To Take You Into the Weekend, Me Singing “Redshirt” With Jonathan Coulton and His Band

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And I’m on key at least 60% of the time!

If you just want to see the part where I fall on my ass, fast forward to 4:15 and wait a couple of seconds. This was during the JoCo Cruise Crazy 3 trip, incidentally.

I had a blast doing this (which I think comes through), although the video reminds me that I am becoming increasingly pear shaped as I go along. I blame the cruise buffet. Yes, that’s it entirely.

Video recorded by Glenn Badsen.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Miriam Forster

Sometimes you start writing with the idea of creating a small, intimate tale — and then the tale decides it has other plans. Such was the case when Miriam Forster started writing City of a Thousand Dolls. What happens when a story grows beyond your expectations? Let’s find out.


The original idea for City of a Thousand Dolls arrived like a gift. I’d been reading a book about Guinevere (I believe it was The Child Queen by Nancy Mckenzie) and I came across the line “Who are you being groomed for?” That line dug into me and hung on, and suddenly, I had an entire setting in my head, an estate where girls would be groomed and trained for different roles.  It was lush and opulent, with different Houses that would raise everything from musicians and noblewomen to warriors and assassins.

But it was just a setting. I needed a plot, I needed characters, and most importantly I needed an idea of what the book was about.  In order for me to actually write a book, there has to be some sort of central human experience to orient the story around. It doesn’t have to be preachy, or obvious to anyone but me. But it needs to be there or my story wanders off into the weeds and gets lost.

I thought for sure that a story with such a setting as the City of a Thousand Dolls must be about expectations. How expectations shape people, what happens when you go against them, or worse, what happens when no one has any expectations of you at all. That was the story I set out to write. But when I finished the first draft, I discovered that wasn’t what I’d written at all.  Without meaning to, I’d written a story about different kinds of love: friendship, admiration, romance, and family. I’d made a character—Nisha Arvi—who had all of those kinds of relationships, a girl who was vulnerable and stubborn, impulsive and prone to make mistakes. Those mistakes had consequences, and the consequences affected her relationships.

That was the core of the story I’d written, a story about the way that different kinds of love and affection stand up under the pressure of human frailty.  It was a small, personal story at its heart.

But the setting was neither small nor personal. And it grew as time went on. The Empire had been cut off by magic. There was unrest, there was social injustice, there was a mystery surrounding Nisha herself. And that wasn’t even counting all the dead bodies. My little story was becoming epic.

That led to some problems. The stakes weren’t high enough. The world was underdeveloped and unsatisfying.  It took a lot of work to make the events of the story match the setting, without losing the idea of love and relationships that lay at its roots.

I could have abandoned the original core, but I didn’t want to. For me, fantasy, and especially high fantasy, is better when it’s grounded in the muck and mud of the human experience.  Fantasy is wonderful for exploring big themes of good and evil and writing vast, complicated stories about politics and prophecies and chosen ones. But the greatest fantasies, the most enduring ones, keep the human connection. The best example I can think of is Tolkien, who wrote a great, sweeping epic about the rise of a Dark Lord… and then hinged the fate of the world on two hobbits and a mad little cave-dweller.

So I hung onto the little story I’d created. All through the rewrites and the research and the development of the world and the stakes, I kept the personal heart of the book intact.  And even now, it weirds me out a bit to see City of a Thousand Dolls described as epic. “No, you don’t understand,” I want to say. “It’s really not that big, I swear.” No one believes me.

They don’t have to. After all, I’m not the only person writing the story; the reader has their part to play. Now that it’s out in the world, the book doesn’t belong to me,  anyway. It belongs to them, to make of it what they will. But to me, City of a Thousand Dolls will always be primarily about a girl who wants to do the right thing and sometimes fails, and the people who love her anyway.  And that’s the way I like it.


City of a Thousand Dolls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter.


For the Record, I Don’t Do This

Via CC Finlay, how to spend a stupid amount of money to game your way onto a best seller list. Note the books being discussed here are business-related books, which appear to be used by their authors as calling cards to get speaking/consulting gigs, which are their primary bread and butter. So maybe for these guys it makes sense to spend tens of thousand of dollars to gin up a bunch of (likely) fake sales. For fiction writers, for whom the honorariums are harder to come by, and probably are already some shade of completely broke anyway, probably less so.

Mind you, now that the Wall Street Journal is reporting on this particular way to game the list, the jig is up and this avenue will be factored in and discounted for future list reporting. So it’s probably too late for you to use it. On the other hand, think of the tens of thousands of dollars you’ll save!

I’m happy to say that generally speaking I’ve gotten onto the bestseller lists by, you know, selling books to people who want to buy them for reading purposes. It’s slightly more complicated than that, in part because the most significant best seller lists have their own proprietary formula for determining list position that aren’t necessarily directly related to raw sales. But that’s the general gist of it. Thank you for reading my stuff in trackably significant numbers, folks. I really do appreciate it.


Oscar Prediction Update Post

When the Academy Awards were announced, I presented my immediate picks for the awards and noted that I would come back to the choices just before the ceremony if I changed my mind on anything. Well, here we are, just before the awards, and I have a couple emendations.

Best Actor: I boldly made my prediction that Hugh Jackman was going to get the Oscar this year and was roundly ridiculed, mostly along the lines of “dude, tell me where you get your drugs.” Fair enough. It does seem that neither Jackman or Les Miserables (outside of Anne Hathaway’s apparently almost inevitable Best Supporting Actress win) has gained any traction in the major categories, so I bow to the obvious and now slide Daniel Day-Lewis into the prediction slot. I hope you’re all happy. I would still love to see Jackman win this, mostly because I think he’d give one of the most charming acceptance speeches in history, because he’s just that guy.

Best Supporting Actor: I still have no idea who will win this category, I don’t think anyone else does either, and to be honest it’s totally without suspense because everyone nominated in the category has at least one Oscar already. So who cares? I don’t. I guessed De Niro before but now I just don’t know. They might as well award it by spinning a bottle.

Best Picture: I was pretty sure this was going to come down to Lincoln, and on paper, this still seems like a safe bet — but things have changed since the Oscars nominations were announced mid-January, and as a result we might be in for a semi-historic upset. What’s changed is the general feeling that Ben Affleck got shortchanged out of a director nomination for Argo, and then Argo and/or Affleck going on to win Golden Globes, the “Best Ensemble” SAG award (its equivalent of “Best Pictures” and the DGA Feature Film award). I noted in January that I thought Argo’s moment had passed, but I was clearly wrong about that, and I think it has a better than decent shot at becoming the first film since Driving Miss Daisy to win Best Picture without an accompanying Best Director nomination.

Here’s Argo’s secret ace in the hole: The actor’s branch of the Academy, which is the largest branch of the Academy. Affleck is still primarily known as an actor, and when well-known actors are nominated for the director they often find themselves winning the Oscar (See: Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood), even when up against superior talents (Redford and Costner were up against Martin Scorsese and Raging Bull and Goodfellas, respectively). This doesn’t always work — Tim Robbins and George Clooney have been nominated in the category but didn’t win, and it took Ron Howard a couple of tries — but it’s a factor to figure in to any calculation.

And you say, okay, but Affleck isn’t nominated for director, so where are you going with this? Well, Affleck isn’t nominated for director, but Argo is nominated for Best Picture — and the awards in that category go to the winning film’s producers, which in this case are Grant Heslov, George Clooney… and Ben Affleck. If enough actors feel Affleck was snubbed by the director’s branch of the Academy (which voted on the director nominations), they might vote for Argo best picture to give Affleck an Oscar anyway. The fact that both Heslov and Clooney got their start and are best known as actors (Heslov did comedy relief in films like True Lies and The Scorpion King) doesn’t hurt matters, either.

Admittedly, it’s a little strange to think of a Best Picture Oscar as a compensatory gift for a snub in the Director category (the screenplay Oscars are usually considered the make-do for directors: See Orson Wells, Quentin Tarantino and Jane Campion), but hey, this year, it could happen. And inasmuch as Lincoln is likely to walk away with director and actor wins, plus a smattering of undercard Oscars, Spielberg and company won’t be able to complain too much.

So, yeah: Argo. Really strong chance of walking away with Best Picture. Yes, I am surprised. But it’s been a strange Oscar year in any event. I’m gonna go ahead and get out there on a limb and say it’s my top pick over Lincoln going into Oscar weekend. It’s a very slim top pick — Lincoln is still the safest pick by all reasonable Oscar math and I would be utterly unsurprised if it eventually prevails. But I think maybe the Academy is ready to make a little history this year. We’ll see.

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