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.

Friday, November 13, 2015


I'm driving up to San Marcos in a little bit to hear Dr. James Adavasio speak and to prove to myself that, little by little, I am coming back. Sunday I'll be going to Austin, to BookPeople and Greg Leitich-Smith's book launch.

On Veteran's Day, I took Moby out for a bit, to replace two dodgy tires and get the oil and coolant checked. I feel a lot of kinship with Moby at the moment, as bits of him stop working properly and are replaced - the driver's side seat belt, the interior door handle - or not - one of the door locks, that strip of chrome that the gas station ate when I parked a bit too close to the pump. Yet he keeps moving, and so do I.

And whereas, someday, inevitably, Moby will limp off to the junkyard to be stripped down for parts, or get donated to one of those charities that takes even cars that won't move anymore to generate money in some mysterious way (which presumably amounts to the same thing), I will someday cycle all the way up again, and transform all the mental coolant and oil I've been sucking down into - something. I don't know what. But I know I will. It's in there. Somewhere.


Whether I can transform whatever it is into income to justify my existence to the consumer society, I don't know. So I stick that consideration onto the shelf in my head marked "Stuff I can't do anything about right now" and keep gestating, and even occasionally driving to hear speakers and cheer other authors on.

Meanwhile, I'd better get some lunch. Because lunch is inevitable.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Always an Author

Sometimes I wonder, as the months without school visits turn into years, as I write without attempting to publish, as I stare at Publishers Market listings and don't start a query, if I'm still an author.

Monday, I proofed galleys for a short story I recently sold (for remarkably little money; but it's a remarkably little story) and got a fan letter from a child who, in the course of reading The Ghost Sitter, "went from hating reading to loving it!!" (Who wants to write for grownups? Grownups don't write letters like that. You're lucky if you can get one exclamation mark out of a grownup.)

So, yeah, just because I live in professional limbo right now doesn't mean I'm not the woman who wrote The Ghost Sitter and Switching Well - and other things less likely to generate fanmail. Maybe my time is over and I'll never sell again; or maybe I'm about to get that query mojo working again and have a renaissance that catapults me into the literary stratosphere. (Hey, stranger things have happened.) Regardless, what I've already done will remain valid.

Today is Marty McFly Day - the day he spent in "the future" in Back to the Future II (IMHO the best of the series). From today forward, the Back to the Future movies will be entirely set in the past. Now there's a time paradox for you! Time does that, keeps rolling on over and past us and our creations, changes how they look and inevitably, eventually, destroys both us and them. But it takes a long time; and even dead work may be resurrected in unexpected ways. Why, not long ago a new passage to the Epic of Gilgamesh was discovered! (As one tumblr user observed, this means that the Gilgamesh fandom is the one that's had the longest wait for an update, by a considerable margin.)

The work is resilient, it is tough, and it can go on when we can't. Or won't. Or don't.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Domestic Analogies. I Can Always Make Them.

Still alive here, and a miracle occurred - I learned how to install fly-front zippers! Part of my problem, it turned out, was that the markings on the pattern were confusing me. Now that everything's clicked, I can ignore them. I also successfully did a new, and more difficult, alteration to the pattern than anything I've done before; something I would have been incapable of doing six months ago, just because I couldn't have focused long enough to do it. So I have four pairs of pants that fit perfectly in the back and almost perfectly in the front - I still have some bugs to work out in fitting the waistband. But even allowing for that and my inability to get all the basting stitches pulled, they're still better than anything I could have gotten at a store. I probably cried less than I would have if I'd gone shopping, too.

None of which, alas, enables me to do what I need to do to start sending queries out again.

The trouble with queries is, that they are the exact opposite of how I need to do things. I can force myself to write them, but I inevitably do them badly. Sometimes, so badly that I wake up in the middle of the night with that excruciating twist in the stomach that says: "Holey cheese that was the worst possible way to do that and it's too late to take it back now."

And other people's advice on how to write them? Is a lot like the markings on the pattern intended to help me install a zipper. Obviously they work for some people - probably most people - and I needed them in order to learn, but they didn't - couldn't - take my alterations into account; and the markings and instructions and diagram laid things out so antithetically to the way I learn things my illegible notes on the instruction sheet say things like "And by left they mean right" and "Line up with the top not the bottom." (That my notes are illegible doesn't matter; making them renders it unnecessary for me ever to refer to them.) I get this in recipes, too. Food doesn't behave the way the recipe says it will, no matter how closely I follow the instructions. So after I've made a dish a few times and start succeeding with it, I ignore the recipe. Level measurement gets me a different result every time, but I make pancakes with scant measures of milk and heaping measurements of baking powder and they're good, low-sodium pancakes, which is what I'm after.

All of which gives me hope that I'm going to get the query thing down eventually, too. The truth is I've never sold anything on a pitch or a query - I've only ever sold on the work, and on personal contact with the editor. And I have no freaking clue how agents work as human beings let alone as professionals. They might as well be aliens, for all I can think my way into their space. It's really, really tempting to send the first X pages with a list of credits and a cover letter that says: "Look, I'm good at writing stories but I suck at selling things. Read the enclosed and if you want to see the rest, let me know. YA, lesbian western, complete, about 70,600 words. Thank you for your time."

For one thing, the agent who doesn't just delete that is probably an agent I could work with.

But that's not how the industry works. So I will just have to keep sending out queries full of excruciatingly wrong things to say like I kept putting in and ripping out zippers, like I kept throwing out pancakes with runny middles, till something clicks and I figure out the point at which the advice givers tell me to go left and I need to turn right.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Idea Garage Sale: Cults of Cahokia?

So it's a good year for the archeology of the Moundbuilders, looks like. This week my sources (i.e. random internet news sources I follow; thanks, tumblr!) tell me that recent analysis of mass graves at Cahokia reveal them to be full of people who were from Cahokia, not Aztec-style war captives as had previously been speculated.

Specifically, the researchers looked at two different, but chronologically related, mass graves. In one, over 200 young women who died in ways that didn't leave obvious marks on their bodies were laid out and stacked up in neat rows.

In another one nearby, however, a mixed lot of men and women, not quite 40 in all, between the ages of 15 and 45, were tumbled together after being killed in gruesome, spectacular, and obvious ways - stone points still embedded in their bones, decapitation, all the awful violence of warfare or massacre.

When these graves were first excavated, slotting them into a narrative similar to the historic MesoAmerican custom (not unknown to historical Europeans, either) of appeasing the gods with captives taken from conquered and subject peoples rather than your own. But modern methods of analysis are allowing archeologists to find out quite a lot of personal information about bones these days, and the indications are strong that all the bodies belong to natives or long-term residents of the Cahokia region.

Furthermore - and this is where my story nose starts twitching - the tidy grave, though more uniform in appearance, is more diverse biologically than the messy, violent grave, which contains people biologically more distinct from other people unearthed at the site, and more similar to each other, than one would expect from a random sampling.

So the massacred people all belonged to the same extended family; and the presumed sacrifices were drawn from the general population.

I don't know about you, but this snaps into a definite picture in my head: a tyrannical ruling elite imposing an increasingly unbearable young-woman tax on their subjects to feed an implacable god to stave off some real or imagined disaster. Until the ruled, or a rival, couldn't take it anymore and revolted in a vengeful night of horror...

This sort of thing, after all, does happen. Read the history of any country, any group of people, any power structure. It's likely to involve politics, economics, and personal pathology with a veneer of religion making it easy to go too far - for it can't possibly be evil if God requires it, right? You're just doing your job...

But that is only a general outline. For a solid theory, one would have to examine more data and run more tests and compare dates (or rather, date ranges; all date measuring tech necessarily gives results in a range within a safe margin of error). If it can be established that the tidy sacrifices precede the messy massacre, that's one story; but if the messy massacre precedes, or occurs halfway through, those are very different stories.

And as far as I could tell reading the article, there's still much that isn't known about how the inhabitants of the tidy graves died. Human sacrifice is one way to account for their uniformity in age, burial method, etc.; but it's not the only conceivable one. Might there have been an epidemic in an institution which concentrated young women into a single physical space, some analog to a convent or a girl's finishing school?

And though the story that forms in my head associates the massacred remains with guilty parties, it is by no means unheard of for a disadvantaged group to take the punishment belonging to an advantaged group; or for a group to be powerful in a way that doesn't protect them from scapegoating and mob violence (cf the history of anti-semitism, for example); or for the innocent to be punished along with their guilty relatives; or for institutions to overwhelm the conscience of individuals to a point that personal guilt and innocence aren't even useful concepts. The sacrifices may have been criminals in ways we wouldn't view as crime; the massacred may have been virtuous in ways from which we recoil.

All of which is overwhelming to one who wishes to write a story about it suitable for publication. Archeologists don't have to come out with any one "truth" - they can always say "we need more data!" and dive back in. Fiction writers, however, have to do a certain level of research (varying with their personal comfort level and the intended market) and then commit to a narrative, centered on one character. Most modern American narratives prefer a sympathetic protagonist who triumphs in the end, which limits your narrative choices. You can try to buck this trend and opt for an unsympathetic protagonist and/or a tragic ending, if you're prepared for the flak you'll take from readers, reviewers, and armchair moralists on the hunt for the motes in the eyes of others, who will all assume that to write from a character's viewpoint is the same thing as endorsing that character's viewpoint.

If you can find your way to a narrative and a protagonist based on this setting and this situation, however - what a book that would be! Universal human themes and experiences, in a unique setting that doesn't have the thumbprints of dozens of pulp novelists all over it!

The more I think about it, the more certain I am that there's a Great Native American Historical Novelist out there, somewhere, being discouraged from writing a whole string of powerful works about the great pre-Columbian civilizations, which, when finally published, will be runaway bestsellers and create a new subgenre of historical fiction, centered on Native American history and viewpoints.

And I hope I live long enough to read them.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Not Sure How Much This Helps

Despite frontloading a lot of the second-guessing of myself, and going in with a sense of not having a damn thing of use to offer; despite both of us being unreasonably tired and Damon missing half of Saturday due to health crap; despite a surprisingly small dealer's room (no t-shirts? How can there be no t-shirts?), Armadillocon was good for me this year.

I can never remember what I say on panels, though I always think afterwards of things I absolutely should have said, but after each one someone in the audience sought me out to remark favorably on what I said, and moreover on how I said it. I always have the vague sense that I've talked too much (and too loud, and too diffusely) and not said any of the right things, but the audience - or these specific portions of the audience anyway - perceives this as me being passionate about things.

That is certainly true as far as it goes. And apparently the other panelists don't find it too obnoxious, either, because when the ghost story panel was short of participants, at the tag-end of the day Saturday, someone I'd been on with earlier in the day invited me to get out of the audience and onto the panel. So I did. Because, ghost stories. And we were all weird by then anyhow, it wasn't just me.

I once again sat through a panel on promotion and was once again admonished that all sales involve "selling myself" and once again concluded that if that's true, I'm screwed, because I can't sell myself. This is not reluctance; this is not naivete; this is not cowardice; this is demonstrated fact. You might as well tell me to flap my arms and fly to the moon, or do a pull-up (honestly, how? I've never managed even one; I can't even bend my elbows), or fall asleep because it's bedtime. I've had 54 years to try this advice and it's not going to work because I can't do it, and my ability to network at all is small.

But I have sold books, and I have given workshops and been on panels that apparently were good for some of the participants, and I do get traffic on this blog, and somehow I've accumulated 337 simblr followers as of this morning, the vast majority of whom are not spammers, without any promotion at all. This is all small, but real. I'm okay with small success, and all my small successes have been the result of me telling stories and talking about the things I care about and basically engaging passionately with something, and conveying that engagement to people outside of it.

I do not know how to translate Being All About the Story into, say, a living wage.

But it's clear enough that Being All About the Story has to be where I start, or nothing else is going to happen at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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.