Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Friday Night Lights

     At one point in the film FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, about a hard-bitten, high school football team in Texas focused on winning "States", a player cracks jokes during a workout session attempting to make his grim-faced teammates, in particular the quarterback, smile. The quarterback eventually does, but it takes work. 

     I have taught in a few different high schools in a few different states. Many of my students were football players and serious, but they were still kids and liked to laugh. I think the portrayal of high-schoolers as men and dutiful warriors in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS was cinematically compelling and starkly beautiful, but not truly authentic, which made it work to watch. As a result, I stayed away from the television series. But this fall I came back around and watched the series--without commercials, which is the only way I can watch television these days--and loved it. It came to life for me because of the larger role of the coach's wife, but also for the humor, especially generated from the teenage characters and their dialogue. Since I started watching the series, I have learned that many of the actors, including those portraying the teenagers, were able to ad-lib lines. In many respects, I think it made their dialogue more authentic and funnier. My experience with kids has shown me that they are curious and confused and bursting with things to say if you give them a chance. And what they say is generally hilarious!

     So, thank you, Peter Berg (creator of FNL) for giving these kids/characters more dimension. Their humorous dialogue (maybe not five seasons worth, but still) made the series more authentic and ultimately more watchable than the film. 

    If you have not seen the series, I recommend watching the pilot and the first episode of season four. Not surprisingly, they were the episodes that Berg directed.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Dandruff epidemic?

    What is the deal with dandruff and dandruff shampoo commercials on late night television? The other night I was sitting up, worrying about a change I'd made to GAR!, and I turned on the TV and saw that Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was about to begin. Jimmy's guests were Tom Hanks and Aimee Mann. Awesome! I was excited to watch. Jimmy came out and performed his monologue and I settled in. They cut to the first commercial, a goofy dandruff shampoo commercial, and I thought, that's weird, but Jimmy came back on and The Roots played and I continued watching. Cut to commercial again and it was a COMPETING dandruff shampoo commercial! This is a fluke, I thought. But then the very next commercial was ANOTHER dandruff shampoo commercial, the competitor's competitor was back. I sat up and payed attention. Each commercial starred a young man who clearly wasn't getting the girl because of his dandruff. The shampoo, the hero, takes care of the problem (in all versions), and then the young man gets the girls, yes multiple and scantily clad. More of these commercials followed in the thirty minutes of LN that I watched.

     At some point Tom Hanks came on, but I couldn't give him my full attention. He was wearing all black and I thought, that's pretty daring of Tom Hanks to wear all black, but I guess he's not seventeen, so he probably doesn't have/isn't worried about dandruff. And then I started wondering: Since when is dandruff such a huge problem? Since when is dandruff shampoo a hero? Since when is Jimmy Fallon's audience made up entirely of young men with low self-esteem, floppy hair, and loads of dandruff? What is causing all this dandruff? Then I wondered: Does Jimmy know about this advertising? Do The Roots know? Did they have similar dandruff problems when they were adolescents? Do they approve these ads? Does Jimmy know I never want to watch him at his regularly scheduled time again because I'm so grossed out by all the dandruffy boys and their dandruff-free fantasies in these commercials? What is happening? Gross. On so many levels GROSS!

     Jimmy, if you are reading this, I still love you, but I don't love watching your show at night punctuated by dandruff shampoo commercials. In fact, I think the commercials gave me nightmares, and now instead of working on my book, I'm totally freaked out about what is causing this dandruff explosion and writing this blog post. For these reasons, I don't think I can watch your show at its regularly scheduled time ever again.

Monday, October 22, 2012


     “Hey Carl, I haven’t gotten one bite on this line all morning! I don’t understand it. I’m ready to pull anchor and head back. How ‘bout you?” Sam liked to catch fish, not wait around for them. “I could go for a stack of pancakes and a cup of coffee.” He checked his watch. “Millie’s should be open by the time we get to shore. Whad’ya say?”
     Sam, about to turn seventy, was a happy retiree. He and Carl had worked together at the paper mill for thirty years. Now both retired, Sam and Carl spent most mornings on Sam’s boat in a secluded bay near Ada, their hometown. They fished mostly for bass, Carl silent while Sam remarked on how time had flown by.
     Sam looked back over his shoulder to see if Carl had heard him. Carl was partially deaf in one ear. He had been hit by the boom of a sailboat as a boy and didn’t always catch everything.
     Carl had stopped casting; instead he stared at the sky.
     “Carl?” Sam turned around and studied his friend. He waved a hand in front of Carl’s ruddy face, but got no response.
     “What’s going on, buddy? Talk to me.”
     Carl sat unblinking and speechless. He seemed to be in a trance. 
     Sam looked out in the direction of Carl’s stare. Something was headed straight for them, ripping an ugly hole through the sky.
     Sam leapt forward. He started hoisting the anchor with one hand, shaking Carl with the other.
     “Carl! Come on! Grab the key and turn!”
     Carl was closest to the boat’s controls, but he did move. 
     Hauling anchor, Sam paused to look back at the sky.
     “Damn it! Come on, Carl! I need your help here! We’re not gonna get out of this! We’re not—” 
     The fireball—as near as Sam could tell, that’s what it was—was coming in fast. Now Sam knew they weren’t going to make it, and cursed again. He looked around, he wasn’t sure why, maybe taking stock, suddenly feeling old and tired. He saw his fishing gear, his boat, and his friend.
     “Ah, hell,” Sam said. He dropped the anchor back into the water and sat down next to Carl. He took Carl’s hand and they both looked out at the sky. Neither one took their eyes off the fireball. To Sam, it looked like a perfect, shimmering sun setting over the water.
     “Except it’s getting reeeeeal close.” Sam drew out the observation and laughed to himself. “I just paid off this boat.”
     He and Carl had picked out the name together—Reel Trouble.

     As the meteoroid passed over, Sam and Carl vanished in the fire trail. When it hit land, it burned through Ada and then burrowed into the earth eight miles inland. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Writer's conference

     I attended my first writer's conference this weekend--MWC in Baltimore! It left me feeling overwhelmed but energized. I really enjoyed interacting with other writers and participating in Marita Golden's workshop on the importance of narrative structure in developing a story. But the most important aspect of this experience was having the chance to pitch GAR! (I will post a video of "the pitch" sometime later this week.) The agents and editors I pitched to provided useful feedback regarding GAR!'s marketability and what I can do to improve the manuscript and query letter. The critiques were at once motivating and daunting. At the moment, I'm still processing all the information, good and bad.

     Two points stick out because they were made clear by everyone I met with:

     1) I have been pitching GAR! as a young adult, science fiction novel. But in its current form GAR! is not considered YA. Why? One of the two main characters is an adult! I was surprised by this narrow view of the genre. The remedy? Either rewrite the adult character as an adolescent or market the book as purely sci-fi.

     2) Whatever the genre, I need to ditch my prologue (a short scene containing a pair of old men and a meteorite). One agent said, "Let's say we keep it YA. Teenagers don't care about old men." Another, by way of explanation, said, "This scene is cinematic, but you've written a book." Indeed. I don't necessarily agree with these points, but they were made so emphatically and by multiple people that I have to take them seriously. It is hard to let things go, but I'll cut the prologue for now and post it here (next post).

     What I take away from this experience is that conferences can be a great way to contextualize my work. Isolation is important while I'm writing, but connecting with professionals is important for understanding how my work fits into the publishing landscape. 
     I look forward to the work ahead!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The flood

     In the spring of Gar’s seventeenth year, it rained for days without stopping. The river was swollen, flowing over its banks, and moving fast. Large objects careened downstream.
     Gar was hiding in a tangle of roots a few feet below the riverbank. There was no light there so he made his eyes glow. His hiding spot was filling with debris. He continuously swished his tail to keep the debris from burying him, but he was becoming tired and wanted to rest. He knew of another place to hide, in some rocks where he would be sheltered, but it was across the river.
     Even though I’m not the best swimmer, I’m strong. I can fight the water.
     Gar wriggled and swished his tail.
     I can do it. I’ll cross.
     Gar dislodged himself from the roots and began his river crossing.
     He worked hard to coordinate the movement of his tail and fins, but he had never experienced the river like this. His strength was not enough to overcome the relentless current.
     Go back.
     As Gar turned, a branch rushed downstream, cutting off his retreat. Gar darted out of the way and struggled to stay upright. The water pressure rose. Something else was coming.
     Its big. I’ll be struck.
     It was a tree, a whole tree rushing toward Gar.
     Where do I go?
     Gar flipped his tail against the swift current trying to decide what to do. Time stood still. The tree became visible to Gar. It was a bubbling, broiling, mass that seemed to dominate the entire river. A deafening rushing sound hit Gar, and then gnarly, broken, tree roots reached for him.
     Up! Go up!
     Using his tail, Gar propelled himself to the surface. The tree was so close, Gar could see air bubbles trapped between its craggy, uneven surfaces.
     A piece of rough bark shredded one of Gar’s fins as he sliced through the water.
     Almost there!
     Gar flipped his tail one last time, sending his body out of the water and over the gigantic trunk.
     Gar felt a vibration and then searing pain.
     The left side of his body was exposed to air. The pain was unbearable. Gar’s body seized. He lost consciousness.
     To an observer it would have looked like any other fish jumping out of the water. But that split second exposure to air changed Gar’s life.

     When he awoke, Gar didn’t know where he was or what had happened. He was in a semi-enclosed space. He saw that it was made of decaying wood.
     Maybe a hollowed-out tree?
     He swam to the opening. The flood raged on.
     I think I’ll stay here.
     Safe, Gar was suddenly exhausted. He realized that he was trembling.
     What’s wrong with me?
     He tried to calm down. He wanted to sleep. He absorbed some nutrients from the water and his body relaxed enough that the trembling subsided and eventually stopped. Inside the log, he swam back and forth, using up the last of his jittery energy.

     Now sleep.
     His eyelids fluttered shut.
     Gar was back in the middle of the river, once again in the path of the tree.
     “Wha!” gurgled Gar. He opened his eyes and looked around. He was still in the log. He took in some water. He hesitated, then closed his eyes again.
     Back in the flowing water, the tree was upon him.
     Gar opened his eyes, confused and disoriented. He was still in the log, but he was breathing hard using his gills. He was suddenly angry at the interruption. He wanted to sleep. He closed his eyes defiantly. Once again the scene from the flooded river unfolded.
     Gar opened his eyes once more. He darted back and forth.
     I’m tired. I just need sleep.
     But every time Gar closed his eyes, he saw the tree coming toward him.
     What is this? I’m…I’m watching my memories?
     Gar was used to being surprised by the discovery of a new ability. But this time he was not in the mood.
     I'm not going to get any sleep am I
can I at least watch a different memory?
     Gar swished his tail to compose himself, then closed his eyes and tried to think of some other…memory…a more soothing one, to replay: he thought about swimming with fish. Nothing appeared before his eyelids.
     Maybe I need to be specific. That day I chased the perch…I wanted to swim with them…the one perch got confused and I started swimming after him…
     The memory replayed before Gar’s eyes. One perch broke away from the group and Gar swam after it. Gar watched the panicking fish swim away through weeds and tree roots upstream. But too soon the memory changed. Gar’s mind was pulling him back to the flooded river. He saw the tree branch and then the clouded river.
     How? Why am I seeing this? Stop!
     Gar opened his eyes and gulped some water. He did not want to think about this memory, not so soon. He swam around inside the log. He used his tail to sweep away debris that was collecting at the opening.
     I’m tired. But if I watch this...maybe I can sleep.
     Gar closed his eyes, determined to replay the memory. It took no conjuring. As soon as his eyes closed, the tree was upon him. But, when he was about to exit the water—
     No! Wait!
     The memory stopped. Gar opened his eyes. It was still there in front of him.
     I’m, I’m not ready. I don’t want to see this. I just want to sleep.
     Gar’s frustration built. His thoughts jumbled.
     I do want to sleep. I’ll try…
     Gar tried to relax his mind. Soon, he was back, watching the event in the river unfold. This time he was swimming through the rushing water.
     Can I make this pause? Um, hold it there.
     The image froze in place. He could see the tree branch and the tip of his tail in mid-swish, maneuvering away from the tree branch. The image was still before his eyes.
     Go back.
     The events played in reverse.
     Gar let the memory rewind until he saw his initial hiding spot.
     Hold it.
     The memory paused again.
     Gar went forward in his memory, went back, paused, went forward again. He practiced these skills until he felt he could control the replay.
     Another skill…I can see how this will be useful, but why do I have to replay this memory…tonight...right now?
     Gar restarted the memory replay. He watched the tree branch rush past.
     He could feel the tree coming. He blinked and focused on the tree branch. He was scared of what came next.
     Go forward.  
     The memory moved forward again, but instead of seeing the tree branch Gar saw himself. He saw his entire body swimming.
     Hey! How can I see myself?  
     Gar could not see the tree branch anymore.
     Am I seeing this from where the tree branch is?
     Gar focused on his own form and the perspective changed back.
     Whoa! There’s the tree branch!
     Gar opened his eyes.
     Did I—I was just looking at the tree branch, and then my point of view changed!
     Gar forgot his fear for a moment.
     What, what else does this memory replay do?
     Gar closed his eyes and the memory unfurled. His eyes shifted back and forth beneath his eyelids, searching for another object to focus on. He saw a rock and concentrated on it—the image didn’t change. He shifted his gaze to a fish in a hollow. He focused on the fish, and, yes, his point of view transferred to that of the fish! He moved events forward. He was now seeing from the fish’s viewpoint. From this vantage, he could see himself in the river. He moved events forward again.
     The river was dark but Gar could see that he was trying to swim across it and failing.
     Pause. Try something else.
     Gar saw a flotilla of algae. He focused on it. Now he could see the river from the surface.
     Gar tried to focus on other rocks and sediment but couldn’t change perspective.
     They’re not living!
     Resuming the replay of the accident, Gar went back to the point before the tree came downstream. Sifting through the memory, he examined each of the views of himself from the other living tissue that was there. The clearest perspective was captured by some roots that covered the bank of the river.
     Gar took in water and let the replay move forward once more.
     He was swimming, struggling against the rushing water. Then he dipped and ducked, following the current.
     I look pretty capable there.
     But as the tree approached, Gar’s fear of the pain grew.
     The replay stopped. Gar opened his eyes. He looked out at the river around him. It was still flowing too fast. He would be trapped for a while.
     I must watch this. Even if…it hurts.
     Gar resumed the replay.
     He felt panicked as he watched his own thrashing tail swish back and forth in the water. He watched his body swim toward the surface, leaving a frothy mixture in its wake. He was beside the tree. He was dwarfed by it and sucked toward it. He wobbled. His fin was caught on some bark, but his thrusting tail corrected for it. He was almost to the surface. His tail flipped. His body rotated.
     The pain ripped through him. The flesh on the left side of his head was out of the water first. He couldn’t breath. His belly followed.
     It’s killing me!
     Gar could see no more of his jump from this vantage point. He could only feel the pain consuming his body as he touched down on the other side of the trunk. Then things went dark.
     Gar cut the replay and opened his eyes. He looked around and saw that he was still safely crammed under the log. It calmed him, but the pain lingered. He tried to find signs of harm to his body, but his flesh was intact.
     He watched the events again and again, changing perspectives, hoping he would become numb to the moment his skin hit the air. It didn’t work. He flinched every time.
     Fear had entered Gar’s life.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

From here to there

     Bored at the bottom of the river, Gar began to send chemical signals to a school of minnows.
     Food! Food!
     He tricked them into swimming above him. He continued to send these signals and watched as the fish hovered and turned and darted, looking for their meal. Gar focused on their movements, the way they flicked their fins and swished their tails in coordinated thrusts. He watched their bright scales flash in unison as they turned together in the light.
     Flick…swish, swish…flick. 
     As Gar watched the fish move their tails and fins, he felt his own body rising off the river bottom. He looked down. His shell and foot had morphed into fins and a tail—his own fish form.
     He rose into the river’s water.
     I'd better
     He awkwardly propelled himself with his tail.
     Sensing the approach of something large, the minnows scattered.
     Gar focused on swishing his tail and using his fins to keep himself from tumbling downstream. He found a rhythm that kept him suspended in the water.
     I’m swimming! Oh—
     Gar touched down. He was not as buoyant as other river creatures.
     Stay up!
     Gar fought the pull of gravity by flicking his fins and wriggling his tail harder and faster. That seemed to work. He swam over and under tree roots in the calmer water near the bank. He swam hesitantly and ungracefully, but managed to stay buoyant. Other creatures kept out of his way.
     Gar moved into the open, faster moving water.
     The water was too swift. Gar lost control and was carried downstream. He was swept into an eddy near the bank and lay, breathing hard, in the sand.
     That was awesome! I want do it again!
     Gar swam back upstream, sticking close to the bank. When he had gone far enough, he swam out into the swifter current once more.
     He continued to practice.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Transplanted youth

     Gar’s life began when the meteorite landed in the Mud River. He was embedded inside, like a dried, microscopic seed, feeling nothing, anticipating nothing. The meteorite broke open, water rushed in, and his cells became animated and began to function and replicate.
     Gar did not remember the first ten years of his life. He had been buried under grains of sand, silt, and leaves at the bottom of the river. He did not move or think. He just grew, becoming bigger and stronger.
     In his tenth year, Gar became aware of a bright light above him. He wanted to get closer to it. He had muscle and a shell and he used them to strain against the particles of soil that surrounded and covered him. He pushed and pushed until the soil gave way and he emerged into the light. The river carried him downstream.
     The Mud River is so-named because its water is brown, even at the source in the low mountains of Virginia. There it runs fast over worn limestone and sandstone boulders. In North Carolina, the Mud is fed by underground springs, and starts to spread out. By the time it reaches the eastern edge of South Carolina, near Ada, the river is wide and slow and ready to spill into the ocean.
     Gar grew by sucking in that water, absorbing the nutrients through his outer layer. When he emerged from the soil, he was large enough to be visible, but not conspicuous. He looked like a grey stone. He was dense, prone to sinking. He grew a large, muscular foot. 
     He spent his eleventh year using his foot to traverse a slow elliptical path along the river floor. He followed ribbons of sunlight that penetrated the water down to the bottom. The ellipse was no larger than a one square foot area of the riverbed, but Gar’s efforts to follow the light on the path consumed his days. He absorbed more nutrients and grew.
     In his twelfth year, Gar grew a pair of green eyes and began to see things moving past him in the light. He saw the river for the first time in its stratified detail. He saw the layers of soil and debris, layers of bacteria and algae, layers of other organisms, even the layers of water. He watched the moving water and felt it push against him. He kept his foot anchored to the river floor to avoid being carried off. He became attuned to the constant motion and the subtle shifts in the current. On a clear day he could see silt, muck, twigs, river plants, and of course animals, move past him in the water. The animals moved independently from the water’s current. Gar wanted to move like them.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Gar emerges

     As I began writing about Gar, it became clear to me that he was an alien from outer space deposited on Earth, but why in the water, why in the Mud River?
     Growing up in Michigan, fresh water has always been a big part of my life. As a kid I swam or fished on summer days. On weekdays I biked to swim team practice in the morning and fished off the pier in the afternoon. On special weekends my parents took our family "up north" to camp and fish on the Au Sable River. Almost every childhood vacation I can think of involved a bathing suit or a fishing rod or both. On car trips my dad would pull over to the side of the road and take out his telescopic "pack rod" to test a creek or stream. If it looked promising, we might spend the day there.
     I learned how to swim and fish in the lakes and rivers of Michigan. I also learned how to find worms and catch frogs, ignore mosquitoes and spot birds. I learned who I was and what I loved from spending so much time outdoors and in the water.

     That was where I wanted Gar's life to begin. I wanted the water, the Mud River, to be a place where Gar would learn and grow and gain practical skills, and also find himself.