Tuesday, January 29, 2013

News, and Contingency

Yesterday was Award Day at the American Library Association Convention, and guess what? I haven't read any of the awards or honors.


I'm particularly anxious to read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which took both a Belpre and a Stonewall.

And it should surprise no one that Katherine Paterson landed the Wilder Award. It was never a question of "whether," with her, but of "when."

I no longer kick myself about not having read the award books before the awards are announced. It takes an on-the-ball reader to keep up with the industry as it comes out, and I'm not that person. Wasn't even in my young vigorous days. I'm a serendipitous reader who reads what she finds and finds what she reads - it's all contingency with me. Readers like me are why awards exist to begin with - they increase the contingency of books. Not just the award winners, either. Buzz beforehand increases contingency; the public guessing games of the on-the-ball. Sharing your favorite reads of the year is just so much more urgent in the lead-up to award season.

Another thing came to my mailbox yesterday: an e-mail prodding participants in the Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference in October to get their poster presentations in. I, of course, have no poster and will be going as an interested layman. But I'll be a very interested layman indeed, listening in on the conversations of people whose names became familiar to me in the books and articles I read while researching 11,000 Years Lost. I haven't been able to do avocational archeology since the Health Crap really kicked in, but by golly, I can sit in an air-conditioned lecture room with the best of them! Just thought I'd mention it here to increase the contingency factor. I'm sure many more people would like to go to this, than would find out about it in the normal courses of their daily lives.

And though ALA is all about books, it is an interesting fact that the floors of scholarly conferences are littered with more story ideas to trip over than those of literary ones. Because what you're coming across in the floor of a convention that's about books is ideas that other people have already turned into books of the sort you want to write. Scholarly conferences are all about the ideas no one has thought to put into your medium yet.

In other words, they're vast smorgasbords of yummy, yummy inspiration.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ducks Discover America

When I was researching 11,000 Years Lost, specifically when I was looking into the floral and faunal assemblages of the period so my hunter/gatherers could be hunting and gathering, avoiding and encountering, the right range of living things, I saw a book on a top shelf called Ducks Discover America. Oh, boy! A natural history of ducks in the Western Hemisphere? How and when and why they evolved, migrated, emigrated, immigrated, mingled with Old World Ducks around the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, interacted with other species including humans - what could be better?

When I managed, with much labor, to elevate myself to the top shelf (short in a tall world; life is rough), that wasn't what it was. I don't remember what it was; only I had misread the title and it was no good to me at all.

But I wanted to read the book that belongs to that title. And my desire has not diminished.

Some ornithologist/paleontologist go write it, please.

I'll wait.

Not patiently, but I'll wait.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Late today, because the computer was sick - needed a new power supply. I've been writing a blog post in my head all day, but it seems to be two posts intertwined and I'm not sure I can separate them out enough. And it's late and I feel crappy, so I'll take the shortest component I can tease out.

I've remarked more than once on the difference between brains and their capacities at different periods of our lives. The advantage of the mature brain is that, though it has trouble learning brand new things, if it was trained well during its early years, it doesn't have to; it can recognize commonalities between this new thing it's doing and that old thing that it's done before, a hundred different times, in a hundred different guises.

But I was reminded again this weekend that you can't afford to get cocky about that. Not, at any rate, in any creative activity. Because each time you do it is different.

In this case, it was the slacks. I cut the waistband too small. As far as I could (or can) tell, I cut it exactly the same size as I did last time I made that pattern, and I can still wear the slacks I made that time; but I could barely get into the new ones and they would not have been comfortable to wear. Either I'd marked the pattern wrong, or something was different about the fabric, or - something. This morning I recut them (this is why I always buy at least half an extra yard of fabric; it leaves me with a varied stack of remnants too small to make a garment of, but it gives me lots of room to make mistakes) and now they fit, at last.

But I've found the same thing with other projects. This or that rhetorical trick, structural element, viewpoint, whatever, worked last time I wrote a story; but it won't work for this one. I can fight it, or I can try something different. I worked well with this editor on that book, but she's not right for this one. The greatest sonneteer in the world will write a bad sonnet if the poem in question is really a haiku.

You've got to work with what you've got, not with what you used last time.

Just because you know how to do something, doesn't mean you'll do it right this time.

The mature brain can't make much in the way of new synapses; but it can still be flexible.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Mobbing the Ghost

Another month, another Fortean Times full of potential waiting to be developed.

This month, I find an article on "ghost mobs," detailing the common 19th-century English occurrence of huge mobs of people on the lookout for ghosts - in cemeteries, in supposedly haunted neighborhoods connected to infamous crimes, outside buildings plagued by poltergeists, and so on.

Clearly related to other forms of mass hysteria such as UFO or cryptid flaps, the significant features of these ghost mobs were that they were overwhelmingly made up of poor people, that they focused on ghosts, and that they caused a good deal of trouble to the police. When 2000 people show up outside a single supposedly haunted house, it's a serious hindrance to traffic even before people start picking each other's pockets, drinking, and jostling for the best view of nothing at all.

Of course very few of these people ever even thought they got to see the ghost that attracted them. In 1834, a party of men climbed over a wall into a cemetery to confront the ghost, which turned out to be a woman guarding her son's grave against bodysnatchers - which raises the question, What if some of those supposed ghosts were in fact bodysnatchers? Very bad for business, ghost mobs.

Some of the mobs happened in response to a hoax - the classic "kids in sheets" meme seems to have its origin here - and some ended in tragedy. In 1803, a bricklayer, dressed in his trade's traditional garb of white linen pants, white flannel vest, and a white apron, had to come and go from work through a supposedly haunted area and was molested by curiosity seekers, some of whom were deterred when he threatened to punch them in the head, but others of whom, in one of those terrible combinations of alcohol, guns, bragging, and mass psychosis, killed him. His killers were ultimately pardoned, which I can't help considering a gross miscarriage of justice, despite the undoubted truth that no one participating in such a mob can be said to be entirely in his right mind. No one made them bring a gun to a ghost hunt!

Ghosts or no ghosts, we have the makings of quite a head-spinning mystery or thriller here. Whether it's a historical depends on exactly which elements one finds most intriguing. We have plenty of mobs, mass hysteria, and tragic juxtapositions of guns and alcohol in modern times to work with, and bringing the bricklayer's case forward 200 years might be illuminating. However, what I see when I look at this article is an historical mystery, beginning with a couple of bodysnatchers serving the medical cadaver trade staging a haunting in one place to draw attention away from their areas of operation, and ending with one of them in the dissection theater himself, having lost control of his own hoax.

Because no one can ride a mob. The mob rides everyone.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Yesterday was a good day on many fronts. I felt like myself, kept an ordinary schedule, and finished those slacks, making several notes that will make the next pair easier and even better-fitting.I did things, I learned things, I ate properly, I barely felt dizzy at all.

Today I'm reverting a bit. But I'm still getting a little something done on a couple of projects. Plus, writing this post. Small as it is, it's more than I did last week.

If you show up every day, eventually, you get stuff done.

It's a surprisingly easy principle to forget. So this is your latest reminder.

Excuse me, I'm going to go be productive while I've got the chance.

In an unprecedented move, I put the zipper in on the first try! Yay me!

I then tore the fabric while taking the basting stitches out.

So time to add a tag: Life is rough. ;D

(Don't worry; it's not a big tear, so I did my vague imitation of darning on it and nobody who isn't looking close will notice. And nobody will look close. I'd have given up sewing long ago if I couldn't assure myself that nobody will close! Books are different. I want somebody to look close at those.)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Don't Worry About It

Incidentally, don't let posts like the last one worry you unduly. People are out there committing great deeds with worse Health Crap than I've got. People with diabetes, HIV, and cancer envy me, because my incurable disease is a nuisance, while theirs is busy shortening their lives. Only mine is - you know - mine, and the times it prevents me from doing what I want to naturally loom larger to me than the times it doesn't. If nothing else, this fuels my escapism, which is a large motivator for literature.

Escapism needn't be a lazy, unthinking quality. It has, in fact, fueled a lot of hard work through the centuries. As Edmond Dantes's desire to escape the Chateau d'If prompted hours of steady work scraping rock with a spoon, the desire to escape disappointment, discomfort, and particularly that great scourge of mankind, boredom, prompts us to obey our divine natures and create despite the sucking quagmire of daily survival. Sometimes we create things others can share and sometimes we horde it to ourselves, and often the people around us will criticize our escape activities. But they have their escapes, too, which aren't any less, or more, silly than our own. The desire to escape gravity prompts great myths of flight, soaring poetry, practical designs for load-bearing balloons and heavier-than-air vehicles - and plunges off of cliffs to grisly death.

We all have the right to our own particular form of escapism. How much good that right does us is partly up to us, and partly chance.

Whatever it is - go for it when you can. That way, when you can't, you won't have those lost chances to brood over.

I'll be more cheerful when it warms up. Probably.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Scaling The Walls of Perception

Once in awhile I just have to face defeat.

My particular brand of Health Crap involves what I can only think of as an altered state. I experience the world at one remove, my thought processes slow down, and sometimes I get stuck with contradictory sensory input. For instance, one day not long ago I ate lunch at a table that I could clearly see was tilted at about 20 degrees, though my sense of touch, and the fact that my plate stayed put, indicated that it was level. Other times, I can feel myself drifting to left or right while walking, though I'm lined up visually on floor tiles or some other objectively straight indicator and know I'm adhering to a straight line. (You can imagine how difficult it is to sew like this; those slacks still aren't finished!)

Given my contention that weird phenomena are real phenomena rendered weird by the limitations of our perceptions, I ought to be able to do something literary with such gross changes in sensory processing, so intimately observed. Because the focus of my attention must shift to minutiae which are normally handled by autonomous systems, at such times it should, theoretically, be possible to perceive things continually happening, but normally overlooked. But what?

That's the sticking point. Since my experience of this state is a constant exercise in frustration, blocking me from getting anything done, it's hard for me to rephrase the situation to myself as an opportunity to see the normally unseen, or to imagine anything worth seeing. I'm too eager to get my normal perceptions back to dwell imaginatively in vertigo land for any longer than my body forces me to live here.

I am way too close to this idea to do more than to recognize that there must be one around.

Either danger, or wonder, must live at this fringe of reality in order to engage the character and the reader. I lean toward danger because I can't appreciate wonder when I don't dare turn my head lest it fall off or go spinning uncontrollably out the door. But it has to be a slow danger, because quick ones require head-turning. The involvement of weird angles implies some incomprehensible Lovecraftian horror, but it ought to be more small-scale than that. Something frightening, or glorious, or both, on a personal scale.

What about it? Anybody got a notion what it might be?

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Secret of Life in a Nutshell

Goodness, what a short week! But I've gotten two queries out, should have a new pair of slacks that fit by this evening, and made some progress putting together the necessary submission package to make Widespot available for download at the hosting sight where I'd like to see it, and where it's most likely to find its proper audience.

Queries I've griped about before. One afternoon of sewing resulted in successful installation of a single zipper. And the submission process for the hosting site is proving to be one big learning curve, as it involves fitting a lot of information into a maximum of 15 .jpg files and one .png - and we don't have Photoshop. The minimalistic photo editor we do have is not great at producing montages, which is the only way to fit all the information into the space.

And once again I am struck by the unity of experience. Whatever you want to do in this world, you either go out and get the skills and tools necessary to do it, or you decide you don't want it that much and do without. Slacks that fit, books in print, a round-the-world trip in your own yacht, it's all the same basic process.

This is the advantage of the mature brain, this recognition of underlying unity and the knowledge that you have the skill of acquiring skills. If, in fact, you used your youthful flexibility of brain to learn how to learn. If you didn't, you're in a bind. Learning gets physically harder as we get older, unless we've been learning right along and didn't let the ruts dig in too deeply.

Odds are poor that I will ever be good at translating two dimensional figures into three dimensions at this point, and therefore zippers will remain difficult. The synapses that would have been necessary are no longer available, probably occupied by an axiom of story logic. But the skill of making notes to myself, of puzzling out instructions, of patiently ripping out mistakes and trying again - yeah, I've got that. I don't have Photoshop, but I have PhotoScape and the will to experiment and the capacity to judge a point of diminishing returns in an endeavor.

You know how to tell what you really want?

Look at how much time you spend working on getting it.

Slacks that fit. Access to the correct audience. I will get them. If not one way, then another.