Friday, October 23, 2009

MSNBC and the Wickedness of the World

Grammar and usage alert!

The article, which is about human evolution, starts out like this:

Despite the sheer enormity of our planet, we humans are far more closely related than we should be.
Say what?

Apparently MSNBC thinks the vile wickedness of our planet exists despite how closely related people are, even though there might be something pervy about it.

Ye gods.

Okay, maybe not pervy, but we certainly shouldn't be that closely related.  Maybe.


Ack!  Ack!  I have joined National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and now must try to write 50,000 words in a month.  Ack!  I am not at all sure I can do this, but I will try, and I will also understand that I will not revise or edit a word but will plow on in a relentless, yet hopefully creative way, until the month ends.  Unless not revising drives me so batty that I become stuck, in which case I will allow myself half an hour to do so, no more.

Always good to set some guidelines, yes? 

To that end, I've actually done some character sketches, brainstormed some ideas, fleshed out the story a bit.  I think I know the characters' backstory pretty well now. Oh, the story?  It's the Irish werewolf one I was talking about over in the Pollyanna Files.  I think I know what I need to write and how.  Whew!  I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous writing a book before.  You’d think I’d be used to it, but this time....well, I suppose it’s because I haven’t written a big novel in more than a few years, just novellas.  So, this is my chance to do a “don’t look down” draft and see how far I get.  I’ll need to do some major number of pages just to get close to the count, but that’s the goal of the event, to get out as many page as possible.

As I go, I might post a few snippets from the work-in-progress, if they aren’t too horrible. 


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When the post-conference energy is not there

It does happen.

I was reading over the enthusiastic posts regarding the Emerald City Conference, and I have to say I was nodding my head as I was reading them--yep, I was feeling an increased urge to write, and my mind was filled with the different ways I could write the story--stories, even--that I have in mind. I do love that conference, I truly do, and highly recommend it to anyone interested in writing and publishing.

However, there have been days when I've not felt that uptick in energy, and felt overwhelmed or discouraged instead. This is normal, this is okay, and in fact it does not mean the conference was a waste, and it does not mean you're some freak of writerly nature if you feel this way. And boy, does that make a writer feel somehow outcast, somehow alone. Why everyone else, and not me?

The truth is, there are many legitimate reasons why a writer might not feel that great during or after a conference. I don't think it's a lack of friendly people at all. I'm one of the shyest people in the world, but I've not felt that people weren't supportive of my efforts and my hopes when I've gone to a conference, even when I was a complete unknown newbie.

If you do feel let down after a conference, overwhelmed, etc., consider the following:
  1. You aren't physically well

  2. You don't know anyone at the conference, everyone talks in writer jargon that you aren't familiar with, and you think if you open your mouth, you'll sound really stupid, and everyone will scorn you and heap spite on your head. You think everyone else is so much more knowledgeable than you, and therefore it sucks to be you.

  3. You think your stuff can't possibly be publishable, because every editor/agent/industry professional says they want something other than what you write, therefore your manuscript sucks dead canaries.
 My answers:
  1. You aren't physically well. I want you to seriously consider this. There is nothing like a lot of people congregated in a small, intense, and very friendly environment (hugs galore!) to pass on one virus or another. There is such a thing known as "conference crud" that happens every single year to people who go to either a large local conference or the national one. Or maybe you're just tired from the trip. Whatever it is, trust me, physical ailments or simple lack of sleep will kill that conference energy sooner than a fly on a frying pan. Get some rest, get better, and then go over your conference notes again. If that doesn't help, go see a doctor. I've been through some difficult physical ailments, including surgery, and there is nothing like being physically drained to cause one's creative energy and enthusiasm to write to disappear entirely. No amount of conference goodness will fix that. Your health and well-being comes before anything else.

  2. You don't know anyone at the conference, everyone is smarter than you, you don't know the jargon, yadda, yadda. STOP THAT! This is your fear talking, not your creativity, not your true worth as a writer. There are many, many first-timers and brand new writers at every conference. Both the Romance Writers of America national conference and the Emerald City Conference have a special welcoming session for first-timers and newbies. And even if you miss out on that session, keep in mind that every one of us have been newbies at conferences, we know exactly how it feels, and can sympathize.

    As for jargon, don't be afraid to ask. Nobody is going to look down at you if you don't know what POV means, and if they do, then they're not worth knowing. If you ask, then there will be people who are more than happy to tell you, because it means you're willing to learn. There is nothing more delightful to the person steeped in writer-geekdom than a discussion of craft and technique. You ask about POV (point of view) at a lunch table or hotel café filled with writers getting their caffeine hit and you will get all sorts of friendly people jumping into the discussion of limited third versus first person, depth of POV, keeping to one POV per scene, and on and on. You will learn more about POV than you ever dreamed, and everyone will consider you "one of us" for just bringing it up and taking notes. Try it out the next time you're at a conference and don't know anyone at a table. Ask, "Why do some people think you should keep point of view to one per scene, and others don't?" You will get precisely the response I just mentioned. I'm serious.

  3. You think your stuff can't possibly be publishable. Okay, this is a problem that strikes both seasoned and newbie writers alike, regardless of whether one, five, ten, or no books have been published. The newbie--after a few editor/agent panels--thinks that the road to publication is steep, rocky, and fraught with traps for the unwary. The seasoned author thinks that nobody wants her, everyone hates her, and she should go eat some worms because the muse just isn't hip to that profitable vampire romance trend (or other). And vice versa.

    I am telling you that this way of thinking is poison, pure poison to creative output. If you are going down this road, back away, put it out of your mind, and avoid going to editor/agent panels or anything that talks about market trends unless I'm the one who is talking about it. :-D You cannot create with the market in mind. Well, some people can, but there are not many of them. You must write to your true sense of story, from the heart. Though some people have honed their craft to the point where they can still create a good story, trust me when I say the sensation is rather like building a house with toothpicks--painstaking, time-consuming, and with little joy, unless you're sort who likes building houses with toothpicks, and I mean people-sized, not miniature. Write first, complete the story, then think about selling it.

    I have said more than a few times at conferences and at workshops that we writers and readers (and the vast majority of genre writers start as readers) are the ones who make the trends. Not the publishers, although they'd love to have that kind of control. We are the ones who know what we want to read, and we are legion. As a result, when we can't find what we want to read, we often write it. This is where genre trends--and I will say all fiction trends--come from: from the readers who are also writers. It is a grass-roots movement, and though publishers may try to control that movement, their control is brief and the wisest editors and agents know this. Write what you love, and write from the heart. If you do this, you are the ones who create the trends, and will ride that wave to success.

    If it's because you think your craft and technique aren't up to snuff, welcome to the club. The nature of writing stories is that you are forever learning, forever finding new techniques to help perfect your art. Every person at a conference is at different levels in their writing expertise. If you are new to writing fiction, go to some craft and technique workshops. You may find to your surprise that you are sitting next to an established author who wants to revisit and think more deeply about that particular workshop's writing technique. You Are Not Alone.

And one more reason for conference non-energy:
  • You are an introvert and have gone to too many conferences, or over-scheduled yourself. Most writers I know are introverts, and by that I don't necessarily mean shy, I mean we (yes, I'm one) need quiet time to recharge our batteries. Unlike extroverts, we become drained when we're around a lot of people. We need time alone, time without any people around; time with quiet, soothing music; and maybe a massage by a masseuse who does not talk except to say "relax" in soft, hypnotic tones. I recommend not filling every hour of your schedule with workshops, seminars, meet-and-greets, and on and on. Make sure to take a mid-morning as well as a mid-afternoon quiet break in your hotel room when you're pretty sure nobody will be in there (if you have a roommate). Or find a friend who will let you be alone in the room for a while. If you must, go into the bathroom, pour a bath, shut the door, and relax in the bath for a good half hour. Do not underestimate the curative effects of quiet time in a quiet room if you are an introvert.
So, don't worry if you feel you didn't get what you wanted out of a conference. You probably did or would have, but the truth is, you needed to take care of yourself, and you didn't. To get the most out of a conference, you need to make sure you're up to it physically, emotionally, and creatively. Take care of yourself, and the conference muse will take care of you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Emerald City Conference at the Bellevue Hilton, WA - Fini

As usual, the Greater Seattle RWA chapter's Emerald City Conference was very fun, very informative, and very full of creative energy.  I believe we had more attendees this time than last; I understand that it's the largest chapter conference on the west coast of the U.S.  There has not been one time I have departed from that conference with anything less than renewed enthusiasm for writing and full of ideas.

Quite a few authors were there of course: Cherry Adair, with her marvelous "Write the Damn Book" challenge; Deborah Cook (a.k.a., Claire Deveraux); Lisa Jackson; Alexis Morgan; Pat White; Stella Cameron; Jane Porter; Gerri Russell; Christine Warren; Yasmine Galenorn; Katie McAllister; Susan Mallery; Megan Chance; Terry McLaughlin; Bob Mayer; Eileen Cook; Robert Dugoni; and many more.  Oh, and me.  :-)

The workshops were set to appeal to writers of many levels, from brand new to multi-published and everything in between.  Is a critique group right for you?  There was a workshop to help you decide.  What about the editor/author relationship?  How does that work?  Assistant Editor Peter Senftleben of Kensington Publishing and two of his authors, Gina Robinson and Shelli Stevens gave their expertise with that.  Are you an author who needs to think about career planning?  Katie MacAlister gave a workshop on that.  Interested in writing for the Young Adult market?  Authors Heather Davis, Serena Robar, and Dona Sarkar talked with expertise about what's allowed, how far you can go, and the current market trends.  And research!  If you wanted to know about Medieval castles, dragons, the Old West, and urban fantasy, there were workshops for those topics, too.

I want to give a special shout-out to Serena Robar for her workshop on the "Long Tail of Sales."  This was a workshop I gladly moderated, as I feel it's a marketing model that will shortly become the dominant one.  It favors smaller niche markets, and as romance is so very much about niches, it should adapt extremely well to this model and make a good deal of money doing it.  It also favors the quick, mobile companies; mom-and-pop shops; and other small, flexible companies and individuals that are good at acting on the spot.  I will do my best to suggest this workshop for the RWA National Conference, as I believe it's a very important one in our current economy if individuals--and companies--are to survive.

As for the market news...well, I heard a bit, not much.  For now it seems to be steady as it goes:  paranormals and historicals are doing fine, as I expected. First person novels seem to be popular, and I have to say, for a writer, it's great practice in keeping to one point of view. Young Adult novels are doing very, very well, and are definitely on the up-cycle (I remember a time when the Romance Writers of America dropped the Young Adult category from their contests, as there were too few entries--not any more!).  Urban fantasy romances are still doing well, and steampunk is making inroads.  Yes, vampires are still in, but the fantasy/paranormal romances are expanding in scope, thank God.

Romantic comedies--trust me when I say that their day is soon to come.  I don't know why publishers are not publishing more of these.  If they don't start coming into their own in the next year, I guarantee you'll see demand for them by 2012--only 3 years from now.  If you're a writer of "romcom" get your stories written now.  By the time the publishers get on board, you'll have a raft of manuscripts ready to submit.  The reason I say this is that I do not think that our economy is going to recover quickly at all, and will still see some dips along the way.  People buy entertainment when economies are down, and they go in droves for comedies (think of the popular movies of the Great Depression, and you'll see what I mean).

Westerns don't seem to be in, my gut instinct says they may not see much publishing light that soon, even though I do think there's a large market for it.  Our economic cycle is hugely focused on urban tastes right now, and even though the more small-town areas are probably dying to read a good solid western, since the major publishing companies exist in huge urban centers, they probably have no idea that there is this huge untapped market.  It's really too bad, in that some good solid, steady sales could be had in this "long tail" market.  Certainly, a smaller, more flexible publishing company could take advantage of this niche.

Well, that's it for now.  Next year...well, I doubt I'll be going to this lovely conference, as I'll be out of the country in Europe, if all goes as planned.  It'll be quite expensive to fly out to Seattle, even to the East Coast.  So unless our fortunes change, that'll be it for writing conferences.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Romance market trends

From 8/8/09:

I haven't been to RWA national conference this year, and so haven't heard the market news, but that's fine...I know what they are, anyway. Which sounds arrogant, I guess, but anyone who has met me will tell you I'm not that kind of person. It's just that one of my hobbies is the study of demographics and market trends, focused mostly on publishing and in particular the romance market. I've studied it for...let's see...since 1995, ever since my vampire Regency (The Vampire Viscount) and paranormal Regency (The Devil's Bargain) first came out. Yeah, I wrote them way back before the vampire/paranormal thing was huge. I have a habit of doing that. It's tough going, because when you write ahead of the trend, most people think you're crazy. Hell, I predicted during the 2000 RWA conference that we were going to see a surge of kick-ass heroines and that paranormals were going to be huge, and gee, guess what? It happened--it was the news during that conference.
I gave a talk at the Emerald City RWA conference in 2006 about demographic trends, and predicted that we were going to see a social crisis in the next year or two, akin to the Great Depression (yes, there is a reason why our 401K is still okay, though it did take a hit, as everyone's did. Clue: look at the events 80 years ago). I did another workshop in a few years later on the exact same talk, and didn't change the date on my PowerPoint, to prove my point. The Seattle Chapter will vouch for me on this. :-D

Anyway, here are my predictions for the next few years:

Based on my observation of generations and demographics, plus the economic times, I figure romance and women's fiction--with an uplifting ending--are going to remain strong. As during the Great Depression, romantic comedies, stories with optimistic endings with the belief in the decency of every-day human beings. Think Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire, such movies as "Daddy Long Legs," "Topper Takes a Trip" (romantic comedy/ paranormal), "Bringing up Baby." Comedies in general will do well--remember that Charlie Chaplin made millions during the Great Depression when movies were 25 cents per ticket.

And gee, as an aside, is it any surprise that musicals are becoming more popular with the under 30 set? The Seattle area is considered a "bellweather" region, and I'm seeing participation in musical theater and music like never before amongst the young 20's and teens. I want to emphasize the areas outside of Seattle proper--there are relatively few children and teens in Seattle, compared to most any other place in the nation except for San Francisco. If you want to watch for trends amongst teens and the early 20's, look at King County, outside of the city. Places like Kent, Auburn, Everett, Bellevue, etc.

Paranormals, and those stories with a spiritual/religious component will still be good sellers. Again, whatever gives a belief in something beyond ourselves will be popular, because in general, I think people's attitudes about society and our elected officials (on both sides of the political fence) is sort of...soured. Easier to believe in a larger abstract higher concept than individual fallible leaders.
Anything with a theme of overcoming difficulties to success/love/contentment should be popular.

In particular, I think vampires, while not as popular as before (saturation in the market) they will still be good sellers, in that these have the themes of encountering something potentially dangerous and navigating through discerning if it can be trusted or not. That reflects our times, plus the early 20-something and teen set. Anything else with that theme--encountering danger, going through a period of discernment, then triumph will be popular, because those just beginning to start their adult lives are facing the theme of a scary world in which they have to make their way. However, that theme has broadened to all generations because of the current economic and social crisis.

Also, though this theme is popular overall, for the Millennial generation (those born approximately from 1980 to 2000), stories with characters having a higher purpose and/or who are special in some way will be popular. This is why the Harry Potter books were so popular, and continue to be popular with them (aside for the fact that these books are simply danged good reading). In fact, they also had the strong, very strong spiritual/religious underpinning. No, they're not obvious to those who aren't familiar with religion (and ironically, a lot of religious people aren't familiar with their own), but trust me, they're there.

Despite the economic downturn, the Millenial generation is coming into their time of buying power. It's not as huge a buying power as the Boomers (still) have, but it's considerable simply because that population is so large compared to GenX and the Silent Generation (those who were children during the Great Depression).

And historicals..they'll keep going on. But what's missing--and wlll probably be popular when they do come about--are ones set during the American Revolution and possibly Civil War. Ditto WWII. Why? They all reflect what's we're going through/going to go through now. David McCullough hit a nerve with his books, John Adams and 1776. This is why he is both a bestseller AND a Pulitzer Prize winner (well, he's an awesome writer, so there's that).

Those are the eras the current crop of Millennials will find some common themes. The young people of those eras grew up in severely divisive times--as we do. Their elders could not come to any kind of consensus, and more time was spent squabbling and pointing out scandals than solving problems. The real concerns of the rural areas and those areas with less infrastructure (the American colonies during the Revolution, and the more rural South during the Civil War) were pitted against the concerns of the more sophisticated urban citizens (the British, and the very industrialized North, respectively). One of those crises ended up with a relatively healthy unity. The other...did not. WWII ended up with a healthy unity of purpose, and that was when we built the massive infrastructure that is now, unfortunately, aging to the point of danger to life and limb.

The current era...well, time will tell. We get to choose whether we get over our differences, find common ground, and work together, and I REALLY don't want finger pointing at the OTHER side that you just CAN'T talk to. Be the first to hold out the helping hand and open mind, people, and keep doing it. Really find out where the other side is coming from, what their fears are, and I mean their root fears, where they are suffering. Your survival depends on it. Although right now, my feeling is that either side's intention in finding out about the other side's suffering is in the interests of crushing the other side into dust. Or ignoring the other sides' suffering, period, because of course they're BAD. Yes, this Pollyanna is fighting cynicism.

To get back on track: As a result, there is a certain hunger in Millennials for hope (that is their nature), for the idea that difficulties can be worked through, that people can work together, that there is a higher purpose out there for every one. And, optimism is the very nature of romance novels, so I believe you will continue to see these novels prosper. Heroic fantasy will also do well, and fantasy in which the protagonists are fighting the powers of evil (Dresden files, is a good example).

GenX--do not dismiss this generation. This scrappy generation will help get us through the hard times. They do not hesitate to get their hands dirty and get the job done, and in hard times, that's what's needed. Think Patton. Yeah, those disaffected 1980's youth dressed in black and piercings end up being Patton, wreaking havoc amongst Hitler's armies. And they are really good consumers of paranormal stories that feature grim, realistic protagonists that wade through death and degradation to wreak destruction on predators. They are good at defending the weak and innocent while shooting off a witty quip, knowing that they will get no reward for their heroism, but that they're just here to do the job, hopefully with a small group of loyal friends or a devoted partner. (Think Buffy.)

Both GenX and the Millenials are hands-on, practical groups. GenX is a bit more gritty and pessimistic, while the Millenials are more optimistic. Both get the job done, and sooner or later become impatient with high-flying rhetoric.

I really also want to emphasize the religious/spiritual angle. When times are hard, when there is a crisis, people often turn to religion. This is why it is the most impoverished areas of the world that are the most religious; when you have very little, when your next day may bring hunger or the threat of poverty, then the only thing that often keeps you alive is hope in something higher and better, whether that would be your still-innocent children, or God, or both. In other words, these things represent hope for the future.

As a result, I expect books on religion and spirituality will stil be strong. Inspirational romances sales will probably hold steady, especially if there is some real spiritual insight there and realistic integration between some real, human life questions and religion/spirituality.

And...I expect the readership amongst men for romance novels will grow, and has been growing. Romance novels--especially those with suspense/mystery/action--will be especially appealing. Romance novels are probably one of the few fiction areas that feature men as good guys (we have heroes, after all!), and people, men need hope, too. That they have not much hope is reflected in the steep increases in male suicides, especially amongst teens and 20-somethings, in the last few decades, as much as 5 times that of females. It's also reflected in the fact that of all graduating high school seniors, 80% of girls apply to college, whereas only 20% of boys do, and that has been going on for a decades as well. That's another reason why the Harry Potter books were so popular amongst boys--these books are one of the few instances that featured a boy as a protagonist, a boy who was special, and who tried his best to do good. That's a hopeful thing for boys who are looking for a book to read.

So in essence:
  • Romance will be strong, and hold steady
  • Paranormals strong, vampires have glutted the market, but will still hold steady (and zombies as protagonists or heros--oh, please. A bump in the road. I could be wrong, but having a guy who has to keep sticking his face back on with superglue because his flesh is just a bit on the rotten side is not romantic. However, innovation does occasionally win).
  • Ghosts...give those a try. Demons, ditto. However, redemption as a theme should be strong. We have a very punishing society, with almost no forgiveness unless you have money or fame. Redemption themes as a result is another source of hope for the rest of us.
  • Romantic comedies--yes!
  • Historicals will hold steady, but do give the eras of the American Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII a try, although I expect these will probably be most popular in about 5 years. If Europe, Puritans vs. the Cavaliers, and Tudor era would work. the The authors MUST do the research on those, as ever. Less costume dramas, more historical meat.
  • Inspirationals strong, but must integrate realities and questions of life
  • Perseverence and success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is always a good theme.
  • Good vs. Evil, always a good theme, but make it real.
  • Oh, and the theme of fighting or subverting an ever-encroaching totalitarian government should also be popular in science fiction/fantasy/romance. Wouldn't hurt to bring back a Matrix-like theme, although I expect that'll be more like 10 years from now.
  • More can-do, decent, heroic guys. Guys need hope, too, and they're going to be looking for something to keep them working and holding on. As a result, it'd be good to defeminize the covers on the action/romance/supspense romances--not a problem, as I see they're doing much of that already. Wouldn't hurt to do that to some of the historicals that have more action/suspense, etc., too.
  • Forgot to mention above: Graphic novels. Always a good thing. Will do very well in the coming decade(s) as they are very adaptable to both print and electronic media, and the concepts are easily transferred to the big (and small) screen. The more mutable a story is to differing formats, the better. If a romance novel--especially if action, suspense, and/or paranormal--can be translated to a graphic novel/manga format, perfect.
One more thing: Because the Millenial Generation is large in numbers but is going to be struggling for jobs, they're going to try to find their entertainment where they can, whether they make it or find it inexpensively. This means the publishing industry will have to find better ways to deliver their goods. They know this already, or should. E-books will do well, I'm sure, but if they're the same price as paper books...well, we'll see. Those who have a handle on this relatively new technology (and please, formatting!!!!), will do better than others, in the same way movie theaters that grasped the sound aspect of movies back during the Great Depression thrived rather than went out of business. It's a big initial investment, but it'll pay out in the end in both stability and profits when the economy turns up better (not right away. Expect a big downturn around 2012, and with luck it'll start rising steadily again. What mistakes this and the last administration have made will come to bear then. Invest in capital and be thrifty now, pay off what you can, then be prepared).

Even so, I don't expect paper books to disappear for a long, long, long time.

You fill a need in an economy, and you will survive as a business, and publishing is a business. Hope is a need. And in this economy, everyone needs hope pretty badly right now.

Story beginnings

From 8/7/09:

I was playing around on Twitter the other day (August 4th, during lunch break) after thinking about the contest entries I had judged, and decided to spit out some potential first lines of stories. Of course, it being Twitter, you're limited to 140 characters. It occurred to me that that limitation is great for forcing a writer to try to get the essence of a story into a few words, which is really what you want in a beginning. The beginning of a story should foreshadow the rest of the story. The conflict should be there, or at least hinted at. On Twitter, I came up with four within 15 minutes:

11:55 AM Aug 4th
Random story beginning: "Amanda had never seen the point of sweeping corners, but since bits of gold kept showing up, she had incentive."

12:01 PM Aug 4th
Random story beginning: "Ever see Bermuda much?" "I'm looking at the Space Needle, so no."

12:08 PM Aug 4th
 Random story beginning: "It wasn't that Scott disliked designing bridges. It was just that his client was a troll."

12:10 PM Aug 4th
Random story beginning: Sometimes Sir Galadriel could slay dragons with one stroke. Other times, the best he could do was fold underwear.

My last comment on my spate of first lines was:

"Okay, I'm saving that last story beginning. It has potential."

No analysis at that point; this last story beginning hit me in the gut: I knew it was one around which I could write a story, as odd as that particular Tweet may sound. When I think about it now, I realize it's because it has the seeds of conflict in it and it's also high contrast.

It's possible to have a solid story without a high contrast, high conflict first line. In fact, I do it all the time. However, I do think the first few paragraphs--the FIRST paragraph, preferably--should contain the essence of the story conflict, and what helps to keep it succinct is NOT to tell the conflict up front, but show images in the first paragraph that represent the conflict.

Each one of the first liners above has the seeds of a story; I could make something up around them. In fact, the third one is fairly intriguing as well. There is conflict in that one—the guy is designing bridges, but his client is (literally) a troll, and that can’t be good. What is the bridge designer going to do about that? So I could go with this line of thought. But it’s not as high contrast.

But the last one is very high contrast. Here is Sir Galadriel, who is capable of doing extraordinary and heroic things: not only can he kill dragons, but he can kill them with one stroke. But on other days...well, he can only fold underwear, which is very simple and very mundane, less than mundane, because dang, it’s underwear. So immediately I’m wondering, why is a hot-shot dragonslayer folding underwear? Is it his own? Is it someone else’s? Even more important, why is it the best he could do some times? And then I wonder, does he like killing dragons? Would he prefer to fold underwear? If so, why?

See the contrast? Hotshot dragonslayer = heroic and unusual. Folding underwear = ordinary. It creates questions, and questions demand answers. A story is about coming to terms with that contrast—-resolving the conflict.

Having it up front tells the reader, “look, here are some questions. Come with me and see how they’re answered.”

I may end up posting random story beginnings every once in a while. It's always good to have a few stored away for a rainy day.

Judging contests and beginning a novel

From 8/3/09:

I judged a writing contest again. I believe I've mentioned before that actually like doing this, as it really helps me articulate the dos and don'ts of novel writing, and reflect on how to apply technique in my own writing. And, as always, a particular issue usually pops up more than once, and when it does, it tells me it's a problem that a lot of writers have.

One contest entry bored me to tears. The other left me bewildered--where was I? Who were these people? And why should I care? And there was one that was just right--I wanted to read more.

The writing was competent (well, there were two that were not, but I'm not going there right now). The common problem with the ones that didn't work was that they didn't begin in the right place in the story's timeline.

There is a lot of advice about how to begin a story, and the fact is, the how isn't as important as the when. Newbie writers are told that you want a hook in the first paragraph to get the reader interested in your story, you need to begin with action, you need to avoid description, yadda yadda.

Toss that advice out the window. Toss it out right now! If you know when to begin your story, then the rest will follow.

So, when? Begin on the day your protagonist is given a choice that will change his or her life.

I want to emphasis "day" and "choice." You need two elements in a beginning: the foundational setting, the home, the "ordinary life" of the protagonist, and the choice the protagonist makes that will propel him or her out of that ordinary life. Together, that makes change, and change is the essence of plot and character development.

The day (not moment, not month; anywhere from half an hour to 12 hours) on which the protagonist's life changes is enough time to show the foundation of a character's life, what is usual for that character. You need that foundation. It tells you where that character has been, so that you can chart the future. It is not possible for a character to have a future unless he or she has a past.

For example, in my latest novella, "Miss Templar and the Holy Grail," the story opens with Miss Arabella Templar going into Almack's with her mother and her cousin Jeanne. This is a typical day in her life. It's clear that she's done it before.

And then a stranger comes up to her just before she steps into the assembly hall, and pushes a dirty tin cup into her hand and tells her she's the Grail Guardian, and that she must keep the cup safe. Now she has to make a choice: Does she take the cup, or doesn't she?

As a result, it begins, thus:
There is nothing more odious than having the Holy Grail thrust into one’s hands when one is about to enter Almack’s. But what could I do? I had already my foot on the first step of the building’s entrance. Mama and cousin Jeanne were before me, already within doors. A crowd gathered behind me, eager to partake of the evening’s entertainment.

A touch on my shoulder made me turn, ready to greet a friend, perhaps Clarice, for she is one of my bosom bows, and had told me she would attend this week.

Instead, a masked man very boldly took my hand and closed it over the bowl of what looked like a dirty tin cup. He then pulled me too close to him. “You are the Guardian of the Grail. Keep it safe,” he said into my ear, and disappeared into the group of people moving toward Almack’s.

A masked man. Really. Why could he not have just appeared in normal evening wear, neckcloth neatly tied, presented himself to me in the proper manner, asked me for a dance or two, and then offered a pleasant remembrance of flowers the next day? Oh, no, he could not do that. No, he must appear masked, dare touch me on my shoulder without any sort of introduction at all, and then converse in a manner that must make any observer assume he was either drunk or an idiot.
When I think about it, that first paragraph pretty much encapsulates the conflict of the story: her past/normal life (going to Almack's and having a nice time), in conflict with her choice (taking the Grail from the mysterious man). That first line is even a hook, but not because I was deliberately looking for one, but because I wanted a first paragraph that set up/foreshadowed the conflict of the story.

In other words, if you have the elements of choice vs. normal life up front in your story, you will naturally have a solid beginning. I don't think you can help having one. And if you can make that first sentence Twitter-sized, you probably have a hook.

I think that's it for's late.  Good night!

Too freakin' hot / Storytelling

From 7/28/09:

98 degrees F today. It's supposed to be even hotter tomorrow, over 100 degrees. I called my mom today to see if she's bearing up under the heat all right, and she said that when she went to her doctor's appointment in the late morning, she saw two bank reader boards that showed 103 degrees. I looked at the forecast for Eastern Washington--10 degrees COOLER than the Puget Sound area.

We may break some records in Seattle.

I feel so lethargic in this kind of weather. I'd like to knit and spin, but it's too hot for that, even with cotton yarn. My hands get all sweaty and the yarn doesn't slide smoothly over the needles. So, I'm reading instead, which is good, because I've slacked off dolorously in my reading for too many years. It's not good to slack off reading when one is a writer.

Got hold of and am reading the latest Dresden Files paperback by Jim Butcher, Small Favor. I am a major fan of Butcher's series, because he's a marvelous storyteller. I think he tries too hard on the quips occasionally (he throws in a quip or two that I think aren't likely for the scene or action, and it pulls me briefly--I want to emphasize briefly--out of the story), but I'm more than willing to forgive him this one small flaw because I love the characters and Butcher has followed through with his storytelling promises enough so that I trust him to follow through every time. I understand something very, very unfortunate and unhappy is going to happen to one of my favorite characters in this series, but I'm willing to travel down that path, because I trust Butcher will do it right.

And that, to me, is a mark of a good storyteller. I don't ask that an author not go down an unexpected alley, or make a left turn when I'm looking for a right, and though I have my standards and sense of right and wrong, I'm willing to have the evidence presented to me and be convinced. What I do ask for is psychological consistency, for follow-through on the world-building and the characterization.

All stories have a framework on which they are built, and I really do not care how avant garde a story might be, there is always a framework. If an author says his or her story has no framework and that it is this free and wild and avante garde thing that cannot be confined by mere human expectation, then either he or she is lying or is a poseur. That's harsh, but that's my opinion, and since I am way older than 40, I'm not taking it back.

When a story has a framework, a reader instinctively understands whether the story that hangs on it fits or not. This applies to characters as well as the structure of the story. One big error that immediately screams amateur to me is when I see that the author has said upfront that a character has certain attributes, and then proceeds to contradict it. If a character is supposed to be smart and sensible, I don't care how emotionally involved he or she has become in a certain situation, that smart and sensible part is going to rant and rave and be disapproving even as the character does something wildly unlike him or herself. The smart and sensible part doesn't suddenly disappear. No, Smart and Sensible Part will sit there sobbing its little heart out because the character it is inhabiting is doing something dumb and wildly wrong. And as a result, you will have a character that is very conflicted, and much, much more interesting to read about.

Now, have I committed this sin of psychological inconsistency? Yes, of course, but hopefully not in print. And if I have, then no doubt it was while I was becoming increasingly anemic many years ago, and had not the mental stamina to examine such a horrendous error in literary judgement. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. :-D

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I astonish even myself sometimes

From 1/8/08:

Every once in a while, I'll go through and delete my "sent" message files--I subscribe to a LOT of online writing groups, so much that I rarely have time to keep up--and I'll find that I have actually posted something useful vis a vis writing.

About the craft of writing:

That said...there is a mind-set that is behind Zen archery that I try to
remember. You learn technique until it doesn't matter any more. It becomes
one with who you are and the movement of you, the bow, the arrow, the
target. It is all one...but that only after you learn technique.

There is a pattern to learning the technique. You at first learn it, you
become bound by it, then you break free, and you are beyond it. But it
doesn't happen until you walk the path, learn the art.

Or, as my mother used to say, "so what if you don't have talent? You will
learn talent."

I have often thought my mother is actually Yoda in disguise.

Which is actually useful advice, because it means you need to have patience with yourself as you learn, get stuck, are released, and then understand and attain mastery.

The market (advice to a newbie):

Times change, trends change, and what didn’t work in the past will work now. Running after the latest trend will make for failure. The truth is, if you write what you love, the trend will move to what you are writing sooner or later. Running after the latest trend is like running after the bus that just left the station: you’ll always be running after it and exhausting yourself, instead of catching the next bus when it comes by if you stand where you are. That next bus may well have been the one that would have taken you where you wanted to go. Anyone who writes to the trend MIGHT get lucky and have one, maybe two books published. But you’ll see them burn out pretty quick, because they're always running after that bus instead of focusing on the art. Burn-out can mean the end of their career.

Homily for the day: THERE IS ALWAYS ANOTHER BUS.

Of course, this piece of advice could be pandering to those who think they are somehow "above" the market, which is not what I subscribe to, for that way lies madness, or at least bitterness. You really do have to think of your audience (not what publishers want--that's a different thing). IMHO, it's best to have an attitude of generosity about your writing, a wish to share the pleasure you have in the writing, as if you've created the most delicious meal you can imagine, and have invited your readers in for the feast. The most popular authors I know of have this attitude, an attitude of invitation, so that you are welcomed in to party along with him or her.

Did I ever say how much I love writing? I do, I purely do.

Emerald City Conference at the Bellevue Hilton, WA - last day

I'm a bit late for the start of the last day, but I'm going off to Bellevue in a few minutes; I have a workshop to moderate.  It's been a great conference, with tons of good workshops.  I'll be back later with a report of who was there and what was done.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Learning from writing contests - description

From 8/23/06:

I’m one of those weird people who like to judge writing contests. For some reason it thrills me to find a diamond amongst the entries, and there are some contest entrants who not only get a high score from me, but get comments like “send this manuscript to a publisher NOW,” with lots of exclamation marks. I love those. Then there are the not-so-exciting ones, the ones that have promise if some work’s put into them. Then there are the ones…well, the ones I’m staring at and wondering what the hell is going on, because I can’t make heads or tails of them. Luckily the latter are rare, because then I have to try to find some diplomatic way of saying, “this is SO not going to work. Ever.” I hate to squash anyone’s hopes, and the truth is it’s possible for someone to work hard enough so that they go from dreadful to delightful.

Mostly what I get are the middling ones that need a bit of oomph, some craft improvement, such as sticking to a character’s point of view (POV), or starting at a different point in the story. Those are easy fixes. The harder ones are when the character doesn’t act sensibly, such as going out into treacherous terrain when she’s been told not to by wiser and more experienced heads. There has to be some major, major justification for acting in such a risky manner to convince me. Otherwise, I end up thinking that character is TSTL (i.e., Too Stupid to Live).

What’s interesting is that with every contest I judge, a craft problem stands out prominently amongst the entries. It’s good for me: when I identify what it is, figuring out how to fix them hones my own writing.

This time, it’s description. The group of entries—with the exception of one or two--I recently judged had some problems with that aspect of craft. A couple didn’t have enough to place me securely in the writer’s story world (my own problem, when I’m writing a hurried first draft), a few had some strange ones (a hero with multi-colored, multi-faceted eyes, for example. And he was not a Jeff Goldblum look-alike in a fly costume), and then there were some that were way over the top and placed in the story willy-nilly.

In my humble opinion, there is such a thing as judicious description. We’re told in writing workshops to use all five senses when describing something, but people seem to think this means using Every Sense Every Single Time. As a reader, I don’t want sensory overload. I want concrete imagery. I want the description to mean something to the characters, reflect an emotion, or reveal something about the character and his/her POV. I want the description to be essential to the scene, and do more than just describe.

I think the key is to understand that description resides in the character. It is almost always from the character’s viewpoint that his or her environment is described. Most of us view our world with emotional or mental filters, from a framework of prejudice. I use that word purposely: we rarely think outside our box of conservative or liberal, rural or urban, northeasterner or southwesterner. We view the world from our life’s context, and we react to that world in the way we do because of that context. The same is so with our characters.

As a result, when a character is feeling depressed but has a naturally practical and optimistic nature, she has a certain response to her environment. If it’s sunny outside, the description—from her viewpoint—would be something like this:

Sarah awoke early in the morning and resented the bright sunlight that streamed into her bedroom. Pulling the bedcovers over her head, she tried to block out the light so that she could wallow in her gloom from the night before. It was useless. The bed had a soft sheet and a thin cotton blanket fit for hot August nights; instead of looking at a grey dim mattress and thinking grey dim thoughts, the pretty golden glow on the white sheets made her think of spring daffodils.

Pushing aside the bed covers, she sighed, and could not help a wry smile at her own actions. There was no sense in hiding under bedsheets from the world; it was stuffy and confining under there. The sunbeams pouring through the windows into her pastel-painted bedroom conspired to banish all thoughts of last night’s failure, and lured her into imagining a day of exploration instead.

Note that not once do I state that she’s depressed. Instead, I say she’s resentful of the sunshine, wants to block out the light, and was intending to think dim grey thoughts. All of that contrasts with what’s in her environment: a sunny August morning. Because she’s naturally optimistic, the light makes her think of spring daffodils, which is not a depressing image. And because she’s practical, she’s realistic about the fact that it’s stuffy under bedclothes and therefore not a useful place to be.

The description integrates with who Sarah is. She reacts to her environment according to her nature and the way she’s taught to be. At the same time, I’ve let the reader know what her room looks like filtered through Sarah’s attitudes and character. I didn’t use all five senses in the description, just two: sight and touch. To have put in more would have bogged down the narrative, and even made it more emotional than I wanted it to be (I wanted the mood to be fairly light). I also used metaphors and personification: sunbeams are inanimate objects and don’t have motivation, so can’t conspire. However, it’s a legitimate literary device that makes the description interact with the character.

This achieves more than just describing a place. It also shows characterization, mood, and pushes forward the scene because the character not just perceives her environment, but acts on it, and is changed by it.

Characters, like ourselves, are not separate from their environment. They are in it, part of it, and react to it in some way. I think what might help is to take some time, go somewhere, and take note of what you see, hear, feel, etc. around you. Don’t judge it, take it in and see what emotions come up, what thoughts are evoked, what mood you’re in and how it influences the way you feel about your environment. Try it, and see what comes out in your writing.

Emerald City Conference at the Bellevue Hilton, WA

I'm attending the Emerald City conference this weekend, which I always attend if I can.  I'm having a blast connecting with friends and fellow writers again, talking about writing and the writing process.  I also do tarot readings for them as well, just for fun, and it's a great brainstorming tool.  :-)

I'm one of the workshop speakers, and I'll be talking about themes in stories.  I frankly didn't get the whole thing written until last week, but just being around other writers--I don't know, the energy, whatever--has brought fresh realizations about the topic, so that I'm going to have to deviate a bit from my outline.  But that's okay, as I don't think it'll deviate much from the Powerpoint presentation I've set up. Weird, because I didn't talk about themes with anyone tonight (actually, last night, as it's now in the wee hours of the morning.  I'm going to be very tired tomorrow).

And, come to think of it, I think I left my conference bag at the hotel room of one of my friends, dang it.

But I think there's something in the air in writers conferences that just energizes the thought processes so that one's thoughts on story and writing and the rest gain a special clarity and focus, somewhat like the effect of getting a huge hit of pure oxygen to the brain.  So now I have all this really clear way of expressing and illustrating the idea of themes in stories in my brain that I hope will last until after my workshop.  :-D

After I'm done with the workshop, I'll see about posting my notes here and/or on my web site.  But, they're just the notes, not the full workshop, so if I ever give this workshop again, you'll just have to attend.  Anyway, I'm just so freakin' excited about what I'm going to talk about, I had to blog about it right away, even though it's freakin' 1:38 A.M.

Goodnight!  Morning!  Whatever!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Character studies

From 6/2/06 - whew!  This shows how long the Irish werewolf story has been brewing:

Been getting a bit antsy about writing--feeling like I want to write another story already. I don’t want to start the actual chapters yet, because I want to give this story some time to jell. So, I’m skirting the story, mulling it over in my mind, getting flashes of scenes, thinking of each character and what they’re like.

I have a good idea for the heroine--practical, managing, no-nonsense, a woman of authority in her little village, and she doesn’t take guff from anyone. In my last two books, the heroines were victimized, and had to climb out of the horrors into which they’d been thrust. But this determined Irish heroine is different, and I’m feeling a good deal of relief at the idea that she’s very managing, and she’s the one to whom everyone goes when there’s a problem, and even the village priest will ask her to intercede in local squabbles. She’s so capable and manages...everything and everybody. She’s got a good deal of pride, for she’s from a long line of Bean Sidhe (aka banshee)--wise women who have just a bit of faerie in them, and who have inherited the Sight. Her grandmother was a Bean Sidhe, and my heroine--I think I’ll call her Mary Kate McCree--learned everything from her. I think Mary Kate looks a bit like the actress Maureen O’Hara--auburn haired and voluptuous, and a spitfire attitude.

I even have in mind what her cottage might look like. It’s got a thatched roof, it’s got wood siding and green trim. She’s got pretty lace curtains at the windows, and a nice big porch, with a gravel path through a glorious flower and herb garden. There’s a vegetable garden out back, and a nanny goat in a neat small barn to the right of the cottage, for both milk and butter. She’s got a brother and sister, both younger than herself. I think she’s about 25, which is a bit of an “old maid” for that time (1798 or so), but that’s because while the villagers respect her, they’re also intimidated by her. Her younger brother, Brian, is 22, and is smart enough for Dublin University, where he’s a scholar, but terribly idealistic. He’s being recruited by some Irish rebels, unbeknownst to Mary Kate. Her younger sister, Bridget, is about 17, very pretty and blonde, and much less intimidating than Mary Kate, so has more than a few suitors. But though Bridget has shown no sign of the Sight, she’s a good herbalist and very quick-witted.

The hero, though...I’m having a little more difficulty visualizing him. I’ve decided his name will be James Marstone, and related to the Marstones I’ve written about before. He’s English, and has inherited the local castle, which is not in good repair. Of course, being English, he won’t be liked. And, since he’s living in the castle, which is supposedly cursed, he’s going to feel pretty isolated because nobody wants to work for him. And since he’s also become a werewolf, he’ll be bewildered because he doesn’t remember what he’s done or where he’s been at night during the full moon. But that’s all I’ve got on him. I’ll have to figure out how he became cursed, who cursed him, and why. Although, perhaps that’s a mystery in the novel to be solved. Certainly, nobody in the village wants him there, for he’s a damned Sassanach, and a Protestant to boot.

I know what’s going to bring them together: James Marstone will have young Brian arrested for treason, since he’s been linked to the Irish rebels who blew up something or other. Mary Kate’s going to have to figure out a way to persuade Marstone to let him go. And that bit is going to follow the Grimm’s fairy tale of “The Peasant’s Clever Daughter,” because that’s what I’m basing this story on. Mary Kate’s the sort to do anything for family, even if it’s a blot on her sense of pride.

It won’t be all grim and dark, though. I’m running out of fuel for grim and dark, because I’ve done that with the last three books. This will be lighter, with hopefully lots of banter, because Mary Kate has a quick tongue on her and will get in the last word if she can, and James is no slacker in the repartee department.

Oh, and the village. I haven’t thought of a name for the little Irish village. That place is almost a character in itself. I need to think of a good name, but I don’t know much about Celtic names and what they mean. I think I need something that has to do with “wolf” or faeries. This should be fun: I think I have the Irish speech rhythms in my head pretty well, so the dialogue should have a nice flavor of it. Sure, and I’m thinkin’ it’ll sound fair authentic.

So anyway, that’s what I’ve thought up so far, and with any luck, my publisher will like it.

Well, heck. Here I’ve written all this stuff down, not just mulled it about in my mind. Very well. I’ll keep a copy of this for my files and refer to it again, maybe flesh it out more as I think about it. But I will not start writing the chapters until I have the characters better fleshed out in my mind, and I need to visualize where they are and where they live, and what they look like. I’m really feeling the urge to write the chapters, but I think my big mistake in the past has been jumping into that and then getting stuck because I haven’t thought it through. I really think I need to back off that and do some solid groundwork before I even begin the actual chapters.

Besides, I don’t yet know who cursed James Marstone and why. It could be that I’ll figure it out while I’m writing it, Gotta try to flesh out the story line and characters first. If I don’t know who the characters are and where they’re coming from, I won’t know where they’re going.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Writing Fish Guts

From 9/13/05:

One thing I notice amongst the very dedicated, nose-to-the-grindstone writers is that there is always a point during the writing that they think what they've written is complete crap. There are some people who think their writing is perfect from the first word they lay down to the last and will not bear any edits, but these are not REAL writers. Sorry, but they're not. Real writers try to perfect their work, try to learn new techniques, try to push their creative envelopes. Sometimes they fail, sometimes don't, but they keep an eye out for what works and what doesn't.

I'm no exception to the "I think it's crap" phenomenon. There is ALWAYS a point where I mutter as I write, "this is crap, this is crap, this is crap," and much of the time I'm holding my nose as I'm stuffing that manuscript into the envelope and sending it to the publisher after multiple drafts. Trust me, if I turned in in a manuscript at the point where I though it was perfect, I'd never turn in another manuscript. Ever.

But, writing is an organic process, and when you're going organic, crap is good. Crap is fertilizer. Horse, cow, and chicken manure, also bunny poop. So are fish guts, which might be a step up from crap, but not a big step. A lot of good growing things come out of fertilizer. Think about all the beautiful flowers and vegetables that grow in a garden because of a liberal use of crap and fish guts.

Now, we writers--the story farmers--see the dirt, crap, and fish guts. We're in there with our fingers in it and it's on our clothes and shoes and maybe even our faces. It's there as we hoe and plant the seeds, prune the branches, tie back the vines, and it's there when we pull the weeds. We know what goes in it, even as the sprouts start to push up through the dirt and the flowers form. Farmers see the crap all over the place. They know what crap to use and when and how much, and then keep an eye on the weather as they work. They are crap artists. They create lovely luscious living things out of crap.

But everyone else, the city folk, they're seeing the gorgeous flowers and the crunchy cool cucumbers and sweet ripe red and yellow tomatoes and nothing else. Hell, they don't even get the good stuff. The good stuff is home grown, nurtured out of the black earth with our own hands and hard work. You think not? Get thee hence and try a home-grown, ripe, red Sweet 100 cherry tomato and tell me what you think. Every good book you read is like that, home grown and so sweet and tart it hurts your teeth when you bite into it, and thirst-quenching when the juices run down your throat. It's so good you eat it like candy, I swear to God, and thank God for it. A home-grown tomato might not be perfectly formed like those ones in the grocery store, but they go down so much better. I'll choose a weird looking ripe, home grown tomato over a perfectly formed store-bought every time.

So the next time you panic over your writing and think it's crap, think, "fish guts." I personally use "bunny poop," since that's what goes in my compost. Anything that makes you think of the growing properties of fertilizer will work. Just get your hands in that good black earth and make it fruitful.

Selected writing-related posts

Well, now that I have my blog looking up to snuff, I've been going over some of the writing-related posts in The Pollyanna Files, and deciding which ones I want to bring over here.  There are actually some of practical use, so you'll be seeing these shortly.

I'm quite pleased with this template, which I got from Infocreek's blog template site.  It was remarkably easy to set up, and they have complete directions on what settings need to be modified.  Setting up the template was much easier on Firefox, though, than on Internet Explorer.  The layout overlaps in Explorer, which was quite frustrating.  But it's pretty well set up the way I want it now.

So, on with copying over the blog posts!

Welcome to my new blog!

I decided to get all organized and create another blog in which I write about anything that has to do with writing and publishing: "Playing with Words." I will probably transfer my writing entries from The Pollyanna Files to this one, just to have all my writing-related stuff in one place. This one will be my official "me-as-author" blog, rather than the informal one I have over at The Pollyanna Files.

I'll continue to write what I feel like over at The Pollyanna Files, but it'll be more about my travels (oh, yeah, I'm going to relocate to Germany next year--did I forget to mention that? If I did forget, see what I have to say about that later over there), knitting/fiber arts, and foodie stuff. If you want to relax, read, and chat there, you're more than welcome. If you want to stick to writing- and publishing-related topics, and ask questions about that, this is the place to be.