Sunday, December 30, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Living for Sign

Posting in haste because I wasted too much time this morning, so just the stub.

Just finished A Disability History of the United States, by Kim E. Nielsen. Social histories from non-mainstream points of view are always treasurehouses, and this one's no exception. But I'll settle for a single paragraph today, from p. 134:

Sarah Uhlberg later reminisced to her son about how she savored the community she found at New York City's Lexington School for the Deaf in the early 1920s, where she lived during the weekdays. "When the lights were turned out...we went to the bathroom, where a light was always on, and we talked till our eyes refused to stay open. We loved to talk to one another in our language. We lived for sign, and the ability to communicate with one another was like the water of life, our oasis of language and meaning, in the midst of the huge expanse of desert silence and incomprehension that was the greater hearing world." Every Friday evening she left this linguistic oasis and rose the subway to her family home, sitting beside her father while they sat without communicating -- for he knew no sign language.

The "problem novel" is out of favor, for good reason; but this is not the seed of a problem novel, even though the protagonist is deaf. (One of the good reasons the problem novel is out of favor being, that defining deafness, or disease, or divorce in the family solely as "problems" makes for neither good therapy nor good fiction.) This is the seed of a good solid novel with a deaf protagonist, whose family and friends, in good hands, can function both as three-dimensional characters and as metaphors for failure to communicate among generations.

And I have fifteen minutes to proofread this, change clothes, and leave, so you're on your own. But you don't need me to walk you through this one!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Attention, Please

We were supposed to go birding this morning, but we can't find the binoculars.

I've been looking for them off and on for a few months now. We've looked in all the backpacks, the car, the cedar chests, the sideboard, the toy box, all the closets, the larger desk drawers, both wardrobes, and the sewing box. The only reason we haven't looked in every cupboard and cabinet in the house is that I took everything out of all the ones in the kitchen during Kitchen Sanitation Month, and the binoculars have been missing since before then. I think we've both been assuming up to now that, when I looked for them, I was suffering that peculiar form of blindness that prevents one from seeing what one is looking for even when it's right there, and that as soon as my husband went looking for them, he'd find them in a place where I'd looked a dozen times. But no, he's as stumped and frustrated as I am.

I've even asked the fairies to bring them back more than once, since this is obviously one of their practical jokes, but this normally foolproof method has so far been ineffective. At this point, we're resigned. We'll find them, by accident, either in a place it's impossible for them to be, or in a perfectly logical one where we've both looked many times, eventually. And it turns out to be too windy for good birding today, anyhow.

So how, the fellow birdwatchers out there are asking, does one go about losing something as vital to daily life as binoculars?

Well, it's a three stage process. First, you go through a period of Health Crap during which you can't go birding without making yourself ill. (That part where you're walking and leaning backward trying to keep the bird in sight long enough to get its fieldmarks before it flies off? Impossible to do when your gyroscope is out.) Second, you become accustomed to thinking of yourself as an invalid and stop trying. Third, you stop paying attention.

You don't actually need Steps One and Two. Step Three is enough.

Once, in an e-mail exchange with Elaine Marie Alphin, I mentioned casually that Identity was her big theme, and made a comment about the way all the characters in Simon Says are simultaneously three-dimensional characters in their own right, and fragments of the same person - specifically, the same creative artist. She told me I was the first person ever to notice that. I can't believe I was the first, though I probably was the first to ever mention it to her. I can easily believe that most people aren't paying close enough attention to catch everything that's going on in that marvelous, difficult, painfully insightful book.

My premiere playtester's recent reports on Widespot have been full of wonderful little details of gameplay, like this one: I put a doll that looks like a voodoo doll into the house and Candy and Lana talk to each other through it whenever they get into a fight... the loser seeking out the winner with the doll (and only that doll). There's a message there, and it ain't exactly a subtle one. She's always noticing things like that. Other people are talking about their sim weddings, engagements, adulteries, promotions, progress in their businesses, and whatnot, and she's repeating stuff like that which make her characters feel twice as alive as anybody else's.

Everything is better when you pay attention.

We should all do it more.

Happy Christmas, y'all.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Calendar's End

Now that I think of it, I'm surprised nobody (to my knowledge; please point me in that direction if you know better) has written anything connecting the supposed Mayan prophecy of doom (which was no such thing)with the winter holidays.

The fundamental connection between any given winter holiday tradition and the Mayan calendar is the winter solstice. The days have been getting shorter, the nights longer; if this trend continues, we're all up a creek without a paddle, so it behooves us to huddle together in our warm personal units, keep lights burning, sing a few songs, and remember we love each other. All the great Christmas stories are about this, after all; probably all the great Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and Midwinter Night stories, too, though being embedded in the culture I am, I'm not familiar with them. If, someday, the sun doesn't come back after all, we will at least all be with the people who matter most.

But wait, people are celebrating Christmas as a summer solstice in the southern hemisphere. If the sun deserts the northern hemisphere, will it be because it takes up permanent residence in Australia? Hmmmm...That would mean that the earth stopped wobbling on its axis.

What would be the knock-on effects of that?

Yeah, suddenly I know why this story wasn't written. I was envisioning a short story; for which I now see you'd have to do an awful lot of scientific research, and then distill that research down to its essentials, and develop the single character, situation, and incident that would convey the idea to its maximum potential - a lot of work to create a single gem-like story that could only become a Christmas classic if it found a publisher in today's straitened short-story market.

A parody would have been nice, too; could have skipped some of the research; and gotten bonus points (at least for American audiences) by encompassing the notion of the looming "Fiscal Cliff."

Oh, well, I didn't think of it in time, either.

Happy Solstice Celebrations, y'all.

Friday, December 21, 2012

I Like Surprises

Looks like I'm about done with troubleshooting my shareable neighborhood; or at least Phase Two of it. Even if no one else ever plays it, my chief playtester is having so much fun with it she's going to keep right on playing, and sharing the pictures and stories with me, so in terms of amusing myself and others, it's been a worthwhile.

I enjoy seeing how certain storytelling truths remain constant across formats and genres. It doesn't matter how you're telling the story, if you're doing your job right, the characters will surprise you. I expected, in this instance, for this to happen as a function of the maxim "No plan survives first contact with the players," particularly as I deliberately created Widespot with the intention of giving the players as many options as possible. I didn't want any particular storyline to be implied as "the right one," and went out of my way to give the most obvious "hero" and "heroine" characters situations with no clear moral path to happiness, and my obvious "villains" some sort of human motivations, or at least excuses. I thought I knew how to design and train a sim, and that I would be able to set up the situation I wanted before they were able to generate the sorts of strong personalities that I encourage in my own games, so that the players would have the pleasure of that phase of development.

Please note, when reading the following paragraphs, that the genre of the game in question is soap opera. Romantic complications and poor decision-making on the part of people who ought to know better are far and away the easiest sources of story conflict. Especially when making a Base Game neighborhood, without access to alternative modes of generating drama enabled by expansion packs.

The playtesters have already done unexpected things with the characters. But it's also true that those characters seem to be manifesting consistently across games. Criminal Mastermind Rich Mann does not seem to be the least bit ashamed of his affair with gold-digger Candy Hart (also dating his son - to be fair, it was her idea, not mine or Rich's), though whether that manifests as telling his wife and son about it and being forgiven, or as brazenly going on to seduce his son's other love interest as well, is a function of the player. Hamilton Beech is stupid whoever plays him; I mean stupid even by the standards of the game, in which the AI is deliberately a little on the dim side. (After all, if sims are smart enough to take care of themselves, what do they need players for?) I could have trained him to be stupid, but in fact I tried to at least train him to be smart enough not to start a kitchen fire every time he cooks, and failed.

I designed Valentine Hart specifically to be a dirty old man; instead, he's one of the most appealing characters in the hood once you settle in to play him. He was very good to his wife during her brief existence (I wanted at least one ghost, and she got elected), seemed devastated when she died, and though he was happy to seduce and knock up the innocent Mary Land, both my chief playtester and I find him unwilling to then abandon her, even in the face of his daughter Candy's intense dislike of her and the game's tendency to goad sims like him to be fickle. We both find that he follows Mary around to give her backrubs, plays dolls with her little brother and sister, and gets along great with her parents. I could drag his relationship with her family down, as I did Candy's with Mary after Candy walked past her father seducing Mary on a couch not five feet from her mother's urn - but he's so charming the way he is, I prefer to leave it. Players who feel like training him into the dirty old man role are welcome to do so.

Anybody creating character-based stories in any medium has had this experience. You start out with a clear idea of who a character is, but he doesn't turn out that way - and you don't fight it, because the result is so much better. The widower taking responsibility for the bad decisions he made while in mourning, or possibly trying to fill the wife-shaped hole in his life with the nearest wife-shaped person he can lay hands on, in the face of family opposition yet, is more interesting than the dirty old man. More interesting is better.

Yes, it may muck up your plot; but your plot might have been a bit hackneyed before. A bit too simple.

If the author isn't ever surprised, how can she expect to surprise the audience?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday Blues

I got the editorial letter, and it was nothing to fret about - got it all done yesterday, with only a couple of points of disagreement. One of which was about the subjunctive and I will win that one. (Don't try to take away my Oxford comma, either!) I guess after more than ten years of polishing Sullivan was pretty close to publisher-ready. Which means I should be doing market research this morning. So here I am.

Ah, blogging - the ultimate procrastination tool. "I'm not really putting off doing market research, I'm maintaining my online presence!"

Market research is even harder this time of year, because of the heavy leaden certainty that, even if I find the perfect match, and send off the perfect query, no one will read it or ask to see a full till January. Christmas and New Year are almost upon us. People are reluctant to start things, are taking vacations, are clearing old business off their desks. The perennially overworked, overstressed, manuscript-inundated editorial staffs of absolutely everywhere have holiday and year-end stress on top of their normal load. The spammers have pulled out the big guns (spam traffic is way up in my blog comments and mailbox, too) and are swamping the filters, burying e-mail queries in amazing holiday offers, and dunning letters, Christmas cards, and packages have inundated the post office and corporate mailrooms so that traditional queries stand a good chance of being buried there, too.

On the bright side (?), I'm likely to see a number of rejections as people get rid of the stack of "meh" that's been building up. But so many people have gone to "no response = rejection" that I can't even count on that.

I can, of course, get my ducks in a row to send things out New Year's weekend, to get in on the bright shiny new ambition and determination to knuckle down that everybody has when they come back to work after the holidays. I tell myself that's what I'm doing.

And then I realize I've been staring at the same Publishers Marketplace entry for ten minutes and have been thinking, that's too embarrassing, no need to tell the world what I was really thinking about. (And you are now imagining something much, much more embarrassing than the truth, so stop it.)

Yeah, so, it's hard for everybody.

Just do it.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Fragment

Just stumbled upon these notes today. They may, or may not, be related to a short story I wrote ages ago and never sold in which a teen-ager, dissatisfied with the humdrum, unromantic routine of spells, broomsticks, and cottages of the real world, dreams of a fantasy world in which people have bicycles and airplanes and indoor plumbing.

OK, so what can Charlotte do about the war? Nothing in the normal way of things, but when she takes the broomstick into town next day, what does she discover that Sir Trevor de Vere wouldn't want her to know?

Meet somebody from a technological parallel universe?

The faery have a vested interest in the war going on and are manipulating behind the scenes?

I'm pretty sure the King's name is Fred...

Friday, December 14, 2012

Revision Month

Nothing much in the way of new projects this month, but lots and lots of revision. I'm awaiting an editorial letter on Sullivan, always a fraught moment - especially with a new editor. Most of the editors I've worked with have been very good at their jobs, but one hears horror stories - editors who think they "get it" but don't, or who want you to rewrite it in a way that would make it theirs instead of yours, or who put you on improbably tight deadlines and then leave you hanging in the wind for weeks. But there's no point borrowing trouble, and while it stands to reason my luck'll run out sometime, it doesn't have to be this time and in any case worrying about it won't help. But I wish that e-mail'd get here!

Meanwhile, Andrew May sent me the story he wrote riffing off a couple of my garage sale ideas, and I got to read a novella with chapter headings like "Idol of the Apemen" during a period of severe Health Crap, which was a great help, because you always feel better when you laugh unless your ribs are broken. So I gave him some comments which I hope will be helpful.

Our gaming group is also taking a break from role-playing to assist in a playtest of a tradeable card version of a module set we recently played in its RPG incarnation. It's not the first playtest I've participated in, but it is the first one we've done as a group and the first one in which we made a major commitment. Playtesting is like playing, except instead of settling in to strategic thinking and focusing on the game experience, you're poking and testing the rules, uncovering ambiguities in the wording, and constantly responding to rules changes that get made during playtest. This is more fun for the game mechanics in the group than for me, but I don't think I'm cut out for tradeable card games anyway. My major contribution has been to be always slightly confused about the rules, highlighting shortcomings in the way they're written.

Widespot, the shareable Sims2 neighborhood I made as a project, reached the point where I felt I could ask interested parties to playtest for me. Most of the revisions I've done based on that feedback have related to the buildings - so far no one has a problem with how the characters play. Which is not too surprising, given that character and story are the elements I have lots of experience with, while as far as architecture goes I know it when I see it. However, I have noticed that people are tending to play the Hart and Mann families preferentially to the Weisses, Beeches, and Lands, which makes me wonder if I didn't give those families sufficient story interest. And I realize that the Hart family has a lot of internal conflict and intricate conflicting connections to every other household, and the Mann family has a strong conflict-creating connection to the Harts and Lands, but the connections among the Lands, Weisses, and Beeches are mostly harmonious. So I probably have some character and story revision to do there, after all.

Having a game property in playtest is unexpectedly different from having a manuscript in critique, because whereas critique partners are all business, playtesters are (if you've done your job at all) having fun, so you get a foretaste of the pleasure of publication. Otherwise, it uses the same mental muscles and requires the same degree of flexibility and willingness to set your ego aside, to learn new techniques and how to better use existing tools from the people who understand them better, and to alter your original vision when necessary. And, just like in revision, you have to be able to coolly assess conflicting opinions, like the scene/building that one person finds charming and the other person thinks looks "like you were tired when you did it."

Finally, we're in the final stage of the year, a time when lots of people assess their lives and think about how they want to change them. When we go into revision mode on our lives. I don't believe in New Year's resolutions, but I do believe in changing your life if you're not happy with it. Sure, you may have to back up a bit and unravel something that exists in order to do that, but - happiness is hard work. And happiness is worth it.

Too bad it's so hard to find playtesters, editors, and critique partners for that one!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Game of Categories

So, let's talk about SF, F, MG, and YA. And how they're all part and parcel of each other.

I used to be as annoyed as anybody else, back in the 70s, when I was a YA myself and found I had to visit the children's department of the library in order to get my fantasy fix. Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy wasn't written for children, nor was Foundation; nor was most of Ursula K. LeGuin. The Narnia books were; C.S. Lewis's science fiction trilogy wasn't, and neither was my favorite Lewis book, Till We Have Faces. The Hobbit was; LOTR wasn't. If you wanted to buy these books, you didn't go to the children's section of the bookstore, but to Science Fiction (and the absence of a Fantasy section bugged me, too), which was on the adult side of the bookstore. The adult fiction side of the library was often (but not always) divided up into General Fiction, Science Fiction, and Mystery, and if a fantasy happened to be overtly adult enough (like the Gormenghast trilogy, which I read and didn't enjoy) it would be under Science Fiction, but most of the good stuff was all tumbled together in alphabetical order by author on the kid's side.

But you know what was over there with it?

Dickens, or good chunks of him. Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen, in whole or at least in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The Turn of the Screw. Gulliver's Travels. Robinson Crusoe. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Willa Cather.

My teen self thought librarians didn't understand fantasy and thought it childish. My mature self knows that librarians know what they're doing, and that they hit the nail on the head here.

What do all these works - fantasy, mystery, science fiction, "classic," juvenile, YA - have in common?

They are written for brains that are mature enough to handle complex concepts and are still growing; not for ones that have stopped forming new synapses and settled down to losing them. In other words, for brains under 25. Yet they are all still accessible for older brains, if those brains have kept limber by thinking of and about new ideas, concepts, and ways to enjoy fiction.

And this is why science fiction writers, and readers, and scholars, should pay attention to the Norton Awards.

Because in important ways, speculative fiction, when it's doing what it does best, is "really" YA/MG insofar as these genre divisions and categorization mean anything at all.

Sure, formula and potboiler and lowest-common-denominator YA/MG exists, which at best teach literary conventions and at worst are written for people who wish their brains would stop growing. These works no more define YA/MG than their equivalents in SF&F (and mystery, and romance, and literary fiction, and...), no matter how much they may leap to the casual and ignorant eye. Any genre repays looking for the good stuff; and I will go so far as to say that the Good Stuff is easier to find in books written for young people than in any other category.

Speculative fiction written for young people is the epitome of speculative fiction. Those who overlook it willfully cut themselves off from the Best Stuff.

That's really all I can usefully say on the subject.

Edited to Add: Silly Peni, forgot to link the rest of the Norton Blog Tour! Happy reading!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Supervillains in Retirement

So, as you can probably tell from the hour at which I'm posting this, it was kind of a crappy week; but I wasted the time productively, getting a shareable Sims2 neighborhood to the testing stage and passing it along to a couple of people for playtesting. One must keep the wheels turning somehow, and if nothing else it's an exercise in a new format. Anyway, one of the characters is a Criminal Mastermind (the top of the game's criminal career) who has, theoretically, retired to the country, except that he hasn't quite gotten around to the part where he stops working. As a result, he drives off in a limo to commit dastardly deeds every night and shows up in a supervillain costume to hang out at the swimming pool or the General Store during the day. Sometimes he pokes people and sometimes he comes with his wife and spends all his time canoodling her.

When one of my playtesters sent me notes on play, I was amused to find that she was loving this guy, making plans to get him a Persian cat named Doomsday to love on, when suddenly she looked in the relationship panel on the Heads Up Display and uncovered the affair he'd had with a young lady (now pregnant by his son) and became furiously angry with him. He can be a supervillain offstage all he wants, and it's cute; but she can see his wife, and his wife adores him, and cheating on her is Different.

I get this, but I also find it hilarious.

And then she sends me pictures of him out and about in his supervillain finery, and I start to wonder, How would you do this in a story? And could you do it, and be funny, without sacrificing a strong moral sense?

Mad geniuses and over-the-top supervillains have been a bit of a meme for awhile now. I first became aware of this in 2005, when I started reading Narbonic, a comic about mad genius and romantic love. I see it in YA literature (Catherine Jinks does it quite well), knocking around the web (as in the grand satire "Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog"), and it's even reached the mainstream movie audience in Despicable Me. But as far as I know the Monty Python bunch led the way with a sketch called "Mr. Neutron," in which "the most dangerous man in the world" prompts government officials, spies, and so on to take all kinds of panicked action, while he goes around chatting with the neighbors, sitting in spindly garden chairs, and going shopping. He apparently has the power to destroy the universe, but not the motivation. (What motivation would be sufficient, anyway?)

But could you center a work on a figure who was evil, and likeable, and retired to the country, and never did anything to the people around him; and bring him to justice; and make the reader feel both the powerful necessity of bringing him to justice, and the pity that it should be necessary?

And if you could do all that and still make people laugh (because people hate stories that make them think too hard, but will forgive any work that also makes them laugh) -
Well, you'd have done a good job of work, then.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Do Not Want

One thing that discourages me is reading the "New Deals" mailings from Publishers' Marketplace. So much of what's sold sounds so dreadful to me!

A lot of this is just the required format, which requires that the pitch line for the book, information on author (and previous work), publisher, agent, and terms of the deal all be shoehorned into a single paragraph, preferably containing only once sentence.

The experience has brought to my attention certain phrases that automatically turn me off. This puts additional pressure on me when writing queries, as I am now consciously avoiding them. If I'm sick to death of hearing these phrases, I think, an agent or publisher with taste similar to mine presumably is even more so.

For the record, if you try to sell me something and find yourself saying:
"...only to find..."
"...changes everything..."
"...nothing will ever be the same..."
"...fight to survive..." (or against tyrranny, or to regain, or basically any generic fight, battle, or war turns me right off)
"...not what he/she/it/they seem..."
"...learns that..." (Okay, this one is contextual. If the protagonist learns that his mother is a robot, I'm cool. If he learns some big philosophical point like how to feel truly alive or that risk is necessary or some damn thing like that, don't tell me about it in the pitch!)
"...little realizing..."
"...all while..."

You've already lost me.

Fortunately for you, as a consumer I'm on the wrong part of the bell curve for marketing success. In fact, if I can tell you're trying to sell me something, you can't sell it to me. I immediately don't want it. I want to go in to a store and find what I'm looking for, on my own, thankyouverymuch.

No wonder I have such a hard time selling perfectly good stories!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Idea Garage Sale, Reversed

So, I'm scheduled to be part of a coordinated blogging effort on behalf of the Andre Norton Award, as detailed at Erin Underwood's blog. My contribution will be on the 11th.

I volunteered from a sense of civic duty, but I don't have a clear idea of what I want to say on the topic. I'm sure I have something relevant and at least mildly interesting knocking around my head, but I don't know what it is yet.

So instead of putting up a garage sale idea, I'm browsing. Fiction ideas aren't the only ones out there. Anybody have anything they've always wanted to hear discussed about the Norton award, YA and MG speculative fiction, or anything related to them that I might be better qualified to discuss? Go ahead and run it by me.

Otherwise, there's no telling what I'll come up with.

Friday, November 30, 2012

That Time of Year Again; or Why Am I Never Prepared for What Always Happens??

As Kitchen Sanitation Month draws to a close, I am faced with the reality that I still don't understand how the crisper drawers in my refrigerator are set up.

It looks perfectly simple when I'm taking it apart for cleaning, and then when I go to put it back not one bit of it makes any sense. The only thing I know for certain is that the holes on the sides of the frame fit into those little knobs on the sides of the refrigerator. That's the baseline. But once the frame's back in place - this part moves this way so this end must be the front, but if I try to put it in that way the glass won't lie flat and if I put it in the other way there's nothing to hook the ends into and the slots on the sides of the drawers should lock into something but there's nothing except this bit and in that case how does the drawer move at all? Every year I go through this. Every single year.

It's not just that I'm mechanically hopeless. Damon's much better at this sort of thing than I am, and when I enlist his aid he's soon as bewildered as I am. At the moment we have an arrangement that almost works, but one of the drawers sticks so much that we can tell something's still off. I'm hoping that, having gotten so close and slept on it, I can get to the "oh, of course, I do this to that and then everything fits" moment, which is also a yearly occurrence, as soon as I go down there and look. You'd think it'd get easier every year, but it seems to get harder.

This, of course, is what notes are for. Maybe this is the year we make some. But will we then be able to find them next time Kitchen Sanitation Month rolls around? All we can do is the best we can do, but I'm not convinced we've done our best on this one.

I'm sure nobody who reads this blog ever has problems like this. :)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Get Out of Your Way

I started noticing this with writers, or people who intended to be writers, or artists, or whatever. "I'd like to..." they'd say, and when I said, "Why don't you?" the answer was: "Well, first I'd have to..."

And it's never anything they actually have to do first. I totally agree that if you want to write about the sinking of the Bismark you have to do a big chunk of research before you do much in the way of real writing; though personally I'd count that as part of the writing process. No, it's first I have to get some sort of tool (artists are really bad about this) or take some class or get better at this other thing, or go and do something completely irrelevant. Granted, somebody has to pay the rent; but you're not at the soul-sucking day job 24 hours a day and you'll never get a break from it if you don't give yourself one.

But here lately I've noticed people doing the same thing with their play. Someone wants to run a certain kind of role-playing game, but doesn't have a finished map, or the entire society set up ahead of time, or all his NPCs detailed. Newsflash: the players can only be on one part of the map at a time, you won't have time to refer to your NPC notes in the heat of play anyway, and you can improvise better than you think you can.

Someone else wants to play a Sims game; but they don't have all the custom content they want for it and the thought of tracking it all down, or making their own, is exhausting. So? It's a solo game. You're the only one playing. No one's going to be judging what you do, except you. Yeah, it'd be cool if your Test of Time Challenge sims had complete immersion sets that really looked like Neolithic huts, Egyptian palaces, etc.; but you know what? No matter how much custom content you put in there, the sims are still going to roll inappropriate wants to buy electronic entertainment. And you could easily spend a year making stuff and still find, in play, that you want something you didn't think of, but never actually use the sabertooth tiger teddy bear that you sweated blood over. So why not relax about it, get what you can as you can, and make the custom content you feel a real need for when the need for it makes the process of doing so fun and engaging?

There's active fandoms out there documenting various games and commenting on those of others; but months can go by when bloggers appear only to say that they're so far behind with the documentation that they can't play until they organize their pictures, write up the story, and make a post. Nonsense. Of course they can! No one's obliged to document everything that happens, or anything that happens. Your audience will not cease to love you if you document three months of silence with three lines of summary text and plunge back into current events; and if they do, screw them. You're not playing for them. You owe them nothing.

You don't need to have the new glove in order to play baseball. Someone will loan you a glove. You don't need the perfect shoes to hike in; choose trails that your existing shoes can cope with while you're saving up for the good boots you want.

You don't need a new dress to go to a party - just change up your accessories. Anyone who judges you for wearing a dress twice is someone you don't need to associate with anyway. The people who matter most either won't notice, or will admire you just as much as they did the first time you wore the dress.

You don't need anybody's permission, and no one is setting these requirements except you. Set different requirements and get out of your way.

If you need somebody's permission - here's mine. Enjoy yourself.

If you won't, who will?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Roadside Bigfoot

I turn again to the Fortean Times; to the same page of the same Fortean Times as last week, in fact, as the quarter-column about the mechanical ape is preceded by Bigfoot coverage: about three-quarters of a column on Bigfoot sightings in, and a dubious YouTube video from, Ohio (not thought of as Bigfoot country by the mainstream media), and half a column on a practical joker in Montana dressed in a ghillie suit and trying to spark a Bigfoot flap being accidentally hit by a teen driver, then run over by the teen driving the car behind her. Which is tragic, particularly for the teens, who now get to live with the fact that they've killed a man; even if it was, arguably, not their fault. Being hit by a car has to be accepted as a natural risk inherent in the activity of dressing in camouflage and deliberately looming up from the side of the highway trying to scare people at night.

Nor are cars the only hazard involved in impersonating Bigfoot, particularly in a state like Montana where gun racks are standard pickup equipment; but that's probably why August was chosen as hoaxing month. People are a lot less primed to shoot large animals in August than in November.

This is all evocative enough, but the trouble is, there's no real implied plot here. None of the characters have any obvious connection beyond that fatal conjunction at the side of the highway and nothing was at stake in the masquerade except for a practical joke. In a sparsely-populated state like Montana, the odds are reasonable that all of the principals knew each other, at least by sight, but Westerners are accustomed to driving long distances for what would seem to be slight cause in more densely-populated areas, and he presumably chose a relatively well-traveled area to maximize the potential that his prank would pay off, so it isn't a given.

So if you're going to use these elements, you have a lot of work ahead of you still. Here's some sample questions to answer before you even sit down to write:

Does the accident have to be fatal, or can you get away with pulling that punch and telling a farce?

Is the accident the end of the story, or the beginning? If it's the end, then the story is a tragedy (unless the hoaxer was using a Bigfoot disguise to cover up a nefarious crime, which is contrived and melodramatic, but contrived melodrama still has its place in literature); if at the beginning, the story will be about the two teens learning to cope with what happened and can, therefore, have a happy ending.

Is there some useful mid-point for the event, the third-act turn, for example, in which the discovery of a Bigfoot hoaxer turns the entire plot to that point on it's head? This would require that the protagonists (presumably the teens) were dealing with some mysterious events, all of which have been assumed to be Bigfoot-related; but now that they know about the man in the ghillie suit, not only have they got accidental manslaughter on their consciences, a big chunk of whatever they were involved in is suddenly not explained by the Bigfoot hypothesis and they're on a downhill run to the climax.

What are the connections between the two teens, the hoaxer, and Bigfoot, either as a concept or as a real phenomenon?

What more interesting motives than tomfoolery or boredom might have prompted a Bigfoot hoax? Perhaps the hoaxer is not a mere silly joker, but someone trying to create a flap in order to hoist the local economy out of the dumps through increased tourism. Perhaps there's a real Bigfoot population and he's trying to protect it by drawing the attention of cryptid hunters to areas where it's not.

Does it have to be Bigfoot?

Does it have to be Montana? Sometimes an incident floating in isolation in the news can be snapped into place in one's own culture and location, and you know that, if that had happened here, it would have happened on such-and-such a road, the hoaxer would have been a member of a particular subculture, his motivation would have been thus-and-so, and the teens would have been on their way to the county line to buy kegs; and the rest of the story would roll out effortlessly from there.

This is why people think it's hard to get ideas. Getting ideas is as easy and pleasant as reading the Fortean Times. Developing ideas, now - that's work!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Baking

First off, I'd like to state for the record (in light of the recent Garage Sale about the guy who runs around taking stuff I like off the market) that I have never liked Twinkies and haven't eaten one for at least 30 years. So Hostess's failure is not my fault. And anyway you know somebody's going to buy up the rights and make an equally tasteless, nutritionless knock-off about the time the people who bought them all up decide it's time to dump them on E-bay.

Second, tomorrow being Thanksgiving, I'm baking today. Damon specifically requested that I make dilly casserole bread, which we haven't had for awhile because it's pretty high sodium, like all bread, and because I have trouble getting yeast breads to rise. When it works it's about as yummy as bread gets, though.

Since I'm not sure whether my trouble with bread rising is down to overbeating or to the ambient temperature in my kitchen - which is, counterintuitively, the coolest room in the house - I made two batches, one of which I underbeat, if anything. That one's taking its time rising, too, but it looks like I might have two decent batches of dilly bread. Which is twice as many as I need but what the family doesn't eat tomorrow the gaming group can eat over the weekend, and what I was afraid of was of having none.

I went very short of sleep last night, my head aches, and making even one batch was more of a chore than it should have been, but -

That's how you know when you're really engaged with a job. When you take pains over it, even excessive ones, even when your body is protesting, because you want to be sure it's done right.

If you're not doing that, you're doing the wrong things. Stop it, and do something else; or make up your mind to it, and do it right.

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: The Mechanical Gorilla

Sometimes, ideas just fall into your lap.

Fortean Times #294 arrived in my mail this week. In the "Strange Days" section, on page 8, is about a quarter column of story about how a man in Cambridgeshire, out walking his dog (there's dogs again!) found "a 15ft (4.6m) mechanical gorilla" with "a number of moving parts but a poor state of repair, with many of its components badly rusted."

The picture that goes with the news story is very sad, as is the treatment of the find as the discovery of a garbage dump in an inappropriate location. It's tolerably obvious that this is either (and I admit this is not likely) a deliberate pirate art installation or (and I think we can all agree that this is hands-down the likeliest option) the tragic remains of either the villain or the hero in a monumental battle of good vs. evil.

Also, somewhere in this is someone Japanese. Fifteen-foot mechanical gorillas are surprising in a British context, but routine, almost quaint, in a Japanese one.

Figure out which side the ape is on, and whether it's the same side as the person who built it - and whether the person who built it is an elderly mad scientist or a kid with big eyes and a small mouth - and you're underway.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: The Children of Active Duty

Today is Veteran's Day.

I'm an Air Force brat. All my bionotes start off like that. It's central to my sense of identity. So -

Why, when I sit here thinking about stories that connect those two things - the service brat identity, the holiday to honor service, do I come up blank?

I think it's because we didn't live on base. Okay, not quite true - we did in Alaska, which we left when I was six. But we stayed in my folks' hometown in Iowa during my dad's tour in 'Nam, and lived in town at our other stations. When I talk to other grown service brats (of which I meet no shortage, living in a major military city like San Antonio), I can tell that I missed out on a big chunk of the subculture by not living on base; a floating community of shared assumptions, conflicts, securities, fears, and structures. The caste systems in my schools had nothing to do with the serving parent's rank and had no built-in accommodations to the reality of frequent reassignments. I never had the same rulebook as the kids around me.

I'm not complaining about this. My parents had reasons to keep us out of that subculture every bit as good as the reasons other military parents raised their kids in it. If this is the origin of my tendency to stand forever on the fringes of multiple subcultures instead of immersing myself in them, so be it. If I trade a sense of belonging for flexibility, why, other people are trading flexibility for their sense of belonging, and that's fair.

But it does mean I can't write stories that reflect the world a large number of children in this world live in, and present that world to their non-military peers, even though I share an identity with them. And somebody really should.

What Service means to a service brat is that parents aren't in charge, the Service is. It means that Dad - or, with increasing frequency, Mom, or both - often isn't there; but that's nobody's fault. Authority is both larger and less personal for a service brat child than a civilian one; rebellion is a much more fraught emotion, with much larger implications, because you're not just rebelling against your parents or some vague Establishment. You're rebelling against the entire structure of the universe you live in.

I never rebelled. Never. My brother did and it was A Huge Problem. My sister, who was always the smartest of us, did a kind of end run around it. An on-base high school full of kids exercising those options must be a pressure cooker, even in peace time.

And when is it ever peace time anymore?

I know someone should write about this. All members of minorities need to be able to find their reflections in the fiction offered to them, and literature is the best, easiest introduction to minority viewpoints for mainstream readers. But I also know I can't. Somewhere out there is the service brat who can.

Please, get on it!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gee, I Love Language

My husband passed on a library book to me, Kat Zhang's What's Left of Me. He explained that the premise is a world in which everyone is born with two personalities, one of which fades over time and eventually goes away. Except this time, it doesn't. "The story's narrated by the recessive personality," he said.

It is possible that, until this book was written, or even until we had this conversation, the term "recessive personality" had never been used before. It wasn't needed. But as soon as we needed it, boom, it came to hand, perfectly comprehensible to anyone who grasps the premise.

That is one good tool we've got there.
BTW, if you live in the US and are eligible, it's Voting Day! Have you done your bit to preserve democracy yet? Better get on it!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: A Really Crappy Job

So today was one of those days when you have lots of errands so they all take too long. At least Jason's Deli offered me an extra cookie.

The grocery store we shop in has had a product reshuffle. You know, when they consult the person who follows me around keeping track of what I like, find out what I've really come to count on, and replace it with something I can't possibly use. The big loser this time is flavored rice. I had two-three flavors of two-three brands that I could count on to be under 500 mgs of sodium per serving. Now there's one, and of course it's not the blessed wonderful one that somehow kept it down to 75 mgs. The new brands all have 600 mgs up. They discontinued my 200 mg artichoke pasta sauce (but I found the last five jars hiding behind the 700-mg four-cheese sauce and bought them all). They took away all my low-sodium salad dressings ages ago. I will soon have nothing left to eat when I'm too sick from the condition that requires a low-sodium diet to cook from scratch. Thank heaven for baked potatoes. (Now watch the GE foods people figure out how to grow a spud with the salt built right in, and replace all the real spuds with it.)

Anyway, you will have noticed a paranoid assumption in the preceding paragraph: the existence of a person who follows me around, tracks what I like, and makes sure it's not available anymore. Of course I know that's not really how it works. My tastes and needs fall outside the bell curve that creates the most profitable market for the gigantic corporations that run our economy, into the range of products that, though they may sell well, do not sell well enough to meet whatever profit margin the gigantic corporations are aiming for. So - no white blouses with breast pockets, no jeans that fit over my butt, no low-sodium convenience food, etc. If I wanted to be served I should have the common sense to be led by fashion and have a completely different body with completely different needs.

But it happens so consistently that it's not hard to indulge the paranoid fantasy. And of course it gives me a character. If there's a person devoted to taking away what I need, he (for some reason I'm convinced it's a man), has his own needs which must be served by the practice. He's doing it for a reason and he has some feeling about it. He's either working for the shadowy entity that controls all those gigantic corporations, or himself has so much clout with them that he can dictate terms. He must get something out of it - but what? Where's the profit in depriving me of that wonderful peach-applesauce I used to be able to get? Does he enjoy doing it? Does he resent me, because after all it's got to be a tedious job tracking my buying habits when I do so little shopping, or pity me?

I do not for a moment believe that I am particularly important in this scenario. I presumably have been chosen either arbitrarily, or for my ability to avoid the swelling middle of the bell curve and act as a kind of barometer of the unfashionable in a wide variety of consumer products. No, the center of the story is the man doing the job. He has to display a certain ingenuity at it, to avoid being noticed. I use a lot of cash (which some corporations seem to be trying to take away from me, too), don't buy much online, and use things till they wear out, so except for groceries I don't have a regular schedule. Even for groceries, though we go to the same store week after week, usually on the same day, we also make erratic trips to different stores to get different things. And yes, the stores at the more vegetarian-friendly end of the grocery spectrum do it to me, too - the store formerly known as SunHarvest recently stopped carrying my glucosamine, B-2, and worst of all, my chocolate-covered banana chips. But most of the time, I'm not buying at all. So this has got to be one of those nerve-wracking hurry-up-and-wait jobs.

I bet I'm not the only one being tracked, either. He may have two or three bellwethers to follow.

So the story could be one of those mid-century surrealist stories about the anonymity and pointlessness of the modern office job, some sort of Kafka riff in which neither the reader nor the protagonist is ever certain what's going on.

Or it could be primarily about his motivation to do the job. Presumably somebody is paying him; but is it in money? We tend to view money as the unit of value, but money is only meaningful in terms of the other satisfactions its possession enables. Does frustrating me in this way provide some other tangible benefit - prolong his life, perhaps? (But with a job so boring, with such weird hours, is that worthwhile?) Prolong the life of someone he loves - parent, child, spouse?

And, if he's working for another party and not somehow deriving his benefit directly from me, how is the coin he's paid in related to the way they profit?

It's all too murky. If I could find my antagonist's face, the rest of it would snap into place. But I tend to get bogged down in annoyance before I get there.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

We don't actually do anything to celebrate Halloween the last few years, but it's a holiday I like in principle; a flexible sort of holiday, with a variety of meanings depending on your culture and lifestyle. The fact that it's historically been the one day of the year when cross-gender dressing was legal in much of the US makes it a big day in the gay subcultural calendar. Its religious roots make it important in both Catholic and pagan traditions. Day of the Dead celebration has prompted some of the defining images of arte folklorico, not to mention coffin-and-skeleton themed candy in convenience stores. Trick-or-treat may be the best thing that ever happened to the American candy industry, especially given parental paranoia about home-made goodies. Carving pumpkins is fun, if dangerous (but that scar I got when I was six is barely visible these days.) News outlets fall all over themselves to publicize local ghostlore during this time of year; ghost stories can still get published in October issues even of mundane magazines; libraries make displays of themed anthologies of spooky stories for every taste;and TV stations start airing old horror classics, often in marathons. What is not to like?

This year, I got a nice bonus surprise: a new review of The Ghost Sitter, twelve years after publication! Not in any big, influential venue; but from a satisfying one, the blog of someone who's read it several times, still likes it, and wants to share. Again, what is not to like?

Sorry to miss the garage sale this weekend; should have had a Halloween one ready, couldn't get into gear. I trust my reputation, such as it is, will survive.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

I Guess I Have to Buy an E-Reader Now...

Queer Teen Press's boilerplate is better than any big publisher's contract I've ever signed in a couple of respects. Every contract should have an "if publisher goes belly-up, rights revert to authors automatically" clause! It's never happened to me, but oh, the horror stories I've heard! No advance, but the royalty rate is generous, so we'll see how it goes. As I said earlier this week, I wrote this in the mid-90s and have never been able to shift it, so that makes it a good book to launch upon the dubious seas of the virtual book market.

Sullivan, That Summer made me write it out of the depths of my crush on Dana Scully on The X-Files (I would like to emphasize that the crush was on Scully, the character, not on Gillian Anderson; though I will happily watch anything GA is in.) It's about meeting your idols, mostly, and the fact that this happens in the context of a lesbian coming-out story is, not exactly incidental, but not the most important thing about it. But it's not edgy, which mitigated against it when I first wrote it, and it's essential to the story structure that an adult protagonist remembering the main action of the teen years intrudes occasionally, which mitigates against it these days, even though the difference between teen Cherry and adult Cherry is not profound. This, for example, is Adult Cherry:

When I get home, I stagger through the claustrophobic entryway to the living area. "I'm dead," I announce. "All is lost. Order my plot."
Chris, dressed for the office, but barefoot, continues tossing salad. "What's killing you this time?"

Obviously, she pulls this teeny drama queen stuff all the time. Mostly as a joke. Mostly.

I wish we had progressed to the point where this book could wind up in a place where a general audience, not just an LBGT one, was likely to find it, but after all we're in the age of the niche market, and after an eight-year gap in the career, I'm not going to quibble about where I make a sale, just so I make one!

I just hope there really will be some money in it.

P.S. Early voting this week! Have you gone out to save democracy yet? Better get on it.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Um - Yay for Me?!

Blink, blink.

I have a contract on the way. For a YA book. Called Sullivan, That Summer.

Well, for an e-book, which still doesn't feel like a real book to me. For a small press in a niche market. I've seen a sample of the company's contracts and it looks straightforward enough, though structured differently from previous contracts I've had with big New York companies for print books. The royalty rate is even generous, though industry standard is "net profits" and I've heard enough about how Hollywood works net profits that I wish the industry had a different standard. Still, this is a book I wrote in the mid-90s and have never been able to sell anywhere, through no fault of its own, and I'll be glad to have Sullivan out there working for me and giving pleasure to readers rather than rotting on my hard drive. And the fact that it's for a niche market should mean that it goes directly into the hands of the audience most likely to value what it is.

Probably because of the e-book factor, and the lack of advance, I'm not feeling any of the satisfaction I ought to feel right now. It doesn't seem like a real thing that will ever net me real money. When I have an actual printed contract in hand, or start getting editorial notes, it'll kick in. At the moment, though...

Well, put it this way. In our Pathfinder game this week, we located, battled, defeated, and my character personally beheaded the shapeshifter who enchanted our captain, wrecked our ship with all hands lost but us, and turned the captain into a ghoul. I feel a lot more like someone who just avenged all that than I do like someone who just sold a book.

Details forthcoming, after I sign the contract.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Bird's Eye Mysteries

A professor at Idaho State University has put together a project for aerial reconnaissance of the northwestern American forests, in order to look for Bigfoot. This strikes me as a good approach to the problem. I am reminded of an anecdote repeated to me by the operator of the Bigfoot Discovery Museum,
who is the natural depository of any and every passers-by's bigfoot story, of a small plane pilot overflying a clearcut area littered with felled, but not yet removed, trees. Below him he saw a truck driving down the road, and a large dark more or less humanoid shape paralleling it; when they came to an angle at which they could view each other, the humanoid threw itself to the ground in imitation of the logs!

My own belief is that Bigfoot is a good old-fashioned shape-changing fairy, but I approve of this project. If nothing else, it will take reams of footage of ordinary daily life in the flyover area, which is almost bound to discover unexpected behavior in known animals. The technology could also be adapted to security and search-and-rescue uses.

And of course fictional ones. Suppose you had a small self-propelled group of crypto-hunters put together one of these, or simply using a remote-controlled toy to survey an area in which they suspected a bigfoot, or chupacabras, or Goat Man, was hanging out. What human activity might be going on in the same area - secret activity, of people who will go to considerable lengths to keep from being found out?

You could write a crime drama around this premise. Or a more basic juvenile mystery, with the drone camera called into service to clear somebody of, say, vandalism. You could have mundane secrets cross tracks with exotic ones. The drone's operator could disappear, and his fate be puzzled out based on the evidence in the drone's camera. You could uncover Bigfoot - or bigfoot hoaxers - or both at once. You could have a comedy of errors, with the camouflaged drone mistaken for something exotic by a separate group of mystery-hunters, and the drone's deployers misreading their shots of the mystery-hunters' own cleverly disguised attempts to track the Thunderbird.

Why not?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Synopses Suck

Just by their nature, they suck. If I could tell the story well in two double-spaced pages, it wouldn't be a novel, now would it?

The constant fight against the instinct to write well and be interesting, as opposed to merely getting across all the plot points, is agonizing. I have to break it up with frequent tab-overs to the net. Like this one.

I have actually bumped potential publishers down the submission list just for requiring a synopsis. But there's no putting this one off any longer. So, back I go.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: City on the Brink

Sometimes the dreams that present as more or less coherent stories retain their shape when you awake.

A city, middle of nowhere, closed to outsiders; but the outsiders in question had a choice between the city and death in the wilderness, so they found a way in. The city had good reason to close itself off. A minority of the population was born with an inability to digest normal food, but had to absorb nutriment through the skin from a bright green ointment derived from a rare local plant. If they couldn't get this, they would go into rapid decline and die - unless they drank human blood. But then they were full vampires, who reproduced by drinking from the same person multiple times.

The plant, apparently, could not be cultivated.

You see the problem.

I had found some of the plant and made what I thought was a considerable quantity of the ointment, so I took it to the nursery where a human woman was trying to save a baby. I took the child and started applying my ointment. At first she turned from sickly yellow to bright healthy green; but the effect faded with startling rapidity. She'd gotten too close to starving. I used up all the ointment and was scraping residue off my skin, trying frantically to save her, but the nurse told me it was too late. If one of us didn't feed her blood, she'd die. I resisted this, explaining the logic of the situation to her - as if she weren't all-too-keenly aware of it already! Yes, she agreed, if we fed her blood we'd make the overall problem worse; but if we didn't, we would watch her die right here, right now, and know we could have saved her.

So I woke up; an option that should be more widely available when we are faced with insoluble problems.

The basic premise here is of course absurd - how on earth would a condition like that arise in the normal course of events? A curse, perhaps. The outsiders who got in could see that the population had gotten so resigned to their untenable situation that they weren't even trying to fix it - using up every bit of the plant as soon as they found it, without leaving anything to reseed, but not even looking for the only long-term solution, a cure for the condition. Even though they knew that the vampires were going to run out of things to eat in the near future, as more and more people turned.

Not my kind of story (I hate vampires), so - why did I dream it?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Comments, and Doubt

This blog is not moderated. If you post a comment, and don't see it right away, please e-mail me to let me know, and give me any info you can on it. I know one person has tried twice, and I never saw a thing.

Sometimes I think I'm sabotaging myself with the blog; specifically, with the Garage Sale part. I wonder if the reason I haven't knuckled down to a new project since completing Len is not the depressing effect of having, oh cripes, seven books to market; five to publishers and two trolling for agents; and not getting nibbles on any of them - which is a plausible reason, I have to admit - but the habit of mind of once a week pulling an idea out of my head specifically in order not to work on it.

This goes along with my persistent suspicion that I'm malingering. I can't possibly feel bad enough to justify how little I've gotten done this year - can I? I mean, my life's not in danger by a long chalk. If I just pushed myself a little harder, couldn't I get more done? Yes, I have days when I am indisputably, undeniably, annoyingly incapacitated - but I bet I could get a lot more done on the other days if I hadn't fallen into the habit of treating myself like an invalid. And isn't is suspicious how, on the day after I make a lot of resolutions and plans and take steps to implement them, I crash and burn and can't do any of it? Even when I specifically restrained myself from overdoing it? Last week's migraine hit within 24 hours of my launching an initiative to do yardwork for 20 minutes a day, not one minute longer. No way in heck is 20 minutes overdoing it!

The people around me tell me none of this is so, but I don't know...I'm the only one around me 24/7, and it's far from clear to me that I am not the engineer of my own frustration.

If I were a character in a book, I'd know.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Discovery Dogs

Lascaux Cave was discovered by a dog named Robot while out roaming the woods with his boys.

Mary Leakey had her dogs with her when she found the skull that made her family's name world-famous.

Not too long ago, a Russian boy walking his dogs found a frozen mammoth carcass.

I'm sure if you put the right terms into the search engine, you'd come up with a lot of other good examples of discoveries mediated by dogs.

This is partly because dogs are so good at finding things. Unlike most social animals, they aren't interested in following the beaten path. They want to go exploring, following the scent trails of the less-social animals into the depths of the landscape. You'll never catch them hanging out under the street lamp looking for something that got lost in the field, just because the light is better under the lamp.

It's partly because people and dogs go together, far back into prehistory. The date, like most dates, gets pushed back periodically. But dogs and humans have lived in close proximity for tens of thousands of years, training each other, relying on each other. Dogs were probably hanging around, unnoticed by the record, for lots and lots of discoveries that changed the world, or at least (as in the above examples) how we think and feel about our places in it.

Any fantasy spun about dogs ruling the world would have to deal with the incredible amount of misery that dogs have had to cope with at the hands of their human masters - cruelty, neglect, abandonment, puppy farms, breeding for extreme traits to produce breeds with congenital health problems.

But some sort of canine scientific network, the members of which guide their humans to make discoveries in the field in which they happen to be interested, has possibilities.

So does the New Agey notion that dogs are earthly manifestations of some spiritual agency, dedicated to bringing out our true moral - and immoral - natures. How you behave to those who love and depend on you, after all, has huge implications for your personal development.

And don't tell me Hitler loved dogs, as if that proved something. There's no reason to think Hitler ever loved anyone or anything particularly, and in any case, if we, for fictional purposes, grant dogs a degree of moral agency which real dogs lack, we have to grant them the capacity for evil as well as good.

I, of course, am a cat person. A cat organization would have different goals and manifestations entirely than a dog organization. Though a cat could easily become packmaster to a bunch of dogs and organize them to do something. (Any cat worth its salt an in possession of a set of claws can easily dominate any dog, not actually trained to attack cats, with a soft and tender nose. Mostly, they don't even have to deploy the claws.)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Did you know...

...that Diana Wynne Jones is readable even through a migraine?

Granted, by migraine standards mine are so mild that I've resisted for years the idea that I had them; but nope, that definitely was one. I read Hexwood and The Ogre Downstairs. I'm not sure what possessed me to even try to read Hexwood under the circumstances - you'd think that complicated structure would play holy hell with a migraine-fuddled brain, but it didn't. And Gwinny's attempt to murder the Ogre is still laugh-out-loud funny even when you're too sick to laugh.

I get more in awe of that woman all the time.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Peculiar Little Pleasures, and Their Cost

Several years ago, I got a letter from a girl asking permission to name her doll Ada, after Ada Bauer, one of the heroines of Switching Well.

I have no idea why she felt she needed permission, but I'm just as glad she did, because if she hadn't written to ask, I'd never know she'd liked Ada well enough to want to do that. Of course I told her she could, and threw in the additional information that I'd borrowed the name Ada, myself, from my grandmother, who went by Lois and didn't use the Ada part of her name. I like the chain of associations there, me honoring Gramma with Ada, and the girl honoring all of us with the doll.

Recently, in my simming newsgroup, I posted a picture of the new cutest toddler in my neighborhood, Swainson Hawkins, and another poster agreed that he was amazingly squeelicious and wanted a copy of him. Since I know her to not be a sim-torturer (there are people I'd no more share my imaginary people with than I'd loan my cat to a serial killer), of course I complied, and this week she sent me pictures of him, all grown up, married to a sim she made, and with their toddler child - Peni Hawkins! Who, I am told, is much smarter than other sim toddlers (Well, she would be!)and gets read to all the time.

This, lets's face it, is one of the reasons not to be content with creating just for ourselves. We are social animals. We like compliments, which is exactly what both these incidents are. We get satisfaction from sharing our work, and also from seeing the uses to which other people put our work. Writing a story that no one ever reads is like baking a cake no one eats.

This is one reason why creation sells so cheap. It's easy for the general public to make us feel that we should be satisfied to be noticed, and not expect to be valued to the extent of getting paid a living wage. Because the sensations of having a little girl's doll named after my character, and that of having a sim named after me, are so similar, it is easy to conflate the processes by which these satisfactions arise. But, though creating Ada was about as much fun as creating Swainson, creating Ada was work, and creating Swainson was play. I deserve money for creating Ada, in the form of royalties from her story, but not for Swainson.

Yet all over the world, because the internet makes it so easy, people are giving their work away, in return for a handful of compliments. But the compliments are not guaranteed, and the creator who does not get them then feels much, much worse than he would if he'd simply failed to get accepted by a regular publisher.

Compliments are lagniappe. If they are your only recompense, and you don't get them, you will feel cheated.

Don't put yourself in that position. Give freely, and from the heart, of your play and your duty; but sell your work.

If you volunteer your work for a cause, that is admirable, but don't expect thanks; then, if you are not thanked (and most volunteers aren't, I'm afraid; most volunteers are taken for granted) there's no harm done and if you are, it's a delightful bonus.

Remember this when you're using other people's creations, too. The cost to you of telling the cook you liked her cake is miniscule, compared to the pleasure being told so gives to the cook!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Downton Prairie

I never can read a history of anything without seeing the unexplored possibilities. This week it's Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890, by Peter Pagnamenta (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012). This book outlines the love affair of the British landowning class with their fantasy, and occasionally with the actuality, of the Rockies, Great Basin, and Great Plains, beginning with William Stewart: "A peppery, red-faced captain on the British Army's retired list." Don't let the retired list fool you - he was only 38 when his American adventures began. Stewart signed on with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to travel with them to a rendezvous, but what he was interested in was not the fur business, but hunting.

And this was true for the British who came after him until after the Civil War. The same time and country that we associate with horse tribes following the bison, wagon trains leaving a trail marked with graves, the Donner Party, culture clash, mountain men, and prospectors the contemporary aristocrats of England, Scotland, and Ireland associated with pleasure trips after big game. They ranged from insouciant young lords setting out equipped with rifles, servants, and a knowledge of the wilderness culled primarily from the novels of James Fenimore Cooper to mature excursionists hauling along French chefs and plenty of servants, ammunition, and silver services, who are "pestered" by 49ers in rags with nothing to eat. The British tourist became stereotyped in American papers as loftily rude, impractical, unreasonable, and convinced that the world existed for his comfort and convenience and he was doing it a favor by condescending to demand privileges from it; and this stereotype, like most, had its exemplars as well as its counter-examples. Very few seem to have had much more than a nodding acquaintance with the reality of the land and societies visited; but of what tourist is this not true?

The book details many types and stages of British aristocratic enterprise in America, but what seems to me to have been most grossly overlooked is the fictional potential of these sprawling mid-century safaris. I see in my mind's eye a BBC series, later brought to America and broadcast as part of Masterpiece Theater, set in the Great Plains and Rockies of the Gold Rush years,with the lives and fortunes of an ambitious British hunting excursion, perhaps an older gentleman and his two sons, or perhaps a son and a nephew, their confidential servants, a hired guide or two, and locally-hired wagons and their handlers; intersecting with the lives and fortunes of a particular set of 49ers; which is where most of the female characters would come from, of course. Probably you could shoehorn in a spirited aristocratic beauty somehow, and no doubt one or the other set of characters would make an Indian connection of some kind. One must have the love interest in these things, after all.

But the chief interest would lie, first, in the intrinsic interest of surviving the frontier, which would be just as unfamiliar to the pioneering families as to the British at the early stages of the Gold Rush; and second, in the exploration of how each group intersects with its illusions - some of which, only the audience would be in position to see - and with each other. Where the British would see a glorious free landscape of great beauty, the 49ers would see broken axles and days hauling wagons up near-vertical slopes; where the British would see trophies, the 49ers would see food; where the British would see a noble savage or a degraded subhuman the 49er men would see a potentially dangerous enemy and the 49er women would see someone willing to trade a brace of ducks for an old quilt.

You could also use the situation to comment on modern situations - for are we not, when we go as tourists in Africa, southeast Asia, and Greece, or even to New York, even to San Antonio, bringing our prejudices and assumptions with us and making ourselves ridiculous to the locals? (But we laugh kindly at tourists, as long as you don't sneer at us.)

The cast is varied enough that you could make one character stand in for a "type" and still cover a reasonable cross-section of viable human reality, once they developed as individuals to humanize the type. The guides, the leader of each expedition, their grown children, the servants, the feisty widow in the wagon train (I insist on the Feisty Widow; she'll probably take over when the original wagon train leader dies in the stampede caused by the overeagerness of one of the British hunters, dealing that party its first major reality check), would all get their personal arcs. Not every one will live to see the end of the series; not all those who die will die well; and some will be corrupted or degraded rather than matured; but many will grow stronger and more clear-sighted, personal if not national politics will become more practical and more generous, and the audience gets costumed drawing-room drama and open-air action at the same time. You can't tell me you wouldn't tune in to that!

But of course, I don't work for the BBC.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Professional Hazard

I got two queries in the mail this week, and now I am so sick of everything in my active folder I could scream.

In particular, the first ten pages of everything in my active folder.

This is the real reason editors and agents take so long to get back to you - they want you to have enough resting time in between the query and the response that you're capable of giving it another go-over with the polishing rag before they try to read the full.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I suppose I'll have to dust, now...

So I have this blouse about 3/4 done and yesterday I ran out of thread. I decided not to make a trip out just to get thread and to combine it with an errand I had to do today.

Then I realized that I needed to unpick the last seam I'd put in.

And then Damon needed the car today (but we'll do a whole bunch of errands together after work).

Yup. You can have entire years like that.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: World in a Building

Speaking of journals, here's what I find at the end of a rambling diatribe about how much I hated working at...a certain soul-sucking day job... what a huge waste of my time it was even existing there, and how they should have color-coded departments instead of making everything gray:

Is there a story about these cubicles? When I temped at [redacted], I had a little black fantasy about a society trapped there forever filing, keypunching, stuffing envelopes, totaling figures - never seeing the light of day. The great culture hero - a Tyll Eugenspiegel - was Wheelchair Annie, a woman who set the executive hierarchy on its ear and whipped around the building making life bearable. I would have to work out the background of such a world to make it plausible enough for anyone to take the story. It would be about getting out, of course - about the necessary mediocrity of the soul in the workplace - about a lack of windows.

There's something very mid-twentieth century about this idea; yet we are in fact getting to a place where making a small town in one huge building that no one ever left except through internet avatars could conceivably be made practical. It could even be some people's ideal life to live in a company town based on this plan - housing, daycare, elder care, health coverage, unlimited WiFi, all levels of educational facilities, gym - as long as you could keep the job, and strive for promotion to ever-more-privileged access to amenities, you wouldn't even need to be paid in money as we know it.

Until you were found wanting, or laid off due to economic changes Out There, of course.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Unsung Benefit of Journalling

"Keep a journal" is standard writing advice; but I don't think I've ever seen explicitly stated the benefit that I most commonly get from it.

So, you're having an off week/month/year, you can't keep you Butt in the Chair (which is the whole secret to writing well), you can't find anybody to send your work to and/or have stopped believing in that work, daily life/health crap/your latest fandom/ eat up your time and block your way to productivity, everything is stale, flat, and unprofitable. So you dig out the old notebooks, file folders, backup disks, or whatever and go browsing through stuff from better days.

And what do you keep reading? Gripes about how you're having an off week/month/year, you can't keep you Butt in the Chair, you can't find anybody to send your work to and/or have stopped believing in that work, daily life/health crap/your latest fandom/ eat up your time and block your way to productivity, everything is stale, flat, and unprofitable.

My old journals are full up of grumpy wheel-spinning so boring I can't read it without laughing at myself.

And yet - at some point, all that wheel-spinning turned into productive work, by some alchemical process I still don't understand, but have come to trust. No, this part of it's not any fun. But it, too, shall pass away. As long as I keep coming back to the blank page and those summaries of where each complete work is in the mail out/reject/mail out cycle.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Fun with First Lines

It's been awhile since I played with first lines, possibly because my focus has been on getting existing work out there. Or, y'know, my inability to get it out. Let's see what's kicking around in my head.

1) Not everyone is up to the responsibility of being the Coolest Boy in School.
2) Superpowers were the cat's idea.
3) I assumed that my brother lied when he warned me that the earth was flat and I'd go shooting over the edge if I rode my bike too fast to stop at the foot of the hill.
4) Alison was very beautiful by the light of the burning building.
5) The world beyond the machine came into focus.
6) When Pam came in, a crowd of women almost hid Charlene's desk.
7) The babysitter arrived as Kate cooked the boys' dinner.
8) A discount tire commercial muddled up the tail end of her dream, and Corrine woke lying straight as a corpse down the middle of her bed.
9) "It's Your Turn," read the big black letters on the gold flyer stuck in Amy's gate when she got home from the funeral.
10) Prolonged rain made Jill nostalgic.

Not sure what to make of that; but I'm under no obligation to make anything.

My first impulse is to rewrite #4, but the incongruity of the second half requires the banal generalization of the first half. I think. Maybe not. Maybe it should be "Alison looked beautiful" instead. It's equally banal without using either a passive verb or a flabby intensifier...

I did rewrite #6 and #7. Maybe that means there's hope for the old, dead stories from which they came. I should go check.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Story Balance

The issue of "rule of cool" versus "realism" I discussed in relationship to gaming on Tuesday manifests also in writing. Specifically it arises in fiction - in non-fiction, if you hand-wave details of your subject they had better be details that are not germane to the purpose of the work, or you're not writing non-fiction anymore.

In creating fiction, however - whether for print, film, or indeed for gaming media - the issue is front and center, and is complicated by the fact that your audience is not sitting at the same table as you providing direct input. Assuming you find an audience at all (which is far from a given, even in the best market), it will be only after all the decisions about which details to sweat and which to hand-wave have been made. When writing for a professional market, you can get feedback from a handful of others involved in the process: a critique group or beta readers if you use them, an editor, a creative team or collaborator; and it is possible to present yourself to an amateur market, particularly in online fan communities, in such a way as to make your decisions based on active responses. For the most part, however, these decisions must be made in response to an audience of one: yourself, and then sent out to take its chances in the faceless crowd.

I am a lot less easygoing on this question in my writing persona than in my gaming persona. If you want a playground full of impossible physics, inaccurate history and sociology, and silly-looking weapons and armor, be my guest. I don't have to play with you and it's none of my business; and if my knee-jerk reaction is to look down on you, well, it's my responsibility to mind my manners and not let that reaction out into the world where you can see it.

But if you want to make a movie in which cavemen interact with dinosaurs; or write a story in which the conquistadors conquer the Mayan civilization; or write a game resource in which guns don't exist because gunpowder flat-out won't function in the setting; you had better be either writing parody, or have the explanation for these bizarre premises front and center in the work.

But of course it's not usually the big things that are handwaved, and it's not the obvious errors against which we need to guard ourselves. God and the Devil both lurk in the details, and that's where we get into arguments. In almost all cases, in these arguments I'm on the side of those who believe the author needs to take the time and trouble to get it right. I'd be writing all day if I used all the specific examples crowding my brain, but what it boils down to is this:

Assuming that your audience doesn't care about details or common sense and only wants the "rule of cool" is profoundly disrespectful of them. And if you don't respect your audience, how can you expect them to respect you?

A real argument made in defense of deliberately perpetrating a popular error, despite knowing better:
"So many people think this is true, they'll reject it in the story if I don't show it this way."

Oh, really? Your chosen audience is the category of people so prejudiced, so hidebound, so willfully stupid that they can be counted on to choose a familiar falsity over an unfamiliar fact? People who, in fact, prefer to be lied to rather than to have to think about, or double-check, an assumption?

Well, if that's the bed you want to crawl into...I prefer to be read by people at least as smart, flexible, and intellectually honest as me, thank you; preferably by people who are superior to me, as I'm not of more than ordinary capacity in any of those qualities.

A real argument, made in defense of not bothering to do the research at all: Oh, that stuff is boring and nobody really knows any better. If I learn what really happened/could happen, it'll limit my storytelling.

Not surprisingly, this argument is factually inaccurate. Doing the research - whether into the biology behind your science fictional premise, the history happening at the same time as your historical romance, or into the physics behind the McGuffin in your thriller - is inspiring. Odds are good that the facts are far, far more interesting than the cliff-notes version of biology that first attracted you to the idea of a parthenogenetic alien species, of history that first attracted you to ancient Greece as a setting, or of atomic fusion that first made you think it provided a good bone of contention for your spies. Yes, doing the research will change your storytelling - but only in good ways. Only in ways that will enable your fiction to rise up out of the mass of other fictions and become the new standard, the one that people imitate instead of doing their own research.

That desirable outcome is not guaranteed; but you knew that when you embarked on a project that was neither death nor taxes. And the process of research is intrinsically rewarding. The standard version of the Battle of the Alamo lacks color, depth, and human drama. Next time you're in San Antonio, come hear my version. I'll prove it to you.

And it's also not true that nobody really knows any better. A lot of people who read science fiction are passionately interested in science and even do it professionally. Historians and archeologists read historical fiction. More to the point, obsessive eleven year old children read anything and everything connected to their current obsession. I worked out the action of Len's story with multiple maps and an almanac, keeping track of calendar days, phases of the moon, weather, and currency values partly because these things were of tremendous assistance in working out what my characters did and why they did it, but also partly because somewhere out there is a collector of Confederate currency, a calendar savant, or a geologist whose enjoyment of the book could be utterly wrecked by finding an error in one of those areas.

Never underestimate eleven-year-old experts. They will write to you, and they will demolish your ego.

Niggling anxiety in the back of my own brain: But you yourself put real people into the lesbian western without specifically looking up details of their character or seeking out their descendents. Plus you never did fire any of B's old guns.

That's true; and it illustrates that, as in gaming, there is a point of diminishing returns. Nobody really wants the woman who can't see straight lines handling firearms, even under close supervision, and B vetted the relevant parts of the manuscript for me so I should be fine. I did try to seek out some descendents and didn't get a response; though it still bugs me sometimes that I may have been in a Renaissance dance troop with a couple of descendents of the Vance family and never even tried to contact them. But these people are all peripheral to the story, finding out too much about them would have risked them crowding out my fictional characters and used up more time and energy resources than their presence in the book justified, and in the case of the people I did try to contact who didn't respond - they're entitled not to respond.

Anybody reading the book will understand, and if not there'll be a disclaimer to make them understand, that in the final analysis, the story comes first. As long as I'm careful to not even imply anything about these people that is not reasonably deducible from the public record, again, I should be fine.

In both game balance and story balance, the game and the story come first. I maintain, and I always will maintain, that it is better to have accurate information than not to have it; but once you have it, you are not obliged to show it off in the final result. Your DM may really appreciate you using your geological expertise to help him design a realistic dungeon, or work out what would really happen when a Rod of Lordly Might is broken on the San Andreas Fault, releasing all its energy; but he doesn't want to hear a lecture on the subject in the middle of the game. The reader will appreciate a vivid phrase evoking the experience of wearing a side-buttoned boot, but does not want to know what every character has on in every scene.

Not even the eleven-year old costuming expert.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Game Balance

This weekend, a member of our gaming group, who is currently running a published adventure for us, complained about the endemic preference in the gaming community of "rule of cool" over either "common sense" or "attention to detail." A DM should not have to work out for himself how to sell a party of players like us on a cannibal tribe consisting of thirty or so able-bodied men, one old female witch, and no children, old men, teens, or women of breeding age at all; or answer questions concerning the function of various weapons labeled "exotic" by the system but "bizarre and impractical" by anyone who's ever hefted even a boffer weapon. (The LARP I participated in a few years ago had a couple of enthusiastic makers of exotic "cool looking" foam weapons, which were set out to lure in new players, but which no one ever attempted to use because they balanced like a rhino on a tightrope.)

This is true, and we are in full agreement on that point. However, I had, on my Sims2 newsgroup, been reading the questions, frustrations, and shared strategies of people who went to the opposite extreme - people who fuss endlessly with mods and hacks trying to ensure that all the sims in their neighborhood are all on the same day in the same season and that no individual sim ever has his time duplicated by, for example, coming home from work with five other playables on everybody's individual Mondays, or by spending five hours on a community lot and returning to a home where the clock has only advanced by an hour. Given that a sim's adult lifestage is only 29 days long, and that a sim pregnancy lasts three days, not to mention that vacation destinations and University subneighborhoods run on completely different clocks, it seems clear to me that a sim day is a stylized composite of a whole bunch of sim days and that what other people are calling "duplicate time" is a handy feature of the game that enables your sim to get more than 29 days worth of adult life experience.

Stylization is a necessary feature of games as opposed to real life. Different people require different levels of simulationism in their games - and for that matter, the same person probably requires different levels in different games. I doubt most rabid simulationists want an economic expansion for chess, or that most casual hand-wavers of details want to guesstimate the distance or direction the pieces can move. (Though, having said that, I'm probably going to discover, or be directed to, chess variants that do even more bizarre things.) This is why computer games get hacking and modding subcultures and tabletop games get house rules. Whether clearing away rules that are too fussy and slow down the game too much for individual taste, making new rules that create more structure and make the game more challenging, or expanding gameplay by adding new elements that require fresh new strategies, fiddling with the published rules can enhance the play experience and any corporation that objects to the practice is shooting itself in the foot.

This is not to say that counterproductive extremes do not exist. I've seen people working so hard to make their game - whether computer or tabletop - "perfect" that they kill their enjoyment, turning their games into work. If you don't enjoy it, there's no point to the game. So if you're someone who does that, knock it off. Go do something else - there's no shortage of stuff to do in this life. (May I suggest reading a book?)

On the other hand, some people (and they are usually, in this modern age, professionally involved with computer programming) love to fiddle with system mechanics for their own sake. If you play with such a person, you can't afford to let them kill your fun; but you shouldn't try to kill their fun by nagging them to stop before they reach the point of diminishing returns, either. You have to find some mutually acceptable compromise position.

If you can't, you can't play together. Our current gaming group, consisting of four regular players and two who join us when their schedules permit them to come in from out of town, is the refined core of the survivors of, literally, years of experimenting and seeking for compatible players whose comfort levels are close enough to each other that we never have stalemates because (for example) someone is insisting on running a Babylonian priest in a 17th-century French setting while everyone else argues with him. Believe me, if we ever have a 17th-century French campaign with a Babylonian priest in the middle of it, it will be logical within the context of the game. We don't have the same gaming styles by any means, but we do have compatible faults (says the member who, when DMing, makes her story and characters work and depends on her players to figure out on the fly how it all fits mechanically).

All these ideas have relevance to writing stories, too, but this post is already long enough, most people won't read it, so I'll talk about that on Thursday, God willing and the creek don't rise.

P.S. My eyes are futzing on me a bit and when I came to this page I read last post's title as "Who Ate the Clones?" Which is a whole different story...

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Who are the Clones?


A secret cloning facility, using the DNA of lab volunteers, unwitting grad students and miscellaneous tissue donors, and famous scientists long dead. Aliens, too, if you want 'em. None of your full-blown out-of-the-vat TV/movie clones, which not only have full use of their muscles but demonstrate that hairstyles are genetic; but proper clones grown from eggs to become babies to be raised. In the lab, according to whatever theories the scientists around are testing or espouse, subject to the vagaries of changes in funding priorities, facility politics, and personnel changes.

Of course when they hit their teens, they escape. Who wouldn't?

The first question to ask is, Of whom are they clones? How do they understand their relationship to their originators?

The second is, What other experiments were done on them in conjunction with just cloning?

Some of them might be chimerae, instead of clones. Combinations of star athletes with famous scientists, a merging of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison in an attempt to get The Perfect Inventor, supersoldier prototypes who are part human, part wolf, part sheep. What happens if we genderswap Albert Einstein? Or Lana Turner, whose career as a scientist is not nearly as widely known as it should be? Some of them might be vehicles for experiments in gene therapy: Let's see if we can clone Stephen Hawking and get a version with no major health problems.

You could have sets of nearly-identical twins, triplets, quads, or more, representing different runs of the same experiment.

Having assembled this core cast of characters, they will dictate the emphasis of the story as a whole; or, if you want a certain kind of story, you would choose a cast compatible with it.

It's a flexible concept that can be modified for different formats and different SF subgenres. You could have a lot of fun writing it for parody or satire. You could do a very dark, gritty story addressing the reality of cloning new creatures from mature tissue - a whole passel of kids facing early aging and death. You could do a whole series, with the kids escaping from the lab in Book or Season 1 and in subsequent ones adjusting to "normal" life, uncovering other labs, dodging government black ops, or whatever.

It's a suitable core idea for an RPG, too. I'm thinking a point buy system, with "heroic" rather than "superheroic" point totals. Tell your players the premise, let them pick the clone they want, and let them build them. You could have pregens of a few likely picks which could be customized, so if two people wanted to be clones of Albert Einstein, but if one wanted to be a genderswapped Einstein and one wanted to be Einstein + Babe Ruth, they could both get what they wanted by starting with the same base character and tweaking the appropriate features.

I'm afraid the work involved in doing this seriously is more than I care to face, as the research would be more technical and less historical or anthropological than I like; but I am having fun with a household of eight sim teens squatting in an abandoned warehouse, each one cloned and in some cases genderswapped or alienized from a familiar sim that comes with the game, or from those shared by the player with whom I swapped characters awhile back. Their cloning lab mysteriously burned down and now they just keep saying they come from France...