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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. 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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2. "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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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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8. 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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9. 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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10. 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.

Hmph.

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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11. 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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12. 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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13. Visibility

It's Voter Registration Day (been registered for decades, so no worries; how about you?) and Bisexual Visibility Day, so here I am, bisexual and monogamous, popping up to be visible even though it's not your business. Or because it's not your business, but people act as though it is. If it were Omnivore Visibility Day I'd be popping up to say much the same thing, omnivore and vegetarian - the first by necessity, the second by choice. Biology is not destiny. I do not have to eat everything; do not have to act on every attraction; do not have to fit into anybody else's notion of what my category should be like; should not have to say this stuff, but "should" is a poor concept for dealing with reality, and the reality is that if we do not assert our own realities, other people will drown us in their illusions about who we should be, what we should do, and how we should live.

It occurs to me that my last several posts may be giving people an impression that I am more depressed than I am. I am not in any state to be worried about. I am not even, strictly speaking, feeling uncommunicative. Only I am tired of talking about things, and want to tell stories, and blogs are not for telling stories. I keep up with my tumblr just fine, because all that requires is posting pictures from my sims game and making story of what happened (with dialog in the captions and no attempt at plot), which that audience likes well enough to suit my purposes.

Everything I have ever learned always goes into stories, often before I can articulate it in any abstract fashion. Unfortunately the process of getting those stories where they can be read involves other kinds of communication, which are like pushing rocks uphill sometimes. So I learn to do them, with varying degrees of success, in much the same spirit that I vote on election day and make bald statements on Bi Visibility Day. They are small things and often feel futile, but not doing them is, in fact, futile, so - go for broke.

So excuse me. I should go write a query, but suspect I will go write story instead. (I also suspect that I am dragging my feet getting to the climax of the WIP because once that's done, the first draft will be over and I will have to commence making permanent decisions about how to arrange all this stuff, which will be hard; and then I'll have to try to sell it, which will be harder.)

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14. Idea Garage Sale: Yet More Fun with First Lines

"Sing," said the king; so the pig sang "Rock of Ages" and the princess listened politely.

The solution occurred to her while doing the dishes; it seemed a bit extreme, but she was fed up, and if she could pull it off, she could close this down and move on to a fresh set of problems.

The world ended the day before the wedding, but they didn't let that stop them.

The trouble with volunteers, Death thought, was that they were never fit for the job.

No one would help him - he was entirely the wrong part of town - but with nothing to lose, he figured he might as well rub their faces in it, and started yelling anyway.

The black-skinned dwarfs of Pekhra and Mevarkha did better wire, gold, and silverwork, but the pale-skinned ones from the coast made better swords and stronger beer.

She liked Halloween because her sister always came home for it.

The cats assembled every Friday night in the back yard of the old Johnson place.

She was tired of talking, so she stopped.

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15. It's All Kicking My Butt At the Moment

Some days you can't.

Some days you can.

Some days you can't, and do anyway.

Some days you can, and don't anyway.

No reliable way of distinguishing these days exists.

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16. Idea Garage Sale: The Friends We Do Not Know

This will take some time to drill down to the core, so bear with me.

So. One of the things that had my mouth too full of things to say to say anything, this past week, was the death of a person whose name I do not know.

Human beings are such intensely social animals that we are, for better or worse, constantly creating relationships with abstractions - from personal relationships with God or our cars, to loyalty to the public personae of politicians and entertainers, to fan crushes on characters in books and movies. Like everything else humans do, whether this tendency is a good thing or a bad thing depends on what we do with it. The more we let our egos control the transaction, the more likely we are to be fanatics rather than saints, or stalkers rather than supporters.

The advent of long-distance communication enabled a new kind of relationship, the correspondent. We think of the phenomenon of having friends we've never seen as being one peculiar to the internet age, but in fact it goes back much further than that. You only need to delve into the biographies of the major figures of the past, or the letter columns of nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines, to see fruitful, even intense, friendships form between people who would never have met without a forum of common interest, and who might never have seen each other's faces. (Also, flamewars. Edgar Allan Poe's life was consumed by flamewars.) The internet has made this sort of relationship far more pervasive - anyone reading this is likely to have at least one, and probably many, friends who are known primarily through social media.

Elaine Marie Alphin was one such person, to me. I met her face-to-face once, when we were both up for an Edgar one year. Her books are important to me in ways that are difficult to articulate, and I mourn her unselfconsciously, and kick myself for not writing to her more (ever; what is the matter with me?) when she was locked in after her stroke. She is not mine to mourn in the same way that she is for her husband and family, but there is nothing problematic about it. I have an understandable relationship to her; one not too different from the relationship with the fellow X-phile (still living, thank goodness) I met on AOL, who taught me to birdwatch and provided a much-needed neutral sounding board with whom to work out certain matters during the Year from Hell, before I was ready to talk about them to anyone closer; and who eventually I met when she invited us to stay with her for a time during the recovery period; an invaluable break from the pressure of the familiar. You have internet friends like these, yourself. You know what I mean.

Similarly, I was able to mourn Robin Williams's death at the fan level. I admired his work and related to his condition; I knew his face and voice; at the same time, I understood that he did not know me from Adam's off ox and owed me nothing, which diminished my personal reaction to this death not one whit. This is a situation with which we are all familiar, in which we all participate. In a consumerist, celebrity culture much can become problematic about the fan relationship, but at its root we've got it sorted. In a way, public emotional involvement, whether celebration or mourning, for public figures even gives us important outlets for private feelings that are more difficult to share - for a person of my age, mourning Williams also allows us to mourn many things related to who we were the first time we saw Mork.

But then we come to Mootilda. That is the only name I know her by, though if I could bear to go poking around her profile and the news thread about her death enough I might be able to find out her real one. Maybe not. If she'd wanted me to know her name, I figure, I'd know it. The only face I have for her is her avatar, a cartoon cow. We never discussed personal things at all, but we were in a creative group together and I could not have created Widespot, or kept my original neighborhood going so long, without her advice and her work. She was a giant on the Mod the Sims newsgroup, because no one, anywhere, probably including the people who created it, understood the coding of the Sims2 game the way Mootilda did. She was constantly studying it, answering questions, running tests. She created tools that alleviated the tendency of the code to build up critical masses of corruption, discovered new sources of corruption and explained how to avoid them; sometimes even took other people's malfunctioning neighborhoods and looked through them herself (a major time sink) in order to understand what was going on and evolve strategies to deal with it. She helped me. She helped a lot of us. And all the time she had terminal cancer and now she is dead and I do not know her name and she's a cartoon cow.

The relationship was not personal. It was not professional, since it was rooted in a hobby. It was not entirely one-sided, since we had conversations. It wasn't exactly a fan relationship. What was it? How do I deal with it? The newsgroup's thread on the news is pages and page long, mostly people saying the same things over and over, and whether they only ever lurked and used her mods, or worked with her on something, to almost all of us, her name is Mootilda and she looks like a cartoon cow. How can we laugh when it's so sad? How can we cry when it's so absurd? We just can. There's no fighting it.

You have relationships like this, too.

So does your audience.

It is part of the writer's job to work out the ramifications of relationships, all kinds of relationships, through story. We structure our lives according to the stories we tell (which is why representation matters and the dominance of straight white male protagonists is a problem) - but we have no stories about this relationship.

And we need them.

But how do we start? How do we take a relationship that happens entirely in an abstract space, between abstractions of people (Mootilda knew my real name because I don't use handles, but presumably when she thought of me she saw the extreme close-up of my two favorite sims slow dancing that is my avatar on that newsgroup), and make that part of an interesting story? Obviously something else must be going on in the protagonist's life.

As it is in all our lives. If these abstract relationships are at the core of our stories, something's wrong. But if something's wrong, why - that's a story.

But I don't want to write a story in which the online relationships are the problem. Because that's BS. Though it's possible to run away from one's life into an online fantasy, you'll only do that if your real life is profoundly unsatisfactory. And it's not always true, especially for young people, especially for sick people, especially for people marginalized by the dominant narratives of modern society, that your real life is profoundly unsatisfactory because of anything you did or have control over.

I hate having this kind of idea, the one that presses itself to me as an obligation without coughing up any specifics. I need a character. I need a concrete problem. I need the online relationships to be part of the solution. And I need this to engage a reader, to have setting, movement, action, and suspense.

Stop turning to jelly in my hands every time I try to grapple you, Idea!

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17. Sometimes...

...you just have to accept that something that Shouldn't Be, Is, and go forward from there.

...you do something with long ranging consequences, and never know it.

...problems sort themselves out in your sleep.

..."writer's block" is the result of having too much to say.

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18. Idea Garage Sale: Hammer? Nail? Sparrow? Snail?

We all know that to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But have you considered that, to a person with a nail, everything looks like a hammer?

This is one of the key points made in Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos, (which I'm about to Spoil big time - so go off and read it; it doesn't take that long) in which the character Terrance Cee, who has been raised by those who wish to mass-produce his gene for telepathy and use him and other telepaths for intergalactic espionage. He's very bitter about even having the gene, knows how to use telepathy as a weapon, and is cynical about the motives of the people he meets when he first ventures into the civilian world with goals of his own. When he meets Ethan, an obstetrician from an all-male planet (just read it!) he hides his abilities; when Ethan discovers them anyway, he is braced for what will happen when his erstwhile friend realizes what telepathy can do. Ethan, however, is delighted, thinking of the possibilities for medical uses with preverbal children and stroke patients.

You do something besides writing stories. Everybody does. You see a lot of superpowers in the media - everybody does, whether it's called a superpower, or magic. In the movies, these powers tend to be used in the context of interpersonal conflicts. A Villain wants to use his superpower to Rule the World; a Hero wants to use it to Save the World.

But you are not a Villain or a Hero. What do you want to do with it?

What does a plumber want to do with it? A vet? A nurse? A teacher? A janitor? A librarian? A lawyer? A waitress?

A single parent? A thrownaway child? A new widow? A lonely goatherd?

Does a person who has been blind since birth use a superpower differently from a sighted person, a color-blind person, a person blinded only recently?

What are the logical consequences of that?

Can you make a viable story built around a superpower that is not used as a weapon, but as the actual solution to an actual problem?

Try, and find out.

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19. Sorry not to be more helpful today

The September/October issue of Archaeology Magazine is discussing the peopling of the Americas, talking to people I have met about places I have been, or have read about. I am still sure I will write another Pleistocene book; I still do not know when, or what the plot will be like.

The men working on the house next door are playing oddly beautiful classic rock (why does overheard music have different qualities than music you're actively listening to?), singing along, and talking about copyright. I can't hear the whole conversation and am not eavesdropping, but I definitely heard one say "copyright" and "my bad."

Those charged with maintaining the peace are still making war in Missouri. Which is not that surprising a development, in the context of the history of Missouri, specifically with regard to racism.

I have received more than one gratuitous, unsolicited, and (I can't help feeling) not-quite-warranted compliments online this week, and am not sure how to accept them graciously.

The WIP flops along its merry way, continually turning up fresh viewpoints that help me see the whole better, and I am increasingly convinced that what I'll get in the end is a moderately brilliant structural fantasia in a superficially familiar but unique setting, that will never get read because I have no clue how to write a synopsis for it, or how to market it, and anyway if people do read it they will insist on reading into it what they expect to see instead of seeing what I show them, and because of that they will read nonsense. Unless the solution I find to the structural problem is brilliant enough to trick them into reading what I actually wrote...I have no confidence in my ability to do that. But it's too late to walk away now. I can see the turning point approach, the moment from which it will be all downhill and I will be done with the draft. I am in prose stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

I live in Texas. It is August. My house is a hundred years old, and has three window A/C units, two of which cannot be run at the same time without tripping the circuitbreaker. By midafternoon, the hardwood floors will be as hot under my bare feet as if they were full of laboring electronics.

The same phonespammers call me at the same times every day. Most of them are machines.

And here I sit, with all these disparate facts, so few of which are in any way under my control, trying to make a meaning. Because I am human and that is what humans do. We invented meaning, because we need it.



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20. I Should Write a Tribute.

I can't.

Elaine died.

Death sucks.

I am useless at this and shaky and I'm about to cry some more, so I direct you to the post I made when she had her stroke.

I'm afraid that's all I can do right now.

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21. Idea Garage Sale: The Buried House

Apparently, a man who inherited a single-story house in Turkey started cleaning it out, and discovered it had five stories, four of them buried, at least some of which date back a couple thousand years.

I've had that dream! Usually it's a house I've lived in, but sometimes it's one I just moved to, or one not resembling the house I live in currently but which I've been living in for awhile in the dream. And then you're cleaning, and you find an unfamiliar door, which leads to a room with more doors; stairs and halls; all kinds of space you could be using and haven't been, full of resources you didn't know about.

And bathrooms. For some reason, lots and lots and lots of extra bathrooms...that's probably not true of the house in Anatolia, though.

The thematic uses of a house which gets bigger the more you clean and explore in it are obvious (I've always assumed that houses are metaphorical of minds in the dreams), but - what can you do with it, as a plot?

Can you go back and forth in time using the hidden layers of house?

Is there Something down there which was deliberately buried? And is it a Dread Secret that should stay buried, a Fabulous Treasure that should be brought to light, or a Can of Worms that one might sensibly hesitate to open?

What if the world above the Buried House is hostile, and the Buried House can provide a refuge, an Underground Railroad safe house or a semi-permanent hiding place, a Secret Annexe?

What if the homeowner allows the archeologists to move in, but insists on continuing to live in the top house layers, family and all, with academics coming and going, relationships forming, and screening stations all over the backyard? There's a live-action farce there, I think.

What if someone is already using that space? For nefarious purposes? Or simply to live?

What if the buried space is the interface between two versions of the same world?

What if the people already living down there are you and your family - only different?

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22. TL;DR: Read Everything. Believe Nothing. Write Authentic Stories Anyway.

So yesterday I was asked how to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate history books, and the shortest answer is: "You can't." The less short, more accurate, answer is: "There aren't any." All history is inaccurate, all sources are biased; that's just the way it goes. Two loving parents can disagree about the best interest of a child; two competent doctors can disagree about a diagnosis. History is the same way.

That doesn't mean research is pointless, far from it; but it means you can't accept authorities at face value, no matter how tempting this may be. You have to approach history resources as you would real people, reading and talking to as many primary works as you can, assessing the kinds of innocent inaccuracies that are likely to creep in (Do any two people in your family agree on which year it was that the cat decided to have her kittens in mom's underwear drawer? Mom's diary can tell you for sure - but it may also say that they were all she-cats, because you didn't get the kittens correctly sexed till they were almost ready to adopt out, and she never noted that down, but the reason you're trying to remember the year at all is that you started wondering exactly how old Aunt Maybelle's tomcat Knickers is, so -); what biases the source has ("As a completely objective historian whose grandfather was in that battle, I can tell you for a fact -"); what the agenda of the recording agency is ("Yeah, people say my youngest son looks kind of like the handyman but I can't see it myself and that is totally my husband's nose, I mean look at it!"); and how the source knows, or thinks it knows, what happened and why. You already have a lot of the skills necessary to make these assessments, because you have to make them every time you're called on to referee your kids or your co-workers, or choose between the recommendations of two different contractors, doctors, theologians, or relatives. (And don't think I've never wished I had the option of knocking two historians' heads together and sending them both to their rooms! An awful lot of disputes, in any profession, are six of one, half dozen of the other.)

This is all very well when you have conflicting information; but far more insidious is the conflicting information we don't realize we don't have. This is especially true when you're trying to learn about people who aren't speaking for themselves, whose voices have been erased from the record, or never entered into the record, or are filtered through the voices of others - generally, people with more power, more privilege; people in control of what is and is not worth preserving. We don't hear the voices of medieval women very often; the voices of medieval children, almost never. The voices of slaves seldom come to us except through their masters, or people who resemble their masters enough for the slaves to be wary. Monolinguals can only hear most of the voices in the world through translators; anthropologists monitor the interface between "primitive" and "advanced" cultures (and how many people even understand those terms as jargon rather than as value statements?); folklorists translate spoken words into written ones and don't always ask themselves why their source is being a source or how that might affect the story. The person keeping the records has purposes for keeping and curating them, the person asking the questions has reasons to ask certain questions and not others, and these may not match up well with the reasons the person answering the questions is answering them.

A lot of these lacunae are invisible to us until we make conscious efforts to notice them; and they are not always surmountable. One thing all medieval women have in common is, that they're dead. But, if you are a woman, you can read between the lines of male narratives and use your own experience to try to fill the gaps. It won't be perfect, but it'll be better than taking the word of literate medieval men. If you are a white person writing an American slave protagonist, you can find black historians who will discuss with you the pitfalls of reading WPA slave narratives and help you negotiate with them - and they will have their own reasons for helping you, and their own biases, which will at least be different from the biases of even the best-intentioned white historians, and that will be better than nothing.

You can't change that. But you can remember it, and screw up less often than you would if you forgot it.

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23. Idea Garage Sale: Soap Opera Ever After...

If tragedy ends in death, and comedy ends in a wedding, what do we call the drama that falls in between?

"The morning after the wedding -"

- Cinderella began her long battle to reform inheritance laws and improve conditions for servants.
- The dwarfs called in a favor from Snow White.
- The reformed rake's past came back to haunt him in the form of a dozen paternity suits - which the good woman whose love saved him insisted he take responsibility for.
- The surviving soldiers of the Armies of Dark and Light, the war over, were turned loose to find their own ways home.
- The princess started teaching the woodcutter's son, now King, how to read.
- The bickering lovers started matchmaking all their friends.
- All the magical creatures in the kingdom rushed to fill the power void left by the fall of the Wicked Witch.
- The abusive family found someone new to abuse.
- The bride refused to change the habits she formed while living in disguise as a boy in for forest, and set a new fashion.
- The Frog Prince discovered he could still understand the language of amphibians, and craved flies.
- The older sons, passed over for the throne, began their campaign to have the old king declared incompetent, based on the tests he devised to determine who would inherit; and the brides they brought home teamed up to advance their own agendas.

(Yeah, it's been done before. That's not a reason not to do it again.)

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24. Not Really a Review of The Giver Movie Adaptation

So, my husband and I went to see The Giver this weekend, and it's not a bad adaptation, except for the ending.

Now, as you may recall, the ending of The Giver makes most people want to throw the book across the room, because that sled shouldn't be there. And after having successfully suspended your disbelief and invested in the characters for the entire book, you either have to accept that the only way to read what you've been reading is as a gigantic metaphorical construction in which the sled can be there; or construct some kind of logical bridge. That one memory isn't a dream, it's precognition (which, since the source of the memories - many of which are much, much too old to have been the direct memory or anyone involved in founding the Communities - does kind of work - if memory is not limited in time backward then it needn't be limited in time forward, either). Or it's dying delerium and Jonas and Gabe are dying in the snow, which nobody wants.

That the book does this to us, and is still so widely loved and admired, is a tribute both to its quality, and to the adaptive qualities of booklovers. One of the pleasures of narrative is closure; but give us sufficient motive, and readers will do without it and like it.

The weakness of movies, at least as they are made today, is that the makers of them don't feel they can trust audiences to do this. So the movie presents us with the ultimate of Insoluble Problems, demonstrates that the Return to Eden doesn't solve it, either, and then - gives us an ending which pretends to solve it. Or at least return it to square one. The movie feels required to give us what Lowry didn't, and therefore weakens its capacity to leave the story working in us after we throw the book across the room/leave the theater.

(By the way, if anybody out there wants to give me money to adapt any of my books in ways I don't really like - go ahead and give me the money. I'll undertake to stay away from the movie.)

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25. Have Another Entrance to the Labyrinth of Knowledge

I was just talking about research, so here's an online database of print sources on miscellaneous subjects: The University of Oxford Text Archive.

I doubt it'd help much with a book set at the end of the Civil War in Texas (a quick search reveals nothing with "Texas" in the title at all so far), but type in "fever" and see what you get! If your hero is a doctor, and the setting is the 18th century, you've got yourself an afternoon's work right here.

I am a late adopter of all new things, and generally prefer to go to a library and pile books up around me when I'm researching rather than getting online, which is a crapshoot of a kind I'm less comfortable with; but online collections do save a lot of road trips. They're just like real collections in a lot of ways - always expanding, always organized not quite perfectly for the project you're working on, always with inaccessible corners you can't get at (the missing book, the text that hasn't been input yet), always full of things you didn't know you should be looking for. Library angels can't shove books off the shelf onto your head online, but they have other dodges.

As long as you actively engage with your research, learning and searching dynamically, you will eventually find what you need, whether you knew you needed it or not. You will catch sight of things out of the corners of your eyes; your cat will walk on the keyboard and activate a macro you didn't know about; you will overhear a conversation on the bus that bypasses all your "mind your own business" censors to give you A Clue. To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; to a person with an open research subject, everything relates back to that subject.

But you need to ask that first pertinent question, to penetrate the intimidating wall of of words. All you need is one call sign, one search term, to lead you into the maze, and the focus to follow your data, rather than trying to lead it.

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