Friday, April 29, 2011

Outline this, Moliere!

When I went up to Paris to study, I immediately joined an acting class. As a teen, I was reading lots of theater. Sartre, Anouilh, Ionesco… I had a thing for Moliere too. We studied him extensively in high school. They showed us this great movie about him. Writing, acting, boozing, loving and never ending parties. That was his life. And I thought… Goddamn!

Though, I soon realized theater was not for me. I was so shy, the first time our teacher put me on stage in front of a large group of students and asked me to embody the letter “O”, I rather turned into the letter “Aaaaaah!” Once, I remember, I had to play a romantic scene with a girl who was a professional actress. She was to tell me that she loved me and kiss me. It took me weeks to recover. And when I did, I quit the acting class.

I’m a book person. An apartment with a view, a laptop, plenty of snacks, lots of coffee and a cat called Claude, that’s all I ever need.

But my work with theater is not over. I still have to write outlines for my novels. And that, ladies and gentlemen, dear public, is my very own little theater.

Let me explain… everyone, silence! Position position! And… CURTAIN!

An outline is like a miniature version of a novel. A neat little stage where I can lay down my story and start acting it up. I’m like Chaplin, or Woody Allen, or Moliere for that matter, I always use the same cast: a boy, a girl, an army of unruly teens and exasperated adults. I distribute the parts. I tell them what to expect: there, a pod from space! There, a deadly alien virus! There, you parents trying to kill you! I tell them how to scream. What to think. How to dress. I choose the sets, the days, the nights, the speed of time and the color of the moon. I’m the stage manager, the set designer, the director and the producer of this show for exactly 15 pages.

When it over, the curtain falls down. The outline is ready. I send it away to my agent, to my editor hoping they will think it’s better than butter.

And if they do think it’s better than butter, I fill my apartment with snacks and coffee and cats called Claude and start writing.

Only writing is never as neat and controllable as outlining. The actors who used to be so gentle suddenly refuse my stage directions. They laugh at me each time I show them my great blueprints for my novel. They just snatch the pages, tear them, trash them and off they go improvising. My little theater falls apart. The stage collapses. The roof caves in. I realize that my theater was built right in the middle of a dangerous and unpredictable jungle. My cast abandons me. I have to follow them if I don’t want to stay alone in the ruin of my well thought plans. Together, we go into the wild and I just try to keep up with them, clumsily taking notes whenever they say or do something totally unexpected.

I wonder: Did Moliere have to put up with this?


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Love, Dating, Romance and other things I should research more

There are two important things I’ve learned during my creative writing classes at university:

1. You should always write about what you know
2. Any story worth writing needs to be researched

There’s a problem there for me. I write romance and humorous science fiction. My daily job includes Alien invasions, spacegirls, and distant planets you access by walking through walls down here on earth.

See. Nothing I know anything about! Nothing I can research if I don’t want to end up browsing through tones of documents proving that Georges Bush Senior is some sort of lizard.

Which leave me with the other aspect of my writing: romance!

There’s something I like to research. Extensively!

There are a few essential conditions to researching romance.

1. You need to be single.

If you’re in a serious relationship or married, or committed to anyone in anyway, you will not make a good romance researcher. Romance doesn’t start after the first kiss, after the wedding, after you moved in together, or after you made any sort of serious commitment. No, no. A first kiss, or a wedding, belong to the last pages of a romance (or the opening pages of a comedy, a drama or a tragedy). No, a good romantic story is a story of first things exclusively. First sight. First date. First acceleration of the beating heart. First kiss. First love. First "marry me, Josie!" The end.

So, to research romance, you need to be single, available, and have a very open schedule. And then, you need to date. A lot.

2. You have to be a good listener and know how to ask the right questions.

When you’re on a date, or just meeting anyone, try to focus exclusively on relationship issues. Also, in a spirit of fairness, let your test subjects know that everything they tell you will most probably end up in a book or a blog. So when they phone or email later to complain, you’ll be in a "I told you so!" situation.

3. Use your time efficiently.

Remember, you’re not looking for a partner. You’re researching! If you lunch with Anna, try to brunch with Laura and dinner with Enia (not their real names). In one day, you’ll have more romantic material than you’ll ever get from a Lifetime TV week’athlon.

For example, Anna will tell you that she’s obsessively single, meaning she’s obsessing about un-singling herself. She will tell you that decisiveness is the sexiest quality in a man. She will say that a real romantic hero is someone who is not afraid to say things like "I’m going to kiss you now!" or "I like you and I want to be with you." Though, Anna will also tell you that she just broke up with a very indecisive person who was also very bad in bed. This might just explain that.

Laura is in a more complex situation. She is in a serious relationship, but she just found out that her boyfriend is using online dating to chat with other women. So she set up an alias on one of the sites he’s using.  Now, she chats with him on a daily basis under the screen name "Natasha". "We never talked so much before. Now that I've become Natasha, he’s like chat chat chat!" she laughs. The only problem with her ruse: she got addicted to online dating. Hence the reason why she’s on a date with you!

And then there’s Enia… Ah, Enia…! You’re not dating, no no. She’s just a friend. But somehow, Enia is very open-minded about discussing relationships, romance, love… She’s like a cornucopia of good romantic data. But she's also absolutely lovely, and extra funny, and clever, and painfully attractive… which makes her a total professional hazard and the possible ruin of any given researcher (you).

Enia is in a serious relationship (ts! Shame… but remember, just collecting data here, okay). She’s in love with her boyfriend (typical!). But they fight sometimes. "He says 'go to hell.' And I take it literally and start packing my things getting ready to leave him and go to hell!" She nearly left him a few times in the past. "The secret to staying together," she explains while the waiter delivers your Baba dessert, "is to co-own a flat with your boyfriend. It makes it much harder to break up and walk away!" Ha. There you got it. Real-estate as the raison d'ĂȘtre for good romance. As soon as you leave the restaurant and part ways, you take out your notepad and write down this nugget of romantic field research: "the solution to a durable loving relationship is… location location location!"

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

9 rules I use to write YA fiction

1. I never choose my next story; instead I let the story choose me.

Why: because if it doesn’t choose me, I just walk around my apartment, eating snacks and thinking I should rather be a plumber!

2. I don’t start working on a story until I can summarize it in a single simple sentence

Why: to have a clear compass I can use anytime I get lost during writing and resume walking around, eating snacks and thinking plumbing would have been a very decent career indeed

3. I outline the story very precisely, and then I completely forget about the outline while writing

4. I let my characters act and speak freely; I never impose a line of dialogue or an action on them.

Why: because it’s incredible the stuff they come-up with when you let them improvise!

5. I stick to themes that were important to me when I was a teenager (romance, the on-going war against adults/parents, girls, rebellion against the machine, sex, the supernatural etc.)

6. I don’t write for a given audience or market. I write to impress the kid/teen I used to be, and I try to make him laugh, because he was a bit of a clown too.

7. I try to imagine three of four highly dramatic/climatic moments in the story.

Why: because sometimes, I keep writing just to be able to reach one of those moments

8. During the story, I try to transform everything from one thing to its opposite (the weak become strong, the strong become weak, the living become dead and the dead come back to life, etc)

Why: because a good story is always about something transforming into something else; caterpillars realized that millions of years ago

9. This is not a rule, but a fact: whenever I start a new story, I feel like I’ve never read or written a single sentence in my entire life, and I’m scared shitless that I will never be able to write ever again… and then, I think of plumbing and go back to rule number 1

** This is a reply to a post by Cheryl Klein of Brooklyn Arden, published there and there. Thanks Cheryl!