Friday, March 29, 2013

The House of Swendson

I finally dealt with the most nagging bit of procrastination yesterday. The next round of to-do lists comes up next week, but for today, I will be focusing on finishing my Nebula ballot reading, tidying the house in case I have company for Easter and baking goodies for a Doctor Who watching party. Then I have Good Friday service tonight and three services Sunday morning. Fortunately, there's also some fun stuff, with new Doctor Who and Game of Thrones.

Speaking of Game of Thrones, they have a web thing where you can make your own house sigil. Here's the sigil for House Swendson:

"I only have eight more pages!" translates to "I'm not putting this book down until I've finished it." It's a family joke, so I figured it makes a good motto for us. As for who will end up sitting on the Iron Throne when all is said and done, well, duh:

I promise to be a benevolent ruler and only behead the people who really have it coming. Funny, George R.R. Martin cast me as Mary Ann when we were deciding which Gilligan's Island character was which author at the Random House party at last year's WorldCon. He obviously doesn't know me very well. Then again, we were also discussing Gilligan's Island conspiracy theories, and he may not think Mary Ann is all that naive and innocent.

To give Doctor Who equal time, in case you haven't seen it, there's a short prequel to this Saturday's new episode. My cable company also had this available OnDemand.

Now I must go stretch so I'll be able to walk tonight and tomorrow. I went to ballet class last night, so that's twice this week, and it was a beginning class. For me, that means doing the beginning moves at a more advanced level, which is actually harder than the advanced class because it moves very slowly. When you're lifting your leg above a 90-degree angle, slow can be torture. Still, it was fun momentarily being one of the best students in the class, which is a reverse from my usual class, where I'm one of the worst. At any rate, my thighs are not happy with me at the moment.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Romantic Obstacles

I survived the kindergarteners again, and they survived me. Wow, were they crazy, and we had a smaller group with the craziest kid out. But they did request Beethoven again, so I'm accomplishing something.

I've been thinking more about that essay about romantic comedy by Christopher Orr in The Atlantic, and I'm not sure that one of his arguments holds up. One of his theories about the decline in romantic comedy films is that there aren't as many obstacles today to people being together -- class matters less, parental approval matters less and even marital status matters less.

The classic screwball comedy of the 1930s was built around class, to some extent, since in most cases the dynamic was flighty heiress "princess" and down-to-earth (and often down-on-his-luck) working man -- it was basically an updating of the woodsman's son winning the princess through wit, skill and kindness fairy tales. But the class difference just created differing perspectives that gave them something to argue about and new things to learn from each other. It wasn't a real obstacle to them getting together once they fell in love, and if it was, then the result was usually some plot contrivance that undid it all (he's really a millionaire in disguise!).

Take It Happened One Night -- the relationship obstacles there aren't about class. The problems are that she's on the way to be with the man she loves and had to run away from her father to do so (that's the part that doesn't work in current times -- parents wouldn't be able to stop an adult woman from marrying) while he's the reporter whose career hinges on him getting the story about her. The fact that she's engaged to another is looming over any attraction he has for her, while things are likely over if she finds out about him reporting on her. But, really, the central theme of the movie is that the increasingly difficult road trip forces two unlikely people to learn about each other enough to fall in love, and that's timeless. The movie was updated in the 80s as The Sure Thing, where it was college students sharing a coast-to-coast ride for the holidays, and it still worked. I think the trick with this story is to not paint it in broad strokes and go overboard with the opposites angle -- you need just enough of a reason why these two people might not have met or might not have extended their acquaintance long enough to get to know each other well enough to realize they're made for each other without them being stuck traveling together.

And now I think I kind of want to write a road trip story.

Class may not be the obstacle to marriage for people who really love each other that it once was, but I think it's still a valid obstacle for discovering another person. You may get reverse snobbery -- the young lawyer who's had to work hard to make it through law school and then had to go through rounds of interviews to get a job is probably going to resent the senior partner's daughter who had her tuition paid for by daddy and who's had a job open for her since birth, and he may not realize there's a lot to like about her as a person until he's forced to spend time with her. That was even kind of the love story plot in the stage musical version of Legally Blonde -- she was the pampered princess who went to Harvard Law to follow her boyfriend, while he was the poor kid with the chip on his shoulder fighting his way up, and they bonded over the fact that she was dismissed by the Harvard legacy types for being fluffy and he was dismissed because of his background, but first he had to see past all the pink and learn to take her seriously.

As for the marital status being less of an obstacle now, just look at the plots of some of the classic comedies:
It Happened One Night -- she's running away to marry someone else
Bringing Up Baby -- she waylays him to keep him around when he's supposed to be on his way to his own wedding
The Philadelphia Story -- takes place among the festivities for her wedding to someone else
My Favorite Wife -- when she was lost at sea, he had her declared legally dead so he could marry someone else, just before she returned to civilization
Christmas in Connecticut -- she's pretending to be married, so he thinks she's a wife and mother, and the judge is standing by ready to make the fake marriage a real thing

Actually, there are very few classic comedies in which someone isn't on the verge of marrying someone else. That seems to be the main reason keeping the couple from being together until someone takes the leap of faith to break up the existing relationship and take a chance on the new person. I suspect the difference today is that back then, that was also a reason why the couple couldn't have sex and I'm not sure in today's Hollywood morality that would be an issue. In the old movies, taking sex off the table meant they had to substitute subtext, witty dialogue and sexual tension. Now, nothing's off the table, which robs the story of a lot of its energy. In the old movies, they also weren't sleeping/living with Mr./Miss Wrong, and that's one of the ick factors for me in today's movies, where someone is living with one person while falling in love with another.

I think the real problem in today's lackluster romantic comedies is the lack of subtlety -- they spend more time building up the reasons they can't be together than the reasons they can, and they forget about finding middle ground. If there's a class difference, it has to be a drastic one, where they're from totally different worlds and have nothing in common. If it's a free spirit vs. stick-in-the mud, then if the woman is the free spirit she's the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but if it's the other way around she's the shrieking, humorless harpy and he's the overgrown fratboy manchild.

Look at any of the recent "frat pack" style movies (like Knocked Up) and compare that to The Philadelphia Story -- there she's still uptight, the goddess on a pedestal who can't accept human frailty in others, but Cary Grant is no overgrown frat boy. He's an adult man who had a few problems in the past that he seems to have dealt with but that she can't accept until she realizes that she's not perfect, either.

But that kind of writing is difficult, and I guess it's not high enough concept for today's studio executives to understand, so even if a great script gets written, it might not get produced.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What's Wrong with Romantic Comedies?

The Day of Getting Stuff Done actually ended up working. I just have one remaining nagging to-do item, and then I'll have a weight off my shoulders. And new to-do items. Ugh. One big accomplishment was that I sorted through most of my spiral notebooks. Spiral notebooks are kind of my Swiss Army Knife business tool. Instead of shelling out a lot of money for fancy planners, I have calendar pages I printed from Outlook stuck in a sheet protector and a spiral notebook for planning and to-do lists. I have books for various topics, like marketing efforts and my convention work. I use these books for taking notes on library books. I also use them for collecting information on each book project -- research notes, plot outlines, character information, and anything else I might want to reference for a book. They're portable and they keep information together. I've started using loose-leaf paper for brainstorming because I generally don't need to reference that stuff again and I was filling up too many notebooks with things I didn't need to keep. I also sometimes use a big binder and loose-leaf paper for really complicated projects, like my steampunk book. The trick is that it's hard to find the right notebook when I need it in a pile of notebooks. So, I went through the stack, tossed (or if there was a lot of paper left, ripped out used pages) the notebooks I wouldn't need again -- old to-do lists, thoroughly dead projects -- stuck labels on the front of books I was keeping and put hang-tag labels on the spirals, and then put them in magazine holders based on category -- general research, old books, future books, and old ideas I may return to. I was surprised by the number of books I had on detailed ideas that I don't even remember having. Most of the "dead" book ideas were for chick lit, so unless something in them really sparked a "there's still something here" reaction, they got tossed.

On an unrelated note (unless you count the mention of chick lit), there was an interesting essay in this Sunday's newspaper about the decline of the romantic comedy film genre. One little hint about Book 7 is that a lot of the book is a spoof of romantic comedy films. You may recall that last summer I was talking a lot about romantic comedies, and this is why. I watched a lot of them, both good and bad, as I was making lists of tropes and cliches to use. So, I figured that in the lead-up to the release of this book, it's a good time to focus on romantic comedies, and I looked for the essay online. I found that there were also two more parts, part two and and part three. And then I followed a link to find that Billy Mernit, who wrote my favorite book about writing romantic comedies, had written his own response to the original essay. As a bonus, that led me to his blog, which I must now follow.

To sum up the general argument from the initial essay, he was pointing out that one problem is that the great stars, the equivalent of people like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, aren't making romantic comedies these days, but that may be because the scripts are pretty lousy, so high-powered stars don't want to do them. And the scripts may be lousy because there aren't too many "easy" obstacles to love these days -- class differences aren't much of an issue, parental disapproval doesn't matter, race is less of an obstacle, and even marital status doesn't necessarily stop anyone. Sex is something that can happen at the meet-cute, so even if you can't officially formalize your love, there's nothing to stop you from going at it before you work things out. In the follow-up, he points out that this doesn't mean there are no conflicts left, just that they're a lot more difficult and require a lot more nuance in the writing. Another theory he presents fits with what I've been saying for ages, which is that the moviemakers became too cynical about the genre and the audience -- they thought that these were easy money-makers aimed at an audience that would eat up anything thrown at them, so they just slapped together some contrived conflict, stuck in some pop music montages and called it a day, and then when these movies tanked, they threw up their hands and called the genre dead.

The fact that there are still about a zillion romance novels being published every year shows that there's no shortage of romantic conflicts. True, there's probably very, very little that's never been done before, but a good writer can make it work and feel fresh if the characters are interesting and well-drawn. You're not going to get that in a movie if you're banking on the audience liking the actors rather than relating to the characters or if you're letting a pop song tell us about the characters being in love rather than actually developing a relationship.

Over the next month or so, leading up to the Kiss and Spell release, I'll be doing a series of posts (probably the Wednesdays when I'm not doing writing posts) about the romantic comedy genre, with maybe some teasers about the book thrown in. I'll say up front that my use of romantic comedy in this book is meant to be cliched -- that's the point. But I hope it ends up transcending the cliche because you do care about the characters and their situation. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Report: Nebula Ballot

My attempt to Get Stuff Done ran head-on into Monday. I ended up mostly focusing on reading the Nebula ballot material, which still counts as work. Just not the work I planned to do. I've reached the procrastination point where minor tasks look like mountains. I may have to block off an hour in the day and promise myself a reward and just get them done.

Here's a quick rundown of some of the novels I've read recently for award consideration (though with no indication as to how I might vote):

Adult novels
Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal -- I hadn't read the first book in the series (for some bizarre reason, my library system has the second but not the first), so I was a little lost about the world building and characters. I think I picked up the important things, but I suspect I still missed a lot of nuance and resonance. This would be recommended for fans of Sorcery and Cecilia because it's fantasy set during the Regency/Napoleonic Wars. Our hero and heroine, who apparently got together in the first book, are taking advantage of peace to honeymoon in Belgium and visit a fellow glamourist to discuss some new theories. The magic in this world is illusion that seems to mostly be used for decorative purposes, but it also has military applications, which puts them all in danger when Napoleon escapes from exile and is marching his armies toward Belgium. The next book, which comes out next month, is set in the Year Without a Summer (which always sounds lovely in the middle of a Texas summer, though it was actually something of a global crisis). I need to find the previous book because I want to fully appreciate this series.

Ironskin by Tina Connolly -- I've seen this described as a "steampunk Jane Eyre," but while the Jane Eyre comparisons are obvious and deliberate, I don't think there's really any steampunk involved. The most fascinating thing about this book to me was the world building. The fey had been providing mankind with magical power sources for centuries, and the whole world is powered that way -- industry, transportation, utilities, etc. But the fey were playing a long game, and when mankind was utterly dependent on their power, they tightened the noose. A war resulted, fitting approximately in the place of World War I. Mankind won, but at great cost. They're having to rebuild society and find new sources of power. There's also the problem of the war wounded -- the people struck by the "shrapnel" of the fey weapons have fragments of curses stuck in them, and the only way to keep these curses from being active is to cover them with iron. Our Heroine has to wear a kind of iron Phantom of the Opera mask. That makes finding work as a governess fairly challenging, until a mysterious man in a remote estate hires her, and Jane Eyre ensues -- spooky house, shady servants, secrets, etc. I actually thought this book would have been stronger without hitting the Jane Eyre thing so hard -- most of the names and characters map, as do many plot points. I was surprised to see in the author's note at the end that she hadn't even read Jane Eyre until people who'd read an early draft of her book pointed out the similarities, and then apparently she decided to make it more overt. I guess maybe she thought that if people were going to assume it was an homage, she might as well lampshade it. I thought that minus the names and some fairly shoehorned plot points, it wouldn't have been that obvious, while I was distracted by trying to map everything to Jane Eyre. Anyway, read if you're into alternate history or fairy lore or if you're a Jane Eyre junkie, but if you're looking for steampunk, you'll be disappointed (I don't think it's trying to be steampunk, but that seems to be how the book is talked about).

Children's/Young Adult
Iron-Hearted Violet by Kelly Barnhill -- I'd say this is a middle-grade book rather than YA, aimed at pre-teens, but I still thought it worked for adults. Violet isn't at all the kind of princess you hear about in stories -- she's not beautiful, she doesn't have masses of long, glorious hair, and she's not at all delicate. This isn't a problem for her, until something starts whispering to her. There's been a long-forgotten evil god imprisoned, and he's trying to get out by manipulating people and finding ways to make them want to do what he wants them to do, and that requires making them dissatisfied with the way things are. When everything else is going horribly wrong, it may be up to a very imperfect princess to set things straight. This is the kind of book I would have eaten up as a kid, and I enjoyed it even as an adult. It's a fantasy adventure with dragons and war and books and stories.

Black Heart by Holly Black -- I read the first book in this series a couple of years ago when it was on the Nebula ballot, and I apparently missed a volume in between because there were events referenced that I didn't remember. This series is about a teen boy from a criminal family whose magical powers make him valuable and put him at risk. He's trying to do the right thing, but that's hard to figure out when the "good" guys are possibly using him to do wrong and the "bad" guys may actually have the greater good in mind in at least one specific circumstance. This may be one of the few times I've ever found myself liking a "bad boy" type, but probably because he's the kind of guy who only looks bad from the outside but who is wrestling with figuring out how to be truly good when he doesn't have much in the way of guidance or role models.

I still have a few more books to get through this week, and I also want to discuss some of the novellas, novelettes and short stories.

In other news, I did end up posting my rant about the SyFy movie to my Stealth Geek blog. You can find the post here. I may turn that blog into a general TV and other geeky stuff discussion place, so I don't have to worry so much about regional spoilers here.

Monday, March 25, 2013


My Very Busy Week started on Sunday -- I had two services (including the children's choir in one of them) and then an afternoon rehearsal to get ready for Easter. Today is my free day. Then I have dance Tuesday night, children's choir and adult choir Wednesday night, probably dance again on Thursday (I have a ton of classes to make up after being sick so much this year), Good Friday service on Friday, a Doctor Who watching party on Saturday, then three services Easter morning, with the choir reporting for duty at 7:20 in the morning. I suspect that after the last service, I'll come home and collapse.

There was a bit of fun with the kids on Sunday, and unfortunately the mom who usually records it wasn't there, so there's no video, but we had the preschool and kindergarten groups combined. The song was one where there's the chorus, then the verse, and then the chorus again, and then the end of the song. One of the preschoolers, who's one of those exuberant kids who's enthusiastic about everything, got so caught up in it all that at the end of the song he kept going to sing the verse again, on his own, with much gusto. It was rather adorable. The congregation was cracking up at the kid and the choir was laughing at my reaction. Then it became a running joke in the choir because we also had a couple of unplanned solos when people sang in what were supposed to be rests, so they just said this kid inspired them.

I let myself take it easy on Friday and Saturday to charge up the batteries. Friday night was the perfect cold, blustery evening for listening to the BBC radio drama of Neverwhere while knitting. Saturday, I alternated among reading, knitting and cooking. I had to bake something for the choir potluck breakfast on Sunday, and I made a batch of chicken and dumplings. I realized I hadn't made any this winter, and it was possibly my last wintery weekend. That's an all-day endeavor, but I think I've perfected the recipe.

I watched some of the special features on the Les Miserables DVD and skipped around in the movie to catch my favorite musical bits. Of course, that turned into just watching the movie, until I remembered that I had to get up early on Sunday. I need to find time to just watch the whole movie. I've also decided that Eddie Redmayne would be good casting for one of the characters in the book I just sold. I'm not sure entirely why because that character is very different from any character I've seen him play, but there were a couple of moments both in the movie and in the interviews in the special features where there was a certain look in his eye, and I thought, "Oh, that's him!"

My other weekend movie watching was finally seeing The Rocketeer on one of the HBO channels. I'm not entirely sure why I didn't see it when it came out, but I vaguely recall being at a party and some guy who really gave me the creeps asked me out to see it, and I responded that I wasn't interested in seeing it, so I guess I was forcing myself to be honest by not seeing it, even without him. At any rate, it was rather disappointing -- beautiful production design, great cast, intriguing concept, godawful script. I get that the hero was supposed to be rather naive and had to look like kind of a rube in contrast to the villain, but they went to the humiliating slapstick well one too many times in ways that didn't pass the "reasonable person" test. Any reasonable person, no matter how unsophisticated they were, would have known that those weren't smart things to do. It was like they were trying to do Raiders of the Lost Ark but ended up with Temple of Doom. I'm kind of glad I didn't see it in the theater because I would have hurt myself from cringing. As it was, I was cooking and knitting while watching it, so I survived. It would be interesting to see if they could take that concept and remake it using current effects technology and a much better script.

I also watched bits and pieces of the SyFy Saturday night movie: Chucacabra vs. the Alamo. As a Texan, how could I not? That may inspire me to revive my Stealth Geek blog to discuss it because, wow, was that bad, and not even really in a fun way.

Now to attempt the Day of Getting Stuff Done before my week goes insane.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil

The book is done and off to Mom. Now to have the Day of Getting Stuff Done, though I may be tempted to procrastinate that until Monday because this is perfect reading weather. I've obtained the Blu Ray of Les Miserables, so now I can watch the whole show whenever I want, without having to wait for a touring production or a trip to New York, but I don't know if I'll watch it today. Maybe just some bits and pieces. Otherwise, I have Nebula ballot reading to do. This may be our last blast of cold, damp weather until next November, so I need to enjoy it.

I mentioned maybe last week that I had a rant building up, and here it goes: It seems like the good guys just can't win in modern entertainment. Sometimes it's just the fans who gravitate toward the bad guys, but sometimes it's the writers fueling that.

To start with, being good is apparently considered boring. It doesn't help that a lot of writers don't seem to know how to add shading and depth to a good guy without using shades of gray or darkness. If a good guy is considered the least bit proud of being good, actually cares about being good or if he dares to judge the bad guys for being bad and doing stuff like killing, then he's called smug and self-righteous. Meanwhile, the bad guys are allowed to gloat about their success all they want. There's usually some excuse in the bad boy's past for his bad behavior -- he was abused, neglected, a good guy was mean to him or did him wrong. The good guy's past doesn't seem to matter, unless the fact that he had a happy upbringing is used to show that he had advantages the bad guy didn't have, and thus is also used to excuse the evil. A bad guy can be "redeemed" and practically sainted by just one time not doing something evil when he has the opportunity, and the good guys are considered awful if they don't immediately throw a parade for him. But if the good guy sets just one toe over the line, he's forever damned. His "bad" may not be near the level of the ongoing behavior of the bad boy, but it's still unforgivable, while the bad guy's "redemption" act may be nowhere near the level of selflessness usually shown on a regular basis by the good guy. Just about anything the good guy does to defeat the bad guy will somehow besmirch his goodness. Basically, he's having to fight evil with both hands tied behind his back and then he's considered stupid and ineffectual if he loses.

And this doesn't just apply to good vs. evil -- the heroes and the villains. It also applies to anyone with shades of gray, like the anti-hero "bad boy" who's not a villain in the grand good vs. evil fight but who is sometimes an antagonist to the good boy hero. Eventually, the anti-hero will be the real hero and the good guy will be shown as a horrible person (or at least perceived that way by the fans). Of course, the anti-hero gets the girl because the good guy is boring.

I was thinking about this while rewatching A Game of Thrones, where too many of the good guys are too stupid to live (so they don't), but I really don't think that's meant to be the message in the books. The books seem to draw the line between worthwhile honor and stupid honor that's really more personal vanity, wanting to be able to call yourself honorable rather than truly wanting to do what's best for everyone. They also acknowledge the fact that you can't deal honorably with dishonorable people because they won't follow the same rules, and that means you'll lose, sometimes with horrible consequences. Sometimes, you may have to go against rules or vows to serve the greater good, and that's okay. The TV producers may be besotted with the darker characters and manage to make a lot of the good guys even more stupid than they are in the books, but I get a different sense from the books.

Where it's really become egregious is with Once Upon a Time, where the writers seem to want us to feel sorry for the evil queen because she's sad and lonely as a consequence of all her evil actions. Meanwhile, the good guys are considered tainted if they actually do anything to fight back against the evil. Most of the fans at Television Without Pity are seeing it the way I do, where they're getting tired of watching the villain weep because she didn't get her way and can't force people to love her, but apparently the greater Internet is full of outrage that the good guys are being so mean to her -- never mind that she's never so much as apologized for the wrongs she's done to them.

I think this is one reason I loved the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling gave Harry and Voldemort very similar backgrounds, then showed that how they responded to those backgrounds and the choices they made along the way was the difference between being good and being evil, and there was nothing wrong with taking action to defeat the evil. Plus, she got outraged when fans tried to get too sympathetic to the bad boy instead of the hero.

A good guy doesn't have to be boring, and there are ways of writing layers that don't require mixing in a little darkness. Even good people can be conflicted or tempted. They can get angry. They can have layers and nuances and pain. If your good guy isn't as interesting as your villain, then you're doing it wrong.

But I'm also a little worried about a culture that's so quick to forgive evil and condemn good, where trying to be good is considered "self-righteous."

Let's hear it for the heroes!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Getting Stuff Done

I'm hoping today to finish the current round of revision/editing on the current project. However, I have a lurking, threatening headache that may hamper that somewhat. The weather is making yet another dramatic shift, and that tends to trigger headaches. The kids didn't help last night. They were screaming and running in circles, for no reason, and after being reprimanded, they'd just start doing it again. I've met most of their parents, so I know these kids aren't being raised in barns, but sometimes you'd think it had never occurred to them that they can't just run around like maniacs wherever they go. It's like there's zero self-restraint. It makes me want to try the dog training technique of making the dog wait until you give the command before it goes for its treat. I'm not sure these kids would be able to hold back. They'd grab the treat instantly, then whine because their treat was gone.

But then the adult choir director made a TARDIS joke during rehearsal, and that improved my mood, mostly because my mind was already there before he said it. He'd been encouraging people to think "open" in their heads to make a round tone, like their mouths are bigger on the inside, and just as I thought "like the TARDIS," he said it. I couldn't help but laugh, and he said, "You were already there, weren't you?" There was a joke referring to Primeval (the series) not too long ago, so I suspect the choir director is a geek. This shouldn't be a huge surprise, I suppose, as he's the one who kept putting Harry Potter movies in the DVD player during the bus trip last summer.

Only seven more weeks of children's choir. I may survive this year. I haven't decided about next year. There are times I love it, but I'm kind of drained right now.

I was going to declare today Get Stuff Done Day and clear all the nagging items from my to-do list. That includes things that shouldn't be a big deal but I've been procrastinating like crazy for no apparent reason, just a raging case of the don't wannas. Maybe once I finish the draft this afternoon, I'll devote tomorrow morning to Getting Stuff Done, and then this weekend may be a combination reading binge and brainstorming "retreat" to start thinking about the sequel. Little bits and pieces have been popping into my head. I'm hoping we'll finally meet a character I put a lot of thought into developing in the first book but who ended up never actually appearing. I know a shocking amount of details about the life of a character who's only mentioned a couple of times, so now I want to write at least one scene for her. She'll never be a major player, but she will probably be the main "real world" person from whom the magical secret must be kept.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Finding Your Voice

When I was talking about how to use feedback from others, I mentioned that you should consider whether any suggestions would alter your voice. Voice is a pretty tricky topic, so I thought I should address it. There's no real "how to" for dealing with or developing voice, and yet it's probably the most critical factor to an author's success. It's the thing that sets a book or an author apart from the crowd. When you look at what agents and editors say about books, they'll mention that the voice just grabbed them. A powerful voice can overcome all kinds of flaws in a book. And yet it's not something you have a lot of control over.

What is "voice"? I think it boils down to the things you say and how you say them. I've been to writing workshops where the presenter will read excerpts from books and ask the audience to identify them. The idea is that these authors all have such strong voices that you know right away who the author is. That may be true, to some extent. There are little touches that come through, no matter what an author writes, but I think there's a problem if an author has the same voice in every book. I've been writing a contemporary fantasy series in which my first-person narrator is a rather sarcastic young woman from a small town in Texas. I just sold a young adult steampunk fantasy novel in which my narrator is a rather sheltered and naive, but highly educated, teenage girl in a Victorian-like society. These books had better have very different voices because the books and narrators are so different. I find that when I read aloud from these books, it's not just my accent that changes. Even the speaking voice I use is different. But I think both books are still distinctly "me." I'm not sure that they could be used as an example in the kind of workshop I mentioned, where you could read an excerpt and even tell that they're by the same author, but I do think there's something in them that means people who like the one series may like the other.

So, if the voice of each book needs to be appropriate to that book but you still need a distinctive author voice, what does that even mean? I still think it comes back to the things you say and how you say them. Think about the entertainment you enjoy -- books, movies, television. Make a list of your favorite characters and the things you like about them. Do you see any patterns? What about stories or plot lines? Is there any plot element if you see it mentioned in a show or movie description or on a book cover, you're instantly hooked? Those are the things that should make it into your own work. If you write about things that make you excited and passionate, your enthusiasm will come through and create a sense of voice. Writing about things you love means your work will truly come from the core of your being.

When it comes to the way you say things, it may vary by book, but there are still likely some commonalities. I know that my writing style is an odd mix of terse and to the point and almost baroque in sentence complexity. That probably comes from a childhood and youth spent reading Victorian novels and epic fantasy and my training as a broadcast journalist. I love crossword puzzles and finding new words that strike me as vividly descriptive. And yet I'm not big on physical description. I have very clear images in my head, and I can get very clear mental images out of even the tersest writing, so I guess I just assume everyone does that and doesn't need lots of words to tell them what to imagine. Dialogue is where I like to play. Those things are probably common to everything I write.

I had a couple of moments that I think were instrumental to me developing my personal writing voice. One was in college when I had to write a lot of papers for a class. I'd been making reasonable marks on them, but not as good as I hoped, and I was trying perhaps way too hard to write in the way I thought you were supposed to write a paper. Then near the end of the semester, I was getting frustrated with never being quite good enough, I was writing about something I found fascinating, and I had a pretty tight deadline. Instead of slaving over trying to write a "proper" college paper, I just wrote what I wanted to say. That paper came back with the highest grade I'd had in the class so far. It seemed I'd found my voice, and being myself instead of trying to be what I thought they expected paid off.

Though I suppose I still hadn't learned my lesson because a few years later when I was starting my career as a novelist, I was writing category romances. I'd sold a couple to a smaller press, but all that time I'd been very carefully writing what I thought that kind of book should be. On the third book, I guess I was more confident because I just wrote, and that was the book that became my stepping stone to a larger publisher. Something clicked, and I knew that book was more "me." Since then, I've learned that whenever I try to be a certain way or give them a particular thing that requires me to do something that feels unnatural, it's not my voice. Your unique voice should just flow naturally from you.

About the only voice-finding exercise I can think of is to do just that -- forget about rules and guidelines or expectations, the way you "should" be writing, and just write the way that feels right for you. Then take a look at it. It may still need editing and fine-tuning, but the way you write when you think no one else will read it may be the purest form of your voice, and will likely have more life to it than when you're working hard to be what you think is expected of you. It may be more challenging to learn to adapt that to different characters and different kinds of books, but you have to find your personal voice to even start.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book Deja Vu

I had a weird reading experience this weekend. There's a book that's been frequently recommended to me as a good example of that kind of book, but I haven't read it. I put it on hold at the library, and it finally came in. I started reading it and immediately had a massive case of deja vu. It was all so familiar to me, like I'd read it before. I couldn't really predict what would happen next, but I had a mental image of each scene just before it happened. But I was still pretty sure I hadn't read this book.

There was a chance that it was simply the epitome of a kind of book that has become cliche, so I felt like I'd read it before even though I hadn't. It was one of the earlier and supposedly better examples of this kind of book, but because I came to it very late after reading all the copycats, the original felt overly familiar. It's like a friend I had who thought the movie Casablanca was too cliched for her to enjoy. It didn't matter that all those great lines that have been repeated, quoted or parodied over the years originated in that film. Because she'd seen all those quotes and parodies first, by the time she saw the original, she thought it was just a collection of cliched quotations. And this book did have the kinds of scenes that tend to start that kind of book. Except that there were some pretty unique details that were also oddly familiar.

I skipped ahead into the book, and the familiarity ended. All I can think is that I may have tried to read this book before but didn't get into it, or maybe it was excerpted in the back of another book, or possibly there was an excerpt in one of those promo sampler books they hand out at conventions, so I'd read the first few chapters but not the whole book. I ended up giving up on the book and returning it to the library on the due date because that deja vu was so distracting that I didn't get into the story, and if I'd read that much before without reading the whole book, obviously it didn't resonate with me then, either. I think it's just a kind of book that doesn't work for me, no matter how good an example of that kind of book it is. It's one of those things like beer to me. I say I don't like beer, and people immediately say I have to try whatever kind of beer that isn't like all that other beer. But I've sampled a number of different kinds, and to me it's still beer. With this kind of book, I say I don't really like it, then people keep suggesting books/authors that I will like, and it still comes down to the fact that it's still this kind of book. There are too many books to waste time forcing myself to keep trying something that's not for me.

Now I'm reading my way through the Nebula ballot. I'm finding that the "fantasy" stories/books/novellas tend to be fun even if they're thought -provoking, but the "science fiction" ones are preachy "we're killing the planet" kinds of things. I'm still liking the YA far more than the adult. I do wish I had the talent to write short stories because that's such a lovely art form and I'm in awe of the people who do it well.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Unreliable Narrators

Apparently you're getting a live look at my creative process here. Friday, as I wrote my blog post, I got that initial stirring of a "this might be fun to write" idea -- a romantic caper/thriller with fantasy elements, a Charade with magic. That was about the way the initial idea for the Enchanted, Inc. series hit me: "It would be fun to have a fantasy story take place in a chick lit setting." It took me nearly two years to develop and write the book that came from that idea, so don't hold your breath on this one. It's just a lurking "it would be fun to write this kind of book" concept. At the moment, I think it's giving me some framework for the sequel to the book I'm currently finishing, only instead of the exotic locales being places like Paris and London, it's sites within the fairy realm.

One thing that's occurred to me in toying with this idea is that it would be a good place to use an unreliable narrator (something on my literary bucket list). Say, for instance, that Charade was a novel and the Audrey Hepburn character was the first-person narrator -- what if we found late in the book that she wasn't really the wife of the dead man but was some kind of agent or thief and let them assume she was the wife and she'd been playing them all along.

But pulling off an unreliable narrator is tricky. I don't normally feel like there has to be a reason or purpose behind first-person narration -- no need to spell out who the narrator is telling this story to. But when the narrator is lying to the reader, I think that becomes more necessary. There needs to be a reason why the narrator is lying, and that's usually a framing story in which the narrator is telling a particular person or group a story, and that can get clunky.

There's also a fine line to walk between the story of the lie and the story behind the lie, and both have to be equally compelling. There needs to be enough contrast between the truth and the lie for it to matter -- if the narrator has been a kick-ass, super-capable woman all along, it's no big shock to find out she's really a secret agent. But the false front has to be interesting in its own right -- if the narrator is a too-stupid-to-live airhead who keeps bumbling into trouble, readers may throw the book against the wall before they get to the part where they learn that she's doing that on purpose to avoid suspicion. I've seen books like this flip on the good vs. bad axis, but that's also tricky because some readers may not get far enough with a bad narrator to get to the part where they find he's secretly good, while they might feel betrayed to find out that the good person they've been rooting for is actually bad.

And there's the issue of where to put the big reveal. It seems to be most common as the last big turning point before the climax -- they're heading into the final "battle" situation, and then the character does something unexpected and says something to the effect of "Oh, didn't I tell you I was really a spy?" If it's a framing story, then it can reach the point where the character has finished telling the story up to that point, and when they let her go she walks away thinking, "Suckers!" and then the rest of the plot proceeds with the narrator being honest to the reader while still playing a role to the other characters. I've also seen it done as a final twist. Things have more or less ended and you think the narrator has lost, and then at the last moment reveals that this was what he planned all along, and that means he's really won. Then there's the Rashomon approach of having multiple viewpoints that conflict, and the reader discerns the truth by spotting the patterns among them. Or I've seen it with two viewpoints -- first we get the first-person tale within a framing story in which a character tells the story to someone else, and then we get a more objective story told in third-person through the viewpoint of another character who was there for much of the action, and we can see the lies unraveling.

But like I said, it generally takes me at least two years from this point to written book, and this time I already have this year's writing schedule set. I may get it out of my system by using this framework on a planned book. Katie and Owen may suddenly pop up and declare that they want to have globetrotting caper adventures (though I wouldn't be able to use an unreliable narrator there). Or something may come to me and it'll be my Next Big Thing.

In the more immediate future, I really must get back on my office reorganization program. I let things stall for too long and got used to the in-between state. I need to re-claim the floor of my loft. That will mostly require bringing a lot of books to the library to donate to the book sale. I also need to sort through all the stacks of spiral notebooks I use for writing down research, character development, story outlines, etc. I'll have to figure out which books that never went anywhere need to go and which things I need to keep for reference.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Report: Not as Advertised

I'm about to go on a massive reading binge to try to get through as many of the Nebula nominees as possible so I can vote intelligently. Plus, I think it's good for me as a writer to expose myself to material that my peers think is award-worthy, and it broadens my horizons. None of my novel nominations made it to the final ballot, but all of my YA nominations made it to the Andre Norton Award ballot, which might be a sign that moving into young adult was the right direction for my career. I've read one of the novel nominees, and I have to say that this nomination was likely more due to the author's reputation and status than to the book itself. There are a couple of nominees whose previous books I've read and was so-so about, and there's one I'm intrigued about. The nice thing is that they've made most of the nominees available electronically to members, and the book I most wanted to read was one my library system doesn't have.

There's a book not on the ballot that I want to discuss that I can't really recommend wholeheartedly, which means I have to say some negative things, but it's still interesting enough to discuss. I figure I'm in little danger of ending up in the same social circles as the authors, so I'm going to go for the gusto here and be negative about a specific book while naming names. (I know, shocking, right?)

The book in question is City of Dark Magic, by Magnus Flyte, which is a pseudonym for two authors (apparently the review editions contained some stuff that made it a Lemony Snicket kind of thing, where the manuscript was mysteriously delivered to these authors, but the actual published edition doesn't play such coy games). The title and cover caught my eye because I had high hopes that it would be the kind of "urban fantasy" I wanted to read, something more in the vein of Neverwhere than the half-vampire, half-fae outcast apprentice wizard/freelance demon slayer books that took over the genre. I suppose this book is closer to the former than the latter, but I'm not entirely sure I would classify it as fantasy. There's one (rather out of the blue) fantasy touch late in the book, but the "magic" is alchemy treated as science. It's really more of a chick lit-esque paranormal mystery/thriller. The cover copy and endorsement blurbs also don't do the book any favors. The parts that are accurate are major spoilers -- something that's revealed late in the book in what's supposed to be a shocking moment is flat-out told on the cover. The other parts are rather inaccurate and not at all what's really going on. Then there's the blurb on the front cover by Conan O'Brien (really?) that mentions time travel and tantric sex, and that makes me wonder if he read the book or just the back cover. There isn't any time travel in any literal sense, just the ability to sometimes have visions of other times. And last I heard, a quickie in a bathroom does not fit the definition of "tantric sex."

So, if either the atmosphere evoked by the front cover or the various cover blurbs appeals to you, you'll likely be disappointed unless you manage your expectations. As a chick lit-esque paranormal mystery/thriller, it had a lot of potential. I think I was mostly frustrated by the really amazing book I could kind of see around the edges out of the corner of my eye that wasn't quite what was on the page. The gist of the plot is that Our Heroine is a musicologist specializing in Beethoven who gets hired to spend the summer in Prague helping organize and catalog a collection of scores, letters and other documents involving the friendship/patronship between the local prince at the time and Beethoven. The heir of the former royal family that was ousted by the Communists has had the family holdings returned to him, and he wants to make sure it's all there before creating a museum for them. But there have been mysterious deaths involving people working on the collection, which may be linked to what appeared to be either mass murder or mass suicide at a charity event in Venice. There's a ruthless, powerful person who could be ruined if certain things hidden in the palace are found and a rival possible heir who would like to get her hands on the estate. And there may be something in the collection that solves the "Immortal Beloved" mystery.

I got caught up in the story and turned the pages quickly, so some of the thriller aspect worked (but it would have been improved without the occasional interludes of the villain twirling her metaphorical mustache about her evil schemes, which took away a lot of the suspense when we knew who she was, what she wanted and what she was doing about it). The American slacker/rock band drummer who becomes a prince when his Czech grandfather dies soon after the government reinstates the royal family and who suddenly is stepping up and taking responsibility is an interesting character. Some of the secondary characters are wonderful, like the blind child music prodigy and her dog, who wears a service animal vest not because he's a seeing-eye dog but because he's a retired bomb-sniffing dog, and can she help it if people see a service animal with a blind girl and make assumptions and allow the dog to go everywhere with her? And I like the Texan former beauty queen who's the expert on weapons, an interest begun when her pageant talent was twirling rifles.

But there was just something missing about the whole thing, like it was somehow less than the sum of its parts. I can't quite put my finger on it. The main character was kind of flat, made up of a grab-bag of traits designed to make her both brilliant and edgy, and they seemed to be avoiding doing anything conventionally romantic with the romance, and that may have been part of the problem. I didn't feel a real sense of place or atmosphere, but I can't quite figure out how that could have been conveyed. Generally, if you're interested in a post-Cold War romantic thriller with a few paranormal touches (something I'd bet is pretty rare), this might be something to check out, but it will likely leave you wanting a really, really good paranormal romantic thriller. If you want an atmospheric urban fantasy set in Prague and drawing on the city's rich history, you'd be better off with something like Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.

And now I kind of want to write a paranormal romantic thriller, maybe something along the lines of Charade but with magic. Witty banter, exotic setting, brewing romance under a cloud of doubt, constant danger. Oh yeah. Good stuff.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Stupid Good

I was going to get up and get going early today. I managed the "up" part, but the "going" part, not so much. Ah well, it was only an arbitrary deadline.

I've decided that knitting is actually a good part of my creative process. I spent the afternoon reading/revising on the book, and then when I was knitting at night, I found that the answers to tricky problems or ideas for what to do popped into my head. Generally, any kind of repetitive task is good for that sort of thing. It uses just enough brainpower to keep you alert and distract the conscious brain, and that allows the subconscious to get to work. Doing dishes also works, but knitting is more fun. Though there is the danger that the idea that pops into you head will then require conscious thought, and you then find yourself knitting the wrong row and having to undo it all and start over again. And that's with color-coded stitch markers that should remind me of what row I'm on.

Rewatching the first season of A Game of Thrones reminds me of one of the reasons that series can be frustrating. Namely, the Stupid! It Burns! It's the most literal example of Too Stupid to Live. I get that they're trying to portray nobility and the consequences of it when you're not dealing with people who function by the same moral code, but there are cases here that go far beyond that. I doubt that anyone would blame a cop, for instance, who didn't call the criminal and give him a heads up that he'd discovered what the criminal was up to and wanted to give him the opportunity to confess to the judge before the cop gave the judge the evidence. Most of the early part of that series is the good guys being flat-out stupid and the bad guys not even having to break a sweat to take advantage of it. I think it does get better as the series progresses, especially in the third book, which will be what we see on TV this year. By then, the worst of the idiots have weeded themselves out with their Darwin Award-worthy behavior and the survivors have wised up a bit, so there's no longer such a sharp contrast between stupid good and clever evil.

I actually have a rant brewing about the way good and bad are often treated or perceived in today's entertainment, but I was supposed to have been at my parents' house by now, so I should probably either start packing or make the go/no go decision.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Love for a Difficult Book

I got sort of back in the swing of writing yesterday, spending a couple of intense hours on revisions. At this phase, it's not so much about rewriting as it is about evaluating what's there and seriously considering whether or not it works or if there's a way to do it better. I'm also making tiny tweaks, like tightening up the dialogue. The main purpose of this draft is to make sure that whatever changes I made in the last round actually work.

And I'm finding that I still love this book. I find myself wallowing in it, practically reveling in it. I've already decided that if a publisher doesn't buy it, I'm self publishing this one. My agent said she loves it, so I'm not entirely delusional about my love for this book. She just admits that finding the right market for it in traditional publishing may be a challenge. It's sort of "light" fantasy with almost no grit whatsoever, so it may be a tough sell to fantasy houses. There are romantic elements, but none of the relationships are fully resolved and there's no sex, so the romance imprints won't be even remotely interested. It might play as "women's fiction" but there I think it would have the same problem as my other series had when published in that category, where the people most likely to want to read it (the fantasy readers) wouldn't easily find it. We're probably going to go after both fantasy and women's fiction editors at the same time and see who bites.

At any rate, I think the next project I tackle will be the sequel to this book. It'll be fresh in my head after doing the final touches, and if it sells, I'll already have the sequel ready to go. If it doesn't sell, I'll already have the sequel ready to e-publish.

Meanwhile, I'm using the March TV downtime to marathon the first two seasons of Game of Thrones before the new one starts. I read the whole series to-date since the last season was on, and now I'm not clear on what happened in the show as opposed to what happened in the books. Plus, having read the books, it's interesting watching the series with the knowledge of what will happen. It makes good background noise for knitting. I have more than a foot of my blanket done. It also finally clicked for me how the pattern works, and knowing this should help minimize mistakes because I'll always know where I am. It is getting a little more challenging to manage when there's that much material hanging off the needles. I can just see how tangled I might get when I'm close to the end.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Report: Romance vs. Romantic

In spite of my good intentions, I ended up treating yesterday as a break day, anyway. I think a lot of it was the time change -- I generally start writing work in the late afternoon, and that came later, so the quality of light didn't quite hit the spot that triggered my work impulse. It also doesn't help that I don't feel a lot of urgency about anything at the moment. I heard from my new editor and got the planned work schedule for that book, so I've figured out what I'm going to be working on and when for the rest of the year. I guess that was the main bit of work I did yesterday. But I did start getting some ideas to incorporate into the revisions I need to work on, so it wasn't a totally wasted day.

It's been a while since I discussed a book, mostly because I was reading a book that took me forever to finish. I'm not entirely certain if that's the book's fault or because at the same time I was getting sidetracked by crocheting and knitting, organizing my office and getting a book finished. I'd grabbed something off the To Be Read shelf, and I think it was just what I needed for that time in that it was a pleasant read but not a stay-up-all-night page turner. I could read a chapter or two before bed and turn out the light.

But the real point of interest to me was a cultural comparison. I ranted a while ago about what I don't like about today's romance novels. This book was a British book I got from a former boss's wife when they were getting rid of stuff before a move (they were Australian, but I think they'd been at the London office previously and all the books she gave me were British publications). According to the cover, this was voted the Romantic Novel of the Year. It's from the late 80s, but it's very different from American romance novels even of that era.

The book is The Peacock's Feather by Sarah Woodhouse, though I would suspect it's difficult to find a copy. The set-up would sound familiar to any reader of historical romances -- Our Heroine grew up in the local manor house, but when her father died, the estate had to be sold to pay off debts, and at the same time, her fiance, who was the heir to the neighboring estate, broke off the engagement. She's had to live on the kindness of a friend since then, and she's grown somewhat bitter and aloof from her experiences. Then a man from Jamaica who made his fortune as a privateer buys her old family estate, moves in and starts making improvements. If you've ever read a romance novel, you pretty much know what will happen.

Except, not so much. In an American romance novel, they'd hate each other on sight while also being strongly physically attracted to each other. There would be lots of bickering and fighting until they gave in to the attraction and had lots of sex. That's not what happens here. For one thing, the primary viewpoint character isn't either of the romantic parties. He's a third party (who is apparently a recurring character in this author's books), a doctor who has become friends with the new owner and who observes the developing relationship between the two of them. Another difference from an American novel of this type is that we don't even meet the heroine until well into the book. First we meet the romantic hero through the doctor's eyes, get to know him and travel with him to his new estate. He expects her to be testy about his improvements to her old home, but she turns out to be okay with them. She's mostly just so burned by the way she's been treated that she's wary of him until he really proves to be a decent human being. The developing romance is very slow and subtle and plays out against a lot of other goings on in the community.

I wonder if this is a cultural/publishing industry difference or if in England there's a distinction between a "romantic" novel and a "romance" novel. This seems to me to be more historical fiction with strong romantic elements than "romance." I probably enjoyed it more than I might have enjoyed the American romance take on it, though I will admit that the pace was awfully languid. Sometimes you need a book you can read a page or two of before turning out the light, but that's not usually something spoken of as a positive in reviews. "Page turner" is considered a good thing. "A nice book you can put down in time to get some sleep" isn't considered a recommendation (even if it's what you might need). I have a few more books on the shelf that came in that bundle, so I'll have to see if there's a pattern -- but then it may also be selection bias because all the books came from the same person. Are there any Brits/readers of British-published books who can chime in on this? Is there a British equivalent to the American "bodice ripper" historical romances that's different from this kind of "romantic" novel?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Getting Lost

The trouble with spending a few days having a real life away from the Internet is that the Internet keeps going in my absence, so I have even more to catch up on when I return to the computer.

It's spring break around here, which normally wouldn't affect me, but it means all my extracurricular activities are on hold for the week, and that puts me in spring break mindset. I don't have urgent writing work to do, but I do have business stuff I should start taking care of, even if I really just want to spend the day reading and knitting. I don't think I'm that affected by the time change. Oddly enough, I woke up at the same time, by the clock, as I did before the change (which means I automatically woke up an hour earlier). I'm thinking of going out of town later this week, so I can't just declare today a break day.

I had a splendid day of hiking on Friday. You know it's been a good day when your jeans are muddy from the knees down. I'm going to have to take them out to the back porch and give them a good shaking/beating before I can wash them, and I may need to run them on their own through a cycle before I put them in the washer with anything else. There was even a time when I wasn't entirely sure where we were because we'd had to weave around enough obstacles that I lost my bearings. We had GPS, so we weren't really lost, and in that area, there's a river on one side, levee on one side, a field (and I think a canal) on one end, and highway on the other end, so you'll eventually run into something that tells you where you are, but I'm not sure I could have just started walking and ended up where I wanted to be. But then I figured out that I could navigate by Southwest Airlines. We were under the flight path to Love Field, and the planes were following the same path, every few minutes. I just had to wait for a plane to fly over and then orient myself to the angle where I'd seen the planes the last time I knew where I was. And from there, I had a good sense of where to go. There's something strangely reassuring about that, and there's something nice about getting really lost and then getting reoriented. It's like rebooting the brain.

Now I'm going to take care of a few things on my to-do list and let myself relax after that.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Joy of a Clean House

Public service reminders of the day: Remember the time change is this weekend. Also, tonight Grimm is back! It's been gone so long that this is like a season premiere. I've rewatched the last few episodes OnDemand, so I remember what was going on, but it seems like forever since we had new episodes.

My house is now more or less livably clean. It's not quite party clean or even visit from Mom clean, but it's at the point where I can sit on the sofa with a book and not feel the nagging sense that I should be doing housework. Every time I get my house clean, I realize how much I enjoy it this way and wonder why I don't keep it this way. I think the reason is that while I like the house being clean, I'd rather read, write, sleep, watch TV, talk about TV on the Internet or do any of a dozen other things rather than do housework. I'm not quite at the financial level where I can hire a maid, and I'm not sure how well that would work anyway. I don't like the idea of someone else messing with my stuff, and I'd feel compelled to clean frantically before the maid arrived so she wouldn't think I was a slob. Maybe someday I'll get to the point of having a monthly cleaner to do the heavy-duty stuff, which might motivate me to keep things moderately neat in between times.

The upstairs is still a disaster because of being midway through the office reorg project. And I still need to do a good spring cleaning. But I've made a start and I can relax this weekend. Well, sort of. It's a busy weekend. Today, hiking. Tomorrow, a gathering with friends. But when I'm home, I can relax, read and knit.

Now off to gather my hiking gear. It's a perfect day for it, just the right balance between warm and cool and a little overcast. It feels kind of like England. Though if we run into sheep or a castle, I'll be worried. Armadillos, yes. Sheep, no.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

General Catch-Up

Next week is spring break, so I have a week off from the kids (and from all my other activities), and thank goodness because I just about lost it with them last night. There's the one girl who starts talking every time I open my mouth. I had to do the "you can't listen while you're talking" lecture and ask her what I'd just said that she'd totally missed because she started chattering as soon as I started giving instructions. Then even one of the good kids was being a pain when I was taking them in small groups to the bathroom to wash the glue off their hands after they did a craft project. She started to run off down the hall on her own while I was still with the other kids in the bathroom. I had to resort to the mean voice to get her to come back.

Of course, next time they'll be hyper after coming back from spring break, so that will be even more fun, and we're singing in church the Sunday after that. I may need the cattle prod. I may possibly be counting down the number of weeks until we end for the summer (8 actual sessions, plus one night of the program for the parents).

I have about four inches of my blanket knitted (out of a targeted 44), and I'm finding I'm more likely to make mistakes on the rows of straight purling than on the complicated pattern rows. That may be because I carefully mark out the spots for each pattern repetition and then count stitches afterward to make sure I made the right number, but I think I can just purl straight across without thinking about it. A couple of times I've somehow dropped a stitch there, and once I managed to get in an extra stitch when the yarn had frayed a bit and I thought it was two separate stitches instead of just one. I may have to leave in the markers and count stitches between markers even on the "simple" rows. But I have figured out how to find exactly where a stitch went wrong by looking at the pattern, so I've been able to recover each time. There's a strangely gratifying sense of accomplishment about doing this project as I see it take shape. I can see how this becomes addictive.

But today is house cleaning day. I've made a lot of progress in bits and pieces, and that's made me aware of just how bad things were. I'd built a nice little nest on the sofa from the spiral notebooks for writing projects, newspapers with crossword puzzles still undone, books and knitting/crochet supplies. Meanwhile, all the remnants of the last cold were on the coffee table, with a pharmacy full of medications. I'm looking forward to a lazy Sunday of catching up on my reading, and it will be nice to have the living room in proper order when I do so. That will also make things easier next week when I go back into serious writing mode.

The office reorganization, however, remains a work in progress. I got really sidetracked, so things stalled at a bad place. Come to think of it, the last time I got started reorganizing the office, I sold a book midway through and the project stalled. Apparently, trying to clean out my office is my lucky charm. I may never have a clean, organized office, but I'll make a living as a writer.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Using Feedback

In my writing posts, I've been talking about getting critiques. I think the most important thing to learn about having your work critiqued is how to take criticism -- and I'm not talking about learning not to have a total hissy fit if someone dares say something negative about your work (though that is important, too). When you get feedback on your work, you have to learn how to use it.

The thing you need to remember -- and the reason I'm not totally on board with the idea that everyone absolutely must have someone else read your work -- is that anyone you give your work to for critique is human and therefore fallible. Even professional editors can make mistakes or make suggestions that would be bad for your book. I've had very good editors, and they've all at some point made suggestions that would have been fatal to the book if I'd followed them. Nobody knows or understands your story like you do, and ultimately, it is your book. Professionals may also disagree with each other because they have different opinions of what works. Learning to discern what suggestions to take and how to use the feedback you're given may be even more difficult than editing your own work. Accepting every suggestion you're given because you assume that the person giving feedback knows more than you is just as bad as refusing to accept feedback because you know your work is perfect the way it is.

Here are some ways I deal with feedback from editors, my agent or beta readers:
  • First, seriously consider each suggestion. You may need to take some time to scoff at it and get the sense of being insulted out of your system, but do this in private, not on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Consider whether the suggestion is definitively right or wrong -- is it based on something incorrect like a fact or grammar or does it violate a rule you've established for your fictional world? Would making this correction create an error?
  • If it would be an error, are you dealing with an incorrect assumption somewhere -- you didn't lay out the rules of your fictional world as clearly as you thought you did or your fact is little-known and the common knowledge (that most of your readers will be working from) is in error?
  • Would making the suggested change alter your intended meaning? If so, can you see why the change was suggested (perhaps your writing was too wordy or something else was unclear) and make a different change to accomplish that while maintaining your intended meaning? I often find that "wrong" suggestions result from me not being clear elsewhere.
  • Do suggested edits fit your voice or your characters' voices? That one word may take the place of several and tighten things up nicely, but it won't work if it's not a word your character would use.
  • Are suggested plot changes consistent with your characters, the situation you've established, the rules of your fictional world and with the tone of your story?

If I decide not to accept a suggestion, I make myself defend my decision. I may even do so out loud, as though I'm talking to the person who made the suggestion. This is not a writing phase I suggest doing in a coffee shop. For big changes suggested by editors, I've been known to write essays explaining why I can't do what they suggested. But then I try to find a way to fix the problem they've pointed out in a different way. If you really aren't sure, if something just feels wrong and you can't articulate why or if you can't decide whether something would be better or worse as suggested, you can try opening a second document and making the change there, then compare it to the original and see how it works. Or you can get a second opinion and at least talk it through. Sometimes the process of talking it through enables you to see things more clearly. I have heard of rare cases in which an author wasn't willing to make an editor's requested changes and the editor then refused to publish the book, but I've never had an editor be unreasonable with me when I've discussed why her suggestions wouldn't work and proposed something else that would address her concerns. I suspect those rare cases involve authors flouncing at the very idea of altering their great works of art, not authors and editors disagreeing but working on finding a mutually agreeable resolution.

There are also times when even a professional is just plain wrong. They have the same foibles writers do -- pet words that come up way too often, getting sidetracked and missing a detail, skipping words accidentally, etc. You need to learn to recognize these things in other people's work as well as in your own so you don't incorporate other people's errors into your work.

I always do another read-through after making suggested revisions to make sure it still works for me. If I can spot the places things have been changed, that's a bad sign because it means things aren't flowing. Also make sure that things you change don't have a ripple effect and force changes elsewhere -- if you delete a line or scene, you have to also delete references to that line or scene.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013


I was wrong. I didn't immediately come up with an idea for another book in the series as soon as I posted that I had no more ideas. It could still happen, but if I hadn't given the last book a good ending, I'd probably be panicking.

But I do still have story ideas swirling around in my head. I have sequels for a couple of the things I've been working on. I have another YA steampunky thing I'm dying to write that will take a lot of research. I have the one I'll probably work on next that's been living in my head for more than 20 years. I have another one I want to revisit that's been living in my head even longer than that (I figure if an idea lasts that long, it's probably a good one). And then I came up with a new thing a few nights ago that's suddenly started developing and adding flesh. It at first seemed to be a straightforward historical romance, which is weird because I don't do that sort of thing, but then I realized that one of the characters was a secret agent (maybe both of them?), and I think the bad guy might be an evil wizard they have to stop. I suspect this all grew from that gothic urge. The new steampunk YA started from the gothic place but ended up not really going there, mostly because my Mr. Rochester turned into the Scarlet Pimpernel (only his cover is as a nerd rather than a fop), and that kept things from getting properly atmospheric. But I think with this idea, the Mr. Rochester is actually the villain, which I think I could pull off, and our heroine in the flowing white nightgown is the agent spying on him from within his house, so she's stuck in the spooky, dangerous house. But it will be a while before I let myself even think about writing it, and I'm not even sure how I'd market it. Depending on how it comes out, it may be too romancey for the fantasy houses, but it would be a total one-off to do it as a historical romance, since I'm not likely to hit my core audience there and the odds of me coming up with another one are slim.

Idea-wise, I may be in a 19th century rut at the moment. I don't seem to be coming up with contemporary stories. The fun thing about now being officially a steampunk author is that I can indulge my penchant for Victoriana. Keeping my hair really long now counts as a business decision, since it means I can put it up in all those fun Victorian styles for public appearances. I can buy hats to wear at conventions. I think even the pros dress up and join the fun at steampunk conventions, so I get to make and wear Victorian clothes. As a YA author, I'll probably be doing a lot of school and library talks, which means visual aids. This year I may finally get around to steampunking my already rather Victorian Christmas decorations.

The other nice thing about selling a book is that I can relax a little about money. It's not really what most people would consider life-changing money, but compared to the past few years, it is changing my life. I've been on pretty extreme austerity measures. I started making money late last year from the self-published books, and that's done very well for me, but it's not guaranteed income. I never know from one month to the next what I'll make. With this, I already know a minimum of what I'll earn this year. For the first time in years, I can let myself spend money on something other than necessities. Not that I'm going to go crazy, but I'll finally get my garbage disposal repaired, get the dishwasher replaced, get the ceiling fan replaced and get new glasses.

Yes, an author's life is so very glamorous.

But I didn't get around to much celebrating (or anything else) yesterday. I was so drained as to be useless. I managed to wash some dishes and respond to some e-mails, and that was about it. I did get my blanket started and have a few inches knitted, after some bad starts in which I was somehow messing up the pattern before the pattern was established enough for me to tell I was messing up. Once I got going, though, it became a bit easier.

Monday, March 04, 2013

All Good Things ...

After a flurry of weekend editing, Book 7 of the Enchanted, Inc. series, currently called Kiss and Spell, is off to the Japanese publisher.

And we've lined up the cover artist and copyeditor for the English release. The targeted release date is May 17. Things may come up to change that, but that date gives us some cushion. It will be like the last two books, in various electronic formats and in paperback, but I'm hoping we can get the paper release closer to the e-book release date.

Now for the slightly bittersweet part of this news. It's likely that this will be the last Enchanted Inc. book for the time being. I started realizing this as I wrote the end of the first draft. Normally by that point, I already have a sense of what the next book will be, to the point that it's difficult to revise the book because I keep thinking about the next one. But this time, I didn't. Because of that, I wrapped up the loose ends instead of leaving things hanging and wrote the end as though I'm ending the series. (And I LOVE the ending.)

However, I didn't kill all the characters or do anything I'd have to undo if another idea came to me, so if I get inspired later I can always do another book. But I think I'd be okay with it if this is the end. Seven books is a pretty long series, and I think it's best to stop before I start hating it or before the quality slips. I think this book is fun and clever and romantic, and I'm very proud of it, so I think I'd be ending on a high note. These characters are usually very pushy, nagging at me to tell more stories about them, even while I'm working on other things, and now they're strangely silent, so perhaps they're content with the way I left them.

And lest anyone resent the new book as a shiny new toy taking me away from my earlier series, I wrote two Enchanted, Inc. books after writing the initial draft of it, so that book didn't kill the series. It's just that for the first time in about a decade, none of the many ideas swirling around in my head are for this series, and I don't even have any concepts I want to play with that I can map onto this series.

Of course, now that I've written this, I'll probably suddenly be hit by an idea that I absolutely MUST write. Though I discussed this with my agent last week, and nothing has hit me since then. Every time I try to think of these characters, it won't go beyond the last scene in this book.

First, though, I'm going to let myself celebrate the new sale. It was in the works for so long that I never really had the definitive "I sold a book!" excitement. I usually buy something fun (shoes most often) to celebrate a sale, so I need to go shopping. And then I need to make my house livable again and catch up on a bunch of business-type stuff before I plunge into another book.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Drumroll, Please!

Finally, after a long wait, here's the big announcement I've been hinting at:

Author of the Enchanted Inc. series, Shanna Swendson's debut YA in which a young governess in an alternate 19th century New York finds herself caught up in a budding revolution when she's recruited by a group of mechanically minded rebels to spy on her employers in the magical ruling class, in a nice deal, to Margaret Ferguson at Margaret Ferguson Books, by Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency.

That's the official version. This is that YA steampunk fantasy I've mentioned a couple of time and that I've read from at a few conventions. Apparently "steampunk" is something of a touchy subject in publishing (there have been a few hits, but the rest hasn't done as well as they hoped), so they avoided that term in announcing it. But really, this is probably one of those most pure "steampunk" books you're going to find because it really is about a group of steampunks -- or, in terms of the book, Rebel Mechanics. To rebel against a magical ruling class, they need technology, so they build it. And they also dress like steampunks, making their own rules for Victorian-esque clothing. I even came up with a plot reason for sticking gears on everything, since that's the emblem of their movement. I sometimes refer to this book as "Jane Eyre meets the Scarlet Pimpernel in a steampunk 1880s New York."

This book has been an exercise in persistence, both writing and selling it. I first came up with the idea in the fall of 2009. I love the steampunk esthetic, and I'm into Victoriana, so I liked the idea of it, but hadn't quite found the book that embodied what I wanted it to be, and I hadn't come up with an idea for a steampunk book. Then as I was working on something else, I found myself gazing at my bookcase, and I saw very close together my copy of Jane Eyre and a Madeleine Brent book. Jane Eyre is, of course, a classic gothic, and Madeleine Brent wrote gothic-esque romantic adventures. Then I decided that's what my book needed to be. That idea collided with an idea fragment I'd had when snarking about a literary trope, and the story idea built gradually over the next year, based on all sorts of little bits and pieces. I read about 60 books to research this one -- non-fiction books on the era, on steam engines, on airships, on clothing, on various aspects of society. Novels written during the era, to get a feel for the language (I tried to write in a sort of pastiche of 19th century first-person). Plus, it's an alternate history in which the American Revolution doesn't happen until the late 1800s, so I had to research the real American Revolution to find the patterns that might repeat.

I was finally ready to start writing in the fall of 2010. My agent loved it and said if she couldn't sell it, she'd eat her hat. She started shopping it around to fantasy publishers, and none of them "got" it. Or else they said they were overbought on steampunk, and it wasn't doing as well as they hoped. Sometime the next year, it occurred to me that my main characters were pretty young, and I could make them just a little younger and I'd have a young adult book. My rebels were already all college students. So I revised the entire thing to make it a young adult book, which I think ended up making it a better book because it was tighter and faster-paced, and I also didn't have to worry about finding the fine line between fantasy and romance. I could just let it be what it wanted to be. We had discussed whether I could turn it into a romance, but I did some market research reading there (reading even more books) and concluded that I'd be happier doing it as YA.

So then it went back out onto the market, and the response was better, but kind of heartbreaking because there was a lot of "we love it, but we can't publish it" kind of stuff. On the second round of submission, an editor snatched it up. And the rest, I hope, will be history. It's currently set for a 2015 release, so I'll have plenty of time to talk about this book and what went into it before it hits the shelves (in hardcover!).

I guess you can tell from what I went through to sell this book that I love it with an intense, fiery passion. If it hadn't sold, I was going to self publish it because I believe in it that strongly. I've seen the way audiences respond to it when I read from it at conventions, so I believe that if people discover it, they'll like it as much as I do. Now I have a couple of years to work to make sure absolutely everyone is dying to get their hands on this book so my new editor and I can do the "Ha! So there!" dance to the rest of the publishing world.

And now I have even more news that I think I'll save for Monday because I've got a lot of intense work to do today.