Sunday, October 30, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Make-up Magic

A kid/teen with a self-image problem - unfashionable figure, "ugly" (i.e. distinctive) features - has an acting ambition centered around "everybody's natural desire to be somebody else." Plagued by envy, thinks like a victim. Fascinated by make-up artistry, big fan of the Lon Chaneys, but doesn't understand the predeliction to make monsters. She wants to create perfection.

The make-up kit is an entirely neutral magic item, does exactly as asked, and can be cleaned off - possibly only with the cold cream that comes with, though. That depends on whether you prefer a scene where her identity starts to run in the rain, or one in which she wants to erase a failed ideal self and is almost out or can't find the jar. Try for beauty, try to be someone else, try out the opposite sex; eventually try out a monster identity as a means of expressing her increasing frustration.

The biggest problem for the author is wrapping up satisfactorily without being trite. Teens and kids are always being told to be themselves, and responding mentally (as I used to respond): "But what if yourself is somebody nobody likes?" There's no point saying such things out loud to grown-ups - all they do is tell you that's not true, like that should help, which it doesn't.

The biggest problem for me is, I don't use make-up. I never have. I don't know what most of it is for, or why you'd want to muck your skin up with it. It's made of dirt, you know! The closest I've come to stage make-up was smearing all visible skin with gray pancake to play a rock gnome in a LARP. I could research the matter, of course; but it's not intrinsically interesting to me.

By the way - the way I solved this problem? Went to college, discovered RPGs, became Queen of the Geeks. Not practical advice for a ninth-grader.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oktoberfest Blogfest: Bilocating Kitten

Since I signed up to join Bish Denham's Blogfest, involving posting a short ghostly experience, I reckon I better get on it.

This is a true story and the weirdest thing that ever happened to me.

Some years ago, we had orphan kittens. We were alerted to their existence by the agonized cries of the smallest, most-loudmouthed one, who was also the first to try to climb out of the box even though her eyes were glued shut by infection. We called her Intrepid. She was a dark gray tabby. She had two sisters, a dark gray tabby with white feet (Whitefoot), a black (Ford; she was an Explorer), and gray with a white chest (Pogo; he looked like a possum).

We kept them in the sunroom so our big cats wouldn't molest them and contract their fleas, fed them with an eyedropper, combed the fleas out of them, and washed their poor infected eyes regularly with saline solution. Before the recent reconfiguration of our back porch, the three rooms - laundry room, powder room, sunroom - were all connected to each other by doors, with entrance to the main part of the house from the kitchen to the laundry room and from the dining room to the sunroom. Once the kittens started moving around on their own, I would utilize the powder room as an airlock, entering through the laundry room, closing the door behind me, and then opening the door to the sunroom. But none of the doors closed very well.

One night I woke up and saw Intrepid, or possibly Whitefoot, on the foot of the bed. I sat up and she pounced into the mass of covers pushed down there - it being June and too hot to sleep with the covers up - so that I had to fish around for her. I couldn't find her. As I woke up more I realized that, even had one of the felines in the house gotten the door to the sunroom open, a kitten who could barely climb out of a box would have had to cross the dining room and kitchen, climb the steep back stairs (each riser taller than any of the kittens at full extension), cross the landing, climb the second flight of stairs, cross the hallway, and climb onto a waterbed frame with no help from a dangling bedspread. It wasn't possible. This was a hypnopompic hallucination - essentially, my body had started to wake up, but my brain had continued dreaming for a short time.

Not a big deal.

Next day (possibly my memory conflates events and it might have been several days later), the kittens were lively and I had to move back and forth between the powder room and the sun room several times in the course of tending to kittens, so to restrict the time they spent underfoot I put all of them on the bench seat in the sunroom while I went to the bathroom to get what I was after. By the time I turned around, I had kittens in my way. Intrepid in particular seemed anxious to get stepped on - while Ford and Pogo chased each other, she was directly where I needed to step. So I gently lifted her aside with my bare foot under her belly, laughing at the way her little black paws clawed the air on either side of my instep, and returned to the sunroom - where I found Intrepid, too small to jump down, standing on the edge of the bench seat meowing frantically.

None of the kittens, at this point, could climb onto the bench seat without assistance. Even Pogo, the biggest and strongest, had to use an intermediate box placed next to it to get himself up. Yet there she was. But I had felt her furry belly across my instep. And although it was easy to confuse Whitefoot - currently at the base of the bench seat - with Intrepid, I had specifically seen that the kitten I lifted had dark paws.

I have no explanation for this. I only tell you what happened.

Intrepid was the only one of the kittens who died. She never gained weight past 6.5 ounces, never got weaned. She died while I was on an out of town school visit, probably of hypothermia in the middle of June in Texas, because her body couldn't retain heat and the other kittens no longer stayed in the box insulating her.

I don't know if that is relevant.

Weird things happen, that's all.

Monday, October 24, 2011

News: Gault in Texas Parks & Wildlife

As seen online here; but get the magazine, too, if you want to encourage more news coverage of archeological topics. Editors notice which subjects cause upsurges in their sale numbers, and buy and solicit new articles accordingly.

It's been way too long since I've been out there. It's been way too long since I did a lot of things.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Dilly Montez and the Grace of God

I was only touched by the grace of God once in my life, and that was when Dilly Montez walked into sophomore English class.

That sentence is all by itself on a blank sheet of 8 1/2 x 11 paper in my "Notes and Experiments" folder.

I have no idea what it means, who's speaking, or even what gender Dilly Montez is.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Good Cry

My sims game gave me a good cry last night, when the first of what I think of as my "core sims" came to the natural end of her life and went off with the Grim Reaper, who came wearing a lei and accompanied by hula girls, gave her a drink with a little umbrella, and wafted her away. (This is the best possible sim death.)

One of the rewards of fiction - and sim games and RPGs are fiction, over which the player has less control than a writer and more control than a reader; it's why I play them and why I consider them a legitimate topic here - is that little catharsis; that luxury of weeping over imaginary woes, cleaning out your tear ducts and releasing grinding everyday tensions in a few minutes of good clean emotional intensity, without the bad side effects. I slept fine after weeping for Hilary Aerius and participating in the grief of her son Greg, her cat Eartha, her son-in-law, and her grandson. The world does not have a Hilary-shaped hole in it, I'm relaxed, I had a meeting with a student I'm mentoring and all went well, my life proceeds just fine.

The effects of some fictional emotions linger. I still mourn Beth March (but, happily, I can turn to the early parts of the book and see her again). It was Beth March's death, I believe, that started me on the road to being able to cope with the concept of mortality; a favor I hope I passed on to a few kids when I wrote The Ghost Sitter.

No book, no movie, no game, no factual knowledge can do the emotional work for you; but we gain so much pleasure from forms that give us the chance to exercise our emotional muscles and develop the skills we'll need when real life knocks us on our butts, return again and again to works that allow us to feel love, pain, loss, fear, and other big emotions vicariously, without the surrounding consequences of them, that I think these forms are our natural way of learning to cope. It's like playing games to build muscles and reflexes in our bodies.

Parents should monitor the emotional play their kids get as they would physical play; but they shouldn't be afraid of letting them experience intense unreal emotions any more than they should be afraid of letting them experience a fall off a bicycle. Most of the time the damage isn't significant, and they learn from the experience. When the fall results in an actual injury - a scraped knee, a night terror - it's the parent's job to apply the bandages and security, and teach the kid to deal and heal.

It is not the writer's job to make reading a 100% safe and comfortable occupation for all possible readers. It won't be effective if it is!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I woke up at about 4:30 this morning, apparently because a front was coming through, and couldn't get back to sleep until after I got Damon up at 6:30; at which point I felt pinned to the bed by the atmosphere.

I have a list of 14 things to do today, not one of which I feel like doing. I knew when I made the list I wouldn't do them all, but "none" isn't acceptable.

So this blog post is one of them.

The only real problem with not having a soul-sucking day job (apart from, y'know, the economic ones, which come with the territory) is that on days like this there's no exterior pressure to do the things we need to do. Self-discipline is the most important skill to cultivate for any self-employed person, from writer to plumber. You have to be your own slave-driver because nobody else cares enough to drive you, and the cat would just as soon seduce you into curling up with a book and a cup of tea and a cat all day long.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Recurrent Preoccupations

Two biologists/biogeneticists discover the secret of life by accident, creating a species of homunculi. Though kept in a "paradisial" aquarium/safe enclosed environment they escape to live as "Borrowers."

Talk about your huge ideas! The trouble with this one is that the part that attracts me most is the "living as Borrowers" trope, which though important would suffer from lack of attention to the other issues - like that little matter of discovering the secret of life! There's just something about the notion of people in an outsized environment...I've been playing with variations of the tiny people motif since at least 4th grade, but I think I exorcised the need writing Margo's House, which hardly anyone but my mother-in-law likes much.

The alien invasion of Earth parallels historical invasions on Earth. Expressed as an unfavorable review of an historical/anthropological work by an alien, who is accused of exaggerating the value of native cultures and underestimating the long-term benefits to humans of their subjugation.

Ah, satire. Howard Waldrop could write this story and not annoy people. I couldn't. The True Meaning of Smek Day did me the favor of accomplishing everything this concept would have tried to do, much better than I could have.

An archeologist on another planet achieves heaven - dying and joining the dead city she's been investigating on the level of time at which it still exists.

My core notion of time travel is, that all times exist simultaneously and the human brain experiences it linearly because that's all it can handle. And no, that doesn't mean predestination - there's no "pre," and there's no "post," and free will is part of the system. This treatment appears in my head as an atmospheric piece, portraying the archeologist progressively thinking her way into the heads and lives of the members of the alien culture she's uncovering, fighting her way through anthropocentric assumptions; until she dies on the job and breaks through. In other words, no action at all in the usual sense. Requires a lighter hand than I've got.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Onward. Upward. Both Ways. In the Rain.

Took Damon to a routine doctor visit this morning, picked up a hold at the library, dropped him at work, came home to a short story rejection.

As rejections go it's an encouraging one, as they'd like to see more of my work, but I don't have many viable short stories left hanging around unpublished and I've talked about the trouble I'm having committing a new one. The markets have shrunk so much - apart from the e-markets, which don't feel like real, concrete markets to me and in any case are the equivalent of the $0.025/per word little magazines of my youth - that once a story has circulated four or five times it feels like there's no place left for it to go.

And that is another part of the problem with committing to a new project. It's all very well to write for the fun of it, for yourself, and so on - but I can't pay the contractor in the fun of writing. What we write is only half-written until it's read; and with the internet providing so many free and nearly free ways to connect writers and audiences, the buyer's market in fiction is worse than it ever was, from the point of view of us midlisters with entrepreneurophobia.

Professionals have many things to offer which the amateur pool out there does not. If you pick up a book of mine, you know you're getting a complete story, for one thing. Although many, many talented amateurs are self-publishing through the internet, using blogging services and fora as venues, professionalism shows in lots of ways - from basic grammar, spelling, and punctuation skills to the ability to go over a scene until it's the way it's supposed to be. But a lot of people don't care much about those things, anyway, especially if they can get "good enough" free but have to pay for "excellent."

And many people who should be paid for their work are so desperate for the audience, they'll give themselves away. It's tempting, I know; especially if you're part of a community that offers encouragement and praise. But the inadequacy of encouragement and praise alone to keep a creative artist going can readily be seen by the number of unfinished projects lying around the web. A writer posts on-line to an admiring, but parsimonious, public; doles out chapters that are eagerly awaited, discussed, commented on, and read; reaches the long slog in the middle or writes her way into a corner and then has a baby/loses a family member/contracts an illness/gets a new job/graduates; and the wait between installments gets longer and longer, the audience falls away, and the story remains unfinished.

Sure, those things happen to professionals, too. But the incentive to persevere in the face of difficulties is much stronger in someone who is actively trying to be paid for her work.

And professionals have one luxury that self-published amateurs lack. We can ignore negative reviews. If you're paid in praise, a single ill-natured, ill-considered, ignorant, mean, or tactless person can wipe out all your profits. I don't know whether writers are more prone to remember condemnation and forget approval than the rest of the population; but we are awfully bad about it as a group.

So I'll resist the temptation to bang my head against the desk, start a sim blog, and channel all my storytelling talents into shilling for approving comments in that niche market(a couple of people have asked me to start simblogging, but I tell myself they're just being nice and I wouldn't be able to amass much of a following anyway), and get that story back into the mail. Tomorrow morning. I swear.

And come to think of it, I do have at least one other story I could send to that market that just rejected me...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Eureka! Or Not.

I saw exactly what I needed to do to revise the lesbian western, where the problem was, what I needed to do to fix it. The whole process unrolled before me tidy as you please.

Then I woke up and lost it all.

I don't regret this - much. Since in the same dream sequence, shooting the rapids of the San Antonio River behind a bunch of anglers, using a backpack as a flotation device, seemed like the logical way to beat the bad guys to the door of the Alamo halfway up a mountain, I doubt the insights were as profound, complete, and easily implemented as they seemed at the time.

That's the trouble with relying on inspiration. It's great fun when it happens, but the opening up of my subconscious and the flowering forth of ideas, connections, and insights that I've been making without noticing them comes along with an endorphin rush that overwhelms my judgment. I don't hurry to write inspirations down anymore. The good ones hang around and the impossible, misleading, and just plain stupid ones melt away like dreams do.

Valid inspirations are the reward for doing the work day after day after day after day - the research, the daily committing of work to medium, the pointless-feeling effort to logically work out a problem that you know perfectly well, from experience, will be solved when two disparate ideas line up together while you're doing something completely different. Like the dishes.

This is why authors should do their own house and yardwork, in addition to writing daily. You've got to give inspiration a place to strike in.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Beaten-Down Path

Rain, rain, beautiful rain! It rained last night and it's raining now and it should rain for the next two days, which should make everyone happy, but people are going to grip about it. I never have taken the gloomy view of rain that most folks do - I'm a plainswoman, experienced in drought, and due to certain peculiarities of my system I am sensitive to atmospheric pressure, so rain starts out as a relief from drought and discomfort and has to go on for a long, long time to become oppressive to me. I wear short skirts and go barefoot when I have to go out in the rain, because skin dries faster than cloth. You can put your shoes on when you reach your destination and be dry and comfortable all day, instead of squelching around in wet feet with wet pants flapping around your ankles. Men, poor things, seldom have these options. Men generally get shafted in the sartorial department.

All this is every day common sense - to me. Yet the weight of culture is against me and I have yet to convert even one person to the barefoot-in-the-rain habit, though many people have seen the benefits in action. Received wisdom is an ogre that can only be ground away at slowly, over time, so gradually that people don't notice their habits changing and in many cases will deny that their habits have indeed changed. If you show them a truth that is too far out of their accepted way of thinking, they will not recognize it.

That's why what used to seem to me to be an obvious method of story generation does not often generate saleable stories. Inside of every cliche, I believed - and for what it's worth, I still believe - lurks some good story that has been overlooked due to the tendency of minds, like feet, to follow the best-worn trackway. If you turn a cliched idea on its head, explore it from a different angle and forge a new path through it, you should be able to provide the editor with the "fresh take" they're always asking for, while providing the public with the familiarity they have consistently displayed their willingness to spend money on.

I have a number of notions like this in the back file. Like this one (from internal evidence, this cannot date from later than 1985):
"There are Rules, Ms. Czimzik." Susie Czimzik answers an ad for a secretary for the Luz Finance Co. Although the company occupies the entire 13th floor of the Tower Life Building, she is the only clerk. Mr. Luz has agents, but they are not friendly. The company loans money on peculiar principles and has odd employment requirements; however, Susie finds Luz himself charming at first; besides, she needs the job. In course of time, she needs a loan, but has no collateral. Mr. Luz offers to do her a favor and let her have what she needs for nominal collateral - her soul. The loan is set up so that she cannot pay it back; realizing this, Susie comes gradually to realize who Luz is, and falls into despair - until an old lady - a derelict, slightly off- quotes the eleventh hour scripture to her and she realizes that the contract is invalid by nature.

Why exactly so few writers who profess the Christian religion notice the logical implications of that eleventh hour dogma for the old-fashioned "Deal with the Devil" plot, when it looks so obvious to this agnostic, is not a question subject to my answering. I think most of the time when we see this story, it is set up more as an exercise in Schadenfreude than anything else - the writer, and the audience, prefers punishment to redemption for the central figure, and the consolations of religion be damned. But it's not for me to say how anybody else's process works.

I never got any farther on this story than the above. My main interest in it, really, was to set a story in the Tower Life Building, which is one of the prettiest skyscrapers you will ever see (for my money, prettier than the Chrysler Building) and, of course, has no 13th floor.

I couldn't figure out how to do it without its appearing to be an attempt at evangelism. I'm not evangelical at all, and living where I do, I am all too aware of how violently people (including Christians!) who are used to the clumsy attempts of streetcorner preachers to evangelize them react to any hint of that. But even if I had solved that problem, and created Susie Czimzik as a more than usually attractive character, and played carefully with every tired trope I wanted to play with - the moment most editors realized it was a "Deal with the Devil" story would be the moment they stopped reading. The moment the rest realized that I'd broken the rules of the storyline would be the moment the rest of them rejected it. The path of the cliche is worn too deeply in our collective brains. The ones with the patience to wait around to see if you deviate from it are the ones who like this cliched path, and prefer not to deviate from it.

The problem is far from insurmountable. I've surmounted it a few times, myself. But it's tricky; and you have to read a lot of cliched stories to figure out how to subvert them acceptably.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Not Catching Fire

Okay, possibly it's obvious based on the last few topics, but I'm not catching fire. I'm not having trouble generating ideas - that's an ingrained habit of mind; when I can't do that, something's wrong with me. I'm having trouble committing to them. I'd like to go back to Len, but I know I'm not quite ready for another serious go at revision, so I try to fill the writing time with queries and synopses and market research and it drives me wiggy and I find myself cruising newsgroups or thinking about what's going on with an RPG character or a sim instead.

So I look through market guides and pick anthologies I can write a short story for, but all I do is doodle and come up with concepts that need an entire novel to work out. Like I've been fiddling with something for a YA anthology called Eternal Love from Cool Well Press, and I've gotten a really provocative idea about how if reincarnation were the way the world works, then life amnesia would have a function in the system. So it would be cool to explore how messed up that system gets if somebody remembers all her past lives and recognizes her soulmate on meeting him in this life - only maybe what was a romantic relationship in one life is emphatically not one in this life (husband and wife last time, parent and child or teacher and student this one); oh, yeah, set that up, flesh it out, and pay it off in under 5000 words, I dare you!

This happens periodically. And every time it does I feel like there's something wrong with me, it's going on too long, I've gotten completely flaky lost all my discipline am sponging off my husband because I can't sell anything and -

It's one thing to know that it's part of the process and that I'll come out of it the same way I've always come out of it. It's another thing to feel that as a truth. And still another to know when the moment has come when I need to shut myself in a confined space with nothing but a notebook and a pen; because nothing fuels creativity like unrelenting boredom, but the disadvantage of having control of your own time is, your day has no built-in periods of boredom as it does when in a day job.

Still not going back to the soul-sucking day job routine, though. For one thing, in this economy, I doubt I could!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Let the Dice Fall Where They May

I've always tried to make games into stories. My chess game is erratic because I automatically think in terms of what the queen or knight would choose to do rather than what is strategically the best move. When I play Risk, I tend to roll well in North Africa, for example, which I attribute to that space harboring General Rommel, who is on my side. (Oddly, nobody ever thinks to deploy General Patton against me.)

Most board games, alas, are not amenable to this treatment. When I discovered role-playing games - by which I always mean real, free-form games played with other people, not computer games - I took to them at once, because the whole point of them is to play a character and create, as part of the social group of players and GM, a story in the genre of the game. My fondness for Sims is rooted in the same tendency. One reason I play Sims2 and doubt I will ever play Sims3 is that 3 has no storytelling tool.

The experience of story creation in game format, however, is very different from that of writing one. One of the most fun things about the game/story format is that the creator is not in control. No one likes a "railroad GM," one whose story is set down to run on rails and will work out roughly the same regardless of how the dice roll and what choices the players make. Sit down any bunch of gamers and start them telling their "war stories," and time after time you'll get hear about crucial dice rolls falling at an extreme - the natural 20 rolled by the least powerful party member that saved them all, the critical fumble by a key character that resulted in a Total Party Kill, the failed saving throw that changed everything.

Recently we had one of those failed saves in our group, which resulted in the party rogue succumbing to a magic-induced psychosis and plotting to assassinate the entire party. The player hated it, but as an honest player he played it out, laying a plan that should have worked and, if it had, would have required a complete rethink of the game and new characters all round, probably with the insane character as a major nuisance villain. Only a miraculous series of successful saving throws and the rogue's underestimation of the party cleric prevented this; and now we get to play out the change in the relationship between the now-cured and wildly remorseful rogue and the friends he turned on. Similarly, in recent Sims games the unexpected birth of twins, an alien abduction, and a lightning strike fire that killed a teen on the verge of college have thrown my expectations for the neighborhood into a cocked hat. I am left scrambling to adjust my responses to the new realities and relationships. This is all to the good.

Sometimes, I wish mainstream story forms relied more on dice. Last night I mistimed cooking dinner and had to be in the kitchen for large chunks of the second episode of Terra Nova, but I couldn't feel that as a hardship. Damon didn't have to fill me in on the parts I missed, because it was clear from what was going on when I came into the room what had happened in the interim since I left it. The design of the plot spread out before us like a map. A familiar map; not drawn well enough (though the dinosaurs are pretty good; but I prefer mammalian megafauna to dinos) to hold my attention on aesthetic grounds. It desperately needed a failed saving throw or a critical fumble or a natural twenty rolled by a character which the staging had earmarked as a mere secondary.

It's not that I have spoiled the show for myself by understanding the structure of the one-hour TV show and the genre conventions of science fiction. I understand the structure and genre conventions of the puzzle mystery, too, yet I can read and reread Agatha Christie's and Dorothy L. Sayers's work endlessly, caught up in the sheer pleasure of their execution.

We are all sophisticated critics these days. We may not be able to articulate them, but we know about The Hero's Journey, three-act structure, and of course the TV tropes. We apply them without thinking - and that's our problem, not when viewing, but when creating.

What we've got to do, when creating, is recreate the sensation of the critical fumble, the natural twenty, and the random lightning strike for the reader. This may or may not entail recreating it for yourself. Ideally we are in full control of our material and balance the element of unpredictability with the necessary structure and coherence that fiction (and for that matter narrative non-fiction) requires. But we don't live in an ideal world. Your first draft may be a major structural mess. You may not know until the final scene that a gun needs to be lying on the mantel in the first scene. You may be on the fifth draft before you realize that your narrator cannot be your protagonist. You may be find yourself casually writing a line like "Bean'd jump off a cliff if I asked him to" and only then realize that your heroine needs to ask her faithful steed to jump off a cliff in the climax.

It doesn't matter; not as long as everything's in place in the version the reader sees.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Enigmatic List

I was going through a folder containing all the notes I wrote down on stray bits of paper during soul-sucking day jobs. And I do mean all - the following is obviously dated to 1991, when I had a temp job as ticket cashier for the Splendors of Mexico Exhibit at the San Antonio Museum of Art, and I have earlier notes with internal evidence connecting them to jobs held earlier than that.

The list itself is enigmatic and probably the result of an exercise in plotting. Before anybody reads this, I wish to make it clear that I don't remember having anything against anybody on this temp job, or even having any contact with the senior curator. I have had jobs during which I plotted the fictional murder of a boss or co-worker as a tension reliever, but I have only pleasant memories of this one. It was a spectacular exhibit, and employees got to walk through it for free!

What - Corpse
Where - Trolley in little-used hall between Exit and Main Hall, behind breakroom
Who - Sr. Curator
How - Cyanide-laced chewing gum
Why - Major spectacular art theft/forgery - cover up or double-cross
When - Monday, Splendors of Mexico

Obviously, anchoring a mystery to a specific exhibit and venue like this would be unwise. What I probably intended to do (insofar as I intended anything; it probably was just an exercise) was plot the story using the geography and schedule of the real art museum, and then use all fictional characters and enough tweaking of the museum to avoid hurt feelings and render me immune to prosecution.

Which is not a bad procedure for writing a puzzle mystery.

I wonder if you could deliver a fatal dose of cyanide in chewing gum, and how you would go about it?