A Novel Structure

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If you’ve read my novels, Four Wives and Social Lives, you know that I like to write within a specific structure. Multiple characters, alternating chapters, different voices. This enables me to keep the plot moving, connect readers with each of the characters, and intertwine several plot lines within one master story. It’s also a lot of fun! For one chapter, I can be scandalous and dramatic. In the next, I can be brainy and complicated. I can be a woman on the brink of an affair, a man lost within his own fabulous life, or a teenager caught in a dangerous cycle of self-destruction.

As I write this new novel, I am keeping much of this structure, but making one significant change. In this novel, I have a dominant character, Melanie Thomas, and I am writing her in first person. 

Writing in first person is actually quite liberating for an author. By providing a direct line of communication between the reader and character, first person narrative can be a powerful tool. Alternating between first and third person is also very useful, because it adds additional avenues for suspense. For example, an action sequence can occur in one chapter with secondary characters. In the next chapter, when the reader returns to the main character, she is desperate for this character to know what just happened because it (a) solves her problem, (b) saves her life, (c) threatens her life, etc. Wanting her to uncover the action that the reader already knows about provides a huge incentive to turn the page! Please, for the love of God, let her find out!

But alternating between first person with the readers’ favorite character and third person with the supporting characters can be tricky. It requires the reader to shift gears, to leave the head of the main character and process the new information that is being delivered through the others. The change in voice can also be tricky because it completely alters the tone of the book.

In this novel, Melanie (Mel) is a little flip at times, sarcastic, sharp-witted and discerning of those around her. Though she is a victims’ rights advocate with a lot of serious issues on her mind, she has a quirky suburban family. Sandwiched between two sisters, young, hip Belle and minivan-driving conservative Claire, she finds humor in the family interactions. Their mother, Judy, is also a colorful character. Having rediscovered feminism later in her life, she is outspoken and determined to influence her daughters’ decisions.

The chapters with Mel’s family are a joy to write because that’s what I’ve done for most of my writing career – pulled apart the relationships between women. The challenge for me is to not go so far into what could be considered traditional women’s fiction that I derail the reader from the main plot, which is the drama of Mel’s newest case involving the assault of a teenage girl.

I am 50 pages in now, and at a crucial juncture. Mel and George, who have been working the same story from two different angles (George is a reporter), finally cross paths. Here is my dilemma as I sit down (hopefully today if my kids stay put at their camps) to write the next chapter. Is Mel’s first encounter with her true love after 13 years written in first person, or third? Is it more effective to focus on Mel’s point of view, or is it better to have both of their reactions conveyed equally? If I write in Mel’s voice, George’s feelings will have to be disclosed through his actions and then in a subsequent chapter when we can get into his head through third person narrative. If I don’t write in Mel’s voice, or first person, then we will see Mel in a different light – through the eyes of the narrator (me).

I am going to face this same dilemma in every chapter where Mel meets new characters who have been in third person chapters. I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing, but I will keep you posted!

More later…

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Conversations with Christopher

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So my plan to get going on the new novel failed. It all started out fine. I packed the canvas bags, drove the kids to camp, went to yoga and headed home to start work. Then the phone rang. 

It was my oldest son calling from camp. He was sick. Coughing, sore throat. I passed the exit for my house and stayed on the highway. I called the doctor and made an appointment. Home at noon. Doctor at 1pm. Home by 2pm. He’s not that sick, it turns out, just very good at being twelve. Then it was time to pick up the other kids. Mom beats writer every time. The day was gone.

Fast forward and it’s Saturday afternoon. Kids home all day. Nothing to do. Granted we have a pool and they have each other. Still, there’s nothing to do. Except watch TV. So I pile them in the car and drive to Chinatown for soup dumplings at Joe’s, some plastic Naruto figurines and a gigantic folding fan thing. Home again.

I give in to the pleas for Han (computer game) and go to my hammock with the paper. Soon after, my youngest, Christopher joins me.

Christopher is 7 and he can draw cartoons like a professional. His passion is relentless. He sketches day and night and studies with a professional artist who teaches him how to make a character look “accessible,” or reflective, or mischievous. Not unlike life, one stroke can change the mood entirely.

Christopher and I often talk about writing books together. He will do the illustrations and I will write the words. The content of the story is always collaborative. We decide today that we will work on our story about the devil. We like the devil because he can have complex expressions and moods and because our devil walks the earth and must interact with humans. And our devil will ultimately have a conflict that pits good against evil and makes the reader think about humanity. What could be better?

The hammock is swinging back and forth, the night air so perfect we can’t feel it one way or another against our skin. Christopher shows me the book cover for our book, The Devil Man – a green devil with white horns and black pants. He is the most clever creature with intelligent eyes and a knowing smile. His stance is playful. 

“What’s next?” I ask him. “Should it be the part when he takes human form?”

“No, no, no!” my son says. “You see, in books, you can’t just give away the whole story. People need to find out the devil takes human form but first we have to take them to the graveyard where he picks out the body. Everything has to be in order and we have to make them have that thing … what’s that thing?”

I am speechless but I find the word he’s looking for. “Suspense?”

“Yeah! Suspense. So I’ll go draw the graveyard scene.”

He runs back inside and I suddenly feel better about the days when mom beats writer in the war over time.

Monday will be here shortly.

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Disturbing Things I’m Learning from My Book Tour

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My new novel, Social Lives, covers a variety of issues affecting super-affluent communities. I’ve written about them in my blog and elsewhere, but I have to report some disturbing new information I’ve been learning from my book tour on the issue of teenage sexuality. As a writer, this has been fascinating. But as a mother, it is nothing short of horrific. I am issuing a warning before I share these things – there is no way to avoid being a bit graphic. Just last night, I scared off a couple at a nearby table when I was telling a friend over dinner. Oops. Whatever. Get over it. This is the reality our children are facing and we have to start looking it square in the face.

So here goes. I’m going to write about blow jobs and anal sex.

From the group discussions I have been having about Social Lives and the issues that impact its characters, the following picture of teenage life has emerged. It seems that teenage girls believe the following: To have power in life, they must have power over men. To have power over men, they must have power of their penises. To have power over their penises, they can perform blow jobs. And if that doesn’t work, they can avoid the messy issues of virginity and condoms by having anal sex. Some girls are even going so far as to accept money for sex acts because this makes them feel even more “powerful.” (Read on about the book Toxic Wealth where this was reported.)

This mentality has led to some pretty deviant behavior. Take rainbow parties. Imagine your daughter invites some friends over to”hang out” in your finished basement. You leave them be, assuming they’re watching MTV or YouTube videos and gossiping about school. Now imagine coming downstairs to see if they want cookies and finding them boy-girl-boy-girl in a circle, with each girl bent over to the right, sucking on the penis of the boy next to her. Their backs are arched like “rainbows.” Isn’t that cute?

The reality seems to be that blow jobs are as common as making out used to be for old timers like me. Girls see nothing wrong with it, and boys – who are constantly let off the hook with the “boys will be boys” philosophy – are happy recipients. Add to this the fact that most of us parents hold knowledge about STD’s that is twenty years outdated, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Oral sex is rarely performed with a condom. Most STD’s can be spread orally – HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, herpes and HPV to name a few. HPV, in turn, is now proving to be a precursor to throat and lung cancer the same way it is to cervical cancer. Think about that. Girls are handing out blow jobs like candy at Halloween, exposing themselves to incurable diseases that could lead to things like lung cancer! 

Ugh. It makes me crazy to think this is all going on and so few parents are aware of it. Or worse, they don’t see the harm and are relieved their daughters are remaining “virgins.” What good will her prolonged “virginity” do if she gets anal HPV and dies of anal cancer in her late forties? Suddenly, the picture isn’t quite so nice.

At every book reading or book club meeting, there is someone who tells me something I hadn’t heard before. One woman I met, a local psychologist named Orla Cashman, co-wrote a book called Toxic Wealth that delves into many of the social dynamics that are perpetuating these problems. It was very enlightening.

And maybe what disturbs me the most is this. How is it possible that young women in this day and age  are connecting their vision of power in this world with wrapping their mouths around a penis? These are the wealthiest girls in the world. The most educated and well-positioned. They are smart, but can’t seem to figure out that if they marry a man who is rendered vulnerable by a blow job, they are going to be in a boatload of trouble when – years down the road – some young intern moves into the cubicle outside his office. Every time a mother tells me how teenagers think today, I find myself thinking really

When I wrote Caitlin Barlow’s character in Social Lives, I had no idea that I was only at the tip of the ice burg. In fact, I often thought about toning down the brutality of the culture she finds herself in. I’m glad I didn’t. 

I hope parents will keep talking about this issue because it is not going away. And if my novel helped spark a few of these discussions among glasses of wine at Tuesday night book group, then I am deeply gratified. 

To learn more about these issues, please visit Planned Parenthood.org.

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Speaking at Women TIES

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In just over a week on October 15th, I will be addressing 200 women at the Women TIES retreat in Skaneateles, NY. Women TIES. I have to admit right here and now that I am more than a little daunted at the thought of giving advice to so many women forging new careers! In fact, when the founder of Women TIES, Tracy Higginbotham, asked me to speak, I was not entirely sure what I could offer. My career as a writer and editor still feels new, and if the winding road it’s taken thus far is any indication, I hardly have a road map for its future. Probably not the best advertisement for those of you who are considering attending. But that is the truth, and staying as close to the truth as possible is one of the guiding forces in my career and life.

Soon after I accepted this incredible responsibility, Tracy asked me to send her my thoughts on what I would talk about. I sat in my makeshift study after dropping my kids at school and stared at a blank screen. Not an unusual occurrence for a writer, but still… at the time, I was awaiting the publication of my second novel, Social Lives, and putting together my next two Chicken Soup for the Soul books. I had just been in a little skirmish over the novel’s cover and was feeling as though all power over my career and my work had been lost. It appeared there was a great divide between how I saw my work and how my publisher wanted to present it to the world, and this left me consumed with doubt over my judgment, my perspective, and the body of knowledge I thought I had accumulated over the past several years from authors, editors and agents.

So what could I possibly say to other women facing the vast open territory of their own entrepreneurial ventures? Be afraid because this is the unknown? Listen to everyone but yourself because you’ve never done this before? Ignore your instincts because you might be wrong? As well as that surely would have gone over with women who had made time and traveled to the retreat, I was suddenly struck with another approach.

As I began to think about this winding road I’ve been on, the greatest obstacle by far can be summed up in two words: overcoming doubt. When I quit my job as a lawyer to take care of my first baby, it was there. Doubt. Something in my life was not complete but I knew I wanted to be home to raise my kids. When I decided to start writing with the distant dream of becoming an author, there it was again. Doubt. How could I become a writer with no formal training? How could I even think I would get published one day when everyone told me it was close to impossible? When I spent two years collecting rejection letters from agents, and then editors, it was there. Doubt. I had spent every precious free second away from my kids chasing this dream. Was it all for nothing? Had I wasted this time?

More years and a second novel later, I got a publishing deal. But that was not the end of this road. From jacket covers to PR to book events, there were decisions to make and doubt followed me through each of them. Good reviews, bad reviews, packed book stores, empty rooms ….  conflicting advice from authors, agents, editors and friends. Another novel to write, each page a chance to be brilliant. Or not. Filling blank pages, wondering if anyone would get the things I placed upon them…

I was not an overnight success. Every inch of progress has been fought for with thought and hard work and sometimes luck. It has been two steps forward, one step back – and other times one step forward and two steps back. I have not accomplished all that I dreamed of ten years ago, and I often have trouble thinking of myself as successful as a result. Still, when I stop and think about it, what I do have is not so bad –  two published novels, a film deal in the works, a new novel that’s incredibly fun to write, and a great editing gig with Chicken Soup for the Soul. Every day I get to do what I love – write, edit, connect with other authors and people from all walks of life. I get to think and create, and structure my day in a way that allows me to be there for my kids whenever and wherever they need me. Maybe this is success in and of itself.

So what will you learn by coming to Skaneateles, NY next week? When I think back on the journey that got me to this place, the little twists and turns in the road, I can remember with great clarity the doubt that existed and the methods I used to overcome it. I can recall every mistake I made from inexperience or misplaced trust, and what I learned from having made it. And I have gleaned some insights on how to balance rational caution and irrational fear when facing life as an entrepreneur.

Regardless of the field of work you have chosen, there exist some basic hurdles that we all have to face and it is my hope that hearing my story will help you do just that. See you in Skaneateles!

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Twilight Producer Packaging Film Deal for Social Lives!

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This is not at all how I envisioned things would go down if (big IF) I ever got a film deal together. I was sitting in the hallway of a Holiday Express in my pajamas. My three boys, who were wired from sundaes at Friendly’s, were torturing my 24-year-old brother inside the room by wrestling on the bed. Every now and again a loud thump was heard as one of them got tossed to the ground. Then came the shrieks of fear as retaliation ensued. My brother, who serves as my “manny” and is more of a big brother to my kids, could be heard yelling, begging, pleading and bribing. “Guys! Your mom has an important call! Maybe the most important call of her life!” And because young children have such a finely tuned sense of consideration for others, this worked like a charm.

Not. More screaming, then laughter. Thuds. A woman from the room across the hall popped out and gave me an evil stare which was met with the wave of my hand and a desperate, frantic look.

Meanwhile, the scrappy little device pressed to my ear (that a few years back passed as a cell phone) was on low battery, and was so kindly reminding me of this with a very loud beep every thirty seconds. Having soaked the battery several times in snow, rain and the kitchen sink, it was holding up admirably and I had no one but myself to blame for not embracing technology and getting a proper BlackBerry. In my defense, I wasn’t expecting such an important call.

And this call was important. Probably one of the most important calls of my career. It was a conference with my manager John Lavitt, and Wyck Godfrey of Temple Hill Entertainment – THE PRODUCER OF TWILIGHT.

In my wildest dreams of the distant past, such a discussion about making one of my novels into a movie with the hottest Hollywood producing team  (professionally speaking of course) would be done in a posh LA office. I would be wearing a sharp business suit, heels I could just barely walk in, hair blown dry for once, and a small entourage of loyal representatives. Surely if there was movie interest in one of my books, I would be a big time author in need of such things.

But I am not. I am a relatively new author working day in and day out to build a following and progress as a writer. And so, there I was, in that hallway in my pajamas, phone dying, chaos mounting, discussing the movie deal for Social Lives with Wyck and John. In spite of my surroundings, I remember the conversation well and I have carried it with me through every bump in the road my novel and I have encountered.

Social Lives is, at its core, a book about the extraordinary circumstances that can lead a person to do unspeakable things. It’s about social structures that suck people in, define them, and spit them out changed and sometimes damaged. It is a study of social culture and human nature and how sexuality still plays a leading role in the lives of women, from the early teen years through adulthood. My manager, John, has always gotten this about the book. But as any writer can tell you, having someone outside of your camp confirm that you have indeed done your job well, is the ultimate reward. So, when Wyck Godfrey told me that he loved my novel, that he thought it would make a fantastic dramatic film and provide solid emotional roles for women actors, I was blown away.

My cell phone and I both survived that call. My children managed not to hurt each other and my brother – well he’s young. He’ll bounce back. Wyck, his partner Marty Bowen, and their company are working to put the pieces together even as they are producing the Twilight sequels at breakneck speed. Of course, I haven’t told them yet that half the Walker clan plan to be extras in the big party scene and that my sister Jenn will not rest until she meets Robert Pattinson. But I suppose that can wait until the next call!

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