Friday, October 30, 2009

A Great Weekend

My husband and I had big plans this weekend.  Between Halloween and our wedding anniversary, it was going to be a blowout end to a rainy October.

Unfortunately, my youngest daughter is currently going through a phase -- the one where she experiments with lots of different viruses.  This week, she chose a sweet old chestnut that isn't at all dangerous, but does create mountains of extra laundry, frequent over-the-counter medicine cocktails, and repetitions of Dr. Seuss books deep into the night.

Since all our plans involved mixing our children with our friends' children, we cancelled everything.  Besides, Mommy and Daddy are tired (pronounced tarred, because we live in Texas.)

This sounds very sad, but there is an upside:

1.  Tonight I bought a new desk and chair.  I have had other desks, but my husband has managed to annex every one to his dark, untidy, electronics-plagued man-kingdom.  This new one is absolutely off-limits to everyone but me, so I can use it as a NaNoWriMo headquarters (and craft station).
2.  Late tomorrow night, after the kids are in bed, I'm going to a NaNoWriMo kick-off write-in.  My husband was shocked - SHOCKED - that I wouldn't prefer to spend our anniversary on the couch watching TV, but also relieved to have the freedom to read Robert Jordan guilt-free.

Anyway, my posts for the next month might be a little spotty and will almost certainly be NaNo-centric.  Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I *Almost* Can't Wait

For NaNoWriMo.  I know I keep going on about it, but I really am seriously excited.  I've been preparing:
  • Re-read No Plot, No Problem, but only up to Week One chapter - CHECK
  • Sign up at official NaNoWriMo site - CHECK
  • Add word count progress bar to blog - CHECK
  • Get new, more comfortable headphones - CHECK
  • Inform husband of plan in vaguest possible terms - CHECK
  • Create private space for writing. 
  • Buy new house with extra room for writing.
  • Schedule cafe outings to write - CHECK
  • Find possible write-ins to attend - CHECK
  • Avoid thinking too much about actual story - CHECK
  • Verified I can at least type 1,667 words per day - CHECK (about 40 minutes)
  • Get ahead on paycheck-related work to minimize possibility of November overtime - CHECK
  • Organize house in preparation for Thanksgiving houseguests -

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Moonrat Bump

Is it a coincidence, or did the GravRain Read-Along lead to a co-op deal?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stock Characters

I can't remember what I had planned for tonight's blog entry; I am utterly distracted by a person I just saw.

Scene: I'm having my weekly glorious night out alone.  (If this sounds pathetic to you, recall that I have small children.)  It's Sunday night, I live in the Bible-Belt Blue-Law 'Burbs, and I'm a Book Nerd, so my idea of glorious is spending two or three hours at the nearest bookstore that stays open until 11 on Sunday.  (As a bonus it's one of the really huge ones that carries stuff others don't.  There's an endcap display for Gravity's Rainbow, for Pete's sake.)

So there's this guy here.  He's an employee.  I swear he looks so much like a dude I once almost sort of had a thing with that I'm afraid to look directly at him, lest I catch his eye and blush.  I should explain that this old friend he looks like was a very attractive young man, but had a little self-control problem at the time; he set my hair on fire.  Just a tiny bit with a magnifying glass, but things actually got weirder from there.  In fact, Pyro-Boy himself looked spookily similar to another guy I once almost sort of had a thing with, which got even weirder when it turned out they were connected - but that's a story for another post.

The fact is, this shit happens all the damn time, and it never fails to freak me out.  When I first met my husband (on a blind date), he looked so much like an old friend that it was almost love at first sight.  A coworker of mine looks and sounds like another close friend from college.  Recently, the stars aligned such that all three of us were in the same room at the same time, and I felt the floor shift beneath my feet (and said something really awkward).   Also, I once had a boss who was a dead-ringer for the guy I lost my virginity with.  Let me tell you, THAT was distracting.

What I have actually been doing here tonight is mentally preparing for NaNoWriMo.  Characterization is not a strong point of mine and I had been wondering if I would go to Writers' Hell for starting with stock characters and building from there.  I've now decided it's OK.

Friday, October 23, 2009


I have this frequent argument with myself.

Meek Kate:  My story is too out there.  It'll make readers uncomfortable.  They'll wonder what's wrong with me!

Bold Kate:  Every novel I've ever loved was out there (at least for its time).  Every one was the result of an author's courage.  Mine probably isn't out there enough!  Man up, you lily-livered whine lover!

Obviously Meek Kate loses every argument, but she continues to worry that risk-taking in novels is a little like risk-taking in fashion.  It's universally spoken of as a Good Thing, but if you go too far, it's unlikely anyone whose opinion matters will ever tell you.  As far as I know, there is no form rejection for "this is batshit crazy and who the fuck do you think you are?"  No, you'll get a polite "not for us," which could mean anything and is a waste of analysis.

Of course, there is an obvious explanation for the lack of "batshit crazy" forms.  Of all the reasons agents and editors reject fiction, too audacious is probably at the bottom of the list.

The lesson to Meek Kate is to stop flattering yourself with this nonsense and spend your energy worrying about execution.

The MacGuffin and the Elephant

Today's subject: The MacGuffin.  Birthed in the movies and made famous by Hitchcock, The MacGuffin is the thing in a story that the characters care about.  It doesn't matter what the object is -- whether it is a diamond or the contents of a case, it doesn't do anything -- it is merely the dense center of gravity around which the characters and action swirl.

It is possibly the oldest and cheapest plot device.  However, it can and has been used brilliantly time and again, and can be extrapolated thus:

Creating a conflict complex enough to sustain tension throughout a novel can be difficult, while real-life problems often seem too complex to inspire.  Try finding one fundamental problem in the story you want to tell.  Once you can identify it, consider its causes and effects and let those bud fractally into secondary and tertiary problems.  Pick only the most interesting growths and hack off the rest.  Now it is like the elephant in the old parable.  You lead your characters to it blindfolded and let each feel a small part of it.  Some will think they are touching trees, others a snake, others a brush, and maybe one of them peeks.  The nature of your characters will determine how they respond.  Story ensues.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  Although I'm not a full-time writer, I have already attained one of the primary perks of the writing life: I work from home.

I do have a desk in an office somewhere that I visit occasionally -- when I can carpool with my boss -- and he takes me out to lunch.  Of course I never get any work done on those days.  I'm too busy gossiping, reminding VIPs I still work there, and making sure my special chair hasn't been stolen (since I plan to steal it myself if I ever leave the company).

I'm no fool; I treasure this deal.  Working from home really is as sooper-dooper fantastic as you think it will be.  But having done it for many years now, there are a few bits of advice I'd like to offer to anyone heading into this dream:

1.  Build in some exercise, preferably outside your home.  Seriously.  Even if it's just shopping.  When you work from home, you aren't required to do anything as strenuous as change your clothes, and this takes a physical toll faster than you'd think.  Even if you aren't vain about your figure, you'll miss having nominal levels of stamina next time you go on vacation.

However, this is for your mental health as much as your physical health.  When your commute is fifteen feet, you tend to start working five minutes after you wake up.  Combining your work and home life in one space also means you tend to think about work 24/7.  Exercise breaks reset your head.

2.  Make sure you have healthy food in the house and schedule regular breaks in which to eat it, especially breakfast.  When your diet consists primarily of leftover Halloween candy and a spoonful of salsa consumed no earlier than 3pm, you will quickly degrade into a concentration-challenged, clinicly depressed blob of arterial plaque and cellulite.

3.  Make sure you have a variety of adult, in-person social interactions built into your life.  Otherwise your social skills will atrophy just when you need them most: in your loneliness you'll start weirding out supermarket cashiers with stories of your childhood pets; you'll commit tweets about your body hair; you'll mortify your editor.

Obviously this is basic wisdom for anyone at any time.  I only spell it out here because we tend to take for granted that most jobs build in some of this stuff.  When we're finally cut free from all the structure, we're so blissful we fail to remember what it bought us.

Monday, October 19, 2009


You will not find a lack of ideas among my personal collection of six or seven thousand writing challenges.  You will, however, find this:

I like to percolate.

I started using this word in high school, when I discovered that if I lodged a problem in my mind and then went about my business - especially sleep -  my subconscious would digest it and float the answer back up in due time.  I don't know why I felt percolate was the appropriate verb, but I did have a part-time job that involved removing coffee grounds from a giant urn after exactly twelve minutes.  I was often late by several hours.

Likewise, I tend to leave my story ideas to their own devices for too long.  They tend to bloom in my noggin like spores on agar.  Before I've typed five hundred words, I have a novel's worth of elements building their own civilizations.   (If you see me staring into space some time, it's not a petit mal seizure; it's just the story temporarily hogging my CPU.)

Once upon a time this seemed like a good thing.  Handy, even.  Until I tried to actually WRITE the story.  At that point, expelling all these characters and settings and plot points onto the page felt like herding cats.  Worse, the draft started to read like a a police report.

I don't know the answer to this problem, but it is one reason I'm anxious to try NaNoWriMo.  Maybe, if I work hard to NOT think the story to death before November, the writing won't fall too far behind.  If not, maybe I'll have the courage to revolt against the story and and cut new paths as I go.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


I just signed up for NaNoWriMo 2009.  I want a break from my main WIP, and I happen to have an idea for a short novel right now, so the stars are aligned.  This'll be my first time doing it.  Anybody tried it?  Doing it this year?  Buddy me!  (My username is, of course, KateInTheCloset.)

Friday, October 16, 2009


Kate: Hi.  I'll have the spaghetti.

Server:  Great!  Here's your spaghetti.

Kate: Um, this spaghetti isn't cooked.

Server: Oh?  It's not?

Kate: No, see, it's cold, and dry, and crunchy.

Server: Oh, so you want it cooked?

Kate: Yes, I want it cooked.

Server: So will you cook it then?

Kate: Um, no.  I need you to cook it.

Server: Oh, but I can't.  The cooks do the cooking.  You'll have to ask them to cook it.

Kate: (speechless)

Yes, the spaghetti is a metaphor. But I promise you the conversation I actually had was just as stupid. Some people simply don't understand what their jobs are.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Well, That's Something

I'm hitting the hay early tonight, my friends.  Just two quick items:

First, I decided to enter Nathan Bransford's First Paragraph Challenge after all, with 28 minutes to spare.  (This is pretty much how I live my entire life.)  I wish I had read his recap on last year's contest first, though, as it was very instructive.  Plus, I love the winning entry.

On the upside, I just learned that my entry does not contain a single one of the most common words from the submissions (larger version here).  I also learned my paragraph was much shorter than average.  That's something, right?


In other news, Facebook told me one of my old college buddies is at Bouchercon right now.  Until today I didn't even know she was a writer!  I hope you're having a great time, J!  Also, I'm terribly jealous.  Especially if you have a reservation for the Too Many Cooks Banquet -- I freaking love Rex Stout.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Educational Opportunity

Agent Nathan Bransford is currently holding a First Paragraph Contest.  There were over 2200 entries last time I checked.

Can I just tell you, I'm as excited as an elf on Christmas!  Not to enter, you understand, but to have the chance to play Slush Pile Reader.

Processing a giant stack of unpublished writing samples simply isn't like regular reading. I'd bet brain scans would show it has more in common with evaluating a sackfull of beans.  Even if you want to appreciate each individual bean, your brain is wired to categorize and generalize.  You recognize common characteristics and get progressively faster at dismissing almost every bean as typical of a type almost the instant you lay eyes on it.

Agents, editors, and undercompensated assistants have provided myriad lists of these fatal traits, but no advice makes as stark an impression as reading the slush pile yourself.  Contests like Nathan's are as close as most of us will ever get to that education.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I've decided that a steady income isn't the only reason to keep my day job.

Learning to write is profoundly humbling, and while humility is essential to the learning process, it's also crippling if not balanced with hubris.  Hubris is not too strong a word -- only a tiny fraction of aspiring novelists ever finish their first book, let alone get published, let alone make a living at it.  Knowing this, a writer doesn't stand a chance of finishing without monumental confidence in her project and herself.

So.  As long as I spend my nights abasing myself in the writing novitiate, I need to spend my days as the deft expert, replenishing my well of chutzbah.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Going to Hell

If you haven't already seen this gem on book publicity, please enjoy a little hilarity compliments of The New Yorker.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Writing Space

I've always been interested in interior design.  Like many people, I feel happier when I spend time in a beautiful space.  That said, I have a strong suspicion that the popular notion of a beautifully designed writing space is, well, crap.

You know what I'm talking about, right?  I'm not arguing against Virginia Woolf.  I'm arguing against this:

This picture, which I recognized from a Pottery Barn catalog, appeared in a great blog post on a related subject last week.  It is representative of a fantasy writer's room that is popular in decorating magazines and books.

I would kill for this room.  I would like to believe that if I had this room, it would magically transform me into a bestselling author who also happens to be great looking and an impeccable hostess.

The truth is that I don't have an imaginary room like this because I don't have an imaginary life.  I have a real life, where computers and lamps have power cords and white furniture has stains and windows look out onto neighbors' houses and the actual objects I use every day are not color-coordinated.

In my real life, a desk has half-empty drinks and stacks of junk mail, magazines, and books.  It has dirty socks and crayon drawings deposited by my children.  It has a big ugly printer.  In fact, there is no room to write on this desk.  I write on the couch.

Of course some actual writers do have awesome spaces.  But I think they are the exception, and even they probably started out on a card table in the laundry room like Stephen King.  On the flip side, I have known real people who had amazing writing spaces, and never accomplished what they hoped to in them.

Here's the thing.  Writing is hard.  It's all-too-tempting to externalize our shortcomings into things we believe we could control if we only had enough money/space/time/etc.  I can't write because I don't have a good space.  In other words, we like our excuses.  It's natural, but it's lame.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

If You Like TwitFic

Have you ever entered The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest?

You TOTALLY should!  It's fun, it's creative, it's quick, it's free, and they might even send you a bookmark.  If you manage to win, you get a credit in the freaking New Yorker!

There is no downside.  Go.  Go now!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Today, Big Boss posted this as his status: 50%

It's been niggling at me all day.  What the hell does he mean?

My first thought is paranoid, that some performance indicator is 50% of what it should be.  If Big Boss caught a problem before we did, it'll be ugly.  I double-check all the reports.  Phew!  That's not it.

I start over.  Is he feeling only 50% well today?  Is he only 50% available?  Is he noticing only 50% of his people are available?

Stop it, Kate, it isn't about you.

Are we half-way to one of our goals?  This could be good or bad depending on the time frame.  My mind wanders to compensation and staffing possibilities -- 50% can be miraculous or devastating depending on the noun it modifies.  But scratch it; he wouldn't post about something like that because it would be neither professional nor, frankly, of that much interest to him.

What would be?

Eureka!  The key partnership deal he just negotiated: 50% revenue share.

Note to self:  A story may revolve around the protagonist, but the actions and motivations of other characters generally do not.  Characters must say and do according to their own reasons.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ode To a Four-Year-Old

I have a four-year-old daughter.  She is a magical little person in many ways, but in one especially: she is so very easily entertained.  Tonight's activities, for example:

1.  Gleefully pointing out every pink object in the grocery store.
2.  Dueling dramatic readings of Sandra Boynton's Doggies.
3.  A nice long bath dramatizing several original stories featuring Ariel rescuing Flounder.
4.  The Pajama Monster game, in which she plays a monster easily defeating the parent attempting to put her to bed.  I'm not being ironic here.  She's so dang cute saying RAWR! and collapsing into giggles it takes Herculean resolve to put her to bed.  In fact, I failed utterly.  Instead I sic'd the Pajama Monster on her father at the other end of the couch, at which point the P.M. met its match: the Daddy Socked Foot Monster.  That battle went on for another five minutes until D.S.F.M. had P.M. pinned to the floor and giggling so hard he could finally scoop her up and deposit her in bed.

Why do I go on about this?  Is it really my intention to bore readers with stories about my children?  No.  I promise I won't make a habit of this.  My point is there was a time in our lives when our thrills were simple and elemental.  The highest goal I have in my fiction writing is give the reader a path back to her own fountain of youth, where wonder, excitement, and joy flow pure.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I'm No Expert, But...

Aside from being fascinating and instructive, all these blogs by industry insiders also give me a daily dose of writing humility.  This humility is liberating; a novice is allowed and expected to make mistakes.  It is in this spirit of humility that I wish to discuss a mistake I have observed and hope not make myself.  There is probably a technical name for this error, but as unlearned as I am, I'll have to make up my own.  I'll call it the Answer to a Stupid Question Doth Not Drama Make Error.

The example I have for you is actually dialog from a trailer for the movie, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009).

Guy 1:
"Standing in front of you are Delta-6 Accelerator Suits." 

Guy 2:
"What does it accelerate?"

Guy 1:


The question Guy 2 asks is patently idiotic.  What the hell else would an accelerator SUIT accelerate if not a person wearing it?  I mean, it is clearly a man-shaped suit.  We've already been told that this group of people is the best of the best.  Is Guy 2 supposed to be an imbecile hero?

No, Guy 2 is a device.  In this scene his function is to increase the mystique and awe surrounding the accelerator suits by making them appear so mysterious and awesome he can't figure out what they are even after being told.  He is made to ask so that drama can be contrived from the one-word answer punctuated with heavy bass and CGI pyro f/x.

What Guy 2 actually did was undermine the credibility of the entire movie at the exact moment I was deciding whether or not I wanted to see it.

Thus I humbly add the Answer to a Stupid Question Doth Not Drama Make Error to the list of things I humbly try not to do myself.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

A Bit of Inspiration

Yesterday I made a special trip to pick up The Ghosts of Belfast, the debut novel from Stuart Neville.  The reviews are fantastic, but I would have bought it anyway because I've been reading Stuart's blog.  From the first entry (scroll to the bottom of the page), I knew I liked this guy.

I can't wait to start reading the book, but I'm making myself write another five thousand words first.

Friday, October 2, 2009

More Flash Fiction

I'm very dissatisfied with my foray into flash fiction yesterday.  It's just such a good idea.  All other media is trending shorter and more flexibly delivered to busy/mobile people.  I think short fiction has a natural place at that table.  (OtherMe is certain of it.  She's already plotting an iPhone app.)

So I'm going to go out and read a lot more of it.  Since I also strongly suspect that the skills required to write good flash fiction will be useful for writing any commercial fiction, I think I'm going to try some here on the blog for practice.  Stay tuned.

Incidently, I understand why it isn't necessarily favored by authors.  Novels usually pay advances and/or royalties, but unless anthologized, short stories usually pay one time, by the word.  Under this model, flash fiction is utterly unlucrative, even by writing standards.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I Knew I Was Getting Dumber

Yesterday I mentioned twitfic - complete stories in 140 characters or less.  Today I read some flash fiction - complete stories in 1000 words or less.  Mostly a lot less.  I don't know what I expected, but much of what I read was, frankly, incomprehensible.

Maybe I just found a tough batch, but I had to re-read many of these stories several times.  I thought I more or less knew what was going on plot-wise (though I hesitate to use the word plot), but there were inconsistencies and loose ends that I could not reconcile.  While it's possible this was plain bad writing, comments from other readers suggest I'm just too dim to understand.

I knew it.  I was once considered quite bright by standard measures, but I've suspected for a long time now that I'm getting dumber.  It started with my first pregnancy and got much worse with my second.  I should sign up for long-term care insurance before it's too late.