Category Archives: Random thoughts

Dumping Helga

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scissorsI’ve been revising my WIP for some weeks now, incorporating the comments I’ve gotten from my critique partners and the other Ladies. It’s been going fairly well, all things considered. I have a lot of work to do yet—my last chapter is 15,000 words. Bad! There’s no escalation whatsoever from my last turning point to the end. Also bad. I’ve got a Dark Night of the Soul that’s written essentially as “Gosh, bummer.” (That would be my inability to write conflict.) I’ve got a final climax and triumph that’s essentially “Gee, great.” (That would be my inability to write anything, evidently.)

And now, I’m pretty sure I have to delete Helga.

Helga is the girlfriend of my antagonist, and she gives him depth. He’s crazy about her (in a good and healthy way, I hope). He calls. He writes. He buys her little presents. He’s texting her when he should be thinking of villainous things to do to the protagonist.

Helga reciprocates. She’s so worried about my antagonist that when she’s sure he’s gone off and done something stupid and wrong and just plain dangerous (good head on her shoulders, that Helga), she goes after him to dissuade him from whatever dastardly course he’s set on.

I like Helga. She’s focused and determined, cynical and practical. My critique partner wrote in one paragraph, “Love Helga!”—but then just one paragraph later, “I’m losing interest in this scene, and I don’t know why.”

I had to agree with her—I’d lost interest in that scene, too, and all the other scenes with Helga. Where was my protagonist? Antagonist? My hero? When were my heroine and hero going to kiss, for pete’s sake?

Helga has to go.

I read a dumb-ish article the other day about the 10 elements a good movie must have. Number three was “sense of camaraderie.” I realized that’s the first reason Helga has to go. She’s not part of the community. She’s not central to the story. She doesn’t come in until half-way through (nor should she), and at that point it’s too late to become part of the Scooby gang.

The other reason, and it’s probably the same as the first reason—she’s just not that central to the plot. What she does is peripheral. That doesn’t have to be bad, but secondary characters should interact meaningfully with the major characters, or (and) they have to reflect the story ideas, themes, or motifs.

Helga doesn’t do any of that.

It’s hard to say goodbye. Besides that I like her, and she occupies a fair amount of space—in the 5K–7K word count, maybe more. I’ll have to make that up somewhere. Not to mention the transitions I’ll have to write to cover her tracks.

But revising Helga to be more relevant, useful, and major isn’t the answer. I think the way to go is to delete her (sorry, Helga! Maybe another time) and build the action and consequences of my major characters. (Note to self: we’ve got a really lousy Dark Night of the Soul to improve and expand.)

I could be wrong. I have a long road of revising ahead of me, and I might change my mind. But right now, I’m thinking that Helga has to get off the bus.

We have to make room for the passengers who really count.

 

 

 

It’s in the eyes

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Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of an ancient Egyptian funerary mask from the Papyrus Museum, Vienna, by Diana Ringo. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

I write contemporary romance novels with a strong secondary plot, or contemporary novels with a strong romance plot, depending on which agent or editor you’re talking to. Although I like reading and writing romance, making the couple’s interest in each other believable is difficult. Escalating the romance with the action plot is complicated, and how do you show that these people are right for each other? As a writer, you have to get past looks. What makes readers know that these two will survive lust and hang in for the long haul? And how can I show that on the page?

As it (conveniently!) happens, two University of Chicago neuroscientists have studied how people look at each other when they’re in love—or lust. John and Stephanie Cacioppo examined whether people look at others differently if they perceive a long-term companion, or a temporary sexual partner.

They showed heterosexual college students photos of persons of the opposite sex. The researchers asked subjects whether an image elicited feelings of romance or lust, and tracking software recorded participants’ eye movements.

The results, published in Psychological Science, aren’t shocking, or even surprising. The researchers found that people interested in the long haul focus on the eyes and face of the other person. But those who want a fling focus on the rest of the body. Both men and women engage in this behavior, but women are less obvious about it. The scientists speculated that this might be because women have better peripheral vision.

This study corroborates their earlier findings. The Cacioppos had already conducted brain scans that proved that love and lust occupy different parts of the brain’s insula—true love activates its anterior region, but sexual desire lights up its posterior. Posterior regions are involved in current, concrete sensations, feelings, and responses, according to the researchers, “whereas anterior regions are more involved in abstract, integrative representations.”

The study results seem obvious, but still good to know. As the researchers say: “Reading other people’s eyes is a valuable skill during interpersonal interaction.” And that’s got to be a good skill for romance—and any other kind of—writer to understand. When your heroine reveals her deepest secrets—that’s when the hero has to look into her eyes. But when they’re dancing and she’s wearing a short skirt—it’s all about the legs.

The eyes have it!

 

 

Enjoy the moment

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I’m just settling in after spending a few days in San Antonio at the annual Romance Writers of America annual conference. I had a great time with my co-bloggers over at 8 Ladies Writing. Six of the eight made it to the conference. Here we are, enjoying a post-RITA awards photo op!

Kat, Jilly, Justine, Jeanne, Kay, Elizabeth

Kat, Jilly, Justine, Jeanne, Kay, Elizabeth

The conference was a lot of fun. I met a lot of great people, I reconnected with old friends, I heard some great talks. I skipped the Alamo—I couldn’t face the excursion in the heat. Right now I’m resting, unpacking, and getting back to work. And soon, I expect, I’ll be extrapolating what I learned into my own projects. We’ll see! In any event, taking the time to celebrate friendships and accomplishments is always a good thing.

Shooting this vacation movie

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This photo, shot by Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882), shows Sutler's bomb-proof "Fruit and Oyster House" located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864-April 1865).

This photo is not of the cabin I rented for vacation. Shot by Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), it shows Sutler’s bomb-proof “Fruit and Oyster House,” located in Petersburg, Virginia, during the siege of Petersburg (June 1864 to April 1865).

I got my credit card statement today, and the refund for my vacation cabin rental is on it, so now I can tell the story.

It was a movie-worthy vacation, blue skies, clear waters, scented pines—a movie that if I were pitching it to a Hollywood producer, I’d call Dos Amigos meets Chevy Chase on a bad vacation at the House of the Damned. Or maybe A Cabin in the Woods without the mad scientists.

Okay, so here’s what happened. The dos amigos arrive at the cottage late afternoon on Friday. We unload the car, open the cottage, pick our rooms, stash our stuff, and fill the fridge. By now it’s early evening and we turn on the stove to make a grilled cheese, and…the stove doesn’t work. And we’re cold, so we crank the heat, and…there’s no heat. We call the office and get an out-of-office message that they’ll be back Monday.

That has to be a lie, because it’s vacation season, so we make a ham sandwich and go to bed. The next morning, we drive down to the office and explain. They say they’ll send someone out.

He comes right away. He’s not a maintenance guy, he’s the lawn guy, but the maintenance guys are out of town at family graduations, and the lawn guy’s on standby. We think probably the circuits just got thrown, so he’ll fix that and we’ll be good.

And he does throw the circuit breakers, and he asks me to turn on the stove and see if the indicator light goes on, so I do and it does, and on a note of premature self-congratulations, he departs.

Night falls. We’re cold. The temps are dropping to 40 or so for the second night in a row, and we want some heat and a warm meal. So we turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, but in fact the stove does not heat up. And the furnace doesn’t kick in, either. So we make a ham sandwich and decide to go to bed. Except now we can’t brush our teeth, because we also don’t have any water. And the electric lights, when we turn them on, pulse. It’s like living in an emergency freezer.

The next morning we drive down to the office and explain what happened, and the maintenance guys come right out. They determine that the place needs an electrician, so they call him and we depart for a restaurant-cooked breakfast.

We come back early afternoon and he says everything is fixed. So I say, let’s do a check. I turn on the stove, and the indicator light goes on, and then the heat comes up. I turn on the furnace, and it kicks in. I turn the tap on the faucet, and water comes on. I hit the light switch, and the light comes out in a steady stream. All good!

The electrician and the maintenance guys take off. The dos amigos settle down in the rapidly warming living room to read. Just when I thought that the first-heat-of-the-season smell was a little too strong, the smoke detector starts to shriek. I pull the plug and drive down to the office. The maintenance guys come back and clank around on the furnace for a couple more hours. Then they dust off their hands and say it it’s fixed.

And it was. And it was good: stove, furnace, water, lights, all functioning properly. Except I never did get hot water upstairs. But the shower was downstairs, so tragedy was averted.

And today I got the refund. And a story.

 

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

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A great American writer has joined history. The message of the poem she wrote and read at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inaugural, “On the Pulse of Morning,” about how diversity enriches and strengthens us as a nation, stands in stark contrast to the actions of a young, disturbed madman in Santa Barbara recently.

Many others more eloquent than I have written about her themes of hope, love, inclusion, and dignity. If I can learn to write with one-third her power, I will count myself successful.

To hear her read the poem and find out what it meant to her, go here.

Something freakish this way comes

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pillsThis happened to me on Twitter the other day. I was sitting up late at night, my allergies were going nuts, I was drowning in mucous, I was sneezing, I was coughing, my eyes were burning, my throat and ears were itchy, and I wrote a 140 character-with-spaces rant about it on Twitter, naming the over-the-counter medications I’d tried but that hadn’t worked. One of those medications I use all the time and usually have a lot of success with. The other medication I tried once and hurled it out the window.

So the next morning I log on to Twitter, and the company that makes the medication I like sent me a tweet, asking me to get in touch with their customer service department. I feel like the over-the-counter medicators are coming after me. Eek! I didn’t mean those bad things!

One million words and counting

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Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Michael Proffitt on the grounds of Oxford University Press. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times

I read recently that the next (third) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary would come out approximately in the year 2034. This seemed like a really long time until I read more. The first edition was proposed in 1858 as a 10-year project. Five years in, the philolgists were up to “ant.” They needed 70 years to pull the first edition together. It came out in 1928.

The second edition was started in 1933 (so they got a little vacation in there) and came out in 1989. The third edition, now underway, began in 1994. It will have one million or more words in it.

These facts were interesting to me because when I was a young editor, I decided that when I was old and established and could afford it, I’d buy a copy of the OED and keep it on a book stand. To me, the OED was like a badge to a cop or a tiara to a princess. It was an emblem of certification, of accomplishment: I’m an editor, see? I have the best dictionary in the world.

For one reason or another, I never bought it. And now it’s probably too late. When the third edition is finished, it will have 40 volumes if it’s published in print. But the current editor, Michael Proffitt, says that unless at the time of publication a market develops for the print version, the reference will be placed online.

The work is going slowly because new words are being added to the vocabulary at an unprecedented rate. Each edition has more words than the last, because once included in the reference, no word is ever taken out. “We can hear everything that’s going on in the world of English for the last 500 years, and it’s deafening,” said the associate editor Peter Gilliver in an interview with The New York Times. Gilliver spent nine months revising definitions for the word “run,” currently the longest single entry in the OED.

The current OED text contains, in addition to literary references, blog and Twitter postings, quotations from gravestones, and an inscription in a high school yearbook. The philologists want to find the earliest and most illustrative uses of a word—not certify a word as “proper English.”

I feel a little nostalgic that my first professional icon of editorship—that of owning a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary—won’t come to pass. Of course, I could still buy the second edition (20 volumes for about US$1,700), or I could buy an on-line subscription. I probably won’t, though.

But I do love a good reference book. What writer wouldn’t? When you’re looking for just that one perfect word, it’s nice to know that somebody has compiled a million of them for you.

So here’s a little quiz. The following entries are in the OED. See if you know when these terms first appeared in the language.

OMG, I Am, Like, Literally Unfriending You. Whatever!

OMG. The first recorded appearance of this breathless acronym for “Oh, my God!” comes in a letter to Winston Churchill.

1917 J. A. F. Fisher Let. 9 Sept. in Memories (1919) v. 78. I hear that a new order of Knighthood is on the tapis — O.M.G. (Oh! My God!) — Shower it on the Admiralty!!

LITERALLY. Examples of this inversion go back to 1769. Even Mark Twain did it.

1876 ‘M. Twain’ Adventures Tom Sawyer ii. 20 And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth.

LIKE. Few words annoy the purist like “like.”

1778 F. Burney Evelina II. xxiii. 222 Father grew quite uneasy, like, for fear of his Lordship’s taking offence.

UNFRIEND. Facebook was born in 2004. Unfriending began earlier.

1659 T. Fuller Let. P. Heylyn in Appeal Injured Innoc. iii, I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.

WHATEVER. It’s not as old as “unfriend,” but it’s been around for a while.

1973 To our Returned Prisoners of War (U.S. Secretary of Defense, Public Affairs) 10 Whatever, equivalent to “that’s what I meant.” Usually implies boredom with topic or lack of concern for a precise definition of meaning.