Friday, February 29, 2008

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Gets Cheery (Hee!)

I had a startling revelation yesterday: I felt good. Not just not-sick, but healthy, for the first time in more than a month. The nagging cough is finally gone, and I had energy. I walked to the library and went to the coffee shop, and the lady who runs the coffee shop asked where I'd been. She was wondering what happened to me. I guess that means I'm now an actual "regular." Cool.

I think I've also found a new way to force myself to focus and work, especially on revisions. Revision and editing is really difficult when your mind wanders far afield. You can find yourself skimming your eyes over words without even seeing them while thinking about all kinds of random things. But last night, I started reading out loud as I worked. That really kept me focused, and it also helped me fix awkward phrasings I'd have never found reading silently. Plus, I was reading it as though it was a public performance, acting it out and doing character voices, and that helped me edit dialogue to really sound like the characters. For today's work, I need to do some writing from scratch, and I don't know how that will work. I guess I could be all those annoying TV/movie writer characters who read out loud while they type. I'm not sure I'm coordinated enough to do that. If I try to talk and type at the same time, I'd get my fingers tangled, and I can't possibly type as fast as I talk, so the reading wouldn't capture the flow of the words. I may have to find another way to focus for that kind of work.

So while I try to figure out a cure for my writing ADD, I've got a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit post. Jennifer Lynn Barnes is back with two books that launch a new series, The Squad, about a group of government operatives who double as high-school cheerleaders. Think Charlie's Angels meets Bring It On.

The first book, Perfect Cover, introduces Toby Klein, a sophomore computer hacker who doesn't play well with others. She has zero school spirit, a black belt in karate, and what her guidance counselor calls an "attitude problem." She's the last person you’d expect to be invited to join the varsity cheerleading squad.

But things are different at Bayport High.

Bayport's varsity cheer squad is made up of the hottest of the hot. But this A-list is dangerous in more ways than one. The Squad is actually a cover for the most highly trained group of underage government operatives the United States has ever assembled. Athletically, they're unmatchable, though they make it all look easy on the field. Mentally, they're exceptional - but with one flash of their gorgeous smiles, you'll completely forget that. Socially, they're gifted, so they can command and manipulate any situation. And above all, they have the perfect cover, because, beyond herkies and highlights, no one expects anything from a cheerleader. Toby Klein might not seem like the most likely recruit, but she’s never been one to turn down a challenge. If she can handle the makeover, Bayport High may just have found its newest cheerleader.

The story continues in Killer Spirit. Something’s about to go down in Bayport, and the Big Guys Upstairs need to know what. The Squad is on the case, but it looks like this mission could put the "L" in lethal. And if the spy business doesn't kill Toby, it’s starting to look like Brooke, the team's captain, might. The nominations are in for homecoming court, and rumor has it that Toby is the unlikely frontrunner for queen.

I asked Jen a few questions about her books:
What inspired this series?
From the time I was twelve until I was fourteen, I was part of a competitive cheerleading program. Seriously, think Bring It On, only smaller and younger. I always wanted to write a book that incorporated that experience and the way that people tend to view (and sometimes dismiss) cheerleaders. I've also always loved secret agent and spy movies and books, and one day, it occurred to me to combine the secret agent novel I'd always wanted to write with the cheerleading book I'd always wanted to write, and voila- cheerleading secret agents.

When you were a cheerleader, were you the "countercultural" type, or did you really fit in with the other cheerleaders (and be honest here!)?
There were ways in which I fit in with the other cheerleaders and ways in which I didn't. I wasn't really the "counterculture" type, but I was on the math team. I was also several inches taller than most of the other cheerleaders, and I was pretty shy. That said, it's not like the other girls were a certain "type" of girl, and I didn't fit in because I wasn't that type- my squad had a lot of different people on it, many of whom were honors students, multiple-sport athletes, and quirky in their own individual ways.

With all your prestigious schooling, have you had to deal with that former cheerleader stigma, like "what's a cheerleader doing with a Fulbright scholarship?"
Never. Sometimes I get the "YOU were a cheerleader?" question, but after a minute, they say, "Yeah, I can see that." In general, I think it's pretty easy for most people to accept that a smart or successful person can have done any variety of things- cheering among them. I think it gets dicier when you go the reverse direction- there might be people who would never in a million years expect a cheerleader to win a Fulbright, even if these same people wouldn't attach the cheerleading stereotype to someone who'd already won one.

If your cheer squad had been a top secret espionage team (or, was it?), what would your spying specialty have been?
Back in my cheering days, I was really flexible, so my contortionist abilities definitely would have come in handy (think Ocean's 11 and the guy who can fit in a duffel bag). Also, I'm really, really good at looking very innocent and non-threatening (even if I'm trying to look intimidating, which just doesn't happen), so if I could acquire some fighting skills, I'd be good to go.

In a dream crossover among fictional spy worlds, would you want your characters to have to work with the gang from TV's Chuck, TV's Alias or Jason Bourne (or maybe someone else), and how do you picture that going?
I think the idea of The Squad working with Jason Bourne is just full-out hilarious. Bourne could take down an entire government, but I think he'd meet his match in ten teenage cheerleaders who can match him step for step- while staying completely under the radar.

What are you working on now?
I just finished the first book in a new four-book series about a girl who discovers that if she doesn't master high school science, the world is going to end in seven years. It's part Heroes, part Dawson's Creek, with lots of awesome science woven into the text. Since I'm a cognitive scientist in my non-writing life, it's fun to get to do something that mixes my two passions.

For more info, visit The Squad web site. Or buy Perfect Cover and Killer Spirit from Amazon.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


I am often easily distracted, something that's become a family joke. Sometimes, that becomes a huge hindrance to getting any work done. Here's a brief glimpse inside the scary place that is my brain. Since I wrote the first draft of the book I'm revising with the soundtrack from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as background noise, I put on that CD to try to trigger myself back into writing mode. That reminded me that Hugo nominations are due this week (since the last HP book will likely be a nominee) and I needed to think of what I want to nominate (incidentally, Damsel Under Stress would be eligible as a novel, if you're so inclined). I know I want to nominate the Doctor Who episode "Blink" in the short-form category, and that set off this stream of consciousness: "I'm glad Doctor Who will be back soon, but it will be weird watching it in the spring. It seems like it should be more of a fall show. I wonder why that is. Maybe it's that the first two seasons were on in the fall here, and even the latest season that started earlier ended in the fall. They also do a lot of their filming in the fall, so the episodes look fallish. Not that the time of year really matters or is consistent, since it's a show about time travel. Or it could be that both times I've been to England, it was in October, so I automatically associate anything about England with the fall. Why do I think of "Blink" as a fall episode? Did they say when it takes place? I guess spooky old houses make me think of Halloween, and then there was rain, and the lighting had a golden, fall-like quality to it. But it will be good to have Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica on back-to-back again. I wonder which archetypes fit the BSG characters. I think it's possible that Lee Adama might be a Best Friend. He seems to have high ideals about mankind in general rather than a specific Warrior-type mission, and he's always so disappointed when others don't live up to his ideals about everyone just doing the right thing and getting along. That archetype would make him similar to my Owen. Maybe that's why I like him. You know, Jamie Bamber would make a good Owen, if he kept his hair dark. I'm not sure whether I like him better dark-haired or blond. I think I've only seen him blond when he was much younger and still had some baby fat on his face. I wonder what he'd look like blond and as lean as he is now."

You get the picture. Then, of course, I was sidetracked with mentally composing a blog post about getting sidetracked. Later, I was in the shower and actually had some good ideas (which so often come in the shower), but got sidetracked there and realized when I went to rinse my hair that I hadn't actually remembered to put the shampoo on in the first place.

I've talked in the past about how each book seems to need to be written at a different time, but I'm starting to wonder if it has more to do with the time of year I'm writing it. This book is turning into a night book, where I can't focus at all during the day, but I make progress at night. But the first draft was an afternoon book. My last real "night" book was Damsel Under Stress, and I was writing it at this time of year. Summer and fall books seem to mostly be afternoon books, where I can kick into gear at 3 in the afternoon and get my goals done before dinner. Anything written January through March seems to happen at night, with me being useless in the afternoon. So I may go with it. There's not much on TV lately, so there's nothing to get in the way of writing at night. I'm also way behind on administrative stuff and housework that I could do in the afternoon instead of staring at the computer screen and letting my mind wander. Of course, the fact that my next-door neighbor is remodeling her house and the day is filled with the sound of power tools and hammering doesn't help matters. And, wow, I don't think I've written a book in the spring, at least not recently in my current circumstances. I've done editorial revisions, but I guess I've usually been busy in April and May with books coming out.

And by the way, the latest Battlestar Galactica promo pictures with Lee Adama in his lawyer suit look very much the way I imagine Owen. I know I said I didn't want to discuss any particular dream casting now that the book has been optioned (since I don't want to have said I want one person when someone else entirely is cast), but this isn't so much talking about casting as it is saying, wow, this particular picture fits my mental image.

Yeah, I'll be in my bunk. And in case the movie does go into production, and in case the actor cast to play Owen does some research and finds this, it doesn't mean I don't love you or didn't want you to play the part.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Pitching in Person

I've seen the very first initial reaction of a reviewer to Don't Hex With Texas and she seemed to like it, so that's a good sign. This is a very anxious phase, with review copies out in the universe and waiting to find out if people actually like it. I've also learned that the spike in sales last year wasn't in the latter half of the year. It was the second-half of year royalty statement, but that period actually covered April through September. That would then include all the booksignings and all the conventions I went to. So while I was thinking all that travel wasn't doing me any good, maybe it did. I'm still backing off somewhat this year and focusing on the most useful and effective (and fun) events, but I feel a lot better about getting out into the world because it does seem to help.

For yet another topic inspired by last weekend's conference, I want to talk about pitching your book in person, whether to editors or agents. At every conference I go to, I see writers nervously mumbling to themselves, and that usually means someone is getting ready for an editor or agent appointment. For those who haven't yet subjected themselves to this form of torture, it generally means that you get from five to seven minutes of one-on-one time with an editor or agent, during which you get to pitch your book. One of the jobs I tend to get routinely assigned when I volunteer at conferences is timekeeper for appointments, so I've seen a lot of these take place. What people usually do is carefully prepare a full description of their books that almost entirely fills the time they have available. And what usually happens is the poor editor or agent has a hard time staying awake while the author nervously drones on.

So, based on my observations and my opportunities to hear editors and agents gripe about what goes on in these sessions, and based on my career in public relations that involved pitches like these, but without the time limit and about telecommunications technology instead of about books, here are my tips for pitching your book:

1) Do not prepare a presentation that fills the whole amount of time you have available.
You have one-on-one time, which is an opportunity for interaction, so don't make this a monologue. Interaction is good because it means the editor or agent was engaged and participating in the conversation.

2) Instead, think of the session as a live, interactive query letter. Start by establishing the basics like genre, word count and whether or not the novel is complete. If you have publishing credentials, mention them, but this is not the time to list every manuscript contest you've won. If this particular manuscript has won a contest, mention it. If it's won a lot of contests, mention the most prestigious, then say "and others." (One little hint: if a manuscript has won a lot of contests and yet you're still needing a pitch appointment, it may make the editor or agent wonder why you don't already have an agent or why it hasn't sold to any of those final round editor judges, so too many contest wins could actually work against you.)

3) Then give a very short umbrella pitch that describes the main hook of your novel in one or two sentences. Think TV Guide listing.

4) Also prepare a short summary of the plot -- maybe six sentences. Keep it pretty general except for the key specifics that differentiate your story from any others. We don't need your main characters' names and descriptions here, just a focus on what their conflict is and what about their world is unique. Think back-cover copy, except possibly including the resolution. Or else that paragraph in a query letter that describes your plot. Remember that this person is listening to you, and there's only so much information a person can retain.

5) But don't just launch into this. Give your umbrella pitch and then pause. Give the editor or agent a chance to ask for details, and then you can tell more. You may not need your prepared summary because the editor or agent may ask specific questions about your story. The idea is interaction. Let a conversation develop. If the person you're meeting with is asking questions, you know you're giving her the information she wants, and you know she's actually hearing you instead of daydreaming about a vacation in Hawaii while you drone on. When someone is engaged in the conversation -- an active participant instead of an audience -- she's more likely to remember the conversation.

6) Also prepare some questions you want to ask the editor or agent. These can be business specific, like agency policies, but you can also talk about books. Ask what she has coming out in her line that has her jazzed. Ask what she's read lately that rocked her world. Ask what she wants to find that she's not seeing in submissions, or what she's seeing so much of that she wants to scream.

7) Don't be afraid to leave early.
If you've said all you want to say, if the editor or agent still isn't asking you questions, and if you don't have any more questions, then thank your victim and make your exit. You may then be remembered as the person who gave her some much-needed breathing space.

8) This isn't just for official appointments. If you'll be at an event where editors or agents will be present, you never know when you'll be asked about what you're working on, so be prepared. Don't just attack someone and start talking about your work, but if in the course of a conversation in the bar an editor or agent asks you, "So, what do you write?" you'd follow the same steps. "I'm working on a humorous contemporary fantasy -- think Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter -- about a girl so ordinary that magic doesn't work on her who gets a job at a magical company." Then the editor or agent can ask questions if they find that interesting. (And this does work -- the first editor who expressed interest in the first book in my series did so as the result of a party conversation when I wasn't planning to pitch anything since I hadn't written so much as one word of it. The conversation went very much like that, ending with her telling me to write it and send it to her. She rejected it, but without her interest I might not have written it.)

9) If you are very shy and have trouble talking to people, you can bring a query letter with you and hand it to the editor or agent at the beginning of the meeting. I've even heard an agent request that people do this. Then they can skim over it and ask questions rather than listening to you say all that. Keep in mind, though, that it is possible to get published without meeting an editor or agent in person, and if you're very shy, there's nothing wrong with skipping that and just submitting through usual channels. If you're more likely to make a negative impression in person because you're so nervous, you might even do yourself more harm than good. It's better to make a professional impression through the usual query letter approach than be remembered forever as the person who was so nervous she threw up on an agent's shoes.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Writing Descriptions

I may have been a bit harsh on The Tudors yesterday. I watched some more, and unless they started cutting out even the teasing beginnings of the sex scenes for OnDemand, it seems like they settled down after the first two episodes. I guess they were trying to attract an audience by showing that history was sexy instead of boring. There was still some racy stuff later on, but it actually applied to the plot instead of like in the first couple of episodes, where it was like, "Whoops! Too much history! Better throw in some nudity, quick!" and it seemed to have nothing to do with anything else in the episode. Sam Neill is rocking my world, even playing the villain (he can be so lovable when he's the good guy, but he's such an awesome villain, too), and I got a kick out of seeing Gabrielle Anwar show up. I'm so used to her from Burn Notice that I kept expecting Fiona to drop Henry with a flying spin kick and then go blow something up. It's been a while since I studied that period of history, and now I want to go read more about it, but I think I'll wait until after I've finished watching this season so I don't get distracted through the whole thing by all the "that didn't happen that way!" thoughts. From what I do remember, I already know there are a lot of liberties taken with history.

Now, for more writing-type stuff, I learned a couple of things about myself at that conference this weekend:

1. I don't write on command. The moment someone in a workshop or seminar says, "Now, take the next five minutes to write a paragraph/25-word description, etc." my brain goes totally blank and not a single word comes to me. I just can't do it. There may be some perfectionism at work there, because I'd want whatever I come up with to be brilliant (after all, I am a published author and I'm supposed to be reasonably good at this), and that totally paralyzes me. Or else it has something to do with writing in a vacuum. I need some sense of context and world, of whose viewpoint I'm in, to write something. I can't write a description of something unless I know who's describing it. Usually, I just scribble for a while and pretend to do it but don't write anything. There are always plenty of people in those workshops who are DYING to read their examples, so I don't have to worry about being called on and not having anything. This one was even more high-pressure because we were supposed to write a description of the person sitting next to us. Ugh. Don't ask me to describe real people who are right next to me! I was so self-conscious, especially because that guy kept glancing at me like he was trying to figure out what I'd say about him.

But what's weird is that in high school I did competitive journalism, where they handed you some paper and a sheet of information, and then in an hour you wrote a feature story, editorial or news story (depending on the event), and that's essentially writing on command. I even won a number of medals doing that. I think there was more context there, though. It wasn't just pulling something out of thin air. And I was never writing about the person sitting next to me.

2. I either have too much or too little imagination to be good at writing description.
It doesn't take much to give me a vivid mental image of something. I went to a session on writing good description, and even the examples that were supposed to be really bad gave me a perfectly clear mental image. It may not have been the same image the author wanted to convey, but that description in a story wouldn't have bothered me at all because I would have seen something quite clear in my head. As a writer, I sometimes have the same bad habit in reverse. The words I write are enough to trigger the perfect image in my head, but because I have not yet developed direct mental transmission capabilities, they may not be enough to convey that image to someone else.

Sometimes, I don't even want too much description. I'd almost rather be told simply that a man is handsome because I can come up with my own version of handsome that works for me. In that case, a vague description is better than a more detailed one, especially if I don't agree with the author about what "handsome" is. I hate it when there's too much description of someone, so that I get a clear picture of someone who totally turns me off, and then I'm supposed to think of him as really hot. That's a big reason I'm not a huge fan of comic books or graphic novels. I want to come up with my own mental images. I don't even much like quasi-realistic depictions of characters on the cover of a book.

I'm also very literal-minded, so often the creative similes and metaphors don't work very well for me. I picture what the description literally says, which is often rather amusing, rather than getting the symbolic allusion. I usually know where they're going with it and what they're trying to say, but the first thing that pops into my head is usually the literal meaning (which is one reason I seldom swear -- the literal meaning of most common obscene phrasings is usually either absolutely ridiculous or incredibly disgusting).

But one thing I carried away from the sessions on clear writing and description I went to was that good description is concrete, and often the simplest words are the most concrete. I think my literal mind can work with that.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Returning to the Outside World

I spent the weekend at a writing conference. Well, most of the weekend. I kind of bailed midway through the day on Sunday after I did my workshop. It was the first time I'd really been out and around people since before I got sick, so there was some adjusting to the real world, and I was utterly exhausted by the end of it. But I suspect most of that was the fact that I was having to wake up earlier than normal, and just as I started to fall asleep Saturday night, I suddenly had all kinds of brilliant insights for my presentation, so it was yet another late-night brainstorm that resulted in no sleep in a night before I had to get up early the next morning.

I did my workshop on using mythology and psychology to develop characters, basically, all my archetype stuff. Based on questions and comments from the audience, I think I need to analyze the cast of Battlestar Galactica when it comes back on. That could be tricky because most of those characters seem to be trying very hard to be something they aren't, and they won't even admit to themselves what they really want or need, or in some cases, they go for the complete opposite of what they really want or need. It's possible to figure out how they're trying to present themselves, but when they're so good at hiding their true selves from themselves, it almost gets to the point where only the writer and possibly the actor knows what that character really and truly wants. When even their actions go in the opposite direction, all you can tell is that what they're going after isn't what they need, but you may not be able to tell what they really need.

Speaking of the previous late-night brainstorm, my agent wants to talk about it on the phone tomorrow. I'm going to try to be optimistic and assume that means she thinks it could be viable. If she just thought I was insane, she'd have probably been able to put that in an e-mail, to the effect of, "No, that probably wouldn't work. Go back to what you are working on. Do you, by chance, own blinders? That might help." Wanting to talk may mean she wants to brainstorm and develop it more. Of course, it could also mean she thinks I really am insane and she wants to schedule an intervention to get me professional help or to make sure I didn't become addicted to cough syrup when I was sick. Or maybe this is the "You know, you could be too crazy for me to continue working with" conversation. Isn't paranoia combined with imagination fun?

In other news, while I was huddled on my couch yesterday, recovering from being around people, I caught the first couple of episodes of The Tudors, where they've put then in slightly edited form on regular OnDemand. There's the huge disclaimer about how they are edited, and if you want the whole thing, you need to order Showtime. After watching a couple of episodes, I think that translates to "If you want to see all the nudity and the full sex scenes, you'll need to order Showtime." I think that's my biggest complaint about most of the premium cable dramas. The fact that they can show anything and have no restrictions sometimes mean they use that as a crutch or an easy way out. In this series, particularly, it seems to be "Oh, this is starting to drag. We'd better throw in a sex scene and some nudity to spice it up." Instead of, you know, writing something better so it doesn't drag. (I know, radical concept, and I'm sure I'm in the distinct minority in not getting anything out of on-screen sex. Watching other people have sex is kind of like watching other people eat chocolate. I'm sure it's good for them, but there's not much point to it for me.)

However, this series has reminded me how much I love Jeremy Northam. He has an odd effect on me in that while I'm watching him in a role, I can totally fall in love with him or be utterly fascinated by him, but then otherwise I never think much about him at all, until I see him in something else and remember how much I love him, and it's almost like discovering him all over again, like I didn't even realize I liked him before. It's not that he's not memorable, so I don't know what it is. Maybe he has that same quality I do when I'm dating, that men seem to really like me when they're with me, but then when they're not with me, they seem to forget about me entirely.

And on that note, I was actually energized by the conference to really get back to focusing on work, so after lunch, I'll be doing that. Really.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Late-Night Brainstorms

I have this very bad habit of getting huge brainstorms late at night. Just as I'm settling down to go to bed, an idea I've been wrestling with will make a huge turn in my head, causing me to see it from a totally different perspective, and then I'll see the solution clearly. Or that's when a new story idea will pop into my head, or else when a fragment of an idea will collide with another fragment of an idea to become a valid concept. It's great when this happens, but it can also be irritating because it means I'll get no sleep whatsoever. Just as my brain is readying itself for bed, bam, it goes wide awake and wired. Usually, these things I come up with aren't things I can jump to work on immediately, but because that idea is taking over most of my brain, I can't use the sleepless time to work on anything else. My brain is far too busy playing with its shiny new toy. And it almost always happens at night. I never seem to get brainstorms in the morning.

So, yeah, guess what happened last night. This time, it was a combination of seeing a problem from a different perspective and a new idea, so that it came out to be a new idea based on an old idea that had become a problem, and it may be a huge solution to an old problem (or it could be utterly silly). I immediately fired off the "am I totally insane, or could this work?" e-mail to my agent, and then I was bouncing off walls. There was no way I could focus on writing anything else for a while, and there was no way I'd be able to sleep. I took a baby dose of Benadryl because my nose has been running non-stop, and since I'm speaking at a conference this weekend, I don't want to get the red, raw nose, and that also helped settle me down some. While I waited for it to kick in, I did some administrative type stuff that needed to be done but that didn't require focus or creativity. When I started feeling sleepy, I went to bed and read some Dickens for a while until I couldn't read anymore, and then there was a bit of tossing and turning and thinking.

I'm still waiting on the sanity check from my agent (she's out of town and in meetings today). In the light of day, the idea still seems good, and I've mentally written the opening (maybe I should actually write it before I forget it). I have thought of a few issues and problems I'd have to deal with if the idea turns out to be viable. In the meantime, I need to keep working on this book, and I need to get ready for a presentation I'm doing Sunday. It's already written, but I need to review it, see if I want to make changes, then make some updates to the handout and get to Kinko's to make copies.

In other news, I have to say that I really don't care about the Oscars. I didn't manage to see anything nominated for any major awards, mostly because I just didn't get out to the theater much last year. And, to be honest, most of them didn't appeal to me. I would kind of like to see Atonement because I read the book and I'm curious about how they did the movie since I thought the book was structured in a way that made it unfilmable. I also don't care what anyone wears, since it's not like I'm likely to need clothes like that at any time in my life, so it's not as though I can pick up any fashion tips.

Finally, in my role as TV Guide, I have some Sci Fi Friday geekery -- as in, Sci Fi Friday is going to be back in a big way. All times are Central, since that's where I am and I like representing the Flyover States. On April 4, we have the season premiere of Battlestar Galactica at 9, preceded by two repeats, presumably of the last two episodes of last season so we can remember what we were doing when we were so rudely interrupted. Then on April 11, we get the Doctor Who spinoff Sarah Jane Adventures at 7, a BSG repeat at 8 and BSG at 9. On April 18, there's a half hour of SJA at 7, a 90-minute episode of Doctor Who (the Christmas Special) at 7:30, and BSG at 9. Then we settle into the regular schedule starting April 25, with two half-hour episodes of SJA starting at 7, Doctor Who at 8 and BSG at 9. It's like a whole night of geek heaven, a schedule worthy of pizza or tacos and special viewing snacks, of turning off the phone and becoming one with my sofa. And then the Saturday-morning rehash phone conversation with Mom.

Of course, all this kicks off right before my book comes out and I'll start having to travel, but so far I just have midweek events until convention season kicks off in June.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ghosts and Jerks

The MacGyver thing on Mythbusters was too much fun, though I did feel rather ancient seeing Richard Dean Anderson look like such a baby in those episode clips. I guess I got used to seeing him older on SG-1, and it was a jolt to realize that he was likely younger than I am now in those MacGyver episodes. That was one of my teenage TV character crushes, and how sad is it that the hair didn't bother me at all then, while now it's like, "Scissors, please, someone! Do something about the mullet!"

The Ghost Hunters thing was unintentionally hilarious. My favorite part was the beginning where they drive to the castle and then get the daylight castle tour. I got a wee bit homesick. But I was laughing myself silly while they were at the castle overnight and jumping at every little sound, totally convinced it was a ghost. I guess because I am familiar with the location and it's a happy place for me, I had a hard time imagining being truly spooked there. That wasn't a castle we visited often, even though it was right there in town, because, quite frankly, it's not a very interesting castle. But it was my first, and the first time I went there was when our next-door neighbors took us, soon after we moved there when we still didn't have our car (it was being shipped over). Our neighbors had sons one and two years older than me, and as I was ten, I was at the age where I was excited to spend time with cute boys just a little older than I was, but not yet sure what to do about it, or if I even wanted to do more than enjoy being around them. So I guess I think of cute boys when I think of that castle, so it's totally not spooky. It was on a hill over the part of town where the swimming pool was, and in the summer my friend and I would ride our bikes to the pool, so I also associate it with looming over the swimming pool, which relates it to fun and ice cream (we couldn't ride back home without getting ice cream, could we?). My family was more apt to visit a different castle down the road, where it had big stone towers you could actually go up in, and there was a good restaurant connected to the castle. It was a two-fer outing -- go out to dinner and visit a castle.

But can some of you more familiar with this show answer a question for me? Why were they trying to ask ghosts in a German castle questions in English? Is there a spirit world Universal Translator? Or are they assuming that human language becomes meaningless in the afterlife, and ghosts will understand them in any language? And isn't that a big assumption to make, considering there doesn't seem to be firm evidence? Wouldn't you want to play it safe and bring an interpreter with you to try asking some questions in German? Especially since the sounds they recorded were supposedly someone speaking in Old German. Not that I'm convinced by that -- the guy they had listening to it was familiar with the castle and its history and wanted to find ghosts, so he could have been mapping onto it what he wanted to hear (I did start to kind of understand it once he said what it was, so that influence thing was in effect, and I'm not sure how different Old German really is, since I understood it and I barely know any current German). I'd have been more convinced if they'd taken those recordings to someone who knew the language but who didn't know where they were recorded or what they were supposed to be and who had no preconceived notions of what he might hear.

On another note, I want to clarify from yesterday's post that this is kind of like that list of story elements I like. I was more talking about what I like in a story than saying what's "good" and what's "bad." I prefer stories where the heroes are heroes, with psychological shading but without a lot of moral ambiguity. If I'm going to read a book, I want to like most of the characters whose heads I spend time in. I was just quibbling with the idea that "good vs. evil" automatically has to be considered a "lesser" story. I know there are lots of examples of romance novels where the hero is quite the rake or otherwise isn't entirely moral and then reforms because of his love for the heroine, but I don't like them all that much. I also have never managed to get all the way through the movie of Gone With the Wind or beyond the first chapter of the book because I LOATHE Scarlett and don't want to spend any time at all with her.

However, it has occurred to me that, morally ambiguous as he might have seemed, Rick in Casablanca didn't actually do anything all that bad, beyond calling Ilsa a slut. He planned to do some immoral things, but he didn't carry them out. He was even a bit of a softy, rigging the game so the young couple could win money. I'd say he's pretty much like Mal in Firefly, where he's a good man who's had the idealism pounded out of him and is trying to be bad because it's so much easier to be bad. So maybe to get the effect, just the intention of doing something immoral works.

I also think the author's stance in The Anatomy of Story is somewhat skewed by the fact that his expertise is primarily in screenplays. As my agent pointed out to me in my one attempt at an edgy heroine, a film has an advantage in that an actor is cast in the role, and people who may not like the character may still give her a chance if they like the actor. The actor may bring certain lovable associations to a character who would be initially unlovable on paper. On paper, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's is incredibly selfish, shallow and mercenary. I didn't like her at all in the book, in spite of having read it after seeing the movie. But in the film, Audrey Hepburn gives her a hint of her Audreyness, so you can't help but feel for her. There are actors who can play total jerks and still be lovable, so if you're writing screenplays, I think you have more leeway for allowing your characters to act in ways that hurt others at the beginning of the film. In a novel, the reader is making more of a raw judgment on the character and may even have to go inside the character's head, so it's harder to get a reader to identify with someone who's a jerk at first. Now that I think about it, the actor effect is strong enough to make people love villains. I see a lot of online gushing over despicable villains who are played by attractive or charismatic actors, but I haven't seen too much gushing over how sexy any book villains are, with the exception of books that have been made into movies, where the qualities of the actors playing the villains get transferred to the book characters.

And there are various techniques for getting an audience to love an unlovable or morally ambiguous character, but this is getting long enough and I need to get some work done today.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Heroic Fiction

First, as a follow-up to the other day when I mentioned giving myself reality checks on the viability of celebrity crushes, that doesn't mean I'm giving up on my local anchorman. A guy who lives in the same area and who went to the same school isn't quite the same as a Hollywood actor, and being with him (you know, if I ever manage to meet him) wouldn't require a significant change in my lifestyle or location. So that doesn't count. A terminally single woman needs to be allowed to keep one crush going, and this particular crush is actually my most enduring relationship so far. I know of marriages that haven't lasted as long as this crush (next week will be the five-year mark).

Then, there's another follow-up. I mentioned Friday in my post about the book The Anatomy of Story that I had one quibble with the author's theories, and I think that mostly has to do with the difference between "mainstream" fiction and "genre" fiction (mostly fantasy, science fiction, romance and action-adventure -- basically, what you might consider "heroic" fiction). The author asserts that in addition to the main character having what he calls a "psychological need," which is something he needs to learn about himself in order to prevail and live a more complete life, he should also have a "moral need" that is something he needs to learn and change about the way he treats other people. The main character at the beginning of the story needs to be acting in such a way that he harms or hurts others, and then through the course of the story, at crisis points he then responds with an immoral action (preferably one that relates to the moral need). As things get more desperate, he acts more immorally, until he realizes what he's doing wrong and changes, and then he prevails.

The two examples used throughout the book were Tootsie and Casablanca. In Tootsie, the main character's moral need is the fact that he treats women badly -- he lies to them to get what he wants and doesn't respect them. When he dresses up as a woman to get an acting job, the whole thing is a deception that keeps getting bigger as he takes it into his personal life and builds lie upon lie, until he finally tells the truth. In Casablanca, Rick has bitterly shut himself away from the world. As he puts it, he sticks his neck out for nobody. He turns a blind eye to the evil and injustice around him. When Ilsa comes back into his life, he wants to have her for himself, even if that could harm the greater good, and when she rejects him, he insults her. He also holds onto the letters of transit that could do good for people in desperate need. Then he has his big realization, sends Ilsa off with her freedom-fighter husband with the letters of transit and becomes a freedom fighter.

I've been trying to figure out how this might apply to any story I like beyond Casablanca, and I'm coming up short. I don't really want my heroes to have a flaw that causes them to treat people badly, and I don't want them to take immoral actions on their way to their goals. Sarah in The Terminator (yeah, I refer to this a lot, but I love the story and with the TV series it's top of mind right now) wasn't really doing anything to hurt others before a killer robot from the future came after her. She was kind of wimpy and let people walk over her, but she wasn't really behaving immorally. Harry Potter wasn't crazy about his relatives, but I wouldn't consider that a moral flaw. In fact, I'd consider him morally flawed if he liked those people. The moral need pattern might apply to the fifth book, where Harry wasn't willing to trust the adults in his life, and he kept getting himself in more trouble by striking out on his own without telling anyone what was going on. And that's my least favorite of the books. I suppose Mal in Firefly kind of fits the Rick from Casablanca pattern, where he used to be idealistic and has withdrawn into his own little world that he controls, where he sticks his neck out for nobody, and then in the movie, he decides to get involved and stick his neck out big-time, then at the end he flies off into the clouds, more or less telling River that this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship (gee, I never realized before that Serenity maps so well to Casablanca). However, if you go with the Robin Hood moral structure of the setting, where it's not bad to steal from the bad guys, then Mal doesn't actually take a lot of truly immoral actions, in either the series or the movie. He's more likely to get himself deeper in trouble by trying to do the right thing. I think his real issue is the more psychological need, where he tries to see himself as a bad guy, when he really isn't. He's lying to himself and trying to be something he isn't -- and he isn't really fooling anyone else.

This author does recognize stories like this, listing among his "other story types" the "Good vs. Evil" story in which the hero has a psychological need but no moral need, and where he may make mistakes along the way, but he doesn't act immorally. This is where a lot of genre fiction falls. The author seems to be of the opinion that this is a "lesser" kind of story because it's black-and-white and simpler, and he devotes maybe half a page to it. I wonder if this is what editors and agents meant when I was trying to write chick lit and they said it wasn't "edgy" enough. I wasn't giving my main character a moral failing (and the one time I tried doing that, I was told that the character was hard to relate to). I was trying to write heroic fiction in a mainstream genre.

But I don't think the good vs. evil story is automatically simplistic or isn't emotionally complex. There are ways to pull it off. I think one way is to make the hero's psychological need strong enough that it's almost moral, and that the hero not dealing with that need could have repercussions on the big picture. Quite often in heroic fiction stories, the hero at the beginning is mostly just not living up to his/her potential. He's living an ordinary life, totally unaware of what he's really capable of, and while he's not doing any harm, by not living up to his potential, he's in a sense cheating the world out of what he could do -- a sin of omission. Back to my Terminator example, Sarah may let people walk all over her, but she's not hurting anyone but herself. However, if she doesn't overcome that and become the kind of strong woman who can bring up the child who will help the human race fight back against the killer robots in the future, then mankind will be in big trouble. Luke Skywalker isn't acting immorally (unless you count the whining), but he's mostly talk about his dreams of adventure -- when he actually gets a distress signal, he starts coming up with excuses for not doing anything about it. But if he doesn't find his inner hero and ultimately be good enough to bring his father back to the right side, the galaxy is in trouble.

I think you could also do a quasi-moral need, where it's more a moral weakness that results in inaction than an outright immoral act. So, say there was another waitress who was being picked on, and Sarah Connor not only didn't stand up for herself but also didn't stand up for the other waitress, and part of her growth arc was her learning to not only stand up for herself, but also to defend others. That didn't come into play in what was essentially a survival story, but you get the idea.

Meanwhile, if the hero isn't failing in his attempts to achieve his goal and defeat the villain because he's choosing the morally wrong approach, you generally have to make the villain more powerful to give the hero a reason to fail. Yeah, the hero may fail sometimes because he makes mistakes, but you don't want him to be too stupid to live from making too many mistakes. In heroic fiction, training is often a part of the story, so while the hero might fail against the villain at first, gaining more skills during the story makes it possible for him to win. Gaining allies is another way the hero can overcome the powerful villain, and often the willingness to trust others and look for help is what the hero has to learn (like the Wolverine story in the first X-Men movie).

In other news, tonight on Ghost Hunters International on the Sci Fi Channel, they're investigating the local castle in the town where I used to live in Germany. It gets a lot of attention because it's Frankenstein Castle, but it has nothing to do with the Frankenstein story other than the name, and because of the name people tend to look for an eeriness that just isn't there. Well, no more so than with any other ruined castle. The first airing is opposite the Mythbusters MacGuyver show, and I'm not missing that, so I may check out the later repeat because I'm curious to see what they try to dig up. I never heard anything about it being haunted, unless you count the German-American club setting up a haunted house there for Halloween to raise money for charity. Mostly, I want to get another glimpse of my old hometown and the first castle I ever visited.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Paula Chase

I made some progress in fitting in the new nuances and elements into the book, until I got to what's going to be a major decision point for one of my characters that will give her part of the book more focus and direction, and then I wasn't sure how to convey it. It's an internal decision, but doing that in internal monologue isn't too interesting. It's better to try to fit it into an action sequence or conversation. Maybe I can find a compromise, and have her come to a decision, but not say what the decision is until the next scene, when she talks about it to someone else in the process of carrying out the decision. I'm still playing out different variations in my head.

But before I can get back to work, I absolutely have to run some errands today, even though I keep trying to talk myself out of them. If I just do it, I can get it over with and get back to work. So I'll leave you with a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit book, Don't Get it Twisted, by Paula Chase.

In Don’t Get It Twisted, the sequel to her debut, So Not The Drama, Chase gives readers a peek into the Del Rio Bay clique’s foray into dating, while also dipping her toe into the issue of student athletics and cheating.

Don’t Get It Twisted [Kensington Books/Dafina for Young Readers] finds Mina scheming to go on a date with her crush, Craig, to The Frenzy, a coveted party thrown by the school’s football team. As she draws her friends into the plans, a newcomer throws an unexpected monkey wrench into her blossoming relationship with Craig.

The same newcomer has JZ sweating his spot on the Varsity basketball team and soon, both Mina and JZ are on the ‘by any means necessary’ road to trouble.

Don’t Get It Twisted is about the consequences and repercussions of the choices we make when we set out to get the things we really want.

And now, the interview:

What inspired you to write this book?
I wrote my first book, So Not the Drama in 2003. When I finished the book, the voices of my characters were still ringing in my head, so I kept going and Don't Get It Twisted was born.

Describe your creative process.
I'm a seat of the pants writer. And I wish I weren't. It's weird because I'm a planner in every aspect of my life except writing. So it drives me a little nuts not to be an outliner. Yet every time I attempt to outline, I end up stopping in the middle or finishing one but never following it!

I never know where the story is going until I sit and write it. However, that doesn't mean there's no strategy. I'm also a die-hard tweaker. So before I write a new chapter, I re-read a chapter or two before it and always end up refining.

Do you have any writing habits or rituals?
Not really. But I find that being in total silence centers me. It's not something I'm around much. I have two kids and a husband. So I have artificial silence in the way of Bose earphones. I put those on and escape into the world I'm writing.

How much, if anything, do you have in common with your heroine?
There's definitely some of me in my MC. But it's a good mix of the qualities I have now as an adult. Qualities I wish I'd had as a teen. I've given her certain traits, but with the right amount of teen uncertainty. No matter how worldly a teen thinks they are, they're always going to feel a certain sense of vulnerability. So I've made Mina a more sensitive, innocent me.

Was there some event during your teen years you desperately wanted to get into? What about now?
Hmm...nothing comes to mind. I love new experiences, though. I think it would be cool to be on the crew of a reality TV show. Even though it would take a lot of the "magic" out of it, I'm curious how they put the story lines together.

Chocolate: dark or milk?
Milk. I'm a chocoholic.

What are you working on now?
I've started a new manuscript that would be geared to older teen readers. But soon, I'll have to jump back into the fifth book in the Del Rio Bay Clique series. It's the last book I'm under contract for, so I'm torn between tying up the series completely or leaving it open in case my publisher wants more.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
I have a lot of fun writing this series and I've heard from readers that they're enjoying it. Still, I think there are readers out there who may not be drawn to the book, immediately, because it's a series. They'll think it's a "gossip girl" type book. And it's not. So I'm hoping that readers looking for good stories about friendship and how challenging it can be to keep a friendship afloat will check it and the others in the series out.

For more info, visit Paula's web site, or you can order it from Amazon.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Old and Wise

Thanks to those who've responded about how/why you bought books in the last part of last year. I still don't have enough data to show any kind of pattern, so please do let me know if you fit into that group (see previous post). It does look like gift purchases played a big role. And it looks like there were people who'd previously borrowed books who bought them. On that front, was the price of the books an issue, and would you have bought sooner if lower-priced mass-market editions had been available? (Another thing I'm still pushing for.)

Working my way through that writing book ended up being very valuable (I think -- haven't started the actual writing based on it yet). I really was doing a lot of good things instinctively, but thinking through them consciously and doing more things deliberately should really help. Now I just need to sit down and do it. Unfortunately, I'm rather groggy and headachy today with a bit of a book hangover. I went on a reading binge this weekend and read three books, finishing the last one at about two this morning. I think, though, that it was more of a case of insomnia than it was of a book keeping me up all night. I usually do read myself to sleep, putting the book down and turning off the light when my eyes start getting heavy and I find myself pausing to rest when I turn pages. But last night, I kept waiting for the eyelid heaviness to hit, and it never did, so I kept reading until I finished the book, and even then it took me nearly an hour to fall asleep after I turned off the light.

I guess that's one of those signs that you're getting old or that your life is tame when the only "hangovers" you get are from staying up too late with a book. I've become rather conscious of some of these signs of aging, since I'm approaching one of those big, scary round number birthdays, but to be honest, I think a lot of these have been true for me all along.

You know you're getting old or that your life is tame when you're reading a book about someone's hip single life that's also full of heartbreak, and you find yourself sounding like a mother in wanting to tell the character exactly what she's doing wrong to keep getting herself in those situations -- and that's exactly the lesson the character learns at the end of the book. "You know, if you'd listened to me three hundred pages ago, you'd have saved yourself a lot of heartbreak."

You know you're getting old (or maybe "maturing" is a better word) when you find yourself giving reality checks to your own daydreams. I did finally acknowledge during the last winter Olympics that I would never win an Olympic gold medal in figure skating (since, you know, I'm nearing forty and have skated, like, five times in my whole life), and even if I could go back in time and actually live within a hundred miles of an ice rink during the period when most champions start learning to skate, I don't think I'd change what I've done with my life in order to fit in all the training that would be necessary because there are too many other things I wouldn't want to give up. But here lately, in those idle daydreams that pop up when I'm doing something boring like washing dishes, or when I'm lying in bed before I go to sleep, I've found myself realizing that I probably don't really want a lot of those things. If I did meet one of my celebrity crushes and he did fall in love with me, we probably wouldn't be compatible and would have clashing values, and I'm not sure I'd want to uproot my life to go live with him in Hollywood or New York or wherever, and an extreme introvert like me wouldn't really enjoy that lifestyle. While I occasionally harbor daydreams of becoming a Broadway star, I then realize that it would take too much time away from writing, and it would mean going back to a job that required me to leave the house on a daily basis. Even a more realistic (for me) daydream about being a staff writer on one of my favorite TV shows would, again, mean going back to a regular job, in addition to living in the LA area. Besides, being on the writing staff would mean I couldn't enjoy the show as a fan anymore and be surprised by what happens on the series.

I guess it's a sign of maturity to realize that you're content with your life as it is, that it's the life you're most suited to, and that maybe it's a good thing none of those wild daydreams ever came to pass. It's also a sign of maturity to have the self-discipline to actually work even when you aren't on a deadline, so off to work I go ...

Friday, February 15, 2008

Blips and Story Analysis

On my latest round of royalty statements, sales of the first two books in the series doubled from what they'd been in the previous period, which is kind of odd for books that have been out for more than a year, and really odd for books that have been out for more than two years. Normally sales start big and then gradually decline. They don't usually spike years down the line. My agent and I are trying to figure out what, if anything, caused that blip so that we can maybe repeat it on purpose or get the publisher to do something to capitalize on it. My agent's meeting with my new editor next week, and I thought it might be nice so give her some data.

So, if you first bought one of the first two books of the series in the second half of last year (July through December), especially in the September-November time frame, what led to you discovering and buying the book? Did you hear about it somewhere, see something online, etc.? If you'd already heard about it previously but only bought the book at that time, what led you to finally make that purchase? It would also be interesting data if you were already into the series through the library or borrowing a book and bought a copy for yourself during that time, if you received it as a gift, or if you were already a fan and bought copies as gifts at that time. You can leave comments or e-mail me.

Now, for something less self-serving. A few weeks ago (pre-flu), I mentioned that I was reading a book on writing. That's where that list of things that really appeal to me in stories came from. Now that I've finished reading it, I'll talk about the book as a whole. It's The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, and I liked it enough that I'm seriously considering buying it in hardcover (I found it at the library). I haven't actually tried to apply the things from it in my work, but it was triggering enough "A ha!" moments and ideas as I was reading it that I decided to postpone getting back to work on revising my book in order to read the rest of it and then try to apply it. There were enough things I was already doing instinctively that I can't help but wonder if applying the things I wasn't already doing to the parts that aren't working would help.

One thing I really like is that he has some practical suggestions for very esoteric aspects of writing, like theme and symbolism. There's also a whole chapter on creating something that people want to return to -- the story that keeps people thinking or that people want to re-read/re-watch. He has a pretty complicated plot breakdown that appeals to my analytical little heart, with 22 elements (most writing books seem to have just six or seven). And they are elements that may be woven throughout the story rather than cut-and-dried steps. One thing that I like about that section of the book is that he illustrates the whole thing with two different movies, and his examples aren't perfect illustrations of his steps. Where they vary, he explains how that works in that particular story. When the examples are too letter-perfect, it's more difficult to see how the system could be flexible.

On the down side, it does seem like the emphasis is more on screenwriting than on novel writing, even though the basic storytelling elements are fairly universal. In one case, where he does a deep analysis of how the scenes break down and encompass his 22 elements, he uses Pride and Prejudice, but instead of the novel itself, he analyzes the screenplay from the 1940s movie, which seems to bear only passing similarity to the book (and as I recall, that's the movie where the characters wore Victorian attire instead of Regency). His focus also seems to be more on mainstream stories than on genre, and as a result there are a few things he seems to find essential that I don't think entirely work for me as a reader or author, but that's fodder for a separate post.

The part I think I liked the most was on the story world, which adds a new level to world building. He shows how the story world needs to grow out of character and reflect what's going on in the character's life, then gets into the symbolism and psychological impact of various settings and how they're used in stories. One thought I found very cool was the use of city as ocean -- with the skyline/rooftops as the surface, and then the characters living on different levels, with some up above and others down on the "floor" where it's darker and murkier.

Today's plan is to go back through the whole book, doing all the writing exercises as they apply to my book, and see what happens.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What's Romantic?

Happy Valentine's Day! My gift to myself was taking care of all those errands that I've let pile up while I didn't have the energy or brainpower to deal with them. The other gift I got was a new editor. Again. No, I'm not driving them all away. They just all seem to get great opportunities for other jobs. My new editor is actually on the science fiction/fantasy side of the house, which is pretty cool and which could be interesting.

Not that I really care all that much about Valentine's Day, and it's not just me being bitter because I haven't been in a relationship for Valentine's Day in twenty years. It just seems very un-romantic to me because it's been turned into some kind of commercial-driven obligation, like if you don't get the right diamond from the right store, your relationship is doomed, and the woman will bite off her man's head and toss him aside for thwarting her wishes. Obligation isn't romantic. Surprise is romantic. Genuine feelings not inspired by a calendar date or an advertisement are romantic.

I've been thinking about what I find romantic a lot over the past few days after I came to the rather shocking, considering I'm a member of Romance Writers of America and started my career writing romance novels, realization that I don't find romance novels romantic. I think it's a lot like the way I feel about Valentine's Day, that if it's expected, then it's not very romantic. The very things that most romance fans love about the romance genre are the things I dislike about it. Fans like the idea of a guaranteed happy ending, where they know from the start that the hero and heroine will get together, and they like the idea that they can overcome all the obstacles between them. Maybe I've read too many, but I find that the guaranteed happy ending lessens the interest for me. If there's no chance of a sad ending, or even of a happy ending that's different than you expect, then the happy ending is kind of meaningless to me. Not that I'm opposed to romance. I love love stories. I just prefer them outside the romance genre, where they flow out of other events and interactions, and where I don't know from the beginning who will end up with whom. I'm willing to take the risk of a sad or tragic ending because that makes the happy endings, when they happen, more surprising and gratifying.

So, what do I find romantic? In books, one of my favorite recent love stories was Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. I absolutely adore the way the relationship between Ned and Verity developed in To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (in general, she writes very good romances). I love the relationship between Lizzie and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice because Austen doesn't try to mix sexual tension with conflict in an annoying way. (One of those romance tropes I dislike is the whole "I just can't stand him, but oooh, he really turns me on" routine.) Lizzie just plain can't stand him, until she gets to know him, and it's only after she starts liking him that she becomes attracted to him. But I think my all-time favorite literary romance would have to be Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series. It took place over seven books, so it's a slow enough build even for me, the fan of the slow build, and it felt so very real and organic. When they finally got it together, it was incredibly satisfying because it was earned on both sides, and that may have been my favorite moment in the entire series.

For movies, Stardust totally made me swoon. People laugh at me when I refer to The Terminator as one of my favorite romantic movies, but it really is a love story. I adore Breakfast at Tiffany's -- and I think it works because the outcome seemed highly unlikely for much of the film (yes, I know it's different in the book, but this is a rare case where I think the movie is much better than the book). One of my favorite romantic moments in a movie is the scene between Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story where he gives her the "hearth fires and holocausts" speech and tells her how magnificent she is. Okay, so he's not who she ends up with, but still, swooooon.

TV is a little more difficult because it's a challenge developing a relationship in an ongoing series when you don't know how long the series will run. Farscape probably did the best of any series in making the development of the relationship work throughout without losing momentum once the couple got together. So far, it seems like The Office is also making it work with Jim and Pam.

In music, my all-time most-romantic piece of music is Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. It's one of the few instrumental pieces that I can't use as background noise. I can't write while it's playing, and I can't even read. I just have to listen. There's an entire love story in that concerto. I have a historic recording with Rachmaninoff himself doing the piano solo, and he gives it an almost jazzy level of sultry. For vocal music, Ella Fitzgerald's version of "The Way You Look Tonight" almost makes me weep. Robert Goulet singing "If Ever I Would Leave You" makes me melt (I never got to hear him do that live, but I did see him in South Pacific, and him doing "Some Enchanted Evening" was pretty darn nice). It's a bit creepy in the context of the show, but "Where's the Girl?" from The Scarlet Pimpernel as performed by Terrence Mann is totally swoonworthy and makes me want to write a book about it.

So, there you have it. Now I have this urge to put on some Rachmaninoff and eat chocolate.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Creativity Boosters

I think I really am almost well now. There's still some coughing, but I managed to sleep last night without cough syrup. And I got work done! Not actual writing, but I did a lot of pen-and-paper strategizing.

I'm a bit behind on my writing posts, since I've been too sick to think and write coherently, but now that I'm back, I think discussion of some creativity boosters is in order (because I may need them to jump-start myself). Some of these are more for general creativity, while others are more specific to working out particular problems, and some can be applied in different ways to different situations. And they're in no particular order because I'm feeling random today.

1) Study, participate in or experience another form of art.
It's amazing what you can pick up that applies to your writing from other art forms. I took a vocal performance class last year, and learning to pour fire and passion into Italian opera arias really helped me find new ways to convey emotion in my work. I've also used hints I've learned from acting classes I've taken in the past. Studying visual art, taking a painting class or even touring a museum can enhance your eye for visual detail. Almost anything you explore will help make you a more well-rounded person, and that's something you can bring to your writing.

2) Mix things up.
Try writing in a different place or in a different way. If you usually write with a computer at your desk, try writing by hand while sitting on the patio. If you usually work with music, try silence, and vice versa. Try a different process -- if you write by the seat of your pants, try outlining. If you plot, try just going free-form. When I go to writing conferences, I like to try at least once going to the session I think least applies to me and my work. Usually, the most useful inspiration from the entire conference comes from that session. It's all about the power of the unexpected and making your brain forge new pathways. Even if you end up going back to the tried and true ways that work for you, just having tried something different can make it feel fresh.

3) Make lists.
This is one of those tips I got from a conference session I didn't think applied to me or my work. For whatever problem you're facing in your work, whether deciding what to write, developing a character, figuring out a plot twist, fleshing out a scene, outlining a book, etc., make a list of twenty possibilities. Even if you come up with something really good that you want to use at around number fifteen, keep going to twenty. You'll be surprised at what you come up with in those last few items when you really have to force yourself to think of something. I've heard mystery writers say that when you're trying to come up with a plot twist, you should make a list like this and immediately strike off the first ten things you come up with because they're the ones everyone else is likely to come up with. What I generally find when I do this for planning a scene is that the first five things are the obvious things that need to happen for the plot, the middle ten are kind of silly, and the last five are the fun things that really make the scene pop.

4) Try "divination."
I put that in quotes because I don't mean actual mystical/magical/spiritual work. It's more about using random generation to force yourself out of your usual mindset for thinking. Find some way of giving yourself random input, and then try to think of how the result could apply to your story or whatever problem with your work you're trying to deal with. I know of authors who use Tarot cards and then try to figure out how the card they draw applies to their character or plot. You can make your own creativity cards by pasting magazine pictures onto index cards and do a similar thing. Put iTunes on shuffle and think about how the next song that comes up could relate to your story. Get a random article on Wikipedia or a random LOL cat at I Can Has Cheezburger. Open to a random encyclopedia page. You get the idea. Some of the things you get will require a real stretch to relate them to what you're working on, but the stretch is the whole point here. You're forcing yourself to approach the story from an entirely different angle that you didn't choose. What you end up coming up with may have absolutely nothing to do with whatever random thing you found, but it helps to make yourself think in different ways, and this is a good way to get out of a rut.

5) Make a collage.
Visually oriented people may find it helpful to make a collage by cutting out pictures of things that remind them of their story and then arranging them on posterboard. I also know of people who use small objects in a shadowbox to do the same thing. I do what I guess you could call an audio collage by making a "soundtrack" for my books, with songs that remind me of characters, scenes or emotions in the book. You could also do a scent collage using scented candles or essential oils that relate to your story (though you'd probably want to keep them separate and maybe just smell them in a particular order). The process of finding, selecting and arranging the items for whatever kind of collage you do puts your subconscious to work and creates a sense of discovery that gets at the essence of the story, behind the words. You may not even know why you relate a particular picture, song or scent with your story, but seeing/hearing/smelling it in your collage can give you something to think about.

6) Map it out.
This is for the more left-brained thinkers. Mind-mapping, in which you draw out the connections between various elements in your story or the branches related to each element, is another visual way of organizing story information. Flow charts can also work to show stages in a plot or a character's decision-making process.

With all of these techniques, the trick is to use them for enhancing your creativity without letting them become procrastination tools. If your collage inspires you to write your book, then that's good, but if you get sidetracked creating the perfect collage and never actually get around to working on the book, then you won't have something that can eventually be published.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Book Report: Some Nostalgia

I continue to get better, day by day. I think I finally have my brain back, which is exciting. I've been lost in a fog, and I now can actually think again. Last week, if I had to do any serious analytical thinking, I had to take a nap afterward. Now I just need my voice back. I still have that sort of raspy and congested sound, and I've almost forgotten what my real voice sounds like. I was mentally running through a presentation I'm giving later this month, and even in my head, I was imagining my voice as all raspy and congested sounding. Then I realized that in the book I was reading, in my head I "heard" all the characters sounding like they'd been sick. The last time I did that was when I had knee surgery, and I found myself imagining all the characters in any book I read as being on crutches.

I'm a bit behind on book reports. I didn't manage to read much while I was sick because of that inability to concentrate, and some of the books I read recently I don't really want to discuss (they're not what I'd really recommend).

One that I did love and that may become the next thing I find myself pushing to random people in bookstores was The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice (daughter of lyricist Tim Rice). It's a sort of coming-of-age novel set in post-war England. An eighteen-year-old girl in London for the day is waiting for a bus when another girl talks her into sharing a cab, and through that chance meeting she gains a new friend and entry into an entirely different world. The book really explores the generational and cultural gap created by the war, where the adults knew the pre-war life and the teens don't remember a life that wasn't shaped by the war. These are the kids who grew up during air raids and blackouts, who lost fathers, who had to leave their homes and who haven't ever lived without wartime rationing (which didn't end entirely until the 1950s). These are also the kids who are discovering rock and roll, with the girls totally obsessed with Johnnie Ray, but then the heroine's uncle in Louisiana (her aunt was a war bride), gives them a record by this kid he heard sing at the Louisiana Hayride who's going to change everything.

This book reminds me a lot of I Capture the Castle, and in a sense, the main characters in that book could have been the parents of the main characters in this one. The two books are set twenty years apart, and it's a sign of just how much things changed in that time that they seem to belong to different worlds.

I must admit that The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets pushed a lot of my buttons, since it involves England, a time period somewhat related to WWII (and deals with the aftermath of the war), swanky parties and weekends at a manor house. So, yeah, I was pretty much there, but I also liked the characters, and there's some real wit in the writing. Rice's next book is coming out this spring, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Really back (and other news)

I'm really starting to almost feel human again, which is exciting. I'm still a bit coughy and sniffly, but that could be allergies rather than lingering flu symptoms. I don't have quite the same level of utter exhaustion. And apparently they guessed wrong for this year's flu shot, and the big strain going around isn't prevented by the shot, so I don't feel quite so bad about not having gotten around to getting the shot. It wouldn't have helped.

Now I'm trying to get back to work, and I have a massive backlog of e-mail to read and deal with. It's enough to make me whimper and want to crawl back in bed. I have book ideas, so today I plan to devote a little time to playing with them and see if they're actually viable.

Meanwhile, I've learned that Damsel Under Stress is in its fourth printing. I hadn't known about the second. So it's not as big a failure as I'd been led to believe, and there was a huge sales spike in the first two books last fall, for whatever reason. Funny, the books started selling better after I stopped the heavy promotional work, though I guess the spike could have come as a result of the prior promo work. My publisher is already getting requests from bookstores for me to do signings for the new book. It's kind of cool for it to work that way, with the stores asking for me instead of the other way around. Supposedly, subsequent printings were to have the matte covers like the first two books instead of the glossy cover that was done in error, but I haven't heard yet if they did that (and it's possible that they'd already printed more covers than books and are still using the original covers). I haven't seen a matte cover, but I also haven't been looking very hard.

In other news, I found myself watching Pride and Prejudice on Masterpiece Theater last night, in spite of having it on DVD. It's still rather captivating, all these years later. I remember when it was on A&E, and I taped the late-night showings, then marathoned the whole thing one weekend. I was glad I didn't have to wait for the next installment. Ah, back in the good old days when A&E showed good stuff. I've been considering joining Netflix just to get access to all those old A&E and Masterpiece Theater miniseries that the local video stores don't have.

And now I think I must make some tea and get to work. I was feeling self-indulgent last week (as I tend to do when I'm sick) and bought the Tetley's British Blend tea bags instead of the plain kind I usually get for run-of-the-mill tea. Oh my, but that is seriously good stuff. It's almost as good as a really good loose tea or the stuff my dad got me in Sri Lanka (somehow, he's not interested in going back to do follow-up relief work just to restock my tea). It's even almost as good as the tea I had in England. I'd thought maybe the water had something to do with it because even my Twinings didn't taste as good at home, but this stuff comes pretty close. I may have a new addiction, and I'd be willing to give up some other indulgence to buy this on a regular basis, even if it is more expensive. It's also strong enough to get two cups per tea bag, so I may find myself a small two-cup teapot.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Still Here

I am still here. I just haven't posted because I haven't had much to say beyond whining about still being so very weak and tired. When your own post bores you while you're writing it, it's probably best not to bother inflicting it on anyone else.

I finished watching the second season of Life on Mars, and will have to rewatch the finale when I'm more coherent because that was rather mindblowing. I now also see why everyone was so excited when John Simm showed up as the Master on Doctor Who. I couldn't see why anyone would like or sympathize with the Master, but now I see that he likely carried a lot of residual Sam love with him. Sam wasn't entirely sane, but he was very nice. I think I need to rewatch those Doctor Who episodes now. I've also heard they're planning a US version of Life on Mars, which kind of makes me cringe. That has the potential to be so very bad. Then again, I much prefer the US version of The Office, so it can be done right. I just can't imagine extending that premise for the length of the typical American series (though, given the usual, non-Office track record for US versions of British series, it will likely end up being shorter than the British version).

I think, thanks to Mom, I've figured out the main thing needed for the book I'm revising. Now I just need to make it happen, if I ever again have the energy to try to work for more than five minutes at a time. But I will not whine about being weak and tired and unable to focus.

Meanwhile, I've had a character living in my brain for nearly twenty years. She first showed up in a dream, and she came to life fully formed, complete with a name. I've auditioned her for a role in every story idea I've come up with, but she's never quite fit. I've sort of kept her busy by dropping her into mental fanfic every so often for series that need someone like her, but she hasn't yet fit into her own story. Now, though, I've finally come up with a story for her where she works and belongs, and it's really been taking shape in my head. And then I read about a new British TV series that has a lead character with the same name. Arrrgggghhhh! I had it first! But it's not a really weird or unusual name, and I use a different form of the first name, so I think I can still use it. It was just really surreal to be reading something online about a character with the same name as someone who's been living in my head for so long, and the actress who plays her could even play this character in my head. And, no, I'm not going to say what it is because I still plan to use this character and this name, and I don't want to draw more attention to it. I guess this is kind of like when Stargate SG-1 came on and one of the main characters had the same name as the pen name I was using at the time.

Now I have some errands I really must run that have to be done today, and I have to gather the energy to go do them. I'm tempted to split off the errands that must be done today and then put the rest off until tomorrow, but I think it might be better to just do them all at once today and then not have to worry about anything tomorrow. I guess we'll see how I feel once I'm out and about. It does look like cabin fever this weekend won't be an issue, as I don't much feel like doing anything.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Back Among the Living

I now seem to be more or less kind of on the mend. I'm in the annoying twilight zone of illness, where I'm not really sick anymore (no fever, no aches, just a bit of a cough), but I don't actually feel good. So I don't feel sick enough to justify staying in bed or on the sofa all day, doing nothing, but I don't feel well enough to do much of anything. I'm not going to push myself to work a normal day, but I am going to try to accomplish something. Just getting through a week's worth of e-mail will be a major chore. I suspect that if my energy keeps increasing, I will have a massive case of cabin fever by next weekend and will have to go out and do something.

On the up side, I think I lost any weight I put on during the holidays, so I've got a fresh start for getting in shape once I have the energy to exercise again.

One very odd coincidence: The last time I had a real, full-on case of influenza, it was back in 1993, and it happened right after the can-opener incident that gave me the big scar on my thumb. And then this time I have flu, it came right after I burned my hand (which has almost entirely healed, but it's too soon to know how much scarring there will be). So, does an injury to the hand cause the flu? Inquiring minds want to know.

It actually took me most of Sunday last week to realize I was sick. The first symptoms were the intense body aches, but I thought that was because of an accident I had on Saturday. I was running to pick up a ringing phone, tripped and fell from my bedroom into the entryway, where I slid across the tiled floor to hit the wall. And then I got to the phone to be able to tell my mom the name of Death's horse in the Discworld books. I hadn't thought it possible to snarl the name "Binky," but it is (not that it was Mom's fault, since she didn't know what I was going through to answer the phone, but it does feel like the more effort you go to in order to answer the phone or the more inconvenient the call, the more important it should be). The next day, I was bruised in a few places, but I was surprisingly sore all over. I was mentally preparing a rant going back to my mention of the main characters getting injured occasionally as one of the things I like in a story, with this as evidence, that if a minor fall leaves me that sore the next day, how do these people get bounced off walls and then keep going all the time on TV? And then later in the day I figured out that I was feverish and achy and maybe I had the flu instead of hurting from tripping and falling.

My invalid entertainment included almost all of season 3 of Doctor Who (but not the last episode because that one makes me cry, and I'd reached the stuffy head/sniffly portion of the illness by then, where crying makes it worse), then the DVD of the three Wallace and Gromit shorts (plus two episodes of Shaun the Sheep -- LOVE!!!), and then I discovered season 2 of Life on Mars on BBCAmerica OnDemand, and after a few episodes, I'm rather hooked and will need to find a way to see the first season. After seeing some of the "mean girls" recommendations here, I caught Cruel Intentions 2 on one of the cable channels, and my goodness, but that was awful, though it was kind of fun seeing Amy Adams act bitchy, which I wasn't sure was possible. But it was way too over-the-top for what I have in mind. Now I'm mostly looking forward to having the attention span for really reading again. I only managed one book the whole week, and I know I'm going to have to re-read it.

Now I suppose I should tackle the e-mail. I suspect most of the mailing list digests will be deleted unread.