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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. Idea Garage Sale: The Library Angel

So, you know how you're looking for information on something and not getting it, but you're deep in the stacks looking for something else and this book falls on your head and lands on the floor open to the page that directly addresses your question?

Or you find something shelved in the wrong area of the library, the right one being a place you would never ever go, and when you pull it out you realize that this is the book you desperately needed but didn't know enough to look for?

Or you're walking past a section that you know is completely irrelevant to your research topic, but the librarian has made a display and the cover of one sets off your Research Topic Alarm bells and sunovagun, that's the only book in the section you could use and it sends you in a whole new direction?

Or you put a book back and it bumps up against something and you dig back there and find a book that should have been culled a couple of years ago, but it was caught in the middle of the stack and overlooked and it's an obscure title by your favorite author?

Arthur Koestler dubbed this "the library angel," and you know what's weird?

As much as writers love and rely on the library angel, they don't write books about it. Okay, so a quick search turns up a Kindle novel with that title on Amazon, but it's a psychological thriller. Which I don't understand, because this is a concept that'd make a great picture book; or an early reader; or a middle-grade fantasy. The Library Angel is at least as viable a fantasy character as the Tooth Fairy, Fairy Godmothers, leprechauns, Santa Claus, and all the other pop-culture and traditional entities that populate the modern mind and the picture book/early reader section.

Think about it - a picture book following a Library Angel around a busy day of library service, producing just the right blue medium-sized book that the patron can't remember the title of, hiding a title that'll be needed in two weeks but is about to get culled right now, mis-shelving things that the library clerks (not knowing any better) have put in the correct place where the person who needs it will never find it, shoving a book out just enough that the stubborn person who won't ask for help can see it. Her love/hate relationship with the Computer Gremlins. Her professional meetings with the Angels of other libraries and those of bookstores. The threat of library closures - how can they help? The challenge of working in an underfunded library in an underserved part of the city.

We all care about this stuff. Perhaps too intensely to be whimsical about it. But are whimsy and passion really that incompatible? Not in a picture book, I don't think.

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2. Idea Garage Sale: Alien Adoption

So there's this adopted teen girl, a Type A personality, who's grown up with all the best adoption fantasies about her biological parents. She loves her adopted folks, of course, but they're so ordinary! And everyone agrees she's extraordinary. She's smart and not afraid to show it (or a know-it-all), she's a natural leader (or bossy, depending on your perspective), she's confident, she's defiant and talented and rebellious and Going Places, with her best friend trailing in her wake.

Her best friend, a quiet reflective type, is the one who overhears the alien secret agents talking in the marsh where they figure no humans will hear them. (She's in a bird blind, trying to see rails. Type A girl doesn't have the time or patience to hang out in bird blinds.) A female (more or less) alien secret agent had a liaison with a human, and Type A girl is the result. She put the baby up for adoption because her own lifestyle was too dangerous to be encumbered by her. Maybe the father died from getting mixed up with aliens? In accordance with the best adoption fantasy, the mother has kept an eye on her offspring.

Best Friend can't wait to tell Type A girl, who immediately sets out to make contact with her biological mother. The alien thing makes total sense and explains all kinds of things about her natural superiority to everybody else! It takes a bit of finagling, but the reunion is effected and Type A girl gets to go live in alien society.

Where she's not only nothing special, she's embarrassing and a bit shameful, though threats to her can be used as a lever when someone wants something from her mother...and she's not supposed to see Best Friend or her Adoptive Parents any more.

In fact the whole set-up blows chunks and she wants to go home. But she knows way too much about the aliens now...

Before you could even begin this story, of course, you'd have to know what's up with the aliens. Obviously there's factions involved, but what do these factions want? How and why are alien secret agents operating on earth?

And what do we mean by "aliens" here anyway? Extraterrestrials? Ultraterrestrials? Fay? Dimension-hoppers? Why should any of these be cross-fertile with humans?

How is Type A girl different from her parent stock, and how is she the same? What is the result of hybridization, and what does she do with that, once she gets past the showing-off stage?

For best results, this should be written by someone who grew up adopted.

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3. The Red Lady of the Painted Caves

A 19,000-year old burial in Iberia - a very special one, apparently. She was buried with red ocher and flowers, her grave was even marked - but she seems to have been dug up and chewed by dogs, and then reburied! How does all this fit together? The archeologists can only gather data, but no one at this date can say why.

That would be the storyteller's job!

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4. Idea Garage Sale: Vampire Beach Baby

She was six years old when some stupid grown-up made her a vampire.

All she wanted to do was go to the beach with her best friend!

I hate vampires, and I hate the whole "evil child" trope. Possibly that's where this dream came from.

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5. Death Sucks.

Sir Terry Pratchett died today. There's tributes all over tumblr. Lots of quotes. For a funny guy he gave us a lot of appropriate quotes about death. But then Death was one of his funniest characters.

This is as good a reason as any to reread Small Gods, I guess. A lot of people will be binge-reading Discworld. Maybe I'll be one.

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6. Idea Garage Sale: The Bleeding Rolling Pin

I think that may be profanity in England, but I'm in Texas, so relax.

Last night I was making a quiche, with my nearly-brand-new rolling pin, only used once before, when it started bleeding all over the cloth and one corner of the crust I was rolling. For a moment I was positive I was in a horror movie!

A little experimentation demonstrated that an improbable amount of red-tinged water was trapped inside and leaking out around the handle. When it came trickling out it was obviously not bloody, at all - more probably traces of tomato paste and maybe some oxidation, if there's anything metal inside the pin; only the consistency of the dough and the cloth gave it the illusion of more body. So I put the pin by the sink to figure out how best to clean it properly later, changed cloths, tore off the contaminated part of the pie crust, finished rolling it out with a glass tumbler, and thought about the possibilities if it had been blood.

Many a cozy mystery has been born out of some similar mundane incident. Part of the appeal of the mystery genre is the way small details of daily life transform into vitally important signposts leading the world from chaos and mayhem back to justice and order. Similarly, part of the effect of horror is the incongruous intrusion of the bizarre and deadly into the familiar and secure. Like the family kitchen, presided over by the smiling cook who bakes love into every meal and so on.

Why would a rolling pin be bleeding?

Because it had battered someone to death and been imperfectly cleaned afterward? It'd take a lot of blunt-force trauma to make the average rolling pin into a murder weapon - but there is such a thing as a marble rolling pin, and that is plenty heavy enough for the job. The implication is of an unplanned, but meticulous, murder, by someone using a weapon of opportunity, with sufficient time to tidy up the evidence afterward, but insufficient experience of this rolling pin to anticipate the problem with cleaning it. Where, I wonder, did this person hide the body? If a body with a battered head had been found in the kitchen, presumably everything heavy in it would have been taken by the police to match to the wound.

If this is a horror story, though, the blood could well be revenge from beyond the grave - the rolling pin used to make the poisoned pie, or even the pie containing the Forbidden Ingredients that would poison only the allergic victim. The cook has misused the power of the kitchen; and the spirit of the dead haunts her through the kitchen which is her personal kingdom. Or perhaps the kitchen has a spirit of its own, a genius locii, that objects to being used in this way and will never let her cook in peace again. Who is the cook, and who the victim, and what is the relationship of the kitchen to either?

Or maybe only she can see the blood - if the story is one of psychological horror, if she's been kidding herself that she didn't mean to kill her neighbor by feeding her a pie with peanutbutter as the secret ingredient, but her conscience won't let her get away with that crap.

It is one of the great truths of life that two women may share a house, but not a kitchen. Kitchens are like ships - someone must be in charge, or no one can ever find anything.

And, as all the best horror and mystery writers know, that is exactly the kind of conflict from which the most savage hatreds spring.

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7. Idea Garage Sale: A Day Late and a Dollar Short, or Farming Out

Yesterday was just One of Those Days, but there's still no shortage of ideas out there.

One thing that has struck me, doing market research for the short story project, is how specific many modern markets are, to the point that many don't seem to me worth writing for on spec, but only with a contract in hand. That, however, is the perspective of someone with a few publications under her belt and a sufficiency of her own projects to work on without undertaking somebody else's concept. For someone in need of credits, and perhaps a need for exterior motivation, these markets no doubt look much more reasonable.

Consider The Legacy Anthology. The publishers have a concept for an assemblage of individual stories creating a larger story. This cross between a "round robin story" and "shared world anthology" strikes me as problematic, but if they can find twelve different authors who can slot together well enough while retaining enough of their individuality to justify the extra labor, more power to them.

And then there's The First Line, which gives you the first line of the story, a deadline, and a flat-rate payment on acceptance; and you supply everything else, sink or swim. Well, the chance to get paid for doing writing exercises does have its appeal...

Or The Metaphysical Circus, which pays an attractive word rate, but requires that all submitters be signed up to their e-mail list; plus their guidelines include the statement: "At their heart, such stories contain an ontological dilemma..." I'm not sure I'm up for ontological dilemmas, and although "Thou Shalt Read the Magazine" is the number-one commandment for freelancers submitting to periodical markets, I personally am unwilling to join a club in the hope of getting paid. It's probably somebody's ideal environment, though.

In short, if you want to write for publication, you need to keep up with the markets; and if you can't find a market for what you've got, nothing whatever is wrong with writing something to fit. I have before now written such a story, not sold it to the original market, reworked it a bit, and resold it elsewhere. It's an old freelancer dodge.

But how, you ask, do you keep up with the markets?

Once upon a time I'd have told you about printed market guides; but in the world of online publishing these are always behind the times. It's part of your professional job to actively watch out for new publications, and keep up with changes in old ones; but no one can subscribe to every prospective market, much less read them all. Where there's a need, ideally, there's an entrepreneur, and paying for a service that keeps up with the kinds of markets you're comfortable writing for is a legitimate tax-deductible expense. (As are any subscriptions you maintain to markets to which you submit.) I'm subscribed to Market Maven, from which I've shaken loose those examples, and if it doesn't suit you, now you know such a thing exists, you can start looking for one better tailored to your needs.

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8. Idea Garage Sale: The Fog of Lethargy

Something's come over the house today. Damon and I normally wake up at 7:40 for NPR's Sunday puzzle. I managed, thanks to the cat wanting his breakfast, to get up and turn the radio on, but Damon would not wake up to play it with me. And the next thing we knew it was a quarter to ten. Damon was up pretty late last night, but I wasn't, and here it is 11:30 and I'm still groggy, alternately staring at the screen, playing solitaire, or flipping through the Fortean Times I got yesterday thinking: "There's that; but no, I can't face all the ramifications of changeling murder, not this morning." It's as if some sort of magic, will-sucking fog lay over the house, maybe even the neighborhood - I haven't heard a car pass or a dog bark all morning, come to think of it the Presbyterian church hasn't rung its carillon -

Wait. There you go. There's a fog over a town, or a part of a town, draining the energy from the inhabitants. That implies that someone needs that energy? For what purpose? Hardly a benign one; or, if it started as benign (and few people set out to do evil) it has been corrupted by setting up the transfer using a pool of people who have been provided no information and given no consent. It must be something pretty big to need a whole Sunday morning's worth of personal energy.

The nature of the lethargy fog is hardly important. The technobabble explaining it can be spun however you like, depending on whether you're going for fantasy, science fiction, or magical realism. The important issues are who is creating it, and why. Answer those questions, and the rest of the story will start to gel. Is the protagonist the person setting up the fog, and what does this act do to his character arc? Is it someone from within the fog cloud, and how does she go about learning the truth and doing something about it, given the handicap of the fog's effects? As a person affected, I find I prefer that the hero not be some outsider, that the town and its denizens not be a mere abstract marker for how depraved the villain is, helplessly waiting for the hero to come to the rescue, but this is a perfectly valid thing to happen in, for instance, an episodic superhero comic.

I'm sorry; I'm too sleepy to work it out any further. You can take it from here.

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9. The Absurd Leading the Sublime

So I've been reading something amazing on tumblr for awhile now, and it has reached a point at which I think it might be amazing even to people without the background to catch all the nuances, so I will speak of it.

Heimlichbourger's simblr is dedicated to detailing a "Test of Time Challenge," a style of play in which, by use of mods and rulesets, the player sets up a "prehistoric" neighborhood, with a limited range of items and interactions allowed, and attempts to build it organically into the typical roughly contemporary game setting by meeting specific criteria and playing through different eras with different mods and rulesets. It is, essentially, a way to play with the themes of games like the classic "Civilization" without losing the intense focus on individuals and domestic details on which Sims2 players thrive - a kind of soap opera worldbuilding. Far more people start than finish this difficult, long-term play challenge. Heimlichbourger added some refinements: three different geographical areas with three different types of sims - plantsims, ape sims, and werewolves - and three distinct social systems; and a ruleset that involves a bottom-up plan of development, so that instead of guiding sims through preconceived stages of civilization, the different cultures and histories develop according to the desires, behaviors, and characters of the sims responding to the challenges thrown at them by the game and the rules.

The result is epic, with myths generating themselves before the audience's eyes. If you only want to follow one simblr, follow this one, not mine - this is simultaneously something completely new in storytelling, and a harking back to the roots of all story.

Which sounds grandiose for something which, by its nature, will appeal most to a tightly niche audience. I believe that people who don't play this game will be able to appreciate what's happening here, because it is so good. But I know that only those who play the game themselves will appreciate it to its maximum potential, without being thrown off by things like sims in ape suits endlessly making potholders on a treadle sewing machine because that's the only way the game provides to simulate mastering the sewing skill enough to "unlock" tailored clothing. And quite a lot of people will be unable to get past such absurdities to appreciate it at all.

And this is fine. No one can like everything, and the fact that some people won't be able to make the mental accommodations necessary to enjoy something doesn't invalidate the quality of the work. My inability to fully appreciate (or even properly experience) classical music, or a basketball game, or grand master-level chess does not diminish the beauties of those things. The Grand Canyon will be an astounding sight, whether or not I ever go see it, or can bring myself to go down into it (balance issues would probably make the trip more terrifying than gratifying). Mathematical theorems that might as well be blank holes in the paper for all I am capable of comprehending them lose none of their beauty or elegance for my lack of comprehension. If a purpose for humanity exists, it must be to witness and give meaning to the world, yet a hummingbird migration is an event of wonder and joy, whether human eyes witness it or not.

Between human creativity and the natural productions of the universe, we live in a world comprised of more beauty, more cleverness, more sheer fun than any one of us can even hope to see, much less understand.

And that is a humbling, exhilarating, wonderful thing.

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10. Idea Garage Sale: Down with Love

So, on the day after Valentine's Day, let us stop and reflect on just how annoying the emphasis on romance is in our culture.

Did you know that some people are asexual and/or aromantic? Asexuals aren't sexually attracted to anybody. Aromantics love their families, their friends, and their puppies, but the whole gazing-into-the-eyes-lets-feed-eachother-chocolates thing to which Valentine's Day and 99% of pop music is devoted is as interesting to them as a football game is to me: Yeah, I see that a lot of people are into that but I don't get it and furthermore, I don't want to.

Me, I like romantic subtext as much as the next person; I'm very much in love with my husband; and I can ship Destiel with the best of them. But it bugs me when I see friendship sexualized. Holmes and Watson, Kirk and Spock, Jeeves and Wooster, Scully and Mulder - why can't they be best friends without a sexual or romantic element? Why can't we have a male/female team in a movie who are clearly close and supportive without having a trajectory heading toward bed or the altar by the closing credits? Love and sex are independent variables and there's more than one kind of love - even between adults.

And if those things bug me, what kind of media hell are asexuals and aromantics living in? It must be like living in a world in which sports infiltrates every single story; in which the climax of each movie involves a Big Game; in which, if a work contains no overt sports content, everyone and his dog rushes to headcanon sports subtext into it.

Worse, if a character is introduced who appears to be asexual or aromantic, they will almost certainly be treated as if something is wrong with them, and they will either become a running joke or get an arc in which they discover that they really needed a (probably heterosexual) romantic relationship to be happy, after all. It's obnoxious enough to see disabilities treated in this way; for a non-disabling characteristic to be shoehorned into the disability category in order for it to be subjected to an obnoxious trope is a real excess of obnoxiousness.

I know this, and for the most part I have managed to avoid it, chiefly by writing for middle grade audiences. The middle grades are as subject to romantic pressures as older people, but the fact that the adults acting as gatekeepers equate romance with sex and judge sex to be inappropriate for kids younger than a certain age to be thinking about - though problematic in its own way - does at least provide room to tell stories with no romantic content at all.

But how does one do it for older audiences?

A single-sex cast won't do. The hordes of queer readers out there, who aren't as starved for representation as aromantics but are still really hungry and accustomed to surviving on crumbs, latch onto single-sex casts in a frenzy of queershipping so powerful it will probably affect the creator, too; and it's hard to blame them. But if the heteroromantics get the banquets, and the homoromantics get the crumbs, what is left for the aromantics to keep them alive?

The all-pervasive romantic/sexual cultural script is so strong, so all-pervasive, we write into it whether we mean to or not. Bucking this is a major technical challenge. I would like to see it done.

Specifically, I would like to see it done in a Valentine's Day story. Why not confront the monster head on? Why not have a plot centered on the pressures applied to aromantics and asexuals to be what they're not, to fake feelings that are supposed by the culture to be sacred? It's Valentine's Day, and the heroine has had it up to here with the matchmaking, the prude-shaming, the condescension, the judgement, and the pity. She's mad as hell and she's not going to take it anymore!

But what does she do about it? Answer that, and you've got the story.

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11. Tax time again.

We always try to get ours knocked out in February, so it's not hanging over us. All I have to do is make sure the writing ledger is in order and show up at the appointment along with Damon on Monday.

I keep making tea and hoping it'll enable me to move ten feet into the chair in front of the desk with the ledger on it.

It's not working.

There's something about numbers, like a repelling force field.

Do as I say, not as I do. Keep up with your ledger during the year and have everything ready to go at tax time. So you don't have to go through this.

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12. Still better than a soul-sucking day job

Yesterday morning, I sat down to write a short story and realized half a page into it that it was about how office work sucks anywhere you go in the galaxy, and I couldn't face it. If I were still in the soul-sucking day job I could probably write it as a safety valve, and might even be able to make it funny.

This morning, I got a good rejection. Oh, yeah, there's such a thing. It talks about the razor-sharp writing and original premise and makes it hard to understand why it's a rejection. Do yourself a favor - don't try to parse this stuff. Put the good parts in your permanent memory, file the rejection, and move on.

Don't try to do this job if it's not what you want most in the world. Because the most successful writers I know still have days when They Just Can't and get both good and bad rejections. The more successful you are, in fact, the more rejections you get - because to be successful you have to submit a lot, and it's a buyer's market. Rejection is always more likely than acceptance, and sometimes acceptance turns to rejection when a company changes hands, an editor moves house, or a budget gets cut.

You have to be able to live off the good parts, take the rest in stride, and keep on going, for yourself.

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13. Idea Garage Sale: The Cat Within

You, right now, this minute, as you sit here catching up on your blog reading, turn into a cat. What happens?

"Wait, what? How did I turn into a cat? Is this supposed to be magic, a curse, a mad scientist dosing my coffee, what?"

Well, that's the difference between idea and execution, isn't it? Every single person who ever starts from an idea like this will develop it individually. How and why the transformation happens will depend whether the author prefers fantasy, science fiction or horror.

Nor are those questions the ones that matter most. The difference between fantasy and science fiction is largely one of imagery and is of no particular moment to the story itself. No, the important story questions are: What problems are created by you turning into a cat? and What problems are solved that way?

The development of these problems into a plot, and the florescence of plot into story, will depend on who you are and what your life is like. Are you fond of, disgusted by, or indifferent to cats? Do you have a pet and how will it respond to you as a cat? Who do you live with, and how will those people react? Where are you supposed to go and what are you supposed to do after catching up on your blogs? Are you better qualified to write about dogs, horses, birds, or armadillos than cats?

The question that brings the story to its resolution is: How much control do you have over the transformation?

Writing a story is a matter of asking questions of yourself, and finding the answers however you can.

It's just that simple.

It's just that hard.

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14. And it's all good...

This week, I have read a great many things that made me angry. But that's not what this blog is about.

This week, I also sat down, wrote a short story, polished it up, and submitted it at a market I haven't appeared in for much too long a time.

Maybe it'll sell first time, maybe it won't; maybe it won't sell ever - that's not the point. The point is, it's pretty good and when I woke up the morning I drafted it, I had no idea what I was going to write a short story about, but I did it anyway. After a lot of social media futzing and spider solitaire playing and standing in front of the heater staring into space, I planted my butt in the chair and typed the first line, describing the scene around the undefined character in way too much detail, and then the second character came onstage and they started talking. After that, the drafting was easy. Once characters start talking, I start taking dictation, and that's how I find out what a story's about.

Then it was just a matter of going over it, and over it, and over it, cutting out the excess stuff.

It feels good to do what you're good at, and know that you're good at it.

Do not, ever, deprive yourself of that for long. I don't care what it is you're good at, or if you can sell it, or if anybody else appreciates it. You owe it to yourself to do what you're good at, whatever that is, and know that it is good.

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15. Speak and Ye Shall Find

So Thursday morning I had this medical test thing to do and it felt like I was doing "too well" with it, which would mean it wouldn't help much diagnosing whatever's wrong, and that was discouraging, but Thursday afternoon I saw an e-mail, thought, "There's another rejection," opened it up, and it was a sale. Of a short story. Within four days of saying I might spend some time producing short stories again.

It's a six-cent-a-word market, too, which feels great. (Though six cents is still not much for a word, at least it's a bit of an advance over the Depression-era word rates of so many markets. Someday I'd like to work in a field where wages are intended to be enough to live on. Without, you know, changing fields.)

You couldn't ask for a clearer signpost than that. Now I need to poke through all the short story premises in my head and find the one that's closest to ripe so I can get down to it.

And it's Newbery week, and an interesting new publications on Pleistocene art and how to see it when you find it, and altogether I could have more to trouble me than I do.

Besides, maybe doing well on the testing means I'm not as bad off as I fear I am. Stranger things have happened.

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16. Idea Garage Sale: Economy of Inspiration

Not to toot my own horn, but I've often thought that the Switching Well concept has a certain abstract beauty, in that, baldly stated, it generates an infinity possibility of story.

The core concept is: "Two girls swap places across 100 years, without moving geographically."

I did this in San Antonio, and had nothing past that concept and the two anchor points. I learned everything I could about the past anchor point and put a whole lot more effort into understanding the present anchor point than I normally do, and what I learned generated the story. If I had been living in Atlanta, or Detroit, or Paris, or Myanmar, or Panora, Iowa; or started writing in 2015, or 1950, or 2102; it would have been a completely different story.

If you started working on this idea right now, where you live, with a pair of kids who look a lot like you, the end result would be less similar to Switching Well than Twilight is to Dracula; than Hunger Games is to Divergent; than Heroes of Olympus is to Harry Potter is to Jane Yolen's Wizard Hall.

For that matter, Switching Well isn't particularly similar to Penelope Lively's Charlotte Sometimes, which has Clare and Charlotte swapping across a shorter time period, alternating days, and being mistaken for each other, when you read them side by side. And yet, stating the premise of each book, it's clear that the Switching Well idea was not by any means original to me, who read Charlotte Sometimes in junior high.

Originality does not mean what you think it means. We all work within traditions.

Execution is the once and future everything. Steal an idea, make it your own.

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17. I Aten't Dead

Sorry to miss a Sunday. Nothing's wrong. We had to leave for the game a bit earlier than usual, and in the evening I had other stuff going on. Monday I was light-headed, and anyway all the stuff I came up with I'd think: "Naw, I may need that one." And the prime motivation to garage sale ideas is to get the excess ones out of my head to demonstrate how easy they are to generate, not to give away stuff I might use.

Since stalling out on the WIP, I'm considering doing short stories again for awhile. Six books, in various genres and age groups, in the bank unsold is kind of a lot, and they tend to get in the way of my hands as I'm working at novel-length, their unsold state a reproach to me. Starting another full-length work feels a bit like getting pregnant again when I can't feed the kids I've got. But if I'm not writing new stuff -

-- Okay, so, that doesn't happen unless I'm deep in the old depressive hole and not doing anything constructive at all. Every time I try to focus on selling, revising, tweaking, whatever, old stuff, I find myself directing more of that creative energy into some game or other. (Hence the current healthy state of my simblr.) Telling stories is what I do, whether anyone listens or not, and my media for that are text and games.

Short story markets are frustrating in a completely different way than novel markets, of course. But what isn't frustrating most of the time, when you come down to it? If you avoid all frustration, you avoid all accomplishment.



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18. Still Slogging Away

By my standards, having to decide between two equally compatible-looking agents at the same agency to target a query at is a pretty good problem to have.

Unfortunately the process of finding out more about them looks a lot like wasting time on social media. Fortunately, no one is looking at me.

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19. First Query of the Year

It's in the mail. The e-mail. Whatever. And - we'll see.

I believe in Len's story so hard and so much, a part of me is convinced each time I send it out that the person on the other end will see what I see and realize what potential is there, to change the whole game.

And I also find myself believing that, if it once again doesn't happen, that something I did or didn't say or do is at fault. The story is great, so I must be screwing up, right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe the agent just signed somebody else with a transgender western. (We can only hope.) Or maybe she has so many clients she decided to stop taking queries five minutes before mine showed up. Or -

There are a thousand reasons to turn down a query, only one, maybe two, to accept it.

It's hard to remember that when you wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, suddenly certain that what you said in the third paragraph gave entirely the wrong impression and guaranteed rejection. But it's true, whether we remember it or not.

And regardless of whether I screw up or not - I'm the only one who can sell this story, because I was the only one who could write it. So it is my duty to the story to keep it in the mail.

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20. News: Ancient American Dogs

Although even the most conservative archeologists now concede that humans populated the Americas 13,000 or more years ago (with the smart money on "more" and even "way more"), genetic evidence seems to indicate that they did so without dogs, until about 10,000 years ago.

This is based on mitochondrial DNA. Expect refinements and a pushback when someone does a nuclear DNA study. Because that's how it works.

They also found a greater-than-expected amount of genetic diversity in ancient American dogs; the historical "Indian dog" being a recognizable and fairly uniform breed that led researchers to expect a fairly uniform origin. It's a poor scientific study that holds no surprises! (At least in a field like this one, in which the knowledge gaps are so huge.)

As is so often true, this study is limited to North America and ignores Central and South America. Given the distinctive breeds ancient Mexicans produced, and the degree to which focusing on North American human populations distorted our picture of the process of populating the "New World" for so long, I think a study that includes the entire Western Hemisphere cannot be undertaken too soon.

From the point of view of the person wanting to write fiction set in the Pleistocene, the presence or absence of dogs matters a lot. I left dogs out of 11,000 Years Lost, despite a private opinion that Clovis people probably had them, specifically so that I wouldn't have to show them being eaten. Had I included them, the shape of the society would have been significantly altered. Dogs are beasts of burden, food sources, hunting partners, and a major economic factor, which modern Americans have the luxury of considering primarily in the light of their qualities as companions. We can afford to be sentimental about them. Clovis and pre-Clovis people would not have.

Which does not mean they wouldn't have been affected by the cuteness of puppies. But if you want a model of Pleistocene dog/people interaction, you might do well to consider the attitudes of farming families to their livestock, rather than your own feelings about Snoopy and Moon-Moon.

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21. News: The Face of Paleoyucatan

Cool! The nearly complete skeleton of a teen-age girl who drowned in an underwater cave full of bones in Yucatan during the late Pleistocene has undergone facial reconstruction, and good old NatGeo brings us the pics. She has a distinctive face.

The article itself is a reasonable overview of the complex state of the art, but I have to object to the use of a Greek name for the girl, and also - ick - those references to her "bad luck" in the lead paragraph. Historical Central Americans deliberately sacrificed people in bodies of water - it is by no means a lock that all those bones wound up in that cave by accident! In light of the unspecified (because this is a general summary rather than an examination of the data) signs of interpersonal violence and domestic abuse described as being found on the Paleoindian skeletons we have, speculations about darker reasons for her to be there should not be overlooked.

Chatters's theory about why these Paleoamericans don't look like the later Americans to whom they are genetically linked is interesting; but I would ask that you remember what this field is like. Archeologists are doing the same thing fiction writers do when they look at these remains - taking what they see and building a story to fit. When an archeologist does it, it's called a theory rather than a story - but it's still an imaginative interpretation of the data. It is unlikely that this is the only theory derivable from the data and, as long as you examine the evidence to the best of your ability, you are not obliged to consider a professional's opinion as automatically closer to the truth than your own.

Popular articles like these are the starting point. If you want to work up a story, whether for scientific or artistic purposes, it behooves you to go to the source material. You may not be able to see the bones yourself (or interpret what you see if you do), but academic papers can be read by laymen, academic conferences are open to the general public, and archeologists are, as a group, approachable, if you do so with respect and having done your research. I have never met a scientist who wasn't a huge geek, eager to talk about his area of expertise. You don't need qualifications beyond curiosity and open-mindedness to get in on this act.

Look at that young woman's face, and tell me you don't want to know her story!

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22. Idea Garage Sale: The Girl in the Underwater Cave

I think we all know that today's garage sale idea is yesterday's news.

How did that girl, did "Naia," wind up in that cave with all those other bones?

Accident? Sacrifice? Suicide? Execution for a crime? (What crime?) Murder?

Each answer implies a different societal and personal background. And "sacrifice" is a muddling category. If you volunteer for human sacrifice in a bargain with the gods to save your tribe from famine, to ensure that the sun continues to return, or whatever, how shall we distinguish that from modern concepts of suicide? If you kill someone else in the same bargain, is that distinguishable from murder? What about execution? How did, how could, the idea that something as obviously and openly wrong as killing a teen-age girl could ever be a good thing take hold in any cultural context? How does it happen that we do not recognize at once that a goal that can only be accomplished that way is not worth achieving?

Was human sacrifice invented by the suicidal? There's a certain resonance between the reasoning behind both, for a deeply depressed person is capable of believing that removing herself from the world would be a net benefit to her loved ones. But what situation is so dire that the loved ones would accept this reasoning? What coincidence between the act and the relief of the dire condition could be strong enough to make the conclusion that the gods accept or require such bargains a part of a culture?

Those are all side questions if this girl's death is not connected to later traditions of sacrifice. Just because it's what leaps to my mind does not make it the only story.

The important question is: Who was that girl? What was her life like? Who mourned for her after her untimely death?

How you answer that question governs the themes of the story you build around her.

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23. Characters: Gaming, Fiction, Life

So there's this guy who used to game with us. He made himself persona non grata in our house and Damon and I don't play with him anymore, but he's still in a group with someone else we know. (And if you're reading this, A - your feelings are about to get hurt, but I'd advise you to pay attention, because sometimes the way to self-improvement is through hurt feelings. If you had ever shown any sign of actively listening to me I would've said all this to your face long ago.)

He gamed with us for a long time, and for most of that time we didn't understand why he was showing up. And though he has not done any of the specific things there that have made him unwelcome in my home, we are still regaled occasionally with tales of what A did, in the other gaming group, to demonstrate that he hasn't changed. He brings an electronic device and does things on it rather than paying attention to the game. He comes late. He deliberately builds suboptimal characters that don't accomplish things in the game.

I have often thought, and several times remarked, that if you gave A a high-level, fully-optimized character and ran him alongside, or in direct conflict with, a low-level, poorly-optimized character played by Damon, Damon's character would still be the effective one. Because Damon would (grumbling all the way at the unfairness of it all) milk every advantage he could out of the character he had, that character's surroundings, the game mechanics, and the dice. A wouldn't even use the advantages that were spelled out for him on his character sheet.

I wish to be clear about something: I build suboptimal gaming characters all the time. I get my stats (in systems derived from D&D, four-d6-drop-the-lowest-and-arrange-as-desired is the one true character generation method; all others are cheats and imitations), I get the specifics of the campaign setting, a backstory sparks, I create a character, and then I do all the fiddly skill-building, power-assigning, equipment-buying stuff - in character. When we play Pathfinder, a D&D derivative whose creators believe heavily in "the build" as the be-all and end-all of character creation and combat as the main focus of the game, I sometimes feel crushed under the weight of the decisions that have to be made, and if I don't get Damon (who is great at manipulating systems) to help me I generally have a character who would die if not surrounded by combat monsters and healers. Even in a rules-light game like the current Deadlands campaign I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I often find myself looking around for something Miss Cranthorp can do while the other characters are fighting. Put Miss Cranthorp into melee and she's at a loss.

But - and this is why people respond to Miss Cranthorp as an awesome character and to A's characters as bad jokes - if Miss Cranthorp can't fight she will volunteer to drive the train to free up the current driver for combat (and accidentally shake a bunch of mooks off the top of the passenger car before they can enter melee, suddenly putting the odds in our favor). A's characters, in a similar situation, will hide, or spend several rounds building up personal defenses while other party members are getting clobbered within arm's reach, or run away, or do nothing at all because A is watching cat videos or something on his laptop and the GM gets tired of trying to get his attention.

My characters are individuals who engage with other individuals in the game, with the setting, with the particular problem in hand. I inhabit them fully while I play them, and even if they die (which they tend not to, even in Pathfinder), people remember them fondly, and not as suboptimal at all. Being remembered well is a more important part of "winning" in RPGs - and in fiction - than is triumphing. Many a great gaming story ends in a Total Party Kill. Nor are Romeo and Juliet memorable for their ability to solve the conflicts presented to them by the plot!

A doesn't appear to inhabit his own character fully, much less the fictional ones under his control. He doesn't engage with the people around him enough to understand or even respect their points of view (which is how he got kicked out of my house). He doesn't understand the rules - of the game, of the story, of the society he lives in - well enough to use them, abuse them, or even effectually break them. He won't even engage his own problems, preferring to continue behaving in the same way endlessly amid people who don't know why he showed up and inevitably grow contemptuous of him.

Which is why I'm bringing him up. A no doubt has reasons for the behaviors he slouches along in. One reason we dealt with him as long as we did was that we assumed he had a lot of crap he was dealing with and that, as fellow borderline social-rejects, we were doing him some sort of good even though we couldn't see it, by providing a safe place to work through - whatever he was working through. But it's been more than 15 years and, if our friend in his current gaming group is to be believed (I have no reason to doubt him), he's still passively, stubbornly, even a little self-righteously, not doing the same old things he always never did. No meds, no therapy, no experimentation. No engagement.

An awful lot of life is just a matter of showing up and paying attention.

Maybe you don't understand the rules. You don't have to understand them to engage with them. To challenge them. To find your way through them. To bend them to your will.

But you require a will, first.

You have to have a character before you can create a character.

Are your characters flat and lifeless on the page? Are they boring? Are they whiny? Are they collections of quirks and flaws and virtues moving through the plot rather than people moving the plot around? Do they all sound like each other?

What about you? Are you showing up for your own life?

If you're not - it doesn't matter why you're not. Maybe your reason's good, maybe it's crappy; either way, it's preventing you from doing something you say you want to do, i.e. write well.

So what are you going to do about it?

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24. Dadgummit to Heck

I have now put the same damn zipper in wrong seven times.

Only four ways to put it in at all exist. Three of them are wrong. So I'm repeating myself. Multiple times.

But if I don't make my own pants I don't get pants that cover my butt. It actually costs me more woman-hours, and more tears of frustration, to buy a pair of pants that doesn't quite fit than to make one that fits perfectly.

And seven times is nothing - I'm well into double-digits for queries on every work I have ready to sell. So when I stop being lightheaded, and have gotten myself round some chocolate, I'm going for lucky #8.

Because even if you're bad at something, if it's the only way to get what you need, you're stuck.

Edit to Add: I was wrong. I just invented two brand-new wrong ways to put in a zipper. Clearly, I have talent for this. Too bad it's not one I can be paid for.

Tomorrow is another day. Today I'm thinking: Sims and more chocolate.

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25. Idea Garage Sale: A Walk on the Edges

I was always looking for that portal to another world.

Had I found it, a physical reality in a physical world, I probably would have been too chicken to go through. But I looked, anyway. I used to take long evening walks, beginning and ending in the all-too-familiar area around my house (though when I used alleys I got some intriguingly mysterious overgrown spaces even within that wasteland of ranch-style houses) and creating magical liminal spaces around the fringes, especially near the Concho River.

San Angelo, Texas, is not a promising-looking place for the imagination to roam, but one thing I learned in my career as an Air Force brat was that all places are boring and ugly, and all places are interesting and beautiful, depending on the personal investment and the distance. Everything is ugly when you're separated from it by a car. When you are close enough to be intimate, but for one social or physical barrier holding the spot just out of reach, many mundane things become beautiful and full of possibility. Vacant buildings, untended drainage easements brimming with wildflowers, culverts that were either flooded (during the October or May rains, if we got them that year) or dry as bones, gates to nowhere, haunted gardens - I found them and I made them into what I needed them to be. I almost touched a bird once. I trespassed more or less accidentally, and undetected, more often than I care to think about. I discovered the only newsstand in town where you could buy new fantasy and science fiction paperbacks. I learned that there's a large species of hummingbirds that sings - tweeter tweeter.

Does anybody let their middle- and high- school kids take these untended walks anymore? Do solitary children ride bikes out to explore? They have their phones, after all. They've had the warnings. With a little exercise of common sense, they should be fine, just like I was. For my own part, I don't remember many personal encounters, and those I remember have nothing of the threat about them even in hindsight. I stabbed myself on the palm by grabbing onto the wrong branch during one of my river explorations, and the lady I'd accidentally trespassed on cleaned the wound and was very nice to me.

But every parent I meet now is paranoid. We fear the people who want to hurt us and our children out of all proportion to their numbers, because the consequences of misplacing trust are so dire. But as a species we need to explore. We thrive on leaving our safe spaces to explore the spaces we cannot control, where danger is a possibility but far from a certainty, and returning, still safe, more or less, give or take a thorn in the palm. And if we never pick up the thorns, no one ever has a chance to be nice to us, do they? Kindness at home does not count; it is the job of home to be safe and kind to us. I never met kindness at school, of which the less said the better; school was soul-crushingly and inevitably dangerous because the predators of whom I was the natural prey gathered there in force, and I have no reason to think that this has changed. My walks were soul-expanding, marginally risky at most, and sprinkled with small, spontaneous kindness.

I was making my own portal and going through it every time I left the house.

How would a modern child accomplish this, in the paranoid cities of a world assumed to be unkind?

Is that a grown-up misperception on my part?

It is 2015. You are twelve. You need to find, or make, a portal to another world. You need to explore. You need liminal spaces, intimate mystery, a chance to encounter the kindness as well as the rudeness of strangers.

Where do you go? How do you get there? Who tries to stop you?

Answer me that. Write me the book. I want to know.

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