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June 2009

Signs of the apocalypse
17 Jun 2009


My friend is in the process of selling a book & movie deal based on… a Facebook status update.

On Friday, she posted a status update — a cute little anecdote about her dog — and within the hour, she had two film agents approach her, wanting to pitch it as a movie. By the end of the day, she was already getting emails from industry friends all across the country, saying, “I heard you got a movie deal based on a status update!” By Monday, the agents were taking meetings, and my friend was also discussing a series of short books based on the idea. Watch for it to show up in Publisher’s Weekly any day now.

This being Hollywood, it’s still more about buzz than content — nothing has actually sold yet — but considering the amount of chatter around this one status update, I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if she ended up with a handsome deal.

I find this utterly depressing. Not that I don’t think that the quality of the movie and/or book series will be lacking — knowing my friend’s skills, she’ll knock it out of the park — but it signifies a major problem with the way the entertainment industries works these days. Everything is sold based on a pitch - a one line “hook.” Got a complex idea, that’s hard to summarize in one sentence? Forget it.

My husband and I sometimes walk out of movies and imagine the pitches that were used to sell them. “It’s Wedding Crashers… in Italy!” “Three guys wake up in a room with a chicken, a lion, and a baby” “Two brides are booked in the same room in the same day!” What happens from there doesn’t seem to matter to the companies that fund the movies — as long as it will make a good pitch line and a decent trailer, who cares what goes on in the middle? A catchy premise is more important than the story to come.

The sad truth is that we’re living in a one-line (or 140 character) world these days, and anything that takes longer to explain is often lost in the noise. Being someone who likes to write long, occasionally convoluted, intricately plotted tales, I find this just upsetting. A year after my book came out, I *still* have a hard time summarizing it in one sentence.

That said, I’m honestly happy for my friend — God knows how hard it is to sell anything these days that isn’t based on a comic book series, a sequel, or a children’s toy. All the best to her.

I guess I’ll consider it a reminder to refresh my status updates more often.

The “unlikable” character
11 Jun 2009

This last weekend, I spoke on a panel at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago (along with authors Therese Fowler, Kristina Riggle, & Kim Roby), and one of the questions that the moderator asked me was why I liked to create “difficult characters.” It was a question that really hit home for me, as I’ve been reading some of the Amazon and GoodReads reader reviews of “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything,” and one of the most common criticisms I receive is that my characters are “unlikable.”

I am always fascinated by this critique; and in some ways, I find it a compliment. As I mentioned in a previous post, my favorite literary characters are the ones who aren’t traditionally likable - like Humbert Humbert in “Lolita,” or Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye,” or the selfish Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or the repulsive Ignatius Reilly of “Confederacy of Dunces.” These are the characters that stick with me decades after I read the books: Characters that I might have found repellent or horrifying or annoying, but were always always interesting .

Unfortunately the popular mode of current thinking in mainstream entertainment is that lead characters should always be “likable.” As my friend Carina Chocano, the (much-missed) former film critic for the LA Times once wrote, “After watching “Monster-in-Law,” I canvassed a few writer to share directives they’d received while creating their romantic heroines. There is no such thing, it appears, as a romantic comedy heroine who couldn’t benefit from being just a little more “likable” than she already is. “Likable” of course, can mean many things in the real world; but for a studio it tends to mean that she does some kind of work involving animals or the elderly. Perhaps she’s a veterinarian, or a zookeeper. If she works in business, she has a boss who doesn’t appreciate her, or steals her ideas. Whatever it is, she has it tough. Sometimes she’s a single mother, “trying to hold it all together in this tough, dog-eat-dog world,” one writer offers. “Also, likable often means clumsy,” she adds. “She falls down a lot, but in an adorable fashion. Likable also means pretty. As we all know, the fat are unlikable.”

It strikes me that a lot of contemporary women’s fiction suffers from the exact same problem — and not just because some editors reject flawed female characters, but because readers reject them too — and the result is a glut of generic fiction packed with bland, unremarkable, supposedly “likable” heroines. Their biggest flaws are a workaholic streak, or a weakness for the wrong kind of men, or a habit of eating ice cream by the pint. Take the book (and film) “The Devil Wears Prada.” The most memorable character in the story (by far) is Miranda Priestly, the complex, ambitious, intolerant magazine editor; the supposed heroine of the book, her beleaguered assistant, is so plain vanilla and nicey-nice as to be completely forgettable. (In fact, I can’t even remember her name; whereas Miranda Priestly’s has been burned into my brain).

A character that is “nice” and “likable,” in my opinion, has nowhere to go. Whereas one that is deeply flawed — selfish, cruel, egotistical, materialistic, a drug addict or a hooker or a criminal, you name it — is the one who has endless possibilities before him or her. Not only do we get to see this person make bad decisions, but we also see how they actually grow as a person. There’s a possibility for a significant character arc. This was my goal with the three women in the Miller family — Margaret is given a chance to grow beyond her strident intolerance; Janice learns that her suppressed unhappiness and obsessive perfectionism has driven away her children; and Lizzie comes to understand that sex is not the same as love.

Perhaps some readers won’t love these characters; they may even hate them at first. But hopefully they’ll at least find them interesting.

Come chat with me on GoodReads
9 Jun 2009


It’s a summer Wednesday. You’re halfway through the week. Deadlines are piling up; emails remain unanswered. The weekend is too far away on either side. What better way to procrastinate away the worst day of the week than to come talk book with me?

Every Wednesday this summer I’ll be chatting up a storm with fans and friends on GoodReads, discussing not just All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, but the writing process, the joy of reading, favorite books, and pretty much anything lit. Come probe me with your most challenging questions!

click here to join me!

signing stock
3 Jun 2009


One of the most curious tasks assigned to a touring author is “stock signing.” This involves visiting every bookstore in a city and signing every copy of your book that they have in the store. The benefits are threefold: a) your book generally gets marked with an “autographed copy” sticker, which helps sell books; b) your newly-signed book often gets moved to a more prominent position on a front table, which helps sell books; and c) you get to meet the booksellers in person, who will then hopefully feel more of a personal connection to you and your novel, and, yes, sell books.

The other upside of doing this is that you get to visit bookstores where you’re not doing events. As such, I’ve managed to visit some of the most wonderful independent bookstores that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered — like Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, an incredible brick edifice to books which just reeks of history; or Depot Bookstore in Mill Valley, with its wonderful cafe. Most bookstore salesclerks are happy to meet the author, want to chat about your book, clearly care about writing — including some great staff that I’ve met at assorted Borders and Barnes & Noble. But every once in a while you have an encounter like this:

Me: “Hi, my name is Janelle Brown, and I’m wondering if I could sign stock on my book?”
Clerk, chatting on phone with friend: “You wanna do what?”
Me: “Um, autograph my book?”

Clerk, clearly annoyed to be interrupted, huffs off to locate book. Returns, ten minutes later, smelling like cigarette smoke.

Clerk: “Can’t find it.”
Me, meekly: “Actually, it’s right there on your front table.”

Clerk retrieves books with aggrieved sigh. I sign books, hand them back to bookseller, who is now reading the latest US Weekly.

Me: “Do you want help stickering them?”
Clerk: “We have stickers?”
Me: “Just don’t put it over the title, please.”

Clerk begins haphazardly slapping enormous stickers on the front of the book, covering my name.

Me, still hopeful: “Thanks for taking care of my book.”

Needless to say, this is generally not something that happens at a little independent, but at a major chain store. And it makes me appreciate, more than ever, those bookstores where you feel like the booksellers aren’t just selling widgets to make money, but consider themselves stewards of literature. Places where booksellers lovingly post recommendations under their favorite books and are eager to hand-sell you an author you’ve never heard of. It’s horrifying to me that they are such an endangered species — the entire city of Los Angeles boasts fewer than half a dozen these days.