Sunday, August 28, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: At Random

Vertigo last night, and this morning, too. So just some random real-life sentences and phrases, in need of context.

"We have a buffet, but it's covered with angels."
"Chicken in my purse."
"The dog that leaped out of my wall."

Public service note: When the room is spinning, do not close your eyes. That will make it worse. Find a point and lock your eyes onto it. This may take several tries, but when you succeed, the spinning will be over.

Until the next time you change the angle of your head, but you can't have everything. I'll probably have to caffeinate today.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lovecraft

August 17 was the 121st birthday of Mr. H.P. Lovecraft, who was either the worst great writer, or the greatest bad writer, of 20th century America, a place where he felt not at all at home. In his honor, the fanblog The Lovecraftsman published pictures of 50 Cthulhu-themed cakes. Some of them just look like Octopi to me, but what the hey - it's a hard project. I particularly like the ones where the sucker-lined arms are crushing little people.

Monday, August 22, 2011

News: Mammoth Art in Utah!

People being what we are (i.e. naturally and relentlessly creative) I knew there had to be some.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Hello, Mary Sue

Entire treatises have been written, and elaborate checklists constructed, defining the Mary Sue character, but it really boils down to this: A Mary Sue Story is a daydream, written down.

It says something (I'm not sure what, but I think it's a good thing) about pop culture fandom that the (if correctly attributed) Mary Sue story that named the genre is in fact a clear parody of the genre, not an honest example of it. That doesn't mean that the author, one Paula Smith, did not have this sort of daydream and never committed one to paper - in fact, it would not surprise me to find that all the elements in the story are ones that feature in her fantasy projections into the Star Trek universe - but that she was able to step outside these daydreams, realize their absurdity, and laugh at herself for having them. The true, the dire, the much-warned-against Mary Sue Story has no such self-awareness.

Face it, we all do this. It's our natural starting point, and not as egotistical as it looks, either. It's hard enough getting to know ourselves; how can we, as beginners, hope to portray anybody else accurately? The Mary Sue Phase of our lives is when we practice the process of dissecting ourselves into component parts and reassembling them into believable characters who are recognizably not us. We must all do this badly before we do it well, and once we do learn to do it well, we can perform miracles of characterization. Elaine Marie Alphin's book Simon Says is about a number of fully-realized, three-dimensional characters who are all, at one level, mirror shards of a single person trying to become a whole one; and that's one reason why it so perfectly represents my own interior universe. Better than I could have done it. But I digress. (Why, yes, I do really, really want everybody to read this book. Elaine is currently in a coma, thanks for wondering. I'm one of the "assembled multitudes" her husband is sending status updates to, thank goodness.)

Also, Mary Sue stories sometimes do really well in the market. Twilight is a clear Mary Sue story, and that hasn't hurt it that I've noticed. Harry Potter has some Mary Sue-ish elements, too. So if you're still in the Mary Sue phase, and want to write to sell, the thing to do is to work out a story in which Mary Sueishness isn't a bug, but a feature.

Jane Langton, in The Swing in the Summerhouse, and Edward Eager, in Seven-Day Magic, had segments addressing the egocentric and ultimately dull or lonely Mary Sue fantasies of the characters; but I think we can do better than just following their lead.

The central character may or may not have professional ambitions, though that's the obvious way to go. Most kids try their hands at a story now and again, or even frequently, just as they draw pictures and fool around at the piano. It's all the same process. In order for the story to work, though, she must feel a little isolated and misunderstood. There's any number of ways to accomplish this - natural loner, new school, odd one out in the family. Even a "popular kid" is likely to feel the pervasive alienation of our society, the uneasy sense that the popular kid is a facade and no one knows the real one. Nor are we limited in medium. A Mary Sue may be created in text, in graphics, in games - the player who always runs a half-elf wizard or mighty barbarian as an idealized alter ego is a recognized type in the gaming world, as is the one whose avatar bears an uncanny resemblance to himself. LARP and theater will not work, as the notion I'm approaching here requires a Mary Sue with a separate existence; but animation should.

The protagonist and the Mary Sue must interact directly to solve a shared set of problems. The most straightforward thing would be to put the creator into the story at a crisis point; one at which the Creator has written herself into a corner and doesn't know how to proceed. Normally Mary Sue solves problems with ease because the creator is in control and says she does; but with no one driving the plot, it will proceed on its own momentum and the normal easy solutions won't work. Mary Sue and her creator will be the only ones in the story capable of solving the problem, because it is in the nature of a Mary Sue story that everyone except her is purely background decoration, existing to reflect her and give her a setting in which to shine.

"Wait," you say, "stop right there, what about the romantic Mary Sue story in which she is the drooping heroine, continually being rescued? What if it's that sort of story - won't the hero solve the crisis?" No, indeed! For that sort of Mary Sue's existence is predicated on the assumption that everything is about her. The hero rescues her, but never addresses the core problem, which is that something about her (her vast political importance, her beauty, her intelligence, her absurd amounts of money) acts as a trouble magnet and as soon as one threat is disposed of another arises. This sort of Mary Sue also probably has more than one hero, and these heroes, when not saving her from villains or whatever, will be busily trying to score off each other. They will not have any attention to spare for metaproblems, and may be a positive hindrance to their solution, as they keep wanting to interrupt the action to say poetic things to Mary Sue. They will also probably be confused by the appearance of the creator - you could have quite a lot of fun with that, in fact. Mary Sue is agonizing over which of them to pick, and suddenly both the heroes are trying to settle between them which of them gets which version of her.

(Also, IMHO, the romantic heroes of that sort of Mary Sue story are almost always jackasses. You show me an alpha male, and I'll show you somebody who needs a slap upside the head.)

So there's nothing for it - in order for Creator Girl to get back to real life and Mary Sue to live Happily Ever After, they're going to have to get together, because they're the only fully-realized characters in the setting. The first development will be that Mary Sue gets to truly exercise, for the first time, the characteristics which the Creator gave her to make up for her own faults, but which she didn't understand well enough to show in action, rather than merely telling about.

If Mary Sue is a black belt in karate, and the Creator has maybe seen the remake of The Karate Kid and a few episodes of Kung Fu, she won't have ever really gotten to use it before. Now instead of the usual cut scene, from Mary Sue confronted by two dozen thugs to Mary Sue dusting her hands off after rendering them all unconscious, she'll have to fight - and she'll have to protect the Creator while she's doing it. Also - she'll have the chance to lose. Stakes will be higher. She will start making decisions that the Creator wouldn't have made for her, based on both her superior ability and the new vulnerabilities that arise without the Creator's protecting/smiting hand hovering over the action.

Meanwhile, the Creator is busily trying to regain control of the scenario she created. Remember, she had written herself into a corner. When that happens, you either have to go back to where you started to go wrong and rewrite (or replay) the whole thing; or you study what you've got and work out the logic of the situation. The first option is no longer open to her. She will have to analyze her own work and her creations, which are all continuing down the paths she started them on, and find solutions that will work within that paradigm. Of course this will reveal the places where she completely misunderstood what she thought she was doing; but she'll also find the places where she miraculously planted the seeds of her own salvation, in what she thought was a throwaway line. Because it's amazing how often and consistently that happens.

Depending on how long the story is, other characters will start improving their performance. Any character who exists to provide those necessary abilities (apart from admiring Mary Sue) that didn't interest the creator, which she found unattractive, or which are so alien to her she couldn't give them to her reflection. If near-sightedness is a core part of your self-image, and you make a Mary Sue with glasses, any plot functions that require visual acuity must be assigned elsewhere. Heroes and sidekicks provided for such supplementary purposes will be the first to begin to increase in depth as soon as they have to think for themselves when Mary Sue or the Creator fail. Minor background characters may begin to step out of the shadows, bearing useful and attractive and annoying traits from other people the Creator knows, or from parts of herself she either didn't notice or didn't value.

So the Mary Sue story problem is solved when the Creator figures out the necessary conditions of sending her back to her life, and the Mary Sue (and by extension, her pocket universe) gains enough character depth to gain some control over her own story.

Thematically that all works. As a story idea, it lacks specificity. What is the crisis? What is the medium? What is the genre? How old is the Creator and how old is the Mary Sue?

But basically that will all sort itself out once you answer the questions: Who is the Creator and What does her Mary Sue look like? Everything else will follow from those two points.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Something Like That, Anyway

Damon hasn't read the lesbian western yet, but he skimmed it and noticed that an awful lot of the things characters do depend on the lie they're using to cope with the world. Some characters lie to themselves; Len in particular lies to the world in order to best live with herself.

His first stab at a title, better than all the ones I've come up with so far, is A Lie Worth Living With.

I think he's put me on the right track here, but that title says "contemporary" to me, not "historical" or "western."

It might be good enough for a working title to use on the query, though.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Soooo Close...

You remember how I compared the end of a writing project to Sir Lancelot attacking Castle Swampy? Far away far away far away on top of you with no middle distance.

The last part of a construction project is the opposite.

We are now past 95% complete. The cork floor tile ran out two tiles from completion last week and the new tile hasn't come in yet and we can't hook the washer and dryer up till the floor's finished. We have one and a half renovated and fully-functional bathrooms, except there's still work to do on the windows, one glass light shade broke and the replacement hasn't come in yet, one cabinet doesn't have the doors on, the plumbers broke a tile, we don't have the towel rods and so on yet, and the french door upstairs still needs the glass reputtied before it can be painted. The mudroom is completely done except for one window and venting the water heater. I forgot to ask the plumbers who just left about the saltless water softener, which goes under the house, so I won't see it one way or another. However, the current glass of water seems to have fewer flecks of lime floating in it than usual. You wouldn't expect it to be lime-free for awhile, since it'll take awhile for the ice cubes to be fully replaced in the icemaker.

But we are really, really, really close here. We've been really, really, really close for the last two weeks.

And once this project is finished, I can get to work.

Because projects don't end. They get handed off. The construction workers will leave this house behind and then I, with some help from Damon but realistically mostly me because I'm the one home all day, get to reorganize the entire house; decide on and buy such additional towels, shelves, and supplies as the new organization requires; and do the jobs that have been put off because there's no point doing a Great Book Shuffle till I know how many feet of bookshelf space are available. Suddenly I will be able to sew again, but first the sewing/laundry room must be set up. Similarly, I finish a book and mail it, and it becomes part of somebody else's job for awhile, till it comes back and I do more work on it; and it goes back and forth for awhile, ideally: author agent editor author copyeditor author proofreader printer proofreader author binder bookseller reader.

And the part of life during which you have to leave your projects in other people's hands is called limbo. Won't miss it. Having drive and direction is better.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Stupid "Progress."

I hate upgrades. I log on this morning and my blog reader opens with some news about having turned on spam monitoring without asking me about it - I haven't been having a problem with spam - and my blog reader was empty. According to it, I'm not following any blogs. Um, I am too! Apparently the upgrade disconnected my blog reader.

I still show my whopping 11 followers, so probably the following is intact except for, you know, the useful bit where it loads the blogs you're following into the reader. But if I've vanished from your list of followers, I'm not dissing you; the service is.

No upgrade was ever done right the first time in the history of computing. This is why I'm still running WordPerfect 8 - as long as it works, I'm not fixing it! By the time we get around to an upgrade, all the bugs have been worked out of it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Crying in Restrooms

When I achieve ultimate wisdom and figure out how to perfectly balance emotional, economic, and social reality, I will write a self-help book and I will call it Crying in Restrooms.

I used to do a lot of that.I'd be trapped in an office eight hours a day with a bus ride at each end, and I'd be doing stuff that didn't matter a lick to me and in many cases didn't matter a lick to whatever entity was writing my checks, but I couldn't leave and I couldn't do anything constructive and nobody in the office would be anybody I could talk to honestly about anything and it would build up and build up and build up and somebody would be a jackass and I'd be losing control of my voice and hands and posture with the force of internal pressure and I would be in entire sympathy with those people who come to their workplaces and commit mass murder and the only possible way to deal with this state without getting fired (which I would have preferred but couldn't afford) would be to go into a restroom stall and hit the wall and scream and cry until the pressure let up enough that I could control it.

Even this was enough to get me lectured, censured, and occasionally treated as a vandal (Look, I am not physically strong enough to break a metal stall door and I never could see what they thought was wrong with it anyway - it still locked, for crying out loud) by self-important tinpot dictators who appeared to be under the impression that the proper treatment for a stress fracture is more stress. The ones who pretended to be sympathetic weren't any better, because they never were. All my life I have been surrounded by people who didn't care if I was bleeding, as long as they could get me to stop bleeding on the carpet. If I did that, they could pretend nothing was wrong and even feel good about having solved the problem by getting me to pretend to feel better.

Actually addressing anything that might be wrong in the workplace - such as contradictory imperatives, bullying (in a workplace, the noogie-givers of the playground are restrained but the nasty queen bees get managerial positions), inequitable rules or rules applications, dishonest practices, counterproductive policies, malfunctioning equipment, or inadequate training - is never, in my experience, considered as a solution. No, if a worker is unhappy enough that her work is disrupted, the worker is to blame; and half an hour spent telling the worker this is much to be preferred to five minutes spent in addressing the source of the problem.

So a self-help book providing something more useful than the usual platitudes and unconsidered conventional wisdom about dealing with stress would be a public benefit. In order to be useful, it would have to include diagnostic tools to help the afflicted figure out why she is the only person in an obviously malfunctioning office whose physical stress symptoms are so bad she has to resort to crying in restrooms; because this does vary. Some people could handle the existing level of stress and frustration better by eating the correct thing at the correct time. (It sounds silly, but truth often does.) Other people are handling the stress less well because they're getting more of it than those around them, because they have somehow gotten the position of office omega - the one person everybody else relieves stress by dumping on. It is vitally important to distinguish between those two cases and adopt a strategy appropriate to the real situation.

Such a book wouldn't sell as well as the platitude/conventional wisdom books do, because the most successful self-help books are always those that allow the largest number of people to feel that they're being active and insightful, without actually requiring them to do any work. But if it could reach its target audience, and enable them to deal constructively with their problems, it would do all kinds of good in the world.

Alas, I have no such wisdom. The only thing that worked for me was getting out of the soul-sucking day job business entirely, which unfortunately leaves my poor husband trapped in one. And that's why I keep having to give myself permission to be unproductive on days when I don't feel I've done enough. The workplace problem looks to me as insoluble as crime, poverty, and war, and for similar reasons.

Because the problem is insoluble, I don't use it for fiction much, either. One of the satisfactions of fiction is that, at the climax, the core problem of the story is resolved, one way or another. The big exception to this is the horror genre, which is allowed to be purely cathartic and to resolve the core problem by escalating it into primal inevitability and scorching the earth behind it. A modern corporate workplace is the natural abode of monsters, and it puzzles me that we don't see more horror stories addressing this directly.

I have used it successfully once, myself. It took me over 20 years to do so, horror not being my natural genre. The story is "The Restroom Murders," and it appeared in Realms of Fantasy in August 2008, though I first conceived the basic plot while temping for a certain bank in the early 80s. It took me that long to understand enough about workplaces and workers to get the story into the hands of the correct viewpoint character, to gain the narrative ruthlessness to work the premise out to its necessary conclusion, and to be out of the workplace long enough to write about its horrors with equanimity.

If you can write the self-help book envisioned here, please do so. If you can't, but rather need to consult it yourself, consider the horror option. Mystery might work, too, if you can thus gain the satisfactions of messily killing the worst person in your office and sending the second-worst person in your office to jail for it. Just don't put a word of it onto the company computer or leave your notes for it lying around, as security personnel are likely to take such things seriously and unlikely to have any policies that allow them to grasp the difference between fictional catharsis and planning.

And if you can't handle the fictional options because the situations you'd have to tap into are still too raw to handle, please, start today devising the plan that makes quitting your day job practical. You'll function better as soon as you feel less trapped.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

August = Limbo

Triple digit temperatures. House improvements perpetually 90% complete. Mornings that are pleasantly cool as long as I don't move. Plants that look like old, faded, construction paper. Drinking constantly. Sudden sleepiness (though sleeping in the middle of the day is impossible for me) when the electrolytes drain in spite of that. Able to see where the work needs to be done, but unable to concentrate long enough to do it.

The air conditioner in the study is in the window onto the balcony, so I keep a 10-gallon bucket underneath to catch the condensation, with a rock in the bottom so the cats don't knock it over when they stick their heads in to get a drink. That isn't a problem at the moment as after an afternoon of labor (I don't turn it on before noon) it's always full to the brim. Every morning I haul it downstairs to empty it over the yard. It doesn't help noticeably.

Yes, it's August. Dormancy time for plants and Peni. At least I can be constructive by being available when glitches arise in the construction.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Just Go Read Simon Says

Elaine Marie Alphin has had a stroke.

It's too soon for retrospectives and tributes and things. That would just be self-tormenting. She's in ICU. I don't know anything, just what her husband posted to our online writers' list. I only met her in person once, when we were both up for an Edgar and neither of us got it. It's just -

Well, go read Simon Says. I don't care how much it hurts, go do it.

That's what my interior universe looks like. And I don't want her to die or survive in a twilit half-life with her interface to other people borked to hell and I'm going to stop now.

Monday, August 8, 2011

I Got a Dragon for My Birthday!

No, sorry, not a new book title. Just a fact. My birthday was July 11, but I didn't get a picture till I took Smug to a game this weekend and a friend took one with his mobile. One of these days I'll get a digital camera.

Speaking of new book titles, Damon came up with one for a fantasy western: There's a New Seraph in Town.

I'm afraid the only new option I've come up with for Len's story is Have Squirrel Gun, Will Travel

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: So Close, So Far

I took another stab at "Brush Week on Pear Street," the 11,000-word short story, today, and still don't see my way clear. It's a structural problem. But I've realized that it's another stab at an idea I've had for a long time, which I've seen other people do, and am not sure why I can't find my feet in it.

The premise is simple: You take a discrete multi-residence unit - an apartment building, a block, a village - and you tell the story of each resident. The stories intersect and affect and reflect each other. Some of the characters are active figures in each other's stories, others aren't. Even the nosiest character doesn't have all the information. Only the writer - and eventually the reader - has enough information for a god's eye view of the whole picture.

This premise itches my brain enough that I've already talked about it, but there's just so many ways you could do it, if you knuckled down to do it, that I don't mind putting it out there twice.

I think the fact that it itches me so bad means I'm going to get it done sooner or later. Maybe with this story? It's the closest I've gotten so far - it has a final page, anyway.

I'm not the only one with this urge. Sim blogs, like the ones posting to each other over at the Build-a-City Challenge on LiveJournal, are basically the same thing. For free. Not me - I want to have my artistic expression and be able to pay the builders, too!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Recycling, Revising, Same Thing

I've got the hook for Len in reasonable shape and the synopsis down to a page single-spaced, so I'm going to let all that sit for a week or so. I'm now flipping through my old short stories files and finding that most of the short stories I haven't sold yet have something in common: They're sad and honest and say uncomfortable things. The ones I wrote 20 or even 30 years ago and have given up selling, most of them more mainstream and adult than I know how to market anymore, seem eerily prescient, addressing issues I've since had to face.

Writing does that. Nothing makes a better case for precognition than old manuscripts. You write things, and they come true, or say things you needed to know and didn't want to.

But the short story I'm most concerned about today does neither. (I don't think.) It's about the post-life business of gathering up people's cast-off emotions, processing them, and recycling them so that people who, for example, need a little more guilt or ego or anger in their lives will have it available when the people who had too much of those qualities divest themselves of it. If it doesn't get recycled, it rots and festers, sometimes gets mixed together to create anomolous phenomena - teen angst and old bitterness create poltergeists as a by-product, for example. People who never let anything go can't open themselves up to fresh stuff and their whole lives stagnate. A lot of this stuff is tangled up in the heaps of large trash you leave at the curb when the city does its biannual collection of that sort of thing, so the trucks of scrap metal and second-hand furniture and appliance dealers are joined by the less-visible trucks of the emotion recyclers.

I really like this idea, but the story is over 11,000 words long - too long to be a short story, too short to be a novella. And though parts of it are well-executed, the parts don't hang together well. It has to be third-person omniscient, which is always tricky. It has to tell several stories at once. And it has to encapsulate truths about the way we process emotions without getting all sappily guruish. And all of that is doable, so I feel like I ought to be able to launch myself at it; but I hesitate to do so.

Because there's a lot of the Year from Hell in there. Not even very well disguised. On the one hand, I'm proud of myself for dealing with that at all in writing so relatively soon. The Year from Hell was 2005; I wrote the story in 2008. On the other hand, reading it again brings the Year from Hell back in full Surround-sound Sense-O-Drama. Also, I've mixed in equally recognizable bits of the Years from Hell of other people I know, and that squicks me. It doesn't matter that the people in these situations are not the characters, may be very different indeed from the characters. If they recognize their situations, they'll confuse the characters with themselves.

So until I work out how to cope with those two things, that's another story that's going to sit on the hard drive.

Oh, well. You have to let cheese age, too. No matter how far behind I feel like I am, I won't get anywhere by hurrying the work.