Monday, December 26, 2011

Of Forests and Trees

The EMT was framed in a now-glassless window. The night was filled with sirens and flashing lights, and it was bitter cold. “Hang in there,” he told me. Even with all his gear on, his teeth were chattering. “We’ll get you out soon.” I looked back at him and — after several failed attempts at speaking — managed to say, "It's okay. I'm going to write about this. I'm a writer."

I was seventeen. I understood viscerally then what it took me years to understand intellectually: that writing is a way of detaching yourself from pain. If you are reporting on an experience, you’re outside it. I’m not sure if all writers find themselves dissociating in this way when facing trauma, but I know I’m not the only one. While Susan Sontag was dying miserably of cancer, her son, writer David Reiff, says he refused to take notes on the experience of watching her, of suffering with her. “I thought that to do so would be to seek and perhaps gain a measure of detachment I neither wanted nor felt entitled to,” he wrote in a 2008 article for the British newspaper The Observer. “And for a long time after my mother died, I believed that I would not write anything.”

In fact, to create art that moves other people, you have to do nearly the opposite of detaching. You must actively attempt to channel strong emotions, represent them in some way, and pull your audience into the experience. If you’re not feeling it, your readers won’t, either. It’s a writer’s paradox: you need deep empathy, so you can feel what others are feeling and share it; but you also want detachment, so you can observe accurately.

A few years ago, I took a class in mindfulness meditation, which culminated in a day-long retreat at a Zen center. Nothing but silent meditation. All day. Our instructor taught us that to survive this experience without running screaming from the room (which does happen), we had to become expert observers. Whatever thoughts were in our heads, whatever itches were in our bodies, we had to accept them. Not react to them, not try to change them, but simply observe them. With six weeks of preparation, I was able to build up enough meditation muscles to make it through the retreat and even enjoy it. I was aware of my own discomfort, ranging from muscular cramps to highly intrusive thoughts, but I could simply watch these reactions. And they would pass.

From that class, I learned that writing and meditation have something in common: they are both about observing. Observation is the tool they use to bridge this paradox of extreme feeling and extreme detachment. By going straight into the sensation and then watching it, you are neither squelching it nor flooded by it.

Writing can be quite meditative for me in this way, which isn’t to say that it’s soothing. Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite. But it is about feeling and observing. Writing takes those two essential bits of mindfulness and tacks on a third: sharing. Looking back, I think one of the reasons I wanted to write about my car accident wasn’t just to distance myself emotionally from the situation, but to share the impact with others: to distribute the load. If someone read my story and had been through something similar, she might think, “I reacted that way, too. It’s not just me. I’m not alone.” And if someone read the story and hadn’t experienced anything like it, well then, he’d be that much closer to understanding it. Finding or creating bits of shared humanity, especially in distress, is immensely comforting.

So this is the ultimate challenge of the writer: to be inside something completely, yet able to see the whole thing in perspective, as if from a distance. To be the forest and the trees, at the same time.

p.s. Hat tip to Suze for her recommendation of the book "Nerve," which sparked this post.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Does Your Style Say About You?

What comes to mind when you hear mentioned the following directors'/producers' names:  Stephen Spielberg, Michael Bay, and Tim Burton? If you're a little bit of a director aficionado, then certain films and images come to mind. Here's what I think when each are mentioned:

Are you feeling a
little ghoulish?

  • Stephen Spielberg -- Has a knack for creating adorable and loving aliens, like the ones in Cocoon, A.I., E.T., and Super 8. He also loves creating sci-fi creatures that munch on unsuspecting scientists (Jurassic Park) and swimmers (Jaws) and pretty much anything that deals with World Wars (Schindler's List and War Horse). He's a bit of a softy when it comes to his main characters. Most often, when I see his films, if anything is lacking in the storyline, then throw in an alien!
  • Michael Bay -- Do you want something blown to kingdom come? Something that works well as a tent pole blockbuster (any Transformers film, The Island, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor)? Then Bay is the director for you. He likes to make a big summer splash at the movie theaters.
  • Tim Burton -- Ever get the feeling that the dead are watching you? Or maybe just some creepy guy with crazy hair and scissors for hands? Burton seems to enjoy the theater of the absurd. Look at just about anything on his long list of credentials -- Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks, James and the Giant Peach, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, or Corpse Bride -- and you'll see that he has a thing for the other-worldly part of life. And his go-to actors are, without a doubt, the lovely Johnny Depp and his longtime partner, Helena Bonham Carter.
Why, you may ask, am I bringing up these individuals? Because much like directors and producers of films, writers create their own style and voice. And those who do it well create a uniqueness to show how and what they write.

Let's try the above game with a few authors, shall we. What comes to mind when you hear mentioned the following authors' names:  Jodi Picoult, Nora Roberts, Clive Cussler, or Stephenie Meyers?

Never one to avoid
Meyers conjures up images of pasty vampires hanging out in a sunless Washington state. Picoult usually means a controversial subject of sorts laced with the threads of a believable storyline. Roberts creates a hit or miss atmosphere of romance (depending on which book you read of hers). And Cussler usually means adventure, whether in an airplane, on the high seas, or stuck somewhere in the middle of a desert. These authors have formed a style that reflects (or at one time reflected) their passion for the stories that have kept them awake at night, wondering what would happen to their heroine/hero if he/she married that man/sacrificed a kidney to save a sibling/got involved with the creepy kids at school/tried to get that bomb on a plane.

As newcomers to this game long won by the familiar names splattered across the covers of airport novels, we have to learn to make ourselves distinct. Style needs to reflect the writer's personality and voice. It also needs to reflect the audience. Take, for instance, writing a letter. One would use a different style if the letter was one of business, condolence, or complaint. We don't sit down and write the same letter to our dear sister and then pop the same one off to complain to the local dry-cleaner.

The same goes for your novel. Romance authors don't write in the same style (flowery and filled with visions of love) as would a detective author (find the bad guy and make him pay). If you want to be taken seriously in the writing world, take time to create your voice. Make sure your characters have what it takes to make the reader want to invest his or her time in the book. Have a plot that not only flows, but one that is also believable. Lastly, don't force something onto the page. If you think it feels like a seventh-grader wrote it, then so will every agent you query.

Writing is entertainment. If you're only entertaining yourself with the stories you write, then maybe you should rethink the writing gig. Let your voice be heard in a way that will set you apart from other authors, but at the same time not turn away prospective readers. It's a fine line to walk, but it's what must be done. After all, wouldn't it be nice to reach Spielberg's or Roberts' status?
Know your style and
let your writing voice
be heard!
Do you struggle with voice and style when it comes to your writing? What does your style say about you? If you haven't thought about it, then now's the time to do so!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Theatre of the Mind: An Underused Tool

This article contains spoilers for Oedipus Rex, Frenzy, Psycho, The Haunting, The Blair Witch Project, Life is Beautiful and Rendezvous in Black.

We live in a visual era. Most of our entertainment comes through sight. Even music nowadays needs to be accompanied with an eye-catching package (attractive singer, choreography, video with impressive effects, etc.) But there was a time when humans relied on hearing and imagination for entertainment. Think about the origins of storytelling; tales and legends were orally transmitted. Eventually, these stories were performed as plays (but notice how violent scenes happened offstage and the audience was left to see what happened in their mind’s eye.)

In the original Oedipus Rex, the audience never witnesses the moment when Oedipus gouges his eyes out after  finding out he is, in fact, his father's killer. The scene is played offstage and narrated by the chorus.

When radio was the latest technology, families gathered in their living rooms to listen to their favorite shows. Their minds had to “fill in the blank” and imagine what the actors and settings looked like. Thus, the audience became an active participant of the story. In Latin America, radionovelas were the rage, and some aficionados still assert that the actors had superior diction and performances than their successors in telenovelas.

If we look at the history of film, there has been a noticeable evolution from innuendo to goriness. The fathers of Film Noir understood the power of overtone and audience participation and used these tools to maximize the effectiveness of their stories. Iconic director Alfred Hitchcock was well known for favoring “suspense” over  “surprise.” He’s been cited with the following quote:

"There's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't..." 

One of the techniques Hitchock used in his films was to let the viewer “fill in” the details of a violent scene. He called this "transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.” Two examples of this technique are seen in the films Frenzy (1972) and Psycho (1960). Halfway through Frenzy, as the audience is already aware of the identity of the “Necktie Murderer,” Hitchcock presents us with a scene where the serial killer—in his most charming self—escorts a woman to his apartment. Before shutting the door, he tells her “you are my type of woman,” the exact words he told his previous victim. The camera lingers for a bit in the hall after they go inside, then retracts down the stairs, through the front door and out to the street, where city noises and activity fill in. The crime only occurs in the viewer’s mind. [Click here to watch the scene.]

In Psycho, Hitchcock takes us into one of the most famous horror scenes in film history: the murder of Janet Leigh’s character in the shower. But notice how we never see the knife actually penetrating the woman’s skin or any gruesome wounds. Instead, Hitchcock presents us with a series of close ups of the victim’s face, the knife, portions of her skin, the curtain rod and blood going down the drain. [Click here to watch the scene.]

Alfred Hitchcock was considered the "master of suspense" for a reason. He was an innovator  when it came to storytelling and many of his implemented camera techniques are emplyed by filmmakers nowadays.

Compare these scenes to the goriness of Saw or American Psycho. Another interesting comparison is the 1963 version of The Haunting versus the 1999 remake. In both instances, a group of people go to Hill House, an old mansion where supernatural activity is believed to take place. In the 60’s version, strange events center around one character (Nell) and the viewer is left to wonder if paranormal activity is really happening or Nell needs an urgent visit to the nearest psychiatric ward. The nineties’ version, however, is an expensive display of special effects and disturbing images, where nothing is left to the viewer’s interpretation.

Nowadays filmmakers rely more and more on “morbid fascination” to entice their audience instead of appealing to their intellect. Do we really need to see characters at their most intimate moments? (naked, having sex, going to the bathroom or throwing up?)

However, there are exceptions. A recent attempt to employ the viewer’s imagination as a tool is The Blair Witch Project, where three film students set out for the woods to find out if the legend of a local witch is true. Through eerie noises, witchcraft symbols and the disappearance of one of the characters, the audience must connect the dots and figure out what is happening. In the final scene, the camera pans in rapid motions as the main character frantically looks for her friends in an old shack. (Incidentally, this camera technique of mimicking a person’s gaze was pioneered by Hitchcock.) Bloody handprints, screams, footsteps and finally, the camera being dropped and laying still leads the viewer to conclude the movie ending.

Another example is the Italian film Life is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni spares us the grief of seeing the main character executed by German soldiers and we only witness his death by listening to the gunshots being fired after they have taken him offstage.

Undoubtedly in novels “the theatre of the mind” is more active than in any other medium, but very often writers “spell out” things for the reader, leaving little to the imagination. In writing classes and manuals, we are taught to use all five senses in our descriptions (visual descriptions being the most commonly employed). But we are rarely taught how important it is to trust the reader’s intelligence by leaving things out, or the effectiveness of not letting a character see, but only hear, what is happening and letting the reader roam the dark corners of his mind.

Film Noir writer Cornell Woolrich was an expert at this. (Hitchcock based Rear Window on Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder.”) In his novel Rendezvous in Black, a man seeks revenge over the five men he blames for the death of his fiancée. Every year on the date of his girlfriend’s death, he kills an important woman in the life of said men. Before the last “rendezvous,” the potential victim is taken away to safety on a ship (as the detective who’s figured out the connection between the women warns her of the situation.) The woman-in-question, Martine, is blind. When May 31st has passed and it appears as though she will be saved, she perceives a presence in her cabin. For seven pages, Woolrich extends the tension of Martine going through the motions of merrily getting ready for dinner to realizing the killer is in the room with her and there is no escape. Woolrich expertly describes her thoughts and movements in her dark world as she tries to figure out if an intruder is really there. When he grasps her hands, the reader is left to imagine what happens next. On the next scene, we learn that since the ship was traveling to Hawaii, the doomed date hadn’t passed yet and Martine has died.

I confess that in my own writing, I have a tendency to over explain. But fortunately, my beta readers point out these instances to me. As storytellers, we should understand the choices we make in our writing. Violence is, at times, an important component in fiction, but is it always necessary to use gory details? Why do you think filmmakers are resorting to the lowest common denominator? (the “morbid fascination” appeal). It’s true that we now have the most impressive technology of human history, but is it necessary to display it in every movie?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Go ahead, Kill your Darlings! On the Subject of Torturing Characters.

Most novice writers have heard the advice: “Make your characters suffer!” Aside from nudging us to give in to our most sadistic impulses, the advice seems a bit exaggerated. Should we, twisting the meaning of Stephen King’s injunction, “Kill our darlings?” What rationale deems it necessary?

We all understand the need to sometimes bump off a main character. What would be the point of The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote if their protagonists had lived to ripe old ages? Don Quixote would have ended in the madhouse, Gatsby in jail and Montagues and Capulets would go on feuding in the streets of Verona, until Doomsday. Death in novels always has an objective, to teach the reader (as well as other characters in the book) a moral lesson. Whether is Anna Karenina jumping in front of a train, or Sydney Carton climbing to the guillotine, there is a moral behind their death: It is a far better thing to die than to go on sinning or leading a dull meaningless life.

                                                  Gatsby´s murder

In Little Women, Beth March’s last days are a study in fortitude, but her death is also a rite of passage for Jo. After her sister´s demise, Jo grows more sedate, less impatient, and much more aware of virtues and values. Thus she becomes the right companion for worthy professor Baher. But Beth, Dickens’s Little Nell and Uncle Tom are boring characters. They are icons of suffering, archetypical victims. We don’t really cry over their woes. Because they endure their pain with almost inhuman resilience and resignation, we cannot identify with them. And that is the first good reason not to subject your character to Chinese torture.

We want our favorite characters to get a break, to get angry at life’s injustice, to fight back not to be beaten down and turned into martyrs. It´s why Jo March will always be more memorable than Beth. It´s why we love when Eliza hops over ice blocks to escape from slave catchers. She is the most outstanding character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, much more than the poor old slave whose name appears on the title.
Eliza's courageous flight
I particularly resent killing characters just to make another character suffer. Don Quixote gives a lovely speech and dies in his bed, but it is poor Sancho whom I mourn. His master has gone to fool’s heaven, but he remains on earth bereft of all the promises the Knight offered him, he has no island to rule, no riches to share with his family, no illusions. That is truly heartbreaking.  I wonder if Cervantes realized how unfair he was to Sancho.

Don Quixotes death
Was Hemingway aware of his unfairness to his characters in For Whom the Bells Toll? This classic Spanish Civil War tale describes the efforts of Robert Jordan, an American Professor fighting for the Loyalists, to blow up a bridge. The action takes place in a couple of days. Robert knows and we know that he´ll die. Therefore, we like him, but we don´t grow too attached to him

                                                 Robert and Maria

However, during this time, Robert meets a young girl named Maria. She has undergone every possible horror. She´s been uprooted from her home, her parents had been shot and she has been raped by the Fascists. Robert and Maria become lovers, he dies, and ... I am furious! What´s the point of making Maria suffer again and again? If at least she had been killed fighting alongside her lover, but to experience a bit of happiness and then greater loss? That is sheer cruelty.

Homer ends The Iliad with Hector’s death. Surely not an eye is dry after hearing of heroic Hector vanquished by Achilles who adds insult to injury by defiling his enemy´s corpse. That is sad, but sadder still is the fate of those left behind. And it took several centuries before Euripides dared to describe, in his plays Andromache and The Trojan Women, what Homer didn’t bear to do in his time: the fall of Troy, the murder of Hector´s parents, and the sorrows of his wife. Besides losing her man, Andromache has to see her only child tortured to death, while she is raped and forced to become a conqueror’s concubine.

                                                     Hector and Andromache
Bottom line, forget Hector (even if played by scrumptious Eric Bana), the one that really deserves our pity is Andromache. So I understand why Homer doesn’t tell us her terrible ordeal, or why Wolfgang Petersen gave her a happy ending in his film version of The Iliad. Isn’t that evidence enough that hurting loveable characters has a limit? Why advise it then?  There are those who claim that mistreating characters adds conflict and suspense to the plot, and suffering make characters evolve and grow. It reminds me of Victorian teachers who beat their students to make them strong.

I am the first to recognize Tolstoy’s genius but I don´t understand why he creates such a marvelous dashing character like Prince Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace, just to make him unhappy, and finally kill him. To me, War and Peace ends with Bolkonsky´s death. I don´t care about dense Pierre or fickle Natasha. I can’t share their happiness since it is based in Andrei´s departure. The author must have realized his blunder because he ends his novel, not in Pierre and Natasha´s domestic bliss, but in Bolkonsky´s son vowing to grow up to be worthy of his father.

                                                     Natasha and Andrei

I love William Styron’s Sophie´s Choice, and I love Sophie despite her victimization at the hands of her creator. Throughout that thick volume we see Sophie suffer everyday. Not only does she bear the scars of her Auschwitz past, not only does she carry a guilty secret, but she goes through a daily ordeal living with a pathologically jealous lover (and schizophrenic to boot).

Eventually, Stingo (the narrator) pulls her away from abusive Nathan, and offers her redemption, but Sophie, after revealing her horrible secret, chooses death. All the torments she has endured, including her part in the death of her children, have not made her stronger or better suited for life. Strange but her suicide is a relief, I am happy her pain is finally over. Is that what we get from torturing characters to the point of no return? We want to mercy kill them!

Excuse me if  for a moment I wander into self-reference. As a child, I loved visiting with my mother´s side of the family, a bunch of enigmatic but extremely generous people.  Once, I must have been around nine years old, one of the uncles offered to take me to see the latest Disney’s flick. Full of self importance, I informed him that I was “too old” for cartoons. Now I only enjoyed “movies so moving that made me cry.” He looked at me as if was demented. “Why? The whole point of going to the pictures is to have fun,” he said ”not to suffer.” I didn’t realize it back then, but all these mysterious relatives, who spoke in odd languages among themselves and had funny numbers on their arms, had seen enough suffering to last them a lifetime. Now they wanted their entertainment to be “fun.”

As serious readers we shun superficiality, we demand realism, we wish for conflict, we need to see our characters struggling against odds, but we also long for balance. We want our beloved characters to prevail, to be rewarded for everything they have gone through. We want a glimmer of hope! That´s “fun." 

Don´t you agree? Were you ever upset or disappointed by a novel or film where characters went through too much unnecessary angst or had an undeserved unhappy ending? As a writer how do you maintain equilibrium between chastising and rewarding your characters?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Cage of Myself

Pretty homemade bars
There was a time, not too long ago, when I loved to write. All I wanted to do was write. I preferred writing to socializing, cooking, and even eating. Which is saying something, because I really love eating.

Then something happened, and I still don’t know what. About a year ago, it became harder to write, and about six months ago, the writing machine in my head began shutting down almost entirely.

I am now at a complete standstill. I am locked in a cage of my own making, of my own mind. Somewhere in the depths of me, there might be a key — there must be — but that sucker is well hidden.

This is distressing, to say the least. I’ve tried various tricks to free my inner writer: reading excellent fiction, reading how-to-write books, trying out writing prompts, reviewing my works-in-progress, joining NaNoWriMo, and finally, simply forcing myself to sit down and pound out words. “Even if it’s terrible,” I said to myself, “do it anyway.” I granted permission to write crap, to write a string of nonsense words, anything. I figured if I faked it for a bit, my little prison might open. At least, the gap between the bars might widen a tiny bit.

I figured wrong.

This is not writer’s block. At least, not the way I understand it. Writer’s block is when you can’t think of what to say next, isn’t it? When you lack inspiration. I know what needs writing. I write in my head every night as I drift off to sleep. I already have a first draft of one novel mostly written. I’ve got an outline, solid characters, and a trajectory of scenes. It really should be quite straightforward. 

No, this is not writer’s block: it’s more like writer’s phobia. When I sit at the computer and open up Word, I feel nauseous. Literally sick to my stomach. Even the icon for Word, that little blue W, makes me break out into a cold sweat.

The stuff of nightmares

White Page of Doom
It’s not just with fiction, either: I got it writing my last non-fiction piece — and normally that’s work I can knock out practically in my sleep. I got the shivery-jivvers today, too, when I readied myself to write this blog post. I moped around the house for fifteen minutes, moaning to my family, clutching a cup of tea in my chilly hands, before I worked up the courage to face The White Page of Doom.

I never thought this would happen to me. I used to zone out at parties or school functions, daydreaming of my characters, desperate to get back to my computer so I could write more, more, more. I was so smitten with the act of creation; it felt like falling in love. It was blissful. It was maddening.

I miss it.

I’m not sure what to do next. Faced with a lack of alternatives, I’ve accepted that there’s nothing I can do. As I’ve watched the end of NaNoWriMo ticking by, I’ve hit a point of fatalistic ennui. A sad kind of acceptance.

But! There is a silver lining to my little cloud of writerly doom. I have a feeling, for no good reason whatsoever, that this phobia (or whatever it is) will pass. I have a feeling that not only will the ability to face the white screen come back to me, someday, but the joy of writing, the obsession of it, will come back, too.

I just hope it doesn’t take too long. I don’t want this cage getting too comfortable.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Mysterious World of ... Ghostwriting

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! No, silly. There's nothing scary about ghostwriting, unless you consider the lack of recognition many of the "real" authors receive.

Let's play a little game, shall we. Can you tell me which one of the following five books has been written by someone other than the name slapped on the front cover?

  1. Ronald Reagan:  An American Life
  2. Ecstasy and Me:  My Life as a Woman
  3. Tennis as I Play It
  4. Under the Pyramids
  5. The Hardy Boys:  The Secret of Wildcat Swamp
Unless you cheated and looked at the links above, then you might not know that all of them have been ghostwritten. (Here's a link to "The Top 50 Ghostwritten Books" if you'd like to see more.) Perhaps you're thinking about taking on the role of ghostwriter, or maybe you're searching for the perfect ghostwriter to write your self-help book, series, or memoir. If this sounds like you, there are a few things you'll need to know.

What is a ghostwriter?

According to Toni Robino's essay,* "Secrets of Ghostwriting and Collaboration Success," this is what ghostwriting boils down to:
❝...a ghostwriter gathers the author's original materials and research and turns them into a book, based on the author's specifications (if the book will be self-published) or the publisher's specifications (if the book has been sold through the proposal process.) Theoretically, although ghostwriters do conduct interviews and undertake additional research, they do not contribute their own thoughts or ideas to the content of the book.❞
Robino later goes on to say:
❝Do not overstep your boundaries as a ghostwriter by adding your own thoughts to a book, unless the author specifically asks you to do this.❞
Book Series:  Rainbow Magic fairy books are
all by Daisy Meadows, who is really
four women.
While researching the topic of ghostwriting I learned that the majority of what's ghostwritten can be broken down into three main categories:

  1. Book Series -- In this category, you'll see books from longstanding series such as The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. A more current example would be the Rainbow Magic series for grade school-aged girls. All of them are written by Daisy Meadows, but according to goodreads, "Daisy Meadows is the pseudonym used for the four writers of the Rainbow Magic children's series: Narinder Dhami, Sue Bentley, Linda Chapman, and Sue Mongredien."
  2. Celebrity "Autobiographies" and "Memoirs" -- Ronald Reagan's life story would fall into this category as would just about any other celebrity autobiography out there (grant it, there are a few who write their own life stories). A well written memoir or autobiography needs the proper writing skills behind it, and this is why many celebrities turn to ghostwriters. I found a little humor in a Wall Street Journal article -- "Fascinating Story, but Who Wrote It?" -- "Earlier this month, the Borders bookstore at Time Warner Center hosted a reading of 'Fall to Pieces,' a memoir by Mary Forsberg Weiland, the former wife of rocker Scott Weiland. As photographers snapped pictures of the author, another woman stepped up to the podium. 'Hi,' she said. 'I'm Larkin Warren, and I was Mary's midwife on the project." I think the role of midwife is an appropriate way of describing the work of ghostwriters.
  3. One of the biggest questions
    plaguing the free world today:
    Did Ronald Reagan really write
    his own autobiography?
  4. Writers under a popular author's name or author's novel series -- In this category you'll find long-time authors doling out rights to other authors who want to continue a series under the original author's name. A couple of recent examples are The Race by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott and Locked On by Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney. In both instances, Scott and Greaney would be considered the main authors, but in order for the books to sell they are written in a popular series (like Clancy's Jack Ryan series) and titled under the bold lettering of Cussler's and Clancy's names.
Can you see Mark Greaney's
name in teeny tiny blue?
Then there are those who ghostwrite just about anything else, from self-help books to short stories to cookbooks. But how do you know if you could succeed at being a professional ghostwriter? Robino says you need to treat writing as a business and the more you learn about running a business, the better off you'll be. Here are ten things Robino says you need to learn before going into operation:
  1. Assess Your Writing Skills -- The more published you are the better your odds are at landing a deal.
  2. Make Your First List -- Who are the experts you know and are they pioneers in their fields? Resist the urge to contact these individuals until you are professionally prepared for your meeting.
  3. Prepare a Professional Package -- This should include your resume, bio, services you offer, writing samples, and different styles and topics.
  4. Set Your Rates -- Know how fast you can write a final copy, and remember the chapter isn't finished until you've edited, polished, and proofread it. Also, be aware of what first time ghostwriters make -- anywhere from $1,000 - $8,000.
  5. Polish Your Interpersonal Skills -- Practice listening closely to what the client wants without interrupting.
  6. Know When to Run -- Not every book will be a good match.
  7. Close the Deal -- Make sure you sign that contract and don't be afraid to ask questions.
  8. Capture the Author's Voice -- I good way to get a sense of the author's voice is through taped interviews.
  9. Create and Keep Deadlines -- Stay accountable to the deadline.
  10. Ask for Referrals -- The best way to market yourself is through word of mouth marketing from clients who are satisfied with your work.
If you're still wondering if ghostwriting is a good fit for you, then I encourage you to read up on the subject. Toni Robino's essay is quite insightful on the matter and there is plenty of info out there on the web for you to devour. If you do decide to jump into the mysterious world of ghostwriting -- Best of Luck to You!

Are you interested in ghostwriting or have you ever done similar work? If so, what was your experience like? Would you encourage other writers to become ghostwriters?

*"Secrets of Ghostwriting and Collaboration Success" by Toni Robino can be found in the 2010 version of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents.

"Fascinating Story, but Who Wrote It?" by Joanne Kaufman was published in The Wall Street Journal on Dec. 1, 2009.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Time to open your surprise package!

Dear Friends and Followers,
I know we’ve been keeping you in stitches all week, but the time has come to reveal our great surprise (s).
The first has already hit your eye-. How do you like our new design? Feel free to comment.
Second as you may see above this message, we have opened a new gadget, a Sisterhood Forum. Come, visit us and learn what it is all about. We hope it serves you well and you turn it into your home.
Third. Now you may follow us on Twitter @DSWSisterhood. Become our followers and tweet us all you like.
And then there is a bonus. Sister Violante has finally decided to crawl out of her lair and let you know her true identity. Se shall be posting and replying in the forum under her real name “Maria Elena Venant”. For bureaucratic ad technical reasons (e-mail, avatar, etc.) she’ll continue to blog under her “Violante” nick. But now you know who she is and may contact her at or follow her at @malenav2010.
Well, that’s it folks! It´s your turn to comment, follow, ask, etc.
With all our affection
The Sisterhood

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Marriage of Art and Craft

I come from a traditional art formation. From ages fourteen to eighteen, I studied in the afternoons under a renowned painter in my country. We focused on watercolors and pastels, and did collective exhibits at the end of every school year. My earliest mentor was ruthless about color and proportion. Any mistake in our rosa cromática meant we had to repeat the entire project and no matter how much my girlfriend and I begged, we couldn’t advance to color pastels or watercolors (much less the human body) until our still-life charcoal drawings and color combinations were flawless. The word “repita” (repeat) became his trademark.

An early painting by Cesar Tacco. With the years, he became more impatient and would take painting “field trips,” where he would do a series of quick landscapes in watercolors (without preliminary drawings).
“Watercolors are demonic,” he used to say.

From my maestro I learned that mastering technique is fundamental for every artist. He believed that without drawing or color foundations, a painter could not excel in his craft, even if he would end up becoming an expressionist or abstract artist—the case of my late uncle, Ramiro Jácome, who studied classic art and slowly developed his style, known as “feismo.”

My uncle once told me that an artist never stops learning. (Photograph by Carsten Behler)

When I moved to the US to go to college, I entered the School of Fine Arts, but things were quite different here. The focus of most art classes was self-expression—even in the lower level courses. One of my instructors told me that the only way to produce art was if you had something to say. Otherwise, it was an illustration—a profane word that silenced the entire classroom and left the student-in-question red with shame. There was not a lot my eighteen-year-old self had to say about the world other than shyly pointing out to a couple of my peers that their drawings were disproportionate or too much water was making their acrylic paintings look muddy. 

Part of the evolution of an artist is to find his own style. In editorial illustration, the goal is to make quick and simple drawings to catch the reader’s eye (people don’t spend a lot of time looking at newspapers illustrations.) To me, this has been one of the hardest challenges as an artist. During the brief period I worked at the Illustration Department of this newspaper, my boss used to say that in order to reduce a drawing to its simplest form or “deconstruct” it, you had to be a proficient draftsman. (In Spanish the abstraction/simplification of a figurative drawing is called “desdibujo.” It is the aim of many editorial illustrators to achieve this.)

An editorial illustration by Pancho Cajas.

I believe that novel writing is not that different from painting, except that in the visual arts, an (accidental) mistake is a lot more obvious than in the written word. I didn’t always believe this. When I turned to writing fiction, I thought that because I was literate and had good ideas, I could publish a novel. With time and many bumps along the road, I came to realize that craft is just as important as ideas, enthusiasm and dare I say, talent. But like with painters, there seems to be a prejudice among writers that too much technique equals less art. They don’t realize that technique is just a tool to help them express their ideas better.

Let’s take a look at what Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa says on this issue:

“The mysterious thing we call talent, or genius, does not spring to life full-fledged—at least not in novelists, although it may sometimes in poets and musicians (the classic examples being Rimbaud and Mozart, of course). Instead it becomes apparent at the end of many long years of discipline and perseverance. There are no novel-writing prodigies. All the greatest, most revered novelists were first apprentice writers whose budding talent required early application and conviction.”
(Letters to a Young Novelist, p.13)
Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa poses in front of a "desdibujo" of him.

Part of the problem is impatience. We don’t want to waste time reading books about the seven basic plots, the hero’s journey, or a long list of rules (~shivers!~). We just want to write! After all, literature is not math, right? It’s not a matter of equations and formulas.

True, writing is not a science, but there is a method to storytelling nonetheless, a plot structure and archetypes which have worked for centuries. Wouldn’t the aspiring writer benefit by knowing why this is? (This is not to say that more experimental works of fiction won’t work, but like in painting, a strong foundation will give the writer the training and experience to be able to evolve in whichever way he chooses and find that coveted “voice.”)

If we want to be published we must come to terms with the fact that literature is not just an art form, it’s also a business (which equals appealing to a large group of people and yes, turning our thoughts and words into a commercial product). Like many art students I encountered during my college years, many writers seem to believe that novel writing should be unrestricted and inspired by an intangible source. One of my dearest friends and colleagues equates writing with having sex. She says too much explanation and instruction can “kill the mood.” I agree that spontaneity plays an important role in writing (there’s an undeniable magic to storytelling that is what makes it so enthralling—and addictive—to both writer and audience.) But I also think that, like in any other art form, we must learn how to use our tools and look at the masters (and our peers) to better understand what resonates and what doesn’t. This may mean having to put up with “how-to-manuals” and “rules” (all blasphemous words in the writer’s lexicon). Even if you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there may still be something new, a bit of undiscovered information that may come to you in your hour of need (or insomnia) and spark an Aha moment that may just bring a solution to your story’s dilemma.

Yes, writers of the world, art and craft can work together! The left and right sides of your brain are not sworn enemies, and information (even if it’s not applicable to every case, or even if you disagree) won’t necessarily block you or take away from your creativity—but it will make your writing decisions informed ones so you can create your own desdibujo. It’s not about NOT breaking the rules, it’s about knowing them before you break them and doing so with a purpose. Like my husband says: "You can't think outside the box if you don't know where the box is."

For more about my art mentors:

Articles about Cesar Tacco (in Spanish):

On both Cesar Tacco and Ramiro Jácome:
Pequeña Antología de Quito en el Siglo XX

Articles about Ramiro Jácome (in English):
Short Biography
Ecuador Cultural Essentials The Arts

Comprehensive analysis of Ramiro's art (in Spanish):

Pancho Cajas caricatures:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Coming a blog near you

The Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood Blog is happy to announce a double incoming surprise to take place very soon. Always looking forward to assist our faithful fandom (and to hook fresh followers as well!) we have prepared new and thrilling changes. What are those? You can’t even imagine! Stay tuned and in a little while your patience shall be rewarded.
To be continued…
The Sisterhood

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Nothing New under the Sun: Plagiarism, Literary Cloning or Inmortal Formulas?

Whether it deals with vampires, conspiracy tales, or the old-as-ages Macguffin, formula plots sell and are here to stay. Most bestselling books, films and even television series will elicit replicas in the never-ending search for sales and ratings. But do literary formulas grow old? When do they become immortal archetypes, and why some bestselling ideas never bring forth clonification?

There is nothing wrong about formula. Just call it “genre” and make it respectable. Without formula we wouldn´t have great detective mysteries, great love stories or complex genres like science fiction or fantasy. Details vary, but you always have the same ingredients. The art consist in combining the basics, and reaching out to an audience hungry for a story similar to the one that just captured its imagination.

Recently, I read that part of Boardwalk Empire´s appeal lies in that it attracts The Sopranos’ large fandom. All the producers had to do was take elements that had turned The Sopranos into a hot series and reset them into another milieu: Atlantic City in the Twenties. But not all winning formulas are ripe for imitation.

                  Boardwalk Empire o What if Tony Soprano had lived through The Prohibition?                          

Few television series have merited the accolades that befall on Mad Men, and yet one would expect a thread of series cloning that bitter view of Madison Avenue in the 60’s. Recently there were two attempts (PanAm and The Playboy Club) to recycle that nostalgic fad. Both have poor ratings, showing that mediocre reproduction does little honor to the real McCoy.

                                          The Real Mad Men: Beware of cheap imitations

But the search for novelty is becoming exhausting and futile. The Biblical proverb “there is nothing new under the sun” applies even to literature. Most fiction is, to some extent, formulaic. It’s why many of us have turned to fantasy, the last refuge of originality. However, even in Fantasyland you will run into the “copycat syndrome.”

We live in the Era of Fangs. A plethora of vampires lurks on our TV screen, in Hollywood blockbusters and hide between the pages of bestselling novels. All over the world, writing about vampires has become a lucrative business. As long as readers remain mystified by bloodsucking protagonists, the vampire formula will live on.  Universal folklore has plenty to offer in vampire habits and etiquette, so variations on the subject are inexhaustible. It´s why Count Dracula, The Cullen Family and Sookie Stackhouse’s paramours are so different, sharing only a thirst for human plasma.
                                    Eric and Sookie, a far cry from Dracula and Minna Harker.

The problem is that several of the current vampire yarns are too similar for comfort. Sometimes they are nothing but duplications of a successful novel, and publishers aid in the plagiarism scheme by even using the same marketing techniques. A good example is Claudia Gray’s Evernight. Its cover is a blatant New Moon's take off.

Some of us who do not care to read or write about vampires (werewolves are my game) just hope and wait for the craze to go away, because formula is not forever. The best plots have their day of reckoning.  There is an unwritten law that popular books (as well as film and miniseries) will spawn clones, but the formula can be done to death.

After J.K. Rowlings struck gold with Harry Potter, cutesy teen witches and wizards flooded the literary market. A plot centering on a brooding maladjusted adolescent that found her/his secret powers at boarding school was tried and tried all over again, until it ran its living time. Now, no respectable agent would touch a manuscript that deals with such a tedious, predictable and overly-tried subject.

Not all fantastic elements have expiration dates. The quest for a particular object, otherwise known as Macguffin (according to the late Alfred Hitchcock), has been around since the Holy Grail, and you may find it in all genres not only fantasy. Historical fiction, thrillers, adventure and detective stories twirl around various documents, parchments, utensils, gems and even statues, think of The Maltese Falcon. Although agents may clench their teeth at reading another tale of a magical object that needs to be found in order to save the world, the Macguffin has become an immortal archetype.

We tend to associate the fad of conspiracy tales with the publication of The Da Vinci Code. But secret societies, mysterious agendas and Templar mysteries have been around since Sir Walter Scott. A serious writer like Umberto Eco made a name for himself mixing all those elements that have made Dan Brown rich and infamous. But since Eco was considered a “high literature” master, nobody would dare accuse him of being formulaic or using worn out literary premises.

In truth, those premises are not really worn out; you may still refresh and refine them. Sadly not all writers do it. It´s much more comfortable to rewrite the same formula with just the necessary variations to prevent plagiarism. The main problem of this semi-plagiaristic craze is that it encourages sloppy style, mediocre storylines and cardboard characters.  That is why “formula” has become a bad word in the writing community.

The industry’s lame excuse is to cry out “the public demands it!” But we readers are the first to notice when our favorite themes are cloned mercilessly. For fifteen years, I was a bodice-ripper addict. I read and collected the best of the genre, eschewing dull imitations. Eventually it came to my attention that even some of my favorite authors were displaying signs of writing fatigue.

By the time I grew out of my obsession with the genre I was conscious that Rosemary Rogers’ heroes were all mean, chauvinistic pigs and her heroines were a bunch of promiscuous losers. With Beatrice Small, the boredom arrived when I found myself reading the same bedroom scene sequel after sequel.

Have you gone through a similar experience? As a reader,  how can you tell when even your favorite formula is growing stale? And as a writer, how do you battle the need to be innovative while trying to pay homage to that novel you so much love? After all, imitation is a form of love.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Show & Tell

They don't have to tell the audience there's a problem

“Show, don’t tell.” Writers hear this advice so often, it must become permanently tattooed on our brains. But what does it actually mean? When we tell a story, we are telling it. We’re using words, after all. So how can a writer show a story?

The trick I use is to envision my scene on a stage. I become a playwright. This prevents me from engaging in two bad writing habits: long-winded explanations, and endless interior monologue. The former is something we tend to do at the beginning of a story; we want to establish context, so we info-dump. But you can’t info-dump on a stage, unless you have a Greek chorus up there explaining everything (frowned upon these days). You have to present your story with action: characters must move, speak, do

Staging the scene takes care of another common narrative problem: the tendency to hang out in the POV character’s head, thinking, feeling, remembering, plotting. We have to do this sometimes, and the ability to do it is one serious advantage literature has over stage. But a little goes a long way: you don’t want to bore your audience. Forward momentum in a story comes almost entirely from action. Emotion needs to be dramatized as well: an actor on a stage can’t look at the audience and announce, “So, like, I’m angry in this scene, OK?” He has to show his anger with action; with his body, with his words. Put your guy on a stage: imagine how you, as stage director, would have him communicate his feelings. 
Your scene: here

Showing takes extra effort, so it’s no wonder we prize it so, especially when it’s well done. Showing draws the reader into the story on an emotional level, by encouraging her to experience it. 

There's a flip side to this excellent advice, however. As a young writer, I heard “show-don’t-tell” so many times I started to get carried away. By the time I’d demonstrated how very worried my poor protagonist was (studiously avoiding the word “worried” meanwhile, because that’s telling), I’d written two paragraphs instead of one word. My writing was becoming bogged down with all the showing. Showing is dramatic, but it can also be inefficient. Some things simply need to be established quickly, so we can move the story along.

I still struggle with this line. In fact, it’s probably my biggest writing struggle after "sit butt down at computer and start typing." What bits of my story need straightforward narration, and what bits need to be dramatized? There are so many choices to make. What about you? Have you ever been told you need to show more and tell less? How have you applied the advice — and has it changed your writing?

That's one way to intrigue your audience

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Five Reasons I Still Believe in Traditional Publishing

"That is one heavy bag of wishes you've got there!"
Nowadays, when it comes to getting your novel traditionally published, most writers believe it holds about as much merit as believing in Santa Claus. When we first start out, we dream of that instant success. We envision agents fawning over our manuscript, quickly signing us, even quicker yet getting us a publisher, the huge advance and, of course, that book tour we're going to take that goes from New York City all the way to the star-studded mania of Hollywood. But then we grow up. The shininess of this wonderland quickly fades into a swift-kick-in-the-pants reality. There is no shiny wrapped present under our tree, containing our fantastic masterpiece. This getting an agent thing is harder than we thought!

And so it should be.

Honing your craft as a writer is no easy task, to which just about any serious writer can attest. Sure, we write those first few crappy stories and we think they're brilliant, but then we do the one thing we were unprepared to do. We start querying agents. And we get rejection after rejection after rejection. Now, I'll admit, most agents give very little feedback anymore, which is a bit disheartening. And because so many first time novelists are either a) too scared to put their work out there for others to read, or b) so frustrated with the persistent rejections, they tend to turn to self-publishing in the e-book format.

I've stated before in previous posts that I have nothing against the wonderful world of e-books. I do, however, take issue with what's flooding the self-published e-market. If anything, a lot of what's out there is taking the writing world down a few pegs. Thus, why I still believe in traditional publishing. Yeah, you know -- the kind where an agent, editor, and publisher are involved. Here are five good things that come out of having an agent and being persistent when it comes to getting traditionally published:

  1. Agents work as filters -- For a long time, I couldn't figure out what was really bothering me about self-published works, but then I attended a writers' meeting where the speaker spoke on how agents function. They are the filter to a seemingly endless line of aspiring work. We may not all agree on what constitutes good literature, but we can all agree that when we've read a satisfying novel we are happy to see it was published. True, some junk still gets out there when it's run through agents and publishers, but it was never so prevalent ten or fifteen years ago as it is today.
  2. We are not all business men and women -- I cannot tell you how many blogs and websites I've read about those who took the self-pub route and just ended up frustrated. These authors came to realize that, although they may be good writers, they confessed that they knew nothing about balancing finances, keeping track of sales, promoting their book at every turn, etc. In one blog I read, the author confessed to so many sleepless nights over whether the book was selling or not that she became physically sick. Sure, we do have to handle much of the promotion responsibility now, but wouldn't it be nice to have someone extending a helping hand whenever you needed one?
  3. Agents are contractually bound to root for you -- You get your own personal cheerleader, otherwise, the agent would never have taken you on in the first place. The self-pub route can be lonely. You (and usually your husband or wife) end up being the cheerleader for your team. Your agent wants your work to sell, so he/she will be pushing, pushing, pushing to get it out on the market. Encouragement always helps.
  4. Other writers tend to take you more seriously -- Because the self-pub industry has become so flooded (and many of us have read some of those new "authors"), there's a certain kind of stigma that goes along with it. I've seen those looks some self-published authors get and I find it hard to take. And I'm just the bystander! The writing market is like any other entertainment market. We'd be hard-pressed to buy a low-quality rock album cut in someone's garage with horrible acoustics, and yet, self-published authors of all genres think their work should be taken seriously even if the work is filled with glaring errors. Until the self-publishing industry learns how to turn a filter on again, unfortunately, this stigma will always be there.
  5. Deadlines make it feel like a true profession -- When we self-publish, we have no real deadlines. We make them up as we go along. A real agent or publishing house is going to set limits on our time. They will want things when they want them, and that means our butt is going to be in that chair each day pounding out a manuscript. If, as writers, we want our careers to be taken seriously, then we need to treat them as such.
Like many of you out there, I've struggled with getting my work published. It's no easy task. The thought to self-publish has crossed my mind, but every time I feel there is something holding me back from doing so. And I think that "something" relates back to the five things I mentioned above. I want to be taken seriously, not just by an agent or publisher, but also by my peers and the writing community at large. Personally, I don't believe self-publishing is what it's all trumped up to be by the hard-core believers. If it was, then why do so many self-pubbed authors still crave traditional representation? Because one of these five points causes this craving. The luster might wear away the more "grown-up" we become with our writing, but there still remains a wish. And don't all of us want our wishes to come true?

Some basic light literature all would-be authors need in in his/her arsenal:

I'm asking for it! Give me your feedback when it comes to self-publishing and the e-book market. Do you still believe in traditional publishing? Why or why not? Would you add any useful points to my list?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

This is The End, Beautiful Friend*

Note: This article contains SPOILERS for the following films/novels: The Perfect Storm, Little Women, The Age of Innocence, Gone With the Wind, Love Story, Romeo & Juliet, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, My Girl, Titanic, Stella, Juno, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Lonesome Dove, Life is Beautiful, Inception, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz and several Nicholas Sparks’ novels.

They say all roads lead to Rome. Mrs. Margaret Atwood must believe this statement since a few years ago she made a very good point: there is only one authentic ending for any story. For her hypothesis, read Happy Endings.

Since not every novel can end with the death of all its participants (unless it’s The Perfect Storm), we have to come up with a spot to end the story before the inevitable happens. But where? At what point should we stop tormenting our characters and type “The End”? They say that a satisfactory ending is fundamental in storytelling. A reader will forgive a slow beginning or even a sagging middle, but NOT a poor ending. Sounds easy enough, but how do we achieve that “surprising inevitability” everyone talks about? How do we please our audience when everyone has different tastes? Is it even a matter of pleasing or making a strong statement about the human condition despite the audience’s expectations? I’m afraid I don’t have a perfect answer (in fact, I’m struggling as-we-type with the ending of my second novel) but perhaps a glance at different novel endings—those we have liked and disliked—may give us (me!) a clue of how to find the ideal conclusion for our masterpieces.

Happy, sad or just plain confusing?

Many stories end with the happy nuptials of the protagonists after they’ve overcome innumerable ordeals and tribulations. Other novels (most of them written by callous men such as Shakespeare, Nicholas Sparks, Erich Segal, Herman Raucher, Jorge Isaacs and James Cameron) end with the tragic death of one of the lovers. But what about those in-between/vague endings where the couple inexplicably part ways much to the reader’s astonishment and heartbreak? Would these stories have had equal success had they had different, perhaps jollier, endings?

Scene from Little Women
Good thing you're happy, Jo, because many of your fans--including this one--did NOT approve of your final selection and how quickly you forgot Laurie!

In The Age of Innocence, why did Newland Archer walk away from his beloved’s apartment without even stopping for a cup of tea after twenty six years of separation?

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Would we have still loved Gone With the Wind if Rhett had never said those infamous words? Perhaps Margaret Mitchell was trying to give us a clue of the ending with the book’s title.

I still cry when I watch this heartbreaking scene in Love Story.

But Sir William, must both of them die?

What if you’re not writing a love story?

It seems that stories that focus on one character’s journey or growth give the writer more freedom on how to end it. I’m talking about coming-of-age stories or those that focus on a character overcoming a minor or big flaw, such as George VI’s stammer in The King’s Speech, Forrest Gump and his low IQ, Juno and her unwanted pregnancy, Benjamin Button and his reversal growth problem, Vada and her strange connection to death and loss (My Girl). The commonality I see in these endings is that all these characters eventually come to terms with their problem and overcome it (all but poor Benjamin Button, who, let’s face it, was doomed from the beginning.) There is also an issue of “inevitability” here. Juno’s pregnancy has to come to completion as does Benjamin Button’s life. The question here would be: did the protagonist achieve his/her goal and if so, was the end result satisfactory? Did he/she grow as a result?

In My Girl, Vada had to grow up the hard way.

The self sacrificial hero

These are the kinds of endings that leave the audience in absolute silence at the end of the show or book (except for a sob here and there.) We love them, but at the same time they make us lift our heads to the skies and yell in despair: “Why?”

Not sure I’m brave enough to attempt this kind of cruelty in my own writing, but it may be worth a try. After all, it’s these poignant endings that leave an audience captivated. (Ever heard someone say “I love this movie. I cried so much with it!”?)

In Titanic, Jack gives up his space on a floating door so that Rose can survive.

In Stella, a mother renounces to be part of her daughter’s life so she can have a better future without her.

In Juno, the young heroine gives up her baby for adoption because she knows he’ll be better off with an adult mother.

Those twisted minds

We cannot forget the masters of suspense and film noir Alfred Hitchcock and Cornell Woolrich. These guys sure knew how to twist our expectation with jaw-dropping conclusions to their very dark stories. They didn’t want to leave their audiences with a smile. They wanted to provoke thought. They wanted to surprise. How do readers respond to unexpected endings? (Probably well since The Twilight Zone was a very successful show.) Current examples of this kind of ending are The Sixth Sense, The Village and The Others.

In comedy the only twisted ending I can think of is in Julia Roberts’s film My Best Friend’s Wedding, where the main character doesn’t get the guy. (But then again, maybe this was a “character-growth” story?) What are your thoughts on this? Is it acceptable to have a “unhappy” ending in a romantic comedy?

And how about those endings where the protagonist dies and another one must take the lead, like in Lonesome Dove or Life is Beautiful?

How very sad was the day Augustus McCrae left this world.

I don’t get it!

What about those endings that leave the audience bewildered and we need hours of conversation (or therapy) to figure out what the writer was trying to tell us (or a website with graphics to explain the story’s ending.) Click here for an interpretation of Inception's ending. I wish The Ring also had an explanation website!

Did that elusive totem stop spinning after Inception ended? Was the protagonist still dreaming?

Oh, crap, it’s not over.

Don’t get too happy that the blood and guts spread throughout your movie screen are no longer there. When you watch a horror film, the final scene (guaranteed) is a lurking shadow behind the only character left alive or a hand climbing out of the tomb.

Don’t worry, folks, it’s just a dream.

Need I say anything about these endings? Do the names Alice and Dorothy give you a clue?

Now to recap: What do you think makes a good ending? Do you favor happy love stories or sad ones? Is a novel considered more “literary” if it has a tragic ending? Do you mind predictability (good guys always win)? Can you think of a memorable ending that was unexpected or particularly touching?

* To enjoy the soundtrack for this post while you read, please press the play button.