Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It is Getting Crowded at the Insane Asylum

Welcome to the Insane Asylum (Note from author: I thought of starting a new blog with that name, but honestly, I have too many blogs going as it is, so I'm posting my character interviews here. Don't stay too long, because in case you haven't seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, you could get stuck in here.)

I have on my desk three stacked wooden blocks on which I have pasted great quotes by writers. I call these my "writers' blocks." One that is facing me right now, by Graycie Harmon, says:

"Being an author is like being in charge of your own personal insane asylum."

My asylum is getting kind of crowded. I use it as a holding tank for the characters I create. I let them out once the book they are in has been published. I fear there may soon be an uprising. I don't know what they are complaining about. They get three squares a day, have reasonably comfortable beds, and they have lots of interesting people to talk to.

"Hi. I'm Marc. Marc Lyons Llewellyn. National Novel Writers Month Challenge 2005. 'Into the Lyons' Den.' What are you in for?"

"I'm Matthew Fisher. I'm sort of a bishop on the lam."

"A few of us are thinking of busting out. You in?"

"Oh, I'm far too idealistic for that. I believe she will still do right by me, eventually. My idealism is why I am here in the first place."

"Do tell."

"I've switched places with a homeless man. Well, not switched places, replaced him. He isn't acting as bishop. He died. I had been trying to get my ward members to be charitable to this lone homeless man living in a construction project in our neighborhood. I made friends with him. He wouldn't let me take him in, but he would take food from me. We had a cold spell. He got pneumonia and died. I was the one who found him, and in the process I discovered his belongings and some of his history."

"Sounds intriguing. Go on."

"I had him buried in one of my suits. We were about the same size. I had his clothes. I decided to walk in his shoes for a day. With a stocking cap pulled down low, nobody recognized me after I put on his clothes. I took my extreme camping supplies from home and hunkered down in the building where he had slept."

"Wow! What is your book called?"

"That's part of the problem, why I've been stuck in here so long. At first she, you know, the author, thought it was going to be a mystery "The Case of the Missing Bishop." I think she called it "Mystery on Penny Parade Lane." That's where I live, up by the capital in Salt Lake City, where the old Primary Children's Hospital used to be. It was an abandoned red brick building in that upper class neighborhood that inspired this story. By now I think it has been turned into condos. She wandered around up there for several hours one afternoon, imagining where I would sleep, keep my meager belongings, how I would spend my days.

Research. An author has to find out these things. Is that port-a-potty at the construction site locked at night? How hard would it be to sneak into a vacated room at a motor hotel and take a shower? What does the local grocery store throw out at night? Would you go around on garbage day after dark to see what you could find? One afternoon she traded some Kentucky Fried Chicken for an in-depth interview with a homeless man, sat down and had lunch with him and talked with him on his corner about what it is like being homeless. When it started raining, he shielded her with his cardboard sign.

My ward, my family, the authorities, everyone was trying to figure out what happened to me. After a few days, I decided I was going to remain "homeless" until someone from my ward did an act of service for me. My daughter and her boyfriend were going to be the ones who came through, and also her boyfriend was going to figure it out. The author had laid all the clues, with my help, using numbers from the hymn book that started with the one that I left for my counselors to "Carry On." Cari and her boyfriend, Eric, had been leaving food for me, the homeless guy, and I was interacting with them, from a distance. I had grown a beard and wore a stocking cap low over my eyes. They brought me Thanksgiving dinner, and I agreed to eat it with them. Then her boyfriend revealed that he knew who I was by asking the "homeless guy" for his daughter's hand in marriage. There is a great scene at the end where he goes to church as the homeless guy and reveals himself to the congregation by preaching a sermon they will never forget."

"So what happened?"

"It all fell apart. She realized there were major problems with the story. First, she could not convince herself that my daughter would not recognize me, even from a distance. My walk, my mannerisms, my voice. In trying to solve the mystery, she got too close not to know who I am. Come on! Do we really believe that when Clark Kent takes off his glasses and becomes Superman no one knows it is him? If Lois Lane was really that vapid, he would dump her. Then the other even bigger problem was that she realized I would never do that to my family, no matter the idealistic point about service I was trying to make. I would never leave my wife and kids worrying and wondering, not knowing what had happened to me."

"So what did she do, scrap the whole thing?"

"She thought about it, but I knew she wouldn't abandon me completely. She got highly annoyed at herself, got depressed, ate some chocolate chip cookie dough, and went back to the drawing board."

"How did she work it out?"

"I kept trying to get her attention, to tell her this wasn't a mystery at all, that from the beginning of the book the readers needed to know I had taken "Guy's" place. She wouldn't listen because she really liked the scene where Eric asked for Cari's hand in marriage, where it all came together. Once I could get her to see that I would never do that to my family, she realized if I had recently experienced a major loss, it would only fuel my idealism. She was really upset at me. 'You want me to kill Cari??? I can't do that. I love Cari.' The author has had some losses in her life, and it makes her mad when other authors kill off characters just as a plot device. She really disliked a book where an author had a character who was unhappy in her marriage and thinking about leaving her husband for an old boyfriend, but didn't want to have her character be a poor role model and get divorced, so the author had him die instead."

"What about your wife? Wasn't she sad about killing her? What kind of cold-hearted author is this?"

"She had me lose both Cari and Diane in a car accident, but she was more invested in Cari. Drunk driver. She did retro-active birth control on the rest of my kids, and had Cari be adopted, which might explain why we only had one child. Cari was the only one of the kids who was a major character. I told her she could do a wonderful tribute to Cari at her funeral, so she made Cari someone who had befriended a homeless lady and helped her get a job, further driving my feelings about the homeless man. She had made Diane somewhat materialistic and always pushing me in my career, trying to make up for the lack in her own childhood. Then she had changed and made Diane come from a wealthy family and I was trying to prove myself to her mother, who said I was 'one of the stray cats she had brought home.' So Diane and I gave a double dose of idealism to our adopted daughter. Anyway, I had come through, made a good living selling real estate and provided a nice home for my family, so my mother-in-law had finally accepted me."

"Families. Aren't they the greatest? My family is why I ended up graduating from a prestigious east coast business school and giving up an awesome career opportunity to move to Bozeman, Montana, and rescue the struggling LDS bookstore my maternal grandfather founded."

"Hey, I like you, Marc. You sound a little idealistic, too. How many more of us are there in here? Is the author idealistic? Is that why she creates us like this?"

"I think she is kind of a blend between idealistic and realistic. I know there are certain type of books she does not like because of contrived unrealistic plots. And it is why she struggles so mightily with her own plots, finding ways she can make the story she wants to tell plausible. Now I feel bad for wanting to do a jailbreak, but honestly, I don't see any other way out. You see, she included things in my book that make it not topical, so even if it is a great book, which I think it is, it will probably never be published."

"What kind of things?"

"The job I gave up to manage the bookstore would have put me in one of the Twin Towers in 2001. The only way around it is if she has me telling the story to my kids as a flashback. And she wrote my book during NaNoWriMo and broke lots of other rules, put real people in it, made up stuff she didn't know about. It would take a major overhaul to make my book publishable."

"Oh, wow! I'm so sorry to hear that. But at least there are lots of interesting people to talk to in here, and your wife and children are characters, so they are in here with you, right?"

"Good point. I guess you don't have that, do you? So what do you think are your chances of escaping?"

"Well, she renamed the book "Unto the Least of These" and started over. That's when I told her who I was, why I had interacted the way I did with the man who caused the accident that killed my wife and daughter. Some would say it was karma. I felt that way at first, too. She didn't want to believe me, thought it would sound contrived to have me be who I am, but I told her it would be another thing that would fuel my idealism, and she eventually realized I was right."

"You've lost me here."

"In the author's first novel, Unfinished Business, there is a teen-age hit-and-run driver who causes the death of the main character's husband. My ward members do not know this about me. My wife and members of my immediate family were the only ones from my adult life who knew what I had done when I was 17. Well, I brought it up when they called me as bishop and we went through a process with that. When I told my brother we needed to pray for the man who had caused the accident, he blabbed it to the papers and they did a big story, without my permission really, about this wonderful forgiving Mormon bishop. I have never felt like more of a fraud. At great personal expense, I contacted the reporter and gave him the rest of the story. I couldn't have people out there who were struggling to forgive someone think it was as easy as the article made it seem. People were calling me a hero. It all came to a head when I tried to get my ward members to 'take care of the homeless problem by taking care of the homeless man.'"

"Whoa! The plot thickens."

"Yes, and it curdles if you don't keep stirring it."

"It is sometimes hard to stir with all those monkeywrenches the author keeps throwing in there."

"Yes, but they help break up the lumps."

"So what happens next?"

"Oh, I shouldn't give away the whole plot. Suffice it to say there is a great chapter with a bunch of Beehives doing something behind their parents' backs. And the author was able to salvage the scene where I come back to church."

"Isn't there anyone looking for you?"

"The police have not found any signs of foul play, plus they have my cryptic hymn-related messages I manage to get to my counselors, and they come to the conclusion that I left voluntarily and don't want to be found, have kind of gone off the deep end in my grief. I have my emergency supplies with me, and I am spending cash I had on hand for emergencies. My bills are all automated, paid directly. I had assistants and colleagues I had turned most of my real estate transactions over to after the accident. My mother was in assisted living, and my brother agreed with the police, that I was just trying to escape tithing settlement. My ward members were really the only ones still trying to figure it out."

"Sorry, I could help overhearing. Your book sounds great. I hope it gets published."

"I don't think we've met."

"I'm Shanna. I'm new here. She's working on my book right now. It is called "Providence," after the small town in northern Utah where it takes place. My young daughter has been abducted and it is tearing our little town apart to have something like this happen."

"Hi, I'm Lauren, from "Shaking Down Santa." Did you say she was working on your book? I thought she was working on mine. I'm a young widow who is never going to let the rug be pulled out from under her again, attempting to have a romance with the brother of some friends who was recruited to play Santa to me and my two little boys. Terry's inheritance from his father mainly consisted of a Santa suit. The first time he tries to use it, I won't let him in, because I don't know who he is, and I'm a bit of a mother bear when it comes to my boys. They are all I have left."

"Lauren, it is not that I'm not sympathetic to your plight, but I'm really pretty sure I'm on the front burner right now. We really need to find out what happened to my daughter."

"Shanna, I am really sorry about your daughter, but what can I say? The author woke up this morning and there it was, a line from Terry, trying to convince me that I should be willing to take a chance on a relationship with a police officer. "I know you worry that I could die, but do you ever worry about whether you might let yourself live again?" You know the author. That could be all it takes for her to swtich gears and start writing about me again."

"Hey guys! Catfight!"

As always there is a time that the author has to reign in her characters. Stay tuned for the Christmas party at the insane asylum. Coming soon.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Wit and Wisdom from Unexpected Places

I recently watched the pilot of a new sitcom called "Two Broke Girls." I found it to be a bunch of contrived dirty jokes loosely held together by what was supposed to be witty banter. In doing a little research, I found that many heaped praise upon this show and it scored record high marks with test audiences. Very disturbing! And current movies seem to be following a trend of computer-generated special effects replacing actual plots. Let's bring back 3D writing, I say.

I recently started keeping a journal with some of my favorite quotes from television shows and movies. As a writer, I believe good writing should be celebrated and remembered. If the new shows are any indication, remembering good writing from Hollywood may be all we are able to do.

I love lines like this from Toy Story III:

Rex: This is no time to be hysterical.

Pig: This is a perfect time to be hysterical.

* * *

How about a little fatherly wisdom from Sheriff Andy of Mayberry:

(this is from memory so not an exact quote)

Andy: Son, statistics show that two-and-a-half children in your school class go to bed hungry every night.

Opie: How can there be half a kid, Pa?

Andy: That's just a ratio.

Opie:  Poor Horatio!

When I was in high school "Poor Horatio" was a buzzword my friend Julie and I used when one or the other of us was having a pity party and felt like half a person.

* * *

I've recently started writing down my favorites from Everybody Loves Raymond.

Debra;s father: How's police work treating you?

Robert: Oh, you know. One day you're rescuing a puppy and the next day you're fishing a skull out of a toilet.

That is such a great summation of life, isn't it?


Ray: Just forgive me, all right? I'll throw in a dinner for two at Le Bon Adieu.

Debra:  Does it have to be with you?

Ray: Yes, you're stuck with me.


Ray: So we just made up. I think it might be time for make-up sex.

Debra: Does it have to be with you?

And that is a great summation of marriage.

* * *

Ray: Take a look at your daughter.

Debra: Yeah? So? She looks happy.

Ray: Look how good it is to be five. You're truly happy at five. Your happiness peaks at five.

Debra: Come on! I'm happy.

Ray: You're not that happy. You can't be. Look at her. Ally, what are you thinking of?

Ally: Candy.

Ray: Candy! (to Debra) You're that happy? When's the last time you daydreamed about candy? You can't do that as an adult. Try it. You don't get far. Candy. Candy. Oh, cavities. Cavities. No money.

*  *  *

Robert: It's not a cult, Ma. It's a bunch of people who care about me.

Marie: You've got that here, you stupid ass.

Great summation of family.

* * *

I am going to come out of the closet and admit something. When I am cleaning our vacation house, I watch old episodes of Desperate Housewives on my computer. It seems fitting somehow. While there is much in this show that is off-color and over the top ridiculous or raunchy, I've found surprising moments of laugh-out-loud humor and even more surprising moments of profound wisdom. I've decided to look at it as a spoof and find the hidden nuggets of wit and wisdom. Here are a few of my favorites:

Lynette: (to Bree after the publication and success of her first cookbook) All your friends are very proud of you. Bitterly jealous, but proud.

I love that line because I often find myself truly happy for fellow writers who achieve success yet also my emotions run the gamut from wistful to truly envious and if I admit it, sometimes even borderline bitter, but usually only if, for example, someone is getting paid big bucks for writing third-grade fart jokes on a television sitcom. Although I always talk myself down off the ledge, I love that someone, even a fictional someone, admits to that. I have used this line since then more than a few times.

* * *

I also loved this line from Lynette, mother of many:

Lynette: My stomach looks like Spanish stucco and my breasts look like two balloons you find behind the couch a week after the party.

What mother hasn't felt this way?

* * *

Another great Lynette moment. She is in the waiting room at the OB, after she found out she was unexpectedly pregnant.

Expectant mother: Most women say this is the greatest experience of their life.

Lynette: Most women are liars. My mother was a liar and her mother was a liar and your mother is a liar. It's a lie each generation tells the next so they can get grandchildren.

Oh, how true it is!

* * *

This is my personal favorite DH quote, from the narrator, the deceased Mary Alice.

Mary Alice: There is a prayer intended to give strength to people faced with circumstances they don't want to accept. The power of the prayer comes from its insight into humor nature.

"We ask God to grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change." Because so many of us rage against the hand that life has dealt us.

"The courage to change the things we can." Because so many of us are cowardly and afraid to stand up for what is right.

"And the wisdom to know the difference." Because so many of us give in to despair when faced with an impossible choice.

The good news for those who utter these words is that God will hear you and answer your prayers. The bad news is that sometimes the answer is "no."

* * *

The novel that I promote on this blog, Lucky Change, is not dissimilar to this show--dismissed out of hand because of assumed content. Because the main character in my book buys a lottery ticket and wins a "kazillion dollars," the LDS bookstores such as Deseret Book and Seagull Bookstores decided not to carry the book for fear readers would get the impression that it promotes gambling, even though I thought I did a good job of showing the downside of this windfall. Following suit, apparently reasoning that if the major church bookstores didn't want it, they didn't want it, it is apparently offered on a Special Order Only basis at the independent LDS bookstores. That means they stock one book, and if it sells, they order another one, maybe. The BYU Bookstore is the only LDS bookstore carrying my book. I feel like my writing career is one big game of Chutes and Ladders. I know. I know. I'm having a pity party. One day you're rescuing a puppy . . . I feel like half a woman. Poor Horatio.

Needless to say, this has cut into my sales. Even though the book was a finalist for a Whitney Award earlier this year, it has all but disappeared from the radar. Sometimes I get very discouraged. Some days I think I will quit writing, even though I know in my heart that I won't. Andy Rooney, who just died, was quoted as saying, "Writers never retire." That is because writing isn't just what you do. It is who you are.

I sometimes find myself fighting off frustration about my limitations. Instead of enjoying the beautiful place in which I live on the Big Island of Hawaii, I find myself feeling stifled by the lack of opportunities I have to do book signings and promotional events. I daily fight against my own human nature--my tendency to procrastinate, my own inconsistent promotional efforts, like blogging, my ADD writing habits with ten books in process each with four or five chapters finished.

I am discouraged not only because I am not contributing much financially to our family, but because this book is full of great characters and life lessons and laugh-out-loud moments of humor. It is also full of touching moments and scenes that make us take stock of our attitudes and relationships to those around us. I am discouraged because this book is not out in the world doing whatever good it can do. My husband bet the farm on me publishing my first four novels, and ten years later, I am still trying to pay him back for his faith in me.

I began writing this book during the economic downturn in the early 90s. I was encouraged by the fact that it was coming out at a time when financial difficulties are besetting many. It is a great book for anyone struggling through downsizing, layoffs, or just the general effects of this current recession/depression. Christmas, anybody?

When Karen is suddenly wealthy, her two children, especially her son, see this as an opportunity to show up all the people who who have looked down on them in their poverty over the years.

"Austin, didja think it was right how people treated us like they were better than us because they had money?"

"You know I didn't, Mom. That's why I'm so excited that . . ."

"Then why do you think it would be right for us to act like we're the bees knees because I've got a kazillion dollars? Ain't it the exact same thing?"

He sighed. "Okay, you're right. I know you're right, but dang, you're raining on my parade, Mom. And not just any parade. You're raining on my Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade."

(See everyone, how I got all of those "you're" contractions right. Not a "your" among them.)

* * *

One reviewer called my characters "stereotypes." As a writer, I believe we should learn from our critics, and you have to become somewhat thick-skinned. I survived the controvery over my Meridian Article, The Proclamation on the Pantyhose (  and recognized both sides of that issue and that some of my detractors made excellent points. But every once in a while, someone says something that makes an author become defensive. Yes, my characters are recognizable, but my definition of a stereotype is a one-dimensional character who shows no growth. One could use the same argument that the characters in Annette Lyons' book Band of Sisters--the book that won the Whitney Award in the category for which my book was nominated--are stereotypical--the fiftyish stylish woman with never a hair out of place, the overwrought soccer mother who drives a van with Cheerios stuck to the upholstery, the marginalized young woman who does not quite fit in at church. But I didn't see them that way. Stock characters exist for a reason, because the stressed-out mother with the melted crayons in the back of her van is someone we all know. Introducing a character readers already know is a sort of literary shorthand. I loved Annette's description of her van. We've all ridden in that van and come away with some kid's lollipop stuck to our backside. She exists in our world, and we don't have to be told about the blueberry stain on her t-shirt. But the characters in Annette's book showed growth, and thereby in my book (and in hers), they were not stereotypes. The together woman came to examine her facade in a very touching scene where she sees her dying mother without her mask of perfection and realizes it is time to take off her own mask. Annette moved her characters out of their comfort zones, and instead of being predictable stereotypes they were multi-dimensional characters with characteristics familiar to us.

So for that critic, yes, Karen is the stereotype of "poor white trailer trash," but she moves outside her comfort zone, working on her vocabulary, starting businesses, and eventually even successfully pitching an idea to a national company. Olive is your basic immaculate housekeeper, perfect Relief Society sister, but she has some humbling experiences and realizes that some of the selfish and negative traits her daughter exhibits were learned from her. Rex is the perfect LDS bishop, but when he finds out something Camille did for which she feels a need to repent, he is of the opinion that the guy had it coming and smiles and tells her he thinks it could be counted as an act of service. Toni is self-centered and somewhat haughty. When Karen purchases her home and they are still living in the ward in a rental home, she vows that she will never set foot inside the home while Karen owns it. Yet in order to do a service project for children dying of cancer, Toni swallows her pride. Familiar characteristics are but one facet of a stereotype. Because my characters show growth and change, I am of the opinion that moves them outside the label of "stereotype." Personally I think that critic is rather stereotypical, because calling characters stereotypes is well, a very predictable and stereotypical thing for a critic to do. There! I feel better now.

So if you want to read a great book full of lines that you could add to your own book of quotes, Lucky Change is available at, BYU Bookstores in Provo, Idaho and Hawaii. Signed copies are available from the author by contacting me at

I also do book club visits via Skype. As it gets colder wherever you are, it's a way to bring the warmth of the islands to you. For any book club who signs me up for a visit, I'll give you a good deal on copies of the book and I'll send some chocolate covered mac nuts for refreshments. Contact me within a week and I'll send coconut chocolate mac nuts.


Susan, the poor struggling writer