Archive for November, 2019

Thanksgiving Week

I’ll be taking the rest of the week off from posting, since it’s a holiday week and I’m trying to wrap up a book. Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers.

I’m close to the end, but I realized that I put something in a scene that makes it too obvious who the villain has to be. I need to move that scene later in the story because I think it’s going to be the heroine’s aha! moment. On the other hand, I figured out something about another character that makes her make more sense, so I need to add that.

I suppose I don’t have to meet my self-imposed deadline of a first draft by the end of the month, and I never officially signed up for National Novel Writing Month. But it is good discipline to force myself to keep up steady production. Oddly enough, it’s almost a break for me to do the 50,000 words in a month thing, since the daily quota to do that is about half what I usually write when I’m really into a book. I spend less time writing each day than I normally do during this push. The difference is that it forces me to make writing a priority and do it every day even when I don’t have a deadline. It serves as a reset of sorts to get me back into good working habits.

And I have about 1,700 words to get written today.

writing life

Needing Variety

I’ve made it to the point where my daily target word count has dropped below 2,000 words a day. I’m going to keep going over my target, so that count should drop a little bit every day. The real question now is whether I’ll get to the end of the story by the end of the month. I suspect it’s going to be a bit longer than I originally planned. And then I will end up cutting a lot of rambling in the middle.

I’m hoping to get a few books in this series written before I start releasing them, so I can get them out with some momentum and make more of a splash. But I’m not sure I can deal with writing the same characters and place back-to-back, and I don’t yet have a planned plot for the next book. So I guess we’ll see what strikes me as the next thing to work on. My problem is that I need variety. Writing the same thing all the time would drive me crazy. I have so many stories I want to tell. But the way to get momentum and build a following is to have a series.

That’s why I’m contemplating a series that’s more of a world series, with overlapping standalone stories. Then I could write book after book without getting too bored. But I need to get the current one launched and on its way before I get distracted by a different series.

I’ll be writing another scene set in my fictional Mexican restaurant today, but this time I’m prepared. I have ingredients for making enchiladas for dinner tonight.


Hiding and Revealing Clues

I’ve been chugging along on this book, but now I’ve reached the point where I have to start moving toward solving this thing. I’ve spent so long trying to hide clues, and now I have to reveal them. This is where it gets tricky, trying to make things hard for my sleuth (and for readers) while still needing my sleuth to uncover things. One challenge I have is that the situation makes it hard for her to find and interview suspects, so I have to come up with ways for her to meet up with them.

Mysteries are a lot harder than they seem to write. It’s strange, the Enchanted, Inc. books were essentially mysteries, just without the dead bodies, but I don’t seem able to move what I was doing there over to this structure. I think there was less pressure to make things tricky there because the story wasn’t really about the “case.” It was about the magic and all the other stuff that was going on with the characters. I think, to some extent, that in a mystery series, readers follow it more because they like the characters and situation than for the actual mysteries, but to get readers to that point, the case in the first book has to be good. I just read the first book in a mystery series in which I liked the sleuth and the concept, but the case was handled so badly that I don’t think I’ll be reading any other books in the series.

What I’m having fun with is building a new “world” and creating new characters. That’s always been my favorite part of writing. The actual story and the plot have always been my challenge. It took me a long time to figure out what to do after I came up with a situation, a setting, and the characters.

I’m afraid Thanksgiving is going to kill my momentum, just as I’m getting close to the end. I guess I’ll just hole up in the guest room while everyone else is watching football.

Living in Magazine World

I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of magazines. I was a weird kid who, even as a very small child, loved reading my mother’s homemaking-type magazines, things like Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, etc. I could sit for hours, looking at the spreads of food, gardens, and interior decor. I imagined my dream home, planned imaginary parties, thought of how I’d decorate for Christmas when I had my own home.

When I became an adult, I used to have several magazine subscriptions, mostly from those deals where you can use your frequent flier miles to get magazines. I had miles from an airline I seldom used, so I used them for magazines. I ended up letting all the subscriptions lapse because I realized I wasn’t reading them and they just turned into clutter.

But a month or so ago, I got in the mood to read a magazine. I wanted something semi-mindless that wouldn’t get me sucked into a narrative. I discovered that I can get to a bunch of online editions of magazines through my library. Now I can flip through them to my heart’s content without having any clutter in my home. If there’s something I want to save, I can take a screenshot. I find that it’s soothing to look at pretty meals, nice houses, and lovely gardens, like it’s a window into an orderly, peaceful world. I’m trying to figure out what I want to do if I ever get a new house or decide to remodel this house, so I try the magazine spreads on for size to see what I like and don’t like. It’s also fun to imagine how my various characters might live.

For bedtime reading, I’m finding that a magazine is just what I need for those last minutes before I turn out the light. There’s no worry of getting caught up in a book and reading just one more chapter, and then another, and then another, and then having a restless night while my brain tries to finish it. I can drift off to sleep with visions of gardens and curtains. But since I don’t like to read from a screen just before I go to sleep, I’ve been buying old issues from the Friends of the Library rack at the library, where they sell them for 25 cents an issue, or 5 for a dollar. That’s my bedtime reading. I figure it amounts to a contribution to the library. Then if I find something I really like, I can clip it to add to my idea file, or I can cut out the recipes.

I will admit to a certain amount of mockery because there are some things that get a bit silly, like the article on how to do a tailgate picnic at the pumpkin patch, which requires a vintage station wagon and vintage plaid Thermoses to do it properly. Still, when the world seems to be descending into chaos, reading about how to host the perfect backyard tea party is rather reassuring.


Imaginary Places

I’m getting close to the halfway point on the book I’m working on, but I realized after yesterday’s very productive writing session that I did something wrong with that scene. Today I’ll have to backtrack and rework it to move things in the right direction. I’m trying to figure out when to introduce a particular element that will move the plot forward dramatically but also complicate things for the main character. I think I moved part of it up way too quickly and need to add the other part first.

Meanwhile, I think I’ve fallen in love with my setting, which is a problem because it doesn’t actually exist. I believe there’s a particular word in one language (that I don’t recall) that translates to homesickness for a place you’ve never been. This is like that, except it’s a place I can never go. I created a fictional small town that’s very loosely based on a couple of actual towns. I stole some geography from two places and put them together to get what I wanted. Then I started adding the elements I needed for the story, along with giving the town a background that explained some of the things. The result is a town I would like to visit, maybe even live in.

There’s a “downtown” area with a main street and a couple of side streets built in those turn-of-the-century downtown-style buildings you see in a lot of Texas towns. Sadly, in a lot of these towns, those buildings are now empty or torn down. People try to start businesses there, but they don’t last long. If a business is doing well there, the building no longer meets its needs, so they end up building a newer building on the edge of town. But in my town, they’ve found businesses to go in these buildings and have even built apartments on the upper floors. The town’s in the process of turning around and finding a new identity after it almost withered away.

One of the businesses in my old downtown is a Mexican restaurant. Either it used to actually be a saloon or it looks like it because that’s the vibe it has. It has wooden floors and a pressed tin ceiling, a big bar at the back that’s now counter seating, and the traditional mirror behind the bar. The food is excellent, and it’s the town hang-out. Late last week and over the weekend I was writing a scene set in this restaurant. My main character’s been stuck in this town after a lot of things happen, including one of those sudden cold fronts that takes it from a pleasant morning to sleet by evening, and she walks to this restaurant, where she meets a lot of the other characters, since it’s one of the few places still open and a lot of the people who were in the vicinity of the murder have come there for dinner. That meant I spent days craving Mexican food, but the problem was that I wanted to go to this restaurant, which doesn’t actually exist.

Fortunately, there were tacquitos at a party I went to over the weekend, which eased the craving somewhat. And I found a recipe for cheese enchiladas that sounds like what I like, so I’m going to try making that this weekend.

There’s also a diner in town that’s in a remodeled old train car. That one is based on a restaurant I went to in Oklahoma, which is in an old train car. I somewhat modified it, but I liked the idea, and it fits with the town’s story.

Today I need to decide what kind of library they have and what its building looks like.


Returning to Haven

Since I was reading Stephen King’s book on writing and was planning to write a paranormal mystery set in an odd little town, I got in the mood to re-watch Haven. This was a series on SyFy starting in 2010 that was very loosely based on Stephen King’s book The Colorado Kid. A slightly different version of the events in the book is the backstory for the TV series.

I’ve described this series as “Northern Exposure meets The X-Files.” An FBI agent gets sent to a small town in Maine on a case, and once she gets there, she discovers that the town is full of secrets, including people with odd abilities, and the town may be the key to learning about her own mysterious past. It starts as more of a paranormal procedural, with a case of the week involving the strange abilities, but it gradually becomes more arc-centric, as we learn more about the history and abilities of the FBI agent and what it has to do with the town, and there are also various factions in the town.

The budget for this show was apparently the change they found in their sofa cushions (when I met one of the writers and mentioned loving the series, he apologized), but it holds up pretty well, and I think they did really well with the resources they had. The writing is rather strong, and they managed to avoid a lot of tropes. The FBI agent doesn’t come into the small town with smug superiority, and the local cops work with her rather than treating her like an outsider, unlike almost any cop show in which a fed comes to a small town. She gets along really well with the local cop who ends up becoming her partner. They have disagreements at times, but they don’t fall into the obvious dualities, like her being the believer and him being the skeptic or him being by the books and her being a loose cannon. The positions they take in each case depend on the situation they’re dealing with, so any arguments are different in each episode rather than an ongoing retread of the same old thing.

It’s never really too intense or scary for wimpy me, though it can get creepy. I’d say it’s fun scary, the sort of thing to watch with the lights out and some candles for atmosphere. There’s a nice bit of humor and gorgeous scenery. Mostly, though, I love the characters. I’ve jokingly referred to it as “Katie and Owen become small-town cops in Maine” because the two main characters are similar to mine. Audrey, the main character, is snarky, mostly level-headed, has a lot of common sense, and seems to be immune to the freaky stuff that happens in the town. Nathan, the local guy who becomes her partner, is shy and a little nerdy while also being really bright and extremely capable.

It looks like it’s streaming on Netflix. I’ve got all the DVDs, but I haven’t watched them in ages and I’m having fun with this rewatch. I’m also getting ideas for what I want to do with the small town I’m creating. I’d love to be able to create a similar character vibe.


Lessons from Stephen King

A book on writing and publishing I was reading mentioned a piece of Stephen King’s advice from his book On Writing, so I thought I’d check that out of the library and read the whole thing. I haven’t read a lot of Stephen King because I’m a massive weenie who can’t handle a lot of tension and who doesn’t like to be scared. I’ve read a collection of his short stories. I read The Dead Zone after starting to watch the TV series. Oddly, it wasn’t the spooky supernatural stuff that made that series too scary for me to watch all the way through. It was when the creepy politician became the focus that I got too freaked out. I guess it’s the same reason I can’t watch or read courtroom stories. I know vampires and monsters are fiction, but lawyers and politicians are real, and that’s truly scary. I also read The Colorado Kid, which was the (very loose) basis for the series Haven. He’s an incredibly talented writer, so even if I’m too chicken to read most of his work, I figured I had something to learn from him.

The first half of the book is essentially a memoir about how he came to be a writer. I came away from reading that with the sense that I’d actually like him a great deal if I met him. I might even need to give more of his books a shot because, from the sounds of things, I get what he’s trying to say, and it seems like the impression I have is more from the movies made from his books, which tend to take a very different perspective.

The second half gets into more how-to, at least how he approaches writing. I think my biggest practical takeaway is his advice that the second draft should be 10 percent shorter than the first draft, tightening it all up and getting rid of any flab. In my case, I would probably adapt that to say that after I think the book is done, I should do another pass to remove 10 percent. My first draft tends to be fairly bare bones, almost like a screenplay, so it’s mostly dialogue and action. There is some flab, certainly, since I tend to process things on paper, having the characters think about or talk about what they should do or have done, and once I’ve figured all that out, I can cut the process part. But I also have to add things like emotions and description. My second drafts usually involve cutting huge chunks and adding huge chunks. But after that, trying to trim 10 percent, whether it’s in whole passages or individual words, might be a really good exercise. He even has an example of how he edits a scene to show the kinds of things he cuts.

There’s also some good inspirational stuff that I need to keep in mind when I get discouraged about the business that comes with writing. The quote I probably need to embroider on a throw pillow is: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

Now maybe I need to try more of his novels. Any suggestions for weenie-safe Stephen King books?

writing life

Good Students and the Dreaded Group Project

I had a bit of an epiphany this morning about why authors tend to find publishing frustrating.

I would guess that a lot of published authors were good students in school, the ones who turned in good work on time and got As. We learned that if you do what’s expected of you, do it well, and do it on time, you will succeed.

But publishing has very little to do with how well you do it. Yeah, you have to meet a certain standard to get a book published in the first place, but quality has no direct correlation with success. A brilliant book may never sell to a publisher at all because it doesn’t have any good marketing hooks, because another book with similar subject matter was recently published and bombed, because there’s nothing really like it in the market to compare it to, so the editor can’t come up with comp titles for selling it in-house and the marketing team nixes it. A less-than-brilliant book on a hot topic may sell at auction. Even once books are published, you never know what will take off. I’m sure we’ve all noticed massive bestsellers that aren’t at all well-written, that are derivative and corny. And there are books that get consistently positive reviews and even win awards but that don’t sell very well. Writing a really good book is no guarantee of success.

Even turning things in on time isn’t such a huge deal. I learned that publishers expect authors to be at least a month late with their books. They love it when an author hits deadlines, but that doesn’t necessarily do you any good. I did get a slightly better publication date once when someone else slipped a deadline so badly that the book had to be rescheduled and my book was done early, but they still dropped me at the end of my next contract. If you’re a big enough bestseller, deadlines don’t matter at all anymore. They’ll just take the book whenever you decide to get around to giving it to them.

Your typical A student feels like something is totally out of whack when doing good work and doing it on time ends up meaning very little, especially when they see the person who, in effect, paraphrased someone else’s paper and turned it in late getting a better grade.

But to make matters worse, publishing is like the dreaded group project. The writer may do the bulk of the work in coming up with the idea and actually executing it, but then someone else in the group is responsible for putting it together in the right format and putting the right cover on it, then someone else is responsible for presenting it to the class—and then the class votes on what grade you get. You can put your heart and soul into doing the paper, but then you’re in trouble if the person who was supposed to present it got sidetracked with cheerleading practice and forgot she was supposed to do it, so she stumbles through the presentation and makes it sound boring, or worse, doesn’t bother presenting it at all. Even if your whole team is putting their all into it, you never know how the class will react. Maybe they’ll really vote on the best project. Maybe they’ll vote for the popular kids who put no effort into it. Maybe there will be an assembly on the day you’re scheduled to present your project, so everyone’s distracted and doesn’t pay attention.

Independent publishing may be a little easier for the “I can do it all myself!” types to cope with because they can choose their own teams and they’re in charge of those teams, but the class is still voting on the grade.

Maybe the ones who survive publishing with their sanity intact are the ones who were bright but not particularly good students because they weren’t motivated by grades. They might or might not bother with the work and didn’t worry about jumping through the academic hoops, instead focusing their mental energy on things they found intrinsically interesting and rewarding.

Speaking of discouraging things, I have a column today at Fiction University on coping methods for dealing with discouragement. Because I came up with this analogy this morning, I didn’t mention the idea of knowing your own worth and not worrying about outside measurements, whether it’s grades or book sales.


On Target

I’ve finally made it back to my old proven working schedule, writing before I do anything else in the morning, and I’ve already written almost half of my target word count for the day. I guess the proven schedule really does work, as much as I hate it.

I write in an application called Scrivener. It’s designed primarily for fiction writers and has a lot of fun little functions I’m still discovering. One thing I like is that it works like a binder where you can keep all documents relating to a project, so research notes, character lists, etc., are all in one handy place. You can put each scene in a separate document and the software compiles it all into one Word document when it’s done (it’s a pain to write in separate documents in Word). While you’re drafting, it’s easy to jump to other parts of the book if you need to fix something, and it’s easy to move scenes around. There’s a spot on each document where you can write notes about what the scene’s about, and there’s a mode in which you can see those notes as notecards, which helps for plotting. You can lay out the scenes you know by writing on the notecards, then go back and actually write the scenes.

One of my favorite features is the project tracker. There’s a little window you can bring up where you enter your target word count and target daily word count, and it shows your progress. The bar starts as red, gradually turns orange, then a yellowish color, and gradually turns bright green as you near your goal. Or you can set a target word count and a deadline and which days of the week you plan to write, and it will calculate how many words you need to write a day to hit that deadline. It recalculates if you go over or under your daily target. One of the great joys in writing life is going over one day and then opening the application the next morning to see that the daily target has gone down. It’s a great motivator to do just a little more. The closer you get to the deadline, the bigger the impact going over (or under) the daily target has because it’s spread over fewer days.

I also like that there’s a quick reference panel you can bring up without leaving the document you’re in. I use that for a character list. When I come up with a character, that person’s name and any vital info I need to remember go in the list. Then it’s easy to check when that character appears again and I need to be sure of his name and how to spell it or if I need to remember something like a character’s sister’s name that was only mentioned offhand once earlier in the book.

You can put pictures in the documents, too—not to appear in the final compilation, but showing up in the notes on the side. There are places to put reference photos in the binder, and there are character and location sheets where you can put photos, but if something is critical to a scene and you need to refer to it frequently while writing the scene, you can put it in the notes for that document.

Today I’ve already watched my daily tracker turn yellow, and the project tracker has gone from red to orange. My daily target word count is dropping gradually. It’s already below my usual daily output, so I feel like I might be able to draft this book this month. Then again, I haven’t hit the dreaded middle slump yet. So far, I’m still getting scenes in my head every night and am just having to transcribe them the next morning.


Left Behind by Peak TV

I keep seeing articles about how we’re in a phase of “peak TV,” and it’s odd because I’m watching less than ever. There do seem to be some quality shows, but most of them require some kind of subscription. Broadcast TV has withered away to almost nothing, mostly clones of the same crime shows and a lot of reality TV, aside from the superhero lineup on the CW. Even cable service isn’t enough anymore, since a lot of the good stuff is on the various streaming services. There are shows on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and now Disney+, and then there’s going to be an HBO service and probably a few more. We’re back to the cable dilemma, where getting access to the one thing you want to watch will require paying for a bunch of stuff you don’t want. At least with the streamers, it’s mostly on-demand content, so you can watch it whenever, and you can start and stop the service when you want, so you can binge that one show and then cancel the service. It’s not like having to get an entire cable package to watch one program, and then you’re stuck with it for at least a year.

But there hasn’t yet been anything I would subscribe to something to watch. Most of this “peak TV” is way too dark for my taste. I have Amazon Prime because I figured that was the most cost-effective option for me. It has a huge variety of stuff to watch, so my only issue is whether I can get a particular thing. If it’s just a case of needing something in general to watch, there’s more than enough content. Plus it comes with free e-books every month, access to magazines, and a decent music streaming service. And free shipping, but I actually don’t buy much from Amazon. That’s my last resort. I’ve enjoyed Good Omens and The Tick on Prime, but both of those shows are over. There are a few other original shows on that service that I plan to watch, but I haven’t been in the mood for them yet. Most of it looks way too intense for the mood I’ve been in lately. I started The Man in the High Castle, since I read the book ages ago, but Nazis in America is way too close to real life right now and it was more than I could deal with. The same goes for the shows on other services. I see people raving about them, and I shudder.

I may eventually get Disney+ for their Star Wars shows and other Disney content, but at the moment I’m too busy to watch a lot of TV and I’m going to let them work the bugs out first (I’ve heard they’ve had some launch woes today).

I’d love to see more variety in tone in the offerings. More comedy or at least light-hearted shows. Something fun and quirky, along the lines of Good Omens. I have noticed that when creators are given free rein, they tend to veer toward darkness, possibly because that has been equated with quality, and if you’re trying to get respect and critical acclaim, that’s the way to go. Anything fun is likely to be dismissed as “popcorn” viewing and not taken seriously. The streaming services are offering creators the funding to make their dream projects, so we’re getting a lot of dark stuff. I’m okay with a bit of darkness or serious subject matter. I just want a sense of fun to go with it. Good Omens was about the possible end of the world, but it ended up being very life-affirming and joyous.

Fortunately, Prime has a lot of reruns of older things that are fun. I may need a Pushing Daisies marathon. We’re also getting close to (well, actually we’re in, but I’m ignoring that until Thanksgiving) the Christmas movie season, and a lot of the older ones I liked before Hallmark came in like a steamroller and started the blandification are available on some of the free streaming services. And I have a lot of DVDs. But mostly right now there are books and there’s the classical radio station.