Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Some Things Don't Change

In a lot of ways it was easier to get things into the mail when all I had to work with was outdated print resources speaking in general terms. These days I keep up with the deal news from Publishers' Marketplace and read all the high concepts of all the new deals and think: "Agh, that sounds awful! The person who bought that won't want to even look at my stuff," or sometimes, "Agh, that's the high concept of the book I'm trying to mail! The person who bought that has already bought the only lesbian western he's going to be allowed to buy this year!" about every single entry.

Which isn't true, or not always, and in many of those cases I need to suck it up and send the query anyway, but I know that in the same way that I knew, in high school, that I could get the research paper in on time, with all the footnotes placed correctly, and get a good grade. It was intellectual knowledge only. I didn't believe it in my gut, which was convinced the only way I was going to get an A was if I could write the paper amusingly enough that the teacher read it indulgently and overlooked the glaring errors in footnote formatting (which I was doing on a manual typewriter - don't miss that!), bibliographic depth, and interpretive subtlety.

Which was a pretty constructive misapprehension on my gut's part, now I come to think of it. Now I'm older I know that lots of people wrote stone-cold boring papers and got A's, while I was getting an A+, a red-pencil smile, practice in good writing habits, and the enmity of my peers (which would have been mine even if I'd written poorly so, to heck with it) for being a teacher's pet. My gut is much less useful in parsing the current market.

I guess we don't get better at everything as we grow older.

Which isn't where I planned to end up when I sat down, but it'll do, since I'm crashing kind of hard.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: The Sea of Air

The September Fortean Times (already superseded at the website; I'm always a month or more behind the English newsstand) has a feature article that describes a killer, underused science fiction setting: Earth's atmosphere.

The theory set out by Scott Deschaine in "The Sky is Alive" is attractively elegant. Many UFO sightings, "star jelly," "angel hair," flesh falls, and other Fortean phenomena would make perfect sense if the atmosphere has life-forms adapted to it analogous to the life-forms of the ocean. Because the upper layer of the ocean and the lower layer of air are porous, engaged in a continual exchange of life and nutrients, there could even be creatures adapted to the ocean and the air at different stages of their lives. Many UFOs, after all, are reported to behave just like curious animals, and many of them even look like jellyfish.

These creatures would necessarily be light and difficult to see, but given the astounding diversity and resilience of life in our ecosystem, the possibility cannot be written off.

This idea has of course been used at least once in fiction, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His "Horror of the Heights," however, only scratches the surface of the possibilities for the setting, suggesting an aerial jungle in which live fierce invisible predators among whom pilots go at their peril.

The rousing exploration adventure is not currently fashionable in science fiction. A modern reader expects more plot, character angst, and social commentary than anybody ever expected of Doyle or even Heinlein and Asimov. You can't just take off into the sky and record discoveries of flocks of aerial jellyfish, sentient clouds, semi-intelligent sprites living in thunderclouds. But the story of the first exploratory mission, centering on a crew variously eager to explore the upper atmosphere or disappointed not to be going to the moon, a Mission Control plagued by budget cuts and political posturing, and an intrusive subculture of UFOologists convinced that this is one more cover-up by the Great Conspiracy would be complex enough for any hard SF reader.

As long as you worked the science angle hard enough, and didn't let it turn into the same old plot as the last ten blockbuster movies you saw.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Half an Inch, Half an Inch, Onward

Pride goeth and all that. After congratulating myself on my improved sewing skills yesterday, I returned to the piece, repinned to make everything tighter - and found that I'd made an error of about half an inch on one piece. Which, if I can't match the fabric, or locate a similar-textured contrast that makes sense in that location - I suppose I could recut the collar in the contrast - will waste about half the fabric.

Nobody is ever good enough at anything that they never screw up.

Certainly I never will be!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Habit's as Good as a Strength

We all have strengths we need to play to and weaknesses we need to make up for. In writing, my strengths are character and dialog - characters are always there when I need them, and all I need for dialog is to listen to them talk. My weakness is plotting. If I didn't have an audience to think of, I could happily follow these characters around listening to them talk and watching them live their lives all day long, whether it got me anywhere or not. Which has caused me to build up a lot of muscle in the art of Cutting to the Chase, for which I have neither natural aptitude nor inability.

In sewing, my only strength is patience. I have never been able to see straight lines, assess distances, or translate two dimensions into three; I'm not intrinsically interested in clothes much (though when I'm sewing I become more interested); my mind is apt to wander during the numerous tedious bits; and if I don't focus hard I will always, always put the bobbin in upside down. But patience and perseverance can make up for all that, eventually. I'm accustomed to pinning every pattern layout twice, to leaving several hours or - if the fabric's really nice and/or no longer available - a whole day between pinning and cutting, to ripping out the same seam many times, and so on. I don't enjoy all that, but sewing my own is the only way to get clothes to fit, so I do it. Eventually.

So today I was doing my second pinning of a complicated set-up involving two different patterns and one fabric, and I noticed something. I was pinning the patterns perfectly on-grain the first time more often than not; and when I folded two pieces that hadn't been folded before in order to shorten the waist, I was doing it freehand and finding, when I checked against a piece that had been folded the last time I used that pattern, that I'd done it perfectly first time.

This is huge. It meant I not only eyeballed the correct length, I got my fingers to perform the operation properly. I've finally got enough experience at altering patterns to fit my figure to skip a lot of the do-overs.

I was almost as proud of myself as I was the first time I realized I was leaving out all the scenes I'd have to cut later anyway during the first draft!

And, since I was still pinning and my back brain was free to keep turning up connections, I thought about this thing I've been doing on my sims newsgroup lately. People who get their sims into some sort of soap operatic pickle and are unsure how they want to proceed from there often solicit advice, and of course I'm never shy about offering it. My basic plan is always the same: a) pay attention to your sims' behavior and extrapolate from that what they would really do if they were people instead of pixels (this is essentially my approach to the plotting problem, too - plot is what the characters do, so playing to my strengths means letting them solve their own problems instead of trying to make them follow some plan of my own) and b)think about what would be most fun for you to play. Because after all, they aren't writing a novel, they're playing a game, and if they aren't having fun they might as well go wash dishes or something. I then will append some concrete examples of possible ways the game might go depending on circumstances, giving their situation the Garage Sale treatment.

What I realized while pinning was, that this is plotting. Rudimentary plotting, sure; but since most of the time I don't know much about the sim in question at all, and in no case do I have the intimate character knowledge on which I rely to make up for poor plotting skills, it really is plot work I'm doing, and moderately successfully, too. I never used to be able to do that without miring in a quicksand of Too Many Ideas, Too Little Logic, and I never mire anymore; though how much that has to do with improved plotting skills and how much with improved ability to apply the brakes before I lose control is a hard question. Not one that it's important to answer, either. The point is - I can do now what I couldn't do then.

I'll never be Agatha Christie, but I don't need to be. All I needed was to improve that skill to the point where I'm not hopeless at it anymore. And I've done it.

All it took was decades of practice, developing a habit of mind.

Just like lining up with the grain and shortening a waist.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

And the Kindle's Done

Those rudimentary buy links need to be upgraded with pictures and generally made more attractive to the buyer. Plus, turns out there's a Kindle edition of Ghost Sitter, which I either didn't know about, or had forgotten. I should check my contract, as I'm not positive I sold electronic rights to that. Ugh, I hope I did. I hate arguing with corporations. Not fond of reading my old contracts, either. But it's all part of the job.

I have this desperate feeling that I didn't proofread closely enough, which means at the end of the week I need to go back over both editions and double check everything. It's way too easy to miss the kinds of scanning errors I was getting, the "in" turned into an "m," the "I" read as a "1", and so on. But two proofreading sessions too close together are no good. You miss all the same things.

Off to read a contract.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Adventures in Proofreading

I was eating blueberry pancakes, aware in the back of my mind that I didn't have a Garage Sale Idea on hand yet, and not caring because hey, blueberry pancakes, when I read the following sentences:

The polyglot Bible kept thirteen presses and fifty-five men occupied, not to mention the job of proofreading, which was done by several expert linguists as well as Plantin's own teenage daughter. It was said that she could correct the script perfectly accurately, but without understanding a word of it.

Say what? The polyglot Bible in question, produced in Antwerp between 1568 and 1572, contained parallel text in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. Those don't even use the same alphabet. Who was this teen-age daughter? Was she really working from shape recognition, with no knowledge of the languages? Or was she playing dumb and learning all these languages in secret as she worked? How did she feel about being saddled with this (potentially monstrously tedious) job and not even having a shot at inheriting the family publishing business (which was eventually taken over by her brother)?

What was her name, for crying out loud?

Unfortunately, the book in which those sentences occur (Books: A Living History, Martyn Lyons, Getty Publications, 2011) has no notes of any sort, or even a proper bibliography, just a "Further Reading" section full of modern secondary sources. Not cool, Mr. Lyons and Getty Publishing!

Proofreading is not a charismatic, action-packed job; but the teen-age girl who could do this job is an intriguing character; the more so since most of the information on her, even in primary sources, will probably be of this elusive character. Teen-age girls have a tendency to peek out around the margins of history books, come and gone in a flash, their real selves kept private by the indifference and limited gender concepts of those producing most surviving primary sources. This is one reason why historical fiction features them so largely - they provide a screen barely marred by any shadow, onto which an author and an audience can project their own concerns while wrestling with the unfamiliarity of her historical moment.

There are two ways to write a book about such a person. One involves inventing a character who makes sense to the author, doing enough research to dress up her story in convincingly period clothes, and writing it. I don't much approve of that, but such stories have their appeal as long as no one mistakes them for genuine historical writing.

The other, of course, is to dive into everything you can find on sixteenth-century Antwerp, hunting for pearls of information about this particular young woman (one should at least be able to learn her name, and a few details of her subsequent fate) and filling in the gaps between with as much context as you can find. When everything you can find is fit together, believe me, there will still be gaps plenty big enough to write your story in. You'll know what conflicts your heroine would really have faced; the context in which she undertook (or was forced to perform) this job; a little something about the family and social dynamics she grew up in. And once you have that, you'll know what the story is.

This is a big job. I know, I've done it before. You probably don't have to actually read Dutch (or Syriac or Aramaic; I'm sure Latin would help) in order to do the right amount of research - but it wouldn't hurt.

I can't do this particular one because I've never been to Antwerp. That sort of thing doesn't stop other people, but it does me.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Ms. Jones! + Miscellaneous

Today is Diana Wynne Jones's birthday. I suggest you celebrate by reading - Archer's Goon, say. Or Drowned Ammet, which does some things in the plot and character interrelations that'd make Dickens gasp in admiration for the way she makes none of it feel at all contrived.

Speaking of birthdays - the older I get, the less I want to pick up the phone. This bugs me. For instance, since our Paypal and Amazon accounts were set up by Damon, I need to protect us from confusion and potential legal and financial difficulties by getting a separate e-mail account to anchor my business use of those companies. The simplest thing to do is pick up the phone and ask our internet provider what the easiest way to do that is. But I keep putting it off.

And, a house-repair mystery: In the mud and powder rooms downstairs, we have developed two sets of absolutely straight, parallel seams of paint bubbling. It looks like a bad tape and float job along the borders of a drywall panel. But when the workman took the paint off, he revealed no tape and no abutting panels, but an amazingly straight and consistent crack in the drywall. He suggested that the crack and the paint bubbling were due to a leak; but the plumber finds no trace of such a thing.

So what the heck have the Borrowers been doing in my walls to create this effect?

I have concluded that real life exists to keep us from being too productive.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Clues Without Any Mysteries

Damon had much worse Health Crap than I do and has to take multiple pills at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So he has them arranged downstairs in tiers - breakfast pills in the top row, lunch pills in the middle one, and supper pills on the bottom. That way, if he's feeling bad enough (or I'm spoiling him) to not come downstairs for a meal, I don't have to remember the individual pills, just work my way across the appropriate row.

So one day when I happened to be reading a puzzle mystery, it occurred to me that somebody who wanted to kill Damon and had access to and knowledge of the medicine shelf could easily stick a new, plausible-looking gel cap into the mix, or doctor an existing gel cap, ala that creep who doctored the Tylenol all those years ago, and I would be doing the poisoning for him, quite innocently.

It would not be a sure method, by any means, as the pills would still have to pass muster at the point of ingestion, and Damon is more familiar with the current state of his pill regimen than I am. The safest thing would be to doctor an existing batch, which implies even more intimate access to the family, as you'd have to be able to get into the house when no one was here and be sure of being alone long enough to do the finicky job of taking the gelcaps apart and putting them back together again. Or you'd have to have sufficient expertise and access to have a bunch of mock-ups ready to swap out. But that amount of expertise is implied by the choice of method, anyway. But if the murder victim is the patriarch of a family of pharmacists, or of vitamin manufacturers who use their own products...

I'm afraid if you live with an author you have to get used to the knowledge that once in awhile she'll be idly contemplating what murder methods would be appropriate to you, without the least desire for your death. In case you're worried about it, Damon dying at this point in our lives would be as devastating for me financially as emotionally - which is saying a lot - and in any case I'm so soft-hearted I have a hard time allowing my sims to die, while my tabletop RPG characters have been known to go to some lengths to keep from killing antagonists unnecessarily.

Also, last night Damon put up a mirror in the guest bathroom, a job I've been putting off for quite some time. Naturally he put it at a height that would allow him to use that sink to shave, which means I have to tilt it down (it's one of those mirrors on an extendable arm that move within a frame) in order to see myself in it at all. Which is fine, because I don't need it to put makeup on or anything like that (don't use the stuff). But it reminded me of my Grampa and Gramma's old apartment, on top of Grampa's hardware store, in which Grampa had gotten the electricians to put the light switches down at a height convenient for them - and Grampa was a short man. For awhile after living with them when we were small, my brother and sister and I were always reaching for the wrong part of the wall to turn the lights on or off when we entered or exited a room.

That's the sort of mundane little detail that makes a perfect mystery clue, if you only have a mystery to put it into.

Which I don't.

Friday, August 10, 2012

My First E-Book Edition!

My first e-book is published on Damon's birthday. Yay?

The Maze got picked, as I stated earlier, because it's short. I still need to make it available via other sources (next stop, Kindle), and then I need to figure out how to actually market the thing, and then I'll be ready to decide how to proceed with the other books to which I hold reverted rights, but now it's lunchtime.

And good enough for now.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Bird in my Hand

Yesterday Health Crap descended and it would have been a waste of a day except...

...Bruce stood in the hallway penetrating my misery with deep-throated yowls, quite unlike his normal crying, until I got up to see what was the matter and why he didn't just come in and harass me.

And found him with a hummingbird in his mouth.

Yes, you read that right. Bruce, who hasn't a clue how to hunt anything more intelligent than a jingle ball, had caught the fastest bird on two wings. And he had no idea whatsoever what to do with it, so he'd brought it to me, presumably to make me feel better. (He is our resident doctor, after all, though his usual treatments are bedrest,purring, and acupuncture.) So I told him he was a bad cat and carefully took it away from him.

It was a juvenile, judging by the downy bits and the lack of any distinctive throat bar. Except for the rapid pulsing of the powerful little heart, I would have thought it was dead, with its wings held out stiff and fragile as a dragonfly's, it's feet curled up in a bed of downy feathers, and its eyes squeezed shut. I carried it out the back door and set it on the porch rail, where it balanced on its stomach, still frozen. I was afraid it might be too terrified, or have taken too much damage to those stiff little wings, to take off, so I turned away, wondering what I had that might make a nectar container suitable for an incapacitated hummingbird.

And when I turned back again, it was gone as if it had never been.

A real blogger would've taken a picture, but hey, a real blogger would have a digital camera by now.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Call Me Crazy...

A few years ago, my husband and I were woken in the middle of the night a couple of times by a neighbor calling the curse of God down on us from the street. Her relations were very apologetic about this, and explained that she'd gotten away from them, and that her conviction that we were Satanists who were putting spells on her was probably something to do with the fact that she used to live in our house with her grandmother, though they weren't sure what. In any case, they were pretty sure it was nothing directly personal, but they warned us that, since they had a hard time riding herd on her, we should be careful about locking our doors. She showed no sign of being violent, but if her delusions were centered around our house, her becoming convinced that she needed to get into it was a distinct possibility.

A few days ago, this woman stopped me on the street to apologize for her own behavior, thank us for being understanding about it, and tell me she liked my dress (which happened to be one I'd made myself - always the best compliments). She's got the right meds now and is doing much better, enough better to be as embarrassed as her relatives were. But honestly, something like that, you can't hold against somebody any more than you'd hold it against a cancer patient that she threw up on your shoes.

All of which makes me think about those fantasy and horror novels in which things happen in objective reality that are so off-the-wall and outside of human experience that everyone in the story except the protagonist assumes that the protagonist must be mad. But in those stories, the protagonist is the only one seeing clearly, and his seemingly-mad actions - the magical ritual or secret violence at the heart of the fantasy and/or horror - are the things that prevent disaster. Or sometimes there's a madman in a mystery story, and his madness will either lead him to do something terrible, or leave him vulnerable to manipulation by the real villain.

And the thing is this: In neither type of story (generally) is the reader in any doubt about whether there's insanity in the case or not. But wouldn't the emotional impact of a story be enhanced if the reader does spend most of the story changing his mind about what is and is not reality?

I have read stories that did this. Liar, by Justine Larbalestier, does a stand-up job of messing with your head in this way; and there's a Stephen King short about a kindergarten teacher who becomes convinced that the children in her classroom have been replaced by aliens in which the teacher's point of view is maintained so meticulously I couldn't be sure whether she was right, or not. But it is a tremendously difficult thing to do in the context of a market dominated by genre expectations and with a relentlessly genre-savvy audience.

It would also be an extremely uncomfortable thing to do, and would require the kind of specialist knowledge about the subjective experience of mental illness which racks up the emotional cost of writing to an even more uncomfortable pitch. You'd want to do it with sensitivity toward the mentally ill; who, face it, could be anybody. And you'd be forced to go to the weak places in your psyche; the fault lines along which your own mind could break.

You wouldn't have to have direct experience of mental illness yourself; but you'd have to have been close to it enough times to put yourself into the head of someone who is in real doubt about whether he's mad, the degree to which he can trust his senses, and what to do about it. And that's a difficult, scary place to go. A friend of mine (who I trust will excuse me for telling this story) who had herself committed during a bad patch said during her process that she was "a bacterium in a petrie dish." When her husband repeated this to me, I - like him - knew what she meant; she was speaking metaphorically, about the unfortunate fact that to be a mental patient at this phase of our understanding of mental disease is to be an experiment. We'd discussed this many times when she was lucid. But those committing her assumed she'd meant it literally. When she was lucid again I asked her which of us had been right - had she been trying to convey that idea to the medical persoonnel, or had she truly felt herself to be a bacterium? Her answer was "yes;" and this blurring of the mental line between metaphor and reality is a terrifying thing.

It is also where the interest of this story concept lies.

But that blurring doesn't only happen in mental illness. Perfectly healthy people with religious beliefs also treat certain metaphors as realities, because the realities they express are too difficult for the finite human brain to encompass without the metaphor. If you weren't familiar and comfortable with the cultural background and symbolism of communion, you'd have a hard time bending your head around the concept that crackers and grape juice are the body and blood of the son of God, or believing that any nice sort of person who believed that would then eat it!

So if the problematical concept about which the reader is intended to be uncertain echoes real religious beliefs, it should be easier for us to raise that doubt. Also, easier to piss off a lot of people and get banned...because you weren't playing nearly close enough to the edge when you decided you wanted to address perceptions of mental illness in this story, oh no! You could have a fringy cult, something pagan, or one of those numerous schisms of the Protestant church that either die on the vine or become full-fledged churches; perhaps a leader who thinks he's a shyster but someone from the lower ranks sees all too clearly what's Really Going On, and both of them have their character flaws arranged in such a way that the reader flip-flops constantly between versions of reality as envisioned by this book...

Doing this would be worthwhile, with the right characters and concept at the heart of it; but finding those characters and that concept - well, that's the hard part, isn't it?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ah, Libraries! And Buses.

I had a lot of errands to run this morning, before it got too hot, and some books due, so included the library on my rounds. I've been using Wowbrary a lot, which is a good service, but it means we place a lot of holds and pick books up/drop them off in passing, when I pick Damon up to run after-work errands or he has a doctor's appointment near the library or something. It's been a long time since I did a proper library visit.

I still didn't have one today, but I had more of one than I have in a long time. A proper library visit goes like this:

Drop books at return desk.

In any convenient order:
Browse new books and displays.
Go to non-fiction section containing books on topic of current research.
Browse YA books.
Browse special displays.
Browse mystery and science fiction sections.
Browse children's books.
Heft backpack, consider whether it's wise to do a quick scan of the sections where the Fortean material winds up, decide what the heck, browse Fortean books.
Check out.
Go to bus stop, begin reading.

Since I was in the car I lacked two key ingredients, the ginormous backpack into which books hurl themselves with astoundingly little input from me, and the reading time that starts at the bus stop. I had as many as I could carry by the time I finished with the new books. I was also light-headed, so I started reading Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making while I waited to trust myself to drive. Yeah, big hardship there. But if I'd been on the bus I could have gotten twice as many books and begun reading them at once!

I'm glad I learned to drive, but the bus is a much more enriching experience. I miss it.