Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Merry New Year!

No resolutions for me. It's been a weird year and there's no reason to expect 2014 to get less so. But weird is a relative term. If I can get my discipline more or less back where it belongs I'll be happy. But I won't rule out being happy under other circumstances, either, because if you make happiness conditional you probably won't ever get to enjoy it.

Always remember, when you feel as if every word you write is a boulder pushed up a hill, that when the work is done and you read it over, you won't be able to distinguish those words from the ones that spilled out of you effortlessly; except that the effortless ones will probably contain more typos. So don't sweat it and get on about your business.

Tomorrow is our Annual New Year's Board Game Extravaganza! So I may have a gaming hangover Thursday. See you round.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Pick a Tragedy

This is the 123rd anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

We do not deal well, or healthily, with tragedies in the United States (I refuse to attempt to speak for the rest of the Americas). We always want that happy ending. You cannot convince us that tragedy is the highest form of art, and we would far, far rather repeat our mistakes than examine and learn from them.

As writers, it is our job to address that.

If we can bear to. If we can do it without being merely depressing.

And yet, we have so many to choose from!

Maybe you can't deal with the big tragedies, the ones with their roots in racial and class issues which we are so anxious to pretend do not exist. That's okay - Shakespeare couldn't either. Tragedies are always personal.

Examine history. Find the small tragedy that you can fit inside one of our big tragedies - the industrial disasters, the destruction of lives for economic motives, the clearing of whole cultures out of the way of an ideal of progress - to make it comprehensible and enlightening and cathartic, and you'll have something great.

The room is spinning and the floor undulating too much for me to even catch the end of anything today. But you know the drill.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Holiday Exercise

To help you get through those long and difficult holiday occasions when you need to be in the same room as someone who annoys the life out of you, try activating your writing backbrain to figure out how you'd go about putting him/her/it into a story and making him/her/it a sympathetic character.

Bear in mind that a character may be sympathetic without being at all likable. Scrooge (I finished my annual Christmas Carol reread yesterday) is not a likable character in any significant sense; but he's sympathetic, all the same.

Maybe that person will be more bearable afterward. Or maybe not. But at least you'll have gotten some good out of him/her/it.

Just make sure, if you ever use such a person in published works, that he/she/it is rendered completely unrecognizable.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Trendy Holiday Films

I don't do Christmas, but I do not remain unaffected by its time pressures, so let's do this quick and dirty.

It's Christmas Eve. The family, complete with all its simmering resentments, incompatibilities, shared memories, new significant others, bored third generation, and disputed territory has gathered at Mom and Dad's house. The aunts and uncles have gone Christmas shopping, Grandma's minding the turkey, and the kids are following the Santa Tracker when they realize that the zombie apocalypse has begun.

Or, in the dystopian wasteland after the collapse of civilization, the struggling survivors reinvent Christmas.

Or, terrorists hijack Santa's sleigh and only the lowest elf on the totem pole is left to save Christmas. Not to mention prevent all those bombs from going down all those chimneys.

Or, the gospel Christmas story, rewritten to emphasize both the troubled love story of Joseph and Mary ("You cheated on me with God, Mary; that's a little hard to get over!") and Herod's ruthless attempt to assassinate a rival king in the making. The Wise Men will be featured, but Balthazar will only be black if they can get Will Smith for the part.

Sorry, no Hannukah flicks. That whole story about running out of oil just isn't familiar and cliched dramatic enough.

Don't worry if you don't see me here for a week or two. With any luck I'm going to be working through that plot problem in between dealing with various personal obligations. No doubt you have your own stuff to do, anyway. Happy Christmas, Merry New Year.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Don't bug me. I feel crappy, but I think I've found the head of the thread that will sort out a plot problem that's been blocking me for years. I just have to unravel it a couple more chapters backward than I thought I would...and possibly write a bunch of stuff that can't go into the final version, working out what other people besides the POV character are doing. If I can sit up and focus long enough. This may be a job for longhand....

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A December Miracle

So, Damon and I are late adopters. And I don't mean we wait a year or two before we do an upgrade. I mean we use things until they can't be used anymore and then gripe a lot, because "upgrading" tech sucks. The manufacturers seem to take wicked delight in removing the single most useful feature and replacing it with something we will never, ever use, or rearranging interfaces for no readily apparent reason, so the delete button is where the save button used to be, or in making the new tech just incompatible enough with the products of the old tech that you have trouble accessing your old stuff and - argh. We just hate it.

So when the videocard I was playing Sims2 on went out, we couldn't find an adequate one to replace it that would work with our motherboard and finally Damon said screw it, he was going to get me a new computer and the old one would become mostly his. I felt odd about buying a new computer essentially so I could play a game - my WordPerfect 8 (yes, you read that right) still works fine on the old machine - especially since he's more than once grumbled about the size of it's "footprint" in my life. I mean, sure, I'd miss it, and the online "communities" I've gotten involved in concerning it, but - it's a game. I'd survive. But - possibly because he does grumble about it, but more likely because as soon as I express any guilt or hesitation over the cost of a pleasure he always sets out to convince me that I'm entitled to it - he got stubborn and I've got a new computer. Which is presently internetless and balancing on three TV trays in the game room. The only things on it so far are Windows7, Sims2, and WordPerfect X6, which is a fancy way of saying the 16th version of Word Perfect. In other words, twice as advanced as the one I'm used to.

And I'm still having a few hiccups getting Sims2 set up with all my old stuff (for one thing, no internet means I get to copy all my old files onto a flash drive and walk them across the hall), but my writing stuff made it in one trip and WordPerfect X6 is like a little miracle in a box.

Everything is where it used to be.

New stuff has been added, but I have yet to go looking for anything and find it's been taken away.

A lot of the new stuff is stuff I actually need. Like the ability to hit one button and save as other formats, along with translation from other, often user-hostile formats (yes, I refer to the Devil Program, Word, which I hate with a pure and holy passion so extreme people think I'm joking when I express the true depth of my virulence) without a bunch of hassle. Which is the single problem with my good old WordPerfect 8 - so few people (inexplicably) still use it that I'm always having to translate into .rtf or .txt.

Some of the icons have changed, but not many, and since nothing's been reclassified and the icons still have some visual relationship to their features, and I can still move things around to suit myself, I've yet to be confused.

The old files look exactly the way they used to in the new program - no reformatting, no weird little symbols, no hiccups as the new code for master and subdocuments argues with the old code for master and subdocuments. I just installed it, shifted the files over, set my preferences, and got back to work.

I spend a fair amount of time griping, here, so I thought I'd share my happiness, too. If nothing else, it should give you hope that yes, even in a corporatized, consumerist world in which individual choice is limited by the markets, sometimes you can get what you want even when you didn't know you wanted it.

We should hold out for that more, and accept being sold to, less.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: More Fun with Titles

The Imperfect Gentleman. Is it an etiquette manual, a romance, a cozy mystery, an ironic and detached personal memoir, or a character study?

Harmed and Dangerous. Obviously, a revenge flick.

Brief Lies. Have I done this one before? I think it's the perfect title for a short story collection.

The Goddess of the Machine. Science fiction. Probably dystopian.

Tube Full of Cats. A social history of the internet.

Midnight at the House of Thieves. Sword and sorcery. Heavily influenced by the author's D&D game. And I mean old-school, not this 4E crap, whippersnappers!

Whippersnappers vs. Geezers, Film at Eleven. A rollicking comedy of the eternal generation gap. And don't try telling me the generation gap is a modern invention! There's a Sumerian tablet in which a parent is grousing about how kids today don't want to work hard and all his son ever does is hang out on the corner with his hoodlum friends.

Bootlegged Heart. A romance, set in 1920s middle America, or the modern knock-off designer label market, or a near-future science fiction milieu centering on e-piracy and the ramifications of intellectual property. Or all three, if you do a generational saga and pluralize the title.

Knight of the Living Dead. In which the zombies field a champion.

Escape from Loopland. Starts out like one of those bleak suburban mainstream novels full of alienated characters. I never read the things. But somebody must like them. You know, lots of adultery and drinking and so on. But then the protagonist decides to be daring and actually go downtown, get out of her damn car, and walk around, discovering a whole new, vibrant world like nothing she ever knew existed.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Plus, It Got Cold. I Hate Cold.

A week spent trying to find someone new to send manuscripts to and not being thrilled by anybody.

Still better than a week in a soul-sucking day job.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Secrets of the Subculture

Psst...want to write in your favorite genre?

Step 1: Spend a few months reading the genre and nothing else.
Step 2: When not reading, go about your normal life.
Step 3: See the genre overlay on your life! Particularly on the parts of your life that create subcultures.

We all belong to multiple subcultures, beginning with our families. Your work circle and your leisure circle are probably not the same and don't function under the same social rules. You probably have friends from both circles who find each other mutually incomprehensible, which will help you find the line of demarcation. The craft shows you attend (as a crafter, as your crafter mom's assistant, as a buyer) on the weekends combine into their own little world with politics, scandals, romance, and tragedy; as does the law office where you make your living. Whenever I go to the farmer's market I get a brief little glimpse of a vast network of hardworking and surprisingly diverse people, who appear to be in direct competition (selling exactly the same things) and yet are also mutually supportive - trading among themselves, fetching each other coffee, making change for each other.

If you read enough romance novels, with the idea in the back of your mind that you will and can write one, you'll begin to see how romance could bloom at the farmer's market between the daughter struggling to keep her family farm viable and the naive organic-horticulture newbie.

If you read enough science fiction, you'll start thinking of ways that nanorobotics will change the working conditions in your real estate office, or imagining the particular challenges of peddling real estate on the moon.

If you read enough mysteries, you'll imagine what it would mean for everybody on the RenFaire circuit (where you go every year to help out your Rennie aunt) if a serial killer starts leaving garbed bodies on the jousting field, and invent ingenious ways to kill and be killed with turkey legs, corset laces, and blunt souvenir swords.

Trust me. You too will soon have more ideas than you know what to do with. The problem will be to pick one. You'll have the best results with subcultures in which you participate as an insider, not as audience; but if an idea knocks hard enough, it's worth going out of your way to become an insider.

I promise.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Word to the Frustrated

It doesn't mean you're running out of agents when your searches turn up promising-sounding people who, you find on investigation, you've already queried.

It just means searches, like everything else, are imperfect and you are consistent.

And I don't care what common sense says, some weeks just aren't any good for making visible progress in anything. It's nobody's fault. Ride it out.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dagnab It...

The thing is, I want to write a mosaic. Lots of short pieces, overlapping points of view, creating a whole picture that the reader feels she's walked through as through real places and events.

But you need the right plot for that. And I can spin characters all day, but maneuvering them into a plot, that's different.

I think that's why the happy family serial killer story doesn't quite work. (Yet. I haven't given up on it.)

Will I know the right plot when I see it, that is the question?

I'm tired of throwing characters and scenes at the page and not seeing a saleable work emerge. Maybe I should pick some subject or other and do blind research.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Plagues

Today is World AIDS Day.

This is not the place to talk about personal stuff, but I have my reasons for responding more readily to mention of HIV than to other diseases - and not least among my responses is the very real satisfaction of being able to talk about it in terms of HIV rather than AIDS. It is no longer true that one equals the other; doctors are no longer advising patients (as Isaac Asimov and his family were advised when he was diagnosed after receiving a transfusion of tainted blood) to lie about the diagnosis to protect themselves from stigma; patients with access to adequate information, hygiene, and pharmacies are no longer dying wholesale.

Back during the worst part of the 80s, I used to argue (a little desperately) that it was not an epidemic, it wasn't; nobody was going through the streets crying "Bring out your dead," lots of people were so little personally touched by it that they were able to ignore it, or treat it as a moral rather than a health issue. And if anybody reading this is still inclined to treat it so - I assure you, all that would be necessary to change your mind would be the sight of someone - anyone - even your bitterest enemy - whom you knew personally in a state of wasting, and if you are any sort of decent human being you'd be cured of that nastiness right quick. Disease (like disaster) is not a punishment; and even if it were, it would be a cruel and unusual one, inflicted by no righteous power.

AIDS at its worst was not the Black Death; but it was bad enough. It still is; especially if you don't have access to adequate information, hygiene, and pharmacies.

It is easy - too easy - to find fictional uses for it. Cancer and AIDS are both popular with the writers of tear-jerking schmaltz but, as always, execution is everything. I was strongly affected by David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, which is narrated by the gay male dead of the eighties observing the present day and commenting on it - gracefully, generously, wistfully, and often gladly. My favorite part is when they spot an old friend, one who watched his lover die and kept coming back, and back, and back for his friends, and who is now teaching, with a new committed partner, and taking his pills - because the disease caught him, too, as it does catch those who tend the dying, but not until the drug cocktails had started to work. The ghosts are overjoyed to see him, healthy and productive, the one who cared for them surviving them all to live well.

That is worth all the tragic, affecting death scenes in the world to me.

Stories can't be about death. They have to be about life. We must write about the ones who live. Because if anything happens once you're dead, we have no frame of reference for it. Even ghost stories are about life. It's all we know.

Don't write the HIV tragedy (or the cancer tragedy, or the muscular dystrophy tragedy). And don't write about conquering disease either, because that doesn't happen. Ask anybody you think has done it. The 10 year pancreas-cancer survivor, the person who's still HIV+ instead of an AIDS patient fifteen years after the diagnosis, the diabetic amputee - these people have conquered nothing. But they are living - imperfectly, bravely, fearfully, humanly.

Write the comedy.

Write the action thriller with the hero who has to take 20 pills a day. The romance that starts in the hospital, between patients, and doesn't end at the morgue door. The domestic drama in which the disease is part of the daily furniture of life; not the center, but the intrusive, unignorable, inconvenient annoyances which everybody - yes, everybody in its vicinity - lives with. A chronic, treatable, incurable disease - even one as relatively benign as mine - interferes with everybody's plans; a deadly one throws a dose of guilt on top of that.

And if anybody dies in this story, for pity's sake, don't let anybody say "Life goes on." Unless a survivor immediately punches that person cathartically in the face. Because for one person in the story, the one who just left a person-shaped hole in the world, life does not go on and that's a really insensitive thing to say to someone in mourning.

Friday, November 29, 2013

November 29: A Great Day for Literature

Today is the birthday of Louisa May Alcott.

And C.S. Lewis.

And Madeleine L'Engle.

It is a good day to read!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thankful as an Intransitive Adjective

For various reasons, we won't be having the Big Meal till Sunday with the gaming group, but that's fine. Damon has today and Friday off and we're going to hunker down (by local standards it's very cold) and stay off the road, except I have to go deal with some cats whose people are out of town, poor things.

My reverend Mom once asked me who or what, as an agnostic, I feel grateful to when I take time to be thankful; but I'm not feeling thanks as a transitive verb in these cases. I'm looking at my life, and taking note of the ways in which it is in fact pretty decent. When an individual is responsible for some good thing I wish to give credit where it's due; but I can also feel glad about circumstances. And by the way, some of the things I'm glad about, I did for myself. So there's that. Nothing wrong with being thankful to yourself for making the right call.

I'm thankful I have freedom to make choices and live with the consequences.

I'm thankful I live in Texas, where we all feel cold when it gets into the 50s. (Despite the political craziness; no place is perfect and it's my responsibility to provide as much political sanity as I can.)

I'm thankful that my biggest immediate complaint is that my videocard died and I can't play my favorite computer game till the new one arrives. On the scale of crosses to bear, that's a highly desirable level of discontent!

Damon is congested and didn't sleep well, but he's fully mobile, has fat reserves, and hasn't had acute anything in months. By his standards, he's healthy. And after the year from hell, when none of that was true, I am grateful every year that he's alive.

I'm thankful that I have control of my own time.

I'm thankful for the local independent bookstore, the only place I would ever consider shopping on Black Friday if I had a reason to shop, which I don't.

I'm thankful that my health crap is controllable with fairly simple lifestyle limitations and medications. If I have to miss out on stuff, well, then, I have to. It beats being too dizzy to walk.

I'm thankful for pharmacies that are open on holidays.

I'm thankful for my cats. Because cats.

I'm thankful for my friends. Because friends.

I'm thankful for books, both the ones I write and the ones I read. Because books!

And I'm thankful that I am once again the person certain people call when in need; because being that person means not being in need myself.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

News: Diana Wynne Jones Forum!

The good news is, somebody opened up a discussion forum about Diana Wynne Jones!

The bad news is, practically no one has posted on it yet. But that can be changed.

And no, I wasn't the first one on it. I was the third. At the moment I'm the last poster in all the open discussion threads, but I didn't start them all, so that's totally coincidental and anyway you could change that.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Free-Range Normal

So every Thanksgiving, I see the same things.

Christmas decorations.


Pilgrims and Indians.

Complaints about the historical inaccuracy and insensitivity of popular portrayals of pilgrims and Indians.

You know what I don't see?

Historically accurate portrayals of pilgrims and Indians. By which I do not mean jokes about what a bad idea it was for Native Americans to feed invading white people, which are - face it - a further reinforcement of the traditional imagery that puts nothing constructive or interesting on the table. Names like Wampanoag and Massasoit are too unfamiliar to the general public to joke with.

So isn't it time to address that?

Isn't it time for a Wampanoag-eye fictional treatment of the prototypical "first Thanksgiving?"

For that matter, isn't it way past time for the great Iroquois domestic novel? The historical romance which isn't half-European? If we must have clash-of-cultures, mixed-race romance, what on earth is wrong with a hero or heroine who is an escaping slave making a new life with the Seminole? (Hmm...the Cherokee kept slaves...) The war novel about the clashes between different tribes, with Europeans at most an annoying and trivial side presence? The story of epic technological change and cultural upheaval following the reintroduction of the horse? The pre-Columbian murder mystery? Or political novel?

The pre-Columbian anything that doesn't read like an epic fantasy, for that matter.

I told one of the other attendees at the Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference that it was my ambition to write Pleistocene domestic novels. No culture is exotic or romantic to its own members. One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows us to get out of our own points of view and experience someone else's normal. This applies at the writing end as well as the reading end. It is not true - and I have never met an author of color who thinks that it is - that white people can't write about the experience of non-white people. That's only a poor-mouthed backasswards way of saying that authors of color can't write about mainstream experience independent of race issues, which is obviously and completely wrong. My books with non-white protagonists (Margo's House, The Music Thief, and 11,000 Years Lost) have received nothing but positive support from the black and Hispanic people who have remarked on them to me. But the danger of crossing the line between inspiration and appropriation (a line that falls, I believe, exactly on the line between recognition of and assumption of privilege; if you write cross-culturally, do so with a humble heart!) is real; and it is, miserably, statistically true that it's easier for a white author to sell a cross-cultural book than for an American Indian to sell a book of any sort.

We need more writers from American Indian backgrounds, and we need them to be better known. Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, and Cyn Smith can hardly be expected to do the job of spreading normality all themselves; especially since "American Indian" and "Native American" are umbrella terms covering many different normalities which are treated as a single entity by mainstream culture. So the experience of being Indian is not the same as the experience of being Muskogee, or Navajo, or Cherokee, or -

Apart from pushing books at people, and despite writing protagonists who aren't like me, I'm limited in my ability to contribute here. And it bugs me to realize that it's not at all unlikely that someone out there will read these words and say snappishly: "I'm trying! But the damn lily-white publishing industry keeps rejecting them!" Because, yeah, even this far into the digital revolution, the publishing industry is still depressingly white. And straight. And all the rest of it.

I'm kind of hoping to be inundated with links to indies and e-publications that do everything that I suggest here isn't being done, or not done enough. That would be nice.

Happy Turkey Week, anyhow. And try to believe it's not about imperialism, but about getting a day off in the middle of the week to get together with your family, bake pies together in a nice warm kitchen, and eat yourself into a stupor.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Making a Mess of Things

So it's Kitchen Sanitation Month.

Which means the kitchen is a mess.

Because that's how it works - in order to get things really clean, you have to get your hands dirty; and when you're doing a big job like this, getting into all the corners and throwing out the expired stuff and fixing what needs fixing and replacing the roach traps, putting things in order, a side effect is a huge temporary increase in disorder. Recycling, trash, and compost containers overflow and have to be emptied much more often than usual (though really you ought to empty the kitchen compost container at least once a day). And let's not talk about what happens to the floor. (Which is white tile. White. Tile. Whatever previous owner did that, I could strangle on a regular basis, but it's way down on the list of Stuff We Gotta Fix in This House.)

It's exactly the same as revising a manuscript, with one notable exception. When you're revising a manuscript, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to make a mess of it. Word processors disguise this somewhat, because you can take out paragraphs and bits of words and even move stuff around without it leaving visible traces if you don't want visible traces. I have some old typescripts up in the attic that I was revising with pens, scissors, tape, and different-colors of paper, because dear heaven, you can't retype the thing from scratch constantly. And whereas the cat can only disrupt word processing by standing on your keyboard and mousepad, his options for disrupting on-paper revision were practically limitless - as are his options for disrupting Kitchen Sanitation Month. (I don't want to flick the bucket water at him because it's got bleach in it.)

Still, however you do it, it's a messy, difficult, time-consuming job. And - just like Kitchen Sanitation - you have to go back and reclean stuff you've already cleaned pretty often, because you can't fix the plot hole in Chapter 23 without messing up some foreshadowing in Chapter 2, creating a continuity error in Chapter 15, and having a major characterization epiphany that requires you to reread every reference to the heroine's younger brother and adjust accordingly; any more than you can wash the dust off the good china without getting the sink and dishwasher dirty again. But you have to sanitize the sink and dishwasher first or the dishes won't be sanitized.

Still - and this is why writing is more fun than housework - revision has one huge advantage over Kitchen Sanitation Month, and that is, that while you will reach a point at which you're done revising a particular manuscript, you will never truly be done cleaning the kitchen.

You know, when you send your best version of a manuscript off to submission, that you'll run another polishing rag over it every three or four rejections; and if you get accepted you'll probably have to revise for the editor; and then there'll be copyediting; and then you'll have to proof the galleys; but eventually, at last, it'll be a book, bound and out the door and even if you reread it later and find something you think you could have done better, it'll be too late. That book is printed and it's staying the way you left it.

The kitchen will never, ever reach this point.

Remember that next time you're fed up with revising. Or you look at a work and can only see what a huge mess it is. Or the whole project begins to seem less worthwhile.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Historical Problem Novels

If the context of a line doesn't leap out at you - Read More History! (You will never regret reading more history. It's not possible.)

"I'm sorry, but there's no help for it. One of us has to be sold into slavery, or we'll all starve."

"Look, nobody wants to expose the runt twin on the hillside!"

"But it's a good deal! By the time she's old enough to consummate the marriage she'll be a rich widow!"

She stood on the edge of the field they should have harvested yesterday, and counted the bodies the battle had left behind among the crushed stalks.

If they didn't take some captives, soon, they'd either have to sacrifice one of their own, or risk the failure of sunrise.

"Of course the cow's bewitched! What other possible explanation could there be?"

"I know it's hard, but at least the freak show will feed the poor child."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It Gets Better Takes a Long Time

So I was going through old manuscripts yesterday and there was this one, The Autobiographical First Novel of Annie Smoot, and I was reading, and laughing, and making note of ways it needed to be updated (since it dates from the mid-90s and tech has gotten so intrusive in the intervening years), and when I got to the end of what I had (Chapter III) I really wanted to read the rest, which generally means I start typing and finish the book. But.

Bookworm Annie Smoot is being bullied, and the bully's mother has forced the bully to invite her to a birthday party, and Annie's mother has forced her to accept (because grownups never understand how serious anything is) and this is clearly a funny book about getting out from under the bullying and I don't know how she can.

Because I never did.

Oh, I'm out from under it now. Mostly. I've finally gotten a handle on bullying.

Two solutions exist for the persistent victim. One is to reach the place where "they" have no power over you - where you don't care what they think and they can't reach any of your vulnerable points, so you don't even have to interact with them except as you might interact with an uneven bit of sidewalk, which would trip you and break your leg if it could. And the other is to be valued (but not envied or resented) in the environment in which you encounter them to the extent that you don't look vulnerable. In that situation, if someone is dumb enough to attack you anyway, you won't have to defend yourself because other people will.

This is what that "just ignore them" advice adults always give kids is about. The people who give it don't recognize that, if it were possible to ignore them, you wouldn't be targeted anyway.

But of course, when you're six, or eleven, or even 30 and stuck in an office job with a jackass, you don't have those options. In those situations, pretty much anybody can hurt you who wants to, and your control over your own value is limited. In fact, a great deal of a bully's activity focuses on sabotaging you and keeping your value from being recognized.

I'm 52, and I'm only out from under this crap because I quit the workforce and routinely absent myself from places and situations in which I am not valued. Treat me badly once in your store, just once, and I'll never darken your door again. Treat me badly in a game, I don't have to finish it. Stalk me on the net and I can block your ISP. Flame me in a newsgroup and I can put you on ignore, if the newsgroup is otherwise worth staying on. (And I'm not sure how it happened, but I even have places where I'm valued - one person who used to be in our gaming group isn't anymore, because he behaved badly to Damon and me; and not long ago someone was rude to me in an internet setting, and before I even knew it had happened the offender was told "You know sassytalking Peni is like punching yourself in the face, right?") And this is all very nice but - I'm 52.

I can't write a book telling bullied eleven-year-olds to outlive it. Yuck! And I won't write a dishonest one telling them that if they're nice enough, clever enough, empathetic enough, whatever enough they can make friends with or triumph over their bullies, because in my experience, you can't. Nor would I be allowed to write one giving them a head's up that the problem can and will persist into their workplaces, because that is too depressing and adults in general refuse to admit it, anyway, so I'd never get it past an editor.

Which leaves poor Annie Smoot out on a limb.

I don't know what to do about that, either.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


So Moby Dent, the Great White Car, keeps having to go to the car doctor, and it becomes clear that the day approaches when we will have no choice but to donate his inert husk to NPR or the Kidney Foundation or something; by which time, living where we do, we need to have another vehicle already in the driveway. Which means Damon and I spent a lot of Veteran's Day carshopping like responsible adults, when we would rather have been gaming or reading or watching a Netflix marathon. (We did go see the Thor movie and sat through the credits for both extra scenes because Damon always sits through the credits and catches the extra scenes. You can't fool him!)

Now, I have never bought a car before in my life. Apart from the driving school's learning vehicle, and the rental I drove briefly in Santa Fe last month, Moby is the only car I've ever controlled. Even Damon hasn't bought a car in the usual sense since before I met him, though he's been through a few cars since then. There's always been a cheap car available from some nearby source when he needed on, a co-worker letting something go cheap or whatever. Moby himself was an in-family transaction, originally purchased by my father-in-law. The result of this is that neither of us is all that sure what we want in a car, except for a handful of things - manual backups for all systems, for example - that we are unlikely to get.

(Forget the back-up camera and the GPS; when, as will inevitably happen, it dies in an intersection and all the systems go out, I want to be able to roll down the window so I can communicate with the helpful people pushing me out of traffic! That is what I call a safety feature! How the heck are you supposed to get out of a modern car when the bad guys run you off the road into the lake and everything shorts out? You can't count on the bad guys shooting your windshield out for you. And what I really, really want is a button on the dash that expands and contracts various parts of the car; so I can drive a compact when I need to park in Austin, a truck when I need to haul plants or furniture, a sedan when driving people around, etc.)

When I normally think about cars, which I don't do often, I think of them in terms of characterization. What sort of car would this or that character drive? I don't know anything about makes and models, but you don't have to in order to do this particular exercise. A pickup truck implies a certain culture; whether the truck is old and beat up, new and shiny, old and shiny, extended-cab, black or white or silver or blue or red, will assist the reader to slot the driver into certain economic and social places in that culture; and then you fill up the back (or not) and that's a powerful but digestible amount of information crammed into, at most, a couple of sentences. If the owner of the pickup also has a town car and a '65 Mustang in the driveway, then that's as good as an infodump.

But does that really work? How many people - how many characters - are out there with no more conscious choice about the kinds of cars they drive than Damon and I have had?

Would anybody look at Moby and make any kind of accurate deduction about how who Damon and I are?

And would anybody who knew Damon and me have predicted that we would go looking at smaller SUVs this weekend? Which is what we did. Damon's idea. Surprised me; yet if there's anybody you'd think I'd know it'd be him. I think of myself as a compact car person (and I did rent a compact in New Mexico, but that was for expense and besides, I was driving it from the airport in Albuquerque to the hotel, and from the hotel back to the airport - I don't even need a back seat for that!), but a compact would not be suitable for avocational archeology trips, and one of the SUVs we got into yesterday felt too small on the inside. Apparently I need psychological space inside a car I'm driving. (Damon just needs some head and leg room.) If I don't know what kind of car I want myself, how can I characterize other people with them?

Yet the first car salesman we had yesterday got a line on us pretty quick. We never said: We want something durable, but by the third thing we looked at he was bringing up maintenance issues and telling us which ones would last us the longest. And that was before he found out how old Moby is. And this is in fact what we want in everything: something we won't have to keep replacing or renovating.

So the lesson I take away from this is that characterization via car is valid, but that I don't have a handle on how to do it. I'll need to pay attention to the car salesmen, because the good ones will have a handle on it - they'll need to, in order to do their jobs - and I can perhaps learn from that.

I generally think of myself as pretty good at characterization, but no matter how good you are at something, you'll always find areas to improve.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Annihilating Time and Space for Fun and Profit

One of my favorite themes is time travel. The prospect of full immersion in another time attracts me like open reading matter attract cats. I've thought about it enough to have a consistent, yet flexible, concept of how it needs to work for my stories; settled the predestination/paradox problem to my own satisfaction (though it's surprisingly difficult to get people to break out of their preconceptions enough to grasp my simple solution); and generally am comfortable with doing it. From a writing perspective, the main work in writing such a story now involves doing the research, evolving the characters and plot that arise naturally from the research, getting the butt in the chair - and, eventually, pitching/selling the damn thing, which is always the hardest part and no one wants to hear me whine about it.

But one aspect of the time travel concept remains largely unaddressed, and the gap is glaring. But it's so far removed from my own motivation for time traveling, that I have a hard time approaching it.

One of the technical difficulties of time travel, normally handwaved, is that the earth moves constantly through space. Not only does it orbit the sun, but the solar system moves through the galaxy, which in turn moves through the universe. If you go back in time a year, or a hundred years, or eleven millennia, without shifting in space (as my protagonists generally appear to do), you wind up in the vacuum of space where the earth is going to be at the time you leave. And if you go back in time and simultaneously shift in space (as so many books have people doing, with modern children winding up in Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Medieval France, etc.) it'd take an astronomer and a high-powered computer to run the data to arrive safely.

An effective time travel method is also, ipso facto, an effective method for traversing or bypassing vast regions of space.

Which means you should be able to repurpose the method in order to enable instantaneous interstellar travel.

That's - a pretty freaking huge concept. Arguably, huger than would fit into one book; though one of the pleasures of speculative fiction is the way large numbers of mind-bending concepts can be evoked and compressed into a single work as backdrop.

This connection is hinted at in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which both time and space are spindled, folded, and mutilated as the plot/comedy requires and "Infinite Improbability Drive" covers a multitude of contingencies (well, an infinite number) - but the Guide is a special case.

You could spend a career writing a loose series, either setting-based like Darkover or character-based like the Vorkosigan Saga, exploring the consequences of such a technology. One book could depict the experimental phase, as the Laws of Paradox and Free Will are formulated; any number could be spent on the Exploratory Phase; the political, economic, and social ramifications would run constantly in the background as plot complicators. Ancient cultures. New planets. Ancient cultures on new planets. Rivals forming alliances with the same culture in different eras. Extreme anthropology, with "experimental archeology" taking on a whole new meaning.

The author would have terrifyingly few limits. Success would mean a terrifying professional commitment. Disappointing sales on the first couple of books would mean a frustratingly curtailed creative experience.

I wish I'd stop having Big Ideas.

Friday, November 8, 2013

So Common, So Easy to Prevent

My favorite webcartoonist, Shaenon Garrity, is posting 12-panel summaries of X-Files episodes every Friday (because she can), and today she addresses something close to my heart: "Nitpicking details of the setting!" Because Season 3, Episode 19, "Hell Money," is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, and she lives in San Francisco. She pairs script assumption with reality right down the line, pointing out both cliches ("X-Files: Asian-Americans want to tell you colorful stories of your homeland! Reality: In my experience, they mostly want to tell you about their mini-comic." But then Shaenon's acquaintance in all ethnic groups is weighted toward cartoonists.) and obvious assumptions that aren't true ("X-Files: It's possible to hide bodies by burying them in cemeteries. Reality: Okay, this is the big one. San Francisco doesn't have cemeteries.")

This has got to be the most common, and the least explicable, type of research failure in all media. Most common, because we see it all the dang time. Least explicable, because we all pounce on media set in our familiar territories and nitpick the details. If the writer of that episode were to see a show set in his own home town he'd treat it in exactly the same way. "Ha! In Podunk, Nebraska, the grain silos are all on the west side of town! It's only in West Podunk that they have one near the watertower!"

It's not that complicated, guys. If you're setting a story outside your own stomping ground, go visit the place! If that's not practical, find somebody from there and have her vet the manuscript for you.

Because somebody is from there, and will notice.

Besides, walking out the story territory is fun and, in the case of travel locations, tax-deductible!

This is why all my stories are set in Texas, by the way. It makes walking out the territory so much simpler.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Private Pleasures

One of the sweetest, least shareable things in the world is going back over a manuscript you'd lost all enthusiasm for, to run a polishing cloth over it out of a sense of duty because you get a submission window to a publisher you always intended to send it to but couldn't for whatever reason, and realize, This doesn't suck.

This is, in fact, pretty good.

Yes, it's good in a way that's hard to pitch, but if you can manage to get somebody past the sales pitch (always the problematical bit) it has a real shot at publication, and even at becoming one of those books that people love in isolation. Because it's not very likely to hit the zeitgeist in a bestseller kind of way, but an under-the-radar favorite kind of way, whose readers discover each other and rejoice and become a little private club, is not out of the question.

Which would be plenty good enough for me. But will a publisher see it that way in this climate?

Never mind. It's in the mail. It has its fair shot at the market. That's all I can give it.

Don't throw them away. You can learn to love them again.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Halloween, and the Day After

At some point we stopped leaving our lights on for Halloween; part of our long withdrawal from the collective culture, you could call it. But I still pay attention. This year the people banning Halloween are Russian, but the arguments are just as unrealistic, ignorant, and divorced from the real Halloween experience of real people as ever.

Halloween is a popular holiday for authors, for obvious reasons. It gives us a natural, liminal setting for supernatural motifs and for fantasies of transformation. What if the masks reveal more than they conceal? What if they transform instead of merely disguising? The legitimacy of disguise and deception in a public setting is an ideal setup for the mystery author, or the comedian, to create confusion, particularly concerning identity. Agatha Christie loved a masquerade. Choice of costume illuminates character - remember how, in Freak the Mighty, the heroic-spirited Kevin dressed as Darth Vader? (If you haven't read Freak the Mighty, for pity's sake, go do so! The movie misses some of the point, though it has the major virtue of Gillian Anderson as Loretta, Heroic Biker Chick.) It's about so much more than candy!

Here's a piece that I think is ripe for fictional exploration: Halloween as the Queer Holiday.

The place of Halloween in the social history of gender identity is persistent. Particularly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, where social disapproval of genderbending dress was supported by laws punishing the wearing of males clothes by women and vice versa, Halloween was the Great Exception. In cities in which wearing the wrong kind of shoes or a shirt that buttoned up the wrong side could get you arrested 364 days of the year, you could prance down the street in full drag on this one day. Establishments catering to a particular clientele under the constant threat of raids could hold huge Halloween bashes with impunity. Teen-agers who didn't dare be themselves in public could put on their real selves and call it a costume, and even gain admiration for doing so - if they were smart enough. If the bullies were imperceptive enough. If they made enough people laugh.

If the spoilsports weren't trying to ban Halloween on ridiculous grounds in that particular locality that year. Or maybe, even if they were. Maybe, in defying the forces of willful blindness, oppression, suppression, and depression, Halloween is the night of triumph.

Somebody is always trying to ban Halloween, and that somebody is always missing the point. Or is, perhaps, terrified of admitting the point. Is hiding behind nonsense about non-existent occult or psychological threats because they can't deal with the truth of the holiday in practice. Because the anxiety created by the fluidity of identity is too much for them.

Comedy, tragedy, thriller, fantasy, domestic novel, novel of self-discovery - it works for all of them.

And then everybody has to get up the next day and carry on daily life. But does that mean putting the mask back on? Or does it mean negotiating a larger space for oneself?

Because that's the rest of the story.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

I Brake for Civic Duty

Bitching and moaning aside, I did get a query out this morning, so go me. If you copy/paste the stuff you need from the webpages you need, and turn the damn thing off, and write what you're going to write as if it were going out in the mail, and then connect again and copy/paste in the specified e-mail/online form/whatever, it can be done without making a fool of yourself.

I hope.

This afternoon is devoted to early voting. It's time to amend the Constitution in Texas, again. The Texas Constitution is a model of how not to write one - you need to amend it to change procedural rules, for pity's sake! But there's usually one item of import that can't be neglected. This year, we need to fund the long-overdue state water policy.

I don't normally post politics, but it is important not to get so head-down in one's personal, professional, and creative life that we neglect our duties as citizens. If we want to keep our rights, we must do our duties.

Besides, if I go vote today, it's an excuse to go downtown. On the bus. I can read on the way. It'll be restful.

I'm also considering making an apple pie; but it's raining a lot and the dough might be too hard to work. Apple crisp is good, too...

For many of y'all, tomorrow begins National Novel Writing Month. Since all months are novel writing months, to me November is Kitchen Sanitation Month. So we'll all be hard at work, one way or another.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Discipline is for the Disconnected

The trouble with discipline these days is, you need to have the internet open to do so many things that you don't want to do and need to. Which means you have access to all your distractions just when you need to shut them out most.

Remember when you could accomplish all your important writing tasks by the simple expedient of shutting yourself into a small space with just your typewriter, the immediate references you needed, and a dictionary? A print dictionary that you could put outside if you started looking up etymologies instead of writing your query?

I think the policy of requiring submissions via Facebook must be a nefarious plot to keep us from ever querying at all. But I also think it's more likely to swamp them in even more half-assed queries; because who meticulously revises and hones a Facebook post?

I used to be able trick, bribe, and bully myself into doing things, but I seem to be on to myself more and more these days and don't fall for it.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: A Display Piece

This one is not mine to give away. I'm just putting it up for show.

One of the many interesting people I talked to at the Paleoamerican Odyssey conference was (if I have all my information correct, and I think I do, but it's hard to keep track of names at a conference) Kelly R. Monteleone, who was presenting a poster showing a process of winnowing down the vastness of Beringia into a range of "most promising places to look for sites," including offshore sites. Since Beringia is mostly under the Arctic Ocean now, this is important work to do - underwater archeology is difficult and expensive enough when you do it in Florida or Texas; when you do it in Alaska, Siberia, and points between you want to be able to go straight to what you want when you finally commit to a dive, or even to sending out a boat with fancy technology to see through the water and ocean deposits to narrow down "most likely place" to "place where you'll definitely find something or other."

Since I got to her poster during a slow period in the poster room (these were rare; everyone wanted to see everything and it was hard to move a lot of the time) we had a little bit of conversation as well as her explaining the poster, and - as often happens when people find out what I do - she told me she had an idea for a children's book herself, but didn't mind if I stole it. She said she kept thinking, What if - you took an artifact, made in Siberia, and it got used and reused and handed down and lost and salvaged and repurposed and eventually wound up on the northwest coast of North America? You'd do it as series of connected short stories, illustrating the nature of the trip (which was almost certainly not conceived by the people involved as a trip at all, certainly not as a single one) and also how the nature, use, and meaning of an artifact, presumably made out of a rare resource that needed to be conserved, can change over time. By the time it reached North America, it would almost certainly have lost its practical value and gained some less tangible, but more vital, meaning, as objects that survive use by our ancestors do; until it is finally definitively lost, discarded, or destroyed. Perhaps eventually to be found by someone like her.

This, I believe, is a good and workable idea; and I also believe that she is the only one who can write it. She can't yet, because it's not ripe. She needs more information - which she is uniquely positioned to get if she pursues this line of inquiry - even to determine what the object is, much less who used it in what different ways and what kinds of stories it figures in over time. It could take her entire career to write it.

And that's fine. There's no point going off half-cocked with something like this, especially when writing isn't the center of your professional life. You have to let it get ripe.

If she keeps holding this in the back of her mind, she might sit down twenty, or thirty, or forty years from now, maybe on retirement, and find all the stories fully-formed in her head, ready to pour out of her in nearly final form. She might pick up an object in the lab one day and realize, This is it. This is the Thing that connects the stories.

This sort of thing happens.

So that idea you keep returning to - don't give up on it. Hang onto it. Take it out and turn it over in your hands sometimes, note how it's slowly transforming, swelling up and changing colors and acquiring an appetizing smell.

Be ready to pick it, the moment it comes ripe.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's Getting Better. Let's Pick Up the Pace Here.

It is never wise to rely too much on the assumption that what you happen to come across is a fair representation of reality. After all, we all see what we see because we look where we look. In order to understand the world, we have to examine it consciously and go into new places, look for new things, pay attention to details where we normally look at wholes, and at wholes where our attention is usually zoomed down to fine details.

But we all start with what's in front of us, and a juxtaposition of stuff floating across the screen in front of me when I was noodling around yesterday startled me into an invigorating, if intimidating, glimpse of reality.

First came a much-reblogged Tumbler post concerning the depiction of same-sex relationships in popular media, specifically movies; how "The girls are never supposed to end up together," how boy-girl relationships can be anything, go anywhere, be intercepted by story at any point. If a boy and girl are best friends at the beginning of the movie, we know and they know that by the end of the movie they can be lovers and this can be accomplished by one kiss, no angsting, as part of a larger arc that may or may not focus on their emotional lives. But if a girl and a girl are best friends at the beginning of the movie, the odds are huge that by the end of the movie the one who isn't the protagonist will be standing on the sidelines being sweet and supportive of the all-important heterosexual relationship her BFF has gotten into during the movie; or even if they do wind up together, the movie will be about the struggle to face up to the fact of same-sex attraction. Most stories with queer protagonists are still coming-out stories first. And, given that we structure our lives around narrative, this is discouraging for the young queer, or the old one, trying to find the storyline that works for her life.

Immediately under this in my dash was a picture sequence of two male sims getting engaged.

I see a lot of such pictures on Tumblr, because I use it mostly to post pics from my game and follow what other people post about their games. The Sims2 program starts everybody off dead center on a scale of attraction to male or female, and the player (or a program modification installed by the player who wants less control of the process) determines the sexual preference and to a certain extent the gender orientation of the characters by decisions and actions during play. It's difficult, though not impossible, to model bisexual and transgender identities in the game; but any player can pretty much make any sim gay or straight at will. The sims themselves do not care.

And hardly any simmer I've ever run across didn't love having same-sex couples in their games. Sororities seethe with Lesbian Drama; male couples raise rampaging hordes of adopted and alien-hybrid children; generals and high-level politicians and small-town matriarchs welcome their sons' husbands and their daughters' wives with open arms; children grow up with two of one parent and none of the other, or with three grandfathers and only one grandmother, or (I have a kid like this in my game) two mothers with two fathers living next door, and never think it strange. Because it isn't. The vanilla code distinguishes between joined unions and marriage, but you can mod that out. You can even get same-sex pregnancy mods, if you want, or use a simple cheat to simulate artificial insemination.

What this tells me is that the movies, and to a certain extent even books (which are always ahead of the visual media in reflecting social change, if you read the right books) are missing a trick here.The General Public, or at least an economically viable chunk of it, is way past ready to get beyond the coming out narrative. We're ready for media to get with the program and treat normal stuff as normal, to proceed with the story (and get to the cute animations that we can't help snapping pictures of and showing each other online because although yeah, we've all seen the wedding video and the slow dance and the leap-into-arms hug in our own games, the pixels are individuated enough that they do not get old.)

Yet the institutions of media continue to behave as if this stuff is controversial, uncommercial, and barely in demand at all.

And then a little later, across the same dashboard, I get another reblog which gradually led me back to the UCLA Newsroom website, and a story about a study demonstrating that shows with racially diverse casts and creative teams do better in the marketplace than shows with primarily white casts and creative teams. Which nevertheless still outnumber the diverse shows.

Which is huge, as anyone in YA and children's literature can tell you. Non-white characters and authors are out there - but it can be so freaking hard to track them down, to get people of color onto bookcovers even when the protagonists aren't white, even to keep character tags that indicate ethnicity, and the reason we're told time and again is that white characters sell better and that non-white characters have to be handled with kid gloves so as not to offend anyone.

As if being left out completely isn't offensive.

Yeah, well, when all the books with black people on the cover are shelved under "African-American Studies" instead of "General Fiction" in big box retailers, it's not surprising if they don't sell it well. That's not the fault of the characters or the cover designer! But the place to deal with that isn't on the supply side; isn't to capitulate before being challenged; isn't to assume that this perceived marketing reality is inevitable and unfightable.

Or even true, as anything other than a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The moral of yesterday's dashboard is clear. The audience for diverse stories about diverse people exists. It is easy to be afraid of the economic consequences of writing for an invisible audience - but the secret, I see, is not to limit oneself to the visible audience, but to go forth and tear down the screens blocking them from your sight. They're out there. We can find them.

For one thing, we are them.

Now we just have to stand up nice and tall and speak nice and loud and make ourselves visible to the gatekeepers. This is taking too long, and media representation is an important part of social change. It's not enough to hang out whispering to each other on tumbler and Facebook. We have to vote with our dollars and our library cards. Complain as loudly and directly and vociferously of being stifled as the whiny minority complain in order to stifle us. Go into bookstores and ask for books with transgender protagonists; they'll find them for you. Go into libraries and check out books by Hispanic authors (whatever "hispanic" means anyway) on a regular basis. Talk up your favorite diverse shows to your co-workers in such a way as to coax them out of their comfort zones to watch and enjoy them too. Squee loudly about realistically depicted disabled characters, in public. Do amazon searches for "bisexual protagonists," "Native American / Indian authors," "black YA" whatever, and gripe to the management when you get inappropriate results.

Don't be didactic, but be proactive.

Write the book you want to write; and at the same time, create the demand you want to fill.

You are not the only one.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Some Notes on the Trip to Santa Fe

I don't sleep well even at home - away from home at best I get microsleeps - and apparently 7000 feet is enough to bring on altitude sickness and even the professional archeologists, better-prepared than me for absorbing stuff about sites and dates and geology and genetics and weather modeling, were complaining happily that their heads hurt with all the new information acquisition going on at the conference, so it's not surprising I'm crashing now I'm home. But, being who I am, I had a notebook with me, so let's see if I can put together a blog post from the scribbles I made in it on the way home (taking notes during sessions is hopeless; I just open my eyes and ears, let everything flood in, and let my backbrain sort it all out).

If nothing else, this example of the kind of random jaggedy prose that gets put into authors' notebooks should cure you of any romantic notions you may have about them. Notebooks are for notes. Any poetry or greatness in them is accidental, I don't care if it's my notebook or Hemingway's (or even DWJ's, who surpasses Hemingway in all things).


I don't know whether it was the car or the road but I slowed down coasting downhill.

Santa Fe is uphill from Albuquerque. My ears never popped. (This is significant because normally flying is like being under psychic attack - the air pressure changes assault my ears as if they wielded ice picks. But not this time. Apparently my ear doctor's advice to snort Afrin before flights is good.)

Petroglyph National Monument is inside the city limits or at least the exits were. I never saw these exists on the way north when I might have taken advantage of them.

The mountains have scalloped irregular edges like a pressure-worked chert flake.

My feet cracked badly at the tendons. Dryness I presume.

The automatic faucets waste water in the convention center.

Everyone I met was pleasant and relaxed, and helpful. I have not heard a cross word here.

I have not seen as many brown faces as I would have expected. Nor kids!

The last two nights the room breathed hard, like a giant coffee maker.

I could not ID an accent.

Stan Lee was in charge of the parking lot I used the first night.
(It was uncanny - same voice! A little shorter. I expected him to say "Excelsior!")

Scant birds. The ones in Santa Fe all seemed to be black and vaguely hawklike. Only thing I ID'd was a house sparrow.

The Gringo Market.
(This was a joke a man on the city bus - a satisfyingly dark brown man - made about the tents in the plaza on Saturday, the Gringo Market as opposed to the Spanish Market.)

The people at the bus stop talking at length about a scheme by which the city could take some of the desperation out of homelessness and reduce crime committed in order to find a place to stay the winter. Schizophrenia not considered in the discussion. Also, how to deal with dryness cracks. Liquid Vitamin E extolled as the best.

The woman in the next seat as I wait in the airport is on her phone and I'm finding out far too much about her life. Never seems to leave any time for an answer. She says she's a wreck but she maintains a flat, almost monotonous tone.

Pick-ups pulled onto the shoulder at regular intervals all the way SF to ABQ this AM.

Flying over the desert you can see the drainages, more than you'd ever imagine there were, the textures on the ground, the parts between, the desert, like painted concrete just washed with color and the roads the cracks between the slabs. Fields agribusiness all squares and circles, half circles, pie charts, PacMan, green and dust in squares on the flat land, and the drainages black and furry between, reservoirs and ponds flat and in the light it can be hard to tell if they have water in them or not, whether the color is the dust color because of the light or because they're dry or because - and there was a reservoir like this - because the water is silty. You could see the water in the deep part the color of water and then it turned silty in one part and then you could tell where the beach was through it was the same color as the water; next to each other you could see the contrast in the textures.

Some other day when I can type coherently and at length I will discuss the cool things I saw at the conference. I did like Santa Fe, altitude sickness and all; and if you're going I recommend the Burro Alley Cafe. They don't salt their fries and they took excellent care of me when I stumbled in fighting a migraine the first day.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

First Times at Fifty-two

Off to Santa Fe tomorrow morning. I'm not nervous, exactly, but it occurs to me that there's a number of things on this trip I'll be doing for the first time.

I've never been to Santa Fe.

I'll be renting a car at the airport - I've never done that. On previous trips when I was by myself, I either couldn't drive and had to arrange alternate transportation, or was going somewhere that alternate transportation was easier than renting a car and having to look after it for the duration.

I don't know anybody at my destination, not even to the extent of having professional contact.

It's not a professional convention, or a fan convention. It's a professional convention to which I'm going as a fan.

And I'm not obsessively making lists and double checking them and trying to get everything packed the night before. Damon is driving me to the airport, we don't leave until ten - if I forget something, I'll forget something, but I bet I don't.

I've been traveling since before I can remember. When did I hit "mellow?"

Is 52 the age when mellow kicks in?

It also pleases me that I have done things for the first time often enough before that when it's time to do new things again, I'm not stressed about it. I know how to do new things. It's not a big deal.

I hope I'm still doing new things when I'm 104. Because if I'm not, being 104 won't be any fun.

The laptop I have doesn't turn on reliably so I'm not bothering to take it, so I won't be logging on till I get home next Sunday, or the day after. See y'all around.

Or, if you happen to be in Santa Fe, track me down at the PaleoAmerican Odyssey Conference. Unless you're that damn stalker, of course. I'll be wearing either something with variations on cave art or a "save the woolly mammoth" t-shirt.

Because I'm going as a fan and there's no need to hide it.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: You Know Who You Are

You have a character in your head. At least one. You know you do. Somebody you enjoy contemplating, putting into different situations, pairing him up with your favorites of fiction; picturing her in various situations. A daydream protagonist who is recognizably not you.

You haven't written about her - or you have, but they were awful Mary Sue stories - or you don't feel ownership of him because he's too closely based on (and may even still have the face and name of) somebody else's character or a real person - or she resembles you too much (see "Mary Sue" above) - or you're embarrassed to do anything formal with him because he started as your fantasy lover way back in seventh grade - or you keep recycling her in your avatars and RPG characters and what not, so she doesn't feel like a fictional character to you - or bits of him keep cropping up in the stuff you do write but he's never a suitable protagonist and anyway as a character he's a total failure, too idealized or too sketchy or too - something.

But this character is part of you and it behooves you to understand him.

So take her out and play with her in the privacy of your own head. What is it that makes this character live in your head so much? This character is mercurial by nature, but certain things are constant and defining. And you may think this is a pure fantasy too-good-to-be-true person, but I promise you, he has a few flaws that are as essential to him as his virtues. Maybe more so.

It may be that while you think of this character as an ideal, when you examine her honestly, you'll find that she is built around a core of dearly-treasured faults.

So. What is the worst thing you could do to this character?

How does that change him?

And how does she learn and change and grow and become as real to an audience as to you - and remain the essential character of which you are so fond?

Play with that.

You don't have to show what you get to anybody. You don't have to finish it. You don't have to ever put this character into a work you plan to publish. Just let them do their jobs and lead you to That Story you've been walking around without noticing. They're trying to tell you something important. You should listen.

I thought one of mine had died off. He's a charmer, and I dislike and distrust charming people, so it embarrassed me to have him around in my head at all. I more or less banished him. But he sneaked back in recently, with a small name change, and now he's laughing at me for taking so long to recognize him. But he's a lot older now, as am I; we've both learned a lot.

I knew the other was still around - I've been using her for RPG characters for the longest time, and she has quite a lot of flexibility for a woman who's all about repression and control of an interior life that would scorch the earth around her. It's tempting to get them together, but that would be a Romance novel and I don't do those; don't even like them, though I like love stories just fine.

And anyway, they're the same at the core; it's just that they guard the world from themselves with different exterior coping mechanisms. I don't know where we're going. I don't have to. Neither do you.

Take some time off and just chase after this person down the corridors of your mind. He'll take you where you want to go.

Yeah, the garage sale's a bit disorganized today. Some days are like that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I am a Bad Citizen of the Consumer Society

How is it possible that anybody ever, anywhere, thought the "Capitol Collection" make-up was a good idea?

Who, exactly, wants to dress up as the decadent rich folks who tune in night after night to watch children locked in gladitorial combat?

All marketing connected with The Hunger Games disturbs the heck out of me. Which is fitting, but I have a hard time believing that the marketing folks who come up with it were going for that response. I think if I were Suzanne Collins I'd be lobbying to have all proceeds go to children's charities or something, to reduce the squick of having enabled it. But I suspect there's nuances I'm missing.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Eight Days

In eight days I leave for the Paeleoamerican Odyssey conference.

And I'm crashing hard every day.

And it would be good to get one more query out.

And that is all I have to say today.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: A Life in the Woods

Current events having proved yet again this week that fiction writers are hampered, as real life is not, by the necessity of making the behavior of characters believable, let's haul out the good old Fortean Times for another excursion into the land of Free Fiction Ideas, that only need to be toned down and fleshed out a bit in order to use them.

I am on page 10 of issue 306 before I find it, but there it is, big as life and twice as natural: Father and son hermits are 'rescued.' A Vietnamese man went a little wonky after his home was bombed and his mother and two oldest sons killed in 1972. He dropped out of the North Vietnamese military, assaulted his wife, and then carried his one-yer-old son into the jungle. He came back a few days later and his neighbors lied to him, saying his wife and youngest son had died, and he returned to the jungle.

This summer, two local people went 25 miles into a forest in the Tay Tra district of Quang Ngai province, apparently in search of firewood. (This is puzzling to me in and of itself, but if everybody in Vietnam accepts it, who am I to quibble?) These firewood-gatherers did not see or speak to the pair themselves, but saw their tree house and reported it to authorities, presumably suspecting that anyone building houses in trees this far from anywhere was probably doing something illegal. The two men, 82 and 41 years old respectively, were "rescued," the old man being carried out on a stretcher to be treated for malnutrition. They wore bark loincloths and had a number of homemade tools, including an ax and a two-chord fiddle. In addition to hunting and trapping small game and farming a good variety of food crops, they made wooden statues, had saffron and citronella for spice, and cultivated luxuries like tobacco and tea. They had bamboo plumbing, a stockade of sharp stakes to deter predators, and a little copper bell used in religious rites.

This was not the first time they were ever discovered. Someone at some point appears to have given them the seeds for the saffron and citronella; and the youngest son, having been told about his father and older brother on his mother's deathbed, actually went looking for and found them twenty years ago; but could not persuade them to come out of the forest.

The son, Ho Van Lang, can apparently speak only a few words of his family's minority group's dialect, and the father no longer speaks at all. The father was placed in a medical center for treatment of malnutrition, and the son is living with his nephew, who says he doesn't want to eat or even drink water and is clearly looking to escape back to the familiar forest. And after forty years, this is not surprising.

Feral children always tickle the brain. In real life they challenge our collective human identity, as after a certain point they are never able to adjust to normal society or behave in ways we find fully, convincingly human. But Ho Van Lang is not a feral child. He was raised by another human, with almost all the necessary human environmental factors - technology, religion, a parent, work; even language, art, music, and luxuries. All he lacked was society. He had no peer group, no elders, no one younger to take care of; no one to love or trust, or compete with, or learn from, but his father, who apparently was unstable and capable of violence.

If his father had died of sickness or disease before the youngest son came looking for them, would he have chosen to go with his brother to explore the world outside, and found his place in it?

What exactly did his father tell him about the world?

It is easy to project fantasies into a life like that, and in order to make a satisfactory work of fiction you'd probably have to. If nothing else, his contact with the outside world would need to be at a younger, more flexible age, in order to render his interior states and behavior sufficiently familiar for the reader to identify with. The Robinsonade elements - homemade plumbing in a treehouse! - make it a particularly appealing framework on which to erect a coming-of-age rebellion story aimed at adolescent boys.

Which also makes it easy to turn into a pale imitation of Gary Paulsen's immortal Hatchet, or a silly macho fantasy of self-reliance, or something equally unsatisfactory. But with research and awareness, it could be a nuanced exploration of human development, too, without losing the Robinsonade.

You know what strikes me most strongly?

The neighbors. They were sufficiently afraid that the father'd hurt his wife and youngest son to lie to him about them; but they made no attempt to follow him and rescue the one-year-old. The father got the seeds he cultivated from somewhere. Society could have found them out and extracted the boy at either of those points. But they did not. Why not?

And what was the practical affect of the war in all this?

That's where I'd start. If it were me.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Black Hole in the Center

Why hadn't they taken her, too? What was the point of making her, if they didn't want to see her, too? You didn't do an experiment, and then go off and never look at the result!

That's the crux of the alien/faery child trope. The interest of the story lies in the alien child's interaction with the familiar environment, which is the story of all our alienated selves; but the key to satisfactory resolution lies in the question, Why is the child not in her native environment?

Answer that well, and all other difficulties in telling the story become trivial and soluble. Don't answer that well, and no virtue the story has can overcome the gravitational pull of the black hole in the center.

It is possible the reader and characters won't know at the end of the story. But it is essential that the author do so.

I recommend that you not commit to the story till you know that. But you'll do what you have to do.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Some days, all you can do is read stuff.

And I better hurry, because my order came in at the indie bookstore.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: The Right Foot of Light, or Something Like That

Hi, y'all, there was computer crap and it was Game with People Day and I'm tired, so just real fast here's a high concept garage sale idea that came up at WorldCon.

You've read Ursula K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, right? (If the answer is "no," go read it as soon as you get off the net.) Personally I prefer Lathe of Heaven, but I'm the only one who does and that's okay. The point is -

Tell yourself the same story. With a human in the POV slot who isn't straight cis male. Any of the alphabet soup of alternate sexualities (and remember the A stands for Asexual, not "allies," don't be silly), or straight female, will do.

How does that kemmer scene on the ice work with the change?

Where does that take you?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Know, It Looks Like I'm Goofing Off...

See, here's the thing. My brain keeps on working, making stories, regardless.

But it doesn't always work on stories I know how to sell, or that the market will treat kindly if I do sell them; and sometimes I find myself returning constantly, obsessing over, a story I know I can tell, but which I also know would be read wrong by half the people who read it and 90% of the people who didn't if it ever actually sold and somehow picked up buzz and folks did in fact read it.

Like the story dealing with how women are socialized into not recognizing that all the sexual power naturally belongs to us, with an extra layer of misleading us into believing (when we discover that fact) that it's the only power we have (and that it's wrong to use it); which is spinning itself out of the Widespot backstory for me -

It'd be a risk to write that, but hey, I can't sell the stuff I know how to sell right now, either, so what am I risking, really? I could tell that story and maybe somebody'd get it and that would be all to the good so who cares if I have to go to new places in the writing to do it, right?

Except that the way it's shaped now almost everyone would think of it as "that story where the girls are dating a father and son." Which, ick, who'd pick that up? Nobody who'd enjoy, understand, and benefit from the story I'd actually write, for sure.

So I'd have to back it right out of the Widespottian origins (which I'd have to do anyway because not only the names holey cheese the names but Penny Weiss, as is, is firmly embedded in the Sims2 alien offspring concept, with mpreg and green skin and the whole nine yards), which leaves me with themes and no characters, which is not a place I can start from. (Diagram that sentence. I dare you.)

And I'm too much a child of the 20th century to feel comfortable writing a book that is front and center about sexual mentorship, which is what the Mary/Valentine story turned into as I played my own version of the hood, and which deeply impacts even what I'm doing with Penny, because Penny and Mary tell each other everything and Rhett (whose bio I'd write differently if I did it now; instead of Rhett believes in male privilege so thoroughly he doesn't even know he believes in it, it'd just read Mommy Issues) is at the beginning of a road Valentine's already been down. So it'd have to be about something else.

And you know, there could be worse B plots than the sexual mentorship one for a story about an alien/human hybrid who regards herself as an anthropologist among the humans, if I could come up with some alternative to Penny's origins which would still leave her with the asexual hermit father and the BFF down the road. And if Penny's actually bi and in love with Mary while experimenting with Rhett (only it can't be Rhett because the father/son angle is too distracting for the audience)...Changeling, fairy child, alien, isolation, the isolation is essential as is Mary's biracial status - hey, that actually ties in with Penny's anomalous birth, too, at a metaphorical level...

So, it's a jungle in here, rampant undisciplined growth threatened by the napalm of self-censorship, the occasional tiger roaming around, beautiful and dangerous and threatening to eat me alive. I'll work it out or I won't. And it's less than a month to the Paleoamerican conference anyway, which could send me spinning in a completely different direction.

Excuse me, I probably need to clean something. Isn't it wonderful how the brain keeps chewing away at this stuff while you're cleaning?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Random Thought

This is not directed at anyone in particular who I have any reason to think might be listening. It's just a thought.

You know how many wrong people have changed their minds because someone who was right yelled at them?

None. In the history of the world.

It's important to keep up the good fight. But even shutting your mouth and walking away, leaving Them feeling like they've won, is a more effective tactic, in the long run, than shouting. Because if you shut your mouth and walk away and they feel like they've won, their guard comes down and you can sneak your point into their brains after you've calmed down. But shouting just keeps their adrenaline strong.

And it may take a long time for your point to work, and you may never see the result. So don't assume you've lost and things are hopeless. Even when your blood sugar's low and it really seems that way.

Anyway, queries for me. And it really is past time I started thinking about what the next book should be. Because I can make myself write stories when I can't make myself write queries.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Spies?

So in the middle of the week I had a dream with a plot. Not the illusion of a plot, which is common in dreams. You wake up thinking you have a whole novel, but on reflection, when you try to lay it out for yourself, it's full of gaps and logic lapses and transitions that don't work, so all you're left with is a handful of images that haunt you, or don't. (That bit with the frog, the river, the library, and the pageboy, from college - it's still there and I still can't do anything with it.) But this one kept its shape when I reviewed it, consistent characters and situations and the whole nine yards.

This was probably, however, because it was a cliche. Its beats were set in a familiar rhythm; the shape of the story matched up exactly to thousands of short stories in hundreds of anthologies. Yes, the details were distinctive, as far as they went, but I knew I would never write it because the most it would ever be would be a well-crafted, workmanlike piece and though that's worth doing as a small part of an overarching career that requires steady output, I wouldn't enjoy writing it and I couldn't sell it in this market, not without putting a lot more charisma into it than I ever have. I don't suck but I don't dazzle and I don't have the energy necessary to sell a pedestrian short story. But I figured I'd use it for the garage sale, as that's part of what the garage sale is for.

But now I can't remember it. At all.

It was a mystery, but not a murder mystery and I don't think a theft. Maybe a spy story? Does anybody write spy short stories? (You know, I don't think they do. I don't think that's a genre at all. I wonder why not.) It was suspense of some kind, anyway. Was there a ghost? I don't think there was a ghost...

And the moral of that story is, write stuff down even when it's simple and clear and plain and cliched and you know you'll remember it.

Maybe it wasn't even suspense. Maybe I'm influenced by the misreading I also did during the week, when I was skimming movie descriptions and saw one in which the character finds work as an assassin in a department store and has an affair with her manager, which made me sit up and take notice. But of course it was "assistant," which is boring. An assassin in a department store is absurd, but at least it isn't boring. Maybe trained assassins are the next level of escalation in corporate espionage.

So the garage sale idea for today would be a short story about an assassin/spy in a department store, playing a high-stakes game among the escalators, between Lingerie and Housewares. There's a ringer in the Catalog Department, and the proof sheets in the photo studio's secret file drawer are too dangerous to see the light of day...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Creativity as a Civic Duty

So yesterday I was at jury duty. I did not get picked, although I was well up in the numbers (#10), which means I was specifically un-chosen. This did not surprise me, and does not hurt my feelings, because I probably shouldn't be on a jury. It's just way too easy for me to identify imaginatively with everybody in a case. And of course there's the whole issue of my two modes, Silent and Can't Shut Up.

But it boggled my mind, the number of people who said they couldn't think why, if you were innocent and accused, you wouldn't testify. That's just a failure of the imagination. I wouldn't do it - I talk too much and I annoy people and I bewilder them because my honest emotional reactions fall at the extremes of the bell curve and if I happened to be cross-examined when hungry - holey cheese, no! Just, no. And what if you have a stutter, or English is your second language, or you're self-conscious about your voice, or think poorly on your feet, or the opposing counsel reminds you of your abusive dad, or - I could come up with innocent reasons for silence all day long. (And I think everybody in that courtroom knows that now.)

Why is it so hard to bend their minds around the idea that the presumption of innocence includes the presumption that if the defendant doesn't testify there's an innocent reason for it?

Why do people assume that everything they're mildly curious about is their business?

I hear this sort of thing all the time, directed at me and at people around me. Why are you in a wheelchair? How did your spouse get HIV? If you're still friends with your ex why did you divorce? Why don't you have any children?

The answer to all these questions, and others like them, is: None of your business. Yet if you give this reply, the questioner is likely to treat you as the rude one.

When you're tempted to ask a question like that, stop and think a minute. Imagine a few scenarios that might result in the condition about which you are curious (or feel genuinely sympathetic and concerned) and ask yourself: "If that happens to be the reason, and it were me, how would I feel on being asked about it? And even if it's not - how often does she get asked about this? How annoying will this question be?" And then you won't ask.

Sure, the person might need to talk about it - but there's a thousand different ways to let someone know you're there to listen without asking personal questions that might have painful answers. And the people who demand information in this way aren't going to be good listeners. They're mildly curious, and a lot thoughtless, and that's all. Far from helping, they are part of the problem of coping - irritation on a wound.

Writing stories and drawing pictures and making music are refinements and developments of our basic creativity. We are all creative because we are part of a social species, and dealing productively with other members of our species requires that we be able to imaginatively identify with them.

Probably the lawyers wrote me off as being too easy with this facility. We all know people who become too enamored of the stories they tell themselves about the world to deal with the world itself when it differs from that story; and though I don't routinely do that, this is a reasonable reservation to have about me as a juror. I am professionally primed to read between the lines and fill in the gaps between the facts in the way that makes the best story, which is not necessarily the most just way to render a verdict. But other people in the same courtroom were undoubtedly written off for their professed inability to extrapolate at all - because that's not conducive to justice, either.

I hope they found the happy medium of that ability in the twelve people chosen.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


Pleasantest dream I’ve had in a long time.

Someone had approached me to write a Widespot-like book, and made a movie at the same time, to premiere the same day the book came out. It wasn’t exactly Widespot, because it was setting up a murder plot, but I used similar characters. I had to work to parameters but the packager and filmmaker both understood the point of Widespot and the openness so it had been a great experience making these things.

The day the movie came out my husband and I were in some sort of resort right after a big con of some kind, but the resort had a small movie theater and was showing it, so we went. The movie was well received, but the projector broke, so we went walking around and my husband was telling me his theories about how the story should work out. He thought Chester was the obvious person for the lovers to frame for the upcoming murder, and I had to explain that Chester wasn’t in the book. I wasn’t sure how the director had gotten permission to use him or why he wanted to.

Somehow word got out (I hadn’t been going around telling anybody) that the author of the book of the unfinished movie was there and I was approached by some people with a mutual acquaintance from the con, who had “some questions,” which were really their theories about what would happen. And then somebody overheard and joined us and started in with their own “questions,” then another person, until finally I’m in the theater listening to theory after theory and it’s wonderful! They had all these creative plot developments based on what had gone before and what they knew but didn’t know they knew about how story works, each one different and perfectly logical - I wish I could remember any of them, but you know how it is with dreams.

Until finally everyone had their say and clamored for me to get up and tell them the “real” story, and I got up to explain that there isn’t a “real” story, that they had each made the real story themselves because that was the whole point -

And woke up, which was good, because they'd have lynched me.

Artistic vision and public requirements don't necessarily synch perfectly. Games can be open-ended. Books and movies require closure.

This, I think, is why fandom thrives on series. You get the satisfactions of closure episode-by-episode, but the ongoing nature of the work invites the sort of active imaginative engagement that breeds fanfic, fanart, and ongoing water cooler discussion of issues. Unfortunately, the creative team can't afford to listen to this sort of thing too much - it's likely to make them self-conscious, tempt them into profitless discussion, distract them, or even potentially open them up to nuisance lawsuits if a fan proposes a storyline similar to one the creators come up with on their own.

It's a shame, because creators so seldom get the satisfaction of hearing their work discussed, or the extreme pleasure of seeing it in action, interacting with the audience. We're a social species. We like feedback. I don't think it's even ego-gratification - well, not all the way down - so much as it is creative satisfaction, and the wonder and surprise of seeing a work you know intimately in a completely different light.

On the other hand, if you're paying too much attention to feedback, you're not moving forward with the next work. So there's that.

Everything's a trade-off.

If you really crave audience reaction, volunteer to do storytime at the library. Just don't overload your schedule with your own work.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Riding Alone into Indian Country

The trouble with Westerns is, that they are too in love with misconceptions about their aesthetic to come to grips with history.

The genre is long overdue for a renaissance. It's probably true that the vein of macho white male stories is pretty much mined out, but that leaves huge numbers of characters, equally macho, but less white and/or less male, with dumbfounding stories to tell.

Consider the story of the man known to his neighbors as (I'm sorry) "Nigger Britt" Johnson.

In 1864, Mr. Johnson was technically a slave, but had a large degree of autonomy, working freight, and was away from home when the Elm Creek Raid (a story that wants telling in itself) blew through, killed his son, and took his wife and two daughters off with him.

The usual pattern of Indian raiding on the Texas frontier at this time was that the Indians would strike, the local home guard unit or other miscellaneous available adult men would try to follow them, the Indians would vanish (often dispersing into terrain that's as difficult and confusing as any on earth), and the pursuers would either come home in a day or two, bitter and frustrated, or find another set of Indians with no connection to the raiders and massacre them to make themselves feel better. In 1864, the home guard units were understaffed, underfunded, and continually being raided for conscription into an increasingly desperate Confederate Army.

So Johnson came back, looked the situation over, and rode off into the west, by himself, armed with a gun whose percussion caps were as likely to misfire as not, because the local manufacturing facilities (i.e. kitchens) couldn't get the right materials, to look for his surviving family.

He got them back, too, as well as some of his white neighbors. There are people who'll tell you he didn't, that that's just a story, but excuse me, when did Reconstruction-era Texas ever go out of its way to invent a story to glorify black people? Never, that's when! And if he didn't personally ransom anybody, nobody can deny that he went out there, when other people with motivation just as great did not, and gave it his best shot.

It's a little hard for a modern reader to comprehend exactly how gutsy this was, because we're no longer raised on Indian atrocity stories. Which in a way is a shame, because although only hearing Indian atrocity stories is bad, alternating the Indian atrocity stories with the white ones is immensely productive. For one thing, many atrocity stories about one side are also, properly told, stories of extreme courage and resourcefulness about the other. A good solid dose of true stories about the savage guerrilla conflicts, no holds barred on either side, called collectively The Indian Wars, is the best corrective I know of to the myth of White Hats vs. Black Hats. If you read what Europeans did to Indians, and Indians did to Europeans, and what subsets of both groups did to other subsets within the same overall group, and how they overlapped and absorbed and spat each other out, you find yourself on a sympathy rollercoaster and eventually wash up on the shores of reality feeling shaky and staring down the evil in your species and realizing, once and for all, that everybody's history is guilty and all we can do is deal with that, admit it, and proceed to do better.

Anyway, from Johnson's point of view he was riding into country teeming with well-equipped, well-organized enemies with no motive not to shoot him on sight, except that they might feel like testing his courage by torturing him first. On the other hand, the tribes of west Texas did also have trading relationships with certain businessmen, known as comancheros, and mostly resident in New Mexico, through which unassimilable hostages were sometimes ransomed. Perhaps he thought he had some potential as a roving comanchero. Perhaps, being from an underclass, he was more willing to think about the motives of the raiders and believed that by bringing strategic thinking (as opposed to relying on brute force and the Natural Rights of White Men, which has continued to plague U.S. military policy into the present day)to bear he could keep his life and regain his family.

Or perhaps he just kept imagining his wife and daughters being gang-raped and couldn't sit still.

The point is, he did this thing, and it was epic, and then once he had everyone back and the war was over he started a freight business, and in 1871 a party of Kiowas out of the reservation in Oklahoma attacked it and killed him and his employees. The teamsters who found him said he had evidently taken up position behind his dead horse and fought to his last bullet. Which is pretty traditionally epic, too.

Especially when you also know the history of Kiowa-Comanche raiding out of Indian country, and how it was premised on the fact that, though these tribes had agreed to peace with the U.S., they had never ever said Word One about peace with Texas, which they weren't up for and considered unreasonable.

And no, The Searchers does not count! Though almost certainly inspired by Johnson's story, nothing starring John Wayne will fill the bill. Black leading man, or no soap. peace with Texas and considered such a thing completely unreasonable. Look into that and you open up another whole box of epic stories.

So where is this guy's blockbuster movie? Seriously?