The 7 Greatest Things About Summer in Japan

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So, I’m getting ready to take a trip to the US in… about twelve hours now. And I haven’t finished packing. But that’s not really the point. The point is, I am SUPER excited to be going. I’m going to be in a house with OTHER ADULTS (OK, yes, I have a husband, but he’s generally worthless) who will contribute equal parts to the cooking/cleaning/laundry side of things, and maybe even make sure my kids don’t decapitate themselves for fifteen minutes while I have a glass of wine. I am getting to meet my newest nephew, my friend’s son, and my CP(!!!) for the first time in person. This is going to be FUN.

But it’s also going to be sad, because it means that for the first time in over a decade, I’m going to pretty much miss out on summer in Japan.

I’m also writing a book about a long, angsty Japanese summer. That’s not enough of a spoiler that someone can steal my idea, right? 😛 So I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes Japanese summers so awesome, despite the sweltering heat and the crowds of junior high school students everywhere (no offense, junior high school students… you’re awesome, I’m just old). A lot of these things will probably never make it into any of my books… but I still want to share them with you guys, so here goes!

7. ソフトクリーム&かき氷

Soft serve ice cream and shaved ice

46487792_480x480Okay, so these are not really uniquely Japanese things. And they’re not even really limited to summer… there is an amazing shop near my in-laws’ house that sells black sesame flavored soft serve all year round. But summer’s obviously the biggest season for these kind of things, and if you’re at all familiar with Japanese Kit-Kats, you know that we do NOT limit ourselves to the plain old chocolate and vanilla over here.

There’s wasabi-flavored soft serve (which I haven’t actually had, sorry!). Sweet potato and lavender (which are amazing). Spinach, all kinds of fruits, and more predictable things like green tea. Basically, wherever you go in Japan, there will be some kind of local specialty presented in soft-serve form.

Shaved ice is a bit more conservative, flavor-wise, but the ice itself is much more finely shaven and “soft” than shaved ice in the US. Strawberry, melon (honeydew?), and Blue Hawaii are the go-to flavors, and things like lemon, orange, and grape are fairly common. There’s actually green tea shaved ice too, usually with azuki (sweet beans) and a condensed-milk topping. Yum!

(I should add that I am also going to miss the flavor variety of Japanese alcohol… as I nurse what may very well be my last Sour Cherry Chu-Hi of the summer. By the time we get back in mid-August, the fall flavors will already be on sale.)

  1. 海の家
    Beach Houses

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OK, the translation here is a little confusing, because a “beach house” in American English tends to mean a rental property or, for the one percent, a second home on the beach, that happens to be house- instead of condo- or hotel-shaped. 😉 But in Japan it’s something different. A beach house is like a surf shop, except more geared toward families or groups of students or travelers than actual surfers.

A lot of people in Japan, especially from the big cities, don’t have cars. It’s not at all uncommon to find older people who have never driven a vehicle in their lives. The popularity of “umi no ie” is possibly due at least partially to the fact that a lot of people arrive at the beach via public transportation… but if you have little kids, like I do, it’s also just nice to have a home base to come back to.

So, basically, you pay a set fee (usually around 1500 yen, or $18 or so by today’s exchange rate), and that gets you a locker key and use of the showers as many times as you like throughout the day. The beach houses also offer rental floats, food, drinks, and other items for sale and rent. They tend to be expensive, but if you don’t have a car or just have a bunch of little ones running around and making it hard to sneak out to the convenience store, it’s a nice way to spend a stress-free day at the beach!

  1. 花火
    Fireworks

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The firework displays here are truly amazing, and aren’t just limited to one or two days a year. Of course, you can go to Disneyland to see fireworks any day of the year, but a lot of local governments put on firework displays in the summer.

I’m honestly not a HUGE fan of most of the local ones… like a lot of things in Japan (I need to make a “pet peeves about Japan” post for the future), there’s really not a lot of thought given to making sure there is enough space for everyone to enjoy the festivities comfortably. They tend to be very crowded, and you’ve got people walking around with open food and beer in crowds where you pretty much can’t do anything without touching the person next to you. The last time I went to one in the heart of Tokyo, I saw a woman hold her child (who was maybe one year old?) over her head, scream the Japanese equivalent of “MY BABY CAN’T SEE!,” and push her way to the front of the crowd. It’s kind of a meh experience.

BUT. BUT BUT BUT. The fireworks themselves are really amazing, and if you can find a way to get around the crowds (or if you’ve got the kind of personality that allows you to deal with crowds), they’re immensely enjoyable. I have to admit that when we bought this house, we totally factored in the distance from the local amusement park. From my sons’ room, we get a nice view of the fireworks display every Saturday and Sunday in August! There’s also a supermarket nearby with parking on the roof. I see lots of people go up there and watch the fireworks from there.

Alternately, it’s completely legal to buy fireworks and do them yourself here, and if you manage to find a park that allows it, you can have your own little private display. Even the sparklers are kind of legendary.

  1. プール
    Pools!

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OK, so Japanese pools are KIND OF a pain in the you-know-what. They’re only open as long as school is out… which, since Japan follows a year-round schedule (which is mostly REALLY NICE… I have no idea how parents cope with a three-month sumer break), means about 5-6 weeks, the last week of July and all of August. But it’s HOT from the end of March to about the middle of September!

The pools are also… you guessed it! REALLY CROWDED! In the city where I grew up in the US, there were multiple city pools, as well as private pools you could join only for the summer, and of course the fitness clubs and country clubs, etc. Here, in a city with about the same population, we have ONE city pool and a handful of fitness clubs. So one outdoor pool. Two if you count the one inside the amusement park, which costs about 2000 yen ($23-ish?) per person per day.

But the upside is, the pools are really cool. Temperature-wise, sure, but I mainly mean awesome. Even our $4 for adults, $1.50 for 6-12 year olds local pool is really THREE seperate pools with six water slides, and there are all kinds of vendors selling food, drinks, ice cream, and floats. About an hour away, there’s a genuine water park, which is run by Kawagoe city, and therefore only about $12 per person. A wave pool, a lazy river, tube slides… all partially funded on the taxpayers’ dime.

There are bigger and more expensive parks, too, some of them indoors and open year round (except February, apparently, when my son’s birthday is… and his one wish was to go to a pool this year (we found one, it just took awhile and was two prefectures away)), but “pool” in Japan tends to mean at least “mini waterpark,” and that in and of itself is cool (as in awesome).

  1. 浴衣
    Yukata

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I’ve lived in Japan for fourteen years, and I’ve worn a kimono exactly once, at my own wedding. Okay, actually I wore three different kimonos and a Western-style wedding dress all in the course of one day… we can blame my mother in law for that. But anyway, kimonos are crazy expensive and next to impossible (ALLEGEDLY, I have never tried) to put on by yourself. Most people only wear them for weddings, funerals, coming-of-age day, things like that.

But yukata! Yukata are a much simpler, lighter, cooler version of the kimono for summer, and much more popular among the general population. (And no, Japanese people won’t be offended if white, black, Latina, Southeast Asian, or otherwise non-Japanese people wear them. Really. There’s no religious significance, and they’re pretty much a fun novelty for Japanese people too.) Sure, it’s a little bit of a pain to tie your own obi the first time… but you can learn a simple knot from the Internet in a couple of hours! Just be sure not to wait for the last minute to get dressed, at least your first time! 😉

While I personally like the challenge of tying my own obi, there are also pre-tied ones that you just fasten like a belt. It’s also a lot of fun shopping for geta (wooden sandals) and other fashion items like bags, earrings, and hair accesories in traditional prints and designs.

Men’s versions exist too. So if you’re in Japan during the summer months, I highly recommend buying an wearing a yukata at least once.

  1. お盆
    Obon, the festival of the dead

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Japanese people always look at me a little strange when I say Halloween used to be like Obon. Halloween in Japan is pretty much symbolized by Mickey Mouse wearing a witch (wizard?) hat with a pumpkin on it. But Obon is the Japanese answer to the traditional pagan Halloween—a day for ancestors to return from the dead to spend time with their families.

Now, my husband’s family (and by extension ours) is sort of the Japanese Buddhist/Shinto version of a Christian family who maybe goes to church on Christmas every other year or so. We don’t really go all out for the religious aspect, but what we do is nice. If we do happen to be in my husband’s hometown for the holidays, we’ll visit his family grave and leave offerings for his grandfather and the other relatives who are interred there. The concept of offerings is really nice: we burn incense and leave flowers, as well as some typical offerings like fruit. But we also leave Ojiichan a can of his favorite beer and some snacks he used to enjoy. (Of course, we take them all home afterwards, because there are laws about just leaving beer cans and plastic wrapped rice crackers outside… but the symbolism is nice. It’s a good way to remember HIM specifically, by offering the things he liked in life, and to feel like he’s with us when we gather with the extended family later in the day.)

Having Obon in the summer and the New Year’s holidays in the winter is great, too… not a lot of presents involved, but as far as seeing extended family and eating delicious food, it’s kind of like having two Christmases every year!

  1. 夏祭り
    Summer Festivals

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So, this is kind of the confluence of all of the above. And I’m kind of going against my “avoid the crowds” statement above, but summer festivals in Japan are a lot of fun, and if you manage to avoid the big, tourist-y ones and find one in your local community, they’re… crowded, but not AS badly as they could be (you get semi-immune to this stuff after awhile, introverted or not), and when most of the people are from your neighborhood, they’re a great chance to hang out with friends and have fun.

In addition to traditional dancing and drum performances, summer festivals are a great place for FOOD! There’s definitely no need to eat dinner on a festival night. Just show up with enough cash for yakisoba, bananas dipped in chocolate, cotton candy, French fries in every flavor imaginable (curry! seaweed and salt! Japan really knocks it out of the park with the flavor variety again!), and games.

Local festivals are a great place to try traditional games, from a ring toss to “kingyou-sukui,” where you catch goldfish with a paper net that will break or dissolve if your technique isn’t up to par. If you manage to catch anything, you can take the goldfish home as pets!

Some festivals are quite extreme, but our local celebration is fairly small. A local ladies’ club usually does some traditional dancing, and kids are welcome to join in as well as they can. There’s usually a drawing for door prizes, too—my daughter won a 500 yen gift card from McDonald’s last year (OK, that’s not so traditional… but free McNuggets? She was thrilled!)

So… I’m going to miss my Japanese summer this year! But if you have the chance, you should brave the tropical heat and give it a try.

If you’ve read this far, congratulations!  Have one of the songs I’ve been playing on repeat as I try to write this WIP.  🙂

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Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through

Okay, so you may have figured out that I quote ↑this↑ song a lot. And when my first agent left agenting earlier this year, I stuck the title at the end of my Twitter profile… not really for anyone else, but as a reminder to myself that this book WAS going to get out there. That somehow, someway, my odd little rock and roll dream was going to find someone else to love it, to champion it, to get it out to publishers. To YOU, the reader. To the world!

…but that didn’t happen. At least not at first. I started querying again, little by little. I got requests, but I kept searching—for new agents, for #MSWL tweets, for hints that would tell me where to go next.

And then, a couple of months into the process, I got an offer. The agent is an amazingly sweet person, with clients who had nothing but praise to give…but it wasn’t a good fit. I knew it. It hurt, but I turned it down, and kept looking.

And looking.

And looking.

I got rejections… one so sweet it made me want to smile and cry at the same time. A lot that were some variation of “This is great, but not for me.”

I sent out more queries. I got more requests. Because this is querying, I got form letters and radio silence too. After awhile, it started to feel like none of it was a big deal. Querying became kind of a second job. I just had to do it. I had to get this book out into the world.

And then, some kind person among my Twitter followers (I’m horrible, I don’t even remember who it was! But thank you, kind person!) retweeted an announcement from a new agent who had JUST opened to queries something like 24 hours before. I checked out the agent. Seemed like a cool person. Seemed a like a good fit. Repped all the categories and genres I can envision myself ever writing in AND had a wish list including some of my favorite authors. So I queried.

And I got a partial request.

And then the partial turned into a full!

And then I waited. Of course, because this is querying. (But honestly, the wait wasn’t TOO long.)

And then I got an email.

It was 8AM in Japan and I got it on my phone, and I was SURE it was going to be a rejection because, well, statistically speaking that was just more likely, right? And this was my second time in the trenches. Gone were the days of “OMG I GOT A REPLY FROM MY FULL!”

I opened it, expecting another variation on “Not for me.”

Oh, but wait.

The agent apparently LOVED my book. Enough to ctrl+b it. And here I thought I was the only one who ctrl+b’d emails. I was starting to get a good feeling about this.

The agent wanted to talk. Talk we did. (Kind of… I couldn’t get my video to work, because old computer is old, or maybe I’m just not very computer savvy? So… it was a text chat “Call.” But that was totally cool.) I liked what I heard (erm, read). My gut was screaming YES.

So (after taking the appropriate amount of time to think it over, take care of outstanding queries, and weigh my options… choose your agent responsibly, kiddos!) YES is what I said. And I’m thrilled to announce that I am now partners in crime with… erm, I mean represented by… Eric Smith at P.S. Literary!

We are going to bring you guys some awesome books.

Because rock and roll dreams really do come through.

Eight Things Every Writer Can Learn From Star Wars

One of the things I find myself constantly, CONSTANTLY doing when I am beta reading, editing, or judging contests is either making Star Wars references (when it’s SF/F or I have another reason to believe the author will know what I’m talking about) or fighting the urge to do so. I can’t help it, though. Between the original trilogy and the prequels, there are just SO many things—dos AND don’ts—that writers can learn from those movies when it comes to character, plot, and worldbuilding. So I thought I’d condense them here, in case it might help someone else get a different perspective on exactly why the first three movies worked so well (and, to some degree, why the prequels didn’t), and to use that in their own writing.

NOTE: This post will (obviously, I guess) contain spoilers for ALL SIX EXISTING-AS-OF-MAY-2015 STAR WARS MOVIES. I am personally NOT of the opinion that if you haven’t seen a movie made in 1977 (despite possibly not having been born at the time?) that it’s your own damn fault, and I don’t want to spoil anyone, even on things that “everyone” knows. So go watch the movies, at least the original trilogy (Episodes 4, 5, and 6, for total newbies), and then come back. Watch the prequels SECOND, if you’re interested. Even if you’ve been spoiled, I’m going to talk about a couple of individual shots and lines, so yeah. Watch first. This’ll still be here in six and a half hours.

Okay, so we’ve all seen Star Wars, right? So, let’s dive right into the things that Every Writer Can Learn.

  1. Start with a bang.

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    From the very first time I saw the very first scene of Episode 4, I knew this was going to be an awesome movie. Why? Well, take a look at that opening shot. Let’s put the logo and the main title theme and THAT CRAWL aside for now, because that’s more in the cover art-blurb-prologue category… but that first shot! GIANT SHIP JUST KEEPS ON COMING.

    Now, of course, you don’t want to use “The giant ship just kept on coming” as your opening line. But we can take a couple of things out of that scene… first, that this movie is DIFFERENT. Remember that it came out in 1977. That shot was AMAZING (and was still pretty unique for me when I watched it for the first time in the mid-90s) It’s SIMPLE enough to understand… tiny ship being overtaken by big ship, sets up the general conflict of the movie (small Rebellion against huge Empire) and shows us how this movie is going to be DIFFERENT from everything else 1977 had to offer.

    So start with something simple, but effective. Show me how your book is different. Give me an opening that speaks to what your book’s going to be, as a whole.

  1. Introducing (POV) Characters: Make Them Honorable, Flawed, Relatable

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    OK, cheating a bit here… Star Wars is a movie! It doesn’t have POV characters! Except yeah, it kind of does. Even a movie has characters we are designed to identify and empathise with, and characters we’re not. In Star Wars (i.e. Episode IV: A New Hope), the POV character is pretty much Luke Skywalker. Han and Leia and the droids too, to some extent, but for the most part, our protagonist is Luke.

    So let’s look at how Luke gets introduced.

    Right off the bat, we see something good about him (he is a dutiful nephew, helping his uncle, obviously knowledgeable about machines). We also see something not so good (he was going into Tosche Station… erm, sorry… I mean, he’s a bit impatient and whiny). Within a few minutes of that first introduction, we learn even more about Luke. He is kind to C-3PO and R2-D2 (characters who clearly fulfill a subservient role in this society). There’s a heroic quality. He’s brash and impulsive—that’s a flaw with the potential to lead to problems later… minor problems in this movie, and major ones in the two sequels. He has dreams that circumstances aren’t allowing him to realize at the moment (something that many readers—erm, viewers—can relate to).

    These same things can be applied to other characters, particularly to Han and to Threepio… Han has a heroic quality (he’s brave), a flaw (impulsive as well, also a grey morality), and a relatable quality (a need to pay off his debts at any cost). Threepio, as the first character we’re introduced to, is similar. He’s loyal to a fault (heroic), but also a worrywart (a flaw, and also a relatable quality).

    Leia also becomes a relatable character in Empire and beyond, but I’m not using her as an example here because I think her potential was… well, really NEVER fully realized, and definitely not in the first movie. She’s certainly heroic, and we see the chinks in her armor a bit in Empire and Jedi, but it is a bit disappointing to have to turn to fanfic for a good look at how the loss of her ENTIRE PLANET must have affected her. 😉

  2. A Good Reveal Should Be a Reveal for the Characters as Well

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    Ahhhh… the reveal. The quintessential reveal: I am your father. The whole last third of The Empire Strikes Back is, in my very humble opinion, perfection, and if I ever manage to write something that makes even a SINGLE person feel the utter fear and apprehension and “OMG NO DON’T DO THAT BUT ARGH YOU’RE GOING TO AREN’T YOU???” I felt the first time I saw it, my artistic life will have been a success. I’ll mention other parts of it later. BUT THE REVEAL.

    So, I see a lot of reveals in books that end up being “So what?” just because it was SO obvious by the time it rolled around. Or maybe the character always knew, and whatever it was was just being withheld from the reader (Unreliable narrators are great, but you know what I’m talking about, right? Those reveals that just feel FALSE?)

    So why does “I am your father” work so well? First, it ALMOST comes out of nowhere. Almost. It wouldn’t work if Luke’s father had never, ever been mentioned up to this point. It also wouldn’t work if it had been crammed in the viewer’s faces every other line since the start of the movie. There was JUST ENOUGH seed planting there, both in Luke’s mind and in the audience’s. His father had been mentioned. We knew that he was a Jedi. We thought Vader killed him. We knew Yoda knew him… but that wasn’t the MAIN THRUST of the plot at that point.

    Second, it’s a shock to the character as well. OMG, Mark Hamill’s acting in that scene is simply amazing, whatever you think of the power converters line (and I like that one too, more on that later). It’s not something that’s been deliberately withheld from the audience. The character (with whom we identify, see above) is equally shocked. It’s plausible (although not explained one way or the other) that this is a recent revelation to Vader as well, and therefore makes sense that it was not a part of the previous movie.

    Now, I personally don’t think the whole “Leia is your sister” thing works AS well. The seeds weren’t really planted. We knew that something had happened to Luke’s father, but there were no indications that Leia wasn’t HER father’s biological daughter.

    Because of the end of Empire, we had the impression that she was Force-sensitive, but as of 1983, there were no midichlorians and no indication that the Force had to be genetic at all (also, possibly no such word as Force-sensitive), so it felt a BIT like trying to recapitulate on something that worked the first time… and THAT is a point to be made later as well.

  3. Hint at a Larger World (Without Showing All of It)

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    Let’s go back to that power converters line.

    I actually really like that line. I actually use it as a POSITIVE example a lot, to show people how to nail their worldbuilding. Because there’s actually a lot that we get from it.

    First, there’s a place called Tosche Station. Doesn’t matter where it is. Doesn’t matter WHAT it is. It’s a place in this universe. There is a world beyond this single house and this Jawa transport that are actually on the screen at the moment. These movies are FULL of things like that. Dantooine. Ord Mantell. The Kessel run. Yes, fandom and the Expanded Universe have made up stories for all of those things, but there weren’t any at the time. Those names were just there to remind us that we were in another universe. It doesn’t matter what they mean, just that they ARE. (I urge writers to use things like this in your fiction, even if it’s NOT SF/F, too! Throw out the names of neighboring towns, local politicians, whatever! Give the impression that your characters are living in a larger world that what is explicitly shown on the page).

    Second, that line shows us something about Luke. Twelve year old me didn’t need to know what a power converter was to know that it was a MECHANICAL SOMETHING (Luke is good with machines, and this is an important part of his character). Also, that Luke wants A THING that his circumstances won’t let him GO GET. (Again, earning total empathy from the “I am living in suburban America and am still four years away from a driver’s license” viewer)

    The reader doesn’t have to understand every reference in your book. Even if what you’re mentioning IS a real thing or a real place, make sure that it at least pulls the weight of the power converters line… let your reader know that SOMETHING else is out there, even if we’re not 100% sure what it is.

  4. Let Your Romance Develop Slowly

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    OK, let’s talk Han/Leia. I love them. Which felt kind of weird at the time, because I was/am a total Luke fangirl… and yet it didn’t bother me at all that Luke didn’t get the girl. (I vote for Luke as asexual, actually, but we’ll see what Episode VII has to say about that, I guess)

    So, why did Han/Leia work? One of the biggest reasons it works for me is that, even though we’ve only got six hours or so to see them together, we get the clear image that the relationship grows over time. At first, there’s mild flirting… obvious attraction, but that may or may not go anywhere. They’re both good looking people, but that alone does not make a romance. At the end of the first movie, there’s really nothing romantic there. And since they’ve known each other for a day or so, THAT MAKES SENSE.

    It’s not until Empire, when they’ve knows each other for a few years, that the sexual tension really comes out, and it seems all the more believable for the wait. Of course whirlwind romances do happen in real life, but we still need to see it happen. What makes these people attractive to one another? Han/Leia is a great example of “show, don’t tell.” We see the attraction long before THEY do, and understand completely when it happens. You can’t just have your characters declare their love out of nowhere. We need to see it building under the surface, whether it’s been building for three years or three hours!

  5. If You’ve Got Multiple Storylines, Make Sure We Care About Them All

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    More Empire love here… all three movies in the original trilogy do this, but I personally think Empire does it the best. For the first third of the movie, the Big Three (Luke, Han, and Leia) are basically together, but for the second part (when Luke is training with Yoda and Han and Leia are trying to make it to Cloud City with a broken hyperdrive) and the third part (the lightsaber dual and carbon freeze), there are TWO main storylines happening.

    So, why do they work? First, there is at least one character that we genuinely care about in each storyline. If the editors were whisking us away from Han and Leia or Luke and Vader to show us what Chewie’s (retconned-out?) wife was doing back on Kashyyyk, we probably wouldn’t care. Instead, we’re going from Luke to Han and Leia and back again. We care about all three characters. Neither of the storylines feels like a disappointment to come back to.

    Second, the editing works like a series of strong chapter endings. Yes, it’s a little disappointing to get a cliffhanger for one storyline, but since we’re returning to what WAS a cliffhanger for the other storyline, there’s always something there that makes us WANT to keep watching.

    Finally, there’s a clear connection. Luke and Han are headed for the same place, although in different capacities. Luke and Leia meet, and are quickly divided. Han and Leia’s entire storyline is taking place because of Luke and Vader’s. These are clearly two parts of the same story, not two random stories being told at the same time.

    I would argue that Return of the Jedi loses this a bit… It may be partly because I’m usually watching it at the end of a six-hour marathon, but I always get a little sleepy when ROTJ splits off into three storylines (Luke and Vader on the Death Star, Lando in the Falcon, Han and Leia on Endor). Why? Well, at least from my point of view, Luke and Vader is the only really edge-of-your-seat storyline there. The tension feels a bit lacking on Endor… yes, they’ve got to get the shield down, but a lot of the action scenes start to feel like action for the sake of action. Lando’s scenes are exciting, but we simply don’t care about him in the same way as a character, because we don’t know him as well. No offense to Lando! He’s a complicated character, and I wish he’d had more screen time, but the fact is that we just don’t know him as well as we know the Big Three. The three storylines feel unbalanced to me, because Luke and Vader’s overshadows the others in terms of stakes. So make sure that none of your multiple storylines are a disappointment to come back to!

  6. If You Keep Doing the Same Shocking Thing, It Ceases to Be Shocking

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    Warning: Not quite prequel bashing, but prequel criticism ahead.

    A bit of context first. I already knew about “I am your father.” I had enough of an understanding of the three-act plot structure to GUESS that that was going to come at the end of Empire. And I was madly, madly, in love with, and simultaneously seeing myself in, Luke Skywalker.

    So watching Vader cut his hand off was one of the most traumatic fictional scenes I’ve ever experienced. It was really, truly, phenomenally shocking to twelve-year-old me. That was just something that… wasn’t ever done. And in the twenty minutes or so (random guess, I’ve never counted) between when it happens and when we see his cybernetic hand, there was no indication that it meant anything other than what having your hand cut off in 1994 would mean. The hero had been maimed, when he still had a whole movie to get through. That truly, truly shocked me to the core.

    Seeing it happen again, to Vader in Jedi, was fitting. Symbolic. Powerful. Of course, we have no idea at that point how Vader lost his hand, but we know that LUKE lost his through a rash act that led him perilously close to the Dark Side. We know that Vader has been consumed by the Dark Side. We know that Luke, prior to cutting off his father’s hand, was in a furious rage. When he looks at his hand and at the wires coming out of Vader’s arm, that’s a powerful image. (Show, don’t tell! No one NEEDS to say “Luke thought about how he was becoming like his father”…. We can SEE it)

    So, flash forward a couple of years to the prequels. Am I a bad fan for admitting that I don’t even remember the details of how Anakin lost his (first) hand? It was Count Dooku, right? Because I remember Anakin then cutting off BOTH of HIS hands…. OK, dude, Lucas, you know I love you(r movies), but is there NO other way to end a dual?

    The prequels took a shocking event and repeated it over and over and over again until it started to feel like a joke. OMG, how many limbs are going to be severed THIS time?

    I’m…. not sure how I feel about that, from an ableism kind of perspective. Were the prequels making light of something that, in real life, would be a life-altering event? In a post-9/11 America when a lot of people really WERE going off to war and coming back as amputees? It’s probably reading too much into it to think about it on that level (and it’s also something I’m not really in a position to discuss, as an able-bodied person). But at the very least, from a storytelling perspective… even though that moment in Empire was not a PLEASANT one to watch, it feels a bit like ruining it, stripping it of its significance by taking that and turning it into something that happens ALL THE TIME AD NAUSEUM.

  7. There Are Some Things We Don’t Need to Know

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    This is maybe the number one lesson I take from Star Wars, as a writer. There are some things we don’t need to know. There are some things that don’t need to be canon. There are some things that are nicer to just…. Leave it to the fanfic writers to decide?

    We did not need to know the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.

    There, I said it. We Did. Not. Need. To. Know.

    It is enough to know that there was a good man, who was perhaps not a very good Jedi, who lost his way somewhere along the line and was brought back to the light through the actions of, and his love for, his son (and to some degree, his daughter). That was enough.

    Let me repeat. THAT WAS ENOUGH.

    Is the galaxy far, far away a better place for having known Watto? Or for being rhapsodized re:Anakin’s dislike for sand?

    I do not think that the prequels were very good, but that doesn’t even really matter. Even if they WERE good, they weren’t necessary. It was more fun to say “What if?”

    We don’t need to know Boba Fett’s backstory, or even the Emperor’s. It’s fun to think about those things, but it’s also nice to have… fade to blacks, I guess, whether we’re talking about sex or not. There are some things about my characters that I know, but will never tell my readers as canon, because it’s like Schrödinger’s cat. Until I tell you MY version, YOUR versions continue to exist. And I kind of like lots of versions continuing to exist.

    Just imagine all of the amazing Vader origin stories we could have had if fanfiction.net had come before the prequels. 😉

Success, Rejection, and Jim Steinman (Because Why Not?)

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a post about music. At least, it’s not going to be a post that requires you to like the same music I do, or even to have heard it before. This is about success, and rejection, and about what both of those things mean. And I’m going to use music to talk about it, because that’s what I go back to when I have to remind myself of why I write. You can fill in your favorite book, movie, or TV show, though… because I want to talk about touching your audience. Doesn’t matter how.

So, a quote:

“It became a very mythic, important thing to me to never forget that every song you write, every record you make, ultimately is for that kid in Wisconsin. Or that weirdo in Alabama, or the banker in Kansas, the young couple starting out in California, the kid in the ghetto in Oakland, it doesn’t matter. It just always ends up being some kid under the covers with headphones on.”

Jim Steinman, from the acceptance speech for BMI’s Song of the Year, 1998

Or the kid under the covers with the library book, or the Kindle. See, here’s the thing… everything I write is for myself at 16. Even if it’s not YA, it’s for myself at 16. It’s for some other kid out there who wants to be uplifted and devastated and not know whether they want to cry from joy or from agony, or both at the same time. Now, whether I succeed or not… I guess you’re going to have to wait until my book’s on your Kindle, and then tell me.

Because the kid under the covers is the ONLY measure of success that matters. Are some bestselling books also very good? Yes, of course. Are some bestselling books meh? Definitely. Are some unknown books fabulous? They absolutely are. And the only thing that matters is whether or not they made a reader… be that one reader or a million… whether or not they made a reader FEEL.

So let’s go back to 1997. Because I promised to rant about Jim Steinman (again, you don’t need to be a fan to follow this, bear with me), and rejection, and all of that good stuff.

It probably wasn’t a hot summer night. And I wasn’t 17 yet, and definitely fully dressed But I was at home, and no one else was, and for some reason I decided to flip through my parents’ old records, and I found Bat Out of Hell. Which, FYI, is the third best selling album of all time, and the single best-selling album written by a single individual (keep that in mind when I get to the rejection part). But I didn’t know that. I just knew that, oh hey look, it’s Eddie from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with songs by the guy who wrote the lyrics for Whistle Down the Wind. And… holy shit, will you look at that cover?

Bat_out_of_Hell

(Cover art by Richard Corben, 1977)

Yeah, that cover. Which was actually kind of intimidating, because (as if the above paragraph doesn’t make that abundantly clear), I was into musicals. Not rock. Most definitely not heavy metal (which Bat is not, but the cover is desperately pretending to be). Still. I was home alone. There was this awesome looking record, which promised to involve a couple of people whose other work I’d liked. I put it on.

And the opening phrase kind of floored me. I remember listening to the title song and realizing at some point that THIS IS A STORY, and that the story wasn’t going to end well, and there was a moment of Empire Strikes Back level stun before the second song started… and it was everything that was GOOD and bright and larger-than-life about teenagerhood. I lay down on the floor, in the middle of the living room with no one else home, and I closed my eyes and I…. well, I guess I got up to turn the record over because it was a RECORD and the speakers were half as tall as I was and the little scratches and pops were just a part of it and so much better than the CD I bought later would be… but I just lay there, and listened to it, and didn’t do anything else. It was like someone got me. Like someone was reaching out to my teenage brain and saying IT IS NOT JUST YOU. I’m not sure WHAT wasn’t just me, because I wasn’t having sex in cars or crashing motorcycles… but maybe I WAS in the middle of nowhere, near the end of the line, and it felt like someone was telling me that other people also felt that way. That everything about my weird teenage existence was normal and intense and life-or-death, and FINE.

So. Anyway. We have established that this album touched at least one kid under the covers (erm, sprawled on the floor in the living room). We have established that it is the third best selling album of all time. Did I mention that it hit #9 on the UK charts in 2013, THIRTY SIX YEARS after its release?

Now, let’s look at what record label execs had to say about it back in the 70s. In a 2003 interview, Steinman talks about auditioning it for Clive Davies:

He goes, oh is that it? Is the audition over? … I’m gonna have to rush this but I do have some notes for you. Starting with you, Mr Steinman, do you ever listen to contemporary radio? And that little signal went off, no this is not gonna be a great deal. That’s not a good opening.

I said yeah, I listen all the time to contemporary radio… and Clive said well, I don’t hear that in your music. It … seems like you really should, both of you… I think Jim, particularly, you have to go back and listen to radio, what pop music’s about.

…let me tell you what we’re looking for in a pop song. It’s a very simple structure. …. Basically A, B, C, C, C, C. That’s the key to a hit record. Now with your songs I got lost around W…..

….And then Clive turned to Meat Loaf… and Clive goes…. Mr Loaf, let me ask you … do you ever listen to contemporary singers? … well you don’t seem to. You seem to be more in the tradition of a Broadway singer, like Robert Goulet….You just have to adapt your style so you’re not belting in this legit kind of Broadway ’cause no one likes that anymore, no one’s interested in it.

So the two of you should go back to the drawing board ’cause there’s some talent here but I just think it’s so wrong and so misdirected. If you listen to pop radio and if you listen to a few pop singers, I think you’ll see what they’re going for, and that was my lecture from Clive who then became a great supporter over the years, but it was brutal.

So again, remembering that this is the THIRD BESTSELLING ALBUM OF ALL TIME… “it’s just so wrong and misdirected.” Sometimes record labels are wrong. Sometimes twenty or thirty of them are wrong. Sometimes other gatekeepers are wrong as well. Now, I know that it’s hard to tell. It’s so easy to doubt yourself, to say… no, this isn’t a situation where it was perfect and brilliant and was going to strike a chord (no pun intended) with hundreds of thousands of people, and it’s just being rejected because it’s different… no, this is a Phantom Menace situation, where someone SHOULD have said “George, Jar-Jar? Seriously, no.”

The truth is, though, you can’t know. And I kind of wish I WAS like Jim Steinman, where the people who hate his work REALLY hate it… at least then you know where you stand? It’s hard to tell what it means when you get form rejections, or even worse: “I love this but I just can’t sell it.”

But it may be brilliant. And if Steinman had taken that advice and gone off to write 3 and a half minute disco songs… wow. I wouldn’t have half the soundtrack to my life. That is, honestly, a hugely scary thought.

But anyway, that worked out. Bat Out of Hell found a producer in Todd Rundgren (who was already a big deal), and a label in Cleveland International (which wasn’t), and then… it took off very slowly. It was word of mouth in a time when there was no Twitter or Tumblr or YouTube… and it went the 1978 equivalent of totally viral.

But what if it doesn’t? What if I get my book out there, and no one cares? What if it doesn’t sell? What if it does sell, and it gets a smattering of “Meh, didn’t finish” three-star reviews (I’d rather get a scathing one-star than a “Meh,” personally… at least I’d have made the reader feel SOMETHING?)

And again, I go to Jim Steinman. 1989. Pandora’s Box, Original Sin. You’ve probably never heard of artist OR album, because that’s all they ever did. But you’ll know at least one of the songs from it: “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” later recorded by Celine Dion, is on it, and a couple of the songs ended up on Bat Out of Hell II. But this album itself, Original Sin, is largely unknown.

Steinman put a lot of his own money into it… and it flopped. Did it fail? I say no. I say no because, a couple of weeks ago when I was having a lousy day and really doubting my own writing… this was the first album I thought to turn to. I listened to it in the car and sang “Safe Sex” (Which is a beautiful song… here. You’ll thank me later) in the shower and… it made me feel better. Not only because of what the songs said, but because they exist. Because that album is there for me when I need it. Because I’m not the only one… BUT, even if I was… even if it’s only one person that you touch or thrill or comfort or save with your work, that’s enough.

So, long story short (and I apologize again for all of the uncool musical references), when you’re drowning in a sea of rejections or revision requests or negative reviews, go back and find the email from the CP who loved it, or the notes from the agent who WOULD have taken it all the way if she could have. Or the one positive review from a total stranger. Or even just you… loving what you created. If nothing else, I was under the covers with my OWN book, dreaming up those characters’ stories and finding something in them to love.

REMEMBER:

  1. There is more than one path to success.
  2. Success doesn’t mean sales or bookstore placement or even a film deal.
  3. It’s all about the kid under the covers AND
  4. One kid means just as much as a million.

Don’t give up. Somewhere, under some far-away covers, someone needs the story you’re trying to tell.<3

On Losing My Agent (And Why I’m Not Giving Up)

This year started out on the best possible of notes. I went to a Shinto shrine with my family (which is the thing to do on New Year’s Day in Japan, regardless of your actual religious convictions), made my prayer for the new year (for my book, which was about to go on submission, to sell, of course), and bought an omikuji—a fortune, printed on a small piece of paper and numbered to go along with the chopstick-like stick I shook from a wooden jar.

My fortune was chuu-kichi, or “medium happiness,” which is the second-best fortune you can get. It said that I would get what I wanted, but I’d have to wait for it. So I sort of grimaced and said, “Oh well, at least I’ll get my wish eventually,” and buckled down for a long submission process.

Four days later, that optimism was shattered.

If you’re on Query Tracker or Absolute Write, you’ve probably already heard this, but my former agent has left the business. I am not going to comment on it in detail, because I don’t have the whole story, and because I’m obviously not an unbiased source, but let’s just say that, while I am most definitely cheering her on in her new life… at the time I felt a little like I’d been left at the altar.

I was suddenly sitting here with this submission-ready (I suppose, although of course I’m expecting to make at least some revisions once I get ready to go out with another agent) manuscript in hand, and no one to take it to these publishers I’d been dreaming about.

My first thought was that it was over.

But, well, here I am, on the two-month anniversary of that email, and I am still fighting for this book. There have been times when this whole process has made my physically ill… from the basically good (being unable to eat a thing on the day of my Call) to the basically awful (self-doubt, anxiety, generally wishing I’d never even come up with this idea)… but the fact of the matter is, I believe in this book.

It may need work. I’m fairly sure it does need work of some sort—hence the search for a new agent and an editor, instead of simply self-publishing. But this concept, these characters, this setting… I love them. I believe in them. My agent believed in them. My CP believes in them. And I have to believe that someone else will believe in them too.

Confession time: I started writing this book in 2005. Now, don’t panic. It didn’t actually take me ten years to write it. It was maybe a year of actively working on it all together. I wasn’t ready to do it justice when I started, and at some point I realized that and put it aside. Thank goodness I had no desire to query at the time.

So, I started writing in August 2005, and around November I hit a snag. I am pretty much a pantser (although I plan more now that I did back then), and I had no idea how this book was going to end. I had two versions in mind. One was too perfect, everything tied up too neatly in a way that seemed false. The other was too sad, unsatisfying. I had no idea which I was writing towards, so I took some time away to figure it out… and then I got pregnant.

Some women can apparently write while they are pregnant. I cannot. I wrote, of course, during that time—short stories and fanfics and lists of baby names. But I couldn’t focus. I was hormonal. I didn’t feel like me… not in a bad way, but in a way that took me out of my story big time. I read a lot… I remember re-reading Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND in a week (I had just quit my job and had a LOT of free time on my hands) with Kid #1, Murakami’s THE WIND-UP-BIRD CHRONICLE (in Japanese; that took awhile) with Kid #2, and all of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books with Kid #3. I was really into SFF. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS came out. I wrote Star Wars fanfiction, and didn’t really care if it was very good.

And this book that would get me my agent was simmering. Those endings were simmering. I thought about those characters now and then, and wondered if their ending was a happy one or not. I came back to it once, wrote eight or nine versions of the chapter that had tripped me up before, and eventually got pregnant again and moved on to other, shorter-lived, more hormonally-appropriate things.

But I missed them. I missed those characters and I missed that book, and it was sometime in the spring of 2013 that I realized that it COULD be a book. A real book, not just something I emailed to a friend or two. It occurred to me that people—people I didn’t even know!—might want to read this. And so I opened the file again.

It was 103,000 words long, and the plot that I had in mind was only half finished. I had been doing years and years of reading since the last time I’d touched it, and all of that SFF actually came in handy—I had a better idea of how to introduce my setting (which wasn’t another planet, but was still a place and a subculture most readers wouldn’t be familiar with) subtly, walking the fine line between infodump and confusing. I went back to Bujold, McCaffrey, Tolkien, and did my best to apply that to my real-world but still new-to-most setting.

I went back and fleshed out my characters. The MC and LI already had fairly detailed backstories and personalities, but a lot of the minor characters were flat, one-dimensional… just there because I needed SOMEONE to do a specific thing. I gave them full names, jobs, birthdays, siblings… dozens of things that never made it into the actual story, but which ended up contributing to some major plot points.

I figured out the ending. And it wasn’t either of the two that had seemed so unsatisfactory eight years before.

And then I rewrote it. I edited it. I tried to find similar books that were already published, whether they were similar because of the setting, the tone, the gender or orientation of the characters, etc. I read. I kept those books in mind as I edited and edited again.

My 148,000 word first draft was cut down to 109,000. And I queried. I got two partial requests on the first day… but then I got lots of rejections. Then, in January, an agent sent me an email that would change my book and my life. That agent was, of course, Jessica Negron, and I would eventually sign with her… but she rejected me first, told me that my book was too long and my opening not strong enough. And she was right. There was still a lot that could be cut. I think I cut over 50 instances of the word “that” between the second draft and the eleventh. I rewrote the opening. I rewrote it again. And then—long story short—she signed me.

At this point, there is hardly any of that first draft left, and my book is so much better for being gutted. But the characters are there. They’re still inhabiting this world that I love. They’re still living their lives that moved me as I was writing them… their lives that (I am sure. I have to be sure) will move someone else someday.

I started writing this book in 2005. I spent nine of those ten years NOT writing it. I pulled it apart and put it back together, sent it out into the world like my heart ripped out for all the world to see.

And I still love it. I’m not going to say that it’s the best book in the world. It’s not. Of course it’s not. I don’t know what the “best” book in the world IS… but it’s most definitely NOT mine.

This isn’t the best book in the world. It’s not perfect. But it’s better for having been represented by Jessica, and it’ll be better still someday in the hands of an agent who will take it all the way, in the hands of an editor who will help me walk that line between wonderfully unique, and universal enough to sell to people who may not know anything at all about the world in which it’s set.

It will be out there someday.

I believe that because, to paraphrase a character from my WIP (Yes, of course I’m working on something new, and super excited about it too!): There is nothing BUT to believe it. I believe in my book(s). End of story.