Thursday, January 30, 2014

Not a Complaint, Just an Observation

I have spent my entire professional life having to swim against my natural tendency to see and hear every viewpoint as equally important, equally valid; to be as interested (or more so) in the life of the person trying to cross the street as in the results of the epic chase scene. (Movie chase scenes bore me to tears and leave me wondering about all the people they drive right by, whose equally important business is thus disrupted.) Third-person omniscience, casts of thousands, and leisurely poking through all the stories to be found intersecting to form one big story have not been in fashion in my lifetime, except in the format of soap opera - a genre whose conventions, unfortunately, require that no one ever learn from experience and everyone make stupid choices ad nauseum.

I do not say that this is a good thing or a bad one. It is what it is, that's all.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Goes On Behind the Writing Eyes

So the deal is, the novella requires a frame story. The whole thing falls apart without it, because it's a jigsaw puzzle. Something has to hold it together. And the frame story has a POV character. Who is learning a job. Which she has taken for personal reasons. So she's emotionally invested in her work. But.

If the question: "What does your POV character have at stake?" cannot be answered by reference to the text, you're not done.

Learning the job is not a stake. Caring about the client base isn't a stake. Even wanting to do well at the job because of how it affected those you loved is not a stake.

The crux, when Amy lets go of the duty to her mother, has to be a crux for Carrie, too. Who is also there because of her mother. Who does not appear.

What exactly is she risking?

There's also the question of why Fuhrman has been in an entry-level position for 50 years. Even for a dead man that's a long time. And no, "he likes it and isn't ambitious" isn't good enough.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Isolated, not Alone

We had an ice storm this week, icicles falling all around the house and non-essential personnel, like Damon, going in late, two hours and a half hours for the express bus from the Randolph AFB area to make it downtown, highways closed, that sort of thing. A Minnesotan or New Englander would've laughed at us, but you try getting around in that weather when you don't own a set of snow tires or chains, your heaviest jacket has a broken zipper you haven't bothered to replace, you've lost one of your gloves, don't own a furnace, and nobody within a mile radius of you has ever driven in icy conditions. I shut up half the house, had all the heaters turned up as high as they'd go, left the oven open and on warm all day (and the kitchen was still freezing; it's the coldest room in the house), wore my only set of long-handled underwear and my hiking socks, drank a lot of hot tea, and got buried in cats.

But now we're fine. I love Texas.

It's a classic literary dodge to isolate the cast in order to ramp up tension, focus attention, precipitate crisis, and put the characters on their mettle - in short, to enable story to happen, rather than letting all that narrative energy diffuse into the distractions of normal life intersecting outside the crucible of one specific social group. Because all social groups will generate drama if sufficiently isolated. In any given group, there's going to be dominance disputes, people who get more of their needs satisfied and people who get less, resentments passed over for the sake of keeping the peace, misunderstandings, tenuous accommodations, authority and rebellion, standards and variations from them, different rules for different classes of people and the dishonesty that maintains that as the norm, and mutually exclusive assumptions about any number of things. Any kind of conflict can come to the crisis point when the normal safety valves are shut off and no one can escape, even temporarily.

Weather is one popular way to isolate people, but in the society where I live it gets harder all the time. You'd have to take away both internet access (power outage; but how long do these ever last these days?) and cell service (well, if you can't recharge them...and cell towers do go out in storms, I think); but also access to neighbors (flooding rendering the house on the high ground incapable of evacuation?) and public services. Thanks to our much-maligned taxes, most rural areas have dedicated professionals working round the clock - the county's Essential Personnel, who don't get to come in late and often put in extra shifts - to keep them connected to their larger society, and the problems of urban people during major disasters are not taking place in direct social isolation, but instead involve an excess of contact with many more people than usual in a context of isolation from support services. Which is an entirely other kind of story.

It can be done, especially if the conflicts you wish to concentrate are powerful enough that bottling them up for a mere 24 hours (or less) will do the trick. The office whose boss insists they stay late despite weather warnings, trapped in the cold dark office building (possibly with the janitorial staff) till dawn; the extended family gathered for Christmas at the grandparents' hobby farm with the driveway too steep to leave safely; the gaming group riding out the zombie apocalypse in the fortified basement - that sort of thing.

You can start this from either end, with the characters or the situation; though I believe most people will start with the people around them and conjure up the situation that could isolate them long enough to force inherent conflicts into the open enough for resolution. How you isolate a group depends on how you define the group; but the reverse is also true.

The precise nature of the conflict will depend on the genre you wish to use. Anything from farce to murder can be generated out of the standard run of human small-group politics. The revelation of the disguised, unadmitted conflicts necessarily forms the bulk of the plot, with a shocking cathartic action occurring at some point during it; but the cathartic action might precede or follow the revelation depending on the genre. Murder mysteries, in particular, require someone to act to resolve conflicts at the beginning of the action, and the process of solving the mystery is the process of discovering whose conflict was strong enough, or character weak enough, to bring about this attempt at resolution.

Though part of the interest of such a story is that of survival in unusual, difficult situations, do not commit the fatal B-movie error of assuming that this is the main plot; that the mere fact of a horde of Dark Elves trapping a family of privileged white folks on their hobby farm will be interesting enough to carry the story. You don't want (well, okay, you probably don't want!) the audience to be rooting for the Dark Elves, and you certainly don't want them realizing that they don't care one way or the other whether anyone gets out alive. You want the audience to feel very much as they do about their own family, co-workers, friends, or Garden Club; exasperated and protective, loving and hair-tearingly frustrated, hateful and guilty, impatient and resigned, resentful and generous, entitled and put-upon, and the whole nine yards.

Everything else is window-dressing.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Progress is a Stupid Word

The expectations it arouses don't reflect the reality.

I've got a story more than 10,000 words long, but shorter than 15,000. It's a pretty good story, though. I decided this week it was ready to go somewhere, if I could find any place likely to take it. So I spend some time turning up possibilities.

And I go in for the last grooming edit.

And I realize, no, there's this problem that's going to prevent anyone from taking it, and the market for short novellas is so small, I can't afford to waste any shots. It can't go out as is, sorry. And solving that problem is going to suck creative energy off the WIP.

But it's got to be done, because even with that big flaw, it's a pretty good story; and once I fix it, it'll be good.

Which doesn't necessarily mean it's saleable in the current market, but I can't help that. The current market may have changed drastically before I fix this.

And this is why writers can't think about progress. So much of the progress we make feels like running in circles.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hey, This is Working

I finally figured out both why Pelin secretly thinks his brother's rival is a better candidate for the kingship, and why I'm having such a hard time bringing him on stage even in the backstory, when my excessively blunt heroine says: "But her ladyship likes your brother, and he's a stick, so there's no reason she shouldn't like you to and oh, crap, I should have censored that."

A great deal falls into place now I know that the missing older brother/heir is boring! And now I finally know how to get him onstage (in the backstory; part of which will presumably be rewritten later on from a different POV for a flashback).

Writing. It's this continual process of discovery!

(And I think I'm finally committed enough to start calling this a Work In Progress.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Physics of Misfortune

One of my recurring little fantasies, when I have a bad day, is that I'm taking a hit for somebody else. Like, if I am sick and unproductive, but my husband (whose health overall is much worse than mine) has a good health day, I pretend to get credit for that. Or I imagine that Moby's dying in an intersection and requiring hordes of bystanders to push him into the Walgreen's parking lot prevented an accident in which someone's child died. In these instances, my problem is always smaller than the unknowable problem I pretend to be deflecting. I'm not sure how this works in terms of the conservation of mass and energy, but presumably my wandering into the situation deflects the force of the disaster and changes its degree of momentum.

Or something. It's not as if we have a Physics of Misfortune. We don't even have a standard of measurement.

But what if we did?

What if you could precisely calculate how much misfortune you could take on behalf of someone else and how much it would benefit them?

How far would you take it?

And would it make a difference, whether or not you could aim it? Would a person who would accept maiming in order to save her own child from death accept a papercut to keep someone else's from an injury that needed stitches?

What if accepting a misfortune had an equal chance of benefiting either your daughter, or the girl who bullies your daughter?

What if you could prevent a single wartime death by breaking your leg, but couldn't control which side the person you saved was on?

The story works out differently, if this is a singular power discovered by the protagonist and maintained as a secret, or if someone actually works out the Physics of Misfortune and everyone has equal access to the power. In the former case, it's all personal moral dilemmas; in the latter, some jackass is bound to weaponize the ability.

I presume I don't have to expound to anybody on the potential for gender politics involved here, either? Didn't think so...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Well, Duh.

It's kind of a slog, on a day-to-day basis (I'm still a long way from the 10 pages a day I think of as "normal"), but now that I'm writing the scenes that don't belong in the final book, it's blinking obvious that this is what I've needed to do with this story for the last umpty-ump years since I stalled out on it.

The thing is, since the protagonist's had his memory fiddled with so that he thinks (erroneously) that he knows the solution to the mystery of his missing brother, and is working to cover it up, and since his brother isn't the only person missing, and since the whole story is about his uncovering the truth and confronting a reality that doesn't mesh with his memory of it, a number of vital characters can't be allowed on the stage at all, at least not until the end game. He can't have honest conversations with anybody - either he's lying or omitting information, or the other party is. Yet the off-stage choices of other people, about which he knows nothing, create the situations in which he must act, and his responses to those situations in the context of what he thinks he knows are a major monkey wrench thrown into the work of plot, counter-plot, conspiracy, and detection.

I established a long time ago that the only way I can write a plot is to write from ground-level, scene by scene, and asking myself, Okay, what does this person do now? at every juncture. I have a general outline, yes, and a direction the story is going - I can't start a book till I know how it ends - but the details of what happens, and how character A reaches point B, I can't know until I write the scene.

This method requires that everybody in the story must have agency - there are no pawns in the world in my head. Everyone does things for reasons, whether what they do is flub an assignment, plot or expose a crime, or carry a cup of coffee across the room. So I have to know all the characters to some degree or other.

And I can't know them till I get them on stage.

Since starting the scenes-to-be-excised, I've already learned that Countess Posy, pathetic as she seems to Pelin, and hapless as she often thinks she is, is a good organizer of people and data when she's not overwhelmed by her bad situation; that Colubria is an immigrant keeping her original culture's animistic religion alongside her adopted country's worship of the Triune Goddess, and doesn't see any contradiction there; that Duke Verlui, though promiscuous with women, is faithful to a particular man; and that Hirca's bluntness is at least partly a reaction to the way her anomalous social standing forces her into situations in which she does not and cannot have full participatory rights or a clear role. I always knew she and Pelin had superficially similar self-protective shells; but I didn't know what hers was about.

None of that makes sense to you, but trust me, these bits of info represent huge strides forward in under a dozen pages. Which is pretty impressive when I consider that the first glimmer of this plot and these characters occurred to me in junior high school.

This stuff takes a long time to get ripe, you have to give it the right environment, and most importantly - you have to do it the way you have to do it. Not the way that seems efficient or sensible.

People whose modes of creation are efficient and sensible need to recognize how lucky they are.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Random Bits of Dialog

"No, listen, it's important!"
"Really? If it were, I hardly think I'd be hearing about it for the first time from a teen-age girl."
"Don't you remember?"
"No, because it didn't happen."
"But here you are."
"I got lost. That's all."
"You don't think it's odd that we're all named Elizabeth?"
"What else would we be named?"
"I don't know the words."
"That's no reason not to sing. Half the words are sha-na-na-na anyway."

And this is why it's good to have a notebook. So when you hear the voice, hanging bodiless in your ear, and can't afford the time to chase it down, you can catch it onto a page and put it away, for retrieval when your mind is a desert and you're convinced you'll never have another idea in your life.

They may not be the first lines of the story, and the mystery of their context may not be the crux of the plot; but all you really need is a way in, and the sound of voices.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Whatever Gets You Through the Day

On the one hand, writing scenes you know you'll have to cut out later, just because that seems to be the only way you can figure out the hidden actions and motivations which will steer developments that affect the protagonist, feels like a huge time sink, and I get all annoyed at myself for not being able to just notebook it all out.

On the other hand, it feels like goofing off; which is always easier to get yourself to do than working is.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Constructive Responses

So I don't pay much attention to tempests in teapots, but sometimes they force their attentions on me, and I became aware that some reality show on A&E (about makers of duck calls? Seriously?) was having one when one of the actors/subjects made some ignorant remarks and A&E suspended him and then fast food chain Chik-Fil-A got involved somehow (good heavens, my burning need to Make Things Up can readily be understood as an attempt to live in a world that makes some kind of rational sense) and apparently now the ignorant have won and whats-his-name is back on air. Or something. Excuse me for not researching details more; I can contemplate frog falls, time travel, and dragons, but this kind of nonsense bends my brain too much, and the details are not relevant to the main topic here today.

This is not, technically, a censorship issue, since A&E is not a government body. Whats-his-name has a Constitutionally-protected right to say bigoted ignorant things, and A&E has an equally Constitutionally-protected right to disassociate itself from his bigotry and ignorant, and other bigoted and ignorant people have a right to rally behind him and none of it addresses any important issue, but rather distracts from them. You would think that we, as a species, would have learned by now that telling people to shut up makes them talk louder, and moreover gives them grounds on which to feel aggrieved and persecuted - even, or especially, when, as in this case, the speaker belongs to a powerful group and has been abusing his free speech to denigrate a less powerful one. When we tell such people to shut up, we make them stronger and don't help matters any. The constructive thing to do is to attempt to educate them. You can't force someone to become educated, but you can use the attempt to generate fruitful discussions and do good things all around him - and that works (albeit slowly) and has other incidental benefits - specifically, in actually lessening the oppression of an oppressed group.

I'm not a filmmaker or screenwriter and have no basis for pitching any of the following ideas to A&E, but any one of them would be more fruitful than trying to silence anyone, in that they expose more people to the denigrated group, decrease the level of ignorance, give members of that group a validated media presence, increase the diversity of media representation, and provide a potentially fruitful stage for demonstrating (rather than merely talking about) the humanity and legitimacy of different lifestyles and interpretations of basic values.

1) Recruit homosexual members of the subcultures addressed in the show to appear on a regular basis, generating both the personal conflict people who like reality shows appear to enjoy, and the softening-by-exposure that regularly happens when bigots meet the objects of their bigotry in the flesh and begin to perceive them as human beings rather than abstractions. Any decent person who, raised with a prejudice, meets on terms of equality - in which common courtesy is demanded of them - with those against whom he is prejudiced, will learn better if not subject to enough authoritative pressure to counter it. Even Hitler said that "everybody has his 'one good Jew,'" which was why the first step in the Final Solution was to separate the victims from the general population.

2) Start a new reality show, scheduled immediately after the one in question, following the fortunes of a group of Christians who interpret the Bible very differently from the folks who think God's love is conditional. I bet the Metropolitan Community Church could hook them up with any number of active, inclusive Christians living their faith in ways at least as interesting as the vicissitudes of the duck call business. A ministry to "thrown away" teens booted out of their homes for no reason other than an unacceptable gender identity and shunned by standard modes of public assistance (which treat all homeless teens as either delinquents or runaways) would be compelling enough for any audience.

3) Screen movies by members of neglected subcultures. Actively solicit the work of gay, bi, and transgender artists covering parts of life usually considered from heterosexual points of view: love stories, obviously, but also family and workplace dramas, animal stories, tales of midlife crisis or personal disaster, science fiction, mystery, and so on. Ditto, of course, work by and about people of color. By the way, did you know that it's possible to be a person of color and queer? Feminist and Mexican and Protestant? Mix it up, for pity's sake!

4) Seek out and develop properties which actually examine, rather than perpetuating cliches about, the lives and opinions of religious people. There is nothing vague, wishy-washy, or boring about the ways in which people interpret whatever scriptures they use, nor how they go about reconciling their imperfect selves with their principles. Yet serious treatment of religion in fiction is often left up to the most narrow, least talented artists who can't produce anything better than a tract. I would point you to The God Box, by Alex Sanchez, as the sort of thing that is ripe for a wider audience; featuring a closeted gay boy involved in the cruel lie of a relationship with a girl because he believes the prejudices he's been raised under, and an uncloseted Hispanic gay boy who is willing, even eager, to debate scripture with all comers. We could also use more ecumenical works illustrating in a realistic and engaging manner how the practical ethics of all the major religions align so much better than you'd think from the savage ways people fight over dogma. Most dogmas, looked at objectively, are simply silly; but the Golden Rule is sensible, practical, and universal.

5) Hunt up the overlooked queerness of history, and build entertainment properties around them. It's great that we're finally getting a star-vehicle biopic about Alan Turing and his unjust persecution; but how many similar stories lurk in the unjust corners of history? Did you even know that the first American soldier wounded in our interference in Iraq was (and still is, I'm happy to say) a gay man?

Representation is important. We all look for our reflections; we all model ourselves on those we recognize as similar to ourselves; we all feel oppressed and repressed and lonely if we can't find such models; we all mutilate ourselves when we try to change ourselves to match existing models that don't quite fit. Giving space on the cultural stage to as many different models as possible is much, much more productive than trying to hustle bad models off the stage.