Thursday, December 29, 2011

Anthropomorphism? You Bet!

So yesterday we went to see the remake of Courage of Lassie, aka Lassie Goes to War, the one with Lassie played by a horse and adapted from a Michael Morpugo book.

That sounds snide, but you can always get me (and my mom; and for that matter Damon) with stories like this. I don't think I'm giving spoilers when I warn you to bring your hanky. I was okay for most of the movie, but the bit where our horse protagonist finally panicks on the Western front got me bad. My mom couldn't watch that bit. I think anybody who has ever had an animal friend, or personal experience with barbed wire, will have trouble with it.

It is common to dismiss this sort of reaction as sentimental and anthropomorphic. And I am pretty darn given to anthropomorphism. How much? Well -

I am so anthropmorphic that I am uncomfortable carrying stuffed animals and dolls with their heads down. When I see and handle my old toys I still get a strong sense of their personalities, and I talk to them on those occasions - especially Soda (a pink dog), Thomasina (a pink cat), and Scratchbit (a formerly pink plush doll with a vinyl head). Scratchbit's personality is so real to me that I just laughed writing her name; not because the name is ridiculous, which I know it is, but in the way you laugh when you suddenly recall an old friend.

I am so anthropomorphic that I have conversations with my cats, and frequently translate their conversational contributions for others. That sounds noxious and cutesy, but the fact is - they demonstrate, through action, that I'm expressing a reasonable approximation of their points of view on a regular basis. My husband has caught the habit from me, and we sometimes find ourselves arguing against our own best interests as the puppets for Thai and Bruce.

I am so anthropomorphic that I feel vaguely that I owe it to Vidcund Curious to go back and play his life "right" after accidentally killing him in my earliest experimental Sims games. (Vidcund's entry on the SimsWiki makes him sound nasty; but even after playing him less than three sim days, I know better.) As I've discussed before, I have managed to invest a lot of character and emotion into a lot of little bundles of programming code in those games. It's not too much to say that I love some of them - in the same way that I love Scratchbit, which is not at all the way I love Damon or my Rev. Mom or even Bruce and Thai.

I am so anthropomorphic that I can, in a similar process, take a string of random numbers and a bare-bones context and find complex human characters in them for role-playing games; not just my characters, but NPCs. It's true that, since I do social RPGs and not computer ones, I get a lot of help with those, as all the players tend to play off each other to create the cast of each game. To that extent, all my friends are pretty anthropomorphic.

I am so anthropomorphic that I can find a complex character in an Agatha Christie novel (no, really! Read Crooked House, or Endless Night), a mediocre TV sitcom, a comic book, and a bunch of research on history, geography, archeology, anthropology - anything I read. I can see personality in a bare skull, or a lump of rock, under the right conditions.

Naturally, because I have such a strong tendency toward it, I regard anthropomorphism in a more positive light than do people who complain that we all have too much of it. On the whole, I think it's more a strength than a weakness, though it can be both. I'll probably return to this subject later - if I continued now I would write beyond a blog-reader's patience, and mire myself in incompletely articulated ideas. For now I think it's enough to state an opinion without offering the argument for it, as food for thought as we all head into a new year with new challenges, same as the old challenges.

I think the tendency to project human qualities onto inhuman things is a necessary part of our ability to imagine ourselves in the place of another, which is the prime manifestation of both our sense of self, and our capacity for compassion.

And I think that the capacity for seeing ourselves in others, human or inhuman, real or imaginary, animate or inanimate, is the first step toward understanding those things as they are.

And I think I am so anthropomorphic because I write, and that I write because I am so anthropomorphic.

And I wish you all a Merry New Year.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Even My Dreams are on Vacation

I had a really great Garage Sale Idea dream last night.

Unfortunately, it was all mixed up with Hunger Games previews, where the Arena had a library in it and one of the competitors was a dog. Now all I can retrieve is the Hunger Games content.

On the up side, Damon is getting quite a lot of gaming work, geneology, and sleeping done, while my sims are having interesting times.

We see Warhorse with the Reverend Mom tomorrow. Maybe that will jolt me into a more serious mindset. Or maybe not. I'm cool either way.

To those of you who didn't or couldn't take the Christmas/New Year week off - my condolences.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Damon's Vacation

Damon has allowed himself to be persuaded to take the week between Christmas and New Year's off. I promised him ten straight days of doing whatever he wants. I promised he'd like it.

Which means, if he wants the computer, he gets it. If he wants to go out, we'll go out. If he wants me to watch with him while he catches up on Netflix, I'll be watching more TV than I normally would. If he wants to sleep all afternoon, I'll be doing something quiet so as not to disturb him.

So maybe I'll be a little lax about blogging. You'll be too busy keeping Christmas to want to read me, anyway, right?

Happy Christmas, Merry New Year, and may you have the most precious commodity of modern life - control of your own time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Loose End

Well, Len has begun her quest to land me an agent and I'm faced with the question - what now?

I have no idea what the next project will be. But I'm not worried about it. It's not as if I lack things to do. I need to go over all my current projects, maybe do some more revising, maybe retire a couple that have already been everywhere I could reasonably hope to sell them, maybe send follow-ups, decide where to send things next.

I have lots of old notes, dormant files, unfinished projects, and so on I can read through, looking for those that might be viable, marking some for future Garage Sales.

I need to do the Great Book Shuffle, making room for the books presently stacked on top of other books near where they ought to be, getting the books I used for researching Len (hmmm...are any of them borrowed?) back into their categories, probably taking a load to Half Price (but that is so hard to do with non-fiction!). Possibly reorganizing my categories again. Forteana-and-folklore-and-religion has definitely overflowed its boundaries, vague as they were.

Filing, filing, filing.

And, lots of housework, yardwork, gaming stuff, learning to make jeans so when I finally get back to practical archeology I'll have some that don't send a draft up my back and embarrass the person behind me, reading some of these books I need to organize.

None of that has any prospect of getting me paid, of course. But it all feeds into the story-generation device that is my brain. At some point, in the course of getting my act together - and well before my act is together, I can guarantee you that - the next book will rise from the primordial soup in all its shining unattainable perfection.

And that will be that.

Until then - crud, I don't want to do filing.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: What's in Your History?

I don't think I've ever picked up a history book that some situation that screamed for novelistic treatment didn't leap out at me.

For instance, reading Daily Life in Immigrant America: 1820-1870 this week, I read that the secessionist governor of Missouri, Claiborne Jackson, tried to equip secessionist militias out of the Federal arsenal in St. Louis, gathering a bunch of them together in an encampment called Camp Jackson. The feds in turn called on local Unionist militias, primarily consisting of German immigrants. Four regiments of primarily German-born militia took charge of the arsenal, removed the secessionist commander, and after the firing on Ft. Sumter whisked the ordnance away to Illinois by night, surrounded Camp Jackson, and took the inhabitants all prisoner without a shot fired; however, marching these prisoners through St. Louis caused a bloody riot and sparked a mini-civil war within Missouri. Which after all was ripe for it.

Why most Civil War era fiction isn't set in Missouri has always puzzled me. Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas were dull in comparison.

I also feel that there's a lot more that could be done with the Civil War in Texas. Lee's refusal to acknowledge the authority of the secessionists. Neighbor-on-neighbor terrorism in the Hill Country and Red River Valley. The retrenchment of the frontier under Comanche opportunism. The woeful mismanagement of the only hope the Confederacy ever had to be economically viable, the cotton trade through Mexico.

It's all very well to read paragraphs in other people's books and feel the novel hiding inside them; quite another to coax the novel out. Any one of these situations is too huge for a book. Though huge historical novels have been known to do well in the bookstores; it's not the way to bet. War and Peace was written for an audience with far fewer competing entertainments, and James Michener's early books are much slimmer than his later ones. (Which I personally don't find particularly readable.) So you have to do massive amounts of research, figure out which manageable sliver of the past you're up to dealing with, and find the character you aim to build the plot around; or the plot you aim to build your character within, depending on how you work.

Far too many Americans think they live in a boring place with boring history, because of the selective emphasis given to specific points in the broad sweep of history. So we treat the Civil War as a series of bloody Southeastern military encounters, not as a hot economic mess that sprawled all over the nation, and forget the direct and real effect it had on the lives of people in the Midwest, in California, on the Texas frontier, in Mexico - and in England. We ignore everything that went on in the rest of the world during those four years, and most of what went on in our own country. What was Hawaii like in 1861? Who was doing what in Alaska? What was it like to be an Indian in Kansas then? What about the disastrous New Mexico campaign? California appeared in blue in all my school textbook maps of the Civil War, but the text never told me why California adhered to the Union, or what that mean to the people who lived there.

What happened in your town? Don't tell me "nothing."

I know better. There's a story there if you'll only look for it, instead of taking the simplified, predigested history of popular culture as your guide.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm Scared

I have a book written. I have a hook written. I have a synopsis written. I have all the contact and submission information necessary for an agent who ought to love the lesbian western.

I don't want to send it.

Why, exactly, sending a query - a routine business letter - paralyzes me with terror, I don't understand. I'm not afraid of rejection. I don't like it, but I'm used to it. I've had lots of practice and survived without serious discomfort every time.

It's a lot like my fear of small heights. I can go up in a plane just fine (except for the excruciating pain in my ears on descent), but ladders terrify me. I feel sick and as if I'm falling off backward. I used to think this was a phobia, until the day I went through the battery of tests at the ear doctor and heard the technician say brightly: "Well, you have 0% gravity detection in your left ear." It turns out, my fear of heights is a rational one, given the fact that my body can't reliably tell where it is in relation to the earth in the absence of a direct connection!

Because they feel so similar, I'm inclined to think that my fear of queries may be, like my fear of heights, based on some similar personal idiosyncrasy. I don't know what. It's not shyness, because - though I hate meeting new people generally - I'm not shy. I don't hesitate to approach people in strange cities when I'm lost, for example, though I don't do it randomly; and I frequently approach people downtown who I see doing the Lost Tourist Dance (stand in middle of sidewalk, map in hand, and turn slowly, glancing from map to territory and back with each turn) in order to help them find what they're looking for. It's not asociality, because it's just business and for the most part I'll never meet the person I'm querying in person. I'll get a rejection and that will be that. It's not - well, it's not a lot of things and I don't know what it is, besides uncomfortable.

It doesn't matter what causes it, though. If I want to sell my work I have to send queries, just as if I want to change the light bulb or wallpaper the roof I have to climb ladders. And I can bull through either fear. Done it many times, will many times again. It's one of the few things I have in common with the heroine of the lesbian western - if either of us has to do a thing, we always prove to be able to do it.

Which doesn't prevent me from procrastinating by writing blog posts about it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tough morning

The synopsis is down to one page.

It stinks.

That's to be expected. If I can get Len's voice into the synopsis and query, I should be good to start sending out the query - just in time for everybody to go on Christmas vacation. Life is rough.

And it makes no sense. Just ask Miss Thai. Damon fell back asleep this morning after I woke him up, and I didn't get him woken up again till it was too late to catch the bus. So I'm sitting at the computer doing my morning routine (e-mail, comics, blogs, etc.) with the cat in my lap while he gets ready to go. When he's ready, I tell Thai: "I have to take Daddy to work now."

"That's stupid," says Thai. "Daddy doesn't want to go to work, you don't want to take him, and I don't want to move. So sit still, and everybody'll be happy."

You can tell the world is messed up because of the frequency with which it is impossible to follow perfectly sensible advice like this from your cat.

(Of course my cat talks. I'm translating from the feline, that's all.)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: Hidden Letters

There are three ways to do the espitolary novel.

1) Straight. Sally Ann writes to Dorothy Jane and that's all we know about it.

2) Sideways. A descendant of the original Dorthy Jane, DJ, finds the letters and the correspondence illuminates a problem, parallels her own experience, or gives her to the clue to a mystery.

3) Tangled. Same as 2, only the Sally Ann-Dorothy Jane correspondence is interspersed with diary entries and letters from DJ's hand (keyboard, phone, whatever). This is justifiable only if the act of writing is part of DJ's illumination process and gives the reader a better grasp of what's going on. Done wrong, it's likely to drive the reader into conniptions.

Any of these forms will serve equally well for domestic, mystery, or fantasy stories; the fantasy could conceivably turn into a horror novel. Writers of supernatural short stories used to be fond of the documents-in-the-case approach, but you don't see it as much anymore.

The ideal way to write in an odd format like the epistolary novel is, that one has a story that can best be told that way. It is risky to sit down with the idea "I want to write an epistolary novel!" as then you have to go searching for a story that is best served by that format.

And they're rare. I have images in my head for the Sally Ann-Dorothy Jane story - a lake, woods full of blackbellied whistling ducks, rowboats with Gibson girls in them, a vacation cabin converted to year-round use, a bundle of letters hidden in a hole in a wall, DJ in exile and desperately searching for Something - and have had for fifteen years or so. They'll remain nothing but images, though, till I figure out what exactly happened to Sally Ann and Dorothy Jane, and what that has to do with DJ now.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pathetically Soliciting Feedback

So, how bad is this query?

Eleanor, in men's clothing, leaves her home on the Texas frontier in a die-and-show-them mood. Letters scattered across the hills lead her to the corpse of a cotton trader, miles off his natural route. She carries the body into town and finds that Lee has surrendered; the western theater has not; the Yankees haven't arrived; the Secesh are running for Mexico; no one is in charge.
In this limbo, it's easy for Eleanor to reinvent herself as Len, just another young man at loose ends; but - what then? She goes to work for the cotton trader's beautiful daughter, Miss Diana Bonvillain, who - despite her tragic circumstances - smiles at Len's jokes. When Len uncovers evidence that Bonvillain's murder may have been planned and executed by one, or both, of his partners, there's no court to present it to, no authority to investigate. One partner is Miss Diana's guardian; the other, her suitor. It's not Len's business; but Len has no business of her own.
And what kind of man would she be if she left Miss Diana to fend for herself in this nest of vipers?
A Lie Worth Living is a 70,600 word YA lesbian western.

Note to self: Buy new flashdrive. That should make the old one turn up.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Miss Organization, or Why I Don't Write Non-Fiction

I found my research notes. The place I'd put them was in fact perfectly logical, which is probably why I couldn't remember it. I went to refer to them so I could have citations to support an opinion of mine to a correspondent; and found that, though I formed the opinion while doing the research, the topic wasn't directly germane to the lesbian western. So, though I did make notes that support my opinion, they're scattered, incomplete, and not immune to charges of cherrypicking. One cold hard fact that appears in my timeline is probably referenced - somewhere in there - but I didn't footnote my timeline because I wasn't going to care about where I got that nugget of information while I was writing the story. And there's simply too much stuff to sift through to give my correspondent chapter and verse.

So I gave her a representative sampling and told her she'd probably concur with me if she read her own city's newspapers from the relevant period. Because it looks really obvious to me and I find laying out for somebody else what should be blinking obvious if they'd only look where I'm pointing incredibly tedious.

I love researching. I hate showing my work.

Meanwhile, I can't find my flashdrive, which means I'm having to start almost from scratch on the query. Say, I wonder if it fell down behind the cushion on the petting couch...Nope.

Sometimes when I lose this stuff, it's fairies playing practical jokes on me, but a lot of times, it's just me thinking of something else at the crucial moment. I keep swearing I'll do better, and then not improving.

And after all, looking for flashdrives and trying to locate citations that are gone with the wind is easier than rewriting a query from scratch.

Monday, December 5, 2011

I Think I'm Done

Len is down to 70,600 words. I think she's ready to start hunting up agents.

I may try to get Damon to take another shot of reading it, to see if the pacing problem's really solved.

Six thousand words is more than I expected to cut. Good for me.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Idea Garage Sale: The Ultimate History Series

I've been feeling a bit uncommunicative this week and I still have to recreate a character sheet before this afternoon's game, so back I go to the "Notes and Experiments" file folder, where all the random stuff I scribbled down on wastepaper while bored at various soul-sucking day jobs wound up.

Man, the pressure of frustrated ambition used to build up back when I didn't have any control over my own time!

Consider this plan for a Texas history series.

I'd start with the Indians, maybe one book about an Indian living before European contact; then, one each for her descendants living in the various phases of Spanish/Mexican rule - shorthanded in the notes as "Mission/Military/Civil." In other words, Texas was administered by the Spanish first through the church, then through the military, and finally through the civil authority. The change of power from Spanish to Mexican was not a significant one from the point of view of the far northern territory of Texas - both Spain and Mexico relied on a centralized authority that never really controlled the fringes of the claimed territory or understood the needs of the people, native or colonial, who lived there.

From there, the stories would get closer together in time and include more overlapping characters as I proceeded to a book covering the Revolution and the Runaway Scrape, then the Republic, then some portion of the Antebellum period, then the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Gilded Age/Cattle Age/Wild West (which are all the same historical period), World War I and the flu epidemic, Jazz Age, Depression, and World War II.

The notes end with a bunch of doodles and the following thoughts:

Books should be as ethnic as possible - tribes, Mexican, slave, German, various first generation immigrants. Emphasis on the more neglected crises - economic, climactic, medical. Old-fashioned domestic novels, or the traditional juvenile/historical romance? Room for both.

This cries out for pseudonymity. Susannah Long. Jane Dickens. Magnolia Strasse. Antonia Balcones. Kelly Randolph. Sandy Fernando.

At which point either the day ended, I got some work to do, or I realized I was getting silly. Though I really need to name some sims Magnolia Strasse, Sandy Fernando, and Kelly Randolph...

Anyway, had I been willing to devote my life to this and nothing else, I could have been the Rosemary Sutcliff of Texas. And I contend that every single one of these periods merits further fictional exploration; yes, even the Wild West, which is overdue to have its cliches shaken up with some different viewpoints, hard facts, and maverick interpretations of events.

Regular readers of the Garage Sale will have noted that the Impractically Thorough Historic Series is a recurring theme in my imagination. You'll see it again, I'm sure. There's just so much potential - especially in Texas history, but I bet any arbitrarily designated patch of ground would reward the researcher almost as much. Texas wears its history on its sleeve. Just because Iowa is shyer, doesn't mean it's less interesting.

For those of you without my mental network of references, the sources of the pseudonyms are:

Jane Long, the Mother of Texas.
Susanna Dickenson, Alamo survivor.
And of course Charles Dickens, who would have written awesome westerns had he been born a Texan.

Magnolia Avenue, where I live; Strasse of course is German for Street. (Adele Verein would be another good name, since the Adelsverein was the name of the organization that financed the most famous influx of German settlers.)
Balcones Heights, the name of the area where I live, and the Balcones Escarpment, the geological feature dividing Texas in two and on which San Antonio is built.

San Fernando Cathedral.

And Kelly and Randolph Air Force bases. Damon was working at Kelly when I met him, and we were stationed at Randolph when my little sister was born.

We all have these networks in our heads. Exploring them can be fruitful, or merely dizzying.