Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It's All Kicking My Butt At the Moment

Some days you can't.

Some days you can.

Some days you can't, and do anyway.

Some days you can, and don't anyway.

No reliable way of distinguishing these days exists.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Friends We Do Not Know

This will take some time to drill down to the core, so bear with me.

So. One of the things that had my mouth too full of things to say to say anything, this past week, was the death of a person whose name I do not know.

Human beings are such intensely social animals that we are, for better or worse, constantly creating relationships with abstractions - from personal relationships with God or our cars, to loyalty to the public personae of politicians and entertainers, to fan crushes on characters in books and movies. Like everything else humans do, whether this tendency is a good thing or a bad thing depends on what we do with it. The more we let our egos control the transaction, the more likely we are to be fanatics rather than saints, or stalkers rather than supporters.

The advent of long-distance communication enabled a new kind of relationship, the correspondent. We think of the phenomenon of having friends we've never seen as being one peculiar to the internet age, but in fact it goes back much further than that. You only need to delve into the biographies of the major figures of the past, or the letter columns of nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines, to see fruitful, even intense, friendships form between people who would never have met without a forum of common interest, and who might never have seen each other's faces. (Also, flamewars. Edgar Allan Poe's life was consumed by flamewars.) The internet has made this sort of relationship far more pervasive - anyone reading this is likely to have at least one, and probably many, friends who are known primarily through social media.

Elaine Marie Alphin was one such person, to me. I met her face-to-face once, when we were both up for an Edgar one year. Her books are important to me in ways that are difficult to articulate, and I mourn her unselfconsciously, and kick myself for not writing to her more (ever; what is the matter with me?) when she was locked in after her stroke. She is not mine to mourn in the same way that she is for her husband and family, but there is nothing problematic about it. I have an understandable relationship to her; one not too different from the relationship with the fellow X-phile (still living, thank goodness) I met on AOL, who taught me to birdwatch and provided a much-needed neutral sounding board with whom to work out certain matters during the Year from Hell, before I was ready to talk about them to anyone closer; and who eventually I met when she invited us to stay with her for a time during the recovery period; an invaluable break from the pressure of the familiar. You have internet friends like these, yourself. You know what I mean.

Similarly, I was able to mourn Robin Williams's death at the fan level. I admired his work and related to his condition; I knew his face and voice; at the same time, I understood that he did not know me from Adam's off ox and owed me nothing, which diminished my personal reaction to this death not one whit. This is a situation with which we are all familiar, in which we all participate. In a consumerist, celebrity culture much can become problematic about the fan relationship, but at its root we've got it sorted. In a way, public emotional involvement, whether celebration or mourning, for public figures even gives us important outlets for private feelings that are more difficult to share - for a person of my age, mourning Williams also allows us to mourn many things related to who we were the first time we saw Mork.

But then we come to Mootilda. That is the only name I know her by, though if I could bear to go poking around her profile and the news thread about her death enough I might be able to find out her real one. Maybe not. If she'd wanted me to know her name, I figure, I'd know it. The only face I have for her is her avatar, a cartoon cow. We never discussed personal things at all, but we were in a creative group together and I could not have created Widespot, or kept my original neighborhood going so long, without her advice and her work. She was a giant on the Mod the Sims newsgroup, because no one, anywhere, probably including the people who created it, understood the coding of the Sims2 game the way Mootilda did. She was constantly studying it, answering questions, running tests. She created tools that alleviated the tendency of the code to build up critical masses of corruption, discovered new sources of corruption and explained how to avoid them; sometimes even took other people's malfunctioning neighborhoods and looked through them herself (a major time sink) in order to understand what was going on and evolve strategies to deal with it. She helped me. She helped a lot of us. And all the time she had terminal cancer and now she is dead and I do not know her name and she's a cartoon cow.

The relationship was not personal. It was not professional, since it was rooted in a hobby. It was not entirely one-sided, since we had conversations. It wasn't exactly a fan relationship. What was it? How do I deal with it? The newsgroup's thread on the news is pages and page long, mostly people saying the same things over and over, and whether they only ever lurked and used her mods, or worked with her on something, to almost all of us, her name is Mootilda and she looks like a cartoon cow. How can we laugh when it's so sad? How can we cry when it's so absurd? We just can. There's no fighting it.

You have relationships like this, too.

So does your audience.

It is part of the writer's job to work out the ramifications of relationships, all kinds of relationships, through story. We structure our lives according to the stories we tell (which is why representation matters and the dominance of straight white male protagonists is a problem) - but we have no stories about this relationship.

And we need them.

But how do we start? How do we take a relationship that happens entirely in an abstract space, between abstractions of people (Mootilda knew my real name because I don't use handles, but presumably when she thought of me she saw the extreme close-up of my two favorite sims slow dancing that is my avatar on that newsgroup), and make that part of an interesting story? Obviously something else must be going on in the protagonist's life.

As it is in all our lives. If these abstract relationships are at the core of our stories, something's wrong. But if something's wrong, why - that's a story.

But I don't want to write a story in which the online relationships are the problem. Because that's BS. Though it's possible to run away from one's life into an online fantasy, you'll only do that if your real life is profoundly unsatisfactory. And it's not always true, especially for young people, especially for sick people, especially for people marginalized by the dominant narratives of modern society, that your real life is profoundly unsatisfactory because of anything you did or have control over.

I hate having this kind of idea, the one that presses itself to me as an obligation without coughing up any specifics. I need a character. I need a concrete problem. I need the online relationships to be part of the solution. And I need this to engage a reader, to have setting, movement, action, and suspense.

Stop turning to jelly in my hands every time I try to grapple you, Idea!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sometimes...

...you just have to accept that something that Shouldn't Be, Is, and go forward from there.

...you do something with long ranging consequences, and never know it.

...problems sort themselves out in your sleep.

..."writer's block" is the result of having too much to say.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Hammer? Nail? Sparrow? Snail?

We all know that to a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But have you considered that, to a person with a nail, everything looks like a hammer?

This is one of the key points made in Lois McMaster Bujold's Ethan of Athos, (which I'm about to Spoil big time - so go off and read it; it doesn't take that long) in which the character Terrance Cee, who has been raised by those who wish to mass-produce his gene for telepathy and use him and other telepaths for intergalactic espionage. He's very bitter about even having the gene, knows how to use telepathy as a weapon, and is cynical about the motives of the people he meets when he first ventures into the civilian world with goals of his own. When he meets Ethan, an obstetrician from an all-male planet (just read it!) he hides his abilities; when Ethan discovers them anyway, he is braced for what will happen when his erstwhile friend realizes what telepathy can do. Ethan, however, is delighted, thinking of the possibilities for medical uses with preverbal children and stroke patients.

You do something besides writing stories. Everybody does. You see a lot of superpowers in the media - everybody does, whether it's called a superpower, or magic. In the movies, these powers tend to be used in the context of interpersonal conflicts. A Villain wants to use his superpower to Rule the World; a Hero wants to use it to Save the World.

But you are not a Villain or a Hero. What do you want to do with it?

What does a plumber want to do with it? A vet? A nurse? A teacher? A janitor? A librarian? A lawyer? A waitress?

A single parent? A thrownaway child? A new widow? A lonely goatherd?

Does a person who has been blind since birth use a superpower differently from a sighted person, a color-blind person, a person blinded only recently?

What are the logical consequences of that?

Can you make a viable story built around a superpower that is not used as a weapon, but as the actual solution to an actual problem?

Try, and find out.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Have Another Entrance to the Labyrinth of Knowledge

I was just talking about research, so here's an online database of print sources on miscellaneous subjects: The University of Oxford Text Archive.

I doubt it'd help much with a book set at the end of the Civil War in Texas (a quick search reveals nothing with "Texas" in the title at all so far), but type in "fever" and see what you get! If your hero is a doctor, and the setting is the 18th century, you've got yourself an afternoon's work right here.

I am a late adopter of all new things, and generally prefer to go to a library and pile books up around me when I'm researching rather than getting online, which is a crapshoot of a kind I'm less comfortable with; but online collections do save a lot of road trips. They're just like real collections in a lot of ways - always expanding, always organized not quite perfectly for the project you're working on, always with inaccessible corners you can't get at (the missing book, the text that hasn't been input yet), always full of things you didn't know you should be looking for. Library angels can't shove books off the shelf onto your head online, but they have other dodges.

As long as you actively engage with your research, learning and searching dynamically, you will eventually find what you need, whether you knew you needed it or not. You will catch sight of things out of the corners of your eyes; your cat will walk on the keyboard and activate a macro you didn't know about; you will overhear a conversation on the bus that bypasses all your "mind your own business" censors to give you A Clue. To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail; to a person with an open research subject, everything relates back to that subject.

But you need to ask that first pertinent question, to penetrate the intimidating wall of of words. All you need is one call sign, one search term, to lead you into the maze, and the focus to follow your data, rather than trying to lead it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Not Really a Review of The Giver Movie Adaptation

So, my husband and I went to see The Giver this weekend, and it's not a bad adaptation, except for the ending.

Now, as you may recall, the ending of The Giver makes most people want to throw the book across the room, because that sled shouldn't be there. And after having successfully suspended your disbelief and invested in the characters for the entire book, you either have to accept that the only way to read what you've been reading is as a gigantic metaphorical construction in which the sled can be there; or construct some kind of logical bridge. That one memory isn't a dream, it's precognition (which, since the source of the memories - many of which are much, much too old to have been the direct memory or anyone involved in founding the Communities - does kind of work - if memory is not limited in time backward then it needn't be limited in time forward, either). Or it's dying delerium and Jonas and Gabe are dying in the snow, which nobody wants.

That the book does this to us, and is still so widely loved and admired, is a tribute both to its quality, and to the adaptive qualities of booklovers. One of the pleasures of narrative is closure; but give us sufficient motive, and readers will do without it and like it.

The weakness of movies, at least as they are made today, is that the makers of them don't feel they can trust audiences to do this. So the movie presents us with the ultimate of Insoluble Problems, demonstrates that the Return to Eden doesn't solve it, either, and then - gives us an ending which pretends to solve it. Or at least return it to square one. The movie feels required to give us what Lowry didn't, and therefore weakens its capacity to leave the story working in us after we throw the book across the room/leave the theater.

(By the way, if anybody out there wants to give me money to adapt any of my books in ways I don't really like - go ahead and give me the money. I'll undertake to stay away from the movie.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Soap Opera Ever After...

If tragedy ends in death, and comedy ends in a wedding, what do we call the drama that falls in between?

"The morning after the wedding -"

- Cinderella began her long battle to reform inheritance laws and improve conditions for servants.
- The dwarfs called in a favor from Snow White.
- The reformed rake's past came back to haunt him in the form of a dozen paternity suits - which the good woman whose love saved him insisted he take responsibility for.
- The surviving soldiers of the Armies of Dark and Light, the war over, were turned loose to find their own ways home.
- The princess started teaching the woodcutter's son, now King, how to read.
- The bickering lovers started matchmaking all their friends.
- All the magical creatures in the kingdom rushed to fill the power void left by the fall of the Wicked Witch.
- The abusive family found someone new to abuse.
- The bride refused to change the habits she formed while living in disguise as a boy in for forest, and set a new fashion.
- The Frog Prince discovered he could still understand the language of amphibians, and craved flies.
- The older sons, passed over for the throne, began their campaign to have the old king declared incompetent, based on the tests he devised to determine who would inherit; and the brides they brought home teamed up to advance their own agendas.

(Yeah, it's been done before. That's not a reason not to do it again.)