Friday, November 30, 2007

Curse You, Microsoft!

I spent much of yesterday cursing Bill Gates and the horse he rode in on. My agent is pretty leading-edge technologically, which is wonderful because we can do almost everything electronically. If I had to print things and mail them, nothing would ever get done, and I don't need more paper in my life. I try to be as paperless as possible, and still I'm drowning in the stuff. The down side of her being on the leading edge is that she actually upgrades her software when new versions come out. I tend to be rather anti-consumerist and resist buying something new just because it's new as long as what I have is doing what I need it to do. When it comes to word processing software, that means I can type and letters appear on the screen. The very first version of Word I ever used did that just fine, and I can't see that subsequent versions have changed or improved all that much. I did have to finally upgrade when I got a new computer and needed something that worked with OS X, which isn't an upgrade I particularly resented as the version I had would no longer work. The problem comes with the fact that the latest version of Office is incompatible with everything but itself. I admit that I am a version behind, but even if I had the very latest version available for Mac, it still wouldn't have worked. The upgrade that will be compatible won't be available for Mac until next year. Who releases something so widely used in such a way that it's incompatible with everything else on the market? We finally worked out that my agent could save the file as RTF and I could still see tracked changes, but that was after a lot of frustration and research. I joke about Bill Gates being the antichrist, but you know, if he were so inclined (he actually seems like a decent human being, his business practices aside, what with his charity work and the way he's raising his kids) he really could bring the global economy crashing down, with business functioning at a crawl, without much effort.

Now that I can actually read my agent's input on the new book, I have a ton and a half of work to do. So much for taking it easy this December and not being on deadline with a lot of work to do. Oh well, there's always next year.

My neighborhood Christmas tree lighting ceremony is tonight, and I'm debating whether or not to go. I'm a dork about that kind of thing and even at my age I still ooh and aah about seeing a tree lit, but I'm not really in the holiday headspace yet (I guess going to a tree lighting would help). I also feel kind of self-conscious at these things because, theoretically, they're for the kids, and I worry that a lone adult in the crowd would make people suspicious about my motives, since I'm generally the only person there who isn't herding around a few rugrats. Not that I blame parents for being a bit concerned, given that all you have to do to round up a whole group of perverts is post the profile of a 12-year-old on MySpace and they come out in droves (what did these people do before the Internet? You'd think we would have noticed mobs of men in raincoats hanging around playgrounds). Just as I think there should be a special punishment for the meth dealers who made it so that they have to put Sudafed behind the counter, I really resent the sickos for making parents have to be so paranoid about their kids and for making adults who enjoy childish things like tree lightings and animated movies have to worry about what parents will think about their presence. For the record, I'm there to look at the pretty lights and have zero interest in your children, other than enjoying looking at kids looking at pretty lights and getting that expression of wide-eyed wonder that's so cute.

The thing that's fun about the neighborhood ceremony is I remember when they first did it, and the tree was this little twig that looked like Charlie Brown's tree (they use a live tree planted in the park), and now it's this huge, lush tree. I guess I've lived here a while. It's also fun listening to the mix of languages. We have pretty big Japanese and Indian populations in this neighborhood, and they always show up for events, I guess to absorb American culture, and then there's a good sized Finnish contingent because of the Nokia outpost nearby. It makes me feel all international. But I do have work to do, and I'm not too terribly in the mood, so we shall see what I end up doing tonight. And now I must run errands, then work.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Heartwarming Holiday Movies

I've thought of another reason I loved the movie Enchanted: buried inside all the Disney stuff is an old-fashioned romantic comedy. It's the classic stuffed-shirt meets free spirit plot, a la Bringing Up Baby, and while I may not swoon over McDreamy (I was a teenager in the 80s, so I'm afraid Patrick Dempsey is forever branded with the dork image in my brain, plus, his voice is kind of squeaky), his character at least was an adult man. Too much of what's being sold as "romantic comedy" these days, as forced on us by the Frat Pack, involves overgrown, infantile adolescents with a bad case of Peter Pan syndrome, with the woman in the story being the bad guy for insisting that these guys grow up. There seems to be a bad either/or idea, that you can either be adult or be fun, but once you're an adult, you've become one of "them" and are no longer fun. While I can sort of deal with that with teenagers or maybe even very early 20-somethings, when the characters are approaching 30 and older, I really want to tell them to grow up and be men. In Enchanted, the guy was an adult with a career, he was a responsible father, and he wore adult clothes. While he did need to learn to loosen up, it was more about allowing himself to be more spontaneous and emotionally available, which is not the same as being immature. It was all about him finding balance in his life and not losing sight of childlike wonder, while still remaining an adult. So, while I'm still not going to swoon over him, if Patrick Dempsey becoming the go-to romantic comedy guy means we might get romantic comedies about grown-ups instead of 40-year-old teenagers clinging to their youth, then I'll become his biggest cheerleader.

Speaking of romantic comedies and partially inspired by the fact that my dentist's office is playing the radio station that went to 24-hour Christmas music on November 1, so that throughout a cleaning yesterday I found myself tempted to ask them to turn on the drill to drown out all the mediocre pop stars' attempts at putting their personal stamps on Christmas classics ... I've been thinking about the so-called heartwarming holiday movies that sprout up at this time of year. I'm sure you know the type that infest the Hallmark channel, Lifetime, Oxygen and the Family Channel. In case you can't get enough of these, I offer you the handy-dandy Create Your Own Heartwarming Holiday Movie kit. Just pick one option for each category.

Main character:
Struggling (possibly heartbroken) single mom with adorable moppet
Struggling (possibly heartbroken) single dad with adorable moppet
Single man or woman

Main character's situation:
Moving to new town to start over
Moving back to home town to recover and start over after some tragedy
En route to new place
In hometown, has never tried to leave, but someone else comes to town and shakes things up

Main character's attitude toward Christmas:
Loves Christmas and wants to go all-out in enjoying the season
Loves Christmas, but current circumstances (finances, lack of nearby family) mean Christmas won't be the same this year
Hates Christmas because of past tragedy

Romantic interest:
Single parent of opposite sex from main character (if main character is also single parent, adorable moppets might team up to bring parents together)
Single person of opposite sex from main character who holds opposite view on Christmas
Single person who holds similar views on Christmas, in contrast to the rest of the community
(If story involves moving back to hometown) Old flame or first love of main character. If main character is single mom, this guy is likely the secret baby daddy of adorable moppet

Obligatory older character:
Crotchety old man or woman who hates Christmas and children, but whose heart will be softened and warmed by main character and/or adorable moppet
Sweet old man or woman who will help heal the main character's emotional wounds and become surrogate grandparent
Jolly old man with white beard who manages to solve everyone's problems before mysteriously vanishing on Christmas Eve

Main plot:
Main character heals emotional wounds of romantic interest and/or older character, bringing Christmas joy to all
Main character has emotional wounds healed by romantic interest and learns to love Christmas again
Something threatens town's Christmas celebration and main character must save the day

Final scene:
It starts to snow just as all the problems are resolved. There are no other options here.

There, I've pretty much taken care of the entire December lineup for Hallmark, Oxygen, Lifetime and the Family Channel, not to mention at least one CBS Sunday night. Anyone want to share your results? (Creative embellishment encouraged)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

High Concept Stories

It was pointed out to me yesterday that Enchanted, Inc. is now showing up on the first page of results when you search Amazon just for the term "enchanted," thanks to the Kindle edition. Yes, all three books are now available for Amazon's new e-reader. The ranking is up a bit on the print edition, too, so I'm hoping that exposure is spilling over.

In my last writing post on how to (and how not to) strengthen your plot, I mentioned high concept. This term gets thrown around often enough that I thought it deserved its own post. It's a term that originated in the movie/television world, and according to Michael Hauge in his book Writing Screenplays that Sell, it means simply "the story idea alone is sufficient to attract an audience, regardless of casting, reviews and word of mouth." In other words, it's a movie you'd be willing to see regardless of who's in it. High concept means the movie might get funding even before stars are attached or a director hired, and it means that even a cast of unknowns could make the movie work. To be high concept, a movie has to have a plot or premise that can be quickly and easily described in such a way that from that short description you have a very good idea of exactly what the movie's about and who might like it. One of the best high concept examples I can think of is Star Wars. You don't even need a description. The title alone says it all -- it's science fiction and involves space battles. At the time of its release, most of the cast were almost entirely unknown, and the ones who were known weren't exactly household names among the target audience.

In contrast, a "low concept" story is one where you generally need a star attached to get it funding or to draw in a crowd because the idea itself doesn't sound all that exciting. These tend to be the Oscar-bait films where it's more about how the story is told -- the execution through writing, acting, directing, etc. -- than about the story itself.

For a deeper example, let's look at two successful films.

On the high concept side, we have The Terminator: A merciless cyborg from a machine-dominated future travels back in time to kill a waitress before she can give birth to a future revolutionary leader.

We can tell from this description that this is a science fiction story, and it's probably an action movie. They aren't exactly going to be sitting around sipping tea and talking about poetry. It's likely to be violent and will involve chase scenes. There's also likely to be a growth arc for our heroine, if she starts out as a waitress but will one day be the mother of a warrior. The movie will appeal to science fiction fans and action movie fans, which are mostly male, so we have that demographic covered, but our heroine is a woman, so there's likely some girl power stuff that will appeal to women. You could add a second sentence to the description about the soldier from the future who comes back in time to protect her because he's always been in love with the idea of her, and then you've raised the concept even higher by introducing a romantic element.

On the low concept side, there's When Harry Met Sally: A man and a woman try to maintain a friendship without romance getting in the way.

Based on that, you don't have a very strong sense of what this movie will be like. It's probably a romance, but will it be dramatic or funny? What approach will it take to romance vs. friendship?

But cast Billy Crystal as the man and get Rob Reiner as the director, and you then know it's probably a comedy and will probably have a lot of satirical observations about life, love and the differences between the ways men and women approach life and love.

What does this have to do with books? Well, the only name that gets associated with a book is the author's, and if you aren't well known enough for your name to say it all, then if you want to write commercial fiction, you pretty much need a high concept story (this doesn't apply to literary fiction, but I think it still helps). You need to be able to get the attention of an agent or editor with your query letter, then an agent needs to be able to get an editor's attention with a pitch, then the editor has to get publisher buy-in with a pitch, then the sales force has to get stores to buy, then you have to get readers' attention. Doing all of that is a lot easier when you can tell from a short description exactly what the book is about and who might be interested in it. If it takes you five minutes to describe your story idea to someone so they can see what's interesting or special about it, then you don't have a high concept -- or else you haven't found the high concept in your story. High concept also makes word of mouth easier to spread because the easier it is for someone to describe a book, the more likely it is that they'll be able to talk about it in a way that intrigues someone else.

The "X meets Y" stereotypical film pitch gets thrown around a lot, but that isn't really high concept. It's just a pitch for a high concept story, and from what I've heard from editors and agents, I would caution against using it unless you're very, very careful. There's always the risk that the person on the receiving end of the pitch doesn't like one of the two things you're comparing or that it's not so easy to see how those things go together. And there's the risk that you'll sound unoriginal. I will admit that I pitched my Enchanted, Inc. series as "Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter," but that was because I felt like my books really did straddle the line between the two genres represented by those icons of their respective genres. It was the best, shortest way I could think of to give people an accurate sense of what my books would be like. I still use that as an attention-grabber when I visit bookstores or when people ask me what I write.

However, when my agent pitched the first book in the series to editors, she described it as being about an ordinary girl who goes to the big city to be extraordinary, only to find out she's so very ordinary that magic doesn't work on her, and that makes her a valuable job candidate for a magical corporation. To my agent, the high concept was the idea of someone who was immune to magic. That was the twist that made the book different.

I think science fiction, fantasy and horror writers have it a little easier because those genres are almost high concept by definition. Just mentioning magic, space ships, killer cyborgs from the future, vampires, werewolves, etc., gives people a good sense of what the story is and whether they'll like it. It's a little more difficult in romance or mystery where you could pretty much describe almost every book in a very similar way (two people overcome obstacles to find true love/sleuth solves a crime).

Because this is such a big topic and this is getting epic, my next writing craft post (on December 12) will focus on finding the high concept in your story or making your story more high-concept.

In other news, as a public service announcement, Pushing Daisies is on an hour later tonight -- and it is on, in spite of what TV Guide said.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Waterless Book Report

I'm still not getting into the work mindset. It doesn't help that they turned the water off in this part of the neighborhood to make some kind of repairs, and they didn't give us any notice. I hate that because it doesn't give me a chance to fill some pitchers and bottles with water, and what if someone was in the shower or doing laundry when they cut the water off? Now I really need another cup of tea, and I'm at the point of filling my teakettle with ice cubes (if I even still have any ice cubes in the freezer). I had just enough water in the kettle to have tea with breakfast, but things could get ugly very soon. I can't even splash my face with cold water to wake myself up.

But enough griping. I've got more books to talk about.

First, there's The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, which is one of those books that proves that the line between "genre" and "literary" fiction is pretty arbitrary. Yeah, the author won a Pulitzer and gets hailed by the literary circuit, but this is a genre novel, essentially an alternate history (well, actually a present based on alternate history) told in the style of a hardboiled detective novel, and it was a ton of fun. The hallmark of a good alt-history book is if it makes you believe that the way history is depicted in the book is real and leaves you wanting to check the encyclopedia in case you remembered your history incorrectly, and this one definitely left me with that feeling. The book is about a timeline in which Sitka, Alaska became the major settlement for displaced Jews after the end of World War II, so that it's pretty much the center of the world's Jewish life, and now the agreement that created that settlement is about to expire (much like Hong Kong reverting to Chinese rule). In this setting, a down-and-out detective finds a dead body in the flophouse hotel where he lives, and his investigation of the murder leads him to uncover a much larger conspiracy. I'm a big fan of alternate history, since I love playing what if, and I love detective novels, and this is a good mix of the two, told in a very strong voice.

The over the holiday, my parents had a copy of the new Dick Francis mystery, now with his son Felix listed as co-author, and I'm glad to see there's an heir apparent. Dead Heat is about a chef with a restaurant in a major horse racing area who starts to feel like something is up when a big percentage of the guests at a dinner he catered become ill, and then the very next day another racetrack lunch he caters is bombed. He starts off investigating to save his reputation, then ends up fighting for his life.

I figured out after reading this why Dick Francis's books are so satisfying: he doesn't write series. Normally, I love series, but it can be tricky in mysteries. If you've got an amateur sleuth, you have to keep coming up with reasons for the main character to get involved with investigations, without it looking too suspicious (some of these mystery characters would probably be suspected as serial killers in the real world). You also can't let the characters grow too much or learn too much along the way, or else you won't have much of a plot in later books if the sleuth has learned enough to solve the mystery in chapter one. The romantic plots also tend to get stretched out because the story is over if the characters get together. But since Dick Francis writes standalone mysteries, there's always a specific reason for the amateur sleuth to be involved in the case, he has to deal with it using the resources he has available, and then when it's over, it's over. He gets the girl and he moves on with his life, perhaps a bit traumatized, but definitely wiser from the experience. He's learned exactly what he's made of, he's been tested, and he's prevailed. These are the kind of books you close with a satisfied sigh.

Saturday was cold and rainy, the perfect reading day, and I made some muffins and a pot of tea and curled up with Fortune's Fool by Mercedes Lackey, which was just about the perfect romantic fantasy. In this world, the Tradition is the source of magical power, as the Tradition tries to make the story come out right. Knowing how things are supposed to work can give you a lot of advantages. For instance, you know that you need to take some extra bread with you on a journey, because you will run into a poor old crone begging by the side of the road, and you know she'll turn out to be a great enchantress who'll help you if you help her. It's a fun twist on the idea of the power of myth. This book focuses on the seventh son of a king, the one who in stories is usually the fortunate fool -- the one who seems like a simpleton but who has things work out for him. He's been forced into this role as a way of tying into the power, but he's a bit weary of being widely regarded as a fool. And then he meets the youngest daughter of the King of the Sea, on a mission from her father. This is one of those books that has everything -- humor, adventure, magic and romance -- and since I have an autographed copy of the first book in the series from a convention this summer, I know I'll have to read more. Now I just need another rainy weekend with nothing to do.

I just had a knock on the door to tell me the water's off. Um, thanks. Actually, they did apologize for the lack of warning. There was an underground leak in a pipe, they've found the leak, and now they just have to get a part here to get it repaired. I may have water before the end of the day. Just thinking about that is making me thirsty. I guess I could walk over to the library and get some tea, but I hate going out without a shower and without washing my face.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Enchanted (not Inc.)

I'm having a hard time getting back into "work" mode after taking a very long weekend off, and then extending the holiday well into today. I'm hoping that will eventually mean I'm refreshed and ready to go, but right now, I'm still in the mode of "my, all that relaxing sure was nice, so why must it end?"

We had our usual up-and-down weather. Tuesday when I headed over to my parents' house, we had a high near 85, but I knew a front was coming in and the rest of the week would be much colder, so I packed accordingly. However, I forgot that the front wasn't coming until sometime on Wednesday, which meant it was still hot Tuesday night and for much of the day Wednesday, and all the clothes I'd brought were for cold weather. I ended up having to borrow some things from my mom. When the front finally came through, it was most impressive. I sat out on the back porch the whole time, feeling the wind change directions and the temperature drop nearly ten degrees in fifteen minutes. Awesome! We then got snow on Thursday. I don't know if we got any at my parents' house, but it was definitely snowing at the Cowboys game, and Texas Stadium isn't too far from my house. I came home a day earlier than I'd planned because Friday was a nice day and they were forecasting nasty stuff on Saturday, and that meant Saturday was the perfect day to make a pot of tea and curl up with a book, while Sunday was the perfect day to watch an entire Dickens adaptation miniseries.

Today was a nice, if a bit chilly, day, so I hiked up the hill to see Enchanted, which kind of counts as work. I'm glad to see that it's doing well at the box office, because that means that it's possible Universal will want to jump on the bandwagon and do their own magic in New York movie that they just bought the rights to. It was weird buying the ticket because it kind of feels odd to me now to say "Enchanted" without adding the "Inc." to it. I've been trying to think of ways to capitalize on something with a similar title and similar subject matter/tone to my book, since I would suspect that people who are interested in the movie would also like my books, but I'm not sure what I can do. I did a Google search on "Enchanted," and nothing even remotely related to my book came up until page 49 of the results, which was Amazon Canada's listing for Enchanted, Inc. My web site didn't show up until page 69. Then I tried searching Amazon just with the word "Enchanted." My book didn't show up in the overall results, but if you click on the "more like this" for book results, it is on the first page. At B&N, you can't just do an overall search, but it's number 34 on the list of all books when searching on just "Enchanted" (after all the permutations of books relating to the movie Enchanted, several different editions of Ella Enchanted, and a bunch of romance novels with the word "enchanted" in the title). Because the book is a couple of years old, it's only stocked sporadically, and it's definitely not on front tables where browsers might stumble upon it and notice it because of the title similarity. On the bright side, that tends to be the book of the series most likely to be stocked at B&N.

So, hey, maybe if I work the word "Enchanted" into blog posts enough times, that might help. It's about all I can think of. Maybe if I buy the movie soundtrack while also buying a few copies of my books at Amazon I can get them to show up on the "people who bought this also bought" list.

As for the movie, I loved it. They had me with the old-style Disney traditional animation at the beginning. I hadn't realized how much I missed that look with all the computer animation done now. The story did a nice job of questioning the quirks of all those old stories while still retaining the things about them that were so lovely. No one but Amy Adams could have pulled off that role the way she did it. I'm not a big fan of Patrick Dempsey, but I actually liked him in this. I was really surprised by James Marsden, enough so that now I want to watch the X-Men movies, and unless they did some serious post-production work on his vocals, Hugh Jackman has lost his crown as the best singing X-Man (I actually think Jackman's voice is a little too nasal). Ooh, and according to IMDB, he's a fellow Oklahoma native, so represent!

There were even some fun little Easter eggs buried in the movie. I noticed in the closing credits that Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid), Paige O'Hara (Belle in Beauty and the Beast) and Judy Kuhn (Pocahontas) were in the cast. I figured out who Jodi Benson was because I've seen her in enough stage productions to recognize her, and now that I think about her main scene, there was a big enough visual gag in it, that at the time seemed rather pointless, to make it practically have a flashing neon sign saying: Little Mermaid Right HERE! The credits mention music from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast used by permission, so I bet there was also a musical cue I didn't pick up on. I'm less sure where Paige O'Hara came in because I can't think of any moment that had similar references, but Judy Kuhn's scene didn't have anything to do with Pocahontas that I can recall, and I don't remember seeing that mentioned in the credits.

I need to see it again to pick up on all the inside jokes. The story seems like something I'd come up with, and I must admit to being mildly irritated that I didn't come up with it first, though you might lose the visual effect in a book without being able to go from animated to live action, and it's very hard to write a musical number into a book (trust me, I've tried).

Now let's just hope that Universal does want to do their own magic in New York movie.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'm Thankful For ...

Today's Mom's birthday, and I'm about to head over to my parents' house for the birthday and the holiday. Think good thoughts that my car will actually get me there. We tend to have low-key holidays, and it's just the three of us since my brother lives in Chicago and is smart enough not to brave the holiday air travel chaos. I would say that my family is one of the things I'm most thankful for. We're a unique bunch, and we know how to have our own brand of fun.

I seem to notice the quirks of my family more when there are other people present. One of my more memorable Thanksgivings was one year when we were in Germany and my dad invited over a couple of young soldiers who were on their own in a foreign country. I thought it was cool because I suddenly got two big brothers, and those guys fit in pretty well with us. Because the Macy's parade came on in the afternoon, thanks to the time difference, the earlier parts of the day were filled with broadcasts of any and all holiday-themed specials. Yeah, we got the classic Snoopy-making-popcorn Peanuts special, but have you ever seen the B.C. (as in the newspaper comic strip) special? That's the only time I've ever seen it, but we still quote it as a family joke. That year, for the rest of the day we were repeating jokes from it. I think that was the same year that Santa's pants fell down right as he was entering Macy's, so there were a lot of jokes about that, too.

One year when I was right out of college, I invited the guy I was dating at the time home with me (though it was more about him being alone for the holiday than about me bringing him to meet the folks). Of course, when you want things to go well, it's least likely to. I was making some brown-and-serve bread, and there must have been an air bubble in it because the bread came out looking like it had a tumor. There wasn't any way to salvage it to make it presentable, and just the sight of it set off a giggle fit and a lot of jokes about the bread with the tumor. Hmm, that guy dumped me not long afterward. Maybe he couldn't take it.

Then there was the year my brother brought a girlfriend home. I was in the middle of researching a book with a medieval setting, and I was reading a book on medieval foods and banquets for research. While my mom made her famous shrimp creole on Wednesday afternoon, I entertained us by doing dramatic readings of some of the recipes, which were pretty freaky (that four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie wasn't just a nursery rhyme). When my brother and his girlfriend got there and I went to help my mom get dinner on the table, the girlfriend picked up the book and was flipping through it. She later came over to me, looking a little pale, and said, "Um, so I was looking at that book you had open ..." Without missing a beat, my mom said, "Oh, yes, those are our traditional family Thanksgiving recipes."

That same year, I made the mistake of trying to go fancy for company. There's a frozen fruit salad my brother loves. Normally, we make it, freeze it and serve it in a Tupperware bowl, but I got the bright idea of making it in my mom's jello mold. This mold is kind of in the shape of a bowl of grapes. The salad unmolded beautifully, but there was one minor problem. The salad involves cranberry sauce in Cool Whip, so it's pink, and it has lots of chunks of fruit and nuts. Coming out of a grape mold, it just looked like a brain. There was no way to serve it looking like that. It was hideous. So, my solution was to cut it into pieces and put it in a nice bowl. It set off yet another giggle fit between my mom and me to be in the kitchen on Thanksgiving, hacking a brain into pieces like a couple of mad scientists.

One of our more recent traditions is the Frankenturkey. Since there are just three of us, and we aren't wildly crazy about turkey, we now just get a turkey breast and a couple of legs. Of course, we have to serve them arranged on a platter as though they actually came together in some kind of pieced together bird consisting just of the parts we want. Cries of "It's aliiiiiiive!" are optional.

One of our primary plans for the week is watching my dad watch the Doctor Who episode "Blink," since he was out of town when it came on and I now have the DVDs. I'm sure we'll get hours of amusing inside jokes out of that. And I found my tape of the infamous turkeys episode of WKRP for more holiday-themed humor.

So, you see, I come by my quirky sense of humor honestly. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Crazy Short Holiday Week

Due to my mom's birthday falling so close to Thanksgiving that I can go over there a day early and be there for both her birthday and Thanksgiving, this is going to be a very short work week for me, and that means, of course, that today has been/will be utterly insane. As usual, I've started with an overly ambitious to-do list that has now been whittled back to sanity levels, and I have only one errand left to do and one big work task to do. Then it's the usual packing, laundry, cleaning, finding stuff saga of preparing for a trip. Fortunately, I don't have to cook any more this week because I have just enough leftovers to get me through the time before I leave town, and that means I may actually be able to leave town with a reasonably clean kitchen.

I haven't baked any bread to bring with me, so I hope my parents let me in the door. I did, however, make pumpkin gingerbread waffles for us to heat up for breakfast, and I'm bringing books and DVDs, so let's hope that counts. Maybe for Christmas I'll bake something.

As it is, I still need to write five radio scripts on how to stay healthy and safe during the holiday season, do three more loads of laundry, and get to the post office before it closes. So this is going to be a very short post.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Merging Realities

I finished going over the page proofs for Don't Hex With Texas yesterday afternoon. It was a pretty clean text, with only nine pages that had errors. And, you know what? This is a good book, even if I say so myself. I really like it. I also think it's pretty accessible, even though I wrote it as the second half of a two-parter with Damsel Under Stress. Of course, if you've read the whole series, you'll get more of the nuances and references, but you could pick this one up as the first one you read and still not feel totally lost because a lot of it is a fairly self-contained story. You'd be spoiled for the previous books if you wanted to go back and read them, but I think if someone sees that totally fun cover and picks it up out of curiosity, they'd still enjoy the book.

A couple of things I noticed and found amusing:
A very, very minor character in this book (Katie's infant niece) has the same name as the heroine of the book I just finished. I guess I like that name, but it fits perfectly in both cases, and since the two books take place in entirely different universes, I don't think there's a problem.

I wrote this book during the summer of 2006. I didn't watch my first episode of Supernatural until February of 2007. One of Katie's brothers is named Dean (and remember, I created him before I ever saw the other Dean). The physical description is different, and the core character is very different, but there are some personality similarities between my Dean and Supernatural Dean. And then there's my character Sam, who is a gargoyle and who is absolutely nothing like Supernatural Sam (and my Sam was created in 2003). When I had taken a break from proofreading and came back to a section where Dean was talking to Sam the gargoyle, it actually took me a second or two to get back into my world and envision the right characters because I was picturing Dean and Sam from Supernatural in that scene. Fortunately, Owen showed up in the scene and saved the day by snapping me into the correct reality. Until yesterday, it had never even crossed my mind that I had characters named Sam and Dean in the same book. And now, of course, I've planted that in your head, so whenever you read a scene with Sam and Dean, you'll find yourself giggling.

There is actually a TV-related inside joke in the book, but that's not it. Figuring out the joke will require a knowledge of some of my obsessions, this book, and a Texas map.

Now that I'm totally finished with this book, aside from the promoting of it, I need to run some errands I've been putting off all week.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Seasonal Changes

We had one of our patented Texas climate changes yesterday. I love those kinds of days, where it starts out one way and ends another. By noon, I was having to open all the windows and turn on the ceiling fans to keep the house from getting too hot and stuffy. By dinner time, I was having to turn off the fans and close the windows because it was too cold. In the meantime, I could hear and feel the front come through as the wind shifted and changed temperatures, which was rather cool.

I'm about midway through going over the page proofs for Don't Hex With Texas. It took me a while to get into it because I couldn't find the right work environment. I needed access to my computer because I'd entered the copy edit changes in "track changes" mode on the manuscript, and most of the galley errors come in entering copy edit changes, so I wanted to be able to double check that. But I also had a big pile of hard copy to go through. Sitting at my desk meant turning constantly (plus there is the issue of the totally messy desk). I finally put my sheepskin rug my parents sent me from Australia on the floor in front of the chaise and my computer on a lap desk next to me, so I could sit on the floor, lean back against the chaise, put the hard copy on my lap and have the computer nearby. Between writing while sitting on the chaise and proofreading while lounging on a sheepskin rug, I'm starting to feel like I should be wearing silk pajamas to work instead of sweats.

Because my brain seems to operate on tape delay, it struck me just before I went to sleep last night that it might have been easier to illustrate the difference between kitchen sink writing and strengthening the central conflict with an example that more closely parallels my "what not to do" example. Then it occurred to me that The Philadelphia Story is a great example because it's fairly parallel. Like The Family Stone, it's a romantic comedy about a central character wanting to marry someone the rest of the family isn't wild about, it takes place under chaotic circumstances and in a short span of time.

The core story question in The Philadelphia Story is "Will Tracy really marry that bozo, even though the rest of her family -- and she, too, even if she doesn't want to admit it -- still hasn't gotten over her ex?" If I pitched that idea to my agent, she'd tell me it needs more.

And, boy, do we get more. We find out just what Tracy's issues are through the subplot about her father, whom she can't forgive for an indiscretion, and whom she won't let her mother forgive. Tracy has no tolerance of human imperfection in herself or anyone else. While she claims that her first marriage failed because of her husband's faults, we see that she's never likely to find happiness until she comes down off her pedestal and learns to forgive imperfection.

Her father's failings lead to another subplot, in which her ex agrees to get a reporter and photographer into the private society wedding in exchange for the scandal not to hit the press. That brings her ex into direct conflict with her and helps add to the tension and chaos of the situation once she finds out what's really going on and decides to play mind games with the journalists to try to keep them from getting the story (and yet, if they don't get the story, an even worse story could go public).

But then that complicates the situation even more when she and the reporter hit it off and she finds herself showing distinct signs of human frailty on the eve of her wedding.

All that serves to raise the stakes -- if she doesn't learn to accept imperfection, she's not only doomed to always be unhappy herself (since no man can live up to her standards), but she'll miss her chance with the right man, she'll keep her parents from being happy, and then that keeps her sister from being happy. Furthermore, they've elevated the standard romantic comedy dilemma of choosing between Mr. Safe but Obviously Wrong and Mr. Risky (since she's failed with him before) but Obviously Right by throwing in a third man, someone who's actually a viable Mr. Right, someone she could possibly be happy with. Now it's not just her having to make an obvious right vs. wrong choice, but which potentially right choice (Cary Grant vs. Jimmy Stewart -- yikes, what a choice!), and if she chooses wrong there, she could be dooming someone else to unhappiness, since the photographer is in love with the reporter and he would probably chafe under Tracy's lifestyle. Plus, we've got the specter of social scandal looming over everything.

There's a lot going on, because it is a screwball comedy, and those are all about the chaos, but all the chaos keeps raising the stakes for that central story question and makes that story question even more important. In contrast, I don't think all the additional plot elements in The Family Stone served to make it matter more if the guy gave the family ring to the wrong girl.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Kitchen Sink Writing

One thing my agent is always hounding me to do is make my story ideas "more," to really go for a strong conflict and a big idea that will make the story stand out. Based on responses I've seen to her blog posts about this and the questions we get when we do workshops together, and based on some manuscripts I've judged or critiqued, I get the impression that there's some confusion about how that works. What often results is what I'd call "kitchen sink" writing, where the author throws in lots of stuff (everything but the kitchen sink) to try to elevate the story, but the result is something more scattered.

On a recent Sunday afternoon with HBO I ran across a movie that perfectly illustrates kitchen sink writing. (And incidentally, I tend to use TV and movies as examples because, with the possible exception of mega bestsellers, more people see even the worst-performing TV shows and movies than read even the best-performing books, so the chances that you've seen the TV shows or movies I'm referring to are much greater than that you've read a particular book.) The movie was The Family Stone, and I found it very frustrating to watch because there was enough material to fill several films, yet none of these story lines were as fully developed as they should have been, and a lot of the stories didn't really relate to each other. The impression I had was that either the writers or some studio exec didn't have faith in their central story, so they started throwing in more and more plot elements.

There was the main plot of the man bringing his girlfriend home for the holidays to meet his large, close-knit family, and they all immediately hate her -- except for one of his brothers, who likes her a bit too much.

There's a related subplot in which the girlfriend feels threatened and outnumbered, so she calls in her sister for moral support -- and the sister turns out to be perfect for the boyfriend, which created some dilemmas for everyone.

That alone seems like it could have been a strong enough conflict to carry a story, but the writers also threw in:
The bitter, antagonistic, single sister who leads the campaign against the girlfriend and who seems to be something of an underachiever or at least possibly feels threatened by the girlfriend due to her relative lack of success (something they seemed to be pointing out with the visual of her arrival in an old, junky car), and who wants to avoid her former boyfriend while she's back home, even though he's been asking after her (and we never really learn what the deal was with that, since she pretty much fell right into his arms when they did see each other).

The mother who has learned she's dying of cancer, and who wants to have one last family Christmas before she tells her children about her illness.

The pregnant sister whose husband hasn't managed to make it home yet (I was never sure if that was meant to be a sign of a possible problem in their marriage with him being too busy for his family. It seemed ominous, but then nothing came of it.).

The deaf, gay brother and his black partner who are trying to adopt a child. (Which had absolutely nothing to do with the main story. I guess they were trying to check off all the politically correct demographic boxes with an interracial gay couple with a disability, or else they managed to hit the trifecta of Magically Insightful character types (gay, disabled, black), or maybe they were ripping off Four Weddings and a Funeral with the insightful deaf younger brother and the gay couple that's more sane than any of the other couples).

There seemed to be some hints that there was a story behind the brother who liked the girlfriend, based on remarks made about him when he arrived, but this was never really explored.

Each of these subplots had the potential to be its own movie, but their inclusion in this movie didn't add to it. They mostly served to eat up screen time that kept them from fully developing the main plot and the subplots. You could remove all of them without much affecting the main plot (I guess you'd still need the antagonistic sister to create the tension in the main plot, but she didn't need a subplot about her ex-boyfriend), and you could build an entire story around each of these subplots without even touching upon the main plot.

To better develop that main plot, you'd want to look into why the girlfriend was so brittle and what her "freak flag" that the brother claimed to see was all about. You'd want to know why the boyfriend was with her in the first place and why he was willing to stand up to his family on her behalf -- but then be able to fall hard and fast for her sister. You'd want to know why the brother liked the girlfriend, and what his issues were (he seemed to be the black sheep of the family). You'd think there would be a lot of internal conflict in the idea of realizing that the perfect person for you is the sibling of the person you're dating (or is dating your sibling). That's a huge dilemma that seemed to be glossed over entirely in this movie and resolved far too easily. And there's external conflict in how this would affect the family once it all comes out in the open. You'd also need to explain why the family would hate the woman for one brother but then totally accept her with another brother. Not to mention the fact that you'd need to make up your mind about the girlfriend character and decide if she's truly so awful and selfish with offensive opinions, or if she's the victim of a family not keen on outsiders, and her nerves caused most of her problems. Even by the end of the movie, I still wasn't sure if I was supposed to be sympathetic toward her, and that lack of focus with one of the main characters is a key symptom or result of kitchen sink writing.

Depending on your answers to these questions, you'd be able to come up with a story pitch that sounds a lot stronger and that demonstrates some of the conflict.

For a contrast, the TV series Pushing Daisies has a lot of stuff going on, but it all manages to tie into the central premise. Theoretically, a TV series should be at a disadvantage against a movie in this respect because a movie has to deal with all its plots and themes at one go, while a TV series can go episode by episode, but Pushing Daisies is far more coherent than The Family Stone (and by that I mean it holds together rather than that it makes sense, since I'm not sure it does, and I mean that in a good way).

The central idea behind Pushing Daisies is that Ned has an odd talent that allows him to bring any dead thing back to life with a touch, but if he touches it again, it dies for good, and if he doesn't touch it again within a minute, something else nearby will die. In other words, this guy has the power over life and death, but in a restrictive, inconvenient way. That's your high concept.

To add more conflict and action to that, a PI who finds out about this talent partners with Ned to solve cases of mysterious deaths -- bring dead people back for long enough to find out how they died, make them dead for good, solve the case, collect the reward. This plot couldn't exist without that main plot.

For internal conflict, there are Ned's emotional issues relating to his talent and how it's affected his life, leaving him closed off and afraid of human contact. Again, this wouldn't be there if not for that main plot.

To add some romance, one of the murder cases he investigates turns out to involve his childhood sweetheart, and he can't bring himself to make her die for good, so he keeps her alive. Now he's around the woman he loves, but he can never touch her. That ties to the main plot, the primary story plot and even involves the internal conflict.

Her story involves the aunts who brought her up after her father's death (which was inadvertently caused by Ned reviving his mother when she died, before he understood how his talent worked) who now think she's dead, and she can't let them know she's alive. This situation wouldn't exist without the main plot and the PI plot, and it also has something to do with Ned's emotional issues, which could threaten the romance.

And we've also got some external conflict for the romance (beyond even the no-touching issue) in the form of the waitress who's been pining over Ned, who's not happy to see his childhood sweetheart come back, and through becoming friends with the aunts, she starts to think the sweetheart faked her own death and wants to use this information to gain favor with Ned. This isn't necessarily directly related to the main concept, but it ties to almost all of the other subplots.

Every one of these plot lines increases the problems and tension relating to that main plot, and if you remove any one of the subplots, most of the others would come crashing down because it's all so intricately woven together.

When you feel like you need to strengthen or deepen the conflict in your story or raise the stakes, before you're tempted to throw in the entire Sears housewares department, look at your main plot to see what could make it better. What's the worst thing that could happen to your main character within the context of your main plot? How could you make that happen? How could you make matters worse for your main character? What's the possible result if your main character doesn't achieve his goal within the main plot? How can you make that seem even more dire? If you're adding subplots to complicate the main character's life (much as they've done in the Pushing Daisies example), ask yourself how each subplot relates to the main plot to make it that much harder for the main character to achieve his story goals, and see how tightly you can weave together the subplots so they all affect each other.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Book Report: An Epic Report

I've been on a reading kick since finishing the book, so here's another Book Report!

I was a little surprised to see a book by Penelope Lively on the "new fiction" shelf in my library because I remembered reading young adult books by her when I was a kid. In my sixth grade English classroom, the teacher kept a shelf of books we could check out, since we had to read a certain number of books a month and give short summaries of them privately to the teacher (that's where I learned to write a succinct book blurb). Among those books were a couple by Penelope Lively, who seemed to specialize in writing about spooky stuff (that, now that I know more about the topic, was based on English folklore) happening in English villages. I had no idea she wrote adult novels or that she was still writing, but apparently I've been living in a cave because she's had quite the distinguished career as a literary novelist, including some prestigious awards.

Her latest novel, Consequences, follows the chain of events set off by a young man and young woman meeting in a London park in the 1930s. The book tracks their lives, then their daughter and how she's affected by events, then her daughter, reaching to the present day as the granddaughter of the original couple comes full circle when she gains new insight into her grandparents. Along the way, the book gives us a view of life in England and how it changed from the 30s to the present. That may sound like one of those doorstop epic sagas, but it wasn't that thick and it was a quick read. I read it in one evening, and I found it quite interesting.

There was something I found curious about the book, though. The main characters in the book all shared the same religious beliefs (or lack thereof), which makes sense, considering that they all either moved in the same social/intellectual circles or were part of the same family. But it also seemed like every single other person they met also turned out to have the same beliefs. Even odder, the main characters learned this about all the other people they met by asking them what they believed, often very soon after meeting them. I wouldn't have thought that staunch atheists would be prone to going around asking people what they believed, since one of their complaints about religious people is how they keep bringing their religion up, but these characters were worse than the kind of evangelicals whose first question whenever they meet someone new is if they're saved. And, in spite of the fact that these characters never meet anyone who doesn't believe exactly the way they do, they always act surprised when they find out that someone believes the same way, and they maintain this "I know I'm out of the mainstream" attitude about it. It's not the fact of the atheism that struck me, just the odd ubiquity of it. I'd have probably had the same reaction if every character the main characters met mirrored their beliefs in any other religion, political leaning, taste in music, favorite author, favorite poet, etc. Imagine a book in which all the main characters liked the same kind of music, and then every random stranger they ran into -- even in some cases in other countries -- turned out to like the exact same kind of music, and nobody ever had a different opinion or liked something else or in any way challenged the main characters' tastes. When an author keeps having characters bring up something and when the characters are never challenged in what they believe, you tend to think that this is the author's personal soapbox.

However, this all comes in a book that's essentially about the intricate patterns of life that often look like part of some greater plan. After all, it's about people and situations that seemed meant to be but which wouldn't have existed if two people who were from very different worlds and who moved in very different circles hadn't been at the right place and the right time to find each other. Although there's a fair amount of tragedy, these characters seem to lead charmed lives, in which the thing they need is right there for them right exactly at the time they need it. A few examples: a woman who's just completed a secretarial course and who is in desperate need of a job just happens to get a letter from an old friend, complaining about his secretary retiring. A poet who never attends literary events just happens to decide to attend one, where it turns out he's the perfect person for the woman running the event, who almost didn't invite him. A woman who needs a job just happens to be in an art gallery when the manager falls and hits his head, and her ability to manage the crisis earns her a job helping run the gallery, even though she has no experience. You get the idea. The characters all use their tragedies as proof to themselves of the lack of a God, but they never seem to question or consider all these semi-miraculous good things that happen to them. All that makes me wonder if there's a kind of subtle irony at play here, if we're meant to see characters who remain stubbornly oblivious to the miracles in their own lives. I kind of hope that's the case because otherwise it comes across as clunky plotting and soap boxing. I just bought one of her previous books, so I'll have to read more of her work to get a better sense of where she's coming from in this. I would also love to find copies of her YA books that I read, but they don't even show up as available used at Amazon. The ones in my classroom were from British publishers, and I'm not sure they were ever published in the States, so that may be a thing to troll Oxfam stores for next time I'm in England.

Then I read the latest "missing" book by Irene Nemirovsky, Fire in the Blood. You may recall me raving about her previous book, Suite Francaise, last year. The backstory on these is that Nemirovsky was a successful novelist in France before World War II and because she was a Russian Jew by birth, she and her family went to live in the French countryside during the occupation. While there, she wrote -- handwriting books in tiny writing to conserve paper. Then she was arrested and died in Auschwitz. Rather recently, her daughter went to transcribe the pages that had been tucked into her suitcase when her mother was arrested and she and her sister were sent into hiding. She thought they were a journal, but they turned out to be a manuscript for an uncompleted epic about the war. It turned out that wasn't the only book she'd written during that time when some researchers unearthed pages she'd sent to friends for safekeeping just before she was arrested. The result is this new book, and it's unclear if it's meant to be complete or if it, too, wasn't entirely finished. It certainly has something that feels like it could be right as an ending, or it could have gone on. This book tells the story of life in a French farming community before the war and the consequences of the "fire in the blood," the passion that seems to strike young people, generation after generation. The older people act like they don't understand the way young people are acting, but one old man remembers that they were just the same in their youth.

I really love her writing style, and she had such a deft touch with characterization. She had a way of using just a few perfectly chosen words that manage to give you a vivid picture of exactly who a person is. I wish they'd reissue some of her published novels because I'd like to see something she had a chance to truly complete, revise and edit.

But it wasn't all serious stuff in the past week or so. I also read Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, which was published as a children's book (young adult), but I honestly couldn't tell a difference in his writing from his "adult" Discworld books. I just loved this one, and am probably too similar for comfort to the girl in the book who was locked out of her room for punishment because her room was where her books were, and who often criticized real life for not having a very engaging narrative structure. I found this in the teen section of the library and will likely buy a keeper copy because it's a good "happy" book to read when I need to smile.

I did go out last night to see the Battlestar Galactica screening, and it even counted as a social occasion because I chatted with people in line and sitting by me in the theater. Afterward, I went to Borders, where I signed the copies of my books they had in stock. At one point, one of the staff called something "shiny," and one of the other customers nearby and I both turned to look. That started a whole Firefly geek-out thing among us, and we then talked about books and writing for a while. I love those little random points of convergence when you realize you've got something in common with random strangers. (But, unlike the book in my little rant above, not everyone I randomly run into would have the slightest idea of the significance of saying "shiny," and I would be highly suspicious of a book in which everyone the main character met was a huge Firefly fan.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Homebodies Anonymous

It turns out that I apparently suck at having a life. After talking about wanting to go out and even after spending hours looking for something to do, my going out consisted of a trip to the library. Most of the time, I love my neighborhood. Although it's part of a reasonably large suburb of a major city, my neighborhood is like its own self-contained small town. I love being able to walk for a lot of my errands, to the library, the post office, the movie theater, etc. But like a lot of small towns, there's not a lot to do, either in my neighborhood, in the adjacent parts of the city, or in the nearest town (supposedly, that is actually a "small" town, but as I come from a town that had a population of about 2,000 when I lived there, my idea of "small" is rather different).

There was a concert by my city's symphony, which was more expensive than I really wanted, especially for a program I wouldn't have wanted to buy on CD for much less. The other live music option was a cover band called "Spearing Britney" at the big meet market bar/restaurant. While that might have been entertaining in a train wreck kind of way, it wasn't worth braving the smoke, the siliconed bimbos in search of sugar daddies or the men looking for trophy wives (a client once dragged me there, and it was a real experience, one I don't care to repeat). Then it was "community mulch day" in the adjacent town, and there was a craft fair. Otherwise, the only things to do around here are go to movies, go shopping and go out to eat.

What I was looking for was, admittedly, rather limited. I didn't want to do the kind of thing that involves sitting in a designated seat in the dark, watching or listening to something. The possibility of some kind of social interaction would have been nice. I wanted acoustic or minimally amplified music because I can't really handle loud sounds, and it had to be a non-smoking environment because if I'm around much smoke for any length of time, I tend to come down with a nasty case of bronchitis. So, basically I wanted something in the realm of a small jazz combo, folk music, chamber music, etc. I would have been happy with a guy with a guitar in a coffee shop. I did find a few things that might have worked, including an Irish pub with live Irish music and no smoking, but they were all on the exact opposite side of Dallas, and I wasn't sure a night out was worth a 40-mile round trip, especially on roads that have had a high number of drunk driving fatalities recently.

The sad thing is that I've lived in this neighborhood since 1992, and this is the first time I've realized the total lack of things to do around here. That says something about my social life, and might explain my tendency toward being a homebody. In my defense, though, for large portions of the time I've lived here, a lot of my friends lived across town, so I tended to go there for going out. It's not like I've been sitting at home all this time. Though I guess it is a sign that I'm getting old that I now think about things like the distance I had to drive and the possible safety issues.

At least I'm going out tonight, to an advance screening of the Battlestar Galactica Razor movie (if I can manage to get in -- it's one of those things where they give out many more passes than there are seats). Next weekend, the high school show choir is doing a concert, so that's a possible something to do.

In other news, I'm trying to get a little more organized around here. Since I'm sure there are some people who are only interested in the writing stuff and others who aren't interested in that at all, I'm planning to post articles on writing every other Wednesday, starting this week. That way, you'll know which day to come (or avoid) if that's your area of interest. I've also started a mailing list, where you can get the writing article sent to your in-box. I'm sure no one reading this would need such a thing, since you're already here and reading at least semi-regularly, but it might be of interest if you want an archive of the articles or if you know someone who's a writer but who isn't interested enough in my books to bother reading the blog daily in hopes that something about writing will be posted. You can register for the mailing list here.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Friday Night Geeking

Yay! It's Friday! Not that I've had a stressful working week, and not that weekends are that much different for me, but Friday-night television gives me something to look forward to. Or, it used to. Now it's kind of disappointing, since the Sci Fi Channel pretty much imploded its Friday-night lineup so now all that's worth watching is Stargate Atlantis. Moonlight kind of fits, but it's on a different network. Sadly, Fox even seems to have given up on putting the shows I love that they're planning to kill three episodes later on Friday night (an interesting side effect of the writers' strike that was mentioned on the noon news today: those shows that didn't debut to stellar ratings but that could build an audience if the network gave them a chance may actually get a chance this season because the networks aren't going to pull anything that has episodes produced or scripts written, so there may not be so many "three episodes, and you're out" situations).

My love of the Friday-night geek-out goes back to the early days of The X-Files. I built an entire ritual out of spending Friday night in front of the television. First, I'd make a fun dinner to eat while watching that season's Death Slot show (at least back then, they gave the series a significant portion of a season before killing it), then as time for X-Files grew closer, I'd make a hot beverage, sometimes make a snack or dessert (I loved those slice-and-bake cookies because I could make just two or three at a time in minutes), turn out all the lights, light some candles, then curl up on the sofa.

Yikes, that sounds like I was dating a TV show, doesn't it? That might explain my social life.

Of course, after the episode ended, I'd have to run around the house turning ALL the lights on so I could be sure no bendy serial killers had wormed their way into my apartment through the water pipes.

I don't even remember what was on Friday nights after they moved The X-Files to Sunday nights -- probably a lot of doomed shows (I do recall Now and Again, the one with John Goodman's brain in Eric Close's body) -- but nothing caught me strongly enough to really get into my psyche. Then my Friday date-night-with-my-television experience returned when Firefly came on. I was back to making the perfect dinner or dessert to enjoy while watching. Not too long after they killed Firefly, my cable system finally got the Sci Fi Channel, and it was geek heaven because they programmed their good stuff on Fridays, and I could make a whole evening out of it. There were the Stargates, and Battlestar Galactica and then Doctor Who. I'm sorry, but Flash Gordon and Painkiller Jane just don't cut it. As much as I enjoy Friday Night Lights, it just feels wrong for my Friday nights. I may start taping it to watch on Sundays.

Speaking of The X-Files, this may be one of those things that borders on blasphemy in some circles, but I don't think that making another movie is such a great idea. It's over. Let it be. That show collapsed under the weight of its own plotting, and there's no way out of that. They say the movie will be a standalone monster-of-the-week, but how can they even do that, given that the series ended with our heroes on the run after Mulder had been tried and found guilty of something (I'd zoned out by the time we found out), and they'd more or less gone underground. There was no longer an X-Files unit. So unless Mulder is still obsessively freelancing after all this time, or unless the Magic Plot Fairy waves her wand and makes everything okay so Mulder and Scully can be back at the FBI, how can they even do a standalone story? The plot arc was so entangling and all-encompassing by the end that it can't be entirely disregarded even in an unrelated monster story.

I was a huge fan of the show. In fact, that was what drove me to go online in the first place, when I heard about, where I could find other people to chat with about it. Before I got a modem for my home computer, I used to go to the office on Saturdays, with some flimsy excuse about work in case I wasn't the only one there, so I could go online and read and discuss. My old pen name was an X-Files reference. I even found myself exploring the idea of moving to Washington, D.C. But I greeted the news of the movie with more of an "oh dear" than a "yay!" Am I alone in this? Supernatural is currently meeting whatever inner need for me that The X-Files used to fill, and Duchovny has grown to be just plain creepy looking with age, rather than cutely creepy, so Supernatural even has better eye candy.

In other news, I have galley proofs for Don't Hex With Texas to review, and I really must clean my kitchen. It turns out that I was wrong about the cleaning the kitchen makes me want to cook theory. I suspect I was driven to clean the kitchen because I wanted to cook, since not cleaning the kitchen didn't make me stop cooking. And as a result, if I don't do something soon, the EPA may step in. And then I need to decide what to do this weekend. I feel like I want to do something, and there are a few options with low cost barriers, but I'm not sure which things I want to do or how much I really want to do them.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Elizabeth Lenhard

I have been such a slug today, but I think I deserve it. The sniffles are better, to the point that while I need to keep a Kleenex handy, I don't have to carry the whole box with me from room to room. I am still having weird dreams, though, since my brain doesn't seem to want to calm down. I had yet another installment of the recurring dream/nightmare in which I've gone back to college and am living in the dorm again (and it's always going back, with me at my current age and with my current life experience, rather than being a still-in-college dream). That one comes up often enough that I may start keeping a log of when I have that dream and what's going on in my life at the time so I can see if there's a pattern.

But in other news ... I've got a new Girlfriends Cyber Circuit entry, and you knitters may want to take note. Chicks with Sticks (Knitwise) completes Elizabeth Lenhard's trilogy of young adult knitting novels that includes Chicks with Sticks (It's a purl thing) and Chicks with Sticks (Knit two together). The series follows a group of Chicago teens who attend a progressive-to-the-point of wacky private school and who find support and comfort in their "stitch and bitch" knitting sessions as they go through teenage issues with friends and boyfriends.

But now the Chicks are staring down the end of high school and it's time to contemplate life beyond the protective web of their knitty ensemble. Will the stresses of college applications and service projects, debutante balls and long-distance loves, mean the end of the Chicks? Or can this unlikely foursome bind-off the happy ending that only true friendship can craft?

And for a bonus, each book includes several original knitting patterns and projects.

Here's the interview:

What was the inspiration behind this book?
The characters were inspired by the close group of girlfriends I had when I lived in Chicago a few years ago. Like the Chicks, we did a LOT of hanging out, snacking, and laughing, and like the Chicks, we had a really close, familial friendship. (But we didn't actually start knitting until after I started writing the Chicks books! Now several of us are knitters.) 

I set the book in Chicago because a) that was the site of my friendship with these women b) I had just moved from Chicago to Atlanta and the books became sort of my good-bye ode and c) I couldn't set a knitty book in Atlanta! It's too hot! Blustery Chicago is the perfect place to always be knitting up something cozy. 

How have you handled the growth of your characters from book to book in your series, since they're at an age when there's so much growth and change?
The arc of the books found each girl growing more and more confident and more comfortable in her skin as time went on and as their friendship grew deeper roots. But another throughline was that Scottie, the main character, was always trying to cling to her comfort level. In CHICKS WITH STICKS (KNITWISE) for example, she's panicked at the idea of leaving the Chicks behind to go to college. So there's a lot of growth going on, but there are also instances of the characters resisting that growth. 

Have you discovered anything surprising or unexpected about your characters as they've grown up?
Scottie always had an edge to her, but I think she turned out to be a little more edgy than I expected. On the other hand, she can also be the group's most earnest and shamelessly nerdy Chick. (And I mean that in a good way!) Depends on the day. 

Also, earth-goddess Bella gives us a big surprise in KNITWISE, but I won't reveal it. ;-) 

How do you develop the knitting patterns that go in these books? (or do you?)
I must confess, I did not write the knitting patterns. Some very talented women who work at Dutton, my publisher, created them. Aren't they wonderful? 

I did recently have my first knitting pattern published in  "101 Designer One-Skein Wonders" (Storey, 2007)  but since it was a baby hat, it wasn't really appropriate for the Chicks with Sticks. 

What do you see as the appeal of knitting?
There are so many. Some people find it very relaxing and meditative. And for those of us who aren't so artistic, i.e. we can't draw or paint or sculpt or such, it's a way to be competantly crafty. If you can follow a pattern, you can knit something pretty great! And bonus -- wearable! 

I like knitting because it's a way to really put myself into gifts I make (mostly baby hats, as many of the people in my circle are reproducing these days).  And it IS indeed social. I recently had a weekend trip with some of the "real" Chicks and we spent hours gabbing and knitting. Knitting's a cozy accessory to a coffee clatch. 

What are you working on now?
I'm finishing up some work-for-hire writing and beginning a new YA novel set in Atlanta.  I'm finally ready to say good-bye to Chicago (now that I've lived here for more than three years!) 

For more info, visit Elizabeth's web site. Or you can buy the book at Amazon.

And now I'm yet again in that state where I desperately need milk, and I also need some other things if I'm going to eat dinner tonight, so I guess I have to drag my body out of the house and to the grocery store.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Self Discoveries

Yesterday was one of my favorite kinds of fall days -- crisp, cool, cloudless and sunny, so I got that simultaneously warm and cool experience I love so much, with cool air and a cool breeze, but with the sun warm on my face at times, and at other times a cool wind in my face. I walked to the post office and then to the neighborhood rec center to vote in the local election, and ended up taking what at first I thought would be a shorter route, but which turned out to be the long way around because I forgot that one of the canals ran in between, and it's a stretch of canals that no streets cross. But since the whole point was to be outdoors and get some exercise, I didn't mind, and the route took my by the high school during football practice, which added to the whole fall experience. Meanwhile, the elm tree in my front yard has started to turn a bright gold with some leaves falling, and because I am five, I had fun having something to crunch through as I went up the sidewalk. It was the kind of day that made me want pumpkins and soup and cider and other general fall-type stuff. For dinner, I created a new recipe (well, made my own changes to an existing recipe to create something new), and it was sooooo good -- a shrimp and corn chowder with a subtly spicy kick, so that at first it just seems mellow and creamy, and then the spice sneaks up on you.

And now I seem to be paying for yesterday, as I've got a nasty case of sniffling/sneezing/coughing with a lot of sinus pressure. I know that colds aren't caused by being cold, but cold breezes may blow in lots of fun allergens. I was kind of planning to go to choir tonight and get back into that, but I'm not sure I can sing right now. We'll see how I feel later in the day. For now, it's one of my other favorite kinds of fall days, the kind with a steely gray sky and a bit of nip to the air, so as soon as I get one little freelance project done, I'm going to make some tea and curl up with a book.

For an update from yesterday: that possible problem with the book that I dreamed and I wasn't sure if it was real or not -- well, it turns out it was real, and the solution I dreamed also worked. I think there was some more elaborate stuff in the dream that wasn't true, but the core part was. Yay, subconscious! I just hope it's wrong about everything I remember from last night's dreams, or else I'm likely to accidentally insult Nora Roberts to her face at a writing conference (I have NO IDEA where that came from, nor the bit about the German couple -- probably from the former East Germany, since you couldn't tell which one was the man and which was the woman -- that was one of the Dancing With the Stars finalists, considering I don't even watch that show).

In other news, here are some random things I've learned about myself lately:
Cleaning my kitchen gives me the urge to cook, so I end up with a messy kitchen all over again.

I'm starting to feel really lousy on days when I don't exercise. Or maybe I don't exercise on days when I feel lousy. More research may be needed.

My enjoyment of crossword puzzles may have reached the scary addiction stage. I can't watch TV without a puzzle to do (the handheld electronic New York Times puzzle game helps with that). They're also getting to be too easy. However, the Sunday puzzles become more fun when done while under sinus attack and on even a small dose of Benadryl. That ups the challenge level somewhat.

I have more proof that my inner self is 80 years old. While at the rec center for voting yesterday, I picked up an activities newsletter they had in a rack, and while flipping through it, I thought all the activities sounded like a lot of fun. I had no idea there was all this cool stuff going on at the rec center. When I looked for information on how to sign up for these activities, I realized it was the newsletter for the senior citizen activity center in another part of town. Sadly, the only activities at my neighborhood rec center that looked fun were for children under five. I wonder if the senior center people would kick me out for being too young. Somehow, I seriously doubt that I'd be accepted in Baby Ballerinas.

I get very bored just walking for exercise on a route I take repeatedly, so that even half an hour of walking seems to drag and is such a chore, but I can walk for hours with no problem -- even on some of the same routes -- if I have an actual destination and reason for going there. Sightseeing works in much the same way, if my surroundings are new. So to get plenty of exercise, I just need to find more places to go or errands to do that I can walk to, or I need to go to unfamiliar places. Unfortunately, most of the destinations other than the library and post office seem to involve food, which somewhat defeats the purpose of walking to get there.

And now I must finish writing a series of health tips about how to avoid gaining weight during the holiday season so I can give in to the sniffles and enjoy my tea and a book.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ends and Beginnings

The book is now done! Sort of. There's one last thing I want to double-check that occurred to me in the middle of the night, and I'm now not sure if I just dreamed it or if it is an issue. Finishing a book at night always leads to an interesting experience because I'm utterly drained but also very wired, so I'm too tired to do much other than sleep, but I can't really sleep well. There's lots of tossing and turning, lots of coming wide awake in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep for ages, and lots of really weird, really vivid dreams that, thanks to all the wakefulness, get oddly merged with reality. Case in point, figuring out a possible problem with the book and how to fix it, and now I'm not entirely sure if it's for real or if I dreamed it. I also dreamed that I was so tired after all the tossing and turning that I woke up at seven, and it turned out that it was actually seven in the evening, and I'd slept all day. When I woke up after eight and it was daylight, I figured it was truly the morning. I'm hoping tonight I can get some real rest.

The last phase of a book for me is a quick read-through in an attempt to replicate the reader experience. Writing a book and reading a book are such different things that your perspective can get totally skewed. Something that takes weeks or months to write can be read in hours or days, and that changes how you view things. A part of the book that seems to really drag for you as a writer may fly for a reader. In fact, the more complex action scenes that are real page-turners are actually the most complicated to write. They require all kinds of mental choreography and sometimes even drawing diagrams to make sure you know where everyone is, what they're doing, and when. Days worth of work will then be read in a matter of minutes. There are also continuity issues that can come up when you're writing the end of a book weeks (or more) after writing the beginning, things you mention at the beginning and forget about later, or things you write later, and then it turns out they directly contradict something from the beginning. I've caught myself using a particular descriptive phrase that sounds absolutely perfect for a moment -- only to realize that it was also perfect for a moment earlier in the book. And there are those pesky pet words that crop up. It's the kind of thing that only jumps out at you when you read in as close to one sitting as possible.

I've realized with this book that I've kind of been a slug for the past few years. I wrote the book in less than a month and revised it in about a month. Theoretically, that means I could write six books a year. If I give myself two months for things like editor and agent revisions, copy edits and galley proofs, that's five books a year. Giving myself two months for promotion, that's four a year. And then two months for sanity/rest, that's still three books a year, and I've been doing just one (well, last year I did two, but one started at the end of the previous year). Of course, the trick is getting someone to publish more than one book a year, but it's possible that I could have furthered my career by writing in multiple areas and for multiple publishers to have my name out there more widely. I may see if I can pull that off going forward, at least trying to produce that much material. No matter what I do, I'll probably end up in a different genre. Regardless of how readers view the books I have out now, the industry has them classified as chick lit, which is dead. Going forward, I'll have to make a fresh start in fantasy, young adult, paranormal romance or magical realism women's fiction, since I'll be relatively unknown there, according to bookseller classification. I'm sure my genius agent could sell me into other markets with a partial manuscript, but I think I'd have a better chance of being accepted in another genre with a full manuscript, especially since the way my creative process works means my partials aren't necessarily representative of the final work. So, if I buckle down, I can get more stuff out there and find my new "home."

The trick is figuring out what to write next. I'm not forbidding myself to write between now and the end of the year, but I want to focus on other things for a while. If I get an idea or am inspired, I may play with it. I want to clean my office, read some books about writing, read a lot in general, and do other stuff to refill the old creative well. During that time, one of the many ideas swimming around in my brain may jump up and be ready to take off. January is going to be my big writing month.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Home Stretch

I finished the major round of revisions on the new book, and today I start the final read-through (that is, before my agent makes me rewrite it again). I have a few things I need to tweak because I changed my mind later in the book about what was really going on, but otherwise, it's mostly proofreading and deciding if I still like it. This is when all the self doubts come into play, where I fear that the book is too boring, shallow or pointless. In fact, I'm almost dreading looking at it again for fear that I'll realize it was all a waste of time. But I also want to get it over with. And there's the fact that I really don't want to deal with anything else right now.

So, in the meantime, here's the cover for Don't Hex With Texas. It turns out my agent scooped me again. I just can't keep up. Good thing I'm no longer a journalist, huh?

Friday, November 02, 2007

It's Raining Nice Guys

Yesterday I mentioned my agent's report that she's having a hard time selling books with difficult main characters, that publishers seem to be looking for nicer, more sympathetic people. Although there was much outcry in her blog comments about how sick people are of perfect, flawless characters who have no room to grow, I don't think that's necessarily what's going on. I mentioned a couple of ways to make nice people interesting. There are also a lot of examples currently on TV. I guess the nice guy trend is hitting there, too, but mostly with men.

Using archetype terms, the Best Friend is usually the sidekick character, the loyal, faithful friend you can count on and who tries to keep the peace, maintaining harmony, morale and good feelings around the group. For traditional uses of this archetype, we've got Xander on Buffy and Wash on Firefly, or Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter books. This is one of my favorite character types, and we're now seeing it used in some unconventional ways as the Best Friend steps up and starts to take the lead.

I guess one of the more conventional Best Friends on TV today is Jim on The Office. He's kind of the sidekick in the sense that Michael is the main character and gets higher billing, but in story terms, I would say that Jim is actually the protagonist. He's the one set up for the audience to identify with, and he's the one who seems to have a character growth arc (while I don't think Michael will change all that much). Jim is the one the documentary crew seems to have latched onto, and I get the feeling that the documentary within the show is essentially telling Jim's story. Jim is the nice guy who can build office morale and who looks after his co-workers -- even though he usually picks on Dwight, he's been trying to help Dwight through the pain of a break-up. He's certainly not perfect, as he does play pranks that verge on meanness, and he's stuck in a rut professionally. He hates what he does and where he is, but he doesn't seem motivated to do anything about it or even explore what he does want to do. The other thing that makes this nice guy interesting as a protagonist is the fact that he's surrounded by crazy people. It's the "center and eccentrics" comedy model, where Jim and Pam are the only two sane people in a crazy world. That creates contrast, which creates tension and conflict. If you want to have a nice, normal main character, put him in a crazy situation surrounded by oddballs. You can also give him an area of doubt and uncertainty, something he needs to change about his life, which can be what kicks off the story.

For another fun bit of contrast, we have Earl on My Name is Earl, who is a reformed Bad Boy turned Best Friend with his discovery of karma. We get contrast and conflict because he's got a Bad Boy past and a Best Friend conscience, and he's still dealing with the consequences of his past because he's surrounded by the people who were in his life when he was a Bad Boy. Though Earl is far from "normal," this is also kind of a center and eccentrics model, where the people around him are even stranger and he's often the voice of sanity and reason. There's another way to make a nice guy interesting: give him a very non-nice past that he's moved on from, but with consequences he can't escape.

We get the Best Friend as action hero in Chuck, with the guy who just wants to be a good friend and a good brother being forced into international espionage and intrigue. This scenario wouldn't work as well with a different character type because a lot of the conflict and tension in Chuck's life comes from the fact that he is loyal to his country and wants to help stop the bad guys, but he also doesn't want to let down his friends or his sister. A Warrior type would ditch it all to take on the mission for the greater good, but a Best Friend tries to find that balance, with what are sometimes mutually exclusive goals. So, there's another way to make the nice guy interesting: give him an important task to do that conflicts with the things that are important to him as a person.

For another Best Friend as action hero, with a side of angst, there's Sam Winchester in Supernatural. Although he's up against big-E Evil, his focus manages to stay on goals closer to him -- first, finding his father, then along the way helping the individuals they meet who need help, and now trying to save his brother's soul. What gets interesting with him is that he isn't evolving to a different type now that he's up against bigger and worse things. He's retaining his essential nature, and that means the things he's having to do to save the day are tearing him apart inside. Being a good brother may mean having to do things he otherwise wouldn't do. Again, there are the mutually exclusive goals and needs, where finding the harmony the Best Friend seeks means doing the kinds of things Best Friends usually don't do, like killing and dealing with darkness. Want to make a boy-next-door type suddenly fascinating? Send him way the hell away from Kansas (come to think of it, literally in this case) and put him in a situation where you wouldn't expect a nice guy to survive. (And speaking of Supernatural, can we have an episode where they find and slay the evil demon who wrote that "Be Brave, Not Beige" Ikea commercial? Because whoever did that has to be a minion of Satan and pure evil, working to invade and control the brains of the entire population. Make it stop!!!!!!)

This is still a little new for me to have a strong sense of the character, but I'm thinking Charlie Crews on Life might also fit this type. He's got a lot of Best Friend traits, in that he gathers people around him in a kind of made-up family, sides with the underdog, and gives people second chances. He has a convicted white-collar criminal living in his garage apartment and handling his finances, which is the kind of trust you'd only see from a Best Friend. But he's a nice guy who's been damaged by being wrongfully convicted of (and probably framed for) a crime he didn't commit, and having spent all that time in prison. He kept his sanity in prison by trying to find inner peace, but he also learned a degree of ruthlessness. Our interesting nice guy lesson here is that giving him a difficult experience in his past can give him an edge without changing his essential nature.

I'm still trying to figure out Ned on Pushing Daisies. My guess is that he's inherently a Best Friend, but all the fallout from his gift/curse and what it did to his family and subsequently his life have turned him into something of a Lost Soul. Charlotte (I'm trying to avoid confusion here with the other Chucks on TV) brings out the Best Friend in him, and it's possible that he's finding that part of himself again through her. Normally, he avoids contact and closeness, but he's blossoming under her influence, which kind of parallels him literally bringing her back to life. A tragic past works wonders for making a nice guy fascinating.

Another one I'm not sure of is Mick on Moonlight, who seems to be a boy-next-door vampire. He doesn't seem to have any grand anti-evil agenda. He just wants to help his clients, and not all of his cases have anything to do with him being a vampire. He's not crazy about being a vampire, but he isn't too mopey about it, instead treating his vampirism as more or less an inconvenient medical condition. I'm not yet sure how well that's going to work as a series, but it's definitely a different approach to vampires, who are usually Lost Soul, Warrior, Bad Boy or Charmer types. I suspect that a Best Friend vampire who bucks all those usual vampire expectations would have worked better in a more comedic show, say if the female sidekick had read too many of the sexy vampire paranormal romances and was constantly disappointed by the real thing being a bit too normal. They played with that some in Angel, but he was still the Lost Soul/Warrior type and not too far from the usual vampire hero, so they didn't go as far with the joke as they could have.

Moving away from TV, I don't even think that a flawless, perfect character is necessarily boring. Take Carrot in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. The whole point of that character is that he's essentially perfect -- he's handsome, good, totally incorruptible, brave, and honest. His only real flaw is that he's so perfect, he doesn't understand that other people aren't as naturally good as he is -- but then people tend to live up to his expectations of them. I think he's a fascinating character because of the effect he has on other people. The fact that he's the rightful king and doesn't want the throne helps with the intrigue, but still, he's proof that it is possible to write a nice, good, perfect character without him being boring. It does help that he's surrounded by very corrupt people, so his goodness is a contrast. You wouldn't want him in a story full of essentially good people.

I think the same tricks would work on female characters, but it's a more difficult situation there because the nice girl is a more conventional heroine, while the nice guy is kind of different being moved from sidekick to hero. With women, it seems like it's either the tough, kick-ass heroine or the sweet sidekick, rather than the sweet girl who is thrown into a situation where she has to kick ass. Maybe I don't watch enough shows with central female characters, but sorry, I happen to enjoy watching men a lot more, especially now that they all seem to be just my type.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Nice Guys Can Win

I actually hit both my writing and exercise goals for the month in October. Go, me! I'm also getting really close to finishing this draft of the book. My aim is to finish by tomorrow, take the weekend off, and then do a good once-over starting Monday. I will then be going against the flow and NOT writing a book during National Novel Writing Month. There are a few projects I want to play with, including a short story or two, but this will mostly be a month for doing background reading and research, marketing brainstorming and generally relaxing. Maybe some office cleaning, I guess.

A few weeks ago, my agent did a post on her blog that got me started thinking. She wrote about how she's having a hard time selling commercial fiction with what she calls "prickly protagonists." These are the not-so-nice main characters who have a lot of room for growth. Now, it may come as no surprise to those who've read my books that this is not a problem for me. I like nice people, and I like writing nice people. My one attempt to write an edgy main character was a complete disaster. However, that post and the comments that came in response to it got me thinking (and, mind you, I'm not contradicting or disagreeing with my agent). There seems to be some confusion and mixing up of terms. "Nice" or "sympathetic" does not necessarily equal perfect, without flaws, no room for growth, or boring. I guess this is along the lines of the commonly held attitude that dark is automatically better artistically and deeper than light. If you do it right, nice people can be just as deep, interesting and flawed as more obnoxious characters. The opposite applies, that you can have "prickly" characters who can be very sympathetic, but as I can't seem to write truly prickly characters, I'll address how to make nice people interesting.

I think one of the tricks is to throw nice characters into situations where being nice is hard -- which basically amounts to real life. Based on my personal experiences, it can be really hard to be nice and still get what you want. To raise the stakes, put your nice person in a position where they have to do something that goes against their nature, and set up the situation so that readers not only believe the character would do such a thing, but might even admit that they'd do the same thing in similar circumstances. The example of a book my agent thought was commercially successful in spite of having a difficult protagonist was Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin, but I think that book actually proves my point because the main character of that book was a nice person who did some very bad things, and yet you still wanted her to win.

The book is about a woman who has an affair with her best friend's fiance in the months leading up to the wedding. Nasty, huh? Doesn't sound like a very nice person, does it? But this character is quite the Everywoman. She's someone you identify with and sympathize with. She's the smart, not-as-attractive girl who's always been overshadowed by her beautiful and popular best friend. Her friend actually isn't much of a friend. She's more of a "frenemy," and she has a history of going after any guy the heroine liked, getting him, then dumping him, leaving him too heartbroken to be interested in anyone else for a while, and then there was the "girl code" issue, so as an ex of her friend, he was off-limits to the heroine. It got to the point that the heroine didn't even bother hoping for things to work out with any guy she liked, and instead she just introduced him to her friend. Which was how the friend and the fiance ended up together -- he was the heroine's friend, someone she liked but didn't think she could have, and she introduced him to her friend. So it actually feels like something of a triumph when the fiance goes for the heroine (though I did wish he'd had the guts to end the previous relationship first -- for me, he was the problem character in the book). Meanwhile, as this affair is going on, the friend is up to her old tricks, and has her own affair with the guy the heroine brought to some of the pre-wedding events as a date. Between the backstory and the friend's behavior, the deck is totally stacked to allow the heroine to do some bad things and still be a sympathetic character. The real prickly protagonist was in the follow-up book, where the friend was the main character.

I don't think you have to take it that far, however. Just giving nice people flaws and room for growth keeps them from being boring. In my series, Katie is plucky and independent, but sometimes she's a bit too independent for her own good because she'd prefer to deal with things herself instead of asking for help, and that often gets her in trouble. Owen may be the ultimate nice guy dreamboat, but he's a bit too passive and has to be really forced to take action -- and we see with the power that he has that in most situations, it's probably good that action isn't the first thing he thinks of. Unfortunately, that caution spills over into his personal life, which is how a guy that hot has remained single. These characters have room to grow, as nice as they are.

There's a whole slew of nice-guy heroes on TV right now, and tomorrow I'll take a look at all these Best Friend types in unusual situations.