Blog Fatigue

I was lamenting on Twitter yesterday that I don’t know if anyone actually reads my blog, and it seems people do, even if they’re not commenting, so I guess I’ll keep up with it. My problem right now is that I have no idea what to write about. I haven’t been watching much TV or movies, so I don’t have anything to discuss there. I’ve been reading from my to-be-read pile, and I’m finding that there are reasons I didn’t read those books for so long, so I haven’t had a lot of books to recommend. Otherwise, my reading is for research for a future project, and I don’t really want to talk about what I’m reading there because the idea is that I’ll throw all that information into the mental blender, and what comes out won’t be recognizable from the source. But if I tell people what the sources are, they’ll be looking for chunks in the smoothie that they can identify, and that may lead to them misinterpreting the book.

I don’t really have a life outside the house now because I only go out to go grocery shopping. There’s no choir, no children’s choir, no getting together with friends. It’s too hot to go out hiking. Basically, I spend my days writing and researching, listening to classical music, and cooking. I don’t have much to say about the music because the very point of it is that I don’t think about it. I can just listen and let it flow over me, and sometimes that’s the only time when I don’t have words swirling around in my head.

So I’m not sure what to talk about. What do you want to hear? This is your chance to ask questions, and the answers may turn into a blog post. Ask me about the writing process or the publishing business. Do you have questions about how to write a book or get it published? Or ask about my books, where ideas came from, some of my research, etc. (though, to be honest, it’s been so long since I wrote a lot of my books that I might not remember anymore). Anything else?

I may take the rest of August as a kind of holiday to stockpile ideas and have something more substantial to say when I start up again in September. To keep up with me otherwise, follow me on Twitter. I mostly put book info on Facebook. Or there’s my mailing list.

Books

Competence and Tension

One thing I did during my weekend vacation was reread a book I knew I’d enjoy that wouldn’t be too tense. I’ve been working my way back through the 500 Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey, and I got to my favorite in that series, The Sleeping Beauty. This series is about a world where fairy tales take place, and the magical system is based on the Tradition that tries to turn everything into a fairy tale. This particular book mashes up all the “sleeping princess” stories, with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and even some Norse mythology.

The thing I like about it is how clever and competent all the characters are. There’s the fairy godmother who figures out that when the queen dies, evil sorceresses are going to be driven to the kingdom by the Tradition, since the 16-year-old princess is going to have to have an evil stepmother, so she disguises herself as a dark sorceress and pretends to be married to the king to keep them all away. Then there’s the adventuring hero who’s figured all this stuff out and knows that he needs to be kind to animals and be very, very careful about which sleeping maiden he wakes with a kiss. There’s the princess who learns self-defense and magic so she can deal with all the stuff going on in her kingdom.

But it’s not a cakewalk for them, since the villain also knows all this stuff. Still, it’s a relatively low-stress read because nobody does anything truly stupid. I can deal with people being in difficult situations that they have to figure out how to resolve. I get really stressed out when people get into difficult situations because they make dumb decisions. Like in a book I just started reading, in which it looks like our heroes are going to get into the situation that sets off the plot because they make a really dumb decision. They’re described as being really clever and suspicious, but they fall into a rather obvious setup (though it may just be that it’s super obvious to me because I read the back cover). I’m going to have to power through this part to get into the meat of the story.

I don’t know if an unknown author would have been allowed to get away with the relatively low tension in The Sleeping Beauty. The stakes are quite high, but the outcome is never really in doubt. I don’t know if it’s because the book was published by the fantasy imprint of a romance house, so they’re going with the guaranteed happy ending of the romance genre, or if a bestselling author writing the flagship series for the imprint had a lot more leeway while someone like me would be rejected for there not being enough tension or conflict. I happen to love it, and it’s sad that the series was killed by a publishing merger that ended that imprint. I would have loved to have more books like it.

Incidentally, I was at the launch event for that imprint where they announced that the first book in this series would be their first book. It was at that event where I first spoke to an editor about my idea for the book that became Enchanted, Inc. She got very excited and handed me her card and told me to go write it. She ended up rejecting it, but by then I already had an agent and a lot of other publishers were looking at it.

Anyway, this gives me a model for how to deal with the kind of hyper-competent characters I like and how to still get them in enough trouble to make for a fun story.

Vacating

I had a nice, relaxing “vacation” of the sort that actually seems to have boosted my energy, unlike the travel sort that tends to leave me tired. I remember something from back in my medical writing days in which a psychiatrist reminded us that the rood word of “vacation” is “vacate,” and that in order to renew yourself, you needed to empty the things you carry around so you have room to fill up again, and you need to break your routine to really relax.

One thing I realized is that the bad side of being the sort of person who’s never bored is that it may mean you never really relax. If there’s always something you could (or feel you should) be doing, then it’s hard to make yourself just be still. Even though I like sitting and thinking, it’s really hard to let myself do that. I did manage it a few times this weekend, and it’s amazing the difference that makes.

I found a new project when I was going through some sewing stuff and found an abandoned embroidery project my mom started before I was born. It’s a tablecloth that’s just the size I need, and I like the pattern, but the colors are all wrong. I’m going to get some embroidery floss in the right colors and redo it. Since I haven’t done embroidery in decades, I got out some plain muslin, found some online tutorials, and used the floss from this project to practice my stitching. It’s weirdly hypnotic once you get going, almost like meditation.

I was trying not to think about work or business all weekend, and that made me realize how much headspace I devote to that. My brain always seems to be spinning with to-do lists or ideas of things I could be doing, fretting over what’s happening, doing mental calculations, etc. Not only does that hamper my relaxation, and possibly my creativity, but the real problem is that I don’t seem to act on much of the stuff I come up with. It’s wasted fretting. Today’s project is to write down all the stuff that’s in my head and try to organize it into an actionable plan. I’m also going to try to make more of an effort not to think about this stuff after the workday or on weekends. I have a really bad habit of mulling over business-related plans at night before I go to sleep, and that’s not conducive to restful sleep.

So, in general, it was a productive vacation in the sense that I learned a lot about myself and have come up with some ideas for ways to make all this work better for myself going forward. I also think I need to do this sort of thing more often. At one of my old jobs, the boss came up with an incentive program in which we came up with a project/task list at the beginning of the week, got our supervisor to sign off on it, and on Friday when our supervisor signed off that it had all been done, we got to leave early. I may start doing that monthly to give myself a long weekend every so often when I’m caught up on my work. I just hope I’m a better boss to myself than that boss was. I think I managed to leave early once, not because I wasn’t getting my work done, but because once he realized that it was working too well and people were leaving early, he started planning all-hands meetings on Friday afternoons, or he’d arrange for clients to come meet with us on Friday afternoons (which the clients were okay with because they generally got to go straight home after the meeting if they came to our office on a Friday afternoon).

I’m easing back into work by spending the day doing all that planning, getting it out of my head and on paper so I can do something about it instead of just fretting and stewing.

writing life

Recharging

Since my birthday is this Friday, this is going to be a short work week for me. I’m taking Thursday and Friday off. I’ve realized that I need to recharge a bit, to refill the well, so to speak. I’ve been working pretty intensely for most of the year, in some unusual and difficult circumstances, and I feel a bit drained and tired. Last Sunday, I made an effort not to think about work for the whole day, and it was amazing the difference it made. I hadn’t realized just how much it was consuming me. Even when I’m not actively writing, my brain is constantly spinning, thinking about stories, business plans, publicity I should be doing, how much money I’m making (or not making), etc. I need to spend a few days not thinking about that stuff.

Instead, I need to do other creative things. The plan is to spend the next few days reading, watching movies, maybe doing some sewing or embroidery, possibly some coloring or painting, some music, etc. Stuff that’s not writing or thinking about writing, business, etc. Even the stuff I’ve been watching for the past few months has been somewhat work-related.

I knew it was getting bad when last night I dreamed about new covers for the Enchanted, Inc. books. I’ve been doing a lot of research on book cover design lately, trying to figure out where the things I’ve been writing fit, and although I love the look of my books, they’re pretty dated right now. They’re back in 2005 and don’t really say “contemporary fantasy” in today’s design language. I think my rewatching The Office on DVD also had an influence there, as the covers in my mind were pretty much like the menu screen on the DVDs, showing a desk with various office items on it, but with some additional magical stuff, like a crystal ball and a book about spells, on the desk.

Unfortunately, the publisher still controls the first four books in the US, so even if I changed covers for the ones I control, it wouldn’t affect the first book, the one that brings in new readers, unless maybe I could persuade the publisher to change at least the e-book covers.

That’s the kind of constant brain spinning I need to get away from for a few days.

First, though, I’m close to finishing this draft. I’m going to get that done today, then take care of my usual weekend housework chores this afternoon, and then I get to relax for a few days. I don’t have big plans for the birthday, thanks to social distancing and living in a hotspot area. I’m going to run to the grocery store tomorrow, and I think I’m going to get some kind of cake and maybe figure out a present to buy myself. I’m less than thrilled with the toaster oven I bought a few weeks ago—it’s smaller than the one I was replacing—so I’m thinking about maybe getting a bigger one. I use the toaster oven for most of my summer cooking, and I can barely fit a potato in this one without it getting too close to the coils. Yes, I have an exciting life.

Summer is Flying

I can’t believe it’s already August. This summer is doing a weird thing in which it seems to be flying at the same time as it seems like it’s been years since June. I realized this morning that I’ve had my new refrigerator for a whole month. I thought of that because I finally had to make some ice this weekend. Since I don’t use a lot of ice, I opted not to get an icemaker with the new refrigerator. The night before I got the new fridge, I ran the icemaker in the old one and put the ice in a freezer bag. I finally got near the bottom of that bag. That would suggest I made the right decision. An ice cube tray and a freezer bag take up a lot less room than the icemaker that’s usually empty and idle. I finally have plenty of space in my freezer for food.

This is the week when I’d usually be doing Music and Art Camp, but they’re doing a modified version of that online this year, so they don’t need me to herd kids around. We’d normally also be gearing up to go back to the regular “fall” schedule, since school usually starts in mid-August around here. We’d be starting choir rehearsals. It feels weird to go into Target and see the back-to-school sales, like is that happening already? We didn’t really have a summer yet!

We’ve actually had cooler than normal weather so far this year, with just two 100-degree days before August. Theoretically, we’re in the warmest span of the year, but we got rain and a really cool day last week, then a cold front this weekend, so it’s been pleasant. It’ll get hot again next weekend, but I’ve been enjoying spending time outdoors. The patio makes for a slight change of scenery.

I’m still looking forward to fall and truly cooler weather so I can get outside more and take longer walks. I endure summer. I revel in fall.

TV

Revisiting The Office

I haven’t been watching a lot of TV or movies this summer, but I did find myself revisiting The Office (the American version). I rewatched the first season while John Krasinski was doing his “Some Good News” online show and had an Office reunion, but then got sidetracked and didn’t look at it again once I finished that season. But then recently I overheard a conversation in the grocery store in which a teenage girl was talking to a woman I believe was her aunt about her obsession with The Office. Then I saw an article about how popular it was for lockdown viewing. The episodes are short, so it’s perfect for when you just want to watch a little of something without sitting there for a whole movie. I got out my DVDs and got into season 2.

Something that struck me was how sweet it was at its core. It’s about a terrible workplace with a clueless boss and annoying coworkers, but there’s still so much kindness there, mostly because of Jim. He certainly can be a jerk at times, and some of his pranks on Dwight can be a bit mean, but he’s also the heart of the office, the one who can pull everyone together and make them feel good. He notices when others are sad or upset and does things to make them feel better. He intervenes before the office awards ceremony to keep the clueless boss from giving out prizes that poke at people’s sore points, and his Office Olympics manage to find a strength for everyone.

And even the annoying coworkers and clueless boss aren’t necessarily bad people. They generally aren’t acting out of malice. Michael is selfish and acts out of self-interest, but he’s not intentionally cruel. He really does love his employees and wants them to love him.

All of this is a big difference from the British version, which may be funnier in ways, but it got pretty mean and nasty. Their boss is truly toxic, not simply clueless and immature.

The other thing I’ve noticed while rewatching and looking at it from a writer’s perspective is that they do such a good job of showing vs. telling, and how you can use subtext to show something that’s different from what we’re being told. In the early seasons, it seems like they’re showing us that Jim is the true leader in the office while Michael is mismanaging his people. There’s an episode about Michael trying to make the workplace “fun” with jokes and antics that actually make everyone uncomfortable. He’s afraid work won’t be fun anymore if he can’t forward jokes full of sexual innuendo. That’s followed by the “Office Olympics” episode about Jim making a boring day at the office while the boss is out fun for everyone in a way that makes everyone feel good while they still end up getting their work done. Or there’s the episode about a fire alarm in which we see Michael rushing out of the building first and then getting obsessed with showing his business and leadership acumen to the temp who’s in business school juxtaposed with Jim pulling everyone together with games while they’re stuck outside. It’s clear that Jim has more leadership skills than the actual boss does, and the terrible corporate structure doesn’t seem able to find and nurture his talents. If this were a realistic workplace, that office would probably have been a revolving door, with a lot of turnover, and upper management would never have figured out that Michael was the problem. They’d have prioritized keeping him, I suppose because he really was decent at sales, without realizing how much he cost them.

Meanwhile, the romantic storyline at this point in the series is an excellent use of subtext. It’s clear to us (and to the makers of the fictional documentary being filmed about the office) that Jim and Pam are in love, but in the first couple of seasons, that’s entirely subtext. Neither of them says anything overtly about it. They claim they’re just friends. Pam is engaged to someone else. But in their interview segments they praise each other. We see that she lights up around Jim but seems to wilt around her fiance. We see him react to her interactions with her fiance by asking out someone else (a pre-famous Amy Adams). Then we see from their interests how right Jim and Pam seem to be for each other and how wrong they are for their respective significant others. All without a single word about their feelings for each other — at least, not an honest word. It’s all told with little clues, facial expressions, and body language. I want to take notes, or attempt to write these scenes as though I were writing them in a novel to see how I’d describe what they show us and see if I can maintain the same subtext in prose.

Sometimes the show gets a little stressful to watch because I had a boss very much like Michael. He even had the same first name and a very similar hairstyle. He was less childish, so he didn’t have the aura of innocence underlying Michael’s selfishness, but he definitely was the kind of boss who wanted to make work “fun” by his definition of fun, which was a frat party. If you didn’t want to get drunk and didn’t want to spend your leisure time partying with your coworkers, you weren’t going to fit in very well and weren’t going to move up within the company. He was also very big on “loyalty,” but that was a one-way street. I’ve been away from that job for more than twenty years, so it’s a little easier to take with more distance than it was when the show first aired.

Fortunately, I’ve never worked with a real Dwight.

writing

Writing on Command

One thing I’ve been working on this summer is leveling up in my writing. I’ve identified some of my weaknesses, and I’m doing targeted work to strengthen those areas. One thing I’m doing is going through the books on writing I have, re-reading them, and actually doing the exercises.

That hasn’t gone all that well. The exercises tend to be something like “write a scene in which the viewpoint character feels this, using interior monologue to show it.” I generally hate writing exercises, those on-the-spot “write a paragraph about …” things. When I go to workshops and they do that sort of thing, I may pretend I’m writing, but I don’t actually do it. That makes me twitchy because I’m usually the sort of person who follows directions, and in classes I’ve generally been the person who’s eager to read my work for the class. I can’t do it for writing workshops, though. I may do some of the exercises at home, but the moment someone says, “take five minutes and write a paragraph about …” my mind goes blank and refuses to do it.

It’s not that I can’t write on the spot. I used to compete in journalism contests in high school, where they give you a topic and a list of facts, and you write a news article or feature story in half an hour (I went to regionals once for feature writing). When I was working in TV news, I was known for being able to write a story on the back of a news release in the car on the way back to the station, so that all I had to do was type up a script and give the video to the editor, and the story could go on the air within half an hour of me getting back to the station. So I don’t know why I can’t just spin something out when I have to do that sort of thing for fiction.

But then I realized the other night while I was doing one of those writing exercises and getting frustrated because my results were like something from a middle schooler’s creative writing essay that these sudden “write a scene about …” things don’t work in fiction. I can do it with journalism because I have the facts and the context I need for the story to be meaningful. Story comes from character, and you need to know who your characters are to be able to write about them, especially if you’re writing their emotions or their interior monologue. If you just write a scene about a random person feeling something, it’s meaningless unless you know who that person is. Fiction needs some kind of context. Who are these people? What kind of society are they in? I don’t have time to develop that well enough to be able to write about it in the time given for your typical writing exercise in a workshop, and it’s not a great use of my time at home. I could be writing something real.

I think those exercises get harder the more you know about writing and the deeper you want to go because you’re aware that you can’t do that without having a character. You get “exercise” writing instead of something that actually makes your writing better.

What I may do is work through the exercises as though I’m writing about one of the characters in a book I’m working on. That might give me some insight into them even while getting me to dig deeper into a particular area than I might normally do in the books these characters are in.

Life

Never Bored

When you hear the same thing said about you by multiple people, I suppose it counts as an accurate assessment of your personality. The thing I hear is rather an odd one: “You’re never bored, are you?” I’m not entirely sure it’s always meant as a compliment, and I’ve heard it in a variety of settings, from a variety of people. And it’s actually true. I don’t even understand boredom. The closest I come is when there’s something I need to do that I don’t want to do, but I don’t want to let myself do anything fun instead because then I’ll never get around to it. I actually deliberately try to create a state of boredom to force myself into doing the thing I need to do, for lack of anything better to do. Sometimes I’m paralyzed by indecision about what, exactly, I want to do, but I don’t know that I ever really feel like there’s nothing to do.

I’m more likely to have way more things I want to do than I have time to do. There are books to read, stuff on TV to watch, musical instruments to play, music to listen to, things to sew or knit, gardening, writing, cooking, even housework and organizing. And that’s without leaving the house. Last weekend, I had a list of things I wanted to do and barely got to half of them.

I don’t even need stuff like books or a TV around to amuse myself. I can just sit and think and be entertained. I dream up stories in my head, make plans, analyze things, write mental essays. I can replay stories I’ve read or watched and spin off new ideas based on that. I actually like thinking so much that most of my efforts at meditating have failed because my brain sees just sitting still as playtime. I’ve learned to go to bed early to give myself time to lie and think before I go to sleep.

I was thinking about this when talking to friends last week. We went around the group on the Zoom call, talking about how we were coping with the lockdown. One friend mentioned that she was so bored that she’s been doing laundry every day just to have something to do. Then I started mentioning the list of things I’ve been doing and how I’ve been enjoying having time to do them all. That was when I heard it again: “You’re never bored, are you?” I’ve been reading a lot, listening to concerts on the classical radio station, writing, studying Norwegian, trying new recipes, watching theater online, organizing my house, and gardening. I haven’t gotten around to playing much music or singing, so my voice is out of shape. I’ve thought about doing more sewing, and I haven’t done a knitting project in months because I don’t have the yarn for what I want to do and I haven’t gone shopping for it.

I think I learned to amuse myself at an early age because I was an only child until I was six, and there weren’t a lot of other kids my age in the neighborhood. Then even after my brother was born, it was a few years because he was interesting to play with. I had all kinds of games I played alone, mostly involving making up stories and acting them out. Since we moved a lot, I was frequently the new kid, and there was always a phase before I made friends, so I had to work on my self-entertainment skills.

I don’t know if all this led to me being a writer, or if it was me having the aptitude for writing that made me able to cope like this. When you can make up stories, you don’t ever have to be bored.

writing

So Many Books …

The writing revelations keep coming. After I realized that I had the wrong emotional arc for the heroine for this story and figured out what was going on with her, I realized that the opening scene of the book was totally wrong for the book. That then meant figuring out what the opening scene should be. I think I finally got that nailed down and wrote it this morning.

In a way, it’s annoying to be this many drafts into a book before I figured out it was wrong and I needed to re-do it, but it also feels really good to have figured it out and to see how much better the book is becoming, thanks to these changes.

I’d originally hoped to start publishing this series this summer, but then lots of things happened. Now I’m glad I held off because the books will be a lot better when I do get them out there. I’ve nailed down a lot of stuff that was uncertain and I have a better sense of the main selling points.

Meanwhile, another idea I’ve been developing has started really taking shape in my head, and that’s exciting. I actually dreamed about that story last night, and the dream gave me exactly the thing I needed to flesh out something about a character’s situation.

I’m getting into a “so many books, so little time” phase, but for writing, not reading. There are so many things I want to write that they sometimes collide in my head and create a logjam. Normally, that’s when I need to take a break and play with each of them to see which develops enough to move forward, but I know what my priorities are right now, so I’m shoving the other stuff aside to allow the one I’m focusing on to get through first. Then over the weekend I’ll play with the others enough to keep them from annoying me.

writing

Another Epiphany

I’ve had yet another writing epiphany that builds on the last one I had, and it means still more work, but it’s work that will make things better.

Previously, I realized I hadn’t given my heroine an underlying desire that wasn’t driven by the main plot. I rewrote the first book to weave that in, and it really took the book up a notch.

Yesterday, I finished going through another draft of the second book in the series and figured it was just about done. Then I drafted some potential back-cover copy, and I realized that there was a plot element I highlighted in the cover copy that wasn’t actually in the book all that much. There’s a scene in which they talk about this being a potential danger, but nothing comes of it.

That means I need to fix the book. Yeah, it would be easier to rewrite the cover copy, but without this element, the book sounds less interesting. There are no stakes (there are some stakes in the book, but they only become clear when you know who the culprit is, so explaining what’s at stake would spoil the mystery). This morning, as I was brainstorming about how I should deal with all this, I realized that I had the wrong underlying emotional story for the heroine. It was the opposite of what it should have been, based on what I added to the previous book based on my last epiphany, and when I shifted the perspective with that in mind, it gave emotional stakes to the big-picture stakes. It was like all the light bulbs went off at once.

This means yet another rewrite, but if I don’t get the first couple of books in a series right, readers won’t keep up with the rest of the books. This is when I need to make the readers fall in love with the characters and want to read more about them, so I need to get the characterization and emotional stories right.

I really should have written the back-cover copy up front. That’s what I usually do because it’s a good way to test the plot and see what the selling points are. If you can’t make your story idea sound interesting in a few paragraphs, you have work to do, and the things you highlight in your sales copy should be things that play a prominent role in the book.

I guess it’s good that I keep learning and figuring out new things this far into my writing career.