Monday, March 2, 2015

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.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

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.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

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.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Tax time again.

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

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

It's not working.

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

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

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Still better than a soul-sucking day job

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: The Cat Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's just that simple.

It's just that hard.