Monday, March 31, 2008

Prelude to Car Shopping

I'm back home again after a very nice partial weekend away (I was actually home on Saturday). East Texas really was lovely. The dogwood trees were amazing. They're fairly small trees, and in the spring before they leaf out, they have these white blooms. You'll see a bunch of them on a wooded hillside, and because they're smaller than the other trees and are usually blooming before the other trees have many leaves, it almost gives the effect of snow. I don't have any pictures because most of the really good dogwood spots on my way home were along two-lane roads without shoulders, so I couldn't stop to take pictures.

This was probably my last road trip in my current car. It's still running pretty well at nearly 11 years and 103,000 miles, but when it fails, the failure is pretty catastrophic, so it's not good for when I have to do a lot of road trips. If it were a second car used mostly for running to and from the grocery store, that would be fine, but before convention season, I need a car I can trust. I think I'll be getting a new car in April because my registration runs out at the end of the month, and there's no point paying for a registration and then trading the car in. In fact, I may even have put gas in it for the last time.

So, it's time to start actively car shopping -- the icky part, where you have to actually deal with car salesmen (shudder). I've been sort of passively car shopping, which amounts to some Internet research and reading the auto section in the weekend newspaper. I've also been looking at cars as I go about my daily routine to see what catches my eye. That has brought me to a disturbing conclusion: For someone with a stated goal of finding the cheapest car that doesn't require quarters to operate, I have very expensive taste in cars.

I'll be driving around, or sitting at my desk and looking out the window at the major road that goes behind my house, and I'll spot a car that I think looks like a practical little car that's still kind of cute, and it almost always turns out to be either a BMW or a Volvo when I see it from an angle where the logo is visible. I really seem to be drawn to the BMW 325i and the Volvo S40. But it's not the logo that draws me. They look to me like cute, cheap, practical little cars, and I expect them to be maybe the lower-end Fords or Mazdas, so I'm surprised that they turn out to be luxury cars -- lower-end luxury cars, but still at least $10,000 more expensive than the cars I think they are. Sometimes the car I spot will turn out to be the Volkswagen Jetta. That's cheaper, but still out of my price range. I never thought of myself as a BMW or Volvo kind of person. I'm not much of a car person, really. My ego and sense of self aren't at all linked to what I drive. I just want something that will get me where I'm going and back home again reliably, with some comfort and without costing a lot of money or using a lot of fuel, so it's a little disturbing to find myself drooling over a BMW. The Volvo isn't so bad because those are generally more associated with safety than with luxury (and either there's one person who owns a silver S40 and drives around a lot, or a lot of my neighborhood owns them, because I seem to see one every five minutes). The real irony of me eying expensive cars is that I was pretty close to being eligible for the state money to help get older cars off the road. My car just qualified, and I'd have had to do my taxes to see if my income qualified because it was too close to just estimate. Not that I would have filed for it, since I can afford a new car and I think the money should go to people who really need it to replace a truly old car.

Fortunately, now that there seem to be more of them on the road, I've been seeing the cars I think are these fancy European cars, and they turn out to be the 2008 Ford Focus. That's more in my price range and it's more the kind of car I would associate with myself. Oddly, for a much cheaper car, it actually has some better reliability numbers. Why is it that the cars rated the absolute lowest in reliability are some of the most expensive out there? You pretty much have to have a full-time mechanic on staff if you drive a Bentley. But if the car is that cruddy, then what are you paying all that money for?

Anyway, it appears that my car personality is European, which makes sense, as I did spend some formative years there, and the Focus fits into that because it's a "world car" that was first sold in Europe. I think that may be my starting point. I've thought it might be fun to at least look at the Volvo, but I'm afraid I'd spoil myself. I'd hoped to have a new book deal before I needed to go car shopping, and then I'd know if I could afford to splurge, but that doesn't look like it will happen, as the book I've just finished hasn't even been submitted anywhere yet and that means I won't have a book deal before I need a car. I would have liked another Saturn because this has been a good car, but it's like that company has completely changed since I bought mine, and they aren't currently selling anything I want. Those "yes, this is a Saturn dealership" commercials really annoy me because to me, that's not a good thing.

Tomorrow may be my day to hit the car dealerships because today they've forecast off-and-on thunderstorms, and I don't want to be out and about when there's a chance of hail. I guess that means I have to start psyching myself up to face car salesmen (shudder). On the bright side, maybe I'll get some amusing anecdotes out of the process.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Springtime in Texas

Oops, late posting today, but I've been hanging with the folks and dealing with some business stuff. We went out for catfish last night, which I'd been craving for a while, and I think Dad's going to grill tonight. Yeah, we lead a life of excitement and adventure.

This is a great time to visit East Texas because the flowering trees are blooming. We've got wisteria, redbuds and dogwoods. Then on the ground there are the azaleas. My parents have a wisteria bush on each side of the house, and the scent is almost overwhelming.

This is the one by my parents' back porch:

The downside of visiting at this time of year is that March Madness is going on and my parents are really, really into basketball. I may be hibernating this evening, even though Texas is playing.

And now because it's Friday, I have a tiny bit of geekery to share. It's only a few weeks until we get Doctor Who back in the US, and here's a sneak peak trailer (spoilery in the sense that trailers give you a sense of what's going to happen). (Oh, and I use links instead of embedding the video because that can take forever to load for some people. If you've got the bandwidth, you can click on the link and watch the video, but if you don't have the bandwidth, it doesn't make my blog slow to load).

See you Monday!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents A Disreputable Book

I'm off to spend some quality time with the parental units (who were threatening to visit me if I didn't, and that would require house cleaning, so off I go!), but in the meantime, here's our latest Girlfriends Cyber Circuit entry, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by repeat GCC guest E. Lockhart (author of Dramarama and The Boyfriend List).

I think the jacket copy is clever enough that I'm not going to try to rewrite my own summary:

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 14:
Debate Club.
Her father's "bunny rabbit."
A mildly geeky girl attending a highly competitive boarding school.

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 15:
A knockout figure.
A sharp tongue.
A chip on her shoulder.
And a gorgeous new senior boyfriend: the supremely goofy, word-obsessed Matthew Livingston.

Frankie Laundau-Banks.
No longer the kind of girl to take "no" for an answer.
Especially when "no" means she's excluded from her boyfriend's all-male secret society.
Not when her ex boyfriend shows up in the strangest of places.
Not when she knows she's smarter than any of them.
When she knows Matthew's lying to her.
And when there are so many, many pranks to be done.

Frankie Landau-Banks, at age 16:
Possibly a criminal mastermind. 

This is the story of how she got that way.

Disreputable History

And now the interview:

What inspired this book?
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks started from my vestigal anger at the old boys' network that still exists and still wields tremendous power, even in this age of equality. That makes it sound boring, though, right?

It also started from my memories of various campus escapades I got up to in college -- midnight parties on the golf course, sneaking into the chapel, streaking through the Shakespeare garden. I wanted to write a book that would capture some of the hijinks of those days -- only the adventures I invented were on a much larger scale than anything I ever actually did. 

It seems that the teen years are times of rapid change -- which may be how a slightly nerdy ten can become a criminal mastermind a couple of years later. Did you experience any dramatic changes in your teen years (even if you didn't become a criminal)?
If I became a criminal, I'm not telling you on the internet!  :)  
I did, however, go from being so unpopular people moved away from me if I sat near them at lunch -- to being very popular, on the prom committee, boyfriends, school plays, and writing the humor column for the school paper. Just by changing schools.  That experience made me very interested in the social heirarchies of environments like high school or summer camp -- a subject which comes up in nearly all my books. 

Have there been any groups you wanted to be part of that you were left out of?
Sure. But never anything so concrete as the secret society in the book -- The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.  Discrimination and exclusion can be subtle. 

What else are you working on now?
I am writing the third in the series that started with The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book. There will be a fourth as well!  And on May 6 my book How to Be Bad, co-written with Lauren Myracle and Sarah Mlynowski. It's a road trip novel and it was so fun to write! (Unlike The Disreputable History, which was absolute torture, like bleeding onto the page.) Plus, Sarah and Lauren are really, really funny, so it came out good. 

For more info, check out her web site, or buy the book from Powell's.

In other news, I'm starting to get some advance reviews on Don't Hex With Texas, and I got four and a half stars from Romantic Times, though I haven't seen the review itself yet, and I got a really nice review from Booklist. So, yay, looks like yet another book doesn't totally suck. Yes, I still get insecure about these things.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pet Words

When I was doing my last (for now) round of proofreading on the book I just finished, I found myself hitting just about every item on my "kill your darlings" list. I don't tend to do a lot of flowery description, so my one Victorian poet-style bit was a crossover with showing off my research, but otherwise, yeah, I was a big violator. There were the lines that must have seemed clever when I wrote them, but then I couldn't figure out what they were supposed to mean when I was reviewing them. If you have to stop and think to get your own jokes, they have to go. I was really bad about showing off my research or general knowledge. Yeah, my characters would know these things and would probably notice them, but it didn't matter to the story, so they had to go. I killed nearly 2,000 words in the last section of the book during revisions, then more than 1,000 more words on my last proofreading of the whole book. Yikes!

One other thing I've noticed in proofreading is that I tend to have pet words, and I've noticed in my reading of published books that I'm not alone in this. These seem to fall into two categories:

1) Unnecessary words -- these are the ones like "kind of," "sort of," "a little," "just" and most of the was/were -ing verb forms, especially when used in conjunction with a form of "start" ("was starting to do something"). Normal speech is saturated with these words, to the point we don't even hear them, and once you become conscious of them, you'll really notice how often they pop up in your writing. Most of the time, they're what could be called "weasel words" because they're used to soften or back off from a direct statement. Instead of just coming out and saying that something is a certain way, we back into it by saying it's sort of that way. That's generally considered to be a more feminine speech pattern because women are more likely to try to soften their statements to avoid direct conflict (though, of course, it depends on the woman). There are also regional dialects more likely to talk this way. Southerners are prone to softening direct statements, and it's nearly impossible to fully capture the rhythm of Southern speech without using the word "just" a lot. You may find that you're prone to using one of these words in particular so that it really pops up all over the place, and you may not even be aware you're doing it.

You'd be surprised how many of these you find if you do a search through your whole manuscript -- but consider each instance instead of ever doing any global search/replace. There are some sentences that won't work without these words, where they aren't useless. There are also times when they are truly appropriate, such as with dialogue. If you've got a character who's afraid to come out and say what she means, you'll need some weasel words to give that flavor. In first-person narration, you need the sense of the narrator's true speech, so someone who talks that way is going to have more of these so-called wasted words, even in narration. The trick, as with almost every other kind of rule-breaking, is to do it consciously for a reason rather than doing it because you're not thinking about it, and to do it sparingly for effect. A little goes a long way.

2) Specific overused words -- We all tend to have words we like, and we use them over and over again. Sometimes there's a particular word for each book or character, and sometimes it's an author's favorite word in general. Some of these seem to come from finding a more interesting, specific or unusual way to express something, but then it really stands out if that word is used too often. As an example, I once read a book in which the favorite facial expression was a grimace. The characters never frowned, made a face or glared. They all grimaced. I suspect the author was trying to avoid overusing the word "frown" and trying to find something more colorful, but these people grimaced on every page. I've caught myself going overboard with the word "ornate."

One good way to catch either of these kinds of pets is to read your manuscript out loud to yourself. That forces you to read every single word instead of letting your eyes skim over the meaningless words. Once you notice a particular word popping up too often, do a global search (but not a replace!) and seriously consider each use. For the more unusual words -- whatever your "ornate" seems to be -- set yourself a quota per book and decide which uses are most important, then find other words for the rest.

On the other hand, remember that characters may have their own pet words, and repetition of that sort can be done to great effect -- set up an expectation with repetition, then give it a twist later or have another character be influenced by it. Again, the trick is to do it on purpose for a reason. Limit use of the word to that particular character -- only in dialogue spoken by that character or in narrative from that character's point of view (unless you're showing the influence on other characters). That will limit overuse, while also making the specific use for that character stand out more.

On a totally unrelated topic, do any of you art buffs have a favorite statue or sculpture? Especially one of a beautiful or fierce woman -- preferably with arms and head attached, so that rules out the Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo. Weeping angels are right out. I've never been much of a visual arts person, and suddenly I find myself delving into that area (for a book, of course), so I need to find some starting points for exploration. Writing really seems to require lifelong learning.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Calling All Four-Eyes!

I had my eyes examined today, with such a tiny change that it wasn't worth changing my prescription. That's about eight years with no real change, so yay. And I have new contact lenses, which is good because I'd just opened my last one (I have disposables).

And that brings up a rant I've been contemplating for a while: the fictional depiction of characters who use corrective lenses. I'm trying to organize my thoughts here for the many mini rants encompassed in this topic.

1) The glasses=smart cliche.
Glasses seem to have become shorthand for "smart, bookish character." Never mind that there's no known link between intelligence and eyesight, and it's a myth that reading a lot makes your eyes bad. I suppose it is possible that kids with bad eyesight are less likely to be active in sports that could break glasses and therefore more likely to do non-physical stuff like reading, but still, it's kind of silly how far Hollywood has taken this. If you've got a group of characters and one of them wears glasses, it's a pretty good bet that the character in glasses will be the one who's smart, good with computers or into books, and possibly not very adept socially.

There seems to be some softening on this in recent years, with characters who are allowed to be smart without wearing glasses. Willow on Buffy didn't wear glasses, Chuck may be a smart, nerdy guy, but he doesn't wear glasses. Samantha Carter on SG-1 didn't wear glasses. Hermione Granger doesn't wear glasses. However, we still don't have too many non-brainy people who wear glasses. The only one I can think of is Harry Potter, who's not an idiot, but he's not super good in school and he certainly doesn't keep his nose in a book all the time. I think we need more characters whose eyesight isn't necessarily related to their brainpower.

2) The reason for wearing glasses is statistically wrong, for the most part.
When a character wears glasses, it tends to be just for reading, especially if the character is in a lead role or is otherwise supposed to be attractive or sexy. They can run around being action hero/heroine and looking hot, and then when it's time to be smart and dig into the books, they put on their reading glasses. But myopia (nearsightedness) is the far more common vision problem among people in their 20s and 30s -- the age most TV characters are. There are younger people who are farsighted and just need glasses to read, but in general, that's more likely to be a problem after the age of 40. Statistically, most of the young adults who need glasses need them to see at a distance, and yet most characters I can think of (especially on TV) just put on glasses to read (I guess it's that "smart" thing again). There was Joel on Northern Exposure, both Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, Fred on Angel, Dr. Cameron on House, the tenth Doctor on Doctor Who* and just about every character who puts on a pair of glasses in a movie but who isn't a total nerd. It would be more accurate to have characters in this age range who need glasses for everything but reading -- I often joke about going against the flow when I do readings at conventions and take my glasses off when I start to read -- but then that would mean the characters spending most of their time in glasses, and I guess we can't have that unless they're supposed to be really, really brainy and not very attractive.

We have had some glasses-wearers who got it right, most of the time. There was Daniel Jackson on SG-1 and Wesley on Angel, both of whom wore glasses all the time, like they truly needed them to see and who did that unfocused blinking thing when they took them off (I know Alexis Denisof is a real-life glasses wearer, so he would get that detail right, but I don't know about Michael Shanks). However, they also seemed to have testosterone-linked vision. Most of the time, they needed glasses to walk across the room, but if they were in a situation where they needed to be action stars or were in the romantic lead role, suddenly they could get around just fine without glasses, and Wesley completely lost his glasses when he became a badass later in the series. Agent Mulder was another one who, in addition to being yet another inappropriate reading glasses wearer, had testosterone-linked vision, so that once they realized he'd become an action hero heartthrob, he wasn't seen wearing the glasses anymore. Never mind the legions of women begging for the return of the glasses.

I suppose we could imagine that all the characters who aren't wearing glasses are wearing contact lenses, but it would be nice if that ever got a mention beyond the standard "oops, I dropped a contact lens" distraction ruse. What about the people getting crabby when their lenses start getting uncomfortable late in the day, or having to consider the lens issue before making a decision to stay overnight somewhere? The only one I can think of offhand is Jude Law's character in The Holiday, who lost his contacts while staying overnight with a woman and had to face her in the morning in his dorky glasses.

* Doctor Who is kind of a special case. I don't know if the Children in Need special is meant to be canon, since it was kind of done as a joke, but in that he admitted that he didn't actually need the glasses and only wore them to make himself look clever. The tenth Doctor wearing glasses was apparently something David Tennant asked for, and he wanted the Doctor to wear them all the time (he said he wanted to have a hero for the kids who wore glasses, and I imagine he also wanted to avoid the double inconvenience of having to wear both contact lenses and glasses, since he wears glasses, himself) but the network couldn't deal with the idea of a hero wearing glasses all the time, so they compromised with the glasses at "clever" moments. Tennant has been known to snark during DVD commentaries on the shots where his contact lenses are visible, and I've noticed in the behind-the-scenes bits on the DVDs that he now has real-life glasses with the Doctor's frames, so I wonder if he cheats a bit for scenes where the Doctor wears glasses for an extended time.

3) There's a distinct gender difference -- men in glasses can be sexy, but women generally aren't.
Testosterone-linked vision aside, we do seem to be seeing more men who can be sexy in glasses, and that's spilling over into real life, with male celebrities wearing glasses in public. I can't recall him in a glasses-wearing role, but Nathan Fillion often shows up for public appearances wearing his glasses (one of the many reasons to love him). David Tennant is another one who is totally public about his need for corrective lenses. I think Alexis Denisof may win the prize, though, after some travel thing he did with Alyson Hannigan in which he had two pairs of glasses (one regular, one sunglasses) on cords around his neck, and switched out as needed. But where are the sexy women in glasses? There's Tina Fey, and that's about it. When we do see female celebrities in glasses, they're in the paparazzi photos where they've just run to the grocery store in sweats. They don't seem to deliberately make public appearances in glammed-up mode in glasses, and I recall that there was a lot of "get lasik, why don't you?" snark about whichever female Oscar presenter had to put on her glasses to read the nominees. Men get called sexy for wearing glasses, but in women, removing the glasses is always an important part of the makeover process in those "nerd to glamazon" movies. It does seem that women are more likely to find glasses sexy on men than men are to find glasses sexy on women. Though there are some enlightened men out there. I remember one time at a convention when I switched from contacts to glasses during the con, and a guy came up to me to tell me how much sexier I looked in the glasses. I generally wear the contacts for events when I have to go outdoors at some point because I need sunglasses, and making the juggle and switch is a pain (though I guess I could put both around my neck on cords). The contacts are also easier on me when I want a lot of peripheral vision (since the current tiny glasses trend looks cute but offers a smaller field of vision). I have to admit that when I want to look really pretty, I usually wear the contacts, so I guess I'm buying into the expectation, but a lot of that has to do with eye makeup. I have long lashes that smear the lenses when I wear mascara, and I have an interesting eye color that I like to show off sometimes, especially when I'm wearing something that makes them look really green. And, yeah, I did get tired of people assuming things about me because I was considered smart, so it's kind of fun to throw people off-guard. They have totally different expectations of a woman with long, curly hair without glasses than they do of a woman with glasses. I like letting them build an expectation and then proving them wrong.

I'm not sure what my point in all this is, other than that I don't really feel represented in fiction, yet again. I did make a point of having Owen wear contact lenses because he needs glasses to see, not just read (and the glasses really show up in book 4). I haven't written a female character with glasses, though (not in a published book -- I do have an unpublished book with a glasses-wearing heroine). I'll have to do something about that. Maybe it's because I find glasses very sexy on men but find them a pain to deal with, myself.

In entirely unrelated news, I've just learned that the latest reprint of Damsel Under Stress corrects the cover issue, so the new covers should be matte like the other books instead of the glossy that was done by mistake. So, if you want a matched set, be on the lookout for the matte covers. I wouldn't risk it by ordering online, though, because there's a chance they'd still have glossy covers in stock. Perhaps when the new book comes out, if they restock with the rest of the series you might find a matte cover.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Movie Monday

I have a really bad case of the Don't Wannas today. I have an idea starting to take shape in my brain that I really want to play with, but I don't want to do any of the other, necessary business work that needs to be done. It's just a few e-mails and a phone call, but I can't bring myself to do it, for whatever odd reason. I may just have to force myself by not letting myself do anything else until it's done. I did get validation over the weekend for my fear of sending e-mails on a holiday. I'd e-mailed my new editor about something on Thursday and got one of those "out of the office" automated responses, then she got back to me over the weekend while she was on vacation, and I immediately felt awful about making her work on vacation. Not that I had any way of knowing that she was on vacation when I sent the message or that I'm responsible for her choice to check e-mail while on vacation. I just still feel bad. That's the way I am with the phone. I hate making phone calls because I'm always afraid I'm calling at a bad time. I may be on my way to an e-mail phobia in which I fear sending e-mails at a bad time.

Since I don't want to think about work, this is a good time to catch up on talk about various movies and things I've watched lately. Let's call it a Movie Monday. These are over the last few weeks and are things I've caught mostly on HBO:

The History Boys -- I had a love/hate response to this movie. The dialogue is great and the performances are wonderful, but I felt like it totally disintegrated at the end into your standard Inspiring (But Troubled) Teacher Story. Upon further thought, I realized that what I liked most about it was the really rigorous and exciting-sounding education, since my history teachers were all coaches who followed the advanced pedagogical method of making us read the chapter in the textbook and answer the questions at the end while they read the newspaper sports section. The cliches were all the way through the movie, but I only really noticed them when the story turned almost entirely away from the teaching and focused on the personal relationships. I was a little icked-out at the implication that what made this teacher so inspiring was the fact that he was a little in love with his students, and the mean old administrator just couldn't get over the fact that he was caught fondling a student in public.

Mrs. Brown -- I saw this at the theater when it first came out and loved it then, so I couldn't help but watch when it was on TV this weekend. I still love it. I've since read elsewhere more stuff about what a scandal it was when Queen Victoria spent so much time with a servant, but of course we can't know how true to life the movie was, as no one else was privy to what really happened when it was just the two of them. I kind of hope the way it was portrayed in the movie was true, because that seems like a very lonely life, and I like the idea of Queen Victoria having a friend she could let down her guard with, with the added benefit of a slight bit of flirting. Judi Dench is so absolutely brilliant in this.

Blades of Glory -- It was on HBO Saturday night and I didn't have anything better to do. I knew it would be awful, but I was surprised by how not funny it was, even when I turned off the skating geek part of my brain that kept pointing out that these supposedly winning programs were barely at exhibition level. Scott Hamilton actually stole the movie. His slightly tongue-in-cheek spoof of his own commentary while reporting on the ridiculous events was the funniest thing in the movie. I don't think even the silly programs would have been that funny if you cut the sound off and didn't have Scott freaking out about them. You know you have problems when the celebrity cameo is far funnier than the supposedly funny leading man. Will Farrell needs to find a new routine. However, there was one thing about this movie I found highly amusing. I've mentioned that Jenna Fischer is a lot like I imagine Katie from my books, and in this movie she really looks like the way I picture Katie -- plus, her character is named Katie. That made me do a lot of double-takes and giggle a bit. Poor Katie got lost and ended up in the wrong movie.

The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human -- caught this one on one of the lesser HBO channels. It's a pretty paint-by-numbers romantic comedy with one twist -- the whole thing is done as though it's a nature documentary produced by aliens, with David Hyde-Pierce doing ongoing narration to explain human behaviors. Most of the time, the alien interpretation is totally wrong, but then there are times that it still manages to be entirely on-target in a bizarre kind of way. The writing and acting of the "humans" is pretty awful, so I wonder if that's part of the joke, that the whole thing was maybe staged by the aliens instead of just being captured on hidden cameras. I'm pretty sure that the whole thing was planned to be this documentary, since there are documentary elements that end up merging into the story, but there's a part of me that thinks it would be even funnier if someone made what they later realized was the worst romantic comedy ever, then tried to salvage it with the documentary concept and wrote the narrative voice-overs.

Madama Butterfly -- because my local PBS station can't seem to do anything right, "Live From Lincoln Center" gets shown on tape delay whenever they feel like it, so this was on Sunday afternoon here. Pinkerton may be a jerk, but in this production, the guy playing him was really hot. He was tall and reasonably slender -- definitely not the typical opera singer -- and in that white Navy uniform and with that voice, sigh. Unfortunately, Butterfly had a more typical opera singer physique. She did have a gorgeous voice and was an excellent actress, so she was eventually able to convince me that she was this innocent little slip of a girl, but her first appearance came after the men had just been talking about how delicate and fragile she was, and then she showed up and was bigger around than Pinkerton, which gave me a giggle fit. I may be too practical to really enjoy opera beyond just the music because it always seems to me that most of the drama could have easily been avoided if these people had done something other than wailing about what was going on. They seem to totally overreact to everything. (And yet I love musical theater. Go figure.)

And now to convince myself that I either have to make a phone call and send four e-mails, or I have to go clean the kitchen, which was clean Saturday morning and then got messed up with my Easter cooking.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Anti-Curl Makeovers

I've almost finished with the evil to-do list, and now it's occurred to me that it's a holiday weekend for a lot of people and most of the rest of the things I have left to do involve sending e-mails that may get buried if people aren't in the office. I know that, theoretically, the beauty and joy of e-mail is that it isn't time-dependent. You can send it when it's convenient to you and they read and deal with it when it's convenient to them. However, I don't like the idea of sending something when I know it will be days before the person can deal with it, just to get it off my plate. Then again, some of these are e-mails I've been procrastinating big-time about, for whatever odd reason I really don't understand, and this could be yet another form of avoidance. So, do I just deal with them today so I can cross them off my list, even if I know I'm likely to get "out of the office" messages, or do I put them on my first-thing Monday list? I guess I could write them today, put them in drafts, then send on Monday.

I finally sat down last night and watched my Enchanted DVD. I still love it and giggle myself silly in places. I also still find the title somewhat disconcerting when I see it out of context, since that's my shorthand for the first book in my series. Signing the credit card slip at the store when I bought it, for instance, I saw just the word "Enchanted" and it immediately made me think it was about my book. However, I did notice one thing that kind of bugged me -- we have yet another straight hair makeover. Giselle goes through the whole movie with long, curly hair, then she shows up at the ball for her big "Gasp! Wow!" moment with flat, stick-straight hair. It's not quite on a par with The Princess Diaries with the "curly=ugly; straight=pretty" makeover, since Giselle was always considered gorgeous, and I suspect this makeover was meant to make her look like a woman who could possibly fit into the hero's modern life, but still, can't she at least have wavy hair and be beautiful and fit into his world?

Not that straight hair is bad. It's just that I can think of only one big transformation wow moment where the "after" involved curly hair, and that was in Grease, where the heroine turned into a slut with a bad perm, so I don't think that counts. Even though people do get perms and curl their hair in real life, so curls can't be all bad, in fiction, curly hair is usually presented as a negative and something that is corrected when the character transforms. We do have Hermione Granger as a curly-haired heroine, but her hair is always referred to in negative terms with words like "bushy," and when she fixes herself up for the ball, to the point she becomes so pretty the others don't recognize her, the book implies that it's because her hair has been temporarily straightened (it doesn't show up so much that way in the movie because her hair isn't curly in the movies). On The Office, curly-haired Pam's hair gets straightened when she starts having confidence about herself, and straight hair is part of the frumpy-to-pretty transformation (and that's actually a curly-haired actress who straightens her hair for public appearances). Amy Irving may be the only curly-haired actress I can think of where I can't recall her appearing in real life or on screen with straight hair.

Adding to the negative undercurrent is the fact that the curly hair in question is often associated with an ethnic identity, like being Greek or Jewish, and it's only through shedding that identity by straightening the hair that the character becomes attractive. I'm not really in that boat, as my curls come from the Norwegian side of the family, but still that thought rankles me. We need some curly-haired heroines who stay curly and whose remarkable transformation maybe involves taming the frizz and getting good curls instead of losing them. I've avoided writing curly-haired characters in the past because I was afraid of being accused of my characters being based on myself, but the book I just finished had a curly-haired heroine, and I think I'm going to do more, just to balance things out a bit better and strike a blow for the curly girls. I think we're more underrepresented or misrepresented than any other group.

Next week, I may rant about glasses as depicted in fiction/film/television. That one's been building up for a while.

In entirely unrelated news, only two more weeks until new Battlestar Galactica. In honor of that, we have the cast (in character -- mostly) presenting the top ten list with David Letterman. (The mostly involves Jamie Bamber doing some technobabble in character as Lee, with American accent, then dropping the accent and being very British while admitting he has no idea what he was just talking about -- but considering the part about having no idea was on the thing they put on the screen, I'm suspecting that was planned.) And if you need to catch up on what's been going on, here's an 8-minute, accurate, but highly tongue-in-cheek, recap of the series so far. Yes, that was officially produced by the Sci Fi Channel. Someone has a sense of humor. Gotta love it.

Now I have to figure out how to spend my day off. I'm reading my way through the Nebula ballot, and now it looks like I'm going to have to get to work on the Hugo ballot, since there's only one book that's on both ballots, and it's one I've already read. It's a lovely day, so as long as the saw doesn't fire up again, I may spend the day on the patio, reading.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Drumroll Please: The Great Blog Campaign Winners!

I made a frighteningly long to-do list last night, and I told myself that once I had everything on the list done, then I got to take the rest of the week off. Most of the things are nagging little tasks I've been procrastinating on forever. One was pretty big and took more time than I realized.

However, I have results, finally, for the Great Blog Campaign. Apologies for the delay on this. Part of it was because the project sort of fell through the cracks with the editor who told me I could do it leaving. I got a lot fewer advance copies than I thought I would, and before I got a chance to try to beg, borrow or steal more, my editor was gone. There weren't such a huge number of participants, so I was hoping to manage to give one to everyone who tried, but since I couldn't, I had to make a decision, and I HATE making decisions like that. You should see me trying to order in a restaurant, and this is worse because people are involved. The flu and finishing the book I was working on played a role, but I admit I was mostly procrastinating about making a decision.

I had four books, so I narrowed it down to four categories: Best interview of me, best interview of a character (those judged on the questions), best column/review and best creative project.

Winner for best interview of me goes to Miriam, who got me to delve into magic and the Harry Potter universe (the link to that post no longer works, but maybe we can resurrect it somehow).

Winner for best interview of a character goes to Barratt Miller, who interviewed Katie (and a bonus for creating an Enchanted, Inc. Facebook community).

Winner for best column/review goes to Rena Leisure, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column about how she found the series in the first place and all the adventures she had to go through in order to buy the third book.

Winner for best creative project was LJer Parke Matru (I'm trying to match that to a real name in my records, but if you're out there, give me a shout), who created the Damsel Under Stress book trailer.

There were so many cool things done and submitted, and I got a real nostalgia kick re-reading or reviewing them all. Thanks to everyone who played! I wouldn't mind doing something like that again, but since I don't know what my next book will be, I don't really have anything to offer as a prize. I guess if anyone's interested in doing an interview or guest column thing, even without a prize, I'd certainly be willing.

Now, back to the killer to-do list, with one more item marked off.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Magical Cities

I seem to have survived yesterday's torrential downpour, and today is lovely. Yesterday I didn't get any housework done because it was too rainy and it was a great day for curling up with a good book. Today I may not get any done because it's too nice. :-) No matter how much I say I want to stop with this all-or-nothing behavior when I'm writing, it just seems to be the way I work. When I'm in a certain phase of work, then I can't seem to accomplish anything else. It's not so much the time, since I'm generally not writing ten hours a day, or anywhere close (except maybe toward the end). I just don't seem to have the physical, mental or emotional energy to do anything else, whether it's responding to an e-mail, doing anything around the house, socializing or handling business matters, when I'm in writing mode, even if I'm only actually putting words down for a few hours a day. I'm not sure any time management or organizational system can help with that, other than perhaps a lot of self-discipline to force me to do things that need to be done before I get to the day's writing. I'm counting this week as kind of a "spring break" to get caught up, but I'm trying to already be thinking about the next project and see if I can get a little more balance going in my life. I can't afford to put the rest of my life on hold when I'm in writing mode. That's no way to live. It may help if I don't let my writing muscles get flabby between projects.

I've been thinking more about yesterday's topic of defining urban fantasy, and I suppose it makes sense that the publishing world sees "urban fantasy" as darker and grittier, since "urban fiction" is sort of the literary version of gangsta rap -- about the underbelly of society -- the crime, the violence, etc. It's using the city as jungle metaphor, with the suggestion that when the chips are down and survival is at stake, we're all basically animals. Some just have more obvious teeth, claws and fur than others.

But I've always had a different view of the city, probably because of the way I've been exposed to cities. I had a reasonably suburban childhood or else lived on army bases, which is still fairly suburban. My exposure to major cities was to drive through or around them on freeways, so that my impression was of glittering spires soaring above, just out of reach. It was kind of the city as ocean metaphor, where all I saw was the surface, where things are bright and colorful, and I didn't realize there was a darker, scarier ocean floor. Going to "the city" for me as a very small child meant going from Abilene in West Texas to Arlington to go to Six Flags. The whole Dallas/Fort Worth area is essentially one big city, but when we went to "the city" we never actually got into the major cities. Then later, going to the city meant going to Oklahoma City to shop at the mall -- a mall that even today is pretty much on the outskirts of the city itself. Plus, cities in this part of the world aren't truly "urban." Even the poor, gritty inner-city neighborhoods are pretty suburban in comparison to northern cities. The houses are smaller and shabbier than in the suburbs, but they're houses on lawns instead of row houses, and the apartments are "garden apartments" rather than tenements or high rises, so it's not exactly the concrete jungle. Around here, the truly urban environments -- as in lots of apartments, apartments over stores, stores you walk to instead of park in front of, abundant public transportation, not a lot of grass or greenery -- are very upscale neighborhoods. It's a carefully created ideal of what we'd like city life to be.

My first real exposure to real cities -- not just driving through, but living in them or visiting the center of the city -- was in Europe, so the cities were like something out of a fairy tale. There were streetcars and fancy old buildings, or else shiny glass and steel modern buildings that were practically art, in and of themselves (I lived in an area that had been very industrial, so it was pretty much wiped out in the war -- the historic old buildings had been restored, but everything else started with a clean slate). I think the first really big city I visited was Frankfurt, and then after that, Paris. The other cities I visited all still had remnants of medieval walls, or else had castles sitting above them. So, yeah, obviously my idea of what magical or paranormal things happen in cities is probably going to be a little different from the dark underbelly approach. I've been criticized for writing a sanitized version of New York, but really, the way I write it is the way I see and experience it (well, aside from the people with fairy wings and the talking gargoyles).

Maybe we need new terms to clarify the situation. "Urban" fantasy to me doesn't have to be modern -- there are China Mieville's books, which have that gritty urbanness but which aren't modern, and a lot of the Terry Pratchett books use the urban environment while still being set in some quasi-medieval/Dickensian Victorian past. Then there are the modern books, the magic alongside computers and cars stories, and those don't necessarily have to take place in a city. It was loads of fun writing that in a small town where the weirdness stands out more. To further complicate matters, there are the books where people from the modern world end up in a magical fantasy world and see that world from the modern perspective. I guess what I most look for is what you could call "colliding worlds" fantasy, where the magical and the modern intersect in one way or another. I label my own work "fairy tales for modern times," which I think sums up my approach to storytelling. My agent calls it "light urban fantasy." And, for now, the publishing world calls it "general fiction," which means the people who might like it will never find it without help from a friend.

And now I'm going to head out into the world to buy a new toaster oven (mine died after about 16 years) and pick up the DVD of Enchanted -- possibly the only less-gritty view of magic in New York than I write.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Defining Urban Fantasy

Now the book is really done and proof-read and ready to go to my agent. This time I think it's in great shape and should require only minor tweaking, but I also thought that the last two times, and it's improved at least 100 percent since then. I read the whole thing out loud yesterday, start to finish, and it's amazing the things I noticed. that's a great way to trim little bits because I'd catch myself reading it one way when it was written another way, and the reading way sounded better, so I could cut a few words here and there. Overall, I cut more than a thousand words on that pass.

Now I just need to e-mail it away, then take care of a few business things, and then I'm taking the day off. It's a perfect reading day since it's pouring rain (and, fortunately, the cold front got to us before the storm front did, so it's just rain and not hail and tornadoes). The rain means I don't have that power saw right outside my windows. That thing sounds like someone recorded metal fingernails on a chalkboard, sped it up to make it even more high-pitched, then ran it through an amplifier. It's a sound guaranteed to make you tense every muscle in your body, and it was nearly miraculous how quickly the last remnants of headache went away when they stopped with the saw yesterday.

In other news, Don't Hex With Texas seems to be staying pretty consistently on the Amazon top 100 urban fantasies list, and at times all four books are on the list. At times, the books are ranked about as high as they ever have been, except maybe for during release weeks when they tend to spike. That makes me think the new classification has something to do with it, or else somehow the new book being on the list made them all more visible, so people started discovering the series that way.

When I see these books on that list, I halfway expect Sesame Street characters to pop up and sing "One of these things is not like the other." Most of the books classified as "urban fantasy" look very dark. Black is a prominent color on the covers, sometimes layered with dark blue or blood red. The figures on the covers are either partially naked or wearing something leather-like, and they've either got their backs to the viewer or they're crouching in a position that looks both uncomfortable and impractical. The words "blood" and "death/dead" come up a lot. And then there are the white covers with cartoon frogs on them.

I guess what I thought of as "urban fantasy" isn't quite what the publishing world thinks. It seems to be the new name for what used to be called "soft horror" or "dark fantasy," and the difference between that and plain-old horror was that in horror, the monsters/vampires/werewolves were the bad guys the heroes were fighting, while in "dark fantasy" and now "urban fantasy," they're more likely to be the heroes (and sometimes the villains, too). When I first heard the term used, when I'd had the idea for the book that became Enchanted, Inc. but while I was still toying with it in my head, and almost more looking for something like that to read rather than thinking of it as something I should write, it was very different. I was thinking more in terms of a classic fantasy novel in a modern setting, with magic alongside computers and cars, and the kinds of characters you might find in a fantasy novel as they might have adapted to modern life. I also was looking for that juxtaposition between the "real" world and the "magical" world, and addressing the ways the magical world might fit in with or oppose the non-magical world.

At the time, I'd read the first three Harry Potter books, where I think that culture clash played more of a role than it did in later books. Harry was still seeing the magical world through Muggle eyes, as he was still mentally straddling the two worlds, and we seemed to see a lot more about how the magical world intersected with the non-magical world. Then there was the use of relatively modern institutions, like a school, in a magical sense. I wanted something kind of like that, but in the adult world, and there wasn't much.

Some things that I found that I considered "urban" (meaning taking place in the city rather than in the more traditional mountain/forest fantasy setting) or maybe "contemporary" fantasy included Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks and most of Charles de Lint's books. I discovered them later, but Rachel Caine's Weather Warden series and Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series also fit.

Maybe we need a separate term to distinguish fantasy in a modern setting from the more horror or paranormal romance-oriented "urban fantasy." I guess the "urban" implies gritty, which then implies dark, and while my books are urban in the sense that they take place in a city (well, up to book 4), they certainly aren't gritty urban, and it seems it's in part the lack of darkness and grittiness that keeps the publisher from considering them to be urban fantasy. And yet readers seem to see them as fantasy rather than as chick lit, which is how the publisher sees them. It's a muddle.

So, how do you as readers define "urban fantasy?"

Monday, March 17, 2008

Twisting the Formula

It turns out that my agent wasn't sitting around twiddling her thumbs, waiting anxiously to leap on this book the moment I send it to her (imagine that!), so I gave myself the weekend off and am planning to do my final read-through today. Good thing, since I developed a killer headache over the weekend. It was as though I sprained my concentration muscles. Seriously, it felt like when you haven't exercised in a while, and then you take a tough exercise class. The way your muscles feel the next couple of days is the way the muscles around my head felt. It doesn't help that my neighbor is doing renovations, and the power saw is set up by my windows. The only thing that saved the workmen from being put through their own saw yesterday was the sunny day, since bright light also didn't help the headache and I didn't want to go outside. I was on the phone with my mom this morning explaining the headache, and she was all worried that it was a sign of a greater health issue, and then the saw kicked in again and even over the phone she knew exactly why I had a headache. We're supposed to get rain or even storms today, so that should stop the sawing (is it bad if I cross my fingers and hope that the power tools attract a lightning strike?).

So, as I said Friday, I saw Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and I absolutely loved it. It was almost as though someone found an old, unreleased screwball comedy from the late 1930s in a vault somewhere in Hollywood, spiffed it up and put it out on the market today. It had that kind of tone and flair to it, and it even followed a lot of the screwball comedy patterns, while putting a new twist to them. The only hints that this movie was made for 2008 instead of 1938 were a bit more nudity than you'd have seen in the 30s (but still in more of a teasing manner than raunchy) and the hindsight we have about what happened next in the world. The specter of World War II looms over the movie, adding some weight to the fluff, and I don't think they had any idea what was about to hit them in 1938, not to be able to use that the way this movie does. (I didn't notice in the movie when it was supposed to have taken place, though I suspect there were clues in the newspaper headlines we saw. I didn't pay much attention to those, not enough to then be able to look up dates for the events. I have a feeling it was meant to be 1939, but I was going with the 1938/2008 just to make a neat parallel rather than specifying the date of the movie.)

Brief teaser blurb: A down-on-her-luck governess desperate for a job filches the contact information for an employer from the agency that refuses to place her again, and finds that instead of the job being for a governess, it's for a social secretary to a flighty American actress who is trying to "socialize" her way to stardom. The governess spends one life-changing day caught up in the whirl of the actress's life as she juggles men and decisions about her future.

Frances McDormand was brilliant, as always, and I'd love to see her get another Oscar for this because she did such a brilliant job of balancing poignancy and humor. Even in some hilarious moments, she never let you forget that she was this close to sleeping on the streets. Amy Adams could have been Carole Lombard reincarnated as the actress, all wide-eyed and breathless, and not the least bit innocent. Throw in Shirley Henderson, who makes fabulous use of that unique voice of hers, and Ciaran Hinds. And then there's Lee Pace. I love him in Pushing Daisies, but in this, slightly scruffy and doing a British accent, which seems to drop his vocal register to a near-growl .... swoon. (I did look it up to make sure he was doing a British accent and not actually yet another Brit doing an American accent on a US TV show, and it turns out that, like me, he's an Oklahoma native who ended up in high school in Texas after living overseas. Cool. We could start a club.) He does the sad-eyed yearning look better than just about anyone.

I came out of the theater with my cheeks hurting from grinning too much and my eyes red and puffy from crying, which is the very best way to leave a romantic comedy. It managed to be all fluffy and effervescent on the surface while still having a lot of depth and meaning to it. Plus, great music, fabulous costumes and gorgeous Art Deco settings. I want to see it again already, I know I'll be buying the DVD as soon as it comes out, and now I want to read the book it's based on. But it also made me think about how you can work within established genre patterns while still giving the patterns a twist.

The classic screwball comedy was essentially a Depression story -- the down-on-his luck or struggling working man got caught up in the whirl of a wacky heiress who didn't know where money comes from, and she learned a lesson or two about the world from him while he ended up moving up in society by being with her. It was kind of a reverse Cinderella story that was meant to validate the working man while possibly making the upper-crust think about how the other half lives.

Though, if I'm going to get pedantic about it, Cinderella wasn't about a working-class girl moving up in the world by marrying a prince. It was about a mistreated upper-class girl being elevated above those who'd abused her. There were only a couple of fairy tales in which true lower-class girls got princes. The vast majority of tales involved poor young men who gained a kingdom by marrying a princess, so I guess the screwball comedy was actually just reflecting fairy tales instead of twisting them. They were made before Disney made some of the tales more famous with his movies, so it's possible that audiences then would have been familiar with that more common pattern and recognized the screwball comedies as essentially fairy tales set in modern times.

Even the classic screwball comedies threw twists into the formula. Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby was a professor, which isn't really "working class," but he was still in need of money, not for himself but for his museum. Then in My Man Godfrey, the bum hired as a butler was actually the victim of mistaken identity playing along with it. In The Philadelphia Story, Jimmy Stewart's "man of the people" reporter taught the wacky heiress a thing or two, but she ended up marrying someone from her own class.

Miss Pettigrew puts a spin on the formula by making the down-and-out working class hero a woman, and the focus of the story is the friendship that develops between her and the "heiress" character instead of a romance. There is still romance, for both characters, and both of those subplots reflect the screwball comedy patterns (one of them in a gender reversal). Meanwhile, our "heiress" character isn't actually much better off than our down-and-out heroine. It's a great example of how you can use an existing framework, then give it a fresh look by turning one or two elements around in a way that affects the whole story while still being true to the original genre.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Carrie Jones

The book is finally done. Well, this draft of it. I now need to go over the last section again, and then do one more pass on the whole thing. I rewarded myself by going to see Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which was wonderful and may stand a chance of becoming my favorite movie ever without magic, spaceships or sword fights in it, but I will talk about that more on Monday after I've sent the book off to my agent.

In the meantime, I have a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit post to do. This week's book is Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape) by Carrie Jones, a young adult novel that tackles the topic of teen sex in terms of relationships, going beyond the Hollywood view that seems to be all about virginity (and who can lose it the fastest).

This is the story of 18-year-old Belle Philbrick, who watches love blossom in the lives of all around her while she and her boyfriend seem to be treading water. As she barrels toward the end of her senior year, Belle watches as everything around her changes…and not all for the best. And in the midst of dealing with the changes comes the revelation that her best friend might be pregnant. Through Belle, Jones examines issues of labeling, making choices, and the anxiety of “what next?” as Belle looks ahead to life beyond high school.

Some fun factoids:

Belle has an arch-nemesis named Mimi (like someone else we know around here).

This book was inspired, in part, by a country music video -- that Carrie didn't realize was a country music video (until she noticed the men wearing cowboy boots standing in the middle of a field, playing instruments, who appeared at various points) because she was flipping through channels with the sound off.

Carrie's previous book (of which this one is a sequel), Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend, has been nominated for all kinds of awards.

They now make clear duct tape. You lose that all-important redneck aesthetic for your makeshift household repairs, and it isn't good for making SCA swords, but if you want to fix something without looking like you live in a trailer with an old washing machine on the tacked-on front porch, now you can.

For more info (on the book, not on duct tape), visit Carrie's web site. Or you can buy the book from Amazon.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Saving the Planet, One Celebrity at a Time

No, the book still isn't done, but I am on the last chapter, and I'm going to discipline myself to make it the last chapter, maybe with an epilogue, because I know I'm bad about dragging out the part after the climax and lingering too much on all the loose ends being tied up. I knew what needed to happen in the big, climactic scene, but I wasn't sure how to get everyone there. I have about four groups of people who will have to converge, and both viewpoint characters are in one group. Even though we won't be seeing what the other groups are doing, I still need to know what they're doing before our heroes arrive. I ended up having to draw out a complex timeline showing what each group was doing at any particular point in time, and then had to decide who should be where at certain crucial points and where the various groups would meet up. And that was where I started to see potential branches. There were a couple of different ways things could go, and I wasn't sure which was best. From there, I found myself looking at new ways the big, climactic scene that I thought I had planned out could go.

It was like playing "Choose Your Own Adventure" in my head. I'd hit one of those branches and have to sit and daydream for a while about what would happen if I took that option, and then I'd go back and play out what would happen if I took the other so I could decide which was best. I think I know which way I'm going with it, but I may do that list of 20 thing and see if I can come up with something even better. I have library books to pick up/return, so maybe I'll do some cafe time for brainstorming.

And, of course, all that thinking made it very hard to get to sleep. I read until I couldn't keep my eyes open, but then I couldn't sleep. I decided that it's more of a relative thing than me truly waking up the moment I hit the pillow. The same state that seems very drowsy when I'm sitting up with the light on and trying to read feels too awake for lying down with the lights out and my eyes closed. When I did get to sleep, I thought I'd solved the highway congestion and air pollution issues with a fabulous innovation I dreamed. They were running these trains of cars down the HOV lanes. I was thinking of them as roller coaster cars, but they were more like really long dune buggies. They stopped at scheduled stops for people to get on and off, but there were people who rode them for fun because they were like a roller coaster. And then I woke up and realized that this isn't a new concept -- when you have a vehicle that carries lots of people on a scheduled route and it runs on rails, it's called a train (or tram or streetcar), and when it's on wheels, it's called a bus, and an open-air vehicle probably wouldn't be practical for public transportation. But maybe public transportation would be more popular if you treated it like a thrill ride.

Speaking of environmental issues, I saw something recently that had me going "huh?" so maybe y'all can help me understand this. The April issue of Glamour contains a "save the planet" feature (because that's the entertainment industry's cause du jour). It includes various green tips from experts and celebrities. Jennifer Anniston's big water-saving tip is that she brushes her teeth in the shower.

I don't get that, unless maybe I'm both showering and brushing my teeth the wrong way. Brushing your teeth isn't a very water-intensive activity. You turn on the water to wet your toothbrush, turn it off while you brush, then turn it on to rinse your toothbrush, then turn it off, repeat as needed, then do a final rinse of brush and sink. Plus, it's cold water that doesn't use energy to heat it. On the other hand, unless you're a really talented multitasker, if you're brushing your teeth in the shower, you aren't actively washing your hair or body, so that's extra time in the shower that you didn't need to spend standing under running hot water.

So, how is it better for the planet to brush your teeth in the shower than it would be to wash your hair and/or body in the shower, then brush your teeth at the sink, only turning on the water when you need it?

It's this kind of celebrity "advice" that makes me roll my eyes at the current "EEek! We're all going to die from global warming!" environmental awareness. I won't bore you with my green cred, but suffice it to say that I'm notoriously practical and frugal, and the thought of waste makes me break out in a cold sweat. (I suspect people with Scottish blood, even those of us with Norwegian last names, are really good at being green. And "green" sounds so much nicer than "cheap.") This is just the way I've always lived, long before it became cool, so I rather resent the fact that celebrities have taken this on as a cause and feel like they're doing their part by telling me how to live my life -- and they have the right to do so simply because they're famous. Never mind that the typical celebrity lifestyle, by virtue of being a high-income lifestyle, probably has a greater carbon footprint than the people they're lecturing (and no, buying carbon offsets doesn't count). They live in bigger houses that have to be heated and cooled, they travel more (often by private jet), and they generally consume more stuff. I'm still giggling about the great environmental bus tour last year, in which Sheryl Crow traveled the country in a luxury motor coach (which you know is a gas guzzler and spews emissions) to tell college students to use less toilet paper. Yeah, that saved the planet, I'm sure.

Unless you've got some expertise in the field, or at least, you know, THINK about what you're saying and make sure it makes sense, then stick to acting, singing, or whatever. Acting in a popular sitcom and having a brief marriage to a golden boy actor does not qualify you to give environmental advice, especially when that advice is counter-intuitive. I guess that's who a lot of people are willing to listen to, and some environmental engineer giving suggestions would be ignored, but isn't that a shame, in and of itself? Isn't there something weird about a society where we'd rather listen to what a famous person who has no expertise says than to a non-famous person who's done extensive study in the relevant field? I am soooo ready for the cult of celebrity and all this celebrity worship to just go away.

Wow, I'm really ranty this week. I think it's book brain.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Killing Your Darlings

The book is almost done. I have maybe a chapter or two to write, and I definitely think that making myself just rewrite the end from scratch was a good plan. I really hope I can get to the end today because I desperately need to sleep. I was thinking about the next scenes as I was falling asleep last night, and in one of them, a character has a moment when she feels extremely betrayed and angry. My ever-helpful brain decided to then dredge up lots of times from the past when I felt betrayed and angry. There were things I'd forgotten about, and suddenly I wanted to go back in time nearly fifteen years and sock people in the teeth. I could feel my blood pressure rising, and it took all kinds of happy thoughts and deep, cleansing breaths to settle back down to sleep. I hope this pays off in having a truly authentic emotional reaction for my character.

There are some familiar sayings that have been corrupted along the way, so that the misquote is what's quoted. Kind of like the way people will say that money is the root of all evil, when what the Bible actually says is that the love of money (as in greed) is a root of evil. In the writing world, one of those sayings is "you have to kill your darlings." I'm not sure who first said something about killing darlings, but I would suspect that the original statement was that you have to be willing to kill your darlings.

But that doesn't stop people from taking it the wrong way. I once went to a session on revision at a writing conference, and the speaker flat-out said that you should delete anything you really liked from your manuscript because you had to kill your darlings. That makes no sense -- would you really want your final manuscript to contain only the parts you didn't like? Sometimes darlings deserve to be darlings. You like those things because they're good. When you write the perfect scene that manages to clarify the characters and move the plot forward, all with concise action and dialogue that sings, you just know it's good and you rightfully love it.

On the other hand, it's also true that sometimes the things we really love are things we wrote for ourselves, not for the reader or for the story. They're those self-indulgent bits, and those do need to go. But how do you tell which darlings deserve the death penalty?

Here's a death row roster:
1) The brilliant line that doesn't really belong -- something incredibly witty, clever or poetic that the character wouldn't actually say, or wouldn't say in those circumstances. Often this is the writer putting things she'd like to say into the character's mouth, or else trying to shoehorn in something utterly brilliant that doesn't fit. The best comparison may be the line in a movie that seems written for the trailer. When you see the trailer, even though you know nothing about the character or the story, there's sometimes that one line that makes the audience cheer -- and then when you see the movie, that line falls flat in context because it's something that character wouldn't say or it doesn't belong in that moment. If you can picture your character pausing dramatically before and after saying the line (so it's easier to edit it into the trailer), the line probably deserves to die.

2) Visible research -- when you put a lot of work into your research, it's tempting to make sure it shows up in your manuscript. Really obscure or interesting facts are especially tempting. Doesn't it make your characters sound clever to know those things? And don't you look really clever to be able to point out all those little details? But if these things don't affect the story or characters, they don't really need to be there, especially if they're not things your characters would actually notice or talk about.

3) The self-indulgent scene -- this is my big weakness. When I really like characters, I don't care if the scenes they're in are full of tension and conflict. I'd be willing to watch them do their laundry or just chat. I also like to see how characters react to things, so I have a bad habit of writing a scene in which a character tells another character what just happened in the previous scene. I like seeing how the one character describes what happened and how the other character reacts. Or I like giving the non-viewpoint character from the previous scene the chance to talk about it. All of these scenes need to go. We don't need two different scenes conveying the same information, and while I think I'd enjoy reading about the characters I love when they're not in mortal peril, that would actually slow the book down a lot and I'm sure I'd want to skip to the part where something happens.

4) Out-of-place description -- there's something about description that tends to turn writers into Victorian poets. I blame school writing exercises, where you're assigned to write a paragraph describing a photograph taped to the chalkboard, and the more flowery the description, the better your grade. As a result, you may be going along with a bouncy, semi-sarcastic narrative voice, then you hit a spot where there's something to describe, and suddenly the setting sun is a glowing orb stretching tendrils of fire into the sky as it shades from mauve to magenta. And you just love that description because it's so lovely and vivid and poetic. But it must go unless your viewpoint character is a Victorian poet and really thinks that way. If your hero is a macho man soldier of fortune, his color vocabulary is likely limited to the eight colors in the basic crayon box, and to him, the jungle is green -- maybe dark green and light green, with a little greenish-brown. Even if he does have the color vocabulary of the 64-crayon box, if he's running for his life he's not going to stop and notice all the varied shades of green in the verdant canopy of jungle.

It may be painful to kill these darlings, but if it helps matters, keep a "cuts" file for the things you delete. You never know, you may find a use for them someday. That brilliant line that didn't fit your character may be perfect for a future character. I did end up using a cut scene in a future book in the series, where there was a reason to rehash what had happened in a previous book and get the other character's take on it. It was self-indulgent in the previous book when the scene they were talking about had just happened, but it moved the plot along (with some modifications) in the next book. The research that doesn't belong in the book could make a good feature for your web site when the book is published, and readers who do love your characters enough to be willing to watch them do laundry might enjoy seeing your deleted scenes that didn't move the plot forward. Out of context they can be fun bonus features even if they didn't belong in the book. I'm not sure what to do with the descriptive passages, unless you save them to use when you write a book about a Victorian poet.

In unrelated news, for a brief moment last night, I had two books in the top 100 urban fantasies at Amazon. It was kind of funny because almost all urban fantasy novels have dark covers -- lots of black and midnight blue with ominous figures. And then there were my white books with cartoons. They really stood out on that list, which could be good, but that also means that when people see them in stores, they aren't going to think "oh, an urban fantasy!" Especially since Amazon seems to be the only place where they're "shelved" as urban fantasy, and I'm not sure how they got that designation there. It's not from the publisher, but I don't know if this has something to do with reader tags.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Magical Specialness

I have decided that I'm going to ignore Daylight Savings Time until I finish the book. When I'm in Churning Brain Mode, I can't get to sleep at the regular time, let alone the new earlier time, and my brain is going more than full speed. Not only do I have the current book in there, but you know that wisecrack I made about writing Star Wars as urban fantasy? Well I now have the main characters and opening scene. I know that the theoretical way to reset the body clock is to just get up at the new time and then go through a day or so of grogginess until you can fall asleep at the new time, but I can't afford the grogginess now. So, the time change will have to wait.

Because there is no topic that I can't analyze to death, I've been pondering that Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness issue (from yesterday's post) and trying to figure out why it bugs me and what the loopholes seem to be. To clarify my terms, what I consider to be the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness story involves the hero turning out to be the Chosen One who is destined to defeat the Evil Overlord/free his people/break the curse/rid the world of reality television, etc. To complete his destined mission, he will have to sword fight/ride a dragon into combat/do magic/beat the devil in a fiddling contest. Even though he's never so much as touched a sword/dragon/magic wand/fiddle, the first time he tries, he's remarkably successful. Often this happens in a crisis scene fairly early in the story, where in a panic he grabs the object/weapon/tool and ends up saving the day just by instinct. After about five minutes of instruction with his mentor, who has devoted his life to this subject and who is generally considered the greatest authority on it, the hero beats or otherwise surpasses his mentor at his own game. The mentor is, of course, in awe at the way the hero is the best ever at whatever he's doing, and no one has ever mastered this skill so quickly. (The mentor usually dies soon after this, and I generally suspect he's dying of sheer humiliation.)

It's not so much the destined part that bothers me. I even kind of like the stories where the farmboy/baker's assistant/apprentice underwater basketweaver turns out to be the long-lost heir to whatever or inheritor of whatever mystical power. What mostly bugs me is the Magical Specialness, and especially the one-two punch, in which the person is not only chosen for some great thing, but also incredibly good at everything it takes to do that great thing.

At the same time, though, we want our heroes to be competent, and we need to believe that they could actually accomplish the things they need to do in the story. We just don't want to take things too far. Yeah, there are real-life prodigies. Mozart definitely had a good dose of Magical Specialness going on, and he really did manage to surpass his teachers very quickly, even as a small child. I'm just not sure how good a hero someone like Mozart would make (you notice that the movie/play Amadeus isn't from Mozart's point of view). Most of us can't relate to someone like that. In fiction, when a character is not only Destined and Chosen but also Magically Special, then it looks suspiciously like a Mary Sue -- a character through which the author can live out his/her fantasies.

Here are some ways I think you can pull off Magical Specialness without being too annoying:

1) The specialness is part of the destiny -- being destined automatically gives the hero certain abilities. The example of this would be Buffy, who got super strength because she was the Slayer. It wasn't because she was intrinsically special, more that this was her role. She wasn't depicted as the Best Slayer Ever. In fact, some of the others we met might have been better fighters. She was just different because she had a different upbringing that made her a little more balanced.

2) Genes come into play -- certain gifts or traits that make someone good at something are inherited, either naturally or through some kind of engineering. Luke Skywalker inherited his strength in the Force from his father, as well as some of the traits that made him a good pilot. River Tam in Firefly was turned into someone with Magical Specialness by people who wanted to use those abilities. I think this works for me because the Magical Specialness then doesn't just come out of nowhere. There is some kind of logical path to it. This also works best when the inherent traits aren't enough to make the person ultra powerful. The hero still has to train and learn to use the abilities. Luke may have inherited strength in the Force, but he still had to go to Yoda to train to be a Jedi, and he lost his first big lightsaber fight, which meant he wasn't just instantly awesome.

3) The hero has a natural talent that still needs to be developed and that requires hard work -- there's a spark that shows potential, and you suspect that with time and work the hero will surpass the master, but it's not instant. This is where I think I am with Owen in my books. He's naturally incredibly powerful, but he's put a lot of work and study into developing his talents, and it's the combination of the power and the work that makes him potentially the greatest wizard ever. In my hypothetical backstory for him, he actually struggled more than his peers to master magic because he not only had to learn the spells, but he also had to learn how to manage the amount of power he put into them. For a real world example, we've got Tiger Woods, who was definitely a golf prodigy and who has sheer God-given talent, but who is known for working very, very hard to hone his skills (and I think that has a lot to do with him being so popular -- he's not just coasting on talent alone).

For an opposite, there's what they did with Willow on Buffy. It made sense that she would start exploring magic on her own, and as smart as she was, she could certainly teach herself a lot from reading up on the subject, but they totally lost me with the character when she turned out to be The Most Powerfullest Witch Ever, who even without real training could out-do people who'd devoted their lives to learning magic. When Tara, who came from a long line of witches and who'd grown up studying magic, was oohing and ahhing over how powerful Willow was, I started to hate the character who'd previously been a favorite.

The challenge with the Specialness needing to be developed is that it's really hard to show that learning curve in a book. Training sequences generally slow the plot to a crawl, and in print we don't have the luxury of a training montage set to a song by Survivor. Doing the "after three months of training" thing saps the story of urgency (things can't have been so dire if the hero has time to go train without being under attack or the world coming to an end). You can do training on the fly, in which the mentor desperately tries to instill a bit of knowledge in between other bits of action along the way. Or there's the Empire Strikes Back trick of having a B plot with a lot of other stuff going on around the other characters while the hero is off training.

4) The Destined, Chosen character's biggest skill is actually unrelated to the destiny -- prior to learning about the destiny, the character independently worked to become really good at something that ends up coming in handy in working toward the destiny but that isn't really magically special. I guess a good example of this might be Will in the Pirates movies, who became a master swordsman from working as a swordsmith. That skill ended up being handy in the adventures he got into as one carrying the blood of the cursed pirate crew, but it wasn't a Magical Specialness. In my books, this would be Katie. Yeah, she's immune to magic, and that's how she gets involved in the whole fight against the bad guys, but she's actually no more immune to magic than any of the other magical immunes working for the company. What sets her apart is her brains, common sense and real-world experience, along with her initiative. We even saw that when she lost her special magic-related abilities, she barely missed a beat in doing her job.

This particular approach can go to a new level if the hero has to give up his pursuit of this independent interest in order to fulfill his destiny (and then, of course, it ends up coming in handy along the way). This would be the scholar who has to leave his library and go out into the world because the world needs him, for instance. He'd still be brainy, and his brains would make him good at his destiny in an unexpected way, but his brains wouldn't be Magical Specialness.

That independent skill also can help in dealing with the learning curve hump on the Magical Specialness. Since we're generally dealing in series in fantasy, that means that the hero can use his existing skills in book one while learning to use the Magical Specialness that will play more of a role in subsequent books. Back to Luke, he had some experience as a pilot, and that was the skill he used in the first movie and early in the second movie. It was Obi-Wan Kenobi who squared off against Darth Vader in the lightsaber duel in the first film. Only after Luke had Jedi training did his Magical Specialness with the Force really come into play, just a bit in the second movie and then more fully in the third. That worked to not make the mentor look like an idiot who could easily be surpassed in his area of expertise by a newbie. (Lucas managed to do so many things right in the first films that it's amazing how terribly wrong he managed to go in the prequels with Anakin's EXTREME Magical Specialness. Sometimes I wonder if he'd have let Obi-Wan beat Anakin in that Episode Three fight if that outcome wasn't crucial to the first three movies.)

5) Or you could go the opposite way, with the Magical Specialness being the only thing the hero is good at, though not in a too stupid to live way. So the hero could have his magically gifted special skill, but it's very specialized and only useful in certain key situations, and then he has to rely on the skills of others for other situations. This is sort of what happened with Harry Potter, where his real area of Magical Specialness was the fact that he was pretty much incorruptible. He wasn't tempted by power for its own sake, and that gave him an advantage over Voldemort. But Hermione was far better at actual magic, and he had to rely on her knowledge for most of the day-to-day magical stuff along the way.

Along those lines, it also helps dilute the annoyance of Magical Specialness if you have a well-rounded cast with everyone having something to contribute (even if it isn't Magically Special) instead of just having a cheering section for the hero to constantly remind him how special he is. You can even throw in a Han Solo to mock the very idea of being Destined, Chosen or Magically Special (something the prequels were sorely lacking -- we had people going on and on about how special Anakin the Chosen One was and nobody to roll his eyes and say, "Oh, give me a break. The only Chosen One is the one I choose to shoot.").

And now I am going to go chain myself to the computer and try to get to the end of this draft.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Star Wars on Ice!

After a busy and very social Saturday, I collapsed, brain dead, on the sofa that night. My evening's HBO viewing was Eragon, and my, but that was absolutely AWFUL. Stilted dialogue, poor production values and bad effects. The dragon looked distractingly fake. Yeah, I know it is fake, since there's a shortage of really talented dragon actors and they have to make do with CGI, but this one was approaching Pete's Dragon levels, and that one was supposed to look like a cartoon. But I think my main issue was how screamingly unoriginal it was. I haven't read the book, so I don't know if it's the author or the screenwriter who has seen Star Wars a few too many times, but does George Lucas know about this? Because it was Star Wars in a fantasy setting with dragons instead of X-Wings. Lucas ripped himself off with a fantasy version of Star Wars with Willow, but aside from a big-picture plot similarity and characters that pretty much mapped to the Star Wars cast, it ended up with a few different twists and angles on the story. Any story that does follow the Universal Myth structure from Joseph Campbell is going to end up looking a bit like Star Wars, since Lucas adhered really closely to it, but dude, this was pretty much a scene-by-scene, character-by-character rewrite. I was doing crossword puzzles and reading a magazine most of the time this was on, but I kept looking up at the screen in shock, thinking, "Oh, no, they didn't, did they?"

During the latest plagiarism scandal, I found myself pondering what, exactly, counts as an actionable rip-off. It's generally said that you can't copyright ideas, only the execution of the idea, and usually the plagiarism accusations come from using the same words. That book written to get the author into Harvard was pulled not because the plot was Mean Girls with an Indian heroine, but because the author used some of the exact wording from other books (you'd think the overall plot rip-off would be more egregious than lifting a phrase here and there, but that's not how it works). But how close to something else can you go as long as you don't use the same words without getting in trouble? Apparently, changing the setting and a few key details is enough, even if you're writing essentially the same characters and the same scenes. So, since the story of Star Wars is so popular and resonates so strongly with people, that opens up a world of possibilities.

We could do Star Wars on Ice! Star Wars on the ocean with boats! Star Wars under the sea with mermaids! Star Wars with cars! Star Wars in the jungle! Star Wars in WWII with fighter planes! Star Wars in space! (Oh, wait ...) And now because most of my better ideas start with this kind of obnoxious silliness, I find myself wanting to write Star Wars as an urban fantasy -- and make it good, and get away with it without anyone noticing (which will now be more challenging because I've said I'm going to try it and people will be looking for it. Plus, I write for the house that publishes the Star Wars novels, so they're likely to be tuned into that universe). I'm sure that even if I use that as a point of inspiration, once I develop characters, it will develop a life of its own and spin off in a different direction entirely. I think I know what my next project will have to be.

Eragon also contained two fantasy tropes that have become pet peeves for me. One is that the Chosen/Destined One is also so unnaturally talented at whatever his thing is that he can outdo people who've been training their entire lives at it just on sheer instinct (what I call the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness). Lucas verged on that with Luke Skywalker, but at least it was established he flew similar ships back home, and most of the pilots he was with were around his age. He mostly got through that final battle on luck rather than because he was the Bestest Pilot Ever. Lucas went way over the top with it in Episode One, where a small child manages to outrace everyone else in the pod races, and then goes on to help win a major space battle by accidentally getting stuck in a fighter ship because he's just that awesome (arrrrggghhhhh!). This is one area where I think Harry Potter worked because while he had all that destiny stuff, he actually wasn't that great or powerful a wizard. He just sort of got by in school. He mostly won out of sheer stubbornness and allying himself with people who were better at magic than he was. He didn't show up at Hogwarts and turn out to be so amazingly awesome at magic that he beat people who'd grown up with it. The only thing he was particularly talented at was Quidditch, which meant it was almost like if some West Point cadet who was destined to become a great general and leader of men mostly distinguished himself at school by being the placekicker on the football team. I like subverting this trope, and thus the series about the person who learns that she has no magic in her whatsoever. In the book I'm working on now (and will finish this week, I hope), I really play with it. Due to a case of mistaken identity, an ordinary person gets stuck in the role of the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness and has to improvise, and meanwhile, the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness remains blissfully oblivious, using all the Magical Specialness for some pretty ordinary, day-to-day issues.

Then there's the "deep, mystical bond between the dragon and its rider" trope. I'm not sure where this one started, as most of the folklore I've read has dragons as something to be slain rather than a partner with a semi-symbiotic relationship. Maybe Anne McCaffrey kicked it all off. I guess there is some appeal to the idea of Your Scaly, Fire-Breathing Pal Who's Fun to Be With! but it has reached the eye-rolling stage for me unless there's some new and different twist on it (making the human member of the team the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness only makes it worse). What if dragons were more like cats, where they might prefer some people more than others, but as long as they're being fed, they don't much care, and really don't have that much use for people beyond that? And then the riders got assigned randomly to whichever dragon was available and had to deal with the one they were stuck with for that mission. If the going got tough, it wouldn't be "your life is more important to me than my own because you are my rider" but rather, "you're on your own, scaleless wonder!"

And now, in unrelated news, Don't Hex With Texas was in the top 100 urban fantasy books at Amazon the last time I looked (and that has probably changed by now). Still, it's a nice ego boost for a book that hasn't released yet.

Friday, March 07, 2008

That Not-So-Easy "Easy" Book

It seems that while cold, gray days are more productive for me, it all goes out the window if there's snow. I've lived in places where we had snow all the time, but the moment flakes start falling, I become four years old again. I get hypnotized just watching it fall. We only got two inches yesterday, but most of that fell in about half an hour, so it was coming down pretty hard. I got very sidetracked by documenting the rate of fall with my camera from my office balcony (and one of my pics got posted on the local TV station web site -- so I guess I'm a published photographer now). I'd thought that getting snow this late in the year here was odd, but they said on the news at noon today that every two out of five years we get snowfall in March. Huh. Still, the fact that it was over 80 degrees on Saturday before we got snow on Monday and then again on Thursday was kind of odd. Now it's bright and sunny, and the only snow left is in shady spots up against walls.

When I did get to work, I eventually learned -- yet again! -- that there are times when it really is better and easier to rewrite than to revise. I spent most of the afternoon trying to fix some scenes that just weren't working. Then I figured out some things that needed to happen in those scenes to make them work, and I spent most of the evening trying to add those things to the scenes. And then I finally realized that those things would never fit well into the existing structure, that I just needed to write new scenes. That led to the realization that I'm pretty much going to have to rewrite the rest of the book from scratch. Trying to stick with the existing structure won't work. This is where all the subtle changes I've been making along the way really add up to require major changes. It's only a couple of chapters, so it's not a huge amount of material that needs to be scrapped, and I do think that writing will go a lot faster than staring at the screen and trying to figure out how to make changes.

It does seem like the "easy" book I dashed off in a few weeks last summer may end up killing me.

But first, I'm speaking at a writing group meeting in the morning, and I guess I'd better develop a speech, huh? I've got it in my head, but I need to organize it. I also need to go to the post office, but I'll wait until it gets a little warmer.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Truth vs. Fiction

So, it's March in Texas. And we're about to have our second snowfall of the week. I hadn't watched the TV news in more than a day, so I guess I missed the part where they forecast this. Last night, I was in the kitchen getting dinner together when the news came on and thought I was hearing wrong when they started talking about snow today. It was the science geek weather guy (my number two crush at that station -- he usually does weekends with my anchorman), and he explained how earlier in the week it looked like that storm would take a different path, but now it's heading right toward us.

I don't mind so much because this is my favorite writing weather and I'm this close to being done with this draft of the book. This is where I have to overcome my impatience issues and be really tough on myself. It's so easy to let something slide, just to be done with it, instead of being tough and analytical. I already know of some scenes I really need to cut, so I'm going to have to re-tackle the parts I worked on last night. I'll consider this future "deleted scenes" material for the web site.

I normally avoid talking about publishing scandals around here because, frankly, I suspect that few people outside the publishing world care all that much. But the latest one actually fits pretty well with my topic from the other day about why I'm not funny enough to write non-fiction humor because I'm too reserved to do truly funny stuff in real life. There's been yet another fake memoir revealed, and this one wasn't just a case of someone exaggerating the events for greater impact or even making up some events in a mostly sort-of true story for greater impact. It was essentially a novel sold as a memoir -- a story about growing up in foster homes in a rough part of town that turned out to have been written by an upper-class suburban girl from an intact family who went to private schools. Oops.

You do have to wonder how the industry gets fooled again and again, and why pure fiction gets sold as non-fiction. I think the publishing industry and its audience have developed the same "reality" mindset as the television industry, but for different reasons. On TV, it's a budget issue. They don't have to pay real (as in union -- there are writers on reality shows) writers or real actors for reality TV. All they have to do is collect a bunch of people who desperately want to be famous, put them in a situation and let the cameras roll. There aren't any special effects, no real sets to be built, no fancy makeup or costumes. Even if fewer people watch these shows than watch scripted TV, they come out ahead. Sadly, it seems like more people watch a lot of this stuff.

In the book world, though, production budget isn't as much of an issue. All books have an unlimited special effects budget, and it costs no more or less to produce a non-fiction book than a fiction book. The difference here is that the audience is definitely bigger for non-fiction. It goes back to my old rant about how even the bookworm characters don't seem to read fiction for fun. People who would ignore the exact same book if it were called a novel will grab it up and feel like they're reading something important and worthy if it's called a memoir and shelved in the non-fiction section. Media outlets that wouldn't so much as mention the book as a novel will do huge features on the author and reviews of the book if it's a memoir. You won't get on the big morning TV chat shows as the author of a novel unless you're already a bestseller, but as the author of a memoir, you stand a chance.

From the media's perspective, I see the point. An author talking about writing a novel isn't necessarily as potentially gripping as a person talking about a life interesting enough to warrant a book. And media coverage helps drive sales. But there's still a big truth vs. fiction thing going on in people's minds that I don't quite grasp (mostly because reality is not my friend. Give me fiction any day!). Reality TV is really popular, but even people who watch it tend to admit that it's of lesser quality than most scripted shows (with the exception of things like documentaries and science type shows). It's a guilty pleasure. When it comes to books, though, somehow the attitude is that the closer the book is to being true, the more worthy it is. Even in fiction, the books that are considered more "real" -- that is, without happy endings and with lots of moral ambiguity -- are considered more worthy. Fiction is seen as frivolous, a guilty pleasure. I don't know how many people I've run into who state proudly, "I don't read fiction." They only read non-fiction because they feel like they're learning something or getting insight into the way the world works. Then the next step down in popularity (though not always prestige) and publishing deals seems to be the roman a clef, the book sold as a novel that's based on the author's real life. This is especially big if the author has worked in a glamorous industry and there are hints that the fictional characters are based on real famous people. These authors can also get media coverage because they can talk about the real-life people and events who inspired the novel. That subgenre seems a little closer to reality TV, but there are still people who think that reading something based on a true story is better than reading a flat-out work of fiction.

It would be interesting to do an experiment in which people were given the same book, but some copies were labeled fiction, some were labeled fiction but were said to be based on a true story, and some were labeled memoir, and see how their perceptions of the book differed. That might make for some very interesting focus groups.

But anyway, that perception and media treatment have helped lead to an environment where these kinds of literary frauds can occur. The authors can see that they stand a better chance of having a bestseller if they sell their work as a memoir rather than as a novel. Publishers know they're more likely to have a big book on their hands if it's non-fiction. If the author is lucky enough to even get someone to look at the book as a novel, it'll end up getting a 5,000-copy print run in trade paperback and get tossed into the general fiction section where each store will have two copies, shelved spine-out. The publisher's publicity effort will amount to a mass mailing of review copies to media outlets that will ignore it.

And people wonder why people try to market their novels as memoir? Duh! Though you'd think publishers would learn to do a little fact checking before they offer the huge contract, especially after so many scandals.

Meanwhile, I'm happily reading and writing books that I want to be as far from reality as possible.