Friday, July 29, 2011

The Dog Days of Summer

I'm afraid that the summer doldrums have hit full-on. Doctors have actually recognized that in this part of the world there's a kind of reverse seasonal affective disorder, where people get depressed during the summer because it's too hot to be outside during the daylight hours, and that means less sun exposure and cabin fever. It doesn't help that we still seem to take our cues for what the season should be from the media centers and retailers in the northeast, where a really hot summer day is 90 degrees, so they plan stuff like outdoor concerts and festivals and Shakespeare in the park for the middle of summer. Never mind that it's still 96 degrees at 10 p.m. We should be doing stuff like that here in April and October. We should be buying patio furniture in September. Summer activities should be indoors -- the equivalent of what might be planned for the dead of winter in colder climates. It's just depressing to see notices about Shakespeare in the park or outdoor concerts and then think about how miserable it would be. We have this mental image of a pleasant picnic under the stars where it's a comfortable 70 degrees in the evening, when actually even at the end of the event it would still be hot enough here that in the northeast they'd declare it a deadly heat wave if that were the high temperature for the day. We should get on our own schedule here and quit trying to live up to some externally imposed idea of the seasons and then I think we'd be happier.

With all the summer doldrums, I need something to perk me up, some good news or something really good to happen to me. Not that my life has been miserable. I've had a string of minor disappointments (though I suppose that some might consider them major disappointments, but I've grown used to this sort of thing) without anything truly bad. I've had good times with friends and enjoyed some good books, movies, etc. But I haven't experienced anything of the sort that makes me want to immediately call my parents and all my friends to share my awesome good news. The highlight of my summer may have been the surprise IRS refund. I could use some really good news or something great happening to me. Maybe WorldCon will be really, really great.

With that kind of general bummed feeling, I made a point of finding good things to focus on when I was out running errands this morning. I found the latest Vorkosigan book at the library (but I may need to re-read the last one before I tackle this one) and a book I've had on hold for ages finally came in. The lady in line ahead of me at Target had a Rock-em, Sock-em Robot in her cart, and that triggered a fun conversation among her, the checker and me as we waxed nostalgic about toys from our youth. I've been working on exercising regularly this summer, and I wore my "skinny" jeans on my errands (in the irony of vanity sizing, the "skinny" jeans I bought about eight years ago are actually a larger size than the newer jeans I was able to wear before I started exercising). There is a slight possibility that we won't hit 100 degrees tomorrow. There are clouds in the sky now. See, life is pretty good. But I still want something awesome to happen.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Getting into a Story

Yesterday was a spectacularly unproductive day. I couldn't seem to focus or think. I blame the heat and my dentist. It's been really hot for about a month, and the tough part isn't the 100-degree afternoons, it's the 86-degree low temperatures. It never gets cool enough to get comfortable when the cool part of the day is what a lot of places would consider a warm summer afternoon. I've been coping by hibernating, but I had a dentist appointment yesterday, and being out and about left me drained (I think all that lying upside down doesn't help). So I shall have to be particularly efficient today. I did try to daydream the scene I need to write next, so maybe it will flow when I start writing.

I've been thinking more about what it is that hooks me into a story, after the post earlier this week, and a review of my bookshelves, DVD shelves and my TV viewing habits has revealed a few patterns.

On the shallow end, I'll admit that an attractive dark-haired, blue-eyed man will do a lot for catching my attention in a visual medium (TV or movies). Beyond that, I tend to be drawn to characters who intrigue me. That can include characters I identify with, characters who have something about them that doesn't quite fit, characters with a sense of humor, characters who have traits or characteristics that have a lot of story potential, characters who have room to grow (without currently being too stupid to live), and characters who are just plain lovable (nice, sense of humor, heroic, good at what they do -- especially if this isn't appreciated by other characters).

I do find that I make a distinction between the "bad boy with a heart of gold" and what I call the "jerk with layers." I don't like bad boys, but I can be drawn to a jerk with layers. The bad boy has an element of lawlessness, rebellion and often selfishness to him. He's all about breaking the rules. I figure that if he really had a heart of gold, he wouldn't be a bad boy. The jerk with layers may be superficially obnoxious, often being the class clown or the goofball, but he's not really a rebel or a rule breaker. The outer attitude is a defensive mechanism to protect a sensitive interior. I think perhaps my bad boy hatred has something to do with fan response. It seems like if a bad boy ever does one nice thing, the fans will then declare that he has a heart of gold and proclaim him a hero. But if the non-bad boy ever does one wrong thing, he's practically crucified by the fans, even if that one bad thing isn't nearly as bad as the bad boy's usual pattern of behavior and if the bad boy's one good act isn't as good as the non-bad boy's usual pattern of behavior. It's like if the bad boy refrains from mugging an old lady, he's considered to have a heart of gold and the fans fall madly in love with him, never mind that he's murdered and robbed plenty of other people. But if the hero gives a dirty look to someone, he's declared an evil jerk, even if he's usually sacrificing everything that matters to him to save others. I get disgusted with that, so I really dislike bad boys, while I can tolerate a guy who puts up an obnoxious show, as long as his actual behavior is generally good when it matters.

Aside from individual characters, I'm also drawn to interesting relationships, like a strong partnership or team or the "found family." I'm less interested in the "total opposites who bicker constantly" thing than I am in people who get each other on some fundamental level -- kindred spirits. That doesn't mean no conflict, just that I prefer the conflict to be based on more substance than "you're a stuffed shirt and I'm a free spirit."

A good case study for what draws me into a story would be my current blowing-my-mind-weekly favorite, Haven. I didn't plan to watch this show, and in fact I didn't watch the first couple of episodes. I don't remember how they were promoting it other than that it didn't appeal to me. They seemed to be relying on the Stephen King angle, and while I acknowledge that he's a great writer, his subject matter isn't really to my taste. But last summer I was in physical therapy for a bad shoulder, which meant doing tedious exercises every night. I'd run out of things to watch while I exercised, so I pulled up the pilot for Haven OnDemand, and was so hooked that I immediately watched the second episode and then had to wait for the next one.

So, what was it that drew me into something I hadn't been interested in watching? To start with, the first thing that happens in the series is a clock radio alarm going off playing "Love Will Keep us Together." That was my favorite song when I was in second grade, and that album was my first "real" album that wasn't a Disney record or Broadway cast album. That caught my attention immediately. That song came up again when it came on the main character's car radio just before a crack in the road suddenly appeared, driving her off the road and leaving her car teetering on the edge of a cliff. She risked going over the edge to lean forward and turn off the radio because she didn't want that song to be the last thing she heard. I may love the Captain and Tennille, but I can appreciate the humor there.

We meet the other main character when he arrives on the scene, looks in the passenger window of her car and asks if she needs help. She sarcastically tells him that she's fine, and he says okay and walks away, leaving her irked and flabbergasted until he reappears on her side of the car and pulls her out just before the car goes over the cliff. That establishes that our two main characters share a slightly twisted, dry, snarky sense of humor, and I could already tell that they were going to make for a fun partnership that's a lot heavier on the banter than on the bickering. They disagree about some things, but there are also times when they're on the same page (and often in unison). Later, we learn that our main guy has lost his sense of touch -- he doesn't feel pain, pleasure, hot, cold or anything else. I thought that made for an intriguing trait because it's this odd combination of invulnerability and vulnerability. We see in that pilot episode that it comes in handy for a cop because he can be shot and still keep going to take down the suspect, since the pain doesn't affect him, and we learn that he's a lot more sensitive in his other senses. But there's also the psychological impact of a condition like that because it separates him from the physical world, and there's the fact that he doesn't know when he's been hurt, so his partner has to keep an eye on him, and just about every mishap means he has to get an MRI to make sure there aren't any internal injuries he hasn't noticed. My brain was already churning with ways that could play into a story (and unfortunately, it's too distinctive a trait for me to be able to use it).

Meanwhile, there's a mystery about the main female character, who knows nothing about her own origins, as she discovers that there was a woman who looked just like her in this town twenty-seven years ago, and she was somehow involved in an unsolved murder case. Again, there are intriguing story questions there, and I like the idea of an orphan on a voyage of self-discovery. All that added up to enough to have me immediately clicking on the OnDemand menu to get the next episode. There were later plot and character developments that intensified my involvement, but these were the things that drew me from episode to episode to begin with. And, yeah, okay, there's an attractive dark-haired, blue-eyed man.

I've noticed that this season's promos are including the quirky humor and the characters with the Stephen King horror elements, so it would seem that they've realized that audiences in general responded the way I did.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

How to Be a Published Author

One of the questions about writing I often get asked is the general one about how to become a writer. Often the person asking this question thinks of this as a get-rich-quick thing -- dash off a book one weekend, send it off to a publisher, then get a huge check in the mail when it becomes a bestseller (pardon me while I collapse in hysterics). Or else they've only seen information from vanity presses, so they want to know how much it costs to get published. Here's a very high-level, general look at how to become a published writer:

1) Read. A lot.
For most aspiring authors, this goes without saying, since the urge to write usually comes from a love of reading. At some point, a lot of avid readers will either think "I could do better than this" or "I want to do this." But those "I could dash off a book next weekend and be a bestseller" people generally aren't big readers, and all it takes to dissuade them from this scheme is asking them what they like to read. Once you decide to pursue writing, your reading will change, though. You should read the classics in your genre, the recent bestsellers and recent books by new authors. All of this will give you a sense of the genre conventions and the cliches, what works and what doesn't and what's selling. You've probably read a lot of these things anyway as part of what sparked your drive to write, but read them again with a critical eye to analyze the characters, plot, pacing and other story elements. I think it's also good to read outside your genre. There are romantic elements in most stories in most genres, so read romances to learn how to build emotion. There are mystery or suspense elements in many stories, so read mysteries or suspense novels to learn how to build that kind of plot. Read poetry to learn ways to use language to paint a picture. Read non-fiction to learn how the world works.

2) Write. And rewrite.
A writer writes. Talking about writing isn't writing. Your first efforts may not be publishable. They may be your learning books or stories, but there are very few cases of anything worth doing where you can do it perfectly the first time you try. It takes practice and repetition. Write something, put it aside for a while as you write something else, then come back to it and revise it. Lather, rinse, repeat. I would almost recommend putting your first novel aside for a year without submitting it. Go write other stuff. Then when you come back to that first novel, you'll probably cringe. You'll be glad you didn't let an editor or agent see it.

3) Study the craft.
This can involve reading books about writing, reading writing magazines, going to writing workshops and conferences or joining writing organizations. Or it can just be seriously studying published books. Some people have an innate instinct for storytelling and can be successful without study. Some people even find that analysis and study is stifling. But if you're not satisfied with the quality of your work or if you're not achieving the results you want, consider doing some studying.

4) Study the business.
It would be lovely if we could just focus on the art without sullying it with commercial considerations, but if you want to be a published author, you need to learn about the business side of things. That's the best way to avoid career-limiting moves or being taken advantage of by scammers. Learn which publishers publish your kind of books, and learn who the editors and agents are. Learn how to work with editors and agents and what to expect from them. Learn what's in a publishing contract. Learn the process through which a book goes from submission to publication. Learn the proper way to submit a book and the business etiquette of the publishing industry. You can learn this from some of the writer's marketplace books. There are also books on how to get a novel published. Join a writing organization. Read blogs written by editors and agents. Read other industry blogs. Network.

I think this step is one of the most important these days because the industry is changing so rapidly. Not too long ago, it was pretty much an absolute that the path to publication was to submit to agents or publishers. Now there are people breaking in by being successful in electronic self-publishing, and given the risk-averse nature of the industry, I wouldn't be surprised if publishers started using electronic self-publishing as a kind of slush pile. Instead of taking a risk on an unknown debut author, they can hand-pick the authors who have already found some success. But that means even more industry knowledge will be required. You'll have to know a lot about what it takes to publish a book and operate a business.

5) Submit your work.
Once you have a manuscript that's the best you can make it and you're armed with knowledge about the business, you can begin the submission process. As part of your study of the business, you'll have learned the pros and cons of going through an agent first and decided which route is best for you. You'll also have researched the legitimate publishers and agents and have a target list, plus you'll know something about how to submit a manuscript. The odds are good that you'll be rejected a few times. Your first book may not make it, but then you'll move on to the next one. That's the part that separates the published authors from the dreamers. The dreamers get discouraged when they aren't an instant success, and that means they'll never get published. The ones who get published are the ones who keep trying.

As an aside, I'd still recommend at least trying the traditional route even if self-publishing becomes the new slush pile because you never know, you could still sell that way, and even if you don't, going through the submission and rejection process will teach you a lot while helping you develop a thick enough skin that you'll be less likely to have one of those embarrassing Internet flip-outs when your book gets an unfavorable review because that's the first criticism you've received. There's something about going through the process that helps give you a sense of professionalism that is often lacking in people who just threw the first thing they wrote up on Amazon.

Of course, all of this is overly simplified, but I tend to think that the publishing world is one of those areas where the steps are pretty simple in theory but very hard to actually carry out. I frequently use the analogy of losing weight -- it's a relatively simple formula. You just take in fewer calories than you use, generally by eating less and exercising more. But actually doing it is a real struggle, and current obesity rates indicate that a large percentage of the population has difficulty with it. Likewise with publishing, all you have to do is read, write, research and submit, but only a small fraction of people who try are able to do it successfully. On the other hand, if you don't do these things, you're guaranteed not to be successful.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Attaching to Characters

I hit a slow point on the rewrites yesterday that was ultimately resolved by realizing that the problem was in the previous scene. Plus, I had to get into the head of a non-viewpoint character who was the one driving the action and figure out what that person would really be doing, even though the viewpoint character wouldn't know the reasoning. This writing stuff can really be work sometimes. You have to think. The first instinct of what's going on may be wrong.

I think I may have given up on Alphas. This is the third episode, and for two of the three, I've found myself zoning out so completely that I missed major plot developments when they happened. It does make good background noise for other work, and there's nothing on opposite it, but if I don't have anything to work on, it may fall by the wayside. When I look at the series I really enjoy, I've always fallen in love with a character (romantically or otherwise) by the end of the first episode, and that can hold my attention until I get caught up in the story. If I haven't attached to a character, then I'm not going to get into the plot, and I don't seem to be attaching to any of these characters.

So, note to self: Make sure to create at least one character readers are likely to attach to early in a book. The trick is, that's different for each reader, and I can't even come up with a specific list of what works for me. It just seems to happen, an "I'll know it when I see it" thing. Generally, it helps if there's something about the character that intrigues me, some question about the character or something that doesn't quite fit that I want to know more about, maybe some element that I think will make for interesting stories. And it has to be a character I like enough to want these answers. But what I like in a character isn't exactly normal, since I tend to go for the nice guy, the "best friend" type, and these days, the dark and dangerous bad boy is what's popular. Adding a heart of gold or secret pain to a bad boy isn't enough to intrigue me. The fact that I don't like this doesn't mean others won't. I just have to write what works for me and hope there will be others who like it, too. We may just be the minority, though I don't know if we're the minority in general or if it's just that we're underrepresented among people making decisions in the entertainment industry (including publishing). Maybe we should start a club, the League of Nice Guy Lovers.

I am encouraged by the number of best friend-type heroes/Beta men on TV today, or maybe that's just the shows that I'm watching and it's a self-selected trend. But at least they're there at all, and that wasn't always the case.

So, what is it that will make you attach to a character enough to want to read a book or follow a series?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Making Brutal Cuts

I had a remarkably busy and social weekend, with a movie outing with friends, dinner out with friends both Saturday and Sunday and a meeting on Sunday. During this, there was some plotting of a grand scheme that should be way too much fun if we can pull it off. All that socializing, planning, plotting and eating of large meals means that I'm getting a slow start today. I'd better get the iced tea brewed because I do need to get some work done.

Most of this work seems to involve getting rid of bits that I was proud of. They were very clever little bits of conversation that bogged down the pacing of the scenes, that weren't relevant at the moment and that were actually kind of out of character. I resisted cutting because they contained some great lines and told us fun things about the characters. But finally, I had to admit that these things don't belong in the book, and that information can be conveyed in a different way and in a different place. The big lesson I'm learning is that it's boring to have a conversation in which a person asks a direct question and the other person answers it directly and fully.

Now for some TV news: Doctor Who will be returning August 27. And from that point, I'll be spending my weekends with my head spinning. It'll start on Friday night with Haven, which seems to throw in some new twist or clue to the overall story in each episode, along with some new character revelation, and then they zig when you think they're going to zag. I get the feeling the writers are all well aware of all the TV tropes, so they can deliberately set up a trope-like situation and then subvert or undermine it by doing exactly the opposite of what you'd expect to happen on most shows. Each episode sends me into another spiral of speculation. So now, after a Friday night and Saturday spent mulling over that, there will be new Doctor Who to also give me something more to think about. My dreams on Saturday and Sunday nights will be very, very interesting if I manage to merge the two very different things. The Doctor would likely discover that there's some alien force behind what's going on in Haven but would be surprised by the sarcastic aplomb with which the local authorities accept an explanation that weird. "So, aliens, huh? Makes about as much sense as anything else. Now, what do we do to send ET home?"

So, now I'll spend the day writing conversations in which characters ask roundabout questions and the other characters respond by hedging, evading or answering indirectly.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Reasons to Like Summer

We're facing our thirty-zillionth consecutive day of temperatures over 100 (actually, I think we're somewhere in the 22 days range, but I lost count). I remember loving summer when I was a kid, but that may have been because we were out of school and there were fun things to do like go to swimming lessons or play on the Slip 'N Slide. And there were times when I lived in places that had a normal summer, when summer was the warm time when you could be outdoors, not the time you had to hibernate in the air conditioned interior or risk heat stroke. In the interest of focusing on the positive instead of making myself miserable by counting the days until October, I'm making a list of reasons to enjoy summer:

1) Summer fruit
I'm practically living on fruit these days because there's so much good stuff that's available inexpensively. I'm eating cherries for dessert every night, there are blueberries and strawberries on my morning cereal, and then there are peaches and watermelons. It's tasty and good for me. These days, I can get these things at other times of the year, but they cost a fortune and have to be shipped in from Chile.

2) Summer television
Once upon a time, summer was a dead spot full of reruns and failed pilots run as television movies (though those could be fun, even if they were frustrating because you would have liked to see those series more than the ones that were actually picked up). Now, the cable networks have summer series, many of which I like better than those from the regular TV season. There's Leverage on TNT, a lot of the USA lineup and the summer lineup from the network formerly known as Sci Fi. Haven would be on my list of top-three series, Warehouse 13 is like a combination of all my favorite elements rolled into one show, and Eureka is good fun if you turn off your brain and all critical thinking. Alphas may not stick for me, though. I'm giving it one more try, but the second episode bored me to the point I barely paid attention to it. It came dangerously close to being turned off in the middle of an episode. It's nice to have something to watch while huddling under a fan.

3) Summer movies
Well, sort of. This has been a slow summer for me. The only movie I've seen is the final Harry Potter, and there's not much on the horizon, other than maybe Cowboys and Aliens. I'm not a comic book fan, nor am I a superhero fan, and that seems to be the bulk of movies coming out this year. On the up side, this is when HBO gets last summer's movies, which gives me more to watch without leaving the house.

4) The swimming pool
This is one thing that holds over from childhood. I don't get in the pool unless it's warmer than 90 degrees outside, and the hotter the better because then the water feels good, so it's one thing that's best done when it's really hot. I like swimming late in the day when our pool is in the shade but the water retains the heat. I haven't been swimming yet this year, though, in part because it's been too hot to walk to the pool, and the few times I have ventured out, there have been kids in the pool. It's a community pool, and most of the people who live here are either retired or childless couples and singles, but there seem to be a few more families with kids now, and that means fewer times I have the pool to myself. I don't get in the pool when there are kids unless the parents are also in the pool because there have been a few times when the kids were behaving very dangerously while the parents have been nearby but ignoring them while they read a magazine or talked on a cell phone, and I realized that as the adult in the pool, I'd be put in the position of being the first responder if something went wrong, and I'm leery of being forced to take life-and-death responsibility for someone else's kids like that. So, I stay out of the pool when there are kids, which limits my pool time. But I will have to make a point of hitting the pool. School starts the week I get back from WorldCon, so then I should still have plenty of warm days that are child-free.

5) My birthday
I have an August birthday, so that's always something to look forward to in the summer. Not that I'm eager to age (although it beats the alternative), but it's fun feeling special for a day. If I play it right, I can milk it for longer than that with multiple celebrations with different groups of people.

6) It's convention season
I've been a homebody this year because writing is more important than promoting right now, but summer is peak season for science fiction conventions around here. That means time hanging out with friends and discussing geeky stuff. I'll be at WorldCon in a few weeks, and then there's FenCon in September, but that's getting into fall, when it will start getting cooler …

and, oh dear, I'm looking forward to fall again. It's about seven weeks until September, and usually the 100-degree days have stopped by then, even though it's still hot. The way I have my work currently planned, I should be able to take time off in October to enjoy my favorite time of year. Which means I need to get moving on today's errands so I can spend a busy day writing.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Poetry Response Unit

I spent much of yesterday killing my darlings -- editing out some of my favorite jokes. It's not that you're supposed to cut the stuff you like from a book, but rather that you're supposed to be willing to cut good stuff that doesn't belong. In this case, some really clever jokes turned out to be the kinds of things the character wouldn't really say, or they involved a lot of interior monologue to set up a clever thought that led to a line, and that broke up the rhythm of the dialogue. I'm trying for the snappy banter of the screwball comedy, and you can't do that with whole paragraphs of thought in between. Or the witty joke was me showing off my research or explaining too much. So it had to go. And once I cut those things, the relationship and the conflict between the characters became so much clearer.

Meanwhile, I've also been reading some Jung. I figured that since a lot of the things I use in writing, including archetypes, the hero's journey and personality types, are based on the works of Jung, I ought to go to the source. I found a library book that compiles extracts from the essential works, with commentary. There's a lot of stuff about dreams and what the elements of a dream might represent, and that's made me conscious of my dreams. Last night, I had one that would stump Jung. I dreamed I was walking past my city fire department's array of specialty unit trucks. There was the MICU (the fire department ambulance), the hazardous material unit, the bomb squad, etc. And then there was the truck with "Poetry Response Unit" printed on the side. I wondered if that was to respond to the aftermath of dangerous poetry, like in the case of a Vogon invasion (yes, I was thinking about Vogon poetry in my dreams) or if it was to soothe people who'd been through a trauma by using poetry to lift their spirits.

I suspect this was in part triggered by yesterday's wreck at the intersection behind my house. There was the usual "screech, whack" sound, and I went upstairs to look outside, but during the summer, I can't see the intersection from my office balcony because the crepe myrtles on the corner are in bloom. I did notice that the fire department got there within three minutes. I also noticed that the church across the street had sent someone out. Their office windows overlook that intersection, and they're good about getting out there with water or blankets whenever there's a wreck, and as fast as the fire department responds, the church is faster. Wrecks are frequent enough there that I wonder if they have a wreck response ministry. I can't figure out why wrecks are so common there. There's a traffic light, with left-turn signals in all directions. It's on flat ground on a straightaway, with good visibility from all angles. I go through that intersection almost every time I come and go from my house in my car, and I've never had a near-miss or scare there. And yet at least once a week there's a major wreck there. So, anyway, maybe my subconscious tied together my notice of the fire department unit response time and the way the people from the church show up to help and created the Poetry Response Unit. There may be a story in there somewhere.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

RIP Borders

I didn't have any Enchanted, Inc. questions to answer, but I've got a tangentially related topic that's one of the big pieces of news in the book world this week. The Borders chain is now pretty much dead. The remaining stores will start closing by the end of the week. This is sad for me, and not just for book buying, since the Borders stores that were even remotely convenient all closed during the last round of cutbacks. But Borders was a major factor in selling my series. I did most of my booksignings at Borders stores, and I heard that a lot of Borders staff members were handselling these books. I got my best bookstore sales through Borders.

The impact that this could have on the book business is kind of scary. The publishing industry does not respond well or rapidly to change. When I was working in the technology industry, we all got a kick out of that EDS ad about running with the squirrels, which was what dealing with telecommunications and the Internet was like. The publishing industry is more like running with the snails, or maybe the tortoises. Not too very long ago (especially in publishing timelines), publishers were basing a lot of their profitability projections on the initial print run -- they didn't want to publish a book if it wouldn't be profitable from the first print run -- and the initial print run was based mostly on orders from the major chains. Even though Amazon has an increasing share of the industry, they order on a more as-needed basis instead of making a big up-front order, while the chains' initial order is generally the majority of copies they'll sell for most midlist books (for the bestsellers that are offered at Walmart, that's where most of the sales come, but most titles aren't sold at Walmart). There are too few independent stores, and each of those stores sells a tiny fraction of the number of copies as a chain sells. So, basically, the buyers for Borders and Barnes and Noble decided what books would succeed and what books and authors would fail, based on their initial buy-in. The people who buy thousands of copies have more sway than the people who buy a few hundred copies at a time and definitely a lot more sway than people who buy ten copies at a time. I don't know what impact the increasing popularity of e-books has on all these decisions and how that's factored into P&L projections. The first print run is still important because it needs to cover the cost of typesetting and print set up (the creation of printing plates). There's anecdotal evidence that the publishers are undercounting the sales of e-books, which means they aren't accurately tracking their impact on the bottom line, and that means they're likely not being properly factored into P&L projections that are part of the decision of which books will be published. So, what this boils down to is that the failure of Borders as a chain means that now the Barnes & Noble buyer in each market segment pretty much has total power over what authors will get another contract, without even the buyer for another major chain to balance that power.

Why did the chain fail? One reason that's been given is that they were slow to catch onto electronic retailing. For a very long time, they outsourced their online shopping to Amazon, so they only strengthened their competition and then entered that market after customers had already formed relationships and habits with other sellers. The other reason was the cost of real estate. Their stores tended to be in expensive locations. Yeah, that's where readers tend to be (educated and affluent), but there were some mistakes made in location decisions. I've been in a lot of Borders stores, and while it's nice that they tended to be extremely spacious, that was a lot of expensive space that didn't turn a profit. Then there's where the stores were. It seemed like they picked locations by sticking pins in a map at every B&N location, then putting their stores in the closest available space. I did a lot of stock signings, where I visited all the bookstores in a city to sign the copies they had on hand, and it seemed like almost all the Borders stores were within about two miles of a B&N. In a lot of cases, the Borders store was across the street from the B&N. That's really convenient for an author trying to hit all the bookstores in an area, but I can't think that it's too great a strategy for maximizing your potential customer base. It's like the TV networks' proclivity for scheduling a series exactly opposite the series most likely to appeal to the same audience. You're forcing people to choose one or the other instead of going to a place where there aren't other options. It's like the main goal was to hurt the competition instead of to improve their own chances (in most cases, B&N was there first).

One strength Borders used to have that they squandered was a knowledgeable and empowered store staff. They used to have networks of subject matter experts at the store level who could help customers, hand sell books and who even had some say with the corporate-level buyers. There was also apparently some autonomy at the store level in purchasing, so instead of all stores stocking what was dictated at a corporate level, they could adjust what they carried based on what would do well at each store. Then apparently corporate started tightening up on control, and there were subject matter experts who were let go because they tended to be senior employees who earned higher salaries, and they were replaced by entry-level people. Things got really bad when instead of genuine handselling they started dictating it from a corporate level, with certain books that all employees were forced to push, with quotas. That was when I stopped shopping at Borders because it was too distracting and annoying to be stalked by employees pushing books I had no interest in (they were all of the book club fodder variety) while I was trying to look for something specific.

What happens now? I have no idea. I hope maybe that more independent stores will arise to fill some of the gaps or that maybe mass merchandisers like Target and Walmart will sell a broader variety of books. I hope publishers will realize that the business is changing and use something other than first print run to decide a book's potential profitability (like including e-books and possible long-term sales). I won't hold my breath, though. Like I said, running with tortoises.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Book to Movie: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

I discovered what one of the problems was in the book I'm now working on: I had the character in the opening scene acting in ways that were totally wrong for her character. She was doing what I'd probably do, not what she'd do.

One of the movies on my screwball comedy weekend was Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Although it's a recent film, it was based on a book published in 1938, at the height of the screwball era, so I figure it counts. I finally read the novel by Winifred Watson, so now I can compare the book to the film. A short summary: a down-on-her-luck middle-aged governess goes to work as a social secretary for a flighty wannabe actress and experiences a life-changing day in a world she's only experienced in movies. It's a truly delightful book, but the movie actually improves upon it (which is rare). In fact, the comparison between book and movie makes for a good exercise in seeing how you can rev up a manuscript.

The first difference is the level of tension, which comes from higher stakes. In the book, Miss Pettigrew has been fired from a governess job and is being sent out on her very last chance at a job. If she doesn't prove satisfactory this time, the agency won't send her on any more assignments. Her landlady at her rooming house is on the verge of kicking her out if she can't pay her rent soon. Those stakes seem pretty high, right? Well, in the movie, Miss Pettigrew doesn't have a rooming house, so she has nowhere to go when she gets fired. She's penniless and has all her possessions in her suitcase, and she loses those when she collides with a recently released prisoner and flees in terror. She resorts to lining up at a soup kitchen and sleeping sitting up in a train station waiting room. When she reports to the employment agency, they refuse to send her on another assignment. In desperation, she swipes the card for a job from the desk and rushes off to get hired before they can send someone else. If this job doesn't work out, she's literally out on the streets. To complicate the situation, the new employer's best friend saw her at the soup kitchen and threatens to reveal that she's a homeless tramp if she doesn't lie about seeing the friend with a man at the station and doesn't help patch things up with her fiance, to whom Miss Pettigrew is strongly attracted. So, either she's out on the streets with nothing or she lies to a man she admires and manipulates him into staying with a faithless woman. That's taking already high stakes to an even higher level.

Then there's the storyline with Delysia (the Amy Adams character). In the book, she's torn among three men -- the playboy producer who can make her a star, the wealthy man who wants to possess her (Nick) and whose allure she can't resist, and Michael, another reasonably wealthy man who loves her enough to demand a commitment from her so that she'd have to give up the other men. That's a bit of a dilemma, choosing between freedom without love and commitment with love. The movie adjusts the Michael character (Lee Pace) to give her a harsher dilemma. She's not choosing among the three wealthy men. She's choosing between the kid who can make her a star, the wealthy, alluring man who wants to possess her and the penniless pianist who's her best friend who loves her and wants to marry her. She has to choose fame, money or love. And there's a ticking clock: Michael is leaving the next morning on the Queen Mary. He needs a singer and wants to take her, but if she doesn't go with him, it's over. Miss Pettigrew's dilemma is also stronger in the film. In the book, there's no blackmail, and the man Edyth (the friend) wants her help with is a different character from Joe, the man Miss Pettigrew falls in love with.

Since the book was written before WWII, it doesn't include the specter of impending war the way the movie does, and it also isn't haunted by the specter of the past war the way the movie is, which I think adds some depth and poignance to the story. As a warning, the book is a product of its time, and so it's not at all politically correct. There's a fair amount of casual racism of the sort that was pretty common at the time but which is shocking now.

Other than these things, the movie is remarkably faithful to the book. A few of the scenes are moved to different settings and there are more meals in the book (while in the movie poor Miss Pettigrew keeps having near misses with food), but otherwise the same scenes are there, and essentially the same things happen. It's just all revved up a bit. Now I'll have to think in terms of doing a Miss Pettigrew when I take stakes, a conflict or a dilemma that I think are strong enough and find a way to make them even stronger.

The funny thing about this book is that it's pretty racy, especially for its time. There's open discussion of cocaine and illegitimate children, and one of the heroines is a kept woman who's maintaining sexual relationships with three different men. It's a very sophisticated urban novel. And yet, according to the biographical notes, this was an aberration for the author. She was best known for writing the kind of rustic romances that Cold Comfort Farm spoofs. I would love to track one of these down, just to see what it's like.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Screwball Comedies

The Friday Night Lights finale just about destroyed me. I had to reach for my first tissue before the opening credits and then spent the last twenty minutes or so sobbing uncontrollably. I guess I was primed, in spite of watching Phineas and Ferb in between, because part of Haven also made me weepy.

I guess after a week of Harry Potter and the TV weepiness, I had a fit of "now for something completely different" and I went on a screwball comedy binge. There was His Girl Friday, The Awful Truth, The Philadelphia Story and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (which is more current, but it was based on a book written during the screwball comedy era, and it has all the hallmarks of the genre, so I'm including it). This was kind of work-related, as I've figured out that the book I'm about to rewrite has a dialogue problem. It's too direct -- the characters ask each other direct questions and get answers. The snappy dialogue in the screwball comedies is more oblique, with insinuations instead of direct questions. And watching all this worked because I figured out exactly how to fix one of the scenes that was bothering me.

I've just about memorized The Philadelphia Story and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is one of my favorites, but the other two were new to me. I must say that The Awful Truth is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time. I'm going to have to watch it again just to catch all the jokes because a few of them were of the "did they really say that?" variety. It's a pretty simple story of a couple that divorces mostly out of suspicions and sheer stubbornness, only to eventually realize that the awful truth is that they still love each other and their suspicions were unfounded. Meanwhile, she tries to move on with an Oklahoma oilman and he tries to move on with an heiress, and both of them scheme to get in each other's way. Irene Dunne is so very funny, and she plays well against Cary Grant. The other movie of theirs that I love is My Favorite Wife. In this one, she has a truly priceless scene in which she pretends to be his sister meeting his fiancee's snooty family, supposedly to help him after his fiancee grew suspicious when she answered the phone at his place but really carrying out a massive sabotage effort.

After these films, I kind of feel sorry for Ralph Bellamy. He seemed to be typecast as Mr. Wrong (in fact, I've got a "how to write romantic comedy" book, and the author refers to the Mr./Miss Wrong character "the Bellamy"). He walked a fine line with these roles, so that he seemed perfectly reasonable and not a totally bad choice at first, but then gradually revealed his true colors when put under pressure. He was never really a bad guy, just only suitable for the heroine when she wasn't being her true self -- and totally, horribly wrong for her true self. I'll have to dig through his filmography to see if he ever got to be the hero and get the girl because he was rather attractive and quite funny.

Watching these movies, including the more recent one, highlights why there are so few good romantic comedies these days. I found myself thinking while watching all the Harry Potter films that the reason they've been so successful is that they took them seriously, which doesn't always happen with fantasy films, children's films or especially the deadly combination. There seems to be a temptation among filmmakers to be condescending to these audiences, to think that they'll take whatever you throw at them, so you don't have to work very hard to actually make them good. But the Harry Potter films are loaded with the top actors working today, and none of them acted like "oh, I'm just in a kids' movie." The same thing applies to romantic comedies. Filmmakers tend not to take them or their audience seriously, and the result is lame, half-hearted movies that are a string of cliches, gimmicks and contrivances. The movies I watched this weekend involved some of the top actors of their time playing complex characters, they had witty writing that didn't rely on gimmicks, and the characters faced real dilemmas that weren't just misunderstandings. Oh, and no gross-out jokes or overgrown fratboys being "tamed" by shrewish women.

Instead, we're getting a lot of gross-out jokes, fratboys being "tamed" by shrews, silly gimmicks, shallow conflicts, senseless bickering with no subtext and musical montages substituting for actual writing.

I recently read the book Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and tomorrow I'll discuss the transition from book to movie. And now today I'm going to dive into rewrites.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The End of the Harry Potter Saga

So, I've now seen all the Harry Potter movies. I probably should have written up my thoughts on part one of the seventh movie before part two overshadowed them, but I finished rewatching it late last night, and then there was a Haven marathon on this morning, with the earlier episodes that I didn't record, and then it was time to go to the theater.

For part one, I think this film was a victim of (and highlighted) the somewhat odd pacing of all the books. Because they're tied to the school year, they all seem to follow the pattern of a few adventures early in the term, something big at Christmas, a few more adventures and mishaps and then the big showdown just before the end of the school year. Since the kids weren't in school this year, this book shouldn't have been tied to the school calendar. The big showdown could have come at any time, and yet, it still followed the same pattern, with some muddling around, something big at Christmas, more muddling around, something big around Easter and then finally the big showdown near the end of the school year. I'd actually enjoyed all the months of camping in the book because it was a chance to just see these characters interacting, but in a way it amounted to what I call "doing laundry" scenes that are rewarding if you love the characters but which are fatal to pacing. It was like the characters had to stay in a holding pattern because nothing could happen until Christmas. Cutting this movie off near the book's midpoint only highlighted this issue, since Harry only achieves the first two parts of his goal (find the locket and destroy it) during this film. Otherwise, it's mostly a lot of wandering, with the characters not knowing what they should do next or how to find out what to do next.

One thing I think the movie improved upon is not dwelling on the lack of food the way the book did. I'm sorry, but a girl like Hermione who is so hyper-prepared that she has her escape bag already packed with all the books she thinks she'll need, clothes for everyone, and a tent, would totally have also filled that bag with non-perishable foods. Perhaps not enough to sustain three teenagers for months, but she'd have had something handy. The movie doesn't address the food issue at all, so it allows us to assume she was prepared. One thing the movie does almost too well, to the point it keeps the sequence from having the right emotional impact, is doing way too good a makeup job on Ron when he's been injured and is still weak and ill. I hadn't thought it possible to make a British redhead look even paler, but they gave him a sickly pallor with those dark hollows under his eyes, so he looked like death warmed over. If the guy I liked looked like that -- heck, even if a friend looked like that -- I'd have been fussing over him like crazy. He wouldn't have had the chance to get insecure about his importance in my life. But the way the other two were acting in the movie, practically ignoring him while he looked like walking death, he wouldn't have had to have a bad case of raging insecurity and magically induced paranoia to suspect that they'd prefer that he wasn't there at all. It makes Ron's leaving a lot more sympathetic, but it makes the other two look like jerks, and I think we'd have had a different impression if they hadn't made him look quite so ill.

Otherwise, seeing part two made it very clear that this movie was just set-up. Which brings me to part two. At this point, I'd have to say this is the best film in the entire series, but it has the unfair advantage of being able to offload the entire set-up and deal only with the book's climax, the part where Our Heroes are finally taking action instead of waiting for things to happen. Instead of having to follow an entire school year, this movie covers only a few days, at most, and that automatically tightens the pacing. There were a few things where I wished they'd done them like the book, but that would have been impossible because they involved subplots or elements that had been left out of the movies. A few of the Moments of Awesome were made even more awesome, and giving the book's climax an entire movie allowed them to let those parts really develop. Maggie Smith is even more awesome than ever, and Alan Rickman totally made me cry (an achievement because I've always mostly felt that Snape needed to grow the hell up and get over it). Actually, there were several moments that brought me to tears, and there were sniffs echoing loudly through the theater.

I'd mentioned in my revisiting of the first film that they were lucky that the kids they cast then mostly grew up to be the way they were supposed to be, but there is one exception. Neville in the first film was exactly the way he was described in the book, the short, pudgy, nerdy kid. Who'd have guessed that he'd be the one who grew up to be the tallest and the hottest of them all (yeah, they still give him bad teeth and make his ears stick out, but it's so very obvious they're working overtime to mask serious hotness)? On the one hand, that takes away some from his Moment of Awesome in this film, as I think it was supposed to be even more symbolic that the short, pudgy, nerdy kid did what he did, but on the other hand, it made the Moment of Awesome (one of the ones that got extended excellently in the film) look even more awesome on film.

I'm not sure that the epilogue worked. On a couple of the characters, the aging worked. On the others, they looked like teenagers dressed up in their parents' clothes. I think they might have done better recasting with age-appropriate actors, but then would you want to end the entire series of films on anyone other than the ones we've been following all along? I'm not one of those people who hated the epilogue in the book, but I'm not sure about it in the movie. I think I'd have been okay with leaving it out and ending where we leave off with the kids in the aftermath. At the very end, for the beginning of the closing credits, we get a nice bit of nostalgia with them using part of the John Williams score from the first movie. That was a very nice touch.

And now that the movie's out of the way, I'm ready to move on to the rest of the day's big events. We've got the series finale of Friday Night Lights, and I'll have the tissue box ready, since a normal episode of that show makes me cry. I will say that although I've loved the series, I'm glad it's ending. It was bad enough moving on from the first set of characters, but we were about to lose even more of the kids. Plus, they'd developed a lot of continuity issues, and the longer the series went on, the more troublesome they would have become. This is the right time to end it.

Then there's the season premiere of Haven, which was probably my favorite new show last year and one of the best season finales, one that has teased my brain for ages. I can't wait to see what happens next and the aftermath of everything that happened in the finale.

Now I must go marinate my fajitas because tonight's television is worthy of a celebration.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Revisiting Harry Potter: Number Six

I've been reviewing the book I'm about to rewrite, and I think I've figured out how to fix it. I'll let it stew a bit and then start the rewrite next week. Today, though, I have to write a song. There's a song that plays a role in the story, and in the earlier draft, I talked around it, but I think I need to actually know the song. There's a folk song melody I think I'll use as a basis and give it new words that fit the book.

I've been continuing my Harry Potter movie rewatch, and last night was the sixth film. I remember calling this one "Harry Potter and the Teenage Hormones" or "Harry Potter and the Story Where Nothing Actually Happens," but I still found myself pretty captivated by this movie. I was trying to read while watching it, but kept ignoring the book. There are three big exceptions, but otherwise, I think this film works. There's not a lot of action in this story, but there's still a lot of tension and suspense. I think the human side of the story is also interesting here and enough to sustain a lot of the film. That part is helped by the fact that by this time, there's a real comfort zone among the kids so that they really do feel like best friends. Some of the better moments in the film are rather quiet ones where they're getting a rare chance to just be kids.

One thing that I think helps this story is the fact that, for a change, Harry has very clear-cut goals from the beginning and he's active in pursuing the goals (instead of him just stumbling into things). Dumbledore gives him orders to get close to Slughorn and then later to get the crucial memory from him. Meanwhile, Harry has his own goal. He's sure that Malfoy is on some kind of mission from Voldemort and is behind the near-fatal attacks on classmates, and he's determined to prove this. The problem is that Harry thinks his own goal is more important than the goal Dumbledore set for him -- after all, people, including his best friend, have almost died -- and that's distracting him from carrying out his mission for Dumbledore, which is what's actually more important in the grand scheme of things. Dumbledore does have his ongoing tendency of withholding information from Harry, and in this case, I'm inclined to think he was right because if Harry had known for certain that Malfoy was on a mission for Voldemort, he'd have been even more distracted and would have thought that was all that mattered. Dumbledore didn't know what the memory was about, exactly, so there wasn't much more he could have told Harry about that.

Visually, this film is lovely. There's a sense of looming darkness and an atmosphere that permeates everything, with the twins' store being the lone bright spot.

But there are three major things that irk me about the screenplay:
1) The big blow-up between Ron and Hermione was so perfectly developed in the book, and the screenplay missed the point entirely. In the book, Ron heard Hermione accuse Harry of giving him the luck potion before the Quidditch game, and he heard Harry explain that he'd just pretended so Ron would have confidence. Ron was deeply wounded that she'd believed he couldn't have been that good without the potion and angry that she'd ruined his moment of triumph. That was what eventually led to him going off with Lavender (with some stuff in between, including Ginny revealing that Hermione had kissed Krum). Considering that the conversation between Harry and Hermione was in the movie, it makes no sense that it was changed so that Ron didn't hear it, which meant he went off with Lavender for no good reason. It wouldn't have taken any extra time to have given some motivation to the whole meltdown. In the movie, there's no good reason for Ron to run off with some other girl when he so clearly is into Hermione. In the book, the fact that he likes her is the reason, since that made her lack of faith in him hurt even more.

2) The attack on the Burrow didn't need to be there. This scene wasn't in the book. On first viewing, I said that it must have been added to put some action in the middle, but now it really bugs me because it was gratuitous action just for the point of having action. This attack meant nothing to the story and has no lasting impact (the Burrow seems perfectly fine in the next film). If you can cut a scene without changing the story at all, then it doesn't need to be there. Ron's near death not long afterward makes a better midpoint because it is a big turning point that matters to the story in both the big-picture plot (it's part of Malfoy's activity) and in the personal plot (it brings Ron and Hermione back together). The time dedicated to this pointless scene would have been better used for the climax of the story. Which brings me to ...

3) Why did they minimize the climax of the story? In the book, there was a big running battle through Hogwarts, with some of the students and with Order of the Phoenix members joining in. In the movie, it looks like Death Eaters can just wander into Hogwarts, kill the headmaster, trash the place and then leave without anyone doing anything. If they'd included at least a bit of the fight, then it would have given the other characters something to do (Ron and Hermione pretty much vanished for the last 45 minutes of the movie, aside from the ending wrap-up scene). It might even have made the endless drinking water scene less tedious if they'd cut back and forth between that and Harry's friends keeping an eye on Malfoy in his absence. I also thought it was important that Dumbledore froze Harry when Malfoy arrived on the tower, so he really was helpless during all that and he knew Dumbledore was dead when the spell broke and, again, I can't see the point in changing that. It changes the meaning of the whole scene and it doesn't take any less time.

I'll discuss the seventh film as a whole after I've seen part 2 tomorrow morning. Rewatching these films plus also rewatching some episodes of Haven in preparation for the season premiere and my usual indulgence in CSI reruns gave me some weird dreams last night. I dreamed what I was sure was a scene from one of the books that was left out of the movie, and it involved the characters going to a very haunted town to investigate something. It took me about an hour of thinking about it after I woke up before I was absolutely certain that it was just a dream and that it wasn't in any of the books. Though I guess the dream that Maggie Smith was in my church choir should have been a clue.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Researching Publishers

I've had a lot of questions and comments coming up on a post I wrote about three years ago on finding legitimate publishers (it must be coming up in searches), so I think it may be time to revisit that topic. People have been asking me for a list of legitimate publishers, but I won't do that for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it's not my job to do all the work and research. If you want to be a writer, you can do your own research and educate yourself. Don't expect everything to be handed to you. For another thing, the Internet is forever but publishing changes. I'm always seeing alerts about the various professional organizations investigating publishers that had been considered legitimate, and then new publishers come along all the time. I don't want to put out a definitive list that will come up in searches but that may be outdated.

What I will do is tell you what to look for and how to do the research so you can figure out the legitimate publishers for yourself. The first thing you need to do before beginning this process is get over yourself. Publishing scams work by preying on writers' egos. For scams to work, writers have to believe so strongly in their own genius that they'll believe what the scammers tell them about how brilliant their books are and do anything it takes to achieve the prestige of being a published author. What generally happens when an aspiring author crows about getting a great publishing offer that more experienced authors or other knowledgeable people recognize as a scam is that the aspiring author goes into defensive mode, all "You don't know anything, you're just a stupid stupidhead trying to destroy my dream. You're just jealous because I got this great offer and I'm going to be a bestseller, and you can't handle the competition." The scammers are counting on that response because if people listened when others warned them about a shifty publisher, the shifty publishers would make no money. So, don't play into their hands. Put your ego aside, lower your defenses and take time to consider.

Ideally, you'd do all this research BEFORE you submit anything. It's a lot easier to be objective about a publisher when you're making decisions about where to submit a manuscript than when you're evaluating an offer. If you don't submit a book to a scammer, you won't have to worry about being willing to turn down an offer that probably isn't legitimate. Before you send a query letter or a manuscript, you should go through these steps to come up with your submission list:

1) Go to a bookstore -- preferably at least one outpost of each major chain operating in your area, a major general retailer that sells books (Target, Walmart, etc.) and any independent stores in your area that sell the kind of book you write. Go to the section where you think your book would fit (NOT the local author/local interest section, where some store managers may take pity on local authors with a garage full of books). Look at who publishes those books. Those are most likely to be your legitimate publishers. If you don't find books from a publisher in any of the stores you check, that's a bad sign. It's harder to judge electronic-only publishers this way since many of them only sell through their own web sites and don't have books in stores, and Amazon will generally let anyone sell through them. That's where you'll have to do more research.

2) Check the organizations representing your genre. Most professional writing organizations have some way of vetting publishers. Membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is limited to people who have been published by approved publishers, so the list of approved publishers is a good place to find legitimate science fiction and fantasy publishers. Romance Writers of America maintains a list of approved publishers, though you have to join the organization to access it (if you're writing romance, you owe it to yourself to join this organization to learn about the industry). Mystery Writers of America also maintains a list of approved publishers. Active membership in the International Thriller Writers is limited to commercially published authors, and they have a list of recognized publishers. And the Horror Writers Association has a list of recognized publishers.

3) Check the alert/warning sites like Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware. These list legitimate publishers and alerts about possible scams. While you're at it, Google the name of the publisher and see what comes up beyond the publisher's own site. If you get a lot of message board discussion about it being a scam, that's a bad sign. Try Googling the name of the publisher plus "scam" to see if anything comes up. One or two complaints may mean embittered writers stinging from rejection. A pattern of complaints or complaints from writing organizations is a big red flag. Joe Writer claiming that a publisher is a scam because they didn't recognize his genius or didn't make him a bestseller can be ignored. SFWA investigating a publisher for irregularities should be taken seriously. A lot of agents discuss real publishers that have engaged in questionable business practices on their blogs, and that should come up in searches. By this point, I figure that anyone who gets taken in by Publish America probably deserves it because there's so much information out there that anyone scammed by them either didn't do any research at all before submitting or accepting an offer or was willfully blind to what they did learn (that "you're stupid and want to destroy my dream and are just jealous" effect). A Google search just for "Publish America," without the "scam," still brought up several warning sites on the first page of results. The bare minimum of research would have raised red flags.

4) Do an Amazon search for the publisher's titles. Go to "Advanced Search" and put the publisher's name in the "publisher" field. Be wary if most of the titles that come up aren't actually sold through Amazon but rather through outside sellers. Look at the reviews. Are there any reviews for books from that publisher? What do the reviews say? A small number of five-star reviews can actually be a bad sign because it might mean that the reviewers are just the author's friends and family -- and they're the only ones who've bought the book. Real books tend to get slightly mixed reviews. Look out for reviews that mention bad editing or lots of typos. You can't judge by just one book. Look for a pattern from that publisher. If most of their books have no reviews or just a few rave reviews or if most of their books are criticized for bad editing or a lot of typos, that's a bad sign.

5) Remember that a legitimate publisher makes money by selling books to readers, not by selling books, publishing services or marketing services to authors. I've found that legitimate publishers advertise their awesome list of books, even in publications aimed at writers. I worry about publishers that focus more on what a great place they are to publish your book in their ads. Legitimate publishers are bombarded with submissions. They don't have to advertise for them. I'd also be concerned with any publisher whose acceptance letter contains a menu of optional services, like editing, enhanced cover treatment, publicity services, etc. An acceptance letter should only talk about what the publisher will pay the author, and editing, cover and publicity are all the publisher's responsibility. Authors may do a lot of their own publicity, but they make their own decisions about who to hire and what to pay. They don't pay their publishers for publicity, for sending books to Hollywood, for sending books to Oprah (or whoever's filling her shoes) or to the Today show.
NOTE: Some legitimate small publishers are starting separate editing and formatting services for people who are self-publishing e-books, and this is different. They should be up-front that this isn't a publishing deal, that they're merely providing a service to format and edit a book for self-publication.

6) This is where you really have to put your ego aside, but a response that's wildly different from what you've heard from other publishers can be a bad sign. Not always -- most major bestsellers seem to have been rejected by a lot of publishers before one publisher took a chance -- but if you're being rejected everywhere by editors and agents and if your rejections tend to be form letters or if they mention problems with the writing itself rather than the "not for me" or "doesn't fit our list" kind of reasons, and then you get a very quick response praising your book to the heavens, then you'd be wise to be suspicious. That's why I recommend doing all this research before you submit because when you've been rejected everywhere, it can be really hard to walk away when you get an offer. If you only submit to real publishers, you won't have to worry about this. But sometimes a scam can slip through the cracks of your research, so if this sort of thing happens to you, you need to do even more research. This is when you should tell the publisher that you're going to seek representation before accepting their offer. A real publisher will accept that because it's a standard procedure, while a scammer will pressure you to accept immediately or may threaten to withdraw the offer if you don't accept it immediately. Agents tend to be receptive if you've got a legitimate offer on the table. If you can't get an agent in spite of this offer, then it's probably bogus. Meanwhile, you should ask more experienced authors about the publisher, and you should consider what they tell you instead of getting defensive.

In summary, don't submit to a publisher without at least checking the alert sites and doing an Internet search. That will weed out most of the known scams or publishers with shaky finances or questionable ethics. There are "legitimate" publishers that aren't thinly disguised vanity presses that are engaging in poor business practices like selling e-books after the rights have reverted to the author or that have a record of not paying authors on schedule.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Report: Historical Romance without Bodice Ripping

The fairies must have left me alone last night, or else I was a wallflower at their big revel because I feel a lot more rested today. I still wouldn't mind a nap, but I feel less like I fought a war in my sleep. It probably doesn't help that it's so hot even at night. I'm almost at the point of being willing to sacrifice Houston to a small tropical storm if it could bring rain and cooler temperatures up here. This week's Target newspaper circular had "back to school" stuff in it, and I wouldn't mind stereotypical (not Texas) September weather.

The channel formerly known as Sci Fi premiered the new show Alphas last night, and I'll give it another shot, but I still don't know how much I'm going to end up liking it. It seems like a slightly more interesting take on the Heroes concept, only instead of the people with odd abilities wandering randomly, they've already been found and gathered by some organization, where their abilities are put to use while they're also receiving psychological help for dealing with the impact of their abilities. I like the "found family" sense of the team and the way they look after each other, but I'm not sure how crazy I am about the characters themselves. In particular, the spastic geeky techno boy could get irritating, mostly because I run into way too many people just like that (minus the superpowers) at science fiction conventions. Every time he's onscreen, I have this urge to duck into the women's restroom to escape from him before he can tell me all about the epic fantasy novel he's trying to write, in excruciating, page-by-page detail. My biggest grin, though, came from the fact that there's a character named Cameron Hicks. Someone was an Aliens fan.

Now for a book report ...

Someone in the Television Without Pity Downton Abbey forum recommended Eva Ibbotson's A Countess Below Stairs, and I found it in my neighborhood library. I'd describe it as Anastasia meets Downton Abbey. A young Russian countess flees Russia after the revolution with her mother, brother and English governess, and they end up living nearly penniless in England with the governess. To help her family, our heroine sets out to find a job, and the only position she can get is as a housemaid at a great estate (very Downton Abbey), where they're preparing the house for the return of the new young earl from a hospital following WWI (he's an aviator who was shot down). He surprises the staff and his mother by bringing home a fiancee, but things get complicated when the bride-to-be starts revealing her true colors and the earl finds himself strangely drawn to the new housemaid. I devoured this book in one sitting. It was a good old-fashioned romance with a few twists and a glamorous setting. There isn't a lot of nuance, though. The good characters practically have halos, while the bad characters practically have horns. Grey areas can be nice for depth and complexity, but sometimes it's very satisfying to read something where the good people get thoroughly rewarded and the bad people are thoroughly punished. This book was published by a teen imprint but my library had it shelved as adult fiction. The main characters are in their 20s, but the romance is too chaste for it to be accepted as an adult historical romance (although I can't think of a way to add sex while keeping this plot or these characters), so it's definitely teen (or younger) safe. I'd recommend it for fans of Downton Abby who are occupying themselves while waiting for the next season or for people who like historical romance but who could do without all the bodice ripping.

I also re-read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The last time, I had the book from the library and the due date was rapidly approaching, so I tore through it and barely remembered how it worked out. This time, I have my own copy, so I had plenty of time, but I may have read it faster. I did force myself to slow down and pay attention near the end, and I'm still not entirely sure how it ends. It's like there's a spell on the ending of that book that confuses me. It makes perfect sense while I'm reading it, but then it gets muddled in my memory afterward.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Potter Rewatch: 4-5

In the fairy folklore, one of the ways fairies mess with mortals is to steal them out of their beds at night and take them to the fairy realm, where they dance all night at a great revel, and then they take them back to their beds, where they wake remembering nothing except maybe something they think was a dream, but they're weary, as though they spent the night dancing instead of sleeping. Well, I must have been at a truly epic party last night.

I am proud to report that I successfully repaired my faucet. I'd been planning to replace the whole faucet because it was hard to shut off and tended to drip, but replacing the handle seems to have fixed that. I'd thought there might be problems because when I turned the water back on it only came back as a trickle. But then an hour or so later it was back to normal. The handle feels looser than it was, but since it works better, I'm going to assume it was wrong before.

Tonight starts the channel formerly known as Sci Fi's summer season, with the return of Eureka and Warehouse 13 and the start of a new show. This is a pretty packed week with all the new TV (including the return of Haven on Friday), the end of Friday Night Lights (if you don't have satellite or the DVDs) and the premiere of the final Harry Potter movie.

I've been rewatching the Harry Potter movies in preparation for the final one. This weekend, I got through movies 4 and 5.

The fourth film is one of my least favorites, although that book is one of my favorites in the series. I didn't dislike it as much this time around as I recalled, but there's still some disappointment there, and I've been trying to figure out why. For one thing, there are the truly awful hairstyles sported by most of the boys. They look like they're trying to do a drag production of the 70s version of Charlie's Angels. One of the twins pretty much has the Farrah do. That alone is enough to make the movie very distracting to watch. Another thing may just be me. What I like about that book is the "human" side of the story, and those parts of the movie actually do work pretty well. I'm not sure that I've ever been that crazy about the "plot" parts, and I think those are the weaker parts of the movie. It's easier to skim past the less interesting parts in a book than it is in the movie, and I might not like the book so much if I had to read every word every time I read it.

But I think another problem is something that lingers from the first two movies but that is made worse by the fact that this book is so much longer. It tries to be a fairly literal translation of the book, just cutting out a few subplots, but that means that many of the scenes are just touched on, like they're just there to be there, and then they're gone. And yet some of the scenes are extended far beyond the way they are in the book. The dragon fight, in particular, gets tedious.

The real reason that I don't think this movie works as well as it should is that subplots were cut without following through on the ripple effects, which meant scenes that didn't really need to be in the movie and a bunch of logic problems. One case in point: the way Barty Crouch Jr. was handled. The way he got out of Azkaban and then escaped to pull off his scheme was pretty complicated, and I could see why they wouldn't want to deal with all that in the film because it would have meant a long exposition scene after the story climax (one of the weaknesses in the books is that they tend to come down to a scene in which the villain explains what he's been doing through the whole book to Harry), and it doesn't really matter HOW Junior escaped, only that he did. EXCEPT ... we'd just had an entire film about how horrible and unprecedented it was for someone to escape from Azkaban and how they did this huge manhunt that everyone knew about, with Wanted posters everywhere. So, without the explanation about how his parents smuggled him out in a way that made everyone think he died in prison, we're left with the question of how he got out and why no one has been looking for him. Meanwhile, the main plot reason for the whole World Cup segment (aside from the spectacle of the magical world) was because that created the circumstances for Junior to escape his father's house arrest. But in the movie, he's already escaped and reported to Voldemort before the World Cup, so then there's no real point in that whole segment in the film, other than the spectacle of the magical world, and we barely touch on it. It's like "look, here's the World Cup!" just so the fans won't riot over not seeing it at all.

On the other hand, Order of the Phoenix is my least favorite book in the series, and yet I love the movie. Most of that comes down to Imelda Staunton. Umbridge in the book is so loathsome that the book is unpleasant to read. But Imelda Staunton manages to be just as loathsome as in the book while also being hysterically funny in the role, so what's unpleasant to read becomes fun to watch. It's also a little less unpleasant to see Harry in PTSD mode than to read the pages of PTSD Harry shouting at everyone. Really, everyone seems to have brought their A game and seems to be having tons of fun working on this movie. I think this script works pretty well because it got away from being so literal, so that a lot of similar scenes were combined or plot elements were covered in montage form (like the way they got through all the training scenes and Umbridge tightening her hold on the school, summing up a few hundred tedious pages of the book in just a few entertaining minutes). I can barely make myself re-read this book, but I found myself actually watching this film instead of reading and using it as background noise.

I'll get to the next two films later this week.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Revisiting the Harry Potter Films

I finally felt well enough to leave the house and journey to the Home Depot (which is just up the hill, maybe a mile away, but it's the opening of the front door that's the hard part), and it looks like I may be able to replace just the faucet handle instead of the entire faucet. The entire faucet probably does need to be replaced eventually, but there's work that needs to be done in the bathroom in general, and I may as well do it all at once and get a faucet that would fit the new decor. It's possible that Home Depot has improved their customer service after getting a lot of negative feedback, but I suspect that the slightly low-cut Texas Rangers t-shirt, nearly waist-length curls worn loose and red lip gloss may have also had something to do with the instant offer of assistance before I even had a chance to pretend to look around and look helpless. The talk about my complete set of Allen wrenches may have brought me close to getting a marriage proposal. Now we'll have to see if I can handle this repair.

I've been rewatching the Harry Potter movies from the beginning, in preparation for the upcoming release of the last one (sniff). I haven't done a complete rewatch since the summer when the fifth movie and the last book came within a few weeks of each other, so it's been interesting to revisit the older movies with the outcome of the series in mind. After getting used to seeing these kids as young adults, it is rather striking to see them as children again. There are glimpses of the people they'll grow up to be, and the movie producers were lucky that, for the most part, the kids didn't go through drastic changes as they grew up. They're still recognizable. It would have been funny if, say, Daniel Radcliffe had gone through a big growth spurt and turned out to be a beanpole so that Harry towered over Ron. In general, the casting was sheer genius, with a few quibbles.

Emma Watson perfectly conjured up the essence of Hermione from the start and I have no complaints about her performance, but I think she's a bit too pretty for the role. The cool thing about Hermione in the books is that she is the heroine and even becomes sort of a romantic lead, and yet she's not conventionally gorgeous. She was definitely someone I could relate to with her bushy hair and braces on her teeth (until she managed to "accidentally" magically fix them). There are far too few curly girl heroines, especially not many who have true curly hair and not the perfect ringlets. Most of us can achieve the perfect ringlets for short periods of time with copious amounts of styling products and effort, but most of the time, there's some serious frizz going on. Even Rowling let us down a little by having Hermione straighten her hair for the ball in the fourth book, when the guys finally saw her as a girl and were shocked that she could be pretty. But movie Hermione loses that element entirely. They seem to have tried crimping her hair in the first movie (crimping? really?), and I'm not sure what that was supposed to be in the second movie, but they just gave up on that aspect of the character starting with the third movie. Ah well, at least I now have River Song for a curly-haired heroine.

Then there's the previous generation. Alan Rickman perfectly embodies the essence of Snape, but he's more than twenty years too old for the part. He could be his character's father. In the first movie, Snape is supposed to be in his early 30s. He's still not 40 by the end of the series, and I think he works much better as a character when you think of him as a rather young man instead of as a middle-aged man. After all, he's still nursing grudges from high school. That's one thing when high school wasn't much more than ten years ago. It's another when it was more than 30 years ago. Then because he's so much older, all the other previous generation characters are also too old for their parts when they show up. Most ridiculous is the way Harry's parents are portrayed in photos. We see them as middle-aged, but they died in their early 20s.

The first film is mostly world building, and I think that has a lot to do with why it doesn't hold up to rewatching as well as some of the others. I first saw this one at the theater with my mom, and she got a grin out of the little boy sitting on her other side who was staring up at the screen in awe and whispering, "It's just like I imagined!" It was cool to see that world come to life, but once you get that cool over with, the movie kind of plots along and is very episodic. It's mostly an origins story, and the main plot, where Harry actually has a goal, doesn't kick in until midway through the movie. The second movie doesn't have that initial burst of cool, and so it really suffers from the very plodding, literal pace. It does have some fun moments, such as the flying car and Kenneth Branagh having way too much fun.

The third movie gets a lot of praise as one of the best of the series, but I think it's helped by the fact that the book itself is a little more cinematic. For a change, we learn very close to the start of the story what the threat is, and Harry has something of a goal from fairly early in the story. On the other hand, it's actually a pretty passive story, when you think about it, as Harry reacts to things rather than doing things, and I think a lot of that is the screenplay rather than the book because all the actions and a lot of the conflict got taken out of the screenplay, and I really hated the ending -- it was like they didn't know how to wrap it up, so they took a plot element from early in the story, removed its significance and just threw it in. This is where the casting for the previous generation also really fails. I like the actors, and I think they do a good job, but they're just miscast. Gary Oldman is sexy and compelling, but Sirius, in addition to being in his early/mid thirties, is supposed to be Hollywood handsome and well aware of it, and Gary Oldman has never been conventionally handsome. Meanwhile, the casting for Lupin is probably my biggest disappointment in all the films. Lupin is supposed to be the cool young teacher who captures his students' imaginations, even as he does seem to be prematurely aging a bit. In the films, though, he's more of a fussy middle-aged professor type, and yet he still doesn't have the weary gravitas of the character in the books. This is a young man who's been beaten down by the world, who's lost his closest friends either to death or to treachery and who lives on the fringes of society, barely getting by and not accepted by anyone, plus there's the physical strain of his condition, and I don't think we see any of that in the film version.

The third movie probably has the best score of all of them, and one of the best in John Williams's career, as it seems like they just turned him loose, and so he gets a lot of variety in there, from a classical waltz to atonal modern music to early music (with period instruments), to a bit of jazz and then all the more usual film score stuff. It's a soundtrack that I listen to just to listen, and along with the soundtrack from the first movie is one of my writing music stand-bys. It immediately makes me think "magic."

I read a review elsewhere, where someone else was doing a rewatch, that mentioned that the movies were very "shippy" for Harry and Hermione, regardless of the actual outcome of the series, and to that I have to say, REALLY? Because when I saw the first film I'd only read the first book, and in the car on the way home from that one I said to my mom that they were totally pulling a Han Solo and Princess Leia thing on us (where the main hero doesn't get the girl and she ends up with his buddy that she spends most of her time bickering with), and I bet that it would be Ron and Hermione who ended up together. The scenes were more or less the same as in the book, but on film it was way more obvious that Hermione's focus was on Ron. He was the one she noticed first, and he was the one who had the power to send her into tears with an offhand remark. They'd said that Rowling did share some future developments with the screenwriter and directors, and I figured that was one of them because the movies are always framing Ron and Hermione together or depicting scenes of adolescent awkwardness between them. She runs and hugs Harry at the end of the second film, but then she and Ron self-consciously flinch away from a hug. When you're twelve, that's exactly the way you act with the person you like (and some of us never outgrow it).

Tonight I'll rewatch the fourth movie, which may be something of an ordeal, as it's my least favorite of the series, while that book is one of my favorites, so the disappointment is magnified. But first I'm going to try to repair my faucet.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Summer Doldrums

I have two books off with my agent, so now it's time to really get going on the next one. It's a complete manuscript, as in there's an end, but there's something not quite right about it that needs fixing before it's ready to go. I think I know what's not right, but I'm still figuring out how to fix it. I like this book, though, so I don't mind wallowing in it to explore possibilities.

It didn't work out for me to get on Worldcon programming, which is my fault for dithering so long. I'm sure my ego will get a few stings from not being special and important, but on the other hand, it will be nice to go to a convention and have zero obligations. I often joke about the Law of Convention Programming, which states that the events you most want to attend will be scheduled directly opposite the events you're obligated to attend. This way, I can do what I want, when I want to. I'll probably help out some in the SFWA suite, which will allow for good networking, and I know enough people that I can probably end up hanging out with the cool kids. I can spend the days learning and the evenings networking.

Reno is currently cooler than Dallas, but I'm still wishing that the convention could be somewhere even cooler because summer is really getting to me. I was reading a book earlier this week that involved the Year Without a Summer from the 1800s, when things were extremely unseasonably cool in Europe and northeastern America (in large part due to a volcanic eruption), and I found myself sighing wistfully at the thought. I know it was actually quite a calamity because of the crop failures, but it was also a big period creatively because of the authors trapped indoors by the bad weather, not to mention the spectacular sunsets that inspired a lot of paintings. I could go for a cool, rainy spell. It probably doesn't help that I've had a bit of a bug all week, so I've been running a low-grade fever. It's just enough to make hot weather even more miserable while making the air conditioning give me chills. On the bright side, I've been doing a lot of reading, which is what I needed to do right now, anyway.

Maybe this would be a good time to try those rainy day classical music CDs. I just need to find a way to black out the living room windows, which I probably need to do anyway because the drawback of the LCD TV is that it gets murky in dark scenes when the room is bright. That's made my Harry Potter rewatch difficult because so much of those movies takes place in the dark and my living room is very, very bright, with three walls of windows.

And I have about two and a half months of this kind of weather to go. If I ever get super-wealthy, I may become one of those people who summers in the mountains.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

What Else to Read

I've had a reader question that wasn't directly about the Enchanted, Inc. series but that I'll address here (in the absence of other questions). The reader asked what I'd recommend for fans of the series who want something else like that.

It's hard for me to answer this question because so far I haven't found anything else that perfectly fills that precise niche for me. That's why I had to write the series. That doesn't mean there aren't other books like mine, just that they don't work for me for the reasons I write this series. I've seen my books compared to a lot of the sexy vampire and chick lit style paranormal romance/urban fantasy series, but I don't like vampires in general and a lot of these other books are too sexy, too edgy, too romancey, too witchy or otherwise aren't quite what I want. That doesn't mean these books are bad or that my readers might not like them, but I can't recommend something that doesn't work for me, for whatever reason. That's where readers come in. If you can recommend something you think other fans will like, then please do so.

The books that do work for me aren't necessarily similar to my series, but there's some essence to them that gives me a similar mental/emotional reward that I get from my books.

I have to start with the Harry Potter series. Yeah, people are far more likely to have read these than to have read my books, but you never know. There are still people who haven't read them, for whatever reason, whether because they're too popular (I've never understood that reasoning -- what do other people's opinions have to do with whether or not you'll like something?) or because of the impression that they're for kids. But this was what sparked my idea because I hadn't yet run across fantasy like that when I read them. I'd read the first three books when I got my idea, and those earlier books were more focused on the whimsical blend of the real world and the magical world, with Harry still a bit of an outsider who was continuing to learn about the magical world. But the thing that really struck me and that started the thinking that led to my idea was the fact that I didn't recall ever reading a fantasy novel where I could relate so closely to the characters. I could be sympathetic to them, but it wasn't like they were going through things I'd experienced. In these books, though, the "human" part of the story, the school stuff, was so familiar. I had been there and gone through things very much like that. That made me want something that did that with adult things -- a fantasy where the characters were dealing with real-world things I could relate to, like work, friends and dating. I remain amazed that publishers have focused their "find the next Harry Potter" efforts strictly on the young adult and children's market and haven't tried to go after the adult readership with something that's like that, but for grown-ups.

Then there's Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I read this after I had the first germs of my idea and was looking for something like that (and not finding anything). That was before urban fantasy became a thing, so any fantasy in a contemporary setting was pretty rare. This book is a lot darker and grittier than my series, but it still was one of the first adult books I found that mixed a magical world and the real modern world. In spite of the darkness, this book is still very funny in places, there is a touch of whimsy, and there's the ordinary guy hero who gets thrown into the magical world and has to rise to the occasion. I think I like this book more each time I re-read it. One thing that impresses me is that it uses the folklore about the fairy world without drawing attention to it. London Below seems to draw a lot on the British fairy lore, but there's never anything that outright says "this is what fairies are doing in the modern world!" I didn't even notice this the first time I read it, but then re-read it after doing a lot of reading on fairy lore and it added a layer to the story.

It's science fiction rather than fantasy, but To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis gives me the same feeling I wanted from my series. It's got that screwball comedy feel, there's lots of wit, a fish-out-of-water hero, and a touch of slowly developing romance. This is probably my all-time favorite book, one I can re-read over and over, and I still want to crawl inside it. I'd also recommend her Bellwether, which might be considered chick lit built around science. It's got all the work, crazy co-workers, friends and romance, but it uses all that to explore chaos theory. A lot of her short stories also give me the same feeling. I just wish I could write like that.

This one is a bit more of a stretch because there really aren't any similarities between it and my books, but I do get a lot of the same reading sensations from it as I get from my books, so I'll go ahead and include the Rogue Agent series by KE Mills. They get a lot darker than I go, but there's still a lot of whimsy and the ordinary guy hero. The one that's closest to my books would be the second in the series, Witches Incorporated, which is how I found the series in the first place, since that title caught my eye, for obvious reasons. Now that I think about it, this may be a degrees of separation connection to my books. This may be the closest equivalent to the Harry Potter series for adults that I've found. There's the unassuming hero who's a bit of an outsider, and then there's his close-knit group of friends who team up to fight the bad guys in sometimes unorthodox ways. Our unassuming hero goes through all kinds of hell in each book and often feels like he's got the whole world against him. So I guess I could say that if you like the Harry Potter books you might like my books and you might like these books rather than there being a direct connection that if you like my books you'll like these books.

There are also a few chick lit books that give me the kind of thing I'm looking for in the human side of the story but that don't have the fantasy elements, but those are mostly out of print and difficult to find these days, and I get the impression that it's the fantasy elements that are most important to most of my readers.