Thursday, December 25, 2008

Take the Cannoli

Take the Cannoli (Sarah Vowell, 2000) is a collection of essays, most of which appeared in one form or another on NPR,, etc. I liked some essays better than others--basically, my overlap points with Sarah Vowell are American history and fundamentalist childhoods, not Frank Sinatra and the Godfather movies. But it's a good book for reading over the holidays when you have ten minutes here and half an hour there, and Vowell has a way with words.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Circle of Seasons

I finished the first book of my holiday reading on the plane last night: The Circle of Seasons (Kimberlee Conway Ireton, 2008). A book on the Christian liturgical year seemed appropriate as Advent is about to slide into Christmastide.

Kimberlee goes to my church, so I recognized at least half of the names in her stories and remember hearing a good number of the sermons she references. The book is all about bringing theology into everyday life through the means of the church year, and I enjoyed reading it because I've been looking for ways to make my beliefs experiential as opposed to purely cerebral and ethical. However, it did remind me of a mild grudge I have against my church at this time of year: the careful and near-absolute exclusion of Christmas themes and music from the Advent season. IOW, "O Come, O Come Immanuel" or "Of the Father's Love Begotten" is kosher for Advent, "Joy to the World" not so much. I can't argue with the leadership's liturgical logic, but the unintended consequence for me is that I never get to sing Christmas carols anymore, at least not in a full-bodied, four-part-harmony with fellow choir members sort of way. (Which is much more fun than singing in the shower or along with a CD in the car, y'know?) You see, neither my husband nor I is a Seattle native, so we're always out of town by Christmas Eve and are rarely back in church before Epiphany ends liturgical Christmas. So I'm starting to wonder if I'll ever get to sing "Joy to the World" or "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" with a choir again, much less the more obscure Christmas carols like "Gentle Mary Laid Her Child" or "Once in Royal David's City."

But other than that gripe? Liturgy is a good thing.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rachel LeMoyne

Rachel LeMoyne (Eileen Charbonneau, 1999) was inspired by a historical footnote--the fact that the Choctaw Nation, less than twenty years after their forcible removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma, took up a collection for victims of the Great Famine in Ireland. Charbonneau elaborates on that incident, having a Choctaw schoolteacher, Rachel LeMoyne, travel to Ireland with a pair of missionaries to help distribute the aid. She gets involved in the Irish people's struggles, marries an Irishman wanted by the English for assorted acts of what they consider sedition, and brings him back to America with her, where they end up on the Oregon Trail.

I never expected to read a book that featured the Trail of Tears AND the Great Famine AND the Oregon Trail, but it makes sense and gives the book an old-fashioned saga-like appeal. Rachel, her husband, and her brother occasionally seem too super-capable in the course of their travels, giving them a bit of an Ayla & Jondalar feel as they overcome prejudices by assorted medical, mechanical, educational, and equestrian skills, but it's a thoroughly enjoyable read that kept me turning pages.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Books

My husband knows to buy me books as at least part of my Christmas present every year, and this year he got me all books--which was just right, since I've been taking part in the "Buy a Book, Save the World" campaign that's been going around a lot of writer-agent-editor online communities ever since publishing got caught up in the general economic downturn a few weeks ago. I've bought books for everyone on my gift list who even sorta kinda reads, and I wanted to get books even more than I normally do.

We went ahead and opened presents for the three of us tonight, partly because we're flying out Tuesday morning and partly because we hoped it would improve our daughter's mood. We're having something of a Snowpocalypse in Seattle, and though we've managed to get out of the house a little between storms, the girl has cabin fever. It seems to have worked, too--she's a lot less bored and cranky with her new play tent up in her room and her stuffed animals tucked in her new doll bed.

And I got to unwrap a big stack of books. My favorite was a new Complete Jane Austen, since a previous edition was my very first Christmas present from my now-husband the first Christmas we were dating. But I'm also happy with the research books, and Sarah Vowell and Anthony Bourdain are probably coming on the plane to Oklahoma with me.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Once Upon a Christmas

I like reading a Christmas romance or two at this time of year. They're a great way to relax amid the frantic holiday scramble. (A scramble which, incidentally, has been made exponentially worse this year by the weather. We're basically snowed in here, with more on the way tomorrow afternoon, but I've got to find a way to get to the office either tomorrow morning or Monday before I go out of town for two weeks on Tuesday, or else assorted Bad Things will happen. I happen to work atop one of the steepest hills in the city. Fun fun fun.)

Anyway, Diane Farr's Once Upon a Christmas (2000) really hit the spot. A dying duchess in 1817 or thereabouts wants to see her only son suitably married and doesn't trust him to make a wise choice himself, so she takes in an orphaned distant relative to groom to be the perfect duchess. When the son comes home for Christmas, wacky yet poignant hijinks ensue.

This book was re-released this year, so if you're passing through a bookstore on the way to the airport and want a relaxing, seasonal read, this is a good choice. Or, you could always buy it now while it's around and stash it on your to-be-read shelf for next Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Anglo Files

The Anglo Files (Sarah Lyall, 2008) is an amusing and snarky, if not especially profound, look at British life through the eyes of a long-term expatriate American. (She moved there in the early 90's and is raising two British daughters with her British husband.) I lived in England myself in 1997-98, and while I experienced culture shock, it was on a lesser scale--probably partly because I was only there for a year and had friends and coworkers explicitly trying to be nice to the guest, and partly because by the time I got there the economic boom of the 90's was already well in motion. Other than the houses and cars running a bit smaller, England seemed just as wealthy and consumer-oriented (for better or worse) as America. The food was fine, though I did get homesick for good Italian and Chinese, and you should NEVER express a liking for broccoli to people who might someday invite you for dinner in England, not if you only like the vegetable in question raw, stir-fried, or VERY lightly steamed. But my local Tesco had as good a selection as any suburban American grocery store of the time, and I had plenty of decent pub grub, not to mention the best Thai and Indian food I'd ever had. And I honestly can't remember anyone being rude to me, unless you count the kind of questions you get from people who expect you to be the spokesperson and apologist for your entire home country of 300 million people.

That said, I wish I'd read the chapter on the WWII generation before moving in with the older woman who was my hostess for the year. It would've saved a lot of culture clashing, and at least I would've understood WHY she kept the heat turned down so low I'd regularly sit around the house wearing a turtleneck, a sweatshirt, and a fleece while wrapped in a blanket. I knew about the Blitz and children being sent out of London, of course, but I'd already returned to America before I really knew how much harder the British had it in the years immediately following the war.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Simply Christian

My pastor recommended that I read Simply Christian (NT Wright, 2006). I won't go into a lot of detail about why I read it and what I thought here, because this blog is a reading diary and a place to talk about my writing life, not where I go into detail about my religious or political views.

The book is pitched as sort of an updated Mere Christianity, and while there are some similarities to CS Lewis's work, Wright doesn't try as hard to prove Christianity through logic, and he has an idea I've never seen anywhere else that's neither pantheism (God in everything) or deism (a distant God who maybe, occasionally, communicates with his creation) but a God whose world and life overlaps with and intersects with our own.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The Greater Seattle RWA chapter has a white elephant gift exchange every year at the holiday party. Unlike most such exchanges, we don't unwrap the gifts until the end, because the competition is all about the wrapping. It can be beautiful and elaborate, goofy, bawdy, or whatever, just as long as it's interesting. I'm not artistic enough to go the beautiful route, so I've established my own tradition of doing some kind of "why Susan writes the Regency era" collage, often heavy on Sean Bean as Sharpe or Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower.

This year I decided to stick with that theme, but to look for handsome portraits actually from the period. I got some help from my other RWA chapter, the Beau Monde, and did some searching on my own. I ended up with a lot of military images, just 'cuz.

Mine wasn't the most popular gift at the party--I'm pretty sure the one with chains in place of ribbons got that honor! However, the Dead Guys, as my chaptermates kept calling them, were passed around several times during the course of the afternoon.

I also liked the gift I came home with--this riff on Harlequin Presents titles on a book-shaped tin.

Oh, and this post reveals that I've finally learned three Very Important Things: 1) how to take pictures with my new iPhone, 2) how to download said pictures, and 3) how to upload aforementioned pictures to my blog. I may be slow, but I get with the technological program eventually.

Wellington: The Years of the Sword

Wellington: The Years of the Sword (Elizabeth Longford, 1969) is the best Wellington biography I've read. I found myself deliberately slowing down when I got to the Waterloo section because I didn't want it to end, and I don't think I've ever felt that way about a biography before.

I didn't have high expectations of it going in. It's an older biography, for starters. I have this prejudice, one that I can't quite explain, for either primary sources or the most recent treatment out there. Also, Longford was Lady Longford, a countess and a relative by marriage of Wellington's family, which I thought might render her too close to her subject, in a way.

She does take a more intimate approach than the other Wellington biographers I've read, but it works, IMHO. At least for me, though maybe the fact he plays a large role in my alternative history, which means I spend a lot of time trying to get into his head myself, influences my reaction. Anyway, this isn't a work of hagiography--Longford doesn't turn a blind eye to her subject's flaws. But it's clear she likes him in spite of his faults and admires his honor, integrity, and military acumen, which again works for me because I feel the same way.

I even want to read her second volume, Wellington: Pillar of State, now, despite my distinct preference for Wellington the general over Wellington the politician.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fall of a Kingdom

Fall of a Kingdom (Hilari Bell, 2006) is the first volume of a YA fantasy trilogy set in Farsala, a Persia analogue awaiting an invasion from the Hrum (Rome). It's told through the eyes of three Farsalan teenagers--Soraya, the proud daughter of the high commander, her bastard half-brother Jiaan, who's inherited his father's military acumen but isn't fully accepted among the warrior elite because of his peasant mother, and Kavi, a peddler and con artist. The shared POV works, though I liked Jiaan best of the lot. He reminded me a bit of Jack in my own WIP, actually--I have a soft spot for bright, earnest young warriors.

I like how Bell contrasts the warring cultures. I've always enjoyed fantasies like this with recognizable real-world analogues (think Guy Gavriel Kay or Jacqueline Carey) where the magic is light to nonexistent, and this is a great example of the type. She also did a great job with the battle tactics, IMHO, and I'm getting pickier about that sort of thing.

I'm looking forward to reading the second book.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

That actually worked

50,000 words in a month. A month in which, incidentally, I blew an entire day and a half on fretting over and then celebrating the election, not to mention did my share of cleaning up an incredibly messy house and preparing Thanksgiving dinner for eight.

Six or seven weeks ago, I was having trouble writing despite my passion for my project due to a paralyzing perfectionism. I really, really, SO MUCH want to get this manuscript just right. It's a big story, with characters I could happily write about for years, maybe even a decade or two. And I've gotten such good feedback on it so far--contest success, praise from industry professionals who've seen a snippet of it--that it paradoxically made me freeze up. As in, what if I can't make the entire story live up to the strength of the premise and the opening chapters? What if I'm not good enough to do my own story and my beloved characters justice? So I was feeling my way through the manuscript at a snail's pace, maybe 500 words a day, agonizing over every sentence and sweating the structure of every scene. It had to be just right before I could go forward.

But then two things happened. The first was attending Donald Maass's master class at the Surrey Writers Conference in October. We spent most of the three-hour session taking apart a scene from our manuscripts we thought needed improvement and finding a way to strengthen it. I was amazed by how much my scene improved through the exercises Maass gave us, how much subtle changes enhanced the conflict and deepened the emotional impact and sensory vividness of the scene. It made me see that I was going about it all wrong in my effort to write a perfect draft, that there was nothing I couldn't improve AFTER I'd written it. (Yes, yes, I'm on my fourth manuscript, and you'd think I'd know that by now. But I'm still getting the hang of editing for story structure as opposed to style.)

Then I decided on a whim to try NaNoWriMo. I knew I needed something to push me out of slow motion. I didn't think I'd manage 50,000 words, but if I could just make it to 25,000, I'd be in so much better shape than I was 10/31. So I sat down with a pile of index cards, plotted out the scenes I knew I would need to get me to the end of the manuscript, and dove in. When I finished a scene, I grabbed the next card from the stack and wrote what it told me to do.

It shouldn't have worked. It's contrary to how I've always written in the past, and, really, there's no logical reason anyone who was barely managing 10,000 words/month should suddenly be able to do 50K. But I kept at it, and found myself enjoying writing more than I had in months. I was living my story again, wanting to grab everyone around me and babble about my characters and how much I loved them. (I resisted the urge. Mostly.)

I'm sure I'll have to rewrite many of those 50,000 words, but that's OK. I'm confident I've found the bones of my story now. The rest, I can fix. I'm not going to go back and look at them yet, lest I paralyze myself again with the urge to tinker. NaNo got me through Act II and into the beginning of Act III. I'm going to take a day or two to plan out Act III, make those scene index cards a little more detailed, and then I'm going to plunge back in. Not quite as fast--50,000/month IS a bit excessive. But I think I can manage 25,000 without neglecting the rest of my life, and at that rate I'll have a draft to start polishing by sometime in January.

So, all in all, NaNo worked better than I'd dreamed.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Heaven and Earth

Heaven and Earth (1990) is one of the Harlequin Historicals Kathleen Eagle wrote early in her career. I wish she'd written more of them, because historicals are just so much more my thing than contemporary romances, and this is a good one. Set in the 1840's, it's about a woman widowed on the Oregon Trail when her husband, a minister with dreams of serving in Marcus and Narcissa Whitman's mission, dies on the trail. When she is left behind by the rest of her wagon train, she's rescued by a Metis trapper of French, English, and Cree descent. They're attracted almost from the beginning, but they have to come to terms with the differences in their backgrounds and worldviews amid the strife that arose when Americans were first beginning to settle the West in large numbers. It's not a new or unique story, but it's told well, and Eagle has the knack of convincing you her characters will build a happy future amid the challenges and conflicts of their world.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Normally I avoid the kind of books that get reviewed on NPR, snapped up by book clubs, etc. But The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2008) sounded intriguing enough when I heard about it on Morning Edition that I decided to make an exception, and I'm glad I did. It has just about everything that makes me happy in a read--a lively community of characters, a vividly developed historical setting, a romance arc, an ability to deal with serious business without taking itself to seriously, and, last but not least, a happy ending.

The book takes place in 1946, when Britain is just beginning to put itself back together after WWII. The heroine, a London newspaper columnist, begins a chance correspondence with a man from the island of Guernsey, which was occupied by the Germans during the war. It's a purely epistolary novel, deftly written in a pleasantly old-fashioned voice. (Shaffer, the primary author, died after the book was accepted but before publication--Barrows is her niece.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Miss Darby's Duenna

Miss Darby's Duenna (Sheri Cobb South, 1999) is an old-school traditional Regency romance of the light comedic romp tradition, and it's delightfully well-written, even if the hero's disguise as an old lady made about as much sense as no one noticing Superman looks just like Clark Kent without glasses, and even though the villain turned into the hero of a secondary romance plot awfully quickly. In other words, a good, relaxing read, but more about the fun than the realism.

Monday, November 24, 2008

I think this is a minor corollary of Murphy's Law

Sometimes, no matter how accurate a historical novelist strives to be, she just cannot track down some detail or other. Such as, say, any kind of description of the appearance or character of a minor historical figure. Eventually, the aspiring novelist decides to make it up, or at least to extrapolate based on the thin evidence she can read between the lines when he makes an appearance in the biographies of the more prominent.

"Hm," thinks the writer. "He seems to be the one everyone else spoke to, even when they weren't speaking to each other. He had a long and apparently successful career as an ambassador, which would imply that he was, well, diplomatic. And he was the youngest of a large family. I bet he was mellow and easygoing."

Satisfied with her deduction, the writer pens two chapters wherein this mellow, unflappable man plays a large part. Throughout his scenes, our boy is calm and capable.

A few days later our writer stumbles across a line or two describing the gentleman in question in a biography of one of his more prominent relations. That calm, unflappable man? Actually, the family drama queen.

Well, I already knew I'd have some serious rewriting to do once NaNoWriMo is over...

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

The Wordy Shipmates (2008) is Sarah Vowell's rambly exploration of the early years of Puritan settlement in New England and its impact on American culture on through to the present day. And I had a lot of fun reading it because I kept imagining it in her voice.

The key word here is "rambly." Linear this book is not, and I wonder how much sense it would've made to someone who didn't go in with a fairly solid grounding in American colonial history. Then again, maybe her audience is only other history geeks like me and it doesn't matter.

Anyway, if you like Sarah Vowell, you'll like this book. Reading it made me wish I could hang out with her and geek out over historical crushes and obsessions, because she talks about John Winthrop, Roger Williams, etc. just the way I talk about the Duke of Wellington, Eugene de Beauharnais, etc.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A Reputable Rake

A Reputable Rake (Diane Gaston, 2006) is a Regency historical romance with one foot in high society and one in the London underworld. The heroine is an unconventional young woman who, when one of her maids is unhappy at her work and believes herself ruined because of previous sexual escapades, decides to train the maid to be a courtesan so she can at least have a better life than that of a common streetwalker. Along the way she picks up three more pupils and draws the attention of her neighbor, a rake who is trying to reform.

The courtesan school isn't quite so implausible as it sounds--it's not 100% realistic IMHO, but it didn't go so far that I lost my ability to suspend disbelief, and I enjoyed the book for its engaging characters, both the hero and heroine and a larger and better-rounded cast of secondary characters than you often find in romance these days.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why (Amanda Ripley, 2008) is at times a harrowing read, but if there's one book I've read this year that I'd recommend for everyone, this is it.

Of course, that's mostly because anyone reading this could theoretically find themselves facing an earthquake, a tornado, a tsunami, a terrorist attack, etc., while most of what I read is more driven by my personal quirks and interests. But the value of The Unthinkable isn't just in its universal topicality, but in the amount of surprising and usable information it contains. E.g. people rarely panic in a disaster--they're more likely to go numb and not act until it's too late. But authorities have a bad habit of not training and informing the public about risks out of fear of creating panic...which just makes the numb phase worse, because the more information people have, the better and more quickly they respond. (Which is why military and medical personnel tend to do well in disasters--not because they're a higher order of being, but because they're trained to think in a crisis.)

So. From now on I'm going to leave the office immediately when the fire alarm goes off instead of grumbling to myself about how it's NEVER a real fire and waiting a few minutes to see if it'll stop before going out into the cold and rain. And I'm also going to actually look at the safety cards on airplanes and notice where the emergency exits are. Because when you look at fires or plane crashes with only a handful of survivors, it's often the ones who paid attention and heeded warnings.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Year of Living Biblically

In The Year of Living Biblically (AJ Jacobs, 2008) an agnostic who describes his background as "Jewish like the Olive Garden is Italian" decides to follow the Bible as literally as possible for a year (8 months focused on the Old Testament, 4 on the New).

I first heard about this book several months ago, but I didn't put it on my holds list, because it sounded like Yet Another Gimmicky Lifestyle Change Memoir. But someone on my LiveJournal friendslist recommended it, so I gave it a try. I'm not sorry I did. I mean, it is a Gimmicky Lifestyle Change Memoir. But it's funny, engagingly written, and managed to make me think all the same. Jacobs follows obscure ceremonial laws and visits a snake-handling church (though he honors his promise to his wife not to pick up a rattlesnake himself), but he also tries not to lie, gossip, or speak ill of others, and he muses upon how to love his neighbor in a New York apartment building and what to do when two laws come into direct conflict. And it made me realize that even back when I was a much more literalistic Christian, I wasn't so good at the not gossiping, avoiding of convenient white lies, etc.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Big Sort

Seattle is a happy city today. People danced in the streets last night. I exchanged words of jubilation with total strangers...and that's RARE. Northwesterners are normally a reserved, standoffish lot. Closest thing to this was the M's run in 2001, and even that happiness wasn't quite so joyous or universal.

Most of my friends' Facebook statuses and LiveJournal comments were in the same celebratory vein. But for some of my relatives and old, old friends--we're talking high school here--last night felt like the end of the world. They feel, well, pretty much like I did after the Bush v. Gore verdict in 2000, or on election night in 2004. They're my fellow Americans, but I don't understand them. Sometimes I feel like there's no overlap at all in what we love about our country or in the future we desire for it. And if it weren't for the fact I grew up in their world before leaving for college in Philadelphia at 18 and gradually adopting most of the politics and worldview you'd expect from someone who went to an elite college and chose to spend her adult life in liberal cities, I'd have no contact with people like that--people on the other side--whatsoever. (And, boy, was that a long and convoluted sentence.)

It wasn't always this way. Thirty or forty years ago, communities weren't so segregated by ideology. Close elections were close all over the country. But now, prosperity has enabled greater mobility, and we as a nation have self-sorted into communities who think like we do, worship like we do, play like we do...and vote like we do. It's a natural phenomenon--it's human nature to want to be part of a group that shares our values. But it's become so extreme that it's threatened the fabric of our democracy. Even in those close elections, most counties are landslide counties, where the winning candidate has a margin of victory or 20% or more. And so our politics have become more contentious, because politicians and their constituencies are so divided and tribalized that there's no desire for compromise. At least, that's what Bill Bishop contends in The Big Sort (2008), and I confess I recognize myself in its pages. Obama's victory seems to run counter to Bishop's theories to some degree, however, so I'll be watching Bishop's blog to see how he analyzes it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

NaNo So Far

It's going pretty well, better than I'd expected, really. I've written 3807 words in two days, which puts me a little ahead of schedule--I need about 1800 words/day if I'm to get to 50,000 by 11/30, assuming I don't write on Election Day or Thanksgiving.

What I don't know yet is whether it'll be easier or harder to churn out 1800 words or so on a weekday. On the one hand, my life is more scheduled, what with the job, writers group on Mondays, choir on Wednesdays, etc. However, if I decide to write on my lunch hour, I can shut the door, let voicemail take the phone for half an hour and enjoy blessed peace and quiet. At home, that's hard to do while my daughter is awake. I get stray bits of time here and there when she's happily by herself or playing with my husband, but I never know how long that will last, and the "happily by herself" times are rare. I'm not sure how it happened, but we two strong introverts produced an extroverted child, and she likes to have someone to play with her or at least answer her questions and listen to her stories.

The strange thing is that I don't think writing in these 15 or 20-minute snatches is hurting my work. If anything, it keeps the story toward the front of my mind as I cook, do laundry, shop for groceries, etc.

Friday, October 31, 2008

NaNoWriMo. Sorta.

The writers among this blog's readership likely already know about NaNoWriMo. For the rest of you, that's National Novel Writing Month--a group exercise in madness, now in its tenth year, wherein people around the world try to draft novels of at least 50,000 words during the month of November.

I've been aware of NaNo for at least five years, but I haven't signed up for it before because technically you're supposed to start a new novel from scratch on November 1. I've never happened to finish a manuscript in September or October, hence no NaNo. I'm not the type to stop mid-draft on one book to work on another.

And I'm in mid-manuscript now--17,000 words into my rewrite of Invasion, a rewrite so radical I'm using maybe 10% of the scenes from the first draft, tops. So instead of using NaNo to write 50K words on a new story, I'm going to try to add that much to the WIP.

It's ambitious, and I may not get there. It also seems counterintuitive to everything I've learned of late about not pushing myself too hard or killing myself over artificial deadlines. And if I'm stressed beyond belief a week in, I can and will quit. I already know I can finish a manuscript; that won't change if NaNo turns out to be wrong for me.

But I want to try. I think I need to test myself a bit, get my competitive juices flowing. I want to see if I can find ways to write faster. Maybe close my browser window when I open Word, for starters. I can always make a note to go back later to check the OED to see if some word is an anachronism, or to look up the exact date of some event in my protagonist's backstory. Because, let's face it, I spend less time in the OED or on wikipedia than I do obsessively checking Gmail every time the new message indicator appears. And maybe I don't always have to wait till my daughter is asleep to write. Not that I want to give her less attention, but when she's playing happily and quietly or watching TV, why not write a few paragraphs? And why not use my lunch hour at work for something other than obsessively checking political blogs? (At least after Nov. 4!)

Above all, I want to plunge into the story and out of my own head games--the usual doubt demons I think most writers have to some degree or other. I want to write with passion. So on the stroke of midnight, I'm going to write a couple of pages before I go to bed. When I wake up, instead of spending an hour cycling through political blogs, I'll write some more. And we'll see how it goes from there...

Albion's Seed (or, I really haven't stopped reading books!)

I'd been hearing great things about Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (David Hackett Fischer, 1989) for ages, and over the past two weeks I finally got around to reading it. It's as good as advertised. Fischer compares the four major pre-Revolutionary migrations from Britain to America (East Anglian Puritans to New England, mostly south and southwest English royalists to tidewater Virginia, midland and Yorkshire Quakers to the mid-Atlantic, and "British Borderers" from Northern Ireland and along the English-Scottish border to the Appalachian backcountry) on various cultural markers.

It's a wonderful read, rich with anecdote, but what stands out, even before you get to the last section discussing how the four cultures influenced American history and culture post-1776, is the amazing continuities. For example, I am, by and large, a descendant of that fourth migration. I didn't grow up with any awareness of being part of an ethnic group or subculture, but the more I learn about Scots-Irish history and culture, the more I see how I'm a product of it. (To put it another way, you can take the girl out of the South, but you can't entirely take the South out of the girl.) Even my interest in military history and the fact I'm writing adventure stories now probably owes something to growing up in a subculture with a strong warrior ethic. It's strange to think that my personality and interests have roots going all the way back to the English-Scottish wars and border feuds of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but Fischer makes his case persuasive.

If you're at all interested in British or American history or culture, read this book.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (Michael Kimmel, 2008) is a depressing book. Kimmel's theory is that our culture has added a new stage between adolescence and adulthood, especially for young men--"Guyland," roughly the ages between 16 and 26. And that stage is pretty messed up. While acknowledging that not every guy fits the mold and that most don't go to the worst extremes, Kimmel paints a depressing picture of binge drinking, hazing hell, misogynistic porn, dysfunctional relationships with women, and post-collegiate aimlessness.

Mostly this book made me feel glad I (and my male friends) are well past this stage, and that I spent my college years in a different subculture where my only interaction with Guyland guys was occasionally having to walk by the frat houses where the brothers sat on the porch and called out 1-10 ratings or speculated on your sexual orientation. And, it also made me apprehensive when I think of my daughter being a teenager in less than a decade.

But the funny thing is it also made me feel a bit sorry for the guys, insofar as we as a culture have let them down--it doesn't make me forgive the misogyny, not even a bitty bit, but I can relate to feeling like the American Dream is slipping away from your generation and to knowing you want more from life but being totally clueless and therefore aimless about how to get there.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

10 Things I Love and Hate About Books

Here's another exercise from the online writing class I'm taking this month. We were asked to list ten things that make us love or hate a book as a reader, with the idea that it'll help us focus our writing toward our passions. Which sounds silly--you'd think you'd automatically write what you love and avoid what you hate. But as I look at this list, I can see that a lot of the changes I'm making in my current rewrite are refocusing the story toward the things I love about it, but that I'd lost track of in the drive to finish my first draft and make my plot line up.

10 Things I Love:

1. Communities of characters: I like to read about friends, close-knit families, and lovers who have a strong friendship and the ability to work well together as well as passion. I love the friendships in Jennifer Crusie's romances, and what keeps drawing me back to books as different as the Anne of Green Gables series, the Marcus Didius Falco mysteries, and the Aubrey/Maturin novels, to name a few, is the chance to revisit that community of characters and watch them work together.

2. A good long-running series: When I really love a set of characters and a world, one book isn't enough.

3. Good world-building--anything where the setting is a character in itself, whether it's a fantasy world or England in 1820 or one of Jennifer Crusie's towns.

4. Historical accuracy: I read historical fiction of any genre because I love history so much, and I want to feel like the author shares my passion and has chosen her setting because he or she loves that place and time. I'm looking for a sort of mental time travel.

5. Women who are tough in ways that make sense for their place, time, and circumstances.

6. Warriors, whether they're literal soldiers or people who believe in their cause strongly enough to take risks for it.

7. Honor: I love characters who have principles and the courage to stand by them.

8. Serious stories leavened by humor. Especially gallows humor. It's probably not a coincidence that I work at a hospital.

9. Smooth prose and a strong voice.

10. Intelligent characters: Brains are sexy.

10 Things I Hate:

1. Historical inaccuracy: Not every little detail has to be right, but if the author misses something I know to be easily researched or writes characters who feel like 2008 people in fancy dress, I can't enjoy the story because it's not giving me that mental time travel experience I long for. Other inaccuracies can bug me, too--I've read contemporary books with baseball player heroes that turned into wallbangers because the author clearly knew much less about baseball than I do, and I don't consider myself anything like a true expert. I'm just married to one. :-) But since most of what I read and all of what I write is set in the past, it's usually historical errors that ruin stories for me.

2. Alpha Heel heroes: I like strong men--see my love for warriors above--but I want them civilized and confident enough of their strength to treat others with respect.

3. Over-the-top villains: You know, the kind who's a traitor AND a bully AND a blackmailer AND a pedophile AND....

4. Villains who are too weak and/or too insane to be a real challenge for the hero.

5. Women who are spunky for the sake of spunkiness--if a woman is going to buck the values and rules of her time, I want it to be well-motivated.

6. Helpless damsels in distress.

7. Passive characters--people who just let life happen and don't fight for what they believe in or what they want.

8. Clunky writing

9. Gratuitous sad endings: I'm fine with a grand, Shakespearean tragedy, but I hate books where it seems like the whole point is to prove that people are weak and life is meaningless.

10. Being told that a character is smart, strong, or whatever but seeing no evidence of it in his/her actions.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Secret and Unlawful Killing

A Secret and Unlawful Killing (Cora Harrison, 2008) is the second in a series of mysteries set in 16th century Ireland and featuring Mara, a brehon (judge/magistrate) in the Gaelic legal tradition. For the most part it's a gentle, pleasant read, despite the necessary presence of several dead bodies and a certain sense of melancholy as Mara and others who've kept the old ways see the encroachment of English power and English culture even in their isolated corner of western Ireland.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Life As We Knew It

For some reason I've always had a soft spot for YA apocalyptic novels--the end of the world as viewed through the eyes of a teenager. Maybe it's because I was that age in the 80's, when at some points nuclear war seemed entirely possible, so I'd regularly imagine what it would be like to survive, which I figured I'd have a decent chance of doing, what with living in the country and far from any obvious target.

So I snapped up Life As We Knew It (Susan Beth Pfeffer, 2006), which is the story of a 16-year-old Pennsylvania girl trying to survive the aftermath of a natural catastrophe along with her family. An asteroid strikes the moon, knocking it into a closer orbit and triggering tsunamis and greater seismic and volcanic activity. At first I wondered what I was doing reading a disaster novel in the middle of an actual crisis, but in the end it was kind of comforting. I may wonder what's going to happen to the economy, whether either of our jobs are vulnerable to state budget cuts, etc., but unlike Miranda I have light, heat, running water, and a house full of food, none of which is canned mixed vegetables.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Your Own Worst Enemy

Lately I've been reading and thinking a lot about living a more organized and purposeful life, and one of the books that crossed my path was Your Own Worst Enemy: Breaking the Habit of Adult Underachievement (Ken Christian, 2002). Without going into a lot of angsty detail, I'll just say that I've felt like an underachiever ever since I graduated from college, oh, 15 years ago now. Reading this book was reassuring, because it helped me see my struggles as A) not that uncommon for someone with my personality and talents, and b) possible to overcome.

Basically, I'd gotten into a pattern where after I graduated I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do, or even how to know if I was doing it well, without the obvious measures you get in school (or that I might've gotten if I'd gone into a field with clear milestones, like academia or the military, where I could've pursued tenure or promotions the way I aimed to be valedictorian in high school or to graduate with honors from college). So I found jobs that paid the bills and told myself all kind of stories. I was "finding myself," and when I was 25 or 26, I felt like I had infinite time to weigh every possible option. Or I made a sort of virtue of staying out of the rat race, and once I got into my slacker pattern, I didn't try my best because it protected me from the possibility of failure.

In a way, this book was for people at the start of a journey I've already begun--finishing my first manuscript was a giant step away from my slacker past. Now that I'm on my fourth book, well, I still haven't reached the obvious success milestone of publication, but I've proven that I'm capable of working hard, using my talents, and finishing what I started. I needed the reminder that that's valuable in itself. Also, looking at my former self-defeating self helped me see how I got there, and how I might apply some of what I learned from finishing manuscripts to the rest of my life (and, for that matter, how I might take a more focused approach to my writing).

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus

Peter Gomes made an entertaining appearance on the Colbert Report a little while back, so I decided to check out his new book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (2008). I found it thought-provoking and challenging, though not new enough to be scandalous--most of what Gomes says would fit in at my church. But I like his approach, and I'll look for his other books.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Intermediate Fencing starts tomorrow...

I haven't blogged about fencing as much as I wanted to, but this weekend the online writers' class I'm taking gave us an exercise where we were asked to write about anything we were passionate about, as long as it wasn't politics or religion. Since that took my obsession with checking off the map, I wrote the following:

Sweat pours in a river down my spine. It’s at least 80 degrees in this hall, and I’m wearing sweatpants, a plastic chest protector and a long-sleeved jacket over my t-shirt, a masked helmet with a neck guard, and a thick glove on my right hand. My sword hand.

At any other time I hate to sweat. But this sweat comes in pursuit of a dream and a physical connection to the stories I love to tell.

I’m not a natural fencer. Even if I weren’t overweight, I wouldn’t be the ideal build for the sport, and my hand-eye coordination is average at best. I lose as many bouts as I win, and tonight I’ll go home with a cross-shaped array of bruises on my upper arm from my most ignominious defeat.

But nothing beats the rush of striding across the room, sword in hand, or of standing poised en garde at the beginning of a bout, or the thrill of scoring a touch against a more slender and athletic opponent.

And when I lift my blade in salute, I’m not just offering the traditional courtesy to my opponent and our coach. I’m saluting the little girl I was thirty years ago, who used to pose before her mother’s full-length mirror with her brother’s West Point saber in hand. I’m honoring the hero of my novel, the real man whose life I’m turning upside down for the sake of my alternative history—a man to the manner of the sword born, who learned all these feints, parries, and ripostes as a normal part of his education as an officer and a gentleman, who wielded his sword in battle. When I hold a sword, the barrier of two hundred years between us thins. I touch history and bring it into the present.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely, 2008) details common human foibles as seen through the lens of behavioral economics. It turns out we're not the rational actors classical economics as established by Adam Smith says we ought to be. We make poor decisions based on emotion, we procrastinate, we choose short-term comfort over long-term security, etc. We believe stereotypes--even about ourselves. One of the most disturbing studies Ariely cites, in my opinion, is the one where two groups of Asian-American women, college students, were each given a math test. Before the test, one group answered a questionnaire about their experiences as women, while the other answered one about their cultural background. A case of competing stereotypes, you see? Women are supposed to be bad at math, while Asians are supposed to be good at it. Sure enough, the women who had been reminded of their gender scored lower than the ones who'd been reminded of their ethnicity.

Definitely recommended for anyone who's interested in popular science or economics, and guaranteed to make you think more deeply about why you make the choices you do.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Peter Wicked

Peter Wicked (2008) is the third in Broos Campbell's Age of Sail series about Matty Graves, a young American naval officer--a series that deserves a much wider audience. I have to admit I find the books' plots a bit convoluted at times, possibly because I don't know that much about the history behind them (1800, the Caribbean, the US in an undeclared war with the French and only slightly more cordial with Britain). But the voice is wonderful and vivid, and the characters engaging. I'm looking forward to future installments, and watching Matty figure out how to deal with the dark family secrets that came out in the last two books.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

All-of-a-Kind Family

All-of-a-Kind Family (Sydney Taylor, 1951) is one of many children's books I didn't discover till adulthood. I read it and its sequels five or six years ago, and I checked it out from the library again last week thinking I would read it to my 4-year-old daughter. I quickly realized I'd misremembered the reading level. It's too advanced and complex for my little girl, who's more at that Bread and Jam for Frances stage. This book, and the Little House series, and Narnia, will have to wait a little while longer.

That said, I enjoyed revisiting it myself. The series has much the same appeal as the Little House books--it's also the story of a close-knit family struggling to get ahead in a tough environment, only in the city instead of the frontier. The titular family is a set of five sisters, Jewish girls growing up on the Lower East Side of New York in the early 20th century. It's based closely on the author's own childhood. As in the Little House books, children reading it would see the girls' lives as a sort of exotic adventure, while an adult can't help but see the poverty and hardship throughout.

Changes in my book diary entries

I had a bit of an epiphany on Thursday while taking a time management class through work. I went in expecting to learn some new system for organizing one's time and tasks, but instead spent the day analyzing my approach to time to try to figure out why I often waste it.

Among other things, I realized that I'm often task-oriented to a fault. I get so caught up in crossing items off my to-do list at work or meeting my daily word count quota in my manuscript that I lose sight of the big picture--e.g. that focus on word count can distract me from thinking about why I'm writing a scene and how it fits into the story as a whole.

One small manifestation of this tendency is that lately I've allowed reading, which has been a joy and a way to relax for me for as long as I can remember, to become a source of stress. It all started a few years ago when I began tracking the number of books I read a year--innocuously enough, to allow myself to participate in end-of-year discussions on one of the reader boards I used to follow. But it quickly turned into a competition with myself. Can I beat last year's total? Can I read over 100 books per year, EVERY year? Lately practically every book I've opened has felt like homework. And not just any homework, high school lit class assigned reading. Over half of which I either loathed or was bored silly by. And I finally, finally realized just how silly and neurotic I've been, to turn my favorite activity into work.

So I'm still going to diary my books, but I'm no longer going to number them. If on 12/31 I really want to know how many books I read in '08, I can always go back and count them. And I'm going to lose my obsession with new-to-me books. There's nothing wrong with re-reading, and nothing wrong with talking about what I re-read.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The King's Favorite (Book #86)

Normally I don't enjoy the biographical novels of royalty (and women who shared beds with royalty) that have been so popular the last several years. But Susan Holloway Scott is one of the bloggers on Word Wenches, a group blog I enjoy, so I decided to at least give The King's Favorite (2008) a try. It tells the story of Nell Gwyn, the daughter of a prostitute who became a comic actress on the London stage and then a favorite mistress of Charles II in the late 17th century.

I think I liked it better than I normally like books of this type because so much of it follows Nell's rise to celebrity, and as such is set in the London world of theaters and bawdy houses rather than at court. I didn't know much about it, so it felt fresh and lively. Also, Nell is an appealing character--she doesn't spend a lot of time angsting or feeling guilty about her life, her choices, and her limitations. She's smart and witty, but she's also simple and straightforward.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Enemy of God (Book #85)

Enemy of God (1997) is the second in Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy. It's longer and more episodic than the Sharpe books, and I confess in my current uber-busy state I like those tight timelines and compact page counts. But this book held my attention nonetheless. Derfel is an engaging narrator, and probably the nicest, sweetest protagonist Cornwell has ever created--maybe just to have a contrast with all the non-stop war and gloom and occasional human sacrifice!

I wouldn't quite say I have a problem with how Christianity is treated in this book. It's not like pagans come out looking wonderful, either, what with the human sacrifice and so on. But, still...I hope Celtic Christianity wasn't really much like it's portrayed here. Frankly, I haven't researched it much, but I love the Celtic prayers I've read, the wild poetry of them, and I'd like to think there was at least some real beauty of spirit and good wildness driving their authors.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Great Mortality (Book #84)

The population of England and France was about the same in 1800 as it was in 1300--and not because they'd attained an equilibrium state for the pre-industrial carrying capacity of their lands that they maintained for all that time. No, the 14th century was so very lethal that it took took them nearly 500 years to recover. (The same is probably true for the rest of Europe, too--we just have more data for England and France than anywhere else.)

While the 14th century included several waves of famine and disease in Europe, obviously the worst was the Black Death, which killed somewhere between a third and half the population between 1347 and 1351. The Great Mortality (John Kelly, 2006) is a narrative history of the outbreak, and it was good enough to keep me turning pages on a topic I was already quite familiar with. What I took away from this account was how remarkable it was that society still managed to function, even in cities that lost half or more of their population, in the midst of all the horror. (Not that society didn't change, nor that there wasn't violence and darkness in response to the epidemic, but when you consider the scale of the catastrophe, it's remarkable that the survivors were as resilient as they were.)

Monday, September 8, 2008

Thoughts on my first two fencing lessons

My brother Jim, who's 13 years older than me, started West Point the same year I started kindergarten. He was a member of the Class of 1980, the first to include women, which fired my baby-feminist imagination. For several years there, I wanted to go to West Point, too.

At some point the Academy gave him a sword engraved with his name. As 20-somethings who move around a lot are wont to do, he left it with Mom and Dad. I used to get it down from the top shelf of the master bedroom closet, draw it, and carefully brandish it. I never played with it--I knew better than to treat it as a toy--but I loved it. I've yearned over swords ever since and toyed with the idea of taking a fencing class, someday when I have the time, after I've lost the extra weight I need to shed, etc.

This summer several friends convinced me that I shouldn't wait around for that perfect time. Salle Auriol is 15 minutes from my house, and beginner lessons are affordable and fit my schedule as long as I take a break from writers group and choir. So I signed up for the September class and had my first two lessons last week.

Tuesday was bliss. We had such a large group that they didn't even get to equipment and swords. It was all footwork and body position...and to my great surprise, I was almost good at it! I think of myself as a clumsy person, and I tend to struggle in dance or sport classes because I'm not a visual learner. In other words, I have trouble learning by watching a demonstration. Instead, I'm verbal and kinesthetic--tell me what to do, or, even better, tell me how it feels when I'm doing it right. But apparently my few years of skating and my bits and pieces of dance from high school musicals and the like stood me in good stead, because the footwork wasn't hard for me.

It was, however, challenging. I had to concentrate, and it was the toughest workout I'd had in a long time. But I loved it, and I even had a few of those moments that delight my history geek's soul. The instructor was explaining some of the history of the sport, how the similarities to ballet weren't a coincidence, because a few centuries ago young gentlemen would study at academies where fencing, dance, equitation, etc. were taught together as gentlemanly and soldierly arts. That was enough to fire my imagination. There I was, learning exactly what my more aristocratic characters would've learned as a normal part of their education. That 200-year gulf between the world I live in and the world I write suddenly seemed thin, insubstantial, something I could almost step through.

I drove home Tuesday loving fencing and trying to calculate how soon I could take up saber.

Thursday wasn't quite so delightful. We got our epees, and I discovered I wasn't half so natural at holding a sword as I am at advances, retreats, crossovers, and lunges. The instructor's assistants had to correct my grip and straighten my elbow not once, but twice. And that correct grip? Hurts. Makes me feel all weak and out of shape. Which, in point of fact, I am.

Next we put on our gear. Cue body image demons, because the slim, flat-chested gym bunny types had an easier time finding suitable equipment than buxom, overweight me. Geared up, we started work on the most basic attack--just stepping toward your sparring partner and poking him/her in the chest. Simple, right? Only I'm not sure I ever got it right, especially given the added challenge of being paired with a southpaw. (There are only two lefties in the class, one man and one woman, and since we went in gender-segregated groups to get set up with gear, we ended up with women paired with women, men with men.) To top it off, I don't think I've ever sweated so much in my life. My clothes were downright sodden in spots.

At the end of the lesson, I approached the instructors and asked if it was normal to be confused at this stage, and would we be going over what we'd learned that night again? They assured me that it was and we would, and I made a comment about feeling like the most clumsy one out there. They glanced among themselves, shook their heads, and the youngest one said, "Not even." Which made me feel a lot better. The senior instructor said there's always a few naturals, and they're the ones everyone notices and feels awkward beside, but that, basically, determination wins out. If you want to learn, you will. Funny, I hear that advice about succeeding as a writer all the time. Talent doesn't matter half as much as being stubborn enough not to give up...

With that in mind, I'm going to at least stick it out for the rest of the month. I invested in better shoes and more workout clothes. I'm going to take an outfit to change into so I won't have to drive home drenched. I don't know if I can work through my current clumsiness and my dislike of the gear to get back to that point of joy in movement and communion with history, but I'm going to give it a fair shot. Because Tuesday was wonderful, and if ever there was a sport made for my personality and passions, fencing is it.

Wellington at War (Book #83)

Wellington at War: 1794-1815 (Antony Brett-James, ed., 1961) is a selection of letters and general orders from throughout Wellington's military career. They're mostly on military topics, but not entirely--there's plenty of politics, occasional forays into finance, some gossip and scandal, mostly within Wellington's own family. It's great primary source material for those who are familiar with his biography, but Brett-James' commentary isn't enough grounding to make sense of the letters for anyone who isn't.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

No-Man's Lands (Book #82)

No-Man's Lands (Scott Huler, 2008) is a memoir of travel and coming to terms with middle age and mortality. After rediscovering the Odyssey, the 44-year-old Huler decides to spend the bulk of his wife's pregnancy (!) tracing the path of Odysseus, as best as we can determine it, around the Mediterranean. Along the way he muses about the lessons Odysseus learns about leadership and life (sometimes you have to run away, don't sneer at good advice whatever the source, etc.) and how they apply to him.

I haven't read the Odyssey since I was 23 or 24, and Huler's contention that it's a midlife book makes me want to attempt it again now that I'm into my late 30's, staring in wary disbelief at my 40th birthday, not too far away at all in January 2011.

He's also got me pondering the trip I'm already planning for when I'm 44 in 2015. Not long after I got interested in military history, it occurred to me that barring anything tragic I should be alive and healthy for the Waterloo bicentennial, and wouldn't it be cool to be there? I don't know if I'll be able to pull it off, but I dream of spending 6-8 weeks in Europe, visiting not just Waterloo but the Peninsular War battlefields of Portugal, Spain, and Southern France (and, you know, some of the other interesting sites that happen to be in that part of the world). Sort of a Wellington pilgrimage. Which doesn't have the inherent universal interest of an Odysseus pilgrimage, but is a lot more me. And, who knows, maybe there's a travelogue/memoir in figuring out and explaining just why it is that I, a politically liberal 21st-century American woman who takes pride in her blue-collar Appalachian Scots-Irish roots, am so fascinated by an Anglo-Irish Tory aristocrat born almost exactly 200 years before I was.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Fusiliers (Book #81)

It's easy to forget how interconnected the past is. All too often we study it as a set of discrete episodes rather than as a flowing river of time.

I knew that the American Revolution was among the causes of the French Revolution, both as an inspiration and because France's war expenditures led to a financial crisis. But until I read Fusiliers (Mark Urban, 2007) I hadn't fully considered that the army of Wellington was only about 30 years removed from the army of Cornwallis.

By focusing on a single regiment that served all the way from Lexington and Concord to Yorktown, Urban explores the reality of the British army--as opposed to the caricature of redcoated automatons we learned about in school--and how it changed in response to the challenges of the Revolution. If anything, the army improved considerably. It just didn't do them any good, because it's pretty much impossible to hold a large, hostile territory far from your home base with a small force, no matter its quality. The British effort was probably doomed from Saratoga onward, and certainly was once France entered the war. But the tactics they adopted to go on winning battles even as they lost the war ultimately bore fruit in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo.

Incidentally, I'm also reading a collection of Wellington's wartime correspondence. In one letter, he attributes just about everything that went wrong (from his perspective!) from 1776 on to party politics in England--the loss of the American colonies, the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, etc. His thesis seems to be that if the British powers-that-be had put country first instead of party, everything would've turned out differently. Who knows, maybe he's right. He did live through it all, though he was only six when the American Revolution started. Still, if I'm right about Saratoga, that wasn't a political blunder. Howe didn't march to reinforce Burgoyne, and so the Americans had a three-to-one advantage. But, if the British had been willing to come to a quick accommodation at that point instead of stretching the war out, the French would've stayed out of it, and then who knows how the next few decades would've turned out? Somehow I doubt that's what Wellington had in mind, though, because that's a Whiggish approach--it was the Tories, and especially the king, who wanted to continue the war. And even if Wellington didn't admit it, I'm pretty sure his non-partisan world would've involved everyone agreeing with the Tories. I love the man, but he had some obnoxious political views. (Stupid space-time continuum, because I'd dearly love to actually argue this one with the real Wellington instead of just shaking my head at the letters he left behind and quoting Barack Obama at him about how ALL of us love our country.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My husband knows me well

I just got a new laptop--not a family laptop to replace a broken/outdated one, but MY computer, one for me to do my writing and researching on. (Which, uh, makes us a four computer household. Two laptops, two desktops.)

Anyway, I'd already decided what I wanted to name it, even though it would go against my husband's pattern of naming our machines after collegiate mascots, sports figures, etc. So when I came in from picking up our daughter from daycare to discover my husband already had the computer out of its box and was setting it up, I asked if I got to name this one. He said he already had. I asked what, expecting it to be my high school mascot or a prominent Mariner or somesuch. He then asked what I'd planned to call it.

"Wellington," I said.

He grinned. "I named it Wellie."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Perfect Gentleman (Book #80)

Back in high school, I loved Marion Chesney's Regency romances. My library had her Six Sisters and House for the Season series, and I devoured them all. So now whenever I find one of her books in a used bookstore, nostalgia inspires me to pick it up. They're light, quick reads, usually heavy on the farce and slapstick. Frankly, I enjoyed them more in high school than I do now. Nowadays I like my stories a bit grittier and more realistic, or else with humor more witty than farcical.

But sometimes I crave that quick, nostalgic read, so today I enjoyed The Perfect Gentleman (1988). An orphaned country girl whose bad eyesight keeps getting her into scrapes keeps falling afoul of her chaperone's perfectionist son.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Save the Cat (Book #79)

Everywhere I've gone this summer, people have recommended Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder, 2005) to aspiring novelists. It took 3-4 mentions to get through to me, because it's a screenwriting book, and I figured there were advice books just as good that were actually designed for novelists.

I'm glad I decided to give it a try. It's a clear, chatty description of how to structure an exciting, marketable story--sort of a simplified Hero's Journey. Since I'm a big fan of Christopher Vogler (who, now that I think about it, is also primarily advising screenwriters), it made a lot of sense to me. I'm also just at the right point for such a book, since I've finished a rough draft and am about to plunge into revision mode. Since I'm planning some big structural changes, I think I'm going to try using his storyboard and beat techniques. Not slavishly, but as a loose framework. That's been the lesson of my WIP--that I can't get by without a framework in a tightly plotted action story that's designed to be first in a series the way I could when I was writing standalone romances.

Snyder is an unabashedly commercial writer, to the point where art film/litfic types might not find his advice relevant or helpful. Since I'm trying to figure out how to make my book simultaneously accessible and intelligent, I like his approach as a guide for how to make my history geekery fun for people who haven't spent as much time immersed in military histories and Wellington biographies as I have.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Rock and Roll Never Forgets (Book #78)

In Rock and Roll Never Forgets (Deborah Grabien, 2008), the author (a friend of mine) draws on her experience in the 1970's music scene to bring behind-the-scenes life with a rock band to life. The narrator is JP Kinkaid, middle-aged guitarist with a long-lived band called Blacklight. When a journalist planning a tell-all expose of the band turns up dead in Kinkaid's dressing room at Madison Square Garden, suspicion falls on his long-time lover, and secrets everyone wanted to stay buried are brought to life...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Napoleon's Privates (Book #77)

Napoleon's Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (Tony Perrottet, 2008) is a perfect book to keep in a magazine rack or on a bedside or coffee table--and just to be clear, I mean that as a compliment. Each chapter is only a few pages long, witty and concise, so it's the perfect book to dip into for a few minutes of historical snacking.

Perrottet flits back and forth through history, exploring such topics as Cleopatra's looks, greatest papal sex scandals, and how the French Revolution caused the restaurant industry to take off (behead or drive into exile your aristocrats, and suddenly you have a lot of unemployed cooks who, you guessed it, open restaurants). As far as I can tell the book is well-researched. At least, I never caught the author in errors on topics I know well, which inspires me to trust him in other areas and eras.

Napoleon shows up quite a bit, as the title suggests. Perrottet's research was inspired by learning that Napoleon's corpse might have been, um, emasculated by an unscrupulous surgeon at his autopsy. The part in question (housed in a handsome case bearing the imperial crest!) now resides under a bed in New Jersey, since the woman who inherited it from her collector father hasn't made up her mind what to do with it. The French government, incidentally, firmly and understandably refuses to exhume Napoleon's body to check for missing parts or run DNA tests. Good for France. Let the dead have their dignity...

...OK, if you completely allow the dead their dignity, you'd spoil the fun of this book. Wellington partisan that I am, I had to grin when Perrottet included the story of how as ambassador to France after Napoleon's abdication, Wellington slept with at least two of Napoleon's mistresses. One of them was questioned at a dinner party as to which man was the better lover, and she said that "the Duke was by far the more vigorous." It's hard to say how much of a accomplishment that really was, however. Given that the incident is reported in a chapter titled "Three Minutes With the Emperor," I think it's fair to say Napoleon was easier to vanquish in the bedroom than on the battlefield.

(Susan blinks innocently.) I wonder if my pastor or any of my relatives read this blog?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Wellington as Military Commander (Book #76)

Wellington as Military Commander (Michael Glover, 1968) is a good survey of Wellington's command style--his favored tactics and how he interacted with subordinates, allies, and his government--for those who are already familiar with the Peninsular War and the Waterloo campaign. More than other Wellington books I've read (and let's face it, I've read a lot of Wellington books) it emphasizes the challenges he faced in cooperating with allies and getting what he needed from the British government. Which, incidentally, is why it's hard to do a direct comparison of Wellington and Napoleon--a military commander who is also head of state has powers one acting under a constitutional government and in concert with allies simply cannot command.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Confederates in the Attic (Book #75)

I enjoyed Tony Horwitz's most recent book, A Voyage Long and Strange, so I sought out Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998). I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I preferred Confederates, possibly because I already knew so much about the culture and history Horwitz delves into. There's plenty of new insights, but, unlike Voyage's explorers and conquistadors, I didn't have to learn who Nathan Bedford Forrest or Ulysses Grant was.

Horwitz has had a lifelong fascination with the Civil War, despite the fact his ancestors arrived in America after it ended. (Which, I suppose isn't all that different from me being a Napoleonic War geek although the nearly 3/4 of my ancestors who were British or French left Europe early in the 18th century.) After a chance encounter with some reenactors, he decided to go exploring the Civil War landscape and its ongoing impact on the people who live around it. In a rambling series of essays we see a heartbreaking modern murder trial fueled by racism and the Confederate flag, visit the stuffed remains of Stonewall Jackson's horse, wander the Shiloh battlefield at dawn, etc. We meet a lot of obnoxious racists and purveyors or revisionist history--if nothing else, this book confirmed my decision to never, ever join the Daughters of the Confederacy. (Yes, I'm eligible. My family has been in Alabama since the 1840's and in the South since the early 18th century. As far as I know none of my ancestors owned slaves--though I'm sure that was hillbilly poverty rather than abolitionist virtue. So it's not surprising that my great-great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier.) But we also meet some endearingly geeky reenactors and get to wallow in Horwitz's history geekery for 400 pages or so.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

PNWC: Brenda Gurung on Dating, Evangelism, & Viruses: Marketing Your Book

The presenter at this workshop is a community relations manager from one of the local Barnes & Noble stores. She admitted at the outset that she was having a scatterbrained day, and that did show. She obviously knew her stuff, and I think she'd be a great person to have on your side when planning a signing or a launch party. But she didn't have an outline or a structure or any such thing beloved by logical, linear me. However, I did glean some useful tips:

- When interacting with people who can help promote your book, always consider THEIR perspective. Never forget to treat them as people, rather than tasks--and you'll be rewarded by them treating YOU as a person.

- To understand your target audience, think of its core, not its periphery. (e.g. for me it might be the intersection of Bernard Cornwell's and Naomi Novik's readership) Aim all your marketing efforts at finding those people.

- When planning an event like a book signing or a release party, consider the target audience for that particular event. What are you competing against for their attention? What reasons do they have to stay home or go elsewhere? To cite an obvious example, you wouldn't want to hold a signing for your baseball book during a World Series game.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Novel Writer's Toolkit (Book #74)

Bob Mayer is one of my favorite writers conference speakers, so I made a point to track down his Novel Writer's Toolkit (2003). It doesn't contain much information I hadn't already heard in those workshops, but it's a good, practical reminder of the basics. I'd recommend it as a guide for new writers and a reference for more seasoned ones.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Superpowers (Book #73)

Don't let the playful, cartoonish cover fool you. Superpowers (David J. Schwartz, 2008) is a dark story. Not that it's relentlessly depressing or lacks light and humor, but the ending is dark and deliberately unresolved. (I warn because I'm glad I was warned myself.)

In the interests of full disclosure, I know the author, at least in the "know from the internets" sense. Knowing an author biases me enough that I'll try a genre I wouldn't otherwise read (as was the case here) and will keep reading for a chapter or so longer than I otherwise would to give it a good chance (which wasn't necessary here, as I liked it from the beginning).

In the spring of 2001, five college students in Madison, WI wake up from getting drunk on homebrew on an odd, stormy night to discover that they have superpowers--one with telepathy, one superspeed, one flight, one superstrength, and the fifth invisibility. After some discussion, they band together to fight crime, only to discover that it's not as easy to use their powers wisely as they might've hoped. The story dovetails with the actual events of 2001 (though not in any corny way where the heroes anticipate and try to prevent 9/11 or anything), which adds to the message about power and truth.

It's not a perfect book, but it's a solid debut that kept me turning pages in a genre I wouldn't normally read.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

PNWC: Elizabeth Lyon on Manuscript Makeover

The next workshop I attended was presented by Elizabeth Lyon, a teacher/editor/writing coach who's written several books on the writing process. I'm trying to learn more about revision as I get ready to tackle the daunting task of smoothing out my extremely rough draft of Invasion, so choosing this workshop was a no-brainer for me.

Lyon breaks revision down to Style, Characterization, and Structure. Most guides to revision treat style as an afterthought, which she thinks is wrong because editors and agents say they're looking for fresh, original voices, and style is how you polish your voice so your uniqueness shines.

I see what she's saying, but I'm not sure it makes sense to revise for style first, which is what she seems to be advocating. If your story needs work on structure and/or characterization, you're probably going to be writing whole new scenes and doing radical surgery on existing ones. Why fine-tune your prose first when you're just going to have to go back and do it over again for your new sections? If you fix structural issues first, then you can do one big polishing sweep at the end when the story as a whole is in place. Which isn't to say I wouldn't fix an awkward wording or correct a typo at whatever point I happened to notice it, but still.

She started with a recommendation for how to free up your voice when your writing is tight in a bad way--i.e. when there's not enough emotion or richness of detail coming through in a scene. She calls it riff-writing. You take some piece of your WIP and allow yourself to free write, riffing like a jazz musician. Overwrite in order to capture everything that's there--emotion, details of setting, etc. You then have more there to edit down into what you need. I like this idea and intend to try it out as soon as I hit editing mode. I tend to underwrite, all the more so now that I'm writing a protagonist who controls his emotions with a curb rein at least 90% of the time.

She then gave a lot of examples of wordsmithing techniques to enhance style. I won't go into them all, just the ones that were especially striking or new to me:

- Make use of "power positions," i.e. the beginnings and endings of chapters, scenes, paragraphs, even sentences.
- Figure out what you overuse and edit it out.
- Watch for inadequate specificity of detail. You want to put your reader in a world like no other.

On characterization, Lyon said the goal is to make your protagonist so believable and memorable that he will outlive you. Which made me think about my mortality maybe more than I really want to while enjoying a writers conference, but it's a powerful point--and one with resonance for me because at least one of my characters feels compelled to seek fame to gain a measure of immortality.

The components of a memorable character are attitude and passions. Your character should have strong opinions and unbridled desire and energy for what matters most to him. Writers tend to understate rather than overstate, so look for ways to bump up attitude and passion.

At the very end of the workshop, Lyon moved on to structure, especially scene structure:

- The POV character in each scene should be that scene's protagonist.
- Each scene should have a clear goal.
- The end of a scene needs to have some disaster or surprise to hook the reader into the next scene.
- You can foreshadow a big scene by a small scene of a similar nature.
- You can also use reverse emotions--a fight before lovemaking, a bonding scene before battle, etc.

She didn't have time to get to story structure, which disappointed me, because that's what I'm trying to focus on the most. Fixing scene-sized units of text is easy-peasy compared to making sure the entire structure of a 110,000-word manuscript is unified, coherent, and engrossing. Which is why I bought a copy of The Writer's Journey to replace my old one that I lost. I like the Hero's Journey approach.

The Winter King (Book #72)

I came to Bernard Cornwell's work through his 19th century stories--the Napoleonic-era Sharpe series and the Civil War Starbuck Chronicles (which he really needs to get back to writing soon, because I don't want it to become one of those eternally unfinished series). Since I know the Civil War as well as any self-respecting American history geek, and I'm obviously turning into an expert on the Napoleonic Wars, I'm very at home in Sharpe's and Starbuck's worlds.

Unfortunately, however, I've read all of their books, so I'm now venturing out into Cornwell's series that are set outside my "home" eras. I still enjoy them, but I'm not quite as passionate for them.

This week I read The Winter King (1995), the first in his Arthurian trilogy. This Arthur belongs solidly in the realm of historical fiction rather than fantasy, full of the internal feuds of 5th century Britons too busy fighting among themselves to unite against the encroaching Saxons. There have been quite a few realistic Arthurs in the past two decades or so, which I mentally divide into Yay Christians! stories and Yay Pagans! ones. This is decidedly a Yay Pagans! variation, but Cornwell doesn't make the pagan British out into idealized egalitarian proto-feminists who lived in a Utopia until the Christians came along and ruined EVERYTHING. For which I, as a Christian reader, feel compelled to thank him. I'm first to admit that my co-religionists have done their fair share of evil down through the generations (power has this way of corrupting the Church), but I get a trifle annoyed when Christianity is the Bad Religion, while the others are somehow immune to the temptation to use power to exploit those under their influence or control.

Anyway, this is a long book, and a rather episodic one, but I liked the protagonist, the young slave-born warrior Derfel, and for the last 150 pages or so I couldn't put it down. It's not quite Sharpe or Starbuck, but I'll be reading the second book soon.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

PNWC: Bob Mayer on Who Dares Wins

Friday morning at PNWC was devoted to an editors and agents forum. I didn't take many notes because in my opinion it wasn't all that informative. It was way too general, complete with the standard lines. All editors and agents are looking for "fresh, original voices." Really. They are. They all say that at every conference.

The most interesting industry tidbit was a Scholastic editor saying that YA as a genre is really tight now. When YA got huge a few years ago, publishers who didn't have YA lines rushed to start them, so now you've got too many books competing for too little shelf space. It's not dying out, but it's a harder sell than it was in '06 or '07.

In the afternoon it was workshop time again. I went to another Bob Mayer talk--"Who Dares Wins," which applies lessons from his Green Beret background to the writing life.

He started with a digression on working with agents. He's on his fourth agent, and he says he's happy with her because she's selling his career, while the previous three were just interested in selling his current book.

Other opening remarks:
- What stops most people from getting published is themselves.
- You need to ACT, not REACT.
- One power you have as a writer is the power to say no.
- 10% of first novels succeed. The other 90% fail to earn out.

Then he moved into the nine tools of "Who Dares Wins":

1. What. What do you want to win? What is your goal? You should have goals for both your current book and your career as a whole, and you should be able to state each in one sentence.

2. Why. What is your intent? What do you want readers to feel? Again, this applies to your career as well as to an individual book. What's the payoff of your book (the last scene)? Does it fit your intent?

3. Where. Walk the terrain of your story. (Me: You gonna pay for my tickets to England and arrange for me to take two months off work, Bob? Until then I'm stuck with Google Earth.) But note: fiction is not wholly authentic. It has to have internal logic, but not necessarily external.

Dissect books that are like yours. You can do this in an Excel spreadsheet. Set up three columns for each scene: 1) What's in the scene? 2) What's the purpose of the scene? 3) What can I do in my story?

When you finish reading a novel, go back to the beginning and look for what you didn't know before. You'll notice foreshadowing and themes that resound throughout the story.

4. Character. Consider your characters' goals and motivation--what they want and why.

Also, know yourself. Your characters will come out of your life whether you like it or not. (Me: This is so true. I've met several of my favorite authors since starting to write and hang out at conferences, and I've yet to be surprised by an author's personality. Authors match their books. Even those of us who would never write an autobiographical novel, who set all our stories in worlds past, future, or fantastical, leave our spiritual fingerprints all over our work.)

Templates can be useful in character development. Consider profiling. 99% of what we do is habit, not conscious decision. Look at behavior patterns and what they tell you about a person. Other resources include Jungian archetypes, Myers-Briggs, etc. (Me: Working with chaplains, I have a professional resource for this sort of thing. I've done enneagrams for my major characters, and once my boss and I spent half of our weekly touchbase session discussing birth order dynamics in large families.)

5. Courage. Most people's primary motivation is fear. Fear isn't about actual events, it's about the expectation of events. Fear isn't always bad, and you need to acknowledge its existence. If you have no fear at all, you're a sociopath (though it's possible to be a sociopath without being evil).

One way to combat fear is to develop a catastrophe plan. If you plan for the worst, you don't have to fear it and can focus your energy on working toward your goals. And think ahead--one book ahead, even one series ahead.

6. Change. 95% of people don't. Only 5% can change through internal motivation. If you want to succeed as a writer, you must be part of that 5%. Perseverance is more important than talent.

7. Command. As a writer, you will put together a team (agent, editor, publicist, etc.). You must be the leader of this team because you care more about your book than anyone else does.

When approaching an editor or agent, look at it from their POV. What do they want? How will they receive your pitch? How do you want them to perceive you and your work?

Learn from any source. Be open-minded and able to admit when you're wrong. And have patience and self-discipline.

8. Communication. We're writers. We create words on a page that come alive in someone else's head. That reader is the most important person. Think about whether/why the reader would be excited about a story.

9. Complete. Break the rules. Be different. But know the rule, have a good reason for breaking it, and take responsibility for it. (Me: I don't remember why that connects to "Complete." It's been over a week now.)

Two final thoughts:

If you're not where you want to be, you need to do something different. What will your sustained action to bring about a change be?

Fiction marketing is tough. Oprah is NOT the talk show host who moves the most books--Jon Stewart is, with his nonfiction author guests.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

PNWC: James Thayer on the Top Novel-Writing Mistakes

The second workshop I attended at PNWC was, in my opinion, focused on beginning writers. As someone who's been at this awhile, receiving quite a bit of positive feedback along the way, I think of myself as the literary equivalent of Triple-A. I've got the skills, and I'm just waiting for that Call to transform my life by inviting me to the Show. So it's tempting to feel like I can't get anything out of a beginner workshop. But as in sports, you never get so good you don't need to drill the fundamentals every once in awhile, and I have to admit I'm still prone to some of these mistakes.

1. Beginning a scene too early and ending it too late. When editing, look at each scene to see what you can peel away from the front and back. If your scene opens with someone driving, walking, getting out of bed, etc., you're probably starting too early. Don't document preparation.

I'm prone to this error in the rough draft stage, when I pretty much write down whatever comes to mind. But I correct it on editing. Usually. I think.

2. Backstory and flashbacks. Should be avoided. Your characters' pasts are more interesting to you than they are to your readers. We always want to share how the character became who he is, but the reader doesn't care. When backstory is absolutely necessary, keep it in brief segments, never more than a page at a time. Ration it out.

This one I am very guilty of. I envy 19th century authors who could get by with including a biography every time they introduced a character.

3. POV that jumps around. Each scene belongs to the character with the most at stake. Too many POV shifts tend to disengage the reader from the story. Use observation and speculation to show what non-POV characters are thinking.

I'm clear on this one. I wrote my first manuscript in first person, so I learned early to stick in one head no matter how nice it would be to see what the other characters are thinking. Now I enjoy the freedom of third limited to give multiple perspectives, but I have no trouble sticking with one person at a time.

4. Too much interior monologue (aka Thinking). A scene should not be something that happens in a character's head. Thoughts are not as interesting as dialogue and actions. Think cinematically--could this scene be staged?

Guilty, guilty, guilty. I overthink, and I write overthinkers. But I fix on edit, reluctantly and with much grumbling.

5. Failure to describe characters physically. Your reader needs to see the character inside her mind, so give her the tools to do so. The more important the character is, the more detail you should use. And don't forget posture and mannerisms.

This actually contradicts most previous advice I've heard on this topic. And it's a challenge in Invasion because my two main characters are heterosexual men. If one of them lingers too long on the other's blue eyes and lean, wiry strength, well, they suddenly don't seem quite so hetero anymore. That said, one of my critique groups has been heard to grumble that they still don't have any idea what these people look like.

6. Use scenes, not summaries. I don't have much in my notes on this one. Show, don't tell, basically.

Thayer then segued into a discussion on how to write dialogue, which he recommends we do as much as possible. Readers are drawn to it, and their eyes like the broken-up text.

1. Avoid small talk. Everyday social lubricant is not interesting in fiction. Make the reader feel he has arrived after the small talk is over and is leaving before it starts up again.

2. Argument is the best dialogue. Accusations are more interesting than flattery. Bickering is more interesting than billing and cooing.

3. Modifying the word "said." Here Thayer gave the standard advice on avoiding adverbs. I always snarl a bit when this Rule of Writing comes up, because I think that anti-adverb brigade has gone too far. Should you have them after every line of dialogue? Heck, no. Are they occasionally useful? Absolutely. But you tell beginner writers that adverbs are bad, writers who haven't yet learned that the Rules of Writing are like the Pirate Code--more like guidelines--and they become fanatical on the topic. And I've run into one too many critiquer or contest judge who red-pens everything that ends in "ly." Drives me crazy, so it does.

Don't get me wrong. Adverbs can be overused. When I'm editing, I look at every one I've written and cut out probably two out of three. But they're a legitimate specialty item in the writer's toolkit. Use them when they work. Adverb proudly.

4. In dialogue, a character should seldom answer a question directly. I.e. you often don't need "yes" or "no."

5. Avoid As-You-Know dialogue. Characters should never tell each other what they both already know for the benefit of the audience. To this advice, I can only say "amen." Nothing drives me crazier than stilted, unnatural backstory exposition through dialogue. Automatic wallbanger, for me.

6. Avoid "John and Marcia" dialogue. I won't bore you with why it's John and Marcia, but the error here is having characters continually say each other's name. It feels stilted and unnatural.

Thayer then closed with two bonus tips:

1. If your character cries, the reader won't have to. If you give your character a reason to cry and she doesn't, then the reader will cry. It's as if letting the character break down takes away the tension.

2. Eliminate exclamation points. They make your novel read like a teenager's diary.

PNWC: Bob Mayer on How to Pitch

Last weekend I went to the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference here in Seattle. I hadn't planned to attend. In fact, I'd already registered for the Willamette Writers Conference, which is coming up NEXT weekend. But I finaled in the associated literary contest, so I decided to go to enjoy the little perks of being a finalist and to be there in person in case I finished in the top three.

Which, incidentally, was a good decision. My Napoleonic-era alternative history, Invasion 1805, took second in the science fiction & fantasy category. Huge ego boost there, I gotta admit.

Anyway, I'm finally making time to go through my notes, so I thought I'd put them on my blog so others could benefit, too.

My first workshop on Thursday afternoon was with Bob Mayer, the ex-Green Beret military thriller writer who lately has been collaborating with Jenny Crusie. The title was "How to Pitch," a topic which guarantees a packed house at any conference, and this was no exception. I got there five minutes before the start and still had to sit on the floor at the back of the room.

Mayer opened with some general thoughts on marketing your book and navigating the shoals of the publishing industry:

1. TITLES: The only marketing tool you as an author sorta-kinda have control over is your book's title. As such, you want to make sure it invites the reader into the story. Too obscure, too generic, etc. is a bad thing.

2. TIMING: A factor you can't control. Sometimes you've got the right book at the wrong time. This one struck home for me, because I really think the best of my three romance manuscripts, The Sergeant's Lady, is of publishable quality, but just doesn't fit the current market zeitgeist. While all my creative energies are focused on Invasion, there's still a part of me that dreams of TSL getting its moment to shine. Maybe the market will shift. Or maybe I'll get lucky and become so gosh-darn popular that it'll sell just because it has my name on it. A girl can dream.

3. FOCUS: You need to know your goals and focus on them. E.g. at a conference you should filter everything you learn through your goal in publishing.

4. PITCH: Emotion is the key. First you need to hook the editor or agent to the emotional core of the story. If s/he's hooked, s/he'll move on to the next question: "Can I sell it?"

5. WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU'VE FINISHED A BOOK: Let it sit awhile before rewriting and submitting. Publishing is a slow industry, and you are the only one involved who's in a hurry. Start work on your next book even before querying on your first book. Once your book is on the market, it's not your baby anymore--it's a PRODUCT. Your emotional investment belongs to what you're writing NOW. Give up your Type A personality and focus on the most important character traits a writer needs--persistence and patience. Develop a 3-year mindset. It'll take you a year to write a book, a year to sell, and a year in production before the book hits the shelves.

6. THE MARKET: Don't write for the market, but invest in Publishers Lunch and understand the market and how you fit in. Network, network, network. And have a low PIA (Pain in the Ass) Factor. You don't want to lose a deal by being obnoxious.

Then Mayer moved into the meat of his presentation: how to distill the heart of your story down to 25 words or less. Basically, the "elevator pitch"--a quick one-liner designed to answer the question, "So, what's your story about?" and hopefully to hook the hearer and lead to more questions.

Mayer urged us to focus on "The Original Idea." Original here doesn't mean "unique"--he stressed that there are no truly unique ideas left--but rather "at the origin." You're to ask yourself, "What was it that made me write this book?" You'd think this would be obvious, but we often forget, and it's often where you find the emotional core that will resonate with readers.

Here Mayer digressed a bit to talk about character and its centrality to marketable, memorable fiction. What makes your book different from every similar book is character. You need to look at your protagonist's arc. If you put your protagonist as he is in his first scene into the climax of the book, he should lose, because he needs to grow over the course of the book to meet the challenge you throw at him in the climax.

Then he went back to more issues to consider in putting together your pitch:
- You want to lead with the most interesting aspect of your book.
- What's the payoff?
- What's your intent? What do you want readers to feel about your book?
- What's your protagonist's anomaly? What makes him or her unique?
- In general, less is more.
- Be wary of author comparisons. The invite the response of "No, you're not."

All through the second half of the talk, I was furiously scribbling away at my one-line pitch, because Mayer announced that at the end, he'd read out pitches from the audience and comment upon them. My Original Idea was maybe not as helpful as most people's would be, because Invasion started as a mental exercise to see if I could find a way to get the Napoleonic Wars onto English soil. (Why I engaged in such an exercise is a long story, and one I'd like to save for if/when the book sells.) After about eight attempts, I finally turned in "In a world where Napoleon conquers England in 1805, Arthur Wellesley (our world's Duke of Wellington) becomes a renegade resistance leader."

As luck would have it, mine was the very first pitch Mayer read aloud. He said it intrigued him, as someone who likes history and alternative histories. It's just a premise--we don't really know what's at stake, i.e. why we should care or root for England. A world where France conquered England 200 years ago might actually be BETTER, who knows. But he thought it was a good hook, a good premise that should lead to more questions. Oh, and he told me I needed to cut "Arthur Wellesley" and just say "our world's Duke of Wellington," because that's what my hearers will actually recognize, and there's no need to clutter the pitch with extra words. Good point. I should've known better, but I'm constitutionally incapable of calling my protagonist "Wellington" prior to 1809, because it wasn't his name yet. I nitpick, therefore I am. I am pedant, hear me pontificate. Also, I've come to think of the real man as Wellington and my interpretation thereof as Wellesley. Makes it simpler when talking to my critique partners, and frees me, somehow, to plunge into his head and play as I take him on a very different journey than the real Wellington ever experienced.

So. That's my one-line pitch, and I have to say it was effective as I tried it out on various people I met during the weekend. I have to work on a longer two-minute pitch and a query letter, but it's not urgent, since I'm still a few chapters shy of a completed first draft. It never occurred to me that anyone would question the "rooting for England" aspect of the story. As far as I'm concerned, I'm squarely in the Hornblower/Sharpe/Aubrey-Maturin tradition. Rooting for England is just what we do. It's a valid question, though, and I do play with issues of what freedom really means and what is worth fighting for.