Monday, November 19, 2012

39 Ways I Know I'm Turning 40

It's my birthday month!  Not just any birthday, but my 40th.  So to commemorate the occasion, I thought it would be fun to ponder age.  Why not, right?  It's fascinating if it's not happening to you, but I say, why not just face the beast down?  I'm aging.  So what?  There are a few people out there taking drastic measures not to age and we all wish they wouldn't--they scare small children.  For the rest of us, it's just part of life.   So here's my list of 39 ways I know I'm turning 40.  Here's a glimpse into my reality:

1)       I’m forced to wear cushy slippers because hard floors hurt my bare feet 

2)      There is more fashion that doesn’t work on me than does

3)      The foods I hate agree with me the most

4)      I have trouble opening anything with a tab, a lid, or a cap

5)      If sticky notes were banned, I’d have to quit life

6)      When I wake up in the morning, my body feels like I’ve attempted the Ironman

7)      I have to change my wave because my underarm now swings like it wants in on the action

8)      I have to get kids to show me how to work stuff

9)      I’m completely unconsumed with the stigma of minivans

10)   My favorite feature on my Kindle is the font enlargement

11)   I’ve got a doctor for nearly every organ in my body

12)   I’m suddenly fond of spicy foods, which I suspect means my taste buds are dying off

13)   I’m willing to trade white teeth for coffee

14)   I’m getting political cartoons

15)   I have a breaking news alert on my phone for some excitement in my day

16)   I can throw my back out simply by rising from a chair

17)   I am hooked on PBS soap operas set at the turn of the century

18)   I am starting to identify with all of Meryl Streep’s characters

19)   I wear cardigans because I have to

20)   I’m using shampoo with medicine as its first ingredient 

21)   I get irritated by noise louder than a whisper

22)   One trip to Long John Silvers could literally kill me

23)   Almost every product I use has the word “brightening” in it

24)   I’m beginning to understand people in their 20s believe they have nothing in common with me

25)   I’m particular about my coffee mugs

26)   I’ve outgrown self-consciousness

27)   I’ve actually said out loud, “I need to get home before dark.”

28)   I have a pill organizer

29)   I can no longer feel food on my face

30)   I’ve come to the grim realization that tweezers aren’t just for the eyebrows anymore

31)   I’ve learned that the world won’t fall apart if I actually take a lunch break

32)   I’m beginning to get the urge to eat dinner earlier

33)   I no longer recognize the people on the cover of PEOPLE magazine

34)   Lipstick is challenging without magnification

35)   I constantly ask myself how early is too early to put my pajamas on

36)   Taylor Swift songs all sound the same to me

37)   I’m not against boy bands.  I just can’t remember all the members’ names

38)   I’m older than half my doctors

39)   I’m trading in sit-coms about friends for Rock Center with Brian Williams

Friday, June 15, 2012

Mattie Bigham

I’ve created hundreds of characters over the years. Some were heroes in every sense of the word. Some were anti-heroes (my favorite kind!), who reluctantly took on something they never thought they would. Some started on a journey for which they’d never be the same. They’ve been male, female, children, husbands, wives, editors, writers, police officers, news reporters, pilots and more. Some have been ill-tempered. Some have been misguided. Some have been sunshiny and inspiring.

But none have been like Matthew Bigham.

Mattie, as I like to call him and as he hates to be called, has been with me for awhile. It’s hard to describe the process of creating a character. Some come instantly and fit right into a story. Others take time to mold, mostly in my subconscious and mostly from strange longings and scars of my own past. Mattie had an identity long before he had a face…or a body. He was kind of a culmination of suffering, a kind soul whom life had beaten to a bloody pulp. When I first met Mattie in my mind, he wasn’t overweight or bullied. He was just lost. But then I had to find out why he was lost. And soon a mental picture of him began to form in my mind. I saw his eyes first. They were wide, staring, almost childlike in innocence and scared with every blink. Then I knew he ate too much. He ate every time he was scared or frustrated. I knew this because I did it too.

Although I’ve never been obese, I have struggled for many years with comforting myself with food. Food never failed me, at least in the short term. I knew it would eventually, and eventually it did, but when I was stressed to the max about this or that, I’d go get something to make me feel better…a Dr. Pepper, cheese nachos, dark chocolate. I had my favorites and they didn’t fail me.

As I thought more about Mattie, I knew that often what we fear and hurt about in our adult years often have roots in our childhood. So from there, I knew Mattie was bullied when he was a kid. For being fat.

As some of you know, my family has suffered through bullying. It’s about as painful as it gets. I will never forget my son looking at me with tear-filled eyes and saying, “How am I going to go through the rest of my life this unlikable?” It literally felt like a knife was stabbed through my heart. I felt actual pain as I processed what he said, how he was viewing himself, what the world had told him and what he believed.

So, too, had Mattie believed this about himself, and as the world became even less kind to him, food became his closest friend.

Except we meet Mattie long after that. We meet him after food has betrayed him. We meet him on the cusp of a murder plot.

One of the most challenging tasks a writer can have is to make likable an unlikable character. Nobody likes a murderer. But as we dig a little deeper into Mattie, as we watch him try to pull off this murder plot, we begin to see what has turned this big man’s heart black. And I think we also see the real Mattie, the man behind all the weight and anger and bitterness…a gentle man who cherishes his wife, wants a good friend, and wishes he’d made some healthier choices.

 I knew when I wrote Escapement that Mattie Bigham was going to be a controversial character. I mean an obese guy who is plotting murder? Yeah, warm and fuzzy, right? I didn’t quite calculate, however, that he’d be really misunderstood by some. And really despised by others. Escapement is my eighteenth book, so rest assured I’ve seen some really insulting reviews over the years. I mean, give someone an anonymous place to vent, and they’re going to rip you to pieces. Sure, I’ve had good, even great, reviews too. My point is that this isn’t my first rodeo.

But what’s been particularly interesting with Escapement is how insulted some people seem to be at his very existence. It’s not that they don’t like the story, or that they’re against a would-be murderer, but they’re actually against him. It’s like they’re mad that he even exists. Sure, this is fiction, but Mattie Bigham does exist, in each of our lives. I think Mattie touches a nerve because Mattie represents all that repulses us about ourselves. Mattie, by all accounts, is weak. He’s tormented. He’s unbearably loathsome. He’s snarky, ill-tempered and hardly ever accurate in his assessment of himself or others. In other words, Mattie is a lot like us. Maybe we have a weight problem, maybe we don’t. But the truth is that we all carry the weight of a fallen world, a fallen soul and a track record of failure. It’s just that sometimes it takes a fictional character for us to see it in ourselves.

One day I was standing at a street corner with my two children. We each were holding a Big Gulp filled with soda, sipping it through a straw, observing people as we waited. A couple walked by, both puffing on cigarettes. The smoke kind of gagged us as it lingered behind them. I could see both my kids’ faces twist up in disapproval. Granted, they’ve practically been brainwashed at school about tobacco (thank goodness) so they’re pretty irate about it and consider it pure evil. My son begins his rant. “I hate cigarettes. They’re so bad for you. Why would they do that, Mom? Why would they smoke when they know how bad it is for them?” “And us!” my daughter added, angrily gesturing toward the haze in front of us. But the hate quickly spread from the smoke to the smoker. My son continued. “I hate smokers,” he said as he cast an angry glare their direction. I sat there for a moment, trying to decide how to approach this ordeal. Sure, I wanted my kids to not touch a single cigarette in their lives. But I didn’t want them to hate smokers, either. “Why do you think they smoke?” I asked the kids. They gave me their theories. “To look cool” was at the top. I said, “Well, cigarettes can give you a relaxed feeling. That’s what’s appealing about them. They make you feel relaxed. They make you feel good.” “Well! They’re still bad for you!” one of them said emphatically. Ha. Trapped. “So are sodas,” I said nonchalantly. “Especially Big Gulps.” They both looked down at the drinks in their hands. “It’s not the same,” they said. “Oh? Well, high sugar consumption can lead to diabetes and heart failure,” I said. “And other problems too.” I cast a knowing look toward them. “We should probably give up sodas.” “Nooo!” they protested. “But we drink them even though we know they’re bad for us,” I said. “And it doesn’t sound like we’re going to be able to stop drinking them very easily.” They stood there silently, watching the smokers, realizing they weren’t so far from the people they’d just proclaimed they hated.

And it’s like that for us, too. Why does society in general tend to hate fat people or drunks or gamblers? Because the truth is that we know we’re just like them. Maybe we’re not fat. But we’re definitely fallen. And because we’re fallen, there’s some kind of chink in what is surely very small armor. Most of the time we won’t admit it, but we’re just one step away from that slippery slope of self-destruction. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

I brought Mattie Bigham into the world so he could find some peace in his life. Granted, it’s short lived, on this earth anyway, but I wanted to make the point that we all have holes in our hearts. And I’m not really saying that figuratively. I think we have a true, empty space there that longs to be filled. It is my belief that it can only be filled by God. Mattie has to travel an awfully long, painful, and regret-filled journey to figure this out. But I think we’re lucky enough to go on the ride with him, and maybe learn a few lessons that will save us some grief along the way.

One reviewer was so disgusted with the character that she claimed she would probably not even read the rest of the 7 Hours series. Now that’s quite a disliking, wouldn’t you say? But I’m willing to bet she’s much more like Mattie than she cares to admit. Maybe Mattie is a visual reminder for us that we’re all weighed down in this world. It’s impossible not to be. Look at the rich and famous. They’ve got everything anyone could ever want, but they’re killing themselves with booze, drugs and suicide, because at the end of the day they know that really, they have nothing but themselves, and they don’t like what they see. It’s a hard thing to stare down ourselves in a mirror and admit we’re completely messed up. Even on my best day, I’m a mess. Truly. And on my worst day? Well, you don’t even want to know.

That’s why I like Mattie. That’s why we’re friends. It’s because we’re alike. And that’s why I think, if you’ll give him a real chance, you’ll like him too. Be forewarned, Mattie is not an easy pill to swallow. He’s bitter. He’s misguided. He’s snarky. And he’s about to make the worst mistake of his life. He’s no typical hero. But then, very few are.

Travis Thrasher Mike Harden is someone who has lived through loss and tragedy and managed to move on from it. I've often written about characters stuck in the past and unable to move forward. Mike is someone deliberately running from the past and almost ignoring what happened. What happens in Teardrop ends up bringing Mike back to the past in order to deal with it. He's a former cop and a take-charge, tough guy. Yet as the story unfolds, Mike realizes you can't always take charge of everything in your life. Sometimes it's okay to admit you're broken.  

James Andrew Wilson When crafting the main character for my 7 Hours story, All of Our Dreams, I wanted to create a young man who was completely committed to his wife, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. Loyalty is rare these days with divorce being about as common as coffee. Luke Harrison is a dreamer, a man with grand ideas for his life. When his wife develops a terminal disease, those dreams are torn from him. Instead of wallowing in Woe Is Me Land, or tossing his vows in the trash and leaving his wife to a lonely, terrible fate, he stays with her. He forms his entire life around her care and comfort. He's a hero, not because he carries a gun and battles nefarious villains, but because he forsakes his own desires so that he can bless his wife. Does this make Luke uncommon--too good to be true? In a day and age where we're taught that loyalty means being true to yourself--yes, perhaps he is. But he shouldn't be, and that's why I think his story is worth telling.  

Ronie Kendig Haytham “Hawk” Wilson is a die-hard soldier, so when his team is ambushed and everyone dies—except Hawk—he’s shattered. There are so many compelling true military stories that parallel Hawk’s plight, and it breaks my heart to read about them. And the media seems intent, often, on vilifying our military heroes, so I wanted to take a “what if” approach to this mission for Hawk. What if. . .what if he made the right choice. What if he should go back and kill the boy? What if. . .he shouldn’t? What if he wasn’t wrong in the first place? It’s easy as an armchair observer to “judge” those in combat and say they should’ve done X or Y, but until we’ve been in their shoes, we should reserve our judgment and extend our prayers to guide and protect these heroes.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Behind The Scenes: Novelizations

With the promotional release of the e-book novelization of the feature film HEART OF THE COUNTRY, I decided readers might enjoy a glimpse into how novelizations work. Each novelization is different, and comes with its own challenges and benefits. HEART OF THE COUNTRY is my third novelization, and I am currently working on my fourth.

When I was first approached to consider writing the novelization for the feature THE ULTIMATE GIFT, I was seriously perplexed as to what the appeal of a novelization would be to readers. I figured if they'd already seen the movie, why would they want to read a book based on the movie? But I was also drawn to it, as I've always loved screenwriting and the idea of merging the world of publishing and film seemed the exact right fit for me. So I eagerly agreed and found that it was a bucket full of fun for the writer and the reader.

Because I was hired for the novelization during post-production of the THE ULTIMATE GIFT, I was working from a fully developed script and a movie that had already been cut and edited, so I did not have a lot of wiggle room. But it was still really fun to write. I jumped inside the heads of the characters, a thing that a film simply cannot do. So to me the novelization was like a deep dive into an already beloved movie...kind of like a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the characters' hearts and souls.

Working on THE ULTIMATE GIFT introduced me to screenwriter Cheryl McKay. I had loved her script of the movie so much that we began to correspond. I learned she had another script that had yet to be produced. As soon as I read it, I knew it would make a great novel. But it wasn't even in pre-production, so what were we to do?

We came up with the idea to write it as a novel that stood apart from the movie, meaning that if the movie was never made, it was, by itself, a great novel. If the movie did get made, it would be a bonus for all involved. So we set out to make ourselves a book. I drew up a proposal, wrote sample chapters, and shopped it around just as I would another one of my books and it was bought by WaterBrook Press. In 2010, it won the Carol Award for Best Women's Fiction, and as far as Cheryl and I know, it was the first time a screenwriter and novelist have paired together to adapt an unproduced script into a novel.

This led to HEART OF THE COUNTRY. Tyndale had been meeting with filmmaker John Ward and discussing his script. Because Tyndale publishes many of my books, and they knew I'd written novelizations before and had screenwriting experience, they thought it would be a good fit. It was.

What makes screenwriters so wonderful to work with, in my experience, is their generosity toward the other artist. Novelists tend to work in a very solitary, isolated environment, and though we're used to being edited, and usually trust our editors, we're not always great at playing with others. Screenwriters, on the other hand, are used to their work passing through the hands of producers, directors, actors, costume designers, sound engineers and more. They're open to other people's interpretation of what they've written. Invite it, in fact.

When the screenwriter and novelist partner to make a story together, it's kind of like magic. The screenwriter has done the hard work of character development, plot development, story arc, visuals and so on. The novelist then takes the story and spins it into inner monologue, motivation and all the fun things that set apart novels and movies. Screenwriters are super talented at dialogue. I get to use what's in the script as a jumping off point for the dialogue that will continue on in my scene.

Another interesting difference between scripts and novels is budget. The sky is the limit for novelists. We can make anything explode, set our scenes anywhere in the world or universe, and never think about budget. A screenwriter on the other hand is confined by budget, so they must work very hard to create a great movie with a certain amount of boundaries. When I see what a screenwriter must think through when developing a story, I am awed by the self-discipline and creativity they use to make a story work within the confines of money, page count, seasons and so on.

I worked with John Ward on HEART OF THE COUNTRY in much of the same way I worked with Cheryl McKay on NEVER THE BRIDE. I read the script and began making notes as to what would and would not work in the book. John's script was exceptionally difficult because it involved a lot of flashbacks, which work great in movies but not always in books. That was actually the most challenging part of writing the novel. And, to make a screenplay a full-length novel, it cannot be adapted scene for scene. The novelist must be able to add scenes, quite a few in fact, to make the novel the right length. But in my experience, the screenwriter really enjoys this process, because they often have to leave scenes out they wanted to put in, for time and budget sake. And, not only did Cheryl and John enjoy the new scenes I added, they both got a kick out of reading about the thoughts of their own characters. They loved how I interpreted the characters' motivations. As much play as it was for me, it was for them too.

What is exciting for me is to see adaptation take on a new frontier. Books have been adapted into movies for nearly as long as cinema has been around. And certainly novelizations have been around too, but in the past they seem to have been more for commercial purposes...another product to sell a movie with. I see that transforming with modern novelizations--the novelization becoming its own art form. Just as the Oscars recognize the artistic achievement of both original and adapted screenplays, I hope we are headed to a time when novelizations will come under that same recognition.

In the meantime, I am having quite a bit of fun collaborating with these unique artists we call screenwriters. I'm teaming again with Cheryl McKay for an upcoming rom-com called GREETINGS FROM THE FLIPSIDE and working on another novelization proposal.

In the process, I have learned to be a more generous artist like my screenwriting counterparts. They are truly gifted in more than writing. They are gifted in collaboration, and I've become a better writer for learning that art as well.


To read more about HEART OF THE COUNTRY and A STAR FOR A DAY, the promotional contest that is being offered in conjunction with the e-book release of HEART OF THE COUNTRY, click here: