Friday, May 30, 2008

Chasing Cars

I don't normally think of myself as the kind of vulture/voyeur who watches police chases on TV. I didn't watch the infamous OJ white Bronco chase (I didn't even know it was on), but I will admit that if someone times his chase to fall within the evening news slot (and it's amazing how many people do), I can't help but watch. You see, I've been there.

Not as the chasee. But I've been in a vehicle in the pack following the chase and was on the scene when the chase ended.

Back in the days when I knew I wanted to be a writer but didn't think being a novelist was a practical career goal, I decided to be a journalist. And because I was also intrigued by the idea of television and film, I thought I wanted to be a television journalist. So in college I majored in broadcast news. One of the degree requirements was a news internship, and the final semester of my senior year, I interned at the Austin ABC affiliate station (KVUE 24 Action News! -- though I believe they have a different tagline now). To be totally honest, I wasn't a great journalist. I could write, and I could put together a great story. I even had the instinct for spotting a story (one tip I brought to the station based on something I'd seen on campus ended up getting my station's footage on CNN, as we were the only station anywhere to have it). But I wasn't very assertive, either in pursuing information (if someone said "no," I said, "Okay.") or in getting involved in the story. The job of an intern was to find a reporter or photographer going out on a story, beg to be allowed to go along, then carry equipment and generally tag along and do things to help the reporter and photographer. If there was time, you could beg the reporter or photographer to let you shoot your own "stand-up" (the part where the reporter appears on camera) so you could write your own version of that story including your stand-up to go on your resume tape. I wasn't good at begging to go along or begging to do a stand-up. My area of specialization was fashion consultation for the female reporters, who'd ask me along to fix their scarves (my fashion signature at the time was scarves tied in interesting ways) before they went on camera. Otherwise, I often worked the early morning shift at the station instead of going out on stories, writing the local news breaks that come at the top and bottom of the hour during Good Morning America. While the news break writing was more "real" work that actually ended up on the air than most interns got to do, tying scarves and writing news briefs wasn't the way to build a resume tape that would help me get a job.

So, I was approaching the end of my internship, and I hadn't yet put together a decent resume tape because I hadn't had the nerve to ask to shoot a stand-up. One Saturday, I decided to go to the station even though I wasn't scheduled to work. They usually had a skeleton crew on weekends, with photographers going out without reporters to get footage of a variety of community events. I figured if I got a patient photographer, I'd get to play reporter and could shoot something that could go on my resume tape. First, Keith the photographer and I went to cover one of those neighborhood fix-up events, where volunteers do repairs on needy senior citizens' homes. We met our contact at the edge of the neighborhood, then he rode with us in the news SUV to one of the building sites. He noticed that Keith had a bullet-proof vest hanging in the back of the truck, and Keith said his wife had given it to him for his birthday because she worried about him, and he carried it to make her happy, but he'd never had a reason to use it. We did the usual feel-good story stuff there, then we went on to some "learn about the environment" festival and shot lots of footage of kids looking cute while playing in the dirt (our official assignment there was "cute kids"). We were on our way to another festival when a call came over the two-way radio, asking where we were, and then telling us that there was a high-speed chase heading our way.

Keith asked if we should cover it, but they said no, go on to our next assignment because it was still pretty far out, and they'd send another unit to cover the chase (probably one with a real reporter instead of an intern). But soon after he got off the radio, Keith looked at me, said, "I have a feeling about this," and I said I did too, so he took the next exit, and then when we got under the freeway and were about to head in the direction the chase was coming from, suddenly it came right by us. There was the car being chased, and then sheriff's cars from three counties and police cars from multiple cities, plus the State Troopers. While all the other oncoming traffic was still sitting there in shock, Keith whipped out to join the chase, and then we were flying down city streets behind at least ten police cars, all with lights flashing and sirens blazing.

A few blocks later, the chase came to a stop when the fugitive got caught up in city traffic at an intersection where there were other cars stopped and he couldn't get around. He rear-ended someone and was stuck, but wouldn't get out of the car. We stopped with all the police cars and jumped out of the truck. Keith grabbed the camera out of the back, put it on his shoulder and ran, with me lugging the equipment bag coming behind him. A police officer stopped us, saying we couldn't get any closer because the guy had weapons in the car. Keith immediately perked up and said, "I have a bullet-proof vest!" The officer was a little surprised, but said he could get closer with that on, so I ran back to the truck to get it, and as soon as I got the vest to Keith, the police officer shoved me down onto the ground behind a squad car. As I lay on the ground, watching between the tires as the police pulled the guy out of his car and cuffed him, all I could think was, "I'm so glad my mom doesn't know where I am right now."

Once the situation was secured, I got to interview the head police officer at the scene -- and we were the only station there. Following our instincts had scored us a scoop. When we got back to the station, I got to write the story for the evening newscast as one where the anchor would read the story over footage of the event, with a sound bite from the policeman. That felt like a real coup for me, getting to cover spot news and be the reporter on the scene -- something interns almost never get the chance to do. It was my story and my reporting that went on the air, with some amazing footage Keith got because of his vest allowing him to get close to the action. And wouldn't you know it, I was so caught up in doing my job that I didn't even think of getting Keith to shoot me doing a stand-up on the scene so I could put a version of that story on my resume tape. I don't know if that's a sign that I would have been a good reporter because I was more focused on the story than on my own ego, or that I would have been a bad reporter because I wasn't assertive enough to insist on taking advantage of my moment of glory.

I thought of this last night when someone conveniently timed his police chase during the evening news. The Dallas station has a helicopter that was on the scene, and I couldn't resist watching as the newscast ran long, following the chase as the guy left his truck and went on foot into a house. The helicopter got live footage of all the TV news photographers rushing in to film the suspect being pulled out of the house and arrested, and none of them were wearing vests. I guess once they had him in cuffs there was no danger, but I was surprised how close they let the photographers get. (It turned out to be possibly the dumbest reason ever for a high-speed chase, right out of My Name is Earl -- something pre-karma Earl or Randy might have done. They'd tried to pull the guy over for speeding, but he took off in a panic, which made the police think there was some reason he didn't want to be caught -- like outstanding warrants or contraband in his vehicle. But he was just a habitual petty criminal and he was afraid he'd get locked up if he was stopped. Ironically, there were no outstanding warrants against him, and if he had stopped he'd have just gotten a speeding ticket, but after a high-speed chase during which he aimed his vehicle at police officers trying to stop him and damaged public property, he will get locked up.)

I never did get a job as a TV reporter, probably because my resume tape was so lame (I seem to have done too much real writing and reporting that went on the air to get around to doing some fake writing and reporting that didn't go on the air to have anything showing me on my tape). My heart wasn't really in it, since what I most wanted to do was be a novelist. I am doing that now, so I guess it worked out okay, but I will admit that when there's an exciting story like the one last night, I do get a little wistful. My current job has a very low chance of involving me in high-speed car chases, except in my head (where I have written a low-speed car chase involving magic and a gargoyle).

Now I guess I'd better get on with my current job, so I can have the evening free for my Sci Fi Friday!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

My New (Old) Office

I think I've found my new summer "office." I do have an office, but it's messy, and that's where the Internet is, so there are a lot of distractions in there. That means I get more writing done when I go elsewhere. In the winter, that elsewhere is usually the chaise lounge in my loft/library, which is a warm, cozy spot. However, that's a warm, stuffy spot in hot weather because it's right under the peak of the roof and there's no fan in there. When I have the AC on, I have an arrangement of fans that makes the spot bearable, but I like having other options, especially for open-window weather.

When I was working while stuck due to weather at my parents' house, I found that it was pretty comfortable working in the guest room. I have this big backrest there that turns a flat surface into an easy chair. It was a gift a few years ago, and I've kept it there so I could work there. I opened the blinds and was able to look outside at the rain while I sat on the bed and worked. At home, my bedroom is the coolest spot in the house. It's the first vent off the AC, and it gets the least sunlight. The rest of the house is very, very sunny, with windows and a skylight upstairs, and with the only exterior wall in the living room that isn't all window being where the fireplace is. But the bedroom has just one little window overlooking the front porch. So, I put the backrest on my bed, get my lap desk, and presto, I can sit on my bed and work while looking out the window, but with no distractions like the Internet or shelves of books.

The irony of this is, that room used to be my office. When I first moved into this house (nearly ten years ago!), I put my office downstairs and my bedroom upstairs, where my office is now. I was working full-time then, and I figured that having my office convenient to the other living areas would mean I could multi-task and get more writing done, and then when I was through with work for the day, I could retreat upstairs to my bedroom. But when I started telecommuting, I found myself working at my kitchen table because I couldn't stand to work in my office. It was dark and felt like a prison. It didn't help that I had one of those computer desks with the hutch over it that faced the wall, so I had my back to the room's one window. Meanwhile, having a skylight in your bedroom is not such a great thing if you like to sleep late or take naps. So I rearranged the house, moving the office upstairs, getting an L-shaped desk to go in the middle of the room facing the door and window so I didn't have to face the wall, and moving the bedroom downstairs to where it was cool and dark.

However, the old office/current bedroom is more pleasant to work in as a bedroom than it was as an office because of the furniture that's in there and the way the room is arranged. And I'm not spending the whole day there. I still do the work that requires the Internet in the office where it's bright and sunny. I even sometimes manage to write in the office and might get even more work done in here if I ever cleaned the place up.

Aside from the Internet temptation factor (it's far too easy to check my e-mail when I get stuck, and then from there I find myself checking lots of other sites, and next thing I know, an hour has gone by), I like moving my workplace around because I think that shaking things up helps with the creativity. Perhaps doing revisions in a different place from where I wrote the first draft will help me look at it in a different way.

In other news, the Fangs, Fur, Fey LiveJournal community has a fun interview with me here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Tales from the Road

I'm now safely at home, with all the storms gone (and a slight chance of more storms later today).

A few observations from my travels:

Small-town businesses often need to double up, so that they offer more than one main thing, probably because their customer base is small enough that they can't get by doing just one thing. When I mentioned the karate studio/tanning parlor in Enchanted, Inc., I was not making that up. For a while, there was one of those in my home town. Come to think of it, for a while just about every business in town, except maybe the bank, post office, grocery store and Dairy Queen, was a /tanning parlor, as everyone bought tanning beds and stuck them in their other businesses. These days, it seems like a lot of businesses are /tobacco shop. In one town, what used to be the Chinese take-out/donut shop is now a donut shop/tobacco shop. In another town, there's the bait shop/tobacco shop, which makes a little more sense.

The doing things with your non-dominant hand trick is a good way of making yourself aware of doing things you usually do automatically, and therefore don't remember doing. I have a very bad habit of forgetting whether or not I locked my front door when I go out of town. Never mind that I have never forgotten to lock my front door, as soon as I get on the road, I suddenly start fretting that I didn't lock it, and I spend much of the trip imagining the door being unlocked so that it blows open in the wind (which it does sometimes if it's not locked). When I went to Austin for the Nebula Awards, I got a block away from home, couldn't remember locking the door, and turned around to check just because I didn't want to spend the weekend fretting about it. This time, I locked the door with my left hand, then checked it with my right, and I definitely remembered locking it.

Now I need to find a way to ensure that I've packed crucial things. Again, not that I tend to forget things, except in extreme or unusual circumstances, but I feel like I have and worry about it until I get to my destination and find that everything I need is in my suitcase, after all. I did that, too, on my way to Austin, when I got on the highway and suddenly couldn't remember packing my make-up bag. I got so stressed about it that I pulled off at the next exit, while I was still close enough to home to turn back, pulled into the first parking lot off the exit, opened the trunk and checked my suitcase to find that I'd packed everything I needed. And then I noticed that I was in the parking lot of a Korean porn shop/cell phone store. If anyone recognized my car, I hope they thought I needed a new cell phone. I've started making a checklist of things to pack, then checking off items as they go in the suitcase, then carrying the list with me so I can prove to myself that I packed them. I'm not sure putting things in my suitcase with my left hand would work.

On the back roads, there are certain kinds of drivers you often encounter. There's the one who pulls onto the main road from a side road, right in front of you, like he's in a huge hurry, so that you have to slam on your brakes and swerve to miss him, and then he drives 25 mph in a 70 mph zone -- all the way to the next turn, maybe 200 yards down the road. And then there's the Guy Who Can Drive At Only One Speed. He toodles along at about 55 mph in a 70 mph zone, but then when he gets to a town where the speed limit drops to 35 mph, he keeps going at 55 or sometimes even speeds up a bit. This is especially annoying on two-lane roads, where sometimes the roads widen as they go through towns. You'll have been stuck behind this guy on the open road, then finally reach a passing zone with a clear road so you can get around him, then you hit a town a couple of miles later and he'll pass you in the town where there are multiple lanes, and then you catch up with him soon after you get out of town. Where are the small-town speed traps when you need one?

I think I may need a slight nap before I get to work for the afternoon. It's only a two-hour drive, but it leaves me utterly drained.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Extended Weekend (and book report)

My holiday weekend seems to have been extended, as a major storm front (that wasn't forecast at all) hit my route home at about the time I was planning to hit the road. It was supposedly very fast-moving, so I thought by hanging around an hour or so, I could wait it out. But then it seems to have hovered over my route, so that there are still spots with heavy rain and high winds I'd have to get through. So I guess I'll stay one more day with my parents (I won't accuse them of arranging this to keep me around longer). However, I really do need to work, so I've barricaded myself in my room, opened the blinds to watch it rain, and I will try to accomplish something today. Maybe by feeling like I must get something done I'll get more done than if I drove home today (but then I'll have to worry about not getting anything done tomorrow when I'm traveling).

I guess I can do a mini book report (ack! Crisis! I've almost read every book I brought with me! Now I really have to work!). Over the weekend, I read The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I've seen things based on this book, like the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone and, of course, Camelot, but hadn't read the book itself.

I must say that I liked The Sword in the Stone parts best. Those were fun and I think the writing was better and more engaging there. I tend to find the adult Camelot story frustrating because The Love Triangle That Would Not Die can get annoying. I'm already on record with my dislike of the "We love each other but we can't be together, so we'll just hang around pining and being miserable about it" plot. Fleshed out further to include the parts with Elaine (which are conveniently edited out of Camelot), it's even more frustrating, and I found myself really disliking Guenever (the spelling used in the book) for the way she didn't want Lancelot being with anyone else, even though she happened to be married. Talk about having your cake and eating it! There's also an annoying tendency in this section to have major parts of the story told rather than shown, so that we find out what happened when a character who has been involved in some action comes back to court and tells the story of what happened. Some of the most crucial moments of the story happen entirely offstage.

One thing I found intriguing about this book was that it's set up as an alternate history, so that in this world, there was Uther Pendragon instead of William the Conqueror, and William the Conqueror is the mythical kind of legend. That changes the setting from the usual Celtic Britian, with the conceit that Arthur was a Celtic king lost in time, to Norman England. However, the mention of the Plantagenet kings as being "mythical" doesn't come until later in the book, so I found myself nitpicking anachronisms and complaining "well, that didn't come about until Norman times" until it was obvious that the setting was meant to be Norman. The last part of the book, that was written later, is very obviously an analogy of WWII, with Mordred as Hitler.

If you're interested in Arthurian lore, this is definitely worth a read, and the first section is quite entertaining. I would almost recommend stopping after Arthur becomes king, though there is some fun stuff in the second "book" involving Pellinore and the Questing Beast.

And then to really wallow in anachronism, we watched Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure last night. Yeah, it's cheesy and silly, but that is such a fun movie. It still makes me giggle like crazy.

The latest radar shows that while the storms may be through Dallas by the time I would get there, yet another group of storms is heading this way and would affect my drive (and there's currently a lot of thunder here. It sounds like it's about to get nasty again). Plus, I've just about reached the point where I'd hit Dallas at rush hour, so I guess I'm here one more night.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Soundtracks and Substitution

I had a bit of an epiphany yesterday while I was trying to finalize my playlist for this book and when I looked at all the recommendations. I was going about it the wrong way and missing the point of the exercise.

I wasn't creating a soundtrack for the book -- the songs that might play over particular scenes in the movie version. I wasn't doing a Moulin Rouge-style musical using existing songs, so that the songs had to be what the characters themselves would sing. These weren't supposed to be songs that the characters would know or like. The whole idea was triggering in me the emotions I wanted to convey in the characters -- and that might involve totally different music than might be used for any of the above reasons. I think I've actually been doing that all along instinctively, which is why I always hesitate when people ask me if there's a soundtrack or playlist to go with a book. The songs on my "soundtrack" will make no sense whatsoever to anyone but me because they're so specific to particular emotions or images that go with them. I've been re-reading my college acting textbook, and Uta Hagen calls this "substitution." You think of some event, idea or image that triggers in you the emotion or response your character needs to show. It may have absolutely nothing to do with the situation in the story other than the way it makes you feel or the way it makes you react. She even discourages talking too much about what you're using because it will affect the other actors -- they won't be able to see the character's emotion for what it is because they'll be thinking about your personal substitution, which takes them out of the moment.

Yeah, one of my better writing resources is a book on acting, but in a sense, writing is acting on paper.

So, I was on the right track with my 80s mix tape or even my deeply romantic playlist, since what makes me feel like I'm falling in love isn't women singing about being in love, but rather men with nice voices singing things that I dream of having someone say to me. I can go through the phases of "I wish he'd say this to me/Could he be saying this to me?/OMG! He's saying this to me!" Listening to Survivor puts me right into that state. I remember that around the time I was learning to drive, "The Search is Over" was playing on the radio all the time. That song triggered a lot of wistful romantic fantasies when I was 16.

And now some follow-up to topics from earlier in the week:

I do have plans for THAT birthday. I'll be at WorldCon (Denvention) for my birthday, so I'll be around not only some of my close friends from home, but also probably some other people I know from around the country. What I'd really love is if they deign to put me on a panel (I've sent in info to be considered for programming but haven't heard anything) to be on a panel with some of my writing icons, or to at least meet some of my writing icons, that day. Then I can remember that birthday as the day I met someone cool. I'll have to look at the list of attendees to see who my targets are, as I've already met a lot of the people on my list of people I want to meet. I guess some of the Doctor Who writers will be there, as they're up for Hugos, so meeting Stephen Moffat on my birthday would be memorable. I don't know what I'll do for an actual celebration. I imagine I can round up some friends to go out for dinner, and I've considered bringing my tiara, getting some kind of "Hey, it's my birthday" button and maybe a package of cheap party favors and going to all the room parties, then declaring upon entry that the party has now become my birthday party. Lots of Dr Pepper may be required for me to get the nerve to do that, though. I'll probably be helping at the SFWA suite at times, so maybe I'd feel better about temporarily declaring that to be my birthday party.

As for my fitness goal, the ballet school near me is doing a six-week summer session with an adult beginner class at a reasonably convenient time, and I think I may go for it. I took some dance as a kid and again in college, plus doing dance-based fitness programs, but I think I'm still best starting as a beginner. That would force me to do at least one serious workout a week, and as competitive as I can be about these things, I'd be more driven to practice, stretch and exercise during the week so I can keep up with the rest of the class (or be better).

That brushing your teeth with the opposite hand thing is more difficult than I thought. Not the action itself, but remembering to do it. Brushing your teeth is such an automatic action, so probably what helps rewire the brain is the fact that you're turning something automatic into a deliberate action. Going back to acting techniques, using your opposite hand for daily tasks was one of the exercises we had to do for class, because by doing so, you were conscious of your actions, and that was important for being able to be conscious of your actions as an actor. I'm also using my left hand on the computer track pad, but that's because one of my bad habits about how I hold my hand is making my wrist hurt. It's not bad if I'm actually typing, but when I'm doing revisions, there's a lot of clicking on the scroll bar to page down, and I tend to keep my hand tense and hovering instead of relaxing between clicks. Staying off the computer some over the weekend will help with that, too.

Speaking of the weekend, have a good one! I'm off to visit the parental units, as it's Dad's birthday.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Silly Love Songs

In the book I'm working on, the current task is layering more emotion into the story, which is something I think the book needs to take it to the next level. Part of the story involves teenagers falling in love for the first time, as seen through the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl, and given that I'm pretty mellow even for an adult my age, I'm having to really, really ramp up the emotional levels to accurately convey teenagers being emotional. I have to go rather far back in time to remember what it's like to fall in love for the first time, with all the hope and angst that goes with it (it doesn't help that the first five or six times I fell madly in love, it was unrequited and in some cases was a total crush from afar).

I thought music would be a good trigger, so I pulled up my "Swooningly Romantic" playlist on iTunes. All but one song on it was sung by a male. I know that the sentiments being expressed could come from anyone, but it's still hard to use a song to get into the headspace of a girl falling in love when it's sung by a baritone. So I dug up an old mix tape I made for driving between home and the university. One side of it is labeled "romantic favorites," and again, all but one song is sung by a man or involves a group with a male lead singer (heavy on the Survivor, Styx and Kansas -- this was the 80s). I guess my idea of romantic is being sung to by a man who is expressing his deepest feelings for me. Makes sense.

There were more songs by female singers on the general favorites mixes, but none of them were about falling in love or being in love. They were all about love gone wrong -- the breakup songs, in general. I guess I like the idea of a man expressing his feelings to me, but if it's a song from my point of view, it's about how love sucks, which may say something psychologically about me if I can't identify with being in love without being hurt. But then I dug up another mix tape, this one my "sing along" tape. Since I'm a soprano and I live in a townhouse where I share walls with neighbors, I try to be polite and do most of my really big, loud, soprano singing in the car, so I put together a whole tape of great musical theater songs to sing with. You'd think that Broadway musicals would provide lots of great love songs sung by women, right?

Oddly enough, no. Not outside of duets. Most of the big, passionate, dramatic songs for men are love ballads, but most of the big, passionate, dramatic songs for women seem to be about love gone wrong, or else they're about a situation. Take Camelot -- the man sings "If Ever I Would Leave You" (sigh!). The woman sings "I Loved You Once in Silence" (in other words, "That was a bad idea") and "Before I Gaze at You Again" (in other words, "It's so over"). Les Miserables has all those great power ballads, but the more romantic songs for the women are "I Dreamed a Dream" (in other words, "Well, that relationship ruined my life") and "On My Own" (in other words, "Like he'd ever notice me"). The big, emotional song in Phantom of the Opera is about Christine's relationship with her father. Moving to something a little more recent, The Scarlet Pimpernel, there's the male song "Where's the Girl?" (swoon!) which is sort of about love gone wrong, but boils down to "I want you back" while the woman's song is "When I Look at You" (in other words, "Boy, did you change after the wedding"). The big, powerful female ballad in Ragtime is "Back to Before" (another "It's so over"). The romantic female solo in Wicked is "I'm Not That Girl" (another "Like he'd ever notice me"). Going back to classics again, My Fair Lady has a guy singing "On the Street Where You Live," while her "I Could Have Danced All Night" is in context more about the situation than about her feelings for a particular person.

I only found a few really good female love songs in my musical theater collection. There's "If I Were a Bell" from Guys and Dolls and there are a couple of good ones in The Music Man. Stretching the definition of musical theater, we also get "Under Your Spell" from the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (though in context it's actually bittersweet because we know the spell is literal and it will soon cause a complete meltdown).

Most of the tracks on the female pop albums I have seem to be of the "love gone wrong" variety. That could be self-selected, as my pop music taste tends toward the moody female singer/songwriter, a la Sarah McLachlan (a lot of "love is bittersweet") and Tori Amos (a lot of "men suck"), but even in the relentlessly perky and bouncy ABBA music, most of the songs are about love gone wrong. Madonna does have one or two love ballads, and then there are a few by the Captain and Tennille (shut up). Otherwise, my male singer bias continues, as most of my music collection involves male singers (I may be a soprano, but I'm really not crazy about listening to them). Really, aside from musical theater, most of my music collection is jazz, which doesn't fit this book. There's something too mature and mellow about even the hottest jazz to underscore teen love. Jazz is sultry, or else is more the comfortable love of an enduring relationship -- when it's not about, you guessed it, love gone wrong.

I was able to find, by going through my whole music collection, enough songs to get a decent playlist (though it's still woefully lacking in female POV songs) that matches the mood of the book, and just going through that exercise triggered some pretty vivid imagery that I think will spill over well into the writing. That's largely the point of the soundtrack exercise. I get as much out of the process of considering possible selections and mentally matching them to the story to see if it triggers anything as I do out of actually listening to the completed soundtrack.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Better Writing Through Television

This round of the book definitely seems to be a "night" book. I was able to do some line editing during the day, but the real writing didn't happen until night. I don't know if it's the heat or the bright sunlight, so that the closest I can come to a nice, cloudy day is night, but I guess I'll just go with it. I've done the major surgery, and now I have to go back through and layer in some nuances. Today's cooler and a little cloudier, so maybe I can work during the day.

Because I sometimes revel in being contrary, I'm going to go against the advice often given to aspiring writers. I often hear that if you're serious about writing, you'll quit wasting time watching TV and instead spend that time writing. But I'm going to recommend that you watch some TV. Doing so with your writing hat on can teach you a lot of valuable lessons.

1) Showing vs. Telling -- This is something a lot of writers (including me) struggle with. On TV, unless there's a narrator or a character who has an internal monologue in voice-over, the only way they can convey information is by showing what characters say and what they do. They can't dip into a character's head to tell us what she's thinking or feeling. They have to rely on the actor's facial expressions, body language, vocal pitch, way of speaking, and actions to convey thoughts or emotional states. As a writing exercise, find a scene in a TV show that has almost no dialogue in it (those scenes underscored by a pop song that are so popular in dramas these days would work, but ignore the song telling you what you're supposed to be feeling) and try writing it in narrative while still staying out of the character's head. Just describe the expressions and movements the way another character in the scene would see this person. Then write it from the point of view of that character, but still avoid actually saying what she's feeling -- you won't be able to use facial expressions except from the perspective of what it feels to make them, but you can still work with the actions.

There are times when telling is more appropriate, when you need to convey information and the actual scene would be boring, and the times on TV when they tell by having a character just say what's happening are also times when telling would work in a novel. We don't need to see the CSI lab techs or the doctors on House run every test, just the ones where something unexpected or particularly interesting happens. Having a character report that they've run all the usual tests and the results were negative is more interesting than showing all those scenes. Save the showing for the test where the sample explodes or the result is dramatic.

On poorly written shows, they may resort to telling -- the dreaded "as you know" recap where the characters tell each other things they already know because the audience needs to know them or the character that other characters keep telling us is awesome or mysterious or whatever with no evidence of the character actually acting that way. When this happens, you'll probably find yourself cringing. That's something to avoid in your own writing.

2) Start off with a bang -- It's no secret that our attention span is getting shorter as a society, and if we're not hooked quickly, we lose interest. That's affected the way television episodes start. Twenty or so years ago, most television shows started with an opening credits sequence to tell us what we were watching, complete with theme song. Today, they jump right to the action, starting with an opening teaser before the credits -- if they even have a credits sequence instead of just flashing a title card and then running the credits over the beginning of the episode. Those opening teasers are a good way to get ideas for how to open a novel. On the procedural shows, they usually involve either the murder itself or the discovery of the body. On action shows, they either set up the danger the main characters will be in or they show the main characters in some kind of action or danger. Comedy shows may start with a "cold open" that doesn't necessarily relate to the plot of the episode but that is a funny standalone scene that shows us something about our characters. In other words, it's all about action -- characters DOING something. They're not staring out the window, thinking about their past. They're not traveling somewhere and thinking about why they're traveling or what will happen when they get there. Of course, it's hard to have a TV scene in which characters just think, but that doesn't mean it's a good idea to start a novel that way (and I've seen way too many manuscripts that do).

If you tuned into a TV show and saw a woman on an airplane telling her seatmate about her tragic past and the reason she's traveling (the TV equivalent of the person thinking about the destination while traveling), wouldn't you be a bit bored and disappointed if all that happened was her getting off the plane at her destination and then going on to do the things she said she was going to do? You'd probably be expecting (even hoping) that the plane would crash soon, or the plane would be hijacked, or the pilot would keel over and the flight attendant would have to take over the controls, or a passenger in the next row would have a heart attack. If it's a comedy, you might expect them to pull a twist and reveal that our real main character is the seatmate who starts coming up with more and more elaborate ploys to escape the boring woman who seems determined to tell him her life story.

Action reveals character, so by putting our main characters in action, the audience can learn about them and start caring about them. Then once they're hooked, you can bring in the relevant back story. If they're not already hooked, they aren't going to care about the character's tragic past. The opening should make the audience want to know more -- where did that body come from, will they find the murderer, will our heroes be up to this challenge, what will these people do next?

3) Pacing -- Commercial television has a very clear act structure because of the need to put in commercial breaks. Each act starts and ends with a bang, with some rising and falling action in between. Analyzing the pace of action in a television episode is a good way to look at pacing a story so that the reader keeps turning the pages, since so much about television writing is based around keeping viewers from changing the channel. One of the best compliments an author can receive is "I couldn't put the book down," so you're trying to achieve the same goal of keeping the tension up and the questions flowing in such a way that readers won't "change the channel" by putting the book down and doing something else.

Another good TV pacing lesson is how to do chapter-ending hooks in the best way. Look at the way a TV series ends an act to go to commercials -- usually at the moment a major question is raised, so we have to wait for the answer; a major revelation is made, so we have to wait for the reaction; a major decision must be made, so that we have to wait to see what the choice will be; or a character is in jeopardy, so we have to wait to see his fate. All of this is designed to ensure that viewers will stick around during the commercial break instead of changing the channel. If the hook is strong enough, viewers might not even channel surf during the commercials, for fear of missing the hook resolution when the show returns after the break. The end of a chapter is the novel's equivalent of the commercial break, but without the ads. It's a spot where it's easy to put the book down without losing your place, so the author has to work even harder to make readers not want to put the book down. Using a good chapter-ending hook is the way to do that. The technique also works for scene breaks in multiple-viewpoint novels with parallel or interwoven plot threads. When you end with one thread, you want to make sure readers are eager to get back to those characters, but just as eager to see what's been going on with the other characters.

I've also learned a lot about writing from discussing TV series online, so next time I'll talk about what my Usenet and Television Without Pity obsessions have taught me.

In other news, it looks like the full range of e-book formats for Don't Hex with Texas is now available. They're showing up at Fictionwise and at eReader. However, searching for the title at eReader doesn't seem to work, but if you search by my name, all four books come up. Now those of you waiting for e-books can get them!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Yep, it was a lazy Monday. I was utterly useless in the afternoon, so I gave up and made an early dinner. But then I got through the killer scene late at night. It's possible that this round could be a night book that refuses to cooperate in daylight. I'll give afternoon work another shot today and we'll see if it was just that one section that was the problem or if I need to adjust my schedule. It helps that after last night, aside from my Sci Fi Friday shows and BBCAmerica OnDemand or PBS stuff, we've had the season finales for everything I watch (and Sci Fi is doing a marathon of bad movies this Friday for the holiday weekend).

There was a really interesting article on willpower in the newspaper on Sunday that seems to be adapted from a book called Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life. It really does explain a lot about my working processes and the way my life tends to go.

For instance, there's a possibility that willpower is related to blood sugar, since brain cells need sugar to function, and exerting self-control lowers blood sugar, making it harder to keep being in control. Studies show that people given a sugar-sweetened drink between two tasks requiring self-control do better on both than those given an artificially sweetened drink, who make more errors on the second task. That may be why a lot of writers seem to crave carbs when working, and it gives scientific validity to my practice of eating an M&M after each page I write. It's not only a reward system, it keeps replenishing the blood sugar that allows my brain cells to keep going so I can force myself to work when I want to do other things. I guess that also explains why I work better on the kind of days when I want to drink lots of hot tea and worse on hot days when I don't want hot tea. Maybe it's not the caffeine, but rather the sugar, and I might do better to switch to sweetened ice tea in the summer instead of diet Dr Pepper.

We also likely have a limited "budget" of willpower, so that if you're doing one task that requires a lot of willpower, it's harder to make yourself do anything else. Their example is that letting the housecleaning go before a big exam might be a good idea so you can focus your willpower on the studying (and replace "exam" with "deadline" and "studying" with "writing" and we've explained the state of my house). You're more likely to be successful at one goal if you focus all your mental effort on it instead of diluting your efforts by trying to do too much.

However, you can also build willpower, almost like a muscle, and once you've stuck with something requiring willpower long enough for it to become a habit, so it doesn't really require a lot of willpower to do it anymore, you tend to gain the willpower to do a lot of other things. In studies, people who stuck to an exercise program for two months then found that they also got their spending under control, cut out junk food and smoking, studied more, watched less television and did more housework. Any kind of willpower or self-management training works. One thing that seemed kind of odd was that brushing your teeth for two weeks with your non-dominant hand can help build willpower (I'll have to try that).

I've already put myself on the waiting list for this book at the library.

This also ties into something else I was thinking yesterday. As I have mentioned, I'm facing one of those big round-number birthdays this year. I thought I was pretty much fine with it, and I've already started thinking of myself as that age. Nobody believes I'm that old, and they regularly estimate my age as more than ten years younger than I really am, which makes it kind of a point of pride rather than something I want to hide. But I was shopping for a birthday card for my dad at Target, and I saw the rack of "So, You're Turning 40!" cards and had a minor anxiety attack. It really hit me. I resolved to do something for myself to make the experience empowering instead of frightening, and I decided it was finally really time to get in shape. I don't need to lose weight, although I've put on a few pounds in the last couple of years, and on my frame that makes enough difference that there are clothes I can't wear anymore. I'm more concerned with being fit -- having endurance, strength and flexibility. If I don't do this now, it will get harder to get there, and I think it will be easier to turn that age if I can honestly say to myself that I'm in the best shape I've ever been.

Of course, in the middle of struggling through book revisions isn't the best time to start something else that requires willpower, but maybe once I get this book done, starting the exercise program can be my key to building overall willpower that might spill over into writing and housework.

First, though, I'm going to try that tooth brushing thing. I'm already pretty ambidextrous for everything but writing, and brushing my teeth left-handed for two weeks seems a lot easier for a kick start than two months of an exercise program.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Movie Monday!

I have a feeling this is shaping up to be a really lazy Monday. If I weren't in desperate need of milk and dark chocolate M&Ms, I wouldn't leave the house. I might even rationalize going without milk for another day, but the M&Ms are crucial to my creative process, so I can't skip them. I did get on a writing roll on Sunday, finally. I've discovered that the easiest way to completely rewrite an existing scene is to start a new document and write it there (maybe pasting in the occasional bit from the original), and then by the time it's done, it's so much better than what was there that I don't feel so bad about deleting the old scene and pasting in the new. That has a different psychological impact than deleting the existing scene from the start or trying to rewrite what's already there. Now I hope, after errands, I can stay awake and focused enough to finish this section.

I did make it to the movies on Friday, but I realized that the A&W was farther away than I thought, and going there would have added a mile to my walk. Maybe someday when I have plenty of time I'll do that. I really did like Prince Caspian. These books are ideal for film adaptations because they're short and don't contain a lot of detail, which gives the filmmakers plenty of room to play. Seeing the movie is like getting bonus material instead of having things cut, as so often happens in book-to-film adaptations. There were some pretty major things added to the movie that weren't in the book, but for the most part, I think they fit the spirit of the book and helped illuminate some themes that were in the book.

One thing I really liked was the way the movie dealt with the emotional consequences of the first Narnia adventure. These kids spent years in this other world as kings and queens and even grew up to be adults, then came back through the wardrobe and were suddenly kids again. That's going to have an impact, and the book didn't address that much at all, just a bit of "remember when we were kings and queens?" wistfulness. The way it's addressed in this movie makes total sense and adds a layer to everything else.

Another thing I like is that the kids really do look and act like they're related, especially the three younger ones. The family dynamics work so that it feels like they're brothers and sisters rather than a group of kids thrown together. I also love the costuming, the armor and the way Reepicheep and the mice really do move like mice. The sword fight that serves as one of the big action moments in the book more than lived up to my expectations.

What I didn't like was the use of modern pop music for the closing credits -- and starting that music over the closing few minutes of the movie. The use of modern pop music with any kind of period film or quasi-period fantasy film just drives me nuts because it breaks the spell. Even the "modern" part of this story is set in World War II. 2008 pop music doesn't belong in any way, shape or form. Maybe some quasi-Celtic Enya type stuff that draws on traditional music -- something timeless -- but please, not modern pop that is going to badly date what should be a fairly timeless movie. It was even reasonably bland pop music, so nothing that's going to be Best Original Song Oscar nominee bait (though that could be because I am old and don't know current pop music -- I wouldn't change the radio station if this stuff came on, but I also don't remember enough of it to find myself desperately looking for a soundtrack).

I also got sucked into the Sci Fi Channel's Indiana Jones marathon. Raiders of the Lost Ark remains one of the very best action movies ever made. It's perfectly paced, with each sequence building to the next and only relenting to give us a breather when we can't take it any more, and then we're right back to the action again. I couldn't make it through the second one (and it's hard to imagine that Steven Spielberg married Kate Capshaw after seeing her in this movie. We can only hope that it was a brilliant acting job and she's not nearly that annoying in real life), and I don't think the third one has held up all that well, though at least it's still watchable.

And the finale of Cranford left me a weeping, sobbing mess, but in a good way.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Torturing Characters

Whee! Today is a lovely day to hike up the hill to the movie theater to see Prince Caspian, and I am way too excited about that. I might even get wild and crazy and go from the theater to the A&W nearby and get a root-beer float to enjoy on the hike home.

A few little updates:
I am now a published photographer. If you get the Del Rey Internet Newsletter, a photo I took at the Nebula Awards is featured, and I even got photo credit for it. The other photo from the awards in the newsletter was taken with my camera, though I didn't take it. Unfortunately, my books weren't mentioned in the newsletter, and the photo credit doesn't mention me being an author, so I don't know that having my name in there will do much good other than to my ego.

For e-book fans, I checked into why an eReader version of the new book doesn't seem to be showing up, and apparently it's supposed to be available, but for whatever reason it didn't show up in the Random House system and therefore didn't get distributed. My editor is seeing to it that it gets out there. We decided to blame the computer, but then since we're both big Battlestar Galactica fans, we worried that the computer won't be happy about that when it becomes sentient, and it might rise up and attack us for making it the scapegoat. Though I guess we're safe as long as the computer can't hold a gun and hasn't developed a way to appear totally human.

Now, to clarify and expand upon an earlier post (inspired by some comments). When I referred to "torturing" characters or otherwise being mean to them, I don't necessarily mean that literally. We're not engaging in character S&M here. What I do mean is making things as difficult as possible for characters -- giving them serious obstacles to their goals, pitting them against a villain who may be stronger than they are, giving them goals that may be more than they can handle and making them absolutely give their all in pursuit of their goals. When things are difficult like that, it proves that the task was difficult and that the hero is truly worthy in being able to achieve it. The hero learns and grows through the torture, and realizes because of it exactly what he's made of. He overcomes and triumphs.

It seems to be easier to tolerate this kind of character torture in genre fiction -- romance, sf/f, mystery, adventure -- for a couple of reasons. For one, it is in pursuit of a goal or aim, usually one greater than the character. The character sacrifices for the greater good, with the goal of saving the world, bringing the wicked to justice, stopping evil, and so forth. For another, the character usually chooses the path that leads to this suffering. He could avoid all the problems by turning his back and walking away. He's not a victim, and he's not passive. In more so-called "literary" fiction, there's often a great deal of suffering, but just because life sucks, and often the characters are passive. Bad things happen to them not because they're putting themselves in the way of terrible danger for the greater good, but because life just sucks and is unfair. Maybe that's part of my trouble in reading those Lemony Snicket books -- those kids are going through all the woes not because they've taken on a mission or have any particular goal other than surviving. They do pull themselves together and come up with plans for overcoming and surviving, but otherwise they're passive in that things happen to them just because of who they are, not because of what they choose to do.

And now I need to head to the movies. Maybe I'll report back with a review.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Rear View

I dreamed last night that I was posting on this topic today, so I might as well go with it.

Have you started to feel shunned when you go to a bookstore? I'm not talking about the staff, but rather the book covers. It seems the current trend is covers with people's backs turned to you. Cover trends are nothing new -- there were the cartoony romantic comedy covers in the late 90s, the chick lit covers with shoe-clad feet or martini glasses, etc. -- but they tend to stay within genres. Now, though, the back view covers seem to be really crossing the genre lines.

Because my books have been showing up on the urban fantasy bestseller list at Amazon (all four were there this morning!), I've found myself looking at those covers, and the back view is really popular there. A large percentage of the urban fantasy covers involve a woman with her back turned, often wearing leather, or sometimes wearing nothing but tattoos. In some cases, her face is turned slightly to the front, but it's still obscured by shadows or hair.

But then if you look at the more "literary" women's fiction covers, we have even more backs, only this time the women tend to be wearing retro sundresses, or maybe coats as they walk away from the viewer. Sometimes it's just the backs of their heads.

Oddly enough, these all seem to be women's backs we're seeing. The exception in urban fantasy is that sometimes the Harry Dresden figure on Jim Butcher's books has his back turned, but the way they put Harry on the covers is always a little shadowy. B& has my latest book classified as paranormal romance, and looking at that bestseller list (I'm on the top 100!), it seems like, again, if the figure on the cover is female, we see her back, but the men we usually get a pretty good look at.

I suppose it could have something to do with the idea that readers want to picture the characters for themselves, so showing the characters with their backs turned gives a glimpse without putting a definite face on them. Or it could be designed to appeal to men and women in different ways -- women reading urban fantasy might want to picture themselves as the heroine, so they don't want to see a face, while men are drawn to the body rather than the face, anyway. I don't know why all the book club bait books use women's backs.

And I suppose it's possible I'm being overly paranoid about feeling shunned when I go to a bookstore and all those backs are turned to me. You could look at it as the characters looking inward into the content of the books and encouraging readers to follow them inside.

Now I need to decipher some cryptic notes I left for myself when I had a stroke of thought for the book I'm revising. I scribbled something random on a piece of paper, and I think it has something to do with the book, but I'm not only a little unsure what it means, I'm not entirely sure what it says. The really sad thing is that I was sitting at my desk when I wrote it. It's not something I scribbled in the middle of the night to remind myself of something I dreamed (since I dreamed about blogging about book covers with people's backs and not about the book).

Hmmm, is that word "feud" or "fend"? That could totally change the meaning of a scene.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

World's Biggest Wimp

I'm making progress on this round of revisions. Yesterday, I figured out how to rework a scene in a way that now makes it matter instead of just sitting there. The trick was to delete one of those "darlings" -- a bit of dialogue I really loved that the scene built to, but that really didn't need to be there, and its presence kept the scene from going in a better direction. Maybe I can fit it in elsewhere, but for now, it's out of there.

While I'm analyzing my weaknesses, I've discovered through my reading what may be my biggest challenge as a writer: I may be the world's biggest wimp. This occurred to me when I found myself struggling to read a children's book because it was too scary. Well, not so much scary as promising that bad things would happen. On a whim, I'd checked an omnibus edition of the first three Lemony Snicket books out of the library, since I'd heard a lot about them. I read the first one in one sitting, but then found that I almost couldn't bear to face the second one. When the narrator suggested that readers might want to put the book down now and tell themselves that things would work out okay because things were about to get really, really bad, I found myself actually putting the book down. It took me three days to read this children's book because I dreaded so much seeing what would happen next. I couldn't take seeing these characters suffer.

Which is weird, given that I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon, president and poster boy of the "put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them" school of writing. I love the way he takes characters to the brink, really testing their mettle, or else comes up with perfectly understandable motivations for doing the unforgivable, so that characters we love can do horrible things and we still love them. And I love the sense that no one is safe, that you can't count on all the characters surviving unscathed, which really raises the sense of tension. Maybe in the Lemony Snicket books my issue is that it involves children, or it's possible that I get frustrated by the fact that most of their problems stem from adults not listening to them rather than really being upset about the bad things happening.

(Though I have since discovered, after forcing myself the rest of the way through that second Lemony Snicket book and then reading the third in one sitting that part of the joke is that the reality of what happens in those books isn't nearly as dire as what is promised. And the bit about the adults not listening is really what it feels like to be a kid, so that's probably a big part of what makes the books so popular.)

While I was in the midst of struggling to get through a children's book that was freaking me out too much, I was also re-reading parts of The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, the book that takes the Joseph Campbell universal myth theories and applies them for modern storytelling. Vogler mentions that he saw the original Star Wars film at an advance screening, and the part that told him this was going to be a hit was the scene in the garbage masher, which maps to the "Inmost Cave/Ordeal" section of the universal myth plot -- the midpoint of the story. In that scene, Luke, our hero, gets dragged under water by the creature, there's some struggle, and then it goes silent. The moment is held just long enough to make the audience wonder if maybe Luke really is dead. You don't think they'll kill off the hero, but then you start to wonder if maybe there was a bit of misdirection, and one of these other characters is really the hero. And then just when you're really getting worried, he pops up again, re-born. Then almost immediately the walls start to converge, and all the characters are in jeopardy again, then there's the tease where you hear from C-3PO's point of view all the screaming, and he thinks they're dying instead of rejoicing. In a fairly short sequence, first the hero and then all the main characters are brought close enough to the brink of death that we can't help but wonder if they might actually die. That creates an incredible roller coaster of emotions and heightens the emotional involvement of the audience in the story.

And that's where my own wimpiness can hurt me because I may joke about torturing my characters (like with the end of book three), but I haven't really been willing to take them to that brink. Granted, what I write is generally classified as comedy, and you have different expectations there, but where I seem to be heading in my writing is in stuff that might be called fantasy with a lot of humor, and there I need to be a little bolder about being mean to my characters.

So I guess to toughen myself up, I need to read more children's books.

In other news, my blog touring continues. You can get a glimpse of my work environment at Jennifer Echols's blog.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Myth of the Hot Firefighter

Following up on yesterday's post, since I got some e-mails asking the question, and it's quicker and easier to respond all at once here, The Book That Would Not Die is a new project unrelated to my series, which is why I'm trying to get it absolutely perfect. It's the one I dashed off a first draft of in a few weeks back in August, and then have completely rewritten a couple of times. I don't really want to talk about what it is or what it's about because it hasn't sold yet, and I like to keep unsold projects under wraps (I don't want to potentially undermine my agent's efforts in talking to editors about it). Meanwhile, yesterday I dealt with the issue of getting more emotion in my work in a properly cerebral, analytical way: I checked a couple of psychology books about emotions out of the library. I may be a hopeless case.

This morning, I went out to run a couple of errands before it started raining (and I almost made it, too -- it started raining as I was walking from my garage to my house when I got home). The local fire department was doing one of their charity "fill the boot" drives at the main intersection, and I finally got my fantasy firefighter.

I have learned that there's a sad reality about firefighters in that very few of them actually look like those men in firefighter calendars or on the covers of romance novels. A lot of the guys I went to high school with are now firefighters, and let's just say they aren't exactly the calendar guy types. Then there was my one big encounter with my neighborhood fire station that completely shattered all my illusions and ideals.

This was back when I had a regular job and had to get up early in the morning to get to work, so it must have been around 6:30. I hadn't even put the kettle on to make tea, when suddenly my security system went nuts. I'd already disarmed it to bring in the newspaper, so it wasn't an intruder, and when I checked the keypad, it said it was a fire. There was no fire. There was no smoke, no flames, absolutely nothing. The system had just gone nuts, and I couldn't get it to turn off. And then I heard sirens approaching. As I said, it was 6:30 in the morning, and I'd just got out of bed, so I was still in my nightgown. A nightgown from Victoria's Secret with a lacy bodice and a slit all the way up my thigh (yeah, I live alone and sleep alone and haven't had a boyfriend in forever, but I love pretty nightgowns). The part of my brain that had managed to wake up said that maybe those sirens were coming to my house, so I grabbed a bathrobe. And then the doorbell rang, and I had the fire department, in full gear, on my front porch.

Sounds like the set-up for a romantic comedy meet-cute, right? (Or I guess a porn movie, but that's not the way my brain works.) We've got the flustered heroine in her sexy nightie and the handsome firefighter who needs to make sure it really is a false alarm, even if he is distracted by what the nightie reveals. But the firemen were so disappointing. I'm sure they were totally competent at the firefighting stuff, but they were much older and grizzled (which I guess that job might make you). Definitely not calendar material. I clutched my bathrobe tighter around me as I explained that I was pretty sure my security system had freaked out, since you could see the smoke detectors and fire sensors from the front door, and it was clear that there was neither smoke nor fire anywhere near them. They said they'd had a number of this kind of call that morning, and apparently the security company's computer had freaked out, but they still had to respond to the calls. While they were still there, the security company called to check on the alarm. It was reassuring to know that the fire department can get to my house in less than five minutes, but it was a waste of a sexy nightgown.

But today, though, I finally got my cute fireman for the fill-the-boot drive. At my lane, the guy was built kind of like a fireplug, short and stout, and clearly much older, but one lane over, the guy was tall, cute, well-built and red-haired. He reminded me of Carrot in the Discworld books. I was just about to whimper to myself that it wasn't fair that I didn't get the cute one, but then the one in my lane moved to the next lane over, and the cute one headed right to me. He even called me "sweetheart" when I put my money in his boot. Alas, he was wearing a wedding ring (so there's no point in committing arson in order to lure him to me). But still, I got the cute one! And my faith in the ideal of the hot firefighter has been restored. There is at least one out there! In my neighborhood!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Getting Into a State

I'm back into serious work mode for this week, since I got revision notes on the Book That Would Not Die. It turns out that the beginning and end work, and I just need to fix the Dreaded Sagging Middle. That should be doable.

It seems like on each book I learn something new about writing, some fault I can fix and then carry forward into the next book, not making that mistake again. And then in the next book I discover a different thing that I need to improve. It's not as though those faults spring out of thin air. I think they just become more obvious with the previous flaw fixed, or else they're something that can't be fixed until the underlying fault is fixed. I hope that means I'm a better writer in each book than I was in the last.

This time around, the thing that I'm facing is dealing with emotions. I've hit some high points at time to time in doing that well for particular scenes in the past, but in general, I tend to be more cerebral and analytical in my writing rather than emotional, and dealing better with emotions is the thing I need to learn to take my writing up a notch. The challenge is that I'm not a wildly emotional person. I am more cerebral and analytical. I live in my head rather than in my heart. And, I'm generally pretty mellow. I don't really do highs or lows. To me, an emotional high is a peaceful state of zen-like bliss, and a low is that bliss being dampened a bit. But in order to honestly write about emotions, I need to explore them a bit more, myself, which means deliberately working myself into a state. It's probably a good thing that I live alone because I wouldn't want to inflict me in a state on anyone.

I may get a head start on that because we have a homeowners association meeting tonight, and dealing with these people is a good way to work myself up. Normally I just send in a proxy and skip it because I'm allergic to meetings, especially meetings with conflict. But this time around there are apparently some issues, and there's no one I really trust my proxy with for these issues because I don't know the new board, so I have to go in person and that means dealing with these people, some of whom have already worked themselves into a state over what they think will happen (however, those people also thought the meeting was last week and that they were trying to sneak things by us by not notifying anyone about the meeting, so I'm not sure how accurate they are about the things that are going to happen).

Sadly, my inclination is to take notes on these people getting all worked up and confrontational to observe how to convey these emotions, which brings me back to the cerebral and analytical thing.

Maybe I also need to get out the opera scores and do some singing. Cursing the heavens in Italian is a good way to get emotional. Music in general does work like that for me, so perhaps I need a soundtrack for this book.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Welcome to the Shannaverse

Since there seem to be a lot of new people around (what with the new book release, and all), I thought I'd do a welcome/intro post.

Hi, and greetings! In case you aren't here because you read my books, I'm Shanna, and I'm a writer. I generally post Monday through Friday, unless I'm out of town, and sometimes on Saturday if I'm bored or think of something to say. I talk about a lot of random stuff. Topics likely to be addressed include books, writing, the publishing world, movies, television, life in general, and geeky type stuff. I don't talk about reality TV (other than to mock it). Most of the TV I discuss seems to involve things like spaceships and aliens. Sometimes I do interviews with other authors. I occasionally do "book reports" of books I've read that I want to recommend. I generally don't say negative things about specific books because, for one thing, I don't have time to talk about all the books I like. I certainly don't have time to spend bashing a book. For another thing, since other authors can be seen as "competition," I feel like I have a bit of conflict of interest, so book talk should stay positive. I have no such qualms about movies or TV.

I generally try to talk about writing -- the craft or the business of it -- on Wednesdays (Writing Wednesdays, get it?). Every other week I do a more general post that also goes out to a mailing list, but at other times I may do something on a writing topic that's more aimed at regular readers of this blog, who seem to have a lot of common interests. I am open to questions about writing or publishing that you want to see addressed. Just leave a comment.

I copy the same blog content to three different places, LiveJournal, Blogger and MySpace. That way you can find me in the easiest way for you (or that isn't blocked at work). Most of the discussion in comments seems to happen at LiveJournal, and that's where I'm most likely to respond, since that's more of my own personal hangout and I simply like the form factor for commenting there better. Regular commenters range from readers I've never met to readers I've since met at some event or another, to people I know from conventions, to online friends from my pre-book days to real-life friends, some of whom have known me for more than twenty years. Mom pops up from time to time, too (so keep it clean). My general policy on responding to comments is that I will respond if I have something to say to add to the discussion. Unless I'm really bored and procrastinating, with the volume of comments there sometimes is and with my work schedule (or what my work schedule should be), I can't really manage to respond to absolutely everything. If I don't respond to your comment, it just means that you said it all and I have nothing to add (or that I'm really busy and being good by not playing online). It doesn't mean I don't love you.

Because I'm not married and don't have adorable children or pets to talk about, there aren't really any regular "characters" who get mentioned here from my day-to-day life. There are the parents, sometimes referred to as the Parental Units or "the folks." I do not live in their basement. I have my own house about two hours away, which means we can keep in touch pretty easily and talk often. We've managed that fun transition toward me being a real adult so that we're now actually friends in addition to the parent/child relationship. Then there's the person known as "my anchorman" who is the weekend local news anchor I've had a huge crush on for years (my longest-lasting relationship so far). He went to the same journalism school I did, but at a different time. I have e-mailed him (but to compliment the newscast, not to tell him I want to have his babies), and that, sadly, did not manage to turn into an ongoing correspondence that led to him wanting to meet me. He also didn't seem to be intrigued by the article about me in the newspaper last year so that he felt compelled to contact me. I'm always working on schemes to meet him and then chickening out of them. It's an ongoing thing. The latest is that I may need to visit a TV newsroom for the book I've started working on, since one of the characters is a TV reporter and I haven't worked in TV news since 1990, and things have changed since then. Of course, it will have to be that station, since it's the sister station of the place where I worked. Otherwise, I generally try to respect my friends' privacy, though I do mention writer friends by name when I run into them at writing-related events, since it's good book karma to help promote your writer friends.

Finally, I found my battle cry, and it even sounds like something I might do/say:

What Is Your Battle Cry?

Yea, verily: Who is that, running amidst the cliffs! It is Shanna_s, hands clutching a sharpened screwdriver! And with a mighty howl, her voice cometh:

"I'm going to contort you beyond mortal comprehension!!!"

Find out!
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Friday, May 09, 2008

Happy Things

Because I may have been a bit negative yesterday in mentioning lots of things I don't like, I thought I'd end this week on a positive note and talk about the things that are currently making me happy.

In no particular order:
1) Don't Hex With Texas has already gone into a second printing. That's less than two weeks after publication. Don't ask me what that means about the status of book 5. The people to ask about that would be at Ballantine Books, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. (Yeah, I know I've said in the past that it was book sales that counted, but since that doesn't seem to be the case, go for it -- postcards, letters, petitions, whatever. And you didn't hear this from me.)
2) My new electric teakettle. It's so much faster than heating water on the stove, and with the amount of tea I drink, I estimate it's saving me up to ten minutes a day. That will really add up over time. It also makes boiling water for pasta faster -- I boil it in the kettle, then dump it into the pasta pot.
3) The new idea I'm playing with. There's a character in there I can't wait to write. I hope she's as much fun on the page as she is in my head.
4) The Sarah Jane Adventures. I know this is supposedly a children's show, but it's totally an adult woman's fantasy: The main character is pushing 60, but she's still gorgeous, glamorous, independent and intelligent, instead of being the nagging mother-in-law, ditzy empty-nester, knitting grandma, predatory cougar or any other role that women that age usually get given. She has a fabulous house and a cool car. The teenage kids think she's great and even listen to her. The kids are polite, intelligent, respectful to adults and seem to do well in school. Meanwhile, the more "normal" teenagers seem to be prone to being eaten or kidnapped by aliens. For teachers this might even qualify as porn.
5) Donna Noble on Doctor Who. I liked her even in "The Runaway Bride," although I usually have little patience with Bridezillas (though there's a huge difference between being a Bridezilla because you expect every detail of your wedding to be perfect because it's Your Big Day and being a Bridezilla because you were abducted by aliens while you were walking down the aisle at your own wedding). But now, it's like someone took my mental checklist of what I've wanted to see in a Companion and brought her to life. She's my new TV Best Friend. I think part of it is that it's nice to see a representative of Team Over-35, which I think makes a far better sidekick for a 900-something-year-old guy than a dewy-eyed youngster does, and that leads to her not being so much in awe of him, so she's able to have her own opinions, stand up to him and stand her ground -- and all while being so well aware that he's alien that she's in little danger of getting shmoopily romantic over him, which means she can also honestly express admiration of him and affection for him without worrying about how he'll take it or what he might think about her.
6) Cranford on Masterpiece Theatre -- The first episode Sunday night was so sweet and funny and yet also made me cry. I'm a total sucker for costume drama, anyway, but the cast in this is amazing, there's English Countryside Porn, and the vignettes of small-town life are so real even while being a little outrageous. I think I will have to get the DVD because it's a guaranteed pick-me-up. And I need to read the books this is based on. My library has no Elizabeth Gaskell, but it looks like most of her books are on Project Gutenberg.
7) The BBC Robin Hood -- Yeah, if you expect anything resembling accuracy in history, costuming, technology or anything else your head will explode, but it's such cheesy good fun. How can you not love a version of Robin Hood that includes ninjas and dominatrix-type villainesses in black leather catsuits? Plus, cute boys and heroic theme music that totally gets stuck in my head.
8) The opening fanfare for Star Wars -- I turned on the CD player the other day without knowing what was in the changer, and the moment those opening notes burst out of the speakers, I went right back to being a nine-year-old sitting in a darkened theater after waiting in a long line and coming to the realization that maybe my dad wasn't crazy for dragging us to this movie, after all. I think a large part of the success of the movie stemmed from that music that was pretty much the musical version of, "Hey, what you're about to see will be awesome."
9) Prince Caspian opens next Friday. That was one of my favorite Narnia books, largely because of the big swordfight with Peter. I had a bit of a crush on Peter when I first read those books, and that fight was swoonworthy. My inner 11-year-old is quite keen on the casting of Peter and is looking forward to watching that fight on the screen.
10) Strawberries seem to really be in season, and they're starting to be good. The strawberries a few weeks ago were kind of flavorless, but the ones I bought last week were delicious. I'm looking forward to getting more today. One of my favorite guilt-free desserts is strawberries topped with vanilla yogurt (the way you'd do strawberries and whipped cream). If they have any angel food cakes on the bakery clearance rack, I may be tempted to get one to go with the strawberries (and angel food cake is also really good toasted lightly).

Finally, a couple more stops on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit. There's an interview at Stephanie Kuehnert's blog (for those who've asked questions about possible playlists, some answers are there) and a short interview at Kelly Parra's blog.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Unpopular Opinions

I had another fun signing last night. People came to see me! We hooked a new victim -- er, reader! There was cake! Oddly, though, I'm utterly exhausted this morning, like I did some great physical labor. Some of that may be cake hangover, though, as I skipped dinner and instead ate two pieces of cake. I'm now pretty much done with the "author" phase of my life, until convention season kicks off in June. Normally, I find it hard to write when I'm in promo mode, but this time, I've had trouble with promo mode because my brain is frantically trying to generate a new book.

As we were discussing somewhat last night at the signing, I often feel that I'm out of step with the mainstream of society. I guess that's another thing I have in common with Katie in my books. In the first book, when she notices that she's the only one who isn't swooning over Rod, her whole mental riff on things that are popular that she doesn't get is pretty much me. So, I thought I'd share other unpopular opinions I seem to hold. Mind you, I'm not saying any of these are bad things or that other people should agree with me, just that these are things I think and sometimes feel like an oddball about.

In no particular order:
1) I really am not interested in the mating habits or love lives of vampires. I don't find vampires sexy or romantic, and I have no sympathy for the vampire/human relationship angst of wanting to be together, but not being able to because of the vampire thing. Actually, I don't much get into any of the doomed/forbidden love type stories (perhaps because I'm too practical. If the odds against us look insurmountable, I'll go find someone I can be with without the angst). But looking at the urban fantasy bestsellers, it would appear that I'm one of the few people who isn't into vampires. The really annoying thing is that most of the lighter urban fantasy type books, the ones with a tone similar to mine, seem to be vampire books, and I'm not any more interested in vampires when they're shopping for shoes or having difficulty dating, even without the angst. I'm mostly interested in vampires as stake fodder, and even there, Buffy may have maxed out my vampire tolerance levels. We need more funny wizard type people.
2) I'm not at all excited about the X-Files movie coming out this summer. I loved the series when it was on. I was obsessed with the series when it was on. But the final episode gave me closure, and I'm not interested in revisiting these characters. Ditto the Sex and the City movie, though I wasn't a really huge fan of the TV series. I watched it more out of a sense of duty because all the editors at the time were saying that's the tone they wanted to see in books.
3) I don't get why people would want to buy clothing "designed" by someone whose job has nothing to do with designing anything. Like, why would I want shoes bearing the name of a singer mostly known for being on a reality TV series? Why would I want to wear perfume "designed" by any of the pop tarts? But this stuff really seems to sell.
4) I don't get the designer-logo thing at all. Why would I pay a fortune to become a walking billboard for any designer by carrying or wearing something with the logo all over it? If it's true designer quality, it should speak for itself without having little "LV"s all over it. I also don't understand why anyone would pay more than a thousand dollars for a purse. There are purses that are more expensive than my car. That makes zero sense to me, and yet there are waiting lists to get these purses.
5) The degree of obsession related to all the Disney Channel-spawned musical things is frightening. Is there subliminal mind control involved? How do kids suddenly get the message that they must worship Hannah Montana? Space rays? At the target age for that stuff, I was obsessed with Star Wars, but that amounted to having a t-shirt, reading the novelization a few hundred times and cutting any related pictures out of magazines. I did expect my parents to take me to the movies when they came out (my parents wanted to see them, too), but if that had been as crazy as what it takes to see these Disney people in concert, I can't imagine I would have expected that. (Though I guess this opinion is only unpopular among tween girls.)
6) I usually don't much care if a particular couple gets together on a TV series. I'm more likely to be opposed to them getting together than eagerly awaiting it, but in general, I just go with what they show us. It's all about story for me, and if the relationship takes over, I generally get bored. Romance has ruined far too many TV series.
7) On that note, I was very annoyed that they went there with Mulder and Scully. I remember when Chris Carter said in the first season that they would never get romantically involved. But then they did go there, and didn't do it very well. I felt like the last holdout, though, because everyone else seemed to be swooning in rapture that they were in love and were calling each other by their first names in their sappy love-letter mystery e-mails. Ick. I also never thought that Rose and the Doctor had any kind of great romance going on in Doctor Who. If I was supposed to think that she was the love of his life, he was doing something wrong, or else he's pretty tepid about the love of his life. (I got more of the romantic interest vibe from the Ninth Doctor. The Tenth was too easily distracted by every other woman who came along, and his concern for Rose seemed to be more along the lines of "Her mother will kill me -- as many times as it takes -- if I let something happen to her.")
(Yes, I used to write romance novels. I was obviously in the wrong career field because I am so unromantic.)
8) I loved the epilogue to the last Harry Potter book. Yeah, it was a little sappy, but it was satisfying. Harry's kids are so going to get beat up and picked on at school, though, with the names he gave them (I don't think that part is an unpopular opinion, but liking the epilogue seems to be).
9) I don't find most of the mainstream "heartthrob" guys all that appealing -- men like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Tom Cruise (and I disliked him long before it was cool to), etc. (However, I do seem to be more in the mainstream for the geekier heartthrobs in geek circles.)

Anyone else want to get something off your chest, something that makes you feel like an oddball? This is a safe place for unburdening yourself. You may find that you're not alone!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Finding Legitimate Publishers

I made significant progress in figuring out what's going on with the new idea, which might actually manage to become a book. I'm still not sure how to end it, but maybe I'll figure it out as I do more work on it. My instinct is to try to write a series, because that's the way I think, but now I'm kind of burned on series because what if I don't get to end the series yet again? In the meantime, I've got a booksigning tonight at the Borders in Plano, on Preston Road just south of Park, at 7. I have heard that there might be cake, if that sweetens the deal at all (pun intended).

Since there seem to be some new people around here, every other Wednesday I do a post on writing -- either craft or business aspects. You can also get these posts by e-mail.

Last time, I responded to a reader question about how you can tell if an agent or publisher is legitimate and addressed the agent side of the equation. Today I'll talk about publishers. As with agents, the Internet has made that easier, in that there are more ways to search for information on publishers, and more difficult, in that it's easier than ever to become a "publisher" and the business model for publishing is changing because of the Internet.

Once upon a time, back in the Dark Ages when dinosaurs roamed the earth without Internet access, it was generally pretty easy to tell if a publisher was legitimate. You could find their books in bookstores and they paid you an advance to publish your novel. Now there are electronic publishers whose books are sold strictly online, there are imprints of major New York publishers that publish primarily online and don't pay advances, and there are scam publishers that do pay "advances."

One way that determines if a publisher is legit has remained the same: money flows from the publisher to the writer, not the other way around. Even if the publisher doesn't pay an advance and only pays royalties based on sales, that money should go from the publisher to the writer without the writer having to chip in. The publisher should be responsible for editing the book, getting the ISBN and creating a cover, and you shouldn't be charged for that. A publisher may give you the option of buying copies of your book at a discount, but you should NEVER be REQUIRED to do so (one of the scam publishers' tricks -- they may not charge you for publication, but then they get you by making you buy a certain number of copies, and you can only recoup your investment by selling them yourself, and that's often the only sales that will happen). You may be expected to do some marketing activity for the book, but you should be able to choose how much of your own money you want to spend and where and how you want to spend it. You should not EVER have to pay a publisher any kind of "marketing fee." The only thing my contract stipulated that I had to provide (other than the book itself) was a photo of myself to be used in the books and for promotional activities, but again, it was my choice of what to pay for that and who to pay, and if I had a friend who could take a good photo with a digital camera so I paid nothing, that would have been my choice. I didn't pay the publisher for that. You know you've got a probable scam if there are a lot of "fees" hidden in the contract.

There is a difference between "self publishing," "vanity publishing," "subsidy publishing" and scams, although the lines blur. In self-publishing, you take on the role of publisher -- you get the book edited and typeset, you create the cover, and you get the book printed and distributed. Subsidy publishing is similar, but they do the work of getting the book published with you paying for the service and the printing. This can be a totally legitimate enterprise if you know that's what you're doing and have your expectations set accordingly. It's less likely to work for fiction, but if you're an expert in a niche non-fiction field and you're often invited to speak to groups, having a book you can sell at talks may be profitable. A vanity publisher is one that will print and bind your book so you can enjoy having a book with your name on the cover. You pay for this service. Again, it's not a scam if you know exactly what you're getting, if you know that your book is being printed because you paid for it to be printed and not because it's brilliant. You're dealing with a scam if they convince you that they've carefully selected your book out of all the thousands submitted because it's just so brilliant, and you'll now be published (once you pay for the privilege, either up front or in a bunch of fees they hit you with after the fact). A scam will convince you that you're being legitimately published, with your book being distributed, when all they're really doing is printing your book and selling the copies to you.

One other way to tell you might be dealing with a scam is if they're overly enthusiastic about a book no one else seems to want. Now, this isn't foolproof because there are countless stories of books that went on to become huge bestsellers after being rejected by absolutely everyone but the one publisher that took a chance on it. But in most of those cases, at least an agent had believed in the book, and the rejections had more to do with market issues than with the quality of the book. It wasn't that the book stunk, but that they didn't know how to sell it. If you get a lot of form rejections or very negative rejections and then suddenly a publisher swoons in rapture over your book, you might want to do a little research (though, really, you should do that research before submitting). In a now-infamous sting, some SFWA members set out to deliberately create the Worst Novel Ever, with each author writing a chapter as badly as possible without reading the previous chapter -- which meant that the characters changed names without reason, the settings shifted, and the story made no sense -- and Publish America accepted it for publication, supposedly out of a highly selective process. Which should tell you something about the legitimacy of that publisher.

Then there are plenty of publishers that are perfectly legitimate and honest, that are not scams, but that just aren't very good, and that's a harder line to draw. The advent of e-publishing means that anyone with a computer, an Internet connection and a web host can become a publisher. Not everyone who tries this really has the skill or the business sense to be a success. Some have become HUGE successes and even start getting print books in major bookstores, some fall by the wayside, and some have gone bankrupt, with their authors' books tied up as assets in bankruptcy court. Some of the e-publishers that have gone bankrupt were even on the Romance Writers of America "recognized" list, meaning that they'd been in business a while and had sold a reasonable number of books. This is where Google is your friend. Before you deal with a publisher, check out what's being said on message boards and blogs. Are their authors happy, are their books being mocked for poor quality, do they actually pay money? You can make decent money on some e-published books (mostly erotica, it seems), and you can make very little money. There have been authors "discovered" by major publishers because of their e-published or small press books. Whether you want to go that route is a decision you have to make based on your expectations and what you want to do with your career.

The best resource for researching publishers, agents and potential scams is Writer Beware, which is run by SFWA. That's a good starting point for research. Just reading some of their case studies can help you tune your own scam radar. Sadly, there are far too many people preying on other people's dreams.

If you have any other questions you want me to tackle, let me know!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


The looniness with my car dealership continues. After all the confusion in trying to get the car in the first place, when they were a day late after no one in the dealership seemed to know what was going on, and then after I had to go in and re-do all the paperwork because the VIN on the paperwork didn't match the VIN on my car, my temporary tags have almost expired, so I called yesterday to see if maybe the real plates were in and they forgot to tell me. It turns out that they'd put the paperwork on hold until my check cleared and then forgot about it, and if I hadn't called, nothing ever would have happened. Meanwhile, I keep getting the "customer service" calls which are really about guilt-tripping me into giving them perfect marks on the customer service survey. Apparently, they get tortured and executed if they don't get perfect marks, and it will be all my fault if I complain about anything (even if I do have something to complain about).

On the other hand, I mentioned the lack of sleep last weekend when they started the renovation work at eight on a Sunday morning at the hotel. Well, I filled out the customer service survey they sent me and mentioned this. Yesterday, I got a phone call from the hotel manager, apologizing, and they're sending me a voucher for a free room upgrade next time I stay there. That's the hotel where the Browncoat Ball will be, so looks like I may have to have a room party (or pick up the tea house tradition) if I get a suite. So, the Omni Hotel really does know how to deal with follow-ups on customer service. They'd already done great things with stuff like the confirmation e-mail that contained all the necessary travel info.

I recently re-read Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and that seems to be one of the books that I get more out of each time I read it. It's about a young man who stops to help an injured young woman who looks like a street person, and because of his involvement in her life, he loses his existence in the "real" world. To get his life back, he has to enter the mysterious underground world of London Below and complete a dangerous quest. That was one of the first urban fantasy books I found, one that made me start to believe that this weird little idea I had about magical stuff in a modern setting might possibly work. Since the first time I read it, I've done a lot more reading of folklore, and it really does seem like London Below is a sort of modern fairy society, with a lot of parallels to fairy lore, and what I like about it is that he doesn't beat you over the head with that idea. If you know the lore, you'll recognize it, but it's not all self-consciously, "Hey, look! This is what the fairy world might be like in modern times!"

But another reason I like this book is that I've had a bit of a London Below experience, or at least, one that reminds me of the book. It was on my second trip to England, in the fall of 2001. I was visiting a friend who lived in a suburb east of London and needed to get from Gatwick to the train station a few blocks from her house. At the airport, they gave me a train ticket and a list of which trains to take from which stations at which times, and I was off. I got the train from the airport into London, then was on the Tube to another station when the train came to a stop. After a few polite "we apologize for the inconvenience" announcements, they finally said that the line was closed from that point on, and they backed the train up to the Canary Wharf station and made everyone get off. I wasn't sure what to do next. I was studying the system map at the station when a guy came up to me and asked if I needed help.

I'm glad I hadn't yet read Neverwhere or I might have been a bit freaked out, because he was very much like what I imagine the Marquis de Carabas to be like, though without the shifty underside and the elaborate wardrobe. He had a very formal, courtly, old-fashioned manner while still being incredibly outgoing and friendly, and a bit of a Caribbean/West Indies accent. Of course, my initial instinct was "I can do it MYSELF," but I really wasn't sure how to get to the station I needed, and I didn't know the route of the train to know any other stations where it might stop. So, I showed the guy the print-out from the airport train station and explained where I needed to go. He said he'd take me where I needed to go. I hesitated, since he was a total stranger, and I was in an unfamiliar area of a major city in a foreign country, but then I was in an unfamiliar area of a major city in a foreign country, so that was when I needed help. He insisted that he was totally safe and turned to the other people he'd been talking with earlier and got them to vouch for him. They all really had seemed to know him, even though they were a pretty random cross-section of the population, and they did vouch for him.

And, for some odd reason, I did trust him. It was one of those times when that little voice in the back of my head told me that it was okay, so I agreed to let him lead me. However, I wouldn't let him carry my bags, as I'm not quite that trusting. Then I was off on a journey that involved the Docklands Light Rail, a walk through a neighborhood, a ride on what seemed to be an older Tube line (or maybe two -- it gets blurry), and then finally arrival at the train station after another walk through another neighborhood. It turned out to be very good that I'd agreed to let him guide me because I would never have found my way. The stations that appeared on the map to be contiguous were actually several blocks apart and barely marked. The walks between stations were through neighborhoods the likes of which I'd never seen. They weren't bad neighborhoods, but they were just neighborhoods, a part of London tourists would never see. To me, it was simultaneously Victorian-looking, like a place Dickens characters might have lived, and also that sort of timeless mid-century look, like the street they always show to represent 40s or 50s London on Doctor Who (though I know that's actually in Cardiff). "Normal" neighborhoods in my part of the world aren't that old, so that almost made it as good as a tourist destination for me. Meanwhile, this guy knew EVERYBODY we passed. He greeted them all by name and introduced me. It was like he was the unofficial mayor of that part of town.

Then we finally got to the Tube station, where again it was good that I had my guide because my ticket must have been out of the proper zone, as the gates wouldn't accept it. But my guide knew the station manager, and once he explained the situation, the manager opened the employee gate to let us through into the station. On the train, my guide again knew everyone. It wasn't just that he was being friendly to everyone and they were humoring him by smiling and nodding. He really knew them and knew things about them. He asked after their families and updated them on other people he knew. And then this really weird thing happened. Suddenly it wasn't like I was in the middle of an unfamiliar part of one of the world's major cities. It was more like I was in a small town where everyone knew everyone. I'd gone from London Above, where I was an anonymous tourist and all the city dwellers just moved past each other without seeing each other, to London Below, where everyone knew and cared about everyone else, where we were all part of a community that almost might have been invisible to the rest of the world.

When we got to my train station, he helped me find the right platform, then walked me right to it. Before he left, he told me he knew he needed to help me because he could tell I was a real lady since I didn't have pierced ears.

Um, okay. While I do like to think that I am a lady, if you've read my essay in the Judy Blume tribute book, you'll know that I don't have my ears pierced because I get eczema behind my ears sometimes (and I really don't like jewelry all that much). It's an odd reason to help someone, but hey, it worked out for me.

Anyway, when I read Neverwhere, I remembered that incident, and I could really relate to the way the main character felt when he got caught up in London Below. I also got a giggle during the Doctor Who episode where we learned that Torchwood was based in Canary Wharf because I figured that had to be why they stopped the train. Torchwood must have been up to something. And now I'm a little nervous about ever going back to London because it's possible that I owe the Marquis de Carabas a huge favor.

Now, I've got more virtual book tour stops with interviews that may (or may not) contain new info. Today I'm at Southern Comfort, I do a little Shop Talk with Laura Bowers, I pay a visit to Amanda Ashby, and I share some disreputable history with E. Lockhart.