Thursday, February 22, 2007

Questions Writers Ask...

Writers ask a lot of questions. Some of them deep, some silly. And sometimes they ask the same questions over and over again that it's probably nice to have an FAQ somewhere to answer them all once and for all.


Q: How long should a chapter be? Can it be too short or too long?
A: You know, dear, how long is a string? The answer is very simple: As long as it needs to be. Same with chapters. There are chapters that are only one-word long, and there are books with only one chapter. It's probably a good idea to alternate chapter lengths for pace and variety, but there really is not right or wrong answer.

Q: Is 100,000 words too long? Is 50,000 words too short?
A: Too long or short for what? Technically speaking, anything above 40,000 words are considered novels, and Stephen King's The Stand was over 1000 pages long. Not to mention The Lord of the Rings, which was later split into three books. There are many questions you need to ask yourself:
  • Is every word necessary? Does every word count?
  • Have you told the story you wanted to tell?
  • Did you do a good job telling it?
  • What does the market expect?
I think the last question is practical, and the real question most writers really are asking. It's not about how long should a novel be -- it can be as long as you want -- but what would a publisher reject or accept. The normal range is between 80,000 to 120,000 words, with YA novels a bit on the low side. Anything outside of the bell curve will meet with more resistance and scrutiny, for many reasons: publishing a long book is expensive and risky; publishing a short book may not satisfy the readers. As author James D. Macdonald said (and I paraphrase), "The more you deviate from the norm, the more brilliant your book must be." Those are some words of wisdom.

Q. Is cursing bad?
A. Yes, my dear, if your mother or children are around. But in the world of fiction: No, not necessarily. It really depends on your story and your characters and your target market. Obviously, if you're writing a children's book, you probably shouldn't say shit or fuck. Not even damn. But if you're writing a story about Bostonian mobsters, please do not make them sound like kindergarten schoolteachers. If two people are having hot, steamy, adulterous sex, chances are they're going to curse up a storm. Harry Potter shouldn't swear -- but he may, if he's really pissed -- but my uncle Meng does. As writers, we need to treat each word, including curse words, equally and examine them with the same care. Choose the right word. And as writers, we can't be afraid of words and must always be true to our characters and our stories. If something bothers us, be it a word or an action or an emotion, to the point that we want to avoid it by manipulating our characters, then we have no right to write the story. So don't write the Bostonian mobster story. Write something a little goose rescued by a duck.

Q. How many characters are too many? How many POV characters can I have?
A. Again, it's like the question about chapter lengths. There is no right or wrong answer, only guidelines. The idea is that the more characters you have, to more you need to manage them. You may have a cast of millions in a SF&F epic, or you may have only one castaway on a remote island. It comes back to how well you can tell the story and how many characters you need to tell it. As for POV characters -- remember, your readers experience the story through the POV characters, and in my opinion, the fewer the better so they have a chance to really bond with the characters. The trade-off is that you may lose some ability to tell different sides of the story, but there are many ways to compensate for that. I'm the kind of writers who'd rather the readers feel a tremendous bond with my characters than to have them sit on a cloud watching everything from afar. To me, less is more.

Q. What are POVs and what are the different types and which one should I use?
A. These are the kind of basic skill questions with which I get a little annoyed. Honey, grab a book on fiction writing. Seriously, almost every book -- and there are many -- talks about point of view, the different kinds, and how to use them. With examples. And if you've read any fiction in the last, oh say, 50 years, you would have read all of these POVs. Now picking one may not be as simple as ABC -- again, you need to know your story and determine how best to tell it. My idea is to pick up your favorite book in your genre, something similar to the one you're about to write, and see how the author did it. Does it work? Do you like it? If so, follow suit.

JetBlue

As embarrassing and damaging JetBlue's much-publicized booboo was last week during the storm was, I think they're doing all the right things for damage control and to regain their customer's trust. For a small company with low tolerance of failure and small margin of success, that's not something they take lightly. So it's after the fact, but they're one of the very few (maybe even the first) airlines to lay out a Customer Bill of Rights.

OVERBOOKINGS

Customers who are involuntarily denied boarding shall receive $1,000.
For example, the above is one of the most generous in the industry, if it's offered at all.


I like JetBlue, but I may feel differently if I were one of those 100,000 passengers affected last week. I think they have good spirits and good business models. They have some of the cheapest fares on the market, and generally they treat their customers with respect. The jets are fast, comfortable (with as much as 36" legroom and DirectTV at every seat), and usually on time. They offer flights and connections to many major cities such as New York and San Francisco. For a small, seven-year-old company, that's rather impressive, and I would hate for an operational mishap due to bad weather to sink such a good company.

If you want bad airlines, I will give you bad airlines. Northwest is among the worst, and so is Continental. I have nothing good to say about them. Among the big ones, I like Delta and USAirways, not because they're superb, but because they're average. It's rather sad when you rate an airline by their averageness. International airlines are the best (Singapore, Japan, Cathay Pacific, British Airways, etc.). US domestic airlines are the worst. Given the choices, I find that JetBlue one of the best among them, big or small.

I've flown with JetBlue a few times and I totally enjoyed my experience. I would hate for a striving company that tries to do the right thing to tank because of a mistake that didn't involve injuries or loss of lives. In fact, I think JetBlue was too cautious about customer safety that they cornered themselves during inclement weather that grounded everyone. As a passenger, I would rather my airline be safe.

I think JetBlue is doing the right thing and I expect them to rebound rather nicely.

Now, let's see some of those $39 fares to New York!

Mergers and Takeovers

What's with these mergers and takeovers. I know, it's business as usual. Still, some of these mergers are alarming. USAirways launched an unsuccessful bid to buy Delta; if successful, that would have made USAirways the largest airline in the U.S. Google bought YouTube for an exorbitant amount of money, and we'll have to see if the investment pays off. Deals like that happen all the time. Wal-Mart has bought just about everyone.

Then there's the XM/Sirius merger that would create a monopoly in the satellite radio market: How is it going to benefit the consumers? What about choices? What about competitive prices? I doubt the merge would pass the antitrust regulations. And now Whole Foods and Wild Oaks are going to merge, too. You can bet prices are going to go up for upscale organic produce.

What's next? A Home Depot-Lowes merger? A Ford-GM merger? How about Microsoft buying SONY and ending this stupid HD-DVD vs. Blu Ray war?

The world of business is a strange one. One minute you would be happily working for a small company, and the next day you're 1 of the 235,000 worldwide employees of some corporate behemoth. One minute you're mulling over Howard Stern on Sirius or Oprah on XM, then the next you're going to get both but for $39.00 a month instead of $15.

At least the stockholders are happy, right?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Annual Oscar Predictions

OK, it's my first time. Please be gentle.

As a movie critic, I see a lot of films every year. As a movie buff, I enjoy movies. As a writer, I appreciate a good script. As an actor, I understand good performances. And as a consumer, I believe in solid entertainment that also enlightens, enthralls, and educates.

I've seen many of the nominated films and performances this year. I have to admit, I don't think 2006 has been a stellar year for films. I am, however, impressed by the number of independent as well as mainstream films that deal with interesting characters and stories and dare to take some risks. The problem is, the general public might not be on the same page. Audiences prefer mainstream, high profile productions -- big names, big stars, big budget. With four of the five best picture nominees being independent films, Oscars might lose its luster once again this year (except Ellen Degeneres -- she's going to bring some fun to the show, I'm sure).

Best Picture
- Little Miss Sunshine
- Babel
- Letters from Iwo Jima
- The Departed
- The Queen

Letters is critically acclaimed but without the box office traction; and it's in Japanese with subtitle. Sunshine has a lot going for it -- humor, dysfunctional family, crowd-pleasing plot and characters, and stellar performances -- but it may simply be too lightweight; besides, comedies seldom win. The Queen is wonderful, but perhaps a bit too intimate, and many voters might be satisfied just giving Helen Mirren an award. That leaves Babel -- this year's Crash -- and The Departed. Both are violent and disturbing but also very entertaining. Personally, I am disappointed with The Departed, but Babel is not necessarily a crowd-pleaser either.

Will win: Babel
Should win: Letters from Iwo Jima



Best Director
- Clint Eastwood
- Martin Scorcese
- Stephen Frears
- Alejandro González Iñárritu
- Paul Greengrass

Eastwood already won twice in the last five years -- enough said. The Queen is a showcase for acting talent; Frears should be honored just to be nominated. Greengrass is a dark horse -- his handling of the 9/11 film garnered much respect. Iñárritu is a long shot, but a Babel vote may push him over the top as well. Scorcese has been passed over so many times it's become a joke. And Hollywood may want to right some wrongs this year.

Will win: Martin Scorcese
Should win: Martin Scorcese



Best Actor
- Will Smith
- Ryan Gosling
- Leonardo DiCaprio
- Forest Whitaker
- Peter O'Toole

Smith's performance is good, but only good for a nomination, not a win. Gosling's star is definitely rising, but this is not his year, with such strong competition. DiCarprio should have been nominated for The Departed instead. Peter O'Toole is a marvel, and may get enough sentimental votes to win. Forest Whitaker's tour de force performance makes him a front-runner, but many believes his was a supporting role.

Will win: Forest Whitaker
Should win: Peter O'Toole


Best Actress
- Meryl Streep
- Helen Mirren
- Penélope Cruz
- Judi Dench
- Kate Winslet

Meryl Streep is delicious in Prada but it's difficult to win for a comedy, especially with such strong dramatic competition. Cruz's powerful performance is too small, plus it's a foreign film. Judi Dench has a juicy role, but I find it too stereotypical and predictable. Kate Winslet is a great actress and her time will come, just not this year. Why? Because Helen Mirren is in the running. There's absolutely nothing negative about Mirren's performance. It was a revelation. Besides, it's about time the wonderful actress get her crown.

Will win: Helen Mirren
Should win: Helen Mirren


Best Supporting Actor
- Alan Arkin
- Eddie Murphy
- Mark Wahlberg
- Djimon Hounsou
- Jackie Earle Haley

Alan Arkin is hilarious in Little Miss Sunshine, and it's a category in which comedic performances really have a good chance. Eddie Murphy shines in Dreamgirls. It's one of these once-in-a-lifetime role and he did an outstanding job. But would the Academy award someone who also gave us Norbit and Daddy's Daycare? Mark Wahlberg has come a long way -- he was great in Invincible and he practically stole the scenes from everyone in The Departed, but his role is too small. I'm not sure why Djimon Hounsou is nominated -- his over-acting and stock character is underwhelming. Jackie Earle Haley has two things against him: lack of name recognition plus the smallness of Little Children.

Will win: Alan Arkin
Should win: Eddie Murphy


Best Supporting Actress
- Rinko Kikuchi
- Abigail Breslin
- Jennifer Hudson
- Cate Blanchett
- Adrianna Barraza

Rinko Kikuchi and Adrianna Barraza are both extraordinary, but they're splitting votes. Abigail Breslin is lovely in Sunshine, but she is very young and she has very strong competition, plus it's a comedic role. Cate Blanchett is excellent in Notes on a Scandal, but her character may alienate voters; besides, she won in the same category two years ago for a much showier role. That leaves Jennifer Hudson. She stole every scene and was the heart and soul of the entire movie. Her triumphant turn from being an American Idol reject to Oscar nominee is inspiring. The only thing against her is that it's her first film role, but that never stopped the Academy before.

Will win: Jennifer Hudson
Should win: Jennifer Hudson


Best Original Screenplay
- Little Miss Sunshine
- The Queen
- Babel
- Pan's Labyrinth
- Letters from Iwo Jima

The Queen is wonderfully written, but it really is Helen Mirren's show, and the nomination should be honor enough. Babel is complicated and manipulative -- then again, Crash won last year. Pan's Labyrinth is a wonderful, inventive story and might get some solid votes. Letters suffers for its subtitle. Sunshine has that Cinderella story written all over it, plus it really was a crowd-pleaser.

Will win: Pan's Labyrinth
Should win: Pan's Labyrinth


Best Adapted Screenplay
- The Departed
- Little Children
- Notes on a Scandal
- Borat
- Children of Men

This is tough. Okay, maybe not that tough. I think Borat's nomination is a joke. William Monahan did a marvelous adapting a Hong Kong action film into a drama about Bostonian Irish mobs, but the convoluted plot might hurt it. Little Chidren is a bit stark and slight. I find Patrick Marber's (a writer I admire) adaptation of Zoe Heller's controversial novel too on the nose and obvious. Children of Men is extraordinarily dark and violent, but it leaves you with a sense of awe.

Will win: The Departed
Should win: Children of Men

Passenger Bill of Rights

We've all heard about the JetBlue debacle last week during the storm -- more than 1100 flights were canceled and some passengers were trapped in the planes for up to 10 hours. What horror! That reminded me the horror stories I heard a few years ago with Northwest Airline -- passengers were held hostage on the tarmac in Detroit for up to nine hours without food or water or working toilets.

And USA Today did a cover story on United Express. Two planes were redirected to Cheyenne the week before Christmas because a blizzard had shut down Denver International Airport. When the passengers returned the next day, the two jets had left without passengers to Indianapolis, IN and Columbus, OH, leaving the passengers stranded in Cheyenne with no way to go -- worse, they didn't even tell the passengers what was going on, nor did they reimburse their lodging and meal expenses. By the time they sent two buses to pick up the passengers (yet another day later), most had already found their own way to their destinations.

And United refused to reimburse these passengers until they learned that USA Today was going to publish that story.

Is the airline industry the only one immune to laws and common decency to treat their paying customers like dirt and get away with it?

It's not always been that way. I had some horror stories, too, but I was always treated fairly with due compensation and reimbursements. Yes, it was frustrating and inconvenient, but sometimes there was nothing you could do, especially when it's weather related or during some disasters (such as 9/11). At the very least, passengers should have the rights to the following:

- Adequate lodging and meals and transportation to and from the airport until they board another flight. When British Airways canceled my flight to London due to weather, they put me up in a hotel with dinner and breakfast vouchers, and provided a shuttle service from and to the airport. United did the same when a delayed connecting flight made me late for my flight to Hong Kong.

- An alternative flight through code share or partnered airlines. This is not automatic; sometimes airlines maxed out their capacity and it's impossible for them to accommodate all stranded passengers. In the past, you had to tell the agent the specific "code" before they would agree to put you on another flight via another carrier. The problem with that is they lose money when they do that, and airlines don't want you to know you have that right to get on someone else's flight. However, I do think a passenger should have that right and should know about it. When British Airways couldn't put me on a morning flight out to New York the following day after the cancellation, they got me on an USAirways flight.

- Better communication and priority handling. There were times when it took hours before the airline told me what was going on. It was very frustrating. Once, after being stranded in Charlotte, NC for four hours due to mechanical failure, I was disgusted to see that other passengers boarded two flights to Pittsburgh before I did. I confronted the agent, telling them that they should have attempted to put some of the stranded passengers on these flights. They told me those flights were full already. However, they should have at least let the stranded passengers know what was going on. Instead, we were all just fuming by the time our flight was finally ready to take off.

Also, stranded customers should have a special line of service (via phone or in-terminal agents) to handle their rerouting and other issues. After my British Airways flight was canceled, I was standing in line with over 200 passengers and had waited for over 2 hours before I realized I could call the airline directly. But no one told me the number to call. By the time I got to an agent, all outbound flights had been filled and I had to wait until the following day. It was very frustrating.

- Right to deplane after three hours. 3 hours is a long time to be trapped in a jet going nowhere. That's the time it takes to fly from New York to Miami. We understand that sometimes due to airport traffic or weather, takeoffs or landings are delayed. But after three hours, when food and water have been depleted and toilets are overflowing, they should allow passengers to deplane and return to the terminal, where they can at least get something to eat and drink or use the facilities. The airlines usually give excuses such as "they underestimated the time it took" (hello, after three or four hours?) or "the gates were all occupied." Just get a bus and shuttle the passengers back to the terminal, for cry'in out loud. In some cases, the passengers could actually see the gates, and could have walked over. This kind of human tragedies could have been avoided if the airlines and the airport would use some common sense. The problem is, there are no laws requiring them to do any of that; and they don't care. This has got to change.

I have been stuck on the tarmac for close to three hours. I have been stranded at an airport for more than six hours. I've lost a full day of hard-earned vacation time because of airline's incompetence.

- Compensation. I believe reimbursement of lodging, food and transportation should be the basic requirement. Beyond that, I think customers should have the right to get compensated through flight vouchers, credits, mileage, cash, or upgrade. British Airways and United (that was before they went bankrupt), for example, put me in business class. United sometimes always gave me a travel vouchers for my inconvenience. I know these things do add up and it's difficult for the airlines financially; but that's the risk and expenses of doing business and I think it's the obligation of the airlines, and any businesses, to keep their customers happy. A happy customer is a returning customer. I was so disgusted with Northwest one time that I don't think I have flown with them ever since. Same with Continental -- I avoid them like the plague.

A seasoned traveler like me knows a lot of tricks and the right questions to ask and the right demands to make. Unfortunately, most travelers are not privy to that kind of information, and in the process, they get screwed. It's heartbreaking enough to see families camping out in the terminal like refugees, and it's unimaginable to think of someone being stuck on a plane for 10 hours. Airlines must do their job to better serve their customers and find ways to resolve situations if they want to stay in business. It's time for them to stop treating their paying customers as sheep or, worse, collateral damages when something goes wrong (whether it's technical or logistic problems, or disasters). And the government should provide travelers with ways to protect themselves.

The recent reports only gave us a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. As a frequent traveler, I know of the hassle and frustration of traveling. I believe travelers should arm themselves with knowledge and "tricks." But it really is up to the airlines and the FAA to ensure that travelers are not exploited or left to their own devices. We do have rights.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's is a horrible disease. My dear friend Joanne, bless her heart, has been taking care of her mother who has Alzheimer's. I don't know how Joanne does it -- she has the strength of a lioness and the heart of a Goddess. She inspires me. There is so much love there I feel blessed to know her. And the most amazing thing is that Joanne doesn't boast about her sacrifices and whine about her hardship. Not many people even know how difficult it is for her to keep up with the daily routines, how exhausting everything is to take care of a sick mother 24 hours a day -- and sometimes people forget to ask how she is doing, because Joanne won't ask for sympathy. She takes everything in stride and does what she believes in. Every parent should have a child like Joanne. Heck, everyone should have someone like Joanne. I have nothing but admiration and respect for her. She's my hero.

My other friend is dealing with the same problem with his father, who also has Alzheimer's. Just two months ago his father was fine, and now he is in rehab, and soon they have to decide what to do -- his father needs 24-hour care. The sad thing is that his father's insurance will not pay for anything and the government won't take over until his assets are all depleted. So, the poor guy saved his money all his life, and ends up giving it all to assisted living or a nursing home, while someone who spent it all would be eligible for Medicaid and veteran benefits (yes, he is a WWII veteran). It's so unfair.

My thoughts go out to both Joanne and Ralph. My best wishes to you both and I'm sure everything will turn out okay at the end.

The World Doesn't Revolve Around Me

I've had some humbling discovery lately. First, I confirmed that I definitely was not the center of the universe (HAHA). But I knew that already. What really was humbling was that I wasn't as "popular" as I thought. It's weird. At my age, I really shouldn't care if I'm popular or not, and I normally I don't. But lately, the online communities I visited always reminded me of high school, and the feeling of trying to be friends with everyone and to become popular just rushed back to me. It was so bizarre. And my conclusion was EXACTLY the same as the one I had years ago, when I was in high school -- people really didn't care. The humbling reality was, and still is, that everyone did know my name, did know who I was, but nobody really knew me, but only a handful of people really cared when I left.

I'm resigned to accept that I'm not and will never be one of these people who have a thousand friends. I just went to a birthday party of a friend and he had like a whole houseful of friends and family there to celebrate with him. A houseful. There must be at least 50 or 60 people there. I would be lucky to fill a room with friends if I really need to. I'm just not that guy -- that gregarious, "everybody loves Raymond" kind of guy. When I die, there will not be a houseful of friends and family at my funeral; I know that.

But I am not complaining either. It takes effort to gain and keep friends, and I admit that I'm not the best person in that arena. I get sidetracked. I am self-absorbed. I forget. And a lot of times I would rather just stay home to be by myself instead of going out with friends to have a good time. It's not like I am anti-social -- I am simply not that extroverted or eager to connect, all the time.

I am not complaining because I am lucky that I do have a few really close friends. These are friends who are always there for me, who will listen to my secrets and cheer for me and worry about me when they don't hear from me for a while. These are friends who love me for who I am and are genuinely happy for me when I am successful and honestly concerned and worried when I am sick or in danger. They would tell me what I did wrong, then hug me and say "You can do better next time." They care about me, and they don't judge. These are the people who will be at my funeral.

Sometimes I just need to remind myself that I am lucky to have these people in my life, and that I don't need to whole world to love me. And if others don't care about me, that's fine, and I shouldn't be hung up on that. It's okay if 99.9999999% of the people I know don't care if I live and die, because I believe in quality and not quantity. It's nice, I guess, to have a houseful of friends and family at my 50th birthday -- I admit that I was a bit jealous of my friend's fortune in that regard. But I also know that that's not me. For me, it's most likely to be a nice, quiet evening sitting with a couple of best friends, listening to Jazz and sipping from our glasses, and knowing that if the world ended at that very moment, there would be no regrets.

I'm grateful to have them in my life. And I'm looking forward to spending the rest of my life with them. That's what really counts.