Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Potty Training?

Daniel has shown some interest in potty training, so we got out the big boy underwear today. Actually, he found them and brought them to me. So he was doing well, staying dry, and I was pleased. Then I asked him if he needed to go potty. "No," he said. I told him if he peed in the potty he would get a treat.

Apparently he didn't hear the "in the potty" part.

Proving that he has some measure of bladder control, he immediately peed right by Tim's foot and then ran into the kitchen and said, "Want a treat! Need treat now!"

Um, we'll have to work on this....

Monday, July 23, 2007

What We Saw in Boulder

We were driving through Boulder and I, like every mom, was pointing out things the kids might want to see as we drove. In a three block stretch, I said, "There's a kayak on that car...Oh, look, a stuffed animal on the roof...Hey, that lady has a drum on her back."

I guess they didn't see any of the things I was pointing out, because at this point Anda piped up, "Hey, I want to say silly things, too!"


Misc note first of all: There is another virtual academy--Connections Academy. It's a national online school with branches (usu. charter schools) nationwide, but not in every state. Their target audience seems to be ahead/behind students who don't fit into the traditional classroom because of the way their brains work. It appeals to me because the promotional materials say you can go as fast (or slow within reason) as you want, even completing multiple grades in one year if you want--in one subject or all of them. Very cool.

Anyway, Anda:

Anda is sick today. Stomach/intestinal yuckies. She was walking around with a "throw up bowl" under her chin. "Are you throwing up?" I asked. "Apparently not," she said sourly.

You ask a stupid question......

Also, the kids reminded me of the first story Anda ever told us. I think she was two. The story went, "Once upon a time there was an ugly old frog who was dead. The end."

Anda loves to tell stories. They go on and on. When she tells a traditional folktale, she's never content to stop at happily ever after. Instead, she says, "The End. Now, verse two." Most of Anda's stories have verses, which are something between what you would call 'chapters' and 'variations on a theme.' Most verses include her favorite toy, Baby Kitty, and Caleb's toy, Guy the Green Bear.

She also loves to break out of traditional songs with improvised, scat-singing breaks, which she invariably wants us to sing along to and gets mad if we improvise different than she does.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Never a Shortage of Ideas....

I have ANOTHER idea for a novel. I never seem to run short on ideas.

So now while Kate is turning into a smart and overconfident 16-year-old, Maggie is stewing over how someone could electronically hijack her top-secret cell phone/CIA toolkit and how to get to the seventh floor unseen, Sophronia is lying about her age so she can ride with Annie Oakley, and Melora is trying to find a contest a teen could win against an adult that would have high stakes, I am pondering this:

Wouldn't it be fun to write a murder mystery where one of the fairytale wicked witches has been murdered, and all the princesses are the suspects. Naturally, it would take the stories of the princesses and, instead of asking "how would a good person grow from these experiences", the question would be "how would this life history ruin a person?" So, for example, Sleeping Beauty is a pothead (or junkie or something). Snow White? Obsessive-compulsive. You get the idea. Each of the princesses really does have a legit motive for wanting a witch dead, you know....

Unfortunately, I haven't gotten very far on the plot. I just have a little dialog jotted down--the princesses are sitting around talking when a flying elephant zooms by and someone shoots it. They think whoever created those creatures out to be shot, too, and have his heart and brain buried under a mountain. "Have you noticed they always seem to fly overhead right after you wash your coach?!" Imagine the mess that would make. They all live in the same ostentatious neighborhood, of course, and everyone's always remodeling their castles to be better than everyone else in a serious case of Keeping Up with the Charmings.

The thing that's holding me back is the sleuth. Who would the sleuth be? The Fairy Godmother? Another fairy? One of the Handsome Princes wouldn't work because I don't think I could write a convincing male sleuth. Maybe one of the ugly stepsisters or a stepmother of someone. That would work--a wicked stepmother, who is actually a really nice, down-to-earth person who has been vilified by the "rich" set. She's not actually wicked--it's just that the princess was a real jerk who was always in trouble (stealing and stuff), and stepmommy got the blame. Hmmmm.....

I'll have to let the idea ferment some. It might conflict with my idea of taking Kate to a convention of holiday-related characters. Maybe not. The mystery can be different, although I kill a witch in one and the easter bunnies (stupid pests--always running around, multiplying like crazy, and they have no sense of propriety. Not to mention they chew the furniture and tend to run off in the middle of a conversation) in the other.

Writing is so fun.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Selling my Hair

I posted my hair for sale on I figured since I was going to cut it anyway, I might as well make a little money.

Within 24 hours, I got FIVE responses saying "I want 36" of it, and I'll give you x amount." The highest offer so far was $2000. For three feet of virgin blonde hair. Who knew? I suppose I'll have a little auction and see what happens. Next time you see me, my oh-so-characteristic long blonde tresses may be only shoulder length. But then Tim can finish school without working, and I won't get caught in doorways anymore, and it will grow back.

Funny, huh?

Compelling, Part 2

I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been too busy writing. While we were in Utah, I realized, thanks to promptings by my mother mentioned in earlier blog entries, that I had really written two books, not one, even though it was one story.

So I cut, added a few lines, and sent it off to my beta readers (I know you're not supposed to use husband, sisters, and parents as Beta Readers, but my family happen to be extremely competent editors and well-read in many genres, and with different but equally refined tastes--why search for someone else?).

My beta readers said it was boring.

They were right.

So I skipped back to the rewriting I was doing at the moment--re-doing the query to reflect the "two books" status.

My beta readers said that was boring, too.

They were right.

So I sat down with Tim and he said, "Think movie trailer. Decades ago....." and he went on and told me what would really be interesting and catching. He, a great student of movie trailers (he watches and studies hundreds) gave me the "quick and dirty" of what makes something interesting and compelling or not, with examples of trailers that work and that don't. He said, "Put on the most cliche movie trailer music and get to work." Then he went to bed and I went to work. Now I'm embarrassed about the queries I've sent so far. The fact that they got good responses lets me know the quality of the other queries out there!

Anyway, that fixed, I started thinking about if the query is the trailer, the book is the movie, and suddenly the issue of what's compelling became very clear to me.

I have to go back here to fill in the blanks in the thought process, or it won't all be clear.

It actually all started with Dad's comments (emailed privately) on my previous "compelling?" post. He said that "hooking" the reader like a fish seems unfair, and referred to D&C 121 that talks about your dominion flowing to you without compulsory means. I thought that this was the key to the issue, but I didn't understand it myself, even after talking to Dad. Wouldn't a writer use the same techniques to hook the reader as to make them want to come to you? What's the difference between those, anyway?

I didn't have answers, so I let the questions ferment.

Then, in Utah, I had sick kids, sick husband, and I was sick, day after day. Just as soon as one person got well, another got sick. So I sat in my mom's house and ended up picking up the books she had lying around. Mom reads murder mysteries. One after another I picked them up--legitimate, published books, mind you--and read the first chapter or two and then gave up. They just didn't catch me. Then I picked up Sarah Graves' book, "Mallets Aforethought." Man, I was caught. I read it straight through, every word, in order. You know the last time I did that? It's been so long I don't even remember. Probably the last Harry Potter Book, and even then I skipped ahead a few times and went back.

So I spent a few days thinking about what caught me. There were a few elements that I'm just a sucker for: a historic mystery that has to be solved alongside the modern one, secret rooms and passages in an old house. But that was only part of it. The thing that surprised me was that the story itself was so formulaic as to be predictable. It followed the exact story that I criticized at the beginning of the early drafts of Poison Spindle, down to the last predictable detail. The characters were fun, lovable, interesting, and not entirely believable--and not in the larger-than-life way that Donald Maass thinks is ideal but other agents don't really go for. She didn't even follow up on every detail that she made out to be important (spent a lot of time talking about a cat and then never followed up with it). But it was still compelling!

Then I realized that one of the themes of Poison Spindle is that the real world is formulaic, and knowing the formula doesn't make living it any less traumatic or surviving it any less satisfying. (Didn't even know I put that in there!). In "Mallets" the journey was satisfying anyway.

So it was something about the writing itself that made the story compelling. Looking at the writing, the one thing that stood out, above and beyond the other books, was that Ms. Graves didn't waste any words. It's not that she didn't include anything that didn't move the story forward. Obviously (the cat) she did. But she only said as much as she needed to, in an easily accessible way, to get the story told. The other thing she did was put a body in the first line. Dear Departed Miss Snark used to say she wanted a body in the first paragraph. One of the other mysteries I got into still didn't have a body by page 20, so I gave up. Took too long to get to the story. And THAT is exactly what my beta readers missed in Poison Spindle. They wanted action up front--a body on the first page, and it was on the sixth (or maybe fifth, but still....).

The problem with the novel before, that made the story "just not come together in my mind" was that I was writing the novel as if it were a bit of expository writing. The story and characters are interesting enough that this almost works, and definitely has it's good parts.

I realized, as I tried to make the first chapter less boring, that I was trying to "hook" the reader. I was trying to create something that was interesting and intriguing, and I couldn't make it work. The harder I tried, the more contrived it was. I finally realized I was just trying to manipulate the reader. It might work to keep them reading, but it wasn't fair and it didn't make for compelling work. Instead, it created the kind of work I skip through quickly just to get the answer to the "hook", but I don't get lost in the story. I was trying to force a body into the first paragraph, and all I got was a lot of bodies, but not story still.

Then I read Orson Scott Card's analysis of Snape, and, in it, his analysis of what makes a character interesting and alive. I was struck by his comments that at some point, Rowling got lost in her own story. I have thought I got lost in my story before, but I hadn't. I had gotten lost in the incredibly pleasurable experience of writing. But not in the story itself.

So then I got to "Decades ago...." When Tim verbally turned my query into a movie trailer, I was floored. I actually HAD written an interesting story. It had been so long that I wondered. He hooked me, and I wrote the darn book!

So how did he do it? With Living Language. It wasn't just that he took out the passive voice because I don't really have a serious problem with that. It's that before, the language was expository, and the story was just being told. But in a compelling book, the story isn't just being told. It's living and happening. The characters aren't just cardboard cutouts being moved by the writer through events set up to take them to the end of the story, they are live people that the writer watches and knows and follows.

Writers have said this all before, and I've known it. But I finally "got" it.

It's not that the writer has to know the story well. It's that the story has to be alive (and worth telling), and the writing has to be alive, and then the reader, without being compelled to, WANTS to stick with it and read it. Not just to find out what happens, or how all the pieces fit in, but because they just somehow got lost in the story. They might go back and appreciate the novelists' craft and skill, but that's not what makes them want to read every word. That's the after-the-fact effect.

Can I write a living story? I don't know. Visualizing it all as a movie helps--where would the director cut to a shot of out the window? Where are the characters? What lighting is there? Where does he zoom in, or cut to the wall instead of the speaker's face?

The first time Tim read my book, he said, "You're a playwrite." All my experience to that point had been something like that. But now I hope I've moved on. Suddenly, in my mind, my novel isn't just on a stage, it's a real, living, thing.

Does this mean I have to rewrite every word? Probably.

Will it be better? I hope so, or I should stop trying to get published and just keep enjoying the experience of writing as an end in itself.

Google Does it Again

Google has lots of good ideas. This the newest I've found:

This is a fabulous research tool. No joke. Instead of searching the wide wide world of the web, with all its info and misinfo and pseudoinfo and crap, searches only scholarly publications, ranking them by the status of the researchers and publications. Very cool. In my test, I looked up the last thing I was trying to find scholarly info on: oxytocin. It plays a major role in the Poison Spindle Problem. In literally three minutes I had more information than hours of searching provided last time. I even had information at my fingertips (the name of the hormone that functions in men the way oxtyocin functions in women) that I never could find before. It doesn't give the full text of every article, but it gives as much as it can (abstract, full text, just a reference). It's fabulous. Even better than the University Library search. What more can I say?

Oh, and thanks to Scholar, I got to use the words "monogamous prairie vole" in my novel. Can't get better than that.....

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Picnic

I realized today that I met Tim 15 years ago next month. That means I've known him half my life!

Tim is on the board of the Colorado Vocal Jazz Society. They have a meeting once a month, right after their annual family barbecue/drinking party. I shan't speculate on what this says for the quality of the meeting, since it follows an hour or more of drinking and partying. But there were kids there, and our kids were having a marvelous time with the swingset and trampoline. At one point, I went to check on Caleb and heard him say to another boy, "I'm five. Well, I'm five and three quarters. Well, not exactly. You'm not exactly sure how old I am, but I know it has a five in there somewhere. And I'll be six in a few weeks."

Funny. Then I felt bad. He asked me the other day exactly how old he is, so I told him, "Five and 23/24ths." It was the 23/24 that he couldn't remember, and which the bewildered 7-year-old he was talking to (who was smaller than Caleb), wouldn't have understood anyway.

Caleb has now lost two teeth. I told him to put them under his pillow and maybe the tooth fairy would come. He lost the teeth somewhere in the house. But he got money under his pillow nonetheless ("It's not $2, Mom! It's 8 quarters."). The look on his face when he discovered that daddy didn't do it was priceless!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

You know why I hate touring?

I hate touring because the kids invariably get sick.

Yest, on the road again--and home again. This time our trip was half touring, half family vacation, and we got to see all the families. Also share the stomach flu with them. How lovely. There were many good shows, lots of good talk, more than enough getting stressed, and I'm glad we're home.

One significant thing happened--my mother, fearing I would be offended, suggested that what I really write is Young Adult Lit (in publishing, as I understand it, that category covers junior high and some high school aged readers, what's called Teen Lit in bookstores and libraries and academic circles). I was not offended. In fact, that's what I set out to write in the first place. I accepted the suggestion immediately, and applied it to my WIPs (works in progress), too, and found that the new focus was the solution to lots of my problems.

And viewing myself that way ended up being a great relief.

I immediately knew what I needed to do to "fix" Poison Spindle to be a YA book again. Then I realized it was twice too long (instead of just 15% too long). But then I realized I could make it into two books if I divided them not where the ms was divided right then, but about 20 pages later. This is not the exact middle of the manuscript, but it's a nice "done but what next" kind of stopping point like you want for leading someone to the sequel. Writing is not a fast craft, especially with three or four kids at (or on) my knees at any one time, so it took me two hours to finish the changes. But only two hours. I re-read the dialogue and realized that Kate, the heroine, already acted 16, just like my mom said. No change necessary there. And, as with all good edits in this book, the change allowed me to delete and simplify some things that I had to write pages of dialogue to "justify" (like how come nobody noticed Kate was gone for 2 months?).

So, dare I say it again? The book is finished (?).......and is now one story, but could be two books legitimately.

Anyway, I then went to my other books. Maggie, the ex-spy housewife, is still an adult book series and always will be. But the Western, which was going to be a sequel to the Poison Spindle Problem, is no longer a "Bookstore" book. Instead, it is a standalone YA novel, "Sophronia Kelley, Hired Gun", about a teenage sharpshooter who, after lying about her age to get in with Annie Oakley's girls, gets hired to be the President's daughter's bodyguard as she's going to a new women's university in California. Half-way there, the train they are on is held up by "Injuns" and Sophronia is too young and scared to actually shoot a man (she's really 15-year-old actress, not a cowboy!), so she loses the President's daughter. Instead of going on, she sets out into the Arizona desert to find the girl and make good her promise to protect her. It just works so much better as a YA book! And the other one, Melora and the Maltese Falcon, which I noted it's permutations before, is still a mystery, but I've restored Melora to her 14-year-old splendor. Instead of saving her boyfriend, she's out to rescue her father. Other than that, the story stays the same. Wow--do I go in circles or what?!