I have heard about dogs that are so well-behaved, you could leave a plate of food out and they won’t touch it, even if you leave the room. (Even if you leave the house!)
I have heard about dogs that are so well-behaved, you can tell them to stay by the mailbox and they won’t move an inch, even if you forget about them for hours.
And I have seen with my own eyes dogs that are so well-behaved, they walk right by their owner’s side, never straying into the street, never barking at strangers.
My little guy is not that kind of dog. Oh, he’s smart and cute and cuddly. (A dangerous combination, trust me.) But if he has a chance, he will make trouble. If we’re not paying attention, he will get into the trash can (even ones with “dog-proof” lids) and eat all the tissues (or worse). He barks at dogs, squirrels, people — anything that moves, really. He has absolutely zero concept of oncoming traffic. And somehow he manages to sleep in just the right spot to take up half the bed. (My half, of course.)
But the thing is, there’s no point in my wishing for a different or better dog. I have the dog that I have. (And I love him!) So it’s my responsibility to figure out how to train him, how to help him live up to his best. Not the best of other dogs.
In case you couldn’t tell, this is also an extended metaphor for writing.
We have all heard about manuscripts that were written in a week. Or a month. Stories that came fully formed into the author’s mind through a dream. Or that flowed out in a perfect first draft. Manuscripts that found an agent right away. Or that got a million-dollar deal.
These manuscripts of mythical proportions are not our manuscripts. There’s no point in wishing for them. All you get is your manuscript. And your manuscript is wonderful, in its own unique ways. So love your manuscript. Work hard to take care of it. Make your manuscript the best that your manuscript can possibly be.
And then go curl up with your dog, cat, or pillow, and be grateful that manuscripts don’t take up half the bed.
First, a very relevant shout-out to my mother: Happy birthday, Mom! Thanks for always supporting me in the pursuit of my dreams.
After a series of controversies, Dillon Panthers star running back Smash Williams finds himself without a scholarship. Which means he can’t afford to go to college. Coach Taylor lines up one last opportunity, but Smash isn’t sure he’s going to take it.
Smash: Hey, I’m not going to the walk-on next week.
Mrs. Williams: What?
Smash: Alamo Freeze made me an offer. They want me to be a regional manager. It’s a good job, and I can help you –
Mrs. Williams: Alamo Freeze? Hell no.
Smash: Well look, I decided. And I’m gonna tell Coach tomorrow.
Mrs. Williams: All you’re gonna tell Coach is thank you. After all that man has done for you? He could have lost his job, Brian.
Smash: This is not how it was supposed to be. I mean, I was supposed to buy you a house.
Mrs. Williams: I did not have kids to buy me a house. What is wrong with you?
Smash: I’ve done everything right. I’ve done everything I was supposed to do, and it’s still not enough.
Mrs. Williams: And you’re gonna keep doing things right. That’s what makes you a man. The son I raised is a man. So you’re going to that tryout, and you’re going to play like God made you to, and you are going to go to that college.
Smash: What if I don’t take your help?
Mrs. Williams: Oh, you’re gonna take my help. I am your mother. Maybe you’ll get the scholarship, but if you don’t, I am going to help you. You let me be your momma. That is my job.
When people say they love Friday Night Lights, they generally mean the TV show. FNL, if you’re in the know. Dillon, Texas. Go Panthers. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
Since I tend to resist things that are hugely hyped, I avoided FNL for a long, long time. Finally, the dust settled — to the point that I forgot about the show entirely, in fact, until a friend brought it up in book club last year. Then, thanks to Netflix, I was able to watch all 5 seasons of what I can now say is one of my all-time favorite TV series.
Why do I (and millions of others) love FNL so much?
Coach and Mrs. Coach
Contrary to the popular belief that marriages make for boring television, the Taylors serve as the backbone for FNL and all its drama. But they are not the source of drama, usually. They love, respect, and support one another, even when they completely disagree. And through 5 seasons, there are no affairs, no big deceits. Coach and Mrs. Coach tackle a lot of problems over the years, but always as a team. In a world full of adultery and backstabbing, both on screen and in real life, that is so, so refreshing.
Eric: “You know who I miss? I miss the Coach’s wife.”
Tami: “You know who I can’t wait to meet? The principal’s husband.”
From the very first episode, this show is about people that no one believes in. No one thinks that Coach Taylor can take the Dillon Panthers to the state championship. No one thinks that Saracen can hack it as a quarterback. No one thinks that Riggins or Tyra (or, like, half a dozen other kids) will escape the chains of their broken homes. And later on, no one thinks that East Dillon’s ragtag football team can amount to much of anything.
I won’t give away who succeeds and who fails, but I will say that FNL takes you on one heck of an emotional roller coaster to find out.
Shades of gray
Black-or-white morality tales are for kids. Real life — and therefore, good stories — live in the gray. It’s not about “good” versus “evil” — but rather, a bunch of flawed human beings doing their best. Each character is just fumbling toward their hopes and dreams and ambitions, and making mistakes along the way.
Example: Tim Riggins, everyone’s favorite bad boy. He feels guilty for not protecting his best friend. Anguished about loving a girl he can’t have. Ashamed of his drunkard father and loser brother, and even more ashamed of how much he takes after them both. He’s a playboy with a good heart and a lot of talent. He wants to be better than the path he’s on.
Or: Buddy Garrity, the former Big Man on Campus, the hotshot, the hypocrite. He’s a lousy husband, and not much better as a father, but he loves Dillon and he loves the Panthers. He’d do anything for his team — even if it’s a little shady.
Characters like these (and oh so many more FNL favorites) are the reason I read and write.
Something FNL does exceptionally well is flip between the adults and the teens. Most stories let one or the other be props. I mean, there are a lot of orphans in YA lit, and a lot of kids taking care of themselves off-screen in television and movies.
But in Dillon, TX, we get to see things from both sides. Student or teacher, player or coach, child or parent — every character is nuanced, everyone gets treated as real and worthy of our attention. This means the storylines appeal across a wide age range. We get to see things from multiple sides. And we get deeper, more genuine relationships.
There are probably a dozen other things I could point out that make FNL great and set it apart from most other TV shows, but I think you get the point.
(Also, FYI: you really don’t have to like football, or even understand it, to enjoy the show.)
Part of the reason I’m picking FNL apart today is to remember and share what the series taught me as a writer. Another reason is that all these elements are on my “wishlist” as a reader and viewer — they’re what I want to see more of in the stories that I consume — and there was a big discussion about that on Twitter today. You can check out #RBWL (reader/blogger wishlist) for more.
Over the weekend I had the pleasure of attending Books by the Banks, an awesome celebration of authors and books and reading and writing, put on annually by the local libraries and my favorite independent bookstore (Joseph-Beth, where Andy proposed).
Previous years have brought some amazing authors like Garth Stein, Jennifer Weiner, and Dennis Lehane. This year was no exception.
Author of THE COLOR OF WATER, a memoir about growing up biracial, which I read in college and loved and identified with, despite a few obvious differences. His latest is THE GOOD LORD BIRD, “a novel of caricature” (as he calls it) about abolitionist John Brown.
- “I just think it’s easier to get to people’s hearts when you make them laugh.”
- He found it compelling to write about this time period because people were making “real choices that could get you killed.”
- Regarding John Brown’s letter-writing in prison: “In those 6 weeks, he did more with his pen than he ever did with his broadsword or a gun.”
- “Every story has several different sides, and the responsible writer tries to present multi-faceted characters so the readers can see [those sides].”
- McBride says he’s not really an outliner but that he spends a lot of time on characters, because “characters create plot.”
- He rewrote the foreword and first chapter of THE GOOD LORD BIRD many, many times. “Because you’re competing for readers’ attention in bookstores. It’s you or… EAT, PRAY, LOVE.”
- Within the “first 2 or 3 chapters, you really have to engage the reader deeply.”
- “Slavery in America enslaved us all.”
- “We are all slaves to something.” (Social media and our cell phones were examples he gave, if I recall correctly.)
- Regarding gentrification, not just of physical areas but also of society: “All these bumps and bruises of American life are being flattened out.” He indicated that he did not think it was necessarily better or worse, but that there was some color/flavor being lost to the smoothness.
Former TV writer (for Arrested Development and Mad About You, among others) and now author of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, a comedic novel about an unhappy wife in Seattle. Confession: I only read this because my book club chose it, but I ended up loving Bernadette so much that I bought copies for each of the two friends who hosted me during my recent trip to Seattle.
- To my surprise, Semple revealed that BERNADETTE is in many ways autobiographical. She gave up her successful career in LA to move to Seattle, and became deeply unhappy there. Instead of looking inward, she blamed the city and the people. When a friend told her that she was becoming “a menace to society,” she thought that was a delightful idea and decided to write about it.
- “You’re not just a storyteller; you’re a story-withholder.” In other words, writers need to think about what they’re not revealing to the reader, as much as what they are.
- When asked about the relationship between her screenwriting and her novel-writing, and what writers of each discipline can learn from the other, Semple said that in both, ”Scenes are the building blocks of story-telling.”
- Also: “I don’t think enough stuff happens” in fiction.
- Sometimes she actually asks her students, “Do you know what action is?” (Presumably because they are turning in stories where people just sit and talk about their feelings.)
- As a writer, “you want to be out living life, seeing things, and meeting people.” Otherwise you’ll have nothing to write about.