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Viewing Blog: Peni Griffin - Idea Garage Sale, Most Recent at Top
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The cliche question all authors hate - "Where do you get your ideas?" The idea is the easy part. The idea is so easy to get, you can't give them away. I'm here to give them away, to share them, and invite you to recognize yours. We're all creative. Not all of us pay attention.
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1. Synaptic Miracle; or, Thank You, Melissa Etheridge

So my brain has not been behaving in the way I'm accustomed to think of as "normal," lately, and I'm more worried about stuff than I normally am about Health Crap because if the brain doesn't work, nothing works. But -

All my life I have been unable to listen to instrumental music. Without associated lyrics, a bar of music slides right off my ears unless I have, thanks to recording technology, heard that identical bar of music several hundred times. I'm always about half a beat off the music when dancing if I'm trying to follow the music instead of matching my partner (which makes me an annoying partner), and one reason I have never gone out of my way to go to many concerts is, that they always lose me when they play those long instrumental riffs that musicians love so much and which are designed to work the audience up into an orgasmic state.

One artist I always go see, though, is Melissa Etheridge. Not only does she do an amazing live show, of which her albums - good as they are - are the merest shadows; but listening to the albums was a major emotional support for me during the Year From Hell, especially during the months when I had no choice but to process a lot of Stuff on my own, because the entire support network was hit simultaneously and no one had any energy to spare for more than mere survival. I was sitting at the soul-sucking day job day after day, typing up real estate appraisal reports and using lunch hours to run (literally; it's about 10 minutes on foot from the office to the hospital Damon was in) to visit my nearly-dead husband, and then at the end of the day visiting him again and going home alone. I couldn't have done it without Melissa on heavy rotation on my computer playlists. (Fortunately I was mostly in a room by myself and I don't think I made anyone else in the office hate her.) Going to every public appearance of hers within driving distance is the least I can do in return, and I always enjoy the show and emerge feeling stronger. But even Melissa loses me on the long instrumental riffs - even in "I'm the Only One;" even in "Like the Way I Do." I just - I can technically hear them, but I can't listen to them. They can't do to me what they're doing to the band and to everybody else in the audience. I'm not technically tone deaf, but my brain doesn't do music, as music. It can only do music as language.

Until her recent concert in Austin, when suddenly, starting with a "I'm the Only One" coming surprisingly early in the program, and continuing through a relentlessly hard-rocking set with almost no downtime, none of the softer numbers except "Come to My Window" (which isn't that soft), I got it. I don't know how, and I can't reproduce it in memory, and I would be surprised if I could get it again at a concert by a band I'm less emotionally connected to, but my brain definitely did do something at that concert that I had every reason to think it didn't possess the correct synaptical connections to do. And it wasn't just familiarity, because Melissa mixed things up from what I'd grown accustomed to - new band, backup singers (which she's never had before), a completely different concert structure, and instead of saving one of her familiar hard rockers for the encore she went with "Monster," which is from the new album and I'd only heard it a half dozen times, not having had the new album very long before the concert. And of course the point of those long riffs is that they're improvisations (or apparent improvisations) and expansions, novelty inserted into the predictable course of the piece.

At my age, new synaptic connections are rare. Brain activity after about 25 is less about learning new things than about refining old connections and extrapolating from experience - I have never seen this particular problem before, but it has elements in common with this, that, and the other situation that I have encountered, and those, these, and the other skills that I've already mastered will enable me to deal with it.

But I must have formed some new connections in order to experience the concert in the unprecedented way I did.

So there I have proof that my brain has undergone some changes recently - and that this doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Maybe I could even manage some math? Naw, let's be realistic here. I cannibalized those synapses to expand my sense of narrative structure decades ago. Besides, I have a husband who can do math for me; nobody but me can mediate music for me.

And once again, I owe Melissa Etheridge some hearty thanks.

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2. Idea Garage Sale: Patient Zero in the Riot of the Nerves

Health Crap and Really Bad Public Events caused that hiatus there, and this isn't the time or place to go on and on about either, so let's talk about that idea I didn't get written up a few weeks ago because of the time it was going to take; which was - mass hysteria.

Outbreaks of "mass hysteria," whatever that means exactly, are more common than you probably think. The most easily recognizable modern cases happen in schools, in which a malady, the source of which doctors can't isolate, spreads like wildfire through the students, occasionally infecting teachers. The symptoms are real and physical - chills, fevers, fainting, rashes, pain - and the search for real, physical causes may be directed to the ventilation system, the cafeteria, recent vaccination programs, anything that the affected students may have in common. When none of these physical causes pans out, doctors start saying: "Mass hysteria," the newspaper repeat it shortly before dropping the story, and the parents get angry. Because "mass hysteria" has no standard, measurable diagnosis, and sounds like (and may be) a cop out. A doctor says "mass hysteria" and a parent hears: "I'm not a good enough doctor to figure this out, so I'm going with saying that your kid is a whiny attention-seeking brat with nothing wrong with him." In cultures in which concepts of spiritual malaise have a lot of traction, the afflicted may be seen as "possessed" or "bewitched," which takes us right back to the only case one ever sees treated fictionally, the Salem Witch Trials.

On the one hand, the afflicted girls of Salem Village are a classic case of mass hysteria. On the other hand, they aren't treated realistically as a mass hysteria case by fiction. This is undoubtedly because of the 200 people accused, jailed, and tried, with 19 of them hanged (none burned, get that out of your head), four died in prison, and one tortured to death by having rocks piled on his chest (Giles Corey's last words were: "More weight.") The appalling injustice of the trials cries out for villains; and though history and the people involved place the evil where it belongs, in a judicial system that was insufficiently rigorous and authorities willing to assume guilt if the crime were heinous and amorphous enough, novelists are fascinated by The Girls. How could they do such things? They had to know what they were doing by the end there, didn't they? After all, the accusations weren't true, so that must mean they were lying?

Well, no. It doesn't. They got afflicted, the adults they trusted said they were bewitched and put pressure on them to name names, and things snowballed. That's not the same thing as lying, at all; any more than fainting and breaking out into a rash in the absence of a discernible cause is whiny attention-seeking. I am here to tell you, just because nobody can detect a physical cause for feeling bad, doesn't mean you don't, physically, feel bad! The problem could be one not known and understood by medical science yet (or just not yet known and understood by the doctors available), or it could be a nontangible problem acting in tangible ways. An anxiety attack is physical enough for anybody who's been through one; and why should they not be contagious, in settings in which everyone is more or less anxious?

Mass hysteria thrives best in small, well-integrated communities - schools, convents, factories, small towns, etc.; and among the less powerful members of a society - women, girls, children, low-income workers. These are people who are stressed, who are discouraged from or unable to better their situations, who have to rely on each other and who cannot get any attention from Authority unless they kick up a fuss, but are not allowed to kick up a fuss. Hysteria is the riot of the nervous system, the frustrated outbreak of those with no recourse. Nothing generally changes in the wake of an outbreak, of hysteria or of rioting. They are not attention-seeking tactics; they are breakdowns of a system forced to function without proper maintenance and support.

So it's time we had a modern fictional treatment of mass hysteria, free of the dire consequences of the events in Salem Village. It isn't hard to find a protagonist, who would be a Patient Zero, a schoolgirl who has no desire to cause trouble, but does it anyway. She would experience the symptoms, and see them spread, and be called to account for them; aware all the time of her innocence, but beginning to doubt it. Could she really cause so much trouble, and not at some level be a troublemaker? But it has to be a gas in the vents, a poison in the water, something - her worst enemy caught it, too, and no way would her worst enemy imitate her! On the one hand, she'll be pressured to admit she was rioting over nothing; on the other hand, she'll be pressured to be sick again in order to prove that the riot wasn't over nothing. Can she be real, and others be faking? Where are the lines between what she wants to do, what she intends to do, what her body does in spite of her, what she needs, and what she doesn't know how to ask for?

The trouble here, as with most story concepts based on real life events, is to maintain realism and while achieving narrative satisfaction. Mass hysteria cases seldom wrap up satisfactorily; news outlets just stop discussing them and cases trail off. If people are still getting sick, they aren't doing so in such numbers as to disrupt daily life. The cause remains mysterious - "mass hysteria" (or "mass sociogenic illness" if you want to be very up-to-date and correct) is a handy label, not a diagnosis. Kind of like "heart failure" as a cause of death - yeah, duh, we all die of heart failure, ultimately. What triggered it? Could it happen again? Patient Zero won't end the story understanding how that worked, because nobody understands how that works.

So Patient Zero must have her own, satisfactory, internal arc. She must learn something about herself and the society she lives in that makes her better able to handle the stresses she's under. Perhaps she sees her interrelatedness with the others around her, who are all so much like her that they shared her illness - yes, even her worst enemy. Perhaps interacting with the various authorities in her life - parents, teachers, doctors, whoever represents the news outlet that publicizes the incident(s)- improves her understanding of how authority works and gives her the coping skills for when (inevitably) Authority lets her down again.

Perhaps she builds order out of chaos, without falling back on Authority's dodge of pretending that chaos doesn't exist.

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3. Happy Harvest Festival

The historical myth behind Thanksgiving is problematic in a number of ways, and it's been a rough week so it's hard to be thankful; but the basic idea of a harvest festival in combination with a day to count your blessings is sound, so - Merry Thanksgiving, y'all.

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4. Grrrr...

Because this is not a political blog but I'm so totally not in the mood to write about my projects or writing principles or any of that stuff, here's a link to donate monetary support for the protestors in Ferguson. They're going to need it.

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5. Idea Garage Sale: Trickster vs. Dark Lord

So, you've got an Evil Overlord, and the problem is, how to bring down the guy with all the power. You can destroy his power base and throw the ring into the volcano, you can fight a guerrilla revolution that carries within it the seeds of its own corruption (Yeah, saw Mockingjay Part 1 yesterday; the last book is easily the most disturbing and if you're in it for the happy ending, I can tell you, you need to bail now), you can go toe-to-toe in the field, your armies vs. his armies and way too many innocent people get hurt.

Or you can trick him into destroying himself.

The trick was lost to me when I woke up; and, being a dream-trick, probably wouldn't work in the real world or any plausible fictional one I could cook up. But I remember the Trickster. She had no political acumen or abstract sense of right or wrong. She had no physical power and no network of friends. She didn't even have a long-term plan. She was a street kid adept at talking her way out of trouble and accustomed to living from moment to moment. But the habit of jumping to the next stepping stone without looking to see whether there's another beyond it lands her in more and more complicated situations.

She has learned that, when she's at someone's mercy, the most effective strategy is to figure out what that someone wants, and convince them that the way to get it is to show mercy. She brokers information, and when she doesn't have any she makes it up. No one's going to take the unsupported word of a street kid, so she's also learned to seize on something, anything, concrete within reach and turn it into evidence of her truth. With any luck, she'll be able to escape before everything unravels.

But once in the Dark Lord's sanctum, she can't escape. All her ways are blocked. And she's not the only desperate liar in the citadel. Everyone from the lowly guard who first catches her all the way up to the Dark Lord himself wants a small handful of things: Security, Promotion, Power; which all boil down to the same thing in the toxic atmosphere of a reign of terror. They all, in their eagerness for more control, give her a convenient handle to control them; but if they ever suspect that she's anything but a scared tool of their ambitions, that's the end for her. Her basic claim is to know where Something is. They're the ones who project their own knowledge of the Something that can make or break the Dark Lord's power onto the vague flim-flam she starts with; and the faster she tapdances to reflect their desires, the closer to the top she gets. Until she has to deliver to the Dark Lord himself.

She doesn't want to be his downfall. She just wants to get away. And when she does become his downfall, and is shoved into his place at the top of the festering heap - she manages, at last, to slip away, leaving the Good Guys to sweep in to a squabbling, disoriented citadel and mop up.

This was a dream, and the few details of this broad outline are hopelessly impractical. A key feature of the con, for instance, was the cherry-red 50s Cadillac convertible she drove through the volcano. (Wrecked the shocks.)

As blockbuster fantasy series go, the premise has real possibilities. It'd have to be fast-paced, clever, disorienting, and very, very plotty. I.E., well outside my talent range, alas.

The premise would also work for a realistic stand-alone novel, if it were scaled down; if the Evil Overlord was the boss who runs a single town or corporation, for example. Still not really the kind of thing I can see myself writing.

I'd read it, though. It sounds like a lot of fun.

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6. Nothing's Wasted

So there's this weird novella thing that I really like, but it's premise puts up a number of challenges that I've been having a hard time dealing with and who the heck publishes novellas anyway? It's been hovering around 10,000 words for over a year.

I was looking at markets earlier this week and thinking, maybe it would do for that one, but the 6,000-word limit is firm. Could I really cut 4,000 words?


But the 8,923-word version reads a lot better than the 10,000 word version. So the time spent trying was time well-spent.

Now to deal with those continuity errors. It beats dealing with the novel WIP, which at this point is scaring me.

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7. I'm a Bit Dilatory Today

Hey, speaking of Pleistocene child graves, Project Archeology has a curriculum packet and guide for teaching about the Anzick Burial!

Also, on the importance of re-reading the guidelines right before you make the submission, I was just narrowly prevented from sending a story in Courier to a magazine whose editors believe Courier to be evil. I kind of feel like Times New Roman is evil, myself; but I'm not the one in control of that market, so back to the word processor we go.

I just - I like Courier. It looks like typing. It's large and readable. But hey, I type two spaces after a period, too.

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8. Idea Garage Sale: The Longest Vacation

So there's this kingdom, with magic, and the wizards made this little haven refuge, a pocket dimension, where the royal families could go on vacation. They'd be perfectly safe, and happy - the weather would do what they wanted, there would always be food, gardens, etc. It's hard to keep track of time passing inside, but that's okay, as long as there's somebody trustworthy on the outside to say the magic words and call the family home.

So the royal family goes there on the eve of the princess's wedding, to rest up and make last-minute preparations for the big party. And it starts to seem to them that they've been here for awhile...

Turns out the trustworthy person wasn't so trustworthy, took over, and never told anybody the magic words. So the country was ripe when the Age of Revolution rolled around. Three hundred years and umpty-ump wars later, the country is a constitutional democracy, the palace is a museum, and though nothing's perfect, one thing the entire country agrees on is, that nobody needs a monarchy back.

The entrance to the pocket dimension is in the museum. It's something trivial, not magic-looking at all. Maybe it's the door to a dressing room or something.

The trustworthy usurper never told anyone the magic words, but they're perfectly ordinary words, strung together in a peculiar order. Which is why the teen daughter of the curator used them for a secret code, maybe a password to an electronic device. And the royal family comes home to a world that doesn't need them.

They become celebrities, of course. Other than that, what happens to each of them depends on who they are, what they want most, and how adaptable they are.

Is the King an easy mark for political manipulation? Does the Queen assume that all this democracy nonsense will go away when the royal family apologizes for the inadvertent absence and expresses its willingness to return to its duty? Is the Princess relieved that she doesn't have to marry the Prince anymore and anxious to sign up for art classes at the local community college? Does the Prince come out of the closet and become a spokesman for gay rights? Do the younger princes and princesses have to enroll in school?

What uses are devised for the pocket dimension magic?

Does the girl who accidentally released them feel ultimately responsible for them, and spend the rest of the book scrambling to bring them up to speed and keep them out of trouble? Yes, I suspect she does... Read the rest of this post

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9. The Optimist at the Gaming Table of Life

So the gaming group tried something different last Sunday: Deadlands, with the Savage Worlds system, with a GM who doesn't play with us very often, who is less mechanic-focused than about half our regular group. It was October 1879 in an American West overrun with magic and monsters, and the party we assembled to go looking for a missing railroad crew in Donner Pass consisted of war-weary Confederate veteran Captain William Palmer, bounty hunter Mina Winchester, frontiersman "Texas Jake" Johnson, Father Patrick O'Flannery (who one of us - not me, surprisingly - said should be named Connor), and - schoolmarm Miss Agnes Cranthorp.

I kept thinking, as I put Miss Cranthorp together, that she was going to die horribly, or at least be a drag on the party. All her attribute points went into Smarts, Spirit, and Vigor; her skills were things like Intimidate, Guts, Knowledge, and Persuasion; she was near-sighted, loyal, strong-willed, and charismatic - and she couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with any of the weapons the others were carrying. Even Father O'Flannery had a sidearm and a hunting rifle. Miss Cranthorp had a carpetbag full of books, a good black silk dress, and school supplies, and we were all joking about how her favored weapon was a ruler. But from the moment I heard "Weird West" I knew my character was a schoolmarm. I'm used to playing the character who's the Least Valuable Player in terms of damage dealt, whose main function is to keep other characters alive or to distract the GM while the strategists and game mechanics experts devise plans. I play to be somebody besides myself for a few hours, not to indulge power fantasies. So I put together Miss Cranthorp (you're not engaged or related, you don't get to even think of her as Agnes!) with the mental reservation that she'd probably be dead at the end of the day.

Instead, the DM was making jokes about everybody else hiding behind the schoolmarm and Texas Jake was promising to buy her a yardstick when we got back to civilization. For one thing, I was rolling pretty hot - our opponents, a wendigo and the victims of its curse of insatiable hunger (yes, I know wendigo is an Algonquian monster, not something you'd normally find in the Rockies, but I guess for purposes of the module they'd spread across the continent or something) - could not touch Miss Cranthrop, and she was nailing almost everything she tried. She shook off the curse, she dodged wolves and bullets and claws, she was unshaken by cannibalized corpses or being surrounded by hunger-crazed railroad workers or even the wendigo himself and the zombies he raised to oppose us.

Her shining moment, however, came when we were surrounded by the hunger-crazed railroad workers. Two had shotguns, four had clubs, and they were all clearly intent on eating us. Miss Cranthorp had borrowed a shotgun, but she had never used one before and had probably never struck a blow in anger in her life. Also, both Texas Jake and Captain Palmer were also affected by the curse, though they had so far fought off the urge to kill and eat the rest of us. Our working theory was that consuming human flesh would change a cursed person in a fundamental way, and we had ample reason to believe that our opponents had crossed that line. So when she happened to be the first to be able to act in the round, I as player knew that she probably needed to just pull the trigger, that we would be forced to kill them all. But I as Miss Cranthorp knew that she had to try to talk them down, that if she survived she would not be able to live with herself if she didn't. So I took an Intimidate, describing her as pointing the shotgun in her best imitation of Miss Winchester, drawing herself up as straight as she could, and using the Teacher Voice to address one of the men with shotguns, telling him that we would find the source of the curse and break it, freeing them all from this awful hunger, but right now he needed to put the gun down. And once again, she nailed it - not enough to make him actually put the gun down, not then, but enough that the GM decided he lowered it, looked confused, and held back from acting.

This successful Intimidation changed the whole tenor of the encounter. If the cursed could respond to the Teacher Voice they were still human and probably not responsible for their actions; so everyone in the party immediately switched modes. Captain Palmer, who had been about to aim for the head of the other shotgun-weilder, went for a disarm instead; Father O'Flannery helped Miss Cranthorp take the gun away from the one she'd intimidated; Texas Jake and Miss Winchester used their weapons as clubs; and we soon had them all tied up and stowed, in varying states of consciousness, in a ruined cabin with furs tucked around them so they wouldn't freeze while we tracked down the source of the curse. Instead of killing them, we freed them; and since we had explicitly come to Donner Pass to find out what had become of them and help them if we could, this was by far the most satisfactory outcome and a big win for humanity.

This sort of thing happens all the time in games. It happens in stories, too, but in that case the dice are all loaded - the author has a desired outcome and that outcome will happen. The reader may shove that knowledge down deep into her head where it can't interfere with her enjoyment, but she does know that. In games, though, you've got honest die rolls, implacable mechanics, and a player who is or is not determined to play the character to the hilt and not give in till the last roll of the dice.

And here's the thing - I am the only optimist in my gaming group. I have a biological tendency toward depression, and being an optimist has sometimes been the only way I could get out of bed in the morning. Everyone else at the table is saying "TPK time" and "OK, I may as well start rolling up my next character," or acting on the worst-case scenario assumption, and my not-exactly-optimized character is saying: "Okay, I do this then. No? I try this then. No? Oh, hush, we can still pull this out. I try this then. Yes! Okay, that's a start, now I'm gonna do this."

I am not a better player than the others, not by a long shot. We have players who can make a system dance; who can finesse a build or pull a huge advantage out of an innocuous mechanic or solve an intricate puzzle in ways I can't even follow, much less do myself. My strength is in playing my character flat out, to the hilt, and to the bitter end. That's why, when five out of six party members were captured by cannibals, my rogue got away and returned alone to free them from the larder. That's why this Deadlands party is not made up of murderers. That's also why I also occasionally get into situations in which my characters get into head-to-head confrontations with other characters, over how to treat prisoners or who's in charge (not something I normally fret about, but that was explicitly Sofia's mission, dammit, and not only did he flout her authority he damn near got everybody killed doing it) or how to handle some delicate situation; but that's the breaks. It makes for an interesting game, anyhow.

And it's because this works in games that, when push comes to shove, I never can quite give up on something there is any chance of doing, or that nobody else can do for me. And why I get so frustrated with people who quit before they begin; who assume failure as the default state, or that because they failed once that's the end of it.

It's not over till it's over. Stay on the ride. At least find out where it's going.

Do you want The Thing, or not?

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10. News: Ice Age Infant Burials in Alaska!

Two of them! Plus the cremation of a three-year-old; all buried underneath a living floor, which is a behavior common in Ice Age burials from all over. Even in warmish places, so it probably wasn't just that the ground elsewhere was too hard.

The most remarkable thing, to me, is that such a high percentage of the low number of Ice Age American burials we have are the burials of small children. When you think how delicate the unformed bones are - particularly of the one who apparently wasn't even born, but was a miscarriage (how, I wonder, are they sure it wasn't a preemie?) - and how rare any organic human remains are from this period, it's striking. And then there's the fact that the infants were buried and the three-year-old was cremated, in the same place, at about the same time? Were there age-dependent variables on burial customs? Was there a lot of individual variation and parental choice? Was the culture sufficiently stratified that the three-year-old and the two infants came from different status families and were treated differently on that basis? Did it make a difference how someone died?

It is impossible to answer these questions with such a small sample. It is equally impossible not to speculate.

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11. Idea Garage Sale: Getting the Cat-Sitter

A couple of a close friends of mine work Renfaire every year, so I stop by to feed their cats and clean the litterboxes on weekends and during the week when Faire opens midweek for schools. They live in an apartment, and I park in the visitor lots on the side of the complex, using one of two walkways passing directly underneath second-floor apartments in the first building to get to my friends' unit on the far side of the small complex.

On Thursday, as I walked through, I heard a man say: "There you are! You're not getting away from me this time!"

Reflexively I looked up and saw a man I didn't know from Adam's off ox, and wouldn't know again if I saw him, standing on the balcony above the walkway. Apart from one glance up I didn't vary my pace or change my posture or do anything to send off "victim" signals - I may be too old to deal with catcallers on a regular basis anymore, but I was an obligate pedestrian through dark streets for far too long to have lost that discipline now.

I wasn't sure he was addressing me, either. He could have been talking on a mobile phone I didn't see, the dang things are so tiny, and he could have been joking. This is far more likely than that he was some sort of predator keeping tabs on dumpy middle-aged visitors, intent on terrorizing them. But I'm not stupid; I used the other walkway on my way back, and checked Moby's back seat before I got in and drove away. And nothing untoward has happened in my subsequent visits. He probably was on the phone with someone; and he probably was joking.

But what if he wasn't?

If I were a writer of a series of detective novels, this non-incident would need to be poked, prodded, stretched, flipped, turned inside out, and wrung for every drop of potential that could be extracted from it. In a mystery novel, this would have been a threat and it would have had consequences. But a number of questions would have to be asked, and a number of decisions made.

Why would the threat be made overt? Why not lie in wait for the cat-sitter and take her by surprise? The answer to this would be tied directly to the motivation for whatever crime was contemplated on her person.

Why the cat-sitter? Who is the cat-sitter? Dumpy middle-aged white ladies count as tempting targets for certain kinds of crimes, but the same qualities that make us vulnerable to some attacks protect us from others, and in any given apartment complex in Texas, there will be an irreducible minimum number of men on hand who are hard-coded to leap to our defense. Probably more than would automatically rush in to rescue a gorgeous 20-year-old, though less than would rush to rescue a small child. A mystery writer must choose victims carefully, not necessarily for the victim's own sake, but as part of the characterization of the murderer, the setting of clues, and the manipulation of the reader's sympathies. I did not recognize the man who spoke, but I'm not good with faces. Perhaps, if I am the story's victim, I did know him at one time, and did not remember him. Perhaps this is the past returning to bite me in the butt. Perhaps I am merely his "type" and he's a serial offender looking for someone to offend against. Perhaps I did not know him, but he thought I did, and my ignoring him incensed him past bearing. Perhaps I merely reminded him of someone - someone (oooh, hey) he thought he had killed, but was gone when he returned with the equipment to dispose of the body, so that he's spent the last umpty-ump years in a stew, waiting for her to reappear and exact her revenge! Yes, that last one is by far the best idea.

What would the practical difficulties be in "getting" someone in this situation, with this apartment complex's layout? This calls for a good old-fashioned Map of the Relevant Area to go in the front of the book, with routes, Moby, the positions of witnesses, and the locations of clues clearly marked. (I don't know about you, but no mystery novel that doesn't entail map use is 100% satisfactory.)

These decisions, and others like them, will need to be determined in reference to the requirements of the series. If it's a series of police procedurals, then the apartment complex may need to be gussied up or grunged down in order to fit within the jurisdiction of the series protagonists. If the detective is an amateur, something must draw her attention to this crime and place her on the scene naturally - and how best to do this will depend on that detective's established habits, interests, and milieu. In a cozy mystery, the cat-sitter may be the detective herself, and the remark addressed to someone else she is prevented from seeing by some feature of the immediate terrain. In a hard-boiled one, the detective may be on hand because it's his own apartment complex, or because he's on another job in the complex that intersects with this one, or may be a suspect. This is a problem the writer of amateur sleuth series encounters over and over, and if you're not equipped to handle it, you have no business creating an amateur sleuth!

I've got a couple of mysteries under my belt, but I'm not plot-driven enough to make them a habit, so I'll let this one go by. But it doesn't hurt to think about it. (And make sure that Moby's locked.)

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12. Ah, November

All hail Kitchen Sanitation Month. When working with your hands leave your brain free to think broadly and deeply; but leaves you too tired to write anything down.

Which explains a lot about history and literature, actually; who gets to do them, and how, and why. Because for the vast and silent majority of humanity, from before the dawn of man, every day must contain the level of sheer physical labor that Kitchen Sanitation Month entails, in order to survive comfortably. (Or, in a war zone or a famine, at all.)

Got to go get lunch and then get back on it.

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13. Idea Garage Sale: An Example from Real Life

Somehow I managed to get behind and lose track of time on Fall Back morning (some talents are undervalued in society), and though I had one in my head I can tell it's at least a two-hour type to work out in print, and I have, um, fifteen minutes, so...

Fortunately, this morning one of the regular comics I look at posted a comment from the creator describing exactly how idea generation is done in real life, from day-to-day, constantly:

Channing: I went to Disneyland a couple weeks ago, and instead of just enjoying myself like a normal person, I sat around trying to think of how I could make a story set in Disneyland featuring a talking unicorn robot. Thankfully I also enjoyed myself.

Yup, that's an important part of How It's Done!

Happy Dia de los Muertos and go watch The Book of Life, which has not been marketed strongly enough here, in a town which is brimming over with its natural audience, illustrating my point from Tuesday. We saw it yesterday. And now I have to go to Game with People Day.

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14. I Keep Saying This in Different Ways

So anyway, I'm contemplating running a tabletop RPG again, which I haven't done in several years, and I'm going about it in this really backwards, sideways peculiar way. I described a vague setting to the players and asked them who they were in that setting; with their answers I asked some more questions and settled on a system, then produced more information; two of the prospective players have given me some solid character backgrounds, one has declared a class (the system chosen being class-based), one has given me enough background to give me a point around which to solidify the geography, and one is working Renfaire and hasn't given me much so far.

The idea here is to get as far away as possible from what we've been doing, as at least two of us are sick to death of the power creep, railroad plots, and sheer lack of story logic of the Pathfinder modules we've been running. I hope to create a low-powered, custom-tailored, sandboxy campaign that relies heavily on random chance, player initiative, and the GM's sense of story.

Because I kind of suck at game mechanics, but with supportive players who are good at the mechanics, I find, a sense of story logic serves pretty well, instead.

People are way too focused on learning how to do stuff. People trying to cook have meltdowns because there's an ingredient in an otherwise yummy-sounding recipe that they never heard of, or which is only available in large quantities and to use it up they'll have to search for other recipes that include it, and invariably those recipes have another ingredient...

People trying to write for publication want to know how to do it, what are the steps, what do I do next?

Would-be artists want to know how to draw, what's supposed to be in the portfolio, what will get them a commission?

And they don't want to do things until they know how they're done. Which often means, they wind up not doing it and eating another lousy meal out of a can.

Knock it off.

Yes, you need skills. Yes, if you want to go public there are protocols to follow. But - breathe, okay? You know how you learn to do things? You do them.

Recipes are not necessary if you know what you like and how to do a handful of basic cooking tasks. Write your story the way you need to write it, play your game the way it's fun, write and draw and film and snap photos and shove most of it in a drawer and write and draw and film and snap more photos. Burn a pie or two and throw it out and make another pie.

I'm making pants this week. I'm making the same pattern I made before, months ago, the ones I'm wearing today. That time, it took me three tries to install the zipper. I wrote a note on the pattern about it. You know how many tries it took me to install the zipper this time, notes and all? Three. I also cut the waistband the wrong length and had to rip it all off again when I thought it was all done but the hook, eye, and hem. So what? Next week I'm gonna have a new pair of pants that Miss Thai has not yet lovingly shredded during laptime. I could've had 'em this weekend, but what's the hurry? If I have to go to the farmer's market or the game in a pair of pants with cat claw snags all over them, anybody who notices will forget in five minutes and in any case what kind of person notices things like that and actually cares about them? Nobody whose opinion I respect.

I don't know how that game's gonna turn out. I don't know what we'll be doing in it in more than very vague outline. But I'm not on deadline, I know my audience intimately, and I'm quite sure that, even if it's a train wreck, we're gonna have fun and we're gonna laugh a lot.

My WIP is also kind of a train wreck. But there's a lot of potential there. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, maybe in the end this'll be the one that puts me on the roster of classics; or maybe no one but me will ever read it. But nobody's gonna read it if I don't write it.

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15. "The Market" is Bunk

So I've had this thing to say ever since I read the New Yorker article about how Sims almost didn't happen and how it almost didn't have same-sex relationships in it. (Go read it; it's not long.)

I have been not feeling like expressing myself on this topic here, partly for a concatenation of personal stuff crap that has kept me from feeling like posting anything thoughtful at all, and partly because this blog primarily exists to give people who google me something dynamic to see besides my peripatetic newsgroup activity, which is mostly about Forteana and gaming. Since I expect (hope) at least some of the people who do so will be agents, editors, and other people in the industry deciding whether they want to have dealings with me, my strong opinion about What's Wrong with Publishing may not be the best thing to have turning up in that context.

But you know what? At this point, I have so little to lose, screw it.

What this article crystallized for me is the reality that the people in charge of marketing, in any given media industry, don't have a clear or realistic idea of what their market is.

In this specific article, two quotes from the interviewee stand out: “I guess straight guys that make sports games loved the idea of controlling two lesbians.” and "I don’t think they understand that family friendly can include gay people." The first sentence demonstrates that he participates in the same narrow construction of the audience that he complains of in the second. He is assuming that the reason the crowd at the game expo went wild over the incidental female/female kiss in the background of the Sims video was that they were all macho jerks with voyeuristic intentions; but that's a huge assumption to make even about the audience at a videogame trade show in 1999.

Time has shown that Sims players (and bear in mind that the Sims franchise is one of the most consistently profitable in the industry) are a dedicated, creative, patient, and overwhelmingly female bunch; to the point that I default to feminine rather than masculine pronouns when referring to players of unknown gender in a sims-fanbase context online, and am usually correct. He was at the trade show and I wasn't, so it's safe to say this wasn't the case with the industry people who saw the video and that most of them were, indeed, male; but it is hardly fair to assume that they wanted to "control lesbians" rather than being excited at the prospect of a full-life simulator that is flexible enough to allow a wide range of human behaviors. That, in fact, they were decent human beings attracted by a really cool concept with vast potential.

And yet, these same assumptions about the gaming audience are repeatedly made by marketers. I see them shooting themselves in the foot over and over in advertising. A great many people who had been excited about Sims4 dropped all intention to buy it when they saw a trailer apparently targeting antisocial 13-year-old boys; and those who did not do so were discussing ways to circumvent and mod out features that they found offensive or limiting (such as an "insane" trait) at the point that I blocked the "sims4" tag on tumblr. (Because heaven spare me from edition wars and I'm perfectly happy with my Sims2.) Yes, the misogynistic jerk gamer is a reality (google "Gamergate" and see!), just as Westboro Baptist Church is, but the one is no more a fair representation of the hobby than the latter is of Christians. (And by the way, why would you want to cater to a morally bankrupt marketbase like that when you can market to people you'd like if you met them?)

We see the same thing over and over and over, where ever media are sold. I was in a panel at last year's World Con devoted to the question of why a certain niche market wasn't filled, and the panelists kept coming back to "there isn't a market" even when the market stood up in front of them and said "Here I am." I cannot hear "There isn't a market" or "the market doesn't want" or any such similar constructions, said by anybody, and not hear: "I don't know how to sell to that market and am not interested in learning."

I would like to say at this time that I do not feel victimized by this as a writer. Do I think big publishers could do a better job of promotion for the books that need it the most? Sure; and this has included me in the past; but that has nothing to do with me at the moment. Even if it contributes to the reasons why I'm not selling any new books right now, it would only be a small part of my problem.

I do occasionally, however, feel victimized as a reader. I'm a lot closer to the assumed core book market than a lot of people, and I never have a shortage of stuff to read, or come out of a bookstore without an uneasy feeling that I shouldn't have spent so much; yet even I get tired of heterosexual romantic interests, white characters, fantasy worlds based on medieval Europe, and a whole cluster of assumptions about what will appeal to me based on the idea that I'm from either California or New York, white, middle-class, and unwilling to try too hard to understand an alien viewpoint; or that, if I'm not like that, I fantasize about being that way and can easily identify with a type of person who could not be expected to identify with me. If even I feel slighted and confined, how much worse must it be for people who are dismissed as not being part of the market at all?

It's true I'm a crappy marketer myself. I don't know how to sell stuff; because the moment anyone tries to sell me something, I don't want it. I want to find things for myself. I wouldn't presume, in the normal course of things, to tell somebody else how to do their job, especially when I know their job is one I couldn't do.

But in this instance - I'm right.

And I may not know how to solve this problem; but I do have enough faith in marketing people to believe that, if they can have that epiphany and realize that they are defining the products they represent right out of a huge potential for growth, they can learn how to change their approach to exploit that potential.

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16. Idea Garage Sale: Running Down the Hill

Worst Nightmare Ever.

Excuse me if I've done this before. It's hard to believe I haven't, but searching relevant tags, I can't find it.

I had this dream when I was in first grade. Maybe younger, but I think it was first grade.

My little sister and I are being pursued by a Monster. Nothing wildly original about this Monster - it's just the Frankenstein variety, and it's slow, but it's tireless. We're not. My sister is so small and I'm running so fast down the hill in the unfamiliar suburban neighborhood that she flies out behind me like a ragdoll as I'm holding her hand, running, and we're both screaming at the top of our lungs, no words just screaming, the most penetrating continuous little kid screams we can muster as we run down the hill, in the dusk, down the middle of a quiet street faced by two rows of neat quiet houses with lights in the windows.

And as we run past screaming and the Monster lumbers after us, at each house, the curtains are drawn and the lights go out.

That's where I woke up. But that's where the story starts, isn't it?

Because no one will help these children and they are too small, the Monster is too big, slow as it is they will be too tired to run anymore, the little sister and big sister will lose their grips and the little sister will fall on the asphalt, get all scraped up, and the screams will change and the people inside those ordinary neat quiet houses will hear the change, and remain safe in their quiet neat dark houses, dark as their hearts that did nothing -

And there will be consequences, and the story is about the consequences.

And I am afraid to write it because when I was little I was running down that hill. But to be a grownup is to be the person turning the lights off.

And anyway I can't really write horror. I'm not ruthless enough.

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17. Fear of?

I was migrainey this weekend, and could not make myself write a blog post. Sorry. Much better today, but getting a query out and starting a new sewing project are time consuming.

I am also having a little difficulty, at the moment, forcing myself to perform serious, coordinated, public speech. This makes querying very hard indeed, as terror seizes me in the moment before hitting "send" or sealing the envelope. I don't know what this terror is about, but it's remarkably similar to fear of the dark, both in the way it feels, and the degree to which it is productive or meaningful.

The good news is, it's only fear. No one has ever yet chopped off my hands for daring to send a query, any more than the monster has ever seized me from behind on my way to the bathroom. The important thing here is to know that, once I get the button hit or the envelope sealed, the fear will go away. (As it will when I return to bed, feeling every so much better. And no, it never, ever occurs to me to turn on the lights.) So that's an incentive to do the deed and get it over with.

This is not the same as a full-on anxiety attack. I don't get short of breath, I don't shake, my chest doesn't hurt, none of that stuff. If querying gives you those symptoms, seek professional help - it's no good resigning yourself to never getting what you want because your body is doing stupid crap to you so you can't take the steps necessary to deal with it. Not when there is such a thing as professional help!

If you're afraid of doing something that is necessary to get what you want, and it's not a full-on treatable condition, and you don't face the fear down and do what is necessary - you not only not going to get what you want, ever, guaranteed; but you will also continue being afraid. All that is necessary to make that sick feeling go away is, to do the necessary thing.

Anyway, if I fail to meet your Free Idea Generation needs in the future, I suggest you get on tumbler. The thing is overflowing with them. Rejected Princesses, for example, chock-full of real-life (more or less) heroines you never heard of. Medieval POC is also chock-full of inspiration. So, see, you don't need me! (Slinks off to cut out slacks.)

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18. Idea Garage Sale: That Witch Girl

That Witch Girl story I linked to still bothers me.

I don't like even calling her "Witch Girl" because that implies more than is known; also, the Italian usage of it may imply something different than what leaps to my English-primary mind.

The key thing is the contrast. Why and how does anyone get buried in a dishonored position in an honored place? How sure are the archeologists that she was buried face-down, and that the position is not down to the body shifting in the coffin during decomposition? (Or even, because she was buried alive?)

She was 13 years old. How does a thirteen-year-old girl arouse enough ire and respect to be buried dishonorably in a place of honor?

And then I look at who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year and remember, Oh, yeah, teenage girls are awesome. Teenage girls require the entire weight of societal disapproval, scorn, and trivialization to keep them down, and then it often doesn't work. If anybody's going to get that kind of reaction, it's a teenage girl!

She was a 13-year-old girl. She had some kind of power. She was not mature enough to wield that power safely; was she mature enough to take advice without relinquishing it? What kind of power was it? Over whom?

She died. Does that mean she couldn't exercise that power on her own behalf? That she trusted the wrong people?

Did she save anyone else?

This is a book that deserves to be researched; but it is a theme that deserves theorizing ahead of the data.

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19. The Writing Life

So what do you do when the market research once again has devolved into deciding "nope, that agent's a crappy match too," checking tumbler one more, and staring hostilely at the next in line? And the floor hasn't been swept all week and the dishes need doing (and you know for a fact that cat has walked all over the cutting board so, bleach) and the mending is still there?

You go write more story, of course.

Because who are you if you don't do that?

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20. Idea Garage Sale: Humans Among Them

So we've all read and identified with stories of aliens among humans. I've written them myself (my first book, Otto from Otherwhere, and there's a short story about an alien anthropologist living in a trailer park in the December '91 issue of Asimov's). In a world where everyone (even those people most catered to by society, who are often the biggest crybabies about how misunderstood they are) feels isolated and picked on, this is natural enough. Space aliens, fay, wild talents - in addition to such characters being inherently cool they also provide a paradoxically safe metaphorical way to explore the very real grievances of the marginalized without upsetting the gatekeepers of literature, who are inevitably invested in the status quo, too awfully much. Which is a problem in itself but I'm not dealing the problems of society today, I'm looking at a problem in the tropes, which is -

That in the abductee literature from which the alien-in-human-society tropes are derived, what actually happens is that a human goes to live in alien society.

Changelings are abducted by fairies and kept for a time; possibly seven years, possibly life. The entity left in exchange for the changeling dies, either because it was a sickly fairy child elected for the swap because it wasn't going to live, because it was an old fay disguised as an infant, or because it was a stock of wood to begin with. (Or because the parents tortured it to death trying to get it to reverse the swap. There is an ugly, ugly reality behind the changeling myth and again, not going into that today.) In the alien abduction narratives of the nineties, human men and women were used for reproductive purposes, but the alien hybrid babies were either cultivated with stolen genes or harvested after a short incubation period and taken away, though sometimes the parents were allowed to see them briefly. In neither tradition is the alien raised in human society; the reverse is always true.

The fates of fairy changelings are occasionally explored in modern fantasy, but the emphasis is not on their experience, but on the efforts of the changeling's family to rescue them, or on the perceptions outsiders in the fairy court have of them. There's a disjunct between fairy traditions, which universally declare that the motive of the fairies in abducting babies is to raise them as their own children, and modern tropes, which tend to portray changelings as pets or slaves, a fate reserved for adults taken by fairies in the oral literature. The literary beginning of this change in perception of fairy motives is marked by the conflict between Titania, who wants to keep her dead human friend's child to raise, and Oberon, who wants to use him as a servant, which kicks off the magic hijinks in A Midsummer Night's Dream. (It has always bothered me that Oberon, having used an enchantment to cheat Titania of her adopted son, is allowed to retain this victory.) I am not aware of any science fiction that has yet treated the alien hybrid raised among aliens experience in any significant way.

I start here from my usual standpoint in dealing with Fortean material. I am not interested in whether or not the abduction experience has an objective reality; but for the purposes of a fiction I feel obliged to deal with the source material as if it is objectively true within the fictional world. Despite the broad similarities in the abduction experience that researchers (particularly John Mack and Budd Hopkins) claimed to find, there's a lot of leeway in this source material. Even the classic abductors, the Gray Aliens, have a surprising amount of variety when looked at in detail; and the reasons they gave for the cross-breeding project were vague and contradictory. Were they trying to inject some hybrid vigor into their own inbred and over-refined species? Were they trying to create a master race made up of a little bit of the genetic potential of all the intelligent races in the galaxy/universe/interdimensional crossroads/whatever unit of space/time they're dealing with? Were they trying to preserve the human race, which is scheduled to drive itself to extinction in the foreseeable future (which may yet be quite a long time, if the aliens think in geologic time spans and humans in terms of human lifetimes)? Was this pure or applied research? Presumably some of the inconsistencies between stories involve different factions with different purposes for similar research (think how many different specific experiments white mice and Rhesus monkeys who share the experience of taking part in medical research would have to compare) - what are the implications of these factions for the alien hybrids they create?

I get why this hasn't been done. You'd - well, I'd, some people are less fussed about this than me - have to read a whole bunch of abduction literature (and it'd be best if you could read Spanish and Portuguese, because there's an extensive South American abduction literature which is not available in translation) and do a lot of extrapolative world-building, just to figure out what kind of environment the human hybrid protagonist is raised in. Mother ship? Space station? Planet-based colony? Home planet? Are they adopted out to normal alien families, or raised in a creche with other half-humans, or with a melting pot of different species of hybrids?

What normal human abilities seem magic, funny, contemptible, or cute to normal aliens? Do people pity them for not being able to see infrared, and dismiss the ability to see the frequencies we think of as "visible light" as a trivial party trick? Do humans who can't develop psi power past the point of receiving telepathic communication and feeling when someone is staring at them get treated as defective? Do intersex hybrids, fitting into the norms of their alien society, have an advantage over hybrids who fall definitively into "male" and "female" categories? Is the heroine inherently scary because she has teeth? Is she disadvantaged in public spaces because she only has five fingers on each hand and is not naturally ambidextrous? Are her mating choices dictated or restricted? Do people stereotype her based on what they read in popular novels? Is she romanticized by one group, vilified by another? Is there a hybrid solidarity movement; and does it truly serve the needs of all hybrids? Do they love the alien parents who raised them and regard their human progenitors as strange and distant? Do they even know they're hybrids?

How do you write all this without making it just another lame metaphorical saga encompassing all marginalized groups and representing none?

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21. Dreaming the Solution

Last night I had a dream that clearly exposed and worked out some major plot problems.

Unfortunately, I realized about five minutes after waking up, they were for a book I am not writing and know nothing about.


Butt back in chair. At the moment I don't even believe in the WIP. Which is not a reason not to work on it.

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22. Idea Garage Sale: Someone Your Own Size

One of the reasons bullies exist is, that people like to feel powerful, and some people are so ineffective in the world, that tormenting those who can't fight back is the only avenue they see open to them to gain this satisfaction.

One of the traditional admonishments of bullies is the odd one: "Why don't you go pick on someone your own size?" As if picking on people weren't a bad thing in and of itself. (And as if the reason weren't clear enough: "Because I might lose a fair fight.")

But suppose we have a bully character who takes the implied advice.

How does she determine relative size? A kid in a wheelchair may be the same size, but at a physical disadvantage - how does she count on the "size" scale? And just because the bully perceives a physical disadvantage, doesn't mean it's real - perhaps the kid in the wheelchair has highly-developed upper body strength, not to mention a large metal object she's adept at using. Adults viewing an altercation between a large muscular kid and the scrawny science nerd will not factor in the nerd's grasp of strategy and knowledge of anatomy, which the bully knows make her the most deadly opponent in sixth grade.

How different is bullying from a dominance battle between two animals who must share territory?

What about cyberbullies? How do you judge relative size on the internet? Especially since nothing is done in isolation there - one side or the other is capable of attracting a swarm, and it often can't be predicted ahead of time which.

Suppose a person who starts as a bully, but is intelligent and self-aware enough to understand and admit to herself her own motivations, realizes that the only other people the same size as her are - other bullies? And she starts picking solely on them?

Does that turn her into a hero over time? Does it turn other bullies into victims? (They'll certainly think so - nobody howls louder than a bully who gets some of his own back.)

Does it matter why she does something; or does it only matter how she is perceived by those around her?

Dig too deep here and you get into the insoluble problem of human evil. So don't dig too deep. Stick to developing the character.

What even counts as a happy ending here?

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23. News: Italian Witch Girl Burial

A Vatican archeological team has dug up an unexpected burial in northern Italy. In a privileged position in front of the church, the 13-year-old girl was buried in the disgraced face-down position, and she was not at all healthy while she lived.

Nothing revealed so far indicates why she was buried this way, but she's already been dubbed "The Witch Girl," and if you don't see the YA novel waiting to happen here, I don't even know why you're at this blog.

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24. News: Art is Older than You Thought

For the longest time, the assumption has been that the cave paintings of southern Europe indicate an artistic revolution that happened when humans got to Europe.

To the surprise of absolutely no one who has been paying attention to archeology's big picture, some artworks in Indonesia, when someone gets around to dating them, prove to be even older.

Yup. That's how it works. If we had the first piece of art, it would hail from Africa. Like everything else human.

We really, seriously, need to get used to that.

Nothing is more human than art. If there's art, there's a human. If there's humans, there's art. Count on it.

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25. News: Death Sucks :P

Zilpha Keatley Snyder died.

All I ever wanted was a career like hers. But our own career is all we ever get. I never met her, so this is not a personal loss. The books, after all, are still here.

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