Archive for May, 2019


Series Structure

One of the sessions I went to at last weekend’s conference was on structuring a series. My main takeaway from that is that it’s important to find a good balance between a series being connected enough that people will want to read all the books and there being enough “on ramps” to allow new readers to jump into the series.

There are a lot of different ways to structure a series.

There’s the “one big book broken up into chunks” approach, like The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, in which there’s an epic story published a bit at a time, and each volume doesn’t really have its own narrative arc. In this case, you’d better hope readers discover that first book because there’s no coming in to it late.

There’s probably the most common format, the “episodic” format, in which there may be some big-picture plot arcs and there are character arcs that stretch over the whole series, but each volume is still its own story with its own narrative arc and beginning, middle, and end. That’s what I’ve been doing with my series. There are shadings within that, with one extreme being a bit closer to the one big book style, like I’m doing with Rebels, where each book has its own narrative arc, but those arcs are part of a big picture arc and lead directly from one to the next. There’s no real jumping in to that series. You pretty much have to read the first book. In the middle would be the romantic mystery series, in which each book is its own distinct case, but the character stories arc through the whole series, usually with a romantic relationship gradually developing between two of the characters. You could pick up any book to read first, but you’ll probably get more out of the character stories if you read them in order. The extreme of “episodic” would probably be the mystery series without real character arcs, where each book is entirely separate and the world more or less resets between books, like the Nancy Drew series. Nothing changes in that world, and you can read the books in any order without it making any difference in the narrative.

Then there’s the “spinoff” format, in which each book in the series is about a different character. The best friend of the main character in book one becomes the main character in book 2, etc. You see a lot of this in romance, where it can be difficult to follow the same characters into more books since each book needs a romantic happy ending. So you’ll get a series about a group of friends, with book one establishing the group and the supporting characters from one book becoming the main characters in later books, with the previous main characters becoming supporting characters so you can see how their lives are going. Each main plot is generally distinct, so you can jump in anywhere, but it will probably make more sense and be more meaningful if you read them in order.

And there’s the “world” format, in which the series is mostly about a particular place, with each book being about a different aspect of that place or different people in that place, with some crossover (characters from one story showing up in another story). The big example would be Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. There are sub-series within the big series that work best if read in order, but you can generally pick a thread and dive in almost anywhere. The more books of the series you’re read, the richer the world feels, and it rewards re-reading after you’ve read more so that you recognize all the people who show up and understand how their stories fit into the big picture.

I’ve been thinking of different kinds of series I might try writing as a way to build an audience. I’ve thought about doing that mystery format, maybe a “strange small town” situation with a case in each book and the amateur sleuth and the pro detective at first clashing and then gradually falling for each other over the course of the series, though I think I would do it more as contemporary fantasy than as mystery, with a variety of cases rather than just murders (does it have to be murder to be a mystery?). I have a hard time suspending disbelief when a small town has a ridiculously high per capita murder rate, and there are a lot of other kinds of cases to solve.

I’ve also thought about trying a “world” series, where I build a fantasy realm and tell a variety of overlapping stories in that realm. That would take some planning to figure out how it all connects, and I’d have to find a way to make it a truly interesting place. I think this is what I might do with that idea of the low-stress escapist fantasy concept and make it be a world people want to visit and enjoy, with the characters having adventures but not necessarily mortal peril.

But first I have to finish revising the book I’m working on, then finish writing a book, then write another book.

First Class

One fun thing about last week’s trip was that I got to sit in first class on the way to LA. I have a ton of frequent flier miles that I haven’t used and don’t have plans for (since I mostly fly on business, and that means it’s a tax deduction, so I want to be spending the money), so I thought I might as well use them to upgrade. But when I called about that, they said there weren’t any upgrades available. They put me on a waiting list, and that was the last I heard. Then when I got the “your flight is ready for check in” e-mail, I noticed that my seat assignment was different, and it was first class.

It was nice, but I’m not sure it’s really worth the cost difference if you’re actually paying for the ticket. You get to board early before there’s a huge crush of people, and they serve you drinks while everyone else is boarding. The seats are a bit wider and there’s more leg room — and I had the bulkhead seat in the front row, so there was even more room. There was actual food instead of a little bag of pretzels. Your bag gets tagged as priority and supposedly comes out first (which did happen in LA, but I noticed on the return flight that it didn’t seem to make any difference). And you don’t get charged extra for the bag.

I did enjoy the extra room. I’m small, so I fit fairly well into regular airplane seats, but on the return trip when I didn’t get the upgrade, I spent most of the flight with the elbow of the woman next to me in my ribs. I think the thing I enjoyed most was the food. It was a flight that spanned lunchtime, and because of the time difference, it would end up being much later to my body by dinnertime. Normally, I’d have snacked on things I brought (peanut butter crackers, a clementine, some nuts), but I got a hot meal, and then later they brought around fresh-baked cookies. There was enough food to work as lunch and hold me over to a fairly late dinner.

If I’m ever rich, first-class travel may be one way I indulge myself because it does seem to make me feel less stressed and tired upon arrival. It’s nice having my personal space bubble intact on an airplane. In the meantime, I have to hope the upgrades come through. I wonder how many people traveling in first class actually bought first-class tickets and how many are upgraded.

writing life

Getting Precious About the Process

One of the panels I went to at the Nebula conference was on productivity tools, but the big takeaway for me wasn’t any specific tool, but rather something that should become my new mantra: Don’t get precious about your process.

I’m really bad about coming up with what feels like a magical formula and then feeling like all is lost if I can’t do it exactly. I’ve determined that I have my most productive days when I get up fairly early, go for a walk either before or after breakfast, then start writing immediately before I break to write my blog post and then finally check e-mail, social media, etc. But if circumstances result in me breaking that pattern, the rest of the day seems to fall apart for no good reason. It’s as though I figure the day’s a loss. And that’s silly because I can reboot at any time of the day and just make the rest of the day go okay.

I’m the same way when I make a schedule for the day. If something unplanned throws me off, instead of just getting back on track, I tend to give up entirely.

The truth is, there is no magical formula. There are ways that tend to work better for me, but if I don’t do the absolute best thing, there’s nothing stopping me from doing a pretty good thing.

I haven’t been able to stick to my process lately because I was having to deal with all the pre-convention stuff, and now the post-convention stuff. I’m going to try to do better today and just pick up where I can in spite of being off schedule because I desperately needed groceries in order to eat lunch today.

It’s not a magical spell, a recipe, or a scientific formula. If something happens out of order or if a step is skipped, the whole thing isn’t ruined.

Home Again

I am home from my wanderings, but I can’t take too much of a break because I have a deadline rapidly approaching. Eep! I have let myself goof off this morning because I had a very long day of travel yesterday, with my flight taking off at around the time it was supposed to be landing. But after a grocery store run because I desperately need vegetables, it’s going to be back to work.

It was a really good conference, and I’m still processing all the information I gathered. I have story ideas and business ideas. I made a lot of new friends and caught up with old ones. I didn’t see much of California beyond what I could see from my hotel window and the trip to and from the airport, but it rained more than is apparently common, and the flowers were glorious.

There was also an epic viewing party of the Game of Thrones finale — a big screen, big speakers, and a room full of science fiction and fantasy writers. There might also have been alcohol involved (though I had to mostly abstain if I wanted to be awake for the episode).

I must have done okay with my communications stuff because they were talking as though they assumed I’d be doing the same job next year. It seems that a job skill I didn’t know I had was being a good middle manager — getting the information needed from above and getting the work done from below.

It’s good to be home, with my own bed, my usual schedule, and access to nutritious food. Seriously, I need vegetables. When you’re eating in restaurants, it’s hard to find non-salad vegetables. There are salads, and then the “vegetarian plate” tends to involve plant-based proteins, but there aren’t a lot of other vegetables. I reached the point when I was desperately craving carrots.

Once I mentally process all the information I took in, I may have some blog post ideas. But first, I have to finish book revisions.

Off for the Week

I had a busy weekend getting all our publication documents ready to go (well, making sure other people got them ready to go), and now I can get back to my own preparations for the Nebula conference this week.

This will be my second trip to Los Angeles, but I didn’t see that much the first time since I was there for less than 24 hours. I went to the Hollywood premiere of Serenity (the Firefly movie), and I wasn’t even there long enough to get a hotel room. I flew in that morning, hung around with friends at their hotel during the day, went to the red carpet, movie, and party, went back to the hotel, changed clothes, and caught the shuttle to the airport, then caught the 6:30 a.m. flight home. I did see a few things along the way, but mostly it was a blur.

I doubt I’ll see much this time other than the trip from airport to hotel and maybe whatever’s around the hotel. But that’s okay because I’m there for the conference.

I will probably be scarce the rest of the week because I’ll be busy either getting ready or traveling. I’m more likely to be tweeting this week than writing blog posts, so you can follow me on Twitter, @ShannaSwendson, for updates.

The To-Be-Read Stash

I’ve been trying to get my massive book collection under some kind of control because I’ve run out of places to put books. For the books I’ve read, I’ve purged down to the ones I know I’ll want to reread. I pulled the books I haven’t read out of the keeper shelf because them being there meant I forgot I had them, which is why I never got around to reading them.

Now I’ve got to deal with the epic to be read stash, which currently takes up part of the small bookcase in my bedroom, plus several boxes. I’ve already done a pretty massive purge, letting go of a lot of the romance novels I got when I was attending romance writing conferences. I had to admit that with all the books there are to read, I was probably never going to read those.

I’m left with a few romance novels by friends that I got when I went to their booksignings, but I may slice the autograph pages out and pass the books on because I’m not actually in touch with most of those friends anymore and they aren’t books I’d have chosen if I hadn’t known the authors. Then I have a small stash of the older traditional Regency romances that aren’t being published anymore. These are the ones that are essentially Georgette Heyer imitations. These work as comfort reads and can be a lot of fun, though I’ve already put one on the donation bag because it was just too sexist for me to tolerate. Most of the stash right now is science fiction and fantasy books from conference goody bags. I really try to sort through those at the conference so I’m only taking books I know I’ll want to read, and that means I’ve got a lot of books I want to read and don’t want to get rid of. I’m hoping that by organizing these books and putting them in the bedroom bookcase where they’re really obvious, I’ll be more likely to pick them up and actually read them.

My main problem with the to-be-read pile is that they keep publishing other things I want to read. My efforts to keep up with what’s currently being published make it harder to dig into the backlog. I’m going to try to get to the books that are handed out this year so they don’t get added to the backlog and so that I’m reading current things. Win-win!

I usually end up reading a book or two during the conference so I don’t have to take those home with me. That may be what I do in the mornings when I wake up well before the conference starts.

Getting Ready to Go

I’ve been so busy with rewriting my book and managing communications for the upcoming Nebula conference that I’ve kind of forgotten about getting ready to actually go to the conference. Like, what I should wear. I’ve got room in my closet after a big wardrobe purge, but I don’t really have anything that’s suitable for the occasion and conditions that I haven’t already worn a lot to previous events where I’ll run into the same people. So I think I’m going to take a little time today to see if I can find at least a few new tops.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, part of this conference will be a huge booksigning that’s open to the public. It’ll be the afternoon of Saturday, May 18. All the details are at this site. Come meet all your favorite authors and say hi.

I’m also on a few panels for the conference, in addition to being on the conference staff.

I’m probably not going to manage to be much of a night owl at this event because the time zone is two hours behind me and I’m not good for late nights even at home. I’ll be falling asleep around 9 in the evening. I’m not sure I’ll even make it to the awards ceremony (since I’m not presenting this year). It doesn’t start until 8, which is 10 to my body, and I’m usually sound asleep by 10:30 or 11. I’ve been trying to shift myself a little later this week, but I don’t know how well that’s working.

So, off to pick up my travel necessities and see if I can find a shirt or two that will go with skirts and slacks I already have.

Screen Time

For the past couple of nights, my exercise time viewing was a program I recorded last week about screen time. I was feeling a bit smug because I’m not one of those people who’s addicted to their phones. They were saying that people unlock their phones an average of 80 times a day, and I can go days without looking at my phone. I think I use it as a music player more than anything else. I don’t have notifications set for anything but texts or phone calls, and even then I mostly keep my phone on silent since I get so many fake calls every day that having a ringer on would be disruptive.

But if I’m being honest with myself, my screen of choice is my laptop. I don’t look at my phone very much, and the only time I do any kind of social media on my phone is when I’m traveling, but when I’m at home, I probably spend more time on screens than I should. It’s difficult to quantify, since my work involves being on my computer, and social media is to some extent part of my work. But I also recognize that it’s become something of a boredom crutch. The moment I’m not engaged in doing something else, my impulse is to check social media or otherwise goof around online.

On the program, they were talking about how sites like Facebook and Twitter are built around not giving you a logical stopping point. No matter how much you scroll, you’re going to run across something you haven’t seen before since they throw in posts that people you follow have liked or re-posted. That keeps you scrolling and scrolling for fear of missing out on something. I think that explains a lot. Back in the heyday of blogs, people posted once a day, so even though the posts were long, I spent a lot less time online reading them. The feed, whether using a feed reader or something like the LiveJournal friends list, was in chronological order and stayed that way, so you could easily find the first thing you hadn’t read, catch up on what was new, and then stop knowing you’d seen it all. If there was a discussion going on in comments, you could opt to get notifications about new comments without having to go back constantly. Going back a bit further into the days of Usenet, you could set your news reader to only show you new posts. Again, you could get through the new stuff you cared to see in a short amount of time and then move on.

But Twitter and Facebook seem totally opposed to just giving a chronological feed of the things you’ve said you want to see. They throw in things the people you follow like or comment on, and I think they withhold some posts to show up later if you check often. It’s all a jumble. And it does seem like this is why. They don’t want you to ever realize you’ve come to a stopping point.

I’m trying to be a lot more mindful about this and limit my impulse to just check online when I have a down moment. Yesterday, when I was taking a revision break between chapters, I started to automatically check Twitter and instead practiced my choir music, stepping away from the computer. That’s another reason I need to get my office in order. I want to go back to keeping my computer upstairs so that it takes more effort to go check it. I’ve tried trimming my lists to see only things I really enjoy seeing, which has helped some. I still think I’d be shocked if someone timed the amount of time I spend, the way they did in that program. The teenagers in one family were spending 12 or more hours a day on their phones. They were finding that schools that made students lock up their phones during the school day saw an increase in test scores and a decrease in behavior issues like bullying. And people who take a lot of selfies tend to feel worse about their appearance and more critical of themselves.

I’m guessing this is going to be a whole new area of psychological research in the coming years.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Spy and War Novels

Picking up on the discussion of my origins and influences as a writer … I have one category that doesn’t really fit in with most of the others, though I suppose you could see it as an extension of the girl sleuth thing: spy and war novels.

I went through a big phase in 7th and 8th grades of being really into spy/adventure/war stories. I was particularly into World War II. I still am, from a history perspective, though I don’t read as many novels about it. I think a lot of it stemmed from the summer vacation we took between sixth and seventh grade. We were living in Germany, and we visited the American military recreation center that was in Berchtesgaden. The hotel was on the Obersalzburg mountain, and it turned out that it actually had been the Nazi VIP headquarters when Hitler had his home there. We were in the middle of what had been the Nazi compound. We took a tour of the bunker system during our stay and learned where all the main buildings had been. I was already somewhat aware of the war. There were visible bomb craters near our home, and I’d heard about how the place we’d lived previously had more or less been wiped off the map by the RAF, but this really brought it home. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how anyone could have let it happen. This was in the late 70s and early 80s, so most of the adults around us had been alive during the war, and I couldn’t imagine the ones I’d met being so cruel as to support Hitler and putting people in concentration camps.

So, I started studying the subject to try to understand it. I’m still studying it, and I still don’t have a good answer. But I think I did find some comfort in the stories of people who did make the right choices, who were brave and self-sacrificing. Reading novels about that made it make a lot more sense. I wasn’t so interested in the military side of things, all the battles and strategy. I’m more interested in things on the individual scale, which meant I read a lot of spy novels about individuals doing their thing even if no one would ever know their contributions. I read authors like Jack Higgins (and his alter ego, Harry Patterson) and Alistair Maclean and many others I don’t remember and don’t still have on my bookshelf. In seventh grade, we shared a library with the high school, so they had adult books, and they were all mixed in on the shelves with the teen books, so that was how I started discovering authors from the adult side of the regular library.

Some of my earliest attempts at actually writing a novel — typing out “chapter one” and an opening scene — were actually spy novels. I had a tendency to make up scenarios starring whatever actor I had a crush on at the time, casting him as my hero. I don’t think I ever got beyond the opening scene of any of these stories because I hadn’t really learned to plot yet. I just knew the situation, so I had the briefing scene in which the spy was given his mission (which may not even have needed to be in the book), but I had no idea where to take it from there. The main thing I learned was how to type. We had a manual typewriter that I found when we moved back to the States and got our stuff out of storage, and I taught myself to type on it as I wrote out these attempts at novels.

I don’t read a lot of those kind of thrillers these days, and I have zero desire to write one, but the idea of spies and secret missions still manages to make its way into my stories. And I do still love war movies and documentaries.


Revisiting Star Wars

Since Saturday was Star Wars day (“May the Fourth be with you”), I rewatched the original movie for the first time in ages. I’m not sure how long it’s been. It holds up really well. I even think the somewhat more primitive special effects look pretty good because they look a lot more real than all the slick CGI stuff.

I have that movie more or less memorized, but I still got really tense during parts of it, as if I didn’t know what was going to happen. I guess that says something, when you can recite the lines along with the actors, but you still find yourself holding your breath about whether or not the good guys are going to win this time around. I’m not even sure how they did that. I suspect it has a lot to do with all the emotional subtext, with the music and the editing that trigger your brain to feel tense.

There’s a part of me that almost wishes it had been left with this little gem of a movie rather than building a whole mythology because the mythology doesn’t quite work for me. It made something that was just a lot of fun into something pseudo portentious. Plus, a lot of that mythology was added retroactively, and the series then had to try to make it fit, but it doesn’t always fit well. For instance, making Luke and Leia twin siblings. That was not originally intended (Alan Dean Foster wrote a romance into Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and Lucas made changes to that book based on the idea that it would be the sequel if the first movie was successful, but he didn’t change the romance). The first movie is clearly setting up a romantic triangle and that revelation came totally out of the blue later. Then there’s the issue of “hiding” Luke from his father by giving him his father’s last name and taking him to live with his father’s stepbrother. They’re lucky that Vader apparently put home way behind him and never checked up on what was going on with those people and never seemed to have considered that Padme had her baby(s) before she died.

At the same time, there are moments that really seem to fit the overall continuity even though they couldn’t possibly have been planned, so it’s fun to look at them in that light. Like Ben’s reaction when Luke mentions that R2-D2 was looking for Obi Wan Kenobi. I guess they roll ‘droids off an assembly line, so there could have been others like R2, but Ben does a double take, looking at R2 again with a look of realization on his face, as though realizing that this actually is the R2 unit he once knew.

I think in the fall, before the next movie comes out, I’m going to have to watch the whole series chronologically. Although I haven’t written any space opera (well, not that’s come close to being publishable), this series has been a huge influence on my desire to write and tell stories, and it’s a fun universe to visit.