Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Off the Hook

For once, the universe smiled on me and did not stick me on a jury. And it really was luck and not anything I did. I was the very last person in my group of potential jurors, which meant that I'd only end up on the jury if they struck almost everyone ahead of me. The lawyers didn't even bother directing questions to me because I was off their radar (though I couldn't resist pointing out a fallacy in something the law student who was handling the questioning for the defense said, which I noticed led the judge to smirk). As a result, I was home by 12:30.

And there was even an upside to the day. A guy I worked with more than ten years ago was in my group. We'd gone on a really crazy business trip together and had become pretty good friends at work, but then lost touch when we both left that company at around the same time, so it was nice to reconnect (and it was very nice that he actually recognized me all those years later -- and nicer still that it wasn't because I was wearing some of the same clothes I'd worn then).

I also learned the trick to navigating the Escher-esque parking garage: get behind someone coming in through the monthly parking/employee entrance. It's one of those odd garages where you can look between levels and see that there are entire stretches of empty spaces, but you can't seem to actually reach those areas because the level you're on doesn't connect to those levels. But by getting into the magical slipstream behind people who know the proper incantation, you can cross through the dimensional barrier and reach the empty parking spaces conveniently located right by the pedestrian walkway that crosses the street.

It was rather heartening to me to see how many people in the central jury room were reading books (though I'm baffled by the people who show up for something like that with absolutely nothing to occupy them -- no newspaper, no magazine, no work, no book -- and then sit and fidget out of boredom). Terry Pratchett was well represented, as a guy a few rows in front of me was reading Good Omens and I was re-reading Monstrous Regiment.

The really nice thing is that I've already done all the things for the week that absolutely had to be done. That should free up some writing time, though I also need to start organizing tax materials.

For now, though, I could kind of use a nap, since I had to get up very early (for me) after getting to sleep rather late, thanks to a massive storm that came through just as I was getting in bed (hail on a tile roof is loud). And then I had the usual anxiety nightmares, including one in which I was on a jury for a case about television series writers being accused of ruining the show (if that was a crime, they'd need to build more jails in California). I was really conflicted because as a fan I totally saw the point, but as a writer I thought it would set a dangerous precedent.

On a more somber note, I was really saddened to learn of the death of Andy Hallett, who played the Host (Lorne) on Angel. He really added a spark to that show and created one of TV's more memorable characters. He was way too young to leave us. I think I may have to dig out one of my Angel DVDs and watch in tribute.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Pre-Jury Dreads

I am having such a Monday. I guess the weather is changing (again) because I have very achy knees. And I have a serious case of The Dreads about tomorrow, when I have jury duty. Again. Because, apparently, actually showing up in this county puts you in the hopper as a live one, so they keep bringing you back, because that's easier than going after the 70 percent (last figure I heard) who don't show up (of course, if I didn't show up, I'd have constables on my doorstep to drag me in). I really, really, really hate jury duty, every single aspect of it -- driving downtown in rush hour, trying to park in a parking garage designed by MC Escher, all that waiting around, realizing that law-abiding citizens called for jury duty have fewer rights than alleged criminals, realizing that the trials are seldom really about guilt or innocence but rather about some minutiae in a subparagraph of a subsection in the criminal code, and generally having to deal with the system. The last time wasn't quite as miserable, in spite of being stuck on an ugly trial, since my fellow jurors were all reasonable, nice people. But I still HATE, HATE, HATE it.

However, I'm trying to be optimistic. I figure that since, for a change, this isn't a majorly inconvenient time for me, the odds are good that I'll spend a few hours reading in the central jury room before being sent home. Always before, I've had jury duty right after a really stressful time when I was just home from being out of town, or when I've been up against a really tight deadline, or when I was scheduled to go out of town later in the week (last time, it was all of the above), or when I had some great opportunity the next day, if only I didn't end up on a trial. So, of course, I'd get stuck on a trial. But at the moment I have no real plans, no real deadline, nothing urgent going on. It's a chance to catch up on my reading. That will likely get me off the hook.

As a follow-up to Friday's post, after I spent the weekend looking at my Sam the Gargoyle figurine, I've realized that Sam probably doesn't have the long dragon tail (I hadn't even noticed the tail on the figurine). I think he has a shorter, stubbier tail, but to be honest, I really hadn't put a lot of thought into Sam's butt.

Ooh, I just realized something that might help with my jury problem -- I watch way more crime shows than I used to (which means I watch them at all, even ones that don't involve vampires, immortals, etc.), and they did ask about that during my last round of jury selection. Those shows are like comfort food television -- brain cupcakes, as opposed to brain candy, in that they've got some substance. There's something kind of reassuring about a show in which the good guys will solve the case by the end, the heroes prevail, and there's no real doubt as to the ultimate fate of the characters, with no major arcs to follow. One of the psychological appeals of mysteries, in general, is that they give a sense of meaning and order to the universe, since the criminals always have motives and reasons for doing the things they do, and justice always prevails. Shows that fit the comfort food TV/brain cupcake category for me need to include characters I like, reasonably closed-ended episodes, just enough tension to make things interesting but not enough to be stressful, nothing too icky or gory (though I have a high gore tolerance, thanks to years working at a medical school), a good dose of humor and at least one reasonably attractive man.

My discovery this weekend while I was being too lazy to put in tapes or DVDs and instead was just watching stuff from OnDemand was In Plain Sight, which fits the standard USA series model of main character who fights crime/solves mysteries using unorthodox methods while dealing with wacky and infuriating family members. In this case, it involves the Witness Protection Program and a clingy/useless mother and sister. But what makes the show for me is the main character's partner, who is played by an actor who could almost be David Tennant's American cousin. The character is probably a bit annoying on paper, since he's quite the know-it-all and rather brilliant, but as played, he's hilarious because his never-ending wealth of knowledge is delivered in a dry, offhand, sarcastic way. Plus, he's a US Marshal whose name is Marshall, and how can you not love that? They had the last few episodes from last season up on OnDemand, and the new season starts in a couple of weeks.

And now I will go take care of all the tasks that need to be done this week, so as to further stack the deck in my favor. I figure that if there really is absolutely no reason that spending the week at the courthouse could be more than a minor inconvenience, I'm sure to be off the hook (and, actually, now that they've upped the compensation for days of jury duty beyond the first one, I could stand to make some money).

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reader Questions

I had an incredibly lazy morning. I slept pretty late and then because I was comfortable and realized I had no urgent reason to get up, I let myself lie around a while. Reason # 4,677 why I love this job. I felt like I earned the rest, given that I wrote more than 2,000 words yesterday and had a grueling (but fun) ballet class last night. I'm starting to really get into this new book, and I reached the first major turning point yesterday. Today should be a good working day, as it's very dark and cloudy and the weather is getting colder.

Which means tonight will be lovely for TV watching. I should get to finally see the entirety of the Battlestar Galactica finale, and then they're showing one of those Stargate made-for-DVD movies that followed the series. I like the Stargate stuff enough to watch it on TV, but not enough to buy a DVD of something I hadn't seen, so it's nice that they're putting it on TV now. As of noon, my cable on-screen guide was showing BSG at 6-8 (Central) and the Stargate movie at 8-10, so I don't know if they're trimming BSG or if those last 12 minutes are spilling over unannounced again.

I've been getting a lot of reader questions, and a lot of the same ones keep popping up, so I'll make a go of answering them here, so everyone can see them all at once (since getting through all my e-mail is taking a very long time, sorry!).

The main one I'm being asked lately is how I see my characters, and especially who I want to see playing them in the movie (if the movie gets made). That's kind of a delicate topic. When I initially started writing the first book, I did mentally "cast" a couple of the roles. Then for other roles I've later come across people who seemed to perfectly fit my mental images of those characters. But I'm hesitant to say who those people are, especially now that a possible film is actually in development. I don't want to be on record as having named anyone because I don't want anyone to claim that whoever does get cast is wrong, based on what I've said. I also don't want to put any preconceived notions into anyone's head because I want the characters to be for you the way you imagine them when you read the books, if that makes sense. And based on the casting suggestions people send me in e-mail, it does seem like everyone has their own ideas of what these characters are like.

Then there's the fact that even for the roles I've mentally cast, the characters took on lives of their own once I really got going, and I now see the characters in my head, not those actors. The characters may bear a passing resemblance to those actors, but they are no longer played in my head by those people. In a couple of cases, I've even found myself re-casting, as the characters have taken on a slightly different shape and I've come across someone even better.

The fact that a movie is in the earliest development stages (which still doesn't mean it will be made, but it does have an IMDB listing) makes me even more leery of getting into casting. I generally dislike movies based on books I've read just because it takes me a while to get past my mental images from reading the books so that I can accept the actual images from the movies. I imagine it will be ten times more difficult when it's a movie based on a book I wrote. It would be even worse if I'd really thought about actors I want in it, and if those actors weren't cast. Because I'm no bestseller, I will have absolutely zero say in what goes into the movie, unless the screenwriter or producers are kind enough to even want to chat with me about it, and even then I doubt I'd get any kind of casting input, since a lot of the casting decisions will involve finding actors who can attract an audience rather than finding actors who fit the precise physical descriptions given in the book. So, it's kind of an emotional self-defense on my part to try very hard not to think about it so I won't be too attached to anything before I see what happens on the screen.

I have been asked how I picture Sam the gargoyle. Sam is based on a little gargoyle figurine I bought at the National Cathedral in Washington about a year and a half before I even got the idea for the story. I just fell in love with him, so when I started thinking about the idea, I knew it would have to have a gargoyle in it, and this would be the one. I suppose I could take a picture and post it, but that would require going downstairs, so it's not gonna happen. Basically, he's like a miniature dragon but with a gargoyle face.

Aha! Found him on the cathedral web site:

Any other questions?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Jennifer Echols

I was sooo very good yesterday. I didn't get the kitchen cleaned, but I did my radio scripts and got back into The Nagging Idea. It was good to really write again. I think I may need new code names to keep the various projects in progress straight. I don't talk about them by title for several reasons:
1) I often don't come up with a title until I've finished the book
2) the title is likely to change, and talking about it a lot under the working title (if I have one) will make me more emotionally attached to that title
3) if editors are considering a book and research me by looking at my blog, I don't really want them to be able to identify the book they're looking at so they won't be biased by any discussions of the trials and tribulations I went through in writing it
4) I don't want readers to know for sure when a book gets published which books I was talking about when I was writing them, so as to avoid unintentional spoilers or setting expectations
5) I watched way too much of The X-Files and like giving things names like all the bad guy characters -- like Cigarette Smoking Man, etc.

In a tiny news flash, Don't Hex With Texas is a finalist for the Award of Excellence given by the Colorado Romance Writers.

Now, I need to catch up on a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit tour with Going Too Far, the latest book from Jennifer Echols. All Meg has ever wanted is to get away. Away from high school. Away from her backwater town. Away from her parents who seem determined to keep her imprisoned in their dead-end lives. But one crazy evening involving a dare and forbidden railroad tracks, she goes way too far… and almost doesn’t make it back.

John made a choice to stay. To enforce the rules. To serve and protect. He has nothing but contempt for what he sees as childish rebellion, and he wants to teach Meg a lesson she won’t soon forget. But Meg pushes him to the limit by questioning everything he learned at the police academy. And when he pushes back, demanding to know why she won’t be tied down, they will drive each other to the edge—and over…

Now, the interview:
You've previously written comedies, but this sounds like a more serious book. How did you make the transition in subject matter and writing style?
The idea for this book started as a romantic comedy about two teens who get in trouble and have to do a ride-along with a cop to scare them straight. As I thought about this story, I realized that the interesting tension would not be between the two teens. It would be between one teen and the cop, especially if the cop were a teenager himself. I did a little research and discovered there are some places where a 19-year-old can be hired as a law enforcement officer. I've always been interested in the drama that unfolds when very young people are pushed into situations meant for more mature adults, so I was hooked on this idea, and I couldn't turn back just because it was no longer a romantic comedy.

It sounds like you're pushing some boundaries with this book. Was there anything about this story that scared you or made you nervous, or are you naturally a rebel?
I naturally have a huge problem with authority, which is why I'm a novelist. The heroine of this book also has an authority problem. She is definitely my dark side.

The only thing that made me nervous in writing this book was going into detail about what made the heroine who she is. Originally that was not part of the book because I thought it would make readers like the heroine less. But my editor wanted me to go there, and I'm glad I did.

What are you working on now?
I'm going over the copyedit of my next romantic comedy, The Ex Games, which will be published on October 6.

For more info, check out Jennifer's blog. Or buy the book from Amazon.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Time for Comedy?

Wouldn't you know that the day when I develop a raging case of the Don't Wannas is the day when I have stuff I really need to do. It will require an act of will to force myself to do a few things that are due today. Oddly, I think most of this is because I'm actually in a writing mood, and that's what I want to do. And clean my kitchen because it's starting to bother me.

While I was at that conference, I took advantage of the opportunity of having several high-up publishing executives opening the floor for questions to ask about the status of a particular trend that interests me: the state of the comedy. Historically, comedies do very well in difficult economic times. The Great Depression was the golden age of the screwball comedy, and they're already seeing this year that the comedy films that were released during the winter film dumping ground time have done better than expected. Yet right now, the trend in publishing seems to be "dark and dangerous." Aside from the big names who survived their respective gluts, romantic comedy and chick lit are just about dead. Fantasy has become mostly about saving the world from being sucked into the pits of hell by the Ultimate Evil, and urban fantasy allows a few quips from the kick-ass heroine while she navigates a dark, gritty world straight out of a nightmare.

They couldn't really answer me, and I'm not sure they even understood the question. One publishing executive even claimed that there wasn't a trend toward dark and dangerous. I suppose it would be rather silly to buy books now based on the idea that comedy does well in bad economic times, since it could be a year or more by the time any book bought now makes its way to store shelves, and by then things could have changed. It will probably go the way film is going, where the comedies that happen to come out at this time, that were already in the works, will do well, but the industry won't be able to respond fast enough to take advantage of the real-world situation driving the demand. With books, there's also the fact that readers can draw from a couple of centuries worth of fun books that are still in print or available at libraries.

I do think this is yet another example of the fallacy of doom-loop, trend-bandwagon thinking -- if you throw out everything that isn't currently hot, then you're not prepared when the situation changes and people start wanting something that isn't currently hot.

Or maybe I'm the only person who really can't bear the thought of reading about a dark, dangerous, gritty world where people are struggling to survive in society's underbelly. There's also the trend to think that dark automatically equals good -- that darkness is somehow more authentic and less of a cop-out, and the more you torture your characters, the better the story is. Comedies seldom get a lot of respect.

I did realize that The New Project, which made its way out to editors last week, is kind of a screwball comedy in disguise, in that it involves a working man and a madcap (in this case, the "mad" part is literal, not just used in the sense of "wacky") princess/heiress. I didn't plan it consicously, but all the elements are actually there, buried in a lot of fantasy stuff. Now I hope someone buys it because I really want to write the rest of it.

And now I suppose I should chain myself to the keyboard and force myself to write some radio scripts about medical research.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Travel Book Report

I think I'm more or less back to what passes for "normal" around here. I'm almost caught up on TV I taped while I was gone, I've waded through all the e-mail and I think I'm even caught up on rest. The new walking shoes seem to have worked because I did a lot of walking without any blisters, and I came home without being all that sore. I also owe American Airlines a thanks for their greedy policy to charge for any checked bags because that forced me to travel lighter than I usually do, and that worked out very well. I didn't feel like I lacked anything, and it was nice not having to wait for bags. Plus, being so lightly burdened made it easier to get around. Normally, I take the subway from Penn Station (after taking the train from the airport) to the hotel near Times Square, but I arrived right at rush hour and didn't love the idea of being on a packed subway with luggage, so I thought I'd give walking a try. It was closer than I realized, and probably even easier than the subway because my bag's on wheels and just rolled along the sidewalks, while doing the subway means hauling the bag up and down stairs.

My airplane reading on the way to New York was the third Dresden Files book, Grave Peril, and while I really liked the first two, I LOVED this one. In fact, I was almost done with it at the end of the flight, and as soon as I got to my hotel, I sat down to finish it. I love Harry Dresden as a character because of his crazy chivalry. I'm a sucker for a guy who will always try to do the right thing, no matter what the cost may be, and especially if he's well aware of the cost and maybe even reluctant to do the right thing, but knows that he couldn't live with himself if he didn't try. But throw in Michael (was he in the earlier books? I don't remember), and wow. It's a trick to create a character who is so utterly pure and righteous and pious and not make him come across as a prig. He's a real person who is good through and through and still fun. I suspect a complete devouring of the rest of the series may be on the horizon.

My return trip reading was The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett. My favorite Discworld story line involves the Watch, and I think I've now read all the Watch books to-date. And I think I'm even more in love with Carrot -- come to think of it, yet another pure and righteous character who manages to still be interesting. With him, I think it helps that his supposed simplicity makes him impossible to read, and he's usually presented from someone else's point of view, so you're never entirely sure what's going on with him. I love characters where you get hints of a lot of strength and power that isn't necessarily being used all the time, hidden behind a bland facade.

And, as usual after reading a Terry Pratchett book, now I find myself re-reading ones I read earlier that come later in the chronology than the one I just read because now I understand the references and it all takes on new meaning for me. That doesn't help with digging my way through the to-be-read pile.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Treks in the City

I have returned, and I've spent most of the day so far getting caught up on life -- getting through the 400 or so e-mails that arrived while I was gone (which involved extensive use of the "delete" function, I must admit -- they were mostly mailing lists), paying bills, getting groceries, etc. I still haven't got my brain caught up because it's still full from the trip.

This was mostly a business trip, so I didn't do a lot of touristy stuff. I also wasn't feeling great by the weekend, not really sick, but just not feeling up to doing much beyond lying around and resting. That could also be because I was overwhelmed from information overload and people overload. And then there was the weather. With all the changes, I could have been in Texas. When I arrived on Wednesday, it was a warm, sunny day, and I got a bit warm even just wearing a sweater. On Thursday, it was cool and rainy (which I rather enjoy). It snowed Friday morning. I'm not sure what Saturday was really like because I only left the hotel to dash to the deli across the street. By Sunday, it was getting warm again.

On the "fun" side of things, we went to Ellen's Stardust Diner on Wednesday night, one of those places with aspiring Broadway stars as actors, and they perform in between waiting tables. For the last couple of weeks, I've had the song "So in Love" from Kiss Me Kate stuck in my brain, and wouldn't you know, as we walked in, one of the guys was singing that, and he turned out to be our waiter (I think he was the best singer of the bunch). Once he found out that we were romance authors, he made a point of singing love songs and directing them at us. Then he hinted (rather strongly) that he would make a great romance hero, or we could write a book about singing waiters. I told him I already had (although in this case, the waiters weren't meant to sing, but there were magical hijinks). They also encouraged the audience to sing along, which I'm afraid I inflicted on my tablemates.

Thursday morning, a group of us walked over to Grand Central for a tour. The tour guide was wonderful and great at telling all the behind-the-scenes stories. However, he didn't take us down to the secret tunnels to show us the dragons. I was rather disappointed. I won't look at the place in quite the same way again, now that I know the stories. And we were informed that everyone has the name wrong. It is technically Grand Central Terminal, because a station is a stop where trains may continue, but at a terminal, all the trains start or finish there. I know I used the wrong wording in my books, but everyone calls it Grand Central Station, so I went with the way people really talk. It had started raining by the time we left, and of course I'd left my umbrella at the hotel, so I just took my glasses off to avoid water spots and let myself get wet. The result was that with the rain and the slight blur, the city looked like one of those impressionistic cityscape paintings, which was nice. It also turned out that there were so many people with umbrellas on the very crowded sidewalks that with some ducking, bobbing and weaving, I managed to go most of the way passing under other people's umbrellas and didn't get all that wet.

We started the conference with an industry reception where editors and agents outnumbered authors. That meant we were able to convene a meeting of the Curly Mafia, where I picked up a few more hair care tips. And I showed off the picture still in my camera of the Generic Urban Fantasy Cover Halloween costume to the urban fantasy editors, who got a kick out of it.

The rest of the weekend was conference sessions (and one quest for an Italian restaurant when the one I like turned out to be closed for a private party). This is a kind of scary time in the publishing industry, and to be honest, I'm not sure how much the powers that be really know what they're doing. There are ways to make things better, but it doesn't sound like they're willing to do what it takes. We did get some publishing executives to admit to the doom loop thinking that kills off genres or trends, but they also admitted that they don't see a way not to act that way.

The authors were rolling their eyes by the end of a day full of industry speakers when every single one of them told us that the best thing for an author to do to survive in a difficult climate was write the best books we can. Which, of course, was a major revelation. Why didn't we think of that? We shouldn't have been just throwing junk out there like that. I think if one more person had told us that, there may have been torches and pitchforks.

Finally, I had a good trip home, and it was a good thing I didn't accept any of the offers of a ride home from the airport because my flight came in nearly 40 minutes early, and I'd have been stuck waiting around the airport. As it was, I got off the plane, got a cab, and was home about half an hour after we landed. I got a proper welcome home to Texas, since the bluebonnets planted on the airport grounds had just started blooming.

Meanwhile, I'm rather pissed off at the Channel Formerly Known as Sci Fi, since they didn't announce until the day it aired, which was too late for me, that the Battlestar Galactica finale would run 12 minutes long. I know how it ended, and to be honest, I think I like it ending where my tape cut off a little better. Still, running that much over is the kind of thing that ought to be in the TV schedules, and it wasn't, not even on the Sci Fi web site, which I did check to make sure it wouldn't run over before I set my VCR.

And I think I finally got my appropriate, desired level of Killer Robot action, thank you very much.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Using Your World Building

On my last how-to writing post, I talked about using your characters' backstories in a book. Now I'll address a related topic, how to incorporate your world-building into a novel. I won't get into how to do the world building because that's its own topic that probably could fill dozens of posts. But once you've done that work, how do you fit it into a story without writing an encyclopedia entry and boring your readers to death?

As with the character backstory, you as the writer need to know far more about your world than your readers do. You need to know enough to know how it will affect events and affect your characters, but your readers will be able to infer a lot about the world from the way it affects events and the characters.

I think one of the most important things to keep in mind when depicting the world of your story, whether it's in a fantasy world, another planet in the distant future or some aspect of the "real" world, is point of view. Each person sees the world in a different way, and your viewpoint characters will only notice or remark upon the parts of the world that are relevant to them. If a soldier enters a town, he may look for possible ambush locations, defensive positions, and how well-armed the people are. An architect or builder would pay more attention to the buildings and building materials. You get the idea. Characters will also notice the things that affect them. Something they may not have noticed otherwise will become important when it jumps out at them, gets in their way, helps them or forces them to change plans.

And that brings up another point -- the way to demonstrate what a world is like is to show your characters interacting with it. Don't tell us what foods are eaten in the world. Show them eating a meal or buying food. Don't tell us about the legal system. Show what happens when a character breaks a law or changes his behavior based on a law (and if a law doesn't affect characters' behavior, it doesn't much matter to the story). Don't tell us about the economic system. Show the character trying to earn money. In general, if it doesn't affect the characters, increase the conflict or affect the plot, it's probably not important enough to tell about.

A special case is dealing with what might be called paranormal elements -- anything that works in a different way from what's expected in the "real" world. That includes magic or advanced technology. You need to know the rules for how these things work in order to keep things consistent. But you don't need to spell them out for the reader. Readers will figure out how things work based on the way the story goes. I also recommend developing your rules before you start plotting. That way, you'll be forced to abide by them and be limited by them instead of being tempted to use the magic or technology to help your characters have an easy way out of trouble.

A good rule of thumb is to let readers know just what they need to know to understand the story, and just when they need to know it. Don't give in to the temptation to explain the entire world and its history in the opening chapters. Drop in the telling details that show how this world may be different from what the reader knows, and let those details be intriguing enough to make the reader keep turning pages.

I was recently re-reading a popular fantasy novel from the 1970s and a good portion of the second chapter was two characters relating the entire history of this world in a very "as you know, Bob" conversation where both of them knew it and they were quizzing each other. That wouldn't fly in today's market, where there's more competition for attention and where attention spans are shorter.

Finally, keep in mind what my parageography (yes, it was a real class) professor liked to say -- your world is a place where things can happen. It's not the story, no matter how weird, different, creative and magical it is. Keep your focus on the things that are happening in this world.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More Stressed Ramblings

I got the wild and crazy idea yesterday to try to take care of as many of the to-do list items as possible so today wouldn't be quite as hectic. It may have worked, although the list kept growing, so I seem to have just as many items to do today as I did yesterday. However, those items would have been added anyway, leaving me that much more to do today. And most of those new items are last-minute, on-the-way-out-the-door items, like taking out the trash and locking the door. Most of the other things on the list for today are small tasks that will take maybe a minute or two to do. I did all the major, time-consuming things and the errands yesterday. I bet I still end up running later than I planned when it's time to leave, but I'm planning on taking the city bus to the airport, which means I have a firm schedule to keep. I'll have to take a cab or SuperShuttle back from the airport because there is no public transportation serving the airport on Sundays (yes, on the busiest travel day). That's still cheaper than parking and means my car, which still feels new, won't be left out at the airport. The last time I tried to take SuperShuttle home from the airport, I couldn't get any of the drivers to take me. I'd call the reservation number, they'd tell me which van to look for, then that van would pull up, they'd ask where I was going, and then they'd say that wasn't the right van. Since I live pretty much next to the airport, I'm on the way for almost all of their routes, and I guess they were hoping to hold out for a higher fare. So, this is their final chance. Stay tuned to see how this works out.

I'm behind in my reading for the year, so I'm looking forward to some quality reading time in transit. I'm bringing three books and will likely end up with a few more at the conference, so that should hold me. I think that's my favorite thing about airplanes: guilt-free reading, since it's not like there's anything else to do. I'd thought about bringing some writing stuff to work on, but I'm going to rebel and not worry about it.

Meanwhile, I'm even more bummed about probably having to wait for the Battlestar Galactica finale after seeing the special the Sci Fi Channel (soon to be "Syfy," or something to that effect, because they don't want to be associated with science fiction fans) ran last night. I've had my ups and downs with the show, and in a way I'm looking forward to it being over so I can ease off the chocolate on Friday nights and because I want to see how it ends, but it's also a little sad that this is it. I'm really going to miss jumping online right away after the episode to discuss it. By the time I see it, the discussion will have covered most of the bases.

On another weekend programming note, according to Entertainment Weekly, ION will be running the Colour of Magic miniseries, based on the first two Terry Pratchett Discworld books, on Sunday night. EW gave it a pretty negative review, but I'm not sure they got it, considering they tried making a comparison to The Lord of the Rings. My brain is not even capable of wrapping itself around any comparison between Discworld and LOTR, other than maybe some bits of satire and spoof, but I don't recall the Dwarfish drinking songs ("Gold! Gold! Gold!") being in those first two books. I guess I'll add to my VCR list and see for myself, but later, as it will have started by the time I get home, and I will, I hope, be watching Battlestar Galactica that evening.

And now to go finish doing laundry and dishes and all the other little things I have to take care of today.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stress-Induced Ramblings

This is shaping up to be a wacky week, as I have a couple of days to get ready to go to New York. I felt like I had things more or less under control, since I'm even mostly packed -- I was planning and trying on outfits, and just put them in the suitcase as I went along. But I still somehow have a really long to-do list. Most of the items on the list are just things that need to be done before I go, not necessarily trip-related items. I'm packing light, as I'm trying to go with just a carry-on bag. I like checking luggage so I don't have to deal with it, but when they start charging for that, well, I'm not sure it's worth what they're charging unless I have a lot of stuff to carry.

This weekend's HBO viewing, while I was reading the Sunday newspaper and doing the crosswords: the latest Die Hard movie, the one in which Bruce Willis protects a Mac from cyberterrorists (which could help explain why Macs are safer from viruses -- who needs Norton Antivirus when you've got Bruce Willis and a machine gun) and then uses a Mac to hack into the cyberterrorists' systems* (and I think that most of the people who come up with those "why do they always use Macs to interface with stuff in movies when Macs aren't compatible with anything" comments must be PC users, because I've found my Mac to be compatible with everything -- I've got all kinds of convertors. I'm usually the one who can change things around to adapt to dealing with a PC, while the PC is powerless. I think there's even the "evil alien mothership" interface in the latest version of OSX). Basically, this movie seemed to be destruction porn with a plot that relied heavily on all the good guys other than Bruce Willis being total idiots (when vital systems everywhere are being taken down left and right, you probably need more security at crucial sites that aren't networked than a guy with a clipboard). And can we call a moratorium on wirework stunts in "real-world" movies? It looks cool for people who are supposed to have superpowers, magical powers, genetic enhancements, for killer robots from the future with ballet training and for stories taking place in alternate realities where the laws of physics may not apply, but it just looks silly when applied to characters who are supposedly human in the real world. I loved the original Die Hard, but the sequels have lost what made that movie work -- it was about the ordinary Joe who could get hurt but who was just too stubborn to quit. Having him do superhuman things and then wince is not the same thing.

*For those who don't get the joke, the "I'm a Mac" guy from those TV commercials plays a hacker Bruce Willis gets stuck protecting. Which is almost as much fun as the "I'm a PC" guy playing the doctor on Battlestar Galactica who does brain surgery on a Cylon and gets the Blue Screen of Death. And the advertising people for Microsoft who've countered with their own "I'm a PC" commercials have totally missed the point of the Mac ads, as those characters are not meant to be representative users of their respective computers. They're supposed to be anthropomorphic projections of the actual computers -- literally, a Mac and a PC, as they would be if they were human.

But enough rambling. I have fourteen more items on my to-do list. Ack.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Rainy Days and Fridays

Greetings to any zombies who followed Amanda yesterday and stuck around. I feel so loved having all those comments.

In spite of getting nothing accomplished work-wise yesterday, I had a pretty good day. My hair appointment took a rather long time, but it was time spent mostly reading while watching most of a Bollywood musical (I had to let the color set). But even better than the physical boost was the fact that the stylist thought that I was way too young to have started showing gray hairs. I pointed out that it wasn't exactly uncommon to start showing gray at 40, and it turned out she thought I was in my 20s. After that, she made every customer who came in guess my age, and the highest guess was 29. That gave me a nice little boost. And then I had a great ballet class. I just felt on (in spite of the fact that I didn't realize until it was time to leave and I was running late that I'd forgotten to put in my contact lenses, which meant I wore my glasses to drive, but they tend to fall off when I dance, so I was squinting my way through a slightly blurry class). It helped that we had fun music. There were ballet class piano arrangements of some Tori Amos songs (the teacher wouldn't let me sing along with "Leather" even though the 14 year old wasn't there) and then we did a nice adagio to music from Jurassic Park. I loved the irony of dancing ballet to music about dinosaurs, but that's the genius of John Williams, that he writes film music that's utterly perfect for the context but that also works just as nice music out of context.

And now today looks like it could be perfect. It's cold, gray and rainy, and I don't have to go anywhere. I'm wearing my pink, fuzzy work pajama pants (I have clothes that are meant to be pajamas that I don't sleep in and that I designate as "work" clothes, so that I can enjoy working in pajamas without the psychological sense of actually being in my pajamas) and I have my little firefly lights on in my office. I'm looking forward to spending the afternoon hunkering under the electric blanket and writing.

My valuable writing lesson of the week came from the book I've been re-reading. It's a book I read more than ten years ago and loved then, but this week I've been able to pick it up and put it down without really getting into it. It's very well written and the characters are great. But what keeps it from being a book I couldn't put down is the fact that there's no real driving goal. The main character sort of has an objective, but it's rather vague and there's no real sense of urgency about it, no indication that it will be really, really bad if the main character doesn't get what she's after (in fact, ultimately she decides she didn't really want that, after all). The characters just have a lot of adventures and narrow escapes until they get to the point where the objective might actually start to matter. It seems like the books you can't put down are those where the main character must do something, and there will be consequences if he can't do it. He must do X or else Y will happen -- He needs to destroy the Death Star or else the Death Star will be used to blow up more planets. Even better is if there's a specific timeline involved. He must do X before Y happens -- He must destroy the Death Star before the Death Star blows up the planet where the rebel base is.

People may keep reading if they really like the characters enough to care about them and see what happens next. But they really keep reading if the question in mind is "will he be able to do that in time and stop that other thing from happening?" rather than merely "what happens next?"

I've heard editors and agents refer to books that are a string of not-really-connected adventures as "episodic." So if you've been getting rejection letters calling your book "episodic," take a look at whether there's a strong story goal and whether the adventures along the way are steps toward that goal.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Wants BRAAAIIINNNNSSS

I managed another thousand words yesterday. I think I'm still warming up, but I'm getting more of a feel for the characters. If I'm good today, I may get to the introduction of the other main character, but I'm also getting my hair done today (I realized it had reached my waist again, which is just too much hair to deal with) and I have ballet class tonight, so there's not a lot of writing time.

Since the collective wisdom of my readers never ceases to amaze me, I thought I'd throw this out there and see if anyone has any ideas: I haven't been dancing in far too long, and I'm dying for a foxtrot. Since I'll be in New York next weekend, I figure there has to be something in the ballroom dancing arena going on. I mean, there's pretty much a little of just about everything going on in New York, right? (Or have all those TV shows, books and movies been lying to me?) Does anyone know of any possible ballroom dancing venues in the city where I might be able to show up solo and still manage to dance with someone? I've Googled and found a couple of dance studios that have social dance parties and a dance society that has public dances at a church. That's the kind of thing I'm looking for, as opposed to an actual nightclub or music venue where people are more likely to go with dates, so I thought I'd check to see if anyone knew of anything else or had something good to recommend.

Now, I've got a really fun Girlfriends Cyber Circuit book to talk about, The Zombie Queen of Newbury High by Amanda Ashby. (Just the title cracks me up.) Tomorrow is prom, and all Mia wants to do is cast a love spell on her date Rob Ziggerman to keep him away from cheerleading goddess Samantha and save him all to herself. But somehow she ends up inflicting a zombie virus onto her whole class instead. At first Mia loves all the attention her classmates are giving her; treating her like a queen, compliments galore, and all the chocolate a girl could want. But then zombie hunter hottie Chase explains they are actually fattening her up. Why? Because in twenty-four hours, Mia will be the first course in their new diet. That’s what being the ZOMBIE QUEEN OF NEWBURY HIGH means. She’s sure she and Chase can figure something out, especially when the alternative means that her classmates and teachers will be feasting on her bones. But in the meantime, she’s suggests that no one wear white to tomorrow night’s prom, because she has a feeling that things could get very messy.

I interviewed Amanda about writing and zombies (which are far more related than you might think):
Was there any particular inspiration behind this book?
To be honest the whole thing started as joke. I use to threaten my critique partners that if they weren’t careful I would write a book a called I Was a Zombie Killer Bride (and between you and me I still think the project has legs!!). Anyway, the more I said it the more the idea of doing a zombie book appealed to me. I’d never seen or heard of any other books out at the time (this was back in 2007) and so I started trying to think of some zombie ideas. Enter my husband who had been preparing himself for this very moment by spending a lifetime watching zombie movies (in fact he was the one who first insisted I watch some Hammer House of Horror movies which I ended up loving!). Anyway, instead of running a mile which is what he normally does when I’m stuck for ideas, he opened a bottle of wine, patted the couch and we started brainstorming!!!! It was too much fun!

Can you offer us a few zombie survival tips?
Yes, absolutely.

Rule number one is footwear. Trying to run away from zombies while you’re wearing heels just isn’t going to work. You need sneakers and socks (to stop blisters, since let’s face it, blisters leads to blood, leads to zombie saliva glands and is therefore a big no-no).

Rule number two. Don’t try and play dead because they will find you. Zombies might not have great vision but they can smell you from over a mile away (and apparently you smell a bit like really, really, really great BBQ chicken with just a hint of herbs and spices sprinkled over the top. Or, so I’ve heard…)

Rule number three. Don’t stand anywhere near a ketchup bottle. Or jug of gravy for that matter because that is just making life a little bit too easy for our undead foes.

What do you have in your personal Zombie Survival Kit?
A lighter (but you’ll have to read the book to find out why)
A cell phone charm (but you’ll have to read the book to find out why)
A detailed floor plan of Newbury High (but you’ll have to read the book to find out why)
A bottle of water (but you’ll have to read the book to find out why)

Is there a sure-fire way to tell if the cheerleading squad has been turned into zombies or if that's just normal for them?
The first sign someone is turning into a zombie is the skin around their face and jaw starts to go slack. The second sign is that suddenly have an uncontrollable desire to eat meat. Lots of it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to cheerleaders, the discovery that their diet is screwed and that their looks are going will normally cause them to rip out their own their own hair in despair. Also, it is normally accompanied by some moaning and wailing. So in my professional opinion, if I was trying to identify a potential cheerleading zombie, I would look for anyone who was holding some matted hair extensions while chewing on beef jerky and wearing a paper bag on their head. Sound familiar? If so you’d probably better give the Department of Paranormal Containment a ring. Pronto.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us (or warn us!) about this book?
I’m fairly certain that ZOMBIE QUEEN OF NEWBURY HIGH will put you off ever wanting to do a love spell in order to avoid public humiliation, since as Mia Everett discovers, there are actually worse things than getting dumped before prom.

What are you working on now?
My next young adult book out with Puffin is about a girl who goes to a prestigious slaying school. She is determined to follow in her dead mom’s footsteps and be a dragon slayer. Unfortunately she gets stuck with four inch fairies who spend more time in the mall than they do out trying to hurt people. Not exactly the stuff that high destiny is made of. Then she suddenly starts to see another kind of fairy. Of the six foot, killer variety that no one has ever heard of before. However, due to a small misunderstanding, no one believes her and she is forced to fight the killer fairies on her, while at the same time trying to discover how her dead mom fits into it all.

I’m still waiting for me revisions for that one and so in the meantime I’m hard at work on a mid grade book with a thirteen year old heroine who does something even more ridiculous than turn her school into zombies. Oh, yeah!

For more info, check out Amanda's web site. Or you can order the book from Amazon.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Absolutely Everything Going On in My Life

I wrote the first 1,000 words in the new book yesterday. That usually seems to be the scariest part of a book for me, that moment when I first really meet the characters and commit to going down a particular path. I'm thinking today will be a good writing day, as it's cold and rainy (my favorite weather). However, I did get a late start because it's awfully hard to get out of bed on a cold, rainy day. It was even worse this morning because when I went to bed, it was hot and muggy, so I wore a light nightgown and put on the ceiling fan, and that meant I was freezing this morning and really didn't want to get out from under the covers.

As for the book, I'm still not sure I've found the right voice, but I can always edit if need be once I settle into the style and get comfortable with it. Today I should get into the story itself, beyond just the introduction of the main character and the "ordinary world" part of the story. The main character is quite a bit different from what I usually write -- or, at least, she's supposed to be. I may have to work at maintaining that instead of slipping into familiar patterns. This may be a real "stretch" book where I have to constantly go outside my comfort zones, but I think that's good for me and could really pay off.

Beyond that, I don't have much to talk about. I'm not reading anything I want to discuss (I'm barely managing to read it). I watched a couple of movies over the weekend, but they were old familiars, just using them as background noise (but I must say, I think I love Stardust more every time I see it). I have a song from Kiss Me Kate totally stuck in my brain, thanks to the Showtunes digital cable channel, so I had to look up the lyrics online, and then I found a couple of performances of it on YouTube so I could learn it and actually walk around the house singing it instead of just humming the couple of bits I could remember (it's very frustrating to only have a fragment of a song stuck in your head without really knowing the song). I think I might still have the PBS Great Performances production of that on tape somewhere. I'm not crazy about the show as a whole, but I like parts of it, and I like that cast, which, with a couple of differences, is the cast I actually saw (though I saw Rex Smith instead of Brent Barrett, but I have seen Brent Barrett in another show).

I may bake cookies today because it's that kind of day and I need to have something to bring for a gathering this weekend. And, thus, I have discussed absolutely everything going on in my life right now. Exciting, huh? No wonder I spend so much time making things up.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tuesday Ponderings

I have completed my morning quest to the Kingdom of the Bull's Eye (aka Target), where I was assisted by many a friendly local. Meanwhile, I have been issued a challenge by the court of the land (a jury summons -- boy, do they love me, every other year, like clockwork, and I always seem to get picked for the jury).

Maybe it's the economy, but I'm finding my shopping trips lately to be both more pleasant and more frustrating. I guess people are really glad to have any job because the staff all seem to be much friendlier and more helpful. There's no more standing around, feeling invisible. Granted, Target was never that bad, but they're even friendlier, and the checkout clerks are better and more efficient. No more bored teens who acted like they were doing you a favor and who seemed to resent you for interrupting their day (again, Target was never that bad, but there were a few clerks like that). On the other hand, they seem to be cutting costs by replenishing less often, so the shelves are pretty bare in places, and they were out of stock in half the things I went after.

Speaking of things that make you wonder ... I don't watch reality television at all, but just in reading the newspaper and being on the Internet I seem to be exposed to a lot of it, and I've noticed an interesting omission in all the "star" and "celebrity" competitions -- no authors! (I mean, no people who are known for being authors, not people who've cashed in on their fame to "write" books.) They're really scraping the bottom of the barrel to dig up people who kind of, sort of count as celebrities, including people who are known only for having been on other reality shows or people who are known for dating someone famous, but really, no one who's famous for doing something that doesn't happen on TV? Granted, most novelists don't have a fan base big enough to compete with anyone on TV in viewer-voting shows, other than maybe people like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. King probably isn't up to dancing after that accident, but it might be interesting to see him go up against Trump on that Apprentice show. And I've danced with Nora, so I'm pretty sure she could tear it up on Dancing With the Stars (though that might cut into her 18 hours of writing a day). Bringing that kind of public attention to people who write books would probably have more benefit than perpetuating the idea of being famous for the sake of being famous. At the rate they're going, all the non-celebrity reality shows are going to become farm teams to create celebrities to compete on the celebrity shows, in a ghastly self-perpetuating cycle.

A little online schedule checking reveals that the Battlestar Galactica finale (hopefully with the killer robots doing some serious killing, for a change) will be repeated the following Friday, so if disaster occurs and the hotel doesn't get Sci Fi, my VCR doesn't work, I can't manage to watch it online and I can't obtain it from a friend, I will eventually get to see it. That just means I'll have to avoid the Internet all week to avoid spoilers.

After a ton of brainstorming, I think I'm ready to plunge into actually writing. One sign is when I find it more difficult to get into reading anything because I'm more intrigued by the idea of my story than I am by anything I try to read. Another sign is that I'm not sleeping well because I can't shut off my brain. Fortunately, the weather is cooperating by giving me a cloudy, rainy week. As I am a water-powered creature, that bodes well.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Questing We Will Go

I've been thinking some more about that question asked during a panel at ConDFW, about whether there's room for myth and legend in a world where the things of myth and legend are real. For a while, I was wondering why you'd tell stories about things that really existed, and then I remembered that just because my entertainment mostly seems to involve magic, dragons, spaceships and killer robots (and mentally inserting killer robots into stories without them), it doesn't mean that's all there is. Things like police officers, detectives, cowboys, spies, soldiers and doctors really exist, and yet our culture tells a lot of stories about them. The story versions are generally larger than life, do things that their real-world counterparts probably never would and may even be in more danger than they would be in reality, but the reality doesn't keep us from enjoying the stories. So, I would imagine that if you lived in a world where dragons and wizards were real, you might still have stories about dragons and wizards, but the wizards in the stories might be more powerful and the dragons might be more clever. How much you expect the real ones to be like the ones in stories might depend on your exposure to the real thing or to people who know about the real thing.

On a somewhat related note (really, this was all connected in my head), I've been pondering the nature of the quest story, since The Nagging Idea includes a quest-type plot. There do seem to be some fantasy cliches/cultural expectations about quest stories. For one thing, there usually needs to be some kind of questing party, usually made up of a variety of people who each have some area of expertise, and often representing all the races in that society. There has to be the underdog hero required to go on the quest, the wizard who sends him on the quest, an elf, a dwarf, someone big and possibly giant-like, and some knight or king in disguise as just some traveling guy. I'm sure a lot of that is building on the Tolkien model, or else it comes from D&D, where you get that mixed-race party because of what the players choose to be (and that draws from Tolkien). I'm not going for that kind of questing party because this isn't an elf-and-dwarf kind of world, and I also want to avoid a scenario that sounds like the set-up for a joke (A wizard, an elf and a dwarf walk into a tavern ...).

But if you found yourself forced to go on a quest, and you'd heard enough quest stories, you'd probably feel like Step One would be to try to form a questing party to help you, and you'd be somewhat disappointed to go to a tavern and not find a mysterious stranger lurking in the corner, listening to your tale with a little too much interest. You'd also probably find yourself on the lookout for an odd assortment of characters to pop up along the road, and you'd feel a bit let down if after you showed them kindness they didn't immediately insist on joining your quest.

The challenge I'm seeing as I get ready to plunge into this book is that I don't want a questing party. Not only do I want to avoid the cliches, but this is more of a solitary ordeal kind of quest involving someone who wouldn't ask for help and who needs to have some stubbornness beat out of her from struggling to go it alone. The problem there is that there's no one to talk to, and without dialogue, a book gets boring. So, how do you convey that solitary, inward journey without pages and pages of narration? I think I have a few ideas, but I'll have to see how they work when I get there.

Back to the killer robot thing, I've just realized that I will be in New York for the two-hour series finale of Battlestar Galactica. I really hope the VCR works and there are no power outages. I don't remember if this hotel has Sci Fi. I know they had BBCAmerica the last time I stayed there, and that's even more rare for hotel TV than Sci Fi, but you never know. I don't suppose this is the kind of show where people might gather for a public viewing party, but then again, this is New York, so there's no telling. If worse comes to worst, I think they have full episodes on the web (legally, even), though I hate watching TV shows on the laptop screen.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Book Hunting

For those wondering about the contest classifications I mentioned yesterday, here are the definitions the contest is using:

LIGHT PARANORMAL: Lighter in tone; these stories include paranormal happenings as a major element of the plot.
FANTASY: Includes mythical creatures and magical elements.

I think my books could fit in either, but I'm still not sure about the 40 percent of the plot being romance thing. I do think I'll send the book to the World Fantasy Awards, since that's more where I want my career to go. I know a lot of my readers are paranormal romance readers, but I don't see myself ever writing something that could actually be shelved as paranormal romance since, to me, the romance will always be subplot at most, and possibly even just subtext.

I had a great ballet class last night. I felt like I was finally almost sort of getting it, to where it was actually kind of dancing instead of just exercising (though it probably helps that we had a bunch of new people, so for a change I wasn't the worst one or the most clueless one in the class). But it was also a really tough class and my legs are still feeling it. It's not really pain, but there is an achy soreness that makes me wish it weren't too hot today to use the electric blanket as a full-body heating pad. It would probably help if I were better about getting physical activity more than once a week.

I mentioned a while ago that I seem to have amassed quite a collection of notebooks, and I've found a good use for yet another one. It's a small, pocket-sized hardcover journal with a ribbon bookmark and a little elastic band to keep it closed. That's now my "book hunt" notebook. I'd been scribbling author names and titles on the memo cube on my desk whenever I ran across a mention of something that sounded interesting. But those tended to get lost in all the other memos, and because my handwriting is hideous at the best of times, I often couldn't read what I'd scribbled. This notebook helps me keep my book shopping list in one convenient place, and I'm making a point of writing down title and author somewhat legibly. If it hasn't been released yet, I'm noting release date and format, and then I'm also noting if my library has a copy. It's small enough to go in my purse or backpack for bookstore or library trips, so now I shouldn't ever have to go without knowing which books I'm looking for. This will probably not help the size of my to-be-read pile, but at least I won't forget about something that sounded interesting.

As I've been compiling this list, I've realized yet again what a poor job most publishers do in publicizing their releases. I'm an avid reader and I'm pretty active online in the book world. I read book review sites in various genres. I go to conventions. I'm in SFWA and get that magazine. I spend a lot of time in bookstores. One of my favorite time wasters is to browse Amazon by category, looking for books I might like. And yet when I went to a publisher's web site the other day to research something, I stumbled across a book in their upcoming releases list that sounded like EXACTLY the kind of book I've been desperately seeking. And it was the sequel to a recent book. Everything in the packaging -- title, cover, description -- was something that would appeal to me. But I had never even HEARD of this book. Something has to be wrong if someone who's actively seeking a certain kind of book can't manage to run across a book that would fit in that category. And I must not be alone because it looks like the kind of thing that people who might like my books would like, and it doesn't show up in the "people who bought this also bought" list for my books, or vice versa (though I'm not sure how much that means because I'm not really all that interested in most of the books that show up in the "also bought" list for my books). (Hmm, just found the author's blog, and we were apparently separated at birth. Now I REALLY need to find this book.) And, no, I'm not going to say what it is because I generally don't talk about books until I've read them, and I only talk about them if I can recommend them.

Now to go do my final bit of pre-writing brainstorming before I plunge into actually writing The Nagging Idea. This weekend may be my mood-setting "retreat" in preparation for writing. I'm really looking forward to meeting these characters.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Self Evaluation

I actually accomplished everything on my to-do list yesterday, so go me! However, I was having a scattered, non-focused day, so I'm not sure how much I truly accomplished. I may need to revisit some of the things I did. I do think I'm coming to the end of the preparation phase of The Nagging Idea and need to finally start writing. I have a little more research reading to do to get a good sense of the world I'm dealing with, but at this point I think I know everything I'm going to know about the characters and plot until I start actually writing it and see how it shapes up.

Meanwhile, I'm taking an online writing class, and either I'm better than I thought I was or I'm so bad that I can't even see how bad I am. One of the exercises involved going through a work in progress and finding a certain type of thing to then try to fix -- and I couldn't find enough of the "wrong" thing to fix. Maybe if I were doing a serious edit of this manuscript I'd find some examples, but just going through it quickly, I didn't find many. And what I did find only fit that "bad" pattern when taken out of context because "fixing" it only made those sentences more interesting when they were on their own. They didn't flow at all in context.

But I think the problem is that I don't have a manuscript at the right stage for doing this kind of work on it. I have a completed, polished manuscript that does still have some problems, but those are plotting problems that will require big-picture fixes, not word choice fixes. And I have a very rough first draft where I'm sure I could find a lot of word choice things to fix, but I know that I'll need to pretty much rewrite that entire book, so there's not much point in fixing wording. And then my actual work in progress is at the brainstorming and development stage, with no words to fix. What I may do is just follow the lectures and read the other examples from the class to get a sense of it, and then do the "exercises" later when I have a manuscript where they'll apply.

One thing I am doing is trying to pay more attention to people to observe body language, facial expressions, etc. And since I seldom leave the house, what that means is watching TV in a different way to see how various actors portray certain things -- and then I mentally write narrative to describe exactly what they're doing. In some cases, I'm still challenged because it doesn't take much to give me a vivid mental image. There was a scene where a character looked very pleased with himself, like he was proud of what he'd done and expected everyone else to be impressed -- but I'm at a loss for trying to describe exactly what the actor did to convey that. It would take a paragraph of description to get all the little facial nuances and body postures that went into that, and I don't think it warranted that much description. Just thinking "proud" brings it back vividly to me. But is that weak, "telling, not showing" writing?

Meanwhile, on another "evaluating my work" topic ... I've considered entering a few contests for published books with Don't Hex with Texas, but most of the ones I've found are romance contests, since RWA is the organization that has all those chapters, many of which use contests as fundraisers. And I'm not sure it has enough romantic content to fit. There's a particular contest for fantasy, futuristic and paranormal books, and they say that books don't have to have been published as romance, but need to be at least 40 percent romance to fit. I honestly have no idea what percentage romance that book is. I suppose it depends on how you define "romance." There's next to no kissing, just a lot of proximity and some hand holding that gets pretty hot (in more ways than one). I think there's a fair amount of emotion, and the relationship is important to the plot. There's even conflict in the relationship. But 40 percent worth? Y'all have read the book more recently than I have, so what do you think? And then there's the question of whether it would be considered "light paranormal" or "fantasy."

Then there's the option of sending books to the jury for the World Fantasy Awards, and there I get nervous because I wonder if I can really stand up to "real" fantasy.

Not that winning any of these contests or awards would make a huge difference, but in this publishing climate, every little boost may help expose me to new readers and serve as a push to potential new publishers.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


In a major leap forward in my "get my act together" program, I tackled an item on my to-do list that has been there for months and that I've been procrastinating about because I was dreading it. And it turned out to be just as tedious and challenging as I'd dreaded. But now it's done and I feel ten pounds lighter. I think I even slept better last night.

Because I was inspired by some discussions at the last convention I went to, I'm going to address how to use the information you develop for a story in the story. And because characterization is one of my favorite topics, I'm going to start with that and talk about how to work with a character's backstory.

Backstory is the history of the character before the story begins. It can include pivotal experiences that got him to the place or situation he's in at the start of the story, as well as early life experiences that have shaped him into the person he is today. Backstory can explain where he gained certain skills, how he relates to people and even why he does the things he does. While backstory can be an important part of developing a character, it's not the same thing as characterization.

Characterization is the choices a character makes or the actions he takes, especially under pressure. It's what defines the kind of person a character is. It's what's important in the present of the story, and it's what moves the story forward. The characterization may be affected by the backstory, as the character's past may explain why he makes particular choices, but the backstory itself is not characterization.

I think this is a distinction that TV writers, in particular, are bad about not getting because they too often give us flashbacks or Very Special Episodes in which something from the character's past is revealed, and they count that as characterization. But it's not. Knowing everything about the person's past doesn't mean I know who he is as a person.

Here's an example:
The backstory of our hypothetical hero, Joe Hero, is that he grew up in foster care, so he was bounced around the system and lived in a bunch of different homes throughout his childhood. He's never had a sense of family and didn't have anyone who really counted as "Mom" or "Dad" in his life.

That does tell us something about him, and we can imagine various ways that might affect him as an adult, but we don't actually know anything about his character from that backstory because we don't know what decisions he'd make and there's nothing in that backstory to propel a plot.

So, let's give him a dilemma, a choice between mutually exclusive good things. Now that Joe's an adult, he has a good job, one he likes and is good at. He even likes his co-workers, and his boss has become something of a mentor to him. He has a home and friends. The only problem is that there isn't any room for advancement where he is. Then he gets offered a new job, one with a more prestigious title, more responsibility and a bigger paycheck, but to take it he'll have to move very far away and start over again where he doesn't know anyone.

Which choice does he make? That will tell you a lot about your character and about the way the story will go.

He might choose to stay because he cares more about the connections he's made and the stability he's finally achieved than he cares about advancement and money. He finally has a kind of family in his co-workers, he's got a home he wants to stay in, and his boss has become like the dad he never had. That priority will affect other things in the story. It means that he might be willing to take drastic action or even make sacrifices to protect and defend this "home" and his surrogate family -- whether he's defending against corporate raiders if he's working for a company, evil aliens if he's on a space station or spaceship, or criminals if he's in a police squad. We know he'll also probably feel hurt and betrayed if the company and his colleagues don't show him a similar kind of loyalty.

Or he could choose to take the new job because he's never learned to develop deep ties to people and places, and he's used to having to constantly move on. He's learned that the only person he can count on to take care of him is him, so he's going to take the position that's best for him. That's going to result in a totally different kind of story because it's a totally different character. He's going to be making decisions based more on logic and self-interest than on emotion or personal loyalty. He'll be more of a loner, possibly even a workaholic. It might take an extreme threat to force him to take action to protect the status quo instead of cutting his losses and moving on, and that could be a major turning point for the story. He might be pleasantly surprised (or even suspicious) if someone shows loyalty or commitment to him.

You may not even have to mention the backstory outright to explain these choices, because it's the choices that matter. His present day actions should explain a lot about the choices -- if he spends time away from work with his colleagues or puts himself on the line to protect them, it's a pretty good sign that he chose to stay because he sees them as family, or if he keeps things cool and impersonal at work and the move to another place barely disrupts his life, that's a sign that he's used to making moves like that. Readers may be curious about how he came to be that way, and that's when you can drop little hints about his past. But what's most important is his present and how he deals with it.

A good rule of thumb is that the more pertinent to the current plot and the more extreme the backstory is, the more mention it needs in the story. If your story is about a retired assassin whose attempt at a quiet retirement is disrupted when the son of someone he killed comes looking for revenge, then, yeah, you're going to have to bring the backstory about his career as an assassin into the book. My example of the former foster kid involves a situation extreme enough to have plenty of emotional ramifications, so it probably would need to be addressed in the book. But if you take the same dilemma and choices but change the backstory to Joe Hero being a military brat who grew up moving from place to place with his family, so that he stays because he's tired of moving or moves because starting all over again in a strange place isn't scary to him, that might be "normal" enough that it doesn't matter all that much.

The danger of a fully developed backstory is that it's far too tempting to throw it all in, especially in the opening chapter of the book so that readers will understand the character (one of the most common beginning writer mistakes). We tend to think in chronological order, so our instinct is to tell a character's story from the start, bringing us up to date so we'll understand his present -- almost like the "previously on ..." bits at the beginning of a television episode. That's where you get the kind of scene that even makes its way into too many published novels, where the book opens with the main character on the last leg of a journey to some place, thinking about his or her entire life up to that point and all the reasons he or she is making the journey. The problem with that is that it's kind of boring, since backstory isn't action. It also eliminates the intrigue angle. One of the big reasons people keep reading a book is to get their questions answered -- what will happen, why is this happening, who is this person, etc. If too many questions are answered too early -- or if the answers are given before the reader even has a chance to wonder about those things, that makes it far less urgent to keep turning pages.

Which makes for a more interesting book opening -- a scene in which an old man at his favorite fishing hole thinks for a few pages about his career as an assassin that he's trying to put behind him before a young man shows up and says "Hello, you killed my father. Prepare to die" or a scene in which an old man at his favorite fishing hole is startled when a young man shows up and says "Hello, you killed my father. Prepare to die"?

Probably the second because, in addition to not subjecting us to pages of thinking at the beginning of the book, it has the element of surprise (if we already know the old man was an assassin, we're not nearly as shocked by someone confronting him as we are if we think he's just a retired guy at his favorite fishing hole) and it raises the questions of why the kid thinks the old man killed his father, if the old man did it and why he did it, even who the old man is. We'll probably keep turning the pages to find out the answers to this. But what really matters in this scene isn't the old man's backstory. It's what he does next, the choice he makes, that defines this character and sends the story on a particular path. Does he pull a gun out of his tackle box and shoot the guy, or does he hand him a beer, tell him to sit down, and ask him who his father was? Does he try to escape, or does he try to lie his way out of it? Does he use his fishing line to tie the guy up before he starts talking to him? That's what tells us who the character is as a person. Whatever he does, the way he acts, the things he says and the things the kid whose father he killed says will eventually give us a good idea of what his past is.

Another trick for handling backstory is remembering that you don't necessarily have to line everything up. The backstory may be the motivation behind a character's choices, but you don't have to be explicit about it in conjunction with the choice. When Joe Hero the former foster kid turns down the new job that would require him to move, we don't need to have him thinking about growing up as a foster kid as he makes the choice. You could just show his closeness to his co-workers and the way he treats them like family, and then at some point in the book he could make a remark about the kind of cake one of his foster mothers used to make, or he could have trouble remembering where he went to fourth grade because he moved three times that year, or maybe even one of the other characters will be curious about him and either ask him about his past or dig into it. The readers will connect the dots with an "Oh, that explains it!" reaction.

Some other things to keep in mind about backstory:
- You as the author probably need to know more about the character's past than the reader does. You need to know what shaped the character in order to figure out which choices he would make, but the reader may not need to know this. You should only give exactly the information readers must have to understand what's going on.
- Scatter the backstory information through the story. Don't do infodumps, in which you give large chunks of information, especially at the start of the book (I've heard a lot of editors and agents say that many beginning writers can usually cut chapter one out of their novels because that chapter is almost always an infodump of backstory, and the story actually begins in chapter two).
- When at all possible, convey the backstory information through action instead of interior monologue or narration. That can include conversations, actions demonstrating knowledge or experience and investigations by other characters. In dialogue, avoid the dreaded "As you know, Bob" construction, in which characters tell each other things they both already know, purely for the benefit of the audience.
- If you do have to resort to the character thinking about his past, make sure those thoughts are in character -- would he really be thinking about that, in that way, at that time?

Next I think I'll tackle worldbuilding -- not so much how to build a world, but how to incorporate the world you've built into your story.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Book Report: YA for Adults

My "getting my act together" routine is starting slowly. I did get up earlier this morning, but it's taking me longer to get my brain in gear. I suppose that counts as baby steps, or as a t-shirt one of my friends has says, "I'm up and dressed. What more do you want?"

I'm a bit behind on everything so far this year, including reading. A lot of that was due to the fact that I was judging contest books, and I didn't really like the books I was reading, so I was more likely to read them slowly. Instead of staying up too late because I wanted to just read a few more pages, I'd read a few pages and decide that it was late and I needed to get to sleep.

But I have started to make a comeback, with books I like that I can actually recommend, so here goes the first Book Report in ages. This time, I'm focusing on young adult books that are suitable for grown-ups. I do read a lot of YA, and not just because people keep telling me I should try to write it. I've noticed, though, that the YA books I like most are those where I can easily forget the category and just read as a book that just happens to have a younger main character. I can't do that with all YA books. Some of them just feel like "younger" books, and they aren't rich or meaty enough for me to really enjoy. I suppose that makes sense because in real life there are teenagers who may as well be like aliens from another planet, and there are teenagers I can get along well with who I can totally forget are young enough to be my children. I'm less likely to enjoy a YA book whose main character is a "typical" teen -- self-centered, drama-queen behavior, with a focus on high school life, as though that's the end of the world. I usually want something more in the story than whether or not the main character will have friends or a boyfriend. That usually means some fantasy element because that throws the story into a different level and forces the characters to have bigger goals, and then that means a little more emotional complexity, more meat to the story and less stereotypical teen behavior (just as in real life, the kids I probably wouldn't get along with are the ones whose main concern is having a date to the prom).

However, there doesn't always have to be a fantasy element, as we see in the first book in the report, Ten Cents a Dance by Christine Fletcher. This book is set starting in late 1941, just before the US gets into WWII. Ruby lives in Chicago near the meat-packing plants, and she's had to drop out of high school to work in a plant, packing pigs' feet in brine (ick) to support her family because her mother is too sick to work (her father is long dead). But what she really loves to do is dance, so when she hears about an opportunity to work as a dance instructor at a dance hall and earn far more money than she could at the plant, she goes for it. But it turns out that she's really a "taxi dancer," with whom men can dance for ten cents a dance (she gets to keep five cents, plus any tips). It's not quite as glamorous as it seems, and there are dangers, but it's still better than packing meat, and she hopes she can eventually get her family out of the tenement where they have to share a bathroom and heat up water for washing. This is a gritty, involving book that delves into a lot of issues related to that era without feeling like an "issue" book. I'm fascinated by the era and like doing that kind of dancing to that kind of music (though these days we'd need men for hire to dance with because there never seem to be enough men). I'd say it's probably best for older teens, and even then I'd recommend parental guidance -- it would be a great mom/daughter "book club" book where you both read it and then talk about it.

The next book was The Summoning by Kelley Armstrong. The librarian recommended it, and I have to say THANKS A LOT because it has a kind of "to be continued" ending and now I have to wait for the sequel (I wonder if it's too early to get on the waiting list). I really like how this book unfolds in layers, and each layer gives the plot a twist. A teenage girl has a bit of a breakdown in school when she sees a scarred janitor who isn't really there, and that lands her in a group home with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Except, it turns out that she is seeing real things because she can see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, she can't get out of the home until she seems to be improving, and it's hard for her to improve when she isn't really sick and when the home is full of ghosts. And then the ghosts tell her something alarming about the home ... This one is a little scarier than I'd normally pick up, but I ended up liking the edge-of-the-seat suspense, and I really liked the way the relationships among the characters unfolded and developed. The kids are believable as teens, but still characters adults can relate to. According to Amazon, it will be out in paperback at the end of this month, and the sequel is set for the end of April, so I don't have to wait too terribly long (and now to see if I can get on the library waiting list yet).

On a semi-related note, the final Nebula ballot is out, and I've only read one book on it. Meanwhile, as a member of last year's WorldCon, I can nominate for this year's Hugo, and I'm drawing a blank on what to nominate. I feel like I'm really out of touch with what's current in fantasy -- especially since I'm a fantasy author. Does anyone know of any good fantasy (or science fiction) focused book blogs? I have some I trust for other genres, and I keep a list on a notepad by my computer of anything new that sounds interesting. I certainly can't trust my local newspaper to cover new genre fiction, and it would be nice to stay moderately on top of what's going on in my field. I'd like to be able to have a list to nominate for next year's Nebula Award.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Looking for Killer Robots

I never did make it out to that movie or to the errands, but I did some cooking, reading and relaxing, and now that it's March (happy Texas Independence Day!), I think I have to force myself out of hibernation mode and get my act together.

In other news, my Friday science fiction viewing is disappointing me again. After the killer mutiny two-parter on Battlestar Galactica, they've gone all talky again, but this time instead of C-SPAN in space, it's Lifetime in space. By the end of the last episode, I was yelling, "For the love of all that is holy, will someone please stop philosophizing and SHOOT SOMETHING!" It didn't help that they've also gone into contemplative thinky mode on Sarah Connor Chronicles, where our friendly neighborhood Terminator is relegated to making pancakes.

Seriously, people, what part of "killer robots" do you not understand? What good is a TV series about killer robots if the killer robots just sit around being pensive and contemplating the nature of existence? The killer robots don't have to be bad guys. Good killer robots can be our friends. But it's nice if every so often they get to do something killer roboty, you know?

So that I can get appropriate killer robot activity levels in my entertainment, I've decided that what I need to do is find the shows where people are shooting things and blowing up stuff and generally being awesome and declare some of those people to be either Cylons or Terminators, and then I'll have some proper killer robot shows.

On Chuck, Casey is definitely a Terminator (really, if Adam Baldwin didn't have a steady gig, he'd have to be cast as a Terminator on Sarah Connor Chronicles -- that is, if they needed a Terminator to actually terminate stuff). His picture is in the dictionary next to "killing machine." He may be starting to contemplate humanity, but he doesn't let it get in the way of smashing, shooting, hitting and otherwise destroying anything in his path. Meanwhile, what is it about Chuck's brain that makes him able to hold all that info? I'm thinking Cylon.

Gibbs on NCIS is clearly not human, but I'm not entirely sure if he's a Terminator or a Cylon. He has a lot of Terminator-like characteristics -- he doesn't stay down if he's hit or shot, and he even eventually reboots when blown up. He doesn't seem to feel pain or need food or sleep. He doesn't feel pity, or remorse or fear, and he will not stop until he's solved the case. He drives like a maniac. And that would explain how Mark Harmon is still so hot 25 years after being the Sexiest Man Alive. But then, wouldn't the metal endoskeleton have been noticed during his military career? Being a Cylon could explain the infamous "gut," because then there would be a bunch of psychically linked other Gibbs models tuned into all kinds of surveillance feeds and sending him information. On the other hand, maybe the military knows he's a Terminator, and he's tapped into Skylink to give him info. I think I'm going to go with Terminator because that explains so much.

However, Charlie Crews on Life is totally a Cylon, one of the more philosophical models. He contemplates the nature of the universe when he's not shooting people. But he does shoot people and commit other acts of violence.

The Winchester brothers on Supernatural do lead a very Terminator-like lifestyle. They go around in a cool car with a trunkload of weapons and kill things. But given their penchant for coming back from the dead, I'm going to have to go with Cylons.

So, there we have it, plenty of killer robots doing killer robot things while the characters who are openly killer robots are boring me.

Now, watch them really get it in gear this week after I've said this, and both shows about killer robots will have action in them. I won't complain, though. You can never have too many killer robots.