Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Martha Stewart Show Live!

Last Wednesday my wife, Liz, appeared on the Martha Stewart Show. Read all about her experience on the show--how she prepped and rehearsed, her experience with Martha and the great crew--here. One of the main reasons she came to the attention of the show’s producers was her contribution as a craft resource to a recently published book, The Handmade Marketplace, by Kari Chapin.

We drove down to NYC from Lowell, Mass on Monday night in fog and driving rain, arriving at the Chelsea Holiday Inn on 26th street around eleven. After we made it up to our 20th floor, we opened the blinds and faced an amazing cityscape of rooftops, skyscrapers, water tanks, and construction cranes. All in the fog.

The next morning, Tuesday, it was still mostly foggy and wet. But we were able to clearly see that one of the buildings shrouded in fog the night before turned out to be the Empire State Building.

The one window in the room was unlocked and slid open easily. No screen, no safety bar. It was disconcerting but I got over my fear of heights to stick my hand out the window to get some more shots of the city view.

Liz’s segment was to be taped and broadcast live (in most markets) on the Wednesday morning show. Even though it was Tuesday, she had a lot of prep work still to do. I walked her one block over to the show offices, across the street from Chelsea Studios where the show tapes. We brought her crafts and supplies and I left her in the capable hands of a couple of the show’s resident crafters and set decorators.  

That left me with time to kill. Tuesday morning and the city was hopping. I walked around for a while, looking at the architecture, watching people, and hit-and-run eavesdropping on people’s conversations, both live and cellular.

There were Starbucks on most corners. That’s not an exaggeration. Each block in the city has a different texture, different businesses, different crowds. One block contained nothing but wholesale flower outlets.

Along the same street a film crew was setting up a shot. I walked right in front of it, thinking, maybe I’ll make it into the movie. But, they were just rehearsing. My 7 minutes of fame would have to wait.

Liz worked at the offices for about four hours. That evening we walked a couple blocks away for dinner at that fancy gourmet destination, the Hog Pit. It was dark and loud, but we warmed to the casual atmosphere and friendly waitress. We had a relatively relaxing dinner and I talked Liz down from the day’s hectic activities.


The next morning we checked out of the hotel and carried our luggage to our garage-parked car, then trundled over to Chelsea Studios. Liz had scored me a ticket to the show but wasn’t sure I’d be allowed to accompany her in or have to wait on line with the rest of the audience. It turned out not to be a problem. We were led into the labyrinthine building and were shown to our very own green room. When they whisked Liz to makeup and hair, I tagged along. Halfway through it was time to go up to the studio for rehearsal. As much for the cameras as for Liz (Martha wasn’t around yet).

The producer of Liz's segment led us out onto the studio. It was a wide, pleasantly-lit stage with a kitchen set, a craft area, and a side area laden with flowers. Also, to the left of the kitchen set (where the bulk of her show is taped) was a working kitchen which is only shown during intros and outtros to the show. People were in there cooking and prepping all morning.
I was told I could take pictures during rehearsals. I stayed mostly in a nearby chair in seats on the floor. There were two seating areas, a raised one featured in shots during the show, the other for VIPs and husbands, consisting of chairs on the floor between the stage and the raised seating. I found a VIP chair with my name on it. They had put me as close to Liz during her segment as possible.

While the crew rehearsed Martha’s cooking segments, the producer, crafter, and set designer/art director configured the table where Liz would be working with Martha. I snapped quick pics and tried to stay out of the way.


My time on sets (film school does come in handy for certain things later in life) taught me that as long as you look like you belong and are smart about where you step, you can do what you want on a set until somebody either tells you to move, leave, or puts you to work.

Then the main camera got into position in front of Liz's table, an overhead camera buzzed to life, and the roaming camera on a kind of boom or jib was on hand to capture cutaways and close-ups of Liz’s crafts. Liz was to have two segments. One where she shows Martha how she makes a polymer clay covered egg and another featuring a clay card place holders, an item she put together just for the show. Each craft had its own table, and when one craft was finished, they’d cut to commercial and exchange tables.

After a run-through for the crew, there was about 30 minutes until showtime. We went backstage and Liz changed into her freshly pressed shirt, and then went back into makeup. She looked great and was more than ready for her close up.

The backstage area was becoming more crowded and hectic. This show would be live and that pressure fed into all activities. Liz and I waited back in the green room. There was a release form to fill out. Liz looked as scared as I’d seen her and I just held her hand and let her know it was okay to feel scared. This was insane, being on a live TV show. Don’t the producers understand what this means for the little people who don’t live in New York and Los Angeles? Regular people aren’t trained for national TV. I told her to just smile and keep going no matter what.

One of the producers said the show was about to start, and led me out into the studio. The audience was seated and getting direction from some comedian who was explaining how and when to clap, and what the crews' hand gestures meant. I was the last to be seated and sure enough I was just in front of where Liz would stand. The comedian got the crowd excited by telling jokes and asking where they were from. Today there was a group of PTAers from Stamford Connecticut, and another group from New Jersey.

Just before the show started, Martha, her banker friend, one of Martha's cooks, and the day’s celeb, Rob Corddry, came out and sat around a table. The music swelled, the main audience clapped and hollered. The VIP audience was apparently too good to clap and didn’t put as much umph into it. I did what I was told: It’s live people! The group chatted like it was The View. From my seat, I couldn’t see much, so I watched one of the monitors. I also could only hear the amplified audio, so for much of the show it was like watching the show on TV except I occasionally got glimpses of the real deal when the camera or crew shifted around.

The banker was there to give advice about how to be smart with money. And somehow it all came back to cooking and food. After the first break, the banker, the cooking gal, and Martha were on the kitchen set (with a working stovetop and oven) preparingt some dish that was apparently easy and cheap. It smelled good, that’s all I know.

After the next commercial break it was time for Liz to do her thing. The cameras rolled around and got into place, the main one just to my right. Liz came out and looked radiant. Someone taped Liz’s name to the teleprompter monitor so Martha wouldn’t fudge it. Then Martha stepped behind the table, picked up an egg, and waited for the countdown. Martha introduced the segment, and Liz, and she was off.

Liz did a wonderful job working through the steps of the process. It was a job keeping the segment moving when Martha got involved with the pasta maker. The producer wrote notes to Liz on white cards and the stage manager (I think) would hold these cards down in front of Liz that told her how much time was left. Afterward Liz told me it was these promptings that actually helped her move smoothly through the segment—had it been me I would have been stuck at Hello Martha and they would have had to cart me off and go to commercial.

Martha proceeded to cut her finger using the sharp slicing instrument which Liz had warned her about multiple times. Martha held out her finger to Liz, and a brief, micro-shudder went through the crew around me. Liz told me later that blood oozed from Martha’s finger and that sight almost froze her. You can’t see this on the show. Liz, to her grace and benefit didn’t freak out or look to a producer for prompting. She touched Martha on the arm and says something like, “Oh dear.” Then kept it moving. Great TV people, great TV.

Martha really got into this crafting segment. After it ended and they went to commercial Martha was still rolling the clay pieces onto the egg like Liz had showed her. That was gratifying, to see how into the craft Martha got. A photographer posed Liz and Martha together and took a couple of photos, while Band-aids were procured and applied.

They whisked Liz away and I sat through a segment where Martha showed Rob Corddry how to make a chicken sandwich. After the next commercial break they were still working on the sandwich. I had a feeling Liz was getting bumped. There was no end to the sandwich. They went to another commercial and for the final segment Martha finally finished cooking, and then showed Rob how to make a margarita.

Liz’s second craft segment was not to be:

After the show, Martha stood in front of the audience and took questions. This was the only time the audience was allowed take pictures.

Then she was gone, and the producer came and brought me back through to the green room. Liz had nailed it, and I assured her it had gone well and that she looked and did great. She was in shock, had no sense of context for what had just happened. The producers and crafters told her she did well, and we packed her stuff, grabbed our goody bags (cleaning supplies, cook book, voucher for clay and the pasta maker) and walked back to claim our car.

We drove through noontime Manhattan traffic, the sun shone, and somehow I found 12th Avenue to the Henry Hudson Parkway just before it turned elevated. I didn’t even mind the 4+ hour drive home, it was such a relief for Liz to have had a great show.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Introducing The Drum

Do you like listening to fiction read aloud? Do you like to take your stories on the go? Coming in May 2010 there will be a new literary magazine for your ears: The Drum. Founded by Grub Streeter and fellow Beyond the Margins blogger Henriette Lazaridis Power, The Drum will publish short fiction, essays, and author interviews in audio form. It will be like going to an author reading, except the author comes to you!

As Henriette says, "I want The Drum to be a kind of curated iTunes for new works, with all the 'soundtrack of your life' possibilities that iTunes allows. I think, too, for anyone who views writing as essentially performative, and who values the artistry of the speaking voice, The Drum will, with luck, satisfy their interest."
Most of the stories and essays wil be read by the authors. If you are a writer interested submitting to The Drum, here are the guidelines:

"The Drum is looking for work that pays close attention to language while never losing sight of the narrative drive. We want stories that really do tell a story. And essays that engage in the complexity of an idea. We accept essays (under 10,000 words), short-shorts (under 2,000 words), short stories (under 10,000), and novel excerpts (up to 50 pages; we may choose to publish novel excerpts in two segments). Please send only text files (only in .doc format). If we accept your work, we will be in touch about how to arrange a recording. Make sure that your name and the title of the work appear on each page of the manuscript and present the manuscript with standard margins and type. Include contact information on the first page of the document."

Visit The Drum for more information about where and how to submit.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Grand Opening: Raven Used Books on Newbury Street

Who opens a used bookstore in 2010? Somebody who knows how to do it right. John Petrovato started selling used books in the western Mass towns of Montague, Amhearst, and Northhampton. Five years ago he opened the Raven Used Books in Harvard Square, and today he brings his used and rare book expertise to new tony address, 263 Newbury Street in Boston's Back Bay.

The Cambridge location, at 52-B JFK Street, Harvard Square, remains a vital addition to the area. The new location offers 1100 square feet of used books. Of the new location Petrovato told the Boston Phoenix: "We'll have more fiction in Boston than in Cambridge, more extensive art and arts volumes, and we'll carry cookbooks and children's literature." More fiction? "Both stores stock about 15,000 books." Color me impressed.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Less Than Zero 2

Just discovered Bret Easton Ellis is publishing a sequel (continuation?) to his debut Less Than Zero in June 2010, called Imperial Bedrooms (love that cover). Amazon says: "Clay, a successful screenwriter, has returned from New York to Los Angeles to help cast his new movie, and he’s soon drifting through a long-familiar circle. Blair, his former girlfriend, is married to Trent, a powerful manager who’s still a bisexual philanderer, and their Beverly Hills parties attract various levels of fame and fortune. Then there’s Clay’s childhood friend Julian, a recovering addict, and their old dealer, Rip, face-lifted beyond recognition and seemingly even more sinister than in his notorious past."

What's not to like? Plus, if they adapt this one into a movie, they already know who to cast; all the actors from the Less Than Zero adaptation are still going: Andrew McCarthy, Robert Downey, Jr., Jami Gertz, and James Spader. Maybe the Bangles can reunite and cover a song by, say, Robert Palmer or Ah-Ha.

In the mid-eighties I read Less Than Zero, Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInerney), and the Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Michael Chabon). All by young male writers, these books featured protagonists my age. These novels were aimed right at me, by writers my age. I imagined we listened to the same music, had the same focus on pop culture, and drank the same drinks, if not lived similar lifestyles. I was envious that somebody like Ellis, born a week after me, was already so famous and (I imagined) so rich while I was still struggling to make rent and write a decent screenplay or story, not to mention complete a novel. I wanted to live the dream of a young novelist without earning it.

I have only read two of Ellis' novels, the second was The Rules of Attraction, his follow-up to Zero. I dipped into American Psycho when it was released in 1990 to intense brouhaha, and have been curious about his last novel, Lunar Park. But I'll probably be first in line on June 15th to see how these early characters from Zero have progressed, not to mention Ellis as a writer.

Less Than Zero movie trailer:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Archives of David Foster Wallace

The New Yorker just published an article about the recent acquisition by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas of the David Foster Wallace archive. The content of the archive offers an amazing glance into the inner workings of an unparalleled (and missed) writer. It includes multiple drafts of his novels "Infinite Jest" and "Broom of the System", and copious drafts of and notes for many of his essays, including those collected in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again".

That DFW held on to early drafts and working notes is no surprise. I generally keep everything I've written. Not because I want future generations of admirers to gaze upon my words in reverence, but because I'm obsessed with not throwing away or deleting even a sentence that might come in handy later. I have dozens of saved drafts of stories and novels, dog-eared printouts and forgotten archived.doc files, sure that the minute I delete or toss something, tomorrow I'll wish I had it to use again.

Part of DFW's archive are hundreds of books from his personal collection. “Virtually all of the books are annotated, many are heavily annotated." Apparently, "Wallace was especially fond of taking notes and compiling vocabulary lists on the inner cover. The collection, heavy on contemporary fiction, contains nearly all of Wallace’s friend Don DeLillo’s novels, including some pre-publication typescripts. Other titles include Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” and “The Tipping Point,” and Jonathan Franzen’s “Strong Motion.”

What I love about this is the idea of Wallace, whose writing brims with impressive verbiage, scribbling down the words he was most fond of in the white space of his collection. I tend to treat my books as beautiful totems of the author that must be retained in their new condition and wouldn't dream of writing in them. I wrote words I liked and wanted to use in my writing in a notebook. But, a part of me loves this idea of adding to a classic, long published book that I admire. Even if I attempted this, I couldn't come up with as eloquent a doodle vision as this.

DFW was working on a novel when he died. "The Pale King" will be released by Little, Brown in April '11, at which time, according to ew.com, "Little, Brown will create a website to make large chunks of the manuscript available to fans, so they can see how the book came together and 'have a detailed sense of Wallace as a working writer.'"

Archiving the physical work of esteemed authors is nothing new. Especially at the Ransom Center, which also hosts the archives of Norman Mailer, Walt Whitman's poem and essay manuscripts, the letters of Edith Wharton, along with material from Carson McCullers to James Jones to James Baldwin, among many others. But you don't have to be dead to enjoy such a status, as the Ransom Center also houses material from Thomas Pynchon, Larry McMurtry, and Don DeLillo.

Watch DFW on Charlie Rose from 1997 here. It's a pretty incredible interview, where Rose asks David his take on some contemporary movies, about David Lynch who he wrote about in "Fun Thing", and about the movie Shine whose director Scott Hicks was a guest earlier on the same show. Incredible, but a little sad and cringy the way Rose squeezes David for information about things other than his writing, in order to get deeper into his writing mind. Rose also doesn't always listen to David's answers or allow the interview to flow organically. Rose also asks about David's non-fiction, his use of footnotes and endnotes, and his fame in the wake of "Infinite Jest".

DFW talking about which group of writers he considered himself a member of:

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Seven Simple Rules for Writing

Since Elmore Leonard released his slim volume about his 10 Rules for writers to follow, it has generated reactions from bravo to derision. Right or wrong or in between, all writers have rules they follow. Tricks of the trade that help make their writing better.
Here is Elmore’s list (numbered, apparently, as originally presented; but the tech writer in me wants to make this a bulleted list) followed by my own list of seven:
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Instead of taking each of his points to task, I’ll just say to Mr. Leonard: Whatever works for you.
This is what works for me (with some overlap, where noted*):
  • Kill the Cliché. I’ve said too much about the cliché. Yet, maybe not enough. This is the big one, and most amorphous of rules. But pay attention to the cliché; make note--rout, remove, lambast, and sequester it for future generations. Your writing will thank you. Your agent will thank you. Your wife will thank you. Your cat won’t care, but you’re not writing for an audience of cats (or are you?).
  • Don’t describe concurrent action. “As Joe walked in the room, he took off his coat.” This forces the reader to backtrack within the same sentence. They may not notice, but in their brains the wheels and cogs will need to reread, as follows: “Let’s see, he walked in the room. Got it. Oh wait, he’s also taking off his coat. Let me start over.” Instead, place these actions one after the next: “Joe walked into the room and took off his coat.”
  • When a character asks a question, don’t qualify it with asked: “Are you going to take off your coat as you walk in the room?” she asked. It’s redundant. The question mark already alerts the reader that this is a question.
  • Don’t add paragraph breaks to a short story. They are mostly unnecessary, breaking the flow and deflating the tension you’re trying to create in a compressed time. If you often use breaks, try removing them and see if it reads better. Although, I admit I recently broke this rule at the suggestion of an editor. In my case it made sense to add a break because the story really did have two parts, with a thematic shift occurring in the middle. I tried to get away without a break, but it flowed more naturally with one. This rule depends on the story.
  • *Don’t use suddenly. What’s wrong with suddenly? Where’s the love for this bastard word that was initially welcomed to the party but later scorned? The problem is this: It’s beyond cliché to use suddenly. Suddenly can be inserted in almost any sentence, you know, like fuck or fucking. It’s more than a place holder, it’s a plague. If a sentence or paragraph uses suddenly to propel action (“Suddenly he walked in the room as he took off his coat”), then the sentence/paragraph should be rewritten. Suddenly is a lazy state of mind. One begets the next until (suddenly) you’re writing a story or novel using tokens in place of actual emotion.
  • * Start a story with action. Don’t start with dialogue, or worse, the weather. This is debatable. But I think the point is, introduce context to the reader before you throw dialogue or random atmosphere at them. It’s off-putting to read a line of dialogue when you don’t know who is talking.
  • Don’t write dream sequences. Dream sequences are as much fun to read as they are to hear (except when described by your significant other). But writers love to write dreams because they tell so much about the inner life of their characters, more than the character is sometimes aware of. And therein lies the rub: dream sequences distance readers because the events aren’t actually happening to the character. After the dream ends, it’s back to the regular story. And if important events, memories, symbolism, exposition, etc., are exposed only through a dream, then it’s best to back the truck up and rethink you’re strategy. I know this. I’ve done this. I wrote a great dream sequence, where all the women in a character’s life were gathered in a room and discussed what they really thought about this character. It was great. I mean, how else to convey this information? Well, it shouldn't just come miraculously in a dream. I ended up cut the scene from my novel because it slowed the story to a bloodless crawl. And the scene before and the scene after had nothing to do with the dream. Cutting it was simple; there were no ripple effects. And that’s what dreams do to your story; they leave no ripple. They are anti-matter, anti-scenes that nobody needs.
Want more? Read The Guardian’s interviews of authors that give their own list of rules.
For a different view, here’s a seasoned reader’s list of rules for writers, in case they care to consider their audience while they write.
What rules have you adopted? What helps you get through your writing day?

Monday, March 1, 2010

New Post on Beyond the Margins

Good morning all. Check out my new post over at Beyond the Margins this morning where I give the skinny, the 411, the lowdown on where to find all the best online resources for writer's.