Saturday, June 30, 2007

Spontaneity is a Good Thing

A few years ago, my main internet community was a discussion board that originally formed around Buffy the Vampire Slayer fandom. One year I went to the board's face-to-face gathering. At one point, almost all the 50 or so people in attendance crowded into the hotel suite serving as the party room and watched the 6th season musical episode "Once More With Feeling," singing along and talking back to the TV as appropriate.

It was good geeky fun, so when I found out a theater on Capitol Hill here in Seattle was hosting a "Once More With Feeling" singalong, I rushed to buy my ticket, especially since a friend of mine chose to have it as part of her birthday festivities. I was expecting something like the board gathering, only a bit more formal and with more elbow room. Good geeky fun, in other words.

It wasn't. At least, not as much as I'd hoped. The organizers quite simply tried too hard. When we entered the theater, each of us was handed a goody bag including assorted props we were supposed to use at various points in the episode--bubbles to give Dawn's ballet a Lawrence Welk feel, those mini-firework popper things (I don't remember their real name) to use at the climax of Tara's song-gasm, etc. That was a little regimented for me, but not a big deal. What really annoyed me was having to wait a full hour after the showtime listed on our tickets for the opening chords of "Once More With Feeling." Before that we had to sit through an MTV report on the Buffy singalong phenomenon, act out scenes from earlier in the series with audience volunteers as Buffy, Angel, and Giles, and be given detailed instructions on what we were supposed to do with our bubbles and finger puppet "Grr Argh" monsters, and so on. The crowd was palpably annoyed--audible grumbling, repeated calls to "Play the episode!" and a loud unison chant of "Start! Start! Start!"

Once the event we'd come for actually STARTED, it WAS good geeky fun. Though I could've done without the fireworks for Tara. Gunpowder? Not a sexy smell. Not even to an Age of Sail/Flintlock geek like me. And it kinda irritates the eyes, especially in an enclosed space. But I have to say, the best audience participation moments were the unscripted ones, like my friend's suggestion that the musical demon marry Xander. Someone two sections over shouted, "But that's only legal in Canada!" "And in Massachusetts!" my friend pointed out. (Probably not that funny out of context, but it worked and felt genuine, unlike all the scripted bubble blowing and firework popping.)

These things are supposed to be in the Rocky Horror tradition, or so I gather. I only went to Rocky Horror two or three times in my life, but I seem to remember it being a lot more relaxed. There were some regulars who told the newbies what to expect, but it never felt like there was a dictatorial emcee who was determined that we were all going to have a good time, dammit, and on his terms.

But last night? As annoyed and, to be honest, angry as I was at that emcee, I'm sure he meant well. He's got his clever ideas and props that probably worked well in some of the cities the tour has stopped. But they weren't working last night. The mood in that audience was getting seriously ugly about 45 minutes into the pre-show, and we'd have been a MUCH more satisfied group of customers if only the organizers had been willing to go off script when it was clear the audience wasn't enjoying it.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

How Doctors Think (Book #60)

How Doctors Think (Jerome Groopman, 2007) is largely a book about misdiagnoses, and as such it's not the most cheerful read. Groopman's aim is to educate readers about the common mistakes doctors make and why in order to help us be more active and informed participants in our health care. It's well worth a read, in my opinion. One thing I hadn't thought of was that having a doctor who likes you could be as much of a problem as having one who thinks you're a problem patient--the doc might be subconsciously biased against putting you through painful procedures or might assume you're more compliant and healthier in lifestyle than you actually are.

Manners, Customs, and History of the Highlanders of Scotland (Book #59)

In 1815, as the Scottish Highlands were in the midst of their transformation in the popular English imagination from a lawless, rebellious wilderness to picturesque holiday spot with romantic bekilted locals, Walter Scott wrote Manners, Customs, and History of the Highlanders of Scotland. I read it not as an accurate and thorough history of the Highlands--I know it's not the latter and have grave doubts about the former--but as a guide to the self-image of the Scots in the early decades of the 19th century. Which happens to be a critical consideration for the novel after the WIP...

Writing update

Apparently taking my protagonist horse shopping worked, because the writing went very well last night. I have a feeling I overdid the exposition, but that's what rewriting is for. At least the words flowed smoothly onto the page, and my hero felt fleshly (but not fleshy!) rather than wooden.

I think there's something about getting away from pure words and giving your imagination some visual or auditory cues to work with. Maybe I should try collaging as Jennifer Crusie recommends, or at the very least work on a soundtrack for the WIP. I had one for The Sergeant's Lady, and I swear it helped me write better and keep my characters' emotions to the fore, which is not one of my natural strengths.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Shopping with my protagonist

I've been struggling to get a grip on my protagonist's voice in my WIP. Lately I've had to restart every scene in his POV at least twice before it flows at all, and I'm still dissatisfied with the results. I like him, and he's a vivid presence in my mind. One of the voices in my head, if it comes to that. But for someone who can merrily debate with me the events of his era and mine, he's awfully hard to pin down on the page.

So today I decided to try something different. At the very end of the WIP, my protagonist acquires a horse that he'll keep for the remainder of the series. I had a vague picture of this beast in mind, but today my character and I did a little online horse shopping. I'd decided for various reasons that the horse should be a Barb. The character agitated for a Thoroughbred or an Irish hunter, but I shouted him down with story logic. Once I found a good site with images, I recommended this lovely light gray and this magnificent fellow. But my character wasn't buying it. He turned, to paraphrase a local-area mattress store commercial, picky about color. He wanted this bay. And I must say, man and steed will make a magnificent pair.

Now, off to my manuscript to see if my protagonist will be a more cooperative POV character now that I've promised him a horsie at the end if he'll just carry me through the story....

Monday, June 25, 2007

Swords Around a Throne (Book #58)

Since starting my new job, I've become a bus commuter. To feel like I'm making good use of my time, I limit my commute and lunch reading to research books. That's probably an hour a day or a little more, and it still took me nearly three weeks to get through Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armee (John R. Elting, 1988). But that's not to say it's a dull read. It's simply long and thorough, with chapters on every branch of the service, the marshals, the allies, the enemies, combat medicine, women and the army, etc. And it's fascinating because Elting does a great job enlivening facts with anecdotes. For better or worse, I have a much stronger sense of the French perspective on the era. I still don't like Napoleon very much, but I admire a lot of his people (Eugene de Beauharnais and Marshal Lefebvre are two of my favorites), and have a much greater understanding of why so many rushed back to his banner for the Hundred Days. (The Bourbons? Idiots.)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lady Beware (Book #57)

Jo Beverley can always be counted on to write historical romances that are richer and more historically grounded than the genre norm, and Lady Beware (2007) is no exception. The hero is a war veteran who's found himself a viscount thanks to the death of his two older brothers--one of whom not too long before the story opens brutally murdered a young woman of good family in the madness brought on by late-stage syphilis. Since this wasn't the first atrocity committed by a family member, Our Hero isn't considered acceptable in good society despite his title, financial solvency, and heroic war record. But he wants to change all that for the sake of his younger brother--the REALLY sane and cheerful member of the family--and the patronage of Our Heroine and her family (her father is a duke) is the ticket to respectability. Fortunately he has information they want...

This is a very good read, and I recommend it highly, though I did want to slap the heroine silly at one point toward the end for abandoning her normal good sense and going into a risky situation by herself.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Room Service (Book #56)

I decided I needed a break from my steady diet of "boy books," so I read Room Service (Amy Garvey, 2007), a fun light contemporary romance. Heroine Olivia Callender owns a hotel in New York that's been in her family for generations, but business is bad because she's too blinded by nostalgia to see that the place has become shabby and outdated. British chef Rhys Spencer wakes her up, and a chef and a hotel owner make a natural pairing...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

No Quarter (Book #55)

Broos Campbell is one of the authors I met at the HNS conference, and when I found out he was writing Age of Sail set in the American navy, naturally I had to give his work a try. And I enjoyed No Quarter (2006), though it got off to a bit of a slow start. Once the action took off, I couldn't put it down. It's gritty and macho and a bit disquieting in spots, and you can really tell the author used to be on the crew of the Lady Washington.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Common Writing Mistake #527

I'm judging another RWA contest, and my entries reminded me of another issue I see over and over again in unpublished and sometimes published work: figuring out where to begin. There are two opposing errors:

1. Backstory Infodump: Opening pages serve merely to introduce the protagonist and her background, with no conflict or plot in sight till sometime around Chapter Two.

2. Sure She's in Peril, but Why Should I Care? In this case, the writer has absorbed the lesson about beginning where the changes in the protagonist's life start, but doesn't tell me enough about the character and how she got into this particular fix for me as a reader to much care if she ever gets out of it.

Finding the middle ground is a balancing act, and I'm by no means certain I always get it right. I know I tend toward the infodump, because how can you, the reader, possibly understand my story without ten pages of general historical background, plus a biography telling you everything that happened in my hero's life in the 36 years before he walks into the opening of Chapter One? At least I know it's wrong and that I should look for it when I edit, but somehow that doesn't prevent me from doing the infodump in the first place.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Stonehenge (Book #54)

Stonehenge (Bernard Cornwell, 1999) is a big departure from the Cornwell books I've read so far (Sharpe and Starbuck, basically). It's longer, for one thing, both in page count (close to 500) and time covered (decades for the planning and building of Stonehenge instead of weeks/months leading up to a battle). It's good, though I think I prefer the greater immediacy and intimacy with the characters from the more typical Cornwells. His speculation about the purpose of Stonehenge is as plausible as any I've seen, though he points out in his note at the end that there's no way we can know--if we tried to deduce Christianity from a ruined cathedral, we might well conclude it was a sun-worshiping religion because of the east-west alignment of the building and one that practiced human sacrifice because of the crucifix and the burials found within older churches. Anyway, it's a good read, particularly if you have a hankering for a semi-historical epic with lots of blood and angst and sibling rivalry.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Jack Absolute (Book #53)

C.C. Humphreys' reading of scenes from Jack Absolute (2004) not only convinced me I had to buy the book right away, it made me read it right away. And it's a good, well-researched adventure story that kept me turning the pages, though it's not quite as well-written as the Sharpe series. Also, and I'm not quite sure how to say this without going into spoiler territory...but let's just say that while I intend to become a good historical adventure writer who buckles swash with the best of them, I'm still romance writer enough that I intend being a bit kinder to my heroes' love interests than male adventure writers tend to be. (Which is not to say Humphreys comes across, either on the page or in person, as even remotely misogynistic--he just caught me by surprise when I was expecting a more optimistic resolution to the romance part of the plot. And I don't like unhappy surprises.)

Anyway, the book is set in 1777, during the Saratoga campaign of the American Revolution. And the hero is a British officer, so his side loses. It seems a bit unusual to read a swashbuckling adventure where the hero loses, but for the most part it works. I definitely plan to continue reading the series.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Final Conference Update

Today was the last day of the conference--just breakfast and two workshop slots. I went to Debut Authors Talk Publication and Writing Sex Scenes: How Much is Too Much? with Jade Lee (romance), Chris Humphreys (military swashbucklers), Diana Gabaldon (unclassifiable), and, uh, one other person whose name I can't recall. Humphreys was a good sport about being the only guy, and much hilarity was had by all, though the general agreement was that love scenes must serve the plot and that sex is dialogue by other means. Also, Lee stressed that in romance you need to make sure you keep the conflict high (whether between the lovers or through the external plot) immediately following a love scene, lest readers feel like everything is resolved by the couple's passion and love and there's no reason to keep reading.

I feel pretty good about the conference overall. It didn't blow me away the way the Surrey conference did last fall, but maybe that was too much to expect. I think Surrey is an unusually intensive conference, designed for fairly advanced writers. Also, the longer I do this, the less likely I am to be surprised by a workshop at a writers conference. But I think I made some good contacts--not new best friends or anything, but authors I can contact if need be and say, "You may not remember me, but we talked about X at the HNS Conference in Albany." And it was a good refresher in many areas. One thing that stands out is how confident the two big names, Bernard Cornwell and Diana Gabaldon, both are, albeit in different ways reflecting each one's personality. And I'm sure that to a large degree that confidence is born of their success. But when you hear them tell their stories of how they got published, you feel like at least half of it was there from the very beginning. They believed in their stories and in their ability to tell them, and look where they are now. Sure, they're talented writers who had very good ideas, but you could say the same of many authors who aren't a fraction as well-known and well-published.

Most of the time, I'm plenty confident about my writing. The past few months I've gone through a doubting, tentative phase, and I want to move beyond that. Because I'm a damn good storyteller with a fine voice, too, and someday the world will know it. I'm too stubborn to give up before I've proven it.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Conference update #3

Tonight's dinner and Diana Gabaldon's keynote speech were excellent, though the ballroom where the meals are served has the worst acoustics for conversation of any I've ever been in. The way sound echoes in there, you can barely converse with your neighbor, much less have any kind of general conversation at your table. That sounds like a petty complaint, but it really does limit your ability to make new friends or network, since a lot of that happens over meals.

The thing I found inspiring about Gabaldon's story is that she wrote Outlander before she'd ever been to Scotland. So many authors today stressed the importance of visiting the sites you write about, walking the battlefields, and so on. And believe me, I would if I could. But given my current finances and responsibilities, a weekend like this is enough of a splurge. I can't take off and spend a month in Europe scouting sites. And while I know Gabaldon's work isn't perfectly accurate, she did prove that it's possible to write a richly detailed, compelling story WITHOUT having personally walked the ground. And I needed to hear that tonight.

The Assault on Reason (Book #52)

To anyone who happens to be reading my blog who doesn't already know my views: I don't talk politics here except when my reading diary necessitates it, but I'm a Democrat. I campaigned and voted for Gore in 2000, and if he entered the race today, I'd drop my tentative support for Obama to back Gore with such resources of time, money, and free speech as are at my disposal. I know this makes me somewhat of an oddity even within my own party, but I've always liked him.

The Assault on Reason (Al Gore, 2007) is a dry book in spots, but it's an important summary of everything that's gone wrong in the past six years. He doesn't come out and say it, but it must be maddening to be in his position. I know that whenever I have to sit by and watch someone handle something I do well ineptly or inefficiently, my hands all but itch to tear the reins from their hands and show them how it ought to be done. And that's with tiny stuff. Al Gore is in that position with the presidency. Not that he expresses regret or sour grapes. He just explains how it's supposed to work and everything that's gone wrong. It's truly stunning and depressing to see all of the current administration's abuses of power gathered in one place, and to realize they've by and large gotten away with it. Me, I'm pinning my hopes on 2008. If we can just get a good POTUS, of either party, who respects the Constitution and believes in checks and balances, I don't think it's too late for us.

I've seen reviews of this book that mock Gore's enthusiasm for the internet as a force for revitalizing democracy, but I think he's right. The internet is the ultimate public square. Sure, there are tinfoil-hatted nutjobs and assorted criminals online, but that's the dark side of any public square. Somehow I'm pretty sure the first agora had its first pickpocket, pimp, and crazy guy within days of its establishment. But the beauty of the internet is that it's the most open marketplace of ideas in history, and online communities kept open information and dissent alive when Congress and the press were falling down on the job.

Conference update #2

Today was the busy day at the conference, with a full day of workshops. Right now I'm taking an introvert break before going down for dinner and the historical talent revue, with keynote speech by Diana Gabaldon.

As is usual at these events, the day was a mixed bag. I attended an entertaining workshop on how an author recreates a famous battle, the author in question being C.C. Humphreys, who IMHO bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Eccleston. He read some excerpts from his novel Jack Absolute by way of example, and I was one of many at the workshop who rushed straight to the conference bookshop to buy it. I got the last copy, in fact. If the book lives up to the promise of the scenes he read aloud, I may have found where to get my Age of Flintlock fix once I run out of Sharpes. At least briefly. Humphreys has only written three in the series thus far.

Next came a state-of-the-market workshop, always a slightly depressing event unless you happen to be writing EXACTLY what the market currently adores, which for now is fictionalized biographies of famous women. I think it's wise to know the market, because it can help you package your work for editors and agents--for example, while my alternate history isn't a fictionalized biography of a notable woman, it does have well-known figures ("marquee names," as the agent giving the workshop put it) as major characters, and you better believe I'll tailor my pitch and synopsis for it accordingly.

But in the end, what are you going to do if you're 3/4 of the way through a manuscript on, say, Genghis Khan, and some agent or editor says it's a terrible, unmarketable idea? Go home, give up, and delete the file? Or what if you ARE writing what's hot, but you're me and have a full-time job, a husband, and a 3-year-old and can only write so fast, and you hear that the market for your idea is nearing its peak and likely to start fading soon? Quit the job that pays your bills and alienate the husband and daughter you love just so you can write 80 pages a week instead of 15 and strike while the iron is hot? In the end, you've got to do as Bernard Cornwell recommended at his workshop--write what you want to read. Otherwise it's not worth it.

I spent the afternoon in military history land, between Cornwell's workshop and a Q&A panel, and thanks to Cornwell's generosity, I probably have a lead on the most vexing research question I've encountered thus far in planning my alternate history. And now I need to change for dinner and go fake extroversion again.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Conference update #1

Back in my hotel room after 1st evening of conference. No workshops tonight, just welcome banquet with Bernard Cornwell as keynote speaker. The organizers had a history quiz with books as prizes before his speech, and believe it or not I won on one of the local interest upstate New York questions. I read the Little House books into tatters as a child, so I knew Almanzo's hometown (Malone, NY).

Afterward I met Michele Young from the Beau Monde group in the bar, but we didn't stay terribly long because the band was so loud we could hardly hear ourselves think, much less talk. It would've been just right for playing a large wedding in a spacious auditorium, but it was obnoxious in a small bar. BACKGROUND music, people. Background.

Tomorrow, workshops, including the 11:00 a.m. session where I wish I could attend all four of them: Americans Writing English Settings, Putting the Who in Whodunit: Historical Forensics, Fictionalizing the Already Famous, and Finding the Story in History. Must clone self overnight.

Greetings from Albany

I'm in Albany, NY for the Historical Novel Society's biennial North American conference. I'll try to post some conference updates and highlights after it starts tonight, but so far I've learned three important lessons:

1. Don't fly through Chicago in the summer if you can help it.

2. Don't fly two airlines on a codeshare unless it's the only way to get to your destination. It only confuses the lost baggage people.

3. If you must do 1 & 2, whatever you do, DON'T switch onto an earlier flight out of your origin city upon seeing all flights to Chicago are badly delayed, in hopes of making your connection because it's the last flight to your destination city that day. You may rejoice at first when you successfully get your body and your carryon to your destination on time, but when your checked bag turns up missing, the change in your itinerary will confuse the lost baggage people into paralysis.

My bag and I were finally reunited about an hour and a half ago (I got in at 9:30 last night), so I have my good clothes and such for the conference. But the process was much more stressful than it should've been thanks to terrible customer service. As Stephen Colbert would put it, American Airlines, you are Dead to Me.

Four in Hand (Book #51)

Four in Hand (Margaret Westhaven, 1993) is a traditional Regency romance set at the Congress of Vienna in 1814. A diplomat's 30-something widow is there with her two daughters (one of whom is old enough to be out socially herself, as the widow married young), a friend's daughter, and a goddaughter, hence the title. The widow begins an affair with a somewhat younger man and is shocked and dismayed when he wants marriage. It's an interesting read, albeit so full of subplots I never felt like I got to know the hero and heroine enough to believe their happy ending.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Saturnalia (Book #50)

Saturnalia (2007) is the latest in Lindsey Davis's long-running mystery series set in 1st century Rome. As a mystery, it's by no means the strongest outing in the series (though it's possible I missed clues by reading too quickly). However, Falco and Helena's families were out in full force, along with other characters from previous adventures, and it was fun catching up with their world.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Dip (Book #49)

On my husband's recommendation, I read The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (Seth Godin, 2007). It really is a little book, less than a hundred pages, with the simple but thought-provoking thesis that it's not so much that winners never quit as that winners know what to quit and when. The key is being able to recognize the difference between a "dip"--the period of hard work and seeming failure that happens before you succeed in anything worth doing--and a "cul-de-sac"--which can look like a dip but will never lead to success, either because you lack the resources and talents to succeed, because your market is already saturated, or whatever. The book is business-focused, but I found it useful for thinking about writing, dieting, career choices, etc. Mostly, it confirmed I'd made the right choices in switching genres and jobs, because the ones I was in before were cul-de-sacs, and that I really need to find a way to apply the principles to diet and exercise.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Wild Trees (Book #48)

I've seen coast redwoods, the ones that are readily accessible via well-marked paths for a non-athletic person on a road trip along the California coast. And they're amazing. You can't walk through them without experiencing the numinous. I know I felt out of place there, but I wouldn't have been surprised to see a dinosaur walk past, or perhaps an elf or an angel. My experience of the redwoods is trivial compared to that of the scientists and obsessives of The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring (Richard Preston, 2007). These people have devoted their lives to discovering what's left of virgin redwood forest and the life in its canopies. It's extremely well-written narrative nonfiction, both informative and engrossing, and I recommend it highly.

The strangeness of my brain

My alternate history manuscript is the first time I've used real historical figures as major characters. People famous enough to show up in my story tended to have their portraits painted, some of them so frequently that I swear if you brought them forward in time and dressed them in modern attire I'd immediately recognize them walking down the street. But the funny thing about knowing these people mostly from portraits is that every once in awhile my mental image of the scene will switch from human beings moving through a three-dimensional landscape into paintings done in the style of the era, and I have the hardest time coaxing my imagination back into 3-D.