Saturday, December 28, 2013

Looking Back on 2013

2013 was a year of change and transition for me. Of course, all years bring some kind of change, but this past year brought more than usual.

First of all, I accomplished my goal of publishing my first novel, Faith, Hope, and Murder, in January of this year. I have been looking forward to publishing a book since I was twelve. Maybe even before then. Between the end of 2012 and early 2013 I put in an incredible number of hours in conversations with my cover designer and editor, editing the book, and learning the skills I needed to upload it to all the online sites so people could buy it.

I also put lots of hours into learning the business side of publishing: registering a business name, opening a business bank account, tracking sales and expenses, and filling out a Schedule C with my 2012 tax return. I ran a Goodreads giveaway, guest posted on several blogs, tweeted, and set up a Facebook author page. The last required two attempts before I got it right. Having avoided FB for years and purposely ignoring most of what I read about using it, I made a big mistake to start. But I think I have all of that straightened out now.

Having proved to myself that I could finish a book and make it available for sale, I allowed myself to think about early retirement. I already knew I hated my day job. Despite the fact that I was only working three days a week, it still took time away from my writing career. I had to protest the poor review I got because my accomplishments working three days a week were compared to those working five days a week. My boss's boss agreed with me and my rating was supposed to be changed, but this was the last straw as far as I was concerned. I retired at the end of June to devote more time to writing. (The official rating never did get changed and I did not get a raise because of it.)

What I didn't realize was that I would need a period of adjustment between leaving the day job and becoming a full time writer. Apparently this isn't too unusual, but I'd thought since I was using a good part of my two off days to work on my new career, it wouldn't be hard to work on the other three. But without the structure of a job to go to, it takes time to figure out a schedule of sorts and stick to it. I'm still not done with that.

Although I didn't publish any more books in 2013, I did manage to complete the first draft of Deliver Us From Evil, the sequel to Faith, Hope, and Murder, and draft another mystery, working title Blue Murder, during NaNoWriMo this year. Because Deliver Us From Evil was largely written in fits and starts while I still had the day job, there were lots of things I didn't keep in my head while writing it. That resulted in leaving out some scenes and ideas and putting others in twice.

After reading through Deliver Us From Evil, it seemed to me that this book was a worse mess than FH&M had ever been. I wasn't sure how I was going to fix it. I thought a long time before finally deciding to pay for and use Holly Lisle's How to Revise Your Novel class. Holly's classes are expensive, but they are chock full of information. Another bonus is that she continually offers more "stuff"--updated lessons, additional material, access to areas of her site that are not visible to the general public--long after you've finished the class. I've spent weeks working through my novel using her worksheets and techniques and to finish the class will take more weeks. That means that I will not achieve my goal of publishing the second book by the end of the year.

Another goal for 2013 was to write 100,000 words of new fiction. I fell short of that goal, but did probably write between 65,000 and 75,000 words, mostly because of the 51,000 I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I also wrote a few short stories, something I'd been reluctant to try because I didn't think I could write short. Not too shabby.

There were other, smaller goals that I set at the beginning of 2013 and revised once I retired that I did not achieve. I'd like to have done better, but there was that period of adjustment. And something totally unforeseen.

Part of my heart will forever be in Boston, so when the Marathon Bombings occurred, I was unable to do anything except watch the news. Just when I decided it was time to stop and get back to a more normal routine, there was the chase and hunt for Dzhokar Tsarnaev and I was back to voraciously devouring every piece of information I could find.

But that, although not foreseen, was not what took up hours of my time. Enjoyable hours, to be sure, but hours that I had not planned on. What I spent most of the summer and fall doing was watching the Boston Red Sox.

Yes, I am and have been a Red Sox fan, but 2012 was such a disaster, I seriously considered not renewing my subscription to the MLB baseball package on cable. Except I'd tried that one year and couldn't stand not being able to watch the games.

The season started out amazingly. The worst team in baseball in 2012 was winning games! These were largely new players, ones I hadn't watched before, some veterans, some rookies, and a very few remaining veterans. But the Red Sox had started other seasons like race horses out of the gate and not fulfilled the early promise later in the season. Can you say September Collapse (2011)?

There were times they faltered, slipping out of first place and sinking in the standings as other teams in the AL East found their rhythm, but the one thing that made this Red Sox team different was that they didn't give up. Even when trailing by a large number of runs, they kept trying. It reminded me of the 2004 team, the self-proclaimed bunch of idiots who finally brought the World Series trophy back to Boston after over 80 years. Only the 2013 team was The Beards instead of the idiots. They were fun to watch. And, in the end, they did it. They won their third World Series in a decade.

There were other big news stories during 2013, but those are the two I'll remember.

All in all, 2013 was not a bad year for me. And what will 2014 be like? Come back next week to find out!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

I Don't Understand

There was another school shooting this week. A student in Colorado, apparently searching for a teacher, opened fire with a shotgun, wounding one girl. Then he killed himself.

It seems as if there's one of these incidents every month. What used to be a rare occurrence has become commonplace. And most of the time the shooter turns the weapon on himself at the end, leaving behind tremendous grief and too many questions. What overwhelming pain in his life caused him to believe that killing someone and then taking his own life was the solution to his problem?

There are all kinds of pop psychology reasons given in an attempt to explain the violence in our society. Video games. Television. Drugs. But I don't think those things explain the cause. They're just more symptoms. Why are we as a society drawn to violence as entertainment?

As a reader and writer of mysteries--most of which involve a murder, I find my tastes are changing. First I stopped reading humorous mysteries. Murder isn't funny. This past year I've stopped reading cozies for the most part, because I just can't enjoy all the bodies dropping while the owner of the quilt shop runs around town solving the crime. I've stopped reading Nevada Barr, who used to be one of my favorite authors, because her recent novels are so dark and brutal I can't enjoy them any more.

As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I want to read any mysteries. Currently I'm reading A Breath of Snow and Ashes, a time travel-historical-romance by Diana Gabaldon. While Diana doesn't shy away from violence, you never feel as if you're on a romp to discover the killer. The bad guy is always known and it's clear he's the bad guy. Her characters feel strongly about the wrongs done to themselves and others.

I find myself missing science fiction and fantasy. Speculative fiction is usually an idea or milieu story. Yes, there's military sf, but the stories I most enjoy are those about exploring new worlds and new civilizations (queue the Star Trek theme) and overcoming a problem caused by being in space or a bit of technology gone wrong. People aren't always shooting at one another.

I'm also more interested in romance, a genre I previously avoided, even looked down on until recently. At least in romance you can pretty much be guaranteed a Happily Ever After. And it's rare that someone gets killed.

Usually I try to end a blog entry on some kind of conclusion, some point I'm trying to make. But today I'm just very sad. I don't have any conclusions. I can't make any sense of why so many teenaged males are killing others and themselves. I just don't understand.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Newsroom

Several months ago HBO had one of their free weekends, you know, the kind that are supposed to entice you to sign up for their service. I don't have any of the premium services because the cost of cable television alone is ridiculous. The only extra I get is the MLB package because I tried to do without the Red Sox games one year and found out it's impossible. There's little enough to watch on television. Take away Red Sox games and there's pretty much nothing to watch over the summer. Besides, without the MLB package, I would have missed one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history.

But I digress.

One of the series that was featured during that free weekend was The Newsroom. The premise is a cable network news station that goes on a mission to be a real news station, to inform the public and make them better citizens. I was hooked from the first episode.

The cast includes Jeff Daniels, whom I've always liked, and Sam Waterston, who spent most of his career on Law and Order, another series I really liked. I still watch reruns of the original Law and Order most weeks. The other actors are not ones I've ever been a fan of, although I certainly recognize Jane Fonda and Dev Patel. As far as I'm concerned, everyone has brought their A game to this series.

But what really makes The Newsroom stand out is the writing. Most of the first season was written by Aaron Sorkin, whose list of movie and television credits is impressive. He's worked on A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, The Social Network, and Moneyball, among others, before this latest effort. He's one of the few television writers whose name most people would recognize. Okay, maybe not most people, but those who pay attention to who writes a show.

I do. Because it makes a difference. I can pretty much always tell when Andrew Marlowe, the creator, has written a Castle script. Hint: they're not the lame ones.

It's probably time for a caveat: I have only watched the first five episodes on Netflix, so everything I'm saying here is based on that. I'm waiting for the next DVD to arrive. I'm consuming The Newsroom at about the same rate as I consumed Downton Abbey. But, if the show tanked or took a ninety-degree (or more) turn later in the season, I don't know that yet.

I like the message the show presents. I'm old. At the beginning of the show, there's a montage of journalists from the early days of television: Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley. I recognize those faces because I watched them in glorious black and white growing up. I use the term journalist on purpose. News then was different than it is now. It wasn't glitzy, stories weren't told in thirty-second teasers. You actually learned something when Walter Cronkite reported the news. He was one of the most trusted men in America.

Now, the "news" you get in prime time is who got kicked off the island or the latest bachelorette to be eliminated or who won The Biggest Loser. Really? That's news? No. Sorry. That's a commercial. Or an entertainment magazine.

I go insane when the real news, an actual story, is given in a thirty-second sound bite with the standard, "If you want to see the whole interview, log onto our website." I'm sorry, I wanted to watch the news on television. I don't want to have to get up, go to my computer, waste time searching around your website for the details on a story, and then have to watch commercials before you'll give them to me.

The Newsroom aims to bring back television journalism. The show is not about whoring after ratings (although upper management isn't on board with this concept). They stop picking their top story by what the other networks are using for their top story. They refuse to report an item without confirmation from two actual sources while everyone else is vying to be the first with the latest detail. Often wrongly, as they illustrate with the reports of Gabby Gifford's death after the shooting here in Tucson.

Which brings up the whole topic of news "sources." Since when did Twitter become an official news source? Every time a television anchor reports something that was tweeted, even if it was supposedly by the person (celebrity) themselves or not, I cringe.

I'm on Twitter. Lots of people are. They make stuff up. They create "handles" that resemble official people and organizations. Now, it's true that Twitter is often the first source for local events. But it isn't necessarily accurate. It's people talking to one another, like one big coffee klatch. And, just like a bunch of people gathered around a kitchen table or at a bar, a lot that is said is rumor or supposition.

What happened to fact-checking, to journalists who verified information with their sources, to news people who had sources to get information from? If I wanted information from the Twitterverse, I'd go on Twitter.

Same for Facebook.

I get the feeling Aaron Sorkin also would like to go back to the kind of television news we used to see. The Newsroom is his personal fantasy of what that would be like. But it probably is a fantasy. The American public doesn't want to see real news. They want to be entertained. Without the ratings, which translate to advertising dollars, no show survives.

But I wish this particular fantasy would come true. I, for one, would gladly pay for this kind of news show.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Winner!

Yes, I won NaNoWriMo this year! Of course "winning" means writing 50,000 words in one month. That's it. The only person you're in competition with is yourself.

There really are no losers. The whole point of NaNoWriMo is to write, to dedicate yourself to writing every day. Or almost every day. Even if you don't "win" by the rules, you're a winner merely by participating. Only you don't get to post the cool graphic on your blog or get the discount coupons for the goodies.

Everyone procrastinates when it comes to writing. Okay, not everyone. There are a few insane people who are eager to get to the keyboard every morning and continue working on their latest story. There are thousands more who write professionally and have formed a habit of doing the work so they can eat.

But you'd be surprised at how often writers go into long, whinging screeds about how they'd rather clean the toilet than start writing. Or sort that stamp collection they inherited from their great grandfather. Or do anything other than writing. You get the picture.

Being a writer who completes something takes perseverance. It takes playing tricks on yourself, like promising you'll let yourself eat ONE square of a Hershey bar if you write 500 words. Or you'll check your email when you're done with your daily word quota, but not before.

NaNoWriMo helps you with those tricks. For one thing, you're not alone in doing this. Or, at least, you're not alone with just those voices in your head. They offer you little tchotchkes, like that badge up there and a PDF of a winner's certificate, little stuff like pencils and stickers at write-ins. There are word sprints, where one of the NaNo staff sets timed writing periods on Twitter, often with a prompt or an object you need to include in your writing (or not), when you're dragging your feet on writing more words.

My big incentive this year was the forty-percent discount on Aeon Timeline for winners. The last NaNo I finished, I did it with the discount for Scrivener as an incentive. While neither of these programs is terribly expensive, I find it hard to justify spending more money on "toys." I mean, to write a novel all you really need is a pad of paper and a pen, and I've already got lots of those. Of course, writing on a computer is easier, especially if you want something legible that you can read when you're finished. (My handwriting is getting really awful as I get older and my fingers get stiffer.)

Did I really need Scrivener? Well, now that I've been using it for several years, the answer is Absolutely! But lots of people don't use it. They use Word or Open Office or other tools, some of which are free. I have no idea whether or not I'll find Aeon Timeline useful. It looks way cool! And I'm hoping to replace that board covered in pink and blue stickies on my office wall. Deliver Us From Evil, the next in my Community of Faith Mystery Series, has some serious timeline issues that I need to resolve before it's published. That's why I put up the stickies. But software is generally more flexible and the glue doesn't dry out leaving a pile of colored paper on the floor.

Amazingly enough, I like the story I wrote for NaNoWriMo. That doesn't always happen. With little planning, I wasn't sure what I would get. There have been times when I've finished--or more likely, quit--and wound up with total rubbish for my efforts. But sometimes, when I'm just letting the words flow and not worrying about where I'm going, when my mantra is Write the next sentence even when I have no idea of what comes in the sentence after that, much less in the next chapter, magic happens. That's what happened this year. And it was fun!