Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From Idea to Book

In my last writing post, I talked about evaluating an idea's potential. Once you decide that your idea really will make a good novel, you have to do still more work to actually develop it into a novel.

I have found that the biggest pitfall in turning an idea into a novel is specifics. When you're talking on the idea level, you can afford to be vague. You could even write a query letter or short synopsis without too many details. But when you write the book, you need specifics. Mostly, that comes down to "what" and "why." You may know what the villain is up to that the hero will have to stop, but why, exactly, is the villain doing this thing? You may also need the specifics of what the villain is doing, broken down into an actual plan instead of a big-picture goal. Your synopsis may talk about the hero going through a number of trials on the way to reaching his goal, but when you write the book, you need to know exactly what the trials are and exactly what the hero does to get through them.

When you come up with these specifics depends on your writing process. If you're a plotter, you may want to work it all out before you start writing. If you're more of a seat-of-the-pants writer, you'll more likely want to tackle each of these questions as they arise in your book. Either way, at some point, you'll have to drill down into specifics, and I sometimes find this to be the most challenging part of writing. An idea that sounds great when I'm talking in terms of "and then they stop the villain's evil plan" sounds less great when I have to figure out exactly what the plan is, exactly why the villain is doing it, exactly how the hero will try to counter it and exactly what the villain will do in response. One sentence in a synopsis can amount to ten or more pages in the finished book, and writing ten pages requires a lot more information than writing a sentence.

How do you get those specifics? Sometimes, it's just going through the work of asking yourself questions -- and then what? Why? Work through cause and effect. If you can't answer these questions through straightforward brainstorming and logic, then you may need to do additional research. Look at how things like elements in your story work in the real world. Research the setting, the career field or industry or any historical analogues to come up with answers. Or you can look for inspiration in other fictional works like movies, TV shows or novels. That doesn't mean copying plot elements exactly, but sometimes looking at the way another writer has handled a similar situation can help you come up with ideas for handling your own work. One thing I like to do when I'm stuck for specifics is brainstorm while putting iTunes on shuffle. It often seems like the answer to what needs to happen will pop up in a song that comes on just when I'm thinking about that problem. Daydreaming is also good. Imagine different scenarios playing out and use the one that makes the best movie in your head. If you're more left-brained, make flow charts.

One thing you may need to do in developing the novel is let go of some of the original elements of your idea. Those elements may be things that sparked your interest in the story, but they may not fit into the book, and you'll twist yourself into knots trying to force those things into your story. The characters you started with may not be the right ones for the story. Some of the scenes you first envisioned when you first came up with the idea may have no place in the actual novel. If you're having to work too hard to make something fit, it may not belong.

I guess all this comes down to work. Coming up with ideas is easy. You can even develop the ideas enough to talk about them without too much effort. But going through all the steps of writing a novel is where the hard work comes in and is what separates the relative few who complete a novel from the many who say they have a brilliant idea for a book. This is one reason why publishers are often leery of buying incomplete novels from first-time authors. An author who has never completed a manuscript may not realize the difference between developing an idea enough to write a synopsis and developing that idea into a novel.

I'm going to do one more writing post this year, so are there any end-of-year questions you want me to address? I may even do a Q&A if I get several questions that don't require post-length answers.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tis the Season to Be Mean?

It looks like I'll be starting work for the new client next week, as I've got a meeting on Friday. The work I'll be doing with them will actually use my degree -- specifically and not just in a general "stringing words together" sense, as it involves writing video scripts. Now I have to think of something to wear. I suspect they're pretty casual, as it's a virtual agency, but I still want to look professional. It's been more than a year since my last business meeting.

And that means I need to buckle down this week to get done with the current phase of the current project. Yesterday was relatively unproductive until late in the day, but I don't have to go anywhere or do anything else today, so I should be able to rock and roll.

I didn't do as much reading over the weekend as I normally would on a holiday, but I did watch a fair amount of TV, and it seems like the theme for this holiday season is "mean." There are ads about gloating to Santa that you've already bought all the good presents (gloating to Santa? Really? Talk about getting on the naughty list). There are ads about being obnoxious to store staff. The car ads are particularly bad, with the parents who run off in their son's car instead of acknowledging his arrival, the entitled rich jerks who hire celebrities as holiday employees, the Lexus driver who wipes out a person with a more common car using a giant snowball so he can get his parking space, and the test drivers who take the salesman hostage by refusing to return the car after the test drive. It's all enough to justify my reclusive nature. I feel like doing a Charlie Brown lament. It was bad enough when Christmas was commercialized in the sense of getting more stuff to make your holiday extra merry, but now it's commercialized in the sense of "I'm getting what I want, and I don't care how that affects anyone else."

It's all very depressing, and it totally harshes the warm fuzzies from watching the Lifetime "discover the true meaning of Christmas while falling in love" movies. But since almost everything I watch is in reruns this week, I can ignore it all and focus on my work.

Monday, November 28, 2011

My Thanksgiving Holiday

I think I'm having my post-holiday slug day. I barely dragged myself out of bed this morning because the bed was so cozy and warm, and I couldn't think of any urgent reason why I absolutely had to get up. Now I'm trying to persuade myself that I must get groceries. I have Thanksgiving leftovers, but I'm lacking one or two crucial ingredients for each thing that I could do with the leftovers. To make things even more fun, I discovered while searching the pantry to see if maybe one of those crucial items might be hiding in the back that a jar of molasses had fallen on its side and oozed onto the shelf. That meant cleaning the pantry, which ended up being a bit of a decluttering as I got rid of those things that lurk in the back, long past their expiration date.

I had a good holiday, which I started early by going with some friends Tuesday night to the fall concert of the One O'Clock Lab Band, a student jazz band that regularly gets nominated for Grammy Awards for best jazz recordings. I also discovered a restaurant in my neighborhood that night. On the outside, it looks like just another restaurant in a strip mall. Then you step inside and are in a New York City Italian restaurant. It has similar dimensions and decor and atmosphere. I almost felt like if I looked out the window, I'd see Greenwich Village. Italian is my favorite thing to cook, but now I know that if I'm craving Italian and don't want to cook, I can walk a few blocks and go to New York. It's small enough that it's the rare kind of restaurant where I'm willing to eat alone.

Then we had a real family Thanksgiving for the first time in about six years, since my brother and his girlfriend came. There was a bit more work and less lazy relaxing than when it's just my parents and me, but it felt more like a family holiday. I did discover through playing with my mom's blood pressure machine and my parents' elliptical machine with heart monitor that while I'm thin and have great muscle tone, I'm terribly out of shape. It looks like I need to exercise more regularly than just in ballet class and the occasional long walk. I've also noticed that I have a bad habit of holding my breath when I'm concentrating on something. I've heard of sleep apnea, but not thought apnea. Now I'm trying to remember to breathe. That's not supposed to be something you have to think about.

This was more of a weekend for sports than for movies, but I was tired enough Saturday night to actually watch a Disney Channel movie, and it wasn't that bad. The movie was Geek Charming and was about a film geek who needs to make a documentary for a film festival student contest that could win him a Hollywood internship, and he decides to make an expose on popularity, focusing on the school's queen bee whose life goal is to win their school's equivalent of prom queen. Along the way, he learns that she has hidden depths and she learns that there's a difference between being popular and having friends. It was rather cute without being too irritating, and they managed to sell me on an outcome I was dreading at the start of the movie. Plus, unlike almost every other Disney Channel thing ever, they didn't feel the need to cram in songs performed by the stars (unless that was what was in the soundtrack I didn't pay attention to). I'm a fan of musicals, but I'm not a fan of the Disney Channel teen starbots whose voices are so weak that they're Autotuned into sounding inhuman, just so they'll have something to play on Radio Disney. And it was nice to see teens aspiring to something other than being rock stars.

Now I simply must drag myself out so I can eat this week.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Book Report: Fantasy and Nostalgia

Today is the day I get ready to travel for Thanksgiving. Laundry is already in progress, and then I have to figure out what to bring. At least this year we don't seem to have major climate shifts in the forecast, unlike some years when it's 75 degrees on Wednesday, then there's snow or ice on Thanksgiving day, or else it's in the 40s on Wednesday, but warming to the 70s or 80s before I return home. I should be able to bring just one jacket instead of needing several different kinds of coats. It complicates packing when you need both shorts and sweatshirts. I likely will not be online the rest of the week, so I'll take this opportunity to say Happy Thanksgiving!

I actually have some recent reading to talk about, so it's time for a book report!

First, there's Cold Magic by Kate Elliott. I'd heard of this as a steampunky sort of thing, but the steampunk-like elements are pretty minor (the fact of airships plays a major role, but we don't actually encounter them). It's really more of an alternate history Victorian story, but I think all Victorian-like settings these days get called steampunk. Whatever you call it, I really enjoyed this book. The alternate history is REALLY alternate, not just Victorian London with zombies. There's an entirely different history that leads to an entirely different population in what we think of as England, and there's even some different geography (Great Britain is part of the continent, not an island). There are elements of fairy folklore, and there's a wonderful romance woven throughout. Cat is an orphaned young woman living with her aunt, uncle and cousins and attending college when a Cold Mage shows up with a contract that demands the oldest girl in the house be married to him. That would be Cat. Next thing she knows, she's off on a cross-country adventure with an arrogant mage who's part of a movement to sabotage industrialization and technology so the mages can maintain their power. And then when they reach their destination, things get much worse for Cat -- and for her husband. I was furiously turning pages on this one, and now I desperately want to get my hands on the sequel. In addition to hitting a lot of my fantasy buttons, it's also a good example of the kind of romantic story I enjoy, where the relationship grows through the things they experience together.

And then I read Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, which is a fantasy classic I hadn't read before. It's based on the old ballad about a woman who has to rescue her lover from the fairies, but it's set at a Minnesota college in the early 1970s. Although it's a fantasy, the fantasy elements are very subtle until near the end of the book, and it takes a long time for them to show up and for us -- and the heroine -- to be sure they're supernatural. I may have to re-read it because I suspect that more fantasy elements will become more obvious now that I've read the end and know what's going on. Mostly, though, this is a book about college life. Although it follows the heroine through all four years, the most detail is lavished on the freshman year, getting into the way groups of friends fall together and the way patterns and habits develop. It reminded me so much of my own college years that I practically ached with nostalgia. I don't know if I've ever had another time in my life when I made friends so quickly and easily. It seemed like you could just fall in with a group of people, and then suddenly it was like you'd known them all your life. The book got into those standing appointments for group dinners in the dining hall, the late-night study hall conversations, the midnight movies at the campus theater and all those other things I remember from my college years. The only difference was that in the book the heroine had far more masculine attention than I got. Guys just weren't interested in me my freshman year (well, really, ever, but I did have a boyfriend for part of my sophomore year), unless they were extremely subtle about showing it and/or I was extremely dense about noticing it (both of which were possible). I do know that my initial group of friends turned out to involve one frenemy who claimed she was going to help me learn to attract guys, but then every time I designated a target, she went after him herself, even though she had a boyfriend back home. I don't know how far it went with any of them, but she did manage to wrap them around her little finger so they noticed no one but her, and I'm very sure none of them had any interest in me. I ended up switching groups and falling in with the geeks around Halloween, and I was much happier. There were some couples pairing off in our group, but for the most part, we ran as a general herd instead of a group of pairs. I guess another difference was that in the book most of her friends were classics or English majors and went around quoting Shakespeare all the time, while my friends were mostly engineering and computer science majors who went around quoting Monty Python, Star Trek and Star Wars all the time.

It's hard to separate my feelings for the book itself from all this nostalgia, so I can't say how much I enjoyed it because of the book itself and how much was that I was enjoying the nostalgia. As I said, I may have to read it again to focus more on the story instead of getting caught up in misty, watercolored memories triggered by events in the book that reminded me of my college years.

Now off to go to useful things.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Chick Flick Bust

I spent this morning helping get the church set up for Advent. My main job was polishing the Advent wreath candelabra and then refilling the candles with oil (instead of using wax candles, we have these things that look like candles but that are actually oil lamps). And then I helped decorate the Christmas tree. It was fun, but I think I may have inadvertently landed myself in the altar guild. I suppose that wouldn't be so bad. It's a rotating thing and not that much work.

My planned weekend of chick flicks kind of fizzled out, mostly because the first couple of movies I chose to watch turned me off chick flicks entirely for a while and I had to switch to documentaries and crime dramas to clear my palate.

First, there was Love and Other Drugs, which was essentially a Lifetime Disease of the Week movie, only with lots more nudity. Lots and lots of nudity and fairly graphic sex. This is not a movie to watch with your parents or with anyone of the opposite sex with whom you don't have a really good comfort zone. Definitely not a first-date movie. A pharmaceutical salesman meets a woman with early-onset Parkinson's disease and has some grand idea that since she must go to a lot of doctors, she could probably provide him good introductions to doctors he could sell to. Somehow that turns into one of those "this is just sex, it doesn't mean anything" non-relationships, but then of course they start falling in love, but then there's her illness, and along the way a new drug that I'm not going to name because it will attract tons of spam comments gets introduced. I'm not sure if this movie wants to be some grand statement on the health care and pharmaceutical industries, some exploration of love and disease, a raunchy guy version of a romantic comedy, or what, but it didn't work for me. I guess I'm just old-fashioned, but I like the idea of the sex coming after you fall in love, not before, and if the characters talk so much about how they don't really care for each other, why am I supposed to care about them or their relationship?

Then there was Going the Distance, which was just lame without trying to be profound and with less nudity, though with enough sex to make it another bad movie to watch with your parents/on a first date. This one's about a couple who meets in New York, has a one-night stand (sigh, I get that the whole no sex before marriage thing has totally gone by the cultural wayside, but does it always have to come before love now?), then decides they want to see each other again -- except she's only there for a summer internship during grad school and she'll be returning to Stanford in the fall, so it's supposed to be just for fun, no deep feelings. Of course, they do develop feelings, so they decide to try to maintain a long-distance relationship. They both work in fields where jobs are hard to find, and she doesn't want to sacrifice her career for a relationship because she's done that once before and that's why she's so far behind in life. So, there's lots of waffling and whining and sulking. I will give this one credit, though, for not having the Romantic Comedy Dash. No one makes the desperate, last-second sprint to reach the other person before it's too late. There's not even a publicly humiliating declaration of feelings.

However, both do show the "falling in love" process via montage to a pop song and both rely on the current gross-out trend of the guy having friends or family members who are the overgrown man-child type who talk way too much about bodily functions and who eavesdrop on the relationship.

After that, I resorted to watching the British series Whitechapel OnDemand. It's about a squad of detectives in the Whitechapel station who find themselves dealing with a copycat serial killer who's reproducing all the Jack the Ripper killings. That part was interesting, but what I really loved was the team. The detectives are a bunch of slobs who may even be a bit lazy, and then they get assigned a new boss who's relatively new and inexperienced but very politically connected and on a fast track to bigger and better things. He's supposedly just in this job long enough to gain that little bit of credibility before moving on in the hierarchy, and the team has zero respect for him at first. But as they investigate the case, they all start gradually changing. He learns a lot and learns to respect them, and they start smartening up their act as they grow to respect him. It was really fun (if a bit gory). I was mostly watching for the team stuff and read while they went through all the Ripper parts, which were a bit much for me.

I had some romantic comedies on DVD, but after those first two, I was afraid to try anything else new, and I wasn't in the mood for anything I had that was a known quantity. Next weekend starts all the Christmas programming, which means Lifetime starts the one time of the year when people are allowed to have happy endings instead of learning that their spouses are serial killers. We get to watch a bunch of Canadian and/or B-list actors (lots of SyFy channel regulars) fall in love in a Christmassy setting. Though I draw the line at any of those "Santa needs a wife" movies because Santa Claus is not my idea of a romantic fantasy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Starting the Weekend Early

I felt somewhat "off" all day yesterday, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of, but it looks like today will be better. For one thing, I got up at a slightly more reasonable time without having had realistic nightmares, and then my e-mail has been working. The main thing I need to do today is read, and it's a lovely, if chilly, day today -- one of my two favorite kinds of fall weather. It's what you might call "crisp" -- so I think I'll take another long walk and then sit in the woods to read. I've got Black Forest ham, good crusty bread and a few treats. I've been trying to de-spice my Thermos to carry ordinary tea. I thought the lingering spice scent might have come from the chai I took last week, but then I remembered that this was the Thermos I took to cold weather football games when I was in high school, which means it carried a lot of spicy tea.

It wasn't real spiced tea, though. I hadn't started learning about tea or drinking it (other than iced) at the time, but one of the popular "gifts from the kitchen" in those days was this spiced tea mix that involved lemon-flavored instant tea, Tang, cinnamon and cloves. You mixed a couple of spoons of this mix with hot water for hot, spicy tea. It was very popular as a teacher gift, presented in jars or tins, which is why we had a lot of it. It sounds hideous to me now (instant tea! Ew!), but I recall liking it quite a lot, and it made for a good warm drink while sitting in the stands during a football game. And now my Thermos smells like that stuff. It seems to have permeated the plastic. But it's been soaking with baking soda all week, and I think any traces of spice smell are all in my mind. If not, I guess I'll resign myself to bringing spicy teas on my walks.

I had this whole deep analysis of the fairy-tale themed shows currently on TV planned, but I suspect it would have gone epic, and I'm not really in the mood to do it justice now. That's the kind of thing I have to write the night before, and last night I was at dance class. Maybe I'll put it together over the Thanksgiving holiday to have to post some day in December, when I hope I'll be busy with income-producing work.

So, instead, I'm going to head off on my afternoon walk/reading time, then tonight it's a good TV night, and then a weekend of chick flicks.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Yep, it's Thursday

I'm really understanding Douglas Adams and his inability to get the hang of Thursdays. I started my day by oversleeping extremely. I got to bed late last night, then had very realistic nightmares. I had the hardest time dragging myself out of bed this morning. There was whimpering.

And then I couldn't get into my e-mail. I could occasionally get into my personal account that I use for most business, but my domain name account just hangs. Mostly, I get fan mail there, but that's the address my potential new client has been contacting me at, so I don't know if they're trying to reach me today. I got desperate enough while trying to get into my main e-mail that I resorted to trying to set up Outlook so I didn't have to use webmail, but that hasn't been successful. There's some security setting that isn't working, and all the online troubleshooting is for the Windows version of Outlook that's one year older than the Mac version I have.

I think this is all a sign that this should be a reading day. Or I should start my weekend early. I'd already been looking forward to the weekend because it's the last one in a while in which I have no appointments, obligations or plans. I'm thinking it's going to be a chick flick extravaganza. There are some movies on HBO OnDemand, and then I have DVDs I've never watched. I also have popcorn, something pink and sparkly, good bread (finally!), cheese and chocolate, plus ingredients for pizza. I may even get out the pink, fuzzy bathrobe (it sounds like I'm really into pink, and I'm so not, but sometimes it just works).

And all of this sort of counts for work (well, not the food, but the movies) because a couple of the ideas I'm working on kind of fit the mold of romantic comedy, but with a twist, and looking at "normal" romantic comedies is part of the research.

I think tomorrow will also be another long walk. I need to escape into my fantasy world for a while.

Now to go read and maybe my e-mail will repair itself while I'm gone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Ideas: Is it Enough?

I had a reader question that coincided with something I'd been thinking about, so I'm going to talk about ideas. Not where to get ideas. If you're having to ask where you can get ideas, then maybe you're not cut out to be a writer. Every writer I've ever known has had far more ideas than could ever be written in one lifetime. Ideas are everywhere, and they come constantly. The hard part is turning ideas into a book, and that's what I'll talk about.

The first trick is figuring out which ideas are enough to sustain a story. Not all of them are. A story needs conflict, and the longer the story, the more complex or strong the conflict needs to be. A novel needs a conflict that isn't easily resolved, that may be able to change or grow and that will affect the main characters on multiple levels, both internal and external. Dealing with this conflict should require the characters to make some serious choices that will change them in some way. When evaluating an idea, think about the potential for conflict and how the conflict might be resolved. If the conflict could be resolved if all the main characters just sat down and had a conversation (and there's no good reason for them not to have that conversation), then you don't have the kind of conflict that can sustain a story.

A novel also involves a lot of events. A good way to see if there are enough potential events to flesh out a novel in your idea is to make a list. See if you can come up with a list of at least twenty events that are inherent in your story idea. These don't have to be entire scenes -- several events could occur in one scene -- and you don't have to develop these events into one scene, but you need to figure out if stuff can happen.

But if your idea doesn't contain all the conflict or events you need to develop a story, that doesn't mean it's a useless idea. I often find that two different ideas may merge to create a solid idea. I have a lot of ideas floating around in my head at any given time, and every so often one may come to the surface and I'll think about it. I may add something to it when I think about it, and if it's still not "done," then I'll let it go back into the general mix. That's where ideas may collide or merge with each other and turn into something I can build a story on.

Ideas also need some input. Research can give you the kind of input that will add flesh to an idea. Even if you're writing about a subject you know, research will help spark additional ideas. Read about the setting -- time and place. Read about business types or careers related to your story. Read memoirs or biographies about people similar to your characters or who had to do the kinds of things your characters may have to do. I often find myself reading about historical situations even for books that will be in a contemporary setting, since history does tend to repeat itself. A war, conflict, crisis or other event may have parallels to something in my idea, even if it's on a much smaller scale in my story. You can also research elements that show up in a story -- music, art, various cultures, food, clothing, technology, etc. This kind of research may help you find sources of conflict or ways to add layers to the conflict in your basic idea and may give you ideas for more story events.

Even if you've got an idea that can sustain a story, turning an idea into a novel takes a lot of work, and that's what I'll talk about next.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Re-entering the Business World

I had a very business-y day yesterday, dealing with the paperwork to start my new freelance job, and the fact that it's been a long time since I've had to deal with this kind of stuff really showed. First, I needed a new cartridge for my laser printer. The old one still has some juice in it, but it made messy print-outs. It was fine for internal use, but it wouldn't work for something that had to be scanned or faxed. Then I went to fax the documents (these were PDFs that had to be signed, and I don't think I have the software to add a signature to a PDF, so that meant I couldn't do it without hard copy), and my fax machine totally died mid-way through. No dial tone, no read-out electronically. So I resorted to scanning on my flat-bed scanner, which meant a multi-page document took a while. Then I discovered that there's some kind of disconnect between my scanner and my new computer, even though I have the current driver for the scanner. The document would look fine in the preview window of the image capture application, but then the actual scanned document would be just a bunch of wavy lines. I resorted to scanning to the old computer, then transferring the files to the new computer to e-mail them.

Since my color ink jet printer is also dead, I may get an all-in-one fax/scanner/printer/copier. Most of my fiction work has been done entirely electronically, with no need for printing or faxing. The normal business world may be different. Both the fax and the scanner are at least ten years old. I probably could have tinkered with settings to make the scanner work, but I didn't have the time or patience and went with what I knew would work to send the documents I need to start work.

I'm hoping for a little less stress/hassle today. I'm also looking forward to immersing myself in fiction for a while. I have brainstorming to do, which means getting out the crayons and colored markers and letting myself get wildly creative. I want to apply some of the techniques I found in that book on creativity I found at the warehouse sale. After yesterday being all business, a good creative day should be fun.

It's also apparently Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, so if I can find the hazmat suit, I may give that a shot. It's the freezer that's the real issue. I have a vacuum sealer, which means I have a bad habit of buying in bulk, sealing and freezing, and then forgetting what I have and buying more. December may be "live out of the freezer" month.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Magical Land Across the Bridge

I did eventually drag myself out of the house to take my hike/walk, and I'm glad I did because it was pretty much a perfect day. I discovered that they've created a new way to get to the trails along the river from my neighborhood, and that makes it much easier to get there. There's a kind of canal/lake down the side of the neighborhood, and then the levee, and then the river basin where the park is. Before, the only way to get to the park was to go to around the lake, so it was about 40 minutes of walking from my house to get to the park to then start the walk in the woods. Now they've built a bridge from the middle of the neighborhood, at the end of the walking path that runs by the library, so I can get all the way to the park without walking along or crossing surface streets, and it's only about five to ten minutes beyond the library (I didn't time it, but that's what it felt like).

There's also something kind of magical about it. It reminds me of Stardust, where there's the Wall outside the village, and on the other side of it is a magical world that you can't really see from our world. In this case, there's a levee, and you can't see what's on the other side. You cross a bridge (iron, to keep the fairies on the other side out, of course) and climb the levee, and from the top, you can see both the neighborhood on one side and the forest on the other.

Here's the view of the bridge and the neighborhood from the top of the levee:

And then you follow the path (it sort of seems like it should be made of yellow bricks) down the other side of the levee, and it feels like the "real" world disappears as you enter this new world and follow the path into the woods:

The path stays mostly away from the river (probably because the river tends to flood), but there are spots where you can glimpse it between the trees:

I was out for about two and a half hours, though I did take a few breaks. There are occasional park benches, and I stopped to eat my sandwich, walked a bit more and then stopped to eat my apple, and then before I headed home I sat and had tea and cookies while reading a bit. It was just the right weather for it, warm enough to be comfortable but not warm enough to get hot with the walking. By tea time it was just slightly chilly. I haven't thoroughly explored the whole area. For instance, there's a non-paved path that I don't think is meant to be an official path, but there aren't any keep-out signs. I saw a couple of armadillos rooting through the underbrush, and there were a lot of squirrels. I will have to make a habit out of this. Last summer, they were doing a sermon series at church about sacred spaces -- the places that feed your soul and make you feel close to God -- and there was some discussion about beach vs. mountain. I think I'm a forest person, though I need some water in my forest, like a stream, river or lake. I like the whispering sound the wind makes as it blows through the trees, the crunch of leaves under foot, and the way the sunlight filters through laves and branches to dapple the ground. I think it would be good for my soul to escape to my magical land regularly.

And to top it all off, I was able to salvage a loaf of bread out of the starter that didn't really start. It did eventually get bubbly, but I figured it wasn't enough to make the whole recipe rise, so I improvised. It wasn't the best bread I've ever made, but it was just enough to enjoy with my cheese.

Then I had a very busy weekend and I would love to hibernate today, but I have to do some forms for this freelance gig, and my printer just completely ran out of toner, so I must leave the house.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thwarted Plans

I'm starting to rethink my grand plans for the day. It started last night when I stopped by the grocery store after ballet class to get supplies. They had all their gourmet cheeses on sale, along with Black Forest ham. My plan was to get some French bread to make a sandwich to take on my hike and then to have with my cheeses and maybe a glass of wine for dinner. But they were out of French bread. Because I don't deal well with having my plans thwarted, I came home and decided to make my own. It wouldn't be ready for a lunch sandwich, but I had some sandwich rolls in the freezer, and I'd still be able to have my cheese for dinner. I like to make a rustic bread that uses a starter you have to make the night before, so I mixed up the starter right away. For a moment, I contemplated leaving it at room temperature instead of in the refrigerator and then getting up in the night to make the dough before going back to bed while it rose (you can leave the starter at room temperature for 6 hours or in the refrigerator for 14 hours) so I could have bread for lunch, but I'm glad I decided not to because when I got up in the morning (at a reasonable hour), it turned out that the starter didn't start.

At first, I thought maybe I'd done something wrong, and I was thinking about starting over with a regular French bread, but then I thought before I started that, I ought to test my yeast. It turns out that the yeast I just bought last week was dead. I put it in warm water with sugar, and nothing happened.

I think I've talked myself out of making bread because I also need to make a batch of cookies today. I'm currently wavering on that hike/long walk because the wind was looking pretty gusty, but it seems to have calmed a bit, so maybe I will go. This is one of those things I keep saying I'm going to do but that I never end up doing. Things may get busy for me in the coming weeks if that freelance opportunity comes through, so I may as well take a "vacation" when I can get it. I have good ham and cheese, even if I don't have good bread (this neighborhood really needs a good bakery -- about the only bread I can buy without getting in a car is naan). I can make a small Thermos of tea, I've got some Honeycrisp apples and I've got some slightly imperfect cookies. It's a lovely day, even if there is a strong breeze.

There, I think I've just talked myself into it. Now to make my picnic lunch.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Preschool Social Dynamics

I managed to hit the sweet spot in timing for running errands this morning. I got gas without needing air and artillery support, even pulling right up to a pump (though there were at least two pumps that were blocked by people parking badly at the pump they were using), and then hit Target when it was nearly empty and there was no line to check out. Meanwhile, I got an incentive to clean my desk and keep it clear. In the dollar section at Target, they had a desk blotter 2012 calendar, with plenty of space on each day for appointments, plus room around the edges for notes and to-do lists. Now I just need to clear off enough desk space to be able to fit it and keep it clear enough to keep using it. I think the space for notes and lists should eliminate some of the stuff that goes on my desk.

We had a very trying night with the preschoolers, thanks mostly to preschool social dynamics. Sometimes I feel like I'm in a Wild Kingdom type show, observing the creatures as they interact with each other, except they don't let me have a tranquilizer gun. To start with, we had a clingy one in tears because she didn't want her mother to leave. I ended up with her on my lap, crying on me, for a while, until the rhythm band instruments came out and she forgot she was sad. Then we had the weirdest game of musical chairs I'd ever seen. Since the last time we played that, the kids were crushed and devastated when they were out, we decided to let the ones who were out play instruments. While we still had one or two who were actively competing in the game, most of the rest preferred the instruments. We'd stop the music and have three chairs remaining empty while the kids just stood around, refusing to sit in one because they wanted to be out. We ended up having to stop the game because no one was playing. Then once we were playing the instruments, the social dynamics came up. We were trying to rotate through who got instruments like the drums, small cymbals and wood blocks and who just got the sticks, but then there were those who refused to give up their instruments when it was time to rotate and those who refused to participate when they just had sticks. So we had to take up the instruments and move on to something else.

Then we have a very odd best friend dynamic. There are two girls who are apparently best friends and do everything together. They even carpool to come to choir. One seems much older and more mature and is a lot more confident (she's also really tall, the size of some of the first graders) while the other one still has a lot of baby to her, she doesn't always participate and hangs back shyly. Strangely, though, it's the little one who is dominant and knows it. The other one who seems so much more socially advanced will defer to the other one on every decision, wants to do whatever the other one does and seems much more desperate to have the other one as her friend. We had an activity where the kids needed to find a partner, and the one girl just assumed that her best friend would be her partner, but her friend refused. I think she thought she'd then get me as her partner, but I told her I was the teacher and wouldn't be anyone's partner. I sensed some serious hurt feelings about to kick in, so I paired off the rejected one with a girl who didn't yet have a partner, and they made a good team, but the rejector refused to work with anyone. I think maybe next time we'll have to assign partners or do some kind of random selection because letting them choose turns into a political mess. I could have used that tranquilizer gun. I may need to work on helping that one girl be a little more independent of her friend. Her dad seems to be aware of the situation, and he's been working on it, too, but maybe separating them some in choir will help.

If I get desperate enough to go back to school and study child psychology, I think I have the makings for my dissertation field research.

But today is cookie baking day, and since tomorrow is supposed to be really nice and I have nothing urgent to do, I think I'm going to pack a picnic and take a long walk/hike over to the river. We're starting to get some fall color, and I want to walk in the woods.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Unwelcome Twists

I've been freakishly productive this week, getting through everything on my to-do list, accomplishing house cleaning and even being fairly creative. Monday I cleaned my kitchen pretty thoroughly, and in spite of cooking dinner both Monday night and last night, it's still clean. Yesterday, I cleaned out my bathroom/closet area. My bathroom is kind of like a dressing room, where it's a fairly large room (for a bathroom) that has the usual bathroom stuff plus closets and open space in front of the closets, with mirrored doors on the closets that work kind of like fitting room mirrors. I put a chair in that area that was originally intended to be for sitting down while putting on shoes, but it turned into The Chair of Doom, where clothes I took out then changed my mind about, clothes I wore so briefly that I don't need to put them in the clothes hamper and sometimes even clothes I just need to fold and put away after doing laundry go to die. It was spilling over to the floor, and I made the room a lot neater by either putting away or washing everything that was on the chair. I also cleaned out the floor of one side of the closet, and I emptied the secondary Chair of Doom in my bedroom. Today's task is a little more daunting. I plan to clean my desk and the area around my desk.

While doing all this mindless work, the creative part of my brain kicked into high gear, and all those Inconvenient Midpoint Ideas were bobbing to the surface. I realized that some of the research for two of them overlaps, in spite of them actually being very different kinds of stories, so I can research two potential stories at once.

Speaking of midpoints, when I was talking last week about being leery of buying books at today's prices because so many have disappointed me, it wasn't something that the preview feature for e-books would help with. What I've found happening a lot lately is that the book makes a sharp turn about midway through and becomes something entirely different that isn't anything like what was mentioned in the cover copy or set up in the opening chapters. I can sometimes deal with a sharp turn into a darker story when the characters remain true to themselves, so that I can still like the characters I liked in the beginning, even if they're going through much more difficult stuff. But what I've seen a lot of lately is the characters themselves changing midway through a book, in addition to the story changing, and in a way that bothers me. I'll be going along, enjoying this fun adventure with characters I like, and then suddenly one of the main characters turns into a demon (it's so often a demon) and starts killing the other characters, and I'm saying, "But wait! I thought he was the hero! Okay, so he is killing the bad guys, but he's also killing the good guys -- including that girl I thought was perfect for him -- and bringing the world to the brink of destruction. I did not sign up for this!" I'm not a big fan of demon stories, but most of them are good enough to put it in the title or in the cover copy, since demons are apparently big now and a lot of people like them. But these are in books where there's no hint of demons previously. It doesn't have to be demons, though. It's just anything where the characters seem to abruptly change and start doing things that make it impossible for me to care about them.

Sometimes it strikes me as the author having an Inconvenient Midpoint Idea and just incorporating it into the book he's writing, since he's totally stuck at the middle and isn't sure what to do. It's like, "Hey, I know! The hero turns into a demon and kills everyone!" And then the editor's response, instead of being, "Um, did you maybe get your manuscript pages mixed up? Because the second half of this book doesn't seem to fit the first half. And we've already designed and printed the covers," is more like, "Wow! It's so unexpected! I love it!" I suppose it is unexpected if the hero turns into the villain and attacks the heroine midway through the book instead of falling in love with her and teaming up to defeat the bad guys, but to me it's not a very satisfying read. I get nervous now whenever I reach the middle of a book, and I'll skip ahead and read a random page to make sure the main characters are still more or less the same people they were and that the word "demon" doesn't come up too often. I was reading a book yesterday that made me really nervous as I neared the middle because I could see the possibility of things going wonky, but it ended up working out okay -- enough that I may actually buy a copy after getting it from the library (it's from a publisher whose books tend to do that sharp veer into "Huh?" so I was leery of buying it and didn't read it until the library finally got a copy). I'm not sure how to avoid this kind of trap since the usual book-buying tricks don't seem to work. About the only thing that might flag this is the reader reviews on Amazon, but I so often tend to disagree with them, and it seems like the reviewers think the twist I hate is brilliant writing.

Maybe I just have bad taste.

I let myself spend most of the past couple of days reading mostly for fun, but today will be more of a work day, with desk cleaning and research reading.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Tinfoil Hats and Inconvenient Ideas

I may need to start wearing tinfoil hats because either I'm tapping into other people's brainwaves and picking up on their ideas or other people are tapping into my brainwaves and picking up on my ideas.

The latest case: Yesterday I was taking advantage of having some free time by cleaning my kitchen thoroughly. As so often happens when I'm doing mindless work, an old Inconvenient Midpoint Idea bubbled up to the surface.

As an aside, an Inconvenient Midpoint Idea is one of those shiny new ideas that strikes just when you're slogging through the middle of a book, when you've passed the fun and excitement of initially creating the characters and discovering their world but you aren't yet at the exciting conclusion. You're doing the hard part that requires thinking and planning, and at times you're tempted to write "and then the aliens landed and killed everyone. The End." The Inconvenient Midpoint Idea is The Other Woman of writing. The book you're working on is the reality of what happens after the initial thrill of the idea, when it's work that's sometimes tedious. It's the very non-glamorous part of writing. But then that shiny new idea pops up, and it's all fantasy. It doesn't yet have all the work and thinking attached to it, and it's easy to forget that if you pursue it, eventually it will be the book you'll be slogging through when yet another idea pops up. A lot of potential writing careers are sabotaged by the Inconvenient Midpoint Idea when writers are lured by the shiny new idea that's so much better than the thing they're working on, and as a result, they never actually finish a book because they jump to the new idea when things get hard.

This particular Inconvenient Midpoint Idea hit me in the spring this year, and it was particularly inconvenient because it was an idea for a sequel to the book I was working on. There was no point in even stopping to consider this idea until I finished the current book and sold it, but that didn't stop it from consuming my brain. I did a big brain dump, just writing down everything in my head about it, and that allowed me to submerge it in my subconscious so I could get back to work. Since I've finished that book, that idea bounced up for further consideration.

And that's when I realized that my idea is very similar to a couple of things that have come on TV between then and now -- things I had no idea were coming when I had this idea. Considering production schedules, I'd guess they were gearing up for production, maybe finalizing the initial scripts, around the time I got my idea.

Of course, these ideas would have been in development for some time, but then so was mine. It actually started with a dream I had years ago when I essentially dreamed an episode of a TV series. I liked some of the plot elements of that dream and mentally played with them off and on, figuring out how they might develop over a hypothetical season of the series (yes, this is how I amuse myself). I really liked the story I came up with for the "season finale," and then I started trying to figure out how I could take that story and remove it from the universe of that series, file off the serial numbers, cast new characters and make it an entirely new story. I'd already stolen another aspect of the daydreaming that came out of this dream for something else, but this one was more difficult.

So the Inconvenient Midpoint Idea that came probably around the time these series that turned out to be based on something really similar were going into production was about how that concept could work with the characters I was writing at the time, and then I knew how I could make use of that concept, with it being the natural follow-up to what I had planned to happen at the end of the book I was working on. That turned it from an "idea" to a "story idea."

And, no, I'm not telling what it is because I think by the time I'm through with it I'll be the only one who notices the similarities, but if I say something, then that will be waving a red flag so people will be looking for parallels or similarities. If it ever gets published. And, no, the idea doesn't have anything to do with fairy tales, so that's not the trend I subconsciously plucked out of the ether. There was one thing I was planning to throw in as what would have been a subtle inside joke that I will have to change because that will make the comparisons more obvious now, but while I'm exploring similar things, the actual story will end up being very different.

But, really, I may have to shield my brain when I'm working. I don't like having to twist so hard to avoid looking like I'm copying. It's bad enough that the book I was reading yesterday turns out to have some thematic similarities and even similar terminology to a book I wrote last year. It's different enough that I might be the only one who sees the similarities, but it's still disconcerting.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On

I had a rather earthshaking weekend -- literally!

I'd spent all day Saturday in a massive proofreading session, the kind of thing where I read an entire book out loud in one day. It was more than seven hours of work, with breaks here and there. I finished a bit after 10:30, and there's always a kind of adrenaline-fueled exhaustion that comes after something like that, where I'm dead tired and can barely keep my eyes open, but I'm also too wired to actually rest. I curled up on the sofa to watch a DVD, and then I thought I was in really bad shape because my head started swimming. I lay back on the sofa, hoping that would make me feel better, but then it seemed like the sofa was shaking. I'd consumed copious quantities of sugar and caffeine throughout the day, so I was pretty much vibrating already and I assumed it was just me. But then I noticed that the safety cage on the nearby fan was quivering. That was when I realized that it was an earthquake. We just got the tremors coming off the earthquake in Oklahoma, so it was very subtle, but that made it rather unsettling. I thought for a moment that it might have been a really big truck sitting at the traffic light behind my house, since those often rattle my windows (and set off my security alarm), but this was a different kind of shaking. It wasn't so much a vibration like that is, but more like being on the water. I felt a little seasick. It seemed to go on for a long time, at least a full minute, but I remember where on the DVD I was watching it started and stopped, so I guess I could go back and figure out the timing.

I know that even the main earthquake was minor in California terms, but this was the first time I'd ever encountered anything like it. The local late news was on, since it had been delayed by a football game, so I switched over to that and eventually they reported that an earthquake had happened in Oklahoma at that time, and then later in the newscast they mentioned reports of tremors in our area, so I knew I wasn't crazy and that I really had felt something.

Now I know how to describe it if something similar happens to a character. I know how it feels when artillery fire lands nearby, and that's the way I'd imagined an earthquake would be, but this was very different.

Meanwhile, my major project is done and off my plate entirely. However, I may have scuttled my plans to take it easy the rest of the year. I ran into one of my favorite former clients at the party Friday night (I guess the fact that she's the only former client I'm really in touch with and we're still friends and interacting socially to the point that she's introduced me to her friends means she's my favorite former client), and she's got her own agency now. She mentioned that she was desperate for freelance writers and before I knew what I was saying (wine was involved), I said I was done with my big deadline for the year, so I could pick up a few projects. She was excited because she'd wanted to ask me but was afraid I'd be too busy. I'm already pretty far ahead on potential books and need to give my agent a chance to catch up, and even if one of these projects does eventually sell, it could be at least six months before I see any money, so it won't hurt to spend some time on paying work. Income is good. Besides, I seem to be more productive when I'm busier because I have to manage my time better. And since it's totally freelance and project-by-project, if I get too busy or need a break, I can just decline a project. She said these were things I could probably write in my sleep.

But for today, since I don't yet have projects or deadlines and since I just finished something, I'm planning a nice reading day. Though the reading counts as input for a brainstorming session I have planned for tomorrow, so it's still "work," but the nice thing about my job is that reading is part of my work.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Renting Books?

My ballet teacher is back and everything in class is back to normal -- including having other people in the class -- so at least that part of my world is right once more. When your main form of stress relief becomes stressful, that makes things difficult. But since I'd missed a couple of classes after being scarred for life by the one-on-one session, I suspect some soreness will kick in later today. I hope it's not too bad because I've got a party to go to tonight, a real grown-up party. It's a wine tasting, so that means no Tylenol.

This week, Amazon started a kind of rental program for e-books. Right now, it sounds kind of like a Netflix model -- Prime members can borrow up to one book a month, one at a time, with no due date -- but it also seems like they're trying to demonstrate that e-book rentals can work before rolling out something on a bigger scale. As usual with anything new, that's resulting in the publishing industry wailing, gnashing their teeth, rending their garments and screaming, "The world's coming to an end!!! We're all going to die!!!"

As a reader, I think this sounds like an awesome idea and might be the sort of thing that would push me into buying a Kindle (I'd prefer something less proprietary -- and if other e-book vendors do this sort of thing, I'd go with that). I might actually start spending money on books again. Due to a variety of reasons, I've bought only two new books this year and I've set foot in a bookstore twice. That's in spite of me being a big-time reader.

One reason is convenience. My book purchasing declined significantly when they opened a new library branch a couple of blocks from my house. I hate to drive, and if I can take a very pleasant walk to a place where the books are free, then that's what I'll do. I imagine I might buy a few more books if it were the bookstore instead of the library just down the street.

But I think a bigger part of the reason is a combination of price, current publishing trends and clutter. When mass market paperbacks were about three dollars, they were an impulse purchase. I was a lot more willing to take a chance on something that sounded interesting because it was no big loss if I didn't like it. Now a mass market paperback is about eight dollars. Buying one is a decision, and it's a bigger loss if I don't like it. Meanwhile, what editors currently think people want to read is not lining up with what I want to read, so there are very few books I'm interested in purchasing these days, and even when I hear they're good, the subject matter is iffy, so I'm not eager to shell out eight bucks to see if maybe the book overcomes the subject matter. In most of the cases when there was something that sounded interesting to me and I bought the book, I've been burned by discovering that the book itself still fit more with the current trends than with my interests. I've gotten into a couple of new series in the past few years, but otherwise all the new books I've bought have gone straight into the "sell to the used bookstore" box. I haven't even shared them with my mom because I know she wouldn't like them. And that brings me to the clutter problem. My house is overflowing with books, so I don't want to add anything new that I don't love. If I buy a book and don't like it, then I have to deal with it in some way. Most of the new books I've bought in the past few years have been either authors/series I already know I like or keeper copies of books I initially read from the library. I know an e-reader would eliminate the clutter problem, but that still leaves the problem of paying eight to ten dollars for something I end up not liking.

But if I could pay two or three dollars to rent an e-book for a few weeks, I'd spend a lot more money on books because it's a lower risk. I'd be a little more adventurous, try a lot more new authors, and I'd get things when they first became available instead of waiting for them to show up at the library. It would be cool if you had the option to buy a book after renting it and your rental fee applied to the purchase price, so if I did like a book enough that I might want to read it again, I could have a copy to keep. If I didn't like the book, it wouldn't be left cluttering my house or my e-reader. I'd probably still buy the same books I already buy, but I'd then be spending a fair amount of additional money on the rentals, and the rentals would likely lead to a few more full-on sales than there would have been without them. I might still use the library a lot, but there are a lot of things (usually the mass market genre fiction) that I can't readily find at the library, and that would add to the library as a way of test driving books before I buy them.

As an author, I also think this is a great idea. I'd rather get maybe 25 cents a copy from a rental book (about what I got in royalties per copy when I wrote mass-market paperbacks that sold for $3.50) than not get anything at all from people not buying my books because they weren't willing to pay the full price for a book they weren't sure about. And then there's always the chance that the rental would lead to a purchase and then subsequent purchases of other books I've written. The boom in self-publishing, with success coming from mass sales of very low-priced e-books, has shown that e-book readers are willing to take chances when there's little financial risk. It seems silly for publishers not to come up with a model to take advantage of that, and rental seems like a way to offer a lower price while still not entirely eliminating the market for selling books. There are people who never re-read books, but they tend to be voracious readers who would still amount to a lot of revenue even just from rentals. I think, though, that a lot of avid readers do want their own copies of books they know they love, even if they've already read them. Even if they don't, I'd bet the numbers would still work out due to volume. You could make more money on five people renting a book than you would on one person buying a book, and while the rental option might mean some would-be purchasers would rent instead, I think there would be far more people renting who otherwise wouldn't have bought the book.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Dreams from the Other Reality

I got the edits that I'd been waiting for entered, and now I'm letting the book rest a little before I devote my Saturday to re-reading the entire thing straight through so I'll catch any continuity issues that might have arisen from the edits. And then I will be done! Done! I think then I'll take a break for the rest of the year. It won't be total slacker party time, but I will try to get some balance in my life. I have a couple of projects that are in a "pick at it" phase where it's probably best to do a little at a time, focusing on working on specific aspects rather than diving in head-first. I also want to do a big fall cleaning on the house. I've tried doing the small bits at a time thing, and that hasn't worked. I just need to go with my all-or-nothing nature and devote a few days to the effort. That may give me enough of a boost to keep going to finish more gradually. And then I want to catch up on my reading, watch some movies, maybe do some day trips around the area, go hiking, bake and generally have a life.

Meanwhile, I have to ask: How long do I need to be out of school before I stop having the "I have an exam in the class I've been forgetting to go to!" nightmare? The other night I had a particularly pervasive one, as it followed me through multiple dreams. I was tracking the guy who was fighting a Terminator and searching his last motel room when I had a nagging feeling I was forgetting something, looked in my bag, and found a class schedule and realized I was missing a class. Then there was another dream where I was on a vacation with my mom, and I found the class schedule again and realized I was missing a class. Then there was a dream more about the forgotten class where I learned there was an exam coming up, and it was an art history class where it was all lecture and slides, so I couldn't catch up by reading the textbook, so I knew I had to start going to the class. But then there were still more dreams about lots of other things, all of which included some element of me not being able to get to that class because I only remembered it while the class was already in progress. I finally woke in a panic and had to remind myself that I've been out of school for more than 21 years. And I never took art history (though I did take one history course that involved art and literature from the time period being studied, and that did involve a lot of slides, but I got an A in the class with little effort because I loved it, so I don't know why it would trigger anxiety).

I swear, on my deathbed I'll wake up briefly from a deep sleep, and my last words will be, "I've got an exam in art history, and I've been forgetting to go to class." Though the class varies in the recurring nightmare. Sometimes it's a foreign language, sometimes it's English literature. Sometimes I don't even know what it is other than that I'm missing it. When I was actually in school, I kept dreaming that I was skipping ROTC, and I was never in ROTC (though my dad taught it when I was a small child, and I was the mascot for their drill team).

I ought to start tracking occurrences of this nightmare to see if it maps to anything in the real world. There must be some anxiety that triggers it. Like maybe rushing to get a project done after having to wait for someone else's input that didn't come until after the deadline. That certainly breeds anxiety, but I wonder if there's something else out there I'm forgetting to do.

Now I'm thinking that there might be a story in there somewhere, like one reality leaking into another, so you're getting anxious about stuff the other version of you is supposed to be doing or should have done years ago.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Conveying Character

One little correction to yesterday's post: the author Kim Newman I mentioned is a "he" not a "she." I should have noticed that they used masculine pronouns in the intro to the story, but then he handled a female POV character well enough that I never got that "man writing from woman's point of view" vibe.

I've been talking about character development for a while -- about figuring out who these people are from the inside out. But all that planning and thinking doesn't do any good until you put it into the story, and that's where things get tricky. "Show, don't tell" is one of those writing mantras that gets repeated a lot, and characterization is one of the main areas where it applies. You can't tell readers that a character is brave, kind, impatient, evil, curious, etc. You have to show it through the character's actions.

A brave character will take on the school bully on the playground, will volunteer for the dangerous mission, will stand up to the boss, will eat the strange foreign food that makes everyone else at the table queasy. A kind character will do nice things for people and notice when people may be in need of help. A curious character will ask questions and investigate and won't be brushed aside with partial answers. You get the idea.

But it's not just big actions that show who a character is. You can also convey character traits through little mannerisms and body language. The impatient person is probably going to be a little fidgety, not sitting still, maybe pacing, and will interrupt or finish other people's sentences. A shy person blushes easily, may not make eye contact, won't initiate conversation and may maintain a larger than normal personal space bubble. The curious person may be nosy about everything, asking a lot of personal questions, picking up and looking at items, reading anything left lying around. The important thing about using mannerisms to convey character is that you have to be consistent and persistent, but you don't want to overdo it. Unless something happens to change the character, these actions should continue through the whole story, in every scene where they apply. It's way too easy to start the book really showing the character and then forget to carry these traits throughout. But then you don't want to go overboard with these actions so that the reader is shouting "I get it, okay?" It should almost be subliminal, where the reader just gets the impression you're trying to convey without noticing that you're trying to convey it.

It can help to make a list of actions and mannerisms that might convey the key aspects of your character. Then you'll be less likely to keep going to the same ones so many times that they become annoying. Your plot should also help convey character, since the choices the characters make will affect how the plot progresses (or else the plot turns will reveal character -- it's a chicken-and-egg thing). If your plot has your character choosing to take on the dangerous mission, you're showing that he's brave. If the plot has him going into hiding instead, then let's hope that "brave" isn't a character trait you're trying to convey.

One area where you may resort to "telling" is in the way other characters react to a character. Other people in the story may talk about this person, which means they're telling their impressions or attitudes (and the fact that they're telling these things is in turn an action on their parts that shows us something about their character). People are probably going to say nice things about a kind or brave person, and the fact that people like this person will help your reader see the kind of person he is.

If there's any conflict or contradiction between showing and telling, readers will believe the showing over the telling. No matter how often you tell us what a person is like, we're going to believe what the person actually does. This is often where the "Mary Sue" effect shows up, when the author overidentifies with a character to the point of losing all objectivity. In those cases, all the other characters will talk about how great this character is and this character will be universally loved -- and yet we never see the character doing anything that gives any reason for this universal appeal. We just see this bland, empty person that all the other characters tell us is great, and we don't believe the other characters.

However, you can use that show vs. tell conflict to effect if you do it deliberately. It can work if your character has a secret identity -- people treat Peter Parker or Clark Kent like they're useless wimps, but we see them acting like superheroes. Or it can work if the other characters just don't get this character, so they say he's one thing but we see through his actions that he's another way. Or you can use it to try to keep readers guessing. In a book I'm working on now, we hear about a character from the other characters before we meet her, and when we actually meet her, she's not at all what we expect based on the way others talk about her. But then once we start seeing her in action, we can kind of see why people see her that way, but we can also see that they're not getting the whole picture, and it takes a while for the viewpoint character to figure out what she's really like. Carrying that off requires a mix of showing and telling, with clashes and sometimes agreements between the showing and telling. But you have to do this on purpose for a reason. Otherwise, it just looks like you don't understand your own characters when there's a clash between the showing and telling.

This wraps up the series on characterization. I'm open to questions on other topics related to writing and the publishing business.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Recent Reading

The scariest part of Halloween for me was when the church across the street from my house (I live on a corner and the church is on the adjacent corner) had a "fall festival" carnival that involved a live band playing outdoors, extremely amplified. They sounded like a bad Gin Blossoms cover band -- very mid-90s slacker monotone whining rock -- though I would imagine the lyrics were rather more religious. It was loud enough that it was uncomfortably and distractingly loud in my house, with the windows closed. To make matters worse, the noise was really upsetting my neighbor's dog, who howled constantly in protest. And then the squeals of what I believed to be teenage girl band groupies started carrying across the street. I resorted to ear plugs, but the drum beats still carried, which made it fairly hard to concentrate on the serious editing work I was doing. Fortunately, they stopped playing at eight. I couldn't help but wonder what the neighbors who protested when the owners of that lot were trying to change the zoning from office to commercial to put in a small shopping center had to say about the noise. They thought a retail center would mean more noise and traffic, but the office park we got after the zoning fight is mostly taken up by a church, and I doubt the retail center would have ever had live bands playing outdoors at night. I guess it's only a couple of times a year, and the church does provide assistance and bottled water to victims of the frequent accidents at the intersection, but I could do without the outdoor concerts across the street.

I haven't talked about books in a while, so here's a wrap up of some recent reading. I've been trying to tackle some things from the towering To Be Read pile, and most of them haven't been worth talking about, but I did find one gem that's a perfect example of Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover. I got a novella collection called The Fair Folk in the goody bag at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006 (at least I think that's where I got it), and it's languished in the TBR pile mostly because it has a cover that looks like what you see on really bad self-published or extremely small press (the kind of "small press" that mostly exists to publish the author and her friends) books. It's not so much that the art is all that bad, but there's just something about the way the cover is designed and printed that screams "cheap and cheesy" to me. It turns out that the book is full of novellas by rather distinguished, award-winning authors, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. The theme is the fae -- not the cute Disney fairies with butterfly wings, but delving into the folklore version of fairies/elves/fae. I'd read a lot of the authors involved but will be looking up some of the others. In particular, there was a story by Kim Newman that seemed to come from a universe she's established in other works that's sort of a steampunky/gaslight fantasy with a secret society that investigates strange occurrences in Victorian England, and I want to read more about that world. Unfortunately, this collection appears to be out of print.

I picked up what I think must be the latest (it was on the library's new books shelf, but that doesn't mean much in my library) of the Elemental Masters series by Mercedes Lackey, Unnatural Issue. Finally, the book about Peter (a recurring character who provides a lot of the connective thread to this series but who hasn't yet been the "hero" of a book). These books are all loosely based on fairy tales, but the connections aren't overt. Some of the fun is figuring out which tale is being used by finding the patterns. I think this one was based on "Donkeyskin," the one in which the princess has to flee her home when her father decides he has to marry her, since he swore he couldn't marry any woman who isn't as beautiful as his late wife, and the daughter grows up to look just like her mother, so he sees her as the only option. It's a Cinderella-like story, as the princess ends up working as a servant in another king's castle. This book got a bit creepy, what with the father wanting his daughter and all (in a way that's actually ickier than the original fairy tale), and then it gets into the start of WWI, and you can just imagine what can happen when you combine a necromancer and trench warfare. But I really liked the main characters and the way the relationships develop. It's books like these that I read for my romance fix because the romantic aspect is more satisfying to me than the romances in most romance novels.

Then the book that kept me up way too late Sunday night was Goliath, the final book in Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy. I'm going to have to re-read the end, since I was barely staying awake for the last few chapters. I was really tired and wanting to sleep, but I couldn't put the book down so close to the end of not only that book but of an entire trilogy. I've learned that when I do that, I tend to dream bizarre endings to the book and don't sleep well, so I may as well stay up and read. But then I miss a lot when I read while barely awake. This series is about a girl who disguises herself as a boy to join an airship crew, and then a fleeing Austrian prince who gets picked up by the airship at the start of an alternate version of WWI. Things get a little complicated when the girl falls in love with the boy but she can't do anything about it because he thinks she's a boy and because he's a prince and she's a commoner. In this volume, their ship picks up a mad scientist in Siberia who thinks he's invented a weapon that can end the war. And meanwhile, the girl's secret becomes less of a secret and they have to deal with the consequences. I enjoyed the book, but I may not be entirely satisfied with the outcome to the series, though it's possible I'm applying adult standards to a YA series. After all, these characters are 16. Their lives shouldn't be decided and settled, so it's probably going to feel a little unfinished to me as an adult. Though this trilogy has ended, the outcome does leave some threads hanging that might lead into another series with the same characters as they move into the next phase of their lives, and I'd like to see that.

I'm really behind on my reading this year, so I hope to catch up in the next couple of months. I think I'll go on a lighter schedule after I get this one project done, and then I can do a lot of reading (which is still work-related).