Monday, March 31, 2008

And The Winner Is . . .

Keribrary with her suggestion about a dye job! I've given up on an amusing anecdote as an opener. No matter what I do, this story seems to want to start with an argument, so it will. And the hair color conversation at the beginning, while appearing trivial, will introduce the story's most significant conflict and be the biggest (yet still subtle) clue to whodunit until the big reveal at the end.

Ecoeclipse gets the honorable mention for the eco-guests suggestion, two of whom are important characters in this scene and throughout the book.

As Keribrary's prize, she gets to have a possibly unflattering caricature of herself written into the novel! Keri, your choice: appearance, name, personality, or the whole package. Just let me know in comments.

Thank you to all who made suggestions, especially Keri!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Play With Me?

Argh! The exposition fairy has dumped her whole bag of boring exposition dust all over my first 5 pages, and it's really hard to clean it all out.

Usually, I have lots of great first lines that go nowhere. Unusually, I currently find myself with a very good idea of where I'm going but am having trouble finding just the right way to start.

So I'm having a little contest, if you're game. Winner gets to have a character named after her or him!

Chapter 1: I'm introducing all the main characters and setting the stage for the novel's developing conflict at a dinner party. So far, in addition to a lot of dialogue, there are long paragraphs about birding, open source software development, and a computer game that I've invented for the purposes of this novel. I have strategies for cleaning up the exposition, but would love to have a catchy way to begin, other than with the corny joke one of my characters has just made. Again. ("Red or white?" "Blue!" [holds up energy drink])

In the comments for this post, supply me with an opening gambit that I love (an idea, which I'll write into an opening line that fits with my narrator's voice) and you get to have a character named after you or your favorite pet. For people I know, winning will offer you the chance to have me remove the possibly offensive caricature of you from my novel. Deadline Sunday night. Hit me!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Writing Update

In case you have all been frustrated, not wanting to nag but really wondering how the novel is going, I'm finally ready to lay it all on the table.

I petered out on Seek Ye First shortly after starting it a few years ago because I was unhappy with the mystery and the pacing was all wrong. In short, it was a classic first attempt.

So I let it sit, and I worked on some short stories for a while, some essays, a chunk of a memoir, and another novel. By this time, I was ready to look at Seek Ye First again, this time with a bit more understanding of where I went wrong:
  1. I need to have a good sense of the real structure of a novel - a rough outline with the major mileposts spaced out for me - before I begin. Perhaps I'll get better with practice and eventually not need this crutch, but perhaps not. I like the idea of a set structure, and I think it helps keep the emphasis where I want it.
  2. I was writing the protagonist as a fantasy version of me - with my dream house in my dream neighborhood, for example - and that was getting in the way of her character development.
  3. And I was trying to squeeze too many political (actually, religious, in this case) opinions into the novel to make a point, which was really getting in the way of the story.
It was hard to let all that go, to throw away what I'd written, to completely rework the mystery itself, to create new characters, to drop the points I was trying to make. It took a lot longer than I'd expected to do character studies for each of my new characters, to develop a mystery that I'm happy with, and to outline the plot the way I want it.

But it feels a lot better to me now, and, after an evening at Borders hammering out the details of my outline, I'm finally done being paralyzed with fear and am ready to start writing tomorrow, three weeks later than I'd intended.

Hopefully, the writing will go smoothly now, with the amount of prep work I've done. We'll see tomorrow! For inspiration and influence, I'm reading Agatha Christie and Julie Kaewert.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Guy Not Taken

I haven't read Jennifer Weiner since Good in Bed. And, while I enjoyed the novel very much, I still haven't forgiven her for it. My lingering anger, plus the nastiness of the scene from In Her Shoes included at the back of my paperback copy of Good in Bed as a teaser for her second novel, put me off her work for a while.

Have you read Good in Bed? If you have, you probably remember that the main character is fat. I mean, really fat. Fat like she takes up more than her fair share of the seat on public transportation and people sneer at her. Fat like she goes to a physician for necessary medical weight loss assistance. Fat like people make comments, and she rarely gets dates, and when she does get a first via the internet, she never gets asked back for a second date.

The author goes on and on and on in this vein, and she does have some interesting things to say about being a fat young woman in America, taking care to show that it's not just how the character feels, but that her fatness is an objective state, noted by all. Then Weiner chickens out (because, like many of her characters, Cannie is loosely modeled on herself) and has the character tell us that that she's a size 14. 14! The size of the average American woman! So fat that everyone stares, that it's a given that she needs urgent medical help, that she oozes over onto neighboring bus seats. Whatever. I lost a lot of respect for Weiner over the weight thing, as she further reinforced harmful cultural weight attitudes.

(For the record, when I'm thin and fit enough to feel proud of my body, and a few people are quietly asking if I've been ill, or if I have an eating disorder, I am a size 10-12. That's what you get when have a 12-0-12 figure like mine; you'll never be a size 2. Currently, I am not thin and fit. I am wearing size 16 jeans, and I do not ooze anywhere, thankyouverymuch. I fit just fine in airplane seats and I am not in need of medical intervention, just a bit more exercise.)

I know that Weiner is a good writer and storyteller, but I just never got around to picking up another of her books (or seeing that movie with Cameron Diaz) until this weekend, when I gobbled up The Guy Not Taken, a collection of short stories by Weiner.

They're good, and they deal heavily with two main themes: divorce and the difficulties of being a mother to a very young child.

Weiner describes The Mother's Hour as being "as close to a horror story as I'll ever come," a good description of one of the scariest stories I've read in a long time. It's well-written and, like many of the stories, touches on some important issues, in this case ageism and, especially, classism. And motherhood and divorce.

This line, in particular, really resonated with me: She had, she realized, gotten out of the habit of loving him during the first few years of their daughter's life, when every minute of every day was a struggle, and while she'd learned to get along with him, she'd never learned to love him again.

Paul and I have spent a lot of time and money on therapy and on making sure that this doesn't happen with us, but I understand the sentiment oh so very well. It's so easy to focus on just getting through the days, just waiting for bedtime, for a little peace and quiet, for a moment to ourselves, for an end to the battles over diapers and potties and vegetables and indoor voices.

People always say, "It goes by so fast." And we hear, "Just hold on, it will pass." But what they're also really saying is, "Live in these moments. Try to enjoy them, feel them, experience them, share them, don't just endure them. Don't just look ahead to the next thing."

This is it. This is life. And there's no use waiting for it to get better: make a life of this collection of experiences you're living, no matter how difficult it seems. (Although, sometimes, I really do look forward to being able to tell the kids that I'm running out to Borders; please call me on my mobile if anything comes up and they need me.)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Author: Promote Thyself

Much is made of the need for authors to do self-promotion, and it's all true.

I worked in educational publishing for 10 years, which has some significant differences from trade publishing (although the publisher for which I worked, like many educational publishers, does publish some trade products and expects trade sales on many of its titles). From my perspective in both editorial and marketing at an educational publisher, author self-promotion can be a wonderful boost for sales. And publishers just simply don't/can't do all the promotion for a book. There are places that the author is better equipped to reach, either by merit of being the author or by simply not being a large multi-national corporation (or small, over-worked publicity department, or whatever). Author self promotion is even more important for trade titles, I believe, than educational ones.

One of the most obvious vehicles for author self promotion is a website. As a reader, I often prefer sites that are created and maintained by the authors themselves (or whomever they contract to do so) rather than those created by publishers, as long as the sites are current. Publisher owned sites are often focused on the newest releases and usually only mention the titles still in print and published by their own houses. They rarely contain updated information about where the author lives and what s/he is working on currently. (I'm not some crazed stalker, I'm talking about dust jacket style information.)

Some examples:

I read Laurell K. Hamilton's novels. Check out her own website and her publisher website. In my opinion, her website does what it needs to do: it's current and contains relevant information about her books and personal appearances. That said, while I doubt that it hurts her sales any, this simply doesn't look very professional. The Random House website looks much more professional, but it contains far less information, is updated less frequently, and only lists titles published with that publisher. In this case, I'll take substance over style, but not without making a few quips (those bats!).

I also read Patricia Cornwell. Her personal site is about as professional and slick as they come, yet I don't really like it. It's too focused on her newest release, and doesn't neatly catalog the author's whole body of work, delineating the various series and non-fiction titles. (Cornwell's publisher directs people to her site from theirs.)

Good author website: Sue Monk Kidd
Site that would be good, if only it weren't missing its content: Audrey Niffenegger
Brandon Sanderson obviously has a great site, but it's a bit too busy for my taste.

I love Julie Kaewert's Booklovers Mysteries. Love them! But it's very hard to find current information about the author or anything she's written since publishing the 6th novel in the series several years ago. Is she retired? Dead? I also enjoy reading Dorothy Cannell. Thank heavens for Wikipedia and someone else gathering available information into one place! Author websites should be the authoritative place for finding out what an author has written, what she's working on next, how to contact her with requests for appearances, etc.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Irritating Tickle

I'm a little bummed and frustrated. Our new minivan - known as the Cool-Cool-Car or the Cah-Cah-Coo depending on which child you ask - turns 1 this month. It has almost 16,000 miles already, and we'd planned to push that up to 18,000 easy by the end of the month with a trip out to Wyoming to see Paul's parents this weekend.

We've only made the drive once before, last April when Paul was between jobs, but it went well so we thought we'd make it an annual event and Paul's parents' spring break seemed like an ideal time.

I like Paul's parents, I like travel, and I like Wyoming. And while a 19-hour (one way! without significant stopping!) trip is grueling, especially all in one shot with two little kids, I'm excited by the challenge.

So I've been psyched about this vacation for a long time. But now Paul's feeling a bit off, and not that excited about going, and there's snow in the forecast along our route, and . . .

Sigh.

No vacation for me.

(I continue to deny the slight tickle in my own throat and possible tiny little low-grade fever.)

When Paul takes a shift at the wheel, I get great writing time in. If the girls aren't sleeping, they're probably happily watching videos, and Paul is likely to be tuned into an unabridged audiobook on his iPod. A cushion on my lap to prop up my laptop, writing notebook open on the console beside me, feet up on the dash, I can write for hours. Blessed, uninterrupted hours with very few distractions. (Have you ever driven across Nebraska? Trust me about the distractions.)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

To-Do List

I've been meaning to mention this since, like, November or something (oops). But now that there's no doubt I've missed all the big gift-giving holidays, I'll finally plug a fun book that published late last year and included a little bit of me.

Are you familiar with the To-Do List Blog? Well, the creator, Sasha Cagen, decided to turn the blog into a book (To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soulmate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us) and wanted submissions. I emailed Sasha with an off-the-cuff, funny (if I do say so myself) anecdote about, well, myself. And, hey, presto, she wanted more.

So I sent the 6-page table that I'd created for our 2005 trip to Disney World (not to be confused with the streamlined 2006 version or the we-took-a-year-off 2007 version).

And she asked some questions and I answered them and ta-da! See me in Chapter 8 of the book . . . which just happens to be entitled "Obsessive-Compulsive." Hmm, is it that obvious?

I have a few paragraphs of introduction, then one page of my chart. Sadly, due to Disney copyright issues, you can't see all the amazing formatting I did, which included downloading various appropriate Disney fonts and clip art images to decorate the pages. You'll just have to take my word for how awesome and useful this document was, slipped into waterproof sleeves and tied to our stroller.

We had all of our travel information, meal reservation information, times for the relevant parades and shows, park hours, must-see attractions, etc. all laid out at a glance for a relaxed, stress-free, customized vacation.

If I do say so myself.

Anyway, I got a copy of the book for being a contributor, and I ordered myself another one because I didn't know I was getting a free copy. I've decided to keep them both, because the book really is a lot of fun to read. Aren't you dying to know what's included in the "Sex" chapter?

Verdict: fun book, highly recommended. If I do say so. Myself.

Fiction writing update: research and plotting taking much longer than expected for Seek Ye First. Hopefully I'll be able to start writing on Monday or Tuesday, and go straight through. I've never done so much prep work or lined up so many ducks in advance before, so hopefully that will be a good thing once the words start flowing.

Nonfiction writing update: two personal essays accidentally published in really good books within the last year, both related to blogging: To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soulmate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us (Sasha Cagen, Simon & Schuster) and Gifts: Mothers Reflect on How Children with Down Syndrome Enrich Their Lives (Kathryn Lynard Soper, Woodbine House).
Hmm. Perhaps I'd have some success at actually seeking out work too, instead of basically just waiting for it to fall into my lap. Nah.