Thursday, April 17, 2014

Discovery Trunk

So The University of Iowa has an archeological tumbler, and it also has a “Discovery Trunk” program which sends trunks full of educational materials to schools that request them, which it promotes on its tumbler, which I follow. And today they highlight the one about what Iowa was like 13,000 years ago and guess whose book is in there? Along with probiscidean teeth and atlatl darts and flint tools and oh my.

These trunks are loaners, but I doubt they only have one of each kind, so maybe this use will even translate into money at some point, though I’m not holding my breath about that.

So even if I never sell another book, this is a thing that happened.

Since I spent most of the morning with my head in my hands in front of a screen, eventually completing a single page, and begin to suspect that, though I'm writing a story I can write, I'm trying to do it in a way that I can't, this was well-timed.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Old School

I'm gonna have to go longhand. I've tried and tried and I cannot sort out this plot problem in type. I need illegible scribbles, a notebook, and curling up in a chair.

I wonder if anyone understands the neuroscience behind this? It's not as if I can't think while typing - I do it all the time. It's a certain kind of thinking I can't do without a pen in my hand.

And yeah, it sorta does have to be a pen...

Monday, April 14, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Beyond Biracial

So, yesterday was weird in various ways too tedious to relate, and tomorrow is Tax Day so be sure to get your estimated payment in, and the garage sale opens off schedule but that's the breaks, what're we gonna put out for sale today? Wait, there was a news story yesterday - ah, yes, here we go: Neanderthals and humans definitely interbred, and the offspring were not mules, because we're still carrying their DNA, it's absolutely positively true this time, we're sure this time.

One thing this means is, that Neanderthals were a race of humans, not a species; or, more biologically accurately, I suppose, homo sapiens and Neanderthals were both subspecies. Which is like a race except that it has an actual biological meaning, unlike "race," which is a categorization fiction which people take far too seriously and turn into a social reality to justify doing terrible things to each other.

And you're way ahead of me, picturing the ways this can be used to write allegories and satires and fables projecting modern racial prejudice into the past and tell stories about racial tension while not having to deal with any race that isn't white, and isn't that a relief? (Pulls self back from precipice of a rant.)

But let's stop a minute and really think about it. If humans and Neanderthals interbred sufficiently often that 20% of of the modern human genome is descended from Neanderthals, then that implies either a large area of overlap geographically and socially - perhaps (since there weren't any towns yet) mixed clans, or Neanderthal/cishuman networks - or a few Neanderthal/cishuman couples with large, successful families.

So, if we ask ourselves my favorite story generation question - what would really happen? - we do not necessarily come up with anything that looks like the familiar outcast/socially marginalized/fighting for justice miscegenation narrative.

Maybe the populations we would call Neanderthal and human would not recognize themselves as distinct in any significant way?

Maybe Neanderthal/human marriages were deliberate sociopolitical arrangements intended to create a caste of special people - shamans, perhaps; long-distance traders; mediators between populations, assumed to be able to bridge differences by carrying the representative features of each?

Maybe certain clans of humans specialized in long-distance trading and casually bred with all the populations within their trading territories?

Maybe the intermarriage occurred in areas where both Neanderthals and modern humans were so thin on the ground that they were beginning to suffer the effects of inbreeding, and the hybrid vigor of the bispecies children revitalized both groups, or made a third, distinct group that outcompeted both sets of their cousins?

Ultimately, the stories we modern humans tell must, if they are to achieve any currency in the marketplace of the mind, relate to Us, to modern humans and the ways we interact with the world and ourselves. But this doesn't have to mean projecting our bitterest problems all the way into our prehistory. Because how productive is that? Doesn't that confirm these things as inevitable, condemn us to resigning ourselves to the Way Things Are because if they've been around since the beginning we can't possibly hope to solve them now?

It can mean projecting different ways of organizing our world so as to reimagine them without our bitterest problems? To do an end run around them? To imagine different human possibilities, and sets of problems?

To free ourselves up to recategorize ourselves, and get down to the real universals?

This is all airy-fairy theme stuff, I'm afraid. But anybody who knuckles down and does the research, consciously unlatching the well-worn paths of thought as they learn more and more and more about Ice Age Europe and the world where two human subspecies came together, and made babies, will, I think, find plenty of specifics to work with to make a new, rich world.

Because reality is like that, and will expand your fiction (rather than limiting it) if you let it.

Friday, April 11, 2014


It is always a good idea to go to industry conventions when they occur near you. So, as usual, I went to the Texas Library Association's convention, on an Exhibits-only pass.

I met friends, I couldn't buy enough books, I saw all the exhibits, I ate trail mix because there's never food I can eat at these things, I did not have enough money to buy the books I wanted to, and my feet hurt all the way up to my lower back.

Hardly anybody had catalogs at their booths this year. They must all be online.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Graphic Novels of the Ancients

So for various reasons I couldn't get my act together this morning and then we had to go to the game and I came home feeling crappy (and not just because the stupid module we're running drains our characters' stats every time we turn around, though that did not help; seriously, if you ever play Carrion Crown, make sure you get a fully-loaded Wand of Restoration before going to visit Schloss Caradoc), and I was thinking maybe I would blow off the garage sale today.

And then I saw character sketches for the Epic of Gilgamesh on my tumblr dash.

And now I want to read that comic, and also graphic novels of all the undeservedly obscure mythic epics that are awesome but nobody reads. And you know what else would make great comics? Coyote and Rabbit stories. Monster Killer. The Song of Roland. Reynard the Fox. The Kalevala. Eric Shanower already did the Iliad, so don't bother going there.

I mean, why go to me for ideas when there's a whole world of myth and folklore out there, most of it untapped? And all of it highly visual.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Don't Tell Me You Haven't

So, if you sit down to write ten pages and reach a certain point, and write all morning, and produce two pages, which don't contain anything you intended to go onto the ten pages and wind up somewhere else entirely, does it still count as an accomplishment?


Because what's the alternative? Beating yourself up about it? That's no good!

Nobody cares how uneven the process was when holding the finished product in their hands. However you get to the finished product, that's the right way to work.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Main Event and the Side Trip

My primary goal is to tell stories.

Given the reality of modern life, I have always framed my goal as "writing stories and selling them for money." Which I have not been able to do for much too long a time. It can be hard to sit down and write the story, knowing how hard it will be to send it out and out and out, to try to sell it to agents or editors or anybody, before it will ever see a reader, and the reader is the point, because you're not telling a story in any meaningful way if nobody hears it.

I often reflect (when I see, for example a fine actor stuck with an awful script) that I am fortunate that my vocation is one I can do without anyone's permission. I can write whether I sell anything or not; I can keep up the attempt to sell for the remainder of my life and as long as I don't stop publication will remain a possibility; if I died tomorrow, all the stories I have sitting unsold on my hard drive could still be sold next week, or the year after, or ten years down the line, or be uncovered by archeologists teasing data out of outmoded systems and published for the edification and delight of generations yet unborn. That sort of thing has happened, and does happen, and will happen - though not necessarily to me. While an actor who was born to play Jane Eyre must be in the right place at the right time to be cast when she is somewhere within spitting distance of the right age to do it, or she will never play Jane Eyre and may well be remembered, if at all, as "the girl in that Tampax commercial" or as the eternal best friend or as the queen of her local dinner theater. Compared to performers, I have all kinds of control over my artistic output.

This reflection is less comforting on some days than on others.

But I do have a secondary artistic goal, which I have only gradually come to recognize as a motivator as great as the prime storytelling urge. I have a thesis to prove: That as human beings, we are all creative, if we allow ourselves to be. This is a goal which, by its nature, I cannot accomplish by myself. All that tossing off an idea a week proves is that I can do it. It's up to other people to see me do it, and see how I do it, and realize that they can do it, and finally take their own ideas and do something with them.

Whatever it is that they are equipped and prepared to do.

I wish, in short, to empower people, and inspire them to find their own creativity - as all the authors I've read in my life empowered me to do. And I do sometimes find out I did this with one of the books. I remember one school visit seeing a board game, made as a class project, based on Switching Well. Kids draw pictures illustrating their favorite books; sometimes I get to see one of mine. Sometimes I'll hear incidentally of kids who tried something one of my characters did; or of a teacher who incorporated searching for locations from Switching Well into a trip to downtown San Antonio. This sort of thing doesn't pay the bills, but is more of a visceral thrill than getting a check. It feeds a different part of the self. One, frankly, that is normally kept hungry.

The urge to empower creativity in others was a major motivator behind making Widespot (that, and playing with a different storytelling medium at a time when I couldn't reliably handle text): I wanted to see what people would do with the characters and situations I handed them. I was mostly thinking about how they'd play out the storylines in their different games, looking forward to seeing how they'd resolve the immediate dilemmas I handed them, and then the secondary consequence of it further down the line - the genetic bottleneck resulting from the Hart family's breeding simultaneously into every other family in that tiny, tiny town.

But they do a lot more than that. My chief playtester designs clothes for the characters, as well as expanding their backstories. One player, who writes quite well, started documenting her game in illustrated story format on her Live Journal, developing the characters as richly and individually as anyone could ask. Furthermore, when she decided she needed family pictures, she went to considerable trouble to create them - pictures of a dead character, of a teen character as a toddler, an old character in his prime, adults in their teens. Another, whose creative urge is to build worlds, remade the entire neighborhood as a Stone Age settlement! These are all things I could never do, which would never have occurred to me, which now exist because of me. Hardly earthshaking - but real.

Real enough to tide me over, to get me through the days when the idea of sending yet another query to yet another agent makes me want to scream and tear my heart out; through the days when solving the plot problem seems, not impossible, but not worth the effort because at the moment I can't believe I can ever get another book through the publishing process.

Which is the moral of the story. Primary goals, by their nature, are big and elusive and time consuming. You have to work on them constantly. But you have a right to nourishment; and secondary goals may be more achievable, short term. They're worth making a side trip or two for, as long as you don't lose sight of your primary goal.

And you should check your goals occasionally. Because sometimes you haven't stated your primary goal correctly. But that's another topic for another day.