Monday, June 28, 2010

In Which Music Soothes the Savage Beast

Bitterblue is eating me alive.

Sometimes, when you're being eaten alive, the most basic life questions become difficult to answer. What should I wear today? What do I feel like eating? If I threw my phone into the path of this steamroller, would that be such a terrible thing? Is it possible my upstairs neighbor is rehearsing for Stomp? Seriously? Please shut up? Isn't there something I'm meant to be mailing to someone? Where did I put that damn cactus? What kind of music would help me feel less strung out?

Sometimes, when I can't figure out what kind of music I feel like listening to, I like to set all the files on my iPod -- all 1289 files -- on shuffle, and see what happens. Of course, what happens is that I get a peculiar mix of songs occasionally interrupted by things like the voice of Ira Glass, a random chapter of All Creatures Great and Small, and a middle movement of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. But I also get these lovely, refreshing reminders of songs I'd forgotten about. When you're being eaten alive, a single song can be like a little island onto which the shark spits you out for three and a half minutes of peace. (Just... work with my metaphors here, okay?)

Herewith, I'd like to share a few songs I stumbled across this weekend while my iPod was on shuffle. The videos themselves are a bit random; the songs are the point. Listen, and see if they speak to you.

First, "Decatur," by Sufjan Stevens. I LOVE the transformation that takes place in this song. Thanks to my sister, secret codename: Apocalyptica, for introducing me to this one.

Next, "Doubting Thomas," by Nickel Creek.

The next one, called "Treachery," by Kirsty MacColl, turns the tables on celebrity stalking. It's possible there is no better song for dancing around in your socks. Thanks, Sam, for sharing this one with me!

One more. This teeny little song just cracks me up: "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy" from the Once soundtrack. Sung by a guy who fixes vacuum cleaners for a living (in case it's not obvious). Watch the movie! I loved it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

To Boldly Go Where No One Has Ever Gone Before

(This morning I tried to psych myself up for writing by telling myself that that's what I was doing.)

I've been thinking about some of the things that make revision tricky. A few days ago, I found myself unsure about how to attack the next plotty piece in my novel.... so, to work that out and get my momentum going again, I did what I always do, which is that I went back a few chapters to read and revise. This usually works for me. By the time I get to the end of what I've got, I know what comes next and have a few ideas about how to do it.

So, Bitterblue is very, um, LONG would be an accurate word, so whenever I'm revising, I'm looking for things to cut out. But one thing that always makes it tricky for me to cut things out is that in every scene, I'm always trying to accomplish several things at once. For example, the point of the scene might be for Characters A and B to discover a Surprising Plot Thing -- something startling and relevant to the larger plot. BUT, in the course of the action and conversation, I'm probably also showing the Development of the Relationship between Characters A and B. My novels tend to be character-driven, so character development is really important to me. And as Characters A and B move around doing whatever they're doing, I may also be trying, in the background, to show Important Stuff about the Castle, the architecture, or the landscape, or what not -- things that have symbolic significance, or even plot significance later, or make the world-building richer. AND I'm probably also trying to drop in Subtle Clues about Miscellaneous Mysteries that will have direct plot significance later. There might be other things going on, too, but for now, let's work with those four.

So, let's say I'm rereading/revising a scene, and realize that this scene where Characters A and B discover the Surprising Plot Thing is not necessary. Aha!, I think to myself. I do not need this particular Surprising Plot Thing in my plot! But: if I axe the entire scene, well, there goes my character development. There goes my setting/world building development. And there go all those necessary clues that I took such care to plant. I'm either going to need to decide to do without all these things (which is hard), or find a way to cram them in elsewhere (which is harder).

This is only one of the reasons I'm grateful to have a stellar editor. Help. Help. Hallo? (That's the sound of me in the heffalump pit that is my novel, calling for my editor.)

And that's all I'm going to say about process today, because another thing that's tricky is that you start to worry that all your chatter about the novel is a lot more interesting than the novel itself. Sigh....

Apropos of nothing, the latest xkcd, found here, is one of my favorites:

Have a peaceful Thursday (without air horns), everyone.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A Media Follow-up: Team Diana Comet, Katniss, and Pasha

My post last Thursday spurred some fun reactions from friends and family, so I thought I'd follow up.

1. Did you start The Name of the Rose (by Umberto Eco) next, like you thought you would?
No. I started Diana Comet and other Improbable Stories, by Sandra McDonald. I like it! It's a collection of interconnected fantastical short stories. Quirky and unpredictable, occasionally grim (war and battle, a warehouse fire, etc. well-written and vivid), with just enough similarities to the world we live in to keep me delighted, and sometimes even giggling. (E.g., a heartbroken cowboy in a Western town called Flagpole is reading the poetry of one Whitney Waltman.) Plus, it routinely plays with gender and sexuality in unexpected ways. My favorite story so far is one of the grim ones and is called The Firemen's Fairy, which is a double entendre.

2. [WARNING: The next question/answer contains The Hunger Games and Catching Fire spoilers. Sort of.]
Are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale?
I'm on Team Katniss.

Actually, I'm on Team Suzanne Collins. I have faith that the author will tell a story that'll feel right to me -- even if the characters I love don't survive. Which is my bigger worry, way bigger than which boy, if either, Katniss ends up with. I'm not sure the "which boy" question is where Katniss's head is. She's got bigger fish to fry, yes? I'm more worried about her (and my) heart breaking if and when either boy dies. And about Katniss herself surviving! A friend told me that that's one of his worries: that Katniss will sacrifice herself for the cause. I will say this: I love talking about Katniss, Peeta, and Gale as characters, and my favorite character of the three after reading Catching Fire is... either Katniss, Peeta, or Gale. :D?

3. Who is Pasha?
Pasha Kovalev is a ballroom dancer who competed in Season 3 of So You Think You Can Dance, making it into the top 6. In the current season of SYTYCD, Season 7, the set-up is different from that of previous seasons, in that instead of contestants dancing with each other, they dance with "All-Stars." The All-Stars are all top contestants from previous seasons. Pasha has returned to SYTYCD this season as the male ballroom-expert All-Star.

Here's a conversation I had recently with my sister, secret codename: Cordelia, and my outlaw brother-in-law, secret codename: Joe. The baby twins, secret codenames: Phoenix and Isis, also contributed now and then. Mostly screams.

Me: Cordelia. Cordelia! Guess what! It's a new season of So You Think You Can Dance and PASHA is back!
Cordelia: PASHA?
Joe: Is Pasha the ballroom dancer with the Russian accent?
Me: Yes! PASHA!
Joe: The one who rips his shirt off at every opportunity?
Me: No! NOOOOOWOWO! That's Dmitry! Pasha only rips his shirt off if it's a required part of the choreography! Come on, Joe! Get with the program!

Why the happiness over the return of Pasha?

Here's the thing: Pasha is the sort of dancer who's super-focused on his partner, on supporting her and making her look good. He's not a big, cool, flashy personality like some of the people in the SYTYCD ranks. He comes across as quiet, sweet, soft-spoken, sincere, and adorkable. THIS CAN BE HARD TO FIND ON REALITY COMPETITION SHOWS. He's always, always there for his partners physically, and it seems like his heart is always there, too. He competed in Season 3, and slowly, over the course of that season, became my all-time favorite, because of his dancing, his way with his partners, and his (sincerely) modest personality. He has held on to that distinction. He was wonderful at all the styles of dance -- except maybe hip-hop, which was hysterical, because... well.... maybe he doesn't make the best badass in town, but is there anything wrong with that, really?

A week and a half ago, Pasha danced with All-Star Anya AND Contestant Cristina together, which is kind of weird for ballroom dancing, but anyway. (This video won't be up for long, so if you want to watch it, do it while you can. The dance was choreographed by Jason Gilkison. And, um, I don't think Pasha will come across as sweet in this choreography, exactly, but you just have to trust me!) Pasha is not a big guy, but first he lifted Cristina and twirled her this way and that, then he put her down, turned around, grabbed Anya, and spun her around on his arm. I mean, he spun her like a hoop. They made it look so easy. A short while later, Anya climbed onto Pasha's back while simultaneously Pasha lifted Cristina and flung her around between his legs. And yes, he did actually tear his shirt off after that, but can you really blame him, after all those exertions? He was probably just getting too warm! (Actually, I'm pretty sure the men-with-no-shirts thing happens a lot more on recent seasons than it used to. On the one hand, I bet there are people in the field of dance saying that this sort of squee-inducing stuff cheapens the art of dance more than the show already does. On the other hand, the women have been dancing half-naked from time immemorial, so IMO, it's about time things evened out and we saw male torsos. Now show us their legs.)


Where was I?

Oh! Right. The point I was trying to make was this: Pasha might be the only man on earth who could dance a shirtless, cocky, gyrating dance with two women who are grabbing him and shaking their stuff at him -- basically fighting over him -- and still create the impression that he's paying attention to both of them, and not skeeve me out. Most of the time, he -- and Anya and Cristina -- just look like they're having fun. If this one doesn't seem like the best example for partnership and modesty ^_^, here's one more dance I was able to find from his contestant days, with Sara. I'm sure that video will come down soon, as well, so watch it while you can.

I think I have now talked enough about Pasha.

In fact, I think I have now talked enough, full stop.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Media Inventory

First things first: on the right is the Graceling cover for the Portuguese language edition published by Alfaguara Infantil & Juvenil in Portugal (not to be confused with the Portuguese language edition that will be published by Rocco in Brazil). ---->

Okay, ready?

Book most recently read and enjoyed:
Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey.

Book I'm currently reading (and enjoying):
The Magic Thief: Found, by Sarah Prineas.

Next book I'll read:
Well, these things are impossible to predict, but The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco, is calling to me.

Book most recently purchased:
Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, by Sandra McDonald.

Book not yet published that I've ordered from my local indie:
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. (duh)

A random 7 of the 14 books I have checked out from the library:
Territory, by Emma Bull.
Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories, by Herbert Kohl.
Scars, by Cheryl Rainfield.
Nation (sound recording), by Terry Pratchett.
Agincourt, by Bernard Cornwell.
Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, by Virginia Hamilton.
Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, edited by Robert E. Krebs.

A random 3 of the 6 books I have on hold at the library:
Borrowed Names: Poems About Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, Marie Curie, and Their Daughters, by Jeannine Atkins.
No Exit and Three Other Plays, by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Woman in Mind: December Bee, a play by Alan Ayckbourn.

A happy 6 from the 78 books in my TBR pile that fall into none of the categories above (I was going halfsies before, but I'm not about to list 39 books) (Hey, did you notice I've made quite a dent in my TBR pile since the last time I blogged about it?):
Gone Baby Gone, by Dennis Lehane.
Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett.
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, by Alexander McCall Smith.
Kingdom of Twilight, by Tui Sutherland.
Trent's Last Case, by E.C. Bentley.
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, by Francisco X. Stork.

On my DVR:
So You Think You Can Dance
, starring many talented youngsters, a few annoying yappers (god, Nigel, don't ask a 19-year-old on live TV if she's ever been in love. Especially if your reason for asking is because you think the answer is no and you want to use it as your explanation for why, in your opinion, there wasn't any emotion in her performance). *...* Wait. Where was I? Oh yes! And most importantly, starring The Return of Pasha. PASHA!!!!!!! *flails*

DVD just returned to Netflix:
Leverage, Season 2.

DVD just received from Netflix:
The Madness of King George.

DVD next in my queue:
The Hurt Locker.

The word "queue" is one of my favorite words to type. Queue. Queue. Queue.

And how about you?

This media inventory has been brought to you by my need to remind myself that there are more stories in my life than the one that occupies the majority of my time every day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Beauty for a Monday

Since this is a post about beauty, I wanted to use my most beautiful book cover as an icon. Not an easy choice, but I found myself returning to an old classic.

So, I've got two things to show you today. The first is from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day; it's the photo from April 26, which I've had bookmarked for a month and half now, waiting until I had time to blog it.

This is a dust pillar of the Carina Nebula. Here's an excerpt from the NASA page: " Inside the head of this interstellar monster is a star that is slowly destroying it. The monster, on the right, is actually an inanimate pillar of gas and dust that measures over a light year in length.... The pink dots around the image are newly formed stars that have already been freed from their birth monster."

Go to the page actual to read the rest; click the photo to see it bigger; or just look at it for a minute and, if you've read Fire, check out that monster on the right, an arrow in her hand. Some monsters are beautiful :).

Thanks to NASA for offering their images to the public domain. And for building the Hubble Space Telescope. Don't you just wish dreamers like Copernicus and poor house-arrested Galileo could see this stuff?

Here's the other thing I wanted to show you:

Click to see it bigger. This is the cover of the French translation of American author Brandon Sanderson's novel Elantris, published by Orbit France. At the signing table in Épinal, directly at my right shoulder was... well, Joe Abercrombie (the quarters were tight)... but wedged between Joe and me was a pile of Brandon Sanderson's Elantris, and I couldn't stop looking at it, because I WANT TO LEAN OVER A PRECIPICE WHILE WEARING THAT CLOAK. I was so gaga over it that my lovely French editor finally just gave me a copy of the book, which of course I can't read. But I can LOOK AT IT.

I hope there are beautiful things in your day today.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Squares and Triangles Agree: Circles Are Pointless. (Plus, a Bitterblue Update)

Gollancz YA cover for Fire ----->

So, the t-shirt on the left (by Pete Mitchell; buy it at Threadless) tickles me. Poor little pointless circle! But the t-shirt on the right (by Allan Faustino; buy it at Threadless) makes me sad.

Aw, Mr. Rhino! You're breaking my heart! Don't you see how beautiful you are? You're shaped for strength and power and momentum and agility, and if you slim down to the size of that unicorn, you'll be so weak! Health at Every Size! Anyway, unicorns aren't even real! It's all a myth! Haven't you read the Newsweek exposé on airbrushing scandals and unattainable bodies? Don't let the world do this to you, Mr. Rhino! Fight the power!


So, three years ago this summer, I was finishing the first draft of Fire. Two years ago this summer, I was finishing the revisions of Fire. I surely am glad I'm not in either of those places anymore. If you were reading my blog way back then, you might remember how hard Fire was for me. Bitterblue isn't an easier book to write overall, but it's a different kind of hard. Every book is its own kind of hard. This summer, as I push toward finishing Bitterblue, I'm perfectly content to be dealing with the hard parts.

Funny things happen when the end of a first draft is in sight. The fears and anxieties shift, and some of them intensify. When you're at the beginning -- or, as I can't speak for other writers, I should say when I'm at the beginning -- there's a lot of floundering and a whole lot of WTF am I doing here!? In the middle, I tend to be focused on individual scenes, on transitions, on character development, on the micro issues, and I've become hopeful, because I've gotten over the hell of beginning, but there's still so much I haven't ruined yet by doing it. (!) But near the end, two things happen. One, the momentum picks up, like crazy. Writing a book is a lot like reading a book in this sense, meaning -- you know how you tend to read faster as you approach a book's climax? Well, I also write faster as I approach a book's climax. I cannot wait to get to the exciting stuff. So that's the one thing that happens, and that's a welcome development. The other thing that happens is less welcome: the hopelessness sets in. I can see the book as a whole now, and every single day, I struggle with the voices that are telling me it's not going to work, it's going to fail. It isn't about anything. I'm not good enough to pull all the loose ends together. I'll get to the climax and realize that it's a dumb climax. It's a mess and revisions won't solve the problems.

The good news is that they're just voices, they can't control me, and I'm used to them. Bitterblue will be my fifth completed manuscript, so I've dealt with these voices four times before. They're just a normal part of writing, and they're not going to go away, so you learn to laugh at them. They lie, but it's only because they're frightened; you learn to give them a hug and say, "You poor thing. Calm down. It really is going to be okay. You really can do this."

You acknowledge the voices, but you write anyway. This faith is performative. I believe in this book.

So there.

Monday, June 7, 2010

A Writer Is Always Writing... Except When She's on the Trapeze

Warning: trapezey photos ahead!

And an apology: this one got long!

But, first: Gollancz, my UK publisher, is releasing YA editions of my books under their new imprint, Gollancz YA. (Prior to this, my books were published in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand for the adult market only.) And here's the Graceling cover ----> click to see it bigger --->

So. Back to business.

Here's the thing: sometimes I find it difficult to take breaks from my work. Writers, of course, are not just working when we're physically writing. We're working when we're wandering around the house trying to remember where we put our pen (answer: in our hair). We're working when we're reading. (Oooo! How did this writer just make me feel that way? Can I do that to my readers?) We're working when we're out for a walk. (Ooooo! How can I describe that sky?) We try to watch some TV, and then Sophie on Leverage describes a con that gives us an idea for the scene we're trying to write. (Ooooo! The way Parker, Hardison, and Eliot interact is so damn funny. Can I learn something from that?) Point is: it's really hard to turn off the writer brain, especially when I'm deep in the middle of a writing project that's lasting years. It's kind of like I'm swimming through it, all the time.

When I'm with friends, that's a break. And what I've learned is that the trapeze is also a break -- and this is one of the things I like most about it. The trapeze is so strange to me, so far removed from anything else I do or have ever done, that it's like I inhabit a different brain while I'm doing it. I'm not a writer while I'm at trapeze class at TSNY Beantown; I'm a trapeze student, and nothing else. I'm thinking about pointing my toes and arching my back and keeping my legs straight and looking for the catcher and waiting for his hep and presenting good catch hands and trying (and failing) to land on my back in the net when the trick is over. Much of this thinking occurs while I'm swinging wildly through the air. When I'm at trapeze class, writing is so far out of my mind that -- well, for months, I had a few research questions about ropes that I wanted to run by my instructors, but I kept forgetting about it until partway through the drive home. *facepalm*

It's such a relief, sometimes, to discover that I've allowed myself to forget about Bitterblue. And it's better for her, too. I write better if now and then I get some distance.

The trick I'm working on these days is the set split. (There's more info and a 15-second video [not of me] here, if you want to see what it looks like.) With the set split in particular, it's hard not to release the bar early, because you can see the catcher so clearly, and it feels like it's happening in slow motion, and there he is, and there you are, and he's taking FOREVER to say hep, and shouldn't you just jump off? The answer is no, you shouldn't, not if you want him to be able to reach you at the right moment for catching you. Which is one of the things my mind is full of while I'm at trapeze class.

And now, I'd like to present a photo essay of what I'm thinking about while I'm at trapeze class. Click on any of the photos to enbiggen.

Stand back while I rock these socks.

This seems like an excellent opportunity to inspect the ceiling. Yes, it is high and flat and blue, just like last time. Splendid.

How's my hair?

I hope my Italian publisher notices that I'm wearing my bo libri t-shirt.

Viva l'Italia!

Catch hands, not jazz hands!

Oh, hi! I was hoping I'd find you here!

Hey, did you notice that my socks match your shirt?

People will think we planned it.

Do you have anything in green for next time? Because I have some frog socks.

Well, tootles! It's been fun!

Okay, here's what is actually on my mind during that sequence: as I stand on the board, toes over the edge, holding the bar with one hand, leaning forward while Erin holds my belt, Steve, holding the lines on the ground, is giving me some reminders of my problem spots in the trick I'm about to do. Kaz, in the catch trapeze, begins his big swing and lowers himself down to hang by his legs, and I am nervous, because I need to do everything right for the trick to work. I especially need to take off exactly when Kaz calls for me to take off, or the timing won't be right.

Next, I hear Kaz's "ready" and then his "hep," and I hop off the board and I'm swinging, and Kaz is also swinging (upside-down), and I'm listening for Steve's commands to get into first position at the top of the forward swing. (Watch the video again if you're curious about what I mean -- the commands "first" and "final" are very clear in the video.) I'm telling myself, "stay tight and watch your legs up to the bar," because it's easier to get into first position if you follow your rising legs with your eyes. "AARgh!" I'm thinking as I raise my legs into first position. "I'm tired!"

Now I'm listening for Steve to call me into final position at the top of the back swing. Once I'm in final position (the third and fourth pictures), I'm saying to myself, "Wait for the hep. Wait for the hep." Steve is probably also telling me, "Wait... wait...." And I'm looking for Kaz, and then I see him swinging toward me, and there he is, and I'm waiting, and I'm waiting, and he's NOT SAYING ANYTHING, and then he finally calls "Hep!" and I let go and reach my arms forward and our wrists make contact and he catches me, and YAY! we are swinging, and he's giving me pointers as I swing forward, and for once I don't need to be yelling apologies up at him (usually my conversations, while the catcher swings me, involve me apologizing for having poked him in the eye or some such), and then he's swinging me back again, and then he lets me go, and immediately I know I've positioned myself wrong and the landing is going to be mildly unpleasant. Which it is -- but later, I get some tips on how to land better. Now I'm eager to work on my landings in my next lesson.

And that's what I'm thinking. The whole trick takes maybe 15 seconds.

Thanks to my fine instructors at TSNY Beantown: Erin on the board, Steve on lines and calling, and Kaz in the catch trap; and special thanks to Christine, who was also flying that day, but ran to the camera to take these wonderful pictures in between her own swings!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Covers + Periodic Tables + Baseball = Randutiae

Hi everyone! I'm tripping over un-unpacked luggage and drowning in unanswered mail, but it was a super trip. And now I'm happy to be back to -- and overwhelmed by -- my normal writing schedule.

First, click on the photo to the right to see the large print U.K. cover of Graceling, just out from Clipper Large Print. Like it? I do.

Second, click on "play" below to watch Diana Comet present a periodic table of 75 Years of Fabulous Writers -- women who wrote and write in the fantasy/SF genre. It's really cute. And informative. Sandra McDonald's latest blog post for Diana Comet Presents sent me to my library catalog to put Carol Emschwiller's Report to the Men's Club on hold.

Third... if you're a baseball fan, then you probably know about the bad call that robbed Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game on Wednesday night, with two outs in the ninth inning. (Here's the video.) My heart broke a little when I read about it; I expect the hearts of all baseball lovers did. But baseball is a game that allows for human error -- the umpires don't consult instant reply to verify calls in baseball -- and that's one of the things I love about it. It's one of the imperfections that help make baseball the perfect sport, IMO. My heart broke for Galarraga -- but it actually broke more for Jim Joyce, the umpire who made a mistake, and knows it, and is completely sorry, and can't do anything about it. I wish fans would stop booing Joyce. We all make mistakes. Armando Galarraga will always be remembered for pitching a perfect game, even if it's not in his stats, and if Galarraga himself can be gracious about it, everyone else can, too.

That's all.