Archive for December, 2022

writing life

2022 in Review

I usually write a “year in review” post outlining things I did, read, watched, etc., and the highlights of the year, but this year was kind of a blur. I keep a list of books I’ve read, and I barely remembered most of them. I had to stop and think to recall what most of them were about. Some of them I honestly didn’t remember reading. I don’t seem to have discovered any new-to-me authors I was excited about.

I know I watched a lot of movies this year, thanks to my “movie night” habit. I don’t keep a list, so now I have a hard time remembering what I watched. I know I loved the new version of West Side Story. I’d have to think about what else there was.

For TV, it was a Star Wars kind of year. Far and away the best series I watched was Andor. I also liked the Obi-Wan Kenobi series. For non-Star Wars stuff, I think my favorite new series would be Rings of Power.

I wrote two books and two half books. I got started on a book that was meant to be the launch of a new series, got halfway through it and realized there was something wrong with it that I didn’t know how to fix, and it might take me the rest of the year to write it. So I put it on hold and got a couple of mystery books written, and then I decided there was another book that would be better to work on and easier to market, so I got about half of it written before I took a break for the holidays.

For the coming year, I’m going to work very hard on actually making a business plan and sticking to it so that I’m not just writing by whim but rather have a schedule. This is important because I’m considering this my make-or-break year. I’m giving myself this year to get my act together and make the writing thing really work before I have to look into getting a regular job. I’d probably keep writing because it’s what I do, but the financial uncertainty is getting to me. I feel like I’m still living like a college student and I’d like to have a bit more security. So, I either have to make a lot more money from writing or I have to get a job. I’ve got this year to really dig in and make the most of being able to have this as my full-time job and see if that will turn things around.

That probably means next year is going to be a blur, too, since I’ll be spending it working hard. I’m going to try to be better about work/life balance and letting my work time be work time and my leisure time be leisure. I’m bad about letting them spill over into each other so that I’m not really effective in my work and I’m not really relaxed in my leisure. I need to be more active for my health, so that’s another goal, to just get up and move more often.

And that’s pretty much it for my look back at the past year and a look ahead at the next year.

My Books

Seasonal Reading

I think I’m finally going to acknowledge the holiday season. I’m planning to put up my decorations tonight, and this Friday will be my “office party.” Yes, it’s just me, but I’m going to start my holiday week a bit early by spending a day reading and relaxing, with maybe some festive food. I figure if I’m a good boss, I owe myself a party. So this may be my last post until I do a year in review just before the new year.

This year, I planned in advance and have stockpiled some Christmas books. If I started reading something that turned out to be set during the holiday season, I marked it and set it aside. I’ll get out the seasonal music, turn on the Christmas tree lights, and immerse myself.

I’ve written one Christmas novella, Twice Upon a Christmas, which is sort of a “Sliding Doors” scenario of a woman living out two different lives based on a quirk of fate, only she’s conscious of both lives as she lives each day twice and has to choose which life she wants to keep. This story started as a screenplay for one of those TV Christmas movies, then I realized I had no idea what to do with it, so I adapted it into a book. I must have been somewhat on the right track for the movie thing because I keep getting queries from networks and production companies about it, but no one has yet actually optioned it.

Within my other series, there are also some options for holiday reading. There’s the latest book, Mystery of the Secret Santa, in the Lucky Lexie series. The holiday season spans two books in the Enchanted, Inc. series. Once Upon Stilettos leads up to the office holiday party, then Damsel Under Stress covers Christmas itself. The third book in the Fairy Tale series, A Kind of Magic, happens in the lead-up to Christmas, with the heroine, Sophie, dancing in The Nutcracker. And Rebels Rising, the third book in the Rebels series, takes place around Christmas.

I keep saying I need to write another Christmas book, but I learned the hard way this year that writing a Christmas book early in the year makes me want to avoid the holiday season when it actually comes. I initially wrote that screenplay during December when I was between projects (I may have been waiting on edits on a book) and I wanted to keep up the routine of writing regularly, so I did something seasonal just for fun. My brain is too fried this year to write during the holiday week, and I’m in the middle of a book, so it’s not going to happen this year. I have so many ideas, though. If I could figure out how to sell scripts, I could keep Netflix and Prime supplied with movies (but not Hallmark because my ideas don’t fit their current mold).

Have a happy holiday season, and happy reading!


Almost There

I should hit my target word count goal for the book I’ve been working on today, a week ahead of the deadline I set. Go, me!

However, since I’m revisiting a book I started writing last year, there’s a lot of junk left over from the previous attempt that’s still included in the word count. I’m still using bits and pieces of it in different places, so I haven’t moved it out of the manuscript file yet. When I do that, I’m sure I’ll lose at least 5,000 words.

And I’m nowhere near the end of the story. I may be a bit beyond the midpoint, but it’s hard to tell, especially with all that extra stuff around the beginning.

But I’m still going to take it as a win and celebrate as though I’ve reached a finish line when I hit that target today. And then I’ll reset the word count, delete the extraneous stuff that I know I won’t be using because I’ve long passed those parts of the story, and set a new word count and a new deadline for actually finishing the book.

That may happen after the holidays. I was planning to take a couple of weeks off after next Friday, but since I’m hitting the target early, I think I’m going to consider next week a light duty/admin period. If I have an idea for what to write and want to write, I may write some. Otherwise, I’ll catch up on promo stuff and admin stuff, watch some video lectures I’ve been stockpiling, and maybe actually do some Christmas decorating and shopping. And when I’m not doing that stuff, I may just read and relax. My brain is very tired. I think if I keep busy doing other things, it may figure out the rest of this story. Right now, I have a vague idea of what major things will happen, but I don’t yet have a clear picture of how it will look when it happens or what else needs to happen to get to those major events. It always comes to me just before I need to write it. And then I write it and then I realize what should have happened, and so I rewrite it.

But I’ve worked very hard this year, logging more writing hours than I’ve ever done before, and I haven’t taken a substantial break all year, so I’m not going to push myself for now. That’s what January is for.

My Books

Small-Town Christmas

We’re now truly into December, right during the time of year when Mystery of the Secret Santa takes place, and I have to confess that I’m still not really into the holiday spirit. I’m pretty much actively avoiding anything Christmassy. I think part of the reason is that we finally got “fall” around Thanksgiving. The leaves started turning brilliant colors the day after Thanksgiving, so it’s one of the more spectacular autumns we’ve had in ages, and then it got warm. It feels like October in Texas and looks like September/October in New England. Since fall is my favorite season, I want to enjoy it before I move on to the Christmas season, so I’m denial about it being December.

I think it also didn’t help that I spent the late summer writing a book set during the holiday season. I didn’t do anything like listen to Christmas music while I wrote or put up holiday decorations in my office to get in the mood, but I still ended up essentially experiencing the season in my head from making up what this town’s festivities would look like and then spending hours a day mentally experiencing it. I may have overdosed on the holiday season during August and September.

But I did have fun creating my ideal small-town Christmas. I based a lot of it on Grapevine, Texas, a town near me that’s had itself proclaimed the Christmas Capital of Texas. This town has an old-timey main street full of little shops and restaurants. The area gets covered in lights, the stores do elaborate window displays, there’s Christmas music piped in that you hear on the street, and there’s a light show synchronized to music in the city park. I like to go there and just walk up and down the street, soaking it all up. I understand it’s even bigger now that they’ve built a new hotel near the train station and there’s a whole new commuter rail line that runs through there. They have an outdoor ice rink and a new plaza where I believe the light show is now. Here are a few pictures of Grapevine at Christmas to help you imagine what I was trying to convey in the book.

A gazebo in a small-town park is lit up with white Christmas lights
The gazebo in the Grapevine downtown park
Downtown Grapevine decorated for Christmas, with a row of old buildings covered in lights and a lighted garland over the street.
Downtown Grapevine decorated for the holidays.
Christmas lights on old buildings on Main Street, with lights also hanging over the street.
Main Street in Grapevine with all the lights.
An old movie theater outlined in Christmas lights.
The old movie theater, dressed for the holidays.

Another town that provided some inspiration is Marshall, in East Texas. They started outlining all the buildings in the old downtown around the courthouse square with lights back in the 80s (when my uncle was mayor there), and it’s exploded from there to be a big deal people travel to see.


Surprise and Satisfaction

While I’m learning writing lessons from Star Wars, the season finale of Andor got me started thinking about audience/reader satisfaction.

There’s a tricky balance between meeting expectations and being too predictable, giving the audience what they want to have happen but not what they expect to happen. For a hypothetical example, think of the typical heist movie. The crew outlines their elaborate plan for carrying out the heist, then the job is on. But if everything in the plan works and the crew succeeds, it would be boring. If it fails and they get caught, it would be disappointing (unless maybe the twist is that you’re supposed to be cheering for the people trying to catch the thieves). So the crew has to succeed, but not in the expected way. What usually happens is that something in the elaborate plan goes wrong and we get to see the crew improvise to pull off the job by the skin of their teeth. Or else it only looks like things are going wrong and it turns out this is a part of the plan we weren’t privy to, that they knew that person was going to double-cross them and planned for it, so they’re triple-crossing the person who double-crosses them.

Just about all stories hinge on that balance between surprise and expectation. If you give people exactly what they expect, they tend to be somewhat disappointed. If you give them something that’s worse than what they expect (worse in the sense of less interesting — things going worse for the characters may be better for the audience) they’re really disappointed. The ideal is to give them something even better than what they expected. Surprise isn’t always good. I think some writers these days, particularly in TV, place too high a value on surprising the audience, as though that’s the only thing that matters, but if the surprise comes out of nowhere and it doesn’t feel like events were building to that shocking twist, that can still be disappointed. You get rewatch/reread value out of things when you can go back and spot the clues that build toward the conclusion that you might not have noticed before. If there’s no setup at all, you may be surprised, but you’ll also be annoyed. As I said, it’s a delicate balance to get surprise in a satisfying way.

I’ll keep this vague enough to avoid spoilers, but I was thinking about this in the lead-up to the Andor finale because the situation was being set up to be an obvious trap for Our Hero. The bad guys wanted to capture him and thought he would go to this particular event to honor his mother. The good guys wanted to take him out because he knew too much and were also lying in wait for him at this event. I thought it would be funny if he made a wise choice and figured the best way to honor his mother was to do something different and he didn’t show up to walk into the obvious trap while everyone else was there. But I figured that would be a disappointing outcome, since we’ve been looking for that showdown. You don’t want a major clash between most of the forces in the story while your protagonist is off somewhere else, in no real danger. On the other hand, it would also be disappointing if Our Hero walked into an obvious trap and only managed to miraculously escape because of his plot armor. The writers needed to find a way for him to be present at the big confrontation between all the forces without him being a complete idiot. He needed to do something interesting in this scenario and be involved in the big confrontation without getting caught or killed, and in a way that we believe he shouldn’t have been caught or killed (that doesn’t rely on everyone else being idiots in out-of-character ways). Ideally, this should be something that builds from the characters’ personal arcs, so that this outcome feels inevitable, and yet still isn’t entirely predictable.

I won’t say how, but I think they did manage to find something that I considered very satisfying.

As a writer, I often struggle with this because I like coming up with smart plans for the characters and I like them making smart choices — not walking into those obvious traps — but that can make for boring outcomes. I have to remember to let circumstances or other people’s choices mess up those perfect plans so that my heroes can be smart and still struggle. At the same time, you have to play fair and have the things that mess up the plan not come completely out of the blue. The possibility for those problems has to be set up. You can get away with a little more in making things worse for your characters with random coincidences, but you still have to be careful about making even the bad stuff make some kind of sense. You need to come up with challenges that reflect the cosmic lessons the characters are supposed to be learning in this story.

It’s also an issue when readers are anticipating a certain outcome to all the story threads that are being woven together. They’ll be disappointed if the thing they’re looking forward to seeing doesn’t happen, but they’ll also be disappointed if it does happen exactly the way they expected it to. Writers have to think of all the things readers might expect and find ways to throw in surprises. Every so often, you may give a few really clever readers exactly what they anticipated, but it’s only because they’ve solved the puzzle, and you have to really nail the execution for them to still enjoy seeing their predictions turn out to be correct.

I’ve heard the advice to make a list of things that could happen and strike out the first ten or so, since that’s what most people will think of first. Or you could take those things people will think of first and put a twist on them so that they happen, but in a different way. I usually end up changing my planned final confrontation once I get there. It’s still what the story was driving toward, but I try to switch things up a little by changing the setting or who’s involved. If I’ve changed my own plans, maybe the readers won’t see it coming in an obvious way.

And I guess if I’m getting all these deep writing thoughts from watching Star Wars stuff, that means watching Star Wars counts as work, right?