Monday, August 31, 2009

Back from New York

I'm back from New York, and am in my usual exhausted state after a trip like that. However, I'm mentally all revved up to work. The blister I got the day before the trip was a bad omen because I ended up with even worse blisters by the end of the first day, thanks to the fact that one pair of shoes hurt my heels, but then the other hurt my toes, so I just couldn't win. I think I may try what I've heard is a Boy Scout trick and wrap the most blister-prone parts of my feet with duct tape BEFORE I get blisters. That's supposed to prevent blisters because it means there's no rubbing on the skin. The worst of the blisters have shrunk today, but shoes still aren't my favorite thing.

But other than that, I had a great trip. The first day was absolutely lovely, with warm temperatures and sunny skies. The rest of the time it was a different kind of lovely (to me) -- nice, rainy days that give the city a certain feel that's almost otherworldly. It also makes stepping into cozy basement restaurants even nicer.

I can't talk in much detail about what I did, since it was research for a book and I don't like to talk in specifics about unwritten (or unpublished) books, but I did do a lot of wandering in Central Park, I returned to my favorite tea shop for breakfast (and hot tea and scones on a rainy morning is a treat) and I found a perfect Italian restaurant that was romantic enough that I actually found myself wishing I could go there on a date.

After seeing a sign in a real estate office window, I got the bright idea of checking on open houses to get into an apartment building, but they didn't have any open houses while I was there. However, they did have a lot of photos with listings posted in the windows, and my hotel room window looked down on the roofs and backs of the buildings in the next block, which gave me a better sense of the building layouts. It looks like in those older buildings that just about any layout goes, since some of them were originally built as single-family homes or maybe two-family homes or apartments that took up entire floors, and they've since been cut up into smaller apartments in various ways. So I think I can make up what works for the story, and it won't be utterly unrealistic. Based on an overheard conversation, I think I can also make just about anything financially feasible, since there are apparently people who inherited apartments from family members who bought them decades ago when prices weren't so high, so the larger old apartments are totally paid for and all the current residents have to pay is maintenance and taxes.

I also figured out from this real estate research that no matter how much I enjoy visiting, I probably won't ever decide to live there (unless I reach JK Rowling levels), considering I'd have to pay more than double my current mortgage payment to live in an apartment smaller than my current living room. I can travel there instead, especially now that I've found the perfect hotel. It's so perfect that part of me wants to spread the word about it, but part of me wants to keep it a secret so it won't become too popular (not that I have that much influence). It's very cheap by New York standards, but absolutely lovely, a well-preserved old building right behind the Museum of Natural History and a block from Central Park. The rooms are really small, and the bathroom was pretty much microscopic, but it was still nice and comfortable, with a good bed, LCD TV and CD player in the room. I think I have my new New York headquarters.

Because of the foot problems and general weariness, I didn't do anything nightlife-related. I ate early dinners and was back in my room, collapsed with my feet up, by 7, so my evening tourism amounted to watching syndicated reruns of CSI: New York. I got to play the "hey, I was there today!" game, only I didn't find any dead bodies or severed heads in those places. The early nights meant I discovered the time when the City that Doesn't Sleep sleeps: Saturday mornings when it's rainy. I had the city almost to myself when I headed out for breakfast.

I have photos, and I think I'll post the ones not related to the book as Friday's Virtual Vicarious Vacation. But now I have to get to work and catch up on a lot of stuff.

Tomorrow: My airplane books for the trip.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Shoes and Travel Agendas

One more day before I'm off to New York. I found a new pair of sneakers yesterday that was not quite what I wanted but probably the best I could have found without spending an entire day. I do have to ask what the deal is with sneakers not having laces anymore. Only the serious running shoes and the Converse style shoes had laces. Everything else had elastic faux laces. Have we reached the point where we're too lazy to tie our shoes? The elastic makes it harder to get the shoes on without the socks getting all bunched up, it means you can't adjust how the shoes fit, and elastic stretches, so the shoes will likely be too loose for comfort soon. I took the shoes for a test run by walking to the post office this morning, and it was a good thing because one shoe rubbed a blister on my heel. One of my feet is a bit smaller, and that means the shoes rub up and down there. Fortunately, I already had a heel cushion insert from my last trip to New York when I had to limp into a drugstore to adjust a shoe, so I was able to fix it before I started doing the serious walking. On the down side, I already have a blister on my heel before I even leave the house.

Because my feet are a problem and I can get blisters while wearing custom-fitted pillows on my feet, I've learned to give new shoes a trial run before taking a trip that requires walking. I've also learned that while packing light is nice, if I'm going to be doing a lot of walking, I need to bring at least two pairs of shoes so that if one starts hurting, I can switch.

This is my first trip to New York in ages without any kind of externally imposed agenda. I'm not going to a conference and I don't have any meetings scheduled with anyone. That means I can go totally casual and it means I can do what I want, when I want to and change my plans as things come up. I do have a rough agenda of things I need to see and do, but I can change it on a whim without inconveniencing anyone else.

In a lot of respects, I'm ahead of where I was when I made this kind of trip before writing Enchanted, Inc. (my last non-agenda trip). Then, I had done basic development on my characters and had outlined my plot on the plane. I also knew the approximate area where the office would be, but knew nothing about that area, and had a general sense of where I wanted the other parts of the book to take place because it was an area where I really felt the "magic" when I was there. I didn't do any real research before the trip. I just went to those general areas and wandered.

This time, I know what the main plot is, even though I haven't outlined it. I have a good sense of who most of my main characters are, though most of them don't yet have names. I have a pretty good idea of the locations and neighborhoods that will be involved, and they're somewhat familiar. I've done a lot of research to look for things I need to check out in those areas.

The fun thing about going to New York is that it's an entirely different place depending on what you're doing and where you're going. My last trip was to a conference, and it was very Midtown -- Times Square hotel and my main excursion was to Grand Central for a tour. That's like an entirely different universe from the Upper West Side, where I'm going this time, and it's also different from the more downtown areas I've focused on in my other books.

And now I have to go pack and get my life together, since I have a 6:40 a.m. flight and I'll want to be ready to roll out of bed and head out the door.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Megan Kelley Hall

I think I've finally got my life more or less back to normal -- just in time to go abnormal all over again. However, I believe I have my agenda for the trip planned out. I just have a few errands to run in preparation, and I need to find a new pair of shoes. My good "fashion" sneakers -- in other words, not big, white running shoes -- have pretty much died. It was one thing when the suede on the outside frayed, but when the holes in the lining at the heel appeared, I knew it was over because that rubs blisters. These were the shoes I bought to celebrate finishing the first draft of Enchanted, Inc., so I suppose they've lived a long, full life. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find anything quite like them to replace them.

I do have one last bit of business that got shoved aside in all the uproar of last week. I'm late on hosting a Girlfriends Cyber Circuit tour. So, without further ado, here's the scoop on The Lost Sister by Megan Kelley Hall. It's the follow-up to the book Sisters of Misery.

Maddie Crane is grappling with the disappearance of Cordelia LeClaire, and trying to escape the grasp of The Sisters of Misery—an insidious clique of the school’s most powerful girls, whose pranks have set off a chain of horrific events, and who have Maddie in their sights…

Now in a prestigious boarding school far away from her mysterious hometown of Hawthorne, Massachusetts , Maddie feels free from danger. But when an unmarked envelope arrives at her dorm containing a single ominous tarot card, Maddie realizes with terror that some secrets won’t stay buried. Knowing she must return to Hawthorne—a town still scarred by the evil of the Salem witch trials—Maddie prepares to face the fears of her past...and the wrath of the sister she wronged.



And now the interview:
Was there any particular inspiration behind this story?
The Lost Sister picks up where Sisters of Misery left off. It shows what happens when someone is pushed too far and when hazing pranks go wrong. It’s a continuation of Sisters of Misery, in that it’s a modern-day retelling of the Salem Witch hunts. It has a sort of fairytale-esque Gothic appeal and it will keep you up at night due the spooky, supernatural events that take place.

What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
I grew up in a town similar to Hawthorne on Boston's North Shore. Everyone from my town who has read SISTERS OF MISERY is convinced that Hawthorne is Marblehead, MA, but it's really not. I took a bunch of towns on the North Shore of Boston and smushed them all together to create Hawthorne.

When I was growing up, I was a lot closer to Maddie in terms of personality than Cordelia. I tried to avoid conflict. I watched fights going on around me, but never really wanted to get involved.

Now, I'm the first person to stand up for someone or something when I think it's wrong or unfair. I'm definitely closer to Cordelia's philosophy of life. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that. I don't hold back. After going through many life altering experiences (premature baby, open heart surgery, strokes, losing partial vision) I've learned that life is precious and NO ONE should have to put up with taking crap from ANYONE. We're only given one life--one chance--so you'd better make the best of it and not let anyone or anything stand in your way.

The clique in your books takes the concept of mean girls to a whole new level. When you were in school, would you have been more likely to be one of the Sisters or one of their victims?
I probably would have been watching in horror on the sidelines (actually, that's what I was doing. Watching all these mean things take place and taking mental notes for the book I would write in the future.) I've never actually witnessed severe physical brutality (although I did play in a field hockey game where one girl bit off the earlobe of another girl -- no lie!), but the psychological and emotional tormenting happens more than most people would like to believe.

Which book (or movie or TV show) has left you wanting to keep the lights on all night after reading (or watching) it?
Wow, there aren't many, because I'm a huge fan of scary movies and books. I hate slasher flicks. I'm definitely more of a psychological thriller fan. The Shining has always freaked me out. The Strangers with Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler REALLY freaked me out. Just picturing that guy standing in the background while Liv Tyler waits for Scott Speedman to return gives me the chills. The Blair Witch Project gave me nightmares the first time I saw it. And I simply CANNOT watch or read anything about aliens. I think that might have to do with watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind at a very young age.

What has been your favorite summer vacation ever?
I spent three weeks on the French Riviera, which was totally wasted on a 13 year old, because I was pining away for a lifeguard back home, who clearly had no interest in me. (I still get flutters in my stomach when I hear his name – shhh, don’t tell my husband.). On that trip we visited a medieval town called St. Paul de Vence. We kept running into Tom Hanks and his new bride Rita Wilson. Since the town keeps wrapping around, we kept passing him until the third or so pass, he waved to us and said “Oh, my old friends.” Of course we had to have a picture taken with him.

What are you working on now?
I just finished my third YA novel. It's not a continuation of the SISTERS OF MISERY series (although, I'd love to continue that at some point. Maddie, Cordelia, Finn and I needed a little break from each other.) It's another suspense thriller that is currently being shopped around by my agent and will hopefully be coming to a bookstore near you in the future!

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
Hmmm... well, I'd like to say that this is my first blog post that I haven't mentioned my unwavering love for Johnny Depp. Whoops...too late. Can't say that anymore. :)

But, seriously, I wrote these books because of the growing trend of bullying. It's absolutely frightening.
THE LOST SISTER and SISTERS OF MISERY are about mean girls, bullying and hazing. Today, almost 6,000,000 kids, nearly 30% of all children, are either bullied or are doing the bullying in this country. Now, for the first time, the American Academy of Pediatrics is stepping in with recommendations and tips to help all involved. There are several current news stories about the subject: the hazing at Miss Porter’s, cyberbullying and a recent study out of the University of Maine stating that 50% of college students admit to enduring some form of hazing in high school.

This type of bullying and hazing is totally unacceptable and frighteningly common, which is why I highlighted it in my books. I'd love to talk to teens about the issues surrounding bullying, because the repercussions are far-reaching and serious. No one should be treated poorly. No one should be made to feel bad about themselves. And sometimes, the worst type of bullying happens among "friends." If there is anything that I would love teens (or all women, for that matter) to take away from these books is that you don't have to put up with being a target for bullying. No one or group is THAT important for you to risk your dignity or your well-being. And if you see it happening to someone else, have the strength to stand up for them. Don't sit on the sidelines and simply be happy that it's not happening to you. Because, guess what, one day it will, especially if you have surrounded yourself with "friends" who can turn on others.

Always surround yourself with people that you respect and who have respect for you. And if you can't find any at your school or your town or in your area, just be patient, because one day, you will find friends that were worth the wait. You don't need a group of people around you to make you feel special. You can be cool and independent and special on your own.

For more info, visit Megan's web site. Or order the book from Amazon.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Back (for a few days)

Apologies for the somewhat curtailed blogging last week. My uncle passed away, so I headed over to East Texas for the funeral and related family events, then stayed away longer than I planned because while I really wanted to be home, I didn't necessarily want to go through what it took to go home. I've also been thoroughly fed because those Southern church ladies really know how to put together a post-funeral meal. Then once we were back at my parents' place, we just had to go the next day to breakfast in one of the new local hot spots, a barbecue place for lunch and dinner, but a classic small-town cafe for breakfast. You know it's good when you see the number of fire engines and police cars in the parking lot. This will be another short week, since I'm off to New York on Thursday. I suspect there will be some serious cultural whiplash, going from small-town East Texas to New York. I'm still thoroughly in Southern Belle mode, my accent is heavier than ever, and New York won't know what hit it.

This is a research trip so I can get the setting for the book I'm about to write clear in my head. It will be a different "universe" from the Enchanted, Inc. books and will be in a different part of the city. While I'm reading some travel books about New York to get ideas of places I need to go or things I need to do, I do get a few pangs about "my" part of town where the Katie books are set. I wonder if I'll start to feel the same way about this other part of town once I write (and hopefully sell) this book. The one thing that's a challenge for me in doing research is creating a representative apartment. In this part of the world, we have complexes, so you can go online and see floor plans, and most of the entrances are exterior, so you don't have to go inside to see how the apartments are laid out within a building. But since New York has so many older buildings that don't have any kind of "standard" layout and because apartments aren't found quite the way they are here, there doesn't seem to be anything standard to show floor plans and interiors. Plus, the apartments open onto interior corridors, so it's hard to tell how the apartments are laid out within a building. I can only glean so much info from walking by at dusk and glancing into windows of apartments with their lights on and curtains open. I'm not sure a Realtor would appreciate me making an appointment to view an apartment just to get inside a building.

Meanwhile, I have some other research I need to do before I leave town, plus all the usual errands to run before a trip, so it's going to be a busy week!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Balancing Time

I may not be online for most of the rest of the week, so there may or may not be any posts, and Friday's Virtual Vicarious Vacation will likely be posted late (if at all) because I'll be out of town and away from the photo CDs.

I still have writing posts about research and editing in the planning stages, but this one came to me, so I went with it. I originally wasn't planning to address this topic in a writing post because I thought the appeal wouldn't be wide enough for all writers, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought there might be something useful. How do you balance all the various aspects of a writing career? It's not just something for published authors to think about because there are different things to balance at different times in your career -- learning, writing, networking, marketing and so forth.

A rule of thumb that's widely used for allocating resources in the business world is the concept of 80/20. Eighty percent of your resources (time, money, effort, etc.) should be devoted to the most important 20 percent of your business, while the remaining 20 percent of your resources should go to the remaining 80 percent of the business. It's hard to quantify percentages in the writing life (in the business world, you can put hard numbers against the most profitable parts of the business or the biggest customers to have a clear 80/20 split on priorities), but I would translate that as the most important one or two, three at the most, priorities. You can't really put more than three priorities in that top category or you're diluting it too much and losing the 80 percent effect.

For a writer, writing will almost always be one of those top priorities that you focus 80 percent of your time on. There may even be times when it's the only priority in that 80 percent. Under "writing" I would include all activity directly related to producing a book -- research, brainstorming, thinking (and this does include staring out the window time), plotting, planning, writing, revising, proofreading and then if the book sells you'll have editorial revisions, copy edits and galley proofs.

Other priorities may come and go at various times in your career.

When you first start writing, one of your top priorities may be learning. You'll still try to write a lot, but you'll also focus on reading books about writing, going to conferences and workshops, taking classes, etc.

When you're writing your book, that may become your sole priority, with all other activities like studying the market, learning and networking falling into the bottom 20 percent.

As you move forward and have a completed manuscript, one of your priorities may be to get an agent or get the book published, so in your 80 percent of time you'll do stuff like research the market, find names of editors or agents and write and send query letters.

When the book sells, marketing may become a major priority, as you get your name out there by blogging, having a web presence, doing interviews, etc.

You may do all these things at all parts of your career, but at times when they're not a top priority, they fall into the other 20 percent. That beginning writer may do some networking by meeting editors and agents at conferences, but that's not her focus. The writer who is submitting manuscripts may start doing some marketing by putting together a web site and starting a blog, but it's not her focus. The published author may still keep learning the craft by reading books and going to workshops, but it's not her focus. You get the idea.

The balance of how you allocate the 80 percent of your time may vary, depending on what else is going on. An approaching deadline may shift it all to writing for a while, as will one of those "here are your copy edits, we'd like them back in three days" situations. On a day you have to do an interview, your writing may take a back seat. In the weeks immediately before and after a book release, even your writing may have to move to the lower 20 percent while you do blog tours, booksignings and other activity to push the book. When there's nothing specific happening to force your priorities, I suppose you could apply the 80/20 principle for prioritizing your top priorities, with 80 percent of 80 percent of your time focused on your very top priority, then the remaining 20 percent of 80 percent of your time on the secondary top priority.

I have to admit that I only recently thought in terms of applying this to the writing business, and what I like is that it simplifies things and forces me to focus. It's very easy to fall into the trap of busy work, so that you're doing things that need to be done and that count as work, but they aren't really your priority, and the important things aren't getting done. When I analyzed how I spent my time, I realized that the most important task for me -- writing -- was getting a small percentage of my time. I was spending more time reading industry blogs and staying on top of what was going on in the market than I was writing. I've tried various time management methods, like considering various tasks "clients" and tracking time the way I did when I was working for an agency, but I never seem to stick with that for long, and it's time consuming. Just focusing consciously on what's important seems to be working for me.

I aim for a 6-hour workday. That's because I only count time I'm actually working, and as I found when I went to part time and telecommuted in my last job, there's a lot of wasted time in a regular day at the office. I also don't count activities like morning freewriting, the time I spend thinking about a book while doing other things like taking a shower or taking a walk, or the time I spend reading for pleasure, which kind of counts as work because reading is essential for writing and may also count as market research. I figure that if I add up all the time that isn't really work but that ends up being applied to my work, I'm working more than a full day, so I think that 6 hours of dedicated, quantifiable working time is fair.

That means I should be spending almost 5 hours a day on my top priorities. For me at the moment, that's writing and studying. I'm studying not only writing how-tos but also things like time management, creativity and psychology. That leaves a little more than an hour for everything else, like publicity, staying on top of the industry and administrative stuff, like record keeping.

Instead of trying to time absolutely everything I do, I just keep a running record with a stopwatch of time spent on my top two priorities and make sure I hit my goal. I don't worry about timing other activities. It may end up being more time than I have designated, but at least I'm devoting more time to my priorities. Incidentally, that's why my web site needs updating and I only seem to hit Facebook once in a blue moon. Publicity isn't a priority for me right now. When I finish the book I'm working on so that writing is taking up less of my 80 percent and when I give myself a break from studying, I may temporarily move marketing up in the priority list.

Of course, you have to be flexible. There are days when a lot of admin tasks come in. There are conventions, which mean spending the whole day on publicity activity (I usually don't try to write during conventions). This isn't meant to be a hard-and-fast rule, just a guideline. Everyone's going to have a different "work day," and you may even have a different length of work day for each day of the week. You may choose to think in terms of weeks or months -- how many hours you want to work in a week or month and count it that way instead of on a daily basis. That may even be more sane than trying to meet that goal each day. I may move to that once I'm in the habit of a certain amount of work, but for now I'm keeping an eye on a daily goal.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Out of Step

Have you ever had one of those days where you feel like you missed a memo somewhere along the way? I may be having one of those weeks. It started in church Sunday. I'm in the choir, so I get a pretty good view of the entire congregation, and this Sunday, it seemed like there must have been some kind of organized effort for everyone to wear blue. I know a lot of the kids were wearing blue t-shirts because they'd had music and arts camp the week before, and this was the Sunday when they sang a song in the service to show what they'd learned, so they were in their camp shirts. But I don't know if the adults planned to wear blue in support, or if it was just an odd coincidence because just about every man in the congregation was wearing either a pale blue Oxford shirt or a blue dress shirt. Then a lot of the women were wearing blue dresses or blue blouses. The church was a sea of blue.

What was I wearing? Bright red -- a dress that looks a lot like the one on the cover of Damsel Under Stress. And during the summer we don't wear choir robes, so that one spot of red really stood out.

So, in general, I'm afraid I may be having a red dress on "wear blue day" kind of week, where no matter what I do, I'll be at least a little bit out of step with the rest of the world. For instance, I have a funeral to go to later in the week, and at the last couple of funerals I've attended, I've gotten the impression that you aren't supposed to wear black to funerals anymore. All the Southern ladies have worn pastels or bright jewel tones in floral patterns because you're not supposed to look like you're mourning. The problem is, my wardrobe is pretty much either black or red, and I can't quite see bright red as appropriate funeral attire. If I wear mostly black, I'm not wearing funeral clothes. I'm wearing my general wardrobe. Now, I don't know when this change in customs came about, but apparently I missed a memo along the way. I may play the "eccentric writer" card and not worry about it.

In other news, the bookselling follies continue. I mentioned a while ago that a certain major chain whose name begins with a B but doesn't include an ampersand decided to try something new and innovative and (gasp!) handsell books to their customers. Only, they weren't really handselling. It was just another form of co-op marketing, in which certain books, whose publishers were paying for the privilege, were to be pushed by sales staff as though they were handselling, with quotas in place and jobs at stake. I'm guessing from my last visit to a store in this chain that the book Julie and Julia is one of the titles being given this treatment at the moment. I'm basing that assumption on the fact that one of the employees was stationed near the store entrance and greeted everyone who came through the door with, "Hi! Is there something I can help you find? Julie and Julia is 30 percent off!" As she did this, she was standing next to a table piled high with copies of the book and whatever copies of the Julia Child memoir and cookbooks they were able to scrounge (since apparently someone severely miscalculated and they didn't print nearly enough books, and those are the books the movie seems to be selling). Oddly, she didn't push the book on me, possibly because I was already making a beeline toward the book I was there to get or possibly because I gave off the vibe that I would be One of THOSE People who was likely to smirk and say, "Oh, let me guess, that's the 'make' book of the moment."

This strikes me as a really odd use of marketing resources, considering that the book is already a bestseller, so the publisher has surely already made a profit on it. There's a movie with the same title, and the movie is being advertised far more heavily than any book ever is, with someone else (the movie studio) footing the bill. If there was ever a book that didn't need extra marketing resources, this would be it. I can't imagine there's any kind of return on investment here, where forcing booksellers to handsell it is going to sell that many more copies than would have sold anyway. While eavesdropping, I noticed that every person she pushed the book on either already owned it or had already read it. Why spend huge amounts of your miniscule marketing budget on a book where just about everyone who might be interested in it has already read it? I guess that's more proof that the future marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation is currently working in publishing. Meanwhile, I hope the bookstore chain is getting some serious money for this, because it doesn't seem to me like a good use of staff resources. A good bookseller turned loose and allowed to handsell books she's familiar with and passionate about could probably make the company a lot more money than one forced to stand next to a display about a book while telling every customer about it (though that may have been that particular bookseller's tactic for meeting her quota -- but still probably not the most profitable use of her time for the company).

It seems like there are opportunities here for tiered levels of publisher payola to bookstores to push certain books. At Level 1, the book gets placed on the "new and recommended" table in the front of the store and a mention in the store's online newsletter. At Level 2, the book gets its own display, a poster in the window and featured placement in the store's online newsletter. At Level 3, it gets everything in Level 2, plus the employees are forced to handsell the book (with their jobs in jeopardy if they don't meet their quota) and the book is displayed next to the cash registers. At Level 4, the book gets everything in Levels 2 and 3, plus employees chase customers around the store, beating them around the head and shoulders with a copy of the book until they agree to purchase it. At Level 5, employees are forced to form gangs to go out and terrorize people in the streets into purchasing the book.

I'm still not sure how they know which employee sold which copies of the books in question. Does it work like a telemarketing firm, where they get to ring a bell when they persuade some poor sucker to buy that book? Will it be like at a clothing store, where the sales staff make sure you remember their names and then the cashier asks you if anyone helped you with your selection so the right salesperson gets credit? If you agree to take the book, does that employee then accompany you to the cash register to get credit? I haven't yet bought one of the "make" books (none of them really interest me, and I have to admit that I'd probably rebel against the concept even if they pushed something I was interested in and go buy it from Amazon or get it from the library) so I haven't seen how the process works.

Now to go put together some funeral outfits because God forbid I actually look like I'm in mourning at a funeral. The world is all topsy-turvy -- you can now wear black to weddings, but you're not supposed to wear black to a funeral. I even hear rumors that white shoes may be allowed after Labor Day.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Monday Movies: The Good and the Awful

Happy Monday! I had a wonderfully boring weekend -- just finished up re-reading the book prior to sending it off, then relaxed and read and napped. I think I needed that. Now I just need to think of a title for the book. I've got one stuck in my head, and I don't think it's the best one, but it's currently blocking out everything else.

In spite of not going anywhere or doing much of anything, I didn't do a lot of movie viewing this weekend. Saturday night, the Disney Channel showed Ratatouille, which I hadn't seen in the theater. I'm not sure why, since I've seen just about all the Pixar films (though I haven't seen Cars). I guess I wasn't too excited about the Disney rodent fetish. Or else I wasn't in a movie-going phase. At any rate, it was absolutely delightful, and in spite of the computer animation, it reminded me of the old-school Disney animation from the classic era. One thing that impressed me was that they didn't ignore the "Ew! Rats in the kitchen!" issue and sweep it under the rug with the "rodents are cute!" idea. The rats did dig around in garbage, but the main character learned to walk on his hind legs so his "hands" didn't get dirty, they showed him washing his "hands" before cooking, and before the other rats did anything in the kitchen, they were run through the dishwasher. I liked that instead of pretending this was happy animation world where things like that weren't an issue, they faced it head-on.

The movie also made me want to dig out my cookbooks and get creative in the kitchen, but that will have to wait until it's not so hot. At this time of year it's too hot to cook.

Sunday night, I went with an HBO OnDemand offering, Deception. I was bored and going through the listings, then I saw a film with Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman listed as the stars, and I thought, "Okay, I'm in. How bad could it be if I get to look at those two?" The answer? Pretty darn bad. For one thing, even with Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman in it, it wasn't a musical. The closest it came to having a musical number was a moment when Hugh Jackman sort of sang under his breath. It was supposedly a psychological "thriller," but that term has to be used really loosely, as the first hints that something is seriously wrong don't show up until an hour into the movie, there were no real thrills, no real sense of danger, and the entire plot hinged on the characters all being Too Stupid to Live and doing things no real person ever would. On the up side, there were Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman wearing suits. On the down side, both were using American accents. The "plot" basically involves Ewan McGregor as a shy, nerdy CPA who is auditing a law firm's books when one of the lawyers (Hugh Jackman) befriends him and introduces him to his sexy, glamorous life. When they get their cell phones switched, the accountant gets in over his head in a high-end no-strings sex club (seriously) and learns that nothing is what it appears to be. I will say that Ewan McGregor makes a really appealing nerd. It somehow works for him, possibly because he had the charm and charisma cranked up to 11, but then filtered through a character with almost no social skills, so he came across as totally disarming -- the kind of guy who could have women eating out of his hand without having any idea that it was happening or any idea what he was doing. However, Hugh Jackman becomes less appealing in nerd mode. He is not a man who looks better in glasses. He looks less adorkable and more like the kind of nerd who still lives at home with his mother -- and that's because mother is a rotting corpse still sitting in her favorite chair where he killed her years ago. However, he looks really, really nice in slick lawyer mode. I think maybe it's because there's something kind of predatory about him, even when he's not playing Wolverine, while McGregor has a more boyish air to him.

And, yes, that tells you how boring this "thriller" was, when I was analyzing different kinds of attractiveness and trying to figure out how one good-looking man somehow looked better when they made him look nerdy and how the other good-looking man looked worse. There were some interesting potential concepts there, but the script didn't really work with them. It seemed like a movie that was sold based on a one-line pitch, but then the writer couldn't develop a story from that pitch. I think it's also difficult to develop a thriller out of a romantic comedy set-up -- the nerd and the lawyer get their cell phones mixed up, and then the nerd starts dating the women who call the lawyer, which gives him the confidence to go for the woman he's fallen in love with.

I suppose that's another measure of a boring movie, when I find myself mentally rewriting it as I watch it. At any rate, there are far, far better options for admiring the pretty involved in this film, but it might be worth it to find some stills of Ewan McGregor in nerd mode, because he really is cute.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Virtual Vicarious Vacation Friday: London

I'm on the final wave of that book I was working on earlier in the summer (final until my agent gets ahold of it). In this phase, I read it out loud. That helps me spot awkward constructions, missing words, redundant words, etc. It also helps me make sure my dialogue works. It's a pretty time-consuming process to read an entire novel out loud, but what I'm finding with this book is that I want to keep going. I didn't even take that nap I promised myself yesterday because I got caught up in the story. I consider that to be a good sign.

I think I may have to make a bookstore run today because Borders sent me another coupon (curse them!) and I've discovered another book I really want to read. Plus, there are a couple of grocery items I need, and I want to avoid leaving the house tomorrow. This is the first entirely free Saturday I've had in ages, and my next couple of weekends will be busy, as next weekend I've got a meeting and the weekend after that I'll be in New York. I hope I'll be done with the book re-read today, so I can just relax this weekend. Well, there will likely be some research-related reading, and I may need to start the viewing of some of my mood-setting movies, as the start date for working on the book of the misty idea is growing closer.

And now, it's Friday, so it's Virtual Vicarious Vacation day, and we're off to London. This is that same trip from October 2000 (I took something like nine rolls of film, so there were a lot of pictures, considering I was only there for about 4 days). I have better London pictures from my subsequent trip, when I spent a lot of time in London, as I was staying with friends who lived on the outskirts, but we'll start with these major landmarks.

First, Westminster Abbey. I do have some shots from later in the day when the sun came out, but I like the foggy look, too (and they're on a different CD, and I'm not particularly compelled to dig it up). This was right after I got off the bus from Oxford in the morning, then after wandering around, I came back for the Evensong service, so I was inside when the sun came out, and that brought all the stained glass to life. Very pretty. My Tourist Tip: The Abbey is closed on Sundays for tours because it does function as a church, but you can attend services there, so you can still go in. You don't get the full tour, but you do have to go through much of the church to get to the seating area, so you still see a lot, and the sound of the choir is breathtaking, so I thought it was the best way to see it -- in use for its purpose, not as just another tourist site.



Then there's Big Ben. You can't go to London without taking a picture of that.



And then St. Paul's. It was hard getting a good shot because it's so big you need some distance, but the buildings surrounding it are all crammed in pretty close. It just about required standing in the middle of a street to get a good picture, but it was mid-day on a Sunday, so that part of town was pretty deserted. I think I have some pictures on another CD (this was the end of a roll) of all the pigeons around the cathedral, and I will confess that I went around singing "Feed the Birds" for a while.



I may play photo CD roulette next week and just grab one out of the box to see where we'll go next time.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

An Afternoon with the High Life Cable Guy

This is shaping up to be a zombified day. For whatever reason (like I need a reason), I decided that I simply had to try to watch the meteor shower last night. The weather guy said that last night would be our best viewing opportunity, since it's supposed to be overcast the rest of the week, and you could see it between midnight and 5 a.m. So, I stayed up very late. At about midnight, I started going out onto the patio, since it faces the right direction. Then I realized that I probably wouldn't see anything, since the light pollution is really bad around me. I can walk through my house at night without turning on a light, there's so much light from outside. Then there's the fact that I live surrounded by airports, so I'd see a light streaking through the sky, only to realize it was a 737 making its approach to the airport. By about 1 in the morning, I got the bright idea of getting out my binoculars. Then I saw something that at first I thought was a firefly, but then I realized it was too high and too far away. Then there were more, all over the sky, not really streaking, but more twinkling a lot. I couldn't see them with the naked eye, but they showed up faintly with binoculars. I don't know if that was the meteor shower, but by 1:30 I decided to pretend that it was and call it a night. And then I woke up at 7:30.

I know it's kind of stale to rant about the cable company, but I do it anyway because it's so rantable. Lately, my rants have focused on the OnDemand service, which has dwindled down to nothing. They aren't updating a lot of the shows they supposedly carry OnDemand, and they never posted any of the new Torchwood series. I was ranting about this on a message board, and someone said, "Oh, you must not have TimeWarner because I have those shows." But I do have TimeWarner, so I went to the web site, put in my zip code to make sure I had the right location, and sure enough, they were listing all of these wonderful things that were available OnDemand but that aren't showing up in my menus. So I e-mailed customer service, mentioning that I didn't know if they just weren't updating and weren't offering what they said they had, or if for some reason my menus weren't being updated. I mentioned that I still had a converter box from before the last cable company switchover, so maybe that was a problem?

The response I got was to say they'd scheduled a service appointment for that day (yesterday). In a sure sign of impending apocalypse, the service guy showed up within the specified time frame. He was pretty cool, and he reminded me of the guy in those beer commercials who raids snooty places like club VIP rooms or stadium luxury boxes and confiscates their beer because they're not living the high life. Every time he went out to his truck to get something, I halfway expected him to come out with a dolly loaded with beer cases (and I don't even like beer). I explained the situation to him, and he said yeah, maybe it was the converter box, so he switched out the boxes, and then we had to wait for it to reset and download everything. I'm not sure if he had to set it on a particular channel, but what it amounted to was the high life cable guy and me standing in my living room and snarking at Judge Judy and the idiots in her courtroom for nearly half an hour (I was really tempted a couple of times to turn to him and say, "Man, we're living the high life, aren't we?").

The result of all this? No change whatsoever. TimeWarner in my area apparently either isn't getting the updates from the various networks or isn't getting them uploaded properly, and it had nothing to do with my equipment. However, I do now have a cable box from the right service provider, and it has a nifty digital clock on the front with a readout big enough for me to read the time from the sofa without my glasses on, plus a remote that looks like I could use it either to control the space shuttle or fight aliens (though I can't find the stun/kill toggle button). I asked the high life cable guy about HD, since all their ads say it doesn't cost extra, and I was kind of hinting that an HD converter box might be the way to go, but he had no idea about that, so I guess I have to contact them again if I want to go the HD route. I'm not sure I want to, because regular digital cable on the LCD set is almost too clear for me. I'm already playing "spot the contact lenses!" on various actors. I'm not sure I want to see their pores.

And now I'm terribly frustrated because there's all this stuff that they say I'm supposed to be getting but that I'm not getting, and there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it. And so, I rant. The service may suck, but the service guy is pretty cool. I still wonder what he does with all that beer he steals from snooty people.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More on Creativity

Ballet started again last night, and I was so happy about it. I think I've become addicted. The teacher went to a curriculum workshop at the American Ballet Theatre this summer, so she came back with all sorts of new stuff that's a lot of fun.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I'm exploring various ways of digging into creativity, as part of the Ongoing Quest for World Domination, and I talked about my issues with The Artist's Way. I'm still plodding through that, ignoring some of it (like the no-reading thing -- I think I read eight books, most of them work-related, during that week). But I dug another book off my shelf last week that seems to cover some of the same subject areas in a totally different way that's less "recovery" oriented.

I'm not sure when I bought Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette A. Klauser, but it's been sitting on my bookcase for years. I'm sure I grabbed it at some book sale, but I don't think I ever read it. It seems to mostly focus on people who are afraid to write -- like business executives who hate writing reports and presentations -- but it does cover some general stuff about left brain vs. right brain thinking and dealing with the inner critic that applies to every kind of writing.

What's funny is that there are a lot of elements in this book that also show up in an entirely different way in The Artist's Way. The Artist's Way approach looks at those people who've criticized you in the past as "monsters" who are holding back your creativity. In this book, those people are acknowledged, but the idea is that you're the one who incorporated them into your Inner Critic, and they aren't necessarily wrong. They may have their time and place. So instead of writing an angry letter to the third-grade teacher who criticized your spelling and kept you from achieving your creative potential, you're supposed to tell the Inner Critic that incorporates that teacher that you'll consider her feedback later while you're working on the first draft, then when you're in edit mode, you welcome her and her red pen back to help you make the final product the best it can be. That seems a lot healthier to me.

This approach also has something like the Morning Pages, though this author calls it freewriting, and it goes by time (I think ten or twenty minutes) instead of a number of pages. They're still done first thing in the morning, with the idea that your right brain is generally more dominant when you first wake up and your left brain still hasn't reported for duty, so that's when you can be most creative without worrying about being held back by your Inner Critic. This is probably more useful when you're writing something like a letter and can write a whole draft in that session, but I suppose you might also apply it to novel writing in some way. I've been using it for brainstorming ideas. The reason for the set time (or page count) is that you tend to hit a "wall" at a certain point, and the best ideas are usually the ones that come after the "wall" when you push yourself to keep going. If you just stop when you think you're done, you're missing the best stuff.

There's even a similarity to the "artist date" in that the author says play and thinking, or, as she puts it, "ruminating," are very important to the creative process. There aren't any strict rules for a formal artist date type thing, just the idea that you need to allow yourself time to think, and that playing can help free your right brain. I really like this part because I'm finding that it's key to my work, yet it also still feels somehow wrong. I think it's a holdover from my days in the corporate world, where you were supposed to look like you were working. A big part of my job was coming up with ideas, plans and strategies, which is mostly about thinking, and yet I'd get criticized if I was staring out the window of my office because I wasn't working. But that staring out the window was probably the most valuable thing I did all day because that's when I could generate creative ideas instead of just doing copy/paste and search/replace to turn a plan from one client into a plan for another client.

Thinking is such an important part of the writing process, and yet staring out the window or staring at the ceiling or taking a shower or going for a walk don't feel like "work," and I know I feel like I'm wasting time when I do it. I should be moving fingers over the keyboard and generating words.

But what I'm really discovering is that the longer I think about a project before I put a single word on paper (or computer screen), the better it is. I spent about a year and a half thinking about Enchanted, Inc. before I wrote a single word. I'm doing something similar with the book I'm developing now. It was more than a year ago that I first had the idea to write something like it, and at first the ideas came really, really slowly, but they've picked up steam and are now going full-force, but I still don't feel that the idea is "ripe" yet. I came up with the main plot about a month ago, but if I'd started writing then, the book wouldn't have been nearly as good as I'm hoping it will be because the time I've spent thinking since then has generated more ideas and a few twists. I'm realizing that the ideas that come to me, that I get really excited about and that I rush to write have all fallen flat in the execution. It may be that all the research I'm doing is really just a subconscious trick to force myself to wait and think. Yeah, I'm getting a lot of info and facts and ideas out of it, but really what's happening is that I'm letting myself feel like I'm making progress and doing "work" while I'm letting my subconscious mull it all over and come up with some good stuff.

I really need to give myself permission to just think, and maybe even forbid myself from jumping right to writing an idea as soon as I get it. If it's a good idea, I should be even more excited about it if I give it some time. If I lose interest while I'm thinking about it, it wasn't such a good idea. The thinking time also allows me to go beyond my initial impressions, which are usually the more boring, conventional approaches. It's like the advice I've heard about coming up with plot twists in mysteries: make a list of at least 15 or 20 ways things could go and eliminate the first ten automatically because those are the first things that come to mind, and the first things that come to mind for you will probably be the first things that come to mind for your readers, so they're the most predictable. When I jump to write something as soon as I get the idea, I'm writing the first things that come to mind. When I make myself wait and dwell on it, I can generate more interesting ideas.

The book also gets into mind mapping as both a brainstorming tool and as a replacement for a more conventional linear outline for organizing information. I've been playing with that some. I've already done a mind map for the idea in general to organize my thoughts and see what avenues I need to research. I may do individual mind maps for each character as part of the character development process. I'm not sure how to do one for plot, but I may play with that idea and see what happens.

Those who find the "recovery" and New Age psychobabble aspects of The Artist's Way annoying may get something out of this book. The whole thing may not apply, but there are elements that can work.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Report: The Return of Chick Lit

In the "fun with Google alerts" category: One popped up today about a site where you can download the Enchanted, Inc. movie. Which doesn't exist. Even on that site, it has a release date of 2011. And yet there's a "download now!" link. I suspect that clicking on that link would get you a virus or spyware of some sort. They did list producers, but I don't know how accurate that information is, though the writer and novelist info were right. It was very strange. Who would be dumb enough to click on a "download now" link for a movie whose release date is two years away -- even if you didn't know it's only in development at the moment? It's bad enough that my books get pirated. Now the movie's being pirated before it's even been made.

I mentioned last week that I really wanted a good chick lit book, and I mentioned that I bought a book for my birthday. The book was a British import that's finally made it to the States, Holly's Inbox by Holly Denham (a pseudonym, as that's actually the name of the character).

There are a lot of parallels between this book and Bridget Jones's Diary. Both books started as newspaper columns and both are told in non-standard narrative forms. Bridget Jones's Diary is told entirely through Bridget's diary entries, complete with a running tally of calories, weight and cigarettes. Holly's Inbox is told entirely through e-mails. There are even some plot element similarities, including the gay best friend, the slutty, foul-mouthed best friend, the smooth-talking guy at work, the guy from her past, and the bitchy co-worker.

But they're still different books with entirely different themes. Holly's Inbox may have all the chick lit cliches or elements of classic chick lit, but that's why I liked it. I've been wanting to read a book like that for ages, rather than what's been available in that genre lately. What little is left of the genre has been more along the lines of "Being a mother is hard" and "My perfect life fell apart when my husband left me." No thank you. Give me a single girl in the city with an annoying job, crazy friends and trouble with men.

I think the plot might have been a bit stale if told in normal narrative, but the fun thing about limiting it to e-mails sent from and received by the heroine as she sits at the reception desk of a financial services firm (with a couple of dips into other people's inboxes) is that you sometimes have to read between the lines to figure out what happened. She gets interrupted while writing messages and has to spread the story out over the day, or she may tell different aspects of what happened to different people and you have to piece together the story. I think my favorite parts were the messages from her grandmother, who's just discovered the Internet access in her retirement home. It's a massive monster of a book, but it reads pretty quickly because the e-mail format means there's lots of white space.

I've always loved books written in diary, journal or letter form, and I've even tried it, but the form doesn't lend itself well to plot-driven books with lots of action because it's all telling and loses the immediacy. If someone's writing this stuff down, then you know the crisis has to be over. The focus has to be on the character and the character's voice. I'd love to see a book done in blog form, complete with comments. I've read one that was supposedly a blog, but it was written as though all the events had passed and now the character was telling them in her blog through daily installments, with the comments mostly stuff like "tell us more!" What would be really fun would be a blog playing itself out day-by-day, with the commenters as secondary characters and really interacting. Or maybe I should start a blog like that and see if it gets sold as a book. It's happened for non-fiction, so why not for a fictional blog? Like I have time for that sort of thing ...

Monday, August 10, 2009

Movie Monday: Terminator Salvation

Thanks for all the birthday wishes. I had a pretty good birthday, as such things go. There was brunch, a movie and frozen custard with friends, and I bought myself a new book (more on that tomorrow) and a new pair of ballet tights. I'll have to get the new leotard later, as the new dance store is huge and has a massive selection (the old store had maybe three adult leotards in the whole store), and the way leotards are, it's impossible to judge the sizes because you don't know how much they're supposed to stretch. I could have asked the store personnel for advice, but that day it seemed to be all teenage ballerina girls working there, and when you're my age (and especially on your birthday), the last thing you want is to ask teenage ballerinas to evaluate your size (that's if I could have pried them away from their conversations with each other to ask them). I may be relatively small, but I'm not ballerina small. I'll have to go back during a weekday when school starts and maybe there will be adult staff, or at least I'll have time to hit the fitting rooms and find something that works.

It was a pretty busy weekend, in general, and now I feel strangely exhausted. I'm currently trying to talk myself out of doing the errands I need to do. I could always deal with them tomorrow, right? I just kind of need a day when I don't have to go anywhere or do anything major. This is shaping up to be a "cave" day.

Because it was such a busy weekend, I didn't do a lot of movie viewing on TV. I caught part of Secondhand Lions on TBS, and that's one of those movies where if I stumble across it, I can't help but watch it. I think I may need it on DVD because it never fails to make me happy.

But I did see a movie at the theater, Terminator Salvation, and I would have to say that it was much better than I expected it to be, but not as good as it could have been. I know nothing about the behind-the-scenes creative process for the film, but I got a sense of some kind of tension between the story that wanted to be told and the story they felt like they ought to be telling. It may have been an internal struggle in one person, a struggle between two people with different creative visions, or a struggle between the moviemakers and the money people. At any rate, the real story seemed to me to focus on Marcus. He was the real hero of the film who went on the hero's journey, and that was the way the film seemed to keep trying to pull. But then it was also like some external force was telling them that this was a Terminator movie, so it was supposed to be about John Connor, and it would jerk back in that direction. There also seemed to be a sense that "Wait! We need a love interest!" so that was shoehorned in but not really developed.

But the Terminator saga isn't really about John Connor. It's about the idea of John Connor. His very existence was so energizing to the future humans that the machines wanted to eradicate his existence. He was such a compelling figure that young Kyle Reese was willing to go on what amounted to a suicide mission to protect his mother. The idea of this future heroic John Connor was a burden to young John Connor -- first in accepting that it was true at all (the second film) and then living up to that ideal even when circumstances changed and his roadmap for the future no longer worked (the third movie). We've already seen John go on his own heroic journeys as he faces up to who he is and decides what it is to be human and to be a man. We don't really need to see him go through that again.

But seeing Marcus go through it was fascinating, especially since he was going through part of it with Kyle Reese. That was the relationship that should have been at the heart of the movie -- the former death row inmate baffled by what the world has become being guided and shown what it is to really be a human being by this teenage kid who's tough enough to survive but still idealistic enough to believe it's worthwhile. I'll admit that I was leery of seeing a new version of Kyle Reese in what was essentially a prequel to the original film, especially after the TV series version made me cringe, but I think this portrayal worked because it captured the essence of what that character was. He was tough as nails and capable of being ruthless, but still young, idealistic and naive enough to fall in love with a woman in a photograph. I liked the interaction between Marcus and the kids, and I think the movie would have worked better if they'd carried that on a little longer and focused on it a little more instead of jumping back and forth with the John Connor story. The radio broadcasts could have been the presence of this mythical John Connor who was such an inspiration and encouragement. The John Connor parts of the story became paint-by-the-numbers action hero stuff. And if you're trying to get emotional engagement with people who've been fans of the whole saga, you don't need John Connor if you've got Kyle Reese.

Otherwise, there was lots of continuity callback porn for those of us who have more or less memorized at least the first movie, a great cast (there was a simultaneous blurt of "What?" from all three of us when Helena Bonham-Carter's name came up in the opening credits because that's awfully highbrow for a Terminator flick), and lots of nifty new Terminator creations. My favorite: terminator snakes that re-enact scenes from the Jaws films, great for keeping people from crossing rivers (hmm, a couple of those could solve all my swimming pool problems).

I think this one may be my second favorite of the series, behind the original film. I'm the weirdo who didn't really like the supposedly awesome second film (I own it on VHS because I got it as a gift, but I've never watched the tape. I don't think I've ever watched this movie since I saw it at the theater because it left me cold). I felt like it was more about the effects and Ahnold's star power, and I thought John Connor was an annoying little twit (which could influence my view of the John-centric storytelling). I suppose my rankings could have something to do with the fact that I'm a Kyle Reese loyalist, through and through, and I'm more prone to like a movie that features him, as long as the character feels right, and though Anton Yelchin doesn't really resemble Michael Biehn physically, the feel of the character was right.

Aha! I just read the trivia about the movie on IMDB, and apparently the early version of the script focused on just Marcus and Kyle, but they then had to beef up the role of John Connor when Christian Bale took the part. That explains a lot. And Alan Dean Foster wrote the novelization, so I may have to look for that and give it a read. I'd be curious to see Alan's take on the story. And the ending was totally changed after spoilers about it leaked (and that ending validates my theory about the theme of the series). Now I'm going to have to get the DVD when it comes out because it sounds like a lot of stuff they didn't use will be on it.

And now it seems I've managed to waste the morning, so I can justify waiting until tomorrow to run errands.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Virtual Vicarious Vacation Friday: More in England

Happy birthday to me! I have a bad tendency to get moody, introspective and a little depressed on my birthday, so I usually try to make plans to avoid that. Last year, I was at WorldCon and got serenaded in public twice (once by Larry Niven) and then had dinner with my agent after moderating two panels. I can't top that this year, but I am going to brunch with friends and then to see the latest Terminator movie at the dollar theater, probably followed by ice cream. The dance store is near the movie theater, so I may get wild and crazy and get a second leotard and maybe even one of those gauzy dance skirts, since I'm going into my second year of ballet. I think I'll also hit Borders while I'm there. There was already a 40 percent off coupon for the week, but then they sent me a 15 percent off birthday coupon. I wonder if I can use them both at once on two separate items. I'm suddenly craving a good chick lit book. I haven't read one in ages, and they're awfully rare. The few that are still being published are by the big names who survived the glut and bust, so they're in hardback. But I have heard of one that sounds like my thing, so I'll have to see if they have it.

I got a bit of an early birthday present yesterday when I got yet another peaceful swimming session. The storms the night before had strewn delicate pink and white crepe myrtle blossoms in the water, and the effect was rather spa-like. Or maybe like the forest pond where the fairy princess is swimming when the knight who's been lost in the woods appears. Or maybe it's the lagoon where the mermaid swims. The one annoying thing is that the mailboxes are by the pool, and one of my neighbors stopped to say hi and chat as he went by to get his mail, and he totally broke the fairy princess mermaid magic (since he definitely wasn't a knight lost in the woods).

Not that I have a vivid imagination, or anything. (And can one become too old to daydream about being a fairy princess swimming in a flower-strewn forest pond?)

So, on to the virtual vicarious vacation. We're still in England in October 2000, but these shots aren't from any particular day and aren't in any order. They're just some random pictures I thought were interesting.

First, Doctor Who fans might recognize this building in Warwick, as it played an Elizabethian London street in the episode "The Shakespeare Code." When I saw the video diary for the shooting of that episode on the DVD and they showed that they were in Warwick and how they were dressing the medieval buildings to create the street scene, I realized I'd been there.



Then, I've got a couple of nice, scenic shots that aren't of any tourist attraction but that just show the country. On my first day in England, while I was walking off jet lag, I captured an utterly idyllic moment on the Thames, somewhere between Iffley and Oxford.



And then there's the Cotswolds countryside. The walking paths cut across farms, which took me aback at first (I kept thinking, "If I tried this in Texas, I'd get shot."), but I am a former farm girl, so once I realized I wouldn't get in trouble, I rather enjoyed getting entirely away from the roads and really being out in the country. This whole area was just breathtakingly lovely.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Presents Stephanie Kuehnert

I finally got a good swim with no interruptions or irritations, and it was heavenly. I swam some laps, then splashed and lounged around in the pool, swam some more laps, did a little water jogging, practiced some ballet jumps in the water, swam a little more and then finally got out of the water when my fingers got all wrinkly. Then I spent about five minutes in the hot tub. The really fun thing is that I went to the pool a little earlier than normal because it was empty and I couldn't wait, and it was one of those cloudless, sunny days. Then less than an hour after I went inside, it was so dark that I had to turn on a light. A storm that hadn't been forecast at all, not even as recently as the noon news, had blown in. I feel like I outsmarted Murphy's Law because if I'd waited for my usual swimming time, it would have been too nasty to hit the pool. And now my shoulder is feeling much, much better from the water exercise. Now, if I could just learn good posture, this wouldn't be a problem. It will help when ballet starts again next week.

But enough about my swimming pool dramas. I've got another Girlfriends Cyber Circuit guest author today, Stephanie Kuehnert, author of the new book Ballads of Suburbia.

In high school, Kara McNaughton helped maintain the "Stories of Suburbia" notebook, which contained newspaper articles about bizarre and often tragic events from suburbs all over, as well as personal vignettes written by her friends,which Kara dubbed "ballads." Ballads are the kind of songs that Kara likes best.

Not the clich├ęd ones but the truly genuine, gut-wrenching songs that convey love, loss and an individual’s story. Those "stories of Suburbia" were heartbreakingly honest tales of the moments when life changes and a kid is forced to grow up too soon. But Kara never wrote her own ballad. Before she could figure out what her song was about, she was leaving town after a series of disastrous events at the end of her junior year of high school.

Four years later, Kara returns to face the music, and tells the tale of her first three years of high school with her friends’ "ballads" interspersed throughout.



Now, the interview:
What was the inspiration behind this story?
I grew up in the suburbs and saw firsthand that it was not all white picket fences and happy families. I'd wanted to write a book about it since I was a teenager, but I struggled when it came to the approach to take. I didn't want to write about my life. Inspiration hit when one of my college professors brought a Johnny Cash CD to class and talked to us about ballads as a form of storytelling. I got the idea for this notebook, where the characters in my story would write their ballads, their incredibly honest tales of the moment that changed their lives. When I started writing the ballads, I met such unique, real people that I didn't even have to worry about accidentally borrowing from my real life.

What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?
Kara and I do still have a lot in common even though I went out of my way to make the book fiction, not autobiography. We both struggled with making friends and were really shy. We both grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. We both love the Chicago White Sox, PJ Harvey, and have a weakness for boys with tattoos. We both lost our way for awhile in high school. We both coped with depression by injuring ourselves.

Are you a fan of ballads, yourself? If so, what are some of your favorites?
I am, though I don't necessarily think of ballads the way most people do. As Kara puts it, I'm not talking about the song where the diva hits her highest note or the rockers tone it down a few notches for the ladies. (Though I do love "Every Rose Has Its Thorn" by Poison, total guilty pleasure.) I think of country crooners and punk rockers telling the real, honest, gritty truth about life, love, and how we always seem to mess it up. By that definition, my favorite ballads include "Story of My Life" by Social Distortion, "The Young Crazed Peeling" by The Distillers, "Coal Miner's Daughter" by Loretta Lynn, and "Cocaine Blues" by Johnny Cash. Hell, basically anything by Johnny Cash. Also I adore the song "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." I love the Leadbelly version, the Nirvana version. I love that there are so many versions!

This book deals with some serious subjects, including drug abuse, violence and cutting. Do you have any suggestions for parents who'd like to discuss this book with their teens?
Read it first, then suggest your teen read it if you feel it is appropriate. Talk about the different character's ballads and ask your teen what their ballad would be. But also share, tell them your ballad, tell them which characters you related to. Be honest. Nothing pissed me off more than for my dad to act like he'd never done a bad thing in his life when I was 14 and then to casually tell me at 21 about his hallucinogenic drug experiences!

What has been your favorite summer vacation ever?
Last summer when my first book, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, came out, I decided that even though my publisher wasn't putting me on tour, I would go. So my fiance and I flew out to LA and hung out there for a couple days, then we drove up the PCH to San Francisco, stopping in Monterey for day to read with another author, Kelly Parra. We hung out with a good friend in San Fran and then flew to Seattle, my absolute favorite city and we stayed with one of my best friends from high school and her partner and their daughter. Good people, beautiful sights. Best two weeks of my life!

What are you working on now?
Um a bunch of different things. I'm in that place right now where I've got a bunch of different stories fighting to see which will get my fullest attention first. There's another contemporary YA, this one about a girl searching for her real home with her bipolar friend. I've been toying with my version of the Persephone myth forever. And I have this post-apocalyptic story that was born from a dream.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about this book or the process of writing it?
Um this book was really, really hard to write. Like multiple nervous breakdowns hard. But it was that way because I wanted it to be as real as possible and really bring the characters to life. I hope I succeeded.

For more info, visit Stephanie's web site. She's also having a blog launch party with guest bloggers and prizes through August 14 at her blog. You can also order the book from Amazon.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Making Time to Write

I had another lovely swim yesterday -- for all of about five minutes. Then the pool was invaded by an army of kids. It is a community pool, and they have as much right to use it as I do, but then I have as much right to use it as they do, and when there's an adult swimming laps in the deep end, it seems to be obvious good manners to have the kids play in the shallow end instead of doing cannonball jumps right into the adult's path. Though expecting those parents to guide their kids' manners is probably too much, considering they barely mentioned some serious safety issues. This is a small, shallow pool, and the very deepest spot isn't five feet deep. There are "no diving" signs all over the pool area and even fit into the tiles around the edge of the pool, yet the mother didn't say anything about diving until about the third time her kid dove into the pool, and she never commented on the running jumps. With a pool that shallow, a running cannonball isn't such a great idea, and the only difference between that and a dive is that you just run the risk of broken legs or ankles instead of a broken neck. I quickly retreated to the hot tub, which was closer to "making soup" temperature (really helped my shoulder), and eventually fled the scene entirely when I realized I was watching the kids (well, glaring in irritation) more carefully than the parents were and I figured I didn't want to be there when disaster occurred. I'm not child CPR certified, and I'm not a strong enough swimmer for water rescue, and chances were I'd be the first to notice that there was trouble.

By reader request, I'm going to tackle the topic of time management -- how do you make time to write? At first glance, a chronic procrastinator might not be the best person to address this topic, but then again, I have tried just about every time management method around. People who are naturally organized and punctual often have trouble telling other people how they do it.

I will say up front that there's no one "right" way to approach scheduling your writing. I've read so many articles and heard so many speeches in which some writer declares that if you're a "real" writer, you'll write absolutely every day. That may work for them, but it doesn't work for everyone, and it only discourages people when writers talk like that. I just have two don'ts:

1) Don't wait for the muse to strike you -- you may not have to write every day to be a writer, but if you don't write unless you feel inspired, you may never get anything written. Meet your muse halfway by sitting down to write even when you don't feel particularly inspired, and you'll find that the more you write, the easier it is to write.

2) Don't buy into the absolutes that writers full of themselves (and hot air) like to spout about the way you should be working, whether it's that "a real writer writes every day" nonsense or the idea that if anything can distract you from your book, it obviously isn't any good because it doesn't even hold your interest. You can't measure others by what works for you, and you can't measure yourself by what works for others.

So, here are a number of time management methods I've tried. You may find something here that works for you. You may even want to mix and match some of these. You probably can't do all of them at once because some of them are diametrically opposed.

1) Figure out how you spend your time.
I usually want to slug those people who say that there's no such thing as not having any time because we all have the same 24 hours, but there is some truth to that, and knowing how you use the time you have can help you carve out space for writing.
If you feel like you should have time but never seem to, try logging the way you spend your time. Use a stopwatch or just keep an eye on the clock, and be honest about how much time you really spend on various activities. If you're like me, just keeping a record will put you on your best behavior, but hey, that works, too, and seeing how you change your behavior when you're timing yourself will probably show you how you usually spend your time.
If you know you have a busy schedule and can't see where you might have time to squeeze in some writing, take a good look at your schedule and evaluate times you may be able to write or things you may be able to give up. This will require evaluating your priorities or looking at ways to rearrange things to free up time. For instance, when I had a full-time job, I used to cook on weekends so that on weeknights I could come home from work, throw dinner in the microwave and then get straight to writing. I still had time to write on weekends, but that freed up a bigger block of time on weeknights.
You may see from this analysis that there are certain days you won't have any time to write. Then you don't have to feel guilty on those days about not writing. Focus instead on the days and times when you can write.
I would suggest being realistic and not giving up everything that seems "frivolous." You need to have some fun and some time to relax. If you enjoy it, then do it. The things to eliminate are the things that don't really bring you much fun and that aren't essential, but that you find yourself doing anyway.

2) Make an appointment with yourself.
Once you've found time in your schedule that could be devoted to writing, turn it into an appointment. Write it into your Daytimer, enter it into your PDA/smart phone, or put it into your calendar program with a reminder, and treat it like a dentist appointment where you're charged if you don't show. You wouldn't skip an appointment you've committed to with someone else because you want to watch TV or because someone expects you to chat on the phone. Even if you're stuck or blocked, keep your appointment and use that time to brainstorm, read books on writing that might give you ideas or read research books related to your topic.

3) Schedule everything else you have to do, and then use the rest of your time for writing.
I got that technique from a book called The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, who calls it the "Unschedule." The idea is that you may resist doing things you feel obligated to do, so don't schedule them. Instead, make a daily schedule showing all the things you need or want to do -- including eating, dressing, going to work, watching your favorite TV show and surfing the Internet. Then you'll see how much time you have left that you could devote to writing. It also plays a psychological trick on yourself so that you feel obligated to do the things you might normally do to waste time and then free to do the thing you feel you should be doing.
How much time is enough for writing time depends on each person. There are those who can write a paragraph in a spare five minutes and ultimately produce a book by adding together all those paragraphs. And there are those who need at least an hour to get some momentum, so they're probably better off devoting those spare five minutes to something else to free up longer stretches of time later.

4) Set a deadline, then set a weekly or monthly production goal, and then create daily goals based on the time you have available on those days.
Even if your book isn't contracted, you can give yourself a deadline, then break that big goal down into smaller goals. I like to set both weekly and daily goals. If I don't meet a particular day's goal, I know I can make it up during the week to hit the weekly goal and stay on target. You can do this by word count or page count, but focus on production instead of on time. Mark your daily progress on a calendar or chart so you can see it. You can also provide incremental rewards. That's the old M&M trick -- count out M&Ms (or some other small treat) for the number of pages you want to write or for your word count, with each one representing a certain number, then eat one when you reach that mini goal.
It's important to be realistic about what you can accomplish, so factor in things like appointments, activities or other obligations when you determine your goal for that week. This technique is also good for those who have random things pop up unexpectedly that short-circuit your efforts to write. If you lose a day of work, you still have a chance of making it up later.

5) Track the amount of time you spend actually writing with a stopwatch.
This is what's working for me now because it really keeps me honest, especially since I'm in a research phase and not producing word count. I keep a chart of how many hours I've worked, with a reward after a certain number of hours. I've doubled the amount of time I devote to actual writing or other activities leading to the production of work (as opposed to marketing or business activity) since I started doing this.

6) Try planning your work.
This won't work for everyone because there are true "pantsers" who lose the creative drive if they know what happens next, but for some people, always knowing what happens next and planning the whole book ahead of time can save a lot of time in the writing process. Even if you don't plot the whole thing or do an elaborate storyboard, making a few notes at the end of each writing session about what you think will happen next can make it easier to jump in the next day, and that means you'll get more accomplished during your writing time. I've heard of writers who always stop work for the day in the middle of a sentence. They know they can complete the sentence in the next writing session, and that gets them into the flow of work. I guess this falls into the "work smarter, not harder" category. You may be able to multitask with the planning -- I do a lot of my plotting/brainstorming while watching TV -- and then be able to devote all of your writing time to actual writing instead of thinking.

7) Start small, then build.
Just as you wouldn't run a marathon without training for it by running in longer and longer sessions, you can't necessarily jump into writing by expecting yourself to write for hours at a stretch, and it can also be difficult to find those hours in your schedule. Start with something small that you know you can achieve in the time you have available -- a page or even just a paragraph. Make sure you reach that goal in each writing session. If you have time and inclination, you can do more, but once you reach the goal, you can stop. After a week or two, increase the goal, and keep steadily increasing your production goal every couple of weeks. You may start out with just ten or fifteen minutes a day, and that will gradually increase over time. It's easier to start with just a few minutes out of your schedule instead of trying to fit two hours of writing into your day, and you'll find that your schedule will naturally adjust itself as you get more into it.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Making Sense of Genre Designations

Well, my attempt to game the weather by announcing my plans to enjoy summer activities didn't work. On the up side, I had a nice swim and spent a little time in the hot tub, so my sore shoulder is feeling a lot better. It would have been nice if the hot tub had been a little warmer because I generally find it works best on sore muscles when the temperature is in the "making soup" range, but the water jets did help some. What didn't help was the young thing in the string bikini reading Jodi Picoult as she subjected the DNA in her skin cells to mutation from ultraviolet radiation exposure while I was flopping about with my pale, flabby thighs in the pool, but I consoled myself with the thought that when she's my age, she'll look a lot older than I do if she keeps up the tanning.

I haven't done a book report in ages, and that's not because I'm not reading. I'm just reading mostly for researching a book, and talking specifically about those books would mean talking specifically about the work in progress, which I don't like to do unless it's already contracted (why tease people with stuff they may not ever get to read?). Or else I've been reading and re-reading a lot of Terry Pratchett, and I don't think I need to say much more on that subject.

But since I'm seeing a lot of "what they're looking for" reports coming out of the RWA conference involving publishing terms that no one has a real meaning for, I thought I'd come to the rescue and offer Shanna's Guide to Genre Designations. This is mostly my own somewhat cynical take on the matter, though I believe there's a kernel of truth to it.

First, there's women's fiction, which some people think of as the broad range of novels appealing primarily to women, including but not limited to the romance genre. It seems to me that the industry generally thinks of women's fiction as books appealing primarily to women that aren't shelved in the romance section. That would include chick lit, family sagas, those rebuilding your life after divorce/widowhood books, the knitting circle/book club books, and the romance novels written by romance authors who've "broken out" of the genre and are now big enough sellers to be considered "mainstream." My books are classified as "women's fiction." Yeah, I know, they're fantasy, but they sold when chick lit was hot, so that's where they landed, and the fact that chick lit is no longer hot (and some publishers don't want to be tainted with it) has a lot to do with the reason they don't want a fifth book.

Really, though, when you think of it, "women's fiction" is a misnomer because just about all fiction is women's fiction, as women purchase far more fiction than men. We should just consider fiction to be women's, with then a subcategory for "men's fiction," which would include technothrillers, disgruntled suburban men books (though I think women may still be the primary readers of those) and war books. But they won't do that because while women will read "man stuff," men are less likely to read "woman stuff," so pretending it's all for men, except for the obvious women's fiction, probably means more chance of selling.

A term floating around a lot lately is upmarket women's fiction, which seems to mostly mean "not chick lit or romance." Or, you can think of it as book group fodder. These would be books that are quasi-literary, in that they deal with fairly heavy subject matter that offers a lot of material for discussion or debate in a book group, but that are written in a more accessible style than a lot of literary fiction, so that a busy professional woman can read the book pretty quickly to prepare for her book group meeting. You might think of it as literary subject matter written in a more commercial style that still has some literary flair to it. The literary snobs refer to this as "middlebrow." A lot of the Oprah picks fall into this category (though she's lately trended to mostly male authors, for whatever reason). There may be a romantic plot, but not necessarily a happy ending. Subject matter may deal with family crises, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids, kidnapped kids, marriages on the rocks, illness, etc. This kind of book is pretty hot right now and is what a lot of the publishers seem to be desperately looking for, but it can be very difficult to pull off the literary/commercial balance. Books that appeal to book groups are good because you automatically sell multiple copies at once, and that spreads word of mouth faster.

Then there's the whole urban fantasy and paranormal romance issue. Contrary to what it may seem, these are not interchangeable terms. In a Venn diagram, you might get a lot of overlap, but not all paranormal romance is urban fantasy, and not all urban fantasy is paranormal romance. The term "paranormal romance" generally applies to any romance novel that involves elements that don't exist in the real world (although some make a distinction between "fantasy romance" and "paranormal romance"), so it can be set in any place or time and may include elements like ESP, ghosts, psychics, mer-people, etc., and not just the usual urban fantasy type things like vampires and werewolves. I don't think there's any consensus on the definition of "urban fantasy," but the way it seems to be used in publishing at the moment, it means a blend of horror, fantasy, romance and hardboiled noir mystery, with a gritty urban setting where the fantasy world and the real world collide and a tough main character who straddles these worlds. Or, depending on the publisher it may mean "those books with either women in black leather and tattoos or men in black trenchcoats on the cover."

What's the difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy? Mostly it's where they're shelved -- in the fantasy section or the science fiction/fantasy section. Theoretically, a paranormal romance would focus primarily on the developing relationship between the two main characters, with some sort of satisfying conclusion to the romantic relationship at the end of the book, while an urban fantasy focuses more on the world building and the mystery/action part of the plot, with the romance as a sub-plot, and the romance may end unhappily or not be resolved at the end of the book. But the distinction really has more to do with which editor bought the book and where they think it will sell best. That can come down to really practical considerations, like where the first or best available slot is, which major chain buyer is most likely to go for that story, the author's track record, where the most similar successful books are shelved, etc. You may think you're writing urban fantasy and end up with a book with "paranormal romance" on the spine, and vice versa. The author has almost no say in this.

There's also a category of paranormal mystery that has a lot of overlap with paranormal romance and urban fantasy, but I'm less clear on those distinctions. I suspect it still comes down to where they think it will sell the best. Sometimes they're wrong. Not to go on with the deceased equestrian flogging, but the "people who bought this also bought" books listed with mine are all urban fantasy, paranormal romance or paranormal mystery, so it would seem that someone made a bad guess. It happens, but the number one rule in publishing is It's the Author's (or the Book's) Fault, so if a book doesn't sell, it's because there's something wrong with it and no one wants to read it, not because it was misclassified, given a bad cover, not promoted, published at a bad time or anything else the publisher might have done.

So, there you have it. Genres in a nutshell. When the Ongoing Quest for World Domination succeeds, this is likely to change.

In other news, I'm totally stuck for a writing post topic for tomorrow. Any questions of a how-to variety?

Monday, August 03, 2009

Movie Monday Musicals

Ugh, our fake pre-fall has ended and summer's back with a vengeance. I would like to hereby alert the universe that I really want to go swimming this afternoon, as my shoulder is sore from bad computer posture and the death grip on the steering wheel while playing Dodge the Thunderstorm as I was driving home this weekend. Some time in the pool and hot tub should really help, and it's supposed to be warm and dry enough for that today. Why, yes, I LOVE summer and hot weather so I can do stuff like go swimming and eat ice cream. Really!

Now if you hear about a freak cold spell that no one had in the forecast, you'll know why.

I didn't do much movie watching this weekend, but I have one from earlier last week, so there's enough for a Movie Monday round-up.

Last week, I watched Bells are Ringing on TCM. It's a late 50s/very early 60s musical about an answering service operator who gets a little too involved with her clients' lives. She takes on different personas to fit each client, and if she gets a tidbit of info in a message for one client that she thinks might benefit another client, she passes it on. Along the way, she falls in love with the voice of one of her clients, a depressed playwright, and sets out to help give him a boost. Meanwhile, a misguided vice cop is convinced that the answering service is a cover for illegal activity and vows to arrest them if they dare do anything other than answer the phones and pass on messages. It was a cute enough film that was definitely a relic of its time, as cell phones, answering machines, voice mail, text messaging, etc., have pretty much put an end to the need for answering services except for people like doctors, but it wasn't all that memorable as a musical. There was one song that's become a standard and the others I can't even recall.

However, the main reason I liked watching it is that I love the alt-universe mid-century New York that appears in so many movies, like this and the Doris Day movies and even to some extent Breakfast at Tiffany's and that was spoofed so well in Down With Love. It's that sparkling place where everyone dresses to the nines for everything, with an extensive designer wardrobe. Even if you're just a secretary, you can still have a full Givenchy wardrobe. Going out to dinner involves evening wear, and the restaurants are vast and spacious, with intimate banquette seating (perfect for overhearing and misinterpreting conversations at the next table). The apartments are all palatial and full of sleek mid-century modern furniture, and they all seem to have that raised level in the back, like a stage set, along with an expansive terrace and a geographically impossible view with all the landmarks, in case we forget we're in New York. (Breakfast at Tiffany's at least had almost realistic apartments.) I think this is one reason I loved Pushing Daisies. It may not have been set in even alt-universe New York, but it had a lot of that particular technicolor world look to it. I'm fairly certain that New York wasn't really like that back then, and although I like the movies of that era, I know I wouldn't have enjoyed living in that era because of the ubiquitous cigarette smoke (gag, choke, cough, wheeze), but it makes for a fun alternate reality that's almost as magical as Narnia.

I guess I was on a musical kick because this weekend's movie was Mamma Mia. I've been an ABBA fan since I was in elementary school and thought "Dancing Queen" was the best song ever, and I've seen the stage version of the musical twice (but not because I'm an obsessive fan. I just had season tickets to a musical series, and they kept bringing that one back because it's a big money maker). But I was leery of the movie. I will say that it wasn't as bad as I feared, but I'm glad I didn't see it in the theater because I did have to use the mute button. The casting of the women was just about perfect. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski pretty much stole the movie, Amanda Seyfried has a lovely voice, and although Meryl Streep doesn't have perfect vocal technique, she really acted the songs, so they worked in context (I could enjoy her in the movie, but I'd probably cringe while listening to a soundtrack). She also seemed to be having a blast with the part, and it's fun to watch Meryl Streep be fun instead of tragic. But they must have had a different person casting the men because yikes, and they were generally actors I love. I will say that Colin Firth was wonderful when he wasn't singing and made that character a lot of fun, when that one is usually pretty forgettable in the stage show, and his voice wasn't all that bad when singing. It's just a jolt that someone who has a fairly deep and gravelly voice is such a high tenor when singing, and his range didn't really fit when he had to sing with anyone else. However, he threw himself in head-first and seemed to be having fun with it. And while I love Pierce Brosnan in just about everything, he was horribly miscast and seemed to be utterly embarrassed to be there. His singing falls into the "bless his heart" category, and what's odd is that they gave him the big songs at the climactic point of the film -- which were songs I don't recall that character singing in the show. So they cast an actor who couldn't sing and then gave him a couple of big numbers that his character wasn't even supposed to have. That was when I had to use the mute button because I just couldn't take it. The third guy was barely a blip on the radar, and yet he was the most colorful one in the stage show. Considering that almost all the ABBA songs have female lead vocals (and the show takes one of the few male lead songs and flips it around for a woman), they could have taken the approach of only having the women burst into song, since the story is a big female fantasy, sisterhood, finding yourself kind of thing, and then they could have cast anyone for the male roles. But if they're going to give the men additional songs, then there are a lot of actors who can actually sing. I think Scott Bakula would have been perfect for the role Pierce Brosnan played, and while I liked Colin Firth's acting, Anthony Head could have played the same role and actually sung.

One thing I did like in the transition to film was that they mixed up some of the musical arrangements. My main gripe with the stage show was that the songs as they fit into the show were almost indistinguishable from the original recordings, right down to the instrumentation. I liked the way the songs were woven into the story, but it would have worked better if they weren't so obviously just ABBA songs in their original form. The movie did seem to be more creative with the musical arrangements at times, so it was less like "let's stop everything and play an ABBA record!" However, when they wove the music into the background score, they made some really bad choices -- like having the bride walk down the aisle at the wedding to the tune of "Knowing Me, Knowing You," which is about a divorce. In the show, they use "I Do, I Do, I Do" for that moment, but the movie used that in a different place.

Overall, I guess I'd say it's a fun, happy, feel-good film, but if you're kind of a voice snob, make sure you've got the mute button handy. I may even watch it again while it's still available OnDemand, now that I'm not dreading it, and I can enjoy the good parts.