December 11, 2014

My Book for Only $6!

My book, What More Could You Wish Foris selling for $6 on, just in time for the holidays! It's an especially great gift for that friend who's turning 50 (or 60 or 70 or even 30!). If you like, I will send you a personally signed book plate to put in the book, next best thing to a signed copy. Just send me your address.
It would make a great stocking stuffer! are a few other great books for the book lover on your list - all written by some of my talented friends:
What the Lady Wants by Renee Rosen
Swastika Nation by Arnie Bernstein
The Temple of Air by Patricia Ann McNair
The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan
Cheeseland by Randy Richardson
Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck
The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

November 30, 2014

Writing Tip: How Your First Page Stacks Up

Are you writing during this holiday season? Of course you are!
I recently attended the fabulous WriterUnboxed UnConference and had the fortune to attend a workshop led by Ray Rhamey, in which he asked us to submit the first page of our work in progress to see if you, the reader, would turn the page. It's an eye-opening exercise.
When you send your work to an agent or publisher you basically have one page to hook them. How does your first page stack up? 
If you want to see, run it through the ringer - or at least Ray's checklist:

A First-page Checklist
  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
Find the rest of the checklist here.

November 25, 2014

Movie Review: It's Movie Season

It's movie season, my favorite time of year. Filmmakers are rushing to get their movies out under the wire for Oscar consideration. So, of course, I've been very busy. So busy I haven't had time to write individual reviews of all the films I've seen. Just so you won't miss some of the year's best, here are shortened reviews.

The Theory of Everything ****1/2
Amazing performance from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. He will definitely get an Oscar nomination for this role where he transforms himself, not through makeup, but through his physicality. Beautifully acted by all. I don't know how much of it is accurate, but it's a fascinating story of love and determination and hope.

Rosewater ****1/2
Based on a true story of an Iranian journalist covering the elections in 2009. After doing a satiric segment on the Daily Show, Maziar Bahari is arrested, thrown in solitary confinement and tortured as a spy. Jon Stewart capably directs this film and Gael Garcia Bernal is superb as the journalist who finds humor in his arrest until it dawns on him they believe he is a threat.

Whiplash *****
The story of a passionate drummer with an obsession to get into his music conservatory's jazz orchestra, and the borderline abusive conductor who pushes his students to their limits, and beyond. Phenomenal performances from Miles Teller as Andrew, the student, and J.K. Simmons.
Perfect pacing, perfect character development, perfect film.

Birdman *****
Great to see Michael Keaton in a starring role as a former movie superhero trying to regain his fame through a Broadway debut. Edward Norton is riveting as the obnoxiously arrogant co-star. This film is great fun to watch, with all its tension, drama, humor and poignancy. Superb performances. Great storytelling.

November 23, 2014

Movie Review: Foxcatcher **

This film should be retitled Napcatcher because you can grab a nice long snooze during the first hour and a half and you won't miss anything. Everyone moves slowly, talks slowly and says nothing; long sequences of boring wrestling and coaching; long black screen shots between scenes, so long I was expecting (praying)  for credits to roll.
Sometimes there's good reason to slow the action down. I see no reason to tell this story so slowly that I looked at my watch five times. Moving more quickly, at least in certain scenes, would have built more tension. Or at least kept me awake. (I didn't really sleep, but not for lack of trying.)
If you snooze, have someone wake you about an hour and 45 minutes in or you'll miss the whole point of the movie. Then you can nod off again for the last 15 minutes.
The acting is terrific; Steve Carell is unrecognizable as John duPont - the makeup artist is a rockstar for that transformation. Carell will likely get an Oscar nod for this performance. I just wish he had a better script to work with.
Speaking of makeup, I wonder at the need for the mouth prosthesis Tatum Channing wore. It was distracting and seemed redundant - just too much of a good thing.
Mark Ruffalo is one of my favorites and he delivers here - he's so natural on screen and always inhabits the roles he's playing.
For the performances alone I'm giving Napcatcher...oops, I mean Foxcatcher two stars. Although the writing and directing (and possibly the editing) gets one star from me.

November 9, 2014

Writing Tip: Writers Conferences are Energizing and Exhausting

Sean Walsh, Therese Walsh
(Founder of UnCon) and me
Mare Swallow
Founder of CWC
If you want to energize your writing, if you need a new perspective on your work, if you want to connect with other writers, if you want to hear other writers' experiences...go to a writers conference. I make it a point to attend at least one writers conference a year, and when I'm really, really lucky I get to go to two. This year I did a marathon - two conferences in a row. I'm coming off of an almost overwhelming few weeks, first at the Chicago Writers Conference and then at the first (and I hope, annual) Writer Unboxed UnConference in Salem, MA. And while I was exhausted each night of those conferences, particularly at UnCon which was four days long, I came home from each with new energy and new ideas and new tips for my writing. And I came home with new friends.
Donald Maass
at UnCon
Interestingly, both conferences were started by amazing women who simply saw a need and filled it, a massive undertaking. They both have my admiration and gratitude for creating such amazing places for writers to gather and connect and learn.
So, maybe I sound like a broken record about the benefit of writers conferences, but if you're a writer at any level, find one and do it. You can thank me later.

October 26, 2014

Writing Tip: The Art of Revision: The End is Just the Beginning

Roald Dahl said, “Good writing is essentially rewriting.”

Everything we write needs revision. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could sit down to write a novel, move from opening to conclusion, type “The End,” and voila! a masterpiece.
It doesn’t happen that way for me, it doesn't happen that way for J.K. Rowling or James Patterson or Gillian Flynn, and it won’t happen that way for you.
You've finished your first draft and typed "The End,"... now what? Now it's the fun part - revising (yes, really!)
Below is a pdf of the Power Point presentation from my workshop The Art of Revision: The End is just the Beginning, and other references I use in that workshop. Feel free to download them.

"First drafts are for learning what one's fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing." 
~Bernard Malamud
Art of Revision Workshop.pdf

In addition, I have lots of writing tips on my blog. Here are a few samples:
Checking Your Chapters
Your First Draft is the Foundation
Plotting by the Numbers
Does Your Opening Page Grab?
Just do a search on my website with the words "Writing Tip" and you'll find lots more.
And...two of my favorite writing websites are WriterUnboxed and LiveWriteThrive. Subscribe to both and you'll get more material than you will ever have time to read. And all of it is worthwhile.

Don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
Keep writing!

October 24, 2014

Writing Tip: Writers Conferences Rock!

I'm heading to The Chicago Writers Conference this weekend and then, in another week, I'll be heading to Salem, MA for the first Writer Unboxed Unconference
Too many conferences?
No way.
I love being in the company of writers, and sharing the experience of writing with so many like-minded people. There will be published authors there - traditional and self-published, there will be poets, novelists, memoirists; people who journal and who write self-help books, and there will be people who haven't yet begun writing but want to. There's something so motivating about being around all those writers. And...I always learn something, lots of somethings (here are ten things I learned at last year's CWC). And the biggest bonus of's fun!

Are you a writer? Take thee to a writers conference.
Meanwhile, here's a great article about how to enjoy it once you get there:

How to Rock a Writers Conference

hello2For those of you attending the Writer Unboxed Un-Con – especially the newbies among us – it may be useful to give some thought to how to get the most out of your upcoming writers conference experience. For those of you not attending UnCon, it may be useful to store these tips in a cool, dry place, against the day when you next wander down the conference trail. And for those of you with long experience of writers conferences, it might be useful to ignore everything that follows – but chip in with your own tips at the end.
First and foremost, campers, SET THE RIGHT GOAL. If you head into UnCon (or any con) with the goal of hitting some prized target (like landing an agent or a book deal, or whatever your ticket to heaven might be), you risk disappointment if that doesn’t happen. Worse, you’ll put all this stress on yourself to make it happen. Instead try this: Have fun. That’s a goal you can easily achieve, just by showing up and hanging out. I’m not saying don’t make the most of your networking opportunities. I’m just saying don’t obsess about it. As they say in poker (whence, let’s face it, all wisdom springs), “Let the game come to you.” What this is really about is setting your expectations. High expectations = buzz kill. Low expectations = fun!

October 22, 2014

Writing Tip: Plotting by the Numbers

Wouldn't it be great if there was a formula for plotting your novel, and all you had to do was fill in the blanks with your wonderful prose? You can actually find this kind of formula - just Google "formula for plotting novel" and you'll come up with 8,350,000 results.
Which ones will work? Who knows. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa.
Writers do it differently; some outline, some do storyboards, some do chapter synopses, some (like me) just write and let the story unfold. For me, characters appear and situations change as I write, and it's a fun surprise. There's no right way or wrong way. Whatever works for you is how you should do it. You may have to try different things but eventually you'll land on the process that works for you.
Once you've landed on the way to work you'll want to pay strict attention to those things that MUST be present in your novel if you're going to grab your reader: interesting and well-drawn characters, beginning-middle-end, conflict and resolution, prose that moves the story along. Click here to read Kurt Vonnegut's basics on creative writing.
Once you've written your first draft you can use a formula (see the post below) to see if your story will work. I checked my first book, What More Could You Wish For, using this formula and was surprised (and pleased) to see that my story met the requirements: a crossing over point at 25% point and a near death situation at the halfway point.
Check your work in progress, or a short story, article...whatever. It's a valuable exercise.

by Anne Greenwood Brown, Writer Unboxed
A while back, I attended the three-day Story Masters Workshop, given by James Scott Bell, Donald Maass, and Christopher Vogler. I highly recommend it, and you can check out more information about their workshops here. Vogler’s expertise is movie scripts. One of the things that I found most interesting about his presentation was his 12-stage hero’s journey, which suggested that every well-plotted and well-paced story had a “crossing over” at approximately the 25% mark, and a “near-death” at the 50% mark. His case in point: Star Wars. At the 25% point, Luke “crosses over” by leaving his Aunt and Uncle’s farm, and at the 50% mark suffers a “near death” when he’s caught in an intergalactic trash compactor.
If you have read my posts before, you know how fond I am of mathematical approaches to plotting. You can check out my mathematical formula for kicking out a fast first draft here. Clearly I was intrigued by Vogler’s premise, but I wasn’t able to tap into the high-testosterone crime/thriller movie examples he was using: Casablanca, The Godfather, etc. Believe it or not, with the exception of Star Wars, I hadn’t seen a single one of the movies he cited. 
It made me wonder if the formulas he was promoting were as applicable to the Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction my kidlit colleagues and I were writing, as they were to the thrillers and crime movies he used as his examples. As a result, I took it upon myself to put his formula to the test. Read the rest of the article

October 13, 2014

Movie Review: The Judge *****

"Oscar" is written all over this film, particularly for Robert Duvall for two reasons: he's great in this role and he's old.
Robert Downey, Jr. is one of my favorite actors - he has a really appealing presence on screen and is perfect in the role of the hotshot lawyer who has to deal with family issues - a family he's estranged from. I hope there will be an Oscar nod for him as well.
From the trailer The Judge looks like a courtroom drama, and that's part of what this film is about but it's mostly a relationship story; father/son at the heart of it, but brother/brother, old girlfriend, wife, name it, it's in this film.
I could nitpick and mention the not so subtle metaphoric scenes - like the tornado that has the whole dysfunctional family in the basement confronting their own storms, and the cliched lost high school girlfriend relationship...but I only thought about those things afterward. While I was watching it everything worked perfectly. So maybe it's not a perfect film but the performances (by everyone) more than make up for any flaws in the script.
Five out of five stars for The Judge.

October 12, 2014

Movie Review: Gone Girl *

Gone Girl, the movie that wouldn't be gone. When I thought it was going to end it just kept going, and getting more and more far-fetched. And when I thought, "Ah,'s the ending...," nope, not a chance. Just cut to a new scene to annoy me even more.
Two and a half hours is a little too long for even a good movie but for a bad one it's an eternity.
The screenplay closely follows the book (it's written by Gillian Flynn, the author of the book) and that, for me, is unfortunate. Like the book it started out really engaging and then it degenerated into something so preposterous that people were actually laughing.
It's very melodramatic, particularly Rosamond Pike's performance. I didn't buy her character at all.
Ben Affleck, on the other hand, plays his character with just the right amount of authenticity and subtlety. I liked his character better in the movie than in the book, so the one star I'm giving this film is for his performance.
If you loved the book you'll love the movie. If you didn't, you won't.
One out of five stars for Gone Girl.

October 11, 2014

A Marathon By Mistake

Every year at Chicago Marathon time I'm a little wistful that I'm not running it. Then I remember how much time it takes to train for a marathon and I'm happy to just go out and cheer them on.
Chicago was my first of eight marathons, and my slowest - 4 hours 25 minutes - but still respectable, right? I was just happy I finished - I hadn't meant to run the damn thing. Truly.
Here's an article I wrote about it some years ago which was published by

A Marathon by Mistake
by Samantha Hoffman
I didn't mean to run the Chicago Marathon. Really. I was actually training for Honolulu which was in December. I was training with two of my friends and since we live in Chicago and that marathon was six weeks earlier than Honolulu we decided to use it as a training run. We registered with the intention of only doing 20 miles of it. We had been training well. We had already done a 20. Just one. The first 20 of my life. I was prepared for another.
Sal, Don and I began side by side, all feeling good, pumped by the excitement and the spectators and the electricity of a marathon, our feet moving as one. The butterflies in my stomach flitted off after the first half mile and I settled in, comfortable. We chatted a little and checked each other’s progress as the miles passed. We basked in the admiration of the people along the route who applauded us and shouted encouragement, feeling a little sheepish knowing we were only doing 20 miles. We felt a little like impostors.
Ten went by fairly quickly. We smiled at each other as we reached the half, still feeling good, still together. 14, 15…I started feeling tired but still psyched knowing we only had five to go. At 17 my legs tightened up, my muscles ached, my enthusiasm waned. Sal and Don seemed strong, uncomplaining. As we passed 18 I was losing it and said I needed to walk a bit. "You guys go on," I said. "You sure?" they asked, concerned. "Tired, sore," I gasped. "I just need to walk a bit."
They went on while I grabbed some water and drank it down and walked for several minutes. Okay, I thought, I can run again now and I did, my muscles protesting hugely as I started. As I reached 20 I started looking around for my training partners but they were nowhere in sight. And as I looked further I realized that this was definitely not a good place to stop. There would be no taxis in this neighborhood as I thought longingly of the dollar bills nestled in the holder velcroed to my shoe. So I continued on, plodding, my hips as sore and tight as I had ever felt them. Six more miles to go to end this madness. How did I get myself into this?
21, 22…jeez, still four miles to go. It stretched before me like forever. I walked some but when I did it was so difficult to start up again. My muscles clamped up immediately and I felt like I had been severely beaten. My goal was just to keep moving, to get this stupidity over with. Sometime around 23 I saw a welcomed familiar sight ahead of me: Don in his red shorts. He was walking. He was like a mirage, I was so happy to see him. Seeing him was a lifeline to me. I caught up to him. "Oh man," was all he said when he saw me.
For the next 3.2 miles we ran and walked, encouraging each other, comparing pain, slowing when the other needed rest. 26 miles. "We’re there," we said to each other and smiled through the haze of pain we were feeling. "Ok," Don said, "just point two to go." We all but dragged each other across the finish line and gave each other a big sweaty hug after our medals were bestowed upon us. I was crying and they weren’t tears of joy. They were tears of sheer pain. God, I thought, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
We found Sal and other friends on the sidelines and they hugged us and congratulated us, excited by our accomplishment. But I wasn’t so excited. I was too tired, too sore, I could barely move. Someone said, "Well, Sam, are you ready for Honolulu?" and I stared incredulously. "Honolulu? Fuck Honolulu," I said. "I’m never doing this again."
That was four years ago. I went on to run Honolulu that year, six weeks later (which I wouldn’t recommend), and I am now training for my 8th marathon. I never would have believed it if you had told me then. But the next day I felt a euphoria that I had never felt before. Something about that accomplishment gets into your blood. Something about that accomplishment makes you feel a special pride that I have found in nothing else. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to say, "I have run a marathon."
Copyright © 1998, All rights reserved.
Commercial use or redistribution in any form, printed or electronic, is prohibited.

October 3, 2014

Concert Review: Fleetwood Mac

I think Fleetwood Mac had more fun last night than we did, and that's going some because they were glorious and the audience was wildly appreciative. Most everyone stood throughout the entire concert and that's saying a lot for a whole bunch of mostly old folks.
Mick Fleetwood, John McVie, Lindsay Buckingham, Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie were together for the first time in 16 years, and they were all in fine form and voice. Maybe their voices aren't as rich as they once were, and maybe their range is not quite so wide, but I don't think anyone felt cheated. Buckingham was tirelessly crazy; running around the stage like a 20-year-old, playing a ferocious guitar while skipping, singing, taking a turn on Mick's cymbals.
Stevie's spins weren't as fervent as they once were (you don't want to break a hip, after all) but the audience loved what she gave us.

They changed the arrangement a bit on You Make Loving Fun, one of the first songs, to accommodate her more limited range, but I didn't notice it so much on subsequent songs, so maybe she was just warming up. And her voice isn't as pure as it once was but whatever, Stevie was Stevie and we got what we came to see. She was beautiful and magical.
It felt like they didn't want to leave the stage. The concert ended, then the cell phones came out (remember when they were lighters?), then they came back and played a couple more numbers, then left again. Then one of them came out and talked a little, then they brought out a baby grand and Christine sang Songbird, lovely and quiet with only Lindsay for accompaniment, then Mick brought out two little girls who you were sure were his grandkids and he introduced them as his daughters! Who knew?
Then they were done.
We weren't.
Five out of five stars for Fleetwood Mac.

September 27, 2014

Movie Review: This is Where I Leave You *****

You know how you read a book you really love and then they make a movie of it and the movie really sucks? Well, I'm happy to say that doesn't happen with one of my favorite books, Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You. Yay!
I wrote a review of the book a few years ago (read it here) because when I finished it I turned back to page one and read it again. That doesn't happen very often and it's so fun when it does.
Tropper's writing is what I look for in an author: accessible, engaging, poignant and witty - the perfect storm for fiction. He wrote the screenplay, and that's probably in large part why the movie works so well, but it's also because of the great casting (I love Jason Bateman), and wonderful acting and directing.
In general, books are way better than the movies that come from them, but once in a while it's the other way around - Winter's Bone comes to mind; a convoluted, complicated, confusing book but a beautifully told and gripping movie - but mostly you're just happy if the movie does a little justice to its source. This one goes one better. This is Where I Leave You is like seeing the characters walk off the page. And of course the dialogue is witty and Tropper-like.
Full disclosure: This is not really a five star movie - it's not perfect - but because I liked the book so much and the film didn't ruin it, it gets five out of five stars from me.

September 6, 2014

Writing Tip: How to Write a Sensitive Critique

From my friends at Writer Unboxed.
Don't forget to register for the Writer Unboxed Unconference coming up in November in Salem, MA. I'll be there. It’s going to be a blast!
CLICK HERE to read the rest.

September 4, 2014

Writing Tip: Five Ways to Get Un-Stuck

Working on a novel or short story and can't figure out how to get your characters out of (or into) a particular situation? Or how to move the story forward, or...just can't figure out what happens next?
Here are five ways to get un-stuck:
1. Read something by someone whose work you love. Inspiration comes from reading the works of others - not to copy, of course, but to stimulate the creative juices. Reading is why most of us became writers in the first place.
2. Create a Pinterest board for this thing you're working on and populate it with images that resonate with your story - inspiration will come with the visuals. Here's my Pinterest board for The Ones You Left Behind.
3. Walk away for a little while. Go for a walk, see a movie, work on something new, clean the refrigerator. Distance helps create a new perspective. It can be an hour, a day, a week or longer. Whatever works for you. It'll still be there when you come back and then you'll see it with a fresh eye.
4. Give yourself permission to move ahead in the story and come back later to the problem area. It's tough for me not to write in a linear fashion. I want all my ducks in a row. But it doesn't always work so I give myself permission to jump ahead. Oftentimes, that gets me unstuck for the previous scene. And progress is always exhilarating.
5. Kill off one of your characters. Add a car chase. Shake things up. It might get you somewhere you never planned on going and isn't that the best part of writing? The things that happen on the page that just appear out of nowhere?
Just enjoy the process. You're a writer!

August 24, 2014

What to Eat When It's Hot and Humid

I've been enjoying this relatively cool summer but now we're in the middle of a hot and humid spell so I've pulled out my stand-by meals: ceviche and gazpacho. No ovens need apply, no burners necessary - all that's required is a chopping block and a fridge.
Here you go. Keep cool!

8 servings
1 lb. firm fish like tilapia, salmon, cod or other very fresh fish, cut into ½” dice (scallops and shrimp are also good in this - leave the scallops raw but cook the shrimp and add at the last minute)
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced, or hot sauce to taste
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ cup diced red onion
1 tbsp minced cilantro
½ tsp salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
1 avocado, cut into ¾” dice, optional
1 ripe tomato, cut into ¾” dice, optional

Combine all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl; marinate 1 hour in refrigerator.

1/4 of day-old baguette, crusts removed, coarsely chopped
2 pounds vine-ripe medium tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 small kirby cucumbers, coarsely chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups tomato juice or water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1/2 lemon, juiced

Soak the bread in 1 cup of water for 5 minutes, and then squeeze out the excess water. Place the bread in a blender or food processor; add the tomatoes, cucumbers, bell pepper, onion, and garlic. Puree the ingredients until almost smooth, leaving a little texture. Pour the vegetable mixture into a large bowl; stir in the tomato juice, sugar, paprika, salt, pepper, vinegar, oil, parsley, and lemon juice until well combined. Refrigerate the soup for at least 2 hours until very well chilled; the flavors will develop as it sits.
Season the gazpacho again with salt and pepper before serving.


August 23, 2014

Writing Tip: Improve Your Writing With a Critique Group

Critique groups are one of the best ways of improving your writing. As a novelist I can, and do, edit my own manuscript. Of course. That's part of the process. But that only works to a point. I've lived with this novel-in-progress and these words for a long time and even if I step away for a week or two I'm unable to distance myself in the same way that fresh eyes and a fresh perspective would. I assume things are on the page because they were in my head when I wrote those words, but not all of that makes its way into the story. 
That's where your readers come in. 
If you have friends who read your work in progress, know that they will tell you it's wonderful, even if they swear to be honest. And that's great to hear but it won't help your writing career.
Lesson one: friends will mostly NOT BE honest. They won't want to hurt your feelings and they won't want to presume to tell you how to write. 
Honest, informed feedback is what you need and the best way to get that is through a critique group. They're not all that easy to find but when you find a good one DON'T LET IT GO!
Last year at the Chicago Writers Conference I was on a panel of authors talking about the writing process and the discussion came around to critique groups. I espoused the benefits of being in one, and bemoaned the fact that the group I'd been in had fallen apart, and that I'd been unable to find a new one. After the panel a man came up to me and invited me to join his group. And right behind him were two women who said they were both writing novels and wanted to start a group, and would I join them. 
Well, I joined both! I've been with them for nearly a year now and they are very different and both are fabulous! And my book is that much better because of their feedback.
How do you find a critique group? Network; ask your writer friends, post something on your Facebook or Twitter page, go to writing conferences and talk to people (The Chicago Writers Conference is coming up in October) or look online - if you can't find an in-person group, find a virtual one. 
Critiquing is an art, on the receiving end and on the giving end, so next time I'll post some tips for how to do it in a way that's beneficial to all involved.
Meanwhile, here's a quick little guide:

August 19, 2014

Movie Review: The Hundred Foot Journey ***

The Hundred Foot Journey is a pleasant journey, just not a great one. But I think I liked this film more than I expected to.
With Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey as producers it's almost compulsory that we not only feel good but also that we learn some important life lessons. And the messages are here, if a touch in-your-face. I'm a big fan of subtlety in film (and in books and in life, in fact); of giving your audience some credit for intelligence, and there's none of that here but it's a mostly pleasant two hours.
Parts of the story are sweet, parts are funny, parts are boring, parts are heart-warming. There's a section in the middle where I was checking my watch (maybe I should change my rating system to watches instead of stars), and if that middle part had ended up on the cutting room floor it would have been a much stronger film. That said, the ending brought me back to the emotional core of the story so I left with a good feeling.
The story is a bit too pat and predictable, and the story arcs are too obvious but the performances are good and it's beautifully photographed.
Three stars out of five for The Hundred Foot Journey.

August 16, 2014

Writing Tip: Helpful Editing Tricks

Most of the Stuff You Need to Know to Edit Your Manuscript

By Bill Ferris

Look, I don’t want to imply there’s anything wrong with your book. I’m just saying that if your first draft was a masterpiece, your second draft will be like Wuthering Heights and The Brothers Karamazov glued together. Here’s how you can turn your hunk of clay of a first draft into the Mona Lisa.
  • Buy a blue pencil. You’ll need it to write down the snacks you’ll wanna buy for your next editing session.
  • Print two hard copies of the manuscript. The first is so you can make your edits on paper like God intended. The second is for years later when the Smithsonian comes asking if you have any memorabilia they could display.
  • Buy books on editing. This article makes them all obsolete, of course, but they’ll look great on your bookshelf. “Ooh, this writer apparently knows a thing or two about editing!” they’ll say. “Look at all those books!”
If you ask an editor if they’re a scammer, legally they have to tell you or it’s edtrapment.
  • Trim the fat. Nobody wants to read a flabby manuscript. Take out unnecessary words, as well as all references to fried foods and soda.
  • Murder your darlings. One of the most useful bits of writing advice, it’s a figure of speech that means that in your novel, you must kill a beloved pet, love interest, or small child. It’s hard, but I didn’t make the rules.
  • While you’re at it, let some of your minor characters know you might bump off a few of them, too, if they don’t start adding more to the story. Do this out loud.

August 4, 2014

Movie Review: Get On Up **

The biopic of James Brown is, if you can imagine it, kind of boring. Other than the wild wigs and temper tantrums it's just a bunch of vignettes from different periods in his life which are supposed to show us who he was but ultimately the script doesn't dig very deeply, just preaches at us about what a genius he was, and what an asshole, all at the same time. It should be an emotionally gripping story. Unfortunately it's not.
The story moves back and forth in time in a confusing and annoying way, sometimes with a title and date across the screen, other times with his hairstyle being the only clue to where we are in the film.
Apparently he was a wife beater but that comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly. And were those kids all his and when did that happen? It's possible I fell asleep.
Chadwick Boseman is purely awful in the part, his ever-present grin (except when he's abusing people or firing his band) passing for emotion. He's on the edge of the character, doesn't seem all that interested so why should I be? Or maybe he's trying too hard. Either way, it didn't work for me.
Dan Ackroyd, as his manager or financial guy or whoever the hell he is (I didn't care) plays the role as if he's just come out of Acting 101, and Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are wasted here.
There's a device that's used occasionally throughout the film where the character looks at, or talks to, the camera, which is annoying and kind of shtick-y, for no purpose.
Awful. I didn't leave but I can't say why not.
Two stars out of five for Get On Up.

August 2, 2014

Recipe: Potato, Onion, Mushroom Fritatta

This is for you, Jan Lewis, who asked me to post the recipe for my fritatta.
In a 9" or 10" pan, heat olive oil (or bacon fat, or whatever your favorite fat is), add  a chopped onion, three small (or one large) chopped potatoes (all about 1/2" dice) and about a tablespoon of minced garlic. Add salt and pepper and sauté over medium-high heat until the potatoes are lightly browned on the outside and tender in the middle.
Add a handful of chopped mushrooms (or any other veggies in your fridge) and sauté a couple minutes more.
Meanwhile, beat six eggs with about 1/4 cup of cream, add 1/4 cup of shredded cheese (whatever kind you like), and add any herbs and spices you like. I added a pinch of herbs de Provence, a bit of nutmeg and a little more s&p. Put the pan in a 375 oven and bake for about 20-25 minutes. Then put it under the broiler until it's lightly browned. Watch it closely - it'll only take 3-4 minutes.
Then chow down.
Quick, easy and yummy. Good reheated or at room temp.

July 28, 2014

Movie Review: Magic in the Moonlight **

Unfortunately, the magic is missing in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight. But here's what I like about it: it's only 98 minutes long.
Set in the 1920s, it's beautiful to watch and the costumes are exquisite. Colin Firth's performance is competent but he doesn't have much of a role to work with. Emma Stone is cute and appealing but overplays her part. The minor characters were much more fun to watch, except that I didn't really care what happened to any of them.
It's boring.
The script doesn't give the audience credit for any intelligence so just in case one would miss the themes of magic vs. reality or rationality vs. romance, all these concepts are spoken in dialogue like a big sign saying, "Just in case you don't know what the hell's going on..."
But the central point in this film is that 50ish Stanley (Colin Firth) falls in love with (Sophie) Emma Stone who is 25.
Remind you of anyone?
Two stars out of five for Magic in the Moonlight.

July 27, 2014

Movie Reviews: Boyhood **1/2

Boyhood  **1/2
Written and directed by Richard Linklater

If you read the reviews of Boyhood and you are a movie buff you will waste no time rushing out to see this film.
Be forewarned: you will be disappointed. It doesn't live up to the hype. But more importantly, if you go into it without knowing the concept you will likely be bored to tears. So read on.
This movie was filmed over a twelve year period using all of the same actors, and we get to watch two kids growing up, literally, from ages 7  and 9 to ages 18 and 20 (Ellar Coltrane in the role of Mason - below). Great concept, right? Intriguing and unique (if Linklater hadn't already done the same kind of thing in his ho-hum but highly lauded "Before" trilogy). Unfortunately the execution doesn't live up to the idea, and it's mostly because of the writing.
We're not meant to see any major action, we're just meant to watch and appreciate life. Which would be wonderful if we weren't subjected to hours of tedium in the middle. I can't count the number of times I looked at my watch, thinking, "Oh my god, there's still two hours left," and "Oh my god, there's still an hour left."
I felt no connection to the characters, so I didn't much care what happened to them, particularly the mother, played by Rosanna Arquette, whose repetitive stupidity was just annoying.
But toward the end, when Mason graduates from high school I felt as if I knew him, and was proud of who he'd become, as if he were part of my family. And in the final scene where he's gone off to college (a perfect ending for an imperfect film) I felt hopeful for his future.
Boyhood would have benefited from editing. It runs two hours and forty-two minutes and could have easily been told in two. Or maybe 90 minutes. Or maybe just the opening scene where he's lying on the grass, looking up at the sky and then fast forward to his graduation. Done.
Two and a half stars out of five for Boyhood.

July 26, 2014

Writing Tip: A Handy, Dandy Dictionary for Aspiring Writers

There's so much to learn in the world of writing/publishing, and Bill Ferris wants to help (from my friends at Writer Unboxed).

The Aspiring Writer’s Dictionary

Hacks for Hacks: Sense of humor requiredThe complexities of the publishing industry can confuse new and aspiring writers. Inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, I present this handy lexicon to
show you all the terms you need to know as you start your literary career.
#amwriting (slang): Twitter hashtag that signals the arrival of a context-free non-sequitur. Designed to make the activity of sitting in front of a computer sound interesting.
Advance (n.): a sum of money offered to a writer prior to publication; invariably smaller than the advance given to that one author you hate.
Amazon (n.): the Great Beast slouching toward New York City via free Prime shipping. Hey, the UPS truck is here!
Comic Sans (n.): a whimsical typeface derived from Latin sans for “without” and comic for “dignity.”
Aspiring writer (n.): what authors refer to themselves as when they’re blogging instead of working on their manuscript.
Barnes & Noble (n.): america’s leading retailer of notebooks, pens, and coffee mugs.
Beta reader (n.): a reader who sees an almost-ready draft of your novel before you show it to your VHS readers.
Blogging (v.): authors sharing writing advice with their audience, who presumably consist only of other writers.

July 23, 2014

Ever heard of Dupuytren's Disease? (Update)

I originally posted this in 2008, when I was involved in a clinical trial for Xiaflex, a new treatment for Dupuytren's Disease. Most likely you've never heard of Dupuytren's and are not interested, but since I have more than 140,000 hits on a series of YouTube videos I posted about my experience, this bears repeating. I recently had the injection again, so the update is at the end.

In Paris.
The disease is named after Baron Guillaume Dupuytren, the surgeon who described 
an operation to correct the affliction in the Lancet in 1831.

About 20 years ago I noticed a nodule in the palm of my hand, just a little lump. It didn’t hurt but I was curious so asked my GP about it and he sent me to an orthopedist who said it was an inflammatory nodule of the palmar fascia. No big deal.
About five or six years later I noticed I could no longer flatten my hand, that a cord had started to form under the skin on my palm where the nodule was. and it was contracting my ring and middle fingers toward my palm.
I went to Dr. Thomas Wiedrich, a hand specialist, who diagnosed it as Dupuytren's Disease (also called Dupuytren’s Contracture), a condition where, even though the fingers can’t be straightened normally, it doesn’t inhibit movement, flexibility or strength. The degree to which the fingers curl varies, sometimes so much that it complicates everyday activities like grabbing large objects, putting your hand in your pocket, putting on gloves, etc. The doctor told me it was common in people of European descent and mentioned Russian Jews in particular (of which I'm one), and that it is genetic.
CLICK HERE for more information.
As far as I could flatten my hand
prior to the injection - 2008
The condition didn't bother me very much but over the years my finger contracted more and it became slightly inconvenient, but never painful. My hand surgeon referred me to an orthopedic surgeon who was heading up a study to test an enzyme injection, Xiaflex, that was in the third round of testing prior to FDA approval. Up until that time the only treatment for Dupuytren’s was surgery, which might or not be successful, and had a very long recovery. They had had good success with the enzyme injection up to that time and so I got on a wait-list to be involved in the study.
The doctor heading up the study here in Chicago (where I live) moved to Detroit and the study went with him but I stayed on the list thinking Detroit wouldn't be too far to travel for the benefit of this new treatment. But then the doctor left the study so it took more time to move it to various locations around the country. When they called to tell me there was a study in Rockford, IL (an hour and a half away) and asked if I still wanted to participate I said, “Absolutely!” and was number one on the list.

Finally, after several false starts and stops, the clinical trials began again and in October of 2007 I had my first injection. I wouldn't know if I got the placebo or the real thing until this particular series of trials were complete, but I was very excited. I had the injection on a Monday, my hand was bandaged completely and I was supposed to keep my fingers as immobile as possible. The next day when I took off the bandages my hand looked the same as it had before, which didn't bode well since they'd told me to expect bruising and swelling. I went back for the “manipulation,” which is when the doctor stretches the hand to break the cord. They told me this would hurt but because it was a clinical trial they needed to be sure the results were strictly from the drug so they could not use any kind of anesthetic. 
Well, the doctor stretched and stretched, and it hurt like hell but nothing “broke.” It was evident it wasn't working, so the doctor didn't keep trying (thank god). It looked like I was one of the "lucky" ones who got placebo but that wouldn't be confirmed until all the results were in and they were able to open the records. I had three injections (the amount provided in this trial) and the result was the same each time. Nothing.

After my third injection I had to wait until everyone in this round was finished and they opened the study. It was eventually confirmed that I had gotten placebo and so, finally, on June 16th, 2008, I went for my first injection of the Xiaflex.
The injection hurt, but was bearable and only lasted a few seconds. They wrapped my hand and sent me home, and on the morning of the 17th I was able to remove the bandages. My hand was bruised and swollen, which was a good sign. Then I went back for the "manipulation."
Excruciating. The doctor basically stretched the cord until it "popped" and then kept doing that until it stopped popping, about 5 or 6 times. I'm not someone to make a scene in public but I cried out a bit when he did that, much to my embarrassment. Picture the seam of a garment with all the little stitches and then picture stretching that seam until the stitches break. That's what it felt like. I could feel each time the cord broke.
I had gone alone for this, thinking it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but it was very traumatic.
Fortunately that pain didn't last long. My hand was very sore after that but manageable.
It was swollen and tender for a while but not painful and after the swelling went down I could open my hand flatter than I'd been able to in ten years.
I had a month of recovery time and then I went for the second (of a possible three) injection. I went alone on Monday, July 14, 2008 for the injection but on the 15th when I went back for the manipulation my Bill went with me.
I knew something was up because I had more swelling than the first time, more bruising and it was more painful. I had hoped that it wouldn't hurt as much this time but I was very wrong on that score.
Bill stood to my left, holding my left hand and his arm around my shoulder. The doctor took my right hand and said, "Are you ready?"
"No," I said, "but let's get it over with."
There are not words to describe the pain. It was stunning. Much, much worse than the first time and I thought the first time was as much as I could bear. Again the doc kept stretching until the cord started popping and that first pop felt as if he'd broken a finger. I screamed. Out loud. So embarrassing. And then he popped some more and I was screaming (loud!) and crying, and my Bill was holding me so tight. He didn't know what to do. "Oh, sweetheart," I heard him say pityingly, through my fog of pain.
Gore Alert (not Al, the blood and guts kind)
While the cord was popping, so was the skin on my palm, and blood squirted out onto the doctor's lab coat. They'd warned me there might be a skin tear due to all the stretching. What I wasn't prepared for was a skin gash. I was just barely holding it together at that point. Everyone was very solicitous and feeling bad about inflicting so much pain (not that it stopped them from doing it). 

When it was over one of the doctors who was there just to observe said, "You deserve a lollipop after that," and I said, "I don't need a fucking lollipop. But if you have a morphine drip I'm all over it."
They treated the gash and then all the medical personnel left Bill and me alone for a few minutes. When they closed the door I just burst into sobs, out of pain, trauma and relief that it was over. I couldn't stop shaking.
Well, again they mummy-wrapped, gave me some antiseptic ointment for the gash and sent me home.
The morning after the manipulation.

It took about two weeks for the swelling and bruising to subside, and about three weeks for the gash to close up, and during that time it looked like the results were going to be really good.
A month later I went back for the 30-day follow-up and to get the third injection, if I so chose. There were about three minutes when I actually considered it because I could see there was still a cord there and I still couldn't stretch my fingers out completely straight. But when I was in the doctor's office and they asked if I wanted to go ahead with it I just could not go through that again.
So, while what I ended up with is sooooooooo much better than when I started, it's not perfect. But you know what? It'll do. It's really damn good and I'm very happy with the results. And if the condition worsens again over the years it's my hope that by that time the FDA will have released it into the market and I'll get it done under anesthesia.

These pictures were taken in September 2008, two months after the second, and last, injection. Pretty good, huh?

Here are the links to some YouTube videos I did while I was in the process - not of the injection or the manipulation, just the results. 
Video 1  
Video 2  
Video 3  
Video 4  
Video 5  
Video 6  
Video 7

It's now six years after I was involved in the clinical trials. The cord continued to contract my finger during that time.
As far as I could flatten my hand 
As straight as my finger would go
Now Xiaflex is on the market and the process is done after a numbing anesthetic, so I opted to go through it again.
Day after manipulation
I fully expected it to be a painless procedure. I was wrong. But it was much less painful than it was during the clinical trials, without anesthetic. Just not completely pain free. The anesthetic numbs the palm, where the cord is, but not the top of your hand, where all those teeny tiny bones are, and when the doctor manipulates the hand to break the cord he has to press on all those little bones. He told me he could be more aggressive in breaking the cord because of the anesthetic, and believe me...he was. But I'm a big girl so I took it like a man.
Anyway, it's over quickly.
Day after manipulation

1 week later

1 week later
3-1/2 weeks later

I'm very happy with the results. The recovery is easy and quick, unlike the surgery which is a very long recovery time and rehab.
I was encouraged to use my hand as much as possible after the procedure - it aids in the healing - and I wear this very high tech brace at night to keep my finger straight. Otherwise I use my hand normally.
The end. I hope.

My doctor is Dr. Thomas Weidrich at Northwestern: 312.337.6960