Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The answer to having books all over the place is supposed to be using different names for different kinds of books. Like Victoria Holt was also Philippa Carr and Jean Plaidy, and none of those was her real name, but my Mom read them all anyway. And L. Frank Baum did series fiction under the name of Edith van Dyne.

Sometimes I amuse myself thinking of pen names. When I was six I selected the pseudonym Suzy Hannah Robinson - and no, I don't know what the chain of reasoning was there. I once seriously considered using my SCA name of Annalise, just because it sounds nice. Most Americans would have a hard time spelling it, though given how tenaciously I cling to my variant spelling of Penny in the face of all opposition you wouldn't think I cared about that. I could publish the lesbian western and any subsequent LBGTQ fiction under "Griffin Peña," and that would be both transparent and sufficient to separate it from my existing and very different middle-grade work. Or I could become Rae (or Rachel) Robinson, making use of my middle and maiden names.

I refuse to be Peni Robinson again; not that I minded, much, but I have heard "Danger, Will Robinson!" enough times in my life, thank you.

None of this, however, helps with the agent problem.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Alternity

One doesn't see much, in juvenile and YA literature, of alternate history. Not even "The South Won the Civil War" or "The Axis Won World War II" You do sometimes get parallel universes, but they don't tend to focus on the splitting point, or even identify it. I first encountered the concept in science fiction and fantasy originally published for adults, which in many cases (especially back then) is "really" YA. I think Silverberg was the first author I saw do it. The Gate of Worlds, that would be. No, wait, I take that back! Joan Aiken had a whole string of alternate world books, in which the Stuarts ruled England in the 19th century and Hanoverians were a constant threat. I keep forgetting that's how it was, because my favorite of the books - The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - doesn't get into that at all. Besides, it's not as if I've troubled myself to keep track of the kings and queens of Britain.

There's two major questions we must ask ourselves before embarking on an alternate history. One is, "What's the decision point that changes?" And the second is, "How many worlds do we put into the story?" Because although the game of alternate history requires that it all be played straight, as Aiken does it, with the alternate world (or alternity as I prefer to call it for short) assumed to be the only one, this is not necessarily the best, most interesting way to do it for young people. The great fun of the alternate history game, after all, is opposing the known to the unknown - it is like this, but change this one thing, and it might be like this instead. The point is lost on an audience that isn't familiar enough with the turning point; and either a sufficiently obscure turning point, or a reader who hasn't done that unit yet, will be lost more than found.

The Big Two, as mentioned above, are the American Civil War and World War II, because those are huge events that loom large in relatively recent history; but they've been done so often, and have such obvious line-ups of heroes and villains, that from an author's or a serious history student's point of view they're not much fun. Personally I'd rather get into less-often asked questions, like: What if Tecumseh had succeeded? What if Fannin had been in charge at the Alamo? What if Napoleon won at Waterloo? What if the English were kicked out of North America and the dominant powers on the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries derived from the Spanish, French, and Dutch? What if Boudicca had driven out the Romans in Nero's time? Or the Bolshevik Revolution failed in Russia? How would the modern world look in any of those situations?

Those are all a juicy lot of questions you could spend months and years exploring, and which could create great backgrounds, particularly for genre juvenile fiction. Think of all the books about pioneers American children read, set on the Mississippi or during the gold rush or in the post-Civil War settlement boom, and how different they would look with an Empire founded by Tecumseh, or with the Dutch and Spanish former colonies dominating the market! But the natural audience for these stories would need to have the joke explained, and nothing spoils a joke like explaining it.

This is where communication between worlds would come in, which requires a different sort of story entirely. In such a work, the hero/heroine would be in contact with an alternate-world counterpart (it just occurred to me that it could be an opposite sex clone! Which just opens up more doors in this already too-open environment), and the two versions of this person - call it Chris, a nice gender-neutral name - would have similar problems, related to the mechanism that allows them to bridge the universes. Which of course brings up the question, How do they bridge the universes? Can they only communicate? Can they observe? Can they cross over physically and if so, do they have to replace each other, or can they meet each other directly? Is there perhaps a limbo in which they can meet each other?

So while having both sides of the alternity open provides necessary exposition without much fuss, it creates its own whole new can of worms; as if working out the logical results of the single major change the author posits weren't a big enough one.

You can see why I still haven't done this. Too many choices, not enough investment in any of them.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Illumination Sucks, Take Two

Yeah, so, better today.

The thing that prompted the realization from last post is, that I was going through my dormant files, alert for what the next project might be, and was thinking that I'd found the character I wanted. Consider this exchange:

"Are you out of your mind?"

Pelin considered. "I don't think so."

And this one:
"Let me handle it. Speaking of handling, what was going on with the Dowager Grusia at your end of the table? I was terrified you were going to have one of your fits."

Pelin shrugged. "So was I, but it's of no consequence. She doesn't like the rising generation, that's all." And who can blame her? We're a sorry lot.

And Pelin's opening words in the story, which is all from his POV:
"Excuse me," Pelin said, in the frosty voice usually reserved for foreign princes of unusual stupidity, "but I believe you labor under an error. That appears to me to be a prisoner, not a punching bag."

Come to that, the opening two sentences aren't bad:
When Pelin spotted Hirca being led toward the prison in chains, his first reaction was clamped-down panic. Captured? How? Why?

His second reaction was: Where do I know her from?

This Pelin person is grouchy, sarcastic, misanthropic, a little prissy, widely disliked, humorless - and he knows all that, and accepts it, and works with it. He's fundamentally kind, if you don't mind how crabby he sounds when he's doing it. (Most people do.) When someone asks him rhetorically if he's out of his mind, he takes it seriously. He takes everything seriously. And he's walking in a minefield, fourth most eligible candidate for a throne he doesn't want, two candidates for which have vanished, and faced with a growing body of evidence that someone has been tampering with his memory.

I have ten chapters of this story, dashed off to pass the time between projects while stuck with no legitimate work at a soul-sucking day job - no plan, just a lot of throwing words onto a page and seeing where I wound up. So of course it's wordy and contradictory and, though I see where some bits of it are going, other bits flop around looking for some sense to make. Still, it should be a viable story with a sufficient amount of work. I'd have to do a lot of backstory work, figuring out exactly what's going on, how the magic functions, write the villain's plan out and note the places where it goes wrong.

In fact, I should be able to use a lot of the same skills I developed to write the lesbian western. From my personal point of view, Pelin's story is a logical next step after Len's, building on what I did there. But -

But it's a fantasy set in an imaginary country with kings and queens and nobles and peasants and a rising middle class and professional wizards and a Goddess who, once in a great while, answers a plea directly and obviously enough that there's not much doubt that's what happened.

It's not a lesbian western.

It's not a middle grade fantasy set in modern times, like the other book I'm trolling for agents with.

It could be grouped in the same category, and set in the same world (though not the same country or time period) as Disenchanter, another story I'm trying to peddle, but of course I haven't sold that one.

Harking back to my published books, and singling out the two most successful ones, the ones people squee over when they find out I wrote them, it's not a time travel story like Switching Well, or a contemporary ghost story like The Ghost Sitter.

How is an agent supposed to make anything out of a career that flops all over the genres and age groups and niches like that?

How am I supposed to write books any other way?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Illumination Sucks

So, looking through my dormant files and notes and thinking about what the next project ought to be, I've figured out why I can't land an agent.

It's because I can't settle into a niche and brand myself.

My close calls with agents have all happened when they loved one project but were not interested in the others - any of the others - even as something to focus on later. And I'm not willing to abandon them. And we're both right on this.

I was going to expand and explain but that was before the ax came out of the air and split my forehead in two, without producing Athena. Stupid bodies, hijacking brains between one moment and the next...I'll do better tomorrow or the next day, I expect.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Imposters Online

Good lord, I'd completely forgotten this one.

Working my way backwards through the notes folder, I find this sequence:

Online - Imposters, Online. Kids creating fake personae. Consequences? Could be humor (my handwriting is so bad I first read this as human) but online antics wont' do it. Cyberstalkers. Margaret wouldn't get a parody.

"Margaret" means Margaret McElderry; this note dates from before the realization that we had lost our literary synch and I wouldn't have any more McElderry books. And I assumed she wouldn't get the parody because what I had in mind would require an internet-savvy reader, and Margaret was probably coming too late to that game to inhabit it at the level that parody really serves. I have strong ideas about parody, you see - it's not enough to poke fun at something; the fun must poke sympathetically at the truth. It must be the laughter of equals. Only gamers can write good gaming humor; only children's authors get the most hilarious kidlit biz jokes.

Actually, as witness the fact that I immediately dropped this dashed-off notion, I probably come a little too late to the internet game to do a full-on parody, either. I hate to upgrade and am always behind the technological curve. Besides, developments in the tech and culture are still rapid enough that print can't keep up with them; a good online parody would almost have to be published online. I believe I had in mind something along the lines of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, with kids instead of double agents; but nothing ever gelled.

The same is true of the thriller implied by the word "Cyberstalking." We're bound to get internet-based thrillers at some point; attempts have already been made at them; but the essence of the internet is the network of folks sitting, alone and not alone, at their keyboards. The kinds of thriller skills that have served so well, so long fail us in this setting; networking is inaction-based. Thrillers with net elements, like (this is the earliest one I can think of) Nancy Werlin's excellent The Killer's Cousin use it as a sidelight. It does not drive the plot, though it may help it, or illuminate a character.

Cyberbullying is in the news, so no doubt we'll see problem novels on the subject soon. But will they be internet novels in the same sense that Swallows and Amazons is a sailing/camping story?

It is possible that the only way to write such a novel will be in complex epistolary form; tracking the plot through e-mails, blogs, newsgroups; the action occurring in flamewars, ignore buttons, and sock puppets; the characters trolls and white knights?

Actually it may be that the key element is in that temporary misreading of my own handwriting; "human" for "Humor." What is passing for human on the internet? ETs? Cats? Fairies? Ghosts? What does it want? Where does that take us?

Still not gelling for me.

But somebody'll do it, sometime. Somebody'll figure it out, hit big, and then there'll be a whole new subgenre to deal with.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Knowing What to Start, When to Quit, and How to Judge

First off, I was not out of ideas over the weekend; just having Technical Difficulties. We've had a lot of them this week.

Today was supposed to be the day I finished the blouse, but Technical Difficulties arose of the sort householders everywhere dread. Suffice to say that by the time I was done dealing with them, I figured I was already filthy, so I might as well go do yardwork in the muddy yard. I'm kind of sick of that blouse, anyway. And I got a query out in the morning so I had one measurable accomplishment I could show myself if I got all bent out of shape at myself in the evening.

The past week has been freezing cold (by local standards; also, 100-year-old house with smoky fireplace and space heaters that need their apertures cleaned and I can't figure out how to get at them past the safety features), but the afternoon is perfect spring weather, so I preferred yardwork to sewing, anyway.

Now, by yardwork I do not mean planting and trimming and smelling the pretty flowers. I mean going after the goosegrass and Queen Anne's lace before it takes over. This yard will never win any garden club prizes, not even the wildscaping prize. I just spend too many grand gardening days feeling like my head will fall off to go for anything more ambitious than a hope of having more things that bloom than not and a few herbs and vegetables. By far the majority of my gardening hours are spent pulling up plants that have gotten bigger and more numerous than I want, and hoping I got the whole root, clearing away dead sticks, raking leaves, and trying to figure out what, if anything, I can do about the trumpet vine. There always comes a moment when I look up, see the vast number of these jobs still waiting to be done, realize I can't make a dent in them today, feel overwhelmed, and think "I'll quit in half an hour."

That is the point at which I quit.

Experience shows that, if I push myself to put in that next half hour, I won't increase the visible amount of work done significantly, but I will wear myself out so much I can't do any work at all the next day. Whereas if I stop when I think that, nine times out of ten I can put in a similar amount of work the next day, God willin' and the creek don't rise.

It is important to know these things about yourself if you want to get anything at all done in this life.

The depressing thing is, I reached that point after only an hour and a half of work. Which is pathetic.

The encouraging thing is, two years ago, I'd reach that point after only an hour of work. Five years ago, I would reach it after only twenty minutes. And that was with no Technical Difficulties slowing me down.

It's not good enough. But it's better. It's significantly better. And it's not the only thing I got done today. The query got out, and though the Technical Difficulties weren't on the plan, they got dealt with. So I can just stop picking on myself about it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Stupid Days

Sometimes characters who are supposed to be smart do monumentally stupid things, and every intelligent person reading the book (or, more probably, watching the screenplay) protests, because nobody in the story notices the stupidity.

If you have to have a character do stupid things, you need to make him self-aware about it and make clear that it's an aberration and he, and the people around him, know he did something stupid. Because we all have days like this occasionally:

I had an ice pick in the back of my head. (Note that, to the best of my knowledge, I've never actually seen an ice pick. Yet the metaphor for sharp, localized pain comes naturally to me. I must have learned it from people accustomed to ice picks, such as authors, or my mother. How many of our routinely-used metaphors have become cliches with no force because of such learned usages? That's something to beware of.) So I wasn't getting anything useful done. But I had to buy more fusible* before I could work on the blouse again, so I drove to the mall that till recently had a decent JoAnn's and a Hobby Lobby, and now only has the Hobby Lobby, which I don't like to go into because all those rows and rows of useless stuff make me dizzy and they don't carry notions at all. Somebody explain the retail logic behind stocking patterns, fabric, and ribbons, and no buttons, thread, pins, or zippers. Seriously, this is one of the biggest mysteries of the age. But anyway, seeing that the JoAnn's was gone I decided to see if Hobby Lobby had maybe ordered something as useful as fusible by mistake, and patted my pocket as I was closing the car door, realizing as it latched that my pocket only contained chapstick and my keys were still in the ignition. Furthermore, I wasn't carrying my purse, with the spare keys in it, since I was wearing jeans with a back pocket that holds my wallet and my glasses case fit in my cardigan pocket.

So I went on into Hobby Lobby, found some fusible, and saw that they were having a 99-cent sale on Simplicity patterns. I wouldn't have gone out of my way for it, but hey, I do need that pattern for a Hawaiian flowerdy shirt. I didn't find one, but I got five other useful-looking ones, checked out, and asked the friendly check-out person if the management or mall security would help me out with the key problem. The thing about Moby is that he's sufficiently old, you can get him open with a coat hangar if you happen to know how, and everyplace I've done this before, the programmed male response of helping middle-aged white ladies in distress has always served me well. However, her manager only said he didn't know where to find a coat hanger (why a guy with that little mechanical enterprise is even in a craft store, much less managing it, baffles me); and mall security has a policy of not helping people who locked their keys in the car.

All right, so I had to bus home. I didn't have a bus book, so I took the opportunity to look over my cheap patterns; and found that three of the five I had picked up in the wrong size. Well, drat. That's stupid thing number two.

At home, since my house key is on the same ring as the car keys, I broke into the house (which you'll excuse me given details about on the internet; as it happens, I know how to get into my own house without a key and without breaking anything), got the spare car keys, ate lunch, and then called Damon to find out where the spare keys were, because I didn't want to break into the house a second time when I got home. We had a long Abbot-and-Costello conversation before he realized where my brain disconnect was and patiently pointed out that, once I got into the car, I would have access to my house key again.

Oh. Duh.

That's how stupid I was yesterday. And I'm not sure I'm any brighter today. You can see why I didn't even try to accomplish anything meaningful, and I certainly didn't work on the blouse. It'd all be to do over.

But there's always weeding and laundry. And the redbuds are showing pink. And the mountain laurel at the mall had bloomed. And I at least remembered to exchange my patterns. Even days of mind-boggling stupidity with ice-pick headaches needn't be wasted.

*For non-sewers: Fusible is a thin treated fabric that you iron to fuse it to the inside fabric of things like cuffs, collars, and button plackets.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Goblin Kid

Rumplestiltskin is a story of a really messed up-family, when you think about it. The kid might be better off with a goblin than with his greedy, abusive father and his dishonest, shortsighted mother. Therefore:

Prolog: A variation on Rumplestiltskin, in which the queen does not guess the name.

Story: The child is raised by the goblin, and learns goblin skills in a goblin community. But they're marginalized by goblin society. The child is too tall, humans can't be trusted, Rumplestiltskin is viewed with suspicion. Something goes wrong (what?) and Rumplestiltskin is imprisoned, the child driven out.

The child finds his goblin skills inadequate to a rescue. He needs his human family now, so he goes looking for them. He only knows Rumplestiltskin's version of the story; the king, queen, and younger siblings have different ones. He has to learn all the stories to understand the circumstances of his adoption, and must learn human skills and find a place in human society before he can rescue his goblin parent and find his own secure hybrid identity, independent of the sins of his biological and foster parents.

This one falls down on my inability to figure out what Rumplestiltskin is imprisoned for and what human skill is necessary to free him. It'd require a lot of worldbuilding upfront.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Necessary Error

Yesterday should have been satisfactory, because I got a query out, did a lot of work on my blouse, and in the evening got my game disk back.

Unfortunately, the fact that I pushed through the rise of a bad dizzy spell to finish the sleeves, only to discover that they were cut too small (though, based on experience with past sleeves, I cut them two sizes larger than the bodice) tends to wipe out the rest on the satisfaction meter.

Which is perverse. Because I hadn't done this blouse with these sleeves and collar before, I'm making a "wearable muslin" - i.e., a draft version that, though I'll be able to use it when it finally comes out right, is made of fabric I got so cheap it doesn't matter if it's completely mucked up. I think it was on the clearance table for $1.99 a yard or something. I have plenty enough of it to cut new sleeves, and I now know how to do the sleeves, which I didn't before. Yesterday's work wasn't wasted, even though I'm now slightly farther from finishing than I thought I was yesterday morning. In fact, I am closer by the discovery of the cutting/sizing error.

Which, face it, under the circumstances, was unavoidable. It's not like my arms look hugely bloated compared to the rest of my body and I should have known I needed to go up three sizes. I've never done a sleeve that had to clear my elbow before and had no idea how much ease I needed compared to that assumed by the designer. I didn't have the knowledge base to cut the pattern correctly.

If this blouse were a story, I wouldn't be frustrated about this. Or anyway, not as much. I've successfully internalized the truth that making the error, undoing it, backing up, and redoing it is a normal and necessary part of the drafting process. The point is to work on something till it's done right, not to make a set amount of visible progress every day.

I guess it's because sewing is something I want to get done, rather than something I actively want to do most of the time, that I have trouble extrapolating this truth to it.

But it's true across the board. Whatever you're working on, all the work you do on it counts. You can't lose the work; you can only overcome your illusions about it.