Monday, April 30, 2012

Jazz Meditation

I had the kind of weekend that I need a weekend to recover from, but I don't really have that luxury this week. Still, it was worth it. I went to a jazz festival on Saturday and spent nearly eleven hours sitting outside, listening to live jazz. The University of North Texas is known as one of the best jazz music programs in the world, and they were showcasing all their groups. They have nine jazz big bands, and they played back-to-back on Saturday, going from the least prestigious to the elite band that gets nominated for Grammy awards. The first band was really good, but there was a slight but noticeable improvement as the day went on. Listening to jazz is like meditation for me. I can just sit and be, so it was emotionally relaxing, but I have a feeling that sitting outside, in the sun for part of the afternoon, with possibly not enough food or drink (because you don't want to do anything crazy like miss some of the music while going to stand in lines at food booths), may have worn me down a little. Or it could be that I got home around 11 that night and had to get up at 6:30 the next morning because I was singing for the early service. Then last night we had a thunderstorm after I'd been asleep for a little more than an hour, and it took me forever to get back to sleep after all the thunder and lightning. So, I'm dragging a wee bit today. I think I need to put on some jazz and lie on the sofa. But work must be done. It's business-related stuff for a project that I will likely be able to announce tomorrow, so stay tuned. In other news, I need a writing-related question to answer this week. Ask away! And as someone who loves playing with fairy tales, I am still giggling outrageously at this week's Grimm and the way they're using those tropes in a modern setting. Because of course the planning commission goons that expect a payoff to approve bridge construction would be trolls. The only problem is if they hit all the twists I'd like to do before I can get to them.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Swords and Thrones and Series, Oh My!

I've been joking about slogging through the A Song of Ice and Fire series, spraining my wrist reading it, it's the series about bad things happening to all people, don't get too attached to anyone, etc., but yesterday I finished the third book and immediately went to the library for the fourth book. And then I realized why there was so much fan ugliness a few years ago. I was doing my usual thing of flipping through to see what was happening to the characters I most cared about, and was surprised that most of the viewpoints were people I'd never heard of, and some of the previous major characters whose fates had been left hanging at the end of the previous book never showed up at all. Then I got to the end and found the author's note that said something to the effect of "oops, this was too big a story to fit into one book, so here's part of it, and we'll pick up on those major storylines from all the other characters we've been following in the other part, which is coming next year." Except it turned out to be something like five years. As an author, I'd been fully on the author's side because I agree with Neil Gaiman that all we owe you is the story you've already paid for, but on the other hand, leaving cliffhangers, not dealing with the main characters in the next book, promising to get back to the main characters in the following book and promising that book in a year but then taking five years isn't really being fair to the readers. It's all a matter of spin. Don't promise unless you're sure you can deliver. If the next book isn't at least completely drafted by the time you're writing that author's note, don't promise that it will be coming next year. I bet readers would have been much less upset if that one line had been left off that note. Now I have my name on the request list for the fifth book, so I don't have to wait five years. But I do have to wonder how many years after this one I'll have to wait. I tend to lose interest in the middle of epic fantasy series where it's a very complicated story with lots of characters and I have to wait too long between books because by the time the next one comes out, I no longer remember or care what's going on. At dinner the other night someone was asking me if I'd read The Hunger Games and I gave my usual "I don't do dystopia" response, but then it occurred to me that this could count as a dystopia, since it's a pretty difficult world where the society doesn't work and everyone suffers. But I seem to be able to deal better with historical-like dystopias. I know that real history includes eras that were awful, and we got better. I just don't like to read about our potential future as a dystopia. I have figured out that this series contains a lot of the tropes that tend to appeal to me, which could explain how I got caught up in it despite some misgivings. We've got a number of cases of unlikely heroes rising to the occasion. There are characters I'm forced to change my opinion about because of their actions -- not necessarily redeeming an evil character, but being able to see some shades of grey and seeing the character start to wrestle with these issues and then take actions that might be considered good. I love it when an author can make me change my mind about someone. There are also hints that some of these characters may end up better off in some ways than they would have been if none of these terrible things had happened to them -- the lives they would have led might have been safer or more comfortable, but they'd have never realized their true potential. That's one of my favorite character arc types. Of course, in this series, there's also the chance that they'll end up dying anyway before fully achieving that potential.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Weasel Words

That "almost" thing is really pervasive. Last night, I was watching this week's Game of Thrones episode OnDemand, and after the episode they have a short "inside the episode" feature in which the writers, producers, directors, etc. talk about key elements of the episode. One of the producers was discussing the meeting between the two brothers who are vying for the throne, which was essentially a "Yeah, you and what army?" "This army, you dumbass!" kind of spat, and he described them as being "almost like a couple of teenage boys." I shouted at the TV, "No, they're exactly like a couple of teenage boys, no 'almost' about it." Really, the word "like" makes it a simile and tells us that it's just a comparison so we know they're not literally a couple of teenagers. We don't need the "almost." Unless, of course, what he meant by "almost like a couple of teenage boys" was that they were acting like they were almost teenagers, as in about twelve. That's the other problem with this "almost" thing. Sometimes it's vague writing because being "almost something" isn't very specific. You can usually find a different word that will describe exactly what you want without the "almost." So "preteen" or "twelve" instead of "almost teenage." Or one that's very common (I'm sure I've used it): "So dark it was almost black." Well, what kind of almost black? Really dark blue? Really dark gray? An absence of light? I've found that I most often allow myself to use "almost" in a snarky sense, where what I'm conveying is that something is falling short. Say that someone who's usually really nasty does something that's less nasty. A character might remark, "Wow, that was almost nice. Are you feeling well?" Or when it's meant to show that someone can't commit to coming out and saying something, like in the show tune "Almost Like Being in Love," where the singer is in love, but he's not quite ready to admit it. He's using a weasel word because he is weaseling. But enough of that. I'm almost (ugh) driving myself crazy with it. No, I am driving myself crazy with it. I have yet another word to add to my list of words I do a global search for and evaluate each use of before I do a final proofread on a manuscript. Others include "just," "starting," "kind of" and "sort of." All of these are weasel words, backing off from making a strong assertion. In other news, preschool choir was interesting last night, as the teachers had about the same attention span as the kids, and we were mostly killing time because we only have one more session before the end-of-year program, and then we're done. Our kids know the songs we're singing in church and in the end-of-year program so well there's a danger that they'll be bored with them by the time we get there. We played a lot of musical chairs and follow-the-leader, and I was used repeatedly as a jungle gym. I may have also had a crazy moment and volunteered to do this again next year. Maybe we can move up to kindergarten and get the same kids again.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Almost Madness

I enjoyed a nice day out yesterday. Some friends from out of town were in town, so we met up for lunch, and it was the perfect day to sit on a shady patio and eat burgers and drink root beer. We followed it up with a leisurely browse in a bookstore. It's potentially dangerous to browse a bookstore with someone who reviews books, but I went away with only one more than I'd planned to buy. I snagged the sole copy of the book I planned to buy off the shelving cart before they even got it to the shelf. I thought it was rather sad that they only had one copy of a new release on release day, when they had several copies of the previous book on the shelf -- and no copies of the rest of the series. That may have cost them a sale because I talked up the series to my friend, but they didn't have the first book for him to start with. When a new book comes out, have at least one copy of each book in the series on hand. Sometimes it seems like bookstores don't really want to sell you books, and this is an independent, so it's not some crazy top-down corporate decision. They also had no Connie Willis at all in their science fiction section, which is just wrong. But I did my civic duty and bought something at an independent. I don't often get to that side of town, so it worked out for me. Now, though, it turns out I have more business-type stuff to do. It's not as fun as writing a book, but it is still essential, and it's a different kind of creativity. Meanwhile, I'm about to ruin reading for you. Turn back now if you tend to mentally edit as you read because this will mess with your head. Okay, now think about how often you see the word "almost" used. I realized recently that this had become one of my pet words. It first came to my attention in message board posts, where I guess I was using it as a weasel word -- softening an outright assertion. At Television Without Pity, one of the rules is that you can't state opinion as fact, so there tend to be a lot of disclaimers like "I think" or "it seems to me," but then it's easy to get into softening everything to avoid sounding strident, so instead of coming right out and saying something, like "this character is a jerk," I was saying something like "it's almost like this character is being a jerk." Once that jumped out at me, I started seeing it in what I was writing at the time. And then when I went back and proofread some older stuff, it was all over the place. Not that you should never use "almost." It does fit at times when you really mean that something is nearly what you're saying it is, but not quite. But far too often, it seems to get used to say "I'm speaking metaphorically here" or to soften hyperbole. It's almost (ack!) like we're afraid readers won't understand what we're saying if we don't throw in something to indicate that it isn't literal. And that previous sentence would probably work perfectly well without the "almost," since it's what I really mean. The usual phrasing seems to be "it was almost as though" or "it was almost like." And once I started noticing it in my own work, I started seeing it everywhere (and, no, not almost everywhere). It's in newspaper articles. It's all over novels, even novels by good writers who have been professionally edited. Sometimes, it really fits. Sometimes, not so much. It reminds me of something one of my journalism professors said in class: when you're tempted to use the word "very" in an article, use "damn" instead, and then the copy editor will take it out. Of course, I suddenly can't think of more examples since I seem to have managed to edit that usage out of my vocabulary. I think that's made my writing a little more forceful without the weasel word. There's a boldness in saying what you mean to say, and when I catch myself writing "almost," I stop to think about whether it really is "almost" something or if it would still mean what I intend without the "almost." Apologies if now you can't read without the word "almost" leaping off the page at you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Short Attention Span Day

The next book I read is going to have to be a relatively short mass-market paperback because I think I strained my wrist holding George RR Martin hardcovers. I may have to read the rest of this series with the book propped on a pillow on my lap. But I do have a mass market paperback in mind, as the latest KE Mills Rogue Agent book supposedly comes out today, and I'm meeting some friends for lunch near a bookstore. I finished reading through that old book of mine that suddenly popped back into my consciousness last week, and I'd say that the first quarter is mostly good, though with some rough patches. Most of the second quarter is episodic and meandering, with a few bright spots. The midpoint, much of the third quarter, was strong -- even had me holding my breath and getting tears in my eyes, and I wrote it. And then in the last quarter, aliens took over my brain and I don't know what the hell was going on. Or else the elves got into my computer overnight and rewrote the ending because I didn't remember writing that and it's not even something I would think I would write. I wonder what I was going through at the time. When I write something that out-of-character for me, it tends to mean I'm working out some real-life issue. Okay, so I vaguely remember writing some of it, but I could swear it had a different ending. That must have been an earlier draft, and I hope I still have it. You know, when I was working on that part, it must have been around the time I bought those tank tops and strappy sandals, so perhaps it was that early 30s life crisis coming through. I didn't feel like I was in any kind of life crisis at the time, but in retrospect, I went through a brief phase of acting -- or maybe more like thinking, since I don't think I actually did anything different other than wearing different clothes -- somewhat out of character. I sort of went through my early 20s during my early 30s. At any rate, I think the characters, the world and the basic story are worth salvaging, and while I can save some individual scenes, for the most part I need to re-plot and rewrite. I definitely need a new ending. I've written goodness knows how many books since I last touched that book, so I would hope I've learned something. I don't know where this will fall on the project priority list, but it's a fun mental exercise. I may play with it for a while and then consign it to the subconscious and see what it can do with it until I'm ready to focus on it. I'm being rather flighty lately, and not so much in the easily distracted "Squirrel!" way, but rather more like a very, very short attention span. About half an hour of any one thing and I'm losing interest. Then I have to find something else to do. So yesterday went kind of like do a little business stuff, get bored, go read a chapter, get bored, then read a while on that old book, get bored, check e-mail to see if there's been a response on business stuff, get bored, read another chapter, etc. Any task that would take longer than about twenty minutes didn't get started because I knew I'd probably lose interest midway through. I could have gone to a baseball game with my brother last night, but I knew I'd be bored about five minutes after the National Anthem, and I didn't want to inflict that on him, since he actually cares about baseball. I'm not sure if he thought I was joking when I reminded him that I'd have to bring a book (an old incident that I still haven't lived down and that has become a family joke). Since I'm reading A Storm of Swords, security might have considered it a weapon (for the size -- you could seriously damage someone with that book).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Closet Archeology

I had the kind of weekend that I'd like to extend for a day, but I have business-type stuff to do. Maybe if I'm really efficient, I can take care of it all this morning and then enjoy the afternoon. There were two kinds of weather that used to make me want to call in well when I had a regular job. Of course, rainy days made me want to stay home with a book, but then there are those rare perfect days when it's sunny and warm but not too warm. Saturday was like that, and so is today. On Saturday, I ran some errands and then spent much of the afternoon sitting on my patio. That evening, I went with my friends to the lake. We found this kind of dive cafe at the marina -- the kind of place where you eat fried fish out of paper baskets while sitting at a picnic table on the pier and listening to someone sing Jimmy Buffett-style music. Though I don't know that this guy did any actual Buffett songs. He just sang everything in that laid-back, island style, including a very interesting cover of "Tainted Love" that turned it into a sort of reggae style. We also discovered that there's a nice city park on the lake shore near the marina, so now I know a place to go when I need to be near water and the canals, small lake and river in my neighborhood aren't enough. I ended up taking about four bags of clothes and shoes to the donation drop-off at our community recycling day. Going through my closet was like an archaeological expedition. I could track what was going on in my life based on the clothing I was wearing at that time. In the first five years out of college, there were a lot of suits, since that job had a more formal dress code. I still can't quite bring myself to get rid of those suits, even though they're totally out of style (huge shoulder pads, and inside the lining so I'd have to take the jacket apart to get to them). I remember buying each of those suits, and it was a real investment at the time. I think on my next round of closet purging I'll make myself put them on and then convince myself that I have no reason to wear them now and they're out of style. I'm not even sure any of those "dress for success" charities would take them, since they're so out of style and since they generally don't have much use for sizes that small. But around that time, my non-work style seems to have started shifting. Most of my "church" type dresses from that era are of the floaty, quasi-Victorian variety. I remember gazing longingly at the Laura Ashley shop around that time (but couldn't afford it, and their clothes never fit me). I'd always thought of myself as a very tailored person, but around that time I was growing my hair out, and I suppose I found my inner romantic. I'd had the very streamlined, modern look in my home, too, but when I moved past my post-college hand-me-downs and bought real furniture, I ended up with that romantic Victorian look (that I still have). I guess I was proto-steampunk even back then. With the shoulder pads removed, those dresses still work (I wore one to church Sunday and even got compliments on it). The next five years are a little less defined. I was working at PR agencies, where the dress code was looser. That was where all those pleated slacks I got rid of came in. I still use a lot of the basic skirts I got then, as well. I seem to have gone through an early mid-life crisis in my early 30s because around that time I suddenly had a lot of slightly sluttier (for me, which is a sliding scale, meaning "not suitable for a convent") tank tops and strappy high-heeled sandals. That was around the time I was telecommuting, so I didn't have to buy "work" clothes and could focus on "fun" clothes. Then there was my "author" era, with a lot of Ann Taylor Loft stuff. In addition to getting rid of the old suits, I think my next purge will focus on t-shirts. I think I could easily wear a different t-shirt a day for a month. Some of them have some sentimental value, but I'm not sure why I'm hanging onto shirts from 5K races, from old clients or old employers or from organizations I no longer care about. I may have to lay them all out on my bed and force myself to choose about 14 -- enough to wear one a day without doing laundry without doing laundry for a couple of weeks, plus maybe a couple of really ratty ones that are essentially disposable to use for things like painting. I did not get rid of the holographic sandals. I just can't.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Era of Big Shoulders

I obtained a red geranium and some herbs yesterday, so I have something sort of flowery. I figured it was best to start small and see if I could make these things live. My last herbs developed a strange wasting disease in which they first turned white and then died. My patio is an eastern exposure that doesn't get enough sun for the "full sun" plants, so I thought I'd play it safe with the geranium that was partial/full sun. I may get some more flowers, but for now, I can see something bright and flowering, which is good. I also finally repotted my Christmas cactus. The sudden strange urge to have flowers made me start thinking about creative outlets. In some creativity/self discovery program (it may be The Artist's Way), there's apparently a phase where you aren't supposed to read anything for a week. I don't remember what that's supposed to do -- maybe force you to focus on your own thoughts instead of someone else's input? -- and I haven't tried it because not reading for a week is just crazy talk. But going a while without writing does seem to have some interesting effects in bringing up other avenues for creative output. During this lull between books, I've done a lot of reading, including things I might not normally have chosen for myself. I've cleaned my house (aside from the office) and not only kept it clean, but have developed routines for maintaining it and have continued with the organizing and decluttering. I've done my taxes (if the IRS is reading this, that wasn't at all a creative endeavor in any way). I've done a lot of cooking and baking. I've worked on my singing and started to learn Mozart arias. I've made some big dance breakthroughs. There was the thing about flowers. And yesterday I started thinking it would be fun to get some sidewalk chalk at a dollar store and create a mural on my patio. It may be that taking time off and letting the creative impulse come out in other ways is good for me, just as long as I don't lose my writing muscles. Yesterday's decluttering project was doing a preliminary closet purge. They're having a community recycling day tomorrow, and you can drop off donated clothes and get a tax receipt for donation, so since that's across the street instead of me having to drive to the Salvation Army, I thought I ought to do some sorting and digging. Sadly, what tends to happen when I sort through my closet like that is that instead of purging, I find myself saying, "Hey, that's cute. I should wear that more often," and I get ideas for new outfits. I suppose that's still useful if it allows me to expand my wardrobe without shopping, but it doesn't create much space. I've been cutting out a lot of shoulder pads. We may think of the 80s as the era of the huge shoulders, but that lasted well into the 90s. I have one suit that's a dress with a jacket, and both dress and jacket have shoulder pads. The ones on the dress are small and just provide some structure, but with the jacket added, I look like I should be playing linebacker. I did institute the hand-me-down rule: I have to donate anything in my closet that I got as a hand-me-down from my baby brother. Even if they're good things that I could still wear, a grown woman in 2012 shouldn't be wearing clothing originally worn by a teenage boy in the late 80s. I'm also getting rid of the high-waisted, pleated slacks from my 1990s work wardrobe. Now I have to work up the nerve to get rid of a few pairs of shoes that I love and that are really cute but that hurt like crazy to wear. I've had one of those pairs for more than ten years, so I think it's time. But still, they're sandals with little hologram thingies on them, so when you move your feet, the flowers open and close. I can't get rid of something that cool, even if they give me blisters, can I? And now we see why my closet is so cluttered.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Flower Time

I really need to find something to write. Yesterday I scrubbed my refrigerator, inside and out, including purging the vintage condiments. That's not normal, healthy behavior for me. The trouble is, I'm not sure what to write and I have no projects that are in a phase ready for writing. I've got one waiting on proposal approval, one waiting for feedback from my agent before submission, and one waiting in the wings to send to my agent after the previous one gets dealt with. The last two are first books in series, so if they sell, then the next thing I'd need to write would be the sequel, but I don't want to start the sequel to a book that hasn't been submitted. Anything I start now would likely soon be backburnered indefinitely. I have been playing with ideas for that mystery I keep talking about, but the book that popped into my head yesterday while I was standing on a stepladder, scrubbing the top of my refrigerator was one I haven't touched for nearly ten years that I started writing about twenty years ago. I pulled it up and re-read the beginning, and while I can tell a difference between the bits that were written twenty years ago and the parts I wrote the last time I worked on it, it's really pretty good. I still love the characters, the world and the premise. Most of the opening that kicks off the story really works and wouldn't require a lot of rewriting. The middle is what needs to be scrapped because I don't think those specific events all work. It's a traditional medieval-esque fantasy, which can be a tough sell these days, and it is essentially a romance, but not a genre Romance, so I might fall into the trap of it being too romancey for fantasy and not romancey enough for romance. Then again, the characters are pretty young -- the heroine is 19 and I think she actually reads much younger than that so I could probably make her 16 or 17 -- so maybe I could adjust it a bit and call it YA, where you can blur genres a lot more easily. And then there's the fact that I originally planned it as a trilogy, but now I'm wondering if I should cram the whole plot into a single book. It actually reminded me of one of the Nebula YA books I read this year. You know, I think maybe what made me think of it was the book I read earlier this week where I wanted to write the book that was described on the back cover. This isn't really that book, but it does contain the elements from that cover description that appealed to me. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to play with it some while I'm in a holding pattern. This is a time when I'm allowed to be a little ADD, when I can pick up and play with whatever ideas strike my fancy without worrying about deadlines. But for now, we're having truly lovely weather, and I think I must go to Home Depot and buy some flowers to plant in containers for my patio. I suddenly feel a desperate need to have flowers around me. I may even go by the grocery store and see if they have any fresh flowers in their "day old" section that I can rearrange. Saturday is supposed to be just about perfect for an outdoors day, so I've been researching outdoor festivals or some other reason to be outside.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Want vs. Need

In previous writing posts, I've been talking about wishes and goals. A character who has a wish or a dream at the start of the story is more engaging to readers, but you don't get a story until the character takes action and turns the wish into a goal. However, the character probably shouldn't get what he's wishing for. In fact, if a character gets exactly what he's wishing for at the start of the story, it's probably a tragedy and an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Mind you, I'm not talking about the story goal. The character probably will achieve that in some way. This is the personal longing or desire that the character has before the story even begins, and usually the character is wrong in some way about what he's wishing for. The story will teach him that what he wants or what he thinks he needs is very different from what he really needs. Take The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy dreams of going somewhere over the rainbow -- getting away from her family's farm and the people who don't seem to understand her. Then she gets blown to Oz -- getting what she wished for, kind of -- and her story goal is established: She wants to get home and has to go through the steps to do so (get to the wizard, get the witch's broom, get back to the wizard, etc.). Through her adventures, she learns that what she really needs is to be at home, surrounded by the people who love her.

This want vs. need difference is probably most apparent in romantic comedies, where most of them seem to involve the main character wanting one person only to find out that a different person is who they really need. This goes all the way back to Jane Austen and Sense and Sensibility, in which Marianne wants the dashing, fun-loving Willoughby but learns that what she really needs is the caring, steady Colonel Brandon. Then there's The Philadelphia Story, in which the heroine thinks that she wants the upright self-made man, but what she really needs is to reconcile with her ex-husband. Moving forward in time, there's While You Were Sleeping, where the main character wants the handsome, mysterious man she sees at the train station, but what she needs is his down-to-earth brother. Or sometimes the character doesn't want love at all: Jane Austen's Emma wants to remain single and independent, but realizes she needs to be with the guy next door who's her best friend. Harry in When Harry Met Sally doesn't want to mix love and friendship, but he needs to be with his best friend. Hugh Grant's character in Four Weddings and a Funeral wants to avoid commitment, but he needs to be with the woman he loves.

Sometimes, the wish/want/dream is too small and the character has to broaden her horizons or fine-tune that wish. Cinderella wants to go to the ball because she doesn't want to be left out and she wants a break from her miserable existence, but what she needs is to be taken away from that existence for good. Our old buddy Luke Skywalker wants to get away from the farm and have adventures in space, but what he needs is to learn about and embrace his heritage so he can help overthrow the Empire. It's more his motivation that changes instead of his wish. And there are times when the character does a 180. Rose in Titanic initially thinks she needs to be a dutiful daughter and marry someone who will provide her and her mother with financial security, but she later decides she needs to make her life count and to break away from those constraints.

The trick is to make the shift in desires seem organic. You can't just have the character decide, "Oh, now I want this." Usually, the events of the story drive the change so that it seems inevitable. No one who's gone through these events would want the same thing anymore. Back to Rose -- if you survived the Titanic sinking, obviously that would be life-changing. When Luke sees what the Empire is capable of doing, he wants something more than just adventures. He has a purpose. In all those romantic comedies, the heroine usually finds that the qualities she's looking for in a love are in the other person, not the person she thought she wanted. It all involves events and action, not just thinking. We need to see the character go through something and be affected by it, and it may be multiple events that teach the lesson. In The Philadelphia Story, the heroine's marriage broke up because she couldn't accept her husband's human frailty. She holds herself as above all that, and the next man she chooses seems to be as upright as she is, plus he expects the same perfection in her. It seems like a perfect match. But then through a series of events she meets someone who treats her like a human being, not a goddess, and who sees her as fire, not marble. That shakes her up. She makes some big mistakes, herself, and her would-be husband rejects her for them the way she rejected her ex. Then she realizes that she judged her ex too harshly. That paves the way to a reconciliation.

There really can be only one big shift for a character per story. There may be some wavering along the way, since it's difficult to give up what you think you want, but you don't want the character ping-ponging all over the place and continuously reversing -- no "I want this. No, now I want this. No, wait, this is what I really want." The general pattern is that you establish the character's wish even while hinting at what the real need is, then use events to show how the wish isn't the right thing while the need is. The character may be pushed and pulled between the wish and the need, with the need gradually taking precedence, then the character may make one last fall back to the wish before ultimately committing to the need. It helps to keep the character consistent even through the change. Some traits may change as the character learns and grows, but other core traits will remain the same even while things change. The control freak may learn that what she really needs is to relax and trust someone else occasionally, but she's probably not going to go from neat-freak to total slob or start talking a different way.

Any questions about writing, the writing life or the publishing business? I'm open to suggestions for these posts.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Communing with Butterflies

It's my second favorite time of year, and the ideal kind of weather for this time of year, when it's still cool at night and in the mornings and warms up a bit in the afternoon. I love fall the most, when the weather is like that but the leaves are turning, but spring, when the flowers are blooming, is also lovely. Since it was that kind of day and I had no pressing deadlines, I headed over to the river for a long walk. I hadn't been over there since November, and it's amazing how much it's changed. Instead of the fall after a long drought it was spring after a wet winter. The leaves and grass were lush and green, the water level was much higher, and I could see that all those bridges on the walking path weren't just decorative because there were some ponds and streams. There were lots of wildflowers blooming and the butterflies were running amok.

In fact, the butterflies startled me with their boldness. It was like going to an urban park and being mobbed by squirrels expecting to be fed. As soon as I sat down to eat my picnic lunch, a butterfly landed on me and sat there a while. Later, I had one sitting on my arm for a good five minutes. It seemed to be staring me in the face (maybe it saw its own reflection in my glasses). When I resumed my walk, I had a swarm following me, and several landed on me. At one point, I was walking with at least three butterflies sitting on me -- one on my shoulder, one on my leg and one clinging to my belt loop. That one hung around for a long time. I was starting to wonder if it was going to follow me home. I'm not used to butterflies being that assertive. But it wasn't just me. A jogger passed me at one point -- a big, muscled guy with a buzz haircut and a US Marines "pain is weakness leaving the body" t-shirt -- with a cloud of butterflies following him. I thought it best to wait until he was well out of earshot before I burst into giggles at the image. Now I'm afraid that I'll mentally insert a cloud of butterflies around every Marine they show on NCIS.

While I was sitting and communing with the butterflies, I did some reading, trying to get into a book. I'd checked it out of the library because the cover description rang all my chimes -- an interesting arc for the main character that would force her to change her entire perspective and a leading man who sounded just like my type. Only I halfway suspected them of accidentally putting the wrong cover on the book because that wasn't the book I was reading (though the names did match). The story promised on the cover didn't even start until halfway through the book, and then it really didn't get going until near the end. The book described on the cover is likely going to be this book's sequel. It was very infuriating, and the just my type guy was a pretty bland and generic version of the type, so I doubt I'll bother with the sequel. Now, though, I want to write the book described on the cover. I think I'd build a totally different world, and the central plot is pretty generic, so I might even be able to get away with it. I did find myself mentally griping that something like this can get published when they won't buy my books, and at least this time most of the Amazon reviews seemed to agree with me. Aside from making the main characters more interesting and less generic, it would have helped if it hadn't spent so much time on the villain, showing us how evil he was. I found myself saying, "Yes, I know you're evil, but can we get on with it?" I need to have a reason to want the main character to win more than I need a reason to want the villain to lose, and part of the plot is that the main character doesn't know the villain is evil and she's hoping he'll help her when she gets into a bad spot. I thought it would have been more interesting for that to come as a surprise to the reader as much as it's a surprise to the character, but it just makes the main character look dumb about not realizing his real nature when the book spends so much time with the villain doing his "I feel evil, oh so evil!" number.

But now that I've finished that book and have only one short one left from the library, I can get the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I may have jokingly griped about it, but when I finished A Clash of Kings I wanted to immediately go to the library and get the next one. I do kind of need a scorecard to follow the characters -- maybe one of those message boards like we used to have at my old job so the receptionist could keep track of us. There was a grid with the names of the staff down one side and then categories like "In," "Out for the day," "Lunch," and "Meeting," and we moved the little magnetic disc to the appropriate spot. But for this series it might be "Dead," "Captured," "Missing," "Changed sides" and "In Battle." This might also be the first series I've read in which I not only need a list to keep track of who's dead, but I also find myself wanting to maintain a hit list of the characters I want to die, who never seem to be the ones who actually do die. And it's a good thing I didn't trudge to the library in the rain on Sunday after finishing the previous book because the copy at my branch is checked out. I now have one from the central library on hold. I wonder how long it will take them to get it to my branch.

It might be fun to read that book while surrounded by butterflies. The incongruity would be amusing. "Oh no, everyone's dying or suffering horribly. But look! Butterflies!"

Monday, April 16, 2012

Weekend Viewing

I must have had a rougher weekend than I realized because I could barely drag myself out of bed this morning in spite of going to bed fairly early the night before. Then again, it was very good sleeping weather, cool and a bit crisp after days of mugginess. It was the kind of day when it would have been silly to force myself out of bed for no real reason other than that it was time to get up. There may be walking this afternoon because it's the perfect weather for it.

It was the weekend of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, so a lot of my weekend viewing was related. There were some good documentaries on the Discovery Channel, History Channel (yes, actual history on the History Channel!) and on PBS. I'm not really obsessed with that story, but it's one of those events where I can't seem to wrap my head around it. I keep trying to imagine what it would have been like to be there and what I would have done in that situation, but it's so far beyond anything I can imagine that I can't ever really get there. I end up with mutually exclusive hopes for myself -- I'd hope that I'd be brave and self-sacrificing enough to help others, but then I'd also hope that I'd be clever and resourceful enough to survive. I was rather amused by one of the Discovery Channel shows, which followed one of James Cameron's expeditions to the wreck. He may be a jerk, but he's a big geek about this stuff, and watching him get excited when they found one of the staterooms that they re-created for the movie was fun. They'd built their sets from photos, but then he saw the real thing at the bottom of the ocean, and it was still very much like his set, down to the clock that was still on the mantelpiece with the hands stuck at the time of the sinking.

I also watched the British miniseries written by the writer behind Downton Abbey (some were calling it Drownton Abbey) that was on ABC, and I rather liked it, but mostly because of the format. It was four episodes, with three shown back-to-back on Saturday, and when they hit the iceberg before the 45-minute mark in episode one, I was wondering how they'd fill in the next three hours. It turned out that each episode covered mostly the same events, but each time from a different perspective, so that we'd get the context behind something we merely saw in passing in the previous episode. I've always wanted to do something like that in a book. The miniseries also gave us a preview of the next Doctor Who sidekick, as that actress had a medium-sized role in this. She was mostly cute and perky, so it was hard to judge, and of course it all depends on the character they write for her, but she didn't make me cringe.

On another viewing note, I didn't realize it until I saw something about it this morning, but Eureka is returning tonight to SyFy for its final season. I'd thought this was a summer series, but I guess they're burning it off in the spring and will bring on something new this summer. So, if you thought you had to wait until July for the cliffhanger to be resolved, you're kind of in luck.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Encountering the Invisible Man

This morning was errand day, and thus the late post. But now I have enough groceries for the next couple of weeks. I bought a lot of produce, and now I must eat it all. This is a tricky time of year for menu planning because I'm transitioning from "winter" foods to "summer" foods, and neither really seem right. Winter foods are too heavy but summer foods aren't totally in season yet. There aren't even any recipes I'm really dying to try. But I do need to eat more vegetables, and thus I have cauliflower, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts.

I had a rather strange moment as I left the grocery store. A store employee was nearby, and as I entered the parking lot he said, "Ma'am, can you see me?" At first, I worried that maybe I'd been lost in my own little world and snubbed him, but then when I looked over at him, he indicated his orange safety vest, and I said that yes, I did see him. He said, "The right answer was: 'Hey, who said that?'" I told him I had superpowers that allowed me to see invisible things. It turned out that he'd been reprimanded for going into the parking lot to retrieve shopping carts without wearing the safety vest, and he was snarking about the orange vest being the only thing that kept him from being invisible. It sounded like someone had been spreading some management around in that store because I also overheard some of the people in the bakery griping about some nitpicky reprimand they'd been given.

I think there's a story in there about some magical item that can make an invisible person visible, like the opposite of an invisibility cloak. Or maybe not so much invisible to visible, but from overlookable to someone everyone notices.

And, yes, you know you're a writer when going to the grocery store triggers story ideas.

I really must start working on something or I'll go mad. Yesterday, I vacuumed the house, even though it was already clean, and then rinsed out the vacuum's filters. But I'm in an awkward position of waiting to hear back on a few things, and anything I start would then have to be put on hold to work on something more pressing. I guess I can do brainstorming and plotting/planning so my subconscious can keep working on it while I deal with whatever else comes up next. Today, my subconscious will have to work while I do some baking. I have to keep moving or my thigh muscles might lock on me. Last night's ballet class was really tough. As the teacher said, if it were easy, there'd be more guys doing it.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

More on Mystery: Romance

Taxes are done, and now I can move on to the other nagging tasks in my life.

I learned last night that the worst time to have a bad foot cramp is when you're holding two little girls in your lap. I think I scared them a bit, but I had to stand up and get my foot flat on the floor immediately or I'd start screaming (and that would also have been scary). The foot is not designed to curl into a fist. It's still twitchy this morning, which may make ballet interesting tonight. Oh, and we didn't resort to twirling and dancing, but we played a lot of musical chairs. We did a variation where when kids started being eliminated, we started a second circle and had two games going, and when there were approximately even numbers in each group, we had it so that getting "out" meant joining the other group, so no one was ever really out. They just went back and forth between groups. We still had the kids who were frantically trying to win (who would fight tooth and nail to get a chair) and the kids who were practically fighting to get out (they'd just stand there near a chair and refuse to get in it), and then the kids who seemed to have no idea what to do. There were also rhythm sticks and lots of noise, and I earned my glass of wine.

Since I get twitchy (and not just my feet) if I'm not plotting something, we're back to planning the mystery series. Today's topic: romance. I've found in reading what people have to say about various mystery series that while they read each book for the mystery in that plot, they buy the next book more because they want to see how the main characters' personal lives progress. Mostly, that has to do with the romantic subplots. One thing I find interesting is that in all the mystery series I've read, I haven't found any that handle the ongoing romantic relationship in the standard TV way -- the will they/won't they, where there's one main couple from the start that are total opposites in many ways -- or maybe even in opposition -- and who spend a lot of time bickering while having "chemistry," and over time they may almost get together a few times, but then have roadblocks flung in the way. They may or may not ever actually get together, and by the time they do get together, it's nearly impossible to do it in a way that pleases all the fans. See Remington Steele, Moonlighting, The X-Files, Bones, Castle, and just about every male/female partner team on TV.

Not that not having this is a bad thing, but the mystery book series do something almost as bad: the triangle. There are usually two main romantic possibilities in the sleuth heroine's life, and she's drawn to both of them or torn between them. In some series, she wavers back and forth between them. In some, she's involved with one but is tempted by or drawn to the other and I get the feeling she's going to start with one and maybe end with the other. Quite often, there's the good boy vs. bad boy thing, where one guy is the cop she runs into during her investigations and the other is the just slightly shady or mysterious one who's generally on the side of right but who isn't bound by the same regulations as the cop. A motorcycle and longish hair may be involved. Otherwise, if there's just one guy, it seems like the relationship is established in the first book, and from there it's more of a "Nick and Nora" thing, where they work together as a team with no doubt about their romantic relationship.

I would rather avoid either of those models, but I don't know how much is genre convention and if something different would fly. The current TV mystery relationship model I like best is what they've done on Haven, where it wasn't an obvious done deal from the start that the two main characters would get together, but it also wasn't a will they/won't they thing or a triangle. They hit it off from the start, but with just about zero sexual tension. She had a more flirtatious relationship with the bad boy, but it never came across like she was actually romantically interested in him, and we later learned that he had a plot-related agenda in cozying up to her (though I doubt he'd have rejected her if she'd taken his flirting seriously). The main guy was dating someone else for a while, and his partner was supportive in that and even played wingman for him, then was compassionate in the aftermath of the breakup, which was what really solidified their friendship. The outside relationship that usually is used as a temporary romantic roadblock for the main couple in this case was a stepping stone for them. Then later she started dating someone else, and though he was kind of hurt because he had started developing feelings for her by then, he was still supportive and was nice to the boyfriend, then was there for her in the breakup. Again, what could have been the romantic roadblock was actually a stepping stone because it showed her the real worth of her partner, that he was the one who was always there for her, who trusted her absolutely and who "got" her on a fundamental level. Plus, with their crazy jobs and schedule, they were always having to run off to work, which meant leaving any other romantic interest and running toward each other. As we left them at the end of last season, they were finally getting together. I guess if we translated this into a series of mystery novels, that would have been at about book 12 (since I figure you could fit two episodes into a standard-length book), which is a really, really slow build now that I think about it -- except in the world of the series, in which both seasons so far have taken place in one summer, so all this has happened in a few months.

So maybe something not that slow, but still, I like the idea of the slow development with the person who's always there while they still interact with other people and even have other involvements, but with those other involvements being less Mark Harmon opening the door (the big roadblock in Moonlighting that derailed the relationship) and more steps along the way to finding the right person who was there all along. Then once the main couple gets together, if the series continues beyond that I wouldn't want them breaking up and making up or her being drawn to someone else. I figure once you're sleeping with someone, you need to stop getting yourself into compromising positions with another person who really turns you on. I really don't like the going back and forth between guys, which has turned me off from a couple of mystery series, where it feels kind of like the author is afraid to commit, for fear of turning off the readers who pull for the other guy.

I guess the result of what I would want to do would be a slightly slower build than I did with Katie and Owen -- though there was still a lot more relationship development and conflict that happened after that first real kiss in book 2 -- but still along those lines. I refuse to include a long-haired guy who rides a motorcycle, though. I might even get crazy and mix things up and have the seemingly super-nice guy be the one who's slightly shady and the one who's a little more rough around the edges be the boy scout. I don't know yet. My heroine is very clear to me, but the people surrounding her are still blurry.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Therapeutic Twirling

My house is still clean. My taxes are almost done -- I've filled out a draft set of forms in pencil and now need to run the numbers one more time and fill out the final set in ink and then put them in the mail. I get a nice-sized refund this year since I made very little money last year but paid estimated taxes based on the previous year. Let's just say that writing novels is not necessarily a fast track to fame and fortune, and anyone who justifies pirating books because authors are wealthy is ill informed and ignorant. I'd bet that most people who posted my books for illegal download or who illegally downloaded them made more money than I did last year (and they had something to do with me making little money).

Doing my taxes makes me crabby (which is why I tend to put it off). On the up side, it's easier to read A Clash of Kings as a break from doing my taxes because it suddenly becomes relatively cheerier. I'm in the mood for stabbings and beheadings. I'm thinking of making a character chart so I can X off people when they die.

Now I have to name a book because I've found that there was something in the air and everyone else seems to have used the title I had in mind, and fairly recently. I don't mind using one that came up in a different genre more than a few years ago, but I don't think it's such a great idea to use one that gets you a couple of pages worth of Amazon search results, and all the books on the first page of results came out in the past year. Now I'm trying to think of what we did to check titles before Amazon. I automatically run my title ideas through the Amazon search engine to see if they've been used before, when, where, by whom, and how frequently.

I have to deal with the preschoolers tonight, but I don't have a choir rehearsal. That means that after dealing with the preschoolers, I can lie back on the sofa, put my feet up and have a glass of wine. The preschoolers all have a raging case of spring fever and are literally bouncing off walls. The attention span has shrunk to about thirty seconds. We can get halfway through a song and they're suddenly going, "Squirrel!" (sometimes literally, if they happen to be looking out a window and see a squirrel run past). We may resort to giving up and just playing music and letting them dance. That means I'd probably better put my hair up because the little girls like twirling around and make me do pirouettes for them. It's nice to know that no matter where I am in my life or career, I can awe preschoolers with my awesomeness just for knowing a lot about Disney princesses, Star Wars and ballet.

And now I think I've procrastinated long enough. Back to the drudgery of taxes, and then I can celebrate being done for another year. You know, I think I may have spring fever along with the preschoolers. I may need to go twirl.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Musings on a Day Off

I guess I'm really not good at relaxing unless there's something else I should be doing. I did some reading but got very fidgety. Every chapter or so I'd be up looking for something to do. I found a web site with vocal warm-up exercises and the vocal parts for some opera arias and then determined that I probably have more of a Mozart voice than a Puccini voice. I might even be a mezzo-soprano rather than a soprano. It's tricky to figure it out exactly because I have a soprano range and it's easier for me to sing high than it is for me to sing low, but my lower range sounds better. I sing second soprano in choir, mostly because I read music well enough to sing harmony, but occasionally get switched to the first part when they need a big high note, but then the men tend to really like it when I sing low. Given my size and my voice, if I'd pursued this seriously, I'd have probably spent my career playing boys in comic operas (female mezzo-sopranos or sopranos seem to play most of the boy roles). Apologies to my neighbors for all the warbling. I'd forgotten I had windows open while I was singing.

Then since my mom brought me some kale, I made kale chips, which was kind of an experiment. They were pretty good -- not a direct substitute for potato chips (because when you want chips, you really want chips) but a much healthier alternative when you just want something salty and crunchy.

I also re-cleaned the house from Sunday's activities. Now I'm actually almost kind of eager to get to something resembling work, even if it does involve finishing my business taxes and rewriting a marketing plan. Then I can really enjoy any goofing off I do instead of doing those things.

I think I need to start writing another book before I go mad. During all the recent lottery mania, people were talking about whether or not they'd quit their jobs if they won that kind of money. I don't think I can quit my job. It would be nice not to have to worry about making a living with my work, but I don't think I could stop writing. I might not try to deal with publishers and might even just write for my own amusement, but if I'm not writing I feel a little lost.

I'm getting really close to getting on Wikipedia to find out what happens to the various characters in the A Song of Ice and Fire series so I can either give up reading entirely or so I can relax and know who it's safe to cheer for. But then the series isn't complete, so I can't know everyone's ultimate fate. I'm just at the point where something good has to happen to somebody, soon, please, before I can't take it anymore. I get that this is a tough world and these are tough circumstances, but some nice person could get at least a few minutes of real happiness without all kinds of dread hanging over their head without it totally ruining the sense of tension and conflict. However, Carmina Burana makes good background music for reading these books. Until I start singing along.

Monday, April 09, 2012


I think today will be a holiday because I had a rather busy weekend. Actually, in my plan for the year I gave myself this day as a holiday, so maybe I should follow my plan. I sang for three services Easter morning, and it was mostly hard stuff. We went all-out classical, with a prelude taken from Verdi's Requiem and the Easter church scene from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana. Then I hosted my first family holiday meal, since my parents came over and we had Easter lunch at my place. It wasn't a big, fancy dinner, as I'm not really equipped for that and had been at the church all morning, but I did still host a family holiday meal. Does that mean I'm now a grown-up?

Now it's a nice grayish, fairly cool day, my house is clean, and I think I'm going to do some reading. I may do a little brainstorming work (trying to come up with a title for something), and I need to make some major adjustments to the Plan for World Domination based on decisions made last week (you don't often find nukes available that cheaply, and then once you have nuclear capability, it's much easier to recruit a better class of henchmen, and then that means changing the whole plan). But mostly, I'm going to rest because this year is going to turn out to be pretty busy.

Friday, April 06, 2012


My accomplishment of the morning was figuring out what to wear for Easter. I'm in the choir, so I spend the morning in a choir robe and no one sees my clothes other than when I'm entering and leaving the building or when I'm hanging out with the choir between services. The choir loft has been chilly lately, but it can get sauna-like in those polyester robes, so I don't want to wear anything too heavy or that can't be easily washed. Still, it's Easter, so I feel like I should look semi-nice, and my usual mostly black and red wardrobe doesn't seem right. I had a very vivid dream last night in which I found a skirt in my closet that would work perfectly with a purple t-shirt I have, except I don't actually have the skirt from my dream. I did decide on something and tried it all on, so I can have it staged and ready to go for when I have to leave the house ridiculously early Sunday morning.

My accomplishment yesterday was getting an almost clean house. The loft, my bedroom and the bathroom are now all tidied up. There's still some decluttering and organizing to do, but the space is mostly clear. It's a little unnerving. I think I was getting a wee bit obsessive, though. I had to restrain myself from going over the bathroom cabinets with furniture polish. Not that it doesn't need to be done, but I do still need to get to the living room and kitchen/dining room. That's mostly in the tidying up category, plus doing the floors, so it shouldn't take me all day (famous last words!). Now we'll see if I can manage to continue the sorting/decluttering and maintain the current level of clean. The office is going to take a bit longer, but that's a door I can shut.

I'm rather looking forward to having it all done today and then lying on the sofa and just enjoying my surroundings. I should have picked up some fresh flowers when I was out yesterday. I've discovered the spot in the grocery store where they sell the "day old" flowers, and while some of the blooms have gone bad, you can take a bouquet apart and make a new arrangement.

Next week I'll have to get back on a more usual work schedule, as I have some planning to do and some brainstorming. Stay tuned for some announcements in the near future.

And now to finish the house cleaning in time that I can let myself rest before I have to go sing for a Good Friday service.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

No One Is Safe

It turns out that I really dodged a bullet with those storms. Just a few miles north of me, they had baseball-sized hail. There were leaves and twigs all over the ground from the trees being shredded, all the houses had tarps on the roofs, especially over skylights, and there were a lot of cars with smashed-out windows that looked like someone had taken a baseball bat to them. The preschoolers were very excited about the whole thing. Kids are so resilient. I could tell from the way they talked that they'd been really scared when it was happening, but by the next day it had become something really exciting to talk about. I have a clay tile roof, so I don't have to worry much about hail damage (my contractor neighbor says it could probably take a direct strike from a meteorite), but I do have a skylight. Maybe I should get a tarp to have handy in case the skylight ever gets knocked out.

I had my own tiny bit of storm damage: when the ground gets really wet, the ants decide to take shelter in my house. Oddly, they only go to the front of the house. I've never seen one in the kitchen where the food is. This time, they were marching along my bedroom wall, behind my bed, and I couldn't figure out where they were going because the trail stopped behind my nightstand. I don't eat in my bedroom or keep food there, so I wasn't sure what was drawing them. And then I opened a nightstand drawer and saw that they were swarming on my cough drop stash. I guess they had sore throats. I threw out the cough drops, took everything out of the drawer and cleaned it out, and that seemed to do the trick for a while, but then they were back, but wandering around kind of confused. And then I remembered a Phineas and Ferb episode about ants where they'd talked about them communicating with pheromones (see, it is educational!), and I figured this was the ant equivalent of there being a lot of tweets about this really rocking party. These ants were the ones who showed up after the cops had already broken up the party, and they were just wandering around going, "Dude, where's the party?" I needed to delete those tweets. So I took everything out of the drawer again and rubbed the whole thing, inside and out, with furniture polish, then polished the whole nightstand, including the back, and I sprayed rug shampoo on the carpet in the area where the ant trail was. That seemed to do the trick. There were a few stragglers this morning that I let live so maybe they could tweet that the party had been broken up. And then I got a new can of ant spray (I had just run out) to spray along the likely entry points. I guess you could say I found my inner Dalek: "Exterminate!"

But now since that part of my room is ridiculously clean, it makes the rest of the house look bad, so I think today will be a cleaning frenzy day. It's already mostly clean, but it's at that mostly clean state that makes any clutter or dirt look even worse. Then I can spend the weekend relaxing in my clean house.

Speaking of killing things … After finally finishing A Game of Thrones, I found a commentary that made me think of another plot-driven vs. character-driven issue. The commentary mentioned the fact that in these books, it becomes clear that no one is safe. Any character, no matter how major that character seems to be, may be killed at any point in the book. Some of the commenters on the post thought that was one of the great things about the series. Other commenters said that was why they quit reading because they reached the point where they just couldn't take it.

I would suspect that it's the plot-driven readers who love that no one is safe because it makes the events more exciting and suspenseful if you don't know who will live or die, if even a seemingly main character is as much at risk as the secondary characters or villains. But character-driven readers may have a problem with that. Up to a point, it's kind of cool to have that degree of suspense -- until it's one of "your" characters who gets killed, which then greatly diminishes your emotional investment in the book or series. Plus, if you get the message that no one is safe, then you're going to emotionally withdraw from all of the characters, for fear of really suffering if they die, and if you aren't letting yourself care about anyone, you'll stop caring about the book or series. Some of the commenters to that post mentioned reaching a certain point in the series and then reading the Wikipedia summary to find out what happened to the people they cared about without having to actually go through it all. I can kind of see myself heading in that direction. Nobody I really cared about has died yet, but there are some characters whose deaths would send me to Wikipedia, depending on how/why/when they happen and whether any new characters have come along to start taking their place. If you're going to kill the "hero," I need to know immediately who the new hero will be.

That's a big part of the appeal of the romance genre -- whose readers I would guess are more likely to be character-driven because they're reading for the characters' emotional responses to situations. You know that the two main characters will be alive at the end and that they'll end up together. It's more about the journey of how they get to that place than about the destination. I don't need quite that amount of guarantee. One of the reasons I liked the chick lit genre was that there was a guaranteed happy ending, but you couldn't tell from the first scene exactly what the ending would be. I can even take character deaths if they happen for the right reasons and at the right points in a story. If my favorite character dies heroically near the end, I can deal with it. I probably won't finish reading the book if my favorite character dies near the middle for no good reason other than to make it clear that nobody is safe. Pulling an Atonement -- the "Ha, you thought you were reading a romance, did you? Well, get a load of this!" thing -- is Right Out. (Seriously, that book pissed me off so very, very much. I actually threw it when I got to the end.) Then there's the issue that in order to make readers care about someone dying, the person who dies has to be someone who is liked. The counterargument to that is that if you kill off all the characters people like, then they have no more reason to be interested in your story. If the people you wish would die are the only ones left, it's no fun anymore.

Now to go make the rest of the house be as clean as the now ant-free zone.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

From Wish to Goal

So, yesterday got a little interesting around here. We had two major storms hit the area simultaneously, in nearly parallel tracks, resulting in at least twelve tornadoes (though they're still getting the official count verified). I spent the afternoon watching the news coverage to see stuff like semi trailers flying through the air (that link is to a slide show of stills taken from the news helicopter footage, but there are links on the site to the video). Then it turned out that one of the storms was heading on a direct path to me, so I started making my disaster preparations. I moved the computer to the laundry hamper cabinet in the downstairs bathroom (the most likely spot to survive) and moved my old featherbed and some pillows into the downstairs bathroom to be ready to jump in the tub and pull the featherbed over me. Then I sat and watched the radar on TV with my cell phone, a flashlight and my Walkman with radio in my lap. The tornado in that storm apparently jumped back into the clouds a bit southwest of my area and didn't come back down until it was northeast of me, so I just got a lot of rain and some hail, but it made for a harrowing afternoon until all the storms had moved on. Miraculously, although there was a lot of damage, there were no deaths and no major injuries. As far as they can tell, only one person was taken to a hospital, and that was a baby who was in a house that was totally demolished, and they were checking her out as a precaution (but she just had bumps and bruises).

So, anyway, after all that excitement, a writing post.

Last time, I talked about how a character with a dream or a wish seems to hook readers into a story. In Hero's Journey terms, that would come in the "Ordinary World" segment, before the story really kicks off. It's part of the character's day-to-day existence to dream of something different or better. Then the "Call to Adventure" happens and the hero has to develop a goal. You could consider a goal a dream with some planning and action behind it. The story goal may not spring directly from the dream/wish, but there's generally some relationship to it. The funny thing is, when people are presented with the opportunity to go after their dream, they often resist, maybe because a dream is safe but a goal can be scary. It can be hard work or even dangerous, and once you try, there is the potential for failure. You don't fail in a dream or wish, but you can fail to achieve a goal. However, a wish doesn't make a story. You need a goal to have a story.

So, Cinderella may sing about a dream being a wish your heart makes, but it's just some vague wish about not being in her present awful circumstances. Then she learns about the ball and decides she wants to go. Now she has a goal. Fairy tales (and even the Disney movie versions) can be a bit vague as to the precise motivation, so we don't know for certain that Cinderella is thinking specifically that if she meets the prince and he falls in love with her, that could be her ticket out of her horrible life. It seems more like she just wants to get away for that one evening and not be the only girl in the entire kingdom who's not at the ball. Depending on the version of the story, she then starts to plan. In the Disney version, she makes her own ballgown, then has to rely on her fairy godmother when the wicked stepsisters destroy it. In some versions, the stepmother sets out a series of impossible tasks that she has to do before she can go, and she then gets her animal friends to help her. Now we have a story.

For an example of being not so thrilled at actually getting that vague wish, we have our old friend Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. He wants off his uncle's farm to go to some space academy, and he's so captivated by the idea of space battles that (in scenes deleted from the final film) he's become like the boy who cried wolf, so when he actually sees a space battle happening over his home world, no one will even look because they assume he's imagined it. This is a kid you know spends a lot of time imagining himself as a dashing space pilot doing battle against the evil Empire. And yet when Obi Wan asks him to come with him to help rescue the princess, which sounds like exactly what he's been wanting to do, he makes excuses for why he can't leave the farm -- he has responsibilities (those same responsibilities he was previously trying to shirk). We don't really get into his head to know why he resists, but one good reason may be that it's dangerous. He could get killed. There's also the possibility that he won't be as good in reality as he is in his dreams. Plus, it's not quite the same thing he was planning -- he wanted to go to the academy, taking it gradually, but Obi Wan wants him to jump in head-first. It's actually circumstances that force his hand. When his uncle and aunt are killed, he has no more excuses. Then he accepts the goal to rescue the princess, which later turns into the goal to destroy the Death Star.

Going a bit meta here, the same thing applies to writing. When you're an author, it seems like half the people you meet say they've always wanted to write a book or that they will write a book someday. Very few people actually do so. Even fewer finish it. Fewer than that take steps toward publication. For most people, it remains a wish or a dream -- they think about being a writer, maybe even imagine having booksignings or being on TV talk shows. In order to actually get a book published, you have to turn it into a goal and develop a plan. You have to write. You have to learn about your craft, whether from trial and error, from taking classes or from reading books about writing. You have to be willing to rewrite and revise. You have to take the risk of failure in submitting a book for publication or in putting a book out there electronically. While you're just dreaming, you can imagine being wildly successful. When you do it, there's always that chance that it won't work, which does sort of dampen the dream. Still, what's better, knowing you tried or never moving beyond a wish?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Game of Thrones

In the category of "late to the party," I finally finished reading my pre-publication advance copy of A Game of Thrones last night. Yep, it took me nearly 16 years to get around to reading a book I got a few months before it was published. However, I think I've figured out why it took me a few tries and the TV series to get into it. It's a dangerous mix of plot-driven writing and vivid, three-dimensional characters, and I'm a very character-driven reader.

By "character-driven" reader, I mean that in order for me to really get into a book, I need to latch onto at least one character -- someone I want to be, someone I could fall in love with or someone I just plain enjoy spending time with. Then I mostly go through the book caring what happens to those characters, and my main interest in the events is in how those events affect "my" characters. If the events don't affect "my" characters, I don't really care what happens. I think that's one reason I love first-person narration. If I like the narrator character, then that automatically means someone I care about is in every scene (if I don't like the narrator, then there's a problem). I never skip ahead in first-person books, but I have been known to skip ahead to follow "my" characters in multiple viewpoint books.

That's a big reason I have problems with epic fantasy, in general. Too many of those books seem to start with something like "The massed armies of K'varos and Dovrinki gathered on the plains of T'L'San in preparation for the invasion." And I don't care. Now, start with the stable boy preparing a horse for battle and thinking about how unfair it is that the horse is being sent to fight with no say in the matter and no interest in the outcome, much like himself -- well, then, I'll follow that stable boy through the battle and want his side to win just because it improves his chances of coming out alive.

Or else, what often happens with epic fantasy is that we're introduced to the main characters when they're all gathered in one place, and that's when I latch on to one or more, but then soon afterward the characters are scattered all over those maps at the front of the book and I find myself following the characters I like and skimming over the parts with the characters I don't care about. It's usually my luck that the ones I like are secondary and we only pop in on them from time to time while the people I don't care much about are at the center of the main plot, so skimming over their parts means missing the point. And that's what kept happening for me when I tried to read A Game of Thrones. The characters are vivid enough that I fairly quickly latched onto a few, but then they were sent off in different directions, and the bulk of the main plot centered on a character who turned out to literally be too stupid to live. That's where all the maneuvering was going on that would affect everyone else, and I just didn't care because I wanted to skip ahead to see how the people I liked were doing. I'd get halfway through a chapter with a character I found irritating and find myself flipping pages to see who the next chapter was about. If you mostly read to find out what happened, it's probably a lot easier to get through than if you're reading for just a few characters -- and you really, really love the characters you care about. I don't want to move away from them and go back to the boring political maneuvering.

However, I hadn't been planning to read the second book right away. I was going to watch the second season of the TV series first (and I'm waiting until there have been a few episodes before I start so I won't have to wait a week between them). But then the library actually had the second book in yesterday, so I checked it out, and then as soon as I finished the first book last night, I picked up the second. Then I skipped ahead, following the character whose fate I was most worried about. We'll see if I actually read the book all the way through right now or if it's something I come back to later. I just needed to reassure myself about one person. Oddly, that's not the one I like the most, just the one I was most worried about at the end of the first book.

If you've read these books and my books (or if you've been reading my blog and know my usual tastes), any guesses as to which characters caught my imagination?

Monday, April 02, 2012

Further Developments

I've got a crazy week ahead of me. I've sort of declared it "vacation," but that really means I'm not writing a book this week. I need to finish my taxes and clean my house, plus it's Holy Week, which means choir rehearsals and extra church services, so my week "off" is going to be busier than my usual weeks. I'm trying to do half days -- finish all the work in the morning and allow myself some afternoon free time.

It seems like those of you who responded to my last post are thinking along the same lines as I am. The doctor scenario was what I came up with initially, but I don't like to stop at my first idea because the next one could be even better, so I like to at least toy with other possibilities. I did realize upon further thought that the reporter scenario is self-limiting. If she solves a crime that the police couldn't and then publishes the story, you'd think that after doing that a couple of times she'd be able to get a better job and would be out of there, ending the series (or else it would mean forgetting that one of her main character traits that got her into investigating crime in the first place was ambition). Not to mention that once she publishes a story that even hints at revealing the town's secrets, people are going to be far less likely to talk to her in the future. On the other hand, if she decides that the secrets need to be kept and doesn't publish the story, then that removes her motivation for investigating crimes. Why stick her neck out and put herself at risk if she can't do anything with it? She might be sympathetic to their situation, but if she's ambitious, then she's going to try to find another job, even if it's a lateral move. Plus there's the fact that I'd like to structure this a lot like the current TV paranormal procedurals, Grimm and Haven, where each episode/book has a (mostly) self-contained case that's solved in that episode/book, but then there's a larger big-picture mystery that they get insight into through the investigating they do on each case. For her to understand enough about the town's secrets to not publish the story after the first book, I'd have to reveal more than I'd like to from the start.

So, my heroine will be a doctor. But don't worry about this turning into a CSI or Bones thing because she's a family physician, not a pathologist or medical examiner. She might get called to scenes of violence because she's the only doctor within about 50 square miles, but I think her crime solving will have more to do with the fact that her work gives her a lot of access and insight to people. Plus, the set-up I have in place forces her to stay in town unless she wants to pay back the cost of her medical education. And since the heroine of a paranormal mystery generally needs to discover some abilities of her own, it makes more sense if she was hand-picked to come to this town. I suppose the reporter who happens to turn out to have these abilities only being able to find a job at this one newspaper could have been arranged, but then that's getting at Haven levels of conspiracy and freakiness, and I don't quite want to go there.

One trick will be to avoid the usual fish-out-of-water tropes without being dull. I don't want to do a full-on Northern Exposure thing where it's a complete culture clash and she hates being there. This is someone who planned to be a family doctor in a small town, and this deal she made just made it possible for her to do it by dictating which small town. Maybe some of the conflict comes from the fact that she's a little overly idealistic about what being the town doctor will be like rather than from her resenting having to be a small-town doctor. I also don't want her to be a big-city sophisticate type, the sort who'll spend a lot of time bitching about not being able to find sushi or complaining because the local cafe's coffee menu consists of decaf and regular, and there's a little pitcher of creamer if you're into that sort of thing. I think she's going to be a lower middle-class suburban girl -- someone who falls into that gap where she's not poor enough to qualify for financial aid but not rich enough to actually pay for medical school, and smart enough to get into medical school and do well but not so brilliant that she can rack up the merit-based scholarships (since "brilliant" is pretty much the baseline for medical school). Again, maybe the culture clash is that she's idealized small-town life from living in the suburbs full of tract houses and retail chains and then finds that people are people, wherever they live. It's not so much that she doesn't want to live in a small town as it is that she wants the small town to be the way she imagined it would be and is a little disappointed that it isn't -- and then maybe a little freaked out when it is. The idea of people looking out for their neighbors is lovely, until you realize it also means your neighbors knowing all your business.

Now I need to figure out who the romantic possibilities are, since there do seem to be at least a couple in series like this. I want to avoid the standard love triangle, where the heroine wavers back and forth between them. Maybe something more like them both being possibilities as she's getting to know them, but then as things progress she finds herself drifting toward one. I think one will be that ambitious reporter -- with him not being the hero, he doesn't have to solve the case, and that avoids the problems inherent with the reporter as heroine scenario. I may even go out on a limb and try to write him as a sexy bad-boy type. Can I do that and still have a character I like? The other one will likely be a local cop. I think there's going to be a mystery about him, that he's the kind of person you have to get to know in layers, and that will have something to do with the mystery of the town. Maybe I could play with surface vs. reality, where the guy who initially seems better is only that way on the surface but as she gets to know both of them her feelings shift. I hesitate to plan how it's going to work out before I start. After all, Owen was supposed to just be a co-worker until I started writing and he came to life. And in a book I just finished, I ended up changing allegiances mid-way through.

Of course, the real trick will be to find out if publishers actually want things that don't go with the usual tropes. They say they want something different, but they generally don't want anything too different. Oh, and I need to come up with a crime. The fun part for me is developing the characters and situation. Plot is the real challenge.