Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Need a new way to kill time on the internet?

Are you fascinated by words and language? If so, you might want to check out the Economist's Johnson blog (named for the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson), where you can find everything from the Harry Potter stars trying to speak with American accents (Rupert Grint overdoes the R's, and to my ears Emma Watson is the most convincing of the lot) to annoying airline lingo to the many, many ways you can talk about a lion in Arabic.

One thing I discovered via the blog that I'm embarrassed to admit I never realized on my own is that Eeyore got his name because that's how a donkey's bray is rendered in a non-rhotic (i.e. R-dropping) English accent. As in, Hee-haw. This despite the fact I did figure out long ago that Marmee in Little Women is just Mommy, because Louisa May Alcott was from the part of the world that pahks its cahs in Hahvahd Yahd. I think I got Marmee but missed Eeyore because the Bostonian accent sounds so much more aggressive in its non-rhoticity, somehow, or maybe I notice R-dropping more in an American accent because it doesn't fit the general pattern.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Summer reading dances with dragons

It took me two weeks to finish three books for the Seattle library's adult summer reading program this time, because one of them was George RR Martin's A Dance With Dragons. Dance is, of course, a very long book, but that wasn't the issue, or at least not all of it. The first two books I tried to read after finishing it were by authors whose work I've enjoyed in the past, but I just couldn't connect to their stories this time round. I don't think it was the authors' fault. I just needed some space to pull my brain out of Westeros before I could commit to a different book's world. So I finished the nonfiction book I'd been reading on the side, re-read some Bujold, and then found I could connect to a new book with no problems.

1. A Dance With Dragons, by George RR Martin
Genre: Fantasy
Format/source: Kindle, bought

I was completely absorbed by this latest entry in A Song of Ice and Fire as I read it, but now, over a week later, I find myself wishing more had been resolved. I don't want to give spoilers...but surely those two characters everyone thought were going to meet in this book COULD'VE met instead of merely being within yards of each other that one time. And that other character, the one who's probably not dead, at least not permanently, but might be--was that cliffhanger absolutely necessary? To name just the two most obvious cases. Still, whenever Book 6 comes out, I'm going to be pre-ordering and clearing space on my schedule to read it, I guarantee you.

2. The Naked Olympics, by Tony Perrottet
Genre: Nonfiction (history)
Format/source: Kindle, bought

A fun, readable history of the ancient Olympics and the inventive, competitive, exhibitionist Greek culture that invented them.

3. Can't Stand the Heat, by Louisa Edwards
Genre: Contemporary romance
Format/source: Kindle, bought

I've found so many good contemporary romances lately that I think I'm going to have to stop calling it a subgenre I don't read. As a foodie, or at least a foodie wannabe, I enjoyed this romance between a chef and a food critic and plan to seek out the rest of Edwards' work. And maybe try the Pork Belly With Candied Walnuts and Apples recipe she included at the end.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Hand update: a definitive diagnosis at last?

So, you know how week before last I thought, based on my visit to an orthopedist specializing in the hand and shoulder, that I had carpal tunnel syndrome rather than a pinched nerve in my neck after all? Well, today I visited a neurologist, who poked and prodded everything from my wrist to my upper back with electrodes (OUCH!).

Turns out there's no indication of impairment whatsoever where you'd expect to find it with CTS or its elbow joint cousins. If anything, I have remarkably healthy and fast-firing nerves. However, everywhere you'd expect someone with a C6 pinched nerve to have pain, numbness, or impairment, I've got them.

All I can say is thank God I didn't let that first doctor operate on my wrist when she was ready to schedule the surgery, since it wouldn't have helped a bit and would've at least temporarily weakened and limited the use of my arm to no purpose.

The neurologist said that happens a lot, unfortunately--C6 pinched nerves imitate CTS so well that they're frequently misdiagnosed, especially in people like me whom you'd EXPECT to have CTS, and good for me for paying attention to my shoulder symptoms and refusing any invasive treatments until I had a fuller picture of what was going on.

There is, of course, surgery for pinched nerves, but the neurologist doesn't think I'm at anywhere near that point yet. He recommends anti-inflammatories, PT, and continued careful attention to posture and ergonomics. Apparently from a medical perspective, my case isn't that bad--I just feel like it is because it's keeping me from writing as fast as I want to or tackling assorted household projects that would make our house look a bit less the fixer-upper work-in-progress. But I've got good strength and range of motion with little to no muscle atrophy, which I gather means surgery at this point would be overkill.

So. I figure nerves don't lie, so pinched nerve with no CTS it is. Which means exercises, naproxen/ibuprofen, and...patience. Sigh.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

More changes I wish I could make in the Rita/GH

I judge several unpublished romance contests a year. Contest judges helped me immensely in my early days as an aspiring writer. I remember one judge in particular, reading the first version of what would eventually become A Marriage of Inconvenience, who encouraged me by raving about how BEAUTIFUL my writing was...before telling me firmly, in no uncertain terms, that I must NOT indulge myself by putting my heroine's entire backstory, however fascinating, in Chapter One, and that I must further refrain from allowing my heroine to go to sleep at the end of said chapter, unless I wanted my readers to feel justified in putting the book down and turning out the lights themselves.

Thank you, ma'am. Lesson learned.

So I like to give back, and generally do my part to support the writer community. Five years ago, whenever I signed up to judge a contest an overstuffed priority mail envelope would soon arrive filled with entries and scoresheets. Some judges, myself among them, suggested it'd save postage, trees, and trouble to move to electronic entries, and after some experimentation, that's exactly what happened. All the unpublished contests I've judged in the past two years have arrived as Word or RTF files in my inbox...with one exception. The Golden Heart.

I don't see any good reason why this should be so anymore. Even as late as 2005 or 2006, paper entries made sense. Half or more of the editors and agents I was submitting to back then even wanted paper instead of email. But that's changed. Even if the ultimate outcome is still a printed book, we've become an electronic industry. Writers have become much more savvy about converting their manuscripts to formats like RTF that are readily readable across a variety of word processing programs. So IMHO it's past time for RWA to save us all some postage and spare a few trees by switching to electronic entries.

The Rita also accepts only printed books. Electronic books like mine are eligible, but only if the publisher is willing to provide professionally bound printed copies for the contest. Carina was generous enough to do so for those of us who wished to enter this year's contest, but I think they're the exception rather than the rule among e-first publishers. (Please correct me if I'm wrong.)

I doubt it will surprise you to learn I think this rule should change, too. Let's level the playing field for the e-pubs by permitting electronic entries. I'd even go so far as to say let's make it ALL-electronic, because we've reached the point where any print publisher is simultaneously releasing electronic editions of all their books, at least for popular fiction. I might be getting ahead of myself on the all-electronic part, but I know I'd rather receive a bunch of PDFs that I could download to my Kindle than a stack of paperbacks to add to the mountains of clutter in my office. Sure, not everyone has an e-reader yet, but their market share is growing every day. And everyone in the judging pool, or as near to it as makes no nevermind, DOES have a computer they can read PDFs on in a pinch.

What do you think? Are you with me, or do I go too far?

Monday, July 18, 2011

Requiem for a bookstore

I had my second post on changes I'd like to make to the Golden Heart and Ritas all ready to go, but then I heard that Borders is closing.

I've seen this coming for awhile. Borders never seemed to get the hang of how to survive in a world where physical stores and merchandise were less and less important for book and music buyers. I haven't been a regular Borders shopper in years. Amazon is my go-to book source, and if I'm craving a trip to a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I've got a Barnes & Noble five minutes from my house. In fact, if my mother-in-law didn't have a habit of including Borders gift cards among our stocking stuffers, I doubt I would've darkened the doors of one of their stores in the past decade.

But the news still saddened me. You see, I remember the first time I stepped inside a Borders, the one near Rittenhouse Square in Center City Philadelphia, back in 1994 or so. I thought I'd died and gone to bookworm heaven. Back then--and I feel like an old-timer talking about what it was like when she traveled everywhere by horse and buggy--I found new books to read by walking through libraries and bookstores, picking them up, and looking at their back covers and first few pages. Amazon was just a gleam in Jeff Bezos' eyes. While there were a few places to talk books and discover new authors on Usenet (oh yes, I was on Usenet back then), there wasn't the plethora of reader blogs I search for recommendations nowadays. There was no Goodreads, no LibraryThing. If it wasn't in the tiny selection at my local branch library or my mall's Waldenbooks or B. Dalton, I had almost no way of knowing it existed.

So Borders was a revelation. That bookstore was easily ten times the size of a mall store. It must've had as much shelf space for each individual genre as those mall stores had for romance, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, and so on combined. I found more books in the world waiting for me to read than I ever would've dreamed possible. There was nothing I loved more to do on a Saturday than bike into Center City from where I lived in West Philly and spend hours upon hours there.

So ave atque vale, Borders. Thanks for giving me so many wonderful hours and introducing me to so many favorite books in the 90's. And to those 11,000 employees who'll be laid off, my hopes and prayers that you'll land on your feet and find work where you can thrive.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How I'd change the Ritas and the Golden Heart

Even as I was watching this year's Rita/Golden Heart awards ceremony, I was reflecting that the competition's categories and formats don't mesh with the current reality of the romance genre. Going by Twitter comments, I was far from the only one.

For anyone reading this not already familiar with them, the Rita and Golden Heart are Romance Writers of America's annual contests designed to reward the best in published and unpublished romantic fiction, respectively. The changes I'd like to see concern the category descriptions and the entry format requirements.

Currently there are no categories for same-sex or erotic romance, which in the past decade or so have become a HUGE part of the genre. Of course, there's nothing in the rules that would prevent an author from entering, say, her m/m pirate adventure in the Historical category or her erotic space harem story in Paranormal, but I don't think such a book would have a fair chance of finaling. All you need is two judges out of your five who aren't comfortable with homosexuality or multiple super-explicit sex scenes but ARE comfortable expressing their value judgments through their anonymous scores, and you're sunk.

And looked at from the judge's perspective, I can understand wanting to limit the odds of being asked to judge a book you'd never choose to read of your own free will even if it was a perfectly written example of its subgenre. I almost never read inspirational OR erotica, for example (just to use both ends of the spectrum), and I wouldn't want to have to judge either category. For one, I don't feel qualified. I usually volunteer to judge historical, Regency, or YA because I've read enough of all three to trust my judgment of what's a perfectly executed example of a classic trope vs. a tired cliche, or what's a daring and inventive new experiment vs. a story gone off the rails. I don't have that same mental framework in place for subgenres I don't read. Also, hand me a stack of inspys or eroticas, and I'm thinking, "Really? I have to read these? All five from beginning to end? I can't skim?" Which is certainly not the attitude I want MY judge to have when she's handed my book, and while I may be too mainline a Protestant to be an ideal inspirational judge, I can certainly get behind "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

So. Two new categories. I'd treat them like Inspirational and Young Adult and make them a catch-all for any setting or tone and open them to anything meeting the broad romance/strong romantic elements definition of "romance is the main plot or major subplot, with a happily ever after or happily for now ending."

And these are lower priority, but while I was at it I'd tweak the existing categories a bit. I'd either make novellas eligible for Best First Book or make the first full-length novels of authors who've already published novellas eligible. It just doesn't seem fair that authors who happen to sell a novella first are never eligible, especially as novellas continue to gain market share. I'd add a novella category to the Golden Heart. And I'd probably merge the Regency Historical and Historical categories. Sure, that would leave only one Historical winner, but I don't think Regency vs. Not is the best way to split the categories anymore. Really, lately it seems like I'm running across more Victorians than Regencies, but five years from now the pendulum could swing back to Regencies, or even to Westerns or medievals or some setting that's rare to nonexistent now. So it seems simpler to just have a Historical category than to keep tacking to the trends as they inevitably change every few years.

This post has gone longer than I planned, so I'll save my thoughts on entry format (tl;dr version="why paper only STILL?") for later this week. Anyone else have thoughts on the categories? Want to tell me why my changes wouldn't work, and what you'd do instead? And yes, I know I should send my opinion to the Board. I will, I promise. I'm just thinking about it aloud in front of the whole internet first.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Hand update, mid-July edition

So, last week I saw an orthopedic surgeon for a second opinion on my shoulder and wrist/hand issues. She had my neck and shoulder x-rayed and put me through an array of strength and range of motion tests. (Which, incidentally, had the effect of making my symptoms in both areas the worst they've been since March or so. THANKS, Doc!)

I was at least 90% certain that the neck x-ray would show a pinched nerve as the root of all my problems. However, my neck looks...normal. Same for my shoulder. And it turns out the first doctor was right after all. I do have carpal tunnel syndrome, and a bit of ulnar tunnel syndrome as well. Sigh.

That said, this doctor was a lot more willing to believe me that my shoulder is an issue as well, and one somehow connected to what's going on further down the arm, even if there isn't an obvious reason. My left trapezius muscle is extremely tight, hence my ongoing pain, and the PT I've done with a focus on my shoulder and neck HAS seemed to help my wrist/hand symptoms.

So the next step is for me to visit a neurologist next week, who will do nerve studies focusing on the entire affected area. After that, back to the orthopedist to settle on a treatment plan.

We'll see what happens, but my latest theory is that I have two separate injuries, both sustained within a week of each other in November, neither of which will heal fully because they're part of a linked neuro-musculo-skeletal system and tend to trigger each other. I think the two tunnel syndromes come from pushing myself to do NaNoWriMo on a desk with poor ergonomics. And I think I strained my trapezius muscle pretty badly while carrying my sleeping daughter (age 6 at the time, and almost 50 lbs), who lolled off my shoulder, forcing me to jerk to not drop her.

But I could be wrong. I thought the x-rays were going to show an obvious pinched nerve in my neck, after all. On the one hand I'm frustrated, because I was hoping for a clear, straightforward problem with an equally clear solution. However, I'm glad to at last have a doctor who's paying attention to my whole range of symptoms.

And between longhand and Dragon Dictate, I've figured out how to move forward with my writing in the meantime. It's slower than just pounding out a draft at the keyboard would be, but I'm still not without hope that by the end of 2011 I'll have a release or two scheduled for 2012.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Summer reading: pre Dance With Dragons edition

A Dance With Dragons hit my Kindle at midnight, so there's a good chance that I'm somewhere with Tyrion Lannister, Jon Snow, or Daenerys Targaryen right now. Which I guess is a spoiler that all three survived the first four books, for those of you who've only seen the show...or maybe it isn't. They could be undead. Stranger things have happened. You'll just have to find out for yourselves.

Anyway, I continue to plug away at the Seattle Public Library Adult Summer Reading Program. I want to win that Nook, dang it. Not that there's anything wrong with my Kindle, but as an e-published author I need to be familiar with multiple formats, don't I? Or maybe I'm just competitive.

Last week's books:

1) A Reluctant Queen, by Joan Wolf
Genre: Inspirational historical romance
Format/source: trade paperback, library

A biblical novelization, but one that isn't particularly preachy or literalistic in its approach to the source text. Really, it's almost an alternative history, in that Ahasuerus is Xerxes' brother instead of another name for the same man. The action takes place between Marathon (490 BCE) and Thermopylae/Salamis (480), and as a bit of a Greek history geek I couldn't help wondering what's going to happen to, oh, world history in general and western civilization in particular if Xerxes isn't the Great King and the 480 invasion of Greece either doesn't happen or is better led. And the text invites those questions, since one of the topics the characters argue over is what to do about those troublesome Greeks. Still, I enjoyed the book. Sweetly romantic, I liked how Haman and Mordecai were humanized, and the details of Persian court life felt well-researched.

2. Ladies of Waterloo, by Charlotte Eaton, Magdalen de Lancey, and Juana Smith
Genre: Nonfiction (history)
Format/source: trade paperback, bought

Three women's experiences living through Waterloo, not at the battle itself but as friends and wives of men who were involved. Research for the WIP.

3. A Cook's Tour, by Anthony Bourdain
Genre: Nonfiction (food/travel)
Format/source: Kindle, bought

Companion volume to Bourdain's old Food Network series. Made me long to go to Vietnam, France, Morocco, and the French Laundry (where I have promised to take my husband if I ever make the NYT bestseller list). Cambodia, not so much.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hair - do you care?

It's not that I don't find plenty of blond men handsome. I mean, what's not to like about this?

And who wouldn't love a sexy blond guy in Napoleonic-era uniform holding a baby?

Adding in bottle blonds in leather yields yet more opportunities for admiring the lighter-haired side of life:

And how can I forget the geeks, culinary and otherwise?

But when I go shopping for a hero for one of my books, my mind goes places like this:

Or here, though I'm still trying to figure out how to make Ichiro work in a Regency/Napoleonic setting:

Really, this is about as light-haired as my heroes get:

My heroines, too, are a pretty dark-haired bunch. Anna in The Sergeant's Lady has black curls, while Lucy's in A Marriage of Inconvenience are a rich dark brown. The heroine of my current WIP has ash brown hair, and my unfinished manuscripts and ideas that may become books eventually are full of hair ranging from light brown to black. I don't do this on purpose. They just come into my head with varying shades of dark hair. It is perhaps not a coincidence that I'm a brunette married to a man with black hair and the mother of a brown-haired daughter. I suppose it's just my default.

My question for you as readers is whether or not this matters. Would you even notice from book to book if an author always wrote dark-haired heroes and heroines, if all her heroines were short or tall, flat-chested or buxom, etc? Would you care if you did?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two weeks of summer reading

I'm continuing my endeavor to read three books per week as part of the Seattle Public Library's adult summer reading program. Here's the last two weeks' worth. On the one hand, I didn't have a lot of reading time at RWA. But SEA-NYC is a long flight, so I got some serious airplane reading in.

Week of 7/19:

1. Crying Blood, by Donis Casey
Genre: Historical mystery
Format/Source: hardcover, library

This is the latest entry in one of my favorite mystery series that no one knows about. They're set in early 20th century Oklahoma, with Alafair Tucker, housewife and mother of ten, as amateur sleuth with an occasional assist from her husband and older children. They're rich with local color and historical detail, and the first book in the series, The Old Buzzard Had it Coming, is available for the Kindle at IMO a reasonable price.

2. The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure
Genre: Memoir
Format/Source: hardcover, library

McClure, who is my age or maybe a few years younger, like me spent a part of her childhood obsessed with the Little House series--the books, not the TV show. Her memoir explores what the series meant to her, reflects on Laura Ingalls Wilder's real life vs. its fictionalized depiction, and takes us with her as she visits Ingalls and Wilder home sites.

3. A Prudent Match, by Laura Matthews
Genre: Traditional Regency Romance
Format/Source: Kindle book, purchased

Originally published as a Signet Regency in 2000, this book is now available electronically through Belgrave House. May I just say one of the best things about the e-book revolution is being able not only to buy older, out-of-paper-print books easily and at a reasonable price, but to do so in such a way that the author receives royalties for it? This is a straightforward, sweet, but not entirely chaste Regency about the early days of a marriage of convenience.

Week of 7/26:

1. Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns, by Cheryl L. Reed
Genre: Nonfiction (religion & spirituality/women's issues)
Format/Source: Kindle book, purchased

A mostly sympathetic portrayal of an assortment of contemporary American nuns. (Ever since I read In This House of Brede, I've been more interested in nuns than your average married Protestant romance novelist.)

2. Unveiled, by Courtney Milan
Genre: Historical romance
Format/Source: Kindle book, purchased

(Yes, I read those two back-to-back because it amused me to read two such different Unveileds in a row. I am easily amused, sometimes.)

Best historical romance I've read this year, poignant and character-driven. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about it, in my opinion, is that once the hero and heroine start trusting each other, they don't stop, despite many opportunities where a lesser writer could've used a Big Misunderstanding to drive them apart.

3. Naamah's Blessing, by Jacqueline Carey
Genre: Fantasy
Format/Source: Kindle book, purchased

I've been hooked on the Kushiel's Legacy series since it began with Kushiel's Dart, and this book provided a fitting close to Moirin's trilogy (though not a good place to start if you're new to the series--you should begin at the beginning). I'm fond of alternative histories, and I enjoyed Carey's take on the Aztec and Incan cultures and their early encounters with Europeans. Though I also noticed George RR Martin's books have changed my expectations of fantasy. I kept expecting these two characters who turned out to be perfectly loyal friends and companions to Moirin and Bao to betray them and their mission at any moment.

I hope Carey returns to Terre d'Ange and its world someday, but I can understand her needing a break after nine epic novels. I'd love to see her take the stories yet further forward in time, though with the, um, technological constraints she had Moirin impose upon her version of the world I suppose she couldn't exactly have a d'Angeline Napoleon, though I with my historical biases think it would be AWESOME.

Doesn't Carey get the best covers? I included hers in this post just so I could look at the pretty some more.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Back from RWA

I got back from RWA yesterday evening. It was a good conference, though I was getting over a cold and fighting off some vague stomach bug or case of food poisoning all week that kept me from properly enjoying the social side of RWA or the many culinary delectations the area surrounding the hotel offered. By midweek I'd resigned myself to skipping late-night activities, ordering the blandest items I could find on menus, and eating all the yogurt I could lay hands on. Yesterday was the first day I felt 100% healthy in over a week, just in time to catch my flight home! Oh well. NYC isn't going anywhere, there will be other conferences with other parties, and it's not like Seattle lacks either variety or quality in its restaurant scene. (Next time I have something important to celebrate I'm going here, for example.)

So I shepherded my energies and focused on finding helpful and informative workshops. Michael Hauge's two-hour Uniting Plot Structure and Character Arc lecture alone was worth the price of admission for me. It caught me at just the right time, with a mostly formed plot for my historical romance WIP that could use some refining. I'm always looking for new time management tips like the ones Cindy Kirk brought up in her workshop on writing when you have a full-time day job. And I'll be going back to Laura Joh Rowland's 20 questions on revision next time I'm polishing a manuscript.

Most importantly, I came home with a new sense of purpose and confidence for my writing. Compared to when I first started writing with intent to publish, almost ten years ago, the publishing world has become a far more confusing place. In a way it was easier--or certainly simpler, which is almost the same thing, but not quite--when there was only one game in town, and you were either in or out based on the acceptance of a handful of print publishers.

Now, I'm confident I've made the right decisions about my books so far. Working with Carina has been a wonderful experience, and one I hope I'll get the chance to continue into the future. But with so many options out there, each one with advocates ready to swear it the One True Way, it's easy to worry about screwing it all up--not being able to find MY One True Path that will allow my writing dreams to come true.

I can't point to any one incident last week that changed my focus, but somehow I came away seeing opportunity rather than stress. If I have a One True Path, it's in honing my craft to the best of my abilities and in continuing to write stories I'm passionate about. I'll never be able to guarantee how the publishing market or readers will respond to those stories, but the beauty of all the changes we've seen in the past few years is that there are that many more opportunities out there for the stories I love to find their way to readers who'll love them too. So I'm going to get busy. Or, well, busier. I've got a story I love that needs finishing.