Sunday, May 29, 2016

Idea Garage Sale: Mice in the Alien Museum?

You have, of course, had story dreams, brilliant plots and situations that melted away and/or turned to nonsense as you woke. If you cultivate a certain habit of mind, you will start working on turning them into usable stories before you even wake up, and may even stave off the disappointment of realizing that it wasn't, in fact, brilliant for several minutes after waking. The one I had the other day sprawled out in so many directions that the viewpoint-I in the dream pulled out paper and started putting down notes, as fast as I could, and quickly came to realize that it sprawled way too much. I'd have to cut out 3/4s of the potential to make it a book; and all of the characters to make it an RPG campaign. But, as I woke and started putting my brain in order for the day, I realized that what I had here was a perfectly viable computer game scenario. Something I don't have the skills to develop, and insufficient force of will to learn at this juncture.

Or perhaps I should say that my creative engagement with the idea does not reach the threshold necessary to give me the force of will to learn. The subconscious doesn't care in the slightest whether you have the practical skills necessary to make the vision it hands you into something approximating reality. If it did, far fewer people would produce a sufficient number of works to gain the necessary skills to produce them (because the only way to learn this stuff is to do it, and you need an idea urging you on).

Anyway, the dream involved a small group of people who had been in some sort of aircraft (something orange and vaguely resembling a space shuttle) when it crashed in some isolated rocky frozen location. Deprived of all their communication technology and lacking almost all survival gear necessary to survive there, when they spy a set of Cyclopean metal doors set into a snowy cliff-face they have no hesitation about getting through them, though they assume it to be a secret installation of some government's. (Bypassing the security of these doors would presumably be the first challenge to solve in the game, but the dream hand-waved it, as all the Good Stuff was on the other side of the doors.)

Inside, they find themselves in a vasty shadowy warehouse/museum style place, full of computer banks and displays and stored modern human artifacts, all oddly mundane, but neatly labeled in a weird alphabet. Everything a modern human needs to survive is in this place, though arranged according to some inexplicable system, so that washers and dryers are on opposite ends of the place and there are no chairs anywhere near the tables, etc. Moreover, the place is frequented by Cyclopean metallic bipedal figures, who may be cyborgs or exosuits or straight-up robots, who are apparently maintaining the facility, but whose movements make no intuitive sense. Moreover, they don't seem to be using familiar senses - they can't detect a human running between their feet, but may inexplicably home in on one holding still behind a refrigerator. They are alien, truly alien - the survivors of the crash can't find a point of commonality that makes their behavior intuitive in any way.

The characters were all civilians who had deep distracting backstories and personal motivations that provided a lot of the sprawl my Viewpoint-I notetaker was trying to cut out. The game would ideally offer a selection of character avatars who could be played solo or in groups, possibly with AIs that could (simlike) run uncontrolled to allow a player to head-hop if she chose, all with individualized backstories and abilities that would affect gameplay. Pregame prep would involve choosing your team of survivors (I don't think the setting would lend itself to single-avatar play - you'd need to be in two places at once too often, given the hugeness and the lack of human-logical spatial connection among the exhibits), or perhaps being assigned one randomly and having to figure out how to make the best of it. You could have a lot of mini-adventures and puzzles, but the main three plot problems to solve would be:

1) Rescue/escape - using the materials at hand either to communicate with the outside world, or to repair the orange shuttle and leave.
2) Survival - as effective mice in this environment so full of useful stuff, yet so poorly designed from the point of view of human survival, dodging aliens whose behavior is bizarrely inexplicable.
3) Figuring out what in tarnation the aliens are doing here. Are they hostile, benevolent, or neutral? Are the scientists, soldiers, automata, reality TV stars? And what is the appropriate human response to whatever it is they are doing?

The biggest storytelling challenge here would be to establish the alien abilities, logic, and purpose in such a way that all the counterintuitive stuff in the warehouse's arrangement and the bipeds' behavior becomes logical when the character finally figures out the correct angle of view, without destroying the alien vibe. The chief coding problem would be to transfer that kind of logic to the AI, so that it behaves in a consistent manner that appears inconsistent.

I don't even play this kind of game. How in the world did I come to dream about it?

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Warp Drive!

No, seriously, it's working!

It's too late at night to discuss this in depth. I'm just going to leave this hear for people to get their space opera geek on.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Idea Garage Sale: Intrepid Girl Reporter!

So my husband sent me a link this week to a story of a 9-year-old intrepid girl reporter who scooped adult reporters in breaking a murder story, and took some heat in the comments section for it.

And of course my first thought was: "Whoa, book!"

Possibly series, because Intrepid Girl Reporter is a premise that can keep right on giving.

The author of this theoretical book/series would do well to sit down and work some stuff out ahead of time. The very first question is: What kind of tone to go for? Because there's no question that a comedy/adventure 9-Year-Old Girl Reporter would get better marketing and fewer challenges than a realistic contemporary or suspense 9-Year-Old Girl Reporter. But there's no room for the murder in the comedy/adventure book, and the realistic contemporary or suspense book would get much the same reaction from the gatekeepers as this little girl is getting in the comments section. Do it well enough, you might get awards; do it not quite well enough, or (even worse) do it well enough and be let down by your publisher and marketing department, and all you'll get is grief, banning, and vitriol.

Because we live in a world that is hysterically determined to pretend that 9-year-old girls would be safe if we could shield them from the knowledge of bad things. Which is BS, especially considering what happens to so many real 9-year-old girls who are living in poverty, or in affluent cages, or hospitals, or refugee camps, or INS holding pens, or -

Well, you get the idea. I'll spare you the rant.

But you won't be able to spare yourself your own rants as you look into the kind of news that a 9-year-old could report, and observe the kind of abuses that they're subjected to in the name of preserving their innocence - I'm sure most of the people who came down on her in her comments section felt self-righteously certain that they were only trying to protect her. You will get angry in the process of working up the material for this book, even if you go the comedy/adventure route.

A lot of questions need answering before starting Chapter 1. Is the focus on solving a mystery, or on doing her self-appointed job? A reporter's life is a series of stories moving by at breakneck speed, many of them unresolved; but a book, even one that is structured as a string of anecdotes, needs some cohesive structure. Will this be a plot structure, or a character structure? What resolution will signal the end of the book? Will such a resolution provide a solid platform for construction of another book, should you want to go the series route?

Either way, What motivates her? In real life, 9-year-old girls are perfectly capable are deciding out of the blue that they were born to report the news, and then making it happen. In a book, this is artistically unsatisfying and will be read as poor characterization. She needs, if not some specific precipitating event, a backstory and character arc that "explain" the reporter vocation. If she's an Asperger's kid who has found that the structure of formal interview situation makes talking to people more interesting than uncomfortable, or if she has some deep mystery in her own life which she plans to solve once she's got enough experience in tracking down The Truth, or whatever, the audience will Get It - but you'd better talk to actual Asperger's kids, or have a pretty good idea of The Truth of her deep mystery, or you're getting called out.

What about her parents? Not just any set of parents will support and encourage any vocation, let alone one that involves knocking on doors to interview strange adults, in a child this age. Parents exist in the background of children's stories, and cannot be allowed to supply motivating forces or solutions; but they should not be shadowy nonentities either.

Finally, you'd need a clear picture of her community and her place in it. "Realistic contemporary" versions of the story with identical premise and plot would have very different effects, if one is set in a middle-class suburb in Ohio, one in working class Houston, and one in affluent gated community in Connecticut. In any of these settings, the heroine would have very different relationships to the community she was trying to serve, if she went to private school, public school, charter school, or was home-schooled. Her resources and challenges will vary with her setting and social position, as will her supporters and her detractors.

Or, you could do some investigative reporting, find out the real story of the real little girl (which will be messy and full of loose ends because life's like that), and write a non-fiction book.

But I really think that's her book to write, eventually, don't you?

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Idea Garage Sale: Miscellany

I'm still here, in a weird place creatively and not at all to be trusted with the responsibility of a query. But have a few scattershot ideas scrounged from the universe.

Natural scientists who routinely tag themselves like the animals they study. No, seriously, there's scientists who do this. (I read it on Tumblr so it must be so! Or at least it can be rendered plausible, which is all the story really requires.) Obviously, this is a murder mystery.

Vampires doing scientific work in hostile environments. How do the pressures of the Marianas Trench affect them? How do they fare in the darkness of space?

Someday, society transcends capitalism (which, face it, does not work for the majority of us; if we lead lives of quiet desperation, the economic system we try to live in bears a huge part of the blame) and realizes that there's enough wealth in the system for everyone, not just those who are good at manipulating money, to survive and pursue lives free of the fear of poverty. What does that society look like, really? Resist the morphic field that pushes you to turn it into a dystopia, or a utopia for that matter. Who does the system work for? Who does it fail?

All systems, after all, fail somebody.

Consider your favorite fairy tales and myths from the perspective that all the different forms of gender expression and sexuality have always existed as a normal part of human experience. Which myths, tropes, and archetypes, which stories, bloom with unexpected possibility if we go looking for those experiences in them? Was Daphne asexual? Are the fairies intersex? How did Hercules feel during the time he spent disguised as a woman? Was it really a disguise?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Idea Garage Sale: The Troll and the Other

So has anybody written a thriller about net trolls yet?

Trolling is not a new phenomenon, as any teacher or performer can tell you. There's an irreducible number of people who feel that enthusiasm is ridiculous and get some sort of satisfaction out of baiting people. I'm not talking about giving people enough rope to hang themselves, which can be a useful service - I'm talking about poking people until they holler for one's own amusement.

Once upon a time, this could only be done face-to-face, which inevitably made it personal and potentially risky. Then the advent of news media made it possible to use op-ed pages and hoaxing to poke people at one remove. But the internet brings trolling into the realm of the casual hobby - it is now possible to annoy more people than ever before, with less effort. Social media, e-mail, websites, comment sections - stir the pot and laugh at how angry people get, feel the power of your idle nastiness, without any danger of being hit on the nose or becoming persona non grata in every venue in town (because town is infinitely large and you can always move on). It's wholesale, impersonal bullying, and it's practically consequence free. Even if it advances to cyberstalking and illegal activity, if you choose your victims well, no one's likely to be able to bring you to book for it.

But what if you poke the wrong bear one too many times?

The same qualities of the internet that protect you from the wrath of your victims, make you vulnerable to the skilled user who decides to turn the tables on you.

Thrillers do not necessarily require a sympathetic protagonist; personally I prefer them because if I'm going to be spending time with them I want to be able to root for them. Nor do I personally enjoy stories that are raining vengeance down on the head of the evil protagonist; they leave me with a nasty taste in my mouth. But the obvious angle here is the troll as protagonist. Maybe it's someone who targets people for what she believes are moral reasons - I don't suppose many of us would feel too bad about a troll whipping up the social media of the KKK into foaming frenzies. Yet it should be clear from the outset that this is an excuse, and that her moral superiority to her targets is problematic at best. She has proper activist outlets available to her, of which she does not avail herself, and she's apt to go for the motes in the eyes of others while ignoring the beam in her own. In her real life she feels powerless, and rather than taking real-world action to correct this, she takes out her feelings being an anonymous internet bully.

For best results, her situation should be a hard one; her weakness and cowardice should be of a sort and in a style that will rouse the audience to say "yes I see but," not "oh get off your butt and do something about it." She is redeemable, but has a steep character arc and some hard lessons to learn before the audience will be ready to embrace her.

So we have someone who smothers fragility in smugness and seeks self-esteem in emotional sadism because she doesn't know any other way to get it. Probably there's something/someone she truly cares about besides herself - a sibling, perhaps, or a pet or a friend. She is young because trolling is a young person's game. She has a lot of time on her hands, much of which she might prefer to spend doing something else but for some reason (disability? Restrictive life circumstances?) is trapped at her computer instead, and trolling relieves her frustration. And she eventually takes that frustration out in the wrong venue, on the wrong person.

Most people, when they realize they're being trolled, are content to shut the troll down - block the username from private space; petition to get it banned in a public, moderated one; turn off anon posting; simply stop replying. But our protagonist hits someone on a very sore spot indeed; and this particular person is the troll's evil double, only more so. Someone with a similar base personality, possibly even a similar base situation to the protagonist, but someone who has concluded that the best defense for the squishy miserable self is a strong offense. Threats are not walked away from - they are turned on, and annihilated.

At first it's fun, going head-to-head with someone playing the same game; but it's not a game to the Other anymore, it's deadly serious. Other is very, very good at finding people's buttons, much better than Troll, and Troll soon finds that having your buttons pressed with unerring accuracy, repeatedly, is no fun at all. (The reader is allowed to think "Serves you right" at this point.) When she finds herself weeping after a hit that strikes at the core of her situation she tries to detach.

But that's not good enough for Other. Hacking her social media, identity theft, online spying - things Troll would never have thought of doing because they'd destroy her sense of moral high ground are fair game for Other. Real life consequences start to accumulate, and her initial situation becomes steadily worse.

The threat that forces her to stop retreating and taking pot-shots from the shadows is not likely to be to her directly. If we are too cowardly to stand up for ourselves, we pretty much have to bottom out to do it; if cowardice is paired with low self-esteem, we are likely to assume that bottoming out is no more than we deserve. No, what forces her to turn is that thing/person/pet she truly cares about. Because of course the Other finds out what that thing/person/pet is, and goes for it.

We will be brave and effective for those we love, even when we wouldn't raise a hand to save ourselves.

She will need to learn new skills for this. She will need to confront herself and the depth of the resemblance between herself and her persecutor. She will probably need an ally, and for maximum impact this should be someone she has no right to expect help from, someone she's bullied, who knows who she is and what she does and whose first response is to say: "Serve you right." Someone who will show her what generosity looks like.

It is not necessary for the ending to, strictly speaking, be happy. If Troll finds a core of true worth and breaks out of her old behavior pattern, she does not need to destroy Other. She can even be destroyed (in one sense or another) herself. Work out what she loves and the nature of Other's threat to it, and the emotionally satisfying climax, in which perhaps she loses and wins at once, or wins by changing the definition of losing (she and Other having shared a twisted set of rules between them) will emerge naturally.

The thought of writing all this makes me tired, though.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: A Little Bit of Fun with First Lines

The days the gravity failed, nothing ever got done.

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

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