Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Sins, According to Thai

My cats are very disappointed in me. And when you look at my job performance the last few days, it's hard to blame them.

I'm letting workmen crawl around under their house with power tools and noisy bangy objects.

I left them Thursday to go to the farmer's market, bringing back tuna steaks that I wouldn't share with them.

Thai resents that I watched a DVD with Damon last night (the movie adaptation of Beezus and Ramona is great even though Beezus is too old) instead of playing videogames on the computer where she could catlap me; while Bruce resents that at the end of the movie I got up to do other things even though he was catlapping me.

I moved Thai out of the chair in front of the sewing machine just so I could sew, and even went so far as to close the door to that room when Bruce wanted me to do something for him but wouldn't tell me what it was. (I suspect he wanted me to chase the workmen out from under the house.)

I shut them out all afternoon one day this week without checking whether they might want to come in.

I've allowed it to rain when they wanted to be outside.

I am presently typing a blog post around Thai instead of rubbing her tummy like I'm supposed to.

In many ways, I am a terrible person to them. I leave them alone some days; do things they have no interest in when they need attention; refuse to let them participate in fascinating activities like sewing; and take them off the table when there's food on it. Even if the food isn't one they're interested in.

Yet, they purr for me, doctor me when I'm sick, snag me as I walk by to say hi, and forgive me even for vet visits and workmen. If my cats are happy, I know I'm not a terrible person.

It's good to get outside your own perspective and see yourself from another point of view once in awhile. If they can forgive my sins of omission and commission, I reckon I can, too.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Character Study

As human beings, we tend to evade truths which as writers, as readers, and even as gamers we would do well to understand.

I have way too much to say on this topic for one blog post, but let's take one finite piece of it: the degree of autonomy that characters have.

We all react to characters as independent entities and as projections of their creator's selves. It can be absurdly hard to separate one's reaction to an actor from one's reaction to the characters we've seen him portray, to a singer from the persona expressed in the lyrics to her recorded music (even when we know she didn't write them), to an author from her most famous series hero, to an elven wizard on a unicorn from the US Marine playing her across the table from you.

Okay, maybe "separate from" is not the right verb phrase in the last case. Maybe "overcome the cognitive dissonance between" is better.

Anyway, this is clearly unfair. In all these cases, the character has an artistic purpose. In some of them, more than one person is responsible for the character. The movie needs a villain and the casting director chose Vincent Price to play him. As an artist, Price had to leave his own emotions behind and adopt those that will generate the most satisfactory villainous performance - guided by the director. The persona behind a song, the hero of a story, the party wizard all have roles in the final production that must be balanced for the best effect.

The character may even have been chosen because of his dissimilarity to the creator. A 16-year-old girl is not typically challenged by portraying a virgin elven wizard; a combat veteran may well be. A performer may deliberately create a performance persona so readily recognizable, yet so different from the real self, that it forms a privacy shield. Take it off, and he can walk around unnoticed among his fan base. I don't want to write endlessly about people who share my particular background, tastes, fears, and experience. Part of the point of making a character is to explore what it feels like to be someone other than me.

At the same time - there is a kind of player whose characters continually do obnoxious things, and who responds to complaints with an airy: "Oh, I'm just playing my character." An author, tasked with repeatedly creating characters who are racist, sexist, foul-mouthed, or violent, who says: "I'm just portraying them honestly. These people are not me." A musician who wants people to relax about the drug imagery in his music, and has a rap sheet a mile long.

These people are kidding themselves. You're creating a character for a reason, out of bits of yourself. If they're all nasty, you are choosing to put your nastiness front and center. You're still responsible for what they do.

I happened to think of this because I've been on a computer gaming forum where people, discussing various gameplay issues, will say things like: "I don't see why I should care about sim children when their parents don't" or "Romance sims are so bad, always cheating on their spouses." My sim parents love their children. My Romance sims don't cheat on their spouses, because I don't give them spouses. Other gamers will marry off Romance sims for the pleasure of finding creative ways to satisfy them without extramarital nookie; or to create soap opera plots; or for some other creative reason that doesn't involve projecting responsibility for their own darker impulses onto a bundle of program code.

I was interested to see the similarity between the choices people made for their sims in an asocial game and the choices people make for their PCs in a social game. It's easy to see, from these conversations, which of the computer gamers I would welcome at my gaming table and which ones I would rather avoid. But how does this square with my sense, as an author and as a gamer, that characters are independent entities? My characters are constantly surprising me. If I, and the people around me, couldn't separate them from me, the time my wizard fell in love with another character (not my husband!)'s fighter, or the time my priestess and my husband's ranger got locked into a power struggle over the group's tactical and moral options, would have been deeply problematic. Actually, when I'm in deep drama queen mode, other players are sometimes afraid that I have lost the distinction, and I sometimes get a good load of emotional chemicals on and have to call a break while I sort them out.

And what about the factor played by the phenomena of identification and projection - the interaction of the reader/viewer with the character, that inevitably makes him into something different from what the player, author, actor, whatever intended? I remember reading several books - Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag was one; Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was another - in high school English class, which engaged me in critical battles with other students and the teacher over characters regarded by everybody else in the class as unsympathetic or contemptible, but whom I saw as wronged and trapped in a maze of choices, all bad. I had my reasons for reading these characters in this way. Would the authors have been enlightened, encouraged, or horrified by my take on these characters? How much does it matter?

Everything exists on a spectrum. If you're looking for a simple conclusion to this thought, you're on the wrong blog. The important thing is not to solve these conundrums, but to be aware of them as we deal with characters, our own, and other people's.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Worst Thing

This is the time of year when I remember the Year from Hell. You will excuse me from talking about this; or about the other bad things that have happened around Christmas time to those I consider mine.

What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?
Who were you before that?
Who did it make you into?

That's your character arc. You will have several in your lifetime.

Write about that, in a way that is accessible, entertaining, and enlightening to anyone else, and you can write about anything.

This is not a job for sissies.

Merry New Year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

And by Left They Mean Right...

I've been wandering around doing miscellaneous things this morning, and finally decided to just go put in the zipper wrong until the penny dropped. It finally did, and I have now written on the pattern "And by 'left' they mean 'right.'"

I always had a problem with that. I remember a time when my chief problem in dressing myself was that I was continually putting things on backwards because it wouldn't click with me that the front had to face away from me when I donned the garment in order to get the correct result. When I have to make left-or-right decisions I still glance down looking for a long-faded freckle on my right hand to make sure I don't pull left. Though the freckle is gone, I know that the right hand is the hand on which I reflexively check the freckle.

No, I don't expect you to follow that. It doesn't have to make sense to anyone but me.

The trouble is that 'left' and 'right' are subjective terms, and in order to get the correct one it is necessary to be oriented the way the person giving you instructions expects you to be. I hardly ever am. And clockwise and widdershins are not "left" and "right," because any circle that goes left at the top goes right at the bottom and vice versa. Although one of Charles Fort's most famous aphorisms is "One measures a circle, beginning anywhere," apparently I am the only person in the world who ever orients a circle starting with the bottom point.

However, I can learn my way around urban spaces like nobody's business; and for years I always knew, when I walked into a restaurant, where to find the restrooms. This no longer functions infallibly, but that may be my own fault for preferring nonstandard restaurants.

I console myself for my lack of spatial acuity by telling myself that it gives me lots of sensitivity to alien viewpoints. You know how when somebody says "you have something on your face right there?" and points to the corresponding point on his own face, you always reach for the wrong spot? That doesn't happen with me, because I comprehend that I am functioning as your mirror, and point at the mirror-image spot. If I explain something and can't make myself understood, I do not assume that I am speaking to a stupid person, but to one with a different set of intuitive assumptions and will try out a different set till between us we hit on the ones that will work, or abandon the attempt. Conversely, I am frustrated to the point of murderousness in conversation with someone who denies the validity of my, or anyone else's, world view. When I'm writing a character, I can freely give them opinions I don't share and tastes opposed to mine and not worry about sounding convincing.

I may or may not have gotten the "see another's point of view" skill if I could tell my left from yours without conscious effort; but believing that I wouldn't is at least comforting, so please don't disabuse me of the notion.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New Year's Cleaning

This morning I went through a stack of filing that has been accumulating since April of 2009. This afternoon, I cleaned the pond, a chore last done more than a year ago - and not because I didn't know better, either.

Not all the filing was stuff I can take care of; but some of it was. I didn't find the specific thing I was hoping to find, either; but if my filing habits were better I wouldn't need to be looking for it. I did find my sales tax paperwork, which arrived a couple of weeks ago and promptly got buried, even though all I had to do was blacken in the square that indicated I had no sales all year. I only have the tax number so I can sell OOP titles to people who want them. It isn't, or shouldn't be, a big deal; but it becomes so if I overlook the paperwork.

The pond was nasty and there's no one to shift blame to on that one. I was the one who wanted a pond. We all knew Damon wasn't going to do any yardwork. So any unpleasantness was deserved, for what that's worth. Personally, I don't find deserving an unpleasant thing to be any comfort. I'd much rather know that any unpleasantness I'm enduring is unjust. But once I got started on it, it didn't take that long, and the muck I dredged out should be add some good nutrients to the compost heap, which will be nice if I get any gardening done in 2011.

I tried to compose a blog post about the rotting sludge of experience in our heads fertilizing ideas, to occupy my mind while I did this; but I doubt anybody wants to read that one.

Happy Solstice.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Holly and the Ivy

I think we all go through phases of being in love with certain songs and wanting to dig out a story that makes sense of them. When I was in high school, I became haunted by the carol "The Holly and the Ivy," and the fact that though the ivy is part of the title, the holly got all the lines; in fact, it seems to be deliberately dissed in the opening verse:

The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown.

So what is the ivy - chopped liver? Why'd you even bring it up if you were just going to rant on about how cool the holly is?

So I started blocking out a story, in which Holly and Ivy were fraternal twins, born on Christmas Eve. Holly was the dominant twin - the bright, pretty, popular one. Ivy was the one who trailed along after her cleaning up her messes. So Holly is the one who experiments with the grimoire and turns herself into a deer; and Ivy is the one who has to figure out how to break the spell, without making things worse.

And there's a lot of worse to get. To begin with, magic is a tricky thing, and they live in West Texas, where they're surrounded by people who believe in magic and that it is all of the devil. Ivy has no friendly neighborhood Wiccan to turn to, but can find plenty of people who think that by even asking questions about magic she's inviting the devil into her soul. I never solved the question of where the grimoire came from, but I did have a vague idea of a trickster figure who appeared in various guises - including attractive young man (hey, I was 15 or 16, and I wasn't Twilight fan material but I was human) - and who could steer her in the right direction if she could learn the delicate art of handling him for maximum benefit.

Another thing about the West Texas setting - it's getting on for Christmas, and that's hunting season. Holly is running around the ranch looking like a deer. Normally hunters prefer bucks, of course, but Holly makes a particularly clueless deer. She's too human to interpret what her animal senses tell her and make good decisions for her situation, but too animal to use her human knowledge base properly. And she's being destructive. If a doe is breaking into your barn and eating up your feed, knocking down your fences, and trampling the garden, and it's hunting season, yes, you're going to shoot her and eat her. If the city guys on the deer lease don't kill her, her own father and brothers will.

This strikes me now as the most interesting portion of the story, allowing me to deal realistically, through fantasy, with both interfamily politics and hunting culture. Nobody in my family hunts, but I've lived among too many hunters to buy into either the pro- or anti-hunting extremist rhetoric that is all one generally sees in media. Back when I originally conceived the story, though, this was a side thought, a way of generating time pressure for solving the main problem of how to turn Holly back. The spell reversal would involved the rising of the sun, the running of the deer, the playing of the merry organ, and sweet singing in the choir, but I never quite worked out how.

Nor - and this is why I never got far with it - could I figure out the ending. All right, Ivy turns Holly back into herself. How does this change their relationship? How did being a deer change Holly; how did rescuing her sister change Ivy? How much does Holly remember? What about that young handsome trickster? I have to know the end of a story before I start it, or I'll never finish it.

It also partook of that "November" feeling I mentioned last month; that cold and vaguely mystical feeling I had in West Texas winter. I think I lost my capacity to experience that sensation fully when my temporal lobes finished growing in; at least, I can't seem to recapture it now. So the time, if there ever was one, when I could have written this story would seem to be past.

Merry Christmas, y'all.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Zippers, agents, and other conundrums

I have now made, by my count, one rough draft and two complete pairs of slacks with fly-front zippers. I am now working on another rough draft to work out some more details of the fit; and by working I mean the pieces have been cut out for about a week and I got the four darts in yesterday. It took me a number of tries to do the darts, yesterday being a bad day for the gyroscope, so straight lines were hard and so was finding the right side of the nondescript cloth I'm using for the rough draft. I then tried to move on to the zipper, and couldn't do it.

The first three, successful, times I did this zipper I did it wrong first and, having done "wrong," was able to see how "right" would look, go back, and redo it. (Hint, always baste for the first try at a zipper.) This is time-consuming but it's not as if I'm on deadline here. Yesterday I put the thing together, pinned it, played a computer game, came back, stared at it some more, unpinned it, put it together again, and left off in despair. Every way seemed impossible and besides, the zipper is too long even though I cut it to the right size (I know it was the right size - I measured it). I'm hoping it's just the gyroscope screwing up my capacity to recognize spatial relations, which was never my strong suit anyway.

I've spent most of my life being treated as a smart person, because I read so much and because I don't let learning a new task daunt me. Within certain fields, I'm a quick study, and nine-tenths of learning a new thing is not getting intimidated by the onrush of new stimuli. A little methodical sorting, some focused concentration, and a well-placed question or two, and I'm good to go. I don't for a moment believe that I'm smarter than average, and the zipper thing proves it. I have to re-solve the problem every time and on some days I can't solve it at all, because it relies on a portion of my system that I never developed well and which is a little messed-up physically. I do not have the skill "insert a fly-front zipper." I have a skill set that enables me to insert a fly-front zipper, or work a complicated math problem, or whatever, given sufficient time and a way of checking the result.

In the same way, I do not have the skill "find a publisher." I'm not certain anyone does, though I know people I am willing to believe do if they cop to it. I have, without an agent, sold twelve books to major houses and a number of short pieces to a number of different venues; so I have a skill set that makes finding a publisher possible. As far as I can tell, finding an agent takes the same skill set.

What I lack is any way to check the result. I have this in common with practically everybody. The moaning and wailing goes forth from the internet daily: "But why did this agent/editor that should have wanted me reject me? What does this rejection mean?"

A rejection doesn't mean anything. The market for print media is shrinking and the supply for it gets bigger every year. Even twenty years ago when I started, when it was possible (I know; I did it) to send a complete manuscript to a major editor like Margaret K. McElderry and get it read, I knew - because I'd been studying for this role all my life - that works get rejected more often than they get accepted. There are a thousand reasons to reject a work and only one of them is "it stinks." Editors are overworked, overwhelmed, and underfunded. Most of them don't even have assistants anymore. Most of them didn't have first readers even when I started. Writing a helpful rejection is too big an addition to their workloads in most cases.

And now that agents are acting as first readers, everybody has to have an agent. But getting an agent is harder (at least, if you're me, the person with the solid mid-list background and crappy interpersonal skills) than getting a publisher. An editor only has to be able to convince a committee to believe your book will work as one element of a list in one year. An agent, to be effective, has to be in love with the book and your whole career as well as having a small enough client list to make room for one more who's going to take as much time and attention as you are.

This is a discouraging prospect for someone, like me, who hates meeting new people and distrusts salesmanship and who, at the time of assembling the query, isn't particularly in love with a project, myself. Generally speaking, by the time I've drafted a book, revised it into something resembling publishability, polished a hook, and crammed the whole into a one-page synopsis, I'm fed to the teeth with the thing. Having to write a query letter under those circumstances is like having to put in a zipper that will only work properly if I both set it up perfectly the first time and am feeling madly, passionately enthusiastic about wearing slacks at the time of sewing.

Under those circumstances, I'd never get a pair of slacks that fit. Ever. I wouldn't even try, because that's never going to happen. And I like wearing skirts. A lot of people never get well-fitted slacks and never mind it. I can, too.

But the stories I write are The Most Important Thing. Stuff other people consider vital to happy lives, I've given up in favor of writing stories and never felt as sacrifices. So I arm myself with the knowledge that how I feel isn't important, but getting an agent is; and I have the skill set; and I make the attempt anyway. Sure, I can fail. But the only way to fail permanently is to die or abandon the attempt.

I wouldn't do it if it weren't The Most Important Thing. I don't know why anybody would.

So that's my words of wisdom for this day without a gyroscope (when staying upright is a chore and I can't trust myself to write a query). Decide what The Most Important Thing is, and go for it. Everything else can fall by the wayside.

You can have more than one Most Important Thing, but they'd better be compatible.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Okay, Now What?

It's natural to feel a little at loose ends after a project ends or goes into a necessary dormant phase. Fortunately, I always have lots of things piled up to take care of, because I tend to neglect other things when I get into that last downhill slide. I've cleared the filing away, or at least the worst of it, and gone through accumulated stacks of mail. I need to get back to sewing, and the yard - well, yardwork we have always with us. And the search for a contractor is also my responsibility; as is the search for new places to send the books that are supposed to be circulating. I have of course gotten behind on getting things back into the mail; which is also a reasonable time to read things through again and see what needs tweaking.

I can revise old work. I can go through old files waiting for something to leap up and ask to be finished. I can write short stories. I can do intensive market research, step up the search for an agent, find conferences to go to. I can go to more local SCBWI meetings if I feel like it. I can experiment with genres I haven't sold in before and markets I haven't made any serious attempt to crack. I could DM again for awhile, or at least do the prep work for the next time we need a DM.

The one thing I absolutely, positively must not do is work on the lesbian western. I must do my best to keep my conscious mind from handling it. Thinking about Len and Di and Bean, or even about how and when to solicit my knowledgeable friends to read the bits that need their input, can't be allowed. When I return to the book at the end of the cool-off period, I need to come at it as something separate from myself, not as the constant companion of the past year or so. Not because I won't see its flaws, but because that's all I'll be able to see. If there's any strength in the structure, any beauty in the overarching lines of the plot, any unrecognized theme emerging from the dialog - I'd miss it right now.

Fortunately, boredom is not something I'm subject to when I'm healthy and have command of my own time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Plantation Mystery

I think it must have been the mid-80s when I thought of this plot, which research relevant to the lesbian western has brought back to mind. In order to have its full impact, this would have to be done much as I've done the western, with intense research and a ruthless pruning off of modern assumptions about who people were in the past.

The setting is a plantation in the Deep South during the height of the slave culture and economy; no later than the 50s. To do it right, a specific year and area should be selected and all the details should be structured around real conditions at the time - real public issues, real weather, real behavior, real crops, as gleaned from newspapers. Since my husband (who I hadn't married yet) is from Atlanta and we were still sorting out how the rest of our lives should go, I was considering this as a story I could write if we wound up moving back to his old stomping grounds, so call it north Georgia; but really anything from Virginia to northern Florida north-to-south and the Carolinas to Louisiana east-to-west would do. Not East Texas, which didn't start to develop the big plantation culture till it was too late to bring it to full flower.

The economic basis of the plantation is of course agriculture, the labor of which is performed by field hands. The social basis of the plantation is the Big House and its extended family - the Patriarch, the Matriarch, the maiden aunt, the heir, the daughters in need of marrying off, and the house slaves. Everyone knows that most of the house slaves are related one way or another to the white family, but no one talks about it. The Patriarch is respected, level-headed, a bit of an autocrat. The Matriarch is kindly, busy, self-sacrificing, and loved by all. The family is full of little family conflicts, the neighborhood is full of business and romantic complications, the slaves are everywhere - carrying secret love notes, cooking, cleaning, sympathizing, minding the children, seeing all.

At a time when the house harbors an intimate stranger, the Patriarch dies and most of the rest of the household gets sick. The stranger - perhaps a cousin from England, perhaps a governess, NOT a Yankee - realizes that the family has been poisoned. The obvious suspects are the slaves, and it's tempting to blurt out the news; but the country is in an unsettled state. Accusations of poisoning against slaves are likely to spark a slave revolt panic (this happened regularly in antebellum times; newspaper rhetoric seesaws from "our slaves are all happy, loving members of our families and we treat them well" to "our slaves are miserable rebellious miscreants who must be dealt with firmly or they'll kill us all in our beds" without any appearance of irony, sometimes within the same paragraph) and cause undesirable consequences, so the intimate stranger sets about her own investigation.

She discovers plenty of motive against the Patriarch in the slave quarters, dating back decades, but nothing that should trigger a vendetta now; and she has to get most of her information by indirect methods, for the slaves - having decent senses of self-preservation - are all expert liars. This search leads her into dark places in the family, and in her society, that she'd rather not see; and also reveals all the motives the rest of the family had to off the Patriarch. All the physical evidence is also more easily linked to white people than to slaves. In the end, she learns that the Matriarch is the culprit. Her kindly manner is a cultural overlay on a seething mass of repressed anger; her pose of delicate ease is the topmost chore on a life of endless toil babymaking, running a household in which she has no real power, meeting cultural demands, and pretending not to know things she's not supposed to know that happen right in front of her. She hasn't gone mad with the stress; that would be too simple. She's just found all of her choices to be impossible, and murder of her husband to be the least impossible of them.

Don't be fooled by the two Edgar nominations. I'm not really a mystery writer at heart, and probably couldn't have written this even if we'd moved to Atlanta. And it probably wouldn't sell well because the whole point of it would be to portray plantation culture honestly, with neither Southern nostalgia nor easy modern contempt. The accommodations good people made with an evil system and competent adults made with a system that insisted on treating them as incompetent children; the ways in which the powerless turned on each other; the ways in which power relationships poison personal ones without always destroying them - we live with this legacy and we find ourselves daily in parallel positions.

But nobody wants to admit it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Last Words

The candle's about out and the air's gone still. Nothing more to say, except I love you all, and I tried all my life to be a good man. We can't none of us ask more of each other than that.

And now I put the whole thing away for six months or so.

Chocolate time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Still inefficient, still writing crap, but Lancelot's running and the break through is coming. It won't be crap forever and nobody has to see it till I've transformed the rough draft crap into something closer to literary gold.

Sometimes it's hard to get the figures moving around the stage. You know what happens, but you can't see it. Sometimes you have to walk away from it and sometimes you have to bull through. This week, I've done both. I also had an insomnia-forced sick day.

Good old Len. It'll be odd not to have her voice in my head all day. I wonder if I'm putting up mental blocks against finishing because I'm afraid I'll miss her?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Today I am Inefficient

I am on the downhill slide with the lesbian western and sort of expected to write a chapter today and be done with the draft; however, I found myself doing anything else rather than starting, and when I put my hands on the keyboard I realized what the matter was. I still have a fair amount of exposition to get through, after the story has to all intents and purposes ended. I need to keep it short and interesting and dynamic, but these are not loose ends I can afford to leave flopping around. In its way, this is going to be as hard to choreograph as the chase scene was and it could take me all week.

Meanwhile, I had been counting on finishing the book to clear up some mental space to devote to things like contractors for the back porch (the one we had lined up went bankrupt and is no longer in business; we don't even have the plans), the piled-up filing and mail, sewing, selecting agents and editors to send books to, and February's Austin SCBWI conference. That'll either be $130 or $140 depending on which cut-off date given in the registration packet for early bird registration is correct, Dec 1 or Dec 15. So what I ought to do today is read over the material, decide if I'm doing it, and write the check or not. But when I try to do that my brain tangles back up in the story. Thinking about the story gets my brain tangled up in all sorts of things, including but not limited to the necessity of making an informed decision on the SCBWI registration. (Leveling up my Pathfinder characters! Sewing! Filing! Agents! Global warming! Pearl Harbor Day!)

This sets up enough tension that I want to say screw it and stick the Sims2 disk in. I've been playing a phenomenal amount of this game lately because there appeared to be some kind of backbrain synergy going on with what I was doing with the game and what I was doing with the book. At any rate, the two were mixed together in my dreams and some days when going about my non-writing business I would find myself easily and naturally thinking about the two storylines in alternate paragraphs, though they have no obvious relation to each other. The current impulse, however, is pure running away from the problem; so no Sims till I've accomplished some damn thing or other, and even then it has to be after 3:00 this afternoon, when I'll bottom out physically anyway.

At this point I'm not picky what I accomplish in the real world, but it's not an accomplishment unless the result is a clearing of the mental decks so I can think coherently about something. Anything! (One of the reasons Sims, or even solitaire, is more tempting an escape than diving headlong into a book is that the book requires concentration; computer games require a less-focused attention so the fact that I'm distracted isn't as annoying.)

So I don't know what I'm going to do today. I've made a list of discrete jobs, but this list may be summed up as "get head straight" and it's possible nothing I wrote down will do the trick.

At least laundry can get clean without reference to my state of mind.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: What If?

It's getting cold here, off and on, and as usual we're hearing noises in the walls and attics. It's a 100-year-old house afflicted with late 20th-century remuddling on the cheap, and we haven't been able to fix it up, so it has its fair share of noises anyway. We're hearing fewer rodents in the walls this year but the noises in the attic are louder and more complex. Since we've seen the raccoon humping down the hackberry tree from the attic in the evening we know why this is so.

But what if we don't?

What if it's an alien? What if - ooh, there's a stranded alien up there and he's taken up with the raccoon in partnership? What if the raccoon is teaching him to hunt pigeon eggs and raid the compost heap and birdfeeders for food, and the alien is teaching him to use tools and help repair his starship (conveniently small enough to fit in our attic)? What is their relationship to our cats and the skunks under the shed?

Why exactly is he avoiding getting assistance from us (because we totally would help him)? Is it because of some overarching policy of the government he represents? Been there, done that. Is it because he doesn't recognize us as the dominant species and thinks the cats are in charge? That would make sense; the cats would then be the ones who limited him to the attic and shielded us from contact because, hmmm, I don't have a good reason right now. I'd have to think of one. Maybe his first interaction with cats is a negative one and he's hiding from them, too, but there's something he can use in our attic. Good lord, what do we have up there? Ooh, he needs our antique wiring, the paper-insulated stuff with the glass whatevers. (Electricians who look in our attic always go mad over the museum we have up there.) Maybe the raccoon is feeding him misinformation about other species for his own purposes...

Or maybe it's not an alien. Maybe it's something much, much weirder. Or funnier. Or scarier, depending on the kind of story you'd want to write.

What do you think could be up there?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cliff Jumped!

I wrote it yesterday. I read through it for a basic first proof this morning (I don't always do that, but with this book I need to) and it's bad. It's really bad. But that doesn't matter right now. Only the writing is bad; the logic and sequence and the choreography and the character actions are all fine. Writing I can fix.

So after reading through that I went on to the next bit, which is Di telling her secret, and I wrote up a storm. Which isn't surprising, since I've been writing that scene in my head for a couple of years now. Len started fishing during the conversation, which should have slowed me down because I know nothing about fishing, but all that was "business" to keep the reader anchored in time and place and situation. Alas, the escape from the bushwhackers left them without provisions. They have two canteens, a bag of beef jerky, some guns, and Len's fishing tackle minus any pole, and those creeks in the hill country don't grow a lot of cane for fishing poles. I can sort all that out later.

Sometimes I seem inconsistent to myself. Many and many a time a story has come to a grinding halt over details far more trivial than the fishing, and I can't proceed until I've winkled out exactly how such-and-such a thing is done, or would look, or would be achieved. Other times, however, I blast through like this. That's not a function of the details themselves, but of the context in which they're used. When I grind to a halt fretting about details in, say, a chase scene that has to end in a jump off a cliff, odds are good that the detail is not the thing that's stopping me. The detail is the thing I give my conscious mind to play with while my backbrain is working out the important stuff.

My conscious and subconscious were on the same page with Di's secret, as they'd been thinking about it every time she acted or spoke throughout the book. She's revealing the key to all her actions, here. If I didn't know that stuff, I wouldn't have gotten this far.

This'll be drafted by the end of the year, for sure.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Call Me Lancelot

So there's this scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the guard at Castle Swampy spots Sir Lancelot running toward him at a distance. He looks away, looks back: Lancelot is still running, about as far away. Looks away, looks back, still running in the distance. Looks away - gah! Lancelot is on top of him, hacking away.

The cliff scene is like that. This is the second day this week I haven't gotten to it, instead doing a lot of pacing and arranging and making lists of actions with approximate times and writing up toward. So far this is the unchasiest chase ever. At the moment it looks like tomorrow, for sure. But yesterday at this time, it looked like tomorrow for sure, too.

Actually the ends of all my books are like that. I'm working working working and the end is out there somewhere and then one day poof! I'm finished. So I'm not worried about this. It's just a bit frustrating.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Runaway Clones

So there's this woman, a biologist, Cynthia, who is asexual and a little narcissistic but wants children and is really interested in reproductive science. So she clones herself.

This is illegal, but she has the resources to disguise it as a normal birth. She doesn't have a partner, but her company has good day care. When Diana, the kid, is about five she has advanced enough in her research and learned enough from raising her first child that she decides to have a second one, with modifications. Another five or six years on, she gets really ambitious and decides she's figured out how to clone herself but have a son. This time, perhaps because suspicions have been aroused at her company, perhaps because she's gotten overconfident, she is detected.

At this point she vanishes from the story, either going into hiding with her newly-implanted fetus or arrested and forced to abort. Officials arrive to take Diana and Selena into custody - their existence is illegal and they are to be used as evidence against their mother. But Diana realizes in time what's going down and escapes with her little sister.

What does she do now?

The sheer amount of world-building I'd have to do to write this intimidates me. It's one thing to build a fantasy world from scratch - I do that all the time - but a science fiction one has to be grounded in more hard science than I've ever absorbed. Light switches work by magic for all of me. I've read how Carbon 14 and Potassium-argon dating work dozens of time and there's a basic level at which I still don't understand them. Plus, this is the kind of plot it would be easy to take down the blockbuster road and turn into the sort of movie that bores me to tears.

But the characters intrigue me. In what ways are Cynthia, Diana, and Selena similar and in what ways are they different? How does Diana feel about being the "beta version" and how does this affect her relationship with the little sister she has to protect?

Is there, in this world, any such thing as a safe place for them? I think it's most interesting if it's relatively recent future and the girls' legal status is up for grabs; if there's a sizable portion of the population that considers them soulless abominations that can and should be put down. Even if not, if the act that led to your existence is illegal, how can society afford to make a place for you?

But the world-building involved - no, I can't face it. And I'm basically not in sympathy with anybody who wants to come up with new ways and means by which the world can be overpopulated, so I have a problem with Cynthia to begin with.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

What are you doing online? Go be with your family!

What, me? I have to be here. Thai wants her morning laptime. It's this or play Sims.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Okay, Got It

I've been creeping up on the hard part of this book for awhile now. It wasn't making sense and it wasn't fitting together and what about this factor and that factor and no it wasn't going to work. But I kept writing, the next part and the next part and the next part, and Len kept riding, the next leg and the next leg and the next leg, and today I wrote myself up to the wall and then I stopped and stared at it.

And then I went and looked in some reference books.

And then I came back to the keyboard and laid it out how it was all going to happen. Once I took the dogs out, the logic began to work and I began to see it.

It'll still take me the rest of the week or longer to write it all and there are still bits I can't see, but that's okay. I'll see them when I need them. It won't be a big deal. And after that there's only the bits I've always known, the fate of the money belt and the secret sharing and the resolution. I could have this book drafted by the end of the year. I'll certainly be done before the end of January.

That's the thing about problems. Perspective works differently on them than on physical objects. If you keep coming steadily at them, they get smaller and smaller and smaller, until by the time you reach them, they're the right size to handle.

If more people understood this, they'd be less annoying to discuss problems with.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: November Story

I used to get a certain mood in November in West Texas. For those of you who have never lived there - i.e. most people in the world - West Texas is what is known as a "semi-arid" landscape. This means that it's not the Mojave, Sahara, or Saudi Peninsula, we have vegetation year-round most places, and that our droughts are about 7 years long. San Angelo, where I lived from the time I was ten till I left for college, bills itself as "the wool capitol of the world," but if anybody of my generation recognizes the name, it will be from receiving Laugh-In's Fickle Finger of Fate Award when its reservoir caught fire.

If rain falls, it will probably be in May or October, causing floods. But all the same, most of the Novembers I spent there were misty, humidity hovering in the chilly air that came down from the Arctic (there being nothing between San Angelo and the North Pole but a bobwire fence, and I hear that fence is down) without ever precipitating. The hard, bright sun of summer hides behind solid cloud banks that never, ever rain. The leaves are off the scrubby trees, except for the dull green cedar and live oak. Looking out from - well, from anywhere - you can see the curvature of the earth, dun grass fading into blue-gray sky spattered with restless flocks of black birds, grackles mostly. The perpetual West Texas wind doesn't fail, but when its not dragging clouds of dust down from the Panhandle and Oklahoma, it creeps along at a melancholy pace, and it smells wrong. Hunting season starts, and you're likely to encounter a quiescent lump of deer on your way to the icehouse for a candy bar. (Also, I get really awful sinus problems, so I'm drugged to the gills to begin with.)

I made endless attempts during my eight-year tenure there to write something that would convey the emotional state of November to somebody else. But I haven't much use for mood writing, and emotional states are awkward to plot. Here's one I started writing and couldn't finish, though I knew exactly how it should read.

Marion Jabot lives in what my Mom called a "crackerbox" house next door to the local cat lady's bungalow. She was an unspecified school age, probably junior high or high school (I think I tried to write this when I was twelve), she has an Airedale named Bobo, and she hates cats. She teaches Bobo to chase them, because she thinks they're sly and evil and up to something. Even after the cat lady (Annie Wise; I don't know why these names stay with me so well) dies and the cats are all hauled away, the bungalow standing empty, she sees cats gathering there in huge numbers, night after night. Bobo sees them, too. Bobo is afraid of them. But no one else notices anything unusual.

I no longer remember - perhaps this is a plot point I never solved - how she and Bobo were to get trapped, alone, overnight in the bungalow. It would be a November night, and the cats would corner her, led by a huge tortoiseshell with glowing eyes, who she identifies with Annie Wise; perhaps as her reincarnation, perhaps as her witch's familiar, for Annie Wise is patently a witch figure. They would be everywhere, all glowing eyes and silent movement and savage claws and teeth. She and Bobo would try to attack, but they melt away in one part only to surround them more closely in another, until they give up and huddle together in a circle of cats, all night. The tortoiseshell would walk all over them, make eye contact. And when the sun rose, they would all go away, leaving Marian and her dog exhausted, bewildered, and unharmed; beyond the knowledge that the cats she hated, who certainly could have killed her if they'd cared to, didn't care to and weren't malevolent at all. Her idea of cats had nothing to do with the reality of cats, and everything to do with who she was, herself.

And that would be what November feels like in West Texas.

Naw, I didn't think you'd get it. Maybe you could if Ray Bradbury wrote it, or August Derleth, on a good day, like when he wrote "The Lonesome Place." But it was way more than I could do when I was twelve, and I've gone in entirely different directions since then.

And November in San Antonio doesn't feel that way at all.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Common With Greatness

Ursula LeGuin's Lavinia is so good I didn't even feel my mind being blown until afterward. LeGuin does that to me sometimes. But that's not what I came to talk to you about.

In the Afterward, she talks about research. Other things, too, but mostly research. She describes how her puzzlement over the geography of the Aeneid was relieved when a friend of hers, described as a "geomancer," showed her maps from the Grande Carte Stradale d'Italia on which she could find her way around it in the modern world. "There, in large scale, near Croce di Solferato, is Vergil's Albunea, properly convenient to Laurentium; and there it is, Rio Torto, the river that must have been Numicus...It was deeply touching to me to find these places of legend on a highway map of the Touring Club Italiano. On the map and in the myth, they are real." She also geeks out over a book published in the 1930s, Vergil's Latium, by Bertha Tilly, who took a walking tour of relevant sites with a Brownie camera.

And I said: "Yes." I am not in LeGuin's league and won't pretend to be, but we have this in common, the indescribable orgasmic sweetness of doing the research and diving into the real world and finding the story incarnated there, organic, interdependent and now all you have to do is write the thing.

I have no patience with people who say "It's only a story" and just make things up, taking the easy way. They're cheating themselves out of joy.

Worse, they're cheating the story.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Quiche from Yuggoth

Here you go: The Lowish-sodium Quiche From Yuggoth!

The tentacles broke off, but you can see one where I propped it up. I was surprised and pleased at how tasty it was. Too bad more people aren't going to get to eat it, but if you want to try it for yourself, here's how:

Preheat oven to 350 F

Pastry for one 9-inch pie:
1 cup white flour
about 10 TBSP/1/3 cup Fat of Choice (I used unsalted butter)
1 tsp curry powder
3-4 TBSP cold water. I just put some water and ice in a measuring cup and kept dipping till the dough came right

Cut fat into flour and curry powder till you have roughly pea-sized bits. Add water, one spoon at a time, tossing in between, till all flour is moistened, pastry almost cleans side of bowl, and you can form it into a ball, then flatten the ball, without it falling apart. There'll probably be a little loose floury stuff in the bottom; if so, set that aside. Roll out dough nice and thin on floured surface, fit carefully into pan, trim edges. Roll trimmings between palms to make tentacles or other desired substances to extrude from filling, arrange artistically according to your talents. Place pie plate on top of cookie sheet, set aside.

4-5 oz. shredded Swiss cheese
dollop of olive oil
3-4 green red onions, sliced, as far up as the leaves remain firm
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms of choice - I just used the cheap white button ones
1 small red pepper, chopped fine
2-3 sprigs fresh oregano or TBSP dried
dash ground yellow mustard
4-6 eggs depending on whether you're using small, medium, large, or jumbo.
3-4 TBSP skim milk
blue food coloring

Spread cheese in pie shell. Saute onions, pepper, mushrooms, and oregano in olive oil until mushrooms are properly grayish brown and shriveled. Don't let the chives and oregano burn. Spread this mixture on top of cheese.

In the bowl in which you mixed the pie shell, beat mustard, eggs, food coloring, and milk together with the leftover floury bits; if you're so good at making pie crust you don't have any, add in a TBSP or so of flour or cornstarch for thickener. The thickener will probably clump a bit, so break it up as well as you can, but but small clumps won't hurt anything. When it's a good consistency for scrambled eggs and a reasonably even shade of green, pour mixture into shell.

Shell will be very full indeed; this is why you already have it on a cookie sheet. It's easier to put into the oven without spilling if you're handling the cookie sheet instead of the pie pan. Bake 40 minutes or till set. The olive oil may ooze a bit and mislead you into thinking the eggs are still sloppy, so stick a knife into the center to be sure. The top will be puffed up as it comes out of the oven but will relax as it cools.

Serve hot. Reheats well in microwave at 2:00 minutes on high for one slice, makes a nice breakfast with fried potatoes. For lunch and supper, side dishes of greens and potatoes are recommended.

Please note that in order for this to remain a lowish-sodium dish, homemade pie shells and Swiss cheese are recommended. The curry powder replaces the salt in the pie crust. You could also try garlic or onion powder, but I found the faint curry flavor just right for a light, flaky crust. Swiss cheese has half or less sodium than almost every other cheese. If sodium isn't an issue, any medium cheese can be made to work, but vary your spices accordingly; ditto on the vegetables. A good swiss-mushroom-spinach quiche is a joy if you add dashes of nutmeg and black pepper. I know the nutmeg sounds weird but trust me, you want it in all your spinach dishes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Best Unholy Ritual

Yesterday evening we were supposed to go to the postponed Frightful Food Feast mentioned a few weeks ago. I made a successful Quiche from Yuggoth (pictures and recipe to come), and then we couldn't go because poor Damon had too many symptoms. He's mostly all right now and we had a successful game day with him DMing, so don't worry about it. I only bring it up because making the Quiche reminded me of a Garage Sale Idea that's been bopping around in my head for awhile now.

I'm not sure how long. I came up with it during the period when I was still writing, and semi-regularly selling, short stories to the SF/fantasy magazines, before shrinkage set in and the number of paying markets grew so small that it wasn't worth the attention diverted from book-length work that I can't sell either but pays off well if I do sell it. So, any time between 1986 (when I made my first sale to Twilight Zone Magazine) and the late 90s.

It's a straightforward TZ sort of story. It'd be called "The Testimony of So-and-so," some ordinary middle-class white lady name, and would consist of a statement to the police concerning the disappearance of a guest from her Halloween party. Her circle of gamers and fans had come over in horror-appropriate costumes for a meal not unlike the Frightful Food Feast, to be followed by party games, with prizes for things like Best Unholy Ritual. It would be a typical Fen group, with the hostess and her husband a little older than most of the guests, the stable married core around which the rest of the group coalesces, with recognizable types like the Fatbeard, the Munchkin, and the guy - for whom, oddly, there is no word - who seems a little off even to other Fen, but is included because he meets the base criteria of common interest.

This guy is at best only a semi-participant in the proceedings, whatever the group does, and never seems to be in the same conversation as anybody else. Everybody else looks down on him a little and feels a bit virtuous for not freezing him out, even the hostess, who regards him like the stray cats on her compost heap and always defends him when other people are laughing at him behind his back.

Tonight his dissonance is centered around the competition for Best Unholy Ritual. These things, he says, are not funny, they are dangerous. It's one thing to play Call of Cthulhu and make jokes about not using Hastur's name in conversation, and another to put together even mock rituals invoking the inimical powers of the universe. He messes with people's props, interrupts nonsense invocations, and generally pisses off everybody, till even the hostess has had enough and removes him from the proceedings to the kitchen, which is where they are when he is proved right and one of the play rituals does in fact open an interdimensional gate in the living room which threatens to bring through Something Nasty.

Fortunately kitchens are full of ritual objects and, being Fen, neither Hostess nor Loser waste any time not believing what's happening. Loser, who has been expecting this all along, is prepared, throws together what's needed, and closes the gate - but the only way to seal it is with a human life, which, as the only person who understands what's going on, he does, stepping into the portal himself and never coming out again.

Somebody, possibly a neighbor, has already called the police, and the hostess makes her statement as straightforwardly as possible, prefacing it with the statement that she doesn't know what happened, only what she saw, and she doesn't expect the police to accept that what seemed to her to be happening really was. No doubt he's somewhere, and possibly when he's found there'll be a mundane explanation for everything. It's not up to her to interpret what really happened, only to be honest about it. Meantime, she and her friends are in the uncomfortable position of having been saved by someone they don't respect or quite like, and who never quite seemed to like any of them, but sacrificed himself for them, anyway.

I never did write this. It's a little too patly a TZ sort of story, I think; and the skill with which the characters would have to be written, in order for them to be both recognizable types and characters, rather than the caricatures one sees so often in media, was intimidating. Also, I couldn't work out what kind of ritual I wanted.

Really the thing I liked best about the story was the hostess's menu, which I never got far with, though I knew it would include Fungi from Yuggoth (mushroom) Soup and Roast Dark Young of Shub-Nigguruth the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young (cabrito). If you spend all your time working on the menu that would inevitably be cut for length rather than the plot, you're not enough into the story to write it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Excuse me if I don't sound coherent today. I'm trying to articulate concepts about the functioning of backbrain processes, which are delegated to the backbrain for reasons.

One of the crucial false dichotomies writers deal with is that of plot vs. character. If an author's obvious strong suit is plot, her characters are likely to be called "cardboard." I'm looking at Agatha Christie here. If you assume that her characters are all puppets at the mercy of her plots, read Endless Night and Crooked House. Hell, read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and pay attention to exactly why it is fair and why so many people have insisted it's not. I dare you.

The flip side of this is the assumption that characterization interferes with plot. If the internal workings of the character are featured prominently, we hear complaints of dullness, or that nothing happens. Yeah, nothing whatever interesting happens in The Berlin Stories, does it? Just a series of character sketches. No plot in Little Women, or Jane Eyre, no action in Pride and Prejudice.

The character is an emergent quality of the plot, and vice versa. Some of us find one entry into the story easier than others, some stories require greater emphasis on one element or other, and even skillful authors create imperfect books, but there's no essential conflict here. How much more deeply could we know Poirot, and enjoy puzzling our wits with the ghastly evils he encounters? How much action could Lizzie Bennett endure and still remain the focus of our attention?

I always start with character. I have a knack for it. No, I have an uncontrollable compulsion for it. One of the reasons I love RPGs is that by the time I've arranged a few randomly generated numbers in the necessary order and chosen a role in the party, a brand new person has spontaneously generated in my head and needs exploring. Sophia the perfectionist patrician priestess, Bucky the ugly rogue with the chip on her shoulder, Erulisse the bard whose powerful charisma is based on the urge to make those around her feel good about themselves - don't worry, I'm not going to burden you with character stories, but the point is I didn't go through any conscious process of making them up, but they come to me full-blown while other people are still min-maxing* their stats. It takes me a little longer to project a persona into a computer-generated figure like the Sims2 characters I'm 'shippy for, because of the layers of graphics and computer code between me and them, but by the time I've played them a few times I "know" all sorts of things that aren't covered by the rules. The primary difference between a gaming character and a character in a book is that they develop past their concepts in response to the action of the game and the interactions of characters run by other people (or a machine) rather than in response to actions wholly within my own brain.

It beats me how the reading of August Santleben's memoirs and a wildly biased history on Reconstruction Texas generated a pragmatic cross-dresser with a deadpan sense of humor, but she's here, she's queer, I've got to do the best I can with her. I had to research a bunch of topics radiating out from Len before I could write this book. I can't describe how this works. I never wrote a bio of her, or listed what was in her pockets, or interviewed her. I could, but I never had to. She's not hiding from me. For someone who spends her life in such a drastic disguise, she's surprisingly transparent. The remaining characters, alas, are correspondingly opaque. It is on me as an author to know what they're doing, but Len only knows what they do and say around her, and though she's not stupid, on certain subjects she is ignorant.

And of course, this is all nonsense. If I succeed, Len may appear real to a reader, but she will never be real; not even, in one sense, as real as my RPG characters, who at least interact, through me, with other entities independent of both of us. And the character who seems real to a reader will not be identical to the character I'm dealing with now, but an amazing replica created in the context of another's brain. Her face will be different; her voice will not sound the same; she will even have subtle differences in her motivations based on the reader's experience of human beings.

But the possibility exists that she will continue to seem real to people decades, even (why not go whole hog, here?) centuries after I'm dead; when I am no more real than she is in the sense that I will have no physical substance, no brain to think with, no voice to speak. When I am at most a character in a biography, at once mysterious and familiar, as all people are to our fellow creatures. Who seems more real to you: Sherlock Holmes or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

I can't worry about that right now, as such character immortality is always an accident. Nor can I draw any conclusions.

This is just the kind of thing that's on my mind. In my mind. Whatever.

*Min-Maxing. The behavior of juggling choices during character creation in order to maximize effectiveness within the rules of the game while minimizing the negative consequences of those choices. Min-maxers have reputations as lousy role-players, and often are; but it's also the method some people have to use in order to find out who they're playing. There's no wrong way to do this, in games or writing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sputtering Right Along

One of the few advantages a soul-sucking day job has is that writing, slotted into coffee breaks and lunch hours, becomes the treat you lure yourself through the day with. One of the few disadvantages of control of your own time is that writing becomes work. It is sometimes necessary to play mental tricks on yourself in order to get yourself to do what you in your heart wants to do.

I feel as if I'm writing veeeerrrrryyyyy slooooowly, but I'm not making bad time considering what I'm doing right now. Yesterday was the Sunday on which Di declared her atheism. I was not at all sure why I felt she had to do this, beyond my knowing it was an important part of her character; but she's normally so careful about revealing her true self. And I was puzzled about how Len, the Lutheran, would react to it. In real life, I'm agnostic and most of the people I love best are one flavor of Christian or another, so I did have some basis in experience for writing the scene, but I had to figure out the why and how of the characters. For Hebe, too, because she's there; she's right in the middle of most of their scenes together and the relationship has to grow up around her, so to speak.

So I did a bunch of tell-not-show in the morning and did housework and computer games and magazine reading in the afternoon, and when I sat down this morning I had it all straight in my head, did the whole thing with four-part harmony and feeling, and then realized that I was at the crux point of the confrontation with the Caves, on the action of which many, many future logistical points will rest. I had thought I was going to get the two groups face-to-face and then stop, but when I tried to write it I could see how far away John Cave could be seen on Sheikh, and realized that Len couldn't be with Di and Hebe at the moment of confrontation, so I had to set that up and then I saw that the morning was almost gone and the next bit was going to be noodling in a notebook trying out various scenarios anyway. So it might easily take me till the end of the week to do this.

Which, as I said, feels slow. If I were still in the day job, I would have been able to write straight through the atheism conversation; but it would have taken me all week. My habit, at soul-sucking day jobs, was to write longhand during lunch hours and input text onto the computer at night; so I would be writing two or three paragraphs a day, at most, and doing first revisions in the evening. My backbrain would have all afternoon, evening, night, and morning to work on the next two or three paragraphs. The stopping and starting were built into the routine and felt like something imposed from the outside on a smoothly running operation that otherwise could have proceeded apace.

Now the stopping and starting is revealed as a part of the writing process, but it feels like my brain sputtering along at half-speed. Never mind that I write more wordage in a bad day than I used to get through in a week.

I may need to draw myself a little map of the confrontation site. I will certainly have to make lists of things that must happen and note their consequences later in the story. Everyone, from Len to Hebe's mule, must behave in accordance with the internal logic of their characters and situations, not for my convenience.

Fortunately, I can do a lot of this while sanitizing the kitchen.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Insomnia

Things get lodged in my head wrong sometimes. For instance, for a long time I could have sworn that Fitzgerald's statement "In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning" was "Insomnia is the state in which it is always three o'clock in the morning."

This illustrates why the teacher under whom you did your first research paper was such a stickler for footnotes even of common knowledge. Ideas, facts, and insights we get from exterior sources bounce around in our heads, making connections with our own experience, and transform into something that makes better sense in our contexts. My reformulation is a natural one, since the second version is an almost literal description of my experience of insomnia. The clock's ability to hang up indefinitely at or around three o'clock is a long-standing source of despair to someone like me. There's nothing random about three o'clock, either - it's the point of the sleep cycle at which most organisms hit a biological low, the real "witching hour" mediated by our material substance.

So one day I sat down to put the truth of insomnia into a short story. It was one of those moments that suggest possession as the source of creativity, when you sit down and the words pour out without forethought. My character is a middle-aged woman with two children, a husband, and a frustrating job who can't turn her brain off on an airless August night. She lies beside her husband, a champion sleeper, reviewing everything that's gone on; the computer her boss won't fix, the project she has to finish by noon anyway, the squabbles of her children, the broken air conditioner. She tries counting sheep, gets up to $103, recognizes the amount in the checkbook, worries about what to get her husband for his birthday, and realizes he's not breathing.

At this point, suddenly, I crashed. Because time has in fact stopped for her at three in the morning. She can't get past that point.

Which means she can't interact with anybody or anything. She can't prod her husband because movement is a function of time. She can't get up because how can she generate enough friction to lever herself off the sheets? I could not get past that hump, and therefore this story - which I would appear to be overqualified to write - stopped at page 2, without utilizing any of the brilliant vivid images I could see hovering past that point in the concept: the bat frozen in mid-air as it chased moths through the neighbor's security light, the long complaint of the air conditioner that produces more noise than air and now is stuck at a single unit of noise, the intense dark solitude of a sleeping house with one unsleeping person.

But no time = no movement, and no movement = no story. I can pose her question, but I can't solve her problem. Because I don't know how to solve it myself.

If you figure it out, let me know.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Sometimes Interruptions are Good

When I set goals, it's common for them to be disrupted by unexpected necessities. Normally I hate these. However, today I was interrupted by my husband telling me that the remaining balance on the porch work we did in 2008 (a two-week job that stretched to three months) was low enough to pay off. So off I trotted to the bank, wrote a check, and we now have a couple of weeks to enjoy owning our front porch before we take out the loan to fix the back, a much bigger job. Yay us.

And it didn't prevent my finishing revision of the last placeholder camel scene this morning or turning out and scrubbing the kitchen closet this afternoon, so even better. Currently the kitchen is strewn with stuff waiting for the interior to dry, because getting things clean always involves making a mess. There's a writing analogy in that somewhere.

There always is.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Goals for the Week

I always have goals at the beginning of the week. I don't always fulfill them, but they give me a direction to head, anyway.

This week:
1. Vote. Accomplished.
2. Replace existing "placeholder" camel scenes with proper camel scenes while I still have all that fresh in my mind. Well begun, despite a certain lack of focus. I think that's an inevitable result of the way I've had to write this book - running ahead, falling behind, so I'm planning camel scenes and they get interrupted by love scenes and action scenes. Some of which will also be camel scenes (well, the action ones; not that camels aren't lovable). The main thing is, I'm working on it.
3. Begin Kitchen Sanitation Month by deliming the pots, cleaning the stove top to bottom, and starting on the ruthless turning out of cupboards. Um, no progress yet. There's reasons for that, but aren't there always? Tomorrow, I swear...

Kitchen Sanitation Month is an annual event for me since 2007. At the time I quit the day job, I was exhausted and had never gotten caught up on the jobs that the ball got dropped on during the Year from Hell two years before. So when I got up Monday morning, October 12, 2007 and told myself I was going to do exactly what I wanted to do from moment to moment for the entire week, I immediately threw myself into organizing my study. That took the rest of the month, and then I started in on the second most important room in the house, the kitchen. We won't talk about the scary stuff I found there, but it took the entire month of November, and I resolved never to let it get so bad again. However, in those kinds of moods I am a tough act to follow and I knew that the best will in the world, once the surge of freedom energy gave out, I wouldn't be able to actually maintain the kitchen at a satisfactory level, so - Kitchen Sanitation Month. If I turn out all the cupboards and scrub down all the surfaces at least once a year, at least I will never again be confronted by anything lodged in the back of the pantry that expired five years before.

November is actually a good month for this, as it's always better to have the kitchen pristine in time for Thanksgiving, so as not to give anyone food poisoning.

I'll check in later and see how I did with these goals. For today, have fun exercising the flab off your democracy and set some goals for yourself while you're at it. Let me know how you do.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Craigslist Camel & Other Stories

I spent Friday and most of Saturday (curse you, middle-aged lack of stamina!) at the Camel Clinic, and returned with an embarrassment of riches. Not only are the character of Sheikh and his relationship to other characters coming together in my head, I've got a big bundle of ideas to take straight to the garage sale. It's like one of those boxes with "everything in this box $1" written on it in black Magic Marker.

First of all, the clinic was held at Lightning Ranch, operated by Bill Rivers, an animal trainer who regularly works in the entertainment industry. Due to a recent injury, Bill was not supposed to be participating fully this weekend, leaving most of the work for Doug Baum, who runs the Texas Camel Corps, and Jim Hale, of the American Camel Company, both of whom work with camels every day. Doug is what you might call a camel historian as well as a trainer and trail guide, and Jim also makes and designs equipment. Each of them not only has a fund of practical information, but can act as a deep well of stories. Any enterprising non-fiction writer (which alas I am not) would have come to this clinic prepared to set up interviews and left it equipped with material with which to pitch any number of articles to a wide variety of markets.

Camel trail rides, desert expeditions, tourist ranches that double as animal training facilities, and the animal handling layer of a movie set are also dandy settings for novels. Want a closed setting for a murder mystery? Take your cast on a wilderness trek, disable your characters' communication equipment with some weather, and let your murderer strike in the middle of a storm! Want a modern middle school character with a convincing set of survival skills? Raise her on a ranch like this. Want a glamorous opposites-attract romance premise? How about the ambitious actress and the cowboy who's supposed to train her to ride camels, horses, and water buffalo convincingly?

Second, each and every participant had an individual reason to be there and a situation that could be exploited in fiction. A pair of missionaries preparing to work in North Africa; an animal trainer who wanted giraffes but settled for camels; a local rancher and his granddaughter; a nine-year-old girl with a baby camel she wanted to train to carry her camping gear and pull a cart; a team of animal pros who wanted to do more with their Nativity Scene camel. (If you're on Facebook - I'm not - see if you can find the page for the adventures of Wilson the Water Buffalo.)

The most pitchready story, however, is that of Jerry and Cactus. Jerry had gotten interested in camels, handled other people's in various contexts, and when he was sure this was what he wanted to do, bought one on Craigslist.

Are you thinking "live-action Disney movie?" Of course you are. Only in the Disney movie, Jerry's story would be spliced with that of Olivia of the baby camel and maybe the grandfather/granddaughter team. And there'd be a villain somewhere, who probably wanted to put Cactus down or exploit him or something.

Cactus turned out to be a huge, vocal gelding whose previous owner warned that he kicked, and who could put in an impressive display of head-weaving and teeth baring when asked to do anything. Jerry, not certain how to proceed, had gone three weeks without working him or interacting except through a fence. (Also; really nasty cud breath. I don't think cud breath is nice at any time, but none of the other camels made me back up by breathing on me.)

As it developed, Cactus works fine once he gets it into his head that Jerry wants to work him, only he's a grumbler and feels like he has to whine and complain about everything. Based on his behavior, before the end of Friday I'd decided that he used to be a fairground camel, who gave camel rides and posed for pictures, probably working many years with an old man, now dead. This man's heirs (I make them out to be his brother's or sister's grandchildren, who barely knew him as the family maverick - see how easy it is to generate a family history out of a little camel body language?) didn't know what to do with him and weren't interested in finding out, so they let him eat his head off in a stall while they found a sucker, and took the first offer. They wouldn't have abused him, but they didn't love him or understand that he was bored and lonely rather than mean, and unless his original master died right in front of him he wouldn't have understood what happened to his old work partner; so of course they didn't get along.

Cactus was a character; but so was Zeke the baby, who had to put everything in his mouth. So was Butter the Nativity camel, who liked being the center of attention and would stretch herself out to act as a backrest. So was Mongo the Bactrian, who yelped like a chihuahua when taught to kneel (koosh). Butter and Zeke are both eminently suitable protagonists for picture books. Cactus is more complex and probably needs a whole novel to develop.

And that's even before you get to the people's stories!

I hope to have pictures later. One of these days I'll get a digital camera (but then the battery will always be run down).

Thursday, October 28, 2010


You only have to do a little research to realize that modern medical science does not understand and is not properly investigating insomnia. All the advice we are given is bad. It does not work. It is given to us by people who never have trouble sleeping unless there's a direct, specific cause, and think that means they know how to sleep and they can teach us those of us who are awake at one in the morning and two in the morning and three in the morning against our will when we are too freaking tired to accomplish anything, and can't catch up the sleep in the daytime, and know this could go on arbitrarily for days on end.

This is like people who can see the normal visible spectrum assuming they can teach someone who's red and green colorblind to tell the difference between sage and rose.

No crisis yet, but the only thing that ever works for me is, I must work harder. I must write and I must do housework and I must assemble everything I need for the camel workshop, even though I'm dizzy and I know I'll have to caffeinate just to do the camel workshop at all, which means I can't expect to sleep this weekend.

(And anybody who wants to tell me that's a self-fulfilling prophecy can go boil his head. I bet you think people decide to be poor and dyslexia is just laziness, too.)

Fortunately, since I've been doing this my whole life, the same experience that leads me to know what to expect leads me to be pretty sure that I can alleviate the problem somewhat with work and that I have the necessary personal resources to do so if I don't rush myself.

Getting older has its advantages.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Progress, and the Lack Thereof

Yesterday, I wrote a necessary conversation justifying an action, a dangerous and indeed foolhardy action, that Di is determined to make and which renders the rest of the plot probable.

I also tried to fix the neck band on a blouse. This operation, tricky in and of itself, has been twice interrupted by machine malfunctions, and when I finally thought I had it, I discovered unacceptably big sewn-in wrinkles. So I took out the bad part and tried to fix it, several times. I got bored of ripping out stitches so I put in my Sims 2 disk and played while ripping; then I'd go back and sew some more and realize that nope, still didn't work. So I was ripping more than I was sewing, and soon I was fed up and playing more than I was ripping, and then a friend came over. So I ripped the whole thing apart and ironed it all flat and made an appointment with myself to take it from the top at one o'clock today.

This morning I wrote a few paragraphs beyond that necessary conversation, paced, stared off the balcony, went downstairs for water, let the cat out, thought perhaps Len should have bought a gun for Hebe and Di which she'd then have to teach them to use, decided to go back and put that in its proper place, had second thoughts, left the laptop so long it went into sleep mode; and finally came in here and started doing internet stuff. I know what needs to happen, I just don't have it all lined up in my head. And I keep distracting myself with less important, easier stuff.

Just like I know how that neck band is supposed to work, but can't make it lie straight. Yet.

It would be easy to think of yesterday afternoon's and this morning's work periods as wasted time, but it isn't true. Sometimes you have to rip out more than you sew and sometimes you have to unwrite as much as you write. Your intention is being channeled through your conscious mind and your hands, but their ability to fulfill your intention is imperfect. So of course you have to do, and do over, and make false starts, and stare off the edge of the balcony and realize you're thinking about your game instead of your story, and wonder if there's a connection or you're being lazy, and get a drink and start over.

As ye sew, so shall ye rip.

(But sometimes, you should give your husband the game disks and tell him to hide them for a week. Writing was easier when all the distractions aren't right there in the tool you're using.)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: So You Think You Can LARP

A couple of opportunities to pass on. Next Friday and Saturday, I will be in Pipe Creek learning more about camels, and you could be, too. Although the website says "preregister," there's no form to fill out and Doug Baum says it's okay to just show up, though it's not a bad idea to call ahead so they have an idea who's coming. (I still need to do that.) Also, call with questions. Bill Rivers, the person running it, is traveling and doesn't keep up with his e-mail too well.

On Saturday, November 6, a local LARP group will be hosting a Zombie game, for which my friend Wendy will be doing the makeup. This will be a one-off game and I will not be attending because dashing through the woods shooting Nerf guns isn't my favorite kind of role-play, but as an introduction to the concepts and a way to work off your kid's energy and desire to fire Nerf guns it should do well.

Let's say you go to the Zombie LARP, and you have a great time. You're likely to come away feeling pumped, reviewing the dramatic moments and the unexpected developments that occurred as a result of someone pulling off (or not!) a difficult maneuver, or realizing that a certain rule could be exploited in a way the organizers hadn't planned. Maybe you had the pleasure of dragging somebody with you who didn't really want to do it, but then got into it and became a star player, or discovers a hidden talent, demonstrating an arc of character development before your eyes. Maybe you were thrown into play with a group of total strangers, some of whom dressed or looked or sounded like people you would normally avoid, but under the stress of hunting zombies together you left all that behind and formed mutual bonds that change the way you look at folks who dress/look/sound like that in the future. Or maybe star player among the zombies, who performs so well you walk up to him afterward to congratulate him for his acting skill, will turn out to be a troubled or handicapped kid, who has found in the LARP a group of people who don't define him by his problems.

And, being a writer, you think: "This is what I want to write about! There's a story in this day!" But then you sit down to write fiction based on it, and it just doesn't work.

That's because you're writing from life, and life has no plot and no protagonist. Even though the game itself had a plot, more or less, it did not unfold as planned. You wouldn't have come away so pumped if it had. An RPG and a story are both fictions, but their chief pleasures do not derive from the same source. A story imposes order on the chaos of life; satisfaction lies in the experience of structure and meaning unattainable in the real world. An RPG imposes the rich human chaos of choice and chance onto the mechanics of the game; satisfaction lies in the interplay between physical reality (whether the fall of the dice or the player's capacity to outrun or outshoot an antagonist) and abstract, comprehensible rules.

It follows that, if you want to turn your LARP experience into a story, you need to isolate the meaning you found in that experience, and create the fictional structure that will highlight it. If you liked the thrill of hunting zombies, you should probably go with a straight action story, creating a protagonist out of bits and pieces of the real players and tweaking the real events to fit the story as it develops. If bonding with the other players was the highlight for you, that's the place to start; but you don't want to model the characters too closely on the people who were there, because thinking about them reading their own portraits will inhibit you. Bear in mind that you bonded with those people at two levels: you were all yourselves, but you all also had roles in the game. The guy whose character ruthlessly cut your character's throat when you were infected in-game may be unable to kill a bug in real life. In order to write a good story about a team bonding under pressure, you'll need to understand each member of the team better than you will ever know any real person, much less anybody you've only met when you were both playing somebody else!

So to that extent making a story out of a game is no different from making a story out of any experience. If the story you wind up with remains structured around the gaming experience once you've worked out all that, another question arises: Who is the audience? How much do they need to know about gaming in general, and the game system being used in particular, in order to enjoy the story?

If real game mechanics and rules are important to the development of the plot, how does that affect its publishing potential? It is possible that, if you use a real, copyrighted system in structuring your story, the holder of the copyright will have a viable economic interest in your work. Game companies are publishing companies, and some of them publish fiction, but they don't function like publishers: they function like toy manufacturers. You don't want to go to all the work of making a story, and then find that, though the story itself is yours, only one company is legally capable of publishing it! If you want to write for gaming companies, you'll be dealing with work for hire contracts; and if you go work-for-hire, you want your contract negotiated and all your parameters in hand before you commit a word to paper. Anything else is bad business.

Fortunately, once you've started playing with plots and characters, playing with underlying mechanics and tweaking settings so that they're not restricted by trademark will probably be simple enough. If the story winds up being about characters playing in a LARP, all you have to do is give their system a fictional name and change some details. Readers will not care to be overloaded with nitpicky detail about rules that aren't essential to the plot. The only difficulty I can see is if your cast includes a Rules Lawyer, someone who understands and manipulates the specific rules of specific games to his advantage; in which case, you should get a real Rules Lawyer to help work out some new rules.

But the result will be a specific kind of story that appeals to a specific audience, one that is less outcast than it used to be, but still struggles with its status outside the mainstream of society. How well do you know that audience? Will you be able to reach a sufficient number of them to repay the effort you put into that story? To what degree can you expect to appeal to non-LARPers without alienating this core audience?

Art for art's sake is all very well, but you'll never fulfill your own potential if you don't engage with exterior questions like these as part of the process.

In the meantime - game on!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Painting Windowsills

Our house is old. A hundred years old last April. Fortunately it has good bones and has stood up under years of neglect and remuddling - including ours. There isn't a windowsill in the house that hasn't needed touching up for the last ten years.

When I first quit the soul-sucking day job, the plan was that I would start with cleaning and organizing and work my way up to doing the kinds of odd jobs that are simple enough even I am up for them. This was interrupted by Health Crap, for quite awhile, and now that I'm feeling better most of the time, I'm finding it hard to get my head back into the game. I can get myself to clean, and sew, and run errands in the afternoon; but the big jobs around the house remain untackled. I felt as if sickness had turned me lazy. This is not part of my self image.

So yesterday I decided that I would paint some windowsills. Nothing ambitious. Just the two in the kitchen. We had sandpaper, white paint left over from the porch, brushes, paint thinner, old sheets to put down, masking tape, face masks; and if I were fussy, I wouldn't have put up with big bare patches on my windowsills for ten years, would I?

But it soon became evident that my head wasn't in it; that I simply wasn't prepared to take a long Len-like look at every problem that arose and figure out how to solve it, however long that took, whatever I had to do about it. Yesterday I sanded but didn't prime the window on the stairs that's so handy for the cats (they don't have to jump - just walk from stair to window to countertop to sink and demand their runny water) and the result is barely noticeable. So today I sanded, and primed, and stirred the paint better when I did the window over the sink.

But I didn't do what was necessary to deal with the big peeling parts at the top of the window that I'd need to stand on the twelve-foot ladder and lean over the sink to work on. I never figured out a way around my inability to open this window because I can't get leverage on it the width of the sink away. And I couldn't find the scraper, wasn't prepared to do a really thorough sanding without a power sander, and realized I'm really lousy at cleaning brushes. So really all you can say about the result is that the wood is less badly protected than it was before. It doesn't actually look that much better.

So I did a half-assed job. It's not precisely true that I didn't care; but I didn't care enough about the result to go all out for it, and I got the result I earned. As I feel better and better, I'll get my head in the place where I can do this stuff right, or - I won't, and we'll have to spend money. After we pay off the work on the back porch which presently looms. If my husband, the only other person with a real right to care, doesn't find this state of affairs acceptable, he's as capable of getting his head into that space as I am, and more capable of doing the work (hey, he can at least open that window).

I'm certainly not going to gripe to people who have their heads in that space and are handy around the house about how hard painting windows is, or how they should give me a break, or ask them to admire half-assed work.

A lot of people approach writing like I approach windowsills, and that's cool. As long as they know they're doing it, and accept it about themselves, and don't clutter up the slushpile with it giving the rest of us unagented authors a bad name.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Over the Hump

I spent a lot of time staring at the computer yesterday morning. Most of last week, actually.

See, I'm at the turn of the book. For various reasons, the action has to stop for most of a month while everybody gets into mental and physical position for the endgame. So I have this long flabby Überchapter crammed full of conversations and geographical and chronological markers, descriptions that are mostly there to keep me oriented, and details that need to be covered, most of which will be cut and most of the rest of which will be relocated during the first revision, or the second at latest. All my books seem to have a point at which this happens, and it's not the most efficient part of my process but it's there, I can live with it.

All that got cleared up Friday, and over the weekend I was supposed to have my backbrain working on a real chapter to write on Monday, in which Len runs into the person with the information that allows her to realize that she doesn't, in fact, have any idea what's going on. But this weekend we had a game, for which I had to level two characters (twice!); and we were supposed to go to a Frightful Food Feast, so I had to make a Quiche from Yuggoth; but it was canceled due to health crap while I was making the pie shell, so I had to worry about a friend; plus (this is embarrassing) my backbrain was getting all 'shippy* about a couple of my Sims2 characters instead of doing its job. So I sat down Monday morning and realized I didn't have any clear idea of how and why Len even met Luke Parry, much less became convinced that he wasn't the villain of the piece.

I did, however, thanks to the timeline and that sprawling Überchapter, know when and where, so I started with that and kept putting down whatever crud I could think of, and backing up over it, and going forward again, until finally one of Parry's many creditors came weaving drunkenly down the street and tried to beat a non-existent twenty dollars out of him and solved my problem. I wrapped up for the day knowing what the next sentence would be, and today I went back over the mess from yesterday tidying up after myself, and wrote the next chapter properly, the way chapters should be written.

It's not exactly all downhill from here, even in the drafting phase; but I am over the hump now. The story is more than half drafted, the plot and characters are in their proper places, and I have a sense of a meaningful milestone being past. This is a good feeling; one I couldn't have if I'd insisted on either the Überchapter or Monday's work being fit to be seen. After all, I control who sees my story when. Nobody has to be offended by the sight of it half-shaved, covered in cold cream, and in curlers except me. Perfectionists don't finish things.

*The term 'shippy is short for relationshippy, a fandom term for the state of being invested in the imaginary romance of imaginary people; usually applied to series television in which the imaginary romance is either unrealized or counterindicated. So whereas many people, during the TV run of The X-Files, were, for reasonable cause,'shippy for Mulder and Scully, they coexisted with 'shippers who preferred to project their romantic fantasies onto Scully and Skinner, Mulder and Skinner, or even Mulder and Krycek, despite the difficulty of squaring these pairings with the existing text. One does not write slash where one is not 'shippy.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Those First 50 pages

When people ask me how long I've been writing, my standard answer is: "When I was six. I tried before then, but nobody else could read it."

By the time I was in junior high (that's middle school for those who organize their schools differently), I had stacks of notebook paper all over my room with the beginnings of stories. Horse stories. Adventure stories. Mysteries. Historicals. High fantasy. I filled notebooks with isolated scenes from the middles of stories I didn't know the rest of. I filled folders full of notes, poetry, and maps of world-building. Every time I read a book that made an impression on me (which was maybe two or three times a week, more in summer) I wanted to write a book in response to it. Sometimes I wanted to riff off a movie or TV show, though I'd never heard of fanfic and almost never used the original characters. I was twelve when I started my Tolkien rip-off, fourteen when I finished it; and during the course of those two years I probably started two dozen other books. One writing book I read during this time claimed that all writers have the first 50 pages of at least one novel in a desk drawer. I believed it. Some of mine went more than 50 pages, but many never got past the first chapter, page, or even paragraph.

The paper stacks in my adult study are of a different type nowadays, and I've gotten good at not starting anything that isn't "ripe." But my WordPerfect (Word sucks. I won't use it.) file trees include "dormant" folders where I stick books, short stories, and whatever that were started and not finished. A lot of them date from the soul-sucking day job, when I would have to look busy, had done all the work, and had a reason not to work on my current project; either I was focused on revision, or needed access to something not available, or was between projects and keeping the wheels spinning while I figured out what to work on next.

The process of beginning an abortive book is simple: You sit down with an idea you don't know much about, or a blank mind, and you start writing. Often I'm starting with a character and a situation. An 11-year-old girl dresses for her first day at a new school and puts on a white t-shirt with a red-and-blue logo: "Stacy Stillman, Future President." A teen-ager, with the back of her neck coated in sticky black drawing salve to get a head on a boil - dubbed "the zit that wouldn't die" - so it can be lanced, gets on a city bus instead of the school bus, because the world would end if Certain People saw her that way. A nine-year-old reads to her little sister from her first novel while waiting for the bus. A fifth-grader comes home to a locked door. I have no idea who these people are, or what's going to happen to them, so I type to find out.

Obviously, some of these become garage sale ideas; but some of them sit around in a file folder or a hard drive for awhile, and become stories. The lesbian western was one chapter in Len's voice for years. I didn't have time to do the research to find out what happened to her once she dressed in her brother's clothes and left home even though Maudie Perkins wouldn't go with her, until recently. Last year I finished a book that I started in 1996; it was too short for a novel and too long for a short story, and I finally realized that what I had been treating as a finished story was really only setting up the real problem, completed it, and now The Astral Palace is out there trolling for agents. I'm not ready to put The Autobiographical First Novel of Annie Smoot into the garage sale, because even though I have no idea how to articulate, much less solve, Annie's core problem, I love the way she interacts with her little sister and find her Mary Sue story funny. I might even find out what's going on with Stacy Stillman and the Loner's Club one day.

It's easy to see a 50-page drawer manuscript as a waste of time, but you really should read through them every once in awhile. We get so tied up in writing and submitting and revising and researching and producing and critiquing that we get exhausted by our own processes. Sometimes you need a quiet mental cul-de-sac in which to hear your own voice. Yeah, a lot of them will seem silly, or pointless, or self-indulgent, but listen. Isn't that your key strength appearing in them over and over? You knack with dialog, your ability to delineate an entire complex character in a single phrase, your subtle humor? Maybe you don't have drawer manuscripts per se; maybe you have dozens of outlines of plots that, though they fit together like puzzle pieces, exceeded your capacity to flesh out economically. Still, isn't the plot itself a thing of beauty?

How did you ever lose faith in yourself, when even your cast-offs contain bright gleaming gems like that?

What's in your dormant file?