Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Layoff Day!

Today marks a momentous anniversary. Ten years ago today I got laid off from my last "real" job at a PR agency. I had a lot of money in savings and I had some freelance opportunities, so I took the plunge and instead of trying to find another job, I decided to try to make it on my own and really focus on my writing. And I haven't had a "real job" since then. I've worked for myself for longer than I worked at any other job. It hasn't always been easy. I've mostly been able to make it because I had all that money in savings. In my best years, I've come close to earning what I did in my PR job. In my worst years, I've been below the poverty level and living off my savings (and think of that before you illegally download a book -- most authors are in the same boat I'm in). But I've been far, far happier even without money than I ever was in a regular job with a steady paycheck. I guess I don't play well with others because going to an office and dealing with people all day is so draining to me that I don't get much writing done and I can't sustain much of a social life. Staying at home and focusing on writing all day means I can have a life outside work without going insane.

I celebrated by going to the dentist. Whee! Actually, I happened to have a cleaning scheduled for today. Then I stopped by the church to pick up the music for Sunday, since I got an e-mail this morning letting me know I have a solo in the piece and I thought practicing it before choir practice might be a good idea, and then I got groceries.

This afternoon, I have a good adolescent wallow scheduled. I re-read I Capture the Castle yesterday because there are a lot of parallels between that narrator and my heroine, even though the stories are entirely different, and I think that book does such a beautiful job of capturing that coming-of-age emotion. It's probably a good thing that I didn't discover it when I was a teenager or I'd have become obsessed and filled scores of notebooks with pretentious journal entries about my life, trying to imitate what was in the book. I also re-watched the movie last night, and while I normally like the movie and book equally, it really doesn't work to watch the movie too soon after reading the book. If it's been a year since I read the book and it's not too fresh, the movie seems like the perfect adaptation. If the book is too fresh in my mind, the movie bothers me because while it gets a lot right, it gets the wrong things wrong, and the book is so vivid that I'm not sure if what I'm remembering seeing in my head is from the book or the movie, so I'm disappointed when a scene I know I've seen isn't actually in the film.

Being locked in a castle dungeon would probably do wonders for my productivity. For now, I have to settle for being locked in my office or on the "library" loft outside my office.

Anyway, I think I've found the parallels from my own teen experiences to some of the things my heroine experiences, and now I'm going to dig out my college acting textbook to re-read the chapters on applying your experiences to a character because it works just as well in writing. It's funny that the college textbook I've most often referred to after college and the course that I probably use the most was the "acting for non drama majors" (aka Jock Drama) course I took pass/fail my senior year because I had almost all the credits I needed to graduate but needed one more class to maintain "full time" status and keep my scholarships, but I was interning and needed a light course load. I was one of three people in the class who wasn't a varsity athlete. But that made it very low-pressure for performing because no matter what I did, I'd be miles ahead of most of my classmates. Strangely, every character I played in the scenes we had to act out was the flighty, scatterbrained, slightly slutty type. That meant I really had to stretch out of my comfort zone. Fortunately, it was spring semester, so I didn't have to worry about traumatizing the football team (I did that enough in the fall when they were trying to date my roommate).

Maybe tomorrow will be the "celebration" day, since it will mark the tenth anniversary of the start of my self-employment. I may go to the library and get something decadent at the coffee shop next door.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Recapturing My Youth

I finished the latest draft of The Book That Will Not Die on Saturday -- well, except for one line that I subsequently realized needs to be fixed. Meanwhile I had a chat with my agent on Friday about revisions I need to make on another project. That's going to require a complete mental gear shift as I'm changing styles of writing, kind of story, time period, point of view, narrator and age range.

The difficult one is age range. This is theoretically a young adult book, but the heroine is still coming across as too "old." When my agent was suggesting the things that might make her seem more like a teen, they were all things I thought I put in the book, so I probably need to take them a bit further. I wasn't ever really a "teenager" in the way we tend to think of them. I think I was born thirty and was always old for my age until I reached that point and am now young for my age, having passed that point.

But then if I'm honest with myself, I did go through all those feelings, even if I didn't share or express them or act on them. You can behave maturely even if you're churning up inside, and what I remember is more the behavior than the feelings.

So, the project for the day is a mini "retreat" to change mental gears. I'm reading some YA books that come close to the kind of heroine I'm writing -- reserved behavior, but deep feelings -- and I may even do some journaling to try to get my mind back to my youth and remember my first crush or the boy I liked in high school that I thought also liked me but who always went cold just when I thought we were getting close. Now I wish I'd kept a diary where I recorded all those deep thoughts. Instead, I sat on the back porch and poured out my feelings to my dog because he was warm and cuddly and obviously loved me back in the way a diary couldn't have. It's nice to get a "but I love you" response when you're crying about some boy not loving you.

Now I need to get out the Air Supply, the soundtrack to my adolescent romantic angst (I switched to Survivor in late high school and college, even though most of their music came during my high school years). Unfortunately, I only had Air Supply on LP and no longer have a turntable. I may have a cassette I made so that I could indulge in the romantic angst in the car, but I'm not sure it still works. I'm sure YouTube will come through in a pinch.

Warning to my friends: I may be very difficult to deal with for a while until I get into the mindset well enough to write it and then get into the groove enough to separate myself from it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Not-So-Brief Intro to Downton Abbey

I'm still liking my crazy book. In fact, I was up until almost one in the morning because I couldn't put it down while editing. I'd get to the end of a chapter and say just one more chapter, until my eyes would barely stay open anymore and I knew I wasn't truly editing. That's got to be a good sign, right, if as many times as I've read this (this has to be about the tenth time), I can't put it down?

I'm going to have to really work today if I want TV time tonight, since an era ends with the series finale of Chuck. It's been a shadow of its former self lately, but I still want to see how it ends. However, my current TV obsession is Downton Abbey. I have to admit that it's essentially a soap opera, but it has British accents and history and it's on PBS, so it counts as Quality Television.

We're in the second season now, but for those who haven't yet discovered it, the series follows a British noble family and their servants, starting in 1912. The earl is one of those British noblemen who bolstered his dwindling estate by marrying an American heiress. That worked out well for him, as they ended up falling in love and being very happy while the estate thrived, except for one teensy detail: they had three daughters, and the lovely home and all the lovely money (including the money the wife brought to the marriage) has to go with the title to a male. It's not too bad because the earl has a slightly distant cousin who has a son (making him an even more distant cousin -- they aren't hillbillies or the royal family) who is engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary, which means all the lovely money and the lovely house will stay in the family. And then the cousin and the cousin's son go down on the Titanic. Oops. Then things get interesting.

Lady Mary: Whew, I really dodged a bullet there.
Lady Edith, the middle sister: Wow, you really are a cold-hearted bitch. I see you've already gone into half-mourning. You may notice that I'm still wearing all black.

Normally, Mary would be the kind of character I hate, the beautiful snobby one. But I love her. Some of it may be residual awesome because Lady Mary is also Susan, Death's granddaughter, the nanny feared by the monsters under the bed, and I could totally see Mary riding Binky, Death's pale horse, and wielding a mean fireplace poker. But we do start seeing cracks in her icy facade that reveal a lot of vulnerability, and the surest way to make me crazy about a character is to first make me not like the character and then force me to change my opinion. Then I'll defend the character to the death.

After the Titanic, the new heir is Matthew, who is (gasp, shudder) a lawyer. This isn't a lawyer joke. They're just scandalized that he has a job. It's probably because his father set such a poor example for him by being a doctor. You know you're in bizarroland when the lawyer son of a doctor isn't considered a good catch until he becomes a potential future earl. Maybe this is why I like the series -- it counts as fantasy, as this place is even stranger than Narnia. The earl decides to make the best of the situation and invites Matthew to come live at Downton so he can get to know the estate he'll inherit and start studying Earling 101. Matthew's not entirely keen on all this and insists on continuing to practice law, saying he can earl on weekends. That baffles the family, mostly because they're not familiar with the concept of some days being different from others. (See, it's a total fantasy world. I bet they even have weekends in Narnia.) They also think it might be good if they can marry him to one of the daughters, which he's not keen on until he gets a look at Mary, and then he figures he might be able to take one for the team.

But the best thing about Matthew is his mom, a former nurse who is better known to Doctor Who fans as Harriet Jones, Prime Minister. She's totally on board with this nobility thing, even though she's awfully middle class about it.

Isobel: Isobel Crawley, future earl's mother
Everyone at Downton Abbey: We know who you are.
(that will only be funny to Doctor Who fans)

Isobel's nemesis is the earl's mother, Lady Violet, played by Maggie Smith, who is brilliant at every little moment, from her witty lines to her facial expressions to sitting in a swivel chair. Seriously, one of the best moments in the entire series consists almost entirely of Lady Violet and her first encounter with a swivel chair when she visit's Matthew's law office. Isobel likes to shake things up and Lady Violet wants everyone to stay the same. If she had her way, they might still be wearing animal skins and living in caves. It worked for their ancestors, so why should they presume to change things?

There's all sorts of other stuff going on, including the new valet that everyone hates until they all love him, except for the evil footman and the evil lady's maid, and then there's the sibling rivalry, the politically minded youngest daughter and the radical Irish chauffeur, the maid who wants to be a secretary and sneaks around studying typing, and the kitchen maid who doesn't realize she's totally barking up the wrong tree. Oh, and there's the dead Turkish diplomat in Lady Mary's bed, which becomes an ongoing problem (the fact of him -- he's not still there stinking up the house).

After a rocky start, Mary and Matthew actually become friends because they may be the only two people in this group who can carry on an actual conversation and say what they think to each other instead of maintaining the social facade. And then they fall in love and he proposes, but you know it can't be that easy. There's that issue of the dead Turkish diplomat that she feels she ought to tell him about but that she's afraid to tell him about, and then her mother has a surprise pregnancy, so he might not inherit, after all, and he thinks she's delaying because while she might marry the future earl, she won't marry a (gasp, shudder) lawyer. And then World War I starts.

That may have been a bad move. Well, yeah, the war was a very bad idea, but it also means that with Matthew off at war that makes it a challenge to come up with reasons for him to be around so we can have scenes of him and Mary gazing at each other. You see, he's moved on and gotten engaged to someone else, just as she's realized that she really does love him. So she keeps a picture of him under her pillow and prays for his safety every night, and gave him a cherished childhood toy to take to the front as a good-luck charm, but it's just because he's her beloved cousin (not too close a cousin, mind you, as they're not hillbillies or the royal family). And he takes her good-luck charm with him when he goes into battle and always seems to go to Downton, up in Yorkshire, first on leave rather than to London where his fiancee is -- but it's because of his family, of course, including his beloved cousin.

And they have lots of conversations along the lines of:
Mary: I'm just happy for you that you're happy being engaged to someone else.
Matthew: I'm happy that you're happy for me, since I just want you to be happy.
Mary: Well, I can be happy if you're happy.
Matthew: Then that makes me happy.
Lavinia (Matthew's fiancee): Oh, for heaven's sake, will you two just kiss already? I mean, I'm engaged to him, and I spend all my free time while he's at war or at Downton on leave writing romantic fanfic about you two.

I love me some good romantic pining, especially when it involves a man in uniform and a woman in lovely period costumes. I'm totally unspoiled, even though the second season has already shown entirely in England, but by the rules of war movies, Matthew might be in danger, what with that last heir thing and an engagement, but by soap opera rules, since he's in a romantic triangle, that might give him a chance of survival. I'm thinking there may be some shell shock, and we'll know which woman is right for him based on which one can deal with it. The fun thing is that his fiancee is actually likable and Mary is very nice to her, so there's no bitching. But there is still that dead Turk ...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pondering Book Viability

I discovered last night when my decongestant wore off a few minutes into choir rehearsal that it's very difficult to sing soprano when your sinuses are totally blocked. I could manage up to an F (and probably could have done a G if one had been in the music) because I can do that without going into my head voice, but when an A above the staff came up, that just wasn't happening. When it's more of a throat or chest problem, I can sing the high notes and not the low ones, but when it's in the head, high is the problem. I sort of made it through the rehearsal of the piece we're singing Sunday, and then I bailed because the more I tried to sing, the worse I felt. I'm doing a lot better today, even without drugs, but I'm really tired of the sniffling and sneezing. I'm still not sure if this is a major allergy attack or a mild cold, but I suspect this will be a weekend of hibernation to let myself rest and recover.

In spite of the stuffy head yesterday, I got some serious work done in reviewing/editing The Book That Will Not Die. The more I read this book, the more I love it. I'm just still not sure how viable it is. I love reading it, but I don't really get the "this is it!" tingle that I got from Enchanted, Inc. I don't know if it's because this book evolved gradually over time instead of coming to me as a flash or if it's because I'm less naive and more cynical about the publishing industry (so that I know my "this is it" doesn't coincide with the industry's) or if it's a bad sign that I don't have that much confidence in this book in spite of loving it. It's not exactly "high concept" in that it's very difficult to describe quickly and convey what's cool about it. It's sort of a "Tam Lin" story, only contemporary and about sisters, and there's a whole plot about what's going on with the fairies that's the reason one was taken, and trying to get her back gets the other sister into even bigger problems.

I've also noticed that while this book isn't really a mystery (the main character knows what happened and just has to figure out what to do about it), it has a lot of mystery-like elements, so maybe I've been moving in that direction without knowing it, or maybe writing this book got me headed in that direction. We have the heroine who's something of an amateur sleuth in that she's not officially a cop or detective (even if she happens to know more than the cops about this sort of thing), and then there's the real police detective who's also on the case (without knowing what's really going on) and who's suspicious about the amateur. There's even a bit of police procedure. I don't think this could be published as a mystery, though (if it can be published anywhere). I don't normally do the beta reader thing, but I may get a sanity check from some friends with this book before I send it to my agent, just to see if I'm the only one who loves it. And before people start volunteering, that will be limited to people I know personally whose reading taste and experience I'm familiar with.

Meanwhile, I've been continuing my mystery market research reading. I appreciate all the suggestions, and many of them are going into my "to be read" notebook for potential pleasure reading, but for the purposes of the current exercise, I'm looking at relatively recent (still being published, preferably started in the past few years) series that are published as mysteries and shelved as mystery in bookstores and that contain paranormal elements. I'm trying to read as many first books in as many series as I can, and then I'm getting subsequent books for series I like or that I think get close to what I'd want to do. Because genre lines tend to blur, it's entirely possible that whatever I do could still end up being published as fantasy (if it's published at all), but right now it looks like the fantasy/mysteries published as fantasy are darker and grittier, more noir than cozy, and since "cozy" is more my style, my hope is that the mystery publishers could be more receptive than the fantasy publishers have been.

One area where I may tend to stray from the mystery norm is with the world building. In most of these books I've been reading, the heroine and maybe one or two (usually older) relatives have the same or similar paranormal talents, and the rest of the world is very normal. I haven't yet seen a situation where the world itself has a little more magic in it -- aside from the Charlaine Harris books that were initially shelved as mystery (though that may have changed after the urban fantasy wave hit and after the series became a bestseller). I guess I'm more drawn to writing the "normal" person in a crazy world than the "crazy" person in the normal world, or else I like the idea of being in on the secret in spite of being normal, because all my ideas lean more toward the curious outsider discovering the location's secrets than to the gifted person whose gifts get her in trouble. However, having a location with secrets does give a reason why the per capita murder rate in a seemingly sleepy small town is higher than that of most major cities.

I've also started reading some "how to write a mystery" books I found in the library, and that's had me rethinking my series idea. Now I have two potential avenues I might take with my amateur sleuth. With one, I think I would like it better as a reader, but it will be harder to do and require more research. The other would be easier to write and might even be more marketable, but I kind of think it would be less interesting in the long run and I wouldn't like the character as much. But I still have a lot of work to do before I get to the point where that's an issue.

And first I have to finish editing this book.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Avoiding Cliches

Every so often one of those Internet lists of things writers should never do gets forwarded around -- usually lists of cliches for particular genres. They mostly seem to be written as humor aimed at those familiar with the genre tropes, but are often presented, or at least forwarded, with the idea that if you do any of those things in your book, your book will be cliched, derivative and awful and is guaranteed not to sell. The last time I looked at one of those lists for the fantasy genre, I realized that most of my favorite books would never have been written or published if the authors or publishers had taken a list like that seriously. The fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones wrote a humorous book on the cliches that come up in fantasy fiction (The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) and then wrote a whole series in which she proceeded to cleverly use all those cliches. There's a difference between a trope and a cliche -- my personal definition is that the trope is used as a framework upon which something original can be built, while the cliche stops at the superficial. How do you avoid doing it the wrong way and having a book full of cliches?

1) Know your genre.
The best way to avoid cliches is to know what they are and to see how the tropes have been used. You should have some working familiarity with what's selling in your genre today, but you should also look at the classics of the genre over the years and the roots of the genre. If you write mystery, you should probably have read some Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler and the like, as well as going back to Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allen Poe. For fantasy, you need to have read Tolkien and Lewis, and it's probably a good idea to have read some folklore and mythology. Doing the background reading will help you recognize the common tropes and cliches that pop up in today's books. It will also help you know when a commonly believed cliche isn't really one.

For instance, one of those "fantasy cliches you should never use" list mentioned the farmboy who turns out to be the rightful king. I've read a ton of fantasy, and I can only think of one book off the top of my head where that happened -- Lloyd Alexander's The High King, in which the assistant pig keeper becomes the king. Maybe this trope was overused in bad fantasy books that haven't stood the test of time enough for me to have seen them, but I don't think it's common enough that it falls into the "must avoid" zone. It was fairly common in fairy tales for the third son of a farmer or woodcutter to win the hand of the princess and end up becoming the king, but he did that through feats of skill or strength, usually magically aided because of some good deed he'd done. It's far more common in fantasy for some unlikely person -- the farmboy, baker's assistant, neglected orphan -- to find out he has some kind of magical powers.

2) Think about the cliche or trope
These things are popular enough to be overused for a reason (and not just writer laziness). Going back to the unlikely person becoming powerful trope, that really makes for a more interesting story than a likely person becoming powerful. There's not much drama or contrast in the son of a king becoming a king or the son of a wizard who grew up surrounded by wizard stuff becoming a wizard. Then there's the wish fulfillment angle of the reader. Most of us aren't children of royalty or wizards, so for us to achieve great power it would have to be an "unlikely person" story. We can put ourselves in the position of a character and vicariously enjoy finding out we're special. Going to another genre, I was once part of a conversation in which a group of romance novelists were griping to an editor about the marriage of convenience cliche and how maybe it was outdated. The editor said to think of what it represented -- legalized sex with a stranger. Once you know and understand how the trope works and why it's popular, you may be able to find ways to provide the same appeal in a different way.

3) Do your research
A lot of the cliches get propagated through writers using other novels as their research material. Your work will come across as more original if you get beyond the commonly accepted facts to what's really true. If you're writing quasi-medieval fantasy, do some good research into the real medieval period. If you're writing mystery, research true crime and police procedure. You may find a telling detail that helps you subvert or elevate the cliche and that will make your work come across as a lot more original.

4) Think it through and flesh it out
You'll have a cliche if you just stop at that usual plot trope. Put more thought into it and readers may not even consciously notice the trope because they'll be too busy reading about your three-dimensional characters. Take the example of the farmboy who's really the rightful king (whether or not that's really a cliche). How did the rightful heir come to be living on a farm? Say the king saw a coup coming and sent his newborn son off with his most trusted soldier and a nursemaid, and they hide out on a remote farm. Did the soldier grow up on a farm, so he knows what he's doing, or has he always been a soldier? What does he think about farming? What's his relationship to the nursemaid? Does the prince know who he is or does he think they're his parents? Does the soldier teach him soldier stuff, or is he so paranoid that he doesn't dare give even that much hint about his identity? What does the farmboy prince think about being on a farm? What are his ambitions? What does he think when he learns who he is? Do his ambitions change? How does his farming background affect the way he goes after his throne? You could probably get a dozen different stories based on this trope depending on the answers you give these questions. The key is to not stop at "farmboy who's really a prince" but to make him a real character with real goals and motivations who is affected by his environment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

How NOT to tell a Fairy Tale Story

I'm still in allergy la-la land. It's supposed to rain tonight, so if it is all the mountain cedar that got blown in from west Texas, I should feel better tomorrow. If it's a cold, maybe it will have run its course by then. I may have to start wearing a hazmat suit to direct the children's choir. Supposedly, after the first year or so of working with kids, you stop getting sick so often because you've built up an immunity to all the germs they spread around. I'm actually worse in my second year. As much as I enjoy working with the kids, I may have to reconsider it if it keeps making me sick.

Last night, since I wasn't feeling up to much of anything else, I decided to watch Red Riding Hood on one of the HBO channels. I hadn't heard great things about it (most of the reviews considered it a Twilight take on fairy tales), but I'm on a bit of a fairy tale kick lately, and there wasn't anything else on, so I gave it a shot, and I discovered The Movie So Bad That HBO (or maybe the satellite) Attempted Suicide Rather Than Show It. About halfway through the movie, the picture started pixilating badly, sometimes blacking out entirely or wobbling. At first, I thought I was losing yet another converter box that wasn't able to unscramble the signal, but all the other HBO channels seemed to be working fine. It was just this one movie, and it was to irritating to watch that way, so I gave up (and possibly preserved my sanity).

This was essentially a SyFy Saturday night movie, with bonus teen love triangle. We had the quasi-medieval setting, using what looked like the infamous Ye Olde Renn Faire Village set from all the quasi-medieval worlds ever visited on the Stargate series. We had attractive young people carved from wooden planks in the lead roles, capable Canadian actors with science fiction pedigrees in the supporting roles (Michael Hogan from Battlestar Galactica and Michael Shanks from SG-1 -- making me feel very old because he's actually a bit younger than I am and was playing the father of one of the love interests), and an acclaimed British actor slumming it in a highly promoted cameo role while feasting on the scenery. We had bad CGI monsters that only pop up occasionally because of budgetary reasons, so most of the movie is people acting scared of the monsters that might be out there. And we had absolutely horrible dialogue that couldn't decide whether it wanted to be hip and modern or quaintly old-fashioned, so that only the Canadian pros with extensive science fiction experience and the slumming British actor feasting on the scenery could pull it off with any aplomb. The carved wooden puppets playing the young people didn't stand a chance.

I think the SyFy Saturday night movie would have trimmed out the love triangle because it had very little to do with the plot and, besides, who needs character development when there are monsters? Not that the triangle really added any character development or even was a real "triangle." Our "Red" was in love with the brooding loner who had a knack for getting her to break the rules, but her family was betrothing her to the guy with a steady job who came from a well-off family. Her plan to run away with McBroody was foiled by a wolf attack on the village. Note to filmmakers: when casting for the two points on a love triangle, it's a good idea to get actors that the viewers can actually tell apart. Both were sort of low-rent Robert Pattinson types with similar coloring, who wore similar clothes and who had both made copious use of Ye Olde Hair Gelle (for that artfully tousled, semi-spiky look that was very in during the Middle Ages). When "Red" was upset about the betrothal, I couldn't figure out why she was upset because it looked to me that she was being made to marry the guy we'd just seen her running around the woods with. It took me a while to realize there were actually two different guys. I say if you can't tell them apart, go for the one with the job.

Then there was the rave scene. Seriously, they're celebrating killing what they think is the wolf that's been terrorizing the village (but obviously isn't because there's still an hour to go) by holding a rave, in which the kids dance together in what looks a lot like the dancing in the episode of Parks and Recreation where everyone got drunk on "Snake Juice" at the Snakehole Lounge and Ann and Leslie were fighting while doing very aggressive dancing with whatever guy they could drag to the dance floor. Only this movie wasn't supposed to be funny. Meanwhile, Ye Olde Village Bande is playing modern-sounding goth-lite rock on their authentic period instruments. Even aside from the dance scene, this movie had to have the most jarringly anachronistic score since Alan Parsons did the soundtrack for Ladyhawke (I love Alan Parsons' music outside of movies, but I would love a recut of that film with a more appropriate soundtrack because the music nearly ruins it).

Unfortunately, HBO started throwing up right when Gary Oldman showed up (maybe he was gnawing on the pixels instead of the scenery), so I'm sure I missed the really epic awfulness. I bet the girl ended up with the brooding outsider because that's how this sort of thing goes. I hope the other one didn't get killed because I liked him better.

And I still want to write a SyFy Saturday night fantasy movie. Maybe if I throw in a teen love triangle, I could get it on the big screen!

Monday, January 23, 2012

An Allergy-fueled Downton Abbey Recap (no spoilers)

I finally finished what I think will be the last major draft of The Book That Will Not Die. I'd planned to start re-reading today it to make sure it still flows together (since there are months between the time I last read/worked on the beginning and the time I worked on the end), but a front blew in a dust storm from west Texas last night, and as a result I'm sneezing my head off, so I may give that set of people in my head a day off and spend the day with allergy drugs and doing some reading of and about mysteries. I'm not really up to editing today, and I'm definitely not up to forming words and putting them together in sentences that make sense (it's taken be about ten minutes to write this paragraph).

I had something planned to discuss today, but that forming words and sentences thing is being a problem, so I'll wait until I can do that better. So, for now I will discuss Downton Abbey in the only way I'm capable of at the moment:

Ooooh, pretty house. Pretty grounds. Pretty people. Pretty dresses. I wonder if I can do my hair like that. Pretty jewelry, and I don't even like jewelry all that much. Sigh. Thwarted love. Pretty people. Ew, evil, yucky, mean people. Meaningful gazes. Witty quip from the Dowager. Pretty people. Sigh. Ugh, now I have to wait for next week.

That oh so articulate recap is brought to you by whatever pollen/allergen blew in from Lubbock.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Imaginary People in My Head Take Over

Okay, so maybe today will be when I get the book done. I did some tinkering with the previous scenes, then got the next scene outlined in detail and then outlined the rest of the book, so while I didn't move forward in the manuscript, I think I still got a lot accomplished. I still have a little previous scene tinkering to do after changing my mind about something, but I should be ready to rock and roll and I don't have anything else that must be done today.

One thing I realized was holding me back was my clinging to a few elements that I thought were essential. Once I let myself let go of those, I figured out a better way to do things that made a lot more sense. Some of that involved going back to my original research (in the spiral notebook, which is why those are so essential), which offered some better alternatives. All this thinking started yesterday as a procrastination method, but now that I've done it, I'm pretty sure I'm eager to write today.

If I'm really good, I'll finish in time for TV night. Otherwise, I'll take a TV break (I can't miss Grimm) and then pull a late-nighter.

I'm sure I have other things to talk about, but I seem to have reached the stage where the book takes over the brain to the point I can't really talk or think about anything else. I'd better finish today or early tomorrow because I've got a party Saturday night and it would be nice to be able to interact with the real people around me rather than the imaginary people in my head. Then again, the geek quotient at this party will be rather high, so they might not even notice that I'm mostly interacting with the imaginary people in my head because they'll be too busy interacting with the imaginary people in their smart phones.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Mole Boy Breakthrough!

I've been having this problem all week with feeling like it was a different day of the week than it actually was. Yesterday felt like Thursday all day, though I did go to choir instead of to ballet, so I seem to have kept it straight. I had a real breakthrough with the preschoolers, though. Mole Boy came out of his shell! Not only did he not cry at all, but he never went into his corner or his hiding place under the chairs and he participated in everything from the start. And then he spoke and interacted with people. Although we call it "choir" it's more of a general introduction to music, with some very basic music theory. We were playing a "concentration" game using various musical symbols (the clefs, different kinds of notes and rests, etc.). The little kids generally take a while to catch onto this game, not realizing that what you want to do is get a look at as many cards on the table as possible so that when you turn another one over, you'll have a better idea of where the match might be. Most of the kids keep turning over the cards that have already been turned over. But Mole Boy caught on right away and got really excited in coaching the others in where the matches were -- "No, it's over there! That one!" I feel like that was a major breakthrough. I don't know if I can take any credit other than in maybe creating and maintaining an environment where he eventually felt safe enough to relax, but it was still kind of cool to see the change from hiding and crying to leadership.

I didn't get much writing done, though I did plan the major showdown scene, and that then brought up some things that will need to be changed in previous scenes, so I decided to get a running start and go back through the previous 50 or so pages to fix those things and build to the new scene. I still have about 20 more pages to go through before I get to new stuff. Today I don't have any errands and have nothing on the to-do list other than writing. I also don't have to cook because I have tons of leftovers. I just have ballet class tonight. So I should get a good amount done if nothing distracts me.

I want to get this done so I can start digging into this mystery idea. I checked a bunch of "how to write mystery novels" books out of the library and will begin studying soon. However, I discovered that it's difficult to find school supplies when it's not August or September. Do you have to buy it all at the beginning of the year without restocking during the school year? I couldn't find a plain spiral notebook at Target -- the kind they have in packs of five for a dollar in August/September. They just had the fancy ones with stuff like various teen pop stars on the cover. I resorted to buying a binder so I can take my notes on notebook paper and then put them in the binder, but I really prefer spirals for this kind of work for the portability. I do my brainstorming on loose-leaf paper because I can rearrange it, but I like to put my research in spirals. I'll have to check one of the office supply stores.

Speaking of organizing material, have any of you writers out there tried Scrivener? It's software created by a novelist to organize research material, brainstorming type notes, character information, etc., and then link it all together with a manuscript. It looks like it would be a good way to keep details straight for something like a long-running (hopefully!) mystery series. But it also looks like it would allow for some truly epic procrastination. You could spend all day creating note cards and arranging them on the virtual cork board and then linking them and cross-referencing them with your research materials, and you'd feel like you'd done an entire day's work without adding a single word to the manuscript. Not that I can't do that sort of thing without technological help. Since I do better thinking and brainstorming away from the computer and writing by hand, it might result in a duplication of work, transferring handwritten notes to the computer, but then that added step might help synthesize free-form brainstorming into more concrete plot or character points that would then be a lot easier to keep track of. Then there's the fact that I'd have to use it on the new computer, but I write on the old computer. I guess I could always refer to the new computer as needed, but keep the distraction away while actually writing and then copy and paste my work into the new computer. Again, duplication of effort, but all the planning might speed up the productivity. They offer a free trial, so I may give it a shot and see if it fits my process, and then it's not very expensive software.

And now speaking of procrastination, it's time to get to work.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hate at First Sight

I'm feeling very righteous. I just forced myself to walk to the library to return a book. I dithered for a while and even tried to tell myself I could just drop it off at the drive-through on my way to choir tonight, but then I reminded myself that it wasn't about the errand, it was about the exercise, and I'm more productive on days when I get some exercise, especially exercise in the sunshine. My productivity yesterday came after a walk to the post office, bank and Indian market.

I did finally get over the distraction and got some substantial work done yesterday. I'm tantalizingly close to the end, but I suspect I still have a lot of writing to do. When I was at this point in the initial draft, I thought we'd just blown up the Death Star, and now all we had to do was return to base, have the happy reunion and then get our medals. It turned out to be more like Return of the King, with all the loose ends that had to be tied up. But with the rewrites, it's more like we've just blown up the truck with the Terminator in it and think we've won, but then we see that the metal skeleton is still coming after us, so now I still need to write the showdown in the factory. Except instead of it being like the horror movie staple of the villain not being dead yet, it's more like the villain you defeated turns out not to be your only (or biggest) problem, only I can't think of a good pop culture analogy for that. I may not finish today, since it's choir night and I have to run a couple of errands before choir, but tomorrow is a possibility, and then there may be hiking on Friday.

I'm still doing my market research reading on the paranormal mysteries, and I discovered (or articulated) another book pet peeve: hate at first sight for no good reason. I can see hate at first sight when there is a reason: he's Darth Vader, attacked your ship and is taking you prisoner or even he's the cop who suspects you/your best friend/sister/brother/mother/father/employer of murder and doesn't seem interested in looking beyond that to the real killer. But I can't get into a book in which the heroine just hates someone from the start for no reason other than the author needed to throw in some conflict. That's something you normally see in romances: the gorgeous guy comes to town and smiles at the heroine, and that pisses her off to an insane degree, though that's usually a sign that she'll be in love with him by the end of the book (then again, so is hate with a cause. In general, the guy the heroine hates most or who hates the heroine the most at the beginning will be the guy she ends up with). I was surprised to see it in a mystery, and even long before anyone found a body. The heroine is basically being a bitch for no good reason (and that's not the true opposite of doormat), and though we do eventually get a reason why she's touchy with people in general, it's far enough into the book that I would have stopped reading a lot earlier if I weren't reading to study the plot structure and use of paranormal elements.

Speaking of finding the body, I grew up reading Agatha Christie and the like, where the story pretty much starts with the discovery of the body (or it at least happens within the first chapter), but I'm surprised at how far into the book the murder seems to happen in a lot of the current books, especially since modern attention spans are shorter and you're generally encouraged to start the action as soon as possible. In this book, we don't get to a dead body until halfway through the book. I suppose some of this has to do with the fact that I've been reading mostly first books in series, so we have to establish our heroine and her situation before plunging her into a murder investigation. We didn't much care about Miss Marple's personal life, but the personal stories are almost as important as the crimes in today's series. Still, I think someone should probably be dead within the first 50 pages.

I think my January agoraphobia is kicking in because there's a conference in New York in a couple of months that I usually go to and find very valuable, and I've been dragging my feet about registering. It is very expensive, and this is shaping up to be a financially uncertain year, as one of my ongoing writing contracts has ended and my new client hasn't started tossing work at me. Not to mention the complete lack of action on the publishing front. But then that lack of action means I probably need to go. The networking and business info could be very valuable. I just can't bring myself to commit to traveling there, with all the hassle that comes with that these days, staying in a hotel and sharing a room (because the conference hotel is way too expensive to go solo -- I'd have to get a room elsewhere and commute to have a room to myself). And airfares are really high right now. I wonder what the tax rules are for frequent flier miles -- if you use them for business travel, can you deduct the value of the trip or just the fees you actually spend?

Now, off to fight the Terminator in the factory, or some more relevant and accurate cultural analogy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


My task for the day yesterday was the makeup drawer in my bathroom, and I found that I am apparently reluctant to throw makeup away, even if I no longer use it. In my twenties, I succumbed to the siren song of the Clinique Bonus Pack, where you could buy a foundation and get a handy little travel case filled with sample sized skin lotion and other treatments, plus eyeshadows, blushers and several full-sized lipsticks. You never had to buy any makeup other than the foundation. But then they changed the price threshold for getting the bonus pack, so that it was a dollar or so over the cost of the foundation, which meant you had to buy something else in addition to the foundation. Since I already had just about every shade of lipstick they made, I figured I could move on to some other kind of makeup. Considering how long ago that was, I just threw away every Clinique item in the drawer, and that emptied a lot of space. What I was really surprised to find was a Merle Norman blush because that had to date back to high school, when the Merle Norman makeover was a kind of rite of passage (and a big reason why most of the girls in my school looked like they were in the circus, or at least on stage, and why my senior portraits involve a truly scary eye look). I have no idea why it was still in there, as it's certainly beyond use and I have no sentimental attachment. I guess I have issues with throwing away things that haven't been used up. I was also surprised by how many hotel hand lotions I have in there, and I found a few other things that I should have been using but forgot I had. I need to find a way to organize that drawer (possibly using some of those Clinique Bonus Pack cases) so I can find things more easily and put away more of the stuff that's on the counter.

Other than clearing out that drawer, I don't feel like I got a lot accomplished. It was a day when I needed to focus, and I got a bit of news that threw my focus off. Not bad news, but the kind of thing that made me start thinking about something else, which led to research, which led to more thinking, which led to composing e-mails in my head. I think I have managed to figure out the ending for The Book That Will Not Die, but I couldn't seem to focus enough to actually write. I know the person who sent the e-mail wasn't deliberately trying to sabotage me, but it was frustrating since there was no real time urgency to the message and nothing I could do about it at the moment, since it was mostly a heads up about something I might need to think about in the future. So my response was, "Really? Today, of all days, you decide to drop that on me and kill my productivity?" Though that response was in one of those mental e-mails that I didn't send. I might have done better if I'd written some of those mental e-mails, but on the non-Internet computer so they couldn't accidentally be sent. Then I would have them out of my brain instead of still composing them. I've read about a study saying that people feel better after writing a letter about something than they do after venting to a friend. People actually feel a little worse or angrier after the friend venting, but composing a letter, even if it's one you never send, does better for getting the anger out of your system and clarifying your thoughts. Not that there was actual anger here, just a lot of points that need to be clarified, and a little bit of "someone on the Internet is wrong!"

Speaking of Internet, as a word of friendly advice, do not visit the web site for a certain very famous anti-breast cancer organization (I'm afraid to even type their name online because they'll start stalking me again) or for their famous several-day fundraising walking event. Because then every single ad on every single Internet site you visit will be for that event, and the amount of pink will make you gag. We were talking about the walking thing in ballet class and couldn't remember the exact (rather high) fundraising requirement, so I was looking it up, and then I regretted doing so. I support their cause, and I even dealt with them when I worked at the medical school, and the people who run it are good people, but if I've gone to their site, I already know about them. I don't need to see their ads everywhere. I cleared cookies, cleared my browser history and finally resorted to clicking on any ad that wasn't for them. Now I'm getting a lot of clothing, furniture and jewelry ads, but I can deal with that. When your marketing makes people afraid to mention your name or visit your web site for fear you'll stalk them, you're doing it wrong.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Down with Doormats!

So, it's Monday, and I didn't manage to finish the draft on Friday, mostly because I started trying to work and realized I didn't have it all figured out. I had a few breakthroughs over the weekend that may have brought it closer to something I might be able to write, but I still have a few things to figure out.

One breakthrough came from thinking about something I don't like in books. I was reading a book and getting increasingly irritated and realized that yet another one of my hot buttons is the doormat heroine (you almost never see a male character like this). I realize that the character has to start somewhere and presumably will grow a spine over the course of the book, but it's hard for me to care for a character who brings a lot of her problems on herself by letting everyone in her life walk all over her. It's even more irritating when she finally decides to assert herself and does it in a stupid way by disregarding the knowledgable advice from people who care about her well being as still more of the kind of control she's trying to escape and puts herself under the power of someone who's going to walk all over her ("You can't tell me what to do, so I won't read the fine print in that contract you're warning me about before signing it. See, I've learned to stand up for myself. Oops, I think I just signed over my first-born child and the rights to every thought I'll ever have, so I guess I'm stuck."). I reached the point where I had to skim the book (I needed to reassure myself that she'd grow a spine and a brain, so I couldn't just put it down) because reading it was too irritating.

Then while stewing over that, I realized that while my main character is in no way a doormat, she is a nurturer type who tends to put other people's needs ahead of her own, and the negative side of that is that she has a tendency to take control because she feels like she knows better than others, and then people get used to that and start expecting her to just do things for them. I've reached a situation where anyone would hit the breaking point and tell everyone to take care of their own messes because she's done with it, and I realized that's what this scene needed.

I still have one big event that needs to happen, but I'm wavering on when and why it should happen, but maybe I'll figure it out when I get there.

In other news, I watched Black Swan on HBO over the weekend, and I may not be smart enough for movies like that because I'm not sure I got it. I guess I figured out what was going on, but I can't figure out why anyone thought that would be interesting enough to make a movie out of or what they were trying to say with it (because it seemed like the kind of thing that was supposed to be saying something). And I can't believe there was ever any doubt about how much was a dance double and how much was really Natalie Portman because I thought it was pretty obvious. The only times they really showed her face when she was dancing were when they zoomed in on and circled her so that we only saw from the shoulders up as she frantically waved her arms. Not that there's anything wrong with that, since there's no way an actress who has not been primarily a dancer could possibly dance at the level of the kind of ballerina who'd have the lead in a major production of Swan Lake, and the "really, she did all the dancing herself!" campaign pre-Oscars just made them all look silly. And now I want to see a real production of Swan Lake and I have the score stuck in my head.

Meanwhile, in the last couple of days it seems like the spammers have decided my blog is a good place to sell handbags. I've been deleting tons of spam comments about handbags. Which is ironic because I've pretty much been carrying the same bag since about 2004. I bought a new one a little more than a year ago and sometimes use it, but more because of function than style. And I buy most of my purses at places like Target and TJ Maxx and refuse to use anything with obvious designer labels.

Now, to work, since I got a reasonably early start on the day. Buy purses now!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Making Mysteries Magical

If I'm really, really good and don't have any major distractions this afternoon, I might actually finish this draft of The Book That Would Not Die, and this might actually be the nearly final draft, aside from another round of proofreading to make sure all the changes flow together and then maybe some revisions after I give it to some beta readers. I only have about 30 pages left, but then these are the 30 pages that are the wall I seem to hit every time, where I can't quite get the book to end the right way. I think the changes I've made in this round will help an ending come together, and this morning when I was doing my awake-but-not-up daydreaming I think I came up with the solution to part of my problem.

Unfortunately, it seems when the writing is going well, everything else falls by the wayside. I totally stalled on the organizing project. I think part of it was I hit a task I wasn't very motivated to do, in addition to being more focused on the writing. I may put that task back in the jar, then pick something else and move on. I'm bad about starting with great enthusiasm and then stalling out, but this time I'm going to just pick myself up and get started again. At least I've maintained what I've already done.

It turns out I was right that the book I was reading would be one where I was left wanting to see what happened next for the characters. It still may not be my absolute ideal, but it is a paranormal mystery where I may be somewhat hooked on the series because of wanting to see where it goes from here.

However, now I'm curious as to just how paranormal you can get with these things. Most of them seem to be in the realm of "paranormal" rather than going all the way into fantasy. The paranormal element mostly seems to involve the heroine having some level of psychic ability. There's the one where she's a full-on psychic who can read things about people's past and future, but most of them seem to have a very specific, limited skill, like the ability to get information from certain kinds of objects or the ability to find lost things. A lot of them have the ability to communicate with or at least hear ghosts -- in fact, that often comes along with the other specific skill. There is one series about a woman recruited and helped by angels to right wrongs. The closest we get to magic seems to be "new age"-style witches, who mostly have the general psychic abilities and intuition that come with the psychic characters in addition to talking about herbs and throwing in the occasional "goddess" reference.

Though some of this may be a selection bias, as I started my reading list based on books that were in the "people who bought this also bought these" list for my books on Amazon and then branched out from there via lists with those books. That might weed out the vampire detectives and stuff like that. A bookstore visit may be in order to really peruse the available titles.

The trick seems to be to give it enough "other" to make it paranormal without it being enough power to make solving the mystery too easy. The idea I have has a lot more worldbuilding than I've seen so far, where a lot of the paranormal element is inherent in the setting and makes it more difficult to gather viable evidence of a sort that will hold up in court. Most of the mysteries I've seen are about using paranormal abilities to solve ordinary crimes, but what I've been thinking of is paranormal abilities being used to commit crimes, and the sleuths having to work around that to solve them and bring the perpetrators to justice. The fact that it is weird means the cops may have to rely on the civilian sleuth (who may or may not also have abilities) to help work around that while the cops stick with due process. I wonder if that would fly.

But first, I must finish the current book. And then it's a good TV weekend. We've got new Grimm tonight, new Once Upon a Time and the next installment of Downton Abbey.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

More Mysteries: The Personal Element

It finally occurred to me that I've been getting up at the same time every morning, regardless of what time I get to bed and regardless of whether or not I set the alarm, so I may as well stay up later instead of spending so much time in bed. That turned out to be a very good plan, and the book I'm working on must either be a "night" book or it's something about this time of year (my winter books tend to be "night" books) because I got a lot more done in an hour and a half after I got home from choir rehearsal than I did all afternoon, and then I woke up feeling a lot more alert this morning at the same time I usually wake up.

Speaking of waking up to the alarm, I've finally figured out that "Wow, Mom, I didn't know you had a sister" radio ad after hearing the whole ad. It turns out that my still mostly asleep brain misheard some of it when I heard it out of context. There were actually two speakers, both pre-teen or teen boys -- or the radio ad version of teen boys, which means voiced by adult women, or possibly woman, as the voices aren't very different (when I heard the end of the commercial without realizing it was a conversation, I thought it was all one woman talking). Boy 1 asks Boy 2 what he's doing, and Boy 2 says he's waiting for his mom. Then he goes on, for no reason I can discern, to talk about how different his mom has been since she started taking these supplements that are good for her skin and hair (because that's the sort of thing teen boys talk about all the time). Then Boy 1 says, "Whoa, I didn't know you had a sister!" and Boy 2 says, "Hi, Mom," then mutters, "See what I mean?" And then the announcer tells us about these miracle supplements. I'm curious about the situation and setting for this conversation. Where is Boy 2 waiting for his mom? Outside the vitamin shop where she's buying her miracle supplements? Or maybe he's in the mall, waiting outside Forever 21, and then Mom comes out in a miniskirt and midriff-baring shirt, prompting Boy 1 to think she's Boy 2's sister rather than his mom. I feel rather sorry for Boy 2. He's probably going to need therapy. Then I realize that I'm the age my mom was when I was a teenager and I wonder if I'm dressing in a way that would be gross to my teenage kids (if I had them). And I'm way overthinking a microbudget radio ad, but this is what happens when I hear something while my subconscious is still off in dreamland. I try to turn it into a story.

And speaking of overthinking, I'm continuing my analysis of paranormal mysteries, and I think I've figured out part of why no one series has totally grabbed me yet: The main thing that gets me hooked on a mystery series isn't the mystery element. It's the personal element -- what the heroine is dealing with in her life outside the mystery and particularly the romantic relationships. It almost needs to be a character and situation I'd enjoy even without the mystery element so that the mystery then mostly lends additional tension and complicates her life while maybe also giving her a reason to interact with and get to know the love interests. I know the heroine is going to solve the mystery and survive (unless maybe there's a series about a ghost who solves crimes after being killed during an investigation). What keeps me coming back for further books is to see how her life is progressing. It's like when I was a kid and hooked on the Nancy Drew books and I kept trying to find the last one (ha!) to see if Nancy and Ned ever did more than smile politely at each other at fraternity dances and to see if Nancy ever did anything more with her life than live at home with her dad and solve mysteries. She was obviously very intelligent, so why wasn't she in college with Ned? (This may have changed with the later books, but the ones in my school library when I was a kid were published in the 30s through maybe the 50s.)

But there's a delicate line there in the relationship arena. I'm kind of disappointed when the main relationship is pretty much a done deal by the end of the first book in the series, so for the rest of the series they're just an established couple. If the relationship is resolved and the heroine's figured out her life in the first book, then there's nothing that has me anxious to read the next one. On the other hand, it can get ridiculous if things are strung out too long, particularly with romantic triangles where the heroine is into both guys or even sleeping with both without making any decision and if she hasn't really learned any better how to deal with the situations she keeps finding herself in, like a certain bestselling series that shall remain nameless in which the heroine doesn't seem to have learned anything or figured out which guy she wants in something like eighteen books. I think my ideal might be that there are a couple of viable options in the first couple of books, but then the events of those books help make the choice more obvious to her, and then for a few more books there's a slow build as that relationship develops. I'm even kind of a fan of the bait-and-switch, where initially there's the one who seems like the obvious romantic interest with all the overt sexual tension, but then there's also a quieter guy who's steadily there, and then the obvious one fizzles out because there's no substance under the sexual tension but then things gradually build with the quiet one.

I've seen this sort of personal life development in the non-paranormal mysteries I've read. For instance, I grab the Rhys Bowen "Royal Spyness" mysteries as soon as I find them (note to self, check library for new one). I barely remember the cases, but I'm enjoying watching the heroine deal with having a title but no money, so she's secretly running a housekeeping service while regularly having tea with the queen, and there's the guy who's always there for her but practical matters make it nearly impossible for them to end up together. The book I'm currently reading shows some promise, though I'll have to see how the situation stands at the end, but I'm wondering about the fact that I haven't yet found the "personal" side that grabs me in the five or so paranormal series I've sampled. Do they think the paranormal stuff alone will be enough to hook readers? Do they not want this kind of thing? Is this genre more influenced by romances, so readers want their romantic resolution in the first book? If I wrote what I want to read, would that hook people into the continuing series or would they think it too "soap opera"?

I've also discovered that I seem to have a thing for cops -- and local cops, not private investigators or federal agents. If one of the romantic possibilities is a cop, that will end up being the guy I pull for (there's one series that disappointed me because I thought they were going to do the bait-and-switch thing and the cop would be the quiet one, but then all the surplus guys were paired off with the heroine's friends by the end of the first book, so the best friend got the cop I liked for the heroine and she ended up with Obvious Guy). And then I realized that although I haven't known a lot of cops, I do tend to get along very well with the ones I do know. In fact, one of my choir buddies is a cop in my city, and I had dinner with him and his family last night. It's not just the uniform, either. I haven't seen any of my cop friends in uniform (except when my choir buddy played Officer Krupke in the youth group's production of West Side Story when they decided they wanted real adults playing the few adult roles to make it more of a contrast to the kids, and having a real cop playing the cop added even more realism). (Note to self: see if he knows any single men on the police force.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sharing Your Work

It's a new year and time to get back to the every-other-week writing posts. For those who are new here, every other Wednesday I tackle writing topics. (You can also subscribe to these posts via e-mail.) I'm open to questions or topics you'd like to see me address.

I have a reader question this week: How do you bring yourself to show your work to others or even submit it to editors and agents?

Letting others see your work can be scary. Writing is intensely personal. You've poured your heart and soul onto those pages, and that can make you feel like you're giving the world a window into your inner being that makes you very vulnerable. With a first book, in particular, there's a real high that comes with finishing. In that moment, your book has limitless possibilities. You imagine agents fighting to represent it, publishers throwing huge sums of money at it, you see the book cover, and you then see piles of copies at bookstores. You imagine the bestseller lists and the crowds at your booksignings. You dream about the movie deal and meeting your current Hollywood heartthrob (who's starring in the film) at the red-carpet premiere, then starting a hot romance and walking the red carpet together at the Oscars, where the movie based on your book is up for all the awards. But there's a lot of fear under those fantasies because you know that you can only maintain that perfect fantasy world if no one else sees the book. The moment you get feedback, reality will intrude. Someone might not like it. Agents and editors may reject it. It may not even get published, and if it does, it might bomb. Reviewers and readers may hate it.

So don't let anyone see it -- not at first, anyway. It's only in TV, movies and comic strips where an author types "The End," rips the page out of the typewriter or off the printer, sticks the manuscript in a box, puts it in the mail and then gets a contract and a check while he's still at the mailbox. When you've first finished a book, you can't be at all objective about it. So put it aside for a while -- at least a month -- and go do something else. Work on that Inconvenient Midpoint Idea that popped into your brain to distract you when you were in the middle of this book. Write a short story or an article. Catch up on your reading, TV shows and movies. Read how-to books on the aspects of writing that you found challenging with this book. Catch up with the things you may have let slide while you were writing, like housework, hobbies or your friends and family. In short, try to forget about your book and fill your head with other stuff. Then take another look at it. If you still think it's the most brilliant thing ever, put it away again because you're not yet ready. Not that you have to hate the whole book, but at this point you should be able to spot things that need to be fixed.

After you've done another draft, then you can start showing it to people. If this is really, really scary to you, start with someone who is likely to love everything you do, like your mom or a good friend. You're not looking for real feedback, just getting over the fear of someone else reading your work by starting with something safe. Then you may be able to branch out. Show it to a friend you can trust to be honest with you -- the kind of friend who'll tell you that those pants you're trying on make your butt look big when you go shopping together. You don't necessarily need a detailed critique from this friend, just an honest opinion about whether or not it works and what your friend likes or dislikes about it. Depending on how you work, you may want to find a writing group that does critiques, look for a critique partner or find an online writing community where you can submit work for critique. This kind of feedback not only helps your writing improve, but it also helps you toughen up and get used to hearing negative things about your work. You also learn to discern which suggestions to take and which to ignore, which will come into play when you're dealing with an editor. Another good way to get feedback is to enter manuscript contests, where your entry is anonymous and judged by published authors and industry professionals. Be careful with these, though, because there are a lot of scams out there. Look for contests run by writing organizations and be wary of contests where publication is the prize because that often sticks you with unfavorable contract terms.

Then it's time to put it out there into the world. These days, there are a lot more options than the traditional route of trying to find an agent or taking your chances with a publisher's slushpile. You can now publish your work yourself online, but check your motives about that. If you're doing that because you want to avoid rejection from publishers, then you're setting yourself up for a meltdown when the reader reviews start coming in. If you're doing that because you don't want any mean old editor to change one word of your precious manuscript, then your'e setting yourself up for failure. A self-published book still needs to be edited by a professional because you'll be competing against a lot of other books of professional quality.

I may be a dinosaur, but I would still recommend at least testing the waters of traditional publishing before you self publish. You never know what reception you'll get unless you try, and going through the submission and rejection process helps you develop the perspective and the thicker skin that will prevent those author meltdowns that tend to go viral, when the author can't believe a reviewer would dare say anything negative. Submitting to agents and editors can also help give you a sense of where your book fits into the market. If you get form rejections, then it's possible that there's nothing too special about your book that would allow it to stand out even as self-published book. If rejections criticize your writing or specific aspects of the story, it may not be ready for publication. If you get the "I love this but don't know what to do with it" kind of rejections, where the problem is more with the market than with your book, then self publishing may be viable.

And if all this still sounds utterly terrifying, there's nothing wrong with writing for your own enjoyment. You only have to let other people read your work if you want to make a living at it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Decoding Mysteries

I haven't talked about reading in a while. I read a lot over the holidays but don't really have any books I particularly want to single out and discuss, with one exception. I read the Steampunk anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and I found myself thinking about most of the stories, "Yes, more like this, please." Steampunk is kind of a problematic genre for me. I LOVE the idea of it. I like the Victorian esthetic and Victorian fiction, and the idea of adventures in airships or with fantastic machines that should have existed thrills me. But I haven't been all that crazy about most of the actual steampunk books I've read. I'm looking for stuff that maybe could have been a lost Jules Verne book, but most of what's being published in the adult market is essentially urban fantasy or paranormal romance with bustles and maybe an airship in the background. The closest I've found to fulfilling my wishes for the genre is the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld and the Hungry Cities and Larklight series by Philip Reeve -- all written for young adults. But the stories in this collection -- written before the current steampunk vogue -- were closer to what I imagine when I think of the genre. I don't object to mixing in fantasy, since the clash between magic and technology would seem to fit the theme and since there was a great interest in the occult during the Victorian era, but it's very, very hard to find something published as steampunk without vampires, werewolves, demons or zombies in it. I want my airship adventures, darn it!

Meanwhile, I've been binging on those paranormal mysteries, with an eye toward maybe writing something like that. I've discovered that there appear to be some challenges in the mystery genre, particularly with the amateur sleuth kind of stories. One is that the genre practically requires that the heroine (and in the amateur sleuth cozies, it's usually a heroine) come dangerously close to Too Stupid to Live. If someone close to most of us dies or if we come across a dead body, we're likely to limit our involvement to calling 911, giving the police whatever information we have, maybe making a tearful plea for information on the evening news and nagging the police for status updates. We generally don't take it upon ourselves to investigate the case. It seems to be rather tricky to come up with a strong enough motivation that most reasonable people would totally believe would make the character actually get involved like that. In the first book in the series, it usually seems to be that the heroine or someone close to her is the prime suspect, with the police not interested in looking at anyone else, and so to clear her name or her loved one's name, she has to find the real killer herself. In subsequent books, it's a little more understandable that she'd get involved after having successfully solved previous cases.

Then there's the climax of the book, where it seems to be fairly mandatory that the heroine have some kind of dangerous confrontation with the killer. I guess the old Agatha Christie thing of gathering the suspects in the parlor and going over why each one may or may not have committed the crime is no longer considered exciting enough. Getting into this situation generally involves a big dose of Too Stupid to Live, like the heroine going alone into the creepy place where she knows someone who's already killed at least once is likely to be, or else going alone to meet with someone she doesn't realize is the killer until he pulls a knife on her. Again, motivation seems to be the key, where we have to believe she has no other choice than to confront the killer alone or where there's a good reason for her not to realize the person she's meeting alone in the secluded place is the real killer.

Adding the paranormal element seems to be a mixed blessing. On the down side, it can come across as a bit of a cheat if the sleuth is just pulling clues from the ether instead of really solving the case through investigation. I read one where the heroine is such a good psychic that she pretty much picks up on everything she needs to know about the case, so the "mystery" is mostly about putting together the clues (though I suppose it does skip past the more tedious parts of the investigation), and the police totally trust her, so when she tells them where a body's buried, they pick up their shovels. I think it works better when whatever supernatural gift the heroine has mostly serves to get her in trouble. It seems to be a great way to motivate a civilian to investigate a crime -- like one where she has a vision of a buried body, but she knows if she just tells the police they'll likely dismiss her as a crackpot, and if they do dig for it and find a body, she'll look like a suspect, so she has to at least make some headway on the case on her own to have some hard facts to give the police. Or there's another where the heroine picks up on "vibes" from ghosts, so when the police think a death is an accident but the ghost is too unsettled for that, she has to prove it's murder. If the heroine is too powerful, that can amplify the Too Stupid to Live at the climactic confrontation, since shouldn't a good psychic have known that the person she's meeting is the killer?

Mostly, I think it works best when the paranormal part provides more complication than help and when it's not openly accepted by the authorities. I'm afraid that this genre may have a similar issue for me that steampunk does, where I love the idea of the genre but haven't yet found the specific book that makes me go, "Yes! This is it!" Though in this case, I've liked the books I've read, and they're all stories that interest me, but I haven't yet hit the series where I'm suddenly desperate to find all the rest of the books because I can't wait to see what these characters will do next. I've been reading a lot of first books in series, and when I'm done, I read another series, not rush out to get the next in that series. I don't know if this is a bad sign or an opportunity.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Tea in the Trenches

This weekend was pretty much Super Bowl Sunday for fans of British costume drama, with the return of Downton Abbey on PBS. There was all the pre-game buildup with a marathon of the first season (my PBS showed it during the afternoon, but I watched on DVD). And then, finally, we got to see what happened next. They found the one way to improve a British costume drama for me: add battle scenes! We got to see former skeevy footman Thomas looking terrified (and skeevy) and future Earl Matthew looking handsomely pensive in the WWI trenches. But you know you're watching a British costume drama take on a war story when the pivotal trench warfare scene (so far) involves two characters having tea. I still think they should send Lady Violet over to meet with the Kaiser. That would end the war in a hurry, especially if she takes her frenemy Isobel with her. The only thing better than those two sniping at each other is those two teaming up on a common cause.

I did catch up on movie watching over the holidays -- OnDemand, not actually leaving the house to go to a theater. I watched The Adjustment Bureau, which I found rather disappointingly dull. The previews made it look action-packed, as a man goes on the run to escape the people trying to shape his fate, but that turned out to be the last ten minutes of the movie. The rest of the movie was Matt Damon waffling. It was a story that would have made for an awesome Twilight Zone episode but that didn't stretch out well into a movie.

And then there was Julie and Julia. I'd read the book and wondered how they'd make a movie from a memoir about writing a blog. Blending that story with the true story of Julia Child was an interesting way to go, except that the true story of Julia Child was worthy of its own movie and far, far more engaging than the story about a whiny narcissist writing a blog -- even if the whiny narcissist is played by the usually endearing no matter what Amy Adams. But Meryl Streep's Julia Child was wonderful, and now I want to read Julia Child's memoir about actually doing something (as opposed to blogging). I can see how Julia Child might have been put off by the idea of this chick drawing attention to herself by using her work. I don't know if the filmmakers planned it this way, but it was especially jarring to me to see Julia's struggles to get her cookbook published for a relative pittance after years of hard work juxtaposed with Julie's answering machine being filled with offers from agents and publishers because of her blog about following Julia Child's recipes.

I think I may also want to try cooking something from Julia Child's cookbook. And then maybe not blogging about it, or at least doing so in a less annoying way.

I'm sure there was something else I watched that wasn't a rewatch, but I can't think of what it was, so I suppose it was incredibly memorable.

I rewatched Inception, and I guess my latent romantic streak peeked its head up because my main question at the very end with the abrupt cut to black was not "Does the top ever stop spinning?" but rather "But what about Arthur and Ariadne? Will they get together in real life?"

And now it's a beautifully dreary and rainy day, so I imagine I will accomplish a great deal of work.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Overanalyzing Disco

This morning's out-of-context Radio for Old People commercial line when my alarm went off: "Wow, Mom, I didn't know you had a sister!" The ad seemed to be for some nutritional supplement promising to improve your skin, hair and nails, and I think the idea was that the speaker thought she'd seen her mother's younger sister after seeing the results of the supplements, but it doesn't work if you think about it too much. I mean, if she's calling her "Mom" she knows she's not talking to the younger sister. I obviously missed something in the part of the commercial that happened before my alarm went off. And then the day's Patriotic Moment came on and I had to frantically turn off the radio because I just can't face "The Stars and Stripes Forever" within a minute of waking.

I found my BeeGees cassette and I may have to retract some of what I said about the meaningful relationship described in "How Deep is Your Love." It seems the deeply latent romantic sector of my half-asleep brain got all swoony over the line "I believe in you. You know the door to my very soul. You're the light in my deepest, darkest hour, you're my savior when I fall" and totally missed that the context seemed to be that they're in a physical relationship that the singer has realized means a lot more to him, and now he's trying to figure out if maybe she feels the same way. At least he is wanting a deeper relationship and he's not just proving his manliness by seeing how many women he can nail. And I have now officially overanalyzed the lyrics of a 70s disco song. Tune in next week when I do a literary deconstruction of the works of ABBA.

I know it's become a cliche to say "I never could get the hang of Thursdays," but I really didn't get the hang of yesterday. I did force myself out of the house for grocery shopping, so that I can now make a variety of meals out of the contents of my pantry and freezer, and I shouldn't have to go to a grocery store other than to get milk and fresh produce for several more weeks. Otherwise, it was a washout of a day. I couldn't even focus on a cleaning task. I gave up and read one of those paranormal mysteries I picked up at the library to research the genre. It sort of counted as "work" but was about all I could get my brain to do. We had a fairly dumbed-down ballet class to ease us back into it (and for the benefit of some brand-new people) and I still could barely keep my head around the combinations. I really must accomplish something today.

Speaking of those mysteries … with the idea of writing mysteries in the back of my mind, I've been reading the newspaper, looking for murder cases for inspiration, and one drawback for me in trying to do this may be my logical, literal brain. I can't find enough good potential murder cases in a large metropolitan area that actually has a higher per capita crime rate than New York City to sustain a series. In a smaller town, people would have to be dying at a rate that would draw national attention. And most of the murders aren't even mysteries, just people getting stabbed or shot at parties. There was a mass shooting nearby at Christmas, but the only mystery was motive. They know who did it. There has been one situation that might make a good mystery novel scenario because it's seemingly mysterious on the surface. In real life, it's not much of a mystery, but in a book you could turn it into a mysterious murder cleverly staged to look like an accident. I may have to clip that newspaper article -- and then immediately file it in a place where I know I can find it.

The Internet must be spying on me, since I've started seeing ads on site for closet organizing services after I've been writing about my cleaning project. Then there was the one suggesting I become a professional organizer. Um, yeah. That would go really well. I suppose it could be because I visit the Unclutterer site daily. Or it could just be the time of year when they know people are making resolutions to reduce clutter and it has nothing to do with the amount of time I've spent blogging about organizing.

Today's tasks (since I didn't do one yesterday): clean one of the desk drawers (my desk doesn't technically have drawers, but I have a plastic drawer unit under my desk) and one of the plastic storage bins in my office. It's possible that if I get around to redoing my office entirely, those will go and be replaced by some of those Ikea wall unit shelves with baskets or bins that slide out of them. But first I have to sort out the clutter to know what I'll need to be able to store and access.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Officially Old

I was getting tired of sleeping way too late and throwing my whole schedule off, so I set my alarm this morning, and it turns out my problem isn't waking up, it's getting up. I was awake before my alarm went off, and then I lay around thinking for more than an hour afterwards. I haven't decided if this is entirely a bad thing. After all, thinking is an important part of my work, and does it really matter when or where I do it?

I did hit the snooze button a couple of times. I have my clock radio set to the "music for old people" station, and while I like their music mix, their commercials are awful. The first time the alarm went off, it came on in mid-commercial, just as some woman was saying, "After Hank took this pill, he was like a completely new man." I hit the snooze button quickly because I didn't really want more details than that about Hank. But I have a very literal mind, so I lay there thinking about how it might be kind of cool to have a pill that really could make someone into a new person. "I was getting tired of being married to Hank, so I gave him this pill, and now he's a completely different person." But that would only work if you could specify the kind of person he turned into.

The next time the alarm went off, the Bee Gees were singing "How Deep is Your Love," and you know, we may now think of that as 70s disco cheese, but that's a really good song. For one thing, the lyrics are lovely and are about the emotional and supportive side of a meaningful relationship, which is a big contrast to the songs now that seem to be more about casual hook-ups. Then the harmonies are so tight that you almost can't tell when the backup vocals join in, and you have to really listen to catch all three parts because they blend so well. And it has a really danceable beat. It would be good either for West Coast swing (push) or maybe a quick foxtrot. At any rate, you can do an actual dance to it and not just sway or gyrate. I think I still have a Bee Gees Greatest Hits cassette, and if it still works, I may have to play it.

I think I'm now officially old if I'm doing the "music from my day is so much better than today's garbage" routine. I would say that having music from my childhood playing on the "music for old people" station also makes me officially old, but this station does play selected current music, like stuff from Josh Groban and Sarah Brightman. It is kind of scary that their programming matches my music collection so closely when most of their ads are about planning for your retirement, finding a nursing home and that pill that makes Hank a new man.

I was back with the preschoolers last night, and they had some trouble adjusting. A couple of the kids who are usually quite good at coming in and getting involved without making a fuss were really reluctant and clingy. I think one of them wasn't feeling well, so I doused myself in hand sanitizer afterward, since I was the one she was clinging to and I just finally got over the last plague. My little love bug was her usual self, though. There's one little girl who's very sweet and affectionate, and she seems to have taken a liking to me because she just lights up every time she sees me and runs to hug me like she hasn't seen me in years. It's great for the ego, but then she does the same thing to her mom when her mom comes to pick her up.

Today I really need to get groceries to restock after purging the pantry this week, and I kind of desperately need a haircut. I'm having my picture taken for the church directory next week, and portraits tend to look funny when your hair is up, like you have no hair, but my hair is out of control when it's down. But I really don't want to go anywhere today. I didn't sleep well, then there was the lying around being an old person, and now I'm groggy. I suppose that means I should run errands so I can devote tomorrow to work.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Cleaning Addiction and the Never-Ending Book

I had a panicky moment this morning when my Internet went out. Eep! What would I do? And for once, there was truly something I needed to be able to send, so it wasn't just that I'd be forced to work instead of reading TV message boards. But I just turned off the DSL modem and went to work on the day's cleaning job, the printer cart under my desk. It's a relic from the days of dot-matrix printers, where you had the top shelf for the printer, and then you fed the paper up from the bottom shelf through a slot in the top shelf. Now, since the current desk is only a flat surface with no drawers or storage (what was I thinking?) it serves to hold printing and mailing supplies. No interesting finds or purges on this one, just getting rid of an outdated phone book and organizing and dusting everything. The area around my desk already looks and feels a lot cleaner. And now, obviously, my Internet is up again. It was back when I finished my cleaning.

I'll get back to the every-other-week Wednesday writing posts next week. My brain is still struggling back into work mode. Choir and preschool choir starts again tonight, and ballet tomorrow night, and I think all that will jolt me back onto my usual schedule. I've also taken down the Christmas tree and will be putting it back in the garage today.

Yesterday I managed to plan/re-plan the rewrite of a pivotal scene, but I couldn't quite get my brain around writing it. Maybe that will happen today. I think maybe my usual all-or-nothing approach has kicked in with this organizing project, so it's all I want to think about or do. I really must get over that. All-or-nothing isn't a very productive way to live. But there is a kind of high to seeing visible progress in something that's been a nagging irritant for a long time, and I may as well go with it while I actually want to do this sort of thing. I just need to squeeze in some writing while I'm at it because one of my goals for the year is to finally finish this never-ending book.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Year Behind, the Year Ahead

Happy New Year! I guess the holidays are officially over, since I ate the last of the Christmas Eve waffles I had in the freezer this morning. I'm normally a "Christmas lasts until Epiphany" person, but I think the Christmas stuff is coming down today because I'm eager to move forward in post-holiday mode. Between the December illness and the holidays, I feel like it's been ages since I've had a normal working day, and it's hard for me to get my nose to the grindstone with the Christmas tree up (maybe I'll just deal with the tree today and keep the garlands until Epiphany).

I didn't get to my "year in review" post at the end of the year, so I guess I'll tackle that now. It was yet another year without any major high or low points. I did a lot of work that hasn't yet come to fruition. It was a fairly lean year financially, but there are good possibilities on the horizon. But it wasn't a bad year. I guess I'd say it was quietly good. Most of my memories of the year's "high points" involve fairly simple pleasures.

I read 100 books, which is down a bit, but only 20 of them were re-reads, which is a lower percentage than normal. I read a surprising number of non-fiction books, and not all of them were even for research -- at least, not direct research for a project in progress. As usual, my most-read author was Terry Pratchett, but all but a few of those were re-reads. My most-read author for first-time reads was Mercedes Lackey, mostly due to a late-in-the-year binge when I was in the mood for slightly lighter fantasy with romantic elements. My new-to-me series discovery was the Locke Lamora books by Scott Lynch. I don't really have a favorite book of the year. I'm really going to be stumped for Hugo and Nebula nominations.

As for the year ahead, I feel like I'm standing on the brink of something and big changes may be ahead. That may mean moving in a different direction with some things or trying something new (that sounds like I'm writing my horoscope). Something pretty much has to change, and I need to step out of my comfort zone in some way. I hope that all the work I've been doing lately will finally come to something, somehow. Personally, I also may need to shake things up and be more willing to take chances.

I make the same resolutions every year, to get my house in order and to be more physically fit and active. I'm already making great strides on the first with my job jar approach. I finally got to some tasks where the results are visible, as two thirds of the bar in my living room (aka the Horizontal Surface Where All Things Go to Die) is totally clean. The difference between this and other times I've cleaned the living room is that I'm not just shoving everything somewhere else. A lot of the decluttering I've done with cabinets and boxes has revealed the results of previous emergency cleanings, where I've just stuffed things away in a hurry. Over the weekend, I dealt with a couple of the boxes in the office closet, which turned out to be full of newspaper and magazine clippings -- and in a lot of cases, entire newspaper sections. I seem to have avoided tossing the food section of the newspaper, thinking there might be a recipe I'd want, and then those sections got shoved in a box. I did end up clipping a few of those recipes, but there were entire newspaper sections that ended up in the recycling bag. It was interesting to watch the evolution of the local newspaper (or, really, the devolution), as it went from a dedicated weekly food section to a few articles and recipes in the lifestyle section, and the sections got much smaller. Apparently, I like the idea of molten chocolate/flourless chocolate cake and chocolate cheesecake because I found a lot of recipes for those things. And I could probably cook a different thing every day and never get through all the recipes I'd saved. I tried to really limit myself to interesting or unusual things that I couldn't find in any cookbook I've got. I may start a grab-bag approach to using these recipes, like picking one a week, buying the ingredients and making it.

As for the fitness, I tend to go in spurts of enthusiasm. I need to find more activities I enjoy doing and focus on that rather than on "exercise." But I say that every year.

Now, on with 2012!