Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Diligent Day

It turned out that my new vision of the scene I was working on was right. It was so much better than the old way that I'd been imagining for about a year. It somehow managed to fit in more information and more conflict with fewer words. And then I discovered that the next scene also needed work. I took an online class last year in which one of the suggestions was to go over your manuscript with highlighters, color-coding for stuff like introspection, dialogue, action, description, etc. This scene started with two pages of introspection/narrative. Plus I realized that I'd cut off the previous scene in that plot line with a slight cliffhanger, but picked up the next scene later, and there was room for more stuff to happen. So now I'm rewriting it to continue where it left off, weaving the introspection into a conversation. This version is likely to be longer than the first one because I'm adding so much, but I have spare words to play with.

I was especially diligent yesterday, clocking six hours of writing-related work time. That included work on my medical school project (work for the medical school. I am not in medical school), work on the book and research for the next book. That doesn't include my marketing-related and market research activities, like blogging, dealing with e-mail, checking up on industry blogs or administrative work related to some upcoming conventions.

This next book is going to require more research than I've ever put into a book. To be totally honest, most of my books haven't needed that much research beyond the location. The research I've done has been more about folklore and stuff like that, and it's to (maybe) give more depth to the story. It might also count as a procrastination method, though a good procrastination method because I think sometimes the subconscious needs that time to do its work. However, this next book needs tons of research because I'm delving into some areas I've never worked with. I suspect that by the time I'm done, I'll have read at least 30 books in preparation for writing the book. That does include some fiction because there's market research involved, as well as some fiction that actually counts as world-building research.

Hmm, just did a quick mental count and it's going to be way more than 30. If I count the market research and genre background research, I'm already at 20, and I'm only starting the specific research. The story idea remains pretty vague, with just a few details starting to come into focus. I have to get the world clear before I can create characters and the plot.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rainy Mornings

I finally managed to sleep in! I made it all the way to 8:30. I don't want to reset my body clock because I'm rather liking being a morning person. I seem to get more done. I also have 9 a.m. physical therapy appointments three days a week. But after two days of getting up extra early in spite of staying up late, and after a 4:30 a.m. thunderstorm waking me up this morning, it was nice to get a little extra sleep. Even nicer was the fact that it was raining, and lying in bed and listening to it rain is one of my absolute favorite things. I actually woke around 8 but lay there for half an hour. One of the luxuries of my job and lifestyle is that most of the time, I don't have to get out of bed unless I want to, and I don't have to go anywhere. When I had a day job that required a commute, I hated rainy mornings because traffic was always a nightmare. Now, though, I enjoy rainy mornings doubly. I enjoy the fact that I don't have to get on the freeway while I'm also just enjoying the experience of listening to it rain.

While I was lying there, I came up with a character who is now in search of a story. This character started as something of a hypothetical mental fanfic insert into another universe, but the element of the character that I came up with this morning is now really interesting, and I want to write this character, but that means coming up with an appropriate universe where this element can work.

I'm still fighting the good vs. great battle, and I think I had a breakthrough yesterday. I was working on details about a character. He's a character I really like and find interesting, but I worry that he'll come across as "boring" to editors and some readers. One way to get around that is to come up with a trait that's interesting and that adds a different element to this kind of character -- like Owen's extreme shyness, which isn't what you expect from a gorgeous, powerful person. When I came up with some things, I had to figure out how to incorporate those into his introductory scene, and then I realized that meant rethinking that entire scene. This was one of the first scenes I envisioned, back when I first started brainstorming the story idea and before I knew what most of the book would be about, so it was really hard to break out of my mindset about how this scene should go. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that some of the things that happened were not only a bit out of character, but also were distancing -- delaying things from actually happening. The way things happened also kept me from using those elements that make him interesting (and that should up the humor levels).

So, today I'll start with a new document and rewrite the scene and see how it works the new way before I stick it in the book.

In other news, they've released the trailer for the last two Harry Potter movies (two movies for the seventh book). I'm hoping it shows up OnDemand on my cable service (it's a Warner film and I have TimeWarner cable, so it's a good bet) because it was all jerky and almost stop-motion on my ancient, steam-powered laptop, and I couldn't quite pick out which scenes seemed to correspond with which scenes from the book. I need to look up the exact release date in November and put it on my calendar because that will be a day to walk up the hill to the theater (I love fall releases because I can do that without heat stroke). And then I'll probably see it again with friends.

Monday, June 28, 2010


I'm all ready to face the work week after a busy weekend of singing and serving at a wedding, then having a very small, very casual dinner party. My house is clean, which makes for a peaceful environment. Now if only I could overcome the sleep deprivation. I'm back to popping awake early, but now it's at 6 a.m., in spite of staying up late the night before. I'm trying to decide if I would function better if I took a nap or if I just power through it and then try to get some sleep tonight. I guess I'll see how well I focus when I sit down to work.

I'm still doing physical therapy. Apparently, the scar tissue around my shoulder joint is loosening and breaking up, which means that I get a funny popping feeling when I move my arm. It usually doesn't hurt. It's just weird. I seem to have made a lot of progress in just the past week. I can't wait for all of this to be over so I can get back to normal (and stop racking up medical bills).

This week's goal is to take the book from good to great. It's easy to rewrite parts that suck. It's a lot harder when a scene is okay or even pretty good but you still get the sense that something is somehow lacking, that there's more that could be done. That takes a lot of patience, and that's probably my weakness. I just want to get it done, and if it's good enough, then that's okay. But this is a tough market right now, I'm essentially breaking back in, and I love this story and these characters enough to want to make this book the best it can be. Besides, I'm afraid that my main character will come after me if I shortchange her, and she's kind of scary. She's not a person to do things halfway, so she doesn't accept that from others, not even her author.

I have stuff to say about the season finale of Doctor Who, but I have to wait until it airs in the US and until Mom sees it because it's something that shouldn't be spoiled.

And now lunch, then work.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Fine Tuning

A quick, early post today because I have physical therapy this morning (ow), followed by some errands, then lunch downtown with a friend and a visit to the central library because I'm about to start the serious research, and I can't get a sense of which books I need just from the library web site, so I'm going to look at them instead of putting in requests to have them delivered to my branch. Plus, they have an exhibit on Harry Potter at the library that ends this weekend.

I'm in the nit-picky editing phase. I've done the major story revisions. Now I'm trying to make each scene better, and this is one of those areas where "good" is the enemy of "great." I have to figure out if the scene really is the best it can be, or if I'm stuck on what's on the page and can't imagine the other possibilities. There are a few places where it kind of feels like the characters are making speeches instead of having a conversation, but I can't tell if that's appropriate to the situation, since it is a situation where they're explaining things to each other and one character is way too polite to interrupt the other character. I may try a few writing exercises on some of these scenes and see what happens.

Now that I think about it, one of the problems is that a normally non-chatty person is the one making these speeches, and it's a case of it all pouring out at once because he hasn't really talked about it before and the person he's talking to is easy to talk to, the kind of person who gets people to talk easily and someone who might understand. So what I need to do is show the emotion behind the sudden gusher of words, which makes it seem more like an outpouring than a speech. If he's surprised that he's talking (and it's from his POV), then it works better.

I'm also worried about the humor levels. It's funny in my head when I can see the movements, facial expressions and body language, but not so funny on the page. That could mean I need to describe better, but in one case, I seem to be seeing the scenes as a movie instead of from the viewpoint of the character, so I see all her funny facial expressions and movements, but she wouldn't notice them in herself. She's almost a Lucille Ball kind of character who's always getting into and out of scrapes, but I don't think Lucille Ball would be funny from her own POV, and this character is the viewpoint character for this part of the story. Going into the POV of anyone else would give away too much of the plot because she has to solve the mystery while she's surrounded by bad guys. All the other characters in this plot line are bad guys or gray-area characters where we're always guessing about where they stand. Getting into their heads would reveal too much.

But I can't think more about this. I must dress and run to therapy. Busy, busy weekend, as after today's social and errand excursions I must clean house, iron my dress for the wedding and give myself a pedicure so that my feet can stand public scrutiny. Then tomorrow I've got rehearsal before the wedding, the wedding itself (which will also involve herding teenagers), the reception, where I'm serving cake, and then when I escape the wedding I'm having some friends over.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Making Something Happen

It seems that forcing myself to get up at 6:30 in the morning for a week somehow cured me of bouncing out of bed at 6:40. I slept all the way until almost 8 today. I must have been really tired because I went to bed pretty early. I think part of it is that this is my least-favorite time of year. I don't like summer in this part of the world. I read books about kids spending their summers playing outdoors, and I even lived in places where you could do that. Here, that would be a good way to commit suicide by heat stroke. I've heard that doctors in climates like this actually see a fair number of reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder cases in the summer because in the hot weather, people stay indoors during daylight hours and therefore get less sun exposure than people up north get during winter. I can see that. I have energy in the winter, but not really in the summer. It doesn't help that summer weather seems to have come on so suddenly. On the first day of spring, it snowed. On the last day of spring, it was 100 degrees. I was looking at my reading log for the year, and most of my books from May, I remember reading on cool, cloudy days when I curled up under a light blanket with some hot tea. That was not much more than a month ago. It seems like we went from having cool, pleasant weather directly to blistering heat.

In other news, I finally wrote the end of the book yesterday. I'm not entirely sure I like it, but I can fix it in edits. There are a lot of loose ends to wrap up, so I'm worried that the conclusion part pulled a Return of the King and went on forever and ever after the climax, but then I'm also worried that I skimmed over too much instead of dealing with it fully. Now I'm even wondering how much I need, if them talking about how they'll handle things is enough to give closure, or if we need to see them doing it. And I really need a title. I've been reading poetry related to the subject matter, I've done quotations searches on key words related to the story. I've flipped through movie guides to look at titles for ideas I could twist. And nada. I'm drawing a blank. I can visualize the cover, but I can't see a title on it.

I've also found a dress I can wear to the wedding Saturday, after some exploration in my closet. I've got a nice spaghetti-strap dress that I can zip up, and I learned when I had trouble unzipping it that I can slip the straps off my shoulders and twist the dress around so that the zipper is in the front to unzip it. I'm singing with the choir at this wedding (it's the choir director's wedding), so I'll be wearing a choir robe for the service, and that makes a rather bare dress a good idea for not melting under the robe. Plus, the dress goes with a new pair of shoes I still haven't worn. I'll have to iron the dress and give myself a pedicure (the shoes are strappy high-heeled sandals), but otherwise, I'm set.

Meanwhile, I seem to be getting a lot of reader mail lately. It tends to come in waves, like suddenly everyone gets the inclination to write to me, and then for a while no one does. I haven't been able to find any trigger (though maybe I should look at the Bookscan reports and see if there's a related rise in sales anywhere in there). I have started suggesting that people who write demanding more books write directly to the publisher about that. It's not that I don't like hearing from readers, but I figure the demands are better addressed to people who can do something about them. Believe me, I'm already on your side. I want more books, too, but it's not my decision. Snail mail is better than e-mail because it's more likely to be opened and read by a human being who can notice a trend than e-mail is. I've heard that people who e-mailed about wanting more books have received replies along the lines of "there are currently no more books scheduled by that author, but you can sign up for our e-mail list to be notified about new releases." I imagine if I'd received a message like that, I'd have gone into a minor rant of, "I know there aren't any books scheduled, you moron. That's why I wrote to you, to complain about it."

I'm still not sure what good it will do, as they make decisions based on sales figures, and there's currently no editor within the company championing these books who would be inclined to take a stack of reader mail to a meeting as proof that there's a great pent-up demand out there. And even there, the beancounters are likely to say that 20 or even 100 letters doesn't mean the book would sell enough copies to make a profit. To get their attention, it would have to look like the end of Miracle on 34th Street, where they bring in bags and bags of mail. But still, since I'm a firm believer in complaining to the people responsible for the decision, if you are so inclined, you could write to:
Ballantine Books
1745 Broadway
New York, NY 10019

What would make a difference? The big one is the movie being made, which I don't know that anyone can influence. You could support other movies along those lines so the studio will think this one would do well, but I'm not sure how they're classifying this project -- as a romantic comedy, or as fantasy -- and I'm never sure how they classify other movies, so I'm not sure what they'd look at when making a decision. Most fantasy these days seems to be more in the kids' movie category, and romantic comedies haven't been wildly successful this year (because most of them have seriously sucked). I've never heard of a movie getting made because fans demanded it, so I don't know if it would be worthwhile to Google contact information for Universal and write about having seen something about them optioning this book and asking when the movie will be coming out because you're dying to see it. They'd need millions of people to want to see it, so I'm not sure if a few letters or e-mails would matter.

Otherwise, I think it would take something really big to get publishers' attention -- like every single Barnes & Noble store in the entire country selling or special ordering at least one copy of each book in the series, all in a single week (or, preferably, for several weeks), so it would create a serious blip that might make the chain start asking questions. Or a grass-roots fan campaign that gets the attention of some major book blogs and then the publishing industry blogs/press, which would make both publishers and booksellers more aware of the demand as well as generating more sales (because it all comes back to sales). The thing is, these aren't things I can do, organize or lead. Grass-roots campaigns that turn out to have been generated by the person they benefit always backfire, even if the grass-roots support was genuine. It would have to be generated and organized and done by the fans with no involvement from me, other than a little cheerleading, and it would have to be big to have an impact. If you need a summer project, knock yourself out and have fun with it, but I know nothing about it (though if it works, it would look great on a resume or college application, and I'd be happy to write reference letters).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Researching a Book

I had a moment of triumph today in physical therapy: I managed to put my hand on my hip easily, with no effort or sense of resistance. I've been able to put my hand on my hip, but my elbow still was more back than to the side, and I felt like I had to overcome a lot of resistance to do it. Today, I just put it there. However, it does seem to be hurting more the closer I get to "back to normal." I guess that scar tissue is being stretched to the limit. Meanwhile, I spent most of the day yesterday writing something, only to realize at the end of the day that I was doing it wrong. Fortunately, the fix will mostly involve deleting stuff, without much new writing.

By reader request, I'm discussing my research processes. Last writing post, I talked about doing market research. Now I'll talk about "research research."

As a disclaimer, I want to make it clear that this is my process. It's what works for me, and it may work for other people, but I'm not saying that this is the one, true way to do things.

I generally do research in two phases. First is what I consider world-building or idea-generation research. I do this research at the beginning of a project, when I have just enough of an idea to know what to research. As I read and research, my ideas firm up, and I come up with more areas I need to study. I make a list of topics I need to explore, and this list grows and changes as I go.

Depending on the book, this research may involve things like the physical location, the time period, the occupations of the characters, any folklore or mythology I'm working with (since I write fantasy), any applicable technology, and some things to do with theme or style.

For instance, when I was preparing to write Enchanted, Inc., the first book in my series, I just knew it would be about a magical corporation in New York. I researched some long-time businesses based in New York. At first, I was researching some of the old financial institutions, since those are what you think of for businesses in lower Manhattan, but then I realized that what I really wanted to write was more a spoof of the software industry, so I read some books about a few start-up software and computer companies. Since I was dealing with the corporate world, I read a few books on dealing with difficult bosses and co-workers, office politics and women in the workplace. I read several travel books about New York and some books about the history of the city. I was using fairy tale elements in the story, so I read some works about fairy tales and some sociological/psychological theory about them. I was thinking of this book in terms of being a satire on the corporate world, so I read a few books about satire. When I'd gone a little further in the plotting and planning, I'd realized that Merlin would be one of my characters, so I read some of the more popular/famous works about Merlin, as well as some scholarly books about the role of Merlin in Arthurian legends.

For world building purposes, you could also read novels written and published during the period you're writing about, or books written about that period by people who lived through them. If you're writing in a historical period, that's a good way to get a sense of the mindset and use of language. That does not mean that novels are a source for facts or that you can do your research by reading any books set in your setting. But there are novels that are considered to be a good reflection of that segment of time and place. For instance, if you're writing about early 19th century England among the country gentry, you should probably read Jane Austen. If you're writing about the Gilded Age in New York, Edith Wharton will give you a sense of that world. One great thing about books written during the time period is that it lets you know what words wouldn't have been used during the period because they weren't yet a part of the vocabulary. For instance, the word "okay" is pretty recent and a big anachronism trap (word nerds cringe during the opening scene of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie when the 18th century British girl uses the word "okay"). If you read novels written during your time period and the word "okay" (or any other word you're fond of) never occurs, it's probably not okay to use it.

All this research is what helps me develop the germ of an idea into a plot because it gives me a sense of what could happen and what can't happen in that milieu. You wouldn't want to have put together an entire plot only to then do your research and find out that the key elements are impossible. On the other hand, knowing what can happen gives me ideas for plot developments or events. This research might also spark ideas of the kind of people who would be in that situation, which helps in developing characters.

The research comes back when it comes to actual writing. That's when specific questions pop up -- how does this work, exactly where is this, how long would this take, how much would this cost, etc. I may go back to the same books I read for idea-generation research, but often these questions can be answered with proper use of Google. Sometimes I just go on and fill in the specifics later, but sometimes there's a question that comes up during writing that determines how a scene will go, so it's worth the time to stop and do the research before going on.

Books aren't the only source for information. There are also Internet sites put together by people with a passion for the subject (but check your facts against other sources). You can sometimes find newspaper or magazine archives either online or at a library. For some subjects, you can get great information by interviewing experts or people with some experience with your subject matter. Visiting the location of your setting makes it come to life. Before writing each book in my series, I visited New York to walk around the locations (except for the fourth book, which was set in Texas, so for that one I went to some small towns in the area where the book was set). That gives you the feel, the smells, the sounds and other things that you can't get properly from books.

I find a lot of my sources by just wandering the library, but I may also look up one book I know relates to the topic, then see what the "people who bought this also bought" lists on Amazon say. I've found great related books that way. Museum gift shops are a good place to find reference books -- especially museums that focus on your subject area. For instance, if you're using the medieval area, the shop in the Cloisters in New York is full of great reference books. Library book sales and used bookstores are a good place to find odd, out-of-print books you might never find in a regular bookstore or even the library.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Updates, Recaps and Precaps

Ah, a whole morning at home. I did wake up at 6:40, but I let myself lie in bed until 7:30, just because I could. It was brainstorming time, as I was mostly daydreaming about the book. I got to the end of this draft of revisions yesterday, and now I really do need to write the conclusion to the book. I got at least part of it figured out this morning. I hope to get the whole conclusion written today. Then I may do a pass focusing on particular characters who aren't living up to their potential.

This book seems to be taking me forever to finish it. I started researching and brainstorming it in July of last year, but I did take time out in October/November and again in January to work on something else. When I picked it up again in January, it was almost starting from scratch, so really this book has taken me about six months for first draft and revisions, and it's not like I've been goofing off. What I'm hoping is that it will be closer to "finished" when I finish it and I won't have to do another round of intense, serious revisions after my agent looks at it. Then I have two other ideas shaping up in my head that I'm getting eager to work on.

And now for a status update roundup. I'm making progress with the shoulder. I can now put my hand on my hip. If an "I'm a Little Teapot" emergency came up, I could play, but I might lose points for form. I can't, however, Walk Like an Egyptian very well. The one area where this is still affecting my life involves getting dressed. Most of my summer dresses either zip up the back or up the side, and both of those are angles I currently can't get to with both hands, so if the zipper requires any work, it's not gonna happen. I have a wedding to go to this weekend, and I have no idea what to wear because I can't zip up most of my wedding-appropriate dresses. One of the few non-black skirts I own, I already wore to the wedding shower. Maybe there's something in the dry cleaning bag I could get into. The nice thing about going out for physical therapy three times a week is that it makes running errands easier.

I finished the Victorian novel I was reading that had the introduction that gave away the ending in the second paragraph, and when I went back to read the introduction, it turned out to be a recap of the entire novel. Or I guess you could call it a precap, since the summary was before the novel itself. I really don't get that. The book is right there, and presumably we wouldn't have bought or checked out the book if we didn't want to read it. It was like this was the "book you're supposed to read for English class but don't really want to" edition. But I did find a great way of doing the context material in an edition of Treasure Island. It had margin notes, with illustrations, to put things in context, as well as the occasional insert page. So there were photos of pieces of eight, maps of the West Indies, diagrams of the different kinds of sailing ships, diagrams of different ways of rigging sails, photos and explanations of the nautical instruments, details from period paintings. So, at the point where you needed the information to better understand the story, there was reference material in the margins. Yeah, it was probably meant for younger readers, but I really enjoyed it. It also occurred to me that Robert Louis Stevenson was a male Victorian novelist who didn't always have the hero end up with the useless woman. in The Black Arrow, the hero actually ends up with the plucky girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to run for her life and who helped him defeat the bad guys. True, there was no useless woman alternative in the book, but it seems like most male Victorian novelists would have had a sweet, beautiful, useless sister who stayed behind while the other sister disguised herself as a boy and went to get help, and then after fighting alongside that sister, the hero would have fallen in love with the useless one when he came to her rescue.

But I'm taking a break from classics for a while because I'm re-reading the first two books in the Rogue Agent series by KE Mills, in preparation for the new one coming out next week. I think the new one will be my "Yay, I really finished the book!" reward.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Toy Abandonment Issues

So, I survived last week and am more or less back to normal, except for the physical therapy. I'm really looking forward to tomorrow, the first morning in ages for which I have nothing scheduled. Now, watch me be wide awake at 6 on the first day I can really let myself sleep in.

I got up early Saturday because I went with my friends to see Toy Story 3 and we thought we could avoid the worst of the crowd by going to the early, pre-noon show. That was perhaps overly optimistic of us, as the theater was full, and mostly with very little kids. In a way, though, the kids enhance the experience of a movie like that. I had a big "Awwww" attack on the way into the theater when a little one toddled in holding his Woody doll in one arm and his Buzz Lightyear doll in his other arm. The movie was brilliant -- definitely not just a sequel designed to make money. It was kind of a coming-of-age story, both for Andy and for his toys. And like every Pixar movie ever, it made me cry.

The funny thing is, I'm not sure why the part that made me cry had such a strong effect on me (my eyes are starting to water just thinking about it). I didn't have a favorite toy as a kid, nothing like Woody is to Andy -- the toy you play with, sleep with and insist on taking with you when you go out. I guess I'm fickle. I had a couple of toys that worked in the security blanket role when I was a toddler, but nothing that I loved throughout my childhood. I liked playing with my Barbie dolls, but I don't recall feeling any particular affection toward the dolls themselves. I mostly liked books, and I liked the one I was reading at the time, so I didn't even have a beloved favorite there. I think I tried a couple of times having a beloved favorite toy after reading something like The Velveteen Rabbit and feeling like I should have a beloved favorite, but it never stuck. I did play with toys the way Andy does in the movies, creating epic scenarios that combine all the toys into one story. I just don't get that affectionate toward inanimate objects. I also don't name my cars or computers.

I think perhaps I identify with the Toy Story toys instead of with the kid, and I seem to have some abandonment issues, so it sets me off whenever it looks like a toy might be left behind or forgotten.

At any rate, it's an excellent action movie that just happens to be about animated toys. And that might make you cry at the end. The Pixar cartoon before the movie was delightfully surreal.

There were tons of trailers before the movie, but the only one that got me excited was Voyage of the Dawn Treader, set for the Christmas season. I didn't even realize they were making that one. It was one of my favorite books in the series. Now I hope it does well enough for them to make The Silver Chair, which was my favorite. It's a classic quest story that would lend itself well to film, though I'm not sure any CGI version of Puddleglum could beat Tom Baker in the late 80s/early 90s British television production. I'm not too interested in The Sorcerer's Apprentice, mostly because Nicholas Cage bugs me, but I rather hope it does well at the box office because something with magic in the modern world being a smash might help the chances of my movie getting made.

Friday, June 18, 2010

One Day More

I must say that the Bible school performance last night went far better than I expected. They only used the tracks with the Broadway Baby-bot voices for one song that the kids were doing in sign language. Otherwise, they just used the instrumental tracks, and the songs weren't so bad when sung by actual human children, and they were oh so cute. My boys who'd spent most of music time during the week trying to kill each other and who had an actual protest, with chanting, about having to go to music time ended up being very intent and serious about performing and did a great job.

I had a genuine moment of hilarity yesterday. We were doing our discussion time outside, and one of the boys saw a squirrel. It was just like the dogs in Up as they all went, "Squirrel!" and got completely sidetracked. I think a couple of them were consciously quoting the movie, but the others were truly captivated by the sight of a squirrel. The teenagers and I were cracking up. Then I accidentally referred to the "computer" in the opening presentation as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The kids quickly corrected me with its real name, which I can't remember because, to me, it's the Guide.

Now there's just one more day to go. My voice is shot from spending several hours a day saying, "Don't run! No pushing! Listen! No attacking the girls! Don't hit each other! Okay, time to move on to the next session, so wrap it up!" I must be getting used to it all because I was actually able to get some work done yesterday. I might even miss the munchkins, though I suspect it will be nice to have the day mostly to myself on Monday.

I may have learned as much as the kids did. About myself, I learned that I'm outwardly mellow but an inward fretter. I don't raise my voice or act anxious, but inside I'm checking the clock, counting kids and visualizing what I need to do next. About kids, I learned that they're loud, but the loudest ones can surprise you with unexpected depths. I also became even more annoyed by the lazy characterization in young adult novels. We had a lot of teen volunteers, almost as many as there were adults. Each class had two, and I wouldn't have survived without my teen helpers. They were the ones who dealt with the kids, for the most part. They put up with kids crawling all over them and clinging to them and were very patient and kind about it. Then each activity station had teen helpers. The thing is, the kids who were volunteering were the kids who would have been stereotyped as the villains in most young adult novels. They were the cheerleaders, jocks and drill team members. Based on the general demographics of the town, I'd guess that most of them are pretty rich. A number of them were wearing Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts, which, according to most of these books, is apparently some sort of mark of Satan. Meanwhile, it didn't seem like the types who would be the heroines of most YA books were there. I guess the Bellas were blissfully unaware that there was even anything going on in the community and were off re-reading Wuthering Heights while the cool outsider girls were sneering at the sheep who were into organized activities. I don't know how these kids treat each other at school, so it's possible they're all mean girls when they're not at the church, but I find it hard to believe that someone who can find the compassion to deal with a sobbing ten-year-old and get her to talk out her problems would be the type to torture a peer for wearing the wrong clothes.

Now I kind of want to try writing a YA book where the usual villain type kids are the heroes. I wouldn't put down the other type of kids, just show that not all jocks and cheerleaders are automatically evil.

One thing I'll need to do when I get some free time is catch up on my housework. I'd done so well for most of May, but then around Memorial Day things began to slip a bit. That was when the shoulder got bad enough that I went to the doctor. Then I went out of town, and when I got back in town I started on physical therapy, and then the sinuses hit, and then this week was pretty much shot. It's amazing how quickly things can go downhill in just a few weeks. I don't think it will take me as long to straighten things up as it did back at the beginning of May, but that will be a big part of my weekend, I suspect. Then next week I WILL finish this draft of the book. The next draft will be more about minor tweaks than major rewrites, so it should go more quickly.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Evil Musical Earworms

Two more days to go with the kids. It seems to be getting easier. The kids have settled down some. I'm more used to them. And I think it helps that I'm getting to know them as individuals instead of as an amorphous blob of kids.

The one thing I'm not crazy about is, surprisingly for a choir chick, the music. The music seems specifically designed to irritate me. Back in the Dark Ages when I was in Vacation Bible School, the kinds of songs we did were the children's church classics like "This Little Light of Mine," "Jesus Loves the Little Children," and, because this was in the 70s, "Joy to the World" -- not the Christmas carol, but the Three Dog Night song, the one that starts with "Jeremiah was a bullfrog." Only, there was a church version that started "Jeremiah was a prophet." I don't remember the rest of the church version lyrics of the verses, but the chorus was the focus, "Joy to the world, all the boys and girls, joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, and joy to you and me."

But now, they seem to have some kind of standardized, pre-fab curriculum, and it includes songs written specifically for the theme, complete with very elaborate choreography. It's a lot to try to learn in fifteen minutes a day for four days (we do the program for the parents tonight). I'm good at learning music, and I haven't learned the songs yet. I'm not even trying to learn all the motions because they involve things I currently can't do with this wonky shoulder (at least, that's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it). However, the fact that the kids are barely trying to sing these songs isn't much of an issue because this is going to be a Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus type performance, "sung" with recorded tracks.

And that's the part that's giving me nightmares (literally) because the recording is supposedly sung by children, but it sounds more like adult voice actors doing fake "child" voices, with maybe some studio magic to create the choir effect. If it is real children, then they're Broadway baby-bots, the kind of kids who are cast in productions of Annie not so much because they want to do it but because their pushy stage mothers want them to do it. It sounds kind of like the group production numbers for a children's beauty pageant. The songs themselves are terrible earworms, and that's why I'm hearing the fake Broadway baby-bots singing them with feigned loud enthusiasm in my sleep. I start to twitch and whimper every time that CD comes on. They could send that CD to Guantanamo Bay as a replacement for waterboarding, except Amnesty International would instantly protest and suggest that waterboarding might be a kinder alternative.

My kids, at least, don't seem to be connecting much with the songs. They don't even try to sing along in the opening and closing assemblies, and the boys moaned and groaned and claimed that they didn't sign up for this when they found out that they'd have to sing this stuff in a program. I have issues with pre-recorded music in performances. I find it distancing. I also think these songs and all the motions are pretty complex to learn so quickly. You can either get singing or get a hand or arm motion to go with each word. They'd probably get more participation with a piano and a few familiar songs they've heard before and might have occasion to sing again. These songs, they'll probably never even think of again, and that's probably for the best. I wish I could never think of them again. I may have to find some less-annoying earworms to replace them before I go mad.

I've just about given up on accomplishing much, work-wise, this week. I'm utterly drained when I get home, and I'm in a pretty tricky spot of the book that will require a lot of thought. Instead, I'm doing some work-related reading. Tonight I have to go back (whimper) for the program and reception with the parents.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Those Dark and Dangerous Guys

I survived another day with the kids. It's only three hours, but those are the longest three hours ever. I feel like I've worked a full, eight-hour day by the time they leave. Having our discussion time outside seemed to help, but there are still a couple of little boys I would like to sedate. Or hogtie. And gag. They're not bad kids. They're just full-speed-ahead, and any instructions or directions just go in one ear and out the other. I'm losing my voice from shouting, "No running in the halls!" and "Don't push!"

Meanwhile, I guess I'm on a reading rant tear these days. I've griped about the "cheerleaders=bad" lazy characterization in young adult novels. And I've griped about the way male Victorian novelists don't seem to consider a useful, intelligent woman as a viable romantic prospect for the hero. It's not even a love triangle among the hero, the vapid but beautiful woman and the less beautiful but more intelligent woman. The less beautiful but more intelligent woman is seen as nothing more than friend or sister material. There's a similar but gender-reversed thing that goes on in contemporary fiction. I've been seeing a lot of it in young adult, but it seems to show up a lot in adult fiction, as well.

It's the triangle of dangerous bad boy, nice best friend guy and heroine. If we're lucky, the nice best friend guy actually makes it into the romantic triangle, where's he's at least briefly considered as a viable romantic partner by the heroine. Much of the time, though, and especially in YA fantasy, the friend isn't even a blip on the romantic radar for the heroine. It's as though the guy who treats you well, supports you and is there for you when you need him couldn't possibly be boyfriend material. The only guy who's hot enough to be considered romantically is the one where you're never entirely sure if he's going to kiss you or kill you, and you desperately want him to kiss you even though he might kill you. Of course, the best friend will be there to get you out of danger before the bad boy does kill you, and then your super-special sparkliness will make the bad boy change his ways just enough that he won't kill you. It's one thing when it's an adult urban fantasy and the heroine is just as tough and dangerous as he is, but it gives me the creeps when it's YA and the heroine is either a normal girl or a girl who thought she was normal but who has just discovered that she has some paranormal heritage, and she's helpless before the bad boy's sheer powerful manliness. She knows he's dangerous, but she's so drawn to him and can't seem to resist him.

There are two things that disturb me about this trend. One is that it sends a lousy message about relationships. Not that YA books should necessarily be full of heavy-handed messages, but do we really want to reinforce the belief that a really great relationship is one in which the guy says mean things to you, is possessive and maybe even potentially violent, while a guy who treats you well, supports you and is there for you when you need him -- a true friend -- can't possibly be hot or sexy enough to be a boyfriend? I think the really dangerous message in there is the idea that if you're special enough, the guy will change for you, or that he'll only be cruel or dangerous to other people while he uses his bad boy nature to protect you. It's like a recipe for teaching girls to look for and tolerate abusive relationships and making an abusive relationship the model for a relationship that's "passionate" or "romantic."

The second thing that disturbs me is how readers -- both teens and adults -- seem to eat this up. Not everyone, I know (my books sell at least a few copies), but enough that I'm not sure I could sell a teen book in which the heroine chose her male best friend over the hot-but-dangerous guy. The same thing is going on with adult books, especially in urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Readers will want the heroine to "tame" the bad boy, and it's only really hot if the guy is dangerous and dark in some way. It's "boring" for the romantic pairing to be with the nice guy. I suppose that part of the deal is that a book is a "safe" way to explore a relationship you'd never tolerate in real life. You'd probably cross to the other side of the street and arrange your car keys so they stick out through your fingers if you saw one of these romantic heroes in real life, but in a book you can imagine what it might be like to live more dangerously. As someone who's never seen the appeal of the dangerous bad boy and who doesn't even like the "safe danger" of roller coasters, I just don't get it, and so these books don't work for me.

I do hope to subvert the cliche about the useless vs. useful woman, and today's market is all over that. I don't know what I can do about the good guy vs. the bad boy. Maybe a good guy who's capable of being an utter badass in the right circumstances and a bad boy who's revealed as being a poseur and who runs squealing from the danger the good guy deals with easily? There were a few of the Madeleine Brent books (RIP Peter O'Donnell) in which the guy who seemed dark and dangerous turned out to actually be a really good guy who only looked dangerous and scruffy at the time because he'd just gone through some horrible experience, or he was a secret agent under cover, and then the guy who seemed good and wholesome was a sneak and was actually pretty dangerous.

I'd really love to write the scene in which the heroine lays the smackdown on the dangerous bad boy when he's saying cruel things to her or acting like he's going to hurt her -- and not have it be witty, sexy banter or verbal foreplay. More like, "No one treats me that way," and it's a total turnoff for her.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Classic Spoilers

I wasn't nearly as productive yesterday as I wanted to be. I did tweak a scene I'd already revised, but after VBS and physical therapy, I was kind of spent for the day. Here's hoping that today is better. No therapy today, and I'm getting an early start.

Something I forgot when reporting on yesterday's Vacation Bible School experience: My real-life friends and those who have seen me on convention panels may be aware of my tendency toward the Inappropriate Giggle Fit, in which something strikes me as absolutely hysterical and sets me off in peals of uncontrollable laughter, often to the point I start crying from laughing so hard. Even after I get myself under control, the slightest thing can set it off again. The thing that sets me off may not actually be that funny, but it somehow strikes my brain in such a way that I find it really funny, often because it bumps up against something else in my brain and it's that association that's funny to me, even though the joke would be lost on anyone who isn't me. That association can linger, so that thing becomes funny to me forever. For instance, just thinking about the phrase that set off the giggle fit at a gathering of friends Saturday is still making me laugh.

I had a double-whammy Inappropriate Giggle Fit during the opening assembly at Vacation Bible School. They're doing this "space explorers" theme, with the idea that the kids are all space cadets (minor giggle) exploring the universe, and the opening assembly is our Mission Briefing. One of the college kids in the choir is doing the Mission Briefing, and when they introduced him as Commander Matt, I totally lost it. I guess it's because I've known him since he was in high school, and I know what a goofball he can be (he dressed as the jester in the madrigal choir), and I usually sit with his mother in choir, so I get to hear all kinds of stories about him. Plus, I was instantly flashing forward to all the future fun I can have with this and how at the next choir rehearsal I will have to salute him as Commander Matt, so I was giggling with glee. And then they had this video thing that's supposedly the ship's computer giving us some of the facts of the day. For Monday, it was facts about the earth, like circumference at the equator, percentage of surface covered by water, coldest recorded temperature, warmest recorded temperature, etc., and the video reminded me a lot of the way the Guide was portrayed in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie. Even the voice sounded not too different from Stephen Fry, and that totally cracked me up. I halfway expected the video to end with "and that's what the Encyclopedia Galactica says about the planet earth. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has much less to say. Its entry on earth consists of two words: Mostly Harmless." I was shaking from laughing so hard while trying not to laugh out loud because that part wasn't supposed to be funny and I doubted my fifth graders would understand why I thought that was funny. I did get a laugh from one of my teen helpers when we were having to do one of the songs that involved a lot of motions and I remarked that I felt like I was at Rocky Horror.

Perhaps me being around non-geek children isn't such a good idea. I don't quite know how to deal with a roomful of children who don't know what Daleks are. Now I'm tempted to toss in an "Ex-ter-min-ate!" and see if I get a response. Then again, a couple of the boys were doing Vulcan salutes yesterday, so there may be hope for some of them.

Meanwhile, I've got another reading rant. I'm on a "classic" literature kick, more or less filling in the gaps in my education, and I've noticed an annoying trend in a lot of these classic books. The books are spoiled. Most of these books contain some kind of scholarly introduction, I guess because they're Important Literature, and therefore we must know how very Important they are, but probably mostly because the novels themselves are public domain, so the only part the publisher can copyright and that distinguishes one edition from another is new material, like an introduction. In the past few of these I've read, the introduction spoils the novel, totally giving away what happens and telling the ending.

Now, I realize that it's probably stretching it to want to avoid spoilers in a 100-year-old book, but the one place that should be safe is in the material put in the front of the book to read before reading the book. It's like the extremely tape-delayed Olympics broadcasts. Yeah, the results are on the Internet and may even have been reported by the media, but they don't start the broadcast with Bob Costas in the studio giving the results of the events we're about to see.

To me, an "introduction" should set the stage for the book -- maybe give some historical or cultural information that's important for understanding the book's setting, put the book in context of the author's other work, maybe discuss where the writing of this book fit into the author's life, and possibly even mention some themes or motifs to look for when reading. An "introduction" should not tell the characters' ultimate fate or tell how the book ends. If you want to discuss the plot of the book as though the reader has read it and include the outcome, then put that as a commentary at the end of the book. That's the way my ancient copy of Jane Eyre is, with an intro that's more about that era in England and Charlotte Bronte's life and then a post-novel commentary about the plot. Some more recent editions of other books I've read lately have flat-out given away the ending in the second paragraph of the introduction. Just glancing at the front page of the intro gives the ending: "The fact that the main character fails in his quest and marries Susan instead of Linda after his best friend is killed has been taken to mean ..." Arrrrgh!

I suspect this has something to do with that idea of books as broccoli. They assume you're reading this book because it's good for you and because you mostly want to analyze the author's brilliant prose or the deeper meaning behind the plot. They don't consider that someone might be reading for pleasure and therefore want some kind of suspense about what happens in the plot. These books may be more than a hundred years old, and they may be good for me, but I enjoy them more when I don't already know how they're going to end and I don't appreciate it when the scholarly introduction contains spoilers.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ah, Silence!

Well, I survived day one of Vacation Bible School. The kids weren't bad. They don't seem to be vicious at all. They're just LOUD. At least, the boys are. They don't seem to have any volume control whatsoever. We don't spend a lot of time in our classroom, since we're usually going from one activity station to another, but the room we're in is all hard surfaces, and then there's this almost chimney-like construction going up to a skylight, which seems to create a sound echo chamber. It's like having 16 kids in the shower. I have an autistic girl in the class, and she was getting pretty agitated about all the noise. I was like, "Oh, you and me both, honey." So I think the rest of the week we'll have our "reflection time" outside. That way, the boys can yell as much as they want and the sound will dissipate into the atmosphere instead of bouncing around the room.

One thing I found interesting was the way the kids segregated themselves by gender. The boys clumped together and the girls clumped together, and there was no crossover except for this one boy who has a twin sister in the class, and he seemed torn between sticking with her and hanging with the boys. He got promptly booted from the girls' group so the high school girl who's helping with the class could sit with the girls, who were all fighting over who got to sit with her. I can't say I entirely blame the girls for being wary about the boys because those boys really were loud and bouncing off the walls. The girls kept flinching from all the noise.

I found the gender segregation interesting because when I was in fifth grade, my best friend was a boy, and I mostly hung out with the boys. I suspect that mostly had to do with the fact that at that age I was utterly OBSESSED with Star Wars, and if I wanted to spend recess running around the corridors of the Death Star, having space battles on the swings or having lightsaber duels or even just having intense discussions about what would happen in the sequel (this was after the original movie but still a couple of years before The Empire Strikes Back), I had to hang with the boys. I can't even remember any of the girls from my fifth-grade class, but I can remember several of the boys' names. The nice thing about being the only girl playing Star Wars with a bunch of boys was that I always got to be Princess Leia with no arguments.

We also got a gender separation in the outdoor activity time. They were playing a variation of "Duck, Duck, Goose" that involved water. The person who was "it" would hit everyone on the head with a big, wet sponge, but when he got to the "goose" one, he was to squeeze the sponge and really soak the person. I use the masculine pronoun because almost all of the girls in my class refused to participate because they didn't want to get wet. They just sat under a tree and talked. I couldn't really blame them because it would have been uncomfortable being wet afterward, and it would have been cold because they were really air conditioning the building. When I was little, I know I refused to do a few things like that because I didn't want to get wet or dirty or messy. By fifth grade, though, I suspect I would have joined in because that's where the boys were, and I wanted the boys to see me as "cool" and part of the gang. I thought I'd impress them more by being up for that sort of thing. In retrospect, making the guys see me as one of the gang may not have been the most effective strategy. It might not have mattered in fifth grade, but by high school, it might have been better to be seen as a girl instead of as cool as a boy. The boys dated girls who were like girls, not girls who were as cool as the boys.

Quote of the day from this morning: One of the other teachers asked me what ages my kids were, and I said I didn't have any kids. The director was walking by at just that time and said, "She's a saint!" but I thought at first that she'd said, "She's insane!" It's probably good that I didn't get a chance to respond, "Yeah, I'm afraid I am," because that would have come across as rather conceited as a response to what she really said.

Now I'm going to enjoy the silence of the rest of the day and try to get some writing done.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Consulting the Subconscious

It's another late day because I had physical therapy this morning. I left early because I was trying to run an errand, then realized that I wasn't totally clear on which thing I needed (silly me, I only wrote down the size, but didn't know there were more specifics I needed to check), then I went grocery shopping afterward, and then it was lunchtime, and then I got distracted.

I believe I am winning the war with the sinuses. I discovered a flaw with the Curry Plan, namely that getting curry would require leaving the house and dealing with people, two things not high on my list of fun. Instead, I made sinus-blasting and phytochemical-rich Italian food. I chopped up an onion (from my dad's garden) and a couple of large cloves of garlic and sauteed that with at least a teaspoon and probably more crushed red pepper, then added a can of tomatoes and tossed it all with angel hair pasta. I may have overdone it with the red pepper a wee bit, as I had to drink an entire glass of ice water while eating it and then another after eating it, but after chopping the onion, hovering over the onion and garlic while it was cooking and then eating it, my sinuses were pretty well cleared out. I even slept last night without Benadryl. I'll probably eat the leftovers tonight.

I think, though, there will be napping this afternoon. I'm still waking up ridiculously early, in spite of going to bed pretty late and waking up a few times during the night. After the workout I get in therapy and with the Battle of the Sinuses, I think my body is tired. My subconscious seems to need some play time, as well. I chopped part of the scene I was working on yesterday, with plans to move it to another point, and I haven't settled on where to move it yet. There's also another scene I think I want to add, but it's still at the "It would be interesting for that to happen" stage. I'm not sure yet it's really necessary to the plot.

My posting may be erratic next week, as I have Vacation Bible School every morning and therapy right after that on some days.

And now I think it is time for some serious subconscious consultation (aka napping).

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Waging War with the Sinuses

This may be a good day for me to avoid human contact. My sinuses are currently staging an armed rebellion. I fought back last night by drinking V8 with horseradish and Tabasco (my mom's surefire cold/sinus cure, with a twist). As stuffy as I am, I can't really taste much, so I didn't realize I'd possibly put a bit too much Tabasco in, until my lips started tingling. The sinuses rallied and staged a fierce comeback, so I think today I may go for curry. Or, if it turns out that I'm right and the new place in the same shopping center with the curry take-out is a Chinese take-out (the business name is rather ambiguous), maybe hot and sour soup. Meanwhile, I've made a lot of progress on the shoulder, and the scar tissue around the joint has loosened enough that it pops as the shoulder moves. I've got a lot more mobility, but that popping doesn't feel great. I'd better make sure to dose up on Tylenol before tomorrow's therapy appointment because that may be the time she manages to break through the scar tissue when she bends and twists my arm around. Although the results will be what we're aiming for, I suspect that will not be Happy Time.

So, yeah, pain plus stuffy head=not a very happy, cheerful me. I will prevail because I'm stubborn that way, but I'm not sure I can manage "nice."

While I was lying on the sofa, moaning about my stuffy head, last night, I came across the movie Hope Floats on one of the cable channels. I saw it at the theater when it first came out and watched it as one of my mood-setting retreat films before I wrote Don't Hex With Texas, but this was the first time I watched it since learning that the screenwriter would be adapting Enchanted, Inc. I cheered for his name in the opening credits (allergy medication was involved), but then I found myself really paying attention to the writing, and now I'm even more eager for my movie to get made. Yeah, there's the money and the boost it would probably give my career, and I think the world needs more fantasy romantic comedies, but I really want to see what this guy does with my story. I think I could learn a lot about structure, pacing and dialogue by seeing what he takes from the book to put into the script. There are so many lovely little moments and lines that linger in my head from Hope Floats. I may need to get that movie on DVD because it counts as "comfort food" viewing.

I must say, though, that the story was rather creepily prescient about what ended up happening in Sandra Bullock's real life. When her character's husband's infidelity was revealed on national television, it was intensely uncomfortable because of the real-life parallels that have happened since then.

In writing news, I'm still plugging along on rewrites. I spent most of yesterday working on one scene. It's a big, pivotal scene, and what I had in the first place was more of a placeholder. I had the dialogue and the action, but no emotion, and it should be a very emotional scene because there's a lot of shock going on -- it's a big revelation scene where one character finds out what's really been going on all along, and it's not what he expected. But it is a shock, so I've been trying to find the balance between a total freak-out and complete numbness because it's too much to process. I went through a couple of different drafts yesterday, moving things around, trying to find the truth in the characters. How would they really react? What would they say or do? If something is too much to take in, how do you process it? I may play amateur dramatic society today and try to act out both roles.

That is, if my sinuses cooperate. I may resort to eating salsa out of the jar. I hope we get a little more rain today to really wash the air out.

Okay, a quick Internet search has revealed that the new place is not a Chinese takeout. It's an Indian sweets shop. So, looks like I'll be resorting to curry to deal with the stuffy head.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Market Research

I had a reader question about how I do research for a book, so in the next couple of writing posts I'll address that. I do three kinds of research: market research, idea generation research and fact research. This time, I'll talk about market research. I'll address the other two next time, since they involve similar reading but for different purposes.

Not every project needs market research, but if you're just starting to write or if you're writing something different than you've written before, I think it's a good idea to research the market. From the business perspective, it's good to know what else is out there. An editor making a pitch to her bosses to buy your book will have to present "comparable titles" and their sales figures, so you should probably be familiar with the books that might be considered similar. I think it can also help your creativity because if you know what's already been done, then you'll know for certain that the idea you thought was innovative really isn't, and you can force yourself to stretch a bit or come up with new twists. You'll also be familiar with what the likely readership for your book has probably already read and you'll get a sense of what they want and what they expect.

Here are some books to look for when you're researching the market:

1) The current bestsellers and award winners that are similar to the kind of book you're writing.
These are likely to be the books currently carrying the standard for your genre. They're the ones that will be used as comparable titles to sell and promote your book, may be written by the authors who will be asked to provide promotional blurbs for your book and are the ones the market will be most familiar with. This can give you an idea for what's selling well, as well as what readers may be starting to get tired of. They may tolerate a particular trope in a long-running series they're already invested in, but may not really welcome that trope in other books.

It's not always easy to find which books in a particular subgenre are selling well because the major bestseller lists tend to be skewed toward literary fiction. The USA Today bestseller list covers all books of all types, and on the web site they list the top 150. Amazon rankings aren't necessarily an indicator of overall sales, but the top twenty or so of the various genre bestseller lists can give you a sense of which books are hot (especially now that the free e-books are being ranked differently). For awards, check the various genre organizations for honored books in those genres.

2) Recent books by authors at your career level.
Bestselling authors can get away with a lot more than new authors can. If it's the tenth book in a series and all the books in that series go straight to the top of the bestseller list, then that author can get away with spending the first fifty pages on the characters in their daily lives. A newer author can't, so you should compare yourself to other authors like you. If you've never sold a book, look at new books by debut authors. If you're switching genres or writing about a different subject, look at a new book by an author who's recently made a switch. That will give you a sense of what's catching editors' eyes when it's about the book itself instead of the author's name.

3) The classic books in your genre and your genre's antecedents.
This isn't something to base your writing on, necessarily, but I think it's good to know the origins of your genre and have a working familiarity with the books that the people working in your genre and reading your genre will likely know. It's a great way to spot which recent books are drawing on the old tropes and to learn where the genre standards came from. I also like to know where even those books originated by looking into things like folklore and mythology or classic works that pre-date the genre entirely.

For example, if you're writing epic quest fantasy, you really should read The Lord of the Rings, and it's a good idea to also look into Norse and Germanic mythology and folklore -- or you could look for quest stories in folklore from other regions to give your story a bit of a twist. If you're writing romances set in the Regency period, you should read Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. You probably can't use their kind of pacing and language and sell today, but you can see where all the standards of the genre originated.

What if there isn't something like your book out there, or if your subgenre is too new to really contain classics? If your book is absolutely, totally new, with nothing at all like it in the entire history of publishing, then you've got an uphill battle ahead of you. It may end up being a huge breakout book that starts and defines a genre, but it will probably get rejected a lot along the way. Somehow, though, I doubt that every element of it will be totally original. There may be facets that are similar to other genres, and you can research those. If you're blending elements from several genres, then you'll need to do all this work for each genre you're working with. Before I started writing my Enchanted, Inc. series, which is fantasy with a chick lit tone, I read a lot of fantasy and a lot of chick lit, in addition to all the contemporary fantasy I could find (which wasn't much at that time).

For a relatively new genre or a twist on a genre, you may also have to draw from a variety of sources. For instance, steampunk seems to be hot now, but it's new enough that I don't think there's much of an established canon, and the books that have been published have been all over the map, some using just hints of the setting to tell another story, some taking the post-apocalyptic approach, some going with alternate history and some going with secondary world. To research this market, I'd keep up with everything I could that has been published so far (which is a small enough amount at the moment that you could almost manage to read all of it). I'd also read the antecedents, like Jules Verne and HG Wells (the people writing science fiction during the actual period), and I'd read novels that were written in approximately the period of that era that I was planning to use, especially those that were in a similar setting. I might also read representative examples of whatever story I was trying to tell in the steampunk setting (vampires, mystery, adventure, spy, gothic, etc.). For a trend like this, in addition to reading the books, I'd look into communities relating to it. There are a number of steampunk blogs, online magazines and community groups, and reading those can tell you what the people who are really into that sort of thing are looking for (participating can also give you a boost on promotion if your book sells). You can find similar sites and groups for many genres.

Chances are that if you're interested enough in a genre or type of book to be writing it, you've already done a lot of this reading, and that's what led to developing your own story ideas. If you look at this list and groan at the reading you'll have to do because it's not books you might have chosen for yourself anyway, then maybe you're writing the wrong thing.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Who Are the Real Mean Girls?

I tried to tough out the allergies (the shoulder stopped hurting after one Tylenol) and get some work done yesterday, but it just wasn't working. I hit a scene I knew needed work, but I couldn't concentrate enough to fix it. I did get some brainstorming done on fixing it, but finding the words was something of a challenge. I hope it will be better today.

While I'm on a tear about reading rants, I have another one, as well as a question for other readers, particularly the younger ones -- any teens or recent teens who read young adult books. I've been reading a lot of YA urban fantasy (because I tend to like that more than I like the adult urban fantasy), and in those books, as well as other contemporary YA books, I've noticed a trend that disturbs me, and I'm curious as to how the teen readers see this.

The heroines are generally outsiders, which makes sense because fictional heroes are often outsiders. The people in power who are at the center of things don't have as much to aspire to, so there's less struggle and less of a story there. It also makes sense in YA because the kids who are heavy readers tend not to be the really popular ones. Reading can be seen as "weird," and there's also that whole smart vs. pretty thing, where a girl who reads a lot automatically gets classified as "smart," and that means she can't be pretty, which means she can't be popular. But way too many of the YA heroines I've read lately are as obnoxious and exclusive as "outsiders" as any of the popular kids are toward them, so that they come across to me as rather hypocritical and annoying, even if I was more like the heroines than like the popular kids. It's a bad sign when I catch myself cheering for the cheerleaders who are tormenting the heroine because I figure she probably deserves it.

For instance, the heroine will sneer at the "Abercrombie Zombies" (that phrase seems to come up a lot) while complaining about the popular kids mocking the way she dresses. Ironic much? How is mocking someone for dressing one way any better or worse than mocking someone for dressing another way? There also seems to be a lot of griping about/mocking/dismissing entire large groups of people -- classifying all football players as idiots or all cheerleaders as bimbos, etc. -- while the heroine is complaining about being stereotyped based on which groups she is or isn't in. This tends to come in the opening of the book, the "ordinary world" part of the story where we see how downtrodden the heroine is before she finds out she's magical and special. The heroine will be heading off to school, griping about how she has to go associate with all those Abercrombie Zombies and hating on the cheerleaders and football players. I'd have no problem with seeing reasons for her disliking individuals who behave in certain ways, but I think I'd prefer to see her being picked on or whatever before we get her thoughts complaining about people. It seems like there's a double standard, where if the popular kids make fun of unpopular kids for superficial things, then they're evil, but if the unpopular kids make fun of popular kids for superficial things, then they're right.

As an author, I'd be worried about making blanket statements about entire types of people because it's not safe to assume that no cheerleaders or football players or people who shop at any one particular store will be reading your book. It's okay to have your heroine dislike individual characters for a particular reason, but not all football players have heads full of rocks, not all cheerleaders are bimbos or bitches, and the stores you shop at don't necessarily define your personality, and it's lazy writing to fall back on those stereotypes. Yeah, some kids may feel this way, but I find it harder to relate to or empathize with heroines who have that attitude from the start, especially when it seems like the author is saying that's the right attitude to have. I don't think YA books have to be like Afterschool Specials and teach some preachy lesson, but I also think it's a bad idea for an adult who's writing for young people to actively promote prejudice of any kind. The heroine can dread facing a particular clique because of things they say to her or the way they act around her, and she can dislike individual people, but if she starts out the book griping about classes of people, and especially if she's complaining about them doing exactly the same thing she's doing, then I don't get into the book very easily.

Now, I'm more than twenty years removed from high school, so I'm curious if teen readers feel the same way. Do you read that sort of thing and say, "Amen, sister!" or do you think, "Hypocritical much?"

I think part of the reason I'm sensitive about this is that even though I was the brainy girl who read a lot, I was never tormented by the popular girl cheerleader type who is so demonized in YA books. The girls who bullied me, made fun of me, tried to bring me down, played cruel pranks on me or otherwise gave me the Mean Girls treatment were all other smart girls who saw me as a threat to their own status and who wanted to take me down a peg. I don't know what their reading habits were, but they were all challengers for top of the class or best student status (or thought they were -- many of them were good students who had done well up to that point but who weren't really that smart or capable of independent thought). The cheerleaders may not have included me in things they did or invited me to their parties, but they never made a point of being mean to me. So, in these books when the heroine is a smart girl who's not particularly popular but who comes across as a little bitchy, instead of identifying with her because I was a smart, not particularly popular girl as a teen, I see her as like the people who made my life hell.

At any rate, I prefer to see something a little more complex than "cheerleaders=bad, brainy girls who read=good" in YA fiction. Individual cheerleaders may be ditzy or catty, but I would prefer for the heroine of a book not to write off the entire group as a bunch of bitchy airheads as a way of making herself sound superior, and I definitely don't like it when that's the author's lazy way of telling us that the heroine is superior. If the heroine is classifying the whole group as a bunch of worthless idiots, then by the end of the book at least one of them better prove her wrong so that I can tell the author appreciates the irony. It really irks me when it comes across as just the author's way of making the heroine relatable to the presumably non-popular girls who are likely to be reading the book, and that also comes across as a little patronizing to the target readers, like "I know you're all loser weirdos, but really, that's okay because you can't be both popular and smart."

Which brings me back to the question to any teen or recent teen readers: Do you agree with me, or does this actually make the heroine more relatable to you?

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Sad Literary Fate of Useful Women

Another busy morning. I've already run some errands, gone to physical therapy and replaced my air conditioner filter. Now my shoulder hurts. A lot. I really need to get some writing done, but between the shoulder and the ongoing allergy attack, I may do some napping this afternoon and hope I feel up to working tonight, since I don't have anywhere to go.

One of my errands involved correcting an odd lack in my closet. I'm teaching Vacation Bible School next week, and at the training session yesterday, they told us about the themes for each day and the fact that we're supposed to wear particular colors on each day. My vast wardrobe of plain t-shirts means I can do just about every color, but one day is yellow, and when I got home and looked through my closet, I realized I didn't own a single yellow article of clothing. I can do many shades of green, pink, a whole range of blue, probably a different red item every day of the week, white, black and purple. I could sort of get orange, though my orange is closer to a peach or coral color. I could even manage brown, though I'd have to explain the Firefly reference. But there wasn't one item I could even squint at and pretend was yellow. Target had t-shirts on sale for $5, so I picked up a yellow one. Yay for variety. I'll essentially be the "homeroom" teacher for the fifth grade class, mostly just herding them around to all the activities. I shall report on my adventures. It could be interesting, considering my theory that 10-year-old girls are the meanest, most evil creatures on the planet. We shouldn't be sending in the Green Berets, Marines, Rangers or soldiers like that to hot spots. Drop in a crew of 10-year-old girls and the enemy will beg for mercy after their self-esteem has been shattered. Meanwhile, boys that age are whirling dynamos of energy who can't seem to focus on any one thing for more than about five seconds. I remember dreading the nights the 10-year-old cabins had table setting and clean-up duty when I worked in a summer camp kitchen. That's a very, very difficult age. I'm still amazed my parents didn't "accidentally" lose me in the woods and then move when I was that age. I was absolutely vile when I was in fifth grade. That's the one phase of my life when I didn't get along with my mom. I said some things to her then that I still cringe about.

In other news, I've been on a 19th century reading kick lately, and I've noticed an annoying pattern. If a man wrote the novel, the female romantic interest (I can't bring myself to use the word "heroine") is almost always the "waif" type -- the useless female who's almost child-like even though she's an adult, who has to be protected by everyone around her, who can't make a single decision about her own life even when given the opportunity, and who has to be rescued. It's not just that these men can't write female characters. Often in these books, there's a female character who's either a friend of the male hero or a sidekick of the female romantic interest who's strong and capable, who can interact with a man as an equal, who is brave and intelligent. She's usually instrumental in helping the hero rescue the waif and get her out of trouble. And yet, even after they've worked together as a team and he's seen how useful she is and how well they work together, and he's seen how feeble and useless the waif is, he still ends up with the waif, and the useful woman gets "rewarded" by getting to remain a spinster and stick around with the couple because the useless woman would get lost between the sitting room and the bedroom without her there to guide her. That's if the useful woman even lives to the end of the book. When the useful woman sticks around, the hero really makes out like a bandit because he gets to have the pretty, compliant wife without a thought in her head as well as the best buddy he can actually talk to.

No matter how many of these books I read, I still manage to be surprised by this outcome. I was just reading one I thought would be different because much was made at the beginning about how the hero and the waif could never be together because there were all these obstacles between them, including their stations in life. There was nothing keeping him apart from the female best friend, other than the fact that she wasn't little, cute and blonde. The hero and the capable female best friend ended up growing really close through the course of their adventures, and the waif became even more childlike and useless, so I started thinking this might be the book that broke the pattern, where he realized that the waif was just an infatuation and he could really be happy with the best friend, but no, somehow all those objections from the beginning were totally forgotten. I wanted the best friend to slug him when he offered to let her stay with them because his useless wife wouldn't want to be parted from her.

But if a woman wrote the book, it's entirely different. Then it's the useful woman who gets the guy. Jane Austen often set it up to happen both ways, where there was the pretty but essentially useless sister who did get a guy, but the real heroine was the one who thought for herself, made decisions and sometimes even took risks, and the hero chose her over wealthier but more useless women. Jane Eyre had a waif-like life, but she took control of her own destiny and made her own decisions. She was able to stand up to Rochester, and he still chose her over the pretty, useless women he could have had. In The Age of Innocence (which is borderline, as it was written in the 20th century, but Edith Wharton had lived in the time she was writing about), the guy does choose the useless woman over the woman he can actually talk to, but it's portrayed as a big mistake that ends up making his whole life something of a disappointment rather than the perfect happiness that the male writers portray.

Now I kind of want to write a scene where the best buddy woman slugs the hero in the jaw when he persists in pursuing the useless woman, in spite of all he's been through with the best buddy. It would be very satisfying.

Friday, June 04, 2010


My morning accomplishments for the day: a physical therapy appointment, then a trip downtown to the Friends of the Library Book Sale and then Target.

The physical therapy doesn't seem like it's going to be as bad as I feared. The therapist said she thought the Vicodin prescription was probably overkill, so I may not have to worry about the transportation and drugs issue. I'd worried that I'd end up with some Helga the Healer type person, a former East German swimmer who would grab my arm and say, "Und now ve vill move your arm like so, ja?" before giving it a good yank. Instead, my therapist may be smaller than I am, and while some of it does hurt, it's more wince and gasp for a moment pain than serious prescription drugs pain. The sessions start with fifteen minutes of a heat wrap to loosen things up (good reading time -- I've learned to bring a book), then a bit of massage in the affected area, then the therapist moves and stretches the joint in all angles. Then I have to do some exercises using a cane as a prop to use my good arm to move my bad arm into position. Today there were more exercises with a strap and a pulley thing, and then an exercise bicycle you pedal with your arms. By the time I'm done with this, I should have a nicely developed upper body to go with the ballet-toned legs. At the end of the session, there's fifteen minutes with an ice pack (more reading time).

I'm supposed to do the cane exercises at home on days I don't have therapy, but I can use a golf club, broom or something like that. Finally, I may get some use out of my golf clubs. Maybe I should call my golf nut brother and ask him which club he recommends for stretching. (I tried to learn golf, but it just didn't take, in spite of my brother's best efforts. He thought it would be a good way for me to meet men, but the problem with that is that the men I'd meet would be golfers, and I'm not really their type.)

I'm pretty sore right now, not so much in the joint but in the muscles around the joint. Since I'm also in the middle of a nasty allergy attack, I may take a Tylenol PM (since the "PM" is Benadryl) and spend the day on the sofa, watching old movies and occasionally putting on a heating pad.

The good news is that I can already see an improvement in my range of motion. The bad news is that this is going to get expensive because my insurance has a pretty high deductible, so all of this treatment will be out of pocket. So, everyone go buy or get other people to buy Enchanted, Inc. books (especially the first one) because I need the royalties.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Building a Big Book

I realized while doing my revising yesterday that this book may be funnier than I thought. There was one line that made me laugh out loud, and I wrote it, so that's probably a good sign. I'm going to get really crazy today and try to work in the morning, since I have my first physical therapy appointment in the afternoon, and that will pretty much kill the whole afternoon. This is the assessment appointment, so I imagine it will mostly consist of them seeing the range of motion in the bad arm and saying, "This doesn't seem so bad," until they compare it to the range of motion in the good arm and go "Ohhh, now I get it." I'm normally really flexible, so it's a very sharp contrast. I'm still not sure how that joint got a chance to freeze because I didn't stop doing all the stuff I normally would do with that arm until it just wouldn't do it. When I was babying it because it was sore, I just quit sleeping on that side and doing heavy lifting with that arm. Ah well, soon I hope it will be back to normal, and I will make sure it never happens again.

Normally around this time of year I think about what my summer reading will be, but I suspect this year, aside from one new release I'm really looking forward to and a reread of the previous books in the series in preparation, most of my summer reading will be work-related. I checked a bunch of books out of the library yesterday, and they were all related to the next project. They were either reference books for research, novels written during and about the time period I'm dealing with, books that are the foundations for one of the genres I'm working in, or books that were published in the time period I'm dealing with and that are written in the style I'd like to imitate. There was one book that's somewhat tangential to the project, in that it's a modern book in approximately the same period and setting. I'm not using it as reference or research, but now that I've done a lot of research, I'm curious to see how another author has incorporated the facts into building the world. It's a book that probably would have interested me anyway, but I might not have found it if I hadn't been working on this project. It showed up in Amazon's "people who bought this also bought this" list for a reference book I was looking up.

I've made a list of things I need to research for this book, and the more I research, the more I find to add to the list. I may be indulging in a bit of overkill, but I have one of those tingly feelings that this could be A Big Book, so I want to get it right. I don't want to waste a good idea by not going all-out with it.

And now to go to work.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Revenge of the Subconscious

I continue to be ridiculously productive, with 5 hours of real writing work yesterday, and today I've already been to the bank, post office and library and have taken a shower after all that walking in the heat.

I think my subconscious has struck again. That weekend craving for a fantasy romantic comedy may have been a signal about the book I'm working on. It's not what I would really call a romantic comedy, as it's neither truly romantic nor a comedy. It does have some romantic elements, although the development of the relationships isn't the core story. Maybe it's more accurate to say that it establishes romantic possibilities. And it does have humor, although it's not as much an outright comedy as my existing series.

But I suspect that even though the two developing romances in this book aren't the main story and are pretty subtle, if the book gets published, those will be the elements that readers really respond to. One of the relationships is actually romantic comedy material, in that it starts with the two people clashing and at odds, then growing together as they go through some crazy stuff. The other relationship is less romantic, but it kind of has an old-fashioned screwball comedy set-up, with the down-on-his-luck working man hero and madcap, slightly crazy "princess" heroine. What I need to do is really play up and work with these elements, and that will also raise the comedy level. And I think that even if this book isn't technically a romantic comedy, it should kind of feel like a romantic comedy, if that makes sense.

So, I spent a lovely, blissful, not leaving the house day yesterday going back over the first part of the book with this in mind. I ended up killing the prologue I added earlier this year. It's stuff I think I needed to know in that level of detail so that I could know for sure what my characters had been through, but I realized that cutting it didn't take away anything from the book. It only delayed the real story by ten pages and partially spoiled one of the surprises from later in the book. I suppose it's future web site material.

And I didn't have to go anywhere yesterday, for the first time in more than a week. I have my first physical therapy appointment, for evaluation, on Thursday, and in the meantime, I just have choir Wednesday night. It's lovely to get back into serious work mode. As much as I'm enjoying playing with this book and making it as strong as possible, I'm already a little eager to get on to the next one.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

My Fruitless Quest Goes to the Movies

I feel like such a slug for sleeping all the way to 7:15 this morning, but I was both tired and wired from the concert last night, so although I fell asleep pretty quickly, I didn't sleep well and probably needed the rest. I'm really excited about today because I don't have anything planned or anywhere to go (though I have to call about the physical therapy, so I may end up having to go somewhere if there's an appointment available). I seem to have been on the go for more than a week, with things to do during the day and places I have to be at night. As much as I enjoy ballet, I'm so glad we get this week off so I can stay home tonight. I'm also looking forward to getting back to work on this book. The next one is already eating into my brain, and I'm eager to get started on it.

Over the weekend, I found myself wishing that the Enchanted, Inc. movie existed, not so much because of the impact it would have on my bank balance and career, but because that was exactly the kind of movie I wanted to watch. I had this craving for a fantasy romantic comedy, and I realized that there are precious few of those. On the historical/traditional fantasy side, there's The Princess Bride and Stardust, though technically I wouldn't call The Princess Bride a romantic comedy because it's not really about the developing relationship between Westley and Buttercup. You might be able to squeeze A Midsummer Night's Dream in there, but the recent movie version was only so-so. On the contemporary side, which was more what I was in the mood for, there's Enchanted. For classic films, there's Bell, Book and Candle, but while I absolutely love Jimmy Stewart and the supporting cast is wonderful (especially an adorable Jack Lemmon as the mischievous kid brother), that movie as a whole doesn't really work for me. I find myself not wanting the relationship to work out. It's been a while since I saw Practical Magic, but I don't recall it being much of a comedy, really (and I didn't like it enough to remember much about it). Love Potion No. 9, starring a "before she was famous" Sandra Bullock, might have worked for my mood, if I'd had it available. Going slightly at a stretch to include paranormal elements and not just fantasy, there's Kate and Leopold, as a time travel romantic comedy (which, incidentally, was written by the screenwriter who's doing the Enchanted, Inc. script). I think there are a few ghost movies, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Topper and the recent Ghost Town. And then some of the Jim Carrey vehicles like Liar, Liar, but that's not what I want.

I ended up watching some episodes of Pushing Daisies, which fit the bill and which were short enough for my time and attention span limitations this weekend. But still, I think the world needs more fantasy romantic comedies. Too much of the fantasy/supernatural stuff is so dark and brooding instead of fun, except maybe in kids' films that include a romantic plot for the adults, like Nanny McPhee.

Is there something I've missed that I should add to my list? I ought to stock up for the next time the mood strikes. A look at upcoming releases on IMDB doesn't give me much hope for new stuff. Sometimes it's a pain having tastes that are outside the mainstream -- or that are invisible to the people making decisions about what should be published or produced.