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...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Highway Song

On the way home from the game, we passed a family broken down on the side of the highway. Dad with the hood up, Mom getting something out of the back, two kids with their backs against the highway wall doing some kind of synchronized song routine with arm motions.

I'm exhausted from trying to bring the alley up to code, and my head hurts, so I'm not really up to the full garage sale treatment, but -

If I ever find the story that fits around those kids, I'm going to write it, just to spend time with them.