One the great pleasures of publicity tours—yes, Virginia, there are pleasures to publicity tours—is teaming up with other authors for a panel.
Panels provide one of the great exceptions to the Less is More principle. Two minds are indeed better than one, as are—depending on the minds at issue—three and four or even five, though I think that’s the limit for a decent panel. After that, it’s a chorus line. Or a scrum.
There’s always a balance that needs to be struck between the joy of spontaneity and giving the panelists enough of an idea what the topic is that they can prepare a few interesting ideas and lines—and a couple good jokes.
This is particularly on my mind as I prepare for two panels I’ll be doing in the span of one week:
Frankly, with fellow panelists like that, I could sit there and drool and come off semi-smart. (Well, okay, maybe not drool.)
Ellen is a San Francisco writer I met through Murderati alum Cornelia Read at a reading for Dirty Words: An Encyclopedia of Sex, which Ellen edited. (Ellen’s entry on Happy Endings appears immediately before Cornelia’s on Hard-ons.)
In The Art of Character I use a scene from Ellen’s novel French Lessons to illustrate how to use clothing—in this case, a pregnant, jilted, miserable teacher’s fascination with a pair of turquoise pumps in a Paris boutique—as an objective correlative for the character’s inner life.
Ellen and I are doing a panel titled MY CHARACTER ATE MY PLOT! Creating characters that drive your story. It seems to be a bit of a mash-up of a workshop I proposed on how to balance story and character demands and an impromptu panel. Whatever. Ellen and I will have a gas.
The New York panel really has me intrigued. I’ve been reading A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven and I’m mesmerized. Later this month I’ll be posting for the Books by the Bed column on the website for We Wanted to be Writers (the group memoir about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop). One of the books I mention is May We Be Forgiven, and this is what I say:
As deft a balancing act between heartbreaking realism and wicked black humor as I’ve read outside the works of Pete Dexter. An opening scene with a gutted Thanksgiving turkey, fingers dripping with meat juices, lips coated in same, and then an illicit kiss between the protagonist and his taller, smarter, more successful brother’s wife—and it just takes off from there. Uncanny pacing for a so-called literary novel—violent and smart and did I mention funny?
Many of you probably already know Duane Swierczynski, though you probably can’t pronounce his name. (It’s okay, no one can. Or spell it for that matter.) I also included his The Blonde in my Books by the Bed posting:
The reading equivalent of listening to Eddy Angel channel Link Wray. Gutsy and quick on its feet, with so many deft strokes and oddball observations and switchback plot turns, not to mention (lest we forget) the eponymous blonde who, of course, is not who she seems—a patch of red in a private spot gives her away. More to the point, she’ll die if someone isn’t within ten feet of her. Literally. Beat that, Salman Rushdie!
And Megan Abbott, after writing and winning an Edgar for creative re-interpretations of fifties noir (with an emphasis on the women characters so often trivialized in that genre) has broken out with two novels set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, her childhood hometown: The End of Everything and Dare Me.
I mean, I’ll have to concentrate very, very hard if I want to screw up this panel.
Like my panel with Ellen, this one also will gravitate toward character, and Megan and Duane both want to talk about the difficulties of characterization in the compressed formats of graphic novels and film, and A.M. wants to talk about the challenges of writing about someone fundamentally different than oneself.
I also want to ask Megan about what characterization challenges she’s faced in switching from noir pastiches to more realistic novels, and generally just invite everybody to jump in and say whatever comes to mind. (Like I'll be able to stop them...)
If you live in New York and feel inclined, join us at 7 PM at the B&N UES at 86th & Lex.
Or if you’re ready for the whole smorgasbord of writing panels and editor consultations and agent pitches, check out the San Francisco Writers Conference—and join Ellen and me on Sunday morning (at the ungodly hour of 9 AM).
How we suffer for our art.
BTW: One final nod to Blatant Sell-Promotion (that's a deliberate typo): If you or someone you know is interested in the craft of characterization, and would like an inspiring, in-depth and yet practical guide, please check out The Art of Character. Follow the link to find out more, including where you can buy a copy. Or read a brand new excerpt here.
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So, Murderateros, what’s the best panel you’ve ever been on or seen?
What was the worst?
What made the one great and the other not so great?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Valentine’s Day will have come and gone by the time my next post goes up, so in premature celebration (ahem), I offer this Brubeck chestnut used to brilliant effect in the film Silver Linings Playbook. It beautifully sets the mood for a crucial scene, when Pat goes to Tiffany's house Halloween night for their first (this-is-not-a) date. It's spare and haunting but playful, with its 7/4 time creating an off-balance tension. Perfect.