Friday, September 30, 2011

Deadlines and Exploding Heads

I was on a big push yesterday, so I skipped ballet and stayed up until one in the morning and I got to the end of the draft. I need to re-read the last few chapters, and then there's a little tinkering I may need to do, and then I need to read the whole thing straight through, and then I should be done. There was a little bit of the kind of sidetracking that seems to come with a deadline. My skin got really dry and itchy, so I went looking for the really rich body butter that usually helps. Next thing I know, I'm sorting through my bathroom drawers, throwing out old or expired stuff and organizing. Fortunately, I realized what I was doing before I lost the whole night to an organization impulse, found the body butter, stopped the itch, and got back to work. Since I suspect I may be waiting a while to get revision notes from my agent on project #2, I may take the time to do a big organization project instead of switching gears and working on something else. Though it would be fun to always have a new project to hand to my agent the moment she gets done with one. But that's what happens when I can write a book in the time it takes her to review one. (Yes, I do have my evil moments.)

I'm going to re-read the last few chapters today, and then I'm going to try to take my mind off it all until Sunday night. That will be helped by my current two favorite shows having their season finales this weekend. I will likely spend the weekend with my head exploding. First, tonight there's Haven. Just about every episode this season has had some major twist or change in the status quo, and they've almost run out of recurring characters to kill, erase or send away, so there's no telling what they've got in store for the season finale. Last season's finale was packed with major game-changing revelations about our main characters that showed we didn't actually know who they were -- and neither did they -- and then still ended with a twist that was even more mind-blowing. I'm almost afraid of what they'll come up with this season, considering that the last couple of episodes have already pretty much changed everything. They'd best renew this series because it's got such a complex and well-developed mythology. For that I understand we can thank Stephen King. Although the show is extremely loosely based on a King novella, apparently part of the condition for getting approval to use his book (and his name) was that they had to run their plans by him, and that meant they had everything planned up front. This isn't a making it up as we go series where they don't yet have answers in mind for all the big questions they're raising.

They've also managed something I thought would be impossible. When the network formerly known as Sci Fi added wrestling to their programming lineup, we all knew that would inevitably lead to network-mandated insertion of wrestler guest stars into their usual series. In this case, that's been one of the best additions to the series. It is rather silly to have the wrestler listed in the credits as "WWE Superstar" because "Edge" (ugh) is actually a credible enough actor that you might not spot him as a network-mandated wrestler insert otherwise (well, aside from the fact that he makes his six-foot-two co-stars look tiny). And his character is awesome, someone who starts out seeming like some kind of superhero but then who gradually reveals that he's just a guy who has a strange job and a lot of connections, along with a soft spot for children and a surprising knowledge of ballet (ballet dads are so adorable). I was groaning when they started publicizing the wrestler addition and now I'd be furious if they killed Dwight (who is pretty much what TV's other Dwight, the one on The Office, thinks he is, in his wildest dreams). But then considering the average lifespan of a recurring cast member on this show, I probably shouldn't get too attached. At least he's not a police chief. Those have the life expectancy of a Spinal Tap drummer. There was one who exploded and one who melted. The only one who's still alive was only "interim," and that's probably what saved him (plus, he's one of the leads, but on this show, I'm not sure even that keeps him safe).

I may still be cleaning up the pieces of exploding head from that finale when I see the Doctor Who finale on Saturday. I'm a little worried about this one because they've tried to fit some really huge, life-changing stuff in with all the running around having adventures in time and space, and that's been somewhat jarring. I don't know if that's been intentional or if it's just a case of being afraid of altering the show too much by actually dealing with all the huge, life-changing stuff. There are so many plot threads in the air, so much to deal with, that I'm not sure it's possible to deal with everything in one episode and have it be at all satisfying. Just as long as they don't kill Rory. I mean, again. Well, not permanently, at least. He has to be alive in at least one timeline.

And now I need to inhale more tea so I can focus on re-reading those last three chapters that I rewrote late last night. They may not even be in English. Then I may nap, and I may do some baking.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mary Sues and Mean Girls

The preschoolers were far easier last night. My co-teacher was back and we had a teen helper. We also had no tearful meltdowns among either teachers or kids (well, one kid was crying upon arrival, but his dad then took him away because it was an immediate post-nap meltdown and he didn't want to inflict that on us). One kid who usually bursts into tears upon arrival was better, probably because it was his dad who dropped him off, and he did so with a fist bump and a high five rather than with the "oh, you're not going to miss me, are you?" routine his mother goes through. He still hid in the corner, but hiding in the corner with no tears is an improvement. And there was no throwing up. Yay! While I may complain and occasionally twitch, I must say that this gig is a good way to feel loved. Having kids light up when they see me and run to hug me or fight to sit next to me or snuggle against me makes me realize just how much these little people seem to have accepted me. It's kind of like that saying about wanting to be the kind of person your dog thinks you are, though in my case it's trying to be the kind of person the small children seem to think I am.

I am afraid that with some of these kids, that means I have to be a superhero fairy Disney princess/mom, and I'm not sure I can pull that off. The "mom" is the hard part.

But looking at these little girls who are still thoroughly convinced that they can be beautiful superhero fairy Disney princesses has reminded me of a discussion that was going on a while ago among a number of authors about the misuse of the Mary Sue label and what it says about the way women/girls view themselves and each other.

I'm not defending the use of a true Mary Sue in writing -- when the author uses a character as her surrogate in a story and loses all objectivity so that the person is too perfect to believed and is universally loved for no good reason. But from a reader/reviewer perspective, I think the term is way overused and misused, and in a way I find very disturbing. You'll see just about any female character with the tiniest shred of awesomeness or competence described as a Mary Sue. If she can do anything at all and do it well, if anyone likes her, if anyone falls in love with her, if she's even moderately attractive and if she succeeds in anything, she'll be dismissed as a Mary Sue. This goes double if there's any similarity whatsoever between the author and the character because then readers will assume that the character is meant to be the author. But then if the character is very different from the author, then the "wish fulfillment" claim will come up, with readers suggesting that the character is what the author wishes she was.

The really sad thing is that it's almost universally female readers who make this claim, and it's very seldom made against male characters, no matter how perfect they may be (you want to see Mary Sue style wish-fulfillment characters, read men's action-adventure novels). It's like women have some kind of issue with the idea of a woman being amazing. That doesn't mean you have to like all female characters or accept everything you read. But if you're going to criticize a character, be more specific than just "Mary Sue." If you thought there was nothing in the character's personality or behavior that you felt justified the universal adoration she received, then say that. If you couldn't believe that this character could possibly have developed the knowledge and skills to accomplish what she did, then say that. If you think the character was thinly developed instead of being three-dimensional, then say that. But at least think about why the character doesn't work for you instead of using "Mary Sue" to mean "a female character I don't like."

I'm right there with you on being annoyed with awesome that doesn't make sense. I roll my eyes at the Magical Specialness. But if a character does have a talent, puts some work into learning how the talent works and some thought into using the talent, and is therefore good at using that talent, then it's a competent character with a talent, not a Mary Sue. Hermione Granger was an admitted author insert in the Harry Potter books, but I don't think she was a Mary Sue. Yes, she often had the right answers, but she worked really hard, read every book she could get her hands on, studied and did research to get those answers. I have no problem with someone who puts in that much time in the library getting the right answers.

The other thing that bothers me is this idea that self-esteem seems to equal "bitch." You see this more in young adult fiction, but it seems like the heroine has to think she's nothing special or she'll get called a bitch or conceited by readers. Only the mean girl antagonist is allowed to like herself at all, and then it's seen as a negative character trait. This does reflect real life, to some extent. I read the non-fiction book that the movie Mean Girls was based on, and there's a section about how it's practically a social ritual for girls to denigrate themselves, and if you don't, then you're labeled "conceited." That section of the book was dramatized in the film in the scene in which the mean girl tells the heroine she has pretty hair, to which the heroine replies, "Thank you." The mean girl is aghast at her just accepting the compliment instead of denying it. That means she really thinks her hair is pretty, and that makes her conceited. I remember from my own childhood that the word "conceited" was tossed around a lot as an insult. Demonstrating that you felt good about yourself or about something you could do would earn that label. I don't know why girls and women do this to each other. It would be nice if we could maybe change some of these attitudes by portraying reasonable self-confidence as a positive trait in fiction, but then there's a good chance that readers will decide that makes the character a bitch. I sometimes wonder if even editors see it that way.

I guess I'm just saying to think about what you're saying and why you're saying it when you label a book (or a person). There's room for valid criticism, but be specific and accurate instead of tossing out generalizations. And really, really think about the message you're sending about yourself and the way you see others in the way you talk about characters.

Now I'm down to the wire on getting a project done, and I've reached the hard part, so I'll be in cave mode today. Ack.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Covers and Genres

I'm close to being done with the latest draft of the latest project. I just have a couple of chapters to rewrite, but they're the ones that will require a lot of rewriting. It's nose-to-the-grindstone time.

I haven't had any specific Enchanted, Inc. questions posed for the blog, but there is something that seems to pop up in e-mail a lot, so I'll address it here. I get asked a lot about the cover art, usually in the context of someone wanting me to hire them to illustrate my books.

That's not something I have any say over. I know nothing about how you break into the art business and start getting cover art assignments. I also don't have the clout to choose who does the art for my covers. I did have a little say over the style of covers on my books. When the first book was first bought, I had some long talks with my editor about how we wanted these books to look, and I sent her links to book covers I liked. The cover look I got was very close to what I'd imagined, and I love my covers, though I'm not sure they were the best way to go to sell the books in the long run.

When I first sold the series, back in 2004, the hottest trend in publishing was "chick lit." It had grown so big that it had started to splinter into subgenres, and they'd only just started doing some paranormal chick lit. Meanwhile, urban fantasy was barely on the horizon, especially not in the form it has eventually taken. There were the Charles deLint books and some of Neil Gaiman's stuff, but much of what we now think of as "urban fantasy" spun off the chick lit genre, with the mix of real life and fantasy, the snarky heroine and the romantic subplots that didn't necessarily follow the romance genre rules. My agent suggested we try to sell my series as chick lit rather than as fantasy because at the time, it didn't look like there was anything like it in fantasy. It was more likely to get more attention in chick lit. Those were the books coming out in trade paperback, being put at the front of the store and appearing in places like Target.

Thus, the chick lit style covers. I really liked the kinds of covers that appeared on British chick lit books that were more line illustrations than outright cartoons. I also, for some weird reason I'm not sure of, wanted the covers to be white. That does make them pop on the shelves, but the books also get really grungy really quickly (the copies in my library look awful already). The covers don't actually depict any characters in the books. The fairy who keeps appearing on the cover doesn't correlate to a book character. I did end up writing the frog guy into the books just because I liked him so much. The covers work more to convey the mood and style of the books. You see those covers, and you know what you're getting.

Of course, the chick lit genre completely cratered not long after the second book was published, so the bookstores cut their orders of similar books, which led to the decision not to publish more in the series after the two more that were already contracted. I think the fact that the publisher sees these books as chick lit and not as fantasy has a lot to do with why they're being so weirdly stubborn about not wanting more books. They've distanced themselves from that genre and don't want anything like it. I don't know if my career would have gone a totally different way if we'd tried to sell the books as fantasy. A lot of fantasy editors are big fans of the series, but I don't know if they'd have bought them to publish them at that time, and I don't know what the response would have been. I also can't imagine any other covers. I've got friends who do cover art, and we've had chats about that. The covers sort of pigeonhole them as chick lit and may have kept some fantasy readers away, but we can't think of any other style cover that would fit the books. I definitely can't imagine the Generic Urban Fantasy Cover -- the black cover with the tattooed chick in black leather, holding a weapon and looking back over her shoulder.

I guess this is my career Sliding Doors moment. Maybe there's a reality where we took the fantasy route and the books became fantasy bestsellers and I'm living a JK Rowling life. Or it's possible that in that reality the book never sold at all and I've had to go back to having a day job. Maybe this will turn out to be the best reality, after all, because those books help pave the way for the books that really make me famous. It's probably best to not spend too much time dwelling on that kind of stuff because it will drive me crazy. All I can do is focus on the future and keep writing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Romantic Pitfalls

My OnDemand is working once more, and without me really being stuck in the "waiting for the cable guy" circle of hell, since he was reasonably prompt (and I startled the poor guy by opening the door before he knocked when I guess the sixth sense kicked in and I happened to walk by the door right as he approached). It stumped the tech support guy on the phone last week, and then stumped the guy who came today. I ended up with yet another converter box. They must either not recondition them well or get lousy quality in the first place because I seem to be going through at least one a year, and I really am not attacking them with a sledgehammer when they don't cooperate or when I don't like a show. He did say he fixed a few other things with the signal outside the house, so it was better than if I'd just gone over and picked up a new box myself. Now that this is fixed, I can catch up on all those season premieres I didn't bother with because I could watch them OnDemand later.

It does sound like I won't have to bother with Terra Nova, though, because the discussion boards all seem to be mentioning the bratty, obnoxious teenage boy character, and I'm allergic to those. I'm not sure why they seem to think that character type is a great idea, but they keep showing up in these kinds of shows (the bratty teenage boy was one reason I stopped watching V). Even bratty teenage boys probably don't like the bratty teenage boy character, since they don't see themselves as bratty but would criticize the same behavior in others. They aren't even authentic bratty teenage boys. I know some bratty teenage boys (or teenage boys who have bratty moments), and they're nothing like any of these characters. So, yay, that's an hour of programming I won't have to worry about.

While I've been so busy with convention preparation and book rewrites (that I really must get to today, as I got very little done yesterday), I thought I'd work my way through some of the books on my To-Be-Read pile. I need something to read a little of before I go to bed at night, but I didn't want anything that would turn into a distraction, and the category romances in the pile sounded like a good fit since I was already in the mood for something romantic. I remembered why I quit reading category romances. I used to read a lot of them, but now I can't recall if I ever really liked them or if I liked the idea of them while finding that the actual books usually fell short of what I wanted them to be (much the way I've been with most of the steampunk I've read -- I LOVE the idea, haven't really found the book that lives up to what I want that sort of thing to be).

For one thing, there's the challenge of finding ways to have conflict. I will admit that a book that goes along the lines of "I like you, let's get to know each other, and then we'll gradually fall in love" would probably be boring. I'm not a big fan of the "I hate you, but you're really hot" plot, but then it's way too easy to fall into weird contrivances to keep apart people who actually like each other. One of the worst that I can recall involved a woman who'd spent much of her life taking care of other people and now had a chance to be independent, so she'd decided she was going to be on her own for a while. Then when she met Mr. Perfect, her big "dilemma" was that here was this great guy she wanted to be with, but darn, she'd already decided to be alone. I can totally get the deciding not to deal with dating. That's essentially what I've done, but if I met someone I actually wanted to date and get romantically involved with, I would be willing to reconsider. I wouldn't be all twisted up into conflicted knots because I wanted to date him, but I'd decided not to date. It's really hard to get into a book when the dilemma is so easily solved -- change your mind! It's not like she'd just taken vows at the convent or become married to Mr. He'll Do when she met Mr. Perfect. I think this is a big reason why I like my romance mixed in with science fiction, fantasy, mystery or adventure. Then you can have two people who like each other and get along but who still have conflict. It's "I like you, but people are dying left and right/the orcs are attacking/the aliens are invading/the evil secret organization is chasing us/the evil wizard is trying to take over the world, so we'll have to get to know each other during the crisis, and hey, if we both survive, then we can live happily ever after."

The other problem tends to come later in the book at what is often called The Black Moment. It's the Death/Resurrection part of the hero's journey, or, in a romance it's the "boy loses girl" part, where it looks like there's no way things can possibly work out. But in a lot of these books, I've started to think of this part as The Big Hissy Fit. The thing that tears our characters apart just when you thought everything was going to work out can't be too huge, or else they couldn't get together at the end, and that generally means it's a misunderstanding or petty dispute. A lot of times, it's when the secret one person has been keeping comes out, but that can get awfully silly. The book that may have been the last category romance I read until last week took the cake. The hero had some low-paying public servant type job in a small town, and The Big Hissy Fit came when the heroine learned that he was a former financial whiz who'd had some kind of epiphany, realized how meaningless all that was, and he'd walked away from that world. All the money he'd socked away allowed him to take a meaningful but low-paying public servant job and still live modestly but comfortably while still contributing to worthy causes in the town. And the heroine was actually furious to learn this. She felt so betrayed that she refused to speak to him and left the town. I know I just hate it when a guy I'm falling in love with turns out to be even more amazing than I imagined, and that I can have someone who is both wealthy and contributing something to society. I could have understood if he'd been pretending to be wealthy to lure her in and then turned out to be poor. I could even have maybe understood if he'd pretended to be really poor as some kind of test to make sure she wasn't a golddigger, since that implies a lack of faith in her. But I can't imagine any normal person flipping out because she learned that her boyfriend had more in his bank account than she expected. Is there something wrong with living below your means but in a way that's comfortable for you? Are you obligated to live in a mansion and drive a BMW just because you can afford it, even if you'd rather live in a smaller house and drive a pickup truck?

In the book I read last week, something the hero did caused the single mom heroine to lose the extra job she'd taken so she could pay her daughter's tuition at the fancy college her daughter had always dreamed of attending (never mind that the mother didn't consider letting Special Snowflake go to a state school closer to home that she could afford). To make it up to her, he established an anonymous scholarship at the school and had it awarded to the daughter. She didn't learn this until after they'd gotten into a relationship, and she was furious to learn it. Maybe I'm greedy, but I'd have felt like he'd taken a good step toward atoning (though I might not have started sleeping with him after he lost me my job).

I guess I prefer my black moment to be some kind of literal life or death situation, where it's not something inherent to the couple and their emotions that threatens to tear them apart, but rather that the thing that they're up against is so big that there's a chance that one or both of them might not survive, or there's a chance that if they fail in their mission, the situation that will result won't be conducive to a romantic happily ever after ("well, we may be spending the rest of our lives in an orc prison camp while the evil wizard ruins the world, but at least we have each other" doesn't quite work for me).

I think I'm going to go against my nature and put all these books in the "donate for library book sale" bag, even if I haven't read them, because it's a good bet that I won't enjoy them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fun with FenCon

I survived the convention weekend. Well, better than survived, but at the moment, "survive" is the word that keeps coming to mind. I wasn't at my most social and was in a state where noise and crowds were extremely overwhelming, so there were a lot of people I never got to see or interact with. I may as well rename FenCon "Ragweed Con" for me because it always seems to fall at the height of allergy season. This year, the worst held off until Sunday, so I wasn't either sniffling or in a drugged stupor for the whole weekend, and when I was in public mode I was able to be my usual self. It just took a lot of hiding and down time in between public mode times in order to sustain my usual public mode personality. I barely made it to any of the room parties Saturday night because I ran completely out of steam.

This was my first year to be on the convention staff in addition to being a program participant. Not that it changed all that much for me, since the staff are the people I hang out with the rest of the year and I've usually jumped in and done things as needed. It's just this year I had "staff" on my badge and my name in the convention credits. My main job mostly happens before the con, so at the event I do whatever's needed. That meant I spent most of Friday afternoon setting up and then working in the staff lounge, and then when the registration desk got slammed in the early evening I worked registration. I was in "program participant" mode on Saturday and most of Sunday and did my panels, reading, etc., then on Sunday evening I switched to jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers to be on the teardown crew. Apologies to those who were disappointed by not getting to watch me carry huge metal poles down the stairs while wearing a skirt and heels again this year. But I couldn't have crawled under the stage to get cables or climbed the ladder to cut down the networking cables from the ceiling if I'd stayed in my convention clothes, so I was more useful if less decorative.

I think my most fun panel was the Phineas & Ferb panel that included our convention's youngest ever panelist, a six-year-old (who was dressed in his Perry the Platypus costume). I figured that if we were talking about the multigenerational appeal of the show, we needed another generation represented. That was a bit of a test of my moderation skills to keep conversation flowing among both adults and a small child, but I think it worked. We had a very high-energy Doctor Who panel and I was on a couple of writing panels where I hope the audience got something out of them because I know I picked up a thing or two, including a potential story idea. The big giggle fit for the con happened on Sunday afternoon in a panel, but I think it had something to do with the Benadryl kicking in by that point, and I don't remember what it was about, just that I was shaking from trying not to laugh out loud over something that was only funny to me because of the vivid mental image it conjured up in my warped brain.

I was in charge of public relations this year, and I don't think I can take credit for our highest attendance ever, but at least I can't be considered a devastating failure at my job if we had our highest attendance ever. But now there are expectations for next year …

And in the meantime, even though I prefer to go into vegetable mode on the day after a convention, I have a deadline and work to do (with the allergies really in high gear), so I have to work today. At least I have absolute quiet and solitude and lots and lots of tea.

Friday, September 23, 2011

What Will Be, Will Be

It's convention weekend, and I'm so not ready, but I've reached the zen state of deciding that what will be, will be, and one of the things adding to the stress of the week was also one of those things that puts everything else in perspective and reminds me that in the grand scheme of things, so many of the things we stress over really aren't all that important, especially if we let them distract us from what is important.

Like cookies. Instead of working yesterday, I baked. I knew nothing would get done with squirrel brain and baking would help calm the squirrels, and then I can make other people happy with yummy cookies. I can always rewrite the rest of the book after the con, which will also be when the cable gets dealt with.

Fortunately, I'm commuting from home, so I don't have to make decisions for the weekend or pack ahead of time. I have clothes picked out and ironed, but I can change my mind if necessary, and I can get home easily if I need to. Plus, I'll have my own bed at night, which always helps.

Fun things I get to do:
Moderate the con's first Phineas & Ferb panel
Moderate the annual Doctor Who panel
Moderate our traditional Sunday-morning SyFy Smackdown -- this can be worth getting up for. We hash out what's wrong with the network that's supposed to be aimed at people like us. Last year, we created the concept for a new reality show: Ghost Hoarders. This year, I have a foam broadsword.
Plus, I get to spend the weekend hanging out with my friends and consider it "work."

Thursday, September 22, 2011

And I Thought Things Were Crazy Before

It looks like I may be going into this year's FenCon almost as sleep-deprived as the first one I went to. That year, I'd been at the Serenity premiere in LA the night before the con, and by the time I got to bed Friday evening, the first night of the con, I'd been awake for 43 hours. This year, I've had sleep and I've actually been to bed, but I'm not sleeping well. I think it's just that I'm feeling entirely overwhelmed with lots of stuff, all at the same time, and I can't shut off the brain.

The preschool choir last night didn't help. My co-teacher, who does a lot of the planning and teaching while I mostly herd cats and lead the actual singing, was out. I had a parent of one of last year's kids helping so we'd have the required two adults in the room, but we're also supposed to have two teen helpers. One isn't coming until October because of a schedule conflict, and one just didn't show last night. I don't know how many kids I had last night because I never got a good chance to get a head count, but I think I was only missing two and I had a new one. It really does take four people to manage that bunch because you need one person to teach, one to herd cats/do crowd control, one to deal with the clingy ones and one to help set up, pass things out, take roll, etc. We had some extremely clingy ones last night who were crying and had to be held, so that left me trying to teach, set things up and try to keep some control over the group. By the end of the evening, it was the teacher who wanted to cry for mommy.

For even more fun, the CD player was being weird. We don't have an accompanist, so we use CDs with the musical accompaniment. The CD that was most crucial, the one with the song we're doing in church in a few weeks, wouldn't play. The player wouldn't even acknowledge that there was a CD in there. So I decided that would be a good time for us to really work on the words, with me singing a phrase and getting them to repeat it. That worked until one of the kids commented on the way I sing. I wasn't doing full-on "opera lady" type singing (though I did find that hitting a really high note really loud and full works as well as a whistle for getting attention, since I can't whistle), but I was singing with proper technique. I have to go from the preschoolers to a real choir rehearsal, so I can't afford to strain my voice by not using good technique, but that results in what the kids call "fancy singing." And once one kid noticed and commented on it, they all had to. And then they all tried to sing that way. And things kind of went downhill from there.

In a final act of desperation, I handed out the rhythm sticks, and that went okay for a while, until they started pounding them on the floor. And that's when I gave up trying to control anything. I figured I might as well let them get it out of their system, so we pounded sticks on the floor (with me occasionally trying to guide them into particular patterns or trying to achieve something resembling unison) until it was the kids complaining that it was too loud.

And just to round out the evening, when I was thinking I'd survived because it was the end of the session and parents were arriving, one of the kids threw up during the closing prayer.

But on the up side, one little girl ran to hug me when she arrived, several of the girls actually fought over who got to sit next to me, and the special needs girl who at first wouldn't come in the room was now coming eagerly and was one of the kids wanting to sit with me and tell me everything about her week. And then at dinner afterward one of the kids who used to refuse to participate came over to show me her dessert. So I may be going insane, but they seem to be enjoying it. Even so, I got home from choir practice and had a glass of wine while watching CSI (I'd thought about trying to get some work done, but that wasn't happening), and I still didn't manage to unwind enough to get any sleep.

Now all that's left on my plate is revising the end of the book, ironing clothes, getting my cable service fixed (I can't access OnDemand, which is how I'm watching most TV these days), doing any final PR push for the con, preparing for my guest role at the con and something I'm sure I'm forgetting. Plus I got some sad news regarding a friend yesterday that's been a little distracting, so it looks like there will be a funeral to attend very soon. They haven't said anything to me about singing, and I'm not sure I could because thinking about the situation makes me cry.

I think I'm going to bake chocolate chip cookies. I need them, and I think handing them out to friends at the con will also make me happy.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How Not to Create a Character

I haven't received any writing questions, so I'm going to get into a series on character development, since that seems to be one of my strengths. I'll start with some of the methods that aren't so great. I won't say that these are bad ways to develop characters or that you should never do these. It's just that these are perhaps lazy ways that are risky if you don't do it well.

It's not a great idea to base your main character directly on yourself. That gets into potential "Mary Sue" territory. That's a term that comes from fan fiction and refers to a character who is clearly the author's avatar who's inserted into an existing universe -- Ensign Mary Sue joins the crew of the Enterprise and saves the day. In original fiction, it's come to mean the character who is obviously the author's stand-in, in a way that detracts from the story. This happens when the author is so emotionally bonded with that character that she loses all objectivity where that character is concerned -- everyone's in love with that character and anyone who isn't is just jealous, the character has no real flaws, the character never really faces consequences for her actions because for the author it would be like those things were happening to her.

(As an aside, I do think the "Mary Sue" accusation is overused and usually misused, often meaning any female character who is remotely competent or who has any self-confidence, but that's another discussion, and here I'm strictly using it for the more obvious cases.)

On the other hand, you're the only person you know from the inside out, so just about every character you write is going to be based in some way on yourself. The trick is to do that in such a way that you don't see the character as a projection of yourself. You can take your traits, feelings and personal experiences and mix them up with other stuff, and then you'll have a character who feels like flesh and blood that you'll still be able to treat like a character and not like an extension of yourself.

It's also not a great idea to directly base a character on a real person you know. For one thing, there's the possibility of legal action if the real person can be identified and your portrayal is negative in a way that isn't true. For another, basing characters directly on real people (including yourself) shows a lack of creativity. If you're writing fiction, you're supposed to be making people up. With real people, you may also run into that lack of objectivity that creates the Mary Sue problem. If you base your villain on your ex-boyfriend, odds are that working out your personal issues with that character will result in a less-realistic character than if you'd created someone entirely fictional (with maybe a few of the ex's traits, just for fun). If your cast of characters is essentially you and your friends, it starts to read like the kind of role-playing games my friends and I played when I was a kid -- not anything formal like Dungeons and Dragons, but just the make-believe scenarios we played out while running around in the back yard: "I'll be the captain and you be my first officer and now you do this and I do that."

Just like with taking aspects of yourself and mixing them up to create a character, you can take traits, actions, quirks and bits of physical description from real people and mix them up with other elements to create characters. You can even use a real person as an inspiration -- someone who is like someone you know in some way, but then you build a character around that rather than just plunking this real person into your story.

I would say that the farther you get from the main characters, the safer it is to draw on real life. If you have a conversation between your hero and a bank teller that lasts for all of half a page, it's probably not going to be a problem if you base the bank teller on your high school English teacher. In that short an appearance you don't have to worry too much about lack of objectivity, and very little of the person you really know is going to have a chance to come through. If a character with that small a role is more vivid in your mind because you're seeing someone you know, then maybe that little cameo moment will be more vivid for readers.

Another really dangerous thing to do is base your character on another fictional character (aside from a story that overtly uses public domain characters in new situations, like Lizzie Bennet fighting zombies or solving mysteries). I don't know how often this happens, but I have run across books where I'm pretty sure that I recognize the characters, or at least the inspirations behind the characters. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer shows up in a lot of paranormal vampire romances, for instance. I'll admit to having used some favorite characters as a jumping-off point because there's something in those characters I want to explore that I didn't think was explored in a satisfying way in the original work (I tend to like the secondary characters more than the heroes), but it's like using real people -- take those key elements you want to explore and create an entirely new character around them. Your closest friends who know your obsessions may recognize the source, but if you've done your job in filing off the serial numbers, readers who don't know you shouldn't be able to tell where your characters came from.

And there are also situations where breaking all the rules can work. There are authors who deliberately base their cast of characters on themselves and their friends, with that being the gimmick of the books (several mystery authors do this). There was an author who got a lot of publicity by openly admitting that she'd based her main characters on a pair of TV characters and had written a book to allow herself to explore that relationship and find a way to make it work. There have been hugely bestselling books that were acknowledged Mary Sue stories, with the author writing her own personal fantasy that ended up striking a chord with readers. But I do think it's something beginning writers should be wary of. It's usually a sign of an amateur manuscript when you can tell that the hero is basically the author in costume or when you can spot the characters from other sources.

Next I'll get into some other ways to build characters.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Did I Mention Crazy?

I've reached the point in the week where I've had to start trimming things from my to-do list for my own sanity. I reviewed the short story I wrote to have something new to read at FenCon, and I don't think it works well for reading out loud. I also don't like the ending and I don't know how to end it. I thought for a mad moment about trying to come up with something else, but I don't really have the time or the mental energy to write something new this week. So I'll read something else. It will be a FenCon premiere, and I've only read it twice before, so while my obsessive fans who come to all my readings at every convention may have heard it, if you weren't at ConDFW or MileHiCon last year, it will be new to you. And maybe next year I'll have something new coming out to read from.

I didn't have much luck finding a good kids' book to read to the choir. I went through the whole section at the library, and I wasn't impressed with much of anything I found. That could be because about half that section is checked out at any given time, so only the dregs are left, and it didn't help that I was limiting myself to books with some kind of musical theme. But I found that a lot of the children's books were awfully didactic and preachy, teaching Valuable Life Lessons in a very non-subtle and boring way. Or else there was tons of narrative text that I know my bunch would lose interest in quickly. I found one book that had potential, about an animal marching band. It had adorable illustrations, and I had visions of getting the kids to act out playing the various instruments as they were introduced, but then it turned out that the text was deadly dull. They pretty much just copied and pasted the Wikipedia entries for each instrument without bothering to describe the instruments in any fun or clever way, like in rhyme or with any humor, just "this is a trombone, it's made of metal tubes and is played by moving a slide." So I think we'll just be singing a lot this week.

I may have figured out my wardrobe for the weekend, and it requires no shopping, which also removes things from the to-do list. I shopped my closet, instead, and I found a favorite skirt that I hadn't seen in years. I'd wondered what became of it and assumed it was in the bag of things I've been not getting around to taking to the dry cleaner, but it wasn't in there. I finally discovered where it had slipped off a hanger at the back of the closet. It needs ironing, but I have it back in my life, which really adds to my wardrobe.

So, now all I have to do this week is revise a novel, iron some clothes, come up with a lesson plan for preschool choir, do a major PR push and get ready for a convention. Piece of cake!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Crazy Week

This is going to be crazy scary busy week, with book revisions and a deadline looming over me and a convention this weekend (FenCon) where I'm not only a guest but on the staff, and most of my staff work takes place this week.

I'm not going to post my schedule because I figure if you're at the convention, you'll have a convention guide, and if you're not going to the convention, you probably don't care. I will say that I think I'll be debuting a new Enchanted, Inc. universe short story that's a bit of a prequel to the first book for my reading Saturday at noon -- that is, if I can figure out a way to fix the ending in the middle of everything else I'm doing this week. If I don't fix the ending, I may be reading preschool story books.

I had a busy weekend with choir stuff and con stuff, though a good side-effect of the con stuff was going out to dinner with friends, where the conversation ranged from food and cooking to books to music, with smart phones being passed around to provide samples of the music under discussion (living in the future is cool). Now I just have a few days to recharge before it really kicks off and I have to go into "author" mode. Ack, I haven't even decided what to wear. I was watching a Merchant-Ivory marathon on TCM last week and realized that I pretty much have the same length hair as Helena Bonham Carter does in those movies, which means I either need to get a haircut or I need to learn to do some Edwardian or Victorian updos. That could work as our theme this year involves steampunk, but since I don't have steampunk clothes it might look a little out of place. A Gibson Girl style doesn't quite go with jeans and a t-shirt.

Now I need to make a library run to find something to read to the kids and then I need to go quietly (or not so quietly) insane with all the stuff I need to get done this week.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fall TV

My sense of time has gone all wonky, and I can't believe it's already mid-September. The summer seemed to drag on, and I thought we'd never see the end of it, and yet it's almost come as a shock to realize it's on its way out. For instance, the fall TV season has totally caught me off-guard.

Not that I'm too excited about it. My favorite shows, the ones I analyze and discuss and really care about, are summer shows, and some of them still have a few episodes left, so I'm more fired up about those season finales than I am about the new season that's starting. At level of highest intensity there's Doctor Who and Haven, and then Warehouse 13 is right behind them. I also like some of the USA summer series, but not really on the analyze/discuss level.

Just about all of those come above most of the regular season shows for me. I'll be happy to have Parks and Recreation back again, but since I spent the summer getting caught up on the earlier seasons on DVD, it doesn't feel like it's been gone. I'm curious as to how The Office will go with James Spader in the cast. I'm also curious about what the cliffhanger in NCIS will mean going forward and it will be interesting to see how all the changes made in the season finale of Chuck will affect the show.

I may watch the season premieres of House and Supernatural just to see where they're going with things, but their season finales turned me off in ways I'm not sure they can overcome. Just about everything else falls into the "watch it OnDemand when I get a chance" category.

Of the new shows for the fall, the only ones I think I'm going to bother trying are the two fairy tale shows, Grimm and Once Upon a Time, mostly just to see what they do with the premise. They were doing some sneak peeks of Once Upon a Time at movie theaters in those pre-show ads during the summer, and it looked like it could be a really fun fantasy series, but then I also remember The Charmings. This one could go either way.

What I'm mostly excited about is the Masterpiece Theatre lineup for next year, with a new season of Downton Abbey and Sherlock. I believe Downton Abbey actually starts in England this week, but I think I'll resist the temptation to find it by alternative means and wait to watch the US broadcast -- mostly because I'm really busy right now and need to rewatch the first season, so by the time I'd have time to catch up, we'd almost be at the US broadcast anyway.

I haven't seen anything about anything new coming up for the fall/winter season on the channel formerly known as SciFi. I'd heard there would be another Battlestar Galactica prequel, but now I'm hearing that they're going to do that as a web-only series. Their site doesn't really mention anything new for the fall other than the Neverland miniseries. I never got into Sanctuary, but I may have to try, just for the lack of anything else to watch. I wonder if not having seen the previous seasons will be a problem in following it.

All this means I should have a lot more reading and writing time, I guess. And fall is my favorite outdoor time, so I'll be able to spend my days outside if I can write in the evenings.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Surviving Preschool

I survived the preschoolers! I think it went pretty well, but there were a few times when things got a little out of control. Fortunately, I had a parent helping because it was difficult to keep the class moving forward and keep the activities going while also reining in the kids who were having attention span issues. Some of the kids can go all day on a particular activity they like, and they don't want to move on to the next thing, but others are bored with everything after about thirty seconds, even if they like it. That means that no matter what, there will be whining. If we don't move on to something else, the bored ones will whine and get disruptive, but when we do move on, the ones who weren't ready to move on complain loudly and disrupt the next activity by trying to keep doing the previous one. My big triumph was that the special needs girl who couldn't be persuaded to even go in the room before not only came in this time, but actively participated and really seemed to attach to me, when before she wouldn't talk to anyone. I may have to brush up on my Star Wars prequels, though. One of the boys has just discovered Star Wars, but he's been watching the movies in series chronological order and hasn't yet seen the real Star Wars movies. He was describing in great detail some character from the prequels that I only remember vaguely. I can't believe I had to resort to the smile and nod and "Oh, really? Wow!" (the standard way to respond to anything a four-year-old tells me) for a conversation about Star Wars. His mom said they'll be getting to episode iV (the real Star Wars for us old-timers), and there I'll be in my element because that's where I have the obsessive attention to every little detail.

Surprisingly, story time (the way to settle them down and get them to focus after a more active activity) was probably my biggest success. I had a book my co-teacher lent me, but I think now I need to find another good read-aloud book with some kind of musical theme to it. I'll have to go to the library. I was in high school drama club with the children's librarian in my neighborhood and she does the library story times, so maybe she'll have some suggestions. The kids liked it when I did funny voices for the characters and made up tunes for the songs the characters were singing. (Hee, I should bring these books to FenCon for my reading instead of reading from my own work.)

I think I'm in another weird reading mood, or maybe it's just a too-busy-to-read phase. The book I'm reading just isn't luring me in, and I don't think it's the book's fault. I think I'd really get into it at another time when I have the luxury of just delving into it for hours. There's a lot of set-up with short chapters that take place months or even years apart, and that doesn't work so well when you're reading a chapter before going to sleep at night. So I think I may let it go back to the library and get it back later when I'm in the mood for that sort of thing, but that then leaves me without a book I'm currently reading and nothing really in the queue for the next thing to read. With convention prep and book revisions, I don't have a lot of reading time right now, but I get twitchy without there being a book in progress. I pulled something at random off the to-be-read pile (one I didn't even realize I had and don't remember precisely how I got it), so we'll see if that works.

Now after a quick post office trip (ugh, quarterly taxes), I have to delve into revisions and spend some time as PR guru.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Meet Me in the Middle

Taking the new computer downstairs helped a lot in the productivity department, but when I needed to do some serious rewriting on a scene, I ended up copying that scene into a new file and transferring it to the old computer to really work on it. I guess I haven't conditioned myself to see the new computer as a place to work, or maybe I just needed to separate myself from the marked-up document in order to think.

Today I'll have to really focus, as not only do I need to get more work done on these revisions, but I have some other projects that need attention today, and then I'm in charge of the preschool choir tonight, so I have to come up with a lesson plan of activities that will keep 4-year-olds occupied for 45 minutes, with each activity lasting long enough for them to learn something but not so long that they lose interest, and with a mix of quiet and "active" activities. The nice thing is that kids that age like repetition, so I can repeat a lot of the things we did last week, just mixing it up a little.

I finally found that article I mentioned yesterday about fairies maybe being the next big thing in publishing. It turned out to be in the Facebook feed of a publisher blog, and I'd only read the headline. When I read the actual article, it was just some random person's opinion or idea, not anyone with any particular publishing knowledge, which makes me wonder why it was worth passing on. At any rate, it's not so much the subject matter for me, but rather the tone. I'm afraid I've become very tired of the Standard-Issue Urban Fantasy Heroine -- you know, tough and jaded, a little bitter, drinks and curses a lot, maybe even smokes, lives in a fleabag apartment and functions within the underbelly of society. I guess it's that noir influence. At the same time, I'm also not crazy about the other extreme that shows up in some of the paranormal romance that has a lot of chick lit influence, where the heroine is obsessed with designer labels and her idea of a crisis is ruining a pair of Manolos. There really ought to be some room in the middle, where most people live -- a middle-class apartment and buying clothes at Ann Taylor Loft, not moving in the high end of society but not associating entirely with street people. But the entertainment industry (including publishing) seems to think that the middle ground is boring. It has to be one extreme or another.

That makes finding books tricky for me because the extremes don't appeal to me. The same thing happens with the depiction of romantic relationships. These days, it seems like a romance novel is either super-hot, where the characters have a bad case of chronic hornypants and never think of anything but getting each other into bed, or it's inspirational romance, where the characters pray together and never have an impure thought. I don't mind a chaste relationship, particularly if there are other things going on that would preclude sex (like being in immediate danger), but I don't necessarily want religious content (and I am a religious person). There aren't too many romance novels that aren't overly sexual without being religious.

I was thinking of this yesterday when I was using a Twilight Zone marathon as my background noise/distraction for exercising. There was an episode I hadn't seen before, "The Fear," in which a state trooper stops by a remote mountain cabin to check on the new resident, a single woman who's moved there from New York. There's lots of loaded banter as she makes disparaging remarks about the sophistication of the locals and he takes offense, but then when there's a loud noise and a strange light in the sky, they surprise each other -- him by quoting Shakespeare and her by being just as candid about being afraid as she was about her impressions of the local yokels. When his police radio and her phone go dead and there's a definite but unspecific threat outside, they end up trapped in this remote cabin together for the night and have some interesting conversations about the nature of fear and courage. I was absolutely riveted. It was some of the best pre-romantic dialogue I've seen in ages, and I never would have thought of Rod Serling as a romantic writer. Not that it was overtly romantic, but it had a charge to it, and by the end of the episode I was desperately hoping this couple would get together. Of course, the episode ended in the usual abrupt Twilight Zone way, so we didn't get any kind of epilogue showing that going through this experience together had brought them together as people so their relationship would endure beyond this night. Still, I was sighing wistfully at the end, and then I laughed at myself for looking to The Twilight Zone as a source for romantic entertainment (I am such a geek).

But that got me in the mood for something good and romantic. Unfortunately, for the reasons stated above I probably won't find something that gives me what I want in the romance genre. It might happen in fantasy, science fiction or mystery, but you never can tell if that's what you're going to get in those genres, and if that's what I'm looking for and don't get it, I'll be disappointed -- and yet, it takes away some of the impact if I know they'll get together because part of the fun is in the desperately hoping without it being guaranteed. It's really hard to tell if it's going to be that kind of book ahead of time, and that makes it difficult to find the right thing when you've got a craving for a particular kind of story.

Maybe I'll just re-read Stardust. That's exactly the kind of thing I seem to be in the mood for.

In other news, it's raining! I'd almost forgotten what that was like. We broke the record for the most 100-degree days in a year yesterday, and it's also been the driest summer ever. Now that the record's been broken, it looks like the weather is relenting a little.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Book Report: A Fairy Tale About Fairies

As a reminder, I'm still open to questions about writing (craft, writing life or the business) or about the Enchanted, Inc. series. Ask away!

I was much less productive than I needed to be yesterday. I forgot that whining is an essential part of the revision process, and I let the whining rattle me. I'll read a revision note or suggestion, rant and whine a bit about how silly and unreasonable it is and how no one who'd actually read the book and paid attention could possibly think that would be a good idea. Then when I get that out of my system, I admit that if one person got that impression, then others might, so I re-read that section. And then I may admit that it does need to be changed, and I'll find my own way to change it. The difficulty this time around is that I've been doing revisions on the new computer, since it has a wider screen that allows me to put the marked-up document alongside the document I'm working on. But this computer is the one attached to the Internet, and that makes it far too easy to just hop online while I'm in the whining "I don't want to do this and you can't make me" phase. Instead of five minutes of whining with each major note, I end up with 45 minutes of checking e-mail, checking Facebook, reading blogs, reading message boards, etc.

So, today the new computer gets disconnected from the Internet and taken downstairs, especially since it's hot again (boo) and my bedroom is the coolest spot in the house.

I've realized that in my talking about the Locke Lamora books, I've forgotten to mention something else I've read recently, The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein. This book is a blend of two of my favorite fantasy plot types. It's a "lost in the fairy realm" book (which is kind of a subset of the "sucked through a portal" book) and it plays with the structure and elements of fairy tales. A college student gets dragged by his roommate to visit the roommate's new girlfriend (and be set up with her sister) and finds himself caught up in this strange family who are descendants of characters in a lost Grimm tale. Due to a bargain made by an ancestor, they're blessed, but there's also a curse that goes with it. He may have to find a way to break the spell to save the woman he loves, but doing that will also have greater repercussions to her whole family -- and to his family, years later.

Since I'm into both fairy tales and fairy folklore, I found this mix really interesting. Usually, "fairy tales" is a misnomer, as most fairy tales actually have little to do with fairies. Then there are the stories actually about the fairies and their land, which are usually about humans from our world ending up there, either through accident or abduction. This book wove the two types of fairy stories together. The result was the sort of "urban fantasy" I've been looking for since I first heard the term, before it turned out that the industry was going to take it to mean sexy vampires. There is some darkness and grit, but not oppressively so, and it doesn't delve into the dark underbelly of society. I'd like to find more books in this vein. I thought I read something yesterday about fairies maybe being the next big thing, replacing vampires, and I wouldn't mind that, if it were done well, with actual basis in the folklore instead of them just being sexy, sparkly things. Of course, now I can't find what I thought I saw on any of the usual genre or publishing blogs I read. I suspect it may have been something in a Twitter feed or blog roll sidebar, and 18 or so hours is a lifetime in Twitter time, so I doubt I'll be able to find it again.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More Fun with Sci Fi Channel Movies

I seem to be making more strides in my efforts to get over my singing stage fright. I sang with a quartet Sunday morning, and though it wasn't a solo, it was three men and me (I had Pips!), and the soprano part was the kind that sort of floated high above the other parts, so I wasn't hiding in a choir. People could hear me, and I knew it, and I only had normal levels of nerves instead of my usual panic attack. I think it went really well, I really enjoyed doing it, and I had a couple of people compliment me afterward. If I can keep building these positive experiences, then maybe they'll blot out the times I've had panic attacks and I'll have less fear. It's one thing to be able to tell yourself that it's an irrational fear, but when you've had a time when nerves made you perform poorly, then it's realistic to get even more nervous about doing a bad job the next time, so you do even worse, and the downward spiral begins. Maybe now I have an upward spiral going on.

When I wasn't rehearsing and singing this weekend, I spent some time watching movies (because I had no desire to watch what was consuming television most of the weekend). Sunday night I watched Megamind on HBO OnDemand, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I think I may still like Despicable Me better, since I'm more interested in the mad scientist kind of story than I am in superheroes and supervillains (and while Minion was cool, I think I like the Minions better), but I thought this movie was really sweet and had some good messages about how people live up or down to expectations and how our choices define us. The story is about two infants sent away from disasters on other planets (a la Superman), with one landing in the lap of luxury and the other landing in a prison. They grow up to be arch-nemeses, but when the bad one manages to destroy his foe, he finds that evil isn't as much fun without having good to fight with, so he sets out to create a new hero to fight. I had resisted seeing this because Will Ferrell bugs me. He has this way of playing every role as though he's the Hollywood version of a mentally challenged eight-year-old in an Afterschool Special (the biggest flaw of Stranger than Fiction to me -- repressed and inexperienced in life doesn't have to mean slow and childish). But in this he actually played a rather nuanced character. Why can't he do that in his live-action roles? I'm not a big superhero fan, but I've seen the Christopher Reeve Superman movies enough to get the in-jokes (like Marlon Brando as the "space dad").

Otherwise, the channel formerly known as Sci Fi was showing a lot of their epic fantasy movies on Saturday. In the morning, I caught one from a few years ago, Grendel, their retelling of the Beowolf story, and it was surprisingly not entirely awful. Yeah, the CGI was terrible and it looked like they filmed it off-season at a Renaissance festival site and used costumes borrowed from a high school drama club's wardrobe, but they had a good cast, acting that rose way above the material, and a reasonably interesting story. I don't even have anything major to snark about. Really, take out the CGI and you probably couldn't differentiate it from many of the 1950s big-screen fantasy epics (and it was far less cringeworthy than the infamous "yondah lies da castle of my faddah" type thing).

Then the new movie for the night was Jabberwock, which was inspired by the Lewis Carroll poem. This one was also surprisingly not too bad, aside from the cheesy effects, cheap sets and cheap costumes. I was impressed that the main female character was in a setting-appropriate role but still managed to be strong in her own way instead of the more usual "eep, we need a girl in the cast!" type character who inexplicably is an expert swordswoman who can hold her own against men twice her size (like they just took a male role, cast a woman in it, then also made her a love interest who'd need to be rescued at least once, in spite of her prowess with a sword). The one thing that triggered giggles was that they acted as though the "Jabberwocky" poem was some ancient bit of prophecy and recited it with ominous intonations. For one thing, I found it amusing that a piece of Victorian poetry was being treated as "ancient" in a medieval setting, and for another, my familiarity with that piece comes from the musical version in the Disney Alice in Wonderland film, in which it's given a swingy jazz arrangement (I don't think it's actually in the original film, but it was in the soundtrack album I had as a kid). So every time someone started to intone, "Twas brillig," I found myself singing the jazz version, and then giggling.

After watching these two films, I have a couple of suggestions for improving these epic fantasy films that shouldn't add a dime to the budget but that could make a huge difference:

1) Strive for linguistic consistency.
Almost all of the unintentional humor in these films comes from the jarring juxtaposition of archaic "high fantasy" language and modern casual language. Someone will go right from saying something like "I hereby pledge my sword and my honor to this noble cause" to "Wow! Get a load of that thing!"

I recognize that with an alternative world setting or even a medieval historical setting we can assume that the whole thing has been translated into modern English for our viewing convenience, but a good translator will try to retain the flavor of the original language throughout. That doesn't mean everyone has to talk the same way at all times. Shakespeare had his crude characters speak ordinary prose while everyone else spoke in iambic pentameter, and you'd naturally use different language when addressing a king than you'd use for talking with your peers (unless the king is your peer). But I think it's possible to come up with more "casual" language that still fits the setting. People in a fantasy world shouldn't sound like they've stepped right off the streets of a 21st century city. This is especially important if you're basing your film on a literary work and using bits of the actual text in the script. The rest of the dialogue should fit that style.

2) Pick an accent.
I guess it's a movie trope to assume that everyone in a fantasy world should sound kind of British. I'm actually okay with an American/Canadian accent as long as it's used consistently. People may have different accents, but that should happen for a reason. People who've lived their lives in a remote, isolated village should probably all speak the same way. If someone speaks differently, it should be because they're from a different place or had a different upbringing. That was one thing that worked with Jabberwock. All the characters were from the same village, and they all had similar American/Canadian accents, so the accents never threw me out of the story.

Then there's the Patrick Swayze Memorial Corollary to this suggestion: No one in a fantasy epic, especially not one supposedly set in medieval England, should sound like he's from Houston. I have no problem with a Texas accent, in general. I have one. But if I'm ever cast to play an English noblewoman during the Crusades, I wouldn't expect to talk like I'm from Dallas.

I wonder how one would go about submitting and selling a script to be considered for one of these movies. I had a book idea that my agent thought might be a little too cliched to sell as a fantasy novel in the current market, but I think with some work it would make a perfect SyFy Saturday night movie. I somehow doubt it would be the sort of thing the agent who handles my film stuff would deal with, considering she handles some Oscar winners, but maybe she's got a friend or colleague who embraces the cheese.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Second Book Syndrome

We had a substitute ballet teacher last night, and it was quite a change that I'm feeling this morning. Our usual teacher is pretty laid back and knows we're doing this for fun and exercise, not to become great dancers (but she was out, since she had a baby that morning. What a slacker, huh?), but the sub reminds me of the Strict But Secretly Caring Old-World Ballet Mistress from just about every dance movie or book ever. She corrects even the most minute details, so, being the perfectionist that I am and being the usual target of substitute teacher corrections, for whatever odd reason, I was working overtime to be perfect. Fortunately, there are a couple of people in the class who are entirely new to dance, so she had a lot of work to do with them, and that meant I mostly stayed under the radar, for a change. But this sub is nicer and more gentle with the corrections than the Ballet Nazi we had a few years ago, and she's really slowing things down to focus on precise positioning and technique, which is a good reminder. And that's also why my whole body is a little stiff this morning (though not sore, which is good).

Last night after dance class, I finished reading the second Locke Lamora book by Scott Lynch, Red Sails Under Red Skies, and it seems to be following a trend I've noticed lately for me in fantasy, where I like the second book in the series best. Second books often get a bad rap, for various reasons. Often, the second book is weaker because the author spent years crafting and perfecting the first book, then gets a two-book contract on the basis of that book and has to write the second book in less than a year. Or if it's the middle book of a trilogy, it constitutes the "sagging middle" of the whole story, where it doesn't have the freshness and launching into the story of the first book and doesn't have the climax of the third book.

But in the series I've started following lately, I've generally found myself enjoying the second book more. That doesn't mean the second book is actually better or that other people would agree with me, just that the second books have been more to my taste. They've been more fun. We've made it past the character introductions and set-ups in the first book but we're not quite at the more serious, dark stuff that tends to happen as the story arc really gets going in the third book. The second book is where the characters just get to establish what their lives are going to be like after their world changes due to the events that kicked off the series in the first book. The screenwriting book Save the Cat refers to a section of a movie as being "The Promise of the Premise." This is the part that comes after the story has been kicked off but before the second major turning point where things get serious. It's where the writer gets to play with all the fun "what if" questions that arise out of the scenario of the story -- what are all the things that could happen if you put these people into this situation? I think that's what's going on in these second books I've liked. They're the "promise of the premise" books, where the main series plot arc is mostly lurking in the background as the characters adjust to their new roles or situations.

So, in the KE Mills Rogue Agent series, the first book establishes who our main character is and what he is, and that lands him in the position of being an undercover magical troubleshooter. And meanwhile two of the other characters have gone into business together in a magical agency.The second book is mostly a fun romp in which he's on assignment and they're on a case, and their paths cross. The third book gets more drastic and dark, and it's very layered and deep and complicated, but that second book is probably the one I'll re-read most often. I found the same thing with the Legend of Eli Monpress books by Rachel Aaron. The first book establishes the main character and his antagonist/ally while setting up the overall series conflict and the third book delves deeply into the mythology and one of the more dangerous situations in the premise, but the second book is more of a pure caper.

I don't know what the third book in the Locke Lamora series will be like, but I imagine from the way this one ended that it will go darker. This second book isn't "light" by any means. There's a big cloud hanging over everything and some seriously bad stuff happens, but it still feels more like a caper and less like "our entire world is being destroyed." I do think that the cover copy does the book a disservice because it doesn't really reflect what the book is actually like. It focuses entirely on the initiating action that then becomes something of a subplot while leaving out the main action. The story mentioned in the cover copy is not something that generally appeals to me, and as a result, the start of the book was slow going for me. Then there's a twist that sends the story off in an entirely different direction, and once we got there, I loved it. So if you read the cover copy and think, "So, they're going to scam a casino? Yawn," you should know that due to repercussions from the first book they themselves get kind of conned, and they end up having to pretend to be pirates, so that most of the book takes place on a pirate ship. Yes, we get a fantasy Oceans Eleven taking place on an actual ocean.

There is one element of these books that bothers me, and since it also seems to come up in many of the reviews I've read, I feel like I should warn my readers. The language is rather coarse, and I think gratuitously so. I think the idea is to convey that these characters are tough, hardened criminals. I can see that these characters wouldn't be saying, "Gosh, golly gee whiz, that didn't happen according to plan," but in real life the people I usually hear talk this way aren't so much tough as they are ignorant or even stupid. I don't think that's the impression the author is trying to convey. This language is also used indiscriminately, with almost all the characters and in all situations. Language in a book -- whether four-letter or otherwise -- needs to be precise and specific and used consciously for a particular effect, and when swearing is just scattered around freely it loses any effect. For instance, it keeps the characters from having distinct voices. The main character is a former street kid who joined a gang of thieves at about the age of six because it was better than living on the street, and you'd expect him to have a rougher vocabulary, even though he was later educated and trained well enough that he could blend in among the nobility. But his best friend/sidekick has a totally different background. He was the son of a prosperous merchant who only ended up in the gang of thieves when he was orphaned later. He had a conventional education up to that point. This is an interesting character because he's both the muscle and a nerd. He's a huge guy with a hot temper and a lot of martial arts and weapons training, but he can also do complex calculations in his head, loves to read and has large amounts of what I get the impression is supposed to be this world's version of Shakespeare memorized, so that he can bring out a quote for any occasion. You'd think a character with that much not-Shakespeare in his head would have a different vocabulary than the street kid and use language in a different way, no matter how tough he is. Then there's the fact that these guys use the same level of cursing to complain about something minor as they do for something major. When you're already using language that would make George Carlin cringe to complain about your bathwater being cold, there's nowhere to go when you're in a situation that would make me swear, like having everyone you care about viciously slaughtered.

Or maybe I'm just being a middle-aged church lady here. But if you are a middle-aged church lady (or think like one), this is something to be aware of before you take my recommendation that these books are enjoyable. If very strong language offends you and you can't just tune it out, you may have problems with these books.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Revisiting Old Dreams

The preschool choir was a lot easier to handle when the parents were out of the room. The room felt a lot less crowded and I didn't have the urge to flee. We have three girls named Caroline in a group of 16, which I think must be a statistical anomaly based on population size and frequency of the name (but if I forget names and need to just shout one, I know there's one I can shout and get the attention of three girls). We had one massive shy attack where a kid hid behind his dad and clung desperately to him, but once the kid was distracted by other kids arriving, the dad was able to slip out of the room without the kid noticing, and that meant there was no drama (I think most of the "separation anxiety" drama is generated by parents making a fuss that then stresses out the kids, not by kids who are truly afraid of being separated from their parents). There was one kid who cried when his mother left him (after she generated some separation drama) and who then hid in the corner during the rest of the time, but he did emerge just before the end and participated in our last activity. The next two weeks should be interesting because my co-teacher will be out and I'll be in charge, with the mom of one of my kids from last year helping out with crowd control. That means I'll need lesson plans and some back-up contingencies (since attention spans seem to be pretty short).

And because I apparently didn't have enough going on this month, I volunteered to sing in a quartet for the early service this weekend. The director was just trying to get a group together, with the only stipulation that he needed at least one soprano, and no sopranos seemed to be volunteering. Supposedly, it was a really easy song that won't require much rehearsal -- except for the soprano part, which has a descant (a kind of counter melody that's generally pretty high). With this piece, although my part stands out I'm never singing alone, so I'm hoping it will be another step in my progression toward curing stage fright and being more comfortable with performance. Meanwhile, the other stuff I have going on is doing revisions on a project that's due October 15, doing public relations for a convention and the convention itself. Plus a concert on Sunday and preparation for a major choral work to be performed in late October.

I normally consider Labor Day weekend to be my "chick lit and chick flick" celebration, but this year I was reading the second Locke Lamora book, and most of my viewing involved Haven, Doctor Who and an Inspector Lewis mystery. But to squeeze in something of a "chick flick" component, one of the HBO channels was showing Broadcast News on Monday night. I was actually kind of afraid to watch it because that movie holds a lot of baggage for me. When it first came out (and when I first saw it), I was a broadcast news major in college, but I hadn't started taking broadcast journalism classes yet and I hadn't yet worked at a TV station. That was still my starry-eyed dream that hadn't yet been tempered with reality. Since my life turned out to be very, very different from that dream, I was a little worried that revisiting it would be depressing. Then there was the fact that the boyfriend I saw the movie with later used the fact that I'd identified a lot with the Holly Hunter character in the movie as one of his red flags that maybe I wasn't a person he wanted to be with when he broke up with me -- more than six months after we saw the movie (which made me wonder if he'd had such serious doubts the entire time he was dating me).

Rewatching it turned out to not have that much of an emotional impact on me. Seeing it after having worked in TV news pointed out a few of the things they got wrong. That was mostly the technology I worked with, and a lot of it was right, but the scene that made me cringe was the one where they went down to the wire editing a story and then Joan Cusack had to run through the obstacle course of the halls to get the tape to the control room in time. One thing they got wrong was laying in the reporter's narration last. That's usually the starting point, and you edit the visuals onto the narration (at least, you did with that technology. With digital it may be different). But the obstacle course really bugged me because I have done that very thing, being the person standing by to grab the tape as soon as it comes out of the editing machine and sprint down the hallway to the control room with seconds to spare, and there is no obstacle course. The moment they know a tape is going to be run, they clear the halls and get everything and everyone out of the way. I guess there's no drama or humor in someone running down a clear hallway, unless it's just the spectacle of an intern in heels and a skirt sprinting while people shout down the hallway to clear the way (and sometimes applaud as you pass). Now they probably just hit a button and the digital story comes up on the control panel.

Anyway, rewatching this made me very glad that I didn't go into that business after college. I would have hated it, and today's news business is even worse than what they were showing as the potential future back in that 1988 movie. The fun domino video used as the example of the vapid wasteland of TV news is nothing compared to supposedly real news programs covering the antics of reality TV stars as though they're news. I still see way too much of myself in the Holly Hunter character. My friends would probably recognize me in that introduction of her as a child, where her father walks into her room and speaks to her while she's typing a letter and she jumps three feet in the air and screams bloody murder. I think I'm mostly a pretty mellow person now, but I do seem to have two speeds, off and on, and when I'm "on" I can be very intense, high-strung and even bitchy and scary, the way that character was. If I'd worked in that field, that's the way I'd probably be most of the time, and I don't like myself that way (we'll see if this convention PR thing starts edging me back in that direction). This time around, though, I also saw a lot of myself in the Albert Brooks character. In most of my jobs and in my various careers, I've tended to be the reliable, competent one who serves as the knowledge resource for everyone else but who somehow is never the person singled out to be a star. That even seems to be what happened to me in publishing -- books that got overwhelmingly favorable reviews and positive fan response and that sell reliably and steadily but that never got the treatment that would allow them to break out as bestsellers. I guess that was my main pang from the movie, realizing that.

It's actually kind of nice to revisit something that once embodied your dreams for your future and realize that you have no regrets about that not being the way your life turned out. Except for the clothes. I recognized a lot of those outfits -- maybe not anything exactly, but that was generally the way I dressed. What was up with those ankle-length, baggy skirts (probably trying to balance the shoulder pads)? I definitely regret having had a closet full of clothes like that. And maybe trying to have a haircut like Holly Hunter's in that movie, which did NOT work with curly hair.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

What Publishers Do

Yesterday was a pretty productive day. I got some PR work done for the upcoming convention, made my annual batch of strawberry jam, wrote my weekly radio scripts for the medical school and wrote most of a short story. I now have four little jars of jam to have with scones throughout the winter. This batch seemed to make less than usual, and I spilled some while doing something that I thought would be less messy (it wasn't). The really satisfying thing is that all the jars sealed properly. If you've ever done home canning, you'll know the anticipation of waiting for those lids to pop down as they cool, creating the seal. If one doesn't pop, then you have to use that jar right away. But all of mine sealed. I doubt I save a lot of (or any) money making my own jam, but I think it tastes better than store-bought, I know what ingredients are in it (no high-fructose corn syrup -- just strawberries, sugar and fresh lemon juice), and I feel a real sense of accomplishment with my mad pioneer woman skills.

I took a couple of weeks off from writing posts due to travel and the need to have some form of a summer vacation, but now I'm back for the new school year. I haven't had any questions come in, but I'll address something I tend to get asked indirectly. The publishing industry is going through some serious changes right now. It used to be that if you wanted to get paid for your writing, you sold your book to a traditional publisher. Getting published any other way required a large output of money and usually didn't result in much of anything other than boxes of books in your garage, unless you were really good and really lucky. The rise in electronic publishing has changed that dynamic somewhat. The barriers to entry are a lot lower, and you're more likely to make some money without having boxes of books in your garage. It's enough to make you wonder why anyone would bother with a publisher. To be honest, I haven't taken a stand one way or another on this issue. I'm watching events unfold and doing research. But here are some things that have to happen to bring a book to the market, whether you do these things yourself (or hire someone to do them for you) or whether a traditional publisher does them for you.

1) Editing
There's probably a lot less editing done on traditionally published books these days, depending on the editor, because editors don't have the time to mold each book into perfection. They're less likely to buy the imperfectly written books with a great idea and then help the authors get them into publishable form. But there is still some editing going on, even if it's just questions and suggestions to strengthen the story and improve pacing. Removing the "we don't have the resources to deal with this" gatekeepers does mean that some of those imperfect books with a great idea might get published in a non-traditional way, but they still need all that editing to make them ready to sell. This is one of those things that you really can't do for yourself because you need that outside pair of eyes -- someone who didn't write the story who can look at it without having all the information the author has. When editors write books, they get someone else to edit them. If you're not being edited through a traditional publisher, you'll need some kind of outside editing help, and probably more than just your critique partner.

2) Copy Editing
This is different from the editing I'm talking about above. That's about story. Copy editing is the nitty-gritty details. A copy editor is a professional nitpicker. A good copy edit goes beyond just grammar, spelling and punctuation. It also picks up on continuity (Do the characters have the same eye color throughout the book unless there's a story reason for the change? Was there always a door there? What happened to the hat you said he was wearing in the earlier scene?), notes repeated words or phrases, massages sentence structure and even does some fact checking. I have worked as a copy editor (in journalism and public relations writing rather than fiction, but it's still similar skills), and my copy editors have still caught me in errors. This is another case where you need an outside pair of eyes.

3) Formatting
There is actually a plan that goes into the design of the interior of a book -- the selection of font, the minute spacing between lines and letters, the way chapter breaks are handled. In electronic publishing that may not matter as much because readers can set their own type size and style, but then you have all the electronic formatting issues for each bookseller. You're not just posting a Word document to the Internet. I'm still researching this area, and it sounds like something you could learn to do yourself or that you can pay to have done for you.

4) Cover Art
This is one of those things that separates the pros (or the illusion of professionalism) from the amateurs and that can make your book either look cheap or look like any other published book. I have friends who do art for book covers, and they say that a big consideration these days, whether or not a book is traditionally published, is how the cover looks in thumbnail size because that's very often how readers will see it. If you're browsing Amazon, that thumbnail is your first impression of a book. If it's an e-only book, that may be the only impression. Readers may have seen a print book cover at a store, but an e-book doesn't have that advantage. That means the cover has to make sense even when it's tiny, and it has to be an image that catches the eye.

5) Cover Design
A good book cover needs more than art. Part of the cover design involves choosing the art, deciding how to scale or size that art, choosing the font, color, size and positioning of the title and the author's name, and choosing anything else that will be on the cover. All of this has to come together in a way that catches readers' eyes and makes people curious about what's inside. Again, it also has to work in thumbnail size these days.

6) Marketing
This is the things that are done to position the book in the marketplace. It includes things like deciding which genre to fit the book into, when to put it on sale and which readers to target. It also includes things like the descriptive blurb that goes on the cover to tell readers about the book and the endorsement blurbs from other authors or reviewers that go on the cover or in the front matter (the stuff that comes before the book itself starts) within the book.

7) Sales
In traditional publishing, this is about persuading booksellers to stock a book. The buyers for the surviving chains may get a full sales pitch. Independent stores may get a catalog listing available titles. How much of a push depends on the book. Some books get a full-court press, with the author having dinner with the bookseller, swag related to the book, and advance copies for booksellers to read to get them enthused about the book. Some books get mentioned in the catalog. Store placement may include a combination of marketing and sales, as the good spots in a bookstore (those tables near the front or the tower of paperbacks) are paid placements. Online, paid placements may involve positioning on the front page or department page, those "buy this along with this for this price" offers and mention in various newsletters or blogs. There's some give-and-take with this, as the stores don't just automatically give those spots to any publisher willing to pay for them. Stores pick and choose, and there are formulas involving how many copies are ordered, discounts, credit, and the like. This is one area where individuals have a lot less clout. You probably can't do most of these things for yourself, although some of the online retailers are starting to offer packages to independent authors (they know a money machine when they see one).

8) Publicity
The amount of publicity a book gets through a traditional publisher depends on the book. The publisher may send news releases and review copies to various reviewers, both in print and online. They may also arrange booksignings or book tours and pitch media stories. Some may arrange blog tours for the author. These days, authors have to do a lot of these things for themselves. That wouldn't seem like it would make things too different if you go it alone, but there are some publicity barriers to self-published e-books. For one thing, it's hard to do booksignings if the book doesn't exist as a physical entity, and most stores are still leery of self-published books. A lot of review outlets still won't cover self-published books, and self-published books aren't eligible for most major awards. It may be difficult to get news coverage about a self-published book (though, oddly, my local newspaper seems to fawn all over anyone who gets a book "accepted" by PublishAmerica while ignoring most local traditionally published authors).

You can probably see that there are a lot of pros and cons involved in trying to do all this yourself or arrange for it to be done. Doing it right will probably involve some up-front investment, unless you've got a lot of talented and skilled friends willing to edit and design in exchange for babysitting services. On the other hand, traditional publishers are doing less for authors these days, and if you're going to do all the work, you may as well take more of the profit. As I said, I haven't formed a position either way or decided what I want to do, but these are the things I've been thinking about while pondering the future of my career, and they are things to keep in mind when you make your decisions.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Over the River and Through the Woods

We had a cool morning today -- not just "not hot" but "snuggle under the comforter." After the horrendous summer, I really appreciate it. Now we just need some rain because things are getting pretty dire. Much of the state seems to be on fire.

I spent most of yesterday outdoors, something I haven't been able to do in months. I packed a lunch and a bottle of water and headed out for the park on the hike/bike trails. It turns out they just opened a new leg of the trails, leading from the park by my neighborhood, and this leg runs through some woods alongside the river. This means I can go walking in the woods near running water, and it's walking distance from my home. It's almost as good as when we lived in Germany and our neighborhood was adjacent to a forest full of walking trails. We used to pack lunches in our school backpacks and spend a Saturday just walking. Now that I know this is there, I imagine I'll be spending a lot of time outdoors this fall. I'll have to stock up on Black Forest ham and hard rolls (our staples from those hiking picnics in Germany). Unfortunately, I won't have another free weekend to allow such an outing for about a month. I'm not entirely sure how safe it would be on weekdays. This neighborhood is generally an extremely low crime zone, but it's not entirely smart to be in an isolated area where a person meaning to cause trouble would be the only other person out there. On weekends, it's not crowded at all, but there are enough people around who'd notice something was up or who would be within range of a scream. I don't know how many people would be there on a regular weekday. There is another part of the trail that has some of the better sit-by-the-river spots, and it's a lot more open, running alongside a park that's on a major freeway access road.

The only moderately portable finger-food type fruit I had on hand was cherries, so I'd pitted some cherries and put them in a little refrigerator dish, then held the dish carefully to catch the cherry juice as I ate. It turned out that I hadn't sealed the lid properly, so there was already cherry juice on the side of the container, which meant that holding it to keep juice from dripping off the cherries allowed juice to drip off the container, so I ended up with red blotches on my shirt. I guess it's good that cherry juice dries to a purplish pink instead of looking like blood, or I might have alarmed people I ran into on the trail. Then again, it might have been fun to come out of the woods looking like I was covered in blood, licking my lips and putting a knife away.

The one real downside is that the trailhead park is about a half-hour walk from my house, so I've had a pretty long walk before I even start the trail. Thus, I was out for about three hours yesterday and my hips and knees are not all that happy with me today. It looks like they're building another access point that might be a little closer and more direct. I suppose I could drive to the park and then walk more on the trails and less in my neighborhood, but the park is sort of in a "you can't get there from here" spot due to access roads, freeways and one-way streets. I suppose I just need to pace myself better, take more breaks, not walk quite so forcefully, and only do one part of the trail at a time instead of trying to do it all at once. I think I ended up walking close to 7 miles yesterday.

Once I got home, I sat on the patio and read for a while. The nice thing about the abrupt change in temperatures is that it's not going to go back up again, at least not within the next week. It'll be a little warmer than yesterday and today, but not what it was. It won't be like last month, with the one cool day surrounded by 100-degree days. I'm glad I decided to use yesterday as a real holiday because today I'm somewhat relaxed and energized to get to work in what's going to be a very busy month for me.

Monday, September 05, 2011

It's Cool!

So, theoretically it's a holiday and since blog posting is a "work" thing I try not to do it on holidays, so I can retain at least some since of difference between an ordinary day and a weekend or holiday, but I just have to shout to the rooftops that our heat wave has truly broken! We don't even have 100-degree temperatures in the long-range forecast. At the moment, I have my windows open and no AC on.

I made scones and tea this morning, since I could turn on the oven without overheating the house, and I opened the patio doors (that open from the breakfast nook). I guess I could have eaten on the patio, but the patio is kind of a mess, so it wouldn't have been pleasant. I think one of my tasks today since I can be outdoors is going to be to straighten up the patio, pull the weeds in the small strip of "flowerbed" and sweep up the weeds I'd already pulled. I had grand plans of getting some fall flowers to plant in containers on the patio this weekend, but when I went to Home Depot on Friday, their garden center was pretty much empty. They said their vendors had taken back a lot of the plants. The heat was just too brutal for them. They said I should check back again in a few weeks. I was hoping to get some zinnias because once they get going, you can cut them and put them in vases. And I need to replace the basil plant that died while I was out of town (next time, I should get my green-thumb neighbor to plant sit for me).

Since the rest of this month is going to be seriously busy, I'm torn between using today as my last day to rest or using it to get a jump on the rest of the month. I may do a little of both, but I think I'm going to start by taking a long walk. I'd thought about walking to the river, but that's a really long walk, and it's pretty windy, so I'd need ballast. I suppose I could pack a picnic in my backpack and make a day of it, and that would count as ballast. It is possible that I'm being a wee bit overexcited by the sudden cooler weather and trying to cram an entire autumn's worth of outdoor activities into one day.