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Viewing Blog: Peni Griffin - Idea Garage Sale, Most Recent at Top
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The cliche question all authors hate - "Where do you get your ideas?" The idea is the easy part. The idea is so easy to get, you can't give them away. I'm here to give them away, to share them, and invite you to recognize yours. We're all creative. Not all of us pay attention.
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1. Idea Garage Sale: A Little Bit of Fun with First Lines

The days the gravity failed, nothing ever got done.

Hindsight being 20/20, I should've seen what was coming the moment the sky turned royal purple; but I wasn't paying attention.

Her philosophy of life was simple: When offered two choices, select the third one hiding behind them.

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2. Events!

I'm driving up to San Marcos in a little bit to hear Dr. James Adavasio speak and to prove to myself that, little by little, I am coming back. Sunday I'll be going to Austin, to BookPeople and Greg Leitich-Smith's book launch.

On Veteran's Day, I took Moby out for a bit, to replace two dodgy tires and get the oil and coolant checked. I feel a lot of kinship with Moby at the moment, as bits of him stop working properly and are replaced - the driver's side seat belt, the interior door handle - or not - one of the door locks, that strip of chrome that the gas station ate when I parked a bit too close to the pump. Yet he keeps moving, and so do I.

And whereas, someday, inevitably, Moby will limp off to the junkyard to be stripped down for parts, or get donated to one of those charities that takes even cars that won't move anymore to generate money in some mysterious way (which presumably amounts to the same thing), I will someday cycle all the way up again, and transform all the mental coolant and oil I've been sucking down into - something. I don't know what. But I know I will. It's in there. Somewhere.


Whether I can transform whatever it is into income to justify my existence to the consumer society, I don't know. So I stick that consideration onto the shelf in my head marked "Stuff I can't do anything about right now" and keep gestating, and even occasionally driving to hear speakers and cheer other authors on.

Meanwhile, I'd better get some lunch. Because lunch is inevitable.

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3. Always an Author

Sometimes I wonder, as the months without school visits turn into years, as I write without attempting to publish, as I stare at Publishers Market listings and don't start a query, if I'm still an author.

Monday, I proofed galleys for a short story I recently sold (for remarkably little money; but it's a remarkably little story) and got a fan letter from a child who, in the course of reading The Ghost Sitter, "went from hating reading to loving it!!" (Who wants to write for grownups? Grownups don't write letters like that. You're lucky if you can get one exclamation mark out of a grownup.)

So, yeah, just because I live in professional limbo right now doesn't mean I'm not the woman who wrote The Ghost Sitter and Switching Well - and other things less likely to generate fanmail. Maybe my time is over and I'll never sell again; or maybe I'm about to get that query mojo working again and have a renaissance that catapults me into the literary stratosphere. (Hey, stranger things have happened.) Regardless, what I've already done will remain valid.

Today is Marty McFly Day - the day he spent in "the future" in Back to the Future II (IMHO the best of the series). From today forward, the Back to the Future movies will be entirely set in the past. Now there's a time paradox for you! Time does that, keeps rolling on over and past us and our creations, changes how they look and inevitably, eventually, destroys both us and them. But it takes a long time; and even dead work may be resurrected in unexpected ways. Why, not long ago a new passage to the Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered! (As one tumblr user observed, this means that the Gilgamesh fandom is the one that's had the longest wait for an update, by a considerable margin.)

The work is resilient, it is tough, and it can go on when we can't. Or won't. Or don't.

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4. Domestic Analogies. I Can Always Make Them.

Still alive here, and a miracle occurred - I learned how to install fly-front zippers! Part of my problem, it turned out, was that the markings on the pattern were confusing me. Now that everything's clicked, I can ignore them. I also successfully did a new, and more difficult, alteration to the pattern than anything I've done before; something I would have been incapable of doing six months ago, just because I couldn't have focused long enough to do it. So I have four pairs of pants that fit perfectly in the back and almost perfectly in the front - I still have some bugs to work out in fitting the waistband. But even allowing for that and my inability to get all the basting stitches pulled, they're still better than anything I could have gotten at a store. I probably cried less than I would have if I'd gone shopping, too.

None of which, alas, enables me to do what I need to do to start sending queries out again.

The trouble with queries is, that they are the exact opposite of how I need to do things. I can force myself to write them, but I inevitably do them badly. Sometimes, so badly that I wake up in the middle of the night with that excruciating twist in the stomach that says: "Holey cheese that was the worst possible way to do that and it's too late to take it back now."

And other people's advice on how to write them? Is a lot like the markings on the pattern intended to help me install a zipper. Obviously they work for some people - probably most people - and I needed them in order to learn, but they didn't - couldn't - take my alterations into account; and the markings and instructions and diagram laid things out so antithetically to the way I learn things my illegible notes on the instruction sheet say things like "And by left they mean right" and "Line up with the top not the bottom." (That my notes are illegible doesn't matter; making them renders it unnecessary for me ever to refer to them.) I get this in recipes, too. Food doesn't behave the way the recipe says it will, no matter how closely I follow the instructions. So after I've made a dish a few times and start succeeding with it, I ignore the recipe. Level measurement gets me a different result every time, but I make pancakes with scant measures of milk and heaping measurements of baking powder and they're good, low-sodium pancakes, which is what I'm after.

All of which gives me hope that I'm going to get the query thing down eventually, too. The truth is I've never sold anything on a pitch or a query - I've only ever sold on the work, and on personal contact with the editor. And I have no freaking clue how agents work as human beings let alone as professionals. They might as well be aliens, for all I can think my way into their space. It's really, really tempting to send the first X pages with a list of credits and a cover letter that says: "Look, I'm good at writing stories but I suck at selling things. Read the enclosed and if you want to see the rest, let me know. YA, lesbian western, complete, about 70,600 words. Thank you for your time."

For one thing, the agent who doesn't just delete that is probably an agent I could work with.

But that's not how the industry works. So I will just have to keep sending out queries full of excruciatingly wrong things to say like I kept putting in and ripping out zippers, like I kept throwing out pancakes with runny middles, till something clicks and I figure out the point at which the advice givers tell me to go left and I need to turn right.

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5. Idea Garage Sale: Cults of Cahokia?

So it's a good year for the archeology of the Moundbuilders, looks like. This week my sources (i.e. random internet news sources I follow; thanks, tumblr!) tell me that recent analysis of mass graves at Cahokia reveal them to be full of people who were from Cahokia, not Aztec-style war captives as had previously been speculated.

Specifically, the researchers looked at two different, but chronologically related, mass graves. In one, over 200 young women who died in ways that didn't leave obvious marks on their bodies were laid out and stacked up in neat rows.

In another one nearby, however, a mixed lot of men and women, not quite 40 in all, between the ages of 15 and 45, were tumbled together after being killed in gruesome, spectacular, and obvious ways - stone points still embedded in their bones, decapitation, all the awful violence of warfare or massacre.

When these graves were first excavated, slotting them into a narrative similar to the historic MesoAmerican custom (not unknown to historical Europeans, either) of appeasing the gods with captives taken from conquered and subject peoples rather than your own. But modern methods of analysis are allowing archeologists to find out quite a lot of personal information about bones these days, and the indications are strong that all the bodies belong to natives or long-term residents of the Cahokia region.

Furthermore - and this is where my story nose starts twitching - the tidy grave, though more uniform in appearance, is more diverse biologically than the messy, violent grave, which contains people biologically more distinct from other people unearthed at the site, and more similar to each other, than one would expect from a random sampling.

So the massacred people all belonged to the same extended family; and the presumed sacrifices were drawn from the general population.

I don't know about you, but this snaps into a definite picture in my head: a tyrannical ruling elite imposing an increasingly unbearable young-woman tax on their subjects to feed an implacable god to stave off some real or imagined disaster. Until the ruled, or a rival, couldn't take it anymore and revolted in a vengeful night of horror...

This sort of thing, after all, does happen. Read the history of any country, any group of people, any power structure. It's likely to involve politics, economics, and personal pathology with a veneer of religion making it easy to go too far - for it can't possibly be evil if God requires it, right? You're just doing your job...

But that is only a general outline. For a solid theory, one would have to examine more data and run more tests and compare dates (or rather, date ranges; all date measuring tech necessarily gives results in a range within a safe margin of error). If it can be established that the tidy sacrifices precede the messy massacre, that's one story; but if the messy massacre precedes, or occurs halfway through, those are very different stories.

And as far as I could tell reading the article, there's still much that isn't known about how the inhabitants of the tidy graves died. Human sacrifice is one way to account for their uniformity in age, burial method, etc.; but it's not the only conceivable one. Might there have been an epidemic in an institution which concentrated young women into a single physical space, some analog to a convent or a girl's finishing school?

And though the story that forms in my head associates the massacred remains with guilty parties, it is by no means unheard of for a disadvantaged group to take the punishment belonging to an advantaged group; or for a group to be powerful in a way that doesn't protect them from scapegoating and mob violence (cf the history of anti-semitism, for example); or for the innocent to be punished along with their guilty relatives; or for institutions to overwhelm the conscience of individuals to a point that personal guilt and innocence aren't even useful concepts. The sacrifices may have been criminals in ways we wouldn't view as crime; the massacred may have been virtuous in ways from which we recoil.

All of which is overwhelming to one who wishes to write a story about it suitable for publication. Archeologists don't have to come out with any one "truth" - they can always say "we need more data!" and dive back in. Fiction writers, however, have to do a certain level of research (varying with their personal comfort level and the intended market) and then commit to a narrative, centered on one character. Most modern American narratives prefer a sympathetic protagonist who triumphs in the end, which limits your narrative choices. You can try to buck this trend and opt for an unsympathetic protagonist and/or a tragic ending, if you're prepared for the flak you'll take from readers, reviewers, and armchair moralists on the hunt for the motes in the eyes of others, who will all assume that to write from a character's viewpoint is the same thing as endorsing that character's viewpoint.

If you can find your way to a narrative and a protagonist based on this setting and this situation, however - what a book that would be! Universal human themes and experiences, in a unique setting that doesn't have the thumbprints of dozens of pulp novelists all over it!

The more I think about it, the more certain I am that there's a Great Native American Historical Novelist out there, somewhere, being discouraged from writing a whole string of powerful works about the great pre-Columbian civilizations, which, when finally published, will be runaway bestsellers and create a new subgenre of historical fiction, centered on Native American history and viewpoints.

And I hope I live long enough to read them.

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6. Not Sure How Much This Helps

Despite frontloading a lot of the second-guessing of myself, and going in with a sense of not having a damn thing of use to offer; despite both of us being unreasonably tired and Damon missing half of Saturday due to health crap; despite a surprisingly small dealer's room (no t-shirts? How can there be no t-shirts?), Armadillocon was good for me this year.

I can never remember what I say on panels, though I always think afterwards of things I absolutely should have said, but after each one someone in the audience sought me out to remark favorably on what I said, and moreover on how I said it. I always have the vague sense that I've talked too much (and too loud, and too diffusely) and not said any of the right things, but the audience - or these specific portions of the audience anyway - perceives this as me being passionate about things.

That is certainly true as far as it goes. And apparently the other panelists don't find it too obnoxious, either, because when the ghost story panel was short of participants, at the tag-end of the day Saturday, someone I'd been on with earlier in the day invited me to get out of the audience and onto the panel. So I did. Because, ghost stories. And we were all weird by then anyhow, it wasn't just me.

I once again sat through a panel on promotion and was once again admonished that all sales involve "selling myself" and once again concluded that if that's true, I'm screwed, because I can't sell myself. This is not reluctance; this is not naivete; this is not cowardice; this is demonstrated fact. You might as well tell me to flap my arms and fly to the moon, or do a pull-up (honestly, how? I've never managed even one; I can't even bend my elbows), or fall asleep because it's bedtime. I've had 54 years to try this advice and it's not going to work because I can't do it, and my ability to network at all is small.

But I have sold books, and I have given workshops and been on panels that apparently were good for some of the participants, and I do get traffic on this blog, and somehow I've accumulated 337 simblr followers as of this morning, the vast majority of whom are not spammers, without any promotion at all. This is all small, but real. I'm okay with small success, and all my small successes have been the result of me telling stories and talking about the things I care about and basically engaging passionately with something, and conveying that engagement to people outside of it.

I do not know how to translate Being All About the Story into, say, a living wage.

But it's clear enough that Being All About the Story has to be where I start, or nothing else is going to happen at all.

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7. Road Trip Time

Off to Armadillocon in the morning. We're leaving early so we can make a couple of stops on the way. My first panel is at 5:00 tomorrow.

If you're there too, find a panel I'm on and come say hi.

Maybe you can help me figure out this e-reader I bought.

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8. Armadillocon 2015, Very Soon

The Armadillocon schedule is up.

I feel kind of detached from it all, as if I'm not really going. But I'll be there, and I expect I'll be present enough at the time. It's just that I'm so weird right now.

If you're there too feel free to say hi.

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9. Publishing Today

Nothing sums up modern publishing like the fact that Lois McMaster Bujold's fourth theological thriller set in the World of Five Gods did not get picked up by the publisher, so she's e-pubbing it herself.

And now I have to cave in and get an e-reader. Because there's not going to be a print run, and Bujold is a read-while-walking, read-while-eating, take-book-to-bed-to-finish-chapter-oh-look-I-finished-and-it's-three-AM author.

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10. Idea Garage Sale: The Buried Bobcat (News)

Yeah, it's not Sunday but you know what posting when I want means? It means schedules don't apply, and this is a doozy! What was previously assumed to be a puppy burial in an Illinois Hopewell mound turns out to have been a 4-7 month old bobcat! Wearing a collar! And being treated unlike any other animal burial found in the Hopewell culture ever!

I trust this will lead to a re-evaluation of old animal burials to make sure of the species (a bobcat skull is not particularly canine-looking - someone was careless there!), but it will still be unique in the record because neither domestic nor wild animals are typically buried in Hopewell mounds at all, and this bobcat's remains show no signs of it having been part of a sacrifice or anything like that. Even as a puppy burial it should have attracted more interest than it did, she says with 50/50 hindsight, because the person who wasn't there always knows best. The Hopewell just did not bury animals in the same way they buried humans - except for this one time, raising the huge question - why?

And that, of course, is where the storyteller comes into play because there's a limit to what the evidence can tell us at any scientific level. Was it somebody's pet bobcat? That's a story in itself, as (Disney versions aside) dogs were the only animal routinely domesticated in the Americas till European imports came along. Was it an animal of some ceremonial significance? Forensic analysis find no indication of a sacrifice, but not all forms of death lead a clear record in the bones - maybe it was suffocated very skilfully. Or maybe it had some ceremonial significance that had nothing to do with sacrificing it, and it died of natural causes (which may have been a bad omen for somebody!). Maybe it was understood to actually "be" someone else - a messenger from the land of the dead, or the vessel of some power.

My mind rides off in all directions, and I hesitate to pick one, because - somewhere out there is someone who is much, much better qualified to tell this story than me. This story needs someone who has a stronger connection to the Hopewell tradition than I have, some much firmer grounds for thinking that (for instance) the bobcat might have temporarily held the spirit of a culture hero, ancestor, or shaman, and been buried when that spirit's work on earth was done. Anything I wrote on it would be a straight-up fantasy with the fingerprints of European-American cultural assumptions all over it. Someone out there is better able to wash those fingerprints away and give us a straight-up fantasy that showcases the cultural assumptions of the Hopewell - a culture long gone, except for its archeological traces and the biological descendants, holders of a series of different cultures, of Hopewell citizens.

I hope this person recognizes herself, and finds the story, and commits to the story, and gets it past all the barriers trying to lock anything but European-American cultural assumptions from media, and publishes it where I can read it.

I promise to cry when the bobcat dies.

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11. Armadillocon 2015

I just booked Damon's membership and our room for Armadillocon 2015.

I'm not sure why they want me. I'm not sure I'm a draw. I'm not sure I'm up to it. But I'm going and it'll sort itself out.

Because nothing good happens if you don't give them a chance; and the bad things that can happen aren't that bad.

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12. A Modest Proposal

Many, many things are wrong in my life right now.

But today is a good day.

We should have a Marriage Day holiday, with parades and picnics and love story movie marathons (focusing on forbidden love stories of all sorts, with happy endings), commemorating June 12, 1967, the day of the Loving vs. Virginia decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws, and June 26, 2015, the day "same-sex marriage" became just "marriage."

Hmm, a series of historical romances about the human cost of nonsensical laws, there's an idea...

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13. Starting over and over and over and over...

Starting with the gunshots trims the first chapter too much. You don't know Len and if you don't know Len it's not worth it to keep reading. I'll never sell it like this and I don't know where to start now.

This is what I get for following advice about how to make your query and first pages attractive...I should know by now that what works for other people doesn't work for me, and no one can tell me what will work, because nobody knows. It's trial and error time again and I have no way to measure success short of acceptance, which means I could get several rejections even with the winning format and never know I'd hit it.

Life in the skinny part of the bell curve is tough, film at eleven.

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14. This can be "fun with first lines" if you want it to.

My house smells like wet possum and I went to bed at 6:30 this morning. These facts are not unrelated.

(No wonder I'm always tired.)

Happy Memorial Day.

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Enabling the creativity of others may or may not be inherently creative; may or may not advance your career; may or may not be rewarded in any way.

But it is not nothing, and is worth doing.

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16. Idea Garage Sale: Silence

The headlines this week are full of story ideas, and I live in the constant awareness of the historical novels that will be written about 2015 in the future - but today I am so tired.

I am always so tired these days.

I am still working, but I have to work differently, in an apparently scattershot fashion - opportunistically recognizing what I do and do not have the energy for at any given time. The Idea Garage Sale was useful to me when I had energy all the time, more than I needed. When I had so many ideas crowding my brain I needed an outlet for the ones distracting me from doing the work necessary to take one idea from the shining perfection of the initial image in my head to the less perfect, but usable, reality. And then it was good discipline to form the week around and give it shape.

But right now it's draining me.

This isn't a good-by post. I think it's important to have something active that turns up when someone googles your name. I will certainly post when I have something to say.

But I have two modes, silent and can't-shut-up.

I think I need to be silent for a little while.

What does it say about me, I wonder, that I look at those last two lines and think: "Okay, that's the beginning of a short story? Science fiction, I think."

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17. Proof/Disproof. Yeah, Right.

Sorry about missing the garage sale Sunday; I was wiped. And yesterday and today I was actually able to go out and do yardwork in the wake of the recent storms, so I did. Now it's almost possible to drag the fallen branches all the way to the brush pile at the property line! Yay! But I am tired. Oh, well.

Anyway, this morning, an article titled: Alternate Theory of Inhabitation of North America Disproved appeared on my tumblr dash. So I made a skeptical sound and said: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

I suspected it was about the Solutrean Hypothesis, and it was - or rather, about one element of it, the freezing of the North Atlantic down to appropriate latitudes for humans to utilize the ice fields for hunting, as historical and modern hunters have utilized the Arctic ice. The lead paragraph contains the claim: "Now, researchers at the University of Missouri, working with colleagues the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and elsewhere, have definitively disproved the ice bridge theory."

Well, maybe they have; but if so, you can't tell from the rest of the posted article, which consists entirely of a muddled account of nitpicks concerning the provenance of a point associated with mastodon bones, both dredged out of Cheaspeake Bay in the 70s. I wouldn't have to know anything about the Solutrean Hypothesis to know that you can't prove or disprove anything with the data presented, as presented. I can't tell whether the University of Missouri archeological team write lousy press releases and make grandiose claims, or if they tried to explain the background to a University employee in charge of writing it, who got bored halfway through, lost the thread, took crappy notes, and then gave it to somebody else to write the headline in which the grandiose claim is made. Either way, lousy journalism has been committed here, and both the Solutrean Hypothesis and the arguments against it have been oversimplified into absurdity.

(And may I just say, if I never see the term "bridge" brought up in a discussion of the peopling of the Americas again, it'll be too soon? Nobody needed a land bridge, or an ice bridge, or any kind of bridge to get to America. The most conservative archeologists I've ever met conceded that the first Americans not only may have had, but probably did have, boats, and will emphasize that Beringia (and the ice sheet) were not passageways from one continent to another, but distinctive geographical regions with resources to be utilized in a number of different ways. Nobody refers to or thinks of the polar ice caps or Central America as "bridges." If the Isthmus of Panama is flooded, people will wind up on side or another of the resulting strait, but it would be absurd to think that they were in transit the whole time they were living on the Isthmus of Panama. Get a grip, geez!)

Which is why primary research is so important. When you're writing something inspired by science, or history, or whatever, you'll inevitably encounter a lot of accounts and explanations that fall easily into the shapes of common conceptions. They report in broad strokes that create familiar patterns, as conflict between two opposing forces (because a story is character + conflict, right?), in terms of proof or disproof, stodgy conservatism or reckless iconoclasm, arguments that stand or fall on a single piece of evidence - and it simply does not work that way. You read the journals and talk to the scientists, though - really read them, for information, chewing your way diligently through all the background details that seem tedious at first - the moment will come when you have your epiphany and see them as the millions of tiny pixels making up a much more complicated, much grander, a thousand times more ambiguous, but far more interesting story than the broad strokes that first intrigued you led you to believe.

When you write your own story, you'll have to leave out a lot of those details, too. You'll have to create your own broad strokes version - and you'll probably have to draw, or at least sketch out, a conclusion that the scientists will hedge around with disclaimers. But that's all right, that's the nature of narrative.

As long as it's the narrative that paints the picture you built up for yourself out of all those pixelly details; not the same old familiar lazy pattern that everybody already knows.

Because why write the same old story over and over and over, when the world is infinite? All your readers will see on the beaten path is packed dirt. Lead them into the long grass, into the trees, and across the pristine ice fields of the mind!

They might be confused. But they won't be bored. The better a story reflects this infinite, chaotic, beautiful, reality we live in, the less dull it will be.

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18. Idea Garage Sale: The Transgender Western

Seriously. Since we just established that I haven't written it, somebody out there should. Somebody transgender, for choice.

Female crossdressing is a standard trope in the genre and happened a lot in history, but in fiction it ends with the woman declaring her heterosexuality and returning to female garb. As it sometimes did in real life. But not always.

And this could easily be reversed, and undoubtedly was, but since women led more circumscribed lives it doesn't inspire adventure fiction. But feminine "men," masculine "women," and intersex and genderfluid people have always existed. People must have changed their effective gender by changing clothes quite a lot, during time periods when gender was so strongly coded that nobody, ever, looked for other gender clues without a reason.

You'll need some kind of plot beyond that, of course, but if you read in the western genre, you know the plots and it should, once you consider your character, be clear at once how and where and into which plot this character would fit. Let's hear the story of the schoolmarm who used to be a cowboy, the widow rancher whose high collars mask an adam's apple, the orphan whose choices include which equally-possible face to turn to the world, the escaped slave whose description in the advertisement cites the wrong sex.

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19. Idea Garage Sale: Vampire Beach Baby

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

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

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

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20. The Red Lady of the Painted Caves

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

That would be the storyteller's job!

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21. Idea Garage Sale: Alien Adoption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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22. Idea Garage Sale: The Library Angel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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23. Idea Garage Sale: A Game of Poems

Happy National Poetry Month!

I long ago gave up trying to write poetry because of the universal criticism from knowledgeable people that I could never get it to scan right. I think this is a function of my accent, which is an amalgam of Midwestern and Southwestern that has the emphasis hopping all around a sentence in ways that aforementioned knowledgeable people (whose sense of scansion is tied to the way academics speak on the coasts) don't hear properly at all. The stresses all seem to land fine to me. But the rhythms of my prose work better for my purposes than trying to tell stories or convey ideas or information in verse, so I have stopped consciously trying and only now commit the occasional lyric outburst in the course of some other pursuit. These are generally songs, which the reader can assume has a tune which will fix the scansion problem.

It is not a bad exercise, however, to read a poem a day, or to block out April or some other time as an occasion to write one a day, to keep the wheels properly lubricated and season the labor of turning an idea into a Work with some play. You don't have to show them to anybody, after all, and it's not as if making a living with poetry is a thing these days, so the pressure is off!

It's especially fun to play with poetic forms. A sonnet or villanelle is as much a puzzle as a poem, when you're writing it; and formal poetry can be read as a kind of game in which the reader is catching and the poet is trying to fake her out with a curve ball and surprise her in spite of her knowing roughly what to expect.

In that spirit, why not get out your polyhedral dice and inspire yourself with this random table of poetic forms and topics? Roll d20 once to get the form from the first table, and a second time to get the subject! If you roll an unfamiliar form, you can find the definition at The Poet's Garrett; which you can also use to make your own random form generator.

If you don't have a d20, you might want to rethink your life and priorities; but in the meantime, you can use an online random number generator to simulate dice rolling in a much less viscerally satisfying way.

Poetic Forms:
1. Ballad
2. Blues Sonnet
3. English Sonnet
4. Haiku
5. Heroic Couplet
6. Common measure
7. Hymn
8. Limerick
9. Muzdawwidj
10. Ode
11. Rondeau
12. Sapphic Stanza
13. Saraband
14. Sestet
15. Spenserian Stanza
16. Spanish Quatrain
17. Than Bauk
18. Triolet
19. Villanelle
20. Zani La Rhyme

Poetic Subjects:
1. Cats
2. Death
3. Spring
4. Social Media
5. Childhood
6. Winter
7. Parenthood
8. Dogs
9. Birth
10. Flowers
11. Snow
12. Food
13. The First Thing You See After You Turn Around Three Times
14. Eros
15. God
16. Extinct Species
17. Science
18. Geography
19. Agape
20. Roll twice and cover both subjects. Yes, if you roll double twenties you should roll another two times and have four subjects! Why not?

And if you feel like posting the results in the comments, I have no objection at all!

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24. Idea Garage Sale: Can't Be Bothered

Ugh. Headache. Don't want to do this. Will anyway.

An awful lot of human life is made up of doing things we don't want to do. Which is a conflict, and conflict means story, so where does that take us?

Unless you want to write depressing literary fiction (in which case, go you, but leave me out of it), most of the things we don't want to do aren't interesting enough to write about - washing the dog, going to work, changing diapers, cleaning the oven. Unless -

Wait a minute.

It occurs to me that all the same mundane, distasteful activities that would fit into depressing literary fiction would also fit into comedy; in which case, the more mundane the task that goes hilariously wrong, the better. It's an old, old trope, the humor arising from mucking up simple tasks because they look so simple no one thinks they need instructions, from freak accidents complicating simple tasks in a snowballing fashion, or from elaborate attempts to avoid the distasteful activity. (Combine any two of these elements, and you have a commercial for Be-bop-a-re-bop Rhubarb Pie)

Because this trope is so old, of course, it's not easy coming up with fresh material for it. We've all seen the kid put too much soap in the washing machine, thank you; we've all seen the guy who tries to lie himself out of an unpleasant duty winding himself up in a web of deceit till he can't move without disaster striking. And we hardly need elaborate ruses to get out of a lot of the new duties that weigh us down - all we have to do is get on the internet and pretend we were working!

But perhaps what you've got to do is, to be available online to people you don't want to talk to, asking the same stupid questions over and over again, questions that were covered in the FAQ they didn't bother to read. And they keep interrupting your pursuit of fanfic. So you build a little AI bot, basically an interactive FAQ that users think is a tech support person, which takes care of everybody who would have solved their own problem if they'd used the FAQ and only lets people with interesting problems (and people you like) actually get through to you. Because you are clever (but unambitious) this bot fools everybody who encounters it. It's probably a lot nicer to users than you are. It makes friends with the more hapless users who call all the time, and they get fond of it (thinking they're fond of you), and this leads them to make nice remarks to your supervisor and send you banana bread and stuff. (Meanwhile, the person in the next cubicle, who is actually dealing with these people and being genuinely nice and helpful, doesn't get squat.) Which is all good and you can have entire days of eating banana bread and reading epic fics; but now your bot's friends are inviting you out after work to do stuff you'd as soon cut your hand off as do, and when people with interesting problems get all the way through the bot's routine to deal with you, they recognize the difference and start to ask questions.

Which is where it starts escalating and eventually you can only get out of the mare's nest with the assistance of the person in the next cubicle, who is the one who should've gotten the banana bread all along, but my head hurts too much to figure out what you do to escalate. It's partly web-of-deceit, but it's partly Frankenstein as the AI bot, which is a more social version of you and which you made far more clever than it ought to be, does its own escalation. It probably winds up in a sexting relationship with somebody in accounting... Read the rest of this post

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25. Thinking Out Loud

So it has come to my attention that I need to work out whether Len is lesbian or transgender in order to pitch her story properly to a modern audience. I'd thought I could shrug it off, because Len has no concept of either, and the categorization of gender identity and sexual preference has only recently become precise enough to distinguish between the two - until gender reassignment surgery became possible, a transman might as well be a lesbian, for all practical purposes, and the idea of a male mind in a woman's body was seriously proposed as a "cause" for lesbianism even within the community. Radclyffe Hall takes it for granted in The Well of Loneliness, for example. (Not the only reason that book reads as strange and problematic today, by a long shot; but I think it reads a bit better if Stephen Gordon is interpreted as a transman, and his lover Angela, at least, as straight rather than bisexual. Mary could be either bi or straight. But anyway.)

Refusing to label real historical people by terms they wouldn't find applicable is all very well, but it leaves people with underrepresented identities feeling even more like beggars at the table than they are. St. Paul and H.P. Lovecraft both came as close to declaring themselves asexual as they could without having a word for it available to them, so it seems mean-spirited toward modern asexuals not to apply the label to them.

And in a modern book written for a modern audience, refusing to label is bad marketing as well as bad representation. Yes, there is a danger of agents and publishers and marketing people marginalizing a title with clear labels into literary ghettos - but there's no guarantee that won't happen, anyway, and at least a clear label, or even a ghetto, allows the audience to find the work, whether their circumstances empower them to pick it up, or not.

I started off thinking of Len as a lesbian by default. I'm bisexual, so it's fairly easy to imagine my way into a lesbian character; plus I'm so freaking cis I came up with the notion of gender as a social construct on my own when I was twelve. I feel so congruent with my body I have no intuitive grasp of the concept of feeling different or separate from it - if my body is female, I'm female, which makes feminine a wholly redundant term and the gendering of activities and self-presentation simply silly. A woman doing something is enough to render the activity feminine, and a man doing the same thing genders it as masculine, and in an ideal world nobody would be gender-policing anybody. And of course nobody would be transgender because everybody would be comfortable in their own skin and able to do what they wanted! Which probably meant they'd be bisexual, too, though the skinny parts of the bell curve would be occupied by strict monosexuals. In the meantime, of course, people who felt the need for extensive body modification surgery to bring their gender and sex into synch should not be prevented from getting it, or stigmatized for it, even though I personally found the whole concept icky. Surgery of any kind is a medical miracle that is indistinguishable from mutilation to me. Sometimes it's necessary, but the same is true of the death penalty and abortion, and those won't be necessary in a perfect world, either!

As I've become better informed about the subjective experiences of the genderqueer I've realized this was naive at best and insufferably smug at the worst. I may not have any better grasp of how it feels to be transgender than of how it tastes to enjoy an olive (which is one of the foulest things I've ever had in my mouth), but that's a limitation that doesn't prevent me from accepting the voice of experience when it tells me that for some people, sex and gender aren't the same and olives are delicious, and writing an olive-eating transmale character if I need to. And it began to seem to me that I had. (Not that there's any olives in the story, but Len has a close personal relationship with food like you wouldn't believe, and seems to enjoy everything. I had to cut out a lot of meal details during revision.) However, if Len is transgender, I'll need to do another big research stint and overhaul the manuscript, looking for places where my cis assumptions have trampled over Len's trans voice. I don't much want to do that - but I'd rather make that effort, than be guilty of misrepresenting the character.

So what makes me think Len might be a transman rather than a lesbian?

Well - the fact that once she puts on the Len persona she never, ever takes it off again, but spends the rest of her life presenting herself as male to the world. Even when sharing the secret with Di, she does not say: "I'm a woman" but "My name is Eleanor." When trying to convey, without breaching Victorian mores, that if she marries Di she will want a real marriage, not a sexless front, she says: "I would want to be your husband. And for you to be my wife."

The fact that to a certain degree she's not even donning a persona. She has always been "masculine" enough that her father had a Dad-joke about her and her sickly twin brother being switched at birth. She and her brother Leonard have always done the same things, a mix of masculine and feminine behaviors: "I could shoot as well as Len. He could sew as well as me." Even the name Len isn't appropriated from her brother, but shared with him - their family addresses them both as Len, because for most purposes one will do as well as another, and if you call for one you'll get them both. The feminine "Lennie" was used by outsiders to distinguish them, but not one instance of this has survived to the current draft.

The fact that, though she has several sad introspective moments in which she contemplates a lonely bachelor future, and regards getting into a satisfactory romantic relationship as equally impossible whether she lives as a man or a woman, she never considers returning home, where at least she would have her family. And she does love her family.

Moreover, the idea of a Boston marriage, which was common and perfectly respectable (because assumed to be sexless) never crosses her mind, and she doesn't discuss the possibility with Di. The original ending, since cut, explicitly shows Len living out the rest of her life as a man and never going home again.

That's all - pretty persuasive, actually.

Against this, we can place my consistent tendency to use female pronouns for her. (See preceding paragraphs!) This might, however, be my cissexism overriding my intention to accept Len as herself. Himself. Whatever.

If I'm that cissexist, though, is it even possible for me to accidentally create a transgender character, let alone one who feels as strongly individuated and fully-formed as Len has always been to me, from the first day I heard the voice in my head? Unconscious processes shouldn't be underestimated, but - if mine is capable of a trick like that, am I perhaps less cis than I've always felt? Suddenly I wander in fields of self-distrust.

Also, Len doesn't talk about body dismorphia at all. When she worries about being outed by an imperfection of the arrangements she's made in her clothing, by the tenor of her voice, by her smell, by her lack of snore, or whatever, she doesn't express any sense of the factors that might give her away being alien or wrong or not belonging to her in any way. When she looks in the mirror she expresses no sense of satisfaction at finally seeing the "right" self looking back at her, only examining herself critically for ways she can improve the illusion. She appears to accept the body she's in, and concern herself with presenting a male face to the world primarily because, having once begun, being discovered will cut her off from society - she will be a ruined woman, and fair game for anyone (any man, particularly) to treat any old way. She never comes out and says so, but if Cave discovered the secret while they were out tracking Pegasus, one consequence will almost certainly be rape, unless she's willing to shoot him. (And she would be able to. Even as a boy, Cave underestimates Len throughout; realizing she's a woman would remove all respect for her abilities as marksman.)

But would Len talk about body dismorphia, in terms I would understand and not edit away (unconscious cissexism at work again)? She is, after all, a respectable Victorian! The terms in which she can talk about bodies at all are limited. She never describes the specifics of the arrangements she makes to her wardrobe, or of what aspects of her natural body are more troublesome to hide than others. In Victorian society, changing the gender other people saw really was as simple as changing clothes and the part in your hair (men parted on the side; women, straight down the middle), because gender was signaled so clearly and unequivocally by clothes. People may or may not have talked about what was under the clothes, when they needed to; but only medical professionals and pornographers were not extremely cagey and indirect about what they wrote about bodies. And Len, though again this is in the cut-out ending, was writing to her and Di's adopted kids, to explain the shock they were going to get when they had to lay her out after she died.

So there I am, needing to revise my query (again) and completely bewildered. So I did what any modern woman would do, and went to the internet. My Google Fu failed me in looking for critique groups composed entirely of genderqueer people, alas. But Diversity Cross-check is a place where people from underrepresented demographics - people with disabilities, people who aren't Western white people, people who don't fall on the gender binary, people in marginalized subcultures, people who are more than one of these things - volunteer to give advice to people who want to write outside their own identities and don't want to be jackasses about it. So I went there and read far too many profiles of people who didn't sound like Len at all - but I did find one transman who used to think he was a lesbian, and as it happens he's a student of queer theory and has been very helpful. He cut right to the heart of the matter, and pointed out that what's going to govern modern perceptions of Len will be her motivation to live as a man. Possible reasons suggested were:

1. She wants to be with women, and in that case, she needs to be a man.
2. She dislikes the social restrictions on women, and prefers to be treated as a man because it jives with her personality better.
3. She doesn't consider herself a woman, and so the other option is being a man.
4. She thinks gender is dumb and wishes people would stop asking her; she lives as man because it's convenient/practical.

Other reasons could govern the change, but I don't really need them, as Len's motivations are straightforward. She initially cut her hair and donned her brother's clothes in order to run off with the neighbor girl. That's Reason #1. They couldn't do a Boston marriage because they had already caught them doing married-people things, so they'd have to go right away where no one knew them, and on the lawless Texas frontier, two women traveling alone were much less safe than a woman with a man. Two men would've been better, but Maudie was way too femme for it. When Maudie refused to go, Len was still in running away mode, much too angry to return home tamely (and see Maudie all the time), so she chose to stay away awhile and prove that she could make a living as a man, that her plan would have worked, if Maudie had been a little braver. That's Reason #2.

Most of the book is the time period during which she is proving this, partly to herself; and during this time she is falling in love with Di. Also, it's only a couple of months, and she explicitly thinks that, if Something Bad seems to be coming down the pike, San Antonio is further up the news chain than home, and not so far from it that she couldn't beat the Something Bad to them, and warn them. So she's committed to maintaining the male disguise until the political situation settles down, out of concern for her family.

By the time they emerge from the wilderness and blackmail Middleton into permitting them to marry, Len is committed to the gender presentation by her commitment to Di. Not only do they both have established identities in San Antonio (they could move, after all), but Di has a secret of her own, which scrutiny might reveal. And if they did go home and try a Boston marriage, in a place where Len's identity is well-known, Di would be scrutinized - by Len's own family. So retaining the male identity is about protecting Di - right back to Reason No. 1. Reasons 3 and 4 (and 5 and 6) aren't actively contraindicated - but they aren't actively invoked, either.

Besides, without the ending I cut out, the audience doesn't know that Len maintains the male disguise till the end of her life. The Len they will see is one who loves women, who wants to find, spend her life and have a family with, and protect one special woman, who imagines her desires in the context of the companionate marriage usual in her society; who is competent to do work normally reserved for men; for whom presenting herself as male is a means to an end.

So it looks as if I should pitch this as a lesbian novel, and treat Len as a lesbian, and be prepared to discuss the transgender issue if anybody else brings it up. Another comb-through of the text may not be a bad idea; but I'm not looking down the throat of a major revision.

And now I've worked all that out, maybe I can finally get back on revising down that query letter some more. Because it's still too long!

Much like this post.

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