Thursday, August 29, 2013

And We're Zen...

Registered, picked up our two free books, badges, and program stuff, and the panic is gone. It's like the moment I step onto the vehicle that's taking me to the airport before a trip - from that point, I'm committed and there's nowhere to go but forward, so the anxiety releases me to ride the wave of events until the post-con crash.

See y'all then.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013


My first panel is on Thursday at 3:00 "Texas Cuisine: What to Eat While You're Here." I completely missed this. Fortunately Damon is more detail-oriented than me and caught it. I can talk about food, off-the-cuff, for days at a time, butI hardly ever eat out anymore, due to the sodium thing, so I need to do a quick review of what downtown restaurants that I would like to recommend are in fact still there. Eating on the River is expensive and the food is mostly ordinary. Is that place opposite city hall still the only place you can get sopapillas downtown? (Biggest mystery in San Antonio - a tex-mex place on every corner and no sopapillas!)

I need to make a little hand-schedule to print out so as to simplify coordination with Damon. We actually got me a mobile for this occasion, but I don't like it (Knew I wouldn't) and we only got the one.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Con registration opens tomorrow. My first panel is at 1:00 on Friday, on Texas Gothic, followed immediately by one on the Future of the Border.

Why am I even on the program? I haven't published in the genre since 2004! I'm not on top of the field! Nobody'll have my books for sale and nobody'll want them anyway! All these people I'm on panels with have qualifications and I'm just a casual autodidact who checkmarked a questionnaire based on "Hey that's interesting!" Nobody knows who I am and by the time I'm done making a fool of myself nobody'll want to! I've made no prior arrangements and don't even know which of my friends will be in town when! This is the big leagues what was I thinking committing to do this? Aaaaaagh!!!!

Yup. Right on time.

But now that I'm over 50, I have access to a calm center that knows I won't even remember my panels afterward because the Public Persona will be in charge. And I'll do better than I think and worse than I could imagine and the worst thing that'll happen is, that I won't do my career any good and will pass up an opportunity. But the best thing is -

I have no idea what the best thing that could happen might be. And that makes it worthwhile.

Because I don't know, no one ever knows, and it can't happen if I don't go out there, bite off more than I can chew, and chew till my jaws ache.

So I'll carry lots of banana chips and some frozen water bottles, get caffeinated to the gills, talk too much when I don't talk too little, and then next week I can be wiped and recover.

So if I miss the garage sale on Sunday, you'll know why.

See you there?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Trust Me. No, Not Really.

WorldCon starts the 29th. I'm not ready, I'm not ready...

I'm never ready, so, suck it up. Next Idea Garage Sale, of course, will be focused on something to do with the Con, so let's cast about for something unrelated. Excuse me while I rummage through the garage...

Rummage, rummage - hey, here's - nope, I'm sure I used that one. Rummage, rummage - such an odd word, rummage. Don't get distracted. Rummage, rummage...ew, that's gross, don't want to talk about that...on the other hand, it ties in with - and then there's - and it's an interesting problem...oh, all right, then.

So, this week I became aware, through a really grossed-out English teacher, that at some point some reviewer for Vanity Fair (a zine culture way outside my comfort zone 'cause I'm all unsophisticated and stuff) called Lolita "the only convincing love story of the century," which I'm going to assume is way out of context because, seriously what the heck? But of course a lot of the problems Lolita has in the marketplace, and that Nabokov had with the response to the book, are down to people being so strongly influenced by identification with a character, particularly a POV-bearing protagonist, that they will either defend that character's position as if it were their own, or confuse the author's position with the character's and, when they reject the character's behavior, reject the author on the assumption that he is condoning the behavior.

If you want a less revolting example, and I think we all do, take Katherine Paterson's Jacob Have I Loved. This is a book about sibling rivalry, told entirely from the POV of a twin who feels, not without reason, that her sister Caroline has completely eclipsed her, that they are in an eternal competition which Caroline is predestined to win. She blames Caroline for stealing the limelight, their parents, The Boy; for her own sense of being unloved and marginalized; for being beautiful and talented when Wheeze (even her nickname is ugly!) isn't; for everything that makes Wheeze unhappy. And even though Wheeze, in the course of the book, manages to move past all this and mature into a more reasonable space, Paterson is often confronted with readers - particularly adult readers, interestingly - who take this attitude at face value and assume that either Caroline is as bad as Wheeze thinks, or that Paterson wants the reader to hate Caroline as much as Wheeze does. Which is to completely miss the point of the story.

This is a hazard of writing with an unreliable narrator, and the problem that arises from these two examples is, How to avoid it without abandoning the unreliable narrator? Because we can talk all we want about how people shouldn't read this way and should be able to recognize unreliable narrators when they see them, and separate the author from the character, and the reader's response from what the author says; it won't make it so.

So is there a way to shortcut this tendency?

The obvious one - to have a POV character who is so wrong that no one could possibly be confused - is clearly untenable in light of the Lolita evidence. You can't get much worse than a pedophile, after all!

One tactic of which mystery and thriller writers are fond is to alternate the unreliable narrator with a reliable one. This can be an excellent suspense device - whenever your detective or prospective victim protagonist hits a dull stretch, switch to the POV of the perpetrator and put his dangerous screwed-up-ness on display, without revealing his identity. Or (as Agatha Christie did in The ABC Murders) be revealing about screwed-up-ness, but misleading about role in the plot. Agatha Christie was in fact a master at using unreliable narrators, and caught a lot of flak about it early in her career. (About which no one said it better than fellow master of the puzzle mystery, Dorothy L. Sayers: "Fair, and fooled you. It's the reader's job to suspect everybody." Except that might be apocryphal because I can't lay hands on the exact citation right now.)

But that doesn't fulfill the literary motivation to use an unreliable narrator in the first place - the artistic desire to engage the reader with the text in a certain way. It is only the reader's job to suspect everybody in a mystery or thriller; in other genres, trust is the default mode, because who is there to trust in a book except the narrator? (I just realized, by the way, that Sylvia Engdahl used this effect in a delightfully meta way in This Star Shall Abide, of which I do not own a copy; but I vividly remember how the young rebel Noren, captured by Authority, is locked into a virtual learning environment in which he is the protagonist of a prominent historical figure's diary. The turning point of the book is the point at which, trying to work out for himself what's really going on, he realizes that he doesn't trust the people who put him in the environment, but he does trust the "First Scholar" whose viewpoint he's sharing. This also has to do with the importance of researching primary documents but let's get back on topic.) We subvert that trust at our peril; but how else, I ask you, can we ever deliver that potentially fruitful frisson of self-discovery we get when we realize we have been trusting someone evil, despicable, or psychotic?

Ah, now, psychotic - that's the ticket, surely? Nobody, after all, claims that Poe considered the murder at the center of "The Tell-Tale Heart" to be justified. After all, the narrator is batshit crazy! Well, yeah, but the question is - does he behave like a real madman and do we understand mental illness any better at the end of the story? The narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado" is also homicidally insane, and I've heard his position defended, in all seriousness! (By someone who rejected the much more sympathetic sufferer narrating Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," yet.) Agatha Christie does a much better job of presenting an unreliable-due-to-mental-illness narrator in...I won't tell you which ones, just read all her novels and you'll find them!

The only work I can think of which is an unambiguous triumph in presenting an unreliable narrator is Justine Larbaliester's Liar, a compulsive, frustrating, dazzling read. This is the gold standard; but a gold standard is a challenge. You can see what she did. What can you do? Is announcing the unreliable narrator upfront the only way to disarm reader identification? Can you find a trick she missed? If you could go back in time and hand Nabokov a copy of Liar before he begins work on Lolita, or to Paterson before she wrote Jacob Have I Loved, could they have applied anything learned from it to their own protagonists and prompted a more nuanced reader response even from the least sophisticated reader?

Can you?

Starting a story with a technical challenge like this is far from easy, and much less free-flowing than starting with an incident or character. But for a certain kind of mind, it is a compelling challenge; and the results even of incomplete success (and is anything ever so incomplete as success?) would be rewarding.

And of course you do start with a character. It's just that you can't count on her.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Well, it's been a little while since I did a sewing parallel; mostly because I haven't been sewing. But yesterday I finished a dress, first time I'd made the pattern and I had to take an extra dart to make the bodice fit. It was Good Enough, but a little uniform. I decided I wanted to put some embroidery around the hem, so I got out my handy iron-on patterns.

Embroidery is one of those things that gives you a lot of bang for the buck on the "making an impression" front. People who don't embroider are always way more impressed than ironing on a pattern and filling it in with repetitive hand motions justifies by the effort involved.

So I'm ironing away, putting the border originally intended for a pillow slip all around the hem, which is always several miles around because I need full skirts to accommodate my stride, and I wonder, "What's with that blue smear on the back of the paper?"

And then I realize it's not just on the paper, it's on the fabric.

And then I look and I realize that I had some blue plastic hangars a tad too close to the iron and had gotten some melted plastic on one edge of it. Just a little bit; but enough to get on the fabric in more than one place.

And guess what? The iron, being hot enough to apply a transfer, was also hot enough to set the plastic dye right down in the fabric. So it might be possible to wash it out, but by the time I even noticed it, it was too late to do so by any means that would not wholly obliterate the transfer I wanted there.

So the whole dress is ruined, right?

Maybe. But I'm not tossing it out.

Because I'm thinking, those blue smears are tiny. Maybe by the time I've finished embroidering, they'll have faded so only someone who knows where to look can see them.

And maybe, while I'm embroidering, I'll think of a good way to disguise those smears, bury them under another decorative motif. I've got to ponder (and study my iron-on transfers) about that. If I can pull it off, I'll deserve the reaction embroidery gets a lot more than I normally do, because making them look like part of a decorative whole require some true creativity on my part, not just an iron-on and repetitive hand motions, given that there's nothing symmetrical or rational about the location of the smears in relation to each other.

If nothing else, I can still wear it around the house or out to the grocery store, because who looks at what other people wear to the grocery store? Pleasing other people with the outfit is nice, but secondary. I'm making it for me.

It's different with writing, except when it's not. You won't often discover a serious blemish in a story at a stage at which you can't just rip it right out and rewrite. But maybe there's a factual error that makes nonsense of your heroine's behavior and the deadline is cast in stone, no time to do the research and rewriting necessary. Maybe that error can be turned into your heroine's mistake, or a lie told to her, and the screws of suspense tightened by cluing in the audience while she's still acting on bad info?

Or maybe you and your editor have a serious disagreement about what is and is not a blemish, and removing what he wants you to destroys your whole vision? Maybe you don't have to take it to a different editor (though you should give that notion serious consideration, too) - maybe there's a way to twist that particular point into something that works for both of you?

Or maybe the work has some inherent weakness that makes it unpublishable, in the normal way of things, like it's full of in-jokes that render it incomprehensible outside of a demographic so narrow it's not a market (like your own family or gaming group or church) or it's a blatant fanfic or it has to be a picture book but it also has to be too long for a picture book. But - it's good, for what it is, and you can't bear not to share it. You can still find a way to share it. Print up a copy just for the family; self-publish it in some narrow corner of the internet; make a one-off edition for the friend the heroine is modeled on and give it to her for her birthday; use it in a class to illustrate some point.

Never wad up a work you like and just chuck it away. Not without due process. You can always throw it out later if it turns out to be genuinely unsalvageable.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why It's So Hard to Get Anywhere in this World

One of the great things about social media is that it's possible for the inexperienced, the curious, the amateur, the naive, and the isolated to listen in on, and even participate in, the conversations of the experienced, the accomplished, the professional, the sophisticated, and the well-connected and pick up early on whatever ideas are going around, more easily than ever before.

That's one of the awful things about it, too.

I hear, and once in awhile participate in, lots of conversations these days about the portrayal of marginalized groups in the media, what's wrong with mainstream habits, what's right with them, what more could be done. The Bechdel Test. Cover whitewashing. "Strong female characters." Bi-erasure. On and on and on. Somebody publishes something, it goes online, it gets comments, which draw more comments, which get quoted and Liked and reblogged and commented on and expanded and questioned and vehemently argued with and spin off new conversations of specific relevance to niche media and amusements - Is LARPing ableist? How sexist is the gaming industry? And on and on and on.

These are good conversations to have, and good ideas to ponder, because, face it, we are all ableist, sexist, racist, and so on, as an inheritance from our past, and the only way to stop being that way is to become aware of it. But -

There's always a but, isn't there?

One of the things I see, poking around in the back recesses of fandom, on the fringe of a bunch of things because that's where I naturally live, I see an unintended consequence of following these conversations.

Okay, two. One is that if you try to read all of it, you'll never write (draw/compose/program/whatever).

And another is the problem of the old man, the boy, and the donkey, who tried to please everyone, pleased no one, and lost the load of wood and the donkey. Or the problem of the caterpillar who can't walk because he can't figure out which foot to move first. I see it a lot - the person (usually female, sometimes male; usually young, sometimes middle-aged or old) who should be creating is instead paralyzed into inactivity by all the things she needs to do in order to produce the right sort of work. Will her story pass the Bechdel test? Is she being ableist? Is she writing the wrong kind of heroine? Does she have enough people of color? Is she the right color/gender identification/body shape to write this story? How can she be sure she's not just writing a silly Mary Sue story? Will she not only be able to do a good enough technical job, but produce an empowering, inclusionist work that will empower people rather than adding to the sum total of the world's screwed-up-ness?

Because heaven knows, it wasn't intimidating enough wondering if anyone would ever want to read the thing, or if you were imitating Tolkien too closely, of whether fanfiction is strictly speaking legal, or how copyright worked; which is the kind of thing I used to worry about back in the dark ages before social media.

So, if you're ever in that situation, or know somebody in a similar situation, remember this.

You won't get good if you don't do the work.

You don't have to show anyone your work until you're ready and it'll never be ready till you work on it.

If you don't do anything, it won't matter what you've done.

No one can do everything.

Discussions of this sort are intended to empower the disempowered and make the world better. If instead they paralyze you - stop listening to them. Withdraw. It's okay to do that. Things like the Bechdel test are tools to use when appropriate, but they won't always be appropriate. No work can include everything. You don't have to fix society single-handed.

The voice in your head saying excitedly: "You know what would be great? A deaf detective who is routinely underestimated because of the deafness and uses that to her advantage. If the heroine of this story set in the upper middle-class closed and gated community is black and the fact that she's black in a gated community is not the point of the story. Oh, wow, I just figured out that the reason this love story isn't going anywhere is that the supposed love interest is the wrong gender!" That's the voice of the Muse. Listen to it. Embrace it. Participate in any discussions that make that voice sing.

The voice saying: "You can't write that. That won't work. You're not good enough. You'll screw this up. You're not qualified. If you put in this good thing you're really doing this bad thing. Sit still. Don't move. You can't do it. You'll only make things worse." That's the Devil of Disempowerment. That's the voice these discussions are trying to still forever. You won't be able to silence it completely, but you can, in fact, build a cupboard in your head, shove it in there, lock the door, and tell it to STFU. And any discussions that let the Devil out of his cupboard - avoid them. However good they may be for society, and that's not your call, they're not good for you; and that can only be your call.

If you need permission - here you go. I give you permission to do whatever you need to do to accomplish the work that only you can do.

I'm as qualified for that as anybody.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: A Barrel of Worms

First of all, Happy Birthday, 19th Amendment. Whose provisions should have been included in the 13th Amendment, whose provisions should have been in the Bill of Rights. What can I say, freedom and equality are scary, especially for people who hold freedom as a privilege and fear their status would be lowered by equality. But that's not what I came to talk to you about, or maybe it is.

My Tumbler throws random stuff at me from people I follow for various reasons and it would be surprising if none of it stuck hard enough to form a story idea. So here's one: the operator of Feminism and Fandom was asked: something cis people never, ever get asked because no one ever tries to tell them their identity isn't real or just based on social constructs or other bs like that, but I'm curious: why do you identify as a girl?

And y'know, when you think about it, that's a fascinating question.

Me, personally, I have always felt completely congruent with my body. I am female; therefore, everything about me is of the feminine gender. This seems to me natural and right, and means that, for instance, if I or any other person of the female sex decides to engage in a behavior - gaming, or cooking, or birdwatching, or fixing a truck - that behavior is gendered feminine by the virtue of a female person undertaking it. The same behaviors undertaken by a male would automatically be gendered masculine.

But if most people felt like that, we wouldn't need a concept of gender at all; or at least, would only require it in the case of physically intersexual people, whose bodies are not distinctly female or male and who might then need the concept of gender as something distinct from their sex. But I'm not sure why they would; only that the people around them would feel a need to force them to choose a gender, whether they as individuals needed it or not.

It depends, you see, on what the gender concept is for. Which is far from clear to me. As human beings, our great unique adaptation is the ability to abstract general concepts from specific data, so we can apply lessons and skills from one experience to new, similar experiences. We often need fixed roles so that everyone knows what their individual job is and all the necessary stuff gets done without a lot of argument and daily negotiation over who is supposed to do what. Anybody who's ever tried to take turns doing chores with someone who never does his chores on time is familiar with that one. ("I'm only supposed to do dishes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's Wednesday, so it's your turn!" "But you didn't do any dishes Tuesday so you haven't had your turn so I'm not going to do any dishes." "Okay, I'll do last nights dishes later but the breakfast dishes today are yours." "No they're not!" Will somebody just do the stinking dishes so I have something to cook in!? Um, excuse me, intense flashback.)

And I can see how gender expectations could grow from a sexual division of labor, which - especially in societies without a huge technological base to draw on, such as we have now - does in fact make sense the way most hunter-gatherer societies split the actual labor. Men are less essential to perpetuation of a group than women and the responsibility and resource drain of protecting the fetus limits women's mobility, so giving the people who are most likely to be pregnant the less-risky, more sedentary jobs and the expendable people the high-risk running around makes sense. And once you got used to that division, and organized your society around it, the individual who didn't fit neatly into the schema would become a problem and need to be arbitrarily gendered in order to contribute. But an awful lot of non-practical, counterproductive, and just plain silly baggage that has nothing to do with survival goes into modern gender conceptions, while leaving intersexual people more in the lurch than ever, and none of it was inevitable, anyway.

Gender as a concept is increasingly a handicap, but one which we regard as so essential that we cling to it against all reason. Parents with a sexually ambiguous child are encouraged to assign it a gender and force it into one of two molds, which even adults who aren't sexually ambiguous frequently find poor fits and too confining. People of any age who try to present themselves as androgynous, or who choose a gender identity not congruent with their physical sex, are at best treated with prurient interest, at worst physically and legally persecuted. Even people who are aware of this and don't want to be uncomfortable around people of ambiguous gender often are. And yet, objectively, it shouldn't matter a lick.

So, let's step back and world-build for awhile. What if a society exists, of humanlike people, in which a person's role in society is determined by gender - but gender is not tied to a simple sexual dichotomy?

What if the crucial decisions of development all hinged, not on expressing a predetermined gender, but on figuring out what gender you are?

What if there's more than two genders?

What if all children are considered to be the same gender and the age of gender expression is not the same as puberty?

What else would society base a gender on? What if intellectuals are "feminine" and emotionals are "masculine?"

What if your gender category changed based on your age?

What if magic, or psychic, if you prefer SF to fantasy, ability is the determining factor?

This would require a serious grind of worldbuilding before you even started the story, and of course it's been done, sort of. Ursula K. LeGuin's classic Left Hand of Darkness deals with some of these issues, and feminist SF has done a lot of wrestling with gender roles generally. But it strikes me that at best the subject has been nibbled; and in a time when LBGTQ people are increasingly asserting their right to representation, it strikes me as ripe for serving up in a full-size dish.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

It Takes Two (or More) to Polish

Yeah, I'm here, but it's hot.

Here's an example of how important revision, proofreading, copyediting, and fresh eyes are. I don't care what your medium or your target audience.

I was giving another Sims2 Neighborhood builder a hand with a project he'd undertaken which had been overtaken by Health Crap, and with three people working on it we thought we had it good to go. This is the third or fourth draft of this hood and we thought we finally had all the i's dotted and the t's crossed, though we did still have some differences of opinion on individual details. So we put it up for playtesting again.

Within 24 hours we had four or five tweaks that we'd missed, settled the difference of opinion based on feedback, and been alerted to a huge problem - one of the families was appearing, in certain views, with the text for one of the families that ships with the game! This makes no sense! And it was only happening to one person.

After two or three days of head scratching and grilling this player about her game configuration, another playtester had an idea, did an experiment, and gave us The Big Clue. As an artifact of how the neighborhood was originally set up, certain strings of text in the translation files for languages other than US English got duplicated from a premade neighborhood. The person with the problem had a game set to UK English, which was sufficient to trigger the glitch. Once we knew that, it was a piece of cake for the programmer among us to prevent, and the tutorial on creating neighborhoods has been duly updated with a warning about the practice that got us into trouble.

And this is why it bugs me that publishing companies have gradually downsized their copyediting and proofreading over the decades; why so many creative people find beta readers and test audiences an important part of their process; why self-publishing will always be a crapshoot; why I give Damon manuscripts to read for logic and continuity errors; and why whatever it is you do, you need to set your ego aside and listen to feedback from anyone who is kind enough to vet your work. Just because you can't see a problem doesn't mean it's not there. Maybe you're too close to it to see it; maybe you know what's supposed to be there so well you see it even though it's not; maybe it's not physically possible for you to see it because it only appears under conditions you have no reason or ability to replicate.

It's your name on the work, so you're responsible for the final result; but you can't do quality control all by yourself. You need someone to spot you.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Switching It Up

An old, old story found in most cultures involves a husband who complains that he works hard all day while his wife sits around the house doing nothing much and doesn't even always have supper ready when he comes home, takes her up on her offer to trade places, and of course makes a hilarious hash of it while she does his relatively straightforward fieldwork perfectly. They return to their normal fields of expertise and the husband respects his wife more - but what if they'd both been better at the other's job than the other one?

Then there's the standard parable about the person who thought his cross was too heavy to carry around accepting an offer to choose from an assortment of everybody else's and eventually choosing to leave with the one he came in with. But what would happen if one of the people with the crosses he rejected came in, hmm?

At the Mad Hatter's tea party the guests all shift down one periodically, with only the one in the lead making an improvement. In some games, notably specialty card games, conditions may arise in which characters exchange their game positions. In the Management Material card games, for example, the object is to use excuses to force other people to take projects while not doing them yourself, and by far the easiest person to force a project on is the person to your left; but it's possible to draw an Event Card which calls on everyone to pass their hands to the player on the right.

Generally speaking, when we see change-ups happening in fiction - Freaky Friday springs to mind, but of course the ur-text for this is The Prince and the Pauper - everybody wants to get their own lives back pretty soon, after Important Character Arc Stuff. In the Murphy/Ackroyd movie Trading Places, the character who is raised from poverty and the character whom he displaces are soon united against the common enemy playing with their lives. But what if there's a clear winner who isn't willing to give up the improvement? It's a side note in Diana Wynn Jones's Charmed Life that every one of the alternate Gwendolyns dragged out of one universe into an analogous place in the adjacent one finds an improved situation. E.C. Myers does some complex, and very dark, stuff with alternate universes and analogs in Fair Coin and Quantum Coin, but it quickly gets off the human, intimate scale of the individual with the crosses and the quarreling couple. (This is not intended as a negative criticism; no book can do everything, and when you increase the scale to so many alternate universes, it becomes impossible to care as much about the individuals in it; in fact this is a major theme of the book, as the protagonists try to take the least immoral course they can.)

I have been convalescent, and therefore indolent and dilatory, this morning, so it's taken me a long time to set up the question, and all this is really too vague to count as "an idea." But that's part of the process, too, and may as well be shown.

How do we take a good old-fashioned character-arc based "how the other guy lives" scenario, and introduce conflict between the characters and a thriller-type tension and danger, without losing the intimacy, applicability, and moral thrust of the original concept?

Is it even possible to write a thriller and retain the applicability to daily life that is the chief interest of the scenario?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

LGBT School Survey, and Brain Full

First, a signal boost:
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network is conducting a National School Climate Survey in order to gather data on which to base realistic platforms for educational policy on gender issues in schools. I'm pretty sure all of my 16 followers are too old to take this themselves; but I bet they know people who aren't.

And second, I have been boning up on Mexican history to prep my brain to be on an Alternate Texas,Alternate Mexico panel at WorldCon (with Harry Turtledove, no less, so my chief goal is not to embarrass myself completely). Like most Americans my Mexican history is spotty, but reading Texas history at all gains you a peripheral awareness of events in Mexico. I imagine this works in reverse, too. In practical terms, so much of Texas is Northern Mexico, and so much of Mexico is Southern Texas, that you can't study one without picking up bits and pieces of the other. Details, however, get lost in the compost pile of the brain.

I had meant to keep my nose in the book till my husband came home, but I got to Porfirio Diaz in the overview text I'm reading, and my brain choked. All research afternoons have that moment of saturation - when your brain is physically as full as it can get and you could keep reading, and even try to take notes, but it won't do you any good.

Unfortunately, my brain always does this when it gets to Porfirio Diaz. He sits in the middle of Mexican history like a boulder in the middle of a fruitcake.

Okay, that's got to be the worst simile I ever wrote in my life. It's accurate, though, as a representation of the effect of the name on me. The man's completely indigestible. I can't bite him into small chunks, I can't see around him, the mere sight of his name makes my brain numb.

The obvious question to pose on the panel is, What if Porfirio Diaz hadn't happened?

But I don't think most Americans have more than the vaguest conception of who he was, so posing the question without having something more to throw out there, the stories and details and dramatic incidents of which history is made, would be futile. I have to make my brain absorb something tangible about the man; something to bring across to a casual listener.

Tomorrow. Not today.

And on the day of the panel, I have every reason to hope that telling the story of Lew Wallace's offer to Rip Ford will fascinate enough people that there won't be any time to get to Diaz.

But overpreparation is necessary.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

New Beginning to New Ending

Another darling gone, the whole last chapter, and a query sent out on the basis of the new manuscript. We'll see if it fares any better than the old one (which is still sitting, whole and unmarred, on the hard drive and numerous external backups, so if I need it back I can get it).

Len's story now begins: The third morning after I left home, I woke up knowing what I should do.

It now ends:
Outside in the plaza we heard cheering, catcalling, the tramping of hooves, and Sheikh bellowing.
General Shelby had arrived. For the next few days, our private scandals could pass unnoticed amid the frenzy of dying patriotism, the looting of stores, and the final death throes of the Confederacy.
"All right," said Middleton. "All right."

I liked the old ending better.

But hey, maybe this version will get snapped up at auction by a big house, become The Next Big Thing, and demand multiple sequels, and I can use that ending in the 20th book, which wraps up Len's entire life and career; by which time, the words will be even more meaningful than they were the first time!

(Shut up. Authors have to feed themselves fantasies like that in order get up in the morning. And this kind of thing does happen, so why not to me as well as to anybody else?)

Time to research my LoneStar Con panels and get the pitch line back to the front of my brain.

Because you can finish projects, but you will never be done working.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Whose Problem Is It?

So, someone I follow on Tumblr mentioned a local-to-her newsstory, with no link, about an 11-year-old robbing a lemonade stand at gunpoint. This was apropos of why she was glad to be moving someplace entirely different. The fact that she said "lemonade stand" rather than "juice bar" implies the old-fashioned elementary school entrepreneurial endeavor of making a pitcher of lemonade and selling it to passersby. I've never seen one in real life, but the meme is a strong one, so let's assume that this was one 11-year-old, with a gun, confronting another 11-year-old, with money. Very high concept, that!

The most basic definition of story is character + conflict, or as I like to put it, a person with a problem. Structurally, then, the first question to ask here is - this is clearly a problem, but to write the story we must know whose problem we're dealing with. My source considered it a problem with the neighborhood, and certainly the adults around the kids need to treat it as such; but a neighborhood is not a character and the minute the adults start organizing the story becomes politics. As a society, we tend to treat the kid with the gun as a problem and the kid with the money as a victim; but this is not at all a realistic or constructive way for them to view themselves. Who are these kids? Who were they before they got to the gun/money point, who are they during that transaction, and who are they afterward? And is the gun/money point the beginning of the story, or the end of it?

An unusual artifact of the way this story came to me is, that I have no gender label for either child. They are wholly defined by their ages. I bet most people who read the original reference, and most people reading this now, however, automatically assume that the kid with the gun was male, and that the visualization of the kid with the lemonade and money is about 50/50 male or female - in the gender schemata of western society entrepreneurs are male, but females are victims and food-providers. But what happens to the story we spin if the kid with the gun is female and the kid with the lemonade is male? If they're both female? Or if - to go way out on an imaginative limb - one of them is intersex or transgendered? (Yes there are transgendered 11-year-olds - it doesn't hit with puberty or track consistently with sexual orientation!)

Because I said I'd do two garage sale ideas to make up for zoning out last week, here's a related conundrum: At what point does "their problem" become "my problem?"

I was led to this question twice by following trails (again on tumblr, which I am finding much less overwhelming and stressful than Facebook, possibly because the way I approached tumbler I get this kind of thing thrown in on top of pages and pages of pictures from people's sims games which seems to talk to me without demanding anything of me) that led back to a blog post about "changing the creepy guy narrative" and another about a food service employee doing the best he could to come to the social rescue of a customer being bullied by another customer. In both these instances, we have a "hero" who accepts another person's problem as his own and steps in to deal with it on behalf of a "heroine," and we are left with a superficial good feeling on top of a tangle of other questions.

Like, why is the "heroine" of these stories unable to rescue herself? Is there no way out for her, in Western society as it exists today, except to be white knighted? (In the first case, alas, this is so; the only unaided defense against the creepy guy is to totally ignore him, because any response is experienced as reward and encouragement. Trust me on this.) If so, what happens when the gender roles in the sandwich story are switched up - could a female employee pull off this rescue without repercussions? Would female bullying be recognized as a serious problem? At what point does "minding your own business" become "complicity," in one direction; and in the other, at one point does "meddling" become "courage?"

And how does one go about tackling someone else's problem without co-opting their story? The only satisfactory solution to a story is for the character with the conflict to solve it - not to have it solved, or alleviated, or distracted from, by somebody else.

This is as true in story as it is in real life.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

No Useless Words!

A thread on "useless words" has been started over at the Fortean Times message board (I'd link you, but the site requires registration to read posts, I believe); but I don't think most of the instances cited are useless at all! The OP leads with "freshet," for example, and though it's not in every day use I can't possibly be the only person left in the world who understands it. It's used in poetry, and provides an attractive alternative to "water run-off" and "flooding," especially in cases of violent activity.

Some words nominated which I wouldn't have even considered obscure are "incunabulum," "timorous," "prolix," and "dilatory." As far as I know, incunabulum is the only available word for an early printed book, and anyone who reads Dorothy L. Sayers knows what it means, because Sir Peter Wimsey collects them. I don't routinely use timorous or prolix, but I read them occasionally, and would expect to be understood if I used them in conversation. "Dilatory" I do use routinely. I have a friend who's dilatory (as well as prolix!), and I tell him so; plus I occasionally apologize for being that way myself online.

Others are useful and should be more widely known, especially:

Mumpsimus (n.): 1. A view stubbornly held even when shown to be wrong.
2. One holding such a view.

Omphaloskepsis (n.) Navel-gazing. This refers to introspective self-analysis.
Etymology: Greek, from omphalos, “navel” and skepsis, “query or doubt.”

Growlery (n.): A retreat for times of ill humour.

Others are obscure only because they are jargon, and are not only useful but essential within certain fields of endeavor, such as
Almacantar (n.): A circle of altitude, parallel to the horizon. An astronomical term, used to describe imaginary lines in the sky by which an astronomer determines the height of a star in the sky relative to the horizon.

Haecceity (n.): The aspect of existence on which individuality depends; the hereness and nowness of reality.

Skeuomorph (n.): A retained but no longer functional stylistic feature.

Ullage (n.): The amount by which a cask or bottle falls short of being full
Etymology: From Anglo-French ulliage.

Boustrophedon (adj. and adv.): Of writing, alternating left to right then right to left.
Etymology: Greek, from bous, “ox” and strophe, “a turning.”

Keeping track of ullage is vital in the safe storage of volatile liquids such as petroleum, so this word stands in well as an argument for the usefulness of jargon. Outsiders won't often need to follow the conversations that require jargon anyway, and can learn the meaning of the uknown term in about two seconds, if they do.

Other words, of course, are beautiful in their own right, as sounds and as concepts, such as:
Mascaron (n.): A grotesque face on a door-knocker.

Antiscian (adj., n.): Those who live on the same meridian, but on opposite sides of the equator so that their shadows at noon fall in opposite directions

and the wonderful
Incompossible (adj.): Not mutually possible. Not possible together; wholly incompatible or inconsistent.

I often encounter reverse vocabulary-snobbery, when people get angry at me for using a word that they don't know but which is part of my normal usage. Learning new words is easy. Your brain is adapted to it, and does so all the time. Every language (but particularly an etymological packrat language like English, which not only is constructed to enable new coinages but routinely borrows from every other language it encounters) contains more words than any one person can learn in a lifetime; so the mysterious Language Acquisition Device of the brain never loses its capacity for lack of use.

If someone uses a word you don't understand, look it up, or ask for clarification. It's a reasonable request.

Far more reasonable than expecting people to instinctively know which words in their vocabulary aren't in yours, and limit their communication accordingly!

Learn new words,
But keep the old!
One is silver
And the other, gold!