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The Return of Old Friends (and they’re not all cops)

Ahh…now that the holidays are over, we get back to the important stuff: good TV. 🙂 Of course, many of our regular shows will pop up with new episodes (I’m looking at you, Castle). But for me, I also look forward to the  return of some favorite mid-season shows.

First up, Southland. I really thought this show had gotten canceled. It started out on network TV and was cut. Then TNT picked it up. In case you’ve never seen it, the show’s about LA cops (big surprise, right?). What makes this show unique is that it isn’t about one department or division solving a big crime each week. It follows a few detectives and a few uniformed cops. We get snippets of their personal lives, but because it’s such a big cast of characters to follow, you don’t spend a lot of time with any one character. Mostly, we get to see what being a cop does to these people. We see them doing the boring parts of the job as well as the exciting parts. While I do watch this show every week, and I look forward to its return, I can’t say I’m excited. Kind of like when an old friend is coming to visit; you’re happy to see him, but you don’t get all hot and bothered over it.

Now, Justified, on the other hand, really heats things up. The show is based on an Elmore Leonard story, so you know its roots are solid. Raylan Givens (played by the very sexy Timothy Olyphant) is a U.S. Marshall with a hot temper. He has a habit of shooting people who come up against him. Every shooting, though, turns out to be justifiable, hence the name of the show. During season 1, Raylan was transferred

back to Kentucky where he grew up. He has strong ties (not necessarily good ones) to Harlan County. The cast of characters is diverse and real, but it is Raylan who brings me back each week. He’s a damaged hero, but you don’t know that right away. He seems pretty put together on the outside, but his ex-wife pointed out, “You’re one of the angriest men I know.” And it’s true. That anger pops out and although he doesn’t turn into a raving lunatic, you see it in his eyes. Not a man I’d want to cross. Putting all that aside, the plot lines are drawn from real life. Real people trying to survive in small towns in a crappy economy — drugs, gangs, and coal mining.

The show that I am really excited about is Shameless. This is another show that we Americans stole from the Brits. I’ve only caught part of one episode of the British version, so I can’t say whether it’s any good. I am totally in love with the American version, though. I love this show for so many reasons: 1. It takes place in Chicago (who doesn’t like to see their hometown on TV?) and the producers do it right., 2. It’s about the Gallaghers, a large Irish family (you remember my post on Blue Bloods?), and 3. The family is so real, yet unique and damaged that you want to see what will happen.

William H. Macy plays Frank, the good-for-nothing drunk father. Mom took off a long time ago, leaving eldest child, Fiona in charge. Fiona is in her early twenties and she’s become mom to this group, at the expense of her own life. Lip (Philip) comes next in line. He’s a genius, but doesn’t even seriously consider furthering his education to make life better, mostly because he has no role models to look to. Ian is next. He’s ROTC and gay. He hides being gay because a white Irish boy on the south side of Chicago isn’t supposed to be that way. Debbie wants a normal family; Carl is a serial killer in training; and Liam is a biracial baby. What I love most about this family is that they’re not just dysfunctional. They are a hot stinking mess, but they have great coping skills. They make life work. Every time it looks like something will finally go their way, it seeps from their grasp (usually because of something Frank does).

This season the episodes are all supposed to take place over the summer, which should make things even more interesting. Last year it was winter in Chicago and the kids had school. Winter in Chicago is pretty yucky, but summertime is great. Plus, the episodes are going to air while it really is winter here. I can’t wait.

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What returning shows are you most looking forward to?

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Good Bad Guys

Leverage is a show that is successful in what it does, but I’m not sure it has the following it should. Sure, it’s been on for 4 seasons now and new episodes are airing on Sunday nights, but there never seems to be a lot of buzz about this show. For anyone who has ever enjoyed Robin Hood or the A-Team, Leverage is a winner. In fact, when someone asks what the show is about, I describe it as a modern-day A-Team. Outlaws band together to help the underdog. The main difference is that instead of a physical threat, it’s usually a monetary loss that the team is trying to recover.

Here’s a trailer:

The high-tech gadgets and complex cons that the team pulls are fascinating, but the real draw for me is the characters. This is not a show that follows the characters into their personals lives. You really only get to see them as they interact with each other and the marks. We see where Nate (the leader/Mastermind) lives because his home is the base of operations for the team. Other than that, we don’t know what goes on for each of the characters outside of the jobs they complete.

Instead of making the characters boring or uncomplicated, this tactic makes them that much more intriguing. We get glimpses of them and their beliefs and fears and hang-ups based on how they react to certain jobs. The way each character interacts with a mark shows you a little more about that person. It’s fascinating to watch the characters reveal themselves in small ways.

For instance, Parker is the thief. She’s small and pretty, but she’s a tomboy. She has no fear of jumping off a building or flipping over lasers to get around an alarm. But her social skills suck. She doesn’t know how to make friends. We’ve learned that she grew up an orphan and bounced from home to home, which made her who she is. It explains a lot, but when the team takes on a job that involves an orphanage, we see the impact it has on Parker. She refuses to leave without saving the kids.

Another example is Eliot. I love Eliot; he’s my favorite character. And it’s not just because he’s nice to look at. Eliot is considered the hitter, or the muscle of the team. He beats up anyone who gets in the way. He almost never uses weapons. He prefers to use his hands. He’s a soft-spoken guy with a really nasty temper.

image from Google images

But he has a strong protective streak that pops up when a kid is involved. Also, in one episode, he asked for the team’s help for an ex-girlfriend. We got a glimpse of Eliot from another lifetime. A softer Eliot.

I could go on with a lot more examples, but I think I’ve made my point. What makes this show so enjoyable for me is that the writers are masters of showing instead of telling. Each of these characters are damaged and carry some unique baggage. We are only given a moniker for them that they use to define themselves: thief, grifter, hitter, hacker. But through the small things, we begin to see them as real 3-dimensional people.

As writers of fiction it’s what we strive for in our writing every day. We want to reveal the living, breathing characters that live inside our heads, but if we just offer a laundry list of descriptors, no one will be interested for long. Learning how to parcel out the information is one of the more difficult tasks we face.

Choosing how and when to reveal character traits and backstory is hard. We want readers to know what we know so that they can understand and love our characters the way we do. The problem a lot of writers have is that they dump a character’s entire life story on the page and expect it to be necessary.

I tend to go to the other extreme and in order to avoid info-dumping, I leave too much out. Things I know and think make it onto the page aren’t really there. I try to trust my readers to figure things out and follow along without me spelling everything out or repeating myself. The problem with that, however, is that sometimes, I end up confusing the reader.

How do you prefer your characters to be written? Do you like the slow reveal, or do you prefer the writer to lay it all out at once?

Pessimist or Realist?

It’s been a long two weeks for me. Right after Thanksgiving, we drove to Florida because my daughter’s cheer squad was participating in the National Competition. On the way, my husband asked my daughter if she thought she’d get first place. Her answer: “I think we’ll probably get fourth or fifth.” 

My husband accused her of being a pessimist, of not thinking positively. I like to think that she’s a realist (like me). You see, her squad made it to Nationals by default. We came in sixth place regionally, and only the top 5 teams go on. When another team opted not to go to Nationals, we took their place.

After listening to my daughter explain her rationale (and after I stopped glowing over how smart she is), I realized that writers could learn a lot from my 9-year-old cheerleader.

Many people write a book and query it with dreams of a huge advance that will allow them to quit their jobs, followed quickly by New York Times best-seller status. I’m not saying we shouldn’t dream; dreams are good. But there’s so much of the process we can’t control.

My daughter knew that she could do her best and practice so that she would give the best performance possible. She couldn’t control how tough the judges would be or how good the other squads were. Likewise, writers can’t control whether an agent will love their books. They can’t control whether they’ll get contracts or whether readers will gush over their words.

All we really have control over is what we produce.

After my daughter competed in the regional competition, the coaches took the feedback from judges and fixed the routine so the squad would have a better chance at Nationals. Writers need to do the same with each and every rejection. Take what’s useful, apply it, and move on.

Write the next word, the next page, the next book. Make it better. Because really, that’s all we can do. Whether you are working toward traditional publishing or self-publishing, there are always variables you can’t control.

My agent is currently shopping my book to editors. I hope someone will love it enough to want to publish it, but who knows? I’m not sitting at my computer refreshing my email every two minutes while clutching my cell phone waiting for The Call.

What am I doing?

I’m writing my next book. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times. I’m sure I’ll be rejected more. I’ve held onto my dream of being published, and I have faith in myself. But I am realistic in my expectations. I know I was lucky to find an agent who believes in me.

Yes, luck. Is my book good? I think so. I’ve been writing toward publication for more than 4 years, so perseverance played a part, but it was luck in querying the right agent at the right time.

Positive thinking works. Fake it until you make it is easily applied. Have faith in yourself and your abilities. If you want to be  professional writer, act like one. Even without the contract in hand.

This is the shirt we all wore to Nationals - Plenty of Positive Thinking

But you need to look at yourself and your dreams with a critical eye.

Are you doing the most you can to improve so that your dreams can be realized? Or are you just living on the hope of coming in first?

I think if my daughter went to Nationals pinning everything on getting first place, she’d be sorely disappointed with anything less, and it probably would’ve taken a whole lot of the fun out of the experience.

If you don’t get your dream agent or editor, do you stop writing? We write because we live it, and if it’s that easy to walk away, it’s probably not the right dream.

And by the way, my daughter who thought she might come in fourth? They took second place!

What’s the one thing you wish you could control when it comes to achieving your dream?