The hopeful writers who make up her weekly group all have day jobs, but they each take one night a week to resuscitate their little sparks of hope or talent. This Wednesday the group meets at the Starbucks on the corner of Highland and Franklin Avenues, in the heart of historic Hollywood near the mall where the Academy Awards are held.
Los Angeles: the epicenter of desire, the font of fantasy, the spot where dreams come true. Of course it would be unkind or hackneyed or just plain dumb to speak of the place in these terms if the citizens themselves did not struggle so valiantly to keep the cliché fresh and new, if that is possible. And it is possible, tonight, and everyone is on their way; lights flash like heartbeats, revving cars surge and stop in shining rivers of metal, and brilliant bodies bump and flow down the broad sidewalks.
According to the flyer Drew posted on every telephone pole and billboard she could find, this is a screenwriting group for writers working on adaptations. If you want to turn a piece of biography or fiction into a screenplay, Drew can teach you how, for only $50 per meeting, pay for ten in advance. Six people enrolled and tonight is the fifteenth meeting.
Even though parking was nearly impossible, Karen the psychologist is always the first to arrive. She unfurls her hand-crocheted poncho over the last empty table and takes out this week’s homemade treat, banana muffins in an old tin. Karen, who writes long tales of dwindling relationships where characters never interrupt each other and every thought is as thoroughly expressed as a hypochondriac’s symptom, has been dressing up like a hippy for forty years and by now has an air of authenticity. She guards the table like Brunhilda, the Viking matriarch.
Next to arrive is Isabella, the plump girl with red lips who clomps across the café in big shoes, pulling her shiny black hair from the bicycle helmet. Isabella is a talented masseuse who writes erotica, currently working on a triple-x (or hopefully unrated) adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis for the screen. She and Karen hug; Karen offers the muffins and Isabella selects coyly. Karen methodically lists the ingredients of her recipe while Isabella chews, making encouraging sounds and chasing stray crumbs across the table.
Drew herself comes next, panting and disheveled. She would like to be the first to arrive. She’d like to appear calm and cool but Karen always beats her. After circling in her car for nearly forty-five minutes she had finally finagled a parking place many blocks away—partially blocking a crosswalk and certainly not legal but by then she was willing to pay the parking ticket–and had to jog in the gutter between the stopped traffic and slow parade of pedestrians to reach the cafe.
Inside, she unslings her heavy bag and gasps, “Karen, you’re so dependable. You never let us down!” She’s wearing a writer’s costume tonight: tweedy coat over a tank top covered in graffiti, hair swept up in a messy bun held up by two ball-point pens, and cuffed jeans. She doesn’t notice that her pale cleavage is pushing through the gaps between her buttons, that her body seems to be plotting a surprise debut. She wipes her brow with a hand stained with the penmarks of what appears to be a grocery list. “Isabella, that lipstick suits you perfectly. I wish I could wear that shade of red.”
Drew pulls out her notebook and a pen and flips through many pages to find one that’s empty. If she put her writing into a category, shed’d place herself on the shelf full of cerebral understated dramas or with gothic settings. She writes of unrequited love with a strong female lead. She tends towards dense prose and obscure vocabulary and has a knack for historical detail. Despite the Ph.D. in Literature and the fact that she just sold a screenplay, Drew is still not sure she belongs here at the head of the table, so she fiddles with her props (notebook, pen, hair) hoping they will make her look more believable.
Aidan, the hunky actor/waiter arrives, plops his large stack of paper on the table. He sits beside Drew and takes a moment to arrange his beefy hamstrings on the hard chair before he flashes his nice teeth. Aidan has been working on his adaptation of The Big Book of Superbowl All-Star Stats and Stories for several years. It’s titled Slam Down and this week they will read one of his epic all-male scenes which might go on for twenty or thirty pages without a word of dialogue. Aidan and Drew have a little flirtation going. After group two months ago they went to a sports bar, shared several rounds, and kissed athletically on the sidewalk before stumbling their separate ways, but now they pretend it never happened.
Drew smiles at his bicep. “We have a small group this week, huh?”
He looks at her. “Yeah. It’s the Oscars.”
“Oh. You mean the Oscars are on tonight?”
Aiden blinks. “Um, yeah.” He turns to the others. “You all know that we’re missing the Oscars, right? I mean, how the fuck did we find parking? I would have stayed home to watch if it wasn’t my turn to share.” From the side, his brow juts out for a slightly Cro-Magnon profile. Drew wonders if he could have it fixed.
While other group members arrive, Aidan passes out copies of his scene and they all settle down to read:
EXT. FOOTBALL FIELD. DAY.
It is high noon. The air is crisp and the Astroturf is green as a dollar bill. It is hot enough to fry an egg.
Close up on Nick’s face: beads of sweat have formed on his forehead, his eyes are squinting. He is very tan. He is wearing a tight white t shirt.
Camera cuts to a shot of the sun: it is big and yellow….
Wayne Webster tiptoes up to the table and gives Drew a wink. He looks elegant as usual with his dark hair freshly cut to frame his sharp bones and slightly pointed ears, a dark fitted shirt, and Italian loafers. Wayne attends these meetings but he doesn’t have to pay. He and Drew have been best friends since freshman year at the University of Iowa. After grad school he brought her back to Los Angeles, his hometown, where they found apartments in the same building in West Hollywood.
Drew thinks Wayne would make the perfect boyfriend, if he liked women. Drew tries to catch his eye again before he pulls his fancy fountain pen from his breast pocket, grabs a copy of the scene and flips fast, pursing his lips and speeding one delicate finger down each page. She wishes he were sitting beside her so she could see what he was writing.
For their group discussion, Drew always asks them each to find at least one supportive thing to say and to locate one trouble spot. It’s a good system and they’ve gotten quite adept at praising one another and the obligatory nature of the criticism makes it much easier to hear. After all, these people joined the group mainly for motivation, to make them feel good about their writing.
Isabella goes first. She puckers her lips and says that for her, the slow pace of Aidan’s scene is alleviated by all the flexing muscles and the glistening sweat and that she can’t wait to see what happens in the locker room. Karen effuses about the realism of the piece and insists upon reading aloud the parts she liked the best in her most resonant tones. She would not change a thing, although she sometimes wonders what the characters are thinking and feeling, but probably that kind of romantic psychobabble has no place in an action flick like this.
While the others take their turn, Drew thinks how lucky she is. In college she wrote postmodern gothic romances which no one wanted to publish. But Wayne always believed in her, said that her obsolescence was part of her charm. Her adaptation of The Awakening by Kate Chopin was Wayne’s idea and he was the one who suggested the writing group.
When they are finished discussing Aidan’s piece, Drew places both hands on the table in front of her: “So before we’re done for the night, I have two kinds of news to tell you.”
Karen grabs her throat: “Oh no, sweetie. Is everything okay?”
“Of course. I’m just going to have to move our meetings to Thursday night. I hope that won’t be a conflict for any of you.”
Wayne folds his arms and glowers over his glasses. She didn’t have time to fill him in. She looks at him when she says, “This afternoon I found out that not only is Lang Westwood going to direct my film but that a famous actress wants to hire me to help her prepare for the part of Edna. She can only do it on Wednesdays.”
Aidan blinks. “You mean they are really going to make it into a movie? And they’re hiring real actors?”
Karen beams. “An anonymous actress? How mysterious.”
“Is that the bad news or the good news?” Wayne smirks. “Drew, you wouldn’t know a famous actress if she walked in and sat on your lap.”
“Come on, Wayne,” Karen scolds. But she’s looking at Drew.
Drew keeps dunking the tea bag into her cup. “Well actually, I’m not supposed to tell. I promised not to, in fact.”
Aiden looks genuinely flabbergasted: “Why would a famous actress call you, anyway? I mean, no offense, but what do you know about acting?”
“Apparently, the producer wants this starlet” –Drew says the word as though it is a salacious detail, curling her tongue over the l – “to play the part of Edna, but since she doesn’t have a lot of experience—that is, with roles like this, if you know what I mean—the producer wants me to fill her in. History, backstory, etcetera. They made me promise not to breathe a word. Plus, nothing’s certain yet and I don’t want to jinx it.”
“How cool!” Isabella says. “Congratulations! I won’t ask who it is or how much you’ll get paid but I’m dying to know.”
Drew is afraid to look at Wayne. “Of course I imagined someone more mature and complicated as Edna but apparently writers don’t get to vote on these things.”
Karen engulfs Drew in her poncho. “Of course they don’t, dear. Leave the casting to the experts and save your energy for the important stuff. Oh, I am so excited for you! I will do some visualizations for you tonight.”
Everyone is gone but Wayne, standing against the wall, fiddling with his pen. She can’t look at him. Drew walks around the table pushing the chairs back in. “What’s up, Wayne? Are you mad?”
He sighs deeply. “Why Starbucks, Drew? Couldn’t you find someplace more auspicious for our rendezvous? We should meet somewhere that serves the madeleines Proust liked.”
“They have madeleines here, Wayne. They come in a three-pack.”
“No no no.” He pulls out and straddles the chair she just pushed in. “We should be somewhere in Europe drinking absinthe and pissing on ruins and having orgies with people who don’t speak English and losing ourselves.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Wayne. Sometimes the usual is a relief, don’t you think? Ennui leaves your mind free to have its own thoughts.”
“Speak for yourself.” He has pinned her bag to the floor with his foot.
“Let me tell you, I can really lose myself in a Starbucks.”
“Really?” He almost smiles. She bends down to retrieve her bag but his foot won’t budge. He puts on his hangdog expression. “So why didn’t you tell me? Why am I, your biggest fan, the last to know?”
“I know. I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you first. I knocked on your door this morning.”
“I was out late last night. So punish me for having a life.” He flicks a piece of lint off his sleeve and adjusts his glasses. He withholds his gaze as punishment. “Are you going to tell me who it is or not?”
Drew halfheartedly tugs on the strap of her bag. “Don’t tempt me. I really did have to sign something.”
“But you know that I’m the master of discretion.”
“Ha. More like master baiter. But I’m not biting, am I?”
“I’ll pay you for the information. How much do you want?” He pulls out his wallet, looks inside, and tucks it back into his pocket. “Oh, no, I already loaned you all my money. It’s probably nobody I’ve even heard of, anyway.”
“Impossible. Everyone’s heard of her. She’s huge. That’s why I can’t tell.”
He leans over the back of the chair, his dark eyes shining behind his glasses. “I don’t believe you. I think you’re just making it up.”
She yanks up her bag and sputters, “It’s Mae Beacon! Mae Beacon might play the part of Edna!”
“No!“ He jumps to his feet. Whenever he’s happy, he slips into his Gene Kelly impression. “Wow! Really? You got Mae Beacon!” He dances like a satyr doing a jig. “I swear I won’t tell anyone. Who am I going to tell? I don’t have anyone to tell, even if I wanted to. Besides, it’s not healthy to keep these things bottled up inside.” He grabs her by the hands and squeezes. “I am really impressed, Drew. I’ve always known you could do it. You completely deserve this.”
She can’t stop grinning. “Oh, come on, Wayne. How come you always say exactly the right thing? It’s just implausible. ”
He runs his hands gingerly down her arms—she is suddenly a delicate, precious thing. “And I may have said it before, but I never meant it until just now.”
My friend A says that she’s having trouble liking any of the characters. I guess I agree– no one seems very heroic so far– and I wonder if that will dissuade readers from continuing on with the story. Do you find yoursefl off-put by the characters so far? Do you want to get to know them more or do you wish for a more obviously likeable character? I am grateful for any and all feedback!
My goodness, why should your characters need to be likable within the first few pages. Jonathan Franzen writes for 537 pages before his characters become likable, and it apparently works for him. I think the important thing is that Drew and Wayne are intriguing, and yes, I do want to know more about them.
I’ve recently had some interesting experiences with feedback and the editing process on a difficult story, and the push and pull of the mixed feelings I had, was head spinning. But I read this chapter and your request for feedback, so I’ll try my best to be honest about what I think, without being unkind.
I agree with the previous commenter, that the reader doesn’t have to like the characters of a story — especially this early. We should know something about them by the end of the chapter, but it’s more important that we WANT to know more about them.
I did have trouble keeping track of all your characters. I had a writing teacher tell me something once (and yes she aggravated me, but when I get past how she said this, I can see that it’s one of the most important criticisms I’ve ever received.) After my turn to read my homework story during the small class she held at her dining room table, she said my main character didn’t seem real to her. Her actions just didn’t strike her as realistic. I got defensive, because the character was basically me in the situation I had written. After the teacher told me to stop being so defensive (which made me love her even more — not!) she said that it was my job as a writer to make her believe it. She was the reader and I needed to make sure she understood my character. She didn’t have to like her, but she did have to “get” her enough to not be taken out of the story by disbelief. That along with the criticism my friend, Lisa, recently gave me (I did ask for it) means something like this: the details you highlight (by showing them to us) need to be ones that really help us to see something about the character(s).
The way I’ve been able to do this a little better, is to think of my scenes cinematically, and describe the details of the people, the space, and what’s happening so my reader can see it (and “get” it) too. I’m definitely still learning! Today I found a new Walter Mosely novel, and this new series, like his Easy Rawlins books, show that he is a master at just this sort of writing.
I know a lot of time has passed since the previous comment and, on top of that, I’m a stranger. So if my two cents isn’t welcome, please let me know. I’ve bookmarked your blog so I can find my way back and read some more, but I won’t bother you with these kinds of comments, if you don’t want me to.
And please leave any comment on any of my posts, even if I didn’t explicitly ask.
Holy Moses. When I logged on this morning and found your comment, it completely unhinged me. Not in a bad way, but nothing less.
I’m still trying to sort through my cyclical feelings– defensiveness, the desire to argue with you, choking failure and helplessness, the sense that I (sitting here as I always am, alone in front of my computer) am not as alone as I thought, flutters of excitement, and the utter, unutterable joy that someone took the time to give me the feedback I asked for and desperately need.
It will take awhile before I can sort it all out and figure out what to do with it. In the meantime, thank you so, so much for your comment. It was a huge gift.
“…defensiveness, the desire to argue with you, choking failure and helplessness…” I could have written those words myself. I certainly feel them often! I have so often felt alone and lonely in front of my computer, feeling that no one really thinks that I have any talent except me. But I force myself to remember that just because the people who see something in my work, or even notice it all, are extremely few, they are there. Even the teacher who almost made me cry years ago, looked exasperated as she said to me, “What do I have to say to you to make you understand that you have talent?” I wanted to say, ” ‘Honey, I love your work! You’re so good — never stop writing!’ ” but I didn’t. No one says that to you except your mother. And that’s only if you’re lucky! As much as I hate it, it’s the constructive criticism that actually helps me to work better. I think it’s similar to how comedians learn from the audiences who don’t laugh, as much as from the ones that do.
My blog post, “Smackdown,” gets into my mixed feelings about Lisa’s (detailed –yikes!) criticism of a story I shared on her Open Mic Friday feature at her blog, Satsumabug’s art blog. There’s a link to her site on my very short blogroll. I met her a few months ago, by searching different phrases on WordPress for hours into the night until I found a kindred soul who is the nicest, smartest, and most supportive friend I’ve ever had. Too bad she lives so far away! Still, we’ve come to communicate often. I think we artists need to be able to reach out to each other and share our feelings and experiences, so we know we aren’t alone.
Thanks for writing me back, and I have to add that I forgot to say something last night. I was so tired at the end of my day, that I forgot to tell you that I am interested in where this plot goes. I can see there’s a good story here. I was too caught up in the slight difficulty of “the ride,” if you will, to say that in my comment. I’m sorry! I’ll definitely take the time to read more and more of your work. And if you want to, write to me any time you’d like! I certainly hope to see you in the comments at Lisa’s Open Mic Friday (which goes on for days because not everyone can be there on Friday!) It’s a very supportive atmosphere, there’s no cover (lol!) and you can enjoy it, or openly participate, in sweats and bunny slippers! I think artists getting together like this, is a good way to beat some of the loneliness of creating. Take care of yourself! (I know that can be hard when the kids are little!) Bye for now.
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Any human being to me, is
imeadiately uninteresting – I’m a
creature buff and That’s all there is
to it. I am however, glad to have found
page one of this book. I plan to read it
anyway as your style is wierd and that
makes me a tad curious. Authors worry
too much about the lesser aspects I feel.
You need a good hook but that can be
tacked on later. What really matters to
me – as a reader is your subject matter.
Mention something I am obsessed with,
such as – an old building with an uncertin
past – and I’m in – combine it seemlessly
with other things I am obsessed with and
all it takes is a little editing to come up
with something I will pay money to read.
Here you have Hollywood and Hot
Actresses – and I dare say – a hipster.
Three things that some people can’t
get enough of. Be careful who’se critism
you trust though – I’ve decided not
to trust my matieral to any who are
not into the genres it represents.
Have a thriller? Find yourself a
critic that appriciates thrillers.
As often a readers personal
tastes can get in the way of
an honest appraisal.
I completely agree that it’s best to have an audience who likes your genre. Finding one’s audience is quite tricky, however. Where do you find them? Alas, i am no marketing expert.
As a blogger, I like to
look for popular sites
that deal with subjects
similar to those I like
to work with – fantasy
Sci – Fi, mystery and
Horror – Drawing –
humer – etc. Then
I leave comments
advertizeing my site.
I’m new and already
have over 400 hits –
Don’t know if thats
a good number but
someone is noticeing.