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I just got a new laptop--not a family laptop to replace a broken/outdated one, but MY computer, one for me to do my writing and researching on.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.