Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Merry New Year!

No resolutions for me. It's been a weird year and there's no reason to expect 2014 to get less so. But weird is a relative term. If I can get my discipline more or less back where it belongs I'll be happy. But I won't rule out being happy under other circumstances, either, because if you make happiness conditional you probably won't ever get to enjoy it.

Always remember, when you feel as if every word you write is a boulder pushed up a hill, that when the work is done and you read it over, you won't be able to distinguish those words from the ones that spilled out of you effortlessly; except that the effortless ones will probably contain more typos. So don't sweat it and get on about your business.

Tomorrow is our Annual New Year's Board Game Extravaganza! So I may have a gaming hangover Thursday. See you round.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Pick a Tragedy

This is the 123rd anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee.

We do not deal well, or healthily, with tragedies in the United States (I refuse to attempt to speak for the rest of the Americas). We always want that happy ending. You cannot convince us that tragedy is the highest form of art, and we would far, far rather repeat our mistakes than examine and learn from them.

As writers, it is our job to address that.

If we can bear to. If we can do it without being merely depressing.

And yet, we have so many to choose from!

Maybe you can't deal with the big tragedies, the ones with their roots in racial and class issues which we are so anxious to pretend do not exist. That's okay - Shakespeare couldn't either. Tragedies are always personal.

Examine history. Find the small tragedy that you can fit inside one of our big tragedies - the industrial disasters, the destruction of lives for economic motives, the clearing of whole cultures out of the way of an ideal of progress - to make it comprehensible and enlightening and cathartic, and you'll have something great.

The room is spinning and the floor undulating too much for me to even catch the end of anything today. But you know the drill.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Holiday Exercise

To help you get through those long and difficult holiday occasions when you need to be in the same room as someone who annoys the life out of you, try activating your writing backbrain to figure out how you'd go about putting him/her/it into a story and making him/her/it a sympathetic character.

Bear in mind that a character may be sympathetic without being at all likable. Scrooge (I finished my annual Christmas Carol reread yesterday) is not a likable character in any significant sense; but he's sympathetic, all the same.

Maybe that person will be more bearable afterward. Or maybe not. But at least you'll have gotten some good out of him/her/it.

Just make sure, if you ever use such a person in published works, that he/she/it is rendered completely unrecognizable.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Trendy Holiday Films

I don't do Christmas, but I do not remain unaffected by its time pressures, so let's do this quick and dirty.

It's Christmas Eve. The family, complete with all its simmering resentments, incompatibilities, shared memories, new significant others, bored third generation, and disputed territory has gathered at Mom and Dad's house. The aunts and uncles have gone Christmas shopping, Grandma's minding the turkey, and the kids are following the Santa Tracker when they realize that the zombie apocalypse has begun.

Or, in the dystopian wasteland after the collapse of civilization, the struggling survivors reinvent Christmas.

Or, terrorists hijack Santa's sleigh and only the lowest elf on the totem pole is left to save Christmas. Not to mention prevent all those bombs from going down all those chimneys.

Or, the gospel Christmas story, rewritten to emphasize both the troubled love story of Joseph and Mary ("You cheated on me with God, Mary; that's a little hard to get over!") and Herod's ruthless attempt to assassinate a rival king in the making. The Wise Men will be featured, but Balthazar will only be black if they can get Will Smith for the part.

Sorry, no Hannukah flicks. That whole story about running out of oil just isn't familiar and cliched dramatic enough.

Don't worry if you don't see me here for a week or two. With any luck I'm going to be working through that plot problem in between dealing with various personal obligations. No doubt you have your own stuff to do, anyway. Happy Christmas, Merry New Year.

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Don't bug me. I feel crappy, but I think I've found the head of the thread that will sort out a plot problem that's been blocking me for years. I just have to unravel it a couple more chapters backward than I thought I would...and possibly write a bunch of stuff that can't go into the final version, working out what other people besides the POV character are doing. If I can sit up and focus long enough. This may be a job for longhand....

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A December Miracle

So, Damon and I are late adopters. And I don't mean we wait a year or two before we do an upgrade. I mean we use things until they can't be used anymore and then gripe a lot, because "upgrading" tech sucks. The manufacturers seem to take wicked delight in removing the single most useful feature and replacing it with something we will never, ever use, or rearranging interfaces for no readily apparent reason, so the delete button is where the save button used to be, or in making the new tech just incompatible enough with the products of the old tech that you have trouble accessing your old stuff and - argh. We just hate it.

So when the videocard I was playing Sims2 on went out, we couldn't find an adequate one to replace it that would work with our motherboard and finally Damon said screw it, he was going to get me a new computer and the old one would become mostly his. I felt odd about buying a new computer essentially so I could play a game - my WordPerfect 8 (yes, you read that right) still works fine on the old machine - especially since he's more than once grumbled about the size of it's "footprint" in my life. I mean, sure, I'd miss it, and the online "communities" I've gotten involved in concerning it, but - it's a game. I'd survive. But - possibly because he does grumble about it, but more likely because as soon as I express any guilt or hesitation over the cost of a pleasure he always sets out to convince me that I'm entitled to it - he got stubborn and I've got a new computer. Which is presently internetless and balancing on three TV trays in the game room. The only things on it so far are Windows7, Sims2, and WordPerfect X6, which is a fancy way of saying the 16th version of Word Perfect. In other words, twice as advanced as the one I'm used to.

And I'm still having a few hiccups getting Sims2 set up with all my old stuff (for one thing, no internet means I get to copy all my old files onto a flash drive and walk them across the hall), but my writing stuff made it in one trip and WordPerfect X6 is like a little miracle in a box.

Everything is where it used to be.

New stuff has been added, but I have yet to go looking for anything and find it's been taken away.

A lot of the new stuff is stuff I actually need. Like the ability to hit one button and save as other formats, along with translation from other, often user-hostile formats (yes, I refer to the Devil Program, Word, which I hate with a pure and holy passion so extreme people think I'm joking when I express the true depth of my virulence) without a bunch of hassle. Which is the single problem with my good old WordPerfect 8 - so few people (inexplicably) still use it that I'm always having to translate into .rtf or .txt.

Some of the icons have changed, but not many, and since nothing's been reclassified and the icons still have some visual relationship to their features, and I can still move things around to suit myself, I've yet to be confused.

The old files look exactly the way they used to in the new program - no reformatting, no weird little symbols, no hiccups as the new code for master and subdocuments argues with the old code for master and subdocuments. I just installed it, shifted the files over, set my preferences, and got back to work.

I spend a fair amount of time griping, here, so I thought I'd share my happiness, too. If nothing else, it should give you hope that yes, even in a corporatized, consumerist world in which individual choice is limited by the markets, sometimes you can get what you want even when you didn't know you wanted it.

We should hold out for that more, and accept being sold to, less.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: More Fun with Titles

The Imperfect Gentleman. Is it an etiquette manual, a romance, a cozy mystery, an ironic and detached personal memoir, or a character study?

Harmed and Dangerous. Obviously, a revenge flick.

Brief Lies. Have I done this one before? I think it's the perfect title for a short story collection.

The Goddess of the Machine. Science fiction. Probably dystopian.

Tube Full of Cats. A social history of the internet.

Midnight at the House of Thieves. Sword and sorcery. Heavily influenced by the author's D&D game. And I mean old-school, not this 4E crap, whippersnappers!

Whippersnappers vs. Geezers, Film at Eleven. A rollicking comedy of the eternal generation gap. And don't try telling me the generation gap is a modern invention! There's a Sumerian tablet in which a parent is grousing about how kids today don't want to work hard and all his son ever does is hang out on the corner with his hoodlum friends.

Bootlegged Heart. A romance, set in 1920s middle America, or the modern knock-off designer label market, or a near-future science fiction milieu centering on e-piracy and the ramifications of intellectual property. Or all three, if you do a generational saga and pluralize the title.

Knight of the Living Dead. In which the zombies field a champion.

Escape from Loopland. Starts out like one of those bleak suburban mainstream novels full of alienated characters. I never read the things. But somebody must like them. You know, lots of adultery and drinking and so on. But then the protagonist decides to be daring and actually go downtown, get out of her damn car, and walk around, discovering a whole new, vibrant world like nothing she ever knew existed.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Plus, It Got Cold. I Hate Cold.

A week spent trying to find someone new to send manuscripts to and not being thrilled by anybody.

Still better than a week in a soul-sucking day job.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Secrets of the Subculture

Psst...want to write in your favorite genre?

Step 1: Spend a few months reading the genre and nothing else.
Step 2: When not reading, go about your normal life.
Step 3: See the genre overlay on your life! Particularly on the parts of your life that create subcultures.

We all belong to multiple subcultures, beginning with our families. Your work circle and your leisure circle are probably not the same and don't function under the same social rules. You probably have friends from both circles who find each other mutually incomprehensible, which will help you find the line of demarcation. The craft shows you attend (as a crafter, as your crafter mom's assistant, as a buyer) on the weekends combine into their own little world with politics, scandals, romance, and tragedy; as does the law office where you make your living. Whenever I go to the farmer's market I get a brief little glimpse of a vast network of hardworking and surprisingly diverse people, who appear to be in direct competition (selling exactly the same things) and yet are also mutually supportive - trading among themselves, fetching each other coffee, making change for each other.

If you read enough romance novels, with the idea in the back of your mind that you will and can write one, you'll begin to see how romance could bloom at the farmer's market between the daughter struggling to keep her family farm viable and the naive organic-horticulture newbie.

If you read enough science fiction, you'll start thinking of ways that nanorobotics will change the working conditions in your real estate office, or imagining the particular challenges of peddling real estate on the moon.

If you read enough mysteries, you'll imagine what it would mean for everybody on the RenFaire circuit (where you go every year to help out your Rennie aunt) if a serial killer starts leaving garbed bodies on the jousting field, and invent ingenious ways to kill and be killed with turkey legs, corset laces, and blunt souvenir swords.

Trust me. You too will soon have more ideas than you know what to do with. The problem will be to pick one. You'll have the best results with subcultures in which you participate as an insider, not as audience; but if an idea knocks hard enough, it's worth going out of your way to become an insider.

I promise.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Word to the Frustrated

It doesn't mean you're running out of agents when your searches turn up promising-sounding people who, you find on investigation, you've already queried.

It just means searches, like everything else, are imperfect and you are consistent.

And I don't care what common sense says, some weeks just aren't any good for making visible progress in anything. It's nobody's fault. Ride it out.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Dagnab It...

The thing is, I want to write a mosaic. Lots of short pieces, overlapping points of view, creating a whole picture that the reader feels she's walked through as through real places and events.

But you need the right plot for that. And I can spin characters all day, but maneuvering them into a plot, that's different.

I think that's why the happy family serial killer story doesn't quite work. (Yet. I haven't given up on it.)

Will I know the right plot when I see it, that is the question?

I'm tired of throwing characters and scenes at the page and not seeing a saleable work emerge. Maybe I should pick some subject or other and do blind research.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Plagues

Today is World AIDS Day.

This is not the place to talk about personal stuff, but I have my reasons for responding more readily to mention of HIV than to other diseases - and not least among my responses is the very real satisfaction of being able to talk about it in terms of HIV rather than AIDS. It is no longer true that one equals the other; doctors are no longer advising patients (as Isaac Asimov and his family were advised when he was diagnosed after receiving a transfusion of tainted blood) to lie about the diagnosis to protect themselves from stigma; patients with access to adequate information, hygiene, and pharmacies are no longer dying wholesale.

Back during the worst part of the 80s, I used to argue (a little desperately) that it was not an epidemic, it wasn't; nobody was going through the streets crying "Bring out your dead," lots of people were so little personally touched by it that they were able to ignore it, or treat it as a moral rather than a health issue. And if anybody reading this is still inclined to treat it so - I assure you, all that would be necessary to change your mind would be the sight of someone - anyone - even your bitterest enemy - whom you knew personally in a state of wasting, and if you are any sort of decent human being you'd be cured of that nastiness right quick. Disease (like disaster) is not a punishment; and even if it were, it would be a cruel and unusual one, inflicted by no righteous power.

AIDS at its worst was not the Black Death; but it was bad enough. It still is; especially if you don't have access to adequate information, hygiene, and pharmacies.

It is easy - too easy - to find fictional uses for it. Cancer and AIDS are both popular with the writers of tear-jerking schmaltz but, as always, execution is everything. I was strongly affected by David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing, which is narrated by the gay male dead of the eighties observing the present day and commenting on it - gracefully, generously, wistfully, and often gladly. My favorite part is when they spot an old friend, one who watched his lover die and kept coming back, and back, and back for his friends, and who is now teaching, with a new committed partner, and taking his pills - because the disease caught him, too, as it does catch those who tend the dying, but not until the drug cocktails had started to work. The ghosts are overjoyed to see him, healthy and productive, the one who cared for them surviving them all to live well.

That is worth all the tragic, affecting death scenes in the world to me.

Stories can't be about death. They have to be about life. We must write about the ones who live. Because if anything happens once you're dead, we have no frame of reference for it. Even ghost stories are about life. It's all we know.

Don't write the HIV tragedy (or the cancer tragedy, or the muscular dystrophy tragedy). And don't write about conquering disease either, because that doesn't happen. Ask anybody you think has done it. The 10 year pancreas-cancer survivor, the person who's still HIV+ instead of an AIDS patient fifteen years after the diagnosis, the diabetic amputee - these people have conquered nothing. But they are living - imperfectly, bravely, fearfully, humanly.

Write the comedy.

Write the action thriller with the hero who has to take 20 pills a day. The romance that starts in the hospital, between patients, and doesn't end at the morgue door. The domestic drama in which the disease is part of the daily furniture of life; not the center, but the intrusive, unignorable, inconvenient annoyances which everybody - yes, everybody in its vicinity - lives with. A chronic, treatable, incurable disease - even one as relatively benign as mine - interferes with everybody's plans; a deadly one throws a dose of guilt on top of that.

And if anybody dies in this story, for pity's sake, don't let anybody say "Life goes on." Unless a survivor immediately punches that person cathartically in the face. Because for one person in the story, the one who just left a person-shaped hole in the world, life does not go on and that's a really insensitive thing to say to someone in mourning.