Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thinking About Publicity

I made lots of writing progress yesterday, though I think I still need to tinker with the scenes. Odd things that I didn't plan keep happening, which is good, but it's making me feel a little out of control. Today will likely be a less productive day, as I have to go grocery shopping and have choir practice, but since I'm in the middle of a scene I've more or less written in my head, I may still be able to churn out some words. Meanwhile, the combination of vine pulling, watermelon hauling and a particularly tough ballet class means I'm moving more or less like Frankenstein today.

Today's writing topic came out of a recent convention panel I moderated. As usual, I came up with my best points in the days after the convention, so I thought I'd share them this way. The topic is self-promotion and publicity, and it's something that affects both published writers and writers who hope to become published (I refuse to use the term "pre-published" except in cases where a book has been contracted but it's not yet in print. If you think "unpublished" sounds too negative and doesn't fit in with your The Secret affirmations, use the term "aspiring."). In fact, writers who hope to become published can lay a lot of groundwork that can really help them when they do get a book out there.

The number one thing to do before you start doing any kind of promotion or publicity activity is THINK. Don't just rush out there and do all the promotional activities you see other authors doing. What works for one author may not work for another, and what those other authors are doing may not even be effective for them. They may be doing those things just because they've seen other authors do them. The most important part of any publicity campaign is the planning. Good planning ensures that you're making the most of your resources and hitting the targets you want to hit.

First, think about who is most likely to want to read the kind of book you've written or plan to write. What are these people like? Are they male, female, or a good mix of both? How old are they? What kind of jobs would they have? Where do they live? What else might they enjoy -- other books/authors, TV shows, movies, etc.? Where do they go for information about the things they enjoy? What are their favorite web sites? How do they learn about books? Where/how do they buy their books?

If you were working on a multi-million dollar account at a major public relations or advertising firm, you'd probably commission expensive research to get the answers to these questions. Unless you're independently wealthy and are writing books for fun, you probably aren't going to be able to afford to get hard data to answer these questions in order to market your book, but you can make some reasonable guesses and assumptions.

To start with, you should probably fit into your target market. If you aren't the kind of person who'd want to read the kind of book you're writing, then why are you writing it? Think about the other things you enjoy, how you get information on those things and where you go to discuss those things. Think about how you find out about books, what influences your book purchases and where you buy books. Before you do a promotional activity, think about how you would react to that sort of thing if another author did it. Would it make you curious about the book? Would it influence your purchase decisions? Or would it annoy you and turn you off?

You can also do informal research among your friends or the members of the communities you belong to. Those people are also likely to be in your target market, if they enjoy the same kinds of things you do. Talk to these people or conduct an informal poll. Eventually you'll want to move beyond this initial cluster of people, but it's good to have a core group to focus on when you're getting started. Under that 80/20 rule, these are the 20 percent of the market that you should focus 80 percent of your efforts on.

This step alone may eliminate a lot of potential publicity activities, saving you a lot of time and money. If you find out that these people never pay attention to book ads in genre magazines, then save your money. If you learn that they don't care about entering contests to win stuff from authors or hate getting e-mail newsletters from authors, then that's something to consider.

It may also give you ideas about places where you could go to spread your message, and that's something you can start before you sell a book. You can join communities of people who share your interests and begin participating as a member. You can comment on blogs or message boards that discuss the kind of books you write. If you do this just as an ordinary person who's not selling anything, that builds you some trust for when you do want to mention that, by the way, you've got a book out there (you have to be very careful not to come across as an obnoxious self-promoter when you do this). Those same places may be good spots for ads when you have a book coming out.

Meanwhile, you should also be thinking about what you want to say to your target audiences. What is your author brand? In other words, what do you want people to think about when they think about you and your books? Are your books dark and mysterious, funny and quirky, hot and sexy, spooky, twisted, romantic, etc.? You'll want to convey that in your promotional activities. If you write dark and mysterious, you probably don't want to put cute cartoons or kitten pictures all over your web site, for example. You don't have to take this all the way -- slinking around conventions in sexy clothes if you write sexy books -- but some authors do take it pretty far, creating a public persona that goes with their writing. It's up to you and your comfort level with that kind of thing. Your author persona probably has a lot to do with the way you naturally are or, again, why are you writing something that's so unlike you, unless it's a facet of your personality that you usually keep hidden. It is, however, a good idea for most of your marketing communication to reinforce your "brand" in some way. For instance, I'm known for quirky humor in my books, so I try to use a bit of quirky humor in my blog posts and in my public persona. My branding statement is "Fairy Tales for Modern Times," which sums up the kinds of things I write, and the logo I use on my web site, bookmarks and other items captures this brand as well as a bit of the quirkiness.

But the number one message in all of this is to really think before you do something. Think about how it will reach and affect the people you want to reach, and then think about the message you're sending.

I noticed that the sf/fantasy/horror blog on the Publishers Weekly web site has been asking for names of urban fantasy authors who might be good interview subjects, and my name hasn't come up once, so it looks like there's a target market out there that I haven't reached at all. I suppose I need to think about that.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

This is my absolute favorite time of year, weather-wise. Yesterday we had what would have been a perfect summer day for much of the world. It was pleasantly warm but not miserably hot. The sky was a perfectly clear cobalt blue. While the sun was warm, there was a cool breeze, so I could be warm and cool at the same time (my favorite ambient temperature). When I was walking to the bank, going around the pond across the street, the breeze rippled the water in such a way that the sunlight made the water sparkle. I wouldn't mind living in a place where that was what summer was like, and we'd have three months of it. Today it's more of a lovely early fall day. It was crisp and cool this morning and should be just pleasantly warm this afternoon.

In weather like this, I want to frolic outdoors (though I'm not entirely sure what frolicking actually entails). I almost wish I had my own lawn with trees on it so I could rake leaves (though they aren't yet really turning colors or falling). This isn't the right part of the world for apple orchards, but I want to pick apples and have bonfires and go hiking.

And yet, this is also the time of year when I'm usually working the hardest. Most of my books have been written in October. Every year when I'm plugging away, I swear that next year I'll take that time off and really enjoy myself, and yet there I go again, and it's not always dictated by publisher deadlines. I just feel more creative at this time of year. Yeah, I want to frolic outdoors, but I'm also bursting with creative energy, and if I weren't writing, I'd be baking like a madwoman or sewing or knitting or something like that, so I may as well do some work that could potentially earn me some money. I suppose I could dial back on the obsession and spend a little less time writing and give myself more "fun" time during the day, but then I could also plow through the first draft now and then take real time off while I let it rest, and it will be equally lovely in late October. I suppose I may let the conditions of each actual day dictate what I do. I'm not on deadline, so if it's a perfect day for walking over to the river and spending the day outside, then I can do that (and take a notebook for brainstorming). If it gets rainy, then that's perfect writing weather and I can do a marathon.

Speaking of the writing, the answer to my sexual tension dilemma was right there in my rant. All I had to do was have my guy stay focused on the metaphorical Grandma situation in the book (no actual grandmas are in peril in this book. So far.). If he's thinking of the crisis even as he assesses the woman, then it's less likely to come across as pre-romantic. So, he meets the woman, sums her up, analyzes whether she'll be a help or hindrance in the Grandma situation, ponders whether her odd behavior could mean she's a suspect in the Grandma situation, and even if he mentally assesses her physical appearance it doesn't sound like the bad romantic suspense thing where he should be focused on the crisis but he's too busy staring at her boobs.

Today's challenge is getting into the head of my main character. I'm doing something a little unusual in this book by backing into the main character. First, other people talk about her and we see how they react to the idea of her, which sets up one set of expectations. Then we actually meet her through someone else's point of view, and what we initially see there isn't at all like what we were expecting based on the way they were talking about her earlier, but then we start to get tiny signs that maybe there is something to her reputation. And then we finally get into her head around page 40 of the manuscript and start seeing how accurate any of those impressions are -- and that she actually carefully cultivates some of those impressions. It's another tricky balance to maintain a bit of a mystery about her even while going into her head while also showing some of the more intriguing parts of what goes on behind the curtain. I may have to do some writing exercises like doing some things in first person, even though this book is written in third person, and that gives me an excuse to go outside.

I haven't yet worked out a way to really write outdoors. There's a bit much glare on the laptop screen, even in the afternoon when the patio is in the shade and with the patio umbrella up, and the patio table is at the wrong height for comfortable typing. I should probably pick up one of those portable, adjustable laptop desks at Ikea. In the meantime, I can enjoy the weather while getting work done when I need to do pen-and-paper brainstorming. Today should be a good working day, since I have no errands to do and no other business to take care of.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Avoiding Romance

The library talk is over, and people were there! There was even someone I didn't already know! Someday maybe I'll get to the point of standing room only or having to hand out wristbands, but for now, I'll take someone showing up. Now I can crawl back into my cave for the rest of the year and focus on the writing part of things. Crawl may be the operative word, as I did a fair amount of bending and pulling or lifting this weekend and am now really feeling it. Saturday I was pulling up the evil alien vines on my patio, which meant bending and pulling, and then Sunday I helped at the watermelon booth at the church festival, which meant bending and lifting watermelons. I thought I had thighs of steel from the ballet, but this apparently used muscles that aren't used in ballet. I have some more vines to deal with, but I may wait until Wednesday or I might not be able to dance Tuesday night.

On the up side, we had WAY more watermelons than we needed, so I got to bring one home. Yummy.

I'm having a little trouble getting started in this new book because one of the early scenes is turning out to be very tricky, and it's the kind of thing where if I don't get the tone just right here, it will throw the whole book off. One of the trickier aspects of it is that I'm trying to write the first meeting of the main male and female characters, and there can be no sexual tension there. The challenge is that I think we're pretty much conditioned to read the first meeting of the main male and female characters in a way that we see it as the start of a potential romance. At least, people seem to read my books that way. Maybe it's because I have a past as a romance author and the Enchanted, Inc. series was published as chick lit, but based on the comments I've received from editors on some other stuff I've written, if the main character meets a person of the opposite sex early in a book I write, and if the viewpoint character shows any sign of any attraction to that person, or if there's any conflict between those characters, the editor will say that it's too romancey for them as a fantasy publisher (and meanwhile the romance publishers are saying it's not a romance at all).

So maybe I'm a little oversensitive and paranoid about the subject. But it would also diminish the characters somewhat if they were thinking about sex or romance in the circumstances in which they meet. It's like the way a lot of romantic suspense books bug me. Yeah, her grandmother has been taken hostage by the bad guys and she has 24 hours to meet their demands or her grandma dies, but she still manages to notice how well the ex-special forces guy helping her fills out his jeans. And he may have gone through something similar in the past, only he wasn't able to save his grandma, leaving him haunted and angst-ridden, and this is his chance to atone by saving someone else's grandma, but he still manages to notice and fantasize about the woman's breasts. And then even though they're down to the wire and the bad guys are right behind them, they stop to have athletic sex along the way. Grandma can wait another half hour, right? I find myself shouting at the book, "You people have your priorities out of whack! Save Grandma first!"

What's difficult is that the first meeting is being seen through the eyes of a man who is very observant, inquisitive and suspicious by nature, so he's going to mentally size up the woman, and it's hard to go through a physical description and a mental catalog of observed traits while making it very clear that he's just being an observer and isn't finding all these things about her very appealing. She certainly intrigues him because she's kind of strange and he wants to figure out what her deal is, but he's not thinking in romantic terms at all about her in this scene.

But it's really, really hard to write in such a way as to make it clear that there really isn't any sexual tension or interest in an assessment of the other character. It has to remain perfectly neutral. I can't even go with initial dislike, since as anyone who's who's ever watched TV, seen a movie or read a book knows, dislike is a sure sign of attraction. I also can't go with an easy comfort level that indicates they aren't aware of each other in that way since they've just met and the circumstances of their meeting are awkward. I'm trying to establish what will turn out to be a team without making it look like the start of a romantic relationship (not that it will never go there. It just isn't at all in this part of the story. Which is not a romance novel.).

I wonder if all authors get that "Whoa, there's a relationship in this book, so we can't publish it as a fantasy" thing or if it's just people who have a reputation for romance, however undeserved. Yes, there's a developing relationship in my existing series, and that seems to be the aspect of the books that really hooks people, but it took two books to get to the first kiss, and it didn't follow any of the romance genre rules.

I think I've come up with an idea that will keep it from feeling like a romance meet-cute and that will raise the other tension levels in the scene, so if I get a chance to write today (funny how the phone tends to ring as soon as I sit down to write -- in case anyone who knows my phone number is reading this, I'm working from 2 to 6, so if the phone rings during that time, it better involve blood or death in a situation that I need to or can do something about, and telemarketers will be zapped with a mental death ray) I may be able to get past this scene and onto the book.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fall TV Scorecard

First, an announcement: If you're in North Texas and for whatever reason have felt horribly bereft because I haven't had too many public appearances this year, you have one last chance Saturday. Saturday at 2 I'll be speaking at the Valley Ranch branch of the Irving Public Library, which is located at MacArthur Blvd. and Cimmaron Trail (if you're coming north on MacArthur, I'd recommend passing Cimmaron Trail and making the next right into the shopping center where the library is). I'm not sure what I'll be talking about, as I suspect it will be a free-form, winging it discussion, assuming anyone shows up. And if no one does, I have books to return, anyway. This will be the last time this year I go into "author" mode. Then I'll really be retreating into the "writer" side of my life.

Speaking of which, I'm up to 7,000 words in the new book, though I've realized I'll need to do some reworking on the last scene in order to make it do what I really want it to do. I "met" my villain for the first time yesterday, and I think I love her. She's going to be a blast and a half to write. I've found the perfect conduit for the usually suppressed bitchy side of my personality.

Now that most of the fall TV season has started, I've got my preliminary TV score card. Before I get to that, though, I have to rant a bit. Most of my local network stations last night, for some odd reason, decided to show all their widescreen series that should have been letterboxed as full screen. I have a widescreen TV, and yet no matter what screen format I tried, it was still all out of proportion, with the sides cut off. It was extremely irritating because in any shot where a character was near the edge of the screen, either the face was cut in half or cut off entirely. There'd be this nice close-up of someone off to the side, and that person would be talking, but we'd just see his ear. I know it wasn't the way these things were meant to be shown because the network logo in the bottom corner of the screen was cut in half, and the commercials were all shown in the same proportion -- but with the commercials, they were still enlarging them even if they weren't letterboxed, so pretty much any print on the screen was missing the first and last letters. I thought for a while that maybe it was my cable company, but The Office was shown in proper widescreen format. Is anyone else having this happen?

So, now, going by days of the week (and speaking vaguely enough to avoid spoilers):
Monday: I may be alone in this, as the episode got plenty of raves, but I kind of hated the House premiere. I thought it came across as pretentious and calculated. I may watch through the fall, since nothing else is on and it makes good background noise for writing medical radio scripts, but when Chuck returns in the spring I will have no dilemmas about which to watch unless things change dramatically in a way that I like, and it's possible that I might be tempted even now by a favorite NCIS rerun on USA.

Tuesday: Speaking of NCIS, I don't have that much to say, as I think I have to withhold judgment on how the opener handled things set up at the end of last season until I see how they deal with the long-term impact. I must say, though, that they managed to show serious depression from the inside out in a way that was both heartbreaking and hilarious.

I'm very glad that Warehouse 13 has already been renewed because that would have been an EVIL way to end a series. I'm mildly worried by the success of the show, though. It was one thing when it was just a quirky summer series, but now that it's the most successful Sci Fi Channel (I refuse to acknowledge the name change) series ever, that tends to get the network suits involved, and that seldom goes well.

I haven't watched the NCIS spin-off. That's something I'll probably catch OnDemand if I get bored.

Wednesday: I was on the verge of giving up Glee, but they got me with this week's episode. I guess I'm a sucker for football stories involving unlikely heroes, and adding music is a bonus. That episode also actually included a song I know (the West Side Story stuff). Although I'm a nut for musical numbers, after the premiere, the music has focused on music I don't know or like, so I'm sure I'm missing all the irony of using this music in show choir. And next week, there's Kristin Chenoweth!

Thursday: I'm iffy about Flashforward. I love Robert J. Sawyer's books, and this is a great cast, but I've got a feeling this will suffer from Lost-itis, but with the flashforwards used as a substitute for real characterization instead of the flashbacks, and with so much focus on the flashes that nothing much actually happens in the present. It also could suffer from the same problem as Heroes, with such a huge cast and so many disconnected stories going on that there's very little forward momentum in each episode. However, this one does seem to have a central character who will serve to tie it all together, and that character is played by Joseph Fiennes and His Amazing Eyelashes, which could make it all worthwhile. It's also possible that I was turned off by the fact that midway through the episode they suddenly blew the picture out into full-screen, so it became irritating and disconcerting to watch. I'll give it another shot, but it's already on probation, and if they keep doing the weird full-screen thing, I may have to break out my rolodex and use the phone number that gets beyond the main switchboard at that station to complain.

I don't know about Supernatural this year. This was another show that suffered from the full-screen thing last night, and they really use the widescreen format, so it was hard to get excited about watching Dean's left ear emote in the darkness. I finally had to just do crossword puzzles while listening because watching was too irritating. I have to admit I'm not too crazy about this season's storyline.

The Office seems to have returned to its initial subject matter of focusing on how soul destroying it is to work in an office with an idiot boss whose numbers are too good for him to be fired, no matter how bad a jerk he is, after a few seasons that seemed to go more into the personal lives of the characters or else go a bit over the top. Not that I disliked that, but it is fun to get back to more of a focus on the office.

There are a few other things I may try to catch OnDemand, but that's about it for my TV viewing right now. I am finding that I'm getting pickier, that I prefer a good dose of humor instead of straight drama, and that I'm getting a bit fed up with all the darkness, doom and gloom.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In Praise of Skirts

First, a moment of silence for my electric teakettle, which has shuffled off this mortal (electric) coil. It apparently sprang a leak, as I found large puddles of water under and around it on the countertop. I don't have a lot of expectations for an electric teakettle, but holding water would be high on the list. Plus, there are safety concerns with boiling water escaping its container (on the upside, my counter is now thoroughly clean and probably sanitized), and the water seemed to be leaking into the area where the heating element is, since it was leaking out of that area onto the counter, and electricity and water are not a happy combination. However, all is now right once more in my tea-making world, as I picked up a new kettle at Target last night on my way to choir practice, and I inaugurated it this morning.

It may say something about my life that this was the most memorable/exciting thing about my day yesterday. See why I haven't delved into Twitter yet?

My life seems to have come full circle lately, as I have rediscovered the joys of skirts and dresses. I was a terribly girly girl as a child and didn't wear jeans to school until I was in fourth grade. I resisted wearing pants (trousers, for those of you who speak British English -- I don't want to give any scary wrong impressions there) until we moved to Oklahoma, where we had more cold weather and snow than we'd had in West Texas. I even wore a dress to my kindergarten's "Hobo Day." (It was a cute little denim number.) But I did give into the cultural mainstream eventually, and once I left the day job, my wardrobe became focused on jeans, shorts and sweatpants.

But this summer, I rediscovered how comfortable dresses can be. I started wearing knit sundresses or t-shirt dresses around the house, and they were cooler and less restrictive than wearing shorts or jeans. Then a couple of weeks ago when the weather took a turn for the cooler, it was too cool to wear the sundresses but not quite cool enough for sweatpants, and I dragged out an old knit skirt. For those of you who remember the 80s, this was a Units skirt. For those who don't remember the 80s, Units was a short-lived line of lightweight knit clothing items that you could mix and match and put together in a variety of ways. I bought this ankle-length circle skirt for a costume when I was in college, then ended up using it a lot for ballroom and swing dancing. I used it again in my 20s when I messed up my knee because it hid the knee brace nicely before surgery and hid the swollen knee and bandages after surgery. I hadn't really thought of it since then, but it was perfect for wearing around the house, keeping my legs somewhat warm but not too warm.

The weird thing was, wearing this skirt that swirled around my ankles as I walked made me feel really good about myself. I felt prettier and more graceful. I kept wanting to dance around the house. I never feel this way about myself when I'm wearing jeans.

Then this weekend, I had a similar epiphany. I was running late to get to FenCon Saturday morning because of needing to put air in my tires, so I grabbed something that was quick and easy to put on -- a jersey knit red dress with an attached sash that can be tied in a variety of ways. That dress may join the Infamous Red Stilettos in my fashion reputation, as the Infamous Red Dress got me a lot of attention at the convention. People thought I'd really dressed up, but the thing was, it was more comfortable than jeans. It was like wearing a nightgown all day. I'm not sure where this idea that casual automatically = comfortable came from, but it seems to be part of the cult of casual in our society. Maybe it's the things that generally go with dresses, like pantyhose and heels, or maybe it's the fact that we feel more comfortable at the kinds of events where we can wear jeans, so we think of jeans as comfortable. Or maybe it's that men's casual clothing really is more comfortable than their dressier clothing, so our male-dominated society has deemed casual to be more comfortable (I can see ties and stiff collars as being uncomfortable, but dress slacks seem to me to be less binding or restricting than jeans).

At any rate, I may start going with what's comfortable for me. I like dressing up. I like wearing dresses. I really like those long, swingy skirts, although the ankle-length ones aren't a great look for me, as I'm already not too tall and they make me look shorter. I decided that even if I couldn't go with that look in the outside world, it would be fun to have a nightgown like that, but an online search hasn't found anything. I may have to borrow a sewing machine from my mother and make some nightgowns and around-the-house skirts. If I look overdressed for an occasion, remember than I'm dressing in a way that makes me happy, so deal with it.

But for today, I have on my long knit circle skirt and I'm ready to settle down to a long day of serious writing. (Come to think of it, my current views on this could possibly be influenced by the main character in this book, who is relentlessly feminine. When I write something different, I may feel another way and go back to my jeans.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

FenCon Recap

Now that I've had a chance to recover, I can do a rundown on the fun that was FenCon. All of this is more or less from memory, as I didn't try to take notes.

I had the somewhat intimidating experience of moderating a panel about a TV show with one of the people who writes for the show in the audience -- and with me probably being the least knowledgeable person on the panel. As I said on the panel, I was there mostly to play Oprah and keep the discussion going, and fortunately the show writer who was present is already a friend, so he wasn't quite as scary as someone else might have been. The panel was to discuss the upcoming regeneration of the Doctor on Doctor Who. That's one area where I almost wish I wasn't as plugged in as I am, because I can imagine that not knowing that it was coming would make the show more intense -- if you didn't know when it was coming, then every time the Doctor got into serious trouble, you might wonder if this would be the time that kills him. But we don't live in a world where that kind of secret can be kept, given that, as Paul Cornell reported, the announcement of the casting of the next Doctor got higher ratings than the fantasy TV series on another channel.

While many of us were kind of hoping for an older Doctor next time around, I had to say (and got some agreement on this) that the younger actor makes for a potentially interesting contrast -- this ancient being, who seems to have been really feeling his age lately, in a very young body. The concern some of us had is that with an equally young Companion, the situation is set up for yet another one of those unresolved sexual tension simmering romance things, and there I have a big yawn. I suppose we shall see next year what it will all be like.

Then we had a rather fun panel on Trek vs. Who. It was set up to be a big debate, but instead we kept finding parallels and similarities. Paul Cornell, naturally, came down firmly on the Who side, but the rest of us, as well as much of the audience, couldn't really choose. We decided that the Borg beat the Cybermen, but that the Daleks beat the Borg. Paul would love to see what would happen if the Doctor met Captain Kirk. I thought that the way the characterization has gone on most of the Trek series, they're essentially doing regeneration without admitting that they're the same characters in different bodies (though Keith R. DeCandido and I agreed that Deep Space Nine was mostly an exception). The Trill on Trek seem to owe a debt to the Doctor, with multiple lives of the same person in different bodies, but with memories carried over. In Trek, it's a huge deal when Earth comes under alien threat; on Who, it's just Saturday. Until I started thinking about this, I never would have considered that the two series were at all alike, but it was interesting how similar they really are.

The panel on Suburban Fantasy got kind of wacky, and I'm not sure we really got anywhere with it, but it was fun. One thought I had was that setting a fantasy story in a suburban environment might play up that sense of the Other. One big theme that comes up a lot in urban fantasy is that sense of being an outsider or the Other -- and yet in the city all the other outcasts tend to find each other, so you get a nice Other community. In the suburbs, the Other would be more isolated and would stand out more. And then we digressed seriously into discussions of a demon that can apparently be killed with cucumbers, which led into talk of using a Salad Shooter as a weapon or rushing to the Western Sizzler salad bar when being chased by said demon. And it went downhill from there.

We had a fun panel discussing the Sci Fi Channel (I refuse to acknowledge the name change because it's just silly), their name change and where their programming could be going. There's some fear that changing the name could be the first step toward moving away from actually being a science fiction channel, especially given some of the programming, like wrestling. I'm not in quite so alarmist a mood, given how successful Warehouse 13 has been (one week, it even beat the ratings for its competition on one of the major broadcast networks). I wouldn't mind seeing more shows with actual spaceships in them, but I'm not minding the current programming. And, darn it, Mansquito was a fun movie. Bad, but fun.

And now today, I plunge into really serious writing on the new project. I spent much of yesterday getting back into that mindset by making lots of lists of random things about the main characters.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Warehouse 13 and my Lists

It's fall, and it even feels like it today. Yay! It's a good day for a good TV marathon, so I'm rewatching the beginning of Warehouse 13, leading up to the season finale tonight. That show managed to become one of my favorites, which is funny because I wasn't planning to watch it until my mom told me to catch the rerun of the premiere. But when I think about it and match it against all those lists I've made as part of the Ongoing Quest for World Domination, it comes out to being the TV version of the kind of book I like.

For one thing, it strikes the perfect light/dark balance. It has just enough whimsy without being cutesy, and it's funny without being fluffy, but it also gets serious and has consequences that matter, but without going overboard into dark and edgy. I'm a little tired of the general belief in all of entertainment these days, from TV to movies to books, that dark or edgy automatically=good.

I also like that the characters are basically nice people. They're people I would probably enjoy hanging out with in real life, which, again, is kind of rare these days when everyone has to be edgy, with the lines blurred between the good guys and the bad guys. I had an epiphany of sorts this summer when I realized that I was watching people on TV that I wouldn't want anything to do with in real life. Not that every character has to be a decent human being (we do need bad guys), but I need at least someone on the show I enjoy spending time with, and I prefer that the good guys be reasonably pleasant. When I was trying to come up with some pop culture associations as a way of describing this series, it was pretty easy to relate Myka to Hermione Granger -- the brainy, bookish girl who does the assigned reading, is detail-oriented, and likes to follow the rules (and has curly hair). I had trouble finding a character who reminds me of Pete because it seems like these days every science fiction/action hero has to be tortured, haunted or damaged by some terrible tragedy. Pete has a tragedy in his past, but if it did damage him, it seems like he's healed or is in the process of healing. He's pretty sane and emotionally healthy -- enough so that he can be the strong, solid one for others in emotional turmoil. I had to reach outside the genre to find a good comparison. Pete is a lot like Jim on The Office, if he joined the Secret Service and carried a gun -- he's the guy with a sense of humor and playfulness who is also the steady, supportive friend and often the voice of reason. It's a refreshing change from all those dark, moping heroes who wallow in their past tragedy and unhappy childhoods.

That brings me to another thing I like: The relationships among the characters. It seems like they keep setting up and then subverting expectations for this kind of show. The pilot made it look initially like it would be the standard goofball guy/uptight woman situation, with all the bickering that comes with that, probably leading to tons of sexual tension and the will they/won't they romantic build-up. And then before the end of the pilot they were already changing that. Pete and Myka do have their differences, and that leads to the occasional disagreement, but they work well as a team, for the most part. They like each other, trust each other and care about each other. It's the two of them against the world rather than against each other -- and without much hint of sexual tension so far. Ironically, the fact that they don't seem to be building this into a romantic situation makes this a rare TV relationship that in the real world you could imagine actually working and that might not kill the show if it did become romantic, mostly because it wouldn't have to change much. Most of those will they/won't they relationships are based on the conflict between the characters, so if they get together, the relationship has to change or else it looks horribly dysfunctional, and that then takes all the sizzle out of the relationship. Not that I'm advocating for a romance here. I'm just finding it interesting that when TV writers aren't deliberately setting up a grand romance, it so happens that they're actually setting up the kind of thing you could imagine actually working. Then there are Artie and Claudia, who complete the group and create that kind of found family thing I find so interesting. Artie's struggling with the role of "Dad" to Claudia, while Pete fell automatically into big brother mode, and Myka seems to be finding herself growing into the role of big sister. I like that they've allowed these relationships to grow gradually.

Meanwhile, I really like the production design of the Warehouse and the gizmos, that sort of quasi Steampunk with a bit of Art Deco. There's a lot of pseudo-scientific handwaving to explain the effects of the artifacts, but to me it feels like contemporary fantasy that isn't "urban" fantasy -- just the mix of reality and fantasy I like. Plus, cookies!

So, that boils down to a contemporary fantasy with a sense of whimsy but without being overly cute and without being too dark and edgy, with nice characters who have interesting interrelationships. That's exactly what I want in entertainment. Now I need more books that fit this model.

I'm a little sad that the season finale is tonight, but at least it's already been renewed.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My Game Show Failure

I'm in my usual post-convention lag. I didn't even have to travel far, and I didn't stay up all that late at night, and yet I'm still more or less in zombie mode today. I feel like I ran a marathon over the weekend. My muscles are even sore, like I was doing a lot of physical activity.

I'm giving myself today to rest and recover, and then tomorrow I think I'll take care of some business-type stuff that I need to deal with, as well as my radio scripts, and then Wednesday I'll hit the new book hard and go into serious writing mode. I want to do a fairly fast first draft -- the "figure out what the book is really about" phase -- and then I get to take my vacation when it's done. I'm already stockpiling books to read on the vacation.

I'll probably write up more of what happened at the convention later in the week when I'm less tired and more coherent. I will say that I tied for last place in the Just a Minute game. That was hard. The talking for a minute isn't a problem. The problem is doing so without repeating any words beyond things like "a" or "the" or the subject and without hesitating at all -- no pauses, ers, ums, or anything like that. It also didn't help that I wasn't being very cut-throat about it. It was the other panelists who were supposed to hit the buzzer (yes, we had real game show buzzers!) when the person speaking broke any of the rules, and then the person who hit the buzzer had to finish out the minute (or try to). Most of the time, I didn't even want to attempt to talk on the topic at hand, so I wasn't about to set myself up for that. I suppose it says something psychologically about me that I preferred not even trying to trying and failing, but I must also admit that I was having so much fun listening to the others attempting to talk on these topics that I forgot to listen for rules violations. I think I was also being terribly southern and feeling like it would be rude to interrupt.

I did continue my run of having something somewhat worrying to deal with come up during the convention. Last year, I got home from the first day of the convention to find a message from my credit card company saying that someone unauthorized had attempted to use my card. This year, my car gave me a minor scare. I was driving home Friday night when a warning light came on the dashboard. It was an exclamation point framed by a sort of squashed half-circle. I had no idea what it meant and assumed it was a pictograph for "check engine," since I'm used to that being just about the only all-purpose warning light. That's not something you want to see at midnight, and definitely not in a car that's only a little more than a year old and with less than 7,000 miles on it. I pretty much prayed my way home, then when I got home, I looked in the manual to see what the light meant. Apparently, I need to learn to speak Ford because it was merely an indicator that my tire pressure was low. That makes sense, as I last had my oil changed and levels of everything checked when it was about 100 degrees, and it had become dramatically cooler quite suddenly. All I needed to do to fix things was put a little more air in my tires, so crisis averted, but it made for a tense drive home that night. However, I am now reassured that my car will warn me before a tire goes flat. I didn't realize it was quite so high-tech. I'm sure with my old car I frequently drove with lower-than-recommended tire pressure and thought nothing of it, but having a warning light makes it seem so much more urgent. It's something that must be dealt with NOW.

And now, even though I swore that I wouldn't leave the house today, I must go to the grocery store, as I'm almost out of milk, and I could probably use a few additional food items. Yesterday, I didn't get a proper meal because I had back-to-back panels around lunchtime, so I grazed in the hospitality suite, getting stuff like cheese and crackers and grapes. Then when I got home, I realized I had nothing quick and easy to have for dinner. All the food in my house would have required real cooking, and I just didn't have the energy for that. So what did I have handy? Cheese, crackers and grapes. I may pick up a couple of frozen pizzas for low-effort meals.

Television note for tonight: It's the season premiere of House, and I suspect I won't enjoy it as this episode is entirely about House, with none of the other characters, and oddly enough, House himself is one of my least-favorite characters on the show here lately, as he mostly acts like a bratty toddler. Because I know this one is meant to be different, it won't count on the "probation" of the series, but I far prefer the House who served as a vicarious mouthpiece who said the kinds of things I sometimes wish I had the nerve to say to stupid people to the more recent bratty, selfish and "damaged" House.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Quick Pre-Con Post

Ack! So much to do in so little time today. I had a long to-do list yesterday but managed to get very little of it done, then overslept this morning, thanks to being wide-awake at about 3 a.m., when I thought I heard a prowler outside but then eventually realized that my neighbor was apparently working in her garden at that time (there were outside lights on over there, the sound of flowerpots being banged around, and coughing). I think she's mentioned having the occasional bout of insomnia, so I guess she deals with it by gardening instead of watching TV or reading.

So, anyway, I've been pruning today's to-do list to get the bare minimum done before I head over to FenCon.

I did manage to select and rehearse some bits from the someday maybe book 5 for a reading -- the opening and then another scene from later in the book. And I came up with some discussion questions for the panels I'm moderating. I also baked cookies for a room party, and although this wasn't on the to-do list, I re-sewed the elastics on my ballet slippers while I watched TV.

And along the way I keep mentally writing the book I'm working on. By the time Monday rolls around and I have time to sit down and write without interruptions or other things on the to-do list, (I may disconnect my telephones or turn off the ringers), it should flow pretty easily. Unfortunately, this means I'll be going through a convention with Book Brain, so it is entirely possible that in the middle of a panel I will end up staring into space while my characters suddenly decide to do something interesting. Life is fun when you have imaginary people living in your head.

Now I need to round up the stuff I need for the weekend (like the Wand of Moderation), iron some things, then take a shower and head to the convention.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Reading Likes

I am pleased to announce that I am now ready for fall. Not emotionally ready for cooler weather and sweaters (I've been there since about June), but prepared for fall baking and eating. I have tons of blueberries in the freezer for making blueberry muffins on cool mornings. I have peaches in the freezer for making peach butter to go on biscuits or homemade bread. I have several slices of peach cobbler in the freezer, as well. And last weekend I made my fall batch of strawberry jam, so I'm ready for scones, fresh bread, crumpets or whatever else I feel like baking when it's cool enough to turn on the oven.

Which it has been this week. It's been raining for about a week now, and I'm loving it. Since I'm more creative around water and get my best ideas in the shower, this has been like being in the shower for a week. Unfortunately, I've been too busy for serious writing, but I have been thinking, and I came up with a brilliant twist (if I say so myself) this week that wouldn't have been there if I'd been trying to write. Today, I should be able to do at least a little writing, since my to-do list is a little shorter today and I don't have to go anywhere.

After listing the things that make for auto-rejects for me earlier this week, I thought I'd go for the positive side. What are the plot elements that will have me grabbing a book off the shelf?

Again, these are not meant as value judgments or statements of what is "good" or "bad." This list is certainly not inclusive -- there are many things that aren't on this list that I might also read and enjoy.

I think that right now, fantasy in a non-traditional setting will really catch my eye. I'm still fine with the conventional quasi-medieval setting, but after so many of those, it would take some really interesting angle on plot or character, and probably a recommendation or two, to stand out for me amid all the other fantasy novels. But if a fantasy book has a cover that shows a setting that looks Georgian, Regency, Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco (oooh!), Midcentury Modern or contemporary (but not with black leather and tattoos), I will more than likely pick it up.

I'm a sucker for reunion stories -- where people who knew each other at a different phase in life run into each other again -- and not necessarily strictly in a romantic sense. In fact, I'm not too fond of the exes getting back together plot, because unless they were kids/teens and torn apart by other people who had control of their lives at the time, there's generally a reason they split up in the first place. But something like childhood friends encountering each other as adults is interesting to me. (Hmm, does that weird kid next door grow up to be a wizard?).

These days, I'm finding myself intrigued by things involving dance, but that's probably just because of my late-in-life rediscovery of ballet.

I like time travel stories, but not romances -- at least, not the kind where the time period difference is the romantic conflict, like where he's from the past and she's from the present (or vice versa) and one has to give up his/her time for them to be together. I guess I don't believe that ending will really work. But I do like things like To Say Nothing of the Dog where the romance was between the time travelers who were both from the same time or The Time Traveler's Wife.

I absolutely love what my agent sometimes calls "Sucked Through a Portal" stories -- where either someone from our world goes into a "fantasy" world or where someone from a "fantasy" world enters our world. Whether it's through a portal, a rabbit hole, a looking glass, a wardrobe, a book, a tornado, etc., I like that clash of cultures and the search to get home that comes with that kind of story. It gives me a chance to see the fantasy world through the eyes of someone like me who can really appreciate the wonder of it all, as opposed to a character in that world who sees it as normal. I suppose it was early indoctrination by the Oz books and the Narnia books. There don't seem to be as many of these in the adult market, at least, not that I've found (or enjoyed). Maybe it's a childish fantasy to be swept away to a magical world where you're more important and special than you are at home.

I will generally at least pick up and look at any book that has an old-fashioned sailing ship on the cover.

As a raging Anglophile, I tend to be drawn to books involving England or analogues for England (as in otherworld fantasies).

I can't resist books about old houses/manors/castles and restoring them or discovering their secrets.

I have a real fondness for books written in interesting formats -- like journals, diaries, letters, e-mails, etc. I like those Victorian-style (or mock Victorian-style) chapter headings, where either they list things in the upcoming chapter or say something like "in which our hero discovers the truth." And I like books that take place within a specific time frame -- like in one night or one day, or else that follow the entire course of a year so that you see the cycles in life.

This isn't necessarily something that shows up on a book cover or cover blurb, but I really enjoy the concept of "found" families -- where people away from their blood families, for whatever reason, create a sense of family with the people who are near them. I think there's more of this in TV series, where the crew, team or whatever group comes to act as a kind of family, but this was also something that showed up a lot in chick lit books (and had a lot to do with my fondness for the genre). Those books were about single people in big cities, which often meant that even if their relationships with their families were good, they still weren't geographically close, and so they often created a sense of family in their friends or co-workers. I guess this appeals to me because I was a military brat and was never all that close to my extended family because of sheer distance. I remember when we first moved to Germany, and the people across the landing just about adopted us, then suddenly I felt like I had two surrogate older brothers. And then there was the time we had a couple of young soldiers from my dad's unit over for Thanksgiving, and I was all "Yay! More big brothers!" (Which may be why I tend to write characters who have older brothers.)

Supposedly, these are things I should try writing about, since they're my reading passions. I did write a fantasy series (using more traditional fantasy elements instead of "urban" style fantasy) in a contemporary setting. I've tried writing a couple of those "portal" stories, but editors apparently weren't interested in the whole parallel worlds thing, especially not in the adult market. I suppose Katie had a sister-like relationship with her roommates, and Rod was like a big brother to Owen, but I didn't write those relationships thinking in terms of found families. Otherwise, I haven't delved into any of these areas. I think that one of the reasons I like some of these things is that I don't write in those areas, so they can be pure escapism for me. For instance, I don't think I could write about England very well without a lot more research, but I love reading about it. Ditto with sailing ships. I tried writing a book in journal form, but it didn't work so well in a more plot-centric book (because if it's written in a journal, the action is all a recap of action you know has already happened, and it loses immediacy). I haven't yet tried a one-day book or a one-year book. Those only lend themselves to certain kinds of plots.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Editing in Layers

I've got another reader request writing topic this week: editing. This is a pretty complex topic, and I'm sure that each writer approaches it differently. In general, this is how I think about it.

I see the editing process in layers and generally approach these one at a time, though you may work differently and do it all at once or as you go. However you work, it helps to break it down and think about what you should be considering as you review your work.

1) The story level
This layer is all about whether or not the book as a whole works. Is there a compelling plot? Does the plot take any surprising turns? Does the plot have a consistent thread that pulls through the whole story? Is the plot resolved in a satisfying way? Is something different at the end -- characters or the world? Do the major characters grow or change because of the events of the book? Are there any plot holes or logical leaps? How is the pace -- does the story move along, with some ups and downs for variety?

This part can be hard to fix because it's at such a high level and you may not be able to point to any one scene to rewrite. What you may do is keep these questions and your answers to them in mind as you edit on a lower level because it may take making changes to multiple scenes in order to fix any story-level problems. You can also address these problems at an outline level. Make a list of all your scenes, or make notecards with one scene per card, then think of all the scenes that will have to be changed, subtracted or added to fix the story-level problems. Refer to these notes when you get to those particular scenes in scene-level editing.

2) The "section" level
This is really a subset of the story-level editing, but it's a good way to hone in on any particular problems.
Is the beginning compelling enough to pull readers into the story? Does the beginning introduce the major characters in a way that makes readers care about them? Does the beginning introduce the main story question and establish the conflicts?
Does the middle sag or does it contain enough action? Are there any plot twists in the middle?
Is the ending satisfying? Does the ending tie up the necessary loose ends? Does the ending answer the story question posed at the beginning?

3) The scene level
Each scene needs to be a mini story, with the elements you'd look for in a story -- a character goal, a conflict and some kind of change so that things aren't the same at the end of it (if nothing changes, why is the scene there?). Some things to think about when evaluating each scene:
What role does this scene play in the main plot? Why is this scene in the book? What is the viewpoint character's scene goal? What is the conflict? What changes as a result of this scene? Is there a pivot, some change in mood, tone, positive/negative aspect? If the only reason for a scene is to illustrate something about the character or to convey a certain piece of information, is there some other scene that's more essential to the story, with a goal and conflict, where this information can be conveyed?

Also look at the construction of the scene -- what is the balance of dialogue, action, introspection, description and narrative? How is the scene paced, and does the writing fit the pace -- short sentences and paragraphs for fast pace, longer sentences and paragraphs for a slower pace. Compare the scene to other scenes in the book -- is it unique, or does it repeat goals and main actions that you see repeatedly in the story? In a pursuit story, you may have a lot of scenes where the scene goal is to get away from the bad guys, but that can get repetitive. Is there some other scene goal that might come up while still fitting in with the main plot?

This analysis, particularly the role in the main plot, is where you may address some of the issues from evaluating your book at the story level.

4) The sentence level
Does the dialogue sound like something people would actually say (try reading it out loud)? Does the dialogue for each character fit that character's voice -- and are those voices unique? (You don't want all your characters sounding like you.)

Is there variety in sentence structure? Do the sentences all make sense -- do any of them make you go back and re-read them to figure out what they mean? Do you end paragraphs or sections with some kind of powerful punch? Are you using proper grammar -- as appropriate (dialogue may not always be proper, depending on the characters)?

5) The word level
Is that word really necessary? Do you use any "junk" words that can be cut, like "just," "kind of," "sort of," "started to," "began to," etc.? (You don't have to eliminate them all, but think about each use and how essential the words are there.) Do you use verb forms that require helper verbs (the "was -ing" form) that could be made stronger by using a more active verb? Are you using the most specific words possible? A really specific noun or verb can eliminate the need for an adjective or adverb. Being specific also makes the writing more vivid -- is that car a Corvette, a family sedan, a vintage Volkswagen? Do you notice that you have certain "pet" words that show up a lot? Do a global search for these once you notice them and then rephrase as many instances as you can. Is everything spelled properly, and are you really using the right word for that instance? Be aware of things like "their" vs. "there" vs. "they're" or "it's" vs "its." Even if you know the rules, things tend to slip when your brain moves faster than your fingers, and spell check doesn't catch it. Are you missing any words?

I find that for these last two levels, it really helps to read the whole manuscript out loud. Then you're forced to read what's really there and not what you think should be there. Another trick is to change the typeface while you're editing because then it will look different and words will be in different places on the screen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reading Dislikes

I had a late-morning appointment after getting up late, so my day is really running behind.

A couple of months ago, I started doing some self-assessments (as part of the Ongoing Quest for World Domination) and listed some of the things I like and dislike in books. I've since been testing that in library and bookstore visits, seeing what elements will make me put a book back on the shelf and what will make me grab it. The theory is that these are things I should think about in my own work.

I want to make it clear that these aren't any kind of rating or value judgment. I'm not saying that any of these things are "good" or "bad" or saying anything good or bad about people who like or dislike these things. These are purely things that don't happen to appeal to me.

I would have said that I had zero interest in books about babies, in spite of the fact that I love babies and will fuss over any baby in sight (seriously, I play peek-a-boo with the babies sitting in front of me on airplanes). But further analysis and assessment made me realize that what I don't like reading about is motherhood. I will pretty much reject any book about pregnancy, struggling with new motherhood, enjoying new motherhood, dealing with kids, etc. However, I don't mind babies being incorporated into books (I've even done it, myself, with Katie's little niece). I particularly enjoy babies used to bring out different sides of non-parents -- like, say a story about a band of warriors who arrive too late to save the village from barbarians, and the only survivor is a tiny baby they feel obligated to look after. I'd totally read The Magnificent Seven Swordsmen and the Baby, as long as it didn't get too cute. But just about any book showing a pregnant woman or conventional baby stuff on the cover is an auto reject, as is a book whose main plot involves a woman longing for motherhood.

I'm also generally not into books about weddings, especially the weddings of the main characters. I can kind of deal with stories involving weddings where the main characters are more peripherally involved, especially if they don't think weddings are just divine and aren't constantly dreaming of their own weddings. So, Four Weddings and a Funeral was okay (though I hate the ending), but Bride Wars is right out. Or, well, the book equivalents.

Those two things may explain why I completely gave up on reading category romance, even though I used to write it and pretty much inhaled those books in my early 20s. It got to where most of them were either about babies or brides.

I mentioned before that I don't like books about gambling. I've since realized that I don't enjoy books about money, in general -- where money is the primary goal of the story. That would be "I have to find X amount of money in X amount time to save the family home" type of plots, or else the "I have to do these strange things in order to inherit, thanks to my relative's wacky will" story. Money can be a concern, but I don't enjoy it when it's the main focus of the plot. (And, yes, Going Postal and Making Money are two of my favorite Discworld books, even though money and the need for it are central to their plots and there was even a wacky will, but I don't think they were really actually about the money. They were about personal transformation. That to me is different from the "I need XX dollars now or my life is over" stories.)

I'm also not a big fan of miscommunication plots, which often come down to "wait, didn't you get my letter?" issues, or else the revelation that the character never actually talked to the other character about the thing that's annoyed her for the entire book, and it turns out she was wrong about it. Both of those usually involve a story conflict in which one person is angry at another person, and then it turns out to have been a misunderstanding brought on by either an attempted communication going astray or the fact that they never talked about it.

Meanwhile, I'm leery of stories about someone who has a strong hold over the main character in spite of past misdeeds -- that bad-boy boyfriend she still will drop her entire life for the moment he reappears, even though he cheated on her with her sister, left her at the altar and then stole her dog and her credit card.

Those two are tricky because I'm a sucker for reunion stories -- those stories about people who knew each other long ago and were separated for whatever reason or didn't get together then for whatever reason and then find each other later when they're in different places in life -- and those two plots tend to show up a lot in those stories. You can't really tell from reading the cover blurb if they're going to have trouble getting back together because she thought he'd dumped her, but all this time he thought she dumped him because she didn't respond to the letter she never got. There have been way too many times when I bought a book based on a cover blurb about people who grew up together finding each other as adults, only to end up with a heroine in a constant snit who won't speak to the guy, and it turns out it was because of some silly miscommunication long ago -- like her bratty little brother found the letter first and hid it. Or else the guy she's reuniting with is the bad boyfriend from the past, who may or may not have changed.

Oddly, although this list is supposed to tell me what I should steer clear of, no matter how hot these things are in the market, I get a lot of story ideas from making lists like this because it makes me want to find a way to do these plots in ways that would work for me. It's like a stretching routine for my brain, giving it a challenge to take something I think I don't like and find a way to do it in a way that I might like.

Monday, September 14, 2009

FenCon News and Weekend TV

I was such a horrible slug this morning, but it was cool and rainy -- perfect sleeping weather -- and I had nowhere in particular to be, so I let myself sleep in and lie around for a while. This was after a weekend in which it rained the entire time, so I spent most of the weekend on the sofa, reading while marathoning season 5 of The Office.

In other news, I have good news, for a change. Because the people at FenCon love me (and because someone else cancelled), I now have a reading slot. I'll be reading at 1 on Saturday, in a session with P.N. Elrod.

Of course, now that I've made a fuss out of having a reading, I hope someone actually shows up. It would look kind of bad if no one did after they made an effort to accommodate me. Remember, that will be the world premiere of the beginning of what would be book 5, and since I've tinkered with it since it was originally submitted, the only person who's read or heard this version so far is my mom, so this is really a premiere.

Another FenCon premiere: I wrote a short story in the Enchanted, Inc. universe for the program book. I don't do short stories often, so this is special.

I thought of something as I was inhaling hours worth of The Office. It's something of an anomaly for me. Normally, I'm drawn to television series that have a sense of "found family" about them. That seems to be the common thread in the shows that really hook me, where a group of people who are either geographically or emotionally distant from their biological families or else whose work tends to be all-consuming form a kind of family among the people they spend the most time with. I like seeing those surrogate families form as the characters start treating each other like siblings or fall into parental roles. The Office totally inverts that, as it's about a boss who desperately wants that to happen, while the rest of the staff desperately does not want it to happen. Some relationships have formed (like Jim and Pam), and they do have the occasional workplace friendship, but these are all people who'd rather keep their office relationships in the office and resent office things spilling into their personal lives. And yet, those family dynamics do still come up within the office environment, even if they don't endure outside the office. It's fun to watch those relationships develop and shift over time on that series.

And what's really funny is that this is closer to my real work relationships and more what I'd want. I have a family. I don't really want to see co-workers as family, but then I haven't been geographically isolated with them or had to put my life in their hands. That may change matters. I understand that people who work together in police/fire/military type settings do tend to form closer bonds. I have had workplace friendships that eventually extended outside the office, and a few of those even lasted beyond the job, but for the most part, friendships at work are about making the best of a situation you're stuck with.

The really weird thing is that although this has become one of my favorite series, the only reason I watched it in the first place is that when I saw a promo for it before the premiere, they showed a clip of Pam at her desk, and it seemed to me to be a depiction of Katie from my books. Not exactly, because I didn't picture the long, curly hair she had then, but there was something about her face, wardrobe and overall bearing that caught my eye, so I watched the show to see if that held out, and then I got hooked on the show.

On another TV note, I'm sad to say that I was somewhat disappointed by the first episode of Glee beyond the premiere. This is going to sound like a weird complaint, but it's bugging me that the musical numbers sound so over-produced. I know for practical purposes they have to be recorded in a studio and then lip synched for filming, but it seems so painfully obvious that's what they're doing, and they're not just studio recorded, but also studio produced -- and heavily studio produced -- so it doesn't at all sound like something you'd hear in a school classroom or auditorium, and that takes me right out of the show. I guess that sort of fits with the overall over-the-top nature of the series, but I found the episode kind of grating. I'll give it a few more chances, and maybe I'll just fast-forward past the episode stuff to the musical numbers and it won't bother me so much.

My cable company actually got the first episode of Robin Hood up on BBC-A OnDemand. They'll probably skip every other one, but at least I got to see what happened next after the finale. The series seems to have improved somewhat in Marian's absence, but it's still "turn your brain off and enjoy it" material. Meanwhile, my local PBS station reverted to the beg-a-thon instead of showing Mystery, which is annoying because I was really enjoying the series they were showing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On Being Wrong (plus more New York)

Yesterday felt utterly unproductive because I couldn't seem to focus on anything. But then I realized that it felt like my subconscious was up to something, and that was why the day came across as a waste. Sure enough, I think I've come up with some good stuff, and I've realized that I've been totally wrong about a lot of things. It seems like no matter how much planning I try to do, it doesn't count for much until I actually start writing. Then once I meet the characters on the page and see how the situation starts shaping up, I find that a lot of my planning was flat-out wrong.

For instance, talking in only vague terms, one of the major plots in this story involves the search for someone who's missing. I had thought that it would function more like a mystery, where the missing person's whereabouts are unknown both to characters and readers, so the missing person and the bad guy keeping the missing person would remain off-stage. But then once I started writing I realized that the missing person had her own subplot and conflict and the story would have to go back and forth between the search and what the missing person is up to, with the suspense coming from information the readers have from one plot line that the characters in the other plot line don't have (the Hitchcock bomb under the table scenario). And that meant I actually had to develop the character of the missing person and create the setting for where she is.

One thing that tells me how wrong I was about what this book was going to be was the "soundtrack" I created for it. I put together an "inspirational" CD of music that seemed to fit the vague idea this story was at the time. Now that I've developed characters and plot, I'm realizing that I was totally off-base with a lot of it. I've been doing the iTunes shuffle the past few days, and the songs I'm picking for the soundtrack have been fairly different. Some are the same, some went by the wayside and some have been added. The result is that the mood has mostly changed. I never would have anticipated this, but there's a lot of Ella Fitzgerald going on. It's a more classic, timeless mood. I think the emotions coming up are also different, as a whole. This may be a more serious, angsty book than I usually write, though there are definitely still humorous touches. It will be more of a book that has some humor in it than an outright comedy, though I think it does have something of a screwball comedy structure to it.

It's shaping up to be a cool, rainy day, and I have books waiting for me at the library (some references I need to develop some other characters who suddenly demanded more attention), so I think I may walk over there, bring my notebook, and sit in the cafe for a while to do research and brainstorming. If it's not actually raining, I can sit on the patio on the waterside.

And because it's not a Friday without at least a touch of Virtual Vicarious Vacation, some more pictures from my recent trip to New York. Central Park and the general areas where I was are rather Victorian, and it struck me that New York would make a good Steampunk setting. I shall have to consider that.

So, for instance, here's the famous Bow Bridge in Central Park:

And then I think this is the Ansonia Hotel, based on something in a guidebook and the approximate place where I was when I took the picture, though I didn't get close enough to verify. I suspect a mad scientist is working at the top of one of those corner towers. Or else that area reminded me of Paris because it was on a part of Broadway where the street is two-way and has a park-like esplanade down the middle, and that building also has a bit of Parisian flair.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

My FenCon Schedule

I think my summer of early waking is over. I'm back to my usual wake-up time, which now feels late. However, I'm spending the last half hour or so daydreaming about the book, so it's not like I'm being a lazy slug. Today, I figured out the logistics for the next scene I need to write. I do still need to do some brainstorming and world building to figure out part of the story. Since I have a convention next weekend, I'm not planning to try to delve into in-depth writing until afterward. Right now, I'm still feeling my way and figuring things out to set the stage and lay the groundwork.

Speaking of the convention, next weekend (the 18th-20th), I'll be at FenCon. Here's my schedule (as it currently stands):

Friday at 4, I'm moderating a panel on humor in science fiction/fantasy.

Then at 6 on Friday, Paul Cornell has roped me into participating in his version of the "Just a Minute" radio game show. I think I need to research this. Apparently, you have to talk for a minute on a given subject without repetition, hesitation or digression. Now, normally, in real life, that's not something that should be a problem for me (my mom said he was probably curious to see if they could hold me to a minute), but put me in front of an audience, give me rules and run a stopwatch, and I'll likely freeze up and get nervous and not be able to do it. As I am the only female on the panel, I will declare that I'm mostly there to be decorative. Maybe I'll wear a short skirt and distract my fellow panelists with the ballet-toned legs.

Saturday at 10 I'm moderating the "Talkin' 'bout my Regeneration" panel about what's up next for Doctor Who.

That's pretty much it for Saturday, so I can actually attend the con (ooh, what a concept). I may get wacky and act in the radio drama.

Then they're working me hard on Sunday. At 10, A. Lee Martinez and I will be talking about how to improve the Sci Fi (oops, SyFy) Channel. Regardless of topic, the two of us in a room together is bound to be comedy gold, and there will likely be at least one serious giggle fit.

At noon is the Trek vs. Who panel, which has some real heavy hitters on it. (I'm rather agnostic on the topic, as I love both.)

Then at 1 is a panel on "Suburban Fantasy," which I guess is about contemporary fantasy that isn't necessarily set in the big city.

And finally, at 2 on Sunday I'm moderating a panel on self-promotion and how not to be annoying about it.

I was planning to read the opening chapter of what would be book 5 if somebody wanted to publish it, but I didn't get scheduled for a reading slot. I'm starting to feel like there's some kind of cosmic block out there keeping this book from seeing the light of day in any way, shape or form. I also don't have an autographing scheduled, so I guess you can track me down in the hallway if you want me to sign something. I am trying not to feel paranoid and like a has-been about these two items and will not go into a "my career is over when I can't even get a reading or autographing at my home convention" tailspin about it. Mostly, it's a scheduling issue, and I'd really rather do panels than sit behind an autographing table. However, I was looking forward to sharing a peek at book 5. Oh well, there will likely be other conventions, if my career isn't really over and if people still want me to come.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Fall TV Season

I'm off to a late start this morning, thanks to oversleeping, probably because of a particularly tough (and long) ballet class the night before. Or else my summer streak of early waking is now over. The new book could have something to do with it, too, as there was some daydreaming. I made a good start yesterday, though it was somewhat hampered by a lot of business stuff and errands I had to deal with. I have more business stuff today, then two choir rehearsals tonight (since I joined the a capella chamber chorale), but I still should get some good work done as I tweak the opening to get it just right.

Meanwhile, the new fall TV season is upon us, and I guess it's time to dig out the TV Guide and think about what I'll be watching. I admit to being a TV fan. I far prefer a TV series to a movie, but I've lately had waning interest, possibly because they keep canceling things I like. My planned schedule is looking somewhat curtailed.

On Monday nights in the fall, the only thing I'm really planning to watch at the moment is House, and it's on probation. I feel like the writing has become rather self-indulgent lately, where they do things to be edgy or shocking and not because they really fit the plot or characters. This could easily fall off the schedule. If they're actually updating the BBCAmerica OnDemand offerings (which have been sketchy of late), that usually happens on Mondays, so that may be BBC-A night.

Tuesday night I have ballet, so I have to rely on the VCR or OnDemand. I've really fallen for Warehouse 13 this summer, but there are only a couple more episodes this season. That's a cute, quirky show, and I love the characters. Even though I get CBS pretty reliably OnDemand, I'll probably end up taping NCIS because that falls into the category I call "comfort food television" and is the perfect thing to watch when I've come home from ballet and had a shower (and OnDemand doesn't post the new episodes until the next day). I can curl up on the sofa in my pajamas and have cookies and milk while watching it. Later in the fall, V will be on that night. Too bad it's not on a network I get OnDemand. I loved the miniseries and series in the 80s, but I'm leery of a remake, and it's on Already Been Cancelled. I guess I'll see what the buzz is.

On Wednesdays, this week ends Leverage for the fall. But now Glee's starting, and I think that will be the perfect thing to tape while I'm at choir, so I can come home from back-to-back rehearsals and watch more choir geekery. There needs to be an adult show choir for those of us who missed that experience in high school (or for those who want to relive it).

Thursday night, Supernatural comes back to us this week, and then there's The Office starting next week. I think Thursday's also the night Flashforward will be on. I'm a fan of Robert J. Sawyer's books, but that's not one I'd have picked as a series premise. Still, there will be Joseph Fiennes and His Amazing Eyelashes, so I may give it a shot. Otherwise, my local PBS station is now showing MI-5/Spooks on Thursday nights, and they've just reached the point where A&E abruptly stopped showing it (in the middle of a cliffhanger. Grrrr). I guess that in spite of being an action/crime/suspense show, the fact that it was from the BBC and involved British accents made it too classy for the "new" A&E.

It looks like Stargate Universe will be on Fridays. I never got into Dollhouse, but now they're tempting me with Jamie Bamber and Alexis Denisof, so I might give it a try. Otherwise, that may be a night for catching whatever OnDemand shows that I didn't see earlier in the week that catch my interest.

Saturday there's nothing (a night for movies or OnDemand shows). And then Sunday night it's mostly about Masterpiece Theatre, with mysteries for much of the fall, and then when they switch to Contemporary, I'm not sure what the shows will be, but David Tennant will be hosting, so I'll at least watch the beginning.

There are a few cable series that look interesting, but they just say "fall" instead of giving a start date and timeslot.

The annoying thing is that most of the shows I actually want to watch are scheduled either directly against each other or on nights when I'm out, and the shows I can get reliably OnDemand are the ones higher on my priority list, where I'd either watch them live or would want to watch that same night instead of waiting until the next day. That's going to have a lot to do with which new series I decide to try. I think I've been burned enough by abrupt early cancellations that I'm really leery of trying new things. Which will probably be good for my writing productivity.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Repeating Myself

I have a feeling this is going to be one of those weird weeks when I have trouble keeping up with what day it is. It started when I had to go to the church and sing in the choir for a funeral on Saturday, which made the day feel like a Sunday. So then I had to remind myself on Sunday that it was actually Sunday and not Monday. But then Monday felt kind of like a Saturday. Now it's Tuesday but it feels like a Monday. Having ballet tonight should help because that will remind me that it's Tuesday (though I'm still getting used to ballet on Tuesday instead of Wednesday), and then choir Wednesday should get me back onto schedule.

I had a weekend that was a nice mix of lazy and productive. I wrote about 2,000 words on the new book, just playing around with different possible openings, and I did a lot of brainstorming. But then I also got in some quality lying around on the sofa time. I did a mini Amy Adams film festival, watching both Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Enchanted. By the way, did you know that in addition to her brief recurring role on The Office as Jim's girlfriend who made Pam jealous, Amy Adams also appeared on Buffy? She played Tara's bitchy cousin who tried to guilt-trip Tara into going home with her family (in one of the lamest payoffs to an ongoing hinted-at mystery ever). I guess she's a movie sweetheart, but a TV villainess.

Today, I really plunge into writing this new book, and I'm excited. I was even dreaming about some of the characters over the weekend, which means they've really come to life for me. I'll be doing a little more experimental work on the opening to make sure I've got the right tone and feel, but I'm pretty much living those opening scenes in my head, so I think they should be easy to write.

As I write more books, I'm finding it harder to come up with character names and descriptions without repeating myself. I know I have a fondness for dark-haired, blue-eyed men, going back to my crush on Speed Racer when I was about four. Owen has become kind of iconic as my ultimate dark-haired, blue-eyed man, so I feel like I really ought to get away from that type for a while so I don't risk the next guy being seen as Owen 2.0. And yet I keep seeing the main male character in this new book as being dark-haired and blue-eyed. I've tried to change his eye color several times, but in my mind's eye his eyes keep turning blue again. In my head, he looks very different from Owen because he has a different physical build and a different face, and his eyes are a different kind of blue, but those are nuances I'm not sure will come through in words. I can't exactly put in a footnote saying "By the way, he looks totally different from Owen. Really." I guess I'm afraid of being accused of writing the same character over and over again and just changing the names.

Speaking of names, it's hard not to repeat yourself, and it's even harder to avoid names that are similar to or the same as people you know in real life -- not full names, but first names. I named a major character in this book, and it was cool how much symbolism ended up associated with that name that totally played into the story. And then I realized it was the same first name as one of my close friends. I can't believe the connection didn't occur to me for so long. It is a fairly common name, but I have noticed that there's a tendency for people to try to find themselves in books written by people they know (stop it, you're not in there, really). Fortunately, I don't think this particular friend would do that, and I will warn him ahead of time that there is a character with his first name, but it has nothing to do with him, and I think the character is different enough from this friend that I don't think my other friends will see any connection. If I can't use first names that people I know share, then I will rapidly run out of things to name characters. I'll have to stop writing contemporary fantasy and go to epic fantasy where I can use long, pseudo-Celtic names full of consonants, and I'll know that no one I know will have those names.

But I'll still be tempted to repeat names, because sometimes there are two different characters who perfectly fit the same name. I had to adjust for the heroine of this book because for one thing, a TV series has used the name I'd been saving for her (first and last), and then I used that first name for a different character in another book where it probably fits slightly better (thanks in part to that TV character with the same last name). But now I've seen that there's a character in a show I don't watch with the same first name I decided to give her instead, and that character has a similar physical description and is from generally the same geographical region. I may have to watch that show, just to see (I'm basing this on something I saw in TV Guide), but I think my character is different enough, and has a different last name, so the first name shouldn't be ruled out entirely and I don't think I'd be accused of copying. If I can't use first names from people I know or from TV characters who might be somewhat similar, or from other books I've written, then I'm really in trouble.

And now to take care of a few things so I can get to work this afternoon and plunge into this book!

Friday, September 04, 2009

Virtual Vicarious Vacation Friday: New York

I'm still playing with the idea in development, and I've found that for this stage of work, it actually helps to have some kind of background noise going. When I write, I like absolute silence, but for brainstorming, having the TV on in the background seems to distract the conscious brain so the unconscious can play. However, some of the ideas I've played with will now require additional research, but it's more the kind that just requires a few Internet searches, not a library trip.

When I went out to get ingredients for my Southern Church Lady funeral food baking yesterday, I also ran by the nearest Half-Price Books, since it's extra 20 percent off weekend (which started yesterday), and I managed a huge find, an out-of-print book I've been dying to find for ages. It's so out-of-print that I don't think there's even a cover or information posted on Amazon, and I'm not even sure it was ever published in the US. I'd almost given up ever finding it, but I still automatically check whenever I'm in a bookstore. The weird thing was, I found it in a section where I wasn't expecting to find it -- in the mass-market paperback section instead of in trade paperback (so I think maybe it's a British edition, since I'm pretty sure that if it was published in the US, it wasn't published in mass market, and the store's scanner wouldn't read the bar code on it). Even better, I saw a lovely example of customer service at the store. Usually, they do the thing where they keep one line for two registers, and just take the next customer at the register that comes open, so I got in the line behind the first register. The lady at the other register waved over the person at the front of the line I was in, and then all the people in line behind me rushed over to that other register. I was mildly miffed because even if the store wasn't officially doing the one line to feed both registers thing, it was still a bit rude to essentially line jump and go from the end of the line to the front of a line, but it's not that big a deal, so I didn't say anything. Imagine my surprise when the bookseller cheerfully informed the next person in line that I was actually next and had been waiting longer, then signaled me to come over.

Now I'm trying to decide whether to indulge myself in reading the new book this weekend or to save it for my fall vacation so I have something to look forward to. I just got a ton of books from the library, so I may save it for vacation, since I love having something to anticipate.

But now, for some pictures from the New York trip. I'm still getting used to the digital camera, and while it's handy for instantly having something to post online, I think for any serious vacation photography I may also use film and my old 35mm. The LCD screen is difficult to see in sunlight, and strangely, I find it more awkward to work the smaller camera than I do the larger one (which is contoured with a hand grip). It was raining for most of the trip, and it got very hard to juggle the camera and an umbrella, so a lot of the shots are at wonky angles or very dark (because it was rather cloudy). Here are a few that don't require clean-up and that don't have anything to do with the content of the book I was researching (that I know of, since you never know).

First, after that week's Warehouse 13 episode (and that show has really grown on me), I found the Alice statue in Central Park rather amusing. I wanted to warn all those parents having their kids climb on the statue for pictures to keep their children away from the dangerous psychopath.

You can see here what a gorgeous day it was -- crystal blue sky as the backdrop to the Bethesda Terrace fountain in Central Park.

And then things were very different the next day. I ventured down to the bottom tip of Manhattan and found yet another reason why this was a good setting for a hidden magical corporation. You never know what you'll find tucked away in some corner. There were all these corporate headquarters type buildings, and then this block of little old buildings that looked like something you'd see in Amsterdam. I don't know for sure what these buildings were, but I suppose they could be a holdover from the New Amsterdam days.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Small-Town Friendliness (in the city)

This is turning out to be a rather unproductive week. I don't feel like I'm getting much done, but then I have to remind myself that I'm in brainstorming mode, so it's harder to track when I'm "working" because it's running constantly in my subconscious. Still, I'm not exactly focusing, and I have had a lot of non-writing work to do. Sometimes the administrative/business stuff just has to be dealt with. I think I could also have some lingering tiredness/stress from being out of town two weeks in a row, with back-to-back trips.

There is a holiday weekend coming up, but I will probably still be doing brainstorming. That's work that doesn't really feel like "work," and I will allow myself some rest time, as well. The one thing on the calendar is that I have to sing for a funeral on Saturday. It's for the husband of a choir member, so the choir is singing, and it's also my time to be a good Southern Church Lady and bring food for after the service, though they just want dessert, which is right up my alley. I'll have to think of what to bake.

It's funny, I was so eager to get away from a small town, and I've found myself right back in that environment. I officially live in a rather large city, but my neighborhood is on the edge of the city and somewhat isolated from the rest of that city, so it's more a part of the adjacent small town, and even in the school district of that small town. That town is where I go to church, take ballet and even do a lot of my shopping. Mind you, this "small" town is more than ten times the size my hometown was when I lived there, so it feels like a metropolis in comparison, and I think I'm getting the positive aspects of small-town life with the convenience of a big city.

Speaking of small-town things like friendliness, I don't know if it was my Southern Belle aura, the weather, the economy or the fact that all the grumps went out of town, but I found New Yorkers to be almost alarmingly friendly last week. Not that I've ever really found them to be as rude as the general popular image would have them be, but I had far more small-town-like encounters on this trip than ever before, like strangers just suddenly starting to chat. I ended up chatting with the guy at the table next to mine at a restaurant, walking for a while and chatting with a lady in the park, having brief conversations with people on the street, etc. Meanwhile, I guess my invisible "Need Help? Ask Me!" sign was working. I helped someone at the airport figure out the train system for getting into the city, helped someone on the train figure out how to get to the subway, helped someone else in the train station find the right subway line, helped a blind woman across the street, helped lots of people find various landmarks in Central Park, and even was approached by someone asking directions in Spanish. Now, I do speak Spanish (more or less), but I don't think I really look like the person you'd approach in a crowd and expect to be able to understand Spanish. The one thing I wasn't asked to do that I'm usually asked to do was take a picture of someone in front of some landmark. I guess I blend in well enough as a local that people assume I know where things are and how things work, but I still come across as friendly and approachable. In the case of the blind woman, I guess she must have just got a vibe that someone nice who wouldn't mug her was nearby (and I even have experience escorting the blind because I volunteered for blind student services in college. Mostly that meant I read textbooks on tape, but sometimes I had to administer exams by reading questions out loud, and then the students would usually get me to escort them to their next classes afterward).

While I was enjoying myself wandering around in the rain, it occurred to me that as much as I love rainy days and especially rainy days in the city, I don't think I've written very many. The only one in the Enchanted, Inc. series that I can think of was the freezing rain/sleet/snowstorm in Once Upon Stilettos. And I think it was a kind of grey day at the end of Damsel Under Stress. Otherwise, it seems to be a perpetually sunny day in my head. Even in the book I'm brainstorming, I keep seeing everything happening in the sun. That may be smart because while I think of rainy days as happy, not a lot of people do, so if I want the scene to be happy, I need to go with the kind of imagery normal people associate with happiness. There's a different kind of mood associated with rain imagery. I suppose I could make it a character quirk that one of my characters is happier on rainy days and use it that way, but in general, if I want to show a day where everything's going right, it probably would need to be sunny to get the right mood across.

Now, though, I hope the forecasts are accurate and we get those rainy days they're forecasting for the weekend.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Research and Procrastination

This is not turning out to be a very productive week, in spite of the enormous to-do list. I guess I'm still a bit tired, and the to-do list is time-consuming and distracting. I think my subconscious is also in high gear, which makes me inefficient in anything requiring logic or focus. I did start trying to outline the plot of the Misty Idea yesterday, only to realize that even though I have the opening scenes mentally written and the ending planned, I had no idea what happened in between. There was nothing to stop the book from ending in chapter one. So I need to think of what obstacles there might be for the characters to overcome on the way to the ending.

This week's writing topic is a timely one for me, as it represents my current work phase. Research is a double-edged sword for writers. On the one hand, good research is absolutely essential in writing a book. Bad research can derail your plot (if you find out along the way that the thing you've pinned your plot on is actually impossible), and it's one of the big reasons for readers throwing books across the room or giving scathing reviews on Amazon. Inaccurate information or just plain wrong facts will pull a reader out of a story right away. So you really need to do research. On the other hand, research can fall into the category of Advanced Procrastination Methods because it's something that looks and feels like work, so you can do it guilt-free, even though you're not actually writing. If you do it right, you can be "working" on a novel for years without writing a single word of the book, so you can feel like you're making progress without having to face that fear of failure (or of success) that comes with actually translating all those thoughts and ideas into words. Even after you start writing, research can sidetrack you. If you get stuck, then you can spend hours looking up that one little fact to make sure a throwaway line is accurate, and it still counts as work. Then again, getting the facts right is essential.

I tend to think of research as coming in two phases. The first phase is preparation research, and it comes before you start writing. That's when your story idea is still vague enough that you aren't entirely sure what will happen, and you need the research to let you know what's possible or impossible in the realms your idea covers. That can include setting, time period, technical information, careers, folklore, etc. Even if you're not writing fantasy or science fiction, you're still building the world of your story, and learning about these things can give you ideas that may shape your plot. You need to find out what can't happen, but knowing what can happen can give you all kinds of ideas for story possibilities. You may not use all or even most of what you discover in this research, but it all goes into the idea generator in your subconscious, where it will go on to affect your story as you write it. This research can include online searching, books, blogs by people like your characters, personal interviews with experts and visits to locations.

One thing I also like to do in this phase is look for the most common or famous pop-culture representations of what I'm writing about, both classic and current. That's not because I use someone else's fiction as a research source (a big no-no), but because I like to get a sense of what the general public expectations are in this area. Considering that during jury selection they make a point of talking about how the real world doesn't work like TV crime shows and juries can't hold real-world police departments to the standards of TV cops who can get DNA results in half an hour that firmly pinpoint the killer based on one hair left at a crime scene, what people think they know can affect the way they view things. There may be about 10 percent of the readership who will know or care about the real way things are, but about 90 percent of the readership will expect things to be a certain way based on what they've been exposed to, and may even think that the real information is false. Not that you should go with what isn't right just because that's what people in general think they know based on what they've read or seen on TV, but I think it helps to be aware of what expectations you may be dealing with. You can even refer to those expectations and compare them to the truth. For instance, if you're writing a mystery novel, your cop characters can joke about how they wish they were TV cops who could get DNA results in half an hour instead of having to wait six months because the crime lab is so backed up. I don't know what you'd do, though, in a historical novel where your characters won't know what people in the future will think about them based on movies or books.

It is easy for all of this pre-writing research to become a procrastination tool to avoid starting to write the book -- and that's actually a good thing, up to a point. I have learned the hard way that the ideas I don't have to research because they're based on stuff I already know or have already researched, so I can just plunge in and write, never come out well. I'm going with the first thing that comes to me, so there's no real depth or complexity, no refreshing surprises. The process of researching before writing doesn't just load your brain with information it can use, it also serves as a way to distract your conscious brain so your subconscious has room to work and mull over and develop the idea. More time to think before I write means a better book.

Up to a point, of course, because eventually you do have to write something if you want it to be published. How do you draw the line between the good procrastination to give the idea time to percolate and develop and the bad procrastination that keeps you from writing? One thing to do is make a checklist of the things you need to know to write the book. You may add to the list as you research and come across something else you need to know, or you may delete from the list as you realize that a certain topic is irrelevant. Once you've checked off everything on your list, you should be ready to start. You may still find new sources and continue to do research as you write, but the list lets you know if you've covered everything so that going beyond that is just procrastination. You can also set a start date based on the amount of research you have to do. Between now and that start date, you can do all the research you want, but you have to start writing on that particular date -- and you can't start before (which usually has me eager and excited for the start date). How long you need for research will depend on the topic. If you're writing a historical novel set on another continent in another century, it's going to take you more time to do the research than if you're writing something set in the present in your hometown where your characters have the same career you do (though there I'd recommend getting some other perspectives and viewpoints instead of focusing entirely on your own experiences).

The other phase of research involves finding individual facts either as you write or as you revise. That's the nit-picky stuff -- exactly how many miles from point A to point B, is there a flight to or from that location at that time, about what does it cost to buy that thing, what does that really taste like, etc. This can easily become a procrastination tool if you're stuck in the story and suddenly that one little fact becomes the most important thing ever. My general rule of thumb is to stop to do research only if the answer to the question will affect the way the plot goes. Otherwise, it goes on the list of things to look up before doing revisions. It's amazing how something that seemed so important at the time and that could have killed a whole writing day can actually be dealt with in a couple of words after a quick Internet search when I force myself to wait.

Then again, this could be another time when your subconscious needs to send your conscious brain off on an errand so it can figure out the problem. You need to learn to recognize the difference between not being sure what should happen (which may mean allowing yourself to go down the research rabbit trail for a while) and a plain old case of the don't wannas where you'd rather do anything other than write, either out of laziness or fear. This is another case where a deadline and firm goals can help. If you give yourself a tight deadline or a production goal for the day, you'll force yourself to decide whether that procrastination is necessary or a hindrance.

And I may have just gotten myself blacklisted from being allowed to give writing advice by actually advocating procrastination as a good thing. I feel like such a rebel.