Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Neat Little Boxes

Okay, so I didn't get all that work done yesterday. It was a good thinking day, but the ideas were coming randomly and wouldn't be organized, so I couldn't manage to translate them into actual work. However, the house is still moderately clean, and is actually even a bit cleaner because I sorted through some magazines and did a purge. Plus, I cooked dinner and cleaned up right afterward.

Since the work wasn't working, I did some work-related reading. When I go to the library, I like to browse the "new in non-fiction" shelf and pick out random books I think might be relevant or interesting. I'm especially a sucker for pop psychology books about analyzing the kind of person you are because those are great for developing characters. One of the ones I found on my latest library trip was about how you choose romantic partners based on your type and their type, and since I do include romantic relationships in my work, I thought that might be worthwhile to read. If there is some kind of self assessment in those books, I do it for myself as I read because that makes the material sink in a little better. On this one, the questions in the self assessment seemed awfully familiar, and it wasn't because they were from some other assessment like the Myers-Briggs.

As I read further, I discovered that the reason the questions were familiar was that I had participated in the research behind the book. Way back in 2003 or maybe 2004, this thing spread among my Internet friends that some researchers needed a lot of people to take a personality test. It was part of what was supposed to be a scientifically based online dating service, and they needed a lot of people to do the questionnaire to help develop their algorithms. For participating, you would get a free introductory membership to the service. I did the test for kicks because I'm a sucker for psychology and because I've been spectacularly unsuccessful in finding compatible romantic partners, so I was curious what they'd pick for me based on "science." I must have been a real oddball because they picked me for a follow-up test as a "unique personality type." The dating service they were developing turned out to be Chemistry.com, but I never used that free membership because they were more than a year later than they originally said they'd be in launching it, and by the time they launched it, I'd mostly forgotten about it and had more or less given up on dating.

After reading this book, I think I see what they meant by me being a unique personality type. You supposedly have a primary and secondary type in aspects that influence the way you select mates, and my primary and secondary types are apparently in absolute conflict with each other. That's why I have trouble finding compatible romantic partners. The types my primary type would choose are the ones my secondary type would dislike, and vice versa. Supposedly, I'm a creative daydreamer who's also an upright citizen who believes strongly in morals and order, which is rather accurate, but which apparently doesn't go together very often. I guess you don't see a lot of law-and-order creative types, and other law-and-order types don't get the creative thing, while other creative types don't really go for the upright citizen stuff.

However, I think this illustrates the dangers of putting people into neat little boxes based on quiz scores, and it's why I love this kind of stuff for characterization but think it's iffy for real people. Just looking at the raw numbers doesn't give you a full picture. On the category that came out ahead for secondary type, I was only a few points ahead of another type, and that was mostly because most of my answers there fell into the "agree" category just because there was no "don't really care" option and I didn't exactly disagree. On the category that scored slightly lower, there were a few "strongly disagree" answers, but there were also a lot more "strongly agree" answers. A lot of the "disagree" answers were things that depended on the situation (since "it depends" wasn't an option). That was the "exploring" category, and my answers there get weird because I do feel better if I have a plan, but there wasn't an option to say that I use the plan just as a contingency and tend to go off-plan once I'm actually doing things. For me, it's easier to be spontaneous if I know I have a fallback plan. Which is more likely to be an indicator of type -- agreeing a lot because I don't disagree but also because I don't have really strong feelings, or having strong positive feelings for a lot of things while also disagreeing a lot, depending on the context?

I'm not even sure how well some of this will work for characterization since I'm most interested in the characters who don't fall into neat little boxes and who would likely have those oddball answers to quizzes, but it was interesting to see the fruition of something I'd been involved in.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Perfectionism Run Amok

All in all, I had a pretty good weekend. My house is kind of clean, I got through my song okay in the concert, the concert was amazing, I had a nice visit with my parents, and I think I know how to fix the ending of the book. All a big yay.

I did have an epiphany of sorts while I was cleaning that then applied to the singing. I have some perfectionist tendencies of the sort that I feel like if I can't be perfect there's no point in trying. So the house becomes a mess because I keep telling myself I need to do a really thorough cleaning and decluttering, and there's no point in just doing a cosmetic cleaning if I'm going to do that thorough thing later, but then I don't have time for the perfect clean-and-sort, so I don't do anything at all, and the place just gets messier. But, really, I'm very happy with slightly cluttered, and it's easier to go from this sort-of clean state to cleaner, and this provides a good starting point for a more thorough, gradual organizing. While I do have slobbish tendencies, I really like having a clean house.

Now I need to tackle the upstairs. That will be more of an adventure, but I can do it gradually. At least now I can even invite a neighbor inside. I say this every time I clean house, but I'm going to try to maintain the good habits to keep it this way.

This also applies to the singing. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't even my best because I suddenly got very nervous. My brain tends to amplify every little flaw so I perceive the whole performance as terrible if I mess up at all, which makes me not want to do that kind of thing. But I heard from a lot of people that it was nice, and Mom told me not to stress because it was good (not just in that Mom loves everything I do way, but in the "really, it was good, so chill" way). Even strangers told me it was nice.

I don't know that this applies to my writing because I'm too prone there for settling for okay and I get impatient and just want it done. I did realize, as part of figuring out the problem, that yet again I'd written something where the main viewpoint character isn't really the "hero" in terms of the story arc. I think that will have something to do with fixing the climax and resolution, and I may have to make the main viewpoint character have a larger role in that. Today should be a good writing day, as the heat broke and there could be rain. I've already taken a walk to the library, so I can settle down and work.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Up and Away

I finished my revisions yesterday -- except for the end which I'm still not happy with. I think I know what's wrong with it, but I don't yet know how to fix it. To celebrate, give my brain a break and maybe inspire myself, I went with my friends to see Up.

Pixar has done it again. The thing I love about their movies is that even though they involve technical wizardry, they're first and foremost about the story and characters, and they never lose sight of that. They also manage to be emotionally engaging without being melodramatic or manipulative. This one had me alternately bawling and laughing myself silly. I went through two tissues from the weeping, and they were the super-strong Puffs Plus. This will be a DVD must-buy.

We also hit a used bookstore in a college town, so I was able to get a stack of books on Jungian psychology as it applies to folklore (and vice versa). I think I got what must have been the reading list for a course because I never see these books in other stores and my library doesn't have them. I'd been searching for books by these authors and had a list of the ones I wanted and the ones the library had, so I was able to cross-reference to get the right ones. I'm not sure what I'll do with them all (aside from the obvious -- read them), but I think a lot of this will play into that misty idea.

But now I'm tired because it was really hot to be out and about. I stopped for gas at a 7-11 on the way home and decided that a Slurpee was mandatory, but it's been so long since I had a Slurpee that I'd forgotten how to work the Slurpee machine, and I had to follow the lead of someone else who was there. That probably says something really sad about my life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Writing out of the Mist

I'm getting really close to being totally done, aside from a final read-through. In fact, that may happen today if I can avoid interruptions. I just have the last two chapters to re-work, though one thing that will fix the last chapter needs to be set up in an earlier chapter, which will involve a little rewriting there.

Meanwhile, my subconscious seems to be churning away at the latest idea. In writing groups, there's often a lot of discussion about being a "plot-driven" or "character-driven" writer, meaning what's your starting point for a story. Do you come up with a plot, then populate it with characters, or do you start with a character and build a story around him/her? With me, it varies depending on the book and on where the idea comes from. With my Enchanted, Inc. series, it started with a kind of book, a particular genre mix. From there I developed what the magical system would be and how the main character fit into it, and then the basic kind of person the main character would be. I think I developed the specific plot and the specific characters at around the same time, just before I started writing (though I'd written the first page or so before I did anything -- yes, I wrote the first page of the book before I knew who was actually talking).

This new idea is an entirely different animal. It started more with a vague feeling and a mix of elements I wanted to play with, all of which were swirling together in a kind of mist. Sometimes I'd see a shape in that mist, like when you look at clouds and suddenly see a cloud that looks like something, but if I stared too hard at it, it would lose shape. The first thing to come out of the mist and hold its form was a dog that I thought must belong to the main character. Then I got a very basic, high-level, generic plot (on a par with "a detective has to solve a crime" -- not that, but at that level of detail), and that's when I realized that the dog actually belonged to someone else, but the main character would be stuck with it for most of the story, and the dog was more of a kindred spirit with the main character than with its real owner. Then more things swirled around these elements, some of them taking more solid shape, though they're still pretty misty. The main character is still forming, and I think I'm getting a sense of her, but the challenge will be how to tell her story.

As she exists now, in her vague, misty form (she doesn't even have a name), she's one of those force of nature type people who goes after the things she wants without even considering that she might not be able to get them, practically reshaping the world around herself as she goes -- and without being consciously aware that she's doing so. She's the kind of person about whom Terry Pratchett tends to have characters say, "Oh dear, I hope she hasn't happened to someone." Like the book version of Mary Poppins, she manages to make all kinds of amazing things happen, then acts like she has no idea what people are talking about when they refer to what she's done. (Incidentally, as I'm re-reading those books, I'm finding it more and more funny that because of the movie the name "Mary Poppins" has come to mean someone who's all sweetness and light, while in the books she's kind of a bitch and very vain and crabby.) This is also a character who has a big discrepancy between what she appears to be like and what she really is -- she has the kind of appearance that leads to people making incorrect assumptions about her, so they're always surprised when they find out what she's really like.

The trick is how to convey this kind of person. I prefer writing in first person, and if I do that, this character would have to be the narrator because she's the only one who would be present for all the major events, but that doesn't really work to convey that difference between outside and inside. It's so much fun to get that sucker punch through the eyes of the person being sucker punched. This is a character to get to know from the outside in. I would rather introduce her through someone else's eyes. Then there's the fact that not being entirely sure what she's thinking is half the fun because you're never sure what she'll do. Going back to Pratchett, it's like the way he mostly talks about Carrot from someone else's point of view, especially as Carrot has developed. Half the fun is never really knowing how much of what he does is calculated and on purpose and how much is really him being naive, and the other half is seeing how people react to him. If you knew what he was really thinking it wouldn't be quite as interesting. As a result, we don't see much of him alone -- in one book where Carrot did have to go off alone on a mission, Pratchett sent the talking dog along with him to provide an external point of view (I don't know if that's why he did it, but that was the result).

But Pratchett uses an omniscient point of view -- what I like to think of as the storyteller voice, where the primary point of view in the book is that of an off-stage narrator who sees all and knows all, and who has as strong a voice and perspective as any of the actual characters. That allows him to dip into everyone's head, as needed, as well as providing editorial commentary. That's really tricky to pull off. If you do it right, you get Terry Pratchett or Jane Austen. If you don't do it right, you get headache-inducing headhopping that reads like a beginning author who doesn't even know what point of view is, let alone how to use it. It's also really easy to slide into telling instead of showing. I'm not sure I've got the skills for that, or that it would work for this story. I prefer to really get into a character's head and see the world through that person's eyes.

I suppose as I continue to let my subconscious develop the idea, I may come up with another character who will be around enough to be a narrator (come to think of it, the dog's around a lot ...). In a sense, I do that with the Enchanted, Inc. books because even though Katie's telling the story and plays an active role, Owen is really the "hero" of the story -- it's ultimately mostly about him, just told by someone else. The story wouldn't be nearly as fun or as interesting if you were inside his head -- trust me, I've worked out some scenes by writing in his point of view, and it's not as interesting as when Katie has to guess, and I absolutely can't get first-person out of him because it would be out of character for him to talk at that length. It has to be third-person, where you're eavesdropping on his brain, and that's a very noisy place.

But in the meantime, I have this project to finish and get off my plate, and then another I want to revise. By then, all the mist should have solidified nicely.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Conference Pitching Tips

Still plugging away on rewriting the last five chapters. And still getting up oddly early. Now, for a writing post!

Summer is a big season for writing conferences and conventions, and the editor or agent appointment is one of the big draws at these events, so for those of you facing editor or agent appointments, here is my handy advice on how to make the most of them (and not screw up entirely), based on years of listening to editors and agents talking about these sessions. I'm sure I've written something about this in the past, but it's important enough to bring up again, and I haven't re-read what I wrote in the past, so this may be new, different and exciting.

1) Your entire career does not hinge on this appointment.
Believe it or not, you can get published without ever having a pitch appointment with an editor or agent. The appointment doesn't even put you that far ahead. It may allow you to skip the query step or keep you out of the general slush pile, but generally if an agent or editor asks to see a manuscript after a pitch appointment, she probably would have asked for it based on a query. The main thing the appointment might get you is a faster read. But while the appointment doesn't give you a big boost, you can harm your potential career in a pitch appointment if you're obnoxious, rude or otherwise rub the editor or agent the wrong way. In a sense, that's a good thing, because a personality mesh is important, and you don't want to work with someone who finds your personality off-putting, which you may not discover until it's too late when going the more traditional query route. But generally, it's a bad idea to be rude and obnoxious enough that no one will want to work with you.

2) Do not make the appointment if you don't have something ready to submit.
If you wouldn't send queries on this project, don't pitch it just because you're at the conference. That seems to be the biggest gripe I hear among agents and editors about these appointments. They consider it a waste of their time to have someone pitch them something that gets them excited, and then find out that it's only halfway done. It's especially bad if the conference specified that appointments should only go to those with complete manuscripts ready to be submitted. That means you've taken an appointment that someone else could have used and you've demonstrated that you think you're one of those special people the rules don't apply to -- and that's generally not someone they want to work with (see tip #1). Most conferences allow you to give up an appointment (and have a waiting list of people who want appointments) if it turns out that you're not ready or if you've discovered that the editor/agent isn't looking for a project like yours.

3) Do NOT prepare a scripted pitch about your book that fills the entire allotted time.
This is bad for two reasons. For one thing, you'll want to exchange some social niceties instead of just plunging into the pitch, and you'll want to leave the editor or agent time to ask questions or even time to ask for the manuscript. If you've scripted an eight-minute pitch for your eight-minute session, you're going to run out of time. But also, imagine listening to someone talk non-stop for seven or eight minutes. How much information would you retain, and how tuned in would you be by the end? The idea is to intrigue the editor or agent into asking for the manuscript, which will tell the whole story. You don't have to tell the whole story in your pitch session.

4) Instead, prepare a high-level, short pitch as a conversation starter and let the editor or agent ask questions.
Using one of my books as an example:
Start by describing the length and genre/target market of your work (fantasy, romance, young adult, etc.): "Enchanted, Inc. is a 100,000 word humorous contemporary fantasy novel."
This gives the editor or agent the chance to decide up front if this is something she might handle. Ideally, you'll already know you're in the ballpark before requesting the appointment, but there are times when conferences just stick people in slots, and there are fine lines determining what an agent or editor might be looking for that don't come through in guidelines. For instance, the agent may be listed as representing fantasy, but she only wants darker, more edgy stuff. Or the editor may have just bought something like that and doesn't want to see more of it right now.
If the editor or agent wants to go on, elaborate with a short description of one or two sentences: "It's the story of an ordinary young woman who discovers that she's so very ordinary that magic doesn't even work on her, and that makes her a valuable employee for a magical corporation." (To be honest, I usually went with "Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter," but those X meets Y pitches can be risky. A lot of agents and editors hate them, and you have to be absolutely certain that the things you're comparing your work to really do apply, and then there's the chance that the person you're pitching to might not like one of those things, even if she might like your story.)
If the person you're pitching to is intrigued, she may ask some specific questions, or she may just say, "Oh, sounds interesting. Go on." This is when you can elaborate. In this pitch for my book, I might backtrack a bit and mention that the heroine is a small-town girl who came to the big city to try to have an extraordinary life, only to feel like a total hick because she can't seem to become jaded by all the amazing things she sees that nobody else seems to care about -- and then she finds out why. I'd probably mention that her magical immunity and common sense are particularly valuable now that the magical company is facing a rogue wizard, and I'd hint at the romantic possibilities with the brilliant and powerful wizard who can't seem to talk to her without blushing furiously. Just remember to make this a conversation instead of a monologue and give the other person a chance to comment or ask questions.

5) Think about how you usually talk about books.
My favorite way to pitch a book is to pretend that it's a really great book I've just read and I'm trying to persuade someone else to read it. Think about what you say about other books you've read and apply that to your own work. You're really trying to accomplish the same thing -- to make the other person want to read it.

6) It's okay for you to ask questions.
Although we're usually thinking in terms of the agents or editors selecting us, it works the other way around, as well, especially with agents. It's not just about finding someone who'll have you. It's also about finding a good fit. You can use this one-on-one time with an agent to ask about her agenting philosophy, the number of clients she has, how long she's been in business, how she prefers to communicate with authors, her latest big sale, really, anything you want to know about the agency. These questions may come first (because why pitch if you don't think the agency sounds like a good fit) or last (if you have time after talking about your project and finding out that the agent is interested).

7) Be prepared to talk beyond the project.
In some respects, this meeting can work like a job interview. The agent or editor may ask you what else you're working on, what your career goals are, what you like to read, etc. I've heard of people who came in to pitch one project, but the one that sold came up in the "what else are you working on" part of the conversation. When monitoring appointments at a conference (I was the timekeeper), I frequently saw editors or agents say "no thanks" to the pitched project right from the start, and then they asked what else the writer had in the works. So, although the main thing you want to pitch should be in a ready-to-submit state, it's a good idea to think about a short, high-level pitch for any other projects you have in progress. You should also take some time to think about your career plans. Do you want to stay in that one genre or branch out? Do you see this book as part of a series? About how many books do you want to write a year?

8) The official appointment isn't your only opportunity to talk to editors and agents.
If you didn't manage to line up a personal appointment, that doesn't mean you're totally out of luck. Some of the best networking opportunities at conferences and conventions happen at the hotel bar, around the swimming pool or at luncheon tables. It's just a little trickier then. For one thing, you can't just launch into your pitch. Only talk in specifics about your work if the editor or agent asks you to. At some point in the conversation, if the editor or agent finds you witty and articulate or interesting, or if it turns out you have the same taste in books, she may ask the "what do you write?" question. Start out vague ("I write humorous fantasy") and get more specific if she continues to ask questions. If she wants to see something, she'll ask for it and hand you a business card. Don't push the point or put her on the spot if she doesn't ask. Aside from possible pitching, these are good opportunities for you to learn more about these people, how they work, what interests them and if they're someone you want to work with. Even if you never get the chance to pitch your book to them, you can certainly put something to the effect of "I enjoyed meeting you at the XYZ conference and chatting with you at lunch on Saturday" in your query letter. Going to conference sessions where editors or agents are speaking is also a good idea because you can learn a lot about them. If you ask a question in those sessions, make sure the question is of general interest and not a pitch for your book in disguise. Avoid stalking as a way to engineer casual conversations. Once you've had a chance to talk to your target, back off and don't keep following her around the conference. Physical violence to ensure that you get that coveted luncheon seat next to the editor of your dreams is right out.

9) Don't wear something stupid with the idea that it will make the editor or agent remember you.
At the very first Romance Writers of America conference I attended, it seemed like half the women there were going around wearing these huge, elaborate hats. It turned out that there was apparently a bit of advice given out somehow, somewhere that you should wear a hat to your editor or agent appointment because it would make you more memorable and you would stand out. I don't know if it worked, but my guess is that they were too busy looking at the hats to listen to the pitches, and I'd rather be remembered for my story than for what I was wearing. If you have to wear a giant hat to be remembered, then maybe you should work on your personality and social skills. Ditto goes for costumes or quasi-costume attire -- like authors of historical novels wearing long, lacy dresses. Mind you, I'm talking about events that are focused on interaction with publishing professionals. If you want to dress up like one of your characters or wear a crazy hat at an event aimed at fans, then go wild.

10) Don't bring your manuscript with you in any way, shape or form.
Especially with today's baggage restrictions, the editors and agents don't have room to carry back anything extra. Your single CD-ROM with your manuscript on it may not seem like much, but multiply that by every appointment, and soon you've got a suitcase full. If they want it, they'll ask you to mail or e-mail it. At most, offer your query letter on a single sheet of paper (I've heard an agent say he prefers to just read the query at the start of the appointment, then use it as a conversational jumping-off point). If you must have something to give, have a business card and write the title of the book you're pitching and the conference name on the back.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book World Status Update

Today's early morning activity was baking blueberry muffins, since I had some fresh blueberries, and I figured I ought to bake during the cool part of the day. This being a morning person thing is strange. Next thing you know, I'll be getting up early to write. And then the world will come to an end. (Though I don't think that getting up at 7:30 really qualifies me as a morning person.)

I've reached the hard part of the revisions, where it's not so much about tweaking scenes as it is about doing a lot of going back and forth to fix things. I got kind of excited heading toward the ending and totally dropped a few character threads. I suppose I could fix that the way I fixed the end of Once Upon Stilettos, when I realized I'd totally forgotten Ethan, and so I locked him in a closet rather than rewriting to include him. I can just reveal near the end that most of the supporting characters got kidnapped and locked away somewhere, but then I'd at least have to write about the main characters noticing they were missing.

However, last night when I was re-reading the last few chapters, I got so caught up in it that I forgot to take notes about things to deal with, and I even found my pulse rate increasing while I read the exciting parts -- which is a good sign, considering I wrote it and I know what happens.

It's been more than a month since I've done an FAQ type post, and I've started getting another wave of e-mail questions, so here goes an update:

If you've seen an Amazon listing for a book called Hex and the City, that is the German translation of Enchanted, Inc. I have no idea why the German book has an English title. It is NOT Book 5. If Book 5 were to exist, that would not be the title of it. That's actually the title I wanted for Book 1, but it ended up as a tagline instead. So, anyway, don't order it unless you want the first book in German. You won't be getting anything new.

The last I've heard, the publisher still isn't interested in book 5. As I explained before, the latest reasoning is that the initial order from the two big B chains, based on sales in their stores of the previous books, wouldn't be big enough for the initial print run to be profitable. Publishers these days are doing smaller initial print runs and then going back to print if necessary rather than printing a lot up front and then having to store books. At the same time, stores are ordering fewer copies up front and then reordering if necessary rather than taking a lot of copies and then returning them (and I suspect the publishers are okay with this because they lose money on returns). Even if there's a history of going back to press repeatedly, publishers aren't interested in a book whose initial print run would not recoup the cost of producing the book -- all the printing, payment to author, payment to editor, payment to copy editor, cover art, typesetting, marketing, etc. -- even if it sold out entirely. The problem with my books is that most of my sales have come from Amazon and from independent bookstores (mostly science fiction/fantasy specialty stores) or from smaller chains. But the two big Bs are the 800-pound gorilla of the industry because they each order thousands of books up front. The chains usually do the bulk of their purchase for the initial order and count on most of the sales coming during the first couple of months. Meanwhile, each independent might place an initial order of two to ten copies of a book like mine and then restock as needed. The initial orders of all the independents added together might not reach the level of one chain's order. Then Amazon mostly does a just-in-time ordering system, where they don't do all their ordering up front, ordering books only as needed to meet demand. The indies and Amazon may sell more of each title than the chains in the long run because the indies stock for their customers and hand sell, and Amazon has lots of ways for people to stumble across books, while the chains just stop carrying the books after a few months, but it's that initial order that the publisher looks at in making decisions about books.

At least, that's the latest excuse. I think the other problem is that the publisher still sees these books as "chick lit," not as fantasy, and chick lit is pretty much dead. The only books I've found on this publisher's list that even remotely fit into that category, going from April into early next year, are the newest Gemma Townley and the new Sophie Kinsella -- both big sellers, and both imports, so that the bulk of the editorial work is done by the British publisher. Otherwise, it's all more the "book club" type "women's fiction"-- the issues/family/more serious type stuff.

However, I did see that they have a new Connie Willis book in the catalogue for February 2010. I hope that's the time travel book involving the Blitz she was talking about a few years ago because I've been dying to read that for ages. It's called Blackout and is up for pre-order at Amazon. Pause for a moment of squeeing. EEEEEEEEE!!!!!!

Anyway (ahem, returning to dignity here), I'm not sure how to overcome or fix any of these things, aside from praying that the movie gets made and is done well enough that it boosts book sales. The movie really would change the playing field. Otherwise, I suppose I could write something that gets shelved in fantasy and does brilliantly, so that the old publisher would want to capitalize on it by reissuing the older books in fantasy and then doing the new one. The word of mouth does continue to spread, and all the books in the series are selling at pretty respectable levels, week by week. I'm just not sure how that would translate into calculations for initial orders that would be enough to flip a switch somewhere within the publisher that would change their thinking. But, you know, it wouldn't be the first series with a gap between books, and if things happen that make them want the fifth book, that would then mean more books in the series from there (and I do have ideas).

So now I guess I'd better write that brilliant book that will make me such a star that the old publisher will be begging for more books. Piece of cake. I'll get right on that.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Stilettos on the Town

I found that there's a benefit to this getting up early thing -- it made sleeping late on Saturday a lot more fun. Then I was up early again Sunday, and again today. Today, though, I didn't try to exercise before breakfast because my plan was to get to the library soon after it opened. I was done with breakfast earlier than I planned (since I got up even earlier than I planned), so I thought I'd check my e-mail, and while I was at it I verified the library hours -- and found it opened an hour later than I thought. So then I had to wait an hour and rearrange my schedule.

Meanwhile, lately I've been thinking a lot about Mary Poppins. I'm not entirely sure why, though there have been some TV ads about a touring show of the stage musical coming to town later this year, and maybe that set it off. Anyway, what I've been thinking about is the discrepancy between the cultural image of Mary Poppins and what's in the original books. The cultural image is based more on the Julie Andrews version from the movie, where she's cute and perky and sweet and optimistic, spoonful of sugar, and all that, but as I recalled from the books, she was definitely not sweet and perky and was actually a little scary. I've got the ghosts of a beginning of a character swirling around in my head, and one of the things that came to me about her was that people kind of derisively call her "Mary Poppins," thinking in terms of the movie character, but what they don't realize is that she's really more like the book character underneath. So, if I wanted to use that, I thought I ought to re-read the books. I was sure the library would have them and figured I'd get them the next time I went to the library. While I was waiting for the library to open, I searched the online catalogue and found that my branch doesn't have the first in the series. I was just starting to get annoyed about having to place a hold and wait for it, when I got a vivid mental image of a particular copy of the first book. I got up, went to the bookcase, shoved aside the To-Be-Read pile in front of the shelved books (the TBR pile lives in the spaces of the bookcase in front of the shelved/read/keeper books), and sure enough, I own a copy of the first book. I've been sitting around thinking about wanting to read a book and waiting to check it out when there's been a copy on my shelf all along.

But now I have to get to work after a weekend that was actually kind of like a weekend (though I did work some). I was even social! I took the Infamous Red Stilettos out to a party. They were probably overkill for the event, but they haven't been out to play for a long time, and shoes like that shouldn't be kept on a shelf. They might get ideas of their own or build up dangerous levels of energy, or something equally frightening. They should be safe now for a couple of months.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Another Early Morning

It was yet another early morning, but this time it was because I had to go to the church to work on some music for next weekend's concert. Still, I woke up before the alarm went off, and I was even early getting there. Me being early for something in the early morning falls into the "alert the media!" category.

However, I'm not sure that this earliness is actually good for me. Early birds claim that they have more energy from morning exercise, but I've found that I end up dragging by mid-afternoon, and the pre-breakfast exercise means I'm starving all day. Seriously, anything that stood still in my house for more than a few minutes yesterday was in danger of being devoured. I have lots of fresh fruit, so I tried eating cherries, strawberries and blueberries, but that didn't even take the edge off the hunger, so I gave in and went for the cheese. And then had chicken and pasta for dinner. Then when I was hungry a couple of hours later I had a glass of milk and some chocolate-covered raisins and almonds. I seem to recall dreaming of food last night. When I exercise right before lunch, I find that I'm not too hungry all afternoon, and I have energy all afternoon. Perhaps I can consider this scientific proof that I really am not meant to be a morning person.

Yesterday was one of those "I never could get the hang of Thursdays" days. I ended up with nearly four hours worth of actual revision work, by the stopwatch, and I did some other work-related things that I didn't time, but it was like pulling teeth to get anything done. I am seriously contemplating an afternoon nap, or maybe a reading session, today, since I had the usual problem of waking up every few minutes to make sure I wasn't oversleeping (that's one of the main reasons I don't like early morning obligations. I can get up fine. It's the being afraid of not being able to get up that gets to me).

In other news, Don't Hex with Texas has been released in Japan, with yet another very cute cover:

I like how the artist seems to have actually read the book (or been given very specific instructions from someone who's read the book) to find all those little vignettes to illustrate. Apparently, they really like me in Japan.

I've been seeing the pre-convention notices for ApolloCon, and I'm a little sad not to be going this year, but not only do I not really have the funding for too much con travel, I also have a concert that Sunday night, and I'm singing a duet, so I really couldn't skip out on it (plus, the dress rehearsal is Sunday afternoon, and I never would have made it back from Houston in time). We're singing "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music, so I'm getting at least a tiny bit of my childhood dream of performing in that show. I'm already getting minor panic attacks, so maybe I'll have them out of the way before the concert.

Next year, they're talking about moving the summer concert, which is a sort of patriotic/pops thing, to Memorial Day weekend, which means it won't conflict with ApolloCon, and I hope to be able to make it back to the con because that's one of my favorites. Last year, I stayed on through Sunday night, so I got some "hanging around in a nice hotel room" time to relax after the convention ended.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

But How Does She Feel?

I had another virtuous morning of getting up early, taking a walk, then still being at my desk a bit earlier than normal. It's supposed to be really hot today, but there was a nice, cool breeze this morning. However, the breeze was from the south, so I suspect that by this afternoon, it will have turned into a hot wind. I was thinking that today might be my first swimming pool day of the season, but that always makes me so tired and sleepy, so I may save that for a finishing the book reward, since I've already had my exercise for the day.

I worked four hours yesterday, according to the stopwatch, so that's actual work time, not just time sitting at my desk. I've forced myself to remember that this is not a race, and the goal isn't to get done fastest, but to be the best. As a result, I did a lot of semi-major surgery yesterday -- combined two redundant scenes into one, added conflict to a scene that was missing it and beefed up a major scene into something even bigger. I normally don't do editing on paper, and I guess I still don't, though I do mark anything major I find, but I am doing some analysis on paper. I took a class earlier this year, and one of the things the teacher suggested was to highlight different elements of the story with different colors -- one color for dialogue, one for introspection, one for action, one for emotion and one for description, and then tracking levels of conflict and tension in the margin with yet another color. It's a good way to see what you have too much or too little of. I'm not doing that for the whole book, but I am doing it for trouble chapters or for major turning points, and it is eye-opening.

What's surprised me is that I have a lot less introspection/narrative than I thought. I guess I'm doing pretty well on the showing vs. telling thing because narrative tends to be "telling." Most of my scenes are almost all action and dialogue, with little bits of thinking thrown in. However, I'm usually missing emotion. Something major will have happened, and my character will say or do something in response, but there's no sense of any kind of emotional response. I'd thought that's because I'm not a really emotional person, and my usual response to something major is to think my way through it, but the truth is that there's still an automatic physical response to any major emotion, and that does happen to me. I get that knot in the stomach, dry mouth, racing heartbeat, etc. What I don't do is think about the emotion. I'm more likely to think, "Okay, now what should I do?" than to think, "Oh, woe is me!" So, even if I'm writing a very calm, rational character, I still need to remember that physical response, or else I've got a bunch of robots running around. I didn't notice this lack so much until had to use the highlighter colors, and that was when I found myself saying, "But how does she feel about all this?"

Meanwhile, I'm in a strange reading lull. I can't seem to get into anything I try to read, including authors I usually enjoy in series I've enjoyed. About the only thing I can manage to read is Terry Pratchett, so I'm re-reading one of his that I've only read once. I think it's mostly that my brain can't handle anything too serious at the moment.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Being Virtuous

In the category of "world coming to an end, film at eleven," I got up early this morning and took a walk before breakfast while it was still cool. I managed to be at my desk a little earlier than normal while already having had my exercise for the day. I also went to bed pretty early last night because I was really tired (ballet class, but I'd been low-energy all day). I don't know if I'll make a habit of this, but I feel so virtuous right now.

And why is it usually considered more "virtuous" to get up early and do stuff than to stay up late getting stuff done?

I guess the "film at eleven" thing is rather outdated, since they no longer use film, and the use of videotape or, now, digital cameras means they don't have to wait to get film developed before going on the air. We weren't even using film back in the Dark Ages when I worked in TV news. And, these days, they wouldn't wait for the late news. They'll break into programming for anything they happen to have live footage of, no matter how newsworthy it is or isn't, just if it looks exciting and they're the only station to have it. So I guess I need to come up with a new way to say "this is really shocking!"

The use of the stopwatch continues to be a little depressing. I feel like I'm doing so much work, and it only adds up to a couple of hours. This means I need to make better use of my time. I've accomplished a lot in my career while being a bit of a slacker, so if I start really making good use of my time, I could Rule the World!!! (Mwa ha ha ha ha!!!!).

Speaking of time wasting, it's probably a good time to post a little reminder about my social networking activity. I do have a Facebook page, but I'm kind of afraid of Facebook. I get e-mail notification about comments and messages, but I generally avoid going to the site itself because it's very chaotic and overwhelming. I'll go there to add friends when the requests start piling up, and then I mostly squint at it then flee. Don't be offended if I seem to be ignoring you on Facebook. It's not you, it's Facebook. MySpace is a little better, but not much. I got the Blogger account to participate in a group blog and figured I might as well post my own blog there. I've since heard that it's the blog least likely to be blocked by corporate anti-time-wasting filters, so I keep doing it, but I loathe the comment interface there, so I don't respond to comments very often there. I'm most likely to be active and interact on LiveJournal because it makes more sense to me and almost reminds me of Usenet (sigh. I miss Usenet. I wonder if I can still access it). I do not Tweet because the thought of trying to express myself in 140 characters makes me twitchy. I'm also not really sure what I would ever say. "Procrastinated a bit, then wrote a while. Time for tea." Yeah, that would be enthralling. And I don't need any more time wasters. Really.

Finally, a TV heads up: Tonight on PBS (check your local listings), they're doing a concert production of Chess, featuring Josh Groban, Adam Pascal and Idina Menzel. I love that show. I first saw a quasi-local professional production (the major roles were imports, the chorus was local) with Jodi Benson (the voice of the Little Mermaid) in the lead female role the summer after I first moved to this area, during one of my "I've always really wanted to be an actress but was too practical, so now that I have a degree and a real job, I can pursue my dream and immerse myself in the theater!" phases (those come in waves, and usually the writing wins out, but I suspect I'm due for another phase next year). I'm excited that the new production means a new CD because I have the cast album on cassette, which means I can no longer listen to it in my car, and that particular album is out of print on CD.

Come to think of it, seeing that show was part of my first "vacation" when I'd finally been in my first job long enough to take vacation time. I took a couple of days off to create a long weekend, during which I went to an afternoon matinee of A Chorus Line, went to a movie, rested and read a bit and then on Sunday afternoon went to see Chess at the theater in a geodesic dome with an arena stage.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

TIme (and time off)

I tried something yesterday that turned out to be very eye-opening: I used a stopwatch to track the amount of time I was actually working. I did a complete scene-by-scene analysis of the book and then did a more detailed review of the first two chapters, plus read the third chapter to think more about what it needed. If I'd estimated the time I spent working, I would have said about three hours. By the stopwatch, which I started when I started actually working and stopped when I finished, I had an hour and thirty-seven minutes. Some of that was because the kind of work I was doing requires a lot of breaks. In first draft writing, long spurts of writing are good, but in revisions, after a while I reach the "oh, whatever" stage, where it all looks good to me and I can't be bothered to mess with it. That means I have to work for a while, then go do something else before coming back to it. On the positive side of looking at time, I found that I was able to do a significant amount of tidying in the living room in the nine minutes it took to cook pasta. This all boils down to the fact that I really need to be making better use of my time. Which brings me to the topic of time off.

Those who've been around here for a while may be familiar with my attempts to plan the perfect vacation -- and my complete inability to actually take a vacation. I'm an explorer by nature, so when I travel, it's not really what you'd call a "vacation." I end up utterly exhausted from going non-stop for days. If I need to rest and refresh myself, I pretty much have to stay home, or else take a vacation to recover from the vacation. I've never been that good at the lie-around-and-relax kind of vacation. But a couple of years ago I was at a writing conference in a fairly nice hotel, and when I had a few hours free, I realized how relaxing it was to just hang out in a nice hotel room, and how seldom I get to do that. If I'm staying at a decent hotel it's usually on business, which means I'm seldom in the room. I've also realized that I haven't traveled purely for pleasure in ages. Even my fun trips have involved events that put me on a timetable so that I have to be at certain places at certain times and don't spend a lot of time in my room.

That realization led me to try to think of a vacation that would be really relaxing instead of exhausting. Anything too far away is out because even if I relaxed while I was gone, the trip home would tire me out. Plane travel these days is automatically exhausting because of the hassle. I'd have to find a location where there's just enough stuff to do to not be utterly bored, but not so much to do that I'd feel compelled to do it all and would fear I'd be wasting my time if I just hung around in my room. I have planned a couple of hypothetical vacations that meet these criteria, but I haven't really had the budget for travel.

That leaves the "staycation" -- the vacation while staying at home. And I've had another recent realization there. One of the downsides to being a bit of a slacker and doing a job that's pretty much also a hobby is that it's hard to have a vacation. Spending a day not working looks an awful lot like a regular day. And I'm not even enjoying the days I spend goofing off because I know I should be working and I don't let myself just take off. According to one of the psychiatrists at the medical school I used to work for (and still freelance for), the the key to a vacation that will actually refresh you and revive your brain is making a break from routine. That means you need a routine to begin with.

I've also tried to think of what makes a good hotel room relaxing, and I think it's mostly the fact that it's clean and uncluttered. My bed is more comfortable than most hotel beds, and I have a huge garden tub that's better than anything in most hotels. I have access to a swimming pool and hot tub. I have better cable than you usually get in a hotel. I even have a private balcony and patio.

Unless I suddenly have a big influx of cash, I probably won't get a travel kind of vacation this year. In order to have a good at-home vacation, I'll need to do two things: clean and declutter my house and work hard enough for long enough that taking time off would feel different. So, that's my plan for the summer. I'm going to work on getting my house almost hotel clean, and I'm going to really try to work -- logging enough hours to "earn" a vacation in the fall. The up side of the work is that it raises my chances of an influx of cash that might allow a travel vacation next year.

And, yeah, even though my life is a vacation, I think I need one, just to have a change of pace and clear my head so I can be more creative and energized. Slacking really isn't the same as relaxing or taking a true break. Plus, having the reward of a future vacation in mind is a great incentive to plunge into more intense work.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Done (for now)

I finished the book -- well, the first draft of it -- so late Saturday night that it was actually Sunday morning. Then it took me forever to get to sleep because after the adrenaline surge toward the end and the victory dance after finishing, it was hard to settle down. And, wouldn't you know, I woke up an hour earlier than normal the next day. I had time to run to the grocery store and back home, put the groceries away and check e-mail before it was time to head to church. Of course, the tiredness hit me right when church started, and since I'd eaten breakfast earlier than normal, that's when I suddenly got hungry. I spent Sunday afternoon doing some extreme napping and enjoyed guilt-free TV watching. Finishing a book always feels like the first few days after the end of school, where it feels weird not to have anything you're supposed to be doing.

Today, though, the revision process starts. I'll allow myself more of a break after I've shipped this sucker off to my agent. I know I'm going to have to do some work on the end because I completely forgot about one of the characters -- someone who would be there and should be there, but I forgot about him until I'd reached the end.

Meanwhile, I finally gave in and turned on my air conditioner on Friday. I really hate it because it's noisy. My house is ideally situated for the summer because I have the northeast quadrant in a four-plex, which means I only get direct sun in the mornings when it's cool, and I'm in the shade by the time it gets really hot. Most of my east-facing windows are shaded somewhat on the outside, and the one that isn't, I have an extra layer of blinds on the inside. Then I have very high ceilings and ceiling fans in the major rooms, so the house stays pretty comfortable. The air conditioner only becomes necessary when temperatures get above 95, if it's really humid and when it doesn't drop below 80 through most of the night. We hit all three of those this weekend, but I think getting to June 12 before turning on the AC is pretty good for Texas.

Today's revision agenda: charting the book scene-by-scene so I can get a structural overview and figure out which scenes are redundant or unnecessary on a goal/conflict level.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Gasp!" Moments

That writing binge I had planned? It, um, didn't exactly happen. Part of that had to do with distractions (my phone wouldn't stop ringing). But part of it had to do with my wacky subconscious. I think I got a lot done, just not in the traditional sense of typing words.

It all started with that out-of-the-blue plot twist that hit me suddenly on Wednesday. I'd just written a pretty big scene, one that I'd been imagining for ages and that goes with one of the major songs on my imaginary soundtrack -- a song I'd been wanting to write something to go with. It was a nice scene that resolved a conflict between a couple of characters and repaired their relationship so they could move forward together in fighting the Big Bad -- the kind of scene that ends with a big "Awwww." When I finished it, I closed the laptop to allow it to cool down some (my chill pad bit the dust, and now I need to get a new one) and to relish the scene I'd just written. I was replaying it in my head when my cruel, evil subconscious changed it, throwing in something that took it quickly from "Awwww" to "Gasp!" I told my subconscious to stop being so mean, but then every time I thought of that scene, I was seeing it that new way, and then I realized that it was a rather brilliant development. Having big "Gasp!" moments is good, and this one felt right. It drew upon other things that had been established in the story and could be just what I needed to tie into the big finish. So I reworked the scene I'd just written to include the "Gasp!" moment and then wrote going forward from there.

But then I decided I hadn't done it justice. I hadn't earned the "Gasp!" I feel like if you're going to throw in a "Gasp!" you need to earn it both before and after the "Gasp!" or you get something that's like a lame TV cliffhanger -- something done just for shock value that isn't paid off. I hadn't paid it off properly. So, I spent most of yesterday trying to figure out how to pay it off properly. It was being tricky and elusive, the kind of thing where I could sense it lurking around the corners, but if I stared at it directly, it vanished. I resorted to keeping my conscious brain busy so my subconscious could work it out. I went to the library because a friend was speaking at the summer reading program kick-off event, chatted with the librarian, picked up some books I'd put on hold, chatted with some people in my neighborhood along the way about all the storms. Then I got home and tried again. Nope, still vanished if I looked too hard. So I read a book. And then I put the book down and was able to outline a whole chain of cause and effect of who was doing what and when, what they knew and why they were doing it to set it all up, as well as how each character would react and what their plans were in dealing with it. I still wasn't sure how that would play out in the actual scenes I'd written, so I watched some television, and in the middle of a commercial break I was suddenly able to figure out how to fix that.

As a result, I spent the day going to the library, reading and watching TV, but I was actually working very hard and accomplished a lot of necessary work. Today's task (after I go buy a new chill pad so I don't have to stop writing every half hour or so to let the computer cool off) is to do all the stuff I planned yesterday. I may or may not get to the end of the story today.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Stormy Weather

I got sooo much written yesterday, largely due to some massive storms that came through that meant I not only didn't go to choir practice but also had good rainy writing weather while I stayed home. I may be a weather weenie for being extremely reluctant to drive in the rain, but I consider it good common sense not to hit the road when the tornado sirens are going off and the National Weather Service has just put your specific area under a tornado warning. Considering that not too far from where I would have been driving and at about the time I would have been driving, a semi truck was flipped over by the wind, I think I made the right call. My little blue box would have probably gone flying through time and space.

I'm probably going to have to rewrite some of what I wrote yesterday, but then most of what I wrote yesterday involved a plot twist that came to me out of the blue -- on a book I've been thinking about for years. Now I need to figure out how to optimize this plot twist.

I think today may be a big writing binge day, as it's still stormy, I don't have anywhere in particular I need to go other than the library, and I'm so close to the end I can practically taste it. I've been aiming at 100K words, but these days they don't really want books that long, so I'm now at the point I'm not going to worry so much about word count, just about getting to the end of the story.

Now off to enjoy my writing binge!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dealing with the Downs

I started ballet again last night, and I was the only returning person who was there. There was one person who'd danced for years and who was returning after a long break, but otherwise it was all beginners, so for once I wasn't the least-skilled person in the class. I was practically a veteran! I kind of liked having to go back to the very basics because when I started, almost everyone had been in the class for a while and I just had to catch up. Now we're starting from square one, and that allows me to really get everything right.

Today's writing topic was another reader request, and it's also a "tree falls on the writer" topic, in that I'm writing about it because it's something I'm dealing with. (That "tree falls on the writer" thing was something a co-worker said when I worked in PR. Like the philosophical question of if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound, she said that when a tree falls on a journalist, it's news. That was when I worked at the medical school, and it seemed like most journalists got their story ideas based on health concerns they or their family members had.)

There comes a time in just about every writer's life when you feel like a talentless hack. It may be because the words just aren't flowing, because your story feels stale, because your idea seems to be the equivalent of fairy gold -- brilliant, shiny and golden in your head, but turning to dry, dusty leaves the moment you try to put it into words. It may be because you're getting rejection after rejection, because your publisher didn't pick up your option book, because you got a lousy review or because you sent a new project you absolutely loved to your agent and she called it trite and boring. I think I've only met one writer who never admitted to having days like that (and he was kind of a jerk who was probably lying).

So, how do you deal with this without resorting to mind/mood-altering substances, wrist-slitting or throwing your computer out the window and giving up writing entirely?

Here are a few things that have worked for me in the past:

1) Give yourself some perspective.
What you've written may not be that bad. It's just not as great as it was in your head, but once you've fixed it, it can be good. You can't edit what hasn't been written, so any work you've done is a step forward. Put it aside for a little while, then look at it again, and you might like it better or see where it can be fixed. Remember that being able to see what isn't working is just as important as being able to write brilliantly, so noticing that something is bad is not necessarily a bad sign. It may also help to read it in context. It may take days to write a scene, so that it feels so epic that it may as well be the entire book, but if you read it in context, you realize that a reader will probably get through it in about two minutes, and it's not that big a deal. What seems to be dragging for you as you write it may fly when you read it.

2) Get some exercise.
Scientific studies have shown that exercise boosts your cognitive abilities and your creativity. It also helps regulate moods. Whether your slump is because you're not working as well as you could or if it's just a matter of perception and being in a bad mood, exercise can help. You don't have to go to the gym. Put on some music and dance around the room or take a walk around the block and you'll probably find yourself working better afterward.

3) Find a support group.
Other writers are good at understanding the woes of a writing life. They know what it means to get a rejection or to have that book just not coming together. It's good to have someone to vent to who doesn't think you're insane.

4) Know when to separate from the support group and find support elsewhere.
On the other hand, when you're really struggling, the last thing you need may be to have to hear about how well the writing is going for someone else or to be asked how your writing is going or when that book is going to come out (even though no publisher seems to want it). That's when you need other people in your life who aren't part of the writing world. It's good to be reminded that there is other life out there in the universe, and while we all try not to be jealous and to be happy for our friends, if you've just had a spate of rejections on a book you've slaved over for ages, it would take a saint not to feel a pang when someone else chirps up about getting a five-book contract based on a conversation without even having to write anything. If your association with a person or group starts to drag you down instead of lifting you up, it's okay to take some time away from them, and true friends will understand that (if they throw a hissy fit and refuse to see your side of things, then you haven't really lost a friend).

5) Do something that's guaranteed to lift your mood.
Watch a favorite movie or TV episode, listen to music that makes you happy, eat chocolate, spend time with a friend who always makes you laugh, etc. You'll bring that good mood back to your work. Be careful about using alcohol for this. A little may help relax you and lower your inhibitions, but alcohol is a depressant, so it may make matters worse. There are certain books and movies that make me suddenly feel brilliant and creative, and I want to run to the computer to capture that.

6) Revisit your successes.
If you've ever been praised for your writing, take another look at that praise. If you've ever written something you're really proud of, re-read it. I keep the writing awards I've won on my desk so I can always see them, and I save my fan mail. When I feel like a talentless hack, I read some of those lovely messages or some of the good reviews.

7) Keep on plugging.
Believe it or not, readers may never be able to tell which parts of a book just about killed you and which ones flowed. Sometimes, the ones that make you feel the worst are the ones that come out best. The pain can be because it's coming from somewhere deep inside that makes it richer and more powerful, rather than because it's no good. And sometimes you just have to get past the rough parts to get to the good parts that will give you ideas for how to fix the rough parts. Also remember that it feels a lot better to have written something, even if it's not ideal, than to have written nothing.

8) Mix things up.
Sometimes, trying something new can give you a fresh approach or perspective. If you normally write on a computer, try writing longhand. If you outline, try free writing. If you normally just plunge in without an outline, try outlining. Try dictating into a tape recorder. Try writing the end first or whatever scene you're most excited about and then work backwards. Try writing at a different time of day or in different surroundings. Like many writers, I'm an office supply fiend, and sometimes the chance to write with a fun new pen (I found a box of purple pens! I thought they were dark blue, but got them home and found that they're purple, and now I feel so creative when I write with them) or in a cute notebook will give me a burst of writing energy.

9) Give it to someone you trust for feedback.
I send what I've written to my mom, who always loves it. That doesn't help me make it better, but it makes me feel good when I'm feeling talentless. I really need to also find someone who can give me honest criticism, but that can be tricky. My last critiquing friend died a few years ago, and I haven't been up to giving someone else that role yet. If you've got someone like that, who can spot the flaws, tells you the truth and pushes you to be better, you're very fortunate.

10) Be honest with yourself.
Sometimes the problem isn't with your writing. It may be with what you're writing and why. Are you forcing yourself to work on a book because you think that's a hot market, even though it's not something you really love? Are you getting frantic and just trying to write as much as possible or as fast as possible so you can get more projects out there and increase your chances of publication? Are you giving yourself unrealistic arbitrary deadlines (like participating in a writing month challenge) so that your main concern is racking up word count, not writing well? Is your story idea fundamentally flawed, so that there's no way you could make it work? All those things can add up to you not doing your best work, which makes you feel bad about yourself. Unless you're contracted, it's okay to decide that you're not working on the project that best suits you and to move on. If you're contracted, then look at the lovely check and get over it.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Book Report: YA Fantasy

My productivity slowed yesterday, as I found myself a little stuck on what should happen next, so I went back and re-read the previous 100 or so pages and fixed a few things to set up the rest of the story. Now I think I'm poised to rock and roll today. I also made it through the homeowners' association meeting with only one homicidal impulse, which may be a new record (it's amazing how people seem to see that meeting as an opportunity for the Airing of Grievances, even though they can contact the board and the management company at any time to discuss their petty little problems, and it's amazing the things some people seem to see as a priority). I managed to restrain myself from acting on the homicidal impulse, and even with the petty gripe session the meeting ended early, so yay.

I haven't done a book report in a while, so I need to catch up here. A lot of my recent reading has been in young adult fantasy, so here's a rundown:

Flora's Dare by Ysabeau Wilce -- This is the sequel to Flora Segunda, which I read last year. I think this was an even better book with better pacing and more going on. What I've loved most about this series is the world building. It's really rather unique, in a sort of alternate-reality San Francisco that could be considered kind of steampunk -- horses are the main form of transportation, but there are mosh pits at the night clubs where the kids go to hear bands. The world is fully developed, down to a slang lingo among the kids, a fairly complex political situation and an interesting magical system. I'm assuming there will be another book because this one ended with a big twist, and I can't wait to read the next one.

Nation by Terry Pratchett -- I already mentioned this one, and I think it's utterly brilliant, a uniquely Pratchettesque spin on the post-disaster story with plucky kids rebuilding a society. It's funny, suspenseful and manages to be both heartbreaking and hopeful. This is the kind of book that almost makes me want to have kids so I could share it with my kids.

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones -- I love the concept of this book: A magical world is forced to play host to tour groups wanting to play out the ultimate live-action role-playing game, and the world has to mold itself into fantasy stereotypes to do this. They're getting tired of all this, and when an absent-minded farmer wizard is chosen to play the role of "Dark Lord," it could either mean disaster or the way to end these games once and for all. I was initially expecting this to be a comedy because it does spoof a lot of the fantasy novel tropes, right down to the place names and character types, but it ended up being more of a dark, serious book. Once I got over the "but this isn't that funny" disappointment, I decided that darker tone was actually pretty appropriate because there were real consequences to this world. People did die, everyone had to disrupt their lives, towns were destroyed and the landscape was ruined, all to allow people to play out an epic Lord of the Rings type fantasy game. I'm not really sure why this was classified as young adult (or maybe that's just my library) because the wizard who is one of the main characters is an adult. The other main character is his teenage son, but it seemed like a lot of the threads and themes were more adult in nature -- not "adult" in the sense of sex and violence, but things like taking care of the family, looking after the children, worry about the marriage surviving, etc. You don't usually get a lot of young adult books with significant amounts in the viewpoint of an adult who's worried that his marriage is in trouble.

At any rate, this managed to be a good combination of classic fantasy tropes and new twists, so I definitely got the "same, but different" vibe -- same enough to be comforting, but different enough to be interesting, and the "same" stuff was done with a knowing wink because the whole point of it was that it was what these fantasy fans expected to find in a fantasy world. I seem to have seen something somewhere (how's that for concrete and specific?) indicating that this was the first book in a series. The main plot is wrapped up nicely in this one, so I'm assuming the series is more about the ongoing development of the characters.

Last call for writing post topics. I may have to pull something out of thin air. I'm also in the phase of writing where I feel like an utterly talentless hack, so who am I to tell people how it's done (that happens during every book, when the wonderfully magical things going on in my head don't seem to make it onto the page).

Monday, June 08, 2009

Does This Sound Familiar?

I'm definitely in the home stretch for the current project -- about 20,000 words to go, but probably less because this is a first draft and I like to leave room for revisions. Definitely less than 100 pages more to write on this draft. This is normally when I'd fall into a writing binge, but wouldn't you know, this is going to be a busy week. I've got a homeowners' association meeting tonight, then ballet class is now on Tuesdays, then choir on Wednesday. It will be Thursday before I have a free evening for a really good writing binge. I almost made myself cry last night with what I wrote, which is unusual for a first draft. Usually, I get the action down and then work on the emotion, but this time, I seem to be getting the emotion and will have to work on the action and nuts and bolts in revisions. I may also have to work on some humor because this is supposed to be a funny book but it's taken a darker turn and I think it may need more comic relief. But that's what second drafts are for.

Most of my weekend was spent working. In my breaks, I made strawberry jam and then realized that I didn't have anything special to eat it with. A new batch of homemade jam needs something more than regular toast, but I didn't even have enough flour to make biscuits. Ah, well, that can be part of my celebration when I finish the book. I commemorated D-Day on Saturday by watching the D-Day episode of Band of Brothers (though it was a little disconcerting seeing Damian Lewis in sincere, serious Dick Winters mode when lately I've been more accustomed to his quirky Life role. Part of me kept waiting for Charlie Crews to bust out with something bizarre.). And I listened to a lot of piano music. The pianist I liked didn't win the competition, and I'm not sure I agreed with the winner. Not that I'm an expert by any means, but even I could spot the places where the winner messed up in the Rachmaninoff. Even so, it was a lovely way to spend the weekend. I had my radio sitting on the windowsill in my living room while I sat on the sofa and wrote. And then there was the next-to-last episode of Pushing Daisies (sniff), which gave us a glammed-out Gina Torres as a femme fatale (I guess Zoe finally got something with a bit of slink). But to add insult to the injury of the cancellation of that brilliant show, they just had to show non-stop promos for the end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it reality fare that network is filling its schedule with. If it's really that entertaining for you to watch people fall into water, then may I suggest some hobbies? You could try actually doing something yourself instead of being entertained by other people's discomfort and failure.

I also had a rather ... interesting ... reading experience. I'd picked up a relatively new (from earlier this year) urban fantasy at the library -- one whose premise I found moderately intriguing but not enough so to buy it. One of the early incidents in the book has the heroine running a bit late for work, realizing she doesn't have time to walk and deciding to take the subway. And then on the subway, something odd happens that gives a hint that she's not the ordinary young woman she thinks she is, and it involves someone else recognizing her for who she really is. And then she gets to her job as assistant to a crazy/demanding boss who is in charge of sales/marketing.

That struck me as somehow familiar. I'm sure I've seen that somewhere before.

Then, though, the story went off on a totally different tangent, which in a way was too bad because it might have been nice to read a book a lot like one of mine that I didn't have to write, and what it really turned out to be would fall into the category of "not my cup of tea." That was purely based on the subject matter and not the writing itself, though I was already finding the main character a wee bit annoying, and there was a strong paranormal romance element of the "this guy is so dark and dangerous and I hate him, but there's something supernaturally alluring about him and I can't resist him" variety. So, yeah, not for me.

And, no, I'm not going to name names or titles, and I will not confirm or deny any guesses. I know how the Internet works, and even though I am NOT making allegations of copying, chances are that's how the rumors would spread. This author is getting a big push and probably selling lots better than I do, so it would look like jealousy, and it would be kind of a career-limiting move to do anything even remotely Google-able that the editor involved would ever see, and it's an editor who could squash my already feeble enough career like a bug. Besides, I'm sure I'm not the only author who's started a book with those elements.

Finally, any writing craft topics you want me to tackle? It's a week for a writing post, and I'm drawing a blank.

Friday, June 05, 2009

More on Fantasy

I may have taken on a bit much with the idea of trying to create an essential fantasy reading list. There are a lot of books to consider, and everyone has a different idea of what counts as "essential." There are also a lot of different opinions about what constitutes "fantasy." My main aim was to come up with the books/authors that I, as a fantasy novelist, should have some familiarity with so I don't feel stupid on con panels, but I do also think it's important to know the "classics" of what came before so you can build on it or depart from it, and better to know the core source than to know the copy of the homage to the source.

Fantasy is an interesting genre because it's both incredibly ancient and relatively new. On the one hand, you could argue that it's prehistoric because the ancient myths and legends passed down through oral tradition had a lot of the elements that we consider the hallmarks of fantasy today. They're often about supernaturally gifted heroes going up against supernaturally gifted bad guys. On the other hand, I've read somewhere that "fantasy" as a distinct publishing category didn't really exist until the late 60s when The Lord of the Rings got reissued in the United States in mass market paperback and set off a wave of copycats of that particular kind of book -- the quasi-medieval setting, questing parties made up of representatives from various races, Great Evil that must be stopped by obtaining or destroying some magical gizmo, the wise wizard mentor, and a build-up to a great battle or all-out war. There were books that we now consider "fantasy" published before that, but the publishing category didn't really exist. A lot of the fantasy fiction before that seemed to get classified as "children's literature" -- the Oz books, the Narnia books, the Prydain books, etc., and the classic fantasy story does lend itself to that because the heroes are quite often fairly young. Otherwise, it seems to have been lumped in with science fiction, which it still is to a large extent in most stores, though they may make distinctions on the book spines. Hmm, how did they classify the Robert E. Howard stuff at the time it was first published? Now I'm starting to wonder about whatever article I read that made the LOTR argument, and it's possible that it was Ballantine propaganda because they like to claim they invented the modern fantasy novel.

At any rate, do you then make your fantasy literary canon go back to Beowolf and include the Grimms' Fairy Tales, or do you start with the publishing category and the books that were specifically written and published under the "fantasy" banner? I suppose it depends on whether you're trying to get as close as possible to source material in understanding the genre so you can be more original and less of a coattail rider or whether you're trying to understand the publishing category and need to sound like you know what's going on in the industry on con panels.

I think my reading has tended to focus on the former, and I'm missing out on the latter, especially a lot of the first-wave fantasy that came in the early days of the publishing category. To be honest, the LOTR type book really isn't my cup of tea. My reading taste runs to more intimate than epic. I'd rather read about a handful of people saving each other than about a cast of thousands saving the world. I suppose you could also call a lot of my fantasy taste "girly," in that I like reading about relationships, "domestic" life (how does magic affect day-to-day stuff), scholarship/learning, the arts, etc., more than I like big, epic battle scenes, blood and gore, violence, and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of good fight scenes, but that's usually something that's more interesting to me in a movie than in a book.

I'm not entirely sure how I'd deal with urban fantasy in an "essential reading" list because it's so new as a publishing category and currently so glutted. I'd probably stick with the books that pre-date the category, like War for the Oaks, Neverwhere, American Gods and a lot of Charles de Lint. I suspect the Dresden Files series may endure. I'm not sure how many of the half-vampire/half-fae, outcast mage who makes a living as a freelance demon slayer and has lots of hot sex with various creatures of the night when she's not kicking ass books we'll still remember twenty or even ten years from now. I'm sure there were zillions of LOTR clones from the seventies that no one remembers at all anymore, unless you have a disintegrating, yellowed copy on your bookcase.

Anyway, my personal reading list has expanded significantly. This may be my summer project. Stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, they had strawberries very cheap at the store this morning, so I'm making jam. I loved what I made last year so much that I'm going to make an early summer batch and then I'll do another batch at the end of summer to get me through the fall.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Essential Fantasy Reading

I didn't do quite as much yesterday, as I expected, but I still passed my goal for the day. I'll have to do some reworking of what I wrote because there was some thinking on paper, and I didn't realize until I'd written it all out that it probably would happen in a slightly different way and would be more interesting that way. There won't be much deleting, just a lot of moving things around. I can deal with that.

I'm not sure if it will help or hurt that something is happening now that is my equivalent of the Final Four. It's the final round of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. Every time they do this I say that next time I'll go over to Fort Worth and get tickets for at least the preliminaries, which are somewhat affordable, but I never have. One year, I was able to listen to the whole competition on the radio, but I can't pick up that radio station here since my current house seems to be in an RF dead zone and I can barely listen to the radio at all in my house. Fortunately, the final round is also being broadcast on the Dallas classical station that I can pick up (with some hissing). That means I'll be listening to the radio every night the rest of the week and then on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Two of the finalists are playing the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto, which is my favorite piece of music ever. Sometimes the piano music helps with the creativity, but I can't write and listen to that particular Rachmaninoff piece.

I don't actually play the piano, but I've had a lifelong fascination with it. Some of my friends were taking lessons when I was a kid, and when I was at their house, I'd try to work through their lesson books. I taught myself to read music from those books. I actually begged for piano lessons, but that was in the Dark Ages before there were decent electronic pianos and a real piano just wasn't feasible for people who moved every year or so and were likely to move overseas. I've got a keyboard now, so I probably should start learning, but now I find it very frustrating. I play flute and sing and used to play oboe (I started playing guitar and got pretty good at classical guitar, but my skin doesn't form calluses, so I had to give that up due to the pain and bleeding), so I'm fairly advanced musically, but only in treble clef. I have to think about the bass clef, and I'm not used to having to play two notes at the same time. Even very easy piano music is very difficult for me, but my brain sees that easy music and thinks, "Piece of cake!" and then I get frustrated that something that should be easy is so hard. I can see why they recommend piano as a first instrument. It's more difficult to learn later in life when you already play other instruments. Maybe when I count as a senior citizen, I can take one of those "senior piano camps" they're always advertising at music stores.

I kind of have to confess that I first became interested in most of the guys I've dated (the ones I pursued in any way instead of it being a blind date or them pursuing me) because they played the piano. Strangely, that did not prove to be a viable mate selection criterion.

Everyone was talking yesterday about the death of author David Eddings, and I'm starting to feel fantasy illiterate again because while I'd heard of him, I'd never gotten around to reading any of his books, and apparently they're a fantasy "gateway drug" for a lot of people. It would be handy if there was some kind of recommended reading list of the fantasy novels every fantasy fan should at least try to read, like they have for all the literary and classic works. I've read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the entire Chronicles of Narnia series and the entire Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. I read the first few Anne McCaffrey dragon books (although technically they're science fiction, but they always seem to be classified as fantasy). I read maybe the first four Shannara books by Terry Brooks. In high school I was obsessed with the Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz, and I've mostly kept up, though I haven't read the latest one. I got about two and a half books into the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series before deciding I no longer cared. I've read most of the Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series (though the last volume has a bookmark stuck in it, so I don't think I finished it). I only got one chapter into the Thomas Covenant series before deciding it wasn't for me, but I have read Donaldson's mirror series. I've read Emma Bull's The War for the Oaks, a fair amount of Charles deLint, most of Gaiman's adult novels and short stories and am making a fair dent into Pratchett's Discworld series.

Then there's all the current stuff to keep up with. But I still feel like I've missed a lot. What would you put on the Essential Fantasy Reading List -- both "classic" and more current?

I do seem to have a bad habit of burning out on series or losing track of them. If most of them have already been published, then I tend to binge and burn out. If I have to wait for each new book to come out, I'll lose interest and move on to something else before the next book comes out. The series I stick with tend to be finite/closed-ended, so there's an end point in sight instead of books stretching out to infinity, each book is somewhat self-contained with no real cliffhanger endings (I hate the fantasy doorstop series where they seem to end the book at the point where they can't fit more paper in the binding, so there's no sense of real structure to the plot), and where books come out on a fairly regular schedule, close enough together to not lose interest, but not so close that I can't keep up. But most of all, the series has to stay good. Too many times, the first book is brilliant and then the quality tapers off, or the characters change so that I no longer care about them, or else the author's favorite character is not my favorite character and I lose interest as the books focus on someone I dislike while marginalizing the person I do like. Or the plot starts to focus on something that I don't find interesting. There are very few series I've read in their entirety.

If we can come up with a good Essential Fantasy Reading List, I'll post it on my web site as a reference. Or if you know of one someone else has compiled, point me toward it.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

From the Department of Bad Ideas

I'm still on a roll, with more than 5,000 words written yesterday. I may have lower productivity today, since I have choir practice tonight and something to write for the medical school today. But still, I'm starting to feel like a diligent professional instead of a slacker. It does help that I've reached the part where I really know what I'm doing, the part the rest of the book was aiming toward.

There's been a lot of news out there lately that has to have come from the Department of Bad Ideas. I'm not even going to get into the economy and politics and stuff. Just in the general field of entertainment there's more than enough.

For instance, that idea to make a new Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, but without any of the cast from the series or the characters (aside from, I would assume, Buffy herself) or Joss Whedon. Unfortunately, this is one of those Hollywood things. Once the script for the initial movie was sold, it became the property of the people who bought it, and they have the rights to do whatever they want to with it. That's something you have to be aware of in selling things to Hollywood and why I just about broke out in hives when reading the film option contract. With publishing, you just assign the rights to the book for a certain amount of time, and once those conditions are met (usually a certain amount of time after the book goes out of print), you get those rights back and can sell them to someone else. In Hollywood, you sell something and they've got it for good. If they do make a movie out of Enchanted, Inc., then they have all rights to it forever. Even years later when it comes time for a remake using the new holographic technology, I don't get to sell it again. I get a cut of whatever they make if they sell it to another production company or remake it, but the decisions are out of my hands.

Still, having the right doesn't mean it's a good idea. After all, the people talking about making the movie are the ones who made the first movie, which was kind of why they needed the TV series to set things right after the movie messed up the concept. I can't imagine how making another movie with even less involvement from the creator is going to work, especially when the core audience is rather devoted to said creator. So, yeah, bad idea to remake something by removing the elements the very vocal core audience is most attached to.

Then there's the latest round of Stupid Corporate Bookseller Tricks. Apparently, Borders, as part of their effort to rebuild and avoid bankruptcy, was struck with the new and innovative idea (sarcasm alert) that it might be helpful if their staff hand-sold books to customers. They might be a huge corporate entity, but they could act like an independent bookstore, with their staff interacting with customers and making personal recommendations.

Except it turned out that the "handselling" and "personal recommendations" were actually product placements, just like those "new and recommended" tables at the front of the store (those books may be new, but the "recommended" part just means the publishers shelled out money for them to be there). There were certain books mandated to be hand-sold, with quotas for each employee, and employees who didn't sell the assigned number of these particular titles risked losing their jobs, no matter how many copies of other books they might have sold. It had nothing to do with the booksellers personally endorsing books they loved or making recommendations based on the customers' interests.

That's a problem that comes up so often with marketing and promotion, and it's one of the reasons people are so resistant to sales pitches. Something that starts as a good idea for spreading a message gets overused and misused to the point that the medium becomes useless. It's the reason people automatically throw away junk mail and delete advertising e-mail unread. It might be a convenience if it contained information we actually wanted and were interested in, but we get so buried in the stuff we're not interested in that we don't have time to sort through it and just toss everything. It's like when I bought a new car last year and that put me on the dealership's mailing list, so I kept getting e-mails about sales they were having on new cars -- like I was going to buy another one a couple of weeks later. I unsubscribed from their mailing list because I didn't need the information they were sending me, but that also probably meant I missed things I might have wanted, like specials on an oil change. I'm afraid the Borders thing will work the same way. If employees are desperate to keep their jobs and required to sell a certain number of these specific books, they're probably going to be pushing them on people regardless of their interests, and that then will make people leery of bookseller recommendations in all bookstores.

The thing is, the good booksellers at Borders or any other store were already handselling. I've had great "Have you read this? Then you might like this" conversations at my nearest Borders. All an edict like this does is penalize these people and make them less effective by forcing them to do something that goes against what makes them good at their jobs. It reminds me of my PR days when I knew a particular publication wouldn't be interested in what I was pitching, but my boss made me call anyway so we could tell the client we'd called that publication, and all that did was make that reporter less likely to take my calls in the future so that I'd be less effective when I did have something to pitch him that he'd be interested in.

There was a huge outcry when word about this got out, and I don't know what became of it or if Borders backtracked. I know the last time I was in a Borders that nobody tried to sell me anything (but then they were in the process of doing inventory and reorganizing the store after getting rid of the movies/music section). I know there are bookstore folks here. Anyone want to clue us in? (and you can comment anonymously, if you like)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Plot vs. Story

Pardon me while I do a victory dance. I wrote nearly 6,000 words yesterday. I'm excited about today because I'm coming up on a huge scene I've been imagining for a couple of years. I want to do it justice, so I'm a little nervous, but I'm also eager to see it come to life. The chance to write this scene alone is making me glad I decided to go ahead and write this whole book. It's nice to be at a place in your career when publishers are willing to look at just a proposal instead of the whole book, but there's no guarantee they'll buy the proposal, and it gets very frustrating writing a lot of beginnings without seeing them come to fruition.

Then there's the fact that I'm not a very good proposal writer. It's not the synopsis that hangs me up. That part's easy because I'm a plotter. It's the partial book that's the problem because writing the first fifty or even seventy pages doesn't really tell me anything about the book. At that point, it's still lifeless and soulless, so I think my proposals come out kind of mechanical.

I read a writing book once that separated the "plot" from the "story." The plot was the events that happen in the book, while the story is the emotional undercurrent that gives the plot meaning. When I write a proposal, I may know the plot, but I don't really know the story until I've written the whole thing -- and sometimes the story will significantly affect the plot.

I've been able to do proposals for my series because I already know those characters, and I don't think the publisher was really looking at the proposal itself, just the numbers on whether there should be more books. But trying to write just proposals for entirely new things seems to be my hangup. I'm seeing that in completing something that got stuck in the proposal state and never really went anywhere. If I want it to have enough life that a new publisher will get excited and want to start a new series with me, then I'm going to have to buckle down and write an entire book. Maybe someday I'll learn to write a partial that's still good. Better yet, maybe someday I'll sell well enough that the selling process will be along the lines of, "You gonna write another book? Okay, we'll take it."

The other thing I'm learning is that ideas have a gestation period, and sometimes rushing off to write something as soon as I get an idea that excites me is the worst thing I can do. Then the idea isn't fully formed and whatever I write comes off half-baked. It's better if I can let the idea swirl around in the subconscious for months or even years while I work on other things. It was a year and a half between the time I first got the idea for Enchanted, Inc. and the time I started writing it, and I think that was a big reason why that book was so easy to write. Then I got a lot of the ideas for the next book while I was writing that one, and it was a year later that I started working on it. With the project I'm working on now, it's been a couple of years since I put it into a proposal form, and I'd been thinking about parts of it for far longer than that. My recent proposal flailing has involved ideas I started working on as soon as I got them, and maybe they weren't ripe yet.

So maybe the next thing I work on should be that book I've been playing with for about eighteen years ...

But first, it's been a rainy morning, so it should be a good working day, and I'm eager to start writing -- and it's not even noon! Go, me!

Monday, June 01, 2009

All Fired Up

I think I got motivated by those writing sessions at A-Kon because I'm up and at 'em relatively early today, considering that I've already been to the library (I timed my visit to coincide with the toddler story hour, rather than immediately after the toddler story hour, when the library is swarmed by toddlers). Now all my errands for the day are done and I can focus on work. I felt like such a slacker when hearing about the work schedules of some of the long-time and big-name people on those panels, which made me want to get to work. I suspect that explains why they've had long, successful careers and why I'm me.

Plus, I topped the halfway point in the current project last night, which means I'm really getting to the part where I tend to crank it all out in a frenzy.

This was a light con for me, and since I'm not really into manga or anime, I only went to the sessions where I was speaking, so I just took the train downtown, did my panels, then took the train back. The train seemed to be popular with the con crowd because there were usually a number of people heading the same place on the train. That made for an amusing moment Saturday morning. The train was crowded, and I ended up standing near the front of the car next to a guy I'm pretty sure was a pro football player (based on my deciphering of his tattoos) who was going with his family to the zoo (which is on the same train line). There were a couple of people in full costume, complete with cat ears and face paint, and that didn't seem to raise much of an eyebrow. But then a guy who pretty much fit the stereotype of Fanboy #1 got on the train, and things got fun. You know the guy -- typical "nerd" and way too chatty about the things he's currently obsessed with, especially the moment he finds someone else who might know what he's talking about. Claims to have Asperger's Syndrome, but you're not sure whether he's had an actual diagnosis or if he's diagnosed himself and uses that as an excuse not to develop social skills. The football player was staring with horror at the way that guy went on and on and on. Even the people in full costume were giving him the smile-and-nod, gee, it's been nice talking, but we'd have to go if there were anywhere we could go looks. The whole thing made me crack up completely because you don't see too many situations where people who are obsessed enough to go around in public in full costume are like "your level of obsession is totally weirding me out."

Though, to be honest, if he'd started up the conversation with the people across the aisle from the cat people who were wearing Blue Sun shirts (in other words, the Firefly fans), I probably would have ended up joining the conversation. But I would hope I have the social skills to notice when the people I'm talking to are getting tired of the conversation.

Now I have to go determine whether or not you can get a cell phone signal on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Can you hear me now?