Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Four Virtues of Expert Procrastinaters

Virtue 1. Cats. Thai does not approve of typing. It's okay if she's lying down in front of the monitor and behind the keyboard (though the way I keep pushing her paw off the top row of buttons can be annoying), but when she's in my lap, one hand is supposed to be available for tummy rubbing at all times. Have you ever tried to type with one hand rubbing a tummy? It's exponentially harder. Bruce doesn't care if I'm typing or not - he just doesn't want me to be at the computer at all if there's a bidding of his I'm supposed to be figuring out. So he'll walk up and down on the keyboard, headbutt me, meow fretfully, and so on, until I get up and try out all the possible things he might be wanting me to do.

So if you need an excuse not to get your writing quota done, by all means, let the cat into the room and spoil her rotten. (The funny thing is - if you spoil fruits or vegetables, they get nasty. The more we spoil our cats, the sweeter they get.)

Virtue 2. Neatness and order. There is always something that needs organizing, straightening, dusting, recording, filing, or throwing away. If you start your writing time by taking care of all those things, odds are good you won't have to write at all.

Virtue 3. Communication. People who always answer the phone on the second ring, answer e-mail as soon as it comes in, tweet promptly, and meticulously maintain their websites, blogs, and social networking sites can be busy as bees all day and never get one thing done.

Virtue 4. Generosity. If everybody knows that you are There For Them, they will have all sorts of occasions to call on you. You can't write and deal with a crisis at the same time unless you already have a committed work ethic and sufficient discipline that writing poetry in hospital rooms is second nature to you.

These are all good things in themselves - especially the cats. But the thing they have in common is: that if they are allowed to overlap with your writing time, they will eat it all up. When Virginia Woolf said we needed money and a room of our own in order to write, this is what she meant. Time and space, dedicated to the writing (or whatever it is you do), which everyone understands is dedicated to the writing, during which nothing else gets done.

Nothing else does the trick.

Communicate. Be there for your loved ones. Maintain your tax records and keep your house sanitary. And by all means rub your cat's tummy.

But not during the fifteen minutes, or hour, or two-hour block of time that is set aside for your writing. That's for writing. Only. Not for talking about writing, not for thinking about writing, not for writing business. Butt in chair, hands on writing implements, just writing.

You've heard this before. You'll keep hearing it till you start doing it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Texas Archeology Month!

It's almost upon us - the state's very own Idea Garage Sale, when museums, archeologists, historical sites, and chambers of commerce open history up and shake it out for public amusement. I don't care how uncreative you think you are - the more you learn about Texas history, the more inspired you'll get.

Here's a smattering of upcoming events, with an emphasis of course on the things that interest me most.
Oct. 1 - Tour of Archeological Ruins of Rancho de las Cabras, Wilson County but within the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
Oct. 8 - Archeological Information and Civil War Symposium, Gainesville - Topics at the symposium include "forts, funeral practices during the Civil War, fashions, cotton, and plantations." Also child-centric activities.
Oct. 12 - Face to Face with the Son of America, Huntsville - Forensic artist presents her facial reconstruction of a 10,000-year-old skull found in a cave on the Brazos River.
Oct. 14-16 Rock Art Foundation Annual Rendezvous, Val Verde County - A tent campout with tours of remote prehistoric art sites; only one of several events centered on the hard-to-see Pecos Valley art; plus nature walk, of course. Action! Adventure! Romance! (Well, you'll have to bring your own romance, but tell me you don't see an opening trailer in your head right now, based on knowing such an event exists.)
Oct. 17 - "How Texas Won the Civil War," Lecture by Dr. Donald. S. Frazier of McMurry University, Abilene; Houston - hosted by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, laying out the ways Texas benefited by the late unpleasantness.
Oct. 22 - Gault Site Tour, Bell County. Preregistration required, openings limited, but they also do it on the third Saturday of every month so if you miss October, don't despair.
Oct. 29 - Murder Mayhem and Misadventure Walking Tour at Oakwood Cemetery, Austin - to "highlight the lives and dramatic deaths of local early citizens."

Nov. 18-20 - 2011 Hot Rocks Cook-Off in College Station, "demonstrations and scientific experiments using Native American earth-oven cookery and stone boiling." (Are you smelling a cookbook? I sure am.)

Yeah, I think that's a pretty representative sample. Go look at the calendar - there's something that intrigues you. I need to start planning my month - October's not that far away and I know I can't do more than a fraction of what I'd like to, but that's no reason to miss what I can do.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: This Thing About Dwarves

(Note the technically incorrect plural. If it's good enough for Tolkien, it's good enough for me. The man wrote the Oxford English Dictionary, for crying out loud.)

I've always liked dwarves. My first favorite movie was Disney's Snow White. Elves and fairies lost a lot of appeal for me when they got human-sized in pop culture. I like how a dwarf is a dwarf whatever book you go to - short, hairy, set in their ways, pragmatic, slightly cranky, craftsmen. The word "dour" crops up when fantasy writers and gamers are describing dwarves, but in fact they are often comic characters - sometimes because the guy with no sense of humor is the funniest guy in the room, and sometimes because his sense of humor doesn't jibe with other people's, but does with mine. Gimli is the only non-hobbit member of the Fellowship of the Ring who cracks jokes, but he only makes them with a grumpy face and at times of tension release. "Here's a pretty hobbit skin to wrap an elfin princeling in!" "Where did you come by the weed, you villains?" He's also the one who initiated the grim kill-counting game with Legolas at Helm's Deep. I wonder how many stoic middle-aged enlisted men Tolkien knew in service? I'm certain they informed the writing on this character.

Anyway, I have a vision of dwarves and their lifestyle that dates back to at least my first reading of The Hobbit, but probably predates it, as I think I read Ruth Nichols's A Walk Out of the World before then. Certainly I'd been reading Tolkien derivatives before I made it to Tolkien, and I feel like I absorbed his dwarves into an existing vision rather than adopting his and grafting details onto it. Dwarves live in mountains, obviously; they have a highly structured society centering on notions of duty; craftsmanship is one of their highest virtues; they believe in emotional restraint; their doors are tapestries (the hivelike nature of the dwarf community probably contributes to the emotional restraint, now I think of it); they love deeply, quietly, and epicly; and the tradition is that only sorrow ever came of romantic relationships between dwarves and other intelligent species.

Yes, I cast dwarves as romantic leads.

I actually tried to make a story around this core concept several times in high school, but I kept getting sidetracked by the necessity of world-building. It wormed its way in as a subplot of the dormant story I discussed here awhile back, but I haven't tried to put it at the center of the story since high school. Not because I didn't want to; but because it gradually became clear that neither high fantasy nor romance is my natural genre, and to tell this story I'd need to do both.

Which is a bummer, because you can make decent money off both those subgenres, especially when you combine them, but life is rough.

The central problem of doing it is, first to create the high fantasy world in which the dwarves and the other races are acceptable and logical, but not boring and cliched. We have enough straight Tolkien-derivatives, thank you. Once you have that world, you need the conflict - which, being high fantasy, almost has to be a macro-conflict, war famine pestilence mystical threat you know the drill - that brings the disparate couple together.

I have one really convoluted plot that starts off in a desert community with the heroine being expelled, with her old adoptive mother, during a witch hunt; and as they cross the desert the adoptive mother gets more and more senile, and finally the dwarves rescue them and that's when we find out about the princess who was spirited away when the usurper killed the rest of her family and all the signs point to our heroine who gets help from the dwarves including the improbable and forbidden male romantic lead - but in fact she's the decoy and the real princess is still in her kingdom getting old enough to ascend the throne, and sacrificing the decoy may be necessary, and...yeah, I kind of bogged down in plot there.

And then there's the one where there's some sort of interspecies war on and the heroine is a prisoner, and she Knows Something, and the political situation is such that the hero (who is her captor) is under pressure to Do Terrible Things but he won't because he's got standards, dammit, and this war is eroding the dwarves' cultural standards and this couple who have to be enemies are the pivot point on which the future of both cultures turns. Which could be pretty epic if I could, y'know, work out the specifics of what the war's about, what information the heroine has, how to get them both facing 90 degrees away from the problems they understand themselves to have at the start of the story to be facing the same direction and agreed that they have a common, totally different problem. I believe I wrote some scenes that were reasonably brilliant for a 14-year-old, but that's a low gate to get over and I trust none of them survive. Without context, a scene is meaningless, anyway.

There used to be others - romances are the easiest stories to mull over during insomniac nights in adolescence, and I was a hell of an insomniac back then - but I have mercifully forgotten most of them. I still think somebody, somewhere, could do - something moving and atmospheric and heck, just different from the human-draconic-elvish centric high fantasy we all know so well.

But I'm afraid it's not likely to be me, so - fly free, vague epic idea! Find a good place to land!

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Query Grind

You know the worst thing about agent hunting?

The way you lose faith in what, six months ago, was a book as good as any you've ever been paid for.

I am so sick of the first ten pages of The Astral Palace I could scream and it's impossible to imagine anyone else wanting to represent me based on them, either. I should start trolling with the lesbian western instead (only Damon's not reading it very fast and I begin to think I'm having pacing problems, which is a good sign - it means I should be able to go back and revise it properly instead of merely basking in Len's voice, soon).

I can't sell stuff if I don't keep it in the mail, but I can't find people to mail to when I'm hating the work, either.

This is the kind of thing that makes teen-agers eat entire gallons of ice cream and declare their lives over. Thank goodness I'm old enough to tell the difference between perception and objective reality. But I still can't match the project to a prospective taker like this.

Maybe I should give up and work on the emotion recycling story instead.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Obsession Questionnaire

Our culture is suspicious of enthusiasm. A kid who is crazy about dinosaurs or a game; a teen who is always on social media; an adult who spends all his free time perfecting his imaginary world - all are likely to be told that they're overdoing it, that they're obsessed, that they're wasting their time and should be doing something else.

And, okay, sometimes that's true. We've all heard the horror stories about the couple who let their real baby die while they looked after a virtual one, the gamers who died because they couldn't get off the game, the artists who starve or sponge off their relatives, the writers whose marriage breaks up because writing takes precedence over the marriage, the little old ladies who cannot stop crocheting doilies.

But think about Professor Tolkien, using his spare time to create, first imaginary languages, then vast complex worlds, mythologies, and cultures to provide the context of those languages. Could The Lord of the Rings have become a global phenomenon if he hadn't built it on this foundation of apparent wasted time?

No. No more than Michael Jordan could have been paid to play basketball if he hadn't played and played and played for years before he ever went pro. No more than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers could have become the perfect dance duo without dancing till their feet bled.

Before you sell a book, you have to write one. Before you get hired to illustrate, you have to put together a portfolio. And before you do either of these things, you have to spend a lot of time doing things with no obvious relationship to reality. Things that look, to people who aren't doing them, like obsessive time wasting. And you have to do it knowing that there is a very good chance you will never be paid for anything related to what you're doing, even if you get very good at it indeed.

After all, the demand for doilies will always be less than the supply churned out by people who like to crochet.

So how do you tell when you're crossing the line?

Well, look around you.

Is your family healthy? Can you remember their names? Do you know who their friends are? Have you spoken to everyone who shares a residence with you in the last 24 hours? Did any of these conversations involve subjects other than your Project?

Is the cat happy?

When you hear a loud crash and smell smoke, do you get up and take steps to understand what happened?

When did you eat last? Was it real food, or junk? Who prepared it?

Can you see the floor of your house or is it so covered with dirt and junk that you have to follow little paths through it?

Did the work you are contracted to do - either as part of paid employment or as part of your obligation as a member of your household - get done? Was it done well, or did someone have to come after you and do it over?

How many projects, of any kind, did you in fact complete during the past year? How many did you start? How much of this ratio (which is bound to be depressing in and of itself) is due to your own choices?

Under what circumstances do you choose The Project over:
Your health?
Your loved ones' health?
Making money?
Spending time with your loved ones?

Does the way you conduct The Project allow you to do so in conjunction with the above priorities?

Answer those questions, and be honest with yourself.

If you actually have a problem, the answers will point you straight at it. But you probably don't. You've probably just internalized the idea that if you like it, and you're not getting paid for it, it must be bad for you.

Also, feeling guilty is the least fun and constructive way to procrastinate.

Get over it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Happy Media

In one way, I am a fortunate individual. I always knew, and so did everyone around me, that I was going to write stories. And by always I mean, always. I was a writer before I could write things other people could read. This was so plain and obvious that everyone around me conceded it as a given, too. This or that individual person may not have thought I'd be any good, or that I'd make any money, or that it was a worthwhile endeavor - but nobody ever disputed that I would do it.

Not all writers know their destiny so well, or manifest it so clearly, from the git-go like that. They flounder in search of their purpose, or they are actively discouraged from it by those around them, or they mistake their calling and do something else for half their lifetime until the day they wake up and start writing, or realize they've been writing all along and it's time to take that somewhere.

I didn't, however, always know that I would write for young people. For a long time I thought I'd be one of those novelists who's also an academic (that was before I experienced academia and how little I am suited to it), or I'd write science fiction and fantasy, or - something. I had a leg up on my period of experimentation because I knew my medium and my skill, but I still had to find my subject and my audience. My niche only became clear after I had - first of all - realized that I prefer books written for young people to books written for adults, for the most part (and once I realized that most genre fiction is "really" YA, in that the qualities I enjoy in it are the same as the ones I enjoy in YA literature); and - second - that I did in fact write well enough to produce them.

This is another way in which I am fortunate. These two discoveries were easy enough to make, since I already knew what form my artistic expression would take and I could focus my experimentation on finding my niche within that form. A lot of people have to experiment on their form, their subject, their audience, and their genre all at the same time. Even more people are raised with the idea that they aren't creative, or that there's some qualitative difference between messing about with creativity, and actually being an artist, a writer, a musician, a dancer, or whatever.

Some people even have to muddle along without access to their form and audience. The world has more essayists now than at any time in the past, if we concede that bloggers are essentially essayists, freed from the limitation of needing someone to pay them to write essays for a periodical. The first people with a talent for programming computer games were born before computer games were invented. The modern world contains far more talented actors, scripters, costumers, prop builders, and effects artists than the related drama industries could ever support; hence the existence of historical recreation societies, cosplayers, and gamers. I've known many people for whom their game of choice is their creative outlet - on tabletop, playing field, or computer, they flower.

This is why fandoms proliferate. People who for one reason or another cannot use their native talent professionally can find it avocationally, in the company of a sympathetic audience, in the context of a fandom. Some of them pass through their fandom and come out the other side as a professional, and good for them (Cassandra Clare being a prominent current example, but hardly the only one). But many, many people do professional-quality work in the context of a fandom and never get paid; either because they never think of going pro, because they try and fail, because they're afraid they'll fail, or because they decide that the effort of going pro would spoil the activity for them. Sometimes it's because their talent lies in a niche so narrow that professionalism is unlikely, or unlucrative, or unacceptable - many gamers reject the restrictions that would be placed upon them, were they to enter the corporate structure of the gaming industry.

I happened to think about this in the context of poking around simblogs in an idle moment. (Okay, idle afternoon. Look, the floor's going to get clean; I was just a little giddy and needed a break. Of several hours.) People document their games online, with pictures, dialog, and snarky asides; make their favorite sims available for others to play; create new clothes, objects, even modifications to game code, investing hours not even playing their game, but playing with it. Their only audience is other players, but that's all right. They like it that way.

There's a person writing an extended fanfic about how a particular iconic neighborhood, with which everyone who plays Sims2 is familiar, got itself into the starting situation for that neighborhood. She writes it in chapters, formatted as screenshots from her game accompanied by blocks of text; and setting up the screenshots is obviously not a matter of playing the game at all, but of performing elaborate maneuvers with custom clothing, objects, modifications, and something called poseboxes to take a number of different pictures of the characters and then discarding most of them. Not too different from the process by which Dare Wright wrote The Lonely Doll and its sequels, in fact, except that this person has nothing tangible to work with, just a game designed for an entirely different purpose.

I can, just about, see how Dare Wright got pleasure out of her process. I can't see how "Skelljay" does; but I don't have to, either. Apparently, this is her medium and she likes working in it. It seems to me she could have finished the story by now if she hadn't mucked about with all those pictures but maybe she couldn't have. And maybe - who knows? How would we tell? - she's building skills in this medium that will enable her to be more profitably creative in another one. But if she's not, and she's satisfied, that should be enough for anybody.

But it raises the question: If you think you're not creative, is it because you haven't experimented enough and found your medium? Is it because, though you've found a medium, it seems silly to you?

I know that voice. Filking isn't really songwriting. Blogging about your hamster isn't really writing. Your elaborate macaroni sculpture isn't really art. You should do something more worthwhile with your time.

Don't listen to that voice. If something makes you happy, it is not a waste of time.

And if it brings pleasure to others, even just a small handful of others, it is a positive boon to society.

(While I'm doing this, let's have a couple of links to my two favorite simblogs, in one of which we get the story of Barkertown, the other of Ste. Margo. Warning: This game is rated T for Teen for a reason! Don't worry, you'll get most of the jokes and follow the story just fine without knowing the game.)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The (Your Hometown Here) Slasher

We had some nice rain yesterday; at least, in my neighborhood we did. And the fires are finally thinning rather than just shifting their locations. Soon, I will find something new to obsess about. Yay!

Meantime, after all that generalization last week that went on and on and on, I thought I'd do something short and specific today. Also, I'm not much in the mood today and I need to wake Damon up to play the Sunday puzzle soon. So I do what all experienced authors do when they need an idea in a hurry - I opened up some old files.

Seriously, I have a subfolder in my Story folder labeled "Dormant." Stuff I haven't worked on in forever and am pretty sure I can't make saleable, but am not ready to discard, because hey, the idea was sound; I just didn't execute it well enough. And hey, I still have a word processing file for "The San Antonio Slasher." Good lord, there's a blast from the past. Draft 1 was almost certainly typed on my old electric machine.

It was the story of a Day in the Life of a wannabe serial killer and his victim. Jim Seagram is a young man whose ambition is to be a serial killer, a mysterious figure who strikes terror into the hearts of all and whose identity becomes a popular intellectual game. His heroes are Jack the Ripper and the Zodiac Killer. And his victim of choice is little old ladies. It's the day he's planned for his debut, and the story alternates between him - going to his job at a small neighborhood garage, interacting with his co-workers, planning the evening's work - and his designated victim, Persis Morgenroth, going about her little old lady business. Her daughter is a worrywart and keeps calling her, wants her to get a guard dog or something, but Persis has lived in this house for over fifty years and is on good terms with all her neighbors (though that mechanic is beginning to annoy her, the way he glares at her). She gossips with her garden club, makes a carrot cake, runs her errands, goes jogging, and feels secure. Nothing bad can possibly happen to her in the house she came to as a bride, where she raised all her children, where she can still feel her family's love all around her.

Even when Jim breaks in, Persis remains calm; which is more than can be said of him. The reason he wants to kill little old ladies is that he resents the power they exert over him - he was raised by his grandmother, who treated all men as incompetent boys - and he thinks his big knife will reverse that. But Persis recognizes him despite his carefully worked out disguise and she just can't feel anything but annoyance at that rude young man from the garage.

It doesn't end well for Jim.

I realized, writing all this out, that I've gone back to the core idea - the story alternating between the serial killer who kills, or tries to, out of his sense of inferiority and his innocent prospective victim, who really is superior to him - for the often-rejected novel to which I sometimes refer as "The Happy Family Serial Killer Story." I don't seem to have quite made it work there, either.

But if somebody could, I'm positive there's an awesome story to be made of it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Completed: Disasters, My Main Idea at Last

It looked bad there for awhile yesterday, with a bunch of new fires, but as of this morning it's looking kind of stable. And we had a good hard rain this morning here in San Antonio, so maybe things are looking up.

Sorry about yesterday's silence - the pressure system that brought the rain also brought me the kind of headache that prevents coherent thought. Had there been an ongoing, immediate disaster going on around me, I could have coped, but in the absence of such a focusing agent lying around with a wet rag on my face, rubbing Thai's tummy, reading Moomin books, and a little simming were as much as I could manage.

How do I know I could have coped in an ongoing, immediate disaster?

Well, I've done it.

And if you haven't, you will.

The thing about disasters is - at a certain base level, they're all the same. A major illness is not as bad as an earthquake, as a matter of scale, but the effect on the individual and family is roughly the same. Daily life is disrupted. Ordinary concerns lose their weight, even their reality, except as excuses not to look at the disaster itself right now. One subject swallows up all your attention and you'd rather do anything else than think about it but there's nothing else to think about and things are going to get so much worse if you don't step up to the plate and deal, right here, right now. Adrenaline valves get stuck in the open position. You're exhausted, but you can't afford to sleep and then when you can afford to, you find it physically impossible. You keep coming to these cliffs of experience and stand blinking at them, not comprehending, not knowing where to put your foot next, and then you find it's too late - you're already falling and the thing to do is try to land so that the person right behind you lands on you instead of the hard ground. Because that person is more fragile than you, and right now, that's saying something. But you don't want to land on the person offering to catch you because he's making the offer without any idea of what he's volunteering to do. Or there's nobody down there to catch you at all because nobody understands what's going on and you can't tell them because - you can't.

Because the disaster is your fault. Somehow. And someone out there is telling you it's you're fault and you'd like to strangle them, but you can't spare the time and effort from keeping you and yours alive.

I'm not going to tell you the specifics of how I know all this. It doesn't matter. All you need to know is that the events in my personal life at the cusp of 2004/2005 were such that, when I dreamed of a tsunami on New Years Eve, I thought it was a clear and obvious metaphor for what was happening to Us. The fact of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami hadn't registered in my conscious mind, though presumably I had caught some news of it while I was busy wrestling with events nearer to home.

Writers are often told to find "the universal" of common human experience in order to reach our readers and make them empathize with the figures in our books. What is not made clear is where "the universal" lies and how we tap into that. "The universal" is the individual. We all experience life the same way, processed through our sensory apparatus, mediated by the chemicals in our body. Yes, there is a hideous difference of scale between a miscarriage and a tornado ripping through a school, but the adrenaline pumping uselessly through our gland, urging us to save children we cannot save, to run when no place is safe, to fight what we can't grapple with, doesn't care about scale.

It would be massively insensitive to say to someone looking at the ashes of his entire subdivision: "Yeah, I know how you feel. I've been divorced." But - if you have been through an ugly divorce, you only have to tap into that memory to realize that he doesn't want to hear anything from or about you right now, but he probably could use the physical boost of a strong cup of caffeine with plenty of sugar and a couple of practical suggestions for what to do next. Not advice, absolutely not, but a question: "Should we spray down the barn some more in case there's still some embers alive?" Or an offer: "You can use my cell if you need to call anybody." Or an order, if he's still shell-shocked enough: "You're sleeping on my couch tonight and the kids can have the floor in the rec room."

And if you're writing about how and why the subdivision burned, you still go to that same place. The place where your own disaster still lives, helping you treat the disasters of others with the respect they deserve.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Continued Some More: Disasters, you get the drill

Wow, suddenly there's a fire in the middle of the Edwards Plateau! (No, I did not omit an apostrophe; Edwards is the name of the place.) That's probably an ordinary brush fire we'd never have heard of without all the rest of this going on; though it could easily become something more. Looks like if Arkansas and Louisiana aren't dealing with this yet, they will be by sundown.

So anyway, we come now to the core problem at the heart of the process of writing about disasters, and if you solve this one the rest will fall into place:

What business do you have with it?

Seriously, what qualifies you to write about this disaster; to reduce it to page and word count, comprehensible narrative sequence, and some sort of resolution? Because you have to resolve something at the end of the book - answer a question, wrap up a story, achieve a catharsis, something, or the reader will be dissatisfied. But the people who live in the aftermath of a similar disaster will call BS on you, because they know resolution is a fantasy. People who died are still dead, and mere curiosity about the manner of their deaths is intrusive and offensive. People who survived are still dealing with it - waking up in the middle of the night sweating from it, overprotecting their children, taking paranoid precautions against it ever happening again. Where do you get off talking about it, when a lot of them can't?

If you're a survivor, yourself, that answer is simple. You talk about it because they can't; because somebody has to, and you can, so it defaults to you to tell the story. Telling the story is important to us as a species. We organize a lot of our intelligence and culture around the process. If the story is told, well and honestly, that is a good in itself. It's hard to articulate why, but I doubt you'd be reading this blog at all if you didn't feel that in your gut.

But what if you're not a survivor? If you're writing about an imaginary disaster inspired by a real one you didn't participate in, or setting a novel against the background of a real disaster, or acting as the historian of a real one? What gives you the right to do that? To turn real pain and anguish into an entertainment, or an interesting true-life tale, or - if you're an academic historian - tenure?

The historian's role in a disaster is the same as it always is. If no single person can tell the whole story, then the historian exists to assemble the bits and pieces. He can do it well, helping people understand what happened; or he can do it ill, pushing some agenda of his own. But at least the role itself is a viable one. The story needs telling. The historian is the servant of the story.

So is the novelist; but we run a special hazard. I illustrated it yesterday. Nothing takes the edge off a tragedy like cliched delivery. Nothing violates like trivialization. We are breaking a kind of trust with our species if we reduce real-life horror to a mere voyeuristic entertainment or lure the reader into playing the Prediction game.

A fictional character can give us the key that allows us to compassionately share the humanity of other people and understand the viewpoint of survivors; who may, face it, seem a little crazy after the disaster is over.

Or - a fictional character can overlay the real people and lead us to view them as mere characters in a story.

Do you really understand what went on well enough to do the first and not the second? Are your skills up to the job?

More importantly - can you bear to do the job?

Tune in tomorrow and I'll finally get to the point I wanted to make all along.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Idea Garage Sale, Cont: Disasters, Threat or Menace?

Five new ones today, though it's thinning out in the west. That cluster between San Antonio and Kerrville just keeps sitting there, though.

So, where I was? Oh, yes, making narrative out of disaster.

The first thing to remember is that whatever you're writing, if you want it to hold the interest of the general public, must be a story; and a story, at its simplest formulation, is character + conflict. With a disaster, the conflict is a given. But unless you're writing a treatise on the mechanics of fires or shipwrecks or whatever - which is useful stuff to write about, don't get me wrong, but it's way outside my purview - if you're writing for a general audience, you'll have to find at least one character and structure the reader's experience of the disaster from that viewpoint.

Disaster narrative is a subgenre that benefits a great deal from multiple protagonists. Since most events worthy of the name are huge and chaotic, no one person will experience, much less understand, all the aspects of the disaster. If you're in one, you can only see a little piece of it - the piece presently trying to kill you. You may or may not understand where this wall of flame/water/whirling air/molasses (don't laugh; people died in the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 from drowning in the stuff - imagine having molasses in your lungs!) comes from; you only know that it's over there, rapidly coming here, and there's a very real chance that if you run and grab the baby it's going to cut off your escape route; and that your husband left this morning in the direction that wall is coming from now. Your husband, meanwhile, knows that he's safe, the wall is bearing down on home, and he can't call you because he just saw the cell tower come crashing down; but isn't sure whether you're home with the baby or have already left to visit your sister. It should be evident that the use of multiple viewpoint characters can enhance a disaster narrative considerably, both by making it easier for the reader to follow, and by ratcheting up the suspense by choosing the key moments in which to change viewpoint.

In a lot of novels, the writer is faced with difficult choices in characterization. To render the viewpoint character vivid and sympathetic, it is necessary to figure out what he has at stake in the conflict and make the reader care as much as he does. This is not a problem in a disaster story. Everybody's got the same base motivation, and it's real easy to care about, if the character is established well at all. But if his only motivation is "surviving the disaster," the audience can still fail to connect with him, and that will be the writer's fault. Maybe at the key moments of the narrative, survival is the only thing on his mind; but he's in the disaster area for a reason. He's got a life, to which this disaster is at base a dreadful interruption, like a traffic jam or broken plumbing, only - you know - freaking deadly. The narrative should not, then, begin with the disaster proper. It should begin with you and your husband and the baby getting into position, talking about little things - where he's going and why, what time you're going to leave for your sister's; for that matter, why you're going to your sister's while you're husband's going an entirely different direction. This means that the first pages are likely to be full of small establishing scenes and dialogs and exposition, mostly mundane in nature.

Which means they need to be well-written. Mundane is boring. You'll be helped some by the fact that the reader knows he's going into a disaster story and that all this mundanity is threatened; but if you and your husband and baby and sister bore him at this point, he's not going to care if you, the husband, or even the baby, die or not.

No, really, even the baby. Because - even if he knows he's reading non-fiction - at the beginning, he's reading a book, and books aren't real. So none of the characters is real till the writer chooses the correct mundane details, the ones that pop everybody into their proper three-dimensions so the reader grasps, emotionally, what he knew intellectually when he picked up the book: that this disaster affected real human beings who could as easily be him.

There is a certain kind of movie that I can only manage to sit through by playing the Plot and Dialog Prediction Game. Most disaster movies fall into this category. I'm sitting there watching the characters dance through their motions, and I start to recognize them, so I make a game of it. These two will survive.(Usually, The Lovers; usually, The Lovers Having Trouble With Their Relationship. Recent divorces are common.) There may be two sets of lovers, but only one is going to make it through the disaster, and the experienced viewer should be able to pick which one; based, alas, on age, ethnicity, and degree of domesticity, most of the time. This one will sacrifice himself to let others (particularly The Lovers) survive. That one will also sacrifice himself, and for him it will be a Redeeming Moment, because up until then he's been a jackass. The other guy will die first, and it's depressing how often First to Die will be instantly identifiable because he's the only non-white cast member. And so on.

Once I've determined death order, which can usually be done during the establishing scenes, it's time to figure out the difficulties before they arise: What initiates the disaster; in what inadequate ways the people who should be dealing with it fail to do so; which random chances will arise to drive people into their correct positions for their role in the plot; how exactly poor Mohinder or Martinez or whatever generic ethnic name First to Die goes by will in fact die; how the first solution on offer fails; what surprising development happens just when it looks like things are coming under control (that one's the most fun); and so on. And of course it's always fun to say softly: "That's crazy! You'll be killed!" or "Tell my kids I love them!" , or whatever, immediately before the dialog is spoken.

Well, as much fun as I'm going to get in this kind of movie, anyway.

I don't do this with books because if I find it happening in a book, I put it down and do something else. There's too many books to read out there without wasting time on one like this. But a movie is a social occasion; I can't just get up and walk out of it. Though possibly if I don't play this game quietly enough the people I'm with wish I would.

If you're going to write disaster narrative, for pity's sake, read and watch enough of these things to recognize the rhythm of the cliche, and keep its metronomic beat out of your work. You have to read a lot of trash to get really good at not writing it. Which is a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Idea Garage Sale Continued: Disasters, Threat or Menace?

Two new fires on the map this morning, I see.

To cheer yourself up, bear in mind that today is the anniversary of the discovery of the Caverns of Lascaux, by four teen-age boys and a dog, during the Nazi occupation of France. Which is the kind of thing that makes you sit and ponder the possibility that God writes YA fiction...

So anyway, let's see if I can finish that thought I started yesterday. The fact that I'm having trouble writing about writing about disaster while a disaster is going on in my metaphorical backyard and the airwaves are clogged with 9/11 memorials and Elaine is still in a coma (but showing improvement) illustrates one of the hazards we face. Disasters are painful to think about. They should be painful to think about. And we avoid pain for good reason.

This is one cause for the time lag between the disaster and the historical explorations of and fiction based on the disaster. Another is that it's only with the passage of time that we can even get a long enough view to see the plot and structure of the disaster. Clouds of smoke, homes and national forests and pastures burning, evacuation, suspense, endangered firefighters and cattle and wildlife, jurisdictional disputes among agencies - this is the core experience of the wildfire, but it makes bad narrative. Only afterward, when we have the whole map of the affected area and can view its path, when the casualty statistics are assembled, the bills delivered; when the years have gone past and we've seen which areas needed to be burned over for their wildlife to come back and which subdivision developers went bankrupt and which families developed recurring lung problems, and the unpredictable repercussions have appeared - the local political dynasty founded in the ashes, the restructuring of this county's emergency services or that county's population of hobby ranchers - only then will we be able to find a narrative thread we can fruitfully follow.

Because that's the whole impulse behind talking, writing, drawing, and filming about chaotic terrible things to begin with. Irwin Allen movies aside, it's not entertainment, and catharsis is only a part of it. We are a pattern-making species. We crave order. More, we need it. Without it, we cannot extract useful generalizations with which we can map the best course of action through the next disaster.

Which is coming. In our hearts, we all know this.

Tune in tomorrow for a discussion on how to extract story from disaster, real and imagined.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Disasters, Threat or Menace?

Someday, American historians will build entire careers out of studying aspects and repercussions of the events of September 11, 2001. There'll be a whole subgenre of fiction using those events as a backdrop.

At about the same time, one historian will do an intensive study of the 2011 Texas drought and September wildfires, and one or two people will write historical fiction based on them. Probably one YA and one juvenile. The adult historical novelists will be too fixated on 9/11; as far as the general public is concerned, 9/11 will be the only significant event of the first decade of the century.

In the meantime, where does that leave us?

The trouble with recent disasters, and those of our own lives, is that they are simultaneously impossible to think about, and impossible to stop thinking about, and impossible to grasp. A correspondent of mine who lives in New York and works nights slept through the attacks, and when she got up and turned on the TV in the middle of the umpteenth replay of the footage, she wondered why 7 Days (Remember that show? About a guy employed by the gummint to go back in time to fix various disasters?) was on at that hour. I thought the first airplane strike was an ordinary, though appalling, air disaster; when the second one hit, I heard myself wonder: "So where the heck is Superman?"

We are all used to disaster in fiction; so used to it, that our initial reaction to a disaster is to treat it as a fiction. This is why it's so easy to collect heartless responses to major disasters. Remarks that would be reprehensible if applied to real people are much more acceptable applied to fictional ones.

At the same time, one of the uses of non-fiction is to help us sort out our own responses to a real disaster; and one of the uses of fiction is to exercise, in a safe environment, the mental muscles necessary to cope when disaster strikes. Our problem, as writers, is to find the balance in ourselves that lets us use real pain, confusion, and horror fruitfully without losing touch with them and turning them into entertainment and an intellectual game.

Sorry, I thought I could do this when I sat down, but the effort of thinking it through is making my head hurt and my eyes unfocus. I'll try to pick up the train of thought tomorrow and get down to something usable.

The wildfires are looking better today, by the way, though they may be about to become the Texas/Louisiana wildfires. For awhile yesterday the map was looking very bad indeed. But I wish it would rain.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

It's All Material, If You're Not in the Midst of It

The news has handed me this weekend's Idea Garage Sale, I think. For those who read wildfire reports and have no idea what the names in the stories mean geographically, here's a handy map. It disturbs me that, as of this post, Austin is wholly obscured on this map by little flame symbols. The fires, however, in general surround Austin, in the agricultural and suburban areas, rather than being in the city proper.

As for me, the worst problems I have are that work on the house is at a standstill until Damon and I decide what to do about the screens; and that I only realized yesterday that I don't have a grasp of the character arc of what should be a key character in the novella I've been revising. The thing's unpublishable without that and I have to wonder what's wrong with me that I didn't notice it till yesterday! However, past experience indicates that once I work that out, everything that's been vaguely bothering me about this story will fall into place or fall off the edges, and it'll be all downhill from there.

Yeah, health crap and all, I have it pretty good. Note to self: When was the last time we donated to the Red Cross? Probably time to do it again, though the house has curtailed our generosity.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Silence and Wind

I got up Sunday and I wasn't sweating. The kitchen floor was uncomfortably cool on my bare feet. It was like suddenly being in a different country. Unfortunately, the winds that brought this coolness did not bring rain, and made wildfires harder to control. We and ours were not in any danger, though we have some friends who were uncomfortably close to some of the fires.

Excuse the week of silence. Health crap, plus for part of the time, A Mood. Sometimes we just shouldn't talk in public. Often we do anyway, and our best course of action is to apologize and move on. As some wise person on one of my newsgroups somewhere said sometime or other, "We're all jerks on the internet once in awhile." But learning to recognize when we're prone to it, and keeping our hands off the keyboard, saves time and stress and people randomly coming across something we regret saying in a google search ten years down the line. If you're not willing to see it in print with your name under, don't write it down.

Of course we all know people on newsgroups who regard apologizing and moving on as - I'm not sure what, weakness perhaps. You know who I'm talking about. I recently had to put someone on ignore on a newsgroup, to prevent attempts to bully me in PM (like I hadn't gotten enough of that kind of behavior in middle school), and I gather from matter from this person's posts which gets quoted in other people's posts that I am now being pursued and insulted in public. Because that's supposed to make everyone else on the newsgroup hate me, I suppose. That it's tiresome for everyone but the would-be bully never seems to occur to her/him/it.

I often see flamewars degenerate into the worst offender taking on the group's moderators who are trying to make things civil again as attempting to limit his free speech. "I can say anything I want!" seems to be the be-all and end-all of this right to some people. Well, yes, you can. But - is it, in any given case, wise? Or kind? Or interesting? Because even sociopaths will turn against your vitriol if you commit the cardinal sin of being dull.

Now, off to see if I can be productive today.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Fabric That Wasn't There

Yesterday I was leaning against Damon's shoulder, facing down, with my eyes closed - crashing and caffeine-buzzing at the same time - when the spinning hit. I opened my eyes to do the point-fixing trick to shut it off, and was startled to see his arm covered by a swathe of white fabric with little black dots all over it; about the size of dotted swiss, but in an irregular pattern. Of course no such fabric exists, and I didn't much like to fix my eye on anything that didn't exist, but the alternative was turning my head, so I managed it. The spinning stopped and gradually my color vision and depth perception returned, so that Damon's arm separated out from the expanse of my sundress, which is white with red cherries on it. The cherries are much larger than the dots I saw at first, but I saw one emerge from the other.

This was all more disagreeable to experience than I am likely to be able to express, and is also illustrative of the fact that just because we see something, doesn't mean it's there.

Conversely, I have several times this week gone looking for something and had to return to the place it was more than once before I could see it, though (absent the fairies) it must have been in my field of vision every time I went there. This illustrates the fact that just because we don't see something, doesn't mean it's not there.

So how on earth can we tell what is and isn't true?

Given that truth and the universe are infinite, and our brains are finite, we can't. Insisting on doing so will either drive us mad with uncertainty, or (and this is the most commonly-chosen option) box us in to a mental state much smaller than our natural capacity, rejecting any points of view or new information that make us uncomfortable, and cutting ourselves off from truth and the universe in favor of a virtual environment that we find more comfortable. This often involves talking to our own reflections and confining our personal life to people from whom we cannot learn anything new. Conversely, if we accept our limitations and roll with them, we will find ourselves more and more comfortable in a larger and larger space, able to have more fruitful conversations with a wider variety of people, and coping better in unfamiliar situations.

All of which is better than permanently seeing the fabric that isn't there.