Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Ballet Murder Magic Club

This is going to be a combined Thursday/Friday post since I took much of today off. It's my dad's birthday, so I met my parents in a town east of the metro area for lunch. There's a restaurant there that's an offshoot of a restaurant that used to be in my hometown that was our favorite restaurant, but then the owner retired and sold it, and it was never the same. We thought it would be fun to check out the branch, and it was just like the old one. Even better, the former owner of the original happened to be visiting her family, so we got to catch up with her. Although we miss the restaurant, I can't really blame her for retiring. She's spending her retirement traveling and will be going on a safari in Africa later this summer. That's so cool.

And then I was faced with a "you can't get there from here" situation on my way home due to road construction, so I had to do some creative navigating to avoid a serious traffic jam. On the up side, I learned that what I remembered as a two-lane road is now a fairly major highway. Progress!

Tonight was my last ballet class of the spring session, which means I've been doing this for a year. I normally don't stick with things that long. I'm more of a dabbler, trying various things and then moving on to the next one. I've already signed up for the summer session, so I guess I'm sticking with it. I like the way it makes me feel. My legs are stronger and my posture has sort of improved. Plus, it's fun. I've made friends with the women in the class, and there's such a big range, from teenagers to grandmothers.

Hmm, since those "club" books are all the rage, where you get the multi-generational group of women who meet in book clubs, knitting groups, quilting circles, etc., and help each other through the problems of life, I wonder if a ballet class book would sell ... but I think it would only interest me to write it if they did stuff like solve murders or if the Sugar Plum Fairy's wand turned out to be really magical, given that I have zero interest in reading most of those "club" books.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the choir director was looking for soloists or groups to perform Rodgers and Hammerstein music for the June concert. Well, I kind of got my arm twisted -- not that it took too much effort. A friend in choir who usually sits next to me suggested we do a duet. She's like me, wanting to do it but a bit afraid, and we figure if we do it together, it will be less scary. I don't know what we'll be singing, as I can't think of any two-woman duets in any of those shows, but the choir director said he'd work on something for us. My friend said she wanted to do something emotional instead of funny, so I went along with it (though I think we could have rocked "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?"). I'm now curious to see what he puts together for a soprano/mezzo soprano duet.

I don't know if I mentioned this, but I'll be a panelist for the writing track at Project A-Kon this weekend (the anime convention in Dallas). I'll only be there Saturday morning and mid-day on Sunday. They're giving the authors tables in the "artists alley" for autographs and stuff, but I'll probably only be there for a little while before and after my sessions. Since I'm only doing a few panels, I'm not planning to hang around much. I need to be working.

Which is what I'll be doing Friday. I'm going to try another offline weekend and really get some words pounded out. So, have a great weekend!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I love it when I surprise myself. I had a really fun idea for a scene pop into my head yesterday, in a book I thought I had thoroughly outlined. Now I can cut some boring scenes and sum up their information. Yay! Plus, I have slightly shorter hair that now has no grey in it. It's also a little redder, which wasn't my plan, but I like it. My hairstylist seems to have decided that since I have green eyes, my hair should be redder.

Here's another reader request writing topic. Previously, I talked about endings. Now, let's deal with the other end of the book: the beginning.

The beginning is one of the most critical parts of the novel, especially if it's the book you're using to find an agent and a publisher in the first place. Those first few pages will determine whether agents and editors will read more. A killer ending does no good if nobody reads past a weak opening. Then the beginning is what may help sell the book to readers. Bookstore browsers often make their purchase decisions based on the beginning of the book, and it's the first chapter that's posted on the online bookseller sites or as an e-book preview. A good beginning is what sells the book.

The thing that's very important to remember about beginnings is that you shouldn't get bogged down in trying to create the perfect beginning before you move on with your writing. Sometimes you won't know how to start until you get deeper into the book, and you'll never find the perfect beginning if you get so hung up on creating the perfect beginning that you never move on. You may make a few false starts before you find the real beginning, but don't worry about that. You can fix it in revisions.

So, where do you begin? As close as possible to the start of the action. This is something that has changed recently, as publishers seem to believe that readers have the attention span of a crack-addled gnat and need to have something big happen right away or else they'll lose interest. To look for models of beginnings that can sell in today's publishing environment, look at books published in the last couple of years, especially by debut authors. Books from even ten or fifteen years ago read like Victorian novels in comparison to what sells today, and established authors can generally get away with more.

The beginning has to do a lot of work. It sets the tone for the book, letting readers know if this is going to be funny, serious, emotional, scary or whatever. It introduces the main character and tells us why we should care what happens to him. It also gives us a hint of what's missing in his life, why the things that happen to him may ultimately be good for him, even if they're difficult. It sets the stage, showing us what the world of the book is like and what may be at risk. And it should set out the story question, the reason we'll want to keep reading to see what happens.

The opening of a novel consists of two parts. In Hero's Journey terms, it involves the "ordinary world" and the "call to adventure." In other words, the point when things start to change, along with a glimpse of what life is like for the main character before things start to change. The "ordinary world" sets the stage, showing both the "normal" state for the character as well as showing what's lacking in the hero's life, what needs he has. We have to see what the hero is like at the beginning in order to appreciate how he changes through his adventures. We have to see what the world is like before the hero takes action in order to appreciate how the hero's actions change the world, or else we have to see what it is about the hero's world that makes him willing to take a risk to preserve it.

This is the happy hobbits in the Shire scene, the lonely heroine of a romance, the farmboy yearning for adventure, the undiscovered wizard. And then things change. The hero's world may be threatened, the hero may get an opportunity, the hero may be asked to do something, the hero may meet someone -- however it goes, it means that nothing will ever be entirely the same again. This part shows readers what the story's going to be about. It raises the story question of can he/will he win, solve, find, learn, etc. And these days, this needs to come as close as possible to the start of the book.

Balancing the setting the stage part against the need for immediate action is tricky. It helps if your hero's ordinary world is fairly exciting -- like the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Indiana Jones is going past all those booby traps to get to the idol and then barely escaping. That's not really connected to the main story, but it introduces us to the hero in a very vivid way. Another popular tactic is the prologue, which shows the stuff going on elsewhere that will eventually affect our hero, so that when we see the humble farmboy in his ordinary world, we already have a sense that his life is about to change -- this is what happened in the original Star Wars, where the first thing we see is the space battle where the ship is captured by Darth Vader and his forces and the droids are sent away with the secret message. Then we meet Luke Skywalker on his uncle's farm, just as his uncle's about to buy the droids, and we know things are about to get interesting for him even while he's still in his ordinary world. The prologue can be tricky if you're writing with a limited viewpoint and the prologue would have to show something your viewpoint character wouldn't see. JK Rowling did this in most of the Harry Potter books. The books themselves were almost entirely from Harry's point of view, but there were prologues involving things he didn't know about or couldn't see.

What I often like to do is show hints of the things that will eventually change the hero's life around the edges of the ordinary world. My books have involved a mix of the real world and the magical world, and in the first book in the series, my heroine didn't yet know about the magical world, but I still wanted readers to know from the beginning that it was a fantasy. So I had my heroine running into weird things she couldn't explain that the readers could identify as fantasy elements. You can also reverse the usual order of the ordinary world/call to adventure segments, starting with whatever challenge is issued to the hero, then showing the ordinary world of that character while the character decides what to do. That can lend tension to scenes that would otherwise be boring, as the happy hobbits in the Shire scene becomes poignant if the hero is seeing these things from the perspective of knowing he may have to leave and risk his life to save this place and these people he loves.

Some things not to do at the beginning of a novel:
Don't think you've come up with a brilliant idea to open with an incredibly exciting scene, and then have the heroine wake up to find it was a dream. That seems to show up on a lot of lists of immediate rejection triggers.

Don't get bogged down in backstory. This isn't the time for a history lesson on your world, your character's life story or anything else that involves lots of telling.

Don't think you're getting around the no boring backstory rule by having characters give that information in dialogue. Putting it in quote marks doesn't make it more exciting.

If the beginning of your story involves someone traveling to another place, start with the main character arriving at the place. Don't bother with the journey unless something interesting and important happens during the journey. If your heroine is traveling to a remote manor on the moors to be a governess, start with her arrival if the only thing happening on the journey is her thinking about why she's taking this job, leaving home, sad about life, whatever. However, if on the journey her coach is ambushed by bandits, the mask on one of the bandits slips as she fights him off, and then when she meets her new employer she thinks he looks awfully familiar, then, yeah, leave the journey in. (Ooh, that sounds like it would be a fun book.)

As for how to come up with that all-important punchy first line, I really have no idea. All I can say is to remember that you don't have to have that line to begin with. I've had first lines be the first thing to pop into my head, with that being what sparked the book, and I've had that be the last thing I come up with. Sometimes you'll get the idea for the first line after you've written the end. Don't get too hung up on finding that perfect first line. It's the whole opening that's important. It's better to have a really gripping opening scene even if the first line isn't something that will be quoted in articles about great first lines than to have a killer first line and an opening scene that doesn't live up to the promise of that first line.

I'm still taking questions for future writing topics, so keep them coming!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Not-Holiday Holiday

I pretty much had a not-holiday holiday weekend that still somehow felt like a holiday. I did a lot of work, but I broke with my routine, and sometimes changing routines is enough to get the benefits of a break. The main thing I did was stay mostly offline. I took the laptop downstairs Friday afternoon to work while sitting on the sofa and didn't take it back upstairs until Monday morning. That had a cumulative effect on productivity -- if I wasn't sending e-mails or making blog or message board posts, then I didn't need to check to see if anyone had responded and it became easier and easier to just stay offline.

Not that I was working constantly. Since I'm still in the process of rethinking what I'd already written, it helped to work in spurts. I'd re-read a scene, figure out what was wrong and rewrite it, then re-read the next scene. Then I'd go do something else for a while, during which time I'd think of what I needed to fix in the next scene, as well as something else I needed to fix in the previous scene. Then I'd go back and re-fix the previous scene, fix the next scene and re-read the following scene. And so forth.

Some viewing stuff from the break times:
I finally watched the first episode of The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency (it's more than an hour and a half, so I never seemed to manage to fit it into my schedule) and am totally in love. Now I have to watch the rest of the series in the next couple of weeks before it disappears from OnDemand. I liked the gentle pace and the various quirky but very human characters. I also want to go to Botswana and drink tea with Precious. I think I'll take a look at the books, but this is one case where I'm not sure that the books can do what the TV series does, since on TV we get the scenery and the music. I don't know enough about Africa for my imagination to give me the kind of imagery they have in the series.

My PBS station is weird in so many ways. One of those is that for wide-screen presentations, they seem to feel compelled to blow it out to full-screen and eliminate the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen -- which cuts off the sides of the screen, even if you have a wide-screen TV. The other weird thing they do is show Live at Lincoln Center on tape delay, so it shows up at random times on Sunday afternoons. This time around, the ballet of Romeo and Juliet. Even though I take ballet classes, I have to admit that I've never been a huge fan of ballet. I like really good dancing when it shows up in other places. The movie White Nights is one of my favorites because it mixes ballet with an international thriller plot. But I'm too big a fan of words to enjoy something that spends hours with no talking. This ballet, though, I really got into. I think the ballet classes have made me appreciate watching it more because I know exactly how hard it is to do those things, and I can keep my brain occupied by figuring out which steps they're doing and remembering all the names of the steps. This production did something wild and crazy and cast very young dancers as Romeo and Juliet, which gave it a real sense of authenticity (and Romeo was quite the cutie -- even cuter when they showed rehearsal footage at intermission and he was doing all that stuff while wearing sweats, and he seemed like just a normal kid when he wasn't dancing). Plus, they had real fencing! They brought in weapons masters to choreograph the fight scenes and just did those straight without throwing in too much dance, so it wasn't the usual ballet "fight" where they leap and prance around while waving swords. These fights actually looked ugly and fierce (plus, based on the rehearsal footage, these guys were having a blast with the fighting).

However, I'm still not sure about being able to go to an actual ballet and not get bored. With this, I was inspired to put on my slippers and do a little exercise while I watched, and they tend to frown on that in the theater.

Now, though, I must go get my hair done before it drives me insane. And then back to work.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Killer Robots from the Future

Yes, it's another Friday morning of pain and whimpering -- well, not really outright pain, but my thighs got a good workout last night in ballet class, so they now have this odd trembly feeling. I may take a walk today to see if I can loosen them up, or that might just make matters worse.

Meanwhile, I seem to keep making progress by cutting words, but have now reached a scene that will require additions to make it have something to do with the plot, so the word count should go up again. It's going to be a working weekend for me -- holiday? What holiday?

I likely won't be catching an opening-weekend showing of the new Terminator movie. This one seems to be the opposite of my reaction to the Star Trek movie. I was dreading the idea of the new Star Trek reboot, but reviews were so positive, both from my friends and the professional critics, that I ended up seeing it and enjoying it. I've been eagerly anticipating the new Terminator movie because I've always wanted to see more about that time period in the story, before/after the original film. But now the reviews are pretty negative, which makes me almost afraid to see it.

I didn't see the original during its theatrical run because I was in high school and not allowed to see R-rated movies. One of my friends had seen it and told me all about it, but most of it didn't sink in. I probably did the smile-and-nod, "uh huh, yeah" response. But then it came on network TV when I was in college, and I happened to walk past the dorm TV lounge as it was coming on. I realized it was that movie my friend had told me about, and I stopped to check it out, then ended up watching the whole thing. I did eventually see the uncut version, as it was a popular selection for our study lounge or cram-people-in-a-dorm-room movie nights (though not watched as often as Highlander, but that's an entirely different story).

I saw T2 on opening day -- and, believe it or not, haven't seen it since, even though I have it on VHS (it was a gift). I know that's the one that has all the buzz and excitement about it and that was supposedly so awesome with all the killer effects, but it left me cold. It seemed to me to be more about the action than about the characters, and there wasn't much of a growth arc. It seemed to be more about people discovering things about the world than about themselves, if that makes sense. Which is why I'm the lone oddball who liked T3 better than T2. Yeah, there were issues with it, but I loved the idea of dealing with the fallout from T2 -- what happens if you've been told your whole life that you're destined to be the savior of mankind and some great hero, but then the event that would make you a hero is prevented? There's some danger inherent in knowing your own destiny because it means you don't have a back-up plan. That made for an interesting character arc. Then there's the fact that they actually Went There with the ending -- seriously, the good guys LOSE. I'm not always of the belief that dark=good, but I thought that was such a startling way to end an action movie that it worked for me.

I also did like the TV series, although the Connors were the least interesting characters. However, the original film will remain my favorite. It works because of its simplicity. It's so very primal because it's about survival and love, period. There's no waffling about the metaphysics of time travel, altering the timeline, or any of that stuff. It has a huge character transformation arc, with Sarah going from wimpy waif waitress to warrior woman who can survive on her own. Not to mention Michael Biehn, managing to look both tough and innocent and with that soft voice still inflected with hints of southern drawl (it's nice that he ended up doing a lot of westerns where he didn't have to fight the accent). Just thinking of "I came across time for you, Sarah" still makes me a little woozy. It often cracks people up when I say that The Terminator is one of my favorite romantic movies, but obviously those are people who haven't seen it.

I don't know if we'll get any similar human stories in the new one, where they can rely so much on action and effects. I like the idea of seeing Kyle Reese before his fateful mission, but it's still hard to imagine anyone else in the role (the one in the TV series so didn't work for me). This time around, it's the same actor who played Chekov in the Star Trek reboot, and I liked him there, but I'm still not sure if it will work.

Still, killer robots from the future! How bad could that be?

Today, though, I have grocery shopping to do (a new branch of my favorite grocery store is opening nearby today, and I really must go) and some errands, and then lots of writing. And probably some un-writing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Melissa Walker

I managed to lose more than 2,000 words while still making lots of progress, so I think yesterday came out ahead, in a sense. Just remember, thinking is your friend. And I got what I think is a potentially brilliant story idea last night that I will have to let the subconscious creative squirrel play with while I finish the current project.

In the meantime, I've got another Girlfriends Cyber Circuit guest, Melissa Walker, author of Lovestruck Summer. Quinn is an indie rock girl who came out to Austin, Texas, for a music internship. She also plans to spend long, lazy days in the sun at outdoor concerts--and to meet a hot musician or two. Instead, she’s stuck rooming with her sorority brainwashed cousin, who now willingly goes by the name “Party Penny.” Their personalities clash, big time.

But Sebastian, a gorgeous DJ, definitely makes up for it. Sebastian has it all: looks, charm, and great taste in music. So why can’t Quinn keep her mind off Penny’s friend cute, All-American Russ and his Texas twang?

Sebastian is the kind of guy Quinn wants, but is Russ the guy Quinn needs? One thing’s certain: Quinn’s in for a summer she’ll never forget!

Now, the interview:
Was there any particular inspiration behind this story?
A trip to Austin--with it's blasts of heat, amazing live music and colorful characters--totally inspired me to set a romance there.

What, if anything, do you have in common with the main character of this book?
Quinn can be judgmental of people when she first meets them, but she's trying to be more open. (Me too.)

Did you get to visit Austin to research the setting for this book? If so, what were some of the "hot spots" you'd recommend for people who travel there and want to experience the world of the book?
I did! I recommend: The Continental (old school country music bar), Barton Springs (natural spring pond to swim in), Iron Works (amazing barbecue!), and the Four Seasons Hotel lawn, to watch the bats fly out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge.

(Here's where I have to confess what a loser I am. I went to college in Austin and lived there four years, and yet I've only done one of those things. I have gone to Barton Springs, once, and got a terrible sunburn. But I've never seen the bats and I didn't go to any bars or clubs. I managed to avoid the "Austin live music scene" entirely, unless you count classical and jazz concerts at the university. Sad, huh?)

When you were a teen, what would your ideal summer internship have been?
At a magazine. And I got to do it! Dream come true.

What are you working on now?
A new book, but it's a secret so far!

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
For a chance to win Lovestruck Summer, plus 3 other great beach reads, your readers can go to this site.

For more info, visit Melissa's web site. Or you can buy the book from Amazon.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


That whimpering sound you heard yesterday would have been me. After finally figuring out the way the scene was supposed to go, I still couldn't seem to write it. I seemed to come up with every procrastination method in the book. I finally decided to just go back and re-read what came before to build up to it. And then I realized that the real problem with the scene was that I hadn't actually set it up. It was just happening out of the blue for no good reason, with no sense of cause and effect. I knew why it was happening, but I hadn't put any of that in the book. I also noticed that I have continued a bad first draft habit of writing essentially the same scene over and over again. They may be talking about different things, but the same essential things are happening for the same reason. And I have far too many scenes that have very little to do with the story, that are just there (and one thing I don't even remember why I put in there in the first place).

I think for me that's the danger of trying to do a book-in-a-month challenge type thing. I get hung up on advancing the word count and just write instead of taking the time to think it through. So I think today will be a reboot day. I'll get out my notecards and go through the manuscript to really think about why each scene is there and what purpose it serves, and that should help me find places to put the new things I need. I'm going to quit worrying about word count and instead focus on getting the book done in as close to final form as possible. My goal is to be able to send this to my agent and have her only want to make a few tweaks before she sends it out into the world.

One thing that will help is that just about everything I watch on TV is now done for the season. Next season it looks like I'll have plenty of writing time, too. They did renew Chuck (yay!), but it's not returning until after the Winter Olympics. There are a few mid-season shows that look kind of interesting, but I'm not overly thrilled with most of the new things that were announced for fall. I did watch Glee last night, and it looks like that might scratch the particular itch that Friday Night Lights targets, where some of it is painfully real and some is over the top and it makes me feel good and hopeful while also making me cry. It also makes me kind of jealous because we didn't even have a choir in my school, let alone a show choir. I probably wouldn't have my phobia about singing in public today if I'd had opportunities like that at a younger age to allow me to get used to the idea before it built up into this huge thing. I didn't even know that you could take lessons in singing until I got to college and had a voice major as a roommate, but then I'd learned to play two musical instruments rather well using the "here's a fingering chart, now go practice" method of instruction. I'm not sure that it would have changed my life significantly because I don't think I have the drive or the desire to have been a professional, and I still would have wanted to write. It just may have meant that I didn't break out into a cold sweat at the idea of singing a solo, even though I desperately want to sing a solo. Anyway, it looks like that show is scheduled for Wednesday nights, so it will be something I can tape during choir practice, and then it will be too appropriate for watching when I get home from choir.

Now to go tackle a few business items, and then I'll get out the notecards.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reasonable Insanity

If there was ever any wonder why writers can be so insane, my day yesterday would thoroughly explain it.

There's a scene I've been wrestling with for days. I wrote it, then realized after I wrote it that it was dull and needed to go a different direction. I had a vague idea of what it needed, but I needed specifics in order to write it, and then I could think of two vastly different ways to go with the specifics. I spent most of the weekend going back and forth on which way to go with it, then yesterday I finally picked one. I spent the afternoon rewriting that part, only to stumble across something just as I had to quit writing to get ready for the homeowners association meeting that gave me a totally different idea that sends things in an entirely different direction. The right way to go wasn't a choice of either of the two things, but rather something else. I'm not sure I'd have ever come up with that third way without writing what I did, but obviously there was something in my subconscious that had a vague idea -- I even own something that could have been a good clue to lead me in the right direction, but I didn't think of it until I wrote it.

The homeowners association meeting ended very early, since we didn't have a quorum, so I got home in time to do the necessary research for the rewrite. Now it seems so very obvious that this is the only way it could ever have gone. Even a lot of the real-life stuff clicks with what I need to make up. I'm not entirely certain that the exact thing I'm going to create exists in the real world, but it's the kind of thing that should exist or that I could believe would exist, so I think I can get away with creating it. So, today I get to spend the day rewriting the entire sequence yet again. But I guess it's better to do all this rewriting in the first draft when I can make sure I'm going down the right path than to realize I have to rewrite it after the book is done, and those rewrites then mean rewriting lots of other stuff.

Meanwhile, I seem to have hit a reading slump, this one caused by reading something so good that everything else pales in comparison for a while. I read Nation, the latest Terry Pratchett book, over the weekend, and it totally blew me away. I was leery at first because it wasn't a Discworld book, but then really got into it because it was a kind of book I've always loved, given the Pratchett spin. It's the story of the aftermath of a tsunami, when an island boy who's the only survivor of his community and an English girl who's the only survivor of a shipwreck on his island team up to survive and start building a new community as more survivors join them. I've always loved survival/stranded type stories where there's something real at stake and people have to find their inner strength and grow and change to adapt to their surroundings. When I was a kid, I was always reading books about shipwrecks and kids stranded in the Outback and stuff like that. This book was touching and moving and made me cry, and I've since tried to get into two other books without any success. Which means I suppose I can be writing, instead.

Monday, May 18, 2009


After a rainy Saturday, we've had absolutely spectacular weather -- sunny, not muggy, cool in the morning and warm but not hot in the afternoon. It actually feels more like my ideal October than May, so I know my body will be whimpering when it gets hotter instead of cooler, but I'll take it while I can get it. I took advantage of it yesterday to go on a very long walk. I'd heard that they'd finally opened up the link between my neighborhood and the riverside hike/bike trails, so I headed out to find it.

And, yes, now I can get to the river by walking! There's a nice little park right on the edge of my neighborhood, with a path from the neighborhood up over the levee. The park serves as the trailhead for the hike/bike trail that runs a good two miles down the river, and which passes under all the surface streets and highways. Before, I had to drive to get to the trail because walking there would be death-defying.

However, it's about a half-hour walk from my house to the park where the riverside trail begins, so it's not as though I can just head over there for a quick daily exercise kind of walk. It's more of a thing to pack a lunch and a bottle of water in my backpack and make a day out of it. I kind of wish I had a bicycle because it would be a quick spin over there and then a great place to ride, and the place was crawling with bikes. At any rate, now I have easy access to nature, which is wonderful because while I do occasionally really enjoy being outdoors, there hasn't been a lot to do outdoors, and now when I do have a perfect outdoors kind of day, I have a way to enjoy it.

Plus, on the walk back, I took a bit of a shortcut and took surface streets instead of the walking path and then cut across the parking lot of the nearby shopping center, and I learned that the big Indian bazaar/market/import shop there will be opening in two weeks. I may have to learn to cook Indian food since I'll have ready access to the ingredients. And if I can make it to the Browncoat Ball this year, I should be able to find some good accessories for my outfit. Then I found that there's a new takeout curry place in that same shopping center, so I finally have takeout food in walking distance. I've never really done the takeout thing unless I'm coming home from a long day out and about and pick up something on the way home. If I'm already at home, it's more trouble to go out and get food than to cook if it requires getting in the car, mostly because all the takeout places are of the "you can't get there from here/can't get here from there" variety, thanks to a lot of one-way and divided roads. But now I can walk about a block and get takeout curry.

Today is so very nice that if I'd had a more productive weekend, work-wise, I'd be very, very tempted to just head out to the river and enjoy myself, but I do need to work and my legs are a little tired from yesterday's hike. I also have a homeowners association meeting tonight, so I can't goof off during the day with the promise that I'll work at night.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Okay, So Maybe I Was Wrong

So, I went with my best buds to see Star Trek today, and I have to admit I really liked it. I still have a few reservations, but if I detach myself from what I know about Star Trek and just look at it as a space-adventure movie, I did enjoy it, and when I allowed myself to retain a bit of my inner geekiness without the nitpicky part, I thoroughly enjoyed all the in-jokes. The wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff wiped out most of the "Muppet Babies" issues, aside from Chekov, and messing with the timeline doesn't change the fact that, given the ages stated specifically in the original series, if Kirk is in his 20s, Chekov isn't on the Enterprise, not even as a 17-year-old whiz kid, but I loved the new take on Chekov enough that I'm willing to let that slide. I think my favorite character re-creation was Bones, who was pitch-perfect and who seemed to fit, time-wise. I'm glad I saw it with geeky friends, so we could enjoy the shout-outs together, and there was one extended mildly inappropriate giggle fit when a particular sequence struck us as something right out of Galaxy Quest. I liked that they kept a lot of the 60s series look without trying to make the ships too streamlined and modern. When the sequel comes out, I'll be there.

I guess I am capable of admitting when I'm wrong.

Since we went out to a late lunch after seeing the early show of the movie, and then I went grocery shopping on the way home, I guess I'm going to be inverting my workday today and working on Saturday, but it's supposed to rain tomorrow, and maybe by distracting my conscious brain for a while I've allowed my subconscious brain to come up with a brilliant solution to the problem that's eating me (I have two ways to go with a scene, and I can't figure out which way is funnier).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thursday Thoughts

A list of random things in no particular order, since I have no coherent theme for the day:

1) I wasn't nearly as productive yesterday, but I did have choir practice. I tried to work some after choir but hit a brick wall.

2) It turns out that was for the good because while in the shower post-brick wall, I realized I was taking a totally wrong approach to the part I was writing, and if I'd forced myself to write more, it would have been wasted time because it all would have been deleted.

3) This is more proof that my brain is apparently water-powered. I need water around me to think.

4) I think if I redecorate my office (or, really, decorate it in the first place, since the current look is essentially Early Junk Room), I should get one of those tabletop fountains so I will always be able to have running water nearby and I won't have to wait for rainy days to get a lot of good creativity going.

5) Trying to read Terry Pratchett while I'm supposed to be plowing through a book probably isn't the best idea.

6) Even if it's a book I've already read.

7) Especially if it's a book I've already read and one of my favorites, and reading a few pages while I make tea turns into reading until I get to that part I really like.

8) I'm a little sad that tonight is the season finale of The Office. That show makes me happy in ridiculous ways. I've watched last week's episode three times now. It's a silly episode where nothing much happens, but the whole Cafe Disco concept gives me a smile.

9) Cafe Disco might be a fun theme for when I decorate my office.

10) TV cliffhangers can really mess up my productivity because my brain can't deal with an incomplete story and insists on writing the ending -- sometimes multiple permutations of the ending. It doesn't help that I know the ending of the book I'm writing, so to that part of my brain, completing these incomplete stories feels more urgent. NCIS is killing me right now with a four-week story arc. I probably should have just let them all pile up OnDemand and then watch them together when it's done. But then I couldn't have discussed them with Mom.

11) Have I mentioned that my brain is a very funny place? On the up side, I'm very seldom bored. I could entertain myself for days alone in a totally empty room. If they put me in solitary confinement, when they came to release me I'd probably ask for a few more days because I still had this story going in my head that I wanted to finish.

12) That voice class I took a couple of years ago to make me get over my phobia of singing in public may not have worked. At choir last night, the director announced that our summer pops show would be a tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein, and he was looking for people to do solos from the various shows. Well, I pretty much live for show tunes, so that's the sort of thing I dream about. I actually fantasize about performing in that kind of concert review. I have most of the good soprano solos from all the big R&H shows memorized. My brain was going "Yes! Let's do this! I've been living for this!" and then immediately, my heart rate shot up to "just finished the 100-meter dash" levels, I could feel my pulse pounding in my head, I started shaking violently, and I broke out in a sweat. I thought I was going to pass out just sitting there in the choir room contemplating the idea of singing a solo. So maybe I shouldn't volunteer (and then I'll sit there in the choir during the concert feeling jealous of the people doing solos).

13) And, really, would it be more fun to do a slightly funny song like one from South Pacific or one of the more romantic ones like "People Will Say We're in Love" from Oklahoma? (I actually like the swingy Ella Fitzgerald version of the latter.)

14) It looks like I will end up seeing the Star Trek movie. I'll be getting together with friends tomorrow to see it. I will have to report if I was wrong about it.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Happy Endings

I was so very good yesterday -- wrote nearly 5,000 words. Now that I'm done tinkering with the beginning, I may start making real progress.

The last writing question I was asked was about how to finish a book. I already dealt with how to write to "The End." The other side of that question is how to go about ending a book. I don't know that I'd call myself an expert, other than that I have actually ended a number of books. These are just some of my thoughts on the matter and are by no means definitive. I will add that my thoughts mostly just apply to commercial or genre fiction. "Literary" fiction is an entirely different thing.

The ending of a book has two parts -- the climax and the resolution. The climax is the big moment that resolves the main story question -- the big showdown between the hero and the villain, the solving of the crime, the realization of love, the final battle. It's the biggest moment in the book. Then the resolution ties up the loose ends and tapers off the story. The resolution also gives the opportunity to show how the experiences of the story have changed the hero permanently and establishes the new "ordinary world" that follows the events of the story.

The climax should answer the main story question -- the "can he win/discover/find/learn/defeat?" question that drives the entire story. In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain has an interesting take on this. He says that the hero starts with an infinite number of possibilities of things he can do or choices he can make toward his goal. As the story progresses, each choice he makes eliminates a lot of other choices so that his options narrow. When the story reaches the climax, the hero only has two choices, usually between the easy but wrong way and the hard but right way. The climax comes when the hero makes that choice and finds the resources to prevail.

How much resolution a book needs after the climax depends on the story itself and the genre. In a romance where the climax is the realization that the hero and heroine really love each other, you may not need a lot more resolution than that, other than perhaps an epilogue to show that the couple really does get together. Think about most romantic comedy movies -- they tend to end with that big moment where the hero and heroine say "I love you" and fall into each other's arms, with perhaps a closing credits montage showing their future life together. A fantasy quest story may have a longer resolution in which the hero returns from his quest and we see how he interacts with the folks back home now that he's a changed man because of his adventures, and his various questing party cohorts peel off to wherever they end up after the quest is over. An action story that also includes internal conflicts may also need a longer resolution that includes the "climax" of the personal stories -- the hero defeats the bad guys, and then is able to resolve his relationship issues and otherwise set things in his personal life right.

The resolution may bring the story full-circle -- returning home, going back to the beginning to see how much the hero or the world has changed. Think about Dorothy getting back to Kansas with an entirely new appreciation for what home really means. The place is the same, but she's changed. Or the resolution can show how the world has changed because of the actions of the hero -- the rejoicing Ewoks after the fall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, finally living in a world that's safe for innocent little furry things (yeah, gag, I know). One way to create a satisfying ending is to repeat some symbol or image from the beginning that shows how things have changed. I did that in Enchanted, Inc., which begins with the heroine taking the subway to work and freaking out because she's seeing magical stuff that no one else seems to notice. The closing scene after the big, climactic battle involves her heading to work and acknowledging the magical world that she now is a part of. The resolution can also show that things that have broken are now being fixed -- if the hero is wounded during the climactic battle, we might see his wounds being tended (like the end of The Empire Strikes Back and seeing Luke get the replacement hand) or if something in the hero's world is destroyed, we might see it being rebuilt (like the ending of the movie Serenity, with the montage of repairing the damaged ship while we also see the crew healing emotionally).

In general, we want some kind of proof that something important has changed because of the events of the story, whether it's the characters who have changed because of their experiences or the world that has changed because of their actions (or both). If nothing has changed, then what's the point? (And that's why what I'm saying doesn't necessarily work in literary fiction, because sometimes that's all about the fact that nothing changes.)

You don't want to drag out the resolution or else the book becomes anti-climactic. End as close to the climax as possible while still wrapping up the important loose ends. The book starts to lose energy after the climax, and you want to end before it all fizzles out. This is where the show-biz adage "leave 'em wanting more" applies. I like to think in terms of showing just enough of a hint of what the new "ordinary world" will be like for these characters that readers can then take it from there and imagine what their lives going forward might be like. I do think it's important to tie up minor story questions that have been raised (unless those are plot threads setting up a sequel), but not absolutely everything has to be tied up neatly. I tend to get annoyed with books that seem to require that absolutely everyone end up paired off, for instance.

The final thing to remember about an ending is that it's probably what sells your next book. People likely buy or get into a book based on its beginning, but the ending will determine whether people want to get your next book. That's the lingering impression left in readers' minds -- even if it's not a series and they're dying to know what happens next, a good ending creates a sense of trust. A bad ending just leaves a bad taste.

Any other writing questions you want me to address?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

From Book to Screen

I'm really proud of myself. Not only did I get tons of work done yesterday, but I did it all while at my desk with the computer connected to the Internet. I still ended up in the hole, as I cut more than I wrote (and I wrote a lot), but it's still progress if it's closer to the finished book, right?

I mentioned a while back that I'd made myself watch all of the movie PS I Love You because the screenwriter who's adapting Enchanted, Inc. did that movie. Last week, I read the book so I could get a sense of how he does an adaptation. I must say that my disliking of the movie probably does come down to the source material because it falls squarely in the "not really my thing" category. "She thought she had the perfect life until her husband died of cancer, and now she has to start all over again" is even lower on my list of things I want to read about than "She thought she had the perfect life until she caught her husband with the pool boy." I may be into corny, cheesy and sappy, but I'm not a huge fan of maudlin sentimentality unless it's written by Dickens.

(And while I normally have a policy of not bashing books, I can't really talk about the transition from book to movie without getting into my issues with the book, so I will make an exception here. I figure that author is big enough that she probably doesn't spend a lot of time Googling herself, and it's not like me being critical of her work is going to set her back very far.)

On the scary side of things (speaking as an author whose book is being adapted by this screenwriter), there's very little resemblance between the book and the movie. The basic plot remains the same, more or less -- a young widow learning to move on with her life with the help of a series of letters left behind by her husband. The setting is entirely different, which changes the nationality of most of the characters, but that could have been a studio decision (fear that a movie full of Irish accents would turn off American audiences, I guess). Aside from the main characters, it took me a while to map the characters from the book onto the characters in the movie, and there are a few fairly major characters in the movie that weren't in the book at all (and vice versa). Some of the major set piece and turning point scenes remained more or less the same, but just about everything in between was different.

However, I must say that the screenplay probably improved on the book. The book itself, as is, wasn't very filmable. It's a lot of telling with little showing, much of it told in flashback and memory -- even including some of the present-day scenes. There would be a big, hooky chapter ending where it looks like a situation is going to be very awkward and dramatic, and then the next chapter starts much later with the character remembering how awkward or dramatic the scene was. The characters are all fairly thin and bland, and the screenplay fleshed them out more, giving them flaws and quirks and making them more "real." A big change that I really liked was in the way the notes were delivered. In the book, she just gets a big envelope full of little envelopes that she's supposed to open one at a time, on the first of each month. That would be kind of boring on film. The film turned each note into an event, and enlisted all the family and friends in delivering them, which not only was more visual and dramatic, but also worked thematically in that it incorporated the family and friends into her life so she would have a strong support network. One change I was a little iffy about was turning her family from a strong nuclear family with parents who were still married and lots of siblings into just a flaky sister and a bitter, single mother whose husband had left her, but I think for the movie that even works better. The mother was kind of a blank in the book, and it made for interesting character conflict that the heroine was so afraid of losing her husband like she'd lost her father -- only to lose him in a different way -- and it created conflict between mother and daughter because the mother's coping skills for losing a husband didn't apply, even though she thought the situations were similar.

Casting was probably the biggest problem with the movie. I think that kind of heroine would have worked best with someone who appeared more vulnerable -- the kind of person other people want to take care of and who can be lovable even while being a little selfish and immature. Think an Amy Adams type. Hillary Swank just can't be convincingly vulnerable, and she has zero comic timing, so the physical humor seemed forced.

Now I don't know if I'm more or less nervous about how the screenplay will come out. I really like the other films Steven Rogers has written, and I think from those that he gets a lot of the elements that are important in my book. I like to think that my book is a little more cinematic to start with than this book was, with more distinctive characters and more action. I know things will have to change just to fit the movie format. And I guess I won't worry too much because I doubt I'll ever actually see the script unless the movie gets made and I see the movie. If that happens, I can be soothed by the money and the boost that should give my book sales.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Lurking Ideas

I may have to reconsider my Star Trek stance, given the overwhelmingly positive pro reviews as well as the opinions of just about everyone I know. I've been wanting a good space adventure, and maybe I can overcome my personal biases enough to distance myself from the original and enjoy the new version. I could make that my reward for a week of good work -- if I'm ahead of my target goal, I can see the early bird show at the neighborhood theater on Friday.

Speaking of work, although it's incredibly painful to know that I've written pages and pages yet am still behind where I started because I've cut even more pages, I think the book has vastly improved, to the point I'm excited about it. It's encouraging to realize how much I've learned about writing in the past couple of years.

Meanwhile, I think I have a new idea lurking around the edges of my consciousness. It's still very vague and consisting almost entirely of imagery. I can only catch a glimpse of it out of the corner of my mind's eye, and if I try to look at it directly, it vanishes. I think it's the same idea that's been lurking for a while. About the only thing concrete in it is a character's dog -- I know what this dog looks like, know its name and habits and quirks. That's the only thing that stays in focus when I try to study this idea. I shall relegate it to my subconscious and see if it's ready to come out to play when I finish the current book.

Because it was a busy work weekend, the only HBO was a movie I watched while reading the newspaper/doing crossword puzzles -- Leatherheads, the movie about the early days of pro football, with George Clooney, John Krasinski and Renee Zellweger. It was a frustrating movie because it had ingredients to be good, but ultimately wasted them all, possibly in a misguided attempt to be edgy or postmodern in a period piece.

Spoiler alert, in case you haven't seen it and are at all interested (though it's the kind of film where you have a pretty good idea how it will end by about the 30-minute mark)
It has the set-up for the classic romantic comedy love triangle, where there's Mr. Safe-but-Wrong and Mr. Risky-but-Right. Usually, Mr. Safe-but-Wrong loses because he takes the easy way out -- this is the guy who will accept the big check from the heroine's father to agree to stay away from her, or who won't give up his external goal for the sake of love. Meanwhile, Mr. Risky-but-Right wins because he is willing to take a risk -- he won't take the easy way out and is willing to put everything on the line in order to do the right thing, even if the right thing is something he previously would have been afraid of or opposed to. But in this movie, Mr. Safe-but-Wrong is the one willing to take the true risk and really do the right thing, yet he loses to the guy who "wins" by lying and cheating and taking the easy way out.

Meanwhile, there's all sorts of moral dilemma material here. Renee the reporter gets a hot tip that John the war hero college football star (and there were some serious math issues here, or else someone wasn't clear on the dates when WWI took place -- someone who put his college football career on hold to fight in WWI and then returned wouldn't still be playing college football in 1925) wasn't really such a war hero, after all. Getting this story will make her career and get her a big promotion. Meanwhile, fading pro football player George thinks that getting John on his team will help save pro football. Renee seems to like John, once she gets to know him, and he definitely likes her. Sparks fly between her and George. You'd expect her to start having qualms about doing the story, since doing so could destroy John's career, and if that happens, it will also destroy George's team. Even worse, John trusts her enough to totally come clean with her about what happened -- his "heroism" was really just a screw-up that had unexpected results. You'd expect this to be a big dilemma for her, but it didn't seem to bother her all that much. It didn't help matters that there was also a buddy movie that kept threatening to break out at any moment, as the best "chemistry" in the film was between John and George, and it was interesting seeing them coming together from opposite perspectives because of the common love of football, but then the film completely undermined that by turning them into adversaries and removing any of the possible loyalty/friendship issues.

I was left with the feeling that George won because he was George Clooney and not because that character deserved anything. If they were going to bother making the "bad guy" nice, then we needed to see some kind of serious change from the "good guy." Instead, I was left feeling like Renee and George kind of deserved each other (and not in a good way), and John was better off without them, and that's not what I'd call a satisfying ending.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Lucienne Diver

Last night my quest in ballet was to hold my arms correctly, something I usually fail to do and which takes great effort and thought. That left my upper arms achy in such a way that it feels like someone is grabbing me. And that meant lots of freaky nightmares about being grabbed -- made even freakier by waking up and still feeling like I was being grabbed, so that there was a brief moment of panic before I verified that I simply had sore muscles.

Meanwhile, now that I've rewritten parts of the first two chapters to make them more interesting, I've realized that these changes more or less negate almost everything else I already had written, so that it will actually be easier to just scrap it all and start from scratch. And that means I'm really, really far behind because not only has progress been slower than planned while I've tinkered with getting the opening right, but my progress goals were based on starting from having five chapters already written. Needless to say, it looks like I'll be working this weekend.

But on a much more fun note, I've got another Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Guest, and this one is a real treat because the author has been one of those people I hang out with at writing conferences and conventions for ages and ages. And I still like her even though she rejected me under her agent role (though we share an agent when she's in author mode). My guest is Lucienne Diver, author of Vamped, and although I am so not into vampires, I've thought this book sounded like a hoot from the moment I heard about it, so I may have to make an exception.

From “Valley Vamp Rules for Surviving Your Senior Prom” by VAMPED heroine Gina Covello:

Rule #1:
Do not get so loaded at the after prom party that you accidentally-on-purpose end up in the broom closet with the surprise hottie of the evening, say the class chess champ who’s somewhere lost his bottle-cap lenses and undergone an extreme makeover, especially if that makeover has anything to do with becoming one of the undead.

Gina Covello has a problem. Waking up a dead is just the beginning. There's very little she can't put up with for the sake of eternal youth and beauty. Blood-sucking and pointy stick phobias seem a small price to pay. But she draws the line when local vampire vixen Mellisande gets designs on her hot new boyfriend with his prophecied powers and hatches a plot to turn all of Gina’s fellow students into an undead army to be used to overthrow the vampire council.

Hey, if anyone's going to create an undead entourage, it should be Gina! Now she must unselfishly save her classmates from fashion disaster and her own fanged fate.

Now, the interview:
Was there any particular inspiration behind this story?
My heroine, Gina, just started talking in my head one day. I’m not sure how it happened, especially when I realized that she was essentially the big-haired girl with the reputation who tormented my sister in high school. So I tormented her right back. What’s true horror for a fashionista? Lack of reflection, no way to fix your hair and make-up, eternity without tanning options! At first I was just going to give Gina a short story to get her out of my head – let her claw her own way out of the grave, face her fears and turn her stylist…or die (again) trying. Then Gina got her claws into me. My readers liked her. “This wants to be a novel,” they said. And, well, they were right. So, Gina had to grow and change into someone I could live with for two hundred plus pages. She’s still a fashionista determined not to go through eternity a total schlub, but underneath it all is a heart she’s been hiding for her own protection, and it’s slowly revealed over the course of the story.

How much -- if anything -- do you have in common with your heroine?
I like clothes. I’ve object to being seen as a total schlub. I sort of had the Mafia princess look cooking for me in high school. [Note, see totally embarrassing picture I’ve attached.] However, I was a geek girl. I played D&D, got caught reading library books in class, had to date outside my high school . Actually, the character I have the most in common with in the novel is the blond book girl Gina pumps for information.

(You know, I think we have the makings for a new horror film: It Came from the 80s! I have plenty of my own material to contribute.)

Why do you think vampires are so popular in young adult fiction right now?
And adult fiction as well! I think it’s because vampires are sexy. They’re the ultimate bad boys (or girls). You want to piss off your parents? Try bringing home a bloodsucker!

(Hmm, maybe that explains why I never got the appeal of vampires. I never wanted to piss off my parents.)

Vampires vs. Zombies: Who wins? And who wins homecoming queen?
Vampires, hands down! Zombies…bah! They’re decomposing as we speak. So easy to rip off an arm or a leg and beat them with it…I’m just saying! Not that I’ve fought off a zombie invasion above once or twice in my life, but I think that’s a fair sampling. As for homecoming queen, Gina‘s got that in the bag!

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a middle-grade boy-book that’s been talking at me since a trip to NYC last fall. I was deep in the midst of REVAMPED (VAMPED sequel which will be out in 2010) at the time, and so I had to wait until just recently to start. I’m having a lot of fun with it because I get to bring in some archaeology and history. Plus the protagonist is only a little older than my son, so I get to use him as a litmus test for the voice!

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book and the process of writing it?
Just that I really hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. VAMPED was a trip, and Gina is probably my favorite character I’ve ever written. Every time I came to a difficult scene to write, like an action scene, I felt as if the character actually kicked me out of the way with a, “Would you let me handle this?” And she did. In some ways it was a hard book to write because I had to wrestle it back from Gina, who, if you can’t tell by now, is one tough cookie. In others, it was the easiest thing I’ve ever written because all I had to do was get out of my own way and let my protagonist take point.

For more info (and to see a more current, less frightening author photo), check out Lucienne's web site or order the book from Amazon.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Losing My Geek Cred

Thanks for all the fun science fiction recommendations. That may help me come up with good summer reading. Really, right now "fun" isn't too popular in the publishing world. "Dark and dangerous" are the buzzwords. Romantic comedy and chick lit are pretty much dead except for a few authors -- and even there the chick-lit-like books are mostly about what happens after marriages fall apart. The cover blurbs all seem to go along the lines of "Mary Sue thought she had the perfect marriage, until she caught her husband with the pool boy. Now she's trying to cope with being a single mother, re-establishing her career and re-entering the dating scene." Not really my idea of fun reading. Fantasy -- both urban and otherwise -- is all about the dark and dangerous. Science fiction seems to mostly be about how the world is coming to an end because humans are terrible. Maybe I'm shallow, but for summer reading, in particular, I want to read about people I like having adventures. A touch of darkness and danger is fine, but I don't want to wallow in it.

Sometimes, that strong craving to read something is a sign that it's something I should be writing, but I suspect that if I tried to create a Firefly-like space adventure it would probably end up looking like Firefly fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off. Or else I would be so conscious of trying to avoid looking like I was writing Firefly fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off that I'd be making character choices strictly for that reason, which isn't good, either. Maybe someday an actual plot/story/character will drop into my head and I can write it, but at the moment I'm not even sure there's a market for that sort of thing.

Speaking of space adventures, I'm going to have to come clean with a confession that will show that I'm either a bad geek or a truly geeky geek: I have no interest in the new Star Trek movie. In fact, I'm kind of opposed to the very existence of it. It's not for the reasons given in the Onion spoof video about Trekkies hating the film. I have no objections to more action and fewer scenes of debating ethical issues. I just hate the idea of a prequel to the original series involving the characters from the original series (I wasn't thrilled with the idea of Enterprise, either, but at least that was set in a different era).

While I am a fairly old-school Trekker (I may even be a Trekkie, to be honest, though I don't own a set of Spock ears, I don't have a Starfleet uniform and I don't speak Klingon), I'm also capable of being open-minded about it. I love the original series for what it was and have fond memories of watching it. I saw it in bits and pieces as a kid (my mom watched it during the original run, part of which I was alive for, so I guess I was indoctrinated early), then they started running it after school when I was in high school. Both my parents worked at the school, so we all came home together and watched it every afternoon. I fell in with the group that I ended up hanging out with in college when they used to gather in someone's dorm room to watch Star Trek every afternoon before going down to the cafeteria for dinner. The fourth movie came out my freshman year, and there was a big group outing to go see it.

But I'll admit that I liked The Next Generation even more when it came along (we crammed into a dorm room for that, too). And my favorite series of them all is Deep Space Nine, which should prove that I'm not really the hidebound, old-school Trekkie who refuses to accept anything that doesn't meticulously follow Roddenberry's vision.

My problem is that I'm not a fan of re-boots, especially not of something so iconic. If you're going to do it, go the Battlestar Galactica route and really re-do it without pretending it has any connection to the original. But to re-boot with a prequel that takes place not too terribly long before the original? I can't quite deal. The ages don't really line up well and it all ends up looking like the Muppet Babies, where there was already an "origin" story of how they met as adults, and then suddenly they all were in the same nursery together as babies. And then there's the look of things. The original series had a pretty distinct look that had a lot to do with the time period and the budget, and there are a couple of ways to approach it -- you can update the look and pretend it was always like that, just depicted using the technology available at the time, or you can go with it, acknowledge it and accept it as the aesthetic of a particular era. I loved the way they dealt with it on the "Trials and Tribbleations" episode of Deep Space Nine -- they considered it a particular era with a particular style and acknowledged that things really did look like that then. They even dealt with the old-style Klingons with the "we do not discuss it among outsiders" line.

I would have been all for a Star Trek re-do with a new crew -- like the next-next generation or even another ship. But my old-school Trekker heart won't let me cope with other people playing Kirk, Spock and McCoy in a universe that looks nothing like the Trek universe. The movie's getting great reviews, and I might have been willing to be dragged by friends, but my friends are going at a time when I can't go, and I can't picture myself taking time out to go to the movie on my own.

So, do I have to give up my geek badge of honor for not seeing a Star Trek movie, or do I enter the Geek Hall of Fame for being too geeky to accept the re-boot? I already didn't see the latest X-Files movie. It looks like I'll have to see the new Harry Potter on opening day (I plan to) to retain any geek credibility.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Men of Mystery

I may not have been too terribly upset with the actual writing on this resurrected project, but then it occurred to me that I was showing signs of a bad habit that I think I've broken since I wrote this thing -- having people talk about stuff instead of doing it. I had pages and pages of dialogue with no action -- really, lots of "sequel" with people talking about what to do next and next to no "scene" with them actually doing anything. There were moments when I wondered if it would have just been faster to scrap everything and start fresh, but then I reminded myself that I'm struggling to figure out what should happen either way, whether I'm starting from scratch or revising what I have, so I may as well use the pieces I have that still work. No matter where this goes, it's turning out to be a good analytical exercise, and while it is discouraging to see how clueless I could be, it's reassuring that I noticed this now, which means I've learned and grown, so yay.

I've been reading some of the descriptions for potential new TV series, as the networks announce their pilots and fall seasons, and it's occurred to me that there's a character trait that comes up often in these descriptions that sounds good in that context but that seldom works as a defining character trait in practice. In fact, I now find myself rolling my eyes at any character who is described primarily as "mysterious."

That's because "mysterious" mostly means that we don't know much about him, and that comes dangerously close to looking like a boring character who isn't well-defined -- do we not know much about this person because he's mysterious, or do we not know much about him because there isn't anything more to know? Either way, if we don't know anything about him, we can't care much about him. But then if the character actually acts mysterious so that it's obvious he has something to hide, that's also a problem. It seems to me that someone who really is mysterious, who has a deep, dark secret or something to hide, wouldn't actually act mysterious. Acting mysterious -- pointedly refusing to answer personal questions, going by an initial or an obvious fake name and not using your real name, looking shifty and suspicious when things get personal -- is pretty much like wearing a giant yellow button that says "Ask Me About My Mysterious Past!" (I'm looking at you, Thirteen on House -- you weren't being mysterious. You were practically begging for people to investigate you.)

Someone who really has something to hide would act in such a way that people wouldn't want to know more about him. He might be a bit of an obnoxious jerk so that people wouldn't care much about who he is (another good reason for the Jerk with Layers character type). He might adhere to a stereotype so people would assume they already know everything that matters about him. He might bombard people with way too much information about himself so that no one would want to ask him further questions -- and it would take someone who's paying attention to notice that there's nothing of real substance in all that information he gives.

In other words, any character who really has a mystery isn't going to look like a character with a mystery. I think one of the best examples of a TV series pulling this off was with Dr. Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. He acted like the stereotypical obnoxious recent med school graduate who thinks he knows everything, and was prone to going on and on about papers he'd written or research he'd done. Nobody would have dared ask him about himself because that would have meant an hour-long discourse. He was so eager to talk about himself that everyone felt they knew everything there was to know. And then late in the series' run, we found out that he was actually hiding a huge secret about himself. His very existence was illegal, and he had to hide what he was. I don't think it was planned from the start, but I don't think it would have worked if it had been because they'd have been too tempted to sneak in hints or show him acting suspicious or mysterious. As it was, the character was a great example of the way someone who had something to hide and was smart enough to know how to hide it might behave, so the revelation worked for me. Come to think of it, they used that trait earlier in the series when he was replaced by a Changeling for months and no one noticed. In general, if you're going to pull out something big, huge and hidden about a character and the audience sees it coming because the character acted like someone with a secret, then you're doing it wrong.

But what do you do if you want your character to appear mysterious to the audience without the character looking too incompetent to keep a secret? I think the main thing is that you can't define the character by his mysterious nature. There has to be some other defining characteristic to keep him from looking boring, with the mysterious part layered around it. The series Remington Steele was built around the idea that a man with a mysterious past stepped into the role of a fictional company figurehead, but the character of "Steele" wasn't defined by his mystery. He was mostly defined by his charm, his ability to talk his way into and out of any situation. No one knew anything about who he was (not even his real name until almost the end of the series), but he was glib enough to deflect any questions (and didn't it come out that he didn't even know who he really was until near the end?).

You could also use point-of-view so that the audience/readers are in on information that other characters aren't or so that different characters all get different pieces of information and the audience/readers can put together those pieces and see that something doesn't quite add up. The character might be different inside his head than he is with the world, or he may drop his guard more with some people than with others. I think there might also be traits that could show up in someone who is feeling the weight of hiding things. He might be nosy about other people and suspicious by nature if he's projecting the fact that he has something to hide on other people -- if he's hiding something big and no one knows, then what is everyone else hiding? He might be good at spotting other people's secrets, since he knows where to look. Or he could go the opposite way and be obsessed with privacy in general, going with the Golden Rule approach with the hope that if he didn't dig into other people's lives, no one would dig into his. He might have definite boundaries, like where he's friendly and outgoing at work, goes to lunch with co-workers or even out for drinks after work, but doesn't at all blur the lines between personal and professional or incorporate his colleagues into his off-duty hours.

I'll have to think more about this. I've hinted that there's a mystery about Owen, but I don't think he's all that mysterious because even he doesn't know what it is, so he has nothing to hide. That's certainly not his defining trait, and the fact that he's pretty open about not knowing his origins may mean that others don't feel all that compelled to investigate. Until things got crazy (the period before the books start), I imagine he mostly just kept his head down and did his work, so he was the kind of guy no one cared to know more about.

And now I guess I've given away all my mysterious secrets. If I ever write a chatty character who's always talking about himself, you'll know that he's probably hiding some deep, dark secret.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Blasts from the Past

Yesterday I did the scariest part of resurrecting an old project: I re-read what I'd already written. I always cringe a bit when doing that because it can be rather eye-opening. I'm detached enough from the process of writing it to be totally objective, which means I spot all the annoying writing habits, plot problems, etc. I would hope I've grown as a writer in the past couple of years, so this trip back in time can be uncomfortable. It wasn't too bad, but there's going to be a lot of re-writing.

It probably helped that I'd already done an even bigger trip down memory lane. When I wasn't singing or watching my neighborhood on the news this weekend, I indulged in a bit of nostalgia and did something I almost never do: I read my own books. I was in the mood for something like Enchanted, Inc. but there isn't really anything else out there that fills that particular craving, so I figured it had been a long time since I wrote it and I might be able to read it now. Normally, I avoid reading my books after they're published because I'm generally sick of them by the time I've read them a zillion times before publication, and once they're published, I can't change things. That makes it worse than re-reading an old work in progress.

It did take me a while to get past being conscious of every word and start just reading the story, but then I started almost being surprised because there were a lot of things I forgot about. When I finished that book, I immediately picked up Once Upon Stilettos, and I must have totally repressed that book because almost all of it felt "new" to me, like I hadn't written it. And, you know, it's a really good book. When I got near the end, I was frantically flipping pages, and I wrote it. I started on the next one, but that's when things went insane, so I got sidetracked, since I remember more of what happened there, as it's a lot more recent.

One weird thing I noticed was that my mental images of the characters has shifted slightly with time. It's almost like the roles have been re-cast in my head (not necessarily with actual actors, they're just different mental images). I did find myself hearing David McCallum's voice in my head for Merlin, which is new and different, but then I figured out that it was because Merlin calls Owen "Mr. Palmer" and that's what David McCallum's character calls his assistant on NCIS, which means that's the voice I'm most likely to hear saying the words "Mr. Palmer." (It's sad how long it took me to make that connection -- I was reading and thinking that phrasing sounded familiar, and only then did the Palmer connection occur to me.)

For other nostalgia, I created my own Sci Fi Friday by watching the episode "Serenity," the pilot (that was shown last) from Firefly. I found myself wishing I could find a science fiction book like that. I haven't read a lot of science fiction in a while. I used to be in a science fiction book group, but most of what we read was what I'd call "Earth-based" science fiction -- more set in the "real world" and exploring the ramifications of science. I like a lot of that -- stuff like Robert J. Sawyer and Connie Willis -- but it's been a while since I read a good, rollicking space adventure. There's the Barrayar series by Lois McMaster Bujold and the Flinx books by Alan Dean Foster. I've also got on my shelf Santiago by Mike Resnick (which has a rather Firefly feel to it) and something called The Icarus Hunt by Timothy Zahn. Oh, and the "Ship Who Sang" series by Anne McCaffrey. I would love to find some books about the adventures of a spaceship crew -- nothing too portentious or trying to demonstrate where we're going wrong with society today. Just some character-based adventures where the interactions among the crew are as interesting as the conflicts they have with the things they face. Even the Star Wars tie-in books don't work now that the post-Jedi books seem to all be about people struggling against the Dark Side and the Clone Wars era books are about the adventures of Mary Sue Skywalker, the most awesome Jedi who ever Jedied, and isn't he so super special and powerful and awesome? (But try to forget that he becomes the villain and goes off to kill children and entire planets and be really into torture -- or about the fact that he was already pretty selfish and entitled and thought the rules didn't apply to him even before he went really bad -- during the era of these books.)

Any recommendations for fun science fiction? (Really, "fun" doesn't seem to be big in publishing these days, in general.)

In other news, I had an interesting name pop up in my in-box yesterday. I got an e-mail from Katie Chandler -- the real Katie Chandler. It's her married name, so I didn't steal her entire life, but she does have some startling similarities to my Katie. She found out about the books when she got a Facebook friend request that seemed to think it was a fan page about the character. So, for the record, the fictional Katie Chandler doesn't have a Facebook page. The real Katie Chandler seems like a lovely person, so who knows, you may want to be her friend, but don't expect to hear about her adventures working for a magical company.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Weekend Excitement

Apparently, today is Star Wars day: May the Fourth be with you! (Hee!)

It was a rather exciting weekend around here -- so exciting that part of it made the national news. It's interesting to see your neighborhood on CNN. And it may say something about my personal level of oblivion or else the media saturation of our society that I found out about something that happened just down the street from me when my parents called me after they saw something about it on national television.

On Saturday afternoon I'd come home from a choir rehearsal and was eating a late lunch when the skies got dark. I checked the local radar channel on TV and saw that a nasty storm was heading my way. The storm hit and there was a lot of lightning and thunder, so I went upstairs to shut my computer down and disconnect it from all the outlets. It was raining really hard by then, so hard I couldn't see the buildings across the street. And then the wind started coming from a different direction, so I ran downstairs to close the bedroom window. I can usually keep that window open because it's on the opposite side of the building from the direction the storms usually come from and it opens onto the front porch, so it's sheltered, but the rain was blowing almost horizontally from a different direction. If my front door opened to the outside instead of to the inside, I might have had trouble opening it, and if I hadn't had two deadbolts on, the door probably would have blown open. And then a few minutes later it had calmed down a bit, still raining, but not quite as nasty. After that, the sirens -- police and fire -- started, and I figured someone's house must have been struck by lightning. But there were a lot of sirens, going on and on.

Then my mom called. My dad had been watching the Kentucky Derby, and they'd interviewed Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones about the tornado that had struck and destroyed the team's indoor practice facility (not so affectionately called the Jerrydome in the neighborhood) -- which is about six blocks from my house. There was a rookie mini-camp practice going on at the time. Which would explain all those sirens. Eventually, the local stations cut into programming to cover it, and a couple of them had photographers inside when the building came down, so they had footage of the collapse. (As my dad said when we were on the phone while watching that footage, "I bet some of those guys will have to wash their uniforms.") And then it was all over the national networks.

I don't watch a lot of CNN, but if their accuracy in reporting this event is a measure of their general competence, I'm not sure I'd believe them if they reported that the sun rose in the east. They were still talking about a tornado hours after our local science geek weatherman had explained that there was no evidence of it being a tornado and that it was a microburst, and after the National Weather Service had said there was no tornado. (I could have told them that -- I've lived in Oklahoma, so I know what a tornado feels like, and no tornado struck six blocks from me.) Then they were giving the size of the facility, and the anchorman kept talking about how it was a hundred feet long. It's essentially a giant tent over a football field, and the playing surface of a football field is 100 yards, plus the end zones. That should have been corrected instantly if he misspoke, but he said it several times. I switched back to the local coverage, which was much better.

It was weird seeing something so familiar and so very close to home as a disaster scene. Our neighborhood fire-rescue crew were the first responders, and I recognized them from when the fire station was the election polling place, from the fill-the-boot drives, from the grocery store, from them working the wrecks at the intersection behind my house and from that time my security system went nuts and called the fire department at 6:30 in the morning. And then I also recognized a lot of the team staff from around the neighborhood. They apparently have a lunchtime walking group because I'm always running into them when I go walking.

But the really weird thing is just how localized the damage was. When I went to church yesterday, I didn't see any sign of a major storm in the neighborhood until I got to that specific block. There were a couple of tree limbs down, and then the only damaged building in the neighborhood was the Jerrydome. It looked like someone had been aiming for it. If I owned that building, I might be taking a good look at my life right now, just sayin'. And I'm very glad I no longer live right across the street from it (which is where I was living before I bought this house).

So, to anyone who saw that on TV and knew approximately where I lived, I'm fine, with no damage here.

Then there was the concert, which was incredibly awesome. We had a decent crowd, but the audience didn't get to hear the best part, which was when we were warming up in the choir room. We had a hundred people in the room, singing through parts of the mass a capella. Talk about spine-tingling.

And, finally, I got word that Don't Hex with Texas won the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. So now I guess I can say that I'm an award-winning author.

Whew! What a weekend! Now to plunge into my new book-in-a-month project.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Ballet Nazi Strikes Back

The Ballet Nazi was back last night, and boy, am I feeling it. I did learn that in his dancer days, he danced with Baryshnikov, so I guess he knows what he's doing. I just feel like a total oaf when he's teaching because everything I do seems to be wrong, and he seems to single me out a lot. I don't know if I'm really that bad or if he sees some kind of potential in me, since he acts like he's trying to mold me into a prima ballerina. If that's the case, then dude, most dancers are retired by the time they're my age, and I'm in a beginning class. It's not gonna happen. I'm not trying to be a dancer. I'm just trying to trick my lazy self into exercising. He did point out a tendency I have that I hadn't realized I even carry over into normal life. I go around looking at my feet or at the ground right in front of my feet. After he got me in front of the mirror and pulled my head up by grabbing my bun, I saw what a huge difference it made in how I looked and how I felt. I felt like my head was tilted back, but could see in the mirror that it was just upright. Now I've been trying to make a conscious effort to hold my head up, but do you know how hard it is to change something you do automatically, like walking? I feel very unsteady when I'm not looking right at the ground. But with my head up I look a lot taller, and it even changes the lines of my face.

It's just occurred to me that this has been my usual book release week. My books usually came out on the last Tuesday in April or the first Tuesday of May. This should have been a crazy week for me as I had booksignings and went around to stores signing stock while also doing a lot of web-based promo. This could explain the spate of e-mail I've had lately, as I guess people are thinking there should be another book about now. Sorry, the best I've got is the reissue of Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl, I Learned from Judy Blume and the Supernatural book, In the Hunt, both of which I have essays in.

In other book news update, the publisher is still being stubborn about book 5. The best thing readers can do to help is keep spreading the word and getting people to buy books. I've said in the past that it doesn't matter where you buy them, but it turns out that sales from the big B chains count more (B&N and Borders) because that's how they determine their initial print run, as those are the big, up-front orders. My sales tend to be stronger at Amazon and at independent stores (especially fantasy/science fiction specialty stores), but these don't order a lot up front, which makes the initial print run smaller, and if they look at just the big B initial orders, it looks like the initial print run wouldn't be profitable. Never mind that they keep having to go back to print and that the overall sales numbers are quite nice, this is what they told my agent. If you want to write to somebody, maybe it would have more impact through the big chains -- complain that they aren't carrying the whole series (if they aren't), that you can't find the books there, that they should be shelved in fantasy, whatever. If you're friendly with people who work at a big chain, talk to them about these books so that maybe they'll order in extra and hand-sell to customers. It may take bookstores putting pressure on the publisher. And if you run an independent bookstore and would like another book to sell, then let your Random House sales rep know.

I haven't heard anything more on the movie other than the hiring of the screenwriter and the fact that there is an actual IMDB entry (which doesn't necessarily mean anything).

I have several things in various stages of progress, but the industry is kind of tight right now. You'll know something when I know something. In fact, when I get another book out there, you'll have to hide to avoid hearing about it.

And finally, for the North Texans out there, don't forget the Mozart Mania concert Sunday at 6:30 at First United Methodist Church of Coppell (420 South Heartz in Coppell, for Google Maps search purposes). I'm in the front row of the choir, and I would like there to be more people in the audience than there are in the choir.