Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

I have now reached the most miserable phase of the cold, the stuffy phase. Yes, the sniffly/drippy/sneezy phase is annoying, but the phase when my head feels like someone poured cement into it and it has now hardened -- expanding in the process -- has to be the worst because I can't breathe and it's so uncomfortable I can't concentrate.

Fortunately, I finished the latest draft of the book last night, and now it's in the resting/sanity check phase, so I don't have anything urgent I have to do right now. I was going to declare this a "get my life together" day, but I don't really feel up to organizing, cleaning or doing my taxes. I did take advantage of the stuffiness and have sprayed mildew remover on the shower tile. In the state I'm in, I can't smell the nasty chemical odor that leaves. So, that's one cleaning task I've accomplished. This may be a day for drinking tea and reading mystery novels, which also counts as work. I might even be able to stretch and call a Grimm marathon "research" on paranormal mysteries.

I was kind of bummed to find that none of the HBO channels are showing Leap Year today (unless it's on tonight, but I didn't check the night schedule because I have choir). It would have been fitting. They dragged out Valentine's Day for Valentine's Day.

I follow the blogs of a few of my writer friends, and I've noticed that they all seem to go on exciting writing retreats, and now I wonder what I'm missing out on. What would one do at a writing retreat? To me, a retreat doesn't involve other people. I'd never get any writing done in an interesting new place around people I like. I can barely handle any sound. Yesterday, it was really windy and the shrubs in front of my living room windows were blowing against the window, making a weird scratchy sound. Groundskeeping is handled by the homeowners' association, and we're not really supposed to touch the outside plants, but I couldn't take it anymore and went out with a pair of gardening shears to snip off the offending branches. If I can't write with the sound of leaves rubbing against the window, I can't imagine being in a castle/villa/beach house with other people. Plus, although I need my solitude, when I'm around people I like, I want to talk to them. I'd probably drive everyone else crazy popping by their rooms and going, "Whatchya doin'?" What might be useful would be a brainstorming or critique retreat, where we hang out and talk through our current ideas or read each others' latest drafts and then give feedback. Not that I could afford to jet off to a castle or beach house right now, even if I were invited (I guess it's like being a bridesmaid -- I'm friends, but apparently not close enough to make the cut). Or maybe I need to form my own clique.

Speaking of writing, does anyone have any writing-related questions for me to address? I'm running out of ideas for my every-other-Wednesday writing posts.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How to Write a Mystery

So, I finally finished reading that mystery novel I'd been struggling with. You know it's a bad sign when it takes you more than a week to read an approximately 80,000 word mystery novel and when you can easily close the book after reading one seven-page chapter and turn out the light. That made me try to analyze why this book didn't work for me (I won't even ponder how it got published -- that way lies madness), and I think I've come up with some "rules" for making a mystery work. Of course, there will be exceptions because brilliant execution of something unexpected can turn a don't into a do, but I'm using this as a starting point as I explore the possibility of writing in this genre.

1) The heroine must have a very strong motivation to get involved in the investigation.
Normal people who are not cops don't generally involve themselves in solving murders. There has to be a good reason to do so, like the possibility that justice won't be served if the killer isn't found, and the killer isn't likely to be found through the conventional police investigation. This is most important in the first book in a series, before the heroine gets a taste and a reputation for solving crimes. Even more, I think there needs to be some kind of stakes for the heroine, where she stands to lose or suffer if the real killer isn't discovered -- she or someone very close to her might be wrongfully convicted or she might lose her job or something else important to her if the main (wrong) suspect goes to jail. I think this is a potential strength for the paranormal subgenre, because if the heroine has learned something from communicating with ghosts, reading vibes off an object, reading someone's thoughts or having a prophetic dream, then she may have more information to go on than the police do but she can't exactly tell the police what she knows or how she knows it and be taken seriously. One of the problems with this book I was reading was that the heroine never really committed to the case. She was kind of worried that someone she liked might be accused, but the cops never really acted like that person was a real suspect. It was more like, "Oh, it would be kind of nice to know who did it, and I guess if I get a chance, I'll find out."

2) There should be some sense of consequences for the heroine's involvement in the investigation.
While there should be the possibility that something bad could happen if the heroine doesn't solve the crime, I find it a lot more compelling when the heroine also gets into some hot water because she involves herself in the investigation -- sort of a damned of you don't, damned if you do situation. That could include earning the antagonism of the hunky cop, putting her reputation at stake, earning the enmity of family or community, or getting herself into physical jeopardy. I think this is usually the factor that keeps me turning pages on the way to solving the main crime.

3) The heroine should actively investigate the crime.
While she may accidentally stumble across information in the beginning as part of what leads her to decide to investigate, as the investigation continues, she should actively seek out clues, do searches, talk to people, do research, etc. There may be some serendipity, but it's boring if all the major clues come because of someone wandering across the heroine's path and telling her what she needs to know or because of her stumbling across things that she wasn't looking for.

4) The heroine should actually solve the crime.
Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be a genre rule, but I find it irritating when the heroine discovers who the murderer is when the murderer confronts her. The heroine will be going along, thinking one person is the bad guy, until she ends up cornered by the real murderer. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the person who pulls a gun on you and starts talking about how you're ruining everything with your poking around is the killer. I far prefer it when the heroine does figure it out herself before the murderer reveals himself. It can be a split second before, so she has just enough time to realize she's in trouble, but I really want her to add two and two for herself.

5) In a paranormal mystery, I like it when the paranormal ability has something to do with the case.
I don't know if there are rules for this in the genre, but one problem with this book I just read was that the heroine's unusual gifts were just set dressing. You could remove them from the story without changing the murder plot. I don't want the gifts to make it too easy to solve the mystery, either. The paranormal element works best to get the heroine into the case and to maybe complicate matters along the way. She may get a clue through paranormal means, but then she has to do real detective work to get something she can actually use.

I've also noticed that it's pretty common in mystery series right now to have some sort of gimmick, usually involving some hobby, so that the book includes some little extras like how-tos, project instructions, tips or recipes. In the series I'm planning, I think my heroine is going to be a doctor. I can just see the little how-to tips I could include: "How to conduct an autopsy -- start with an exterior examination of the body, checking for wounds or distinguishing marks."

Monday, February 27, 2012

Dreaming Your Backstory

I don't know whether to blame the allergies or the preschoolers, but I seem to have come down with my regular Sunday-afternoon sniffles that may or may not escalate into something worse. We did have a windy weekend, which tends to stir up the pollen, but then it also seems like Wednesday night to Sunday afternoon fits a typical virus incubation period. At any rate, this will be a day when I dare not stray far from the tissue box. I'm resisting medication because I need to be able to stay awake and work. We'll see how long that lasts.

I was actually rather disappointed in that Witchslayer Gretl movie on SyFy Saturday night. It wasn't good by any means, but it wasn't awesomely bad. It was mostly rather boring and half-assed, though it did have a few unintentional laugh-out-loud moments. The main problem was a script that sounded like something sixth graders might come up with after a day of playing in the backyard, when they think the scenario they were playing would make a really good movie (not that I ever did this or that this might have been how my first few attempts at novels got started).

Basically, we had this guy known as Witchslayer, though we learn in the backstory flashbacks that happen whenever he closes his eyes that he's Hansel and that a witch stole his sister when they were lost in the woods as kids, and now he's out to kill all the witches. Except "witches" doesn't seem to mean what it does in our world. It has something to do with taking girls with innate power and binding them into a coven, where they become mindless drones wearing red satin slip dresses (mind you, this is a quasi-medieval fantasy world setting in which the good guys buy their clothing at the Renaissance festival). His sidekick is apparently a former witch who somehow lost her powers and her memory when her binding with the coven was broken. She still has some latent abilities, like a sense for danger, but she can't really do magic. However, they use some magic devices, like magical throat-mike walkie-talkies and the magic-vision goggles that allow them to see people who are using magic to cloak themselves. They rescue a girl who's about to be bound into the coven, and the sidekick has to convince Hansel not to kill her immediately, since she only has power but isn't technically a witch. I thought they were going somewhere with that whole distinction of what really constituted a witch, but they never did.

Their main opponent seems to be Samurai Elvis the Warlock (based on his hairstyle and wardrobe), but he works for the queen witch (played by Shannen Doherty, of course, and if you can't figure out who she really is in the story, you're not paying attention). You know she's a real badass witch queen because her familiar is a gargoyle. Toads and cats are for weenies. Oh, and Hansel is a really powerful witch slayer because, get this, he's immune to magic. I had been reading a book while halfway watching, but that did get my attention. I'm not sure how he was able to use all those magical devices if magic doesn't work on him, but worldbuilding wasn't this movie's strong suit. Then again, neither were characterization or dialogue. There were a lot of potentially interesting elements that could have been woven into a decent story, but they weren't, and I was left mostly laughing at Young Elvis in Samurai clothes, the slip dresses on the witches and the fact that every time anyone went to sleep or got knocked out, they had flashbacks that told us their backstory.

Then again, the dialogue wasn't nearly as painful as the small bits I saw of the Oscars when I was switching between OnDemand and DVD shows. Now I know where they find the SyFy movie screenwriters -- they write the script for the Oscars.

Anyway, I had to rewatch the Grimm take on Hansel and Gretl to get the icky out of my head. On the bright side, I finally finished that mystery novel I was reading. It seems two borings can add up to one mildly amusing.

I must be weird (or not a character in a SyFy movie) because I don't ever seem to dream about things that happened in my past. If I do, they're all garbled up with other things so that they seem to be about things that are happening now or that will happen even if they incorporate memories, or else they're wildly exaggerated, more about things I feared might happen or wished would happen than what actually happen. When I was in a bad car accident in eighth grade, I did have nightmares about being in car accidents, but they were never actually that same accident, so I wasn't reliving the accident I had. Someone eavesdropping on my dreams wouldn't pick up anything useful or reliable about my backstory. For instance, last night I dreamed I was at a convention and somehow ended up hanging out with JK Rowling, but I think I was mostly remembering what actually did happen when I ended up hanging out with Katherine Kurtz at a convention. Someone watching my dreams for memories would be confused -- did it happen, and who was really involved? Now I wonder if I've ever used that literary trope of characters reliving events in dreams.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Moving on Up

I found out last night that my ballet teacher will also be teaching the adult intermediate/advanced class this summer, and possibly next fall. Now I have to decide if I want to promote myself. I've been staying in the beginning class, mostly because I like the teacher and the other students. It's as much a friendship/support group as it is a dance class, and we've all been through so much together. But also, the advanced class looks kind of scary. The people in it are mostly the ones who grew up in dance class -- some have even danced professionally -- and who are just keeping it going as adults. That's very different from people like me, where I've been doing it for nearly four years, but only had a little dance training as a child. I'm not really a beginner anymore, but I'm not sure I could keep up with those people. But with our teacher, it could still be fun, and more of our group will probably go with that class, since we've all been doing it a while. The beginning class is starting to fill up with real beginners, and I'm sure that's making it difficult to teach, with half the class knowing what they're doing, even if they're not particularly good at it, and half the class needing to learn the basics. Some people may use this as an opportunity to take both classes, and that would be great for staying in shape, but I don't really have the time or (right now) the money for two classes a week. I might try it for the summer session, but I don't think I could do it year-round, especially combined with choir stuff (I don't have children's choir or chorale in the summer).

What I need is the ability to make myself eighteen again. Then I could pursue all those things I discovered too late in life to be able to do anything with them. I'm not sure if I'd end up as a criminal profiler or an opera singer, though. Writing novels on the side, of course. It's really difficult to make a living as a novelist, and I mostly loathe doing all the things I'm capable of doing for a "day job."

I have edits from my agent on the early part of this book, before she decided it needed plot/character reworking, and it seems she has the same issue I do, where she starts off really editing, and then it trails off. I don't know if I was just that perfect or if she got caught up in the story and forgot to edit. I'm having to take frequent breaks so I stay focused and edit instead of just reading the book. This editing is even more interesting than the book I'm reading now, but I don't know if it's because my book is so great or the book I'm reading is kind of weak. It's a mystery, and I'm nearing the halfway point, but I still don't really care. I can read one (very short) chapter and then put it aside. If I weren't reading for market and genre research, I'd just skip to the end to see who the killer is. But I'm studying the paranormal element and how it's integrated.

Speaking of switching to mysteries, if I do this, I may be in good company. JK Rowling has sold an adult novel, and rumor has it she was writing a mystery. I've been trying to think of what the elements that made the Harry Potter series so successful were and whether they'd transfer to another kind of book. I liked the characters and I liked the wry humor. Some of her pacing could be iffy, but a lot of that had to do with the fact that she mapped her plots to the school calendar -- kick things off at back to school, a minor incident at Halloween, a major midpoint incident at Christmas, another rising action incident at Easter and then the big showdown around finals. That sometimes meant a lot of killing time to hold back the big showdown. That pacing could be deadly in a mystery (as I'm seeing in the one I'm reading), but the characters and wry humor are necessary to get me into a mystery (as I'm also seeing in the one I'm reading). I'll probably read it, but I doubt I'll be in line at the bookstore at midnight. I may not even buy it in hardcover. Since it's a new book, it's not like I'm dying to find out what happens next.

Now I need to get ready for my workday. I'm also baking some bread, as I spent a good part of yesterday looking for the honey wheat bread recipe I'd thought for a moment that I'd lost and that I couldn't find anywhere online.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Hibernation Ahead

I finished the latest pass on the book, rewriting scenes, and now it's time for editing. I'd thought about taking some down time to let the book rest first, but then I decided that's more important before the proofreading stage. For the editing stage, I'll be looking for things like redundant sentences, dialogue that needs to be tightened, word choices, sentence structure and length variety, etc. That doesn't really need fresh eyes since I've strictly been looking at story and character. I will need a break before proofreading because that's when I have to make sure that what I think is on the page is really what's on the page. So, I must work today.

Which could be a challenge because I could easily sleep all day. I think a front is coming in tonight because the air has that "the weather is going to change" heaviness about it. Today, though, feels like spring, and I'm not ready for that. I'm rather glad it will get cool again because I'm looking forward to a weekend of intense hibernation. There will be cooking, writing, reading and napping, and the SyFy Saturday night movie is Witchslayer Gretl, starring Shannen Doherty, so you just know it's going to be awesomely awful. I'd better make sure I have enough popcorn handy (and then I'd probably better not butter it because some of it may be thrown). Though if they go by their usual pattern, Shannen Doherty won't be Gretl. She'll have some cameo scene (maybe she's the witch?) and some unknown with absolutely wooden acting skills will be Gretl.

I still need to write that script for my SyFy fantasy movie. I really do have the perfect plot.

Of course, that's in line behind all the other things I really need to write, which probably means I need to get cracking on the writing. So many books, so little time has an entirely different meaning in my life.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Use the Right Word the Right Way

While it's true that the story's the important thing, and that's what sells a book, and while there are a lot of bestselling books that are really badly written but readers don't care because they love the story and the characters, if you don't have good mechanics, it becomes a lot more difficult to sell a book. Anything that distracts an editor from the story is a bad thing, and if the editor is mentally editing while reading a submission, she's less likely to fall in love with the story. You improve your chances by using the right words in the right way.

Here are a few things to look for that I think are common errors, judging by Internet posts, e-mails and manuscripts I've either judged or critiqued:

They're vs. their
"They're" is the contraction for "they are." "Their" is a possessive pronoun. An easy way to remember the difference is that the apostrophe fills in for missing letters.

It's vs. its
Similar to the above. "It's" is the contraction for "it is." "Its" with no apostrophe is the possessive pronoun.

You're vs. your
Again, like the above. Use "you're" when you mean "you are" and "your" when you're talking about something belonging to someone.

In general, you don't use an apostrophe before the s when making something plural. If you're making a plural noun possessive, you add the apostrophe at the end of the word.

Repeated, ongoing problems with any of the above will cause most editors to scream in pain, and they may stop seeing anything other than the errors in your manuscript, so they won't even notice if you have a good story.

Affect vs. effect
There are some exceptions for specialized uses, but generally "affect" is a verb. "Effect" is the noun. The effect is the result when someone affects something. "Affect" may be a noun in psychology, and "effect" may be a verb meaning "to bring about," but if you aren't writing psychological papers and have any confusion between affect and effect, avoid these uses and stick to the "affect=verb, effect=noun" rule.

Accept vs. except
"Accept" means to take something that's being offered. "Except" means "other than." So, I accept the job offer, except I refuse to work weekends.

Rein vs. reign
This can get confusing because the literal meanings for both involve control. "Rein" is the mechanism for controlling a horse, while "reign" is what a king does. When you say someone has been given "free rein," it means letting the horse go where it wants without trying to control it using the reins, although technically and literally it wouldn't be entirely incorrect to think of "free reign" as someone being allowed to rule without checks and balances. However, the expression did come from horsemanship, so "rein" is correct (and that's what the Associated Press style book says is to be used). The same applies to other related figures of speech, like "seize the reins" or "rein in."

This term has become so misused that it's become a running joke on the sitcom Parks and Recreation. "Literally" is supposed to mean that this thing that is usually considered to be a figure of speech is actually true in this case. What most people mean when they say "literally" is "figuratively," though the "figuratively" can generally be taken to be implied unless there's a chance for confusion from someone taking you literally. So, we might say figuratively that it's raining buckets when it's just raining hard, but if there's an explosion at the bucket factory, we might say that it's literally raining buckets. If there's been a vampire attack, we might say that the victim has literally been bled dry. Otherwise, we usually take that as a figure of speech that means someone has taken every last cent from them. But if we've recently been talking about vampire attacks, we might make sure to add the "figuratively" when talking about someone being bled dry in the money sense to make sure everyone knows we're not talking about another vampire attack.

When someone is "livid with rage," she's pale, not red in the face. It means the color has drained out of the face.

This literally means to kill one in ten. If you say that the Black Death decimated the population of Europe, you're actually understating the case. It's often used to mean "kill a lot of people," but publishing people tend to be word nerds, and while you might not get dinged for the "kill a lot" use, if you use "decimate" properly, you may get bonus points.

"Troop" vs. "Troupe"
A "troupe" is generally a group of performers, while "troop" is used for discussing the military. Misuse of this can cause massive giggle fits at the mental image. Or it did for me in a manuscript I critiqued once, so much so that I still remember this one. Then again, Busby Berkley did start his career designing military drills …

Of course, nobody's perfect and editors aren't going to reject you because you've put an apostrophe where one doesn't belong. But today's publishing climate is very competitive and you don't want to shoot yourself in the foot with preventable errors. They're less likely these days to buy a manuscript that requires a lot of editing, and a lot of word usage errors in the opening pages signals that your book might require a lot of work to get it in shape. I'd also caution you about how well you edit any other writing you have in public, like blog posts or tweets. Editors have been known to Google authors, and while they know that the Internet is more casual and autocorrect sometimes inserts errors into tweets, if your blog posts show that you don't know the difference between common things like "it's" and "its," then they may have doubts. Readers may also wonder about a writer who has issues with basic grammar.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Post-convention Brain

On the first day after a convention I'm usually all fired up to work, and then it never fails that I don't actually get anything done. Yesterday, my brain was just fried, and I somehow ended up falling into a Band of Brothers marathon on Spike. It seems their holiday programming is always either Band of Brothers or Star Wars, and I haven't figured out what makes something a Star Wars holiday as opposed to a Band of Brothers holiday. I guess Presidents Day counts as US history, so they go with Band of Brothers, but the presidents we celebrate on that holiday are pre-WWII, so you'd think the civil war/revolution themes in Star Wars would be more fitting.

Anyway, I think I needed a day to rest, and now today I hope I can really get my act together. I want to get this book done and ready for submission, then get The Book That Will Not Die ready for submission, and then I need to start looking for some freelance writing/editing/PR/marketing communications gigs to pay the bills while I wait for something to happen with the books and while I research a possible mystery novel.

I'm a bit sad that Downton Abbey is now over for another year. It's so totally a soap opera, and if the same kinds of stories were set in modern America, I would have zero interest, but the series set around WWI fascinates me, and it's not all the clothes and accents. I guess it was "over" for me a week ago when I got the DVDs and watched the whole thing, but it's now over on PBS. Whatever will I do with myself? I was rather startled by how many outfits reminiscent of the costumes on that show I can put together from pieces already in my wardrobe. I wore one of those outfits to the convention last weekend, and someone remarked about how it was something I could wear to work without looking like I was wearing a costume, and I had to admit that it was stuff I had worn to work, back when I had a regular job that didn't allow me to wear sweats and a bathrobe (today's lovely ensemble) to work. I wore a long, straight, high-waisted black skirt and a charcoal riding-style jacket with black velvet collar and a white shirt, with Mary Jane shoes and a black velvet hat with black satin rose trim. I didn't wear the hat to work, but otherwise that was one of my work stand-by outfits. I hadn't worn either skirt or jacket in a while because both have been somewhat out of style, but it seems like that look is coming back, possibly due to the Downton influence. I'll have to drag out my other high-waisted long, slim skirts. If this steampunk book sells, I'll have a real excuse to dress in Victorian/Edwardian style at conventions. It will be marketing!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Unexpected Panels

I survived my busy weekend and now am getting ready to get back to work. I had some good panels that I now vaguely remember doing (the weekend is something of a blur) and got to spend some time with friends. I didn't end up using my reading piece because the only people in the room were the three readers, one of my friends and then the friend of another reader who mostly just wanted to go get a drink. So I called it a walk. Now I can use that piece at FenCon, and maybe it will be to promote a book that by then I'll actually know will be published.

I didn't end up having to sing in the small group on Sunday. The person I was on stand-by for wasn't there at first, so I did one run-through with the group, but when we started the second run-through, she showed up, and I was never so glad to see someone because I was choking. I swear, my house must be magical because anything I sing here sounds wonderful, but I lose my ability to sing the same things when I'm somewhere else. I should rent out my house as a concert venue. Or maybe it's only magic for me. Anyway, I gladly surrendered my part and went off to deal with the kids, who were their usual adorable selves.

I may have done a convention first in my Sunday panel. I had a jar of jam I couldn't open. I'd tried all the usual jar-opening tricks, and none worked. It's times like that when I can see the usefulness of having a man around the house. And then I remembered that I was going to be at a convention, and surely someone there would be able to open my jar for me. Plus, I was going to be on a panel on writing humor, and you can pretty much guarantee that someone will mention that a lot of humor comes from the unexpected, so I figured that pulling a jar of jam out of my bag and asking for a volunteer to open it would count as "unexpected." And that's just what I did. How many panels involve a panelist asking for help opening a jar?

Incidentally, Paul Cornell, comics, Doctor Who and assorted other stuff writer (and a friend of mine) has generated a lot of Internet buzz about wanting gender parity on panels, so that if he's on a panel that's mostly men, he's going to step down and invite a woman to be on the panel. I don't know what conventions he's going to, but at most conventions I go to there's usually just a token man on the panel, and I'm not always just on the "girly" topics. For instance, this weekend there was one man on the panel about steampunk aviation. It was a bunch of women talking about the specifics of airships, both in terms of history and physics. I guess at bigger conventions like WorldCon that's more of an issue (I have been the token "girl" on a WorldCon panel), but at the smaller cons, the panelists seem to be mostly female. Maybe I should stalk Paul at WorldCon so he has to put me in his place on panels.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Wacky Weekend

This is going to be a busy weekend for me, and I'm already whimpering and planning to withdraw from the world starting Sunday evening. It's a convention weekend, and it's difficult for me to go into convention mode when I'm also in winter hibernation mode. It is possible that I'll perk up once I get there, though.

So, I'll be at ConDFW this weekend, and if you're going you'll get a schedule, and if you're not, you don't care, so I won't worry about posting a stalker's guide other than to say that in my Saturday evening reading I'll be doing another scene from the book I read from last year. It won't resolve that scene's cliffhanger (other than since it involves most of the same characters, you'll know they came out okay) and it contains its own cliffhanger. This is a yet-to-be-sold book that will be going out on submission in the coming months, so I guess if you like it and want the chance to read the whole thing, it wouldn't hurt to melt the Internet with buzz about this awesome book so that editors might be primed for it. I know I hear from a lot of people who've heard me read the opening that they want to read the book, but telling me doesn't accomplish much.

I don't have any programming today, so I'm just heading over in the evening to help with the FenCon room party. Saturday is my busy day, with two panels and my reading, plus a con suite happy hour. I'll probably make an appearance at some of the room parties, but will be bailing early because I have to be at the 8:30 service at church on Sunday morning, since the preschool choir is singing, and that means arriving at 8. Plus, I'm on stand-by as a substitute for the soprano part in a quintet singing at that service. A friend of mine is supposed to sing it, but she had laryngitis on Wednesday. Since I was going to be there anyway with the preschoolers, I said I'd be stand-by in case she wasn't better. And then I got a look at the music. It's a capella, and it starts with a soprano solo line. It goes as high as an A above the staff and ends with an F at the top of the staff held for something like 12 counts with a fermata and a huge crescendo. This was written as a choir piece, not a small ensemble piece, and in the choir you can stagger breathing. With one person singing the part, and with the part being that high and loud, it means all in one breath. And if I do it, I may get one run-through to rehearse it. So, please direct healing prayers and thoughts to my friend so she can sing on Sunday. I wouldn't want her to miss this blessing.

Since I don't have a panel until 1 on Sunday I may stay for the late service just long enough to sing with the choir because we're doing a totally awesome old-timey spiritual piece with our jazz pianist. I can't miss that. And then I'll have to rush back to the convention to do a panel. And then I will likely crawl deep into a cave for a while.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book Report: Dancing!

One of my decluttering projects this week was to clean off the top of my dresser, which tends to become a repository for everything -- stuff from my pockets, orphaned socks, books, etc. Now every time I go into my bedroom I do a double-take because it looks so naked. It's like coming home and finding your house ransacked, but in reverse.

I haven't talked about books in a book report sense in ages because I've mostly been reading for work purposes and I'm pretty particular about the books I talk about. But I did read one recently that was really lovely, Entwined by Heather Dixon. It's a young adult book that I think is also adult-friendly. It's based on the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," which didn't occur to me when I was reading it, and it didn't even ring any bells. Then I looked up the Grimm version of that story and it all came back to me. I think putting it in a different setting and fleshing it out made it very much its own story, so I didn't make the fairy tale connection until I looked up some reviews. It still had a very fairy-tale feel, or even a dreamlike quality.

The story focuses on Princess Azalea, the eldest of twelve daughters of the king. Their mother has died in childbirth with princess #12, and the king orders that they go into mourning, wearing nothing but black, covering all the windows, staying indoors and, worst of all for the princesses who live to dance, no dancing. They get caught sneaking into the ballroom to dance a few times. But then they discover a secret passage leading from their bedroom to a magical pavilion, where the mysterious Keeper of the pavilion invites them to dance all they want, every night. Only when things have gone too far do they realize that the Keeper has an agenda, and they're all in danger that Azalea has to find a way out of. As someone who loves ballet and ballroom dancing, I loved all the dance descriptions. There's also something about this book that makes me think of a young adult, female-oriented Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. There is a nice romantic thread that for a while I thought would be the standard modern YA nice boy vs. dark and dangerous guy triangle, but it goes in a different (and very refreshing) direction.

I'm curious about the worldbuilding. It seems to be an alternate history, since although the kingdom names and histories are different from anything in our world, it still feels like Victorian England, and the horses in the royal stables are all named after British literary giants -- Dickens, Milton, Thackeray, etc. They celebrate Christmas and attend mass. There's a character from another kingdom who has to travel by boat to get there, and his speech patterns are very "upper class British twit." You can practically hear the pre-House Hugh Laurie speaking his lines. I kept trying to mentally map this world, and that just tied my brain up in knots. This isn't really a criticism, just my particular brand of geekery coming to the surface because I have to figure out how stuff like this works.

This is also a really lovely book cover that I find rather mesmerizing. A poster of that artwork would go perfectly on my bedroom wall. Anyway, for fans of fairy tales and dancing, it's a very nice read.

I'm also finding myself really wanting to write fleshed-out versions of fairy tales. Not necessarily giving them a twist, unless one occurs to me, but just making the characters into real characters, creating motivations where there aren't any, and doing some world building. Probably adding humor, because I can't help myself. That might be something I'd have to e-publish because I'm not sure publishers would be keen on it. But it would be a fun writing exercise to try, maybe something I could play with in between projects when a story strikes my fancy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dangerous Research

I spent yesterday rewriting a scene. For a mad moment, I considered starting from scratch, but then I decided I didn't need to do that. The main thing I needed to do was cut about two pages worth of an incident in the scene that really didn't add anything to it. I finally had to admit to myself that this scene was only there because I'd read a whole book to research it and I wanted something to show for all that work. Not that I read a whole book just to research a single scene. It was the first "reference" book I read when I started researching this project, back when I just had a vague sense of the setting and the concept but didn't know any details, didn't know who my characters would be and didn't know the plot. I was just reading things that seemed to sort of fit to provide enough input to figure out a plot, characters, etc. and to make the world come to life for me. I didn't end up using that information the way I thought I would, but this part of the scene was my way of shoehorning something from it in. I don't know how many drafts of the book I've gone through without once thinking, "Why is this here?" I did finally think that yesterday, and since I didn't want to cut it because I'd read a whole book to get that scene, I made a list of reasons why the book needed it -- and I couldn't think of one other than "it's kind of cool, I guess," and it's only really cool in my head because I know what I'm hinting at. I don't think anyone else would find it cool. Maybe it will live again in a "deleted scenes" page on my web site.

This book is sort of steampunk -- if you've been at conventions the past couple of years and have heard my readings, this is that book -- and the real danger of researching this is that the clothes, whether real Victorian or steampunked Victorian, are just so very pretty. I'll find myself looking up what outfit a character might be wearing so I can describe it, and I'll get sidetracked by all the things it would be cool to have. It also doesn't help that I'm currently in the throes of Downton Abbey mania and love the clothes for that, which are getting close enough to modern that they wouldn't be too costumey for everyday wear. In fact, I can put together several rather "Downton" ensembles from things already in my closet. I still can't quite figure out how they do the hair, though. I should be able to do those hairstyles because mine is even longer than what we've seen when these characters have their hair loose. I just need to find a good, illustrated guide to those hairstyles.

And, no, I don't know when/if this book will be published. I'm revising it to target a particular market. I get great responses when I do readings from it, but I don't know if that's because I do full-on dramatic interpretations, complete with singing, that are different from the typical author reading at a convention or if it's because the book is really that good. These days, though, I don't know if avid potential reader interest means editors will also like it. I get a sense of a huge gap between what people want to read and what publishers want to publish.

But, oh, if it sells and I have income again, there are a few things I so need to buy. They might even count as a business expense, since they'd be for promoting the book and about the only places I could wear them would be at conventions or booksignings.

Speaking of conventions, I'll be at ConDFW this weekend (possibly wearing something Downton-inspired, especially if I can figure out the hair). I don't have a lot of panels, but I may be reading the scene I revised yesterday in my Saturday-evening reading session.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Follow Ups

After looking back at yesterday's entry on Something Borrowed, I think I should probably clarify something. When I was talking about the toxic friendship, I wasn't implying that it excused cheating. I was mostly reacting to all the reader/audience reviews of the book and movie that went along the lines of "OMG! How dare she betray her BFF!" If that's what a "best friend" is, then I'll become a hermit (or even more of one). There's plenty of blame to go around, which was what made it a fairly complex book and a fairly despicable movie. I'm inclined to put most of the blame on the guy because I think if you can cheat while you're engaged or if you even think you're in love with someone else while you're engaged, you should call off the wedding, period. Even if the other person doesn't want to pursue a relationship, if you can fall in love with someone else then the person you're engaged to probably isn't the right one. So, if all they'd done was acknowledge that they'd always had feelings for each other, so that he realized he'd made some major decisions without knowing all the facts, and then he knew he was marrying the wrong person and called off the wedding, then I don't think the friendship was special enough that she should have avoided being with the guy once he was free just because he'd been engaged to her friend. Really, though, in the movie I think she'd have been better off ditching both the guy and the friend and realizing that her other friend, the one who cared about her and was there for her, was her real best friend, and he was also cute and in love with her, so he could have been her boyfriend, too. Let the others deserve each other.

Then again, the "best friend" was also a jerk in the first place because a real friend wouldn't make a play for the guy her best friend has a crush on. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive on that account because I briefly had a "friend" like that. If I ever mentioned any interest in a guy, the next thing I knew, she'd be all over him, even though she had a boyfriend. She kept all these guys strung along, I guess with the hint that if she ever broke up with her boyfriend, they'd be next in line, and in the meantime she had them available for giving her rides, carrying heavy things, etc. Once I noticed the pattern, I started testing it by naming random guys, and sure enough, the moment I indicated interest, she jumped in to intercept. But I didn't put up with it. I found other friends. And none of those guys ever ran after me when I got uncomfortable and left the two of them alone (like the guy in the movie did), so I have a feeling they wouldn't have been interested in me even if she hadn't made a play for them. Oddly enough, when she did break up with her boyfriend, she didn't end up with any of those guys. She went for the one guy I couldn't stand, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't just a coincidence that we had the same taste.

Now, for another follow-up. After that one school district made the silly decision to use federal funds to take only the fifth-grade boys to see the Red Tails movie, while the girls stayed in the classroom to watch a movie about a spelling bee, there were school districts who did it right. A couple of districts in the area did the movie outing as an extracurricular activity on a Saturday, involved eighth-graders and up (because they didn't want to take kids younger than 13 to a PG-13 movie), involved both boys and girls, paid for it through private donations, and included such educational components as a documentary about the Tuskegee Airmen, a talk from an actual Tuskegee Airman (on the news stories, that seemed to be the thing that had the most impact on the kids. They were in awe of getting to meet him after seeing the movie) plus presentations from people who worked in a variety of aspects of aviation, including air force veterans, aerospace engineers and airline employees. That's doing it right. I kind of wish I could have gone to that program.

Oh yeah, and it's Valentine's Day. I'm really not saying this out of bitter singleness, but I don't really get this holiday. I can see celebrating your anniversary, but I don't understand why some arbitrary day that may or may not have anything to do with your relationship has to be some kind of high-pressure demonstration of your love for each other. I'd be far more impressed by flowers on some random day than on a day when a massive advertising blitz has delivered the message that it's mandatory. Maybe I'm just enough of a diva to want any special day to be all about me and not a special day I'm sharing with everyone else in the world.

I made brownies yesterday, so I've got my chocolate taken care of for the day, and I'm making a pizza for dinner. That will be my celebration. And then if I've been really good in getting work done, I'll maybe watch a movie. Otherwise, I'll be working.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Movie Monday: Something Borrowed

Since I finished a round of revisions on Friday, I decided to give myself a weekend off. I got the second season DVD set for Downton Abbey and had myself a marathon on Saturday, so I've now seen the whole thing ahead of PBS and without all the PBS edits. I watched the PBS broadcast last night, and they went after it with a razor blade, not really cutting scenes but cutting individual lines or the beginnings and ends of scenes. Now, though, I have to wait a year for the next season. Boo.

Sunday afternoon was cold, so I made some popcorn and snuggled under the electric blanket to watch Something Borrowed on HBO. After all, it's the weekend before Valentine's Day, so it's the perfect time for a romantic comedy. I've read the book it was based on, but that was years ago, so I don't remember it well enough to be able to do a book-into-movie comparison. I kind of liked the book but didn't love it madly, but I'm not sure I can make myself read it again after seeing the movie (and I have an autographed copy!). I had some issues with the events in the book, but the book was well-written enough that I could still sympathize with the characters, even as they were doing things I found despicable -- I think that was the point of the book. It was like an exercise in "make the character do something she'd never do." But while the movie followed the book's plot, something about it just highlighted the issues without generating the sympathy, and I'm afraid I'd bring that back to the book if I re-read it.

Anyway, the story is about two young women on the cusp of 30 who have been best friends since childhood. There's Darcy, who is blond, rich, self-centered and shallow, and then there's Rachel, who's a mousy, brainy brunette. When Rachel's in law school, her study partner is Dex, The Perfect Man, who is gorgeous, wealthy and intelligent, and she has a mad crush on him. But then when she introduces her best friend to this guy she's been talking about non-stop, Darcy turns the flirt up to eleven and is all over him. Rachel figures she can't compete and gives up entirely. But that's all backstory. In the present, Darcy and Dex are engaged, with their wedding a few months away. After a birthday party for Rachel that somehow turns into an engagement party for Darcy, Rachel and Dex are talking and she lets slip that she used to have a crush on him. It turns out he felt the same way but thought he didn't have a chance when she set him up with her best friend. One thing leads to another, and soon they're having a guilt-inducing affair. Rachel has a dilemma -- she can either have the man she loves or her best friend. Not that she has much choice in the matter because Dex is still playing lovey-dovey with Darcy and hasn't done anything to call off the wedding. Fortunately, we're saved the trouble of having to yell at the screen because the filmmakers have taken care of that for us, in the form of Ethan, yet another friend from childhood, who says everything we've been thinking about how insane this situation is. He noticed how self-centered Darcy is when Rachel doesn't seem to have figured it out. He figures out the affair because he has eyes and a brain. And he gives good advice that no one takes. I don't recall this character playing that big a role in the book, although he's a major character in the follow-up. But since the movie can't get us into the heroine's head the way a book can, she needs a confidant character to talk to, and so they beefed up Ethan's role.

One of my issues with the premise may come from my background as an Army brat, since none of the reviews I saw on IMDB mentioned this. I don't have any friends from childhood who are still in my life. We moved around so much, and my friends moved around so much, that I was always moving on and making new friends. I'm now Facebook friends with one elementary school friend and some of my high school friends, but I don't have enough in common with any of them anymore to want them to play a bigger role in my life. So I may not understand the importance of someone who's known you since elementary school. I figure if you can break off a romance that's not working for you, you can break off a friendship that's not working for you. I'm not even sure why Darcy and Rachel ever were friends. They don't seem to have anything in common. The big bonding moment in the movie is when they do a dance routine they did for some junior high talent show. I don't know what they talk about other than Darcy. It strikes me as a very unhealthy relationship. If they were romantic partners instead of just friends we'd probably call it an emotionally abusive, co-dependent relationship. It seems more like a case of a Queen Bee and her sycophantic adorer, the only girl it's safe for the Queen Bee to be friends with because she's no competition. Darcy bosses Rachel around, tries to dictate her life, never even acknowledges that she might have needs, and then just when she goes too far with the selfishness she'll come out with the "oh, you're my best friend and I love you so much" talk. If Rachel had any self-respect, she'd ditch Darcy regardless of the guy. But most of the criticisms of the movie (and the book) have more to do with how awful it is to let a guy come between friends. I don't see them as really being friends.

Where the movie has problems is in the casting. Ginnifer Goodwin (Snow White in Once Upon a Time) plays Rachel, and she's supposedly the girl who can't believe that an attractive man would ever be interested in her. I think she's absolutely stunning, far more attractive than Darcy (Kate Hudson). If she's got that bad a self-image while looking like that, we're at pathological levels of self-loathing. Meanwhile, Dex is supposed to be deeper and more substantial, so that it seems that all he and Darcy have going for them is that they look pretty together, while he really has more in common with Rachel because they're both smart and have deep thoughts. I'm not familiar with the guy playing Dex, and he is hampered by a script that makes his character essentially a MacGuffin -- an object to be attained that isn't all that important in and of itself -- so he may have read the script and figured that "bland" was what they wanted. He's reasonably attractive in a young Tom Cruise way, where his features are all just right but there's something kind of plastic about him that makes him rather uninteresting. To make matters worse, Ethan, the best buddy, is played by John Krasinski, who may not be classically handsome but who I find very appealing. His character not only gets all the good lines and gets to be the comic relief in this so-called (but not very funny) romantic comedy, but he infuses the role with a lot of personality and makes good use of his full repertoire of reaction expressions honed on The Office. Even worse than that, Rachel and Ethan spend a lot more time together and interact more than Rachel and Darcy or Rachel and Dex do. For a mad moment (spoiler alert) I thought they were going to do something crazy and change the ending of the book, since they had the more famous actor in the "best friend" role and beefed up that role so significantly. I know that the girl realizing that her best buddy has been right there all along after she's wasted so much time chasing Mr. Wrong is a romantic comedy cliche, but the reason that the cliches become cliches is that they work. It's actually rather dissatisfying when they break with the trope, especially since Dex is such a useless waffler. I do know that if they do make the sequel, I'll have to avoid it. I actually liked the second book better, but I'm not sure I could stomach seeing that story with these actors in those roles after having seen this movie.

Now I need to find something good to watch on Valentine's night, or maybe something so bad it's good. I'll have to see what Lifetime Movie Network OnDemand has available. I could use a good "my husband's trying to kill me" movie.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Boy Stuff Strikes Again

I forced myself out of the house this morning to make a Target run, and now I can devote the rest of the day to work. I'm mad at the weatherman, though. He promised us a nice, rainy day and instead it's bright and sunny (the rain came and went overnight). How am I supposed to work under these conditions?

I may finish this pass of revisions today, but then I've already thought of some things I can do earlier in the book, so I'll probably do another pass, probably not linear this time, just hitting the particular spots, and then I'll do a good editing pass. The good thing is that I still like this book and these characters, so it's kind of nice to get to spend this much more time with them.

I don't normally get political or issue-oriented here, but something happened around here yesterday that just blew my mind. One of the big school districts in the area (not the one where I live, or I'd already have been expressing my dismay at the administration building) spent nearly $60,000, mostly supposedly coming from a federal grant (the administrators of the grant are denying they granted it, though) to take the fifth-grade boys to see Red Tails, the fictionalized movie about the Tuskegee Airmen. The girls stayed at school with substitute teachers, who had the option of showing them a DVD of Akeelah and the Bee, a totally fictional story about a girl in a spelling bee. According to the district officials, they didn't have room at the theater for all the kids, so they decided to just take the boys because they thought the movie would be of more interest to boys.

I just about exploded when I saw this story on my news feed. I know for a fact that I would far rather see a movie about fighter pilots than a movie about a spelling bee, and that's even disregarding the difference between going on a field trip to a movie theater and staying at school with substitute teachers. The very idea of spelling bees makes me twitch, but I'm a history buff and I know even my fifth-grade self would have chosen the fighter pilots over the spelling bee. How can they say boys, across the board, are going to be more interested than girls? And how can they even say it's more valuable for boys than girls to be inspired by this story? Women can be fighter pilots now, so who's to say some little girl might not see this story and develop a career ambition? And if it's about role models for economically disadvantaged kids (one of the justifications for this trip), girls need positive male role models as much as boys do.

This bizarre differentiation between "boy stuff" and "girl stuff" blows my mind. I'm about as far as you can get from a tomboy. I suck at sports, am not interested in camping (unless it's in a cabin with indoor plumbing), take ballet classes, like wearing dresses and have waist-length hair. But I love war movies. I love war documentaries. I've spent many an hour listening to veterans' war stories because I was interested and I could tell they needed to talk. My favorite color is blue and I'm not a huge fan of pink (though I am wearing a pink sweater today). You can't pigeonhole me. Or anyone, really. And telling kids that some things are for boys and some things are for girls isn't something alleged educators should be doing because it narrows their horizons.

Whew! Being on a soapbox is tiring. But since I work with little girls, this kind of thing worries me. It's okay to like both princess movies and fighter pilots, and they can be anything they want to be. It's the talent and the effort that are important, and those aren't gender-dependent.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Teenage Sensibility

They may leave me constantly sick, but the preschoolers are great for the ego. After 45 minutes with them, I feel so loved. Last night I got a big hug from one, who then clung to me all night. Another didn't want to go in the room but agreed to do so if I held her hand as she entered, and The Artist Formerly Known as Mole Boy, who used to stay in the hall and cry while trying to refuse to go into the classroom, was coming down the hall with his dad and when he saw me standing in the doorway, he left his dad and ran down the hall into the room. I swear, that kid must be a changeling. Either the fairies or the aliens swapped him out during the holidays because he's a totally different child now. Then during class, I usually had two kids in my lap and one leaning against each side at most times, with two more whining about wanting their turn. Though I may be spending too much time with preschoolers. I saw out the window that someone was walking a dog down the sidewalk outside, and I thought "Puppy!" at the exact same time all the little girls cried out, "Puppy!" and ran to the window.

Moving to a slightly older age range, I've been reading some young adult books to try to get a sense of that mindset, and I've realized that my problem isn't just the roiling emotions. I also have to keep in mind that the "too stupid to live" bar is set at a different level for teenagers. Not that teens are automatically stupid, but the whole reason "maturity" is even a concept is that younger people who have less life experience will often make different -- and sometimes bad -- decisions that make perfect sense to them at the time but that adults would see as totally idiotic. That's where it's difficult to think back to your own youth and notice those bad decisions, unless there were serious consequences to them, because at the time those decisions were made, they seemed totally rational and just the thing to do. If you're in your own head, it's hard to spot those things. It may not even be something you did, but rather a thought process or the way you assessed a situation.

The trick is that I'm writing a very sensible character, and I want her to come across as a sensible person. I just need to think teenage sensible as opposed to adult sensible. I was a very sensible teenager, so I've been trying to think of silly things I did. I think a lot of my silliness came from my defense mechanisms. I was afraid to have people think I wanted something, so I acted like I didn't want it, and then of course no one gave it to me, and then I was hurt. Take homecoming mums. If you're from Texas, you'll understand what a big deal that is. In my day, they weren't quite the production they are now, where girls are essentially wearing Tournament of Roses parade floats on their shoulders (I hear there are even full-body mums that come with harnesses), but they still involved a huge flower with floor-length streamers and cowbells and other trinkets attached to the streamers. The really popular girls would be covered in them because they'd get one from their parents, sometimes one from other family members, one from their boyfriend (sometimes mums from multiple admirers), then the cheerleaders each got one from the football team, and the homecoming court members all got one. In my freshman year, I had a pretty good feeling I wouldn't be getting one (and I didn't realize what a big deal it was), so I remember making remarks about how I hoped I didn't get one because I had allergies and wearing a mum all day would make me sneeze. So, of course, no one got me one. I don't know if that was the only reason, though I do recall a guy saying something about it years later when I'd even forgotten what I'd said defensively as a freshman. I did finally get two mums my senior year, since my dad had been teaching at the school long enough to have realized what a big deal it was and got me one, and then the band gave all the senior girls one. And I was ridiculously excited about walking around school all day with those horrendous things attached to me. At the time, telling everyone I didn't want a mum seemed like the best way to avoid looking bad for not having one, even though now I can see that pretty much ensured that I'd never get one. Now that I think about it, I think the remark from the guy about me saying I didn't want one came my senior year when I was wearing two. I still don't know that he was someone who would have given me one, but it indicated that someone was listening.

I think most of my bad decisions as a teen, that led to me missing out on some things that might have been good, came from me being terrified of anyone thinking I cared too much about something that I actually cared deeply about. No, I don't really like that guy. We just do homework together. No, I don't want a homecoming mum. I don't really care about being at the top of my section in band because it's not like I'm a band geek. I don't really want to hang out with these people because it's not like I have anything in common with them (but, of course, if they asked me, I'd jump at the chance). Now I just need to find the story equivalent of "I don't want a mum (though really I do and I'm just covering in case I don't get one)" for my character.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Recommended Reading

There seem to be certain people who show up at just about every booksigning or author event. One is the person who's not interested in your book but who just wants to talk to an author about how to get a book published (and presumably how to find fame and fortune as an author). When you ask this person what they write, they usually say they haven't written anything yet. What they decide to write will depend on what they can get published. Then if you ask them what they like to read, they look at you like you've grown a second head and say they don't read. They just want to write.

This is probably not a person who will be very successful as an author, unless maybe they get on a reality show, become famous and then have a ghostwriter write a book that will have their name on it. Being a good writer involves a lot of reading. In fact, I probably spend more time reading than I do writing, and that's not just a procrastination mechanism. I know of authors who don't like to read how-to books on writing because if they think about their process, it doesn't work. Where they learn the process is actually from reading. You learn to tell stories by reading stories and getting a good sense of how they work. You learn to use language by reading language. One of the best ways to prepare yourself to start writing novels is to read a lot of novels, not to copy them but to absorb the sense of them.

Here are some kinds of books any aspiring author needs to read, aside from books that relate specifically to a certain project:
- The classics in your genre -- as I said last time, this is a good way to learn the origins of the cliches so you can avoid them or give them a fresh spin
- Recently published books in your genre -- so you'll know what's happening now
- Award winners in your genre -- so you'll know what's considered good
- Bestsellers in your genre -- so you'll know what's currently popular
- Bestsellers from other genres, fiction and non-fiction -- so you'll get a sense of current cultural trends
- Award winners across the board
- Anything getting a lot of buzz or hype
- Books about the business of writing -- even if you don't read how-to books, you need to educate yourself on things like how to find an agent, how to write a query letter, how the industry works, what's in a contract, etc. Then you're less likely to make bad decisions or fall prey to scams. My library has a whole shelf of books like this.

Optional but recommended reading:
- Non-fiction books that help you understand people -- characters are the core of fiction, so the better you are at understanding human motivations and their consequences, the richer your writing will be. This can include psychology books as well as memoirs, biography and history.
- Books from other genres that may have relevance to your work -- if there are romantic elements in what you're writing, it's a good idea to read some romance novels, for example
- the literary canon -- what we call "the classics," stuff like Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, all those things that have become part of the culture. If you quote it or refer to it, you need to read it in context.
- Poetry -- a great way to look at the use of language and the art of choosing the perfect word

If you look at this list and shudder because it sounds like your idea of hell, then either you aren't really cut out to be a writer or you're trying to write the wrong things. Most writers start as readers, so before they even contemplate writing that first word, they've already read many of the genre classics and have been reading the new stuff all along. It's only when they have to dedicate some of their former reading time to writing that they may start being more deliberate about what they read.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

I Need Minions

I've been hard on myself for having an entire free afternoon to work and getting very little working time, according to my stopwatch, but I realized why that's happening yesterday. When I work too long, I get too into the story and just read instead of making changes, or else I feel too lazy to actually make changes and figure it's fine the way it is. Then I find myself having to go back and fix something earlier. If I take frequent breaks, the work goes better.

The trick is, I probably need to spend my breaks doing something more productive than checking in on message boards. I need to get back into my house cleaning project. My last task turned out to be more complicated than I expected. I was cleaning out the bathroom drawer, but then organizing that required organizing the makeup caddy on the countertop, as well as the basket I use to hold hair stuff (barrettes, hairpins, etc.). I now have the countertop mostly fixed, and having everything together like that is saving me lots of time in getting ready because I don't have to search for things. I just have to re-tackle the drawer now because a lot of stuff got dumped in there while I was straightening the counter. But taking so long to do this means I've lost all momentum. I can see why I have such a problem with housework and organization. It's very easy for me to lose enthusiasm and interest when there's something else that catches my attention, like a book I want to work on. Plus, there's the motivation factor. A book might earn me some money, which I rather desperately need. Cleaning house just has the benefit of making me feel good when it's done, but then it has to be done all over again.

What I need is the army of minions, like on Downton Abbey, where they all scurry into the room after the family has left and tidy it up. I'd need a bigger house for that, though, because in this house we'd keep bumping into each other and having other people around would drive me nuts. I might be able to shut myself in my office and let them deal with the downstairs, and then they might be able to tackle the upstairs at night when I'm in bed, but an open floorplan doesn't lend itself to staff that takes care of the rooms you're not in while trying to remain invisible. Really, what I need are Brownies (like in folklore, not Girl Scouts -- unless they bring Thin Mints while cleaning my house).

Now to see how much I can accomplish this afternoon. There's a homeowners' association meeting tonight, but a lot of drama exploded on the mailing list for that yesterday, which made me think the meeting isn't something I want to deal with (I think I'd rather deal with a session of the US Senate where the drama is about something real and major than any meeting in which relatively petty things are treated with drama worthy of the United Nations). So I ran next door and gave my neighbor my proxy so I can skip the meeting. I'd rather remain blissfully ignorant about the pettiness of my neighbors so I can keep living with them.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Yay, Monday!

It's really strange to be glad it's Monday, but I had a busy, semi-stressful weekend and I'm approaching my favorite part of the book I'm revising, so I'm glad to have a quiet day at home and I'm eager to work.

I should get a lot of work done because it's a fairly cold day today -- not normal winter cold, but not warm -- and if I turn off the central heat and bundle up in the electric blanket, then I won't want to move from my cozy writing spot and my only danger will be daydreaming, which does tend to happen when I'm bundled up all nice and cozy. The trick will be to focus the daydreaming on the book.

I'm going to try to frontload my work for the week so I can take a little time off Friday afternoon. They're releasing the season two Downton Abbey DVD this week, and that means I can marathon the rest of the series instead of waiting for two more installments on PBS. However, if the DVDs for this season are done like last season, the episodes will be edited differently than they were on PBS, which means some events happen in different places, and watching the remaining episodes on DVD will mean rewatching the entire series first. I know, it's a terrible hardship, right?

My choir director must be reading my mind (or my blog) about needing to find more opportunities to force myself to perform so it becomes less scary because he's assigned me to a quartet singing next month. Strangely, that's not as scary as singing solo even though I know my voice will stand out since I'm the soprano and that usually means it's the lead part. Give me a few more years and I might be willing to sing alone in front of people. I also got to try the "survive the worst-case scenario" technique yesterday, as things just sort of fell apart, but it wasn't my fault. I didn't do as well as I'd like, but I didn't do badly, especially under the circumstances, and so many other things that had nothing to do with me went wrong (like the pianist's pages sticking together so she couldn't turn pages and had to stop playing for a while to fix it) that the only thing we could do was laugh about it. As one of the guys said, the only thing that didn't happen during that song was a tornado hitting. And yet I survived and maintained a sense of humor about it. The song is still stuck in my brain, so I need a new earworm, but other than that I don't think I'm going to be scarred for life or set back in my recovery from stage fright.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Fairy Tale Television

I've now reached the real rewriting phase, but it's a cloudy, rainy day, so I'm anticipating great productivity. I really do love this book.

And then there's new Grimm tonight, which has not only become my favorite of the fairy tale shows, but is possibly my favorite of the currently airing series, aside from maybe Downton Abbey (which is more of a miniseries).

In case you haven't noticed, I love fairy tales. I like the sanitized Disney versions with musical numbers and cute talking animals, I like the darker Grimm versions, I read books of Jungian analysis of fairy tales, I like fantasy that plays with fairy tale tropes and I love fantasy that plays with fairy tale themes without directly referring to the tales themselves, essentially creating entirely new stories for the canon.

So having two series on television that make direct reference to fairy tales is a real treat for me. There's Once Upon a Time, in which the evil queen from the Snow White story gets her ultimate revenge by enacting a curse that sends everyone from the fairy tale land into modern America, where they live in a kind of unchanging stasis, unaware of who they really are -- and meanwhile, we learn about their stories in flashbacks. And then there's Grimm, which is a kind of paranormal procedural in which we learn that the Grimms were actually profilers with the talent to see the monsters living as men for what they really are, with the newest Grimm being a young police detective who's suddenly been forced into this strange world where the child molester he has to track down is actually a Big, Bad Wolf, for instance.

These two shows were compared to each other a lot, and the blog even has a weekly feature rating them against each other, but I think that aside from the fairy tale theme, they're too different to compare. Once Upon a Time is more of a soap opera about the relationships among the characters and their histories, making much more literal use of the familiar fairy tales while also fleshing out their backstories. Grimm is a paranormal procedural with very slight ties to fairy tales, mostly focusing on the idea that the tales grew out of very real creatures, but functioning far more like a cop show with a twist.

Initially, I was far more into Once Upon a Time because one of my favorite kinds of fantasy is fairy tales that have been fleshed out so that the characters are actually characters instead of archetypes, and there's more to the story than we've heard in the tales. They really got me with the episode that had Snow White and Prince Charming (which we learned was actually her sarcastic nickname for him) meeting when she robbed his carriage (when she was hiding out in the woods after the queen sent the huntsman to kill her, but before she ran into the dwarfs). Meanwhile, Grimm was mostly a police procedural with a supernatural twist (though it manages to be a lot more realistic in many respects than any of the CSI shows -- like they have the armored SWAT guys break into a place and clear it before the detectives go in, instead of the crime lab guys leading the SWAT team).

Over time, though, my loyalties have switched. Once Upon a Time has developed a bad case of Lostitis -- mistaking backstory for character development and leaving the "current" story treading water with no real momentum while we bounce around in the past. The current story is getting boring and frustrating because I get tired of banging my head against the same brick wall week after week. Plus, the evil queen has to be the dumbest villain ever. Her Grand Scheme for Ultimate Revenge is to spend eternity watching her rival live a mildly unsatisfying life. Someone didn't read the Evil Overlord List. (Caution to those unfamiliar with this list: Do not click on the link unless you're prepared to lose at least half an hour and to never look at most movies, books and TV series the same way ever again.) I'm far more interested in how the pieces of the backstory fit together than I am in the current story, mostly because I know they can't afford to go anywhere with the current story or they'd end the series.

Meanwhile, that procedural structure of Grimm is turning out to be a benefit because they're up against a different villain every week, and there's a resolution to each week's story instead of coming to a stalemate with the same villain week after week. There's a mythology gradually building in the background, so it looks like there's more going on than just each week's cases, but the cases are interesting enough that they can afford to build their mythology gradually. They're also doing some fun things to bust a lot of cliches. For instance, our hero is basically a nice guy and very normal. Finding out about this supernatural stuff didn't send him into a tailspin, he's not doing a lot of angsting and moaning about just wanting a normal life, and he hasn't become a superpowered ninja. He's just a good cop who happens to have some additional perceptions, and he's applying his basic personality and his cop background to the Grimm thing, so instead of being a Slayer, he's more of a social worker for the creatures. Not to mention that he's absolutely adorable (and that actor would make a really good Owen -- the characters are even pretty similar). I've been taping this show and watching Supernatural, but I'm on the verge of just giving up Supernatural and watching this live because I don't want to wait even an hour.

I think there's actually a third point to the fairy tale shows triangle, which is similar to both shows, while they're not that much like each other, but I think that's material for its own discussion to have another time.

Thursday, February 02, 2012


I got a good start on the revisions yesterday, though it was on the part that doesn't need so much revising. It starts getting more challenging today. Since most of what I'm revising right now is to make the narrator seem younger, I'm thinking I might start hand-writing "diary entries" for the critical scenes, then pull impressions from those to put into the interior monologue. It will be an experiment. Once I do that for a while, it may start coming more naturally.

I got more than my usual quota of hugs last night from the preschoolers. They were unusually clingy, and even the usual non-clingy ones were being very clingy, but it wasn't in a sad, weepy way. It was more of a need for contact, it seemed. I couldn't sit down without instantly having at least two trying to crawl into my lap, and when I was standing I usually had one clinging to one side and one holding my other hand, unless we were dancing, which we did a fair amount of, in which case I usually had one hanging on each hand. We're learning a new song by osmosis, so we just play the CD and dance around, and it seeps into their brains. And usually my brain, but I then had regular choir practice and we're doing a lot of old spirituals, and those really embed themselves in the brain. We get a lot of variety, doing spirituals this month and doing Verdi for Easter. I had nightmares last night about the song we're doing Sunday. Not that it's awful, but it's very syncopated, so it's hard to count, and that makes doing the solo a little more complicated and nervewracking. Oddly, I wasn't having nightmares about singing the solo. The song just followed me through my dreams in a nightmarish way.

I've been reading some psychology books about anxiety and fear in an effort to deal with the singing stage fright. I know that psychological self-help isn't necessarily a great idea, but as I can't afford real therapy at the moment and I'm working on a relatively minor and very specific issue, I figure that if I do it wrong it's not like I'm going to end up in a tower with a high-powered weapon, so I'm pretty safe. I've tried digging into my history to figure out why I have this strange thing about people hearing me sing, and I can't think of any particular event that scarred me for life. I've always felt self-conscious about singing in front of people. It's a vulnerability thing. Maybe it's because it was something important to me that I thought (or hoped) I did well, and therefore it mattered too much to risk letting other people judge it. Then not singing in front of people ever made it scarier to do so. I think a lot of my issue is physiological. I seem to have an overly sensitive sympathetic nervous system. Very tiny things can send me into major fight-or-flight mode. Just thinking about an embarrassing situation can make me turn bright red, my hands shake and my pulse race. It takes nothing at all to work myself up into a state, and that's kind of what happens with the stage fright. My body just goes nuts, shaking, sweating, fast pulse, shallow breathing, etc., which makes it difficult to control my voice, which means I don't perform as well as I'd like, which makes me even more nervous about the next time.

As for what to do about it, most books I've read seem to come down to exposure. By doing the scary thing repeatedly, you eventually teach the unconscious part of the brain that controls those responses that this situation is not actually life-or-death, so it can chill. You get used to doing the thing you're afraid of, and it becomes more predictable. The trick is that it takes a lot of cooperation from others to get the kind of exposure that leads to reducing stage fright. It helped when I was taking that voice class, but even there we only sang in front of the class five times a semester. To some extent, the preschoolers help, because I'm getting used to singing in front of them every week, and while they sometimes make fun of the fact that they think I sing opera, they also tell me they like how I sing. I just need to find more venues that are bigger and more adult than the preschool class but not quite as big and scary as the 800-seat sanctuary in a church service where I can get used to performing and create a comfort zone, and I need to do it more often than a couple of times a year. But I can't get assigned that many solos without being a total diva. I need to find a fear of singing support group, where we meet once a week or so and everyone sings a little something in front of the others. Maybe I'll talk to our choir director about that since I know there are others with the same problem, and he's a voice teacher and performer, so maybe he'll have some ideas.

Interesting factoid from the latest book I read on the subject of fear: The Blitz during WWII was meant by the Germans to be a psychological attack. The idea was to be so relentless in the bombing that the civilian populace would beg their leaders to surrender to make it stop. But there was a fundamental flaw in the plan. What the Germans saw as relentless the British saw as predictable, and that made the attacks less frightening. They bombed just about every night at the same time, and instead of the civilians going crazy with knowing that another attack would come, they got used to it, so they got to a point where it became a part of life and the attitude was, "Oh, the Jerries are half an hour early tonight. More tea?" To achieve psychological terror, the bombings should have been a lot more random and sporadic and less relentless.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

New Beginnings and Old Crushes

If yesterday was the ten-year anniversary of my layoff, then I guess today is my ten-year anniversary of not having a boss. I didn't really know that it was the start of anything at the time, though. I got laid off on a Thursday, and I'd already planned for that weekend to be a big reading binge, since I'd just gotten into the Harry Potter series and had finally got the fourth book (the most recent at the time) from the library. I just started a day early on the reading instead of letting myself worry about what I'd do for the future. I figured that could wait for Monday. I do recall that my reading was frequently interrupted, as all the former clients were calling to express their outrage and to offer me freelance work, and by the end of the day I had a meeting scheduled for Monday, and that was what made me decide to try not looking for a job at all. I'd also just come up with the idea that became Enchanted, Inc. and although I didn't start writing it for more than a year, it was in the back of my head that I wanted to be able to write that book.

I dug up my old Air Supply tape, and I learned that listening to the romantic angst music from my youth doesn't work for dredging up those feelings, since now that music just gives me the rosy glow of nostalgia. And, you know, some of it was really good. It's got a melody, good lyrics, and some of it you can even dance to. I was doing a foxtrot around my kitchen while cooking yesterday. I do prefer the songs where "the other guy" who's not the usual lead singer takes the lead because I like his softer, huskier voice better than the brasher voice of the usual lead singer. It may even be worth getting some of this on CD.

Actually, romantic angst is so far in my past that it's hard to remember. For the past fifteen or so years, most of my romantic angst has been of the "how can I make sure he knows I'm not romantically interested in a way that will allow us to remain friends?" variety. Or, with some of the "you spoke to me, so obviously you love me" convention stalkers, the romantic angst has been of the "how do I make it clear that I'm not into him in a way that won't make everyone else think I'm a raging bitch?" I don't think I've met anyone I was really into romantically and wanted to like me that way since the 90s.

I did have a lot of the unrequited love angst as a teen, in spite of most of my crushes coming because I thought the guy might be into me. My usual pattern was that I'd notice behavior in the guy that made it seem like he was taking an interest, and then I'd get excited about the idea that someone might like me and work myself into a big old crush. And then usually it would turn out that he didn't like me that way and I'd discover it when I learned he had a girlfriend. Usually, all the invitations to come over to his house and hang out turned out to be strictly because he wanted my help with his homework rather than him using the homework as a convenient excuse to invite me over and hang out, as I'd hoped. It's possible that I might have been right once or twice, but if so, then for some reason it totally freaked him out to get the slightest hint of an idea that I might like him back so he fled screaming (figuratively) rather than it being a nice "I like you, you like me!" start to a relationship. It's kind of hard to get myself back into that frame of mind, since I have the benefit of hindsight and perspective. I've seen how all those guys turned out, and all I can think was that I really dodged a lot of bullets. I find myself just laughing at that pining. But I do think I can recall the feelings well enough to write them. Oddly enough, it's not music or any of the other usual emotional triggers that brings it all back. It's the memory of being on a school bus, and then two particular scenes that happened on school buses come back in a vivid flash.

While I was digging around for old tapes, I ran across a CD I haven't seen in years and have been trying to find for ages, so that was good. It somehow ended up in a box that had nothing to do with music. Tapes were only in there because they'd fallen in from somewhere else.

Today I'm going to get down to work on the revisions, though it will be a short work day due to three choir rehearsals -- preschoolers, chorale and choir. I have a solo in the chorale piece for Sunday. It's an old-timey gospel number that's essentially a solo with choral backup, and the director has divided the bits of the solo among us. I'm really only "solo" for a few words and then sing the verses together with an alto, since they have an alternate higher melody written in and that's the part I'll sing, so it will be kind of harmony (even though I don't think they're meant to be sung together). We'll see how it works. It's all pretty low in my range because it's written as an alto solo, but for once I'll get to bust out my torchy jazz voice in church. I can sing really low if I'm allowed to get torchy with it. It's just a challenge when I'm supposed to be sounding classical.