Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Yet Another Sewing Analogy

So I'm making a pattern I've never sewn before, and on Friday it came time to make the back center seam of a bodice with a lining and no zipper. I read the directions, and they made no sense. None. I tried to follow the directions and they still made no sense. I manipulated the pieces as directed and it all seemed physically impossible. So I gave up.

I woke up a number of times during the weekend, worrying about this bodice.

Yesterday I went back to it. And it was easy. Obvious, even. This despite the fact that I was pretty light-headed, which makes seeing how two-dimensional patterns translate into three-dimensional garments exponentially more difficult for me.

Sometimes you have to let a problem rest and let your backbrain deal with it. I can't promise it'll take as short a time as a weekend. That block at Ch. 10 I referred to awhile ago has been there a good deal longer than that. But the backbrain does in fact keep working, out of sight, if your frontbrain will let go of a problem and allow it.

They don't seem to be able to work simultaneously, sorry.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Dog Crow

So I'm reading this book called Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans (John Marzluff and Tony Angell, Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, 2012) and there's all this stuff about brain chemistry and how brains work and synapses and stuff, but there's also stories.

Like the crow that appeared at the University of Montana during the spring semester of 1964. Apparently it had been somebody's pet, because it could gather dogs together en masse by whistling and calling "Here, boy!" It would cruise the neighborhood, lure a bunch of dogs to campus, and then, when class let out, lead them into the rushing hordes of students causing chaos and confusion.

Can you say "Disney movie?" I thought you could.

This incident itself does not make a whole movie, of course. The crow needs a motivation and the chaos needs a goal. Crows do not normally learn to talk in the wild, but often learn human words (which can be applied intelligently and appropriately; corvids who learn to talk are not normally mere mimics) when kept as pets (which is now illegal), so the first thing to figure out is Whose Pet? and What Happened to Him?

The fact that the crow learned to summon dogs indicates that the person who trained the crow also had a dog, who would necessarily be another character. Perhaps the dog needs rescuing from an untenable situation since the death of the owner, and the crow's dog-round-up provides the diversion necessary for his escape?

If you want a serious non-Disney spin and have animal rights questions to explore, the dog round-up could be a cover for the rescue of the dog buddy from an animal laboratory; but I submit that it's very difficult to do that sort of story with sufficient nuance. Lab animals are a necessity of science; without hosts of sacrificial animals, modern medicine would be in a sorry state, and any fictional treatment of the issue that doesn't face up to both that and the ethical questions involving what exactly is necessary and how to tell right from wrong will be inadequate. That could get very difficult very quickly, and be a much harder sell than the merry, rolicking, old-fashioned anthropomorphism of the Disney treatment.

But if it could be done...to start with farce and end with a moral dilemma would be no small accomplishment.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Google Thyself

It seems like a self-indulgent and dangerous practice on the face of it, but once every few years I like to google my name. I did it this morning, partly because I wanted to make sure that the precautions I took to ensure that sim stuff wouldn't be the first thing a kid doing a book report turned up on a search.

It isn't; but you still get a hit for my Mod The Sims profile (on page 2) before you get a hit for Sullivan (p. 6). Not sure what to do about that, but now I know I should do something. I'll think on it.

And then there's the surprises - pleasant, not so pleasant, and simply silly. The first comment on a favorable review of 11,000 Years Lost at In the Middle of a Good Book, for example, reads: "this book was sucky too much reading." Yeah, it's true - the only reluctant reader you should ever give 11,000 to is one who's obsessed with the Pleistocene.

I ran across some reviews I hadn't seen before, many of them recent. But my favorite remark, on The Ghost Sitter, was on a Live Journal blog about "fanfiction and writing as a hobby." She (using female as the default for unknowns on the internet is more or less my custom) leads off a short, lukewarm review by saying: I read this a while ago, but I've been thinking about it. It's a good book, but one of missed opportunities, enough that I keep toying with how I would have done things differently.

I can not ask any better response, of anyone, than to keep thinking about something I wrote, and toying with it, and thinking how to do it differently. Maybe this toying will result in her writing her own ghost story. Maybe it won't. Maybe she'll write a better ghost story.

The important thing is, that this person whose name I don't know and whom I have never met, is having thoughts I couldn't think, that she wouldn't have thought had she not encountered my story.

Enough other writers have done this for me that I understand the value of it. The productive touching of mind to unknown mind may not be the primary purpose of art; but it is not a minor one. As a measure of success, I rank it high; and the knowledge that if it happens, I will probably never know about it, is one of the thoughts that keeps me plugging away on the days when I am certain no one cares and I'll never see print again.

Because I've been on the receiving end of this, so many times. Authors who only wrote one book - authors with good reasons to be dissatisfied with their literary lives - can turn up in used book sales, fallen between the stacks in the library, on a bookshelf in a bed and breakfast on a rainy day, fifty years after their own deaths, and provide the living spark that makes some other brain light up and shine with possibility.

And that by itself will make their literary lives worthwhile.

So no matter how big a failure we may be by any objective standard, we have not failed until every word we ever wrote is obliterated from the earth before doing this.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Tonight is World Book Night

Tonight is the night free paperbacks get given away. The chosen books this year are listed and available for sale at Bookateria.

I have no idea how effective this promotion is in encouraging literacy and fostering a love of reading for pleasure, but it is impossible for me not to love a holiday specifically dedicated to giving books away. And the list is reasonably diverse given that there's only 28 of them.

I'd have gone for a bigger ethnic diversity myself, and more genres, but hey, when I finance the book giveaway I can decide what books to give. And at least there's some.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: When Worlds Co-Exist

So, having read about the two habitable planets closer to each other than Earth is to Mars you immediately start world-building.

But where do you start? When will your story be set?

It has to be post-crossworld-contact or what's the point? But is it at the beginning, when they start becoming aware of each other - which could be as early as the first Renaissance-quality telescopes? Is it at first physical contact? Is it when us humans stumbled across them? Is it during a period of peace, or a period of war?

Actually - if the two intelligent species I am assuming for each of these planets are enough like earthlings for us to write stories about them, periods of peace are probably non-existent. Everybody is always fighting somebody; and how each individual tribe/nation/state feels about interplanetary contact is probably vastly influenced by where in the war/truce/peace/annoyance cycle it is.

You could, of course, decide that only one planet has intelligent life, so there's no interspecies conflict, just a larger-scale colonization period, but that's underutilizing the setup and making it far too easy to fall into simplistic accidental allegories of the Discovery of the New World, without acknowledging the agency of the people who were already in the New World. I want different-but-equal. I want some real basic exploration of the idea of personhood, detached from biology; I want some really different stories!

What is each species like, for starters? What basic difference in the evolutionary histories of their planets shaped them?

What if one intelligence evolved in the oceans, complete with opposable thumbs or whatever other dodge full manipulation requires of their basic anatomy, and one evolved on land, not necessarily from primates? The vaccuum of space would be equally intimidating for both, but the technical problems presented by space travel, and probably the motives for space travel, would be different. A zero-G environment would not be half the adjustment for a cephalapodian intelligence that it would for an ursid one; but holey cheese wouldn't life support be complicated? The ocean-based species would probably regard long-distance sensing and communication as the easiest and most natural way to deal with extraplanetary activity; might lack the terrestrial urge to go there.

The ocean-based species could colonize the oceans of the terrestrial planet and the terrestrial species could colonize the continents of the oceanic planet - before either one became aware that the other was intelligent at all!

Oh, man, my head's exploding already and I don't even have a character yet.

Speaking of characters - this'd make a great RPG setting.

Help...drowning...sea of possibilities...

Friday, April 19, 2013

News: Habitable Planets!

NASA's finally found a couple of planets enough like ours that life as we know it could be on them!

But wait, it gets better! They're both in the same solar system - they're neighbors! They're closer together than Earth is to Mars.

But wait, it gets even better than that! The system is older than ours (the star, an orange dwarf, is about 2.5 billion years older than Sol), so whatever new life and new civilizations are boldly going where ever they want to go on them has probably had more time to get there than we have.

It's easy to think too simplistically about extrasolar planets. I can't help noticing that even the scientists quoted about them are having trouble thinking of them as being as complex as Earth. One is slightly closer to the sun than the other, so is described as "Hawaii" or "Washington in May" and the other is "more Alaska." Which is nonsense, as they both obviously have equatorial and polar zones, seasons, and so on. But to determine them we'd have to know a lot more about their axial tilt and so on.

It's easy to think of these two neighboring planets in terms of earth politics, with perhaps one colonizing the other, or two planetary empires competing - but I bet it's way more complicated than that. You could have thousands of countries and cultures on each planet, allying and competing in the area of their common spaces, and the international political situation is several orders of magnitude more complicated than on earth because two equally complex species are competing within shared space.

The triple-gendered citizens of Sqark may not have a stake in whether heterosexual marriage is legal for the citizens of Pomph, but if Pomph controls the shipping routes through the Asteroid Girdle you can bet Sqark, with its dependence on raw materials from the Girdle, is interested in the stability of the Pomph government; as is Klarnk, Sqark's third-world neighbor, its industry stifled by Sqark's draconian import/export laws...And what effect does Hurricane Klaatu have on all these players?

Science is great.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Some Days, I Have No Wisdom to Impart

The book is there.

It's in my head, whole and perfect and solid. I can feel it.

Yet every time I try to draw out anything past Chapter 9, I start getting the wrong book, haring off in the wrong direction. I know it's the wrong direction because I know what the book feels like in my head and what I get feels all wrong.

What is up with that?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Memory Lane

So, yesterday the author sessions I attended at the Texas Book Festival both dealt at some level with memory. Guadalupe Garcia McCall talked about how she wrote the poem that eventually burgeoned into Under the Mesquite, showing her class of skeptical 13-year olds (I think it was 13-year olds) how easy it is to get a subject for a poem. First, she tapped a memory - the first one that came to mind, since she was under the gun - and then when she had it she had them time her and, just as they'd dared her, she wrote a poem in under five minutes. And then eventually she had to go deeper and deeper and deeper into memory, to places she didn't want to go, in order to write the book, which also finally enabled her to come to terms with her mother's death.

In the session on "Sense of Birthplace," Beatriz de la Garza was talking about how a trunk of family papers was her way in to the history of the Republic of the Rio Grande, and Sarah Cortez was wildly enthusiastic about memoir and how we use it to understand one another across our various identity boundaries.

Now, this is something I don't do. Okay, sure, I tap my memory all the time because in the end, what else do any of us have? But I've got personal memory and reading memory and listening memory all jumbled up. Everything goes into the pot and flavors everything else. I don't draw directly on my own particular memories until I need them in service to a story because I do not find myself interesting.

(It couldn't possibly be because there's things in my memory I don't want to think about and places I never want to go again. Nope, nope, nope. Not me. And anyway, when I need to go there to retrieve stuff for a story I'm already working on, I can do it, but going there to get a story? I'm not that desperate, thanks. The back door's my chosen route.)

And though I can pass on advice about using your own memory as a story source, it's not a suitable topic for a garage sale because it's not specific enough. Sure, I could give you a story seed based on one of my memories, but the whole strength of the technique is based on each of us going down our own personal memory lanes to retrieve our own strongest emotions.

Memory Lane. Now, that's an image. It's long (and gets longer as we age), and parts of it are very dark indeed but parts are all bright and sunny and we'd like to get to them. If we could do it without going through the dark parts.

What if you put a person onto her own memory lane for a story? Send her down a physical path that she gradually realizes is her own life?

Hm. That's not generating anything all by itself. You have to create the character before you can create the memory lane, and either trick her onto it or create a crisis that forces her down it, in order to have enough structure for a story. Because of course memory isn't structured at all. It isn't even chronological. When you go down memory lane, you carom from memory to memory, from last year to high school to college to junior high to your first time in a wading pool by association. Even if it's a magic realist story, you need more structure than that.

And I don't know about you, but I prefer stories with multiple characters. The opportunities for dynamic interaction with the people in your memory are limited. Maybe you can understand your mother, or your bully, or your ex, now with the benefit of hindsight, but you can't communicate that understanding to your previous self and you can't change your past behavior toward them any more than you can change their behavior toward you.

So what if you're going down somebody else's memory lane? And can interact with her fruitfully while there?

What if a child, or grandchild, or a caregiver (who became a caregiver because she had this talent) has to go down the memory lane of someone with a memory malfunctioning due to age and/or illness? What if someone you love is lost in a maze of memories and you go in after her, to take her by the hand and lead her back to the present?

Can you face what you'd learn about her, doing this? Can you face what you'd learn about yourself?

And how do you avoid making this a silly fantasy about using your magic talent to cure Alzheimer's or something sentimental like that?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Texas Book Festival is in Town Saturday

The Texas Book Festival, normally held in Austin, is in San Antonio this year - not only in San Antonio, but in the Enchilada, i.e. the Central Library, so called because Holy Freakin' Cheese what else are you gonna call it? (I love this building.) It spills across the street in two directions, to the Southwest School of Art and Craft in its modern building in one direction and in its gorgeous former Ursuline convent buildings in the other. I love those buildings, too.

Damon minds that I didn't get invited to participate but hey, it's not like I did anything much to inform the committee that I had a new book out, or like that would have guaranteed me a spot, or like featuring an LBGT book from a small press in a major Texas festival when it's held anyplace but Austin wouldn't have been problematic even if someone in charge had realized I existed.

[Digression] I love Texas, but I'm also a realist and face it, the state is officially way behind the curve even of public opinion in its own population on this point. It's one thing to be the city with the most adoptions by gay couples in America (as of 2006; don't know if we've kept this title, but it's one of my favorite statistics) and quite another to, you know, treat the subject as an ordinary part of the program when your only incentive to do so is a midlist author who happens to live here. [/Digression]

I'm far from the only local author not on the program. This doesn't excuse me from doing a crap job of publicity, because that's not why I didn't do anything - I just zoned and it's too late now to do anything but show up and support the people who did get featured.

At that link, please note particularly the young people's authors, highlighted in green, like Carmen Tafolla, local SCBWI staple Lupe Ruiz Flores, and Guadalupe Garcia McCall, whose Summer of the Mariposas you'll recall seeing on the Andre Norton Award list. McCall will be presenting in a second floor Navarro classroom at from 3:00 to 3:45, so I'll be there; and the same location has a panel on "A Sense of Birthplace: Investigating the Past" at 12:30 which sounds right up my street, too. I might or might not go to the Copper Kitchen of the Ursuline campus at 2 for the panel on mysteries set in Texas, and of course there's a children's tent and readings and hey, it's the library, it's not as if I'll be bored whatever happens.

So if you're going, look for me. I'll be wearing a hat. And probably the dress with the astonishing orangey-metallicy skirt, which is a suitable outfit for public events at the Enchilada.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Work Hygiene

So, I volunteered to take a bunch of craft stuff off a friend's hands and today I got another crafty friend over here and we went through it, making three piles - one for her, one for me, and one for a friend who LARPs. Naturally we discussed undone craft projects. And undone writing projects. And how digital scrapbooking distracted her from NaNoWriMo so she got an app that's intended to focus her on writing, but she got distracted by designing themes for it.

The whole trouble with computers is, that whereas you used to be able to shut yourself into a closet away from all distractions and write, now you shut yourself into a closet with your laptop to write and all the distractions follow you in there. But it's not the computer's fault. The computer gives you newer, shinier, high-tech ways to procrastinate, but they're all variations on things we've always done.

Everything we think of as optional is like this. We need to treat certain things as requirements. Like brushing our teeth or showering or making the bed. If you were raised to do those things, and life comes at you so hard that you don't for awhile, you know that life is out of control and you do something about it. Why? Because you feel uncomfortable, dirty, and miserable until you do. But brushing your teeth confirms that you are not, in fact, on the skids. My mom always made us take baths when we were sick, saying we'd feel better - and she was right. We weren't any healthier, but we felt less grungy and more as if we were going to get well sometime than we did before the bath.

We need to treat certain elements of work hygienically. Which ones will vary with the individual and the circumstance. My biggest needs are to update the ledger every time I spend or receive money instead of letting them pile up on the desk to be done all at once, and to write every day starting at eight o'clock. Sometimes I put off those things for something more urgent, but you know what? If my work hygiene has slipped, the urgent thing won't get done either; while if my work hygiene is good, the more urgent thing will get done later in the day. Having a prioritized list of things to do is a help with managing administrative, creative, social, and household duties.

However - there is always a however - there's also a point of diminishing returns. Brushing and flossing is good. Stopping dead after every single meal to brush and floss every single tooth is excessive. Having a list of things to do today is a good thing; having a list of things to do that is a little longer than you can do is not a bad thing; having lists of everything you want to get done and making sure you mark off every element of everything you do and add every new thing you realized also needs doing and break down all the steps of each project so you can cross it off later is a procrastination technique.

Here's a rule of thumb: if an individual act of hygiene goes for more than five minutes with no visible result - you're procrastinating. Quit it. Go do something useful.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Half-sibling Hurricane

So I had one of those dreams, the ones that are clearly a story and they all hang together and you can work this but by the time you get to the notebook all the connections have fallen apart. The notes look like this:

Hurricane. Connections. half-siblings, but how was this figured out? He rescues his half-brother and sends him off to their mutually unknown father but how is this discovered? Purple woven-plastic strap - held a pager - protagonist scavenges it off of the street after his brother loses it - connection not made till later - only one it could have been in that area, the purple indicates a hotel in another part of town. Protag is frustrated, angry, keeps rescuing people but doesn't know how big a difference he's making - because it's all incidental to something else he's trying to do, and failing. In the dream, everyone was male but the woman who lost her dog. Even the dog was male. Why?

I'm tolerably good at remembering my dreams, compared to most people, but as you see, that's still not very good. And it leaves out the storekeeper running after the dog yelling "Cumin!"

The trouble, of course, is that these dreams don't make as much sense when you have them as they seem to at the time. Your brain isn't working the same way it does when awake, so connections are made differently and sense doesn't mean the same thing. It is as much a myth that you can take your dreams and transfer them directly to stories as it is that you can do so with your real life. Both require a lot of organizational work before they can be useful.

Even, I suspect, if the plan is to be deliberately surrealistic and dreamlike.

The purple pager strap is the most vivid image from the dream, so I could start organizing with it; but that quickly grows frustrating as it's not in itself an evocative thing and I am immediately bogged down in logistics, maps, timing, and such issues before I have any idea of the important parts of the story: i.e. What the protagonist was trying to do when he incidentally rescued people; and What is the deal with the half-siblings and the unknown father? Because though only the protagonist and one half-brother are indicated in those notes, in the dream there were definitely six.

That six is almost certainly derived from the Sims2 Tricou bastards, so I would have no solid reason to retain that specific number if I went with this as a story; but the sense of this poor desperately solitary boy, able to help everyone but himself although he has a family he's already interacting with is the emotional core of the dream, so he's certainly got more than the one half-sibling. And it's not like that's a story that wraps up with a happy reunion, either. No matter how much a kid with an unknown father wants to meet him, the reality of doing so has to be full of resentment by the nature of things.

So who is this kid?

Why is he so good at rescuing people from hurricanes?

What/who is it he's so desperately searching for? There must be some stable, loved figure in his life, someone he depends on or who is dependent on him. Someone who is now in jeopardy, or at least lost in a situation in which jeopardy is imminent. Someone who can get the credit for the kid's being so much more responsible than his father was that his actions allow something coherent to rise from the chaos of the storm.

Figure that out, everything else follows, and you've got yourself a story.

Don't figure it out, and all you've got is another mess of a dream.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


So, Widespot's gone live, and I can see why so many talented people in this world are satisfied with amateur publication.

It's all about immediate feedback. Sullivan's been on sale for over a month and I have no idea if anybody, anywhere, has bought it. I'll find out when the publisher sends me accounting information, and publishers are traditionally very laggard in this matter. Even modern e-book retailers send you an accounting at most every month or so, and traditional publishers send out biannual statements summarizing transactions for the six-month period previous to the six-month period just ending. Fanmail is likely to be sent to the publisher, where it will sit till someone has an idle half hour to collect up accumulated fanmail and shove it into an envelope. I've gotten letters written in class by elementary school students who are in middle school by the time their questions reach me.

But if I look at the download page for Widespot, right there at the top I can see all kinds of statistics. Since 11:44 AM yesterday, I can see that the download has been looked at (as of right now this minute)1,276 times. Wow! I can even see, if I click a link, who is commenting, and what kind of comment it is - who is "favoriting" me, who is "thanking" me by hitting a convenient button (equivalent to Facebook's "like" button), and even (because Mod the Sims has a feature that tracks numbers of posts and uploads and changes how your username is presented accordingly) how many of the people doing those things are people of high status in the community. And of course I can see how many downloads I have.

It's a lot like counting Facebook friends and pageviews, or (as writers so often do) the Amazon ranking for your book; except I don't know anyone who really understands Amazon rankings, and these, like those of most blog/fanfic/whatever publishing communities are pretty self-explanatory.


But most writers, in my experience, are also depressives, and no matter how hopped up you get, the numbers are always spinnable in a depressing direction. 1,276 people (roughly; I don't think I've accessed the thread more than half a dozen times since noon yesterday, so call it an even 1,270) were interested enough to view the description of Widespot. Yay. But only 96 of them have downloaded it. That means that, since yesterday, my work has been rejected 1,174 times! AAAAGH! And only 56 people have thanked me. So have the other 40 tried it and not liked it? And only six people have "favorited" me, some of whom are my known friends and probably are only doing it to be nice. Oh, the insecurity!

Don't do this to yourself, people. Insist on fair accounting from your publisher, do a better job of self-promotion than I do, participate in whatever little pond you find yourself a big fish in - and let it go.

'Cause counting your pageviews will only make you crazy in the end.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What's the Deal, Self?

I need to promote myself, and Sullivan. I know this.

I've gotten good advice from a friend. I need to follow it. I know this, too.

No danger to life and limb is involved. I don't have to leave the house to do it. I don't have to pick up the phone.

It should be driving hard. Why am I acting as if it's rat hard?