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Learning Month

My focus for February appears to be education because there are a lot of things going on in that space for me this month.

I’m going to be taking an online seminar later this month, and I think this one even has homework. It’s a look at figuring out processes and productivity.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite features about Prime Video is that in their “shows to sample this month” feature, they usually offer at least one of the Great Courses programs. They have professors who are known for a particular topic and who have been recognized as good teachers essentially present their classes. It’s a semester’s worth of lectures, usually about 24 half-hour lectures per course. What’s offered on Prime is meant as a teaser preview so you’ll subscribe to the whole Great Courses channel and get all the courses you want, all the time. I enjoy watching these when I get one of the free ones, but not enough to want to subscribe, and I can get some of them through my library, so I just plow through the preview course that’s offered each month. It’s fun to get to hear the lectures without having to worry about taking tests or writing papers, like auditing a university class. Most of the ones I watch are history-related. So far, I’ve studied things like the Black Death, England between the Roman Empire and the Norman Conquest, ancient civilizations in North America, the history of pirates, and Norse mythology. This month, they have two interesting courses, one on Charlemagne and the other on the history of anti-slavery movements. So I’ve got a lot of lectures to watch before the end of the shortest month of the year. I often use these as background noise, just absorbing the information rather than intently taking notes, unless there’s something that gives me an idea for a book I’m working on or a story idea. I keep a notebook handy in case something strikes me while I’m listening. I also jot down any references when a book they mention sounds interesting.

At the same time, I’ve been doing Neil Gaiman’s Master Class on writing, which is available through one of the streaming services my library offers. I can only get so many videos per month, though, so it’s taken me a few months to get through all the videos. I should finish that this month.

And that’s not counting all the books and other online lectures on writing and publishing. I should emerge from this month a lot smarter, or at least somewhat better informed.

Back to the Grindstone

I’m more or less back to normal after the holidays. I’ve put away the decorations, though I’m sure I’ll be finding artificial pine needles from the garlands I put on my loft and stair railings in strange places for the next few months. I’ve eaten the holiday leftovers, aside from the last few cookies. (We won’t talk about all the chocolate I bought in the post-holiday clearance sale.) I’ve even mostly returned to my normal schedule after taking a couple of weeks off. And it’s exhausting.

It’s not as though I drastically changed the way I spent my days while I was taking time off. I just wasn’t trying to think. Now my brain is trying to catch up and remember how to think properly. It’s like trying to run after staying on the couch for months, even though it was only a couple of weeks.

I tried easing back into work by rereading the book up to where I left off, and from there I had a couple of days of revising the last couple of chapters, since I changed my mind about what would be happening there and I needed to fix it before I moved forward. I finally got to writing new additional words yesterday. Now it’s full speed ahead, but I will probably collapse soon.

Fortunately, I didn’t forget the changes I wanted to make. The story’s still there in my head. It’s just putting it into words that’s been weirdly difficult this week. It may not have helped that I got back into a regular exercise routine this week, too. That will eventually give me more energy, but for the first week or two it just makes me more tired. I’m so glad it’s the weekend. I need to recover!

But I should finish this draft of this book midway through this month. I like what I’ve written so far, story-wise. The words themselves need a lot of polishing, but I’ll worry about that once I have the story down.

Happy Friday!

I can’t believe it’s Friday already. It’s been a busy week. I’ve made a good start on writing a new book, scheduled my annual check-up, proofed most of another book, bought groceries, and done a ton of book-related research.

As a result, I have zero brainpower right now. I haven’t been able to think of anything to post about. My recent reading has been the middle of series I’ve already mentioned or else is book research. My movie viewing has been a series that I haven’t finished watching, so I’m not ready to discuss it and don’t have much to say about it.

So I’ll just say happy Friday, enjoy the weekend, and vote on Tuesday if you’re an eligible voter in the US. Don’t waste the power you’ve been given.

End of an Era

As an American who’s something of an Anglophile, I’m struck by the loss of Queen Elizabeth. It shouldn’t have been a shock, given that she was 96 and lost her husband last year (in fact, I was kind of expecting her to die sooner because people in that age range who’ve lost a long-time spouse tend to go pretty quickly afterward), but at the same time, she somehow seemed eternal so it’s a bit shocking that she’s suddenly gone. I’m not really a royalist, just the Masterpiece Theatre breed of Anglophile who likes visiting castles, but I’m oddly fascinated by the idea of royalty because I don’t really understand it, and when I don’t understand something, I study it to try to make sense of it.

I think my first awareness of Queen Elizabeth was from her Silver Jubilee when I was a little kid. I have a metal box I kept my “treasures” in, and I pasted pictures I cut out of magazines on it. There’s a picture from the Silver Jubilee on it. But my first real impression of her came from reading Anne Frank’s diary. She talked about wishing that the pretty Princess Elizabeth could be queen and seemed to think that would make things better. I put that together with the picture pasted on my box, and it turned her into a real person for me. Even now, I remember the way Anne Frank talked about her when I hear about her.

I had a friend in junior high who was really into the royals, and I think that was why I bothered getting up early to watch Charles and Diana’s wedding. Then it became something of a habit, so I’ve watched all the major royal weddings since then. I also watched Prince Philip’s funeral, just for historical purposes. I had a degree of separation from him, since I’ve met the woman whose wedding his sisters were going to when they were killed in a plane crash (she was married to a German grand duke in the area near where we lived, and my class got to visit her house on a field trip. She showed us around and served us sparkling cider and cookies on the terrace). So now I’ll be watching this funeral and coronation, since it is history.

It’ll be weird for England to have a king again after so long with a queen. I have some British money from my last trip. I didn’t exchange it back because I was hoping to travel again soon (alas, life had other plans), and now I suppose it’s a collector’s item. I wonder how long it’ll be considered valid before they phase out the Elizabeth money and transition to Charles money.

My condolences to those who are mourning, and I’m aware that there are a lot of people in the Commonwealth and former empire who have very mixed feelings. I think most of my feelings are about the end of an era. She was a constant in the world. The leadership of most nations has changed over and over again, and Queen Elizabeth was always there. Now even that’s changed.

As a fantasy writer, I wrestle with the idea of royalty. It’s sort of baked into the standard old-school fantasy and fairy tales, but the idea that this person is the best one to rule you because their parent was the ruler still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. As I’ve said, look at the Habsburgs, especially in Spain at the height of the inbreeding effects, and can you really think that these people are superior? That was a lot of the spark behind my Rebels books, coming up with a real reason why this class of people is considered superior—they have magic, and they make a lot of effort to keep it within their class so they’ll stay special. In some of the books I’m developing, I’ve tried to come up with other ways of choosing rulers or I’m looking at the weaknesses in that kind of system.

Holiday Weekend

I finished the first draft of Lucky Lexie 8, which is a Christmas book, yesterday, and since it’s the Labor Day holiday weekend, I’m taking a long weekend. Every finished draft deserves a day off. It’s going to be rainy off and on this weekend, so I’m planning on a lot of tea and reading. See you next week!

Nearing the End

I’m in the writing phase when I’m close enough to the end of the book that I have an extra surge of adrenaline and want to keep plowing ahead while everything else falls by the wayside. In a way, that’s good because it means the book gets written, but it also means that I emerge blinking from the book haze after typing “the end” and notice the piles of dishes and laundry, as well as all the administrative tasks that have fallen by the wayside.

I’ve given myself permission not to worry too much about all that. At my current pace, and with the amount of story I have left, I should finish this draft this week, and then I can relax during the Labor Day weekend before catching up on all the other work I need to get done.

I have figured out that maybe writing two books in a series back-to-back without much of a break in between is a bad idea. By the end of the second one, I find myself wanting to write anything other than these people. I can seldom read two books in a series back-to-back without wanting to abandon the second book midway through, so it makes sense that I’d be the same way with writing.

So, I’ve figured out that I generally need to be writing something. I can take about a week off, but I need to mix a little writing in when I’m doing other tasks, like editing or proofreading or promotion. But I can’t write two books in the same series back-to-back. I don’t know how those people who have something like thirty books in a long-running series do it. Most of those people are working in romance, so they have different main characters with each book, and that may help. Or there are people like Terry Pratchett, who was mostly writing in the same universe, so it’s technically all part of the same series, but there are miniseries within that universe, so he was dealing with different aspects of that world and different characters. I don’t think he did two books on the same topic in a row. He seemed to rotate among the guards, the wizards, the witches, Death, etc.

For next year’s writing, I think I’m going to be better about planning what I’m going to be working on and setting deadlines so that I can space out my work and the tasks I need to do instead of getting into weird crunches like I tend to have. I’m bad about going on a whim and not setting deadlines for myself. Which is weird because I make plans for fun. You’d think I’d do that for my work.

And now I have a couple thousand more words I want to write today. My heroine is about to carry out a madcap plan for catching the bad guy.

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.

Starting to Write

I said previously that although I’d been making up stories in my head my whole life, it didn’t occur to me to write them down until I was nearly thirteen. But I did start writing before that. The first time I recall writing something and thinking it was fun was in fourth grade. The teacher put a picture on the board and told us to write something about it. I don’t remember much about it, but there were kids sitting around a candle, and something about it really sparked my imagination. When the allotted time for the assignment was over, I had pages of the beginning of a real story. The teacher saw what I was doing and let me finish it at home and turn it in later. I think the idea was to just write a paragraph or two describing the scene, and I ended up writing a mystery or ghost story. I did my usual short story thing of it spiraling out of control, pacing it as though I was writing a novel, until I just ended it abruptly. I remember having to do some handwaving and one of those “and they solved the mystery” endings just so I could turn it in.

I also remember reading a non-fiction book from the library about starting a family newspaper, and I spent some time trying to write the news. I was writing for fun, but it still didn’t occur to me to write down the stories that were in my head. In sixth grade, we had journals we had to keep in class. When we got to class in the morning, we had to pick up our spiral notebook from a box (mine had The Muppet Show on the cover) and write a page from the prompt on the board. I loved this assignment and had a lot of fun with it. I liked writing assignments in school.

I finally had the “I could write my mental stories down and have a book” realization between sixth and seventh grades when a friend and I were playing Star Wars, running around in the woods, and I told her about the original character I’d made up and had been making up stories about all along. Something about telling her flipped a switch and made me realize that I was writing stories, and I could write them down and share them with people.

The problem was that what I had wasn’t actually stories. I had characters, a situation, and a bunch of moments involving my characters. I realized this once I started writing stuff down. I had all the backstory and worldbuilding, but no actual story. I managed to write a first chapter, but had no idea where to go with it next. Mostly, I ended up making a lot of drawings of the clothes the characters would wear and the floor plans for the place where the characters lived.

We moved soon after that, and when we got to the new place we got all the stuff that had been in storage while we were overseas. In that stuff was an old manual typewriter, and I taught myself to type on it. I got good at the letter characters, but I still come to a screeching halt when it comes to numbers and symbols because that was where I stopped with the how-to-type book I used. Once I could type words, I was off and running. I typed out a bunch of first chapters of potential books, from science fiction to spy thrillers, and they all had that same problem: they were a situation and characters, not a story. This was a problem I didn’t solve until I was out of college and got truly serious about writing. I made a few stabs at writing short stories and I did a lot of worldbuilding, but I didn’t have anything that was anywhere near close to complete.

I don’t think this was wasted time, though. I learned a lot about creating characters and worlds in all those spiral notebooks I filled with writing about the stories I wanted to write. I wrote scenes and got good at stringing words together. I worked on the school newspaper in high school and competed in journalism writing contests. I majored in journalism in college, and I was still scribbling story ideas and notes in spiral notebooks. I took courses that I thought would be useful for when I became a writer. But I still didn’t know how to write a book or even a short story. That would come later.

Life vs. Fiction

I think events of the past few years have killed a lot of popular plots for fiction. Maybe they were never actually realistic, but we could at least believe them. Now, I’m not sure they’d work anymore without a lot of adjustments or explanations of what the specific circumstances are that make them work.

First, there’s the “get the message out/publicly reveal the villain’s crimes” plot. In this one, our plucky band of heroes finds out about the villain’s wrongdoing and overcomes all the odds to spread the word far and wide, leading to the villain’s downfall. Or they might step up in a public forum with the key evidence that reveals the villain’s wrongdoing. Or they might trick the villain into saying the quiet part out loud, so that they rant about their evil scheme or say what they really think while on an open microphone, on the air, or in some other way that people can hear it.

Of course, as soon as the people hear this, it brings the villain down. The evil regime is overthrown, the villain loses all status, or the people rise up and make the villain account for his crimes. Good prevails!

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago when Arnold Schwarzenegger recorded his video aimed at the people of Russia about how their government is lying to them about Ukraine, and I allowed myself a moment of fantasizing about the people rising up and removing Putin from power. Then I realized how unlikely that was. The misdeeds of a lot of “villain” type people around the world are pretty well-known, and it doesn’t seem to affect their popularity or power. The realistic response to the heroes getting the message out would be for maybe some people who already didn’t like the villain to get angry and for everyone else to either not believe it or not care because they like some of the things the villain is doing or are getting something out of the villain’s regime. Odds are that all that effort to get the message out would end up coming to nothing.

It might work on a smaller level if the people hearing the message were victims of the villain and this information reveals that he was the one behind it, and if they had the power to actually do something. But on a larger scale, odds are that nothing would come of it.

Which brings me to the other popular plot: The evil overlord has been overthrown or killed, so we’re all free and there’s dancing in the streets.

The problem with this is that an evil overlord doesn’t get to be an evil overlord without having a critical mass of people in critical positions supporting him. I suppose if magic’s involved it might work. If the villain created a magical army or used magic to force his army to fight for him, then if he died the army would either dissipate or wake up and stop fighting. But otherwise, if the evil overlord is killed, likely someone else would step into his place, and there would still be plenty of true believers in positions of power to keep things going. The police force and military would still be out there enforcing the laws, and there would likely be plenty of people who benefited from the rule of the evil overlord who wouldn’t be happy about his death and wouldn’t want things to change. You don’t get into power or stay in power if no one else supports you and unless there’s been a massive war that wiped out all those supporters, those supporters would keep the regime going with a new leader.

I know a lot of Star Wars fans were mad that the sequels seemed to undo everything accomplished in the original trilogy, with yet another Empire-like organization to fight, but that was actually pretty realistic. What was less realistic was the stuff added to the end of Return of the Jedi in the special editions showing all the dancing in the streets. That might have happened in some of the places that were subjugated by the Empire, but in Coruscant, the capital, where people had it good, odds are they wouldn’t have been happy about the end of the Empire. A lot of the rank and file Stormtroopers might have been conscripts by the time of the rebellion, but there were probably still a lot of clones who’d been brainwashed to support the Empire. Then there were all the governors and officers and other elites who benefited from Imperial rule. Killing the Emperor and losing his henchman wouldn’t have changed society that much. There would have been a ton of clean-up work and re-education to do in order to completely rebuild society. And even then, a generation or so later you’d likely have people who didn’t experience the bad parts romanticizing the past and trying to revive it, working alongside the people who remembered it and liked it. That 37-year timeline for the rise of a new Empire-like regime is pretty realistic. Thirty years seems to be about the average between the fall of one totalitarian regime and the rise of the next one.

It seems like there are some interesting stories to be told about the aftermath of taking out the evil overlord, the people who have to go in and dismantle all the stuff surrounding the overlord, deal with the power structure, and convince the people that there was a problem with their leadership, but we seldom get that part of the story. It’s just, kill the Emperor, we’re free, the end.

Winter is Coming

We have the start of a winter event (now apparently even a named winter storm) kicking in. Supposedly, it won’t be like the one last year that had the whole state frozen and without electricity for days. At the very least, it will be below freezing for a much shorter amount of time, so even if the state’s power grid fails, it shouldn’t be too miserable and there should be less worry about frozen pipes and that sort of thing.

The rain is supposedly going to start this afternoon as the temperatures drop (it’s already getting colder, but no rain yet), and by tonight it’s supposed to be below freezing, so we’ll get ice. We so seldom get pretty snow, the kind of thing where you watch the flakes dance in the air as they fall. We get freezing rain and sleet, which aren’t pretty either to watch or when they’re on the ground, where they make travel hazardous. You can learn to drive on snow, but driving on ice, especially sleet on top of ice, is pretty much impossible.

I did the emergency grocery run yesterday. I wouldn’t have had to go out at all, but I’d have run out of milk on Saturday, and the weekend after a storm is usually even worse than a couple of days before the storm, even if the roads are clear by then. So, I’ve stocked up on milk, bread (something else I was running low on), plus picked up some cheese (for a meal that doesn’t require cooking) and a package of cookies (I had a coupon for a free package, and I learned last year not to count on being able to spend the time baking).

Since last year, I’ve picked up a camping lantern and a tea warmer that uses candles. I’ve got batteries for my flashlights and radio. I’ll need to be sure to charge my phone and tablet. I’ve done laundry, so I’ve got my warm clothes clean. The dishwasher is running now, and I’ve got a loaf of fruit and nut bread (something I can eat for breakfast without needing to toast it) rising to bake this afternoon. I’ll make a pot of tea tonight and put it in a thermos, since doing that last year really helped. It was nice to have something warm to drink on a cold morning when I had no power.

But I’m going to hope we just have a cold, icy day when I can make soup, maybe bake something, and spend the day under the electric blanket as I dream up a new story world and make some characters come to life.