Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Miss Alcott

Today is the birthday of one of the most significant figures in American literature, and the goddess of my idolatry, Louisa May Alcott.

Though often scorned at her own valuation, as a producer of "moral pap for the young," it only takes a small amount of historical acumen to realize how radical she was at her time; and only a little more social self-awareness to realize that in many ways, American society is still more conservative than her. Witness the reluctance of many, even most, of her modern readers to admit that

Jo was right not to marry Laurie!!!!!!

Louisa May Alcott was a hustler, writing to market, explicitly and obsessively writing for money to counteract the legacy of her idealistic and improvident father. She enjoyed catering to morbid fantasy, and did - the stories she satirized Jo for writing to make money for the illustrated papers seem mild compared to the drug use and sexual power games in the pseudononymous stories Madeleine B. Stern first unearthed for us back in the 70s - but the work that survives is unrelentingly realistic in ways that made (and still make) the public uncomfortable, to the point that many of us whitewash these things out of our reading.

Marriage is not the climax and happy-ever-after of life; it is the opening of a whole new can of worms. Too much candy will make you sick and too much ease will make you useless. Sexual attraction will not overcome other incompatibilities in the long term. Peer pressure will lead you to do stupid and even wicked things. It is possible to hate your little sister murderously and love her at the same time. Life is unfair. You have to deal with the world you're in, not the world you want, and the person you are, not the person you dream of being. You won't get it if you don't work for it and you may not get it even then.

Happiness is hard work.

But it beats the alternative.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Cave Art Kids

For those of you who missed it, individual children making art can be tracked in Dordogne Cave, especially a particular 5-year-old girl.

This makes me very happy.

For one thing, it illustrates my main thesis, that creativity is a normal human activity, not something special set aside only for the elite.

For another, the individuals who can be identified and glimpsed at Dordogne - and other ancient sites - are natural solid reference points around which we - and by we I mean all of us storytellers, whether we're scientific archeological storytellers or artistic fiction-writing storytellers - can build a story. First we collect the traces of the individual; then we interpret them according to what we know in our selves about people and what we know from the evidence about their environment, and extrapolate a reasonable story about who this person was, why she was there, who was there with her, and what challenges she faced.

Obviously, a cave art picturebook is long overdue.

A novel would require more conflict than is implied by the harmonious and happy picture created by this research; but one can always start with that harmonious, happy picture and work either away from it - happy art-making in caves has to come to an end, the youthful artists have to grow up and face adult challenges - or toward it, with the families of the youthful artists overcoming various hardships to arrive at the happy art-making.

And for the scientist, the image of the happy art-making makes an excellent centerpiece for the reconstruction of Pleistocene culture, a cohesive, relateable context that enables the scientist to put all the disparate and fragmentary bits of evidence together in a meaningful way.

I don't see any way to go about any of these project that don't involve researching till blood comes out your ears; but I can tell you from experience, the reward is worth the work.

Okay, maybe not the monetary reward. 11,000 Years Lost hasn't made that much money. TheEarth's Children series has. This sort of thing is always a crapshoot and there's nothing to be done about that. But the emotional and intellectual rewards of doing the research and writing the story - those are hard to overstate.

Plus, research for any of these projects would involve visiting Pleistocene art sites. Which would be a good in itself.

We cannot have too many books about the Pleistocene. We just can't.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Intransitive Thanks

Since I am agnostic, I have been asked what, when I am thankful, I am thankful to.

It strikes me as unnecessary for "thank" at the Harvest Festival level to be a transitive verb. I know when I'm well off and I appreciate it. Money is tight, but we (and by we I mean Damon) are successfully juggling our financial needs. We're not in perfect health but we're both alive and much, much more well than we have been. Our back porch work is completed without major disasters. We have plenty to eat. It rained twice this week. Damon and I both made work progress this week, though neither of us made as much as we wanted to.

We can be happy if we let ourselves be.

Merry Thanksgiving, y'all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's all in my mind's eye

I didn't think it would, but revising for pacing is easier now that I've identified the problem, mostly because I've been able to redefine the problem as one of characterization. Len's hyperawareness of her surroundings is not a matter of her taking a lot of extra time to look around, but of her being immersed in each moment as it passes. So rephrasing and tightening the work - especially the traveling parts and the transitional chapter, which are the chief culprits - becomes a matter of creating greater immediacy and conveying Len's character better.

Characterization is easier for me than plot. I had almost no hope of pacing the plot better. Pacing the character better is well within my comfort zone.

On the one hand, it doesn't change anything, except my perception of the problem.

On the other hand, my perception of the problem is exactly what I needed to change.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Caroline in the Friendly House

Old notes, verbatim, but with idiosyncratic shorthand deleted.

Caroline moves into the friendly house. She is an architect and can look up the house's history fairly easily.

The ghost is an analogous age and position with Caroline - young, married, pregnant, newly moved into the house.

Ghost miscarried, died.

Ghost assists Caroline - how?

Maybe if I knew more about miscarriages. Possibly ghost had bad husband, doesn't trust Caroline's? Caroline caught between.

This is going to be another of your slow stories, isn't it?

I was trying to generate short stories when I wrote this. I think I probably could write it now, as a short novel - but it'd have to be an adult book unless I lost Caroline and got a totally different, YA heroine.

I had a specific house in mind when I wrote "the friendly house," by the way - a bungalow near Brackenridge Park that was mostly sunroom, which we looked at when househunting once long ago and loved, but couldn't take for various practical reasons. Last time I was by there, it had an ugly big chain link fence all the way around and two dobermans wearing paths in the yard. Which suggests an entirely different, much sadder, story.

Yes, houses are a big deal to me.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Two Frustrations

I was going to turn my blog black for American Censorship Day, but the html Blogger gives me to work with is so mind-bogglingly in need of a good proofreader I chickened out of figuring out where to put the necessary code string. So that's one.

The second is, yesterday I figured out what the problem is with fixing the pacing in the lesbian Western.

It's already paced the way I like it!

The thing is, I wrote this book so I could go back in time, in company with Len, and have a good long visit in Central Texas in Spring 1865. I like all the looking around at the landscape and observation of her surroundings and savoring of food she does. Len is a person who enjoys everything there is to enjoy as much as she can while she can, and she and I are happy for it to be so.

So a lot of what I need to take out is stuff she and I, the people telling the story, care about; but can't expect the audience to.

Yeah, I'll get rid of it. Len and I are both realists and we'll be in the minority on this issue. But the more concentrated, action-oriented story I'm aiming for is one I personally will enjoy less than the one I've got. So that takes a lot of the fun out of revising.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rain Magic

We got rain! Plus thunder and lightning. And high winds. Normally I'd just hang out inside enjoying it, but I had some early-morning errands and had to be out in it. Since I learned to drive so late in life, we have a running gag about me getting experience points and leveling up in the skill, and it's been a long time since I could feel the x.p. accruing, but I sure did today.

We have of course been in drought conditions, so the morning DJ at the community college station played a bunch of rain songs as an act of sympathetic magic, and took credit for how the downpour increased during that set. Anybody who didn't take an umbrella when they heard the thunder this morning, or who washed a car last night, will similarly be taking credit.

On the one hand, we know it's not so - that even if human action affected the weather, which it does not, any given umbrella, or clean windshield, or playlist is unlikely to have been the crucial one that achieved a critical mass of rain magic; especially in opposition to all the people committing small magics to make the rain hold off till they got safely to work.

On the other hand - we believe it. All of us. Who, in a drought-prone area, has not deliberately left an umbrella behind in hope of making it rain; or hauled an umbrella to a parade, picnic, or fireworks display in order to fend it off, in a rainy area?

It is almost impossible for us, as human beings, to accept that anything is truly outside of our control.

Yet most things are.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Deer and the Dog

One of my bosses once told me about how a family member raised a fawn and it became running buddies with one of the dogs. They'd race each other on country roads.

They disappeared at about the same time.

Can you say "Disney movie?" But what constitutes a happy ending here - the deer and the dog living wild and independent lives together? The deer learning to be a deer and the dog coming home when his buddy's okay?

Disneyfication aside, this is not a story for someone without a profound knowledge of animals. The breed of dog and the species of deer (around here, that would be mule or whitetail) would be the first important questions to answer. A story told without the viewpoints of the dog and the deer would be limited in many ways, so being able to think like the animals, and translate those viewpoints into terms humans can understand, would be vital. When writing from an animal viewpoint, it is important to remember that animals are not stupid compared to humans - they merely deploy their brainpower in different areas. The processing power devoted to a dog's sense of smell is every bit as impressive as that devoted to literary criticism, and the rewards for the dog far more tangible and immediate. The author would have to decide early how much to anthropomorphize the animals (a certain amount is inevitable), and whether to give both viewpoints equal time, or to choose one animal as the protagonist.

Then you'd want to know about the family they were raised in - why did they raise an orphan deer? There's all kinds of reasons not to. City folk get sentimental about them, but anyone who lives in the country long will come to regard them as "hooved napalm." Deer have numerous symbolic roles in our society; deer-hunting is an important cultural activity in rural areas; attitudes toward hunting, and the assumptions hunters and non-hunters make about each other, can stand-in for some of the most bitter, vindictive divisions in early 21st-century American society. These issues are too big to ignore, but could easily overwhelm the story, even if the author is trying to be even-handed. If the protagonists are the animals, these matters must be de-emphasized; but if dog, deer, and some member of their human household (presumably a child) all get viewpoints, they will form a major part of the human's character arc.

You could do something interesting, showing the human grappling with abstract issues while the animals focus on practical matters. Animals are eminently practical. The capacity for abstraction is the hallmark of the human mind; which is a strength in some situations, a weakness in others.

A side effect of this practicality is the essential innocence of animals. I have always considered this to be the essential point of the Biblical story of the Fall. Animals never ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; nor was it ever forbidden to them. They have no moral sense. They have no shame. They don't need either. That's part of the abstract ideation that they don't mess with. I think that's why the death of an animal in a story is such a guaranteed tear-jerker for most readers (certainly for me!).

That's a little simplistic. Certain animals - notably dogs - occupy a midpoint on the moral spectrum. Dogs certainly know shame and guilt. And man is not the only primate capable of abstraction. All generalizations are false.

A story is all about specifics.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Another Draft Done

Len is down below 80,000 words now; but she's got an 84-word sentence in there somewhere, and I don't know whether the pacing problem's solved or not.

Still, it's good enough for one week.

I'm leaning toward A Lie Worth Living With as a title. It feels a tad long, but it's good enough to stick on the query, anyhow.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Yesterday my internet went out. Despite spending absurd amounts of time dealing with getting it back, I got all but one of my list of things done.

Today I have internet and I've done - well - a lot less.

Coincidence? Or causation?

I think I'll blame the weather.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Contemporary Fairy Tale

The heroine's name is Jackie, of course; the youngest, the one no one takes seriously. Her family subsists on food stamps and is likely to be evicted.

Jackie shares her tortilla with a stray cat, though repeatedly told not to. El Gato is grateful and will help her find her fortune, but there's complications. Jackie's too young to buy a lottery ticket, and any treasure she digs up will belong to the property owner. Rewards come with strings attached. The grown-ups and older kids won't cooperate - they never do.

It's probable that Jackie and El Gato have different ideas about what constitutes an acceptable fortune.

Writing a book like this is following a well-trodden path; which means, if you want yours to stand out, you have to go head-to-head with some formidable competition. You'd better know your source material inside-out if you want to pull anything new out of it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Wait, I was supposed to post yesterday

Sometimes I'm just not into the outside world. I want to stick my head into my study, write my little books, play my little games, arrange my little house (okay, it's a pretty big house by American middle-class standards), take care of my husband and the cats.

It's a luxury and it's irresponsible and short-sighted and undisciplined and it makes people think I'm anti-social.

Don't take it personally.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Random Thoughts on Reality

Modern aliens are boring. Don't believe me? Read these stories and ask yourself if it wasn't more fun before the grays came along and started hogging all the action.

By the way, I don't believe aliens are extraterrestrials. I believe they're fairies. What fairies are, I don't know, nor do I feel any need to. When I write a story with fairies in it, they'll be whatever kind of fairies suit the story's needs.

Ditto witches; though I don't like the word "witch" because it is used so many ways it's well-nigh useless without endless qualifiers. If everybody's on the same page about what it means for the purposes of a story, though, I can deal.

That's another of the skills fiction teaches us to use; the ability to set aside what we know, or think we know, and our own categories for the duration of a story, so that we can understand and enjoy it. People who get all bent out of shape and condemn an entire story over the mere use of the term witch, or because the aliens in a story don't match their expectations of aliens, or because the supernatural underpinnings of the fantasy are based in somebody else's tradition, are failing at this skill.

We should all practice it as much as we can. We're all jerks when we get bent out of shape, after all.

However, I reserve the right to get bent out of shape about stories in which it's taken as fact that witches were burned in Salem, because that's just not true and shows that the storyteller hasn't done his homework. If you want me to extend my conditional belief to an outright falsehood like that, you'd better tell me a story worth the effort of setting the lie aside!