Notes from a Weekend + One More Squid 101

  • The SCBWI Writers' Intensive on Friday was, in a word: intense. In two hours, nine writers and I critiqued their nine 500-word manuscript excerpts in twelve-minute bursts, boom-boom-boom round the table. I enjoyed it, even though I was exhausted afterward, and I worried that perhaps things went too quickly for the writers to record or process the criticism . . . but I do hope the writers who attended got something out of it as well.
  • One problem that came up a lot in these excerpts: in a novel, a first paragraph that, in trying to set up the situation, ended up explaining it, thereby destroying much of the suspense or surprise (and therefore the reader's pleasure) in what was to come. To test this on your own ms., cover up your first paragraph and start reading with your second: Is that where the action starts? Is it perhaps a more involving, less portentous beginning? (This is also worth trying on the chapter level.)
  • I arrived late to the kids' book drinks night at Bar Nine, but whoo! Writers, artists, editors, agents, even a Newbery winner in there . . . Cheers to Betsy and Alvina for staging a fine event.
  • Instruction for all illustrators everywhere, but especially ones who display their work at next year's SCBWI art show/reception: GET A WEBSITE. If I like your piece, I will want to see more of what you can do, and the easiest way for that to happen is if you have a website I can visit and see your style beyond what you showed at the show. Thank you.
  • If you like reading about writers' processes, the ever-fabulous Jennifer Crusie is reworking her novel You Again and will be talking about it on her blog.
  • Todd Alcott compares-and-contrasts two of my favorite films, It Happened One Night and The Sure Thing (the young John Cusack -- be still my heart), and brilliantly deconstructs Green Eggs and Ham.
  • Or heck, I'll take the old John Cusack too.
  • Last night I saw City Center Encores! production of Follies, with the incredible lead cast of Victoria Clark, Donna Murphy, Michael McGrath (Patsy from Spamalot), and Victor Garber -- yes, the beloved badass (there is no other word for him) Jack Bristow. It's one of Sondheim's concept shows, far less story than songs and style -- but what songs and style! "Broadway Baby," "Losing My Mind," "I'm Still Here," and some wonderful 1930s Berlinesque pastiche, terrifically staged, sung, and choreographed.
  • And today I saw "Children of Men." It starts with the nightmare proposition that, in the year 2027, no children have been born on the planet for 18 years. Flu pandemics have come and gone; mushroom clouds have swallowed New York. Britain is the only stable nation left, and it's a police state that seems primarily dedicated to locking up illegal aliens. Theo Faron (the marvelous Clive Owen) is drawn into a plot to smuggle one of these aliens out of the country for a world-changing reason: She's pregnant. The war-torn world shown in the picture is depressing and scary as all hell -- and happening somewhere on the planet right now, I know -- but Theo's journey from walking-deadness to hope and purpose is beautifully realized, and even when it's showing death and destruction, the cinematography and direction are so gorgeous, so powerful, so incredibly accomplished, I didn't want to look away. (If Emmanuel Lubezki doesn't win Best Cinematography, I will throw things at my television.) (The Academy quakes in fear.) I'm not sure what the film is saying in the end, nor do I want to think through the plot too closely, but for pure visceral world-building, style, and storytelling, only "The Departed" came close to it in 2006.
  • Oh, and a homophone I forgot:

discreet: (adj) judicious in one's conduct or speech, esp. with regard to respecting privacy or maintaining silence about something of a delicate nature; prudent; circumspect; showing prudence and circumspection; decorous; modestly unobtrusive; unostentatious

If you'd like to tell a secret / I would recommend a squid; / They will listen to your story / And close tighter than a lid. / They're discreet, restrained, remarkable, / All ego and no id; / For confidence in confidantes, / Always trust the squid.

discrete: (adj) apart or detached from others; separate, distinct

Then I spied five discrete sucker marks on the knife, and I knew: Jack the Squidder had struck again.