February 26, 2014

Movie Review: Monuments Men ***

The story of the men who recovered millions of pieces of priceless art from Hitler's grasp is an important one; a history lesson we should all know. George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Bob Belaban, Cate Blanchett, et al, are a pleasure to watch. All the elements are there for a great film, but unfortunately this one's not. It's good, just not great. The cute banter, the fantasy sequences (e.g. flying over Paris in a prop plane) dilute the impact of the story. But what spoils this film the most is the melodramatic score. Do directors decide on the score? I don't know, but I would think so since it's such an integral part of the whole. So, George Clooney, what the hell were you thinking?
The music is magical, it's inspirational, it's triumphant...in case you don't know what to feel and when, the music will tell you, and it destroys the impact of the very serious action on the screen. It made it feel like we were watching a Disney film. It drove me crazy.
Monuments Men would have been a much different film if the score had been less melodramatic.
Still, it managed to keep me engaged, and it moved me, Just not as much as it could have.
Three of five stars for Monuments Men.

February 23, 2014

What the Heck is a Presser Foot?

I asked this question of my book club (all ladies of a certain age, like me): "Does anyone have a sewing machine with a presser foot for sewing welting cord?"
Here was the response from most of them: "What's a sewing machine?"
Kidding. Of course they knew that but only one actually knew what a presser foot was. I'm puzzled - didn't we all take Home Ec in grade school? I think I took it in 8th grade, or maybe I was a freshman, I'm not sure, but I remember sewing the world's ugliest apron.
Presser foot
Anyway, do you know what a presser foot is? It's that pronged silver piece in the picture on the right, and it holds down the fabric as you sew.
Super-duper welting foot
And then there's the super-duper welting presser foot which my 40 year old machine didn't come with but I found (where else?) on the Internet. Amazing what you can find online.
Why I needed this is because about a year ago I redecorated: new sofa, new rug, new colors...and I bought fabric to recover pillows and my dining room chairs, just because I can do that kind of thing, and enough to also make a slipcover for an ottoman. I did the chairs and did the pillows, but the ottoman's been sitting there all this time, with its little disguise. Not that I was fooling anyone.
 So when I finally got my new presser foot it was time to get started. "Do you know how to slipcover?" you may ask. No. But the Internet does. I looked on YouTube for a video and of course I found one and voila! I slip-covered an ottoman, complete with welting cord. I'm so proud!
See how that Home Ec paid off?
Old color scheme
Thinly disguised ottoman
Here's a good start
Close-up of the fabulous welting

Almost there...

Cool, right?

February 20, 2014

Writing Tip: Writing Doesn't Have to be Lonely

I read post after post about how difficult writing is; how lonely, how stressful, how agonizing, how no one really likes doing it.
Here are just a couple:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ~ Ernest Hemingway
“If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do.” ~ William Zinsser

Oh, pish posh! Then quit it if you hate it so much.
Is writing a novel easy? Of course not. If it was everyone would be doing it. But what in life (that is worthwhile) is easy? Quit whining.
If you don't like how solitary writing is, find a critique group or a class or a writing partner. Not that they will sit with you while you're creating, but you have your characters for company when you're writing...be engaged with them; they're fabulous! If they're not, you can change them, find new ones, learn more about them, have a relationship with them.
And when you need real people around, it's simple...turn to your writing community. It is vast; it's real-life or virtual, it's one person or five or ten, it's in every bookstore and on every website. If you need people they are out there and the writing community is an amazingly supportive one. Just look around.
So now, it's time to get back to your writing, and enjoy it.

February 17, 2014

Writing Tip: Checking Your Chapters

So you've finished the first draft of your novel. Kudos! You're in a very elite group. Now that the hard part is done, it's time for the fun. Really...rewriting is fun! Your draft is the foundation; now you add the paint and the hardwood floors and the shutters and the furniture.
How do you know if your chapters are working? It's not that easy - we're so close to our work and all of those essential elements are in our heads so we think they're on the page. But maybe they're not.
Nancy Pickard
Here's a great way to check. It's a system developed by Nancy Pickard, author of The Scent of Rain and Lightning, and The Virgin of Small Plains. She calls it CASTS, and it's an acronym for a way to determine if each chapter has the elements that will keep people reading. It works. Check it out:

C Conflict
We know in fiction that there must be conflict on every page, even if it’s just a character wanting a glass of water that they can’t get. There should be a conflict in every chapter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be THE conflict of the novel, but in some way, you need to illustrate or explore something your character wants but hasn’t yet been able to get.

 A Action
There needs to be action in every chapter. You might think this is gratuitous. Of course there is action in every chapter, but what kind of action? Internal monologues won’t do it. Beautiful narratives won’t either, unless one of your characters does something during the narrative. 

S Surprise
Something in every chapter should surprise a character…and/or the reader. Again, this doesn’t have to be a BIG surprise. It could be something as small as a character discovering an object they hadn’t seen before. It could be as big as finding a dead body. Or the reader discovering that a character is not the person they thought he/she was.
Anytime a character says,

“Oh really?”


“Oh my God”

you have surprise. BTW, surprises may be hiding, and your characters don’t readily see them. Tease them out, reveal them in a unique way, and you’ll have more drama.

T Turn
This concept comes from screenwriter Robert McKee’s well known book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Even though McKee is discussing film scripts, Nancy says the principle works just fine with novels. The idea is that something needs to “turn”— or change in every chapter. Again, this doesn’t have to be a big change. It could be a character’s mood swinging from hope to despair or from fear to confidence. It could be as simple as changing locations… a character drives from the beach back to town. A character might change their clothes. Then again, it could be a major “turn,” ie an important plot reveal or event. But whatever its nature, a turn is essential for every chapter.

S Sensory Detail

This is pretty much what you think: a reminder to use all five senses in your narrative to describe your characters, setting, and action. Personally, I feel the sense of smell is underused, but it’s extremely powerful; so use it judiciously. 

Testing CASTS
Now… how do you know if you’ve used CASTS effectively in a chapter? Here’s a way to check: 
Get 5 different colored highlighters, one for each letter in CASTS. Print out the chapter. Then go through it line by line and highlight the parts of your chapter that correspond to each element of CASTS. If you’ve missed one, well, you know what to do.

February 8, 2014

Writing Tip: Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing

Editor's note: Elmore Leonard gave the Detroit Free Press permission to post his rules for writing on November 6, 2010.
1. Never open a book with weather
If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
2. Avoid prologues
They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday," but it's O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy's thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That's nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don't have to read it. I don't want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story."

February 1, 2014

A New Twist On Old Wives' Tales

Molly Campbell
Molly Campbell thinks it's time we re-think all those old wives' tales, and after reading her blog post I have to agree.

Posted on  by Molly
It is about time that we do something about Old Wives’ Tales. All those old wives died eons ago. 
Their tales no longer resonate with anybody. But we all need something to cling to in these days 
of the one percent, global warming, and falling real estate values. So I have taken it upon myself 
to give the world some New Wives’ Tales. You can thank me later. 
  • Feed a cold. Feed a fever. Feed a headache. Feed a divorce. Feed a traffic jam. Feeding should involve chocolate. 
  •  When in doubt, send it in a text message, because with caller ID, your children never answer when you call, anyway. 
  •  If your doctor calls you by your first name when you are naked, ask him to take off his pants. 
  • If you can’t say anything nice, then talk about the Polar Vortex.
  • You can judge a book by its cover. This is why it is never a good idea to go to a job interview wearing sweats.
  • Don’t hide your light under a bushel. Nobody knows what bushels are, so they wouldn’t know if there were lights under it.
    They would be too busy saying “What is that thing over there?
Read the rest of Molly's article.