When it’s Time to Reboot

It’s exciting starting something new. People love having a mission.

It’s frightening starting something new. What if we fail?

It’s invigorating starting something new. Ideas come flooding in.

It’s deadening starting something new. Will my work find an audience?

It’s necessary to start something new. Standing still gets boring quickly.

It’s inevitable, starting something new–if we don’t, we become irrelevant.

Who likes being irrelevant?

No one.

Do Your Teens Read Books? DO THEY REALLY?








[Graphic is from The Atlantic. It shows that reading rates have doubled since 1949]

I’m one of those people who read incessantly as a teen. When I wasn’t sneaking cigarettes on the top of a double decker bus, stealing candy from the corner store, or dressing up in fishnets to go see Adam & the Ants at the Lyceum, I was reading.

When my kids were little, I read to them all the time (good parent? check). In the mornings at breakfast (I cook up a serious protein filled breakfast–good parent? check), I’m engrossed in the New York Times. On holiday, I’m invariably devouring five books. I have always made the kids take journals with them when we travel, and I’ve always made sure they wrote in them (good parent? you betcha).

And then it happened: Two of my kids stopped reading.

My oldest, now 18, stopped in about 5th grade. He has a bookshelf full of books that I’ve bought him in a desperate effort to entice him back to the written word. He’s not having any of it.

My middle child, god bless middles, does read. A lot. She inherited my Kindle and buys books constantly. In fact, the other morning I saw an email receipt in my inbox for Fifty Shades of Grey.

Now, I’ve always talked quite openly to the kids about sex, but that particular book doesn’t quite seem like appropriate reading material for a 16-year old. “Honey, do you know there’s sadomasochistic porn in that book?” I asked her, incredulous.

She looked at me, sleepy eyed and confused. Her face went bright red. “I don’t even know what that IS!” Apparently she bought it solely becuase it was #1 on the ebooks bestseller list. So she reads, though she did roll her eyes when I asked her not to read that one.

I was reading aloud at night to my youngest until just a few months ago. She is 13 1/2 years old. She kept asking me, so I kept doing it (good parent? check). I was psyched because at her age I was doing–well, let’s just say my mother was NOT reading to me at night anymore. HuffPo says up till 8th grade kids absorb way more when read to than when reading themselves.

Alas, my youngest hates reading on her own. She’ll only do it with a gun to her head. Research shows that the more TV kids watch before the age of eight, the fewer books they read after the age of eight. (Well, I’m royally screwed then.) So I get her National Geographic for Kids, let her read my People Magazine, goad her constantly. Bad parent? check.

Nothing makes me feel like a worse parent than the fact that I write books, adore books, breathe books, make my living from books… and yet two out of three of my kids don’t read them. Damn the Internet: it’s all your fault.

So, how do you get your teens to read?

One Big Happy Family

A week ago, I was at The Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference in Boston. It’s basically the highlight of my year (don’t tell my husband that). Back in the early 2000’s, I skulked in dark corners unable to bring myself to talk to anyone. Then, I met my agent through the conference. Then, I sold two books. Then, I found a champion of my fiction writing. Then, I connected with publishers and agents for editing work. Then, I started teaching.

Now, I moderate panels, hobnob with celebrities and have an orange ribbon on my name plate that reads: “PRESENTER.” You get the picture. I love The Muse.

I could gush about how fun it was (pre-conference cocktails at 28 Degrees)…. how inspiring (new writers! successes!)… how informative (behind-the-scenes at the big six publishers)… how invigorating (chit chats with Andy Warhol’s former editor)… and so on, but, shall I tell the truth?

The best part of the conference was Alessandro Nivola.

Yes, the actor from Laurel Canyon (hear his astonishingly good British accent at 1:13) and other great movies. This rather famous Hollywood guy spent time with us lowly writers and made us feel, well, more important than we typically feel. On Saturday night at the after-party, he strummed his guitar and sang while his wife Emily Mortimer (soon to be seen on HBO’s The Newsroom) snapped pictures of us all swooning. Here’s a picture of me using the wall to prop myself up. It ranks among the best night I’ve had in years.

The next day, I listened in on a panel with Alessandro and Stephen McCauley. Here are some nuggets:

  • It is not the job of an artist to be concerned with bourgeois morality.
  • Likable characters don’t have to be morally good, but they do have to be dynamic.
  • While filming Match Point, Woody Allen said the dialogue itself is unimportant, it’s the emotional understory that matters.
  • Books rely more heavily on language than film, and so does television.
  • Every scene has a rhythm and a moment. When that rhythm shifts, THAT’S where the energy is.
  • “Movies mostly suck.” Yes, he said that.
  • Dialogue should always have a subtext. Bury the lede.
  • Every scene needs an obstacle: this prevents the person saying what they really want to say.
  • The audience needs to sense what the character WANTS. That’s exciting.
  • Psychologizing is a big no-no. It’s not dramatic and it’s pretentious. Show it through behavior.
  • If it’s specific, it can’t be cliched. (This might be my favorite nugget of all.)
  • Ask yourself, “How do I want to make the viewer/reader feel?” This forces an active voice.
  • When something is tailor-made for a specific market segment, it’s never a recipe for good art.
Thanks, Grub Street. Thanks Alessandro. Thanks for making me feel part of one big happy family.