Books, movies

New Perspectives on an Old Favorite

I recently revisited an old favorite book and finally saw the movie based on it, and it’s been an interesting experience that’s going to be difficult to talk about without spoilers, so I’m going to do this post in layers.

The book The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird feels like it was written just for me because it parallels my life in a lot of ways (in fact, the inscription in the autographed copy I have mentions the parallel lives, since it turns out I have a lot in common with the author, including having the same editor for a while, which is how I got the autographed book and why she knew about the parallel lives). It takes place in Austin in the 80s, which is when I lived in Austin while I was in college. During one summer, I stayed in Austin to work at a small newspaper, and the heroine works for a small newspaper. She lives in the neighborhood I lived on the edge of for that summer, so I walked around a lot of the places mentioned in the book. When the heroine goes to the library or post office, it’s the library and post office I went to. And during the course of the book, the heroine goes to a romance writers’ conference and starts writing a category romance novel. It was after I lived in Austin, but I’ve been to a lot of romance writers’ conferences and used to write category romance novels.

I was thinking about this book recently because it takes place during a bad heat wave, and we’ve been having a bad heat wave this summer, so I was planning to reread it. And then I saw that the movie based on it was on Amazon Prime. I’d started to watch it when it was on TV years ago but noped out at the beginning when I saw that it was set in Charleston, S.C., not Austin. Since the Austin setting was a big reason I loved the book, that turned me off of the movie. But I thought I’d give it a try again. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, but it may have to win some kind of award for being the worst adaptation of a book in which the screenplay was written by the author of the original novel. I’m sure a lot of the changes were dictated by Hollywood—like they probably got some filming incentives to shoot where they did, which meant the location change. Other changes were required by the change in medium. You couldn’t film the book as it’s written because of the structure. While the movie is your basic false identity rom-com, the book is actually more about the contrast between real-life love and romantic fantasy.

But the changes mean that you can’t really talk about the movie without spoiling the book because the movie flips the perspective and centers on the book’s big twist.

So, first the book. I’ve referred to it as “proto chick-lit” because it was published in the late 80s, long before Bridget Jones came along, but it has a lot of the same elements — it’s got the first-person narrator heroine who’s a bit of a mess and trying to navigate her life, friendships, career, and relationships, and not necessarily doing a great job at any of them. There’s a romantic plot, but the focus is on her personal growth and figuring things out.

The story’s about a photographer for a small newspaper who gets assigned to cover a romance writers’ conference, where she goes in with some preconceived notions but gets taken under the wings of a couple of pro writers, who teach her a thing or two and encourage her to try writing her own book. She insists that real women wouldn’t actually be interested in romance heroes. Women don’t want dark, dangerous men. They want nice guys. But then she recoils at a setup with the nerdy brother of one of the writers, and just as she’s struggling to write the romantic parts of her romance novel, she meets a mysterious biker she can’t resist, so she may have to eat her words.

I don’t know how much my fondness for this book comes from the parallel lives thing, since I’ve never gone for the dangerous rogue type. Then again, I also would have rejected the nerdy guy (those scenes made me cringe because just about every guy I’ve been set up with has been a lot like that, personality-wise). What I’d prefer is somewhere in the middle. So, I don’t really relate to that part of the plot. I guess I just enjoy reliving the summer I spent in Austin and the time when I was first getting into serious writing and going to conferences.

The book is now available as a pretty inexpensive e-book and it’s on Kindle Unlimited, so if it sounds interesting, check it out. The rest of this post will address the movie, which means it will have spoilers for the book.

So, the movie …

They changed the setting and the heroine’s name. She’s a writer, not a photographer, and they skip the part where she’s trying to write a romance novel. She just interviews the writer. But the focus of the movie is more on the guy. Here’s where the book spoilers start.

The movie is about a guy who falls hard for the woman his romance writer sister sets him up with, but when she rejects him, his sister sets out to turn him into a romance hero the woman won’t be able to resist, in spite of her protestations about real women not being interested in men like the heroes in romance novels.

That’s the twist in the book, that the mysterious biker is the nerdy guy. The biker doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the book, and we don’t find out who he is until near the end. It really does feel like a twist. I remember being surprised the first time I read it. I was pretty sure she was being set up, but I didn’t guess that it was the same guy rather than something like an actor hired to prove a point. But I can see how you couldn’t pull that off in a movie. In the book, it’s all from the heroine’s perspective, then she finds out who the guy is and he gives her his journals to explain himself, so then there’s a section where we see what’s been happening from his perspective. You couldn’t do that in a movie.

And I don’t think you’d be able to make his identity be a surprise in a movie. In the book, you can believe it because of how it’s set up. The guy has just finished cancer treatment, so his hair hasn’t come back yet, he’s been on steroids, so his face is still puffy, and his body is still skinny. There’s a three-month gap, during which time his hair grows back, his face goes back to normal, he starts exercising and builds muscles, and he gets colored contact lenses. But in the movie, as good of a makeup job as they do on him, he’s still recognizably Steve Guttenberg at the beginning, so you know who he is when he shows up as a stud. I think it might actually work in real life that you wouldn’t recognize someone you’d barely met if you ran into him again after he went through a lot of changes, but it won’t work with a known actor. Maybe with an unknown and no opening credits it might have worked, but trying to hide that twist would be hard in a movie. In real life, you encounter a lot of random people who aren’t necessarily connected, but when you’re watching a movie, you know that everyone you see is probably important, so you look at them differently.

Focusing on the guy’s story means the movie loses a lot of the things I love about the book, but I noticed in some of the Amazon reviews of the book that there are people who like the movie more because they like the straightforward rom-com. They don’t like that the heroine is such a mess or that the ending is a bit ambiguous. I still think the movie should have been better than it was, and there were things from the book that could still have made it to the screen. The casting, aside from the heroine (who’s too pretty for the way the book character was described), is pretty good. It’s on Amazon Prime, and it’s short, so if you want an 80s rom-com that’s a bit different, check it out.

And now I’m going to spoil the book even more.

There’s something that’s always bugged me about the book and the way it works out that I finally have the right vocabulary for: It basically reinforces the “nice guy” myth, the whole “women don’t really like nice guys, they just go for jerks who treat them badly” thing that you tend to hear from the incel crowd. That’s something guys who proclaim themselves as “nice” like to say, and I’ve found that the self-proclaimed “nice” guys are seldom as nice as they think they are. A lot of the time, they don’t actually make a move on the woman and then act like they’ve been rejected for being nice when she doesn’t go for them. Or the niceness is purely transactional, so he’s supposed to be rewarded for being nice and he pouts if he isn’t. Or he has his own definition of “nice” which is on his terms, not what she wants. Or he seems to think that just being “nice” should be enough, without him working on anything else.

For the most part, the guy in this book isn’t entirely like that — up until the end. She understandably feels betrayed by his deception, even after she reads his journal. She’s understanding about the cancer thing, and he doesn’t start out planning the deception. That was something his sister came up with, and he only panicked when this woman met him, so he went with it rather than admitting who he was. What she can’t get over is the fact that the role he was playing in the deception was created based on what she was writing in her book, which his sister was critiquing for her. It was designed purely to fulfill her fantasies. And yet he’s the one acting hurt because she fell for this character when she wouldn’t give him the time of day. I keep wanting the heroine to point out to him that he was just in love with an imaginary person. His journal talks about falling in love with her at first sight, but the person he thinks he’s in love with has nothing to do with who she really is. The real woman is basically an avatar for his fantasy woman. At least when she fell for a fictional guy, it was a deliberate deception designed to fool her. He made up a fantasy woman on his own, without her doing anything to encourage it. It seems pretty clear from the contrast between what we saw from her side of the story and the way he sees her in his journal, but no one in the book ever addresses it, and it’s not even mentioned in the reading group guide in the back of one of the copies I have, aside from a question about whether you believe in love at first sight the way he does.

Not to mention, the guy is stalking her the whole time. He follows her home from work and drives by her house all the time. He even looks in the windows sometimes. He’s supposed to be a nice guy who couldn’t get any attention until he changed, but he’s rather creepy. He claims to be following her because he’s worried about her coming home from work in a shady part of town late at night, but if she doesn’t know he’s there and never asked for this help, him following her like that isn’t cool.

I may be a bit overly sensitive about this because I’ve found that the “nice guys” tend to do that avatar thing, where they act like they’re really into me, but it becomes clear that the person they like has very little to do with me. I’m like the actress who plays the character they’re in love with. For me to buy the possibility of a happy ending, I’d need for this to be addressed. The ending of the book is ambiguous, so I guess in my head they’ll have this conversation before anything else happens. It’s always left me with an unsettled feeling, but in recent years the “nice guy” has been discussed a lot on the Internet, which has made me realize what unsettled me so much. I still like the book, but now I know why it bothers me. I don’t know if you could publish this book or make this movie today. Would we see it differently?

publishing business

Writing to Market

I recently saw a workshop on writing to market, and I’ve realized where I may have gone astray in deciding what to write. It seems that just writing what you want to read isn’t necessarily the best plan.

The idea of writing to market is to look at what you like to read and want to write, then look at where it might fit into the market. In the days when you just bought books in bookstores, there were only the broadest categories. Fiction might fit into science fiction, fantasy (or one combined science fiction and fantasy section), mystery, western, romance, maybe horror (if that wasn’t added to the science fiction and fantasy section), and then general fiction for everything else. You didn’t have to worry so much about where things might be shelved, though that was sometimes a problem when you crossed genres. For instance, Enchanted, Inc. ended up shelved in general fiction rather than fantasy because it was published by a general fiction imprint rather than a fantasy imprint, and they considered it chick lit/women’s fiction, not fantasy, mostly because that was the hot category at the time.

And there was still the issue of the publisher trying to figure out if it was the kind of book within a genre that might sell, mostly by comparing it to something else they thought might have the same audience and looking at how well that sold.

Now, though, the online bookstores have some pretty narrow categories. Within fantasy, there are categories like action/adventure, humorous, dragons and mythical creatures, coming of age, epic, historical, gaslamp, etc., etc. You need to figure out where your book fits best, if it contains what readers who like that category are looking for, and if there’s a good market for that category that’s not oversaturated.

One exercise the speaker suggested was to look at the top 50 books in the category. Would your book fit there? There may be some variety, as each category can contain some very different books, but are there some books in the top 50 like yours? Then look at the ranking of the #50 book. If it’s really high, then that might mean the category is crowded and you’d have to be a bestseller in the whole store to get on the first page of the bestseller list. But if the ranking is really low, that might mean that category isn’t a good seller. Ideally, the ranking of the #50 book on the list would be high enough to suggest that these books make money, but not so high that you’d have to have a huge hit to have any visibility.

Then look at the reviews for the books that seem closest to yours. There are some links at the top of the review section mentioning terms that frequently come up in reviews. A lot of those are tropes or other things readers look for in that kind of book. Skimming the reviews can give you a good idea of tropes these readers like, things they don’t like, and what they expect in a book like this.

You can then keep all this in mind as you write so that you’re going into a category where you might sell and you’re giving those readers what they want. Then you can also use this info when you’re marketing the book.

Doing this made me realize that a book I was working on last year and shelved so that I could get out a couple more mysteries, and then work on a different fantasy project, is probably my more marketable fantasy idea right now. It adheres a bit more closely to having what these readers are looking for. Not that the other idea doesn’t, but it’s not as easy to describe those elements for that idea.

So many of my ideas are oddballs, things I’m writing because I want to read them but can’t find them. That can be satisfying from a creative standpoint, and the readers who find these books love them because they also want these kinds of things and can’t find them, but it’s not so great for actually selling books at a big enough volume to make money.

I’ve found that the category that probably best fits my book is one in the sweet spot, so that’s good. Now as I write it (when I get to it after a couple of other things), I’ll keep the reader expectations in mind, and I’ll use that info in things like the book description and in getting cover designs. I don’t think it’ll change my writing too much. It’s not so much about chasing a trend as it is about keeping in mind what readers are looking for. It’s fun for me to write stories I love, but I only earn money if I write things readers love.

writing, movies

Much Ado About Tropes

A couple of weeks ago, I rewatched the Kenneth Branagh version of Much Ado About Nothing. That’s my favorite adaptation of that play. Branagh does a lovely job of making it so real and vital, and the cast manages to make the Shakespearean language sound perfectly natural. It takes maybe one scene to tune your ear, and then you just get caught up in the story and forget that it’s Shakespeare. Emma Thompson is particularly good, able to spit out all those zingers while still showing humanity and vulnerability.

I realized while watching that this play contains one of my least-favorite romantic comedy tropes and one of my favorites.

The least favorite is the old “see something involving the other member of the couple out of context, leap to the worst possible conclusion, flounce on the relationship without even discussing it with the other person, then realize they’re wrong, but then everything’s okay and the other person doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that someone who supposedly loved them was willing to jump to the worst possible conclusion about them.”

You’d think this would have died out long ago, since it’s more than 400 years old for Shakespeare, and it comes from an even older work that Shakespeare based his play on, but it’s still a staple of rom-coms and Hallmark movies. Shakespeare actually does a somewhat better job with this trope than many of the modern stories do. It’s a deliberate set-up, for one thing, intended to give Claudio the wrong impression. He’s brought to a particular place just in time to see something being staged for his benefit, with Hero’s name being said, and what he sees is unambiguous. Someone he highly respects sees the same thing and comes to the same conclusion. It’s not like the “dark moment” in the Hallmark movies when the heroine sees the hero hugging another woman and decides to flounce back to the city and let the ornament factory close because she thinks he’s involved with another woman.

Then once Claudio learns the truth and realizes he wronged Hero, he does penance even though he’s not the one truly at fault. And in their society, even though she’s been proven blameless, her reputation might have remained damaged if the one who accused her hadn’t taken her back, so of course she’s glad he still wants her. I don’t cut the modern characters as much slack. If she assumed he was cheating on her and didn’t even discuss it with him, then after she realizes that was his sister he was hugging and she goes back to him, I don’t get why he would be so willing to take her back. Why would he want to be with someone who’s that irrationally jealous and who thinks the worst of him?

I have seen one movie in which the woman visited the man’s workplace and saw a wedding photo of him, assumed he was married and she was the “other woman,” so she refused to speak to him again, and after she learned that he was a widower she apologized, but he wasn’t ready to take her back. It took some big gestures on her part, a lot of apologies, and some strings being pulled by his friends for them to move past it and get back together. That worked a bit better, but I’m ready for that misunderstanding trope to be given a rest or at least a twist. Maybe have that happen at the beginning of the story, and that’s why the character is single and maybe a bit bitter when the story’s real love interest comes along. They wouldn’t take back the person who dumped them in a fit of misplaced jealousy, or else they’re the one who screwed up. There could even be a second-chance thing, where this is backstory, and they meet again after this happened.

But the play also contains one of my favorite tropes, which is the people who act like they dislike each other to cover for the fact that they do like each other but are too afraid to let on, for fear that the other one actually does dislike them and would use the knowledge of their feelings as a weapon against them. Benedick and Beatrice bicker and shoot zingers at each other, but they’re ridiculously easy to trick into confessing their feelings. The moment each of them “overhears” (thanks to a scheme by their friends) that the other likes them, they’re delighted and go all-in. There is one speech by Beatrice early in the play that suggests they have a past. It hints that maybe they had a relationship before that ended badly. In the “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode on this play, actors who’ve played these roles said they read it as them having had a romance that went wrong, and both of them see themselves as the wounded party, so they’ve been bickering, but they never got over each other. They’re just both too proud and too wounded to lower the barriers and let their feelings show. It takes other people intervening to make them feel safe to express their feelings.

This isn’t really an “enemies to lovers” thing because they’re basically on the same side. They just pretend not to get along. It’s sort of a second-chance thing. Whatever it is, it can be a lot of fun if it’s done very well, with good dialogue and sizzling subtext. But I suspect it would be very tricky to pull off in a novel that allows you to get inside the characters’ head. It works in the play/movie because they can have fun with the subtext (especially with actors on the level of Branagh and Thompson). It would lose something if you got into their heads and knew how they really felt. I’ve been trying to think of how to make it work in a novel. I’m not sure it could work in third-person narration, where you get to eavesdrop on their thoughts. It might work in first-person narration, with the narrator not being privy to the other character’s thoughts and editing her own thoughts so that she’s not telling the whole story or being entirely honest either with herself or the reader. Or it could be told from some other character’s perspective, say, if the couple were members of a team and the viewpoint character is someone else on the team being amused by how dense those two can be. That was kind of what happened in the Harry Potter books with the relationship between Ron and Hermione, which was seen entirely from Harry’s perspective, except he wasn’t even amused by them. He was as dense about what was going on as they were, and the reader had to figure out what was going on from the subtext and realize that although they bickered a lot, their feelings regarding each other were quite strong.

Now, of course, I’m trying to figure out if I could make the mistaken assumption story work in a way that I like, and I’m mentally scanning my story ideas to see if there’s a place for a “Beatrice and Benedick” relationship. Because I need more story ideas. (Not! I don’t have time to write all the ideas I currently have.)

My Books

Progress Update

I finished the first draft of the new mystery book on Monday, so I guess that’s going to happen, after all. I don’t think there will be too much editing required. I’m sure I’ll have to fine-tune the words, possibly add some description and emotion, but I don’t think the plot requires major surgery, so that should all happen pretty quickly.

Assuming I can get it all done and get a cover designed, I’m going to aim for a September 22 release. I haven’t talked to the cover designer yet, so I’ll have to see what her schedule is like. She’s usually pretty quick, though.

And I already have an idea for the next book. I guess letting those characters rest for a while gave them a lot of energy. I realized that the book I’ve been working on takes place in November, leading up to Thanksgiving, which means that the next book would be the Christmas book, so either I’d have to release a Christmas book at some other time of the year, wait until next year, or write one quickly.

I suppose there’s nothing terribly wrong with releasing a Christmas book at some other time of year. The Enchanted, Inc. book set around Christmas was released in April. But I think it helps the marketing to release a holiday-themed book around that holiday. I’m still brainstorming the plot, so I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to write it, but if I keep up the pace I’ve managed for the past few weeks, I think I’ll be able to pull it off easily. This one will be a bit lighter, without a murder, since I don’t want to kill anyone at Christmas time. It’s a different kind of crime. It’ll be weird writing a Christmas book during the summer. I don’t know that I can make myself listen to Christmas music to set the mood as I write, but it might help me feel cooler to mentally put myself in December. Then again, it’s a Texas December, so it could be anywhere from ice storm to 80 degrees F.

In other news, the first two mystery books are now on the Hoopla service that allows you to check out e-books through the library. The rest are supposed to end up there eventually, but it takes them more than a year to get books up on that service. If your library offers Hoopla, you can read them for free (and I get paid!). Here’s the listing for the first book.

I’m taking Friday off because my birthday is this weekend and I just finished a book, so there will be no blog post on Friday. I’ll be back next week. I’m going to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and then go to the library and an exhibit at the city’s arts center. Then I’ll have a weekend of movie nights, lounging around reading, and at-home spa treatments.

writing life

Writing Happiness

I’ve come to the realization that writing is good for my mental and emotional health. Maybe not the publishing part, but I need the creation part of things to stay healthy and happy. I feel like I keep having this realization at least once a year, and I’ve probably even written about it before, but I’ve got enough data points now to be sure of it.

A few weeks ago, I was in a real down phase. I suspected it had to do with the summer and being so hot and not being able to go outdoors, along with financial worries and feeling like I was out of control of my life. At that time, I was revising the book I was working on, and I’d been doing that for weeks. Then I went back to work on the mystery book, and after writing every weekday for a couple of weeks, I’ve found that my mood has lifted considerably. It’s still summer, still too hot to go outside, and my financial situation hasn’t changed, but I feel a lot better.

Last year, I was kind of blaming the mysteries for the down mood I was having at the time, but I think it was just that I was writing them back-to-back and spending a lot of time on revision and editing. I ended up feeling burned out last year, and I thought it was because I’d done so much writing, but maybe the problem was that I hadn’t done enough writing. I was writing a lot, but that meant I had a lot of material that needed to be edited, so I was spending weeks not writing. To recover from the burnout, I took a break from writing-related work, which may have been the wrong thing to do.

Now that I’m almost done with this draft, I think I’m going to try keeping up with some kind of drafting alongside the editing, revision, and proofreading phase. Even just half an hour to an hour a day of writing something may help. I may play with short stories or some entirely different kind of book while I’m doing the non-writing work on another project, and maybe that will keep me from getting burned out from not creating. As a bonus, it means I’ll have more stuff written, which is always good. I can still allow myself to take breaks and vacations from work, and I try to take weekends off unless I have a deadline, but fitting a little creation in with the other work may help me avoid burnout.

I think part of it is that writing is fun for me. Part of it may be that it gives me a stronger sense of control. I can’t control the world around me, but when I’m writing I’m controlling my fictional world, and I feel less out of control from everything else. Part of it may be that it keeps me too busy to dwell on things that aren’t going well. I get lost in my imaginary world, and I’m hanging out with fictional people I love. I don’t get that same lost experience from revision. Editing and revision tap into the critical side of my brain, which tends to leave me critical about everything. Creating turns that off.

I’ll be going into revision mode soon, so I’ll put this to the test and see if it works and how much writing a day I need to do to stay happy.

My Books

The Harry Potter Question

Enchanted, Inc. book cover, showing cartoon fairy and frog prince in business attireA question that’s come up a lot over the years since the first Enchanted, Inc. book was released, in both reader mail and professional reviews, is whether it started as Harry Potter fan fiction. Did I ever write a story about the Harry Potter gang all grown up and working at a magical corporation and then change the names and situations so it was “original” fiction?

The short answer is a definitive NO.

I never wrote fan fiction for the Harry Potter series. I didn’t even do a lot of mental fan fiction, where I think of stories in my head without ever writing them out, aside maybe from some speculation about what would happen in the next book while we were between books, and even there it wasn’t full plot lines.

I’m not even entirely sure why people might think that because I don’t believe Enchanted, Inc. maps all that well to Harry Potter. The best I can come up with is Owen being an orphaned wizard with dark hair. But aside from that, he’s not much like Harry. Harry wasn’t actually all that powerful or skilled as a wizard. He tended to prevail because he wasn’t corrupted—he wasn’t out for his own gain or power—and because he had allies. Owen’s probably more like Hermione. Katie would be our Ron, the one who lives out in the country with older brothers and who feels ordinary and overlooked. And from there, the comparisons break down. If I’d filed the serial numbers off a Harry Potter story to make it “original” so it could be published, I would have had to have done so with a chainsaw.

However, the Enchanted, Inc. books were somewhat inspired by Harry Potter in the sense that I wanted something like that but about and for adults, with magic in a contemporary setting and a dash of whimsy (I first came up with the idea before I read the fourth Harry Potter book, when it started getting a lot darker). At that time, fantasy was more likely to involve a medieval-like setting. You didn’t see a lot of fantasy stories set in the modern day, with cars and telephones, etc. At first, I just wanted to read that kind of thing, and when I didn’t find much (and what I did find was rather dark), I realized I’d have to write it. But that’s the extent of the Harry Potter influence.

When I created the characters, I was mostly playing with romantic comedy tropes because I was writing it as a chick lit/rom-com with magic in it. We’ve got our spunky girl-next-door underdog of a heroine, and I was originally going with a potential triangle involving the guy who seems great but turns out to be Mr. Wrong and the guy who seems like trouble at first but who turns out to be Mr. Right. I knew I wanted there to be a guy who uses a handsome illusion because the magically immune heroine would see the real thing, and we’d get the contrast between the way she sees things and the way other people see them — like the real-world situation where there’s someone everyone seems to swoon over while you just don’t get it. My initial idea was that the guy with the handsome illusion would be the shy, awkward one, and the one who was handsome would be smooth and confident. But then I realized that was pretty cliched and ordinary. I switched personalities between the two guys and they suddenly came to life and became the characters we know. That also killed the triangle because as soon as I figured out the characters, Owen was the obvious guy.

I also tried to take some of the standard rom-com events and situations and add magical or fantasy elements to them.

So, if it’s a fan fiction of anything, I would say that Enchanted, Inc. was more my spin on romantic comedies, taking a lot of elements and tropes and making them magical, than any kind of play on Harry Potter. It’s not any one particular rom-com, though. When I was plotting the book, I watched Bridget Jones’s Diary, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Working Girl, and a few others like that.

I’m still surprised that publishing never really capitalized on the number of adult readers of the Harry Potter books (or HP readers who became adults as the series was being published) and published more of that sort of thing for adults. There are the Harry Dresden books, and maybe the Rivers of London series, but there hasn’t really been anything that captured a similar tone. I think it’s because the publishers only saw the HP phenomenon as a children’s book thing, in spite of the adult readers. Publishers are very narrow in their view of the market. In fact, the first Enchanted, Inc. book came out not long before Half-Blood Prince, and my publisher shot down my suggestion to play upon the idea of Harry Potter for grown-ups because the Harry Potter books were children’s books and we wouldn’t want to compare mine to that. I ended up doing an end-run around them and had a copy sent to the local reporter who’d been writing about the Harry Potter series and got one of the best media placements we had with that book, in a story about what to read while you’re waiting for your kid to finish reading the new Harry Potter book so you can get to it.

And I still want to read something like that, but about adult life that I didn’t have to write.

writing, video project

Scene and Sequel

One of the writing concepts I struggle with is the principle of Scene and Sequel. Jack Bickham has a whole book about it in the Writer’s Digest series of how-to books, and it also shows up in Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer, and in any number of other writing books and workshops.

The basic idea is that a novel is made up of a series of scenes and sequels. The scenes are the action part. A character has a goal and does something to try to achieve that goal but runs into conflict or opposition so that he has to try multiple approaches. The scene ends in some kind of disaster in which the character either definitively fails to reach the goal so that trying another approach won’t work, or he achieves it, but in a way that makes things worse for him. Either way, it throws the character off-balance so he has to regroup. Then there’s the sequel, which is the reaction part of the sequence. The character responds to the disaster, has a dilemma about what to do next, then makes a decision about his next step, which becomes the goal for the next scene.

When I read about this or hear someone speak about it in a workshop, it makes so much sense. Following this kind of structure ensures that there’s conflict and that the action drives from one scene to another. And then when I try to apply it to what I’m working on, that’s the part my editor or agent says needs to be cut. All that trying multiple approaches and ending in failure results in a bunch of extraneous scenes that keep the story from progressing.

At some point, the characters have to get what they want in order for the story to go anywhere. You wouldn’t want the detective in a mystery story to find the definitive clue to solve the case in the first scene of his investigation, but the story won’t go anywhere if his goal in a scene is to find a clue and he doesn’t find anything.

In my favorite story structure example, the original Star Wars, we’ve got a similar situation. Luke and Obi-Wan go into the cantina with the goal of finding a starship captain who’ll take them to Alderaan. There’s a bit of conflict — a bar fight and some negotiation with Han Solo — but the first pilot they talk to agrees to take them. If this had followed the “rules,” they would have failed to achieve their goal, and it would have ruined the movie because they’d have never left Tatooine. It would have been a movie about them trying and failing to find transportation while the Death Star was out there blowing up planets.

So, are all these writing gurus wrong about this, or was I misinterpreting it? Dwight Swain does refer to incidents and happenings, which are story fragments that aren’t technically scenes because they don’t have goals or conflicts. But in this cases, the characters do have a goal, and this scene is critical to the plot. The cantina scene isn’t just a filler moment to flesh out characters and relationships.

I finally figured out that maybe the problem is the terminology. I was thinking of a “scene” in theater terms. In a play, a scene is the part of the play that takes place in a particular location and time, and at the end of a scene, the stage goes dark and people wearing black run out and rearrange things to create a new setting or show that time has passed before the lights come on and the next scene begins. In a movie, it’s similar, but there may be a quick blink to black as a transition or, in Star Wars, a wipe transition. In a book, you get a blank line or a graphic item between scenes.

But I think in story structure terms, what they’re calling a scene isn’t the same thing. You could have multiple theater-type scenes in a story scene, or you could have multiple story scenes in a theater-type scene. Maybe there needs to be a different term for this to reduce the confusion, but I haven’t been able to think of anything.

So, looking at Star Wars again, I think I need to broaden the scope and back up a bit. The scene goal comes after Luke’s previous goal to just drop Obi-Wan off and go back home ends in the disaster of his uncle and aunt being killed. He tells Obi-Wan he’ll go with him to bring the droids to Alderaan, and that’s his new goal. Finding transportation is just one of the things they have to deal with along the way, along with avoiding Imperial entanglements. The disaster comes when they reach where Alderaan should be and it’s not there—which would certainly count as a definitive failure to reach their goal. Then they find themselves taken on board the space station whose plans they were taking to Alderaan, so it’s a big disaster. In response to that, they have to come up with a plan to escape. This “scene” has encompassed multiple theater-type scenes: the arrival in Mos Eisley, the scene in the cantina, the arrival at the docking bay, the escape from Tatooine, the lightsaber training and game on the ship, and the arrival at the ruins of Alderaan, and all this is braided around scenes taking place on the Death Star.

We still don’t have our heroes trying multiple approaches before they fail. They fly to Alderaan and it’s not there, period. That may only apply to certain kinds of stories. Going back to my hypothetical detective story, the scene goal might be to find evidence that Suspect A is the killer, so the detective might look at clue 1, then clue 2, then interview a possible witness, all without getting anything definitive, but then the last approach they try leaves them with proof that Suspect A couldn’t have been the killer — a disaster— so now he needs a new line of investigation to pursue.

Realizing that I was taking things far too literally and narrowly helped me finally make sense of this concept. I can take a bigger-picture view of my scene goals, and then I can have proper disasters without bringing my story to a screeching halt and without a lot of extraneous filler in the attempt to give my characters disasters. I’ve also seen a story structure that has this approach built in. Instead of looking at in terms of scenes and sequels, there’s a part of the outline for goal A, then the drive to achieve goal A, then failure of goal A, and regrouping, followed by a new goal.

In those smaller theater-style scenes, you don’t have to keep the characters from getting what they want. I like to think of that in terms of what’s going to get them closer to having to deal with the main story problem. You want them to fail at anything that would make life easier, but succeed at things that are going to get them in deeper trouble. So, Luke and Obi-Wan succeed in getting transportation because that will take them closer to bigger trouble. If they fail, they’re stuck on Tatooine, away from all the problems. But they fail to reach Alderaan because it would be too easy to just bring the droids straight to where they were told to take them.

A good test would be whether or not achieving the goal would end the story. If achieving the goal ends the story, then they have to fail. If failing ends the story, they have to succeed. Luke not getting passage to Alderaan would have ended the story. Luke successfully delivering the droids to Alderaan would have ended the story (or sent it in a different direction). In a mystery story, the detective finding evidence that tells him exactly who the killer is would end the story, so that has to happen late in the story. But the detective searching for evidence and finding nothing at all might also end the story.

Ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to get too tied to any one bit of writing theory. The scene and sequel format is a good tool to use when you’re trying to figure out what should happen in a scene or when you’re trying to analyze a scene that isn’t working, but if you’re too rigid about it, it will stifle your story. At some point, you just have to write and let your story play out.

Here’s the video version of this post (I had to fight my inner perfectionist to post this because I made a few flubs and I was losing my voice, so I may end up reshooting, but it’ll have to do for now):

publishing business

Serious Business

I’ve been trying to up my game on the business side of the writing business, so I’ve been doing a lot of online workshops. There’s currently an online conference I’m “attending,” so I’m in the middle of an overwhelmed phase as I try to sort through all the information and figure out what I can make myself do and what might make a difference. I’m in awe of the people who’ve written and published something like 100 books in the past ten or so years. There are people who started writing after I started independently publishing who already have more books out than I do, and they’re making millions at it.

I don’t know how they do it. I just about burned out from trying to write more than three books a year, and I haven’t even tried to do all the advertising and promotion they talk about. My brain starts frying when they talk about figuring out ad spend and audiences, and all that — and I used to work at an advertising agency (I worked on the public relations side, but we often had a full-service account team, so I heard what the ad people were up to in client meetings). They spend thousands of dollars in promotion. I think some of them spend more in promotion than I earn in total.

But I do need to sell more books, so I’m trying to do little things that might make a difference, like tweaking Amazon listings for search engine optimization (just typing that makes me twitch). I’ve tried putting some stuff up on Pinterest. I have the video project (new one should be coming Friday, if I get it edited). I’m thinking about splurging and applying to do a Book Bub promo deal. I’m updating the backmatter in the e-books to list all my books and make it easier for readers to find more of my books.

I’m adding new ideas to that list of things to do, but the trick is figuring out if any of it makes any difference. My book sales are all over the place. There are good days and bad days, and on the good days it’s seldom any one book selling a lot of copies. It’s one copy each of just about everything. That makes it hard to tell what promo activity is actually working, or if any of it has anything to do with any promo activity. And that makes it hard for me to motivate myself to do all this stuff. If I saw a clear spike in sales after I did something, it would spur me to do more, but I think a lot of this stuff is slow-build, long-term in nature. It’s cumulative rather than immediate.

I’m really impressed with these authors who write so many books and also manage to do so much promotion. When do they sleep? I would snap completely. I feel like a total slacker, so I’m trying to be better about sticking to a good working schedule and limiting breaks during the workday.

This is why it would be terrible for me to go back to a day job. A regular full day’s work would be draining, especially if I was still trying to write on the side. But I have to sell more books if I want to avoid that fate, so I’m trying to put in the work.

writing life, Books

Little Habits

For another entry in the “life hacks” and productivity category, I recently read a book that may prove to be life-changing, Small Move, Big Change, by Caroline L. Arnold. The premise of the book is that we generally fail at big goals like New Year’s resolutions because they’re too big and vague. You’ll have more success with what the author calls “microresolutions,” which are small but meaningful behavior changes. For instance, a broad resolution to get and keep the house tidy is bound to fail because there’s no sense of when or how to start, exactly what to do, or how to measure it. But you might succeed in resolving to make the bed every morning. That will make the bedroom automatically look a lot neater, and that might motivate you to do other things to tidy the bedroom. After a while, when it becomes a habit you don’t have to think about anymore, you could start a new microresolution, like putting away the laundry right after you do it instead of letting it pile up in a chair. Over time, all those new little habits will add up to accomplishing that big-picture goal.

It’s hardly earthshattering stuff. I wrote a radio feature years ago with a psychiatrist’s tips for sticking to resolutions that included making the goal small enough to achieve and measurable, but the way it’s phrased in this book clicked with me, and the author offers a lot of tips for making it work.

One suggestion she has is to create a mental message that goes with the habit, something you think to yourself to motivate you to do it. For the bed making resolution, you might remind yourself how much you’re going to like coming home to a neatly made bed or how nice it will be at bedtime. It also helps to have a cue to trigger the behavior you’d like to turn into a habit. Tying it to another habit you already have makes it easier to create a new habit. You might make the bed when you get dressed. You can remember “dress yourself, dress the bed.” The resolution may take some fine-tuning to figure out exactly the action to take, the cue, or the message you tell yourself, as well as spotting any obstacles that make the behavior harder. It may turn out that your reluctance to make the bed every day is because you’ve got an elaborate “bedscape” involving layers of coverlets and a complicated arrangement of throw pillows. Switching that out for a comforter and pillow shams so that making the bed is quicker and easier might make you more likely to make the bed.

She also gets into how to find the behavior that will have the most impact. The example she gave from her own life was her desire to get to work on time more consistently. She had to analyze her morning routine to figure out where the trouble spots were, and she figured out that one of her biggest problems was at the train station. She often had to dig in her bag for her fare card, then she didn’t know how much money was on it, so she’d have to check, and then she often had to add money to it for the morning ride, but the credit card readers on the ticket machines were generally not working, so she’d have to scrounge for cash to add just enough for one trip. Meanwhile, she’d miss a train and have to wait for the next one, which made her late. After some trial and error to figure out what would make this go better, she ended up keeping a separate fare card just for the morning commute, which she kept in a special coin purse so she could find it easily. Every Friday before she left the station on the way home, she’d add enough money to it to cover the next week’s morning rides, and she carried enough cash in the coin purse to pay for that. Once she started being able to go right to the turnstiles every morning, she stopped being late to work.

The second half of the book is a lot of specific examples covering some of the bigger resolution categories, like diet, exercise, communication, and organization.

By the time I’d finished reading the first few chapters, I’d enthusiastically made a long list of microresolutions, but then I got to the part where it says to do no more than two at a time because that’s all the willpower your brain really has. Focus on those two, and when they become habit, you can add two more. It takes three to eight (or more) weeks to really develop a habit, depending on how frequently you do a behavior and how big a change it is for you.

I narrowed my resolutions down to an easy one and an important one. The easy one involves the “nest” that tends to develop on my sofa. That’s where I sit to read the newspaper, work crossword puzzles, do knitting or embroidery, brainstorm or outline books, read, etc. I end up with piles of books, papers, notebooks, newspapers, and craft supplies on the sofa, which makes the whole living room look messy. I resolved to totally clear off and reset the sofa before I go to bed every night. There will be nothing left on the sofa — books on the coffee table or end table, newspapers in the recycling stack, craft projects put away — and I’ll straighten the pillows and the throw I keep on the sofa. To encourage myself to do it, I tell myself that it will be so nice to come into the living room in the morning and see it looking neat. The first day was the most difficult, when I had a lot more stuff to put away, but it’s been pretty easy since then, and after three weeks I think it’s become enough of a habit that I’ve taken on a new resolution, to clean up all the dishes from dinner right after dinner — load the dishwasher and wash anything from cooking that has to be hand-washed. I tend to let things pile up in the sink to the point that I can’t fit everything in the dishwasher once I finally get around to loading it. It’s only been a few days, but it’s going well so far. Again, day one was more difficult, but since then there’s less to do and I love coming into the kitchen in the morning and not seeing dirty dishes.

The important one involves work productivity and avoiding distractions, mostly social media and e-mail. I had a bad habit from back in my day job days of checking e-mail as soon as I got on the computer, since e-mail was a big part of my work, and I kept doing that once I started freelancing, then social media got attached to e-mail since that’s also communication related to my work. I might end up reading e-mail and social media and then realize it was lunchtime. A few years ago, I started writing before I go online, since e-mail first thing in the morning is less important to my work now. I formalized that as a resolution to not go online until 10:30. That’s worked pretty well, and I may need to add to that and not answer the phone during my peak working time because that also kills my productivity for the day. I’m still fine tuning what to do about the afternoon, trying to find the right schedule to follow or the right approach. A lot of it is a procrastination tactic, or else the way I take “breaks” when I get stuck, so I need to think of a way to deal with this. I do need to check e-mail after lunch, since that’s when the people I usually deal with for business tend to get back to me about things, so I need to find a way to do that without getting sucked into the rest of it. I think my next tactic will be a designated time for online stuff other than e-mail, and maybe a list of things that must be done before I check social media or any other online stuff that’s likely to eat up a lot of time.

Just a few weeks after I started reading this book I already have a visible difference in my house and a good boost in my writing productivity, so it seems to be working. The question will be whether or not it will stick once the initial enthusiasm wears off. The book is a quick and easy read and even pretty entertaining, so look for it at your library if you’re looking for ways to make changes that work.

Heat Wave News Updates

I’ve got a few little news updates:

I must have enough distance from my February of murders nearby to be able to write mystery again because my brain decided to dredge up the book I was working on while watching the crime scene outside my house and nag me to get back to it, so I have. I’m hoping to get it done and published sometime this fall. I need to get justice for that fictional victim.

As far as I know, they haven’t solved the murder that took place just outside my house, but not long after that incident in which a young man was shot while driving, another young man was found shot in his car on that same street about five blocks away. They didn’t say anything about any possible connection, but of course my brain is spinning. I may use the idea of the “death street,” but maybe make it even more mysterious and it’s not gunshot wounds, just people being found dead in their cars on that one stretch of road. I don’t know what the cause of death would be yet. This is just the germ of an idea that struck me this morning.

I was hoping to get another writing video posted this week, but we’re having a bad heat wave, and they’ve asked us to conserve power. It gets really hot where I have my video setup in my office, which is upstairs, essentially in the attic, and the fans I use to stay comfortable would be too noisy for video, plus all the lights I need for video during the time of day when I also get good natural light use power and make it even hotter in there. So I may wait until they give the all-clear on the power emergency. I really don’t want the power grid to crash again — I think it would be even worse in 104-degree weather than in freezing weather because at least when it was cold I could bundle up — so I’m trying to do my part. It’s supposed to only be 100 this weekend, so maybe I can pull some stuff together then. I’ve got the videos planned and scripts written. The trick is filming without dying of heat exhaustion.

I’m still working on a new fantasy project, but finding just the right tone for it has been something of a struggle. I may have to get a couple of books written before I can be sure how it’s going to go and then revise accordingly, so that probably won’t be ready to launch until next year. That may be what sparked my brain to return to the mystery book so I can get something published this year.

Meanwhile, I’ve had some readers asking about the Enchanted, Inc. short stories in print form. Those are so short that even if you combined the two, it would just be a pamphlet. But the Japanese publisher is doing a volume of those short pieces plus the one I’m using as a free giveaway if you subscribe to my newsletter and one I wrote for them so they’d have enough to make a book. So now I have an additional novelette. If I write one or two more short pieces, I might have enough to have a collection of stories that I could publish as a paperback book. Is there some aspect of the Enchanted, Inc. universe you’d like to see a story about? I have a list of things I could write about, but I’m curious what readers would like to see — behind the scenes stories, prequels, adventures of secondary characters? The new one I wrote for Japan is about Owen and Rod in college.

I’m actually getting a fair amount of writing done while I’m huddled next to a fan and seeing a forecast of 99 as looking like a cold snap. There’s not much else to do when it’s this hot.