Sunday, July 31, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Everything But What I Want

Still no title inspiration for Len's story. I can think of titles that have no stories to go with them, though.

On the Other Hand, What the Heck's the Use?
70s problem novel, I think.

The Stars and the Gingerbread Man
I have no idea what genre, even, this would be, but c'mon, you'd pick it up just to find out, wouldn't you?

The Secret Mystery of the Hidden Clue.
To catch all the 10-year-olds walking up and down the aisle scanning for the words "Secret," "Mystery," "Hidden," and "Clue" in order to get their mystery fix.

Beginning, Anywhere
YA. This is a quote from Fort: "One measures a circle, beginning, anywhere."

Garden of Memory, River of Time
A Hole in the World
Lost Moonshine
A time travel trilogy, or they could also be Moody Blues albums. Speaking of which:

Psycho Delia.
Don't know anything about it, except the name of the central character. Possibly Delia is not the protagonist, but if not, she's the catalyst.

Brief Lies
Best title ever for a short story collection.

Lunch is Where You Find It: A Guide to Foraging

One Nation, Under the Bed
Is it a middle grade fantasy or a snarky YA contemporary?

A Storm in the Brain
It's Not What You Think You Want
Land Mind
Quit While You're Behind

Time to get ready for the game, anyway.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

More Progress

I forgot all about blogging Tuesday. I have an obligation Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week, so I have to cram all my housework into Tuesday-Thursday.

Third pass complete. I'm not sure I've reduced the mentions of food to their minimum - Len does have a personal relationship with food, due to her outdoor life - but I've done what I can for now. 85,563 words; average word length 4, average sentence length 14; longest sentence is now 67 words and I still don't know where it is.

Tomorrow morning I'll try the hook again and take a stab at synopsizing. It's better than market research.

Some weeks just aren't exciting, but you need those, too.

(Painters today. The cats are aggrieved that they covered all the nice new tile with plastic.)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Cipher

Getting up this morning with no clear idea for a garage sale, I opened up the link to the Fortean Times breaking news page and looked at the stories posted on Friday. Here I found a story about a man in Massachusetts who claims to have deciphered a 340-character message from the Zodiac Killer which has defied all previous attempts to read it.

You don't have to know anything about the Zodiac Killer, or to have read very many examples of Fortean code poking, such as the search for ciphers in the Bible or the works of Shakespeare, to realize that the guy is, um, overly optimistic. He's started from one bit of coincidental data (340 characters, 340 is the area code of the Virgin Islands - but only since 1997; the message was received in 1969), used addition and subtraction to get another number, used this number as the basis to decide on a particular established code with which to work; made a huge assumption about how the letter ought to start; then pushed, pulled, and prodded the bits of the message that don't work within his framework and under his untested assumptions until they more or less almost do and he gets a message that kinda sorta makes sense and even fingers a definite person.

And then he is surprised and offended that the relevant police departments aren't interested.

The interesting thing, the relatable thing, here is the way the case interested this person to the point of obsession, of forgetting to eat; of spending hours working on an internal construct that would offer him some sort of resolution he can project onto the outside world.

Because we all do this. Writers do it and produce books and poems; painters do it and make paintings; the Fen do it and produce fanart, fanfic, costuming, and props; programmers do it with programs; gamers do it with games. Sometimes the result is a fun, harmless hobby; sometimes it's a great work of art; once in awhile someone actually solves a crime this way; sometimes it's a mental train wreck that eats up a life, or a virus that spreads to innocent other people and mutates in unpredictable ways.

The difference between a healthy and an unhealthy preoccupation seems to be the capacity to keep perspective. Fan artists, novelists, master chess players - they know where the boundary lies between their absorbing mental preoccupation and the exterior world. They don't use their preoccupation to filter the real world into someplace it's comfortable for them to live, then try to persuade other people to accept this filtered version of reality as reality. Which is what crackpots are generally trying to do, and the point at which they become pathetic, tedious, and potentially dangerous to themselves or others, because walking through hallucinatory terrain is inherently dangerous.

So what we need for a story is two people embodying these different ways of dealing with the same preoccupation, illustrating the advantages and the dangers of the interior life - without, of course, being didactic, because the audience can tell when you're doing that and it makes the story suck. That's always the danger when starting with a theme rather than a character or situation; so let's proceed to those ASAP.

Since this train of thought began with Zodiac's code, let's start with a similar, but fictional, situation. Forty years ago, Drama City was terrorized by a killer who taunted the police in coded letters. Although the case is now only a cold and bitter memory, it has never officially been closed, and the knowledge that Cipher is still out there is like a taint in the town's water. Shadows of suspicion still lie on several people. The daughter of one of these people - still suspected in the public eye, though officially and definitively cleared - is a cop, and she can't stay out of the case files, continually going over and over evidence and trying out various dodges to solve the unsolved ciphers. Or are they codes? Because those aren't the same things. She isn't making headway. No one ever does. But trying to understand Cipher has had the side benefit of improving her job skills.

A newcomer in town moves into a building associated with the Cipher killings in some way. Perhaps he lives in the apartment of a victim, or a suspect; perhaps a body was dumped in the alley behind his office. He's a bit of an encryption buff, probably a programmer, and he becomes fascinated by the case and the messages. So he starts working on them as a hobby. Maybe there's even a local group that offers a prize for solving one. He has one of those jolts of inspiration that feel like revelation, so clear and so compelling that he assumes it must be true. Using this as his guide, he "solves" the ciphers and takes them to the local police, meeting Detective Daughter. Possibly his solution points back to her family, so that when she tries to show him the fundamental errors that arise when his assumptions are tested against reality, it's easy to claim that she's protecting the guilty. It needn't be her father that's implicated; he could easily have a brother hitherto never considered, or something.

This begins a raging political division in town, with Mr. Solution heading up a faction determined to expose police corruption and incompetence at a time when the police department is already struggling for funds and personnel. Detective Daughter, who has worked hard to get the respect of her peers and rise above the shadow of Cipher, finds herself thrust into a false position, her mere presence a danger to the reputation of the force. Even if she solved Cipher, would anyone, in light of the conspiracy theories suddenly running amok in Drama City, accept her evidence and chain of reasoning?

This being a story, we must have a definitive resolution - Cipher must be caught, and he must be someone significant, but he cannot be the person indicated in Mr. Solution's version of the code. He can, however, be someone Detective Daughter kept coming back to; someone who feels threatened? No; police taunters are arrogant SOBs who feel superior to the police. The kind of people who, seeing this kerfluffle arise after years of dormancy (and you'd need a convincing cause for this dormancy), would be unable to resist getting into the middle of it. Guiding it. Using it for some end of his own.

Mr. Solution would be easily manipulated by such a person. Could easily turn into his puppet.

And if Detective Daughter's father was suspected because Cipher always wanted him to be suspected - if he has some sort of grudge against her family - and now she also represents the police whom he has always longed to humiliate -

Well, that's a thriller plot, isn't it? The key thing to get right would be the character and motivation of Cipher. Do that, and everything falls into place around it.

I'm not about to live in such a person's head long enough to write so far out of my comfort range. What if his voice took over like Len's did? Ugh.

I might read the book, though, if somebody else wrote it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pleasant, but Minimally Useful

I was hoping my first reader could point me to the extant problems in the manuscript, but her first response was "I want to hang with Len!"

Which means I succeeded reasonably well in conveying my protagonist's personality, but that doesn't surprise me much. Since it was first person, all I had to do was channel her voice and she took care of the rest. Len's a good character and I don't even feel self-conscious about saying so, since I have no sense of having invented her. Sometimes while working out the plot I worried that she's too reactive, but "reactive" and "passive" are not the same thing, and during the writing the concern always fell away. Len is not in control of her life - who is? - but she is an active agent in it. She can't change the world, but she can find a place in it that doesn't violate her sense of self. And if somebody wants to sneer at her for how she treats her horse, well, that's no skin off her nose.

My reader volunteered to give it another go now that she knows how it ends and can read more critically. Maybe she can at least help with the title. With some poking and prodding I got her to admit that maybe some of the travel could still be tightened up and that she did sometimes think "Oh, they're eating again." I'm afraid Len takes a lively interest in food; but you do when you live an outdoor life like hers. So that's something I can pick away at, anyhow.

I really should give this to another author, but I'm not in a critique group and the person I would naturally give this to is presently swamped. I'm disinclined to join a critique group because I can't see doing it as a regular thing to works-in-progress. I'm happy to mark up my friends' drafts and hand over my own for inspection, but it's generally the big picture I need help with and can offer the most useful feedback for. It's way too easy, reading bits and pieces, to offer too much and unconsciously try to steer your friend into trying to write like you and vice versa.

(We have floor tiles in the bath and mudrooms, and most of the tile wainscot in the downstairs powder room. Cats don't like tilers - they use power saws.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Excuse Me While I Scream

I have a friend who has more than one publishable novel in her train. She keeps getting within a hair of publication, going through multiple rounds of extensive revision, serious negotiations with editors, the works, only to lose out at the last minute. Recently I and all her friends rejoiced over her finally getting a contract with a certain publisher - which has now folded.

She's being philosophical about this - after all, as she points out, she is not homeless in Haiti and she'd had a few doubts about this publisher to begin with. This is no doubt the correct attitude.

But I, as her friend, feel like I can rant about it a bit. So (apologies to my Christian friends, for the particular expression I am about to use):


There. I feel better now I've done that in public.

And of course I know the answer to my own question. Publishing is an industry. The quality of a work is only one of many, many variables in getting from author to public. Corporations working the way they do, it sometimes seems like a miracle that as much quality stuff gets published as does; and I know that a great many wonderful works will never see the light of day or reach their best audience, even with the e-book revolution that is gradually gathering momentum. It isn't fair, but if you expect fairness you're going to live a life of disappointment. She may never publish a novel; I may never publish another one. We accept that and move on, or we stand still and gnash our teeth for the rest of our lives.

At least she has an agent to help her maximize her chances. So excuse me again while I go back to trying to find one for me, too.

(It appears that laying tile involves a lot of pounding and razor blades. All occupations are mysterious to those outside them.)

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Adventure Book

Bookworm Annie picks up a battered old book of short stories at a used book store, off the "please take these I can't sell them table" out front. When she reads, she enters the story and becomes the main character. This means that she can use her extensive knowledge of literary convention to solve plot problems, and her annoyance with certain tropes to shake things up; but it also means that she can't skip the boring parts that the author zips the reader through with a transitional sentence. Being in a Western is a lot less exciting if you have to actually experience the ride from Point A to Point B! And the desert island story, face it, is excruciating.

She can't enter a story a second time, just reread it - no matter how embarrassing it now seems - but if she reads aloud to someone else, that person can come into the story with her.

Skills learned in the story remain learned, but a little muted, in the real world.

This one's written and in the attic somewhere. I didn't have the skill to pull it off when I first conceived it back in the mid-80s. You have to be able to carry the short stories (which of necessity include the boring parts, remember!) and tie them in to the reader's real-life situation, making a believable and satisfactory character arc.

I still think it's a viable concept, and I still like the ending, in which Annie intends to pass the book on to the friend she made in the course of the story, but instead it winds up with the bully who's been picking on her, and who could really benefit from that desert island experience.

But I haven't gotten any better at short forms, and having already written this book once I'm disinclined to write it again.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Reflections on a Dormant Story

So, I felt fairly lousy today and instead of doing market research, finished reading through Nightmare in Shining Armor, the vampire/quest fantasy mashup I mentioned yesterday. And I still don't know what to do with it. The mechanics of magic have to be worked out a little better. The contemporary culture references have to be updated. (But I really like the dwarf analog getting into Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" on a Walkman!) I have not overcome the inherent writing problems of the quest structure, which involves constant changes of scene and transitory characters.

But I like the relationship between Galen, the "vampire," and Bethany, his donor, which is controlled by her until the point, near the climax, when he admits to himself that she's "always been crazy as a bedbug." I like Hathil, the youthful queen who chews her nails and persuades Galen to accept the central quest by admitting that yes, it's inherently a bad thing to do and no, she may not be able to offer him anything he really wants in return. I like the political background and how the international situation keeps banging up against the plot as former allies quarrel over the bones of a conquered territory.

But mostly I love Galen and Bethany's guide through quest territory, Corix, variously known as "Big Brother" (Hathil's name for him), "Hathil's dog," "the queen's Right Hand," "Hathil's half-breed," "Your Efficacy," and various less complimentary things. He's the result of some pretty serious miscegenation, enough that his father's people don't like to admit he exists. He loves his husband, eats appalling amounts of garlic (which is important to the plot), and is supremely good at his job,which boils down to "Making sure Hathil gets what Hathil wants." In context, and if you have my sense of humor, his dialog, particularly with Galen and Bethany, who are veterans of the foster care system and continually pushing against him on the grounds that he's Authority, is often funny in a low-key way.

He's probably a little too perfect.

So I still don't know what, if anything, I'm going to do with this. Better sleep on it.

P.S. The sewing/laundry room has yellow dadoes now! It's gorgeous! This is really happening!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Less Progress

What can I say? It's hot. I had health crap this weekend. Monday was my birthday, today is my anniversary, and I've been having trouble keeping track of what day it is.

In the mornings it's pleasant to sit on the porch with the laptop, but in the afternoons it's the study with the air on or nothing; but the study with the air on isn't all that cool and I have a lot of distractions on this machine. This morning I got the hook into what I think is reasonable shape and it needs to cool. I think I took the manuscript out a little too early, because although I can't believe it's ready to go after only two passes, I don't see where the work needs to be. I was expecting to have to tweak the camel stuff, but my camel expert says not to. (Good for me.) So I'm getting someone to read through it for me and tell me where I go wrong.

Meantime I should be doing market research, which - well, let's just say I spent the morning on the porch reading an old dormant manuscript, instead. The vampire/alternate-world quest mash-up, in which there is some good stuff but I don't, so far, quite see how to salvage it. The trouble with it is, that I took two common tropes of which I am fed up and mixed them together to get something I rather like. But this is exactly the kind of thing I have the hardest time selling: It looks like this other inexplicably popular crap, but it's better. Yeah, that doesn't sound clueless or egotistical, does it?

However, the sunroom beadboard is painted bright white and the yellow will go onto the dado tomorrow, and our back steps have sturdy wooden rails, so at least somebody's making visible progress around here. Meanwhile, Happy Anniversary to Damon and Me.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

And more progress

Just drafted a hook. Of course it sucks, it's a first draft; but I think the last line is a keeper.

"And what kind of man would she be if she left Miss Diana to fend for herself in a nest of vipers?"

I wonder, is A Nest of Vipers a decent title for this?

I work to the music of nail guns - the workmen are back.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More progress

Revision Pass 2 complete. 85,471 words. 338 pages. Average word length still 4, average sentence length reduced to 14. Longest sentence is now 78 words long and be damn if I know where it is. I didn't see it.

There's supposed to be all kinds of workmen here this week, but I'm not seeing them, either.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Titles Len's Story Will Not Have

Fistful of Specie (This phrase is used in the text; I didn't notice till I did the backward revision).
Len and Bean Go Over a Cliff.
The Trail of the American Horse.
An American Transvestite in Texas.
Secrets of the Purple Sage.
Western Disguise.
The Making of a Man, from Scratch.
Frontier Masquerade.
Found with the Wind.
Letters on the Western Wind.
Oh Western Wind, When Wilt Thou Blow?
Leaving Homestead.
Inventing Len Hausman.

Three days of insomnia reduces the inhibitions, which I suppose is a good thing. Uncomfortable, though.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Alien Zoo

I conceived this as a Sims2 neighborhood I'll never have the time, dedication, and custom content to run, but it could also serve as the setting for an extended literary parody ala Silverlock or the Thursday Next books. Possibly also a shared world anthology, twisting the model established by Thieves' World and perfected in Bordertown. I don't think it'd make a very good RPG setting, though I'm willing to be proved wrong.

The aliens have set aside a series of islands in which to maintain viable populations of other intelligent (or by their standards possibly semi-intelligent) species. Their technology allows them to treat time and space very differently from what we're used to, so from our point of view they select samples from wildly disparate times and places as well as environments, and they construct the islands in some way that permits observation at will without disturbing the exhibits. Each sample, consisting of everybody they happened to find within a particular household on a particular night, is transported along with its immediate environment while sleeping and set down in a suitable location on the island.

"Suitable" is an aliencentric notion, so the March family's modest Concord home may find itself next door to a single tenement from Dickens's London, inhabited by Fagin, Sikes, Nancy, Oliver, the Artful Dodger, and assorted other folks. The Bennet family may find itself forced to consider the suitability of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, Horatio Hornblower, Babbit, and Sir Lancelot as husband material for Jane, Lizzie, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. Scarlet O'Hara, Melanie, and Mammy may be in a burned-out Tara with a view of Dracula's castle in one direction and an Iroquois longhouse in the other. King Arthur, Guinivere, and whichever knights weren't out questing (not to mention Morgan Le Fay) would have to adjust to a life without a tax base, and the inhabitants of the Little House on the Prairie would have their movements sharply restricted.

This would be intended as a human breeding colony by the aliens, so they'd be encouraged and manipulated into mingling and developing whatever hodgepodge sort of culture they could. Probably the aliens would arrange for some kind of educational system which would enable the colony to become more or less self-supporting and self-policing, and would interfere only when their own interests are threatened. Probably policies would fluctuate with changes of management, the alien political climate, and available funding; or it's possible that the policy would be consistent, but based on principles and implemented through a space-time continuum so foreign that it would seem to fluctuate from the point of view of the people affected. I envision Sherlock Holmes spending half his days trying to work out the rules governing the place and the other half desperately trying to get more tobacco.

The problem with this is that I don't have a plot at all, just a setting and more characters than anybody needs. Throwing the characters together would generate plenty of conflicts and hence stories, but this is exactly the kind of setting which sucks one into spending the whole time worldbuilding and none of it storytelling.

It's two in the morning and I can't shut my brain off. Maybe sending this out into the ether will help. Happy Independence Weekend, and don't forget to watch 1776! (The Laserdisc version if you can possibly get it.)