Thursday, June 30, 2011

Do it Yourself Dangers

My faucet issues seem to have triggered both my independent streak and my curiosity about how things work. I've consulted with friends and watched a few how-to videos on the Home Depot web site, and now I'm starting to think this might be something I could do -- except that my set-up seems to be rather archaic. And that really triggered my curiosity about how things work, so that I'm dying to take it all apart to see. There's a reason most of my tools and all my wrenches have to live in the garage, which isn't attached to my house. That gives me a cool-down waiting period before I can act on those whims to take things apart, especially since those whims tend to come late at night, when I don't want to go outside and cross the courtyard and a driveway to get to the garage to get the tools. I may have to padlock the tool box and hide the key or turn it over to a neighbor because it would be really stupid to take something apart right before a holiday weekend when I wouldn't be able to get a professional to come set everything right in case I can't fix it or put it back together again on my own.

This is something I'd really like to learn to do on my own, and not just out of frugality. I like knowing how to do useful stuff. Being able to replace a faucet would definitely fall into the category of life skills. I also don't like dealing with the hassle of calling a plumber. It would probably take me less time to do it myself than it would take to call someone, set an appointment, then wait for the plumber to actually show up. I've taken photos of the set-up with my digital camera, and I may take my camera to Home Depot, and if I can get the attention of an employee without performing a striptease in the aisle (it varies -- sometimes I get great help there, but there are times when I don't think the striptease would even work, when I can be right in front of a group of employees saying, "Excuse me?" repeatedly without them so much as acknowledging my existence) I can find out what I might need and if it's a doable DIY project. It probably needs a bit of an overhaul, and when I ever have money, I have plans to re-do and update the bathroom, but right now all I want is to not have to brush my teeth in the bathtub.

So far, my life skills include driving a stick shift, doing minor toilet repairs, opening champagne bottles, putting together furniture, painting and related tasks and making jam. I can also hang sheetrock and vinyl siding, thanks to Habitat for Humanity. I figured out how the garage door opener mechanism works from a time when it broke, but that required a professional to fix it because those are high-tension springs that require special tools. I did once make a repair when it was just a bolt that had come loose. I've also taken apart my clothes dryer and put it back together again when something fell into the lint filter opening and I had to retrieve it. The sense of achievement from doing something like that on my own is practically a high. I think that's one of the main reasons I like the do-it-yourself route. You don't get the same sense of accomplishment from calling someone to do it for you.

Oh, and I know how to write a book. And I should finish another one today.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Conflict: Man vs. the Supernatural

I'm tempted to cancel today due to lack of interest or unforeseen circumstances. I had a very late night last night from going out for dessert with my ballet class -- after staying after ballet to take the jazz class. As a result, I'm tired and bleary-eyed and rather sore (my knees are really mad at me). And then when I got up this morning and went to wash my face, the handle of the bathroom sink faucet broke off in my hand. The plastic had just disintegrated. For the moment, I can still make it work, but it looks like I'll have to get a new faucet and then find a plumber to install it -- which will probably require clearing out the cabinet under the sink. I didn't need this. At least I don't have choir tonight, so I can relax this evening.

I've been talking about some of the forms of conflict in fiction. One of the kinds of conflict is man vs. god, and the reason I want to dig into this one is something one of my English teachers said when teaching this concept. She dismissed the "man vs. god" conflict as something you don't see anymore, that only happened in ancient mythology where the heroes interacted with gods. In the Judeo-Christian mindset, any conflict between man and God looks more like man vs. self because it mostly comes down to an internal struggle, since God doesn't usually fight back when man is angry at Him.

But as a fantasy reader, I thought she was wrong. The gods in mythology behaved a lot like people with superpowers. They had very human motivations like greed, lust and jealousy. But they were different from human characters in that they could do super-human things like change themselves or others into other things, fly, zap people, grant magical gifts, dematerialize and materialize, etc. And that sounded to me a lot like the characters in fantasy novels I read. They may not be called gods (though in some books they are), but they have a lot of the characteristics of the gods in Greek or Norse mythology.

I knew better than to argue with the teacher, but I mentally created my own category of man vs. the supernatural. There's a lot of overlap with man vs. man, since the supernatural characters do still have human motivations, if perhaps on a grander scale. There's just an added element because of that grander scale and because the supernatural character is a lot more difficult to fight. The supernatural abilities may make the character nearly impossible to defeat in a direct fight and may raise the risk level for the hero. I don't think all paranormal characters would fall into this category, though. Most vampires seem to me to fit more into man vs. man because although they have extra strength and are difficult to kill, they can't really do much more to ordinary humans than humans can do and it doesn't take special abilities or qualities to kill them. The supernatural element isn't really part of the conflict. I think that for a conflict to fall into the "man vs. supernatural" category, that supernatural element should be a part of the conflict, not just a complication.

One example that I think fits this is Voldemort in the Harry Potter books. This isn't just a wizard vs. wizard fight. Voldemort has used his powers to break off bits of his soul and implant them in objects, so he can't be completely killed until all of these are destroyed. That means that his physical body can be killed, but he can put himself into another body or create a new body. That's on top of the magical powers, ability to fly and ability to control or influence other people. The heart of the conflict between him and Harry is his desire to use his magical powers to take over the world and subjugate everyone who's non-magical, half-breed or not human. Sounds pretty god-like to me. Meanwhile, I think Harry could still be classified as a "man" rather than as a god because while he has magical powers, that's pretty much just a baseline in his world, and it's his human qualities he uses to fight Voldemort, not his magical powers. The central conflict in the Lord of the Rings is similar -- Sauron has given up his humanity for power, he has a great deal of control over others and has near omniscience, and he's trying to take over the world using his powers. Up against him is the very "human" Frodo, who doesn't really have anything going for him other than tenacity, the ability to mostly resist temptation and the loyalty of his friends.

Now that I think about it, I can't come up with an example of a fantasy story that I think falls into the "man vs. the supernatural" category where the hero doesn't prevail because of his human qualities rather than any magical powers (though that could just reflect my personal reading taste). It seems like the more powerful and non-human a villain becomes, so that he becomes invulnerable to magical attack, the more vulnerable he is to simple human things, so the hero's weakness becomes a great power. In fact, there's a lovely scene in A Wrinkle in Time that I used to read in prose interpretation competitions in high school that's exactly about that, quoting from First Corinthians: "For God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." This dynamic makes it possible to create a really powerful villain who's nearly impossible to defeat who can still lose.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book Report: The Good and the Bad

Last week, I was reading a chick lit book that really irked me and wondering if I'd outgrown that sort of thing or if it was just that book. It may have just been that book because I re-read one of my old favorites, and I loved it just as much as when I first read it, if not more so. I suppose as with any genre there's going to be good and bad, and I have fairly specific tastes even within the good books of genres I like. Unfortunately, re-reading this one made me want more like it, and that's kind of hard to find (again, specific tastes).

The old favorite was Making Minty Malone by Isabel Wolff, and it was one of the very first chick lit books I read, not long after Bridget Jones's Diary. Minty (short for Araminta -- she was named after her grandmother) has the perfect wedding to the perfect man (well, aside from a few controlling tendencies, and some shallowness) planned, until they reach the part in the ceremony where the minister says, "Do you take this woman," and he says, "No," before giving a lame excuse and then walking back up the aisle and out the door. She spends the next year coming to terms with what happened, with the sometimes dubious help of her bossy novelist cousin who comes to her for a place to stay after her own break-up. I would classify this as a kind of coming-of-age novel because while there is a romantic plot, the main story is really about a woman figuring out who she is and who she wants to be. One of her problems is that she's a bit too nice, and not in a good way. It's not so much that she's a caring person who always thinks of others, but rather that she's terrified of conflict and of having anyone be mad at her, so she gives in, only to quietly resent it. A big part of her journey is learning to stand up for herself, say what she's thinking and ask for what she wants. Meanwhile, she's surrounded by a hilarious supporting cast of wacky characters, including a radio presenter with a speech impediment and a talent for mangling phrases, her grandmother's parrot that talks like a polite elderly English lady, her cousin with her crazy attempts at boosting her own writing career and her mother, who has a serious addiction to running fundraising campaigns. Re-reading this book reminded me of when I first read it, when the genre didn't even have a name (this one was published first in the US in mass-market paperback as a romance, so it was even before the trade paperback size was established for the genre) and when I knew I wanted to read more like it and write something like that. It made me want to move to London, or at least to a downtown area of a city where I could walk to restaurants and have cute, flirty encounters with men I run into on the sidewalks.

Okay, so I can walk to restaurants where I live now, but I don't encounter anyone on the sidewalks because everyone else is driving, and it's too hot to walk anywhere right now, anyway. It was a rather nice blast from the past. I've got one other book by this author that I'll have to re-read, and then I'll have to add her name to my list of authors to scour used bookstores for, as that sort of book has pretty much become unavailable elsewhere. Sometimes I can luck into a British edition that way. It's frustrating to get into a reading mood that can only be fulfilled by something that's either not readily available or that I've re-read the life out of. But that's publishing for you, all or nothing.

It did seem to me like the American publishers missed the point when they got into the genre. They were trying to do something closer to Sex and the City, but the early British books that established the genre weren't about shopping and shoes and dropping designer names. I don't even think they were all that edgy. There may have been drinking, sex and swearing, but there was an underlying sweetness and niceness. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the British heroines tended to be struggling underdogs, while the American heroines tended to be goal-oriented go-getters. Maybe it's a cultural difference.

Since that re-read, I started trying to read a book that intrigued me because it involves a region I'm familiar with. It got a lot of critical acclaim (including a review in our local newspaper and reviews in national magazines) and was a bestseller. And it's probably a good thing I don't work on the other side of the desk in publishing because I'd have guessed wrong. I'd have rejected this book before I finished the first chapter. The writing was on the level of a first-time manuscript written by someone who'd just decided to write a novel. The entire first chapter was an "as you know, Bob" conversation. That's when two characters exchange information they both already know, purely for the benefit of the reader. This book opens with an entire chapter of the family attorney telling the matriarch her family's history -- and it isn't redeemed by her turning out not to remember it or her saying acidly, "Yes, I know. I was there." It's just pages and pages of, "Your family bought this property and your grandfather started this business, where you've worked your whole life, blah, blah, blah." (Details made up to protect the guilty.) I kept thinking it had to get better, or the book would have never made it past an editor, but I reached page 70 and decided that life was too short. Even if it turned out to be enthralling later and even if the characters stopped talking like no person ever does and turned into people who might have been a tiny bit realistic, I'm still surprised the editor didn't make the author fix that opening. I barely even took in the information because I was so busy rolling my eyes at such a blatant bit of "as you know, Bob."

I'm very confused about this industry. I don't see how something so amateurishly written not only got bought but got given the bestseller treatment. I wonder how many of the people who bought copies of this book after hearing the hype actually read the whole thing. Now I'm tempted to look at the Amazon reviews to see what readers thought, but I'm afraid that there will be tons of raves and I'll be even more confused. I run across a lot of books that fall into the "not for me" category, where I just don't like them but can still recognize that they're competently written. With this one, the subject matter appealed to me, but the writing was too bad for me to read it, and yet it's a lot more successful than anything I've ever written, and without any of the usual hooks like a thinly veiled celebrity connection or sexy vampires.

But I'm feeling much better now, since I decided to re-read a Terry Pratchett book instead. There, I totally understand the success.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Once Upon a Featherbed

It looks like getting those old romance novels out again is one of those "don't hold your breath" things. According to the contract, I can't ask for reversion of rights until six years after the last time they've exercised the rights, and then all I can do is send a letter saying, essentially "use 'em or lose 'em," at which time they have 18 months to exercise the rights (in other words, publish the book again in some form), and if they don't do so within that time, then the rights revert to me and I can do what I want with those books. Only one of my Silhouette novels is eligible for reversion, since with the other they did an electronic Japanese edition in 2006. I don't know what sticklers they are for exercising every right they have, if they'd keep me waiting for the full 18 months or if it's possible they'd get that letter and immediately let me know that they're done with the book. I'll discuss it with my agent when she gets back from the RWA conference.

I had a really productive weekend. I'd planned to do a major housecleaning, and it didn't quite work out that way, but I did make major progress in one spot. There's a bookcase and adjacent corner in my bedroom that's a big clutter zone. Stuff gets piled on the bookcase, then taken out and left near the bookcase when I need to find something on the bookcase. Meanwhile, that corner is behind the door and is where things that don't have another home, like suitcases, go to live. I got that bookcase decluttered and organized and cleared out and vacuumed the corner. The suitcases are still there, but they have to wait for the office closets to get cleaned out to get a home. There was a bit of a Princess and the Pea experiment that came out of this process, as one of the things living in the corner is my old featherbed, folded up in its case. I got the bright idea that if I put the old featherbed under the new one, I'd have the ultimate big, fluffy bed. It turns out that while it was fun to climb onto and sink into, it wasn't that comfortable for sleeping, so I got up about fifteen minutes later and took it all apart. I don't know if that proves that I am a real princess or proves that I'm not. It did prove that there is such a thing as too soft a bed. I also washed, starched and ironed the Battenburg lace pillow shams and did a thorough scrub of the bathroom. My efforts to turn my bedroom suite into a nice hotel room are progressing.

I finished my marathon of A Game of Thrones, and now I'm a little bereft at having no more to watch, but I still have the books to read, and by the time I get around to reading all of them, it'll be time for the new season. I figure those will be fall/winter books, so I won't have to wait for the new one (though it sounds like there will likely be a wait for the one after that). I got my copy of the first book a couple of months before the publication date, so this may be the longest it's taken me to read an advance copy, but just imagine how frustrated I'd have been waiting for the new book if I'd started reading the series before official publication.

I do remember the time I initially tried reading the first book, and it was before publication. I recall that it was Labor Day weekend. We usually got off early on the Friday before a holiday weekend, but it wasn't the sort of thing we could plan on. It was one of those weird things that seems nice but that's actually a control game on the part of the boss. He wouldn't officially declare that the holiday started at whatever time on Friday (and he owned the company, so it wasn't just him sneaking past corporate policy). We couldn't act like we expected it, either, or he wouldn't let us go. The time he let us go also varied, so we couldn't make plans around getting away early. The one nice thing about it was that it meant we had unstructured free time when we did get let go. I remember on that weekend I picked up a bottle of wine on the way home from work, and then I came home with plans to bury myself in a fat fantasy novel.

When I say I need to fall in love with a character in a book to get into it, I usually don't mean romantic love, that there has to be a hot guy for me to fall in love with. I mostly mean that there needs to be some character for me to become attached to, someone I care enough about to pull me into the book. But in this case, I think I was looking for a book boyfriend. I'd gone through a dating dry spell after having had a boyfriend the previous year (little did I know that it would get much, much worse), and I think I wanted to fall in love with someone in a book. I'd decided to read the fat fantasy novel because you can generally count on there being some studly 20-30-something guy in most epic fantasies. In this one, though, it seemed like all the characters were either teenagers or the parents of teenagers. I was in my 20s at the time, so neither category was all that appealing to me. I guess the combination of the absence of book boyfriend material and the rapid jumping around among viewpoint characters early in the book made it hard for me to get into the book that weekend, and I never gave it another try when I was in a different mood. I do think they made the right call in aging the characters up for the TV series. While a 14-year-old might have been a full adult in a world like that, the visual of a modern 14-year-old would have been kind of silly. The casting seems to have taken actors whose age is the equivalent of the role the teens would have played in that society. I think that will help me in reading, so I won't be picturing the teenagers I know doing those kinds of things.

But before I can read that series, I need to revise another book, then do a lot of research reading for the next two projects.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Yay, Friday!

I now have just three more chapters to read, and I'll consider this book done enough to send to my agent. I have all kinds of nagging doubts and I'm not sure the voice and style are what publishers are looking for in this kind of thing, but I think the voice and style fit this story and these characters. It's not as funny as what I'm known for, though there is some humor, but this isn't a comedy and I don't see how I could make this story into a comedy.

I had a very strange nightmare last night in which a real estate agent stuck her sign in my yard and started giving me instructions on what I'd have to do in order to sell my house. I was getting all frantic about it because I didn't really want to sell and I didn't have time to get all that stuff done. I woke up just enough to realize it wasn't real and I didn't have to try to sell my house, but that wasn't enough. To stop the panicky feeling, I had to go back to sleep and go back into the dream, where I called the real estate agent and asked her why she was trying to sell my house. She told me my husband had contacted her. I told her I didn't have a husband, and she realized there was a mix-up and she was dealing with the wrong house. I think, though, that may have been a message from my subconscious that I need to do some work around the house, so once I get the book done, I think I'll spend Saturday doing some serious cleaning and organizing. You know things are bad when you're having nightmares about it.

In other news, I think I'm going to bite the bullet and pull the trigger to actually go to WorldCon in Reno. I've got the membership and hotel reservation, but I'd been wavering about whether or not to go, since I don't have anything upcoming (yet) to promote and don't really have any business I could get done. I may not even be relevant enough to be considered for programming. But networking is never bad, and that networking can pay off in the future. I met some awesome people at the last WorldCon. Plus, I have a room in a nice hotel/resort, and programming seldom starts before 10 in the morning, so I can enjoy some hanging out in the hotel time and treat it almost like a working vacation. This will be the only travel I do this year. I made a plane reservation yesterday and have to buy the tickets today, and I think I'm going to go ahead and go for it. I'm already thinking of fun things I'll get to do. If I don't get on programming, then my schedule will be loose and I can choose what sessions to go to and will be able to learn and absorb all kinds of stuff. I'm friends with the guest of honor, so I may even get to hang out with the cool people. Now I just hope I have enough income the rest of the year to cover it all. I'm hoping for a decent royalty check in August.

On a moneymaking note, I think (though I'll have to check my contracts) the rights to the romantic comedies I wrote for Silhouette should have reverted to me. Would there be any interest in having these available as e-books? They aren't fantasy at all, but I would say that the style and tone might be similar to my fantasy books, only without the magic (though I haven't read them in more than a decade, so who knows?). They're short, only about 50,000 words, so I'd probably make them cheap. I'd just have to deal with the digitizing, formatting and getting new covers. They've been out of print forever, but the rights reversion also takes forever because they tend to keep books in print by doing foreign editions. In fact, formally asking for a rights reversion may trigger a new Czech special release. Anyway, just testing the waters to see if there's enough interest to go through the effort. I wouldn't want to do all this and then sell five copies.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Dangerous Proofreading

I was moderately social last night. It was the last choir rehearsal of the summer, and a bunch of us went out to dinner after rehearsal. Although we spend a lot of time together, it's not really social time (or it's not supposed to be, but that seldom stops the sopranos), so I learned some fun things about choir members that I didn't know. Like, I learned that our tenor soloist went to the "Fame" high school in New York, and I learned that one of the sopranos (whose son was my teen helper for Vacation Bible School last summer) is almost as big a nerd as I am. I'd have never guessed it, but she's seriously into stuff like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter. I think we will need to chat more.

I'm in the proofreading phase of the book I'm working on. That's when I read the whole thing out loud. That forces me to read every word the way it's written instead of just seeing what I think should be there. It also makes awkward wording really obvious. The difficulty in doing this is that spending several hours a day reading out loud can be a strain on the voice. I'm a little raspy today, but I'm not sure if it's the reading or the combination of the reading and something else. I've read a whole book in a day that way without too much pain. I may have to whisper for today's reading and avoid other talking for a few days, since I have a choir workshop on Sunday afternoon and need to be able to sing then.

I should finish this one this week, and then I'll have to do the same thing again next week for the other project. And then I'm going to take my mid-summer "vacation," which will mostly be my preparation retreat for the next thing I plan to work on. That's time to watch movies that remind me of the story and read reference material. Since this is a revisiting of a backburnered project, I'll also re-read the existing draft, probably on my phone, so I'm not tempted to start editing until I've evaluated the whole thing. I've caught myself daydreaming scenes and thinking about the characters, so I think my subconscious is eager to get to work on this.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Chick Lit Roots of Enchanted, Inc.

In the absence of any reader-generated questions about the Enchanted, Inc. series, I thought I'd pick my own topic to discuss.

I've mentioned that the beginnings of the idea sprang from merging two genres I enjoyed. I first got the idea in January of 2002, which was fairly early in the "chick lit" craze, when it had just started appearing in the US, with American books by American authors instead of just imports. I'd been on a couple of trips to England, where I'd loaded up on books that weren't yet available in the US or that wouldn't show up here for a while. I'd been reading (and trying to write) contemporary romances, without much success. I'd had a couple of books published in a romantic comedy line from Silhouette that may have been proto-chick lit (in fact, the editor who started it became one of the major American chick lit authors), but the line died, and my editor sent me a newspaper clipping about Bridget Jones's Diary, which had been a hit in the UK and that was just about to be published in America. She said she thought that was what I ought to try to write. At the time, though, there wasn't anything else like it in the US, where the closest thing was the contemporary romantic comedies that were popular then, the ones with the kind of cartoony covers. That was what I tried (and failed) to write.

When I actually found some chick lit novels, it was a lightbulb moment and I understood why I was having a hard time writing the romance novels. In a romance novel, the focus is on the conflict between the hero and heroine -- Mr. Right shows up at the beginning of the book, which really pisses off the heroine. They spend much of the book fighting or disagreeing, until they finally fall in love near the end. In the chick lit books, the focus was more on finding or discerning Mr. Right. The heroine might have bad dates with other guys while Mr. Right was just there in the background. That reflected my life far better. Finding someone to date is a challenge, then the dates tend to go badly. I don't have perfect men irritating me by falling out of the sky. There was also a lot of emphasis on elements outside the relationship, like dealing with friends, career, crazy bosses, etc. I devoured these books. Meanwhile, I was also finally getting into the Harry Potter series, where there was magical stuff in a relatable modern setting. I thought it would be fun to combine the two genres, adding magic to all that career girl in the city stuff. Unfortunately, my series was bought as chick lit rather than as fantasy and came out just as the genre was glutting and right before it tanked, and the publisher still sees it as chick lit rather than as fantasy.

On my last library trip, I found a chick lit book I hadn't read, one that was probably contracted right before the market tanked and published on the tail end of the trend. It's pretty much the Generic American Chick Lit Novel -- heroine works in some form of publishing, has a gay male best friend and a married female best friend who doesn't understand dating because she married her college sweetheart, has money problems and is angsting because she's reached some meaningful birthday and (gasp!) still isn't married, but her odds of finding someone to marry are slim because she tends to get into relationships by getting really drunk, then sleeping with some guy and then just falling into an ongoing thing with him. I'm having a hard time reading this book, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm ten years older than I was when I started devouring these books, so I have a lot less sympathy for the "I'm not married!" angst and poor relationship decisions. Or it could be that I never really warmed to American chick lit. I always preferred the British tone and style. Or maybe it's just this book. I may need to re-read one of my favorites to see if it's just this book or if it's me.

Although when I developed my series, I had in mind the elements of a chick lit book, with multiple potential guys, job issues, dating and friends, I don't know that I still see it that way, not even the first book. Each book has moved more solidly into the fantasy realm. I think they still have that chick lit-like tone, but the stories grew farther from what chick lit readers who aren't fantasy readers would like. In fact, until I started reading this book, I'd almost forgotten those chick lit roots (aside from my pitch line of "Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter"). I'll admit that back at the time, I wanted it published as chick lit because I thought that would give it higher visibility -- you never saw fantasy books on those tables at the front of the bookstore then -- and I couldn't visualize a "fantasy" cover that would fit. I still can't picture a different kind of cover than these books have. I've even talked with a friend who's a prominent fantasy book cover artist, and he can't think of another way to present these books that would fit. The covers I got were very close to what I visualized as I was writing the first book.

So, that's a lot to do with where the books were shelved and why.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Book Report: More Immaturity

I don't have any Enchanted, Inc. series questions in queue to answer tomorrow, so if you've got something you want to know that is not about events that might happen in future books or backstory that's likely to be revealed in future books. In other words, no fishing for spoilers. Or I guess I could broaden the Q&A to other stuff, but I reserve the right not to answer questions.

As I continue the Summer of Extreme Immaturity, I have more young adult and children's books to discuss. I finally got The Hidden Gallery, the second book in the Incorrigibles series by Maryrose Wood. This series, about a young governess and the raised-by-wolves children she looks after, is a lot of fun. In this installment, our heroine, her employers and the children pay a visit to London, where a very strange guide book causes a lot of trouble. However, as much fun as this series is, I'm starting to feel that it's mostly about the voice and the antics of the children. The plot seems unnecessarily strung out, especially for a children's book. There seems to be one major revelation or development per book, right before the cliffhanger ending, which could easily lead to frustration rather than intrigue. Still, I like the characters and I would love to try writing something in that omniscient "storyteller" voice.

Then there was another sequel, the third book in the "Sorcery and Cecilia" series by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. This is one of those line-blurring books that comes from the YA side of the publisher and that was shelved in the teen section of my library, but it's not really a teen book. It's teen-safe, but there are no teen characters. The main characters are in their late 20s/early 30s and have pre-teen children. These books are written through the "letter game" with each author taking the role of one set of characters and developing the plot by exchanging letters, so the story is told entirely through letters exchanged by the main characters (something else I'd like to try). In this installment, which takes place ten years after the last book, one couple is trying to find a magician who disappeared while investigating a possible link between ley lines and the newly built railways, while the other couple has foiled an attempted kidnapping and found a mysterious girl who refuses to reveal her identity. I've really enjoyed this series, which combines two of my favorite kinds of books, Regency romances and fantasy. It's like Georgette Heyer with magic.

I'm finishing one more kids' book, and then my reading list will grow up a bit, as everything on it for the near future (which is related to a project I'll be working on) is in the adult category.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Adrenaline Surges

I survived my first "special music" performance in church. I've sung solos as part of a choir anthem, and I've sung a duet in a concert, but this was the first time I've sung apart from the choir in a service. It was scary because of my freaky musical stage fright issues, but I got through it. I don't think it was the best I could do, but it was still pretty good and I've got a good feeling about it, so maybe the next time will be less scary. It gave me a huge adrenaline surge, though. I had to sing for two services, and after the second one, the combination of adrenaline and relief had me really wired. I could have run laps around the church, but I had to go back into the choir loft. I was so fidgety during the sermon that if I'd been sitting with my mom, I'd have probably gotten the dreaded "behave yourself" pinch. But then when I got home, I was utterly drained. I spent most of the day on the sofa, when I wasn't napping.

Then I got another one of those adrenaline surges when I checked the mail this morning. I had a big, scary envelope from the IRS. I could barely open it, my hands were shaking so badly. But then it turned out to be a notice that they owed me money. I guess I made an error in my tax return, but they didn't say what the error was. Funny, but even when they owe me money, the tone in the letter made it sound like I'd done something terribly wrong. I had to read the letter a couple of times before I figured out what it was really about because it seemed to be a form letter for "you made a mistake" that's used both for times you owe them and for times they owe you, with only the little box with the amount on the side showing which it is. I don't think I can use this as an excuse not to work because I'm so drained from the fight or flight response. I'm back to the previous project for another round that I think will focus on voice and tone.

I had a pretty busy weekend, so there wasn't any movie watching. I was out most of the day on Saturday and then Sunday afternoon's couch time mostly involved the History Channel. They had a couple of good WWII documentary type things, but then there was one I only caught part of that seemed to be promoting the theory that the Nazis were using alien technology or may even have been aliens themselves. They claimed that the German rocket program was based on alien technology, which means the US space program was based on alien technology. The former journalist in me was screaming about the total lack of balance in this program. Their "experts" were all UFO nut types. They didn't interview or quote a single actual rocket scientist, so it was all very one-sided, which means there's zero credibility involved. But what do you expect from a network whose idea of "history" programming is mostly shows about pawn shops or driving trucks on ice?

But on Sunday night, with a complete lack of anything on TV or any OnDemand HBO movies I cared to watch, I finally started watching the A Game of Thrones series OnDemand. I got an advance copy of the first book in that series ages ago, made a stab at reading it but couldn't get into it (I must not have tried very hard because my bookmark was at page 26, though it's possible I'd skipped ahead a little and didn't find anything to encourage me to keep reading). I think my main problem was that each chapter is from the perspective of a different character, and there were a lot of short chapters, so I didn't really attach to anyone. I hadn't managed to fall in love with a character, which meant I didn't get into the book. However, I got into the TV show pretty easily, thanks to the visuals and actors I liked. I still don't have any particular character I've attached to, but the plot is intriguing me.

I found myself doing what I often do when watching a Shakespeare production on TV. I got out the book and started following along. The TV production seems to be pretty faithful to the book. Some of the scenes and dialogue are directly from the book. This doesn't seem to me to be a case where I could choose book vs. movie or where I look at them as taking place in different universes. This seems to me to be a case of the book and TV series being companions, where it's difficult for me to enjoy one without the other. I picked up the book mostly because I was having trouble keeping track of the characters. I wasn't picking up on the names, so when a character was talking about someone who wasn't there, I had no idea who they were talking about. The book helped me keep the characters straight while the TV series brought the world to life. I watched the first two episodes and will probably be catching up in marathon form. Then I may really read the book.

My main complaint is that it's very much an HBO production, which means the attitude that nudity+cursing=quality television. I don't recall the "you can't say this on broadcast television" cursing being quite as prominent in the book. There is nudity and sex in the book, but what's weird is that in those scenes in the TV series, the characters aren't nude, and then in scenes where the book specifically mentions clothes, that's where the nudity on TV comes in. So they took out the author's plot-related nudity while adding gratuitous nudity elsewhere. It's funny how people seem to be having sex fully clothed, and yet they like to walk around their rooms totally naked and take five minutes to very, very gradually ease themselves into a bathtub. I know HBO is using their main differentiator from broadcast television and basic cable networks, but sometimes it comes across as doing it just because they can. I don't have a problem with the nudity in general, but it's almost never done in a natural way, where someone happens to be removing clothes for a purpose. It's always filmed with long, lingering shots that are sure to give viewers a real eyeful, and it's almost always female nudity. With this series, you could probably put together a pretty good drinking game, and I find myself rolling my eyes a lot because it's just so blatant.

Still, this should keep me occupied during the wait for the Sci Fi summer series to start, and it may give me a new epic fantasy series to read without having to wait years between books.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The TV Season in Review

I didn't do much of the catch-up stuff I was planning to do on my day off between projects, mostly because I got caught up in watching the Mavericks victory parade on TV (during commercial breaks in a CSI marathon -- Spike does very, very long, frequent commercial breaks). It was too big a crowd for my comfort level to even think about going in person, and I figure that I haven't been to a game since they played in Reunion Arena, so I would have been just jumping on the bandwagon (though I did drink my iced tea from an old Jason Kidd stadium cup from his first stint on the team). And then I made a Target run, ate some watermelon and washed dishes while listening to the CD of the big choral work my choir will be doing in the fall. I ended up staying up fairly late singing through some music while picking out the voice part on my keyboard (I need to learn to play the piano for real one of these days). Today I really must get some other stuff done, and I think I'm getting close to the wire for deciding whether or not to go to Worldcon.

I guess the regular TV season has come to an end, though the lines are getting blurry these days with some networks having actual summer seasons, but it's as good a time as any for a recap/review of the primary season. It was a lackluster year for new series for me. The only one I really liked was Chaos, which was promptly killed. I watched the new Hawaii 5-0, but I can't say I like it all that much. It's one of those things I'll eventually get around to watching OnDemand but wouldn't feel any sense of loss if I missed it entirely. I did start watching the original CSI very late in the game, mostly because my dad asked me if that was Starbuck as one of the detectives, so I watched an episode OnDemand to see what he was talking about. That one has mostly been added to my list of things I'll watch OnDemand when nothing else is on, and then the reruns on Spike are serving as my "thing to have on for background noise when I'm doing other stuff" viewing. It works well to watch while jogging on the mini trampoline because about 60 percent of the show is people doing lab work while music plays, so I don't have to worry about missing dialogue. I just slow to a walk during the rare times when they're actually talking.

I stopped watching NCIS Los Angeles, thanks to the cast changes and some truly bizarre writing. It went from an OnDemand show to one I never got around to watching OnDemand. I think the last one I saw, I turned it off mid-way through because I just couldn't take it anymore. I also gave up on House when they completely broke my suspension of disbelief by hiring a third-year medical student for a postdoctoral fellowship. I caught a few episodes late in the season when I discovered that they were running them a week later on USA, and I saw the finale, which may have created a new replacement for the "jump the shark" designation. I may watch the season premiere just to see how they write themselves out of it, but I don't think I can enjoy the character of House anymore.

Other shows seemed to have fairly lackluster seasons. There were a few moments of brilliance on Chuck, but they were weighted down by way too much emphasis on angsting over the relationship and the wedding planning. I'm all for nice-guy, best-friend type heroes, but geeze, Chuck, stop the whining and embrace your inner badass. I'm still not sure I get what was going on with the story arc on NCIS, but that's one of my "turn off your brain" shows. Supernatural became a chore to watch, and I don't know if I'll bother with it next season. The season finale cliffhanger was verging on blasphemy, and while I don't expect fiction to align with my religious beliefs, this made me very uncomfortable, and there's no point in watching something that's unpleasant. I'm a little worried about White Collar, since they're shoehorning in a totally unnecessary and (to me) unlikeable love interest, but it's too early in the summer season to judge.

I actually thought The Office turned things around in a big way near the end of the season with the build-up to Michael's departure and the aftermath. This season of Parks and Recreation totally won me over, to the point I bought the DVDs for last season and have been marathoning episodes.

I seem to be at an all-time low for the number of science fiction/fantasy type shows I watch, but that will change in the summer because I like the Sci Fi Channel's summer line-up. Then there's Doctor Who, but we only got half a season, which makes it hard to judge, but they really do seem to be on my wavelength these days for coming up with characters and story elements that seem tailor-made for me. I may be falling a little in love with Rory, and I don't even feel like too much of a dirty old woman, since he is about 2,000 years old and has a daughter older than I am, even if he's also just in his 20s (it's a timey-wimey thing). That's such a wonderful example of how a "best friend" character type can still become a total badass and how strength can come from caring and sensitivity. Chuck, take notes. This young nurse's love for his wife is so powerful that he will do absolutely anything to protect her, whether it's spending 2,000 years guarding her or taking on a galaxy full of villains to find her (and without whining about it). And his wife is no wimp -- she's a giant of a girl who'll pick up a sword and go at a ship full of pirates to try to rescue her husband, so that's proof that you don't have to weaken a woman to make a man stronger. Rory's the kind of character I tend to write, and it's lovely to have someone else doing it for me.

Coming up next month, we get the return of Warehouse 13 and Haven, both of which I'm excited about.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Too Stupid to Live

I finished a round of revisions yesterday, hampered somewhat by the fact that I came up with an idea for a sequel and started mentally writing it while I was still trying to edit/proofread this book, which was rather distracting. I think today will be housework/errand/catch-up day. Tomorrow I may do some reading for the project I want to get back to next month, along with working on some music. I'm singing a duet in church on Sunday, so I need to keep the voice in shape and run through the music a few more times. Then next week I'll do another pass on the previous project, after which I'll do the final read on the one I just finished. When both of these are done and off to my agent, I can get back to the book I backburnered last summer.

As I've mentioned, I seem to be having the Summer of Extreme Immaturity, as I find myself mostly reading children's and young adult books. One hazard of being an adult reading books about teens is that I have a tendency to judge the actions of the characters by the standard of what I would do, and there's a big difference between what a (supposedly) mature adult would do and what a teenager would do, so what would be perfectly in character for a teen may sometimes strike me as a bad case of Too Stupid to Live. It's very frustrating to read about a character making what seems to me to be a big mistake because what's happening is very obvious to me. With teen characters, especially, there's the issue of peer pressure, where on one level I can totally understand the characters making the choices they do because they want to fit in or keep their friends, but as an adult I can see what a bad idea that is.

Of course, Too Stupid to Live behavior isn't limited to young adult. It may just be more obvious there because in those cases, the Too Stupid to Live is in character and reasonable for people that age, while adults who did the same things would be incredibly dumb. And yet, if you eliminate all bad decisions, the story isn't very interesting. Perfect people who never make mistakes are boring. Meanwhile, dropping hints that readers pick up on that the characters don't is a good way to build suspense because we know the trouble the characters are getting into. I think the trick is to go with that "reasonable person" standard they talk about on jury duty, where if the author can convince the reader that a reasonable person would make that choice in that situation, given the knowledge available to that person. To some extent, it may work if you can convince readers that the character would make that decision, but truly stupid characters are difficult to care about, so even if doing something phenomenally dumb is in character, readers may not accept it.

This is all coming to mind because it relates to something I've been wrestling with in the backburnered book I'm about to get back to. I'm using a lot of fairy tale and folklore elements in it. One very common trope in fairy tales and folklore is the prohibition -- the hero is told that there's one thing he absolutely must not do. And almost invariably, either the hero disregards the warning or something comes up that forces him to do the one thing he's been told not to do -- like the "you have to leave by midnight" in Cinderella or the "you can't look at me" in the Psyche and Eros myth. I had one of these in my story, and I thought I was being really clever in having the character not go against the warning -- it avoids Too Stupid to Live syndrome, it breaks the pattern and it may be unexpected. But after a presentation on this fairy tale/folklore trope at Mythcon last year, I found myself rethinking that. The story isn't that interesting if a character is told not to do something and then never does it. I think what needs to happen is for there to be some reason the character is forced to do the thing she's been told not to do. It's not so much that she disregards warnings or does something stupid, but she faces a choice where she has to go against the prohibition in order to accomplish something greater. Breaking the ban may doom her, but it could save the day for others. Or something like that.

I guess there's no easy answer for finding that fine line between Too Stupid to Live and Boring Perfect People who never make mistakes.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Conflict: Man vs. Society

The new shoes made a huge difference in dance class. It was amazing. Not that I'm on the way to the Met, but I felt a lot more in control.

After my last writing post on conflict, an Alert Reader reminded me that I'd left out one of the categories of conflict, Man vs. Society. I'd included that one in my mental composition of the post, but somehow forgot it when it came time to write it, even though that's the major kind of conflict in the book I was working on.

Man vs. Society conflict involves the hero facing off against the institutions and organizations of society, rather than against individuals. These are often stories about revolutions or resistance movements. Or it could be crime spree/criminal on the run stories. You also see this in outcast stories, where it could be seen as Society vs. Man -- the hero isn't trying to fight society, but society is opposed to him.

There is some blurring and overlap with the Man vs. Man conflict, since society is made up of people, but in a Man vs. Society story, the conflict is more about the structure than about the people in the structure. It's not personal, though as the story progresses it may become personal as one of the members of the society structure develops a personal animosity for the hero, or vice versa.

So, going back to my usual Star Wars example, I think the conflict in the first movie is mostly Man vs. Society. The enemy is the Empire. Luke barely knows the name of Darth Vader, doesn't know his role within the Empire, and I'm not even sure he connects the dude in the black armor with the name. Luke is opposed to the Empire but doesn't have any personal animosity toward the Third Stormtrooper on the Left, other than the fact that the Stormtrooper works for the Empire and is shooting at him. Meanwhile, the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader are opposed to the rebels, in general, and in the first film, they don't know or care who that kid is, other than that he's working with the rebels. It's only in the later films where Luke and Darth Vader become directly opposed and it becomes more of a Man vs. Man conflict.

You may see Man vs. Society conflict in crime spree stories like Thelma and Louise or Bonnie and Clyde, where the main characters are fighting against and running from the law and society in general, though toward the end in some of those stories the animosity between the criminals and the lawmen may become more personal as the lawmen are focused on bringing in those specific criminals and the criminals are playing cat-and-mouse games targeting those specific lawmen.

On a lighter note, something like Office Space could also be considered Man vs. Society. Society is personified by the creepy boss, but the real "enemy" is the corporate world, in general. A different boss might change the nature of the torture inflicted by the corporate world, but the corporate world would still be stifling the hero.

War stories might be considered Society vs. Society, but since you've got to have a protagonist somewhere, there may be a character or group of characters who represent their society, and they're fighting against an enemy Society. So we get Easy Company in Band of Brothers or the squad in Saving Private Ryan as our "Men" and then they're up against the German military in general, with no direct personal conflict between any particular individuals.

I think next time I may tackle Man vs. the Supernatural/god in more detail, since that's one where I think my English teachers missed the boat.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book Report: The Summer of Extreme Immaturity

I totally forgot yesterday to congratulate the Dallas Mavericks for winning the NBA championship. I'm not a huge sports fan, and basketball isn't my favorite sport, but I have fond memories of going to Mavericks games with the church youth group when I was in high school and going to a few games with friends during the 90s. Plus, it's nice to see the local team do well, especially in a case where teamwork wins out over a few superstars. So, yay! Now we'll see if the Rangers can get back to the World Series this year. I'm not holding my breath about the Cowboys this year, even though I do love the new coach almost enough to make up for my hatred of the owner and many of the players.

My Summer of Extreme Immaturity continues with my choice of reading materials. I've been on a young adult/children's book kick lately. The line between the different age groups gets blurry. There are a number of young adult books that could easily be adult books, there are YA books that are more like middle-grade books and there are middle-grade books that could be either adult or YA. The shelving decision often comes down to market considerations, like how the author is best known.

Here's a quick rundown of what I've been reading lately:

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray -- this is one I finally cleared from the To Be Read pile. A bookseller gave it to me as a gift after I did a reading/signing/book club meeting at his store, and it really was my kind of thing, so I'm not sure why I waited so long to read it. I think I was waiting for the right atmosphere to read it, but I finally hit a point where I'd run out of library books and was in the mood for that sort of thing, even if the weather was all wrong. This book is the first in a YA fantasy series set in the Victorian era. On her sixteenth birthday, Gemma begins having strange and horrible visions that then come true. After a family tragedy, she gets sent from India back to England to attend finishing school, and there she starts to learn about a mysterious organization called The Order and finds that she has the ability to open a doorway to another world, a kind of fairy realm where she can access great power. Unfortunately, she doesn't know enough about what she's playing with to realize the danger that comes with it. In spite of the Victorian setting, this book has a lot of the hallmarks of paranormal YA, such as the rich, beautiful mean girls, the nerdy social outcast who becomes a friend and the potentially dangerous bad boy love interest (the romantic triangle doesn't start until the second book). And yet there are twists on these elements, as they don't quite go in the direction that you expect from the usual YA tropes. Meanwhile, the Victorian setting adds a layer to the story, since these girls live such constricted lives and have such limited futures, which makes the magical realm where they have power and freedom even more alluring. I'm currently reading the second book.

Then I read a couple of books in Diana Wynne Jones's Crestomancer series, The Lives of Christopher Chance and A Charmed Life. These were middle-grade books. I read them in chronological order rather than in series order, so I already knew the history of the mysterious adult in what was supposed to be the first book (the second book is his backstory when he was a kid). That may have altered my perception of things as an adult reader because that made me far more interested in the adult secondary character than in the child main characters. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The series involves a world where there are multiple versions of each world in a continuum of worlds that can be accessed through a kind of magical spiritual portal. The different worlds come from various turning points in history where things could have gone either way and the future branches from that point (we later see that the main setting is actually one of these alternate earths). If a particular person isn't born or dies in these other versions, then that person has an extra allotment of lives. Those with the most lives have strong magical abilities. Our main character in each book has nine lives, and that means they have the potential for great power. The first book in the series was around when I was the right age to be reading it, so I don't know how I missed it because this is totally my kind of thing and I think I'd have enjoyed them more when I was the right age to identify with the child characters instead of wanting to spend more time with the adult. Still, I want to find more in the series, but they weren't at the library when I looked. I may have to request them from the central library.

I found the kind of steampunk book I'd been looking for in Starcross by Philip Reeve, the author of the Hungry Cities books. I'd say this one is more middle-grade than YA, aimed at younger readers than the other series. This is the second in the series, but I didn't find the first one until later because this one was shelved in YA with the other series, while the first book was shelved in children's books. It's a science fiction adventure type story, set in an alternate Victorian era in which there is space and time travel -- but written using some of the scientific ideas of that era, such as the belief that there are civilizations on Mars and that the Martian canals are full of water. They have train travel through space, and there are spaceships that look and kind of work like old sailing ships. In this book, our intrepid young hero manages to fight off an attack by evil top hats (I am not making that up), with the aid of his prissy sister and a dashing young pirate/spy and his alien crew. The book is loads of fun, with illustrations that enhance it and that are part of the narrative -- the narrators refer to the drawings or suggest things that the illustrator could draw or shouldn't draw (like the sister, during one of her narrative bits, says that the illustrator had better not draw her in a scene where she's in her nightgown, and then you turn the page and there's a full-page drawing of her in her nightgown). The first book in the series is next on my reading list. Now I want something like this, but with adult characters or older teen characters.

And since this is getting epic, maybe I'll save a few books for next week. To be continued ...

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Immature Movie Phase

I'm starting to worry about my closet. It may not get me to Narnia, but it seems to have a portal to somewhere. I reached in this morning and grabbed the first t-shirt handy -- and it was one I don't remember owning. It's a promotional shirt for the launch of the original iBook, back when they were candy-colored. I never owned one of those, so I didn't get the shirt with a computer. I probably got it at work when I was doing high-tech PR, and a couple of my co-workers at one job used to work for Apple, but I still don't remember getting it, and if I haven't worn it in so long I forgot that I had it, why is it in the front of the closet with all the things I tend to wear more often? I need to get back on my decluttering project because who knows what I might find?

I must be in a rather immature or childish phase right now because in addition to mostly reading young adult or middle grade books lately, I seem to be watching kids' movies. There was nothing on TV over the weekend, so I thought I'd do a movie night and catch up on HBO OnDemand, but the only movies I found interesting were the ones for kids.

First, there was Nanny McPhee Returns. I loved the first one in a big way and was excited about the sequel, but then the reviews were so awful and made it sound like something I wouldn't like, so I didn't get around to seeing it in the theater. Well, now I wonder if the reviewers saw a special edition because I didn't recognize the movie from the reviews. The reviews went on about how the movie was mostly "poo jokes." Well, I have a very low tolerance for that kind of humor, and I thought the one scene that involved barnyard gross-out was hilarious. In this one, Nanny McPhee comes to the aid of a mother trying to run a farm, raise her three children and keep a job that helps pay for the farm while her husband is away at war. Her crazy life gets even crazier when her spoiled niece and nephew are sent from the city to the safety of the country and clash with her kids. To make matters worse, her boss (Maggie Smith) seems to have some kind of dementia and requires constant supervision and her brother-in-law is trying to get his hands on the farm. I still don't know which of the movies I like best. The first one was more of a romance and it had lots of Colin Firth as opposed to a cameo of Ewan McGregor. But there was Maggie Smith being absolutely adorable and a WWII setting, and then the revelation that linked the sequel to the first movie actually made me weepy. And I still want to be Emma Thompson when I grow up, or maybe get to be her best friend. She's definitely on my fantasy dinner party list.

Then there was How to Train Your Dragon. I'd seen this one before at a friend's house, but it's hard to hear the finer points of dialogue when watching with a room full of people. A nerdy young Viking in a village beset by dragon attacks can't seem to please his warrior father -- until he has an unexpected encounter with a dragon, realizes that they've got the wrong ideas about dragons, and uses that information to shine in his training to be a dragon fighter -- until the time comes when he has to convince his father and the village of the truth about dragons. This is probably the closest Dreamworks has come to doing a Pixar because there was far more heart and far less cynicism and attempting to be cool and edgy than you usually get from a Dreamworks animated film. There is the weird thing of a Viking village in which all the adults have heavy Scottish accents and all the kids sound like they're from southern California, but otherwise it's a sweet, funny, exciting movie, and as someone of Nordic and Scottish descent, I found a lot of the Viking and Scottish/Viking jokes to be hilarious.

On the other end of the Dreamworks spectrum was the latest Shrek movie, Shrek Ever After. I've enjoyed the previous Shrek movies, even the much maligned third one, but this one was borderline awful. There were some fun touches, but the overall tone was awfully bitter. On his children's first birthday, Shrek is discontented with his life and missing the old days when he was a fearsome ogre instead of a husband, dad and local celebrity whose once frightening roar is now considered entertainment for children's parties. He makes a deal with Rumplestiltskin, trading one day of his life as a baby that he'll hardly miss for one day as an ogre the way things used to be. But the day Rumplestiltskin chooses is the day Shrek was born, which undoes everything that happened because of him, including rescuing Fiona and breaking her curse. The only way out of the contract is true love's kiss, but the Fiona in this world has never met him, and he has to woo his wife all over again by the end of the day or he'll disappear from existence. I like the idea of winning the wife over again. That's an interesting way to have some romantic tension even after a happily ever after, and I think I'll have to add it to my literary bucket list. But I had a hard time getting past Shrek's monumental level of whining and selfishness. These movies have always been a bit warped and twisted, but in a fun way. Having a husband tell his wife that his life was better before he met her, when she was locked in a tower and under a curse, is just mean and ugly. The writing was also pretty lazy, relying on the soundtrack to tell a story. Why write a scene when you can do a montage to a pop song? I started to snicker every time I recognized the strains of a familiar song because I knew we'd be skipping over the next plot or character development, with the song filling in the gap. I'm glad I didn't waste money on this one at the theater. It actually left me pretty depressed because I've been feeling a sense of loss from not having had a family, and so seeing a movie about someone not appreciating what he had in such a huge way was a real downer. I know parenting can be a challenge and there probably are days when you wouldn't mind having a little time the way your life used to be, but I wouldn't think your children's first birthday would be one of those days.

There's something wrong about a supposedly funny children's animated movie that requires a phone call with Mom and a marathon of The Office to purge it from your brain so you don't sink into a deep depression.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Plot Twists

I have new ballet slippers, and I'm very excited. In the past couple of months, I've been having trouble balancing, and the trouble seemed to be in my feet. I felt like I was falling off my shoes, which sounds weird, considering how flat ballet slippers are. My slippers had holes in them, so my teacher suggested I get new ones. When I went to the dance store and told them my problem and showed them the old shoes, the shoe expert there figured out that the problem wasn't the age of the shoes but rather the design and how it worked with my feet. There's a way the material of the toe is pleated onto the sole that varies by manufacturer, and in my old shoes, that pleating hit right at the spot on my feet where I balance on my toes. Some companies use lots of little pleats, which makes that area thicker and harder for me to balance on. I guess I only just started noticing it because before, my balance problems weren't just my feet. I finally got to where the rest of my body had it figured out, so the remaining problem was in my shoes. The new shoes feel so different. I was doing all kinds of stuff in the store, balancing on my toes on one foot without the barre. Now the old shoes will become house slippers. They're fine as long as I'm not trying to balance on my toes on one foot in them.

This weekend, BBC America will finally show the Doctor Who mid-season finale, and you don't want to miss this one. If you have the capability to record it, I would recommend doing so because it has the kind of plot twist that makes you want to go back and re-watch with the plot twist in mind. In fact, the twist will make you want to rewatch a couple of seasons worth of episodes.

That kind of thing is like storytelling candy to me, and something I need to add to my literary bucket list. I've had a few plot twists and surprise revelations, but nothing of the sort that makes you want to immediately re-read the entire book now that you know what you know.

There are a couple of ways that can work. There's the hidden twin plot thing, like in The Shawshank Redemption (the movie, I haven't read the story but probably ought to). That's where there's one plot on the surface that makes total sense in that context and that even makes a good story on its own, and then the twist reveals that all along, there's been a second, hidden plot existing simultaneously with the surface plot, so that everything that happens in the surface plot has a new meaning. Spoilers for the movie (though it's old enough that I'm not sure spoiler protection applies): I think the surface plot about a wrongfully convicted man learning to cope with his imprisonment and trying to enrich the lives of his fellow inmates while still trying to clear his name would have made a really good movie on its own. But then there's the twist with the reveal that all this time, he's also been patiently carrying out an intricate escape plan, and many of the actions we saw him take to improve his life and the lives of his fellow inmates were also part of his escape plan, so that upon rewatching, you're seeing an entirely different story.

Or it can be the kind of thing where the reveal or twist adds a new layer of emotional resonance and subtext to previous scenes. Keeping this vague because I figure that since the second book isn't out yet in paperback, so it still falls under spoiler protection, but Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear worked this way for me. There are multiple stories going on at varying points in time, and once you learn how those stories connect, it changes the way you see the whole book and makes some of the parts from the beginning take on a lot more meaning and emotion, so that it's a richer read the second time through.

Then there's the question of where to throw in that kind of twist. If it's something that changes a lot of things for the characters and the way they see themselves and each other, so the twist isn't just for the audience, then you want enough remaining story to see some of the fallout and how it affects things going forward. But in a book you don't want readers to stop at that point and go back and re-read the rest. I think the way they're doing it in Doctor Who is a good idea, putting it at a mid-season break so we have time to go back and review everything, but then they'll have time in the rest of the season to deal with the aftermath. The equivalent for a book would be at the end of a book in a series, with the next book picking up with the aftermath (and you'd have to hope the next book would get published). Then readers have time to re-read the book before getting the new one.

The trick in a book is how to hold back information without cheating. In a movie or TV show, we're not inside the characters' heads. We have to guess what they're thinking based on the acting -- the facial expressions and body language. That means someone can act one way and think another way without the audience knowing it, or they can be really subtle so that there are multiple possible explanations for the way someone is acting. In a book, it's harder to do that because you go inside people's heads. To keep readers in the dark, you either have to go first-person with an unreliable narrator who lies or keeps secrets while telling the story (like Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief) or you have to stay out of the twist character's point of view, telling the story from inside someone else's head, and that viewpoint character only has external clues about the character with a secret. I personally think that it's hard to pull off third-person POV with an unreliable narrator because a third-person character doesn't know he's telling a story and readers expect more uncensored thoughts. A first-person narrator is conscious of telling a story and may edit that, including which of his own thoughts he cares to share.

Unfortunately, I can't think of any current idea I have in the works that would lend itself to this sort of thing, where a big twist or revelation at the end makes you go "Oooohhhhhh!" and then makes you flip back to the beginning and re-read the entire book because it becomes an entirely new story once you have that bit of information.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

My Danciversary

I'm feeling very righteous today, as I have already done a rather thorough workout. I guess going back to ballet class for the summer got me motivated. It is possible that I'm competing with some teenagers in the class. Actually, I think it's more accurate to say that I'm motivated by seeing the teenagers in my class. I'm not trying to be more fit than they are or to be able to make my body do everything they can do, but I do think I can be in better shape than I am now, and if aiming for the physical condition of girls young enough to be my daughters gets me part of the way, then I'll be ahead of where I am now. I'm also doing more cardio -- at least half an hour on the jogging trampoline (since I don't have a treadmill) a day -- so I'll have more lung power for singing. We'll see how long the enthusiasm lasts, but so far I feel enough better that I actually want to do this instead of whimpering about not wanting to do it and then finding excuses not to.

I started taking ballet three years ago this summer. Starting it was kind of scary because I wasn't sure what I could do and I thought I'd look silly. Now I can't imagine not doing it and I embrace the silly. That's what I usually tell new people in the class, that we're doing it for fun, and looking silly is part of the fun. I am a bit of a perfectionist and I really try to do things right, but if it doesn't look right, I just laugh about it and go on.

I hadn't really thought about this until the other night when I was driving to class, but I haven't had nearly as many bad knee days since I started dancing. I do wear an elastic brace on the really bad knee during class because it doesn't like to bend and have weight on it and has been known to do scary things during class, but in non-ballet circumstances, it works a lot better than it used to. I can sometimes even make it down a flight of stairs without hanging onto the rail. I have really bad knees, for no real reason (basically, a design flaw, I think). I had knee surgery when I was in my mid-20s, and the surgeon told me that, in technical terms, I had a bad knee. He said my knees were "old," like what he saw in more elderly people, and the problem was in the joints themselves. The surgery put a knee that had pretty much dislocated itself back into place, and then it was up to physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the knees to keep the joints in place.

It turns out that ballet seems to work better than the physical therapy exercises did. I still had a lot of pain, I still couldn't go down stairs without holding onto a rail, and I still had days when I just had to stay off my feet and keep a heating pad wrapped around whichever knee was hurting. But I don't think I've had one of those days since about three months after I started dancing. I haven't had to take any painkillers because of sore knees since then, and I realized the other day that I was going down the stairs in my house without putting a lot of my weight on the rail with each step on the really bad knee.

So, I guess I'll keep up with the dancing. It also helps keep my weight in check, which is something I'm under doctor's orders to do, as these knees can't handle any extra weight. The less weight they have to support, the longer I can go without knee replacement. When I put on a few pounds, I can feel it in the knees, and that's a wonderful incentive to maintain my weight. I've been wearing one of my leotards from seventh grade to class (my mom found it in a drawer), so I guess I'm doing okay if I can still wear clothes I wore when I was twelve. Yes, I'm the same height I was then. I hit my full growth early.

The other benefit of this class is the fun. I've made friends there, and it's like a little support group. I like the multigenerational aspect of it. One of the teenagers is taking the class with her mother, and the other is taking the class with her grandmother. I'd love to be in the kind of shape to still be dancing when I'm old enough to be a grandmother (okay, so I have high school classmates who are grandparents, so I suppose I am old enough to be a grandmother, but I don't consider myself old enough to be a parent yet). Then there's the stress relief -- it's a great way to work out frustrations -- and the creative expression (where a lot of the silliness comes in).

Tomorrow morning I'll be making an excursion because I need to buy new ballet slippers. I've actually worn out a pair.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Travel Aversion

Well, in the absence of any Enchanted, Inc. questions that weren't asking for spoilers, I guess I have to come up with something else to talk about. Yesterday was my usual book report day, which didn't happen because of jury duty. I also have the problem of having three books in progress at the moment. I guess I'm being moody, and I have to be in the right mood to read particular things, so I pick up a different book depending on what mood I'm in (and sometimes what room I'm in). That means it's taking me longer to read the books, but when I'm done reading, I'll have a lot of books on the list.

Strangely, I don't seem to have hit my usual summer reading mood. I was trying out some reading options to make sure I could deal with whatever I brought to jury duty (because it would be awful to get there and realize I didn't like the book I brought), and at first I thought my usual light summer reading would be the way to go, but I couldn't get into those books. I'm still reading my more usual fall/winter stuff. That could have something to do with what I've been writing, so it could change as I've shifted gears. I'm still looking for light and fun, but instead of going down the chick-lit/romantic comedy path, I seem to have a craving for light adventure -- spies and schemes and bopping around the world (or the universe).

Even more strangely, although in my reading I seem to be looking for globe-trotting adventure, I've found myself rather travel averse. I'm not going to any of the regional conventions that require travel this year. I have a membership and hotel reservation for WorldCon this summer, but I'm wavering on really committing by buying the airfare (I could always sell the membership and cancel the hotel) mostly because I just don't really want to travel right now. I don't have anything new to promote and I'm not sure what business I would get to do. It would mostly be a chance to network with other writers and catch up with people I only see at big conventions while staying at a nice hotel/resort. I know I'll have fun if I go. I just don't really want to do the "going" part. I need a TARDIS. I'd travel a lot more if I could materialize there without having to pack, go through the usual transit hassles, or leave my house behind.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Good Jury Duty Mojo

I had the best jury duty day ever. For one thing, I could take the train from a station very close to my neighborhood to within a few blocks of the courthouse, which is so much less hassle than driving and trying to park. Then I got to the courthouse, sat through the "here's why you should enjoy jury duty because it's so important" video starring two local news anchors (one of whom has since been fired by that station), sat through the judge's pep talk, briefing and Dallas Mavericks pep rally, then spent a couple of hours reading before they made the announcement that those of us who hadn't yet been sent to a courtroom could go. I would probably have been in the next group called, so it was a narrow escape. This meant that I served my day of jury duty without having to deal with a lawyer, aside from the divorce attorney sitting next to me who lamented that they keep calling him for jury duty, but he's always eliminated from consideration when they see what he does (lawyers hate having lawyers on juries), so it's always just a huge waste of his time.

I hadn't taken the new rail line before, and I like it. The station's much closer than the commuter line station I used to have to use, and the light rail runs more frequently than the commuter line. It took me less than fifteen minutes to get to the station, and I overestimated the amount of time I'd need because I'd forgotten that I didn't need to buy a ticket. That eliminated the time I needed to allot for my regular argument with the ticket machine: "That's a perfectly good dollar bill. It isn't even torn or crumpled. What's the problem, does it taste bad? Why won't you take my money?"

One thing that's very cool about the transit system is that they try to make each station a reflection of its surroundings. The station near me is by the very Victorian old downtown of what used to be a small town. The station artwork involves Victorian portraits embedded in the pillars. There's a station near a rose garden with carved roses on the pillars and one in a heavily Asian part of town where the pillars look kind of like something on a pagoda. The station by a lake has these really cool mural-type things that are done so they look different as you pass them. As you approach on the train, they look like old photos of Victorian-type people in rowboats, and then as you pass they become color photos of sculling on the lake.

One bad thing is that the system seems designed for maximum inconvenience. For instance, it's closer from my neighborhood to this train station than to the nearest transit center, but the bus from my neighborhood only goes to the transit center. I'd have to catch yet another bus to get to the train station. If I wanted to avoid using my car entirely, it would take me an hour to get to the train station that's a ten-minute drive from my house. Then the trains arrive at inconvenient times. The standard workday starts at 8 or 8:30, and the train arrives downtown at 8:09 or 8:35. I figured that if I got desperate enough to go back to work at the medical center, taking the train (that stops at the medical center) would mean leaving the house about an hour earlier than I would if I were driving because even though the trip itself is faster than driving in rush hour, the times work out to where I'd have to take an earlier train to get there on time (and then arrive really early).

When I was released so early, I thought about making a day out in the city of it, but after walking around downtown a little while waiting for the next train, I changed my mind because it was so hot and muggy. That's something to be done in cooler weather. I also discovered a lovely park and botanical garden not far from my neighborhood. One day this fall I'll have to get a day pass and see just where I can go on the train.

Since I cleared the deck in anticipation of being tied up all week, I don't have anything pressing to do today. There may be a nap, since I had to get up really early and didn't sleep well after doing my usual thing of waking up and checking the clock every hour or so to make sure I wasn't oversleeping.

Oh, and since I won't have to go back downtown tomorrow, I need Enchanted, Inc. questions to answer. Send them my way!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Analyzing the Book Pile

Today is going to be fairly busy, as I have jury duty tomorrow, and that means that all things that must be taken care of this week have to be dealt with today. I figure that will mean that I won't get stuck on a trial that will require me going back the next day. If I've taken care of business for the week and have nothing pressing or urgent that a trial would interfere with, then Murphy's Law and associated corollaries would make my chances of actually ending up on a jury lower. If I've just received copy edits that must be returned that week, then I'm guaranteed to end up on a trial (that did actually happen). I suppose that now that they've raised juror pay for any days after the first show up and wait day, getting on a trial would significantly increase my income for the month, but I find the whole experience so incredibly painful that I'm really hoping to spend most of the day sitting in the central jury room and reading, with maybe one trip to a courtroom to be eliminated from consideration before being sent home early in the afternoon. At least this is civil court, so it's in proper downtown instead of on the scary fringes of downtown, which means I can take the train instead of driving and parking during rush hour, and there are far more lunch options than the courthouse cafeteria. Now I have to decide the best persona to project (what to wear) and what reading material to bring. I've been on a kick of reading children's books, but I don't exactly want to sit in the jury room reading kids' books (plus, I want something nice and long that will last me a while but that isn't hardcover, which eliminates everything from my latest library trip). Looks like it's time to shop the To-Be-Read pile.

After Friday's post about book greed, I did a quick inventory of the To-Be-Read pile, and it was rather revealing. I found three books purchased new at more or less full price (store discounts or coupons may have been involved) that are not autographed or written by a friend (which is a totally separate category) that I haven't yet read. In one case, it was a Target "Bookmarked" book where they're only there for a month, and it sounded interesting and was in a subgenre I was looking into (that has subsequently dried up). I got it home to discover that it was a second book in a linked series (secondary characters from the first book became main characters in the second book), so I ordered the first book online and then HATED it. This book truly made me angry, which diminished my interest in the second book that I'd purchased first. I should probably just get rid of it, but I hate to just get rid of a book I purchased new. Another book is also one I bought for market research purposes because it has an unusual structure similar to something I've been thinking about doing, but then that project got seriously backburnered, so I haven't gotten around to reading that book. Then there was one I bought on the Friday of a holiday weekend with the intent of reading it that weekend. And then things came up so that the weekend was busier than I anticipated and I didn't get around to reading it. A few weeks later, someone gave me the same book as a gift, and it was a rather awkward and uncomfortable situation that I think spilled over to my feelings about the book. I probably could have taken the copy I bought back to the store, but I never got around to it, and now I have two copies I haven't read. I think I'll donate one to the library, and the book is actually on my reading list for the summer. In fact, it might make a good jury duty book.

I have a fair number of autographed books and books by people I know that are unread. I try to support my writer friends by going to their booksignings or buying their books when they first come out (when the publishers are most interested in the sales numbers). That means I'm buying the books on someone else's schedule and not at a time when I really want to read them, and that, strangely enough, tends to shove them into an "out of sight, out of mind" status, where I'm not thinking about how I need to get this book, since I already have it, but that means I forget about the book. A few of these books may never be read because I bought them to be a supportive friend and not so much because they were something I was interested in. I used to try to buy at least the first book by anyone I knew or to go to my friends' booksignings, even if the books weren't something I'd buy otherwise. That policy went by the wayside when I had just too many writer friends to keep up with and when so few of the people I'd supported over the years returned the favor. There are at least three of these books that I have mentally slotted into reading slots for sometime this year.

I don't have too many unread books that I bought at full used price. Even half price these days is something of an investment, and I try to support authors by buying books new. I have one that I'd heard good things about, but I was iffy on the plot, to the point that I hesitated to pay full price for it. I think I bought it during an extra 20 percent off sale at the used bookstore with the idea of giving it a shot without making a major investment. Then I have a few British chick lit books that weren't published in the US. When I find those, I buy them, even if I don't have immediate reading plans for them. I have to be in the right mood to read that sort of thing, but when I am in that mood, nothing else will do, and it's getting harder to find anything I haven't already read in that genre.

Most of my library book sale purchases seem to be classics or "keeper" copies of things I've read from the library. Last year, I bought up a bunch of Dick Francis books to add to my collection. I'd guess I've read about half of my library sale purchases, either before I bought them or since then. I also have a few used bookstore "clearance" shelf books that were the kind of thing where I was willing to give them a shot for a dollar but probably wouldn't have paid full price, but then there are also a few Georgette Heyer reissues in that bunch. That's another thing where when I'm in the mood for it, nothing else will do, so it's good to have them handy for when the mood strikes.

The vast majority of the unread pile is from publisher giveaways and conference goody bags. Most of them are romances, but there are still some SF/fantasy from the Nebula Awards weekend a few years ago. Much of the sf/fantasy wasn't quite to my taste, so I haven't had a burning desire to read those books. I've reached a point where I can only bear a real romance novel when I'm in a particular mood, and those moods are rare. Thus, the hundreds of unread books. Maybe I should start a program of trying to read at least one of these a week, and then if I can't get into it, I'm allowed to throw it either into a donation box for next year's library sale or into the box to take to the used bookstore.

Now off to go do my work for the week. I don't know what my posting schedule for the week will be, depending on what happens with jury duty.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Book Greed

I am currently NOT at my local library's annual Friends of the Library used book sale. I kind of had to hide my car keys from myself, and I took a walk to the neighborhood library to check out books as a diversion. This is because I realized that I currently own so many books that I don't have room to shelve any new purchases, and I don't have anywhere to put additional bookcases (my next house will have actual walls instead of such an open floorplan and so many windows). I hit last year's book sale almost as soon as it opened, since I'd just started physical therapy on my bad shoulder and had an early morning appointment, so I was out anyway. And I realized that most of the books I bought at last year's sale are still in the bag I brought them home in. At my average yearly reading rate, I could go two or more years just reading books I already own but haven't read, without bringing any additional books into the house.

I seem to have a condition I've dubbed "book greed." I suppose it's akin to hoarding and could easily be a part of an overall hoarding condition. When books are readily available and not very expensive, I have a tendency to go nuts. This happens at the library, where I want to check out every book I see that appeals to me, even though I know I can't possibly read them all before the due date. I have to restrain myself and remind myself that the books will still be there later, and I can get them on the next trip (though at my library, you kind of do have to grab them when you find them because the next person may keep them half a year or never return them at all, and the book you want won't be available the next time). It's also bad at the library book sale, where I'm willing to spend 75 cents on a random paperback just because it looks interesting and, hey, it's making a donation to the library, so it's a good cause. I've learned to tone down the book greed at writing conferences, but at my first RWA conference, the idea that they were passing out FREE BOOKS went to my head, and I waited in all the publisher giveaway booksigning lines.

Mind you, I STILL haven't read some of those books from that first conference I went to in 1993. And that brings me to another, related point -- how we value books. On the rare occasions when I buy new books, I tend to read them fairly quickly, except in a few cases where I bought the book because I went to a booksigning and wanted the book autographed but wasn't really amped up to read that particular book right away. That's because new books are pretty expensive, so I don't buy a book unless I want to read that book so badly that I must buy it NOW. I don't buy a lot of books at used bookstores, especially after I sold some books and saw what a huge profit margin they have on each book, and yet nobody who participated in the creation of the book gets anything. But when something's out of print, I'll turn there, and I'm pretty good about reading those books, since even at half price, a book is still pretty expensive these days and a purchase is a conscious decision. I almost always read the books I get from the library, unless I start reading and decide I don't want to waste time on that book, because I know there's a time limit.

It's the books that I get for free or for next to nothing that seldom get read. I think that part of it is that for free or very cheap I'm willing to pick up things I'd never pay full price for, and so they fall to the bottom of the priority list, under the things I choose more consciously. I also don't feel like there's any great loss or waste if I never get around to reading something I didn't pay for or only paid a few cents for. The e-book revolution is bringing up the issue of pricing, and while a lot of people moved to the top of the e-book bestseller lists and built a following by selling their books for 99 cents, some authors are starting to see more sales from pricing their books slightly higher, but still below the cost of a paper book. You may make a lot of sales at 99 cents, but those books are likely to languish unread if people just get a case of book greed and grab them because they're cheap, so you're not really gaining new readers. If people aren't getting around to reading the book they got for next to nothing, then they're not buying your next book and they're not spreading word of mouth. If the book is expensive enough that it's a conscious, deliberate purchase and not a whim, but still cheap enough to not be a barrier to purchase, then readers may be more likely to value the book enough to read it and then talk about it and then be set to buy the next book. The 99 cent price point may be suitable for novellas or short stories, but for a novel it may be the equivalent of the paperback you buy on a whim at the library book sale and never get around to reading.

On the other hand, I have found some new authors to follow from books I got at conferences or that I picked up on the cheap. These are generally books I might have eventually tried at full price, but getting them free or cheap made me more willing to take a chance and try them or brought them to my attention. However, I still seem to only get around to them years later. I picked up my first Connie Willis book at a "half of a half" sale when I got a case of book greed and was just grabbing anything that remotely appealed to me, and I think it languished for a couple of years before I got around to reading it and then subsequently have bought her books new.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Hidden Kids and Found Steampunk

I went back to the beginning on the current project, and I think it's a good sign that I still like it. I'm finding things to fix and a lot to edit, but that's just part of the process. I'm forcing myself to work in small doses so I don't get so caught up in the story that I just read and stop editing.

A couple of random thoughts ...

After thinking my way through Star Wars for writing post examples, something occurred to me (that was only tangentially related to my post). I love Obi-Wan, but he did the worst job ever of hiding a secret baby from his psycho father. He gave the kid his father's last name and took him to his father's home planet to live with his father's stepbrother, then he kept his own last name to live nearby and keep an eye on the kid. If he really wanted to keep the kid hidden and safe, he'd have changed his own name to the Star Wars universe version of "John Smith," given the kid a similarly nondescript name, and then he'd have taken the kid to some world where neither he nor Anakin had ever been, given some story about being a widower, and raised the kid himself in total obscurity, but possibly with some Jedi training so he'd know how to use his abilities properly. Most of the events in The Empire Strikes Back wouldn't have happened if Luke's name hadn't been "Skywalker" and Darth Vader hadn't had a reason to have any interest in some random rebel pilot. That's a plot issue I can't eradicate by ignoring the prequels.

On a brighter note, I've found my fun steampunk. I'd read the Hungry Cities books by Philip Reeve, which were good but which kind of got dark and had the underlying darkness of taking place in a grim, post-apocalyptic world. But he has another series that's more of a purely fun steampunk adventure. I managed to get the second book in the series (I'm not even sure the library had the first), but they seem to be self-contained. The first book is Larklight, but I read Starcross. They seem to be aimed at a younger readership (they're even illustrated), but they're still pretty fun. Now I want something like that but aimed at an older audience so I can get a little more psychological depth along with the fun adventures. I'll discuss it in more detail in next week's book report.