’ve never arrived.”

“If you write the perfect book,” Child concluded, “what do you do next? You’re done.”

What about you? Do you have the admirable qualities you need to take your work to the next level? Or do you ever feel as if you’re “done,” perfect or not? I’d love to read your comments. And stay tuned for my report on Donald Maass’s workshop on the breakthrough mystery.

Lee Child’s author photo is copyrighted by the celebrity photographer Sigrid Estrada, whose work I remember from many years ago when I worked at Ladies’ Home Journal. He really does look this good, and he’s friendly and charming as well. Lee is past president of the Mystery Writers of America, and Laura’s the new president. Her author photo reminds me more of Cybill Shepherd than of the unassuming way Laura looks in person – not that she doesn’t look great, mind you. But I decided it was unfair to use a studio glamour shot for the man and a more ordinary candid shot for the woman. 

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