Thursday, September 30, 2010

It Came in the Mail

Today has had a number of unsatisfactory elements, but mail was not among them. My husband got an Amazon package (I'd rather he ordered through the local indy, but our local indy doesn't specialize in things like The Chronology of Bronze so I don't fight him about it). I got a royalty statement, with the welcome enclosure of a check, from Abrams. And it appears to be Landfill Week at a certain magazine.

I have a friend who works as a copyeditor for one of the major review sources. They are flooded with review copies and ARCs on a daily basis. Only a few generate actual reviews; and even those that do aren't necessarily going to inspire any need to reread in the reviewer. So what do they do with the extras?

They have a Book Bench. I think it's more like a Book Cubicle these days, but my friend still calls it the Bench. Unwanted books are left on the Bench. Anybody in the office who feels like it can pick through them and take what they want. When a certain critical mass is reached, they are all carted off to a landfill. Not even recycling. Landfill!

So when my friend sees that the critical mass is approaching, she starts going through them systematically and making piles for everybody she knows, and her circle of friends starts receiving thick padded envelopes full of books. This month's take includes two bird books; three if you count the account of the relationship between ostrich plumes, Jews, and the creation of the modern global economy. History of the concepts and the realities of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Germany. Biographies of Ada Blackjack, Bronson and Louisa May Alcott, and the song "Lili Marlene." A vampire novel about Jane Austen. Several books I'm classifying as "Civil War" books, though none of them is about the war per se, one is better described as concerning the Mexican rather than its contemporary the American Civil War, and another is arguably more about women's role in Victorian society. A book about Mr. Harvey, his restaurants, and the taming of the American West. A reprint of Four Years in Europe with Buffalo Bill.

Oh, and the complete first seasons of MonsterQuest and The Magnificent Seven, plus a documentary on the relationship between author Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy. I guess the 'zine must have started reviewing DVDs, too.

Some of these books I've already read, but others would never have crossed my eyeballs. And - my goodness - if you know a history of the Little Red Schoolhouse exists, don't you have to own it? Where else could you possibly look up the kind of information it must contain? You never know when you might need to know about Jews and ostriches! Most of our non-fiction is acquired on this principle.

The problem, of course, is that big as our house is - and it is pretty big - it still contains a finite amount of space. Damon and I keep buying new books, but soon we will be unable to buy new bookcases; unless we decide to turn the gaming/sewing room or the room with the futon and the second TV into dedicated libraries, with stacks in the middle as well as around the edges.

But every reader has this problem, and my shipments of ARCs snatched from the landfill don't really make it any bigger. Very little Forteana makes it to the Bench, judging from the amount passed on to me; yet that section has had books stuck in sideways on top since late last year, and until we can afford to redo the study and build bookcases to the ceiling, I haven't any place else to put them without redoing my system (again).

So, let 'em come. Better me than the landfill.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another Research Trip: Hill Country State Natural Area

Saturday Damon and I went in search of cliffs. Our most relevant venue was Hill Country State Natural Area, where I have camped once and he has not. For a variety of reasons, we were not camping this weekend; but I needed to re-experience the terrain, and he didn't want me out in it by myself. This meant driving out in the morning, which meant no real shot at the good birds and hiking in the hot part of the day, but our choices were limited and I need a cliff.

So we parked in the second equestrian camping area, planned a route that would give me the right kind of terrain but wouldn't demand too much of us, and headed out with our backpacks full of food and water bottles that had been left in the freezer overnight. (These are essential travel accessories in Texas in the summer, which lasts till October. Don't leave home without them.) Plus, binoculars and the Peterson Guide because you never know.

We monitored each other. We stopped as often as either of us needed to. We drank frequently. We checked the map every time we came to a cross trail. I talked about the scenes that need to happen and the problems involved in making them integral, logical parts of the story. Damon talked around the problems he's having with the next phase of the Pathfinder campaign. He couldn't talk about the problems directly because I'm playing under him, but he used to work high-security systems in the Service and we have a lot of practice in the sorts of conversations that help him find his solution without giving me sensitive data.

We found more than one cliff and one thing I realized is, that it doesn't have to be a major movie cliff where you look down and see the backs of eagles to be a major life-or-death choice to jump one. Even if you strip out most of the brush and trees, which are a relatively modern development in the area, these five- and six-foot drops could be neck-breakers. On one, the top of the cliff was dirt held in place by vegetation over a layer of ankle-turning rocks and a sheer drop down to a slope. Another was not so much a cliff as a rockshelter on the edge of what would have been, in 1865 before we started draining our aquifers, a live creek. In order to descend safely, your horse would either have to make a precision jump to a boulder in the middle of the water and then a hop to the other side of the creek, or take off with enough momentum to carry him what looked, from the bottom, like a ridiculous distance to secure ground. The creek beds here are for the most part deep V-shapes with broad tops, and of course all the brush and trees would be concentrated there in the sea-of-grass days.

Anyway, I kept trying out scenarios and sequences and combinations of circumstance, playing with the variables of the plot. And at some point - not because we weren't paying attention! - we realized that every time we looked at a map we realized that the previous time we'd looked at a map we hadn't identified our location correctly. We went on far more difficult trails than our plan had called for. One of them may even have been a game trail rather than the marked path we thought it was.

We weren't lost, not in the sense of being in danger of needing search parties to track us by the circling vultures. From lunchtime on, we always knew where we were in relation to the access road, and we followed, sort of, the general area of our original route. By the second time we crossed the road, we were drinking our water faster than it was melting and Damon was crashing. So I volunteered to go ahead and bring the car back to pick him up. Sensibly, he agreed. He got over all that macho no-I'm-fine stuff shortly after the Year from Hell.

But by the time I reached the first equestrian camp I was crashing kind of hard myself. Hard enough to ask for help. All I intended to ask for was a lift to the second camp; but what I got was a family doctor who carried me straight back to get him and gave him Gatorade and tangerines. He had to lie down for a little while, and then I drove us back to Bandera for more water and Gatorade, and back toward home as far as Helotes, where I crashed during the stop at Stellar Books. By that time he felt much better and was able to drive us home. We spent all of Sunday recovering - I had in fact saved Mockingjay for just such an occasion, as I knew I wouldn't be doing anything useful between its first and last pages anyway. I'm not quite over it yet.

On Sunday morning I got up and read on my writing listserve that the husband of one our members, who are all my friends even though I've never seen most of them in the flesh, had died while climbing in the Rocky Mountains, at about the same time that my husband was not dying or even being seriously ill, just massively uncomfortable.

Yeah, I don't know how to react either. Nobody ever does.

It might have been different, for either of us. But it wasn't. Nobody outlined this. Nobody decided that this husband was still necessary to the plot or that the other husband's most dramatic impact could be achieved by dying. No one put a doctor in my campground instead of close enough to the accident site to save my friend's husband's life. It was all contingency, chance, individual and collective choices, physics, biology.

We like stories partly because nothing in them is arbitrary. Narrative imposes order onto the chaos of real life. Narrative creates meaning. But if real life were like that, we'd want to lynch the author.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Peopling of Australia

So if you read last week's Idea Garage Sale you already know why I can't write about the first people in Australia; but oddly enough I have a much clearer idea of the plot for this one.

Probably this is because I am less intimate with it. Since I have a much vaguer idea of the current state of evidence concerning early human populations in Australia than of the Americas, my mind feels less constraint in spinning wild fantasies. And this one's going to look pretty wild.

The way I understand it, the two big problems in understanding how Australia was populated are that secure dating of the scant evidence uncovered so far is even rarer than in the Americas and that, although seafaring technology would seem to be essential to the process, surviving culture - oral and physical - gives no evidence of any such thing existing. If I understand correctly, the native people of Australia in historic times didn't even exploit any coastal resources and there's no sign that they ever did - none of the huge shell middens that are a staple of archeology every where else. It that's true, it's peculiar to a degree I find hard to contemplate.

Now, the thing to remember about ancient people is, that they were us. They were just as smart, they just had few giant shoulders to stand on. Give them a problem, and they had the same mental, emotional, and physical means to solve it, and fewer distractions. They also had concerns beyond bare existence.

Archeologists are practical people and don't like to extrapolate on that second point. They prefer to focus on stuff that left tangible traces, which leads them to focus on survival strategies. But who do you know who is focused solely on survival strategies? Who in history ever did? Politics, the struggle for status, the distraction of sports and games, invention for the fun of it, gossip, mooning after love, depression, exaltation, personal rivalry, egocentric interpretation of the world, fanaticism, pointless arguments, geniuses, fools, leaders, followers, dreams, visions - these we have always had with us.

So here's my vision: We have a coastal population in southeast Asia exploiting marine resources in the usual way. They have a maritime technology that includes small boats suitable for short trips or for long coasting voyages, which allows them to exploit the resources of islands beyond the Wallace Line. They also have two people in their population who will change the world for them forever - a technological genius, and a visionary.

The technological genius invents a boat that can go farther and haul more than anyone thought possible. Geniuses do this - check out the history of invention. I don't know enough about boats to go into detail about the nature of his/her invention, but if I were going to write this story I'd be able to find out. Let's say the invention is the outrigger canoe. Everybody's pleased and excited. An outrigger building craze arises. People compete to build better, bigger outriggers, to go further in them; they have races; they challenge each other to bring back more or bigger or better or stranger fish. Certain segments of the population don't participate. It all seems risky to them. They'd rather stick to what they know.

Then the visionary has a dream in which he sees a paradise on earth, lying beyond the farthest islands, teeming with every good thing and hitherto beyond the reach of mankind. Maybe their religion already posits such a place as their heaven, the place their loved ones go when they die, and the visionary's dream convinces him that he has been called to take the Chosen People there while living.

Human history is peppered with such visionaries. Most modern religions are based on them. It's hard to tell, from outside, which are self-serving frauds, which are delusional, which are benign, whether anybody ever really got in touch with a Divine Being. This book would have to explore such questions; but for this precis I don't have to. I'd have plenty of historical models for my Pleistocene Exodus, however I chose to play out the plot in detail.

The upshot would be an armada of outriggers heading out into the unknown, led by a Charismatic Leader who might be the visionary, or might be someone influenced by him. This Charismatic Leader would have all the strengths and weaknesses of modern Charismatic Leaders; and like them, he would claim to control destiny, and discover that vast exterior forces have more to do with his success or failure than anything else. He persuades entire family groups to sail, or paddle, or whatever, for paradise; and entire family groups are wiped out when the weather hits.

I could take my pick of weather conditions. People grown arrogant with confidence in their own technology or their standing with the divine are easy to kill because they don't pay close attention. Tsunami or storm, the paradise-seeking armada is devastated, most of them drowned, survivors and the remains of their broken boats strewn along the shore of Australia.

Australia would look different in the Pleistocene, but it would still not be the Paradise they were seeking. Where are their dead loved ones? Especially the ones that wouldn't have died if they hadn't come on this cockamamie expedition. If the Charismatic Leader survived, he would experience a vicious backlash - not only against him, but against everything associated with him. Although many of the shipwrecked would set to work trying to build new canoes so they can travel home and report, a strong core would not only kill Charismatic Leader, but would destroy boats as fast as they were built. Man is not meant, declares the leader of the new faction, to meddle with the sea at all. We have offended the powers that be and must ditch all that. The ocean is too powerful. Leave it alone.

Perhaps some collective shame sets in for things done under the aegis of the leader. Perhaps there is a period of chaos during which everyone does things they would rather forget. When a new generation is born, no one speaks about the past. Different skill sets are passed on. New visionaries arise, with new visions. The past is erased.

If I were Australian and could write this, no doubt it would be modified considerably by research. Although, in light of what I know about humans and history, every stage of it is possible, collectively it's, by archeological standards, a pie-in-the-sky, sensationalistic story. And knowing more about Australian myth and archeology would no doubt modify it a lot.

But I have't looked into it, because Australia is way too far out of my comfort zone for me to ever write this.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Nothing More than Feelings

So you go to a conference, you get good feedback, you meet other writers, you meet editors, agents, whatever, you're among Your People and everybody Gets It and you're all hopped up to write, and then you get home.

And the letdown starts. You talked too much, or too little, or to the wrong people, or at the wrong time. You pushed yourself into that group, you talked too much in that panel, or you missed your chance to ask an important question in that one, the questions raised in your critique suddenly seem impossible to answer, or like they shouldn't need answering unless the audience is stupid or you were.

The first condition is caused by the rush of adrenaline and other invigorating chemicals in your brain caused by the conference experience. The second is what happens when you come down off the high. Maybe you've depleted those chemicals, or maybe you got so high that your normal level feels low. The point is, your feelings have physical causes. Your interpretations of those feelings are not necessarily valid.

Sometimes you feel bad because you messed up. Sometimes you think you messed up because you feel bad. Sometimes you even think that someone was mean to you because you feel bad and you can't find a point at which you messed up. Sometimes you start probing for the cause of a bad feeling, and make yourself worse as you make up explanations which you decide are true. So-and-so hates me. I did something wrong.

My life got much, much simpler when I learned to distinguish between feelings that were legitimate responses to exterior stimuli, and feelings that reflected only my interior physical state. That's why I'm such a drag at meal times even though I enjoy eating more than any two other people I know. If I don't eat properly, my sugar does bizarre things and I become crabby, or depressed, or manic. Ditto if I get tired, or overstimulated. When exterior stimuli come along in that state, all my instinctive reactions are skewed and inappropriate. So I don't take them seriously. I ride them out and distract myself with productive activities till I get some seratonin going. I feed them chocolate and potatoes, the perfect foods.

My friends get it. My not-friends run away as fast as they can the first time I start crying uncontrollably while talking calmly, or yell at them over nothing and then, still yelling, explain that I'm having a sugar fit and am going to go eat something to fix it, nothing to worry about, carry on.

I think it's particularly important for people dealing with teen-agers, whether directly or through a medium, to recognize this; because all that teen angst you went through? Mostly down to bodies changing multiplied by the stressors of modern teen life, from sleep deprivation to fast food to social pressure. All the drama queen antics of high school, all the pep rallies and sad poetry and spectacular romances, have their sources in chemical reactions in the brain, which the owner of the brain interprets as best she can.

One of the things books and media do is give people models by which to interpret their chemical reactions, so it behooves those of us who create books and media to bear it in mind.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Message on a Styrofoam Cup

Our local chapter of SCBWI held an editor's day on Saturday, which you can read about on Lupe's blog and also on Bish's. (Check out how great Carmen Tafolla looked, by the way - that deep red dress and the turquoise rebozo and the chili pepper necklace really work for her. I hate going to events and seeing everybody all in black. But anyway.)

I don't go to a lot of meetings because if you're talking about writing you're not writing and there's that whole time/energy/money budget to deal with. But I try to go to editor and agent events in central Texas, not because I can schmooze the editors - I seldom even try - but because conference attendance provides a leap-to-the-top-of-the-slushpile card, and even a pierce-the-agents-only-veil card, for that specific editor, and listening to an editor or an agent provides valuable information. Is your work compatible with this person? Could you work with her? And so on. I don't go in for critiques because those I'm well past the point of being desperate for feedback and I don't want to take a slot somebody else needs more, but all attendees were asked to submit a "first page" (actually a synopsis for us novelists), and mine was one that was chosen to be read aloud and evaluated. My query for The Astral Palace actually sounds pretty good, read aloud, but the comments gave me a crucial piece of information.

After that, I could have left if I'd felt crappy; but it's fun to hang out with other authors and I didn't feel as crappy as all that. I wasn't expecting much from Carmen Tafolla's workshop, not because Carmen isn't brilliant but because conference workshops have an upper limit to how useful they can be. I've done them myself, and when you're faced with an hour of time, a large audience whose level of experience ranges from maybe-I-could-do-this to I-don't-need-a-day-job-and-not-'cause-my-husband-works, most of us go with exercises geared toward making a single point. Which is what she did, and I didn't do all that well at them for various reasons that don't matter, but my response to the last exercise is worth mentioning.

Tafolla told us that prisoners in Gitmo, denied access to writing implements of any kind, resorted to writing on Styrofoam cups with pebbles. She also told us that most writers have one important thing they want to say, and their body of work boils down to successive attempts to say it. This may or may not be true, though there's certainly such a thing as recurrent themes. So she asked us to write our story so it would fit on a Styrofoam cup. And for what it's worth this is what I wrote:

I can't do the styrofoam cup exercise because my stories are not messages & messages are not stories. We make our own meaning, each of us. I tell a story and I let go of it. I tell the truth & somebody else - each one else - reads it. No one else controls the meaning your reading of life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Peopling the Americas

As anybody who got here from my Pleistocene Expansion page knows, I have an attachment to the theory that the Americas were first populated by Asian boat people more than 13,000 years ago. Maybe a few thousand years more.

The way I figure it, they may or may not have descendants living today, but they did not look particularly like modern American Indians, being only a few generations removed from a population split that happened in southeast Asia in which some people went south toward Indonesia and Australia and some went north toward, ultimately, Beringia and the Western Hemisphere. They developed a maritime culture in Beringia, to exploit the teeming resources of the Arctic waters, and ranged far and wide, with Japan at the far end of their cultural area on the west and Canada at the far end in the east. They did not cross on purpose in one big trek, but at some point toward the end of the Ice Age, as Beringia shrank into the system of islands and peninsulas we know today, the western and eastern population extremes began exploiting Japan and Canada more and more. The western people became what we today call the Jomona culture and the eastern people explored the coasts of the Americas all the way around before expanding into the interior, where someone invented the Clovis point - possibly influenced, or after mixing populations with, a much smaller maritime people whose ancestors exploited the ice sheet from southwestern Europe to New England in the same way the Asian Boat People exploited Beringia.

You see my problem here. This story isn't a novel; it's a sprawling epic history whose documents, if they survive at all, lie under the Bering Strait and North Pacific Ocean, on the Continental Shelves and crumbling coasts of western America. Little of the archeology of this saga will be done in my lifetime. In order to make a saleable book, I'd have to invent and extrapolate even more wildly than I did in 11,000 Years Lost, and either telescope events or make a lifelong commitment to a family saga.

Given how obsessive I am about settings, in order to be satisfied with my own work, I'd also have to live in Alaska and travel to Siberia (which has been a byword of inaccessibility for most of my life) and along the coast of Canada and the lower 48 regularly, including extended camping/kayak trips. Because of the way I work, I wouldn't have any idea who the characters were or what the plot was until I'd done at least one such research trip, talked to four or five archeologists, and probably participated in at least one dig. Digs in this part of the world make Gault's floodplain and cyclonic weather look paradisial, and in the timeline where I live, I can barely make it to Gault three times a year due to other commitments and the perennial Health Crap. I would kind of like to be the kind of person who went on Arctic digs and kayaked around Canada; but I'm not, and if I ever even had a shot at being that person, I missed it.

Maybe this is what I would have written instead of 11,000 Years Lost if Dad had evaded his tour in 'Nam by not re-enlisting and we'd stayed in Alaska; but if he hadn't re-upped we wouldn't have stayed in Alaska. I'd be an Iowan today and proud of it. 11,000 Years Lost would be set in the Mississippi Valley and Esther (who wouldn't have been Hispanic or named Esther) would have gotten to see giant beavers.

So not only do I not know how the Peopling the Americas fiction should play out; I can't even imagine a realistic scenario in which I could be the person who wrote it.

But somebody should, don't you think?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

So How Fussy Am I?

The best place to locate a cliff, it appears, is the Hill Country State Nature Area. I camped here once, years ago, with a friend of mine and I'm here to tell you, those trails are rugged. W and I barely made a .75-mile trail in an afternoon (though we did boldly take the hardest route). I could probably write something tolerable based on that experience, but I feel the need for a refresher.

Now, ideally, I would camp in May, with a horse - though even I don't think improving the story is worth jumping the horse off a cliff. If I rode a horse and my companion rode a camel, that would be even better. Think of the realistic detail I could gather; the sights, sounds, smells, animal behavior, aches, pains, sunburn, wildflower assemblages, detailed maps!

But I've never ridden a horse - not really ridden one, as opposed to a half hour tooling around a barnlot on one when I was a kid. And there's this balance thing. And this story is going too well (self-doubt and all) to break if off and wait till May; though since I'm not likely to sell it before then I could always go back next May and make some revision based on that.

When I write a book, I do not want anybody (and 11-year-olds will do this!) with more experience than me writing and telling me "You've got that wrong." I hate it when I read a book or watch a movie set in San Antonio and they've got the geography or the accent or the bus system wrong. I love it when I recognize a place, though, and we all get a thrill when the author gets it right, whatever "it" is.

I won't write about a lot of things I'm interested in - no homo floresiensis novels for me; I'll never do that Populating the Americas Saga (remind me to put those in the garage sale) because there's no prospect of my getting the settings right. I can't afford the money, the time, or the health to visit Indonesia or kayak along the route I believe the first settlers of America followed. There's not even any realistic prospect of looking at northwestern American sites like On Your Knees Cave.

But one of the reasons I read and write so much is that I want to do so much more than I will ever be physically able to do. Vicarious experience is better than none. If I restrict myself to Texas as a setting, I have a much better shot at producing work that meets my own standards, at researching the specific things I need to research. Access to locations, artifacts, and primary sources is easier the closer to home you look. It doesn't help with the balance issues, though.

So I'll have to feel my way here. I regret the not riding most of all, given how important Bean is turning out to be. Maybe I'll be able to ride a little; but no way will that approximate Len's experience riding the horse she hand-raised. Maybe I'll load and shoot a muzzle-loader at a target, but I'll have to take testimony about shooting supper with it and reconstruct killing in self-defense imaginatively.

Which is what imagination and beta readers are for. If I can get W and B to vet the parts of the manuscript dealing with horses and guns, respectively, they should protect me from receiving correction letters from 11-year-olds or gravely offending older people who will never contact me, but will give me bad word of mouth. I expect to get plenty enough bad word of mouth from a large part of this book's natural readership - the people who live in Bexar, Medina, and Bandera counties - just because it's a lesbian western. It would be nice to win a few people over in spite of their disapproval of Len's sexual identity on the basis of my authentic portrayal of the western experience. "Yeah, she's going to hell but she knows her stuff."

I could live with ambivalent praise like that. But first I'll have to earn it. If I earn it and don't get it - well, that's the breaks.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

All Taxes Eve

It's September 14. If you're self-employed in the U.S. - and if you're a freelance writer, you're self-employed even if you also have a day job or two - third-quarter taxes are due tomorrow. I tend to forget these things, but fortunately Damon remembered and I did the math and wrote the check yesterday.

This is the kind of thing writing classes ought to cover. After all, you can stick your own butt in the chair every day and check writing teachers out of the library - Dickens! Shakespeare! Diana Wynne Jones! Carolyn Keene! - and learn from the best and the worst, on your own time, at your own pace, any time you feel like it. It's fun, it's cheap, it just takes a little discipline. Keeping the ledger, paying the taxes, networking, promotion - those are the hard parts, and classes are hard to find.

The last time I didn't do quarterly taxes was, um, twenty years ago. I was charged a late fee even though the annual taxes were submitted on time. Laws keep changing, but I bet the government still wants you to pay as you go. Since then I note down everything I make through writing - not just advances and royalties, but appearance fees, any books I sell direct to the public, any penny related to writing - and stick it all in savings. Yes, savings, because day jobs are for covering bills. Writing income is special and unreliable. Come tax time I total the earnings, divide them by three, and use the vouchers and envelopes provided by the IRS to send one-third of my earnings for that quarter, extracted from savings for that purpose, to pay for democracy. I will never be in a 33% tax bracket, but charging this exorbitant rate cushions me from the effects of any large year-end windfalls that might arise, late fees arising from my losing track of the calendar, or other surprises.

If my income includes book sales, I should also fill out forms and write checks for sales tax; but normally my direct book sales are so trivial I only fill out the annual form, and under Texas law this is fine, as along as I remember to fill out the form once a year even if I owe no taxes. I hate filling out sales tax forms because I have to figure the actual percentage and keep track of whether I sold the books here or in Austin or where ever. This, by the way, is why authors need those math classes. It's too late for me, but if you're a teen-ager with authorial ambitions blowing off math, take warning. If you take nothing else away from high school, learn how to figure sales tax!

Authors in other states will have different sales tax requirements and state income tax to worry about; authors in other countries will have to deal with their own tax laws. But the basic requirements are the same everywhere:
1. Keep track of income
2. Keep track of expenses
3. Get professional help. I'm serious! Accountants are paid to keep up with the tax codes and forms. You're not. They know about things like late fees and deducting mileage when you drive to the library (but I can't deduct bus fare; how much sense does that make?) and what disqualifies you from using the guest bedroom where your write as a home office deduction. You can pay their fee out of the refund you get for overpaying on quarterly taxes.
4. Get your paperwork in on time.
5. Don't lose the vouchers. I keep mine in the back of the accordion file where I put the receipts.

Then put your butt back in the chair and get back to writing, as without work in hand you won't earn anything. But start tracking your expenses now, even if you've never sold a penny. You can claim the business as a loss on your annual income taxes, as long as you can demonstrate a good-faith effort to sell your work. And you need to develop good business habits well before you start to need them.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: An Invasive Species

I was on the balcony writing when I heard that deep-throated ventriloquist "meow" cats use when their mouths are full, and out came Thai with a mouthful of bird.

Thai is a lousy hunter, so it wasn't dead. I know some people say when a cat brings you live prey that they want you to play with it and learn to hunt for yourself, but I assure you, Thai doesn't know how to kill things. So I would have had no choice but to take it from her, even if it had been a house sparrow, which honestly I'd as soon she killed as not. But it wasn't. I think it was a juvenile Carolina Wren, though it had an eye ring instead of an eye streak and the tail was missing. It was so small, and the beak was a wren beak, and the breast feathers were yellow.

Thus began the great pursuit. Of course I didn't succeed in taking it from her. She let it go before I could, and then I was running interference to keep her from catching it again and it was hopping and flying frantically, until it wound up in the bedroom between the wardrobe and the built-in bookshelves. So I shut Thai out on the balcony and tried to drag it out with a towel, but no dice. But the wardrobe is in an alcove created by the bookcases being built around a disused but not filled-in door to the study. So I went around to the study (having to shut Bruce out of that room and the bedroom, which is a more elaborate process than it sounds like), moved the full bookcase, and opened the door.

Now, I had been feeling lousy and moreover this was during the period when the desktop computer wasn't functioning and we were still trying dodge after dodge to bring it back. The wren had all kinds of dusty holes and corners in which to hide, and took advantage of them all, while I couldn't google "animal rescue" or "How do I get a scared wren out of my study?" But, being the old-fashioned kind of person I am, I had the phone book and a landline, and I used them.

Most of the animal rescue places weren't answering their phones for one reason or another, but I finally got one, where a woman told me to darken the room, open a window, and leave it alone for awhile so it could find its way out. I told her I wasn't sure it could fly. It was fluttering around about the height of the baseboards and had no tail. She said in that case when it tried to get out the window I should put it in a box and bring it over.

The study is not that easy a room to darken. I tried to hang a towel over the windows in the balcony doors, but it didn't work well. The wren had settled down behind the filing cabinets, which is near the corner with the open window, so I built a crude pen out of file boxes and stuff that could be set flush to the floor and were taller than the wren's demonstrated flight capacity. Concerned that she was probably overheated and lacking any other bait, I set a shallow dish of water in the middle, shut the connecting door, fetched an indignant Thai off the balcony through the bedroom, shut her and Bruce both outside, and had lunch.

After lunch, I came back up in time to see the wren perch on the water dish, fly from there to the window, and fly away.

So I swept the study (the doorway was filthy) and put everything back where it belonged. Thai snubbed me all day, making a point of being near me so I could see her doing it.

If you don't automatically think "picture book" after all that, you should reconsider whether writing for children is your true calling. The situation is accessible to small children, the action is visual and potentially funny, rife with ways to delineate in art and text the soft-hearted, muddle-headed, messy householder and the desperate but resourceful young wren who doesn't trust her, and it ends with a punch line. Depending on the emphasis chosen, you could imply morals about keeping your workspace tidy, courage and resource in the face of danger, or even training your cat not to hunt. Make the householder a dog to whom the visiting cat has brought a live bird as a present, to make up a quarrel (she says!) and you've got a Beatrix Potterish anthropomorphic social farce.

That's the obvious use. But why stop with the obvious? Especially when the obvious is a format I've never been much into. I never even read them much, advancing to chapter books as soon as feasible, and you may not have noticed this, but my wordcounts tend to run high for a picture book.

Couldn't I also use an anecdote like this as an anchor for an article for a nature magazine? As part of a work of non-fiction on urban wildlife and how to deal responsibly with the intersection of human residence with the animal world? Raccoons and possums in the attic, skunks under the shed, squirrels on the bird feeder, mice in the compost heap - I've got them all. Can I write about them? Could it be a fable? A cartoon short subject script? (Nope, not getting into scripting, either!)

With my productive work days averaging about four hours long lately, I'm not going to divert any energy into developing this idea in any of those formats. I need to focus on Len, and keeping the existing projects in the mail, and keeping the house and yard from smothering in neglect. It's not impossible I will use this someday.

In the meantime, having put it into a blog post, which is using it after a fashion, I can forget about it for awhile.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Writing Checks my Style Can't Cash

This is one of those wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night things.

This week, Len said to Cave of Bean: "He'd jump off a cliff if I asked him to." I thought this conversation was setting up the plausibility of Di's hiring Len to train Pegasus to be "a lady's horse," since Bean demonstrates her ability to turn out a calm and tractable mount. But it's also a promise to the reader that at some point Len and Bean will have to jump off a cliff. Why it took me till the middle of the night to realize this, I don't know.

This all implies a much more action-heavy climax than is normal for me, or than I'm confident of delivering, and reminds me that despite all my attempts at Di-style planning, I still don't know a lot about the second half of the book. The half I'm coming up on.

The kind of book in which transvestite and horse are desperate enough to jump off a cliff together is a lot more exciting than the kind I normally write; or than the first half is setting up, in fact. If I go there, I'll also have to do some heavy revising of the first - criminy, I'm on the 16th chapter and still feel it's all set-up. This is an intimidating amount of work, not just for the revising, but for my individual style. I've never been an action writer. In order to justify that single tossed-off boast, I'll have to become one.

Or, I can delete the sentence.

Hell, no. If you're going to fail, fail big. Excuse me while I look for a cliff.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Planning More Research Trips

I was going to go out to Helotes today, but tropical storm Hermine took care of that. I didn't stop in Helotes on the way out to Bandera because I was under the misapprehension that it didn't exist during the relevant time, and though I learned different on the trip, I was so tired on the way back, and Helotes is so close, I didn't stop. Now I know that Len makes a stop there while tracking Pegasus, I need to poke around a bit as soon as the weather clears.

The big plans are for October, Texas Archeology Month, and I'm going to have a sticky time making decisions. San Antonio events include "Exploring Ancient Water Systems in a Modern City: San Antonio and the Acequias," on October 12, and "Privy to Investigation: Archaeology of Outhouse Pits and Artifacts from the Alamodome Project, San Antonio, Texas," on October 19, at the Institute of Texan Cultures (can't pass those up!) and Volunteer Days at Rancho de las Cabras, on October 2 and 16 and November 6. Further afield, and more on task, the 10th Annual Val Verde County Archeology Fair will feature the Texas Camel Corps. Since the animals are making themselves characters more than I intended them to, it behooves me to meet a camel. Plus, various opportunities to see rock art, a Gault Site tour which I don't need but at which I might be able to make myself useful (but that will be up to the volunteer coordinator), "How the Confederacy Armed Itself," in Houston on October 21 - in short, much, much more than I will be able to do.

Lots of driving, lots of infodumps, and writing will slow to a crawl for awhile. So I'd better do all the work I can between now and then, and plan my events with care.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Tritelight Zone

A man wakes up in a strange landscape, with a perennial migrainoid visual effect that made the world look flat, nonsense sounds coming out of his mouth and those of everyone around him. He makes up his mind to do one thing and finds himself doing something else. He soon realizes that his wife, who he was thinking of leaving (or even murdering) has stuck him in her Sim game.

This man's conflict with his wife stems from the fact that, when she believes she knows what's best for him, she is almost always right. He is one of those people who take pride in his own perversity, which he calls individuality; who says "If you tell me not to do something I will sure as hell do it" without realizing that this is handing other people the control of his life that he takes such pride in retaining. His wife, however, is a simple soul who gives him good advice straight on and thinks he ought to take it because it is good. So when it became clear that he would never humble himself to behave sensibly, she stuck him into her game, where she could see to it that he got to work on time, improved his skills, and hardly ever picked fights with people.

Hardly ever, because she doesn't play him exclusively. She has other exes, and some relatives, she has to take care of, too, and of course when she sends one of them to a community lot and the protagonist turns up as an NPC, he has free will and can play up as much as he wants. But as time goes on he realizes - and resents - that he really is happier when he behaves as his controller wants him to behave. Possibly he can communicate with the other trapped personalities and they work out ways to rebel, but since they're all there for roughly the same reason coordinated activity is problematic. Everybody wants to be ringleader and nobody wants to follow anybody else's plan. Eventually he probably becomes resigned to the whole thing.

I conceived this notion during the Year from Hell, when I spent a ridiculous amount of time playing Sims. I know a lot of people do awful things to their electronic dolls, but I've never understood the impulse. The attraction of the game for me has always been that I could make the little buggers be happy, whether they wanted to or not. (Also, house building. And endless generation of pun names. Larry Penates. Sally and Gerry Mander. Maddy Moiselle. Polly Phonik. I would write them down at work for access in the averbal evenings.) When chance or stupid game rules or miscalculation made them miserable,I could swoop in and address the problem. If worst came to worst, and one of them died because another one wouldn't get out of the way and let someone out of the pool and I was busy on another part of the lot and didn't notice, I could close the game without saving and rescue him that way.

I can't do that in real life. I wish I could. Some of the Year from Hell could have been prevented if Certain People had done what I wanted them to do rather than what they wanted to do (no, really!), but I had no control over that. Some could have been mitigated if I, or anyone, had picked up certain foreshadowings in our lives and acted on them; or if I had made this choice instead of that choice ten, fifteen, twenty years before. But, we didn't, and reality has no option to quit without saving and reboot from the most recent back-up.

The weakness of this trapped-in-a-Sim world concept is obvious. You could make a Twilight Zonesque short story out of it, I suppose. Somebody with more satirical flare than me might be able to turn it to good use. But it's hard to think of a direction in which to take it that would achieve anything. Ultimately, it's as pointless as a Sim lifestyle. Not good literature at all.

Eh. We all have bad ideas.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why I Love Literature

So anyway, I was reading a book called Jane's Fame, by Claire Harman, which is a history of Jane Austen's reputation. Her literary one, mostly, but with her, even more so than with most authors, it's all tied up with her personal reputation, and what people assume about who she was and what she thought and felt (in the face of a dearth of solid information, thanks to her sister's notions of privacy). It is in regard to these assumptions that I find this story particularly delightful.

The first reliable French translation of Jane Austen's work was undertaken by one Felix Feneon (excuse me for leaving out the accents; the present internet setup refuses all subtleties) in the 1890s. He discovered her while he was in prison on suspicion - and pretty reasonable suspicion at that - of being associated with an anarchist bombing. He was a War Ministry clerk who kept detonators and mercury in his desk. Kept in solitary while awaiting trial, he was denied access to outside reading matter and soon read through all the French volumes in the limited prison library - which apparently only stocked female authors on the grounds that they wouldn't corrupt the morals of prisoners, or something like that. What remained was Northanger Abbey, so he read it.

And he loved it. Unlike many of her more conservative fans, he saw all kinds of satiric savagery in her social commentary; and he immediately set to work to get permission to import an English dictionary and begin a translation. After he got out, acquitted of anarchy but fired from the War Ministry anyway, he worked in company with John Gray, a lover of Oscar Wilde's (who was at that time languishing in Reading Gaol and complaining he could get no Jane Austen at all) and supposed to be the model for Dorian Gray, to finish the translation, publish it, and move on to the rest of the novels. Feneon's subsequent literary career included being the first French publisher of James Joyce.

What is not to love about this?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

August was the Weirdest Month

I will burden you with no details, this being primarily a post to test whether the outmoded internet juryrig currently available to me will in fact let me add to the blog. Only, be assured that I have not been idle during the last two weeks. Len's story is advanced to the point that the agonizing doubts have started kicking in. My spontaneous ideation has gone from "surefire Printz winner which will turn into a series and a blockbuster movie that brings the horse opera back to popularity, with a soundtrack by Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang in an historic collaboration" to "takes too long to start, I spend more time on establishing shots than on action, Di has hardly appeared on stage yet, all the men act like women insteade of Len acting like a man, and the timeline doesn't work at all."

This self-doubt business is ahead of schedule, but not disruptively so, and not strong enough to make me walk away from the book to see if it needs more growth time, or to kill my belief in the story. I have, after all, set myself a steep set of hurdles with this one, the highest of which probably is creating characters in a conflicting zone where modern ideas of gender normative behavior meet, not only historical ones, but modern ideas - mediated by the likes of John Ford, John Wayne, and Louis Lamour - about what historical ones were. Add in the fact that a Civil War-era Texas frontiersman relieved tedium by reading everything he could get his hands on and therefore knew Shakespeare, Schiller, sentimental poetry, Scott, and Homer better than most modern college freshmen, and you can see my problem clear enough.

I'll solve it, or I won't. Stories that are within my proven capability are boring to write. An author's reach must exceed her grasp, or what's a heaven for? Not that I believe in heaven; the more incentive to perform great labors on the earth, in hope of getting one of them right and leaving a monument to my own existence. Though, if all my castles in the air get built, odds are good it's the actress playing Len who will benefit most in the shining halls of public memory.

Speaking of which - what the heck is up with remaking True Grit? Damon and I are disagreed on the purpose of this travesty. I think it is an insidious plot to kill huge numbers of rednecks with strokes and heart attacks; he thinks it is to galvanize them all to pick up their deer rifles and revolt en masse. Either way, it is clearly an evil measure and should be exposed as such. I suggest that everybody give your favorite John Wayne fan a copy of the book for Christmas as a protective measure.

The book, by the way, is "really" YA. The narrator and protagonist, Mattie, is 14, the mover and shaker of the plot, and as full of true grit as any character John Wayne ever played.