Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Games Writers Play

Do you play mind games with yourself as a writer? I know I do.

For instance, I always write in Courier. Why? Well, once upon a time publishers would only accept a manuscript in Courier. That was because an editor’s ability to sense how a story was progressing depended on knowing where in the book she was at any given point. As we all know, Times New Roman puts many more words on the page than Courier. So an editor who had a “feel” for where a story should be at page 100 in Courier would be thrown off if the manuscript were in Times New Roman. That is no longer true, and houses now have no issues accepting manuscripts in TNR.

Because TNR saves paper, for a while I switched to using it myself. But I discovered that over the years I too had built up a subconscious sense for where I was in a story, or even in a scene, by the number on the page. I discovered I wrote a faster, leaner book if I composed in Courier. Because faster and leaner is considered better these days, I now write only in Courier.

That’s one game I play with myself. But there’s another reason I stick to Courier: I have a vague daily goal of five pages a day (I know, I know; I’m a snail), and five pages in Courier requires less words per page than TNR. That means that if I’m writing in Courier, I’m far more likely to have the pleasure of feeling productive than if I’m writing in TNR. Yes, it’s silly; writing five pages a day in Courier requires writing my book for more days, but I’m talking instant gratification here.

Notice I said “vague goal” of five pages. That’s because I used to have a rigid goal of five pages, and I’d be very unhappy if I didn’t meet that goal, often staying up late to achieve it. And then I realized I was playing another game with myself. I don’t know about you, but the beginnings and endings of scenes are always the hardest parts for me, because they must be crafted so carefully. Well, I discovered that I was starting to drag scenes out unnecessarily, just so that I could make that daily page count. Since leaner and faster is considered better these days, I scrapped the daily page quota. The funny thing is, my productivity hasn’t suffered. So that wass one game I didn’t need to play.

So how about you? Do you play games with yourself?

Monday, February 26, 2007

Getting Back to Work

It’s hard to settle back into the routine of writing after taking off a couple of weeks to watch parades and catch bags full of useless beads, after devoting my days and evenings not to plotting or stringing words together, but to talking to my visiting sister and daughter, and strolling through the shops on Magazine, and enjoying leisurely meals at some of the area’s restaurants.

Of course, my sister is a writer, too (Penelope Williamson), so the conversation often drifted to books and the publishing industry. And while that was useful and enlightening, it’s obviously different from actually WRITING. No one is going to pay me for coming to a deeper understanding of this crazy business of ours.

Writing requires me to immerse myself in my story, and after two weeks of what was essentially a holiday, I’m reminded of what it feels like to stand at the edge of a shimmering pool of water. I want to go for a swim, and I know it’ll feel good once I start, but I’ve just dipped my toe in the water and it’s icy cold. For some reason, it’s always so hard to make myself plunge back in.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Two Celebrations

Last year’s Mardi Gras was an act of defiance. Despite—or maybe because of—the desperate, post-Katrina life we were all living at the time, New Orleanians stubbornly embraced their most identifiable tradition. Last year, most parades had only a handful of floats with few riders. The school bands were pitifully small, wearing windbreakers instead of uniforms, with three schools sometimes joining together their musicians to form one heartbreakingly small group. Crowds were determined, but thin.

This year, “they” say the crowds were almost up to pre-Katrina strength. More Krewes rolled, and they had more riders. More school bands were back, and some even had uniforms. Both my sister and oldest daughter flew into town for the celebration. It’s been a good Carnival.

Then, tonight, Steve and I went to the Vietnamese New Year’s celebration. Yes, the Year of the Pig officially started a week ago, but this is New Orleans, and you can’t expect anyone to try to celebrate anything in the middle of Carnival. So they had the dragon dance and fireworks tonight, and the turnout was incredible. According to the event’s organizers, 85% of the city’s Vietnamese community has returned. These are almost all people who came to this city as refugees, who worked hard to make a new life for themselves only to suffer again beneath Katrina. Now they’re back, and working hard to rebuild their lives, again. It formed an inspiring end to an emotional week.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Mystic Krewe of Barkus

This Mardi Gras parade is for the dogs. Literally. Actually, it’s for cats and other critters, too, but only dogs (and their people) are allowed to parade. The Mystic Krewe of Barkus is a fundraiser for the Louisiana Humane Society. First there’s a get-together (with music and food) in Armstrong Park, then a parade through the French Quarter. This year they had 1,000 dog entrants—so many they finally had to say, Sorry! We’re full! The event raised tens of thousands of dollars for the local Humane Society.

The King and Queen of Barkus are always “rescue dogs.” This year’s royalty were both Katrina dogs—the King was rescued only two months ago. Their Highnesses were treated to the traditional dinner of oysters Rockefeller and pork chops at Galatoire’s the Friday night before the parade.

The theme for this year’s parade was A Street Dog Named Desire, which inspired some wonderful costumes. The weather was chilly but sunny, the music and food were great, and a good time was had by all.

The New Orleans shelter was destroyed by Katrina, and as almost everyone must know, we’re still dealing with animals lost or orphaned by the storm. So if you want to donate, stop by their website here, or call 1-888-6-HUMANE to donate by phone.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Gone Parading

Carnival is always a hectic time, and with two family members coming into town this year, the time crunch is really on. So I probably won't be posting much until next week. Cheers!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

ARCHANGEL Attracts More Hollywood Attention

Jason Anthony mentions THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT in his column, The Hollywood Reader, in this week's PW. So far, we've had five more production companies express interest.

That makes the refrigerator thing a lot easier to take.

The LG Blues

I used to have nice, reliable appliances. Before Katrina drowned them, I had Amana, Kitchen Aid, and Bosch, and I never had any trouble with any of them. But choices were slim in Post-K New Orleans, and LG looked and sounded good. So I swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker. Now, I have a collection of LG headaches.

You may remember my washing machine tirade last July/August, when it took me an entire month to get my new LG washing machine running again. Now my 13-month-old (of course it’s off warranty) LG refrigerator is on the blink. Steve called LG. They gave him the number of the local repairman.

The first step is to get them to answer their %#@&* phone. Gggrrrr.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Longing for the Good Old Days

There was an interesting article on the demise of the massmarket paperback by the agent Richard Curtis in this month’s newsletter of Novelists Inc. He traces the paperback’s swansong to the disappearance of independent distributors in 1996, and details all the ills that have flowed from that historic restructuring of how books make their way into our local bookstores, grocery stores, and pharmacies.

My first book came out in 1997, which means I missed the days of authors wooing drivers with coffee and donuts in predawn visits to distribution centers (not that I could have participated anyway, since I was living in Australia at the time). I could say “thankfully missed,” because that kind of fake-smiley-you’re-my-buddy schmoozing is not my style. Yet there is no denying that the disappearance of those drivers virtually killed the careers of most new and midlist authors—even those too dignified/stupid to schmooze. Without the drivers’ specialized knowledge of what sold where, outlets started taking the easy way out and simply restricted their buying to the top 10 or 15 bestsellers.

It’s ironic because along with this new distribution network and its increasing promotion of a few bestselling authors, authors are also suffering from the insidious effects of the new computerized tracking of the Numbers. A simple keystroke can now tell editors and booksellers how many copies of Author A’s last book were printed and how many copies of that book sold. Let’s face it: people are lazy cowards. If I’m a bookstore manager and I see that we only sold two copies of Author A’s last book, then that’s probably all I’m going to order of Author A’s new book, no matter how wonderful Author A’s new book might be (unless I see that Author A’s publisher is plunking down a big chunk of money on advertising). It doesn’t matter if Author A’s previous book has a poor sales history because it was a lousy book, or because it had a lousy cover, or because its publisher had so little confidence in it that they only printed 5,000 copies, or because it came out the day of 9/ll. None of that pertinent information is stored in the computer. Just the Numbers.

And then there is the effect of the Internet. The sale of used books has always been a sore point with authors, although there was a time when we consoled ourselves with the thought that used bookstores give readers a chance to take a risk on new authors they might not otherwise try. But now, when the obsessive among us log onto Amazon.com to check our Amazon rankings (more Numbers—and yes, an editor will look at that when deciding on whether on not to buy an author), we see a tantalizing link: New and Used Copies Available from Just $.01! Hhmm. Let’s see. I can buy a new hardcover (remaindered) for $5 including shipping and handling, or I can pay $9+ for a brand new paperback. Talk about a no brainer.

I don’t know what the publishing industry can do about this. I do know what new and midlist authors are doing. Those who were outside the winners’ circle when the gate clanged shut in 1996 are writing under pseudonyms to escape the opprobrium of their previous Numbers. They’re abandoning storycraft and wordsmithing to concentrate on writing fast-paced books with lots of sex and violence, because that’s what attracts publishers and publishers’ marketing departments and those all-important promotion dollars. They’re trying to figure out how they can have a Platform if they didn’t go to Yale or they’re not a movie star. They’re setting up websites, they’re blogging, they’re tap dancing on the corner and waving their arms and screaming Look at me! Read my book!

Ah, for the good old days.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Let’s Do the Twist

I’ve been giving some thought lately to twists. You know, those places in a book or movie where the story takes off in a [hopefully] unanticipated direction, where the reader/audience says, “Wow; I didn’t see that coming.”

It seems to me that twists ought to be quantifiable. I guess it’s the academic in me, always analyzing and trying to compartmentalize things. But what is a twist, at its most basic, except a bit of information the protagonist (and reader) has that turns out to be wrong? Some of the most common twists are:

-Someone the protagonist thinks is a friend turns out to be an enemy.
-Someone the protagonist thinks is an enemy turns out to be a friend.
-Someone we think is dead turns out to be alive.
-Someone we think is alive turns out to really be dead.
-Something believed lost is not really lost.
-A character’s supposed motive is seen to be impossible.
-A character has a motive that was never suspected. (This doesn’t only apply to mysteries; think of romantic comedies where the hero woos a woman on a bet.)
-A family relationship turns out to be different from what was believed (an “aunt” turns out to be a mother, a child discovers he’s adopted, etc)
-A character we think is a man turns out to be a woman, and vice versa

I’m sure there are many, many more variations on the theme. So how about it? What can you add to the list?

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Copyeditor Rant and Two Hurrahs

I appreciate what copyeditors do. I really, really do. They have saved me from all sorts of embarrassment in the past. But pardon me while I vent some spleen over the copyeditor who went through the manuscript of WHY MERMAIDS SING and very conscientiously took out all of the capitalizations of things like the Earl, the Crown, the King, etc, etc. Ghhrrrr.

And, excuse me, but hasn’t everyone heard of Alfred, Lord Tennyson? Thus one should realize that Alfred, Lord Stanton, a baron, should not suddenly be turned into the younger son of a duke by being renamed Lord Alfred Stanton.

And what is it with copyeditors and commas? I really try to conform to my current houses’ standards. Do they want, “Once, he believed…” or “Once he believed…” ? The standards at the various houses seem to change with each copyeditor. I’m now hopelessly confused.

Bah humbug!

On a more upbeat note, two things. I’ve accepted my editor’s offer for the fourth book in the Sebastian St. Cyr series, which I will be starting as soon as Steve and I finish the proposal for our next thriller. But my most exciting news is THEY PICKED UP MY NEXTDOOR NEIGHBOR’S FEMA TRAILER!! Whoohoo.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Mardi Gras, Neighborhood Style

The Driftwood neighborhood parade rolled today. It’s always one of my favorite parades. The floats are simple affairs, mostly slapped together (amid much beer drinking) the night before. The riders are all kids. The marching groups are all local kids (that's a Marching Club, pictured left, which is different from a marching group). Most of the people standing on the curb are local. Did I mention I live in Driftwood?

Against all odds, the Krewe of Driftwood rolled last year, just six months after the storm. They rolled through streets lined with FEMA trailers and PODS and piles of debris. The floats were few in number, the marching groups scraggly, but they rolled, and we all lined up along the streets, many of us in work clothes splattered with paint and drywall compound, and cheered our hearts out.

This year, the FEMA trailers are still there, although much reduced in number. The piles of debris are gone. The gardens are coming back. More than three quarters of the houses are now occupied (if not quite finished). There were more floats, more groups. It still wasn’t back up to what it was pre-K, but we had a great time!

Thursday, February 01, 2007


I’m feeling cocky today. THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT isn’t due until 1 March, but it’s already in the hands of my agent and when my editor comes back on Monday, she’ll have it, too. That’s an entire month ahead of time. Wow.

Now I turn my attention to the copyedited manuscript of WHY MERMAIDS SING, which has been patiently awaiting me. They’ve given me an amazingly long turnaround time; there have been occasions when publishers have only given me two days.

In addition to that, Steve and I are working on plotting out the next thriller. I’m starting to get dizzy.