Monday, December 31, 2007

The Year in Review

So, it's the time of year for looking back at the year and looking ahead at the future. I sometimes jokingly refer to this as my annual employee review.

This was a really strange year marked by a lot of ups and downs. On the down side, my publisher pretty much dropped me. On the up side, one of my books was optioned by a major studio. I don't have much to show for the year, work-wise, as I didn't complete a book in 2007. I did some revisions on a book I wrote the year before, and I wrote a first draft (and second draft) that I'm now significantly revising and that won't be done until 2008. Otherwise, I seemed to make a lot of false starts on books, writing proposals that went nowhere or that I lost interest in.

What was I doing with my time if I wasn't writing? Well, I went to three writing conferences and seven sf conventions. I did five booksignings that weren't part of some conference or convention. I spoke at three libraries. I did three newspaper interviews. I also had a record number (for me) of books published. In addition to the one novel, I had essays in four non-fiction books.

On the personal side, I got out of the house more often. I took that voice class that forced me to sing in front of people. I developed something resembling a social life, getting out and going to events where other people were or doing things with friends (I'm even going to a party tonight). I saw my long-distance friends a couple of times this year and managed to reconnect with some old friends, one going all the way back to fourth grade. No love life to speak of, but I haven't really been looking. I'm happy being single, but I'm open to that changing if the right person comes along (yes, I'm still sighing over the weekend anchorman, who did not see my picture in the newspaper and decide he had to meet me).

My crystal ball for 2008 is really hazy because I'm in a position where just about anything can happen. I know I have the one novel coming out and very likely a piece in a non-fiction book. I'm working on a book my agent has high hopes for, if I can pull off some writing that does the idea justice. That means it could be a huge year for me -- I could get a big deal with this book and relaunch my career, and when the writers' strike ends they might move forward with the Enchanted, Inc. movie. Or it could be another tough year in which I have to keep going back to the drawing board to create a new project a publisher might be interested in and nothing might come of the movie option. Or it could be somewhere in between.

But the only thing I can control is what I do, so for the year ahead I'm planning to dig in and focus on writing. To help get my "mojo" back after all those flailing proposals, I want to try writing complete manuscripts for a while, even if the whole manuscript is a really rough draft and I only revise and polish the first few chapters to create a proposal. I know that one of my weaknesses is getting impatient and skimming over things, so I want to work on really digging into each scene to make the most of it.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I'm planning to pull back some on my promotional work because it's not getting such great results and it's taking time away from writing. Mom did point out that I can't really say that the promotional work was a waste of time when the book I promoted the most sold the worst because the promotional work mostly sold the first book and got people into the series. Which is true, as that first book is still selling pretty steadily. But I have reached the point where I'd rather focus on the next steps than on getting people into a series that the publisher considers to be over. My main plan is to become successful elsewhere and then get it all republished the right way. Doing that means writing something that can become successful elsewhere.

I have the usual resolutions that carry over from year to year, like exercising more and cleaning my house. I think I'm going to get back into choir, since I kind of got drafted. I'd like to do some travel that isn't for work. I've been itching for another trip to England. I bought a new cookbook for one-pot meals yesterday, so I may try inserting more variety into my menu. I may even get really wild and crazy and invite someone over for dinner. I want to try to manage my time better, since I'm really good at goofing off when I'm supposed to be working and not so good at managing to take real time off to go do something away from the computer. I hope to get a new car, and I have some things that need to be done with the house if I get enough money.

But for now, I need a snack and then need to start getting ready for this evening. I have a little more than an hour before I need to be more or less ready.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Year in Entertainment

Bonus post today (even though I don't usually post on weekends) because I took most of the week off and I'm procrastinating on doing stuff like cleaning the kitchen or writing. Since the year is winding down, I thought I'd do a year in entertainment post. In a lot of areas, I had trouble getting excited about things, and I don't know if that had something to do with available materials or just my own mindset.

I was looking at my list of reading for the year and nothing really stands out for me (I've read 80 books so far this year). I did a lot of rereading, with a couple of books on the list twice in the same year and quite a number of older books re-read. I discovered Terry Pratchett last year, but this was the year I really started digging into the series enough to appreciate the recurring characters and situations. My main "Ooh, now I want to go back and find more by this author" discovery was Michael Chabon (though I haven't yet got around to getting any of his older books). I started reading the Dresden Files series but seem to have become sidetracked (shiny objects and Terry Pratchett books tend to have that effect on me). Of course, the big book event of the year was the final Harry Potter book, which I loved, but I kind of wish that JK had kept her mouth shut after it was published and not felt the need to yammer on about all the details that weren't in the book. The ending of the book struck just the right balance, telling us the outcome of the important things but leaving room to imagine the rest. No, it wasn't the Dumbledore outing that I objected to. Somehow, the detailed revelation about who Neville married and how they ended up was like a big bucket of cold water poured over me. Not that I had a strong emotional stake in that outcome. It just seemed like an irrelevant detail for an author to set in stone, and it was kind of a boring outcome.

I haven't been able to count ten movies I saw at the theater this year. If there were more, I don't remember them. I'm not sure yet if Stardust or Enchanted was my favorite. I've seen Stardust three times and Enchanted only once, so it's hard to compare. Both are movies that make me happy. I don't think I saw any romantic comedies, unless you count those two as sort of in that genre. I did like the new Harry Potter movie, and that one's my favorite so far of the series, which is odd since that was my least favorite book. There were a few movies that I wanted to see but that disappeared before I could get to the theater (one of the downsides of traveling so much during prime movie season). I'm hoping I can eventually catch them on HBO. Now that I have HBO OnDemand and every possible flavor of HBO, I find myself more likely to wait until the movie's on TV unless it's something I'm dying to see that won't work as well on the smaller screen.

Favorite new shows this season were Pushing Daisies, Chuck and Life. New to me shows that I got into during the calendar year were Mythbusters, Supernatural and Coupling. Meanwhile, I've found myself cooling on a former favorite. I used to be practically obsessive about House. I even have an essay in a book about the series (which is available now). But this season has really turned me off. While the idea of House playing "Survivor" to hire a team was clever in concept, after a while it got really old (I don't enjoy Survivor-style reality TV, so I don't like it invading my scripted shows), and the final choices managed to be the candidates I liked the least (bring back Cut-Throat Bitch!). Then the other characters I liked took a major back seat and inexplicably switched medical specialties (memo to the writing staff: while writers can easily switch among genres, changing medical specialties requires years of additional training, so an intensivist who's done a fellowship in diagnostics can't just go become a surgeon, and an immunologist who's done a fellowship in diagnostics is not going to become a senior attending in emergency medicine). As proof that it's not just me being cranky, when they've shown older episodes as strike filler, I've been far more engrossed in episodes I've already seen than I have been in new episodes. I'm thiiiiiis close to giving up on the series entirely. Unless it takes a post-strike turn for the better, in my happy fantasy land the series will end at the end of season three with the fellows all moving on and House left alone and coping.

I'm starting to wonder if my writing essays is some kind of jinx to a show. Every time I've contributed to a book about a current series, the series has taken a nosedive in quality right around the time the book comes out. Maybe I shouldn't agree to participate in the Supernatural book. Or else it has nothing to do with me, and they decide to make a book when the show is at its creative peak, so that it's gone downhill by the time the book comes out. I do have hope that Battlestar Galactica is back on an upswing after a shaky season with a mindblowing ending.

I've also noticed that I'm less drawn to discussing the shows I'm into now. Discussing TV was one of the main reasons I got online in the first place and how I've met some of my best friends, but I don't have that much to say about most of what I'm watching now. Pushing Daisies isn't something I want to poke at and analyze. I just want to watch it and take it as it is. I can discuss Supernatural with select people, but open forums can get a bit weird because, apparently, you're kind of expected to choose a side and see the whole show through the lens of which brother you side with, and I don't have much patience with that. Theoretically, this should free up more time for writing, but if I get bored enough or desperate enough for procrastination, I'm sure I'll find something to say about something.

I can't really talk much about music because I don't listen to much new stuff. The closest I came to that was finding The Puppini Sisters (a recommendation from a reader), but though their CD is new, their music certainly isn't. I did love Josh Groban's newest CD (the non-Christmas one, though the Christmas one is also lovely). I'm afraid I'm kind of a fuddy-duddy when it comes to music these days. I almost exclusively listen to musical theater, classical, old jazz and Celtic/traditional/folk music.

So, in general, let's hope I'm less grumpy next year and find more stuff that knocks my socks off. Feel free to share recommendations.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Melissa Senate (again!)

First, I have to do a little happy dance gloating after the rather decisive Texas victory in the Holiday Bowl last night (a reason I'm rather groggy this morning -- man, that game went on FOREVER). The best part about it was the way the universe seemed to be conspiring to make the announcers look stupid. It always feels to me like the national network announcers are biased against Texas, but that could just be the way people tend to think network news is biased against their political opinions. In other words, you tend to be more sensitive to perceived attacks on your side and not notice negative remarks about the other side. For all I know, these announcers had really done their homework and all the statistics were against Texas before the game. But once the game started, every time one of the announcers started to say something negative against Texas, the team would do something great before the sentence was over. And every time they said something positive about Arizona State, they'd fumble or throw an interception. So as the announcer was completing the original thought, we'd be watching the exact opposite happen. It was highly entertaining.

Now, I have to catch up with an online book tour post. Up on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit is Theodora Twist by Melissa Senate, which is now available in paperback.

Theodora Twist is Hollywood’s hottest young actress—the girl everyone wants to be. Producers court her, tabloids love her, fans mob her, and US Weekly has covered every catfight with her co-stars, her ongoing feud with her mother, her yo-yo dieting, and her threesome with two Hollywood it-boys. Needless to say, Theodora doesn’t have the best reputation around.

So when Theodora’s publicity team decides to clean up her act with a reality show called Theodora Twist—Just a Regular Teen!, they send Theodora back to her hometown to live with Emily’s family for a month. Theodora has to do everything Emily does: attend high school, care about grades, friends, boys, the prom, zits (as though Theodora has ever had one). And a very unlikely friendship is formed.

You can read an excerpt or order from Amazon.

As you might recall from one of Melissa's previous tours, she used to be the senior editor over a line I wrote for and was the very first publishing person I ever met, way back in the Dark Ages. She's best known for writing adult novels, including the bestselling See Jane Date, which was made into a Family Channel movie starring Charisma Carpenter, and this is her young adult debut. For more info on her books, visit Melissa's web site.

Coming Monday, my year in review and some thoughts on the coming year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Happy Post-Christmas

I didn't actually plan a blogging holiday, but it seems to have worked out that way. I guess I needed the break. I had a very relaxing Christmas. We didn't do much other than go to church, read, eat and watch DVDs. Mom and I spent a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table, snacking and reading Terry Pratchett. She was reading Hogfather and I was reading Making Money, and we'd read any funny parts to each other. We also had our traditional Christmas viewing of Firefly. I'm not sure how that started as a tradition, but every year since the show was on, we've somehow ended up watching Firefly and/or Serenity on either Christmas Eve or Christmas day. This year's episode was "Jaynestown." I hope everyone else who celebrates had a good Christmas.

I got all kinds of fun household items as gifts, and I guess it's a sign you're getting old when you actually ask for and enjoy that kind of stuff. I'm looking forward to playing with the seal-a-meal thingy, considering how much stuff I put in the freezer. First, though, I need to use some stuff from the freezer. It's rather full at the moment, mostly with the ham Mom sent home with me. I also got one of those massaging foot baths (like the one Kevin gave himself in that episode of The Office), but Mom says she didn't buy it as a present but rather as something she could use for wrapping other presents. I had a couple of small gifts that would have been obvious as boxes for jewelry, so she got the foot bath and stuck the small gifts inside that box. Very sneaky. I'm wondering if it might work as a hand and wrist massager if you put it on a tabletop.

I got home late yesterday afternoon, and last night I did my post-holiday wind-down. I put on all the Christmas lights, lit the candles in the fireplace, made a pot of hot cocoa, and snuggled under a blanket to watch The Holiday. Yep, another Christmas romantic comedy. I'm trying to figure out what makes that a big-screen story, as opposed to all those Family Channel movies I've been analyzing. A lot of the difference is the caliber of the cast and the location shooting. If the Family Channel had made that movie, both the Los Angeles and the English village parts would have been filmed somewhere in Toronto. I think there's a little more depth to the story, too, working in some things that are sad in the midst of the humor and dealing with emotions more honestly, while the Family Channel movies seem to work on a more superficial level. One thing I love about the movie is all that English countryside porn -- and wouldn't you know, the clever/evil people at Visit Britain had an insert in the DVD case about how you could have a holiday like the one in the movie, and their web site could help you plan it. I wonder if Jude Law is included. Not that I'd actually want him because he's quite the sleaze, but a menu for choosing the handsome Englishman who'd show up at your fairy tale cottage would certainly enhance the experience. Even without the guy, that was pretty much my perfect vacation -- old cottage, fireplace, dog, pile of books, nearby village with a pub and lots of country lanes to wander down.

But before I can start planning a vacation like that, I need to get some work done and sell more books. I'm especially motivated today after having a nightmare last night that I had to go back to work for one of my old bosses, the one who was so awful I couldn't even find a way to make him funny and put him in one of my books. I used to say he reminded me of Michael Scott on the US version of The Office, but now that I've seen more of the British version, I think he's got a lot of David Brent in him, too. He's got David Brent's clueless arrogance and blowhard tendencies, combined with Michael's frat-party office mentality and tendency to take everything in the office personally by seeing any unhappiness with the job or taking another job as disloyalty to him as a person. But my boss owned the company, so we didn't even have a corporate level to try to moderate him. That dream was even scarier than the one that came before it about being in a concentration camp run by Cylons.

In other news, did any of you read the e-book version of Once Upon Stilettos? I heard from a very unhappy person about it being full of editing errors and misplaced punctuation that made it impossible to read. I know the print version was very clean, so if there's a problem, it must have come through the electronic formatting. But I've also heard from a lot of people who've read the e-books without anyone mentioning a problem, so before I yell at my publisher about it, I want to make sure it's not a unique technical issue, like maybe that person got a corrupted version.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


As if I needed further proof that my mind is a weird and scary place ... I got it into my head the other day that it would be fun to dig into my Angel DVDs and watch the Christmas episodes. I had vivid memories of Christmas-themed episodes. But it turns out there were none. Their airing schedule always seemed to cut off in late November or early December with some arc-related cliffhanger. I'd actually written the "episodes" I remembered when I did some holiday-themed fanfic. Those stories were kind of a writing exercise, as I was trying to get the hang of first-person narration and really capturing the voice of the narrator, and since Cordelia's voice is very unlike mine, writing a whole story in her voice was good practice. Not to mention fun. Even though there were no Christmas episodes, I found myself watching random favorite episodes, and you know, that show was really good. It did sort of threaten to go off the rails when they tried to force Cordelia and Angel into being a couple. She worked far better as the spunky Girl Friday who saw him for who he was, both good and bad, and who could acknowledge that he was a good-looking guy with his heart in the right place, but ewww, vampire, and then that whole curse thing where he loses his soul and goes evil if he gets too happy, don't want to go there! When she morphed into some kind of wise woman earth mother who gazed at him schmoopily and talked breathily about what a Champion he was, she lost the things that made her fun as a character.

Meanwhile, I finally got those revision notes, and I'll be over here banging my head against the wall. My agent always frets that I'm going to hate her when she tells me things need to be substantially rewritten, but the person I hate is myself. I felt like the biggest idiot in the history of idiots. What she'd looked at was a fourth draft. It was a part of the story I loved. I thought it was tightly written and exciting, so I had no idea what she meant when her cover note said it was plodding with nothing fun to make readers stick with it. And then I saw her notes on the manuscript and it was like the scales fell from my eyes. She was right. Nothing much actually happened, there was no immediate danger or conflict. Argggh. I spiraled into an existential crisis that could only be cured by baking cookies. I felt like I must totally suck as a writer if I couldn't see that for myself, and I was sure my agent was just going to give up on me, and maybe I ought to see if they were hiring at the medical school. But then as her notes sank in, I started seeing the story in a new way and got ideas that totally made it pop. Her notes weren't extensive, just more like "nothing seems to happen here," so I figure I can't be too useless if I can take those notes, see the problem, and immediately get ideas for fixing it.

So, guess what I'll be doing during the holidays. A major rewrite I'm kind of excited about. And I think this will be a new focus for the coming year. I want to really dig into the craft and devote the time and energy to writing better books. I can sense the impatience and panic closing in, as I'm still without a contract and that makes me so desperate to get something sold that I start flinging things out there. I've been there before. But that's exactly the time to dig deep and come up with something really good, even if it takes more time. The last couple of years, I've been focusing on marketing, and that hasn't accomplished all that much. The book I did the most marketing on has sold the worst. I can blame things that are out of my control, like shelving and distribution, but it all boils down to the fact that only about half the people who bought the first book in the series went on to buy the third book, and if they'd really liked the first book enough to be passionate about it, they would have gone on to find the third book (with places like Amazon, it's not that hard to find that a book has been published). So that comes back to me and the writing.

I'll probably really cut back on my travel and convention schedule for the year, since that not only takes time and money, but also emotional and mental energy that could be put into books. I'll still likely go to ApolloCon because I like it, and of course FenCon, and I'm getting brave and going to WorldCon this year, and that may be it. The big Harry Potter convention is in Dallas this year, and I'd thought about sending in a speaking proposal for that, but I'm not sure how much good that would really do me, and I'm not sure what I'd propose to speak about. Put me on a panel, and I can talk, but coming up with an actual speech on a Harry Potter topic? I'm not sure what I'd do.

I'm not sure if the focus on the work will result in more books, or just better books. Yeah, I can write a draft in fifteen days, but is it any good? I need to develop the patience to really look at a book scene by scene to make sure each scene moves the story along and to make sure I've used the right words to paint the picture. I may even take the drastic step of finding a critique partner. I've never really done that before, but I may need it.

I don't think I'm going to try to force myself to work much until after Christmas. Today I've got to get packed, and then I want to enjoy the weekend. I'm in the thinking stages for now, coming up with new ideas, and I'm sure there will be some brainstorming with Mom over the holiday. I just want to be able to send something brilliant back to my agent when she gets back from the holidays after the New Year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Household "Helpers"

I guess I really overestimated the amount of time until Christmas because I sort of overcooked. I have all these handy leftovers, and it just occurred to me that I'll be leaving town in two days. I'd thought about going on Saturday, but it's supposed to rain then, so my parents suggested I come over on Friday. I suppose Sunday is also a viable option, but it's rather nice that my parents actually want me to stay for a longer visit. I haven't made that many trips there this year, so it should be fun, and the weather is looking pretty good. We'll probably do our usual celebrations involving eating non-stop and watching a lot of science fiction.

But that means I have two days to do all my laundry and get packed and organized, plus do a little baking. Meanwhile, I'm supposed to get those revision notes today before my agent leaves for the holiday (so guess who has to work over the holiday).

While doing laundry, I started thinking of the Eater of Socks that shows up in Hogfather. I have a very active one living in my house. It not only works in the laundry room, but also meddles in the laundry hamper in the bathroom. I very carefully check that I have complete pairs while I sort laundry, but they somehow manage to disappear between the bathroom and the laundry room. Sometimes, I'll find a stray sock on the floor hours later -- after I've walked that path several times. If I do manage complete pairs while putting them in the washer, one always manages to disappear during the wash or during drying. I have a sort of sock orphanage going, in case one ever returns to me (and sometimes they do), but I still seem to have to buy a whole new set of black socks every winter (my Eater of Socks generally leaves the white athletic socks alone and mostly eats black dress socks).

But I also have a few other creatures. One of the most annoying is the Kleenex Monster. As a person with fairly chronic allergies, I don't dare go too far without having a tissue handy, and those tissues are prone to showing up in the wash. I'm pretty paranoid about that, so when I take clothes off, I check and empty all the pockets. Then when I sort clothes, I check the pockets again. Still, I often open the washer at the end of the cycle and find tissue shreds throughout the load. What's really odd is when I don't find the tissue shreds in the washer, but when I take clothes out of the dryer, they suddenly appear. Obviously, the Kleenex Monster sits in my laundry room, dropping tissues into the washing machine or dryer when I'm not looking.

Then there's Scissors Man. I try to be good about putting scissors away in their proper place when I'm done with them, but they still migrate around the house so that they're never where they're supposed to be when I need them. I even have extra pairs because I've given up on finding them and have just bought new ones -- of course, when I come home from the store with the new scissors, the old ones will suddenly be out in plain sight. This applies to kitchen shears, office scissors and nail scissors. I've thought about just putting an all-purpose pair on a chain to wear around my neck, but I'm a little afraid of what the Scissors Man might do to me in a face-to-face encounter. Scissors Man has a cousin, Tape Measure Man, who is the reason I have about five tape measures. I've managed to thwart him by constantly keeping one tape measure locked in the tool box instead of keeping it handy in places where I might need it. That's the one tape measure I can reliably find.

I also have a Literary Gnome who moves books around and who likes to hide the spiral notebooks I use for plotting books or doing research. I came up with a whole system for labeling the notebooks, but then the labels disappeared. The Literary Gnome must not have been pleased with the labeling system. There was a book I bought last year that I thought might make good December reading, but this December, I couldn't find it in any of the places where I usually stash books I haven't read yet, and I went through those places very carefully. Then it occurred to me that I probably just put it away with my Christmas stuff, and I'd find it when I decorated the house. I got the decorations up and went through all my things, but didn't find it. Then it appeared on the bookcase by my desk, where I'd looked several times. I guess the Literary Gnome had finished reading it. He has a cousin who hides the cases from CDs that are in the player and who removes the liner notes from CD cases.

Of course, I would get all the creatures that add to the chaos. Why couldn't I get a nice Brownie to clean up during the night while I sleep?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Twas the Week Before Christmas

It seems like every year, I spend the first two weeks after Thanksgiving griping about how everyone seems to start the Christmas stuff too early, before I'm ready for it, and then the week before Christmas I suddenly realize the season is almost over, and I haven't done half the things I wanted to do. I've done all the obligatory stuff -- my decorations are up, gifts are purchased and even (where applicable) mailed -- but I'm way short on the experience stuff I planned to do.

Every year, I say I'm going to take the train downtown and do the whole "Silver Bells" Christmas in the city experience -- look at the downtown Nieman Marcus windows, take the trolley up to the faux-old-time shopping square, sit in the nice Starbucks with a fireplace in it and have a peppermint hot cocoa, maybe even go to the art museum. Or I plan to go to a holiday tour of homes, or visit one of the nearby old-fashioned Main Street towns and soak up the atmosphere. Then there's the quiet time at home I plan -- evenings watching favorite holiday-themed movies or reading appropriate books while listening to Christmas music. Then it comes down to four days until I need to leave town, and I haven't done any of it, and I don't really have time to do it.

Not that I've been totally slacking. I did do my big shopping day at the mall, and I hadn't done a mall Christmas in a while. I went to the community Christmas concert. I put up a mini tree in my office this year, which I've been planning to do for ages and never got around to. And I guess I've even done my movie watching, although it appears that Hogfather replaced my usual viewings of Love Actually and About a Boy. Really, it's not so bad not to repeat the same things every year. I don't want to get sick of things I like. I've read two of the seasonal books I wanted to get through, and I may get around to the others.

But this was supposed to be my year to take the month off and just enjoy myself, so what happened? A lot of it involves having to do those book revisions, and since we're going through it a section at a time, that means I'm never sure when I will or won't be busy. When I get revision notes, I jump on them, but then I don't know how long it will be before I get the next set of notes. I probably could go and do something else, but I have a bad habit of just sitting at the computer and constantly checking e-mail. Then the weather has been an issue off and on, and to be totally honest, I haven't much wanted to go out and do things. Even though I thought it would be fun to do a day in the city, I've yet to bounce out of bed in the morning thinking, "You know, I ought to take the train downtown today!" (Actually, this time of year there's precious little bouncing out of bed, more like waking up, peeking above the covers, then pulling them back over my head and going back to sleep. I swear, I'm part bear.)

On the up side, I haven't faced The Forced Death March O'Fun this year. A few years ago, I guess I was involved in a lot of stuff and was very popular because I went through December averaging three parties or other events every weekend. There was one weekend where I had something Friday night, then was so busy on Saturday that I left the house in the morning, went from one thing to another, and got home nearly twelve hours later, and then on Sunday had something after church. I think that was the year I swore I was going to plan to take time to do more quiet things in the future. This year, I just had that one office party and my writing group's holiday breakfast. I do have a New Year's Eve party on the calendar, but otherwise, this has been an antisocial year because I dropped out of a lot of stuff that I had been involved in, and that got me off the list not only for those groups' official parties, but also for private parties given by people involved in those groups.

It's probably good that I didn't have many parties to go to because according to the fashion magazine I was reading last night, I might have been an unwelcome guest. In their list of tips for attending holiday parties, they said sheer black stockings are okay, but if you wear sheer nude stockings, you would be removed from the guest list. Wow, I didn't know that was a huge crime. Yeah, the "suntan" colored stockings from the 70s are kind of tacky, and it doesn't look so great to wear stockings with sandals, but those are things I choose not to do. They're certainly not my criteria for who I want to socialize with. Who can see someone's legs well enough to know whether they're bare or covered with nude stockings at a cocktail party, anyway? Are you crawling around on the floor? With really good nude stockings, you can't tell other than that the legs have a nice, uniform flesh-toned color. If I go bare-legged at this time of year, you get a sick, purplish gooseflesh. On my skin, self-tanner looks more fake than nude stockings. Plus, I tend to get blisters from wearing heels without stockings. So, if I'm wearing shoes that aren't black or a skirt that doesn't go with black stockings, I'll be wearing nude stockings, so there. And if that's how you choose party guests, rather than conversational ability, friendliness, sense of humor, personality or intelligence, then I don't want to be at your party anyway. That's one of those magazine subscriptions I got with frequent flier miles that I will be letting expire, especially considering that the same issue contained an essay on how materialism is healthy.

Monday, December 17, 2007

More Holiday Movies

I didn't get those revision notes just in time for the weekend, and Saturday turned out to be the kind of blustery day best appreciated by the warm glow of the television set, as seen from beneath a blanket on the sofa. As a result, I need to update my ranting about the made-for-TV holiday-themed movies. A flip through the cable guide shows that Hallmark and Lifetime are most prone to the "adorable moppets get a family just in time for Christmas when their single parent hooks up with someone" movies. There also seems to be a Lifetime subgenre in which the driven single career woman learns that the Real Meaning of Christmas involves having rugrats around and not caring about her career (often via the It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol treatment). Sometimes they invert that by having the frazzled housewife/mom realize that she has what she really wants when the It's a Wonderful Life treatment allows her to see what her life would be like if she hadn't married her doofus of a husband.

The Family Channel seems to specialize in Christmas-themed romantic comedies, which follow the usual plots of made-for-TV romantic comedies, such as the mistaken identity/deliberate (but well-intentioned, of course) deception, the desperately needing a date for an event and the wacky family interfering in heroine's love life. The Christmas element serves to magnify or complicate the main plot, or else serves as a valuable clue. In the mistaken identity stories, the heroine figures out which one is her True Love based on their shared love of all things Christmassy (a love of all things Christmassy is mandatory for the heroine of a Family Channel movie. They don't even seem to do Scrooge stories. You can't roll your eyes at Christmas excess unless you're the wacky best friend secondary character). In the "need a date" and "annoying family" stories, the holiday makes the need for a date even more important and intensifies the family's need for the heroine to find herself a man.

As you may be able to tell, I made a big bowl of popcorn and spent Saturday melting my brain. Though I did balance out all the sweetness by flipping over to various X-Men movies during commercial breaks and I ended the weekend by watching parts of Reign of Fire (that movie is a different kind of cheesy, but I still really like it).

There was one movie whose title I don't recall (and it didn't seem to have anything to do with the movie) about a young man and woman who'd been penpals since grade school. They'd never met, and then when he was going to be in her town, she panicked and sent her best friend to pretend to be her and meet him, and he panicked and brought his best friend to pretend to be him and meet her. Then they actually meet while spying on the best friends, and he figures it out immediately, but for reasons I don't understand she doesn't and he doesn't tell her until the magical snowfall at the happy ending. Of course, the wacky best friends aren't into Christmas, but have to pretend that they are because the pen pals they're pretending to be really are. I would have declared the main characters too stupid to live for all the elaborate "We're afraid to meet!" hijinks, but I am the queen of the crush from afar and can actually understand the fear that the relationship they did have would be ruined if they met and were disappointed. Except in my case, the existing relationship I'm afraid of losing is only in my head and involves sighing wistfully during weekend newscasts.

That evening there was one called something like The Snowglobe (or maybe without the "the") about a woman whose big, wacky family interfering with her love life made her long for a perfect Christmas, and then she found herself magically transported to the perfect Christmas village in her snowglobe. It really should have been better than it was because there was some interesting stuff buried in there. For instance, while in Perfect Happy Snowglobe Land, the heroine makes a reference to the original Christmas story (you know, the one that kicked all this stuff off), and the people there have no idea what she's talking about. There's some irony about the people whose entire lives revolve around Christmas not even knowing what they're celebrating or why, but they never went there (I guess you don't want any icky religion stuff in your Christmas entertainment). And there was some potential for cultural exploration because the Cuban/Italian heroine was longing for the Currier and Ives Victorian Christmas ideal, which brings up the way that the media tend to fixate on this relatively recent image of the perfect Christmas and ignore all the other equally valid cultural traditions that are out there. There was some real fun potential when the Stepford snowglobe people came into our world, but they just made them be total idiots rather than letting them comment on Christmas in our society. There was more about them having trouble using an escalator than exploring what they thought about the commercialism and cynicism of our culture.

It's enough to make me want to write a story about a woman who finds herself living in her own tabletop Christmas village, or something like that, just to do it right.

Actually, I have wanted to write a Christmas-themed romantic comedy book, and I guess that would be something that the Family Channel could make a movie out of (I don't have screenplay skills, so it's easier to sell it as a book and then get the movie optioned). Damsel Under Stress was kind of my Christmas romantic comedy, but there was other stuff going on so it doesn't really stand alone as a Christmas book. So there's something to add to my project list: a romantic comedy set at Christmas, probably with some magical or fantasy element (since that's my existing niche and it's best not to branch too far until you're established enough), and as the kind of story that would make a good movie. I'd prefer to write something good enough for the big screen, but a Family Channel TV movie is pretty good exposure.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Project 17

I've got a spooky Girlfriends Cyber Circuit entry, Project 17 by Laurie Faria Stolarz.

High atop Hathorne Hill, near Boston, sits Danvers State Hospital. Built in 1878 and closed in 1992, this abandoned mental institution is rumored to be the birthplace of the lobotomy. Locals have long believed the place to be haunted. They tell stories about the unmarked graves on the premises, of the cold spots felt throughout the underground tunnels, and of the treasures found inside: patients' personal items like journals, hair combs, and bars of soap, or even their old medical records, left behind by the state for trespassers to view.

On the eve of the hospital's demolition, six teens break in to spend the night and film a movie about their adventures. For Derik, it's an opportunity to win a filmmaking contest and save himself from a future of flipping burgers at his parents' diner. For the others, it's a chance to be on TV, or a night with no parents. But what starts as a playful dare quickly escalates into a frenzy of nightmarish action. Behind the crumbling walls, down every dark passageway, and in each deserted room, they will unravel the mysteries of those who once lived there and the spirits who still might.


And now, the interview:

What inspired this story?
I wanted to do a companion book to Bleed, using one of my Bleed characters. Around the time I was thinking up ideas for a new project, the newspapers in my area were flooded with stories surrounding the controversial teardown of Danvers State Hospital, an abandoned mental hospital 30 minutes north of Boston. Many people were against tearing it down because it is considered an historical landmark, built in 1878. But, still, developers wanted to use the land to build luxury apartments and condos. In the end, the developers won, and two-thirds of the hospital was torn down. People are now living in the new developments.

Growing up, the hospital, which was finally shut down in 1992 due to budget cuts and overcrowding, was rumored to be haunted and became a notorious hot spot for break-ins and dares. Coincidentally, in Bleed, one of my characters, Derik LaPointe, breaks in to the hospital to go exploring. This is how the initial idea for Project 17 sparked. I thought, why not have Derik break in with a group of teens, on the eve of the demolition to spend the night and film a movie? There are six teens who break in in total, all with their own motivations and agendas, but what they end up finding is far beyond anything they could ever imagine.

Are you a fan of haunted house/other location stories?
The very idea of haunted houses terrifies me. I chicken out of scary movies and haunted house tours at Halloween.

(so, I'm not the only weenie!)

Do you like scary movies or TV shows? What are some of your favorites?
I like the idea of scary movies, esp. psychological thrillers. I'll watch them and then find myself awake half the night. Every time this happens I tell myself I'll never watch another one, but then I do. My favorites? I can't honestly say I enjoy any of them. It's a love/hate relationship really. I recently watched Vacancy and it completely freaked me out.

Would you be willing to take on the challenge you gave your book's characters? If you did, how do you think you'd react?
No way. I wouldn't last five minutes. Once the story idea and sample pages were accepted by the publisher, I started to delve into the research -- visiting the hospital, talking to former patients and staff, and reading and viewing everything I could get my hands on concerning the hospital. I got completely haunted by the research, so much so that I started keeping myself awake at night. I couldn't get it out of my mind, particularly after I visited the place from a writer's perspective -- how was I going to write an entire novel that takes place here? The hospital itself had always been a source of scares, growing up, with its gothic spires and castle-like architecture, but nowhere near as scary as when I started to really get into the individual stories of those connected to the place

After a while, though, for better or for worse, I started to numb up a bit to everything I was researching, including hours of audio and visual footage. That numbness enabled me to take a step back and write the book.

The novel took me about five months to write. I wanted to write it quick -- to get it done -- so that I could put it behind me. It took me another seven months to edit it.

Why do you think people like scary stuff (I'm a big weenie, so I'm always curious about that)?
I think it's like a rollercoaster -- a huge thrill ride that has us clinging to our seats.

(And I'm too chicken for most rollercoasters. I don't like the vertical drop.)

If this sounds intriguing, you can learn more at Laurie's web site. Or you can order the book from Amazon (Tuesday is the official release day).

And now I really have to get to the post office (I sort of procrastinated yesterday) and cut up a couple of pineapples because they're starting to make the house smell like pineapple (which isn't a bad thing, but it does mean they're really ready to eat). And I think I'm going to decorate the little tabletop tree in my office. Then just before the end of the day, my agent will probably get back to me with revision notes on the latest section, so I'll get to spend the weekend working.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Office Party

I'm late posting because I had an office party to go to, and yes, it was a real office party rather than one of my "office parties," which usually involve sitting on the sofa, watching a movie and eating cookies. The office at the medical school I used to work for and that I still freelance for invited me to their holiday lunch. Some of the people who were there back when I first worked there -- in my very first job out of school -- are still there, so it was definitely a blast from the past. We even went to the same restaurant we always used to go to back then. I scored a Captain Picard Christmas ornament in the white elephant gift exchange, so I think he's going to sit on my desk and be a constant reminder to "make it so." Or he could sit on my bookcase and glare at Mulder and Scully. Now I think I need a Dalek.

On the way home, I stopped by Borders to by the Hogfather DVD (sorry, Mom, but they were out of the book), and then my business gift to myself was a digital camera. Fair warning, this could get dangerous if I can just take pictures and post them instead of waiting to get film developed. This one supposedly also does short video clips. I sense hours of time wasting. Sadly, there was no one working at Best Buy who even remotely resembled either Chuck or Adam Baldwin, but one of the guys at the Geek Squad desk did bear a striking resemblance to one of the lesser Nerd Herders.

Since I seem to provide a valuable TV Guide type listings service, in case you weren't aware, there is a new episode of Supernatural on tonight. It's their Christmas episode, which should be interesting.

I already knew from conversations that the Borders staff are all Firefly fans, but I noticed on this trip that they have Serenity displayed in their DVD gift selections, they have the Firefly TV series soundtrack rather prominently displayed in the sountracks section, and they had Serenity Found on a special display of books related to TV in the DVD section. I guess I should have offered to sign their Serenity Found copies.

And now since it's actually a pretty nice day, and since I ate a huge Italian lunch, I think I'm going to walk to the post office.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

More on High Concept

I think I have a new entry in my rapid weather change records. Yesterday afternoon, I went out to run some errands. It was in the upper 60s, and I was probably dressed a little too warmly wearing a light turtleneck and a hooded sweatshirt. I went to the bank, and while the teller was handling my transaction, a song came on the radio. I finished at the bank and went out to my car, thinking that I was a little too warm and that I might leave the sweatshirt in the car when I went to Target. My car radio was on the same station the bank was playing, and the same song was still on. I drove to Target in the same shopping center. The song hadn't ended when I parked and turned the car off. I got out of the car and was not dressed warmly enough. I think it had more to do with distance than time, though, as I could actually see the line of the front, which was right between Target and the bank. It may have even still been warm at the bank. Very freaky, and kind of cool.

So far, I'm loving the TV version of Hogfather. I may have to get the DVD, since they broke for commercials every five minutes (I actually timed one of the commercial breaks, and it did come five minutes after the last one) and even taping it and editing out commercials, they had those stupid animated promo things at the bottom of the screen. But that aside, a lot of it is exactly as I imagined when I was reading it.

And now, for my regular every-other-Wednesday writing post!

Last time, I attempted to define "high concept." Now I'll take a stab at some ideas for creating high concept stories or describing your stories to highlight the high concept. Sometimes the problem with high concept is that your book doesn't really have it. And sometimes the problem is that you have it and don't realize it and aren't pitching it properly.

There are entire workshops done on how to come up with high concept ideas, and it's such a nebulous idea that it falls into "I know it when I see it" territory. The trick is that it's something in the eye of the beholder, and the person reading it is the one who decides if it's high concept. One way to get an eye for what some people think is high concept enough to be worth throwing money at is to look at the blurbs for the debut author sales in Publisher's Lunch or look at the back-cover copy on new books by first-time authors. It's really hard for a new author to break into commercial fiction without a pretty high-concept story. You can also look at the movies whose trailers barely mention who's starring in them. Chances are, if the cast and director aren't promoted, Hollywood considers that a pretty high-concept story. Television movie listings are a good way to see how a high-concept story can be described because they tend to focus on the main selling point of the movie.

There are some things that tend to pop up regularly as part of a high concept:
1) Maximized conflict. I've seen this described as "put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them." Make the worst-case scenario happen. Put your protagonist in direct opposition to the antagonist, and make it a huge mismatch. Going back to the example of The Terminator, that merciless cyborg killing machine wasn't going after a female soldier, cop or martial arts expert. It was going after a waitress. That made it a real Godzilla vs. Bambi showdown and made things that much more difficult for our heroine because it was a fight she wasn't prepared for (notice that in the sequel when she is prepared for the fight, the protagonist became her young son -- a child up against the merciless killing machine). If things are bad for your main character, how can you make them worse on a bigger scale?

2) Higher stakes. What are the consequences if your hero fails to achieve his goals? Not every conflict can be life-or-death or earthshattering, but how can it be maximized in its effect on your characters? If they can walk away and go on with their lives if they fail, then your story isn't as strong as it should be.

3) Give the familiar a new twist. The example Michael Hauge uses in his screenwriting book is the movie ET. There had been tons of movies about lonely, misunderstood boys finding stray dogs. This movie put a twist on it by making it a stray alien. That change was more than cosmetic, though. It also raised the stakes and maximized the conflict. It's bad enough trying to hide a stray dog from your mom, and the consequences of being found out are pretty bad. What happens if your mom finds you've got an alien living in the closet? It's one thing to try to elude the dogcatcher. What about trying to elude the US government? It's difficult enough when you find your dog's real family and have to give him up to people who live on another block or in another town, but what if your new friend's real home is in another galaxy? Another familiar example is The Lord of the Rings, which was a quest story, but it wasn't about finding something. It was about getting rid of something, and every moment they had the ring, they were in more danger. In an ordinary quest, unless the item you're seeking is necessary to save the world, you can always turn back, no harm done. These people couldn't live as long as they had the ring. They had no choice but to get rid of it, so the stakes were higher.

4) Put your story in an interesting or unusual situation or give your characters an unusual occupation. This is along the lines of adding a twist. Take the classic "trapped in a remote cabin with a monster" story and set it on a space ship, and you've got Alien. The stakes are higher because there is literally no escape and no chance of rescue in the vastness of space. Mystery writers make good use of occupations for their characters. That's how they carve out a niche for a series. It's not just an amateur sleuth who solves crime, but it's a pastry chef or a wedding planner.

In all of these things, it's about using these elements to raise the stakes rather than just adding window dressing to make the story look different. These twists fundamentally change the story that's being told. It needs to matter that the boy finds a lost alien instead of a lost dog. It needs to make a difference that the cyborg's target is a waitress instead of a soldier.

One thing that makes life difficult for us is that they keep raising the bar for what could be considered "high concept." Whenever someone creates something that's high concept, that then becomes the new norm, and everything that comes after it has to be even bigger and better. So we start with Die Hard and a bomb in a high rise building, then have to move on to Speed, where the bomb is on a bus that has to keep moving.

When you're pitching a story, it may help to focus on the high concept elements in the initial pitch, even if that's not necessarily the main plot. For instance, if you're pitching a mystery in which your amateur sleuth has an unusual profession, you'd probably want to focus on that rather than on the details of the mystery itself. Look at what makes your characters unique and their conflict dire.

I may get off schedule in the next couple of weeks because the next writing post should fall the day after Christmas, and I'm not sure I see that happening. I may move temporarily to a different day or post a week earlier or a week later.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


The Amateur Dramatic Hour continues at my place. Not only am I finding the character development and improvisation exercises from acting class useful for getting into the head of the character who sees the world in the opposite way from me, but it turns out it's useful for adding actions to the scenes with other characters. If I have to think about how I would act out a scene, I can't rely on interior monologue, so I have to find physical cues, and then I can put that in the scene.

So, yeah, I'm still working on that book I wrote in fifteen days back in August. That was just the bones of the story. Then I rewrote it to get it into the right form. Now I'm rewriting it to make it sing. Each draft seems to take a little more time. That fifteen-day book is going to end up taking me three months or more to write (I haven't been working on it non-stop since August).

Since I had a cold, rainy Sunday, I indulged in one of my favorite holiday activities: Curling up with the Christmas lights on, appropriate Christmas music, some hot cocoa, some cookies, and a seasonally-themed book. This weekend's reading selection was Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. Now, it's not technically a "Christmas" book as it takes place in an alternate world that has different religions from our world, but it does involve a Discworld winter holiday that looks a lot like Christmas. Instead of Santa Claus/Father Christmas there's the Hogfather who brings gifts to good boys and girls and who sits in a store to visit with kids. But what if nefarious forces take Hogfather out of the picture? Then someone just has to fill in, and Death is up for the job.

It says something about the genius of Terry Pratchett that he can make Death such a sympathetic, fleshed-out (no pun intended) character. Death really doesn't get humanity, as much as he'd like to, so he doesn't understand why poor kids get worse gifts than rich kids do, even if the Hogfather is the one bringing them, and he sees right through one-time acts of charity meant only to make the giver feel good about himself while having very little to do with what the recipient wants or needs. Things get really interesting when Death, in his night as Hogfather, decides a few changes are in order. Meanwhile, someone has to find out what happened to the real Hogfather and get him back before it's too late.

I got this book at the library, but I'll have to buy a copy because it needs to be reread to catch all the little jokes and nuances, and I could see myself re-reading it as an annual tradition because it does make some very pointed reminders about the way we celebrate the holiday season.

It turns out that the ION network (apparently what PAX evolved into) is showing the British Hogfather miniseries tonight and tomorrow night. I think that will be my present-wrapping time. I do hope it's good. The IMDB reviews have been pretty positive, but I'm always nervous about seeing a book I've loved brought to life on the screen.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Getting in Character

I am now feeling thoroughly festive. Getting my decorations up on Friday helped, and then we had a weather change that also helped. It was yet another one of those fun "climate change in an hour" situations. Late Saturday afternoon, I thought it was getting kind of hot and stuffy in the house, so I opened the door from my office to the balcony and got hit by a blast of hot, humid air. Then I went downstairs and opened the door to the patio and got another blast of hot, humid air. I put a kettle on to make tea, and just before it boiled I realized I probably ought to open the bedroom window to air that room out. I went to open that window and instead of the hot air I got nicely cool air. I put the tea on to steep and started playing with a crossword puzzle, then drank my tea while finishing the puzzle. Before I finished the tea or the puzzle I had to get up and close the patio door because it was too cold. Yes, the weather changed from so hot I needed to open windows to so cool I had to close windows in the amount of time it took to make and drink a cup of tea. I knew a front was coming in, but it was about twelve hours ahead of schedule.

Sunday I baked my first batch of Christmas cookies, then went to the community Christmas program at the church. All the choirs, orchestra, handbells, etc. really got me in the mood (and there are some seriously talented kids in this town -- they did that Josh Groban song from The Polar Express, with one of the high school kids doing the solo, and for a moment I thought they were just playing a Josh Groban recording until I saw that one of the boys was singing, and I think he actually had better technique than Josh Groban).

I also have to quit dithering about getting back into choir. The woman sitting next to me in church grabbed me after the service, dragged me over to the choir director and said, "I've got one for you." Then at the program at night, the church pianist, who was the pianist for the choir I used to be in, recognized me and came over for some minor nagging about me not being in the choir. So, yeah, I'm pretty much trapped. They are letting me wait until after Christmas, which is good because I'm a bit rusty on Handel's Messiah and wouldn't want to try to sing it without rehearsal.

Meanwhile, it's been Amateur Drama Hour in my house while I work on fine-tuning this book. One of the problems I'm having is that one of my viewpoint characters is in a lot of ways so entirely unlike me that I struggle to get into her head. I can write her dialogue and actions in character, but really being inside her head and conveying her emotional responses to events is a lot more difficult. So I dragged out my textbook from the acting class I took in college (I took Acting for Non-Drama Majors my last semester because I needed one more course to be a full-time student. It turned out to be Acting for Jocks Who Need to Boost Their GPAs, and I was one of maybe two people in the class who weren't varsity athletes. The other non-jock was blind. We totally killed in a highly authentic rendition of a scene from Butterflies Are Free -- it was very interesting doing that with an actor who was actually blind. Who knew that my goof-off class would end up playing into my ultimate career?) and started working on getting into that character as I might play her as an actress. Then I started improvising her scenes, and that got me more in the right frame of mind. I've got more work to do, and it may even require costumes. I'm suspecting that this isn't a character I can write while wearing sweatpants. I need to wear a swirly skirt to capture her aura. Not that she wears a swirly skirt throughout the book, but she's the kind of person who even while wearing jeans would walk as though she's got a skirt swirling around her legs.

I have one more batch of cookies to make, and then it's work time.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Christmas Shopping

I just realized I hadn't gotten around to posting all day. I've been busy doing grocery shopping, which involves going to two different stores in order to find everything I need. But now I shouldn't need to buy anything other than maybe milk and fresh produce for the rest of the month.

I'm also just about ready for Christmas, and I'm finally in the mood. I got all my shopping done yesterday, and today I brought in all the decorations from the garage. Tonight I'll deck the halls.

Last night was the first time I've really hit the mall other than to go directly to a particular store in ages. They've really spiffed up this mall and brought in some new stores. I made myself walk the whole thing, did my shopping, had dinner at Panera (hadn't done that in years), then went over to Borders, where they had some musicians in the store. On the way home, I took some side roads to look at the lights. All in all, a nice kick-off to the season. Though it says something about my life that going to the mall, Panera and the bookstore is my idea of a big night out.

Some notes from the shopping trip:

My taste in clothes does not match my lifestyle. My eyes are automatically drawn to dressy things -- pretty party dresses, high-heeled satin shoes, etc. I spend most of my life in sweatpants and leave the house maybe twice a week. I'm always tempted to go up to a sales clerk with some fabulous silk dress and say, "Excuse me, but do you know where I can find the life that goes with this?"

But I must not clean up too badly. When I was in Macy's, a saleslady came up to me to point out all the sales they were having (and BOY were they having a sale!). She listed the various designer collections, then said, "But you're pretty trendy, so you might want to look at this one." I'm not sure I was wearing anything less than five years old. I think my outfit was pretty stylish (yes, my life is so sad that I actually really dressed up, put on makeup and everything for a trip to the mall), but I don't think that you can be "trendy" wearing clothes that old that aren't the current craze in vintage.

In spite of my rant the other day, I'm not anti-lingerie. I like pretty things (see above -- and if the pretty, silky things are nightgowns, then I have somewhere to wear them, even if nobody sees them but me). I'm just anti-costume (as in, the lingerie you wear only to pose in before removing that has no other purpose) and anti-intimate gift too early in the relationship. I have a fair number of items from Victoria's Secret, but I hadn't gone in there in ages. When did they start sticking their logo on the outside of everything? It's not like that's a brand with actual status. I had a gift card from last Christmas I needed to use, so I was doing last year's shopping for myself, and I had a hard time finding something I wanted. There was a really pretty slip-type nightgown in a fairly retro style -- I could see the flighty, free-spirited heiress in an old screwball comedy wearing something like it with marabou-trimmed high-heeled slippers and a floaty robe in the scene where she gets ready for a night out while talking on her princess-style phone and gets sidetracked so that she mixes things up. But when I took it off the rack to look at it, they'd Bedazzled the skirt of it with their "Sexy" logo in rhinestones.

That struck me as silly for a number of reasons. That made it too uncomfortable to wear for sleeping, but it would snag anything you wore over it if you used it as a slip. If you're wearing something like that for posing and removing and need to have the word "sexy" on it in 4-inch rhinestone letters in order to get the message across, you're doing something wrong. If he needs the word "sexy" flashed in his face for him to get the idea, there's a problem that probably can't be solved with lingerie (he's just not that into you). And if you need the word "sexy" on the outside of your clothes in order to feel sexy or good about yourself, you need a therapist.

I love Bath & Bodyworks stores. I can spend hours in there. But I almost never buy anything. For one thing, I can get paralyzed by all the choices. For another, I usually come to my senses and realize that their stuff is rather overpriced, and I can find more effective lotions for far less elsewhere. I usually come down to buying the vanilla scented stuff, anyway, and you can definitely find vanilla products less expensively elsewhere. Still, I just love the stores and smelling all the stuff and trying to pretend that buying the right scent could change my outlook on life.

The kiosk people are starting to get pretty aggressive, or else more of them have picked up aggressive tactics. First, there were the people who chase you down the mall trying to buff your nails. Now there's the curling iron kiosk, where the guys pop out at you and ask you how you style your hair. I have curly hair. Really curly hair. Like spiral ringlets. So I just looked at the guy and said, "I don't. It does this by itself." But I guess his script didn't allow for naturally curly hair because he still started his pitch on the wonders of the curling iron. There was a stretch of the mall that was like running an obstacle course through infomercials.

I think I ended up doing all my Christmas gift shopping in Macy's because they were playing the right music. They played the old classic/standard Christmas music done by people like Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, etc. Maybe it's because that was the kind of Christmas music we had records of when I was a kid, but that's what I think of when I think about Christmas music, and when I'm enjoying the music in a store, I tend to linger a bit. It's happy, pleasant and classy-sounding.

And now my agent has again managed to give me revision notes on a Friday, so guess what I'll be doing this weekend! Good thing I did my "weekend" during the week.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Holiday Romance, Part 2

I was reminded the other day that my rant about how hard it is to buy gifts early in a relationship was actually in one of my books. So, now you know where that part came from. Read Damsel Under Stress again, and you'll have a whole new set of mental images to go with that part.

But I didn't learn my lesson about trying to start a new relationship during the holiday season. Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), this turned out to not be a problem. The holidays only really came into play because I think that helped send my imagination into overdrive.

My long-term, pre-publication friends may recognize this story, as I posted it at the time under a friends lock. One of the issues of being a semi-public person with a blog is that it's way too easy to look me up and get the whole scoop, which means it's very hard to write about things like dating. If it was a horrible date, unless that was because he was criminally creepy rather than just not right for me, I wouldn't want to post something he might see (the lingerie thing might have been grounds for posting) because I wouldn't want to hurt his feelings. On the other hand, if I really, really like the guy, I wouldn't want to say too much and show all my cards at a point where it might scare him off. But I think that this story is now well beyond the statute of limitations. If this guy is still reading here three years later and has said nothing, then he deserves to see what he sees. And really, this one is mostly about how silly I was (he did get his own silliness later, but that's another story).

Anyway, someone I'm in an organization with approached me at a meeting and asked if I was seeing someone, then said there was someone she might want to introduce me to. I'm still not sure where I got this impression, since I don't remember the whole conversation in detail, but I came away with the idea that it was someone who worked with her husband (she may have referred to her husband, or I may have just imagined it entirely). Her husband had an important, rather glamorous corporate job, and I think my brain went into overdrive. That's one of the occupational hazards of writers. We have very vivid imaginations, so just give us a tiny fragment of an idea, and next thing you know, we've created a character, complete with backstory, and have written an entire story arc about how things will go. So I had a vivid mental image of some dashing young executive on the rise. In my head, he looked a lot like Owen, but maybe a bit taller.

Months later, it was early December, and this same person came up to me at a meeting and said, "The corporate party fell through, so I'm having a casual get-together at my house tonight, and John* would love to meet you."

(*not his real name)

The way my brain interpreted this was that her husband's company's office party had fallen through, since that was happening a lot that year, with potlucks at the boss's house replacing the big hotel shindig with open bar, so she was just having the office over to her house. I would apparently be the "date" for this John* guy. I was a little worried about feeling like an outsider, but the mental image of this fabulous character I'd created won out, and I agreed to go. I got there, and John* was already there. This woman's adult daughter was the only other person there. I figured the daughter was helping set up, and John* was there early to get to know me a little before the rest of the staff got there. John* seemed to know my friend and her daughter pretty well. Then the daughter's husband and their little girl showed up, and the little girl ran to hug John*. I was thinking that he really must be employee of the month, since he knew the family so well. The daughter even asked him to go with her to her office holiday party, since her husband couldn't be there. Some more people showed up and they were neighbors. I was still waiting for the rest of the office staff to show up, but my friend invited everyone to get a plate and start serving themselves.

It was nearly an hour into the evening before I realized that John* was my friend's son and that the whole thing had nothing to do with her husband's office, that this was just a friends and family event. It turned out that the corporate party she referred to was one she was supposed to have hosted for some visiting executive, but that fell through, and since she already had the food and had the house decorated, she invited friends and family to eat the food. I guess I got the story wrong. I ended up having a good time and seemed to hit it off with the whole group, with the possible exception of the guy I'd been set up with. We just didn't seem to click.

Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut until I knew what the situation really was. The whole thing had the makings of a major disaster. Just imagine if I'd said something like, "Wow, you must be employee of the month! You're practically a member of the family!" or if I'd asked when the rest of the office would get there.

For funnier dating stories, I found this blog about a London woman's dating quest (it trails off, but I heard she got a book deal, so maybe she's saving it for the book). It's very Bridget Jones-like. I find it interesting that she ran into similar problems in the ways she tried to meet men that I've found, so I guess things are the same all over the world. Even if I started dating again, I probably couldn't write that kind of thing without running into that semi-public figure issue, unless I started a separate anonymous blog about it that wasn't readily linked to me by Google, but then how could I let the people I wanted to read it find out about it? What would I do if I actually met my anchorman? I couldn't exactly post something like, "I finally met that anchorman I've had a crush on for five years" without him then immediately finding out about the long-term crush and dismissing me as a scary stalker. Since there are thousands of people who know me through my books and only a few people I might date, it would almost be easier to start dating under an assumed, non-Googleable name, and then only reveal my true identity when I'm more sure of a man and don't mind him researching me. As it is, I just go by the six-month statute of limitations -- if it was a disaster and we've had no contact for six months, if he's still reading he deserves what he sees, and if it went well, by six months I shouldn't mind him knowing my first impression of him. It would be so much easier if I could filter out one or two specific people. It's almost an unfair advantage on a man's part, since I've got all this info out there on me, unless he's equally public and I can find out about him (no, the anchorman doesn't seem to have a blog, unless he's set it up to be non-Googleable or private).

I'm going to attempt to get into the swing of Christmas today by hitting the mall to do my shopping and then going to the holiday open house at Borders. They're supposedly going to have live music, and I can sign the books they ordered for the store (and then maybe if the people there for the holiday open house see me signing books, they might be curious enough to buy one).

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

How to Find an Agent

I got the honor and privilege of participating in the Serenity Found anthology, and then I got the honor and privilege of interviewing Jane Espenson, the book's editor who also wrote for Firefly and Buffy and who is now on the (striking) writing staff for Battlestar Galactica about it for the web site Trashionista. You can read the interview here. Find out which celebrity Firefly reminds her of and which current show she thinks is most like Firefly (that answer may surprise you, but then it makes total sense when you think about it).

I lurk in or participate in a lot of writing forums, and while the enthusiasm of beginning writers can be contagious, it can also be alarming when it comes to the process of finding an agent or publisher. I see way too many people get so enthusiastic they get ahead of themselves and go off without knowing what they're doing. I recognize that finding an agent can be challenging, but if you go about it in the right way, you increase your chances of not making a fool of yourself or being taken in by a scam artist.

Therefore, I present Shanna's Handy-Dandy Process for Finding an Agent:
1) Write a book. Finish the book. Polish the book.
I can't emphasize this enough. Unless there are special circumstances, agents won't consider an unfinished novel by an unpublished author. Yes, there are exceptions that we've all heard about where someone lands an agent and a book deal on one chapter and a one-paragraph synopsis, but you hear about them because they're unusual. What you don't hear about in a lot of these exceptional cases is that there's often a full manuscript involved in the process. A common scenario is that an author submits a completed book, agent calls author for either a prospective client sanity check (even if the book is brilliant, the agent wants to know the author isn't a psychopath) or the "love your writing, not sure this book is a good fit for the current market, got anything else?" conversation. Agent asks what else the author is working on, author says, "I just started a book on XYZ." Just that morning, an editor told agent she was desperately looking for a book on XYZ, so agent gets the one completed chapter and has author write a paragraph synopsis -- and there's a deal. But it wouldn't have happened without a full manuscript to trigger the conversation.

The next two steps can be done while working on step one (this would be a good thing to do while letting the manuscript rest between drafts), but all of the following steps should be done in order.

2) Develop a list of targets.
Come up with a list of agents who might be interested in your work. There are a lot of ways to go about doing this. One way is to go to your favorite books (recently published -- it won't do you much good to know who Jane Austen's agent was), look on the acknowledgments page and see if the authors name their agents. Then you can go to a bookstore and look for books similar to yours and check the acknowledgment pages. Here, it's more important to look for tone and general worldview within a genre than for specific subject matter. If you've written a dark, atmospheric fantasy novel about elves, you'd want to look at dark, atmospheric fantasy novels in general rather than looking at every novel about elves.

There are a lot of reference guides about agents that you can find in bookstores, in libraries or online (you can find them for yourself -- what, you expect me to do all the research?). With a Publisher's Marketplace membership, you can search a database for which agents represent which books and get regular notices about who's selling which books.

If your book crosses genres, it's probably best to find an agent who works in both genres, though that can narrow your options. If you have to consider an agent who only works in one of those genres, go for the genre you could see yourself writing without a crossover (if your book is a romantic mystery, do your ideas beyond that book lean more toward straight mystery or straight romance, for example).

3) Do further research on your target list.
First check Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware to see if there are any warnings about any of the agents on your list (those sites also have good general info on the agent search). Then do a Google search. Most agents who are actively seeking clients have some kind of web presence these days and many maintain blogs. You might also find articles or interviews. Things you should look for:
-- their client list -- how do you see yourself in that mix? A few star clients may raise an agent's profile, but are there so many star clients that you'd be the lowest priority? (Of course, a lot of that depends on how the agent handles the client load -- the star clients could be very low maintenance.) Do those existing clients prove that the agent should have the contacts to place your book? (Are any of those authors working with an editor you think would be a good fit for you?)
-- credentials -- a relatively new agent can be good (mine hadn't been in business long when she sold Enchanted, Inc.), but most agents who go into business for themselves start by working at a larger agency or in some capacity at a publishing house so they're not truly "new" in the business even if the agency has just opened. Find out the agent's professional background. Some of an agent's biggest assets are her list of contacts and her relationships with editors, and you want someone who's had a chance to develop contacts and some industry savvy, or else you want someone who's part of a larger organization who can draw upon more experienced people.
-- recent sales -- is this agent accomplishing anything?
-- agenting philosophy and approach to the job (if you can find this on the agent's site or blog or through any interviews or articles).
Of course, you want to avoid agents who charge fees of any kind. Some agents do charge back expenses, but that should come out of money earned from selling your work, not from an up-front fee. The agent shouldn't make money unless he/she sells a book.

You'd think it would be pretty obvious that these two steps should come before other steps, like sending off query letters, but based on the forum posts that inspired this, apparently it isn't that obvious. Seriously, folks, you'll save yourself some time and avoid getting scammed or looking like an idiot if you take the time to do the research before querying or submitting. I want to scream when I see writing forum posts to the effect of "Agent X just responded to my query, so does anyone know anything about her? I can't seem to find any info. It doesn't look like she has any sales." If you couldn't find info, why did you query? Remember, research, then submit.

4) Think about what you want in an agent.
I put this step after the research because sometimes you don't know what you want until you see what's out there. Do you want a hands-on agent who offers editorial input, or someone who makes deals and otherwise leaves you alone? Do you want an agent who's part of a major agency, or someone in a one-person firm? Is communicating by e-mail important to you? The only right or wrong answer here is what works for you.

5) Based on your research and your personal agent requirements, narrow down your targets into a priority list. As part of your research, you should have learned these agents' submission policies. Based on these submission policies and any other details you might have learned about these agents, prepare query letters or e-mails. I really don't recommend having a standard query letter. You might want to develop a pitch paragraph for your book and some standard language about your background and credentials, but otherwise, tweak it to target each specific agent. It's okay to do some name dropping, but don't be obnoxious about it. If the agent represents your favorite author, go ahead and say so. If you think there's a something about a book she sold that you think would make her like your book, say so (but avoid bragging too much or putting down her other author -- "If you liked that, you'll love my book" is probably not the smartest thing to say).

6) Send query letters to your top targets.
Opinions vary as to whether it's best to query in batches or do a mass query. It is generally a good idea to start with your top targets if you're working in batches. If you start at the bottom and get interest, you'll never know if you could have landed your top target. Never, ever, ever, ever send e-mail queries in bulk. Send individual e-mails. Don't BCC, and definitely don't have a list of recipients. Agents know you're querying others, but you don't have to rub that in their face, and some will refuse to look at a bulk query. Don't use fancy backgrounds or funky fonts. Whether you send snail mail or e-mail queries, if you list an e-mail address as part of your contact info, don't use one of those anti-spam intercept services where someone has to enter information or prove who they are before the message will be delivered. Most agents won't bother going through all that to reach you.

7) If an agent asks for a full manuscript, you'll want to start doing additional research, especially if you have more than one agent interested and you might have to choose. Ask around in writing forums to get a sense of their reputations. If possible, talk to some of their current and maybe even former clients (you'll want to know why the author and agent parted ways). You should definitely do this before signing with an agent. Get a sense of the agent's response time, working style and any quirks you think you ought to know about. If you ask other writers about an agent and get lots of "Run! Avoid at all costs!" responses, these writers are not trying to stomp on your dream, and they are not jealous of your tremendous talent. They may be trying to keep you from making a mistake, so it's worth looking into. Don't be so excited to get interest from an agent that you don't investigate thoroughly. Once you have interest on their part, you're essentially in the position of employer. Will this person truly represent your best interests? Will you enjoy dealing with this person? It's better to have no agent at all than to have a bad agent. With no agent at all, you can at least submit your work on your own. With a bad agent, your work is tied up while that person does nothing, or if the agent is clueless rather than a scam artist, your reputation could be damaged if the agent is unprofessional in dealing with publishers. Even a good agent who's just not a good fit for you can be bad for your career (that was a big reason behind my long dry spell). If you don't enjoy dealing with your agent or are intimidated by your agent, or if you just don't communicate well, you're not going to make a good team.

I guess you could say I did a truncated version of all this when I found my agent, as she was the only one I submitted to with that book. I'd done my research, and I had a feeling she was the best possible fit for not only my particular book, but also the way I prefer to work. But I did start with looking up potential agents who might work, then researching them in more depth, before I sent the one query to my top choice. It did work, though I'm not sure I'd recommend that as the best approach. It does seem to demonstrate the value of really doing your research ahead of time, though.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Holiday Romance

In spite of my rant last week about the insipid Heartwarming Holiday Movies, I'm actually a big fan of holiday-themed movies, especially romantic comedies that don't involve struggling single parents and adorable moppets. Going back to the classics, there's Christmas in Connecticut, Holiday, The Shop Around the Corner, Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life (I know that one gets snarked on as being sappy, but aside from the ending, most of the movie is actually pretty dark -- it is about someone driven to attempt suicide, after all). More recently, there's About a Boy, Love Actually, The Sure Thing, While You Were Sleeping and last year's The Holiday. There are also crucial Christmas moments in When Harry Met Sally and Bridget Jones's Diary. Not to mention all the many variations on A Christmas Carol (the Muppet one is actually my favorite). They even occasionally do a good TV holiday movie. There's one from about ten years ago called The Christmas List that keeps popping up on the Family Channel, with Mimi Rogers as a department store perfume expert who, on a whim, writes out a fantasy Christmas list and sticks it in the mailbox of the store's Santa display, and then finds her wishes coming true in surprising ways. I don't recall any adorable moppets. At least, she wasn't a single parent.

There's a common theme through most of these movies, and that's that the Christmas season is romantic. There's all the stuff about wishes coming true, love and joy, walking in a winter wonderland, snuggling by the fire and all those other images. But in case you are currently single, before you go looking for someone right now to have a honey for the holidays, I have a public service message for you: Think of the gift issue!

Buying gifts can be a challenge at the best of times, even when you know someone well -- thinking of what they might like, if they already have it, and knowing the appropriate amount of money to spend. It gets even trickier in a new relationship. There's the issue of whether or not you're even at a gift-giving stage yet -- and if you both agree on that. Then if you are at a gift-giving stage, there's the tricky balance of giving something personal and potentially meaningful as your very first gift to each other, while not being so personal that it's presumptive or scares the other person away.

It's a little easier for men because women are easy to buy the personal/impersonal gifts for. When all else fails, there are candles. It's generally easy enough to figure out someone's favorite color or the color that matches her decor, and there's the implication of warmth and romance, but it's still not too terribly personal. A man can also get away with giving the cute stuffed animal. It's trickier for women giving gifts to men. I can't think of the candle equivalent, and giving a man you've just started dating a stuffed animal can make you look desperate, depending on the circumstances. I'm even a bit leery of giving baked goods because that can send the "see, I'm good wife material!" message that can freak some men out. Books, CDs or DVDs can be good options, but you not only have to figure out what they'd like, but also what they already have. It's only really safe if you've had the "have you read/seen/heard?" conversation and there's something you recommend that he's not familiar with -- and even then, there's the chance that he went right away and bought it (that's another problem in shopping for men -- if they want something, they generally buy it as soon as they decide they want it, or as soon as it becomes available).

I realized just how tricky this could be one year when I started dating someone the weekend after Thanksgiving. We'd been introduced by a mutual friend and hit it off pretty well. We went to a movie that first weekend, then went dancing the following weekend, and then the next weekend we met at a theater on a Sunday afternoon for a matinee. After the movie, he said he had something for me, and we had to go to my place so I could open it. I'd been baking, so my place was a mess, and besides, I didn't have anything for him since we'd only just met and I didn't think we were really at a gift-giving phase, so I begged off. We made plans to get together for dinner the next week, so I went into frantic shopping mode. I didn't have much to go on, based on two movies and a night of dancing, and I'd never been to his place. I think I ended up settling on one of those page-a-day desk calendars that I thought fit his sense of humor and some of the cookies I'd baked, to prove that I really had been baking.

The night for dinner came, and he kept a wrapped package on the table the whole evening, but insisted we go out to his car to open it (that, along with the fact that he'd refused to give it to me in a movie theater parking lot, should have been a red flag). It was this thing from Frederick's of Hollywood, something with green faux velvet, lots of black lace and lots of boning. It was the kind of garment you wear for one purpose: to pose in it for a moment or two and then take it off. There was no way it could have worked as pajamas or something to wear under a suit and feel sexy about, so it wasn't actually a gift for me to enjoy. It was a gift for him. In case you were wondering, that's not a good personal/impersonal gift for someone you've known only a few weeks. It got really awkward when he opened my gift and found a calendar and cookies. Apparently, we were on different pages about the status of our relationship. When I was quite obviously shocked and a little horrified by his gift, he said he'd given it just to see my reaction, which I took as a very bad sign, and the relationship pretty much sputtered out from that point. The sad thing was, during that dinner I'd found myself thinking that I might really start to like him, and I let myself feel hopeful about the relationship, so it was a huge crash for him to essentially play a practical joke on me. Not that I believed that he really just wanted to get a reaction out of me. That was a lame attempt at getting himself out of trouble when I was so horrified.

Since then, I've been leery of starting relationships too close to the holiday season. I guess that makes me what one magazine called a "Halloweenie," which is someone who avoids starting a new relationship between Halloween and Christmas, so as to avoid potentially awkward situations like being expected to meet families too early in the relationship or having to figure out an appropriate gift for someone you don't know well (though in the magazine's use of the term, they were talking about men who broke up with women right after Halloween because they were too cheap to buy gifts and who didn't want to have to deal with the girlfriend's family). Come to think of it, the guy I'd been dating for most of the year of Lingerie Man dumped me around Halloween, though by "dumped" I mean "fell off the face of the earth without a word," but the last contact I had with him was in October. So, alien abduction, or Halloweenie?

But I didn't learn my lesson about trying to find love during the holiday season. Tune in later this week for that story.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Ho Ho Hum

So, there was the whole thing with my publisher refusing to buy book 5 of the series because they didn't think sales of the previous books were strong enough to justify it. Okay, I could sort of accept that, even if I didn't like it, but that just motivated me to push harder to promote the books and see if I could drum up more readers. But then I saw the page they made for the next book in the sales catalog, and it calls book 4 the "conclusion" to the series.

Uh, no. It's not. The fact that they didn't want to publish the conclusion to the series does NOT make this the conclusion. So I complained. I just got their response, and it pretty much sounds like they've already made up their mind that there will be no more books, no matter what happens. Yet they also said they thought the position as the conclusion would help the book sell better and get people to go back and read the earlier books -- but then that means that they've already closed themselves off from the possibility of more books if that happens.

So now I'm in the weird position of actually wanting my books to go out of print so the rights revert to me, and then when the movie is made or I become successful elsewhere, someone else can republish the whole series in the correct genre so that people who might like it can actually find it, and then they'll get to publish the real conclusion. I'm not going to quit trying entirely because if this next book bombs, that hurts me for getting on with other publishers, but my focus now is on other things elsewhere. And if you get the Random House catalog, just disregard that headline.

This situation did not help with my attack of the Grinchies. I have, however, figured out a lot of what my problem is. They start cramming Christmas down our throats earlier and earlier every year. The malls and department stores are often decorated before Halloween, and there were radio stations playing 24-hour Christmas music in early November. They'd already shown most of the major Christmas TV specials before anyone even opened the first window on their advent calendars. After spending so much time going "Nooooo! Not Christmas! Ewwww! Make it stop!" it's really hard to flip that mental switch over to "Yay! Christmas!" Given that they start the nonsense around Halloween, if you try to hold out until December first, that means you spend more time avoiding Christmas stuff than you do enjoying it.

Supposedly, they start the Christmas shopping season so early to encourage people to buy more stuff, but I wonder if it really works. I know that I avoid stores entirely during November, and then I'm so sick of it all when it really is Christmastime that I just duck into one store, buy what I need and get out. Maybe if they delayed and let us actually build up a sense of anticipation, so that we couldn't wait for the Christmas decorations to go up and for the music to start playing, we might feel even more festive, and we'd want to go to the decorated stores more during December since that would be the only time we'd see them. I probably wouldn't buy more gifts, since my list is pretty short, but I think I might be more excited about buying things like ornaments and decorations, and I might want to spend more time in stores, which might lead to buying more stuff (and I wouldn't be avoiding the mall in November). Then again, there were all those lines of people charging into stores on Black Friday, so I'm probably not in the majority. It all makes me want to do crazy things like hand-make gifts. That still requires some purchasing, since you'd need to buy yarn to knit a sweater, unless you have a sheep and spin your own yarn, but it's different.

I kind of wonder if the Black Friday frenzy really has anything to do with Christmas shopping, or if it's just the idea of getting a good deal. Would people still camp out outside the Buy More in June if they had similar offers and opened the store earlier after closing earlier the day before?

I think I'm going to put up my tree Friday evening. Maybe by then I'll have transitioned from "Make it stop!" to "Yay!"