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Quiet on the set: My day as an extra for Russian Doll

Gwen with Suzanne Brockmann

With Suzanne Brockmann (squee!)

Last week, I was in a movie. Or at least my elbow was.

As an introvert, fading into the background is easy for me. As an extra on the set of the indie film Russian Doll, it was my job. The extras were even called “Background”—as in, “Okay, call in the background”—because it was our role to provide atmosphere and a sense that the world was real.

This particular gig was unpaid, but I participated for two main reasons.

First, one of my favorite authors ever—Suzanne Brockmann—is the executive producer. I’ve been reading her books pretty much since the day I found romantic suspense (circa 2008), and her blend of military action, hot romance, and wide-ranging diversity quickly put her at the top of my reading list.

I actually got to meet Suz and her husband Ed Gaffney last year when they came to talk to my local writing chapter about the process involved in their last film (The Perfect Wedding), but it was nice to spend more time chatting while on set. They’re super nice people, and everyone appreciated how much Ed went out of his way to explain what was going on during the filming process.

Second, curiosity is half the reason I write. I’ve always loved taking field trips and getting the inside view of how a place/group/factory/profession works. With Russian Doll filming in the Boston area, this was my chance for the inside scoop on filmmaking.

Performing Arts Center at 51 Walden, Concord MA

The Performing Arts Center at 51 Walden in Concord where part of the movie takes place

So how was it?

Fascinating!

Extra work can be slow. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting to be needed. But that was fine. I chatted with some of the others in the lobby of the theater where we were working. I had expected many of them to be writers—and/or readers who were fans of Suz or Ed—but those I spoke to were locals who saw an article about the film in the Boston Globe.

Extras on set of Russian Doll

Waiting for the next take

The really interesting part came when we were needed on scene. It’s amazing how few people can provide the appearance of a packed house. As long as the camera angle is right, 20 people can look like 100 or more. I was totally mesmerized by the director of cinematography. She would calmly take Ed’s vision for a scene and figure out how to make it happen, adding her own ideas along the way.

In fact, that was something Ed talked about at the meeting last year that really came to life for me on the set. When you write a book, you might get feedback from early readers and revision notes from your editors, but in the end the book is your book. The way you want it. The reader brings her own worldview to the story, but basically that’s it.

Not so with film.

The screenplay is just a starting point. From there, everyone involved puts their own mark on it. The director has his vision for how to frame each scene, the cinematographer has her own way of bringing that vision to life, the actors choose how to play their characters, and so on. The final product is truly a collaboration.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events or have any idea what each of the crew members’ titles were. Grip? Gaffer? Rigger? Best boy? No clue. But I had fun watching them set up for each scene using the fog—not to make it look foggy, but to soften the lighting and provide a noir look to match the film’s tone—hold up giant styrofoam boards to reflect light, cover equipment with dark blankets to prevent it from showing in the scene, take sound readings, take light readings…

Crew on the set of Russian Doll

Crew prepping for the next take

We did several takes for each scene, and it’s surprising how much time is required just to reset after each run, get the camera ready, and get everyone on the same page again.

In the beginning, we—pretending to be an audience watching a play—had to respond to things happening on the theater’s stage. Except the play wasn’t actually running. So Ed, his assistant director, and Suz and Ed’s son Jason—one of the actors, along with his sister who has a starring role—mimed different scenarios for us. We laughed, we gasped, we appeared concerned.

Finally, toward the end of the day, we got some real action. Actors on stage, actors in the audience to respond to events on the stage, and several takes as we reacted to what was happening around us.

I’m already excited for the movie to be commercially available—probably near the end of 2016, if all goes as planned—so I can watch the 30 seconds or so that it took most of the day to film. It’ll be interesting to see how everything comes together in the finished product.

And I can’t wait to spot my elbow in the scene as the detectives race by my seat! 😉

Drop everything

Do you have a go-to author? You know, the one who’s latest books you must buy. The one for whom you’ll drop everything to read the latest release cover to cover?

I have several, but one of my absolute favorites is Suzanne Brockmann. She writes romantic suspense with lots of military and law enforcement characters, which I enjoy, but the real reason she keeps me coming back for more is her characterization. Deep POV.

When I’m reading a Brockmann book I feel like I’m standing in the character’s head. Like I am the character, seeing what she’s seeing, feeling what he’s feeling. It’s incredibly easy to read, and very hard to do. I often reread passages of her books (later, after I've devoured them in a frenzy) in an attempt to figure out how she makes it seem so easy and natural.

And then I get sucked back into the story and forget I’m supposed to be learning. I’m still a bit dumbstruck trying to figure out how she sucks me in. But for today, I’m just enjoying the ride.

After getting in 1100 words this morning, I gave myself permission to mostly play hooky the rest of the day reading her latest release (out today!), Breaking the Rules. I’ve been enjoying every minute of it.

So name one of your go-to authors. What makes him or her so hard to resist?

Happy reading!

 

Conference call

I spent last Monday through Saturday in Orlando at RWA's 30th Annual National Conference rubbing elbows and sharing air with some amazing authors. (Commence namedropping.) A few highlights:

  • Suzanne Brockmann (one of my all time faves) gave a great workshop on “Theme” and humbled me with her 80-page outlines and 7-book story arcs.
  • Cindy Gerard assured us that self-doubt never goes away, no matter how successful you are. Jayne Ann Krentz and Susan Elizabeth Phillips concurred. I sat next to Cindy on a tour bus before I realized who she was, and she was very nice. Happily, I had just read one of her books (SHOW NO MERCY) and loved it, and could honestly say so.
  • Laura Griffin sat with me at lunch and on the tour bus, introduced me to her agent, and offered to critique my next query letter. She was super-friendly and supportive. (Even after I initially got her books confused with another author I've also read. *red face* I knew I was a fan, but I've read too much in the last year to keep it all straight sometimes. *sigh*)
  • Über-agent and author Donald Maass got me thinking in a new way about my story and characters, and just generally got us pumped to write.
  • Nora Roberts reminded us that it's always been hard to get published and that we should quit whining and get to work!
  • And the agent I pitched to gave me good feedback on my pitch and storyline, and requested a partial of Slow Burn. *happy dance*

A few things really stuck with me from the conference:

  1. No matter how successful the author, they still have doubts about their next book. For better or worse, that never seems to go away. So while it sucks that I'll probably always be plagued with fear that my writing isn't good enough, it also means that I'm not alone!
  2. Every author has his/her own process, and there's no right way. Suzanne Brockmann is a heavy plotter. Susan Elizabeth Phillips writes into the mist. Both are tops in their subgenres. Experiment until you find what works for you, and then quit worrying about it.
  3. Most published authors are fairly ordinary. Based on my experiences at conference and in chapter meetings, they are friendly and helpful people with the same joys, sorrows, needs, and frustrations we all share. Everyone that I met was incredibly generous with advice and encouragement. The only thing different about them was the paycheck.

Bottom line: we're all people, and we all have to start somewhere. I imagine everyone at the conference as somewhere on a timeline to publication. Some of us will move up the line faster than others, and some will never reach the published mark, but we all have to follow the same basic steps to get there.

Read, improve our craft, and most important of all: write!

Like Nora Roberts says, “You don't find time to write. You make time. It's my job.” Exactly.

For another take on the conference from my roommate, Christine, check out this post.

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Author spotlight: Suzanne Brockmann

Those who've talked books with me for any length of time will know that I'm a huge fan of Suzanne Brockmann. It doesn't hurt that she writes romantic suspense involving sexy and deadly–but very human–Navy SEALs and other covert pros. (Think Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn writing romance.)

But plenty of authors write good books about special ops, law enforcement, or security specialists. That's not why Brockmann has so many fans, or why I'm actually keeping all of her books on my shelf.

Not only is she a master at telling stories with overlapping layers, secondary plots, and multi-book character arcs that boggle my mind. Her real triumph is in the characterization and emotion. She has an amazing way of making her characters real. They're never perfect. Sometimes, they're not even likable (until they get their story), and yet, you can't help rooting for them, because they're human.

Some of my favorite books involve the hero who was tight-lipped and mysterious–and often misunderstood–in previous books. (If you've read any of her Troubleshooters books, think Cosmo or Decker.) When we finally get inside his head, it's so much fun to finally get to know him and what makes him tick. And, maybe we get to learn why he comes across as aloof, or angry, or scary to the other characters.

Brockmann is also a wizard at crafting sexual tension and conflict. When the H/H finally get together, it's always hot, but it's never an easy road for them. The sparks coming off the page practically burn your fingers.

If I could only be half as good at storytelling as Ms. Brockmann, I'd be a happy writer.

Who's on your keeper shelf?

Veteran’s Day reading list

To celebrate Veteran's Day, I thought I'd mention some of my favorite authors who honor the men and women who serve–or have honorably served–in the armed forces by writing about them.

Suzanne Brockmann‘s Troubleshooters series is devoted mainly to Navy Seals, as well as heroes and heroines from military, law enforcement, or clandestine services. Her characters are complex, brave, imperfect, and irresistible. If you wish Flynn and Baldacci put more romance in their stories, Brockmann is for you. High passion and high stakes.

The High Risk series by JoAnn Ross features heroes from special forces (Navy SEALS, Air Force CCT), as well as some military heroines. While she has a similar style to Brockmann, her books are more focused on one main story at a time. Hot and fast-paced.

For a more light-hearted approach to Navy SEAL heroes (yes, they are popular right now), try any of Christina Skye‘s contemporary books. Still hot, with a dash of humor and spunky heroines. Fun reads.

I suppose the Special Ops types are more fun to write about, but I salute everyone who has served in our armed forces in any capacity. From Mission Support and Finance to Medical and Maintenance, no matter what your role, you are important and appreciated. Thanks!

The Daily Squirrel: a blade of grass

She plucked the blade of grass from the carpet of green along the soccer field, and ran her finger over the rough leaf. She remembered a time when she and Eddie lay in the grass, plucking dandelions and laughing at how silly teenagers were. Then one day, Eddie became a teenager himself, and left his little sister behind. It was as if he'd stepped through a doorway that she couldn't enter, and closed the door.