Tal(l)ula(h) Jones

Okay faithful readers, I need your help. A very important question has been plaguing my brain.

As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, my main character’s name is Talula. Talula Jones. She is the daughter of a teenage runaway named Sharon Jones. Sharon wanted to be an actress, and ended up waiting tables in Hollywood.

At sixteen she found herself pregnant. I’ve always imagined her walking down Hollywood Boulevard, on her way home from work day after day, strolling over the star for Tallula Bankhead (a little known starlet from the early 1900’s – she started in silent films and moved up into talkies, though she was known more for her steamy love affairs and drug addictions – not that Sharon knew any of that). Sharon just liked the sound of the name. She thought it glamorous and unique. She rolled it around in her mouth. It tasted good.

When it came time to squeeze that little love child out, Sharon remembered the name, but not being the brightest bulb in the maternity ward, she just spelled it phonetically, which is how her daughter came to be named Talula.

Talula Jones or Tallulah Jones. I’m really torn. I think the original spelling (Tallulah) is more interesting, but given the history I’ve created for her, Talula is a far more likely spelling.

It’s something I need to decide sooner rather than later, as it is also the title of my novel. So let’s hear it. Talula OR Tallulah. Show your work. (and thanks)

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Learning To Shoot, In the Name of Fiction

shootI’ve hiked to the top of half dome in Yosemite four times. It is one of my favorite places on earth. I love to dangle my feet over that 5,000 foot drop and just bask in the bubbling sensation that swims around in my stomach. It’s always a little scary, because, you know, I COULD jump, and then, very life affirming to realize that there’s no way I ever would.

I was reminded of this sensation last night at the LA Gun Club. With the help of my friend (to whom I owe many beers) I picked out a 12 gauge, double barrel shotgun. It was just how I pictured it with black metal barrels and a grainy wood stock. It was the closest thing they had to the gun that my character uses. That was why I was there in the first place: to fire the gun that my character fires, to know what it really feels like.

The proprietor tried to talk me into a fancier version, with a pump action magazine and rubber butt (to help with the kick back), but I went with the cooler-looking, more old-school gun (even though, I will admit now, I was terrified of the kick back).

We spent about twenty minutes firing off rounds, taking turns with each reload. By my second turn my nerves had calmed down, and I actually managed to pull the trigger without squinting my eyes. By holding the gun tightly, and keeping my knees bent, the kick back was not as bad as I expected (I didn’t get knocked on my ass), but it was still pretty powerful.

The fear diminished, but my sense of how powerful guns are found a new, solid foundation.

What I found most interesting were the other patrons at the range. There were three couples there on what I presumed to be a date, and the rest of the range was full of men of all shapes and sizes. And that’s what got me to thinking about Yosemite.

Guns can be dangerous, just like sitting on the top of half dome can be dangerous, but as long as you know what you’re doing, you’ll most likely be just fine.

The thing about the gun range is that it’s kind of like a whole group of people sitting on a very high cliff, all with their hands on each other’s backs (I know the logistics of that are a little tricky, but go with it for a sec). You all trust that you’re not going to push each other. You don’t have any choice but to trust it, but then you stop and look around and think “I don’t know the first damn thing about any of you people.”

Then you go home to your safe, gun-free home and count your blessings that your guy’s idea of a date night is more likely to center around ice cream than firearms.

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Where Inspiration Waits

Last week I worked on my outline. By laying out a sequence of cards, and forcing myself to work all the way through to the end, I was able to see where the weakest part of my story was. It was a little disheartening, because the spot I struggled with was the part I’ve always wrestled with and I felt like I’d made no progress at all.

Gritting my teeth I jumped back into my rewrite. The problem in the outline was with the resolution, and I desperately hoped I’d figure it out before I got there (and that when I did figure it out, I wouldn’t have to rewrite the first 200 pages – AGAIN).

Later in the week, I was tucking my daughter into bed. She looked up at me with those perfect blue eyes and said “don’t go, mommy.” So I sat with her while she fell asleep, with thoughts of my story bouncing around and around my in my head. That trouble spot felt like a hangnail. I physically felt uncomfortable. I put my head down on my girl’s bedside and gave up – and that’s when it came to me.

That’s what I love about writing. I never know when or where the answer will come, but it always seems to. I’m starting to trust it, and the more I trust it, the easier it comes. I’m sure there’s some deep philosophical or Buddhist precept here. Perhaps I have an emotionally damaged muse who only wants me when I don’t want her, who knows. I’m going to release it from my literary mind this once and not name it. Just let it be.

I think this is part of learning to be a writer.

Every day feels like an adventure.

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Scene By Scene

To my great disappointment, I wasn’t able to get to the gun shop last week. We had friends and family in town, threw a fabulous New Years Eve party (if I do say so myself), and spent the whole weekend cleaning up.

At said fabulous party, a good friend encouraged me to skip the gun shop and go straight for the shooting range. Dive right in.

I did my best Marge Simpson (rrrrmmmm, I don’t know), but he and his wife insisted. Being from Texas and Utah respectively they have experience with this kind of thing. So I agreed, and we will go shoot some stuff (paper targets?) next week. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, my goal for this week is to rewrite the first chapter (which I have spent the last month envisioning), and to outline the rest of the story, scene by scene, reorganizing as I go and chanting the following basic rules of scene work:

A scene is one place, one time.
Something must happen in a scene.
If nothing happens in the scene – cut it.

In the past couple of weeks I have re-read everything I’ve written on this project so far including the draft, some back-story explorations, and about thirty pages of a different version that I wrote last winter.

In each pile of pages I found a little something I can use in my revisions, but the scenes ramble and run together. Some of them have no point at all – I was just writing – which is fine for a first draft, but this is round two and the bar is much higher.

I’m going to work with flash cards, and outline each scene as a discrete unit. I’m hoping this will help me focus and make the task of rewriting so many pages less daunting.

While staring down the double barrel of rewriting 250 pages, the shooting range suddenly doesn’t seem so scary.

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Moving Out Of My Comfort Zone

I have never held a gun. Water pistol? Yes. A very heavy and seemingly life-like prop gun? Check. I even played laser tag once in high school, but the stone cold truth is that I have never dealt with a real weapon. I don’t know how to shoot one, and probably more importantly, I don’t know how to handle one respectfully.

For those of you who don’t know me, I was raised by hippie parents in Northern California. I had steak for the first time at the age of 18. I recycle used CD’s. Guns are scary to me.

I thought I could get through life maintaining my blissful ignorance of firearms, but the fact is that Talula Jones knows how to handle a gun, so I need to know.

Where to start? I googled “gun shop” with my zip code and found about eight places within a fifty mile radius of my home where I can either buy or shoot a gun. At some point I will need to actually fire one off, but for now I just want to hold one, unloaded, and ask a lot of stupid questions.

The current front-runner is a place called “Gun World” in Burbank. It sounds like exactly the kind of place I need, with a lot of selection, and (lets hope) knowledgeable staff.

They are open 11-7, which makes me think that their clientele shops mostly during lunch/after work. I’m going to try to be there around 3. The plan is to catch them at a slow period, so that my many questions will come off as naively charming, and not obnoxiously time-consuming (in case I haven’t been clear, I have no intention of actually purchasing a gun).

The goal is to figure out what kind of weapon Talula keeps on the farm, and the basic functionality and etiquette of said gun. If anyone out there has any words of wisdom as I head out into the terrifying world of guns and amo, don’t hold back.

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Ode To My Husband

Last night I was in the shower and my husband, who knows I’m working on making my protagonist more three dimensional, asked me what the hardest, most life altering moments in my life have been. This might not be average getting-ready-for-bed discussion in your household, but I didn’t think twice about it. We quiz each other like this all the time, just for fun (and material).

Daniel is, in his own chosen medium of film, a brilliant story teller. If I had to guess, I’d say I’ve learned about 70% of what I know about story telling from working (and playing) with him. Another 20% was genetic, and the final 10% I’m getting in graduate school.

So I thought about it for a second, while I lathered and rinsed, and then I told him the top five moments in my life that hurt the most as they changed me, as a bulleted list. Then he said “you should give one of those moments to Lu,” leaned into the shower for a kiss, and went to bed.

Standing in the warm cocoon of my shower, I dismissed him as crazy. I am not Lu. Our lives are very different. It seemed there was no way to lift one of my life-changing moments and place it in the reality of this story, but then something clicked. One of the events that I had listed stood out, practically waving its arms at me.

It was a time in my life when I took care of someone else in a way that was very hard for me. I remember feeling responsible for their pain, and helpless to do anything to cure it.

If you’re reading this and wondering if maybe you were the one I had to take care of, then you see the brilliance of Daniel’s idea. This is something we can all imagine. I can give Talula that feeling of responsibility, and the growth that comes with it. It’s the feeling that is universal, not the actual event.

I hopped out of the shower and ran for my journal. Did I mention what an amazing husband I have?

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The Little Things

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about character. In fact, I am thinking about Ms. Talula almost all the time.

I feel like I am starting to get a handle on who she is, and what she wants, but I’m still missing the little things. Small details of her personality like how she answers the phone, what kind of music she enjoys, whether or not she paints her finger nails.

I think it was Aristotle who said there is no character, only action. Actions, gathered together over time, make a person who they are. Furthermore, characters reacting as only they can to a given situation is what gives rise to story.

Nail biters will chew until the day they die and bad drivers will always roll through stop signs. In real life people rarely change, but in fiction they do, and it’s satisfying. This is why we read books and watch movies.

And what is that change but an incorporation or cessation of all the tiny quirks that make up a person? It’s the little things that make a character real, make us love them and cheer for them as they are forced through the difficult process of change. So Talula must start doing some things, and stop doing others over the course of my story. I’m not worried yet about the changes, just the starting point. Decisions need to be made.

So you heard it here first: Talula Jones says “yel-low” when she answers the phone, listens to old country music like Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash (mostly because it’s what her grandparents had laying around), and she doesn’t paint her nails.

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Writers Write

The only thing a writer must do, to legitimately call herself a writer, is write. Period. While it is true that the world is full of writers who will never be published, you will never find a published author who doesn’t write. (For simplicity’s sake I’m ignoring the existence of ghost writers and plagiarists.)

Writers write. This simple phrase reverberates in my mind over and over, getting louder and louder, the longer I go without writing. While it’s easy to dismiss a lapse (it was Thanksgiving, I crashed my car, I got the stomach flu and wound up in the hospital) the simple fact is, if you’re not writing, you’re not a writer.

All of this is my way of confessing that, despite the best of excuses, I haven’t been a writer since last Tuesday. It’s gnawing at me, like a hungry cat that has decided to chew on my sweater for sustenance.

So I declare this morning a belated day of thanks dedicated to this blog and my readers. If not for my commitment to posting a new entry every Monday, I might continue to avoid sitting at the keyboard, but even the small feat of spilling a few hundred words onto the page gets the fingers nimble and the brain ready to work once more.

Here I go…

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Taking A Moment To Celebrate

I finished my first draft on Tuesday. It weighs in at 247 pages, and I almost can’t believe I did it. When I sat down in August to start this process it seemed so far away, but five pages a day (on average), five days a week, for ten weeks landed me right where I wanted to be.

To be honest, I haven’t so much as opened the file since then. I gave myself last week to celebrate, by not working on it at all. Instead I caught up on some reading (you have to read good fiction to write good fiction), and worked on some other projects.

Today is when it really gets interesting. Today I start taking those 247 pages, and molding them into a really good story. This is not to dismiss the work that I’ve done, but as I mentioned in a previous post, I never edit as I’m writing, and the story morphed considerably as I went along. Certain themes presented themselves, while elements that seemed critically important in the beginning now seem superfluous.

The trick is, I’m not sure how to take this next step. I have a feeling that the best thing to do is outline the whole story, scene for scene, then step back and really consider what it’s about. As my thesis advisor is always pushing me to consider – what question am I trying to answer with this story?

Yikes. I think I’m more daunted by rewrites than I was by those first pages, ten weeks ago. If any one out there has any words of wisdom – lay ‘em on me.

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Two Pages

On Thursday I drove to Beverly Hills for my meeting with the Fancy Hollywood Agent (FHA). His office was buzzing with assistants. The man at the front desk told another that I was there, and I could hear word being passed back through the office that I had arrived. I would like to say that it sounded like a nervous, conspiratorial “she’s here,” “she’s here,” but really it sounded more like “who?” “oh, yeah.”

Once inside FHA’s office, the walls lined with dark wooden bookshelves exploding with tomes of all kinds, I told him my new ideas for my story. We talked about what makes a novel sell (and by correlation makes an agent interested). He said he liked my ideas, but was serious when he told me a book like mine would have to be exceptionally well written.

After about ten minutes, we said our goodbyes, and he told me to send him the first two pages when they were ready. “Two pages?” I asked.

“Ah, make it three,” he said.

This is the biggest lesson I took from my meeting with FHA. Nothing short of brilliant writing will be considered, and don’t dick around with the small talk. If the story isn’t juicy by page two, you’re not going to get anyone’s attention.

This stirs up a whole new batch of questions for me. Do we write to get attention, or do we write what we love and hope people pay attention? Is there a middle ground? How much can a writer tailor her writing to appeal to an audience and still consider herself an artist?

Right now I’m going with the theory that I am not a unique snowflake. I am, in fact, one of over 6.5 billion people living on this planet. If I write a story I love, and write it well, odds are that there are other people out there in the world who will love it too.

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