Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Character Flaws

I must have been on fire yesterday because I wrote more than 6,000 words, and I didn't even spend that much time on it. I guess it was because I was at a part where I knew what would happen and had imagined the scene quite a bit. I think it still needs work, but the work is in the "I'll deal with it in revisions" category rather than in the "I have to get it right and figure it out before I can move on" category. I can see the end from here, though I'm not quite sure what happens next.

Now for the bi-weekly writing post ...

I've been thinking about character flaws and how important they are. It's important for characters to be interesting even if they're not likable (and when it comes to genre fiction, they should probably be likable or at least sympathetic). Strangely enough, having flaws actually works to make characters more likable. Would you really want to spend much time with someone who was absolutely perfect, who had no flaws and who always made the best decisions? Besides, if there's nothing wrong with the person at the beginning of the story, there's no room for growth.

There are several different categories of flaws. I'm not sure you'd really call these "flaws," but imperfections, handicaps or externally imposed limitations fall into one category. These work by building sympathy for the character. The reason I hesitate to consider these true flaws is that they aren't the character's fault, even though they do keep the character from being too perfect and these "flaws" can make a difference in how the story progresses. They can also lead to true character flaws, depending on how the character responds to them. Someone can be treated unfairly which isn't a real flaw because it's externally imposed, and if the person then grows resentful so that he becomes bitter and untrusting, then the bitterness and lack of trust are a real flaw. I wouldn't rely on something externally imposed as a character's sole "flaw" because it tends to create martyr characters or paragons -- the saintly blind person who sees more than those who have the use of their eyes, the physically challenged person who bravely overcomes his disability, etc. Or you get Cinderella, who is grimy and dressed in rags because of her wicked stepmother, but who, oddly, is totally untouched emotionally or psychologically by this treatment so that she never really feels like a real person.

Another category would be what I consider negative character traits -- things that are more like quirks than real flaws, like clumsiness, a caffeine addiction, a tendency to swear, habitual lateness, being a terrible housekeeper, etc. These kinds of things can work to humanize the kind of character who might otherwise fall into the too-good-to-be-true category. She may be rich and beautiful, but if she can't walk across the room without tripping over the carpet, then we know she's human and didn't get every possible advantage along with the wealth and beauty, so we know there's some justice in the world. But, again, you can't rely on this as a character flaw because it's superficial, and it doesn't create much of a story arc. I'm not sure you could get much internal conflict from trying to overcome clumsiness.

What I consider real character flaws, from a story perspective, are traits that cause characters to make poor decisions, something that can get them into real trouble and that they will have to learn to overcome in order to succeed. That would include things like fear, jealousy, greed, inability to trust or cowardice. Virtues can also become flaws when taken to extremes, like trusting too easily without discernment, being a perfectionist or being brave to the point of taking unnecessary risks. Be careful about what I think of as "job interview flaws," like the way job-hunting guides coach you to respond to the "what are your biggest flaws?" question by taking your strengths and turning them into flaws. It's not much of a flaw when your character's greatest flaw is that he can't see how awesome he really is. That might work if he's never been tested or has been too afraid to see what he can do, but if he's a hero who saves three lives a day and he's still wallowing in poor self esteem because he can't see his value to the universe, then he just looks stupid. I'm not even sure it counts as a real flaw in the person who doesn't have reason to know how awesome he is. He'd need another flaw to have a real story because you wouldn't want the climax of the story to be the character realizing that, hey, he has magical powers! His flaw might be instead that he doesn't trust in his own abilities, so he isn't willing to rely on his powers until he has absolutely no other choice.

The flaw is generally the basis for the character's internal arc, the thing that's holding him back at the beginning of the story, the thing most likely to stand in his way in the struggle, and the thing he must overcome in order to succeed. In a tragedy, it's the thing that keeps him from succeeding. To use a Star Wars example, I would say that Luke's flaw is impatience, which includes an inability to just let go and let things happen. He overcomes it to trust in the Force and blow up the Death Star in the first movie, but in the second it becomes a tragic flaw -- he skips out on his training and tries to face Darth Vader before he's ready. He eventually triumphs by just letting go and waiting -- turning off his lightsaber and letting the Emperor attack him, which is what turns Darth Vader around.

If you have writing questions, please ask! I don't have a stockpile of ideas at the moment.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Book Report: Book Worlds Colliding

After spending yesterday avoiding going out, I got up early this morning and have already been to the scary place on the other side of the front door to do all my errands -- office supplies (and wow, but they just totally remodeled the Office Depot so that it's even more of a toy store for writers), a Target run, renewed my car registration and got groceries. I am so very together today.

I haven't been reading as much while I've been writing (it took me two weeks to read one book), but I do have a slight book report for this week, focusing on middle-grade fantasy.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago watching the movie Inkheart, and now I've read the book, by Cornelia Funke. I think they actually did a pretty good job of adapting the book, as far as script and casting went, though I still think there was something rather low-rent about the rest of the production. There's certainly more depth to the book, and the ending of the movie came about as kind of rushed, trying to tie up loose ends that seem to take place later in the series. In brief, the story is about a man who can bring people and things from a book into our world when he reads out loud. He wasn't aware of doing this, and he therefore also didn't know that bringing something in means sending something from our world into the world of the book. As a result, about nine years ago he inadvertently brought several of the villains and another character from a book into our world, and sent his wife into the story. The villains rather like it here and want more stuff from their world brought here, while the other character wants to go home, and this guy doesn't think he can do that. Most of the book is from the perspective of the daughter, who doesn't know what happened to her mother or why her father won't read out loud to her and who starts to learn her father's secrets when the book characters show up in their lives again.

While I really liked the book and plan to read the rest of the series, I still kind of think this would have been more interesting as an adult fantasy novel. The real heart of the story is the man's search for his lost wife, the character Dustfinger's quest to get home to the book world, and the book's author's realization that having created such perfectly nasty villains isn't necessarily a good thing when he has to come face-to-face with them. There's a lot of interesting thematic stuff to work with in there, like what's in the psyche of the author and having to face openly the darkest parts of his own brain. The role of the girl is more to just have someone to discover all the secrets as the story unfolds. But hey, it's all about bringing storybook elements into the real world, so I'm all over it, no matter which audience it was written for.

Then I read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and it certainly deserves all the awards it received. It's a truly lovely book. Basically, it's The Jungle Book but with ghosts. One night, a man kills the father, mother and child living in a particular house, but misses one member of the family, a toddler who earlier that evening figured out a way to climb out of his crib and go exploring. The child ends up in a nearby graveyard, where the spirits of his murdered parents beg the resident ghosts to look after their son. The ghosts hide him from the killer, then a couple who never had children in life adopts him, while someone who lives in the graveyard but who isn't dead (he's not really alive, either) takes on a guardian role and procures supplies. The child grows up in the graveyard, raised by ghosts, learning his letters from the tombstones, learning history from people who were there, and generally learning a lot of other skills that come in handy when he's older and the killer comes to complete the job. I had started reading this the night before and made the mistake of picking it up to read a bit last night during a snack break between finishing my medical writing and getting back to my book. The earlier parts were more episodic (one of the chapters was published originally as a short story), so I thought I could just read one "story" and then get back to work. Of course, that ended up being the point where it all started coming together, and an hour later I couldn't bear to face my own pitiful attempts at writing. One thing I love about Gaiman is that he knows how to end a book perfectly. I don't mean the way the story ends and everything wraps up. I mean the specific words that close out the book. There's something about his closing passages that makes them linger, so they seem to hang there, glowing in space like some kind of Cheshire cat, for a few seconds after you close the book with a sigh and the knowledge that there's no other way it could have ended and it's just perfect.

And then last night I had a freaky dream in which Terry Pratchett was my spirit guide, walking me through the world of my book and suggesting what I should do. Unfortunately, I don't remember what Sir Terry told me to do, but I seem to recall that even in the dream I thought his advice was a bit out there.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Collaborating with Myself

So, this weekend I was writing along, minding my own business (as well as the business of a number of imaginary people) when out of the blue, a scene hit me. I thought I had all the scenes until the end of the book planned, and I hadn't planned this one. It was just one of my rare sadistic moments when a nasty little thought came up from the depths of my subconscious -- it's like that weird impulse people who are afraid of heights sometimes get when they're in a high place, with that freaky little voice in the back of the head saying, "I wonder what it would be like if I fell" and for a split second, you're almost tempted to find out. Since I got the best aspects of the last book I wrote from going with that thought, I went with this one. I'm still not entirely sure this scene needs to be in the book, but some things came out from that scene that were interesting discoveries I want to play with, so I guess I needed to write it.

As a result, in spite of writing nearly 5,000 words on Saturday, I still didn't make it to the big scene I was planning to write. I also skipped a scene that I know needs to be there. I know what the outcome of that scene will be, and it's important for later scenes, but I don't know how that outcome is reached, exactly, and what else will happen in that scene.

I'm at about the 3/4 mark of the book, which is when the crazy starts to happen, so I get those odd little impulses like hearing someone say, "You're under arrest," in what was supposed to be a nice, heartwarming moment or having someone say, "They found a body," when it was supposed to just be ... well, I'm not sure what it was supposed to be because I never got there since I went with the impulse. It's almost like that game where you write a story in rounds, with each person adding a line, so that each person can spin the story off in a totally different direction. There's one of those essay type things that pops up in e-mail or on blogs every so often illustrating this, where the boy and the girl are having to write the collaborative story, so she keeps writing lines about having tea and talking, but then he has things like aliens attacking, and they're at war with each other over what kind of book it will be. I seem to be doing that with myself. I'll be going along with people having tea, and then suddenly shots are ringing out, people are getting arrested, the bad guys are attacking, etc.

In the Pantry Purging Project, I've now finished off some Arborio rice (risotto), more linguini, some tortellini (I love pasta), and some chicken stock (for cooking with the above). I'm at the point where I need to purchase some things in order to have the ingredients to cook with what I have left and to have balanced meals. I really need to go to the grocery store today, but am consumed by not wanting to. It's a lovely spring day so it will do me good to get out in the real world even though I'm in the creative phase where the real world is intrusive. However, I will have to wear contact lenses to drive, and it says something about the kind of weather we've had for the past many months that I've gotten out of the habit of wearing them (I mostly wear them to drive so I can wear sunglasses but can just wear glasses when it isn't sunny), so now my eyes object. I probably ought to get some prescription sunglasses so this won't be an issue.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Stuff

I really got back in the groove yesterday. I was rewriting a scene by putting it into a new document (somehow, that makes me feel less like I'm trashing what I already wrote), and then when I pasted it into the manuscript and replaced the old version of the scene, it turned out that I was about 3,000 words ahead of where I'd been. Meanwhile, I cut a huge chunk that didn't get incorporated into the new scene, so I must have written even more than that. I need to review the new scene in context, and there are a few things I need to look up and a couple of things I forgot to put in, but otherwise, I think it's heading in the right direction. I was up until well past midnight outlining what happens next. If I'm good today and get a lot done, then tomorrow I should get to write a big scene I've been looking forward to for a long time. Tomorrow should be productive, as I've decided against going to a writing group meeting (there are times when writing is more important than talking about writing, and I spent last weekend talking about writing) and have declined a social engagement. I always have my best productivity when I know I've given something up in order to work. I guess I feel obligated.

Meanwhile, I seem to have developed a strange new pattern. Normally, I write best in absolute silence or with instrumental/ambient type music (nothing I can sing to). I don't remember how it started (probably a procrastination tactic), but yesterday I opened iTunes and put it on shuffle, and I ended up getting a lot more done. I would hit skip if it came up on a song that annoyed me, and I may have paused to listen when it hit a song I really liked, but that seemed to make the writing time fly, and the words appeared. There were a couple of weird moments, like when a song from my "soundtrack" came up just as I was writing the scene it went with -- and I was using the whole library on shuffle, not the soundtrack, so it was totally random.

In other news, Amazon's shipping continues to be a source of amusement. I placed an order on Tuesday, and as usual, the default was to the "saver" shipping, where it's not quite get it the next day, but it's a lot faster than the free shipping, and when I clicked on the free shipping, it gave the shipping date as nearly a week later, with shipping time around five days. I didn't have a deadline, so I went with the free shipping. The package arrived yesterday -- two days after I placed the order. I'm not sure how the slightly faster 2-3 day shipping could have improved on that, and the super-special express shipping would have had to involve time travel or teleportation to be that much faster. I think they must stretch their projected shipping date when you choose free shipping (it definitely changes when you click on that) to make you think you need to take the paid option if you want to see your order within a month.

Finally, I'm starting to warm to the idea of spring. I wasn't psychologically or emotionally ready to give up blankets and sweaters, and then last week just as I was starting to like the idea of warmth, we got another snowstorm. But now it's creeping up on me again. The Home Depot ad in the paper yesterday got me started thinking about plants and maybe doing some window boxes with flowers and some other container gardening. We have a tendency to get an Easter cold snap, but the long-term forecast shows Easter being warm, so winter weather really may be gone. As part of my break when the book is done, I may fix up my patio for outdoor living.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Subconscious Shenanigans

I had another one of those days when my subconscious outwitted me. I've been struggling with a scene that I wrote one way, then realized it was all wrong, but I couldn't figure out how to fix it. I'd keep working on it, only to hit a wall at the same point. Yesterday, I was working on it and I actually fell asleep, right there with the computer on my lap desk. It wasn't deep sleep, just enough to be sort of daydreaming, and in that daydream I figured out what the end of the scene should really be. From there I figured I had more thinking to do, and I was worried about dropping the computer, so I put it back on my desk and settled down for some more brainstorming, interspersed with drowsing (hey, Edison did it, it's a wonderful way to tap into the subconscious), and I came up with something really cool. If I'd forced myself to keep writing instead of giving in and letting myself nap, I would have probably missed this major character turning point.

Meanwhile, it finally dawned on me why I got so sidetracked mentally by watching Aliens: the relationship between the two main characters in the book I'm working on is essentially an Aliens relationship. It's not overtly romantic, and the characters may not even be thinking in terms of romance, but it still hits a lot of the same "beats" as a romantic subplot. There are scenes that correspond to scenes that would be there if the story was really a romantic one, though they aren't romantic. The characters do recognize each other's strong points and find things to admire about each other. But they're in a situation where you'd think less of them if they were actually bothering to pursue a romantic relationship. There's a big issue relating to the plot, and then there's the context, where they both have much bigger priorities at the moment. You might imagine that there's potential there for later and that what they're dealing with now will give them a strong foundation for anything that does develop, but right now, it's not gonna happen and can't happen.

Realizing that made me go back through and re-analyze what I'm doing. I'm finding ways to strengthen those key scenes that maybe give that subtext hint of possible romance. I guess I already knew this was going on, but I hadn't thought about it. I have found that when I glom onto something like that and get very distracted by it, it usually is because it relates to something I'm working on, and once I figure that out, the distraction dissipates.

Now I think maybe I can stay awake and focused long enough to finally rewrite this scene.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The James Cameron School of Writing

Alas, my "ruling the Internet" powers were not as strong as I hoped, and my friend didn't win the baldness contest. I suppose I can count this as a trial run on that Ongoing Plan for World Domination, which means I may need to go back to the drawing board. And maybe recruit more minions.

Just catching part of Aliens on TV Sunday got that story stuck in my brain, and it's had me pondering quite a bit. I may be one of the few people in the world who hasn't yet seen Avatar, which is odd because I'm actually a fan of James Cameron's work. I probably would like it. I know he generally gets categorized as making movies full of spectacle but with weak scripts, but when I really look at the storytelling in his films, it works. I don't much remember the spectacle and the effects. It's the characters that haunt me, and I think it's because the best of his movies have characters with stories that extend beyond the movie and leave you thinking about what comes next for them (or, in the case of The Terminator, what happens before/after, since it gets all wibbly wobbly, timey wimey). These stories are also about transformation, and that's a very powerful theme.

The Terminator is a transformation story, and also something of a coming of age story. Sarah Connor transforms from meek and mild waitress to kick-ass warrior woman, and it's also a powerful love story in that part of this transformation comes about because of a man who sees the kick-ass warrior woman in the meek and mild waitress. He doesn't transform her. He just sees her potential, shows her the potential, and teaches her a thing or two about high explosives. And isn't that what we all want from the people who love us? Okay, maybe not the high explosives part, but we want people to see the best in us, to maybe even recognize aspects of ourselves that we don't appreciate. We want someone who thinks we're beautiful, even first thing in the morning, or who thinks that we really can conquer the world, even when we're not feeling really brave. That's the same essential story that was told in Titanic, only without the explosives, and I think that's the part that had teenage girls going to see the movie again and again. Yeah, Leo Whatshisface is cute (though I'll take Michael Biehn's Kyle Reese over him any day), but I think that idea of having someone see past all your fears and barriers and recognize something extraordinary in you so that you then become extraordinary is an incredibly compelling romantic fantasy.

There's an element to that in Aliens, as well. Ripley's already pretty extraordinary, thanks to the first movie, but she's had her confidence shaken. The bureaucrats undermine her by doubting her story, and her constant nightmares make her feel afraid. Then she runs into two people who believe in her. There's the little girl, Newt, who trusts Ripley more than she trusts the whole squad of marines, and there's Corporal Hicks, who from very early on seemed to take her seriously and regard her as someone who knew what she was doing, even when she was doubting herself. It's not so much about transformation as it is about reclaiming her awesome.

Then there's that sense of the characters' lives extending beyond the movie, so that you find yourself thinking about them and wondering what happened to them. For purposes of this discussion, I'm disregarding sequels that didn't involve Cameron (besides, there were no sequels to Aliens. They Do Not Exist). After the first Terminator, you know that Sarah's pregnant, and there's that "ooh!" moment of realizing that the John Connor Kyle Reese idolized was his own son, and you know because of what Kyle said that Sarah brought John up, training him to fight. But I, at least, was curious about what their lives would have been like, how things went once the war started, how John would deal with meeting Kyle, if Sarah really would tell her son about his father, if John really knew, how Kyle grew up, etc. There were dozens more stories to be told that went untold, and that left a lot of room for the imagination to play. Even after the second movie (which I didn't like as much), when it looks like they've averted Judgment Day, you're left wondering what their future really will be like. Without the war, what will become of John? Will Kyle exist? Does this create a time paradox, or is it merely multiple timelines?

Aliens is essentially about the formation of a family. Mostly, it deals with motherhood, with the primary conflict being between Ripley and the alien queen and Ripley's primary goal and promise that she absolutely must keep being to save the little girl and not leave her behind. In the extended edition, we get more of that, with the scene showing Ripley learning that her own daughter died while she was lost in hypersleep and her realizing that she broke her promise to be home for her daughter's eleventh birthday, fifty-seven years ago. But there's also some family imagery going on, with Hicks being the one to find Newt in the first place and seeing that it's a little girl, not a threat. He's the one to bring Ripley in to deal with her, and it's the two of them working to get her. Later, there's the scene where Ripley and Newt are trapped in the medlab with the facehuggers, and after the marines come to the rescue, there's a shot of Ripley and Newt clinging to each other while Hicks has his arms around both of them.

What's really fun about this movie is how romantic it manages to be on a subtext level with no overt romance at all. It hits all the beats of a romantic story, but with scenes that are appropriate to the context. We see them noticing each other near the beginning, he's protective of her and realizes she's afraid without putting her down for her fear while also recognizing that she is capable. They bond somewhat over the girl, then later they come together as a team in making decisions about what to do. In the spot that in a lot of movies would be the first kiss or first date scene, there's the scene where he gives her the tracking bracelet so he can always find her, with the quip about it not meaning they're engaged (though it totally does). In the spot where there would usually be the sex scene, there's the scene where she asks him to kill her before letting the aliens have her, and he promises that if it comes to that, he'll kill them both (he makes a commitment to her!), and then it gets "physical" when he teaches her to use the rifle, which involves him having his arms around her and her pressed against his body. And finally, in the extended edition, in the place where in most movies they'd be saying the ultimate I love yous, when she says goodbye before heading to rescue Newt, using his last name, he corrects her and gives his first name, and then uses her first name to tell her not to be long. The relationship has gone from professional to personal.

I think that this subtext relationship that's appropriate to the context is in a lot of ways more interesting and emotionally compelling than an overt romantic relationship would have been. For one thing, if they'd taken the time to have sex or make out instead of learning to use the weapon when they were surrounded by hostile aliens, the characters would have been too stupid to live. For another, it again gives the imagination something to play with, as we can think about what might happen after they get home (and they do get home because the sequel Did Not Happen). You can see where they've already formed a family that you expect will last because it was formed in fire. They may have to get to know each other as people, but they already know each other's essences because they've seen each other in the worst possible circumstances. The relationship between all three of them seems to have a life beyond the movie.

And now I need to figure out how to do this.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Now the Week Begins

First, if you haven't yet voted for my friend Jimmy in the March Baldness competition, they changed the link, so I think this one should be working now (I just checked it). Come on, Army of Minions, vote Jimmy in Arlington! (And, gee, if I can't get people to click on an Internet link, how can the publishers think I can get people to buy books?)

I was feeling down on myself for not getting much work done yesterday, but then I remembered that I'd worked all weekend, and it was all very intense thinking. I took nearly 40 pages of notes. I needed a break! I did manage to get my medical writing done (funny, but the medical writing is easier on my brain than writing fiction) and did some brainstorming, but trying to write made my head hurt. I think I've got it figured out to go forward today, so maybe I'll catch up.

I'm more in love with my characters now, which is kind of a good thing (kind of bad in that it will hurt me to hurt them, and I do need to make bad things happen to them). I just want to give them all hugs and tell them that everything really will work out okay.

The pantry clean-out may have to stop temporarily. I'm still finding ways to use linguini, since I love pasta, but I don't think I can face another dried bean for a while. I tried making Tuscan style beans, cooking them with olive oil, sage and garlic, but even after twice the recommended cooking time, they still weren't done. I thought maybe the beans were old, but it was still long before the expiration date on the package. Maybe after they're reheated they'll be softer. I'm starting to think they make better ammunition than food. Perhaps my stockpile wasn't so much for survival in terms of a food supply, but for ammunition in case of zombie attack. A straw or rubber band, and I'm in business.

And now I may do something really wild and crazy: work before noon!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Movie Monday

We celebrated the first day of spring here in north Texas with snow. Yes, more snow. And it's interesting how we always seem to get our snow on weekends when I've committed to do something that requires leaving the house. Nearly 90 percent of the year, weather isn't an issue for me because I don't have to go anywhere, but we seem to have bad weather on the few days when I really have to go somewhere. This time, it was a writing seminar, and I think I'm having trouble recovering because it was very intense and draining and my brain is now tired. I'm also having to rethink a lot of stuff about the current project, though the good news is that I'm on the right track and a lot of this stuff was already there. I just have to figure out how to work with it.

The seminar ended mid-day on Sunday, and oddly enough (this always seems to happen), some of the movies referenced as examples were on TV that afternoon and evening. Plus, there was a movie we were assigned to watch for the seminar. So, in spite of spending the weekend at a seminar, I have a good Movie Monday.

Our assigned movie was Lars and the Real Girl, which is one of those movies that isn't at all what it sounds like. It's about a very shy and damaged young man who orders one of those "real dolls" on the Internet and decides it's his girlfriend. Sounds a bit kinky and potentially raunchy, right? But it's actually a very sweet movie that's totally clean, and it's about people who go to church. The doll seems to be his coping mechanism for dealing with a world that scares him, and the people in his town go along with it, embracing "Bianca" and in doing so, help him learn to open up to people. I'd classify this as bittersweet comedy. There are some hilarious bits, like when he introduces his new girlfriend to his older brother, but even some of the funny stuff has a tinge of sweetness and sadness underlying it. It's very touching how the townspeople really get behind all this. I bawled all the way through it. It's very much a story about community. I checked it out of the library because it as assigned, but I may buy the DVD because this would fall into my category of "good cry" movies -- something cathartic and yet feel-good that allows you to cry without getting depressed.

The movie Aliens was brought up as an example of a sequel that worked because it created a totally different situation and an inner arc for the main character, and that was on Sci Fi yesterday afternoon. It seemed like they ran the theatrical version instead of the TV version that had all the added character stuff. I need the extended edition on DVD because I really love that movie. The later movies Do Not Exist because the entire story of this one was about saving the little girl, and they are not allowed to negate it by killing her between movies. So in my Happy Fun Denial Land, Ripley and Hicks are off bringing up Newt together in a pleasant place with no monsters. I think I even could have dealt with a sequel about them all settling on some colony together as a family and then having to bring the colonists together to defend the colony against the aliens. Okay, so we don't know for sure that Ripley and Hicks would have ended up together, but the subtext of most of their scenes had an almost romantic note. I've always loved the way their relationship was developed (especially in the extended version) because it's appropriate to the situation. When acid-bleeding alien monsters are after you, it's not the time or place to fall in love or think about sex, but you may notice and appreciate how the other person deals with the situation and you may form a team that could grow to something else when the crisis is over (and that's another reason to hate the sequel, because it means they didn't get a chance to see how they got along when the crisis was over).

I did flip during commercials to the Harry Potter marathon on ABC Family, mostly to giggle at the fourth movie, which is now mostly known for having a guest cast that went on to be far more famous for entirely different things. So we get to see the future sparkly vampire get killed by Voldemort (yay, Voldemort!) and we also get to see David Tennant being evil (and heavily caffeinated). Supposedly, they were going to have previews of the next movie during this marathon, but I never caught them.

And then Slumdog Millionaire was on HBO, after the seminar teacher talked about it in terms of arcs and structure. I wasn't expecting to like it, and I've never gotten around to watching it in its many HBO runs, mostly because I really loathe game shows, and I did just about have to mute those sections of the movie, but by the end, I was really caught up in it. I love it when you see multiple plot threads or timelines come together and when things that happened in the past pay off, so that aspect of the movie was a lot of fun. I'm not sure I would want to watch it again, but it was interesting to see.

On an entirely unrelated note, one of our radio stations here is doing a "March Baldness" competition, and one of my friends made it to Round 2. Voting ends Tuesday at 5 (Central time, I assume), so I thought I'd throw the weight of my legion of minions (okay, couple of readers) behind him. Go here and vote for "Jimmy from Arlington," the one with the tea light "devil" horns (I was there when that picture was taken).

Friday, March 19, 2010

Still More TV Laws

I'm going to have to do some revision on what I wrote yesterday because I had a scene go in an unexpected direction. A character I introduced in the scene turned out to be something very different -- and more interesting -- than I imagined, and that then created a better set-up for a later event in the book, and I was really excited about this. And then after I finished the scene, I realized I'd been so excited about all these developments that I'd kind of forgotten about the original reason for the scene and the stuff that was supposed to happen in it that had been set up in an earlier scene. The cliffhanger in the earlier scene showed the bad guys finding out that this scene was going to happen and heading off, but they never actually showed up. Oops. Well, hey, if I managed to write an interesting scene with conflict and tension without the main plot event, then when I add the main plot event it should be even better, right?

I've got a writing conference to go to this weekend, with a speaker who made my head explode (in a good way) when I heard him do a two-hour session. A whole weekend should be really mind-blowing, though it likely will mean me realizing I need to rewrite the whole book. And since I'll be out all weekend, I won't be doing any pantry cleaning cooking (though I've found several new bean recipes I'm looking forward to trying).

Meanwhile, I think I've officially hit the big time. According to Google Alerts, Enchanted, Inc. has been referenced in TV Tropes. Apparently, it's in an entry on gargoyles. I have not followed the link to read the actual reference because TV Tropes will easily eat several hours if you even go near the place.

In honor of that, I haven't done any Laws of the TV Universe in a while, so here are a few more, crime show edition:

1) Teenage girls are hazardous to your health if you're in danger, are in witness protection or are a fugitive. If you're a TV character who has to go on the run or go into hiding, you'd better hope you don't have a teenage girl with you because she'll be so worried about her social life, she'll give away your location to the bad guys. She'll call her friends or boyfriend, allowing the bad guys to trace the call and find the super-secret location, she'll sneak out to go to the party or the prom and then either get taken hostage or get followed back to the hiding place, or she'll try to sneak her boyfriend in, thus breaching the perimeter and creating a distraction for the security detail that allows the bad guy to sneak in during the confusion (after he followed the boyfriend or used the call to the boyfriend to find the house). TV teenage girls are more afraid of losing their social status than they are of being killed by organized crime hitmen, South American drug lords, killer robots, evil vampires or Al Queda terrorists -- even if they were there for the initial near-miss attack that led to having to go into hiding or on the run. Even if she's the one the bad guys are after, she won't be able to resist using the telephone just once, and it will never occur to her that the bad guys might be monitoring the people she's most likely to call.

2) On television, prostitutes are incredibly wise and insightful. They know everything about the human psyche, especially the deep-seated emotional needs of men, and about managing long-term romantic relationships. One arrested hooker being processed in a squad room can provide more counseling to every cop present than a whole team of police psychologists. A good TV hooker can save marriages, give potential couples just the little nudge they need to find true love, and help people figure out what they really want out of life. Apparently, in the television universe prostitution mostly involves listening to clients talk about their feelings.

3) TV cell phones are amazing. They work in a variety of places real-life cell phones usually don't -- in elevators and stairwells, in tunnels, underground, in interior corridors in high rises, in the middle of nowhere, on top of mountains, in people's downstairs bedrooms (or is that just my phone or my house? I'm not sure even a miraculous TV cell phone would work in my house.). They also never need to be recharged. A TV character on the run can talk on the phone for hours without having a charger handy.

UNTIL ... it's crucial to the plot for the character to be unable to communicate with anyone else. Then the character can stand under a cell tower and not be able to get a signal and the very act of placing a single call will cause the battery to die at a crucial moment in the conversation. If the situation could be resolved with a single phone call, the phone will not work. A cell phone can only work in a crisis if it somehow tips off the bad guys and makes matters worse.

4) In any series involving characters who work as partners and carry weapons, at some point in the series, the partners will draw guns on each other. It's inevitable. The reasons vary -- one partner may be acting crazy and about to do something that will jeopardize his/her career, one partner may be taking the law into his/her own hands so that the other partner has to do something to stop it, one partner may walk in on a situation that isn't what it looks like, or it may even be a humorous mix-up where they mistake each other for someone else. Still, you can pretty much bet on them holding guns on each other at some time, and that moment will very likely be the cliffhanger for either a commercial break, the end of the first part of a two-part episode or even the season finale. After the situation has been resolved, it will be entirely forgotten.

5) If you work in law enforcement on a TV series, at least one of the following will happen during the course of your career:
A) You will be the victim of a crime outside the scope of your duties -- you'll be stalked, robbed, beaten, raped, kidnapped, targeted by a serial killer, held hostage, be the victim of domestic abuse or shot in a non-job-related situation.
B) You'll have a case with a personal association, where a friend or family member is either the victim, a suspect or a witness, or else it will relate to some case you handled in the past.
C) You'll be framed for or falsely accused of a serious crime.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pantry Purging and Kitchen Creativity

I have discovered that raising the pillow level relieves the pressure on the sore shoulder, so this morning's mission was to buy a new pillow (my old one had squashed into flatness). It's actually feeling a lot better, so I think that avoiding heavy lifting is helping. I never thought that the Miss Piggy diet -- never eat anything you can't lift -- would do me much good, but I got a twinge from lifting a bag of M&Ms with the wrong hand, so maybe there's something to it.

Speaking of diet, I've been inspired by my mom to do a pantry and freezer purge. Apparently, I either lived through the Great Depression in a former life or am subconsciously an end-of-the-world survivalist. Or possibly I'm part squirrel. Whatever the cause, I seem to have a stockpiling habit. I've got a lot of meat in the freezer, all vacuum sealed, plus lots of berries and peaches. Then my pantry is full of non-perishables. The current project is to try to use up everything I have stored before I re-stock. I'm only letting myself buy dairy, fresh produce and staples like sugar. Otherwise, I have to get creative and create meals based on what's in the freezer or pantry.

In doing my pantry inventory, I've discovered that I seem to have a thing for linguini, or else I keep thinking I'm out of it because I have several packages of it. I also must think that pinto beans will one day be vital to my survival. Dried beans are one of the cheapest forms of protein. I guess I had a panic moment last year when I didn't have a lot of income and was trying to cut my food bill. But the problem with dried beans is that you have to plan ahead. They have to be soaked overnight, and then they take a couple of hours to cook. They don't work well for situations where you're standing in the kitchen at dinner time, trying to think of what to eat.

The fun thing about this project is that it's forcing me out of my dietary ruts. In order to use just what I have on hand, I'm having to find or create new recipes, and I've discovered some things I really like. Externally imposed limitations are sometimes wonderful for forcing creativity because they keep you from doing things you've always done or from going with your first instinct.

Now I just need to find or come up with a recipe that uses chicken stock, linguini and pinto beans.

Tonight's pantry-cleaning recipe: US Senate Bean Soup, from Joy of Cooking. It will finish off a packet of navy beans, plus use up onion, parsley, a potato and celery from the refrigerator, as well as some ham from the freezer.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Vivid Supporting Characters

I had one of those real-life experiences that ends up teaching a writing lesson not too long ago. I was taking my recycling to the neighborhood drop-off center, and there was a sign at the center mentioning the recent passing of the center's attendant. I felt a real pang of sorrow, even though this woman was someone I saw maybe twice a month for just a few minutes at a time. Still, she really stuck in my mind, so that when I read the note about her death, I could picture her vividly.

It occurred to me that this is what you want to do with secondary characters in a book. They may not play a huge role in the story, and they may not be all that important in the grand scheme of things or in the lives of your main characters, but you still want readers to remember them to the point that they'd feel at least a little bad if something happened to them.

This recycling center attendant had some very strong, specific traits. The main one was that she took her job very seriously, even though it was the kind of job a lot of people would think didn't amount to much. The center has a bunch of bins labeled for different kinds of plastics, different kinds of metals, different kinds of glass, etc. Patrons are supposed to sort their own stuff and put it in the right bins, and the attendant was mostly there to keep things neat, keep people from just dumping their trash in the bins and to keep people from stealing stuff. But this woman didn't just sit there. She'd get up and make sure you were doing things properly. The first time I encountered her, I just had a few things, so I had them all in one bag and planned to sort them out myself at the center. I'd only barely started when the attendant came up and took my bag and started doing the sorting herself. At first, I was a little taken aback and worried that I was doing it wrong and was being judged and criticized (but then I think my CD player is judging and criticizing me when it keeps flashing "please insert disc" while I'm still juggling with the case), but then I realized that she was being helpful while making sure things were being done just so and probably alleviating boredom. I became a lot more conscientious about separating everything because I knew the attendant would insist on sorting it all for me.

In a book, your supporting character may just have one role, and in that one role, the character will be more vivid if you give that character one clear, strong trait that is demonstrated through action -- such as a recycling center attendant who is a stickler for sorting as opposed to one who sits in her trailer and listens to the radio. You don't have to develop these utility characters much beyond that. I didn't know anything else about this woman, like where she was from, where she lived, what her favorite color was, her favorite TV show, etc., but I did know how she did her job in the area where our lives intersected. It works best with just one strong, specific trait for a character in a limited role. An attendant who hung around making small talk about the weather and trying to get to know all the patrons while taking their bags from them and doing the sorting herself might have actually been less memorable than someone who was brusquely helpful. Pick one trait and really work it. The key for this kind of thing is action. Don't tell us the kind of person it is. Show it in the things the person does and the way those things are done, and then let us draw our own conclusions (or let the viewpoint character draw conclusions).

The test of your supporting characters would be to look at them and see if there's anything memorable about them. Could you recall one defining trait? The other side of this is that it the way your main characters react to these supporting characters tells you a lot about your main characters and helps define them better. Meanwhile, when the supporting character is crystal-clear, the scene will be more vivid and exciting.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Back into the Book

I may have been boasting too soon about adapting to the time change, though I think this morning's late sleeping had to do with not sleeping well the night before, and for a change that wasn't because I was mentally writing (though there may have been some of that). I seem to have done something to my left shoulder, which has been a bit sore lately. At first, I was wondering why that shoulder, since I'm right-handed, but then in tracking my activity (which is easy when something gives you a twinge when you use it) I noticed that I use my right hand for fine motor skill type stuff, like writing or using a knife, but I use my left hand for anything involving heavy lifting. I also sleep mostly on my left side, in a position that hunches that shoulder into a funny position. So, I'm trying to be good and not use that arm much. I switched to canned milk with my tea so I'm not hefting the gallon jug of milk so many times a day, and I'm trying not to sleep on that side. Unfortunately, not being able to get into my favorite "ah, sleepytime" position is making getting to sleep difficult. Fortunately, this is spring break week, so I don't have ballet. That's not heavy lifting, but holding your arm out to the side and totally still for long stretches of time isn't easy.

Speaking of spring break, I'm planning to take one when I finish this draft. I'm setting Easter weekend as an internally imposed deadline. Then I'll take a couple of weeks mostly off. I'll be doing some prep work on the next project, but that will involve vast amounts of reading, both research non-fiction and fiction, and that's the kind of thing I can do at the park or in coffee shops or maybe on the train while I go have adventures. Otherwise, I'll do some spring cleaning, maybe get my new computer and get a new dishwasher. Then after the Texas Library Association conference I can dig into revisions.

But before then, I have to finish the book, and I'm ready to plunge back into writing today. I've totally rearranged my "soundtrack," and it's interesting how some songs that were on it no longer make sense for it (there were some plot threads I imagined that haven't come about) and how some songs that I initially put there now mean something else entirely to me, and changing the context gave me ideas for new scenes. I've also got the rest of the book more or less outlined, with some scenes clearer in my head than others. I may kill my first person (in a book, at least). But some of this new plotting kills my working title because it's all wrong for the tone I'm taking.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Monday Movies: For Kids?

Why is it that I cope better with the spring Daylight Savings Time switch than I do with the fall change that theoretically should be easier? This morning, I woke up earlier -- without an alarm -- than I did last week. I think DST just fits my body clock better. I tend to wake up at that same time, but it seems too early to get up, so I fall back asleep and then sleep a lot longer. With the time change, I can just get up when I first wake up.

There was nothing on TV this weekend, and I was brainstorming, so there was a lot of movie-watching going on, mostly as background noise.

Saturday night, I watched Monsters vs. Aliens, which is very much truth in advertising as it was about a group of monsters warehoused by the government who are then asked to help defend the world against alien invasion. It was cute, but with the Dreamworks films, I tend to get the feeling that they're trying too hard, with all the celebrity voice casting and a lot of the characterization coming from associations we're supposed to have with that voice, plus all the efforts to be hip and cool, with pop culture references and jokes intended to be funny for adults while they fly over children's heads. That really showed up in sharp contrast for me because I watched my DVD of Up immediately afterward. I think a lot of the difference between Dreamworks and Pixar could be summed up as irony vs. sincerity. Dreamworks makes animated movies that appeal to both adults and kids by having kid-friendly stories (usually with at least some bodily function humor) that also include voices from celebrities adults will recognize and character traits that are inside jokes based on the celebrity casting, along with double-entendre humor adults will get that kids won't. Pixar makes films that appeal to both kids and adults by finding universal themes that don't rely on age or current culture. You may approach it in a different way, so that it's an entirely different movie with a different impact depending on where you are in life, but it's still got an emotional tug for everyone, and they aren't afraid to go to that emotional place and wear their hearts on their sleeves. With the Dreamworks movies, I get the feeling that the people behind them would laugh at you if they knew you cried in the movie -- like "Ha! We totally got you!" but the Pixar people would be crying right there with you.

On an entirely different note, I watched Inkheart Sunday afternoon. This one was mostly interesting to me because of author geekery/ego (and the fact that I find Brendan Fraser in middle-aged dad mode even more appealing than he was in 20-something romantic comedy leading man mode -- though his romantic comedies did tend to be awful -- or in his action hero mode). It's hard to sum up this movie quickly, but Dad has the power to bring things from books into this world when he reads out loud, though something from this world may then be sent into the book world. When reading the book Inkheart to his daughter, he inadvertently brings the villains (and one other character) from the book into this world while his wife is sent into the book. Now, years later, he's on a frantic quest to find a copy of this out-of-print book to try to get his wife back, all while being stalked by a character who wants to go home and by the villains, who want to use his power to bring the Big Bad from the book into this world to give them ultimate power. To try to stop all this, they have to find the author and his original manuscript -- and then maybe rewrite the ending. There were sparks of utter brilliance in this, like having the various characters from a lot of (public domain) books interacting -- the good guys' team eventually includes one of the thieves from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, as well as Toto and some flying monkeys. Plus, there's Helen Mirren on a unicorn (which may become my new exclamation). This movie had the seeds of greatness in it, with an intriguing story and a cast loaded with Oscar winners and nominees, but I don't think it quite got there. In spite of the stellar cast, there was something kind of low-rent about it, but not intentionally or ironically campy (a la The Princess Bride). More like "ah, this is just a kids' movie" campy.

I did find myself kind of wishing for something like this on an adult level because there were some interesting thematic concepts I would have wanted to explore. The core of the story is two men wanting to be reunited with their wives, and those parts were really strong, and then it was like they remembered that this was for kids, so they had to move the kids front and center. I'll be checking the book out of the library today, so I'm curious how it works. And, oh dear, although this was a movie based on a book, there's a novelization of the movie, written by an entirely different author. Something tells me I may not recognize the original book.

You know, I got a whole series out of wishing there was something like Harry Potter, but for grown-ups and about adult issues and themes, so maybe I should put the subconscious to work here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Still More Thinking

I knew I'd get an answer on the music thing from among my readers. It was right there in iTunes, so I've now been able to cut out extraneous "bonus" tracks or retrieve good bonus tracks separately from the main tracks. It's not quite as successful with editing out annoying stuff from cast albums, but doing that well would require a split-second waveform view to find the precise edit point, and maybe a mixer board to fade out some and add a second or two of silence at the end, but this is at least as good as hitting "stop" on a tape when recording from a cast album. Now I can listen to Brian Stokes Mitchell sing "Dulcinea" without harshing my swoon.

Though I do wonder if these edits will work when burning a CD from a playlist. Since I don't have an iPod, I just do collections of MP3 CDs to play in the car.

It's been fun plowing through my music collection to reconsider it. I've gotten a little distracted from listening to Jane Monheit songs. Listening to her makes me feel like I'm sitting in a dark little New York jazz club with tiny tables scattered around the room, lit mostly by the candles on the tables. I'm sipping something involving vodka and fruit juice from a martini glass (or maybe champagne), I'm wearing a little black dress, sheer black stockings and killer heels, and I'm just sitting there, letting the music wash over me, feeling mellow and swanky at the same time. Yes, I do get all of that from listening to a song, and just that vividly. Too bad I'm still not really able to sing without coughing. It's very frustrating. I still have a voice (though it's getting rusty). I just can't manage more than a verse before the coughing starts. And, oh joy, the newspaper this morning had an article on what a bad spring this will be for allergies, since everything seems to be pollinating all at once. The spring allergens aren't as bad for me as the winter cedar/juniper type things are, but it doesn't sound like it will be fun.

I think I've got an idea for rewriting my cover copy, and I've got more ideas for the second half of the book. I just need to work out the specifics of the climactic scene. I know what will happen, but I have no idea how it should happen, and I need to figure that out soon because it will affect the events that happen leading up to it. I think some serious brainstorming is in order. I can do that while walking to the post office. Or flying to the post office. If I had a sturdy enough umbrella, this is the kind of day that I could Mary Poppins my way over there.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Soundtrack Evaluation

First, crowdsourcing a technical question:
Those of you who remember the pre-iTunes CD era and actually still listen to CDs produced that long ago will probably know what I'm talking about. For a while, it was the "in" thing to hide bonus tracks or "Easter eggs" in the last track of a CD. If you stopped the CD after the last song ended, you wouldn't hear it, but you left the CD playing, after a couple of minutes of silence you'd hear a bonus track or something like the band goofing off, the singer as a child in her first recorded performance, etc. When you were just playing CDs, it wasn't a huge issue because you could always stop the CD if you didn't want to hear that part, or you could just tape the parts of that track you wanted.

But with iTunes and playlists, etc., where you're stuck with the whole track if you want any of the track, those Easter eggs become very annoying. You don't really want to have a couple of minutes of silence and then some childish warbling stuck in the middle of your playlists. Or you want just the song and not the silence and then the bonus song, or you just want the bonus song instead of the "official" track and the silence in between. Is there a way to edit these tracks to create something playlist-friendly? I have several CDs where the final track on the disc is pretty much unusable because of the Easter egg silliness, and then there are the bonus tracks, like the lovely acoustic version of "Possession" (which I like better than the original) that's hidden behind the final track on that CD and which I'd like to be able to put independently on a playlist. There's got to be some utility that allows you to cut off the excess from a track and save it as an MP3. I suppose it would also be handy for cast albums when you just want the song and not the bits of the show they stick around it. For instance, on the CD for a recent revival of Man of LaMancha, there's a gorgeous version of "Dulcinea" sung by Brian Stokes Mitchell, but then on the same track they go into an interlude and then the villagers mock him in cartoonish voices, which ruins the beautiful song. I think there's one track on that whole CD that can be used as is on a playlist without it being utterly annoying because they stick too much extraneous stuff on each track. I've gone through most of the audio and movie-type utilities that came with my Mac, and there doesn't seem to be anything that works that way.

This was easier with reel-to-reel tape, splicing tape and a razor blade. I used to be really good at that.

This came up as I was reviewing my soundtrack for the book I'm working on and thinking about what else needs to go on it. I'm forcing myself to really listen to the current soundtrack and make notes about what that song really means about the story. I'm finding that I put some songs on the soundtrack because of an idea that didn't pan out. Then there are some that I put on for one reason, but now they mean something different entirely. That's given me some ideas for future scenes. I've got a whole page of notes for the second half of the book, so far.

I did find that there's an emotional current that really shows up in the soundtrack that isn't playing out in the book to that extent. I think part of that is because it's a feeling/issue that's had a lot of songs written about it, so I had more material to include in the soundtrack than I had for other aspects of this story. Plus, I tend to really like those songs, so I included all the ones that made me think/feel that way instead of picking a few that were very specific to what I wanted to convey. I think I also expected that aspect to progress further than it has at this point in the book, and I don't think it can progress quite as far as I expected in the second half without going too fast. Some of these songs are actually more applicable to the second book, if there is one. At the same time, it might not hurt to weave a little more of that into the first half of the book. I may have avoided it a little too much.

How's that for cryptic?

Okay, this is the romantic subplot, and I've mentioned previously how gun-shy I am about that. Because I used to write romance novels and because what people remember about my Enchanted series is generally the romantic subplot, editors seem to have me mentally classified as a romance writer. I even had a book proposal that I didn't think was all that romantic rejected by fantasy publishers on the grounds that it was too much of a romance, mostly because they seemed to assume that the fact that there were male and female protagonists and the synopsis mentioned the development of feelings meant the book would be basically a romance. So now I find myself going overboard to make it clear that This Is Not A Romance. Some feelings may develop, but there are a number of very good reasons why these characters aren't ready to act on these feelings. The romantic subplot mostly focuses around them trying to fight or deny their inner feelings while not showing any signs of having them and while being sure those feelings aren't returned. And there are a TON of songs along those lines. However, those feelings aren't developing at the pace I expected, and I don't think it makes sense to accelerate them. So I guess maybe this book won't get labeled romance. Yay.

Not that there's anything wrong with romance. But what I write isn't romance, and romance publishers aren't interested in it (because it's not romance, duh), so it's annoying when the fantasy publishers label my work romance and reject it on those grounds. Though I suppose they could have been being "nice" instead of just saying that I suck.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Creative Regrouping

The downside of a really productive day is that the next day is often kind of blank and unproductive. It's like I've run out of things to say and have to restock the word bank.

Meanwhile, I've reached the midpoint of the book, when everything changes for all the major characters. It's the point where their story goals expand and intensify -- they were after just one thing, but in going after that thing, they've discovered that there's something much bigger going on, and in order to achieve that initial goal, they'll have to deal with the bigger thing, and if they don't deal with the bigger thing, really bad things will happen, far beyond just the problem they were initially dealing with.

I also seem to be re-framing the overall concept of the book. Before I started writing, I wrote hypothetical back-cover copy for the book, and now it's mostly inaccurate. The main characters are more or less the same, but I seem to be emphasizing different aspects of the characters than the ones I played up in that back-cover copy. The initiating incident is the same, as is the main character's initial story goal. But the story is going in a somewhat different direction than I originally imagined and some of the motivations are entirely different. I also noticed last night when driving to and from ballet class that the "soundtrack" I created for this book (that's what I keep in the car stereo to help keep me inspired) now seems all wrong.

I think that means it's a good time to regroup and collect myself before plunging forward. I need to rewrite my hypothetical cover copy and maybe come up with a different soundtrack. Jennifer Crusie is big on collaging to help find the themes in a story, and I do have a photo that looks like my main character, but I suspect that plowing through magazines in search of other photos would be mostly a procrastination exercise and wouldn't lend much to shaping my concept of this story. The soundtrack, or auditory collage, does serve to outline and frame the emotional arcs of the story. So today may be something of a creative play day -- I may re-read what I've written so far straight through, rework my soundtrack, rewrite my cover copy and maybe do some brainstorming to outline the rest of the book.

In other news, and as a timely follow-up to yesterday's post, today I got an invitation from Borders to their New Moon DVD release party. I'm guessing that went to everyone on their list, or maybe everyone who's ever bought any kind of fantasy novel there, because I don't do vampires. I did read Twilight (I checked it out of the library) but I really didn't get it, so I've had no burning need to read the rest of the series and I haven't seen any of the movies. I am not the customer to target with that particular invitation, and about the only thing I've bought there that might possibly trigger the "you might like this" would be an Angel DVD box set I bought ages and ages ago.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

You'll LOVE This Post

I think I've figured out the writing-related insomnia situation. I don't think my muse is necessarily working the night shift. The problem only comes up when I reach a logical stopping place in the book and don't know what happens next. Even if I do some brainstorming and have a rough idea, I'll still find myself dwelling on that scene and seeing the movie of it in my head as I drift very slowly toward sleep. Quite often, that thinking will lead me off onto all kinds of random tangents, and eventually I'll get to sleep.

I'm not sure there's a resolution to the issue. Even if I got up and wrote the scene that was coming to me, I'd be left with not knowing what happens next, which would set the whole thing off again. Even if I know what happens next, in great detail, I'll find myself reliving the scene until I write it. Even after I write it, if it's not quite right, I'll worry over it until I figure out how to fix it.

It did seem to help to switch gears and read my epic reference book before I went to bed, so it only took about an hour for me to fall asleep last night. I hope I've got the next scene figured out. I guess I'll find out when I get there. After I fix the things I realized were wrong in the scene I just wrote. Though I don't think the polar bear actually has anything to do with it (just a strange dream that came from a weird chain of thought tangents. And no, it had nothing to do with Lost.).

In other news, I continue to be baffled at what passes for publicity and marketing in the book world. I've already commented at length on the silliness of the Borders "hand selling" initiative, in which booksellers are forced to push particular books on all customers, regardless of the customers' interests. I still do most of my book buying at Borders, and I'm in their loyalty program, since you don't have to pay to join and they give good coupons. But that means I'm also on their e-mail list, and while that's very targeted marketing, which is good because they can notify me of new books by authors whose books I've bought previously, there's a certain amount of tone deafness in the way they do it. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it a "blunder." Maybe it's more of a "gaffe."

I got an e-mail proclaiming "A new release you'll love by (author whose previous book I bought)." Except, although I bought that author's previous book, I didn't actually like it all that much. I'd heard about it and thought I might like it, but ultimately I was disappointed in it and had decided I didn't want the next one. I'm hearing that the new book is better, but I may wait to see if the library gets it. I'm certainly not rushing out in release week to buy it. Borders telling me I'd love it got my hackles up. It struck me as presumptuous -- I guess about as presumptuous as their employees sticking books in my hands and telling me I'll love them.

Amazon does a similar thing, but they strike a better tone without presuming what I'll think or feel about something. They go more along the lines of "as someone who has purchased (or browsed) this item, you may be interested in this new release." They leave it up to me to decide if I'll love it. It's especially important for them to be careful about this because they do include browsing and searching, and I use Amazon as a reference, so I look up all kinds of things that I'd never be interested in buying.

Having worked in marketing, I bet I know how Borders could have implemented something like this without it occurring to anyone that it might rub people the wrong way. In brainstorming sessions, there's a rule that you aren't allowed to criticize any idea that's thrown out there, which is good because you don't want to stifle creativity at that point. But once you take the brainstorming output and put it into real planning, you need a realist, and there's something about the culture of marketing firms where realists aren't valued. I don't know if it's the self-esteem culture that makes it seem like anyone who criticizes something isn't contributing to the team or just an overall cheerleading, team-building corporate environment, but the person who can find the possible pitfalls, play devil's advocate or insert reality into the proceedings gets labeled "negative" and will even be criticized for this in performance reviews. Never mind that the person turns out to be right and the customers point out the same things, it's still seen as negative and not team-spirited to criticize or find flaws. It should be better for someone inside the team to find those flaws so they can be corrected than to have customers complaining (or blogging) about them, but that doesn't matter when it comes to reviews that affect promotions or raises. So the realist in the group, if there is one, learns to keep his/her mouth shut and not say in the meeting, "But what if the customer didn't like the previous book she bought by that author? How can we guarantee she'll love the next one?"

Usually, focus groups catch this kind of thing, but the book/publishing industry seems to still be operating on instinct. And then they wonder why sales are down and why they're having trouble competing in the current entertainment realm.

But hey, at least I'm not working in a marketing firm anymore.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Hooray for Rainy Mondays!

I may be one of the few people in the world who absolutely LOVES rainy Mondays. I seem to write better on rainy days, and I hit Mondays all enthused to get to work and be productive. Rainy Mondays combine the two, for loads of fun and excitement.

I even got up early this morning, but that could have something to do with the fact that I went to bed really early last night. I had spent most of the day reading a rather epic reference book and I guess my brain couldn't absorb any more knowledge.

Normally on Mondays I discuss the movies I watched over the weekend, but I didn't do much movie watching. I saw most of 17 Again on HBO while I made and ate breakfast on Saturday, and I think it was cute, but barely remember much about it, other than the fact that I did like the "become a teenager again" story with the focus not being on reliving his own life. Plus, the teenager who acted like a dad was an interesting characterization (as opposed to the adult man who acts like a teenager). And I got a lot of giggles about the geek love in the subplot. I wouldn't have paid to see it, but for free it was mildly diverting.

Otherwise, I've been researching the next book I'll be writing, and I usually start broad and then narrow my focus once I know enough about the topic to know what to focus on. As a result, I've been plowing through the aforementioned epic reference. I've already renewed it once from the library, so I really must finish it this week, and it's more than 1,200 pages before it reaches the bibliography, index and references. Only a tiny portion of the book (that I haven't even reached yet) addresses the specific subject I'm researching, but I decided to read it all out of curiosity and because I thought it would be good to put my subject in context. And I'm glad I have read it all. I've learned a lot, in general, and I think having all that context will help me create a richer world.

And, yes, I'm being annoyingly vague, but I don't talk in specifics about works in progress, and even talking about what I'm reading will give a lot away.

Now to revel in my rainy Monday ...

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Insane Phase

I believe I have reached the stage of the creative process where I go mildly insane. This is actually a good thing because it means the subconscious is taking over and really cool stuff starts happening, but it can be rather annoying. For one thing, it means I don't sleep well. Last night, I turned out the light by 11:30 after reaching a stopping point on the book I'm writing and then finishing the book I was reading. I was still tossing and turning at 2, mostly because my brain suddenly decided to rework the scene I'd just written (it did need help) and then create the subsequent scene, which I must say I love. With this one, I was thinking in narrative instead of just seeing a mental movie, so I think I've even got the words to write this scene the way it went in my head. This may be the scene I do for readings at conventions.

I'm not sure yet if the late-night creativity means this is going to be a "night" book, but since I have nowhere I need to be tomorrow morning, I may try a late-nighter tonight (if I can keep my eyes open, since I got no sleep last night). I still haven't shed the corporate world mentality that it's somehow more virtuous to get up early in the morning than it is to stay up late at night, even if you spend the same amount of time working, so I feel like a slacker when I do the late-night work thing and then sleep really late. Never mind that this is my job and it's not like I have anywhere I need to be.

This is also a phase when the work becomes all-consuming, when I say I've fallen into a book or have book brain. I find it hard to get excited about anything else other than writing. The housework falls by the wayside, I live on frozen food or leftovers from the times when I remember to cook, and I have to set computer reminders to get things done. I should probably make an effort to stay in touch with the outside world, but going out to eat or going to a movie starts to sound less fun than staying home and playing with my characters.

Meanwhile, I occasionally find myself "channeling" my main characters. With one book that shall remain unpublished (though I've realized that a lot of elements from it are showing up in this one), I bought a lot of wild shoes I never would have considered otherwise (the holographic sandals have shown up at a convention, but they really hurt). Katie isn't different enough from my personality to really show up in the channeling, though I think my accent gets heavier when I'm writing her, and I may get snarkier. I should apologize in advance to my family and friends if I start channeling this character because she's kind of hell on wheels, in a very nice way. I think there is something I could learn from her, and it will certainly be useful in any negotiations if I can retain anything of her after I finish writing the book. Any editors who read the book should probably take it as a warning that they may find themselves dealing with this woman.

Now I think I should make a grocery run to stock up on quick-to-cook foods or dishes that will provide a lot of leftovers I can just throw in the microwave. I should also do a ton of laundry. And then I'll have to decide if I want to join some friends for a movie tomorrow or if I'll be lost in my own little world.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Culture and Motifs

I woke up this morning with the solution to a story issue I'd been wrestling with, so now I'm really looking forward to the "work" part of the day to see how it plays out.

I also woke up with a really strange mental grocery list because of a dream I had involving a frighteningly overstocked pantry, but that's beside the point. (And, if anything, my pantry is frighteningly understocked on everything but dried beans, pasta and chicken broth. It's the freezer that's overstocked.)

As long-time readers may have noticed, I can tend toward being overly analytical (no, really?) when it comes to fiction. I like analyzing things and finding patterns and meaning, and all that. I do it for my own work, and I do it for other people's work.

Which is why I loved this article by a Warehouse 13 writer on what he sees as the underlying motif and cultural appeal of the show. For those too lazy or busy to follow the link at the moment, he says that the warehouse itself, which is full of all kinds of random artifacts from throughout the world and throughout time, and which seems to be TARDIS-like in being much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside, is like a hard-copy version of the Internet. In our current culture, we have instant access to everything, all thrown together, and that's reflected in the show, where the Studio 54 disco ball can interact with Lewis Carroll's mirror to create a crisis.

This apparently wasn't a deliberate motif. It was something this writer realized while they were looking back at the first season as they went to work on the second season. I think, in general, if you set out to make a statement or have a particular theme or motif, it will probably fail miserably. If you've got something to say, it's probably in your subconscious and will come out accidentally. You also can't always deliberately plan to have something hit the culture at just the right time. With Warehouse 13, I don't think anyone knew that what they had was just the right thing at just the right time. It was fluffy summer filler that turned out to get the highest ratings ever on that network.

With books, it's even harder to hit with the right thing at the right time. It generally takes at least six months, but more like nine months to a year, to take a book from completed manuscript to published book. The book is usually bought a few months before that, and written months to years before that (unless it sells on proposal and is written after it's bought). You're lucky if what you've written hits the editors' desks at just the time they're looking for that sort of thing, but then the editors don't know when they're making those decisions if that really will be the sort of thing people will be looking to read a year later.

My books didn't exactly hit a cultural nerve, so maybe I missed there, but I think a subconscious motif did end up being woven through my series. Charles deLint saw it when he reviewed the first book and focused his review on that theme, then mentioned off-hand that the book was also funny. Meanwhile, I was trying to write something funny that ended up having some depth to it. I'm not sure what the cultural trend will be next or that editors will see it coming (considering they're still mostly looking for dark and gritty, in spite of the way things are looking in TV ratings and at the box office). All I can do is write what I want to write and see if there's a market for it.

I do know that I totally got my mom with a scene-ending cliffhanger I threw in. She had to call to tell me I'd made a mistake, and I just told her she hasn't read the whole thing. That means I got a good twist in there. Hee. And now to get back to work ...

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Day Before

I didn't think ballet was particularly hard last night, but this morning I hurt all over. I may have to wrap up in the electric blanket and use it as a full-body heating pad. Ouch. But hey, that means I'll likely get a lot of writing done because getting up and moving doesn't sound like a fun idea. I've reached a proverbial fork in the road and am still trying to decide what a character's next step will be. I suspect I'm going to have to go back and change one particular conversation earlier to set up what I want to do now. I'm so glad I don't have to write like Dickens and have my books serialized. I'd be in big trouble if the first chapters had already been published before I got to the end.

My writing topic this week is another one of those things where I don't consider myself an expert. I'm just throwing out some ideas I'm playing with. When we create characters we generally develop a backstory -- the relevant information about the characters' pasts that will influence the decisions the characters make during the story. For instance, he witnessed his parents' brutal murder when he was a child and that's what led him to fight crime. But does the character have what, for lack of a more precise word, I'm calling a "past"? Do we know what yesterday was like for him? I would argue that aside from the major turning point decisions, yesterday may be more relevant to the character's overall behavior than that childhood event is. He probably doesn't go through life thinking about his parents' murder. That may come up when he faces other crime scenes, but in most of his life, he's going to be thinking more about what happened yesterday or earlier that day.

To put it another way, my college acting textbook mentioned that when a character makes an entrance in a scene, he's simultaneously making an exit from some other scene we're usually not seeing. He doesn't just materialize from thin air right outside the door before walking in. The character is leaving some other place, where he was doing something else, and he left for a reason. He has attitudes and feelings about the place where he was, the place he's coming to, what he was doing before and why he left. This is important for acting because it affects the way the character enters the scene. Someone coming home from work from a job he hates to a home that's a refuge is going to be different from someone coming home from a job that fulfills him to a home that stifles him. There may be no dialogue about his attitudes about home and work, but it's going to affect the way he comes through that door in his body language, his tone of voice, and in the little behaviors he may go through upon entering. The man who loves his job and hates his home may cling to that work identity longer -- keeping his tie on, bringing his briefcase further into the house and putting it next to his chair -- while the man who hates his job and loves his home may already be pulling his tie off as he comes through the door and may drop his briefcase right at the doorway.

I think this is something you could apply to a novel. It's a subtle thing that will just make the story that much richer, so that the story feels like it extends off the page. What kind of day did your character have before the story began? How much sleep did he get the night before, and was it restful sleep? When was his last meal, and what kind of meal was it? Was he working on anything that was interrupted when the story's initiating event happened, and how does he feel about that interruption? All of those things are going to shape the way the character behaves as the story begins. This could also apply to transitions between scenes. What was the character doing offstage between his appearances in the story? You don't have to tell the reader every detail, but it helps if you know.

If you have characters who already knew each other before the story begins, what is their relationship? What do they like about each other, what are their pet peeves about each other, what do they agree about, what do they disagree about? What was their last encounter before the story started like? Two people who really like each other may have had a disagreement the last time they spoke, and that will affect the way they relate to each other the next time they see each other. There should be a difference between the way people who've known each other for a while interact and the way people who have just met interact. That familiarity should come through.

It might be a fun writing exercise to imagine what the day before your story opens was like for your character and see how changing that day changes the way your character acts in the opening scene. You could also imagine the last time two of your main characters who already know each other got together. What did they do or say, and how does that affect the way they act in their first scene together?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Books into Movies

Happy Texas Independence Day! The occasion is traditionally (well, among certain groups) celebrated with an iced tea toast at noon, but as it's rather chilly today, I may go with hot tea. It's also primary election day, which makes me happy because it means the automated, recorded telephone calls may finally stop. When the phone rings, it totally throws me out of my work. If I'm writing, then that means I've moved away from my desk and have likely snuggled into my "nest" somewhere, so answering the phone means putting the laptop aside and untangling myself to get to the phone. That also totally breaks my train of thought, and I lose whatever I was thinking at the moment, and it's harder to get back into what I was doing. I'm mildly irked if it's not a dire emergency that I can do something about involving someone I care about. When it's the recorded voice of a politician telling me how evil another politician is, I get evil thoughts. It is somewhat satisfying to hang up the phone loudly on a politician, even if I know they're not actually getting to hear the phone being slammed down, but that doesn't make up for the five calls I got yesterday. Grrr.

However, in spite of the politicians, I had an extremely productive day, with more than 3,000 words written. Go, me! I feel like I'm finally making forward progress. Today may be less productive, as I have errands to run and ballet tonight, but I already know what to write to get started today.

Meanwhile, there's been reading. I've recently seen a couple of movies based on books where I actually liked the movies better, which is rare for me. Normally, I like the books better, and if I read the book before seeing the movie, I end up being horribly disappointed. That's why I try to see the movie before reading the book. That way I can enjoy the movie, and then the book will be even better, like bonus features. When it's the other way around and I've already seen all the extras in the book, the movie seems to be lacking.

A few weeks ago, Lifetime showed The Jane Austen Book Club (based on the novel by Karen Joy Fowler), which I never got around to seeing in theaters, in part because it was treated as an "art" film and didn't show at my neighborhood theater and in part because the reviews I saw were pretty bad and made it look like it wasn't worth the effort of getting to a theater where it was showing. I'm not sure if it was, but for watching on TV, it was really quite nice. To a large extent, it was essentially a Lifetime movie with a big-screen cast (and even there, most of the cast may be big-screen actors now, but they either got their start on TV or are best known for TV roles). In short, it's about a group of friends that decides to start a book club, in part as a way of distracting/cheering up one of them when her husband leaves her. They recruit another woman and a man and decide to focus entirely on the works of Jane Austen. As they go through half a year and each of the books, they all go through romantic entanglements that map in a lot of ways to the plots of the various novels they're reading.

I enjoyed the movie because I like those multi-strand stories. Plus, the central romantic plot was like a fantasy created just for me: a never-married 40-something woman who's a bit of a loner/control freak meets a hot, young guy who reads science fiction, who seems to be fairly wealthy, who is ecologically conscious and who thinks she's really hot. But after seeing the movie, I wanted to read the book because I was intrigued by the book club discussions that seemed far too short in the movie, and I figured that was the kind of thing that would have been trimmed in the translation from book to movie, since people sitting around talking about books doesn't make for enthralling cinema. I expected the book to delve deeper into the areas that the movie skimmed over.

Except, it didn't. If anything, the book discussion was expanded for the movie. It was the rare movie where almost every scene that took place in the present day in the book was in the movie, and very much as they were depicted in the book, and then there were whole scenes and subplots that were added. That was because most of the book was made up of flashbacks. In each section of the book, we got long flashbacks about the person who was hosting the book club that month, basically, the story of that person's life, with key scenes dramatized. The movie eliminated most of that, bringing the crucial points into present-day conversations or creating scenes to bring those points across. The movie's focus was on the present, while the book's focus was on the past. (Plus, the 40-something woman was 50-something in the book, the hot young guy was in his 40s and not particularly hot, and he was unemployed and doing temp tech support work. Much less of a fantasy.) I did enjoy the book, but I enjoyed the story the movie told more. I want to see the movie again now that I have more of the background on the characters.

Then this weekend, Masterpiece Theatre did a remake of The 39 Steps. I loved the book by John Buchan when I was in junior high/high school, and I saw the Hitchcock movie version when I was in college and hated it. I don't remember much about it other than that I felt it had very little to do with the book, which was what bothered me. I was rather literalist about film adaptations, so if the movie wasn't exactly like the book, I tended to hate it. However, I loved the Masterpiece movie. It's been long enough since I read the book that I couldn't compare the two, but I immediately pulled the book off the shelf and re-read it, and I still, in retrospect, like this movie version. The basic plot was intact, and a lot of the key scenes were still there, but the structure worked better in this film version.

The biggest change was adding a female character and romantic subplot. I know I said I didn't notice and didn't care much about the lack of female characters in fantasy, but it really struck me upon re-reading this book that there were no female characters at all, which seems weird for 1914 England. Through most of the book, the main character is entirely alone, and for a film, it helps for him to have someone to talk to. Giving him a female companion made sense, and it was done in a way that reminded me of It Happened One Night. So, It Happened One Night plus spies? I'm so there. Add Killer Robots From the Future, and it's the Best Movie Ever! Otherwise, the movie added some tension and conflict that weren't in the book. In the book, the main character's neighbor, who turns out to have been a spy, is murdered in his apartment. After finding the body, he spends the whole night hanging around, trying to decide what to do, then decides it's probably best to leave town in the morning. He's well out of town before the body is even discovered, and it's even later before the bad guys figure out that he has the notebook with the info on the secret plot to start WWI. In the movie, he's there when the bad guys show up and kill the neighbor, and then he runs into the police, who immediately suspect him of being the killer, and he leaves town on the run, with the police and the bad guys after him. In the book, he spends a few weeks wandering around Scotland, only occasionally chased by the bad guys or police. In the movie, it's a tense few days with the police and the bad guys constantly behind him. It was a real lesson in how to increase tension in a story.

I may have to get this one on DVD because it made me happy. I think I should also give the Hitchcock version another chance, since I've learned that it's impossible to make a movie directly from a book and I've seen the weaknesses in that particular novel. I might enjoy the movie a lot more now.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Writer Inaction Figure

I discovered this weekend when heading out for my library presentation that all the snow and ice we've had this winter have had an interesting effect on our roads. We tend to have wonky pavement anyway because the soil has a bad habit of shifting, but now there are places where it's like driving in Berlin, circa May 1945. We don't just have potholes. We have potcraters. You could lose a Smart Car in some of those holes. There were one or two where my Focus would have been iffy.

But I had an absolute blast at the library talk. There were people there! I won a Jane Austen action figure in the trivia contest (as soon as I saw that, I had to have it. I would have trampled little old ladies to win that action figure). One bad thing about hanging around with geeks who collect stuff is that the "it loses value if it's not in its original packaging" mantra has been drilled into my head, and even though I have no plans to sell my action figure, it still feels like it would be wrong to take her out of her packaging. The packaging is clever, though. They have the list of facts about the character, like it's for a superhero, including "weapons of choice." For Jane Austen, it's "character analysis." Though I would have included sarcastic wit, as well. For the moment, I think Jane will reside next to Mulder and Scully (who are in their packaging), but when I clean/redecorate my office, then I may take her out of the box and find something fun for her to do. I wonder what my powers and accessories would be if they made an action figure out of me. With me, it would have to be an inaction figure.

I ended up hanging around afterward, chatting with the librarians and some of their friends, and the conversation turned to Buffy, as these things tend to do. It turns out that one of the librarians was someone I'd met earlier when I did a program at a different library, and I was the one who convinced her to watch Buffy, and now she's a huge fan.

Otherwise, my weekend involved a fair amount of reading and some TV/movie viewing. I got caught up in watching the opera Turandot on PBS. I was using it as background noise, just listening to the music, but then started paying attention, and I kind of want to find a way to steal the plot (which is a fairly common fairy tale set-up). Then I watched Wanted via HBO OnDemand and was rather pleasantly surprised. The laws of physics pretty much go, "Well, obviously we're not needed here!" early in the film, and it adheres very strictly to the Hero's Journey structure (to the point I was ticking off the points), but there were still enough twists to keep me more surprised and engaged than I expected, and it was very much an "ordinary man rises to the occasion" story. I must say that it made me start pondering what would happen on The Office if Jim ever got fed up with Michael and snapped (and he was actually the secret son of a society of assassins, who had inherited magical assassin powers).

But now I must make good use of a rainy Monday and get down to writing. Speaking of which, I'm drawing a blank on subject matter for a writing post. Any questions or topics you want me to discuss?