Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Making Mushrooms

It's New Year's Eve and I pretty much have all the "work" stuff done for the year, aside from that pesky thing about thinking of a new title for The New Project. I think my problem is that I like the working title, but I agree with my agent that it probably doesn't work and that the fun associations I have with that title only make sense in my head. Unfortunately, I've found myself visualizing the cover with that title, and now I can't seem to shake it. I've dug through poetry on related subjects, listened to my "soundtrack" for that book, searched collections of quotations, etc. I've found whole poems that are perfect, but no one neat line or phrase that would make a good title.

But I'm going to forget about that for today as I have a party to go to tonight. Maybe my subconscious will keep working on it and give me a revelation in the shower.

Now, for that fun thing I hinted at yesterday: Here's how to make the meringue mushrooms! I was going to call them Magical Mushrooms, since I am a fantasy writer and they do look like something out of fairy land, but then I remembered that there's an entirely different connotation to that term. So, anyway, here's the how-to, with some pretty bad photo illustrations (taking pictures of yourself at very close range doing things that require two hands is something of a challenge). The recipe is inspired by/adapted from/expanded from something I found in the Pillsbury Complete Book of Baking (which I swiped from my mom, but I don't think she minded, since that means I'm the one to bake).

Start with two egg whites at room temperature. Add a quarter teaspoon cream of tartar and beat until they're really foamy. Gradually add 1/2 cup of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Keep beating until the egg whites are glossy, the sugar is thoroughly mixed in, and stiff peaks form (when you lift the beaters, it leaves peaks whose tops don't flop over).

Heat the oven to 200 degrees (Fahrenheit). Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Using a pastry press or a pastry bag with a tip that has about a 1/4 inch opening, make the mushroom caps by squirting out egg white blobs that are about an inch in diameter. Do this by keeping the tip close to the cookie sheet and holding it there while you squeeze. You'll end up with some peaks on the caps that look like the top of a soft-serve ice cream cone. If you want to smooth them out to look more like mushrooms, press the peaks down with the back of a damp spoon (if you use a dry spoon, you'll just get more peaks). Make about 50 caps.

Sift unsweetened cocoa powder over the tops of the caps. I used half of a mesh tea ball because I figured the sifter might be overkill.

Bake the caps at 200 degrees for 40-60 minutes. Baking time will vary widely depending on the humidity, as you're more drying than baking. The first time I made these, it was fairly normal humidity, and it took about ten minutes longer than the second time, when it was really dry, and I think they were a bit overdone (I had a few shatter on me).

While the caps are baking, line another cookie sheet with parchment paper and make the stems. The recipe says to make vertical stems about 3/4 inch high, but good luck getting it to cut off that easily. I found it worked best to just barely start squeezing, then pull straight up without squeezing. They're not going to be uniform, but then real mushrooms aren't, either, so it's okay. Make at least as many stems as you make caps, but I would suggest making some extras (you'll probably have enough egg whites). They have a nasty habit of flopping over or going weird.

You'll know the caps are done when they release easily from the parchment. When they aren't done, the inside of the cap will try to stick to the paper. As soon as you take the caps out of the oven (after putting the stems in the oven), take the caps off the paper and use your finger to make a dent in the bottom. I found that it works best when they aren't totally dried out, with the insides still slightly soft, and then you can kind of poke through the bottom to make a good dent. As you dent the bottoms, move them off the cookie sheet to cool.

The stems will bake for about 35-45 minutes (again, less time if it's really dry, more time if it's humid). They're done when you can easily lift them off the parchment paper. Remove them from the cookie sheet right away and let them cool (that doesn't take long). Melt 2 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate (I unwrapped four squares of dark chocolate Dove Promises, nuked on high for a minute, stirred, then put back in the microwave for 30 more seconds). It works best if the chocolate isn't entirely liquid. Stop melting while there are still obvious pieces of chocolate and then stir. This serves as the "glue" to put the mushrooms together, so you want "soft" more than "liquid." Put a dab of chocolate into the dent on the bottom of the cap.

Then stick a stem, pointed end up, into the chocolate. I found it worked best when I flicked off the very tips of the stems (they're really, really dry). Ta da! You've got a mushroom.

Let the chocolate cool/dry completely, then store the mushrooms loosely covered. Here are the finished mushrooms:

Have a happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 in Review

I'm doing my "year in review" post today because I think I'm going to do something fun tomorrow. Today is a "work" day, but I've declared tomorrow a holiday (because part of the fun of being your own boss is being able to set your own holiday schedule).

This has been kind of a weird, mixed year for me. It's already something of a blur. There weren't any major highs, but also no major lows. It was more of a hunker down and get through it year. Work-wise, I didn't sell a book, leaving me to go into the new year essentially unemployed. But I did sell two magazine articles (that the magazines approached me about writing, which is nice) and I got the contract (and payment!) for the movie option deal that was negotiated last year. The book that was released this year has done pretty well. In its first year of release it has sold better than the other books did in their first years, aside from the second book that got a boost by being sold in Target. I wrote an entire first draft of a book, revised another book a couple of times and developed a proposal for an entirely new project. I went to my first-ever Worldcon and loved it (and made a few new friends). I also went to the Nebula Awards weekend, where I got to hang out as a peer with the people who are responsible for much of the contents of my bookcase.

On the personal side, I made a step toward a couple of my perennial New Year's resolutions by getting into a ballet class. I think that gives me some credit on the "get a life" front as well as helping me move somewhat toward getting in shape. My house is still a disorganized mess, though. I got back into choir. And I bought a new car!

I read more than 100 books this year (I think I'm at around 115, but I'd have to check my list and add the books I've read in the past week). I think my favorite book of the year was The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice. I re-read it over Christmas and still loved it, so I think I'm going to buy a keeper copy. It's sort of a comfort-food book for me that I can see myself re-reading repeatedly. I also discovered mystery writer Rhys Bowen, thanks to blog reader recommendations. My favorite fantasy books that I read this year were just about all for children or young adults. I don't know if that says more about the state of the publishing business or about my maturity level.

I barely saw any movies this year that weren't on HBO. Favorites for the year were Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and WALL-E. I can't think of one I saw on HBO that really got under my skin to the point I ended up buying the DVD after watching it repeatedly. I think the only TV show I started watching this year and stuck with (until my parents hooked me on NCIS last week) may be Leverage. Otherwise, everything I'm watching was a returning series. I guess there was True Blood on HBO, but I'm still not sure if I actually liked it.

For next year, I do want to work on getting in shape, exercising more than just at ballet class (so I can get through the class without being winded). I have a grand plan, broken down into tiny steps, for getting my house in order, and I've already started on that. I also have a writing plan based on productivity. I won't have a book coming out next year, aside from an essay in another pop culture book and the paperback release of that Judy Blume book. Because of the work I did this year, I've got two projects that will be going out on submission right after the holidays, so it's possible that I will be "employed" again early in the year. It does make it hard to plan for the future when things could change so soon -- or not change. For instance, there's a conference in New York in March that I want to go to, and the "early bird" deadline for registering is tomorrow, but I've been hesitating as I don't know what my money situation will be or if I'll have any editors to meet with while I'm there. But there's also a good chance that I'll have new editors I'll need to meet with by then. I have a new story idea I want to play with, but I don't know what I'll need to be writing next year, if I'll be writing the rest of the book I've proposed or sequels to books I've written or if I'll need to develop a new project. It's both unsettling and exciting to know that my entire year could be changed by what happens in the next couple of months.

So, that's where I stand as this year comes to a close. Now I have a few little business things I have to deal with before I can start my New Year's holiday.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Welcomes Back Laurie Faria Stolarz

I'm back at home and taking a moderately light week this week, though I have a few "work" tasks to take care of. I had a good Christmas, though, technically, it's still Christmas, and all the stuff leading up to Christmas Day was just Advent (my excuse for continuing my celebration of Christmas a little while longer).

Now, since I do have those nagging little tasks to take care of, I'm going turn the blog over to a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit tour stop, with my guest Laurie Faria Stolarz, author of the new book Deadly Little Secret. Laurie is also the author of the popular Blue is for Nightmares series.

Until three months ago, everything about sixteen-year-old Camelia's life had been fairly ordinary: decent grades; an okay relationship with her parents; and a pretty cool part-time job at an art studio downtown. But when Ben, the mysterious new guy, starts junior year at her high school, Camelia's life becomes far from ordinary.

Rumored to be somehow responsible for his ex-girlfriend's accidental death, Ben is immediately ostracized by everyone on campus. Except for Camelia. She's reluctant to believe he's trouble, even when her friends try to convince her otherwise. Instead she's inexplicably drawn to Ben...and to his touch. But soon, Camelia is receiving eerie phone calls and strange packages with threatening notes. Ben insists she is in danger, and that he can help – but can he be trusted? She knows he's hiding something...but he's not the only one with a secret.

Sounds like something good for curling up with on a cold winter night, huh? Now, the interview:

Was there a particular inspiration for this book?
I wanted to write a story where the main character has to struggle with the idea of falling in love with someone who could potentially kill her (and who's already allegedly killed someone in the past). I also wanted to continue experimenting with the supernatural -- showing how we all have our own inner senses and intuition, and how with work we can tap into those things and make them stronger.

Many of your books involve people with unusual abilities or talents. How do you come up with the ideas for these talents?
I'm always looking for a new story. Readers of mine seem to like my supernatural spin on things, and so I was looking for a new way to approach the supernatural world. I started researching different supernatural powers that people claim to have. That's when I came upon psychometry, the ability to sense things through touch.

Which unusual talent do you wish you'd had during your teen years?
The ability to become invisible at will.

(I think my problem was that I did turn invisible at times. I still seem to have those moments ...)

What are you working on now?
I'm working on Deadly Little Lies, the second book in the Touch Series. I'm also working with the artist on the graphics for Black is for Beginnings, the fifth book in the Blue is for Nightmares series (it's a graphic novel).

For more info and to get the details on a contest where you could get a minor character in the next Touch book named after you, visit Laurie's web site At the moment, her site appears to be down -- check back later today (her host is working on it). In the meantime, you can buy the book from Amazon. There's also a book trailer on the Amazon page. You can also read Laurie's blog (which isn't down for the count).

Now I have to go find a way to sum up The New Project in two paragraphs. And since it's actually kind of dry today, I may make some meringue mushrooms for my contribution to a New Year's party. I'll see if I can take pictures along the way to post a how-to.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve

Well, it's Christmas Eve, and I guess I got too busy yesterday with the eating, lying around and reading to get around to posting. Not that I had much of anything to say.

My Anchorman is about to do his last newscast before he leaves me for the real world. I need to get my parents to set up an obstacle course so I can run frantically to get to the living room in time to watch it, in proper romantic comedy fashion. Because you have to end with a frantic mad dash before all is lost. I wonder if he'll get emotional or go into "what are you gonna do, fire me?" mode.

In other news, my parents have managed to thoroughly hook me on NCIS, thanks to a USA marathon yesterday. It's a good thing House is moving, I would likely have switched. I thought Mark Harmon was totally dreamy back in the 80s when I was a teenager, but I think he's even more appealing now. He's aged well.

The weather continues with the wild see-sawing. Monday it barely got above freezing. Tuesday morning we started with light freezing rain, but it ended up getting rather warm. Today is warm and sunny. I can't seem to adapt to all the changes. The nice thing about it being as gray as it was on Monday was that it made the Christmas lights in all the little towns I drive through really show up. And then there was the red PT Cruiser I passed that had antlers. Someone had put stuffed plush antlers on either side of the car (it looked like they were braced through the back windows), so from the front or behind, the car itself looked kind of like a reindeer head. It totally cracked me up. It has never occurred to me to decorate my car for Christmas.

Enjoy the holidays, everyone! (I'm not counting on posting tomorrow.)

I leave you with my favorite piece of Christmas music, "What Sweeter Music" by John Rutter (it's a YouTube video synching the sheet music to the Cambridge Singers recording).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting into the Spirit

I'm supposedly getting ready to head to my parents' house for Christmas, but I was waiting until it got above freezing. I'm not sure that's going to happen, so I guess I'll have to pack soon, since there's a chance that tomorrow could be freezing and wet. At least today it's freezing and dry. And then the weather will change entirely again, so I have to pack two different wardrobes for the week.

I finally really got into the spirit of the season this weekend. Friday night I took a little walk around the neighborhood to look at the lights and even ended up going to the park where the neighborhood tree is. I remember when it was a little twig, just a Charlie Brown tree, but in the years I've lived here it's grown into a proper huge pine tree. Walking around on a cool night, looking at the lights, made me suddenly want to go Christmas caroling, but that's not really something you can do alone. Walking around singing to yourself is more considered crazy than caroling. And, okay, I did a little of it because there are some moments when you just have to sing, but I didn't do it at full voice, just under my breath.

Then we got another cold front on Saturday, which made it the perfect weather for a movie and book marathon. I read The Dark is Rising, and now I can see why people were so angry about the movie. That was pretty much an abomination. The really annoying thing was that there were all kinds of little details from the book in the movie (though in wrong places), so you know the screenwriter must have actually read the book. If he wanted to write his own story, he should have just written his own story instead of pretending to adapt a book written by a far better writer. There wasn't even a reason for the changes made for the movie. The opening of the book was far more gripping than the opening of the movie. And why did they feel the need to make the main character American? It's not as though American audiences reject everything that's not American. There was this little book and movie series about some kid named Harry Potter, without a single American character, and the books and movies seem to have done okay in the colonies. Grrrr.

I don't really want to get into the other things I read because they would fit into the category of "not for me." I think I now understand the rejection letters that say the execution didn't live up to the premise. What that really means is that the book wasn't the story the reader wanted, given the premise or set-up.

As for movies, I still love Christmas in Connecticut, even though it struck me that they never really gave a reason that the couple would like each other or be good together, aside from the fact that he was much better than the other guy. But it still worked because they did have great chemistry.

When Love, Actually came out, I recall that a lot of the reviews criticized the braided anthology format, saying it meant we didn't get any depth on any of the stories. But I think that's part of the reason this movie works for me so well and has become an annual tradition. Because of the mix of stories, I can enjoy it no matter what mood I'm in, and it's almost an entirely different movie depending on the mood I'm in. Plus, the fact that there are stories full of conflict and drama means that the happy stories are allowed to unfold without inserting artificial conflict just for the sake of keeping the couple apart until the end. It's very rare to see a movie love story that simply involves two people meeting, getting to know each other, liking each other and then falling in love. And I like that it doesn't contain the usual "you're sad and pathetic if you're not in a romantic relationship" message because it affirms other kinds of love, including friendship and families.

Meanwhile, The Holiday is a romantic movie where I'd have almost preferred that they leave out the romance. The best relationship in the movie is between Kate Winslet's character and the elderly screenwriter neighbor, and I think the theme in that story would have actually worked better if she hadn't immediately gotten into another romantic relationship after finally closing the door on that long-term toxic crush. The Cameron Diaz storyline is almost immaterial to me because that was all about the English countryside porn. To me, that would have been a dream vacation even without the hot guy showing up. I'd have been totally content curled up by the fire in that lovely cottage with a stack of books and taking the occasional walk in the country, and I think they should have done something about her learning to be alone and at peace, but then I suppose that wouldn't have made for a very interesting movie for people who weren't content just to look at pretty scenery.

In lieu of a Christmas card, here's a nice view from the steps leading up to the library. The other day, I was coming out of the coffee shop and saw the bridge with the garlands on it, and that was when the holiday spirit suddenly struck me.

And, finally, I have confessed to having occasionally committed fan fiction. I recently came across this Firefly Christmas story I wrote back in 2003 (while I was writing the first draft of Enchanted, Inc.) for a gift zine for a friend, and it's never been publicly posted anywhere, so I thought I'd share. Any eerie similarities between some lines and things that happened in the movie Serenity are either coincidence or a sign that I nailed the characterization. Of course, this is entirely unauthorized, and I own none of these characters (but since no one else seems to be using them at the moment I thought I'd borrow them).

target="_blank">A fairly long Firefly Christmas story, safe for the whole family

Enjoy! Now I'd better go pack ...

Friday, December 19, 2008

My Christmas Quirks

I thoroughly enjoyed my "office party" yesterday. It was my favorite weather, cool, gray and damp. It's very energizing for walking, though you'd get cold and wet if you just sat still in it, and it feels lovely to come indoors after walking in that weather (it reminds me of October in England). I walked to the library, taking a route that went past some houses decorated for Christmas, then had soup and tea at the coffee shop and walked back home to have tea and cookies while reading and listening to Christmas music.

Since it's pretty warm today, tonight I may take a flashlight and do a short walk around the neighborhood to look at the lights. And, for a programming note (since this movie has been mentioned in discussions of Christmas movies), Christmas in Connecticut is on TMC tonight at 9 Central. I will likely be making popcorn and settling down on the couch for that one.

When it comes to the Christmas season, I seem to have more than my fair share of quirks (why should Christmas be any different from the rest of the year?). Here's a list of some of my holiday oddities:

1) I like fruitcake. I even love some fruitcake.
I am picky about it, so I don't necessarily go for all kinds of fruitcake, but in general, I don't join the anti-fruitcake chorus. I was practically an adult before I understood all the jokes about fruitcake in comic strips, sitcoms or comic routines, all that stuff about it being brick-like, the gift no one wants, the one fruitcake that just gets regifted over and over again. To me, fruitcake was a treat, so I didn't see what the joke was supposed to be about. And when I got the joke, I was horrified. When I was little, if I really, really liked a teacher, I'd insist on giving one of my favorite fruitcakes as a holiday gift. The kind we got at the time came in convenient little blocks within the big package, so they made good token/recognition gifts (like teacher gifts). That was a huge sacrifice for me, because it meant there was less for me. I suppose if the thought counts, that made it a big, wonderful gift, but now that I know the rest of the world doesn't see fruitcake the way I do, I cringe at what all those teachers must have thought about getting some nasty fruitcake (but this really was good fruitcake, if you're not categorically anti-fruitcake). I also cringe about the idea that all that fruitcake might have been wasted.

2) I hate, detest, despise, LOATHE that grabby gift exchange game -- the one I've seen called Chinese gift exchange (yeah, that's politically correct), Yankee swap, the white elephant game, etc.
It's the one where everyone draws a number, and each person can either take a wrapped gift from the pile or steal a gift that someone else has already taken and unwrapped. And then if they steal a gift, the person it's stolen from can either take a new gift or steal someone else's. There's much "hilarity" as the popular gifts keep getting stolen. The only time that's ever fun is if everyone follows the guidelines on what to bring. One of my friends used to have an annual party where we played that game, but we all generally just brought back the same things we'd ended up with the year before, so it wasn't so much about what thing you got as it was about seeing the same things come back again and seeing who'd end up with what. But generally there's someone who goes against the guidelines in each direction. If it's supposed to be a humorous white elephant, someone will bring something really nice that's clearly above the specified value, and someone will bring something out of the trash. If it's supposed to be an ornament swap or a nice generic gift, someone will bring something more valuable than the specified limit and someone will bring something that counts more as a gag gift. Then everyone will fight over the good thing, while someone will get stuck with the bad thing.

I suppose, in a sense, this "game" does reflect the secular holiday season in a culture where store employees get trampled to death by people rushing to get a bargain, but where I most often find myself stuck playing it is at church-related parties. And it's the very antithesis of what Christmas is supposed to be about in a religious sense. Yeah, let's celebrate a holiday that's supposed to be about peace, love and sacrificial giving by competing to get the nicest gift and taking things away from other people. This "game" makes the baby Jesus cry. My cynical theory is that it got started because it's easier than drawing names and having to buy something for someone you don't know well, but, you know, if someone doesn't know me well enough to buy me a gift, I'm okay with not getting a gift. I don't have to get something at every party I attend. I have enough clutter in my life without adding random white elephants. Am I being a Scrooge about this, or are there others who don't find this to be particularly fun?

3) Christmas music is largely responsible for the fact that I have the musical tastes of an 80-year-old woman.
When I was about four, we got a Christmas album (called "The Christmas Album") that was a compilation of songs performed by old-time "standards" artists -- people like Jerry Vale, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Perry Como, etc. I loved that album and listened to it non-stop throughout the holiday season. It became the background music for most of my childhood holiday memories. I even made up Moulin Rouge style musicals for my dolls to act out, using these songs (taking the existing songs and weaving them into a story). That meant I was exposed to this kind of music before I was aware of other kinds of popular music, and I liked this stuff and these singers, which meant I wasn't as crazy about the more current music when I heard it. Even today, my car radio tends to stay set on the standards/big band station (music for people who remember World War II). I wish I could find this album on CD so I could have something I could play in my car, but just try searching for "The Christmas Album" on Amazon. I do still have the cassette I dubbed from the LP when I was in college, so I listen to it at home while I put my Christmas decorations up.

4) I have very mixed feelings about Santa Claus.
I remember liking the idea of Santa when I was little. I was sure that if I listened hard enough on Christmas Eve night, I might hear sleigh bells, and I was convinced one year that I saw Rudolph's nose when I looked out the window. I made my parents take me to see the department store Santa -- and then when I got there I was utterly terrified of him and would have nothing to do with him. One year, he tried to get me to go up to him by offering me a candy cane, and I informed him that I wasn't supposed to take candy from strangers. I learned the truth about Santa pretty early, when I was six, courtesy of a classmate with older siblings (since the first thing a kid wants to do when learning the truth about Santa is tell every other kid), and I don't recall feeling all that betrayed or disappointed. I do remember grilling my parents thoroughly on how they'd pulled it off, like "What about the time we were out of town for Christmas and we came home and Santa had been here while we were gone?" (when Dad went in to "turn up the heat and warm up the house" when we got home while Mom and I waited in the warm car, he'd put the presents out). My brother's six years younger, so we kept up the Santa tradition a while longer, and then it still comes in handy for those gifts that are too cumbersome to wrap.

Now, I tend to resent the emphasis Santa gets in popular culture. There was the big "WHAT?" heard 'round the neighborhood last year when they did the Shrek Christmas special, and Shrek sat down to read his children "The Christmas story," and it was "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Sorry, no, that is NOT The Christmas story. It's only A Christmas story. But there's still a part of me that finds myself listening for sleigh bells and hoofbeats on the roof (in this house, that's probably either a loose tile in the wind or Stan the Eighties Bachelor Airline Pilot Ghost getting restless), and I get a little tingly when I see the NORAD Santa tracker. I'm not sure what I'll do in the unlikely event that I have kids. I may go all Northern European and do St. Nicholas Day on December 6 and disconnect the idea of Santa from Christmas.

4) I really don't like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Other than my believed Rudolph sighting as a kid, I've generally been bugged by that story. For one thing, I don't like the idea that Santa let his reindeer be bullies. The version of the song I had a record of was by Perry Como, and that meant I really hated the way kids sang the song, with the echoes and interjections ("like a light bulb!"). As I learned more about it, it bugged me that we've allowed something that was essentially an advertising jingle to take such a prominent place in the holiday. A few weeks ago, I saw a cartoon where someone referred to the fact that Rudolph wasn't canon, and that totally cracked me up. The response was that the idea of the eight other reindeer and their names came from C. Clement Moore's poem, but I would argue that at least that was a poem and not an ad. The stop-motion animation Christmas special is pretty disturbing, if you really think about it, considering that Santa himself seems to be really focused on appearances, criticizes Rudolph's father for apparently having bad genes, and even seems to suggest that Rudolph be "taken care of." Though I do like the Burl Ives "Holly Jolly Christmas" song.

5) My family has a really odd Christmas viewing tradition.
Some families may catch part of the marathon of A Christmas Story or one of the many holiday-related specials and movies shown on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. My family watches Firefly. It started back when they finally showed the pilot as the last episode shown of the series, right before Christmas. I was blown away by the pilot, which was practically a mini movie, so I brought the tape of that with me when I went to my parents' house for Christmas, and we watched that on Christmas Eve. The next year, the DVD set had just come out, so we had a little marathon. And we watched more the next year. Then the following year, the Serenity DVD had just come out, so I brought that with me and we watched it. And then the next year, my dad gave my mom her own copy of Serenity, so we watched it again. And then we realized we had a tradition, so we kept with it. Now, even though there are only a few vague Christmas references in the series (and I'm geek enough that I could list them), Firefly makes me think of Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Office Party

Now I pretty much have everything done, work-wise, that needs to be done before the new year. I'm also done with parties and baking. That means that I'm declaring this afternoon my "office party." Hey, just because I work for myself and work alone, it doesn't mean that I don't get an office party. My office party generally consists of spending the afternoon reading and relaxing while listening to Christmas music. In the days of having a day job, I certainly got my fill of other kinds of parties.

At my first job, it wasn't so bad. We merely all went out to lunch at a reasonably nice restaurant, with the office picking up the tab. To me, that's a good way of using a party to reward the staff for hard work all year -- by not putting an extra burden on them. We got free food and a little extra time away from the office. Since I freelance for that office, I've continued to go to that party (though this year either they're not having it or they're not inviting freelancers).

My next job was at an ad agency, so they seemed to feel the need to show us how creative they were with our company parties. The first year I worked there, we had a fairly typical hotel catered dinner type thing, but with a murder mystery show thrown in. Only it wasn't the usual murder mystery dinner where we got to solve the mystery. It had something to do with clowns and other weirdness that I couldn't quite follow. I blame that party for pretty much ruining what had looked like it might be a promising relationship. That was the last time I brought a date to a company party (long story). The next year, they decided to have a costume party, and the party was held at the Ripley's Believe it or Not/wax museum. Try finding a costume at Christmas. I went as Little Red Riding Hood, using my Renaissance festival "villager" costume and my reversible hooded rain cape that had a red lining. The following year, it was a "flashback prom," where you were supposed to wear retro prom attire (I used a dress from a dorm formal from college). With that company, the party that was supposed to reward us ended up not only taking up a Friday or Saturday night of our own time during a busy time of year but also usually cost us money since we had to come up with a costume or other very specific attire.

At my next job, the first boss there had a clever idea. We had our holiday party in early January. The idea was that not only did the office save money by not having a party during the peak party season, but also didn't add stress to the staff by adding another event to the season. The first party we had when I worked there came after a state-wide staff meeting in the afternoon, and then the party that night. It was something of a mystery party, since we loaded the bus at the hotel where the meeting was, and then went to the party location. It was at an "old west" style town, with our party in the "opera house," with a barbecue dinner, square dancing and country dancing. The main thing I remember from that party (other than trying to teach my Australian boss how to two-step) was that one of our massive Texas cold fronts hit that afternoon. It had been quite warm all week, and they even laughed at me when I showed up for the staff meeting with a coat when it was in the mid 70s. They weren't laughing as much when it was in the 40s when we loaded the bus and definitely weren't laughing when we had to take a hay ride from the bus to the party site when it was in the 30s. I was the one laughing by the time we were on the bus back to the hotel and it was 27 degrees. Watching the weather forecast paid off. The following year we had another late party, but mostly because we were transitioning between bosses so nothing had been planned, and we just had dinner and games at Dave and Buster's. We had a more traditional hotel party during December the next year, since that hotel was our client. And then the dot com bust hit and we had a pot-luck at someone's house (I was laid off at the end of the following January).

So, my rule for a good office party is that if it's supposed to be a reward, it shouldn't be a hassle and take away from employees' free time. Even if the party ends up being fun, it's not exactly a reward to have a mandatory after-hours event. That's like saying, "To thank you for your hard work, I'm making you work Friday night."

Hmm, since I have a book on hold at the library I need to pick up, I may take myself out to lunch at the library cafe. They have really good soup, and I do like supporting a local business.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Favorite Writing Books

I have a busy day ahead of me, but if I'm very good and very diligent, then I'll be done with the "work" stuff and can more or less go on holiday for a while (not that I'll stop working entirely, but I won't have anything that absolutely must get done right away).

This will be my last official writing post of the year. I'll start up again after the new year, and I'm still looking for questions or topics you would like me to address, so if you have a burning question about writing or the publishing world, let me know.

Since I have been asked in the past about my favorite writing books, I thought I'd share a list, in case you need a last-minute gift for a writer, need to let someone else know what you want, or need a list of things to buy with gift cards. This list is in no particular order (mostly, as I come across it on the bookshelf by my desk).

Story by Robert McKee -- I think this is mostly meant for screenwriters, but it's still all about story and character and how they relate. It's a big, dense book, and it didn't make sense to me until I'd read it twice, and then it was like a light bulb going off in my head. I'm thinking of re-reading it again, since I've had a lot happen to me, writing-wise, after the last time I read it. As far as I know, it's still just in hardcover, and it is pretty expensive, so you might want to look for this one in the library.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler -- That's where I got a lot of the material for my discussion on archetypes. He also takes the work of Joseph Campbell on mythological story structure and translates it for modern storytelling. I have the first edition, and the current edition is much bigger. Apparently, he actually does analyze Star Wars step-by-step as an example. I'm considering getting the latest version since so much has been added.

The Complete Writer's Guide to Heroes and Heroines by Tami D. Cowden, Caro LaFever and Sue Viders -- I have mixed feelings about this book. It's one of my favorite writing books and absolutely essential to my process, but mostly because I've used the basic information as a jumping-off point to my own system of character development. However, there's some inaccurate information in the examples given (characters getting mixed up), and I think a lot of their examples are flat-out wrong, tending toward stereotype instead of really understanding their own premise. I think they also miss a lot of the power that's possible from using these archetypes (and it is a case of them just not getting it because when I raised a possibility in a workshop with one of the authors, it turned into a public debate). I also disagree on the male/female separation. Still, this book is good for hours of amusement in not only developing your own work but also in analyzing your favorite books, movies or TV shows. If you read it, though, I'd suggest you also read all the posts I've made on the subject, which are neatly archived on the articles page on my web site.

Plot by Ansen Dibell (part of the Writer's Digest series) -- I think this was the first book on writing I bought, back when all I seemed able to do was come up with characters and situations, and then I faltered when I needed to actually make something happen. This was where I learned how to put a plot together. I haven't revisited this book in ages, but it's a really good basic how-to.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas -- I use this as a checklist for every story idea I develop. Not that I've yet had a truly breakout novel, but these days in commercial fiction, you need to treat every book like it's your breakout novel.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby -- I got this from the library earlier this year, and it changed my basic writing process. Now that it's out in paperback, I'll be buying a copy, since trying to read the notes I scribbled while reading the library copy is a real pain.

Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit -- I think this is essential reading for anyone who wants to include comedy and/or romance in a story, or for anyone who loves romantic comedy films.

The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus -- Another essential for those trying to write humor or comedy. It also includes a good basic plot structure for a comedy story.

Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne -- I'm still incorporating this into my process, but I do think it brought about a big breakthrough for me.

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias -- Another life-changing book for me. It's aimed at screenwriters, so there's some stuff in this book that doesn't apply to novels, but in today's commercial fiction climate, writing a book that almost reads like a movie can really help.

So, until the new year, happy writing!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cookies and Other Stuff

It's days like yesterday and today that I'm really glad I don't have to drive to work. I was sitting safe at home while people were skidding all over the roads. Of course, it would help if people were willing to adjust their driving to the conditions. On the news last night, while a reporter was trying to shoot a story about what the highway department was doing, he ended up getting several accidents on tape because they couldn't aim the camera at the road for more than a few minutes without someone flying by, then hitting a slick spot and spinning out. But I was home and warm, and I didn't have to worry about driving to work this morning on possibly icy roads.

Now, a random selection of items:

First, here's what I've been up to in the past week or so, the plate of cookies I took to a meeting this weekend:

The Christmas trees are "my cookies," the recipe I make every year that most people say they look forward to. I'm not sure I'd be allowed in the door by my parents if I didn't bring some of those. They're Spritz cookies, sort of a butter cookie with a hint of almond flavoring, made with a cookie press. I don't do the roll-and-cut-out cookies very well, so this is my way of doing "fancy." I also had some Swedish teacakes (aka Russian wedding cookies and Mexican wedding cakes, but my last name is Swendson, so we'll go with Swedish teacakes) and a new experiment for this year, meringue mushrooms. Here's a close-up of the mushrooms:

Once I got the hang of it, they were pretty easy, if a wee bit tedious, but they look really cute and are also tasty (and low-calorie). I kind of feel like I need a garden gnome figurine to go in the middle of a plate of these. They have been requested for the New Year's Eve party, but I'll have to see what the weather's like. They don't do well on humid days.

Back to the topic of holiday movies, just after I made that last post about movies, Doctor Who (and many other things) writer Paul Cornell polled some of his writer friends (including yours truly) about favorite Christmas movies, and you can see the results here. I went with a more specifically Christmas movie for the purposes of this. In other posts, he's also polled Doctor Who writers about favorite Christmas songs and comic writers about favorite Christmas recipes.

I've discovered that Turner Classic Movies has The Shop Around the Corner and The Bishop's Wife on OnDemand, so that may be part of my movie marathon this weekend. Of course, it looks like it's going to warm up and get nice for the weekend, so I'll feel guilty about burying myself on the sofa, but Sunday's supposed to be cold again. But first I have to get some work done, and it seems like My Anchorman is doing the mid-day news this week, so I have to go have a farewell fling.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Pre-Holiday Rush

I believe I have now survived the worst of the holiday madness. All that's left is a choir party Wednesday night, for which I need to bake some cookies, and then I need to wrap my gifts. But my shopping is done and I'm through with all the rehearsing and performing. The first part of this week will be pretty busy with work stuff, but then I think I should be able to relax and enjoy the season.

I started Saturday morning with a choir rehearsal for our big musical presentation. Went straight from there across town to a meeting of a published author group at a new bookstore in town (more on that later). Then clear across the metro area to another meeting. Sunday was the performance of the big musical presentation, followed by a meeting after church, then that night I went to the madrigal feast at the high school. Whew.

The madrigal feast was a lot of fun. I've never been all that nostalgic about my teen years, never wanted a do-over or a return to high school, but I'd almost be willing if I could be in a group like that, getting to wear medieval costumes and sing that kind of music. This bunch seemed to be the kind of kids I would have wanted to hang out with, and the boys were all the smart, funny, talented guys that were cute but more of the "adorkable" type that I would have had major crushes on (and that were pretty much lacking in my school). My school was too small to even have a choir, and I doubt I could have afforded the costume if we'd had a group like that. Supposedly, I was seated with other people at a group table, and I saw other names listed for my table when I checked in, but nobody else at my table showed up, and the one thing I don't like doing alone is eating out. There's something sad and awkward about sitting alone at a table in a room full of people. It would have been nice if someone had managed to figure out there were no shows and move me to another table (and some people I knew from choir were sitting right behind me and had empty seats at their table, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they didn't see me or recognize me). On the up side, my table was right in front and there was no one to obstruct my view, and there was a "serf" assigned to each table, so for one night, I had my own personal serf.

Then I think an arctic front chased me home. It was really warm yesterday, in the upper 70s, and I went out in a light dress without a jacket and was perfectly fine. The school is about five miles north of my house and a little to the west, and by the time I changed into my pajamas after getting home and got up to my office to check e-mail, the wind had shifted, and within an hour the temperature had dropped something like 30 degrees. So today will be a day to cuddle under the electric blanket and write.

Now, about that bookstore ... I've snarked about the literary snobbery I've encountered in independent bookstores, but this one seems to be doing it right. It's about the size of a large B&N, and the people running it are all people who've worked in chain stores and who want to take what they've learned and do it right. Some of them are also big genre fans, one a romance expert who's even been the Romance Writers of America bookseller of the year, and one a big science fiction/fantasy and mystery reader. It's a three-level store, with the cafe (which not only has coffee, but also wine!), gifts, magazines and general fiction on the ground floor, non-fiction on the top floor, and genre fiction on the mezzanine you have to pass through to get between floors. They have a section called "paranormal" where they're shelving the cross-genre stuff that could be fantasy, romance and/or something else, and that's where my books are (it will be interesting to see how that affects sales). The store is Legacy Books in Plano, Texas, so if you're in the area, check them out.

I'd love to see them succeed, not just because I'm friends with some of the people involved with it, but also because the more books that are sold outside the major chains, the better. The main gatekeepers in the publishing world aren't the editors and publishers, but rather the store buyers, since there are two major chains that sell most of the books, and that means there are two people who pretty much decide what gets published and sold. Those are the buyers for that genre for the two big B chains. If one of the big chains doesn't take a book, it doesn't mean that book won't be published (it's a little late in the game for that), but it does decrease the chances of more books by that author or in that series, since one of the two big chains not carrying a book pretty much dooms it to low numbers (it was B&N cutting their order for book 3 in my series that pretty much meant no book 5, since that made the book that much harder to find, and even though they re-ordered repeatedly, the low initial order had a big impact).

There are two oddballs in the industry. Wal Mart is actually the biggest seller of books in that they sell more copies of the titles they carry than any other store, but their selection is so limited that being skipped by Wal Mart isn't a death sentence, while being selected by them can be a big boost. Amazon is selling an increasingly large number of books, but they don't do the kind of big, up-front order that determines the print run. The brick-and-mortar stores are more supply driven -- they choose what they want to sell, and customers have to select from that merchandise. Amazon is more demand-driven -- they order based on customer orders and don't keep that many copies in their warehouse at any one time.

So the more stores other than the two big Bs out there, and the more books they sell, the less influence the two big chains have on the fate of a book. With lots of buyers making ordering decisions, it's less about what those two people at the two big chains like. Unfortunately, to really get that kind of balance, we'd need several big indies in each market, and they'd need to outsell the chains, but each success is a stepping stone toward that.

And now, to work!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Where are the Holiday Movies?

Ugh. I got a late start on the day with a bad case of book hangover, thanks to staying up way too late reading. I'd reached what my family refers to as The Last Eight Pages, which is the point in the book when you physically can't put it down to go to sleep or do something else. It could be because it literally is the last few pages, or it could be because it's a point where you don't want to put the book down until you know what happens. Last night, it was a combination. Thanks to small type and thin paper, I had a lot more left to read than I realized when I thought I only had a few pages to go and might as well finish the book before going to sleep, and by the time I realized how much more I still had to read, I'd reached the "must find out what happens" point.

Last year, I ranted at length a couple of times about made-for-TV holiday movies. Those seem to fall into a few main categories:
Adorable moppet finds a new family (often through single parent hooking up with a person with opposite feelings about Christmas)
Christmas-hater gets a new attitude, thanks to romantic interest and/or adorable moppet OR "A Christmas Carol" treatment
A Christmas wish comes true magically, teaching a valuable Life Lesson (usually that Christmas isn't just about material things -- and now a word from our sponsors: Go buy stuff!)

On the big screen, the primary categories seem to be:
Santa Claus IS real! -- this includes the "helping the non-believer learn to believe" stories as well as the culture-clash slapstick stuff and the "unsuspecting person has to become Santa or do Santa's job" stories
The holidays are really a hassle -- this encompasses family issues, travel complications, decorating wars, shopping nightmares, etc., and usually with a tacked-on "heartwarming" ending that seems to have been written by an entirely different writer than the one who wrote the rest of the mean-spirited, cynical script.

From what I can tell, the only holiday movies this year fit into the "the holidays are a hassle" category (and both are in the "families are annoying" subcategory), and I'm sorry, but I pretty much know to avoid any film that incorporates a baby spit-up scene in its promos. Because, as we all know, childless people dealing with the grosser aspects of infants is hi-larious.

The kind of holiday movie I really like is more subtle about the holiday stuff, more using it as the setting and acknowledging the emotionally charged aspects of the holiday season. The world champ in this category for me would be Love Actually, which explored a variety of different kinds of love, from paternal to friends to new love to old love to soured love to unrequited love, as set against the build-up to Christmas. It wasn't really about Christmas and could probably have taken place at any time, but the holiday setting amplified the emotions.

The more recent film like that was The Holiday, which mostly used the holidays as the reason the two characters could take their vacations in each other's homes and also played on the way the holiday season tends to affect single people.

I'd also include About a Boy in this, even though it takes place throughout the year, since the fact that the main adult character is living off the royalties of the novelty Christmas song his father wrote makes it a trying time for him, and the fact that the holiday season so perfectly illustrates the main child character's belief that you need "back up" in your life.

Even Bridget Jones's Diary somewhat fits (though I use it more as a New Year's movie), since it starts on New Year's Day and ends at Christmas.

The Americans can occasionally do this, as with While You Were Sleeping, where the pain of being utterly alone at Christmas is what motivates the main character to not correct the mistaken belief that she's engaged to the man who was in an accident when his family invites her to join their celebration.

That's the kind of movie I want to see at this time of year. Not so much the "life is dreary" Oscar-bait movies or the "my family is driving me nuts" holiday hassle movies. Just a nice romantic comedy, preferably without bodily function humor, set around the holiday season, so that there's Christmas music on the soundtrack and some pretty twinkly lights in the set design. This year, it looks like I'll be doing the DVD thing instead of going to the theater. On the up side, it means I can enjoy the movies with cocoa and Christmas cookies, which usually aren't available in theaters, and with my lights and decorations around me.

I also like books along these lines. I'm not so much a fan of the obvious Christmas Book of the variety that are so popular in the romance world -- the "Magic Under the Mistletoe" or "Her Own Secret Santa" type thing. I just like books set around Christmastime that incorporate something of the season or that include a pivotal event relating to Christmas. That makes it harder to find these books, since it's sometimes not obvious through the titles. There was Love Walked In from a couple of years ago and there were a few chick lit books that involved the holiday season. I may re-read The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, since it involves Christmas and the New Year at an old manor house, for a double win. I've got The Dark is Rising checked out of the library, since apparently it takes place around Christmas. But I'm still on the lookout for things I can read while Christmas music plays as I drink cocoa and eat Christmas cookies. I was about to say that maybe I should write something like that, and then I realized that I've written two books set against the season. I didn't really think about them as "holiday" books, but the first book was set starting in late September, and that's how the book world's calendar fell.

Tonight I think I'm going to make chili and watch Gremlins, another one of those stories set against the Christmas season, but with added monsters. Next weekend I have a good Christmas chick-flick marathon planned.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Christmas Countdown

It just struck me that it's only two weeks until Christmas, and I'm so very not ready. I have a very small shopping list, so that can usually be taken care of in a couple of hours, but the only "gift" I've bought isn't even on my list. It's a blanket for the collection being gathered at church. They have a tradition of serving breakfast at a homeless shelter on Christmas morning, and they like to have a blanket to give to each person they serve. Since I'm out of town on Christmas, I contribute a blanket. Now I need to think of gifts for my parents and brother. I've done some of my baking. I always send cookies to my agent, and I did worry about always sending the same thing, and even the same kind of cookies, but my agent assured me that it's something she and her assistant look forward to every year, so I'll chalk that up as "tradition" instead of lack of imagination. I got a little paranoid about that a few years ago when someone in a group I'm in made a remark to the effect of "oh, you brought your cookies again" for the group's Christmas party. I couldn't quite tell if she meant it in a "oh, goody, I look forward to those" way or a "can't you make anything else?" way. But I like baking Christmas cookies, so that's generally what I bring to any "bring a treat" parties. I may need to make one more batch after I send the gift to my agent and take a platter to an event this weekend, since I have one more "bring a treat" party next week.

In other news, the German edition of Damsel Under Stress has come out, and while they used the US cover art on the first two books, they went with something entirely different on the third one:

I suppose you could call it generic, as it doesn't tell you much about the book, but there's something about it that just appeals to me. Maybe it's the fact that my name is bigger than the title -- and would you believe I only just now caught that? In the US, when your name is bigger than the title and when the cover art can be generic and arty instead of telling something about the book, that means you're a name-brand bestseller. I don't think I'm quite at that status, so maybe it's different in Germany.

Finally, if you need a warm fuzzy, read/watch this story (there's both a text story and the video that ran on the news). Definite hanky alert, especially with the video.

And since I find it annoying when people send me links with nothing more than "check this out," here's a bit about that link (spoilers if you don't want to know before going there): Earlier this month, there was a story on the news about a young mother with terminal cancer who's trying to do as much as possible with her kids before she dies, and she's chronicling all of it by taking pictures and making scrapbooks. She took her kids from Oklahoma down here to go to Six Flags, and then on their way home, they stopped to eat at a restaurant. While they were in the restaurant, someone smashed in their car window and stole a bag from the car, and in the bag was her camera. Not only did it have pictures in it, but the camera itself was a keepsake. It had been her father's camera that he'd used to record his time in Vietnam and her childhood, and it meant a lot to her to record her life and her children's lives with it. As she said, it was just an old camera that had no value to anyone but her.

And then a TV reporter got a phone call from someone saying he felt bad, and to check behind a certain car in the TV station's parking garage. The camera and the roll of film that had been in it were there. The story I linked to covered the reporter going up to Oklahoma to give the woman her camera back. The tear-jerking part was that before she knew she was getting the camera back, she was talking about having no hard feelings and being sure that people were good inside. And then the reporter gave her the camera.

I just hope the thief learned to think before he acts. Thievery (and really crime in general) is inherently selfish because it means you're putting your own needs and desires ahead of someone else's and not considering how they'll feel or what the items being taken mean to them. So maybe realizing the impact he had on this woman and feeling bad about it will lead to him being aware of how he affects others when he steals. But yeah, this kind of happy ending gives you hope.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cold Days in Publishing

Brr. It's pretty cold today. I think I will have to bake some Christmas cookies this afternoon.

Those who follow publishing news may have heard about all the scary stuff happening in Book World and might have wondered how that will affect you or affect me (or you just may not care). The short answer is, I don't know, but I'm choosing to be optimistic.

I think some of this has even made it into the mainstream media, but in brief, the publishers really seem to be hurting these days. A lot of people who work at publishing companies have been let go/laid off. Imprints are being folded into each other (like many people care which branch of a publisher is named on the spine) and at least one publisher has said it's freezing acquisitions (but then they said they'd be willing to consider the right book, which sounds like business as usual). One of the major bookstore chains is in serious danger. It's a scary time.

For readers, I'm not sure what it means, but it could mean less variety and more celebrity-based books, since they'll want to go after sure things. I imagine there could be more backlist of big names reprinted instead of new books, again because of the sure thing angle and not wanting to take a risk. Series you've been following may stop abruptly if the publisher doesn't think the books are performing well enough. The books that do get published may not be as well edited because editors who were already stretched thin with more work to do than there was time in the day will be having to take on more work. I imagine they'll get even more doom-loop-focused as they desperately try to jump on trends. There might not be a lot of innovation because they'll be overly cautious -- but the publishers who succeed will be the ones willing to try something new and take risks. On the other hand, most of these cuts seem to be affecting non-fiction and literary fiction. Commercial and genre fiction seem to be plugging right along, and deals are still being made.

For me, I think it could maybe end up being a good thing, after a while. After all the shakeups, there could be different people in decision-making positions (though I haven't yet heard that any of my roadblocks have hit the road -- that'll teach me to go with the cut-rate voodoo dolls). I've demonstrated that I have a loyal following, but I'm not at a very high advance level, so I'm a cost-effective author. Sales of my existing books have been pretty steady over the past few months, even during the supposedly very dark October. Since I don't currently have anything scheduled for publication, that means I won't have anything new on the shelves during the worst of the panic when it might not be shelved by a major chain, and the fact that the sales of the existing books are so steady means they'll likely stay in stock, as stores will want to stick to the tried-and-true. By the time I have another book out, I hope that the worst will have passed. I've already lost every editor I've worked on a book with, so the next thing I do will be with a new editor, no matter what, and that means I'm not directly affected by the bloodletting. Since Hollywood is actually doing pretty well, and since female-centered movies have performed well this year, it's possible that the movie version of Enchanted, Inc. might go forward, which would raise my profile as a writer.

On the other hand, I'm not currently under contract, and contracts may be harder to come by in the next few months to a year. Next year may be a lean one for me, but I have money in savings to cover my living expenses. All I can really do is keep writing and get as many things as possible out there while being careful about my spending to make my savings last as long as possible. I do think things will shake out within a year, and maybe they'll take this as an opportunity to look at some of the really dumb ways they've done business.

I know if I were running a publisher, I might take another look at some things that have been steady performers and see if I could find new ways to leverage them (like, say, repackaging a certain series that was sold as chick lit and doing a mass-market paperback edition to be shelved as fantasy). But then, what do I know about business? Then again, I have two years of operating capital and won't really have to change my business practices, which is more than you can say for the big publishers, so maybe they should listen to me. So far, no one has offered me a consulting gig.

The bright side of a really cold day? If I huddle under the electric blanket on the chaise to work, I'm much less likely to want to get up and wander around the house.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

My Tragically Doomed Love

The pineapple is now all gone, which means that I'll have to buy some more today while it's still on sale. So far, no prickly skin or spiky hair seems to have developed, so it appears that I can eat pineapple every day for more than a week without turning into one.

I suppose it's somewhat appropriate that while I've been discussing romantic comedies, I've had a rather devastating development in the romantic comedy that is my nonexistent love life. My Anchorman, the quasi-celebrity crush that has been the longest-lasting relationship I've ever had, is leaving me! He's taking a corporate PR job (probably because he could see the writing on the wall, with the station cutting back and his newscast having very low ratings), and it's pretty difficult to maintain an imaginary one-sided relationship with someone you never see anymore. We'd already been growing apart since he moved from weekends to weekday early mornings, and now I suppose it's time to face reality (the kind of reality that exists in imaginary relationships) and call it off so we can both move on with our lives.

At least I should be able to see his last newscast, as supposedly he'll sign off with the noon news on Christmas Eve, so I can have some closure. If I were a character in a bad romantic comedy movie, that would be my cue for a public and humiliating declaration of love. I'd have to make a frantic cross-town dash, maybe taking the train and persuading the engineer that the course of true love required him to stop at the train station at the TV station, even though that's usually just a weekend and special event stop, and then somehow I'd find a way to throw myself in front of him to tell him how I felt about him before he vanished from my life. But considering that I've never actually met him and our only interaction has been a brief e-mail exchange three years ago, that might come across as creepy and stalkerish and would be more likely to result in a restraining order than in a grand happy ending. The most I'll manage is a mad dash across my parents' house to catch the noon news in time.

Or I could go for the 21st century cyber version of the humiliating public declaration of love and actually name him and his station in my blog as Google bait and hope that he or someone at the station might see it. But, again, kind of creepy and not likely to result in a favorable outcome.

On the upside, he'll still be in town, so there's still an ever-so-slight chance that I might manage to meet him in a somewhat normal way (come to think of it, one of my neighbors works for the company he's going to work for). I just won't be able to get my usual doses of his wit from the safety of my sofa. Sadly, I'd just come up with a plan to maybe get within the vicinity of that station, as one of the books I'm working on involves TV news, and I was going to try contacting that station to see if I could get a brief tour to update me on changes in technology since the days when I worked for their Austin sister station. Not that I expected him to be the one to deal with me, and I suppose if the person who did immediately thought I'd be perfect for him and we had to be introduced, him working elsewhere wouldn't change that. Hmm, now maybe I need to come up with a story idea that involves the industry where he'll be working, because he would be the person to field that info request.

Or I could just transfer my affections to the weekend weather guy, who's kind of cute and very, very smart, aside from the fact that he chases storms for fun.

And in the meantime, I need to brainstorm some title ideas, as it's not a great idea to put a book on submission with "The New Project" as the title.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Romantic Comedy "Formula"

I survived the first weekend of Holiday Insanity, and had a ton of fun doing so. The concert was wonderful, and the madrigal singers were so good that I bought a ticket for their madrigal dinner next weekend. Which will make next weekend even crazier, but hey, it's just one little part of the year that's supposed to be a bit crazy. I'm a wee bit sore after helping set up for the concert (note to self: don't wear high-heeled boots on a day when it's possible you will be expected to carry heavy things or do a lot of running around) and I'm a bit drained, but I have some serious work to get to today, as I now have revision notes on the proposal for The New Project. Meanwhile, I'm feeling festive. We get a lot of our fall color late, but the most vibrant trees are all red or crimson, which makes fall colors look like Christmas decoration, and after the concert last night I put up most of my Christmas decorations. I may start my baking this afternoon while I do some thinking on the book.

I satirized the romantic comedy formula last week, but I thought I ought to follow that up by discussing it more seriously. For one thing, "formula" isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most genre fiction has some "formula" to it. Sonnets and Shakespearean tragedies follow formulas. Formula really is only a structure or framework for a story. Where it becomes bad is when you treat it like a mad lib -- fill in the blanks at random without really developing any of it and without thinking it through.

I mentioned the book Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit and the plot structure he discusses. Here it is, briefly, and you can probably see the difference from my satirical version (and whether you want to write romantic comedy books or films or just enjoy watching movies, this book really is worthwhile).

1) "The Chemical Equation"-- Introduction of the primary point-of-view character that shows what's missing in that person's life -- what the main interior conflict is for that character, as well as what the main exterior conflict will be. The secondary lead, the love interest, may also be introduced separately in this step or later in the story. That character's introduction should at least hint at why this person may be the one who can fulfill the need in the main character's life and show why the main character really should meet this person. (I think this is the biggest failing of the paint-by-numbers movies -- they focus so much on some high-concept conflict, like he hates weddings and she loves them so much that she's been a bridesmaid 27 times, that they forget about the reason these people should be together, aside from the fact that they're the leads in a romantic movie.)

2) The Cute Meet or Catalyst -- the incident that brings them together and sets up the conflict between them. Their meeting should set the tone for their relationship. It needs to have some link to the theme of the story.

3) A Sexy Complication -- a development that raises the stakes, defines the main character's goal, puts the main characters in conflict or puts their emotions in conflict with the external goal. In a story where there's not a lot of romantic conflict between the characters, this will be an external problem that could keep them apart. If there's no external problem to keep them apart, it will be an internal issue that keeps them from really connecting.

4) The Hook -- the big midpoint scene that really binds the couple and has implications for how their relationship will work out. From this point, there's no way out, and they're in it together. This should also repeat or reflect the story's main theme in some way.

5) Swivel -- a turning point that makes the stakes higher than ever, so that the relationship jeopardizes the main character's goal, or vice versa, leading to a changed goal. The main character is forced to choose between love and the goal.

6) Dark Moment -- the aftermath of the consequences of the swivel scene. The characters have to reveal private motivations, and it seems that either the love or the goal is lost forever. The main character is at his/her most vulnerable point.

7) Joyful Defeat -- reconciliation between the characters that reaffirms how important the relationship is to them, usually (but not always) with a happy ending that implies marriage -- but usually at the cost of something the main character has had to sacrifice.

The main difference between this "formula" and my satirical version of the way too many films seem to go is that it focuses very much on internal issues of the characters. It's all about emotions, and the events serve as ways to bring out or affect their emotions. It's also about what need the other person meets in the main character. When I see a movie that's obviously trying to use this structure and not making it work, it's generally a problem of not having developed the characters well enough. Like with 27 Dresses, I never got a sense of what her need was supposed to be. Yeah, she took care of other people to the detriment of her own happiness, but it never really seemed like she needed someone to take care of her. I guess she needed a spine, but there was no indication that he was uniquely suited to being able to make her stand up for herself.

And, please, can we have a movie that doesn't involve some kind of desperate cross-town chase to reach the other person in the nick of time? There are other ways to create a good "he/she might lose the true love, just as he/she has realized it!" black moment. It's especially weak if it's an artificial deadline (in 27 Dresses, she has to reach the boat that the wedding he's covering is on -- but it's just a New York harbor cruise, not like he's going to Africa for a year or even his own wedding, and she has his phone number, so it's not like she's going to lose him for good if she doesn't catch him NOW).

Friday, December 05, 2008

My Romantic Comedy Mad Lib

My holiday crazy time starts this weekend, with a couple of events, a party and the community Christmas concert. If you're in the north Texas area and looking for something festive, I'm singing in the Coppell Christmas Pops concert at the First United Methodist Church at 6:30 on Sunday. It's free, and if you come early, there's also a free dinner. There will be several choirs, an orchestra, the Coppell High Madrigal Singers (I'm really looking forward to hearing them), a Dixieland band, some dancers, etc. For directions, info, etc., here's the church web site.

Only one more pineapple left -- and yet, when I was in the grocery store yesterday and they had pineapple on sale, I found myself saying, "Ooh, pineapple!" It's a sickness. I think it has something to do with a trip to Hawaii at an age when it must have imprinted on my tastebuds.

Meanwhile, it's still cold. I generally keep my heater off at night unless it will be cold enough that there's a risk of pipes freezing because I don't sleep well with the heater on. It's very noisy, my bedroom is the first vent off the blower, so even at the lowest setting, it gets too hot in my room before the thermostat registers the heat, the blowing hot air dries me out, and I like sleeping in a cold room under a pile of blankets. The downside is that it makes it hard to get up in the morning when the house is cold and I'm snuggled up in my nice, warm bed. So, when I woke up at five this morning, I got the bright idea to go turn the heater on, and that way the house might have warmed up by the time I needed to get up. I put on my robe and slippers and hurried to the living room to turn on the heat, then ran back to bed and waited for it to cut on. And waited. And waited. At first, I thought something was wrong, then as I mentally went through the layout of the thermostat, I realized that I'd dragged myself out of my nice, warm bed on a freezing morning to go turn on the air conditioner.

I eventually got the heat on, and it didn't seem to help much in the getting-up issue, but that may be because of the extended early-morning awake period caused by the thermostat follies. One of the first things I'll do when I get a sense of any kind of income stream is replace that heater with something more efficient, and maybe a programmable thermostat.

So, as promised yesterday, here's my mad lib romantic comedy:
1) Hero is played by John Krasinski from The Office -- since everyone loves Jim, right? Heroine is played by America Ferrera from Ugly Betty -- again, pretty much beloved, plus that automatically means she's going to fit the "Plain Jane Turns Out to Be Gorgeous" cliche. Betty is in love with her next-door neighbor, a single dad, and is always bringing over casseroles for him, but he's still bitter about the divorce and only seems to date women who are totally not marriage material. She realizes her chances of catching him are are slim when he starts dating a supermodel, and she learns that the notoriously mean supermodel is only dating him because she's trying to rehabilitate her image by being seen with a normal guy and a kid. Betty fears that since she's Hollywood plump, the guy will never be into her, and she decides to stop wasting casseroles on him. Meanwhile, Jim is toiling in an office, working for an idiot boss (you know, in case some viewers miss the Jim connections). He works for a company that publishes cookbooks, and their fortunes are fading, but he could save the company if he could find the perfect cookbook idea.

2) They meet cute when they both take their lunches to a park to eat. She has leftover casserole that she reheated in the office microwave and he has a takeout meal. Watching all the thin, beautiful women in the park makes her decide not to eat the fattening casserole, so she offers it to the guy with the takeout meal. He realizes that she could be the perfect cookbook author. However, she's not interested in talking to him after she discovers that in spite of working at a cookbook publisher, he doesn't like cooking and thinks that home cooking is pointless. People only buy cookbooks to have around to make it look like they cook, and the cookbooks just make them feel bad about themselves for not cooking. He thinks convenience food and restaurants are the way to go. Because of this view, she decides that he can't possibly be husband material, and he's cold and heartless. He thinks she's overly sentimental about food.

3) She discovers that she needs money to pay for her father's life-saving operation, so she reluctantly agrees to go through with the cookbook, which means she has to work with him to put it together. They spend a lot of time bickering about whether the perfect cookbook should really just be a collection of takeout menus.

4) There's a montage to a pop song of them goofing off together in the kitchen, her feeding him tastes of the dishes she makes, doing the photo shoot for the book, etc.

5) She's scheduled to appear on a talk show the day the book is released, and they pull an all-nighter as she frantically tries to decide which recipe to demonstrate. As they giggle drunkenly, he admits that he loves home cooking, but since his mother died when he was young, anything other than a restaurant meal or something frozen to throw in the microwave is just too painful for him. They start making out and end up in bed.

6) When Betty eagerly goes to the bookstore to see her book on release day (yes, I know in the real word authors get copies of their books weeks in advance, but in Movie World they always seem to see their new books for the first time on the shelf at a bookstore, and the cover always comes as a complete surprise), she finds out that it isn't her picture on the cover at all. It's the supermodel who's dating her neighbor -- just proving that she isn't pretty enough. Betty is furious at Jim for betraying her like that and refuses to listen when he tries to explain that he didn't know anything about the cover, that it was his idiot boss who did it. Even worse, her talk show appearance was cancelled by the publisher because they knew it would be obvious that Betty isn't the gorgeous, thin blonde on the cover. She thinks Jim knew about that, too, and only used the all-night prep session as an excuse to get her into bed.

7) The cookbook is a huge success, and Our Hero gets a promotion for saving the company, but it's meaningless to him now that Our Heroine won't return his calls or bake casseroles for him. Things get even worse for Betty when she's watching a morning talk show and sees that the supermodel is on, pretending to be her as she talks about the cookbook. Betty is even more furious at Jim -- until she sees that he apparently set it all up to expose the supermodel as a fraud. She's supposed to do a cooking segment, but obviously can't cook and then starts being bitchy to the hosts when they question her. After a quick commercial break, the show returns with Jim on, talking about how the supermodel was just someone the company put on the cover, and he tells that Betty is the real cookbook author. Single dad was watching the same show and comes over to tell her he was foolish to go after such a mean supermodel when a great cook like Betty was next door. As he's gazing wistfully at her, she realizes that she has no feelings for him, and she's really in love with Jim.

8) She finds out that his promotion means he transferred to another office, and she only had his work number, so if she doesn't reach him at the TV studio, she may never see him again, so she goes on a mad cross-town rush, helped by friendly subway conductors and passengers, to get to the TV studio, but the security guard won't let her in. The people crowded around on the sidewalk outside the studio windows help her make a sign expressing her love for him and identifying her as the real cookbook author. The cameras pick it up, he sees it, and comes outside for a big kiss that's caught on camera. In an epilogue, we find that they've co-authored a book on the importance of home cooking.

I guess it's sort of a cooking version of Singing in the Rain. And, you know, even though I was trying to be silly when I did this, it may be more thematically coherent than a lot of attempts at romantic comedy these days. Monday I'll get into the right way to do it. Feel free to share your own wacky rom com mad libs.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Romantic Comedy By the Numbers

Brr. It was actually cold enough for me to turn on my heater today, and even though I have it set as low as it will go, it's running. I guess I have to admit that it's almost winter and that the holidays are upon us. I think today I'll try to straighten my living room so I can put up my Christmas decorations tomorrow.

I think I'm making progress on my thinking/planning for revisions. Yesterday in analyzing my main characters' emotional needs and story goals I unearthed some very interesting stuff. Now I guess I'll have to see what else I can come up with to flesh this out. In a way, this is my favorite part of the writing process because I just love analyzing things (in case you haven't noticed). Speaking of which ...

I called the movie 27 Dresses a paint-by-numbers romantic comedy the other day, and here's what I mean by that. There is a sort of formula for a romantic comedy film, and there's even a book about that formula, Writing the Romantic Comedy, by Billy Mernit. The plot structure in that book is actually a good one, and one I've used as a jumping off point for books. However, if you just try to follow the formula without really developing the story or understanding what you're writing, and if you think that your audience is a bunch of idiots, you're going to get something that feels like formula. Granted, I'm a tough audience for this sort of thing because I've read the book and know the formula, but if you haven't engaged me emotionally well enough to keep me from spotting each step of the formula, and if I'm able to tell that the screenwriter has read the same book I have, then you're doing something wrong.

So here's my somewhat satirical formula for a romantic comedy movie:

1) Hero and heroine, played by currently hot or up-and-coming attractive actors. Get actors who are beloved as themselves or for the roles they're most recently best known for. Then you don't have to waste time developing actual characters for this movie or coming up with reasons for the audience to care about these characters because all the affection for the actors or their most famous other roles will transfer to this movie. One or both of them should have some outside goal, usually work-related -- get the job, get the promotion, get considered for a different kind of assignment, get the account. One or both of them should be involved with or interested in someone else. If involved with, it should be a person who is obviously wrong for them who doesn't really appreciate them. If interested in, it should be totally unrequited and the other person will be or will become interested in someone else. That someone else will be either a raging bitch or a total jerk, and will often have some agenda for going after the hero/heroine's unrequited love object or will be dishonest, but the hero/heroine will for some reason be powerless to do anything about it.

2) Hero and heroine meet cute, usually in some way involving physical humor or a mix-up. Although there's some initial attraction, they'll soon learn that they have opposite views on something that, in the grand scheme of things, is actually pretty trivial (loving Christmas, loving weddings, loving dogs, choosing to shop at a certain kind of store), but they take that as telling them something vital about the other person's entire personality -- usually that one of them is a cold-hearted cynic and the other is a total sap -- and decide they can't stand each other.

3) Some plot contrivance requires them to meet again and then spend time together. Often this involves the outside, work-related goal (see step 1), so that dealing with the other person is the only way to achieve that goal. It also may involve the unrequited relationship and trying to save face or expose the lying bitch/jerk. There is much bickering about that trivial point of difference. One of them will have some kind of secret or piece of information they're not actively hiding but not sharing, possibly about that plot contrivance, the outside goal, or the past.

4) In spite of themselves, the hero and heroine will soften toward each other and start bonding. This is usually done in a montage set to a pop song.

5) Some crisis will force them together in difficult circumstances so they have to work together or rely on each other. With the help of alcohol or else just something like hunger or exhaustion, they break down the barriers between them and start opening up, finding something in common. Often, the one who hates the trivial thing that the other loves will admit that he/she actually really likes that thing or used to like it, until some Painful Experience From The Past made it painful instead of pleasant. This revelation may lead to making out or even sex.

6) In the vulnerable, awkward aftermath of the sex/bonding, the secret from step 3 will come out. The other person will storm away, refusing to listen to any explanations or apologies.

7) The one who was "wronged" will be fueled by this anger to actually do something about either the outside goal, the liar who's after the unrequited love or the significant other who takes him/her for granted. The other person may achieve the outside goal, and often through something related to the secret. He/she will then realize that the goal is meaningless compared to True Love and will try to pursue and patch things up with the unresponsive other person, usually committing some kind of selfless, caring act that stuns the other person. Meanwhile, the one with the unrequited love will finally get a chance with that person, only to realize that he/she is really in love with that other person.

8) This revelation will lead to a desperate search to find the other person, often with some kind of time limit, like a departing flight, and total strangers will help out the cause of True Love by enabling the person to get there on time, against all odds. Then the person will have to make a public, embarrassing confession of true love before the happy ending.

If you want to play rom-com madlibs with this, you can fill in the steps with wacky reasons to fight, wacky ways they can meet, wacky secrets, obstacle courses for chasing down the other person at the end, and the like. Stay tuned tomorrow for my own rom-com madlib!

On an entirely different note, for a column I write, are there any author blogs that you particularly like that have real substance to them (in other words, something more than a "kids-n-katz" blog)? Other than mine, of course.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Snooping on Your Characters

I'm now starting to dream about pineapple ...

I've been talking more about the mythological aspects of character development in talking about archetypes (though there's a lot of Jungian psychology in there, too). But one of my favorite things to do to help me learn to find ways of developing and depicting characters is through psychology. I'm always looking through the library's psychology section to find books on interesting aspects of personality. One I found recently, called Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling, Ph.D., struck me as a wonderful characterization resource.

The author, who's on the faculty at the University of Texas, focuses his research on trying to analyze personality based on a person's possessions and surroundings. As writers, we have an advantage in that we already have a pretty accurate assessment of our characters' personalities and can reverse-engineer their surroundings and possessions to reflect and depict that. I'd recommend reading the book if you find these ideas interesting, but here are a few tidbits I pulled from the book that I think might be helpful for characterization.

One category of possessions is what the author calls "identity claims." These are deliberate symbolic statements about yourself. They can be other-directed, so that they're about how you want to be seen by others. That includes things like bumper stickers (since you don't spend a lot of time looking at your own car's bumpers) or tattoos (since many tattoos are located in places that can't be easily seen by the person with the tattoo). Or these things can be self-directed, so that they reinforce how we see ourselves, like family photos, reminders of past success or personal keepsakes. This may be a message that's meaningful only to the person and obscure to outsiders. You can often tell the difference based on where they're placed. Other-directed identity claims are mostly where others can see them -- pictures on a desk facing the visitors' chairs, posters on the outside of the office door, in the office, in public spaces at home, like the living room, or in the front yard. Self-directed items will be mostly where the person can see them -- photos on the desk facing the desk chair, a poster the person can see from his/her chair but that's not obvious to others, at home, in private spaces at home, like the bedroom or in the back yard.

When analyzing these, look for matches or discrepancies. Someone who's trying to be something he isn't may send totally different messages through other-directed identity claims than he sends through self-directed claims. To depict this in a book, you might have a distinct difference between that person's public spaces and private spaces. For instance, someone may want people at work to think of him as a high-powered, super-successful executive who lives, eats, breathes and sleeps business, so he'll have an office full of status symbols designed to impress visitors, like awards, diplomas, a big desk, photos of himself with important or famous people, etc. But if what's really important to him is his family and he fears that being a family man will make him look weak in business, he may have things that remind him of his family where only he can see them -- the photo of his family on his desk may be turned to face him, he may keep his daughter's drawings folded up in his day planner, and the keys to his status symbol car may be on a keychain his son made in Scouts.

Another category of possessions are "feeling regulators" -- things that can influence mood or emotion. These are things that calm or rev us up and may include colors, keepsakes, photos, inspirational quotes and different kinds of music. One interesting thing that the author found is that people with those inspirational or motivational posters on the wall tended to be more neurotic.

Then there's the way behavior reflects in possessions or surroundings. The author calls this "behavioral residue" and says that it's not nearly as conscious as these possessions. It's the result of habits or everyday actions -- are things put away or left out, what things are left out and what things are put away, how are things arranged. Trash is a good source of behavioral residue -- what you find in a person's trash can tell you a lot about them. Oddly enough, in spite of how often this shows up on character-development worksheets, the contents of a person's refrigerator don't actually tell you much about his or her personality, unless it's something really, really odd. That's because refrigerator contents are so transient and vary depending on how recent the last shopping trip was or if the person has just cooked something. You'd have to study the refrigerator over time. One look doesn't tell you anything about the person, unless it's filled with something like blood. One of the best places to analyze someone's personality is in the bedroom -- no, not in that way, but because that's generally a private place and a place of comfort and safety, the possessions and surroundings in the bedroom are most likely to reflect the way the person really is.

You can also read a lot into how possessions are used (or not) -- someone with a really messy desk that has a lot of office organizational tools on it may value the idea of organization but may not have achieved it. Likewise with someone who has a lot of bath salts or bubblebath in unopened jars and candles in the bathroom that have never been lit. That may be someone who feels like she ought to relax more often but who hasn't found the time. Things that are owned but not used are a sign of what the person aspires to -- or, if they're a gift, of what someone else thinks they should be.

While we may be able to reverse engineer our characters' surroundings based on their personalities, remember that the other characters in a story can't and have to make their own guesses, which may be right or wrong. They need to take into account the context of the item -- where did it come from, why does the person have it, does it even belong to that person? You could get the totally wrong impression by judging someone on the basis of an item that was a gift or that a friend left behind. One odd quirk of human nature is that we're likely to notice the weird thing that doesn't seem to fit first, and then interpret everything else based on that. The author mentioned a situation in one of his studies where the room being evaluated had a pair of high-heeled shoes lying in the floor. The researcher evaluating the room decided that meant it was a woman's room and evaluated everything else accordingly. But the room belonged to a man who'd had an overnight guest who'd left her shoes behind, and everything else about the room indicated that it belonged to a man, but because of that first impression, the researcher overlooked all the other clues. Another way to get a more accurate impression is by looking for patterns in various aspects of the person's life -- at home, the car, the office, various parts of the home, clothing, musical tastes, etc.

Sometimes characters may deliberately try to create a false impression of themselves, and this isn't actually all that easy to do beyond the most superficial levels. It's difficult to fake the results of long-term patterns of behavior. For instance, a man trying to make a woman think he's sensitive and emotional might put a book of poetry on his nightstand, but if the woman actually looks at it, she'll notice if it's never been opened, if the pages stick together because they've never been turned, if the book doesn't fall open to a favorite poem. To make the book look like it really belonged to a sensitive poetry lover, he'd have to actually spend a lot of time reading the poetry. There's also the problem that someone trying to fake it won't know all the things that someone who's truly into it would notice. The author points out the difference between a "tidy" house and a "tidied" house. There's a difference between a place that's kept habitually clean through tidy habits and a place that's been frantically cleaned. A woman who's a bit of a slob may desperately clean her house to impress her neat-freak mother-in-law, but the neat freak probably won't be fooled because she'll recognize the lack of systems for maintaining that level of neatness, and there are things that would be obvious to a neat freak that a natural slob wouldn't even think needed to be cleaned. The place may look spotless to the slob but may still be a total mess to the neat freak.

I suppose all of this still comes back to action defining character, because all of these things come as the result of actions characters have taken and choices they've made. They're just very concrete ways to show patterns in a character's life that tell you a lot about them.