Thursday, October 31, 2013

I Brake for Civic Duty

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

I hope.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Discipline is for the Disconnected

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: A Display Piece

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sort of thing happens.

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

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As if being left out completely isn't offensive.

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

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

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

For one thing, we are them.

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

Don't be didactic, but be proactive.

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

You are not the only one.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Some Notes on the Trip to Santa Fe

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The automatic faucets waste water in the convention center.

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

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

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

I could not ID an accent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

First Times at Fifty-two

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

I've never been to Santa Fe.

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

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

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

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

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

Is 52 the age when mellow kicks in?

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: You Know Who You Are

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does that change him?

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

Play with that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 10, 2013

I am a Bad Citizen of the Consumer Society

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Eight Days

In eight days I leave for the Paeleoamerican Odyssey conference.

And I'm crashing hard every day.

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

And that is all I have to say today.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: A Life in the Woods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What exactly did his father tell him about the world?

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

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

You know what strikes me most strongly?

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

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

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

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Black Hole in the Center

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013


Some days, all you can do is read stuff.

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