Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Getting Started

When someone I'm talking to learns I'm a writer, one of the most common things to happen next is the person saying they've always wanted to write, but they don't even know where to start. Since I'm in the process of starting a book, I thought that would be a good topic to address.

A book or story starts with the germ of an idea. There's something that makes you want to tell this story. It might be a character, a scene, a "what if" scenario, a concept, a message, a setting, a punchline, or anything else that lights up your brain. What you do next will depend on what kind of writer you are. There are people who will sit down and start writing at that point and figure out along the way what the story is. Since you don't know what kind of writer you are until you write, you can try that and see what happens. But don't get frustrated if you end up stuck or rambling. You'll have learned something about the way you work. Then you can try another method.

I generally find that I need to flesh out my germs of ideas before I can go anywhere with them. If a character came into my head, I need to figure out what kind of setting would be right for this person, what this person wants, and how that's affecting what's going on with this person. If it's a setting that sparks the idea, then I need to think of the kinds of people who might live there. And so forth. How you go about this kind of brainstorming depends on what works for you. I generally have a lot of idea scraps floating around in my head, and I take them out to play with every so often, usually while I'm taking a walk, washing dishes, driving cross-country, or lying in bed as I fall asleep or wake up. I don't start doing serious development work until the idea fragments feel developed enough that I can see a story taking shape. There are times when this can take years, or it might all come together with a quick snap.

For more formal brainstorming, you can try techniques like mind mapping, where you start with your idea and branch off related ideas. Some people do physical collages to uncover more details about the idea. Or you could just make lists of things that occur to you. Once you have a little more detail, enough for the story to have a general shape, you might see that you need to do some research on the setting, professions, time period, technology, or whatever other elements are at work in your story. That will give you more ideas.

From there, you might try starting to write again, but if you're still stuck, don't worry. Some people need to plan and plot. Do detailed development work on the key characters you've identified and start outlining a plot. Some people go all the way to storyboarding individual scenes. If it's your first attempt at writing a story, it's mostly about finding the way you work and learning just what it takes for you to be able to write. There's no better or worse way to write. You're only judged on the final product, and no one needs to know how you got there. You don't get bonus points for just sitting down and being able to whip out a novel based on a vague idea, nor do you get bonus points for doing lots of preparation work. The bonus points come in having a great story that readers enjoy.

So how do you start? Just start. Try writing a first line. You can always change it. If you can't think of a first line or an opening scene, step back and do some planning and plotting and then try again. Keep at it until you have a completed story. Then on your next attempt, you'll have a better sense of what works for you and what steps you need to take to be ready to write.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Catching Up

I have now survived this year's convention season. FenCon went by in something like a blur and extended into Monday, as I took one of our guests to the airport yesterday morning. And then I collapsed. I may say more about the convention once I've had a chance to process it.

In other news, I still haven't managed to get the DVR activated. I ended up putting the old converter box back on so I could watch TV, and then I didn't want to deal with it yesterday. Maybe I'll try again today because there are two things I want to watch at the same time tonight. If they fail today, I may just give up and decide it wasn't meant to be.

One thing I did accomplish yesterday between naps was booking a fall vacation. I did a lot of hypothetical trip planning a few weeks ago and found something I thought might work. Then I realized that I'd been visualizing it as though it was a done deal and figured I'd better book it because apparently this location does tend to fill up. I've had it recommended from multiple sources. So, in early November I'll be heading out to do outdoorsy stuff. It's about as close as I will come to camping, though there's a real bed, indoor plumbing, refrigerator and microwave, Wi-Fi, and satellite TV. But there's also hiking, canoeing and maybe even horseback riding.

I'm planning to use this as a reward for finishing a book. Today I will start writing words on the Rebel Mechanics sequel, and I've figured that if I stick to my productivity goals, I can finish a draft before this trip. That way I can use the trip as rebooting time before starting work on revisions or on something else, depending on what happens with the publisher.

I read my new story at FenCon and got some good feedback on it, but I'm still not sure exactly what to do with it. It may have to wait until I finish this book.

And that's it for now. I will collect my thoughts and have more coherent things to say about the convention later.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Important Convention Preparation

It's a pre-con day, so I'm busy with important preparations. Like baking cookies.  And trying to get my new DVR set up.

Yeah, I decided to take the plunge, since I'll be out this weekend and the fall season premieres are all hitting Sunday night, and the new digital format means my VCR now can only be programmed for one channel. I'm not sure how much I'll end up using it, but I'm giving it a try. Except that it won't set up. There's apparently an outage in my area that prevents it from being activated.

So I guess I'll be picking the show I most want to record Sunday night and setting the VCR, unless it gets fixed before I leave Friday morning. At least they're giving me a bill credit for this. The nice thing about it, when/if it ever starts working, is that the DVR is considered an extra on top of the cable service I get through my HOA. I don't get any reduction in the cost for it as a replacement for the regular converter box, which means I get to keep the converter box and use it on my bedroom TV. Not that I watch TV that often in my bedroom, but if I do have a burning desire to watch HBO in bed, I'll be able to do so.

I've told myself that it will be a huge timesaver, allowing me to skip through commercials and work my TV viewing around my writing time. We'll see. There's no contract, so if I decide it's not worth it, I can take it back. I know myself. I'll work extra hard to feel like I'm "earning" it, which might make it worthwhile, in and of itself.

Ah, the tricks I play on my mind.

Anyway, I'm off soon to go pick one of the guests of honor up from the airport and then go help set up the convention. I suppose I ought to give both myself and my car a shower first.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The New Muppets: Needs More Heart

So, the fall TV season has begun, and last night was the premiere of the latest incarnation of the Muppet Show. I want to love it, I was a bit afraid of it, and after watching the first episode, I have decidedly mixed feelings. I think it can work, but it might need some tiny bits of tweaking. I think that a The Office-style mockumentary about the production of a late-night talk/variety show is a brilliant way to move the concept of The Muppet Show into the 21st Century. That gives them a reason to bring in guests and have acts while also getting to showcase the interrelationships among the Muppets. It allows us to have Statler and Waldorf in their usual position as hecklers, Miss Piggy being a star, and Kermit trying to hold it all together. Fozzie as the studio announcer and The Electric Mayhem as the house band are perfect. I'm actually quite glad that Kermit and Miss Piggy have broken up. I never understood that relationship, and not just because of the frog/pig thing (I figure they're all Muppets, a species unto themselves, so species doesn't really count). Basically, it was always an abusive relationship. Piggy was so self-centered and demanding and got violent when she didn't get what she wanted, and Kermit always seemed so terrified of her. Even when I was ten, I knew there was something wrong with that. In this incarnation, Piggy is exactly the same as she always was, but the show acknowledges that this is terrible behavior and Kermit admits that it made for an unhappy relationship. However, I think they may be trying a bit too hard to be edgy. The Muppets aren't edgy. Even when they're being weird and out there and making socially relevant commentary, they're not edgy. The new show seems to be missing some of the goofy sweetness and optimism that was always at the heart of the Muppets. This new Muppets doesn't seem like a world where "The Rainbow Connection" could ever be sung unironically. Way too much of the pilot episode was focused on the characters' sex lives, and I'd really rather not think about the Muppets having sex lives. There also wasn't as much emphasis on the show itself or the interaction of the guest stars with the Muppets. But I think the concept is good enough that it can be fixed. Keep the show focused entirely on the making of the show and just the bits of their personal lives that spill over into the workplace. No side trips for dates. The entire subplot of Fozzie meeting his human girlfriend's parents was a waste of airtime and not at all funny (and, again, I don't want to think about the sex lives of puppets, and that inter-species thing actually does become an issue when one member of a couple is a puppet bear and the other is a human woman). Show more of the show or the making of the show, more of the celebrity guests dealing with the world of the Muppets. Bring back more of the joy, hope, and optimism and, most of all, the heart that have made this world so much fun since the beginning.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Where I'll Be at FenCon

I spent much of yesterday editing video and now have a rough cut. I just need to do some precision trimming on the cuts and mix in the good audio. Our production is a little makeshift, since the camera records audio but doesn't have a microphone jack, so the audio isn't that good. So we use a separate audio recorder with a good boom microphone, and then I match the sound with the video in editing. That's actually pretty easy on the computer because it shows the waveform of the camera sound and the separate sound, and I just have to match them up, then mute the camera sound. And then I need to apply these skills to doing more book-related videos. But that will have to come after the convention this weekend. There's so much to do! If you're in the North Texas area (or are open to traveling on a whim), come to FenCon this weekend. Here's what I'll be doing. At my reading, I'll be debuting a brand-new story. There will also be cookies (probably my infamous Exploding Cookies). The story is long enough that there won't be time for discussion during that session, but the discussion can continue to my autographing session immediately afterward. This is a story that could end up being taken in some different directions, so I'll be doing a bit of focus grouping. I don't know if this is something I can just let stand alone as a complete short story, if it's the beginning of a full novel, or if the middle of it can be fleshed out a bit for it to be a novella. Of course, any work on this story will have to wait until I get a book proposal written, but that will happen after the convention.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Creating Emblems

It's FenCon week, so I'm going to be a little crazy. In addition to trying to get a book proposal written, I also need to edit a video, prepare a reading, do some PR work, do my usual choir stuff, and then spend Thursday helping set up and picking up a guest from the airport and then start the convention stuff on Friday. Which means I need to make good use of my time this week.

Fortunately, I have all my promo giveaways put together. I made postcards of the front cover of Rebel Mechanics, and then I made pins of the red ribbon and gear that are featured in the book and on the cover, and I attached those to the postcards. There are about 100 with the pins, and I've found that they go fast from the freebie tables.

But as I start work on the second book, which is about the other rebel group in the picture, the ones from the upper class who want to break away and upend the class structure, I found myself wondering what their insignia would be. I don't recall thinking at the time I wrote the first book that the red ribbon and gear would be something to use in promo, though I've always pictured it on the cover. Of course, I figured very soon after writing the book that I'd have to use it. But now what can I do with the other group to put on the cover and then use for promotion? I'll need to make a trip to Michael's to see what jewelry bits and ribbons they might have that might inspire me.

Meanwhile, I found a book in the library on bragging -- finding a way to promote yourself without annoying people. I think it's stuff I know how to do -- mostly, make it conversational and relevant and make sure it's information that actually of benefit to the person you're talking to rather than just promoting yourself -- but have been reluctant to do. I've sat on panels with so many people who introduce themselves by listing every single thing they've written and quoting their reviews that I tend to go in the other direction and just vaguely mention that I'm a novelist, with the idea that if you've heard of me, you know who I am and if you haven't heard of me, maybe I'll be interesting enough for you to look me up. But maybe I'll rethink that and give it a try this weekend as an experiment.

Now off to do work-type stuff!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Telling Stories

I had all kinds of grand plans to write yesterday, and then a high ragweed count hit with a vengeance. Ah, it's that time of year. It's not as bad since I discovered Allegra, but I've only just started taking it daily, so it's taking a while to kick in, and then I forgot to take it for a day. I've definitely felt worse during early ragweed season, but it's just enough to mess with my head. I can think, but I have a hard time translating my thoughts into language. (So be warned that there may be odd flubs in this post that I haven't caught because that was what came out of my head and it made sense to me even when I was editing.)

So instead of writing, I read some of those books on marketing I got from the library. One had a very interesting premise that marketing is essentially the story you build around something, and the story is what often adds the perceived value. The audience already has a built-in worldview, and the trick is to suggest a story that they want to tell themselves that fits their worldview. The real marketing comes from people who are telling themselves a story, and then they spread that story to other people. So, for example, when it comes to a car, they all pretty much get you from point A to point B, and when you look at reliability ratings, the more moderately priced car is actually more likely to get you to point B. So why is a car that's more likely to break down worth so much more money? It's mostly about the story we can tell ourselves about a car like that. There's luxury in the details and the experience that makes people feel better about themselves -- if they're the kind of people who feel better about that sort of thing. If they're not, it's not going to work on them. If they are, then the more expensive car may be worth it to them because it matches the story they tell themselves about success or the kind of person they want to be. So the way to sell a car to them is to weave that story around it.

I'm still trying to figure out how this might apply to marketing books or an author. Can you spin a story around a story? I think the trick might be to capitalize on the sense of "I'm the kind of person who reads this kind of book, and that makes me better/smarter/more in-the-know than people who haven't read it." But then you have to figure out what "this kind of book" really is. In my case, I'm not sure there's really an established niche because I blur a lot of lines. For the most part, maybe what makes my books different is the lack of edge -- so much else these days is dark and edgy, but here's something for those of us who are tired of it and just want to have some good, clean fun.

There's some built-in "tribe" stuff with Rebel Mechanics that probably resonates with society today -- the makers and innovators who may be a threat to the status quo. It's also a steampunk book that's actually about steampunks -- people starting a rebellion with their technology, an actual counter-cultural movement that looks a lot like the cultural group we have now.

The trick may be to find a way to communicate these stories to these groups. Once you find some people within these groups, they tend to spread the idea to others and word of mouth spreads. The down side of that is that word of mouth spreads slowly from person to person, so you don't get that huge spike that gets you noticed in the publishing world. The up side is that it does tend to be more "sticky" that way because it's not about the latest trend but rather is about something that resonates with these people, regardless of the trend, which is why Enchanted, Inc. is still selling relatively well ten years after publication, when most of the books that were published around that time are now either out of print or went out of print and are now being brought back as self-published books. The idea didn't spread fast enough for the publisher to take notice, but it's still hanging on.

But actually coming up with a plan to do something about all this is more than my ragweed-addled brain can deal with at the moment.

I did reread a short story I wrote a couple of years ago (I think), and I was surprised by how much I liked it. I'm not entirely crazy about the ending, but I think it works. I'm not sure what to do with it, though. On the one hand, I think it could be fleshed out into a decent novella or novel that scraps the current ending and develops the middle a lot better before coming to a more satisfying ending (the current one seems abrupt, but I can't make it much longer and have it be a short story), but then again, in its current form it's short enough to read in a convention reading and it's easier to sell either a short story or a full-length novel. If I decide on a form, then what do I do with it? I'd probably make more money self publishing it, but then selling it to a good market would turn it into advertising, in a way, helping me reach a different group of readers who wouldn't find a self-published novella/short story.

I'm planning to use this story for my FenCon reading, and then maybe get some feedback from the audience, kind of like a focus group.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


I really slacked off on the "devote time to my priorities" program. It seems I really do need to keep the calendar and to-do list to keep it working, and until I get in the habit, it looks like that calendar and to-do list need to be on paper. I tried using the calendar on my computer, but while I'm working or online, that's out-of-sight, out-of-mind. I'd try it with my phone, but that would possibly get annoying if I set reminders and had it beep at me. Then again, maybe that's what I need to get myself in line.

There are some priorities I'm already pretty good at sticking with. The main thing I need to work on is devoting consistent, dedicated time to my work when I'm not on a deadline crunch, and devoting consistent, dedicated time to other things when I am buried in a book. That all-or-nothing behavior isn't good for me, isn't good for my work, and doesn't make me happy. I wouldn't need the all-or-nothing if I could be more consistent.

Then I really need to step it up with the marketing, because that's how I sell books. Most of my books now are independently published, so I have no publicist, and I'm not really getting publicity support from my publishers for the others, since I'm not in that tier of author. So I have to do it, and I need to do it consistently. The problem is that it's easy to get discouraged and slack off. When you do what feels like a big promo push for you, and the result is your number of Twitter followers shrinking and your Amazon ranking getting worse, it's hard to remind yourself that these things aren't necessarily connected. What I really need to figure out how to do is break out of my own circle. The people I can communicate with are already on board. But how do I find and connect with the people outside that circle who might be interested if they knew about me? I'm terrible at networking, social or otherwise, and especially online. In person, listening to what others say without feeling the need to chime in unless you've got something useful to add counts for a lot. Online, that's invisible, so staying on top of other people's feeds without inserting myself doesn't do me much good. And yet I can't bring myself to just pipe up for the purpose of getting my name out there. So I need to work on some ideas. I checked some books out of the library yesterday, but anything they had on social networking was hopelessly out of date, with the newest published in 2011, and things have changed since then.

I know I talk about getting my house in order a lot, but it's something I want to do, and I think I could do it if I dedicated consistent time to it. I think I really am a neat freak at heart. The main reason I love staying in hotels is that for a few days, I can keep my world perfectly in order, with no visible clutter. I only have the things I need, and there's a place to put them all. At home, though, this priority falls below other priorities, and then I get good at blocking it out. I think I'd be happier, more productive, and less stressed if I could do a better job at this. I just need to make it a priority and be consistent about it.

And then there's music. Singing is a physical activity, so daily exercise makes it better. I know when I'm keeping up with practicing my choir music, my range extends by a couple of notes on either end. I also would like to get better at the piano and actually learn the left hand. It's something I enjoy that's important to me, so I need to dedicate the time to it.

Theoretically, prioritizing these things and scheduling time to do them will then free up other time to do other things I like to do. But it's very easy to get into the "doom loop" of checking e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, lather, rinse, repeat.

Today, I might actually start writing words on the new book. I've written a synopsis and done some research. I've planned an opening sequence. I have on my "What you do may appear in my next book" writer t-shirt, and I'm using the mug with that slogan for my tea. So I need to put it in my calendar as something to do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

How Not to Start a Story (Maybe)

Continuing my writing theme of beginnings …

There's a lot of writing advice out there on ways you should never begin your story. And it's mostly right. There are exceptions, but you should think carefully before deciding that you're the exception.

Never start your story with:

1) The protagonist (or any other character) waking up in the morning.
It does seem like a logical place to begin and a good way to show the ordinary world before the character's life changes, but do we really want to read about someone waking up, having breakfast, getting dressed, and otherwise starting their day? I suspect that another reason this is popular is that it does show up frequently in movies, especially romantic comedies, where the heroine starting her day is the sequence that goes with the opening credits, while the movie's theme song plays. It's a good way to establish a lot of the character's traits and establish the story world. But in a film, the more visual information you can cram into that sequence, the better -- show whether she's a neat freak or a slob, how does she dress, what does she wear, what's her attitude, what's her routine, etc. -- while in a book, all that kind of detail just bogs down the opening. It's better to start as close as possible to the point where the character's life changes. Skip the teeth brushing and dressing part.

EXCEPT this can be a really shocking opening if the character wakes to something she doesn't expect to find, like discovering herself in a strange place or not knowing who she is. But then you're not going to get that going through a normal routine stuff because there is no normal. Or if you plan to make things seriously not normal within a few paragraphs, then it works to start with a very mundane beginning. We meet Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when he wakes in the morning and goes about his morning routine, with the tiny detail of seeing a bulldozer outside his house slipped into the mention of him opening the window, and then it takes a little longer, until after he's made coffee, before that thought catches up with him and he runs outside to confront the bulldozer. But you need to establish within a couple of paragraphs that something is really crazy.

2) The protagonist traveling somewhere and thinking about where she's going and why.
This is a very popular opening for romance novels, even some that get published, but it's become such a cliche. Unless something happens during the journey, the story either starts when she makes the decision to go, and then we can skip to the part where she arrives, or it starts when she arrives at her destination. The character sitting in the coach/car/airplane/train and thinking about her entire backstory makes for a dull opening.

EXCEPT you can play with that trope and make something happen. I got a book out of that when I was snarking about the trope and then wrote a book that opens with the heroine on the train thinking about the new life that faces her when suddenly a group of bandits robs the train, and this is what actually changes her life (though she doesn't know it at the time). The thing to keep in mind is that you need action, not thinking.

3) An exciting action sequence that turns out to be a dream.
This is a double whammy because first there's the letdown that that the exciting thing didn't actually happen, and then you get that "waking up in the morning" opening. This kind of opening can make the reader feel betrayed, and it looks suspiciously like an attempt to provide something exciting for the opening because you didn't have confidence in your real beginning. It also means that you've wasted pages on something that actually has no consequences.

EXCEPT I think this can be used judiciously in fantasy if it's a key element of the story that the character has dreams that are either prophetic or that provide a view into other people's lives. But you'd need to show us pretty quickly that this is what is going on. Like within a paragraph or so of waking, something in real life needs to happen that echoes something in the dream. You would have to use the dream to create a sense of danger and unease, not do the "whew, it was just a dream" kind of opening.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Book Report: Saying Goodbye to Discworld

This is a post that I've put off writing for a while because it feels like writing it makes it real, but it is real, regardless of what I say. I read The Shepherd's Crown, the final Terry Pratchett book, last week, and I want to talk about it, but it also feels like talking about it will somehow give it a sense of finality that it wouldn't have had if I hadn't yet talked about it. If that makes sense. Maybe it's that talking about it completes the process of reading the book, so it really is over. I also procrastinated about reading it. I had it about half a week before I let myself read it, and then after plowing through about half in one day I made the rest of it last the rest of the week.

It's hard to talk about the plot without spoiling a major event, and it's a book that isn't really about the plot. It's about the characters. The story is about the elves deciding to try to make a comeback, and it's up to young witch Tiffany Aching to find a way to stop them and save her land. But it's really a major coming-of-age story for Tiffany, who's still young but having to function like an adult, and it's about the way the world is changing, with new technology and new ideas.

I've read some reviews that say it reads like Pratchett knew this would be his last book, and I'd have to agree. There's a bit of a farewell tour among some of the major characters from the entire Discworld series, and it feels like most of the plot threads that intersect this particular sub-series are wrapped up well enough that we can feel like we know the outcome. I had the sense of an author saying goodbye to his people. Those were the parts that had me sobbing. There's a note at the end that says this book wasn't quite finished -- the story is complete, but all the usual tinkering that would have been done in revisions didn't get finished. I wouldn't say that I noticed this or felt any lack while reading it, but looking back and comparing it to other books, I can kind of see it.

It's hard to judge the book itself without all the emotions attached to it. I enjoyed reading it. I found it profound and funny at the same time. I want more, and it's sad that there won't be any more. It's definitely not something slapped together posthumously. It's worthy of the name on the cover. But it may be difficult for fans to read, in some respects, because these people have become real to us, and it's hard to say goodbye. Fortunately, there are all those other books we can revisit.

I would say that this is a book best read alone, with a box of tissues handy, and with your calendar cleared for the day (unless you end up doing like I did and dragging it out).

Monday, September 14, 2015

First Hints of Fall

My fall schedule is now complete, with the start of yoga class this morning. Now I just have to get used to the schedule of activities -- yoga Monday morning, children's choir and choir rehearsal Wednesday night, ballet Thursday night. I really hate the Thursday ballet because it interrupts the possibility of long weekends, and that's why instead of registering for the whole semester, I got a punch card for a certain number of classes. Then I don't pay for classes I don't take and I don't feel so bad about skipping classes. In a nice bit of luck, it turns out we won't be having a yoga class the Monday after FenCon, so I'll have recovery time.

I had a reasonably active and social weekend. I went with some friends to a festival and antique car show on the town square. I felt rather old when there was a "classic" car on display that was newer than the one I learned to drive in, but there were plenty of really old cars, like the Fords from the 1920s with rumble seats. Of course, going to any event on the town square requires going to the old-fashioned ice cream parlor on the square.

It's getting to be the time of year when it's cool enough to go outside for festivals and things like that.

I watched a movie Sunday afternoon because there was a nice bit of scheduling on HBO. My library is doing some events around The Book Thief this fall, and I plan to read it, but the movie was on one of the HBO channels Sunday afternoon, so I watched it because I'm the weirdo who likes to see the movie before reading the book. That's because if I loved the book, the movie is very likely going to disappoint me. But if I like the movie, the book will probably be even better and is sure to include lots of extra stuff, so it's like getting the special extended edition director's cut of the story.

It's hard to describe this story in a way that at all reflects it because it's a pretty simple story about a young girl taken in by a childless couple in a small town in Germany in the late 30s and how they're affected by the war. The girl loves books, a love her adoptive father encourages, and during the deprivation of the war, she sneaks into the well-stocked personal library of the mayor to borrow books to read. But it's really more a story about the characters, not so much how they develop but rather how they unfold as we get to know them better and see them in difficult circumstances. And the whole thing is narrated by Death. Since I've been reading a lot of Terry Pratchett lately, I kept thinking of this being the same Death, so I kind of expected to find a skeleton in a robe having a curry.

I definitely want to read the book now and see what the movie inevitably had to leave out. It actually kind of fits into some preliminary research I'm doing for a planned future book that takes place in a totalitarian society. There's not a lot out there about ordinary people in that regime -- not necessarily running a resistance movement, but also not party members -- and that's what this story focuses on. There's the fear from every knock on the door, the worry that neighbors are watching and might inform on you, sometimes for no reason other than spite, the indoctrination in schools, the fear parents had of their own children who had been indoctrinated and the uncertainty of whether the school's teaching or the parent's teaching would win out.

And now that I'm feeling all virtuous for starting my day with exercise, I have to get to work.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Plotting a Sequel

I had another busy day of brain thunderstorming, and I had the "duh!" moment of realizing that one problem with the plot outline I was trying to put together was that I hadn't stopped to think about what the goals of the various characters and factions were. Once I did that, it fell into place a lot better because it made the events make sense. I can't just look at what the protagonists' goals are. I have to look at what's going on with the other people and with the antagonists. Today's task will be digging more into what the antagonists are doing.

Outlining the plot for a sequel is a little different than a first book because some of the steps have already taken place in the first book. The "Ordinary World" segment is mostly about establishing the new normal after the events in the first book. There may not need to be a new "Call to Adventure" in the sequel, depending on how the first book ended. If the first book ending was a "whew, that's over, now back to normal!" then you might need all the initial steps, including the call and refusal of the call. But if the first book ending was more "we may have won this round, but it's only just starting," then the call from the first book can carry over and there's no need for the refusal/mentor, etc., stages. The hero is already over the threshold. But then that makes structuring and pacing a little more difficult.

But I'm seeing events play out and I'm getting back into that world, which is fun and exciting.

It's been interesting to look at my old synopsis for this sequel, written while I was still writing the first book, and see how much has changed. I think my opinions of some of the characters have changed. This was before I decided the book was YA, so there's a different focus. And I've learned so much as an author since then. If I wrote the book I outlined, it would be rather boring. I want a bit more adventure.

In other news, as a television reminder service, Continuum starts again tonight on SyFy, but in the post-prime time slot, at 10 Central. I'm glad they're getting the chance to wrap up the story because that was a big cliffhanger. I have this thing for time travel and seeing the repercussions of fiddling with the past, and this show scratches that itch. If I can stay awake that long. I hope it'll be OnDemand.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Back to Preschool

I survived the first night of children's choir, and most of the twitching has even stopped. It looks like I'll have about 10 preschoolers, depending on who shows up. We had a couple of serious separation anxiety/shyness cases whose moms stayed in the room with them and who ended up leaving early because the kids just clung to mom and cried or tried to hide behind mom. What's funny is that both of them had younger siblings who tried to participate with the other kids while the older sibling who was supposed to be in the choir just hid. One was a little girl of maybe 2-3 who raised her hand to be called on and answered questions and did everything the bigger kids were doing. I'd invite her to join us, but I suspect that would just make things awkward for her big brother. The other was a toddler just barely old enough to walk on his own, but boy, did he try to clap and dance along with the music while his big sister hid behind her mom.

I can already tell which one is going to be the biggest challenge. There's one boy who's the first to raise his hand and who has all the answers and learns things quickly, but he also doesn't do well with being at all still or following directions, and his idea of moving with the music is running in circles around the room. So I'll need to come up with extra challenges for him or find ways to make him be the helper so he has a task at all times to keep him too busy to run around in circles.

Otherwise, they seem to be good kids, and they make me feel old because many of them are the younger siblings of kids I've taught before, so I'm getting all those toddlers who used to stand in the doorway and watch wide-eyed as their older siblings came to choir. Then there's the one girl who, when she was a baby, was known for holding her arms out toward me and screaming, "Mama!" when she saw me, even if her mother was right there. And I look nothing like her mother. That got awkward if we were in the parking lot and I was parked near them and her mother was trying to get her in her car seat while she was crying and calling out for "Mama!" while waving at me. It looked like the poor woman was kidnapping my child.

Meanwhile, I've been brain thunderstorming the new book (when it's more than just a brainstorm). I realized that one major event I was building this book around might be better suited to its sequel, and then I realized that the sequel I'd been planning probably hinged on the wrong events and there was a much more dramatic way to do things. So now I feel a little unmoored and have to figure out how to fit in all the other events I came up with. This is the exciting part of the creative process.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Rethinking Things

Well, day one of my new, improved life didn't quite go as planned. I underestimated how much time it would take to do some things and also underestimated how much time I spend on non-priorities that are still things I enjoy. I need to work a little breathing room into my schedule to make it easier to adhere to. But I did get the amount of writing and publicity work I aimed for, and I did some housework, some exercise and some music practice, even if it wasn't as much as I hoped for. So, overall, an improvement.

I'm going to have to veer from the planned plot of the next Rebel Mechanics book. That synopsis I wrote years ago requires a character to do something that I now believe would be very out of character, and it's sorely lacking in a sense of adventure. The main plot will be more or less the same, but it will be resolved in a different way, I think. Scenes have been coming to me, which is a good sign. I know I have a book shaping up when it goes from being a list of events to seeing a movie in my head (which is why I don't have any Enchanted, Inc. books planned right now -- I can make lists of events, but they're just lists of events. I'm not seeing the scenes happen).

I really wish I could find a way to get a ride in some kind of airship (blimp, dirigible, whatever) because I think that's going to play a big role and I want to be able to describe it better. It looks like you can do that in Germany, but the US company that was offering that sort of thing in California has closed down.

Tonight children's choir starts, so I'll be fully in my fall schedule. I need to come up with a lesson plan that will entertain four-year-olds for 45 minutes. I don't plan to do a lot of "teaching" tonight, but I will need activities to do with them.

Now to do some other promo stuff for the day and then do some plot outlining and then some lesson planning. We're having a cool, rainy day, so I feel energized.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Charging Forward!

I'm diving into my latest stab at being super organized and productive. We'll see how long this one lasts. I figured out how much time I really need to be devoting to various priorities, and it was surprising how much time that still left me in the day. So I set out to schedule all those priority activities on my calendar, leaving the rest of the day unscheduled. I also got specific about what I wanted to do for each of those priorities. I've tried things like this in the past, where I said I wanted to spend an hour a day on publicity and marketing activities, and then it fell through because I wasn't sure what to do with that time. So I'm making a to-do list within the priorities.

If I go by my usual pattern, I'll be gung-ho for about a week, and then life will intrude on my carefully prepared schedule, and it will all fall apart. But I'm hoping this makes enough sense that it might stick. If I feel like I'm making progress and accomplishing a lot, I'm more likely to just make it part of my life. If I find myself realizing that I'm getting so much done, producing work, increasing sales, and getting my house in order, and I still feel like I have free time, then it may become routine. I've already adjusted some things when I realized that my overly ambitious schedule that I put together last night wasn't at all realistic.

But I have actually accomplished something publicity-wise. For that video I had to do for that subscription box service, I found some cool vintage film that's from a little later than Rebel Mechanics is set but that still gives the same feel. As I was doing my reading from the opening chapter at WorldCon, several lines jumped out at me as perfectly matching the footage. So, here's a short teaser/intro video I put together, just playing around with iMovie to see what I could do:

I don't know if it will sell any books for me, but apparently YouTube is a big deal among YA readers, so having a presence there is a good thing. So far, though, most of my social media efforts seem to just sit there without getting a lot of traction or feedback other than from my personal friends. I'm trying to figure out how to get some impact there.

This was also good for getting me back into the mindset of that world because this afternoon, I'm going to start work on book 2 in that series. I wrote a synopsis for that book way back when I was writing the first book so that we could submit the proposal for the first book with the plans for the series. I'm sure that a lot has changed in the past five years, so it may require some reworking, and then I have to figure out what happens in the first few chapters so I can write the beginning.

At least I already have a title in mind, so I won't have to go through that process again for a while.

Now, off to go be productive some more!

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Draw of Saturday-afternoon TV

I know it's a holiday, but I tend to treat Labor Day like a second New Year's Day, a kind of fresh start in a new year, even though I'm not in school, and so I don't want to wait to dive into all those new things I want to accomplish. I'm also trying to stay a little bit more in a regular schedule so that I don't suffer too badly from the "what day is it?" confusion.

I've mostly had a quiet weekend. Saturday I spent more time in front of the TV than I planned, but I got sucked into a marathon of a series called "Secrets" on the Smithsonian channel. They take some artifact with a lot of legend around it and use modern science to analyze it. There was one on the "Spear of Destiny" that's in an Austrian museum and is said to be the lance that pierced the side of Christ at the crucifixion. That was debunked by spectrum analysis that showed the metal was from well after that time and was medieval rather than Roman. It was probably never used as a functional spear, but did seem to have been used to carry a banner. However, the other legend that it contains a nail from the cross wasn't entirely debunked. There did seem to have been something inserted, and markings on it indicate that it was believed to be significant to Christians. That doesn't necessarily mean it really was a nail from the actual cross, just that people believed it was. They can't get to any nail that's in there without taking it all apart, so that's not happening. But in analyzing the piece and records relating to it, it seems that the power of the spear was originally just supposed to be the nail, and it probably was carried into battle with a banner on it as something to rally around that gave people a psychological boost. It was a later king who took that legend and added to it, claiming it was the spear at the crucifixion and wrapping it in gold with an engraving to that effect. Then there was an episode about Blackbeard's ship and whether a wreck they found might have been it, based on the analysis of artifacts found and a comparison to records. They were using large-scale X-ray, MRI, etc. I was really fascinated by an episode about what was purported to be a Norse map of North America from before Columbus. The map itself appears to have been an expert forgery (though there is room for doubt), but the information it contains is actually supported by archeological evidence of Norse settlements in North America. So it's a fake that represents truth that probably wasn't written down.

I really should do more reading/research into Norse history and mythology because with my name it would have built-in branding. And Norse mythology goes way beyond the standard Odin/Thor/Loki stuff. Most Norse-based fantasy seems to stop there.

In between all these, I also got sucked into a Hallmark Channel movie. I have that bizarre addiction to those kinds of Christmas movies, but it turns out they make them all year long, and since they don't seem to be making romantic comedies for the big screen that aren't gross-out, raunchy stuff, this is about the only place to scratch that itch. I caught one that was apparently part of their wave of Valentine's Day movies (who knew?) called I Do, I Do, I Do, and it had the rather brilliant premise of being a Groundhog Day story about a woman reliving her wedding day over and over again. I'm a sucker for Groundhog Day stories, so I gave it a shot. It wasn't bad as those things go, though it was one of those "the wrong guy for the wrong reasons" premises, and it's hard to pull that off without the heroine looking like a jerk or a twit. Jilting a guy at the altar is a bad move, so they have to make the guy look pretty awful to justify it, but then if he's that awful, she looks like a twit for not realizing how awful he is until they're at the altar. In this case, they tried to give her a backstory that explained her choice, that she saw him as a "safe" option without risk -- but considering he more or less steamrollered her into getting married, let his mother plan the entire wedding without even consulting her, then chided her about hurting his mother's feelings when she dared to suggest that maybe she should get some say in her own wedding, there were so many red flags that he didn't seem at all like a safe option. Still, it was a cute movie with some fun moments that made a good backdrop for ironing and folding laundry.

This made me once again think that I could totally write one of these and do a better job.

But now I need to dive into my "new year" so I can let myself play this afternoon and evening.

Friday, September 04, 2015

Kicking off the Holiday

I'm ready to start my Labor Day holiday weekend. I have no plans, a pile of books, ingredients for baking, and some music. I also have bad allergies right now. Ragweed isn't showing up in the pollen count, but I feel very, very ragweedy. I've got the drips and drainage, the itchy skin, the burning eyes, and that weighted-down sense of fatigue.

The pile of books and the music come thanks to my new greatest temptation. They opened a Half-Price Books next door to the grocery store, and they were having their extra 20% off sale this weekend. They got me before I even got in the door with their clearance CD rack, where I managed to snag several CDs of things that I have on cassette but now can't listen to in my car, plus some good writing background music. I also found a book I've been searching for and haven't found anywhere, a cookbook, and a few books I've read from the library but haven't found in stores. And I didn't even delve all that deeply. I didn't get a cart or a basket, so I limited myself to what I could carry.

Now, though, I'm utterly exhausted from my exertion. I should probably have started the daily Allegra a few days earlier because it will take a few days to kick in. I hope it kicks in soon because I'm singing in the chorale on Sunday. We're doing a fun little Renaissance piece.

I traditionally use Labor Day weekend as a brainstorming/research/mood setting retreat for the next project to kick off, so I need to decide which movies in my collection most remind me of the book I'm about to write. I'm not sure there's yet been a really good steampunk movie, so when I was planning the first book I mostly viewed things set in that time period.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

A Catch-up Round-up

I have a title! Book 3 in the Fairy Tale series, now known as A Kind of Magic, will be arriving November 24 (tentatively -- depends on Audible). The cover art is done, so I should soon have a cover to share. The fun thing is that it takes place around the time of the release date. It's not quite full-on Christmassy -- it happens before Thanksgiving, but the production of The Nutcracker starts during the book, and there's already Christmas stuff out.

This may mean that the next book will be a full-on Christmas book, so maybe I'll plan for that release date next year. Assuming I get the book written by then. I need to write another Rebel Mechanics book in the meantime.

I guess that since I had to go straight from getting home from the convention to working on the book, I'm now having my post-convention recovery period. I've been mostly useless the last couple of days, though I did do some FenCon PR work. I got sidetracked into hypothetical vacation planning. That involved going to various travel and tourism sites, searching for what I wanted, then checking the review sites. It seems that what I really wanted doesn't exist. I wanted to do a road trip to the minor mountains in eastern Oklahoma/western Arkansas, and I wanted a hotel like the one I had near Hot Springs last year, where I had a balcony overlooking the lake. My favorite part of the trip was getting up in the morning and drinking tea on the balcony. But it seems that no hotel like that exists in the places where I was looking. I came up with a few alternate possible plans, but then I got a tip from a friend about a place to go that looks like it might fit the bill for a quiet getaway. Now I'll do more research.

In choir news, I did put myself forward for that Requiem solo, and the director came up with an interesting way to deal with it, since there were multiple people wanting it. It's divided into multiple pieces, separated by choir parts, and he's giving the different pieces to different people. I got the middle part that's my favorite part of it, anyway, and I don't have to worry about the really high notes. My writer brain has kicked in, and I already have a narrative for it in my head that suddenly makes the piece make more sense this way. If it's one person doing the solo, it's just the one person offering the prayer at what essentially sounds like a mass funeral (one of the repeated lines translates to "grant them rest eternal"), though since we're doing it for All Souls Day, I suppose it's about all the people who've gone on before us. But with multiple people, I'm picturing a number of people in a cathedral, all praying, and then the spotlight falls on one person offering her prayer, goes back to the crowd, then falls on another person. The different pieces of the solo all have a different tone, so you can imagine them being sung by different characters.

I may get a story out of this.

And in other news, I found this list of inspiring real-life geeks
, and would you believe who's on it? Yeah, I'm listed among people like JK Rowling. Kind of cool.

While I have stuff to do in the next couple of days, I think I'm going to treat the time up to (and including) Labor Day as a quasi-holiday, with the weekend itself being real holiday. Then I'm going to hit the ground running afterward and really try to be diligent and productive. I need to make a conscious effort to do more promotion, and I need to do a better job of staying on top of the writing. I have too many stories in my head that need to be let out. My pastor's sermon series lately has been based on the "first things first" concept -- that illustration where if you fill a jar with water, sand, and pebbles, you can't fit any rocks in, but if you put the big rocks in first, then add pebbles, sand, and water, you can actually fit more in the same jar -- and I've realized I need to do a better job of focusing on my priorities.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Good Beginnings

I helped with a couple of writing workshops this summer, which meant I was reading beginnings of novels, and that has me thinking a lot about what makes a beginning work. Here are some suggestions:

1) Save the backstory for later
I think this is the number-one problem with most beginner manuscripts. Writers feel like they need to explain the entire background of their world, exactly how it works, what the history is, and the main character's entire history before the story can start. This bogs down the beginning. It's better to show all this through action as the protagonist interacts with his/her world or notices what's wrong about it that needs to be fixed. And no, characters having a conversation about the history of their world is not a way to get around this, especially if both of them know the history already. Give us just enough information to understand the inciting incident and how it affects the protagonist. We don't need to know about the hero's childhood and relationship with his parents or about the war that was fought a century ago unless that's absolutely critical to understanding the inciting incident and how the hero reacts to it. Unanswered questions and curiosity can keep readers turning pages, as long as there's eventually some kind of payoff.

2) Give your protagonist a goal
Not just a story goal, though that should come as soon as possible in the book, but some goal, wish, or need that exists before the story kicks off and that would have been there even if this particular story hadn't happened. I think this is a big reason that villains are so often more popular than the heroic characters. You know from the start that the villain wants something, while the hero is often just reacting to the villain's actions without actually wanting anything. Having a goal can also create additional conflict for the protagonist because that initial goal might conflict with the story goal, and he has to make a choice.

The initial goal might be something that's focused and expanded by the story goal -- when we meet Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars, he wants to go to the Academy with his friends, mostly because he wants to get off that sandbox of a planet and have adventures. Then after he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, his story goal is to get the Death Star plans to the Rebels so they can destroy it. So it fits his initial goal of getting off the planet and having adventures, but in a more purposeful way. The initial goal can also be contradicted by the story goal. In the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy initially wants to go "somewhere over the rainbow." She gets that very quickly, realizes she doesn't really want it, after all, and her story goal is to get back home. And the initial goal might be in conflict with the story goal. You see that a lot in romances, where the heroine initially just wants a promotion at work or to get a date with the guy she likes, and then she meets the hero and is torn because she likes him, but being with him requires her to reconsider her other goal.

It's also good if the protagonist's story goal is positive and proactive, rather than reactive. Instead of the goal being to stop the villain, which puts the villain in the driver's seat, there's a specific plan for stopping the villain that has nothing to do with the villain's actions. Going back to Star Wars, the goal is to get the plans to the Rebels and find a weakness rather than the goal being simply to stop the Empire, which would have had them running about, reacting to everything Darth Vader did.

3) Avoid flashbacks
I was surprised by how many manuscripts I critiqued this summer that started with some big, exciting incident and then flashed back to the start of the story. This is a common TV series storytelling structure that I think has become overused even on TV, and I don't think it works as well in a book. If you're using it, you should have a very good reason for doing so that's integral to the story, and you have to be careful about how you use it.

On TV, they can get away with starting with a big, exciting scene with a cliffhanger ending, then after the opening credits flashing up the "24 hours earlier" caption and going back to the beginning because unless you've recorded the show, you're stuck watching as it goes. In a book, it's easy to just skip ahead to see how that cliffhanger comes out. In a TV series, usually the viewer already knows the characters pretty well and knows what to expect of them, and that opening scene is usually shocking because it's something we know those characters would never do (like the cop hero shooting his partner), so we want to keep watching to find out what the real story is. In the opening of a novel, unless the novel is part of a series, we don't know enough to know whether or not this is shocking behavior for these characters, so it loses impact. This kind of opening is also bad about losing all energy once you leave that opening scene and flash back to the beginning. It's easy to put the book down then because everything that comes afterward seems boring in comparison. Plus, I think too many writers use the exciting opening as an excuse to then start the main story a lot earlier and fit in a lot of backstory before getting to the inciting incident, like if they start with a bang that gives them a license to be more leisurely about starting, and that makes matters even worse. And I suspect that this looks to editors and agents like a ploy to send the most exciting part of the book while sticking to the request for the first chapter or first three chapters.

Unless you really know what you're doing and you have a solid story reason for doing so, it's better to start at the beginning, as close to the inciting incident as possible, and find a way to make that opening scene interesting or exciting in its own right.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

New Habits

I got my proofreading done. I then celebrated by going to the dentist this morning, where I brainstormed titles while having my teeth cleaned. Yeah, I really know how to live it up.

Now I just have to remember where my life was before it was interrupted by books and travel. I need to get back to doing more promo stuff. I need to clean my house. I need to get back into my routines, which have changed.

It's funny how little changes have big ripple effects. Take my ballet class. For years, it's been on Tuesday nights. This year, it's on Thursday. That's changing my laundry schedule. I used to do my laundry on Mondays because I needed my ballet stuff Tuesday night and it has to air dry, so I needed to give it an overnight for drying. Then I washed my sheets and towels on Tuesdays because I knew I'd be washing my hair that night after ballet class (I have this weird thing about not liking to go to bed on clean sheets without having washed my hair). The move to Thursdays shouldn't affect my laundry schedule that much. There's no reason I can't still do my regular laundry on Mondays. I think I'll move my sheets and towels day to Thursday, though, and remaking the bed can be part of a general spiffing-up before the weekend. It's also going to affect the way I view the weekend. I often felt like the hard part of the week was over after choir on Wednesday night, so Thursday was like the pre-weekend, but having something to do on Thursday pushes that back.

The new phone is also changing some habits, mostly because it's a lot more useful as a music player than my old phone was. I can plug it into my living room stereo and have all my playlists, which means I'm listening to a lot more music while I cook , work, or eat because I don't have to grab my computer and plug it in or pick a single CD. I need a different kind of adaptor to plug the phone into the stereo in my office because its line in requires stereo audio cables. I thought I had one of those adaptors from my old DVD player, but I can't think of where it is. Yes, I can play the same music on my computer, but I keep my computer sound off so I don't hear stuff like e-mail and Facebook alerts.

I realized how big an effect a habit change can have while I was listening to the piped-in music at the dentist's office. My awareness of popular music tapers off starting at about 2000, when I quit commuting, and comes to an abrupt stop in 2008. That's because I learned about pop music by listening to the radio on my way to and from work, and I still listened to the radio in the car unless I was on a long road trip and brought along my cassette collection. I got a new car in 2008 that played MP3 CDs, and after just a few weeks of having the car, I took a road trip. For that trip, I made an MP3 CD with at least ten hours of music, and it was like listening to the radio but getting to choose all the songs. I ended up just leaving the CD in the car. Since then, I occasionally switch out CDs -- I make new "road trip" mixes every so often, and I do book "soundtracks" -- but I completely stopped listening to the radio. I don't even have any stations set on my car radio. At the dentist, I was perking up when something from the 80s or 90s came on, but then there was stuff that was entirely unfamiliar, and I knew it had to be newer. So, yeah, getting a new car totally changed my awareness of music. Now I'm looking forward to taking a road trip with my new phone, where I can make up a playlist without having to burn a CD, or I can just set the whole library on shuffle, or I can change playlists to fit mood or scenery.

Meanwhile, using the phone for music means I have it out more and have discovered the other tools on it, so I'm making a lot more use of it than I did my old phone (which also didn't have all the same tools). Now if only it would organize my life.