Friday, November 29, 2013

November 29: A Great Day for Literature

Today is the birthday of Louisa May Alcott.

And C.S. Lewis.

And Madeleine L'Engle.

It is a good day to read!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thankful as an Intransitive Adjective

For various reasons, we won't be having the Big Meal till Sunday with the gaming group, but that's fine. Damon has today and Friday off and we're going to hunker down (by local standards it's very cold) and stay off the road, except I have to go deal with some cats whose people are out of town, poor things.

My reverend Mom once asked me who or what, as an agnostic, I feel grateful to when I take time to be thankful; but I'm not feeling thanks as a transitive verb in these cases. I'm looking at my life, and taking note of the ways in which it is in fact pretty decent. When an individual is responsible for some good thing I wish to give credit where it's due; but I can also feel glad about circumstances. And by the way, some of the things I'm glad about, I did for myself. So there's that. Nothing wrong with being thankful to yourself for making the right call.

I'm thankful I have freedom to make choices and live with the consequences.

I'm thankful I live in Texas, where we all feel cold when it gets into the 50s. (Despite the political craziness; no place is perfect and it's my responsibility to provide as much political sanity as I can.)

I'm thankful that my biggest immediate complaint is that my videocard died and I can't play my favorite computer game till the new one arrives. On the scale of crosses to bear, that's a highly desirable level of discontent!

Damon is congested and didn't sleep well, but he's fully mobile, has fat reserves, and hasn't had acute anything in months. By his standards, he's healthy. And after the year from hell, when none of that was true, I am grateful every year that he's alive.

I'm thankful that I have control of my own time.

I'm thankful for the local independent bookstore, the only place I would ever consider shopping on Black Friday if I had a reason to shop, which I don't.

I'm thankful that my health crap is controllable with fairly simple lifestyle limitations and medications. If I have to miss out on stuff, well, then, I have to. It beats being too dizzy to walk.

I'm thankful for pharmacies that are open on holidays.

I'm thankful for my cats. Because cats.

I'm thankful for my friends. Because friends.

I'm thankful for books, both the ones I write and the ones I read. Because books!

And I'm thankful that I am once again the person certain people call when in need; because being that person means not being in need myself.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

News: Diana Wynne Jones Forum!

The good news is, somebody opened up a discussion forum about Diana Wynne Jones!

The bad news is, practically no one has posted on it yet. But that can be changed.

And no, I wasn't the first one on it. I was the third. At the moment I'm the last poster in all the open discussion threads, but I didn't start them all, so that's totally coincidental and anyway you could change that.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Free-Range Normal

So every Thanksgiving, I see the same things.

Christmas decorations.


Pilgrims and Indians.

Complaints about the historical inaccuracy and insensitivity of popular portrayals of pilgrims and Indians.

You know what I don't see?

Historically accurate portrayals of pilgrims and Indians. By which I do not mean jokes about what a bad idea it was for Native Americans to feed invading white people, which are - face it - a further reinforcement of the traditional imagery that puts nothing constructive or interesting on the table. Names like Wampanoag and Massasoit are too unfamiliar to the general public to joke with.

So isn't it time to address that?

Isn't it time for a Wampanoag-eye fictional treatment of the prototypical "first Thanksgiving?"

For that matter, isn't it way past time for the great Iroquois domestic novel? The historical romance which isn't half-European? If we must have clash-of-cultures, mixed-race romance, what on earth is wrong with a hero or heroine who is an escaping slave making a new life with the Seminole? (Hmm...the Cherokee kept slaves...) The war novel about the clashes between different tribes, with Europeans at most an annoying and trivial side presence? The story of epic technological change and cultural upheaval following the reintroduction of the horse? The pre-Columbian murder mystery? Or political novel?

The pre-Columbian anything that doesn't read like an epic fantasy, for that matter.

I told one of the other attendees at the Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference that it was my ambition to write Pleistocene domestic novels. No culture is exotic or romantic to its own members. One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows us to get out of our own points of view and experience someone else's normal. This applies at the writing end as well as the reading end. It is not true - and I have never met an author of color who thinks that it is - that white people can't write about the experience of non-white people. That's only a poor-mouthed backasswards way of saying that authors of color can't write about mainstream experience independent of race issues, which is obviously and completely wrong. My books with non-white protagonists (Margo's House, The Music Thief, and 11,000 Years Lost) have received nothing but positive support from the black and Hispanic people who have remarked on them to me. But the danger of crossing the line between inspiration and appropriation (a line that falls, I believe, exactly on the line between recognition of and assumption of privilege; if you write cross-culturally, do so with a humble heart!) is real; and it is, miserably, statistically true that it's easier for a white author to sell a cross-cultural book than for an American Indian to sell a book of any sort.

We need more writers from American Indian backgrounds, and we need them to be better known. Sherman Alexie, Joseph Bruchac, and Cyn Smith can hardly be expected to do the job of spreading normality all themselves; especially since "American Indian" and "Native American" are umbrella terms covering many different normalities which are treated as a single entity by mainstream culture. So the experience of being Indian is not the same as the experience of being Muskogee, or Navajo, or Cherokee, or -

Apart from pushing books at people, and despite writing protagonists who aren't like me, I'm limited in my ability to contribute here. And it bugs me to realize that it's not at all unlikely that someone out there will read these words and say snappishly: "I'm trying! But the damn lily-white publishing industry keeps rejecting them!" Because, yeah, even this far into the digital revolution, the publishing industry is still depressingly white. And straight. And all the rest of it.

I'm kind of hoping to be inundated with links to indies and e-publications that do everything that I suggest here isn't being done, or not done enough. That would be nice.

Happy Turkey Week, anyhow. And try to believe it's not about imperialism, but about getting a day off in the middle of the week to get together with your family, bake pies together in a nice warm kitchen, and eat yourself into a stupor.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Making a Mess of Things

So it's Kitchen Sanitation Month.

Which means the kitchen is a mess.

Because that's how it works - in order to get things really clean, you have to get your hands dirty; and when you're doing a big job like this, getting into all the corners and throwing out the expired stuff and fixing what needs fixing and replacing the roach traps, putting things in order, a side effect is a huge temporary increase in disorder. Recycling, trash, and compost containers overflow and have to be emptied much more often than usual (though really you ought to empty the kitchen compost container at least once a day). And let's not talk about what happens to the floor. (Which is white tile. White. Tile. Whatever previous owner did that, I could strangle on a regular basis, but it's way down on the list of Stuff We Gotta Fix in This House.)

It's exactly the same as revising a manuscript, with one notable exception. When you're revising a manuscript, you have to get your hands dirty. You have to make a mess of it. Word processors disguise this somewhat, because you can take out paragraphs and bits of words and even move stuff around without it leaving visible traces if you don't want visible traces. I have some old typescripts up in the attic that I was revising with pens, scissors, tape, and different-colors of paper, because dear heaven, you can't retype the thing from scratch constantly. And whereas the cat can only disrupt word processing by standing on your keyboard and mousepad, his options for disrupting on-paper revision were practically limitless - as are his options for disrupting Kitchen Sanitation Month. (I don't want to flick the bucket water at him because it's got bleach in it.)

Still, however you do it, it's a messy, difficult, time-consuming job. And - just like Kitchen Sanitation - you have to go back and reclean stuff you've already cleaned pretty often, because you can't fix the plot hole in Chapter 23 without messing up some foreshadowing in Chapter 2, creating a continuity error in Chapter 15, and having a major characterization epiphany that requires you to reread every reference to the heroine's younger brother and adjust accordingly; any more than you can wash the dust off the good china without getting the sink and dishwasher dirty again. But you have to sanitize the sink and dishwasher first or the dishes won't be sanitized.

Still - and this is why writing is more fun than housework - revision has one huge advantage over Kitchen Sanitation Month, and that is, that while you will reach a point at which you're done revising a particular manuscript, you will never truly be done cleaning the kitchen.

You know, when you send your best version of a manuscript off to submission, that you'll run another polishing rag over it every three or four rejections; and if you get accepted you'll probably have to revise for the editor; and then there'll be copyediting; and then you'll have to proof the galleys; but eventually, at last, it'll be a book, bound and out the door and even if you reread it later and find something you think you could have done better, it'll be too late. That book is printed and it's staying the way you left it.

The kitchen will never, ever reach this point.

Remember that next time you're fed up with revising. Or you look at a work and can only see what a huge mess it is. Or the whole project begins to seem less worthwhile.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Historical Problem Novels

If the context of a line doesn't leap out at you - Read More History! (You will never regret reading more history. It's not possible.)

"I'm sorry, but there's no help for it. One of us has to be sold into slavery, or we'll all starve."

"Look, nobody wants to expose the runt twin on the hillside!"

"But it's a good deal! By the time she's old enough to consummate the marriage she'll be a rich widow!"

She stood on the edge of the field they should have harvested yesterday, and counted the bodies the battle had left behind among the crushed stalks.

If they didn't take some captives, soon, they'd either have to sacrifice one of their own, or risk the failure of sunrise.

"Of course the cow's bewitched! What other possible explanation could there be?"

"I know it's hard, but at least the freak show will feed the poor child."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

It Gets Better Takes a Long Time

So I was going through old manuscripts yesterday and there was this one, The Autobiographical First Novel of Annie Smoot, and I was reading, and laughing, and making note of ways it needed to be updated (since it dates from the mid-90s and tech has gotten so intrusive in the intervening years), and when I got to the end of what I had (Chapter III) I really wanted to read the rest, which generally means I start typing and finish the book. But.

Bookworm Annie Smoot is being bullied, and the bully's mother has forced the bully to invite her to a birthday party, and Annie's mother has forced her to accept (because grownups never understand how serious anything is) and this is clearly a funny book about getting out from under the bullying and I don't know how she can.

Because I never did.

Oh, I'm out from under it now. Mostly. I've finally gotten a handle on bullying.

Two solutions exist for the persistent victim. One is to reach the place where "they" have no power over you - where you don't care what they think and they can't reach any of your vulnerable points, so you don't even have to interact with them except as you might interact with an uneven bit of sidewalk, which would trip you and break your leg if it could. And the other is to be valued (but not envied or resented) in the environment in which you encounter them to the extent that you don't look vulnerable. In that situation, if someone is dumb enough to attack you anyway, you won't have to defend yourself because other people will.

This is what that "just ignore them" advice adults always give kids is about. The people who give it don't recognize that, if it were possible to ignore them, you wouldn't be targeted anyway.

But of course, when you're six, or eleven, or even 30 and stuck in an office job with a jackass, you don't have those options. In those situations, pretty much anybody can hurt you who wants to, and your control over your own value is limited. In fact, a great deal of a bully's activity focuses on sabotaging you and keeping your value from being recognized.

I'm 52, and I'm only out from under this crap because I quit the workforce and routinely absent myself from places and situations in which I am not valued. Treat me badly once in your store, just once, and I'll never darken your door again. Treat me badly in a game, I don't have to finish it. Stalk me on the net and I can block your ISP. Flame me in a newsgroup and I can put you on ignore, if the newsgroup is otherwise worth staying on. (And I'm not sure how it happened, but I even have places where I'm valued - one person who used to be in our gaming group isn't anymore, because he behaved badly to Damon and me; and not long ago someone was rude to me in an internet setting, and before I even knew it had happened the offender was told "You know sassytalking Peni is like punching yourself in the face, right?") And this is all very nice but - I'm 52.

I can't write a book telling bullied eleven-year-olds to outlive it. Yuck! And I won't write a dishonest one telling them that if they're nice enough, clever enough, empathetic enough, whatever enough they can make friends with or triumph over their bullies, because in my experience, you can't. Nor would I be allowed to write one giving them a head's up that the problem can and will persist into their workplaces, because that is too depressing and adults in general refuse to admit it, anyway, so I'd never get it past an editor.

Which leaves poor Annie Smoot out on a limb.

I don't know what to do about that, either.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


So Moby Dent, the Great White Car, keeps having to go to the car doctor, and it becomes clear that the day approaches when we will have no choice but to donate his inert husk to NPR or the Kidney Foundation or something; by which time, living where we do, we need to have another vehicle already in the driveway. Which means Damon and I spent a lot of Veteran's Day carshopping like responsible adults, when we would rather have been gaming or reading or watching a Netflix marathon. (We did go see the Thor movie and sat through the credits for both extra scenes because Damon always sits through the credits and catches the extra scenes. You can't fool him!)

Now, I have never bought a car before in my life. Apart from the driving school's learning vehicle, and the rental I drove briefly in Santa Fe last month, Moby is the only car I've ever controlled. Even Damon hasn't bought a car in the usual sense since before I met him, though he's been through a few cars since then. There's always been a cheap car available from some nearby source when he needed on, a co-worker letting something go cheap or whatever. Moby himself was an in-family transaction, originally purchased by my father-in-law. The result of this is that neither of us is all that sure what we want in a car, except for a handful of things - manual backups for all systems, for example - that we are unlikely to get.

(Forget the back-up camera and the GPS; when, as will inevitably happen, it dies in an intersection and all the systems go out, I want to be able to roll down the window so I can communicate with the helpful people pushing me out of traffic! That is what I call a safety feature! How the heck are you supposed to get out of a modern car when the bad guys run you off the road into the lake and everything shorts out? You can't count on the bad guys shooting your windshield out for you. And what I really, really want is a button on the dash that expands and contracts various parts of the car; so I can drive a compact when I need to park in Austin, a truck when I need to haul plants or furniture, a sedan when driving people around, etc.)

When I normally think about cars, which I don't do often, I think of them in terms of characterization. What sort of car would this or that character drive? I don't know anything about makes and models, but you don't have to in order to do this particular exercise. A pickup truck implies a certain culture; whether the truck is old and beat up, new and shiny, old and shiny, extended-cab, black or white or silver or blue or red, will assist the reader to slot the driver into certain economic and social places in that culture; and then you fill up the back (or not) and that's a powerful but digestible amount of information crammed into, at most, a couple of sentences. If the owner of the pickup also has a town car and a '65 Mustang in the driveway, then that's as good as an infodump.

But does that really work? How many people - how many characters - are out there with no more conscious choice about the kinds of cars they drive than Damon and I have had?

Would anybody look at Moby and make any kind of accurate deduction about how who Damon and I are?

And would anybody who knew Damon and me have predicted that we would go looking at smaller SUVs this weekend? Which is what we did. Damon's idea. Surprised me; yet if there's anybody you'd think I'd know it'd be him. I think of myself as a compact car person (and I did rent a compact in New Mexico, but that was for expense and besides, I was driving it from the airport in Albuquerque to the hotel, and from the hotel back to the airport - I don't even need a back seat for that!), but a compact would not be suitable for avocational archeology trips, and one of the SUVs we got into yesterday felt too small on the inside. Apparently I need psychological space inside a car I'm driving. (Damon just needs some head and leg room.) If I don't know what kind of car I want myself, how can I characterize other people with them?

Yet the first car salesman we had yesterday got a line on us pretty quick. We never said: We want something durable, but by the third thing we looked at he was bringing up maintenance issues and telling us which ones would last us the longest. And that was before he found out how old Moby is. And this is in fact what we want in everything: something we won't have to keep replacing or renovating.

So the lesson I take away from this is that characterization via car is valid, but that I don't have a handle on how to do it. I'll need to pay attention to the car salesmen, because the good ones will have a handle on it - they'll need to, in order to do their jobs - and I can perhaps learn from that.

I generally think of myself as pretty good at characterization, but no matter how good you are at something, you'll always find areas to improve.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Annihilating Time and Space for Fun and Profit

One of my favorite themes is time travel. The prospect of full immersion in another time attracts me like open reading matter attract cats. I've thought about it enough to have a consistent, yet flexible, concept of how it needs to work for my stories; settled the predestination/paradox problem to my own satisfaction (though it's surprisingly difficult to get people to break out of their preconceptions enough to grasp my simple solution); and generally am comfortable with doing it. From a writing perspective, the main work in writing such a story now involves doing the research, evolving the characters and plot that arise naturally from the research, getting the butt in the chair - and, eventually, pitching/selling the damn thing, which is always the hardest part and no one wants to hear me whine about it.

But one aspect of the time travel concept remains largely unaddressed, and the gap is glaring. But it's so far removed from my own motivation for time traveling, that I have a hard time approaching it.

One of the technical difficulties of time travel, normally handwaved, is that the earth moves constantly through space. Not only does it orbit the sun, but the solar system moves through the galaxy, which in turn moves through the universe. If you go back in time a year, or a hundred years, or eleven millennia, without shifting in space (as my protagonists generally appear to do), you wind up in the vacuum of space where the earth is going to be at the time you leave. And if you go back in time and simultaneously shift in space (as so many books have people doing, with modern children winding up in Classical Greece, Imperial Rome, Medieval France, etc.) it'd take an astronomer and a high-powered computer to run the data to arrive safely.

An effective time travel method is also, ipso facto, an effective method for traversing or bypassing vast regions of space.

Which means you should be able to repurpose the method in order to enable instantaneous interstellar travel.

That's - a pretty freaking huge concept. Arguably, huger than would fit into one book; though one of the pleasures of speculative fiction is the way large numbers of mind-bending concepts can be evoked and compressed into a single work as backdrop.

This connection is hinted at in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in which both time and space are spindled, folded, and mutilated as the plot/comedy requires and "Infinite Improbability Drive" covers a multitude of contingencies (well, an infinite number) - but the Guide is a special case.

You could spend a career writing a loose series, either setting-based like Darkover or character-based like the Vorkosigan Saga, exploring the consequences of such a technology. One book could depict the experimental phase, as the Laws of Paradox and Free Will are formulated; any number could be spent on the Exploratory Phase; the political, economic, and social ramifications would run constantly in the background as plot complicators. Ancient cultures. New planets. Ancient cultures on new planets. Rivals forming alliances with the same culture in different eras. Extreme anthropology, with "experimental archeology" taking on a whole new meaning.

The author would have terrifyingly few limits. Success would mean a terrifying professional commitment. Disappointing sales on the first couple of books would mean a frustratingly curtailed creative experience.

I wish I'd stop having Big Ideas.

Friday, November 8, 2013

So Common, So Easy to Prevent

My favorite webcartoonist, Shaenon Garrity, is posting 12-panel summaries of X-Files episodes every Friday (because she can), and today she addresses something close to my heart: "Nitpicking details of the setting!" Because Season 3, Episode 19, "Hell Money," is set in San Francisco's Chinatown, and she lives in San Francisco. She pairs script assumption with reality right down the line, pointing out both cliches ("X-Files: Asian-Americans want to tell you colorful stories of your homeland! Reality: In my experience, they mostly want to tell you about their mini-comic." But then Shaenon's acquaintance in all ethnic groups is weighted toward cartoonists.) and obvious assumptions that aren't true ("X-Files: It's possible to hide bodies by burying them in cemeteries. Reality: Okay, this is the big one. San Francisco doesn't have cemeteries.")

This has got to be the most common, and the least explicable, type of research failure in all media. Most common, because we see it all the dang time. Least explicable, because we all pounce on media set in our familiar territories and nitpick the details. If the writer of that episode were to see a show set in his own home town he'd treat it in exactly the same way. "Ha! In Podunk, Nebraska, the grain silos are all on the west side of town! It's only in West Podunk that they have one near the watertower!"

It's not that complicated, guys. If you're setting a story outside your own stomping ground, go visit the place! If that's not practical, find somebody from there and have her vet the manuscript for you.

Because somebody is from there, and will notice.

Besides, walking out the story territory is fun and, in the case of travel locations, tax-deductible!

This is why all my stories are set in Texas, by the way. It makes walking out the territory so much simpler.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Private Pleasures

One of the sweetest, least shareable things in the world is going back over a manuscript you'd lost all enthusiasm for, to run a polishing cloth over it out of a sense of duty because you get a submission window to a publisher you always intended to send it to but couldn't for whatever reason, and realize, This doesn't suck.

This is, in fact, pretty good.

Yes, it's good in a way that's hard to pitch, but if you can manage to get somebody past the sales pitch (always the problematical bit) it has a real shot at publication, and even at becoming one of those books that people love in isolation. Because it's not very likely to hit the zeitgeist in a bestseller kind of way, but an under-the-radar favorite kind of way, whose readers discover each other and rejoice and become a little private club, is not out of the question.

Which would be plenty good enough for me. But will a publisher see it that way in this climate?

Never mind. It's in the mail. It has its fair shot at the market. That's all I can give it.

Don't throw them away. You can learn to love them again.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Halloween, and the Day After

At some point we stopped leaving our lights on for Halloween; part of our long withdrawal from the collective culture, you could call it. But I still pay attention. This year the people banning Halloween are Russian, but the arguments are just as unrealistic, ignorant, and divorced from the real Halloween experience of real people as ever.

Halloween is a popular holiday for authors, for obvious reasons. It gives us a natural, liminal setting for supernatural motifs and for fantasies of transformation. What if the masks reveal more than they conceal? What if they transform instead of merely disguising? The legitimacy of disguise and deception in a public setting is an ideal setup for the mystery author, or the comedian, to create confusion, particularly concerning identity. Agatha Christie loved a masquerade. Choice of costume illuminates character - remember how, in Freak the Mighty, the heroic-spirited Kevin dressed as Darth Vader? (If you haven't read Freak the Mighty, for pity's sake, go do so! The movie misses some of the point, though it has the major virtue of Gillian Anderson as Loretta, Heroic Biker Chick.) It's about so much more than candy!

Here's a piece that I think is ripe for fictional exploration: Halloween as the Queer Holiday.

The place of Halloween in the social history of gender identity is persistent. Particularly in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America, where social disapproval of genderbending dress was supported by laws punishing the wearing of males clothes by women and vice versa, Halloween was the Great Exception. In cities in which wearing the wrong kind of shoes or a shirt that buttoned up the wrong side could get you arrested 364 days of the year, you could prance down the street in full drag on this one day. Establishments catering to a particular clientele under the constant threat of raids could hold huge Halloween bashes with impunity. Teen-agers who didn't dare be themselves in public could put on their real selves and call it a costume, and even gain admiration for doing so - if they were smart enough. If the bullies were imperceptive enough. If they made enough people laugh.

If the spoilsports weren't trying to ban Halloween on ridiculous grounds in that particular locality that year. Or maybe, even if they were. Maybe, in defying the forces of willful blindness, oppression, suppression, and depression, Halloween is the night of triumph.

Somebody is always trying to ban Halloween, and that somebody is always missing the point. Or is, perhaps, terrified of admitting the point. Is hiding behind nonsense about non-existent occult or psychological threats because they can't deal with the truth of the holiday in practice. Because the anxiety created by the fluidity of identity is too much for them.

Comedy, tragedy, thriller, fantasy, domestic novel, novel of self-discovery - it works for all of them.

And then everybody has to get up the next day and carry on daily life. But does that mean putting the mask back on? Or does it mean negotiating a larger space for oneself?

Because that's the rest of the story.