Monday, August 20, 2012

Everyone Should Have a Neil

In 2006, I'd reconnected with my college friend, Neil, through Friendster (yeah, remember Friendster?). We'd been theatre majors together at Ithaca, but I'd dropped out after two years, and I hadn't seen him in almost a decade.

Neil is an editor and generously offered to read my manuscript: Savannah Leone & Her Trusty Dog Joe. It was the story of a woman who accidentally ordered a German Shepherd off the internet from Slovakia (sound familiar?). She found love, had a tiny bit of angst, got into a spat with her best friend and. . . well. . . that's about it. Not much else happened to her.

"I take storytelling very seriously," Neil warned me before he read my manuscript.

I'd sent queries out to some agents. I'd had partial requests. I was on the path to something, but I wasn't there yet. I had a vague, unsettling sense that something in my story hadn't fallen into place yet. I didn't want to give my manuscript to someone to read only to get the vague it's good, response that often comes from well-meaning beta-readers who want to be polite. While I'm sure at that point in our friendship I had no way of understanding the depth of Neil's seriousness in relation to storytelling, I was relieved to hear that he'd be reading my manuscript with an idea of what a well-told story should be.

After reading the manuscript, Neil's feedback revealed a deep understanding of Savannah, and the characters surrounding her. He pointed to the balance between the characters, and encouraged me to upset the balance to give Van a chance to put her life back together in a more satisfying way. He directed me to a specific scene.
"If she's challenged more here, her happiness would
be that much more significant. 
And so, if I were to boil all of these words down to a single note, I would
say this: 
                    Make it harder for Savannah."
It's painful to make bad things happen to good characters. It feels like a betrayal to create a character and fall in love with them, only to break their hearts and hurt their feelings. With his advice, Neil gave me the courage to make it harder for Van, so her happiness could be more significant. I took the entire book apart and put it back together into a stronger story (later changing the title). With the new version of my manuscript, I found an agent and later a book deal.

Neil is one of my dearest friends and favorite people. He's also my storytelling guru. In the years since our Friendster reunion, I've benefitted endlessly from Neil's reverence for storytelling. We have epically long chats about characters and stories - what makes a character endearing, why certain stories work, why others don't, and the complex algorithms behind Ron Swanson's awesomeness. Neil understands the intricacies of character and the global cause and effect of simple changes to a storyline. His advice is always balanced and astute.

I'm a better writer because Neil is a wonderful teacher. Without his wise words and advice along the way, STAY would not be STAY, and Van's happiness wouldn't be nearly so significant. Neither would mine.

I've often thought that every writer should have a Neil. So, I'm extremely excited to share Neil's new website with you (designed by the awesome Ashley Cadaret): Neil G. Gordon Writing and Editing Services.

Not only can you have a Neil, you can have the Neil, who takes storytelling very seriously.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Robot House!

The dog hair situation in our house seemed so out of control during prime shedding season this year. When Woot had a Neato Robotics vacuum on sale, I bought it on impulse (so out of character for me) and I'm not sorry I did.

I still need to get the big beast of a vacuum out every week or so to get the really hard to reach spots and our sisal rug, but running the robot vacuum (which has been named Robot House, of course) every day means I no longer live with pet hair dust bunnies.

I did worry how the dogs would react. Stella's not necessarily scared of it, but she's not a fan. Argo, however, seems to think he has a new friend. The most important thing to do when you encounter something you've never seen before is see if it will play frisbee with you. Of course.

*Totally self conscious about the bottled water on the shelf - we had a water main emergency that day and bought water out of necessity.  Otherwise, we're all about the tap water.

Thursday, June 7, 2012


I have a massive knot in my shoulder. At my last appointment, my physical therapist gave me a tennis ball and showed me how to use it to work the knot out.

 I had to hide the ball in my purse when I brought it into the house so Argo wouldn't see it.

Someone told me the glue they use to put fuzz on tennis balls is bad for doggie teeth, so Argo has fuzz-free rubber balls instead. I hung my purse on the back of a chair in the kitchen, and a few minutes later noticed him sniffing it with interest. Even though he hasn't played with a tennis ball in years, he still remembers the smell.

So now my tennis ball is hidden on a top shelf in the closet. I work on the knot in my shoulder behind closed doors. When I'm done with my exercises and go out to face Argo again, I try to keep my expression neutral while he searches my face for clues with his big brown eyes.

I hope he can't smell tennis ball on my shirt. I hope he doesn't know I'm hiding this from him.

I feel so guilty.

But my shoulder is getting better.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Don't Open Your Sunroof in the Rain and Other Life Lessons

 I've been wrapping up one project and plunging right into another, so my head is almost always someplace else.

 The thing I love best about my brain is the way it keeps problem-solving for my characters, even when I'm away from my desk and not entirely conscious of the thoughts that are spinning. The thing that annoys me is that when my brain is working out dialogue or checking for flaws in a new plot twist, the other things I'm attending to in autopilot mode don't always get the most careful attention.

 I imagine my autopilot as a Jetsons-style robot who has a few bugs in her program. Of course, while I'm busy imagining my autopilot as an embodied entity, I'm probably also squeezing hand lotion onto my toothbrush.

 For example:

 - Driving back from the grocery story the other day, my car was unbearably hot and stuffy. Instead of playing with the air vents to get some fresh air, my hand reached up to open the sun roof. In a torrential downpour. Thankfully, I caught myself just in time.

 - On my way to writing group last week, I walked out to the garage without shoes on and didn't notice until I actually got in the car and felt the brake pedal with my bare foot. (But I did successfully remember my pages, a plate of peanut butter cookies, and my car keys. I get points for that, right?)

 - While marinating some veggies to grill on Sunday, I somehow managed to pour almost an entire batch of salad dressing onto the kitchen floor.

 - I failed to check the weather when planning to grill and ended up on the back patio wielding metal tongs in the middle of a lightning storm.

 - I didn't realize there was leftover coffee in the coffee pot and flooded the counter with dark roast when I started this morning's brew.

 But oh, the characters who have come to life! I wouldn't trade them for anything. Not even for a kitchen floor that isn't slippery.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lest you think I made it up. . .

 Every single time she leaves the kitchen now. . . Oddly enough, the turnaround happens after she walks past the scary spot, but in the act of planning her turnaround, she doesn't even notice she's already crossed the imaginary line. Here's the backstory.