Thursday, June 30, 2011

Neatness Sucks

When I put the draft to rest, I packed up all the non-book research I had - my folder of maps, my three-ring binder of photocopies, that sort of thing - in the tapestry bag I used to carry pens, notebook, and lunch when I did library research during the research phase, and put it someplace where I'd find it again when I needed it.

Now I have no idea where that is.

If I could only figure out how to exploit this talent for misplacing things for profit, the house would've been fixed up long ago. (Complete ceiling, window trim, and more than half the wainscot up in the laundry/sewing room! Hurray!)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How to Shorten Your Book

Revise it backward.

This has never failed me (and believe me, I know about needing to cut wordage). Starting at the end, work back a paragraph at a time, breaking up paragraphs that won't fit on one screen of your word processor at normal viewing size, futzing with wordage until that single-word last line in the paragraph fits on the line ahead of it, ensuring that each chapter ends at the bottom of a page instead of in the top quarter.

Because you're disrupting your context, it's easier to take each paragraph as a unit. My excessively long sentences stand out more. Overused words, ditto. Redundancy, ditto.

Read the forest forward. Read the trees backward. Prune accordingly.

The lesbian western is already shorter by one full page.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Revision pass #1 complete. 91,000+ words, 32 chapters, one 91-word sentence, average word length 4 characters, average sentence length 15 words. About typical.

Next step; another pass, more slowly, concentrating on breaking up all sentences longer than 60 words. This will automatically shorten the book and I'll probably see other things on the way, like expository lumps and places with too much or too little grounding in the setting.

By then, I hope, I'll have a title I can stick in a query.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Sequel to Switching Well

Kids who like a book often ask for a sequel. So far the only book I've felt I might could write a sequel for is 11,000 Years Lost, and apparently sales figures didn't justify it, though never say never (it would be about Telabat). The one I've been asked for the most is my little Energizer bunny, still grinding out a few hundred dollars in royalties every year, Switching Well.

Since I don't expect every person who runs across this blog has read Switching Well: it's about two girls, Ada and Amber, who swap places across time when they make wishes in an old well in a vacant lot, one to live "a hundred years from now" and the other to live "a hundred years ago." I don't think it's too spoilery to say that the story wraps up when they figure out how to swap back.

And as far as I'm concerned, they're both done. I don't have another story about Ada or Amber, and I'm sure not going to fall into the common sequel trap of telling the same story in a slightly different dress. So if I were to do a sequel, I'd have to shift to one of the other characters, and there's no question in my mind who that character would be.

Everybody who has expressed an opinion on the subject, myself included, has the same favorite character: Violet, who takes the bewildered Ada under her wing in the emergency shelter. Violet is a tough, savvy girl manipulating the system. her special needs sister is fine as long as her mother can stay home with her, but her poorly-educated father is unemployed and, under the rules of the welfare system circa 1991 (if anything, it's probably worse by now), if he lives with his family, they can't get enough in benefits to cover their needs, so he "abandons" them to prevent the sister from having to be institutionalized and lose all her hard-won independence. But once their grandmother dies, the benefits are further reduced, and can no longer support both sisters. So Violet takes her cue from her dad and begins a life of "running away," appearing at different shelters around the city at different times with different identifying information, grabbing her education on the fly. She's tough, she's smart, she's cynical, and she becomes Ada's staunchest friend.

Yes, American "child welfare" laws really are written badly enough to split up families and provide the worst possible (and often most publicly expensive) options to the families they're supposed to help. I'll spare you the rant. You can provide it for yourself if you care to research the topic. The character of Violet is a direct result of that research, providing Ada with a much-needed guide to the late twentieth-century and me a tangible, non-story-wrecking outlet for the rage and frustration my research left with me.

Anyway, Ada does her best to give Violet and her family a leg up at the end of the book. But Violet does not live in a world of easy solutions. And the thought follows me around sometimes: She knows where that wishing well is, and she knows it works. Is someone as cannily opportunistic as Violet not going to use that?

I think she's too smart to wish for money. It's finite. Power over her situation is what she wants, but that's too vague to form a wish about. The quickest route out of her family's troubles would be to wish her sister's special needs away. But it can't all be roses after that, or there's no story.

OMG, look at the pitfalls. First and foremost, by putting the sister front and center like that, I'd be running the risk of writing an "issue driven" book, which is crap.

More crucially, I don't have anything like the intimate contact and experience with people - look, I'll tell you how bad this is. I'm actually sitting here trying to think of the current polite way to describe Rosesharon's original condition.

Large chunks of the book would have to be from her POV. If I can't even put an honest, straightforward name on that, how am I going to track and express the changes she endures, much less depict her reaction to them? When I'm in a character, I'm in the character - seated right behind her eyes, in total harmony with the way she approaches the world even while I'm wincing and allowing her to make her necessary mistakes. This doesn't mean I can only write about people like me, but it does mean I have to do massive amounts of research in order to find the starting point that will enable me to to find a comfortable seat in the heads of those who are unlike me. And Rosesharon's difference lies exactly in the spot where I would have to sit.

Violet's wish, in essence, would be to make Rosesharon more like me. The character is violated at the outset.

No way I can write this book. If I tried, I'd probably come up with a third-rate Flowers for Algernon rip-off. No one wants that.

Nobody else can write this book either, of course. Violet and her family are my intellectual property.

But if you happen to have the "in" that will let you write about someone wired sufficiently differently from the mainstream as to face her family members with the choice of making huge sacrifices for her, or sacrificing her to an institution - don't be afraid to go there. If you succeed, it will be brilliant and groundbreaking.

And isn't that worth the risk of failure?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Killing My Darlings

I tackled the Eighteenth Chapter today, the transitional chapter between the set-up of the first half and the action of the second. I knew as I wrote it that a lot of what I put in was stuff I needed to write but the reader didn't need to read; details that would help me place my imaginary people in the real landscape of San Antonio, May, 1865. I could also tell that what remained would have to be shuffled around and that part of it belonged in the next chapter. I have probably not taken out everything I need to, but at least everything's in the right order and I believe the chapter break comes in the right place. It wasn't any fun, though. Some of what got taken out was broken off and tucked less verbosely into other bits of the chapter; some of it is just gone.

Here, for posterity and to soothe my vanity, is the longest continuous chunk of stuff I had to yank out. I'm inclined to think it's not bad descriptive writing, and if I had the leisure of a nineteenth-century audience I could polish it up into a really good one; but I don't and I won't.

So I had plenty of time on my own. One of my favorite places to spend it, and my money, was the bookstore across the street from Mrs. Schmidt's. The proprietor was a German, and though his stock was well picked over and some of it damaged, compared to our home library out on the frontier, it was a treasure house. Also, like most bookstores in those days, he ran a circulating library; so for a small fee I could take a book home, read it, return it, and read another, only buying the ones I knew I would read again and again. Scientific works, sermons, and silly novels; Schiller, Shakespeare, Shelley; Burns, Byron, Bacon; Ivanhoe and the Iliad! No Roman lounging in a bath ever felt a greater sense of luxury than I did lounging on the riverbank in the cypress shade, reading and smoking and looking up to see the spangle of sunlight on the water.

As if to make up for that long, miserable winter, the sun came out and stayed out, baking the clouds out of the sky. Entire days went by with no breeze except directly on the river. Where people walked, what had been ankle-deep sucking mud dried hard and fragmented into billions of particles, which rose with every footfall and coated the town in a fine layer of white lime dust. Where no one walked, the vegetation grew rank and lush, goosegrass forming waist-high green mounds, sunflowers shooting for the sky like military flares, bushes flinging new branches across paths overnight. Where the ladies of the town had planted flowers or tomatoes, grass choked them out; where they'd planted roses round their houses, they found themselves mewed up by briars and blossoms like the Sleeping Beauty in her castle.

Mornings and evenings, dogs, cats, and children hunted rats through green tunnels of weed. Swallows wove crazy patterns above the shimmering green river in pursuit of insects. Frogs and fish dined like kings on the black clouds of flies breeding in the stables, and herons -- big and little, brown and gray and blue and white -- dined like emperors on the frogs and fish. Around noon, every inhabitant fell into a torpor, or into the river, adopting the Mexican custom of siesta, because absolutely nothing happening in San Antonio during May of 1865 was worth rousing oneself to action in that midday heat.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

News! Mammoth Art

You've probably seen this already: Contemporary artistic depiction of non-woolly mammoth! From Florida.

Despite some sniping in the peanut gallery of the comments (so seldom is it worthwhile to read comments on internet news sites!) there's no obvious reason to doubt this and it looks exactly like a mammoth, unlike some Fortean examples that may or may not be intended as proboscidians.

Monday, June 20, 2011

News: Gault featured on TSU site

Also, in Texas Monthly, according to Clark. I really need to get out there more. Though I kind of suck at archeology, between health issues and lack of precision. I've gotta say, I can't think of Mike as a "rising star." He's been risen for awhile. I guess it's like the rock star who becomes an "overnight sensation" nine or ten albums into his career.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Challenge: Laundromat!

Challenge to the reader: Show me up. Generate a story idea set in a laundromat. No limitations on form, genre, practicality, anything.

I tried. I did. I sat there for an hour and a half this morning. It was hot, unless you happened to stand right under the vent. A maximum of four people were there at one time. Two washers had wet loads in them from the time I arrived to the time I left. The book I'd brought was too by-the-numbers to engage me and I knew I needed a Garage Sale idea so I thought about it. But I could not put a story there.

Last week a guy bummed some change off me to use the facilities, refused my offer to share soap, then wandered around with his bundle of laundry for another hour at least, presumably bumming more change. I know, I'm a sucker, but I do a quick cost/benefit analysis in such cases. If the guy really is fresh out of the hospital, too poor to do laundry, and just wants to wash his clothes, the benefit to him of getting $4 in quarters in incalculable. If he's scraping together drug or alcohol money, the cost to me is $4 and an addict thinking I'm a sucker. I can live with that. But I couldn't go anywhere with the guy, imaginatively. He wasn't enough of a character - probably by design, as it is to a panhandler's benefit to be unmemorable.

Also last week, there was a cute little girl who could run but not talk yet, whose mother didn't talk to her and handled her, not abusively, but with what seemed to me excessive brusqueness and too little attention. She sat next to me for awhile, playing a game where she sneaked up on my insulated cup and I snagged it away at the last minute, whereupon she laughed. Normally in these situations the mother will make eye contact with the person interacting with her child, but not this woman. I don't think I want to know the rest of this story. I don't think I would like it.

When I was in college, my first lover lived in an apartment a few blocks from campus and I would take his laundry to the laundromat down the street. Yes, I did his laundry for him. I was also the only one who ever defrosted his freezer or cleaned his bathroom, and the one who dug the obstruction out of the drain under his perpetually running faucet (instead of working on the drain or calling the landlord he set a bucket for the overflow). He was ten years older than me. The best thing I can find to say about him these days is, that he allowed me to get most of my life's mistakes out of the way in a 9-month period. Once when my best friend from high school came up to visit me she joined me on the laundry expedition (where was he? I don't remember) and as we stood in front of the plate glass window a man on the other side got our attention by tapping on the window with a joint and offering, in gestures, to share it with us. We declined. There's a story there, but I dodged it!

A few years later, I found myself in the laundry room of the barracks at Kelly AFB, where Damon was living, folding clothes next to another girl whose boyfriend lived there. And I remembered all the girls I knew in college who did their boyfriends' laundry along with their own in the dorms. Doing a guy's laundry is one of the ways American girls say "I love you," or at least it was 30 years ago. And there's a story there, too, but - I don't think I can go there. I'm not sure why.

(When we have a washer and dryer, for the record, Damon does almost all the laundry these days. It's just developed that my being the one to sit in the laundromat is the best division of labor for us every weekend so far.)

Even before that, in high school, one of the first short stories I ever finished was titled "Laundromat." It was, I now know, "minimalist," but I'd never heard the term at that time and am not positive the minimalist literary fad was even a gleam in the literary market's eye. It would have been 1978, '79, in there. It was about a guy trying to pick up a girl in a laundromat, and I was proud of it because it was told almost wholly in dialog. If I ever turn up a copy of it, and it's half as bad as I remember (and there was an upper limit to how good it could be, given my limited experience at picking up and being picked up), I will either destroy it in shame or post it here as an example and encouragement to others that yes, they can get better over time. I won't pledge myself either way. If there is a story to be gotten out of a laundromat, this wasn't it.

Once upon a time it would have bugged me that I couldn't do this set task in an hour and a half. It doesn't any more. I haven't lost the facility, and I still believe there's a story to be found. But this particular Sunday, I stalled out. Yeah, it's technically two weeks in a row, but everybody has dry periods. And as a Texan I know how dry periods end - in floods. So I know it won't last, and knowing that is half the battle.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Drywall and Dedication

I thought I was pretty good at working through distractions. After all, in high school I had the bedroom at the junction of all the A/C ducts, so that when I worked on my Tolkien rip-off and homework in the evenings I'd be hearing my brother's Jethro Tull, my sister's Barry Manilow, and my mom's Tsaichovsky's Greatest Hits all funneled into my room at the same time. My focus is sufficiently intense that I can't work retail. The only time I tried it, somebody walked off with three large, prominent watch displays while I was sorting a display.

Maybe it's learning to drive, which forces one to diffuse the attention more; maybe I'd do better if I were trying to write. But focusing on marketing research while the drywall guys are running power tools and the cat is trying to hide in my lap - that's way hard! I keep noticing other things and trying to follow them down side roads, like:

What are those Spanish songs one of the workmen keeps singing? He's in a really good mood, as he also sang the "Hallelujah Chorus."

Does Thai think she's protecting me from workmen, or vice versa?

Should I use a pseudonym for the lesbian western, given how different it is from previous works? Note how the mind skips right over little details like how I haven't even done the first round of "final revisions" yet.

Whoa - where'd they go? When I sat down to start this post, pandemonium; suddenly, silence, and all the tools are gone, too. But the job's not finished. If they only work two hours in the morning during the hot months, this is going to take along time. They are unlikely to have fallen prey to any supernatural entities (though I admit the cats might be fed up enough to resort to summoning them), as those wouldn't be interested in the power tools. Unless they were abducted specifically to work on one of those overnight palace constructions that genies and fairies specialize in? That would involve taking the tools.

So, yes, that's probably it. I need to sweep up their mess (which the genie also didn't need; I hope it doesn't occur to him to teleport the construction mess from the palace back here) before it gets too hot to wield a broom, and then - concentrate! Because it doesn't do any good to write the story if I don't keep it in the mail.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


A woman I talked to in Austin this weekend asked: "So is a conference really a good place to find an agent?"

I didn't know how to answer at first. For one thing, how would I know? I don't have one yet. "Well - is a church singles group a good place to find a husband?" I asked.

She laughed. "No!"

"But you're not going to find one sitting at home, are you? If you want it, you've got to go out and try to get."

Or words to that effect.

Queries are out on the ether and tomorrow I can indulge myself in some revision of the lesbian western, since I got feedback from my fishing expert late last week. Much more fun than market research! Plus I have a feeling it'll be easier to hook an agent with Len than with the Astral Palace.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Next SyFy Channel Original Movie

It's about a giant rampaging flying proboscidian and the title is:


Plot? Have you seen any "SyFy Channel Original Movies?" They all have the same plot and the same handful of characters. The draw, such as there is, is the monster and its absurd CGI.

I can't take credit for this; it all goes at the feet of my husband Damon, who often throws out punning titles for me, whether there's a project to go with it or not. Switching Well is one of his - when I was talking about that book and puzzling over the mechanics of time travel, he suggest the wishing/switching well device.

Why, yes, I did have trouble sleeping after caffeinating, driving up to Austin and back, and attending the WTL conference yesterday. Thank you for asking. I think I'll crawl back into bed now that I've caught up on newsgroups and comics and things.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Event: Writer's League of Texas Agents Conference

I'm driving up for Saturday only, as the early morning and Friday events didn't seem worth the price of a room at the Hyatt/hassle of begging a room from friends for my particular conference behavior patterns. I'm not hyped about going, alas. A friend of mine has warned me that it's a "shark tank," not the cozy friendly hyperstimulating place conferences limited to children's and YA authors tend to be. And I hate meeting people. And I don't think anybody I know is going. But I really need an agent and I'm not going to get anywhere racking my brains over pitches, so onward and upward.

If anybody out there in blogland is also going, I'll be the one in the hat, dress, and backpack, quite possibly surreptitiously eating trailmix and clutching an insulated cup. (Can't get through an entire session without drinking something.) The sessions I'm interested in are:

10:15 to 11:35
Welcome to the e-World: What it Means for Authors (Susanna Einstein, Jane Friedman, Kevin Smokler) OR Kid Lit: One Sizzling Market (Laura Rennert of Andrea Brown and Authors still TBA at the time I printed the schedule). The Kid Lit one is kind of obvious, but I'm afraid it'll tell me a lot of stuff I already know; whereas the panel on electronic publishing is almost certain to be full of stuff I don't know but will be inherently disinclined to implement even if I find it out.

1:00-2:00 Sum it Up: Writing a Killer Synopsis. Well, obviously I need help with that. And the Kidlit panel for that hour (YA or Not? How to tell if your book is for adults or teens or both) is definitely redundant for me.

2:15-3:15 7 Secrets of Amazing Author Websites. We can all use that, and again the Kidlit panel is redundant (Tots to Teens; Writing Children's Books. I know I can do that, thanks.)

3:30-4:30 Tales from the Trenches: What Happens After You Land an Agent? and The Ties that Bind: The Author/Agent/Editor Relationship are both addressing my ignorance zone. I'll probably go with the second because that's where the Andrea Brown agent is and the agent listed for the first as participating doesn't do kid stuff.

4:45-6:15 General Session: First Pitch. Where a panel of experts reviews pitches drawn at random from a box that's been sitting at the registration desk all conference long. Kind of a public-dissection raffle. Potentially educational. Of course I'll put a pitch in, but if I'm sufficiently tired, overstimulated, etc. I may just drive home.

Wish me luck on the parking. Austin is also hosting the Republic of Texas Biker Rally (Hey, they've got Eddie Money and the Doobie Brothers performing!) and we're being advised to avoid downtown and be prepared to be stuck in a lot behind Threadgill's or something. At least I can eat reasonably well at Threadgill's.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Better. Not Perfect.

The trouble with that last version was that it had no voice. It took me all day yesterday to think of that. (Brain like a mud trap, yesterday.) Today I spent half the day doing housework and other stuff, sat down, and got this:

Jilly knows squat about magic. Blythe knows a lot. When their
grown-ups disappear, one by one, Blythe figures out that they've been sent - somewhere - by a spell downloaded from; but then she disappears, too. Jilly breaks the spell, everyone returns, and the site goes offline. End of story - right?

Wrong. Blythe, mad that Jilly showed her up, aims to punish the unknown magician behind the spell. Step one, learn astral projection. Step two, find astral palace on the astral plane. It's locked down, but intact, maintained by the remaining prisoners and assorted spirits. Not for long, if Blythe has anything to say about it!

In Jilly's dreams - but they aren't dreams - her missing father calls for her. He went to jail so long ago she barely remembers him; but he's in the palace now, dodging spirit guards. Guided by the resident ghost, Jilly gains control of her dreams, makes a safe room in the palace, and brings her father to it; but she can't get him out. The three plot to access the magician's study and sabotage his operation.

When the prison rebellion Blythe stirs up threatens to tear the palace down, Jilly gets trapped in the study, separated from her allies and from the silver cord binding her to her body. Before she can wake up in the real world, Jilly needs to unravel the connections between herself, her family, and the palace -- and not let the biggest, baddest spirit kill her dad!

It's a good thing your brain keeps working on these things even while you're dusting, talking to contractors, and doing displacement activities, or I'd never get anything written.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Trash

I keep hearing construction-type noises, thinking the workmen have arrived, and then nothing. I look out my bedroom window and see that new stuff has been surreptitiously added to the dumpster in the driveway.

People who want to raid our dumpster for scrap metal or whatever knock on the door and ask permission, but people who don't want to drive all the way to the dump to get rid of stuff just pull up and start using it.

They throw away weird stuff sometimes, too, stuff I don't understand why they didn't drop it at Goodwill, which is less than a mile away. There's a toy box out there. Somebody dumped a cabinet that somebody else hauled away. An oil painting.

I have no idea whether the oil painting's any good or not. I don't know anything about art. I don't even know what I like. Sometimes I look at a picture and I get some kind of response that isn't fully articulable, which must be what painting is about; sometimes, of course, I get a story; but mostly it's just a picture. The one in our dumpster is some sort of Van Goghesque still life with a vase and sunflowers and an avocado green background, done on a piece of, I think, Masonite. Somebody put a lot of work into it, which is where I start to wonder. How did it go from being somebody's work of art to somebody's piece of trash?

Did the artist throw it out? Is he throwing his dreams out along with it? Or does it represent a side trip of development; a period when he was posing as Van Gogh instead of being who he is? Did he try to turn himself into Van Gogh to please someone who has since let him down and proven impossible to please, dangerous to try to please?

I'm using the generic "he" here. Obviously the artist could be male or female, or intersex, or transgender.

Does the picture represent a piece of himself he wishes to discard? Is art tied so closely to alcoholism or drug use or loneliness or schizophrenia for this person to dare indulge it anymore? I doubt it. The supposed link between creativity and madness and/or self-destructive behavior has always seemed to me to be portrayed backward. Creativity is the healthiest thing a mind can have. Self-destructive behaviors and madness interrupt and weaken it. People who have mental and emotional problems who are also great artists are doing so as much in defiance of their handicap as anyone with cancer or paraplegia or deafness or whatever. But we treat creativity as an abnormal condition in our society, so many people try to cut themselves off from it in an attempt to improve their ability to cope.

In any of the above scenarios, I'd expect to see a stack of dumped pictures, not one. Maybe the artist walked out one day, leaving only this picture behind; and the people walked out on have decided (in anger, or sorrow, or after long soul-searching) to jettison this last trace of him from their lives.

Maybe there was no emotional connection there at all. Maybe he skipped out on his rent, leaving behind all the work he couldn't carry with him, and this is the picture the landlord couldn't sell for love nor money.

Maybe the artist committed suicide and the picture is haunted. (Not likely; no weird phenomena have been noted since it landed in our dumpster. On the other hand, the workmen got no work done to speak of during the week and didn't show up when they were supposed to on Saturday. Hmmm....)

Maybe the picture was painted decades ago (Masonite was invented in 1924, mass-produced in 1929) and given to the child of the artist's best friends, the kid who called her "aunt," who treasured it because of the artist and passed it on to her children, who treasured it for her sake and kept it in the guest room till they died; and then their children, while sorting things for the estate sale, looked blankly at the artist's signature and asked each other: "Who was that? Why did Mom and Dad keep such an ugly painting? Is it maybe worth something?" So they ask the appraiser who says no, it's strictly an amateur work but the frame is good. So they sell it at the estate sale and the buyer takes the picture out and discards it in our dumpster, keeping the frame.

Maybe it was a work-for-hire, sold in a furniture store, and discarded during redecorating. How soul-destroying is it, to know that was the ultimate fate of the work you spent your days and talent churning out?

I wonder what other possibilities would occur to me if I took it out and handled it? None of them sound like a project I care to work on, so I think I'll leave it there. But you're welcome to come poke in our dumpster if you want.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Trouble with Doing Market Research All Day

Okay, there's lots of troubles with it, but the one that strikes me today is, that you get to the point, reading the high concept of dozens of recent YA sales, that you feel that a sociopathic best friend/villain willing to subvert democracy in order to push her own social agenda just isn't edgy enough to make it in today's market...