Thursday, January 30, 2014

Flash Fiction: Fairy Tales, Remixed

This post has been temporarily removed from the site because I have crazy dreams about someday publishing these words. Should those dreams come to nothing, I'll put the original post back up for you to enjoy or ignore at your discretion. In the meantime, you can find my other flash fiction pieces here.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Reading About Writing: The Quill and the Crow, Volume I, by Lilith Saintcrow

What Writing Book Did I Read This Month?
The Quill and the Crow, Volume I, by Lilith Saintcrow

Essays on writing from the prolific Lilith Saintcrow, compiled from her popular blog. This first of three volumes ranges from the writer's craft to pro tips, musings on art to how to write a better sex scene and more, salted with her trademark pungent phrasing and self-deprecating wit.

Why Did I Pick That Book?
Well, Lilith Saintcrow said she was publishing a book, so I bought it. Because, as I've said, that woman could put out her own version of the phone book and I would preorder the damn thing and mark the release date on my calendar in bright red pen. It also happened that her announcement coincided with my resolution to read a writing book every month, so it felt like very perfect timing.

What Did I Think of It?
I've followed Ms. Saintcrow's blog for years. Her blog is actually what led me to her fiction in the first place. (Well what do you know? Marketing, functioning as designed.) So it should come as no surprise at all that I really enjoyed reading a collection of some of her best posts on writing and publishing.

I loved the way, when taken together, these essays cover the whole spectrum of writing life. From the basic stuff like how to write certain types of scenes and where to find good examples to tricks like how to be an un-obnoxious observer and all the way up through some philosophy on what it means to be a writer. Saintcrow covered it all with a great deal of humor and insight.

She also made me want to put the freaking book down. That's not usually the goal when writing a book, I know, so it seems like a funny sort of praise. But it's not like I wanted to put the book down and go do laundry or walk the dog. (Which would have been really bad, as we don't have a dog.) No, I wanted to put the book down and go write.

There's just something about the way Saintcrow tells a story that always draws me in and sends my mind rattling off in unexpected directions. I wonder, for example, what would happen if the girl Saintcrow observed leaving her boyfriend in "Always an Explanation" ever read the story.

(What are the odds, right? Well, I like to believe that all people love all the things I love, and so of course the girl read the story because she, as all people should be, is a rabid Lilith Saintcrow fangirl and she too snaps up and devours everything the woman writers.)

(Of course, if everybody reads it, then that means the guy read the story too... I wonder how that would go? The idealist in me wonders briefly if it would serve as some kind of catalistic wake up call. But then the realist in me remembers that he would probably just turn trollish. *sigh* Let's not go down that road. Back to the girl. And my point.)

Would she recognize herself in the description? She comes off pretty good in that anecdote, strong and determined and brave in my opinion. Would the idea of someone seeing those things in her actions, when she was probably a quivering mass of indecision and doubt inside, give her strength in a weak moment down the line?

Holy crap, that's a powerful idea. The idea of people-watching seems so small, but you could changing someone's life with nothing more than the way you express what you saw in that one fragile moment.

Don't mind me; I'll just be sitting over here, stunned anew at the amount of power we writers can have if we do this thing right.

My Muse, on the other hand, is skipping off, all excited and wondering when we can get to work. So, yes, Saintcrow did make me want to stop reading and put this book down, but in the very best way possible.

What Did I Learn from It?
That I should be writing. Yes, right now. I won't, because we're in the middle of a discussion here (if you define discussion as me giving you my opinion in a completely passive way for you to read and ignore at your leisure) and that would be rude. But I will as soon as I'm done with this review.

Because I learned that the writing is important. Not just from a discipline-building perspective either, though there is that as well.

I bookmarked three posts in the book for repeated reading. "Hack Manifesto" (Saintcrow's take on what it means to be labeled a hack), "Always an Explanation" (an essay on observation, with the anecdote I references above), and "On Truth, Close to the Bone" (a discussion of the importance of telling the truth in fiction). Most of Saintcrow's writing advice I've taken in over the years and I hope I've internalized it. But those three stuck out, for me anyway, as the ones I most want to keep fresh in my mind always.

When I pull those three out and look at them as a collection, I notice a little bit of a theme. They resonate with me because they make me ask an important question: what am I doing here? What is my purpose in this game? Because in as much as this gig is just that, a gig, a job that one must show up to and work hard at in the hopes of being entertaining enough to coax some rent money out of the Man, it is also an act of creation.

Creation is serious business and the wise would tell us that humans will insist on playing at godhood, but they ought not do so lightly.

Lilith Saintcrow writes great books that entertain the Reader while forcing them--us--to take a hard unflinching look at the worlds we live in and build around ourselves in as honest a way as she possibly can.

That's what writers do.

That's what writers should do.

That's what I want to do.

I sort of already knew this. (And I suppose it's not even a slight coincidence that the example I cite in that blog post is from one of Lilith Saintcrow's novels.) But it's so easy to lose courage or focus or whatever and forget about telling the truth and take the simpler path instead.

Would I Recommend This Book to Another Writer?
Yes I would. As I've said in these posts before, I don't like a lot of writing books. There are a lot of people out there spouting off about tragedies and suffering of artistes in a highly unrealistic, melodramatic kind of a way. I like this writing book. Lilith Saintcrow doesn't do melodrama and tragic suffering and she has a very low tolerance for bullshit.

She works hard and tells it to you straight, with a healthy dose of wit and sarcasm seasoning everything, just to make sure it burns properly on the way down. (The tingle tells you it's working!) Saintcrow gives great, entertaining advice that you can easily wrap your head around and apply to your writing in real life. There are big themes in here, some of which I talked about above, and there are basic nuts and bolts too. I think just about every writer could take something, probably several somethings, from this book.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: Now That's More Like It!

Writings of The Muse
I really hate it when the Idea Salesman is right. I mean, I shouldn't hate it. We're all in this together. We're all on the same side. We all have the same goal, that of helping Renee write books and get them published.

But I still hate it when he's right.

It wouldn't be so bad if he wasn't so... smug about it. He's sitting over there in the corner of Renee's mind right now, pretending not to watch me write this blog post, with an obnoxious little smirk of his face. I just want to smack him.

Okay, okay, fine. The Idea Salesman was right. The kittens had overstayed their welcome and it was time to move on and all that.

And I am happy. I really am. I'm not happy I lost an argument with Mr. Obnoxious Smirk, of course, but I am happy to be writing again. And there has been so much writing. It's been glorious. :-)

Renee only got three writing days last week, all of them short. Because of reasons. Altogether, I only had 3.5 hours at the keyboard with her. And we still managed to churn out a net of almost 4000 words.

Boom, baby! That's what I'm talking about! *jumps out of chair* *squeals like a teenybopper fangirl* *dances like a maniac*

*sees Idea Salesman in the corner, smirking*

*searches floor for discarded decorum and sits down *

Now 4000 words in a week might not sound all that impressive to some. Renee saw a tweet from one of her favorite authors just the other day, lamenting the fact that she'd only managed to write something like 6000 words that afternoon.

But let me put that into perspective for you. Over the six preceding weeks, while we were trying to get Familiar going again, we sat at the computer for *coughcoughmumblemumblealittlemorethantwentyfivemumble* hours and only managed to net 700 words. No, we were not revising. We were writing. And deleting. And writing. And deleting. And smashing our head against the wall. And deleting.

It was beyond frustrating.

Not to mention a little embarrassing. In case all the coughing and mumbling didn't clue you in.

(That little spreadsheet we started keeping since reading Rachel Aaron's book last fall has really come in handy, by the way. I mean, we hated it with the unquenchable rage of a thousand fiery suns a few weeks ago, but this week it's quite pretty.)

So things are finally back on track here in Renee's mind. Words are once again flowing and Renee is a much happier person. I am a much happier Muse too. (Just in case all that dancing and squealing before didn't tip you off.) Even the Inner Editor seems pleased with the way things are going.

And the Idea Salesman is, of course, crowing mightily and just that much smugger. Obnoxious little git.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Story in Five Parts

I really liked that 5-part collaborative flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig's blog, as you can probably tell because I've been talking about it so much here and on my Twitter over the past few months that you'd think I was a paid sponsor or a crazy stalker or something.

I'm not. I promise. Though I wouldn't necessarily say no to being a paid sponsor. But the crazy stalker thing isn't my style.


I do a lot of flash fiction challenges, some of which you get to see here on the blog in my Sunday posts and some of which are so terrible they shall never ever see the light of day. Sometimes they're just quick little warm ups and I don't really get anything out of them beyond just getting my head into the right space for writing. Other times they're character building or plotting activities that help me with my current WIP. And sometimes they're just generally educational.

I thought the 200-Words-at-a-Time challenge would just be one of the random warm ups. I used to be part of a critique group that did something similar once and it was silly and fun. I spent most of my entries putting old school projectile weaponry into the hands of the main character, who happened to be on a space ship at the time. And screwing up the romantic subplots one of the other members kept working in, just to mess with her head.

Because if nothing else, I am an absolute model of dignified professional comportment.

But instead of being a silly way to cool my brain down after NaNoWriMo and through the holidays, the 200-Words-at-a-Time challenge ended up becoming one of the educational ones. I took something new out of what I was doing every week.

Mainly by realizing what I'd done wrong the previous week.

And, because I'm nerdy like that, I wrote down those lessons and now I'm going to share them with all of you.

Because I'm a giver. I give.

If you take give to mean "force my thoughts and opinions upon you whether you asked me to or not, with repetitious visual aids just to make it really annoying". Isn't that everyone's definition of give?

Week One: Go! But Don't Go Too Far!
I wasn't really sure how to approach the first week's challenge. I mean, it was supposed to be the first 200 words of a 1000 word story. Did that mean I should write a 1000 word story and only post the first 200 words of it? That seemed like a foolish way to go about things.

First off, it seemed to be missing the point of the challenge, which read to me like an exercise on focusing on the beginning of things. If I wrote the whole story, that wasn't really a write-only-the-first-part kind of task. And, because I tend to continue a task as I begin it, writing the full story in week one would probably mean I'd feel compelled to write the rest of the story in each successive week as well.

Besides, if I wrote the whole story, wouldn't that make whatever someone added to it next seem "wrong" in my mind? Probably. I can be pretty judgey all on my own, so I decided not to volunteer for it up front. (That concern turned out not to be all that important, but I had no way of knowing that when I was starting out.)

So I decided to just write an introduction. I tried to make it general enough that someone could take it in whatever direction they were inspired to go, but with enough information to be a sound foundation for a story. In the end, I don't think I pulled it off.

Looking back in week two, I realized that while I created a specific character and gave her a direction, I forgot to set a hook. There was the potential for her to murder someone, sure, but there was nothing special about it. (Before you go running off with the idea that murdering someone is pretty special all on its own, remember that this is fiction and in fiction it's really not.)

As a result I failed to snare anyone else's imagination.

Week Two: Running Uphill
If we're following the basic story structure most of the world seems to think of as standard, the second 200 words of this 1000 word story should be all rising action. Do you have to follow standard story structure every time? Of course not. But since I wasn't working independently on this project and the folks I would be theoretically collaborating with wouldn't be consulting me on my intended direction, using a basic structure seemed like... professional courtesy.

Here, Next Writer in the Chain, take this story and run with it. I'm not going to tell you where I was heading with it, but at least you have a vague inkling of the terrain to get you going.

So, assuming others were operating under a similar idea, all I needed to do was grab up someone else's introduction and turn up the heat. Those characters who were just meandering along in their regular, or sometimes not-so-regular, lives in part 1 needed to stop meandering and start running full out toward the plot.

Some people seem to genuinely enjoy writing the rising action bit. They get a kick out of bringing in the sidekicks, love interests, extra goons, and the occasional teasing glimpse of the real villain. They lovingly build up the hero's skills through a series of challenges and setbacks and they positively glow with pride as their main character gears up to face their big moment.

Unlike those weirdoes, rising action is probably my least favorite part of writing just about anything. I like starting out fresh with a shiny new idea, so introductions are good. And I love writing from the climax forward, when everything has exploded and the story is careening downhill like an out of control train where the brakes have failed, the track is iced over, the conductor is unconscious, and all the characters have going for them is sarcasm and a fully-stocked snack cart.

Rising action, on the other hand, is like schlepping up a hill. I don't like hills. They're Mother Nature's finest form of subtle torture.

Still, I was committed to this challenge, so I tried to make myself take on the uphill slog--with somewhat limited success.

I got the sense in week two that I'm not alone and a lot of people don't like the rising action part of the story. Because when I read through them all in preparation for week three, I noticed that many of the entries slid down into backstory and info dumping rather than charging forward. Misdirection is procrastination's best friend and so, of course, I had done the same thing.

Though I did at least make something blow up in the end.

Week Three: To Battle!
Years ago, before I started studying the craft of writing, I thought the climax of the story came at the very end. I didn't realize that it was supposed to be in the middle. Because I didn't realize that the goal of most fiction is to push and shove a character into making a decision they don't want to make in the first place and then, once they embrace your way of thinking and run headlong into sure victory, to send them flying off a cliff instead.

Fiction writing is sadistic and twisted that way.

But I know better now, so I went into week three looking for characters all pumped up and primed to have the rug pulled out from under them. I didn't have much luck at first. You see, even though I wasn't writing out the full 1000-word stories each week, I was trying to go on with the end in mind each time.

It took me days to decide on a piece to continue. And as I said before, a lot of the week two entries, my own included, had too much backstory and not enough forward motion, in my opinion. I could have gladly continued them on for 10,000 or even 100,000 words, but I didn't see all that many that seemed like they were ready for their climactic explosion.

Naturally, I chose the story with an actual climactic explosion.

And then I sort of fouled it up by not actually getting to the explodey bit. But at least some folks liked what was there enough to carry on. Progress!

Week Four: It's All Downhill from Here
Falling Action is probably my favorite part of writing anything. I love that part where everything is falling apart and the main character is headed for absolute rock bottom, the Black Moment, when all hope is lost and the end is nigh.

I'm pretty sure that says weird and terrible things about me, but there it is.

So now I needed to find a story that had already taken a turn for the worse and really put the screws to it. Take it from "well, that didn't go as planned" to "oh God, oh God, we're all gonna die!" and then twist the knife and leave it with the main character moaning something along the lines of "everyone else is dead, the monster is still hungry, and there's no escape."

As you do.

I may have taken that idea a bit to literally. I think I left this one with too much to achieve in order to reach a happy ending. There was a lot going on and a number of threads waiting to be untangled. More of them than I think you'd expect in a story this short anyway.

With only 200 words to go, I suppose someone could have finished it off by having the main character struggle desperately and then fail without ever figuring it all out, but people don't usually like to write that story. And, despite my brain at the time telling me it would be fine, realistically I can now see that writing a desperate struggle and a successful rescue and resolving just what the heck was going on in the first place probably would have taken more than 200 words.

Week Five: And They All Lived Happily Ever After. Except the People Who Died.
Ah, the end. [INSERT SIGH OF RELIEF] Aren't endings just lovely? Ideally, in the last 200 words of this exercise, I was supposed to find a character facing their darkest of dark moments and show them the secret escape route they hadn't noticed on the way in, letting them find their way out into a new day, a little battered and bruised, or maybe downright broken, but at least alive and somewhat functional.

It's so nice to feel useful, isn't it? After all, what is the point of setting yourself up as the god of your own little universe if it doesn't stroke your ego every now and again?

I can't really decide if I like my last entry or not. It ended the story. I felt like I brought things back around to where they were at the beginning in a satisfactory way. I have no idea if we ended up where the original author wanted to go or not, but then I guess we weren't really ever meant to know that.

I didn't get much specifically out of week five except that happy feeling of having finished something. (Which is important, don't get me wrong, but not terribly quantifiable.) Things were crazy busy and while I did manage to read all the entries for round five, I confess I didn't give over any of my limited brain space to analyzing them. But I have spent the weeks since looking at the overall picture.

There were 74 entries in the original week one challenge. And despite the efforts of some very determined cheerleaders along the way, who tried so hard to pull every entry on to the next round whether it wanted to go or not, only 19 of those 74 introductions got carried all the way through to week five. That's only about 25%.

(I know this because David Wilson made a spreadsheet. Which I greatly appreciated as I was on the verge of making one myself, a compulsion I didn't really have time to indulge but probably would have done anyway.)

So what happened to the other 75% of the stories? Well, some of them had too much story and some of them had too little. Some, like most of mine, were structurally unsound, which probably would have made finishing them impossible even if they had made it through the previous four rounds. I tried to keep the end in mind as I was writing, but I think in most instances my mental reach far exceeded my, and everyone else's, grasp.

It's really hard to take someone else's ideas and characters and draw the plot through a proper conclusion. Hell, that's difficult even without the added complication of the world not truly being your own, and these worlds belonged to four other people as well.

Even when I went back to try to write the conclusion to my own story, which I'd been adding little bits to on my own in spite of no one picking it up, the ending felt a bit... unsatisfying. (Did I mention the structural problems?)

I also learned a lot about getting outside my comfort zone. I wrote in genres I don't usually write in. I wrote about characters I wouldn't otherwise have chosen and I had to find my way around settings I was wholly unfamiliar with. I wrote in styles that weren't my usual and while I did layer my voice over them (impossible not to do, at least to some degree) some of those stories don't read anything like my usual writing.

Oh, and this exercise really reinforced the idea for me that I'm becoming a plotter. My pantsing days seem to be done. At least for now. I like having a structure to work from and I get really peeved when the story doesn't follow it.

So yay for education!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: I Kicked a Whole Litter of Kittens

Brilliance from Idea Salesman
There's a question I get asked a lot: just what does an Idea Salesman do?

I mean, people have been down with the idea of Muses since Ancient Greece--good PR ain't exactly hard to come by when you spend your entire existence inspiring people. And most folks in writing circles are well acquainted with the Inner Editors' Union, mostly on account of having had one or two IEs stage red ink protest rallies all over their manuscripts. But Idea Salesmen? Yeah, we don't have a big reputation proceeding us.

Not every writer has an Idea Salesman. We don't show up until the writer in question makes that leap from "I like writing stories; maybe someday I'll sell one" to "I am going to get this novel published". Once they turn that corner, the writers may not recognize us by name (we spend all our time doing PR for the writers, so we don't get our own names out there very often) but they've all had some dealings with us.

We're the voice in the back of a professional (or aspiring professional) writer's mind that pushes their butt into the chair and makes them put their hands on the keyboard even when the writing isn't fun.

We're the shove that forces them to strip off little pieces of their soul and send them out into the world to be chewed up and spit out by publishing professionals in a process known as querying. We're also in charge of managing the emotional fallout from that process, by the way.

We nudge them, kicking and screaming most times, out of their writing cave and make them interact socially with other humans so they can do things like networking, platform building, and promotion.

Muses create the art of writing.

Inner Editors handle the craft.

Idea Salesmen take care of the business.

(There's a fourth abstract rattling around in here too, the Critic, but we don't talk about her and she's not allowed to blog. She's, to put it as politely as possible, a total bitch and no one needs to hear what she's got to say. Least of all Renee.)

Now my particular gig is pretty laid back most of the time. Renee is getting pretty good at putting herself in front of the keyboard and making herself work. I don't have to shout pep at her to get her out of bed most mornings anymore. And she doesn't have anything out on submission right now so I don't have to deal with shaking off rejection letters at the moment, thank the gods. (Emotions are some messy shit.) Most days my big responsibility is keeping up with the Twitterverse and the blogosphere. It's not exactly hard labor.

But every now and again, I still have to step up and do something really unpleasant. Because in addition to all the other things, I'm also the guy in charge of deadlines. And last week, because of my deadline duties, I had to kick a whole litter of kittens off the table.

Renee has been working on this project we've been calling Familiar off and on for a long time now. You guys know about this already. When we sat down and booted up the Professional Writing Career machine this time around, we decided she'd get one year to make a serious go at putting together a new rough draft of the novel.

That was October 2012. But in September 2013, it still wasn't done. Word count wise it looked almost done, but anyone actually reading the story knew it had a long way to go. 2013 was a hard year, both in terms of real life and writing life, and things just hadn't gone the way we planned. But the girls were so excited about finally making progress, and they really thought they could finish the novel if they just had a little more time.

So I gave them an extension. One month, just until November and NaNoWriMo rolled around.

Well November rolled around and Familiar was still lumbering forward, but nowhere near the finish line. The Muse lobbied for another extension. We made a compromise. We'd take November off to work on the new project, Guardian, and then we'd come back to Familiar. I gave her an extra two months this time, because I understand there are things like holidays and stuff in December. The new deadline for Familiar became end of January 2014.

As the weeks have gone by, it's became really obvious that Familiar isn't going to make the new deadline either. So we started talking about another extension.

Getting this damn book written was starting to feel like passing a federal budget. And now we weren't just talking about another two-month continuing resolution. This time we were discussing a serious overhaul, pushing the whole calendar back by a full year and starting Familiar all over again with some serious replotting.

No, no, nope. Sorry, girls, but I had to put my foot down. This is my line that shall not be crossed and I'm standing firm. The story is good, the characters are fun, but there are big flaws and we can't just sit down and start the whole process all over again. It's been a good ride and I like cats just as much as the next guy stuck sharing the head space of a cat person with two cat-loving abstracts. But this is the end of the line.

I read writing and publishing blogs every day and I've read this same story over and over again from published authors all over the spectrum. There's always that one book they wrote and loved and just couldn't sell. And so they reworked it and tried again and reworked it and tried again. And again and again and again, until one day they finally got that ah-ha moment and the story came together into something publishable and now their baby, the book of their heart, is out there in the world.

It's a great story, full of hope and inspiration and dreams.

You know else all those stories talk about? How those writers went back and wrote other things and got those out there into the world, in between all those reworkings. You almost never read about authors who flogged the same dead horse novel for twenty years trying to fix it over and over again. Because those authors spend all their time flogging a dead horse and thus never get published.

Renee wants to get published. She wants this to be her career. And that means sticking to things and finishing them, sure, but it also means recognizing when something isn't working and she's spent too much time on it already and knowing when it's time to move on to other things.

Familiar isn't going away, per se. I'm not suggesting with burn it to the ground, salt the earth, and poison all the wells on our way out. We're putting it in a drawer. (Metaphorically speaking, of course, as this is the digital age and all that.) It's going back into the background, where the Muse can play with it in her spare time and maybe coax a solution out of the ether. Then we'll talk about putting Familiar back on the calendar in one of the future project slots, and maybe give it the time for another serious go. Until then, we're moving on.

And moving on is good. Guardian is a good story with fun characters too and Renee likes writing it. (Though it is a little darker than Familiar and tends to leave her with a somewhat fouler mouth when she really digs into her MC's head space.) And there's still that short story I've vowed we will write and send out on submission at some point this year. There are big scary fun things in our future!

But, yeah, I'm not gonna lie; being the guy who had to kick the kittens out really sucked.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Flash Fiction: Plotting

PROMPT/CHALLENGE SUMMARY: Remember that 200 Words at a Time challenge I did every week for five weeks? (Of course you do; I talked about it so much you'd have thought that was all I was doing with my life for the rest of forever. Sorry about that, by the way. But not that sorry, since I'm going to talk about it more today and in at least one more post.) Well, if you remember that, you might also remember my first entry, which no one ever chose to continue. :-( My poor sad lonely words. But, being me, I decided I'd continue it on my own. I faithfully wrote 200 words of my own every week, as if I was the one to pick it up for the challenge. Except for the last week, because things have been so crazy around here lately that I never actually got around to finishing it off. Well, I've made time now, so here it is, better late than never. Enjoy!
(Source: This is the 1000-word story I wrote from my original 200-word entry back in November. My original spark of inspiration came from one of those moments all writers have, when they're having a conversation with other writers or doing research or something and they realize that to anyone outside that moment, they probably seem like a psychotic serial killer or a terrorist or something. I have those moments all the time.)


"I think I'll stab him." Miranda eyed the two fingers tapping the steering wheel and forced them still, not wanting to think about how she needed a cigarette. She had to focus. She had a murder to plan. "Can't use a big kitchen knife. That's so... cliché. Glass from a broken mirror could work. It'd send a message."

The radio fuzzed out as her car idled at the fifth red light in a row. She punched the power button, letting silence replace the static. Getting a new antennae was too far down on the priority list to even think about, as was paying someone to dig the broken CD out of the useless piece of junk in the middle of the dashboard. She'd had to give up on things like non-essential car repairs and cigarettes and living in a neighborhood where people didn't steal your car antennae when she'd walked out on her ex two months ago.

"Would it negate the bad luck thing though? Or just make everything worse?" Her teeth pulled on her lower lip while she worked through potential consequences. Then she laughed. "Well, I guess it probably transfers, since he's the one who ends up dead."

Miranda pulled up in front of a tiny house and honked. A glance at the clock--and some quick visualizing to fill in the missing dashes in the half-dead display--told her they were late. She honked again.

"Just a sec!" Emily shouted, shouldering her way out the front door. She was loaded down with half a dozen spiral notebooks and an enormous dinosaur of a laptop in one hand and a bag that looked too small for a tin of Altoids in the other.

Somehow she'd make it work though. Miranda was convinced her best friend had some kind of Time Lord technology going on when it came to purses.

Emily managed to close and lock her front door without dropping anything--does she have a third arm hiding behind her back?--and then raced down to the curb and hopped into the car.

Miranda felt her energy level drain after just two seconds in Emily's overeager presence. The girl was pretty much vibrating with excitement.

"Did you figure out how you're going to kill him yet?" she asked, her grin so wide it would probably sprain something in one of her cheeks if she held it much longer.

"I'm going to stab him with a mirror shard." Miranda checked her blind spot carefully as she eased out into traffic. One more fender bender and her insurance would drop her for sure.

"Oooh, I like it. A mirror to the heart for the narcissistic asshole." Emily nodded and scribbled something in one of the notebooks she hadn't managed to cram into her bag yet. "That's very symbolic."

Miranda nodded as she merged into the fast lane. Maybe traffic would ease up once they got to past campus. What kind of idiot sets up a meeting downtown smack in the middle of rush hour?

A quick glance revealed Emily was now adding notations to what looked like a very complicated flow chart with Miranda's name at the top of it. Emily had scrawled mirror shard in the middle of a circle labeled "Murder Weapon" and was now listing things like disposal and finger prints in little side bubbles.

"So what are you going to do about Rick?" Miranda asked, trying to distract her before she made more notes. The girl was obsessed with writing down every detail, which just meant more notes for Miranda to toss in the trash later.

It worked. Emily closed the notebook and turned her full anguished attention to Miranda. "I don't really know. I just can't buy this whole secret life thing, you know? He's just such a nice guy. And so. . .  normal. He just doesn't seem the type to lie so much, right?"

"All guys lie," Miranda said, thinking of her cheating bastard ex. "It's coded into their DNA."

Emily bit her lip and some of her shiny enthusiasm dimmed. "That's not true," she said.

Miranda sighed, wishing she could be cynical without feeling like she'd just kicked a puppy.

She and Emily had a nice ridiculous cycle of guilt running between them now. Miranda felt guilty for killing Emily's buzz. Emily felt guilty for saying something that reminded Miranda of Gary. Miranda felt guilty for still letting the asshole into her thoughts at all. Not to mention for falling for his shtick in the first place.

And, of course, there was the giant whopping elephant in the car. Emily felt at least ten different kinds of guilty for being one of the women Gary slept with while he was engaged to Miranda.

Not that Emily knew Miranda knew about that. Yet.

"Did you figure out what you're going to name the prostitute yet?" Emily asked, pulling on a cloudy version of her sunny smile as Miranda pulled into a space across from a trendy little coffee shop. "Or is she just going to be Victim #2?"

Miranda got out of the car without answering, snagging her messenger back from the backseat. A handmade neon poster in the shop's front window caught her eye.


Well, there are signs, and there are signs.

"Mir?" Emily turned in the middle of the street to look back at Miranda.

"Yeah, I did."

"Great!" Emily's smile was back to full volume, writerly fanaticism crowding out the shame. She dug her bright yellow plotting notebook back out and turned to the page full of notes about Miranda's proposed thriller as they climbed the shop's front steps. "What is it?" she asked, pen hovering over the "Victim #2, Prostitute" square.

"Emily," Miranda said as she pulled open the shop's front door. "I'm naming the whore Emily."

Welcoming shouts from a dozen other writers almost covered the sound of Emily's notebook hitting the floor and Miranda smiled in response.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

My Reading in 2013

You probably don't know this, but I'm on Goodreads. Sort of. I don't do reviews or discussions on there or anything. I just use it keep track of what books I read. I know there's a whole social media aspect to Goodreads, but I'm just not that involved in it.

But feel free to be my friend on Goodreads. Now that I have totally undersold it.

I think I may know why I have no friends on Goodreads...

(The Idea Salesman will be so disappointed when he sees this post.)

The thing I really used Goodreads for is to track my reading habits. Every January I download my book list from the previous year and analyze it to death looking for trends. Because I like books and I like spreadsheets and manipulating a spreadsheet about books is my idea of a good way to spend a day.

Newsflash: I am a nerd.

I was ridiculously busy moving house this time last year, so I didn't get a chance to put together a blog post of my findings. (Notice I didn't say I didn't have any findings. It takes more than a little thing like moving halfway across the country to stop me from extremely nerdy procrastination detailed analysis.)

But never fear! This year I managed to not only analyze, but also put together this charming little summary of my results, which I know you're all just desperate to see. So, without further ado, here's some stuff I discovered about my reading in 2013:

Total Books Read: 191
My goal for 2013 was 150, so I more than met that one. :-)

Breakdown by Month:
January: 4 (2%)
February: 17 (9%)
March: 18 (9%)
April: 11 (6%)
May: 18 (9%)
June: 16 (8%)
July: 17 (9%)
August: 21 (11%)
September: 21 (11%)
October: 18 (9%)
November: 14 (7%)
December: 16 (8%)
I've noticed this same kind of spread over the past couple of years. Apparently I read a lot in the summer and early fall. I've also noticed that if you match it up against my writing habits, I write a lot more in the late fall and the spring. Winter is apparently just a dead zone for the bookish side of my brain. Snow is very distracting?

Breakdown by Source:
Books Bought: 86 (45%)
Books Borrowed: 105 (55%)
I think this is the first year I've ever used the library more than the bookstore. I think there are a number of factors involved here. For one thing, I'm reading more than ever and if I was still buying all my books, we'd have a hard time putting together rent money. Also, the digital inventory available from libraries is growing all the time. It's gotten to the point where I can almost always find something from my TBR to check out. And I'm spending less time in the physical bookstore than I used to. I used to take at least one evening a week out of the house to hang out at Barnes & Noble and read and write and browse. My schedule has changed and now my "me time" is in the early mornings, when B&N isn't open.

Rereads: 7 (4%)
I used to read every book at least twice. Once to plow through the story, and then again (generally right away) to really take it in. I've gotten better at paying attention to the first read, though, so I've gotten out of the habit of automatically rereading everything. Now the only books I reread are ones that really intrigue me, ones that I am trying to recall something specific about, or, occasionally, ones that I just get a little nostalgic for. For example, this year 5 of the 7 rereads were the Dante Valentine series by Lilith Saintcrow, which I couldn't resist revisiting after she started putting Selene (a prequel spin off--sort of--to the series) up as serial blog posts.

Breakdown by Rating (1-5 Stars):
0 Stars: 2 (1%)
1 Star: 3 (2%)
2 Stars: 9 (5%)
3 Stars: 73 (38%)
4 Stars: 36 (19%)
5 Stars: 68 (36%)
Average Rating: 3.79
Goodreads Average Rating: 4.01
In general it looks like I'm pretty satisfied with the books I read. I'm getting better at sorting out good recommendations from bad ones, I think, and I'm also getting better at controlling the compulsion to keep reading a series to the end even if I'm really not liking it. I also let go of a lot of my stupid notions about what I should and shouldn't like to read, which has helped immensely. Oh, and apparently I'm a slightly harsher grader than the overall Goodreads community.

Breakdown by Publication Year:
Before 2000: 18 (9%)
2000-2004: 16 (8%)
2005-2009: 33 (17%)
2010-2012: 69 (36%)
2013: 55 (29%)
Every year Goodreads asks me to pick my favorite books of the year in various categories and most of the time I've never heard of most of the books on the list. I made an effort to change that this year and try to read at least a few new releases every month. I still hadn't heard of most of the books that were nominated, because my reading ended up concentrating in a few key genres, but within those genres I had actually read quite a few of the books that came up. Which turned out to kind of suck a little, because then I sat there dithering over which one I liked more...

Speaking of genres...
Breakdowns by Genre:
Erotica: 10 (5%)
     Contemporary: 9 (5%)
     Historical: 1 (1%)
Mystery: 2 (1%)
     Contemporary: 1 (1%)
     Paranormal: 1 (1%)
Nonfiction: 3 (2%)
     Comedy: 1 (1%)
     Writing/Editing/Publishing: 2 (1%)
Romance: 93 (49%)
     Contemporary: 46 (24%)
     Historical: 37 (19%)
     Paranormal: 10 (5%)
SF/F: 83 (43%)
     High/Traditional Fantasy: 14 (7%)
     Science Fiction: 1 (1%)
     Urban Fantasy: 66 (35%)
     Victorian/Gaslight/Steampunk: 2 (1%)
Science fiction/fantasy takes the #2 spot again this year, which comes as a little bit of a surprise, since it's my genre of choice. But, while I'd read an urban fantasy novel every day of the week if I could, the fact of the matter is I've read my way through most of what the library has and I can only afford to buy so many books. Romance is becoming my go-to genre for pleasure reading. I like romance novels and there are probably billions of them out there. I'm also learning quite a bit about how to structure internal conflict in a novel, which is pretty much the whole deal in a romance novel and something I've never been very good at myself. But there's a whole other blog post there...

Breakdown by Age Range:
Adult: 177 (93%)
Young Adult: 14 (7%)
I wish I was reading more Young Adult. I made a good effort in 2012, but it wasn't a focus this year and so my YA reading fell off quite a bit.

Breakdown by Format:
Kindle: 143 (75%)
ePub: 47 (25%)
Other: 1 (1%)
I think this is the first time I've ever gone an entire year reading absolutely everything digitally. (That one listed under "other" was an online serial.) Since I had my kids it's just so much easier to read on my phone than to try to keep paperbacks out of curious drool-covered toddler hands. It also fits well with my schedule, since my free time is typically early in the morning and late at night, when the physical bookstores and libraries are closed. The interwebs are always open!

Part of a Series: 185 (97%)
<i>Apparently I like series.</i>

Number of Authors: 45
New Authors to Me: 23 (51%)
I've been working really hard over the past few years to read more by authors I've never read before. I don't want my taste to get stagnant, I guess. My efforts on this goal continue to go pretty well, with more than half of the authors I read this year being new for me. And I've already got a list going of authors to introduce my imagination to in 2014.

My goal for 2014 is to read 200 books. As I said above, I'd like to continue adding a bunch of new authors to my list, and I'd like to get back to reading more Young Adult. Also, I want to read more science fiction. I read a great scifi novel the other day (Fortune's Pawn, by Rachel Bach) and it made me realize that I'm missing the sf chunk of sf/f. At the same time, I also think I'd like to try to get out of my regular genres more often and get back to reading from all over the store, so to speak.

What about you? What did you read in 2013? What would you like to read in 2014?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Abstract Thoughts: What Are You Looking At?

Brilliance from Idea Salesman
This has been an interesting year for the blog. Early on, Renee was... well to say "not posting very often" would be a bit like saying Renee's beloved Vikings didn't win very often this season, so we'll just go with posting infrequently. Renee was posting infrequently.

Now she posts something there three times a week, on something resembling a regular schedule! At least, she does that most weeks. Some weeks there just ain't enough gas in the tank.

And people keep coming here to read those somethings. 1,763 hits on the blog on 2013!

Okay, fine, yes, most of those hits are from various weirdo internet bots, but I'm pretty sure at least a few of them were real people.

So what brought you all here? I'd love to say it's my sparkling personality and motivational football metaphors, but the numbers, disappointingly, disagree. Here are the top five posts from 2013:

(Housekeeping tip for the undercaffeinated: There are two #4s, instead of a #4 and #5, because the last two on the list were actually tied.)

4. Flash Fiction: 200 Words at a Time, Part Two For the second round of a collaborative flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig's blog, Renee added 200 words to a tale of a boy who really doesn't want to be holding up a flag pole while some crazy lady yaps about beans. Renee decided to that charming coming-of-age tale needed an explosion and fire, because she does that.

4. Do You NaNoWriMo? A post in which Renee gave out random bits of advice regarding National Novel Writing Month. She didn't light anything on fire in this post--at least not that I remember--but she did put a spiffy Game of Thrones meme at the top.

3. My Influences: Tad Williams Renee did her squealing fangirl thing, this time with regard to Tad Williams and told a rambly little story about how she found her way into the speculative fiction section of the bookstore.

2. Flash Fiction: 200 Words at a Time, Part One In the first round of that collaborative flash fiction thing I was talking about earlier, Renee started a story about a woman contemplating killing her ex with a broken mirror. Strangely, this post got a bunch of hits but no one actually picked the story up for the challenge. Damn bots; nothing but a bunch of lazy punks.

And the #1 most popular post on Renee's blog in 2013 was...

Drumroll please!

I'm not hearing any drumming out there.

Oh, you can do better than that. Come on, who doesn't love a good drumroll? Let's try that again, with a little more enthusiasm!


Close enough.

1. Flash Fiction: 200 Words at a Time, Part Three Damn, that collaborative flash fiction thing was apparently quite the milkshake this year. This story actually made it through all five rounds. And what was Renee's contribution to it? She wrote 200 words about a girl getting ready to blow something up. Should we be concerned at all about this? It seems like she might have an unhealthy obsession with explosions and fire...

So I guess you guys really like it when Renee blathers on about flash fiction, NaNoWriMo, and fangirly squealing. Or possibly just fire and explosions.

Happy New Year, folks!