Monday, February 29, 2016

Leaping out of the House

I seem to be on the upswing now. I skipped yoga because I don't think that bending over that much would be all that fun, and I also desperately needed to get groceries, and I wasn't sure I'd have the energy for both. But I did survive a trip to Target and the grocery store, and I don't feel too bad. I'm going to try writing this afternoon and see what happens.

I think just leaving the house was the big hurdle. I very seldom get cabin fever, no matter how much time I stay in the house. What happens with me is that the longer I stay in, the harder it is to make myself leave, to the point it almost becomes a fear. That's why I make sure to be involved with things that obligate me to leave the house regularly. With choir, I have to go out on Wednesday night and Sunday morning, and that's frequently enough that I can't get to the point of being afraid to leave the house. Unless I'm too sick to go out, and that means I can stay in for a whole week until I'm no longer sure how much I don't feel well enough to go anywhere and how much it's that dread of being on the other side of the front door.

But now I've gone out, so I've broken the pattern, and I have plans and goals for work, so I want to get back in the swing of things. Also, I've watched every documentary I can find on demand that I'm remotely interested in and also everything I'd recorded. I knew I was starting to feel better last night when I watched a couple of movies and could follow the plot, though one was a biopic, so it was borderline documentary.

Meanwhile, flowers are blooming, and it turns out that when they pulled up the rose bushes they had in the medians in my neighborhood because of rose rosette disease, they planted tulips, so now there are tulips all over my neighborhood, and tulips make me happy.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Medicinal Television

I'm getting better -- managed to sleep last night without any cold medicine! -- but still not 100 percent. Most of the sniffles and stuffiness are gone. I just have a slight "throat" cough (as opposed to chest cough). I'm still rather weak, but I hope that will be improving as my appetite seems to have returned. I never had any stomach-related symptoms. I just wasn't interested in food at all, and so I concentrated on fluids with nutrients. I suspect that plus the fever have something to do with the weakness. I got hungry last night just before I went to bed, and then I ate a real breakfast this morning. So maybe my strength will start coming back.

I'm still really iffy on being able to sing tomorrow. I get a bit lightheaded from sitting up for too long at a stretch, so I couldn't stand all the way through an hour-long concert, and I don't have a lot of breath or breath control. If I take a deep enough breath to sing, I cough. I'll have to see if I have any contact information for this group to let them know. Given the way the director was treating me, he may take it as a relief that I'm not there. I think if I'd felt a little more welcomed or valued, I'd push myself to make it, but this isn't worth killing myself over.

I've always said that when I'm sick, what I want to do is watch fluffy romantic comedies. Oddly, though, I'm finding myself watching documentaries. I don't really have the focus for reading right now -- I read a page, then find myself wondering what that was all about -- so I've been watching TV, and I suppose history documentaries don't require you to follow a plot. I know the general gist of events for most of the things I've been watching, so these shows are just filling in details or providing new visuals.

Here's a rundown of my sick week viewing:
On the Travel Channel, I've recently become hooked on a series called Mysteries at the Castle. They discuss and dramatize anecdotes related to various castles, manors, mansions, and other buildings that might roughly fit the description of "castle." Sometimes, it's a bit of a stretch, as the story might take place somewhere else entirely and involve someone who once lived in this place. The stories are fascinating, but for a show on the Travel Channel, there's disappointingly little actual travel content. I'd like a little more info on the place as it is today and what you can see there. If there's something in the show that makes you want to visit the place, the show doesn't help you know even whether it's a place you can visit.

Yesterday, they were marathoning what appears to be a sister series, Mysteries at the Hotel, which does the same thing, but about events relating to hotels. Again, it seems a little lacking in actual travel content. For the hotels still in operation, they might make a passing mention of what the hotel is like now, but if the show intrigues you, there's not much to show you what you'd see if you stayed there. I love interesting hotels that aren't obvious cookie-cutter chains, so this intrigued me while frustrating me. If I'd felt better, I might have made a list and then googled.

I'd recorded a series from BBC World News about the Art of Gothic, getting into the rise of industrialization and how that contributed to the Gothic Revival movement in art during the Victorian era. I think that has a lot to do with the Steampunk movement, so I figured that counted as work-related research.

There was a show I found on demand from Military History (which I don't seem to have as an actual channel, just an on demand setting) about the architecture of Ivan the Terrible -- they were examining the surviving buildings constructed during his reign and looking at how they were made, as well as talking about the context of their construction. And there was a show on Smithsonian about Hitler's will and what his assets/estate really were -- his last will claimed that he had very little, but he had to have had millions in book royalties alone, since he'd passed a law that every newlywed couple was given a copy of his book, so the state was buying millions of copies a year and he was getting the royalties, and that's not counting all the other copies that were sold when having a copy was just about mandatory.

There was something about a search for sunken pirate ships near an island off the coast of Madagascar. And there was another show I found on demand, I think on the Travel Channel, called something like Expedition Extreme, in which a guy tracks down the possible truths behind various legends, looking for archaeological evidence. In the ones I watched, on Robin Hood and King Arthur, it mostly amounts to him talking to local experts and getting excited about ground-penetrating radar showing that something exists underground, but ends up with no actual conclusions. Still, there's pretty scenery.

Today, I'm pondering either a Galavant marathon or Doctor Zhivago on TCM on demand. I've seen that movie multiple times, including on the big screen, have read the book, and have also seen the PBS/BBC miniseries (that's closer to the book), so if I fall asleep, I won't miss anything. I miss reading, but even just a little while ago, I re-read the same page three times because when I turned the page, I was baffled by what was going on and had to turn back to refresh my memory. So, maybe "good for me" TV is the best thing for my brain right now.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Feverish Thoughts

It appears that my earlier complaints about sniffles turned out to mean I have a particularly nasty virus that's been going around town. It combines the respiratory symptoms of a mild cold -- sniffling, sneezing, some coughing -- with the aches and fever of the flu. I seldom ran fever as a kid, which was kind of a pain because that was the main yardstick they used to determine whether to call your parents and send you home if you got sick during the school day. If you weren't running fever, you had to either pass out or throw up to be taken seriously. I ran into a similar problem as a young adult, when I had to call a nurse screener to get a doctor's appointment with my HMO. The first question was always what my temperature was, and if I answered 98.5, they didn't think anything of it, even when I told them that my normal resting body temperature is 97.9.

Well, yesterday, I indulged in a little magical thinking about the sniffling and sneezing and said that if I just took a nap, then I'd wake up feeling fine. But I woke up with a temperature over 100. I had to throw in the towel and tell the other choir teachers that there was no way I could or should make it to children's choir. Not only was it probably a bad idea for me to be around children, but I wasn't even sure I could drive. Since I seldom run fever -- this was maybe the fifth time in my whole life I've had a temperature that high -- that particular kind of misery was new to me. In fact, I took notes because in one of my story ideas, there's a scene in which the viewpoint character is really ill, and that illness generates the desperation for him to do the thing that kicks off the story. So I was paying attention to just how it felt, that sense of shivering while my skin felt hot, and I wanted to simultaneously huddle under a blanket and hold a cold soda can against my face.

Fortunately, I did wake up feeling better this morning, after sleeping nearly 12 hours. My temperature is back to normal. I'm still a little stuffy, but the worst of the sniffling and sneezing seems to be over. I'm just really, really weak and tired.

I'm afraid my planned potential trip to Oklahoma early next week isn't going to happen. For one thing, the illness cut short my productivity, so I'm not going to finish the book in time and I won't have time to prepare. But aside from that, it looks like it's going to be cold and rainy most of that time. I wouldn't mind that so much, but on the day I'd be coming home, some of the weather models are calling for potential ice and snow, and I don't think that being in the mountains north of here when there's a chance of ice and snow would be the best idea ever. So maybe I'll let myself have an at-home retreat on those days. Cold, rainy days are good for reading and thinking.

I'm also not sure about the concert I'm supposed to sing in this weekend. Right now, I can barely stand up for a few minutes, so I know I wouldn't make it through the concert, and I don't think I have enough breath to sing with any quality. That's irritating after having made it through all the rehearsals up to this point when I kept wanting to quit.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Problem Characters: The Scene-Stealing Sidekick

I'm continuing my discussion of "problem" characters, and this week's almost falls into the category of "good problem to have": the scene-stealing sidekick. This is the secondary character who leaps off the page and threatens to take over the story, eclipsing the protagonist. Individual readers will always have their own preferences for characters and may like secondary characters better than the heroes, but the scene-stealing sidekick draws the attention of just about everyone who reads the book.

How is this a problem? It may mess with your plot if you as a writer are falling in love with this secondary character and becoming less interested in the hero, so you end up with a bait-and-switch that leaves readers wondering who this story is really about. That makes the story very unfocused if you establish an arc with one character and then sub in another character off the bench for the conclusion of the arc. You may get feedback in rejections like "this other character was more interesting to me, maybe you should write a story about him" or "I just didn't fall in love with your hero."

What do you do about it?

If you have a character who really comes to life as you're writing, you can change your plans and make this character the main character. This can work if you consciously do it and really revise the story to reflect the change rather than unconsciously changing mid-stream. You might be able to give the character with the strong personality the background and situation of the hero so that he can play that role in the story. It's not a good idea to try to write a whole book with a main character who doesn't interest you all that much. Follow your instincts.

Or if that doesn't work, you can raise this character's prominence and make him a co-protagonist, like maybe a buddy-cop situation. You still have the hero's arc with your original hero, but you also have this other character playing a major role in the story.

You can also make your hero more interesting. I would seldom recommend making the sidekick less interesting. The more characters in a story who jump off the page and grab readers' hearts, the better, so what you need to do is make the main characters just as interesting. A lot of this comes back to the things I said about writing the "good guy" hero. Secondary characters are often allowed more leeway while the heroes are stuck in some mold of perceived "goodness," and that keeps them from having a sense of humor, an attitude, and many of the other attributes that make a character interesting. What is it that makes the scene-stealing sidekick so interesting? Can you find that sort of thing in your main character? Let your main character have complex layers, a few shades of gray, and some good lines. Be sure that you're writing scenes that give strong conflict to your main character.

Sometimes you may need to dial back the scene-stealer to keep him in the proper perspective. There are times when too much is too much and a strong character may work better in smaller doses. I'm sure we can all cite examples of TV series in which a minor character struck a chord with audiences, so that this character was given bigger and bigger roles until he took over the show, and the show was weakened as a result. No matter how much you like a character, that character needs to be appropriate to the story you're telling.

If you're the one falling for the sidekick, make sure you're not writing a Mary Sue, a wish-fulfillment self-insertion. Make sure the rules of your universe apply equally to all characters. If your hero can't get away with a particular behavior, the sidekicks can't, either.

As I said, it's a good problem to have when a character comes to life like that. The trick is to maintain the balance in the story. Some characters do just spring fully formed to life and some take a lot of work to gradually develop them. It's worth it to do the work on all the other characters. Readers may not be able to tell which ones were easy for you and which ones were difficult.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Fear the Look

Today is cool and rainy, so I'm hoping for good writing progress. I was really on a roll yesterday afternoon when I had to stop to get ready for a chorale rehearsal. The performance is this weekend. The group is still sounding rather shaky, so I have no idea how the performance will go. The concert is being held at my church so they can use the organ, and they're hiring our organist to play. Last night was our first rehearsal with her, and the director got really strange with her. She's Korean, but she speaks and understands English perfectly well. I guess you could get the impression that she isn't fluent because she's very shy and considers her words very carefully, but he seemed to decide immediately that she didn't understand English, and so he started speaking to her only in Italian musical terms, mixed in with German (for whatever bizarre reason). I started recognizing facial expressions I've seen before when I had her kids in my choir group and they were acting up. She would slowly rise from behind the piano and give them this Look.

So, yeah, this could get interesting. We rehearse with the rest of the orchestra Saturday morning, and if he acts with them the way he acts with the singers and the organist, we'll be lucky if he doesn't end up with a viola bow through his throat. And that's if the organist and I don't manage to turn him to stone or set him on fire if we both give him that Look at the same time.

Needless to say, I will not be joining this group on a long-term basis. And maybe I should touch base with the organist to plan a cue for simultaneously giving him the Look.

But as of Saturday night, I'm free! No more Monday-night rehearsals.

I've also counted the number of children's choir sessions I have left this semester, and we're in the single digits. Wow, time is flying. And I have so many books to write.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Tea Tirades

I did try taking the laptop downstairs when I went to lunch on Friday, and while there was still some goofing around before I got around to writing, I'd written 1,000 words and washed dishes before the time I usually would have started writing, so I'd call that a win. I'll have to try that again today.

I managed about 6,000 words on Friday. I had grand plans to do some writing on Saturday, but I was hit by what I assumed at the time was allergies, but then I started running fever, too. Now the fever and most of the allergy-like symptoms are gone, but I feel really tired and weak. I skipped yoga this morning because I suspected sleep was more important. We'll see if I feel up to going to the Requiem rehearsal tonight. It would be annoying to have made it to all the rehearsals up to this point and not be able to sing in the concert because I got sick right before the final rehearsals.

I want to get writing done today because I'm at a good part in the story. I got to write a scene I've been visualizing for years. Oddly enough, it came out very different from the way I'd visualized it. That may have had something to do with putting it in context, which changed the setting and circumstances slightly, and that then altered the scene itself.

In other weekend news, the preschoolers had to sing in church, and this time they actually sang so that they were audible. It was an achievement. They were very, very cute. Bonus: All the clothing stayed on. No one ran off or cried or tried to jump off the chancel steps. So, all in all, a win.

Weekend movie viewing: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. These movies are basically extended sitcoms for the PBS crowd, but they work when you need a good feel-good film and are craving a chance to watch Maggie Smith and Judi Dench act together. There's a scene near the beginning of the film in which Maggie Smith's character and the young hotel owner are meeting with executives of an American hotel chain, trying to get funding to expand the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel into a chain. Maggie Smith's character asks for a cup of tea, and then she launches into a tirade about how tea requires boiling water to release the flavor from the dried leaves, and yet all she's ever served in America is a cup of tepid water with a teabag on the saucer, and she has to dip the teabag into the tepid water and see if it changes color or flavor at all. I was shouting "Amen!" at that scene because that's exactly what you get. Even if you bring your own tea, trying to get actually hot water for brewing it is a challenge, and you're lucky if you don't get water that has at some point come in contact with a container that's previously held coffee, so that you get coffee-flavored water for brewing your tea. I need to get a recording of this scene on my phone so I can play it at restaurants when I'm served "tea," since it sounds so much better when Maggie Smith says it (even if it's in the voice of a character who's a former maid rather than in the voice of the Dowager Countess).

Friday, February 19, 2016

A Day in the Life

I was thinking through my daily routine yesterday, looking for ways to improve my time management, and I thought it might be interesting to share a day in the life of a writer -- well, this writer, anyway.

I don't have a particular wake-up time. That tends to vary by season. I'm not a morning person, but that doesn't mean I don't wake up early. I just don't get up and become functional early. That time between waking up and full consciousness is the best time for brainstorming, so I may lie in bed for an hour or so after I wake up, thinking. One of the nice things about not having a set schedule is the luxury to do this. When I get hungry or am out of thoughts, I get up and have breakfast. I make a whole pot of tea and put it in a thermos to have throughout the day. I'll linger over breakfast and a cup of tea while I read the newspaper (except for the comics). That's another luxury from not having to get up and go every morning, and I enjoy it. Afterward, I get dressed and head upstairs to my office.

I'm still sort of easing into the day, so I make the transition to work mode by checking e-mail and dealing with anything urgent, skimming through the Facebook and Twitter feeds, and checking in on sites about industry news. I'll get my second cup of tea and then allow myself a little "fun" reading online, then I write my blog post for the day and do a little social media stuff. The morning is also when I do business stuff like bookkeeping and when I try to do some publicity. If I have extra time before lunch, I may let myself do a little more "fun" online stuff, but this is where my personal weakness tends to kick in and I start doing what I call "doom looping," where I check e-mail, check my social media accounts, and check in on message boards. I may post something at various places. And then I go back around the same sites over and over to see if anything's changed. I'm trying to make a conscious effort to check once and then walk away. This is also the time when I try to run any errands, like going to the bank, library, or post office or running to the grocery store.

I eat lunch while watching the second half hour of the noon news and reading the newspaper comics. When I'm done eating, I'll work the New York Times crossword in the newspaper. After lunch, it's back to the office to check e-mail and social media before disconnecting from the Internet and going to write. This is another spot where doom looping can kick in, and I'm considering just taking the computer offline when I go to lunch. Starting to write is the hard part of the day. This is one reason why I don't have wi-fi, though I know I could probably get the same effect by turning off the router during this time. If things are going well, having Internet or not makes no difference. The trick is when I hit a hard spot where I don't know what happens next or I'm not sure how a scene should go. If I'm not online, I force myself to work through it. If I'm online, it's way too easy to decide to just check my e-mail, and it snowballs from there as I put off dealing with the difficult thing. So instead, I take the laptop somewhere else in the house. On nice days, I work on my patio. On cold days, there's a chaise in the loft over the living room. In the summer, I sit under the ceiling fan either on my sofa or on my bed.

I try to work in half-hour increments, getting up in between to do things like laundry, dishes, exercise, music practice, etc. If I meet my word count or time goal before it's time to make dinner, I'll plug back into the Internet to check in on things. I generally try to get my writing done in the afternoon, but if I don't and I don't have an evening activity, I may do another session in the evening. If I did get it all done, I'll either watch TV while knitting or I'll read. I'm really trying to stay offline at night, though the temptation is there to do some socializing. I guess the Internet is my water cooler, since I don't have co-workers in the normal way. I just need to be better about how and how much I use it.

I've told myself that if I finish this draft by the end of next week, the following week I may take a few days and go back to the mountains in Oklahoma. It's off-season, but should be warm enough for a little hiking. I need trees and hills. And then I can sit on the porch and brainstorm another book. That may be a good test of my plan to travel and try to write in the evenings in my hotel room. I got my new passport in the mail yesterday, so now I can go when an opportunity arises.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Good, Bad, and Blurred Lines

I had an absolutely insane night with the children's choir. I don't know what was in the water, but they were really crazy. We had to go to the sanctuary to practice for singing in church Sunday, and there we had to keep one kid from trying to jump from the chancel to the ground, bypassing the steps. Meanwhile, another kid started undressing himself. Later, we had to put tape on the floor to make kids stand in a spot where everyone could see the poster we're learning the song from. They were all pressing right against the wall, and I was afraid that someone was going to end up suffocated, while nobody could actually see the poster.

I was still feeling so frantic that I felt like I couldn't get a good breath during the adult choir rehearsal, which got interesting because the first few things we sang all had long, sustained phrases, and I could barely get enough air to sing a measure. I also got a surprise solo, so I got to more or less sight read it in front of the choir (though I'd sung through the piece on my own at home). But since I sounded pretty good for that, I think stage fright won't be much of an issue when it comes time to sing the piece, even though the piece is essentially a soprano solo with the choir coming in for one verse. It's a pretty early-American piece that has a bit of a Sacred Harp vibe to it.

Meanwhile, I'm still working on the Rebel Mechanics sequel, and something I'm finding interesting about this series is that there isn't a clear good/evil divide. Yeah, we want the rebels to succeed, and it's bad that people are being oppressed, but the individuals involved in the oppressive regime aren't mustache-twirling villains. One on one, as people, they're decent sorts much of the time. There are not-so-nice people doing questionable things among the "good" guys, and some of the better people are part of what might be thought of as the "bad" faction. I was working on a scene yesterday in which the lines got really blurry, and that got very interesting. I don't know if this is too nuanced for young adult, but I think we could all use a reminder that someone isn't necessarily evil for disagreeing with you, and cruel actions are wrong, even if they're in support of a good cause. Being "right" doesn't give anyone a license to do whatever they want. People can have similar goals but with different ideas about how to get there, and neither side is necessarily wrong or bad.

Of course, that makes it a bit more challenging to write and may be why the book didn't take off like crazy. There wasn't anyone we could all get together in enjoying hating.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pivotal Reading

They're doing a reread of the Katherine Kurtz Deryni novels over at, and that's spurred me to dig them up and join in. Those were my absolute favorite books when I was in high school and had a lot to do with me wanting to be a fantasy novelist (up to that point, I was mostly trying to write space opera-style science fiction). My earliest attempts at writing fantasy were hugely influenced by those books. I was also rather in love with most of the characters and that world. I got the chance to meet Katherine Kurtz at a convention back in 2010, and there was some serious fangirl hyperventilating, especially when I ended up seated next to her at an autographing. Having one of your idols pick up your book to read the back cover is one of those golden career moments. I did get to hang out with her for a bit, though I mostly ended up hanging out with her husband for most of the convention. She was guest of honor, so she was busy a lot, and her husband and I discovered that we had similar backgrounds as military brats and had even lived in some of the same places, though at very different times. I sort of ended up being the designated Guest of Honor Spouse Sitter for that convention.

I don't think I'd read the original Deryni trilogy since the early 90s, so this is my first time to re-read it after becoming a fantasy novelist in my own right and since meeting her. I liked the Camber era better, so those are the books I've reread more often. It's a little weird to be looking at what was very early work with the eyes of someone who is more accomplished a writer now than she was at that time. There are some obvious early novel signs, but my mental critic ended up getting sucked back into that world almost as deeply as I went back in my teens.

That's made me think about other books that were pivotal for me as a reader and as a writer and whether I should try revisiting them.

In elementary school, I went through a phase in which I'd go around the library shelves, looking for books with key words relating to whatever my obsession at the time was. The children's section of the post library put fiction around the perimeter, so I could walk around the room scanning for things I might find interesting. There was the horse phase in second and third grades, but no one book stands out there. That switched to the witch/magic phase in third grade, probably influenced by the daily syndicated reruns of Bewitched. Oddly, no one book from that stands out. The book that caught me from that phase turned out not to be a witch book at all. It was The Mystery of the Witch Tree Symbol, a Nancy Drew book that was actually about the Amish. But I checked it out because of the "witch" in the title, and then I got hooked on Nancy Drew and mysteries in general. "What Would Nancy Do?" became my mantra in getting through elementary school. I think one of my very first attempts at writing fiction was a spooky mystery story for a class essay. I re-read some of those books in my mid-20s when I was helping collect book donations to start a new library in my hometown, and someone donated a nearly complete set of Nancy Drew books. I picked up a few to read before I delivered them to the library, and while I could see what my 8-9-year-old self loved, they weren't very satisfying to an adult reader. Still, it made for a fun nostalgia trip (though perhaps not the best airplane reading for a business trip -- try reading Nancy Drew in public as an adult, and you get some funny looks).

At the beginning of fourth grade, I saw Star Wars, which got me into science fiction. I started with the novelization, and then my parents gave me the Flinx books by Alan Dean Foster as something similar that I might like (we didn't know until much later that Alan had ghost-written the Star Wars novelization). I read and re-read those books, and also the Icerigger books and his Spellsinger fantasy series, and I branched out from there to other science fiction. I continued on with all those into adulthood, so I think they still hold up.

I got the fantasy bug in sixth grade when my mom gave me a copy of The Silver Chair, part of the Chronicles of Narnia. I ended up inhaling the series, up to a point, when I realized I was almost out of them, and I rationed the last couple of books, which was easier because I also discovered The Lord of the Rings around that time. I'd read The Hobbit in fourth grade, around the time the animated movie came on TV, but while I liked it, it didn't quite hook me the way the big trilogy did when I discovered it. I branched out to whatever other fantasy I could find at that time, like the Lloyd Alexander books and the Oz books. I've re-read the Narnia books as the new movies have come out, and I was surprised by how much detail I seem to have filled in for myself because the books themselves are sparse at times, and the characters aren't exactly three-dimensional. I seem to have used the books as a framework to build my own mental stories upon. I re-read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in college and found it a tough slog, so I'm not sure how my 11-year-old self tore through those books. I liked The Hobbit when I re-read it a few years ago.

Seventh grade was when I got into suspense thrillers and World War II stuff, possibly because we were living in Germany and had visited the Obersalzburg area on vacation the previous summer. Jack Higgins was my favorite author overall in that genre, and I've re-read some of those books recently, but my favorite single book was Call it Treason by George Howe. I had dreams of turning this book into a movie, and I've only just now discovered by searching for info on this book that it was made into a movie called Decision Before Dawn back in 1951, and now I must find it (it even won some Oscars). I haven't re-read it in a long time. I checked it out of the library repeatedly, then we moved and I didn't find it again until I located a disintegrating copy in a used bookstore. I'd have to read it very carefully.

And then I discovered the Deryni books, mostly because the covers jumped out at me. They were by the same artist who'd done the covers of most of the Flinx books, Darrell K. Sweet (someone I've also met), and that caught my eye. I devoured the first trilogy, was madly in love with the characters, and so when I looked at her other books and found that they were set in a different time with different characters, I resisted reading them. Then I was at a flea market with a friend, who was very excited to show me the used book stall there, and I wasn't interested in anything at the stall but felt like I should buy something because my friend was so excited, and they had a copy of Camber of Culdi that I bought. It was months before I read it, and I discovered that I liked those characters even better. After that, I went on to buy her books new or even in hardcover. And now I'm delving into them again after all these years.

In writing news, I made good progress yesterday, still rewriting some existing stuff, but adding words, and it already feels better.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


I got sidetracked from working yesterday (probably caused by con brain holdover) with the thought that I really need to go to New York. Well, maybe not "need," because I don't have any meetings I need to make or specific research I need to do. But I could always stand to visit and refresh my research, and I haven't gone for more than about 24 hours in more than six years. And that thought started me down a rabbit trail of hotel searching. That then continued this morning. But hey, I said I was going to be traveling this year.

In other news … I'm starting to see why they needed me for the chorale doing this Requiem. There isn't actually a second soprano part, but there are first and second tenor parts, and there's a tenor shortage, so in those parts, they're moving altos to first tenor and second sopranos to altos, and most of the strong singers are the second sopranos, which means they needed a strong first soprano. So they have me. But I have a bad habit from being in solid choirs of being more of a follower than a leader. I match what's around me, but you can't do that if the people around you aren't quite right, and I tend to assume that if I'm different from the others, I'm wrong. It doesn't help that this isn't my normal choir, so I hesitate to jump out in front and take charge as a leader, and I don't know enough about these other singers to know whether I can assume that I'm right or wrong. The director was really yelling at our section last night, and I had major high school flashbacks to when a teacher would yell at the class and I'd assume he was talking to me and just about kill myself to try to do better when really I was already doing it right and he was yelling at the others but didn't want to single me out. I'm pretty sure I was mostly right and the others were wrong, but I still felt like I was being constantly criticized.

So I've realized that it's going to be on me, so I need to know it really well and be confident. That may help the others with me.

But all this is really making me appreciate my usual director in my choir. This guy has an … unusual directing style. I now know for sure I won't be trying to join this choir on an ongoing basis.

And there's just one more Monday-night rehearsal, then the following Saturday I'll be spending most of the day on this leading up to the performance, and then I'm done. It is pretty music, but the Faure isn't my favorite Requiem.

Now, though, I need to write so I can justify rewarding myself with a vacation/research trip. I'm also contemplating a short trip back to the state park in Oklahoma as a quasi writing retreat/relaxation between books.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Convention Inspiration

I've made it through a convention weekend, and in spite of having a "normal" Sunday, I'm still having a typical post-convention Monday in which I'm inspired and motivated to write but utterly lacking in energy. It helped, though, that I didn't have yoga today because of the holiday, so I may have a bit more oomph by this afternoon. I've also taken care of the morning grocery errands (with bonus cheap post-Valentine's chocolate!).

Most of my panels this weekend were on various aspects of history, which of course ended up generating a lot of ideas in my crazy brain.

Current fictional universes/story ideas developing themselves in my brain count: 8

I had one of my more interesting reading sessions at a convention. I was paired up in a slot with Stephen Sanders, a steampunk poet. He writes Victorian-style narrative adventure poetry and performs it, which matches my performance reading style and my subject matter. Since his pieces were rather short, we went back and forth, trading off. I think that made things interesting for the audience rather than listening to one person drone on and on.

I should probably come up with more performance aspects for my readings. I incorporate singing into some of my Rebel Mechanics-related readings because of that Yankee Doodle song, but maybe I should come up with more. I actually have the song that's pivotal to the Fairy Tale series plot written and could sing that. I have the voice, so I may as well use it.

For now, though, it's all about the writing. I have my work plans for the next few months, and I need to get busy. Fortunately, I have a mostly free (aside from some extra music stuff) weekend ahead, and it may even be cloudy/rainy. That means a good chance of a writing marathon.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Romantic Stuff

I've got to get geared up for a convention this weekend, and then there's that Valentine's thing. I actually don't care about Valentine's Day one way or another, and that's not just me being bitter and single. It just seems odd to have a random day designated for romance, whether or not that day is meaningful to you. Each couple should have their own day that means something to them and their relationship, not something dictated by a bunch of corporate marketing departments. Really, when you think about it, Valentine's Day is like the least romantic thing ever because it's romance on demand, without meaning. It's obligation rather than sincere sentiment.

But it is a handy time to discuss what is and isn't romantic and to make lists, and such. Earlier this week on NCIS, one character was facing her first Valentine's Day after a divorce and said she wanted to just stay home and watch a movie that night. One of her co-workers gave her a Valentine's Day gift: the DVD of Aliens for a movie to watch that night. That cracked me up because of a discussion here a few years ago, in which I declared my view that Aliens is actually a very romantic movie. Seriously, that scene where Hicks teaches Ripley how to use the gun is totally swoonworthy (and there are no other movies -- Hicks and Ripley got married and adopted Newt and lived happily ever after, with the occasional alien incursion to battle because they need a bit of excitement in their lives, so there).

For more recent movies, I guess Stardust would be high on my list where I actually like the relationship and feel like I could imagine the couple really working on a long-term basis. And, yikes, even that isn't truly recent. I liked the way the relationship was developed in the recent version of Cinderella, and Far from the Madding Crowd was a nice one. Mostly, though, romance in movies has been pretty awful lately.

On TV, my current favorite relationship is Emma and Hook on Once Upon a Time. That show is such a hot mess in so many ways, but this is the one thing they seem to be getting mostly right. Yeah, they started as enemies, so there was some bickering, but then he quickly realized that his life had gone down a bad path if someone as awesome as she is thought he was a jerk, and he made a sincere attempt to change. He's gone through goodness knows how many portals to other worlds on her behalf. Once thing I like is that it's been mostly a slow build (well, from our perspective. In the show timeline, it's been months, even though it's taken years for us). They went from enemies to allies to friends, to closer friends with a bit of flirtation, to actually being romantically involved while still being friends. It wasn't one of those TV "I hate you/kiss/bed" relationships. Now that they're together, it isn't always smooth sailing (there's the minor issue right now that he's dead, but she's planning to do something about that), but most of the conflicts they're dealing with are external, and they're facing them together. It's proof that the Moonlighting curse doesn't have to apply if you do it well. You can get together a couple without it sapping all energy from the show.

For music, I have to share this:

Sigh. This is from the Broadway show The Scarlet Pimpernel, as performed by the divine Terrence Mann. I suppose it's not entirely a happy song, as it's about a relationship that has ended, and it is sung by the villain, but remove it from context and it sounds like someone who believes in what the other person can be and hopes for her to be able to live up to that potential. I have this as the alarm for my cell phone alarm clock. If you have to wake up, you may as well wake up to something like this. Also, it starts softly and builds, so it's not jarring, and I want to listen to it, so I don't hit snooze.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Convention Schedule and the No-Whining Season

It's a convention week, so I seem to be getting very little done other than preparing. Today I need to work out my reading and bake some cookies for the FenCon party. In case you're in the north Texas area and are planning to come to ConDFW, here's where you'll find me:

On Friday:
4 p.m. -- World Building in Steampunk
6 p.m. -- 2016 Movie Forecast for the Geek Nation

On Saturday:
11 a.m. -- Unlikely Heroes, Worlds, and Wars
1 p.m. -- Reading (I'm probably going to preview the Rebel Mechanics sequel, and there might be cookies)
3 p.m. -- Autographing (copies of A Kind of Magic will be available, either through me or one of the dealers -- I haven't worked that out yet)
6 p.m. -- Choose Your Destiny: Researching Alternate History

I don't have any Sunday programming, so I probably won't be at the convention on Sunday. There's nothing on the grid that really grips me to attend, and the con hotel is charging for parking. It'll be kind of nice to spend part of the weekend at a convention, then get a real rest and recovery day before I dive into a new week in which I have a lot of stuff I want to get done. I had a chat with my agent yesterday and now have a list of projects to work on. No announcements yet until I see where they go, but I need to start developing.

Meanwhile, I've decided what to give up for Lent: griping. I'm classifying that as unproductive complaining. You could probably also call that whining. Constructive criticism to someone who can do something about it is allowed, as is critique of entertainment stuff. I'm talking more about that "woe is me, my career is hard" kind of stuff. I think I can manage not to do that "out loud," either to people in person or on social media. The real trick will be stopping it in my head. When I catch myself doing it, I need to make myself do something positive that could change things because just complaining isn't helping.

And now I'm positive I need to figure out what to make for lunch.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Problem Characters: The Good Guy

I'm continuing my series of writing posts about writing problem characters, and this time I have one that may seem odd: the good guy hero. This is more of a recent issue, in which writers seem more fascinated with the bad guys or the bad boy type protagonists, so the good guys come out bland, and that makes audiences not like them while they adore the bad boys, and it creates a downward spiral. They're even trying to make Superman darker and grittier these days because they think that's what's required to make him interesting.

But it is possible to write good guys that people like (at least, according to my reader mail about my good-guy characters). Here are some ways to go about it (and by "guys" I mean both male and female characters, and a "bad boy" can also be a "bad girl"):

You can give good guys a sad or difficult backstory. This seems to have become the trademark of the woobie bad boys/villains whose sad stories are the excuse for their villainy, but it wasn't always the case. We used to like rags-to-riches heroes or those who overcame something. In real life, the people who accomplish a lot of great things usually came from a place of adversity or even trauma. Put as much effort into figuring out the past of your good guys as you do your villains.

Don't try to make good guys perfect. Perfect characters are boring, and all people should be allowed to be human. People can lose their temper, have a bad day, get frustrated, make mistakes, and make bad choices and still be good guys. The difference between bad guys and good guys is that good guys can pull themselves together and get back on track. They recognize where they went wrong and try to do better. They take responsibility for their actions instead of blaming others. And they're usually not deliberately harming others with their mistakes or missteps.

Good guy heroes can also have character flaws and blind spots, like any person. This gives the characters room for growth. If they're already fully realized, mature human beings at the start of the story, they don't have anywhere to go. If they have a weakness at the start of the story, they can grow and change, and that painful process of growth helps us cheer for them.

Let the good guys have a sense of humor. You can be a nice person fighting for the greater good and still be sarcastic or tell jokes. A good guy can make quips and see the irony in things. If the bad guy gets to make witty, sarcastic quips while the hero has to remain stoic, of course the bad guy is going to be more interesting.

It's important to let the good guys' actions speak for themselves. If you keep telling readers how great the good guys are, readers are likely to resent them or start looking for flaws. Let them figure out for themselves how good the characters are. It's even more powerful if you show the characters being good while they're being looked down upon and misunderstood by other characters. Let the readers be the ones to decide who's an awesome person, but give them the evidence they need to come to that conclusion in the characters' actions.

You don't absolutely have to make your protagonist be of the good guy sort, but if you're tending to write bad boys and antiheroes just because you don't think good characters are interesting, maybe you need to adjust your thinking about how you create your characters.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Second Coming of Mary Stewart

It appears that I wasn't selected for the local teen book festival (yeah, in spite of being local and having a book on the library association's list of recommended reading) because they've announced all the attendees. Not that they've notified me either way, which I believe is rather rude. I had a long bout of feeling sorry for myself yesterday because it's already being a very tough year, career-wise. My agent actually forgot about me (well, something I'd sent months ago), it's not looking good about my publisher picking up my option book, royalties are way down across the board, and now this. Oh, and an out-of-town for-profit convention that invited me out of the blue (but for which I'd have to pay my own travel expenses) is only planning to put me on three panels for the whole weekend -- basically, they're paying in "exposure" without providing the exposure, so I'm considering backing out because I can't justify the considerable time and expense for so little payoff.

It's enough to make me wonder if this business is worth it and if I even have a future. But then I remembered that quitting would require getting a regular job, and that would probably require leaving the house, and I hated my old job, and I'm probably unemployable at my age with my last real job being more than a decade ago, and it would take a lot of retraining to do anything else. So I guess I'll just have to make this work and become really successful, and then when this book festival wants me, I'll laugh and tell them that I'd rather not deal with them after the way they behaved the last time I dealt with them.

Which means I'd better get busy writing. "Success is the best form of revenge" schemes require so much work.

In other news, in my day of lazy reading this weekend, I found a new-to-me author who seems to be basically the Second Coming of Mary Stewart -- contemporary, sort of Gothic romantic suspense. The author is Susanna Kearsley, and the book I read was The Splendour Falls. A young Englishwoman is invited by her cousin to join him for a holiday in a French town with a famous castle. The cousin is an academic who studies the Plantagenets, and this town and castle were held by them. There are legends about a great treasure the wife of King John hid there when the castle was under siege, and the cousin thinks he's found a good local source to discuss this. But when the heroine arrives, her cousin isn't there to meet her at the train station as promised. He's a notorious flake, though, so she doesn't think much of it and makes friends among the other guests at the hotel while she figures he'll eventually show up after he's done being sidetracked. Then she learns about a recent suspicious death and another local legend related to treasure, and she discovers something that leads her to believe that her cousin has actually been in town.

There are all the things that I used to love in the old Mary Stewart books -- picturesque setting (I even looked it up, and now I want to go there), a couple of possible love interests, but you don't know which one she'll end up with, secrets and mystery, a tie to history. And it doesn't have some of the stuff I used to dislike in those books. The heroine is a lot stronger and less of a victim, and the "dark, dangerous" man who treats her like a child isn't shown as all that appealing. This book was originally published in 1995 (this seems to be a newer edition, published in 2013), so in a lot of respects it's not that different from the Mary Stewart books. It's before the age when people would have just Googled to get information and before cell phones were so ubiquitous (it would have ruined the plot if she'd been able to just call her cousin and say, "I'm at the train station, where are you?"). This one was modern, but not too modern.

And the wonderful thing is that there are lots of books by this author, so next free weekend I get, I'll have to stock up from the library.

I will confess that ever since I started thinking about doing some traveling, when I read a book set in a hotel, with the guests as characters, I find myself thinking about how I'd be described as one of the guests. Probably that quiet one who keeps to herself and is prone to long, solitary walks and is therefore the first suspect.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Mixed-Up Movies

I had an absolutely delightful lazy weekend. I went to bed early Friday night, for plenty of reading time before turning out the light (still earlier than normal). Saturday, I slept late, had a leisurely breakfast, then spent the day reading. I got through a whole book that afternoon. I think the last time I did something like that, it may have been a holiday. I also managed to get to a couple of HBO movies I've been planning to watch.

First, there was Kingsman. This is the one with the team of "gentleman" secret agents. You may recall the trailer with the scene of Colin Firth very politely beating up a gang of street toughs without wrinkling his bespoke suit. The concept of this movie, an updated and high-tech Knights of the Round Table, had a lot of promise, and it has a great cast. But I felt like the whole thing was mishandled. The story focuses on a young street punk who gets recruited to try for an open spot on this modern Round Table. These operatives are usually recruited from among the upper crust, but his father had once saved the life of Colin Firth's character, so he's being considered for the role now.

One of the issues I had with this movie was that it didn't seem to know if it was trying to be a spoof of secret agent movies along the lines of Austin Powers, playing with the idea of dapper gentlemen kicking ass, or if it was meant as a serious secret agent movie. Another issue was that it was a transformation/coming of age movie that skipped the actual transformation process. They established that this kid had the physical skills already -- he'd been a champion gymnast, had served briefly in the military, and grew up in a tough neighborhood -- but what he was lacking was social graces. They even mentioned Eliza Doolittle. But we never saw him learning any of this stuff, even though in the final confrontation he's there in his nice suit, with his posh accent, and knowing all about the finer things. It's not helped that they seem to have conflated testing and training. We see the trials the candidates for the one open slot go through and those are kind of training-like, but we don't see them actually being trained as one of these operatives.

My other issue is that they don't seem to know what a gentleman is and don't really seem to have made any effort to come up with their own definition. They mostly seem to have settled on a vague "wears nice clothes and knows about good drinks" rather than dealing with a code of chivalry and behavior. That gives the sense that this movie was written by and for 13-year-old boys. These gentleman agents swear like sailors, so there's little contrast other than accent between the way the agents speak and the way the street toughs speak. The final test for which candidate is chosen is something no true gentleman would do. And yet a lot of the main character's strengths seem to come from the fact that in spite of his rough upbringing, he has instincts that tend to lead him to behave in a chivalrous manner, though it doesn't seem like the script is aware of this. Then we also have the treatment of women, which was bad enough that I noticed and was bothered by it. One of the candidates for the open slot is a girl, and she seems to step right out of the "how not to write a strong female character" playbook. For one thing, she's "the girl," with that being her defining trait. They seem to be trying to write her as a Strong Female Character, so she's the one who's most capable in the group while also being the only one who's nice to the hero. Except then the way they pave the way for the hero to win in spite of her awesomeness is to tear her down. She's whiny and afraid and only gets through some of the tasks because of a pep talk from the hero. She plays a role in the final showdown, but it's off to the side, and her "enemy" is her own fears. She doesn't have any other antagonist to fight or deal with. And then there's the princess -- the one person who stood up to the villain and refused to go along with his scheme, so she's been held prisoner, something right out of my "strong female character" guide. But then at the end of the movie she's literally given to the hero as a reward. I wanted to throw things at the screen.

So, if it's on TV and you like secret agent movies, there are some amusing moments and a good cast (yes, that is Mark Hamill playing a British professor). But it's not what it should have been.

On the extreme other end of the spectrum, I watched The Water Diviner, which is not what you'd expect of a Russell Crowe film (he stars in it and directed). It's sort of an artsy period piece about the aftermath of World War I. An Australian farmer who lost all three of his sons at Gallipoli heads to Turkey after the death of his wife to see if he can find his sons' bodies and bring them home. Surprisingly, he gets the most help from a Turkish officer who's now being made to help the British catalogue the battlefield. The fate of his sons isn't entirely what he'd been led to believe, and so he has to go on a dangerous journey to find the truth.

I recall that there were some criticisms that this movie didn't quite know what it wanted to be, and I might agree, because it's a lot of things all at once. I just happen to like those things and the way they were put together. It's got mystery, adventure, romance, plus a lot of philosophical musing about war and grief. There are dashes of magical realism in that the main character is a diviner, someone who can find the right place to dig a well, but that also helps him find other things. It's probably tied up too neatly for those looking for more of a philosophical art piece, but it moves a little too slowly for those looking for an action film. I liked it, though. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Whether it's a wide shot of the Outback or an image of a man sitting alone at a table in a hotel dining room, every shot looks like a work of art, and the film lets these shots linger so we can enjoy them. There's no MTV-like quick-cutting. And it must have haunted me because I think it inspired some dreams last night. The war scenes are pretty vivid, as is the aftermath, but I don't think it's to the violent extremes of a lot of movies these days. It's an odd little movie that may only be to some tastes.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Driving Authors Crazy

I got word yesterday that I will be on programming at the next WorldCon, MidAmericaCon2, which will be in Kansas City in August. I'm pondering next year's WorldCon, which will be in Helsinki. I'm not entirely sure what business advantage I'd have of going there, as my books aren't published in that end of the world, other than my English-language e-books, but it would be a tax-deductible trip to Finland and a chance to visit some of the other Nordic countries along the way, and maybe exposure to a new audience of people who might pick up the e-books.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting to learn whether or not I'll be at the regional teen book festival that was started by my local library system. Unless I missed an e-mail along the way either of the "thank you for your interest, but there were so many authors and we only have so many slots" or the "yes, we want you, but please keep this under your hat because we're doing dramatic revelations" variety, they're letting authors know they were selected at the same time they're notifying the public, a few at a time via clever social media reveals. They put together teaser pictures with just a word from a book cover and have people guess the authors. And if there was no definitive yes or no message to the authors at any time, this seems like a surefire way to drive people insane. Maybe I should have a chat with my local librarian about this. I don't know if they realize just how annoying this is for authors to have to wait and watch for the information to trickle out and not being able to make plans for that weekend one way or another until they get around to announcing all the participants who were selected. I think they're down to their last few authors, so I'm getting the impression I wasn't selected, but if they weren't notifying people and verifying that they were still interested before making the public announcement, I don't dare accept other events for that weekend, which is possibly going to shut me out of those other events. It is possible that any notification went to my publisher rather than to me (though the confirmation that they received my application went to me), and my publisher doesn't seem to remember I exist, so they may never have passed any news on to me, one way or another. If it went to the publicist, I'll never know about it. And I wasn't part of this week's revelations, so I think there's one set to go.

This is when I vow that I'm going to go out and write another book that will end up being so successful that one day they will beg me to come to their event, and I will laugh at them because I no longer need it.

As I said on Facebook yesterday, this business is like getting a public performance review on every single project, where everyone else not only watches what the "boss" says to you but also gets to chime in with their own comments and then decide how much you get paid. It's not a business for thin-skinned people or wimps. Even tough people who are good at tuning out the rest of the world get discouraged every so often.

On the up side, I have a free weekend ahead of me, a convention next weekend, and I just came up with an idea for what I think will be a cool short story.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Recommended Rebel Mechanics Reading

Yesterday as I was working out how to incorporate actual conflict into my story, I realized I should probably map out the rest of the major events, and then I figured it might be a good idea to take another look at the synopsis for this book, and then I realized that there was a whole plot line I'd planned but was neglecting. I remembered pieces of it, but I'd forgotten the underlying reason. And it's good, so it's not one of those things where once I start writing I can forget the synopsis because I'll have internalized all the good stuff. Of course, I got the idea for what to do about it right as it was time to leave for choir. Fortunately, it wasn't a normal children's choir night. It was the children's worship service, and my kids' role was to sing the prelude, so after they were done standing in front of the church, clapping occasionally and making no sound at all, I slipped out the back and sat in the fellowship hall, frantically scribbling out notes and ideas before I forgot everything.

While I was digging through my notes, I found some of my original notes and thoughts for Rebel Mechanics. I spent about a year doing reading and research related to that story idea before I even had a full plot, and I read more than 50 books while I was developing and researching that story. Since it may be a while before anyone gets to read the sequel, I thought I'd share some recommended reading of things that went into this book that you might also enjoy.

One of the first things I did when I had the first germ of an idea that my heroine might be a governess was re-read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (I read a few other Bronte works while I was at it). My initial concept was to go kind of Gothic with it, with my heroine working in a house full of secrets and her employer a mysterious single man responsible for children. That went by the wayside once I started developing characters because I don't really do dark and brooding very well, but this is kind of the ultimate governess book.

Another inspiration book was The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy. That's where I went with the bandit thing once I realized dark and brooding wasn't going to work. This novel is about a nobleman who secretly helps rescue people from the Terror following the French Revolution, and he deflects suspicion by acting like a fop. I decided to make my bandit act like a nerd instead. This book reads surprisingly well even now, and it's fun to think of an adventure novel from the early 1900s that was written by a woman.

To get a sense of the Gilded Age New York in which I wanted to work, I read several novels by Edith Wharton, including The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. There was also Washington Square by Henry James. These are actually set about a decade earlier than my book, when living up by the park was practically being pioneering, but the manners and activities of the upper crust are similar. For the opposite side of the equation, Maggie by Stephen Crane provided a look at life in the tenements and among the street kids. I wielded that book like a weapon at every editor I dealt with who questioned the slang and language of the kids (particularly the term "outta sight"). The book was written in that period, and I took a lot of my street kid slang right from it (though I also made up some of the Rebel Mechanics' slang).

I know that novels don't necessarily count as a reference, but in these cases, the novelists were capturing a particular era and were trying to do so at least somewhat accurately. They were novels written either in the period itself or written by people who had lived that life in that era, so they were based on first-person observation. I also read a bunch of entirely unrelated books that were written around that period. I was particularly interested in the use of language by novelists working in that era because it gave a good sense of what words were and weren't in use at the time. For instance, there's a lot of question about when the word "okay" came into common use, but since I didn't find it in any novels of the period, I'm not using it in these books. That can be a real struggle. I didn't realize just how much I use it.

On the non-fiction side of things, I got some sense of the life growing up in Gilded Age New York from Consuelo Vanderbilt's memoir, The Glitter and the Gold (if you get the Smithsonian Channel, her story is one of those featured in the Million Dollar Princesses series). She was the heiress who married the Duke of Marlborough, and her story is fascinating, but for my purposes, I focused on the story of her childhood.

For the other end of the economic spectrum, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis is a heartbreaking look at lower Manhattan in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I think one of the earlier editions in which the photos were turned into engravings is available on Project Gutenberg, but it's worth it to find a more recent edition that has the actual photos. Riis was a journalist and social reformer who took a camera into the tenements to document the living conditions, especially among recent immigrants. We studied this book in journalism school, and I dug it out again as a reference for this book.

There were dozens more books on life in New York in the 1800s, as well as books on the American Revolution, since I had to research how things happened in order to move the events to a different time. I read about a few other revolutions to see what other things might happen. Plus I researched airships and steam engines, the development of electrical power, other transportation technologies, clothing, and interior design of the period. Fortunately, most of those mansions along Central Park were well-photographed because almost all of them were torn down within a couple of decades. I suppose I should find my list of sources and put a "read more about it" page on my web site.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Working out Conflict

Yesterday was a regrouping day on the current project. I was trying to figure out whether it was time to jump to the next part of the story or if I needed something else to happen in this part, so I went back and re-read from the beginning. I was stuck in the middle for so long that I had this impression of really slow pacing there, and it turns out that part flew by pretty quickly. However, it does seem like my recent conflict aversion has struck, and so there are some pivotal scenes that need fixing. I was dealing with conflict by having someone point out an issue and then everyone else agreeing that this was a good point. So, yeah, that's going to need work, and I should probably do it before I move on because it's possible that in redoing it and really digging into the conflict, I'll come up with an idea for something that will happen down the line. Rewriting now may mean less rewriting later, and the rewriting is going to have to happen at some point.

There's one idea I got recently from a history documentary I watched, and now I'm trying to figure out where to fit it in. There are two segments of the story where it could work, but I'm not sure which is best. It may be time for a pro/con list.

Meanwhile, one of my other ideas is really taking shape, though it's now gone in some really unexpected directions. In figuring out the why this person, why now part, I came up with a pretty complex backstory. And then I was trying to figure out how to fit that in. The backstory is its own story that's as strong as the present-day story, but without the context of the present-day story, it would lose impact, so I don't think it would work well to write it in series form, with a book about the backstory and a book about the present day. It's too much for just a prologue or even for weaving in to explain the present.

And then I got the idea that it might work in a structure like on Lost or Once Upon a Time, where there's a flashback story and a present-day story woven together. Though this would be more like the first season of Once Upon a Time, with a complete backstory story in the flashbacks, rather than the way they've gone more recently with the character-centric episodes. And one character's backstory might be non-chronological, starting with more recent events and then working backward. I had a non-linear story on my literary bucket list but never had the plot for it, and now I do.

And to think, this was going to be my "easy" book that I could just write while I'm working out the details on a fourth Fairy Tale book. I've never even attempted something that jumps around in time and tells multiple stories simultaneously. I think it'll be fun, but not quick and easy.

It's too bad I don't have anything relatively quick and easy ready to go because weird things are happening to book sales. Even with a relatively recent release, which usually bumps things for a while, sales are really down, and I'm hearing that from a lot of authors. We aren't sure if it's because the market is being flooded with cheap books now that everyone's jumping on the publishing bandwagon, if it's the "Kindle Unlimited" thing that's keeping people from buying new books when they can get all the books they want with a monthly subscription (and it has to be exclusive to Kindle to be included in that, which is why I'm not doing it), or something else. I don't know if more promotion will help, since I don't know the cause of the drop and it's across the board, so the only way around it is to write more. And pray for something big to happen to give me a boost, like a celebrity becoming a fan and gushing all over Twitter, or getting a major award nomination, or getting a TV/movie deal, or getting another traditional publishing contract with a publisher who actually does something to push and promote the book.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Book Report: Uprooted

One thing I'm trying to do more of this year is read. It's one of my favorite things to do, and it's essential to my work, but I haven't done as much of it as I'd like. So, I'm trying to make myself get away from the TV and the computer earlier at night and read more before I go to bed. Not only does that give me more reading time, but it means better sleep because electronic screen stuff can interfere with the sleep cycle.

So, this year I've already managed to read a Big, Fat Fantasy novel -- but fortunately not one that appears to be part of an epic series. I can imagine that there might be room for more stories in that world, but this one actually had a satisfying ending. It was Uprooted by Naomi Novik (the author of the Temeraire series, but this book is entirely unconnected).

It's inspired by/based on Polish fairy tales, and it contains a lot of fairy tale-like elements, though more fleshed-out and detailed than your typical fairy tale. There are some elements I recognized from my reading, but they're put together in a different way.

This is the story about a young woman from a village on the edge of a great Wood. Every ten years, the wizard who lives in the tower chooses a 17-year-old girl from the villages under him to serve him for ten years, and our heroine is in the group of candidates. Much to her surprise, since she's not the most beautiful or clever, she gets chosen. And it turns out that the job isn't at all what she expected it to be.

This Wood isn't just a place that's scary because it's dark and wild things live there. The Wood itself is a malevolent force that takes people or else gets into them and corrupts them. It's basically the demon forest from hell, and it's out to turn all the people against each other. Our heroine and the wizard have to figure out what it's doing and find a way to stop it.

This is the kind of fantasy I wish I could find more of. It's very focused on the characters rather than all the political maneuvering. There's magic, mystery, and romance, but some of the strongest relationships aren't romantic. We have an unlikely heroine who forges her own path. We have a scary villain that's hard to defeat. And there's an ending rather than a cliffhanger.

I'm not sure whether this book makes me want to take a walk in the woods (if only I could find a walking path in the woods that isn't under water right now) or take the clippers to that evil alien vine on my patio. Maybe both.

Oh, and fun trivia fact: it turns out that Naomi Novik's husband is the editor who published the Stephen King story that became the series Haven, and he was one of the producers and writers for the series. There was that episode about the evil plants attacking people ...

Meanwhile, I've started brainstorming something new, and it's going in some very unexpected directions.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Decluttering entertainment

January is over, and although that's normally what I'd consider a slow month, it ended up being very busy for me. I had stuff going on every weekend. February is a little quieter. I actually don't have anything other than the usual church stuff scheduled this coming weekend, and I'm already excited about that. It's been a long time since I had a Saturday to just hang around the house and not have to worry about going anywhere or doing anything in particular.

This weekend's fun was seeing the new Star Wars movie again with a group of friends. Yes, I've seen it twice already, but I hadn't seen it with these people, and we went out to eat together afterward, so it was a social event.

My other movie viewing for the weekend was watching Mad Max: Fury Road on HBO, and I have to say I was a little disappointed. I'd seen so much hype about it. So many of the SF/F authors I know were raving about it and talking about seeing it repeatedly. I was expecting something with unexpected depth for an action movie. Instead, it was basically fight, drive, drive, fight, and the fact that one faction was a group of women fleeing an abusive man didn't really elevate things all that much. I found it all rather boring.

Though I did like the vehicle with the rows of giant drums on the back, the wall of amps on the front, and the guy playing the flamethrower guitar. Because if you're going to head into battle, you might as well bring your own soundtrack. Really, I was more interested in all the ways they put the odd vehicles together with mixes of pieces and parts (and I am not a car person by any means) than in the story. And I liked the previous Mad Max movies.

I've also decided to give up on the Shannara series. I made two attempts to watch the latest episode and finally just turned it off and deleted it from the DVR midway through. I had to admit to myself that I wasn't enjoying it, and time is to precious to waste on things I feel I "should" like. Ditto on the opposite end of the spectrum for Mercy Street on PBS. I can recognize that it's well done, but I don't like any of the characters and am not interested in the story. It was rather liberating to turn the TV off after Downton Abbey. I guess it's like decluttering for entertainment -- if it doesn't bring me joy, I can get rid of it.

On the other hand, Galavant has made me so happy this season. I won't hold my breath for another season because the ratings are so low (what's wrong with people?!!!!), so I'm glad they gave it a nice ending with room for more, but oh, do I want more. And I need this on DVD immediately. It's like instant transportation to the happy place, a sure cure for a bad day. And it turns out you can already get the soundtrack on digital, so I think I need this right now.

Meanwhile, this is something of an anniversary for me. Fourteen years ago yesterday I got laid off from my last job, so today is my anniversary of being my own boss. There have been times when it's been a struggle, and there are frustrations sometimes, but I wouldn't trade it for any other job. I'm getting to live my dream. There aren't a lot of people who are lucky enough to make a living doing something they dreamed of as a child, especially in a field like this. Now I just have to keep at it because I'm too spoiled to go back to a regular job. It would be soul-destroying.