Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Andre Norton Awards: How Shall I Vote?

Today is the deadline for voting on the Andre Norton Awards. It's a particularly tough field this year, and they've changed the rules so we're no longer ranking books, but must vote only on one; so I'm going to muse aloud about it till I reach a decision.

Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown)
Man, this is good. Technically post-apocalyptic fiction, it reads like realism, not SF. No zombie hordes, no Sufficiently Advanced Technology, and an underclass POV that is neither romanticized nor polemicized.

White Cat, Holly Black (McElderry)
Woman, this is good! Biggest kick-in-the-head ending of the decade, and Portrait of the Wizard as a Young Con Artist. Not what you expect from a title referencing the literary fairy tales of the Cabinet de Fees.

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press; Scholastic UK)
Having jumped out of the airplane in Hunger Games and free-fallen through Catching Fire, we now land splat. Braced for a happy ending, we instead get a realistic one. That is praise, not blame! Alas, Katniss is unconscious at too many important points, rendering this book weaker than either of the preceding ones. Nice to have one strong contender out of the running. (But it stands a good chance of winning because a lot of SFWA members who don't normally read YA will have read it.)

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, Barry Deutsch (Amulet)
A graphic novel set in an Orthodox Jewish enclave. Floating witch, talking pig, knitting troll, and spot-on character dialog and dynamics, particularly between Mirka and her siblings. Strong contender, but this is only part of a story. Mirka needs to use that sword and have repercussions from some of her choices in the next book - of which there is no sign on the web page. I've bookmarked the page and will be on the lookout. I hate to knock this out for being Vol. 1, but the impression is strong enough I'm gonna have to. Rats. No, wait, eliminating books from the running is a good thing.

The Boy from Ilysies, Pearl North (Tor Teen)
Was not in the library and I wasn't on the ball enough to get it ordered from my local indy in time. I hate making choices through inaction, but I've done it this time.

I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett (Gollancz; Harper)
Workmanlike Pratchett, not his best work but that's a pretty faint damn. Still, it's enough to deny it my vote.

A Conspiracy of Kings, Megan Whalen Turner (Greenwillow)
I pounced on this as soon as it came out, and unlike some people I'm not worried about Gen. We've been shoved completely out of his POV in this and King of Attolia specifically so we'd be worried about him, but I don't believe for a moment that he's getting off on being king. Turner did an excellent job of pulling our attention right away from Gen and still keeping him the central figure in the series. But is this more impressive than what Black did in White Cat and Bacigalupi did in Ship Breaker? These three are seriously neck-and-neck.

Behemoth, Scott Westerfield (Simon Pulse; Simon & Schuster UK)
Sequel; and points for surprising me on what hatched out of the eggs. (I was certain they were dragons.) Lots of steampunky goodness + extrapolating from real political history rather than mythic political history = win. But something weighs less than the three others still in the running in the scales of my head. I can't define it, but I need an excuse to eliminate something. Okay, that's a relief.
No Award - nonsense! Anybody who votes for "No Award" in a year like this one is a sorehead.

Hmm...I'm not sure how much having rankings would have helped to whittle down the field. These three are just too darn good! But I continue the mental weighing, and find that I'll have to vote for Gen because I love him; and because the entire audience loves him enough to be terrified at the possibility that he might become corrupted and stop deserving our love. My emotional investment in the protagonists of the other two books ended shortly after closing the book. I'll read the next Curse Workers story and be interested to see how the closing dilemma is resolved, but I'm not on tenterhooks for it.

Also - apologies to those of you who cannot see Bruce in the header. This appears to be an Internet Explorer problem and Damon and I (by which I mostly mean Damon) haven't been able to figure out how to fix it. The blogger templates are handy, but the code is full of redundancies and hard to troubleshoot. If anybody who isn't using Explorer also has a black header instead of Bruce, please let us know.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Tribute

Several years ago, I had an idea for a story, and my first thought about it was: "That's a Diana Wynne Jones idea. She should write it."

But she didn't have the idea, I did. So I did my best. I played with it, and plotted it, and wrote on it, and stopped on it, and had a Year from Hell, and recovered, and reread it, and at some point it stopped being the "Diana Wynne Jones book" in my head, and became my book. Once that happened, I was finally able to revise it to the point that Damon could vet the magic system for me. Then I revised it some more and started it on the thankless round of rejection it's been on since. It is a good book, which is no guarantee of publication, and a book with a similar premise recently appeared on the Publisher's Marketplace deal list, which doesn't affect the core fact that I did in fact write it and it is in fact good.

Not as good as if Diana Wynne Jones had written it. But of what is that not true?

One of the things about books is, that when we read them, we have ideas. This is true regardless of the quality of the book. Agatha Christie set out to prove she could write a better mystery than somebody else, and it turned out she could. "Ellery Queen" was invented because his components hated Philo Vance. People discover their own ideas lurking in fairy stories all the time. How many domestic novels have their roots in Little Women? How many campaign maps for how many gaming worlds are the direct offspring of The Lord of the Rings?

I used to scorn this sort of thing as "copying," but I still did it. So do you. So, if I'm to believe Fire and Hemlock, did Diana Wynne Jones. If you copy well enough, it stops being imitation and becomes influence. Inspiration. You write your way out the other side and become yourself.

Do it well. Do it poorly. Do it till you own it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

News: Diana Wynne Jones :(

Diana Wynne Jones died today.

I've been telling people for years that she's the greatest living children's writer in the English language and, therefore, the greatest living writer in the English language.

I can't say that anymore.

Now I'm depressed.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Extended Comment on Yesterday's Newslink

This is the same watershed as the Gault site, which I've mentioned here before, and it's a sign of the state of science reporting that it is not mentioned and the team there was not asked anything, probably because the reporter didn't know to do so. And yet, it's the totality of evidence from a number of related sights that's going to get us as close as we're going to get to the truth.

It drives me batty that popular sources are still talking about "Clovis First" as the default model and single sites as if they are going to be the revolutionary discovery that changes everybody's mind. That's already happened - Dillehay's Monte Verde site in Chile. The number and quality of Preclovis sites grows steadily and they are all important.

The Clovis First model is not true. The people who believe it's true are the people who are simply too old to change their minds. We'll stop getting articles presenting the underdog Preclovis vs. the Clovis First folks when we get enough information about the people who preceded Clovis to create a coherent picture of a culture and give that culture a proper name. The term Preclovis defines a people by what they're not, which makes them hard to hold onto.

If, as seems likely, the "Preclovis" were not a single cohesive culture (why should they be, with sites as far apart as Chile, Alaska, and Pennsylvania?) but a number of wildly disparate ones, many of the traces of which were drowned at the end of the Ice Age, we could be at this a long time. It may be that the Central Texas Preclovis documented at Gault and Friedekind were cultural outliers who will in time become entrenched in textbooks as The Definitive First Culture, a view which will be pitched by future reporters as the Orthodox one against which the revolutionary information being discovered via new offshore digging technology is pitched in an underdog battle.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Texas Not-Clovis

Texas Find Suggests Earlier Settlers In N. America

Gault is not mentioned, mysteriously, but Buttermilk Creek also runs through it, so this would be on the same watershed. Comparing the collections will be interesting. (I really have to get back there, or at least to the lab, and see if I can do something useful; only I've been head-down in the Civil War.)

The New Header

Anybody reading this on the blog, as opposed to through Google Reader or whatever, can see that I've fooled with the layout. That's because I went to Heather Powers's workshop on niche blogging over the weekend, and she was real clear about the need for visuals.

This presents a problem for me, because I'm a text-based gal. I think in text. I barely even read picture books when I was little, but went straight to ones with chapters. I don't even own a digital camera. It's on my "to buy" list, but other things keep seeming more urgent - like books, brakes, books, fabric, books, professional memberships, books, saving Planned Parenthood, books, working plumbing, books...

So I don't have a lot of usable image files. I kind of wanted a line of pics under the title representing different idea sources: Art. Nature. Science! History. Play. But I couldn't make things line up and size right and anyway I didn't have great pictures for all of it. So I went with the best picture I ever took.

That's Bruce. He's in one of the columns from the front of our house, two of which the workmen dropped when they were fixing our porch in 2008.

This one split into seven pieces and had to be glued back together in the side yard.
Bruce, being boss cat, of course had to inspect the work.

I can't find a good font color that will stand out against all parts of the picture, so I'll probably change it sooner or later, but like I said, it's the best photo I ever took, and it's even metaphorically appropriate.

No, really. Because you've got a cat representing curiosity, and the column representing a whole pieced together out of fragments, and because people who see this picture out of context immediately start creating a context for it, the hollow column becoming a gigantic mouse hole or something.

Yeah, yeah, I'll get the digital camera. Probably before the cell phone. Which I still don't want, even after my experience with Moby in Austin. Every time I think I might want one, I see a cell phone commercial and my soul revolts. At least I can take research pictures with a digital camera. Can you say tax deductible? I thought you could.

By the way - we have our tax refund now. It was delayed because I once again used their forms with my SSN on them, and they file our return under Damon's SSN. This confuses them every year. This year I've got forms I have to fill out the SSN on, and the plan is to use his. Let's see if that confuses them even worse. Meantime - have you done your taxes yet? Times a-wastin'!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It Takes a Village to Research a Book

I took the scenes with guns, or mention of gun-related things in them, and copied them into a separate document, with page citations. It fit into a letter-sized folder. My expert, B, took it without comment, and I expect he'll be able to return it in a week or so with useful comments in the margin. It's a topic he's always eager to talk about and apply to games, so I don't feel out of line here.

I printed out all the scenes with horses anywhere in them, and the pages fit into a circuit-board box big enough to mail a manuscript in, assuming anybody still mailed complete manuscripts.

W, my horse expert,'s eyes got wide with dismay when she saw it. I assured her she'd be able to skim a lot of it, and that if she found I'd given her more than she could chew I'd use my writing contacts to find somebody else. I'm asking a lot of her and I know it. She may not get them back to me till May, and I have no business asking her to hurry.

It's always better to use your own experience, if you can get the experience to use it; but short of spending several months riding horseback around the Hill Country, getting the manuscript vetted for accuracy is the only thing I can do to ensure that my ignorance doesn't spoil the book for someone like W further down the road. W has herself complained that you can always tell when a fantasy was written by someone who had never ridden a horse, as the mounts all behave much like bicycles or cars. She agrees with Diana Wynne Jones's explanation in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland of why fantasy novel horses are, in fact, vegetables. She also always has two or three creative projects going herself, so she has the right mindset for critique. But it's still a massive job and she has a lot going on already.

It behooves authors to be generous to our friends and to cultivate those creative people we meet into friends, as we may have to call upon them for services such as these at any moment, and for non-writers, it's a hard and bewildering job to vet a manuscript intended for professional publication. I don't think that'll be a problem this time, but we'll see.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Chronology

This is cheating, because I wrote this already, years ago. It was unsaleable, but I'm convinced there must be a way to do this right.

Comic book geek works out how time travel would function, and it's not all that hard once you grasp the principle. In fact, it's way too simple, and if ever commonly implemented would have a revolutionary effect on society, because time travel is also infinite space travel. Once you know how, you can get into your time machine and set it down anywhere and anywhen you like for about the same expenditure of energy.

So instead of going public, he experiments on his own, and supports his research by opening the world's best collector-oriented comic book store. The only people in the know are his wife, eventually his daughter, and the kid who sees his time machine materialize in the 1930s, who still lives in the neighborhood. Oh, and the bad guy, who also used to live in the neighborhood, who figures it out, steals the time machine, and finds he can't navigate. Bouncing around the universe and time eventually drives him mad.

But you tell this story in objective chronological order, as it happened according to the conventional calendar, not subjective order, as it was experienced by the characters. The protagonist appears at many different ages in relationship to the other characters and gives them information according to priorities that change depending on what part of the timeline he's from. It is possible for different versions of the time machine to materialize at the same time, so some scenes will overlap. The only way I could think to do that was to have two columns in those parts of the story, but that's hard to read and hell to revise. Each scene is dated and time stamped, with the author having to provide enough information in each to keep the audience on its toes without frustrating them into throwing the book across the room.

The weaknesses of the scenario are more obvious when I write them out in cold blood than they were at the time, when I was in love with the research and the concept. The objective chronological order thing was the big draw for me - I wanted desperately to make it work, and I'm still convinced it could. But it was really, really hard, and this storyline wasn't doing it.

I also now realize that if you're going to use a time machine for something as trivial as profiting from the collectibles market, your story should have a larger comic element than I was capable of at the time.

The practice in research and writing was excellent, anyway, and it pointed me in the direction I should go. I still like the fanboy protagonist and his tough-minded wife, who dealt with the practical and personal fallout of being married to the inventor of time travel with aplomb and resembled Clare of The Time Traveller's Wife not at all. The woman loved her husband a lot, but didn't have a conventionally romantic bone in her body. The character everybody else who saw this mess liked, though, was the kid from the 30s. I had no idea, prior to that time, that I had any skill in characterizing children. I'm still not sure why I should have that knack, unless it's that I remember my childhood more honestly than a lot of people.

Anyway, anybody who can figure out how to make this gimmick work has my blessing. I so want to see how you do it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011


You know how dogs circle three times, and cats spend several minutes fluffing up everything around them, before they settle in for a good hard bout of resting? That's kind of what I'm doing to the manuscript; only I'm gearing up to work, not rest.

My Reverend Mom always said (and she was right) to start with the hard part of a job and everything after that would be easier. But sometimes, I can't. I have to approach the hard part by the long way, fixing up this and tidying that, and then, when I finally get up one morning, suck back some caffeine, and launch myself at the big bad job that's been awaiting me - I suddenly see how to do it and it all rolls itself out, the pieces fitting together click click click, and the big bad job is not only doable, but kind of fun. Whereas if I'd tackled it first, it would have been every bit as big and bad as it looked.

The trouble is to distinguish between this process and procrastination.

Eighteenth Chapter - watch out! I'm sneaking up on you.

Also - pleats are hard, but totally worth it. If I can get the hem straight, I have a new favorite skirt. (No writing time was used in the production of this skirt.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The First Read-Through

I just finished the first full reading of Len's story, the necessary first step in revision, and most of it doesn't suck. In fact, the first 17 chapters are pretty darn good. Chapter 18 is a mess, but I knew that when I wrote it, and the action stuff is better than I thought it was. Not good, by any means, but not as bad as I thought.

Now I'll have to see if I can get advice on the guns and horses and fishing, which is no small commitment as it involves asking non-writers to read parts of an unpolished manuscript. I've noted two places where I'll have to work backwards and fill in some earlier stuff, 18th Chapter needs its complete reengineering, at some point I'll have to cut length (I always have to cut length), and eventually I need a title. Then comes the really hard part - persuading someone that there's a market for a lesbian western.

But it's a good start. I'm pretty pleased with myself.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Molly, Polly, and Holly Dolly

I thought of this one again during my pathetically short period of yardworking this week.

A woman who isn't experienced with children is the only person available to take the daughter of her brother's new wife during the honeymoon. She buys an assortment of new toys, almost at random, and does her best, but the little girl (not surprisingly) is not in any mood to be pleased at anything. Among the toys is a set of three six-inch plastic dolls, identical except for coloring. Molly is blond and dressed in blue, Polly is brunette and dressed in yellow, Holly is red-headed and dressed in green. When the little girl recognizes that she's been lured into having a good time making milk carton boats with her unwanted aunt, she sets out to be bad and miserable, disobeying her aunt by playing in the storm-swollen drainage ditch and losing all three dolls, who whirl away in their milk-carton boat and are lost.

Molly, Polly, and Holly are shipwrecked some way downstream and set out to make a life for themself in the doll-hostile wildness of a modern greenbelt laced with drainage easements. They build their own home, make their own clothes when the cheap outfits they came in fall apart, and make friends and enemies among the animals around them. Holly, the most adventurous and also defined as the youngest, is the protagonist for the only episode I finished, the one where she's kidnapped by a bird and has to get herself down from a tree. Molly acts as housewife and Polly does more of the male-gendered jobs. The only characters outside the dolls I ever defined were the Squirrel Brothers, Earl and Merle, who do odd jobs and are fascinated by machinery.

I have a weakness for this sort of story, but I tend to flounder a bit when I try to write one. I was also intimidated by the prospect of writing a query for it. Face it, any story about toys leading independent lives is going head-to-head with Winnie the Pooh, Miss Hickory, The Mouse and His Child, and Raggedy Ann. Most people who try to do that wind up wallowing in cuteness, and I suspect most editors would sigh and bury the query as soon as they saw those names.

Also - the origin story leaves a huge thematic thread dangling and sets the reader up for a completely different sort of book. Until and unless I can mentally integrate the Dollys' episodic survival adventures with the nameless little girl's emotional arc with her aunt, this is going nowhere. There probably is a way to do it, I've just been going in a completely different direction lately.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Well, it's that time of year - when the weather calls me out to do yardwork and my body says "Forget it!" The goal in March and April is always "writing work in the morning, yardwork in the afternoon," but this year, again, it's not happening. If I had a backbody that worked like my backbrain, though, boy would I have a gorgeous yard!

The resemblances between writing and gardening are so close that the gardening metaphor is almost too obvious to pursue. In both, you plant more than you want because you know some of it's going to die; you have to be constantly on the alert against weeds (which might be anything from adverbs to distractions); you have to prune wisely to bear good fruit; you have little control over success but are guaranteed to fail if you don't keep plugging away at it every day; and the best bits are always unexpected. One day you look up from weeding and see a hummingbird hovering in front of your face. Ma Nature plants jasmine along your fence. You suddenly realize what your book is about, and it's so much better than what you'd planned to say.

I have to get at least one more query out (three more would be better, but I might not manage it) before I can get back to Len. But I need to get back to her. Taking care of business is insufficient compensation for being inside in Texas in March.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Superpowers

Yes, I'm a day late. Still convalescing (just a cold; I'm being a wimp), so let's go with something simple and obvious.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

That was easy. Now, the hard part - what would its limitation be?

You can't have a superpower without limitations, or everything gets too easy and there's no story, which is the important thing here.

In traditional storytelling, the limitation on the superpower is generally so stringent that the power becomes a disadvantage, as in Midas's touch - the fact that he had no control over whether or not what he touched turned to gold transformed his wish gratification into tragedy. People who get three wishes always live to regret it, or at least waste them. Superpowers (i.e. magic) that are useful generally abide in items, which are vulnerable to being stolen or lost, and this provides a good bit of the plot in stories like "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp."

All comic book readers and players of roleplaying games are familiar with the problems inherent in providing a protagonist with useful wish-fulfilling powers. Many games, and runs of comic books, become an arm's race between the heroes and villains, or the players and the game master, with the former constantly acquiring new powers and the latter constantly finding ways to work around them, turn them off, or transcend them. Sooner or later, unless this trend is checked, the end is always the same - epic stories divorced from the core concerns of everyday life, which will be thrilling escapes or tedious wastes of time depending partly on skill in their execution and partly on the taste of the audience.

This applies to classic literature, too - Paradise Lost bores me as much as James Bond and the Kree-Skrull Wars do. I'm a lot more interested in getting Dorothy home to Aunt Em than I am in saving the universe. A universe small enough to need me to save it is hardly worth saving, don't you think?

Agh, I'm being drugged, general, and disjointed. The trouble is that the superpower Damon and I have agreed on as the one to pick should we get the opportunity doesn't have any obvious story attached. That's partly why we want it - we want to read stories, not live them. Our chosen superpower is teleportation, and the limitation is that we can only teleport between places with the same name. So we can jump from our home on Magnolia Avenue in San Antonio to the Magnolia Cafe in Austin (but probably can't control which one we go to), and not have to worry about parking. We can walk over to Main Avenue and go to any Main Street in America, and can go all over town using locations named Mission and Alamo. When visiting Atlanta, we can navigate from one Peachtree location to another. I would have to lose some of my aversion to chain businesses if I had this ability, because they'd be such handy navigation hubs.

Still, if I tried, and had less cough syrup in my system, I could come up with a story in which the confusion of place names, or a small error in navigation, got us into an interesting pickle.

So what's yours?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Old Reliable

I spent a lot of last week feeling really bad, either not attempting to do anything constructive, or trying and failing, and in addition to my physical discomfort I was plagued by the sense that if I were just a little better, a little stronger-willed or conscientious or something, I could have done things.

I was supposed to be figuring out which of the agents and editors from the conference it would be fruitful to submit to, and which works should be submitted; but all the contingent circumstances from Moby's mishap on the way into town distracted me, my notes were even less legible and useful than usual, and I didn't have the sense I usually have of who could reasonably be expected to connect with my work. I'd stare at the notes and do a few web searches and then curl up in a ball and moan a bit to indulge my physical distress, feeling that I had done nothing whatever.

And then yesterday I realized that I'd made a decision - this work, that editor. Only one decision, and possibly the "wrong" one (it being always more probable that any given submission will be rejected than not), but one more than I had felt myself capable of making at all when I woke up.

And the moral of this story is that, as long as you keep it fed and watered, you can trust your backbrain to carry on with your work even when your conscious mind doesn't.

That thing people say about only using 10% of your brain is not true at all. We are all using every bit of our brains most of the time. There's some redundancy built into the system, but there's no wasted space. It is more nearly true to say that we are only aware of about 10% of the work our brains are doing at any given time. The bulk of the work - heart pumping, synapses firing, muscles moving, decisions making, stories writing - happens outside the small circle of light cast by our conscious will and attention.

Just because you're curled up in a ball moaning doesn't mean you're not getting any work done. So lighten up on yourself, and be ready to put that work into a form usable by the outside world as soon as you feel better.