Friday, October 24, 2014

On Vacation

It's the final day before vacation, and I have a ton to do. Since I'm treating this like a real "day job" vacation, I'm starting to think that one of the reasons a vacation seems so relaxing is the contrast with the last day in the office before you leave, when you're desperately trying to get everything done. Today I need to proofread the last 85 pages of the book, send some stuff to the person handling the electronic publishing with my agent and complete the author publicity questionnaire for my new publisher. Then I have some errands to run and I need to get the house in quasi-company condition for a TV watching marathon this evening.

I think vacation is one of the downsides of being self-employed. On the one hand, you can generally take off whenever you like, but that tends to mean you never get around to taking off. You're more likely to just go on light duty, where you're still dealing with the day-to-day stuff but not pushing yourself to do major projects. As a result, you never really get out of the "work" mindset, and since you're home all the time, trying to take a "staycation" means you don't really shake up your routine. In this case, I'm making a conscious effort to truly be away from work for a week, even in the part of the week when I'm at home. That's why I'm frantically trying to finish up everything today.

Even when I had a regular job, I wasn't good about taking vacations. I used my vacation time to go to writing conferences. There was one time in the mid 90s when I took a long weekend to go to the Renaissance Festival near Houston. I drove down on Friday, spent that day driving around the national forest nearby and went shopping at the outlet mall, then spent Saturday at the fair and drove home Sunday. And then there was a trip to England in 2000. Otherwise, my major trips have involved visiting friends, which doesn't have quite the same effect as a real vacation, or scheduled events. I've never done a "relaxing" vacation that wasn't really about going and doing a lot of stuff. We'll see how this works for me or if I get twitchy. I'm planning to do a lot of reading, but I'm not sure what I'm in the mood to read. There may be a library or bookstore trip next week.

I may do some Facebook updates during the week, but part of the vacation will be no keeping up with a work schedule, so I won't be posting any blogs until Nov. 3. Then I will make a full report (of the things I want to share). Now off to go do some proofreading. See you in a little more than a week!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Spooky Things

I did my annual spooktacular choir lesson last night, in which we made tissue ghost puppets so we could make them dance to spooky music. Only the kids got so enthusiastic about making ghost sounds that they drowned out "Night on Bald Mountain" playing at full blast. So instead we focused on making the ghost sounds up and down the scale, since that's what the choir does in warm-ups. We also went out to the fellowship hall to haunt the people getting dinner ready. I didn't get around to everything I had planned, but there were enough kids who were really crazy (apparently it's field trip week at school) that actual teaching wasn't going to happen. I was turning attempted lessons into activity games on the fly.

But I get a week off next week and am going on vacation. Have I mentioned that? :-) I think I need it.

If I'm going to take that trip to New York in December, I guess I'd better start planning it. I've certainly had enough reminders of the last trip on TV this week, as the hotel where I stayed this summer has shown up on both Gotham and Person of Interest. They used the main lobby as an image for the entrance to a swanky event on Gotham, and then the registration desk, elevator lobby and mezzanine were the site of a major shoot-out on Person of Interest. I must have stayed there the one day it wasn't being used as a filming location. In case you're wondering, that's the Roosevelt Hotel near Grand Central. The lobby is really gorgeous, but the rooms aren't any ritzier than the cheaper tourist-class hotel where I usually like to stay.

I may have to rewatch the Person of Interest episode because I was so busy spotting exactly where in the hotel they were that I missed a lot of the details of the climactic scene.

I'm about a third of the way through proofing this book, and then I need to revise the cover copy, and then I should be just about ready to turn my attention to vacation preparations. The plan is to switch into vacation mode at about 5 p.m. tomorrow and stay that way until 9 a.m. Nov. 3. I know, it's laughable, but I'm going to try. I'll probably have a brilliant idea for the next book while I'm gone, but that's okay. That's one reason for a vacation, to clear the brain so it can be refilled. If it sparks creativity, that's good. I'm just not going to be trying for it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ramping up the PR Machine

I learned at ballet class last night that two of the dancers in the production I saw grew up at my ballet school, including the "Aurora" in the production. If I get to class early next week, I'll have to check out the various Nutcracker photos on display to see if I can spot them as kids.

In book-type news, we settled on a lot of things about launching the new series. The first book in that series will be coming out December 3. That will be both print and e-book, and we're checking with Audible to see if the audio will be available at the same time. That's also around the time that Random House is supposedly going to do another limited-time 99 cent promo on the first Enchanted Inc. book and the time that the entire Enchanted Inc. series will be available on audio in hard copy (CDs, I guess). So, December will be a big month for me, and I'm hoping that brings about some synergy, with the boost from one thing boosting other things.

And we decided to keep it simple and call the new series by the first book title, since the first book is called A Fairy Tale, which fits the whole series. So it's the Fairy Tale series. The second book will be out early next year, but some of that depends on when the copyeditor can get to it. She's got a lot of projects coming, but some of them are late, so mine may be able to be squeezed in.

So, after next week's vacation, be prepared to start getting info about the new series as I ramp up the publicity machine. Or, the way I operate, force the publicity machine to sputter into some kind of life. You'd think I would be better at it, considering that was my day job career, but there's a reason I no longer have that job and was willing to spend years eking out a living rather than go back to it. Having to do that work again makes me twitchy, and it seems even worse doing it for myself. At least when I was working at the agency, it was like "Hey, here's this thing that people are paying me to promote." Now it's like "Like me! Like me! See, look what I did!" And that's rather uncomfortable. I need minions. Then they could go out and tell the world how awesome I am while I sit back and blush awkwardly.

I finished going over the page proofs for next summer's book, and now I need to finish proofreading book 2 in the Fairy Tale series. Then I need to tinker with the cover copy for the first book. And then I'll be getting ready to go into vacation mode. Because, of course, the vacation has its own to-do list.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

At the Ballet

I took a long weekend, but it's back to normal today.

I did end up going to the ballet on Saturday, but drove instead of taking the train just because of the schedule (it takes a bit longer to take the train, and the train timing doesn't always fit). It turned out that the traffic nightmare I wanted to avoid by taking the train wasn't an issue because they finally finished the construction.

And I was so glad I went. I can't believe that this was only the second professional ballet I've ever been to, and the first with a live orchestra instead of recorded music. It was rather expensive, but I figure it was a two-for-one since it was a symphony and a ballet. I came out of it inspired to work harder on dancing. Not that I'll ever be at that level, but I have a better sense of what it's supposed to look like when it's done properly. They're doing all the same steps we do in class, but at an entirely different level. I enjoyed it enough that I'll have to do it more often. It's a splurge, but there aren't that many shows in a season.

I also realized how long it's been since I've been to downtown Fort Worth. They've re-done a lot of it. I may have to do a day trip sometime, take the train and spend some time exploring (weekday traffic and parking would be worse than on a Saturday). It's a smaller city than Dallas, but the downtown feels more like a "real" city than Dallas does.

Then on Sunday I went to visit my parents for a quick trip, and was home yesterday afternoon. Now I have to really get back to work because I have a lot to wrap up before next week's vacation and then a lot of stuff to do to prepare to travel.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Series Names

I got to the end of the rewrites, and now I want to go back over the section I rewrote and make a few tweaks. I'm sure there are still some rough edges that need to be smoothed out. I do think this has been an improvement, but I'm not sure that I've yet taken full advantage of the improvement.

I got a start on looking at the interior of the next book. It's a really nice design, so that looks good. I just need to check for any weird little quirks that might have happened, like funky hyphenation.

I may indulge myself tomorrow, though. A local ballet company is doing Sleeping Beauty. I've never seen that one, but I love the music, and ballet counts as research for the books I'm working on. I can even take the train to downtown Fort Worth so I don't have to worry about the drive. Too bad they closed the Barnes & Noble across the street from the performance hall. That used to be the best way to kill time before or after a show. I haven't pulled the trigger on buying a ticket yet, though. There's a good chance that I will have a sudden case of hermitism and just want to stay home and work, since I have so much to do. It depends on how much I get done today, I suppose. I'm making a quick trip to visit my parents on Sunday, so there's a lot to be done before then.

One thing I'm still struggling with is a name for the series as a whole. My agent thinks it's important and is concerned about how easy it is to say, especially when combined with the titles of the individual books. I don't think it's as big a deal because people are going to call it what they want to call it anyway, and it's probably either going to be the name of the main character or the name of the first book. Since I don't think it's that big a deal, I guess my heart hasn't been in it to come up with names. One that I liked and that seemed to fit turned out to be awkward if you insist on phrasing it like "BOOK TITLE, Book one of the SERIES TITLE series." But who really talks like that? Is this something that you actually care about or pay attention to? Do you notice if there's an official title for a series? How do you refer to a series?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Happy Bosses Day to Me

I went out this morning to get milk and a flu shot (since my pharmacy is at the grocery store), and I didn't realize that it was Bosses Day until I got to the grocery store and it was full of people buying balloons, flowers, cakes, etc. I've always thought that was a really weird "holiday." Yes, let's celebrate our torturers! They get more money and lots more perks, so the people down the ladder should totally buy them gifts! But then, I've had very few good bosses. The other ones may have found their way into my books …

But I decided to celebrate by buying some dark chocolate. I had to kill time in the store anyway. Last year, the pharmacist wouldn't give me the shot because of my allergies and insisted on the FluMist. This year, they didn't have FluMist, but the pharmacist said the shot problem only applied to one formula of the shot, and he had a different formula that should be okay. After double checking and making some calls, he gave me that shot, but suggested I hang around the store for about ten minutes and come back to the pharmacy if I started feeling weird. Of course, the moment you're told to notice if something feels weird, you become hyper aware and everything feels weird. So, even though I just needed milk, I browsed the aisles until it had been about ten minutes and I ended up buying more than milk (aha, it was an evil scheme!). Fortunately, I caught a sale on some things I needed to stock up on anyway, so it's not like I bought stuff I didn't actually need. They were just things that hadn't made it onto my grocery list, but I remembered them when I saw them on special. I was still breathing and hadn't collapsed by the time I was ready to check out, so I figured it was safe to leave the store.

The setting appointments with myself thing seems to be working. So far this week, I've taken care of a lot of things that have been sitting on my to-do list for weeks (like the flu shot), and setting a time has made me get them done. I've also done a fair amount of writing work. I just have about twenty pages to rework today (and I mean really, really rework), then I need to make another pass to tinker and smooth over the seams after the major surgery. In the meantime, I have page proofs/layout checks to do for two other books and a lot of pre-production stuff to take care of for one of them. I guess I'm going to earn that vacation because I'm going to be really busy until then. And then after the vacation, I'll have a new book to write.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Plot Issues: Believable Characters

In my writing posts, I've been talking about some plotting issues, and I've noticed that a lot of plotting problems I see actually come down to character problems. It's not so much that the characters themselves are the problem, but rather that writers aren't taking characters into consideration when developing plots. But no matter how plot-driven a story might be, it's still bound by the characters. You end up with a bad plot if it requires the characters to go against the personalities that have been established or to otherwise act in a way that isn't realistic or believable.

The "Idiot Plotting" I referred to a few posts ago is a subset of this -- in order for the plot to work, the characters have to lose all common sense or knowledge and act like idiots. It's not restricted to idiot plotting, though.

In court cases, they often talk about the "reasonable person" standard -- would a reasonable person believe this or act this way? That standard also applies to fiction. Would a reasonable person respond this way? Too many plots crumble because they require characters to behave in a way no reasonable person would. They trust someone who's sending off massive "don't trust me" signals, they forgive too quickly and easily for the harm that's been done to them, they panic or refuse to panic in a way that doesn't fit the situation. I also see this in conjunction with the Mary Sue problem I mentioned before, with the other characters not responding to the Mary Sue in a way that normal people would, either loving her in a way that doesn't match her actions or hating her unreasonably so she can be a misunderstood victim who'll show them all.

Or there's the characters suddenly losing their characterization in order to make the plot work -- the cautious to the point of paranoid person suddenly trusting someone, the rational person panicking, the adventure seeker walking away from danger, etc. The more three-dimensional and well-established your characters are, the worse this problem is because your readers will know these people would never do these things.

The best way to avoid this is to make a point of considering what your characters would do as you develop your plot. Or, if you plot first, reverse engineer your characters to fit the story you've developed so that in other parts of the story they're behaving consistently with the ways they behave in plot turning points. If you need a character to do something to keep the plot going, you need to establish that either that's something this person would really do or something they might do in that particular situation. Lay the groundwork by showing the tendency or trait earlier in the story or show why this one situation is different. People have weaknesses and blind spots, and even someone fairly rational may have that one thing they're not rational about.

This also applies to the "reasonable person" problem. Even generally reasonable people have their non-reasonable moments. You just have to provide the proper motivation. The more unreasonable you need someone to be, the stronger the motivation has to be or the more extreme the situation. If you need people to panic, you need to give them something likely to make them panic. If you need them to not panic in a panic-worthy situation, you need to hide some of the bad info from them or give them an experience that makes them think maybe this situation isn't so bad. You can also establish that this particular person isn't a "reasonable person" by showing elsewhere in the story that he always reacts in ways you wouldn't expect him to. That way, when it becomes critical to the plot, the reader is saying "There he goes again"  rather than "Yeah, right."

As with so many plot issues, the place to fix the problem may be elsewhere in the story rather than at that critical point. It's not so much the critical point where you need to make changes. What you need to do is set up the critical point in a better way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

New Beginnings

That scheduling thing worked well for me yesterday, so I'm giving it another go today. We'll see how long this lasts. I have a bad tendency to come up with new systems, get very enthusiastic with them, and then have them fall by the wayside after maybe a week. I also tend to have a natural aversion to schedules. I love a day with nothing on the calendar and start to feel trapped when there's too much on the calendar, so I don't know how having a day full of scheduled items will affect me. On the other hand, having those nagging little items scheduled takes away the stress of deciding when to do them and makes me less likely to keep putting them off for another day or two (or more). What may help with the scheduling aversion is that these things aren't on my calendar. I'm just putting times on my to-do list.

I got my page proofs yesterday, and the inside of this book is going to look so cool. They did some neat stuff with the chapter headers. Here's a peek at the opening of the book:

I haven't yet delved into it beyond that. I want to get this round of rewrites done before I shift gears. I spent most of yesterday on a single scene, but it was the big turning point in changing events, so it took a lot of work to combine multiple scenes from various points in the book into one scene at this point in the book. I also realized that I need to develop a character. There's a character whose introduction I'm moving to earlier in the book so she plays a greater role, and I had just let her come to life without figuring out anything about her, including her name (she's the grandmother of a character, so I just was using the name the other character calls her). So that meant an epic search for my "name your baby" book and some time flipping through that. Now I just have to look at each scene in terms of what this character would do now that she's been added. Already I can see that her dialogue will be a ton of fun to write.

Now that I'm past that initial hump, the rest may go smoothly, though there may be some resistance at the "but I liked this scene the way it was, how can I save it?" points.

Two weeks from tomorrow, I go on vacation (and I'm hoping to go into vacation mode two weeks from yesterday), so I have a lot of work to get done in the next week and a half.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Monday Enthusiasm

I feel like I've been remarkably productive for a Monday morning, with the major to-dos on the list taken care of -- well, aside from the REALLY major to-dos, like revising a book. I read an article on productivity last week that said instead of making a to-do list, you should make a schedule because that means you're more likely to take care of the items and know you've allocated enough time to get them done. What I did was make a to-do list, then schedule a time to do each thing. So far today, that's really helped with those nagging little tasks it's easier to put off. We'll see if this is something I can sustain or if it's just start-of-the-new-week enthusiasm.

One of my tasks was reviewing potential narrators for the audiobook of my new series. For some reason, it kind of wigs me out to hear someone else reading my own book to me, and it didn't help that the audition piece that was recorded was a scene I've frequently read at conventions, so I know it just about by memory and know how I would read it. These narrators didn't have at all the same interpretation I give it (and since I'm the author, I'm right), but I picked the one I thought came closest. She had a lot of the same attitude I give the piece, and they agreed with me about choosing her. There was one that I almost expected to tell me to turn left at the next intersection, which really isn't the sound I was hoping for.

I'd better be good about scheduling this week because not only do I need to get book revisions done, but I also just found out that I've got page proofs coming on the steampunk book. I'm kind of excited about that because that should be in the layout, so it will look like the interior of the book really will look. This is when I get one last look at it to make sure nothing got screwed up when they inserted the copy edits.

With that to take care of, along with the revisions, I will have earned that vacation at the end of the month. I started doing a little more research on the destination last night, and then I realized I was getting into "do all the things!" mode, which is what I was trying to avoid for this trip. However, most of the things I decided I want to do involve various hiking trails I want to try, and most of them are very short (by my standards). I should still have plenty of time for that sitting on the balcony and reading time.

It's a good blustery fall day, so it should be a good writing day. I baked pumpkin spice bars over the weekend -- kind of like a cake-like brownie, only with pumpkin instead of chocolate -- and my friends didn't eat them all, so they'll be perfect for afternoon tea with some spiced chai. I can even consider them nutritious because they're made with whole-wheat flour and pumpkin and use apple juice for part of the sugar. At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fall TV So Far

Yesterday's "revision" work was mostly "re-reading and fixing word choices" because I'm not yet at the part that's going to require major surgery. And, you know? I really like this book. I love the characters, and I think there's some really snappy dialogue.

I think I've also come up with a series title. We'll see what my agent thinks about it. It was one of those things that just popped into my head while I was thinking about something else (which is usually the best way to come up with stuff like this -- the things you come up with when you're focusing and thinking really hard are usually more obvious and forced). Of course, I immediately wrote it down, but I still remember it, which means it could be a good idea.

On the entertainment front, I have to say that I've really fallen for Forever, which I hadn't planned to watch. I'd call it a cross between New Amsterdam (the show a few years ago about the immortal New York cop) and Elementary (the "modern Sherlock in New York" show). So we've got the long-lived guy who'd kind of like to just age normally and die like everyone else, and his long life and observational skills have given him the Sherlock-like ability to notice details, know the facts behind those details, and make quick deductions. Like in New Amsterdam, he's got the fatherly figure who's actually his son, though in this case it's an adopted son. When he was a medical officer in the military in WWII and his unit liberated a concentration camp, he found a newborn baby who was miraculously still alive and apparently adopted him or somehow brought him up. We don't know the whole story there yet. His partner is a recently widowed and still grieving detective. I'm sure it will eventually grow romantic between them, because this is American TV, but I think I'd be okay with that in this case. While there are some clashes and some bickering, it's not the "I hate you but we have so much sexual tension" thing that American TV likes to do. He's lost someone he loves (again, we've only seen hints), so he gets what she's going through, and it seems like they'll develop a friendship before anything gets at all romantic. Basically, this is a warm fuzzy show for me. It's got a charm to it that I enjoy.

While I did rant about some of the plot lines they're doing this season on Once Upon a Time, last week's episode was pretty good, since there was almost no Regina and none of that icky plotline. I like the way they're developing the romance between Captain Hook and Emma. They did become friends first, and now that they're getting romantic, there's a tenderness between them that I find rather sweet. What's frustrating about this show is that just when they do something that makes me want to turn off the TV and never watch it again, they turn right around and do something I love.

I'm not even sure what the heck is going on with Haven, but I'm along for the ride. Unfortunately, they've moved it again, to 6 p.m. in my time zone. Apparently, they belatedly realized that it was a bad idea to schedule one of their few original dramas opposite Thursday night football and didn't have anywhere else to put it. So I guess it will be a "dinner" show tonight, and then I can either go back to work or watch something OnDemand.

I'm also still iffy on Doctor Who this season. It was instant love with the previous Doctor, and while there's a lot I like about the new one, he hasn't yet really grown on me. I think one of my issues is that there's a constant "soldiers are terrible people and probably pretty stupid" refrain that's been going on, and since I come from a military family, that rubs me the wrong way, and then that puts my hackles up so I'm resistant to everything else. I think I just need to sit down and marathon some episodes and see if I build any momentum. This is the first time I've been able to watch "live" instead of having to wait for it to show up OnDemand or wait for friends to provide episodes for me, so maybe there's less of a sense of anticipation.

But before I can start my early TV time tonight, I need to get back to my revisions. Or the re-reading until I get to the point i need to rewrite. Groceries have been obtained, so I'm ready to get down to work.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Figuring out Kindergarteners

I'm going to have to come up with some new strategies for kindergarten choir because the group I have this year is very, very different. For one thing, I have more boys than girls, for a change. But it's not the usual gender breakdown in behavior. Normally, the girls are the ones who are eager to please and want to participate and like all the music stuff, while the boys just want to make noise and run around. In this group, the kids who are most interested in actually doing the choir things are boys, along with one girl, and it's mostly the girls who don't care and would rather just be talking or clinging to the teen helpers, though there's one boy with a really bad attitude and a lot of sass. I have music-related activities that are "boy-friendly" because they're more about action that have been good about getting the reluctant boys involved in the past, but most of my boys this year are totally okay with the regular choir stuff. They like singing, they like learning about music, and they pay attention well enough to have the answers to any questions I ask. So now I need to come up with "girl-friendly" things to lure in the reluctant ones, and I'm not even sure what that is, aside from maybe Frozen singalongs.

And while I'm not a big fan of the totally pink "girls" toy aisle, when it comes to teaching children that age, there really are huge gender differences. They may have been socialized that way by parents rather than it being inborn, but I have to deal with what I get, and I've found that boys tend to be kinetic learners -- they need activity to make something stick. Girls generally can just listen and learn or talk about it and figure it out that way, and they then get bored with the kinetic stuff because they already know it from the talking part. Most of the girls I've got now just don't want to do anything, while half the boys are right there from the beginning and love it all and want to make sure I can see that they know it. The nice thing with this group is that everything seems to take twice as long as I plan it to take (when they like something, they want to do it again), which means that instead of running out of activities, I run out of time. It's always better to run out of time than scramble for something else to do.

But now that I have that out of the way for another week, I can focus on revisions. I've done the brainstorming, so it's time to actually start making the changes.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A New Anxiety Dream

It's been a groggy morning because apparently my brain wanted to see the lunar eclipse, which was supposedly at its peak between 5:30 and 6:30 or so this morning. I was wide awake at 5:30 and went outside with my binoculars. I watched until it was just about complete -- right at the point where it went below the roof and treeline so I couldn't see the moon anymore without going out into the street. Then I went back to bed and overslept severely. During the oversleeping, I had my new recurring anxiety nightmare (joining the "I have an exam in a class I forgot I was taking and I don't remember where the classroom is" nightmare in the rotation). I'm leaving on a trip (sometimes returning) and I can't remember what time my flight is and can't find the reservation confirmation e-mail. In this case, it was a nightmare within a nightmare, in which I had the nightmare, with some bizarre details, then "woke" to realize that I still had plenty of time, thinking I would never do something like that, but then couldn't find the e-mail when I went looking for it. And then I woke for real from that dream and took a while to be sure I didn't have any flights currently booked. Also in that nightmare: I had my usual travel "tea kit," but realized at the last moment that I hadn't restocked after my last trip and didn't have any tea in it, just some sugar packets. I think that may have been more terrifying than the thought of missing my flight.

I think I've unraveled the plot problem I was having with my agent's revision suggestions. She wanted me to move a particular event earlier in the story, and I couldn't see how to do it. But once I started breaking it down, I realized that it made more sense in a lot of ways. The trick was finding when to move it, and then it just fell into place, practically with a snap and click. I just need to follow the ripples through the rest of the story and see how that affects everything else. Then there was a subplot she suggested I pull and hold for the next book, and last night I came up with something else entirely I want to do with that plot, so that works, too. So today I will be brainstorming how those things will change. Tomorrow I may dig into actually writing the changes.

Today, though, is going to be a music kind of day. I have to do lesson plans for children's choir, and then I have to work on some choir music. The adult choir is doing Vivaldi's Gloria this fall, and there's one tricky piece that we're practicing tonight where I need to get the note progressions for the fast parts into my head.

I think Thursday and Friday will be a revision binge. My goal is to have revisions done and the next book plotted before I go on vacation at the end of the month. Although my trip will be Wednesday through Saturday, I'm going to try to get into a vacation mindset at the beginning of the week and treat the whole week like vacation so that maybe I'll have started the relaxation part before I travel and can just enjoy the trip instead of finally reaching the unwinding phase right before I go home. Then maybe I'll be all energized when I get home and be ready to hit the ground running with the new book.

In other news, it looks like the audio, e-book and print book for this next book will all be ready at launch time. The audiobook is about to go into production.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Sleeping Beauty Stories

I've been somewhat remiss in reporting on my reading lately, and somewhat remiss in reading, as I've been rather busy. But I did get some reading done last week, thanks to jury duty, so I can talk about a book!

I read Spindle's End by Robin McKinley, which is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story. It's both a fleshing-out of the fairy tale, following a lot of the elements of the traditional Briar Rose version of the story, and a twist on the original story. For the most part, it comes across as a rather leisurely paced, character-focused story, except for the bookends. It starts with the birth of the princess and the journey of a young fairy from a remote province to the naming ceremony where the evil fairy casts the sleeping curse. The young fairy ends up going on the run with the infant princess, and the bulk of the story follows the princess growing up in a small village in a remote place in the home of her "aunt" and "cousin," and the friends she makes along the way. One of the fun aspects of this part of the story was seeing the way the various fairy godmother gifts (there are 21 in this story) manifest -- not necessarily all having the intentional result (the gifts mention things like her hair, teeth and lips, but no one thought to include anything about putting all that together in a way that's actually beautiful). Through much of the first part of the book, the main point of view is the young fairy raising the princess with her aunt. Then as the princess gets older, she becomes the main viewpoint character. The action really kicks in as her twenty-first birthday (upped from the traditional 16 for this story) approaches and destiny closes in. She has to figure out who she is and what she wants to do about it in order to face her fate.

I love this kind of fairy tale retelling, so I really enjoyed the book. I liked the different takes on the characters, and I didn't even mind the structure that left the middle of the book more focused on the mundane life, with just the hints of wrongness lurking in the background. This was shelved in the children's section of my library and is definitely child-safe, but I don't think it read at all like a children's book. My library sometimes makes some really odd shelving decisions, so I don't know if it was meant as a children's book or if some librarian decided that it involved fairy tales, so it was for children.

The funny thing for me was that it showed me why a book I wrote a few years ago didn't sell. I wrote my own take on the Sleeping Beauty story that was different in a lot of respects -- in mine, the fairies took the princess to our world, and it became a portal fantasy when the evil fairy's minions came looking for her in our world -- but there's a twist in this book that was the main plot point of mine, and there was a similar resolution. Anyone familiar with this book would have seen mine as derivative, even though I hadn't read it and came up with that idea on my own. I think I did a nice twist on that twist, but there were enough similarities that I can see why this book was passed on. I still love the characters and the story, but there were some other structural issues that need to be fixed, and I'm not sure how to fix them.

But no time for that now. I got revision suggestions on the last book from my agent, so now I have to get to work on that. It's going to require some re-structuring. I had reasons for doing things in the order I did, and she had good reasons for suggesting changing the order. I think my reasons might still work in a different order, but I'll have to figure it out.

And in other news, speaking of fairy tales, the Once Upon a Time people must have been peeking at my Christmas list because there was only about 30 seconds of Regina in this week's episode. Best! Episode! Ever! And as a bonus, they gave us Evil Warlord Bo Peep, which is just plain awesome.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Trying to Relax

I had a wonderfully relaxing weekend, in which I learned that I've apparently forgotten how to relax. I don't know how long it's been since I just sat and read a book without being on an airplane or in the central jury room. It took me a while to settle into it without popping back up because I felt I should go do something. Back in my medical writing days, I did a piece on the need for vacations, and the psychiatrist said that it can take a day or more for the vacation to kick in so you can start to relax enough to get the real vacation effect. I definitely noticed that this weekend. But it must have worked at least a little bit because I started today actually wanting to get stuff done instead of dreading the week. I'm a bit groggy and starting later than normal because we had a wave of storms roll through overnight and my weather radio went off with storm warnings several times. I've learned that even with earplugs, I can hear the weather radio go off and understand what it says. Unfortunately, it takes a while to go back to sleep after you've been awakened like that. I think I just got a lot of rain. I only heard one clap of thunder, so I don't think we got the severe part of the storm.

As for the weekend, I took a rather epic walk on Friday. I lost count of mile markers, but I think I did at least five miles, when I consider the markers I did count and the fact that I had to turn around and come back. The new shoes worked, as I wasn't really all that sore afterward. It probably helped that I took frequent breaks, including one longer one. I did a sort of progressive picnic, stopping every so often to eat a course of the lunch I packed. Then when I got to the nice bench overlooking the river, I did some brainstorming work -- just enough to realize that I have a lot more work to do. This book isn't quite ready to be plotted fully.

Here's the view from my "office" that afternoon:

 That evening, the "cool weather turns me into Betty Crocker" effect kicked in. I'd bought a deli chicken dinner earlier in the week because I knew I wouldn't want to cook after jury duty, so I used the leftover gravy and chicken and added some vegetables to make pot pies. I've been making pastry most of my life, but this may have been the best pie crust I've ever made. It handled well and was perfectly flaky. It was probably because I was repurposing leftovers at home. If I'd been making a pie for a church social, it never would have come out this well. The pot pies were yummy enough that I'm going to have to try this again sometime.

Saturday morning, I got up and headed to the farmers' market in the adjoining town. That was kind of a bust, as the prices were much, much more expensive than at the grocery store, and they had everything grouped in baskets, so you not only had to buy the amount they put together, but you didn't get to choose your own. This is a pretty ritzy town, and I guess they know their market. It was very much the yuppie version of a farmers' market. So after a stroll through that, I headed to the community garden to get a map for the garden tour.

That turned out to be a lot of fun. These weren't "yard of the month" gardens with the suburban ideal of lush green lawns and some flowers and hedges. They were all low-maintenance and designed to use minimal water. I loved how casual these gardeners were. They had that "throw it out there, and if it grows, it grows" attitude, and they were so willing to share. They were letting people take cuttings and seed pods. At one place, when someone asked about the ground cover, the owner said, "Here, I'll dig some up for you." At another place, the owner had bowls of seeds and envelopes so you could take some.

My favorite was the Texas-friendly English cottage garden. It was like a fairyland (and when I told the owner that, he considered it a great compliment). He didn't have a blade of grass and said he doesn't own a lawnmower. It's all flowers and other plants, so it looks just a touch wild, but not unkempt. I could have moved into his back yard. It was like an outdoor living room. I now know what I want to do with my back yard when I get a real house. The patio had an arbor over it, with a porch swing and fireplace, and ceiling fans overhead. Doesn't this look like a lovely place to spend the day?

And then the rest of the yard was little paths winding around clumps of flowers. There was a gazebo in the back corner. It really did remind me of English gardens, where as you follow the little winding paths, new vistas open up and you feel like you're discovering secret treasures. It sounded like the kind of thing that's a lot of work to establish, but once you get it started, it's not that much work to maintain. I haven't really thought of myself as a "gardener," and I have zero interest in lawn work like mowing, but I realized how much these places called to my soul, and then I thought about how much pleasure I get in going out and tending to my few patio plants. I guess if I could have a "garden" instead of a "lawn," I'd enjoy it a lot. Of course, if I had a back yard like that, I really wouldn't want to leave the house and might become even more of a hermit.

The weird thing was doing all this activity before noon, and that's where the "wow, I've forgotten how to relax" thing kicked in. I spent a lot of time on the patio, reading, but kept popping up to do things and felt restless. It wasn't until Sunday that I felt really relaxed. Then the cooking urge continued, and I just had to test my new pie crust prowess by making apple turnovers. The pastry, yet again, came out perfect. I will have to make these again.

Now it's back to work time. My kitchen is a disaster after all that cooking, and I need to get serious about plotting this book.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Watch the "Frozen Show"

Since I had multiple questions about my nifty new walking shoes, I thought I'd answer here rather than in comments, so everyone can see. These are approximately what I got. The style name is the same, but I don't see the color I got, which is about the same color as a gray sweatshirt (that heathery gray color). I got them on sale, so they were less expensive than this. And it looks like they do make men's styles. There's a Skechers outlet near me, so I may look into some of the more "casual" shoes that don't look so athletic. If I can walk a lot when I travel without pain or blisters, it's worth it.

It's a really lovely day, so I'm planning to put those new shoes to work. To avoid distractions at home, I'm going to take my brainstorming on the road. The plan is to walk a while, then sit and think a while, and so forth. I think I need trees and water and no Internet to really get into thinking mode. In a while I'll be packing a picnic lunch, some tea and some snacks and heading out.

And now, for a little rant. As I've mentioned, I both love and love to hate the TV series Once Upon a Time. The concept is wonderful, and I love most of the characters, but it has such screwy morality that it makes A Game of Thrones look like Sunday school in comparison (at least A Game of Thrones doesn't show us an evil person and then tell us that this person is actually good and misunderstood). Now they've added characters from the Frozen universe to the show, which kind of has me worried because I deal with small children, and I know the level of obsession that still exists with that movie. For instance, I know that the surest way to get the immediate attention and ire of a five-year-old girl is to sing "Let it Go" with the wrong lyrics. As high as the ratings spiked, it looks like this brought in a lot of new viewers, and this has me concerned because I'm just imagining all the little kids wanting to watch "The Frozen Show" and then getting utterly confused.

The Frozen stuff was actually done rather well. The live-action versions were pretty close to their animated counterparts, and I thought they did a good job of capturing the characters. This is essentially a sequel to the movie, showing what happens later, while also digging into the backstory. And that's all fine. It's the rest of the show that will have parents answering some difficult questions unless they're prepared to fast-forward to just the Frozen-related scenes. Spoilers ahead for season three and the season four premiere.

Spoilers, really!
Basically, they've ruined Robin Hood. Even Kevin Costner is twitching. Errol Flynn is doing backflips in his grave. The cartoon fox and Cary Elwes (even though his version was a spoof) are ganging up to form a posse and take out this impostor. At some time in the recent past (disregarding a curse that kept everyone frozen in time for 28 years), after Robin and Maid Marian were married and had a child, Marian went missing, presumed dead. Robin met the Evil Queen (from Snow White), Regina, who was sort of being good and had supposedly changed (not that she's ever repented of her evil), and they started seeing each other because of reasons (really, I haven't figured out what they like about each other). They'd had maybe two dates when the series' supposed main character, Emma, had a Back to the Future adventure in which she traveled in time and had to set the timeline right. She ended up in the Evil Queen's dungeon, learned she and her cellmate were scheduled for execution for supporting Snow White, and managed to free herself and her cellmate. Then she worried that if the cellmate was supposed to have died and it would change the timeline if she just let her go, so she brought her to the future with her, bypassing the part of history she might have affected. And then it turns out that her mysterious cellmate was none other than Maid Marian. Robin lost her because the Evil Queen imprisoned her and, in the original timeline, executed her.

So, how would you expect the Robin Hood we know and love from folklore, movies and TV to react to being reunited with Maid Marian and learning that it was his current girlfriend who'd actually been responsible for separating them?
a) support his wife and keep her away from the woman who tormented her, possibly dousing himself in bleach after coming in contact with such a heinous bitch? or …
b) insist that his wife see that the woman who was on the verge of killing her has changed, then nobly (and with an air of much regret) insist that he has to abide by his marriage vows?
(Trick question. The real Robin Hood would never have hooked up with a tyrannical ruler, even if she'd sort of changed. That would be like Robin Hood hooking up with Prince John or the Sheriff of Nottingham. Not gonna happen.)
On this show, the answer is b. He doesn't seem at all bothered by the fact that his girlfriend imprisoned and was planning to execute his wife and acts like his wife isn't allowed to be angry at Regina because she's changed. Meanwhile, Regina's first response to having her two-date relationship stymied by the reappearance of her boyfriend's wife is to turn to the man she's been keeping in her secret dungeon to come up with a plan to kill Marian without getting blamed for it. Yep, she's really changed.

And yet the show seems to be drawing parallels between her and Elsa from Frozen, since Elsa is worried that her parents thought her powers made her a "monster," and "monster" is the insult Marian hurls at Regina -- the woman who threw her in a dungeon and was planning to execute her.

So, yeah, be prepared to explain to the kids why Robin Hood wants to be with the Evil Queen more than he wants to be with Maid Marian and why everyone is coddling the tyrant rather than her victim, as well as why someone who actually did evil things isn't held accountable for them because she's changed, even though she hasn't (and apparently, it's all their fault that she's evil), and how this is apparently supposed to be the same as Elsa. Good luck with that. There are times when it's nice not to have the responsibility of parenting.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Back to Normal

Now, at last I'm getting back to "normal," though I need serious recharging time. A convention is very draining for me because I have to be "on" and around people so much, and at this convention I also have other responsibilities, plus I'm around friends who, for some odd reason, want to socialize with me on top of the convention stuff, and then I'm involved in the set-up and tear-down, which extends the convention. This year, I had that one day to sort of recharge before I had jury duty. At least there I don't have to be "on," but I'm surrounded by strangers (most of them idiots) in a situation that for me is very tense. Fortunately, I didn't have to teach choir last night. We had the children's worship service instead, and then instead of the church dinner we had a food truck night in the parking lot, kind of a community event. I was lucky that I got in line fairly early because I think the entire city and maybe some people from surrounding cities showed up. I did the line waiting to split an order of sliders with a friend who was working the free snow cone booth, since she didn't have time to wait. And then, of course, I had to get a snow cone.

So now I'm pretty much maxed out on human contact for a while, and I'm looking forward to a couple of days with zero obligations. I have lots of stuff to catch up on, but they're mostly quiet things. I'm planning to dive into planning this book I'm brainstorming.

In other news, I actually booked that vacation I've been talking about, and there's a cancellation penalty at the hotel, so I'm obligated. It's nothing too fancy or too far away. I just have a lake-view room with a balcony at a hotel on a lake. There are a few things to do in the surrounding area, but mostly my plans involve sitting on the balcony with a cup of tea (or maybe a glass of wine) and a book. I've never taken this kind of vacation before. My travel is usually more of the "see all the things!" variety. This is more of a "just be in a pretty place that's not home" trip. We'll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, I may have found the perfect walking shoes for me. Most shoes designed for serious walking are based around support, but that means they're very stiff, and that doesn't work well with my feet, so I end up with blisters. Last week, I saw a newspaper ad for a shoe store with a sale on a particular kind of shoe that sounded just right for me, so I went out and tried them on and bought them. The sole almost looks like cleats, and it's essentially jointed between each cleat so that the sole is flexible in every direction. I can stand on my toes and the shoe moves entirely with me, with no rubbing against my heels. Those cleat thingies are really soft and springy, and then the insole of the shoe is made of the same material used in yoga mats. It's almost like walking on a cloud. I wore them this weekend while running around the hotel doing set-up, and my feet and knees hurt a lot less than they usually do after that sort of thing. I can't wait to try them out for a proper walk.

Although I have a book to work on this fall, I'm really going to try to aim for some sort of work/life balance instead of falling into a book and forgetting to live. This is my favorite time of year and I want to enjoy it. The vacation will be part of that. I'm also going to make it a priority to do the things around here that I always say I want to do. Like, I'm even contemplating hitting the farmer's market on Saturday and then going on the town's garden tour. It's a focus on xeriscaping, and someone has done a Texas-style "English garden" that I want to see because it's what I have in mind for doing when I have a house with a yard that I'm responsible for (in the current house, there are lawn elves that deal with the grounds, and I'm not allowed to alter them).

Or I may just enjoy hanging out at home and not having anywhere I need to go.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Plot Issues: The Mary Sue

In my last writing post, I got into the subject of Idiot Plotting. I thought I'd continue with other potential plotting problems that frequently arise. This next one sounds like a character problem, but it's a character problem that affects the plot: The Mary Sue. This is a term that comes from the world of fanfiction, where a new character is inserted into the established world of whatever TV series, movie or book is being written about, and this new character seems to be living out all the writer's fantasies -- everyone loves her, she's good at everything, the hot character the writer is in love with falls in love with her, and she ends up saving the day while the regular characters just stand around uselessly. When it comes to original fiction, this is the character the author is incapable of being objective about, whether it's because the character is a self-insert, a figure out of the author's romantic fantasies or just so much fun to write.

And this is where that character can become a plot problem. A Mary Sue often violates the established rules of the universe. For instance, becoming a wizard may be established as something requiring a lot of study or training, but the Mary Sue manages it on her own or after one lesson. Or some action may be established as impossible under certain circumstances, but the Mary Sue manages to do the impossible and save the day. That results in a very unsatisfying plot because it comes across as Mary Sue ex Machina -- nobody else in the story or anything else built up to in the plot has anything to do with the resolution because the Mary Sue pulls the resolution out of thin air, with no reason given as to why she was able to do this when no one else could. It's an even bigger problem if the story has focused at all on the struggles of the other characters to resolve the problem -- those wizards who've dedicated their lives to this, who've done the research, who've gone on quests to find the right magical object, who've made all kinds of personal sacrifices. If readers have spent a lot of time following the efforts to deal with the problem and then it's resolved by the Mary Sue waltzing in and saying, "Here, let me take care of this for you," like it's no big deal, the book is likely to be thrown across the room (that is, if it even gets published).

The Mary Sue is often used to skim past difficult parts of a story rather than actually dealing with them. People who can do this thing that's necessary to win are incredibly rare? No problem! The Mary Sue will discover that she's had this ability all along. Need a specific skill to make something happen? The Mary Sue is a natural at it without any training or experience. Need to gain the favor or support of someone in power? Everyone loves the Mary Sue, so she can plead the case and win them over.

This is different from an overall awesome character whose skills and abilities have been established. It's also a bigger problem if the Mary Sue isn't meant to be the main protagonist. We kind of expect the hero or heroine to be a bit of a fantasy figure -- smarter, stronger and more capable than normal people. You expect the main character to save the day in a crisis. This character still needs human flaws, needs to face consequences and needs to have the background of all those crazy skills at least somewhat established. But where I often find Mary Sues that are probably unintentional in more amateur works is in the secondary characters that sort of take over. It's like writers know that it's a bad idea to cast themselves as the hero or heroine of their books, so they avoid that and work very hard to develop the main character as a real character. But there's no harm in giving themselves a minor role, right? But since they relate so strongly to that character, they can't be objective, and the Mary Sue traits start creeping in. By the end, it just seems so obvious for the main hero to be the one to save the day. Wouldn't it be more unexpected and exciting if this secondary character suddenly stepped up?

Or else the writer falls in love with a character along the way, and that affects the story. The character who's supposed to be the hero isn't much fun to write, but the secondary character can get away with more, gets all the fun lines, can be more morally complex, and that character gradually takes over the book.

How can you avoid this problem? This is where a beta reader or critique partner or group can help because other readers aren't going to have the same emotional attachment to the characters as you do and can be more objective in evaluating them. You just have to drop the defensiveness that might come up when people criticize the character you identify with. You need to also learn to take an objective look at your own work -- are you treating all the characters fairly? Not everyone has to love everyone, but consequences should at least sort of match actions and flaws should be noted by other characters on a reasonably equal basis. Are you breaking your own rules for any of the characters? If you establish that one thing is true, you need a really good justification for making it not be true for one character. Is the resolution at all set up in the story? No one wants to spend three hundred pages reading about someone's struggle to achieve something, only to have someone else pop in and save the day at the end. You need to make those struggles have some bearing on the outcome, and you need to set up the possibility of the other person being able to save the day, maybe by showing that character's struggles to learn to do whatever it is that saves the day.

What if you discover a Mary Sue in your own work? It may take a lot of rewriting, depending on how far you've gone because this could change your whole plot. You may need to mentally divorce yourself from that favored character and force yourself to treat him or her the way you treat every other character, and that could alter the plot. If this secondary character really is more interesting to you than the main character, you need to either switch roles and make the character you like better be the main character or you need to make the main character more interesting. If you switch roles, then you need to show this character's struggles and lay the foundation for the miracle solution -- she may have to train or study instead of magically having the special talent, for instance. If the main character isn't as interesting to you, try to analyze it and figure out why so you can add interest to the character.