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

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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10. 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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11. 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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12. 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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13. 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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14. 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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15. 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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16. 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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17. 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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18. 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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19. 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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20. 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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21. 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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22. 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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23. Idea Garage Sale: The Bleeding Rolling Pin

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

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

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

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

Why would a rolling pin be bleeding?

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

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

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

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

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

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24. Death Sucks.

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

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

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25. 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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