Thursday, July 31, 2008

Another Screenwriting Book

First, as a public service, a television programming note: According to my digital cable guide, Friday night's episode of Doctor Who on the Sci Fi channel is starting half an hour earlier than normal, at 7:30 central time. The original BBC episode came in at more than an hour, so let's hope that a 90-minute slot will allow Sci Fi to only use the chainsaws to insert commercial breaks and not to edit out content because they need to squeeze in more commercials. Set VCRs and DVRs accordingly because you'd hate to miss what happens right after that cliffhanger. (Mom, this means you.)

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I'd bought some screenwriting books. I talked about one of them last week, so now that I've finished the other, I can discuss it. This one was Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias, and wow, it was Life. Changing. Oddly, I mostly bought it to get my Amazon order up to the point of getting free shipping, since it popped up in the "people also bought" list for the other book I got, and yet this is the one I think I'll end up re-reading and trying to make use of. It's very much aimed at screenwriters, with the premise being that to sell a screenplay, it has to make it past a studio reader, and the script alone has to be able to hook the reader without the benefit of all the other tricks movies can use to generate emotion, like the actors' performances, music, special effects, etc. But I think this is also applicable to novelists because we always have to rely just on the words on the page without the benefit of actors or music. The tricks that make a screenplay read well enough to get a studio reader excited should also work in a novel to get a novel reader excited.

There are certainly screenplay rules that don't apply to novels, since they are totally different forms. In today's short attention span market, though, it really doesn't hurt for a commercial/genre novel to read almost like a movie, with a focus on action and dialogue and very little "telling." That would include science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, etc. In romance, you can get away with a little more introspection because readers in that genre are looking for the emotional insight. That's probably why there haven't been too many successful adaptations of romance novels to film. Seeing a man clenching his fists and breathing heavily doesn't have quite the same emotional impact as reading a page or two about him struggling with his feelings. The section on description in this book is probably the least applicable to novelists, as a lot of it has to do with how to present description and action on the screenplay page, but I think there are still lessons to be learned in the idea of having to come up with terse, vivid descriptions of characters and settings.

The book pretty much breaks down the elements of a story (premise, characters, plot, scenes, etc.) and then shows the various methods for adding emotional impact to each. The focus is not on conveying the emotions of the characters, but rather generating emotion in the reader -- making the reader be engaged and involved in the story, caring about the characters, and intrigued enough to keep turning pages. I loved the section on subtext. It's enough to make me think about registering for that community college acting class so I can think about how I'd act the scene and then come up with ideas for describing that in a book to really focus on showing rather than telling.

One caution, though: this book seems simple and easy. It's short. It's concisely written. It has lots of lists and bullet point type things. So many of the techniques seem obvious in their simplicity, almost to the level of "duh." But this is actually a pretty advanced book, and to get much benefit from it, you'd probably need to already know something about story and structure. It's designed to take you to the next step beyond being able to write a good plot. If you try to use these techniques without understanding how story and plot work, you'll just have shallow, manipulative gimmicks (I suspect that after this book was published, Hollywood was flooded with screenplays that used all these little tricks but that had no plot or substance to speak of). The author has a web site with more info on his book and a fun page of writing jokes and inspirational quotes, in case you want to check it out.

Now we'll see if I can actually put this to use in a book. Using screenwriting techniques to develop a novel is working for me so far. Forcing myself to really develop the idea instead of plunging into writing has already made me come up with some more interesting and deeper ideas that probably would have been skimmed over. And I already know I'm going to have to totally rewrite the parts that I started writing. I probably won't get much done until after WorldCon. I'll just stick with the initial brainstorming stage for now, since I've got a lot of other stuff going on for the next couple of weeks. Then when I get home, I can hide in my cave and create a work of staggering genius.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Archetypes: The Hero

Now we're back to the discussion of archetypes from the hero's journey, after a brief foray into the world of Good to Great.

We'll start with the hero, and by hero I mean protagonist, either male or female. This is the central character of the story, the one on the journey who has a transformation arc of some kind. I'm not necessarily using the term in the sense that it usually comes up in the romance genre, where it means the male half of the couple, though sometimes that hero is the hero of the story. Clear as mud?

In a sense, the hero is the least-defined of the archetypes. The others all have a hint of a personality attached to them, in addition to their story role, but the hero is something of a blank slate. He has to be universal enough that readers can identify with his struggles, but he also has to be specific enough to justify telling his story. Out of all the stories about all the heroes in all the world, why tell this one? The danger with the universality of the hero archetype is that he can turn out to be the least interesting character in the story. When I do characterization workshops and talk about archetypes, I use the cast of Star Wars as an example because they fit so perfectly, and Luke Skywalker, our hero, is the perfect example of that blank slate hero. There is something universal about him. Who hasn't chafed at the boundaries and restrictions of home and dreamed of something bigger and more exciting? But poor Luke is possibly the least interesting character in the film, possibly because he's all universal without much specific.

Psychologically, the hero represents the Freudian ego, the part of the psyche that's about separation from the tribe (or from the mother), and the hero's journey is often one of separation, as he has to leave the safe and familiar to take on the quest. Internally, the hero's journey is about the search for wholeness, and integrating all the aspects of his self into a healthy whole. To a large extent, all the other characters (and all the other archetypes they represent) are reflections of aspects of the hero's character, and as he interacts with them, he learns from them so that he can accept and integrate that part of himself into his overall personality. Usually, the big climax of the story is a test of whether he's been able to do that. He can only succeed if he has developed that sense of wholeness.

There are a lot of different kinds of heroes. From a big picture perspective, they can be classified as:
The Superman -- the one with special skills, powers or talents that makes him greater from the start than the average guy
The Everyman -- the average guy plunged into extraordinary circumstances
The Underdog -- the guy with the deck stacked against him who has to survive in extraordinary circumstances

But I think the distinctions get blurry, as the Underdog and the Everyman often turn out to be Supermen once they discover their power. Back to our buddy Luke, he seemed like an Everyman or even an Underdog, but turned out to have Jedi powers. You especially see that in science fiction and fantasy stories.

How do you keep your hero interesting? For one thing, you can't rely on the fact that he is the hero and assume that automatically makes him of interest. Even if he's a Superman, he needs to seem like a real person who has flaws, needs, fears and quirks. He should also be the most active person in your story, the one who changes the most and whose actions and decisions bring about the most change in others or in the situation. If you find your supporting characters taking over the story, you may need to work more on your hero. Find the traits in the supporting characters that are so compelling, and then find the reflection of that in the hero and develop it further.

The hero archetype is also associated with sacrifice, being willing to give up something of value -- up to and including his own life -- for the greater good. That means we need to understand what he values and why for that sacrifice to have any meaning.

I think some of the best examples of how to write a hero come from the Pixar animated movies. They seem to have a talent for taking very unlikely things and investing them with a soul and a personality so that you feel for them and understand exactly what they want out of life. The hero of their first short film was a desk lamp that was utterly sympathetic. If they can make a hero out of a desk lamp, the rest of us should be able to make good heroes out of human beings. (You can see a clip or find a link to download from iTunes here if you've never seen this adorable film.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Reclassifying Myself

All that exercise I've been doing has actually paid off. I have a very favorite skirt I haven't been able to wear in about a year, and it fits again! Since I didn't have the brainpower for work yesterday and I had to go out to go to the bank anyway, I hit the mall to do some pre-WorldCon shopping. I have a few business appointments during the con, including meeting the new editor for the first time, so I feel like I need to dress slightly more professionally on those days, but not so much so that I look out of place. Ann Taylor Loft was having a sale and I had a coupon, so I picked up a couple of cute casual things that look professional without looking stuffy and that still can play into the Geek Goddess image (hey, whatever it takes to stand out in a crowd that huge). And because it seems that all milestones relating to Enchanted, Inc. must be celebrated with the purchase of red shoes, I celebrated the signing of the movie option by buying a pair of red Keds. I'm not sure why I suddenly felt the urge to have red sneakers, but I did. Perhaps I was inspired by Doctor Who, but Converse high-tops are really not my style, so I did my own version.

I still haven't figured out my exact wardrobe for the convention, and I'm not sure how to dress for the Hugo Awards, if that's formal-ish or just usual con attire. There was a mix of everything for the World Fantasy Awards. I think the Infamous Red Stilettos may have to come with me because they're kind of my signature and the way people often remember me (and the ballet has made them a lot more comfortable because I've got the leg muscles to handle that heel height).

I'll post my full con schedule later in the week so those who will be at WorldCon can find me.

In other news, I've been hit with another wave of reader e-mail (and it does seem to come in waves). I don't know if the people who e-mail me read this, but just in case, there's a Frequently Asked Question I want to address. I'm often asked if I might do Book 5 as an e-book, and the answer is no, for a number of reasons. For one, this is how I make my living. It takes me about half a year, in total, to write a book. E-books (with the possible exception of erotica) don't make much money. Even Stephen King couldn't pull off a profitable e-only book. I can't afford to spend half a year working on something just for the love of it, because that keeps me from being able to write something that will make enough money to allow me to pay bills. Yeah, if everyone who's bought a copy of all four books in the series bought the e-book, it might pay off, but that's not realistic. E-books are still a niche market. Plus, publishing it as an e-book or self-publishing it would make it less likely to be published traditionally, so my agent has advised against it. It would be a shame if something changed and the publisher would have wanted it if they had it "new," but they then didn't want it because they know the most hard-core fans already have it. Even if I was interested in exploring those options, I already have my next year or so of work planned, so it would be a year before I could start working on Book 5, and in that time, things could change. Of course, if they suddenly came to me and asked me to write it, I would reshuffle my schedule, but for now, there are things I'm working on that I'm excited about and that some editors have already expressed interest in, and those are taking priority. I haven't given up, by any means, but if I'm going to do it, I'll do it in a way that will get the book to the largest possible audience. It won't be the only series in history to have a slight gap between books. Hey, there were three years between books 4 and 5 of the Harry Potter series, so a two to three year gap between books 4 and 5 of my series isn't too unreasonable.

Meanwhile, I think I'm going to have to come up with my own genre classification because after seeing the concentration of urban fantasy at Conestoga, I've realized that I really don't fit in there. Yeah, my books are fantasies that take place (mostly) in an urban environment, but the publishing industry seems to have defined the term more specifically than that, to the point that other things I would have thought of as "urban fantasy" also don't fit in, like Charles deLint. So maybe what I write is "contemporary fantasy." It's more about how traditional fantasy elements confront modern times, while I think "urban fantasy" has come to imply more horror-type elements, with a strong element of paranormal romance.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Post-Con Exhaustion

Now I'm home from Tulsa and in my usual post-con exhaustion, which isn't helped by the extreme heat. After the mix-ups on Friday, things went pretty well. I did have a couple of people come to the early-morning autographing Saturday, then I signed more books throughout the day for people who didn't have psychic powers or who weren't early risers who happened to be walking by. I got a laugh or two from my reading, had another panel giggle fit about something I probably shouldn't post publicly, then had a full room for my workshop. That's such a fun workshop to do, and I enjoy it even more when the audience gets into it. (For those who were at the workshop and are looking for the handout online, I will get to that today.)

They did an "author speed dating" event where they had fans sitting at tables, and the authors rotated among the tables every four minutes for quick intros and chatting. I'm so glad I've never tried to do that for real dating, and I now know I never will. It generally took me the whole four minutes to get into enough of a comfort zone to talk, and then it was time to move on. I suspect in a dating environment, that would be a recipe for rejection. But it was kind of fun just doing it as a "meet the author" thing where no one would be filling out cards about whether or not they'd want to go out with me.

I had a great chat with some of the authors I've met online through various groups but have never met in person, like Sarah Rees Brennan, whose young adult fantasy novel will be coming out next year and who came all the way from Ireland, Jennifer Lynn Barnes (who's been a regular Girlfriends Cyber Circuit guest), Marie Brennan and a bunch of others. I also saw the solidarity of the Curly Mafia in action when agent Miriam Kress (a charter member) knew exactly what trauma the forgotten hair gel entailed and offered to let me use some of hers. But by then the con was almost over and a ponytail had become a viable option.

I've decided I'm definitely anti-Sleep Number. I never did get this bed to work properly, and I was able to work the one last year. It made sounds like it was doing something, but it didn't really change. Even if it did, all it is, really, is an air mattress. And air mattresses just aren't comfortable. If you like a softer bed, what you get is a partially deflated air mattress, which is really uncomfortable. Or maybe I'm just spoiled by my down-topped feather bed at home, which manages to combine softness and support. I guess this means I'll be avoiding Radisson hotels in the future, since they seem to think the Sleep Number beds are a plus. I may take it easy on the exercise today and just do some yoga because I'm still stiff.

Now I have just a little more than a week before I leave for WorldCon. I'm sure that will be quite the experience, but the short turnaround means I don't have time to indulge in post-con exhaustion.

And in a programming note, have y'all checked out The Middleman on ABC Family? If you liked the short-lived live-action version of The Tick, or you like the vibe of the Men in Black movies, you should check this series out. It's very much tongue-in-cheek and quite funny. You have to love a series in which a group of interstellar alien dictators gets banished to Earth -- and forms a boy band because the squeals of tween fangirls can provide the energy they need to get home. And, it turns out, the boy band was played by a real boy band. It's on at 9 p.m. Central Time on ABC Family.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Report from Tulsa

Very quick post from Tulsa, where I'm at Conestoga. I have a 9 a.m. autographing I'll have to get to soon, though I'm not sure I really need to rush as I seem to be the only one who knows about it. It's on my schedule, but it's not in the program book and hasn't been posted anywhere that I've seen, unless it was done this morning. But since it's the first thing this morning and it wasn't posted or announced last night, chances are that people will only see it or know about it if they just happen to be up early and wandering around. I guess you could think of it as a stealth autographing. That's after yesterday's panel, where my personal "here's where you need to be" schedule told me I had a panel, but I wasn't listed in the program as being on the panel, and then I was politely told by the people running the panel that I didn't need to do it, as they'd already put people on the panel, and it was all a little awkward and embarrassing. I suspect if I'd insisted on joining they'd have been fine with that, but at the same time, if they had really wanted me on there, the vibe would have been different, which is why I didn't make a fuss and said I was fine skipping it if they had the slots full. As I said, awkward and embarrassing. It's not a huge issue, as that gave me a chance to get checked into the hotel and get settled in, but I think someone is trying to give me a complex. Well, more of a complex than I already have. Everything else that I have on my schedule is on the public schedule. I just hope there's nothing on the public schedule that's not on my personal schedule that I've missed. Now I'm terrified that there's been some panel where they thought I was an inconsiderate no-show.

Other than that, I've had fun so far. I've run into a lot of people I only seem to see at conventions, so there have been reunions, and I've met some people I've only known online. The con charity is for an organization that trains service dogs, and they had one of the puppies they're socializing at the opening ceremonies last night, so I got some quality puppy time. Then I seem to have found the full extent of my skills and abilities as I finally made myself useful and helped set up the FenCon room party by filling the ice chests, one ice bucket at a time from the ice machine at the end of the hall. And, thus, I have been dubbed The Ice Princess. I really hope that they are actually referring to my ice-gathering endeavors and aren't secretly mocking my personality (yes, I seem to be having a paranoid weekend).

This is one of those hotels that has the Sleep Number beds, and either mine is broken (hitting the buttons doesn't seem to do anything) or I'm somehow using it wrong because it was incredibly uncomfortable, and my back and neck are awfully stiff this morning. I miss my down-topped featherbed.

In other convention news, I got my moderator schedule for WorldCon, and I'm moderating a panel with Larry Niven on it. EeEEEPPP! The man is a legend. Now I need to brainstorm some insightful and intelligent questions to generate discussion.

And now I suppose I ought to get dressed, now that I've had enough tea to function like a human being, and head to that autographing, just in case there are people with psychic powers who happen to sense that I'm doing a signing. Oh, and we may be faced with a Crisis of Epic Proportions, as it turns out that I forgot to pack any hair gel, and it's very humid. That means Hair of Epic Proportions. I may resort to the ballerina bun.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


I was planning to post my schedule for Conestoga, and then I realized that anyone who was going to be there would get a program that's probably more accurate than the information I currently have, so why bother? If you're in the Tulsa area and for whatever odd reason would be coming just to see me, Saturday would be the best day for it. I've got a reading in the morning (probably including a sneak peek at The Book In Search of a Good Home), some panels, and as an added treat, I'm doing my (in)famous workshop on using techniques from mythology and psychology to create characters. This isn't me rambling on about archetypes on a panel with a lot of other people rambling on. This is a real solo workshop, with handouts and everything. Plus, Saturday's when the birds of prey will be there. I loved that last year.

There was Fitz, the baby owl who'd been rescued after being washed out of his nest in a storm (I imagine he's been returned to the wild by now). He also came to the Harry Potter party, and I spent quite a lot of time holding him then. We bonded. Needless to say, that made a certain event that happened early in book 7 a bit more upsetting to me.

Then there was Valkyrie, author/artist Larry Dixon's red-tail hawk. She was also apparently a rescue and they've been trying to return her to the wild, but she doesn't seem to have any interest in going. I've always been fascinated with falconry, but I don't live in an environment suited to that.

I still haven't decided if I'll be taking my computer. I'm not at that stage in my work, and chances are I'll get too busy to post. Nothing happens on Fridays in the publishing world, so e-mail access isn't essential. But it's nice to know I could post updates if the spirit moves me.

In other news, I think I have settled on my ideal schedule. Exercising just before lunch really seems to be working for me. Then I recover during my lunch break, and I manage to be on an energy high all afternoon, even without caffeine. I find I'm sleeping better, which means I spend less time in bed trying to sleep, so I get up earlier, get more stuff done during the morning, which gives me time to exercise, and then all the business and all the exercise (all the "should" stuff) is done and I have the afternoon free for writing work. It does sort of mess with my eating schedule, as I'm not that hungry for lunch, then I get ravenous mid-afternoon, but then that spoils my appetite for dinner. I've adapted by just drinking water and eating some fruit for lunch, then having a protein/carb snack mid-afternoon. So, instead of three meals, I'm having a real breakfast and dinner, but two afternoon snacks instead of lunch. Another thing that seems to be helping the sleep is nothing electronic within 30 minutes of bedtime. That's something I gleaned from my medical writing side job. According to the med school sleep experts, the flickering lights on the screen of a TV, computer or videogame reset circadian rhythms, waking your brain up just when it's starting to get ready for sleep. You'll sleep better if you don't do any of that right before you go to bed. That's when reading is good. I also cut off writing-type activities because that also wakes up my brain. (On the other hand, some TV or videogames can be good for stimulating the brain before you need to work, in case you need an excuse.)

Now, of course, I'm going to get my schedule out of whack by traveling, but this does seem to make for more productive workdays.

And I have been pretty productive. Taking the slower approach to The New Project seems to be working, as in all the development work I've done this week, I've found all kinds of parallels and connections that I hadn't realized were there and that I can use. I have a better sense of my main character, who was something of a cipher to me. I think part of my problem (though "problem" is probably too strong a word) is that I tend to come up with big, high-concept ideas, which is great, but that means I also tend to get overly excited and want to just start writing NOW, which means I'm more likely to skim the surface instead of really delving into all the potential of the idea. And that means multiple rewrites to get it all right. By forcing myself to take my time and really dig, maybe I can save time on the other end and still get more out of the idea.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Emotional Structure

The hot weather is forcing me to adjust my schedule. Normally I do errands in the early afternoon, but this morning I hit the library as soon as it opened, then got to the bank, a couple of shops and the grocery store in time to get home and exercise for an hour before lunch. Now I can focus on work the rest of the day.

I've just read yet another writing book that has stuff I may try to incorporate into my process. One of the weaknesses I've identified is that I don't handle emotions well or omit the emotional response from scenes that should be emotional (probably because I, myself, tend to go into totally calm robot mode in a crisis. That is my emotional response, but not every character reacts that way, and it's hard to convey that on paper without making it look like a lack of a response). So, I found a book called Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne on Amazon and thought I'd give it a try. This is a screenwriting book, and the structure mentioned in the book is specifically for feature film screenplays, which doesn't translate exactly to novel structure, but there were still some good concepts in the book that apply to novels.

For one thing, his premise is that plot is the events that happen, while story is the characters' emotional reactions to those events, which is what the movie (or book) is really about. The plot events force the characters to take an emotional journey. The events and emotion are intertwined. He gives a pretty good step-by-step process for developing a script (or book) with this in mind, illustrated with a script he's developing to show how the process works as he goes from a three-line summary to a three-page outline, to note cards, to one-liner outline to more extensive outline to a script.

On the down side, I wish he'd given more varied examples because while I think that a lot of these ideas could apply to just about any kind of story, he seems very focused on love stories or stories that have a strong romantic plot. Granted, most movies do have some kind of love story in them (and quite a number of books, too), but I think you can have emotion and emotional development without having romantic love. I was watching Lethal Weapon 2 on HBO this weekend while I was reading this book, and a lot of what the book says about how the middle of the movie is where the emotional stuff comes to the forefront actually fits that movie, but with the partnership/buddy love between the two main characters rather than with a romantic relationship. I think you could tell a similar story with love between family members, relationships between co-workers, etc. Even in a movie with a romance in it, the relationship that brings character growth may not be the romantic one. All the examples in the book, though, are of the romantic variety.

Meanwhile, I hope his sample script was really just a hypothetical to illustrate the steps in the book because I didn't think it was very good, and it was rather obvious. The romantic plot in it didn't ring true to me. It seemed like your typical, standard Hollywood "there's a man and a woman in this movie, so they have to fall in love with each other, and they really ought to come to their big emotional moment while they're in the shower together because we need some skin" relationship. He also dissed The Terminator in a way that made me think he hasn't actually seen it because he said that was the kind of movie that was all about destruction instead of emotion, and it didn't have the quieter, reflective scenes in between action scenes because what is the Terminator going to reflect on? But actually, that movie fits all his principles, since the main character is Sarah Connor, not the Terminator, and the middle is where the love story develops that affects the way the plot comes out. The first act ends with Kyle Reese telling her "Come with me if you want to live," and then the middle is mostly about their developing relationship as she first thinks he's crazy, then finds out he isn't, so that they're then working together, and she wants to learn more about him and about the person she's destined to become. They do have the quiet, reflective moments where they get to know each other in between action scenes, like under the bridge where he tells her about his world, and then in the motel after they make the bombs.

However, I've yet to find a writing book that I agree with 100 percent. What I do is find what works for me and then incorporate it into my Frankenstein's monster of a process.

I think I'm going to give the screenwriting process a try with The New Project, using his outlining method. That goes back to my big weakness, which is impatience. I'm in a rush to get things down on paper (well, virtually, as I try to be paperless), but then once things are written, they feel more set in stone, and it's harder to revise when a scene isn't working. Maybe if I go through all the outlining steps of developing a screenplay, down to writing a detailed outline, that will address my recent problem of not knowing what the book's about until I've written it, but without having to actually write it in book form. I can play with the content and structure of all the scenes before I commit them to actual narrative.

In other news, after my lament a few weeks ago about the disappearance of the Bermuda Triangle from pop culture, today's TV listings show that our local PBS station is showing something about the Bermuda Triangle tonight. Yay!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Back to the Brat Pack

I had a real blast from the past last weekend when I watched Pretty in Pink on HBO. I don't think I've seen that movie since 1986 (I didn't see it during the theatrical run, but I saw it that fall on video when they had a Molly Ringwald film festival in the dorm TV room). It came out in the spring semester of my senior year and was about the spring semester of the characters' senior year, so the characters are (theoretically) about the same age I am (in general, the John Hughes teen movies are about my generation). It was interesting seeing the contrast between then and now.

First, the cast. This seems to be where casting 20-somethings as teenagers really shows up because most of those people don't look anything like they'd be in the same age range with me, except maybe Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer. James Spader and Andrew McCarthy haven't aged too badly, but they definitely look older than around 40. The real shock was seeing Kate Vernon as a teen character after being so used to her as Ellen Tigh on Battlestar Galactica. She seems to be typecast as the bitchy slut. Oddly, Margaret Colin, who had a brief scene as a teacher, is the one who seems to have aged the best. She was playing an "adult" character (but probably wasn't much older than most of her co-stars) and now looks younger than most of the "teens" from the movie. One definite effect of the time warp came in the subplot with the Annie Potts character. Most of the movie, she wore outfits that were essentially period costumes, then at the end it's supposed to be a sign of growth when she dresses like a normal person. Except her "normal" outfit is such a stereotypically 80s outfit that she looks like she's wearing yet another period costume now.

I do find it amusing that the so-called "poor" girl had her own private phone line and answering machine and drove a cute classic car with a custom paint job. I was on the lower end of middle class in high school, and I definitely didn't have a private phone line (not that I would have gotten much use out of it, as I'm not a big phone person). We had one car for the entire family most of my high school years, and my poorer friends who did have cars had rather beat-up old 70s hatchbacks. Molly may have lived on the wrong side of the tracks (literally), but she didn't live or act like any poor kid I knew. Meanwhile, her fabulous, creative concoction of a prom dress was utterly hideous. She managed to take two reasonably cute dresses, cut them apart and put them back together as a big, shapeless sack, which is a crime against fashion. I remember being utterly disappointed in the big reveal of her "eat your heart out, rich boy" prom dress as a teen. All I could think was "I don't think that's going to have the effect you think it will have." The other dresses at the prom were very much like what was at my proms (and not too far from things I wore).

When I first saw the movie, I wanted Molly Ringwald to go for Duckie and not worry about the rich guy. I guess I was in a phase where I wanted my male friends to notice me as a girl. In my teen years, my Duckie equivalents were too busy chasing the Kristy Swanson girls to notice me, and the rich, cool guys who paid any attention to me turned out to have girlfriends I didn't know about, and they just wanted my help with their homework. As an adult, I found Duckie's behavior a bit disturbing and on the stalkerish side of things with some definite control/jealousy red flags, and I found Andrew McCarthy's shy/awkward/kind of dorky first attempts at talking to her utterly charming. There does seem to be a pattern in teen movies of the "hero" dumping the heroine before the big dance, then the friend steps in to help her save face, but then she ditches the friend at the dance when the hero comes to his senses. In this case, the friend pretty much ordered her to ditch him, but it's still not a very nice pattern of behavior. It makes everyone look bad.

Looking at the film as a writer, I was surprised by how weak the story and conflict really were. We never got much of an idea why Andrew McCarthy liked Molly Riingwald, and we never really saw why she liked him, other than that he was cute and rich (a similar problem with Sixteen Candles). We never got a sense of what drew them together in a relationship, other than that they were both straining against the expectations of their friends. They had one pretty disastrous date and one date that seemed to go okay before their relationship fell apart, which hardly seems like a tragic end of the world or a cause for them to declare their unending love for each other. And, really, in a Chicago suburb, was there nowhere else to go for a first date than a party with his friends or a club where her friends hung out? There were no restaurants or movie theaters, no arcades, no skating rinks? That seemed like manufactured conflict. As an adult, I couldn't bring myself to pull for them as a couple. It might have worked better if we'd had a chance to see their relationship develop a little before putting it to the test of their friends so they'd have a reason to be really torn when their friends wouldn't accept them being together.

I've seen all the other "Brat Pack" films repeatedly since the 80s, but this was the first one where I had such a huge gap in time. Oddly, it didn't make me feel too old, since I look better than most of those people do now (though it does help that the actors are all several years older than I am even if their characters would be my age). Now I need to see St. Elmo's Fire to see if I still dislike it. I last saw it in my very early 20s, when it was around the time I was the same age as the characters, and I found them all highly annoying. Will I be more sympathetic with the passage of time?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Attack of the Alien Ooze

It occurred to me that my handy guide to being the Doctor's companion would make an excellent basis for an orientation/training/safety briefing video -- sort of a cross between the airline safety briefing videos and those bad, not updated since the 80s videos they show as part of new employee orientations. I suppose it could be done with just clips from the show, the generic electronic 80s-sounding music and perky voice-over narration, but to really make it art, you'd need to truly mimic the orientation/safety video vibe. You'd need a vapidly smiling TV anchorwoman type host, some cheesy graphics, the generic industrial film sets that only vaguely relate to the real situation (which would make any actual show clips even funnier), and that particular quasi-mime acting style that tends to show up in those films, with the actors miming reactions that aren't entirely appropriate to the situation -- like the way the actors in the airplane safety videos are all, "Oh, look, it's oxygen masks falling from the ceiling. Isn't that interesting?" Not that the airlines would want to model panic and fear on the safety video, but couldn't the actors at least look mildly concerned instead of pleasantly surprised? I have some friends who like to make short parody films, so maybe I'll talk to them about doing the TARDIS orientation video.

I have finally been forced to overcome my denial about the fact that it is, indeed, summer, so on Friday night I decided to give myself a good pedicure that will allow me to wear sandals. And thus, the nightmare began.

First, a brief prologue. Four years ago, when I'd just sold Enchanted, Inc. after more than two years of being unemployed with the occasional freelance job, I decided to go shopping. I'd been living pretty frugally all that time, and I figured I could use a splurge. So, I hit the mall, and I guess the mood I was in made me prey to one of the Kiosk People. I don't know how widespread this is, but in every mall around here, there's at least one kiosk where they sell these Dead Sea bath/beauty products, mostly staffed by young men with exotic accents, and they're very, very aggressive salespeople who grab people as they pass and pretty much hound you to let them give you treatments. That day, I got attacked by one demonstrating the Dead Sea salt scrub. Normally, I have great sales resistance, but the scrub did feel pretty good, and my hands do get a lot of abuse at the keyboard, so I bought some. The problem was, it was pretty messy, so using it was a pain, and eventually it got relegated to a plastic bag in the cabinet under the bathroom sink.

So Friday night, I thought I'd do the full treatment and break out the scrub for my feet (and the hands get treated at the same time while working on the feet). The problem was, apparently the stuff had mutated. It went on pretty well, just a little less oily and drippy than before, and I got my feet and hands all scrubbed, but when I turned on the water to rinse, it turned into this horrible alien ooze. You know when you buy a new appliance and they have the little cards extolling their virtues stuck on with that rubbery stuff? This was like that, only damper and stickier. It didn't rinse off in hot water. It didn't come off with soap and water. It just kept getting stickier, with my hands and feet covered in globs of sticky, oozing slime. A couple of scrubbings with shampoo got enough off that I was able to get my feet into flip-flops and run to the kitchen to find something stronger. I recalled some household hint about oil being good for removing gummy residue left by labels, so I grabbed the cooking oil and the dish soap (for removing the oil) and ran back to the bathroom. By this time, we're about ten minutes from Doctor Who and I was in no shape to be on furniture or to touch anything, so I was panicking. Going through the oil and dish soap routine twice got things to the point I was willing to go into my living room, but my skin still had a slightly sticky quality, so that anything with fuzz or lint stuck to my hands and feet. I put lotion all over, then later when I was doing my nails, I tried rubbing nail polish remover on the affected areas, then more lotion. Eventually, I got it all off, and my hands and feet were pretty soft by the time I was done.

But the attack of the alien ooze definitely affected my TV viewing. First, on Doctor Who when Donna was approached by the pushy fortuneteller lady, all I could think was that she was going to force Donna to let her do some kind of scrub treatment on her. She had the exact same vibe as the Kiosk People (who are, I'm now convinced, the vanguard of some invading alien force). And then on Stargate Atlantis, the doctor being taken over by the alien stuff had her symptoms start with goo all over her hand -- pretty much just like I'd been not too long before. That was rather unsettling.

Now I have to figure out a way to get that stuff off the bathtub (where I was using it). Even after a few rounds with the Scrubbing Bubbles, the bottom of the bathtub and the faucet handle are all sticky.

For future reference, unless there really is something magical about the Dead Sea minerals, you can get a similar effect from Kosher salt in olive oil. And if you have some of that scrub stuff mutating under your sink, be very, very careful.

Friday, July 18, 2008

More Friday Silliness

First, a notice for those in the north Texas area: I will be having a booksigning with Rachel Caine (author of the Weather Wardens and Morganville Vampires series) on Saturday, July 19, 2 to about 4 p.m., at the Barnes & Noble in Lewisville, Texas (near Vista Ridge Mall). Come by and say hi! There will likely be much geeky conversation.

The film option contract is now signed, notarized and should be back in Hollywood (well, Beverly Hills), depending on the FedEx delivery schedule. There was a short conference call with the LA agency lawyer and my agent to clarify a couple of details, which was somewhat embarrassing as the way I tend to clarify things is to come up with bizarro hypothetical situations, and I'm not sure he knew quite what to make of that (I have no idea what he's really like, but on the phone he certainly sounded like Central Casting's idea of a Hollywood agency lawyer). Then I was able to get the contract notarized at my bank. They'd been snippy when I needed something like that previously, but that was at a different branch and this guy was really cool (of course he was, he was a fellow Longhorn). So yay for Chase Bank. I celebrated by going to Target and buying some new shorts. Yeah, I'm living large, but I'd recently realized I had one good pair of shorts (shorts I can wear outside the house) because all the others were in the mending basket. And then I noticed that all the shorts in the mending basket were "Mom jeans" shorts with high waists, pleats and cuffs. They're also all more than 15 years old, so I figured it wouldn't kill me to buy some new ones. Oddly, although the shorts I bought were all the same style from the same manufacturer, just in different colors, I had to get two different sizes because different colors fit different ways (they were even the same fabric, just in different colors).

Now, in honor of tonight's Donna-centric Doctor Who episode, here's a bit of silliness I wrote and posted to Television Without Pity last year. It's me being all practical about what I would do if I got invited to travel with the Doctor:

I would be absolutely certain never to violate Rule Number One (Don't Wander Off), even going as far as to have it tattooed on the back of my hand. I may be an independent woman who can take care of myself, but when I'm in a strange time/place, I'm not letting the guy who can get me out of there out of my sight.

I would insist that the Doctor give me a slide show and briefing on his major enemies, including the ones he thinks he's totally wiped out. That way, if external forces disrupt my slavish devotion to Rule Number One and I run into an old enemy while on my own, I won't mistakenly try to make friends with it, try to help it, or ask it if it's seen my friend the Doctor, you know, that Time Lord who travels around in a blue box.

Even if the Doctor does look like a cute thirtysomething guy, I will never let myself forget that he is an alien more than 900 years old who will outlive me by hundreds or even thousands of years (maybe I'll get that tattooed on the back of my other hand) and therefore probably not interested in me in that way. I'll enjoy my time with him more if I don't have any expectations of him in that area. And, hey, if he does make a move, it will be a pleasant surprise.

I will remember that kissing me doesn't necessarily mean he's making a move, as that's also a way of transferring genetic material or TARDIS energy.

When the Doctor gives me a truly universal cell phone, I will call my mother on a regular basis and not just when I'm in a life-or-death crisis so she won't worry about me or get suspicious because it's so rare for me to call her.

Now I hope to get some actual creative work done today. The part of my brain that can deal with contracts seems to sap all the energy from the part of my brain that can be creative.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Torture Techniques

I had the kind of day yesterday that required lots of deep, cleansing breaths and a generous application of chocolate (Keebler's Grasshoppers, which are basically Thin Mints you can get year-round without being attacked by a Girl Scout, and which are utterly divine straight out of the freezer). Not that it was a bad day, just frustrating in a way that almost made it seem like it was designed specifically to drive me Up. The. Wall. Like if I were a POW and they were designing a torture technique guaranteed to break me, this is what it would be, and that would be against the Geneva Convention, but because it's business, I can't call Amnesty International to protest on my behalf. It didn't help that the dream I had just before I woke up that morning was yet another in my ongoing series of nightmares about having to go back to a corporate job, only in this one, a bunch of friends from various past jobs were all working together at a new place, and they invited me to visit them at work, then it turned out to be an ambush to try to make me take a job there. I woke up while I was still protesting that I didn't need a job and they were trying to convince me that I would only have to come to the office a couple of days a week, so I'd still have time to write. The really odd thing is that I realized upon waking that some of the "friends" in the dream were actually TV characters, which could say something sad about the role television plays in my life, except that the main one I remember was Ianto from Torchwood, and his mannerisms around the office have always reminded me of the department administrative assistant in one of my old jobs, only much, much cuter, so if I'm including that personality in a dream as part of a "This is Your Life" parade of former co-workers, it makes sense for it to be the cute version.

Meanwhile, I may have to stop watching tapes of The Office from last fall because it really is depressing. Even when I remember to forward through the commercials, they often have the little weather brief tease for the late news as the last thing before the end of a commercial break, so to avoid missing part of the episode, I have to hear about low temperatures in the 40s and 50s and cold fronts on the way, which sounds so lovely right now when it's annoyingly hot.

I've seen this post by Libba Bray linked from some book-world blogs, and the metaphor of the process of writing a book being like falling in love is painfully accurate. Except, for me, I find that the first draft is often more like those annoying couples who are always breaking up and getting back together again. You know, the ones who are madly in love and ignore all their friends while they're so wrapped up in each other, and then they have a big fight and suddenly want to gripe about each other to all their friends as they talk about what a jerk the other person is and how it's never going to work, but then the next thing you know, one of them does something wonderful and they realize they did miss each other, and they're back together again and even more mushy than before, and they'll deny having said anything bad about the other person. And then they get mad and one of them will storm out, and they'll swear it's over. And then they get back together again and love each other dearly. Then there's the point where they're really not happy together, but they're more afraid of breaking up and having to find someone else than they are of staying together and being miserable, so they stay together but don't really enjoy themselves and grow to sort of even hate each other in a passive-aggressive way. But then out of the blue something will happen that makes them fall in love all over again.

Yeah, that's me through most of my first drafts. I swing madly back and forth between love and hate, with times when this is the most fun I've ever had and times when I feel like it would be less painful to be writing in my own blood. And there are times when I'm bored out of my skull and know it won't work, but I'm committed, so I have to finish it. But then there are enough moments of pure joy to make it worthwhile. Most of the time, it's not so much the book I hate or am mad at, but rather I'm mad at myself for not being able to do justice to the perfect book that lives in my head.

Fortunately, today is already turning out to be much better on a frustration level, and I may even get something worthwhile accomplished.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Good to Great for Writers

I know I said I was going to do a series on archetypes, but I'm going to interrupt that this week because I read something interesting I wanted to share, and the series will resume next time.

A couple of weeks ago, my agent mentioned on her blog that she was reading the book Good to Great by Jim Collins, which is a business book about how companies that had been performing well made a jump to great performance. One of the things she mentioned from the book was that "good is the enemy of great," and that got me started thinking, so I checked the book out of the library and read it. While it is a book about businesses, there are lessons to be learned for a writing career, as well. I think I've done just about every wrong thing through the course of my career, and I hope I'm on track to start moving in a better direction.

First, that idea that good is the enemy of great. What that means is that thinking you're doing okay can stop you from having the drive to do better. It also may make you afraid of taking the risk of changing what you're doing. If what you're doing is working, why change? But reaching greatness may require change and risk. I think that this can apply to writers at any stage of their careers. For mega-bestselling authors, having the clout to have publishers willing to print their grocery lists without editing and knowing that people will buy that can allow them to coast at that level of success so they never push themselves to achieve what could be lasting greatness. For solid midlist authors, moderate ongoing success could make it scary to try the entirely different thing that could be what breaks them out into bestsellerdom. For unpublished authors, a lot of contest wins could be what's keeping them from selling, if their focus is on writing to please contest judges instead of editors or agents (since contest judges and editors and agents are often looking for entirely different things). All of these people may feel like what they're doing is working and that their success means they're on the right track, but that could be what's keeping them from doing even better.

"Great" companies have leaders who blend personal humility with personal will. While they have a strong vision for their companies and are willing to do what it takes to achieve that vision, their ambition is more for their companies than for themselves. They aren't stars or divas. As a writer, you are your "company," but this still applies. Think about yourself as a writer being distinct from yourself as a person, so that your ego is focused on what you produce rather than on personal fame and recognition. You don't want to compromise your standards for your work, but you don't want to get into the mindset where you think that you, as a person, are the star.

The great leaders also tend to take personal responsibility for things that go wrong while giving external factors like luck or other people the credit for success. Yes, there are plenty of things, especially in writing and publishing, that are out of our control and that may be to blame for what happens to a book, but since they're things that are out of our control, there's little point in playing the blame game. The only thing you can change or control is what you do. True, the editor who was excited about your book may have left or the market may no longer want what you write, but you aren't going to get anywhere, change things or improve your situation by blaming those things (and how often do you hear in writing groups about how a person isn't published because the New York publishers only want mediocrity? And what do those people usually end up achieving?). Meanwhile, if you are successful, it may be because you wrote a really good book, but there are a lot of other factors in that success, from editor or agent input to where you fall in your publisher's list to which chain store buyer really got into your book. It's too easy to rest on your laurels if you let yourself take full credit.

Mind you, this isn't saying that it's always your fault but never your achievement, just that thinking that way is more likely to result in behaviors that can lead you to greatness.

Next, the book says that great companies hire the right people before they worry about the right direction, because the right people in the right positions can go in any direction. This doesn't work as well for writers, since you don't really "hire" the people who'll be working with you, like editors and agents, and since you don't get an agent, editor or publisher until you've written something, you have to at least attempt a direction before you get your team on board. What does apply, though, is the idea of only going with the right person instead of hiring just to fill a position. The wrong agent can be worse for your career than no agent at all -- and that doesn't just mean the scam artists. A perfectly valid agent who's had great success with other clients could be bad for your career if it's not a good match and you don't communicate well. Don't be so eager to be able to say you have an agent that you go with the wrong one. When in doubt, keep looking. If things aren't working well, act fast to first communicate that things aren't working for you so that maybe you can resolve your issues, and then to make a change if you can't work it out. This is an area where delaying as a way of trying to be nice just ends up hurting everyone.

Then, you need to be willing to confront the brutal facts of the reality you face while never losing faith that you can prevail. The book refers to this as "the Stockdale paradox" because it was the coping strategy Admiral Jim Stockdale used to survive years in a POW camp. Neither the pessimists nor the optimists coped well with POW camps. The blind optimists who tried to raise their spirits by holding onto the hope that they'd be home by such and such a date (with no basis in reality for that hope) were as likely as pessimists to give up and die when things didn't go the way they hoped. But Stockdale forced himself to face the cold, hard reality of his situation even while never giving up or losing faith. I think this really applies to writers, especially those who are still aspiring. All those rah-rah speeches about how this is the year we're all going to get published may actually be counterproductive. Don't lose faith that you have what it takes to get there, but never forget that writing and getting published is hard. It may take time, lots of hard work and even some stroke of luck to get there. Not everyone will make it, but don't lose hope that you'll be one of the ones who does. Facing harsh realities may mean listening to things you don't want to hear. It means seriously considering critique, contest, rejection letter or review feedback instead of just declaring that the person giving the feedback is clueless when you don't agree with it. It may mean being aware of what's happening in the publishing world. Sticking your fingers in your ears and singing a happy song may make you feel better, but it's not going to help you be great.

The author talks quite a bit about what he calls the "Hedgehog Concept" which seems to involve a metaphor about the difference between a fox and a hedgehog that doesn't quite make sense to me, but the idea is to build what you do around a simple organizing idea. This streamlines your efforts and allows you to avoid irrelevant things. Your Hedgehog Concept should be something you have the potential to be the very best at (as measured in a way that's meaningful to you) and something you're deeply passionate about. This isn't a goal or strategy to be the best in that area, but rather an understanding, based on looking at the cold, hard facts, of what you can be the best at. For writers, this boils down to finding your voice -- since being you is definitely something you can be the best in the world at -- and focusing on the areas you're passionate about and are truly good at. Don't chase the market by trying to write for each trend that comes along or try to be the "next" version of any big bestseller. Just be the best you.

Greatness also requires discipline (but mixed with creativity). That doesn't just mean the discipline to do whatever it takes to become the best in your area and try to improve constantly. It also means the discipline to focus on the areas you've chosen, even if it means declining opportunities that aren't relevant. Again, no chasing the market. Yes, a new line opening up means opportunities, but is that new line something you're truly passionate about and can write well enough to be the best? Instead of a to-do list, the author suggests having a "stop doing" list, where you look at all your activities to decide which deserve your time/energy/money and which don't.

Great businesses know how to make the flywheel work. Apparently, this is a big, heavy wheel that I guess you find in factories. It's hard to get it started and takes a lot of pushing, but once it gets going, momentum takes over and it becomes easy to keep it going. There's not any one push that makes it reach that crucial point, but rather the buildup of all those pushes. In other words, most overnight success takes years of unnoticed hard work. There's no one miracle moment, just a lot of patience and discipline over time, and all that hard work adds up to make it easy to keep the momentum going if you're consistent and keep moving in the same direction. In contrast, less successful businesses tend to get into a "doom loop" when they're looking for a quick fix, so they're always starting, stopping and changing direction if they don't get instant results. Acting out of fear, they jump on fads and perform inconsistently, so they never get any momentum going. Again, don't chase the market. I got into my own doom loop during the long dry spell that came in the middle of my career -- I was so desperate for a sale that I kept throwing together proposals and flinging them out there whenever I heard about a new opportunity, and as a result I got nowhere. It took taking a step back, finding the story I wanted to write and being patient enough to write the whole book for me to develop any momentum.

(We won't even get into how the publishers often seem to operate in a big doom loop.)

Staying great requires constant growth and adaptation. I guess "great" is the enemy of "greater." You need to focus on your core values, even as the way you manifest those values changes with the times. The example the author gives is Walt Disney, whose values were creative imagination, the "Disney magic," happiness and attention to detail. He started in short cartoons, then moved on to animated features, then took those values into television and then on into theme parks. He was doing different things, but still functioning within the realm of what he could do the best and was passionate about.

Finally, you need to have what the author calls a Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (a BHAG). This is not a big dream based on your ego or bravado, but rather a big goal based on an understanding of what you can do and what it will take to get there. This huge goal serves to unify your efforts and gives you something to shoot for.

Talent, creativity and skill do matter, of course, even if they aren't on this list. Without those, even doing everything right won't help (kind of like the way the most perfectly formatted manuscript is meaningless unless the content is worth reading). What this is all about is behaving in such a way that talent, creativity and skill can reach their full potential.

The author's web site has a number of essays and audio lectures that may be of interest if you want to explore the topic in more depth.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Based on the Novel ...

I woke up surprisingly early this morning (for me) and decided to go with it instead of rolling over and going back to sleep. Now the morning is unusually cool and refreshing, so I have windows open.

The contract wasn't nearly as scary as I feared. For one thing, there were four copies of the contract in the package, so the package was a lot more daunting than the contents turned out to be. I already knew about the more alarming terms. Some of the mildly alarming things I didn't know about weren't too terribly surprising. For instance, I can't sue the studio if they make the Worst Movie Ever out of my book and I think the movie is so bad it defames my book and me as a writer. If that clause weren't in option contracts, Hollywood would either be bankrupt or owned outright by Stephen King or Michael Crichton (yes, they've both had really good movies made from their books, but they've also had some utter stinkers).

Most of the surprises were pleasant ones. There's a lot of contract language specifying exactly how I would be credited in the movie itself and in advertising (in any ad where the screenwriter is credited, except for ads mentioning or promoting specific award nominations. So they can do ads promoting the screenwriter for an Oscar without mentioning me, and they can do ads congratulating the screenwriter for the Oscar nomination or promoting the movie because of its Oscar-nominated screenplay without mentioning me). I think that was the first time I've seen "based on the novel by Shanna Swendson" in print. I actually got a bit teary-eyed. And there's even a clause in the contract about how I and a guest will be invited to the east or west coast celebrity premiere, with first-class transportation provided by the studio. Great. Now I have to come up with a date for my own movie premiere. While I normally ignore the "and guest" on invitations and go solo as long as it's not an invitation to Noah's Ark, I probably won't know a soul there, so I'll need someone. I've heard Meg Cabot talk about her experiences at the premiere of The Princess Diaries, and she was pretty big already by that point. I'd probably blend into the scenery and be utterly ignored. Yes, I know this is all totally hypothetical and based on the remote possibility that a movie might get made, but given my inability to find dates (especially ones I'd actually want to go with), I might need to start working on that now. Or I'll make my parents draw straws over who gets to go with me.

I just have a few questions I want my agent to clarify before I sign, and then I'll have to find a notary. It looks like the postal center/shipping place next to the library has notary services, and then maybe I can celebrate after shipping off the contract by going to the library cafe and having one of their awesome frozen raspberry lemonades and a pastry.

I got my box of writing books from Amazon yesterday, and I'm looking forward to digging into them. I'm in the planning stages of a book, so that gives me a case study to use as I work my way through the books. One tidbit I've already gleaned from the quick skimming I've done: It's not so much about conveying the characters' emotions as it is about triggering the readers' emotions. That's common sense, but I'd never thought of it quite that way. In most cases, it's more or less the same thing. If your character is sad, you want the reader to feel bad for her. If the character is scared, the reader should be, too. But there are times when you want the reader to feel something different. In an action story, your intrepid hero may be totally calm in a crisis, but you want the reader to feel incredibly tense. And sometimes the moments that are laugh-out-loud funny to the reader are embarrassing and awkward for the character.

Yesterday I was all ready to rant about how it's just the middle of July and I'm already seeing all these ads about fall on TV. It's not fair to taunt me with the idea of fall in the middle of July. That's just cruel. And then I realized that I was watching my tapes of the latest season of The Office, and I guess I got distracted (crossword puzzle) and forgot to forward through the commercials, so I was watching commercials from last September. Which was fall. Which would explain the "new fall sweaters are here" and "take your fall vacation here" ads. It was the ads for The Bionic Woman and the "Friday Night Lights is now on Friday!" ads that finally clued me in.

Finally, I've been lucky (or maybe obscure) enough not to have to deal with a lot of spam blog comments. When I get them, they all seem to be for the same posts. For the longest time, it was a post from more than a year ago that kept getting them. Now they're showing up for a post from last week. Most of them are utterly nonsensical and don't even point to or promote anything, so I don't see what the point is, and there's nothing unique to that post that would give any particular search terms that would trigger a spambot. It remains a mystery.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hollywood Legalese

I had a total slugfest this weekend -- as in being mostly motionless, not hitting people. I came to the shocking realization that if I was really tired and having trouble keeping my eyes open, then maybe I needed rest (imagine that!). Of course, that was when one of my neighbors started doing something with a power saw, so I never got an actual nap (and it was a bit suspicious how the saw would go quiet, but then the moment I closed my book and prepared to nap, it would start up again), but I did read something pleasantly mindless and let myself drift in and out as needed, which was nice. I seem to need a completely unprogrammed weekend every so often. Not that my weeks are that busy or strenuous, but a couple of days of doing nothing much while not thinking much about work can make a big difference in my energy levels.

And, boy, am I going to need my energy levels this week. I finally got the contract for the film option (yes, it takes that long), and it's more than 40 pages of Hollywood legalese that I have to read, since I'm not stupid enough to just sign something Hollywood sends me. I wish I had Katie on stand-by, since if there were a way Hollywood lawyers could magically veil portions of the contract and then drop the veil when they want that clause to kick in, I'm sure they'd do it. Not that I can scream or complain about anything at this point. Everything that can be negotiated has been (which is what's taken so long). It's a take it or leave it situation, but I need to know exactly what I'm taking. I know I'm signing away some big things -- like they have the right to make further movies based on these characters without necessarily following the subsequent books in the series (like with The Princess Diaries movies, where the sequel wasn't based on a book). I'm not at the point in my career where I have the clout to retain more control, but I might never reach the point in my career where I have the clout to retain control without the boost that a movie based on my books could give me. So, yeah, I'm going to have a fun day. Good thing I have plenty of chocolate in the house.

I got the book Good to Great that I mentioned last week, and I read it in practically one sitting on Friday. It was a business book that almost read like a novel. The "good is the enemy of great" concept was just the starting point, and from there they broke down what made companies that had achieved real greatness (in terms of performance) from companies that were merely consistently good. If I still had a day job in corporate America, I might have found the book depressing, since I've never worked for a company or organization that met any of the guidelines for being "great." They were all in the fairly self-destructive loops of companies that never achieved greatness or never sustained it. I've had a few bosses over time who met the characteristics of the great company leader, but they were middle managers stuck in organizations that definitely didn't allow them to do their thing (which is why they all ended up leaving in frustration). My guess is that this is one of those books executives give each other as a gift and put on the shelves in their offices without reading it because most of the problems I see in businesses in the news today could have been avoided by even thinking a little about the findings in this book (and it's really a research report, not just an idealistic "how things should be" book, so the findings are proof that it works). No publisher I've ever worked with fits the model of "great" company. In fact, they seem to a large extent to do the exact opposite. The problem is that it takes going against a lot of human nature to achieve greatness, which is why they only found 11 companies in the Fortune 500 that met the parameters of greatness (and some of those have recently been in the news as failures, so even that greatness hasn't been sustained indefinitely). I'd be curious to find out if any follow-up work has been done to see if someone has managed to turn a company around by following these principles.

However, I think I've extracted some wisdom from the ideas on what makes a company great that can apply to a writing career, and that will be my Wednesday writing post.

And now to go tackle that contract (whimper!).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friday Silliness

I can't believe it's Friday already. Where did the week go? Looking at my to-do list, I see that I accomplished a lot, but it doesn't much feel like it.

The Harry Potter symposium is in town this weekend, and I've been toying with the idea of going just for the day on Saturday. But it is pretty expensive, and I'm not sure of the benefit. True, that's a key target audience of people who might be inclined to like my books, but since I never got around to submitting anything for participating in programming, any contacts I make would have to involve direct conversations, and I'm afraid I'm in a big introvert phase right now, which means that I would turn invisible in the crowd.

It's also occurred to me that I currently have a real marketing dilemma. Because the majority of the population has never heard of my books, most marketing activities I do primarily sell the first book in the series. That book is already considered a success. The issue right now is the ratio of sales of subsequent books to that first one, so the more the first book sells, unless all those people very quickly go on to buy the rest of the books, the worse things look for the later books in any snapshot of sales figures. Since the publisher doesn't seem to have any interest in capitalizing on the steady ongoing sales of that first book by doing something big to promote the whole series, hooking new people at this point actually works against me in a weird sort of way. What I need to figure out how to do is reach people who read the first book or the first couple of books and get them to buy the rest of the series, and that's a real challenge. Anyone who's interested enough to write to me, to read my blog or sign up for my e-mail list is also probably interested enough to have already bought the whole series. Anyone who bought the books via Amazon likely got a reminder of the release of the others. I don't know if the drop-off is because of people not knowing about the rest of the books or not wanting to read the rest. I have run into people at conventions who've asked me if a third book (or in a few cases, a second book) is available, so there may be some awareness issues. I suppose people who buy the first book when they hear me speak at a convention may not know about the rest because they aren't in the section of the bookstore where these people would be shopping. I will have to ponder this further.

But enough serious stuff. I've had something supremely silly running around in my head for a few weeks, and I think I should inflict it on everyone else. I've been watching the BBC Robin Hood series (though not the latest episode, since TimeWarner never got around to posting it to OnDemand here. Grrr.) and, for some odd reason, I've lately marathoned the first three seasons of the US version of The Office. And then I found that the two of them started merging in my head until I realized that in many respects, they're the same show. It's not a perfect one-to-one correlation, but there are definite patterns.

Spoiler warning for what's shown of Robin Hood on BBCAmerica and on seasons one through four of the US version of The Office. Also, extreme silliness warning. And apologies in advance if this totally ruins both shows for you.

Basically, the Sheriff and Guy on Robin Hood are Michael Scott and Dwight on The Office. We've got the extremely self-centered, egotistical, volatile, drama-queeny boss and his sycophantic, extremely ambitious sidekick who believes firmly in might making right and who thinks that his devotion to his boss will ultimately get him what he wants out of life -- namely power and money. I guess you could say that Guy is Assistant (to the) Sheriff. In both cases, the boss is perfectly willing to use his sidekick when it suits him, but he actually holds him in contempt and would willingly sacrifice him if necessary. And the sidekick bases a lot of his self worth on his "estate" (Dwight's beet farm, Guy's estate that used to be Robin's).

I wonder if one day Guy will try to usurp the Sheriff's position, so that Prince Jan -- er, John -- will have to step in and put a stop to it. And then Guy will be stuck doing the Sheriff's laundry.

That was the first parallel I noticed. Then I realized that as our "hero," in both cases we have a cheeky, charming man of the people who likes to pull pranks on the boss and his sidekick and who is the main focus of the sidekick's hatred and jealousy. He also has the loyalty of almost everyone around besides the boss and his sidekick, and the boss's boss's boss considers him a valuable asset (King Richard on Robin Hood, David Wallace the CFO on The Office).

The romantic relationships don't track perfectly, as Dwight hasn't really shown any interest in Pam, but both of our cheeky heroes have a romantic relationship with a woman who's been a longtime friend, and both relationships have gone through a sort of love triangle phase where the other guy was entirely unsuitable for her and potentially abusive. And both of the sidekicks have gone through some fairly creepy emotional tailspins over the women they're interested in.

Then we have the disloyal underling who switches sides. On The Office, Ryan the Temp seemed to mostly be on Jim's side (not that he declared any loyalty, but he was definitely against Dwight and Michael). Dwight tried to groom Ryan into his lackey, but Michael was the one utterly enamored of Ryan, which made Dwight feel insecure and threatened. And then Ryan switched sides and became an enemy when he got the job at corporate, actually betraying Jim. Meanwhile, Allan on Robin Hood started out as a member of Robin's gang, then betrayed Robin, switched sides, was originally being groomed by Guy to be his lackey, but then the Sheriff discovered him and was impressed enough to make Guy feel insecure and threatened.

I'm sure there are more parallels if I let myself think more about it, but I've already disturbed myself with this much.

We'll see if I can make myself leave the cave this weekend. I want to do some housework, as I had two separate nightmares last night where my messy house was an issue. Sci Fi Friday is back tonight, with Doctor Who and Stargate Atlantis. And then new Foyle's War on PBS Sunday.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Book Report: Fantasy vs. Reality

I learned yesterday that while mid-day exercise gives me energy for the afternoon, a mid-day swim has the opposite effect. I don't know why swimming always makes me sleepy (and hungry), but I was barely able to stay awake all afternoon and evening. I wonder why that is. It could be the effect of being out in the sun. It could be the cool water of the pool lowering the body temperature, which slows everything down and makes me sleepy. Or it could be that after the feeling of floating freedom in the water, returning to dry land makes me feel weary and heavy -- the beached whale effect. Whatever it is, I shall have to save swimming for after I've done everything I need to do in a day rather than as a break between all the business work and the writing work. I did finally get some good writing work done at night when we had another surprise cloudburst. And then, wouldn't you know it, after spending the entire day fighting off sleep and not even being able to focus well enough to read much, when I went to bed, I had trouble falling asleep.

I've realized that I'm WAY behind on book reports. So, without further ado, here's some of what I've been reading lately:

Beastly by Alex Flinn -- this is a young adult novel that's a modern take on Beauty and the Beast. A spoiled rich kid plays a cruel prank on the wrong goth chick and finds himself transformed into a hideous beast. You know the drill. The modern twists on this story are what's really clever. For instance, woven throughout the novel are transcripts from a chat room support group for people who've been magically transformed (the frog has some trouble typing). One of the beast's attempts to get someone to love him in spite of his appearance involves meeting people online, since then they'll get to know him before they find out what he looks like -- and then he uses that magic mirror that allows him to see anyone to look at the real person behind the MySpace profile. Cop, 12-year-old, 45-year-old woman, cop, etc. One thing that's always bugged me about the Beauty and the Beast story is that the guy who's being punished for judging people by appearances breaks his curse by falling in love with the most beautiful girl around (yeah, he really learned his lesson). Here, the "beauty" is more along the lines of "not conventionally gorgeous, but quite lovely when you get to know her and when she makes a little effort," so he still has to learn to look beyond appearances. I really enjoyed this book. Aside from the clever spins on the old tale, it's quite a sweet romance.

Then continuing the fairy tale theme, I read Weird Sisters, Witches Abroad and Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett, where he sends up a lot of old fairy tales, Shakespeare, and goodness knows what else in his trilogy about the three witches. Laugh out loud funny and still rather charming, of course, and it's a little alarming how much I find myself identifying with Magrat Garlick. I'm not sure why, since I wouldn't think I'm much like her, but I really related to her. However, I have this terrible feeling that I'm going to be Granny Weatherwax in my old age. Except for the being a witch part. I'm all about the headology, though. I also read Soul Music, and I think I may have developed a teeny literary crush on Death. He's so charming and gracious and well-meaning, and I think he'd be fun to hang out with. However, that could get disturbing as you'd never know for sure if he was showing up to hang out or if he was on business (as in the nightmare I had last night).

Then for a change of pace, I've been reading a few things that might be sort of classified as chick lit. The English American by Alison Larkin is about a young Englishwoman who's always known she was adopted but who thinks she's figured out why she's so different from the rest of her adopted family when she learns her birth parents are American. She gets new insights into herself when she goes to America to meet them. I was kind of so-so on this one. It was an entertaining page-turner and an interesting look at the impact of adoption, but I felt like the characters were more cartoons than real people. Supposedly a lot of it was about breaking down stereotypes about the cultures, but the characters were all pretty stereotypical, without a lot of nuance. Most Americans I know aren't all soppy about talking about their feelings to everyone, for instance. Maybe she only knew people on the coasts who are part of the culture of therapy. Midwesterners could teach the Brits a few lessons on emotional reserve.

Then I read Behaving Badly by Isabel Wolff, whose Making Minty Malone may have been the first real chick lit book I read, even before I got my hands on Bridget Jones's Diary and back when they hadn't yet decided to split that genre away from romance and publish it in trade paperback. This one's about an animal behaviorist who hasn't been too good at figuring out people, and now she feels like she needs to make up for something awful that she was involved with in her past. There's a bit of a mystery woven in, and the animal stuff is fun, especially since I started reading it while a PBS show about dogs was playing in the background (in my hotel room after ApolloCon). While I was reading in the book about her explaining to her clients that their dogs were just behaving like dogs, the PBS show was talking about how until relatively recently, dogs were bred for behavior to do specific jobs, and that hasn't been bred out of them now that they're just pets, and that explains their behavior. It was kind of a weird crossover.

And then there was Roommates Wanted by Lisa Jewell, which was the book I'd planned to buy at Target that they no longer had, but then my library got it and I was the first to check it out. This would be stretching the definition of "chick lit" as one of the main characters is a guy, but it's still similar in tone and theme. This guy's father bought him a big old house before vanishing from his life, and he's ended up taking in as lodgers people who are in transition or who don't have anywhere else to turn -- a bunch of lost souls. When he realizes in his late 30s that his life has become really stagnant and that his house is now worth a fortune that would allow him to pursue some dreams, he doesn't feel he can just kick out his lodgers and sell the house without knowing they'll be okay. He has to emerge from his own cave to get to know them so he can figure out how he can help them move on so that he can move on. In a way, this reminded me of Last Chance Saloon, my favorite Marian Keyes book. Both involve large casts of characters we follow as their lives converge and diverge.

Now today I really must buckle down and work. I think last night I came up with the missing link to fix the synopsis I'm working on. It sometimes feels like an exercise in futility to do so much work to fine-tune a synopsis when I know that almost everything will be fixed in the writing of the actual book, but when you're expecting someone to buy a book just on the synopsis, you have to at least pretend to have figured it all out ahead of time.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Finding Strengths

I finally have some updates done on my web site. I've updated a lot of the information in general, updated the events calendar, and I've got some location inspiration photos for Don't Hex with Texas. I'm still missing a roll of film, so there may be more photos if I find it if I ever get around to that massive house cleaning project I keep talking about. Mind you, unlike the real-life settings in New York, Katie's home town is fictional and was just sort of inspired by a particular town that's essentially the generic Texas small-town county seat. But these are the images that were in my head when I wrote the book.

I ordered a few books from Amazon yesterday that should help me find more things to analyze when I try to slow down my process and think instead of being impatient (since slowing down just for the sake of slowing down without doing something in that extra time would be rather pointless). I also ordered my own copy of The Now Habit so I can actually read it, since the library copy had been so marked up that it was nearly impossible for me to read it beyond just gleaning a couple of tips that have been pretty helpful.

In this push for "greatness," I realized I've been pretty negative so far by focusing on weaknesses I want to correct. But I think it's equally important to look at the things that are working so I can play to my strengths and improve on those strengths. And then I realized that I'm a lot more comfortable looking at weaknesses than at strengths, and I'm definitely more comfortable publicly discussing weaknesses than strengths. I guess there's a fear of looking like you're bragging or being obnoxious when you talk about what you do well. There's some of the lingering "mean girls" effect, especially for women, where the worst thing in the world is to be "conceited," and you get labeled "conceited" for not hating yourself. Just graciously accepting a compliment instead of arguing about it or protesting means that you really think that something about you is good, and then you're considered a conceited bitch. Plus, when you list your weaknesses, if someone disagrees, then that makes you feel better because they're saying you're not as bad as you think you are. But if you list your strengths and someone disagrees, then that takes you down a peg or two.

At the risk of sounding conceited or like I'm bragging, here are some of the strengths I've identified in my writing, based on feedback I get from readers, my agent and editors.

My biggest strength seems to be character development. I'm good at creating characters people like and care about. And I even manage to do this with characters who are basically nice people, which is supposed to be incredibly dull in fiction.

I'm generally considered to be pretty funny. I may not always write outright comedy, as in the Enchanted, Inc. series, but humor seems to work its way into everything I do just because that's the way I see the world. I still haven't decided, though, if this means I really should focus on writing comedy, or if it's okay to stretch as long as I don't consciously try to get overly dramatic and leave the humor out entirely.

My agent says I'm good at writing action scenes. That came as a surprise to me, since I thought that was a weakness, but maybe the fact that I think of it as a weakness means that I worked extra hard on developing those scenes and making sure a lot was going on.

I think I'm also pretty good at coming up with high concept ideas. I've had some misses, but most of my ideas are big and quirky, and they put a fun twist on familiar themes. This is especially true while I'm playing in the fantasy pool, which is why I've decided that's where I should focus my efforts, at least for the time being.

Fortunately, I don't think I'm high-profile enough that any of the book snarking sites will pick up on this and start trying to tear me down or otherwise show that I'm not as hot as I think I am.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Going for Greatness

Right before lunch seems to be a very good exercise time -- lunchtime and my post-lunch low phase when I read are good for recovery, and then I have energy for the rest of the day and sleep well at night. Except today I'll exercise at night because I have dance class. The OnDemand workout video I did yesterday may have killed me. I'm not really sore, but I definitely feel like I exercised, and it was proof that I'm really not very fit because I got really winded during the short cardio intervals. So more cardio for me. That might also help me survive the altitude in Denver during WorldCon.

I had one of those days when I felt like I didn't accomplish anything, even though I worked pretty steadily through the whole day. It was just lots of little tasks that didn't add up to anything major or visible that I could say was "done." I cut nearly 200 e-mails out of my in-box, still need to answer a lot, and started work on updating the web site, but that involved lots of little changes before I get to adding new pages.

My agent posted in her blog the other day about reading the book Good to Great and thinking about what that means for her agency. And that got me started thinking about what it means for me as a writer. Supposedly, the enemy of "great" is "good" because it's easy to be satisfied with good, and that keeps you from moving forward (I've put in a hold request on the book at the library). I guess I'm okay there because while I think I'm pretty good, in that I'm good enough to be published, I'm not really satisfied with that and know I'm not where I ultimately want to be -- and I'm not sure I'll ever get there because I'd like to be able to keep growing with each thing I write without ever reaching a stagnant plateau.

So then, being the analytical sort that I am, I started thinking about where my weak spots are, and I came to the conclusion that my biggest weakness is impatience. I get very excited about an idea and want to rush ahead, I write fast, and then I'm done with it and I just want to get it out there. That means some details may get handwaved over, and I'm so impatient that I think of it as "good enough." Some of that may come from my TV news background, where you certainly wanted your story to be as good as you could make it, but the priority was having it done by airtime. The most brilliantly composed story was useless if it wasn't done in time for the newscast. But books work the other way around. Time is certainly still important, but five minutes, five days or in some cases even five weeks (since deadlines are usually padded and publication schedules can change -- or if the book is being written on spec, the time doesn't matter much at all) don't make that much difference in the grand scheme of things. The priority is making it as good as possible. I think some of it also comes from the lingering insecurity from my long dry spell, when I was so desperate to sell something that I just started flinging things out there, and I may be going through some of that now since I don't currently have a contract.

One of my life lessons from The Book That Would Not Die (currently known as The Book In Search Of A Good Home) is that taking my time and doing that one more draft after doing some intense thinking about the story really could make a huge difference. That idea really caught my brain on fire, and I tore through that first draft. But I'm not sure that draft was publishable, even though I thought it was great at the time. The second draft wasn't even good enough, though I thought it was at the time. The third draft was good, but not what it needed to be. The final draft was a world of difference. I'm not sure I can truly cut out all those steps, but if I can learn to do more of the later draft thinking while in the process of writing the first draft, or perhaps even during the resting stage between the first and second drafts, I think that will help. At some point in the process, I need to force myself to slow down and analyze (which I should love doing), looking at the plot and character arcs on a high level, and then drilling into each scene to make it the best it can be in conveying all that information.

Then there are a few other things I want to work on fixing that come as part of that slow-down-and-analyze process. The New Project will be my guinea pig for this. I think it's a brilliant idea that could be a great book, as long as I don't settle for "good." If that takes me a bit longer, then that's fine in the grand scheme of things (besides, there's no point in having even a proposal ready before Labor Day. Giving myself two months to write a proposal should really force me to slow down and think).

Monday, July 07, 2008

Robot Love

I had a great weekend, but now am utterly exhausted from all the greatness, and I didn't even have any late nights. I must be getting old. I'm looking forward to a quiet day today and catching up on a lot of work stuff I let slide last week. For a hint of how I spent my Saturday, there's this:

That picture comes dangerously close to being a pin-up for Dalek fetishists, but since I'm already the Locus centerfold, I might as well go with it. I seem to be going through a phase where I strike a pose whenever a camera is aimed in my general direction. I guess we'll have to see what fun photos I can get out of WorldCon. (Hmm, possible marketing strategy: become a geek sex symbol?) I didn't realize how sweaty I was until I saw the picture, but that came right after watching the final four Doctor Who episodes of the season in a room with nearly 30 people. Joe Dalek got a minor repair job and face lift right after we took this photo, so he's no longer looking like he just got through a major battle.

And then on Sunday we went to see WALL-E, which is utterly adorable and wonderful. I think this is more of an adult movie than a kids' movie, in spite of it being animated. It either says something about this movie or about the state of Hollywood today that the most touching and moving love story I've seen in ages is about two robots who barely talk beyond saying each other's names. Then again, I'm the freak whose favorite Star Wars character is R2-D2, so it could just be me. Still, you've got to love a science fiction movie about robots that uses the Michael Crawford songs from the movie Hello, Dolly! to underscore the romantic scenes. I need to see this one again on the big screen to pick up all the little details. I'm not sure the movie grill environment was the best for this. It seemed like the waiter waited for the most pivotal moments of the movie to come by distributing checks and stuff. There's one crucial tight point where I don't actually know how they got out of it because that was when the waiter was standing right in front of me and I missed it entirely.

On the agenda for the week: updating my web site to include Don't Hex With Texas info (finally!), dealing with my overflowing e-mail in-box, and revising two synopses. Plus maybe getting back into work on The New Project. I want to have something on that to give my agent in late August. I also want to do more exercise beyond just the dance class. I sang in the "summer choir" at church yesterday (no rehearsal other than just before church), and the choir loft is up really high, so you have to climb stairs to get to it, and I was slightly winded when I got up there, so I'm way out of shape. I'm trying to figure out the best time to exercise. I've been doing it right before dinner, since it tires me out and I don't get much work done afterward, but that cuts into my best working time. Today I'll try before lunch and see if that wipes me out for the afternoon.

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Couch-Potato Holiday

Happy July 4! I decided to take the day as a mostly holiday, since there's little point in starting something, only to have the weekend hit, and I have a busy weekend.

This morning, I watched my city's parade on local access cable. I went in person once, and it was a lot of fun, though I got horribly sunburned. On TV, it reached new heights of hilarity because the local access cable announcers apparently didn't have monitors to see what the TV picture was. Therefore, their commentary was rather out of sync. We'd hear them talking about the amazing stretch limo while the picture showed a golf cart. I think most of the parade units were old cars, convertibles carrying local politicians, or flat-bed trailers carrying scout troops, gymnastics schools or Red Hat ladies.

I've realized that I'm in an awkward stage of life when I'm too old to be a Girl Scout but too young to be a Red Hat lady.

My plans for the rest of the day mostly involve reading, some of it work-related (maybe). I'll make a burger, and I've got a watermelon slice and some Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream with some blueberries and strawberries to go on it (I may make a parfait in one of my fancy sundae glasses).

Then it will be fireworks on TV. It's such a couch-potato way of celebrating the holiday, but I think that is typically American. Besides, the issue with July 4 is that it's in July, and in Texas that's not happy-fun outdoors time. It's huddle in front of your air conditioner and expend as little energy as possible time. We need a cooking-out and fireworks type holiday in October, when it's perfect weather for being outdoors as much as possible.

And now, before I retreat to my sofa with a Terry Pratchett book, my blog readers came through for me yet again, and here's the Japanese cover for Damsel Under Stress: