Thursday, August 31, 2006

Beware the Galloping Gourmet

A funny thing happens to me when the weather starts getting cooler. I tend to get very domestic. And yeah, our weather isn't exactly brisk and fall-like yet. It's more like "summer" in much of the rest of the world. But to me, highs in the upper 80s and low 90s instead of around 105 is enough of a drastic change to make it feel like fall is on the way (and I will cry if we go back to 100-degree days). This is the time of year when I basically turn into Betty Crocker. After all those months of it being too hot to cook or even to eat, suddenly I get in a cooking mood (that could also be because of how much I've been working lately, which has meant I've been in some bad food ruts).

It doesn't help matters that they've recently opened a cool new grocery store that's convenient to me. I used to get their ads and think it sounded like something to look into, but their locations meant I'd be driving twenty miles for groceries. Now, though, there's one within ten minutes of my house. It's like an old fashioned farmers market, dairy, butcher shop, bakery and dry goods shop, all under one roof. Instead of the rows of packaged and processed foods you'd find at your average supermarket, they have a bulk foods section, where they have bins of things like different kinds of flour, grains, nuts, dried fruit, dried peas, etc., and you scoop the amount you want into a bag. They also sell spices in bulk. It's perfect for a single person who doesn't usually need a whole container of an odd ingredient.

Meanwhile, I've become utterly hooked on Rachel Ray on the Food Network. I even take notes as I watch. That's given me some ideas of new things to try cooking, and with this new store, I can get some of the slightly more exotic ingredients without buying a whole package of something I'll never use up. I've decided I want to be Rachel's new best friend. She would be fun to hang around with. At the very least, I'd love to be invited to some of her dinner parties. She says she doesn't bake, and baking is my specialty, so I could bring dessert and bread. I've also caught myself reading my cookbooks and looking for recipes I've never tried, just to shake things up. I am bad about food ruts, sometimes worse than a toddler, except I don't go through phases where I refuse to eat anything but one particular thing. It's just that I go through phases where I don't care what I eat, so I'll just keep grabbing the same one or two easy things.

Since I'll be turning in a book tomorrow (yay!!!), I'm taking the weekend off, and I already have menus planned. Friday night, I'll be doing fajitas and guacamole. Saturday I will probably do an afternoon tea with blueberry muffins (they had fresh blueberries dirt cheap at the store yesterday). There's an apple spinach salad I bought the ingredients for, so I may have that at some point. I also want to make a homemade pizza using the Italian sausage I bought (this store makes its own fresh sausage). I have some extra strawberries that will probably go bad on me if I don't use them, so I'm thinking of making a small amount of jam to use right away or freeze rather than can. And if I do that, I'll have to make scones to go with it.

Meanwhile, I guess I'll be doing a couple of those OnDemand boot camp workouts, huh? But first, I must finish the book. I think I have enough incentives to look forward to when I finish.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Books of the Heart

Before today's entry, a little public service announcement to the people in my neighborhood: Carrying a leash while your dog runs 30 yards ahead of you down the sidewalk does not mean you're complying with the local leash laws, no matter how well-trained and obedient you think your dog is. And if your dog continues to run ahead of you and runs growling at someone, totally ignoring you while you call out, "Come back here! Sit! Stay!" your dog is not well-trained. Maybe I'm a little overly sensitive about the subject ever since the time that one of those empty leash-toting dog owners was calling out, "Don't worry! She doesn't bite!" at the exact moment her dog was sinking its teeth into my leg deep enough to leave major bruises for two weeks and a scar that lasted a year. Last night it was finally nice enough to go out for a walk, and wouldn't you know, I was almost immediately faced on the sidewalk by one of those dogs who growled at me as her owner ran to catch up while ineffectually calling out, "Come back here!" Fortunately, there was a couple nearby with two huge Dalmatians on leashes, and they had me come stand behind them so I had two big dogs between me and the one running free. The man with the Dalmatians did make a pointed remark as the lady finally caught her dog and put its leash on about how at least nobody got hurt this time. I'm not sure she got it. She was too busy saying, "She never does that!" (I bet about 90 percent of dog bites come from dogs who supposedly never would do anything like that.) After the stupid woman and her dog were gone, I stayed and chatted for a while and played with the Dalmatians, who were very sweet dogs who'd just been rescued from bad homes. The people were pretty understanding when I explained what had happened to me before, and they'd been nervous, themselves, because of the way that dog had been acting. I'm not really afraid of dogs. I love big dogs, and I'm good with them. I am, however, afraid of stupid dog owners who don't understand dogs or know how to deal with them. For one thing, when you give a command to a dog, you have to sound like you mean it. I bet I could have got this dog under control if it had any training at all, but reprimanding other people's dogs in public is about as well-received as reprimanding other people's kids (and the people who are most likely to take offense are the ones whose dogs or kids most need the reprimand).

I've had to temporarily switch projects, as my editor wants to read Damsel Under Stress during the holiday weekend (I'm not sure her motives are entirely work-related), so I'm giving it one last read-through. I've also had my deadline for book 4 moved back to November 13, which is a huge weight off my shoulders. I'll probably still finish not too long after the original Sept. 15 deadline, but it's nice not to feel so pressured. I can even take the holiday weekend! There's a tentative publication date of January 2008 on that book. Yeah, I know, that's later than I've been saying, and I know I promised a shorter gap between books, but trust me, I've already whined about it.

There are times when a bunch of seemingly random free-floating ideas all converge at once to really make a point. That's a lot of how I get book ideas, and it's even where I often get Deep Thoughts. In her Girlfriends Cyber Circuit interview yesterday, Ellen Meister said something that put something I'd been thinking into words when she said to write the story you most want to read at that moment in your life. Writers often talk about the "Book of Your Heart," the book you feel you have to write that comes pouring out of the very depths of your soul. It's something you write regardless of commercial appeal. Published authors, in particular, like to talk about this because often their publishers aren't interested in these books of the heart. These books are usually quite different from what the author usually writes, and publishers worry that they'd alienate their current readers. Thus, the authors feel like they've been pigeonholed by their publishers.

I was at a conference for published authors a few years ago, and we had a session with a big-name agent. Someone asked about these books of the heart, and he groaned. He said that when one of his clients sends him a book and says it's a book of the heart, he knows up front that it will probably be unpublishable. It will most likely be dark and brooding, and while he recognizes that it's a book the author may need to have written, it's usually a book that doesn't speak to anyone else but the author, and publishers are doing authors a favor when they won't buy these books. An author who has so much clout that the publisher would put out a hardcover edition of her grocery list and who can get this kind of book published may regret it because that kind of book often tanks or turns off readers for the author's future books.

Everyone in the room was horrified, and there were some mutterings about how this agent didn't know what he was talking about. While I could sort of see his point, I have to admit that I was in the middle of an ongoing struggle to get a book published that I guess was my book of the heart, though I'm still not sure why I loved that book so much, and I really don't think it came from the depths of my soul, or anything like that. I was just really stubborn about it, and it wasn't until I could get past it that my career got going again. But Sunday afternoon on the radio, I heard something that clicked into place with all this, and now it all makes total sense.

On Sunday afternoons as I drive home from church, the local jazz station runs a syndicated program called "Piano Jazz," in which various musicians sit at the piano with an interviewer and do an interview interspersed with music (they'll talk about a song, then play it). The guest Sunday was Elvis Costello, and after he'd performed a few of the songs he'd written that were inspired by jazz standards, the interviewer mentioned how dark and broody these songs were. They joked a bit about writing songs designed to make people miserable, and then he talked about finding the balance between something that's deeply personal and something that strikes universal emotions. You may start with something that really does come from your own soul and that's from a particular point of pain in your life, but then you have to get over your selfishness as an artist and broaden it to something more universal that everyone can relate to.

I think I actually shouted, "That's it!" in the car. Your story may come from a very personal place, but something that intimately personal may not appeal to anyone but you. The trick is to get beyond that and find what's universal in the feeling, or find a more universal experience to convey that same feeling. And that brings me back to writing the story you most want to read at that moment. Chances are, no matter how specific a reading mood you're in at any given moment, you're not looking for something that exactly mirrors whatever you're going through. Rather, you're looking for something that will make you feel a particular way -- something you can identify with and relate to that's still different enough from your life to make it worthwhile reading a book instead of just living your life. So maybe the way to make your "book of the heart" work is to find the feelings that you're trying to express and convey them in the way that you'd want to find in the book you'd most like to read for yourself as you're in that kind of mood.

That is pretty much what I did. I eventually got over that book that will never sell (though I just came up with a twist on it that may give it an entirely new life and that I can't WAIT to play with). But when things really took off for me, it was because I wrote the book I wanted to read. When I first got the idea for Enchanted, Inc., only the very back of my brain knew it was a book I needed to write. The rest of me remained stuck for quite a while on the fact that this was the kind of book I most wanted to read. I went on a desperate search to find something like that. It seemed that most of the fun fantasy that uses magic or the supernatural as a metaphor for common experiences was aimed at kids or teens. We had the Harry Potter books, and then there was Buffy, but I couldn't find anything like that for adults that dealt with more adult subjects and with the adult phase of life. I was really getting into the chick lit books about that phase in life, but I thought those kind of stories would be really fun with some magic. I found Charles de Lint's contemporary fantasies, but they were more serious and atmospheric. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere came close, with its nice-guy everyman hero sucked into a strange, magical world, but it was about a guy and it didn't really get much into how that affected his normal life. It was only after a lot of frustrated searching that I realized the kind of book I was thinking of didn't exist, and if I wanted to read it, I'd have to write it (and then it took me a while to write it because I was afraid that if it didn't exist, it meant no one else wanted it and there wasn't a market for it). I think there ended up being more passion in writing the book I wanted to read than there was in whatever it was I was trying to get out in the book I just had to write (which I have come to realize I wouldn't have enjoyed or even bought as a reader).

A corollary of this is the old "write what you know" advice, which is why there are so many first novels (published and unpublished) about struggling writers (including my very first novel). It's more accurate to say "write what you're passionate about."

And now back to frantically re-reading my book ...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Ellen Meister

I'm more than halfway through with this round of revisions. I've decided that on this pass I'll do the major surgery -- all the cutting, adding that relates to the plot, and rearranging -- and then I'll do another pass that layers in some of the emotion and theme stuff.

Plus, Mom gave the thumbs up to the new ending on book 3, so that one is more or less done. Woo hoo!

And now, since I have work to do, I'll leave you with a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit entry. This week's book is Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, by Ellen Meister.

When a Hollywood location scout comes to Applewood, Long Island and announces that the local elementary school might make the perfect backdrop for an upcoming George Clooney movie, the PTA’s decorum crumbles like a cookie from last week's bake sale.

Enter Maddie, Ruth and Lisa, three women who become the glue that holds the project together...and wind up forming a bond of friendship stronger than anyone had imagined.

A good thing, too, because each of them is about to come apart. Maddie Schein, an ex-lawyer trying as hard to fit in as she is to save her marriage, gets knocked off balance by Jack Rose, an old college friend hell bent on seducing her. Ruth Moss—rich, sexy and outspoken—has more to give and less to enjoy than most people think. Indeed, since her husband's stroke left him embarrassingly uninhibited yet completely impotent, she's more of a caretaker than a wife. And modest Lisa Slotnick, a loving parent who wants nothing more than to fade into the scenery as she tends to her children, must deal with the humiliation of being thrust before the spotlight by her scandalous, alcoholic mother.

When these three get together, a powerful alliance is forged. But is it strong enough to overcome the obstacles to getting the movie made in their town? And will their friendship be enough to mend their hearts and homes?

And now the interview:
What inspired you to write this book?
The inspiration came at a PTA meeting. It was the first meeting of the year and, as usual, I was feeling a little self-conscious around the other moms, who seemed so perfect to me. I found myself wishing they knew there was more to me than the smiling PTA face I was presenting. Then it occurred to me that everyone might be feeling something similar. And that's when I knew I had to write about these types of women, to explore their inner lives, and the layers of joy and heartache beneath the surface. From there I set out to construct a plot around an event that could affect the community as a whole and the women as individuals. Eventually, I got the idea to bring a Hollywood movie studio to their town, and select their schoolyard as a possible location for the filming of a George Clooney movie.

Describe your creative process.
I know that for some writers, it's a totally organic process, and they just sit down to write, letting the story come to them as they go along. Others carefully outline every plot point before beginning. For me, it's a combination of the two. I spend a lot of time thinking about my characters before I begin, so I can get an idea of who I'm dealing with. And I start with a loose idea of the plot--I know where I want to start and end, but most of what happens in between unfolds as I write.

I'm not one of those writers who can blow through a quick, rough draft and then go back later to edit. I pound away at each paragraph as I go, making it as perfect as possible. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, there's no right or wrong approach. It's individual to each writer.

Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
I'm a morning person, and so I get up at 5 am every day to write. In fact, I swear I lose one IQ point every hour of the day. I'm my sharpest in the morning. I can't write a coherent sentence at night. And caffeine? A must.

How much, if anything, do you have in common with your heroine(s)?
SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA has three heroines, and I like to think there's a little bit of me in each of them. In fact, I think the only way to write any character is to find something about them you can relate to on a very real emotional level.

The suburbs seem to be the hottest location these days, what with Desperate Housewives and all, and suburban moms are among the hottest heroines. What do you see as the appeal behind the suburban setting (especially its sometimes dark underside)?
Great question. I think that for years, there's been this stereotype of the perfect suburban PTA housewife. And while we all knew it was a lie, everyone went along with it, pretending it existed. As I mentioned in my first answer, it was this very concept--several years before "Desperate Housewives" hit the air, I might add--that inspired my book.

Once "Desperate Housewives" aired, it opened up this chink in the suburban veneer, and everyone loved getting a glimpse into the secrets beyond the vinyl siding. I was like this collective AHA! moment, where everyone got to see a truth they suspected all along.

What's the biggest "scandal" you've seen in your experiences with the PTA (you don't have to name names)?
I can't, Shanna! My local PTA is about tar and feather me as it is!

(Ooh, then it must be really juicy!)

Chocolate: dark or milk?
Dark, natch.

What are you working on now?
I'm working on my second novel, THE SMART ONE. It's a story about three sisters who begin a journey of understanding certain truths about their relationship after discovering a dead body in an industrial drum.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
When I sat down to write SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA, I was taking the advice of a J.D. Salinger character to write the story I most wanted to read at that moment in my life. The fact that others want to read it, too, is a joy and a blessing.

(Oooh, very good advice!)

For more info, visit Ellen's web site.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Evil Chapter Five

Today's t-shirt: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth. It was a gift from a friend many years ago, and I wear it with pride.

It's rainy today, and yesterday was the first day since my birthday when the temperature didn't reach 100. I kind of need to go grocery shopping, but I don't want to go out in the rain. I'm not by any means complaining about the rain. I just have an urge to stay in and drink tea and write on a rainy day, so I may as well go with it, even if I do have to scrounge to throw a meal together with the food I have on hand. I'll think of it as an exercise in creativity.

I've revised up through chapter seven, which used to be chapter six. The chapters are getting shorter, so this book should read even faster than previous ones.

I'm learning that in almost every book, chapters two and three from my initial draft almost always end up being cut or rewritten significantly. Chapter five usually ends up being totally altered, too. In fact, chapter five is always the chapter from hell. In book 3, I know I rewrote it at least five times, usually about twice per draft. In book 4, I just wrote an entirely different chapter five that comes between chapter four and what was chapter five, but which is now chapter six. I don't think I'll have to do much more major surgery for a few more chapters, but I've added enough so far that I have plenty of room to cut, and I imagine I'll be adding even more, which means still more room to cut.

I don't think I'll ever get to the point where I can avoid cutting a lot in the early chapters because that meandering seems to be part of the creative process. I need to get a feel for the story and where the characters are at this time, and that's where I do it. I guess I could start out by writing a piece of fanfic for my own book that gets into all that stuff, but it seems to work for me to play within the book. I just need to learn to recognize what needs to be cut sooner.

Let's hear a big woo hoo for The Office winning the best comedy Emmy. Oh, I love that show. But why do they always present the drama award last, like it's the big award we've all been waiting for, and therefore more important than the comedy award? Comedy may be even harder to do well than drama is, but drama usually seems to be treated as more valuable and more important. I think they should alternate years, with the comedy award going last every other year, as a way of showing that they're equally important. Comedy gets no respect. Hey, just because it makes you laugh, it doesn't mean it's less worthy than something that makes you cry.

Finally, a big happy birthday to my brother.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Omen of the Apocalypse

I was on time -- nay, early -- for a morning meeting this morning. I got up before my alarm went off, had my outfit decided and clothes more or less laid out so there was no frantic searching, and I even had time to read the newspaper before I left.

I'm just letting everyone know in case there was some stuff you wanted to get done before the world came to an end.

And wouldn't you know it, it turned out to be a meeting I didn't really need to be at. It was for a writing group, and the workshop was on characterization, with an approach that's exactly the opposite of what I know works for me. I'm sure some of the information would be helpful for many writers, but for me, I know I'd end up with characters who were hollow shells with some interesting characteristics. Plus, it was a two-hour workshop, and I have to be somewhere early this evening, so I figured I'd be better off getting home and writing and left during the mid-way break.

But still, I got up on time and got somewhere on time! Without rushing or feeling frantic! In the morning! Go, me! (I am not a morning person.)

Friday, August 25, 2006

Everything Changes

I'm starting to repeat on t-shirts. I don't think I've plumbed the full depths of my collection, but most mornings, I just grab whatever's easiest to reach, which is usually what's on the top of the stack from my most recent bout of laundry, which means wearing the same ones over and over. Maybe if I ever get around to that major house reorganization I've been talking about (and daydreaming about -- the Ikea catalog is very inspiring), I'll get to the rest of the collection.

But before I get to the reorganization, I have to get book 4 rewritten. I thought I nailed it because, unlike my usual first drafts, stuff happens in the first 100 pages. Lots of stuff! Unfortunately, it's not stuff that actually relates to the plot, so I have to rearrange things a bit. I think I'm a bit of a fangirl for my own books (which is good, because if I'm not, how can I expect anyone else to be?), and I love these characters so much that I'd be willing to watch them just hanging out, talking and doing their laundry. I suspect there are a few readers out there who'd be willing to do that, too. But it doesn't make for a very exciting book. Let's just say there may be lots of deleted scenes for the web site from this one, for all the fangirls to enjoy without them bogging down the book.

And no, there weren't any actual laundry scenes. That's just my all-purpose metaphor for normal life stuff that doesn't involve saving the world. Maybe I should change that to "eating dinner," because that was what my agent suggested cutting, all those scenes of people eating. I pointed out that my main character is from the South, and (here's a little hint) the book involves some members of her family, and THAT'S WHAT WE DO!!! I think there's even something in the Bible about wherever two or more are gathered, food has to be served (or maybe not, but there should be). Meals are the major form of social interaction in our culture. You can learn a lot about a person by having dinner with him. But I admit, there may have been a little too much food in that book, possibly a result of the fact that I was on my pre-conference diet at the time I wrote it (and now I'm on my pre-class reunion diet).

My agent did give me a little bit of a scare when she started the conversation giving me feedback on the draft by suggesting that I ask to have my deadline moved. But everything she said made sense, and the ideas are already clicking in my brain, so I think I can do it. And because I am very, very stubborn at times, I'm now determined to meet that original deadline, even if it means giving up sleep or, if I get really desperate, Television Without Pity (I have my priorities). Besides, my life gets insane after that original deadline, so I'm not sure moving it would do me much good. I figure if I cut out the temper tantrum/whining/kicking-and-screaming part of the revision process, I'll save tons of time.

In the "my, how things change" category, I got an e-mail this morning from an editor at another publisher, asking me to read one of her author's books for a cover blurb. In her message, she talked about what a big fan she is of my work. Um, but she REJECTED my work a couple of years ago, with a very harshly worded rejection. In fact, she was borderline mean and very dismissive of the entire concept. But I like the author of the book she wanted me to blurb, and I'm really excited about that book, so of course I said I would (come on, wouldn't you want a sneak peek at a book that's intrigued you from the first time you heard about it? Getting to read books long before publication is one of the BEST parts of my job.). In a weird, roundabout way, success really is the best revenge, because it was enough for me that I was successful enough with the work she REJECTED that she wanted me to endorse one of her authors' books. We'll see if I can resist the temptation to remind her that she was such a huge fan of me that she didn't want anything to do with my book. Too bad the name didn't ring a bell for me until I had already said I'd do it, so I missed the chance to make her sweat. They always warn authors not to burn bridges in this business because you never know when you'll have to work with an editor or agent in the future, since they all move around so much. I wonder if editors or agents ever think in those terms, that the author they rejected with a snide remark might one day be an author they need for a cover blurb or some other favor. Today's rejection may be tomorrow's bestseller who wields a lot of power in the industry. I think most of us recognize that rejection is part of the business, and we don't usually hold grudges, but when a rejection goes out of its way to be mean, we can't help but remember, and I have a very long memory (and a spreadsheet). Not that I am a big bestseller who wields any power (yet!), but a girl can dream.

I figure I'm hitting some success benchmarks: one of my books is in Target, another book is going back to press more than a year after release, and now an editor who rejected me is asking me for a favor. Not shabby.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More from the Mailbag: Judging a Book by Its Cover

Today's t-shirt: The shirt from my college dormitory. It says "I slept with 3000 people last night" on the front, and on the back it says "Jester Center Halls" and has a drawing of the big, high-rise dorm complex. At the time, it was the second-largest dormitory in the world. The first time I wore it to come home for the weekend, my mom was scandalized because people who didn't know about Jester might just think I was a slut if I advertised sleeping with that many people. I pointed out that most sluts don't run out and get t-shirts made to advertise that fact (I will refrain from the obvious joke about sorority party shirts), and who could hit that number in one night anyway, so wouldn't people assume there was some kind of twist or joke on the back of the shirt rather than taking it literally?

I think I've managed to respond to all of the reader mail I've received so far (though there's always a chance that something is lurking deep in my in-box that I somehow missed). If you've written to me and haven't received a reply, there is a chance that it ended up in my spam filter and didn't have an identifiable subject line. I don't open messages in my spam filter that have subject lines like "Hi!" or that have no subject line. If you want to make sure I see your message, be sure and use a subject header that sounds like it might be a message from a reader, like maybe the book title or "Great book!" or even "your books." My spam filter is sometimes overly diligent, so I do check it, but if I can't tell what the message must be from the subject and if I don't recognize the sender's name, I just delete it.

It's sad and pathetic confession time again. Yes, a lot of the reason I get behind on responding to reader mail is because I'm busy (I'm behind on responding to family and friends mail, too). But the other reason is that I seem to be acting sad and pathetic as a way of trying not to look like I'm sad and pathetic. I check my e-mail pretty frequently (sometimes almost obsessively), unless I'm away from my desk or really being good about working on something. I read the e-mail as it comes in, but I don't want to respond as soon as a read it because I don't want anyone to think that I have nothing better to do than respond to e-mails instantly. If I wrote an author I didn't already know personally and got an instant reply, I'm sure I'd think, "Gee, don't you have anything better to do? Shouldn't you be writing, or something?" Plus, sometimes I like to think about the response. So, I wait a little before responding. Of course, then my in-box gets clogged with lots of other stuff, and I get sidetracked, so later becomes much later. I think in the future I'll just set aside a little time every day (unless I'm totally crazy busy or out of town) to deal with whatever e-mail has come in since the day before. Some people may get a response almost instantly, and some may get a response a day later, but hopefully no one will get a response three months later.

Speaking of crazy busy, I have one more chapter in book 3 to revise, and it will be a bit of a rewrite. And then I have some serious work to do revising book 4. My agent had a lot of suggestions, and it's the kind of thing where I want to smack myself on the head and wonder why I didn't see those things myself because they're so very obvious. I'm already excited about what the final product might look like, though.

And now for some short mailbag responses (rather than my usual essays).

Q: How much input do you get into your book covers or titles? (Also, do you draw the book covers yourself?)
A:
My publisher certainly asks for suggestions on the book covers. When I sold the first book in the series, we had a lot of talks about the kind of cover I wanted. We agreed we wanted something cartoony, to match the fun tone of the books. I sent some suggestions of book covers I liked that had the kind of look I was going for. I liked the idea of cartoons on a white background. Then they turned that info over to the art department, who hired an artist (I DO NOT draw the covers myself. You can tell because they aren't stick figures.) to do the art. There's also a designer who puts the art together with stuff like the title and my name and the various text elements that go into a cover, as well as the design of the interior of the book, like those drawings on the chapter headings and the way they make the title page look. The names of the artist and designer are on the back cover.

When they have a draft of a cover, they send it to me for suggestions or approval. I've loved what they've done so far (I had a couple of tweaks to the details of the design for Once Upon Stilettos), so I don't know what they'd do if I totally hated something. I doubt they'd go back to the drawing board, but they might try to make adjustments based on my biggest concerns. Now that we have a look established, we're pretty much sticking with it, so it's likely that the next covers will be drawn by the same artist. We also like the idea of using the frog and the fairy in various ways to reflect each book. They're not meant to actually represent any characters in the book (though I did end up writing the frog in as a character), just to convey an overall impression of the kind of books these are.

As for titles, again, I have some input, but it's really a collaborative process. My working title for Enchanted, Inc. was Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc. I only used that title because I knew I couldn't submit it as Book or the file name I was using, Fantasy Draft, so I didn't mind them changing it. At first, I wasn't too thrilled about the title they suggested and I came up with a bunch of alternatives (one was Totally Unenchanted), but they pretty much sucked, and I learned to live with and eventually love the new title. I did come up with the "Hex and the City" tag line. The working title for the second book was Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, and everyone was totally on board with that -- until some other author at another publisher had a book with that title that was scheduled to come out a few months before mine, and she was much more famous. We decided to change it, but nobody could think of anything because that was such a perfect title for that book. Eventually, one of the marketing copywriters came up with Once Upon Stilettos in the middle of the night, and it stuck. Book 3 had no title for the longest time. The contract is written for "book 3." I turned the book in as "book 3." I joked that I didn't want to hinder the creativity of the marketing department with my input. And then I had a shower epiphany (why do the best ideas come in the shower?), came up with Damsel Under Stress, and that ended up being the title. Book 4 does have a working title, and chances are very good that it will end up being the final title because everyone seems to like it, but I'm not going to announce it until it's set in stone.

And a related question ...
Q: How much input do you get on the translated editions?
A:
Next to none. I don't get a say on the translation titles (which are often entirely new titles rather than translations of the English titles) or the cover art. In fact, I usually don't see the covers -- with the titles -- until they're a done deal. The Chinese translator has contacted me with questions and clarifications, and I've worked with her on finding ways to translate some of the more peculiar American idioms, but otherwise, I have no clue what's inside the pages of the translated editions. I couldn't say whether they're good or accurate translations. I have a friend with family in Taiwan, so I'll have to hear from him how well that translator did with the information I sent her. I read some German, so I may take a stab at reading the German edition if I get bored, but it would be a slow slog requiring a dictionary because my German is survival German. I can get around the country and order in a restaurant, but reading a whole book -- even if I wrote it -- might be a challenge.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Stephanie Lehman

Today's t-shirt: UT Southwestern Medical Center. That was where I had my first job out of college, in the public information office. I had to go to a conference for university public information professionals, and for the welcome event we had to wear t-shirts from our schools, so I bought this one at the school gift shop. I still freelance for that school.

I'm almost done with the revisions on Damsel Under Stress, just one chapter to go, but that chapter will be affected by changes I make to book 4, which I'm supposed to be discussing with my agent today. Meanwhile, today the folks at Ballantine are having a meeting to discuss the cover and related stuff for Damsel. I can't wait to see the result! Seeing your cover for the first time is one of the more exciting (and possible nervewracking) parts of this job. It's soooo crucial, and you have sooo little control over it, but at the same time, it's like seeing your baby's face for the first time and finding out how the rest of the world will see this thing that's been living inside you for so long.

But enough about me. I've got another Girlfriends Cyber Circuit guest. You Could Do Better by Stephanie Lehman is about a woman trying to choose between the man of her dreams -- and her fiance. (oops!)

Daphne Wells is way too busy watching television to start planning her wedding. She tells herself that being glued to the boob tube counts as research for her job at the Museum of Television and Radio. But the truth is, as much as she’s looking forward to a future with her fiancĂ©, Charlie, their sex life just isn’t ready for prime time.

Then Daphne meets sexy, successful writer/producer Jonathan Hill when he comes to the museum for inspiration. Daphne spends a weekend in the Hamptons at Jonathan’s beach house—on business, of course—but the picture comes in loud and clear: This man can turn her on as if he’s a remote control. She’s more confused than ever about marrying Charlie. What if she can do better?

Now, the interview:
What inspired you to write this book?
I came up with the idea that my main character would be a curator at The Museum of Television and Radio so I’d have an excuse to go to the museum, watch old episodes of THIS IS YOUR LIFE, and call it research.

Describe your creative process.
I used to be offended by the idea of outlining. I would begin a novel with total faith that as I wrote, the story would unfold into something interesting, gripping and meaningful. As a result, I have three (unpublished) novels that happen to have no plot to speak of. Now I can’t imagine writing a novel without an outline. At the very least, I need to fool myself into believing that I know where I’m going. Writing a novel is such a massive undertaking, and the thing is, I don’t think you can know how a novel should begin until it ends. And I don’t think you can know how it should end until you have your beginning. And the middle! Let’s not even talk about that.

Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
I must have coffee and some kind of breadlike sweet (muffin, scone, Danish, bagel) to get me going. I don’t think it would be possible for me to write without caffeine, flour and sugar. But not too much flour and sugar, because then I’ll just want to take a nap. It’s taken me years to know how to gauge exactly how much flour and sugar is optimal.

How much, if anything, do you have in common with your heroine?
I am nothing like my heroine. She is smart, sensitive, independent and extremely competent. Also, I’ve never had a good memory for information and could not possibly retain all that TV trivia.

Are you a big TV watcher yourself?
Um, can I get back to you on that? 100 GREATEST RED CARPET MOMENTS is starting…

What are your favorite things to watch?
I love to watch my husband do the dishes, my children clean their rooms, and my mother get out her credit card when we’re at Banana Republic. Oh, you mean TV! Well, I prefer the channels under 49, but will watch things between 50 and 100 if it comes to that.

Is there something in your life where you think you could have done better (or could do better)?
I admit (under duress) that I definitely watched too much TV while doing homework during my formative years, and my grades show it. And I definitely could’ve done better with this questionnaire!

Chocolate: dark or milk?
Dark, preferably Scharffen Berger 82% Cacao Extra Dark…

(oh, now I'm hungry!)

What are you working on now?
I’m working on another novel, but scared to say anything in case I jinx it. I do have an outline though!

For more info, visit Stephanie's web site or her blog, The History of Television.

And I may have to add this to my Labor Day weekend chick books marathon because it sounds like a hoot!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Homebodiness

I was pleased and surprised by the response to my post on my reluctance to go out too much. Now I don't feel like such a freak for being a big homebody.

I know I'm a rather extreme introvert -- from the personality type definition (the I or E in the Myers-Briggs) rather than the common definition that equates it to shyness or being quiet. I draw my energy from alone time. When I'm out among people, as long as I have a good energy reserve, I can be bubbly and friendly and very, very talkative. But then I need some alone time to recharge from that before I can get out and about again.

For the most part, I've had more of a social life since I stopped working daily in an office (I telecommuted for two years with my last job before I went entirely freelance). I seem to have some kind of limit on the number of times I can stand to leave the house and the amount of time I can handle spending with people. When I was going to an office every day, it felt like I was getting out a lot because I was leaving the house daily, and I was around people a lot. I might go out to lunch with co-workers, or maybe get together with people after work for dinner or happy hour. But during much of my office career, I was really bad about crawling into a hole all weekend. There were times when the only time I opened the front door between the time I got home on Friday night and the time I left for work on Monday morning was to bring in the newspaper.

When I started telecommuting, I did start getting out and getting together with friends more often. Some of my friends had work schedules that weren't the typical 8-5, so my new schedule made it easier for us to get together. I also got my alone time during the day, so I had the energy to go out at night or on weekends. I was still getting out less than I had before because of the not going to an office thing -- which also meant no lunches with co-workers or happy hours -- but if you didn't count work as "getting out," I was probably getting out more, for the most part.

Now, I tend to go in waves. When I'm working on a book, I don't interact much with the real world. I really fall into book world. I may try to moderate that some, but it may just be part of the creative process. I also go through phases where my "work" takes me out and about a lot -- to conferences, conventions, booksignings, book festivals, and the like. After a few months of that kind of activity, I think I use up my energy reserves and need some unscheduled down time. These days, I seem to go out at least once on most weekends, in addition to church and choir practice. That's not exactly social butterfly, but it isn't hermit, either.

The exception to this pattern was when I was right out of college. I was involved in a church with a very active young singles group, and I got into a group of friends within that group, so most weekends there was at least one organized group activity and generally some kind of non-organized get-together with friends. But I think I overdosed on all that, and after a while, I did reach a point where I couldn't stand to go out. There were times when I'd be all dressed and ready to go, and I'd change my mind with my hand on the doorknob. Eventually, that group dissolved as everyone got married or moved away (for about a year, my social life was mostly going to weddings -- more than twelve a year for a while).

On the other hand, the more time I spend at home, the harder it can be to make myself leave. I seem to do best at making myself get out when there's some kind of obligation (and not necessarily in the negative sense of it being something I have to do that I don't want to do). If I've told someone I'll be there and if my absence would be noticed, it's a lot easier to go. The times I back out on doing something are usually more when I'd be by myself in a crowd and not sure I'd know anyone there. I'm not sure that even counts as "social."

Now that I've discovered all the OnDemand exercise programs, I may not sign up for an exercise class this fall at the community college. That wasn't really social interaction, and I wasn't really meeting new people, but it seemed to draw from my "account" of outside time, and it counted as a leaving the house trip, which then kept me from wanting to go out at other times.

When I get these books turned in and really kick in Project Get a Life, I hope to find new activities and interests to explore. Some may be more social and involve getting out and about, but some may simply be new interests for me to explore on my own. I know I should probably ration my going out times so that I can do the things I really want to do and am not wasting those times on things that aren't rewarding for me. I shall provide updates along the way. But first, I have these books to work on ...

Monday, August 21, 2006

More from the Mailbag: Geography Questions

I got hit with an allergy flare-up over the weekend (probably a combo from ragweed being about the only plant that's thriving in the drought and not being able to resist playing with my friend's kittens Saturday night), resorted to taking allergy drugs, and now I've got the fun grogginess that comes from a Benadryl hangover. Ugh. It does give me very interesting, vivid dreams, though. For instance, last night I dreamed the ultimate television crossover -- mixing House with The Gilmore Girls. Lorelei Gilmore wasn't feeling well, and that sent Emily into overprotective mama bear mode, so she insisted that only Dr. House was good enough to treat her daughter, and then Emily Gilmore and House really butted heads. I don't think I got to see that part because I woke up or moved to another dream, but that's the kind of clash that tends to leave craters in its aftermath. We'll never see it because the shows are on different networks and now airing opposite each other, but wouldn't it be fun?

I'm almost done with my revisions. I'm down to the part that needs the most work, so it will probably go more slowly now. In other news, I got word this morning that Enchanted, Inc. was going back for a third printing. Yay! The fact that they're going back to press this long after the original release date is a good sign. It's nice not to be fading away into the obscurity of an out-of-print book.

Now for another trip to the mailbag, as I address questions that come up frequently in reader mail. Some of this is turning into a discourse on how the publishing world works, but I figure that aspiring authors and even some readers might be interested in a peek behind the curtain. Today's theme is geography.

Q: Why aren't your books published in (country)?/When will your books be published in (country)?
A:
This actually works a lot like the other subsidiary rights (movies, TV, etc.) that I discussed in my previous mailbag post. There are agents who specialize in selling to foreign markets, and they submit my books to publishers in those markets, who then decide what they want to publish. It's a lot like getting the book published in the US in the first place -- you send it to publishers, and they then decide if they want it (usually based on whether they think it will make money for them). My foreign rights agents have been very aggressive in marketing my books, so if a country hasn't picked up the books, it's either because they said no or because they haven't yet made a decision.

Enchanted, Inc> has already been published in Dutch in The Netherlands and Belgium. It will be published in Germany in January 2007. It's also sold to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia. Once Upon Stilettos will be published in Dutch this November, and it's also sold to Japan. That book (and subsequent books) may ultimately sell in more markets, depending on how the first one does there. I don't yet have any foreign sales for Damsel Under Stress, but then, I don't have a finished manuscript. I hear that the Dutch publisher has been pleased with sales so far, so if the second book does well there, there is a strong chance they'll pick up the next book, too.

I do know that the publishers in the United Kingdom passed on the opportunity to publish Enchanted, Inc. I don't know about Australia (another country I get asked about a lot). I guess those of you in English-speaking countries outside the United States and Canada will just have to keep buying the US editions online or in shops that sell imported books. I'm not sure how you'd demonstrate to your country's publishers that there is demand for books like this there. I suppose it's like the "I've got to get me a piece of that" numbers that also come into play for film-type stuff. If it becomes big enough in the US, then foreign publishers might take another look. The whole industry is very "me too."

Q: Why don't you have a booksigning in (city)?
A:
I know my booksigning locations have been pretty provincial, staying mostly within Texas, unless I'm at an out-of-town conference. That's because of one important thing: money.

I'm not the kind of author who gets sent on a book tour by my publisher. When I go out of town for a booksigning, I have to pay my own travel expenses, and for the most part, the economics don't work out. I earn about 90 cents in royalties for each copy sold. At my most successful local booksigning, one in town that all my friends came to, many of them buying multiple copies, I sold about 40 books. At my most successful out-of-town signing, I sold about 20 books (and several of those were to family members). More often, I sell around ten books. You don't have to be a math genius to figure out that this doesn't pay for even gas money when you're driving 200 miles to get there. However, there are other benefits to doing signings, which is why I do them, even at a loss. The big one is getting to meet readers, which is fun, and which I also think pays off in increased word of mouth, since you're more likely to talk about an author you've met. I also get to meet booksellers. There's usually a little publicity involved, like in the store's newsletter or posters in the store, which raises my profile. The store orders more than the usual six copies of the book, and the book gets displayed more prominently before and after the signing (at one signing, more books sold from the display before the signing itself than during the time I was at the store). I also try to get around to other stores in town to sign their stock and meet booksellers while I'm in the area. That makes it worth a couple of tanks of gas and a night in a relative's guest room or at whatever special deal I can get through hotels.com. I can't quite stretch to justify airfare -- which would more than triple the cost of the trip -- unless I have some other reason for going to that city, and there aren't a lot of places you can easily drive to from Dallas.

Publishers make more profit per copy than I do, but even publishers are cutting back on book tours. It's almost impossible to sell enough books that wouldn't have sold whether or not the author came to town to pay for the cost of hotel and airfare. I've gone to a couple of signings by high-profile authors, and there were maybe 35 people there (many of whom brought their own copies of the book that they'd already bought). The publishers also have to focus on intangible benefits like meeting fans, meeting booksellers and maybe getting some local publicity that wouldn't have happened without the author being in town. There seem to be two kinds of authors who usually get sent on book tours. One type is the big, bestselling author that people will line up to see. Then a lot of books do sell, and the author can usually get some good local media attention. Those kinds of tours are also sometimes treated as a perk for the chosen bookseller -- they get the chance to have a celebrity author in their store, which then helps build a better relationship between the publisher and the bookseller. There's also co-op money that comes into play and a lot of other behind-the-scenes stuff.

The other kind of author that gets sent on tour is the author the publisher wants to build into a big bestseller (and no, they don't really want to build all their authors into bestsellers. They wouldn't complain if it happens, but they only pull out the big guns to make an effort to create bestsellers for a chosen few). In this case, it isn't so much about selling enough books to pay for the tour. It's more about making connections, making the booksellers know that the publisher is really pushing this author, and generally raising the author's profile to lay the groundwork for what might happen with future books by that author.

Most of the authors who get tours are published in hardcover, since those books are more profitable for publishers. You can pay for the tour faster in sales of hardcover books than with trade paperbacks or mass market paperbacks.

There are a few exceptions to the above trends. Authors who live in places where you can get to a lot of cities in a short amount of time might get at least a mini tour among the major cities there. It's a lot easier to send someone to hit DC, Philadelphia, New York and Boston when the author is already in one of those cities than it is to fly someone in from another part of the country to visit all those cities. Authors whose books have strong regional ties may get a regional tour. Southern authors who write about the South (and especially who already live there) might get sent to Atlanta, Memphis, Charleston, and so forth.

What does that mean for me? Unless my publisher has been so blown away by sales of the last book and really thinks the next one will be my big breakout (so far, they're pleased but not really blown away), chances are that I won't be doing a lot of booksignings in other parts of the country, unless I can find some other reason to be in those cities. I'm thinking about maybe trying to do one big out-of-Texas event (out of my own budget) with the next book if I can find the right combination of factors that could allow me to justify it -- like a really great bookstore that could draw a crowd through their own efforts, a big concentration of existing fans who promise to show up, maybe a writing conference or sf/fantasy convention where I could speak (especially if they cover part of the travel costs for their speakers), and a good chance for local media coverage if I go there.

So, if you want me to come to your town for a booksigning or other event, there are two things you can do. You can continue telling people about my books and maybe helping boost the sales to the point the publisher decides that a book tour would be a good idea. Or you can look for events like conferences and conventions in the May/June timeframe next year when the next book comes out and suggest that they invite me as a guest speaker (especially if they pay some travel expenses).

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Project Get a Life Setback

My upcoming "Project Get a Life" may be an uphill battle, if yesterday was any indication. I had to go to a retirement party for one of my former bosses (readers of my books might recognize him in one of the characters) at the medical school near downtown Dallas, and I thought I might as well just go a little further into downtown itself afterward for the art museum's big Friday "late night" event where they have stuff like concerts and lectures at the museum. I've planned to do this before, but then inertia hits and I don't want to leave the house when the time comes. I figured this way, I'd already be almost there, so it would be easy to make myself go. I even set the VCR for Sci Fi Friday.

After the party, I stopped by the restroom to touch up my lipstick, and then on my way out the door of the building, it was like someone switched on the homing signal and all I wanted was to be home. It could be some residual effects from when I worked there, and walking out that door meant it was time to go home. I could have been emotionally drained from being in the social environment with all those former co-workers. At any rate, I was yawning furiously by the time I got home, and I was in bed relatively early. Maybe the heat had something to do with it, too.

So it seems like I can't bring myself to leave the house to go out, but if I'm already out, then I just want to get home.

Not that I'm a total homebody, since I did go to the party, and I'm going to another party tonight. I also have a party to go to next weekend, and I had one last weekend.

I'm sure I'll be more energetic when (if!) it ever gets cooler. There are a lot of new shops and restaurants within walking distance of me, and I'm looking forward to getting out and about if it ever gets to the point where I can walk more than a few feet without collapsing from heat exhaustion. There's also a sort of reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder you get around here. Up north, people get depressed in the winter because the days are so much shorter and the weather doesn't allow them to get out much in what sunlight they get. Here, people get depressed in the summer because it's too hot to go out in the daylight and you're stuck indoors during the day, so you don't get the needed exposure to sunlight. You find yourself just wanting to crawl in bed and say, "Wake me when it's October." That's not conducive to getting out and getting a life.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Questions from the Mailbag

I'm nearly halfway done with revisions on Damsel Under Stress, and I'm having fun. I caught myself a few times forgetting that I'm supposed to be checking against edits as I read because I've gotten into the story and just started reading without looking to see if there's something I'm supposed to be changing. I figure that's a good sign.

I've been getting a fair amount of e-mail from readers, and I try to answer it all personally, but I keep getting behind because I can't seem to get around to it when I'm busy writing. There are some questions that keep coming up, and I figure that if a few people bother to write about them, then there are a lot more people who might have the same question who haven't written. So, on days when I can't think of anything else to write about, I'll do Questions from the Mailbag. This won't replace me actually responding to individual e-mails, but at least it might take care of the questions until I get around to dealing with my e-mail. I'm not picking on any particular question (or questioner) specifically. These are composite questions I've pulled together from a lot of messages. Today I'll hit the two questions I get asked most often (in various forms).

Q: Will there be more books in this series?
A:
Yes. Books three and four have already been bought (and written). Book three, which is now called Damsel Under Stress, is scheduled for release the last week in April 2007. I don't have a release date for book 4 yet. I do plan to do more books in the series (if my publisher will let me), but I'd like to take a little break first to write something else. Right now, I'm thinking that I'll do one more book to wrap up the story arcs I've already established -- kind of like a season finale of a TV series -- and then maybe start a new "season" with some new stories that kick off to deal with the situations established in that book. The TV series model of resolving some story arcs along the way and then dealing with the new situations may be what works best to be able to keep the series going without dragging out any story lines to the point of ridiculousness (one of my pet peeves with some series as a reader).

Q: Why don't you have your books turned into movies/TV shows/cartoons/anime/audiobooks/manga/calendars/comic books/etc.?
A:
Believe it or not, I actually have very little say in the matter, beyond saying yes or no when someone makes an offer. I have a team of subrights agents working under my agent (I have "people"!) to find every possible opportunity. The trick is finding someone who's willing to put up the money to do any of these things. That's not just about putting up the money to pay me for the rights. My share in it all is relatively minimal. The real cost is in producing all these things. The people who make movies, TV, manga, comic books and so forth have to think that there's enough of an audience demand that they'll make money on the enterprise. And, quite frankly, the sales numbers so far on the books don't provide much evidence that there is. Y'all may love these books, and I love you for it, but I got the latest sales figures on Enchanted, Inc. yesterday, and while they're apparently okay for a book of that type, they're definitely not in the "I've got to get me a piece of that action!" realm (let's just say you're all part of a small, elite group for having bought that book). Sales are better on Once Upon Stilettos, but still not anything to make eyeballs pop out. At this point, any non-book stuff that's produced would be more likely to build the audience for the books rather than capitalize on the existing fan base of the books. That's great for me, but it's a big risk for anyone who tries to produce something else, since the existing fan base of the books isn't big enough for anything based on them to earn any money at all.

The rights have been optioned for a television series, and though I haven't seen the contract yet, that option would likely allow either live action or animation, so pretty much everything visual is currently off the table. I doubt I'll have much creative input or control -- probably only as much as they deign to give me. The people optioning the TV rights have said they want to set up a conference call with me, which bodes well, but they generally are allowed to do anything they want to with the basic setting and characters.

As for printed visual stuff, my publisher (Random House) is doing a lot with manga, and I have a feeling if they thought there was a market for it, they'd be pursuing it. Again, the current market size isn't big enough to get anyone excited. Ditto with audiobooks. Those are expensive to produce, and they'd have to tap into a much bigger market to make that profitable.

About all I can say is that if you want to see more stuff spun off from these books, you'd have to spread enough word of mouth to get more people to buy books so that the sales numbers move into "I've got to get me a piece of that action!" territory. (And remember that buying used books, swapping books and lending books doesn't count toward those kinds of numbers.) We're not turning down legitimate offers, but the offers do have to be made in the first place. It's really cool that y'all want all this stuff, though.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Books from Heaven, and from Hell

Today's t-shirt: "I (heart) the FCC." It's a geeky telecom thing for a campaign we did for a client back in my high-tech advertising/PR days. The idea was that there was a silver lining in one of those FCC mandates because if you bought the right equipment to meet that mandate, it gave you the opportunity to also add a bunch of profitable services. About 90 percent of the stuff we did campaigns for never actually happened (slideware runs rampant in telecom) so I don't know what actually came of all that, but I did get a cool-looking t-shirt.

Some of these t-shirt stories that involve my past jobs may give you a pretty good idea of why I was motivated to build a career as a novelist.

I had a long chat with my agent about Damsel Under Stress yesterday, and I'm psyched. She'd just read the second round of the book from hell, and she said she was blown away by how much I'd improved it from the first draft. The first draft was a struggle, but then I figured out what it was really about and almost completely rewrote it for the second draft. Normally I don't work that way. I usually know what a book is about before I start writing it, but with this one, I guess I had to write the whole thing first. Fortunately, it worked, and I don't think anyone who wasn't here to read all my moaning and groaning while I wrote it would realize how much blood, sweat and tears went into that book. I have some tweaks I want to make to the ending, and then a few notes from my editor, and this one will be done!

It seems like for every author there are a few "gimme" books that seem to write themselves and pour out with no struggle or angst, and then there's at least one Book From Hell that is sheer torture to write. I'm not sure readers can tell the difference, because the results look pretty much the same. It's the process, the stuff that goes on behind the curtain, that's different. Most books fall somewhere in the middle, with parts that seem to come floating down on a beam of light straight from heaven and parts you feel like you have to dredge up from the depths of hell.

Enchanted, Inc. was a gimme book. I almost felt like I was taking dictation from someone else who was having to do the hard parts that involved thinking. I think that's largely because I had no expectations and no pressure when I was writing it. Once I got past the first three chapters that an editor had requested, I wrote mostly for my own amusement rather than worrying about what someone else would think about it. I'd spent the previous eight or so years trying to fit what I thought editors were looking for or rewriting proposals to satisfy various people, and for once, I let go of all that and just had fun. Even revisions on that book were fun because I could feel the book getting better, and even the tiniest suggestion from my agent opened up all sorts of ideas and possibilities. I think I did all those rewrites in the span of a couple of weeks.

Incidentally, my agent has posted my query letter for that book on her blog, so if you're curious, check it out. Reading it was like a blast from the past for me because so much has happened since then. I'm in such a different place now. Then I was so nervous about sending even that query because I'd been through so much rejection up to that point. That book had really come to mean a lot to me, and I wasn't sure I could deal with it being rejected by the first agent I sent it to. Hitting "send" on that e-mail was one of the most difficult things I've ever done.

Once Upon Stilettos was weird for me in that it was a gimme in the first draft, then a book from hell in revisions. The first draft poured out of me, and while I was writing, I loved it. As soon as I finished it, I knew there was something wrong with it, but I wasn't sure how to fix it. I wrote the first draft in five weeks, then spent three months revising it.

Damsel Under Stress was a book from hell throughout the whole process. I'm not sure I can entirely blame the book, though, because a lot of it had to do with what was going on with me in the non-book world at the time. There were a lot of distractions during that period involving family and friends, plus it was the first book in the series I'd written after one of the books was published and I had stuff like sales numbers and feedback from readers, so I felt a lot more pressure. I think, though, that by the time I'm through with it, it will be one of my favorites because I love the result.

Book 4 started like a book from hell. It took me weeks to write the first three chapters, but once I stepped back and let the story come instead of trying to force it, it flew and became a gimme book. We'll see what kind of revisions I end up doing on it (I already know of one or two things that will have to change, based on changes I'm making to book 3).

And now to get back to work on revisions to make this book even better.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Book Report: Bitch Lit

Today's t-shirt: "My colleagues went to COMDEX and I had to buy my OWN lousy t-shirt." I snagged it when we were cleaning out the office storage room at my last job prior to a major remodeling project. I thought it was so absurdly hilarious, especially when I heard the story behind it. Apparently, a former middle manager there (who might have been part of the inspiration for one of the characters in my books) had thought that a great way to reward the staff who had to do all the work to get clients ready for a major trade show but then didn't get to go would be to have these fun t-shirts made that they could then buy and wear to work (never mind that actually going to COMDEX was anything but a treat). It's a tactic right out of the Michael Scott school of employee motivation (for all you fans of "The Office"). Needless to say, the employees were less than enthused about the idea of "getting" to buy a lousy t-shirt, so the unsold shirts got stashed in the storage room, where we then all got them for free when it came time to clear out all the junk. I was going to be using bleach while doing laundry today, so I wore it rather than risk anything better.

For further proof of my problems with time (as discussed yesterday), yesterday (Tuesday) I was checking in on one of the blogs I read daily and saw that the most recent entry was from Monday. I thought, "Gee, I hope she didn't lose nearly a week's worth of entries because of some glitch." For a moment, I thought I actually remembered reading several additional days worth of entries that were no longer there. And then I remembered that it was only Tuesday. Argh.

Now for the topic of the day:
As you might have noticed in my various rants on romantic comedy movies, I find it really annoying when the so-called heroine is some self-centered, psycho harpy, and yet we're supposed to be sympathizing with her and pulling for her to get the guy. But this same kind of main character can actually be a lot of fun if we're supposed to think she's a self-centered, psycho harpy from hell. In a strange sort of way, I sometimes even end up sympathizing more with this kind of character, as long as she acknowledges what she is. Here are a few selections of what might be called "bitch lit."

Confessions of a Sociopathic Social Climber, by Adele Lang -- the title pretty much says it all. I'd describe it as "Bridget Jones's Evil Twin's Diary." A shallow, self-centered, psycho harpy starts keeping a journal as a way of documenting her business expenses when she's threatened with a tax audit. And then she learns from an aspiring writer friend that a newspaper is looking for a columnist, so she submits her journal (thus stealing the job from her friend). It goes on from there as she gradually destroys the lives of everyone around her while simultaneously destroying her own life and remaining blissfully oblivious about the consequences of her actions. It sounds grim, but it's written in such a way that it's absolutely hilarious. You enjoy watching her keep messing up and keep missing entirely that she's the cause of it all. There was a movie version of this on Oxygen, but it was very little like the book because they added a romance plot and had the heroine learn A Big Life Lesson and change her ways (never mind that it's a British book but the movie was set in San Francisco).

Her by Laura Zigman -- was a little more serious. It's about a woman whose fiance has the ex from hell -- an absolutely perfect woman who has a body like Barbie, a Yale-educated brain, lots of family money, a list of connections that reads like Who's Who, and the kind of personality that seems to charm everyone into being under her spell. Our heroine becomes obsessed with this woman even before the first date with the man who becomes her fiance, when he mentions her casually during a small-talk conversation on an airplane. The first time she sleeps over at his house, she sneaks into his office during the night to find whatever info she can on this woman. Just when she's starting to feel secure in the relationship as they plan their wedding, the ex moves into town and wants them all to be friends, since she doesn't know anyone else locally. That's when the downward spiral of stalking and spying begins -- in spite of the fact that the fiance gives her no real reason for suspicion and even is able to articulate why he chose her over the ex. But if you dig hard enough and long enough, you're sure to find what you're looking for ... This was kind of "train wreck" reading, where I was just waiting for her to really mess up. I wanted to slap her around a bit and tell her to get over herself, but at the same time, I could understand the roots of the insecurity. I have to admit, though, that a big part of my enjoyment of reading the book was the fact that it takes place in my favorite part of Washington, D.C., the part of town where I once dreamed of living.

I've already mentioned Something Blue by Emily Giffin, but it fits into this category, too. At the start of the book, the heroine has become pregnant by one man -- who had been dating her best friend -- while she was engaged to another man, and yet she still manages to cast herself as the victim when her wedding is called off. Her actions are pretty despicable through much of the book, until she gets a few big wakeup calls, courtesy of a friend who cares enough to tell her the truth. By the end of the book, I actually liked her, which is a rare feat.

Now, though, I have the urge to deal with some nice heroines. I guess that means I should get back to work on my revisions, since Katie is (I hope) the kind of heroine you want to cheer for.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Organizationally Challenged

I have reached the sad realization that I need external help to keep myself organized. I used to be the kind of person who never needed to-do lists or calendars because I could keep it all straight in my head. I knew what needed to be done and when it needed to be done, I knew what events I had scheduled, and I knew every deadline or due date without writing anything down.

Now, though, if I don't have it written down, it doesn't seem to happen. When I've tried to keep things straight in my head, I've mixed things up. I've been proud of myself for remembering a date by which I needed to send something, only to find that this event had passed and I was thinking of an entirely different event with that deadline -- only I couldn't remember what that event was. I'd saved the relevant e-mails, but they were buried in the 2,000 other e-mails in my in-box (literally -- though at that time it might have been as high as 3,000). I think part of the problem may also be that today's date is seldom relevant for me. My business correspondence is via e-mail, which is automatically time and date stamped for me. One of my freelance writing projects is dated, but I work three weeks out, so the date in my head is generally in the next month, and I'm always talking about any major holidays several weeks before they actually happen, which has the overall effect of leaving me lost in time.

Without a to-do list, none of those nagging little tasks feel concrete enough for me to get them done. They just float around in my head with that general sense that there's something I should be doing, but I don't seem to actually accomplish anything until I write it down.

The first couple of weeks this month, I got so little done because I'd let my good habits slip. I'd slacked on tracking where I was spending my time, I hadn't printed the month's page from my calendar/scheduling software, and I wasn't keeping my detailed to-do lists. When I did all that yesterday, I was surprised at how much my stress levels dropped. Instead of having that vaguely unsettling, nagging feeling that there was something I needed to be doing, I had a list, and I could check things off. I knew where I was in time. And I got stuff done.

I'm not sure why I went through that phase of being resistant because, in spite of that former ability to remember everything, I love calendars and lists. Organizational experts would say I waste time by keeping too many calendars and lists, but I love writing events down, filling out appointment boxes on calendars, and stuff like that. I sometimes make grand, hypothetical to-do lists just for fun. I've been known to create retroactive calendars to track things that did happen instead of just things that will happen.

So, now I have my to-do list for the week, and it's alarmingly full, which means I'd better get to work.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Monday Musings

I took the weekend off to be mostly away from the computer since I know I'll be spending a lot of time at the computer in the next few weeks. Saturday I went to a "tiaras and boas" tea that was a blast. I love tea, and I've always wanted to go to real high tea. I got to let my inner diva come out to play, and it helped that the tea captain really got into the game with his own crown and by calling us all "my lady."

I did, however, learn that drinking something like five cups of tea in the late afternoon might not be such a good idea for the future (it was like a tea version of a wine dinner, with a different tea to go with every course). It made sleep a bit difficult, and when I did sleep, I had really bizarre, vivid dreams. One of those dreams really was a dream in every sense of the word. I was at a writing conference and instead of the usual feeding frenzy for the free giveaway books, they had boxes and boxes of books they needed to give away, and I got to sort through them and take all the books I wanted. Some that I recall getting were real books that exist in the real world. Others may exist someday but certainly aren't available now (I recall doing a happy dance in the dream to get my hands on an advance copy of the next non-Shopaholic Sophie Kinsella book). And some were books I apparently made up. In the dream, I kept picking up books with the kind of story lines that make you think, "Why didn't I think of that first?" The only thing that mitigated the disappointment of waking up and realizing I don't have that box of books was the realization that I actually did think of all those fabulous story ideas. Unfortunately, I can't remember any of them. Considering it was a dream, they were probably the sort of thing that sounds great in a dream but that makes absolutely no sense in the real world.

Speaking of books, I've come to the conclusion that yellow is the new pink. One of the sneering chick lit descriptions is "those books with pink covers" (never mind that my bookshelf actually looks more blue and aqua), but almost every book I checked out of the library on my last binge has a yellow cover -- and those were books I put on hold online, so it wasn't as though my eyes were just gravitating to the color yellow on the shelves. There were two books from the same publisher in the same month that had almost exactly the same shade of yellow on the cover. I feel like I'm bucking all trends with my white covers. Not that I have much say in the matter, but when we were first discussing cover concepts, I did bring up the idea of a white cover with color illustration.

I forgot one point I wanted to make in my big soapbox rant on Friday (the one about how somehow it's looked on negatively for women to either definitively not want marriage/kids or to definitively say they do want them). I'm wondering if that's a big part of the anger against chick lit. The lit snobs may sneer at or make fun of romance, but they don't seem to be that angry about it, and they certainly aren't publishing anti-romance anthologies. A romance heroine usually doesn't outright want romance or a man. Often, that's the last thing she wants, and it's infuriating that this really hot guy just has to show up at the worst possible time (don't you hate it when that happens?). But chick lit is often about the search for love, and the heroine may outright declare that she wants a boyfriend or to get married, and then she might actually do something proactive about it instead of wallowing in her ambivalence and waiting for something to happen, and apparently, that's a bad thing (never mind that at the same time, she's also usually looking for the perfect job -- that part is often forgotten by the critics). Come to think of it, the book I read recently by the author who called chick lit authors "sluts" was essentially about a woman wallowing in her ambivalence, drifting in and out of relationships that passed her way without actually pursuing anything -- and then when she did decide to go after a particular guy, she was "punished" for it, and then she learned the lesson that it's better to just drift along and wait for the right thing to happen, if it happens.

Is it just me, or is that a kind of frightening world view that flies in the face of what feminism is supposed to be about? Aren't we as women supposed to be making our own choices, setting goals and going after what we want, whether it's career or love life?

Today I'll start work on my editor's suggested revisions for book 3. I feel less guilty about how long it's taken me to get started on these because I discovered over the weekend that I haven't had them as long as I thought I had. She was going to send them to arrive when I got back from the RWA conference. The day after I got home, I did get a manuscript-sized package -- but from a different publisher. It was mailed by the publisher where my editor now works. I figured she just mailed it from her new job. Then later I heard from my new editor, who said she'd be sending me the manuscript. I figured the old editor hadn't told them she went ahead and sent a copy from her new job. The second package arrived about a week after I got the first one. So I finally decide to get to work over the weekend, open the first package -- and it's not my book at all. It was someone else's manuscript, with a request for me to read it for a cover blurb. I knew it would be coming, but I was expecting them to e-mail it to me, and I didn't know what the publisher was. It was just a bizarre coincidence that it was from the same publishing company that my former editor was going to. That'll teach me to not open packages because I assume I know what's in them. On the up side, I can cut a week off my procrastination guilt.

Friday, August 11, 2006

On Ambivalence and Substance

Ha! Now you're stuck with my opinions again. :-)

First, today's t-shirt (and yay! Finally a stay-at-home-in-shorts-and-t-shirt day): One of my telecom trade show freebies. It's a heather gray shirt with a big drawing of a purple eye on the front with the words "You'll see." On the back it says "I'm optimized, are you?" I think it's from a network management software company, one that probably didn't survive the telecom bust. The eye drawing is very cool -- so cool that I sat through a boring sales presentation at the trade show just to get a shirt.

I have yet another soapbox, maybe a soapbox within a soapbox. It's another episode in my "so-called fluffy books really can make you think" rant. I just finished reading Emily Giffin's Baby Proof, which is about a woman who doesn't want to have children and the effect that has on her marriage when, after they've been married a few years, her previously like-minded husband changes his mind and decides that he would like to be a dad. In her book tour Q&A and in her workshop at RWA, Giffin talked about how this was one of those near-taboo topics for women, that if you declare outright that you don't want children, you get labeled as selfish and shallow, or maybe immature.

Meanwhile, the opposite also seems to apply, especially for single women, and really especially for single women in their mid to late 30s. If you dare say that you really would like to find a husband and have children, then you're called shallow, anti-feminist and, particularly for the older women, desperate. While I'd agree that outlining your wedding dreams and the number of children you want isn't good first date conversation material, just about the fastest way for a woman in her late 30s to send a man running is to even admit that she wants marriage and children (the men in that age range who have decided that's what they want are more likely to be dating much younger women). There was even a column in the new issue of Glamour talking about how women shouldn't be looking for husbands. I totally agree that you need to be happy within yourself rather than looking for someone to "complete" you, and you shouldn't put your life on hold just because you're waiting for Mr. Right to show up. After all, I'm the chick who's traveled alone to Europe, who has solo season tickets to the theater and who owns my own home.

But it does seem weird that while women are encouraged to know what they want and to have a concrete plan for going after it in almost everything else, for two of the most important decisions a woman can make about her life the only acceptable position is a kind of ambivalence. You get hell from one side to come out and say you don't want marriage and/or kids, but you get an equal kind of grief from the other side if you dare admit that you really do want marriage and/or kids. I guess you're just supposed to shrug and say "if it happens, it happens."

I will admit to a bit of ambivalence on my part because I do like my life. I like my space, I like my autonomy and I like quiet, and it would be a huge adjustment to incorporate another adult into my life, let alone an infant who would be a total responsibility. On the other hand, there are a lot of things I think I would enjoy even more with someone to share them, and I love children and think I'd have a lot to offer as a mother. It would be an adjustment I'd have to make, but I think it would be an adjustment that would ultimately be rewarding.

I've heard it said that if I really wanted it, I'd have it by now, but I'm not sure I agree. I'm certainly not so desperate that I'm willing to lower my standards, but I don't think my standards are unreasonably high. I don't have any regrets about anyone I let get away. There's no one I've rejected or avoided in the past that I wouldn't have rejected or avoided even if I'd known I'd still be single in my late 30s. There were a few I thought might have been good candidates, but they rejected me, and that's probably a bad sign for our long-term potential. There was one guy I met right out of college where circumstances got in the way (he got transferred to Malaysia right after we met, and this was before the Internet was widespread, so we didn't even have e-mail to stay in touch, and I never saw him again). There's only one guy from my past who I'd really like to run into again, and even there, once I realized I did want to see him, I tried getting in touch with him. I even offered to return a book a mutual friend who'd moved out of town had borrowed from him and used that as my excuse to contact him. We played phone tag for a while, talked once, he mentioned putting my contact info in his Palm Pilot, and that was six years ago. I still have his book. I guess he wasn't interested.

I suppose if I'd really been "desperate" I might have tried harder to meet more people, but it's not like I've been sitting around waiting for Prince Charming to ring my doorbell. I spent about seven years going to the huge church with the "meet market" singles group. I spent five years working at a medical school and more than six more years working in the high tech world. I've volunteered on Habitat for Humanity building projects, and I've delivered food to Habitat building sites. I've run in and volunteered at 5K races. I've done charity clean-up days and community theater. I've been in two science fiction book clubs. I've gone to baseball games, university alumni events and science fiction conventions. And I've gone on too many blind dates, with just about everyone anyone ever wanted to set me up with. I've even e-mailed that anchorman I have a crush on.

So, anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, it sounds like the whole snob-lit vs. chick lit debate all over again, with too many people trying to tell others what they "should" do for their own good instead of allowing them to choose what's best for them as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. And I don't think you can call a book "shallow" if it makes you think this much about your life, the universe and everything. Funny, the next book I tried to read was a weirdly pretentious literary piece calling itself a "reality novel" in which the author kept interjecting bits from her own life that inspired or were related to parts of the story. I made it through about four chapters, but by then all that happened in the story was the main character moving out of one apartment and heading toward another one. Meanwhile, the author specifically mentioned chick lit as an area where authors had failed readers by offering shallow emotions. I thought the concept of essentially doing a commentary track on a novel was interesting, but it might have worked better if she'd had more to say other than talking about a particular mattress she really liked (which I guess isn't "shallow" somehow). Whatever. I gave up on the book and picked up a Terry Pratchett book, which is proving to be much more entertaining and which will probably end up saying a lot more of substance about society.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Diana Peterfreund

Now that I've spent days going on about my taste in books and movies, I'll give it a rest and turn the floor over to someone else. My guest this time around on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit is my friend Diana Peterfreund, author of the new book Secret Society Girl.

About the book:
Secret Society Girl takes us into the heart of the Ivy League's ultra-exclusive secret societies when a young woman is invited to join as one of their first female members.

Elite Eli University junior Amy Haskel never expected to be tapped into Rose & Grave, the country's most powerful -- and notorious-- secret society. She isn't rich, politically connected, or ... well, male.

So when Amy receives the distinctive black-lined invitation with the Rose & Grave seal, she's blown away. Could they really mean her?

Whisked off into an initiation rite that's a blend of Harry Potter and Alfred Hitchcock, Amy awakens the next day to a new reality and a whole new set of "friends" -- from the gorgeous son of a conservative governor to an Afrocentric lesbian activist whose society name is Thorndike. And that's when Amy starts to discover the truth about getting what you wish for. Because Rose & Grave is quickly taking her away from her familiar world of classes and keggers, fueling a feud, and undermining a very promising friendship with benefits. And that's before Amy finds out that her first duty as a member of Rose & Grave is to take on a conspiracy of money and power that could, quite possibly, ruin her whole life.

And now the interview:
What inspired you to write this book?
When I was in college, the movie THE SKULLS came out, and some friends and I used to watch it and play a drinking game where we took a drink any time something ridiculous or inaccurate happened. Years later, I was watching THE SKULLS on television and decided it was about time that someone wrote a secret society story the way they really were. The trick was to tell that story and make it interesting. Out of that grew my characters and my plot. It changed a lot from the original concept during development, but I hope I stayed true to the idea of exploding the myths about secret societies.

Describe your creative process.
I'm a big-time planner. I spend a long time pre-planning a story in my head -- anywhere from weeks to months to years, if necessary. From there, I write a very rough chapter-by-chapter outline, which I later pretty up and turn into my synopsis. Then I start writing. Every few chapters I refer to my outline, much as a driver would refer to a map along a route. While I'm writing, I keep a color-coded story board that tracks the development of different subplots and themes. I write pretty slowly (at least, slowly compared to friends of mine who write 20 pages a day without blinking), and I revise a lot as I go along -- under ideal circumstances. When I'm on deadline -- like now -- I force myself to write straight through, with mixed results.

Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
With the last book (Secret Society Girl), I had a soundtrack. With the book I'm writing now, it's my first time being a stay-at-home writer, so my new ritual is getting up first thing in the morning and writing for a while before I do anything else -- check email, blog, get tea, anything. My friend Kelly Remick recommended it to me and it's been the best new thing I've learned about my writing all year. Sometimes I get into it and I end up dong the bulk of my daily pages like that. Sometimes I can only manage 15 minutes or so, but just getting something down, seeing that I've already acocmplished something that day, really jumpstarts my creative side. I think if I ever do go back to the 9-5 office world,
I'll wake up early just to get that early time in. It's amazing. I highly recommend it.

(I'm not sure I'd want to see what I wrote before tea. I once tried the "morning pages" thing from The Artist's Way, and they mostly consisted of, "Gee, I really could use some tea.")

How much, if anything, do you have in common with your heroine?
I get this question a lot since many people think the book is a roman a clef. I actually have very little in common with Amy aside from the obvious -- Ivy League school, literature major, very outspoken (though all of my heroines have been snarky, outspoken sorts). She's much more focused and ambitious than I ever was in school. She knows exactly what she wants from life. I was majoring in two completely incompatible fields (Literature and Geology), barely knew what an internship was, and hadn't the foggiest what I wanted to do for a living. But she's definitely someone I would have been friends with in school.

So, how much personal experience do you really have with secret societies? (wink, wink, nudge, nudge. You can tell us or drop a few hints.)
Ha! The other famous question. And of course, the famous answer is, "I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you." Seriously though, I've had plenty of personal experience with secret societies, but that tells you little more or less than that I was a student at Yale. There are a good dozen on campus, and they have various amounts of interaction with the student body at large. Some have annual parties inside their tomb to which anyone (or a specific guest list) is invited, others have open memberships, or regular events that are open to the public. Everyone knows someone who is involved.

(I don't think UT had any truly secret societies. Texans aren't good at keeping things quiet. We did have the kind of organization where you knew you were getting in when you got kidnapped and taken to the initiation meeting -- and yes, I was in one of those -- but there was nothing secret about it other than the secret of who would be getting in. We wore the group's t-shirt, sweatshirt or uniform to campus events and had a couple of pages in the yearbook.)

If you could create your own secret society, who would you let in, who would you keep out, and what would your society do?
How do you know I haven't created my own secret society? I think in general, I'm not a big fan of exclusivity, so I'd probably have open enrollment periods where people who wanted to join could apply. In general though, I'd probably look for funny, intelligent people of all stripes, and maybe veer away from anyone who wanted to be intolerant and take the society as a whole into bad places. I like what the societies do, I like the idea of having a safe place where people can talk to each other without fear of judgment or having their deep dark secrets leaked to the world, so that would probably be what we do: talk to each other, support each other, help each other. Good stuff.

Chocolate: dark or milk?
Dark, especially if it's fondue. I used to work for a fondue restaurant, and their dark chocolate dessert is the only kind of dessert I like in a restaurant. The best was dark chocolate with chambord. Trust me, I've had them all. If you ever go to a Melting Pot, order that.

What are you working on now?
The sequel to Secret Society Girl. It takes place suring Amy's senior year. The first novel is about her being an outsider. The second is about her being an insider. Now that she's the caretaker of this centuries-old tradition, she and her friends have to figure out what part of the society is worth preserving for future generations. Unlike a lot of secret society stories, I don't think that the existence of the societies are wrong. They are clubs, like any club. But they can be good or bad.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
Something very rare and wonderful happened to me during the writing of this book. I don't know if it was because I sold it in the process so I had a lot of confidence in myself as a writer, or what, but it was an absolute joy to write. For once in my life I was able to turn off the inner critics and just write. I've been trying to get back to that place ever since.

For more info on Diana and her book, visit her web site.