Archive for May, 2023

writing, publishing business

When the Machines Take Over

One of the biggest topics in the writing community right now is the growth of artificial intelligence — or, more accurately, language learning models that can simulate writing. These aren’t actually “intelligent.” They’re basically glorified autocomplete. They were “trained” by getting input from written work available on the Internet, and from there they figured out what was most likely to come next based on prompts.

One reason this is an issue is that the people whose works were used to train it weren’t asked if this was okay, so it’s unauthorized use of their work. Another reason is that this is essentially a machine that automates mosaic plagiarism. It’s not writing anything new. It’s just cobbling together bits and pieces of other written work to create what’s essentially a word mosaic. There have been authors who got caught doing this when readers recognized phrases from other books. They take existing books and copy and paste bits and pieces together. It’s not a direct copy, but it’s not original, either. This technology just automates that.

Another reason it’s an issue is that it may make it harder to make a living as a writer because of people who don’t understand what it does and think it offers a shortcut. This is one of the things screenwriters are fighting about in the current writers strike. They’re concerned that studios will use AI to “write” scripts and then hire writers to “edit” or rewrite them into something that can be used. There are different payment scales based on whether someone gets credit for the story, for the script, or just for a rewrite, and studios could try to save money by not crediting an actual writer for the story or the original draft of the script, just for doing a “polish” on an AI-created script, even though it might actually take more effort to turn it into something that could be filmed than it would to write a new script.

For non-fiction writing, like marketing communications (my field when I’m not writing fiction), technical writing, and journalism, there have already been writers fired and replaced with AI. Never mind that it’s extremely dangerous to use it for fact-based writing because it makes stuff up. It doesn’t find information. It just creates something that seems likely based on information that’s already out there. There’s an attorney currently in huge trouble because he turned his legal research over to one of the AI engines to have it write his legal briefs, and it cited entirely fictional cases. It created a legal brief based on other legal briefs, but the cases didn’t exist. I have author friends who’ve played with it, since it’s supposedly a good tool for writing marketing copy, author bios, and the like, but they found that it made up stuff. It didn’t accurately describe the book, made up facts for the bio, and added non-existent books to the list of books in the series.

For fiction writers, there’s already an impact in the short-fiction market as publications have had to close to submissions because they were getting deluged with AI-written drivel. Most publications don’t want to publish anything AI-written because it can’t be copyrighted. It’s an amalgam of other works, so there’s a potential plagiarism issue. Plus, it’s not very good. It can imitate styles of other writers, but it has no real authorial voice, no story logic, no real soul. Apparently, it got out on some “side hustle” advice channel that an easy way to make money is to let AI write short stories for you. Never mind that even at the big publications you’re making a couple of hundred bucks if you manage to sell something. But the swamp of these bogus stories that aren’t good enough for publication, whether or not they’re AI-written, is making more work for editors and making it harder for real writers to get past the noise, especially if they’re newcomers. Editors may start focusing on authors they’ve already worked with or know by reputation because that means it’s more likely that the story is worth publication. A new writer without a reputation may get lost in the shuffle.

Novelists are likely to see the impact in discoverability. The online bookstore algorithms tend to favor new releases, and an author may get an overall boost when they have a new release. If someone can churn out a book with AI in a day, they can flood the marketplace with constant new releases, which crowds out the authors who take weeks or months to write a book the hard way. Even if readers don’t end up buying those books, their listings will stay front-and-center. It will be harder for readers to discover new books and authors.

Publishers already look for new books that are like what’s currently successful, and it’s not hard to imagine some of them seeing this as a shortcut. Get the machine to produce something like the current hot thing, then have an editor clean it up. Then they don’t have to deal with authors and they can get to market faster, jumping on the trend before it passes.

One argument I’ve heard for using AI is that it “democratizes” writing, making it so everyone can do it. Writing is hard, they say, and not everyone wants to put in the time to do it. To which I say, if you don’t enjoy doing it and don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it. You can do something else. If you do enjoy it but are frustrated because your skills don’t match your vision, this may seem to provide a convenient shortcut. Just plug your idea into the computer, and it writes the story for you. But it doesn’t really get you past that frustration gap because if you aren’t writing, you aren’t learning how to write. Plugging your idea into a computer isn’t going to help you grow to be a better writer. You’ll just get better at wording the way you put your ideas into the computer. If you aren’t willing to put in the work to write until you get good at it, then maybe you don’t enjoy the process of writing and should do something else with your time.

I suspect this is another outcome of that side hustle culture, the idea that everything you do should be monetized. If you enjoy writing, you’ve got to be able to make money at it somehow, and now. You’re not making money from it during the time you’re writing just to get better at writing, so you want that shortcut. I also suspect that there’s a lot of overlap between the “writing is hard and this democratizes it” people and the people who believe that everyone can write, so it’s not really a specialized skill people should get paid to do.

I just don’t understand the idea of automating the things that are fun and that are part of human expression, like art and writing. They talk about how even though jobs and opportunities will be lost for writing, there will be new careers in editing AI-written output. But that’s automating the fun part and keeping just the tedious part. You’re not actually doing the thing when you use these tools. You’re getting output as though you’ve done it. I’ve found that I’m sanest when I’m in the creation phase of writing, when I’m coming up with ideas and writing early drafts. When I come close to burnout, it’s when I’m in the proofreading phase. I’d hate to get to where that’s the only part I get to do.

Where I’d love some kind of automation and artificial intelligence is to get a truly good spellchecker, one that looks at context, so if your typo accidentally creates a real word that’s spelled correctly, the spellchecker can tell it’s the wrong word for the context and flags it. Or it would catch when you use the wrong version of a word (like “their” vs. “there”). And it would be able to tell whether or not you need that comma. It would be trained on fiction, so it would work better than the existing grammar checkers. Automate the tedious, boring stuff, not the fun, creative parts.


Snow White

The first movie in my Disney Project was the first full-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I actually watched it because it was the first thing short enough for the time I had available to come up in the list of movies recommended for me on Disney+, but I figured it was appropriate to start with the original.

I’m not entirely certain I’ve ever seen this one all the way through. Most of it was entirely unfamiliar, but then there were moments that were very familiar. I think I may have seen clips of some of the more famous scenes. If I saw it, I was young enough that I don’t remember the experience. I had the soundtrack album, and it wasn’t my favorite because I didn’t like Snow White’s high, warbly voice. I must not have listened to it a lot because a lot of the music was unfamiliar. I knew the famous songs, like “Whistle While You Work,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and the Hi-Ho song, and I remembered the echo effect in “I’m Wishing.” But everything else was oddly new to me, including the prince’s song at the beginning, which you’d think would have been my jam, as I love songs with men serenading their loves and I was at peak Disney fandom at the same age I was crazy about My Fair Lady and swooned over “On the Street Where You Live,” which is along the same lines as this song.

In fact, I didn’t even remember that Snow White had run into the prince at the beginning of the movie. I know he showed up in “I’m Wishing,” but I didn’t remember that this was the movie’s “I Want” song. I’d thought that was “Someday My Prince Will Come.” So it is entirely possible that I haven’t actually seen this movie and I just had what was in my head based on the soundtrack album and a few storybooks, not all of them Disney.

One scene I thought I remembered wasn’t in the movie at all. I could have sworn that the prologue included the scene of Snow White’s mother pricking her finger, seeing the blood on her embroidery, and wishing for the daughter with skin white as snow, etc. But they don’t include that in the prologue, and the prologue isn’t dramatized. I checked the book of Disney stories I still have to see if maybe that was included there, but it wasn’t. So I must have visualized it in Disney-style animation when reading another version of the story.

I was surprised to find out just how much of this movie was dwarf antics. There’s a full 10-minute sequence (in a movie that runs under 90 minutes) of the dwarfs getting their hands inspected before dinner, then going to wash their hands, Dopey struggling with the soap, and them having to force Grumpy to wash.

During the parts with Snow White, I got really distracted by realizing how closely Amy Adams seems to have based Giselle in Enchanted on Snow White. I’d thought she was doing a generic Disney princess, but she totally nailed Snow White, from the way she walked and held her hands to her voice inflections. I guess I didn’t pick up on that because I didn’t remember or hadn’t seen the original movie.

The challenge in making this fairy tale into a full-length movie is that the heroine is pretty passive and doesn’t do all that much. She doesn’t actually have a story goal. She has a dream/personal goal — the thing she already wants before the story begins — as we see in her “I Want” song. She wants someone to love her. In fact, this may be the very first “I Want” song. That’s become a staple of Disney films, and it shows up in a lot of musical theater. This is the first Disney film of this sort, and at that time musical theater tended to be revues with very thin plots, not the kind of dramas with music that came later. I’m not an opera fan, so I don’t know if the concept of the “I Want” song shows up there or in operettas. It’s a neat way to introduce a character and make the audience identify with them. When I’m developing a character, one exercise I like to go through is imagining what their “I Want” song would be if my story became a musical. What would they sing about wanting?

The story goal is what happens after something upsets the status quo and sends the protagonist off to do something. In this story, I guess that’s when the Huntsman sends Snow White away. That changes her status quo, and her goal then becomes to find a new home, but then she gets that halfway through the movie and doesn’t really do anything else. Structurally, the Evil Queen is the protagonist. Her personal goal is to be the fairest of them all. Then her status quo is upset when the mirror tells her Snow White is the fairest, so her new story goal is to eliminate Snow White. She first tries sending the Huntsman to kill her, then she transforms herself into a crone and tries to convince her to eat the poisoned apple. But she doesn’t get to enjoy being the fairest because she gets struck by lightning before she transforms back into her beautiful self. We never see a body, though, so there’s room for Snow White II: The Queen Strikes Back.

This movie establishes the early Disney model of the prince being basically a nonentity. He doesn’t get an onscreen name, and he doesn’t get to say or do much. He has no personality other than “into Snow White.” He has no goals. But he does get a whole song, which is better than a lot of Disney princes get. I remember that it always frustrated me when I was a kid that they’d cast a really good singer as the prince in these movies, and then he’d get maybe a couple of lines in one song.

Supposedly, Snow White is 14 in this movie, though there’s nothing onscreen to say so specifically. She’s kind of an idiot, very childlike, and we don’t actually see a wedding, so we can pretend the prince just took her back home. The prince also looks pretty ambiguous in age, so maybe he’s 16 and it’s not that creepy that he’s flirting with her at the beginning. If the queen is her stepmother and her father is dead, then Snow White is actually the rightful queen all along. Otherwise, it would be like Camilla just taking over after Charles dies instead of William becoming king. They show the passage of time while Snow White’s in the glass coffin, so I have to wonder who’s been running the kingdom all this time. Did the people figure out that they don’t need a king or queen, so that Snow comes home to some kind of worker’s collective?

And now I kind of want to write that story. I guess if I hear about a call for submissions on a fairy tale theme where they want you to write from another angle, I have my idea.

I do love the hand-drawn animation. I’m not a huge fan of their computer animation character design, especially the way the female characters have those huge baby doll heads with giant eyes on the sides of their heads, like prey animals. There’s such richness and depth in the artwork. You can tell it was done with great care.

I was going to watch Cinderella this weekend and stay in the Classic era, but in a weird bit of synchronicity, it turns out that my pastor’s summer sermon series is based on Disney animated films, and this weekend he’s doing The Little Mermaid. He’s tying it to the live-action version release, but he said watching the animated version will do. For summers, he does sermons related to movies, using them as ways to illustrate spiritual truths. Pre-pandemic, they’d have viewing parties at the church on Saturday nights. Now they encourage family movie nights.


The Disney Project

After doing my Marvel movies project a couple of years ago and my Star Wars project over the winter, I think my summer project will be the Disney animated movies. They tend to be short, so I can start watching them after it gets dark enough for a movie and still finish by a reasonable bedtime.

I don’t have a particular methodology for this. They aren’t in any kind of united universe, other than in fan theories, so the order doesn’t matter. I think I’ll try to stick within eras so I can better track the technical progress. There’s the Classic era, with hand-drawn animation done with a lot of care. There’s what some think of as the fading or cheap era, when it was still hand-drawn animation, but with shortcuts, like reusing sequences or photocopying. Then there’s the Revival Era of the late 80s and beyond, with hand-drawn animation and the beginnings of computer animation, and then the computer animation era. But I may skip around based on what I’m in the mood for. I may compare live-action versions to animated versions, where applicable, but the live-action versions are a lot longer, so they may have to wait until the days get a bit shorter again.

I’m not sure what I’ll consider for the purposes of this — just the “princess” films, just the musicals, just the fairytale or storybook movies, etc. I think it’s mostly going to be the movies I want to watch, which could vary. I think I’ve seen most of them, but my memories of the actual movies may be spotty.

I grew up before the days of home video, so the only way to see these movies was to go to the movie theater if they re-released them. Some they might have shown on TV during the Wonderful World of Disney show on Sunday nights, but I don’t recall seeing any of the big Disney movies on TV back then. They saved those for the occasional theatrical re-release (the Disney Vault has always been a thing).

Instead, the way I experienced most of these movies was through records. There were three kinds of records you might get. There were single-sized 45 rpm records that came with a storybook. These told a very condensed version of the story, essentially reading the storybook to you. You were instructed to turn the page when you heard Tinkerbell chime. I don’t think these included any of the music, since the record could have held two songs, at most.

At LP size (the big records) you could get the movie soundtrack, which was just the music, as it was performed in the movie, or the “story and the songs” record, which was essentially a full-cast audio play of the movie, narrated by one of the characters, with the album case being a book of pictures from the movie. I didn’t figure out until much later that these recordings may or may not have been actual recordings from the movies and may or may not have been the actual cast members from the movies. I think they were more likely to be the real cast for the later ones, where they made the albums at the same time as they made the movies. I’m sure that they actually had Phil Harris on the records for The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, and Robin Hood. But for the older movies that were made decades before they started making these records, the original casts wouldn’t have been available, so they re-recorded everything. I know the Alice in Wonderland and Lady and the Tramp records were different from the movies. In some cases, the picture book in the album wasn’t actually from the movie, either. For instance, Bedknobs and Broomsticks. This is a picture from that album, and that brunette woman is clearly not Angela Lansbury. I remember being very disappointed when I finally saw that movie and the woman I’d seen as that character wasn’t in the movie.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks story and songs album, with a brunette woman instead of Angela Lansbury as Eglantine.
The Bedknobs and Broomsticks “story and songs” album, with an Eglantine who is very much not Angela Lansbury.

So, instead of watching the movies over and over again, I listened to the records. I often put on costumes from my dress-up clothes box and acted them out. I did see some of the actual movies, but my memories are really sketchy. I remember going to see Pinocchio and being embarrassed because my best friend behaved badly in the theater (it was his first time seeing a movie in a theater, while I was an old pro, and I was familiar with the story so was able to brace myself for the scary parts). I know I saw some of the others, but I don’t have specific memories of the experience. I saw some of the classics at the theater as a teen or older when they re-relased them. But mostly my memories of these stories come from the records and from the mental movies that played in my head, based on the pictures in the album, when I listened to them, which means I was always a little shocked when I saw the actual movies and the sounds and images didn’t fit what I remembered.

A little girl dressed up as the version of Eglantine from the story and songs Bedknobs and Broomsticks album
Four or five-year old me dressed up as the Eglantine from the Bedknobs and Broomsticks album, acting out the story while I listened to it.

As I do this, I’ll be comparing what I thought I remembered with what’s really there, analyzing the story structure, and looking at trends I spot, as well as anything else that comes to mind. For the most part, I’m not going to worry about spoilers because most of these movies are based on very common stories. If you don’t know how Cinderella ends and I ruin it for you, I’m sorry.

First up and coming in the next post: The one that started it all, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.


The last couple of weeks, there’s been a nature documentary series on PBS called Wild Scandinavia, and it’s made me realize what’s missing in the fictional world I’m working on: wildlife.

My characters have horses, but those are the only animals in the story, aside from one kitten, a mention of bees, and I think a mention of hearing birds. I completely forgot to include wildlife. The characters don’t have to swat at flies or mosquitoes. They don’t hear wolves or coyotes. No lizards or snakes cross their paths. I don’t even know what lives in that world.

A green lizard climbs a brick wall
One of the patio lizards.

Which is weird because I tend to pay attention to that sort of thing in real life. Even just sitting on my patio, I take note of the different kinds of bugs and spiders. I have what I call the “patio lizards,” the anoles who live around my patio and the patio fence. They’re so used to me that one’s even learned to ask for water. It waits for me to water the plants and splash water, then comes to drink what I’ve splashed on the ground, and if I haven’t watered the plants at the right time, the lizard will sit and stare at me until I give it some water.


A male and female mallard duck pair stand on top of a fence, the male watching over the female
Ducks at the bird feeder

My neighbors have a bird feeder, and I watch the birds that come to it—including sometimes even ducks. It’s a dish of seeds, not a real bird feeder, which means it also attracts squirrels and rats. I hadn’t noticed any squirrels or signs of rats in a while, and then I heard a hawk and later spotted it, which may explain the lack of rodents. I guess that bird feeder is feeding birds both directly and indirectly.

When I go walking, I notice all the water birds that come to the canals in my neighborhood, like the geese, egrets, herons, ducks, and cormorants. We have a few families of Canada geese who winter here. I know they have a reputation for being nasty, but our guests are rather well-behaved. Then there are the turtles in and around the water. I’ve also seen rabbits and armadillos.

I’m not sure why I’ve left out this aspect of my fictional world. I guess I’ve been focused on the plot and there are no wildlife encounters that affect the plot. But I can at least mention them swatting at flies, seeing birds, and hearing sounds.



I’m a big re-reader. If there’s a book I love, I can read it over and over again. That’s one reason I have such a huge book collection. They’re all “keepers” that I plan to re-read someday. You can tell my favorite books because they’re the ones falling apart. I’ve tried to cut back on my book purchasing since I’ve run out of bookcase space. Instead, I get most of my books from the library. But if there’s something I love at the library and know I’ll want to read it again, I’ll get a keeper copy. I don’t want to risk not being able to get it from the library someday. I even get paper keeper copies of e-books I really love, since you never know when something might go wonky with electronic files or the e-book supplier might go out of business and you can’t access your library anymore, etc.

Most of the time, re-reading is about either re-experiencing the things I loved in the first read or discovering new things. Generally, my first read is purely for story, and if I’m really into it I may miss things as I eagerly plow through the story to find out what happens. It’s on subsequent reads that I pick up on details, since I’m reading more leisurely and don’t have to be so anxious about what’s going to happen. I’m savoring instead of frantically turning pages. Or, if I just enjoyed the book a lot, it’s fun to spend more time in that world and with those characters, and it’s about the experience rather than finding out what happens next, the way it is on the first read.

I’m currently re-reading a book I know I’ve read more than once, but it’s like reading it for the first time because very little about it is familiar. I read it in the early-mid 90s, but haven’t read it since then. There are little bits and pieces that ring a bell, and I think I know what the big twist at the end is going to be, but I’m not sure if that’s because I remember it or if it’s because the book is doing a lot of foreshadowing. Otherwise, it feels new. I remember the experience of reading this book. I know where I was and what I was doing when I read it, and I remember discussing it with someone. I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about it, so it didn’t stay fresh in my head. I think that big gap since the last time I read it means that my mental imagery from reading it has changed. I’m a different person now than I was in the early 90s, and I’ve had a lot of experiences since then that may have changed the images in my head that are conjured up by the words. It doesn’t “look” the same, and so it seems like a different book. It’s kind of nice because it’s like getting a brand-new book that I’m guaranteed to like, since I know I liked it when I first read it.

I’m the same way about movies. I have “comfort views,” the movies I’m guaranteed to like, and I enjoy experiencing them again. When I do movie nights, I tend to alternate between new-to-me movies and movies I’ve seen. I’ve been burned more than a few times by a new movie that sounds good and isn’t what I wanted it to be at all, so when I’m in a delicate mood, I go with something I’ve seen since I know how it will hit.

When I was discussing re-reading with some writer friends a while back, I had the theory that writers who like to re-read are more likely to be plotters, while those who don’t like to re-read are more likely to be “pantsers” who just write without outlining ahead of time. A lot of pantsers don’t like to plot because once they’ve done an outline and know how it ends, they’re done with the story and don’t want to write it anymore. It seemed likely that these same people wouldn’t want to read a book they’ve already read, either. In that particular group, the theory held out, but I don’t know if it holds true among a larger sample size.

Now I need to look at my bookcase and see what other books I could re-read without remembering them. Not that I don’t have a huge to-be-read stack of books I haven’t read, but sometimes you want something you know you like, even if you don’t remember it.


A Big, Fat Fantasy Series

I haven’t talked about what I’m reading in a while. I have several series I’m rotating among because I have this weird thing where I burn out on a series if I try to read it straight through. So I read a book from one series, read one from another, then read one from another before going back to the next book in series 1, and so forth, except the order I get to them varies depending on the mood I’m in.

I’ve just finished reading book 3 in one of the series, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to hold up and be something I can recommend. I’m not sure what the name of the series as a whole is (the library doesn’t have them categorized under a series name), but the first book is Inda by Sherwood Smith. I’d put it in the “if you liked A Game of Thrones” category because it’s largely about court intrigue and how people get into petty power plays while there’s an existential threat out there that they’re going to have to deal with, but it’s not as gory or disturbing. I’d also compare it to the Miles Vorkosigan books by Lois McMaster Bujold, although this is fantasy rather than science fiction. There’s the warrior society, and there’s the main character who’s a charismatic natural leader and genius strategist who has a knack for pulling victories out of thin air and winning people over to his side.

The first book starts out looking like a “school” book. Our hero is a second son in a noble family, and traditionally the first sons are sent to the royal academy to train to be warriors who fight for the king, then they’re supposed to go home and train their younger brothers, who will defend their homes while the older brother is fighting for the king. But there’s a break in tradition in which the second sons are also called to the academy to train. What these boys don’t know is that this is all part of a scheme to undermine the king’s second son and change the kingdom’s power structure, and this sets in motion events that will totally change the kingdom. Young Inda is a natural leader, and when he befriends the shy, bookish prince and pulls together a group of boys who shine in the academy, it totally upsets all the schemes. That leads to Inda being exiled to a merchant ship, and his life goes in some strange directions from there.

It’s hard to describe much more of the plot without spoilers, but we get to see these boys grow up and go through all kinds of things. In the book I just finished, they’re adults and leaders in their own right, dealing with the fallout from the plots that started in the first book. All the plotting is very twisty, and it’s fun to see all the various plot threads converge, merge, and diverge. Like with the Song of Ice and Fire books, there are storylines taking place in a variety of locations, and characters from one storyline may end up meeting up with other characters. The worldbuilding is pretty detailed, with fully thought-out cultures. You get a sense for their social structure and priorities and how that has worked to shape their society.

The stories do get a bit intense. There’s violence, since we have war and pirates, and I have skimmed over a few parts or flipped ahead to see what will happen so I can brace myself through a difficult part, but I like these characters enough to want to know what will happen next for them. They’re also really, really fat books. It takes me weeks to read one, but that means I get to be immersed in that world for a long time. I’m taking a break to read something else before I dive into the next book, but I’m eager to do so, so I may not make it through my whole series rotation first.

When the Real World Intrudes

It’s been a month since I finished the first draft of the book in progress. I’ve re-read it and have done some brainstorming about what I need to fix. I don’t have a lot of major surgery to do. I think the basic structure is good. But what I have is essentially a 125,000-word outline. The scenes and plot points are there, but I think they may not be done in quite the right way. I’m going to have to analyze each scene and figure out how I could do it better.

That analysis is what I’ve been working on this week, though I’ve had some difficulty concentrating. You may have heard about the recent shopping mall shooting. That happened in my area. I don’t live close to that mall. It’s on the other side of the metro area. But I have a lot of friends who live around there, so as soon as I heard the news, I jumped online to see if my friends were safe. I found that one friend’s son was just across the road from that center when it happened, so I narrowly escaped having had two friends who’ve had children gunned down (just one is already too many). I’ve shopped at that mall. In fact, I bought a dress I wore for a lot of my Damsel Under Stress book events there. I got chills when I saw the reports that the shooter had researched the busiest times there because the time I shopped there was during that peak window. It was years ago, but it still felt like a close call. I guess I had a closer call last year when someone was shot on the street behind my house and I heard the gunfire. I’ll never forget that sound.

I’m heartbroken about the lives lost and the lives broken — that poor little boy who lost his whole family, the mother who lost both daughters, the young woman celebrating her birthday, and all the others. It’s hard to believe that someone could have so much hate as to want to indiscriminately wipe people out. Even sadder is when you see the number of people online who try to excuse or justify it. Maybe they’re all just trolls or bots trying to stir things up, but it’s still scary.

So, no wonder it’s been hard to focus. It does help that this is a “secondary world” book, so it’s an escape from here and now. I’ve figured out how I need to fix the first scene. That will be my work for today. It’s a rainy day, so it’s good for writing.

writing life

My Planner System

I’ve never been much of a trendsetter, so by the time I catch on to something, it’s old news. My latest late discovery is the concept of the bullet journal.

Actually, I’d heard about this years ago when it first became a thing, and I was intrigued by the idea because I love planners and attempting to be organized, but I couldn’t find a good explanation that wasn’t extremely intimidating. All the examples I found were Instagram-worthy, with watercolor artwork, calligraphy, stickers, and fancy designs. But a couple of months ago I saw an interview with the guy who came up with the concept, and the way he talked about it made so much sense to me — and it seems that it was other people who went nuts with the basic concept and turned it into a competition.

The very basic idea is just that you create your own journal/planner. You just need an index at the front to help you find things and you can create your own code for how to mark items in your journal (where the “bullet” comes from). Beyond that, it’s up to you.

So I got a composition book out of my stash (I buy tons every year for 50 cents each at the back-to-school sales because that’s what I use for brainstorming books) and got started. I will never be sharing pages from my journal because there’s no art or design or fanciness involved. It’s all just lists. I don’t even create a monthly calendar page, since I have plenty of calendars.

For the planner part, I have a page for the month, on which I have a list of goals (like “finish first draft”) and to-do items (like a list of bills that have to be paid and the payment date) and any appointments. I’ll also write down any events after they happen if I’ll need to remember when something happened. Just that alone helps a lot because I don’t have that “did I pay that bill?” panic when I have a list and mark it off every month. Then I have daily pages (usually half pages) on which I put that day’s to-do list and any appointments. I’ll also put menu plans and what time I need to start cooking to have dinner on time. I’m trying to do yoga every evening before dinner, so I factor in that start time with my cooking time. Every morning, I check with the monthly list and put any of those tasks on the day’s list. I have a code for the to-do list for items that must be done that day and the work priority of the day, as well as for items that are in progress (started but not finished) and items I’ve moved forward to the next day.

Aside from that, it’s a book of lists. I have a list of books I want to read, movies I want to watch, a master to-do list (items that aren’t yet on the monthly list but that I need to get around to doing eventually), story ideas, etc. I also have a quarterly plan. Basically, if I need to keep track of it, I write it down on a list. I think I’m going to start a “put it away in a safe place” list so that I can find those things later. It might help to write down what I thought the safe place was at the time I put it away.

It’s really worked wonders for helping me get stuff done. When I write out my daily tasks, I can take those big monthly tasks and break them into less daunting chunks, or I can create a “theme” day to deal with everything in a certain category.

There’s no artwork at all, just lists in a composition book and an index and page numbers. I thought I’d share how I’m using the concept in case anyone else was intimidated by all those pictures of planners people are posting with artwork and calligraphy and stickers and all that. Just having a place to keep track of all the stuff in my head helps me a lot, especially with the little admin tasks that pile up and overwhelm me. Since I started doing this, I finally tackled some things that had been lingering on my to-do list for nearly a year.

However, I failed to put “post blog” on my to-do list (although “draft Friday blog post” was on yesterday’s list, and I got it done), so I didn’t think about it until later in the day. I don’t know if this proves or disproves how well this system is working for me. As long as I write it down, I get it done, but if I don’t, I may totally forget it.

writing, Books

Jane Austen’s Mary Sue?

I’ve been thinking about that “Mary Sue” concept some more, and to further explore it, I’m turning not to action/adventure, but to Jane Austen.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen identified pretty closely with most of her main characters. She had a lot in common with them and they were in similar circumstances to what she experienced, but with different outcomes (since they all got married and she never did). If you look at Austen’s letters and life story, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Lizzie from Pride and Prejudice was to a large extent Austen’s self-insert character.

Is Lizzie a Mary Sue, though? She’s sparkling and witty, and everyone loves her. Even Darcy, although he initially claims she’s not as attractive as everyone else seems to think, falls in love with her. She ends up marrying the extremely wealthy man, who goes to great lengths to help her and her family. She gets to give a stinging comeuppance to a snobby older woman. It kind of sounds like Austen was writing out her greatest fantasies.

But I don’t think she’s a Mary Sue. Austen gives Lizzie plenty of flaws. She’s a terrible judge of character, believing everything Wickham tells her and seeing him as trustworthy while she doesn’t see Darcy for what he really is, even after he starts softening somewhat. She’s part of both the “pride” and “prejudice” in the title. She goes through a major growth arc.

Cathy in Northanger Abbey is to some extent another self-insert — a clergyman’s daughter with an active imagination who’s obsessed with gothic novels — but the book is, to a large extent, poking fun at this character and the way her overly active imagination gets her in trouble. She may get the happy ending, but after she learns a lesson from making a huge mistake. (This one does have a Star Wars connection, in that Felicity Jones of Rogue One played Cathy in the most recent TV adaptation, which is now really fun to watch after seeing Rogue One if you imagine Jyn Erso showing up instead of Cathy.)

Anne in Persuasion may also have had some element of autobiography to her. Austen clearly relates to her. She’s practically a saint, the longsuffering only sensible person in her flighty family, tending to her sickly sister and her kids as essentially an unpaid servant and suffering in silence as she has to watch other women make a play for the man she loves. There’s a lot of “Victim Sue” going on here. But Austen is also very clear that Anne has screwed up seriously. She’s in the situation she’s in because she made a bad choice.

Austen may have written self-inserts who get to live out her fantasies, but she remains objective about these characters. She’s well aware of their flaws. She makes them learn and grow in ways that Mary Sues seldom do (if you start out perfect, you don’t have to grow or learn).

The reason I was thinking about Jane Austen in terms of Mary Sues was the recent finale of the series Sanditon, which was very loosely based on a fragment of an unfinished novel by Austen. Really, the only part Austen wrote was the setup, a genteel but naive young woman gets invited to stay in a beach resort town with some people her family recently helped. There’s a hint that there’s a dashing (and possibly scandalous) younger brother of the man she’s visiting, and there’s a wealthy lady in town with impoverished young relations hanging around her, hoping to get into her will, as well as a young heiress from the Indes. And there it leaves off.

But instead of the TV writers letting the Austen heroine be an Austen heroine, they created a Mary Sue. This heroine was practically perfect from the start and doesn’t really grow or change. She’s good at everything — she can set a broken bone, give advice about architecture, plan an event, win at cricket, and just decide to be a governess. She wins the heart of the scandalous brother and the bright young architect (only for both to vanish when the series got cancelled and then renewed and the actors were no longer available), then catches the attention of a military officer and a wealthy widower. Her main problem is resolved not by her growing or learning anything but by others intervening. There’s none of the realization of where she went wrong that we get from the real Austen works. An Austen heroine generally has to eat some crow and admit to her failures, and it’s because she’s able to do this that she gets her happy ending. This chick gets her happy ending without learning anything.

And that, I think, is the difference between putting a lot of yourself into your characters and writing a “Mary Sue.” Really, I think we need a better term for this because the whole point of the Mary Sue is that she’s an author’s self-insert, and many of the examples I can find in original fiction don’t seem to be the writers’ self-inserts. In some cases, it’s a character the writer is enamored with and therefore loses perspective. I think in the Sanditon case it’s just bad writing. This is perhaps the least interesting character in the whole series, so they didn’t bother developing her. They just stuck traits to her as though that would make viewers like her better, then gave her a last-second happy ending without her learning anything.