Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Look at What I'm Not Doing

I'm having a little trouble reading print today (I blame the weather), so here's something I can cut and paste and at least have finished a blog post.

The 25-word elevator pitch for The Astral Palace:
Two best enemies work at cross-purposes to disarm a magical trap. To Blythe, it's good vs. evil. To Jilly, it's her family and her life.

And a 250 word query:
The grown-ups in Jilly's life keep disappearing. Only the hated Blythe (but Blythe hated her first!) can help her get Mom and her neighbors back from the mysterious place where the spell downloaded from AstralPalace.com sent them. Jilly assumes that all's well when her people return and the site goes offline.

Blythe, annoyed that she got trapped while magic-ignorant Jilly broke the spell, decides to punish the magician. She teaches herself astral projection to look for the palace on the astral plane, where she finds it locked down, but intact, supported by the energy of dozens of prisoners.

In her dreams - but they aren't dreams - Jilly also returns to the astral palace, drawn by the voice of her father calling her. He went to jail when she was small and she barely remembers him; but he's in the palace now, dodging evil spirits. With the help of the resident ghost, Jilly learns to negotiate the astral plane and reunite with her father. The three plot to access the magician's study and shut the palace down.

When the rebellion Blythe foments among the prisoners threatens to tear the palace, Jilly is trapped in the magician's study, separated from her allies and from the silver cord binding her to her body. If she is ever to wake up in the real world again, Jilly needs to unravel the connections between herself, her family, and the palace and find the best course of action, before the biggest evil spirit kills her dad.

I'm going back and forth on the subject of whether these are "groan" or "meh." I won't beg for critique - if I really want a critique I can pay for one; it's not that expensive - but anyone who feels like working for free...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Falling through Time

So Damon and I had a good day yesterday, driving up to Austin, watching Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and hitting a couple of stores that aren't on our regular Austin run. The movie is not perfect, but it doesn't have to be. Making the Chauvet images available to the general public is enough, all by itself, to justify Herzog's existence. It must be odd to know (and he can't not have known) that you're doing the most significant work you will ever do, while you're doing it. The movie is trance-inducing, a good-faith effort to assist the viewer in falling backward through time, and does not flinch from the ways in which people - Herzog himself, archeologists, the perfumer/spelunker - make themselves ridiculous trying to articulate mental states that are essentially incommunicable.

Authors should not flinch from this risk, either; but authors have the advantage over workers in other media that, as people whose tools are words, the basic units of communication between humans, we have the potential to figure out how to communicate that state. We cannot hope to communicate it to everyone; but sufficient hard work and application of craft gives us a shot at connecting to some.

Anyone can see that a story adheres to the footprint of the 8-year-old boy beside the footprint of the wolf at one point in Chauvet. A lazy writer would go with the boy-and-his-dog theme; but the writer who wants to take the time journey must do more than that. Even if the boy-and-his-dog theme is what you wind up with, it should be chosen deliberately and with care, after investigating factors such as these:

What is the basis for saying the footprint is that of an 8-year-old boy? Might it be an older, or younger, or a girl?

The archeologist who brings up the footprint, in the manner of archeologists, pushes past the boy-and-his-dog theme to point out that the wolf could have been stalking the boy, or that the two prints could have occurred days, years, even millenia apart. The cave yields no data to pin that down. Neither boys nor wolves are solitary creatures - where are the other footprints?

What do the animal bones (mostly cave bear) and traces of other species in the caves tell us about how they were used by all the local fauna over time, not just humans? What do paleontology and surface archeology tell us about the context of the paintings?

How does the sense of awe and connection to past humanity relate to the equally inarticulable sensation of uncovering the old layers of wallpaper in my back porch? Or turning up traces of past, equally unknown lives in the backs of drawers or behind the wall - the cracked doll face, the enigmatic postcard, the chipped marble? We call one sensation awe and the other nostalgia, as if there were a qualitative difference - but is there? I don't think so.

Consider the theory I mentioned in one of my earliest posts - that most surviving cave paintings were done by adolescents playing around in caves. The argument that the caves were too inaccessible for such an origin doesn't hold up when one considers the inaccessible places where Kilroy has been, where gang sign appears, where Mike Loves Emily inside a heart.

Do the research, stay aware of the world. The story will find you.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Pleistocene Geek Out!

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog's 3D film of the Chauvet cave - into which the public is not allowed! - is showing in Austin at a small theater. Reserved tickets are necessary.


Damon and I will be in Row C for the 2PM showing Saturday, May 28. AKA, tomorrow.

It's a little far to go to see a movie, but a piddling distance to see prehistoric cave paintings in 3D. I'd have gone as far as Dallas; maybe further with planning.

Thanks to Tasha, to whose google fu we owe this outing!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Mystery that is Creation

So I was staring at the screen trying to figure out what to do with my "elevator pitch" and my query hook for The Astral Palace, and I realized, this is not something I can get anywhere on staring at a screen.

If I want to get anywhere, I have to go out onto the balcony (before the temperature climbs too high) and stare at a notebook while fiddling with a pen.

Don't ask me why this works. It does.

The hook I wind up with may still suck, but it'll exist. I'm halfway there on the elevator pitch. At least I've identified my core problem.

Back to the balcony for me. This has been my official rest break.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Hard Stuff Should Be Easier

No, not life, death, love, justice, good, evil. That stuff is major and therefore at least interesting.

Today I need to write a follow-up to a query. The stated response time has expired; it is a rejecting (rather than a rejection by ignoring) house, I need to wave my arms and ask: "Hey, did you get to me in the time?" Then I need to wait another six weeks and write to say I'm going on to the next place on the list.

I hate having to do this kind of crap.

I don't feel like it should be necessary. I know how swamped agents and editors are; I've been in their offices. But if you do your job and are organized, and are truthful when stating your turnaround times, nobody should ever have to remind you to do your job.

On the other hand, how many times have I let an e-mail scroll off the bottom of the screen before getting back to it, and never gotten back to it? How many times have I thought I'd done something, and for lack of noticing that I'd saved rather than sent, not finished it up? If it happens to me, why shouldn't it happen to agents and editors and so on? Even hardworking dedicated ones who are doing their jobs as well as they can.

So, off I go. It won't be that difficult. The hardest part is getting myself to do it. Witness the fact that I've known since I opened the file where I track submissions this morning that I needed to do it, and it's almost 11 and I haven't done it yet. The feeling that it shouldn't be necessary is just that big a mental roadblock.

Should. It's a stupid concept. What should be doesn't matter. What is, does.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Supplemental

I walked through the living room when Damon was watching Turner Classic Movies yesterday, and saw the promo card for the next chapter of the Buck Rogers serial:

A Prince in Bondage.

Sometimes, the porn parodies just write themselves, don't they?

Idea Garage Sale: Wired

Did you know that on any random day you could be going about your ordinary business with somebody wearing a wire?

My horse expert gets income as a mystery shopper. This is someone who goes to a store or other venue, such as banks and apartment complexes, and reports to the Powers That Be for that venue on what it was like. How was she treated? Was the store being run and maintained to spec? Are the apartment's grounds properly maintained? What happens when she asks a tough question or requests something unusual but not unreasonable?

She mentioned that one upcoming session was a recorded one, which involved - in essence - wearing a wire. She also described a couple of times when she'd shopped the wrong store because of confusing addresses and stores set up too close to each other, where they should be competing with each other - on opposite sides of a highway, for example. In a town like San Antonio, where addresses aren't well-displayed, or in any modern urban sprawl area, the strip malls and shopping centers and industrial parks and apartment complexes all look the same.

Sounds like a plot hook to me.

We're talking crime thriller, of course. Quite possibly one with comedy elements. The protagonist is a mystery shopper doing a mix of assignments and errands. Maybe instead of the corporate-owned apartment complex she's supposed to go to she winds up in one that's owned by The Mob (that handy faceless villain) and used as a safe location for various purposes. Maybe she wanders into the wrong venue at the wrong time and witnesses the wrong thing. Is she spotted, her wire detected, and she taken hostage? Does she go undetected, deliberately record the event, and spend the rest of the movie dodging the people who saw or heard her on her way out to take her evidence to the police? Does she blunder innocently into a situation and get mistaken for somebody else? Does her recording even come out audible?

All that's obvious enough, but let's look for other possibilities. What kind of person becomes a mystery shopper? Someone who needs extra income in addition to a full-time job; someone who's between jobs and scrambling for money; someone with a life condition that makes full-time work problematic. In a different economy, someone who is already comfortably off but is bored and wants more to do - though anybody who can't come up with more to do on her own is an iffy protagonist, with all there is to do in this world, for my money. Each of these motivations implies a different character arc, and possibly a different nefarious deed caught on tape.

Is there a temptation for the person in dire need of money to exploit her possession of the recording? Maybe it wasn't a major criminal deal; maybe it was just a spot of adultery and she's trying to blackmail the parties. Maybe she's dumb enough to try to sell the evidence. Maybe what she witnessed was a bit of shady backroom dealing that results in her having inside information that can make her a huge profit if she works it right.

What if she loses the recording or it's no good, and no one she reports to believes her because the life condition that makes full-time work problematic is paranoid schizophrenia, and even she's not sure, in the absence of the recording, that she's lucid? The antagonist in this story would be less the criminals and more her own brain, as she strives to prove to herself, one way or another, the reality of the situation she witnessed.

What if she's got self-esteem issues and thinks she's not smart, resourceful, or educated enough for any better job than mystery shopper? Nothing like evading bad guys in a thriller to apply the kind of pressure that brings out competence she didn't know she had.

You see how the hook is only the start of the idea? Define the character, define the stakes; and then you have the story.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Thought Train Stoppeth and Starteth

You know what's the scariest sound to hear when people are working on your house?

All of them.

I got a day off market research yesterday, because my horse expert came to help me make low-sodium bread that actually rises (apparently I'm kneading it wrong, and the only cure for that is - bake more bread!) and delivered the notes to the portion of the manuscript she'd read. I hated giving her such huge chunks of book, but it's not the places where you expect to have problems that the big problems bob up in, so - anyway, that's all in now and I've discovered a publisher who, though they were insisting on queries not long ago, are suddenly taking complete manuscripts. Either that, or somebody played a hideous practical joke on their submission page.

I weep for the trees lost in this endeavor, but when I see a publisher who wants to see complete MS, I always oblige. I sell better on the whole book than on a query. It's far from a done deal, but - look, I'm long-winded, okay? I admit it. I'm proud of it. I embrace my commonality with the Victorians, Tolkien, and Rowling. I'm also really, really good at cutting length out of a whole story.

Hooks and synopses? The opposite of my metier. Achilles had his tendon. I have short formats.

One phenomenon vanishing as the world goes digital: that mysterious page in the middle of the manuscript that is borked. Everything around it will be fine, but that sheet hung up on another one in the printer and suddenly the margin is at the top, or the middle, or some damn thing.

I used to have to print books a chapter at a time and adjust the daisy wheel in between. That printer was a workhorse though.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


I got two queries out last week, with more fuss than should have been necessary. One got rejected over the weekend.

This is not a career path for those who demand instant gratification, like to feel in control of their own destinies, or believe in career paths.

Meanwhile, the framers didn't show up yesterday - no one knows why - but are back again today. I should have back steps soon; this evening, I hope. The old steps were concrete and butted up against the house under the back door, with about an eight-inch drop from the bottom of the door frame to the first step. I won't miss that when I'm taking out the compost on dizzy days, not one bit! In fact, this may be the thing about the renovation I'm looking forward to most. I was prepared to sacrifice a couple of roses of sharon to it, but it doesn't look like that'll be necessary. So I can't say nothing's going right for me.

Thai can. She can only use the back door when the workmen are here, and she hates workmen. She and Bruce have the chores split up - when workmen are here, he stays outside to supervise what they're doing in the yard and she follows me around. I'm not sure whether she's protecting me from being demolished and rebuilt, or vice versa - her body language is ambiguous.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Trina and the Zit that Would Not Die

The doctor called it a cyst.
Mom called it a boil.
Trina called it the zit that would not die, and there was no way she was going to school with it.
"You've already been to school with it for a month," said Mom.
"It was hidden under my hair then," Trina pointed out. "Now it's got black drawing salve all over it and a big grody bandage and nobody will not know it's there. I'd rather die."
"That could be arranged," said Ethan brightly.
Trina ignored him. Ignoring little brothers was the only possible way to deal with them. Her ambition was to get through an entire month without acknowledging his existence. It'd be a cinch, if they had a decent number of bathrooms.
"You can't stay home from school for a whole week," said Mom. "You'll spoil your average."
"Not if Sabrina brings me my assignments," said Trina. "These classes are a waste, Mom. I keep telling you. I should be in college right now."
Which led into that argument, and in the end Mom thought the idea of not going to school was done with. You'd think, thought Trina, that she'd know her own daughter better than that. Dad wouldn't have fallen for it. No way. But one of the reasons it was better to live with Mom than with Dad was because she couldn't keep ahead of her and prevent things from happening. As long as Trina got into Sabrina's car when she came by in the morning, Mom thought she'd wind up at school.
Ah, the innocence of adulthood.
"What is that on your neck?" demanded Sabrina as Trina climbed in through the open passenger window. The passenger-side door had jammed shut after Sabrina's older sister Callista had a little argument with a phone pole, which was a good thing, in a way, because now Callista was taking the bus and Sabrina had wheels. Just not doors.
"The zit that would not die," answered Trina, buckling up as they roared away from the curb. "The doctor said I had to wear this gunk for a week and come back Saturday to have it removed."
"It looks like tar," said Sabrina. "You're going around school like that for a week?"
"No," said Trina. "You're dropping me at the park-n-ride in the morning and picking me up there in the evening. With my assignments." She unzipped the side pocket of her book bag and passed over the forged medical excuse. "I'll call from a pay phone to back that up."
"And you're doing what all day long while I'm lying to cover your hiney?" inquired Sabrina.
"Exploring the infinite possibilities of real life," said Trina.
"That's great," said Sabrina. "But what do you do when your credit cards are full? And do I get to hide the shopping bags, too?"

You can tell this is old - what teen ager today even knows where to look for a pay phone?

Yes. I had a boil on the back of my neck covered with drawing salve, and drawing salve looks like tar. It didn't bother me much - grown woman, long hair - but the stuff would have sent most of the girls I knew in high school into prolonged spasms of life-ending despair. I still think it's a viably funny way to start a book. But starting with this situation, there were way too many directions to go and none of them compelled me: coming of age, action thriller, farce, morality play. And I don't actually like girls like Trina enough to want to go along with her for an entire novel. I'd be in danger of using her as a straw girl to make some point or other.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Excuses, excuses

Ah, Tuesday morning! Recovered my energy after a weekend spent clearing brush and at the washateria (good lord, it costs $4 to use the big machine these days!) and I should be ready to sit down and tackle my hook.

The framers are downstairs making ten kinds of racket. Thai, who disapproves of workmen, is in my face (and my hands, and my keyboard). Filing awaits. I have accumulated game work, and house work, and this blog post, and the new Neal Shusterman book, and a hold came in at the library, and the Sims2 expansion I bought on e-bay came in yesterday...

Honestly, you'd think the universe had something against my writing queries, it makes it so easy to not do it!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Layers

One measures a circle, beginning - anywhere. -- Charles Fort

Despite what I said last week, what follows is a far more likely way for me to "get an idea."

The back of the house is gutted down to the studs and the plumbing. Some areas, like the upper back sunroom where the previous owner hired a guy to patch the roof, and he just nailed a few shingles down over the hole, aren't as bad as we feared, and some areas, like the floor under the downstairs commode, are scarier than we'd thought. The open porch space is pleasant, and it seems a shame to divide it up again.

The best part is how the history of the house leaps out when the layers are peeled back. It appears that the exerior was at one time painted green. My best guess is that the back porch was enclosed at the same time as the asbestos shingle siding, whenever that was. The fire insurance map indicates that the siding might have been added as early as the 20s. The back porch was still single-story in those days, but the clapboard upstairs shows no sign of ever being shingled over. At least, none that I recognize. It's one of many puzzles about this house's history that I don't expect to resolve.

The removal of the upstairs shower reveals the remains of two layers of wallpaper. One, barely visible, has a 1940's/50's vibe, a neutral background with stylized flowers and geometric shapes in aqua and orange, pasted to a base of tight-mesh cheesecloth stretched tight and nailed directly over the original clapboard exterior. Over that, someone pasted a carefully-thought out arrangement of a pattern designed to look like neutral tiles with dark dots (original color uncertain) in a wainscot, with the dado and ceiling in another neutral patterned in round-edged line drawings of rectangles in green, blue, and red so bright that the colors are still readily distinguishable. It's hideous and screams "mod 60's mistake." On top of that, probably in the 70s when the rental company took over, this was all covered with tarpaper and then sheetrocked and tiled over to make the full bath that was here when we moved in.

The dog lady across the street remembers the house in the 60s, when it was inhabited by "Miz Jones." I have her full name and will refrain from using it, because I know nothing about her except what the dog lady says and what I glean from the documents related to my house. The dog lady says that Miz Jones collected dolls, and remembers loving how she'd decorated the room we currently use for game books and crafts. All lavender! Traces of that lavender are still visible in the window casings of that room, and all I can say is, that a woman capable of painting an entire room that color is capable of perpetrating the mod 60s paper, as well.

I have a love-hate relationship with the former owners and tenants of my house. So much of the last 30 years has been spent dealing with, living around, and fixing up their mistakes, their neglects, their decisions good and bad! The tile in the main bath is a ghastly salmon pink, but oh-so-well installed. The widow who preceded Miz Jones seems to have installed the arch between the foyer and the living room, but sheetrocked over the transom between the living room and dining room. Somebody installed a good and convenient fusebox, somebody pirated a phone line, somebody decided white tile would be a good kitchen floor.

But we all lived in this house, which I love, and with all that, created its peculiar atmosphere, which most people who spend any time here notice. It's a welcoming place, once you cross the threshold (my laissez faire attitude to landscaping is mostly responsible for the 'haunted house' curb appeal). Sitting in its rooms, it's easy to overlook how shabby it all is, the cheap paint and the damaged sheetrock and the scuffed original hardwood floors. The house doesn't seem to mind all that. It would make a crappy showplace, but it's a grand place to live and to entertain the kinds of guests you're not interested in impressing. It's the kind of atmosphere that makes you feel that it's always been lived in by people who loved it and made a good home.

But being alone here at night is nervous-making. I've been spooked by the sound of my own breathing. When I stay away overnight, Damon - who is not a small or timid man - doesn't like to sit at the computer with his back to the French door onto the balcony. When he's working late or out of town, the cats and I tend to huddle all into the same room, often onto the same piece of furniture. We're not scared, exactly. If we have a ghost, it's a friendly one.

But it's not a house to be alone in.

And this is how stories are really born, inventing history to explain the present. Miz Jones lived here alone - this huge house - just her and her dolls, which for some people would make her creepy all by themselves, but I'm a doll collector, too, and the dog lady wasn't creeped by them. I think Miz Jones was one of those nice old ladies with unsophisticated taste, who liked children but didn't have any.

The dog lady also says that the schizophrenic person on our street, who a few years ago became convinced we worshipped the devil and would stand in the street yelling at us at four in the morning (this person is doing much better now), was probably fixated on our house because of being shut in a closet here as punishment, by a grandparent who was also a tenant.

Which makes me wonder - what was in that closet? I find I'm certain I know which closet - the large one in the study, which has steps up the back to make room for the stairwell. You can hardly get into it now because I keep office supplies and out of season clothing in it, but used strictly as a clothes closet it would have had plenty of room for a child you couldn't handle, and a closet monster.

And what was the relationship between Miz Jones and the closet?

What if some places are havens, places where troubled spirits can be kept until they're better? What if some people are their natural guardians? What happens when a natural guardian dies before the troubled spirit is better?

It is arguable that I don't have the right to use Miz Jones and my schizophrenic neighbor in this way; but the argument doesn't hold up. All creative ideas start in real life. We have obligations to the real people who inspire us, but they don't include not following inspiration to its logical end. The end result of the train of thought that begins with my house and my wallpaper need not be recognizable to surviving relatives of Miz Jones or the family of the schizophrenic. Respect is due, both to the poor taste of kind ladies and to the realities of mental illness. They may be used as metaphor, but must not be used as shorthand, not demonized or trivialized or ridiculed.

This is too vague for a story - now. But this is what most people have when they say they have an idea. They have the easy part, the sense that a story is out there, a sense that these concepts and images hang together.

The hard part is putting it through last week's process. Finding the character + conflict = story, building a structure from which to hang the concepts and images.

But nothing easy is worth anything.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Starting from Scratch. Again.

No matter how many times I query agents with The Astral Palace, it seems like every time I do so I have to go back to the drawing board and reinvent my query letter.

Partly this is because different agents want different things up front and partly this is because every time I reread the old ones I think: "No, wait, that hook sucks." I think that even about the ones that generated requests for partials. Suddenly it's too long, or too short, or goes into too much detail, or doesn't explain enough, or -

So here I am again, laboring hard over small things, tearing down all that went before to start from nothing, and all the time knowing - the query isn't going to sell the book. The query's going to give the book a chance to sell itself, and me - because the book and I and my sales history and the unsold backlog and the stories I'm going to write all come in a package.

No wonder getting an agent is harder than getting a publisher. The publisher only has to commit to one book.

This makes shoving the stupid ego aside much, much harder to do than normal. The ego has a legitimate stake in an agent query. It has to put its best foot forward. So what does it do instead? It turns to jelly and gets in my way, flopping around wailing about how nobody likes it and it's ruining our chances. I don't know why I've got the dang thing. I can't take it anywhere, and it never gives me any useful input.

Blank page. Hook. Onward. Upward. The only way out is through.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Toward Better Gun Handling

My gun expert gave me his notes on my gun usage this weekend, and I was able to incorporate them all yesterday, so this week has already been more productive than the last two. Which is good, because right now there's a workman covering my hardwood with black plastic preparatory to gutting my back porch, and I expect to be a little distracted for the next four months.

Anyway, there is a moment of frozen stupidity I have to go through right before I look at any notes anybody gives me on a work; a moment in which I feel certain I'm about to find out exactly how inept, ignorant, and unworthy I am. This is the sensitive ego blocking the path forward, and as usual yesterday I shoved it aside and got on with business. The notes were exactly what I needed. Now Len's ears ring for the correct amount of time after her gun battle, she does not hear a bullet whine through the air because they only do that when they ricochet, and she does not release a non-existent safety or skip cocking the weapon. I also know more about how sound travels in the Hill Country.

Although it wasn't in his brief, my expert also asked me a question in passing about another matter, which caused me to look for the answer, which made me realize that in the press of trying to write an action sequence I had made a factual blunder, which is now corrected. So if my expert had been paid, he would have earned a bonus. As it is, I think I need to bring game snacks he can share next time.

The ego is a peculiar thing, and more often a hindrance than a help in any kind of real work. I am far from unusual in having that moment of frozen stupidity, which makes us want to avoid reading critiques of our work, and which will also lead us to argue with critiques of our work, regardless of the nature or value of the critique. As human beings, we have a tendency to prefer to maintain our opinion of ourselves; but this works contrary to our best interest, as it leads us to prefer to ignore, or even defend, a mistake rather than to correct it.

This is the same destructive force that will prefer the appearance of integrity to its reality; that leads us to remain ignorant rather than gain knowledge by asking a question that we fear will make us sound stupid; that keeps us tackling problems over and over again with techniques that have failed repeatedly, because we think they ought to work, and because the alternatives offend our sense of how the world ought to operate.

I have witnessed more than one diagnosed paranoid, and it struck me that the methods by which these people distort their perception of the world is indistinguishable, except in degree, from those the rest of us use. Many of us would rather be miserable and ineffectual for the rest of our lives than admit to having once been wrong.

Whatever work you're doing, it's not about you. It's about the work. Put yourself to one side and focus on the work, and then you won't have to pretend your way to self-esteem. You'll have good work to build it on.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: When Queen Bees Collide

Got up this morning in one of those weird states - physically robust for once, but inexplicably wanting to cry; then it was game day and I got over it, but I haven't had a lot of brain with which to pick through garage sale ideas. However, part of the point here is to demonstrate that it doesn't matter. You don't have to be inspired to have an idea, even a viable one. You can do them off the cuff.

So, let's walk through this. Story = Conflict + Character. If you want a plot you have to add Resolution, but we don't need that right now, we're just after the Story Idea. That's a little broad, though, so we have to set parameters.

Age group? YA. Y not?

Genre? Contemporary, because that's harder for me than fantasy or historical but requires less research.

Protagonist? Female. Name's Annie (because a little girl who visited the other day is reading Anne of Green Gables). Just moved to town - cliche but for a reason. New town and school and situation means a whole new set of problems and very little need to create backstory. Downside for me: I'm an Air Force brat. Any new kid in town I write risks being just like me.

So she's not like me, how? She is not the middle child of three, she is not a bookworm, she gives a care about her school's social hierarchy.

But why does she give a care? If she values status for its own sake I'm not going to like her - I loathed those girls. If she wants it because it's easier to get along if you have a certain place in the hierarchy, then she wants a lowish place, and that's fairly easy to come by if you're enough not like me.

So why does she care?

Because her twin sister Diana does. Diana is a queen bee and the dominant twin. Annie's comfy place is in her twin's orbit.

So, where's the conflict, and why is it primarily Annie's conflict rather than Diana's? Fighting over a boy is RIGHT OUT. The minute I see best friends, much less sisters, fighting over a boy on a book jacket, I put it down.

Well, obviously the person with the vested interest in keeping Diana from assuming her rightful place as Queen Bee is the current Queen Bee. Whose name is...(pulls down baby name book, opens at random, and puts finger down on a page of male names. That's no good. Try again.) Gabrielle.

Gabrielle is black. Don't ask me how I know that, it's enough that it already makes her different from 90% of popular girls in American fiction. I pulled that statistic out of thin air, but you know what I mean. This isn't the 60s, though, so the fact that she's black can't be made a big deal of on its own. She has to be individual. Not the nasty enemy Queen Bee with whom we're all familiar. She has to be someone who we can understand becoming popular, someone who isn't mean by nature but can play high stakes high school politics. She has to be an attractive character.

She has to attract Annie.

There we go. That's Annie's problem. Her beloved sister, on whom she is emotionally dependent in this new situation, is deploying her as a foot soldier in her war against this dazzling girl that Annie's falling for. It doesn't have to be a coming out story, but it will inevitably be a story of internal identity conflict, a conflict of loyalties, and also a story of external, interpersonal conflict. You want a real eye-for-an-eye savage popularity contest as your action track. You want a political thriller. You want the choices Annie makes to be hard, the reader to back Diana and Gabrielle alternately, to have at least one scene that makes her wince in recognition.

And all that, of course, is the hard part. The idea - pfft. That took half an hour from conception to this sentence.