Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What is Science Fiction? (& Win New Mike Resnick Western Steampunk!)

Read below for a chance to win the new Mike Resnick "Weird West" steampunk novel, Buntline Special, being released this week.

So exactly what is science fiction?  Each month, I write a column for Tor.com highlighting the month's releases in speculative fiction (sci fi, fantasy, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and Young Adult paranormal). It's called "Fiction Affliction," partly because I'm addicted to books, and partly because classifying what book goes in what genre is a royal pain.

To purists, sci-fi means spaceships and tech. Yet the genre today encompass much more: dystopian drama, alternative history, steampunk, etc.

If you asked me: "Do you like to read science fiction?" I'd say no because I don't like space stories. But there are some releases, technically science fiction, that I can't wait to get my hands on. One of them is today's giveaway!

The following Science Fiction books are coming out in December. For full descriptions, visit my Tor.com Fiction Affliction column.

December Sci-Fi Releases:

* The Buntline Special, by Mike Resnick (Pyr)
The year is 1881. The United States of America ends at the Mississippi River, and beyond lies the Indian nations, where the magic of powerful Medicine Men has halted the advance of the Americans east of the river. An American government desperate to expand its territory sends Thomas Alva Edison to the town of Tombstone to discover a scientific means of counteracting magic. Hired to protect this great genius: Wyatt Earp and his brothers. But there are plenty who would like to see the Earps and Edison dead. Riding to their aid are old friends Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson. Against them stand the Apache wizard Geronimo and the Clanton gang. Battle lines are drawn, and the Clanton gang sends for Johnny Ringo—but what shows up instead is The Thing That Was Once Johnny Ringo, returned from the dead and looking for a fight. Think you know what happened at the O.K. Corral? Think again, as five-time Hugo winner Mike Resnick takes on his first steampunk western.  TO WIN A COPY OF BUNTLINE SPECIAL, LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW. +1 for comment, +1 for blog follow, +1 for Twitter follow @Suzanne_Johnson, +1 for tweeting the contest!

* Love and  Rockets, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Kerrie Hughes (Daw)
An anthology of original stories tackling romance in space.

* Alien Tango, by Gini Koch (Daw)
Marketing manager Katherine “Kitty” Katt  investigates an experimental spacecraft that arrives at Kennedy Space Center and save her high school boyfriend.

* Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois (Tor)
Top writers put their own spin on Jack Vance's Dying Earth world, including Neil Gaiman, Elizabeth Moon, Dan Simmons, Kage Baker, and more.

* Back to the Moon, by Travis S Taylor and Les Johnson (Baen)
U.S. astronauts travel to moon to rescue Chinese counterparts.

* Atlantis and Other Places, by Harry Turtledove (Roc)
Collection of alternative history stories, set everywhere from Atlantis to the Rhine.

*The Keep, by F. Paul Wilson (Tor)
A re-release in trade paperback. Something's killing Nazis in Transylvania.

* Ghost Country, by Patrick Lee (Harper)
Scientist sees into the Doomsday future, and it isn't good. Can she change it?

* Age of Odin, by James Lovegrove (Solaris)
Washed-up soldier finds himself fighting alongside Norse pantheon.

* Engineering Infidelity, edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris)
An anthology of hard sci-fi stories.

So, what does "science fiction" mean to you?

(A quick bit of business: Congrats to Teri Anne for winning the new Marjorie M. Liu novel--I'll be contacting you shortly!  )

Monday, November 29, 2010

30 Giveaways, 30 Days: Win a Copy of Marjorie M. Liu's In the Dark of Dreams

First off, congrats to Kelly, whom random.org chose as the winner of the leather-bound Grimm's Fairy Tales!

Read below for today's giveaway as Holiday Happiness continues--I'll be choosing an entry on Tuesday for a copy of Marjorie M. Liu's brand new book, In the Dark of Dreams, which will be released tomorrow.

I just finished the book, and it's a great read. The heroine, Jenny, stumbles upon a boy merperson on the beach as a child, and has never forgotten him. The book takes her on a journey as she and the merman, Perrin (who's now a major hottie, of course), find each other again--with far-reaching consequences.

It made me think of events in our early lives that have a major impact on who we become. In In the Dark of Dreams, that chance encounter as a child led Jenny to become a marine biologist.

Sadly, I didn't run across any merchildren on a beach when I was a kid--I guess what impacted me was being read to every night until I was well past old enough to read for myself,  developing a love of stories, and finding friends among the characters in the books I read. (I mean, how many bowls of milk did I drink pretending to be Heidi?) As for the supernatural bent? Well, I can only blame Stephen King.

Now, for the fun stuff! To win a copy of the brand new book by Marjorie M. Liu, all you have to do is this:
For one point, leave a comment--If you want, tell me the most influential thing that happened to you as a kid
+1 for following the blog
+1 for following on Twitter @Suzanne_Johnson
+1 for tweeting the contest

Happy reading!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Greetings from Synopsis Hell

I'm talking about writing synopses today over at the Castles and Guns Blog--click on the link, come on over, and share the misery!

Check back here tomorrow for the winner of the leather-bound copy of Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales, and a great new giveaway. (Hint: It's Marjorie M. Liu, and it's brand new!)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Letter to RT Reviews

Not really blogging today--Saturday's my day off. But I'm avoiding my synopsis.

Dear RT Book Review:

Got my new issue yesterday and sat down to read your editors' picks for 2011. One of my favorite series is Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, but I still haven't had a chance to read this year's release Changes yet.

Now that you've told me the big surprise ending, I GUESS I DON'T NEED TO. How about a spoiler warning next time?! Pffftt.

By the way, there's still time to comment on the post below to win the leather-bound Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Friday, November 26, 2010

30 Days, 30 Giveaways Continues--Leather-Bound Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales

The Howlin' Holiday giveaways continue--one every weekday till Christmas Eve! Read on for how to win an amazing leather-bound copy of Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales. Y'know, all those Grimm's Fairy Tales got sanitized for the Disney set--the original tales, most of which I never heard as a kid, are very dark and were told for adults. Also, read on for the winners of the Writer's Tote and the big Carrie Vaughn giveaways!

Why the Brothers Grimm? Because I arrived at my niece's house in Atlanta for Thanksgiving yesterday to be greeted by her 8-year-old son, who wanted to show me the seven books he's written! He'd written them painstakingly in pencil on lined notebook paper, included a title page and an author bio at the end that went something to the effect of "Samuel is a boy, and he likes people to read his stuff."

Well, if that doesn't just sum it up.

The books are a series involving a family of pugs (and, no, he doesn't have a pug--I have no idea where that came from except he thinks they're cute). My favorite is "Zombie Pugs in Space." OMG. "The Pugs Save Christmas" was pretty cool too.

So, in honor of Sam, I'm offering The Brothers Grimm today--because "Zombie Pugs in Space" isn't ready for distribution yet.

Comment below to enter. You don't have to tell me, but I'd love to hear your favorite story as a kid. I was a big Peter Rabbit fan when I was very young, then The Secret Garden became my all-time favorite. As always, one entry for the comment, +1 for following @Suzanne_Johnson on Twitter, +1 for blog follower, and +1 if you tweet the contest or RT one of my tweets. Thanks, y'all! (PS -- Open internationally!)

Finally, congrats to KATE for winning the writer's tote and to MARISKA for winning the Carrie Vaughn set. I'll be emailing you shortly.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Atlanta-Bound

HAPPY THANKSGIVING! I'm heading for Hot-Lanta for the annual family pigfest. There's still time to comment below to win the first seven of Carrie Vaughn's Kitty Norville series (that's the whole series excerpt for No. 8)!

The "30 Giveaways in 30 Days" mega book giveaway resumes tomorrow, and I'll post the Kitty winner!

Gobble gobble!
Suz

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

30 Days, 30 Book Giveaways--Huge Carrie Vaughn Prize Pack

Ho, Ho, Ho!

I'm drowning in books over here--and I want to give some of them away! So, welcome to Holiday Heaven. For each weekday between now and Christmas Eve, I'll be pulling the name of a random commenter to win...well, you just have to check back and see. All will be paranormal--might be sci-fi, might be urban fantasy, might be fantasy, might be a YA paranormal. Some will be bestsellers, and some will be little-known favorites of mine. Some will be hot off the press; some will be classics. Most will be single titles, but you never know when I'll pull out a series. Check back each day and find out!

I'm starting off with a bang since tomorrow's Thanksgiving, so this will count as two days' giveaway...Today you can win the first SEVEN of Carrie Vaughn's great werewolf-named-Kitty series. This is the entire series to date except for the most recent, Kitty Goes to War.

You'll get:
--Kitty and the Midnight Hour
--Kitty Goes to Washington
--Kitty Takes a Holiday
--Kitty and the Silver Bullet
--Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
--Kitty Raises Hell
--Kitty's House of Horrors
A couple are gently read; most are new.

All you have to do to be entered is leave a comment between now and tomorrow morning. Extra point if you're a blog follower. Extra point if you're a Twitter follower @Suzanne_Johnson, extra point if you RT the contest. Use my Twitter name so I'll know about it. Tell me in your comment how many entries you get.

For today's comment, tell me if you have a kitty of your very own....or a puppy. I have an Irish Terrier named Shane O'Mac and a Rottweiler/Chow Chow/Retriever mix named Tanker. Happy reading!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Black Tuesday: Top 10 Holiday Gifts for Writers & A Giveaway!

 Black Friday approaches, although it's kind of gotten lost in "Open on Thanksgiving" and "Cyber-Monday." And if you want to win the cool tote bag pictured to the left, read on...

(And if one lives in the state of Alabama, the day after Thanksgiving has nothing to do with shopping and everything to do with the annual brawlfest known as the Iron Bowl, when bitter rivals Auburn University and the University of Alabama meet in football. I graduated from Bama and work at Auburn, so I'm seriously screwed, no matter how that goes down.)

So, let's get to shopping early and consider what gifts we can buy for our writer friends (or ourselves, if our friends and family insist on going the sock-underwear-toaster route). In no order:

1. The Antique Typewriter Key Bracelet. Face it--computer keys aren't nearly this cool. $49.99.

2. The Book Purse. Okay, these are kinda pricey for my budget--about $120--but I'm trying to think how to make one of my own.

3. The Liquid Bookmark. Really good for writers of vampire and other blood-sucking entities. $24 but worth it for the bizarro factor.

4. The Charlotte Bronte Writing Journal, for making all those character notes and keeping your book diaries. $16.95.

5.  The Jane Austen Action Figure. Lounges around and produces clever quips. Oh, wait. You have to do that. She'll watch. $11.95.

6. Book Lovers' Trivial Pursuit. Because we're nerdy and always did best on the literature questions in regular Trivial Pursuit. So now we can kick ass and take names and spell them correctly. About $40.

7. Godiva Chocolate Liqueur. Writers love chocolate, and writers love alcohol--it's a proven fact. So why not combine the two? Guaranteed to bring on the muse, or a nap. $39.

8. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, by Donald Maas. Skip the book and go straight to the workbook. I swear to buy one of these to write in and think through before starting any novel, ever again. $13.49.

9. The Book Slut T-Shirt. Because we know who and what we are. $14.99.

10. The Threat Tote Bag. Our families and friends fear it will happen. And it could. Make my day, punk. $17, or WIN ONE HERE!

To be entered to win the tote bag, tell Santa what you most want for Christmas that's writing or book related. I'll draw a name at random on Friday. Before the Iron Bowl. (Roll Tide! War Eagle--Hey!)

Monday, November 22, 2010

My Five Best NaNoWriMo Coping Tips (aka Punching Out a Fast First Draft)

I'm having a weird NaNo year, since I'm working on revisions instead of drafting from scratch. But I did it last year and passed my 50K mark. So for all my online pals pushing through the last week of National Novel Writing Month, my five favorite "Speed It Up" tips for cranking out a craptacular first draft (because all first drafts kinda suck, yes?)

1. PLAY THE 'ALBATROSS' CARD. I'm the world's worst to be speeding along in my manuscript and stumble over a bit of research that needs doing or a factoid I've forgotten from an earlier chapter. By the time I've stopped to look it up, I've either lost my momentum or gotten sidetracked by something shiny on the Internet. What color was Grace's car back in chapter two? What year did the Andrew Jackson statue get placed in Jackson Square? Don't stop to look up that info. In its place, type ALBATROSS. Example: Grace scanned the parking lot for her ALBATROSS. After NaNo is over, do a word search for ALBATROSS and spend a couple of hours filling in the blanks.
2. MAKE A FOUR-SENTENCE CHAPTER SKETCH. As you begin a chapter, take time out to make a mini-outline (yeah, I know, pantsers--it won't kill you). Just write down three or four sentences of what is going to happen in that chapter: "Grace goes to the mall. She misses the last bus. She calls Jack for help even though it sticks in her craw. She chickens out before leaving message and decides to walk home. A car follows her."  THEN write your sentence, knowing where it's supposed to go. It might take a detour along the way, and that's okay as long as you end up in the same place.

3. DIG OUT THE KITCHEN TIMER. Shut down Tweet Deck, e-mail, and any other online distraction of choice. Set your egg timer for 15 or 20 or 30 minutes (I usually do 20), and do a sprint. Note your word count when you begin the sprint, and then afterward. Try to "best" your word count each sprint. (Yes, you can check your e-mail before you start another one.) If you're competitive like me, the drive to improve your own word count will be an incentive. You can also do "word wars" with an online buddy. My crit partner and I often do them, instant messaging before and after to see who "won." We both win.

4. WRITE IN SCENES. I always have some scenes floating around in my head as I'm writing--it's what goes in between those scenes that slows me down sometimes. Don't worry about the transitions. Write the scenes that are already playing in your head, either in separate documents, or in your main manuscript separated by asterisks. You can always shuffle the scenes and fill in the transitions later.

5. MINIMIZE THE PRESSURE. Don't look at your word counts. No, really. Don't look at them. Just write fast and hard until November 30, and see where you end up.

Remember, the world will not end if you don't get 50K by November 30. It really and truly won't. And no matter how many words you get, it will be more than if you hadn't tried. 


So, are you doing NaNo? How's it going? Why are you reading blogs instead of writing (but I'm glad you're here!)?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Love Scenes: I'm Too Sexy for My....Thesaurus

I'm cross-posting over at the Castles and Guns blog today--comment here or there!

A month ago, I would have sworn that writing a synopsis was the most painful exercise a writer could go through. I don't mind writing blurbs or overviews--they can be sharp and provocative and teasing. The synopsis has to boil 98,000 words into a few pages, hitting all the major plot points, wrapping up the ending--and somehow STILL be sharp and provocative. Just kill me now.

For the past week, I longed to write a synopsis. Would have welcomed a synopsis. Because I found something worse--my ultimate writing nightmare. The love scene.

I have a voice, and it is not the voice of a poet. I don't write flowers and sunshine. When I entered my first book in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest and made it to the quarterfinals in 2009, I got a Publishers Weekly review. The reviewer called my writing "clean and sturdy prose," a euphemism for straightforward and non-lyrical. I write in short, choppy sentences. I describe things in straightforward ways. I go light on simile and metaphor. I abhor adjectives. Blame it on the journalistic training, or a low bullshit tolerance.

Which brings us to love scenes. As a reader, I like a good love scene. But really, you have Tab A, Slot B, and a few secondary portals, and they can all fit together in only so many ways. I know that what makes love scenes work is the emotion behind them, but the author still has to WRITE them. 

So first there's the issue of what to call the tabs and slots without resorting to Heaving-Bosom-and-Throbbing-Manhood Syndrome. I prefer straightforward names, but I'm not writing erotica--paranormal romance is a different animal, and some of those words probably won't fly. My list of what qualifies as Purple Prose is extremely long. I'm running out of words.

There's also the Ridiculous Synonym Syndrome. "Groan" is a good word, as is "moan." A little breathlessness is cool. But how many groans and moans can one have in a ten-page scene without being absurd? And, I'm sorry, but my characters cannot mewl or bellow. There's just no dignity in sounding like a helpless kitten or a raging bull. I'm running out of words.

Just kill me now.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why Urban Fantasy Heroes Come from Dysfunctional Families

I'm giving the female lead (heroine's such a romancey word, yes?) in my current WIP a makeover. She has to be undamaged enough to move into a relationship quickly but she also has to be enough of a loner that, should she (ahem) go missing for a few weeks, nobody much will miss her.

So I began looking at other urban fantasies and PNRs with strong UF elements to see what type of backgrounds produced the lead characters.

There are a LOT of dysfunctional families out there in the UF/PNR world. Here are a couple of theories why, based on nothing more than why I need my own characters to be family-challenged.

* Nothing brings out a neurosis like family. And for characters to be engaging, they need hot-button personal issues that factor into whatever hardass neurotic they turn out to be.
* Family issues get in the way of plots. Unless you're Rachel Morgan and your family becomes part of the plot, family members get in the way and muck things up.

Does the literature support these theories? I'll look at just the most widely known ones because I'm too lazy to do a lot of research I need to get back to revisions. 

--Anita Blake. Anita's mom died in an accident when she was very young, and she was raised by her strict Catholic grandmother who didn't think much of her skills at raising the dead. Estranged from granny, and always dealing with dead-mommy issues.

--Mercy  Thompson. Mercy's dad, a Native American from whom she gets her skinwalker abilities, died when she was young (or did he just disappear into the rodeo world?). Her mom then married a whitebread kinda guy and had some whitebread kids, so Mercy always felt like the ugly duckling with her dark hair and skin. She's still on speaking terms with her mom, but doesn't see her often.

--Harry Dresden. Harry's mom died young and he was raised by his magician father, who then also died young. He was taken in by a wizard mentor for training, things went sour, he ended up having to kill said mentor, and barely escaped the White Council death penalty. This backstory plays out over the early books, but the trauma of his mother and the secrets surrounding her death (mommy issues), and especially his rocky history with the council, are major issues for Harry.

--Sookie Stackhouse. Well, Sookie's parents died when their car was swept off a bridge, so she and Jason were raised by their grandmother (who conveniently gets knocked off in book one--I'm not worried about spoilers because, really, has anyone NOT read at least the first book of the series?). So Sookie has parent issues, which factor into the later books as she learns more about the source her psychic skills. She was also molested at an early age by her only other relative, a great-uncle. Vampire Bill took care of that pesky loose thread. 

--Rachel Morgan. Kim Harrison's female lead is sort of a lone ranger in the genre. She's on good terms with her mother and her brother, for the most part. Mom lives nearby. Daddy issues come up during the series, though, and mom's got some problems that Rachel is always having to fix.

--Harry Potter. Harry's parents died protecting him from the evil Lord V--oops--He Who Must Not Be Named. It drives the whole series. 

--Bella Swann. Bella's a child of divorce. She simpers her way to live with awkward dad so ditzy mom can enjoy her new hubby. Bella's struggling to find a personality and instead finds glittery vampires.  

--Wrath. Each of JR Ward's Black Dagger boys has issues out the wazoo, but Wrath is the classic. He's the last purebred vampire in the world, and has all kinds of guilt hangups because his father shut him up in an air duct of sorts when the killers came. He watched his parents die, then blamed himself because he was too weak and small to save them, which made him become the Boy Who Lived. *Oops, having a Harry Potter flashback.* 

Who else? Who are some of your favorite heroes or heroines, and did they come from happy, stable homes? Have you written a hero or heroine who has dysfunctional family issues?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Classic Urban Fantasy Opening Lines (& We Have a Winner!)

Thanks to those of you who participated in yesterday's quiz of opening lines. Four of you--Teri Anne, K Giardina,  DonnaS and Riley--got them all right! (Tell the truth--Amazon, yes?) Scroll down for our winner.
 
Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn't change that. Laurell K. Hamilton's first Anita Blake book, Guilty Pleasures. I re-read this again recently, and it has aged well.

I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.  The first Sookie Stackhouse book by Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark. Love this series, especially books 3-9. This opening line still doesn't grab me (but then again, my own first line doesn't grab me, thus my fixation on opening lines right now). 

I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn't sound right. The first Harry Dresden book, Jim Butcher's Storm Front. One of my all-time favorite series that has still not started to fizzle. This isn't the strongest first two sentences, and to be fair I should have included the first couple of paragraphs, which sets up the rest of the scene  

I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oiland it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. Sigh. Patricia Briggs' first Mercy Thompson book, Moon Called. Love love love this series. The first UF series that has made me cry.
 
Private eyes come in all shapes and sizes, and none of them look like television stars. This is the opening to Something in the Nightside, the first in Simon R. Green's Nightside series. It's not everyone's cup of tea--it's like Dresden on steroids with a dollop of some hallucinogen. It's also on my "must-read" list, which probably explains a lot.
 
I stood in the shadows of a deserted shop front across from The Blood and Brew Pub, trying not to be obvious as I tugged my black leather pants back up where they belonged. This is pathetic, I thought, eyeing the rain-emptied street. I was way too good for this. Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking, the first in the Rachel Morgan/Hallows series. I love this opening graph. I have to admit that, like with the Sookie series, I started this series two or three times before pushing through and finally getting hooked. Still haven't forgiven her for one twist in the story, though. Note to self: Readers hold long grudges; remember this when tempted to kill someone off. 
 
There were only two kinds of people in our town. “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectionately classified our neighbors. The opening to Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's YA bestseller Beautiful Creatures. It's an awesome read and passed my YA test: it made me forget I was reading YA. A delightfully Southern gothic urban fantasy whose main characters just happen to be teenagers. 
 
I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves. Opening to another YA bestseller, Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. I'm never quite able to forget these are YA because the emo factor is big, but the author's language is absolute poetry.  
 
I sat at a table in my shadowy kitchen, staring down a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit. Any book that starts out with a character guzzling Boone's Farm has gotta be cool. This is Ilona Andrews' Magic Bites. The Kate Daniels series is one of those that didn't grab me right off the bat, but I've been told (ordered, yelled at) that if I push through, I'll fall in love with it.
 
If I had been a rational human being, I would have had a normal job and I never would have gotten involved with any of them. Love Marta Acosta's Casa Dracula series--this is the opening to Happy Hour at Casa Dracula. These books are a whiff of fresh air in the days of dark, dark urban fantasy, combining sexy vampires with great humor.
 
I don’t like what Operation Iraqi Freedom has done to me. I went to the war a soldier. I came back a vampire.  I adore this beginning--it's Mario Acevedo's first Felix Gomez book, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats. The series is still sitting in my TBR pile. Anyone want to give me a nutshell review? 
 
Gil brought lawn chairs to the cemeterynot stylish Adirondacks, not even semi-confortable camp chairs (the ones with those handy little cup holders). No. He dug up some cheap plastic folding chairs, the kind that burrow into your leg flesh like leeches. Another great opening from a guy's-guy book, Mark Henry's Road Trip of the Living Dead. I stalk Mark on Twitter. I highly recommend it! 
 
Had the man in front of her not already been dead, Chess probably would have tried to kill him. Damned ghosts. The opening from Stacia Kane's new series that looks like it's going to be great. The book is Unholy Ghosts.
 
And now, thanks to a pull from Random.org, congratulations to (drum roll):
 
DonnaS 
 
For the copy of the new urban fantasy anthology edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois, Songs of Love and Death: All Original Tales of Star-Crossed Love. This looks like a great book! Congrats, Donna!
 
Now, off to work on my own opening lines. What's the opening line of the book you're reading right now?


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Opening Lines in Urban Fantasy: A Quiz & A Giveaway

I've been wrestling with the first paragraph of my WIP for days (well, okay, months). I'm not happy with it. I've rewritten it at least thirty times. Opening lines are important. 


So, without further ado, a quiz for you today: Match the following opening lines with the author and book. I'll post the answers tomorrow morning, and choose among the entries (you don't have to get them all right, but at least try!) for a copy of the most awesome urban fantasy anthology I've seen in a while: Songs of Love and Death: All Original Tales of Star-Crossed Love, with new stories from the likes of Jim Butcher, Jacqueline Carey, Neil Gaiman, Yasmine Galenorn, Marjorie M. Liu, Linnea Sinclair, Carrie Vaughn...the list goes on. It was released on Monday, Nov. 16.


THE OPENERS
1. Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn't change that.
2. I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar. 
3. I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn't sound right.
4. I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oiland it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around.
5. Private eyes come in all shapes and sizes, and none of them look like television stars.
6. I stood in the shadows of a deserted shop front across from The Blood and Brew Pub, trying not to be obvious as I tugged my black leather pants back up where they belonged. This is pathetic, I thought, eyeing the rain-emptied street. I was way too good for this.
7. There were only two kinds of people in our town. “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectioinately classified our neighbors.
8. I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves.
9.  I sat at a table in my shadowy kitchen, staring down a bottle of Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade, when a magic fluctuation hit.
10. If I had been a rational human being, I would have had a normal job and I never would have gotten involved with any of them.
11. I don’t like what Operation Iraqi Freedom has done to me. I went to the war a soldier. I came back a vampire.
12. Gil brought lawn chairs to the cemeterynot stylish Adirondacks, not even semi-confortable camp chairs (the ones with those handy little cup holders). No. He dug up some cheap plastic folding chairs, the kind that burrow into your leg flesh like leeches.
13. Had the man in front of her not already been dead, Chess probably would have tried to kill him. Damned ghosts.

THE AUTHORS
A. Kim Harrison, Dead Witch Walking
B. Ilona Andrews, Magic Bites
C. Mark Henry, Road Trip of the Living Dead
D. Laurell K. Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures
E. Stacia Kane, Unholy Ghosts
F. Jim Butcher, Storm Front
G. Marta Acosta, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula
H. Patricia Briggs, Moon Called
I. Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
J. Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl, Beautiful Creatures
K. Simon R. Green, Something from the Nightside
L. Maggie Stiefvater, Shiver
M. Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark

Go forth and answer! As always, an extra entry if you're a Twitter follower @Suzanne_Johnson, yet another if you RT the contest, and another if you're a blog follower.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Five Things I Hate About Being an Author

Okay, and a little love too. Cross-posting from the Write in the Shadows blog. Feel free to comment either place!

Being an author is a mixed bag, and I’m not sure I could ever top Dawn’s McClure's great list (see it at the WITS link, above). But here goes, in no particular order:

What I hate about being an author:

1) I used to work 40-50 hours a week on a day job, then come home and talk to friends, watch TV, go to movies, and read a lot. Now, I work 40-50 hours a week on a day job, then come home and work four or five more hours a day writing. I feel as if I Work. All. The. Freaking. Time. I enjoy it, but: Dude, I missed the entire final season of LOST. I mean, really.

2) The synopsis. Nothing more needs to be said about such an evil entity.

3) The need for shameless self-promotion. Really. I feel like a publicity whore. Where in all the networking and platforming and tweeting and swimming and diving (well, you know what I mean) does the writing take place? And if I’ve gotta market, can’t I, like, interview male cover models or something?
 
4) The first draft. Nothing more needs to be said about something so ridiculously painful.
 
5) The glacial pace at which things happen in the publishing industry. OMG. I could hand-print ten-thousand copies of my first book and hand-deliver each one individually while traveling by pack mule before that freakin’ book launches.

But for the bad and the ugly, there are mitigating goods:

1) Networking. Writers, agents, and editors are incredibly supportive, usually willing to commiserate, and often available to help procrastinate. And you’ve gotta love that.

2) Having complete strangers rip my work to shreds has helped me develop a thicker skin that I’m sure will help me someday. I guess. Ouch.

3) Learning about a new industry is always interesting, and book publishing is a world unto itself. And that was before all the rules started changing.

4) There’s always the hope that the next manuscript, the next big idea, will be The One. Writers are optimists; we have to be. And the anticipation is an amazing rush.

5) It’s cool to be an author. I mean really.

Monday, November 15, 2010

To Pseudonym or Not to Pseudonym--That is the Question

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous numbers of other people who have the same name and who might or might not be writers, Or to take arms and declare thyself with a DBA Fake Name... Oh, sorry. I was channeling Shakespeare for a moment.

Shakespeare didn't need a pseudonym. His name wasn't Smith or Jones....or Johnson.

I thought about adopting a pseudonym when I first began this publishing journey. The reasons to do it--privacy, and the chance to sound really cool--didn't seem to outweigh the hassles. I have enough characters yammering at me in my head without having to decide which one of me they're yammering at. Plus, I've met folks online and only found out a year later the name I'd been calling them wasn't even their real name. If I email you and don't call you by name--it's because I have no idea what to call you. It's kind of annoying.

BUT (you knew there was going to be a BUT), then I began working on a website. And turns out I can't have the nice and simple www.suzannejohnson.com as my website unless I'm willing to pay mightily for it. A "domain name broker" owns it and wants me to pay $1,300 in order to get it. Can you hear me laughing from Alabama, you jackasses?

Like other authors, I have Google Alerts send alerts on my name to me via email. About three-quarters of them are actually about me, which I figure is pretty good. But another Suzanne Johnson is a sculptor in Michigan. Another is by-god vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, and I wish I had her money. Another owns a catering business in Temecula Valley. And still another wears little Harry Potter glasses and teaches psychology at a small college in New York state. It was too depressing to look further. And this morning, I got an email off my website from another Suzanne Johnson who was--you guessed it--looking to see what others with HER name were up to. She said she might buy my books. She should.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, the surname Johnson held onto its #2 most-common-name spot. Of the 1,857,160 Americans named Johnson, reckon how many are named Suzanne? And I should note that "Johnson" is only beat out by the name "Smith." My mother's maiden name was Smith. Doing genealogy in my family is a bitch.
 

Anyway, I've trodden too far down the publishing path to change now, so I'll live with what I have. In the meantime, I'm at http://www.suzanne-johnson.com. Bah.

Any of you taken a pseudonym and regret it? Or not taken one and wish you had?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reading While Writing--Undue Influences?

I'm over at the Castles and Guns blog today, talking about my towering TBR pile and how reading other people's novels when I'm actively writing my own can unconsciously influence me.


Do you read only outside your genre when you're writing? Or not read at all? Or does it not matter?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Genre Hopping--Jack of All Trades, Master of None?

Last night, I picked up a copy of The Writer magazine and read an article advocating that authors dip their toes into different genres. Write a mystery, it said. Write a thriller, a memoir, a science fiction tale. Try some short stories. Feed your muse.

"Yikes," I thought. "My muse hasn't even mastered the genre I've chosen to BE my genre yet."

"Yikes," I thought a few seconds later. "Who the heck has TIME to write in different genres if you're really trying to make this craft your career?"

Usually, when I think of authors dipping into different genres, I think of someone like Steffie Hall, who wrote category romances for Loveswept for years, but got tired of writing love scenes. She wanted to write more action, more humor. She took 18 months off, thought about what she wanted to do with her writing career, and began writing humorous suspense stories with a dash of romance and a heroine named Stephanie Plum. Oh yeah, and went back to her name: Janet Evanovich. We all know that turned out okay for her.

Or take Jessica Bird, who wrote nice little Silhouette romances for a few years until her career kind of stalled out. She had an idea for a dark story about the last purebred vampire on earth--a far cry from her novels like The Billioinaire Next Door or A Man in a Million. She wrote the first in her proposed series on this vampire, called it Dark Lover, named her band of vampire warriors the Black Dagger Brotherhood, and published them under the name J.R. Ward. She did okay with that, too.

They stayed in romance, but took a wildly different turn. Both of these authors had hit walls in their writing careers, though, and were looking for different genres both for fulfillmenet and, in JR Ward's case, to revive a career.

That seems to me a different issue than genre hopping as an experiment in writing--or it would have a couple of months ago. My first two books were urban fantasy "with romantic elements" and the one I'm revising is paranormal romance "with urban fantasy elements." I hardly considered these separate genres until I starting the PNR and realized just how very different they are. The base story stays the same, but the focus shifts big-time.

I think the genre hopping I see most is between high fantasy and urban fantasy. Jim Butcher hit the big time with his (oh-so-fabulous) Harry Dresden series, but he writes the Codex Alexa series in high fantasy. Patricia Briggs, who writes both the Mercy Thompson and Alpha & Omega urban fantasy series (set in the same world), also writes high fantasy Sianim series. There's Nora Roberts/JD Robb in the romance/suspense hop. Daniel Abraham/M.L.N. Hanover in the high fantasy/urban fantasy hop. Who else?

Then there's the whole Young Adult genre, which is smokin' hot these days. Popular adult urban fantasy authors such as Rachel Caine who completed her popular Weather Warden series for adults earlier this year (a new series starts soon), and just released her ninth in her arguably even more popular YA series, The Morganville Vampires.

Me? If I were to dip a toe outside my urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, it would be to try my hand at a dystopian sci-fi. 

What do you think? Is genre hopping best for when you've established yourself in one genre and have the time and the name recognitioin to hop? Should you use separate names for your separate genres? Or is genre hopping best saved for reviving a stalled-out writing career? Any of you writing in multiple genres?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Revising 101: My Top Tips

I have a confession to make. I find writing painful. Birthing words is hard labor. 

But I LOVE revising. Am I weird, or do others of you feel the same way?
  
There are different levels of revisions, of course. The hardest ones are where you blow your entire manuscript apart and re-plot. I've been doing that recently. Still enjoyable in a BDSM kind of way (just tie me up and beat me, why doncha?) but intense.
 
Then there are the really fun revisions, where you get to go back and polish and elaborate and dig deeper. Here are a few of the tips and techniques I've found useful, in no particular order.

1) BACKLOAD YOUR SENTENCES. This is an interesting exercise, and it simply means to look at your sentences and put the most impactful words at the end. Look at this sentence: “Mud sucked at his shoes as he stepped back to view the car’s position.” What are the strongest words in the sentence? I’d say “mud sucked at his shoes.” So how about flipping it: “He stepped back to gauge the car’s position, the thick red mud sucking at his shoes.” That’s not the strongest example in the world, but you get the idea.

2) TEST YOUR MAN’S MANLINESS. Many of us are women trying to write in a male POV; a man writing in a woman’s POV would have the same issues. Does your hero really sound like a guy, or is he a girl with a few extra appendages? Copy and paste one of your chapters into the Gender Genie and see which gender it thinks your POV character is. It’s not a perfect test, but it’s a nice little gauge to use (and free). Also works if you have a kickass heroine you want to test as masculine.

3) MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS CONSISTENT. I actually blogged about this yesterday at my–using Enneagrams, a personality typing system, to test against your character to see if he or she is behaving in a consistent manner. The theory is that there are nine core personalities (and infinite variables within the nine, of course). By typing your character’s core personality, you can see what might be most likely to push his buttons or turn him on–-or win his heart. It’s a fascinating system.

4) EXPLODE YOUR PARAGRAPHS. This is a great way to force yourself to take another look at your writing from a different viewpoint. To see if it works for you, take a paragraph from an emotionally charged section of your manuscript, and copy and paste it onto a blank screen. Now, blow it apart. Separate the sentences with a few lines between them so you’re reading each sentence in isolation. Can it be tweaked to increase the emotional intensity? Does it say anything about your character or scene–could it be added to? If it doesn’t say anything, could it be cut? Between that sentence and the next , could some emotional intensity be added with just a word, or a detail, or a new sentence?
 
 5) FIND YOUR WORD ECHOES. Run your chapters through the AutoCrit wizard. I actually bought a year's membership in this site so I could get a bigger variety of "critiques," but there are three free ones. Copy and paste a couple of chapters (up to 7k at a time, I think) and you can get reports on overused words, repeated phrases and sentence length variation. 
 
 6) READ IT ALOUD. The ear catches a lot of things the eye misses: repeated words and phrases, sentence pacing, etc. And by forcing the eye to slow down as you read, you can catch more typos. 

7) READ THE LAST SENTENCE OF EACH CHAPTER. If it ends with the POV character going to bed or falling asleep, change it--unless you want the reader to fall asleep too. Nothing screams "you can put this book down now" like a sleeping hero.
 
So those are my favorite revising tips. Tell me some of yours!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Character Types: Using the Enneagram to Create Your Hero

If you've ever spent any time in the corporate setting, you've probably been asked to participate in a personality typing system. Over the years, I've done Myers-Briggs a couple of times (I'm an introvert-intuition-thinking-judging type), the True Colors system (I'm a green introvert--the big-picture type, with a secondary anal-retentive gold); and, most recently, the StrengthsQuest system (I'm an strategic-ideator-achiever).


But until a few days ago, I'd never seen the Enneagram system, or thought about how a typing system might help me flesh out my characters. But I think the Enneagram is going to be a great tool for me--especially with my pesky heroines. (And explain to me, if you can, why I have NO problem developing fully-formed heroes but my heroines always give me fits? Shouldn't it be the other way around?)

Basically,  Enneagrams are based on the idea that all of us fall into one of nine base personality types. By knowing our (or our characters') general type and subtype, we can better predict how they will react to a given situation, or what will give them the most conflict. 

How does this help us with fictional characters?

First, if our character (my heroine, for example) is not clearly in one of the nine personality types, I probably need to do some more work on her. Second, by knowing that my hero is a Type 1, for example, I know what my heroine needs to do to push his buttons and also how he is likely to react. I can tell what his biggest issues are to overcome.

In a nutshell, the types are:
1) The Reformer. My WIP hero is a reformer. He's a perfectionist. He wants to make things better. He takes the weight of the world on his shoulders. He's very hard on himself, and can be hard on others. When he fails, he beats himself up about it.


2) The Helper. This character wants to help and thinks by doing so he'll be loved and accepted. She needs to be needed. She can also lay on the guilt if she's not appreciated.


3) The Achiever. Just what you'd expect--this type wants to win, to succeed. He's very focused on image and what people think of him.


4) The Individualist. A nonconformist who works at her nonconformity and likes the attention it gets her. Drawn to beauty and self-exploration.


5) The Investigator. A private person who likes to think, observe, try to make sense out of life.


6) The Loyalist. Questions everything, and is a worrier. Doesn't like surprises. Likes to plan things in advance. Prefers the truth, even if it hurts, rather than false optimism. Can be either an introvert, fearful of things, or put on a facade of aggression to cover fear and worry. My WIP heroine is an aggressive 6.


7) The Enthusiast. The positive thinker, ready for risk and adventure without a lot of planning They like to be around people who are happy and spontaneous.


8) The Challenger. Likes to be in charge, and wants to control themselves and others. Can't stand ambivalence. Likes action and directness.


9) The Peacemaker. Likes to avoid conflict. They appear easygoing but are mostly seeking out comfort, consistency. They don't take to change well. 


Of course, these are nutshell versions. Entire books have been written on the Enneagram character types--in fact, I just bought one :-)


Have you ever used a typing system to help form your characters? Do you spot some of your characters in these descriptions? (You can find out a lot online by doing a search for enneagrams.) And me? I'm a 6.  Whether that's good or bad, I'm not sure. Probably a little of both.

Remember, every comment this week puts you in the Friday drawing for a copy of Becoming Your Own Critique Partner. Extra entry for Twitter followers @Suzanne_Johnson and blog followers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

POV: Get That Head Hopping Outta Here

Continuing with a week of writing about, well, writing this week. Yesterday, I ranted about $10 words and purple prose. Today, it's point of view: Who's speaking all that non-purple prose we're writing?
 
 [Commercial Interruption: At the end of the week, I'll be drawing a name from commenters for a copy of Becoming Your Own Critique Partner. One entry per comment each day, plus an extra for Twitter followers @Suzanne_Johnson. And another extra if you tweet it--use my Twitter name and I'll see it. ]

Okay. I have to 'fess up here. I'm a bit of a POV Nazi. I love POV shifts by chapter or by scene break, but if you shift POVs on me within a scene or -- God forbid and call in the Marines -- within a freakin' paragraph, I will close your book and never pick it up again.


Drives. Me. Nuts.


I took an online workshop a year or so ago, and began shuddering as soon as the second lesson was posted. The instructor--a published author--said that in romance it's important to shift back and forth between the hero and heroine's POV within each scene so that the reader knows what both are thinking.
 

I know what I was thinking. I was thinking I wouldn't be taking any more workshops from that particular person and had to refrain from challenging her to a public POV duel in the streets of Cyberville.
 

Head-hopping. Gah.
 

I started writing in first-person, and find it's still the easiest way to get into a deep POV and stay there. But it has a lot of narrative limitations to work around. My current WIP is in third, with POV shifting among five characters. Admittedly, it's a bit like a juggling act but so far it's working, and the POV shifts occur either with chapter breaks or scene breaks and only when the story demands it. 

And sometimes, to make sure my POV is as deep as I can make it, I'll write a scene in first person through that character's eyes and then shift it to third person. It's a good way to make sure your character's distinctive voice is coming through. 

So, talk to me about POV. Does shifting point of view within a scene bother you? Have you found anyone who could pull it off well? Am I off base here--go ahead, you can say it. POV challenges you've faced? 



Monday, November 8, 2010

Ten-Dollar Words vs. $2 Words Vs Purple Words--& A Giveaway!

First off, comment on today's blog post for a chance to win a copy of Becoming Your Own Critique Partner, by Janet Lane Walters! I'll draw on Friday, Nov. 12.

My crit partner and I were IMing last night while we were supposed to be writing (coughs) and talking about word choices: specifically, when to wax poetic, and when to say "hell" instead of "nether realms of the satanic provinces."


Admittedly, both Critter and I are journalists by training so we're hardwired to use $2 words. But I did get that pesky degree in Victorian literature, so I always fear there might be some nether realms of satanic provinces lurking in my manuscript.


To check it out, I plugged my WIP (all 97,000 words of it) into the Word Frequency Calculator and did an analysis of the words I used, subtracting things like "and" and "the."


WFC found that I used 7,195 words in my 97K document. Of those, 5,061 were unique words, or used only twice. Yay! That's pretty good, I think, because lesions, peephole, roadkill, and sociopath probably only deserve one use in a novel. It also means I have some serious word repetitions so I need to go back and see what they are and where to fix them.


Because words matter. Here's my take on it. If a word is unique enough to evoke an emotion or clarify a mood, it's a perfect word. If a word is so unique that it draws attention to itself, I don't want to use it. I want people to read my story, not marvel at my impressive vocabulary.


Then there are the purple words. You know which ones I mean. They're the particular thorn-patch of romance writers because there are only so many ways to say "breasts" without being repetitious or sliding down the slippery slope of creamy mounds and heaving bosoms. And, really, can ANYBODY read phrases like creamy mounds and heaving bosoms without much eye-rolling? (Or would that be lust-driven swiveling of one's dark and passionate windows to the soul?)


So, talk to me about word choice. When you're writing, what process do you use in deciding on the words that make it to the final manuscript? When you're reading, does flowery or dense wording help set the mood for the story or distract you from it? When it comes to purple, how much is too much?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Time Management 101: How NOT to Do It

I'm over at the Castles and Guns blog today, whining about my schedule and the difficulty I have in finding time to write. Click on the link, come over, and join the discussion!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Let's Talk Sex: How Soon, How Often, How Explicit

So I've been thinking about sex a lot lately. Heh. Get your minds out of the gutter.

Correction: I've been thinking a lot lately about weaving a strong sexual component into a paranormal romance.

In addition to odd questions I've had to consider (i.e., would a 400-year-old Irish farmer-turned-vampire be circumcised, and do I really need to address that?), I've had to think about the structure of my manuscript.

--How early in the story does the deed first occur? From studying other PNRs, I've determined the sweet spot to be between pages 50-60. Earlier, and they look slutty. Later, and...well, later doesn't seem to be an option.

--How to finesse that first sexual encounter in a way that works with the story, feels natural to the story, and only further complicates the 300  pages that follow.

--How to weave an ongoing physical relationship in with the building romantic, emotional journey the characters are taking, without detracting from it or overshadowing it?

--How to show and phrase things so that the story doesn't cross that fine line and go from being PNR to becoming EroRom--and you know exactly what I mean. Anyone who's stuck with the entire Anita Blake series as I have knows.

So, here's today's question for those of you who read paranormal romance and/or erotic romance: what makes a paranormal sex scene hot but not slutty? What lines do you draw in terms of what you like to read versus what goes over the line? Who does it well?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

What Editors Do, and What Editors Don't

Okay, this is my opinion, based on my experiences--and your mileage may vary. But in the course of talking to writers and editors and blogging over the last couple of years, I've realized that people's expectations of "The Editor" veer wildly. What, exactly, should The Editor do?

First, here's my contention. Your book editor's job is not to clean up your typos, grammatical errors, punctuation gaffes, or misspellings on any big scale. If you're with a big enough publisher, you'll get a line edit from a copy editor who'll look for stylistic inconsistencies and typos, but basic grammar and punctuation and spelling and all that stuff is your job.

Yours. Mine. Ours.


In the journalism world, I've been an editor for twenty years. When I worked at a daily newspaper, I edited for big-picture content (because if the spelling and punctuation was bad enough the reporter wasn't employed for very long) while the copy editor looked for typos and style usage. Now that I've been in magazines for awhile, working in small shops, I take on the role of both content editor and copy editor.


In the fiction world--where I'm admittedly very, very new--I'm on the other side of the editing desk and have really come to appreciate what a good editor can do. I've been blessed to work with an editor at my publishing house who is One.Sharp.Cookie--I'm constantly in awe as she hones in quickly on weaknesses in my manuscript that I couldn't spot while wearing my authorial blinders. (Shout-out to Stacy!)

Here's what my editor gives me, and it's exactly what I need: 

She tells me where the story drags and the pacing's off, and talks to me about how I can fix it (note--how I can fix it, not her). She points out where a character needs a bigger reaction to an event, where a backstory needs beefing up or toning down, and where a scene needs punching up or (sigh) deleting altogether. She looks at my worldbuilding and tells me where it's working and where it isn't. She is, in other words, a content editor. She's really, really good at it. And she's most always right.

If she sees a typo or a punctuation problem, she'll probably mark it. But that's not her job. That's my job.


Oh, we all have little stuff we miss--I sure do--but it's our job to clean the nuts and bolts of our manuscripts up as much as possible before submitting. If you're not strong in grammar and punctuation and spelling, find a crit partner who is--or hire a copy editor to give your manuscript a read-through. Have beta readers put fresh eyes on it. Take an online course. It's important.

Agree? Disagree? What have your own experiences been?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My First Love & A Winning Entry

I'm on deadline at the glue factory day job today, so I'll just share a bit of good news and a bit of writing. I found out yesterday that my feature story "Veggie Tales," written for Auburn Magazine (Auburn University), pulled in a fifth-place finish in this year's Writer's Digest 79th Annual Writing Competition awards in the magazine feature article category. Woot! So, here it is. Hope you enjoy! Tomorrow I'll be back to talk about fiction again--and what editors do.

Veggie Tales
by Suzanne Johnson


I'm hungry. It’s 8:30 p.m., and I’ve spent nine hours at work, grabbed lunch at my desk and attended a two-hour workshop. Dinnertime came and went.
Hunger’s a primal need—straight from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy, right next to water and breathing. I wonder how the famed psychologist would feel about the food options on my route: two supermarkets, six fast-food spots and a half-dozen restaurants, most serving that ubiquitous Southern delicacy, the chicken finger. I suspect Maslow’s mind would boggle. In his day, chickens didn’t have fingers waiting to be battered, fried and dipped in ranch dressing.
A few years ago, after reading Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I vowed to buy organic. Smug and virtuous, I lasted two weeks before my monthly food budget disappeared and I realized my organic grapes had barely survived their journey from Ecuador. It’s hard to feel virtuous when you’re out of money and creating a carbon footprint only King Kong could fill.
Finally, led astray by lower prices and the siren song of a McDonald’s French fry, I left the natural world behind.
Now it’s 2010, and it turns out Pollan was onto something. In the past five years, Americans have made bestsellers of Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Carlo Petrini and Alice Waters’ Slow Food Nation, just to name a few. The public appetite for information about food—local food, fast food, healthy food—seems insatiable.
The message that we should eat more locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats has resonated with readers struggling with diabetes, food safety, grocery store prices, and environmental concerns. Food is no longer a question of what’s for dinner; it’s a political issue, a “green” cause, a health matter—a movement in every sense of the word.
I’m always willing to jump on a bandwagon, so I set off to explore an aspect of the healthy-food trend known as “eating local.” Because as any eco-zealot will tell you: Local is the new organic.

Local-eating converts call themselves “locavores,” and they’re fervent about eating only food grown within a certain radius of home: 25 miles, 100 miles—pick a number. Before a homegrown advocate coined the term in 2005, “locavore” wasn’t even a word—two years ago, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose the term as its “Word of the Year.”
Local eating is a hot topic, but I could easily get cold feet. Can I do it long-term? And what’s in it for me, anyway?
            I trail aimlessly through my supermarket produce aisle. Water mists over delicate green grapes and glossy red peppers, hydrating them to just-picked beauty. Both originated in Chile, where it’s late summer. In Auburn at the very end of winter, my local produce is limited to sweet potatoes with a chaser of turnip greens. The sign says “Product of USA.” That covers a lot of real estate.
            I leave the produce behind and snag some frozen-in-the-USA vegetables and boneless chicken breasts—a typical dinner—then round up the manager to ask from whence my chicken came. He stammers as if he suspects it’s a trick question, so I call the manufacturer. I’m passed from operator to employee to PR minion until I finally reach the bottom of the corporate food chain, where an annoyed woman says she has no idea.
Auburn University water-quality researcher Jayme Oates wouldn’t be surprised. She tried the same thing herself once, looking for the source of a supermarket purchase only to be told it was “proprietary.”
She decided to grow her own. I consider the small patch of red clay that passes for my backyard and suspect it wouldn’t sprout a crop of rocks, even if I were so inclined.
Yet it’s hard to talk to Oates without becoming a convert. She’s petite, sports sensible shoes and worries she’ll come across as a tree-hugger. Toy cows and horses stare from the shelves of her office, and I begin to suspect she is a tree-hugger—trees even are knit into her green sweater—but a person who has allowed  julienned-and-fried potatoes to lead her down the road to ruin shouldn’t pass judgment.
            Oates’ day job aside, her passion lies 10 miles away in rural Notasulga, Ala., where she and partner Justin Taylor are working the land and slowly expanding their biofriendly farm. Oates brings me fresh eggs, brown and speckled, with thick shells and yolks that break a startling shade of yellow compared to their supermarket counterparts.
            She and Taylor run their Mahone Creek Farm as a “certified naturally grown” operation, meaning they adhere to organic standards without undergoing the expensive federal designation process. They not only avoid pesticides, but eschew fuel-consuming machinery in favor of old-fashioned helpers: After crops are harvested, rabbits graze the land and fertilize the fields. Later, chickens eat insects and deposit more waste. Finally, cover crops aid in completing the cycle before spring planting begins anew.
            Though Oates comes from a multi-generation farm family, she is part of an idealistic new breed of young, environmentally savvy agricultural entrepreneurs, says Mike Reeves, a commercial horticulture expert with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “In the last few years we’ve seen a lot more interest from people wanting to produce fruits and vegetables for local markets,” he says.
            Factors driving the increase include the national economy, individual health concerns and the burgeoning environmental movement, Reeves says—there are a lot of people like me questioning the big-picture cost of buying South American cantaloupe out of season.

Zach Randle fidgets, keeping one eye on the darkening sky. It’s 7 a.m., thunderclouds are gathering, and he has work to do. Like Oates, Randle is a recent college grad from a farming family, but on a larger scale. He and up to 90 employees work 160 acres southeast of Auburn, always with an eye on the environment.
            He forgets about the impending storm temporarily, and I can tell we’ve hit on a subject he cares about. “It takes somewhere between 12 and 14 calories of energy to get one calorie of food to the grocery store. That’s just not sustainable—it doesn’t make any sense,” he says.
            Locavores most often cite the environmental cost of mass production as the biggest reason to buy food grown close to home; the average food product travels about 1,500 miles between farm and table. With a few mega-farms feeding the masses, my Chilean grapes aren’t that fresh, plus they require a lot of gas to get to my kitchen.
            Not so long ago, a footprint was a shallow hole I left in the sand on the beach. These days, it represents how much my lifestyle impacts the environment. An online footprint calculator claims that if everyone lived like me, it would take four planet Earths to sustain us—even though I limit my driving, recycle and have replaced all my light bulbs with energy-savers. A four-planet price tag seems harsh.
            Auburn University sustainability chief Lindy Biggs has eliminated the need for both a car and a major appliance: She rides a bike to work and hangs her wash to dry. For Biggs, the local food movement represents one more way individuals can save the world. “It’s all about decreasing the environmental footprint of everything we do,” she says. “From a sustainability standpoint, eating local is better than eating organic, because food that has to travel a long distance has a pretty big footprint.”
           
A cluster of black cows stares from a green pasture as I drive up the hill to Auburn’s Lambert-Powell Meats Lab. The cows chew placidly, but I avoid eye contact—I’m about to buy beef to grill for dinner. Jayme Oates says seeing the source of our food makes us respect it more. She doesn’t mention guilt.
            Eating local might be easier in Auburn, where university-owned farms and academic programs in animal and poultry science translate to campus-grown meat and eggs for sale. Most folks rely on their local farmers market.
            A decade ago, only 17 farmers markets existed in Alabama; this summer, there will be at least 110, says Don Wambles of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority. More than 5,000 farmers markets serve customers nationwide, up from 340 in 1970.
            “People want to support their local economy,” Wambles says. “And they want to buy food that tastes good as opposed to buying something that looks pretty but doesn’t taste good. Local agriculture is a bright spot in our state’s economy.”
Some farmers are taking other marketing routes. The year he graduated from college, Zach Randle began allowing local consumers to pay an upfront fee—called a “community share”—to his family’s farm in exchange for the promise of produce from future harvests. The Randles use the money to fund their operation, and“shareholders” divide the produce. The business model, known as community-supported agriculture, allows farmers to spread their financial risk among customers. If a late freeze cuts the tomato crop in half, shareholders get fewer tomatoes.
Randle began with 25 shareholders in 2005 and now has a waiting list. “If I let everybody in, we would have hundreds,” he says. “But this old farm can’t feed everybody.”
            Should the local-food movement catch on, what happens to the mega-farms? If I’m moving my food dollars around, somebody’s business is bound to suffer.
            “That’s the mindset we’ve been brainwashed into thinking,” Randle says. “Some of those huge farms might go out of business, but in the long run having hundreds of acres of any crop is not sustainable. In order to have hundreds of acres of anything, you can’t do it without pesticides and killing everything in the soil to guarantee a crop.”
            Though federal and state officials keep tabs on the effects of pesticides on crops, groundwater and soil, Biggs believes mega-farms could be nearing the end of their life cycle.
            “Soil is the mother of all things,” she says. “Real soil is a living thing, full of microbes and insects and life. If you go into a field that has been heavily farmed for a long time, there’s no life left. In order to continue growing, the farmer must use more fertilizer and pesticides, which further deplete the soil.”
            In California, where mega-farms generate more than half the nation’s food supply, water shortages and pollution threaten farmers’ futures, Biggs adds. In 2007, California became the first state to declare war on widely used fumigants and estimated its strawberry, carrot, tomato and pepper farmers would bear the brunt of the cost—up to $40 million per year—to ensure their operations meet emission targets. Between soil contamination, air pollution and water shortages, what happens when California can no longer feed the nation?
            Ashes to ashes, soil to soil. I just want to eat a banana without setting off an agricultural apocalypse.

Finally, I have answered the “what’s in it for me” question. Eating local is good for my health, the environment, the local economy and maybe even my own pocketbook.
            But can I do it? Is it realistic for this city dweller, with limited time, space and resources, to become a locavore?
            Sadly, I conclude, probably not. But I can do better. Wambles says if you can’t eat local, at least eat American.
            I head back to the supermarket, wandering row-by-row through the produce and reading the signs over each bin. Most of the fruit is from South America, but there are a few early strawberries from California, potatoes from Idaho, sweet potatoes from North Carolina and my favorite Fuji apples from Washington. I wonder if my counterpart in North Carolina is pawing through a bin of sweet potatoes from Lee County, Ala., and what Maslow would think of the convoluted food system we’ve created.
            For now though, it’s time to eat. I grab a North Carolina sweet potato to go with my Auburn rump roast and head for home.