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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. 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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2. 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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3. 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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4. 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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5. 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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6. 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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7. 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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8. 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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9. 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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10. 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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11. 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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12. Idea Garage Sale: Yet More Fun with Titles

The Turn of the Shrew.

Because I can't read Taming of the Shrew as anything but a celebration of spousal abuse and psychological torture. It's the only Shakespeare play I actively dislike. (To be fair, I've never seen a production of Merchant of Venice. How you feel about that one depends a lot on how Shylock is played.)

Anyway, the idea of Kate adapting her methods and gaslighting Petrucchio to get control of her own life - and money - back appeals to me. It is often forgotten that Petrucchio is explicitly interested in marrying her for her dowry because he's broke, which makes Kate's climactic speech about wives "owing" obedience to their hardworking breadwinning men so wincingly and obviously inappropriate I wonder how anybody can play it straight. I'm not sure exactly how the plot would roll, though. In order to make the title work best it would have to both borrow some of the tension and subtlety of James's psychological horror story and retain much of the bawdy, physical humor of an Elizabethan comedy.

It is a damn shame that getting a genius-level idea is so much easier than pulling off, or even knowing how to start, genius-level work.

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13. Bad Week All Around

So today my tumblr dash, normally full of book discussion and history/archeology and the funny/moving/absurd adventures of pixel people, today is blowing up like a certain town in Missouri, to which the people of Gaza are sending helpful advice about how to cope when tear gassed.

And there's some personal stuff which isn't happening to me, but which is distinctly me-adjacent, about which I am extremely limited in what I can usefully do.

So I will now go and write about the imaginary problems of imaginary people, because we should all do what we're best at, even if it amounts to treading water. And it's nice to solve a problem, even if it's only a paper one.


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14. Why Am I the One Stuck Saying This Stuff?

So.

Yesterday a very talented, hard-working creative person died, in circumstances that suggest suicide. And today I see lots of people posting suicide hot line numbers and clips from Aladdin or The Dead Poet's Society. And the one time I look at comments, inevitably (why do I ever look at comments on news stories?) some troll condemns him as selfish and weak; and pretty soon somebody's going to turn up the old chestnut about how creativity and mental illness go hand in hand. And by the time the autopsy's done it'll be too late - there'll already be an Official Public Version of the death, shellacked hard, and everyone will know what moral to point from this.

And it'll all be crap, because you know what doesn't get talked about?

The ways in which we in America (and other places, but I am American and have even less control over what happens in the rest of the world than I do here) treat creative people in order to drive them crazy. The way we take it for granted that creativity is madness (when all the people with mental disorders I know who are sufficiently self-aware to have an opinion agree, that creativity is the opposite of madness); and treat it also as a moral failing, and go and do things that make it punishingly hard to make a living creatively. Like, structuring the economy and intellectual property law so that it's easier for corporations to make money off of a creative work than those who do the creating do. So that a creator has to spend far more time and energy on promotion and public image than creation.

Like the way we treat creative work as less valuable than other kinds of work, demanding to be entertained 24/7 at no cost, or at absolute minimum cost. I have been told to my face that I should be grateful to be read, rather than hoping to be paid enough to cover expenses, let alone make a living at it; every day, authors and illustrators are asked to allow their work to be used for a payment of "exposure." You can't pay the electric bill with "exposure," y'all - sorry.

Like the way we put pressure on creative people to be creative but not too creative; to be creative and personally accessible and to give not just our work but our time, our attention, our personalities, to the world. Which will then feel free to judge what we do and say, and how we look, and how we match up to other people's fantasies about the creative life, without mercy.

The way we are told that because we are creative we must also be depressed, or abusers of substances, or obsessively devoted to our art; and that depression, substance abuse, and obsession are all moral failings.

The way we can't get good mental health services because (I speak from experience here) counselors don't know what they're doing; don't understand, even, that what they do best is to help people understand the mechanisms of their own malfunctions based on a huge database of similar malfunctions; and that this approach works best on people who fall within the thick parts of the bell curves generated by that data. I have never been to a counselor whose generalizations applied to me. I don't react the way most people do; therefore, advice based on the expected reactions is irrelevant. If those of us on the skinny parts of the bell curve are to be saved, we have to save ourselves. No one is helping us.

How many of the people who bring us pleasure, insight, joy, and escape have to go through this wringer and get spat out dead before their times before we stop doing this?

Before we stop doing things to depressed people that make them worse?

Before we stop doing things to people, ordinary or extraordinary, that make them depressed?

And yes, I know - (believe me, I know!) that depression is a physical problem. I was born with a biological tendency to depression. I've been there, I've done that, I've taken the bottle full of pills - and, thanks to a confirmed habit of introspective intellectation and emotional honesty(for which I have been punished all my life by most of the people I've come into contact with), I was able to pull back in time. Nobody gets the credit for saving me, but me (and the wonderfully calm nurse in the emergency room who knew exactly how to make me throw it all up). Which makes me reject any attempt to blame a suicide who didn't save herself. The odds were stacked against me and against everyone else in this position.

A clinically depressed person can be in an ideal situation and still get depressed (and be even more depressed because she can see her situation is ideal so she must be fundamentally wrong to feel so bad and clearly something as wrong as her has no right to clutter up this ideal situation), just as a non-smoker can get cancer without smoking. But natural biological tendencies are exacerbated by environment; and the environment of American society is toxic for depressives.

So toxic that it is easy to translate "circumstances suggestive of suicide" in the case of someone fantastically talented and with a gift for making people laugh, into a firm judgement at first sight, in the absence of any details, in the absence of any right to make a judgement.

And it's because we will not face up to this that we keep being toxic. Nor is that the only thing of which this is true. We are still racist because we won't face up realistically to our racism; we are still sexist because we won't face it; we are still unprepared for global warming because we'd rather drown than face the fact that we're going to drown; we perpetuate evil because we keep looking for evil out there in things and people we can't control instead of looking for the evils we can control. Our own.

We are all society and we should knock this crap off.

And that will remain true whatever Mr. Williams's autopsy tells us about he, as an individual, died.

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15. Idea Garage Sale: Libraries of Timbuktu

Way too many news stories happen in any given year for me to garage sale them all, even if I made a serious effort to keep up with the news. (Which I don't, because depression + crying jags.) So excuse me that the inspiring link to the thriller about the rescue of the Manuscripts of Timbuktu dates back to April.

It boggles my mind, however, that there's no movie in the works yet. Youthful vow to guard a fabulous fragile treasure in the form of the manuscripts, implacable black-hearted foe in the form of the book-burning legions of Al-Qaeda posing an imminent threat; desperate coordinated action under the noses of the conquering Bad Guys; "exotic, distant" lands (from the point of view of the locii of thriller-making, southern California and New York) - seriously, this has it all! For YA authors, it is no great stretch to get a fictional hero in the correct age range, given that business about "family vows," working within the covert organizational framework provided by Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, who led the rescue attempt.

The equally urgent threat of mold and subobtimal curation environments in the Mali refuge where the bulk of the manuscripts wound up is less photogenic and requires more work. But a movie which used the safe arrival in Mali as the unambiguous happy ending required by the thriller format could be leveraged into a fundraising effort to provide for the safe curation and study of the manuscripts, and benefit the reputation and bottom-line of the production company. So the sooner somebody with deep pockets gets on this, the better.

A whole treasure-trove of disparate stories, however, lies behind this, in the possibilities presented by Sankore University of Timbuktu, where these manuscripts originated. Starting with a mosque in the tenth century, Sankore attracted students and scholars from all over the known world. Timbuktu was a thriving cosmopolitan metropolis which rivaled the cities of Europe - yes, even Paris; even Rome - when it didn't outright overshadow them. As a setting, it can't be beat - none of the stories buried in this fertile soil have been told to modern Western audiences before. It should only take a little digging to turn up a lifetime's worth of intriguing possibility. Love stories, war stories, political intrigue, spiritual exploration; fantasy and gritty realism - they must all be waiting there for the willing researcher.

What if a modern Al-Qaeda member intent on destroying the knowledge of the past got lost in a time loop and went back, alone, to 16th-century Timbuktu? Would he wreak havoc? Would he undergo a major character arc and, in the absence of the social, personal, and political pressures that set him on this path, acquire more humility and a truer Islamic spirit? Or would his isolation in an alien time exacerbate his opinions into madness?

What if the last member of a family sworn to protect its cache of books is a young girl who has internalized both her responsibility to the manuscripts and her responsibility to adhere to "traditional" feminine roles? What positions does this put her in; and how does she choose when these responsibilities conflict?

Who was the "female philanthropist from Mandinka" who financed the infrastructure of the University; what else did she fund, where did her money come from, what motivated her philanthropy?

How did European scholars who came to study in Sankore during the times generally called "medieval" live? What did they do with the knowledge they gained? How did they deal with living as a Christian minority among Muslims, and learning from them? What were the burning questions and conflicts of the day?

Asian scholars, ditto?

It's kind of like that dazzling expanse of snow I remember waking up to when I was small and lived in places where snow happened. You're afraid to step in it, lest you mess it all up. But you can't build snowwomen, or forts, or have snowball fights, or even get to school, without taking those first steps; and once you start, isn't it glorious to run around in?

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16. Your Body Doesn't Know It Isn't Happening

This weekend, our gaming group was playing along in our game as usual, having narrowly escaped death at the fangs of a gargantuan tarantula; when the Non-Player Character, of dubious allegiance, with which we were dealing tried to pull an obvious cover-up, which his degree of authority in the situation should have allowed him to do. But Stephanie Neotomi, my ratfolk rogue (recently recovered from being paralyzed by the venom of said spider), had already started asking questions and wouldn't be put off. Suddenly everything devolved into a shouting match, violence was narrowly averted, and we spooked the NPC badly enough that he had to run; but the guards under his command were already moving to arrest us.

After a hairy bit of play, we emerged with the evidence we needed to get the guards on our side, the information we needed to advance our mission, and with all party members alive - but two of us probably infected with lycanthropy and nothing with which to stop the infection. So we had to ride hard in the opposite direction from where we wished to go in order to get some wolfsbane - ride so hard that it was necessary to stop and perform some magic to keep the horses from floundering on the way back. Which is when the ghost of one of the random monsters we recently killed decided to attack us, coming within a hair of killing three of the party. Again, we emerged victorious, but only by dint of some serious cooperative play and one of us remembering a resource that we've had for awhile but which the rest of us had forgotten. Also, the DM letting him deploy that resource retroactively, so that our sorcerer was only mostly dead.

By then it was late enough that we needed to quit, so the game broke up. Once home, I crashed hard. We all agreed, in e-mail postmortem on Monday, that the session had been intense enough to be physically draining. Sitting around a table rolling dice, making notes, and pawing through rulebooks looks sedentary; but the intellectual and imaginative handling of the scenarios and rules, and the sheer suspense, activated plenty of adrenaline and had significant effects on our body chemistry. That night I was in that peculiar state of exhausted wakefulness that you get on your most strenuous days of vacation, when you can't stop shooting the rapid or climbing the mountain or riding the rollercoaster, or whatever it was you were doing that had your body convinced that you were about to die, even though you were perfectly safe.

The same thing happens when you're writing. Or reading, but there's a level of control in reading that you don't have in writing. You cry real tears over Beth March, but you don't have to deal with it all at once. (Remember how Joey, on Friends, used to put intense books - including Little Women - in the freezer when he couldn't handle them?) When you're writing, you're writing pretty much constantly. When you're doing dishes. When you're in the shower. When you're watching TV or driving or kissing your husband. Your backbrain is handling the material, going over it and over it to get it into a form you can write down; and then you write it down and you have to bull your way through it to get the draft and then - you'll have to revise it. And go over and over and over it. To top off which, even the most comfortable writing posture, over time, involves being locked into place for a prolonged period, which is physically taxing. (So cultivate good habits, like pacing and taking little breaks. At least get yourself an ergonomic keyboard. You'll kill yourself typing on a laptop.)

I had to rewrite the ending of The Ghost Sitter five times for the editor (I didn't count how often I went over it in revision before she even saw it), and I cried every time.

So don't be surprised if you get up at the end of a writing session shaky and weak and exhausted.

Writing only looks sedentary. It has physical effects. Don't discount them. Accommodate them.

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17. Idea Garage Sale: The Resurrection McGuffin

Your family has an artifact that can bring someone back from the dead. No time limit. Usable only once. Possibly there's a need for some suitable ritual or sacrifice to make it work, but nothing that raises huge moral dilemmas (at least, not in most of your family members). It comes with a "side effects" warning, but it's not clear what these might be. Perfect health and a certain amount of youthening, however, are guaranteed - so even someone who died of a chronic illness or old age would be worth bringing back.

Scenario 1: Anyone in the family can use it, but only with the full consent of all members of the family. Therefore, it is never used; there is always one hold-out. That's a satirical short story about family politics. Perhaps the protagonist is left alone, after a disaster that kills off the rest of the family, staring at the artifact with too many names to choose among.

Scenario 2: Only one person in the family can activate its power, which passes to a new member after the death of the old one. The person with the power right now is your parent. Are you more careless as an adolescent, because of course if you die in a car crash your mother would bring you back? Are you more careful because you are sure she likes a sibling more than you; or because your other parent is in a dangerous occupation and you want the option to be available in case the worst happens? Does your parent routinely warn you that if you die of stupidity she won't bring you back? Do you go into a heroic profession yourself, secure in the knowledge that, if you die pulling children out of a burning building, it'll be all right in the end?

And then you die, and are brought back. The artifact can never be used again. You are ten years younger than you were and the side effects include partial emotional memory loss - you have no sense of any connection to your family, except the one who brought you back.

That's a novel.

Scenario 3: You are in sole charge of the artifact and, in a surge of altruism, patriotism, or sheer fanboyish enthusiasm, you resurrect your favorite historical personage. Who will inevitably disappoint you in some ways. Wacky hijinx ensue. Farce, satire, or deep philosophical humor.

Scenario 4: You learn of the artifact when it comes into your possession on the death of the previous holder, who has left it to you in her will. It comes with a note in which she explains how it works, and why she never used it. Maybe there's a notebook, a kind of mortology, detailing deaths in the family back several generations, with notes in the handwriting of generations of ancestors, from detailed philosophical musings to a cryptic "No," beside each one. A few are labeled "Maybe." For the most part, it's being held against an untimely death, and there haven't been that many in your family since these notes began to be taken. Do you do the same? Or do you have a death in mind, all ready to undo?

Scenario 5: You are holding the artifact when your spouse is reported MIA from a theater of war; or your child goes missing. You hang onto it for years, not wanting to waste the use if this person is still alive - somewhere - or afraid that, if dead, he will be resurrected in the same place that he is lost now, and the unknown side effects will keep him from returning to you.

Scenario 6: ????? You've already thought of Scenario 6, haven't you?

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18. Authors Lead Exciting Lives

I sat down this morning knowing that Pelin was being followed, but not knowing what he was going to do about it.

I left off with him stepping out from behind a tree in front of the person on his tail and asking "May I help you?" I know what the next line is, but not much else.

Writing this book is like stepping off a cliff in the dark every day. Sometimes I plummet, sometimes I find a path, sometimes I find a single stair under my foot but can't see whether it's attached to anything, and sometimes, I have to get out my trusty toolkit and make a stair, from scratch, out of the materials to hand.

When you're afraid of heights and can't eat any of the food provided at amusement parks, you have to make your own thrills, what can I say?

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19. Because It's All the Same Thing

I am not a visual person, but I find that I have a pretty good idea of who originated what posts as soon as they land on my tumblr dash; more significantly, even months later, I can spot who I reblogged something from when I'm scanning the thumbnails on my archive. Even though the thumbnails are tiny, and a lot of them are posting screenshots from the same game using the same sets of characters, or fanart based on the same fandom (did you know there's an active Moby Dick fandom?), or otherwise grouping themselves by similarity. It's not about the little avatars in the corner, either. If I happen to see a reblog before I see the original (which happens a lot when I'm scrolling backwards), if I see both regularly I'll recognize it as a reblog at once. I even recognize people I don't follow, who people I do follow reblog regularly. When someone who's been gone for awhile pops up, I think: "Oh, hey, that's Thus-and-So, she's back!"

Yet none of these people is trying for a distinctive look. I don't follow that sort of blog. Many of them are working hard to make their games, or their blogs, or their art look pretty; but they're not trying to trademark themselves. They're pleasing themselves and following their own taste and for the most part not trying to be original. They're just doing what they want and communicating about it in whatever way pleases them best.

Because that's how you become distinctive.

A lot of writing advice is out there about finding your voice. I've had roughly the same literary voice since I was eight, so I'm possibly a bad person to give advice; but I think that most people who aren't finding their voice aren't trusting themselves to talk.

You already have a voice, honey. Sit down and write and don't agonize about it so much. Say exactly what you mean. Mean exactly what you say. Make jokes you don't expect people to get. Tell the truth. Solve your plot problems. Listen to your characters. Binge-write self-indulgent journal rants in which you consciously use all the complex, specialist, absurd, pretentious words and phrases and sentence constructions you've ever wanted to. Imitate your favorite writer's virtues. Imitate your favorite writer's faults.

Your voice will emerge. It will sound like you. Anybody who has ever listened to you will be able to pick your prose out of a lineup.

But first you have to write the prose.

Write. Write. Write.

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20. Idea Garage Sale: Nonfiction Requests

I am so tired from gaming (hey, it takes a long time to come down from the adrenaline and sugar when the boss fight turns into a double boss fight and you play two to three hours longer than usual with no supper, but you finish off your ice cream and get halfway through the week's supply of candy bars) I couldn't even finish my blueberry pancakes this morning, so today I will just toss out a few general concepts of non-fiction books that need to exist. They particularly need to exist for the high school and middle school library markets, if only so that teachers get some variety when they assign research papers.

We need both the definitive, and the youth-accessible, biographies of Brenda Howard and Sylvia Rivera.

How about a collective biography called: Ten Scientists You Never Heard of (Because They were Women) ? It could be part of a series, with other professions and overlooked demographics in the noun slots. Make it for the middle school market, and middle school librarians (assuming any have survived budget cuts) will spam you with thanks.

How to Conduct Formal Business on the Internet - Nobody does inside addresses and all that in e-mail, but - should it start "Dear Madam?" How about formatting? Is there a standard type style? How do you distinguish yourself from spam? How do you know you're not spamming? What do you do if you're tired and reach for the "save" button so you can proofread in the morning, but hit "send" instead? It's time to codify the rules!

I had others, but now I'm blanking and they'll keep. I am so tired; and there's still the annual screening of the laser disc version (accept no substitutes! It's past time this got a DVD) of 1776.

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21. Peaches

Peaches that have gone bad make a particular sound when you cut into them. Sometimes only half of the peach is off, so I cut the whole thing, listening for a good bit.

A teacher will consciously notice this sound when instructing someone in the art of peach pie, and will stop to point it out. There, that sound, yes, if it sounds like that it's overripe. See, the texture's spongy. A good peach is smooth and silent and bright gold. It might still cook down all right, if the color's good; but if it's discolored just pitch it.

A writer will consciously notice this sound when writing a scene in which someone is making a peach pie, when summoning up the huge mound of details about the process from which she will select one, or maybe two, that will enable the reader to extrapolate the experience of peach pie making without spending a lot of space on it, that will create the maximum effect from the character's innocent, sunny, summery activity while the villain sneaks up behind her with a garotte.

A poet will consciously notice this when writing a poem about summer as embodied as a peach.

A great poet will make someone who has never sliced a peach hear the sound.

This is all probably analogous of something profound. But for some reason I'm hungry... Read the rest of this post

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22. Idea Garage Sale: Do-It-Yourself Day

Happy Birthday/Anniversary weekend to me.

I'm taking the day off. You'll just have to find your own ideas. If you've been paying attention, you know how.

Look through your news sources till you see a headline that makes you think about the people involved instead of the general, generic misery of the problem of Crime, Poverty, War, or whatever. Start with that person.

Or, go cruise Medieval People of Color for an afternoon and watch your head explode with the untold stories hinted at in image after image.

Or go read your own old diaries and journals, until a missed opportunity leaps out at you.

Feel free to let me know what you come up with.

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23. The Center Does Not Hold

It's two in the afternoon. I haven't eaten lunch yet.

This is bewildering. For most of my adult life, the current boss cat got me up at six and I ate (generally the same breakfast, which I could cook and consume regardless of how awake or how well or how cheerful I was - one soft boiled egg, hot or cold cereal, fruit, hot tea). I was working - whether at a soul-sucking day job or at my own stuff - by eight. Eating lunch at eleven was essential, as along about 10:30 I started getting hungry and by 11:00 I was going critical. My blood sugar would be doing things that blood sugar should never do and if I didn't eat anything could happen, from fainting to laughing jags to bursting into tears to hurling random things at people. (You think I'm exaggerating. Because you were never trapped in a soul-sucking day job with me. Nobody ever forced me to take a late lunch twice. I was fired, or my lunch hour was sacred. There was no in-between.) Afternoons I worked till three. If in a soul-sucking day job I'd stick it out till five, but nothing intellectually taxing I did after that could be trusted - I was bottoming out physically and proceeding on stubbornness and strength of will, of which I once had a considerable amount. If in control of my own time, I knocked off at three and that was time to read or play games or something. Sometimes I'd get a second wind in the evening - during soul-sucking day jobs I needed to, so I could put what I'd written on my lunch hour and coffee breaks into my word processor, and this was generally when I wrote absurdly long newsgroup posts and so on. Plus, reading. But I read all the time; the reading goes without saying.

And I want to do this now. Repeatedly I plan days based on the assumption that, as I always could before, I would spend the morning from 8 to 11 writing, the afternoon doing housework, sewing, researching, and the evening cooking and relaxing.

But it doesn't work. I may not start writing till ten - even if I sit down to do it. I may not be able to eat breakfast till nine, and it may only be the egg, or the fruit. Lunch is all over the map. Supper, which has always been a problem because Damon doesn't get hungry till 7:30 and I'd be hungry at 5:00 (so I'd get a snack), is a problem no more, except that I tend not to make such nice ones. Because when I do get hungry, I still have to eat right now; but, not knowing when it's going to hit, it's harder to make myself start eggplant parmesan, or spinach rice casserole, or anything that requires a lot of chopping and stirring.

Nobody prepares us, mentally, for the way changes in the diurnal cycle affect our intellectual output. I've always relied on my habits to carry me through. The old advice, write a page a day and you have a novel - it's good advice, but it assumes that you can declare a consistent time and place to sit down and write the page, and put your butt in the chair, and do it.

At the moment it is not true.

At some point, I'll adjust. Either I'll settle down into a new rhythm and build new habits; or I'll recognize the waves of capacity as they come at me and be prepared to seize them, to write now and get housework done now and now is the time to start cooking but now is the time when I can face writing queries and get this stuff back into the mail where it belongs. I will become flexible.

But I am not there yet.

Which is one reason the current project is the way it is. This is a book that can only be written flexibly, weirdly, from odd angles and at strange times.

Anyway, since no one talks about this, I thought I'd better bring it up. I'm certain I'm not the only one who has ever had to adjust like this.

I'm consistently peculiar, and in a thin part of the bell curve, but in a world so thickly populated, I never am the only one.

But I may be the first to speak. So this is me, speaking.

For what it's worth.

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24. Wanders in, Muttering...

Okay, that wasn't the plan at all. I don't often miss a Garage Sale. Suffice to say I overdid things badly on Saturday and took a long time recovering. Between that and the cat knocking the water glass over on the keyboard, it has not been a productive week.

On the other hand, I think I know how to make Novel-Penny alien after all! It involves the aliens being as screwed up as humans, which strikes me as realistic (given certain premises). Which is good, because the more I write Penny's dialog, the more "right" it sounds and the more strongly I realize that she's not anywhere on the autistic spectrum or any other human neuroatypical place. She's an alien.

Novel-Skye, however, may well be autistic, so I haven't let myself off the research hook by any means. Fortunately I do have a couple of Aspie net acquaintances who can probably point me in the right direction once I'm ready to knuckle down to it. Which may be awhile, because I still don't know what Pelin's doing between breakfast and moonrise on the day his disenchantment's due. Except he still has to take that list of locations to the scryers, and Loris is going to see Pommy herself...(wanders off muttering).

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25. Idea Garage Sale: City of Dolls

If you're one of those people for whom dolls are automatically creepy, uncanny valley, and objects of horror - stop now. Go away. You won't like today's garage sale.

The reason I was incapacitated this past week was that I spent Saturday gorging myself on dolls. The United Federation of Doll Clubs was in town, and my mother-in-law paid my way in to the exhibit hall. Doll collecting is a relatively expensive habit (though I managed to find a particular specialty which is low-end for the hobby) and I've managed to keep a leash on myself for several years; the result being that I found I was starving, and had to see everything, overdid massively, and was knocked off my feet for several days. I spent less than I might have, treating the whole thing as a museum and taking a good look at dolls of types I normally only see in reference books.

It is easy for a non-doll person to laugh when the UFDC opens its webpage with the portentious statement: The study of dolls is truly the study of humankind. And it's true that a lot of the (largely middle-aged or old, white, upper-middle-class, female) people on the floor with me were exclaiming over how cute certain dolls were, or nostalgically discussing the doll of their own past. But the statement's true, all the same. And may I point out that one reason the statement sounds absurdly overwrought is that dolls are associated, first, with little girls, who are trivialized in our culture, and second with domestic life, which is also trivialized, even though most of us spend most our time in domestic pursuits, of necessity.

Looked at objectively, the line between doll and human effigy is a thin one. The history of dolls illuminates the economic and social histories of their countries of origin; and throughout those histories, dolls provide focal points for social and personal conflicts concerning race, gender roles, and educational theory. We all know about controversies over whether Barbie should say that math is hard, whether boys should be allowed to play with dolls (unless they are renamed "action figures" to take the girl-cooties off them), and whether little girls base their body images on the proportions of doll bodies; but did you know that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries baby dolls were controversial and many little girls were forbidden to play with them, because they were "improper?"

These controversies can, of course, be thematic starting points for stories, and I would, myself, be pleased to pick up one that explored the forbidden-baby-doll theme, simply because it is so counterintuitive to the modern mindset; but that's not where my mind went while I was wearing my feet to nubs walking up and down those aisles, knowing my gravity was not functioning and I would pay dearly soon.

Because what I was seeing was a vast, temporary doll city; something like an annual gathering of the tribes. The floor and the tables were densely packed with doll dealers and their wares, and the customers they serve. These doll dealers have their own storefronts and internet shops; they have, presumably, circuits of shows and conventions that they follow; they have, certainly, their own networks and subculture, factions and feuds. It wouldn't surprise me a lick to find that someone has written Death at the Doll Show (Not yet, not by that particular title, if a quick trip to the search engine doesn't mislead me), as this is the kind of specialist subculture the mystery genre thrives on, and there's a good overlap in the demographics of doll collectors and of readers of cozy mysteries.

I even heard a little bit of gossip that intrigues me. A dealer was speaking to a customer concerning the sudden drop in value of a particular type of doll, and informed her that a pair of brothers had discovered a cache of them, split it, quarreled, and were now each spreading rumors about the other's share of the hoard, trying to cut each other's throats in the market; and the nature of these rumors was such that the entire market in these dolls was being undermined, as people lost faith in their desirability. You could do quite a bit with that, I think, in the adult market - a murder mystery or a character study or a farce or even an economic thriller.

Of course, I don't write for (or read in) the adult market.

No, I want to write the story exploring the doll society that grows up around these shows. Obviously, when the lights are out and the crowds and dealers go away, the dolls come out about their own business! So what happens then?

Do the modern art dolls and the elite nineteenth-century dolls - the Jumeaus and Brus, the delicate wax ladies, the child dolls too big for children to actually play with - talk to each other, or do they form rival cliques? Does anyone let the small shopliftable dolls out of their glass cases so they can run around playing with each other? Do old friends reunite at these events? Do dolls of similar backgrounds sit around and reminisce? Do the ribbons given at doll shows have any cachet with the dolls themselves? Do they want to be bought, or do they dread it? Do dolls cast in the same mold regard themselves as family? Is there a doll religion to comfort them when one breaks irreparably? What damage is, in fact, fatal to a doll? Do dolls repaired with the spare parts of other dolls of the same type have identity crises or issues of guilt? What virtues do dolls value; what vices do they condemn? Do modern fashion dolls hold different values than antique ones? Are baby dolls stuck in a baby level of maturity, or do wisdom and eloquence come with chronological age? Do character dolls identify with their creators - to what degree are Shirley Temple dolls individuals, and to what degree are they Shirley Temple?

And what about the stuffed animals that inevitably appear in these stores, at these shows?

And what story, compressed into the week of a big convention, could I tell that would showcase this rich, complex little world?

Of course I really want to write this as an excuse to do the research and make doll purchases tax-deductible... Read the rest of this post

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