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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 Day Late and a Dollar Short, or Farming Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2. Idea Garage Sale: The Fog of Lethargy

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

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

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

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

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3. The Absurd Leading the Sublime

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is a humbling, exhilarating, wonderful thing.

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4. Idea Garage Sale: Down with Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how does one do it for older audiences?

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

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

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

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

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5. Tax time again.

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

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

It's not working.

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

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

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6. Still better than a soul-sucking day job

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

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

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

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

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7. Idea Garage Sale: The Cat Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's just that simple.

It's just that hard.

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8. And it's all good...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9. Speak and Ye Shall Find

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

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

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

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

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

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10. Idea Garage Sale: Economy of Inspiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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11. I Aten't Dead

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

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

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

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

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12. Still Slogging Away

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

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

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13. Idea Garage Sale: A Walk on the Edges

I was always looking for that portal to another world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that a grown-up misperception on my part?

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

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

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

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14. Dadgummit to Heck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15. Characters: Gaming, Fiction, Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you require a will, first.

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

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

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

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

So what are you going to do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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17. News: The Face of Paleoyucatan

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

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

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

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

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

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18. News: Ancient American Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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20. Synaptic Miracle; or, Thank You, Melissa Etheridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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21. Idea Garage Sale: On the Ridge

Guest idea today.

Last week, after the main event of the Deadlands RPG, we had some time left, so we broke out an oldish cardgame called "Bushwhackin' Varmints Out of Sergio's Butte," in which the players are rival filmmakers shooting three different B movies, all with the same title, and trying to put together the best film they can while sabotaging the other players. At one point, our friend B had been deprived of all the characters in his movie, leaving him with only a location - "On the Ridge."

He defended the concept as an "artsy" one, and even explained a vision for it, which had come to him one day when he was out hunting in West Texas. A great deal of hunting consists of finding a good vantage point and sitting waiting for a target to wander by, and on this occasion he was "on the ridge" overlooking a deep waterway, and noticed some unusually round pebbles on the ground. They were round shot from a nineteenth-century gun, which he recognized as the descendent and heir of gunsmiths, and caused him to think about the people who had used this vantage before him.

This sense of connection through artifacts is what archeology is all about, of course; but most activities don't leave much in the way of interpretable traces, and these are the things that a movie of this sort would be focused on. A lot of the action would consist of following the practices, problems, and small dramas of hunters through the ages, including animal as well as human hunters (coyotes need vantage points, too!) interspersed with time-lapse sequences showing geological processes making sometimes subtle changes in the location. Variety could be provided by the occasional high-tension sequence of interpersonal conflict, from Pleistocene war raiding parties to immigrants dodging INS; focus down into the grass for ant-level drama, or draw back to present a snippet from some grand Western epic. It'd take someone with a sure grasp of narrative and the way film, specifically, works in order to get the timing and pacing just right, so that the film is neither majestically dull nor choppily disorienting; and I for one wouldn't want anyone doing it who didn't grasp the reality of history as opposed to the mythic oversimplification that is generally the province of theater. But if all the stars lined up and everything went perfectly, such a movie could become classic. Or go down in history as a magnificent failure, which is still an interesting thing to be.

Coincidentally, this same week I learned about a graphic novel, called Here, by Richard McGuire, which is several millenia worth of drawings of a single location which is variously a living room, a forest, a glacier, underwater, etc. (The man's website is crap in terms of showcasing his artwork, unfortunately, and Random House's page for the book isn't any better; I did the best I could with those links, but if you want to see the art for yourself I guess you'll have to ask your local bookstore). The existence of this book doesn't mean the idea is "done," though. The difference in medium between the graphic novel and the movie, the choice of a different location, and a different mediating sensibility in terms of the dominant creator leave plenty of space for more than one work on this core concept to exist.

And this gives me a chance to explicitly point out the concept I myself wish to get across, posting these week after week: Anybody can have a good idea. You don't need to be a professional artist, or have a degree, or earn any sort of credentials to have a good idea. B is a computer programmer who, when he's looking for ideas, is generally looking for an adventure to run as a game; yet he independently, while out waiting for a deer to wander by, got an artistic idea that parallels a concept which an artist is executing, to critical acclaim. (Words like "game-changing" get used in the work's reviews.) If B had decided to put in the 15 years or so of hard work to execute his idea in some medium congenial to him, he would eventually produce something distinctly his own. Whether it would succeed in the marketplace - who knows? Nobody ever does know, when they start down a creative road.

We are all, each and every day, having ideas. We are human. Creativity is our natural state.

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22. Ten Years After

My memory and my diary are both unreliable for this period, but at some point during the week between Christmas and New Year's, 2004, I left the soul-sucking day job; stopped across the street to help our friends, who had (with their baby) been evicted, pack; worked for an hour or so and went home to check on my husband, who had left work early, and make supper; and found Damon unresponsive and going into anaphylactic shock from an allergic reaction to the antibiotic he'd been given to combat the mysterious and unrelenting series of symptoms he'd been exhibiting for awhile.

I couldn't drive then. The friend who followed the ambulance to the hospital, brought me home, and stayed the night that night was, herself, hospitalized within days of this.

And thus began the Year from Hell, ten years ago this week.

And now - we are still here.

Not unscathed, not by any means. Some of us broke and had to rebuild ourselves from scratch. We are not the people that we were. But we are still here. And if we can do it, you can do it.

I don't celebrate Christmas. But I celebrate this.

Happy Survival Week.

Go us!

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23. Idea Garage Sale: Quick Fun with First Lines

Twenty minutes to company, and the dining room's still not in shape to play games in!

I was never prouder of my father than on the day he went to jail.

Yes, we all broke; but not for the reason you think.

She turned a corner and there it was, just as she had feared.

The kitten glared at me and said, in Leti's voice: "It's not funny!"

The noise stopped, and then at last I was afraid.

I blame the mailman, who wasn't a man at all.

None of this existed five minutes ago, and the question now is - what to make of them?

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24. Idea Garage Sale: The Cat Lady of Florence

A rather complicated one from the good old reliable Fortean Times. In the October 2015 issue, in a recurring feature called "Blasts from the Past," Theo Paijman went old newspaper diving in the annals of Florence, South Carolina, and turned up a "cat lady" flap.

The most tantalizing and disturbing thing about this article is that the flap was apparently chiefly affecting the black part of town, and the newspapers at his disposal were all from the white press. Newspapers reporting flaps generally start out with a serious story or two and then start poking fun at people for believing in, fearing, or going out looking for aliens, or monkey men, or tigers, or whatever the flap is about. In the case of a Depression-era southern town white newspaper, it's very hard indeed to tell whether the opening stories are serious or jeering - I think even a native of the town, not alive during that era, would have difficulty reading the newspaper reports in the way that the original audience would have.

Given the trust gap between the black experiencers and the white reporters, moreover, it is impossible to tell what really happened. There's always a rumormill in these cases that makes extracting the real, core experience out of the gossip and the grafting-on of folk motifs difficult. In a case in which the witnesses don't trust the reporters, and the reporters are untrustworthy because they don't respect the witnesses - who knows if anyone ever told the truth to anyone who wrote it down?

Did anyone ever, in fact, claim to have seen a "cat-faced woman...having a small head only a little larger than a grapefruit but comes exactly like that of a cat, with fur, ears and eyes of a feline appearance...dressed in a long black coat" and with "paws and claws just as a cat has?"

Did anyone in Florence, in fact, believe that anyone had?

Did the black population of the town really leave work early to go home and bar themselves in at night?

And if they did, was it really for fear of a cat lady? None of the accounts of her attacking or pursuing people, after all, are half so chilling as the following quoted snippet from the Florence Morning News, February 3, 1939: "The police in reality were inclined to favour continuance of the catwoman's presence in Florence..."I don't believe we'll have any trouble with these darkies at night - and that's when they do most of their devilment. I went down Cox Street last night a little after dark and didn't see but one negro It ought to be a good thing while it lasts."

Uh-huh. The police are cited several times, and while some of the quotations are contradictory concerning whether or not the incidents are ever reported at all, they are consistent in saying that the truth behind the flap was never investigated, and the overwhelming impression is that the(presumably all-white) police force were openly contemptuous of the black population's sense of insecurity. So the urgent question becomes, not "was there a real cat lady?" but "was the cat lady flap, as reported, a cover for a coordinated terrorist action on the black population by certain elements of the white one?"

Up front, I cannot write this story, because I am not black. I do my best to get around my own privilege, but understanding what happened in Florence, for either a novelistic or an investigative purpose, requires someone who starts much closer to the original experience than I do. All I can do is stand at the edge of it feeling slightly sick to my stomach and knowing that I belong to a demographic that can at least call the police without fear of being murdered.

I would, however, be really interested to see a black paper's contemporary take on the story. Perhaps the black population had its own reasons for circulating the story, and the whole thing was some kind of con on the white population.

Is it tragedy? Is it farce? Is it Just One of Those Human Things?

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25. First Query of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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