Sunday, March 31, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: The Alternative Life

One reason I read, and write, and play the kinds of games I do is that one life doesn't seem like enough. No one can do everything she wants to do; and most things one would like to do have either long patches of unrewarding dullness, steep learning curves, or circumstantial limitations like, say, physical impossibility. I can't live in the Pleistocene, I don't have the temperament for academia, and my body is being a bugger about letting me garden, let alone do avocational archeology which is theoretically within my reach. Like everyone else, I have to focus on overcoming the dullness, learning curves, and circumstantial limitations of the one thing that matters most. Which is storytelling. Which encompasses all other possible lives, as it happens.

The conventional wisdom says: "Write what you know." But how boring would that be? I say, "Write what you'd like to know," and then you have an excuse to go find out.

So you decide to write about who you'd like to be. Say, someone capable of sailing solo around the world. Not in a race or anything. Just sailing, between the lonely sea and the sky, with flying fishes jumping on board in certain latitudes, going ashore in Tahiti and Singapore and remote Arctic islands and it's all very pleasant, and gives you an excuse to read up on Tahiti and Singapore and remote Arctic islands, but while you're reading up you realize that an endless travelogue makes poor reading and the parts of the research that draw you on, that excite you, perversely that make the concept attractive, aren't pleasant at all. A story is about characters in conflict. If you want this alternate life of yours to be worth reading about, you'll have to disrupt your alternate self's good time.

So you start with all the reasons you do not, in fact, sail solo around the world, and figure out how your alternate self copes with them, and why it's worth it to her.

For starters, you probably wouldn't find this fantasy compelling enough to write about if you couldn't sail, but odds are good you're not a competent enough sailor to go solo. Your alternate self must be or she wouldn't be doing it - would she? Maybe, if she had compelling enough circumstances; if she didn't expect to be alone, or if something is pushing her away from her native shores hard enough that death by incompetence in the watery deep seems preferable.

You probably don't have enough money, either, or any way to make your round-the-world tour self-supporting. Your character must have one or the other or she wouldn't be doing it - would she? Maybe. What if, instead of being richer than you, she's poorer? What if that push factor is enough to make stealing a yacht (fully stocked) a good enough short term solution that she decided to postpone thinking about the long-term?

Whoa, wait a minute, you don't want to be a thief!

Okay, maybe she doesn't steal it exactly. Maybe she salvages it. Maybe she's out in a little dinghy, the only place she can get away from - Who? What? Something terrible - an abusive family situation? The snowballing effects of some small mistake, made in the wrong place at the wrong time, drawing the attention of the wrong person? Think about that later. She's in her dinghy on the morning after a storm and there's the yacht, all its lines slack, drifting but sound, and she hails and gets no answer. It's abandoned, or maybe there's a corpse washing around in the hold, or maybe the only inhabitant is a seasick cat. But there's food. There's charts. There's fishing tackle. It's a simple enough rig and a small enough yacht that she thinks she could figure out how to handle it alone. And then she could just sail away from all her troubles...

But of course the troubles follow her. Either physically, if it's a thriller; or mentally, because we don't leave our troubles behind, we cling to them even as we run away. If she was in an abusive relationship she has the scars of that. If she's running from someone, someone must be chasing her. If she's made one mistake, she's likely to make another. And that yacht, though I believe legally hers by right of salvage, wasn't always abandoned or empty. Someone else was sailing her for a reason, and is no longer doing so for a reason, and those reasons can present their own challenges in addition to the ones she brings with her. And of course, there's the ocean to deal with. Being alone in a storm. Seasickness. Access to fresh water. The endless work of sailing, which is bound to entail more than you or she at first envision. Fetching up in foreign parts with no money and no passport.

And by now she's not an alternate you anymore. She's something much better - she's herself. A character. Someone who can give you an entree into the alternate life you can't live, and be more interesting than you.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Fresh Eyes

Warning: Another sewing analogy.

So, there's this blouse. It's a pattern I've made several times before, but I made a cutting error and had to let it sit for about a week while my backbrain worked on a way around it. I got back on it this week, solved the problem all right, and yesterday I was all but finished - just the buttons and buttonholes to do. Buttonholes are hard in themselves, but my machine has a wonderful automatic buttonholer that makes them much, much easier. So the only stressful part of buttonholes for me is cutting them - there's always a danger that you'll lose control and the buttonhole will be bigger than the buttonhole stitch intended to contain it. But this concern is largely obviated by inserting a pin to block the seamripper (or whatever) from going too far.

Guess what happens if your pin is bent, though?

So on the verge of finishing what was going to be a very cute blouse, I ripped a buttonhole right through the front edge, ruining the whole thing. Unless I could think of a way to fix it. No way could my limited darning and patching skills cover it up, nor make the cut area strong enough to hold together under the strain of daily wear. But I didn't want to give up on it, so I dropped it, did something else, and when Damon got home I griped to him about it. Damon knows about as much about sewing as I do about programming, but he gripes to me about programming problems so I get to gripe about sewing problems to him. Fair's fair. He took it, turned it over a few times, started to suggest something, realized it wouldn't work, and than asked if I could edge the blouse front with a ribbon or something, to disguise the patched area and restore structural integrity to the blouse. Which made me realize that I might could; and as it happens I even have some double-fold tape in the right color to do it (unless I decide a contrasting color would look better. Hmmm. And I might want to do the bottom and sleeves the same way).

And this is why humans have that annoying habit of griping to other people about problems they can have no realistic expectation of solving. Obviously, I would have preferred to have griped to someone who could sew; but as it happens, a pair of fresh eyes was all I needed, not a level of expertise. I do the same thing with him and his programming gripes sometimes. Mostly I can only make sympathetic noises, but sometimes I'll ask an intelligent question that will help him see his way clear. If I could program, I might come up with better questions more often and if he could sew, he might have been able to offer helpful advice in implementing the solution to optimal effect, but what we do for each other is better than nothing and good enough.

This is why authors join critique groups, team with writing partners, and swap manuscripts with friends. Such arrangements work best among people in the same field. The author of a book for children and the author of an adult romance may not understand a lot of each other's problems, and a writer of biography could find writers of fiction frustratingly focused on all the wrong things. But those who write children's books may also read romances, writers of fiction often love biography, and a problem is a problem is a problem.

It is not fair to give a manuscript to a non-writer, or a sketch to a non-artist, and expect a useful critique. Don't do that to them. But listening to problems, soluble or not, is part of the social contract. Creative problems are like any other problems, and a non-specialist is as likely to be of service with them as with any other kind of problem in which he has no particular expertise.

And if not, you can at least get feedback in the form of sympathetic noises.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Rat Hard vs. Driving Hard

Once, I had a year from hell. So did everyone around me. That was one of the things that made it so hellish.

I had to finally learn to drive during that year, because Damon was too sick to do it and we couldn't afford to be dependent on our friends - who were also having hellish years and none of whom lived within a mile of us - for rides to the doctor. I found it enormously difficult, but I operated on the presumption that if I had to do something, I could do it, so I took driving lessons.

During the early part of that year, our cats, who are the worst hunters in the world, double-teamed a rat, chased it all over the house, and mortally wounded it. This was all deduced from forensic evidence - I had to clean up the rat blood. At first we assumed that the rat had eventually gotten away, but in a few days we realized that it had been mortally wounded. And died. Somewhere in the downstairs hall closet where Damon keeps his comic book boxes.

Damon at this time was bedridden, so while he slept I got into old clothes and rubber gloves, gathered "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction," and started taking the closet apart. Cleaning up deceased animals has always been Damon's job because I am a wimp, but I told myself I had to do this, so I could do it, so I gritted my teeth and got on with it.

And then I found the rat. And I couldn't.

I tried. Honest, I did. But it was as if a physical force field went up between me and it. I tried till I cried and I could not make myself do it. I couldn't even make myself use one of the long implements, much less reach into the closet with my rubber-gloved hands. After the first glimpse, I couldn't make myself look into the closet. I finally had to admit to myself that I had reached the limits of my strength and there was nothing to do but ask someone else to do the job I couldn't.

So I called M, our old housemate, who is completely unreliable about daily things like taking his turn at the dishes and getting his junk out of the high-traffic area and showing up on time for - anything - but who is completely reliable about responding to anyone he can interpret as a damsel in distress. M, I knew, would be delighted to clean up a dead rat so he could be my hero, if he happened to be at home. Which he was not. And his wife, who might or might not have been able to deal with a dead rat under normal circumstances, was home with the baby and a cold. But his brother happened to have dropped in on her, and he cheerfully came and cleared out the rat for me and I never had to look at or smell the thing again. And I had a new term in my personal vocabulary. A thing that is "rat hard" is too hard for me to do, even when I have to, and when I run up against that, then there's no point beating myself up about it. I just have to find another way.

The day after I discovered my limits that way, I had a driving lesson. We were getting down to the wire on the number of lessons I had left, and the instructor was teaching me to parallel park. This is a crucial skill to learn when driving in Texas, because if you can do it, you'd pretty much have to run over somebody to fail the rest of the test, and if you fail that, you fail the whole thing. Parallel parking is the first item in the test procedure and if you fail it they stop the test right there and you can go home to practice parallel parking some more. So we were out there in the empty parking lot with the cones and the imaginary Mercedes on either side and the problem was that I can't see straight.

It was before I learned why I can't see straight, but I'd known for years that I can't and it's one of the reasons I'd never bothered getting my license. However, I'd been walking under the influence of this peculiarity for most of my life and I found that most of my compensatory habits served me just as well in the car as when walking - until it came time to go in reverse. I was hopeless at going backwards. I couldn't tell when I was straight, I couldn't tell when I was turning, I couldn't tell where the bumper was, and I hit one or the other imaginary Mercedes every time. We spent half an hour just working on reversing and I just couldn't do it right.

At which point I put my head down on the steering wheel and told the instructor about the rat, ending the story with: "But this isn't like that. This is something I can learn to do."

And eventually I did do it, though it'd be a bit much to say I learned how to parallel park. I took me three tries to pass the driving test and I still can't line myself up parallel to and within the correct distance of the curb without someone outside the car giving me hand signals. In the eight years since then I've parallel parked "in the wild" exactly once - but I did it without hitting the other cars and that was all I asked of myself.

So that was another addition to my personal vocabulary. Impossibly steep learning curves are only "driving hard," and at the end of a horrible spell of failing and trying again and crying with frustration and failing and trying again and failing and crying and failing eventually, if I don't throw in the towel and declare defeat, I will get it done.

So the first question I ask myself when faced with something that's too hard is, Is it rat hard, or only driving hard? Because if it's rat hard, I need to stop wasting time and find the way around it; but if it's driving hard, it's time to move on to the second question; which is, How bad do I want it? Is it worth the effort and frustration and stress of learning to do it? Because if it's not, I need to stop wasting time working at it; but if it is, I need to get on with it.

I have never met a creative problem that was more than "driving hard."

Whether this story and this distinction do you any good, I don't know. Here they are for what they're worth.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Let's Play High Concept!

Back when I first started writing queries the "high concept" pitch was in vogue. People were seriously advised to strip our fiction down to one simple idea comparing it to something else. The classic high concept pitch is the one Gene Roddenberry used for Star Trek: "Wagon Train, in space!" If you really want to absent yourself and all personal vision from the pitch, it will consist of two titles of two works you had nothing to do with, with the word "meets" in the middle.

I'm pretty sure the exclamation point is de rigeur when delivering high concept. No one will take you seriously without it.

This struck me at the time, and strikes me even more now, as a silly way to pitch a story. (And I'm not the only one; nor is the popular conception of High Concept really what it's about, according to this article which you can read after you've finished with me.) If the result is an accurate summation of the story, then the story is not original; and if it isn't, then it's misleading and that can't be a good idea.

It's not a bad party game, though, and many a great, or at least a good, piece of work has started in playtime, so let's see what we get

I think someone has already done Jane Eyre in space, but I can't think who. If not, someone should. And follow it up with Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff would of course be an alien. Or possibly an android.

The Hunger Games meets The Princess Diaries!

Star Wars meets Anna Karenina!

Actually, Star Wars meets Oedipus Rex is just sitting there waiting to happen, says one who 'shipped Luke and Leia after the first movie (by which I do not mean The Fandom Menace) and isn't ashamed of it.

Pride and Prejudice meets The Big Sleep. There are more similarities in technique between Austen and Chandler than you'd think, or than (probably) either would cop to.

Twilight meets Jaws. Okay, now I'm being gratuitously mean. I haven't read or seen either and have no desire to.

Cinderella meets Bluebeard! And ultimately kicks his ass, I hope.

Got to go get ready for Game Day, but that should get the ball rolling, I hope.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Joy of Nitpicking

So I'm reading for the Andre Norton award (and I'm not going to get them all read), and I'm on China Mieville's Railsea, and though I'm having no difficulty getting through the story I'm having a couple of problems with it. The relevant one at the moment is in buying into the premise, which is (roughly) a vast sea of intertwining railroad tracks "sailed" by trains fulfilling all the functions of ships - pirates, navy, merchants, and "molers," who hunt the gigantic burrowing animals that tunnel, hunt, and breach through the ground below the rails, which is qualitatively different in some undefined way from the "hardlands" on which people actually live. For the sake of the story I can deal with that, but it keeps bugging me that burrowing animals like the great southern moldywarp, apparently analogous to sperm whales (since one of them is standing in for Moby Dick) breach all over the place and leave molehills and have room to live and hunt without breaking the tracks.

So far the whole business of track maintenance is handwaved by references to "angels," mysterious trains that no one ever more than glimpses that fix tracks when no one is looking; but even if we grant that (and I am hoping that some information that makes it less handwavey comes along in the second half of the book), it should be common, in a great moldywarp hunt, for one to come up under the tracks and wreck them and the trains on them. They must come up very close to them, or the molers couldn't pursue them in their jollytrains, since the dirt itself is much too dangerous to get onto. Even if the moldywarp takes damage in the process, the tactic should be worthwhile, as breaking the track before the train can shunt (another point handwaved a lot), and in particular breaking a bunch of related tracks near their point of intersection, would cause the train to derail and turn the molers from hunters into prey.

This point alone is enough to keep me from voting for this book, especially in the stiffness of this year's competition.

Coincidentally, gaming group e-mail this morning contains a message, from my husband, discussing discrepancies in the description of a kind of magical construct we recently dealt with and the information describing how to construct it. We were going to sell the remnants as scrap metal, but with these discrepancies we have no idea how much of the scrap metal we have. The problem should be familiar to most gamers, "D&D economics" having plagued the simulationist end of the player spectrum since the infancy of role-playing games.

Hand-waving this sort of thing by saying "It's only a game/story" or "It's magic" or "Just roll with it" is common, but it is not adequate. Science fiction and fantasy, whatever the medium, attracts a large number of people who actively enjoy figuring out how things work - engineers, programmers, actual scientists. Not just at the physical end, either. Practitioners and enthusiasts of the soft sciences and the arts like to see linguistics and cultures that work. An artist who makes kinetic sculptures is as likely to be a nitpicker on a mechanical point as an engineer, because the jobs overlap.

Okay, there's a point of diminishing returns in worrying about fiddly details; but a lot of people give up long before that. And yes, a big chunk of the audience doesn't care. But those who do, care a lot. Disrespecting this more demanding segment of the audience seems counterproductive to me, as they are also the most loyal and dedicated audience one could ask for.

The most effective tactic, I have found, for the creator who doesn't have the expertise or patience to work out the details of how some essential part of his vision would work in the real world, is to subcontract the labor. A wise DM who has a geologist continually criticizing his dungeons will make talking to this person a routine part of his planning. "You know what would be cool? An obsidian dungeon with a big lake in the middle with a whole lost civilization of giant kobolds. But I don't know how that would come about, and wouldn't the tunnels be too slick to walk in?" Next thing you know, the player's drawing diagrams and talking about water tables and lava tubes and suddenly you have A Better Idea, and you put the dungeon together and instead of constantly having to interrupt the game to answer this guy's objections on the fly, he's eagerly pushing the rest of the party through a much more improbable scenario than you would ever have come up with on your own. Reduced labor and stress for you, increased fun for him, everybody wins.

Alternatively, for those of us working for larger audiences, identify the least plausible part of your vision, and attack it head on. Research the stuffings out of it and find a way to show it working, vividly and immediately. Make all the visible detail convincing enough, plausible enough, ordinary enough, and most of all consistent enough, and the audience will take the parts you don't show on faith, or work them out for themselves. Fandom is full of people producing starship schematics from hints collected throughout the lifetime of a series, resolving minor discrepancies, and having a blast doing it.

This advice is most applicable for fantasists, but it applies in the mainstream, too. How many TV shows have thrown you right out of the plot by their reliance on magical computers, inaccurate history, absurd biology, or impossible physics? If you like a genre or a show enough otherwise you'll willingly suspend your belief by its neck until it's dead, if necessary, but the creators need to make that as easy and fun as possible for you. If it's more work than fun to believe in a situation, the audience won't do it.

Besides, the Better Idea tends to lurk like a moldywarp under layers of lazy imagery. Digging down to them is well worthwhile.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Work is Not Me

For reasons that will be clear to anyone who goes back a few days and reads the comments, I've disabled anonymous commenting for the foreseeable future. I don't much mind the trickle of commercial spam, but harassment spam is too tiresome to deal with. Even the effort of deleting it seems like too much reward for the person seeking attention through it.

At first blush, this looks like a hazard of publication, but that's not, in fact, the case. I've been dealing - or, more accurately, failing to find a way to deal - with this kind of person for my entire life. I've never been in a school, or a workforce of more than six people, where I didn't attract at least one, and I won't pretend to understand what motivates them, but none has ever found me through the medium of my published work. Some responses to that work have been problematic, but they have all been relevant to the work, and most are unambiguously positive.

And yes, I'm including negative reviews in that tally. As long as a review focuses honestly on the work (rather than on the reviewer's cleverness or the personal life of the author/performer/artist/whatever or some other nonsense), a negative review is better than no review, especially from a reviewer well-known to the audience. Some of the most useful movie reviews I've ever had access to were written by a local journalist whose taste differs so radically from mine, and so distinctly from my husband's, that a bad review from him was better than a rave from someone with whom we were not familiar. "Bob Polunsky hates this movie and thinks the twist ending makes no sense. Let's go!" Conversely, if he had no fault to find, we'd stay away, saving ourselves from an hour and a half to two hours of tedium and the movie from the bad word-of-mouth we might otherwise have given it. Since we stopped seeing his reviews movie-going has been a lot more of a crapshoot.

And honest negative criticisms of your work have value; either by pointing out a real weakness that you had overlooked, or by forcing you to think consciously about your choices. Far fewer conscious choices go into my work than you'd think from reading this blog, when I am necessarily in cool mode and deconstructing a holistic process. And though some unconscious choices are gloriously right and much better than I could have made had I been thinking about it, others are simply lazy habit and need to be questioned. Even a criticism which, in the end, I decide is invalid from the perspective of the target audience may give me an insight into the peripheral audience that will prove useful later.

As for personal contact with the target audience - if you keep it in perspective, that can be glorious. In the literary world especially, the celebrity stalker is far rarer than the nurturing and enthusiastic fan. It was cheering to go into my reader this morning and see Kathleen Duey's response to those who have been responding to her recently. Kathleen is an excellent writer who deserves all good things, and who has labored far too long and too hard in relative obscurity, so it is good to see her audience feeding her spirit.

The person who pretends to be the audience in order to attempt to poison the spring of well-being is, thank goodness, an anomaly at the professional level. At the amateur level, alas - at the level of Tumblr and fanfic and the platform-specific communities arranged around particular interests - they are all too common. But that's not a function of publication with these various platforms, but of the nature of human community.

You cannot build a snake-proof garden. If a person wants to be a jackass, he'll find a way to be a jackass; but work interests him not at all unless he can find in it an avenue to damage the workman. He has some personal agenda, some (usually imaginary) status to build and maintain, some toxic self-image that demands to be fed the bad feelings of others. Work done in a professional spirit (and one may do amateur work in a professional spirit; it is not the exchange of money that governs this) insulates the author as a person, so their hunting grounds are offices and playgrounds, newsgroups and social networks, clubs and classrooms, where they can manipulate the environment and take best advantage of the social virtues - patience, kindness, the desire to be fair - to corner their victims.

I have seen people who shrink from rejection of the work as if it were this kind of personal assault; and I have met people who hesitate even to seek publication for fear of - who knows what. I can't tell you how to avoid personal bullies, since I obviously haven't learned how to do it myself, though at least they can no longer hurt me, just waste my time and try my patience. But I can tell you that you needn't fear them getting at you through your work. Your work is not you. It is important, and it's made of pieces of you, but it is not you. Surgically remove your ego from the process, and you will soon find that, rather than exposing you, it shelters you.

Mind, that surgical removal may be difficult at first, but you'll never get past a certain point till you do it, no matter how brilliant you are. And your work will improve, because when you stop seeing the excision of your excess adverbs as the excision of part of your soul it gets much easier to go through with it; while ceasing to fear the exposure of your deepest self enables you to touch the hands of people you will never meet and make them feel less alone.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Who Are You?

What's the worst thing that ever happened to you?

Who were you before that?

Who are you now?

How did that transformation happen?

You don't have to tell me (I'm certainly not going to tell you mine!), but you should tell yourself. Because that's your character arc. If you don't understand your own, how can you be sure you understand those of your characters? And you're already using it anyway, just as you use everything in your life when writing because your life is the handiest mine of material.

I don't know why the elements of a story are called arcs. I should try to find out. When I use the term in presentations I spontaneously delineate a curved line in the air with my finger, and I tend to think of them as structural arches holding the story up, but I don't know how the term originates.

Character arcs aren't absolutely necessary for telling a good story, but most modern fiction includes them, or pretends to, as a matter of course. It's one of the artistic problems that serial fiction has - writers and audiences feel incomplete if there's no character arc, so the writers of superhero comics, sitcoms, cartoons, and soap operas write stories involving them - but the series bible doesn't change, so the next episode puts the character right back where he was before the life-changing events of the story. Wise artists in serial formats accept this and use it to reinforce the character - Charlie Brown has learned the hard way not to trust Lucy, but he can never resist making another try for that football, and each annual football event through the run of Peanuts revolved around his increasingly elaborate mental gymnastics in overcoming the lessons learned in past football seasons. If he ever held true to his intention of not kicking the football this time, he'd grow up too much to be Charlie Brown any more.

So you need to make your peace with character arcs - you'll be writing them, or writing around them, for your entire career. And the fact is, you're probably going to be writing around your own for the duration, too.

By tradition, the first novel is expected to be autobiographical, and a lot of writers never get past it. They have one story to tell and then they stop; or they think of new ways to tell the same story, in different kinds of fancy dress. Which may be artistically sterile, or may drive an increasing richness and subtlety of imagination. That's up to you.

You have more than one character arc in your life, though. The worst thing that ever happens to you may not have happened yet, and isn't that a cheery thought? But in addition to that - your character arcs intersect with those of everyone around you. One reason I'm not telling you mine is that it's inextricably bound up with that of my husband and I'm not discussing the details of my marriage with the entire internet. So when you examine your own character arc, ask yourself about those of the other people in your life. Odds are good that the time you got hit by a car was the start of the driver's character arc, too; your divorce had a profound effect on the life trajectories of your children; the bully you learned to walk away from needs a character arc if she's not to be stuck in bully mode for the rest of her life. And those character arcs are a part of you, too.

Where does that take you?

And if you're thinking that all this is too much, your character arc hurts too much for artistic treatment, go read some Nancy Werlin. I don't care what your character arc is, it does not hurt more than hers, and she's been dealing with that for several books now.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

And Then What?

So, let's say you've gotten your work out there in your preferred venue. Let's say it's even moderately successful by whatever yardstick is used to measure success in that venue. (I would advise you to be flexible in your concept of success, as it will need redefining many times over the course of your career and it's best to be prepared.) What happens then?

Well, then you get responses. Or you don't. You get paid. Or you don't. You get asked to do things. Or you - no, wait, that's one of those sure things. You will be asked to do things, by total strangers, and all of these things will come at some cost to yourself. After all, you're published now! You must be ready and willing to give workshops, critique work in the same medium (or, sometimes, in a totally different medium), to advise other people who want to publish in the same venue, to mediate for other people who want to publish in the same venue because you have connections now - right? You must, in fact, be obliged to be available to anybody, anytime, and be glad to do it because it's "exposure"?

Do not, ever, fall into the trap of working for free, or of paying someone else to allow you to do work.

By "free," I do not mean "not paid in cold hard cash." As I've discussed before, cash is only the form of recompense that we can buy groceries with; it is not the only form of payment. You can get paid in satisfaction; in genuine effective publicity (by which I do not mean a chance to sell your books directly to schoolchildren); in prestige; in an equivalent exchange of work; in the pleasure it affords you to perform the service; in many, many potential forms. Only you can decide what currency will best recompense you for the service required.

The pleasure of being useful is a real and valuable one. None of us makes it through this world without help, and we all have people to whom we are grateful; but no one enjoys feeling like the recipient of charity. Having received considerable generous help from playtesters in making Widespot, I started hanging around the creator feedback forum, a part of the board I'd never entered till I needed it, hoping to return the favor - not to the same individuals, necessarily, but to people like them, and like me. "Paying forward" through volunteer work is an effective tactic for improving yourself and your community, if done in a sincere and generous spirit.

Nothing spoils paying forward like having it treated as a debt. If someone starts a thread asking for advice in making a neighborhood, I may download that neighborhood, playtest, and share my advice as someone who has done similar work. If someone contacts me and asks me, as someone who has done similar work that he has admired, to download a neighborhood and poke around in it and give him the benefit of my experience, I am fairly likely to do so if my life isn't crazy busy, because this sort of thing is done only by a small portion of the community and odds are good he's having trouble getting useful feedback. If I don't think I can afford the time to do so (bearing in mind that this is play that edges toward being work) I will at least try to give him references that should help him accomplish his purpose. If someone sends me an e-mail with an attachment demanding that I look at his neighborhood unless I'm a stuck-up bitch - well. I've got a delete button and I'm not afraid to use it.

I'm less generous with my writing critiques and advice; but that's a matter of supply and demand. The demand for advice on both writing as a craft and writing for publication is high, but it is not higher than the supply. Educating would-be writers is a full-fledged industry, and if you don't have the research skills necessary to tap into it, your first step is to get them. Generally speaking, if I don't know you personally, I don't want to read your manuscript; but I don't overvalue my time or my expertise. I agreed to mentor a high school student with writing ambitions last year, I've been in short-term critique groups in which we were all trading advice for advice, I've been involved in workshops for which I've been paid in free convention memberships, and I've been paid my school-visit rates for workshopping.

Among children's writers, the rule of thumb is that the less a school district pays you, the worse your school visit will be. If they want you, they will pay for you; and the more they pay for you, the more likely they are to prepare the classes so that your talk will do them some good, give you bathroom and lunch breaks, and not spring surprises on you like agreeing to four sessions with small groups in the library while actually arranging five sessions with large groups in the auditorium. (Yes, it happens.) If they pay you, they will treat you as someone whose time has value. If you don't, they will treat you like dirt.

That doesn't mean you should never, ever agree to do a free school visit. If you want to present for free in the poor district the day after you present for pay in the rich one; or at your own child's school where you know the librarian; or to polish your presentation and gain confidence, by all means work something out. But if someone approaches you to do one, and says the budget is limited, name a figure and offer to negotiate. If he wants you, he'll negotiate. If he goes away and never comes back, he didn't want you. And if he starts poormouthing about how you'd get a chance to sell your books and you should do it For the Community, you don't want him.

The people who try to pay you in guilt for doing them favors should always be given short shrift. Politely, of course. But if you allow them to get their teeth into you, they will suck you dry and then kick you. Sure, if you turn them down now they might temporarily reduce your standing in some community they share with you by badmouthing you; but the truth is, they'll badmouth you after they've sucked you dry and you can't give them anymore, anyway.

And the odds are good that the people they're badmouthing you to are either people who know what they're like, or people just like them, so you won't lose anything. Whereas, if you did him his favor, you'd be out your time, your effort, and a good chunk of self-esteem at being played for a sucker.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


With rare exceptions, we all find our way to the audience through a number of people. Editors and critique partners, publishers, marketers, educators, reviewers, legislators, and in the case of the younger audiences particularly, parents, often have a lot more direct control over whether our work ever hits the target audience or not.

So we try to please them. We datamine rejection letters for hints, revise according to advice and try again, agonize over making the perfect query, study the markets till our brains bleed. And far too often we forget some important things.

First, that the gatekeeper is not the audience.

Second, that the gatekeeper does not owe the creator anything (outside the stated terms of an existing contract).

Third, that other gates are out there.

Widespot is currently sitting in the moderation queue (essentially a slushpile) at Mod the Sims, a large download host which has evolved procedures to control what kind of content it provides. This is my second time through. The first time, I misunderstood many points on the submission format desired and messed up the submission so badly they had no choice but to reject it. I had to re-take all the pictures, which is far more difficult for me than someone who sees straight lines can easily understand. Then the moderators closed the moderation queue for a period of time necessary to clear out a backlog and update some of their policies, which took over a month; and then I had to double-check the revised guidelines and reassess my drafted submission document before finally starting my submission thread, shortly after hundreds of other people with smaller submissions had swooped into the queue ahead of me. So now I'm waiting.

That all sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Then this will sound familiar, too. The original rejection, an obvious series of cut-and-paste boilerplate, cited crimes of which I am guiltless, though my botching of the format may have misled the moderator in charge of accepting or rejecting it into thinking that I was. I expect these objections to be dropped now that I have (I think) done things right. But a couple of items do give me pause. Like this one:

Item 3: ... your sim does not represent a unique and different overall look. While your sim may have an interesting face, anyone can create interesting faces spending a few minutes fiddling in Body Shop - the idea is to create a unique overall look... The submission guidelines clearly state that sims without custom content created by the uploader (i.e., new eyes, new hair, a variant skintone) will not be accepted.

Leaving aside the vexed and unanswerable question of whether anyone else ever would produce Dixie Land's face, and granting its theoretical possibility, the citizens of Widespot are not the shells generally uploaded for sharing, but characters in an established neighborhood with an ongoing storyline. It is Dixie's looks in combination with her stats, aspiration, biography, relationships, and history in the context of the whole neighborhood that make her and the other citizens of Widespot both unique and fun to play (as my playtesters assure me they are).

I more or less expect the story content of the neighborhood to be treated as the necessary custom content in this instance. Insisting on other kinds of custom content, such as genetics or clothing, would be counterproductive. Firstly, because Widespot is intended as a Base Game Only/Custom Content free neighborhood which anyone with a Sims2 game can drop in and with a minimum of hassle. Custom content would be unnecessary padding and violate the purpose.

Secondly, I can't make any other standard kind of custom content. Wouldn't know where to start. I can't do visual media to a professional or even amateur display standard, as I've demonstrated to my own satisfaction many times. I can make story and character all day long, and frequently do. Demand exists for inhabited neighborhoods with ongoing storylines, and this is where I can make a contribution. So I think my sims fit the intention of the guidelines even though they violate the letter of it, and I think the moderators will recognize that.

But you know what? I could be wrong. And if I am, Widespot will be rejected and that will be that. Because I'm not going to shoehorn stuff that doesn't belong, which would make me less satisfied with my work and would please my target audience less, into my work just to get it hosted. I'll find some other place, with different criteria, or no criteria; or I'll put a link in the sidebar of the blog and keep it on Mediafire as long as I can, directing people to the blog in my sig; or eventually I'll write off spreading it any further and be satisfied with the dozen or so people playing it now.

If, however, the moderator doesn't like the house the Lands live in and makes specific suggestions about how to make it acceptable without adding anything not available in the base game, and I can make those changes around the Land family as they are frozen in pause on the Friday morning that I intend the story to begin - heck, yes, if that's the only thing standing in my way, I'll do that in a heartbeat. Because the Land house really is a bit of a mess. It's playable, and to a certain extent the mess is deliberate, as it's supposed to have started out as a one-room cabin and added onto willy-nilly as finances allowed and a growing family required; but I got contradictory feedback on its aesthetic in playtest and I stopped fiddling with it more because I'd run out of ideas than because I was truly satisfied. As long as the concept of the house isn't violated by a suggestion, I'll tweak it as often as I need to in order to get it uploaded in the place I believe the intended audience will find it most easily.

The difference is that adding custom content would violate the work and, therefore, make it less suitable for the target audience; but changing the arrangement of a few walls and floors in the house may substantially improve it. These are the only considerations that matter, in the end.

If a gatekeeper rejects your work, it will not be (necessarily) because the work sucks; nor will it be because the gatekeeper is a Philistine with no taste; and it certainly will not be (in any viable market, even the internet) because the gatekeeper has some animus against you personally. It will be because, in the gatekeeper's judgement, the audience he's serving will not be well-served if he passes it. He may be right; he may be wrong; that is not the issue. The gate keeper controls this gate and if he won't let you through, you need to go look for another gate. Don't stand at this one whining to go through - you'll just make yourself obnoxious.

And for pity's sake, don't mutilate your work to please a gatekeeper. You'll regret it, I promise. Consider all suggestions as dispassionately as you can, see if your judgement coincides with his on this point, and only make changes that your judgement approves. For what profiteth it an author to gain publication, and lose the point of book?

I admire gatekeepers. They are, for the most work, overworked and underpaid. I've seen editors in the office and at home, and you would not believe the places they find to stack manuscripts, or how much work they have to get through with how little help. Most of them can't do any actual submission reading at work because they're too busy doing other parts of an editor's job. Librarians and teachers and parents are in much the same boat, and I presume that other kinds of gatekeepers are, too. If submission guidelines are difficult, it's because the number of people who think they've made something good enough to share far exceeds the number of people who truly have, and even some of those people have not taken sufficient care to be standing at the right gate. The more of these people who can be eliminated before the gatekeeper has to waste any time on them, the better for everybody.

Nobody owes me, or you, or anyone, publication. The loyalty of the gatekeeper is not to the creator, nor to the shareholder (if there is one in the market in question) but to the audience they conceive themselves as representing. Which is as it should be and I, as a creator, would not ask anything different of them.

Which doesn't mean I'm not really, really tired of sending queries and partials and fulls out into the cold world and never seeing them again except with the word "no" stamped on them. Especially when I know, as well as anyone ever knows these things, that the work is good. That isn't always what matters, in this imperfect world.

But that's life.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Fun with First Lines, on Caffeine

I felt steady enough to scrub the sole of my left foot, but found the feeling deceptive.

Had the wind come from the south, I'd still be alive.

Elsie watched her own head roll across the sand, bounce three times, and come to a stop canted on her chin. She'd always thought her chin was too big, and now she had proof.

"Don't worry about it," said the cat. "You're not going to sleep, so you might as well roll with it."

She'd barely gotten settled when the wind blew the door open, again, and this time the blue thing was too fast for her.

Half an inch! Half an inch! Half an inch onward!

Once upon a time, in a land where trees grew sideways, the earth burped.

(It's true. Altered mental states loosen up your creative inhibitions. But they're no help at all in maintaining the creative tension needed to produce an actual work. You're much better off learning to control your creative inhibitions and putting them to work for you. This has been a public service announcement. We will resume our regular blog habits Tuesday. I devoutly hope. You may ask: Why did you drink three cups of Irish Breakfast in the first place, then? Because I couldn't have functioned even this well without it.)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Considering the Audience

One of the many false dichotomies our society presents to us is the conflict between creating for ourselves and creating for a market. Creating for ourselves seems pure and virtuous, the only road to greatness, while catering to a market is crass and debasing. Except that creating for ourselves is self-indulgent and egotistical and creating for a market is sensible and realistic.

Either way, you should be grateful if somebody notices you, much less pays you anything.

Here's a tip: Whenever anybody offers you a choice between A and B, choose C. Or D. Anything except the forced, false choice the other person is trying to manipulate you into making.

Creating those things that we want ourselves is vital to our happiness; but if we want to share, whether for pay or not, we must consider who we are to share with. No cook who serves steak to vegans will be happy with the result - and if he knew he was making a meal for vegans, he has no one but himself to blame.

Generally speaking, we are only ready to create for an audience after we've gotten a certain amount of experience under our belts. We create, and then we look around and try to match our creation with a target audience that can be expected to enjoy it. Our first attempts to aim may be in entirely the wrong direction; I know many YA authors who had no idea they were YA authors until accumulating a critical mass of rejection letters from editors and agents working in the adult field telling them to try a YA market. Other people (and I've never encountered one of these who went on to anything I would call success) try to break into the literary world by writing for children and teens because they assume it will be easier than writing for adults. This was not so, and is not so, and God forbids that it should be so, but I'm not going off on that tangent right now. And I've even met a few insouciant people who wanted to write for "everybody," and that's not happening either. Especially since these people tended to assume that "everybody" was similar enough to themselves to make no never mind and this is me walking past another tangent.

Eventually, however, the audience has to enter the creative process, usually at either the planning or revision stages, because consciously thinking about them in most arts is too much to ask of the brain during the white heat of creation. Performing artists, of course, must be aware of and responding to the audience as part of the work, and the knack of doing this without being paralyzed by self-consciousness is an important part of their standard toolkit. Which is probably why so few performing artists write books well - without the audience right in front of them to play off, they can't judge how well they're doing. Those of us in the non-performing arts learn to look at our work as the audience would, or we don't get far.

I speak of "the audience," but as any actor can tell you, the audience is not a single entity. Even inside the confines of a theater, the individuals can be sorted into different types of audience, from the serious fans in the front row to the employees of the house snatching bits of the performance as they come and go, and then there's your co-workers backstage.

Most works have an ideal audience which is very specific. I wrote all my middle grade novels, first and foremost, for myself at the age of 10. Widespot has an ideal audience of two: myself, and my newsgroup friend Aegagropilon, whose tastes are similar to mine, though her playstyle is not. All those published works that began as stories told to the family, or to the Girl Scout troop, or to the members of the river excursion on that golden afternoon, were created first for their ideal audience. I don't know any work whose ideal audience is a viable economic market.

The target audience is more abstract, but is the important one and you can get to know it pretty well. English-speaking children between the ages of 9 and 14 who enjoy fantasy, or mystery, or have an interest in archeology, are a diverse group overall, but they have common characteristics that hold true across subcultures and over time. You can learn how to please them, and how to serve them, and how to get the response you want from them. You do not have to be one of them to understand them well enough to create for them any more than a cook has to be a vegan in order to cook without using animal products, but you do have to respect them and partake of some of their tastes. If you think 13-year-old boys have a repugnant sense of humor, do not write a joke book for 13-year-old boys.

The target audience for Widespot is the particular set of Sims2 players who make regular use of the Mod the Sims newsgroup, both for socializing with other players and as a source of custom content. Whereas I am, nowadays, fairly zen about writing for middle grade and YA audiences, I found myself having to consider the MTS audience consciously at every stage of production. I knew I could please Aegagropilon and me; I could probably please the handful of people who consistently "like" my posts and pictures about what goes on in my own game, but what about other people out there? Most people find my cartoony sims, with their exaggerated features, ugly, so should I try to build pretty sims for once?

On the other hand, what is the use of my making sims that don't bear the stamp of my personal taste? Which is shaped by a problem with facial recognition - I have a hard time recognizing real people, let alone a bunch of animations built on a finite set of facial templates. So I compromised, getting the features on each sim I made exactly how I liked them, then adjusting them one or two steps toward the median. Most of the sims I didn't build at all. I built their parents, and used the game's tool for combining genes to make offspring, rejecting offspring who I thought looked more bizarre than the market would bear. It's the same principle that guides me in deciding how much of my research to let show on the page.

Of course the MTS audience contains many, many lurkers, as well as people whose tastes vary wildly from mine, and not everyone who uses the downloads area where I hope to make Widespot available also uses the discussion fora or frequents the same ones as me, whose reception of it I couldn't predict. I couldn't tailor for those people, so I had to count them as part of the peripheral audience. The target audience for a shareable neighborhood, moreover, couldn't be based too much on me, because I am unlikely ever to download a neighborhood. I have more ideas than I know what to do with already. I don't need anybody else's.

The biggest demand for new inhabited neighborhoods is from two kinds of people. Many wanted to jump right into play without spending a lot of time doing their own building and character creation, but had played the neighborhoods that shipped with the game to satiety. Others have a tendency to fall into ruts, building similar-looking sims and playing the same scenarios over and over, and feeling a need for someone else to show them a different path. These are the people I can be of the most service to. For their sake, I needed to present a challenge to their preconceptions and their habits right out of the gate. Every household needed to be in a crisis that needed a resolution - soon! - and the decision had to be a hard one. Ideally, it should challenge their assumptions about what's supposed to happen and turn their expectations on their ear.

That's why the obvious Cinderella figure who, in the default fairy tale scenario, would marry Prince Charming and live happily ever after, didn't fall in love with Prince Charming until after getting pregnant during sympathy sex with the elderly widower. Also, Prince Charming, though he has plenty of Nice points, is a spoiled rich boy who has knocked up the neighborhood's obvious Bad Girl, who has also had a fling with Prince Charming's dad, a Criminal Mastermind. It's fun to see how people who normally treat Nice points as an indicator of where sims stand on the good/evil scale scramble to sort that one out! Every way forward in every storyline is going to hurt some innocent or violate some principle. If you want to get into a rut in Widespot, you have to dig it for yourself.

But was I really prepared for all the ways players might move these stories forward?

I've talked on here before about how you can't control the work once it's out in the world. No two readers ever read the same book, because of what they bring to it. When writing for young people, you also expect/hope to be read differently by the same person at different ages. Heck, the nature of brain growth is such that a kid who starts reading a book on Friday night and finishes Tuesday morning may have grown a new synapse in that time which changes the meaning of the first paragraph for him. This is one of the delightful things about writing for people with growing brains. It's also how stupid arguments arise over what a book "really" means.

But I have even less control over what happens in Widespot, and I was a bit apprehensive about it. I grow attached to all my characters, and at least in a book I know they'll get the ending I feel is right for them. The Widespot characters I had to let go of completely during the opening scenes of their stories, or the whole project was pointless. Most people would play to resolve the situations I gave them, while others would play to make them worse. They would make villains out of sims I created as flawed but sympathetic, victims of sims of whom I was fond. Was I prepared for that? If I wasn't, I would have to restrict access beyond the ideal audience. I could not make a toy, give it away on the street corner, and then complain about how the recipients used it.

I addressed this concern at every step of development, doing my best to envision all the possible ramifications of each decision I made. I had a "Fivey threshhold" in my head, so named for a board member whose games tend toward what Louisa May Alcott used to call "sensation literature." The game is rated T for Teen, and its commercially-available content is much tamer than the standards for sex and violence in modern YA, yet Fivey has managed to use mods and staging to tell stories of serial rape and murder, infanticide, domestic abuse, prostitution - and, I hasten to add, redemption and recovery, though that's not what sticks in the reader's head. So as I worked on each element, I would periodically ask myself: What awful thing might Fivey do with this? If I could stand it, I could proceed.

But I found myself fretting about Certain Other People, people I really don't want to get their mitts onto Widespot. After what I told you about Fivey, you are now thinking that they must be certifiable psychos, but in fact my problem with them is more that they are ruthless bowdlerizers. Everything that I find interesting about a neighborhood they destroy. The thought of them pushing around my imperfect little pixeldolls distressed me, yet I didn't see any way of excluding them from access. When I mentioned this to Aegagropilon, she reassured me that these people would never download Widespot. What with aliens, interracial couples, boys who play with dollhouses, girls with masculine faces, improbable noses, and use of face templates that one of the people in question had condemned as "monstrous," I hadn't included anything that would attract them. They were not my audience, they would never be tempted to play with my toy, and nothing they said about it would matter.

This is important to remember, too. The target audience is permeable. Not every 9-to-14-year-old who likes fantasy will like your particular MG fantasy, and that's all right. Not everyone to whom the 9-to-14 year olds who do like it recommend it will be in that age range, or normally like fantasy; but they might like it, too. A middle grade book may be read by a precocious early reader, by a reluctant older reader, by a parent, by a librarian, by a grandparent, by someone with insomnia who has absolutely nothing else to do. Anyone can happen along and experience your work. If they enjoy it, good. That's how breakout hits and bestsellers happen.

If they don't, it's not their business.

Not even of the Gatekeepers.

But the reasons for that are complicated and this post is already way too long. (But of which of my posts is this not true?)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

First, Catch Your Rabbit

Supposedly there's an old cookbook somewhere that starts the recipe for rabbit stew with the instruction: "First, catch a rabbit." I'm pretty sure it's not true, but I'm a big fan of it as creative advice, particularly for people who intend to publish. You can't publish what you don't have, though it's astonishing how many people try. It's arguable that the serial format enables people to succeed, too, but that's a whole post on its own.

I have recently exhorted people to stop putting off what they want to do until they get the tools they want and just go do it. I have also recently said that if you need a necessary tool you will find a way to get it. This probably sounds contradictory to some of you out there who feel toolless, but it's not. That some tools are harder to get than others doesn't make them any less necessary to achieving the goal, and a tool that is necessary to finish a job is probably not necessary to begin it. The only tools you absolutely, positively cannot start without are the ones you own yourself. Brains. Will. Skill and the capacity to acquire skill.

The skilled, professional workman has a wide assortment of tools, well-maintained and suited to the work he does, always at hand; but it's a rare workman indeed who always has all of them. I know my medium - the English language - well enough that I seldom have to use the tools I have handy to fine-tune it, but when I need them I have multiple dictionaries, a thesaurus, The Elements of Style (I thought I had the Chicago Manual of Style, too, but it looks like I don't and I haven't needed it since college anyway), and so on, along with baby name books, guides to formats, atlases, books of quotations, references on dialect, etc., right on the desk. Plus the internet, but the books (like my brain) keep right on working during power outages and equipment failures, and their formats never become obsolete and unsupported, so I like them.

The Forteana and folklore shelves are also adjacent to the desk, as is a Peterson field guide since I'm more likely to need to refer to and describe a bird than any other non-pet animal. Resources specific to a project also cluster around the desk during active work on the project. Work on Len involved a binder full of photocopied material, including the 1866 Texas Almanac; timelines; reference books about the Civil War, Texas, horses, guns, clothing, slavery, folk remedies, the chemical qualities of plants, and a dozen other things, and that wasn't half as reference-intensive as 11,000 Years Lost.

A change in medium requires adding to the toolkit. This can be a shock to someone who's used to being skilled, which is why my grades in German, French, and Spanish were always lower for written than for spoken work, back in the day. Conversation in one language is much like conversation in another - full of hesitations, gestures, and plunging ahead to make oneself understood in defiance of logic and grammar. When I wrote, however, I couldn't wrap my head around the necessity to dial back on what I tried to communicate and consistently tried to write in an unfamiliar language as complexly and fluidly as I wrote in English, when my grasp of grammar and syntax in the new language were not up to the task.

There is no shame in having to dial back like this. It can even be exciting to realize how much you have to learn. E.B. Lewis, whose keynote at the recent Austin SCBWI conference I quoted recently, talked at some length about how, when he started looking at picture books after establishing himself in the fine arts, he realized he had to learn a whole new visual language, and it was clear to me that the thrill of mastering this language was part of his motivation for expanding into illustration. His fine arts education background gave him a leg up on articulating and regulating what he needed to do; but it was no substitute for learning that language.

Whether learning a brand new skill or expanding into a new medium, it's a good idea to lay out your toolkit and identify the tools that are missing; but you can start work with what you've got. My normal practice when I know I need a lot of research to tell a story is to read everything I can lay hands on related to the topic, knowing that the plot will emerge naturally if I feed my backbrain and give it time to work.

When I started work on Widespot, though, the research I had to do was not related to the story at all. I needed mechanical game knowledge, cheat codes, and mods - hacks, really, but the term "hack" has a whiff of the illegitimate, and what I needed was not a way to avoid mastering the game but a way to manipulate it in order to set up the storylines I wanted to place before my audience without making neighborhood-corrupting mistakes. This required a certain amount of research, experimentation, and downloading, then learning to use what I downloaded, before I could even open the game with Widespot in mind. This took time, and did not feel like creating at all.

So creation of Widespot began where story creation always begins - between my ears, and in the current notebook. A lot of people use computer journaling or their phone these days, but I'm a big fan of hard copy, as I said above. The first notes for Widespot don't look very different from my first notes for a novel, either. A lot of lists, for character roles and story elements. Lots of question marks. A mapping of the boundaries.

Being wiser than I was when taking German, French, and Spanish, I confronted my limitations early on. Although I'd been playing the game for over a year, and felt I'd done pretty well blundering along like a bull in a china shop learning as I went, the necessity to please an audience rather than just myself required that I dial back on what I wanted to do. I needed to keep it simple. To make an engaging, drama-rich neighborhood with the minimum number of characters, buildings, cheats, and modifications I could manage. The simpler I made the job, the more likely I was to do it right.

Considering an audience beyond oneself changes the whole ballgame. In this case, to maximize the audience, I wanted to make a Base Game only neighborhood,as the expansion packs are not backward compatible. A neighborhood built with the Apartment Life engine would not work for a user whose game installation included only the base game and University expansions, whether I put apartments into the neighborhood or not. Similarly, if I dressed my characters in clothing created by a fan, it would be replaced with a random outfit for a player who did not have that piece of clothing in her own Downloads folder; moreover, I would be morally and legally obliged to ask that creator's permission to use that item, just as I am if quoting someone else's poem in a story. (It is a common misconception that it's okay to use other people's stuff without credit in a public context if there's no money involved. Intellectual property rights among the fan base is another topic too big to digress onto right now, so just trust me on this for now.)

This meant that I not only had to get technical help to take my full installation and keep it from creating an all EP neighborhood, but that I wouldn't have all the story elements I was accustomed to dealing with when playing the game. Base game characters had all the personality statistics and skills I was used to, but the choice of Aspirations (the trait determining what the sim wants out of life) was more limited, as one was added in the third expansion. Base game sims have memories and interests, but no hobbies or inventory of items they can carry around; they have relationship scores but no mechanic for determining romantic attraction; they can visit community lots and invite people over but they cannot go on dates; they can get a limited number of careers, paint pictures to sell, and play the piano for tips, but they cannot work in retail stores, open their own businesses, throw pots, or play any instrument except the piano. Base Game neighborhoods have no weather and their plants don't grow. You can design individual sims with varied faces and dress them in different clothes, but the number of hairstyles, base facial templates, and outfits available is (as I quickly found) stultifyingly narrow, especially since hairstyle and clothing choices are important parts of characterization in a visual medium.

So, like a painter accustomed to working in oils and mixing his own paints suddenly being restricted to a four-color palette controlled by hex code, I had to retrench and scale back my expectations, at least to start. But the thing about limitations is, that they're a challenge. And challenges are fun to overcome.

All right, so I only had five aspirations instead of the usual six. What could I do with those five? What if I make five households, each dominated by the values of one aspiration (though I needn't make every member conform)? The Family household would have lots of kids, of course; the Popularity household should be well-connected; the Fortune household should be filthy rich and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife and I don't have all the romantic mechanics that were added in the Nightlife expansion but base game jealousy works just like it does in the full game, with sims being jealous on behalf of their relatives - what if every household in the neighborhood has a member looking to marry into the Fortune household?

And off I go. If you've read any of the Garage Sales, you know how it works from there - for me. I always, always, start with text on a page, analysis and organization segueing into inspiration and some finished work or other - game, blog post, novel, vocal presentation, doesn't matter. My rabbit can only be caught this way.

But what about your rabbit? How do you make the transition from that bright shining idea in your head to a work existing in the objective, material universe where the audience can get at it? Do you need to sketch? To walk through the action? To set up 3-D models? To pick out a few notes on an instrument?

Once you know how to open that connection between the interior of your brain to the exterior world, you will find you always have the tools on hand. I can write notes on the backs of receipts in blunt pencil, if I have to. You may prefer a piano but if nothing else you can hum; you may prefer to model shapes out of clay, but in a pinch bubblegum and duct tape will do you to start. The nature of that starting point is such that the only way for you to lose it is to lose control of the body part through which it manifests, which is in the category of pathology and beyond my current scope.

Get yourself through that starting point, and you'll find that the internal pressure to get the other tools you need to accomplish the purpose drives you right along.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: The Busybody Ghost

I do not by any means confine my idea intake to the Fortean Times, nor to recent nonfiction; nor,heaven forfend, to nonpartisan nonfiction. This week I've been reading one of the older books in my collection of Forteana: Unbidden Guests: A Book of Real Ghosts, by William O. Stevens; Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1945. Mr. Stevens was an English professor and author, with an axe to grind about survival of bodily death. He's for it, and in this book mines the literature and his own acquaintance for cases he feels are persuasive and interesting.

Much in here is familiar, or at least routine; and how persuasive anybody finds any of it will vary quite a bit, but that's neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned. The story's all I care about; and in Chapter IX, Postscript, Section II "Immortality Proved by the Testimony of Sense," he gives me one that's entirely new to me. He's got hold of a pamphlet by a late 18th/early 19th-century Baptist minister describing (with a variable amount of theoretically checkable detail) a very odd tale of something that happened in an unnamed "Maine seaport village, which, one may guess from internal evidence must have been near Machiasport." The pamphlet reprinted a bunch of affidavits with first-person accounts of the phenomena, interspersed with a lot of theology, but the story Stevens extracts from what is probably a tedious read is bizarre enough for anybody.

In August of 1799, a spectral voice announced that the speaker would appear soon. On January 2nd (not what I would have called "soon") the voice returned, addressing the family of Captain Paul Blaisdel, identifying herself as the late Mrs. George Butler, and asking that her father, David Hooper, be sent for.

This kicked off a series of over 25 visitations, witnessed in many different places around the village by many different people, including the Baptist minister, who saw Mrs. Butler appear to him as a brilliant light in a field while he was on his way to debunk this obvious superstitious hoax. Some people heard her, some people saw her faintly, and some people saw her clearly; believers and non-believers saw and heard her; her friends and family received proofs that convinced them; and Mrs. Butler high-handedly ordered people about, held court in the Blaisdells' cellar, popped in on folks in other families unexpectedly, made predictions that came true, arranged a marriage against the wishes of everyone involved, arranged to be seen up close and personal by masses of people at once, responded to local gossip, insisted on the exhumation and reburial in a different location of a baby's grave, and generally was a nuisance for about half a year.

And then stopped. As these things eventually do; for believe it or not, Mrs. Butler is not the only discarnate entity ever to set an entire community on its ear. The celebrated Bell Witch Case is even more bizarre (so bizarre that the movie a few years ago toned down phenomena and left out most of the really good bits), and lasted even longer, and incidentally the Bell Witch also interested herself in the marriage of a member of the family she chiefly manifested among.

The heart of the supernatural novel to be derived from this obscure case, I think, lies in that marriage, which Mrs. Butler insisted on arranging between her husband and Lydia Blaisdel, a daughter of the family in whose cellar she liked to meet visitors. Local skeptical gossip explained the entire series of events as a hoax got up by Lydia to get her a husband; about which Stevens (relying for all this information, remember, on a single source, his pamphlet) says:

The girl protested tearfully that she would never marry a man who was scared into matrimony by a ghost. Her parents and his joined in opposing the idea. Once that summer Lydia tried to board a vessel lying in the harbor bound for York, where she had friends with whom she could stay. But it was all in vain. Somehow, in the end, the various parties came together in agreement and Lydia Blaisdel became George Butler's second wife. Within twenty-four hours of that wedding the Specter came to the husband and said, "Be kind to Lydia, for she will not be with you long. She will have but one child and die within the year."

I don't know about you, but the urge to rescue that poor girl, even if only in the pages of a novel, rises in me at once! Or her tragic story could be the background of a modern tale in which Mrs. Butler attempts to boss around a new generation, and the ghost of Lydia joins forces with the living girl to keep history from repeating itself.

Even Mr. Stevens, who is well-disposed towards his ghosts generally, admits that the whole affair seems pointless and even counterproductive. Mrs. Butler frightened and bullied people, made predictions without any helpful hints on how to avoid undesirable fates, arranged a marriage for her husband that ended well for nobody, caused considerable inconvenience for the Blaisdel family, possibly improved the local tourist trade, and went away again.

Real life, of course, often is pointless and counterproductive. Fiction requires more structure than that. But there's plenty of material here. One need only arrange it to have a point and be productive.

It would have made a decent X-Files episode, come to think of it. Scully would've put Mrs. Butler in her place, count on it!