Coming of Age…Eventually

One of my favorite moments at an SF con was when someone asked Lois McMaster Bujold about some conspiracy theory or other, and she said something like, “The longer I live the more I realize that no grand conspiracy could ever work, because people just aren’t that competent.  There are no grown-ups, we’re all faking it, and no one is in charge.”

I tend to agree about the conspiracy part—how many people do you know who really keep secrets?  Yeah, a few, maybe…but what percentage?

However, I’m not so sure about the “there are no grown-ups” part.  Mind you, when young adults “come of age” they haven’t actually grown up—they just move to a station in life where they’ve got more freedom to make their own mistakes.  And that’s as it should be.

But for myself, I find there is an age when you’ve gained enough experience that you start feeling genuinely grown-up.  A bit less like you’re faking it all the time.  Or more accurately, even though life still throws you plot twists, you’ve learned enough about how the world and people work that you’re at least a bit better at coping with them.  I’ve named this phenomena “Crone Power,” because it was around my late forties or early fifties when I finally started to feel like I was beginning to get things figured out.  People who don’t understand the symbolism of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone don’t get this name…but since the biggest part of Crone Power comes from knowledge, I have no real problem with that.  By the time they get to be Crones, maybe they’ll have figured it out.  And it’s a very real power.  Your body pretty much sucks (menopause, arrrgh!) but your greater experience actually begins to compensate—and this is something nobody ever told me would happen, and I didn’t expect it.

So anyway, I think there is a time in life when we finally come of age…it’s just a lot later than people usually assume.

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari Bell is the author of many coming of age novels, and they’re all about teens and new adults—is she a hypocrite, or what?

Slam, Bam…Your Attitude’s Adjusted!

 

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16By Hilari Bell

I’ve been busy enough lately that I find myself wasting more time and energy than I should in stewing about all the things I’m not getting done.  Yes, I know that’s completely unproductive, but I do it anyway.

But yesterday I remembered a technique my brother taught me—it’s actually no more productive than stewing, but at least you end up feeling better.

You start your day with a list of things you want to accomplish.  And yes, even if it’s something you’ll probably do anyway, it still counts.  The things on your list can be daily habits you want to maintain, like exercise, or eating right, or even taking some time to read for pleasure.  They can be household chores, like getting the fridge cleaned out or fixing that broken latch.  They can certainly be work or work related tasks, like revising chapter 14 or writing your Scene13 blog.  (Slam!  I’ll explain that in a minute.)  It can be anything at all that you want to get done, today.

Then, as the day goes on, you reward yourself with Slam points for everything on the list that you do.  If you get one thing done, then your score for the day is a Slam.  And let’s face it, there are some days when a Slam is a pretty good score.  It may be kind of par for the course…but hey, you got par.  You got something done…so, Slam!  If you get two things done, you’ve got a Grand Slam day.  If you get three things crossed off your list, you’ve got a Super Slam!  Four gets you a SuperDuper Slam.  I’m not sure my brother had a category for five things accomplished…but if you’ve crossed five things off your list in one day, you’re probably feeling so good about yourself that you don’t need this system.

The Slam System is completely customizable—you can make your tasks as hard or as easy as you like, and include whatever you like.  I choose not to put walking my dog on the list, even though it’s exercise, because that’s pretty much automatic—but doing this blog absolutely counts!  However, I have to schedule it before I can count it as a point.  You could even elaborate on the system, so you get some other reward for your points at the end of the day.  But for me, just being able to say “I got a Super Slam today!” is enough.  And how much healthier is it, to end the day celebrating how much you’ve accomplished, instead fretting over how much you didn’t do?  So I’m going to spellcheck this and schedule it, and…Slam!

Hilari Bell writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens—and if she can get Scholar’s Plot (book 5 in the Knight & Rogue, series) out in November like she plans, it will be a Supercalifragalistic Slam.

 

In the Moment

Babylon 5 was one of the best SF TV series, ever. (Firefly was better, but then Firefly is better than anything.) It had a five year story arc, fabulous characters, and even if I think J. Michael muffed the ending a bit, you really ought to take a few months and watch the whole thing. You won’t regret it.

But one particular episode has always stuck with me—the ship’s doctor encounters a traumatic event and decides to go walkabout in the station, which is big enough that this is feasible. His religion advises this, he tells another character. Every now and then you’re supposed to go wandering through the world until you meet yourself—metaphorically, of course. Then you’re supposed to experience this moment of incredible cosmic understanding. The episode’s climax ends with him being knifed in the lower levels of the station, a vision of himself appears to him…and rips him up one side and down the other for running off from his job, for his failure to deal with the trauma, for everything he’s done wrong in his life. Himself tells him that he’s not even worth saving, and he drags his bleeding body toward the access port where he might find help, murmuring, “I want to do it again. I want another chance. I want to do it again.” The whole episode is full of the intelligent, humorous irony that made Babylon 5 so wonderful, but it’s the final line that stays with me. The doctor, mostly recovered, goes to dance with a woman in a bar, and tells another character, “The moments are all we have.”

I think the reason this lingers in my mind, is that the more I know the truer it gets. Life, real life, is a series of moments in which we exist, right now. The past is certainly there to be learned from, and hopefully remembered fondly. The future should certainly be planned for, and worked toward… But right now is it. Right now is all we’ve really got. So as I struggle to get my revision done, despite some business chaos and the dog coming down with giardia, I try to remember to take the moments as they come. I watch birds at the feeder, feel the cool breeze coming over the field beside our house, and cuddle my poor good dog on my lap. I make time for coffee with a friend, and help my mom with her computer. I grant myself time to go to a movie, or play a video game.

Honestly, I’m not sure whether the revision, and all the other things I “should” be doing are the better for this or not. But I know I’m better for it, saner and happier—at least, in this moment. And after all, the moments are all we have.

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens. Her most recent book is Thief’s War, the 4th book in her Knight & Rogue series—the book she’s currently revising is book 6!

The Jane Austen of SF: Connie Willis

When I read that the topic of the month was humor, one writer leapt to mind, and beat down all the others with ease.  For my money, Connie Willis’ comedies are the funniest, smartest books (and short stories) going.  I call her the Jane Austen of SF, because many of her books and stories are about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives…but funny…!  My favorite of her short stories, At the Rialto, is about a bunch of particle physicists holding their annual convention at the Rialto hotel in Hollywood.  You wouldn’t think particle physics could be that funny…and in point of fact, it’s not the physics that are funny, but the people.

That could actually be said of all Connie Willis’ comedy—and her tragedy, too, because she writes both.  (Fair warning—her tragedy still has her trademark humor and humanity, but she’s notorious for killing practically everyone.)  But even her comedy isn’t simply “funny.”  Like all satirists, she sees people with a clarity that is both scalpel sharp and hilarious.  Her time travel comedy, To Say Nothing of the Dog, is the best of her humorous novels, and it’s superb.  I was trying to think of one quote to introduce Connie Willis to those who haven’t yet found her books, and half a dozen leapt to mind.  But the one I’m going with comes, not from her fiction, but from one of the short story introductions she wrote in her story collection, Impossible Things:

When you tell people you write Science Fiction, they say, “Oh, space ship and aliens,” and then want to know your qualifications. … And it’s no good telling them that your qualifications are that you’ve seen some strange worlds all right, and you didn’t need a space ship to get to them.  They probably wouldn’t understand.

 I’ve sung in church choirs, had Mary Kay facials, put on garage sales.  I’ve been to the mall and the orthodontist and the second-grade Valentine’s party.  I’ve even been to Tupperware parties—only slightly stranger than Venusian eye-stalk bonding ceremonies—at which you participate in arcane contests (“How many words can you make out of ‘Tupperware’?”  “Warp, put, upper, rue…”  I always win.  It’s the only thing majoring in English is good for) and eat ritual preparations of Cool Whip and graham-cracker crumbs and purchase plastic boxes that burp.

 Science fiction?  Piece of cake.  (“Pert, rat, paw tarp, prate, weep, apt, true, wart, Ra…”)

 Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari Bell writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens—and while she’s not as funny as Connie Willis (who is?) her Knight and Rogue series is pretty amusing too.

By Swashbuckler, out of Buddy Cop Show…

 

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16The topic this month is “books outside your genre that have influenced you.”  But since I read a fair bit outside my genre, and practically everything has influence somewhere, I thought I’d talk instead about the two genres I squashed togeth…ah, melded seamlessly, to create my current series, the Knight & Rogue books.

I grew up in the heyday of buddy cop TV shows.  I Spy is the first I remember watching—in black and white, no less, and before you write me off as ancient I was very young when I Spy was on, and they may have been reruns…  OK, I’m ancient.  But it was a really good show, full of action and witty banter, resting on the solid foundation of a deep, warm—straight—male friendship.

(A lot of fans ask me if Fisk & Michael are gay—and if not, why not?  I wouldn’t mind if they were gay, but that’s not the genre tradition they come from.  And despite the everything-has-to-be-a-romance trend that has taken over YA these days, there are many non-romantic human relationships that are very important to the people involved in them.)

Man from Uncle, Simon & Simon, Starsky and Hutch (forget the movie, the TV show was good).  By the time Miami Vice came out, the buddy cop show was fading from TV screens, and the Lethal Weapon movies were probably its last gasp.  But it left an indelible impression on me, of how deeply partners and friends can care about each other.  And what a great combination banter and action make.

The other parent of my Knight & Rogue books was all the swashbucklers I read (and watched) at about the same time the buddy cop shows were on.  Captain Blood is Sabatini’s best known novel, but I liked The Black Swan best.  Then there’s Robin Hood—I think I was in third grade when I read Howard Pyle’s version, which is by far the best—Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel…  The swashbuckler perished even before the buddy cop show did, but they were fueled by the same appealing combination of wit and derring do.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the Knight & Rogue novels are the only ones I’ve written where the characters came into my head before the core of the plot—because for all their action and wit, it’s the friendship between the two protagonists that forms the core of a buddy cop show.  Putting that relationship into a swashbuckler setting felt utterly natural—witty banter from both it’s genre parents, thank you.  Then throw in just enough magic to get by with calling it a fantasy, and viola!  The Last Knight was born.  Rogue’s Home and Player’s Ruse followed shortly, and after a bit of a hiatus, Thief’s War has just emerged into the world, with two more siblings planned to follow.  And while they may not be my “best” books (I love all my novel-children, for different reasons and in different ways) I have to confess that these are the ones I like the best, because they are, quite simply, the most fun.

Hilari Bell has already shamelessly plugged her book, but you can buy Thief’s War at Amazon.com (hardcover and paperback, as well as ebook) BarnesandNoble.com and Smashwords.com, and it should be up on Apple’s I-Bookstore very shortly.

New Love Born of the Old—breathing new life into an old series

In some ways, maybe most ways, this isn’t a new love.  I’ve been a huge fan of Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco mysteries for some years.  I like historical, and I like wise-cracking P.I.s, so how could I resist a wise-cracking detective who’s also an ancient roman?  I really liked all those books…but after a while, though she kept the quality high, I could tell that Ms. Davis was beginning to wear out Falco and his wife Helena, as characters.  She took them through their first meeting, through romance, marriage, childbirth and the raising of a young family.  They went from poor and struggling to prosperous.  And while the mysteries were always good, I could tell that Davis was hitting the wall that most series hit—she was beginning to run out of things to do with those characters.

Since I love the series, I was saddened when the Falco books became fewer and farther apart, but as  writer I understand that after a while a character might not have much new to offer, and Falco and Helena had had a great run…

So I was absolutely thrilled when the first Flavia Albia mystery came out.  Flavia Albia was the adopted daughter that Falco and Helena picked up on one of their trips to

Britannia, a tough as nails slum brat with all kinds of hidden flaws and insecurities.  And what could be more natural than for the child to take over the father’s business when he retires?  The fact that the business is Falco’s ratty, disreputable work as an informer (ancient Roman version of a P.I.) and the child who takes it over is female just makes it all the more intriguing.  The first book also introduced a wonderful hero for Albia to fall for over the course of many books…and the next book, Enemies at Home, is coming out in April!  But best of all, is that Albia shares her father’s lovely, wry P.I. voice.

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favors for friends. Don’t work with relatives. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive.

“Will I never learn?” 

I can’t wait.

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16Hilari’s other love is her fantasy version of a buddy cop show, in which the 4th book, Thief’s War, is coming out at the end of the month!

Reinventing Myself—it’s scarier than it sounds

Bell_Thief_cover-12-16There’s a great Susan Elizabeth Phillips novel, Breathing Room, in which the heroine is a self-help guru whose fiancée embezzles all her money, and leaves her a laughing stock with her career in ruins.  She runs off to a romantic villa in Italy, gets involved with a fabulously handsome actor who always plays villains, and it’s a really fun book.

But the line that has always stuck with me is when she meets the actor’s agent, and he says: “If you were my client, I’d tell you to reinvent yourself.”

The heroine does just that, and ends up even more rich and famous than before.  (Not to mention marrying the handsome actor.)  But that line lingered in my mind…even before my own career hit the rocks.

the last chapter of my old career, as a well-published but mid-list author, the recession had hit the bookstores hard.  Borders died, and Barnes & Noble was in critical condition.  But when the recession struck, both of the only two large bookstore chains in the country responded by stocking only books they knew would sell in large numbers—the bestsellers and popular series—which left mid-list authors with very few sales for anything that came out in those years.

My first Knight & Rogue book, released before the recession, sold about as well as my other books—solidly mid-list.  But then the recession hit, and the big chains ordered only a handful of book 2, and an even smaller handful of book 3.  And with a bad sales record for books 2 and 3, there’s not a major publisher in the world who would put out books 4 through 6.

The agent I talked to after my old agent retired (great plot complication, if this was fiction and not my life) advised me to change my name, write something completely different, and start over from scratch.  And I suppose that’s one way to reinvent yourself.

(Fleeing to a romantic villa in Italy was out of the question, for a number of reasons, not least that I’ve never been as rich as the heroine of Breathing Room.)

But three out of four of my fan emails were from people asking for more Knight & Rogue books, I’d planned the series from the start for a six book story arc…and damn it, I wanted to write them.

So I decided to reinvent myself in a different way, by going mostly-indie.  I say mostly, because instead of bringing the book out entirely on my own I contacted a local micro-publisher, Courtney Literary.  Deb Courtney will handle all the technical aspects, and offered amazingly good terms…and the fourth Knight & Rogue book, Thief’s War, is coming out at the end of February.

Deb is giving me a high enough percentage that I can sell far fewer books than I did through HarperCollins and survive.  If I sell half as many books, I’ll thrive.  And if I sold almost as many books as I did going through a major publisher, I’d be doing great.  (I should mention that my idea of great is fairly modest.)  But I have no clue how many books I’ll sell.  None, zip, zero, nada.  There’s no way even to guess—so I’m going to find out the hard way, by doing it.

We’re all the hero of our own story, so I’ll shamelessly declare myself the heroine.  Here I am, past the dark moment, heading straight for the climax.  And I have no idea whether my story will have a happy ending, or turn into one of those dreary, pointless tragedies where the heroine has to go out and get a day job again.  (No handsome actors in sight.  Rats.)   This being real life, where climaxes don’t usually happen within a few chapters, I won’t even get a hint about how Thief’s War is selling until the beginning of August.

Reinventing yourself sounds so uplifting.  Downright inspiring.  But watching my savings drain away, I’ve learned that reinventing yourself is hard and scary—and I’ve now got a lot more respect for heroes, who launch themselves into the climax never knowing whether they’re going to win or lose.  (And maybe basing major financial decisions on novels isn’t the smartest thing to do, either.)  But I’m doing it…and in August, I’ll let you know how it looks like coming out.