Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Romantic Comedy Cold Cure

In spite of still coughing and being tired, I managed to write 20 pages yesterday, and I think I even like them. I "met" a character who's been lurking around the corners, and I already think she'll be a lot of fun.

Since romantic comedies are sort of my "comfort food" viewing, I figured that the best way to complete the cure of my cold would be to spend the rest of the weekend after I got home watching romantic comedies. Leap Year was on HBO Saturday night. I discussed that when I saw it at the theater, and I rather liked it then. I found it mostly annoying this time around, at least until they passed the constant bickering point. There was the aforementioned awful guilty pleasure Lifetime holiday romantic comedy on Sunday afternoon.

Then Sunday night I watched It's Complicated on HBO OnDemand, and my response to it would be complicated. The story is about a divorced woman (Meryl Streep) with three grown children (the youngest graduates from college near the beginning of the movie) and a shaky but at least superficially cordial relationship with her ex (Alec Baldwin), who left her for a younger woman, to whom he's now married. When his wife doesn't come with him to their son's graduation, a friendly drink and dinner ends up in the bedroom, and soon this woman is having an affair with her ex, who suddenly seems to appreciate her in a way he never did when they were married. Meanwhile, she's met a nice architect (Steve Martin) who really seems to get her. She's enjoying herself, but isn't sure where it's going or what she wants.

I loved Meryl Streep, and her scenes with her family were lovely. I thought she also had a nice chemistry with Steve Martin. Alec Baldwin, on the other hand, was highly annoying. I liked him in Hunt for Red October, but other than that, he irks me. In this movie, he's supposed to be a jerk. I don't know if he's like that in real life (oh wait, there's taped evidence that he is), but he really pulls it off here. I think he's also supposed to be charming, but he mostly comes across as self-centered and immature. To some extent, that seems to be the point, but it takes Meryl a long time to realize that. I'm not sure I can imagine her ever marrying him in the first place (though I guess if he looked like Hunt for Red October Alec Baldwin, I could maybe understand).

There was an angle I found interesting that was never addressed outright, so I'm not sure if they meant it. John Krasinski plays the oldest daughter's fiance, and he seems to have fallen into the role of "dad" for the family, even though he's not much older than the younger kids. Their real dad is a lot less mature than the oldest daughter's fiance, and the fiance is the one they turn to for the kinds of things a dad does, like helping them move, hosting a graduation party and being the emotional rock when things are going crazy. For me, the funniest scene in the movie is when he accidentally learns of the affair from what he sees while he and his fiancee are meeting with a wedding coordinator at a hotel and he tries to keep what he's seen quiet so it won't freak out his fiancee, even while he's freaking out. They never talk about his role as "dad" or the fact that he's more of a man than the real father who's old enough to be his father is. I guess that means this angle is still wide open for exploration in another story. Hmmm .....

But this film does resort twice to one of my pet peeves in movies (and books, too, I guess), especially in romantic comedy type films: the use of alcohol and drugs to create turning points. It's not just that I'm a puritan (though I kind of am) and not crazy about the idea of glamorizing drug use or alcohol abuse. I mostly think, though, that it's lazy writing and a bit of a cop-out. Instead of coming up with a reason for the characters to open up to each other and lower their guard so they can bond, just have them get drunk or high so that they'll say or do things they otherwise wouldn't. I'm well aware that in the real world there are a lot of relationships that begin (and end) and births that come about because of the influence of mind-altering substances, but fiction is all about character choices, usually made under some kind of pressure. That's what develops the characters and drives the plot. When you remove the choice by putting the characters into a situation where things just happen and they've lost control over what's happening and even their own reactions, you've made the characters passive instead of active. I suppose you could consider the drinking or the using drugs to be a choice, but it's seldom actually treated that way in these movies. They almost never address the choice to get drunk or high and the consequences of that choice, focusing instead on the fallout from the things that "just happened" while the characters were drunk or high. It's just a shortcut to get that "opposites attract" couple to stop bickering, loosen up, bond and possibly fall into bed so the story can progress. And I think it's the least interesting way to break down the barriers between people because not only are they not making choices, they're not consciously dealing with their circumstances. I figure that if you can't come up with a way other than drugs or alcohol to get your characters to talk to each other and start to see something they like in each other, then you haven't developed a good reason why these people should be together at all.

I suppose I have to give this movie the first incident because something had to kick things off and the movie was all about the aftermath, but I think it's like the use of coincidence in stories (which is also about removing the element of conscious choice) -- you get one use per story, and while you can use it to get things rolling, you can't use it to set up a turning point or advance the plot.

In other movie romance news, I ran across a funny article at Cracked about the things people do in romantic movies that would get you prison time in real life. They do address the mad airport dash past security in order to catch the true love. Though aside from Love, Actually, for the most part, the post-9/11 romantic comedies have taken the "pay an outrageous amount of money for a plane ticket that will get you past security" approach to the mad dash to catch the true love before the plane leaves.

And now I'm off to see Tangled, which I sincerely hope won't rely on the characters getting high on pixie dust or getting drunk in order for them to get together.

Monday, November 29, 2010

How to Avoid Thanksgiving Overeating

I somehow managed to come down with a killer cold the afternoon before Thanksgiving (very soon after reaching my parents' house). On the bright side, that prevented me from overeating. My head was so stuffy that I couldn't taste much of anything, so I wasn't really tempted by anything. My mom had even just made chocolate candy, and I didn't eat a bit of it the whole time I was there. I pretty much spent the holiday lying on the sofa and watching football with my dad. I made it through an entire Cowboys game for the first time in years and watched parts of a few other games where I wasn't entirely sure who was playing. In the state I was in, I wasn't really following the games. My parents how have HD, so I was appreciating football on the "oooh, pretty picture" level.

I started to feel moderately human and coherent by Saturday, so I was able to drive back home, and now it seems to have mostly run its course, aside from a lingering cough and a lot of tiredness (which probably has something to do with the cold making it difficult to sleep). As often as I've been sick this fall, I'm wondering if I have a bit of first-year teacher syndrome. Apparently, people who haven't been around kids much who start teaching school, especially with younger children, get sick a lot their first year because they don't have any immunity to all the bugs kids pass around. I'm only around the kindergardeners once a week, but that may be enough to keep me coughing and wheezing.

I need to get back to normal quickly because the Christmas season is going to hit with a vengeance, and quickly. This coming weekend will be the crazy one, which I hope will mean the rest of the season is easy. Saturday morning, I've got a choir rehearsal and then there's a community service project going on at the church that I'll do some work on while I'm there. Meanwhile, the next town over is having a holiday festival on the old downtown square, with the festival doubling as the grand opening of the new rail station, so I may swing over there while I'm out and about to check out the new station and see if I can feel festive from looking at an old town square all decked out for the holidays. That night, I'm going to a party. Then Sunday morning, my children's choir is singing in the early service and then I'm singing with the adult choir in the late service. We're doing our community Christmas concert that evening, so there's another rehearsal that afternoon before the concert. I hope I get my voice back by then, and I suspect the following Monday will be a veg-out day.

Otherwise, I just have events on both of the subsequent Saturdays. I'm not sure when I'm going to get around to decorating my house. I'm not really in a holiday mood yet. I did watch my first bad Lifetime holiday movie of the year on Sunday when I was huddled on the sofa with a pot of tea (the movie was mostly interesting because the actor who plays Nathan the numb but sensitive detective from Haven was the romantic hero, but he had spectacularly unfortunate hair. Like, I couldn't even look at the screen when he was on and not wearing a hat). There are years when I contemplate skipping the holidays, aside from external events. Like, I'd still do the choir stuff and go to parties and buy gifts and visit my parents for Christmas, but I wouldn't bother decorating my house, listening to Christmas music at home or watching Christmas movies. Taking a year off might make it more special later. But then I like doing all that stuff and would probably miss it. When I'm feeling better and have been exposed to a bit of the usual seasonal things, then maybe I'll be more in the mood.

I am going to try to stay in the writing groove. My grand plan is to find balance, to spend the days when I have no other plans doing serious writing, even into the night, but then take some other days off. The plan is kind of for today to be a writing binge day, since I don't feel much like doing anything else.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Over the River ...

As soon as my dishwasher quits running, I'll be heading over the river and through the woods for Thanksgiving. I imagine there will be much food and football. I have to pack for approximately three different climates because the weather is changing that much. Warm today, cold tomorrow, moderately chilly Friday and Saturday. That means bringing both the winter coat and the light coat, though I may just declare that I'm not leaving the house on Thursday and not bring the heavy coat.

So, a happy Thanksgiving to my American readers and a good rest of the week/weekend to everyone else.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Report: Fantasy Realms

First, happy Doctor Who Day! On this date in 1963, the very first episode of Doctor Who premiered.

I kicked off my Thanksgiving week last night by rewatching the "Turkeys Away" episode of WKRP. That has to be on the list not only of best Thanksgiving episodes or specials ever but also the funniest half hours of television ever. "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." I still remember when that first aired and I was worried that my dad was going to stop breathing from laughing so hard.

And now, a book report. Normally, I don't do critical reviews of books -- in either sense of the word. I figure that there isn't enough time to talk about all the good books, so why waste time discussing a book I wouldn't recommend? And because of that, I don't really get into in-depth analysis of books. I talk about and recommend books because I figure that people who like the books I write might like some of the books I read, and the discussion pretty much amounts to enough about the plot so you can decide whether or not it sounds interesting, plus what I like about it.

I'm going to make an exception today because I'm dealing with a book that I think might be of interest to my readers but that I can't just recommend, and explaining why it might be of interest and why it may not be what you think it will be requires being critical in the analytical sense, which may involve being negative in places. But I figure that this isn't an author I'm likely to run into, and since the book got the Big Book treatment, the author has experienced enough truly critical (in both senses of the word) reviews that me not being overwhelmingly positive isn't going to make him cry, even if he isn't so bombarded with enough media attention that he still bothers to have Google alerts set up.

The book in question is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Essentially, it's Harry Potter meets Narnia, so you can see why it might be of interest to my readers. To sort of sum up the plot, it's about a bright teenager in Brooklyn who gets sidetracked on his way to his admissions interview for Princeton and ends up going through the entrance exams for what turns out to be a magical college. Ever since he was a kid, he's been obsessed with a series of Narnia-like fantasy novels, and learning that magic is real and going to a magical school is like a dream come true. Life after school turns out to be not so magical, but then one of his friends discovers that those books were actually based on fact, and he finds the way to travel to that magical world.

Except that's not really what the book is about, and if that's what you're reading it for, you'll likely be disappointed. It's not so much a fantasy novel as it is a literary novel that makes use of fantasy tropes to explore a particular approach to life. The first big clue is that describing the plot doesn't actually give a sense of what the book's about -- a sign of a literary novel. Then there's the pacing. There's no real "plot" to speak of, with little conflict or action until late in the novel. The first two-thirds are about the time in school -- think the Harry Potter books without any of the Voldemort stuff, just the going to classes and hanging out with friends stuff -- with just one appearance by the bad guy to hint at the fact that there is something dangerous out there but otherwise with no sense of building toward a threat. Then there's a Bright Lights, Big City style interlude where the newly minted magicians deal with the boredom of the real world by doing drugs and having sex. And then finally, in the last quarter of the book, we gear up to go to the fantasy world and face the bad guys.

But I think the big thing that keeps this from being a fantasy novel is that, as a fantasy, it's incredibly derivative. The author barely bothers to file off the serial numbers of the books he's building on, and it's all based on a fairly superficial reading of the books. In fact, it's almost like his familiarity with the Harry Potter series is from seeing the movies and like he's only just heard of the Narnia books without actually having read them, or perhaps not having read them since childhood. The school is essentially Hogwarts on the Hudson. It's a college instead of a secondary school, but that mostly seems to be so there can be more drinking and sex, but otherwise the kids have to wear school uniforms like something out of a British boarding school (why I say it's based on the Harry Potter movies rather than books because in the books they wear robes, not boarding school uniforms). The students are divided into Disciplines, like majors, based on an assessment of skills, but they also hang out primarily with other people in their Discipline and even have their own clubhouses and compete in a sport that's like a more athletic magical chess against the other Disciplines. The main character even has a best friend who's the smartest girl in the class and something of a magical prodigy who has learned a lot of the spells already before the first day of classes. This book doesn't do anything original with the Harry Potter trope. Because the school is a pastiche of British boarding schools, the book doesn't explore the possibilities inherent in American magic or in the higher education of magic. Every so often a character will make a Harry Potter reference, almost as if to make sure we know that the similarities are intentional.

Then the "Narnia" books are barely disguised. They involve a family of British kids who travel into a magical land by going through the cabinet of a grandfather clock, the land is ruled by godlike twin rams, and the kids become kings and queens in this land. There's nothing about this world that really differentiates itself from Narnia or that's at all unique in the fantasy genre. The reason I doubt the author was a real Narnia fan is that the kids are surprised when they go to "Narnia" and find that it's a scary, dangerous place, not the cute magical land from the books. Narnia was never a safe place in the books. Even the "cute" talking animals turned out to be dangerous.

I'd think that any fantasy editor would demand more originality from the fantasy elements, as would most fantasy readers. That leads me to believe that this wasn't meant as a fantasy, but rather was using culturally familiar fantasy touchstones to tell a different kind of story. That story is somewhat interesting as it explores the clash between fantasy and reality, and how even a fantasy-like reality can't live up to an imaginary fantasyland from childhood. There's a cynical part of me that wonders if the message is supposed to be that reading fantasy novels is bad for kids because fantasy establishes unrealistic expectations about life, and you're better off reading "realistic" books where bad things happen to people and magic isn't real. If you're familiar with the fantasy tropes, it makes for a coming-of-age/ennui of the modern world novel that's more interesting than most, but if you're reading it as a fantasy novel and wanting to explore what it might be like for a recently graduated magician to find his way to the fantasy world of his childhood and really have to deal with it, then you'll have to wait for me to figure out a way to steal the idea and do it right without it being obvious that's what I'm doing.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Coming Attractions

I woke up today with a bad case of the don't wannas -- only to realize that there really isn't anything I have to do. I always compare the completion of a book project to the end of a semester in school, where you've just gone through a long period of always having something you were supposed to be doing, and the final push is really intense, and then when it's all over, you feel kind of weird not doing anything, like there's something you're supposed to be doing that you forgot about. This project isn't exactly done, but this phase of it is, and although I'll probably keep working on it out of a sense of optimism, I'm not on a deadline.

Between seeing the new Harry Potter movie twice this weekend and getting bored and going through all the coming attractions previews they have OnDemand, I feel like I've had a good glimpse into the future of moviegoing, so here are some of my thoughts and observations on the coming attractions.

There are apparently two "green" superhero movies coming out, The Green Lantern and The Green Hornet, and because I'm not really a comic book or superhero person, I can't quite keep track of which one is which. One seems to be more of the straightforward heroic type thing involving a guy with some serious abs and the other seems to be more of a comedic thing involving one of those overgrown manchild slacker guys (I won't even say "frat boy" because a frat boy has at least managed to get into college). Neither movie looks particularly interesting.

They ran the Cowboys and Aliens trailer both times I saw Harry Potter, and it got the same reaction both times. It starts out looking very traditional old west, and then there's an alien attack, and we see James Bond and Han Solo fighting against spaceships in the old west, and then the title of the movie comes up and the audience totally cracks up. I guess because of the "Aliens" instead of the more traditional "Indians," but I still wasn't sure why that title was so very funny after the trailer we'd just seen.

They seem to be giving the Little Red Riding Hood story the Twilight treatment in a movie called Red Riding Hood. The trailer mostly seemed to involve moody shots of a long red cape swirling around on the snow, mixed in with earnest scenes of attractive young people saying things like, "We can never be together!" and looking angstily at each other.

I'm very excited for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. That book was very cinematic, so it should make for a good film. I just want it to do well enough that The Silver Chair gets made (IMDB currently has it "In Development") because that was my favorite book in the series, and I think the quest story would make for a good movie. Plus, since they seem to like trying to add teen romance to the series (since there was none in the books but that's good for box office), that's the one book where the two Earth kids traveling in Narnia aren't related to each other, so I think it would lend itself well to a budding attraction that develops along the way, depending on how old the kids are by the time they make it.

On the romantic comedy front, it looks like my holiday season romantic comedy will be How Do You Know. I like the lead actors, and it looks like it's Paul Rudd in nice guy romantic comedy lead mode, not frat-pack mode, and I generally like James L. Brooks movies. It doesn't look like it's a holiday-set film, though, since it seems to be taking place during baseball season. I really need another holiday-set romantic comedy, since I think The Holiday was the last one. On the other hand, Love and Other Drugs looks like it will fall into the "not for me" category.

I admit that I'm kind of intrigued by the new version of True Grit. Supposedly, this one is more based on the novel than the John Wayne version was, and the cast looks good. There was a condensed version of the novel in one of those Readers Digest Condensed Books volumes we had when I was a kid (that we probably got from my grandmother), and that was one of my chosen ways to traumatize myself. I have a snake phobia, and for some weird reason, I liked to force myself to read the scene where the girl falls into the snake pit. I don't remember anything else from the book, so I may not have read it all, and I suspect it would have gone over my head, as I was about six or seven at the time.

I did watch one non-Harry Potter movie over the weekend. There was a British supposed romantic comedy (which was actually neither) on Sundance Channel OnDemand called Someone Else. Basically, it's about a man with a longterm girlfriend who has been seeing someone else, breaks up with his girlfriend to be with his other girlfriend, only to find out that other girlfriend is seeing someone else, and he sets out to find someone else but has bad luck with that, mostly because he's a selfish, boring idiot. It was so bleak and depressing that I ended up watching a CSI marathon on Spike afterward to cheer myself up and get a more positive outlook on life (and I don't even normally watch CSI). But I guess all of that love sucks and people suck stuff is what made it Sundance-worthy. It's not art if people are happy.

So, anyway, I may actually be going to the movie theater in the next month or so. I'd like to see Morning Glory (maybe tomorrow) because I used to work on a morning news show. After I get back from Thanksgiving, I'll have to see Tangled. Then the next week I'll see Voyage of the Dawn Treader on opening day. The following week, there's How Do You Know, and then my friends will be going to see the new Tron that Saturday (though I never saw the first one, but I think that will be rectified the previous weekend). I admit that I'm kind of intrigued by Black Swan because of the whole psycho ballerina angle, but I doubt that will be playing at my neighborhood theater. I may have to make a trek downtown for that. I hope it will play at one of the theaters I can get to via train, since they'll be opening the line that runs up to my part of town in early December.

Oh, and while I was at IMDB, I couldn't resist peeking at the Enchanted, Inc. movie page. Apparently, there's now some Facebook thingy where you can "like" it. Only 4 people like it so far. I don't know if getting lots of "likes" will help give it a push, but if you feel so inclined ...

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Blown-Off Workday

I finished and sent off the proposal yesterday, and now I'm going to take a long Thanksgiving holiday (though I do have some medical school work to do). I celebrated by making a Target run and getting the new Josh Groban CD (I've decided to fully embrace the fact that I have a middle-aged woman's taste in music, which I've had since I was a small child, but now I've finally aged into it), then digging into my new set of Doctor Who DVDs that I had been too busy to look at, followed by a bubble bath and some reading. During some of the reading, I had the sixth Harry Potter movie playing from HBO OnDemand in the background (I have the DVD, but it's easier to pull it up OnDemand right now).

Then this morning I went to see the first morning show of the new Harry Potter movie. Yeah, I'm getting together with friends tomorrow to see it, but what's the point of working for yourself and getting a project done if you can't play hooky for a day and see the first show of the day? Since my friends happen to be gathering at my neighborhood theater, I decided to go to the theater at the mall that has digital projection, since it's rather redundant to see the movie twice at the same theater. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. In this one, the digital sound and projection were lovely, but the walls between auditoriums were apparently made of tissue because in the quieter moments (and they do a lot of letting silence speak volumes) you could hear the movie showing next door well enough to understand the dialogue. It was the same movie that started half an hour later, and I was able to track exactly where in the movie they were next door. That sort of ruined the impact of those quieter scenes. I don't recall that problem at my neighborhood theater.

As for the movie itself, no spoilers, but I liked it. I'm glad they cut it into two films because that allowed them to get the important stuff in without it feeling too rushed. I would say that you might be a little confused if you haven't read the books -- not so much this book, but the rest of the series. There were several things in this book that I was wondering how they'd deal with them, since the plot lines that set up those things had been entirely left out of the movies. I was surprised to see that they were more or less dealt with exactly as they were in the book, so the set-up came out of nowhere. Even weirder, they referred to events that didn't happen in the movies -- and I'm not just talking about things that might have happened off-screen, but where they changed the way things happened in the movies and who was present for those events. That made for a couple of weirdly unnecessary references. I may have to rewatch the fourth movie, because there's something that was in that book that I was pretty sure wasn't in that movie that gets referenced here, and it took me aback. There's also one little thing changed from the book that really bothered me because changing it struck me as falling into the category of Missing A Major Point They've Been Setting Up For Seven Books, but I suppose there's still a way it could be made a factor in the second part, so I'll let it slide for now.

Other than those nitpicks, I enjoyed it. The three main actors have really grown into those roles and you believe in their bond, and that makes everything else work well. There's some inspired casting for the "adult" roles. I'm probably still in the "squee!" phase and may be able to be more analytical after tomorrow's viewing.

While I'm in review mode, I'll need to give it another listen, but I think this Josh Groban album may become my favorite of his. With his others, I have favorite songs I've put on playlists, but I seldom listen to the entire album. This one is an album to listen to in its entirety. It's a lot more intimate and less of that "popera" bombast that his former producer seemed to like. And, weirdly enough, it almost works as a soundtrack to the book in progress. That could be because that's what's on my mind and that makes me see everything that way, but there's something about the sound that seems to fit for me and many of the songs could come from the perspective of the characters.

And now the sign is telling me to go spend the rest of the day relaxing and reading. Or baking cookies. I suddenly really desperately want cookies. That is, the sign says I do (actually, it's just telling me that there's a town hall meeting coming up, but I think that's code for "bake cookies").

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Warning: This Post Was Written with Book Brain

I'm really close to finishing this book proposal. I just have about 60 pages to read out loud for proofreading, and then I need to review the synopses. I was going to town rewriting the synopsis for the second book and incorporating all my fun story ideas for it, and then I remembered that my agent said one page would be enough. At the time, I had five pages. It's down to two, and I may trim it further. At this stage of the process, vague is actually kind of good because details give them something to quibble over. I may even try writing it as though it's back-cover copy. I'm determined to get all this done today and sent either today or tomorrow morning because tomorrow is Harry Potter day, and although I'm planning to see the movie with my friends on Saturday, there's not much point in working at home for yourself if you can't play hooky from work on opening day to see an early showing. Besides, I'd like to see it once on my own to actually watch the movie before I see it as a social experience with friends.

So, that means book proposal has to go before I go. Then in addition to seeing the movie, I have a book that I need to finish reading by Saturday because it's due back at the library, and since I got it from the "new releases" shelf I may not be able to renew it. I also have a lot of TV to catch up on. I taped Monday's House, but I may not bother with it because the new character infuriates me. Seriously, they hired a third-year medical student for a fellowship? I will not go into med school mode to explain in detail why that's preposterous, but honestly, Hollywood writers, "smart" doesn't trump everything in medicine. It's more about skill and experience, so stop it with these "super genius" characters who haven't had time to develop any skills or experience (and which seem to mostly be an excuse to hire ridiculously young actresses, since, apparently, women actually old enough to be in that position in the real world would be icky because they'd have to be over 30). Ahem. I'm planning to catch up on Hawaii Five-O and NCIS: LA OnDemand, maybe over the weekend. I'm less and less enthusiastic about the latter because I'm afraid they aren't going to see the error of their ways, and I'm resigned to feeling like the fun, quirky show I liked was cancelled after one season and replaced by a generic, paint-by-numbers cop show. Even when I actually like a show at the top of the ratings, I can't seem to win and they find a way to "cancel" it.

But I think the book reading and movie viewing have to come before TV viewing on the priority list. Meanwhile, I just thought my body was complaining yesterday. The full pain from the jazz class kicked in last night, about the time I was sitting on the floor in the children's choir room with a kindergardener in my lap (the little girls compete to see who gets to sit with the teenagers, and the loser gets me). For a moment, I wasn't sure I'd be able to get up again. Today I'm moving like a less-graceful Frankenstein monster. When I finish the book proposal, I may reward myself with a nice, hot bubble bath. Then I might be able to move tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Approach to the Inmost Cave

Today's really late start came courtesy of taking two dance classes in a row last night, which left my body whimpering this morning and refusing to leave the featherbed. I may have another late night tonight, since I have choir and I may try to finish this book proposal, but I swear, on Friday I'm setting an alarm to try to force myself back onto a more reasonable schedule.

I got a synopsis for the first book written yesterday and one for the second -- until I started working on the third and came up with ideas that fit in the second book, which ended up totally changing the plot of the second book. I'm sure editors know that proposals like this are subject to change when the book is actually written and they just need to be able to show that there are plans for more books where stuff will happen. At least I think I'm beyond the point of the book 3 synopsis going along the lines of "Lots of stuff happens, things blow up, good triumphs over evil, love conquers all, and they live happily ever after." Which was where I was before yesterday.

Now, for a writing post. I'm still following the stages of the hero's journey, as outlined by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey, which takes the work on universal myth done by Joseph Campbell and distills it for modern storytelling. Last time, we went through the Tests, Allies and Enemies phase, in which the hero gets used to the special world of the story. Now we get serious, with the Approach to the Inmost Cave.

In this part of the story, the hero prepares to enter an even more special sub-world within the story's special world -- the enemy's fortress, the temple, the forbidden kingdom. The previous phase has been a time of generalized preparation as the hero learns the rules of the special world, assembles his team of allies and learns who his enemies really are and what they're up to. In this phase, he does more specialized preparation for a focused mission into the heart of the enemy. This isn't the lead-up to the final major confrontation, but rather to the initial major confrontation -- the mid-term exam instead of the final.

A lot of things may happen during this phase. It's one of the two main places in the story where love scenes are likely to happen. If a romantic relationship is brewing, this may be where the characters first acknowledge it as part of their preparation for the ordeal that's coming. It's a time of bonding that may be used to raise the stakes if the love interest is put in jeopardy during the coming ordeal. This is also a time for serious preparation -- specific research and recon, arming, setting out weapons. Think about most military action type movies and the scenes where we see the characters slamming magazines into their weapons, checking weapons and strapping grenades onto their belts as they get ready to go on the mission or storm the fortress.

During the approach, some of the earlier steps of the journey may repeat in a more intense way, since the hero is crossing another threshold. He may run into tests, obstacles or threshold guardians who are trying to keep him from crossing the threshold. Once over that threshold into the special-special world, the hero has to quickly learn any additional rules that apply to this realm. Since the original myths that this story pattern came from usually involve the hero being in a temple, the underworld or the realm of the gods at this phase, there may be semi-religious or psychological undertones to this part of the story, where the hero has to confront aspects of himself or his beliefs before he can move on. The most obvious (and rather on-the-nose) example of this may be in The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke has to enter the magical cave as part of his training, where he runs into Darth Vader, fights him, and cuts off his head, only to see his own face under the mask.

When I think about examples of the Approach from films, I've been amused at how well the imagery often fits the "cave" concept. So often, we'll see our heroes going underground, into a mouth-like entrance or otherwise entering a place where the physical surroundings become narrow and confining, like their options are being closed off. There's the Mines of Moria scene in The Lord of the Rings. In the original Star Wars, the ship gets pulled into the gaping maw of the Death Star. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones goes underground into the chamber where the Ark rests.

In pacing terms, this phase of the story isn't usually an action sequence. It's more about anticipation and suspense. You know something big is about to happen, and the events of this phase should increase the suspense, making the audience more and more tense.

Next time: Things happen as the hero goes through an ordeal.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Blaming the Sign

Last night, the sign across the street tried to tell me to make brownies. I made some over the weekend, but they were for sharing, and they were all gone, and the sign seemed to think I deserved some of my own. But a combination of cooking laziness and work diligence won.

That sign may prove to be a better excuse/scapegoat than Stan the ghost. Between the two of them, I may never have to take responsibility for anything ever again. Either Stan did it or the sign told me to do it.

I had another very late start to the day, but I earned this one because I was working until around midnight last night. I think I'm done with most of the revisions to the first hundred pages of the book. I completely rewrote a pivotal scene last night, and now I think I need to re-read it to make sure it still makes sense. Considering the state I was in while I was working on it, I might also need to make sure it's actually in English. Now I just need to write a synopsis, now that I have a better idea of what the plot actually is, along with outlines for the next two books in the series. Normally, I know the character arcs but am fuzzy on the specific plot details. This time, I know the major plot details but am fuzzy on the character arcs because I have to get to those plot events to know how they'll affect the characters. There's also a potential romantic triangle brewing, and I'm not entirely sure which team I'm on in the long term. I'm currently leaning one way, but that could change if the other guy does something to surprise or impress me.

In other news, I think I want to steampunk my Christmas tree. It's already fairly Victorian, so I'd just need to add a few touches to take it into the steampunk realm. Now I need to find sources for those touches. And the time to do something about it. But I should be shipping this proposal off this week, and that will give me breathing room.

It will be another late night tonight because I think I'm going to take jazz tonight, and then Craig Ferguson is doing a Doctor Who episode on the Late, Late Show (or whatever they're calling it now) with Matt Smith and Daleks. Matt Smith appears to be almost as odd as the Doctor, so that could be highly entertaining.

Uh oh, the sign just told me I had to get to work (actually, I think it was just something about a town hall meeting, but without my glasses on and without the binoculars, I can decide it says whatever I want it to say).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Things the Sign Told Me to Post

I'm hoping the start to the day isn't some sign of how it will go because I got a ridiculously late and slow start. I didn't really sleep in because I wasn't exactly sleeping. I was lying there, thinking and daydreaming. I had a mental story going, and I had to get to the end before I got up. I suppose there's nothing to stop me from doing my daydreaming while sitting at my desk or on the sofa, but there's also no real benefit to doing so, aside from being able to say that I got out of bed at a certain time. Meanwhile, there is benefit to lying nestled in the featherbed and snuggled under the comforter while doing the daydreaming. I consider the daydreaming to be vaguely work-related. The particular mental story I was playing with wasn't directly related to any project currently in progress, but I sometimes find that the themes or situations that come up in mental stories are a good source of ideas that I can use in real projects. I guess it's the mental version of writing in longhand on notebook paper when I'm considering changing something big and I'm afraid to commit. It doesn't feel as "real" when I'm scribbling on notebook paper, so I'm more free to stretch my ideas, and then when I'm done, I can tell the new thing is better, so it's less scary to type it into the actual document. With the daydreaming, playing with an idea with a totally different set of characters makes it easier to explore the idea without getting it too mentally associated with the characters. If it doesn't work, I don't want to remember that happening with those characters because it might color the way I see them, even if I don't write that into the book. If it does work, I can then steal it and apply it to the real characters. At last, that's my rationalization for spending a couple of hours lying in bed, thinking, in the morning.

I had another weekend that actually felt like a weekend. Friday was my standard watch TV/read/cook night. Saturday there was a meeting of a group I'm in (pretty much a social club for geeks -- it's an official club and all, but it's mostly just friends hanging out). Afterward, we watched the last Harry Potter movie on Blu-Ray, in preparation for our planned outing next weekend to see the new one. I got to watch most of the movie while cuddling an official Harry Potter stuffed dragon, courtesy of my friends' little boy, who walked over and presented it to me at some point during the movie. I feel rather honored to be the kind of person to whom small children entrust their toys. Then there was an excursion for hamburgers. So I actually went out on a Saturday night. Wow.

And then for more "world comes to an end, film at eleven" events, I actually watched most of a Dallas Cowboys game, for the first time in ages. That was because of the coaching change. I loved Jason Garrett when he was the backup quarterback in the 90s, probably because of my thing for unlikely heroes. Here was a guy who went to Princeton who was a practice squad quarterback (the guy the defense practiced against) who then became a backup on the actual team, and then suddenly found himself coming off the bench when the two guys ahead of him were hurt, and he won games. The same thing seems to be happening to him as a coach -- they fire the head coach midway through the season, and he suddenly has to take over a losing team and pulls off a win. It's like someone scripted it. I'm mentally casting Damian Lewis for the movie.

Speaking of whom, I discovered that HBO had the entire Band of Brothers series OnDemand, I guess for Veterans' Day, since it ends today. I watched a couple of episodes yesterday evening. I need to get that series on DVD. It still works as stress relief, I guess because it makes my problems seem so insignificant.

Meanwhile, my new essential desk accessory is a pair of binoculars. My desk faces a set of sliding glass doors, and since this is on the second floor (don't worry, there is a balcony, not just a random set of doors on the second floor), I have a nice view of the street behind my house. They've put up one of those lighted message boards on the street corner, just where I can see it from my desk. However, I can't quite read it without the binoculars. Mostly, it's neighborhood announcements, but every so often, they flash the time and temperature, which is handy to see. That's when I grab the binoculars to get the update. I'll also grab the binoculars if there's a screen I don't recall seeing before. I may be the best-informed person in the neighborhood because I don't think anyone else has this direct a view of the sign. Oddly, I can't seem to read it when I'm driving by it or at the stoplight at the intersection, so it's possible that I'm the only person who can actually read the message board.

If it starts sending me messages to kill people or gather my followers and wait for the aliens, then I will put away the binoculars. And maybe close the blinds.

Right now, though, the sign is telling me to get to work because I have to get a proposal done.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Life With Stan

I made more progress than I expected yesterday. I'm still analyzing the book for what needs to be fixed, but then I also got the second book outlined, and that gave me ideas for things to sprinkle in the beginning of this book. I think I may have something ready for my agent when she gets back from vacation.

Meanwhile, Stan has been acting up a lot lately, and he's getting into the electronics. I don't think I've mentioned Stan in a while, so here's the backstory: I sometimes joke about having a "ghost" because although I live alone and there's very seldom anyone else in my house and no one but me has a key, it often seems like things have been moved around or hidden. I can spend days looking for something, only to have it reappear in plain sight. It probably really is just me being disorganized and sloppy, but it's more fun to blame my "ghost." My house was built in 1984 and is pretty much the typical 80s bachelor pad kind of place. Furthermore, because of the layout and location, the consensus among my neighbors is that the original target market for our houses was airline crew members (and I think we do still have a fair number of airline crew members living here). So I decided that my ghost, whom I named Stan, was the ghost of a 1980s bachelor airline pilot who died while trying to impress a date with a stupid flying stunt. In my head, he looks a lot like a cheesy version of Magnum PI. He does seem to steal my 80s music CDs most often.

Well, lately, Stan seems to be trying to send and/or receive faxes. I ended up having to unplug my fax machine because of this. Suddenly, for no apparent reason and without the phone ringing, my fax machine would act like it was receiving a fax and printing it out, only nothing came out. The problem is that the printer cartridge on my machine is one of those rolls of film types, and it was advancing the roll even though it wasn't actually printing anything, so it used up an entire cartridge on the ghost faxes. This kept happening even after I removed the printer cartridge. I'd be sitting in the living room and hear a funny sound coming from upstairs, and it sounded like the fax machine was sending something. So, I unplugged it to end Stan's fun.

Meanwhile, he's been tinkering with my cable TV settings. With digital cable, there are about a zillion channels, and I only get a few of them, but all of them still show up on the onscreen cable guide, so favorites lists are a must. And yet I have to re-create my favorites lists every other day or so because I think Stan is rearranging them. Channels that aren't on my list will suddenly appear, while other channels that are on my list will disappear. I'll even have multiple versions of the same channel, with the original and a couple of different digital and HD versions (even though I don't have an HD box). Stan is no high-brow because PBS is one of the channels that always disappears from the list.

I could be falsely accusing Stan because my cable box reset itself last night while I was watching TV, and now my favorites lists are all messed up again. I don't know if it's my box or the system, but at least this is an improvement over the last box, which kept losing the signal and then distorting the picture. I can watch TV just fine with this box. It's just the favorite's list that I have to keep re-creating. And it's more fun to imagine a cable box war with a ghost than to think I have yet another faulty converter box.

Now I need to get to the library before the weather takes a turn for the worse. We're already approaching the "look out for British child-care professionals sailing under umbrella power" levels.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Internet Group Dynamics

I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those I Never Could Get The Hang of Thursdays days. There's a front coming in, and I seem to be able to feel it in my head. Meanwhile, a writing organization I belong to has chosen this time to blow up completely, and conflict bothers me. It's an argument that can't really be resolved because there isn't a lot of middle ground, and it seems to come up in every writing organization I've belonged to. When the group's e-mail list is allowed to be a free-for-all, you get a nice, tight-knit group among the people who participate, which creates an atmosphere that encourages people to ask on-topic questions and share valuable business information. But you also get tons of cute pet/kid/husband stories. Tons and tons of them. The moment that anyone suggests that it would be nice if posts were more on-topic, the people who post the cute pet/kid/husband stories throw a fit and claim that the friendly atmosphere is the only reason they're in the group, they like reading other people's pet/kid/husband stories, and if they aren't allowed to share cute pet/kid/husband stories, then they'll flounce off and play elsewhere, and besides, it's because of all the off-topic posts that we have such a great atmosphere. And they're kind of right because in every group I've been in that has cracked down on posting rules, the list has degenerated into nothing more than re-posts of announcements and "I'm blogging at whatever site today, come and comment and win a prize!" posts. So now this organization seems to have come up with a reasonable solution that creates the opportunity to allow the people who want to talk about their pets to do so without annoying the people who don't care, and meanwhile the ones who want to talk business can do so elsewhere. And still the cute personal story people are flouncing and saying that will RUIN EVERYTHING and it won't be the organization they joined and the world is coming to an end, and so they're going to leave the group. The cynical part of me suspects that they're not going to be happy unless everyone is FORCED to read about Fluffy's latest adventures.

I think it's just basic group dynamics, cranked up to Eleven because of the sometimes overly emotional and dramatic writer personality. This group is the last thing keeping me in Romance Writers of America, since I no longer write things that could be shelved as "romance." I'm certainly not in the in crowd in this particular organization, possibly because I don't have kids, husband or pets to share stories about. Silly me, I only post when I have a business matter to discuss.

Still I find it strange that I'm so conflict-averse that this is upsetting me enough to throw off my morning schedule. I think I'm getting enough conflict in the book these days. Mind you, that didn't stop me from putting my two cents into the discussion, since Someone On The Internet Was Wrong and because any time I feel like a faction of a group is ganging up and making some kind of public statement that We All feel a particular way with the not-so-subtle peer pressure that all reasonable people would naturally feel that way and you're not really one of us if you don't, it tends to make me be contrary and leap to side with the people who aren't included in that We All (see the Great HOA War played out at a City Council meeting of 2004 -- I didn't even care about the issue, but ended up speaking before the city council in opposition to my HOA's view on a neighborhood matter, just because the We All attitude pissed me off).

Which, come to think of it, is exactly what's going on with my heroine in the part of the book I'm currently working on, which may be why I'm overly sensitive about it right now. Real life and the story are merging, but the stakes are much, much higher in the story, and I'm then applying that to real life. I'd probably better disconnect from the Internet for a while before I start a revolution, or something.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Magical Locations

I think I broke free of the event horizon yesterday and have now reached my target page count. At least, until I start tinkering with things and cutting out parts I decide are unnecessary. There's one scene that I'm not sure of. I think I'm setting up something for later, but I'm not yet entirely sure what that is. I've got a long mental list of things that I think justify the inclusion of the scene, but it still comes down to the fact that the story as it's going so far could go on without it. Today I'm going to revisit the new parts of the book and do all that tinkering. That is, between getting a few errands done and dealing with a couple of business-related tasks.

I'm continuing to address questions related to the Enchanted, Inc. series. I'm down to one more after this one, so if you've got questions other than when the next book is coming (I don't know -- that's a publisher issue that I have little to no control over), let me know.

I was asked about the location issues related to magic in my series -- there's a lot of magic and magical stuff in New York, but little in Texas, so where else might magic be strong?

I won't say where else magic might be strong or weak because I don't know since it hasn't come up yet and I don't want to commit myself until I need it for a book. I came up with the idea of having strong and weak magical places in part because I wanted to contrast my heroine's home to the city. If she was immune to magic so that she saw all the magical stuff, then why hadn't she noticed it already? I decided that was because there wasn't any magic where she came from, so all this is new to her. I think that also worked on another level that I could identify with. I'm from a small town that doesn't feel at all magical, and I felt like New York was the magic kingdom the first time I went there.

But then I developed the idea further as I developed my magical system. I like the idea of magic having a cost. You can't just zap things willy-nilly. Some places have more natural magical power available, and there you have more power at your disposal. Some places have less magical power, so it takes more personal energy to do magic and more effort to draw upon the power. It's kind of like the way a weak cell signal will drain your phone's battery faster because it has to work harder to send a signal to the tower.

As I worked further into the series and did some research into folklore related to magic, I came across the concept of leylines, and I liked that idea, so I worked it into the fourth book, where the characters went to a place low on magic. The magic centers are the places with stronger lines or an intersection of lines. Magical people settle around those places, like the way settlements tended to spring up around sources of water. Magical people tend to get entrenched in those places in their communities, so they don't really spread out much. They hung in around the east coast after coming to America. Out west, not only is civilization more spread out, but so are the leylines, and therefore the magical community, which is mostly limited to native creatures who were there before mankind.

Magical settlements may appear if I decide I need them for plot purposes, such as if the characters have to go to Europe or the west coast, but for now I'm leaving my options open instead of committing to anything.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Event Horizon Goal

I seem to have reached some kind of event horizon situation on this book, where I can see my goal but can never quite reach it, no matter how much I do. My agent would like to have 100 pages of the novel to submit, but she uses a different font/format for submissions than I write with. I like to stick to my old way of formatting for writing because that's how I calculate pacing, and then when I'm doing my last round of revisions/proofreading, I change the font and format to my agent's preference, which then makes it look different, and that makes it easier to spot errors instead of going on automatic and reading what I think should be there. The problem is that it makes it difficult to tell how many pages I actually have. The way I'd calculated, based on the differences at other points in the story, I should have reached 100 pages by the other format, but when I reached my goal last night, I changed the font and found that I was only on page 89. So it looks like I have twenty more (or so) pages to write. I think. At least that should allow me to finish a chapter, which I was planning to do anyway. Then I'll change the font again and see where I am.

It's at least another day's work, which puts me a little behind my target schedule, but if I'm good and diligent and work as many hours as I did yesterday, I can do it. However, I've got dance class tonight (I may skip the jazz class and do that one next week) and then choir tomorrow, with a section rehearsal between children's choir and chancel choir, so I can't even brainstorm in the down time.

One thing I did yesterday that was a lot of fun was make up a slang vocabulary for one group of people in the story. I tried thinking about the things they might reference and how technical terms from their work might sneak into other usage. I had the good sense to write down my terms as I came up with them, so I'm gradually building a slang dictionary for this world. The trick will be to not incorporate these terms into my own vocabulary once I start using them in writing -- at least, not until I'm actively promoting the book. Then maybe I'll let it go viral by using these terms.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A Weekendy Weekend

I had a pretty full and varied weekend. Friday night, there was a wine-tasting party, where I felt so very grown-up and sophisticated as I sipped wine and talked about wine, food, travel and books. Saturday was a work day. Or, it was supposed to be a work day. I got about four pages written before I realized that while I knew the setting of the scene and how it would end, I didn't actually know the events of the scene. Then for some strange reason I got it into my head that I needed to knit a cozy for my new cell phone. Mind you, I'm not a knitter. My grand total of lifetime knitting output has been five scarves. It took me three tries to remember how to cast on. The result was kind of sad. I overestimated the size of the phone (you'd think I would have thought about actually getting it out to look at it before knitting for it, but no), plus I forgot that the first row of stitches looks a lot smaller than the finished item will be, so I ended something that wraps around the phone a couple of times (I guess it's extra cushiony), and then it's too long, as well, but that's because I also forgot how to bind off, and I kept panicking and knitting one more row, sure I'd figure it out the next time. I finally used the phone to look up knitting instructions online so I could end. The finished cozy is kind of like that sweater your aunt lovingly hand-knit for you that would fit perfectly if only your wrists came down to your knees. I'm picturing my poor phone encountering a bunch of iPhones wearing slick, store-bought leather cases and feeling all embarrassed because of his badly fitting, weirdly knit case. I did do another one last night that looks better, but I think the ugly one might actually be more protective.

I guess the reason I thought about making a case for the phone was that I'd planned on going hiking Sunday, and while my purses have nice little cell phone pockets inside, my backpack doesn't, and with that smartphone screen, I was worried about it just rattling around in there. Now my phone is all snug and safe. We did make a brief hiking trip on Sunday afternoon. There's a lake about fifteen minutes from my house that has some good hiking trails around it, and the weather was perfect -- warm enough for short sleeves while we were hiking, but with a hint of a chill. It felt great to be outdoors and moving. It reminded me of when I was a kid. When we lived in Germany, we lived on the edge of a forest, and there were all these walking trails leading through the woods. Just about every weekend, we'd load up a backpack with drinks and sandwiches and spend the day walking. Those were fairly even paths, though, while this was a little more rugged (it's also a popular trail with mountain bikers). My knees are a little creaky this morning, and my thighs are grumbly, but it was so worth it, and I should do that sort of thing more often. I could happily spend all my fall weekends hiking. Or even weekdays, but the problem is that it's not entirely safe for a woman alone when the trails aren't as busy, so I need to walk during busy times or drag friends with me. I guess I could get a dog to walk with me, but I'm limited in the size of dog I can have where I live now (theoretically, since my neighbor is on the board of directors of the HOA and has a big dog), and the little yappy things aren't necessarily great hiking companions nor good for much protection other than making a racket.

But since I had a weekend that actually felt like a weekend (aside from a couple of hours working on Saturday), I have a Monday that feels like a Monday, with a lot of work to get done.

But first, one more memory from Sunday's hike:

Friday, November 05, 2010

Genre TV Today

I think I finally, finally got the pivotal scene to work and can now move forward. Yay. And I only have to write about 20 pages to get to the length I need for submission, which I can probably do today and tomorrow. Normally, that would be one day's work, but I'm going to a party tonight that requires some cooking in preparation, and then one of my neighbors mentioned coming by this weekend to talk about writing, so I need to do a little house cleaning.

One of the panels I was on at MileHiCon a couple of weeks ago (wow, that long already? It feels like I just got home) was about the current state of genre (science fiction/fantasy) shows on TV, and during the panel, I had the disturbing realization that, thanks to various hiatuses, I'm watching almost nothing genre at the moment. I used to joke that I didn't watch anything that didn't have spaceships or monsters in it.

There's Chuck, which I think falls into the science fiction category with all that Intersect stuff. Plus, it seems to be written with an awareness of genre tropes. And then there's Supernatural. I stretched a bit to include Phineas and Ferb on the Disney Channel because it's clearly written by geeks, plus the idea of two ten-year-old boys and their friends doing stuff in their backyard like building a tower so tall it reaches the moon has to fall into the realm of either science fiction or fantasy.

I'm not currently watching anything on the Sci Fi Channel. I love their summer lineup of Warehouse 13, Eureka and Haven. Their fall/winter lineup hasn't caught my attention. I tried watching Stargate Universe, watched about half a season just to snark about it, and then turned it off in the middle of an episode when I decided that these people were Too Stupid To Live and I didn't want them to live. I only made it through half of the Caprica pilot, and I only made it that far because I liked the music. I keep being told that it got better, but the bits I saw when an episode came on before something else I was going to watch didn't exactly thrill me. I'm not entirely sure why I never tried Sanctuary, but there's something about the promos that makes me cringe badly enough that I never wanted to watch the series. For all I know, I'm missing something great, but if characters and dialogue in the promos are extremely annoying, that's not a good sign.

I tried Fringe but got so bored that I turned it off in the middle of the second episode when I realized I'd lost track of what was going on after I got bored enough that I started sorting my mail. I've tried watching a few episodes of The Vampire Diaries, but it comes across as the kind of overwrought teen soap opera that sets my teeth on edge. I suspect it's also the kind of thing you have to watch from the beginning because I've been completely lost in the episodes I tried, like I needed a scorecard to know who these people were and what their relationships were supposed to be. I watched the first season of True Blood before admitting to myself that I found watching it to be an extremely unpleasant experience.

So I've had to resort to mentally turning other things into genre shows, mostly by deciding which characters are Cylons or Terminators. House is already a science fiction show, just on the basis of the medicine (or maybe it's fantasy, since science fiction is supposed to be based at least loosely on actual science). The new Hawaii Five-O is a lot more fun when you watch with the idea that Kono is a Cylon (naturally) and that Chin is an evil zombie lawyer (as we last saw him on Angel). Then there's my theory that on CSI New York there's a robot police force that allows the same homicide detective to investigate every crime in the entire city, since there's a copy of that particular Cylon model in each precinct. You just think it's the same guy in every episode. On Original Recipe NCIS, Gibbs is clearly a Terminator. I haven't figured out the LA version, especially since they seem to have decided to completely retool the concept and have thrown out the idea of long-term deep cover. They've added the Poochie character, so maybe he really is an alien who will be called back to his home planet soon. And it's possible that Hetty really is Edna Mode from The Incredibles, and the whole NCIS operation is merely her cover for her real work in outfitting superheroes. (They've really genericized that whole series, making it more of a Lite version of the original. Maybe I can hope for another spinoff where we get to see whatever mission they sent Nate the Freakishly Tall Psychologist on, because it's got to be more interesting than stretching jurisdictional boundaries to the breaking point in investigating crimes involving people who once walked past a Navy or Marine recruiting station.)

It's really sad that most of my viewing these days is CBS procedurals, when I used to avoid that kind of thing like the plague. However, most of them, I just watch because they're readily available OnDemand and therefore handy for random times when I'm bored and there's nothing else on or for background noise while I do other stuff. I wouldn't watch most of them if I had to record them or watch them live.

There are a few upcoming series that look interesting. They've just announced yet another Battlestar Galactica prequel, but this one is about the first Cylon war, so it should offer more space battles, fewer bratty teenage girls and longwinded philosophical discussions. They've been talking about that Song of Ice and Fire series on HBO for ages, so maybe it will actually come on one day (I have to admit I've tried several times to read the first book in that series but never managed to get into it. Maybe seeing the TV version will make it easier to get into). And then there will be Christmas episodes of Warehouse 13, Eureka and Doctor Who.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Fight for Focus

So, I'm working on this book proposal to get it ready for submission, and things are taking odd turns. I'd sent the first 60 or so pages to my agent, and she loved it, but said it would be a stronger submission if I could have the first 100 pages ready. I said that would be easy because since I sent it to her, I'd kept writing, and I had that much written already. I'd just need to finish a big scene and do some overall polishing on it. Then I mentioned that I had it planned as a trilogy, and she asked me to write a short synopsis for each of the next two books. No problem, I thought.

Then I re-read what I'd written, and I've ended up cutting huge sections from what I'd written after sending the beginning to her. Some of that was kind of a relief. I suppose it's a bad sign if I can't make myself get into a scene and if it feels good to decide I don't have to write it. If you can't make it interesting and if it isn't essential to the plot, then it probably doesn't need to be there. But I've found it hard to move forward, and yesterday I diagnosed the problem. There was this one scene earlier that wasn't quite right, and it set the tone for the rest. Until I got that right, nothing that came after it would work. That meant a lot of pen-and-paper work to get into the narrator character's head and consider how she really would think and react and how the other characters would act in response to what she did. I think I've got it figured out, so now I need to actually write it.

Unfortunately, yesterday seemed to be a non-functioning day. My subconscious was probably busy because the oddest things seemed to distract me. At one point in the afternoon, I was sitting on my dining room floor, listening to a "great moments in opera" CD. I'm not entirely sure how that came about. I think I was going to the kitchen to refill my mug of tea, saw the CD along the way and stopped to put it in the player that's in the dining room. Fifteen minutes later, I realized I never got that tea. I had a similar problem when I was getting dressed to go to choir. I'd start doing one thing, then get sidetracked until I remembered the time and what I was supposed to be doing. Usually when I get like that, it means there's something cooking in my head that's keeping the mental squirrels preoccupied, and it's siphoning off power from my conscious brain. You should have seen the fight for focus when I was trying to direct five-year-olds in playing handbells, and then when we had one group playing handbells and the other playing jingle bells (we're practicing Christmas music). I'm not sure I'm mentally coordinated enough to pull that off even when functioning on all cylinders.

One of the challenges for the book I'm working on is that the heroine/narrator is extremely intelligent but also extremely naive, at least at the beginning. It's interesting trying to convey her innocence without making her look too stupid to live. She knows a lot of stuff and learns quickly, but she's also been very sheltered, so she doesn't know how the world really works. Then there are times when I'm trying to fit in clues that I hope the reader might catch but that the heroine doesn't yet see the significance of. She lacks cynicism, so she doesn't tend to be suspicious of things, unless it's the kind of thing that might happen in either classic literature or dime novels. So she'll think to ask what became of the previous governess when interviewing for a position (just to rule out "driven mad by a ghost," since that seems to happen all the time in books) but she can't tell when someone is setting her up or using her when they act like they have her best interests at heart. It's a very fine line to walk, and if I end up on the wrong side of the line, the scene goes wrong in such a way that it affects everything that comes after it. What I realized I needed to do in this critical scene was work through the progression of her thought process. She might not know what's going on from the start, but she does begin to put two and two together along the way. Doing that means killing another entire scene later.

I'm hoping the subconscious squirrels will have done their jobs and everything will just flow when I get to work today. I have a lot to write now that I've laid waste to so many pages.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Hero's Journey: Tests, Allies and Enemies

My body is currently angry at me because, in a fit of masochism, I decided last night to stay after my ballet class and take the jazz class as a make-up for the week I was gone (since I ended up not dragging myself out on Saturday). It was just what I needed to work the knots out, with all the stretching and isolation movements, but it also involved a lot of strenuous dancing. Coming right after ballet, it reminded me of the part of the movie Center Stage where the ballerina heroine gets fed up with the regimented ballet program and sneaks off to take a jazz class. This class was a lot like the jazz class in the movie, only without the hot guys (or any guys at all). We did have a guy in our ballet class, though. A guy who dances with the company took our class as a warmup, and it was kind of disconcerting because he looked a lot like LL Cool J (only with a slightly different body type, since this guy is a dancer). It was a little weird to look in the mirror and see LL Cool J dancing ballet, because that's not something that's easy to imagine. I did restrain myself from asking him what the heck they were doing to his show, and were they trying to make it suck. I have one more class to make up from when I was sick, so I may do jazz again next week. It's really different, and I'm awful at it right now, but it's a great workout, and I'm kind of tempted to register for it next semester.

Now for a writing post, after skipping a week. I'm continuing the discussion of the stages of the hero's journey, as distilled from Joseph Campbell's research by Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey. We've made it past the first turning point of the story as the hero has accepted the Call to Adventure and crossed the threshold into the special world of the story. The next phase is Tests, Allies and Enemies. In the classic three-act story structure, this is the start of the second act.

This is the phase where the hero explores and gets to know the special world and learns the differences between this world and his ordinary world. He learns the rules of the world and finds out who's on his side and who's against him. He may also run into some initial tests and trials that lead up to the major ordeals of the story. In the classic fairy tale structure, he may run into a series of tests (usually three) that put him into position to go through a more serious trial (where he then benefits from the friends he made or the magical devices he gained while passing the earlier tests). In a caper-type story, this is where the hero assembles the team of specialists that will help him reach his goal. In a quest-type story, this is where the questing party comes together. The "training montage" usually comes during this stage. If the hero learned he has special powers during the Call to Adventure, this is where he learns to use them. This is the part of the story where Dorothy encounters the scarecrow, tin man and cowardly lion on the way to the Emerald City. It's where Luke Skywalker meets up with Han Solo and Chewbacca and starts to learn how to use a lightsaber. It's where Harry Potter goes off to Hogwarts, becomes friends with Ron, meets Hermione, figures out that he doesn't like Draco, goes to classes and starts to learn about Voldemort.

If an encounter with the villain wasn't what sent the hero off on the quest, this may be when the hero learns precisely who the villain is and who the villain's minions are. He might start to encounter the villain or the villain's minions during this phase. Or he could learn exactly what the villain is doing to the world -- like seeing a planet destroyed by the Death Star. This may intensify his motivation. Discernment is a big part of this phase, as the hero has to be able to tell good from bad so he doesn't fall in with the wrong crowd that will move him away from his goal. The hero may make false moves and mistakes during this phase, but he learns from those mistakes before he gets to a real crisis. The crisis often includes elements from the various lessons and tests from this phase.

In his screenwriting book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this part of the story "Fun and Games" or "The Promise of the Premise" because this is where the writer can play with the situation of the story and explore the possibilities inherent in the situation. In a fish-out-of-water story, this is when the hero clashes with her environment. In a romantic comedy, this is when we see what happens when fate throws together a woman like that and a man like that. In a buddy cop story, this is where we see all the things that happen with the clash of styles. In a high-concept story, this is when we see some of the implications of the concept. In Speed, which is about a bus that will explode if it slows down, this is when we see how difficult it is to keep the bus at the right speed by running into all the potential obstacles you might imagine. In the first Harry Potter book, this is when we explore what it might be like to go to a magical school. In the James Bond movies, this is when we see Bond using his latest gadgets in various encounters with the villain's minions and having adventures that take advantage of that film's exotic setting. These things should all have some tie to the main plot, but this phase is your chance to let your characters see and do cool stuff.

One thing Vogler mentions about this section is that it often involves a "watering hole." In the traditional stories studied by Joseph Campbell, the heroes were often hunters who needed to head to a watering hole to find game. In other kinds of stories, it's generally the more metaphorical watering hole. It's amazing how often the hero ends up in some kind of bar, tavern, inn or restaurant in this part of the story. There's the alien cantina in Star Wars, the Prancing Pony in The Lord of the Rings, the welcoming feast in the Harry Potter books, Rick's Cafe in Casablanca, Marian's bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it goes on and on. In fact, when skimming over my DVD shelves and bookcases, I had a hard time finding examples of stories where the hero didn't end up in some kind of metaphorical watering hole during this part of the story. I suppose in part that's because people do need to eat and drink, and bars, taverns and restaurants are places where you might get a cross-section of society, where the hero can get information, clash with some people and encounter potential allies. There's something about sharing food and drink that brings people together.

Then after this, things start to get serious.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Catch-up Book Report

It's election day, otherwise known as the last day of ads that go along the lines of "My opponent sold his soul to Satan and is going to personally come to your house to take your money away from you and do vile things to your family" and the last day of the phone ringing off the hook with all the campaign messages. I swear, there's one candidate whose campaign has called me so often, in spite of me telling her real, live campaign workers repeatedly that I do not want to be called, that if an ex-boyfriend called me that often, I might be able to get a restraining order on grounds of harassment. Do they really think that disturbing people at mealtimes is going to make them favorably inclined?

On a happier note, I'm behind on book discussion, so here's an all-over-the-map Book Report.

First, I do have a bit of a theme because I was reading things that might fall into the historical fiction category. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe deals with the Salem witch trials with the idea of what if one of them really was a witch. A graduate student at Harvard in 1991 (important because if it had been today, one Google search could have cut out half the plot) stumbles upon something while clearing out her grandmother's old home in a village outside Salem, and her research indicates that the name she finds might have been a previously undocumented victim of the witch trials, and this woman seemed to own some kind of spell book that was passed on through generations before being lost. The book cuts back and forth between the "present" and some of the events of the past, but the past events are more like interludes rather than being directly tied to any discovery in the "present." And then some strange things start happening, and the student realizes that to save the day, she'll have to find that spell book.

I'm a sucker for books that involve someone researching the past, and then the stuff in the past being its own story. I also spent a day in Salem when I was on a business trip to Boston about ten years ago, and I enjoy reading books that take place in locations I've visited. I admit to giving a cheer when a character in the book asks the question that comes to mind when I see the current focus on witchcraft in Salem: the witch trials weren't actually about witchcraft, but rather were more Mean Girls: Colonial Edition, with none of the victims (in reality) being actual witches, as far as anyone can tell, so why do they act like Salem has some grand heritage in witchcraft? (Simple answer: tourist money.) This is certainly an interesting book if you're into that period of history.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake is a World War II book with intersecting story lines. During the Blitz, an American radio reporter is trying to make sense of it all and trying to convey what's going on to an American public that's still focused on trying to stay out of the war. Then there are the people in the small Cape Cod town who listen to her broadcasts. And then the town's doctor goes to London to help in the Blitz. I liked a lot about this book and it was close to the kind of WWII book I might write if I were to write one that didn't have magic in it, but it does veer more to the literary side of things.

Then I switched over to science fiction and fantasy. I finally read Flinx Transcendent, the final book in the Flinx series by Alan Dean Foster. This series had a lot to do with me becoming a science fiction reader, and I think this was a nice wrap-up, though I'll probably have to re-read some of the older books because it really does draw from the entire series to wrap things up, and there were a few things that I didn't quite recall. I wouldn't be surprised to see more Flinx books because while this one answered all the questions and resolved all the ongoing plot lines, the impression was left that Flinx wouldn't be happy for long without adventures, so maybe now that the series is wrapped there might be standalones, unless Alan has other things he wants to write.

And then I found a new lightish, quirky fantasy series by Rachel Aaron. The first book is The Spirit Thief, and the next one is out this week. This had one of the more interesting magical systems I've seen. Many objects, both living and inanimate, have their own spirits, some of which are fully awakened and some of which are dormant. The wizards in this world are those that can hear and communicate with these spirits. The good ones develop a kind of symbiotic relationship with certain spirits that then mediate with all the other spirits, while the bad ones enslave spirits. And then there's the guy who just seems to flirt with the spirits so that they then want to bend over backwards to help him. He's the greatest thief around, possibly because he can persuade the wood in locked doors that it would feel a lot better without those irritating nails sticking through it. But he's not nearly as famous as he'd like to be, and he sets out to get the biggest bounty ever on his head. To do that, he decides to steal something really big. Like, say, a king. Only he neglected to do his research on the royal family dynamics, so he doesn't realize that leaving the throne vacant long enough to make his ransom demands will cause all sorts of problems that he'll then have to set right. Oops. This one was a ton of fun. I felt like the first book was just starting to get into the characters, and the excerpts from the second that are at the back make it look like they'll really be explored in more depth now that they're established.

This series is coming from Orbit, and they seem to be on my wavelength because they're putting out a lot of stuff I like lately. The editor for this book is actually a fan of mine, so I guess it makes sense that I might like what she likes enough to throw money at it. They're currently my dream publisher, so maybe she'll be throwing money at me soon. And now I'd better get to work to give them something they might want to publish.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Jekyll and Hyde Movies

I thought I'd recovered from the travel, but then last night I was lights-out at ten and just barely started waking up at eight this morning, so I must have been still a bit tired. I've come to the conclusion that my personal power source is inside my house, so if I'm away from home for any length of time, I will be tired, no matter what I'm doing while I'm away or what mode of travel I use (maybe I should try to find the source of my power so I can take it with me. And I think I just invented a new magical system that I will have to use in a book). I think I am recharged now, so I can get down to some serious work.

For the Monday after Halloween, I've got some Movie Monday discussions of Jekyll and Hyde movies. Not actual movies about the Jekyll and Hyde story, but rather movies that seem to have a split personality. It's weird how many movies like that I've stumbled upon lately.

First, I watched Up in the Air on HBO OnDemand not long before I left town. With this one, the problem wasn't so much with the movie itself as it was with me and my expectations. The movie seemed to be building into one kind of story, and then they did a huge reversal that made it something else, and that something else was less satisfying for me. I can't really get into it without spoiling it, and this was a major plot twist, so I don't want to spoil it. I can see that it was a perfectly valid creative choice and maybe they wanted to leave people unsettled and dissatisfied because that fit with the theme of the movie, but the cynic in me was thinking that they thought they had a far better chance of being treated like an Important Film by making that choice, and that says a lot about what gets valued in our society. It doesn't help that I don't find George Clooney at all attractive. He just radiates smug, and I get the feeling that I could never be as into him as he is into himself. Plus, I don't think he's that great an actor. He's pretty much the same in everything, unless he's doing an over-the-top caricature.

Since that movie left me with this unsettled sense of dismay, I grabbed onto the next thing that was coming on one of the HBO channels, Love Happens. It's a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Anniston, so I figured it couldn't leave me that unsettled, even if it wasn't any good. This one didn't have the one big Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation. Instead, it kept switching back and forth. It seemed to be two things that don't go together. It wasn't "you got your chocolate in my peanut butter" but rather "you got your chocolate in my Dijon mustard." It seemed to be two entirely different movies spliced together in the editing room. The story is about a widower who has made a career out of dealing with his wife's death. He wrote a bestselling self-help book about dealing with grief and travels around the country doing grief seminars. Except, he really hasn't dealt with his own grief, and he's lying to himself and to everyone else about that. Meanwhile, he runs into a standard issue romantic comedy kooky free spirit and starts to fall for her, except, of course, he can't really get into a relationship until he truly deals with the death of his wife. I actually liked the parts of the movie that were about his seminars and the dealing with grief. The romantic comedy parts were totally unnecessary and so generic, and ultimately, how do you believe in the big romantic happy ending for a relationship that starts before the man deals with his grief over the death of his wife? It would have been a better film if it forgot about the romance and just focused on the relationships he was building with the participants in his seminars, and how they forced him into honesty.

But the movie still left me unsettled over one thing. I love animals, but I'm not an extremist about it. I'm not one of those people who is okay with a high human body count but who has a meltdown if one dog dies during a movie. But this movie did something that pissed me off royally. While he's starting to realize he isn't as okay as he says he is, this guy admits that his wife wanted him to take care of her pet bird, but he left it with his in-laws. He steals the bird from their house, takes it out to the woods, opens the cage, and lets it go. The soaring music and the imagery of the soaring bird give the impression that this is supposed to be some positive cathartic moment. But this bird is a pet, brought up in captivity (it even talks!). This act is the equivalent of taking your family dog out to the country and dumping it on the side of the road. It won't know how to find food or deal with predators. Not to mention that it's a tropical bird, so in Seattle it's in the wrong climate and may not have the right food appearing naturally. And it's introducing a non-native species into the ecosystem. I was seething through the rest of the movie because this struck me as incredibly irresponsible and cruel.

Then while I was in Denver, one afternoon I was taking a mid-afternoon tea break in my room and flipping through channels and came across something that had Paul Rudd in Nice Guy Romantic Comedy Mode (as differentiated from Frat Pack Jerk Mode). The woman he was with seemed nice and funny, and I was surprised that I couldn't place the movie at all. Then Eva Longoria showed up and I realized that it was Over Her Dead Body and then I knew why I hadn't seen it. I had to leave then, but then Sunday night when I realized that the Denver public television station was even worse than the one in Dallas and wasn't going to show the first episode of Sherlock because they were in pledge drive mode and first showed a ten-year-old Gordon Lightfoot concert and then started an infomercial about diabetes, I looked for something else to watch and caught the beginning of this movie, then watched just to see if it was as bad as I'd heard. It really had a bad case of Jekyll and Hyde. The scenes between Paul Rudd and the heroine were cute and funny, but then the movie went straight to hell when Eva Longoria showed up. It wasn't really her fault, just that they wrote a terrible character for her.

The movie is about the Bridezilla from Hell who gets her just desserts when an ice sculpture falls on her and kills her as she's micromanaging the set-up for her wedding reception. A year later, her finace seems to have given up on love, so his sister drags him to a psychic, hoping a message from beyond the grave encouraging him to move on will help. When something distracts the reading and he refuses to go back, the sister gives the psychic the dead finacee's diary and some inside scoop and begs her to use it to convince him it's real, then tell him his dead fiancee said to move on. She doesn't even have to try that hard with the psychic stuff because the two of them just hit it off and start dating. Meanwhile, the dead fiancee was such a bitch to the afterlife greeter that she didn't get her assignment of what to set right so that she can move on, so she assumes she's supposed to keep her fiance away from this fraud of a psychic, though that's just her rationalization because she really doesn't want him to move on and sees him dating someone else as cheating on her. Except that the psychic isn't a fraud and can actually see and hear her. Soon, the ghost and the living woman are fighting over the guy and the ghost is making the woman's life hell.

The main problem with the movie to me was that they seemed to entirely forget that the dead woman was a raging bitch, even while writing her as a raging bitch. She was killed because she was a raging bitch and missed her afterlife assignment because she was a raging bitch. And yet no one who knew her seemed to notice this. For one thing, it was hard to imagine her with her fiance. Unless it happened in the minute or so of the very beginning that I missed, we never saw them together in life. I know that nice guys do sometimes end up with bitches, but there's usually some kind of issue at work and until they deal with that issue and realize the mistakes they're making, they usually end up choosing the same type, not going for a down-to-earth free spirit. However, I can't imagine what a woman like that saw in him, other than that he was played by Paul Rudd. He was the kind of guy a woman like that would try to make over while dictating every aspect of his life. And yet he truly seemed to think that he'd lost the love of his life. There was no sense that maybe his holding back from trying to love again came from the guilt that came from his secret relief at being free from the bitch from hell. Meanwhile, his sister didn't hint, even behind his back, that the dead fiancee had been no prize and it really made no sense for him to be putting the rest of his life on hold because of her. It seemed like it was written this way to be "funny" and to play on Eva Longoria's Desperate Housewives persona rather than because anyone involved with the movie actually thought about it for five seconds. It might have worked better to have had the dead fiance just be a normal woman who really had loved the guy and who really did think that the psychic was lying to him for selfish reasons. Or else let her be a bitch, but then have that be a factor in the situation, where he feels guilty about being relieved and the sister sets up the scam because she doesn't want the bitch dictating the rest of his life. I'm ashamed to admit that I actually lay in bed the next morning after waking up, thinking of ways to rewrite the movie to make it make sense. And then to see if I could rewrite it enough to file off the serial numbers and make it look original. Now I kind of want to try to write a jealous ex ghost story.