Posts Tagged ‘books’

writing life

Origins and Influences: Children’s Fantasy

Earlier this year, I started a series of posts about the works that influenced me, that inspired me to write or to want that kind of story and that have probably shaped what I write now. There were fairy tales and musical theater, girl sleuths and Star Wars. And then I got sidetracked and forgot to continue the series. So, back on track!

In addition to Star Wars, my fourth-grade year also introduced me to a lot of children’s fantasy. My teacher used to read a chapter of a book to us every day after we came in from recess. It was a great way to get everyone settled down again. She’d turn off the lights, so we just had the sunlight coming in through a wall of windows, and we’d sit at our desks (with our heads down if we wanted) while she read. I think that was my first introduction to fantasy. I don’t remember all the books she read, but I do know she read us The Hobbit. It was around the time the animated TV version came out, and they sent the schools a lot of curriculum material to go with it.

She also read us the Roald Dahl books, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and the Great Glass Elevator, the sequel) and James and the Giant Peach. I believe she also read us some of the E.B. White books, including The Mouse and the Motorcycle and The Trumpet of the Swan.

Of course, I wasn’t at all satisfied with the chapter-a-day pace, so if I got into a book she’d started reading us, I’d check it out of the library and read the whole thing right away, then go find everything else by that author. That’s why it’s hard for me to remember exactly which books she read — the ones read in class blur with the ones I sought out on my own after hearing the beginning of a book in class.

It was around this time that I first started getting the itch to write my own stories. I’d always been making up stories in my head, and I sometimes even thought in narrative, but I started wanting to try to write them down, and the books I was reading made me want to tell stories like that. I remember my first attempt coming from an assignment in that class, when we were supposed to write a story about a picture the teacher showed us. I think all she really expected was a paragraph or two, a page at most, but mine spiraled out of control. I had backstory for all the people in the picture and a full plot. I was nowhere near done with it when it was time to hand it in, but after I showed my start to the teacher, she let me take as long as I needed to finish it. Nearly a week later, I handed in something that was probably close to novella length, and I could have gone on but I wrapped things up fairly abruptly because I figured I was pushing it to take that long to turn in a classroom assignment.

I’d always been drawn to fantasy-related things, and there had been a phase in which I’d check any book with “witch” in the title out of the library, since Bewitched syndicated reruns were the most popular TV show among the neighborhood girls, but this was when I started exploring other kinds of fantasy beyond witch stories and fairy tales.

Books

Recent Reading: Spinning Silver

I haven’t done a recent reading/book report post in a while, but I have a cool one today because it’s about a book that’s releasing today. I got an advance copy and managed to actually read it before it was released, which is rather different for me (I didn’t read my advance copy of A Game of Thrones until after the first season of the TV series).

The book is Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. It’s a standalone (at least, so far) fantasy novel with Russian/Eastern European influences, playing off the Rumpelstiltskin story. Only, in this case, the one who turns things into gold is our heroine, the daughter of a moneylender, who notes that the fairy tale is a story about someone who made a deal and carried out his end of it being cheated. Her father’s not a very good moneylender, since he hates to ask for payment, and therefore everyone in town is cheating him and the family is poor. Fed up with going hungry, his daughter pulls together the account ledgers and starts collecting debts. Then she invests the income and makes a profit, turning the silver coins she collects into gold pieces. At one point, she boasts of her ability to turn silver into gold … and the wrong person hears it, and takes it literally.

This story is interwoven with the story of the girl whose father can’t pay his debt to the moneylender, so she’s working it off in service to the moneylender’s family — and finds that this is the best thing to ever happen to her as she finds a family happier than her own. And then there’s the young noblewoman forced to marry the cruel young tsar, who turns out to have something terribly wrong with him that she might be able to do something about.

As you may have noticed, I love fairy tale retellings and new stories that feel like old fairy tales, and this is a bit of both. It’s magical and atmospheric, and you can almost imagine someone telling you this story by the fire on a cold winter night.

Winter is actually a big part of the story, as the magical folk (very fae-like) have created an eternal winter. That’s one of the things our heroines have to deal with. I imagine this book would be nice to read while snuggled under a blanket with a hot cup of tea or cocoa, but it was also nice to read on a hot early summer day, when the descriptions of snow piling high made me feel a little colder.

There’s a touch of romance in a couple of the stories, but very slow build (so just right for me). I wanted to see how it ended but didn’t want it to end.

If you read her earlier Uprooted (one of the books that benefited from my Nebula good-luck charm, as she was sitting next to me when she won), this is along those lines, but is an entirely different story, possibly in a different world.

So, go find it. I really liked this one.

Figuring Out Success

I mentioned that book I just read about analyzing conventional wisdom about success. It’s called Barking up the Wrong Tree and is by Eric Barker, who also has a blog on the topic.

This is an interesting book to read if you’re trying to optimize your life, looking for ways to improve your career, get more done, or are just interested in human nature. I’m pretty much all of the above. It’s essentially a Mythbusters of success and motivation, except instead of doing crazy experiments, he looks up actual research studies.

One of the sections that intrigued me most was on dreaming and visualization. One of the big pop culture things about success over the past dozen or so years has been visualization, with the idea that visualizing yourself having the thing that you want will somehow magically bring it about. You hear terms like “manifesting.” Even if you’re not going so far as to believe that just thinking about something will make it happen, there’s the idea that visualizing yourself having what you want and seeing what your idea of success will look like when it happens is motivating.

It turns out that it’s the opposite. Research has found that visualization is actually de-motivating because it tricks your brain into thinking you’re already there, so you’re less likely to be motivated to work toward getting that thing. You feel like you’ve already received the reward, so you have less energy for going after it.

What does work is turning that dream into a plan. If you have a thing that you’re dreaming of having or doing, then you need to get specific about the exact outcome you really want. Then think of what you have to overcome to get it and come up with a plan to address that. Going through this process instead of just picturing the end result is more likely to energize you to go after that thing — unless the thing you want is unreasonable, and then you’ll lose motivation, which makes it a good test of your dream.

There’s also stuff about how turning steps of a plan into a game makes you more likely to carry out that plan and how to go about networking in a way that doesn’t come across like you’re trying to use people.

The other interesting takeaway is about finding a balance between overconfidence and lack of confidence. Being really confident can help you be effective because you go after things and stick with them, but that can also make you a jerk and make you blind to your own weaknesses. Having less confidence makes you work harder to improve, but makes you feel bad and may make others see you as less competent. The balance is “self compassion,” which is recognizing your faults, but forgiving yourself. See yourself accurately but don’t judge yourself harshly.

His blog looks pretty interesting, with a lot of lists of books to read or items from research on various topics.

And now, a key part of my plan to achieve my dream of publishing world domination is to spend more time writing, so off I go to work on my book.

TV

Going Postal on TV

I made the dangerous discovery that if there’s something I’d like to watch, I can run a search on the Roku and see if it’s streaming anywhere. I’d found last week that some of the TV adaptations of Terry Pratchett books were available with Amazon Prime, but not the one I hadn’t already seen, Going Postal. It’s not even available to buy/rent on Amazon. Just out of curiosity, I ran the Roku search and found that it’s on one of the free TV apps. So, now I’ve had a chance to watch it.

I heard a lot of complaints when it was on British TV, but it really wasn’t bad at all. The book was still better, but that’s a big “Duh!” I thought the casting was excellent (Charles Dance was born to play Vetinari), and it was interesting seeing some of these things come to life, like the way they depicted the Clacks. There’s a bit of a steampunk aesthetic in the setting, technology, and costumes. The special effects are a bit on the cheap side, and the low budget is occasionally obvious, but I don’t think that ruins the overall effect. I would love to see some of these adaptations done with a decent budget, and since I’m sure there’s a big audience for them, I’m not sure why they’ve all been so cheap.

That’s one of my favorite Pratchett books, in part because it was my first, but in part because it’s such a satisfying redemption story, about a con artist who gets caught but gets another chance. At first, he’s scheming for himself, but then he starts to see the impact his crimes had on people and he actually starts thinking about a greater good. He finds ways to use his talents to the benefit of others, not just himself, and that ends up benefiting himself. And that’s all done without getting sappy or sanctimonious.

I don’t know if I’d want to watch this again, so I don’t know about looking for the DVD, but I was so glad I found it to stream. I liked the adaptation of Hogfather, though it, too, suffered from being a bit cheap. The Colour of Magic was kind of a mess, though. It’s pretty much impossible to do that story on a low budget, and that meant a lot of the good stuff was cut out.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Girl Sleuths

I’m still discussing some of my origins and influences — the things that played a big role in me becoming the writer I am today.

My musical theater phase never really ended, though I did sort of eventually grow out of putting on dress-up clothes and acting out my own stories to soundtracks (now I just put together a playlist and write the book that goes with it). But then I got to the point I could read novels, and I devoured them. I don’t recall paying much attention to authors or genres. I didn’t really think about types of books. It was all about subject to me. For instance, there was the horse phase, during which I’d go down the shelves in the library, checking out any book with anything to do with a horse in the title or a horse on the cover.

Or there was the witches phase, which ended up leading me to Nancy Drew. The witch phase came in second and third grade and mostly had to do with the TV series Bewitched. I moved to a new neighborhood in the summer before second grade, and I noticed that although there were plenty of kids to play with in the neighborhood during the day, the streets got strangely empty after dinner, even though it was still light outside and we didn’t have to be home until the streetlights came on. Eventually, people would come outside again. I learned when I tried to make plans to play outside after dinner with one of my friends that this was when Bewitched came on (in syndicated reruns), in the slot between the local news and prime-time programming. Apparently, this was mandatory viewing for girls in my neighborhood. I got sucked into it, and soon was joining my friends in trying to wiggle my nose to make things happen. That made me want to read books about witches, so I went down the library shelves, reading anything with “witch” or “magic” in the title. I don’t remember a lot of these, and I got derailed somewhat when I got to the K section and found a book called The Witch Tree Symbol. It had a spooky picture on the cover with an eerie symbol carved into an old tree.

Except, it turned out that the book wasn’t about witches at all. It was a Nancy Drew mystery taking place in Amish country, and it utterly captivated me. Not necessarily the story itself, but I wanted to be Nancy. She drove around in her sporty blue car with her best friends and had adventures. I became obsessed with Nancy Drew, reading every book I could get my hands on, from both the post library and the school library. I quickly learned, however, that I didn’t want to buy these books because the good ones were the old ones the libraries had. The new ones were different, and I didn’t like them much. Even if they were the same books reprinted, they had different illustrations that were very 70s, not at all like the 40s and 50s books.

I was far more interested in Nancy’s personal life than in the actual cases. I liked seeing her hang out with her friends, and I was intrigued by her relationship with Ned, though I didn’t understand why he went to college and she didn’t, even though she clearly wasn’t still in high school. For a while, I kept trying to find the last book, to see how things worked out, except it seemed there was no last book.

From Nancy Drew, I discovered other girl sleuths, like Trixie Belden, who was younger, and Cherry Ames, a nurse. When people talk now about needing strong girl role models in books for kids, I wonder what library they visited because I had all these people who allowed me to imagine what being an adult, or at least an older kid, would be like.

Strangely, there were fewer mysteries in adulthood than these books led me to believe.

Anyway, although these books didn’t necessarily spur me to want to write that kind of thing, I do think that intrepid girl sleuth character forms the basis for most of the heroines I write. I did make up some stories about Nancy and the others in my head, though I didn’t know what fan fiction was at the time and never wrote any of them down. I think I also did some mental “Mary Sue” stories, in which I imagined that kind of adventure with me (or a version of me) as the heroine.

And I’m not sure I ever got around to the “witch” books that came after the Ks.

My Books

The Story Behind the Holiday Story

Holiday movie season is now in full swing, which means I feel a lot less inappropriate about promoting my holiday novella, though I haven’t actually started watching the holiday movies yet. My DVR is filling up, though, so there will have to be a binge at some point.

So, anyway, I have a holiday novella that’s on sale now. You can get more info and the sales links here.

Twice Upon a Christmas cover

Hallmark gets all the press for these now, and it’s become such a thing for them that they start showing non-stop Christmas movies before Thanksgiving and even show some during the summer, but even before they made themselves the Christmas movie channel, there were others doing it (and doing it better).

The first one I can recall that fit the mold of “romantic comedy set at Christmas” rather than the kinds of movies that are more directly about Christmas — the Santa Claus movies, various versions of A Christmas Carol, etc. — was on the Family Channel (which has gone through a lot of names and owners over the years and is now known as Freeform) during the 90s. It was called The Christmas List and starred Mimi Rogers as a department store perfume counter employee who, on a whim, made a list of silly things she wanted for Christmas, as though she was writing a letter to Santa. One of her co-workers snatched it away from her and put it in the mailbox for letters to Santa — and then all her wishes started coming true in strange ways. One of the wishes coming true made her path cross a widowed doctor with a kid. I really loved this movie. It had all the pretty Christmas setting stuff, and the plot did tie into the holiday, but it had a lot of thought-provoking stuff in it, like how we sometimes don’t do a lot to go after the things we want. That was what was interesting, how getting some of her wishes gave her the courage to start taking steps on her own. Unfortunately, I don’t think this movie has ever been released on DVD, but it sometimes shows up on TV during the holidays (but beware: there’s an inferior Hallmark movie with the same title), and at one point it was on YouTube (I don’t know if it still is).

Then Lifetime got into the game, and they did a bunch of these — fairly low-budget, mostly filmed in Canada (so you recognize all those actors from various science fiction shows). I think the Lifetime ones tend to be more urban, compared to Hallmark’s glorification of small towns. Now Lifetime seems to have backed off somewhat and ceded the territory to Hallmark. Freeform’s barely in the game (though my favorite movies all seem to have been on whatever incarnation of that channel).

When I decided to write my own holiday movie, I think it was before I got Hallmark on my cable system, so I was going more on the Lifetime/Family model, which is a little urban and maybe a bit edgier while still counting as “sweet.” I’m not sure Hallmark would have wanted this story, but it would have been a perfect fit for Lifetime or Family back in the day. I tried to stick with the formula of what I saw. The plot was loosely based on a familiar story or movie — in this case, the Sliding Doors story of seeing the different paths life could take based on a seemingly minor difference. I mixed it up by having the heroine aware of both lives and able to use what she learned in one life in the other, with her alternating days. There was a lesson to be learned. I chose music for the less secure potential life because I noticed that they frequently cast former teen actresses whose careers didn’t quite take off when they transitioned to adulthood in these things, and a lot of these actresses come from the Disney sitcom factory, where they’re required to also do some kind of singing. I figured the role would be appealing to an actress with singing talent. Plus, that was around the time the first Pitch Perfect movie was really big, so there was more awareness of a capella singing, and I thought that would resonate. There was even a chance of doing a spin-off single to be released for radio airplay if the lead actress had any background there. There’s a group around here that specializes in Christmas caroling in Victorian attire and is booked solid during this time of year. I’ve heard some of their stories about having to get to events in hoopskirts, and I thought that would give the seasonal tie while also providing some fun visuals. Meanwhile, I noticed that there was always a role for an “elder statesman” type actor, usually someone who was really big in a sitcom during the 80s and whose career has leveled off since then, so I wrote that kind of role (basically, you can imagine that Tilly in my story is played by Shelley Long).

Unfortunately, right around the time I finished writing my screenplay, Hallmark really took off with these movies and the other networks mostly gave up, producing only one or two new ones a year. I wasn’t sure mine was a good fit for Hallmark — they haven’t used music as much as the other networks have, it’s in an urban setting, and it’s implied that the hero and heroine do more than kiss before the end. I also wasn’t sure I wanted to try writing more of those, and there wouldn’t be much point of trying to go through the effort of finding a screenwriting agent and dealing with Hollywood for one TV movie script. And so, when I re-read it last year and found that I still really liked it, I decided to turn it into a novella. I’m always looking for something like that to read around the holiday season, and I figured others might like that, as well. Short pieces are good when you’re so busy. It’s something you can sit down and read in one sitting.

While I do enjoy these movies, I have to admit that most of the parodies I’ve seen are pretty accurate. There’s this early draft of a Hallmark movie script. And someone I know created a randomized holiday movie plot generator.

It was fun to write this. I haven’t seen how well it’s selling, so I don’t know if it would be worthwhile to write another one, but it might be something fun to do as a “break” while my house is still decorated for the holidays.

Books

Recent Reading

I’ve been so busy lately, and it’s only getting worse! Last week, I finished the book I was working on and sent it to my agent Monday. I’ve already started a new book and have written 8,000 words — all in one day. Now I want to top that number, so we’ll see what I manage to do today. Then I have an event every other weekend until November. This weekend is FenCon in the Dallas area. I have a weekend off after that, and then I’m going to the Missouri Library Association conference. I get a weekend off, and then I’m going to Necronomicon in Tampa. I get a weekend off, and then I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. Probably not the best time to start writing a new book, but I’m behind and am trying to get back on schedule. A few 8,000-word days will help.

But I have also made time for reading and discovered a new-to-me series, the Sanctuary books by Carol Berg. These are set in an Italian Renaissance-like society in which the magical people consider themselves superior to the “ordinaries” and set themselves apart to the point of having strict rules about interacting with nonmagical people. They even wear masks while in public because it’s forbidden for nonmagical people to see their faces. In the first book, Dust and Light, our hero, a young artist, finds himself suddenly demoted from his job painting portraits of the elite and sent to work for the city’s coroner, using his magical talent to paint a subject’s true self to create portraits of the dead for use in identifying them and possibly solving their murders. That’s bad enough for him, but things go downhill from there as his life is totally upended by a vast conspiracy. It seems his talent has an element he wasn’t aware of — he not only paints his subject’s true self, but things from that person’s history also tend to show up in his paintings. That means some interesting things showed up in his portraits of the elite that they would rather not be made public.

It’s hard to talk about the second book, Ash and Silver, without spoiling the first one, but it does involve one of my favorite fantasy tropes, memory loss. More specifically, the question of what would you be if you didn’t know who you were? (I’m not a fan of the more romance novel style amnesia plots, but I love it when magic is used to erase identity. Go figure.) There’s an order of magical knights, and part of their training is to have their identity and memories associated with their identity erased so that they focus on training without personal baggage like status, loyalties or history. After training, they get their memories back so they can decide whether to enter the order for good or return to their old lives. I find that a really interesting concept because it’s all about these men discovering who they really are in the course of training and choosing who they want to be.

These are definitely “put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them” books, so sometimes they got a bit intense with the hero’s suffering. I just wanted to give the poor guy a time out to rest and have a cookie and not have everyone scheming against him for maybe five minutes. So, perhaps not the best read if you’re feeling stressed and can’t deal with suffering, unless that sort of thing puts your own life in perspective. There were parts I kind of had to to read from between my fingers, and I ended up flipping to the end to make sure things would be okay before I could continue reading. On the other hand, that’s a good sign that I was invested in the character. It was fascinating watching him grow from all he endured and figure out who he could and couldn’t trust.

Apparently, these books are set in the same universe as one of her other series, so I’ll have to look for those. The worldbuilding is really intricate, and I’m intrigued by that world.

Meanwhile, I’ve found myself wondering if there’s a market for whimsical, tame, low-stress adventures for reading when you’re too stressed to deal with life-and-death sakes in fiction. There are days when I’d be all about an entire book about playing with a basket of puppies, because that’s about all the stress I can take at the end of the day.