Updates: Book Soup and Christian Science Monitor And Entertainment Weekly

The Night Counter is still #2 Bestseller at Book Soup, thank you West Hollywood.  I should be blogging about San Francisco and Seattle, which have been awesome, but I’m waiting for photos.  Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly gave it a B+, which reminded me of my students when they say to me, “A B+?  Couldn’t you make it an A- It sounds so much better.”   And here is an excerpted review in the Christian Science Monitor, a paper that I grew up reading as a kid because our neighbor in Minnesota, Mary Ellen Fairbanks, had a subscription and used to tell us all the time, “If you want some legitimate international news, this is the paper to get.”  The review came out on Sunday, a day I actually spent with her two daughters in Seattle, whom I had not see in years and years.

The Night Counter

In a contemporary twist on “1,001 Nights,” a Lebanese grandmother spends her nights telling tales about her Arab-American family.

By Marjorie Kehe August 1, 2009 edition

The Night Counter By Alia Yunis Shaye Areheart Books 384 pp., $24

Scheherazade was the lovely Persian queen who kept herself alive for 1,001 nights by telling stories so enthralling that her murderous monarch couldn’t bear to behead her. So he married her instead. Fatima Abdullah, however, has neither Scheherazade’s narrative flair nor her seductive looks.

Fatima is an elderly Lebanese woman living in Los Angeles with her favorite grandson, Amir. She moved to Detroit from Lebanon seven decades ago and has since had two husbands, 10 children, and 14 grandchildren. At this point, she’s ready to say goodbye to all of it.

Or almost ready, that is. First, she must find a wife for wannabe actor Amir (blithely overlooking his constant insistence that he’s gay) and then arrange for him to inherit her beloved mother’s house in Lebanon. In the meantime, as the successful conclusion of that task drags on, Fatima is content to stay alive for another 1,001 days, spending each night telling her stories to Scheherazade. (Scheherazade apparently, has become immortal, and now travels the globe – beautiful as ever – hearing stories from others.)

Such is the premise of The Night Counter, Alia Yunis’s debut novel, the sweet, funny, meandering story of Fatima, her family, and the uneven process of their assimilation into life in America.

Not all of Fatima’s children, who now live scattered across the US, are entirely likable. In fact, most have disappointed her in one way or another. Her only living son, Bassam has spent much of his adult life on an alcoholic bender in Las Vegas, although the events of 9/11 have now shocked him into a promising sobriety. Several of her daughters have succeeded in pursuing what many would consider to be the American dream – but it’s not necessarily the course their mother would have chosen for them.

Fatima makes a grand protagonist – a somewhat befuddled yet strong, independent character who may have rejected much about the US, but sure loves American sports, particularly the Detroit Tigers. (“How could [the Tigers] get swept by the Twins,” she frets, “a team playing under a plastic bag on spongy cement?”) There is also a hilarious scene in which a special FBI agent trained in Arabic (assigned to watch over this “suspicious” Arab-American family with ties to both Lebanon and Detroit) tries to interview Fatima, who mistakes her for Scheherazade, offering her cooking tips and motherly laments which the FBI agent frantically parses for information on terrorist plots.

The Abdullahs are anything but a Norman Rockwell painting, but in their own way, they are a very typical American family. They may have their differences but they also have their stories. And, as Scheherazade points out, in the end, that’s what holds a family (much like a nation) together.

“Stories keep us entertained and enlightened,” she tells Fatima. “And if we don’t know the ending, all the better.”

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.

Screenplay vs Novel in Seattle

Screenplays vs Novels in Seattle

Screenplays vs Novels in Seattle

Elliot Bay Books in Seattle

Elliot Bay Books in Seattle

I gave a talk in Seattle this weekend at the Pacific Writers Network Association annual conference on taking a novel into a screenplay.  As is fairly typical of me, I got into Seattle with half an hour to spare for set up and then my traditional technological meltdown began –this time actually not my fault, as it was the conference center that didn’t have the hook up to the projector for my Mac.  So, as I frequently do, I found myself looking at roomful of people looking at me and me apologizing for a technical glitch.  In compensation, I said I would e-mail them the notes.  Instead, I’ll blog the basic overview of our conversation on scripts and novels.

1.    The explanation for a novel can be more than a couple of sentences.  The explanation of a screenplay should be done in one quick sentence called a logline.  Know your logline before you take your novel to screenplay because anything that follows out that logline will in all liklihood not belong in your screenplay.
2.    Remember that a novel is largely a solitary activity in its execution and consumption, whereas a screenplay is part of the collaborative effort of filmmaking, with the goal of it being seen in a group, rather than solitary, setting.

3.    Resist the temptation to preserve much of your novel by dumping it into flashbacks and voiceovers, which can be quite deadly to screenplays.

4.    A novel can take any narrative form you like (whether others like it is debatable.  A screenplay follows a very clear three-act structure with three major turning points, a mid-point, a set up, an inciting incident, a climax, and a resolution, which is more elaborately explained in the two screenplay textbook basis, Screenplay by Syd Field and Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seager.  (There are several other good books on screenwriting, but these two in my opinon are the essentials)

5.    Keep in mind that television writers live in LA, with very rare exception.  Film writers could possibly live outside of a LA, but also rare unless they have at least done some time in LA.  A novelist can live anywhere she likes but will find that the business center of publishing is New York City.

6.    Agents are interested in projects that already have a producer, director or actor with expressed interest, and producers are looking for writers attached to agents.  So one of the best bets for getting around this vicious circle if your uncle—or least very distant cousin–isn’t Steven Spielberg, is to enter screenwriting contests. Some great choices, all very competitive but open to the general public, are the Nichol Fellowhips, Zoetrope Screenwriting Competition, Carl Sautter Memorial Award.

7.    If a production company asks for your script, it will probably be read by a reader, a hard working writer who is paid little to critique you script for the company.  Readers are quite savvy and often jaded and busy.  They don’t have patience for scripts that don’t grab their attention quickly.  Readers evaluate scripts for plot, theme, setting, pacing, character development, and dialogue.

8.    Unlike novels, scripts should have short scenes, short dialogue, and short narrative descriptions.  Write and rewrite and rewrite until you get there.  Don’t send out anything but your best work as you only get one chance with an agent or producer.

9.    You can’t write novels or scripts without reading a lot of each.  Novel are at your bookstore.  Scripts can be found a Drew’s Script O Rama (website), French’s Bookstore, and maybe eBay.

10.     Stay on top of what is going on with screenwriters by reading trade magazines such as Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, as well as magazines such as Scr(I)pt.  Be involved in screenwriter organizations, such as the Scriptwriters Network.  These are great places to workshop your scripts, something perhaps not necessary for novels but in my humble opinion essential to screenwriting.