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.