Regrouping and Digging

I haven’t exactly been stuck on the book I’m working on, but I have been dissatisfied with how things have gone after the first big turning point. My heroine has crossed the threshold into the world of the story, to use Joseph Campbell terms, but the new world wasn’t quite clicking for me. I realized that while I’d developed the place the heroine was from, her ordinary world, quite thoroughly, and I had the external trappings of the place where the story takes place, I hadn’t dug into it enough to figure out how it worked and what the people in that place would be like.

So, it was back to the drawing board to figure out the specifics. That led me to really figure out the villain, what he’s up to, and why. Then that made me figure out the structure around him — who’s in his family, who are his allies? That gave me a new character, essentially giving a soul and identity to a character who was basically an extra, little more than human scenery.

And then further digging into things gave me another new character who I think is going to be what I needed to spark this part of the book. My problem was that I had a mostly offstage villain. He shows up enough to suggest that he’s going to be trouble, but there’s nothing the heroine can do about him without making a big stand that will upset the order of things. She’ll probably end up doing that in the climax of the book, but for most of the book there was no specific person who served as a true antagonist on her level. But then this round of digging gave me a henchman who’s a peer of the heroine and who’ll be around her on a daily basis. He’s not in direct opposition to her yet because he doesn’t really see her as a threat, but his presence means she has to be very careful about what she’s doing, and he’s a representative of the offstage villain who will be present in most scenes..

And now I have to replot the book because it’s going in a different direction than I initially planned, but it’s for the better.

I think I also need to do a bit more character work. One of my challenges is that there’s a group of about twenty people, and I’ve been treating about half of them like extras, but I really need to create characters for each of these people. I may go back and cut the number down. That might make it a little easier so I’m not juggling so many people.


Getting Happy

One of the things that sparked yesterday’s long walk was a book I read over the weekend, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This book comes from the era of the “I did this thing for a year and here are my experiences with it” books, though it seems like she was unaware of the trend when she was doing it, and her blog grew out of the project rather than it being one of those blogs picked up to be a book. She read a bunch of books and research about different theories about what made people happy and spent a year trying all these things to see if it really made a difference in her life.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve been unhappy, but I have had some dissatisfaction lately and thought it might be a good idea to reevaluate things. I’ve realized that there are a lot of things I enjoy doing but that I don’t give myself time to do. And thus the walk yesterday. There’s a wonderful park on the edge of my neighborhood where I can walk in the woods alongside a river bank, and I seldom seem to make it over there, even though I often think about doing it.

I don’t think I got any earthshattering ideas out of this book. Much of what she was doing involved her relationships with her husband and children, and I don’t have those. With me, it’s more about decluttering and organizing my life the way I’m trying to do to my house so I can make time for doing things I enjoy. And then when I make that time, I need to actually do those things.

That means more long walks on nice days, more time with music, time to make things.

But another big part of it is creating the conditions in which it’s easier to be happy and at peace, which means taking care of my health and getting my environment in order.

So I have all kinds of plans worked out, but don’t worry, I’m not planning to write a book about this because so many people have already done so.


Today was a glorious spring day, so I decided to throw my schedule out the window and take a long walk down by the river. I needed to walk through the woods. The flowers were blooming, there were butterflies, and it was lovely.

I keep saying I want to do that sort of thing more often, so I went and did it.

It also kind of counts as work because I got in some great brainstorming while I was walking. Now I need to go write what I came up with.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Narnia

I mentioned in the previous post about the influence of Tolkien on me as a reader and writer that I discovered C.S. Lewis around the same time—the fall semester of sixth grade. I’m not entirely sure which one came first.

I do remember how I discovered C.S. Lewis and the Narnia books. One day, there was something my mom and I were going to do after she got off work (I don’t remember what), so I was to ride the shuttle bus to her office after school instead of taking the school bus home. It must have been fairly early in the fall because I was wearing only a light jacket. I remember feeling very grown-up about riding the shuttle bus on my own, even though it was a green army bus just like the school bus (I was rather confused as a kid because books, TV, and movies all showed school buses as being yellow, but every school bus I’d seen was green). When I got to my mom’s office, she gave me a book she’d bought for me to keep me occupied until she got off work.

That book was The Silver Chair, and I was immediately captivated. That may be why I don’t remember why I needed to meet my mom at her office. Whatever we went to do, all I could think of was getting back to that book. I loved the idea of stepping into another world and going on a quest to rescue a prince, meeting up with all kinds of strange creatures along the way. I wanted desperately to find a way into Narnia. I really liked Jill as a heroine. For one thing, it was fun to have a girl a lot like me as one of the main characters. I’d read plenty of books with main character girls, like Nancy Drew, but they all tended to be people you could aspire to being, less people you could imagine being. But Jill was totally ordinary, caught up in all kinds of crazy things (gee, I don’t know where I might have gone with that concept in my own work).

I was really excited to find out that this book was part of a series, so there were even more books like it. I must have been rationing them so I wouldn’t get through them all at once and then have no more to look forward to, because we moved in February of the next year, and I know I didn’t read the last book until we were in the new place. The Lord of the Rings may have come into play for that because I know I read that whole series that fall, and that likely took a huge chunk of time away from potentially reading Narnia books. Finding both those series around the same time was what made me realize that there was an actual genre of books like that. Previously, I’d read by topic, sometimes by author, but it finally occurred to me that there was a whole huge category of books about magic and other worlds, and they could be very different from each other even while having things in common.

I did discover that I’d already read one of the books, The Horse and His Boy, during my horse phase, when I was checking every book out of the library that had the word “horse” in the title or had a picture of a horse on the cover. But that one’s a one-off that only tangentially ties into the rest of the series, and I was reading it as a horse book rather than as a fantasy book. I guess I got sidetracked into Nancy Drew during my witch book phase before I got to the L section where I’d have found The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The Narnia books became even more important to me after we moved because I went from a place where I was happy, popular, had a lot of friends, and was involved in a lot of activities to a place where I was the new kid no one wanted (I later learned that the teacher told the class the day before I started in that school that the new kid was really smart and they’d have to work harder. So of course they hated me before they met me). They didn’t have band at the new school, so I had to stop that, and they wouldn’t let me in the choir because it had already formed. The school didn’t have a cafeteria (or wasn’t using it), so they had a weird “accelerated” schedule in which we had only a very short recess and you were supposed to bring a snack to eat at your desk instead of having a lunch break, and then the school day ended at 2. I would head straight home and escape to Narnia. I wasn’t writing down the stories in my head yet, but I did dream up all kinds of scenarios in which I ended up going to Narnia or to places like Narnia. For a while, it even shoved Star Wars out of my imagination (at least until The Empire Strikes Back came out).

I’ve re-read the books many times since then, and I was surprised when I re-read them as an adult how bare-bones they were. I guess my brain really fleshed them out. When I saw the recent movies, I found myself thinking that this was exactly how I imagined things, but then I read the books again and realized that I must have filled in a lot of details.

One thing I like is the way Lewis structured the series to be both standalone and series. You could read the books in any order, but you got more out of them if you read them in order. He had the same cast of main characters in the first two books, with a mostly different cast of Narnians for the second book. Then in the third, two of the main characters were out and a new character with a big growth arc was introduced. And then he became the main character, with another new character introduced. I may have to figure out a series that works that way. You could do more books without getting bored with the main character, there’s continuity between books to draw people through the series, but they can jump in at any point instead of having to start at the beginning.

I still want to write a portal fantasy. I love following a character from our world into a strange world, and it definitely is easier to write than a pure secondary world story because at least you have a frame of reference. You can have your viewpoint character compare the strange world to familiar things.

I wish they’d made it to The Silver Chair when they were making the Narnia movies. I like the BBC version from the early 90s (with Tom Baker as Puddleglum), but the special effects are so very old BBC. And I loved the kid who played Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I really wanted to see him get to do The Silver Chair.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Tolkien

Last year, I started doing some posts on my origins and influences as a writer: the things throughout my life that made me want to write or that made me want to write fantasy. I’ve talked about making up my own stories to go with musical theater cast albums, girl sleuths who probably influenced the kinds of heroines I write, Star Wars and how it woke my imagination in a big way, and children’s fantasy.

In sixth grade, I hit two things that had a huge impact on me. I’m not entirely sure exactly which came first because they were both in the same semester. That fall, I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (and at the time I didn’t know there was any connection between them).

I’d already read The Hobbit in fourth grade, when the animated TV version was on and my fourth-grade teacher read the book out loud to the class (and then I got impatient with the chapter-a-day pace, checked the book out of the library, and read the whole thing). But I hadn’t followed up with other books by the same author or even other books like that. I didn’t really think in genres then. I liked books about certain things or by certain authors, but I didn’t group books into categories. There were witch books and books with elves and books with talking horses, but I didn’t consider that they were all part of a larger category of fantasy.

Though I suppose one reason I didn’t find more books by Tolkien was that in fourth grade, I was using the elementary school library and the children’s department (its own room) in the post library, and I don’t think they generally put The Lord of the Rings in the children’s section. But when we moved to Germany right before I started fifth grade, the American school was divided up in an odd way. Kindergarten through third grade were in one campus and fourth through eighth grades were in another campus. That meant that our school library included books for older readers. I saw The Hobbit on the shelf, remembered liking it, and then saw that there were other books in that “series” and checked out The Fellowship of the Ring.

I was instantly hooked, though I must confess that my favorite part of that series is still the beginning, up until the party splits up. I just liked the travelogue through the world and getting to Rivendell. I wasn’t as fond of it as it got more serious and gritty. Still, I tore through all three books, then got very excited when I saw that they’d made a movie (the animated version), begged my dad to take me when it came to the base theater, then was very disappointed, especially when it just ended midway through the story. Still, the way they depicted the Ringwraiths was gloriously creepy.

Since I discovered the Narnia books at around the same time (though I think that will be its own post), this launched me into fantasy as a genre. I wanted more books about other worlds where magic was real. It was kind of like the fairy tale settings of the Disney movies, but made bigger, richer, and more real. I think my mental writing was still focused on Star Wars-related things at that time, but there were definitely some seeds planted.

I re-read the series in college when I was taking a parageography course and the professor referred to the books often, and I found it rather slow going. It’s funny, I tore through them when I was 11, but when I was 21 they were difficult. I think I may do another read next winter — they’re definitely fall/winter books for me, something to read with a cup of hot tea and a fire in the fireplace. I’m curious what I’ll think of them after seeing the more recent movies, after learning a lot more about Tolkien, and with many more years of life, reading, and writing experience.

There’s been some Internet noise lately after a clickbait blogger with an agenda picked up some tweets by an author I know about the disproportionate amount of shelf space given to Tolkien. It does seem odd how much shelf space this very old series gets in the chain bookstores, given that you can easily find all these books at any library and at any used bookstore. I don’t know who’s buying all these new copies. Maybe nice collector’s editions with lovely illustrations and leather binding, but paperbacks? I’m always tempted to hide a little bookmark in the backs of the books on the shelves full of Tolkien so I can monitor and see if those copies are actually selling or if they’re just taking up shelf space. I find it frustrating because the last few times I’ve gone to a store to buy a fantasy novel, a new release that really should be in the store, all I find are shelves full of “classics.” I hate buying books on Amazon, so when a new book I want in print comes out, I go to a bookstore. And then I usually end up coming home and buying on Amazon because the bookstore doesn’t have it but does have a shelf or two of Tolkien. Given the financials of the chain stores, I’m not sure they’re making the best merchandising decisions. But it’s dangerous to do anything that hurts the feelings of the manbaby whiners on the Internet. Apparently, it got brutal.

Pro tip: Even if someone outright insults your favorite author, it does not merit a death threat. Suggesting that maybe bookstores should devote a little more shelf space to something newer definitely doesn’t merit death threats or even attacks and insults.

And as influential as The Lord of the Rings was in forming my reading taste, I must say that if it’s still your pinnacle of fantasy, maybe you should read more widely. I really side-eye any bookstore staff recommendation tags for Tolkien. I would hope that a) a bookseller would have read more widely and recently and b) they wouldn’t waste that promotional opportunity on showcasing something that anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock has already heard of. And bookstores might make more money if they actually stocked things that you can’t find shelves full of in any used bookstore.

writing life


I have generally found that when I’m stuck on a story, it’s because I’m doing something wrong, usually making a character do something because that’s what in the outline when it’s not something the character would actually do or when it’s not something that would naturally happen in those circumstances.

After spending a day getting frustrated about not being able to figure out how to move forward, I realized I’d put events out of order and had something happen before the logical next step. I backtracked and now it seems to be flowing again.

I think maybe that’s a good lesson for life, too. Sometimes when you can’t seem to move forward, the real problem may be that you’re heading in the wrong direction. You’re trying to force yourself down a path that isn’t right for you, and in order to really make progress, you need to backtrack and figure out what your path really should be.

I’m still working all that out for myself. I feel a lot better than I did last week. I’m still not sure where I’m going to go, but I’ve backtracked enough to allow myself to explore multiple options. My timeline has had to change because of things involving other people, so it may be summer before I start making decisions. I may end up changing nothing other than what my goal really is. But changing my attitude has helped immensely.

publishing business

A Surprise Boost

I got a bit of a surprise yesterday when it turned out that Enchanted, Inc. was a Kindle Daily Deal. My publisher forgot to let me know about that in advance, so I only learned when I got tagged in a tweet about that day’s book deals. So that turned out to be a bit of a distraction as I tried to promote it as well as I could and as I watched my Amazon ranking soar.

But the whole thing emphasized what I’m up against. I could really push myself to tweet, blog, post on Instagram, etc., and not see noticeable results. The publisher does one thing (that I can’t do on my own), and the results are huge.

That’s why I’m iffy on trying to continue doing much independent publishing. I just can’t seem to get the word out there in a big enough way to get results. I can sort of reach my existing readers, but I don’t seem to be able to get beyond that without publisher support. It’s cool that the publisher is pushing this book still after 14 years (though it makes me wonder what might have happened if they’d supported it this much when it was first published), but I have zero control or influence over it. Most of the time, they don’t even remember to tell me it’s happening.

But it was a nice surprise, and it did seem to boost sales of my other books. Hopefully, that will linger as people who bought the book end up reading the rest of the series and maybe spreading word of mouth about it.

Was this enough of a “sign” to keep me going? I don’t know. It means I’ll have some money coming in this summer, but I’m not sure how much. My independently published earnings on Amazon went up by about $40 yesterday, so while it looked like a huge spike on the chart, it may not make that big a difference in my income unless the boost continues and people read the rest of the series.

Sparking Joy

In all my existential angst about figuring out my life, I’ve been really thinking about what makes me happy. I guess you could say I’m doing the Marie Kondo process on my life in addition to my closet and bookcase: what sparks joy? I need to remove the things that don’t spark joy so that I have room for the things that do. And that made me realize that I haven’t been prioritizing things that are actually important to me.

I really hate the term “self care” because I think it says something about our society that we have to coin a clinical-sounding term in order to justify doing things that make us feel good, and then that process got warped into the things we need “self care” to escape from as it became stuff like Instagramming your bubble bath and fretting about whether you got enough likes on it. But I do think it’s good to take time to do the things that make you physically and emotionally healthy, and to spend less time on things that are less likely to do that.

I’ve decided that one priority for me is getting my house in order. I’ve been gradually working on that for ages, but when I get busy with a project, it falls by the wayside. I seem to not be counting that as “work” so I feel like I’m wasting time or procrastinating if I do housework during a workday. But I think that this is important to me, so I’m going to dedicate time to it. It will be even more important if I go back to full-time work to have things in order before my schedule changes. I don’t really spend all my workday on actual work, so when I catch myself doing stuff like reading social media because I consider that to be part of my publicity, except I’m not saying anything so it’s not doing me any good, I’m going to stop and go organize something instead. I need to ask myself if doing something sparks joy, and then go do something else if it doesn’t. I think having my environment in order will really help my emotional health. Then I can have those spa nights or relaxing reading days in peace (and probably won’t be Instagramming them).

Not that my place is a total disaster (well, other than my office). I just really wish I could live in a space that feels like a hotel room with a bit more personalization.

Meanwhile, I’m spending the rest of my time writing and enjoying it more.


The Hills Are Alive

This weekend I finally got to something I’d had sitting on my DVR for months: The PBS airing of the “live” (in the UK, we got it years later) TV production of The Sound of Music — the one they did in the UK, not the US one that I understand was pretty painful.

I have to confess that I’m a huge Sound of Music fan. We had the original cast recording of the stage version when I was a kid, and then I got to see the movie on the big screen when they must have done either a revival showing or a special event (it was at an old theater downtown, as I recall, so it may have been a special event), and I was blown away. When we lived in Germany, one of our summer vacations included going to Salzburg and seeing a lot of the settings for both the movie and the real story. In seventh grade, one of the options for our social studies semester project was reading Maria von Trapp’s autobiography and putting together a presentation using a pie chart about it.

Plus, the music is lovely and catchy and fun to sing, and most of the songs are the sort of thing that are good when you’re feeling down and want to make yourself feel better.

Being in a production of this show was one of my dreams as I was growing up. For the longest time, I desperately wanted to play Liesl and do the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” number. Then I aged out of that and figured I could do Maria. And then I aged out of that and thought doing the Baroness would be fun (she gets a lot more to do in the stage version than in the movie). Now I figure I might make it as one of the nuns.

I may even have killed my chances of being a Rhodes Scholar over this show. I made the cut to be interviewed as one of the candidates from my university, and I’d mentioned musical theater as one of my interests. They asked me my favorite show and when I said this one, they all got that look on their faces, and I knew I’d bombed it. Later, I realized I should have explained about having read the real history and visited the real place, but I was just kind of frozen at the time. There’s that popular perception of the show as being sickeningly sweet, and maybe the movie is, but if you really pay attention to it, there’s some weight to it, since one of the central issues is whether or not to collaborate with Nazis, and they end up leaving everything behind rather than go along (though their escape wasn’t nearly as dramatic in real life. Climbing over the mountain wouldn’t have done them much good because it would have just sent them into Germany. They took a train in real life).

I have to say, I loved this TV production, maybe even more than the movie (aside from the scenery because it’s fun to spot places I’ve been). It’s a film of the more recent stage version, not a remake of the movie, so there are different songs and some of the songs are in different places. The issue of whether or not to collaborate is much bigger. And it fixes one of my main issues with the movie: the costumes. Even though the story is pinned to a specific time, everything else about it is basically the early 1960, especially the hair and costumes. In this version, it looks like the 1930s. The sets even look like pictures I’ve seen of the actual house, and they look like the 1930s (the events depicted in the musical actually happened during the 1920s, and they’d been married for a while and had a couple of kids before they left Austria, but that’s another issue). Plus, Maria’s songs are set for an alto, which is what the real Maria von Trapp was (I think that’s also the case for the original stage version. It was just changed for soprano Julie Andrews in the movie).

Alas, I haven’t seen where any local theaters are planning to do productions of this anytime soon, so I can’t go cross this one off the bucket list by playing a background nun.

writing life

Letting it Go

I spent yesterday speaking to a college creative writing class about the realities of the writing business. I tried to be realistic without being too negative.

But the thing is, I seem to have shed a lot of the negativity this week by admitting it. It just is what it is, and it’s freeing to stop fretting about it. For a long time I’d pushed myself so hard, thinking that maybe if I did something more or did something different, I could change things. I came up with all kinds of schedules and policies to make myself write faster. I angsted over the fact that I can’t seem to get much traction in social media. Maybe if I posted more to Instagram or was active on YouTube, maybe if I went to all the conventions, maybe, maybe … and when I didn’t live up to these expectations, I felt like I was at fault for not becoming any kind of hit, not catching on.

And the truth is that few of these activities move the needle in a meaningful way.

I guess if I wrote more or faster I might make more money by getting more books out there, but from what I’ve heard, the Amazon algorithm is set to require you to publish something every 60 days to maintain any kind of visibility, and even if I wrote more or faster, I still couldn’t hit that and sustain it, not with the kinds of things I like to write that are longer and require a lot of research.

I don’t think I’ve sold enough books because of someone discovering me on social media for it to make that big a difference. Really breaking out in something like that requires something to go viral, which you can’t plan for or control, and it seldom actually affects book sales. Only something about the book itself going viral would do anything to book sales, and that’s not something I could post. Maybe if a celebrity posted about it, it would help, but if I go a few days without tweeting anything, it’s not going to make a difference in my book sales. Ditto with any other social media.

I think I got some boost from going to conventions early in my career, but once I became familiar at those cons, I don’t think it had much benefit. I never saw a corresponding rise in sales after going to a WorldCon. I spent a year in which I went to every event that invited me, and it didn’t change anything.

You can either look at that as depressing or see it as liberating. Realizing I can’t control things means that I’m not really to blame for not doing all of these things, and I can stop beating myself up over it. I can get back to the work, the part I like, and if I come up with something that I want to publish, I can, but I don’t expect anything I do to have a big payoff, and I don’t blame myself if it doesn’t.

Purging my twitter feed of the people I felt I should follow has already made me a lot happier. I was trying to be a good networker and followed people I met at cons or was on panels with, and I tried interacting with them. It turns out that few of them followed me back, and they didn’t engage when I tried interacting, and when I met them at later cons they acted like they’d never met me. I didn’t need a constant reminder of how great their careers were going. So, if they didn’t post things that I found interesting or that made me happy, if they didn’t follow me, and if they never interacted with me, I unfollowed or muted them.

I’ve realized that I’ve had fewer nightmares this week. I’ll have to check my blood pressure and see how that’s doing. I may give myself a mental health day today, then next week look at how I want to use my time. I do want to write, I know that now. I’m just not going to worry about what I’m going to do with it.