Friday, April 30, 2010

The Final Battle

In spite of writing nearly 7,000 words yesterday, I didn't finish the book. I've outlined the scenes I have left to write, and I may need another 7,000 words. I guess I thought I was writing the end of Star Wars, picking up yesterday just at the start of the attack on the Death Star, so all that was left to go was the big battle scene, with a few cutaways to the people at the rebel base looking worried and to the people on the Death Star at first arrogant, then worried, and then the "Yay! We did it! And Han isn't total slime, after all!" scene and then the awards ceremony.

But instead, I think I'm writing the end of Return of the Jedi, picking up yesterday as everyone heads off to their places to carry out the big plan to destroy Death Star 2.0. Yeah, all that's left to write is the final battle and the "Yay! We did it!" scene, but that final battle has a lot of stuff going on and is actually three final battles. There's the Luke part of the plot, where he gets himself taken to the Death Star, gets taunted by the Emperor into the duel with Darth Vader, then realizes what he's doing and gives up so that he's attacked by the Emperor so that finally Darth Vader gets over that teenage snit he's been in for more than twenty years and actually does something to help his kid. Meanwhile, there's the battle on Endor when they realize how well-guarded the shield generator is and they have a race against time to get to the generator and destroy it. And then there's the space battle around the Death Star and the attempts to destroy it. Even the "Yay! We did it!" stuff gets pretty complex because there's the reconciliation between Vader and Luke, followed by the viking funeral, there's Han's "Well, if you want to be with Luke ..." and Leia's "Ewww! He's my brother!" bit where they finally really get together, plus (in the special edition) the galaxy-wide party and then the Ewok festival. So, just having the final battle and the "Yay! We did it!" part left doesn't mean the book is nearly done. I would estimate that I'm near the part where Luke has just about beaten Darth Vader in the duel before stopping himself.

So, it looks like I've got another busy day of shutting myself away with the computer ahead of me. I know of people who move into motels or cabins in the woods when they need a serious writing binge. I don't know how helpful that would be for me. These are generally people who have kids and spouses, so moving away allows them to shut out the usual distractions and the need to deal with other people. Hiding in a hotel room and living on room service means all you have to do is write and not prepare meals or clean up after people. The only thing I have to do to avoid distractions is refuse to answer the phone. I do still have to cook for myself, but if I needed a full-on writing binge, I could cook in advance and have leftovers to nuke. I don't think this is going to be that kind of marathon. If I'm good, I should be able to finish this afternoon.

I did get my living room mostly cleaned out, though, while I was taking a TV break last night. There's just a little work to do in there before it is the kind of place where I can go to relax when the book is done. Then I just need to deal with the bedroom and bathroom, which mostly involves putting clothes away. The office is beyond hope at the moment, but if I get the "living" parts of the house spiffed up, that will make life more pleasant, and then I can tackle my office as a major project.

Now, lunch and then I'm off to redeem Darth Vader, let the Ewoks beat the Stormtroopers and then make Death Star 2.0 go boom.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The End is Near

I actually managed choir rehearsal last night, since we're doing our big spring piece this weekend and it would have been a bad rehearsal to miss. Oddly, I could manage the high notes. It was the low notes that gave me trouble. Unfortunately, our big spring piece has a true mezzo soprano part instead of just a soprano part that occasionally splits, and it can get pretty low. I'm not actually a mezzo soprano, but because I have a big range and can read music, that's the part I get assigned to in choirs (it's a really difficult part). Today the voice is a little raspy, so it looks like I need to go on total silence (or as close to it as I can manage) until the rehearsal Saturday so I can manage to sing this piece for two services on Sunday morning. We're doing "Misa Tango," which is a mass in a tango-style setting. It's really different and kind of cool. I can't wait to hear the orchestration when we finally rehearse with the orchestra on Saturday. Last year we did the Mozart Coronation Mass, so this is a big switch. I may start campaigning for something in the Early Music or Byzantine category for next year.

I have high hopes about finishing the book today. I have a lot of scenes left to write, but I think some of them will be short because there will be a lot of cutting around between bits of action going on in different places as it all starts to converge. My plan is to sit down after lunch and then go as non-stop as I can manage. Nothing else is on my agenda for today. I also probably won't be answering my phone the rest of the day, in part because there's a local election coming up and the city council candidates are calling non-stop (does anyone ever actually decide to vote for someone because that candidate called, or does it really work the other way around?), in part because getting up to answer the phone disrupts my flow of thought and in part because I really shouldn't be talking right now. I've already talked to Mom for the day. I might get up and pick up the phone if I hear my agent's voice on the answering machine. Otherwise, I'll let the machine get it.

And, yes, I do still have an answering machine. I also don't have caller ID. I have the most basic phone service you can get because I don't use it very much. No call waiting, three-way calling or any of that stuff. I have all that on the cell phone, so there's no point in duplicating.

Wow, I sound cranky today. I didn't sleep well last night, and that may have something to do with it. It's probably best for everyone that I lock myself away with the book today.

Then I'm actually looking forward to the post-book mucking-out of the house. It's starting to get on my nerves. I have the kitchen mostly cleaned up, and it's so relaxing to be in there now. I want that sense in the rest of the house, but it may take a couple of gallons of gasoline and a few matches to achieve. Or maybe a backhoe.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Non-Verbal Communication: Personal Space

I woke up this morning able to breathe through my nose, and there was much rejoicing. The pollen count has been astronomical, so I have some allergy symptoms, but the cold appears to be pretty much over. I also woke up hungry, and I haven't been hungry in days. I managed to plan out the rest of the book, so after I catch up on all the other stuff I need to deal with today, I hope to get back to work and finish it this week.

Now, for a writing post, and since I didn't get any questions, I had to come up with something on my own, which seems to have bred a series.

When we develop characters, we generally do a lot of work on their inner lives -- what do they want and why, what has hurt them, what do they fear, what do they love, etc. We also figure out their physical appearance -- eye color, hair color, height, body type, distinguishing features, etc. What sometimes gets forgotten is what I guess you could call their physical existence -- the way they move, stand, sit, etc. I'm grouping all of that into the category of non-verbal communication because all of these things send messages, and over the next few posts I'll address different aspects of non-verbal communication.

As an up-front disclaimer, this is meant only in terms of fictional people. I have studied some of this in real life, but in a fairly cursory manner (a few college courses don't make me an expert). Real people are a lot more complicated than even the most complex fictional characters. According to my professors, most of those articles on body language, the "how to tell what he's thinking" sort of things, are wrong. You can't just take one gesture or posture at face value. You have to take things in context, factoring in other elements of non-verbal communication, the situation and the behaviors of the specific individual, and it takes a lot of study and practice to become accurate in consciously interpreting body language. We're actually quite accurate at interpreting body language on an unconscious level. It's only when we read articles and try to do it consciously that we get it wrong by going against our instincts. But as authors writing fiction, we have an advantage in that we know what our characters are thinking, and we can come up with ways to express that physically. Fictional characters are simpler and more heightened than real people, so we can focus on one or two aspects of non-verbal communication, along with a few hints like precise word choices, so that the reader gets the right interpretation. Using non-verbal communication is a good way to "show" and not "tell." Instead of telling the reader what the character is thinking or feeling, you can demonstrate it by the way the character uses his body.

One area of non-verbal communication that often gets overlooked in fiction is the use of space, an area of study referred to as proxemics. There are some people who seem to take up more space, and it has nothing to do with their physical size. These are people who walk into a room and seem to own it. They stand with their shoulders squared, their heads up, their hands on their hips and their elbows out, and with their feet at least at shoulder-width apart. They're taking up the maximum amount of space, and people unconsciously respond to that, giving the person even more space. This can indicate a kind of hostility -- like the stranger who walks into a bar and silently challenges every man in the bar to take him on if they dare -- in which case the others will give him plenty of space and probably avoid direct eye contact or any other gesture that might challenge him. Or it can indicate power and charisma -- you can practically see that invisible superhero cape flapping behind him -- so that the others will give him space but will face him like he's a performer on stage and they're the audience.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the people who shrink into themselves as a way of taking up as little space as possible. They hunch their shoulders, narrowing their bodies. They keep their arms close to their sides or clutch them against their chests. They keep their heads down and probably stay against the wall or in the corner. Other people may entirely disregard their personal space, invading it while ignoring them, like standing very close but with their backs turned as they talk to someone else without being aware that there's someone within inches of their shoulder.

Speaking of personal space, there are a lot of messages involved in how much personal space there is. It's a cultural thing, to some extent. Americans tend to maintain a larger personal space bubble than other cultures, while Latin cultures and a lot of Asian cultures are more comfortable with closer physical proximity. If you're writing about an interaction between two cultures, this can be a source of discomfort or conflict, if one character unknowingly invades the personal space of another or if one character unknowingly insults another by backing away. There are, of course, individual variations -- some people need or expect more space than others -- and the amount of space needed or expected will depend on the circumstances. Your personal bubble will generally shrink when you're in a crowded environment, or else you'd go nuts having it constantly invaded by strangers. Some people can't shrink their bubbles, so they avoid crowds for this reason.

Personal space also varies according to relationship. The more intimate the relationship, the smaller the amount of personal space. The bubble is widest with strangers and may shrink to almost nothing between lovers, even in public. They may stand with their bodies touching and combine their personal space bubbles into one bubble that creates space around the couple. Two people who are close but who avoid touching may be lovers who are temporarily angry at each other, or possibly people who desire each other but who can't act on that desire or don't want to show that desire and fear that the slightest touch may be more than they can tolerate. You can have a viewpoint character take stock of the relationships among people in the room by observing how close to each other they are physically. Or you could show the comfort level between characters by having them move closer as their relationship progresses or move farther apart as they lose comfort with each other.

You'll get conflict or discomfort when two people have different ideas of appropriate personal space -- someone with an unrequited crush or maybe a different idea of where the relationship is will probably violate the personal space of the other person. That person may back away, sending a message of where he stands with the relationship. Small children tend to have very little sense of personal space and may get close and clingy even with someone sending off very clear "keep out" signals. There are also some power signals at work in who is allowed to violate whose space. Someone with greater power may have a broader personal space that subordinates aren't allowed to violate, but the higher-power person may treat subordinates as though they have smaller personal space boundaries and may get closer to them in some circumstances. If you approach your boss, you probably wouldn't feel comfortable (depending on your relationship with your boss) standing really close, touching him or putting your arm around him, but the boss may approach you and make physical contact -- a hand on your arm or on your shoulder.

I know I said don't use this in real life, but real life is a good way to observe how this works (just don't make a lot of judgments about what you see or act on the basis of my very broad and vague analysis). This is one area where watching TV or movies won't give you something you can use in narrative because shots are framed for a specific effect and the personal space may not be realistic (they have to get both characters in the same shot, regardless of how close they are emotionally, etc.). Watch people and see how close they stand to each other in different situations and in different relationships. You can even test where people's personal space boundaries are by standing really close and seeing how far they back away until they seem comfortable again. They probably won't leap away, but they'll gradually shift their weight in a way that moves their feet backwards.

Next, I'll get into sitting, standing, walking and lying down.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Mind Games and Inventions

I sometimes play this game when I'm sick: When I reach the point where I'm sick of being sick and just want to be well, I tell myself when I go to bed at night that the next morning, I'll wake up well. I'll remind myself of the wonderful things I can do the next day if I'm well that I won't be able to do if I'm still sick. I mostly did this back when I had a regular job because I pretty much hated my jobs -- public relations isn't a good career choice for someone with a telephone phobia. I disliked going to work so much that the worst flu was a pleasant respite from the office. Even with the aches and fever and not being able to breathe, at least I was home, curled up on my sofa with a cup of tea and a movie on, instead of at the office. So after a few days of enjoying not being at work, I had to test myself as to whether I really was still sick or if it was psychosomatic and I just didn't want to go to work. I knew that if I still woke up sick after my little pep talk, then I was really sick, but if it was just the dreads and not wanting to face the office, then I'd be well.

I played that game Saturday night because I really did want to go to church. We were singing one of my favorite anthems Sunday morning, and I didn't want to miss it. But I was way too sick to go anywhere. Yesterday I was still pretty awful, and I was even running fever. Last night I gave myself the pep talk again. I didn't wake up suddenly well, but I'm much, much better. I'm more stuffy than sniffly, I actually slept last night instead of waking up to cough constantly, and I don't think I've sneezed yet today. But I am still pretty stuffy, and I feel like if I leaned forward, my head would hit the floor and then go through it. I don't know whether or not I'd have gone to work today with a regular job. Even though I love what I do, there are times when I get the don't wannas, or when I'm afraid of what I need to write next and come up with reasons to put it off. That's why I gave myself the pep talk last night and decided that I would be well. I suspect I'm a little afraid of coming up with a good ending to this book. I think I'm going to try for a regular working schedule today and face that fear head-on. I'm not sure if ballet will happen tonight, though. My equilibrium is a bit off, there's that problem with the super-heavy head, and I probably need to rest.

In the past couple of days, I've mentally invented the Cold Caddy. It would be a sling you wear around your neck or over your shoulder that holds a box of tissues for when you don't dare go more than an arm's reach from a tissue box but need your hands free. There would be a pouch on the side you could line with a small plastic bag for easy and hygienic disposal of used tissues. Maybe there could be a pocket on the other side to hold things like cough drops or lip balm. Then you could easily wander miserably from room to room and still have everything you need handy. I haven't yet come up with a solution to the problem of having a cup of hot liquid in your hand when you suddenly need to sneeze other than fighting back the sneeze while rushing for the nearest flat surface. I suppose the best option there is the grown-up sippy cup (the travel mug).

We shall see if I have enough brainpower today to do any medical writing. Yesterday reading about research studies was right out. I'd have been way too tempted to write a series of scripts about dealing with having a cold. And I've just realized that it's writing post week, and I have no ideas at all and no potential posts saved up. Does anyone have a writing question you want me to attempt to address while I'm still in a slightly foggy state?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Weekend Viewing from the Sick Bed

It's a good thing I didn't have much in the way of plans for the weekend because I came down with a killer cold. It started with a tickle in the throat on Friday, and I thought it was just bad allergies, since the pollen count has been pretty astronomical lately. It was worse later in the day and really bad Saturday morning. By mid-afternoon Saturday, I finally realized that it was way more intense than any allergy attack I'd ever had, so I likely had a cold. It seems to be in the waning phases. I still feel like it would make everything better if I could just cut my nose off, but I don't have the miserably runny nose anymore. If I had a "real" job I'd probably call in sick because I'm too foggy to drive safely and I can't focus or concentrate for very long. Unfortunately, I don't really get sick days when I work for myself. I do still have deadlines on freelance projects and I desperately want to finish this book. I did find myself thinking about the book while I made breakfast, so I may try some brainstorming today and see if I can come up with ideas for the ending. I'm not sure I'm yet at the putting words together level. I don't see how all those drug-addict, alcoholic authors did it. A half teaspoon of Benadryl and I can't form a coherent sentence. How did some of these people write books while drunk or stoned?

Since I wasn't up to doing much of anything, I watched a lot of movies over the weekend. Finding the right entertainment when you're sick can be a challenge. I can't deal with anything too complex or that requires paying attention and noticing plot points. I also don't want anything too emotional -- when your nose is running off your face, the last thing you want is to cry so that it runs even worse. During the worst times, when the cold medicine had really kicked in, I resorted to re-watching TV shows OnDemand -- NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles are perfect for that. I reached the point where my appreciation for NCIS: LA amounted to "Hee, that lady is really small, and it's funny when she's with that really tall guy who's terrified of her!" I tried catching up with Stargate: Universe episodes OnDemand, since I've missed a few, and I ended up giving up mid-way through the first one I'd missed. I used to get a lot of enjoyment out of snarking about that show, but the same snark issues are still there, so I've already made all my points, and the snark enjoyment is now far outweighed by the sheer annoyance of the show itself. I don't care what happens to any of those people, and if I don't like any of the characters, there's no point in watching. I figure the earth is better off for having shipped them away to another galaxy, though having done so might count as a hostile act toward that other galaxy.

Lifetime obliged me by showing a weekend full of romantic comedies instead of their more usual "My husband is beating me, cheating on me and leading a secret life while I'm dying of a terrible illness and my child is missing" fare. I re-watched The Jane Austen Book Club on Saturday, which was interesting now that I've read the book. Then on Sunday there was Something to Talk About, a Julia Roberts movie from the mid-90s that I saw in the theater with some friends. I barely noticed the movie as I got lost in a surge of nostalgia for my twenties.

Courtesy of HBO, I did see a couple of new-to-me movies. There was Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which was better than I thought it would be. It was an interesting concept, though I'm not sure about the execution. At his brother's wedding, a womanizing jerk gets the A Christmas Carol treatment as he's forced to revisit his past, especially the way he treated his childhood best friend/sweetheart, look at the way people in the present saw him and then look at his potential future. The "Ghost of Girlfriends Past" character -- a very Eighties teen with braces -- was a hoot and I loved the way they worked with the elements of the Dickens story in this new setting, but I couldn't really buy the ending. I suppose the rest of this is spoilery, but if you haven't already figured out exactly what happens based on that brief description, then let me be the first to extend you a warm welcome to our humble planet. In the Dickens story, people didn't immediately accept the changed Scrooge. His nephew had invited him over even before he changed, so he wasn't going out on a limb to accept him at Christmas, and the Cratchits were pretty much "Just nod and smile at the crazy man who has total power over us." It was only over time that Scrooge became like a second father to Tiny Tim and became a loved part of the family. But in this movie, everyone seems to just go with this sudden change from total jerk to nice, sensitive, caring guy. No guy has treated me nearly as badly as he treated his childhood sweetheart, and yet I wouldn't take any of my exes back even if they crawled over broken glass with roses in their teeth. It's not vindictiveness, it's moving on. It's over, and I have no interest in any of them anymore. I've never understood that thing that comes up in books and movies where there's that one guy from a woman's past who can make her drop everything for him, no matter how terribly he treated her before. A far more believable ending would have involved him realizing that changing didn't undo the consequences of his past behavior, so that he'd utterly ruined his chances with that one woman, but that he could make a fresh start with someone new. Or at the very most, the old girlfriend might have been willing to start from scratch, like they were strangers. A romantic happily ever after with them joyously reunited one day after he was a total jerk who nearly ruined his brother's wedding with his obnoxious behavior -- and her ditching the perfect man to do so -- just didn't work for me.

Then, was it Julia Roberts' birthday this weekend, or something? Because just about every channel seemed to have at least one Julia Roberts movie on. Some were doing marathons of her movies. I am not a big fan of Julia Roberts. There's something about her that just bugs me. But I did watch Duplicity on HBO because I like looking at Clive Owen. I think it might have been a fun movie if I'd been a little more coherent because it was a caper-type story, which I love, and was one of those things where you don't realize what's really going on until you get the full context, and there were lots of layers. It's impossible to describe or discuss in any depth without ruining the surprises, so I'll just say that it's about two rival spies who end up in the private sector working together in an industrial espionage project. Except that's not really what it's about.

Strangely, this movie made me want to remodel my kitchen. I've noticed that whenever a movie character is living in what is supposed to be a bland, generic apartment that symbolizes the fact that his life isn't where he wants it to be, the apartment has the exact same kitchen cabinets I have. Those cabinets made another appearance in this movie. They must have some seriously bad mojo. I wonder if my life would improve if I replaced them.

Finally, a couple of programming notes: Chuck is back with a new episode tonight, and we'll see if they are struck by the Moonlighting curse or if they can pull of a Nick and Nora vibe. Then on Wednesday, the Doctor and Captain Picard face off on PBS when they show the recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Hamlet, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. I imagine I'll end up having to buy the DVD because my local PBS station has this odd aversion to letterboxing in widescreen productions. They blow the picture out to full screen, so that the sides are cut off (even with a widescreen TV), and it's really obvious and annoying, especially when the shot is framed for widescreen and all you can see of the characters is their noses on either end of the screen.

And now I need more tea and a bit of a rest from thinking this hard.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tea, Glorious Tea

I think I may have started to figure out what it is I need for the rest of the book. It's been difficult because I've been very "Squirrel!" all week, so easily distracted and with difficulty focusing. I haven't even been able to focus on the book I'm reading, which is very dense and complex, so I maybe manage a paragraph at a time before I get sidetracked by something shiny. I should probably put it aside and read something like Dick, Jane and Spot until my brain starts working again, but then I'm afraid I'd have to start over from the beginning because I'll have forgotten what already happened. On the up side, my kitchen is cleaner and the dishes are all done because that's one of the things that sidetracked me. Usually, I would say that when I get like this it means that my subconscious is busy working things out, but I really hope my subconscious has something better to offer than cake in the face.

It was so gratifying to see the response to my post about tea vs. coffee. My people! I'm not entirely sure how I turned out to be a tea drinker. My parents are coffee drinkers. We had iced tea with meals (we're southern -- as they say in Steel Magnolias, iced tea is the house wine of the south), but for breakfast, for breaks or for caffeination purposes, it was coffee. My parents let my try coffee occasionally when I was a kid -- like a splash of coffee in a cup of warm milk -- and I thought it was nasty. I assumed it was one of those things you'd start to like when you were an adult. I do recall going through a phase when I'd insist on having my iced tea without ice, so it was still warm from being freshly brewed, and I really liked that. The first time I had real hot tea, as in tea that was meant to be hot, was the summer between sixth and seventh grade. We were living in Germany and were on vacation in Bavaria at an American military recreation center there. It was cold and rainy the entire time we were there. We'd been out walking around, got drenched, and ended up in one of the little AAFES cafes in the rec area. The choices for warming beverages were coffee or hot tea, and I got hot tea -- the cup of hot water and a tea bag. I think the next time I had hot tea, it was in seventh grade when a friend invited me over after school for tea. I was a raging Anglophile even then and had read way too many books set in England or with English characters, and I thought that having tea after school was the height of sophistication.

I don't think I really got into drinking tea as a matter of course until I was in college. I needed caffeine in the morning but I still didn't like coffee, so I availed myself of the hot-water spigot at the coffee service area in the dorm cafeteria and got in the habit of having a cup of hot tea with breakfast every morning. When I was out of college, I bought a teapot and started making brewed loose-leaf tea on occasion. I still generally go with a tea bag in the morning, but otherwise, I prefer loose-leaf tea.

But it's very difficult being a hot tea drinker in this country. At most breakfast-type places, like IHOP or diners, they're very generous with coffee but act like you've asked to see their wine list if you ask for tea. They'll put a small pot of coffee on the table, or else the friendly waitress will constantly come by with a pot of coffee and say, "Can I warm that up for you, hon?" But if you get tea (and if you're lucky enough for them to have it), you generally get a cup of warmish water and a tea bag, without even an offer of more hot water. I have even been in a situation where the best they could do was fill a mug with tea from the iced tea dispenser and microwave it for me (I was desperate). I carry tea bags in my purse because I can generally obtain a cup of hot water. When I went to England, I was astonished that when they served breakfast at the guest house, if you asked for tea, you got a whole pot brought to the table and got offered refills, but if you got coffee, you were brought a single cup. I had to restrain myself from doing a dance of glee in the middle of the room and shouting, "Ha, take that coffee drinkers! How do you like it now?"

I have learned to drink heavily doctored coffee mostly because of writing group meetings and conferences. At meetings, they may have urns of coffee and decaf. If they have any provision for tea at all, it's a pot or urn of hot water and a basket of tea bags, and the urn is also usually used for coffee, so that the water looks, smells and tastes like weak coffee. Making tea would be like sticking a tea bag in a cup of coffee. Eww. At banquets when they go around serving coffee to go with dessert, often you get told that tea isn't on the menu, or else they'll come back half an hour later with a metal pot of lukewarm water and a selection of tea bags that's mostly flavored tea. Because of this, I learned to add enough sugar and milk to coffee, and I found this coffee flavoring that comes in little tablets in a container like Tic-Tacs come in, and this way I can add a bit of vanilla so I can drink the coffee.

As for finding brewed tea, made from leaves, where they bring you a pot of tea instead of water and a tea bag, you can just about forget it unless you're at a tea shop or having "tea" as a meal where it's expensive and they make a big fuss about it. I know of a few in New York, and I think there are a few around here, though I haven't tried them yet. Generally, at nicer places you just get nicer tea bags. At a fancy restaurant, if you order tea, they'll bring this big box of tea bags for you to select from (lots of flavored stuff, little real tea). My neighborhood coffee shop has really nice tea, and it's in silk bags instead of paper, so you don't get that paper taste, but they don't brew tea.

I'm not crazy about flavored tea because I just really like tea. I can deal with spicy chai, and orange and spice tea can be nice on occasion. I have a honey and lemon tea that's good for iced tea, and there's a mint green tea that works if I have a cold. Lipton used to have an amaretto tea that I loved. But raspberry is right out. I like vanilla, but it doesn't work for me in tea. Herbal tea is not tea. It's an herbal infusion and doesn't contain tea. Contrary to what seems to be popular belief among non tea drinkers, Earl Grey is not a generic, plain old tea. It's a very distinct flavor and something of an acquired taste. If you can only offer one kind of tea, Earl Grey is not the one to offer. One of my favorite teas ever was the Ceylon tea my dad brought me from Sri Lanka when he was there for a disaster relief project after the tsunami. It was divine. Considering that I have two Indian grocery stores within three blocks of my house, I really ought to look to see if they carry that brand.

And now it's time to brew a pot and get to work.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wild Things

I got a late start today because I let myself sleep in. I was having a long, vivid dream that seemed to be about this big scene I've been wrestling with, the way my heroine defeats her enemies. I remember thinking after the dream but while I was still asleep that it was perfect and solved all my problems. And then when I woke up and was thinking about it, I realized that my heroine had defeated her enemies in the dream by shoving cake in their faces.

So much for the subconscious working things out in a dream state. Back to the drawing board. And now I really want cake ...

I forced myself to go to the grocery store yesterday because it got to the point where the only food I had in the house consisted of an onion, a head of cauliflower, some pasta and dried beans, and I just couldn't face that for breakfast. There was some kind of corporate meeting going on at the store. I couldn't tell if it was the chain's corporate executives visiting this store, the management teams for stores about to open visiting this store, or what, but the store was crawling with people wearing Oxford shirts with the store logo subtly embroidered on them. They were looking at the displays and the store layout, but they also seemed to be observing the customers. I now understand what it must be like to be an animal featured in a wildlife documentary.

"Now let us observe the grocery shopper in her natural habitat. Which of these brightly colored displays of fruits and vegetables will attract her interest? She approaches the cantaloupe, inspects a few, then smells them and puts them back, even though they're on sale and quite a bargain this week. Perhaps they didn't appeal to her. What does she want? Ah, tomatoes and parsley. She must be planning to prepare Italian food, given the pasta already in her cart (yes, it's a sickness, but I'd used up a particular kind of pasta)." I started getting twitchy, expecting at any second to be hit in the neck with a tranquilizer dart and then tagged so they could follow my movements in that store and anywhere else I shopped.

Strangely, writing this has given me a craving for a peanut butter sandwich. It's odd the way the brain makes associations. When I was a kid, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom was on Sunday nights. We got to see Marlin Perkins sitting comfortably in a jeep while his hot, young (at least, I thought he was hot when I was five) assistant Jim chase down the various critters and wrestle them into submission. "I will distract the wildebeast while Jim catches it and tags it." It gave me a lifelong fondness for men in khaki (well, being an Army brat probably also had something to do with that). Sunday nights were peanut butter sandwich night at my house then. Dad would make me a sandwich, and then we'd watch Wild Kingdom and the Wonderful World of Disney together. It had to be peanut butter and honey. I never liked peanut butter with jelly, and to this day, I won't eat it. But peanut butter -- the super-crunchy kind -- with honey is divine.

Now I think I will go make myself a peanut butter sandwich and go back to thinking of ways to defeat the villains that don't involve cake.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Brain and Caffeine Sources

I feel like most of what I've talked about lately has been my struggles with this book, but sadly, that's most of what's been going on in my life lately. Yeah, there was the San Antonio trip, but I've covered that. My panel there was directed at librarians, so I doubt too many people here want the scoop on how to plan author events at your library in a way that won't annoy the authors.

I'm still in the middle of a book I'm reading, and I'm not ready to talk about it yet. I didn't really watch anything on TV over the weekend other than NCIS reruns and Doctor Who.

I can say that the bluebonnets are in full bloom, and what's really cool is they have them planted on the grassy areas along and between the runways at DFW Airport. During takeoff and landing, they're a purple blur, but when the plane is taxiing or just sitting (you do a lot of that at DFW), it's nice to see a field of lovely bluish purple flowers. There are also fields of them on the edge of my neighborhood. They came late this year because it was a particularly cold winter, but because it was also a wet winter, they're spectacular this year.

And now I've stared at the screen for a full five minutes without being able to come up with anything other than the book. I officially have Book Brain. It's all-consuming. I spent yesterday afternoon making a list of things that make my character formidable and a list of the villain's weaknesses that the heroine can exploit. Today I think I'll do my List of 20 thing and brainstorm things that can happen in this situation and see if anything strikes me. Maybe I'll play some iTunes Roulette while I'm at it and see if that sparks anything. I know the general sense of what will happen, but I need to find specifics, and I want them to be interesting specifics.

I've also had some talks with Mom about the different habits of coffee drinkers as opposed to tea drinkers. I don't drink coffee. If it's the only available source of caffeine and there are pastries involved, I might be able to choke it down if it's mostly milk, has a lot of sugar and maybe a bit of vanilla, but it is not my beverage of choice. I can't tell the difference between "good" coffee and "bad" coffee because it's all nasty to me. I don't own a coffeemaker. I don't even know how to make coffee, other than the instant kind, and even there I'm not sure I'm doing it right because, again, I can't tell if it's bad or if it's just being coffee. About the only time I've really managed coffee was at my old job when they got one of those "pod" coffeemakers and had some vanilla-flavored pods. If I put enough creamer and sugar in it, I could drink that. But making coffee without the automatic pod thingy or Folger's Crystals is a process I have never experienced (I do have a jar of instant in my freezer for when my parents visit). That makes it somewhat challenging to write characters who are coffee drinkers, and my parents caught where I did it wrong. Apparently, tea as an alternate source of caffeine when coffee is not available doesn't work for a coffee drinker the way doctored coffee can work as an alternative when tea isn't available for a tea drinker, and a coffee addict would choose bad coffee over tea. I guess it's because there's less caffeine in tea, so the habitual tea drinker doesn't need as big a hit as the habitual coffee drinker does. I suppose I could describe the way coffee tastes to me as the way bad coffee would taste to a coffee drinker.

So, that's what's going on with me. Fun, huh?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Formidable Characters

I think I've more or less recovered from travel, and I may have kind of started working out what needs to happen in the rest of the book. It's a huge shift from what I had planned, which means I have to totally rethink it, and I need to come up with details and specifics. The fact that this is pretty hard is a good sign that I'm on the right track because it means I can't just handwave my way past it, and it means I'm really pushing the characters to the limit.

One of my current challenges is that I've spent much of this book talking about how formidable this character is, and now I have to show it, full on, all out. But she's not really that physically formidable. It's more a combination of intelligence, creativity, ruthlessness when it's necessary, stubbornness, and the kind of charisma that makes people want to do what she says. She's like a combination of the Doctor from Doctor Who and Susan and Carrot from the Discworld novels. With the Doctor, just the mention of his name sends alien fleets fleeing in terror, but we generally don't see him doing anything all that bad. He mostly just uses their own weaknesses and evil against them. Susan has this way of rearranging the world around her while being totally blunt, straightforward and honest. Carrot could rule the city but doesn't unless he needs to, and he does it by being nice and likable while also being so honest and straightforward that he ends up thinking rings around his more crooked foes -- he's scary because he's a good man who'll just flat-out kill the bad guy instead of toying with him or making speeches. That's the kind of thing I need to capture in this character, and to be honest, I'm not sure I'm pulling it off. I'm really going to have to think and work to come up with what she would do in this situation, and then I probably ought to stay away from people for a while because I have a bad habit of channeling characters when I dig into them like this, and I'm not sure the world needs to deal with me when I'm channeling this character.

Oops, I have a homeowners' association meeting this week. Maybe I should warn my neighbors. I don't have a lot of tolerance for the kind of petty stupidity that tends to arise at these meetings, so it could get ugly if I'm in "send the alien hordes fleeing in terror at the sound of my name" mode.

I wonder if this counts as an excuse to watch Doctor Who and read Terry Pratchett and call it work-related research. Speaking of Doctor Who, the new Doctor has finally made his legal appearance on these shores, and I have to say that I approve. There's something about this guy that I really like, though I'm not sure what, precisely. He does seem a little less angsty, and even though the actor is a mere infant, he manages to pull off the impression of great age mixed with that childlike enthusiasm. And, yeah, they've cast my physical "type" (dark hair, fair skin, blue eyes -- it's a weakness).

Back to the book: One thing you really don't want to have happen is to read a description of a recently released book when you're just about finished with writing a book, and the description is almost a perfect match for the book you're writing. Argh. Though in this case, the book is YA and mine isn't, and I suspect that the story will play out very differently, but still, you could change a few words in the back-cover copy on this book and it would work in a generic way for my book. I now have it on hold at the library so I can make sure mine is different enough. On the bright side, maybe this means there's a trend brewing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Hypothetical Vacation Almost Happens

I'm back from my whirlwind trip to San Antonio. That was my primary destination plan for that hypothetical relaxing vacation I was mentally planning a couple of years ago, and it turned out that the hotel for this trip was my planned "splurge" hotel for my hypothetical vacation. I also got to do most of the items on my hypothetical vacation agenda -- I wandered the Riverwalk, ate Mexican food, visited the Alamo and even took the river boat tour. I did come home exhausted, but I think that was mostly from two travel days in a row and two early mornings (for me) in a row. If I stayed two nights so that there was a day without travel and if I managed to schedule flights so that I wasn't having to get up so early in the morning or come home late in the evening, it might work as a relaxing vacation. There's just enough to do there to make it worth traveling, but not so very much that I feel like I'm missing something if I just hang out at the hotel and relax. The hotel might even be worth the splurge price. It's right on the river, but on a peaceful section of the Riverwalk, not a part with lots of noise, and you can get rooms with balconies overlooking the river. They also have outdoor room-like balconies opening from the lobby, which was where I sat and read and watched it rain on the river after I checked out but before the airport shuttle came. In the afternoon, they had a kind of "afternoon tea" in the lobby, with lemonade and cookies and live music. I spent about an hour Friday afternoon sitting in the lobby, sipping the lemonade, listening to Spanish guitar music, watching the river and brainstorming the ending of the book.

The very early (for me) morning was because my panel was scheduled for 8 a.m., and while sleeping in would have been nice, I did rather enjoy that morning. I took the convention shuttle from my hotel to the convention center at about 7, then went in search of breakfast. The convention center is connected via a canal to a mall across the street, so I walked along the canal to the mall, where there was a Starbucks. The river/canal (it's a manmade offshoot of the natural river) runs right into the middle of the mall, and when it goes under a street bridge, the underside of the bridge is lit up like the underside of an old movie theater awning, with rows of little light bulbs. The Starbucks was the only thing in the mall that was open, and it was raining, so there was something kind of magical about entering the lighted tunnel and emerging in the mall, like going into Narnia, and I had this whole world almost entirely to myself. The only people I ran into were the men on the boats that were going around skimming trash out of the river. There's a feeling/imagery that seems to be begging for a story in there somewhere. I'm not fond of early mornings, but I do enjoy that feeling of having the world to myself, and it's magnified when it's raining.

I have to say that San Antonio has to be the friendliest place I've ever been, almost disconcertingly so. I've lived in Texas most of my life, including in a small town, and my family is from the South, so I'm used to friendly, but this city goes even beyond that. Just about everyone seems to go out of their way to be friendly. It's not just the hotel staff and the people working the tourist sites. The guys on the trash-skimming boats even called out a cheery, "Good morning!" I can only imagine what it must feel like to someone from, say, New Jersey. (Not that all people from New Jersey are rude, but on my scale of friendly to rude in all the places I've visited, New Jersey probably falls at the rudest end of the scale, with San Antonio on the other end. I find that most people everywhere are generally nice if you're nice, but most of my experiences of outright rudeness among people you'd expect should be friendly have occurred in New Jersey. My Southern Belle powers don't seem to work as well in New Jersey, either, while I can charm the socks off of just about anyone anywhere else I go.)

I think our panel at the convention went pretty well, and we had a decent crowd for 8 in the morning on the last day of the convention. I didn't get a bag of books, but I did get a bag of goodies as a thank-you gift, and it included a chocolate Alamo. It's very cool, but it almost feels like a desecration to eat the Alamo. As much as I love chocolate, it kind of bothers me when it comes in the shape of something meaningful or way too cute. Plain old bars are fine for me.

And now I guess I need to get back to my book, as much as I'd love a nap (I think it's taking me longer to recover from this trip than the trip itself took). Although I thought I'd brainstormed the ending, I got a huge new inspiration last night and am now rethinking my plans, so I have to figure out which idea might work best.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Traveling Light

The taxes are now done and mailed, my hair is done, the laundry is done, and now I just need to get packed to go to the Texas Library Association conference tomorrow in San Antonio. I've got an early flight, in part because that's what was available but in part because I figured I might as well make this into a mini vacation. I may go to some of the conference sessions, or I may just enjoy the Riverwalk and see the Alamo again.

I'm going to go for the extreme light packing prize for this trip because I don't want to deal with anything resembling real luggage. I used to be a terrible packer. For a four-day conference I'd bring a suitcase, a garment bag and a tote bag. Then I had an Australian boss I had to take a lot of business trips with. There seems to be some kind of travel gene that Australians have, where they love to travel and are very good at it. My boss was the kind of person who could travel around the world with a backpack, and he scoffed at anyone who needed anything more. On one one-night business trip, I thought I was doing well because I just had my briefcase and the carry-on tote bag that went with my luggage set. I was doing better than my co-workers, who had wheeled small suitcases. My boss had his computer bag. He had a clean shirt, underwear and socks and his toothbrush in one of the side pockets.

I haven't made it to that extreme yet, though I will just be bringing a tote bag tomorrow, but I have learned that packing light makes travel easier and more pleasant. The new airline fees and regulations have also helped force the light packing. It becomes something of a game and a challenge. I don't think I'm quite up to going around the world with a backpack, but I can do an overnight trip with a bag that fits under the seat. My big worry is that since this is a library conference, they'll pass out some big bag of books that I won't be able to get home. I guess I could always stick my purse in my tote bag, declare my tote bag to be my purse and put the bag of books in the overhead bin as my carry-on item.

Still, I wouldn't mind Hermione's little beaded evening bag from the Harry Potter books -- carry your whole life with you in a little purse you can fit in your pocket.

So, off I go to pack minimally and try to get my subconscious to think about the ending to the current book instead of trying to write the sequel.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Finding Randomness

Ha! I just thought I'd finish the book yesterday. In spite of writing more than 5,000 words and topping my target word count for the finished book, I'm still only at the beginning of the end, story-wise. I've just started the build-up to the Big, Climactic Scene, so I still need to write the Big, Climactic Scene, the Yay, We Did It! interlude, the You Just Thought it Was Over REALLY Big, Climactic Scene and the Aftermath/Consequences, New Normal closing scene (or scenes). Plus, I think I need to go back and add something before the build-up. I am making the executive decision to not try to finish the book this week because I caught myself handwaving yesterday -- just writing something to get to the end in "and then stuff happened" mode instead of writing what needs to be there. I get like that at endings, so impatient just to finish and get it over with that I shortchange the story and end up having to rewrite it. It's worse this week with the time pressure of taxes and getting ready to go out of town. And there's the issue that I keep changing my mind about how the Big, Climactic Scenes should really go.

So, I'm going to do taxes and laundry today, get my hair done tomorrow and maybe do a little housekeeping. Then next week I will write the ending. I may do some brainstorming along the way and let the subconscious do its thing. This book is going to be much longer than it really should be, but that just means that in revisions I can cut everything I don't absolutely love and still end up with a book instead of a pamphlet.

And now for the writing topic of the week (remember, I'm always looking for topics or questions):

I've got a reader question this week about how to add spontaneity to your writing. This is something I struggle with because I'm a very logical, linear person, and logical and linear can be predictable. What you want in fiction is something you don't expect but that still makes sense. You want twists and turns and surprises.

Here are a few things you can try to force your brain to get outside the box:

1) The List of 20 -- this is my fallback when I get stuck, and I should probably use it more for plotting when I'm deciding the basic structure of the book in the first place. When your character reaches a fork in the road and has to make a decision or when you're at a major turning point, make a list of 20 things that can happen. Force yourself to get to 20, even if you're getting silly. These things don't have to happen. They just could happen. Don't even worry about whether these are things your character would ever do. You can fix that later. I've heard people say that you should automatically reject the first ten things you come up with because they will be the first things everyone comes up with, and you don't get surprises until you're farther down in the list, but if you've got a strange brain, you may get some surprises higher in the list.

I also use this to add action to a scene, where I know what the main plot events are but I want to add some layers (and especially for funny scenes).

2) Brainstorm with someone else -- Play that game where you alternate sentences in a story and see where having someone else's input can take you in unexpected directions. Play "what if" and have the other person throw scenarios at you, then see if that sparks anything.

3) Get randomized outside input -- I know of authors who do this with Tarot cards. The card faces have a lot of info on them, and they pick a card and try to come up with a way to apply the information on the card to the story. I play iTunes roulette -- leave it on shuffle with my whole library and try to think about how each song that comes up could apply to my plot. I've come up with some of my favorite plot twists from doing this when what I come up with is really unexpected but works. To make it even less self-selected, listen to the radio and do the same thing. Have Wikipedia give you a random article and see if that sparks anything, or get a random LOL cat or dog.

4) Break out of your comfort zone -- Try reading or watching something you generally don't or that's in a very different genre than what you're writing. If you're writing action/adventure, watch a soap opera. If you're writing science fiction, read or watch a western. You get the idea. You may pick up some ideas for kinds of scenes you might not have considered for your genre, and blending genres, even if you're only borrowing elements, themes or ideas, is a good way to make something feel fresh.

5) Think of three things your main characters would never, ever do. Then think of reasons they might have to do them. If any of those reasons would fit into your plot, then giving your characters reasons to do things they'd never do will not only raise the stakes significantly, but it will mean the characters doing something that should be surprising to readers.

6) Play Opposite Day -- Either think of the opposite of what you think your character would do in the situation or think of the opposite of what you would normally write. Now see if you can think of a way for that to make sense or to force that opposite thing to happen.

7) Skip a step -- Normally, we go from point A to point B to point C. What if point B disappears and your character has to find a way to go straight to point C? Or what if your character gets to point C, but instead of going to point D from there, he finds himself back at point A, and point B is no longer an option? You could try writing the steps of your plot or scene ideas on notecards, then shuffle them or throw them up in the air, then read through them in the new order. Do you make any interesting new connections?

The important thing to remember about all of the above is that they're tricks to adjust your thinking. You're not stuck with using any of these in your book. Some of them, like the opposites, will seldom really work in the book. The point is just to shake things up and get out of any mental ruts you might be in.

Here are a few other things to try for loosening you up and preparing to be creative (you'd do these things before attempting any of the above methods):

1) Move -- there have been actual scientific studies showing that physical activity improves creativity and cognitive ability. In other words, exercise makes you more creative and smarter. Go for a walk, put on some music and dance around the house or work out, and then do your brainstorming.

2) Be a child -- Play! When I worked at a PR firm, when we had brainstorming sessions, we'd cover the conference table with butcher paper, hand out markers and crayons, have small toys on the table and have stuff like Play-doh. There's something about playing and reverting to childhood that lifts the limits we put on our brains. It's very freeing.

3) Be creative in another field -- This is similar to the above. Get out your crayons, markers or paints, sing, play an instrument, dance, bake, garden or whatever else gets your creative juices flowing. Then when you start brainstorming your writing, you may come up with fresher ideas.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Almost There!

If I'm really, really good today, I may finish my first draft. Yay! I think the last few scenes I've written will require some revision, but I won't know what that revision is until I write the next scenes. I've also come to the realization that I'm going to have to write a fake folk song for this book. If I refer to it more than once, then I have to write it. I'll probably find a real song (something by that great composer Anonymous, so it's public domain) and create new lyrics that fit my plot. And, hey, if the book gets published, I can always perform the song at conventions (if I can get over the stage fright issues). But that is something for the revision process. I'm not too worried about it now. I just want to get to the end of the story. I'm having to hold my brain back because it keeps trying to write the sequel, before I've even finished this one.

I'm also almost done with my taxes. I have the record-keeping done, so I'm down to writing the numbers on the forms. I probably shouldn't have procrastinated this year, since I will be getting money back (though I will probably just apply it to this year's estimated taxes), but I kept saying I'd do it after I finished the book, and then the book took me longer than I expected. At least I didn't procrastinate on the record-keeping. I was good about keeping up with it all year, so there wasn't that much to do at the end other than add everything up.

I forgot an item from the weekend's litany of tragedy, since it was Saturday night instead of on Sunday. I saw a local production of West Side Story Saturday night, which is also in the tearjerking category. They used actual teenagers for all the teenage roles (instead of the 20-30 somethings I've seen in most professional productions), which amplified the sense of tragedy because it was clear that these really were just kids.

So, yeah, maybe I need a moratorium on the sad stuff. At the moment, I'm re-reading Terry Pratchett (mostly because I'd finished the Dick Francis book I was reading, and I'd been thinking about this particular book, which happened to be beside my bed when I finished the one I was reading). A good laugh or two will help.

In other news, I believe I've given up on the new version of V. I taped it last week while I was at ballet, and I still haven't cared enough to watch it. It seems like the alien invasion and the resistance to the alien invasion mostly involve a lot of committee meetings. The resistance has meetings to talk about what they can do. The aliens have meetings to talk about what they should do. And I am allergic to committee meetings. Wake me up when someone slurps down a rodent and then blows something up.

And now I have a book to go finish. See you on the other side ...

Friday, April 09, 2010

The End of a Landmark

It turned out that I was pretty close to the information I wanted conveyed in my verbal smackdown scene, after all. I amped it up a bit, worked in a little additional info, and I think it will do for now, though I may go for one more level of nasty in revisions. And then I got so carried away that I forgot about something else that needed to happen in the scene, but then I couldn't think of where to put it, and I decided to put it somewhere else that I think will work even better. I'm really closing in on the end here -- and I'd better be, as I only have about 12,000 words to work with.

I've got a busy weekend ahead of me, and in spite of the busyness and my general opposition to early mornings, I think I'll be up very early Sunday morning because they're going to destroy Texas Stadium. I don't have that many memories directly associated with the stadium, considering I only went to one game there. But it's been a major landmark for me for most of my life.

When I was very little and we lived in west Texas and had to drive to Louisiana to visit relatives, we could see the stadium from afar from the highway. It was just a whitish blob on the horizon, but I always liked to look for it. Then when we lived in Germany, we'd watch the opening credits of Dallas just for the zoom across the stadium when we were homesick.

I didn't get an up-close look at the stadium until I was a freshman in high school and our church group went to Dallas for the day. We went Christmas shopping and ice skating at a mall that no longer exists, then we went to a restaurant near the stadium (that, surprisingly, does still exist). I have to admit that seeing it up close was a little disappointing because it really is rather ugly.

When I first moved to this area, I lived only a few miles from the stadium, and I drove by it every day on my way to and from work. On the way home, it was my sign that I was almost there. That was also where the worst traffic jams were because it's at a point where several highways come together in an interchange that has to be some kind of demonic symbol (a la the highway in Good Omens). When I was past the stadium, I was home free. It was sometimes a bit of a hassle. When there were Monday-night games, I had to use a roundabout alternate route to get home from work, and I also had to be careful about timing and routes when I came home from church on Sundays. Then I moved, and my route no longer took me directly by the stadium, but I could still see it clearly, and it was still a sign that I was getting close to home. It may be ugly up close, but when there's something going on there at night and all the lights are on in the stadium, it almost looks pretty from a distance.

In recent years, it has remained my landmark that tells me I'm almost home. When I drive to Austin or San Antonio, my route home takes me right by the stadium, so when I can see it, I know that I'll be home in less than half an hour. When I pass it, I can be home in less than twenty minutes.

But they're imploding it Sunday morning, and I won't have my "almost home" landmark anymore. I'm not crazy enough to try to go there in person -- they're closing access to the viewing area at 6 -- but I think I will get up to watch it on TV, and I may open a window to see if I can hear it. I may not, since I live down in a valley and am shielded from that direction, but I want to try anyway. For a landmark at the gateway to our city, it was rather hideous, and the things they're talking about doing with that space are interesting. I don't miss the game-day traffic at all. But I will miss coming home from a long drive and not seeing that white blob on the horizon that tells me I'm almost there.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Being Scary

I think I'm in a reading slump. I finished reading my last book on Monday afternoon, and I still haven't started another one. I've finished my library books, but I have at least a thousand books in my house, at least a hundred of which I've never read. My books represent just about every genre and just about every subgenre within the main genres I read. And right now, none of them appeal to me. I stared at my bookcase for quite some time yesterday and couldn't think of anything I wanted to read. None of the to-be-read books struck my fancy, and none of the old favorites were what I really wanted. If I went to the library, there's nothing in particular I would want to look for. There's not even anything currently available that I haven't read that I'm eager to read. I suppose that's good right now, since I'm trying to finish writing a book, but I sleep better when I read at least a few pages at night, and it just feels weird to not have a book in progress.

Meanwhile, I really need to get my bitch on. The scene I was working on yesterday involved the first major face-to-face showdown between my villain and my heroine, and I'm starting to see why I tend to write somewhat sympathetic villains who aren't really all that nasty (they're just wrong). I have a hard time doing nasty. Either I don't have it in me or I'm afraid I do and I'm terrified of what I might unleash if I really went there. This is a verbal smackdown scene in which the villain is trying to be really nasty to the heroine, but doesn't quite succeed because she doesn't understand the heroine enough to really draw verbal/emotional blood and the heroine doesn't care what she thinks about her. Meanwhile, the heroine is basically a nice person, but she can be utterly ruthless when someone messes with people she cares about (which the villain has done). She can really draw blood when she gets nasty, not so much because she's trying to be mean, but because she's accurate. She's not necessarily trying to hurt, just laying things out there to make the situation clear to the villain and to the onlookers. And all of this is from the point of view of another character, who had always suspected that the heroine could be a little scary, and now he knows why. I don't think I'm there yet, and while I'm tempted to say I'll fix it in revisions because the outcome will be the same, I've been burned by assuming that before, so I think I need to get it more right before I move on.

What's funny about how hard this is for me is that at various phases of my life, I've been considered "scary," in spite of being such a huge weenie and being terrified of hurting someone's feelings. I later learned, through reunions and through the fact that my parents knew some of my classmates or their parents, that half my high school was afraid of me. I can't remember anything I actually said or did to instill this kind of fear. I think it was more of a sense of potential, that if I ever did unload on someone, it would be deadly. It may also have had something to do with the fact that I do have a fierce glare, which at the time was actually more of a squint because I'm a bit nearsighted, but it didn't get bad enough for corrective lenses until I was older. It was just seen as a glare.

Then there was the offensive lineman who was trying to date my roommate when I was a senior in college. This guy was at least a foot taller than I was and was probably more than twice my weight, and he was afraid of me. I know what I said to him to scare him, but I don't see that it's all that scary. My roommate was a drama major and was always involved in some show, so she was never in the room. This guy would call, I'd tell him she wasn't there and that I'd tell her he'd called. Then he'd call again half an hour later. And then again another half an hour later. And so forth. I was trying to study, and I finally got fed up and said, "I told you I would tell her you called when she got back. Have you heard from her?"

"Uhhhhh, no."

"So what does that tell you?"

(Pause) "Uh, I dunno."

"It means that either she isn't back yet, or she is back and doesn't want to talk to you. In this case, it means she isn't back yet. Calling again won't make her call you back any faster, but it is interrupting my studying."

After that, he told my roommate that her roommate was "scary" and he refused to come to the room to try to see her for fear of running into me. Not that she minded, as she wasn't all that into him and thought he was dumber than a box of rocks. Now really, though, is what I said to him anything worth being scared of (especially considering he could have lifted me with one hand)? Is it mean or bitchy?

The last time I think I utterly terrified someone, it was about a week and a half after I had knee surgery. I'd gone back to work, but just going to and from work and physical therapy was exhausting. I was still on crutches, still having to take prescription painkillers at night, and my knee was still so swollen that I couldn't bend it very much. One evening, the guy I was dating at the time called to ask me on a date. I declined, on the grounds of the crutches, pain, hassle and all -- going out wasn't on my list of fun things to do at the time. Because of the leg not bending much, I wouldn't have been able to sit comfortably in a movie theater, and the crutches were iffy on a restaurant floor. He went into a snit and said, "Well, when I'm dating someone, I like to go out with them." Mind you, he hadn't so much as sent me a get-well card, hadn't sent flowers, hadn't offered to do anything to help me around the house while I was on crutches. I'd have been thrilled if he'd suggested bringing over some takeout and a movie to have a "date" that didn't involve me having to go anywhere. If he'd taken my trash out while he was there (I was living in a third-floor apartment at the time), I might have married him. But he was pouting and feeling ill-used because I didn't want to go out. I really wish I could remember what I said to him. It must have been good because he avoided me for years afterward -- and we were in the same Sunday school class and were in the church choir together. But I'd taken one of the prescription painkillers not long before he called, and it kicked in at just the right time, so I don't remember the rest of the conversation. I'm assuming I broke up with him. I must have done so very colorfully in a way that shattered his self-esteem.

I do have my List of people who have wronged me in some way, but that's just because I have a good memory. I joke about the first against the wall when the revolution comes, but I really have no plans to do anything with the List. I wouldn't cry if these people ended up being harmed by their own mistakes, but even if I got into a position where I'd have power over them, the most I might do is remind them subtly of what they'd done to me in the past. Then I wouldn't do anything at all, which might be even more mean because they'd be waiting for something, and that's stressful, but it's still them doing it to themselves, not me doing anything.

I guess what I need to do is figure out all my villain's weaknesses so my heroine can list them in a "bless your heart" way. And then I need to figure out what my villain might perceive as my heroine's weaknesses and how she might list them in a way designed to hurt. Maybe I need to read some Shakespearean insults for inspiration. Is there a random insult generator online somewhere?

Or does this count as justification for a marathon of the Donna episodes of Doctor Who?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

And Another Thing ...

I took a semi-impromptu vacation and went to visit my parents after church Sunday. I took my computer, but I guess I never got around to posting anything. I think I wrote one sentence of a potential post before becoming sidetracked. But now I'm back, although my internal calendar is all messed up because it feels kind of like a Monday even though it's a Wednesday. I'll need to put Post-It notes around the house to remind myself what day it is so I don't forget to go to choir.

While I was gone, I learned that yet another one of those "fight your allergies all day without feeling drowsy" medications doesn't really work on me (I don't like to try new medications when I'm at home alone, since I react badly to so many, so I tried it while with the folks). Sadly, this one neither worked on the allergies nor allowed me to remain awake and functioning. Plus, it was "12-hour" so I couldn't take anything else to help with the allergies for quite some time, and it zonked me out for a long time. It looks like I'm stuck with Benadryl. If something's going to make me sleepy, it might as well work.

I also may have discovered why I've had trouble coming up with ways to cook all those pinto beans I found in my pantry. It's because beans are evil.

Meanwhile, I managed to get the sixth book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy from the library, and that was my holiday reading. So, what did I think about Eoin Colfer's take on that universe in And Another Thing ...? I guess I'd have to classify it as Mostly Harmless, but better than Mostly Harmless. Adams at his best was never all that great about producing a coherent plot or complex characters with any depth to them. But at his best, he did come up with the most inspired bits of absurdist satire, peppered with hilarious one-liners. At his worst, you got generally amusing with a few good lines, while noticing that he wasn't much on plot or character. I would say that this new book is closer to Adams at his worst in the sense of generally amusing with a few good lines and some nice bits of satire, only with an actual plot where all the threads come together and with the characters actually being developed and maybe even some (gasp!) character arcs. So in some ways it's better, but in the ways that matter -- the reasons you read a Hitchhiker's book -- it doesn't come close.

I will say that I enjoyed it, for the most part, I did laugh out loud a few times, but the best parts all seemed to involve a continuation of something Adams started. I probably would have found parts of it funnier if I had more than the slightest passing knowledge of Norse mythology (yeah, I appreciate the irony of that, given my last name -- maybe I should rectify that). It picks up after Mostly Harmless, which is the one book I don't own and have only read once, so I didn't remember a lot of that set-up. A lot of the book actually kind of felt like Adams, especially his later books. The one part that felt "off" was the Guide entries that are interspersed throughout. It took me a while to realize they were supposed to be Guide entries because the tone was so wrong.

I guess in summary I would say that if you're a fan of the original series, this one won't retroactively kill your love for it (if Mostly Harmless didn't do so already). I'm not sure it's a must-read, but it's worth looking at.

And now I must go fling myself head-first back into my work.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Friday Hodge-Podge

Today is going to be a round-up and hodge-podge of random stuff I seem to keep forgetting to mention.

If you've been really bad and are in need of repentance this Good Friday, Stargate Universe returns to the Sci Fi Channel tonight. Force yourself to watch it as penance for your sins (I'm going to church instead, but I may catch it OnDemand or the late-night repeat because snarking about it is just too much fun). Sci Fi (I refuse to acknowledge the name change) is also showing the second season of Merlin, after NBC showed the first season last summer (though I suspect that if you care, you've already watched on the UK schedule via other means). That one was kind of okay, though they had a bad problem with a serious Stupid Virus infecting either their food supply or water system because, damn, but every character on that show is Too Stupid to Live. To watch it, I have to pretend that it's about people who happen to be named Merlin, Arthur, Uther, etc., not the characters out of legend.

I think I've pretty much finalized my convention schedule for the year, unless something happens to drastically change it. In two weeks, I'll be on a panel at the Texas Library Association convention in San Antonio. In late August, I'll be at Armadillocon in Austin. And then in September I'll be at FenCon in Dallas. Otherwise, this is another cave year in which I focus on writing instead of traveling. I'm still on the fence about Mythcon in Dallas this summer, but if I go, it will likely be as an attendee, not a program participant because it's more of an academic conference with paper presentations instead of panels, and I don't feel like I'm enough of an expert to write a paper (and I don't want to devote the time to writing a paper).

I forgot to mention in my discussion of the book Inkheart that one thing I loved about it was how the author's love of books shines through. I love the way she talks about books (or her characters talk about books). I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that an author loves books, but the way she described reading and the way it feels and the impact of a favorite book had me constantly saying, "She gets it! That's exactly the way it is!"

And now I need to go figure out exactly what needs to happen in a big, climactic scene. My spirit guide Terry Pratchett was of no help in that area last night.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Not an April Fool's Joke

I briefly considered doing some kind of April Fool's Day post about how I'd decided to give up having a sense of humor and writing fantasy and was going to focus instead on writing Nicholas Sparks-style books about people who find each other and fall in love, only to have one of them die tragically soon afterward. Or maybe that I'd decided to give in and go with the flow and write a vampire book. But I think doing online April Fool's pranks can easily backfire, since it's still out there, and you have no idea when people might read the post or how it might show up in a search engine. If you're reading something in June, you take it as fact, and you probably aren't looking at the date it was posted. And from there rumors spread and then I get lots of e-mails complaining about me selling out to try to write that kind of stuff and why don't I write more good things they like. Therefore, this post will be a non-April Fool's zone.

So, you know how I said yesterday that I didn't need to fix the recently written scenes until revisions because the fixes wouldn't affect the plot? I was wrong. Once I started trying to plan what happened next, I realized that setting it up would require going back at least 75 pages to revise some of the placeholder scenes, and that would then significantly change a lot of other things to follow. Some of the scenes will require complete re-writes, while some will be just adding some things. I did find out that there is a plot reason for that scene that hit me out of nowhere over the weekend, so it looks like it might stay. And while in some ways it's frustrating to be so near the end yet having to go back and fix things before I can get there (I suspect I won't make my Easter self-imposed deadline), I think revisions will require less hair-pulling, moaning and general angst. Plus, fixing the set-up means the ending is more likely to be right the first time.

Although I have no plans to write tear-jerkers or vampire books, I do spend some time thinking about what I could be writing in addition to where I already am. I've been encouraged multiple times to try writing young adult books. Since my adult books are teen-safe (they're "clean") and I do have a teen following, it seems like a natural extension for me to move into that market, which is a really hot market right now. Unfortunately, my attempt there wasn't very successful. The thing is, I'm not sure I'm edgy enough to write young adult, especially in today's post-Twilight market. In some ways, it seems like the recent YA fiction I've read has actually been edgier than a lot of adult fiction. There's more of a pressure to be "real," to deal honestly with a lot of the issues that kids today face, like pressure to have sex or the consequences of sex, family drama, suicide, drugs/alcohol, etc. There's also an emphasis on heightened emotion -- that dramatic "I'd rather die than be without you" sense. I don't think I can capture any of that. Even when I was a teenager, I wasn't really a teenager. I may have had a few drama queen moments, but they were usually very calculated to get a particular result, not anything I actually meant. I had a few crushes as a teen, but didn't think I actually was in love with someone until I was in college. Finding out that a guy didn't like me back was disappointing, not "I think I'll go cut myself" devastating. I didn't feel pressured to have sex (heck, I couldn't even get a date), and alcohol or drugs weren't even the slightest temptation. I don't think I'm mature enough for young adult, even though I'm old enough to be a parent of one.

But lately I've noticed that what I enjoy reading isn't young adult, it's what gets classified as "middle grade." Like Inkheart or the Flora Segunda books, Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books and, yes, the Harry Potter series. Most of the fantasy novels I enjoyed as a kid/teen (and even now) are put into this classification, like the Narnia books, the Lloyd Alexander Prydain books or Madeleine L'Engle's Time series. The YA/MG distinction didn't exist back then. There were just children's books and adult books, without teens having their separate category, so it's possible that these older books might be classified differently today but are still stuck in the children's section because that's where they were to begin with. But I think there's a distinct difference in tone. I'm still trying to figure out, precisely, what the difference is. The middle-grade audience is younger, probably in the fourth grade through junior high, depending on reading level, and the characters tend to be around that age range, as well, though may go a little older, since kids generally like to "read up" and read about characters who are a little older than they are. I can't really tell any difference in writing style or vocabulary between YA and MG. My agent says a big difference is pacing. Middle grade needs a much faster pace, less stopping to think or talk too much, and the turning points need to be drastic turning points with lots of big, unexpected stuff happening.

But in my recent reading and thinking, I think I'm finding another difference. It has to do more with tone or emphasis, and part of this epiphany came from reading a question asked on a publishing industry blog, where someone asked about YA characters and should they be self-confident to provide good role models or self-doubting so that readers could identify with them. A commenter mentioned that it seems like the YA characters, particularly girls, who were self-confident were portrayed as bitches and were usually the bad guys/antagonists. That really struck a chord for me. There have been all kinds of studies talking about a kind of dip girls go through around the time of puberty/early teen years. Before that time, they're confident and fearless and do rather well in math and science. After that time, confidence levels plunge and math and science scores tend to go down. Around this time, confidence starts to look like a bad thing. I remember this from my own younger days and it also comes up in the non-fiction book that inspired the movie Mean Girls (and was dramatized in that movie), but being considered "conceited" was the worst sin a girl could commit. You couldn't even graciously accept a compliment because that meant you actually believed it, which meant you were a conceited bitch. You were supposed to downplay the compliment or argue with it. It seems to me like middle grade books take place before this "dip" or ignore the dip and are written for readers who haven't hit the dip yet or who don't hit it (not all girls do -- I don't think I did, since I never cared much about peer pressure and was more likely to be friends with boys than with girls). The middle-grade heroine seems to be fearless -- think Pippi Longstocking or Hermione Granger -- while the YA heroine worries about not fitting in or no one liking her. If a MG heroine meets a strapping young man in the course of her adventures, her first thought will be that his presence improves her chances for success, as long as he isn't an idiot. You need someone around to get things that are up high or to lift heavy stuff, and if he proves his worth, then maybe she'll fall in love with him. A typical YA heroine would see him as potential boyfriend material, while thinking that he'd never notice her because she's just an ordinary nobody. In today's market, he'd also probably be a supernatural stalker type who's dark and dangerous and moody.

I'll have to do more reading to see if this holds true. And if I do write for younger readers, then maybe middle-grade is more my speed. Unfortunately, I don't really have any ideas that aren't totally cliched or done to death. When I was that age, I think most of my fantasies were along the Narnia lines of finding myself in some magical world where I could have grand adventures. And that's been done a few zillion times. The trick is finding a new twist on it, and I'm not there yet.