Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Life As We Know It

I saw the movie Life As We Know It starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel and I have to say I really liked it.

I have a soft spot for romantic comedies to begin with but this exceeded my expectations. Sure there were a few story elements you could have guessed up front but even those weren't wrapped up quite as nice and neat as many other movies in this genre. There were certainly roadblocks to overcome regarding the characters' personal and professional goals in addition to a huge learning curve of raising their best friends' child while also grieving their death. On top of that, there is the constant reminder of what's been lost.

The movie's beginning was certainly it's most formulaic and at first glance the characters seemed over simplified but both Heigl and Duhamel quickly recovered and thus I found this initial violation forgiveable. As the storyline progressed, the audience wants to cheer them on as they struggle to determine what's best for themselves, for their new daughter Sophie, as well as coming to terms--and even embracing--the fact that their lives have become something altogether different than they expected or even had hoped.

Here's a peak at the trailer:

The more I thought about this movie over the last couple of days, the more I realized how many lessons there are for creating a story that works. This also reminded me how important it is for writers to take a step back from the stories we love to ask ourselves why we love it and why it works. So I created the top 10 reasons why, I believe, this story was a success.

1. There were believable, likable characters.
2. The dialogue felt natural.
3. There was conflict on all levels (internally for the characters and between the characters).
4. There were obstacles blocking the characters from what they wanted at numerous points in the storyline, forcing them to reveal their true personality.
5. There was a quirky, complementary group of supporting characters.
6. There was comedic relief to balance the more serious undertones of the film.
7. The characters had chemistry--a vital ingredient for any romance.
8. There were balanced rises and falls in action.
9. The characters evolve in the film, revealing what they value most at the point of the story's climax.
10. There's an adorable, little baby (oh, yeah and pretty good-looking protagonists). In my opinion, that never hurt anyone...especially in a romantic comedy.

This, of course, isn't an exhaustive checklist that every story needs but it's a good starting off point. And if there are other key elements to a good story that come to mind I invite you to include it in the comments so we can add it to the collective list.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Monday Morning's Moment of Zen

I saw this tongue-in-cheek photo-op and just had to post it. This is actress Jane Lynch at a photo shoot for More magazine. Lynch plays Sue Sylvester, the Cheerios cheerleading coach, in the hit show Glee.I hope it makes you laugh this Monday morning as it did me. Lynch jokes she's trying to show that the other Glee actresses aren't the only ones who get to be sexy, so for this photo shoot, she ditched the matching sweatsuits for leopard print robe and the help of a few friends :-)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Never Let Me Go

When Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go came out in 2005, a friend of mine that works at Random House sent it to my apartment with a short note, "You need to read this."

She's given a lot of recommendations over the years and probably holds the high score for the number of ratings posted on Goodreads. So her insistence on reading this meant a lot. And I was excited--really excited as this book sounded so powerful and poetic and beautifully haunting.

Plus we're talking about Kazuo Ishiguro who won the Booker Prize for Remains of the Day.

But then something happened...moving day. The day after I received the coveted package I was moving from my respectible single pad (ie. tiny studio apartment) into a McMansion (ie. a condo that only seemed big in comparison). And all of this was happening with my newly-minted fiance. So, yeah, I was a bit preoccupied.

I did, however, pack all of my books into carefully labeled boxes and placed Never Let Me Go right on top so I could rip open the packing tape, quickly grab the book, and be reading it by the next morning commute. And then something else happened further proving the karma police have a twisted sense of moving van.

The moving van company had apparently overbooked the day we needed to move. You have to remember too, we live in the city so the only cars we'd been taking lately were cabs. And living in a 10-story building I had to jump through every administrative hoop to reserve an elevator for a brief window of time and that time was ticking.

So when I say that we bribed, blackmailed, begged, and cohersed with tales of free pizza and fresh beers our way across town you better believe it. Every friend I know in D.C. with a car was there that day leaving sore, fat, and happy. (Alright! Maybe they weren't terribly happy but we're all still on speaking terms.)

After what seemed like 67 trips from my old apartment to our new condo we were finally done. My carefully catalogued system, however, had no follow through. Boxes were strewn wherever there was available space and even after I identified my boxes with books, I still couldn't find Never Let Me Go. It had seemingly up and disappeared. Perhaps it deemed my life too drama-filled and fled the scene.

I know what I should have done. I should have marched to the bookstore and bought a new copy but instead I moved on to one of the many other books in my "to be read" pile and somewhere *gasp* (I'm sorry, I repent) I forgot about it. There, I said it!

I forgot about it until I saw the movie trailer the other day starring the amazingly talented Kiera Knightly, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield (also in The Social Network). I definitely want to see this movie but first things first, I have to read this heart wrenching book. I've heard where some books touch on the surface of an issue, this book drives down to the raw emotion, that it asks us to question the worth of a life, the expectations set out for someone rather than the goals they set for themselves; and how to navigate the world when those around you believe your course has already been set. How do we live, love, let go? How do we set ourselves free from expectation and into the unknown?

I'm so excited to read it...finally! Instead of kicking myself too much for having forgotten I am trying to see the positive. Perhaps I was meant to read it now because I not only unearthed Never Let Me Go in the excavation of my bookshelves but also discovered additional books that had fallen off my radar. I hadn't lost these novels after all (*high fives*). They were simply tucked into the available crevices behind the seemingly neat row of books. As penance I'm giving them all prime real estate on my bookshelf so there's no forgetting this time around. And I'm starting with Never Let Me Go.

This book was short-listed for the Booker Prize, Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as being a New York Times Notable Book and called "One of the Best Novels of the Decade" by Time magazine. And on top of that I cried just watching the movie trailer so I can't imagine what it will be like reading the book.

Like many novels, Never Let Me Go has seen a makeover or two. Here's the first edition cover:

Here's another edition cover:

And lastly, the cover based on the movie:

The plot description if you're unfamiliar is this.

Never Let Me Go is a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss. As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules--and teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them so special--and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Never Let Me Go is suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric.

Here's a glimpse of how they took that storyline and translated it to film:

So if you're belated to the Never Let Me Go party like I am or you just want to re-read this amazing book, then I welcome you to pick it up. I'll be reviewing the book and posting conversation pieces the week of November 22. I invite you to read along and post your own questions and conversation pieces here. And if you have any other suggestions of books you think I just NEED to read that have potentially fallen off my radar as well then please, from one bibliophile to another, let me know.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

We Have a Winner!

The winner of The Hunger Games contest is *drum roll* Lora. Congratulations! This is an amazing book.

Lora, please email me your mailing address so I can send the book out. Thanks to everyone who entered and thank you also for your enthusiasm. Don't forget I have another giveaway taking place right now for Allie Larkin's ridiculously adorable and delicious book Stay.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Confession Monday

Confession: I'm venturing into uncharted waters (ie. I am writing a story from a male point of view).

I never imagined writing something from a male POV before because, really, what do I know about being in the mind of a man? What does any woman? Isn't that the age old question, "What are they thinking?!"

But then something happened. I got an idea for a YA story... and the main character is a boy. So I tried to change it. I thought of all the ways I could try to work the story around a female character because I had no idea where to start if the character was male but none of my attempts stuck.

I usually have to work hard to put together my characters. I typically know the storyline before I know them fully. For some writers it's the opposite. I suppose that's what I've always found the most difficult to understand: when writers say characters seem to have come to them fully formed. I didn't understand until now. My main character Toby didn't want to change. He wanted to be himself and just WOULD.NOT.CONFORM.

I have to admit knowing this character so well so early on has made it easier to envision the constructs of his relationship with other characters. Sure he'll likely surprise me from time to time as I delve further into the story but when I sat down to write Toby, his distinct voice came out. On top of that, I seemed to know everything about him from his one sibling sister to the fact he's grown six inches in the last year to who his high school crush is and for how long.

I'm excited because I think the characters who are unabashedly themselves are the most refreshing and we often feel like we know them like close friends so that's what I'm hoping I'll be able to achieve when I'm done. But there's still the questions of, "What do I know about being in the mind of guy? And what do I know about being a"

I got thinking about these questions and began to panic. "What do I?" but then I remembered that as writers we've come to know our characters infinitely because we've birthed them, watched them grow from an idea to an identity. Isn't that what fiction writers do anyways, we envision the mindset of someone else? So who cares if that someone else is younger or older, male or female, queen bee or class outcast? If we're true to who the character wants to be then it'll feel genuine and readers will be passionate about them. Or that's what I'm hoping and what advice I'm sticking to. And I have to admit, thus far, I'm really loving this new adventure of sorts.

First person male POV feels less censored to me. My character isn't over analyzing anything, he's just thinking what he's thinking. It also helps that I've somehow roped my husband into being my consultant on this and so I'm often hollering questions from my laptop like, "What are the most popular video games right now?" and he knows like *that.* Talk about quick research!

I should preface that I'm not writing a "boy book" but rather a book with a main character who is a boy. The difference being that this isn't a book just for boys. There's still adventure and romance and self conflict and all of the themes I love equally in books told from a female POV. Author Hannah Moskowitz has done a great post on boy books and how, at least in teen fiction, there aren't enough options for male readers. Moskowitz for those of you unfamiliar with her work is sort of the queen of the male POV as she's written a number of novels with a male protagonist.

For the writers out there, here's a good assignment: take a scene you've written or read from the female POV and re-write/re-envision it from the male POV, trying to be true to the character. This doesn't have to take any more than 10 minutes but it's a fun exercise.

In fact, L.J. Smith is doing just this: after the wildly successful Vampire Diaries (which I admit I have not yet read but I do watch as one of my new fav, addictive treats) she's embarking on Stefan's Diaries, a series of novels told from the male main character's POV. I may have to pick some of these up from the library to compare how Elena sees Stefan and how he sees himself.

For everyone else what's your confession this Monday morning?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cover and Title Round-up

Cover pick of the week:

I know I featured some of my favorite covers and titles a few weeks ago but I had to add these to the list. In fact, as new books come out, I'm hoping for this to be a semi-regular spotlight feature here at The Long Ride Home.

Fall for Anything by Courtney Summers is a gorgeous cover with the photographs hanging in the background while the girl hangs her head in the foreground, the black and white images juxtapose a wall of faded yellow. This image seems to evoke so many emotions plus the storyline sounds pretty rivoting and seems to adequately match the beautiful and haunting feel of the cover:

When Eddie Reeves’s father commits suicide her life is consumed by the nagging question of why? Why when he was a legendary photographer and a brilliant teacher? Why when he had a daughter who loved him more than anyone else in the world? When she meets Culler Evans, a former student of her father’s and a photographer himself, an instant and dangerous attraction begins. He seems to know more about her father than she does and could possibly hold the key to the mystery surrounding his death. But Eddie’s vulnerability has weakened her and Culler Evans is getting too close. Her need for the truth keeps her hanging on… but some questions should be left unanswered.

Title pick of the week:

Are You There Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea by comedian Chelsea Handler is, of course, a spoof on Judy Bloom's long-time classic, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret..

The book is a collection of Chelsea's experiences from sibling rivalry to parental humilation and everything in-between. I knew when I laughed out loud at the sight of this title that it had to be featured as the pick of the week.

So tell me, have you seen any good covers or titles lately?

Monday, October 11, 2010

It Gets Better

I recently saw some videos called "It Gets Better" in response to the many teen suicides in recent weeks. The videos are meant to raise awareness about bullying and also about The Trevor Project (866-4-U-TREVOR), a crisis hotline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth and I wanted to share one of those videos here:

I think for writers, especially MG and YA writers, the issues of acceptance, stigma, social isolation, bullying (both physical and cyber-bullying) are all things that warrant serious attention and I would love to see more inclusion of these themes and how to deal with them in YA literature. I found this Web link of a California Library and their recommended books on bullying but I'd love to hear from you and what novels you've read on the subject and what else you think there needs to be more of in teen books.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Q & A with Allie Larkin

I had the pleasure of chatting with the amazingly talented Allie Larkin, author of Stay.

It's rocking a average 4.5/5 stars on Goodreads and, well, it's awesome! Van's journey and struggle are entirely relatable. She's trying to figure out what's next for her, where her life is going, and how to be what she's supposed to be (a good friend, a good bridesmaid) while also being true to herself. She's rebuilding after the love of her life has married her best friend and she's lost her mother to cancer. Amidst the serious themes is constant comedic balance that will have you flipping through until the end.

Publishers Weekly said, "...Van's conflicts feel authentic, and her emotional frankness is refreshing" while New York Times bestselling author Beth Harbison wrote, ""I cannot wait to read more from Allie Larkin-an effervescent new voice in fiction. Witty, sweet, and strikingly real, Stay is for any woman who has ever experienced heartbreak or loss and needed a friend to lean on. I loved every word!"

And now what you're really waiting for, the interview with Allie herself...

• What inspired Stay?

Stay started as a writing exercise in my advanced fiction class in college. Later in the semester, I turned the exercise into a short story about two women, Van and Janie, sitting in Starbucks talking about Van’s failed love life. Years later, I went back to the story and started asking myself more questions about Van and Janie, and Stay started to take shape.

• Can you give us the “elevator speech” of what Stay is all about?

Stay is about a woman who has to serve as maid of honor while her best friend marries the man she’s been in love with since college. After the wedding, she does what any girl would do – gets drunk on grape Kool-Aid and vodka, watches a Rin Tin Tin marathon, and accidentally orders a 100 lb German Shepherd from Slovakia off the Internet.

• Did you know right from the beginning that you wanted there to be a dog or did that happen organically when you were conceiving Savannah “Van” Leone’s journey?

The dog really did happen organically. I wrote the wedding scene and got Van back to her condo in Rochester. She was drunk and depressed and had no one to talk to, and that’s as much as I knew. I had no idea what was going to happen. I was outside raking leaves one morning with my German Shepherd, Argo (who is the cover model for Stay). I starting thinking about the ways Argo changed my life. I knew Van needed a change, and a dog would certainly shake her life up. The how of Van getting Joe just kind of happened when I sat down to write again.

• If the marketing department at Penguin, your publisher, sat you down and said you had to choose between a great book cover or a fabulous title, which would you pick?

I don’t know, really! I mean, I’m certainly thankful to Argo for being such a great cover model. I know I can’t say no to that face. I also know that word of mouth is very important to book sales, so having a title people want to talk about is very helpful too. But, I suppose, covers can change with reprints, but titles rarely do, so I guess if I absolutely had to pick, I’d say title.

• If they made Stay into a movie, who would you cast as Van, Peter, Janie, Alex, and Diane?

You know, I really don’t like to say, because I want people to bring their own ideas of who the characters should be to the book. I did let it slip on Facebook the other day when I was watching Parenthood that I thought maybe Dax Shepard would be a good vet. But I wasn’t talking about Stay, or anything, of course. I was just talking about vets in general.

• Van is very much going through a quarter-life crisis. Why should readers well out of their 20s also run to the local bookstore (or online) and pick this up?

Van is someone who is desperately trying to figure out where she fits in and what she wants out of life. I think that’s an evolving process for most people and isn’t necessarily age specific. We’ve all had less-than graceful times in our lives, and found comfort in friendship – furry or otherwise. So, I think, at any age, there’s something to relate to – either from an I’ve been there or I feel like that now point of view.

• Now that it’s autumn and book club season is in full swing I wanted to ask, if Stay was selected as a book club read, what questions or themes do you hope readers discuss/debate?

I’m actually going to my first Stay book club discussion next month and I’m so excited! I hope they want to talk about Diane and Van’s relationship a little bit. Of all the characters in the book, Diane evolved the most in the writing process. She was so interesting to write, because she kept surprising me.

• There are so many people you thank in the acknowledgments section of your book for helping encourage your writing. What sage advice from them, or from your own experience, would you like to pass along to other writers hoping to break into publishing?

I’m so lucky to have had so many people support me in this, and I think that support is so important. My writing group, especially, is such a huge part of my support system. They are brilliant writers and amazing readers.

It’s hard to write completely alone in a bubble, so I think the best advice I can give is to find a writing group or a writing partner. It’s so important to get constructive criticism, and the constructive part of that is just as important as the criticism. Look for a writing group that inspires you and challenges you. You don’t want to go to group just to get a pat on the back, but you should never feel attacked either. I’m a better writer for all the times someone in group said, “this part isn’t really working for me,” and I kept writing because I had a group of people who believed in me and believed in my characters.

• Do you have a writing regimen and if so what is it?

I don’t stare at a blank page. It’s not productive and I end up getting frustrated with myself. If I’m stuck, I stop writing, and try to accomplish something else. I seem to have the most success getting unstuck when I’m doing something physical that allows me to daydream. Hiking, biking, and gardening are favorites. But I have to keep pushing myself to make sure I sit down to write once I work out the ideas. It’s not enough just to think them. I’m pretty disciplined about getting my butt in the chair and getting the work done once I figure out what’s next for my story, but I don’t write at set times or to hit a certain word count. If I don’t have the ideas in place, I won’t get anywhere, no matter how many words I say I need to write.

• What can we expect to see from you next?

My essay about adopting our younger dog, Stella, will be in an anthology called I’m Not The Biggest Bitch in This Relationship, that Wade Rouse is editing. And I’m working on a new book, with brand new characters, although I hope to check back with Van someday too.

• How can readers follow you online?

I’m all over the place! I tweet @alliesanswers (, I have a website and personal blog at, and I blog at I also have a Facebook page.

• And I have to ask, are you closet Boston music fan?

No, I openly and unabashedly love Boston.

In conjunction with the interview I'm also hosting a contest to win a hardcopy of Stay!!! Contest rules are as follows:

1. Be a follower of the blog
2. In no more than a tweet (aka 140 characters) tell me your funniest pet story, extra points if it you use Boston music references.
3. Enter the contest by emailing me at (subject line "Stay book contest")
4. In homage to Van's pumpkin-inspired bridesmaid dress the contest closes on Halloween.
5. Note: This particular contest is U.S. only. (Sorry but the hardcover book is too heavy to mail internationally!)

To bide you over till then, here's the really fun book trailer for Stay.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Weekend Round-up

Okay, so I meant to write a really rivoting blog post but life just got in the way and, well, I spent this weekend editing my manuscript and spending quality time with the family and yes, watching the Redskins beat the Eagles (sorry Philadelphia fans).

To try to make it up to you I'm posting these cute pictures we took of our puppies playing in a nearby field (okay, okay "dogs" as they're 2-years-old but believe me they still act like puppies most of the time).

I suppose, however, that this is a good transition into some other discussions later this week as my forthcoming author Q&A is with another dog lover. Stay tuned to find out who!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Book Festival Roundup and Giveaway

Suzanne Collins was the uber rock star of the Teens tent at the National Book Festival where kids and adults alike spilled out around her like die hard fans. In tightly-packed seats, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the wings, or sitting on the small available ground space, no crevice was left unattended.

While Collins has had a prolific writing career with television shows on Nickelodeon (e.g. "Clarissa Explains it All") and her Gregor and the Overlander series, the real phenomenon that propelled her into the spotlight is The Hunger Games.

It spent 92 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. It's been praised by everyone from Stephen King to Rick Riordan to Stephenie Meyer. And the film rights have been purchased by Lions Gate. The Hunger Games is part one of a three-part series (others include Catching Fire and Mockingjay).

Here's a little about The Hunger Games:
In a not-too-distant future, the United States of America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war, to be replaced by Panem, a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. Each year, two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal intimidation of the subjugated districts, the televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem as the 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors, literally, with all citizens required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss's young sister, Prim, is selected as the mining districts female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta, the son of the town baker who seems to have all the fighting skills of a lump of bread dough, will be pitted against bigger, stronger representatives who have trained for this their whole lives. Collins' characters are completely realistic and sympathetic as they form alliances and friendships in the face of overwhelming odds; the plot is tense, dramatic, and engrossing. This book will definitely resonate with the generation raised on reality shows like Survivor and American Gladiator.

I listened to Collins discuss the inspiration for the novel. She said late one night she was channel surfing and kept flipping back and forth between coverage on the War in Iraq and a reality show with young people and suddenly the line between the two seemed to blur. War and its effect on young people have always been major themes for not only her work but her life. Collins' father was a career serviceman and they moved from base to base.

Collins said she's always loved Greek mythology and the story of Theseus has stood out as children were forced to fight, something that Collins says is the worst form of repression: "We won't hurt you; we'll hurt your children," Collins explained. This served as part of the basis of The Hunger Games along with Collins' love of all things gladiator and the more modern phenomenon of reality television. Coupled together it's been called "addictive," "poignant," "brilliantly plotted," and "a near-perfect adventure novel." A Webcast of Collins and all of this year's authors will be posted here shortly.

And so I waited in this line...

to get and giveaway this...

That's right, I'm doing another book contest. Rules are simple:
1. Contest runs until 5 pm EST October 18
2. You must be a follower of my blog
3. One extra entry if you Facebook, Tweet, or blog about this contest
4. One extra entry if you comment on this blog post
5. Two extra entries for each friend you refer
6. You must email me to let me know you're entering the contest. (Write "Hunger Games Contest" in the subject line and if you've referred a friend(s) or posted the contest information elsewhere include that too. You can email or click on my picture under "followers.")

Good luck!