Cookiepalooza!

My sister’s here and I’m about to engage in preparations for Cookiepalooza. It’s very simple: I invited a bunch of people and will be making sugar cookies. There will be wine, laughing, and a spaghetti feed for whoever wants to stay and eat. That way I get all the fun of making cookies and I don’t have to overeat OR throw them away. Plus, my friends get cookies. Everyone wins!

Of course, I would be still fighting off the flu while I do this, but that’s academic. I’ve only got a mild case and I’m dosing it with cranberry juice, orange juice, and a whole lot of water. I’m going to drown this nasty bug. Thank God I didn’t get the stomach-ill portion of it–no, the Little Prince came down with that. There’s an amusing story in there that will mortify him when he’s a teenager, so I think I’ll keep that in reserve.

The holidays are upon us like ravening hounds. You think if I throw enough cookies behind me it’ll slow them down so I can escape?

Yeah, me neither.

Over and out…

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No Choice

First, the links! An octopus who loves his Mr. Potato Head. Lauren Leto’s screamingly funny Readers By Author. And Bitten By Books is discussing the Jill Kismet series today.

And now, for the Friday post.

Not everything in my life centres around writing. It just looks that way.

I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight lately. Part of that is stress, another part of it is exercising six days a week. Also, a couple weeks ago, I picked up a book about using cognitive therapy to help normalize your relationship with food and weight. Yes, it has the word “diet” in the title. I believe it’s a fact that DIET’s first three letters are a warning. But it’s equally true that I have a messed-up relationship with food. I know cognitive therapy works for me, so I’m willing to give it a go.

Several of the exercises in this book centre around “answering sabotaging thoughts”, especially when it comes to the “it’s not fair” portion of life’s program. Yes, it’s not fair that our bodies are built to store extra against famine, and it’s not fair that during times and societies of plenty we get obese and shorten our lifespans. It’s not fair that I can’t eat the way I want, be sedentary, and be as physically fit as I want to. It’s not fair that I have to drag myself to the treadmill and that I have to write down the calorie counts of what I’m eating. It really, truly, is not fair.[1]

But that is the way it is.

One of the strategies for answering these sabotaging thoughts–because that’s what they are, they’re little saboteurs–is an index card with the words NO CHOICE printed on it. Every day, when I read my reasons for putting myself through calorie restriction and exercise, the NO CHOICE card is also there, and I read it too. If I want to become as physically fit as the goal I’ve set for myself, I don’t have a choice.

Which brings me to writing. My Friday posts are about making a living writing for publication. To me, this involves the discipline of writing every day (something I’ve caught quite a bit of flak for saying) and acting professionally and reasonably even in the face of rejection and bad reviews. It involves putting up with shifting deadlines and making the effort each day, every day. Sure, I’d rather sit up in an ivory tower and be a Speshul Snowflake, but that won’t feed the kids OR get me invited back to be published again.

There are several times during the day when that little NO CHOICE card flashes through my mind. As Dr. Beck points out, there are rules in everyone’s life. You don’t struggle or agonize over brushing your teeth, do you? (At least, I don’t. And neither do my wee ones.) It’s just the way it is.

Here’s why this is valuable: if sitting down to write every day is a rule, you don’t struggle with it. You make time to do it because it’s a priority. You have no choice. Getting into the mindset that this is important and you don’t have a choice about doing it increases your chances of getting published exponentially. Because you’re treating it seriously. If you can make time to catch that TV episode, you can make time to write every day. If you can make sure you have a latte every morning, you can make sure to write every day. Getting into the habit of considering daily writing a fait accompli is your first step.

Once you have a good solid discipline of writing every day, you can do what a lot of professionals do and take the occasional day off. Your busy little brain, in the habit of working through stories, will still be working all through your “day off”. Plus, once you have a good solid disciplined habit, it’s easier to get back into it after a holiday. But discipline is like a muscle, it must be used or it atrophies, and I have not met a single professional writer who doesn’t need to exercise that muscle and spend effort to start it back up again after a holiday.

Viewing this as a “no choice” thing frees up a lot of energy I would otherwise use bitching and moaning about it. It gives me a lot more energy to just concentrate on what I’m doing. It’s the same reason I find rollercoasters relaxing–from the moment I’m strapped in and the car jolts forward, I’m in the hands of the gods. I can’t do a single thing. It’s a submission to the inevitable, and it works for me.

So here’s my advice if you want to write for publication: get yourself an index card and write NO CHOICE on it in the biggest blackest letters you can. Read it twice a day, and really think about the things you make time for, the priorities you have. If writing is not on that list and you want it to be, do it. Just say “it’s not fair, oh well, I have no choice, I HAVE to write today.” Set your kitchen timer for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, and go to.

You’d be amazed at how those two little words–both the “oh well” and the “NO CHOICE”–open up time where you thought you had none. It’s not fair, you’re right.

But that’s the way it is, and it’s the best advice I can offer.

Keep writing.

[1]Somewhere David Bowie is snarling, “You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is.”

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Even my best friends, they don’t know…

First, the links: I did the Page 69 Test for Flesh Circus. Here’s James Scott Bell on What, Writers Worry? and Nathan Bransford on how to respond to an editorial letter. The inimitable Gillian Spraggs has more on the Google Books Settlement and Monica Valentinelli on Plagiarism and Too Much Free. I’ve been saving some of those links for a bit, things are crazy.

I was on the treadmill this morning (big surprise, I’m up to six days a week on that damn thing and wishing I could do more) and Van Morrison came on in my headphones. Singing The Philosopher’s Stone.

Even my best friends, even my best friends they don’t know
That my job is turning lead into gold
When you hear that engine, when you hear that engine drone
I’m on the road again and I’m searching for the Philosopher’s Stone.

This particular version is from the Wonder Boys soundtrack, which I happen to like a great deal. (The Bob Dylan track that opens the album is Rose’s theme song in smoke, as a matter of fact.) The movie itself, based on a Chabon book, is about a writer who’s kept hammering at a manuscript to follow up his award-winning first novel…but that’s like saying Seven Samurai is about loyalty. There’s a lot more involved.

Anyway. So there I am on the treadmill, and I realize why I like this song so much.

It’s because it’s damn right I’m looking for the philosopher’s stone. My job is to write, yes. But an artist’s job–even a hack like myself–is to transform the world. I write because I must. The world demands it. Pain and joy both demand it. I take the things that could fester and destroy me, the things I scream against, and I write to perform one of the oldest magics known. I name a thing, and that name alters the essence of the thing. I write because it’s the magic I was made to work.

Lead and gold are different things for each traveler, and the method of transmutation is different too. It’s different for each bloody pebble and chunk of lead you find. It is a most personal magic, arrived at through trial and error. One size definitely does not fit all. My lead isn’t yours. The stones I drop in the water to make soup are different from the stones you’ll use. It’s cold out on the road, and fellow travelers may not even see you–because they’re searching for their own method of transformation.

Still, it’s nice to know there are fellow travelers. And it’s good to feel a piercing joy, so sweet it makes the tears start, when you realize a fellow traveler is putting words on your own journey.

Up in the morning, up in the morning out on the road
And my head is aching and my hands are cold
And I’m looking for the silver lining, silver lining in the clouds
And I’m searching for and
I’m searching for the philosophers stone

Yeah, Van. Me too.

Me too.

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Busy. Back soon.

Today is a day for clothes shopping. No, not for me. I’d rather have my skin peeled off in strips than go clothes shopping for me. But I do like going shopping for the kids. We’re doing the midyear school clothes basics tour today–jeans, T-shirts and solid sweaters, because they keep growing and this will provide a base for them when they Go To School. It’s going to be fun.

Sadly, it must be a banzai run rather than an all-day safari, because I’ve line edits to keep whaling at. Editing makes me cranky. I’m glad someone else has done most of the markup for me and I can just approve it or insert my own changes. This is the last big push before copyedits, so it will set me up for writing Dru 4–which is taking shape quite nicely, to the tune of 2K a day or thereabouts.

So, don’t expect to hear from me a lot for the rest of the week. Unless it’s a moderate amount of bitching on Twitter. That’s about all I have energy for.

Cover me. I’m going in…

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How Many Cliches Spoil The Brew?

death's_vacation_layoutHappy Friday, everyone! I started out today feeling ultra-lame because I didn’t even have a ghost of an idea about the regular Friday post. But I’ve got news, so we’ll get to that first. To the left you’ll see the cover for Death’s Excellent Vacation, an anthology coming out in August 2010. There’s a ton of awesome authors in it–LA Banks, Charlaine Harris, Christopher Golden, and Jeaniene Frost, to name a few. My story, The Heart Is Always Right, focuses on a gargoyle who wants to visit Fiji.

I’m also doing #askawriter tonight on Twitter, from 7-7:30PM. When I do schedule #askawriter and other chats, they will be on my Event Calender.

So I mentioned I was having trouble getting a subject for the Friday post, and Devon Monk piped up that a Deadline Dames reader had asked about cliches in fiction–when it’s OK, when it’s too much, so on, so forth.

My, what a meaty subject.

From Wikipedia:

A cliché (US: /klɪˈʃeɪ/ UK: /ˈkliːʃeɪ/, from French), is a saying, expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, rendering it a stereotype, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel. The term is frequently used in modern culture for an action or idea which is expected or predictable, based on a prior event. It is likely to be used pejoratively. A cliché may sometimes be used in a work of fiction for comedic effect.

I have mixed feelings on the subject of cliches. Expressions that were once popular and have achieved the status of cliche usually have some kernel of truth to them. They can be useful in small doses, especially when you’re fleshing out a character through dialogue. The type of cliche a character picks in certain situations is, ahem, a window to the soul.

Cliches are like exclamation points or Dave’s Insanity Sauce. You don’t want to use more than a little bit to add some spice and heat. It’s very easy to add too much and descend into inedible bathos.

For me, the problem of cliche is similar to the problem of metaphor and simile. On the one hand, the poetic comparison of metaphor and simile gives writing a lot of its savor. On the other, it’s possible to choke the other important parts–description, movement, le mot juste, et cetera.

So. How much cliche is OK?

We get into dangerous waters here (ha) because writing is so incredibly subjective. If I gave any metric–say, seven cliches per book–immediately someone can find a classic (satire or otherwise) or an incredibly popular book that breaks that rule. Some books are nothing but stock characters and cliche (hello, most Westerns and and the technical manuals of Clancy, the Mack Bolan series–need I go on?) and still manage to do quite well because they are fulfilling reader expectations. I don’t think it’s possible to have a cliche-free book, because human beings use cliches on a daily basis.

When I worked retail and customer service, cliches were stock-in-trade. You take refuge in verbal cliches day after day to smooth social interaction and provide the “service” people expect. It’s social lubricant. If you interact with people on a daily basis, cliche will come along every day, because it’s safe and easy communication.

In writing, cliches can be safe and easy sometimes. They can even be useful. You can have cliche dialogue, cliche description, or cliche plot. Let’s take them one at a time.

* Cliche dialogue: This is by far the most effective use of cliche. To have a character choose a particular cliche in a situation is a golden opportunity to show more about that person. Let’s pick a cliche. “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” Simple, huh?

“But who’ll take care of me?” he whined.

Mrs. Edison shrugged, gathering up her pocketbook. “I don’t know, Herb. All I know’s I ain’t gonna no more.”

“But–”

“For years you were that rollin stone, gatherin no moss. If you’d’a gathered some moss here maybe I coulda lived on that and stayed. You can wash you own damn underwear now.” And with that, she headed for the door. She stepped outside into the fragrance of blossoming jasmine, and sighed. Sliding her purse onto her shoulder, Mrs. Edison took the first three steps into the rest of her life.

Now, let’s have another character use this cliche.

“Saving your ass, kid.” He ducked down, and dug in the bag at his feet. His eyes sparkled, cheeks flushed, and he looked like he was having a hell of a time. “Whooo-ee. They really want you dead.”

Holly’s jaw dropped as he came up with three grenades. He tugged the pin out of the first, lobbed it, and had the second in the air a second later. The third went too, and before she even thought of moving he had grabbed her, shoving her toward the floor. The explosions made the ground quiver, and Holly’s scream was lost in the concrete, his weight pressing all the air out of her.

Then he was up again, his hand bruising-tight around her arm. “Time to go. Rolling stone gathers no moss.”

“You’re insane.” Her ears rang. Her legs were noodles. But he picked up his bag and dragged her anyway.

Different characters use the cliche for different reasons, and each time it says something different about the character.

* Cliche description: Strong as a horse. Mean as a rattlesnake. Papa was a rolling stone. A cliche description can be used to add piquancy, but you must be absolutely certain you are using it for spice instead of laziness. It’s like the word “that”–nine times out of ten it’s not necessary, and you should make very sure of the tenth time too. Cliche description is most often a function of cliche storytelling–i.e., stock characters and stock situations.

* Cliche storytelling: The wacky gay best friend. The sidekick. The hero in the white hat. The villain playing dead and rising up for one last grab at the hero. The love scene right after the fight scene, one-third of the way through the movie. These are all examples of stock characters and stock situations. We’ve grown to expect them, and they have been with us since people started telling stories.

These things are useful shorthand, telling a reader what to expect. They are forms and strictures, and any form or stricture is useful to help a piece of art hold its shape. Otherwise it’s just a huge blob, like a body without a skeleton or skin. Without the framework and boundaries, all you’ve got is quivering Jell-O.

But the real fun comes in subverting the forms and strictures. Cliches and stock storytelling are useful training wheels for writers. They teach us expectations, story pacing, and what the reader expects. You absolutely must know and use them for a while before you know enough to break them effectively, to subvert and play with them, stand them on their head and change them up. Within the forms and strictures is a type of absolute freedom that is the paradox of art.

When are cliches too much? When you’re using them unconsciously, or out of laziness. You must be as vigilant about cliche as you are about the passive voice. If you spot a cliche in your work, you really have to stop and think. Ask yourself these questions:

* Does it move the story along?
* Does it show something about this character that I can’t show in another way, or that I don’t want to show in another way? Why?
* Is this how someone would behave in real life, or is this how they would behave in a movie? And which do I want here for the purposes of this book/short story?
* Does this set up an expectation I am going to fulfill or deny? Why?
* Is there another way to do this?
* What would happen if the character did/said Something Else, something diametrically opposed to or just slightly different than what I’ve got here now?

These are all valuable questions that will start the process of deciding whether the cliche is necessary and an artistic decision instead of a lazy piece o’prop. And of course, your beta and editor, not to mention your readers, will have their own ideas of what’s cliche, how much is too much, and whether the character is behaving the way Someone Like That would behave. It’s a balancing act, like so much about this art. The older I get, the more I think everything is a balancing act, stacking things against each other and holding the tightwire middle course.

What, you thought I’d have a hard and fast rule?

Perish the thought.

Note: No cliches were harmed in the making of this post. A number of electrons were horribly inconvenienced and a few grammatical rules were assaulted, but everyone agreed it was for the best.

Stages of Deadline Acceptance

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I have a confession to make, dear Reader.

Right now I am avoiding a book. Utterly, shamefacedly, but determinedly.

Part of being the kind of writer I am (i.e., I write to pay the rent since I would be spending hours doing this anyway) is having deadlines. Deadlines mean one has to account for one’s time to that most harsh and forgiving of bosses: oneself. Right now I’m using Google Calendar to keep track of everything, and I am perennially going through the stages of Deadline Acceptance.

Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Here are my stages of Deadline Acceptance.

  • Stage One: “____ months? Okay, that sounds fine, that’s usually what I need.” (Said to agent/editor/self.)
  • Stage Two: “I should really start that book. Get an early jump on it.” (Said to self and beta reader.) Possibly start the manuscript, poke at it, nothing happens.
  • Stage Three: Beta reader tells me I’m not ready yet. “You haven’t done all the initial moaning and whining you usually do before a book really gets going.”
  • Stage Four: Moaning and whining commences.
  • Stage Five: A couple weeks go by. Panic sets in.
  • Stage Six: Panic, panic, panic. Repeat.
  • Stage Seven: Beta reader tells me to quit f!cking whining. “You’ve still got ten months left. Cut it out.”
  • Stage Eight: Moan and flail more. Accept that beta reader is probably right, but still. Obsess about quality of book, what will happen if I “can’t write it”. (Editor will hate me. Publisher will demand advance back. Readers will throw rotten veggies. Sun will go out. Everyone dies and it’s all because of meeeeeeeeee!)
  • Stage Nine: Open blank Word document. (Or the start to the story done at about Stage Two.) Stare at it for ten minutes. Muse wakes up, yawning and stretching. Panic over not being able to reach deadline reaches fever pitch.
  • Stage Ten: First quarter of book falls out of head. Middle of the book doldrums. Third quarter arrives. Long period of hate for the f!cking book. “I’m never going to finish this thing.” (See Stage Eight.)
  • Stage Eleven Moan and whine at beta reader more. Beta loads tranquilizer gun and hunts for chocolate. Children give you strange looks. Husband and teenager hide. Cats flee, except for the stupid one, who perches on arm of chair and tries to help while I snarl in pain. There are still months left.
  • Stage Twelve: Last quarter of book accomplished in dead heat. Sanity (or whatever approximates it) returns. Beta reader is relieved. Children shrug. Cats, husband, and teenager reappear as soon as it’s safe. Deadline has kind-of been achieved. Process of recovery/revision can now begin.

I find it alternately amusing and terrifying that the process fits (at least for me) into twelve steps. Revision isn’t nearly as fraught for me–having a full rough draft eases some pressure, and the remaining months can be spent on revising, polishing, or (more popular and what actually happens) sticking the goddamn thing in a drawer until I absolutely have to look at it again to make it ready. That lying-fallow period is very important for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that after you put a novel away for a couple weeks to a month, one can go back to it with fresh eyes and make it a lot better. Not as better as a trained and gifted editor–one is still too close to the work even after that break–but significantly better.

Right now, for the current contracted project, I’m in between Stages Three and Four. It helps that I’m picking at a Sekrit Project, and that I’ve been through this so many times the panic is almost seeming old hat. (Almost. It’s still panic, after all.) So I’m playing with the fun Sekrit Project, and avoiding the other one with all my might and main.

But. (You knew there was a “but”.)

The contracted project is starting to call to me. It’s tickling the Muse. “Look at how pretty and shiny I am. Look. Come over here and look at me. I’m pretty. Pretty and shiny.”

Which will tip me right into Stages Five through Nine, probably in a day’s time. All that panic compressed into a fifth of its natural lifespan. I’m gonna be a mess. Which means I should get some wordcount in on the Sekrit Project that I’m really enjoying before it all goes to hell. (As a means of tricking oneself into working, it isn’t half bad.)

So, off I go. I keep thinking that the more I go through this process the easier it will get. I’m at thirty-odd novels written by now (notice I say written, not published) and I’m here to tell you the process is only marginally easier than it was the first time, and most of that marginal ease comes from just knowing that I’m going to be batshit for a little while. Knowledge is power, right?

Wish me luck.

Soothing The Savage Writer

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
No, I’m not having a Cassie Edwards fest over here. I actually had two big blog posts in mind for this week–one about epublishing and another about music. The epub post is going to have to simmer a bit more before it’s ready, so you get the music post. I know, que lastima, right?

What makes this vaguely funny and synchronous is that I just clicked through to Wil Wheaton’s post about music today too. Then, while I was on the treadmill, I thought about it some more. The IPod served up a lot of music from past book soundtracks, which just sealed the deal.

Some days, the universe, I swear she speak to me.

Music is a very integral part of my writing process. I know there must be writers who don’t write to music, but I can’t imagine it. It was always a part of my creative process, from the very first mix tapes (remember cassettes? Jeez, I feel old now.) I recorded off the radio to the advent of ITunes and the idea of “book soundtracks”. Which I would have arrived at sooner or later, but my friend TrashGlam put together a mix CD for smoke back when it was just a collection of pages I printed and bound at Kinkos. It had the the Cardigan’s Erase and Rewind for Rose and Garbage’s Number One Crush for Michael, and if that isn’t a description of their dysfunctional relationship I don’t know WHAT is.

So the “book soundtrack”–a playlist for a certain project–was born. Later I found out other people (like the Selkie) had been doing the same thing for a long time, so I can’t claim to create it. But I can claim to be utterly delighted with the idea and to have stolen it with no remorse, and used it shamelessly.

The stereo sees more use than the television in our house (especially since we put the television out in the garage for long periods of time, and almost forget it’s there). Music on laptops account for even more time. I often leave Pandora.com open in a window while I’m working, and the Selkie and I are always discovering new or new-to-us artists and rifling them for plot bunnies and turns of phrase.

So with that in mind, I thought I’d share a few songs. No, not in a torrent-and-get-sued type of way–I just thought that fans would like to know a couple songs where you can hear my characters clear as day.

For example, at the very end of Tomoyasu Hotei’s Katana Groove you can hear Lucas Villalobos laughing. In the beginning of Rob Zombie’s living dead girl you can hear Eve (What are you thinking?) and Dante (The same thing you are…) before all hell breaks loose and the last fight of To Hell And Back commences. (Warning: Rob Zombie is not for those who are easily offended. You’ve been warned.) Sarah McLachlan’s Fallen is Dante’s song, while Mandalay’s This Life is the song I played over and over while writing Japhrimel’s Fall for Dante.

Sometimes characters will have their own particular themes. Christophe from the upcoming Strange Angels always shows up when I play Herman’s Hermits, especially I’m Into Something Good. (It’s creepy when you consider he’s a 70-year-old on the inside.) And then his love song for the heroine is You’re Sixteen. Creeptastic, no? While Graves gets Guster’s One Man Wrecking Machine. Which says so much about the two characters, doesn’t it?

And then there’s Jill Kismet. The clearing-the-hellbreed-holes scenes in Night Shift were set to the Cure’s Wrong Number, possibly the weirdest song I’ve ever set a fight sequence to. Saul, of course, gets Cusco’s Montezuma, and Jill’s love song for him is the beautiful Black Is The Color, sung by the Corrs. And Perry? He gets the Cure’s Lullaby. (Kismet gets a lot of Cure. Don’t ask me why.)

As for Steelflower, the opening scenes of Kaia coming into Hain on a ship is always set to Delerium’s Terra Firma, the Lara Croft mix. A lot of Delerium goes on my soundtracks. Darik gets various selections from the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. Redfist, of course, gets Two Hornpipes and Celtic Woman’s version of the Ashoken Farewell.

Oddly, a lot of Nikolai’s (from Selene) themes are from the Bulgarian Women’s Choir too. (The two characters are more closely intertwined than I like to admit.) Selene herself gets Mono’s Silicone, and Everything But The Girl’s Before Today.

You get the idea. Music falls in my lap when I’m thinking of characters, and I’ll go on mad jags of finding music on my hard drive (the ITunes store and the local Everyday Music now own my soul, thank you very much) and then the magic happens. Characters start talking, taking on likes and dislikes of their own, and before I know it a book has a playlist and I know what happens. It’s awesome when it works right.

So, how about you? Do you listen to music while you write? Do you use it for characters or just as background noise? I’m also curious to hear from fans–are there certain songs you associate with certain characters or books?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go play some Charlie Feathers. For some reason the half-vampire private eye in the current short story just loves rockabilly…