Friday, March 30, 2012

Starting the Creative Process

Progress continues on my spring cleaning. The downstairs "public" areas are mostly livable, and the loft is significantly improved. I have way too many books -- and yes, there is such a thing as too many books when most of them are books you aren't really interested in. I have hundreds of books obtained through conference goody bags or publisher hype mailings, and few of them are books I would have bought for myself, but I can't seem to make myself get rid of them without at least trying to read them. I have had a few times when I've started to box or bag some up to donate to the library sale, and then I read a later book by one of those authors and realize that I have that author's first book somewhere in a bag. I have, on occasion, found a gem I would have overlooked otherwise. So I can't just get rid of them, but they're on the bottom of my reading priority list. I did start tossing those books into a large shopping bag, so that I now have a to-be-read grab-bag. If I'm ever out of reading material (ha!) I can just reach into the bag, and if I don't like the book after a few chapters, I'm allowed to get rid of it. That's making a little more room on the bookcases for the books I want to keep.

Today's epic task: Cleaning the kitchen. So that I can cook dinner tonight and immediately mess it up again.

I think I'm going to declare next week "spring break." I'm between projects, with everything in someone else's hands, and my house will be mostly clean, so I can relax. I had all these requirements in place for when I got to take a "vacation," but then I decided that was silly and my weird perfectionism was creeping in -- unless everything is perfect, I won't do it at all. I may not make this the true at-home vacation with excursions and all, but I may allow myself some down time to read, watch movies, etc., before I gear up again and get back to work.

However, I'm already getting twitchy about not having a book in progress. I started brainstorming an idea yesterday. And then I thought it might be fun to share the creative process. I'm developing that possible mystery series, and since it's not a book in my existing series, it's not like there will be actual spoilers. I may or may not even get around to writing it, depending on what happens with other stuff. Feedback, comments or questions are welcome, so I guess this is sort of a focus group, but I may or may not use it. No story or character ideas, please. Just feedback on my ideas (I wouldn't be able to use any of your ideas for fear of getting into a "you stole my idea and now you owe me money" situation, and that would suck if you happened to propose an idea I'd already had).

So, I'm planning to set this series in a fictional small town, in part for practical reasons, as I can make everything up instead of having to stick to reality, and in a mystery I don't have to use specific policies or procedures of any particular police department. There's a lot that can be swept under "this is how we do things here." Also, since this is going to be a paranormal series, it's going to be a town where Things Aren't Quite Right. I've always been a sucker for the odd little town story (thus my Haven obsession). I think it's something of a survival mechanism when you are stuck in a small town. Even normal small towns have real secrets and open "secrets" that everyone knows but no one talks about, and imagining that there's something truly odd about those secrets makes a boring little town a lot more interesting. Plus, the Things Aren't Quite Right angle explains a per capita murder rate that's higher than that of any big city (which happens when you have to kill at least once person per book) and it provides motivation for an amateur sleuth to get into the investigation, if she thinks the police are in on the Things That Aren't Quite Right and therefore justice won't be served if she doesn't get involved.

My heroine the amateur sleuth will be an outsider, a newcomer to this town who's there for career desperation reasons. But I can't quite decide on her actual role. One possibility is that she's come to work for the small town newspaper (or possibly the chain of newspapers covering small towns in the region, which opens up more crime possibilities -- one of my former bosses is running a chain of small-town papers like that). With journalism being one of those dying career fields, a young reporter may not have a lot of job options and will be fighting to make the most of this job. Figuring out that Things Aren't Quite Right in this town and trying to uncover that while solving the crimes might be her chance at getting a better job at a big paper or maybe even her own TV show. It would certainly be easier for me to write, since I know about journalism and have dealt with small-town papers. But I'm not entirely sure I would like that character enough to make her my heroine. In books, I tend to dislike the "ambitious journalist who'll do anything to get her story" character. Then again, if I write her, she may come out a different way, where maybe her initial motivation starts to change once she learns a few of the secrets and she might even start helping protect those secrets (like Vince and Dave on Haven).

My other idea was that she's a young doctor, just finished with her residency, and she's done a kind of "Northern Exposure" thing where the local doctor paid her way through medical school in exchange for her agreeing to come take over his practice when she finished her training. She's supposed to have spent a few years working with him and gradually taking over from him, but he dies soon after she comes to town, and his death could be the thing that gets her accused of murder so she has to clear her own name, which sets her on the amateur sleuth path. Then as the doctor in a small, fairly isolated town, she'd be the one called when there was someone dying or dead, even if she isn't officially a medical examiner, which gets her into other cases. In this scenario, the reporter for the chain of small-town papers who's determined to uncover the Things That Aren't Quite Right is a potential love interest who may also become an antagonist (though not the villain) or irritant. This one would require more research, though I do have a lot of medical background from working at a medical school. I'd probably need to find a small-town doctor to interview about what her life is like, and I'd need to be more specific in detailing things like wounds or cause of death, since it would be from an expert's perspective. But I also think this would be a more sympathetic character who'd get woven into the life of the town, and I like that idea of a fish out of water who finds herself getting a lot more than she bargained for when she's essentially had the training wheels yanked off before she's ready (mixing metaphors -- now I'm picturing a bicycling fish). Plus, I have this sense that she was hand-picked by the doctor for certain reasons that relate to the Things That Aren't Quite Right, so maybe she's not entirely Right herself (since usually the heroine of these paranormal mysteries has some abilities).

Any thoughts on these possibilities? Which would you rather read?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Brave New Publishing World

My huge accomplishment yesterday was cleaning my desk. I found actual desk surface. I even made enough room to put out the nifty desk blotter I bought at the end of last year, which has a calendar and all kinds of spaces for making notes. There's still work to be done to totally declutter and organize it and then set it up in the way that will be most conducive to the way I work, but for now there is space. It only took me a little more than half an hour, which rather blows up a lot of my excuses for my terrible housekeeping. I keep telling myself I don't have time to clean my house, but in just half an hour I can accomplish a lot.

Today's task will be the loft, where my "library" is. Most of the clutter there comes from the last time I decided to purge the bookshelves of the books I know I'm never going to re-read or refer to again. And then while those books were still sitting in a box to be taken either to a used bookstore or the library book sale, I suddenly wanted to refer to or re-read some of those books and dug through the box, scattering books everywhere. Then there's the fallout from my using loose-leaf paper to do plotting/planning as I write. Some of those notes I may need to save, but I think a lot of them can go.

There must have been something in the air because the blog had a post on the same thing I talked about yesterday, that blurry line between fan fiction and original fiction, only they got more into the culture of "sampling" and "mashups." I really don't think that's what's going on. Fan fiction has been happening forever (a lot of mythology could be considered "fan fiction" based on other myths). The difference is that the Internet gives writers a much larger audience for it, and writers can then take that audience with them to published books -- and in today's publishing climate, that huge a built-in audience, even if it comes on the coattails of some other work that's hugely popular, is very appealing. If you can't get JK Rowling/Stephenie Meyer to write a book for you, then the next best thing may be to get a writer who's gained a following and some buzz among her legions of fans. That's more of a sure thing than taking a chance on something entirely new that could be the next big thing (or that could tank), and these days, "sure thing" is the name of the game. That's also why they seem to be using the self-published e-book market as a slush pile. Instead of taking a chance on a new author who's an unknown quantity, they can scoop up the authors whose self-published books are selling well.

It may reach the point where the only people being traditionally published by the major publishers are the lower-tier bestsellers -- the people who made a splash in self-publishing and now want to move up a notch with print distribution in bookstores but who don't have quite the name recognition to earn at that level going it entirely alone. The newcomers will have to self-publish to get their feet in the door, the niche midlisters will have to self-publish to stay published (and will find that they earn a lot more money that way, especially since their books already aren't getting a lot of bookstore distribution) and the mega bestsellers can go into business entirely for themselves and reap all the profits without it being a huge risk. But then that puts readers in the position of being slush pile readers. They'll have to be the ones to sift through all those newbie and midlist books and decide which ones to buy.

It's enough to make your head hurt, especially if you're the kind of author who would prefer to hide in a cave and write, occasionally emerging to hand a book over to a publisher. On the bright side, it means readers have more to choose from and aren't limited to the books that a few Ivy League graduates and publishing marketing department formulas decide should be published, and they have a much greater say in who makes it and who doesn't.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

From Fanfic to Book

I am feeling oh so very accomplished today. Yesterday, I procrastinated a bit on errands, eventually taking care of the ones in easy walking distance in the afternoon (though buying four pounds of rice on a walking errand may not have been the best idea -- but that was the smallest package they had). Today, though, I was up and at 'em early enough to renew my car registration and get groceries and still be home shortly after 11. I even got one of my favorite checkers at the grocery store. They were playing old Motown stuff on the sound system, and he and I were both grooving to it. Now I wish I had a turntable I could play all my 45s from the 70s on (or I guess I could see if I can download the same songs and have them electronically). My main accomplishment yesterday was vacuuming the staircase, which doesn't get done nearly as often as it should because it's a real pain. I think I'm starting to get twitchy about writing, though. It feels weird not to have a book in progress. I may have to start brainstorming something.

There's been a lot of fuss in the book world lately about a self-published book that's become such a sensation that it got picked up by a major publisher in a huge deal and the fact that this book turns out to have been initially written as a fan fiction for a popular book series that the author then "filed off the serial numbers" and published as original fiction. I'm not going to name the book or the series that inspired it because I don't want to get into the specific case, but it has brought out a lot of discussion on the relationship between fan fiction and original fiction.

I think most authors, if they're honest with you, will admit that there is some fan fiction in their history, even if it's purely mental and was never written down. The spark to start writing tends to come from some story that inspired us to the point that we found ourselves imagining further adventures of those characters or perhaps the kind of adventures we might have had in that world. Some people do actually write these stories and share them with others. Others may just imagine these things, and then along the way the story grows and changes until it has nothing in common with the source, and that's when it may get written down.

That's kind of what happened with me. I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, and in the long years between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, I imagined all kinds of sequels in my head. In those mental sequels, I added new characters to the cast, and then those characters became more interesting to me than the originals were. I started creating backstory for those characters, and that meant worlds and societies that weren't in the known Star Wars universe (which was very, very limited at that time -- pretty much just Tatooine and the Death Star). Then I realized it was no longer a Star Wars story, and if I wrote it down, it would be a book. I never did finish it, which is probably for the best, as it was something I started coming up with when I was nine, but that was the first story I started writing down and the first time I considered that I wanted to be a writer.

These days, I mostly use my mental fan fiction as a testing ground for story ideas. If I play with an element in the context of someone else's characters and it works, then I can apply it to my characters. If I test it in my head with my characters, then it seems to stick whether or not it works, but if I test it with other characters it doesn't affect the way I see my characters. It's weird, but it works. I may be inspired to use an element or a character trait in a story because of something that intrigues me or frustrates me from some other source. I tend to like the characters who get shoved to the background or passed over, so I may take the things I like about those characters and create that kind of character to make the main character in my story. However, I can't think of any mental fanfic origins behind anything in my Enchanted, Inc. series beyond maybe some character traits. I don't remember anything that really went through my mental fanfic testing ground. I do have some ideas for potential future books that contain elements that started as mental fanfic, but I can't think of any in the published books. The entire series was kind of inspired by the Harry Potter universe, but only in the sense that I read those books and thought that I'd like something like that, but for/about adults. It was never anything that could even remotely have been considered Harry Potter fan fiction. I guess my most successful stuff has been my original stuff, and the mental fanfic stuff is less likely to sell. Go figure.

There are authors who are fairly open about the fanfic origins or inspiration behind their books. Lois McMaster Bujold talks about how Shards of Honor started as a Star Trek fanfic about a Klingon and a Federation officer stranded together on an inhospitable world. They were original characters, not characters who'd appeared in the series, and at that time the Klingon and Federation cultures hadn't been that developed (that came in the Next Generation era), so she extrapolated and ended up creating her own cultures. All she really needed to do was change the names of the cultures and she had an entirely original novel. There was a romance novel published last year that the author openly admitted was inspired by the characters of House and Cuddy on House -- sort of those characters, but what they'd be like in a historical romance setting. She got a nice write-up in TV Guide for it. That doesn't sound too different from that current bestseller, other than the fact that it wasn't originally written and published online as an alternate universe fanfic in which House and Cuddy were in a historical setting before she changed the characters' names and published it as original fiction.

I think some of the controversy around this current book is that it's essentially telling the same story as in the original novel, just in a different setting, as opposed to putting the same characters in a different setting and then telling a different story. And there's probably some outrage over building a fanfic following and then pulling the story, changing the names and making a fortune. I'm really not sure where the ethical lines are. Most authors turn a somewhat blind eye to fanfic based on their books. I know some exists for mine (there's a category for my series on, but I refuse to even look at it because it creeps me out a little even while it's flattering to know I inspired someone that way (they're my people, so I'm not entirely comfortable with other people making them do things I didn't make them do). I think I would be angry if someone write an Enchanted, Inc. fanfic, changed the characters' names and a few key details of the world, then made a fortune publishing it, mostly because if it made a fortune it would be more successful than the original book. I would generally say, based on my experience, that you'll have more success writing original stories, but recent events (and some other cases) would prove me wrong.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Report: Otherworldly YA

Very soon, just about everything I've been working on for the past year or so will be off in someone else's hands (at least for the time being). That means today will be errand day after lunch, and then I think I'm going to do some housework. There's something about the quality of light in the spring that makes messes look messier, so what felt comfortably cluttered in the winter now feels like a depressing, unbearable mess.

I've been doing a lot of reading, trying to get through the books on the Nebula ballot (I made a stab at the short stories, but I don't see that happening in the time I have left, unless I put everything else aside). I've discovered that I like the historical or otherworld YA books a lot better than the contemporary-set YA books, perhaps because without stuff like high school, prom, etc., I can relate more to the characters. Or else without that stuff the story focuses on the higher-stakes issues. In fact, the line between adult and YA gets really hazy without high school being an issue. As an adult, I have no desire to relive high school.

There were a couple of books that I really enjoyed. One was The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson. It's about a princess who, on her 16th birthday, is married to the young king of an allied country in a political arranged marriage. Then she finds herself caught up in all sorts of intrigue because this kingdom is under attack and there are various factions all dealing with the enemy in different ways. It seems at first as though there will be the Standard YA Love Triangle, but then things veer wildly in different directions, which was rather refreshing. This is very much a coming-of-age story, in which a fat, spoiled princess has to grow up fast and get a lot stronger (physically and emotionally) to deal with everything she has to face. One thing I really liked about this book was the treatment of religion. This is an "other world" fantasy that seems to have a lot of analogues to our world, and the core faith reads a lot like the way Christianity might have developed in a different place. The scriptures are similar but just different enough to be different, and the rituals are different but still work in a thematic way. Usually in fantasy, faith is either ignored entirely or demonized (the bad guys are the religious people), but in this world, prayer has some real power -- that can also be misused. This is apparently the first in a trilogy, and I'm curious to see what happens next (the sequel is coming in September).

Then there was Chime by Franny Billingsley, which I don't think I would have picked up if it hadn't been on an award ballot, mostly because of the cover. The cover shows an overly made-up woman lounging in a black lace dress, and it gives the impression that it's some quasi-goth vampire romance, which couldn't be further from the truth. I noticed that the upcoming paperback release has a very different cover that seems to fit the book better. The book is set in the early 1900s in a remote English village on the edge of a bog, where the nature spirits from British folklore are still a very real thing. This village still has witch trials, and our heroine is on trial for being a witch. The book is her account of everything that happened to get her to that point. She admits to being a witch -- how else could she hear and communicate with those beings who live in the bog? She's even done some horrible things -- at least, she's sure she did, since she is a witch, and who else could have done those things, but her memory is pretty hazy. In the name of progress, the bogs are being drained, and that has led one of the beings to curse the town with a terrible illness. Our heroine's twin sister (who's probably autistic, but of course that term wasn't really used by this sort of people at that time) is ill, and she has to decide how she can possibly let people know how to stop the illness without letting on that she can communicate with these beings and revealing that she's a witch. It's all very atmospheric and a little spooky.

I admit to some minor frustration near the middle when I figured out what was really going on (thanks to some characters telling the heroine what was going on) while the heroine didn't/couldn't see it, but then as you get deeper into the book you can see what a tangled web she's caught up in. I think the thing I liked most, though, was the romantic relationship because it was so differently refreshing for a YA book. The guy refers to himself as a "bad boy," but really that just means he's not living up to his father's expectations of him. He's been kicked out of university for goofing off, and he really doesn't have the patience to be a scholar. He's boarding in the heroine's house so he can be tutored by someone in town, but he blows off his studies. Still, he's about as far from "bad" as you can get because he's incredibly kind, is very caring, jumps in to help when there's a crisis and is a loyal friend. Watching the friendship and love grow between him and the rather prickly, closed-off heroine is really enjoyable. It's one of the few YA relationships that actually seems healthy to me, something I'd want for my daughter (if I had one). He's also proof that a nice guy who doesn't have to be healed with the heroine's love or who doesn't act like a controlling jerk can still be interesting.

Then there was a book that was published as an adult book and that's on the "adult" ballot but that I couldn't distinguish from the YA books, Among Others by Jo Walton. This book is set in the late 70s and is about a girl who fled her abusive witch mother and ended up with her estranged father, who lives with his three hyper-controlling half-sisters. Her aunts send her to boarding school. Her lifeline has always been science fiction and fantasy books, and her love of these books provides the first connection to the father she's never known and to her chances of friendship in this new place. But meanwhile, her mother is out there and out to get her, and opening herself up could lead to disaster. It's kind of a fantasy novel about science fiction. In ways, it reminds me of Tam Lin, in that there's a very real, relatable story about school life with a fantasy world woven in the background. You could get a really comprehensive reading list from this book, with the titles and authors that are name-dropped throughout. I found myself keeping score: "Read it, know him, sat on a convention panel with him, read that." For that reason alone, it's practically a must-read for science fiction and fantasy fans. I need to go back through the book and make a reading list because there were a few I missed that sound interesting.

Meanwhile, I've finally started reading my pre-publication advance copy of A Game of Thrones. I figure that would be a good idea before the second season of the TV series starts. Thanks to the TV series, it's a lot easier for me to get into than it was the previous time I tried, back before the book was released.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What Lies Below

I had one of those mornings where I woke up not entirely sure what day it was, probably because I worked most of the weekend. I'm proofreading, which means reading the book out loud to myself to make sure I'm reading every word and not just skimming and to see if there are any awkward phrasings. That's also where it becomes really obvious if I use a word or phrasing too many times. I can only do it about a chapter at a time because otherwise it's a strain on my voice. I also need breaks so I can stay fresh instead of zoning out. But then that limits the amount I get done each day, and thus doing a little every day. I need to get the rest done today, though.

And then I have something to tweak in another project before sending it to a beta reader. And then my slate will be clear for the moment. I may get back to researching mysteries while I do some spring cleaning and finish doing my taxes. I may even allow myself a spring break of sorts before I plunge into a new project. I'm getting kind of itchy to start something new, since I've spent the past six months or so revising various things.

I did take a break from the work to take a walk yesterday. As I've mentioned, my neighborhood has a system of canals running through it, with landscaped walking paths beside them, little bridges crossing them, etc. I was enjoying walking along by the water yesterday and seeing all the signs of spring -- the turtles sunning themselves on rocks, the baby ducklings (including one all by itself that had me worried), people out fishing. I'd always wondered why people would bother fishing in these canals because the most I've seen have been tiny little fish. Well, yesterday I was walking past when a guy got something serious on his line. He was having to play it out before he could reel it in, and when I was there, he had it almost up to the surface. It was a catfish that was probably longer than my arm and much wider. I had no idea we had behemoths lurking at the bottom. Now I think I'm a little creeped out. There are probably sea monsters down there, too. I think I'm also a little glad my house doesn't directly overlook a canal. The canal's about a block away, so it's close enough for convenience, but I won't have to worry about Nessie crawling out of the depths and sunning herself on my porch.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Out of the Mainstream (again)

Well, no one has arrested me or served me legal papers or even called back to see if I'm going to bite on the scam, so it looks like I'm in the clear. They probably don't waste time on people who don't respond. I'm a little disappointed because if they had called me back, I was planning to act like I was talking to someone in the room with me and say, "It's them! How long do you need me to keep him talking so you can get a trace on the physical location?" and then see how fast they got off the phone. In fact, I may use that for all suspected scam callers in the future.

But it looks like I'll have to get my entertainment elsewhere. Alas, I've hit another totally out of the mainstream phase with all the Hunger Games hype. I haven't read the books and have no plans to see the movie. I'm not saying that the books are bad, that the people who like them are wrong or even that I don't understand why people like them. I'm just saying that this is one thing where absolutely nothing about it rings my particular chimes, and the more I hear about it, the less I think I'd like it.

For one thing, there's the dystopian future. I don't necessarily want the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek: The Next Generation future where humanity has solved all those pesky problems so we have no more conflict with each other and have nothing to do but explore space and teach barbaric alien races about our cultural superiority. But I also would prefer to hope that the future will be better than the present. Yeah, humans are humans, and a lot of us are awful, and solving one problem (or trying to solve it) tends to create a dozen new ones, but still, for my entertainment, I'd rather read about a positive future. That's why I love this year's FenCon theme: The Future's So Bright.

I'm not totally opposed to depictions of a bleak society. I read Dickens for fun. And I suppose there have been a few dystopian books I've enjoyed. I really liked Logan's Run, though to be honest, I first liked the TV show because Gregory Harrison was really, really cute, then I read the book, then I saw the movie. I'm surprised that there hasn't been more movement lately on a new movie that's actually based on the book (which the movie really, really wasn't), since in the book they die at 21, and that would fit in with the Hunger Games hype. There was talk about it a few years ago, and now would seem to be the time to jump on it.

But then there's the reality TV angle in The Hunger Games, which is a huge turnoff for me. I think reality TV is a scourge on the television landscape, and while it sounds like these books are making that point, that doesn't mean I want to read about it. I refuse to let reality TV have that much room in my head (well, unless it involves cute show jumpers learning to joust). I have to admit that the heroine sounds pretty awesome, but the things I've read about the other characters and the relationships don't generate any, "Ooh, I must read that!" urges.

I do have a past/alternate world dystopia growing in the back of my mind. That may be a way to fit the trend in a way I can deal with. Otherwise, there are too many books that sound like something I'd like for me to force myself to read something that doesn't appeal to me. The movie opening this weekend that sounds more like my idea of fun is Trout Fishing in the Yemen, but it's only at a few theaters and would involve going downtown. Then next weekend is Mirror, Mirror, which sounds like just my thing. This weekend's entertainment is most likely going to involve seeing the church youth musical revue.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Living Dangerously

I think the preschoolers infected me again last night, but this time with energy. They were insanely hyper, literally (and I'm using the word properly here) bouncing off walls. I kept having to intervene before they hurt themselves or punched a hole in the sheetrock. Then I came home from choir, finished proofreading a book, then stayed up until 1:30 reading a book because I was so close to finishing it and I wasn't really all that sleepy. Now, though, I'm sleepy. And it's cool and rainy. Maybe I should have saved the book to read today, since now I'm all out of library books. Crisis!

We also had a floor show to go with the usual fellowship hall dinner last night. The teens are doing their musical revue this weekend, and they were getting ready for their dress rehearsal, so they came in and performed a number for us while we ate. Man, I wish we'd had something like that when I was a teenager, but at my church, we barely had a youth choir. The youth director, who didn't even read music, would use those tapes where on one side they have the song with a generic choir singing the song and then on the other there would just be the accompaniment. We'd sing along with the choir a few times, then sing it with the accompaniment, and that was it for any music program for the teens. We definitely didn't do musicals.

And now I'm waiting for the end of my 48-hour countdown. A couple of days ago, I got a rather alarming phone call telling me that there was about to be a restraining order put out on me, and I needed to call a certain number and give this case number within 48 hours if I wanted to take care of it before they put out the restraining order. I know that's not how that works, so I figured it was a scam, but it was still rather alarming to hear. I took down the info so I could look it up, and I was still reading the Google results on the company name (yep, scam) when my parents called to say they got a call looking for me, with the same info. Which was consistent with the reports I found in my search. I got the same results searching the company name and the phone number they gave me.

What seems to be happening is that they call people, threatening some kind of legal action (it varies), but saying they can resolve it if you call this number. Then two things seem to happen. A lot of people who do call say they get put on hold for a long time or never get an answer. Someone reported that they contacted their phone carrier about these calls and the carrier said it's one of those things where they want you to call back that number so it then gets forwarded to one of those off-shore numbers where they can charge you huge amounts for the call -- thus the long hold times. But then other people report that they offer to settle the issue for a certain amount -- usually big enough to be worthwhile but small enough that people will be willing to pay to make a potentially big problem go away. And then they either want all your credit card info or they want you to wire money. Then once you bite on the scam, they never go away. You keep getting "legal problems." A lot of this seems to involve fake debt collection on payday loans, but I've taken out two loans in my entire life -- a car loan that's been paid off for twenty years and my mortgage, which is current. I've never even carried a credit card balance. I pay them off in full each month. I also can't see why anyone would want a restraining order against someone who never leaves the house and who barely calls family members and barely e-mails friends. But I can see where people who might be in some difficulties might react in fear and fall for this, especially when they're doing stuff like calling family members to make it look more real. For me, the calling the family members was a clue that it was a scam because the timing worked out that they were calling my parents at the same time as they were talking to me, and I know that in the real world they aren't supposed to call family members unless they can't reach the primary person. If they're talking to me in person, then there's no need for them to call anyone else.

So, now the countdown on that 48 hours is coming down to the wire. Will someone actually file a restraining order on me? Will they figure I'm onto them when I don't respond and move on to another victim? Will they try me again (and this time I'll tell them that I've researched them and I know exactly what they're up to)? Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I've spent the last couple of days re-reading a book I wrote nearly three years ago. Although I've noticed some writing tics I had at the time (oh, the pet words) and wanted to tweak a few things, I think I like this book more than ever. It was a real roller-coaster ride to read, and by the end my heart was racing and I was breathless -- and I wrote it. Now to do something with it. That's another stay tuned thing.

And now since I have no library books to read today, and since the Television Without Pity forums seem to be down (I will begin twitching very soon), I suppose I'll get to work on the final proofread of The Current Project. If I don't get arrested or something.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wishing Upon a Dream

I've posted a lot about The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, which is one of my favorite writing books and the one that finally helped me learn to plot. I was good at coming up with characters and situations, but actually getting them to do things in a way that made for an interesting story was a real challenge before I read this book and started understanding how the structure works. I was in the library recently and saw that they had the latest edition, which is twice the size of the edition I have, so I checked it out to see what was different. There's a whole new section in the back that's mostly personal essays about these principles and how they've changed his perspective on writing and life since he first wrote the book. One that I found particularly interesting was on the power of wishing.

Vogler points out that in a lot of the old fairy tales, the character gets supernatural help by wishing. It may not be a verbalized wish, just a deep inner longing, but that still seems to be enough to summon the supernatural. And that wishing is actually a major part of storytelling. You get a more powerful, emotionally gripping story when the hero expresses or implies some strong desire -- or wish -- near the beginning. This may or may not even be related to the story goal, but it shows us that this person is somehow incomplete and needs something to change, even before the story kicks off.

Once I read that, I started thinking about how true that is. Look at just about every Disney musical ever made. The main character's introductory musical number usually has something to do with wishing or dreaming. We have Snow White's "I'm Wishing," Cinderella's "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," Sleeping Beauty's "Once Upon a Dream," "When You Wish Upon a Star" from Pinocchio, the Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World," The Lion King's "I Just Can't Wait to Be King." All of these introduce the main character as someone who wants something she/he doesn't have yet -- a yearning. Sometimes it's more directly related to the story goal, like in The Lion King. Sometimes the story goal grows out of it. Ariel in The Little Mermaid sings "Part of Your World" after seeing the prince and deciding she wants him, but she already has a vast collection of human artifacts, so really the prince just becomes the concrete embodiment of a long-term wish. Sometimes it's just a general longing that then translates into a more specific story goal when that comes along, like Cinderella mostly just believing in dreams and wishes (and probably wanting her life to change somehow), and then that gets firmed up once she learns about the ball. And then sometimes it's more of a negative wish, not wanting something, just not wanting what she has, like Belle in Beauty and the Beast griping about the "poor provincial town" where she's treated like an oddball. She doesn't really know what she wants, just that she doesn't want that.

It's not just Disney. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz wishes to go "Over the Rainbow." Luke Skywalker wants to get away from the farm to be a space pilot. Harry Potter wishes he had a real home and family instead of sleeping under the stairs and being practically a servant in his aunt and uncle's home.

I think part of the reason this is so powerful is that it makes us identify with these characters. We can relate to that sense of yearning. It also hooks us into the story even before the story goal comes up because right from the start we're hoping that these characters will get what they want. And it provides motivation once the story goal comes up. A totally content character is probably less likely to do something drastic unless his contentment is threatened. A character who feels some need for something to be different is more likely to take a chance and leap at the opportunity to do something a little crazy that might allow them to find what they've been wishing for. The Call to Adventure forces them to put action behind their wishes and dreams.

So, what is it that your characters desperately want before your story even begins?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Yesterday I mentioned that part of my wake-up call from the universe involved something on the History channel's jousting show. I'd seen the show in the listings, but decided to check it out OnDemand after Karen Miller/KE Mills mentioned it in her blog as great research material for authors writing historical fantasy -- not so much the equipment and techniques, but the way the men react to those situations.

So, I watched it and kind of got hooked -- enough that I marathoned the available episodes. The show is called Full Metal Jousting, and the premise is that they're trying to bring back jousting as a modern extreme sport. They've got armor that seems to be a cross between traditional armor and football pads (armor shape, made from modern materials), complete with the competitors' names on the back, and they've come up with scoring rules. They've recruited a bunch of men from various semi-related backgrounds, including Medieval Times/Renaissance festival theatrical jousters, rodeo cowboys and other equestrians to be trained and compete. Part of the aim of the show is for them to compete for the title, but they also seem to be trying to build a core of competitors to launch this as a sport.

One problem I have with it if they're trying to get it taken seriously as a sport is that the show is very much a reality show, using all the reality show cliches. For one thing, the name on the back of the armor is a nice touch, but in reality show style, they're always referred to by their first names and even introduced that way in the opening credits, so the last name on the armor doesn't help us figure out who it is. They do the thing where all the competitors live together in a kind of dorm over the stables, which does make sense for the logistics of a show like this, but I could do without the manufactured drama and macho posturing in the scenes of the guys in their off hours. And for a sport, there's way too much time spent in the talking heads segments in which the competitors talk about their feelings and how much they resent each other. There's already a perfectly good model for televising sports. People watch football and basketball without all the team members having to live together so we can see how they interact.

But the good thing about watching it OnDemand is I can fast forward through all the extraneous reality show stuff and watch the training, which I find the most compelling part, and the jousting itself. It's interesting seeing some of the exercises they come up with to train these guys, some of them based on actual medieval training methods (that I've seen done at the Renaissance faire I've been to that had real, as opposed to staged, jousting) and some based on more modern ideas or ideas drawn from other events. If you've watched this show and know anything about me at all or have even just read my books, you can probably tell which guy I find most interesting. One of the competitors is a real anomaly. He's a show jumper, and would be a great candidate for the Sesame Street "one of these things is not like the other" song. He seems to be an average-sized guy, though with a fairly slender build, but next to most of these guys (many of whom likely have an intense personal relationship with steroids) he looks tiny (the Television Without Pity forum has dubbed him "WSJ" for "wee show jumper"). Many of these guys are ex-military, and they're huge, with bulging muscles covered in tattoos and with long hair and facial hair. A few of them might clean up okay, but the show jumper is very clean-cut -- you could take him home to Mom without having to clean him up first. Put him in hunting attire and he could play a member of a fox hunting party in the next season of Downton Abbey without having to change anything about his appearance. He doesn't seem to have blue eyes, but otherwise is very much my type, with wavy dark hair and fair skin, and he seems to be the quiet one who stays out of the drama and even has a talent for evading the camera.

And then they started the training and that pushed even more of my buttons. The first guy from his team chosen to joust was a huge, tattooed, Mohawked ex-Marine. The other guys seemed to be really skeptical of the little show jumper. And then they were training the Marine for his joust by making him tilt against the rest of the team -- and on the very first pass the little show jumper knocked the huge Marine clean off his horse. And I immediately went "Ooooh, the unassuming badass/unlikely hero!" So, yeah, I was hooked. Because it seems to come down to the fact that the show jumper can really ride -- all those novels that describe someone as riding like a Centaur seem to be describing the way he rides, where he's one with the horse. That means he's got a really secure seat and it allows him to have a lot of precision because he can hold the lance steady against the movement of the horse and hit exactly what he wants to hit -- when he was sidelined by a concussion and not allowed contact or armor, he was neatly picking up two-inch rings with the lance at full tilt.

I also like the nice-boy rodeo cowboy/steer wrestler. Based on his accent, I'd say he's from Texas or Oklahoma, and while he's not my type at all, I know that type. That's the type that will pull his pickup truck over and stop to help you if you have car trouble on a back road outside a small town. He also prays before his bouts (though I felt that the camera zooming in on him while he did so was very intrusive). He's also a good rider who communicates with his horse and treats his horse like a teammate instead of as merely a piece of sporting equipment. Oh, and the horses are gorgeous.

One other problem with them doing this as a reality show instead of as a sport is that it looks like the whole thing was filmed last fall, and now it's been edited together into a show. I don't think the actual jousting stuff is staged, but I suspect that the bits of training and the interviews they show were selected to build a story line that would keep the audience engaged through to the end, and if you know anything about narrative structure, that means you have a pretty good idea of who the likely final competitors are. There are the guys who get a lot of screen time and then there are the guys who only appear in the opening credits. Who do you think will be the final competitors? The "stars" may not win, but they're likely to make it far enough for people to care if they get knocked out of competition, and they aren't going to waste time on the guys who just get eliminated.

Now I kind of want to go to a joust, but our local Renaissance faire barely does it anymore. It's very staged, and they spend half the time off their horses playing out bad pro wrestling scenarios (with the horses nearby looking very bored). Maybe I'll have to go down to outside Houston in the fall, where they sometimes do a real jousting tournament. It's an incredibly thrilling thing to watch in person.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Fear and Risk

My day got off to a great start. I went out to get the newspaper and instead of it being on the porch or sidewalk, it was on the ground in the middle of the hedges, in a spot where I had to go around into the lawn to reach it. And, of course, that was right when a neighbor came by with her dog, while I'm there in my fuzzy pink bathrobe. The only thing keeping me from looking like the stereotypical sloppy housewife was the fact that my hair was not in curlers. And it was pretty late because I'd had a restless night from too much thinking and had already made breakfast before I went out to get the paper, so goodness knows what my neighbor thought about me digging my newspaper out of the bushes while still in my fuzzy pink bathrobe after 9 in the morning.

Then again, that's part of what I'd been thinking about, that default position to fear and worry. Who cares what my neighbor thinks about me? Most of my neighbors know I'm a writer, so are they really judging me for having an unusual schedule, and even if they do, how does that really affect me? I had one of those big epiphanies on Saturday in which I realized while pondering a decision that most of the major decisions in my life have been made (or not made) on the basis of fear of risk, and most of the early decisions weren't even made based on my own fears but rather someone else's fears for me that I allowed to affect me. They were well-meaning fears, but they were also terribly misinformed, and acting in a way to minimize perceived risk only kept me from even trying to do the things I wanted to do with my life -- while actually having every one of those fears happen to me on the supposed safe path. The only dream I allowed myself to pursue was the low-risk one, writing novels, since trying and failing there doesn't have the risk of leaving you in a worse position, and you don't really have to give up anything but your free time to try. What could I have accomplished with my life if I'd been brave enough to stand up for myself and say that this is what I want to do, I believe I have a chance, and I'm going to do what it takes to go for it?

So, after spending Saturday angry with myself about letting fear infect my life, on Sunday morning the prelude was performed by the mom of one of my former choir kids, who was a music major specializing in flute. While we were listening from out in the foyer (where the choir lines up for the processional), I commented to one of my choir friends that this was why I don't play my flute in church, that there's someone that good, so why should I bother? And she scolded me about being so afraid that I hold myself back. Then the sermon was on being paralyzed by fear, and how letting fear dictate your life is actually a lack of faith. And then I was watching some war documentaries from the Military Channel OnDemand on Sunday afternoon where they talked about how you can't go into battle being afraid you'll die, even if that's a likely outcome, because that pretty much guarantees you'll die. Then later I was watching that History Channel jousting show OnDemand (they'd doing it like it's a sport, complete with the names on the back of their armor!) and they were talking about how this is one sport where there's no defense. You can't do anything to stop yourself from being hit, and you're guaranteed to lose if you get too focused on avoiding the risk of being hit. You have to focus on your attack. That was when I said, "Okay, I get the message!"

Because I haven't developed time travel (yet), I can't go back and fix the past, and some possible avenues are probably closed to me by now because I'd have to start from scratch to get the training, experience and contacts I'd need to even try, and I'm already past what would be considered "prime" in those fields. But I can move forward without letting fear rule my life. I can go for the things I want without being afraid of what might happen, and I can have faith that I wouldn't have been given the desire and the talent without there also being a path for me. I just have to be willing to step out on a limb and try, especially when the worst-case scenario looks no worse than the worst-case scenario from not trying.

Which means updating the Plan for World Domination (again). I finished the latest draft of the current project over the weekend, so now it gets to rest before I proofread later this week, and then I'm going to make another pass on another project I may now be brave enough to bring to fruition.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Night of the Dark-Haired, Blue-Eyed Lawmen

And to think, I was worried about not having something to work on during spring break week. I've ended up doing more work than usual, since I've done the "crank it up to eleven" pass on the current book. Then there's another project that's going to take some time next week, and then I'll do a proofread pass on the current book, and then it looks like some things may be happening after that, though I don't know the timeline (and I'll announce when things become definite).

I guess I'm going to have to update the Plan for World Domination today because my timelines and priorities need adjusting. And I may need to get the Economy Size box of tea next time I go to the Indian market because there's a lot of stuff I'll need to/want to work on this year, especially if everything goes According to Plan.

Unfortunately, Grimm is a rerun tonight, but there is a new Phineas and Ferb and In Plain Sight comes back, so I will allow myself some time off this evening.

Hmm, Friday night seems to be the Night of the Dark-Haired, Blue-Eyed Lawmen, and scheduled just so that we get them year-round. We've got Nick the Portland detective on Grimm during the main TV season, and now Marshall the US Marshal of In Plain Sight is stepping in to get us into early summer. After that, Nathan the small-town cop/sometime police chief (between other chiefs blowing up or melting) on Haven takes us through summer and back to the fall in time for Nick to take over. Even though I don't have the kind of job that makes me long for Fridays (since I'm often working Saturdays), I have good reasons to look forward to Fridays.

And come to think of it, all three are my personality "types" in addition to being my physical type. They're the nice-guy "beta" guys, but that doesn't mean they're wimps. Marshall's the kind of guy who can talk his partner through emergency medical procedures when he's been shot -- while giving the scientific explanation behind the procedures. Nick is starting to own and earn the fearsome reputation he has in the creature community. Nathan is impervious to pain and very, very difficult to shock or surprise. I'm rather enjoying TV getting beyond the alpha-male jerk types as heroes.

Now we just need an Enchanted, Inc. series to throw Owen into the mix, though I guess he's not a lawman, technically. And he pretty much looks like Nick while having Nathan's personality and Marshall's intellect.

And now I must go revise the Plan before I get back to work.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Tea Brewing Techniques

In spite of the warmer temperatures, spring may not be here entirely. I don't have to go anywhere today or tomorrow, and I'm ridiculously excited about that (and pondering the possibility of not going anywhere Saturday). Though I think that has to do with the work because I'm having a lot of fun and I feel like I'm making real improvements. I'm on at least the sixth draft (with each draft involving a lot of re-reading) and I'm still as caught up in this story and these characters as I would be reading a book I didn't write for the first time. I hope that's a good sign.

While I'm tinkering with my writing process, I've also tinkered with one more process in my life: the way I make tea. I know, major, right?

When I first started using loose tea when I was right out of college, I used a tea ball, mostly because I wanted to be pouring the tea out of a teapot to serve it (one of the points of doing "real" tea), and if the tea sits with the tea leaves too long, it gets nasty. I have a really good tea ball that's a very fine nylon mesh and seals tightly, so no leaves get into the tea, and it's a long cylinder, which gives the tea room to expand while brewing. Back in those early days when I was just discovering tea, I'd improvise a "tea cozy" using potholders and dish towels and pour my tea out of the pot.

More recently, I've gotten into the habit of putting a pot of tea in a Thermos so I get perfectly hot tea throughout my afternoon writing session. That actually saves me a few minutes each day because I don't have to reheat tea. Meanwhile, thanks to gifts (when people learn you like tea, you get a lot of tea as gifts), I have a lot of varieties of flavored loose teas that I drink occasionally. I don't like to brew these in my usual teapot because I don't want the flavor getting into my regular tea (I'm mostly a fan of tea-flavored tea). I used to have one of those travel mugs with an infuser basket, but the basket never really worked, letting way too many leaves through, and then the cup itself cracked when hot water was poured in (which, of course, you expect to happen in a cup supposedly designed for brewing tea). I wanted to make some of that tea the other day and got the bright idea of just brewing it loose in a glass measuring cup and then straining it into a mug. I was surprised by how much the tea leaves expanded and unfolded and how rich the flavor was.

So, it occurred to me that since I pour my regular tea into a Thermos right after brewing anyway, I might as well use loose tea in the pot and then strain it into the Thermos. It made the flavor so much stronger that I can use less tea and brew it for a shorter time, so it saves time and money. The only problem is that it's a bit of a pain to clean out the teapot, but I'm working on finding the optimal way of doing that.

See, I'm not totally a creature of habit. I can change my ways. A little.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Building the Process

One of the surest signs of spring, even more so than the first appearance of bluebonnets or the arrival of daylight savings time, is when I start voluntarily leaving the house, even when I don't have a commitment or obligation. Last week, I went out three times when I didn't have to, and I've done the same this week. Though I suppose the grocery shopping falls between obligation and want. Food is important, but I wouldn't starve without a grocery trip. I just wouldn't have very exciting meals with what I had on hand before the shopping. But now I've done a good stock-up at the general-purpose store and at the store where I get most of my produce, and I won't have to do serious shopping again for a while. I also don't have to leave the house again the rest of this week, unless I really want to. There's no choir tonight, and no dance Thursday, which is probably good because this is being a bad knee week. There's just something about March that makes my knees ache, so I'm trying to take it easy and stay off my feet for a while.

Something I did yesterday in a fit of procrastination may end up being a big breakthrough for me. Now that I have feedback from my beta readers, I'm doing another pass on the book. It seems I erred on the side of caution in avoiding infodumps, but that left the "world" of the book and how it works a little unclear, so I'm going through the book, looking for ways and places to weave in this information. While I was putting off starting by listing what I could do in the opening scene, I decided to find the theme song for the scene. I do usually put together some kind of "soundtrack" for a book -- the songs that remind me of characters or situations -- but I hadn't tried finding the theme for each scene. Going through that exercise made me really think about what my character is going through in that scene, and that allowed me to layer in some additional emotion. I liked the result so much that I started doing that for each scene, and it's amazing what I've discovered so far. There's a lot of stuff I hadn't really tapped into or that hadn't occurred to me. I'll have to add this to my process. I seem to learn something new with each book I write. A few more books and I might even be good at this.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Conceit Trap

I've been reading a lot of young adult books lately, both to help me gauge the market and because they're on the Nebula ballot for the Andre Norton Award, and I've noticed a trend that shouldn't surprise me but that does alarm me. It seems like the young adult heroine isn't allowed to like herself. The only girls who have lots of confidence and who aren't afraid to admit that they like themselves are the villains, or at least the minor antagonist mean girls who torment the heroine, until she rescues them with her superpowers. Reading too many of these books back-to-back is getting to me because it's a constant refrain of "I'm not worthy."

Not that this is unrealistic. The teen years are pretty tumultuous, and just about everything goes through all that. One of the neat things about my ten-year class reunion (and having parents who still live in the same town and who know a lot of my former classmates) was realizing that everyone else had felt about the same way I did. I wasn't an oddball. Everyone else just hid it well, and they were too focused on their own stuff to realize what everyone else was going through. So, some worry about being pretty enough, capable enough, smart enough, etc., is part of the territory.

But then there's the nasty twist, the Mean Girls twist. In the book Queen Bees and Wannabes, which is a psychology/sociology book that became the basis for the movie Mean Girls, there's a section on the ritual of self abasement among girls. They all have to compliment each other, but part of the ritual is that they can't accept the compliment. They have to deny or argue with it. Accepting the compliment means you agree with it, and that means you think you're pretty/smart/whatever, and that means you're conceited. That's dramatized in the movie, where the mean girl compliments the heroine's hair, the heroine says "thank you" and the mean girls are aghast that she didn't argue, which means she really thinks her hair is pretty. What a terrible person she is!

This reflects my own experiences. When I was in elementary school, the worst insult our neighborhood mean girl could use was to call you "conceited." If The Princess Bride had been made at that point (I was way too young to read the book), I would have been tempted to say, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." But she also liked to set traps to make you show how conceited you were ("conceited" meaning thinking you might in any way be better than she was). One of her favorite games to play was beauty pageant. In order to win, you had to be confident enough to put yourself out there and show off, but doing that meant you were conceited, and you had no way of knowing which was going to be the main factor. Would it be cool to win this time, or would that get you called conceited and made the target of scorn? Or would you be labeled a loser and scorned if you lost? I think this is to some extent one of the roots of my singing stage fright. I didn't know what to do for the talent competition because my thing at the time was gymnastics, which I couldn't do in someone's living room. Otherwise, I could sing. I didn't have vocal training at the time, but I knew I had a pretty voice (and when I did take voice lessons in college, it turned out I'd been instinctively using good technique all along). However, I recognized the trap and knew that if I put myself out there with something I knew I could do well and that was important to me that I'd be taking a huge risk and opening myself up for scorn. So I did something like recite silly poetry (I'd discovered Ogden Nash), but I think I made some psychological connection between singing in public and serious risk.

In the book I'm reading, there's a scene early in the book that feels almost tacked on, like an editor said, "Oh, no, teen readers won't be able to relate to a girl who doesn't hate herself," and made the author stick it in. This heroine isn't egotistical. She just happens to be good at some things and is confident enough to take a fairly big physical and emotional risk early in the book. And then there's a scene where she's comparing herself to her prettier friend and thinking about how icky her hair is and how she's too skinny. I'm near the end of the book and I can't tell that this has any relevance to the plot or even to the character's arc. You could take out this scene without changing anything else in the book. So, I wonder, have girls been so brainwashed by this fear of being conceited that they can't identify with a girl who doesn't put herself down? Yes, it reflects reality, but is this one of the areas where fiction should reflect reality, or is it an opportunity to show the way things could or should be? I would hope that in a book set in another time and place where the main concern is being enslaved by evil wizards that the heroine doesn't have to spend time criticizing herself. She doesn't have to go around talking about how awesome she is, just not talk about how awful she is.

I have seen a few books that handled this in interesting or unusual ways (which may be why they're on the Nebula ballot). In one, it was an honest self-assessment. There were things she was totally confident about and could do well, but there were areas where she really could stand to do better, and over the course of the book she worked on improving those areas. And there was one where that was part of the plot, where she really had been brainwashed by someone who needed to keep her in line, and the book was about her learning that those things weren't true and learning to think a different way about herself.

I may have to switch things up and read an adult book before I start writing sad diary entries about how nobody could love me because my hair is too frizzy and my thighs are lumpy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Spring Break in the 90s

It's spring break around here, and that makes me feel like it should be a holiday week even though I'm not in school to be on spring break. It's like that philosophy question about a tree falling in a forest and whether it makes a sound if there's nobody there to hear it. If you're not in school and your work doesn't have anything to do with that schedule but you can take off when you want to, is it still spring break? It does affect me because it means I don't have children's choir or a choir rehearsal and I don't have dance. But then I actually have a fair amount of work to do so I think I'll take my spring break some other time (though it's nice today so there may be walking).

I feel like I had a nice breakthrough on the singing phobia yesterday. I sang in a quartet and didn't really get the usual nerves from singing where I know someone can hear me (since the soprano part really stands out). I feel like I performed as well as I did in rehearsal and didn't get the shakes or the kind of tension that affects my voice. I sang the way I know I can sing. I did, however, have lots of anxiety nightmares the night before. On top of the hourly wake up to check the clock and make sure I haven't overslept thing I had my typical nightmare pattern where I arrive somewhere I need to be in plenty of time, then remember I forgot something and have to go back to get it, and then all sorts of obstacles arise to keep me from returning in time. One time, I recall that I dreamed I got to church only to find out we were supposed to be wearing Victorian attire, so I had to go home and change and then couldn't make it back (to play it safe, I wore one of my quasi-Downton Abbey WWI outfits -- of course, there was no dress code but I was determined not to take any chances). There were several other dreams I don't remember as well, all involving waking up in a sweat-drenched panic. I'd taken a shower before bed to save time in the morning but had to take another in the morning. After all that, I guess I sweated out all the anxiety and was pretty calm when the time came to sing.

The weather did conspire against me this weekend. It was cold and rainy -- the perfect weather for staying home with a book -- on a weekend when I was busy and had to be out, and I was rather glad I got the early service so I could go home and enjoy the cold and rainy day. And as soon as I got in bed for a nap, the sun came out and ruined everything.

I did indulge in some HBO over the weekend, revisiting some 90s movies they were playing on one of their "family" channels. They were showing the animated Anastasia film, which irritates me on one level even as I get sucked into it. If you know much about history, you'll find yourself screaming at the screen, and I think the DNA proof that Anastasia really was killed with the rest of the family came out after the movie, which makes it even worse. It might have worked better if they'd just put it in a fairy-tale world instead of taking real events and people and turning them into a fairy tale that didn't fit the real events (even with all the Anastasia theories, there was always photographic evidence that she was with the family in captivity. She didn't just disappear at the start of the revolution. It was just hoped/believed/theorized that she escaped the slaughter). And then there were the voices, where all the characters had vaguely Russian accents, except the two main characters who were very, very American (complete with 20th century colloquialisms and attitudes) and who were obviously John Cusack and Meg Ryan (in her patented romantic comedy perma-snit mode) and who obviously weren't John Cusack and Meg Ryan when they sang. But still, the music is good (the songwriting team behind Ragtime, which is brilliant), the movie is lovely to look at, and I have a soft spot for the couples falling in love during a journey thing. I just have to pretend that it is a fairy tale that has nothing to do with actual historical events or people.

And then there was Sister Act, which I watched mostly because I needed a Maggie Smith fix. Although repurposing old pop songs as hymns is a lot of fun, my favorite musical number in the movie is the first one the revamped choir does, where they jazz up a hymn. That one was a lot more complicated musically, which I found interesting, as the ones they did later when they were supposedly better were much, much easier, though I suppose they were farther from traditional, which was the point. I couldn't make myself stay up late enough to watch the sequel (which I never saw), but HBO tends to repeat things. It was shocking how dated and "early 90s" everything looked. I'm not used to seeing movies that came out after I was an adult as dated looking, and when you're living through something, you don't think in terms of the era having a "look."

Friday, March 09, 2012

Friday Geeky Odds and Ends

Oh, man, ballet was tough last night. I woke up already a bit sore. I don't know that we did anything particularly difficult, but the teacher was really focusing on technique, and when I focus on doing things exactly the right way, I know I'm a little more tense. Plus, if you've been doing things the wrong way, you use a different set of muscles when you do things the right way. Thus, the sore thighs. It probably doesn't help that I got there early and was watching the really advanced class in the adjacent studio. Those are the teens who are probably going to dance professionally. I should know I can't do anything close to what they can do, since they're young enough to be my children and have been dancing far longer than I have, but having seen them made me try harder -- possibly harder than I should have. And now I have a week off because of spring break. I've told myself that I will exercise this week so I won't suffer too badly when I go back, but we'll see how that goes.

I also get a week off from choir, starting Sunday morning. I drew the short straw in being assigned to the quartet singing at the early service on the morning of Daylight Savings Time, but the choir isn't singing at all Sunday, so instead of having to do two services, I get to go home when I'm done with the music for the preschool Sunday school. Then there's no rehearsal or children's choir on Wednesday. If I get groceries on the way home from church, I won't have to leave the house all week! Other than to go walking or to a movie, or something like that. Anyway, my quartet is singing Aaron Copland's arrangement of "At the River," and it's pretty easy for me because sopranos sing the melody, except for this one descant part that's a little tricky.

I finally got around to watching the pilot of Awake, the series in which a cop seems to be living two parallel lives -- one in which his wife died in a car accident and one in which his son died. In each life he's got a different partner and a different psychologist, but clues from one life bleed into the other. I'm kind of iffy. It's on when I'm out, so it will be an OnDemand show, and probably one I'll catch a full week later, since NBC is now putting the as-aired versions OnDemand for the first few days, complete with commercials and network promos for things that have already been on. I like Jason Isaacs from the British mystery series Case Histories, and I like him here, even with American accent, but the series didn't grab me as much as I expected, since I love those "what if?" parallel lives plots (and still want to write one). Strangely, I like the cop part better than the parallel lives part, and the clues bleeding over aren't actual clues but just strange connections, so I suspect they're going for one reality being a dream instead of a science fictiony premise where they're both somehow real in alternate universes. However, this series probably has the highest Harry Potter Score on American television right now, with Lucius Malfoy starring.

Meanwhile, the current highest Doctor Who Score on American television is probably The Office, with Catherine Tate (Donna) as a recurring character (who seems to be set up to become a regular next season). It's rather ironic that it's the American version of an originally British series that has the highest Doctor Who score.

By the way, the Harry Potter/Doctor Who Score is a game I play when watching TV or movies after I noticed that almost all British productions involve at least one cast member who's been in either Doctor Who or one of the Harry Potter movies. It's kind of a geeky "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" thing, only you seldom have to resort to degrees. Now that Mark Sheppard has been in Doctor Who, it makes it a little too easy for American series to have a Doctor Who score, so I do have a clause for him where it has to be a recurring role instead of a one-episode villain to count. Otherwise, every series on American television would have a Doctor Who score, and that's just not right. I may have to institute a similar rule for Alex Kingston, except she's a recurring Doctor Who character, and a rather pivotal one at that, which makes excluding her from the scoring more problematic. And that means CSI has a Doctor Who score, no matter how hard I try to avoid it -- though it's still lower than The Office, since she had a one-episode role on CSI and Catherine Tate is a borderline Office regular.

In the meantime, while reading the book on forensics, I think I came up with the murder plot for the book that will kick off my potential mystery series. Now I just need a good evil scheme for another thing I'm working on. I had a dream of one last night, but it turned out to be The Matrix, and I don't think I want to go there.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Mama, I Just Killed a Man (and other murder scenarios)

Oh, this should be a good writing/reading day. It's really dark and it just started raining.

I showed off a little to the preschoolers last night. There's a man in our church who collects musical instruments, and he brought his flutes to show them. We're working on the concept that smaller instruments make higher sounds, so we compared the sound of the flute to the sound of the piccolo, etc. Since flute is my instrument, when he was letting the kids try them, I picked up the "regular" flute and played the main theme from Star Wars (one of the few things I can still play by memory). I think at least a few of them recognized it, and I knew one would because his parents are geeky. The kids weren't allowed to touch the glass flutes, but he let me play one. Most of the kids couldn't get a sound out of any of the flutes because they never did grasp the concept of blowing across it instead of into it, but our special needs girl was the one who did it perfectly and even got a really nice tone out of it.

Then there was a very interesting dinner discussion in which a cop, an accountant (both men) and I were trying to figure out how you could do a "jukebox" musical based on the music of Queen. We figured "Bohemian Rhapsody" could give you the basis for a plot ("Mama, I just killed a man"), and the way you could actually use the epic song would be to break it into its components (because it's a lot of smaller songs put together) and use those at various parts of the story, sung by different characters, and then either for the act one finale or the big pre-finale number, bring them all together, kind of like "Tonight" near the end of West Side Story.

And now I really need to get Queen on CD because I have a sudden craving to hear "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Because my brain tends to fry if I do too much brainstorming all at once, I've been alternating with reading those books I got as background for writing a mystery. One is by a forensic pathologist who's brought in, kind of like a private investigator, to go over evidence before a trial, particularly when the defense isn't happy with the way the investigation is done. This guy warns them that he'll testify on what he finds, good or bad. He's not taking sides, just looking at the evidence. I'd thought that the general way of getting the amateur sleuth into the story in a mystery, which is often that the wrong person has been arrested but the police are so convinced that it's the right person that they don't even look further, was a literary device, but it turns out to be frighteningly common. This guy would show up, look at crime scene and autopsy photos and ask really obvious questions that no one seemed to consider because the original investigation took it at face value and didn't look beyond their initial assumptions. Sadly, in real life it doesn't work out the way it does in books. By the time they figure out the oops, it's usually too late to find evidence that could lead to what actually happened, so the real killer is never found. Most of the time, there's no malice involved in the sloppy investigation, just investigators who are busy and distracted and who are focused on too many other cases to question one that seems like a slam dunk. Apparently, it's relatively easy to stage something to look like suicide and have it accepted as a suicide as long as nothing looks too terribly out of whack and as long as the person behaved in such a way that suicide might be a possibility. The investigators are prone to accepting it on face value (though it would be dangerous for a killer to assume this because any investigation at all can reveal that it's not suicide). That was kind of eye-opening. So, it's not at all unlikely in the real world for the police to fixate on one thing and not look beyond it. The person wrongly arrested may not be convicted (though there have been way too many cases of that happening), but by the time the case goes to trial and it shows up how weak the case is, the trail has gone cold and finding the real killer will be more difficult. Thus, the reason for the amateur sleuth to step in during the investigation while the police are distracted.

I feel strangely relieved to find that the scenario isn't so contrived, and I've already figured out a plot reason for a relatively high murder rate in an unlikely place, so I may be able to pull this off.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Which Genre?

I have a reader question on writing this week (have a question? Let me know!). This one addresses the business side of things: What are the differences between the various genres? For instance, what's the difference between an urban fantasy and a paranormal romance?

To a large extent, genre is a marketing concept. It determines where a book gets shelved in a bookstore and how it gets promoted. Publishers will put a book in the place they think will allow it to sell the most copies, and the content of the book isn't always the sole determination. For instance, I wrote my Enchanted, Inc. series thinking of it as fantasy that used (and spoofed) some chick lit tropes, but it was published as chick lit and shelved in mainstream fiction because that was what was hot in publishing at the time, and the fantasy elements gave a bit of a twist to the hot genre. Then that backfired when chick lit rapidly tanked. Oh well. However, you as the author don't have a lot of control over this, but you do need to have a sense of the genres so you'll know where to submit your books, since the various genres usually do involve different editors or different parts of the publishing company.

Focuses on the investigation of a crime and usually that crime is solved (the crime novels with no solution tend to be considered "literary" and are shelved in mainstream fiction). There may be romantic subplots, but these aren't the focus of the story and you might even be able to remove them and still have a coherent plot. In series, the romantic subplots don't have to be resolved at the end of the book, so that it can take an entire series for a couple to really get together. Paranormal elements may be involved, but the focus is still on the mystery instead of on exploring and investigating this paranormal or fantasy world.

A love story in which two characters overcome or resolve various internal and external conflicts in order to commit to each other in a relationship. In other words, a happy ending. Love stories where the couples don't end up together -- where they go their separate ways or someone dies -- are generally considered mainstream fiction or literary. There may be subplots like a mystery, but the love story needs to be so essential to the plot that you couldn't remove it and have a coherent novel. There can also be paranormal elements, but the love story is still front and center, and the paranormal elements should probably play some role in either bringing the couple together or keeping them apart.

Science Fiction/Fantasy
These are the literature of "what if?" They involve a world that is in some way different from our own, either from extrapolation of science or technology that allows things to happen that don't happen now in our world or from the addition of some impossible element, like magic or magical creatures. There are distinctions between what's considered "science fiction" and "fantasy," but for the most part they don't matter because they're usually handled by the same people and shelved in the same bookstore section. Generally, if it's based on something that's theoretically possible without changing the way the universe works, it's science fiction. If it's based on something that changes the laws of the universe, it's fantasy. In practice, it comes down to spaceships and robots=science fiction, dragons and wizards=fantasy, regardless of the details or story structure. These genres can contain elements from all the other genres, in varying degrees, and even to the point where you can't remove those plot elements from the story and still have a plot that works (so they could fit within those other genres), but books published as science fiction/fantasy aren't bound by the conventions or rules of those other genres -- the love story can end badly, the murderer may escape.

Mainstream or literary fiction is a big catchall and may be where a genre writer goes when he or she "breaks out" and becomes a bestseller. It's also for books that don't fit anywhere else or break all the other rules. "Literary" generally means less focus on plot, more focus on character exploration, theme or writing style.

Where things get really confusing is when a book blurs the lines. There are urban fantasies that could easily be published as paranormal romance. There are paranormal romance series that are more like urban fantasy because they break some of the romance conventions, like not getting the couple together in the first book and spreading the romance out through the length of the series. A lot of this comes down to marketing decisions. Placement may depend on the author's reputation -- if the author has previously written romances, her urban fantasy may be published as paranormal romance. It may depend on where the books most similar to this one are, so it may be put into the same section to try to ride their coattails or may be put in a different section to differentiate it. It may even be timing -- there's too much competition in this month in one genre, or the publisher has a slot available sooner in one genre than in another. Sometimes it's just which editor gets her hands on it first. And then once an author is established in a genre, that's where he/she is likely to stay, unless something changes or unless something isn't working and the author is repositioned.

For that original question of urban fantasy vs. paranormal romance, in general, the urban fantasy is focused more on the main character's relationship with the world (and the love interest is part of that world) while the paranormal romance is focused more on the main characters' relationship with each other, which may be complicated or facilitated by their world. But there are lots of exceptions, and those exceptions were likely marketing decisions.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Back to the Grindstone (yay!)

Yesterday morning I took a nice walk over to the library and loaded up on reference books for that mystery idea, and then in the evening I got news about a potential project that I need to do a proposal for. Since that's closer to guaranteed income, I guess I now have something to do during the TV hiatus, and it should be a lot of fun, especially if it comes through and I get to do the work. I can keep researching the mystery in the background while I do that work. That's going to involve a fair amount of research and development to do it right.

So, that was a pretty good day -- a nice walk, some new books and the potential for work and money. Plus, I made great strides yesterday toward cleaning out one of my e-mail in boxes. A few years ago (yikes, that long?) my ISP changed their e-mail security settings, so my ancient version of Entourage would no longer work with it and I had to start using webmail. It took me a couple of years to replace my computer and get the new version of Office, and then it took me still longer to try to set up Outlook, only to find it's somehow still not working right. All this time, I've been treating my e-mail situation as "temporary," which means everything just sits in my in-box, since at any time now I plan to download all my messages into a real e-mail program and then sort and deal with them.

Now I've started to realize that there are some benefits to the webmail setup, as I can access my e-mail from anywhere or with my phone. I don't really do that much e-mail stuff offline anymore. And then there's the fact that once I did get Outlook set up for another account I have for my position in an organization, I realized that I really hate the current Outlook (though I loved the old Entourage). So I finally decided to start treating the webmail as a permanent situation, so I set up folders and started moving and deleting old messages. When I get my main personal/business account done, then maybe I'll tackle the public/fan mail account, which is also out of control. I seem to get overwhelmed by the volume of mail and end up just not dealing with it at all. So, if you suddenly get a reply from me to a message you sent years ago, this would be why.

I may still someday see if I can make Outlook work and get used to it, but that may have to wait for my next lull between projects. There are a lot more pressing things in my life right now. Like my still-messy house.

Now I'm kind of tempted to walk to the movie theater this afternoon before buckling down to work. The walk to and from the theater is usually good for thinking. I tend to get great ideas that pop out of my subconscious on the walk home after the movie.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Opposite of Spring Fever

My body seems to be switching out of hibernation mode, as I'm waking up earlier on my own, though being forced to get up way earlier yesterday may have helped. Then there's Daylight Savings Time starting next weekend -- when I have to do the early service yet again. I once went to a church that didn't observe the time change until after the service, which was a great idea. Strangely, though, the spring time change is usually the easier one for me.

In my quest to find something to work on during the spring TV hiatus while I don't have a book in the writing stage, I thought I'd look back at an unsold book to see if I can spiff it up and maybe self-publish on Amazon (because the work is mostly done and it would earn me more that way than it does on my hard drive). But now, although I love a lot about this book, there's a lot that bugs me, and I'm not sure I can put my finger on it. I think I went through too many rounds of revisions with my agent, and that edited the life out of it while also veering it away from my vision. My vision may not have been marketable, but what I'm left with isn't where I was originally going with it, I don't think (while, apparently, still not being marketable). So now I don't know if it's worth the work I'd have to do to make it something I'd be willing to put out there. Then again, I need something to work on right now, and it's farther along than anything else I've got. I may keep re-reading and see if I can figure it out.

Or I may try tackling short stories. That seems to be the way you get credibility in the science fiction/fantasy world. It's like you're a "real" writer if you publish a lot of short stories before you sell a novel. They've got the Nebula finalists available electronically for SFWA members, so reading those may give me ideas or inspiration. Then again, with my usual patterns, I'll start a short story and it will turn into a novel. I can't seem to help myself.

Meanwhile, I may start digging deeper into this mystery idea. I can't believe I'm actually getting itchy to want to work instead of wanting the opportunity to take time off while I can. I should be getting spring fever, but I just want to hole up and write. While I'm in this mood, I need to find something I can just write to take advantage of it.

Friday, March 02, 2012

How to Watch Star Wars

First, if you checked my blog soon after I posted yesterday and thought it looked familiar, it seems that in my cold-fogged haze I had a wee bit of a copy/paste error and re-posted the previous day's blog. I guess you actually have to hit "copy" after highlighting something. I'm lucky that the last thing I'd copied was the previous day's blog post. That had the potential to be all kinds of embarrassing or awkward. Anyway, the right post is up, so you might want to re-check.

I did find that ballet worked really well for clearing my stuffy head. I almost couldn't talk myself into going, but exertion in a really hot, humid room turned out to be great. I may have to shut the bathroom door, run the shower and jog in place. I still have the last remnants of sniffles and sinus pressure, but I think the end of the nightmare is near. Even with my head all stuffy and aching, I felt like I was really dancing for a while. Normally I'm just getting through the moves, but I was able to turn my brain off and let my body go with what it knows how to do.

And now to indulge in a bit of geekery (that I should probably also post to my very neglected Stealth Geek blog).

This blog post has been making the rounds among my friends, and it resolves one of the burning issues of our time: the proper viewing order of the Star Wars series. Should you view them in release order, starting with the original Star Wars and the first trilogy and then moving on to the prequels, or should you view them in chronological order, starting with Episode 1? (That's putting aside the whole "the prequels don't exist, la, la, la, can't hear you" mindset.)

You can read that very long blog post if you want the whole story, but here's my perspective. I'm a child of the 70s, and I saw the original Star Wars in the theater during its original theatrical run (yes, I'm old). We were actually kind of late to the party, as this movie had been the smash hit of the summer of 1977, while we didn't see it until Labor Day. I think that was mostly because of practical reasons. There was one theater in the entire city showing it, and you had to wait in line for hours to get in. That's not something you want to do with two children, one of them a preschooler. Even on Labor Day, we waited in a very long line and got less than ideal seats in a totally packed theater. I didn't actually want to see it. The other movie playing at that "twin" cinema was The Slipper and the Rose, a live-action Cinderella musical, and that's what I wanted to see, but my dad insisted on Star Wars (bless him -- I did eventually see the Cinderella movie on TV, and he so made the right call). And I was totally blown away. That movie changed my life and had a lot to do with me wanting to be a writer. I'm still not entirely sure how that worked, how my lifelong love of books didn't trigger that, but a movie did, but I think it had something to do with so totally capturing my imagination and making me want to tell stories.

Flash forward a few years. I was late, again, to The Empire Strikes Back because I was living in Germany at the time and the base theater didn't get it until November. I was thoroughly spoiled, since one of my mom's women's magazines had published a condensed version of the novelization during the summer. I didn't believe the big reveal until I read it in the actual novelization, which I obtained through a school friend who had an extra copy from her grandparents in the States. Even so, that big moment when Darth Vader tells Luke that he's his father was a big shocker, and I remember the gasp in the theater.

That's the big problem with watching in episode order. If you've seen the prequels and have watched Anakin Skywalker turn into Darth Vader, you know all along who Vader is and it's no big shock, assuming you're showing these films to someone who's been living under a rock and has never heard of any of the major plot developments. But even if you've heard about it, it's still different from seeing it in context. However, if you watch the movies in release order, you end with the big downer of the Republic falling and Anakin becoming Darth Vader. The author of the original blog post also mentions the problem of not knowing who the ghost dude at the end of Return of the Jedi is, but I guess that's a Blu-Ray problem as I haven't watched the version where they replaced older ghost Anakin with young ghost Anakin (the original DVDs have both original and special edition versions).

The solution he proposes is rather clever -- watch Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, then treat the prequels as a backstory flashback to tell Anakin's story after the big revelation, and then return to Return of the Jedi to finish it off and conclude both Anakin's story and Luke's story as well as the restoration of the Republic. Everything comes full circle. There are a few continuity errors that become more obvious this way, like Leia remembering her mother in Return of the Jedi when you'd have just seen that their mother died in childbirth, so neither of them knew their mother. But still, the idea of using the prequels as an extended flashback works better than most viewing orders.

Then the original blogger goes on to propose that you don't even need Episode 1 here, and that makes a lot of sense. Everything you need to know from that episode is explained in Episode 2, and skipping that one means no whiny boy Anakin, less reminder of the kind of creepy way that Anakin and Padme meet when he's a child and she's a teenager (not to mention that whole thing of a planet being ruled by a teenage girl who is elected to that office -- who the heck came up with that political system?), next to no Jar-Jar and no talk of the pseudoscience "immaculate conception" of Anakin (another "seriously?" item). The few good parts of Episode 1 are mostly just action scenes that don't lend much to the plot. Just watch the lightsaber duel at the end for kicks (and the music for that is truly awesome).

I may have to try this during the March TV hiatus/rerun season, and it's convenient as Episode 1 is the only one I don't have on DVD. Of course, it's hard to purge the knowledge of all the films from the brain to really see how it works, and I don't think I know anyone who hasn't seen these movies. It's sort of mandatory for geeks, and all my friends are geeks. Still, it might be an interesting experiment from a story structure perspective.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Planning Poorly

Oops, copy/paste error. Here's today's real post.

I'm getting really tired of this cold/allergies/whatever. It's better, but now at the annoying stage where I want to do more but don't quite feel like it. I don't want to miss ballet tonight, but we'll see how it goes. I did impress the preschoolers last night by turning a very nice pirouette. They were playing ballerina and spinning, so I joined in. Knowing ballet seems to give me some credibility with the little girls. I bailed early on choir, though, because singing made my sinuses hurt.

I've just realized that I've planned things very badly. We're coming up on rerun/hiatus season for most of the things I watch on TV, and I'm at a work phase where I don't need that time. I've got almost completed books and I've got a book in the planning/research phase, and I often find that the planning goes better against a TV backdrop. This is a time when I could spend the day doing fun stuff and write at night. Maybe I'll dream up something to just write at night while I spend the day doing research and planning.

I do have a lot of reading to get done. I like to try to read the Nebula finalists so I can vote. This year, for the main novel Nebula, I've read and liked one of the books. Two were by authors whose earlier books I didn't finish. One of those did have strokes of brilliance, but I just didn't like it. I read it in a book club, and nobody finished it (though we seem to be in the minority, as the author is wildly successful). One I thought was okay, but I was reading it for awards voting and I could tell I wasn't going to vote for it, so I stopped and moved on to something else. It was a mildly entertaining book, but I'm surprised that books in this series seem to be perennial award contenders. They're not bad, just not particularly special. I've read the previous book by the author of one of the other finalists, and while I thought that book was an award contender kind of book, it wasn't my cup of tea. The descriptions of some of the others had me going "eww." I know it's best to judge on the book's merits rather than on personal taste, but let's face it, this is generally a popularity contest, anyway, and if you find a book unpleasant, it's hard to objectively judge its qualities. For the young adult award that isn't technically a Nebula, I hadn't read any. A lot of the finalists were the dystopian type story that's so hot now and that I can't bear to read, but several sounded really good and I'm going to try to get through them.

Meanwhile, while I'm still doing market research reading on mysteries, I'm also going back and reading some of the classics of the canon. Right now, I'm on the second Peter Wimsey book by Dorothy L. Sayers, and it's interesting how quickly I'm plowing through it, even given the different pacing expectations from that era, compared to the current book that took me forever to read. Granted, I have more reading time at the moment, but I've found that when a book grabs me, I tend to create reading time. (And, hmm, I must be out of the mainstream again because the Amazon reviews for the book that bored me to tears are overwhelmingly positive and even mention that you'd better be prepared to read it in one sitting. I really am an oddball.)

So far, Mom gives the current book a huge thumbs up and is already demanding the sequel. Let's hope publishers agree with her.