Sunday, January 30, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Ike's Highways

Yesterday I drove up to Austin for Cyn Smith's booklaunch party for Blessed. It was a good event and I bought lots of books at BookPeople, but by 4:00, when Cyn and Greg invited me to be part of the trek to Opal Divine's to relax afterward, I was already an hour into my afternoon crash despite fully caffeinating that morning. (I have the world's most anti-social body; it never lets me do things like this.) So I made my way back home down I-35 cranking up my highway music and fending off the post-event blues, which is all part of the crash, and it occurred to me that we don't have to have interstate highways.

The modern American public highway system is the result of post-World-War II politics, and the form it takes was influenced largely by President General Eisenhower's desire to have a transformation network which could function as a giant national runway in case of emergency. His experiences in Europe, shuffling troops and supplies all around a disrupted, devastated continent, gave him a clear idea of what he wanted for his own continent; and such was the bizarre state of politics during his administration, his plan was respected and used on the grounds that it was practical. It probably also helped that he wasn't trying to run the government without taxing the rich, and therefore the highways could actually get public funding. (If I wrote a biography of Ike, I'd probably call it The Last Real Republican.)

We all take well-maintained public highways for granted now, but they weren't inevitable. They might have been underfunded; they might have lost out to well-maintained public rail systems; we might have no cohesive public transportation grid at all. And I have to wonder - how would our culture have developed without them?

I envision I-35 replaced by a major rail line with a central terminal in each town, where one can rent street vehicles - small electric cars, Segways, bikes - and connect to local rail systems; maybe these terminals function as huge solar batteries to charge the electric cars. I'd get up to Austin more in such a situation, and might have even gone to Opal Divine's, if instead of driving I knew I could start reading Blessed on the way home. The trip would be faster, too. There'd be a lot less reason to cover the farm and ranchland along major transit corridors with outlet malls, strip centers, and ugly subdivisions. The rural brain drain might be worse, though; and entire communities might have been leveled for the construction of rail centers.

The Great American Vacation wouldn't consist of loading the entire family into the car and crowding the highways. "Are you there yet?" might not even be an instantly recognizable joke. If, instead of the cohesive rail system envisioned in the last paragraph, there's no public transportation infrastructure at all, just the organically grown old patchwork system of private and local jurisdictions, we might avoid the chaos of the roads by flying even short distances, or by vacationing close to home. Businesses might be less willing to transfer people from one branch to another, making families less mobile. Or telecommuting might have become a standard mode of work forty years ago.

Would music sound different? Car culture, teen culture, and rock culture became tightly associated in the 50s and it seems to me that the rhythms of the road were essential in developing the rhythms of pop music. It's possible that the reason 70s pop rock is so ideal for long drives is due to the subconscious influence of the tour bus on songwriters. Would Chuck Barry have ever heard "that highway sound" in "Maybelline" without Ike's highways? Which songs would need different lyrics without them? What would have replaced the 70s fad for truckers, CB radios, and trucking songs?

World building is fun, and alternate worlds make excellent settings. I don't, off the top of my head, know what story I would set in a highwayless America. It's just a setting, usable in any genre, with any character. Interstate highways are prominent in the history of crime, with a number of serial killers named after their highway hunting grounds; so you could plot a thriller or detective novel around the difference this setting would make to the career of, for example, the IH-35 Killer.

Or take the thought about Ike's highways in a different direction. What if they ever had to be used as he envisioned them? I can't recall a single paranoid 50s/60s movie in which Aliens, Reds, Giant Irradiated Monsters, or Zombie Hordes invaded America in which the highway system was used as runways. Why not? (And am I overlooking something?) Could it still be done, or has the modern tendency to build overpasses, underpasses, cloverleaves, and stacked ranks of traffic made it impractical? What if it needed to be done right now - what circumstances would require it? What difficulties would arise in implementing it? You could build a two-hour summer blockbuster movie out of those questions.

Something to think about next time you're stuck in traffic, anyway.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sullivan, That Summer

That's the title of the work I tried to find a potential home for this morning. It's uphill work, as I've been shopping it for ten years and the number of editors that will look at unagented submissions who haven't already rejected it has shrunk to a nub. I'm convinced it's a good book, not anything that'll set the world on fire, but hey, who wants to live in a burning world?

The problems with it are:

1) Even by my standards, it's hard to cram into a workable synopsis. This despite the fact that it's, again by my standards, astoundingly short. About 35,000 words, as opposed to Len's story, which before cutting weighs in at 93,000+. But the structure is, and must be, wonky.
2) It's off-brand for me. No magic, no mystery, no mounds of research. Just a nice little story about friendship and meeting your idols. I only wrote it because it started pouring out of me and I don't argue with stories that want to do that even when I'm bewildered at how they got into me to begin with.
3) Though the viewpoint character is a lesbian and one of the arcs is her coming-out story, the book is not edgy. Nor is it as funny as, say, Boy Meets Boy (or, probably, David Levithan's grocery list). When I started it, all books with lesbians in them had Horrible Stuff happen in them and the crying need for a relaxed, ordinary teen story with a lesbian protagonist should have been obvious to everybody. Now it's less obvious and I've got stiffer competition. Life is rough.
4) Notice the adjectives I've used here. Nice, little, relaxed, ordinary - in a climate that's focused on blockbusters, those are not adjectives that are in demand. That doesn't mean it's not saleable or that no audience exists for it; but it does mean I have to find exactly the right editor who understands that audience and currently works at a house that knows how to make money from it.
5) Oh, and that house with that editor has to take unagented submissions.

And this is why I'm an optimist. I couldn't possibly get anything done otherwise.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Day Late

I forgot all about blogging yesterday. I had errands to do in the morning, after lunch a friend came over to see if we could make my low-sodium bread rise like hers does (not so far; but I think it'll make decent casserole topping), and Damon came home early to meet with the designer about the work that needs doing on the back of the house.

All of which makes me sound busy and productive, but I also spent a fair amount of time on activities that weren't very - a little online browsing, a little gaming, a little standing in front of the heater thinking of the things I could be doing. When I don't have an organizing principle to build my day around, like a book to write, my time use gets a sloppy to the point that I suspect myself of malingering. I always have more work than I have time to do it in, so where do I get off spending an afternoon curled up with a book or a morning reading blogs that have nothing to do with writing? My friend with the baking, who has a lot of experience in this area, says if I need to coast awhile, I need to coast awhile or I'll wreck myself; but how do you know when you're coasting because you need to and when you're coasting because you've crossed the line into indolence?

In any case I have to do a minimum amount of work every day or I can't sleep, so I can't afford to relax too much. And I don't want to be caught in the trap of doing displacement activity instead of real work. Displacement activity is probably a bigger danger for me than laziness. It's easier to hide an unproductive dopamine fix in housework, organization chores, endless "researching" (of contractors, design elements, markets you'll never pitch to), or the quest to make the perfect pair of slacks than it is in equally time-sucking but more obviously time-wasting activities like computer games. Farmville addiction is not pretty and furthermore it is only justifiable as a leisure activity. You can hear yourself being absurd when you insist that you have to harvest the imaginary eggplant instead of putting your query together; but it is possible to convince yourself that the urgency of refinishing your furniture trumps the importance of querying at this particular instant in time; because instants exist in which it's true.

Blogging can be a displacement activity, too. My Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday schedule is a disciplinary structure, not a mandate. So I'm not going to feel bad about forgetting it once. Yesterday was a pretty good day. That ought to be enough for me.

Now, if I ever get bored - then something'll be seriously wrong with my life!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: A Structure in Search of a Story

(Note on Monday; I see the post was messed up on Sunday, when I was hurrying to get ready for the game and didn't make the last check on the blog. Fixing this now.)

We are all the heroes of our own stories, and the secondary characters of other peoples. My story is not the same as my husband's, though they are entwined so intimately that you'd be hard-pressed to tell one without telling the other.

So much is obvious. But work outward from that. All our friends, all our relatives, all our co-workers, everyone we sit next to on the bus or drive behind in traffic - they all have stories that can brush against ours and send them in new directions, and vice versa. All those people in turn function within similar vast nets of relationships, and so on, until we are all affected by the actions and inactions of people of whose existence we have no notion. Forget the flapping of butterfly wings causing hurricanes; if I turn left when I should have turned right, smile when I could have frowned, answer a question correctly or incorrectly, I have affected multitudes.

I have always wanted to tell a story that reflected this. I know it's possible. Dickens does it - in fact, the Victorians generally did this, but since I read Dickens in his entirety (well - the entirety of his novels) in chronological order back in middle school, Dickens is how I know it's possible. He's often criticized for plots that hinge on improbable coincidences; but improbable, meaningful coincidences are so common in real life they have a name - synchronicity. Blaming Dickens for putting synchronicity to artistic use seems to me nitpicky and ill-natured. Personally, I love the way he connected people to each other with long, complex chains of causality. Even half-hour TV shows these days have A plots and B plots, but Dickens had C, D, and E plots, balls and knives and flaming torches all in the air at once and suddenly coming together into a cohesive whole.

It was easier to do this with Victorian audiences, but it's not impossible with a modern one. Boris Pasternak did it in Dr. Zhivago. Fannie Flagg did it in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe. Virginia Woolf was constantly on the verge of doing it, especially in Mrs. Dalloway. Soap operas do it as a byproduct of their nature. Anyone who uses a common setting for multiple works with different protagonists will do it at least to a limited extent.

Heck, one of the reasons I like playing Sims games is that, by playing each household in the neighborhood in rotation and building the connections between them, I can scratch the itch to do this. Doing it for an audience, though, is different. I can do it a little when DMing by keeping timetables of what the NPCs are doing and letting the players interact with a dynamic set of characters instead of the series of set pieces - three ogres in this room and seven in that, engaged in certain activities, regardless of what time of day it is or which sequence the rooms are encountered in - typical of modules. One of my proudest moments as a DM was when my players were discussing what to do next and one of them said: "Remember, these are Peni's NPCs. They're not going to be sitting around waiting for us to do everything." But in a game, the player characters are paramount; no matter how much individuality and purpose I endow my NPCs with, they cannot ultimately have as much effect on the storyline as the PCs. Also, my insistence on doing this is one reason DMing is so labor-intensive for me. It's exhausting, constantly working up chains of contingencies that change with every choice a player makes.

It ought to be easier in my chosen medium, narrative fiction, where theoretically I control everything; but the fact is, I don't. Editors are always telling me to tighten my focus, strip down the viewpoints, leave out the irrelevant stuff - and if I can't write it all well enough to persuade the editor it's not irrelevant, I have to do so. If a method is out of fashion or makes large demands of the reader, it must be done superlatively in order to be accepted.

I used to have a friend at a soul-sucking day job who had a concept like this. She had created a fictional East Texas town which was periodically affected by the blossoming of a rare psychoactive flower, causing weird things to happen and permanently affecting the behavior and relationships of everyone who lived there. Her problem was that she knew all the characters in town and had a hard time leaving any of them out of any given story, so everything she wrote in the sequence was overpopulated and had no center. In order to create the town whole, she'd have to write dozens of stories containing only little pieces of it, pieces that could stand on their own and be published out of context, but which would reward those who read the whole thing with a startling 3D picture. She died before she managed it.

Publication wasn't The Most Important Thing for her anyway, thank goodness, and I learned quite a bit by helping her analyze why these particular stories of hers were not publishable. Periodically I try to sketch out a plan of a town, or a school, or a subdivision - some small, manageable community cohering around a central premise, something like her psychoactive flower, that would provide a core around which to build a series of independent, interlocking stories. And then it turns into an exercise in world-building and I never write the stories.

But there are so many possibilities! The history of a school of magic from its founding in a misty Age of Heroes to a modern Age of Magic. A small town with a temporal anomaly, or a functioning wishing well, or a gate between worlds, in the middle of it. A family consisting of people whose goals drive them apart while their choices drag them back together. A single block on a single street where the neighbors barely know each other, but something extraordinary touches them all. Or, or, or - it's too overwhelming.

In particular it's too overwhelming to work out the overall story arc and write the stories to fill in. Wouldn't it be better to write one story, then riff off of some hint or incident or image in that to write another one, which spins off another which spins off another which connects back to the first one and spawns another, and so on? Oh, infinitely so; a story sequence like that would be a thing of beauty when put all together, if done right. But who would publish the component parts, with the short story market so bad right now? I'd have to have a driving urge to write them in order to make up for the whole frustrating, piecemeal process of publication and the possibility that I'd never publish enough of them for anyone to notice what I was doing.

And so it doesn't get done.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

There is No Spoon and I Must Eat

D'j'ever stare at a word so long it disintegrated into its component letters and meant nothing? For some reason I do this most often with short words containing W. IOWA. OWL. WON. OWN. WORK. WISE. But it'll happen to any word. Most pictures, too. Digital ones particularly break down into pixels and become visual hash even if the resolution is good. But even a photo from film or a painting can become a meaningless jumble of eyes, branches, fence slats, light, shade.

Your life, your work, and your self will do the same thing if you stare at them long enough.

Usually, this is a bad idea. Human beings can't deal without structure. We need it so much we manufacture it where none exists. Destroy your structure, you destroy your capacity to function.

However, if you're trapped within a structure - your sense of identity, your culture, your subculture, the "rules" of your art - staring at it till it disintegrates long enough for you to escape is a good idea. You'll be able to make a new one for yourself, don't worry. Just make sure the new structure you build is larger and suits your needs better.

Use your best judgment.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Boring Part

Sorry about not hosting the garage sale Sunday. I had an idea to put on the block (there isn't the slightest danger of my running out), but - well, it was a weird weekend and it's not done with me yet, so it'll keep till next Sunday.

Meanwhile, it's almost the end of January. Have you:

Got your paperwork from last year in order?
Updated your ledger and started a new year?
Tracked down stray receipts?
Logged the mileage on the car you use for writing-related trips?
Added up the deductible mileage you put on it?
Renewed all your memberships in professional organizations?
Reported and paid any sales tax you owe?
Got everything in order so you can make your tax prep appointment as soon as the publishers, schools, and whatever get your forms to you?

Do you even have a tax preparer? It really is better not to do them yourself; not unless you're a CPA. And even then, are you sure you're up on the latest tax laws? 'Cause those suckers change all the time. Best to farm it out to people who do it all the time, especially if they guarantee themselves to eat the late fees if they make a mistake. It's way, way too easy to transpose two numbers on a form.

Yeah, it's all a mundane bore. But keeping up with the mundane crud is the only way to keep your castles in the air flying. Doing it now will be better than crashing and burning later.

Not that I would know about crashing and burning due to careless bookkeeping first hand, or anything.

Just trust me. Go do your petty officework and indulge yourself in an orgy of playful creativity, or chocolate, or both, afterward.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Return of the Mammoth

Mammoth 'could be reborn in four years'

Sudden acceleration of the theoretical timetable, but of course Dr. Iritani is an optimist. He doesn't even have his base DNA yet.

It raises the question: To what degree is a single member of a social species, born and raised among and by another species, really a member of its species? Won't it have serious social and psychological issues?

These considerations will not, of course, stop me from going "Oh, SQUEEEEE! Baby mammoth!" if Dr. Iritani's dream comes true.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Look

So this morning, as part of my routine, I clicked on a sewing newsgroup, ran the search for new posts since my last visit, and read the two or three in threads that sounded like they might have something useful to me in them. I generally only go there once a day unless I have a sewing question and no one else to consult, because I'm not into the whole clothes thing enough to hang with these people, who can get down and dirty about style and stuff. I've never been like that: don't wear makeup, hate shoe shopping (you'd hate it too, if you had my feet), choose my clothes based on factors like pockets. I only sew at all because I can't get clothes that meet my basic utility criteria unless I do. But today on one of the threads I read someone asked for advice on what to wear to a writer's conference, so I replied, and realized I have in fact accumulated some opinions on this topic.

First of all, when you're at a conference you're going to be running from panel to panel, standing in long lines at booksignings, browsing the dealer's room, and accumulating free stuff - handouts, schedules, maps, business cards, catalogs, galleys, books. So whatever else you do, come prepared with something on your feet that won't render you lame the next day, and something in which to carry your loot that won't a)be easily lost b) take up as much space as you do c) violate the rules of the venue and most of all d) injure you. I'm serious. I know someone who tore a ligament at midwinter ALA carrying around the catalogs she collected. I have an enormous backpack, designed to carry a laptop, that can be squashed into any number of shapes and fit into a surprisingly small space even when laden with books and food. (I don't go anywhere without emergency food.)

Second, one of the prime reasons to go to conferences is to hook up with people in your profession. Of course you plan to schmooze editors and agents and get critiques from big names, but be honest - didn't you choose this conference over that one in order to finally meet in person your favorite blogger or members of your online group who also plan to attend? Then you get there and the spot where you agreed to meet is harder to find than you thought, or bigger than you thought, or contains more people than you expected. So how do you find each other?

I once had to take an online friend of mine to the emergency room when she ran a high fever during ALA. In her conference report afterward, conveying the disjointed sense of unreality under which she labored, she said: "Peni wears a western hat. That's how you know it's her." And it's true. I started wearing a hat thirty years ago when I became dependent on the bus. I want one in summer to keep the sun out of my eyes and I want one in winter to keep my head warm. I like hats. Most people don't wear them because they restrict vision when driving. So without my ever intending to, The Hat became a kind of trademark. When I'm meeting someone who's never seen me, I usually tell them: "I'll be the one in The Hat." When I'm in a crowded venue with a party that gets separated, I tend to be the focal point that brings everybody back together, because when they can't see faces they can see The Hat. I went to Winter SCBWI in 2008 and didn't wear The Hat on the con floor because I was staying in the same hotel and didn't go outside; with the result that people were looking for me on the second day based on the color I wore on the first day, and missing me because I'd changed clothes. If I want people to find me, I have to wear The Hat. The Hat itself changes year to year and occasion to occasion, but if I don't wear some variation on it, nobody knows it's me.

You don't have to have something as permanent as The Hat, but it doesn't hurt to choose your clothes with recognizability as a key criterion. For a particular conference, you could be The Lady in Red. The Guy in the Cardigan. The One with the Big Braid Wrapped Around Her Head. Anything your friends can home in on. Jeans aren't distinctive enough; jeans and superhero t-shirts may be, depending on the conference.

And last: Periodically throughout your career, stop and ask yourself whether now is a good time to do a little branding.

It's easy to go overboard on this sort of thing and become a caricature, especially if you do it prematurely. Even at a science fiction convention, there's something pathetic about dressing up as your own series character. If you haven't even sold the series yet - don't do it. Please. Don't. And it takes a very special mystery writer to carry off wearing a deerstalker and carrying a magnifying glass. But if you're subtle and modest and have a sense of humor, and if the brand you're trying to associate with is (as it should be) a true enthusiasm of yours or a natural part of your life, go for it. Chris Barton, who wrote The Day-Glo Brothers, has a fluorescent green tie. I have an outfit with cave art embroidered all over it and get t-shirts with megafauna on them as often as I can. If you write westerns and you live west of the Mississippi, you can probably knock their socks off in New York with your "cowboy look" wearing clothes already in your closet. But don't wear the riding heels, wear the boots you'd wear to walk around the exhibit halls at the rodeo, even if they're a little down-at-heel.

But don't obsess about any of this, either. Odds are good you've already evolved an effective look without thinking about it. Trust your look the same way you trust your style and voice, as natural parts of you that only need to be polished a little bit to shine.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Thoughts on Award Week

Alas, I am once again behind the curve, as I haven't read any of the major award winners! Newbery, Caldecott, Prinz, King, Belpre - nothing makes me feel how completely out of the loop I am in my own profession like award announcements! It's also a little embarrassing because I know some of the authors. Not till you get down to the awards for audios do I start knowing the books involved, and that's because the audio version is done a year or more after publication. Oh, and I have read one of the Stonewall honor books. I reckon that's something.

I've read a lot of books I enjoyed, all the same; though 2010 was the first year in a long time I didn't crack 200 read. My final total was 179. I blame the combination of driving and computer games. I've done a lot of reading on buses over the years, and if I'm at a computer I'm not reading a book. Even a lot of my reading time doesn't count toward the total, as I only count books I read all the way through. If I mine two or three chapters of seven or eight books for research, that's a fair number of books that I read intently but can't put on my tally. Magazines and comics don't count unless they're bound collections. And no online reading counts.

The trouble is - there's always more good books published in a year than anybody, even someone on an awards committee, can read. Probably when I do read this year's award winners - and I will read a lot of them eventually - I'll think that this or that other book that never got any buzz probably deserved an award more than this or that winner, whether by some objective standard or by dint of my taste diverging from the judges. I might even think that its failure to win proves the judges hadn't read it. And I might be right, or I might be wrong.

The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Even with recent proliferation of awards, there's more good books than there are awards to give to them. Society has worse troubles than that!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Fake Out Your Dead

One of the most fruitful things you can do to feed the story-generator in your head is to read general histories of specific subjects. Whatever anyone has ever done to make a living or pursued as an interest has generated intriguing dramas, most of which are poorly recorded and ripe for exploration, either as an in-depth non-fiction article or book or as fiction.

So this week I've been reading The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,by Clermont Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, and Sophie Schmit and published by the Yale University Press. It deals with the history of psychic and spirit photography between 1860 and 1930, dates which are not quite arbitrary, and approaches the subject from a historical rather than an aesthetic or a scientific angle; which is by far the best way to extract the underlying story. I'm only about halfway through and have noted half a dozen potential storylines, only one of which I'll go into here.

In the early 20s, a 58-year old cleaning woman with three children, named Ada Emma Deane, of London, began producing spirit photographs. To the modern eye these look like pathetic fakes, with the "spirit extras" looking exactly like pictures cut from magazines and pasted onto the negative, with a little gauze to cover up the outline, but she had a tremendous following in her day and became famous for taking pictures of Armistice Day national silent times showing the faces of dead soldiers hovering in the air above the crowds. The best-known of these shows a cloud of faces above the Cenotaph in White Hall, published in the Daily Mail and later re-published in the Daily Sketch alongside the pictures of the living sports figures who supposedly can be recognized in the cloud. I have yet to find a reproduction at sufficient scale and resolution to allow me to make a good comparison even if I were any good at seeing resemblances between photographs, and even those who had the originals in front of them disputed the identifications endlessly. Most spirit photographs that don't look like cut-outs are indistinct enough to allow even people with good facial-recognition skills to project any number of identifications onto them, anyway.

The thing that caught my notice, and which is not addressed in the book or even mentioned in any of the online articles I've found in a quick search, was that Mrs. Deane worked in collaboration with her children. Her daughter Viola also worked as a medium and produced photos with her, and one picture showing an Indian "spirit guide" who was the spitting image of a picture of an Indian published in a magazine some months before, was actually taken by her 11-year-old son. This makes me sit up, not only because I write for young people and the presence of young people in a historical anecdote automatically makes me sit up, but because of the story possibilities this opens up.

We may take it for granted, even if we believe in the basic tenets of spiritualism, that spirit photography does not show spirits. Either the picture quality is so bad you can project anything you want into it, or the fake is transparent, or the effect is one readily produced by the available special effects technology or ordinary camera accidents. There's no particular reason to think that a phenomenon not visible to the naked eye can be captured by photographic processes developed to capture images visible to the naked eye.

So the obvious line to take about the involvement of the children is, that Mrs. Deane taught them how to make fake spirit photos. Parents have done such things before and will do so again, much as we all hate to remember that having children does not necessarily grow a conscience in people who lack one. But is that the most interesting possibility? Most fraudsters either produce one-off jokes or become committed to the process of fraud, either clinging to an established hoax long after common sense would dictate dropping it, or moving from con game to con game. Mrs. Deane was a cleaning lady before she became a spirit photographer, let the business drop after the controversy about her cenotaph picture, and ended her days breeding dogs. Moreover, she apparently was told initially by a medium that she would produce spirit photographs, and spent about six months trying to do so before she began to succeed.

Here's what I'm thinking. Mom gets into spiritualism (possibly because Dad died; the sources I've skimmed so far have no information on Mr. Deane at all) and becomes obsessed with producing a spirit photo because the medium told her she would. What if the kids are the ones producing the fakes, hoaxing their mother either out of a misguided desire to give her the satisfaction she craves, or from darker motives? With more than one child involved, there's no reason to confine ourselves to a single motive. Once begun, the hoax takes on a life of its own and becomes harder and harder to stop doing, less like play and more like work; and perhaps prompting a desperate contempt for the public that is so easily fooled that culminates in the cynical use of easily-recognized, live persons as stand-ins for the dead.

And aren't there potential mighty themes in the equation of sports heroes with war heroes, the juxtaposition of sincere personal mourning and the maudlin manipulation of grief at a national scale, the commercial uses of sorrow and self-deception?

Yeah, somebody could do something wonderful with all that...

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Know Thyself

So there used to be this joke in my circle about the Peni Robinson School of Tact and Diplomacy. (Robinson being my maiden name.) My favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer character is Cordelia, who once said: "Tact is just not saying true stuff. I'll pass." In my youth, I discovered that if I treated other people as I wished to be treated, I'd be told I was rude, but if I treated others as they treated me, I'd be told I was mean. Given that set of choices, I picked rude. Though it's probably not true that I have never been deliberately mean in my life (hey, I'm as good at editing my memory as anybody), it is absolutely true that nobody ever told me I was being mean when I meant to be.

The fact that the joke still bears my maiden name, which I haven't used since 1987, indicates that I got better about this over time; and I think I have, mostly. But since the kind of people who react badly to my natural mode of discourse are also the kind of people who won't tell you what the matter is, my opportunity to learn what not to say has been limited, so one reason that the joke got dated is that I learned how to avoid situations in which it would come up.

My circle of friends excludes people who routinely read secret meanings into innocent remarks, and includes people who will respond honestly and directly to what I say instead of insisting that I meant what they think I said. We are all interested in the same classes of things and will make efforts to follow complex trains of thought, ask for clarification, and express displeasure without rancor.

There are entire classes of people I won't discuss entire classes of subjects with. Changing the subject or withdrawing from a conversation, when you can see trouble coming, isn't that hard.

Some days my brain seems to lose some of its boundaries, one idea bouncing off another and connecting to that one over there, in a way that, while fruitful, makes a coherent conversation difficult. I am by nature a quantum leap thinker, making intuitive leaps and working out the path from idea to idea later, if at all. I encourage this in myself by reading widely and absorbing information and imagery as indiscriminately as I can. That's how I stay constantly in Story Generation Mode. But it sometimes overwhelms my capacity to form logical sentences that will make sense to people who don't know about the underlying sameness of fairies, ghosts, and aliens, and haven't got mammoths, Hobyahs, and middle-school girls all living cheek-by-jowl in the same mental space.

And I have become increasingly self-aware about states of mind in which I am more apt than usual to get carried away, to sound more dogmatic than I am, or to take other people's remarks too much to heart. This has to do with blood sugar, mostly. On those days, I avoid talking on the phone, stay away from newsgroups, and keep my mouth shut except in the presence of someone, like my husband, who can sit there and let a wash of babble flow over and around him, unmoved. I can sometimes write on those days; I can even draft letters; but as for finalizing anything and sending it out into the world - nope.

If I'm not willing to see it in print with my name over it, I try not to say it.

So that's what Tuesday was about.

Oh, and I had the needle seated wrong. That's all right now.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


There are days on which it is unwise for me to try to communicate.

This is one of them.

But "blogging" is on the eternal to-do list for Tuesday and by gum, I'm gonna do it.

So maybe tomorrow or Thursday I'll explain that. Or maybe I won't.

By the way, anybody out there who knows how to troubleshoot a sewing machine - I'll feed you if you'll come over.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: New Year's Cat

I slept badly New Year's Eve. I always do. The local firework ordinance isn't enforced even when you call in a complaint - the switchboard gets overwhelmed - and the local fireworkers start setting them off way before dark. Despite knowing this, we carelessly did not catch Thai and put her inside before we left for our New Year's Eve game, and by the time we got home she had thoroughly hidden herself. I called her every 20 minutes, walking all around the house and back to the property line with the flashlight. She must have known I was looking for her, and furthermore, not being stupid, that once I had her she'd be safe from the Awful Noises, but I went to bed at 1 in the morning without having caught her. She was waiting at the front door when I came downstairs. When we returned from getting groceries she met us at the run, mewing anxiously, obviously relieved that we had come back before Awful Noises started again.

Probably she spent all of New Year's Eve curled up tight in the least accessible area of our crawl space, too terrified to move; but it doesn't take a professional to think of other things she might have been doing and reasons she might not have come to me.

She might have taken refuge with the raccoon, possum, skunk, and squirrels that make use of our property, one big mammalian nest of normal mutual indifference taking refuge against the common threat of the Awful Noises. Probably not the mice, though. They would have just burrowed deeper into the compost heap.

A kind neighbor with whom she spends part of her time when she's out of the house anyway may have taken her in, perhaps when Bad Children tried to torment her by tying firecrackers to her tail. (I've never seen anyone tie anything to a cat's tail, but it seems to have been shockingly prevalent during earlier epochs.)

She might have been taking part in the annual protective hunt undertaken by cats worldwide to track down and slay the monsters that enter the new year through the crack in time at midnight.

She might have gone on a spiritual journey with the ghosts of previous cats who died on this property, notably the late Bast, Eric, and Margo who used to be part of our household; but also any of a succession of Compost Cats who treated our yard as prime real estate - Thai's mother Squeaker, Margo's second-in-command Minion, Thai's old friend Hunter, and so on. I'm not sure what kind of spiritual journey a cat would need and she seems just the same as before, though.

Anyway, this is the sort of idea that we run across all the time in the children's literature business. Retirees with pets and/or grandchildren are particularly prone to them. Something happens in real life to the pet or grandchild with an unknown or intriguing component, and the retiree thinks "That would make a good children's book." So they go around talking about the idea, perhaps write it a bit, but have a hard time developing it and get distracted by peripheral things, like worrying about how to publish it and whether they'd have to provide the illustrations, before they even finish the first draft.

And sometimes they're dabbling and never go anywhere, and sometimes they produce a book, which may be anywhere in the vast spectrum from "A vanity publisher would charge extra to produce this" to "National Book Award contender," because it's hard to start a writing career from scratch late in life, but the people who do it well are often the best of the best, as they bring a lifetime of experience and good work habits to it.

So what do you do if you're not a writer, and you've had an idea like this, and you don't feel a need to be a National Book Award contender but wish to avoid paying extra to vanity presses? How do you know if the idea is good enough to proceed with?

You don't; because the idea is neither good nor bad till you execute it. I thought "Dystopian future with gladitorial games" was a horrible idea, and then I read The Hunger Games, and I still think so, but Suzanne Collins overcame the lameness of the idea with strong characters, relentless suspense, and a strong underpinning of topical relevance that never turned into overt moralizing.

The way you find out if it's good enough is, you write it. Don't worry about the publishing process yet. That's like worrying about how to get funding for a Channel swim while you're mastering the dead man's float. Look at the idea. Think about what you want to do with it besides showcase the superior qualities of your pet or grandchild, teaching children kindness to animals, or venting your anger at local enforcement of firework ordinances. What are the most intriguing things about the concept? How will you go about characterizing the cat: Do you give her a voice? If not, how do you convey her interior states and motivations and character arc, if any? Is the cat the real protagonist, the one who does the interesting things? Do interesting things actually happen, or are you only eager to invoke a mood or image?

Doodle with it. Play with it. Read it aloud to the cat. Relax with it, but work at it. Understand that, because people have ideas like this all the time, if you want to take up anybody else's time with it, you better do wonderful things with it; but if you're doing it for yourself, you only have to please yourself.

And you'll have a good writing year.