Thursday, July 29, 2010

The old-fashioned way

Some days it is unwise to spend much time looking at a screen.

Today appears to be one of those days.

Fortunately, I have notebooks. And if I can't quite read my own handwriting well enough to transcribe what I write today by the time I can deal with it, I'll be able to remember general trends well enough that it'll really be a phase of revision.

We are all prisoners of our bodies when they choose to be uncooperative. It is better not to become prisoners of our technology as well.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mammoth Bone!

So last Friday I drove out to San Marcos to help the Gault School relocate its lab. They lost their funding and space with UT Austin and got taken up by Texas State last year, but it's taken this long to get the office and lab space organized. Basically they're in an office/warehouse behind the campus police, but it's a nicer space than the trailer they used to have out at TARL, more room and big ceilings and some really good old-fashioned warehouse casement windows. It's farther from the site, but it's a lot closer to me and I'm hoping I can get to the lab even in months when health crap makes digging unwise.

So I showed up and I admired the ginormous plush mammoth that Nancy picked up for the lab at the Waco Mammoth Site, (which I totally need to get out to and see about getting 11,000 Years Lost into their gift shop) and I helped unload furniture and boxes and more furniture, playing "light as a feather, stiff as a board" with enormous heavy tables that had to be walked across a narrow ramp from the truck to the loading dock to the back of the space; and then the truck went back for the second load and I sat around mostly listening to Clark and Nancy gossip about archeology and the people involved and then the truck came back and we unloaded more furniture.

And at one point Clark and Nancy gave me a bag full of goodies they'd saved for me from the 2010 Archaeology in the Classroom Workshop, which contained the usual things - some magazines, some handouts, some brochures - and a ziploc bag with a mammoth bone in it!

The Corpus Christi Geological Society's Bones in Schools program had donated sample bones for each bag, from a quarry in Nueces County. These bones, obviously, are not scientifically valuable in the sense of needing to be curated for museums or future study. They are broken, crumbling, unsuitable for extracting DNA for cloning, and so on. But as concrete focal points to arrest the attention of students and turn them into megafauna geeks they rock. And I, as a megafauna geek, am thrilled to own it. I need to make (i.e. get my sewing student to make) a bag for it that can be unwrapped from around it in such a way that it's cushioned when traveling and doesn't have to be handled to display it to a class, so if I ever get another school visit (sigh) I can take it along without losing more of it.

The card that came with gave the age of the bone, but didn't say which bone it was, and Clark and Nancy were annoyed to find that none of the unpacked reference works they had included a full-body diagram enabling them to ID every bone in a mammoth. The unbroken end consists of a series of broad, flat scallops that make us think it's an active joint, and the best bet is that it's part of the foot assembly. Nancy photocopied it to ask Cinda the paleontologist and she'll get back to me on it eventually. Before my next school visit, almost certainly.

The pay for this job sucks most of the time, but some of the perks rock.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Mining the Clutter

Most modern Americans have too much stuff. Boxes of clothes they can't wear anymore, photo albums they don't look at, tapes too degraded to play, tacky souvenirs,games they don't play, books and magazines they'll never read again, papers they don't know where to file, birthday cards, unfinished projects, unstarted projects, broken things that could be fixed but never are, presents we didn't know what to do with, collections, and on and on and on. I have bins full of old manuscripts in the attic, boxes of my own publications, a smaller fabric stash than a lot of people, file drawers of correspondence, a doll collection, character sheets, old diaries and notebooks and files and files and files of writing dating all the way back to my first filing cabinet obtained when I was 12.

Once in awhile you have to go through it. To whittle it down, yes; but also to rediscover it.

I had occasion this week to look at a couple of old stories I published in the late lamented Dragon Magazine. I'd forgotten how good they were. "The Waiting Woman," the one in Issue 159, may be the best short story I ever wrote. And there's a potential epic fantasy novel to be written after the end of it, too, when the predicted war comes and the sleepers get up and Lord Kettry wakes, the lone stranger in this tight-knit group of heroes, and meets the great-great-granddaughter of the woman he loved and his rival.

"The Waiting Woman" and "The River Children" are set in wildly different portions of a setting I started creating in high school, which I just called "the regions between the mountains and the sea." I had world-builder disease real bad in the wake of reading Tolkien (don't we all?) and I still have file folders stuffed with maps, folktales, ballads, history. I may even have the index card file of names and their meanings, somewhere. I left the regions behind as I grew less interested in sword-and-sorcery and wrote fewer short stories, focusing on the middle-grade books; but quite a few of my published short stories, in the late 80s and through the 90s, used the regions as a setting; and a lot of it (I found on rereading) is damn good.

During the recovery period from the Year From Hell, I returned to short stories for awhile and actually produced a regions short story, which I sold to Realms of Fantasy. It appeared as "The Singers in the Tower" in February 2009, and was an Honorable Mention for the Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, so I know there's life in the old place yet. If I ever have to reinvent myself from scratch, the regions wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Yeah, a lot of my high school concepts don't stand up, and I've changed the way I look at a lot of the history; but that border area between the sorta-European-medieval countries of Vinland and Forblon and the psuedo-Aztec confederacy of the Karankan city-states; and the psychotic level of determination tiny landlocked Notrone had to retain its identity even as its more powerful neighbors conquered and reconquered it; and the way folklore and history and mythology all braid together - it all points in a viable direction, one I could have followed and didn't. Could still follow, if it comes to that.

When I'm writing YA I sometimes force myself to go through the old yearbooks and notebooks. It's painful and embarrassing and that's the point. Young adults lead painful, embarrassing lives. Try not to get caught up in the fashions and the fads. It doesn't matter about my hair: Did I really say that to this person? Did I really think anything as unkind as that? Did I really let that opportunity go by? Did I really waste time crushing on him? Did I really write that down? Did I really put up with that crap?

Yes. Yes, I did. And I need to face up to it, without judging myself, or I won't be able to face up to the choices and assumptions and feelings a 16-year-old character would naturally make, and follow where that leads, to a viable story.

When we're born, our brains are not fully grown in. They don't finish growing - temporal lobes come last - until our early 20s. That's why growing up feels the way it does and why such enormous differences can exist between, sometimes, one day and the next. Kids can't think in certain ways until they grow in the right equipment, and learning is a process by which the architecture of the brain is constructed. We make synaptic connections and we reinforce them; we lose connections we don't reinforce with use; and eventually we have all the brain we're ever going to get, and from then on life settles down as we consolidate our territory.

In practical terms this means that learning and creativity get harder as we get older; but we compensate for this with experience. Most of us have well-worn tracks in our brains from doing similar things in similar ways, over and over and over; and this is how we achieve smooth practiced elegance. Teen-agers and children are constantly reinventing the wheel. Adults are, ideally, perfecting it.

Both modes have their advantages and disadvantages. When creative people are young, they are fountains of ideas; so many they can't keep up with them. Some of these ideas will be wildly original, some will be derivative, some will be brilliant, some will be stupid. Most will be pursued until a brighter, shinier one comes along and be abandoned. It is easy to come up with new ideas; it is hard to get one out of the head and into the real world in usable form. Techniques must be learned and honed. Discipline must be acquired.

When creative people mature, they pick out the ideas that suit them best, based on whatever criteria - I can make more money like this, that ties in with what my spouse does, this is instinctive and easy, that is exciting and a challenge - and leave heaps of glittering random gold behind in disarray in order to concentrate on producing finished work and putting it to use. We polish our techniques. We live by our work habits.

But we are in danger of digging ruts in our brains so deep we can't dig our way out of them. We are in danger of getting tired, or bored, or smug, or lazy; or bypassing interesting sideroads, taking the easy path. How many of your favorite authors got predictable or sloppy as they got older? How many series turned into the same story over and over?

Sometimes you reach the end of the road you're on; or decide the scenery bores you; or strain a creative muscle and need to exercise a different one. Your habits won't help you then; but your younger self can. When you're tired, blocked, feeling like the well is dry - go back through those drawer manuscripts, the yearbooks, the photo albums: not to wallow in self-indulgent nostalgia, but to see where the turn-offs are, whether any of those roads not taken beckon to you now. Chances are you had an idea at 16 that only a 66-year-old could carry out to a satisfactory conclusion.

I've never regretted throwing away the Tolkien/Dickens pastiche I spent two years of my life on; but losing the maps and folklore and name index cards of the regions between the mountains of the sea would have been bad. If you had joy in the creation, keep it tucked away some where, against the day when you need to remember joy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


So it appears that Massachusetts has passed one of those silly "child protection" laws that involve trying to control the internet. Naturally it's generated a lawsuit and naturally it will be struck down. I expected better of Massachusetts. Don't we all know by now that this trick never works? Such laws are unenforceable at best and undesirable at worst, and I could go on for ages about it, but I have a query to write today and mustn't let myself get distracted saying things that any sensible person can figure out for herself. And this isn't a political or news blog.

So I'll limit myself to talking about self-censorship. According to John Weinstein, speaking for the Massachusetts ACLU, the law's "inevitable effect, if permitted to stand, is that Internet content providers will limit the range of their speech. " This assumes that the law is both permitted to stand and aggressively and effectively enforced, which it wouldn't be. It couldn't. Only those internet content providers who know about the Massachusetts law and expect to be caught would limit themselves; which is bad enough. When talking about breasts is outlawed, only outlaws will talk about breasts, and suddenly there's impossible cup sizes where ever you look but you can't find out how to prevent breast cancer or make a full bust adjustment to a blouse.

But the elephant in the living room is that we do this anyway. I know I do. I write for children and young people in America, after all. There are certain hills I don't consider worth dying on.

Take "bad language." Characters swear in my books, sure - but the audience can't hear them. In Switching Well, when Amber is mad at the orphanage teacher and is alone in the classroom, she writes "every bad word she knew, in English and Spanish" on the blackboard to relieve her feelings. I've even taken out usages that didn't raise my own personal "bad language" signals. Margaret K. McElderry never wanted to hack off parents who consider saying things like "God only knows" to be taking the lord's name in vain, and phrases like that are easy enough to rewrite.

This is a conscious, active policy. I've seen reports of too many book challenges supposedly based on "bad language," where a single instance of the word "damn" is cited as a cover reason and the real one is obviously something like "Eu, ick, this book admits that parents have sexual feelings" or "gross, this book has a gay character" or even "this book is about people different from me;" but the challenging parent knows the fight will get a lot harder and she'll be called a bigot if she's honest. Maybe she's even successfully lying to herself that it's the "damn" that bothers her, really. "Bad language" shifts the attention from the substantial issue to a factor about which most of us are a little uncomfortable - swearing in front of the kids. It's a distraction.

It's a distraction that functions at the reader level, too. When my sophomore English class read Catcher in the Rye, one of my classmates protested that it was "nothing but dirty words." She couldn't see the plot or the themes or the characterization through Holden's language choices; and the fact that the languages choices were authentic didn't matter to her. She might have matured past that by now - I certainly hope so, especially if her children ever brought home books like Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist - but a lot of people don't and hey, we're writing for young people, we can't predict the level of maturity they'll exhibit.

Yeah, it's nitpicky and it's silly and unrealistic - but if somebody's going to challenge Switching Well I want them to have to get right up and admit the real reason they're challenging it. I have anecdotal evidence that it has been pulled from at least one school library shelf because of Ada's narrow escape from a child molester on her first day in the future. This is an absurd reason and had the school librarian and the school board done their job and insisted on due process it wouldn't have happened; but I can't control how well other people do their jobs. All I can do is make their job easier.

There is a point at which this sort of thing becomes cowardice, and a writer has to make new judgments in every instance in every book. One thing I'm not looking forward to in the lesbian western is dealing with normal everyday dialog in a society in which racism is treated as a civic duty. Reading primary sources, I'm struck by how embarrassed people are at the prospect of people thinking they're not racist enough; the haste with which Texas Unionists disavowed abolitionism; the offensive assumptions even abolitionists made about blacks, Mexicans, and Indians; the mutual brutality and incomprehension of Indian relations; the torturous complexity of attitudes toward "Mexicans," some of whom were "white."

Len and Di have to be sympathetic to the audience - and to me - but they also have to be believable products of their time and place. Yet, if I let somebody, even a villain, use the "N" word, the whole book could be a perfect modeling of how not to be racist in a racist society, and well-meaning earnest people would still try to keep it off the shelves. And I'd really rather not give the evil gay-bashers who are this book's natural enemies a screen of anti-racism to hide behind.

Besides, my gut reaction to the "N" word is much, much worse than to any ordinary swearing. When I was nine I gave up trying to read Uncle Remus (it was in the original dialect and I shouldn't have been trying on that edition anyway, but it never occurred to me back then that a book might be straight-up too hard for me) when I saw the N-word in a quote in a footnote explaining what a "pateroller" was. It made me feel icky to hold a book that had that word in it. So I stopped reading and put the book into the return stack. I censored my own reading.

I did that the first time I tried to read the Bible, too. There's some racy stuff in the Old Testament and I realized I was too young for it. I didn't try again till I was in my 20s, which made me realize that I'm an agnostic, which would have been way too much drama earlier in my life.

I think kids do that more often than we think they do. I think they should get credit for it, and I think authors should bear it in mind. It doesn't bother me if a kid has to put down Switching Well for a few years until he's mature enough to get past the child molester. That incident is there to highlight how unsuitable Ada's upbringing has been for her new environment, how vulnerable she is in it. I think one reason Violet is everybody's favorite character (even mine) is that once she takes Ada under her wing we know she's safe from her own ignorance. One teacher who read the book to her class said that the point at which Ada meets George was the point at which it caught with the kids - they sat up, wide-eyed, shocked that she didn't know about stranger danger, and from then on they were into the book. So, brief as it is, the scene is vital; but not every reader is mature enough to handle it and I'm fine with that.

But I'm not going to let a kid who is ready for my content get tripped up on inessentials. The girl who couldn't see past Holden Caulfield's vocabulary read bodice-rippers for fun. She could have handled some good unromantic YA-appropriate realistic sex in her books. She could have benefited from some. But if that treatment of sex were only available to her in books with "dirty words," she'd never have read it.

So it's this constant mental balancing act - what's good for the story, what's good for the audience, which battles am I willing to fight if it comes to it? All writers have to do this, whether they're writing books or blogs.

Governments have no business making it harder. It protects nobody. It harms everybody.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

OMG Mammoth Mittens

Suddenly I regret not knowing how to knit! Paizo Publishing, whose RPG setting Golarion includes an area where woolly mammoths roam, have issued a knitting pattern to make mittens with mammoths on the backs! How cool is that?

Of course, it's cold for about a month in San Antonio and when I'm out in it I want more manual dexterity than mittens provide, so even if I could knit it would make no sense to make mittens. But still - mammoths!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teaching: Sewing, writing, whatever

(BTW, Happy Moonwalk Day.)

I have undertaken to teach a friend of mine garment sewing. She's handy and crafty and makes other sorts of fabric and leather items, but she thought she didn't know how to sew clothes because her technique has been to eyeball things on the rack, say "That looks simple," and proceed freehand. This worked for her on things like drawstring bags but not on things like harem pants. (She is of the fen and has places to go where harem pants are appropriate attire.) I told her she could too, and all we needed to do was get a simple pattern or two under her belt and then she'd know she could do it and could proceed from there.

So I took her to JoAnn's and she picked out a simple blouse and a simpler skirt from the $2.99 rack (always look in the $2.99 rack first; that's my philosophy). We already have (probably) enough fabric from a past failed attempt for the blouse, so we got fabric and notions suitable to make a skirt compatible with that. Two weeks ago we put together a rough draft of the skirt using some god-awful flimsy aqua stuff she doesn't remember acquiring (I'm thinking, garage sale, $1 an acre - who hasn't picked up crap like that?). T is too big to wear misses' sizes and too young to wear women's styles, so I showed her how to scale the pattern up, how to read the pattern, and how to lay out the fabric. I could see the light bulb go off over her head a couple of times as she realized why her freehand attempts hadn't worked. She hadn't known about things like grainline, or how the selvage isn't always perfectly straight, and without experience of the way a two-dimensional pattern translates into a three-dimensional garment she'd been cutting everything too big.

And she nailed it. She even got the zipper right first time. Today's the first day she's been able to come back to put together the real skirt, and then we can move on to the blouse, and after that I expect she'll be pattern drafting while I'm still plugging away at the same handful of patterns that I know how to make. But -

I picked up the notions while she stood in line to have the fabric cut, and I couldn't find the right kind of tape. The package said "twill tape" and I could only find bias tape and hem tape. I couldn't tell from the outside of the package what it was used for, and I figured twill is woven on the diagonal and bias is cut on the diagonal, so I got bias tape. When we did the rough draft, I learned that the tape was for the waist stay. I got worried about it, because the point of the waist stay is to, you know, make the waist stay. Bias stretches. And it's a bias-cut skirt, very flippy, and it's really cute on her, but it won't be if the waist stretches out. So I got onto the Stitcher's Guild sewing newsgroup and I asked. The lady who responded said yes, we needed to ditch the bias tape, but if I couldn't find the right kind cutting the piece so that the waist was on the selvage might work instead. Somebody else said a ribbon could be a waist stay, too.

I've now found some twill tape, in not quite the right color, and today I'll explain it to her and she'll decide whether to try the selvage idea or use the off-color tape, and that will be another bit of knowledge she has. Maybe my status as the sewing guru will be damaged, but that's okay. One of the things I'm teaching her is that you don't have to be an expert to do this. All you have to be is not afraid of failure.

That's one of the things I want people to understand about writing, too, but apart from one-day workshops I've never taught writing and I'm never likely to. I'm game to try if someone wants to pay me, but the fact is, writing is so easy for me that I'm afraid to teach it. I understand instinctively, or at least absorbed so long ago I can't remember learning, many things about writing and reading that other people need to be taught. I barely had to be taught to read, and from the start I was reading books in a different way than the people around me did. I always knew I was going to write these things, and from the moment I read my first word ("Exit," in the hall of my kindergarten on the first day. I had no idea what it meant and I'm not sure how I'd absorbed enough about phonics to sound it out.) , I've been doing so as a producer rather than as a consumer.

When I'm confronted by someone who is so intimidated by the blank page they can't start, someone who doesn't know how to choose which scene to write or how to get out of one scene and on to the next or how to make dialog sound natural or how to choose a point of view, I don't know what to tell them. When I start breaking down a work in structural or thematic terms during revision, a person who is at the stage with writing that T is with sewing gets a scared, glassy look, not because the material's too hard for them, but because it comes so naturally to me I don't know how to guide them past the notion that "I don't know how to do this so it must be hard."

This does not mean that these people are less talented than me, or that they won't in time write books that make mine look crude; it means I happen to have a knack for something they have to learn, and you can't teach knack. I jump right in and they need somebody to guide them in step by step. If I try to do that, I guide them down the wrong steps, or I skip steps, or I sound like I'm talking down to them. Because I completely lack the knack for teaching, and nobody taught me to write. Or rather, "Carolyn Keene" and Louisa May Alcott and Diana Wynne Jones and Shakespeare taught me by example, and I was equipped by nature to absorb those lessons.

I have no knack whatever for sewing. My mother taught me to do it and I continue to teach myself, with much recourse to advice from better sewers, much seam-ripping, and reiteration of patterns till I understand how they work. My favorite pattern, the one that made me into a person who sews rather than a person driven to sewing by necessity, has this funky stuff going on with attaching the neck band that I have to relearn every single time - I can't retain it.

Nobody's going to be intimidated by my way of showing them how it's done. They'll probably wind up feeling superior to me. And I can live with that. One reason I'm teaching T is so I'll have someone nearby who can help me when I'm stumped! All my sewing "experts" (who would all deny being experts if you called them that) live in different towns.

I don't need writing patterns because I understand how stories work, but I could no more break that down into teaching terms than Thai could explain to me how to fall asleep in the middle of the day. (I can barely fall asleep at night and daytime is impossible even when I'm desperate; I'm as unskilled a sleeper as you'll ever meet.) Lots of other people, especially beginners, need patterns, and it's not because they're lesser writers. They just have different knacks and have to come at the process in ways unfamiliar to me. Someday we'll all be sitting in critique as equals discussing structure and theme and character and whether the POV needs to change.

'Cause everything's doable once you know how.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Jaguar

I'm going to reach waaaaay back here.

You remember the Nastassia Kinski Cat People, from 1982? I had a lot of problems with that movie, most of which boil down to - it was telling the wrong story.

You remember early in the movie, before Irena's brother tells her their squicky-awful family history, she's in a bar and a feline woman sort of slinks up to her and addresses her as "mi hermana?" Which means "my sister" for those of you who don't live in a place where you learn a certain amount of Spanish by osmosis. And for some reason this frightens her and the woman goes away and is never seen or referred to again. Which is stupid, because the obvious implication of this is that there's a whole society of cat people right there in town, and them seeking Irena and her brother out and giving them a refuge is both a much better story and a much better way of addressing the problem than either going along with Paul's incest plan or the ending we got, with Irena permanently in cat form and shut up in the zoo. So that's the story I was writing in my head on the way out of the theater.

I do that fairly often coming out of theaters, by the way. It's gotten even worse lately, but American movie culture has gotten itself locked into certain formulaic ways of doing things that tend to turn every intriguing premise into the same damn story, to the point that it's possible to amuse yourself in a blockbuster predicting the next bit of dialog, or the next plot complication, or the third-act turn.

Anyway, to get at the real story here you'd have to answer a few questions up front. How did your werecats get separated from their kind? This could be anything from political upheaval to personal drama. What kind of cats you're dealing with? Answering that question leads to: How is the werecat society supposed to work? After all, cats aren't pack animals, though most species are hardly as solitary as people say. Independent, yes; but this independence exists in the context of sometimes complex sociopolitical arrangements involving hierarchy, territory, sexual and hunting rights, and mutual benefits. A pride of lion-people would function differently than a group of jaguar or leopard or cheetah people.

My protagonist was a teen-age were-jaguar. The only other were-jaguar she knows is her mother, who used to belong to a jaguar colony in an isolated region of South or Central America. If I'd ever actually written this I'd have picked a particular historical time and place, but I never decided whether it broke up as the result of a political, natural, economic, or criminal disaster. Mama escaped with her baby, or maybe she was pregnant, and made it all the way to San Antonio, where she raised what she thought to be the last of the werecats.

This is a big secret and of course when baby werejaguar - I forget what I was calling her; Elena maybe - becomes teen werejaguar she starts to push her boundaries. She likes to patrol a certain scary part of her neighborhood (I picked a spot where a friend of mine was raped and wouldn't be talked into reporting it), pouncing on and scaring the snot out of people going there to do bad things. She thinks of herself as a superheroine. Mama thinks she's going to get herself killed. And one day on patrol she's approached by a snow leopard.

Elena and Mama, you see, may or may not be the last of the werejaguars, but they are not the last of the werecats. Every continent produces a small but viable population of weres of its representative cats. (I never did come up with a good excuse why, but most audiences are willing to handwave that.) America being what it is, this means that while small homogenous groups of weres probably live on Indian reservations and remote rural areas, in urban areas the werecat population is heterogenous and has to work out its own rules like any other ethnic subculture. The snow leopard, a professor at one of the local universities, is of Russian descent and is more or less boss cat for the San Antonio subculture.

On the one hand, she can offer Elena and Mama many desirable things - men they can date without deceiving, viable health care options, maybe a scholarship, job finding assistance, mutual support. On the other hand - well, she's boss cat, isn't she?

Ever watch kitty politics in action in your back yard? It's one of our regular occupations. We always have one cat per adult in our house, and we maintain a compost heap, bird feeders, and water features, which makes us prime feline real estate. Daytime soap operas are simple by comparison. The senior cat, the boss cat, the indoor cats, the pregnant cat, the kittens, the new tom, the sick tom, the cat who can control the big dog in the next yard over, the tiny Jungle Queen who rules by sheer force of personality...each yard divided into not only the front and back but into spheres of influence, areas of cover, location of resources; and it's all in constant flux. Imagine the yard as a town; imagine the cats not only all ages and sizes but all types, each with slightly different internal rules. Mountain lions don't live like snow leopards who don't live like jaguars who don't live like lions who don't live like Scottish wildcats...

I quickly realized that this was a series, and not a series of books, either. This screams for the open-endedness of a comic book series. It would even have a bit of a superhero hook as Elena tries to live up to her vision of herself as a neighborhood protector. You could have honest-to-god fight scenes with human bad guys (some of whom inevitably find out about the secret cat society and get ideas), dominance battles with lots of hair puffing and posturing, constantly shifting political ground as alliances are made and broken and the interests of differing parts of the community come into collision. Exactly the sort of thing most of us would rather get away from, and a lot of cats will opt out of most of it (I'm thinking particularly mountain lions), but you've got to meet your own kind sometimes. Like when you want to marry; when you're injured and human treatments just don't cut it.

With 20/20 hindsight, I now realize that if I'd tried hard enough I probably could have done it, at least for a few issues. This was the day of Independent Comics Explosion, after all. I wouldn't have had to rely on selling the concept to one of the Big Two and watched it get sucked down into the seething morass of their bizarre continuities. Antarctic Press, after all, started in San Antonio only two years later. My Achilles' Heel has always been my complete absence of any entrepreneurial drive. I'd rather just write the story and sell it to a publisher. I don't want to have to go out and hunt down a compatible artist, find financing, sell myself to a distributor, yadda yadda yadda. And did I love this concept enough to tie myself down to it for long enough to accomplish all that?

No, I did not. And it still hasn't been done, though modern paranormal romance gives plenty of evidence that other people have had thoughts along those lines. Some people have even given thought to the notion of wereanimals being ethnically tied to the natural habitat of the animal portion; but way too many literary weres are still white folks. Irena and her brother, who turned into black leopards, should have been played by black people in the movie. Mountain lions and jaguars and bobcats should have American Indian backgrounds, and tigers should hail from the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia. And so on.

It'd be cool. I'd buy it bimonthly.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Research Walk

Yesterday, I got together my maps, my notebook, some fruit in an insulated bag, and a bottle of water, and I took the bus downtown to figure out where Di was living when Len came to town.

See, I had picked Yturri Street because of its proximity to the cotton yards; but I realized that Yturri (a short street in the middle of the bend in the river, comprising an area analogous to St. Mary's Street between Commerce and the old library) would have been part of the area devastated by the flood of March 26, 1865. According to the two and a half columns of coverage in the April 7 Semi-Weekly News, the "freshets of March 26" were a disaster - families homeless, merchandise destroyed, property lost or injured in areas never flooded before, and loss of life.

Mind you, it's difficult for a modern researcher to be sure where this devastation lay. The report printed in the Semi-Weekly News describes the hardest-hit areas as
running across the bend of the river, one from above Mr. Simpson's house to the rear of Dr. Herff's house, which proved so destructive, and the other from about Mr. Gidding's house to Nat Lewis's mill, across Main Street.

As it happens, I know where Nat Lewis's mill was. Not only is it commemorated by one of the Riverwalk's tile historical markers and noted on one of my maps, but I used to work for the local utility company, constructed on what was once known as Bowen's Island near the ford where the mill was located. I remember when Betty Farlow put together a display about the history of the site for the company, back in the 80s. She could never interest the corporation in producing a proper historical booklet, but she did enough work to have written one and would pour her findings into my sympathetic and interested ear at lunch. So I know about the mill, the ford, the Turnverein, the nude bathing off the bridge - the works. But Giddings, Herff, and Simpson are, if not strangers to me (certainly not Giddings, operator of the Jackass Mail), not people I'm on visiting terms with.

Still, Bowen's Island is adjacent to Yturri Street and Main is a couple of blocks west of it, so I would either have to choose another street or enter the complication that when Len goes to the address she has for Di, in order to inform her of her father's death, neither Di nor her house will be there. I chose the complication because, face it, everybody gets lost their first time in San Antonio. I'm not sure how to make this into a way to advance the plot, but that's the sort of thing I can figure out as I go. First thing's first: find where Di and the Middletons moved to, and figure out how hard it will be to track them down.

So off I went, tramping through the streets, map in hand, constantly comparing it to the existing streets. In a couple of places I found helpful historical markers - at the German-English School and at the site of Guenther's Upper Mill - that made it easier to peel back the layers of time to the right year. At the Upper Mill, for example, I found that the mill wouldn't have been there - since Mauermann made his map in 1868, it shows features that wouldn't have existed three years earlier, and this is one of them. The mill was razed for river widening in 1924 - so this tells me not only that the map is "wrong" on this point, but that the river I see today is wider than the river Len will see if she has occasion to go that far south. But wait, there's more! Set into the ground a few yards from the mill marker are a couple of stones, marked "Stribling House 1859-1926;" and between them is a huge black walnut tree. So - no mill, but a substantial house with a stone foundation where the owner has planted a black walnut!

I am tolerably familiar with downtown San Antonio. I lived there, in a now-gone apartment across the street from the Southwest Craft Center and the former KMOL studios (now WOAI-TV) for the crucial years between dropping out of Trinity University and moving in with Damon. Most of the jobs I've had, temporary or permanent, were downtown. When a convention I'm interested in comes to town, like ALA, TLA, or IRA, it's in the convention center across from the German English school. And when visitors come to town, I'm their native guide. I've even done walking research there before, in order to see what Ada and Amber saw when they switched places across time in Switching Well. I can tell you ghost stories, history stories, movie stories, any kind of story you'd like about the heart of San Antonio - and still, the light bulbs kept coming on over my head as I realized - oh, that's what they did with that street; oh, this is where I am; oh, here's where that was.

I never realized before that the famous Market House, a honey of a building cooled by fountains and designed to look like a massive Greek temple, was built on the flood channel. It hadn't struck me that either the old cathedral had to be oriented differently from the new one, or that parishioners had to cross the Main Acequia to get in the front door. I hadn't noticed that Dolorosa Street, rather than turning into Market Street, becomes the sidewalk in front of the courthouse and continues as that little alley behind the old library.

And I finally realize just how wrongheaded it was to continue the line of Navarro Street as South St. Mary's; requiring, as it did, that St. Mary's Street be laid out to turn sharply eastward (about in line with the old bend in the river that delineated Bowen's Island) in order to join up with an existing street that continued the line of Navarro (only it wasn't Navarro at that point; it was Paso). For years I've been repeating the local story blaming St. Mary's Street's bewildering layout - running north, south, east, and west all in the course of a single mile - on the burro drivers who fell asleep on their way home and let the animals find their own way; but in this part of town, at least, blame must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the city engineers.

I'm not going to lay it all out for you in tedious detail. This is sort of place geekery should be done in person, and if you ever want a native guide to San Antonio, give me a call - we're in the book. It's enough to know that I understand the town I love better, and I found exactly the right neighborhood and type of house the Middletons and Di will relocate to, at exorbitant rent, after the flood. I also know exactly where the Plaza Hotel was, where the James Vance family lived (historical marker - corner of modern Nueva and S. Main, then Nueva and Acequia streets, only Acequia didn't run that far) and have a good sense of the cotton yards. I still need to locate some livery stables, an office for Julian Middleton, and no doubt other sites I don't know about yet.

But I know enough to get Len well and truly lost, and that'll do to go on with. It was an excellent morning's work (do not ever devote a summer afternoon to a research walk in San Antonio if you value your health!) and I wrote a fair amount today. I look forward to doing it again.

And again.

And again.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Marriage for Writers

Today is another personal holiday: married to Damon 23 years today. I wasn't going to write about it because this isn't a personal blog; but then I realized - marriage is a huge career choice for a writer, yet it isn't treated as such by society.

If you look at literary marriages through history, it's not hard to see how important it is. Sometimes (especially reading the biographies of the Romantics) it seems that writers are simply horrible spouses; other times (especially reading the biographies of female writers) it seems that ghastly marriages drive writers.

How many Victorian women took up the pen because their husbands couldn't or wouldn't provide for the family, and no other respectable occupation was open to them? Charlotte Bronte never published a word after she married Mr. Bell. Elizabeth Barrett's only major work after she married Browning was Sonnets from the Portuguese. (Which, okay, is a major major work!) Louisa May Alcott foreswore marriage; Jane Austen opted out of it, and we have to wonder if she'd have produced her six so-nearly-perfect novels if she hadn't. E. Nesbit wrote her influential and diverse body of work in the context of a chaotic marriage to a man who carried on an affair with another women in the same house as his wife. (Nesbit adopted the children of this liasion!) George Eliot defied convention to live with a married man in what today would be a conventional second marriage but in those days cut her off from polite society.

Robert Louis Stevenson's peripatetic lifestyle included a supportive, hard-working, strong-willed wife who was slowly going mad and with whom he often got into a mutually self-destructive loop of bad behavior. (I'm supposed to stop smoking for my lungs but you're supposed to eat fewer sweets. You had cake so I get a cigarette, so there.) Thomas Carlyle's wife Jane died a virgin. Dickens regretted his marriage and used it for literary fodder, trying to work out on paper acceptable roads through the minefield of duty, love, happiness, and gender roles and never finding his way.

And then there's Leonard and Virginia Woolf; he set aside his writing career for her's in a reversal of traditional sex roles (possibly predicated on a realistic judgment of their relative talent; but we'll never know now, will we?). Tolkien wrote against a cozy domestic background of wife and young 'uns and steady paid employment, which ate up time and forced creative writing into late nights and leisure hours. C.S. Lewis's domestic arrangements are far more fraught and mysterious than anything else in his life - what was his relationship with Mrs. Moore, exactly? Is it possible for an outsider to see through the romanticism and sentimentality of Shadowlands to the reality of his marriage to Joy? And how does that interact with his strictures on marriage in his apologetics or his portrayal of women and sex in Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and (what I consider the best but least read of his books) Till We Have Faces? Could Charles Dodgson have become Lewis Carroll if he'd married, and would we be as obsessed with figuring out his sexual proclivities today?

The most straightforwardly beneficial marriages I can think of off the top of my head are same-sex pairings - Gertrude Stein/Alice B. Toklas, and Christopher Isherwood/Don Bachardy. But the biographies of Margaret Wise Brown, W.H. Auden, and other homoerotic luminaries will demonstrate that this is an artifact of my sampling method and that the complexities of the literary marriage are amplified by the addition of societal disapproval, legal restrictions, and the peculiar public morality that makes the cruel hoax of bearding more socially acceptable than honest living.

For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer - who you marry will affect what you write, when you write, how you write. I recommend that every writer who is contemplating marriage read a few biographies with that in mind, and consider how this person fits in with your writing life.

In my opinion, writing as a profession is sufficiently difficult that no one should even mess with it unless it's the most important thing in the world to them. Much, much, much casual and unpaid writing is worth doing; if you are satisfied by writing your church newsletter, the occasional poem in a little magazine, and posting fanfic, you are still writing and no one has the right to look down on you. The whole time and energy black hole with no promise of adequate compensation (not to speak of reward) of the write-revise-submit process is simply not worth it if you don't want publication and a place on the library shelf more than you want the other ways you can spend your time.

If that's who you are, marriage to someone who doesn't get that up front is not fair to anyone. A writer's spouse who is not as committed to the career as the writer is will kill the career, or kill the marriage - and is not to blame for that. Because if the career comes first for the writer - the marriage does not.

That's a hard reality that will make life easier once you look it in the face, internalize it, and learn to work with it. A marriage does not have to fit any of society's ideals for it in order to be a good one for the individuals involved. Nobody else has to be pleased by it or even understand it. Biographers disagree violently about Lewe's treatment of George Eliot, but there's no reason to think she could have had a career at all in a different relationship. Louisa May Alcott was almost certainly correct in her estimation of how her life would have been harder with a husband; but she might have lived longer and enjoyed it more had she taken a wife! (I'm not making assumptions about her sexuality here; she had the role of Victorian husband vis-a-vis her "pathetic family," and might well have benefited from somebody, of any sex, to take the role of Victorian wife to her.)

Ideally, modern marriage is supposed to be an equal partnership. In reality, it's hard to see how things balance out in any given case and most marriages look lopsided at one point or another. No one can be married for 23 years and not accumulate reasons for divorce. Damon has reasons to divorce me and I have reasons to divorce him; these are nobody's business unless we act on them, and we do not. From certain angles we look like the ideal couple. From certain others, we look impossible, but which one of us is accumulating debts to the other that can never be repaid depends on where you put your emphasis. Fortunately, love is not a market economy.

And the bottom line for me is that he gave me a context in which I wrote and published 12 middle-grade novels, and which eventually allowed me to quit the soul-sucking day job.

Good, and good enough. Happy anniversary to us.

Monday, July 12, 2010

An e-mail bouquet

Shameless begging works! Not only do I have more comments yesterday than for the whole rest of the blog, Mary K. Whittington sent me virtual roses. So I have to put them out where everybody can see them.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Solicitation for Donations

It occurred to me while I was cleaning the bathroom yesterday that Sunday's my birthday, dammit, I shouldn't have to work and people should be giving me presents. And since I now have three whole followers (one of whom I don't even know personally; wow) and two people in the gaming group say they read this, and since my guiding principle is that ideas are common as dirt, they should be able to generate a sale idea or two in the comment section.

So, what about it, y'all? You don't have to go to the lengths I do and it doesn't have to be a well-rounded or a complete idea; just something that's been rattling around in your head awhile that you don't expect to ever do anything with. It doesn't have to be a story idea, either. A picture you know you'll never draw, a business you know you'll never start, a campaign you wish somebody else would DM. I know you've got 'em. Everybody does.

And if you don't feel like celebrating my birthday today, celebrate E.B. White's. It's his birthday too! Also, this is the 151st anniversary of the publication of A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens's least funny novel - no, wait, Hard Times is oddly devoid of comic characters, too. But nobody has to read it in English class. (I should reread it. I might enjoy it more now than I did when I was 13.)

And the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here's a story we all wish could be told about us. Once Harper Lee, who made a steady enough income with Mockingbird she never had to get a soul-sucking day job or write anything else, was at a cocktail party and somebody clueless asked what she did. She answered: "I wrote a book." Clueless raised his eyebrows and said: "A book?"

She replied: "Well, it was a really good book."

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Technology and bodies. They're both great when they work. Neither of mine did last week, hence the lack of posting. Life is rough.

And now I'm behind on everything and won't be posting much to any purpose because my hard-earned energy needs to be spent catching up on stuff that directly benefits me, like cleaning the bathroom, researching, and putting together new agent queries. And making a birthday cake. Because tomorrow is my birthday, and thanks to stupid health stuff I can't just ask Baskin Robbins to make me a jamoca almond fudge ice cream cake, I have to bake my own. It can't be jamoca almond fudge because I don't have a recipe and Certain People won't eat nuts. And it can't be German chocolate because Certain People won't eat coconut. But counting up the times Certain People had to limit where they ate out because the hypoglycemic vegetarian on the low-sodium diet had to come along, I guess I shouldn't whine about that.

Sometimes I feel like my life is made of interruptions. I start a routine and blammo, it gets sidetracked. I make a plan and wham! Something beyond my control knocks it all to flinders. Which is what happens to most protagonists, too, and is why they can be so annoyingly reluctant to take up their job as protagonists. We pick up a book knowing it's about a quest, or a post-apocalyptic adventure, or a murder investigation; but the character was all set to take the SATs and become a dentist, spend a nice quiet weekend getting on top of the yardwork, or otherwise go quietly about his business. Plots are big inconvenient interruptions to the daily lives of characters. We find it unsympathetic when they bitch and moan and whine about having to save the world, but in a similar situation we'd be much, much worse.

I wish the plots that interrupted my life had more intrinsic interest and eventually resolved; but that's one of the pleasures of literature. We don't get structure or closure much in real life, so we like to experience them in fiction.

I could talk about this for the rest of the morning, and also have thoughts to share about teaching sewing and taking research walks, but that bathroom's not going to clean itself. If I don't post a sale idea tomorrow morning, it'll be because I didn't get the cake baked today and there isn't time to do both before meeting the gaming group.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Opening Line

We had two out-of-town members of the gaming group over last night so we could get an early start on gaming, so Idea Garage Sale today is simple before I dash out the door.

Here's a first line that popped into my head randomly, as happens once in awhile. Usually nothing happens, but sometimes you write "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit" and the question of what a hobbit is and why it lives in a hole in the ground comes back to eat at you and history is made. So here's one of mine.

"The worst of it was, Megrim wasn't even human."

The imagery I have about this line, oddly enough, involves Conestoga wagons and sibling rivalry. But run with it if you want.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Long View

So anyway I was reading Agent Kristin's Pub Rants earlier this week, and one day she had one about the trends she was seeing in the her queries and the next day she had one about how, sure enough, she found one of those trends in the queries she was reading last thing before bed that very night. (Don't get into any aspect of literature professionally if you don't love it. It invades the lives of everyone who works with it in this all-pervasive way, so you're never not working. Maybe not the accountants, but everybody who deals with books as books is going to be working in their sleep, I promise you.) The comments on the first one are full of relief or agony, depending on whether the commenter has a manuscript that fits into one of the noted trends, and the comments on both talk about examples of the trends, how old they are, how bad it is to jump on a bandwagon and why, what to do when you were on the bandwagon before it ever started but no one believes you now, and so on.

It's obnoxious of me, but I want to pinch the commenters' little cheeks. Some of them are probably older than me, and write better, and will sell another book before I do; but talking about trends and fashions and what's new and what's classic and how things used to be different always makes me feel old. When people say they're tired of vampires and the market must be saturated by now, they've been so ubiquitous for the last couple of years, blaming it all on Ms. Meyer, it really is all I can do not to roll my eyes. I was thinking "Vampires must be about to trend out" during WorldCon 1997. (Which I attended walking uphill both ways after a breakfast of ice cold gravel. You think I'm linking to a Python sketch there; but click it and see!)

Vampires had a big mainstream hit in 1976 with Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, which I remember seeing read in my high school by the same girls who read bodice-rippers. The fashion was current enough and vampire tropes familiar enough for everyone to get the joke when James Howe started producing Bunnicula in 1979. Vampires rode the tide of the mainstream horror fad of the 80s; got big among the fen starting in the late 80s when my husband started accumulating vampire series; ran underground among teens with the Goth fashion in the 90s; invaded the romance/soft porn market with Laurel Hamilton in 1993, and thus was created the atmosphere in which Stephanie Meyer could make absurd amounts of money. You won't hear the names P.N. Elrod, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Jim Butcher, or Fred Saberhagen tossed around in most online discussions of the vampire bandwagon, but talk to serious vampire fans like Damon (who won't read Twilight and wants an abridged edition of Anita Blake in which four or five books have the sex scenes abstracted and are published as one slim all-story volume) and you'll see that the tradition has been developing right along under the mainstream's radar.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is often credited with beginning the connection of vampires with sex, but really John Polidori did that when he made Lord Ruthven a Byronic figure in The Vampyre (1819). Stoker's just the guy who took the sexy vampire mainstream. Take the long view like that, and it's much harder to get too excited about who's copying who, how long the trend will last, or how long it'll be possible to make money off of it.

Another of the trends mentioned, dead protagonists (as distinct from vamps) hadn't come to the notice of most of the commentors yet. Recentish examples I can think of off the top of my head: Neal Shusterman's brilliant Everlost (but Shusterman is usually more or less brilliant), Gabrielle Zevin's intriguing Elsewhere, and even my own The Ghost Sitter, though to be fair it has two protagonists and only one is dead. Some commenters traced the start of the fashion to The Lovely Bones (2002), but someone else compares that book unfavorably to Christopher Pike's Remember Me, 1989. I liked Lovely Bones, myself and don't see any need to force things into hierarchies; but that commentor is beginning to see the point. Only she doesn't go back nearly far enough. When I was in junior high my mother got me to read one of the few romances I've ever read: Tryst, by Elswyth Thane (1939), in which one of a pair of predestined lovers dies before he meets his soulmate but the romance carries on anyway.

The trope hit big once with The Amber Gods, by Harriett Elizabeth Prescott Spoffard, back in 1889. To be sure, it's more like The Sixth Sense the movie than The Lovely Bones the book, in that you aren't supposed to realize that the first-person narrator is dead until the realization hits you like a bucket of cold water in the last sentence of this warm, languorous, sun-drenched book. No one remembers it now, the prose style is hopelessly out of fashion, and only those, like me, who read voraciously and indiscriminately or, like the critic who brought it to my attention, systematically and historically, even know it existed. And this fate will befall Stephanie Meyers in time, and J.K. Rowling, and everyone else who makes huge money on trends.

It doesn't matter. We make a fetish of originality in our culture; but we don't know what it means or how to recognize it when we see it. I've seen Rowling extolled as a ground-breaker in children's literature (no, no, no - she wouldn't claim that for herself) and Shakespeare derided as a plagiarist (so what if he stormed folklore, history, and the classics for plots? Who doesn't?) and all you have to do is read a little outside a narrow window to see that it's all nonsense.

Back in the 70s, the "blank books" fashion started. Nowadays they're all hardbound journals, often better bound than real books, but in those days they were plastic comb bound with slick dustcovers and titles like "Some Incredibly Important Trivia." When I was satisfied with my verse (I hesitate to call it poetry these days) I'd copy it into one. The dustcovers had quotes on the flaps, formatted like blurbs: "I wouldn't care who wrote the laws if I could write the ballads" -- Thomas Jefferson; and "Originality does not consist in saying what no one has ever said before, but in saying exactly what you think yourself" - James Stephens. I'm still not sure who James Stephens is, after googling it, but I expect he's someone to do with Virginia (Stephens) Woolf. Whatever, it's the best advice I ever got.

You can't control trends. You can't predict them. You can't worry about them. And if you don't limit your reading to the tiny narrow window of your lifetime, if you read broadly and deeply and alertly, you'll soon find that you relax about it all. The well of creativity is drawn from a deep, broad aquifer of experience and culture, most of it held in common. Of course trends emerge. Of course we are inspired by each other and draw from similar sources and get family resemblances among works.

What we read, we think about; what we think about, we write. The more vampire books there are the more vampire books there will be; because if you read a vampire book and like it, you'll get an idea for a vampire book. It's inevitable. So it's important to read the kind of thing you want to write. If you want to write children's books, read children's books. If you want to write fantasy, read fantasy. Stop worrying about what everybody else is doing. Stay aware of it, but stop worrying about it.

It's not easy to keep up the current publishing in any field, heaven knows, and we should be aware of what's out there. That's why agents post about what they're seeing a lot of. But stressing about it is counter productive. So take the long view and get back to work.

This, too, shall pass away.